John August's Blog
John and Craig discuss obstacles, those things your characters hate but desperately need.
We also follow up on the great Peter Dodd episode and answer listener questions on writing action, anecdotes as IP and other topics.
- Scriptnotes, 264: The One With the Agent
- The 100 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Screenwriting
- Rawson Thurber on IMDB
- Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclass
- Gone Girl Screenplay Analysis
- Sara Benincasa: Why Am I So Fat?
- Nuka World!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- Outro by Matt Davis (send us yours!)
You can download the episode here.
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 264 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. So, way back in Episode 2 we discussed how to get an agent. And in the 262 episodes since then the subject of agents has come up quite often, largely from listener questions. Well, today we are going to speak with an actual agent about what he looks for in a writer client and how he sees the relationships between writers and agents and managers and executives. And so that’s our whole episode is just an agent today.
And that agent is sitting across from me. Peter Dodd is a Motion Picture Literary Agent at UTA where he represents a range of clients, including me. Peter, welcome to the show.
Peter Dodd: Hello guys. Happy to be here.
Craig: Hey, welcome Peter. Welcome. I’m very glad that you’re here, because as much as John and I ramble on and on for 263 episodes, I think honestly everyone out there has been waiting for us to just – can you please just tell me how to get the damn agent? So, we’re really glad you’re here.
Peter: Thank you. Well, I am happy to be here. I’m excited to try and answer some of these questions, so shoot.
John: Great. Well, let’s start with the basics. How long have you been an agent?
Peter: I’ve been an agent for about four years. I’ve been at the agency for around seven years.
John: So that’s a long time. So how do you get to be an agent? What was the process from starting there to becoming an agent?
Peter: The process is everyone starts in the mailroom, like historically is told, that exists. We start delivering the mail.
John: So, classically, when I started out in Hollywood, you were literally delivering mail from like office to office and doing runs. But there’s probably much more to that now in 2016. What does a mailroom person do?
Peter: Well, it’s interesting, I wonder if there’s more or less, because now that everything is digital, you send all of your scripts over email. So you’re not – so the function of a mailroom trainee initially was to pick up scripts and run them to actor’s houses, or drop them off in the mail to be sent to whoever for whatever purpose. Now, you spend your time in the mailroom, A, sort of collecting all the mail that comes in the day, dealing with all the stuff that agents are sending out, and delivering mail that comes in on a case-by-case basis. A lot of it happens to be Amazon packages.
John: So, you’re doing that at the very start, and then what is the process after you’ve been in the mailroom? Do you get assigned to a desk?
Peter: You start in the mailroom. After you spend a sufficient amount of time in the mailroom, you earn the right to interview for agents. And so that becomes the assistant pool that agents can choose from. So, if there are say 20 people in the mailroom delivering mail every day, I might interview five or six of them to be assistants on my desk. And then you select one of them to become your assistant.
So, then they spend the next year of their life basically answering the phone calls, setting meetings, sending scripts out. You know, arranging the life of the agent and manufacturing everything they need to do from the beginning of the day to the end of the day for the agent and for the clients they work with and represent.
John: Great. So on a desk means that you are an assistant to an agent. So, my first interaction with you is you were on David Kramer’s desk, who was my main agent, and so you were answering the phone. Is that when I first met you?
John: So, what is the process from going being the guy who is answering the phones to the person who actually has clients that you’re representing?
Peter: It’s a tricky one. Basically, you have to stay at the agency for a while. No one gets promoted in their first year, although everyone is overqualified to do the job. That’s sort of not the point. It’s not about whether or not you can answer a phone or set or schedule a meeting. It’s about whether you’re doing the job of an agent. And so typically you’ll work for a junior agent for a year, and then you switch desks. You’ll work for a more senior agent for a year. And then you might switch desks again and work for an even more senior agent. And then at that point, when you’ve been there for anywhere from three to five years, there’s an inflection point whereby you either succeed and you make the jump to agent, or doesn’t feel like it’s going to work out and you leave and go work at another place.
Craig: But that sounds like the ultimate disaster. Right? I mean, I’m sure that it’s not for some people who decide, you know what, the agent’s life is not for me. I don’t actually want to be an agent. But, my god, to put in all those years in the mailroom, and then as an assistant, and then as an assistant, and then as an assistant, and then somebody one day goes, “Eh, meh.” That happens, right?
I mean, people do sort of get pushed off of the platform at some point. It has to, right? Because there’s so many agents an agency needs, right?
Peter: It happens all the time. It happens all the time. And, honestly, the job is a tricky one. It’s arduous. It’s not fun much of the time. And if you don’t love it, you’re going to self-select out anyway. And so it makes sense for people to guide you down a different path if that’s the right thing for you.
John: So, Peter, of the cohort of people in the mailroom with you, how many of those people are agents now?
Peter: Just me.
John: And how many people were in that first group?
Peter: I started on the same day as six people. There were probably about I want to say 20 people in the mailroom overall. But on my day there were six of us. Five of them left. Of the five that left, one has left the industry completely. Works in real estate now. The other four are executives, producers, working in film and in TV. One guy is in reality TV. But anywhere from kids’ stuff to producing movies. So everyone has a career in entertainment, for the most part.
John: That’s great.
Peter: But not everyone stays at the actual agency.
John: And just to back up a little bit more, what was your background before going in there? You had an undergrad degree and then you applied to get into the mailroom? How does that work?
Peter: No, I graduated from Harvard with a degree in religion and political science. And after that, I got a job as a consultant. So I was a strategy consultant for big business for like three or four years. I left there and I worked at the Walt Disney Company in corporate strategy, so doing lots of acquisition work for the company. Always trying to get closer to storytelling and closer to movies. And they were actually quite getting there.
And then after I left Disney, instead of going to business school I decided, you know what, I’m going to try this agency thing for a year. If it works out for me, I’ll stay. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll go to grad school and I’ll have felt that I checked that box.
Craig: So you went from working on business transactions at the corporate level to standing in a mailroom with five other people, delivering Amazon packages?
John: I always want everyone to understand the glamour of the industry that you entered into.
Peter: By the way, it’s super sexy. But what’s also interesting is that in the mailroom you have people with law degrees, you have people with business degrees, you have people that went to some amazing schools. You have people from all walks of life. And it’s really, really interesting to see how everyone sort of settles in and how some people last and some people don’t. And the skills that you think it takes to be successful at this job are not necessarily the skills that everyone has. And so it’s an interesting sorting process.
John: What are the skills required for being successful as an agent?
Peter: To be successful as an agent you have to be dogged. You have to be tireless. You have to accept no as only an entry point to a conversation, and not necessarily as the be all and end all of a conversation. You have to love movies, or TV, or whatever it is that you choose to spend all your time in, because frankly you do spend all of your time in it. And in my case, you have to love reading. I love reading. I love good stories. I love writers. That’s why I’ve gravitated towards the literary side is I’m just much more interested in that side of the business. Working with humans, working with actors, working with that side isn’t necessarily for me just yet.
Craig: But you have to find that you also love the kinds of people that you have to represent. And we’re not always the most lovable types. It takes a certain kind of person to be married to a writer. John and I have talked about that. And I presume that you have somewhere in there one of those weird quirky personalities that actually likes talking to writers.
Peter: I guess so. Maybe I do. I don’t know. But for I think the thing that always interested me was, you know, when you work at an agency you’re at the center of all the information. And so you hear everything that’s happening all around town at all times. And I like being at the hub. And I like being able to help disseminate that information to people that I think it’s relevant for, and helping, you know, on the other side to introduce people – buyers, producers, etc. – to people that I think are really special.
So, from my perspective, I’m sort at this nexus point and from either end I can get people excited about new writers or new directors or get new writers and new directors excited about projects or talent that I think are really special. So you’re sort of like at a high level you’re a matchmaker.
John: So, when did you start making matches? When did you have your first clients that were your own? Or when did you start representing other people’s clients? When does that transition happen?
Peter: Well, I have found my way into a lot of client teams just by sheer force and energy. I think if you start doing the job of anyone above you, they will appreciate it, especially at an agency. You know, agents never have enough time to read everything, to know every project, to know exactly what’s going on about every facet of everything. And so what I found when I was an assistant still, even working for David, was if you just pick one or two clients and you say, “Look, I want to work for this person. I want to act as if I’m their agent,” it can become practice.
So I would read for specific directors and I would say, “Oh, these scripts are great. We should call these directors and send it to them.” Or I would say, “Oh, these scripts aren’t so great. We should pass for them, or send it to them with the caveat that we don’t necessarily love it, but they should read it anyway.”
John: You started doing this while you were an assistant for a bigger agent?
Peter: The way that you get promoted is that you demonstrate that you can do the job of an agent. And so while you’re an assistant, you have to do all of the assistant tasks. You have to manage their client lists. You have to deal with all of their submissions. You have to manage them and their phone calls, etc. Plus, on the weekends you are trying to figure out what’s right for their clients, your boss’s clients, and you’re trying to see everything, to read everything, to discover new voices that you can bring into the agency. So, in my – the year before I got promoted, I would just constantly try and bring a new director to agents at the agency that I thought was really special, that I thought they should watch. Or I would try and get a director that my boss represented to take a script seriously.
And it got to the point where I had a relationship with some of these clients where I would just call them myself. I would pitch them material. They got used to talking to me and to listening to me and reading what I sent them. And that worked out really well. So, ultimately, after my assistant time had ended, it’s a pretty natural fit to transition from being an assistant to a boss, to having your own desk, having your own phone, and building your own relationships.
John: So, I introduced you as a Motion Picture Literary Agent, but that may be confusing because people think literary and they just think books, they just think written words, but you represent writers and directors. Is that basically the umbrella of people who are doing that for movies is your specialty, correct?
John: And so if somebody is interested in television, they would also have a television agent who would be representing them for TV at the agency?
John: And you’d all be in conversation about sort of what that person is up to?
Peter: Conversation is one way of phrasing it. I like to think of it as competition for what that person is up to. Because often we have conflicting agendas. I mean, from a larger perspective, we all want the client to be successful, but from a parochial perspective we want the client to be successful in our medium. So I want you writing movies. Your TV agent wants you writing TV. And everyone is competing in a positive way to try and get you work. That’s how it should work.
John: Great. So, who were the first clients that you represented who are sort of your people? The people you brought in and became the people you were representing. You don’t have to say names, but like how did you find those people?
Peter: Pretty much all of the clients that I have, and all of the ones that I’ve signed, have come from recommendations. I am a recommendation based engine. There is so much volume of content and material just out there in the world that it’s very easy for people to get overwhelmed by the 30 or 50 unrepresented scripts they get submitted a week.
So, in the course of my assistant years I spent a lot of time networking, a lot of drinks, a lot of weekends, a lot of commiserating with other assistants who then went on to get promoted as young executives, and those people that survived I think all have amazing taste. And so I sort of cultivated a group of around 15 people whose recommendations I will read always, and quickly. And they are the ones that feed me probably 60% of my clients.
So, all of my early clients came from that group of people.
Craig: And this group of people, they are currently working as producers, studio executives, managers?
Craig: So they’re not your direct competition.
Peter: No. Because if they were my direct competition, they’re probably looking after the same–
Craig: They wouldn’t tell you.
Peter: Content as well. They’d have incentive to tell me. When you go through the difficulty and the challenges of being an assistant, you know, when you’re that guy trying to set a meeting at ten o’clock at night for 8am tomorrow morning in London with a director client, and you’re on the phone with the producer, or the producer’s assistant who is London and it’s three o’clock in the morning for them, you know, when that happens a few times you begin to develop this connection that exists beyond just email addresses. And so now those people who have been promoted at this point are all people that, you know, you went to battle with, and these people help you, and you help them. And that’s sort of the circle of life.
John: What does that conversation look like? Are they just emailing you out of the blue saying like, let’s invent a writer, let’s say Christina. There’s a writer out there Christina. And so the executives have read Christina’s script and said like, “She’s really good. Hey, you should read her.” Or, are you reaching out saying like, “Hey, tell me who is good?” How does that–?
Peter: No, no, no. It always comes from them. Almost always comes from them. I don’t really solicit.
John: OK. So they start, they say like, “Hey, I read something that’s really great. You’ll want to read her.” And what is the next step for you? So if they said you should read her, are you reaching out to Christina? Are they sending you the script? What’s happening?
Peter: 90% of the time they’ll include the material. They’ll say, “Hey, I just read a great sample for this project. You should check this out. I don’t think this writer is represented.” Or they’ll say, “Hey, I read a great sample. You should check this out. I think this person is unhappy with their agent, or unhappy with their manager. This could be an opportunity.”
John: Great. So, what’s an interesting is none of what you’re saying is about a query letter. Like a writer has not written to you saying like, “Hey, I’m looking for an agent.” Does that ever – are any of your clients based on a query letter, like they reached out to you?
John: Not a one?
John: All right.
Peter: Never happens.
John: No one that you met at a conference who offered you a business card or pitched you a script?
Peter: No. People have tried, but no. None of the actual clients that I work with now have come in that way.
Craig: This is why John and I spend a lot of our time frustrated, because there is – I’m sure you know this – there is a large cottage industry designed to take money from people, and in exchange give them the secrets to getting an agent, and getting representation, all the rest of it. And there’s this obsession over query letters. It’s absurd. It is the most bizarre Fellini-esque circus of nonsense you’ve ever seen.
Peter: And it’s complete highway robbery, because that’s not the way that agents look at or think about material.
John: Do you care about a log line?
Peter: In a submission letter?
Peter: I’d actually rather not have a log line frankly.
Craig: I love this. This is so great.
Peter: I’d rather have someone say, “I read this and I love it. You read it and tell me what you think.” Because frankly people suck at writing log lines.
Craig: Well, everyone, because log lines stink anyway. I mean, what are you going to sum up a movie in two sentences? It doesn’t tell you a damn thing. Particularly, it doesn’t tell you if this writer has capabilities to do more than just this one idea, or if they’re the kind of writer that’s written an idea that you now have to go get John August to rewrite because they can’t actually write.
I mean, what’s coming through, which I find so fascinating, and I think it’s hard for a lot of people to get their minds around this who are trying to get into our business is that they think somehow they have to do something to get you. And really what it comes down to is on your side of things you’re looking for people to help you. In other words, you’re looking for writers and somebody says, “This person would be great for you. You should get them before someone else does.” It is an entirely different mindset, but I think on their side they think, oh, no, no, I have to show them how wonderful I am, or something like that.
It just doesn’t work.
Peter: Not at all. You know, I get many, many query letters a day from people that figure out our email addresses and send us these crazy subject lines that obvious click bait. I open them and I’m like what on earth is this, how can delete it faster?
Craig: Oh man.
Peter: I don’t even read them. And if it’s not from someone I know, or I can tell that it’s fake, automatic delete.
John: So, let’s go back to Christina, and so an executive at a production company that you trust, you think has good taste, has recommended you read her script. Has attached the script. When do you read that script?
Peter: That depends on the context with which they send it. So, for example, there was a Christina that was sent to me last year, probably around this time, end of summer last year. The executive that I like said to me, “Managers are chasing this person. He’s meeting with 15 different managers over the next two weeks. This is a hot script. You should read it right away.” I read it that night. I reached out to the writer. Contacted them. Etc.
So, in situations like that where you know there’s a lot of heat and where you feel like that’s true, it goes very quickly. If I don’t know, or if it feels like it might be able to wait, I’ll often just wait till the weekend. And then on the weekends, that’s when I do most of my reading.
John: Great. So, let’s talk about that weekend read that you’re doing. So, you’ve sat down with her script. How much of her script do you read before you decide whether to keep reading or set it aside?
Peter: Honestly, it all just depends on the context of who is sending it to me. Like, typically I will read, you know, the first 30 plus pages. I almost always feel that’s at least giving the person the benefit of the doubt. You know, when I was a young agent I did this exercise. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the thousand hours, or the amount of time it takes to become really good at something. So, when I was a young agent I was like, you know what, I’m going to read every script completely because if I read them all completely I’ll have a great sense of what good writers do.
But what I did was after 30 pages I would always take my notes, whether or not I liked it, who I liked it for, etc., and then I would finish. And then at the end I would look at my notes and say, “Did anything change in reading the subsequent 70 pages from reading the first 30 pages?” And it never changed. You are rarely moved to tears, you are rarely excited by something in the last five pages of a script that you can’t sense in the first 30.
John: Well, it’s also interesting because you’re not looking for is this the movie we want to go shoot. You’re looking at can this person write. Your standards for whether to sign Christina as a client or not are not sort of like is this going to be the best possible movie. It’s like can she write [repeatedly]?
Peter: For us, and for new clients, it’s all about voice. Do you have a voice? And it doesn’t matter if the voice is in the most uncommercial sounding script in the world. That could still be an amazing voice that we can take and use that unconventional/uncommercial script and launch them into the stratosphere as a cool writer.
Craig: I think everyone is listening to this and going, OK, so I’ve learned my lesson. I’m not going to sit here and freak out over log lines. I’m not going to sit here and write cutesy query letters to agents. I’m going to accept the fact that my work has to be of such a nature that now I’m helping them, as opposed to me trying to convince them to help me.
How do they go about getting – I mean, from your point of view, and I don’t know if you know the answer to this because you’re an agent, but how do they get to those people that are going to get to you? How do they start their little chain of recommendations?
Peter: You know what’s funny? I thought this was such a confounding question when I was just getting into the business, because they always say Hollywood is about who you know. And when I moved out here after being in business in New York and in Boston, I didn’t really know anyone that worked at an agency. And so what I did was I went through like my college alumni network. I found a guy who was an executive at a studio. I reached out to him cold. And I said, “Hey, I’d love to come and get coffee with you.” I sort of did the informational interview thing.
And then I asked him who else I should meet. He introduced me to another five people. And it sort of spread like a virus. And it actually wasn’t that hard for me. I sort of feel like everyone knows a person who knows a person in Hollywood. So, if you can get someone to read who is a step or a degree closer to where you want to be, like that’s the way to go. That’s sort of the way in.
So, it’s sort of a non-clear answer, but I think that that at least makes sense to me.
Craig: You don’t stress competitions, contests? Does that mean anything to you guys?
Peter: Yes. Competitions and contests do, if you win.
Craig: You have to win. Yeah, people say like everyone is a semi-finalist. Literally in the world, everyone is–
Peter: Literally everyone is a Nicholl semi-finalist. There are thousands and thousands of people.
Craig: [laughs] Everyone. Exactly. That doesn’t count.
John: So let’s start with the Nicholl finalists. So, would you read through each of those scripts, or would somebody – would your assistant read through all of those scripts? Somebody looked at all of those scripts to see if any of those people are–?
John: So that is actually – they’re going to get read by every big agency in town because they saw you there?
John: How about Austin? Would they read all of the Austin finalists?
Peter: I don’t know. No, not every agent. No. I mean, the ones that people go to are really the Nicholl and the Black List five years ago. To some extent now scripts that are on there and scripts that do really well have already been out in the world, so they’re not as undiscovered gems in terms of representation, even though the rest of the world might not know how great the script is, a lot of them do have agents.
You know, I find another way that we get scripts a lot that works well is by clients. You know, if you were to send me a script, Craig, or you were to send me a script, John, I would trust that a lot more than if my aunt sends me a script.
Craig: Isn’t that interesting?
Peter: Because you’re professionals in the business.
Craig: Yeah. No one ever talks about that. No one ever thinks, “Oh I know, I’ll show it to a writer.” Now, granted, my standard line when people ask me to read a script is, well, A, I can’t. And B, I can’t help you. [laughs] Do you know what I mean?
But, I guess secretly I could.
Peter: But you could, Craig.
Craig: It’s true.
Peter: If you gave your script to your agent, you know, even if your agent doesn’t read it immediately, your agent will have a younger agent read it. And have an opinion.
Craig: If I tell him to read it, he’s reading it. [laughs]
Peter: Right now. Drop everything.
Craig: I will. I’ll make him do it.
John: So, Peter, what would Christina’s script be? Would it be a spec feature? Would it be a TV episode? Like are you only reading features to sign feature client? Or what are you reading?
Peter: No, I’m reading everything. I will read anything and everything that tells a story. So, 90% of the time it is features, but I will read the hot pilot that’s going around. I’ve no qualms about signing a TV writer on the feature side. But the format that it takes is of much less interest to me than the skill that it demonstrates. I’ll read playwrights. I’ll read shorts. I’ll read whatever.
John: So, let’s say you’ve read Christina’s script over the weekend and you like it. What is your next step?
Peter: If I’ve read it and I love it and I have her contact information, I will contact her. I will call her first. I will email her. If I don’t have either of those things, I will Facebook stalk her. I will tweet at her. I will Google search her. I will find a way to get to her.
John: Now, she may not necessarily know that you’ve read her script. Is that correct?
Peter: Yeah. She might not at all. So, often it’s a cold call. But, first of all, every writer or director likes hearing that you like their work, so frankly it doesn’t matter whether they have an agent, or they don’t have an agent, whether they know you’re calling, or whether you’re calling cold. If you call someone and tell them that you love what they’ve done, everyone takes that positively.
Craig: Interestingly, you are going after them. A lot of times what we’ll hear from aspiring writers is, “Well, I know that my script got to an agent. And it’s been a month and I haven’t quite heard back. When can I send them another thing and a follow up and all the rest?” And we give them advice, but in my mind I’m thinking you won’t need to.
Craig: They’re going to come find you. Or, it’s no.
John: So, my very first script that I wrote, this is while I was in Stark, was this romantic tragedy set in Boulder. And it’s pretty well-written, but it’s not really a movie. And a producer took it over to CAA and she wasn’t really a producer. She was sort of a producer. She took it over to CAA and this agent there was reading it. And four weeks sort of went by. And I just remember looking at the answer machine like why is there no message about this? And then she was like calling to try to get an answer. And then we find out the answer and it’s a no. But it’s sort of course it was a no. it was four weeks and that was just too long. It wasn’t going to be a yes answer.
So, your goal is to read that script over the weekend and then call her on Monday if you like the thing that you’ve just read?
Peter: If I like it, Monday. If I love it, Sunday, Saturday afternoon. Whenever it is I finish it.
John: In that conversation, are you trying to look for other things of hers that you can read? What are you trying to get out of that conversation?
Peter: I love to read second pieces. I think that that’s really important. I think a lot of writers do get signed off of one script, and that’s fine, but I feel like a lot of people have one script in them. I feel like a real writer has two or more. And so it’s important to me to read a secondary piece, just to have that perspective that they’re not just a one-trick pony, or that one script hasn’t been worked on for ten years. Right?
But, no, I’ll call them. I’ll tell them what I thought of the script. You know, if it feels makeable, if it feels like a real play, it’s something we can go after, you know, I might talk to them about some directors or some actors that might make sense for it. And if it’s not makeable or if it’s something that’s super tricky or just less clear path, I’ll just talk to them about where they come from, and their background, and what their aspirations are.
You know, a lot of times you have to suss out whether they really want to be writers or not, or whether they wrote it for some other reason.
John: So, one of the things we stress on the podcast a lot is that agents, mostly they are there to get their clients work. I mean, they are there to be an advocate for their clients. They are there to help support their clients. But mostly they want clients who work. So, at one point do you meet with Christina to see whether she’s a person you think can actually be employable?
Is it all based on what she’s written? Or does that face-to-face meeting change your opinion of whether to sign her as a client?
Peter: The face-to-face meeting is definitely important. I would say it is – if you’re weighting them, I would say it’s probably 80% based on the work. But what you find is that the people that tend to work continuously often are they’re charismatic, they’re fun, they’re people that you want to be around and hang around with.
I mean, in the script process for features, which both of you guys know, it’s a long process. It’s a lot of meetings. It’s a lot of phone calls. It’s a lot of collaboration. And if you are a curmudgeon who can’t talk to people, or you’re someone who writes a script and then thinks that it’s carved in stone, and that it’s not going to have notes, or people aren’t going to have their opinions, then this isn’t the career for you. You should write novels. Or poetry, you know.
So, you have to understand that there is a business side to the art that you do. And that working with other people is a requirement in this business. It’s not just about your words, although it is mostly about your words.
Craig: But you can see how without even pointing it out, it’s second nature to you, but I think it’s surprising for a lot of people that when you read a script by Christina and it is something that isn’t particularly marketable. It’s not something that a big studio is going to make. It doesn’t fit whatever the market is insisting upon at the moment, that doesn’t stop you at all. The idea is, oh good, I found somebody with an original voice. Let me see if I can now get her to work on movies that studios are making. Is that fair to say?
Peter: Right. 100%. And that’s often a part of the matching process in the signing pursuit. When you sit down in that room, you are trying to figure out whether they actually want to make movies and whether they can work. Or whether they want to live in sort of this isolated sphere which is reflected by the sort of beautiful and charming idiosyncratic script that they wrote that got your attention.
John: Great. So, let’s talk about the other side of the equation. So, you have these clients, but you’re also dealing with a whole bunch of other people who are making movies. So, you’re dealing with producers, you’re dealing with executives. How much of your day is spent dealing with them versus dealing with your clients? How much of your life is spent figuring out what they want and how to match up your people to their needs?
Peter: I would say it’s probably 60% spent on my clients. And then 40% spent on what the other people want or need.
John: Do you have like one studio that you are responsible for covering? Or one place that is yours, like within the agency like, “Oh, that’s Peter’s place and he’s responsible for knowing everything that happens there?”
John: OK. And so how do you get that information in general? Is it by talking to the executives? Do you have spies? How do you know what’s really going on?
Craig: Spies. Say spies.
Peter: Spies, yes. That’s exactly it. I spend a lot of time talking to the executives, talking to the producers, and trying to figure out what their real priorities are. You know, every time they make a deal on a project like say they’re going to do a Chutes & Ladders movie, you know, that will be set up at a studio and there will be a producer involved. And the producer’s job is to put that movie together. So the producer will call me and they’ll say, “Hey, we just set up Chutes & Ladders. We’re really excited about it. We’re going to make it like Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s going to be awesome.”
And they’ll be like, “What writers do you have that can write that kind of a movie?” And so I will say, look, these are the ten writers that I think make sense for it. Of the ten, these four are available. And we should send them the material right now. And they’ll be like, “Great. Got to talk to the studio. And then we’ll send you some ideas.”
John: OK. So, I need to come back to you with like, so you say ten and then four, but then those are essentially four of your clients that you’re sort of pitting against each other for this one job. I mean, to some degree you are setting your children against each other to try to get this one thing. Does that weigh on you at all? Is that a factor in sort of how you’re thinking about your job?
Peter: No. you’re not really setting your children against each other, because you also have to imagine that in the larger landscape of any given project. Of Chutes & Ladders, for example, they’re calling every agency. They’re asking every covering agent the exact same question. And if I put one person up, and they put one person up, and the other person puts one person, you know, that’s four or five writers competing. You have the best chance of filling the job as a covering agent by putting up the right people and by putting up a few of them.
Craig: The conflict of interest that fascinates me, and it’s inevitable as well, so I don’t think it’s an ethical thing. I’m just kind of curious how you navigate these waters. Is not between writer clients, but between writer and director clients. When you have a director on a project and you have a writer on the project, and the director is making way more money, and the director say, “I may want to get a different writer from some other place even.” Or, the director wants the writer to do something and the writer is not sure.” How do you navigate that?
Peter: I sort of think you have to keep a separation of church and state. I think you are the advocate for each of these clients individually, but as you address these problems you have to put on your writer hat, or your director hat. And oftentimes if there are real conflicts of interest, like you represent both the writer and the director, you’ll have someone else on the team sort of jump in and be the lead advocate for the writer in this case on a particular circumstance that might happen.
Craig: Because, I mean, ultimately you’re walking this interesting line between keeping something going, but also not ending up favoring one over the over to the extent that one of them leaves, because behind you all the time is this issue of competition. That artists have choices. And they don’t have to stay.
So the tricky job, I mean, that’s the part – you know, when I project myself into somebody else’s job, I always find something that makes me feel very anxious. And I think that’s the thing that would make me feel the most anxious if I were doing the job.
Peter: I feel like the conflicts of interest that you’re talking about though happen very rarely. This is not something that we spend all day/every day agonizing about.
Craig: That’s good.
Peter: These situations do happen, but that is not the day-to-day job.
John: So let’s go back to the common scenario, though, so let’s say the Chutes & Ladders movie, and maybe Christina is one of the four writers you want to put up for that, because her spec would be a great sample for that. So, what is the phone call or the email to her to explain what it is? Are you responsible for pitching their take? Talk to us about sort of what that–
Peter: So, the interesting part, you know, you guys bring up conflict of interest and pitting your children against each other as it relates to the selling process. We haven’t even spoken to Christina about Chutes & Ladders. Christina might be like, “I would never write a board game. Why would you even talk about me in this context?”
So, of the four people that I’ve talked about and got the studio approval, and their excitement about, she might self-select out just because she doesn’t even want to participate.
But let’s assume that she does want to participate. So then I’ll call Christina and I’ll say, hey, such and such studio has just set up this project and they’d like you to look at their materials for Chutes & Ladders. In some circumstances, the studio and the producers will have very clear outlines for what they want the movie to be. They might have a treatment or a document or some piece of material they’re going to share with the writer. In other cases, they don’t. They have a title. They have Chutes & Ladders. Come up with a movie.
John: So, classically, the challenge I always face with these is like they were fishing expeditions. You were never quite clear whether there was a movie to be made there, or if they’re just meeting with every writer in town. And so you could be the tenth meeting of the day to go in on Chutes & Ladders. And I felt like I was burning a lot of time doing those.
Like I was lucky to get one of those jobs pretty early on. I got How to Eat Fried Worms, but it was me versus a bunch of very funny Simpsons writers all trying to get this one gig. And I was lucky to get it, but there were a lot of those gigs I didn’t get.
Now a thing I see a lot with these sort of IP titles is these rooms that they’re putting together where they’re basically bringing a bunch of writers on to crack Chutes & Ladders or to figure out how to do all these different board games. What are those calls like for you? And are those good ways of employing your clients? How do you feel about those personally and as an agency?
Peter: Well, I can’t speak entirely for the agency. I don’t think that’s politically correct. But, personally, I don’t like the idea because when you assemble rooms of writers, basically what they’re doing is they’re saying, “I want to pay as little as I possibly can to these people that you believe in as artists and steal their ideas. And then I may or may not hire them to be the writer on the movie.” So, from my perspective, if it’s something that is that ill-formed or that poorly thought out I would rather you write a script that’s original and let me try and sell it. Then have you give your good original idea and let them brand it with a piece of IP or a title.
So, I mean, that’s philosophically how I feel about it. In reality, though, for a lot of younger writers, for newer writers you’re trying to break, it is a good opportunity. Because for a lot of them, A, they get to work with some other writers they wouldn’t know. B, they get to work with someone senior who is running the writer’s room who gets to see how they perform, how they interact, how they collaborate, etc. You know, they get to work with the producer and the studio executive who might not know them. So, in terms of introducing them to the world of features, it’s not that bad.
But, if you’re talking about a writer who has written a lot of movies, or someone who is going to run the room, etc., it’s not really the best use of their time.
Craig: That’s something that I worry about all the time because while there are some new things like these writer rooms, the idea of the fishing expedition and everybody going in to pitch some well thought out ten or 15-minute version of a movie, that’s been around since John and I have been around. But, what’s changed dramatically is the amount of movies that are made and the ratio of developed to made movies, which used to be much, much higher.
So, we have about two-thirds of the amount of movies that we used to get made, and probably a third of the amount that are in development, or fewer. And so I’m kind of curious from your perspective as an agent, are you concerned that the farm system of the newer writers, their only way in are kind of through these arduous things that burn up a lot of time and energy and have a very high noise-to-signal ratio. And that somewhere down the line eventually all of the big money keeps going to the same pool of people. Is it harder to transition writers from baby writer to steadily-working writer to A-list writer?
Peter: 100% yes. Because the only way you move up that chain is by getting your movies made. And so if you spend a lot of time writing and the movies never get made, then you don’t increase your own quote, etc., in the system.
John: All three of us can think of writers who work all the time, but they don’t really have produced credits. So there’s no movies you can point to saying like, oh, that’s that guy’s movie. And they really aren’t moving up the chain. I’m sure they’re making money, which is great, and they’re continuously working, but there’s no way for them to progress because there just aren’t movies with their names on. There aren’t movies that they can really take credit for as being their movies.
Peter: Right. Which is why I think original material is so important. And which is why getting caught in the system and doing just the rewrites and just the roundtables and just the studio types of projects can be a never-ending cycle. You’re just sort of spinning your wheels in a lot of cases.
John: But the spec market is not at all what the spec market was when Craig and I were first starting out. There used to be this truly vibrant spec market where people would sell million dollar scripts it seemed like every week. It was a very frequent occurrence. And that’s not so common now. So, if a Christina says, “OK, I’m going to go off and write a spec script,” do you want her to pitch you what she’s going to write ahead of time, so you know what it is, so you can tell her whether that’s the proper thing? Are you going to try to get her partnered up with a director from the start?
What is your approach to Christina going off and writing her own original thing?
Peter: Well, you’re right, the spec market has totally changed. It’s completely different. You can’t just sell a – I mean, it very rarely happens that a writer goes off and sells a script for seven figures. So, now when we talk about writers writing new material, if they are interested I would love for them to talk to me about it beforehand. I’d love to hear two or three ideas, and then we decide, oh, this one feels like the right one for you.
Often it’s going to be whichever one you’re most passionate about, because ultimately you want a writer to write something they care about. That just gets you the best material for the end of the day. But, if they are interested in input, I would love to participate before they spend two months writing a new piece of material. And then once we get the piece of material, what we try and do is package it with producers, or with talent, or with a director that make the sale more of a fit. That make it going out into the marketplace noisier.
And so you’ll give it to a piece of talent. You’ll give it to an actor or an actress. You’ll give it to a filmmaker because, again, that increases the auspices around that particular piece.
John: Talk to us about managers. So, how many of your clients also have managers?
Peter: Most of them, probably 80%.
John: What is your relationship to the managers?
Peter: My relationship to the managers varies in many situations. In some situations, the managers are nonexistent. In other situations, the managers–
John: When you say nonexistent, like they’re ineffectual? They do nothing?
Peter: Right. In some situations, the managers are on my phone sheet every day and are very omnipresent. And it cuts both ways. You know, oftentimes I work well with managers who are good developers of material. I really like managers who dive into the story and will help a writer sort of crack their story or will read and give feedback and notes and things like that on a script. You know, they can be very detailed and sort of help a writer break a storyline that maybe doesn’t make sense. I like very literary-driven managers. I think they add a lot of value.
I think there are some managers who basically do the same job I do, and they’re calling studio executives, and they’re selling clients, and they’re pitching clients, and they’re sending submissions. And that feels a little bit redundant to me. But my relationship – it’s like any relationship with any person. It just depends on how well you connect with them, what your vibe is together, and what kind of clients, and sort of how you work with these clients.
John: Are there any writer clients who you have declined to represent because they came with a manager you didn’t want to deal with?
Peter: Yes. There are managers I won’t work with.
John: All right.
Craig: Interestingly, you’ve never had to decline a client because they didn’t have a manager. [laughs] That doesn’t come up.
Peter: Correct. Correct. That’s never been an issue.
John: So obviously you’re not going to name names, but how would a writer find out that their manager is a toxic manager, or is a manager who is not well-liked? Any clues that a person could glean, a writer could glean that their manager may not be a good manager?
Peter: I honestly don’t know. Yeah, it’s tricky. I mean, I guess, if the piece of talent were that amazing and the manager was really challenging, I might try and make it work for a period of time and just see if you can tough it out. Because oftentimes you just gravitate towards the material and you work with everything else that comes with it. You know, things that come unencumbered are so rare these days. But, god, you know, you try and protect them if you can.
Craig: I mean, I’m very manager skeptic. I’ve said as much on the show many, many times. I do recognize that there are some managers out there who do work as producers for their clients and in the way that you’re describing, they help them write a screenplay. And I find it a curious position to be in, because sooner or later there’s going to be a different producer on there who will also be producing the screenplay. But, I understand. At least to get it to a place. Very good.
But, it seems to me that a lot of what the management business has become is just a way for people to double up on agents. You can’t have two agents at once. I mean, you can share two agents at an agency, obviously, but that’s the same 10%. You can’t hire CAA and UTA, but you can hire UTA and a manager. And so I agree with you. I think a lot of these people are kind of just extra agents.
John: So, I will speak up for Malcolm Spellman and for Justin Marks who believe that managers are – good managers are fundamentally a blessing. And that they truly help them out a lot.
And I will say that I know some mutual friends of ours who are represented by one agency, yet also have a really cozy relationship with another agency at the same time. It sort of feels like they’re kind of split between two worlds. I see you nodding, so that’s a thing that happens. Is it frustrating when you see that?
Peter: It’s very frustrating. Yes. But I also understand that at a certain level everyone knows each other. You’ve been in this business for long enough, you know, you have relationships that transcend agencies.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, that’s actually really interesting, because I don’t know how that would work. I mean, I’m friends with David Kramer, but I don’t feel like that relationship does anything strange. It’s not like we’re hanging out together at dinner.
What do you mean by the kind of dual agency? I feel like I’m missing out and I should be doing something.
John: Off-air I’ll tell you the name of the person, but a mutual friend of ours, he’s both at UTA and he’s also sort of at CAA at the same time. And it’s always struck me as so strange. But I’ll have conversations with him and like, “Oh yeah, well, my agent at CAA says this, and my agent at UTA says this.” And I think he’s technically only with one of the agencies. Basically he’s managed to not choose between them. And he’s chosen not to choose.
Peter: I’ve never heard of anybody being that explicit about it, but I do know of people who just have relationships with agents who are at different places, who might run a business question by an agent that doesn’t necessarily represent them that they’re close with. And I’ve heard that and I’ve had that happen before.
By the way, my best friend is a client who is not at my agency. And who I don’t represent. And who asks me questions about his agent all the time. And I’m like, you need to chill out, your agent is doing a great job.
Craig: Good for you.
Peter: I don’t even work with you, but it’s interesting. When you’re friends with a writer, you can really talk to them about what their issues are, and also I think I’ve become a better agent because I get to learn what his particular neuroses are.
Craig: Well, and god help you if he turns to you and says, “You know what? You have to be my agent.” And then you’re like, oh no.
Craig: I know how crazy you are, bro.
Peter: It’s super tricky. But I found myself defending agents who don’t even work at my agency, just because the demands or the expectations of my friend can sometimes be a bit ridiculous.
John: So let’s wrap this up with Christina. So you’ve managed to land her her first job. It’s an adaptation. So she’s going to be doing it for Sony. What kind of deal are you able to make for her on her very first Hollywood writing job? Is she getting scale? Is she getting scale plus ten? What does that look like for Christina?
Peter: Typically, writers who are making their first adaptation will get scale plus ten. I mean, that’s sort of the starting offer.
John: And we’ll explain scale plus ten. So scale is the minimum that they are allowed to pay you based on the WGA rates. Plus ten means plus ten percent, which basically they have to pay you.
Peter: Right. And then any sort of beyond that is what you get in negotiation based on the heat of the writer, the heat of the project, the talent that’s attached, the importance of the project relative to other projects within the studio. And so oftentimes you can convince them to go beyond that, but that’s sort of the starting point.
John: I bring this up just because listeners may not realize that – we talk about WGA negotiations and everything happens, and WGA only sort of sets the floor. And everything that’s above the floor is the agent’s job, and the lawyer’s job, and manager’s job, I guess, to some degree to raise that floor up higher and higher.
I haven’t talked about lawyers. So, when it comes time to make Christina’s deal, you’re dealing with her lawyer also who is helping you make the deal. Is that correct?
John: And so what is the discussion between the two of you about what you’re asking for?
Peter: Most of the time, the discussion between the two of us is about what are the justifications for getting them more money than they’ve been offered. It’s not just about – you can’t just say, “I want more.” That’s never an acceptable line of argument. It’s, you know, based on the reviews of their previous movie, it’s based on the box office performance of a previous movie. It’s based on the elements that are attached. It’s based on the need and the demand for the writer. It’s based on their specific abilities within this world that other people don’t have.
So, you have to justify and you and the lawyer work together to figure out what those justifications are as you’re making the calls.
Craig: And you’re not dealing – people may not understand this – you’re not dealing with the people that have hired the writer in the first place, because those people are on the creative side of the studio, the studio executives along with the producer. These are business affairs people who are walled off, church and state style.
Peter: Which is the craziest part of it. The fact that I’m arguing about content, I’m arguing about artists and their skills with people who might not haven’t even seen the movie of the writer we’re talking about.
Craig: Almost certainly haven’t. Yeah, and don’t care. Because they literally have a computer model for what that person should be paid. They talk to each other, so now you have the business affairs lawyer at one studio talking to another one, because they hate setting precedent. If they give you a raise, then they get yelled at by other studios, because the other studio has to pay that higher rate now for your client.
And it’s a very – the only time I ever feel bad on my side as a client is when they’re like, “Well, business affairs says they should only pay you this.” And I’m like, well then no, screw them. And then someone calls them and says, “Stop being a jerk.”
But it’s got to be difficult when you keep coming back to these same people after you just had a fight with them an hour ago, to have a new fight with them about a new client, right?
Peter: It’s wild and crazy. Yes. It’s bizarre. You know, I would say to any writer who is able to do it, the best thing that you can give your agent, the greatest gift, is the power to walk away. If you are willing to say, “No, I just won’t do it for this price,” then your agent can go crazy on the lawyer and know that you’re not going to fire them if they aren’t able to make that deal. That is when it becomes very fun.
Craig: You know, my agent knows – he knows I want to walk away from everything. I don’t want to do anything. So, he has the best gift in the world. You know, any time I say, OK, let’s go make a deal. And he’s like, “All right, but this is what I’m going to ask for.” I’m like, no, no, no. Just understand, I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to do anything. I want to retire. So, go, armed with that.
And, you know, the truth is that attitude, you technically could have that attitude at any point in your career. It just occurred to me later that I should have it. But what’s to stop you, right?
Peter: You could, but for some younger writers, they need rent money. So, for them making a deal is important.
Craig: They’re going to get it anyway. I mean, you guys know. I mean, my point is you’re not going to let – if you know it’s right for your client, you’re not going to let them walk away. If you know you have a really good deal for the right project for them, then you’ll sit them down and say, “Hey, dumb-dumb, do this.” I presume.
Peter: 100%. I mean, I’m in the business of representing the best voices, the greatest artists, people that should be creating movies and television. And if the person that I’m negotiating with doesn’t recognize or respect that, then I have no interest in doing business with them, or putting my client in business with them. That’s not what’s good for my client. And if that becomes a deal breaker for me and Christina, then so bet it. They’re undervaluing themselves in the marketplace, and that’s not acceptable.
John: Last two questions, both come from trends in television, and I’m curious whether they exist in features and whether you’ve seen them in features. So first off, over the last few years staffing of junior levels in TV, diversity has become much more important. You see a lot more efforts to hire diverse writers at the starting level. Do you see efforts to hire diverse writers for features at those starting levels?
Peter: You do, but nearly as clearly defined as they are in television. I mean, in television they will specifically call covering agents for diverse writers. And diversity means a number of different things, but they are very explicit about it. In features, they will say, “We’d love it if a woman wrote this movie.” Or, “We’d love to have a writer or director of this particular background.” But, no, there’s nothing as clearly defined as it is in television at all.
John: Peter, you’re African American. Do people come to you looking for African American writers or minority writers? Does that happen at all?
Peter: All the time. Yes. Yes.
Craig: Because you guys all know each other? [laughs]
Peter: I’m the resident expert on African American writers at UTA, and WME, at CAA, everywhere.
Craig: Everywhere. It’s amazing.
Peter: Literally everywhere. We all know each other. We all represent – yeah, I know everyone.
John: Good stuff. My other question about TV practices that are hope are not going to ever come over to features, in TV a lot of times they’ll say like, “Oh, you’re a great young writer. Unfortunately we only have one spot and there’s two writers, so we’re going to partner you up and paper team you, pretend you’re a team.” Is there paper-teaming happening in features? Have you ever seen that happen?
Peter: I have seen it happen. It happens pretty rarely, though. That sort of forced marriage is strange and unnatural and doesn’t tend to happen.
The craziest thing is I once saw it happen across agencies.
Peter: So imagine trying to make a deal with a lit agent from another agency, you’re both advocating for your client. You don’t necessarily know that they’re worth the same. It would be like if I paired you, Craig, with a baby writer, and said, “OK, we want to ask for this much together as a team.” Well, then how do you split it?
Craig: I take everything.
Peter: It becomes very, very tricky.
Craig: I get all of it. That’s not tricky. That person should be thrilled. Thrilled.
Peter: It’s a gift.
Craig: I’m literally giving them the gift of my knowledge.
Peter: That’s the key to Hollywood, really. That’s what you should tell everyone that’s listening. They should just pair with one of the two of you.
Craig: [laughs] Exactly.
John: We have one listener question that I thought was actually much more appropriate for you. So, this is actually an audio question, so we’ll listen to the audio.
Question: Hey John and Craig. What’s the viability of making short films in the current climate as a means to break in to the industry?
Peter: I honestly think short films are pretty outdated in terms of a way to break into the film industry. They work if you want to be a director. In terms of being a writer, no one signs people off of getting their short film made. It’s just not a thing. It works for directors or writer-directors who are transitioning to bigger movies, and only to the extent that your short serves as a proof of concept of a larger movie.
So, if your short is the first chapter of a movie, that’s fantastic. That’s something that people can see, they get a sense of what you want to do with it. And there’s sort of an obvious next step to where the project goes.
If your short sort of lives in a bubble and doesn’t serve as part of a larger hole, doesn’t really help.
John: Gotcha. Cool. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a new podcast, it’s actually the second season of an old podcast, but it was in Australia, now it’s in the US. It’s called Science Vs. It is hosted by Wendy Zuckerman. And what she does is she takes a look at issues in the news, or just general topics, and really looks at them scientifically, sort of to really break down like what’s actually going on behind the scenes and what’s actually true and what’s not actually true.
So, the three episodes I listened to so far, one was on attachment parenting, one was on fracking. She did a two-part episode on guns. And they’re all just terrific. They’re really well-produced. So, if you’re looking for another podcast, I would recommend Science Vs. by Wendy Zuckerman.
Craig: Hmm, that sounds like I might actually like that. The only issue is, of course, it’s a podcast.
John: Craig doesn’t listen to podcasts.
Craig: Why would I? Why does anyone? I don’t understand it.
Peter: People with long commutes.
Craig: I guess, though, it’s the thing. I don’t have a long commute. [laughs] So, my One Cool Thing is maybe the dumbest of all of them, but so I already did one beard related One Cool Thing, because Peter, you don’t know this, but I’m a possessor of a one-year-old beard now. And I’m bald. I mean, I’m not fully full bad, but I’m fairly bald. So I don’t have to worry about like hair stuff. But now I kind of do, which is weird.
Anyway, found this awesome stuff, also Australian, by the way, called Uppercut. And it’s like a beard good that keeps your beard kind of tight, so it’s not flying off your face. And it smells like coconut. Yeah!
Peter: I didn’t even know that was an issue for people with beards, but I guess. I mean, you have hair like everyone else.
Craig: Well yeah, like if it gets frizzy, then you look like a bedraggled sea captain. You know? So you want to keep it natty and everything. And also beards are super dry and this stuff kind of makes it not so crispy.
Peter: Well, that’s interesting because, as John pointed out, I am an African American male, and so my hair is very short. So I almost never think about my hair. I don’t invest in hair products. I don’t really gels or anything. It’s never something that I’m really conscious of. And I also don’t have a beard.
Craig: Well, look, by the way, keep it that way. But I got to tell you, the joy of not having to give a damn about hair stuff is one of the – now that I have to give a slight, slight damn, it’s one of the great joys of life.
Peter: Consider me blessed.
John: Peter, do you have One Cool Thing to share with us?
Peter: Yeah. So my One Cool Thing is a book that I read over my vacation which is called Dynasty: The Rise and the Fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland. The book came out last fall and I read an amazing review of it, which is sort of how I got into it. You know, as agents, while we read scripts all the time, I do try and read for pleasure, because I do want to have informed conversation and I’m just curious about a lot of things. This book is – it’s sort of the latest history on the House of Caesar from Julius Caesar through Caligula. And as you look at the first five Caesars, what you realize is that the Roman Republic wasn’t as republican as it seems, or as it claims to be.
The characters are larger than life. I mean, it reads like a Game of Thrones episode, except minus the dragons, and with more prostitution. So, the book is fantastic.
Craig: Even more prostitution than the actual Game of Thrones, which is prostitution-heavy?
Peter: Oh, very much so. I mean, there was an emperor who used to take all of the young senators’ children basically to an island and make them prostitute to each other for his pleasure.
Craig: Well, we’ve had Denny Hastert. We’ve had a few. We’ve had a few of those guys.
Peter: So, yes, that’s my One Cool Thing.
John: Very, very cool. All right, that was show for this week. As always, we are produced by Godwin Jabangwe, and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Roman Mittermayr. If you have an outro for us, you can send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also where you send questions like the one we answered before.
You can find show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. Godwin gets them up about four days after the episode reads, so you’ll be able to read all about what Peter said.
You can find all of the back episodes of the show at Scriptnotes.net and on the Scriptnotes USB drive which you can get at the store, the johnaugust.com store.
For short questions, I’m on Twitter, @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Peter Dodd, do you use Twitter? You don’t want people reaching out on Twitter.
Peter: No, no, no. Not Twitter.
John: Not Twitter.
Peter: I don’t know anyone who uses Twitter anymore. I feel like it’s dead, by the way.
John: Oh my god, we’re on Twitter all the time.
Craig: That’s the most agent thing of all time.
Peter: Maybe it’s just me.
Craig: I don’t use it, so now it’s dead. Classic.
Peter: It doesn’t exist.
John: Peter Dodd, you were a fantastic guest. Thank you very much for being on the show with us this week.
Peter: Thanks guys. Happy to be here.
John: All right. Thanks.
Craig: Thank you.
- Science Vs.
- Uppercut Deluxe Beard Balm
- Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar
- Get your 250 episode USB
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- Outro by Roman Mittermayr (send us yours!)
You can download the episode here.
Craig and John speak with agent Peter Dodd about what he looks for in a writer client, and how he sees the relationships between writers and agents and managers and executives.
We ask all the questions: How does he find new writers? Do competitions matter? How about query letters? And once he has a script in his hands, how much does he read before he knows if wants to sign the writer as a client? Peter answers everything candidly. Even we gasped a few times.
- Science Vs.
- Uppercut Deluxe Beard Balm
- Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar
- Get your 250 episode USB
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- Outro by Roman Mittermayr (send us yours!)
You can download the episode here.
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 263 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast we’ll be doing another round of the Three Page Challenge, but this time with a twist. We’ll also be looking at the 100 most frequently asked questions in screenwriting.
But, Craig, a couple episodes ago you were gone when Billy Ray was on because you had a terrible ear infection.
John: Today, this is my day for a gory ear story. Are you ready?
Craig: I am. In fact, I’m more than ready. I’m thrilled.
John: So, I guess a general trigger warning. If you do not like stories of ear pain, use the little chapter button to skip ahead right here. I’m going to give you the quick lowdown on what happened with my ear today.
So, as you all know, I’m leaving for Paris in less than a week.
John: And so I have to do all of these doctor’s appointments for the doctors I will not see over the year that I’m in Paris. Today was the allergist. And the allergist was fine, no issues, but she was looking in my left ear and she said, “You know what? You have a lot of wax build up here. I’m going to send the nurse in and she’ll get that wax out.”
I’m like, great. So it’s like a paid Q-tip. So she comes in and she has this amazing instrument I’d never seen before. It’s like a plastic pick, a clear plastic pick that has a hoop on the end and then attaches to a little light, so she can use that to look inside and see the wax and get it all off. And I’m like well this is amazing. A new technology. I was so excited, until she put it in my ear.
John: It was one of the most painful experiences of my entire life.
Craig: This is not a gory story at all. This is what happens to me four times a year. I thought for sure there was going to be blood or they were going to find a worm or a nest of spiders.
John: So, there was blood. There was quite a bit of blood. And my ear is actually bleeding as we’re recording this podcast. So, in getting this stuff out, they opened something up, and so there’s been a lot of blood coming out of my ear for the rest of the afternoon.
Craig: Yeah, I don’t mean to downplay the pain. It is incredibly painful. So, I’m in your boat. My doctor said, “Some people are wax makers. You’re a wax maker.”
John: We are wax makers. That’s maybe why we’re screenwriters. Maybe the secret of our podcast. I do wonder if maybe having these headphones on my ears a lot, because I end up wearing them a lot, is part of what is building up all the wax in my ears.
Craig: It’s unlikely. It’s not likely.
John: It’s genetics.
Craig: It’s just genetics. Exactly. And, in fact, there’s two specific kinds of ear wax that are very related to genetics. There’s wet and there’s dry. I guarantee you you have wet, because wet wax people are the ones that have these problems. And then maybe you go in there with a Q-tip to try and clean some out every now and then and you do, but you’re also compressing a bunch in there. And then it gets all slammed up against the wall. And then they can’t see. And then to get it off they’re basically – it’s like they’re ripping a scab off the inside of your ear.
John: It really is basically what they did.
Craig: Yeah. It hurts so much.
John: It hurts so much. It hurts so much more than I was expecting. Because I’ve had tattoos. I’ve had a kidney stone. But this was just a very uniquely sharp pain. Just imagine a toothpick being shoved into your brain. That’s what it felt like.
Craig: Yeah. It is an incredibly sensitive part of the body. Unfortunately, it’s not like they can put you under general to take these. And then when you look at finally what they’ve pulled out you feel like, oh my god, you must have pulled out like a pound and it’s like a tiny little pebble.
Craig: Very annoying.
John: But, anyway, I’m better now. And so I hear you delightfully clearly in ways I probably haven’t for weeks.
Craig: Through blood, which is my favorite way to be heard.
John: Oh, so good. This week also I was talking with a friend, Elan, who was at Gen Con. So he’s the guy who developed and designed Exploding Kittens. And so he was there at Gen Con, the big D&D conference, with Exploding Kittens and they sold out of that, which is congratulations. Awesome for him.
But, he was telling me about this conference. And as he was describing it I could not believe that you and I were not there. So, this is the once a year giant Indianapolis convention for all the D&D geeks, and other gamers, and with all sorts of board games. But, Craig, we have to go there.
And the specific story he told me that made me certain that we had to be there was this thing called True Dungeon. Do you know what True Dungeon is?
John: So, it’s a live action thing you’re going through that is a D&D adventure. So you’re going from these rooms to rooms. It has aspects of an escape room, but also aspects of D&D. You’re there with your party. You are assigning your attributes. You are winning treasure. And based on the treasure you win, the next year you come in with an advantage.
Craig, why are we not there?
Craig: Well, I mean, look, the only reason I can think is that I don’t like people, so obviously that’s a little bit of an issue for me with these things. But, it does sound like the kind of convention I would very much like to go to. And don’t you think that they would be interested in like a screenwriter-hosted game of D&D? We could DM, or I could DM, or you could DM and actually play. Would be fun. Do these people care about us, or are we nobody to them?
John: That is a question I think it’s worth asking to our listenership. I’m curious what the Venn diagram is overlapping people who know about Gen Con and would know whether we could actually get into Gen Con and maybe speak, or maybe do a live episode at Gen Con. I’m curious sort of how many of the people in our listenership are actually decision makers at Gen Con, or at least know the decision makers at Gen Con.
So, if you are involved with Gen Con and would like us to maybe come to the Gen Con 50, it’s the 50th anniversary of Gen Con next year, August 17 through 20, drop us a line. Drop us a line at email@example.com. That’s how we got the Kates on the show, so maybe that’s how we’ll get ourselves to Gen Con.
Craig: That’s absolutely true. It’s worked once before, and at this point I have to assume it’s going to work again, because past success is a predictor of future success.
John: 100 percent.
John: And while we’re in the follow up topics and we’re talking about The Katering Show – The Katering Show is now on YouTube. So if you did not have a chance to see season two when it was on the weird special channel it was on, it is now available on YouTube. So I would encourage you to watch all the episodes of the wonderful Australian Kates and their amazing television program.
Craig: So great.
John: So great. To our main topics this week. Way back in the early 2000s, I used to write a column for IMDb, which I was answering a bunch of really basic screenwriting questions. It was a weekly column. It got kind of frustrating. I was answering the same questions again and again. So in 2003 I set up johnaugust.com, the website where you’re probably listening to this podcast through. And on that site I answered a bunch of questions. I did that for a couple more years. And then I got really tired of just answering questions again and again.
And, Craig, you did the same thing on Artful Writer, didn’t you? You’d answer questions about the industry and the business?
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I probably did it similarly to you and the way we do it on the podcast. I would store up a whole bunch of them and then I would do Q-a-Apalooza.
John: Yep. And you would have plowed through them. And then over the years I just got really tired of doing that. And I also got tired of the site as a blog, just always being these questions. It felt like the wrong kind of way to be doing it.
So, when Stuart started working for me, this is five years ago, I said, hey, let’s make up a new site that’s really, really basic questions about screenwriting. It should be the answer to a Google search for any of these things. And so he started generating questions and he set up the site. And then as people would write in questions, he would just answer the questions. And so it was a great sort of way to let Stuart just do all of that stuff. And so he would answer questions like what is a brad. Like really basic questions, but they were just fundamental questions that if you didn’t understand that, then the rest of screenwriting would be very hard to understand.
And so over the years that built up and there were about 500 questions on that site at times. And this last year I said, you know what, let’s take all of the most asked questions and stick them together as one PDF that people can just download to answer all those things.
And so that’s out there right now. So if you go to screenwriting.io, click on the little link, you can download the 100 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Screenwriting. And it’s free. It’s just meant to be the basic answers to the very basic questions that you’re likely going to have.
So, even the questions that we get on the podcast tend to be more sophisticated than these, but I thought we might hit some of the questions that Stuart answered in this book and see if we agree with how Stuart answered the question.
Craig: I love that there’s the chance that we can beat up Stuart in absentia.
John: Yeah. Isn’t that sort of great? It just keeps going on. I thought we might take a look at three questions and see how Stuart answered them and if we agree with how Stuart answered them. And I want to stress here, Stuart sometimes asked me questions about the questions, so he would say like, “I got a question about this, and what should I say?” And I would just tell him what to say. But I really have not read this book.
And so this is one of the rare cases where I’m putting something out there saying like I think this is probably accurate, but I haven’t read through all 81 pages of this book carefully, because in some ways it’s their thing, not my thing. So I was just the person giving them a job.
Craig: I hope so much that it is wrong.
John: It would be so good if it were wrong. Let’s start with question number 32. If you look at the index, all those are clickable links, so you can just click on it. Question 32. What does “high concept” mean? Here’s what Stuart said: A “high concept” idea is one that can be easily and succinctly explained. It was originally coined ironically, in opposition to “high art,” which is why to some the term is counterintuitive. A good (albeit extreme) example is Snakes on a Plane — the title itself explains the idea.
John: Craig, what do you think of that definition of high concept?
Craig: No. No, no.
John: All right. Give us a better one.
Craig: Well, my objection is that easily and succinctly explained could apply to a low concept movie, such as My Dinner with Andre. A high concept movie to me is one in which the plot circumstance is more remarkable than anything else you’re going to describe. The hook of the movie, or the premise of the movie, is outlandish or big or vibrant. It’s in your face.
John: Great. I think that’s a much better definition than what Stuart gave. So, one of the lovely things about an e-Book is we can just change it. And so perhaps even by the time people are downloading this book, we will have changed that.
But one of the reasons why we will ask for your email address when you download the book is we will update it and fix things. And so probably by the time next week rolls around, we will fix this to incorporate more of what Craig said.
Craig: I’m already enjoying this process.
John: Great. Let’s do question 23.
Craig: Are scenes that take place in cars INT. or EXT.? And here’s what Stuart wrote: Car scenes often use camera placements that are both INT. and EXT., so INT./EXT. is usually appropriate for their scene headers. This is not a hard and fast rule. If your scene is obviously either INT. or EXT., indicate it as such. For example, if you have a movie about a family that has encountered a shrink ray, and your centimeter tall characters are adventuring from the back seat of a car to the front, your scenes are probably strictly INT.
John, what did you think?
John: I mostly agree with what Stuart said here. I think his example was really weird at the end, like the shrink rays/people in a car, but yeah, you’ll very often see INT./EXT. for car scenes. It very often kind of won’t matter a lot. So, if most of the action is taking place inside the car, I tend to use INT. if most of it is taking place outside the car, I say EXT.
Craig: I’m with you. So, Stuart’s 0/2 right now. This is great. This is great.
John: All right. Let’s try number 56. What is a two-hander? A two-hander is a movie where there are two main characters of roughly equal importance to the story, and whose arcs are given roughly equal screen-time. Romantic comedies and buddy cop movies are often two-handers, but almost all genres have their examples. The Sixth Sense is a thriller two-hander.
Craig, what do you think?
Craig: I think Stuart nailed that one.
John: Stuart Friedel for the win.
Craig: Nice. This is a good one. How do you format two characters talking at once? When two characters are talking at the same time, it is referred to as “dual dialogue,” and the two speakers’ text blocks go side-by-side. Most screenwriting programs have an option for this. In Final Draft, if you type the dialogues normally with one below the other, highlight both, and select Format —> Dual Dialogue, it will put the blocks side-by-side.
I agree with this, but it also points out how bad Final Draft is at making dual dialogue. So bad.
John: Yeah. It also seems strange that Stuart wouldn’t have mentioned how you do it in Highland, which is the app we actually make. Or how you do it in Fountain, yeah.
Craig: [laughs] I mean, I’m starting to feel like, I mean, listen, don’t speak ill of the dead.
John: Stuart’s not dead. Stuart’s alive and married.
Craig: Oh. Oh, he’s alive. Oh, I thought he died.
John: No, that’s not why he left.
Craig: Oh my god. I sent his parents flowers. What a mistake.
John: They deserve flowers. They’ve had to deal with 30 years of Stuart Friedel.
Craig: He did actually a very good job for him to have done all this. And, yeah, that’s exactly right. You put them side-by-side. It’s something that you should use sparingly, I feel. It’s actually kind of hard to read.
John: It is hard to read.
Craig: And so you’re asking the reader to do some math, because of course we can’t hear it simultaneously. We have to read it in sequence. It’s just the way time works and when you’re reading. So, you’re approximating something. That’s why you should use it kind of sparingly. And only when it’s really important. Because you know throughout a script people are going to be overlapping plenty. So just don’t go nuts with this.
John: Yeah. You’re other option is always to call it out in parenthetical. And so you can say overlapping, or sometimes it will say “overlapping throughout.” Sometimes I’ll even do that as scene description, sort of like “Overlapping throughout–“and then it’s a big run of dialogue and different people talking.
And that just gives you a sense this is meant to be pandemonium. People are all on top of each other. Don’t worry about how this person’s dialogue interacts with this person’s dialogue. They’re all talking. And that sometimes is the more crucial sense you’re trying to convey.
Craig: Yeah. That’s exactly right. If you’re dealing with a crowd and you’re going to have four different people shouting out something in the crowd, rather than give them each a name and dual dialogue it, you can just say make a character called crowd and say the things they’re saying and maybe just shift return to put them on their own lines. Or put little slashes in between them just to get a sense of this is all simultaneous yammering.
John: You’ll often see that with news reports, where you’re cutting between a whole bunch of things. Even on previous Three Page Challenges we’ve had that, where it’s a news report going through a bunch of different talking heads describing the scene behind us.
John: Cool. Great, so if you want to download that, that’s at screenwriting.io. And you will just click, give us your email address, and we’ll send it to you.
So, Godwin Jabangwe, our Scriptnotes producer, has also gone through and edited this. So, he’s done some proofreading on it, but there will still be mistakes. And so one of the things you’ll see on the second page of the PDF is just a link to click, where basically if someone is broken, something is not right, or something could be better. So people can click that link and we can also improve things along the way.
Craig: It’s a great service. Just adds to the pile of good works that you do.
John: Why thank you.
Craig: All right. Well, I guess it’s probably time for our Three Page Challenges.
John: Absolutely. So, as long time listeners know, we occasionally take a look at three page sample sent in by our audience, offering our honest assessment in the hopes that people learn from them. Not just the people who wrote them in, but also our listeners.
If you would like to read along with us, you can find the PDFs in the show notes, so just scroll down and you will see the PDFs and you can see what it is we were talking about.
So, normally this is the point in the podcast where Craig or I try to lamely summarize what’s happening in the three pages, so people who are listening without looking at it can know what we’re talking about. I thought we’d try something different, which is invite our producer, Godwin Jabangwe, on to give us a synopsis of each of these projects before we start describing it. So, Godwin, if you could please hop on the line.
Craig: You know what’s great? Poor Godwin just listened to us beating up Stuart, and now he’s thinking, “The day I leave, they’re going to turn on me. This is terrible.”
Godwin Jabangwe: I’m never leaving.
Craig: Oh, smart. Smart.
John: So, would you start off with Tierra Blanca by Salvador Medina?
Godwin: All right. We open in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico, on a blazing hot morning. Ben, a man in his early 30s, tries to evade a truck that’s trailing him. He pulls into an auto shop where Diego and Rob are playing cards. Ben tells the mechanics to take their time. He’s in no rush. He’s resigned to his fate as the truck he’s been trying to escape waits patiently outside.
We cut to the past, two years earlier, to meet a younger, skinnier Ben. And that’s it.
John: So, everyone who has listened to this segment before knows that when we cut to the past at the bottom of page three, what is that called?
Godwin: It’s a Stuart Special.
Craig: I mean, do we rename it at this point, because Godwin picked this one. So this is on Godwin.
Godwin: This was an homage to Stuart.
Craig: Oh, OK. Fair enough. Fair enough.
John: We were discussing maybe a Godwin Gotcha.
Craig: [laughs] I like that. A Godwin Gotcha. So, Tierra Blanca is writing by Salvador Medina, who is Mexican. We know this because he put it on his title page, his contact information is that he lives in Mexico City. So, I’m going to avoid commenting on maybe some little tweakity things with English, because his English is vastly better than my Spanish.
This is a perfectly good way to start a movie. And we give the Stuart Special a lot of grief, but here’s what really works – I can see everything. I can see the streets. I can see the time of day. I can see the light. I can see what Ben looks like. I can see the heat. I can see the colors of the trucks. All of this is working great.
But, this I thought was not a great use of real estate in terms of the first three pages in the sense of what was happening. Here’s what’s happening. Ben is driving along. He’s in Mexico. He is not Mexican, clearly. And he realizes someone is following him and in that moment realizes that he’s going to die.
Now, what I just said, that’s not on the page. What’s on the page is that he sees the pickup truck behind him running a red light to keep up with him. And then Salvador writes, “Ben, surveys with his eyes.” That’s it.
John: There’s under-reaction there. And that’s the case where you’ve got to make that a playable moment for the actor. Surveys isn’t the verb there that sort of tells you what he’s doing.
Craig: No, exactly. It doesn’t give us a sense of what’s in his head. And what is in his head there should help us transition to this next scene. In the next scene, Diego, who runs an auto shop, is going to just greet him like he’s any customer. And Ben is going to explain to him that he can’t go outside because they will kill him as soon as he does. And Ben is depressed. He’s miserable. He’s in despair. That would all work if I understood the moment that caused the despair was actually causing despair.
That said, there is a card game going on between Diego and Rob, who are coworkers, that doesn’t really seem to be adding anything. I didn’t care about it. I don’t know what it could possibly be doing for us other than taking some time and setting some flavor, but once I see that Ben knows he’s going to die, I need to be with him.
John: Yeah. I think that aspect of being with him is my biggest question about this. It seems like we’re in Ben’s POV, but we break POV to come to Rob and Diego who are playing this card game, yet they’re not given very specific characters. And so my question going forward is are they main characters? Are they supposed to be main characters? Is there a reason why we’re shifting to their POV?
A strange thing that happens on page two, “Rob chuckles and takes the money. A white pickup truck parks in front of them.” Well, that’s Ben’s white pickup truck.
John: But to say a white pickup truck, like wait, is it the same pickup truck? And so I ended up having to skip back a page and I was looking for who has a pickup truck, who has a pickup truck. And I see the first INT./EXT., there you go, answer to a Stuart question. It says Ben’s car rather than Ben’s truck, or Ben’s pickup truck.
And so, again, this may be an English thing, but when I see car, I’m not necessarily thinking truck. And so I was looking to try to match up what was actually happening here. And so my belief is that you’re trying to set a Tarantino kind of world where there are multiple people who can have storytelling power and people can cross over, but it’s only page two. And so it felt really strange for it to suddenly be shifting to these guys’ POV and to not really be focusing on Ben through these moments.
I can imagine a scenario in which Ben sees the car behind him, decides to pull into the auto shop, and we’re staying on his POV about what it is he’s trying to do next in order to watch the guy who is waiting for him to come out.
Craig: Yeah. This thing between Diego and Rob, it only really works if it happens before I know there’s any trouble at all. So for instance, there is a version here, Salvador, where you cut the scene, i.e. Ben’s car. Take all of it out. We’re not meeting Ben there. We’re not seeing him driving. We’re not seeing his truck. We’re not seeing somebody following him. We just open on Sinaloa, and you have subtitle that’s explaining to us that this is home to Mexico’s biggest drug lords. And that this Tierra Blanca is the neighborhood where most of them come from. So, we’re in a dangerous place.
And the next thing we see is an auto shop where a couple of guys are goofing around playing cards. And that doesn’t seem dangerous at all. Well, that’s an interesting contrast. So they have their little back and forth chit-chat, and then a guy comes in. Some white guy walks in and they’re like, oh okay, yeah, we’ll fix your car. This is all very mundane. Until he says, “They’ll kill me as soon as I leave here anyway.”
And then you have surprised people. And you have surprised Diego. And we are surprised with him. I think this is just a better way to think about things. How do you manufacture surprises, even though, look, let’s face it, it’s not really that surprising, right? You’re making a movie about drug wars. There’s going to be a problem.
John: We’ve seen movies before.
John: I think what I would pitch though about your version of this is that initial conversation between Diego and Rob just has to be a lot better. You only get one first line in the script, and one first moment, and so like whatever that card game is, it has to feel like even if the other stuff never happened, we’d be interested enough in these characters based on the dynamic that we saw there.
And so look at what that card game is. It can feel very naturalistic. But just it needs to tell us more. It needs to be more important for why it’s there.
Craig: 100 percent. And I’ll point, Salvador, to a scene that I love in a movie I love. Kill Bill. This was in the first one. Uma Thurman’s character goes to meet a man named Hattori Hanzo, who makes these brilliant Japanese swords. He’s the best. But he’s since retired, and now he just works as a sushi chef. And he has this guy that’s basically his underling. And she walks in there pretending to just be some ding-a-ling American tourist who can’t speak Japanese.
And he’s just, you know, it’s a goofy scene. And all of his back and forth with the guy that’s working for him is funny. And it’s the comedy of the mundane and the ridiculous. He’s not moving fast enough. He’s so stupid. And then she finally drops the bomb that she knows who he is. And know he’s talking Japanese to her and it takes on a very different pallor.
You got to find some life if you’re going to do this, right, because that’s the point.
John: So, last things I want to look at, first off it starts with a title card. And so here’s the text of the title card: “Culiacán, Sinaloa, home to Mexico’s biggest drug lords. Most of them come from one of its oldest neighborhoods: Tierra Blanca.” I really like that as an opening thing. I can see that being really helpful for setting the mood. But if we’re going to say that, then three lines later you don’t have to say, “We’re in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico.” We got it based on the title card.
John: Other thing I want to focus on is the first page, he has his WGA registration number. You don’t need it. It’s one of those things that automatically smacks as being like doesn’t really get it. You won’t see those on scripts in Hollywood. You just won’t.
Craig: Nor will they actually ward off any trouble.
John: Not a bit.
Craig: It doesn’t work. Yeah, it’s like taking vitamin C when you get on a plane. Just turns your pee bright yellow. Doesn’t save you from anything.
John: Not a bit. So what is important on that title page, email address, so that people can email you to tell you how much they love your script and that they want to make it with a big star.
John: All right. Godwin, come back to us and tell us about Normal Park by Laura Bailey.
Godwin: We follow a beat up minivan as it drives through Normal Park, a desolate manufacturing town in the mountains. The residents of Normal Park, led by Manfred, watch the first cut of a promotional video to lure the movie industry to town. The dissenters, led by Bonnie Duncan, argue the video should be live action, not animated. Manfred fires back that he couldn’t afford actors and that Bonnie herself can show the mayor the video since she’s the mayor’s wife. We end with a question: where is the mayor? And that’s it.
John: So this is a comedy. I’m taking this as a comedy. And for a script called Normal Park, I had a really hard time placing where Normal Park was. I think Normal Park is the name of the town, and yet I didn’t quite see the town. And I didn’t quite know where to place the town in my mind. I needed someone to say like, oh, this is in Michigan, or this is in Ohio. It’s someplace. But someplace that needs to be very specific. And I just wanted to know on page one what state am I looking at. And I wasn’t getting that here.
We open up with this sort of montage that’s showing us what Normal Park looks like, I guess. It felt like something that would play under credits, which could be great. And then we get to this cartoon movie that’s talking about the real people of Normal Park and this discussion about how to attract the movie industry. I really started getting into it once this whole idea of like how are we going to attract the movie people. That felt like a great premise. I just wasn’t getting hooked on that premise until page three, and I didn’t sort of know what movie I was watching for quite a long time.
Craig, how did you react to it?
Craig: Yeah, I had trouble. I was struggling here. First, I will start by letting Laura off the hook. So, Laura chose to include scene numbers on all of her scenes, which is something we do when we go into production. And you don’t do that unless you’re in production. But, lest you feel ashamed, Laura, I made that mistake.
So, John Glickman, whom John August went to school with at USC, was my producer on the first movie I was ever hired to write with my writing partner Greg Erb. And when we turned our first draft into him, we had put scene numbers on. We just didn’t know. We were very young.
And I will never forget. He said, “By the way, I like that you put scene numbers on. Very confident. Take them off.” [laughs] I just liked the idea that, well, if you put scene numbers on, we have to go into production, right?
John: Totally. Yeah, the scene numbers are set.
Craig: Yeah, we’ve done it, right? So, take the scene numbers off.
The initial drive through with the minivan is described in a wonderful way. “A minivan held together by rust and curse words.” It’s good. I really enjoyed that, because I understood what it was. However, that minivan is going to naturally start to color what I’m seeing around it. So when you say, “It’s held together by rust and curse words, backs down the driveway of a modest ranch and starts through a post-war neighborhood,” in my mind I’m thinking this town is a mess.
Because the minivan is a mess. It may not be that that’s exactly right, but that’s what – I’m just telling you that’s how it kind of works through me. The big problem is once the van passes the mountainous abandoned auto plant, and goes through downtown, the next thing is we’re inside a community center. That is not an acceptable transition, especially on the first page of a screenplay.
You can’t have me following a car as it winds its way through town and then suddenly I’m in some building. Where? I need a transition. The minivan can go past a particular building where somebody is walking in and we can see that person entering. They’re late. And these people are watching this thing on screen. Somehow or another you need to connect that.
John: It’s a very natural audience expectation, that if we’re following a car for a long period of time, we are going to see the person in the car and they are going to be a central character. That’s a natural expectation. You don’t have to obey that expectation. But we’re going to expect that. So, I think the minimum you need to do is what Craig said. Where it’s a drive-by and it hands us off to the next character.
It’s very Tampopo way of doing it.
Craig: Oh, excellent reference. Yes, the handoff – I mean, the most cliché opening transition shot in any movie is, you’ll see this all the time, it’s a party scene or a ball or a gala of some kind. And the director will start maybe like on a nice shot to show the room, and then he booms down, and a waiter, he starts following a waiter. And then the waiter sweeps by a table and now the camera stops at the table, because there are your actors. Right? There’s a way to do the handoff.
The issue with the movie, first of all, the movie is not funny. We only see like one second of it, which I think is a mistake. If the movie is bad, I want to see it. And make it funny. Make it ridiculous. And I will understand the tone of the movie and all the rest. This feels Waiting for Guffman-ish. That’s the problem. This is nowhere near as sharp as Waiting for Guffman is.
In particular, there’s a kind of a clunky exposition going on on page three, where Bonnie instead of continuing her argument with Manfred, which I think feels too back-and-forthy and samey, turns to the room to announce the plot. This is inelegant. And it just wasn’t kind of sizzling on the page.
You know, it’s the curse of the big idea, the big comedy idea like this, is that you kind of got to make me laugh pretty early, or at least smile, you know, something. It just felt flat.
John: So here’s what gave me some hope, is that I felt like just like the description of the minivan, some of her descriptions of characters were actually really charming. So, Manfred always walks like he’s wearing epaulets. Oh, that is useful. I can see what that person is like. And that tells me about his posture. It tells me about sort of how he perceives himself. I loved that.
Nick is described as, “Window-licking stupid.” Great. Another really good description. I need to see them doing that, though. It can’t just be the surface description of them.
I have a suggestion for a trim on page two. An example of how tightening up might make things work a little bit better. So, Bonnie says, “You didn’t see anything wrong?”
Manfred, “No. What’s the problem?”
“It’s a cartoon. The real people of Normal Park are cartoons.”
“We wanted to tell personal stories.”
“Then use people.”
Skip these next two lines. Go to, “They aren’t camera ready.” Continue with Manfred, “As director of the Normal Park Community Theater program you rely on my professional opinion.”
Too often I felt like we were stopping the possibility of jokes to just get other lines in there. Let it keep going through. Less will give you more here in terms of the ability to deliver character punchlines.
Craig: You know, you’re right. And you’re making a great observation that Laura is very good at character description. That’s where the best writing is. Unfortunately, no one will ever see it. Ever. Right? So, I love that epaulets line. I like that Bonnie is wearing enough bling to decorate a Christmas tree. And these things are fun and the town is a “town only a mother could love.” I mean, this is all clever.
It’s all wasted. All wasted cleverness, because we’re never going to see it, and we’re never going to hear it. Now, there is a kernel of a comic confusion going on here that also I thought, well, I’m not sure what she was going for, but when he shows this cartoon and then he says, “What do you think,” and Bonnie says, “You don’t see anything wrong?” And he says, “No, what’s the problem.”
And she says, “It’s a cartoon. The real people of Normal Park are cartoons.” Now, I think she means aren’t cartoons. And I hope so, because that makes–
John: I think she’s meaning air quotes around the real people.
Craig: Oh, meaning in the movie the real people are cartoons. That’s fine. The point being, is Bonnie upset because she thinks that people are going to think that people in Normal Park are actually cartoons and not people? You know, that’s a weird objection to make unless you are profoundly stupid. Which makes me think maybe that should be – Nick’s problem is that we’re not cartoons. Of course we’re not cartoons. Why would anyone think we’re cartoons? Because that’s what you told them that we are.
John: Maybe they could film an animated movie in this town.
Craig: [laughs] Exactly. That’s a really funny joke. See, that’s funny. I don’t know. I’m just saying it needs to be funnier, it needs to be sharper. It feels a little shaggy dog in its execution. The argument feels circular. And it just doesn’t have that thing, you know, that kind of – there’s something about small towns, and Christopher Guest, he understands this so, so well. You see it in so many of his movies. It’s the comedy of people fighting while being polite. Which I find fascinating.
So, anyway, stuff to think about there.
John: Great. I also have a question, last final question on page one. “Guttering light from the streetlamps glints off a baby crib strapped to the roof and overflowing with possessions.” What is guttering light?
Craig: Uh, I don’t know.
John: I don’t know either.
Craig: And I’m pretty good with words.
John: I’m looking it up right now to make sure if there’s actually a–
Craig: Is it glittering light?
John: Oh, it’s absolutely true. Examples being the candles had almost guttered out.
John: But if I don’t know it, then most people reading this won’t know what that is.
Craig: I didn’t know that word either. I’ve never seen that. I’ve never even – I don’t even think I’ve seen that printed. But, let’s say I did know it. It doesn’t really matter, because your choice of vocabulary should generally match your movie. You don’t want to get highfalutin with vocabulary in a movie that’s probably going to be a broad comedy. This feels like a broad comedy.
Craig: So, and when I say broad I mean, you know, meant to be a comedy-comedy. So, yeah, not a great choice there.
John: Cool. Godwin, come back and tell us about our third script of the day, which is The Reconstruction of Huck (Over Mark Twain’s Dead Body!) by Tim Plaehn.
Godwin: All right. We open on the escape at the end of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with Tom Sawyer shot, Huck offers Jim the chance to go on without them. Jim says, “Tom wouldn’t desert him, so he will stay.”
Cut to 17-year-old Allie Chesnutt’s bedroom. A firebrand feminist, Allie is enraged by what she just read. She takes umbrage – yes umbrage – at Huck saying he knew Jim was white inside. She listens to the Shaft theme song and gets even more riled up.
In the kitchen, Allie’s mom gets ready for work while listening to NPR discuss the Freddie Gray case. Mrs. Chesnutt asks her daughter if she finished the essay she was supposed to be working on. But Allie is too incensed with Mark Twain to respond. Mrs. Chesnutt concludes that Allie did not work on the essay. And that’s it.
John: Cool, Craig, what did you think?
Craig: Well, let’s start with the title. It’s fantastic. It’s such a great title. The Reconstruction of Huck Finn (Over Mark Twain’s Dead Body!) Talk about like if you’ve got a pile of scripts to read, you’re probably going to pick that. You’re not going to just go, oh yeah, there it is, same damn thing. What a great, great exciting title.
And there’s a note on the title page which probably would be better served going inside the script. I suspect that maybe Tim did this because he wanted – he had three pages and he didn’t want to lose a bit. But he’s saying essentially that the screenplay is going to be doing double casting where the same actors who are playing scenes from Huckleberry Finn are going to also be playing scenes in Allie’s real life. So, it’s an interesting concept. You can see how this is going to sort of unfold. And it could be fantastic.
Now, I was not as thrilled once I got through these three pages. In part because I thought maybe I was a little bit too long with this initial bit of Huckleberry Finn. Jim’s speech in particular is quite long.
John: And Jim’s speech in particular is very, very hard to parse, because it’s written in dialect. I think this was a great choice for Godwin to put here because it’s so tempting to write character’s dialogue in a dialectic kind of speech. And yet it is so impenetrable when you actually have to encounter it.
So, on page two, there’s a big long chunk. And I’m sure this is taken from the book. I’m sure it’s probably what he said in the book. And it may be written the exact same way, but it’s so hard to parse in the script. You’d be much better served by cleaning that up, using the same word choices, but not trying to make it phonetically exactly the way that Jim is speaking.
Craig: Yeah. You need to use your license here and appreciate, Tim, that if you are – in fact if your intention is these are the words from the novel, you are allowed to rewrite the spelling of the words so that the reader here, you know, I don’t think it’s a desecration. You’re not changing the text. You’re simply changing the way people are reading the words phonetically. Help them out. I think that’s a great idea.
When we get to Allie’s bedroom, I was a little concerned by how on the nose everything felt. I just felt like I was being punched in the face. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe the point is that Allie is – that we’ve gone from the stereotypical view that was enshrined in Huckleberry Finn of Jim the slave to this stereotypical 17-year-old moral crusader who isn’t just a feminist but needs posters of Gertrude Stein and Hermione, and Angela Davis on her walls.
That kind of production design is really beating me in the face. And it’s also – it makes her boring to me, because to me an exciting young woman with strong political attitudes, who is progressive, and who is really feminist would have far more interesting people on her wall than that. That’s like the feminist version of, you know, [unintelligible] The Kiss, which is on every boring bedroom in a dormitory.
It just feels so cliché.
John: What’s challenging is that we’re always telling people who submit the Three Page Challenge that we need to know who the characters are. We need to get a sense of who they are. But in this case, sometimes you’re telling us way too much too quickly. Or you’re basically painting this stereotype so quickly that you’re going to have a hard time surprising us with new information later on.
Like, we’re so locked into one point of view on who she is by the bottom of page two, that I feel like, oh, I know exactly who this is. And Chloe Grace Moretz is already in hair and makeup. It’s a very sort of set specified thing that we’ve just seen before. At least how we’re getting to the story on page two.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a bit of a challenge that you have in your transition from fantasy world to the real world, or imagined literary world to the real world. You have Huck say, “I knowed he was white inside…”
That’s in voiceover. Because I guess Huck thinks it in the novel. And then we have off-screen, “Ahhh!!!” That’s going to be very challenging. Because he’s thinking something in fantasy world and then real world is going to come in, but they both come from the same place, essentially.
Craig: Which is off-screen. That’s just not going to work cinematically at all. It’s going to be extraordinarily confusing. We’re not going to know what the hell is going on. It would be better, frankly, to unfortunately bend a little bit – bend a little bit there – and have Huck say out loud, “I knowed you was white inside…” And then hear, “Ahhhh.”
And then you cut to – now, here is the other problem. You want her screaming over there, because you think that’s interesting, and it may very well be so. Then it locks you into her having already read it. So, when we cut to her she’s throwing the book across the room. And then, “Ahhh,” it’s painful for her to announce, “I knowed he was white inside. What kind of blah-blah-blah is that?!” She’s just repeating what we heard and telling us so that we understand that, you know what I mean, it’s clunky.
John: Yeah. I mean, if she’s going to be reacting to that specific line, she either throws the book, or she repeats the line, but she doesn’t do both. And I felt like there was too much here. Plus, she’s going to throw the book and then we’re going to spend an eighth of a page sort of describing her before getting to her dialogue right now. It’s not the best use of our time and our space.
Craig: Yeah. And the end of the scene is simply not continues in any recognizable human fashion. A girl is reading a book. It enrages her. She throws it across the room. Pronounces out loud why she’s thrown it across the room. Then, the theme song from Shaft begins playing. I’m not sure if that’s inside the scene or if that’s score. Regardless, Allie chooses now to pack up her books, pull back her hair, and then start singing along with it, so I guess it is in there, but where did it come from?
Did she start playing? And what a weird thing to ask the audience to do. To watch a girl pack up her backs in her bag. You couldn’t ask for something more likely to be cut.
John: Agreed. So, I don’t think we’ve really dug into diegetic and non-diegetic sound in previous episodes, but diegetic means we can see the source of the sound within the room. And so if she presses play on her Walkman, or on – depending on what era this is – or she’s putting in her ear phones, then we believe that’s diegetic sound. That is sound that the characters are actually experiencing in their world.
If it’s stuff that’s just playing on the soundtrack, that’s non-diegetic. And so the same thing can be said for Huck’s voiceover and her voiceover, that sort of scream that gets us out of the Huck Finn stuff. You got to have an answer for where that stuff is coming from. Because right now it seems like she’s reacting to something that we’re not sure she should be able to hear.
Craig: Mm-hmm. Exactly. So you just got to figure, you know, it seems to me like it is diegetic and he’s just missed the moment where she turns something on. Otherwise, I don’t know how she could possibly be singing along to non-diegetic.
Then, we finish off with a kitchen scene that feels so cliché that it is almost too cliché for commercials. A busy business mom, checking her iPhone, while the little brother eats cereal from the box. There’s that little brother and his cereal box. That kid gets around. He’s in everything. It’s rough to see those–
John: He’s a Clip Art kid.
Craig: He’s a Clip Art kid. He really is. And this is where maybe if I’d just been hit in the face one time with the “Look at me, I’m a feminist” posters from the “Look at me, I’m a feminist” factory. Then we’ve got this NPR thing playing about the Freddie Gray situation. So, now I’m getting hit with like, oh okay, I understand – believe me, you’re making a movie called The Reconstruction of Huck Finn (Over Mark Twain’s Dead Body!), I know you’re going to be tangling with issues of race and gender and politics and all of it.
It just starts to feel like, oh god, this is going to be an afterschool special.
John: Yeah. So, I want to highlight one moment on page three which I thought worked really well, so people can look at this. So, Mrs. Chesnutt asks, “Did you finish your Rotary Club essay.” In action: Allie considers lying. Continues on. “He just made white the only way to be good. White!” A very smart way to let another character think about what they’re going to say and choose not to say it and then just plow ahead. It calls it out without sort of stopping everything to do it.
And you can do that in a parenthetical, but I really liked how Tim did it in this moment.
Craig: Yeah. I did, too. And I thought that he could probably cut the next reiteration of it and just have her mom say, “That means you didn’t.” Because her mom is smart enough to know that, yes, you may have a fantastic point about the inherent racism of Huckleberry Finn, but you didn’t do your homework. And so that works. I just feel like this is such an audacious and smart idea and frankly something I think would find an audience. It can’t be done like this. It has to be done with far more subtlety I think.
John: So, I would say about this title and this idea is it’s the kind of thing that done really well gets on the Black List, because it’s a thing that people – it sticks in people’s heads. It has great execution on the page. It may never get made, but that’s OK, too. It’s a thing that sort of announces you as a talent. It’s a thing that gets you meetings. It’s a thing that gets you rewrites assignments. It gets you staffed on a TV show. I think it’s a really nice idea that’s very execution-dependent. And so I think what we’re pushing Tim to do is just make sure your execution can match what we think is a really nice idea.
Craig: Yeah. And I’ll tell you what, Tim. You really need to listen to us here, because the thing is – here’s what’s real. We rarely talk about this in Three Page Challenges, because usually we’re just dealing with three pages. But let’s talk about how this business actually works.
John’s right. This is the kind of title that is grabby. And it’s a kind of subject that is grabby. And I could absolutely see this ending up on a Black List. I could see this getting attention, assuming that it plays out in a surprising and enlightening way.
But, it is exactly because it is execution-dependent, it is exactly the kind of script that comes along I’m telling you once a week. There is a script that comes along where people go we just got a script. It’s an amazing idea. It’s an amazing title. We can cast it. We got to find somebody to rewrite this right away. Somebody who knows how to write a movie.
You don’t want to be that guy. You don’t want somebody else coming in and redoing this. You want to be that guy.
John: Agreed. Well, that’s our Three Page Challenge for this week. If you have three pages you want us to take a look at, actually if you want Godwin to take a look at it, because he’s the person who looks at all of them, there’s a form you fill out. So go to johnaugust.com/threepage, all spelled out. There are instructions there. You click some things. You attach a PDF. And it goes into Godwin’s inbox, so he will look through them.
Godwin, thank you again for picking these three and for all the other ones you didn’t pick, but you had your read. So thank you very much for joining us.
Godwin: Thank you so much. This was fun.
Craig: Good job, Godwin.
John: All right, now it’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a creature. It’s a creature that was newly discovered, but what was discovered this past week was how old they lived to be. So, this is the Greenland Shark. So, a lot of things that live in the sea live for a very long time. Jellyfish are essentially immortal. They keep reforming themselves. Koi can live a long time. Shellfish. But now they’ve discovered that this Greenland Shark is the longest living vertebrae.
It can live at least 400 years, which is basically two centuries longer than the previous record holder. So, how do you find out how long something can live given that you weren’t there around when it was born? So, it turns out that in the mid-1950s, back when they were testing a bunch of thermonuclear devices, they left residue. And so that residue gets into the ocean and that’s how they can actually track how old something is based on how much of that residue is stuck in the creature and where it’s stuck and sort of they can use that as a marker for like how old something is.
And so the new estimate is these things can live to be 400 years old.
Craig: 400-year-old shark.
Craig: So, inevitably people are now going to catch the shark, kill it, and then try and figure out why it lived so damn long.
John: Exactly. So, some of the secrets of living a very long time seem to be you grow super slowly. So, the slower you grow, the slower you grow old, I guess. But, yes, they will try to figure out why it lived so long and people will sell pills that are supposed to have shark cartilage in them or something like that.
What I found most interesting about this, though, is thinking back 400 years and sort of like how much has happened in the last 400 years, specifically what life was like when one of these sharks was born. So, 400 years ago, who else was alive? Well, Shakespeare. Rene Descartes. Galileo Galilei, John Locke, Isaac Newton, Elizabeth I, Peter the Great. Ice cream was just invented. Paper money was just being figured out in the form of bank notes. They had just invented calculus. And also they just printed the first King James Bible.
So, one of these creatures was alive when all that stuff was brand new.
Craig: God. That’s amazing. I can’t believe that ice cream was invented.
John: Yeah. You had to invent it.
Craig: Somebody had to sit there and do it.
John: Yeah. All you need is ice and cream and a churn, but you have to figure it out.
Craig: Salt. I think you need salt.
John: You need salt. You have to have it colder than just ice. You have to have like super cold ice.
Craig: That was probably whoever Mr. Ice Cream was, that’s why he got to name it that.
John: Yeah, he’s really lucky to have such a good name. What if his name had been like Basselfaffer.
Craig: [laughs] Like the Earl of Sandwich. Or Lord and Lady Douchebag. OK. That’s classic Saturday Night Live.
John: I like it.
Craig: my One Cool Thing also scientific. This is kind of remarkable. Scientists in Australia, Sweden, and the United States – so they’ve been working across the world together – have identified a molecule that may hold the key to identifying the cause of suicide. Suicidality. Now, here’s a shocking thing. It turns out that when you test people who are admitted to hospital for suicidality/suicide attempts/suicidal ideation, and you compare their cerebral spinal fluid with those of other people admitted to the hospital for not suicide-related things, there’s this thing that is much higher in people who are suicidal.
And it is a marker essentially that it’s a Quinolinic acid. And it is a marker of chronic inflammation in the spinal fluid. Essentially there is some kind of inflammatory response in the central nervous system itself. And they have also found that suicidal patients have reduced activity of a certain enzyme that lowers production of this other asset that protects against. You know, because all of these things are layered systems.
But the point is the way we’ve always treated people who are suicidal is to treat their presumed depression. And what these people are saying is depression works more on a serotonergic pathway. This is something else. And we need to treat the something else. And what’s fascinating to me, just fascinating, is that as we go forward as a human species, we become more and more aware of how things we presumed were entirely within our control, or aspects of our “personality” are in fact not at all.
John: Yeah. Obviously correlation is not causation. So, as they do more studies they’ll need to figure out is this inflammation marker – is it the cause of the suicide ideation, or is it just another byproduct of something else that’s going on in the body?
John: But as they do more research on schizophrenia they’re finding really interesting reasons behind how some of that stuff happens. Things that are genetic but also not genetic, that are things that happen just through environment.
So, yeah, it’s an exciting time to be studying brain stuff.
Craig: It really is. And also I think it’s an exciting time to reconsider how we view each other, particularly when we’re talking about people who either have committed suicide or have attempted it. That it is not as simple as, oh, you gave up. Oh, you are a quitter. Or, oh, you didn’t get the help you needed.
There is a strong possibility that this is very physical in nature, and that is just shocking and amazing to me. And a lot of cause for hope.
John: I would agree. That is our program for this week. So, if you have a question for me or for Craig Mazin, you can reach us on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. If you have a longer question, you can write in to firstname.lastname@example.org. And Godwin looks through those and forwards them appropriately.
If you would like to leave us a review on iTunes, that would be so much appreciated. Just search for us, Scriptnotes on iTunes. That’s also where you can find the Scriptnotes app that gives you access to all the back catalog. We also have a few of the 250-episode USB drives that give you all the back episodes and all the bonus episodes as well, so you can find those at the store at johnaugust.com.
There will be links in the show notes to most of the things we talked about, including the Three Page Challenges. So, if you are on one of the popular players, you can probably just scroll down a little bit and see all of those links there. They were missing for a week, but we figured out what was wrong, so Godwin has them restored. So you click and get all that stuff right there.
Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe and edited by Matthew Chilelli, who also did our outro this week. And next week will be our last episode from Los Angeles.
Craig: Oh boy.
John: Oh boy. So the plan is that we will still keep doing the show over Skype the way we usually do it, just with a huge time gap between us. There may be some more episodes that are Craig with a person here in Los Angeles. There may be some episodes where it’s me and someone in France or the UK. But, we will try to keep doing Scriptnotes every week. We’ll let you know if we fall off of that schedule, but I think we can do it. I’m optimistic.
Craig: Yeah. I know we can do it. I know we can do it because I’m sure that you will do it. How about that.
John: [laughs] All right. We’ll find a way. Thanks.
- Gen Con
- True Dungeon
- The Katering Show
- Download The 100 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Screenwriting
- Three Pages by Salvador Medina
- Three Pages by Laura Bailey
- Three Pages by Tim Plaehn
- Send us your Three Pages
- The Greenland Shark
- The Suicide Molecule
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
You can download the episode here.
John and Craig introduce “The 100 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Screenwriting,” a curation of questions from screenwriting.io.
We also take on the Three Page Challenge, with stories from Sinaloa, Mexico to the mind of Mark Twain.
- Gen Con
- True Dungeon
- The Katering Show
- Download The 100 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Screenwriting
- Three Pages by Salvador Medina
- Three Pages by Laura Bailey
- Three Pages by Tim Plaehn
- Send us your Three Pages
- The Greenland Shark
- The Suicide Molecule
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
You can download the episode here.
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: This is Episode 262 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we will discuss the art of tidy screenwriting and that weird French copyright case involving Luc Beson. We will also be answering listener questions about what constitutes a draft and making characters gay.
John: Gay. Craig, thank you so much for hosting last week. You and Mike Birbiglia did a fantastic job. I did not listen to the episode in advance of it being published. I listened to it like any other listener and I was delighted you did such a good job.
Craig: Well, first of all, I appreciate the faith. Because if I had to bet money I would have said, oh my god, John is certainly going to listen to it before he puts – because you know me, I’m crazy. But, I have to say, I was a little nervous, because I had to all of the grown up stuff that you do. But I cheated. You know, I went to the transcripts so I didn’t miss anything at the end. And we had a great discussion. We had a great time. It was very easy. And Mike is obviously very good at talking. It’s kind of his job.
John: It is his job.
Craig: It was a good discussion and made all the easier by the fact that his movie lends itself to our topic.
John: Absolutely. It is group of aspiring writer/performers – really performers more than writers – but trying to navigate the difficult industry that they are in. A lot of things that they are dealing with our listeners are probably dealing with as well.
Craig: No question.
John: And you hate it when your friends become successful.
Craig: [laughs] Of all my flaws, that’s the one I don’t have. I love it when my friends become – it just reflects well on me, I think.
John: Absolutely. You picked good friends.
Craig: Yeah. I picked good friends. Or, by being friends with me, something happened, and they became successful.
John: As a friend, you recommended that I go to an Escape Room for my birthday, which I did. I would like to thank you for the recommendation you made, which was called The Theater. It is one of the Escape Room LAs in Downtown Los Angeles. It was terrific. So we had a great time. We escaped with seconds to spare. And it was great.
So it was a bunch of people from the office, along with Mike and my daughter, and it was a great, fun time. So thank you for recommending that.
Craig: My pleasure. Actually, if it makes you feel better, my little group also escaped with seconds to spare. Which makes – we won’t give any spoilers here – but the last thing you have to do is a bit silly and a bit fun, but you’re also panicked that you’re not going to be able to get it done in time. So, it was great. We loved it. And I’m glad that you had a good time.
John: Being completely new to the whole environment of escape rooms, this was apparently a larger escape room and we were only a group of seven, or 6.5, my daughter was with us. And it felt like the kind of room where more hands on deck could have been useful.
Craig: I generally tend toward the smaller group kind of vibe. We also did that one with six people and that one wasn’t too bad. The problem with extra people is sometimes they just get in the way, or you give them tasks that they’re bad at and it would have been better if you had done it on your own.
But I will say that if you do attempt The Alchemist, which is one of the rooms there, eight people would be super helpful for that one.
John: Sounds very good. I want to circle back to Mike Birbiglia for one second, because on Twitter this last week he brought up to the MPAA, “Hey, isn’t it really strange that my movie is Rated-R for one scene of drug us and Suicide Squad is Rated PG-13 for quote on the actual ad review there, ‘Sequences of violence and action throughout; disturbing behavior; suggestive content; and language.’”
Craig: Well, let’s put this in the bucket of a thousand other examples of the MPAA’s Byzantine ratings process. And if Byzantine weren’t bad enough, then there’s just the question of the substance of their decisions. So, the way these things work is that there is somebody who works at every studio whose job is to interface with the MPAA. And then they engage in negotiations essentially. Well, if you take this out, maybe we’ll give you the PG-13. And so on and so forth.
The existence of PG-13 is because Steven Spielberg got angry. There’s nobody working for you when you make an independent film, a true independent film like Mike’s, Don’t Think Twice. So, you get what you get. And his point was, hey, so adults smoke pot in my movie, I get an R. Adults shoot and kill people in Suicide Squad and they get a PG-13. That doesn’t sound right.
John: It does not sound right. And so an argument could be like, well, smoking pot is illegal, except that increasingly it is not illegal. And so I do wonder whether pot smoking as a thing will be less of a threshold for whether a movie gets its R-rating down the road. Because, you know, them having a drink would have not have pushed it into R. So, I’ll be curious whether that changes over the next ten years as I think marijuana legalization becomes more and more common throughout the US.
Craig: Yeah. It’s more of a question of social norms than legal status, because of course in all states murder is illegal.
John: That’s a good point.
Craig: And people are constantly being killed in PG-13 films. But the way the ratings work is there’s a group of people that watch the movie and those people are recruited essentially as representative parents. So, it comes down to what are these representative – allegedly representative parents – think they would be OK with their kids seeing without say them accompanying them by rule, which is the case for a Rated-R movie. And it seems like these people are OK with their kids seeing murders, they’re just not OK with their kids seeing people getting high.
And it’s confusing. It’s also not necessarily consistent over time. For instance, the movie Poltergeist, which came out many, many years ago, has a scene where the parents are getting high. And that movie not only got a PG-13, it got a PG-13 even though it had people getting high and also horror themes and death.
So, over time they don’t necessarily seem to comport, which I guess makes sense, because the parents change over time. But it’s a reflection of just general social mores. I believe that regardless of legal status, that the restriction about things like smoking weed are going to probably get softened.
John: I think you’re probably right. I guess my last question would be is the R rating hurting Mike’s movie? Probably. The people that are going to go see that movie are probably grown-ups. But I would want to hope that like a 16-year-old kid who wanted to go see his movie could see his movie. And in some parts of the country, that kid can’t because of this MPAA rating, which is frustrating.
Craig: I would guess if it has any effect at all, it’s probably a beneficial effect. Because when adults go to a comedy, and the movie is a comedy among other things, they like the idea that it’s going to be Rated-R. It’s clearly a movie for grown-ups. I can’t imagine there’s a lot of teen appeal there.
But the bigger issue is just sort of a moral issue.
John: I agree with you. Last bit of follow up here, so after our season finale a few weeks ago we had a special Duly Noted episode, in which Aline Brosh McKenna, Rawson Thurber, and Matt Selman discussed what transpired. And they proposed this special Three Page Challenge which would be a John and Craig fan-fiction Three Page Challenge.
Craig: Oh boy.
John: And so a couple people have actually written in with those. And so I guess we’re going to put them in a folder and eventually we might address those. I don’t know if we would address them, if someone else would come back to address those.
But if you have one of those John and Craig fan-fiction Three Page Challenges, you can write into the normal email address, email@example.com, and Godwin will dutifully take that and stick it in a folder. It may never be seen again, but if you wanted to write it, you wrote it.
But I would ask that if you’re writing a normal Three Page Challenge, just go through the normal routes, so that’s johnaugust.com/threepage, and there’s a whole contact form for how you send in that stuff.
Craig: Is this going to be fan-fiction or slash fiction?
John: I think it’s a little of both. And so I’ve only skimmed what’s come through so far. There’s a little of column A, a little of column B.
Craig: I just feel like I’m going to be the bottom. I just feel like it’s inevitable.
Craig: It’s cliché. You know what, guys, if you’re going to write John and Craig slash fiction, don’t go the trite route of making me the bottom. But it’s going to happen. [laughs] I’d write it that way, too.
John: One of my favorite episodes of South Park from the last year was Tweek and Craig are Gay, it’s the one where they are portrayed by these Asian school girls as being gay. And they’re in complete freak-out over it. And I could see us having a Tweek and Craig moment.
Craig: Did you know about that whole Yaoi sub culture thing?
John: I did know about that culture. I didn’t know the name of it, but I knew it was a thing that happened. And just because, you know, I’ve watched enough TV shows that had sort of that – like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and some of the other shows had that kind of interest in them. And so I knew that there was like a slash thing. And I saw the visual equivalent of that slash fiction, which is Yaoi.
Craig: Yeah. I knew that there was – slash fiction goes all the way back to Star Trek, like the original Star Trek stuff. But I had no idea that there was this other thing going on where specifically this anime depiction of otherwise straight guys or theoretically straight guys in homosexual relationships. It’s so specific.
I love things that are so incredibly specific you think like, okay, that probably interests one or two people. And then it turns out, no, it actually interests millions of people.
John: Well, it’s the thing about percentages. Like a tiny percentage is actually a lot of people when you look at it worldwide. And so if it interests like one-tenth of one percent, that’s a huge number.
Craig: It is. Absolutely true. And still just marvel at it. Because it’s cute. That’s the thing – anything in anime is adorable. Anything.
John: Anything. Everything. [Unintelligible] is adorable.
Craig: Adorable. So cute, with his little fish head. Little octopus mouth.
John: So, let’s transition to our main topic today which also involves Asian subcultures. So, Marie Kondo wrote a book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. And I read it this last week and I thought it was going to be my One Cool Thing, but as I thought about why I was going to mention it on the podcast I realized like, well, it’s actually its whole own topic. So, I pushed this up to a centerpiece topic for today’s conversation.
So, you probably know this book or know people talking people about this book or have been annoyed by this book. It’s a small white book, written by this Japanese woman, who goes in and unclutters people’s apartments and houses and gets them to throw away bags of garbage. And about two years I think it was sort of a bigger deal, and I had sort of skipped it the first time through. But I was over at Dana Fox’s house and I saw it sitting on the table.
And so I flipped through it, prepared to be amused and annoyed by it. And I saw like, oh, you know what, actually it’s sort of charming in its own weird way. She has this very strange voice. And like a lot of gurus, you can tell she’s kind of crazy, but there’s something just delightful in her crazy.
So, I started reading it basically thinking like, oh, is this an interesting character, and then I actually recognized that there were some useful things in there, not only for like getting crap out of your house, but also getting stuff out of your screenplays. And so I thought we’d make this a centerpiece for today’s conversation.
Craig: What a great idea. I have the book and I have read it. And I haven’t done any of the things, but I recognize that there is wisdom there. I also – you can smell the crazy coming off of it, no question. But, sometimes we need crazy people to light the way, even if they are on the extreme edge of things.
We could all probably use a nice decluttering.
John: I think so. Let me try to bullet point her three main ideas in the book, or at least the three main ideas I took from the book. The first is the exercise of going through all of your possessions and keeping only the ones that spark joy. Now, “spark joy” is one of those phrases that sort of immediately raises my hackles, like, ugh, it’s so charming and specific but marketing-ish. And just kind of meaningless.
But what she means by “spark joy” is that it’s the things that you actually want to have in your life. And that in holding them you feel like, oh yeah, this is a good thing. I’m happy I have this thing. And the things that don’t spark joy like that, you’re supposed to get rid of. And to summarize it, if you don’t love it, don’t keep it.
Craig: Well, it’s not hard to draw a parallel from that to what we do. It’s hard to experience that joyful feeling, that sense of true love for everything in a screenplay. That’s too much to ask. Because a lot of things in screenplays aren’t joyful as much as they are well-crafted or utilitarian. Or necessary.
John: So, I’ll quickly summarize the rest of the book points, but let’s dig in on each of these things for how they apply to screenwriting. The second big point I took from the book is when you’re getting rid of something, you can thank it for its existence, which sounds very sort of weird and animistic, and she really kind of genuinely does believe that everything has a soul. At least, if you read the book that way, she thanks her purse for carrying her stuff over the course of the day.
Craig: Oh god. That’s where I roll–
John: Yes, that can be kind of maddening. But I really liked this idea of thanking things for existing when you’re getting rid of them. And so as we were sort of going through our own closet, like I could take this shirt that I kind of remember loving, but I never wore anymore, and I didn’t really love now. And I could sort of say goodbye to it and not feel bad about it. And that’s a thing often in writing I find is that it gets so hard for me to get rid of certain things because I just remember how hard it was to write them, or I remember so fondly what it was like to write that and it’s hard to get rid of them. It’s a useful way to get rid of things when you can say, “I understand why you were put in this script at that moment. That time has passed. I say goodbye to you.”
Craig: Yeah. Dennis Palumbo talks specifically about this. He says sometimes the things we cling to the most we’re clinging to because of what they meant to us when we wrote them. They signified a breakthrough or a new way of thinking about things, or they were really hard to get to.
Craig: It’s not relevant to anybody else at all.
Craig: It’s just relevant to you. And you have to recognize that sometimes its value is not the value that it would have for the story or the audience, and therefore you can cut it and not lose the value.
John: Completely. She would say that – she talks a lot about sort of when you get presents, and she says the value of a gift is the moment you receive it. It’s that joy that happens the moment you receive it. That if it is not a thing that’s useful in your life, you should get rid of it. And that’s the same experience with writing. It’s like there can be things that were so valuable at the time, that were so delightful when you found them, but it does not necessarily mean that they need to stay in your life forever.
Craig: How hard is it to be this lady’s friend, though?
John: Oh, so tough.
Craig: You get her a gift, right, and then like three days later you show up and there’s your gift in the dumpster. And you’re like, oh, and she’s like, “No, no, no. The joy was in the moment I got it. But then like five minutes later I’m like this is a piece of crap. But you get it, right?”
“No, I don’t get it!”
John: She throws it away in front of you. [laughs]
Craig: Right. Like I had my moment. It was great. And I’m done.
John: I like what she says about a sweater. And so I think about this in terms of a cardigan. You taught me that cardigans don’t work for me. And I could completely envision that where like I’ve gotten something – I really want to be the kind of person who wears a cardigan, but I just cannot wear a cardigan. And so sometimes it’s been that way with a script where it’s like I really kind of want to be the person who writes this kind of script, but that’s just not me. And that is a thing that that script taught you. It doesn’t mean you have to keep working on that script.
Craig: So true. I bought a vest once. I really want to be a guy that wears a vest. I am not–
John: You’re not a vest-wearer.
Craig: My torso is specifically designed to not be vested. So, I get that. And certainly it’s the case with what we do as well. I mean, there are times when you really want to be, you know, I think comedy writers love to be fancy, and I think fancy writers love to try and be funny. That’s the one that always blows my mind. When fancy writers want to be funny, and they’re so not funny.
John: Yeah, that’s the worst.
Craig: So not funny. The other thing is comedy writers approach fancy writing like, OK, I’m going to try to climb this mountain and be a big boy. And fancy writers approach comedy like, “Oh, let me just turn my brain off and be silly for a while.” No! [laughs]
John: Doesn’t work that way.
Craig: No sir. David Zucker calls that, “Kids, don’t try this at home.”
John: The last thing I took from her book was that things have a place. And if you have something that doesn’t have a place in your house, it’s just clutter. And so she takes it, of course, to a bizarre extreme, where when she comes home she takes everything out of her bag, she puts everything back in the place it belongs, and then puts her bag in its special little box, and then she can relax and sit down. That is crazy-making.
And yet there’s a point of logic there that I think is so easy to miss is that anything that you invite into your story, into your world, if you don’t have a place to put that thing, it’s just going to sit out there and it’s going to be pulling your attention at all times. And so often in writing, the things that aren’t working in scripts are things that probably just haven’t found their home. There’s no place for them to land and so they’re just grafted onto some other thing, and it’s not a natural home for it.
Craig: Yeah, you know, it seems to me that in thinking about how we write our stories, placement is purpose, and purpose is placement. They are connected. People talk about structure, particularly the self-described gurus talk about structure as this thing that lays down first. You know, like a scaffolding, and then you sort of build something around it. And that’s ridiculous. All things are interrelated. The structure is part of the things that are over the structure, and vice versa. And when you have something that you love, but it doesn’t have a place, I guarantee you it also means it doesn’t have a purpose. A true purpose in the story.
John: I would say that Marie Kondo would argue that these structuralists are basically the people who are trying to sell you closet organizers.
John: They’re trying to make you put everything into a specific little drawer, a specific little slot, whether it wants to be in that place or does not want to be in that place. And that is my great frustration with both closet organizers and these people who sell you on structure books, because that’s not the way people naturally live their lives, and it’s not the ways stories naturally want to function.
Craig: Absolutely. And, in fact, to extend the analogy, what you end up with if you follow one of these books, if you’re trying to Save the Cat or being a good Robert McKee disciple is you end up with one of these cliché closets that have the little things with the stuff, and that stupid hanger for the ties that everybody has. And it’s not you, right? It doesn’t necessarily fit to you.
But even if it did fit to you, it’s not unique at all. It’s an imposition of some kind of economic model. But when we’re talking about what gives us joy, and we’re talking about creating the living space around us, and we’re talking about the structure of our story, it’s supposed to be unique. If it’s not, who needs it?
John: Who needs it? So, let’s dig in and talk about this specifically for writing. And so let’s go back to our first point from the book which is keeping only the stuff that sparks joy, keeping only the stuff that you love. And so let’s talk about how do you keep only the scenes, only the moments, only the characters that you love. Let’s try to figure out some practical guidance for doing that.
I would start by saying look through everything, look through it sort of by category. So look through it by scenes and look through it by categories. Maybe look through it by locations. And ask yourself is this something I truly love, or is this just functional? Is this just getting the job done? Is it satisfying the moment that I can get to the things I actually love?
And challenge yourself to say like, wait, do I really want this here? Would I be happy with this scene representing my movie? If that is not the case where you would be delighted to have this scene in your movie, then that scene should not be in your movie. And you should probably stop and find a different way to get through that moment to do the function of that thing, but in a way that you actually love that scene.
Craig: This is something that I think separates professional writers from new writers. And it’s not necessarily that professional writers have more talent, because there are people out there who are currently not professional but one day they will be and they will be spectacular. The greatest writer who ever lived has not yet been born, right?
So, the trick though that I think professionals learn over time is that there are moments where you need to do a job. Someone has to get somewhere. Someone has to learn information. Somebody has to see a thing. It’s a piece of story requirement. And they know after all this time, and particularly after seeing what it’s like when they don’t do it right, they know that it is a requirement to go and look at those things and make them delightful in one way or another.
Delightful could mean also horrifying, but engaging. And interesting to the audience.
John: Absolutely. And so if you’re going back through your script, or you’re going through someone else’s script, and you’re asking the question why is that there, and the answer is, “Well, because it’s there, or because it’s necessary, or it gets me to this other thing,” that’s probably a red flag that there is something wrong. And not just with scenes with sequences, but also with characters.
Look at your character list and you need to go through and like do I love this character. Does this character make me excited when this character shows up? Do I understand it? Do I love him, or hate him, despise him? Does he bring special joy to this movie? And if the answer is no, then maybe you have the wrong character, or maybe you have too many characters. Maybe that character doesn’t need to be in your movie whatsoever. And it may be worth stopping to think like what happens if that character leaves the movie completely. The things I have this character doing functionally, might they be better served by one of the other characters who would be left?
Craig: Yeah. It seems to me that if the challenge is to only keep the things you love, your choices as a screenwriter are get rid of it, or make it something you love. But what you can’t do is keep it if it’s just sort of meh. Nor, can you keep it if, I think if you love it but it’s not doing anything, then the question is do you really love it.
John: Yeah. Now, practically speaking, if you’re going from your first draft to your second draft and you’re asking all these hard questions, one of the best ways to get to that second draft might be to say let’s go through the first draft and really identify the things that I love. Copy and paste those things into a new document. Don’t start rewriting your current document, because you’ll just be sort of trying to clean up the stuff that isn’t working.
Copy through the things that are actually fantastic. The things you love. The things you think best identify the movie you want to make. And you’re going to end up with a shorter document that just has the stuff you love. And then go back through and figure out like what would I need to do so that these moments can tell the whole story. That I can build out from these moments to create the rest of this movie?
Craig: One thing you have to be cognizant of as you do that process is that there is a relationship that happens between what you’re creating and what people are experiencing. If there’s somebody, anyone, that you trust – or that you think could be helpful to you in their reaction, give them a look. Because you may find that actually something is fantastic that you didn’t realize was fantastic. It’s funny how that happens.
And, of course, similarly, you may find that something that you loved is sort of, meh, not really working that well for somebody else. So, before you begin your winnowing process, maybe put one pair of eyes on it, or one pair of ears.
John: I would agree. The other thing I would caution about, if you’re going through this process, it can be so tempting to focus so tightly on these moments that you love that you forget like, oh, I am making a whole movie. And so the things you love shouldn’t just be the bright pinpoints of light, but also the connections between those bright pinpoints of light. And how you’re moving from this place to this place, and what’s actually happening in those bigger moments.
There was a criticism about two weeks ago, I guess we weren’t on the air for it, but Nerd Writer did a very good sort of breakdown of Batman v. Superman. And one of this primary criticisms of it, and I thought it was a good observation, was that the Zack Snyder movie, it had all these moments but had very few scenes. And in some ways I thought it was the Marie Kondo thing taken too far in the sense of like it was just these bright things that he loved, but there was no sort of scene or framework for these moments to have happened. So, you went through the whole movie feeling like it was kind of just on fast-forward. And like you were watching a trailer for a movie that didn’t quite exist.
So, you have to mindful that in writing you’re not just creating those bright flashes of intense things that you love, but also whole moments in which these bright flashes can happen.
Craig: There is value and love for silences in music. And there’s some wonderful pauses that are my favorite things in songs. Love them. And they are essential. They aren’t flashy, but they need to be there to make the flashy flashy. And it is absolutely true that there is – and I don’t – I tend to not blame the filmmakers. I may be a little chauvinistic about this, but knowing what I do about the process of getting these movies made, there is an endless pressure, an external pressure – take that for what you will – to continue to reduce the sauce because, oh, if you boil more water out the flavor is more intense. Correct, until it is just gross, and it’s too much. And you’ve lost any sense of balance.
And I think that’s happening more and more in big movies because there’s this feeling that if you are not constantly dropping jaws, then people aren’t going to enjoy it.
I remember our friend Malcom Spellman, he loved Transformers. He really liked it. But he said, “You know, if that movie had been better, it could have made so much more money.” And there’s room. You can see, there’s a lot of room for that movie to just be way better than it is. And they went for all of the fun, you know, and then they missed a lot of the things – the quiet things – that would make it better.
John: So, there’s a director who I’ve worked with who I do love as a person, but our relationship has always been sort of like we’re baking a cake together. And I would say, OK, so here’s the recipe, so we need some flour, we need to sugar this, and he kept trying to throw in more sugar. And I’d say, no, no, no, it’s all going to fall apart. It’s a cake. It’s not like hard candy. We need the flour. He’s like, “Yeah, but the flour is not interesting.” No, we need the flour.
And at any moment that I would turn away, he would just dump more sugar in. And that can be the frustration. They keep trying to add more and not actually recognize the fundamental structural integrity of the thing you’re trying to make. You sort of forget what it is you set out to do because you keep intensifying the things that you think you love about it.
Craig: One of my least favorite notes, curiously, is the following positive note: “We love what you did with blah, blah, blah. Let’s do more of it.” No. No. You love Sriracha on that, don’t you? Well, let’s dump a bottle on. No!
No, you love it in part because it’s properly balanced and we kind of have a working philosophy of how this – it’s not random.
John: You love it because there’s a contrast to what was there before. Exactly. If it was that way through the whole movie, it wouldn’t feel different.
Craig: It’s weird how that makes me angrier than, “We don’t like this thing.” And I’m like, ah, you should like it. But, OK, you don’t like it, fine. But, “We love it. Do it again.” Noooo! Ugh. It makes me crazy.
John: Yeah. So next bit of advice from Marie Kondo is about cutting things, or she would say like how do you get rid of things, but in our line of work it’s just cutting stuff out, and getting rid of scenes, getting rid of characters, getting rid of things.
And I’m often sort of reluctant to do it because of really that philosophy of loss aversion. It’s like it’s so much more painful to get rid of something than the thought of like gaining something back. It’s also a sunk-cost fallacy. I spent so much time getting that thing to work as well as it’s working. For me to cut it now feels like a failure. It makes me feel that I’ve wasted my time. That I did not do my job well. That I don’t even know what I’m doing.
I’m sure we’ve all felt this.
Craig: Yeah. Well, if you want to be a screenwriter, you better make your piece with wasted time now, because as I’ve said before, not really sure how many drafts it’s going to take you to get to the final one, but a lot. And all of those drafts, with the exception of the last one, can be viewed through the lens of, well, I wasted my time.
Obviously you didn’t. You’re not perfect. Your process is imperfect and highly inefficient. Inefficiency goes hand in hand with any kind of creativity as far as I’m concerned. If there were some clean efficient path to creative success, people wouldn’t be required. We would have software. You know, I had that discussion with Mike last week and he I know firsthand went through countless drafts to get to where he ended up. Countless.
And I don’t think he ever stopped and said, “Oh, I’m wasting my time.” You have to understand that the winnowing away of things you don’t want to do is in and of itself productive.
John: Yep. And it’s not just sometimes I’m cutting a scene, I’m cutting a sequence, I’m restructuring things. Sometimes I am walking away from a project. And that is one of those things which was so hard early in my career, because I think like, well, but I just made a movie on paper, and I want this movie to happen. So, I would keep calling these development executives saying like, “Well what’s happening on this movie that we worked on that you said you loved and it’s not there anymore?”
And at a certain point I crossed over to recognizing, well, I get that phone call about like, “Oh, they don’t like the draft, and so I don’t think it’s moving forward, or we’re going to sort of think about it.” And then I felt kind of a relief. I started to recognize that like, oh, by this project not taking up my time, I’m now free to do other things. It felt like, oh, I’m allowed to sort of move away from it and not let it occupy so much brain space.
It’s tough when it’s your own project, when you actually own it, and you could keep pushing it forward. Those are the harder things to walk away from. When it’s sort of taken away from you in a certain way it’s liberating because that space has just suddenly cleared for you.
Craig: This is a very dangerous thing for new writers, obviously. This is one that they all struggle with and I sympathize. Because you’re going to come up with the standard rap on aspiring writers is that they start 20 projects and finish none. Very common. And obviously not possible to continue that way and expect to be a successful writer. So, naturally I think for people like that they may feel the need to force themselves through to the end for fear that they are falling down that hole.
And they might be. And maybe when you’re first starting out you should just whip yourself until it’s done, just to say, OK, I did it. And I’m not the guy that just starts and stops. But, certainly we will all at some point come face to face with the end of life for something, whether it’s because it’s taken away from us, or because there’s just a general loss of interest. And, frankly, that’s the most common outcome.
John: Yeah. So I’m not the animist that Marie Kondo is about sort of like thanking all of my stuff, but there are a couple scripts that are dead now that I kind of consciously do thank for existing, because they were really helpful lessons along the way. So I don’t look at them as failures, but basically like it was really important that I wrote that script because it taught me X, Y, or Z.
And so my first script, it taught me this is what the screenplay format is like. This is how I can get people to really engage emotionally in the things I’ve written.
There’s this project that will never happen which I wrote out of a place of just incredible anger and frustration. And I think from that I mostly take the lesson of thank you for teaching me not to do that, because that was a real mistake. That was a lot of wasted time. And a lot of sort of living in a very negative space for no good reason whatsoever.
So, you know, take the cuts, take the walking aways as little victories and not as failures.
Craig: There are really no failures. I look at it that way. Because in a strange way, there are so many failures. There aren’t any failures. We’re soaking in them. So, at that point it’s hard for me to look at anything as a failure. And, yeah, there are times when the lesson is clear. There are times when, I mean, I’ve done a couple things where I thought afterwards, “I don’t know why I did that. Nothing is going to happen with it. I’m not sure I learned anything. That’s a total wash. OK.”
But, you know, it is part of my life. What can I do? I chalk it up to that inherent inefficiency. You just have to make peace with it. You are going to make mistakes, all of you, and it’s essential. It’s just essential to who we are.
John: Circling back to your sense of like having some people put eyes on the things you write before you go between this draft and the next draft, one of the phrases that I’ve learned that’s really helpful is saying pretend you have magic scissors and you can cut anything. What would you cut?
And the phrase magic scissors is useful because it gives people permission to really tell you what they think they would want to drop out of a script without having to worry about the repercussions of it. Or how hard it would be to lose something. Because it’s your job as a writer to figure out how you would actually do that. But you want to solicit the opinions of like really, seriously, what would you cut. And I do that in drafts, but I also do that in first cuts of movies. Just like tell me what you’d like to get out of that script and I’ll find a way to do it if I agree with you.
Craig: It’s really smart. Because a lot of times we are afraid to say, well, I just don’t like this storyline, but I understand why it’s there. I know what it’s doing. But if 20 people say, “They don’t like it, but,” then you should get rid of it and fix the but, right? So that’s very smart.
John: Cool. The last point is like the finding a place for things so you don’t have clutter. And this is what I would say when I’ve come in to do a rewrite, like a big studio rewrite, my first pass through it is mostly just decluttering. There’s always all this stuff that is sitting in the script from previous drafts that really has no business being in the script. So, that first week when I’m handing back a draft they’re like, “Oh my god, this is so much better.” It’s like all I did was take out the stuff that was getting in the way of the script that you kind of all had there. You just didn’t see it.
I’m getting rid of those decisions that were made that sort of like were these small little additions that were added because someone had this note or that note that no longer needed to be in the script. And so when you find stuff that’s out of place, well sometimes you can just get rid of that stuff. And sometimes you have to find a new place to put things. And that’s, I think the hardest lesson sometimes to learn is that you might have a great idea, but unless you have a place to put that great idea, and a place in a movie means a character who can voice it or demonstrate it, and a place both geographically and over the course of the timeline of the movie where that idea can take place, you’re just not going to be able to ever make it into your movie.
Craig: Absolutely true. And like you do, I spend a lot of my time rewriting stuff that’s in trouble. And I am very aware in those initial meetings where I say, “Look, here are some things that I think we should just get rid of, blah, blah, blah.” And everyone just lights up and says, “Oh, thank god you’re here.” And I think, hmm, thank god anywhere is here, really. Somebody else would have said this. It’s not me, it’s new, right? So new eyes have come in and unlike you, who have lived with the construction of this house and can’t even remember why the chimney is top of the garage like that, someone is coming along saying, “Lose the garage. Then you don’t have the chimney problem. You don’t need a garage. And do this…and why is that wall there?”
Oh, you know, I can’t even remember why. Well, sometimes because they asked for it to be there. You know, that’s the other thing. When new people come in, they don’t have the knowledge of who asked for what. So there is no embarrassment, whereas if I’m the first writer on it, well I know that that weird wall is there because the vice president of such-and-such demanded it. I can’t say get rid of it now, because they all know that that guy demanded it, and he knows, and I know, and it’s embarrassing.
But the new guy doesn’t know that that guy asked for it. So he’s got cover. Save face. Yeah, sure, yeah, let’s get rid of it. The other writer must have thought of that. It happens all the time. And similarly I know if I am the first writer on something and someone else comes in after me, they may very well be feted as a genius for a while, in part for the same reason. It’s not a reflection on me anymore than my arrival is a reflection on the writer before.
John: Yep. And so I would say as you’re looking at your own work, as you’re going between like your first draft and your second draft, people will come to you with a bunch of ideas. And you’ll have a bunch of idea. There will be things that you’ll want to incorporate. But I would just caution you like don’t bring home homeless ideas. Don’t try to sort of wedge extra things into your script unless you really have a natural place for them. And so often I think the reason why second drafts are worse than first drafts is because people are trying to incorporate a bunch of things that they’ve discovered and the things they really want to have in their script, but there’s no place for them because they haven’t actually cleared out all the stuff that’s already there.
And so you’re going to have to be very mindful about where those new ideas are going to land. Who is going to be able to voice them? How are you going to have these situations that reflect those ideas? Where it will it fit structurally? Because sometimes you’ll see these scenes that could have just fallen at any place over the course of the movie, and those are never good scenes. Unless there’s a reason why that scene had to happen at that moment, that scene probably should not be in your movie.
Craig: It’s also the big problem that we experience when we arrive at that second draft and are attempting to address input. Because a lot of input is not place-able. At least it’s not place-able in the story we’re trying to tell. So you end up shoehorning things, or sticking things on top of things. It’s not going to work. No one is going to like it. It’s hard because sometimes the thing you can say that would lead to the best movie is also the thing that will lead to you being fired. It’s rough to say to somebody, “Everything you just said will not work and it will make the movie worse. A few of these things will make it better.”
But, you know, unfortunately people want things. You know, it’s that problem, like we said, “Oh, we want more.” Well, there’s no place for more. So, an enormous part of what we do is negotiating with people who are legitimately trying to help, but are not actually helping.
John: Yeah. It’s like those people who come to your house saying like, “Oh, I got this thing that’s going to fit in perfectly in your house. It’s great.” And you look at and say, yes, it’s beautiful. I think it’s just really wonderful. But it doesn’t fit your house at all. There’s no place for you to put it. And so it’s going to sit on the counter for a while and you’re going to feel bad about it sitting on the counter for a while. And you can’t remember sort of like, wait, who brought it to us? And like three years later it’s still sitting on the counter and you have no idea how it got into your house.
Craig: Yeah. Being a screenwriter is a bit like being a homeowner, except that the bank that owns your mortgage is allowed – and in fact required – to come in and tell you how to decorate and how to change things.
Craig: So go ahead and decorate it as you like, but then we’re going to send a bank official over who is going to say, “No, change that wall color to this. I don’t like that bedroom there. Let’s get rid of it. And your house is arranged now.” What? “Oh, and you’re living here. And we own it, so do it. Or we’ll move you out and move your friend in.” [laughs] Blech.
John: Blech. So, let’s try to end this on a more positive note. I would say that the movies I love most are not cluttered. And that’s the thing I would sort of stress about this lesson we’re trying to impart to you is not like all the bad things that happen when people try to shove too much stuff at you, but the really great movies when you step back and you really look at them, they are remarkably clean.
They are not overburdened by things that are not important. And sometimes that came out very naturally in the writing process. Sometimes that came through arduous filmmaking and editing and reshoots. But the end result of those movies that I love are really just delightfully clean and there’s no more there than needs to be, there’s no less. They feel just right put together.
And so as you’re writing your scripts, aim for that in your drafts. You won’t always hit it, but really try to find that clean and decluttered way of telling your story and not feel obligated to take in everything that somebody is going to want to hand you.
Craig: Yeah, you know, I can point to each movie I’ve made and say, “Here’s some clutter that I was imposed.” And it’s hard. And then it’s really hard because you try and – the worst part is when you’re like, OK, I have to use my skills, whatever they are, to make this seem OK. But now the new bar is OK. It’s not good. Just, OK, yes, I see how that logically follows. I don’t like it. I don’t need it. It’s distracting. But, yes, it’s not bizarre. That’s the new standard.
John: OK. Let’s move onto our next topic. A bunch of people tweeted this at us this week. This is a second round in a French case involving Luc Beson. So, last week an appeals court in Paris found in favor of John Carpenter who argued that Luc Beson had committed copyright infringement in the 2012 movie Lockout, borrowing key elements from Carpenter’s 1981 cult classic, Escape from New York.
And this is notable because this basically never happens, Craig, right?
Craig: It basically never happens. That is correct.
John: So, in previous episodes we’ve talked about like Tess Gerritsen’s Gravity lawsuit, where she was arguing that Gravity borrowed from her book. We’ve talked about other people claiming like, oh, they stole my script. But in most cases we’ve just shot that down because it’s common for those kind of lawsuits to be filed. It’s very uncommon for them to win. But this was such a weird case because this is about two movies that actually exist that you can see both of them on your TV.
And basically Carpenter is saying, hey, that movie you made is basically a copy of my movie that I made 30 years ago. You have committed copyright infringement.
Craig: Yeah, well, OK, so a couple of things that stand apart from the usual whack job alleges theft: neither of these people are whack jobs. They’re both incredibly successful filmmakers. So, that’s an interesting thing that sets this apart. I don’t even think I know of any other case like it.
The second thing that sets it apart is that this is not a United States decision. This is a French decision. Personally, I think it’s a horrendous decision. But, copyright law is different in France. And I guess that may have been the difference. But, I am not thrilled with this decision.
John: Well, let’s talk about what the decision is, because it’s a little bit strange. So, Luc Beson, who is one of the cowriters of Lockout, but he didn’t direct it, he produced it through his Europa Corp production company. And the lawsuit was initially filed in 2014. So Carpenter won that first round in the lawsuit and he won about $100,000. The appeals court decision raised that to about $500,000.
So, that’s money, but that’s not a lot of money. It felt like pretty low numbers for what you’d think of as a big copyright case.
Craig: Yeah. And again, this may be part of the fact that it’s French. I don’t know. Although, I agree with you. It seems like a very small amount of money, frankly, considering what’s being alleged and what’s being ruled here. And I don’t know if there is yet another round to go in the French judicial system or not. The implication from the media was that the company Europa Corp, which is Luc Beson’s company, will just go ahead and pay this amount.
John: And why wouldn’t you? $500,000 is not a lot of money.
Craig: Well, why wouldn’t you have just gone ahead and taken the gimme at $100. I think it’s the same reason. Pride. And principle. I haven’t seen Lockout, but I’ve seen Escape from New York. It sounds to me like Luc Beson, yeah, wrote a movie that is similar in general story to Escape from New York, but just set it in space, I guess.
And as far as I know, that’s perfectly fine. I mean, I can make a list of 20 movies in the United States that do similar things, but this one is in space. And everybody kind of understands you’re doing a version of that movie but, you know, in space.
John: It’s one of those weird things where it falls somewhere between a rip-off and a homage and a remake. And I think Carpenter is arguing it’s essentially a remake but they put it in space. And Luc Beson would argue like, no, no, it’s the same kind of story but told in space. And telling it in space fundamentally changes everything.
The same way we have a whole bunch of haunted house movies, but we also have essentially the same story, but like on a spaceship. And that feels enough different that we’re not worrying about that.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, everybody who sees a movie can say, “Basically they’re just doing a movie like this.” I mean, every time there’s some big movie that comes out of nowhere, there’s 20 other movies behind it that do the same damn thing. We all – we’ve seen that happen. You know, in the United States, copyright infringement comes down to unique expression in fixed form. It’s basically like plagiarism, right, like what Melania Drumpf did, or her speech writer.
You have to lift stuff. Clear stuff. Right? And that doesn’t seem to be at all what happened here. For instance, the similarities that are cited: The hero manages undetected to get inside the place where the hostage is being held. After a fight in a glider/space shuttle, finds there a former associate who dies. He pulls off the mission in extremis, and at the end of the film keeps the secret documents recovered in the course of the mission.
Um, I’m going to argue that more than two movies have done that.
John: Yeah. So, the other similarities are your hero is sentenced to a long period of isolation, and incarceration, despite his heroic past. And he has to free the President’s daughter who has been held hostage there in exchange for his freedom. So, like it’s the President’s daughter hero combination thing, which I think tipped the people off the first time. Like, oh wait, this is a lot like Escape from New York.
But being a lot like Escape from New York is not copyright infringement. Copyright infringement is actually copying Escape from New York. And so I agree with you that I think it would be a harder case to win in the US. And my suspicion is that it takes place – the lawsuit took place in France just because that’s where Luc Beson is and that was the right venue for it.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, nobody in the United States is going to say, “You know, Akira Kurosawa should sue Pixar because Bugs is Seven Samurai.” Because that’s insane. How about that? That’s just flat out nuts. And he didn’t. And, you know, I look at this – I mean, if you go through John Carpenter movies, I guarantee you you’re going to find some elements he’s lifted from other movies.
John: Yeah. So it’s a question of elements v. total structure. So, you know, Secret Life of Pets, which I thought was pretty charming, but it’s almost exactly Toy Story. So my daughter left the theater and she’s like, “Well, it’s basically Toy Story but with animals.” And I’m like, yeah, it’s basically Toy Story with animals. Most of the beats really do match up to Toy Story, but with animals. And it was a good enough version of it that in no way could I ever imagine Pixar suing over it. It’s just the same kind of framework of how you tell the story of these characters and their situation.
Craig: Yeah. The price you pay for hueing too closely to another basic narrative is the audience rejecting it. I don’t – this is such a weird decision to me. I mean, look, if there were specific lines and stuff lifted, but the notion, like you have to rescue the president and get him out of a thing and his daughter. Well, it’s so generic. I mean, I’ve seen so many movies where somebody had to go rescue the president.
Craig: I don’t know.
John: So, let’s go to a listener question which is actually very related. So, this is Joe who wrote in and he was nice enough to send his audio. So, let’s listen to Joe’s question.
Joe: Hi John. Hi Craig. What’s the rule on IP that is specific not only to a certain genre, but also a certain story? For example, zombies tend to all look and feel similar to those put on screen by George Romero and we don’t see him suing anyone. Likewise, the Puppet Masters and Invasion of the Body Snatchers both contain similar plots about emotionless humans who are actually aliens, or being controlled by aliens. Yet, both exist without being seen as having stolen the idea from each other.
I have a show idea that borrows certain specific elements from other stories in the genre. How do I make sure it reads as homage rather than infringement? Thanks?
John: So, Craig, he’s facing a similar situation. He wants to do something that someone watching the movie might say like, oh, that’s like that, or that’s from that. How do you do that without crossing a line?
Craig: Well, pending this legal ruling, maybe avoid making it in France. But, the truth is you can’t avoid a certain amount of overlap, because you’re going to overlap with movies you haven’t even seen. It’s inevitable. There’s going to be some scene or moment that does that. Or there’s going to be some basic idea that does that. We have thousands and thousands of movies. All of which are layering on top of each other and are remakes and reimaginations and recontextualizations.
Infringement is a very clear thing, at least in the United States. Lifting chunks of dialogue. Recreating clear scenes. Picking a character out of a movie and doing a very similar thing. Let’s say, for instance, you’re making a serial killer movie and you have a FBI agent going to interview a serial killer because he’s going to help her catch another killer. Than in and of itself is clearly a – well, it’s a reference to Silence of the Lambs. But what I’ve just said to me doesn’t feel like infringement.
What’s infringement is if she’s walking down a dark hallway and finds him in a room that’s not metal bars, but a glass box, and he turns around and he’s in his nice little neat suit. And he has a quid-pro-quo discussion with her. Now it’s like what are you doing? You’re clearly just copying another movie.
So, the test is are you copying a movie, or are you copying a general kind of story or arrangement?
John: Absolutely. I would point Joe over to Everything is a Remix, which is a great series by Kirby Ferguson where Kirby sort of argues that everything you’ve ever seen in movies, and really most of popular culture, comes from different places. And you may not be aware of the references, but they all sort of stack up on each other to get us to where we are right now.
And so, you know, Star Wars is derived from a bunch of preexisting things. And it was assembled in a way that was delightful and wonderful. And it is original in the sense this is the first expression of Star Wars, but everything that is in Star Wars are ideas that were already out there, and they were just assembled in a great way.
So, I would say, Joe, you have to be mindful of don’t let your references just be references and don’t copy. Just make sure you’re using the stuff of the genre that is appropriate and building something new out of those Lego blocks.
Craig: I wonder – this is absolute idle conjecture. But I find it odd that in France an American suing a Frenchman was ruled in favor of. And I wonder in part if this is something to do with Luc Beson and some kind of French thing with Luc Beson.
You know, there is this thing that happens – I was talking with somebody. She’s an English producer. A UK producer. And she said it’s a little bit of the tall poppy syndrome. That if you get too successful as a UK production entity with movies that play well in the United States and around the world, then now you’re suddenly no good.
I wonder if that has something to do with this.
John: It might.
Craig: Well, conjecture.
John: Do you want to read a question from a different Joe?
Craig: Yeah. So it’s good that we have multiple Joes. A different Joe writes, “A long time ago, you had a guest on Scriptnotes, I forget who, that had written a crazy ass unproduceable screenplay who knew it was insane to ever get made. So he and his partner just put it online. If you know who I’m talking about, can you tell me the screenwriter’s name and the name of that script?”
John: We know the name of the writer and the script.
Craig: We do.
John: So that is written by the Robotard 8000. It is actually Malcom Spellman and Tim Talbott. The script is called Ball’s Out. And it is just a wild comedy. I’ve never actually read Ball’s Out. I just know it sort of as a legend. And they put it up online so people can read it.
Craig: Yeah. You can actually hear it. So I was part of a group of people that did a recorded reading of Ball’s Out for the Black List. So they will occasionally – because it was on the Black List. The selected one. And they will do these podcasts where they have a cast of people come in and do an actual reading of a movie. And so you can hear it. It’s bananas. Absolutely nuts.
But interestingly following the publication of that screenplay, Tim Talbott went on to win the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance for his movie The Stanford Prison Experiment. And Malcom Spellman is currently one of the big writers on Empire.
John: And also one of the most polarizing guests on Scriptnotes at times.
Craig: And would we have it any other way?
John: No other way. Brian from Syracuse writes, “Generally speaking, how much of the work do you think needs to be altered in order to feel comfortable calling something a new draft? Is it 10%? A new scene? Rewriting one scene? Furthermore, how much does the amount of work on a new draft differ from that of a polish?” So asking what is a rewrite, what is a polish, and how much is enough to call it a new draft?
Craig: There’s no math. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, it falls into the category of we know it when we see it. Every now and then you will have to get into a bit of a negotiation with a studio. Generally speaking, they want to tend to call things polishes. And you want to tend to call things rewrites because you get paid more for a rewrite.
Polishes to me really are more of a function of time as opposed to percentage of change. I’m going to do two or three weeks of work, that feels like a polish. I’m going to do more than a month – it’s a rewrite. Kind of that zone. And then you get into that ticky-tacky area where it’s like, well, it would be like between three and four weeks. Is it a polish? Is it a rewrite? Eh, let’s figure it out.
John: And so what we’re describing is when you’re being paid by someone to do specific work. If you’re just doing your own stuff, don’t really worry the distinction between a polish and a rewrite, or if you’re changing one character’s name throughout the whole script, well, that’s fine. If you want to call that a draft, whatever.
I would just caution people don’t put the number of the draft on the script. Let your scripts be dated and use a current date for what the scripts are. But don’t say like Third Revised Draft. Not helpful to anyone. Just date them.
Craig: Agreed. Taylor writes, “Recently there’s been a big push from the audience for studios and writers to make characters gay. Example, a few months ago the hashtags #GiveElsaAGirlfriend and #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend ran rampant through social media. And in the new Star Trek movie, Sulu is revealed to be gay.
“My question is why aren’t people pushing for gay and lesbian writers to take up the reins and write new content that the community can appreciate. Why does the community seem hell-bent on cannibalizing already established characters? Wouldn’t it be more meaningful for a character to be gay from inception than to be retroactively changed to appeal to the gay community? I hold myself to the ideal that if I want something done a certain way, I should go and make it. You want to make a character a certain way, then go write one. Don’t demand that someone else do it for you.”
What do you think about Taylor?
John: I was with Taylor up until hell-bent on the cannibalizing established characters. That’s where it sort of tipped over to the, ah, you’ve got an agenda here.
So, I think it’s fantastic to have representations of all sorts of people in movies, because that’s where we see our popular culture in movies and TV, where we see popular culture expressed. And so I think Taylor’s frustration is that there are characters he perceives as being white straight people and if those characters are not portrayed as being white straight people, that gets him a little bit frustrated.
And he can go off and be frustrated. I just think that sometimes it’s worthwhile to look at sort of is what makes the character fascinating aspects of his or her personality, or is it this default assumption that it is a straight white male?
Craig: Yeah. I think that there are – I basically had the same break point as you. Because I do think that the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend and #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend hashtags are pointless. Because what is it that you’re asking exactly?
And we’ve discussed this before, that movies should now conform their character’s essential makeup to whoever is yammering the loudest on Twitter? It’s insane. It’s just insane. You may want a character to be gay. You may want a character to be white. You may want a character to be a woman. But if the creators don’t want that, and they’ve been pushing them forward in a different way, that’s life.
I mean, tough. You know, the whole “we demand that Elsa have a girlfriend” is stupid and childish. On the other hand, sexuality is an enormous part of what makes a character interesting. And the last thing I want to see is yet another generation of the same character in the same damn way. I’m just so bored to death.
Remember when Daniel Craig was announced as James Bond, people flipped out because he was blond.
John: How can you possibly have a blond Bond?
Craig: Blond. It’s like forget not white. We can’t even handle him having blond hair. You know, I’m a huge Bond fan. I’m a huge – to me what makes Bond interesting is, you know, the way that this incredibly sexist caricature of a man is forced to evolve over time. And also the areas in which this character refuses to evolve.
But I’m delighted by certain changes. I want changes. I find it interesting. I liked it when M became a woman. And now I’m happy that M is a man, because look, that changed again. I like that.
Sulu, now, it’s an interesting thing with Sulu because George Takei apparently wasn’t too thrilled about this. I don’t know if you read about that.
John: I did. And he sort of came out saying like, oh, you should add a new character rather than gaying a current character. And I disagree with Sulu and I agree more with J.J. and with Simon Pegg who said that if you just try to tack on an extra character, then that character is only defined as being gay. And so what was so useful about the Sulu character is, you know, we’re in a parallel universe. There’s no set logic about who that character has to be in this universe whatsoever. I thought it was a fine choice to make him gay.
And by the way, I saw the movie. It’s the least gay character. I mean, he has sort of a side hug. I guarantee you that all the fan fiction that listeners are writing right now for me and Craig is much gayer than Sulu is in Star Trek.
Craig: [laughs] Well, I haven’t seen the movie yet. I’m sure that it is the most incredibly not-gay gay. The only thing that I thought George had a really good point on was look, you’re making Sulu – you could have picked any of these people to be gay. You’re making him gay because I’m gay, because I played him. And that’s a reasonable criticism because, you know, they could have made Bones gay.
John: They could have made Scotty gay. They could have made any of them gay.
Craig: Right. It was a little like, you know right, just like the guy that played him, right? You know, like OK, you know.
There are some things I think that do resist some kind of change. For instance, if you have a character named – what’s his first name, like Hikaru or something like that? I’m not a huge Trek guy. Like Hikaru Sulu, that’s a Japanese name. He should be played by an Asian person. And an Asian person that reasonably looks Japanese.
Some things you probably can’t change.
John: I’m generally not a fan of hashtags and sort of like fan campaigns to do things that are trying pressure creators to do things. I think they’re kind of ridiculous.
What I thought was fun about like #GiveElsaAGirlfriend or #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend is they were just trying to provoke a discussion about like would the world really come crashing to an end if you let Cap and Bucky make out the way they sort of seemed to want to make out the whole time through? Or really the assumption that Elsa as a princess in a Disney has to be straight, when like a lot of her does kind of read gay anyway. So, what would the worst thing be if you actually had a lesbian princess in one of these movies?
So, I think they’re useful in the sense of just like provoking the discussion. I don’t think you necessarily need to honor that discussion as a creator, but I thought they were interesting idea bombs to throw out there.
Craig: Yeah. I’m totally down. Like there are hashtags #CaptainAmericaAndBuckyAreLovers. OK. Good. Make your argument. That makes sense to me. I buy it.
But it’s the demand that you will do this or we’re not going to buy tickets anymore that I find petulant and frankly counterproductive.
John: Oh, for sure. But I don’t really think either of those campaigns were about we’re going to boycott this movie if they don’t do this. I think they were more sort of just like trying to provoke the discussion.
Craig: Either way, if somebody takes a character that has existed in many versions, played by many different people, and changes their sexuality to add some new twist on something that has become beyond boring, that’s not cannibalizing anything. Cannibalizing implies you’ve eaten it and killed it. No.
John: Not possible.
Craig: That’s not the case. So, we reject this, Taylor.
John: We reject this. [laughs] All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is Difficult People on Hulu, which I may have actually recommended once before, but I want to recommend the second season of it. So it’s created and written by Julie Klausner, who also stars in it along with Billy Eichner. They play under-employed writer-comics in New York City. It’s just delightful. It’s on Hulu. You can stream all the episodes.
It’s very much in the Seinfeld/Larry Sanders model of like really intricately plotted things that have a bunch of jokes that stack up together and then sort of fall down like dominoes at the end. But I really appreciated the second season is that they have a bunch of supporting characters who are both like punchline machines, like everything they say is funny and just meant to be funny, and yet they’re so oddly wonderfully specific. And so one of the new characters in the second season is played by Shakina Nayfack. Her character’s name is Lola. And she’s a transgender 9/11 truther. And so almost every line she says is both about her being Trans and being how 9/11 was an inside job.
Craig: So great.
John: And you would not think you could possibly make those things match up, and Julie Klausner does. So, I strongly recommend you take a look at that one. Again, it’s on Hulu. It’s not serialized at all, which is also great. So you can just drop in and watch any one episode. If you’re going to pick one episode, I’d recommend Italian Piñata from the second season. It’s a great episode.
Craig: I’m going to give it a watch. It sounds good. I just love the name Shakina Nayfack.
John: Isn’t that a great name?
Craig: It sounds like you’re trying to get away with something in Pig Latin.
John: It really does. [laughs]
Craig: My One Cool Thing this week is a game for iOS called Severed. It is – now hold on to your seats – it’s seven bucks. So don’t freak out or nothing. But it’s a terrific little game, in part because they managed to get me to play a move around game on iOS. I hate the way most touch applications work for controls. The kinds of moves that you would make with a console handheld controller are very hard to do with touch. Sometimes they give you like a virtual controller, which I loathe. This one they actually just simplified it down to a way where just, oh yeah, OK, I’m going to tap in a direction I want to go. Two fingers to move my head around and then tap again in the direction I want to go.
And it’s beautiful. It kind of reminds me of old school flash art. Old school meaning like when you and I were still in our 30s. And the mechanics are very simple and it’s very much like Fruit Ninja meets walk around and look around and Creepy Beauty. And it’s casual as hell. So, if you’re looking for something, iPad only, not phone, Severed. I believe the company is called Juice Box. Very good game.
John: Very good. So that is our show this week. There will be links in the show notes for most everything we talked about, so if you’re listening to this on your favorite podcast player, just keep scrolling and you’ll find links to all those things.
If you’re visiting us on johnaugust.com, it would be great if you would also subscribe to the show in iTunes because that’s actually how we know how many people are listening to our show. And leave us a review while you’re there, because that’s super helpful as well.
If you have a question for me or for Craig, you can write to firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe.
John: It is edited by Matthew Chilelli.
John: Our outro this week comes from John Venable, so thank you John for sending that in. Our outro last week was by Matt Davis. So you didn’t know who did it, but Matt Davis did that.
Craig: There you go.
John: If you have an outro for us, you can write into the same email address, email@example.com, and send us a link to your outros. We love those outros. But we’re running a little bit low. So, if you have some great themes for us, please send those through. And thank you very much, Craig.
Craig: See you next week, John.
You can download the episode here.
John and Craig apply the principles of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” to screenwriting. How can screenwriters learn to let go of beloved scenes, characters, and entire scripts?
We also answer listener questions, including the recent plagiarism ruling in favor of John Carpenter in a French court.
- Escape Room
- Don’t Think Twice on Rotten Tomatoes
- Escape Room
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing on Amazon
- John Carpenter v. Luc Beson
- Everything is a Remix
- The Robotard 8000
- Tim Talbott on IMDB
- Malcolm Spellman on IMDB
- Difficult People on Rotten Tomatoes
- John August on Twitter
Craig Mazin on Twitter
You can download the episode here.
John and Craig apply the principles of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” to screenwriting. How can screenwriters learn to let go of beloved scenes, characters, and entire scripts?
We also answer listener questions, including the recent plagiarism ruling in favor of John Carpenter in a French court.
- Escape Room
- Don’t Think Twice on Rotten Tomatoes
- Escape Room
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing on Amazon
- John Carpenter v. Luc Beson
- Everything is a Remix
- The Robotard 8000
- Tim Talbott on IMDB
- Malcolm Spellman on IMDB
- Difficult People on Rotten Tomatoes
- John August on Twitter
Craig Mazin on Twitter
You can download the episode here.
The original post for this episode can be found here.
Craig Mazin: Hello and welcome. My name is Craig Mazin.
Mike Birbiglia: And my name is Mike Birbiglia.
Craig: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Mike: To screenwriters.
Craig: [laughs] Today on the podcast, John has been replaced, upgraded, possibly downgraded, we’ll find out in a few moments with comedian, filmmaker, friend of the podcast, and plain old just friend me, Mike Birbiglia. And we will be discussing his new movie, Don’t Think Twice, which is in theaters now. And we’ll also be answering some listener questions. All told, I believe based on the circumstances, this will be the best single episode of the podcast we’ve ever done. No pressure.
Mike: I believe so, yes.
Craig: Mike Birbiglia, welcome.
Mike: Thank you very much.
Craig: So, you are here in Los Angeles on a bit of tour, bit of a press tour.
Mike: I am.
Craig: To promote your new film, Don’t Think Twice, which you have written, you directed, you star in as one of the ensemble.
Mike: With Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs and others. Yeah.
Craig: And others. I like that they all just get shoved into others.
Mike: Kate Micucci. Tami Sagher. And Chris Gethard are others.
Craig: Very good. I have seen this film. Aside from being a terrific movie, I think it also has a lot of relevance. The film and its topic has a lot of relevance for what we do as filmmakers and for what our people at home who listen to the show care about. So, first, why don’t–
Mike: It may crush them.
Mike: It may rip their hearts in two.
Craig: That’s all I’ve ever wanted.
Craig: Right? I mean, you know me.
Mike: Yes. You’re doom and gloom. Or you want–
Craig: Winnowing. Winnowing.
Craig: A constant winnowing. I just don’t – I hate the idea that somehow this podcast or anything that is encouraging might keep somebody from pursuing a career in which they would discover some life-saving medicine.
Mike: I agree.
Craig: And instead they’re working on as a fourth level staff writer on a–
Mike: My wife and I talk about that all the time. I did a benefit for – because my wife and I always talk about how it doesn’t seem like science is something people are – the kids are aspiring towards, because we need someone to cure different types of cancer and what not. And I did a leukemia/lymphoma society benefit recently, and there was one of the sort of the top researchers in the field was speaking and did a bit with Ellie Kemper. It was like Nick Kroll, Ellie Kemper, a bunch of people. And I just did stand up. John Oliver was in it.
And I asked this guy, because, you know, you never get to talk to these people, the top researchers in the field. And I said, “My wife and I always feel like, tell me if this is wrong, like there’s not enough young people who are interested in science in America. Like everyone is interested in sort of getting famous or whatever.” And he said, “Yeah, it’s a huge problem.” And the other huge problem is the US government gives very few grants for research.
Craig: Right. Well, it is – we live I think in a culture that celebrates dreams, chasing your dreams, don’t give up on your dreams. Dreams, dreams, dreams, dreams, dreams. And science isn’t so much about a romantic dream. It’s about rigor, and commitment, and hard work.
Mike: Discipline. Helping the planet. There’s this great op-ed, Angela Duckworth I believe wrote it, in the New York Times around the time of commencement speeches where she said, “If I were to give one, I would say don’t think about what you want to be when you grow up. Think about what’s the world I want to live in and how can I help be a part of that?”
Craig: Well, that’s a wonderful message that apparently did not sink in to any of the characters in your movie. Because your characters are absolutely right in the pocket of dreamers.
Mike: They are.
Craig: They are all dreaming of becoming big comic stars. So tell us about, just give us a general sketch of what this movie is, what it’s about.
Mike: So, this movie, Don’t Think Twice, is about a group of best friends in an improv group, and it’s sort of a Big Chill-esque sort of dramedy where someone gets a chance to audition for like a Saturday Night Live type of show and the rest of them don’t. And they’re losing their lease on their theater we learn very early in the film. And it’s this staring in the mirror of these characters in their 30s, late 30s, and early 40s, going, “What am I going to do? What do I do now?” Which is something that I think me and a lot of my friends have faced in our 30s.
Craig: It’s a true story, even though it’s fictional, because that is the nature of these more well-known improv troupes, Second City, and the Groundlings.
Mike: Yeah. And UCB. And all these places.
Craig: I’m sure there are many people who participate in those for the joy of it. And there are many people who participate in those because that’s where they want to be. But it does seem like the advertisement is this is how you get onto Saturday Night Live, and then that’s how you become a movie star.
Mike: Except it’s unspoken advertisement, I think. I don’t think that UCB, for example, is saying this is how you get on SNL. But it’s hard when you read an article about Kate McKinnon and saw that she was in a sketch comedy group there. And then you see that Aidy Bryant was in Second City. It’s hard not to draw the connection.
Craig: You’re movie, I think, suggests that a lot of the people that do enroll to take classes, as well as the people who are there teaching and part of the troupes, they’re certainly aware. I mean–
Mike: I think so. Yeah.
Craig: Yeah, you are proposing, I mean, it’s an interesting thing. The way you are proposing a very unromantic view.
Mike: It is.
Craig: You’re movie is assiduously unromantic in its portrayal of the creative life and creative ambition and the petty, often envious, nature of creative people. Which I loved, because I thought it was so true and so brave. But I’m kind of curious why every movie – like you could write about anything, right? And this is your first truly fictional–
Mike: Fictional piece. Yeah, it is.
Craig: And you wanted to write this. Right? Like the anti-love letter to yourself.
Mike: Oh my god. [laughs]
Craig: And your friends, right? Why?
Mike: Oh god.
Mike: When you phrase it that way, Craig. Well, when I think about it, my first film, Sleepwalk With Me, is about success, is this is a film about failure. You know, I think someone kicking around in my head was, after the first movie, I had a lot of people come up to me and say I started doing standup because I saw Sleepwalk With Me. And I thought, well that’s not what the movie is about.
Mike: The movie is actually about finding your voice in whatever field that you might be in. And so I felt like why shouldn’t there be a movie about failure and how life is unfair.
Mike: You deal with studios all the time. I don’t deal with them. But I imagine they’re not loving a pitch like that. Like the movie is about failure. How does that go over at Universal?
Craig: I think it’s cute that you thought it would even get that far.
Mike: [laughs] Like I’d get a meeting.
Craig: Right. Like they don’t ask you what the movie is about. They’re like, “First of all, we’ll tell you what we want movies about. Is it one of these four things? No? No.”
Craig: Is it about a superhero? Is it about an explosion? Is it franchise-able?
Craig: No? How will this play overseas?
Mike: Oh my god.
Craig: No? Right. So all of those questions, you would be able to happily check no to. But this – listen, independent film more than ever is distinct and discrete, clearly separate from studio fare. There was a while where every studio was like, “We want a Miramax, we want a Sony Pictures Classic. We’ll all start doing that.”
Craig: Not anymore. So now it’s back to independent. And this is about as independent as it gets.
Mike: They’ve all kind of disbanded that part of their company, right?
Craig: Well, they were like, “So, after we made 20 of these semi-independent films, we made like $12.”
Mike: There was like Paramount Vantage or something, right?
Mike: And there were all these Universal blah, blah, blah. I don’t know, like you know this better than I do.
Craig: Universal had Focus.
Mike: Yes! That’s right.
Craig: Which was their specialty arm. Paramount had Vantage. Warner Bros had Warner Bros Pictures Independent I think it was called. They did March of the Penguins, I want to say.
Mike: Sony still has Sony Pictures Classics, but they do less movies I think than they used to.
Craig: Disney had Miramax.
Craig: They finally got rid of it completely. And then Fox had Searchlight.
Mike: The jury is out: Hollywood doesn’t like making independent films, or small films.
Craig: They do not. It turns out they like making Hollywood movies. But the good news is you are the beneficiary of that. You have made a true independent film in all regards. I love it when independent films are movies that the studious wouldn’t have also made. And this is clearly one of them. I’m kind of curious, when you go down the path of being the writer and director, and I assume you’re also a producer of the movie.
Craig: And you’re in the cast. So the downside of working for a studio is you have multiple layers of people meddling, each with an agenda, some of whom are well-intentioned, and some of whom are not. You have nobody technically meddling. So then the question is–
Mike: It’s all on you.
Craig: And I’m always fascinated with this, and I guess this will lead into our how we kind of interacted on this early on, but how do you deal with the struggle when you are entirely in charge of something? Okay, if somebody tells me they don’t like a thing, and I make a change, am I somehow selling myself out? And on the other hand, if someone tells me they don’t like something and I say, “No, you’re wrong,” am I somehow being self-indulgent? How do you play that balance?
Mike: That’s a great question actually. I would have these readings, as you know, because you were at one of them at my house. I encourage all screenwriters, aspiring screenwriters, to do this. My friends are actors and writers. They don’t have to be. They can just be friends, random people, just reading the script out loud. And I would offer pizza afterwards.
Craig: You did.
Mike: And it was always great pizza.
Craig: It was really good. Well, because you live in Brooklyn. Even bad Brooklyn pizza is good.
Mike: With [Colley], you know, [Tecca], Luzzo, like I made sure the pizza was good. And at the beginning of each reading I would say, “This script might be bad, but the pizza is phenomenal, and so it’s all going to be fine. Like don’t worry about it.”
Craig: Actually it was curiously comforting to hear that.
Mike: Yeah. Well, because, you know, and this harkens to your question, or this dovetails to your question which is like I would encourage people to give me their harshest criticism. Like I would invite you and Brian Koppelman and Phil Lord and Nicole Holofcener, and I would–
Craig: Michael Weber.
Mike: Yeah. Michael Weber. Greta Gerwig. Like I did ten of these. A zillion people came. But I invite people who are better than me at it. [laughs] I want people who are smarter, better. Ira Glass. You know, like people to come at me hard with notes and say the toughest thing.
I mean, you said some stuff to me that was so tough in the early process and it was so helpful. That’s the thing that I think writers, particularly aspiring writers, don’t get. The idea of early on, and I didn’t get in my 20s either, to be clear, is that you actually want the toughest notes.
Craig: You do.
Mike: Not because they’re right, but because you want to know how your vision is being conveyed. Is it being conveyed well or not well?
Mike: Is what’s in your brain working with people, or is it not working? Because it doesn’t mean – just because you read my script and something’s not clicking for you doesn’t mean that the idea in my brain is wrong. It means that the idea in my brain isn’t on the page.
Mike: I heard Ron Howard say in an interview once that he shows rough cuts of his movies to strangers, not to find out what the vision of the movie is, but to find out if the vision of the movie is connecting with people. And if it’s not, then he makes a ton of changes.
Craig: Well, that’s something that you inherently understand because you’re a stage performer. And there’s this – I don’t know if you ever read this book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Mike: I don’t know that one.
Craig: It’s a fantastic book. A very difficult book. It sounds like it would be fun. It’s actually maybe the most dense and difficult to understand book I’ve ever read in my life.
Mike: Sounds great.
Craig: Written by this guy named Robert Pirsig, who’s a moral philosopher, among other things. And in it he investigates this question of quality. What is quality? What’s good? And where he eventually ends up is that there’s no such thing as an inherent quality, but it’s not also true that just because lots of people like something that it is quality.
He said ultimately quality comes down to the relationship between a thing and the people observing it and listening to it. It’s about a relationship. Comics, standup comics, I think know this better than anybody. Right.
You go up there – I’d have to assume, I’ve never done it, but I have to assume that you have been in two different rooms on two different nights, feeling the same, telling the same stories and jokes, and getting two completely different responses.
Mike: Constantly. Oftentimes I’ll take jokes to like three different places. I’ll take them to somewhere like Cincinnati, I’ll take them to Brooklyn, and I’ll take them to Manhattan. Three completely different responses. And what I want, ultimately, and Cincinnati could be Iowa City, it could be St. Louis, whatever. What I want is the jokes to work in all three places, because what I’m ultimately trying to grasp at is something that’s human.
And when I would show people drafts of the script and drafts of the movie, or cuts of the movie, it’s the same thing. I want old people, I want young people, I want everybody to have an experience that ultimately is just a human experience.
Craig: It seems to me that you, through your experience as a standup, would have a kind of a comfort that I’m not sure a typical screenwriter gets. Because you have experienced so many times–
Mike: Being hammered. The audience just crushing you.
Craig: But knowing that the material itself, maybe it’s just, okay, this group here. But this works generally. So, let me not go home and tear it all up.
Craig: You know, so that helps you keep your – because I, you know–
Mike: It even makes me lose my breath hearing you describe it, but it’s so true. Yeah, I have shows all the time where I bring something to the Comedy Cellar in Manhattan and it doesn’t work, but I know the seed of what’s there is right.
Craig: And so you experience this rejection, but you do not turn in on yourself. That is an amazing ability. It’s something I struggle with all the time.
Mike: I think we all do, yeah.
Craig: You know, someone says, “I don’t like it,” and I immediately think, oh, okay, what do I need to do to make you like it? That’s not actually a great instinct.
Craig: At all. But it’s the normal instinct, I think. It’s how we’re brought up. You know, well, if somebody is upset with you, stop doing that. You know what I mean?
Mike: Yes. Yes.
Craig: But this is different and so I went to your house. By the way, you live next door to Mari Heller.
Mike: Marielle Heller and Jorma Taccone. Power directing couple.
Craig: Amazing. She was on our show as well. That building, it’s a duplex, right?
Mike: Well, we share a wall.
Craig: You share a wall. If there’s like a gas leak in that building, American culture will suffer. Primarily because we lost the writer of MacGruber.
Mike: That’s correct.
Craig: Because you know how I feel about MacGruber?
Mike: Oh, I feel identically about MacGruber. It’s one of the great comedies in American history.
Craig: The greatest. The greatest.
Mike: Along with Popstar, Jorma’s recent movie.
Craig: I haven’t yet seen it. But I’m going to, because I believe in him.
Mike: You will love it.
Craig: I will. If I loved MacGruber. So that’s an amazing home.
So I go to your home and you have this very impressive group. You have Frank Oz, by the way, reading one of the parts.
Craig: I didn’t know that was Frank Oz.
Mike: That’s what Ira said.
Craig: I didn’t know. I walked in, I sat down–
Mike: He’s like, “You’re getting notes from Yoda?”
Craig: I know! So I showed up, I sat down next to this guy, I didn’t really know anybody except for you and Mike Weber, who hadn’t shown up yet. And he’s just this nice man.
Mike: He is.
Craig: And I just started chatting with him and we were just like, you know, laughing and stuff. And then someone told me that was Frank Oz and my heart just – you know, like when your heart sinks and rises at the same time. You’re like, I’m scared and thrilled. I mean, it’s funny, like Yoda, but really for me, Grover.
Mike: I know.
Craig: It’s Grover. Like this man was there when I was four.
Mike: And he’s Cookie Monster.
Craig: I know. Miss Piggy.
Mike: He’s Miss Piggy. He’s Fozzie. He’s Animal.
Craig: Plus, he’s Frank Oz. I mean, the guy’s made some terrific movies.
Mike: Oh my god, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob? You could list them all day.
Craig: Did he make In & Out?
Mike: Bowfinger. In & Out.
Craig: Amazing movie.
Mike: Yeah. I know.
Craig: Paul Rudnick script, I believe. Very funny guy.
Mike: Those films are a great example of films it doesn’t seem like Hollywood is making right now.
Craig: Because they aren’t.
Craig: They’re not. They just don’t make them. They don’t.
Mike: And those are great comedies. Those are great studio comedies.
Craig: It’s a tale for another time. But that room was very impressive because you had intentionally assembled a lot of high powered people.
Mike: Wrecking crew.
Craig: A wrecking crew. And then exposed yourself to them. And then everybody has opinions. So many opinions.
Mike: Oh yeah.
Craig: And there were so many opinions that I made a choice to just write all my opinions down.
Mike: That was very generous of you.
Craig: Because ultimately, you can’t – I don’t know about you. I get into opinion overload where suddenly everything, my brain stops. I get numb.
Mike: Oh yeah. I had that. Every single reading.
Craig: It’s a weird feeling, isn’t it?
Craig: And you just want people to leave and take their pizza. Just get out of my house.
Mike: I would drink a lot.
Craig: [laughs] That’s healthy. I think that’s a great idea. Because from my understanding, drinking solves all emotional problems.
Mike: Yes. But, Craig, be cautious. Use it in moderation. No, there’s extreme stories.
Mike: Yeah. I’ll tell you. When the podcast ends, I’ll tell you all about it.
Craig: Sounds alarmist. Anyway, I want to talk to you about the paradox involved in writing a movie about a troupe of improvisational comedians. You’re doing the least improvisational thing there is, writing a screenplay.
Craig: And yet you somehow–
Mike: You’re trying to immortalize an ephemeral art from.
Craig: Correct. You are attempting to catch lightning in a bottle and freeze it, which of course then ruins it, right? There’s no way to have great improv that’s not improv’d. Everybody can smell it, right?
Craig: So how did you approach this from a screenwriting craft way?
Mike: I was doing a regular show at the Upright Citizens Brigade called Mike Birbiglia’s dream, where Tami Sagher from the movie and Chris Gethard from the movie and a rotating cast of people each week, Connor Ratliff, sometimes Aidy Bryant would play. Sometimes Gary Richardson would play. And we’d improvise every week and I would always ask as a prompt, “Has anyone had a hard day?”
And there’s a few, like in the movie where someone said like I saw my dad for the first time in ten years and he was driving a taxi. And that’s from a real show. And so I wouldn’t rip from the shows’ improv, actual improv, but I would rip sometimes the suggestion.
Craig: That’s fair.
Mike: And then I would free associate as though I were all the characters. And then I brought the cast to town early. Actually, Frank Oz gave me this piece of advice. When he came to the reading, he says, “The script is pretty much there. Just get the cast to town and take them bowling.”
Mike: It’s something he does when he directs films. And it worked. We all went bowling.
Craig: Take them bowling?
Mike: Yeah, he said because if they’re believably friends, the movie works. If they’re not, it doesn’t.
Craig: He really is Yoda.
Mike: I know.
Craig: Why? [Yoda impression]. I mean, it works. It legitimately works that way. I want him to do that for me all the time. That’s great, great advice. Because the thing about the movie that buoys everything, I think, is the absolute believability of all of those characters. There isn’t one of them that feels like they’ve been dropped in by a screenwriter. And it’s the best compliment I can give you as a writer.
Mike: Thank you. And I will compliment you on something that you’ve said on the podcast before, and then you said to me – your notes on my specific script is, you were like, “Cut a character.” You and John have said this before, many times, I believe. Think about cutting a character. It’s easier for your cinematographer to make frames. It’s easier for the audience to follow these characters.
One of the things that we found in the edit is that we had to cut a whole plot line and a character back to like a minimal amount because the audience can’t always follow all these characters. When you have six principals, it’s like how many more characters can people juggle in their head?
Craig: One thing that has always surprised me – it never stops surprising me – are the confusions that audiences do experience. I think, you know, on studio sides, they’re always obsessed with confusing the audience. So, they think audiences are confused by details and plot, and that’s why in movies a lot of times people are telling you things in a way that feels insulting to your intelligence, because many people’s intelligence was not insulted by that information.
But mostly what people are confused by are the strangest things like, “I didn’t know that those two people were two different people until halfway through the movie when they were in a scene together.”
Mike: That’s why casting is crucial.
Craig: Yes. Yes.
Mike: I had to keep that in mind when casting the six principals. Do they look different enough from each other so people don’t think that person is that person?
Mike: It sounds like we’re exaggerating by the way, and it’s actually 100% true.
Craig: Even smart people. Very smart people will say, “I didn’t understand that that person was her boyfriend.”
Mike: For example, I will never be cast in a movie with Ike Barinholtz.
Craig: Well, hold on.
Mike: It’s not going to happen.
Craig: There’s a good reason for that. Ike Barinholtz, way funnier than you.
Mike: Wait, I will walk out of this podcast right now.
Craig: So much funnier. Better looking.
Mike: Better looking, sure.
Craig: Better looking you. Funnier. He’s basically the best version of you. He’s like, if I’m making a movie of your life, I’m casting him.
Mike: Well, Seth Rogan is moderating a Q&A of the movie this weekend, and I’m going to make a pitch to him privately. “Can I play all the Ike Barinholtz parts in your movie? Because I’m cheap. I’m cheaper. I’ll do it for less. It’ll be more fun.”
Craig: By the way, it’s that classic thing.
Mike: I look like him. You can sub him out.
Craig: Who’s Ike Barinholtz? Get me Ike Barinholtz. Get me Mike Birbiglia. The young Ike Barinholtz. Who is Mike Birbiglia? [laughs] Get me Ike Barinholtz. This is Hollywood. This is it.
Tell us about the rollout of your movie. Right now in theaters.
Mike: Yeah. So we’re in that stage where we’re being sort of tested in the major markets. So it’ll be like in Chicago, Detroit, Boston, DC, Seattle, Austin, Portland, Los Angeles, all that kind of stuff. And then if it does well, it could end up in 500 or 1,000 theaters. There’s no way to know.
Craig: And who is releasing – tell us about the business of this.
Mike: A company called the Film Arcade is releasing it. It’s a company owned by Miranda Bailey, who is a great producer, and run by Jason Beck and Andy Bohn, who are – I had a meeting with Miranda, and Andy, and Jason like right after Sleepwalk With Me came out. And they said, you know, we have this company. It’s a small distribution company. They did Afternoon Delight. They did James White, which was a good indie film from last year.
Mike: I think it’s a company – I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying this – but I think it’s a company that gets outbid a lot by companies like A24 and some larger mid-range sort of indie distribution companies.
Craig: Tough business to be in.
Mike: Tough business, yeah, out of the festivals. And so they were game for this idea of like I said, “Here’s what I learned from releasing the film with IFC Films last time. I learned that when I show up around the country that it works. That you end up with people who, I answer questions, I went to 10 or 15 cities with Sleepwalk With Me. And when you talk to people about your movie, they can kind of see how much you care about it.”
Mike: Because I really do care about these things I make. And I try not to put out garbage. And I try desperately not to. And so I said to them, I was like I want to do that bigger. I want to do 30 cities. And I want to really strategize with you guys. And they were game for that.
And we’re like in the middle of it right now. I mean, it is a doozy.
Craig: This one is bigger than Sleep was, right?
Mike: It is. And it has the potential to be bigger. I think like what’s weird about it is in some ways it’s filling a need for a type of film that studios aren’t quite making, like we were saying, which is movies like The Big Chill, and like Hannah and Her Sisters, and Beautiful Girls, even, Almost Famous. These like mid-range budget films that actually are–
Craig: But you’re movie isn’t even in that what they would call mid-range budget, in other words like studios will say we’re trying to not make the $35 million adult drama.
Mike: No, I know.
Craig: This doesn’t cost $35 million.
Mike: No, no, no. It’s a fraction of that.
Craig: But the point is that–
Mike: But that’s the niche, I think, we could fill.
Craig: Yeah. I think it does. I think there is this desire to see adults navigating life. This group of characters that you put together is kind of remarkable. I think they work together beautifully. I believed them all as improvisational comics. I mean, they all are.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. They’re all comedians and comedic actors. But I had them come to town two or three weeks early, which was, you know, this is an indie film, so you have to sort of beg people like on the phone. “Hey, it’s all about us being friends, so can you come to town and we’ll rehearse things. And I can’t pay you. It’ll be fun.”
Craig: Right. Don’t tell SAG.
Mike: Yeah. And so they came and we did these improv workshops with Liz Allen, who is sort of an improv guru and friend. And we did improv shows. UCB and the Magnet. We actually did shows–
Craig: I didn’t know that. That’s amazing. As a troupe?
Mike: Yeah, to the point where like–
Craig: How did it go? Just out of curiosity.
Mike: Pretty good.
Mike: Yeah, the shows were–
Craig: That’s a risky move, Mike. Because you’ve put your cast together. You do a show. And you guys bomb and you’re like, oh boy.
Mike: Well, yeah, it’s ridiculous. I mean, Gillian always makes the joke that we’re doing a photoshoot in New Jersey for photos that are in the movie. And then they were like, okay, next thing in your itinerary is you guys are performing at UCB at 8 o’clock. And she’s like, “We are?” So, yeah, I mean, and I would say to them, like you don’t have to participate a lot if you don’t want. You can. You can stay on the backlines.
But anyway the point is we improvised and, I mean, Gillian got to be so good as an improviser. She denies this, but like she’s incredible. She was recommended by Lena Dunham, who read the script and said you have to get Gillian Jacobs for this part. And I said I’ve watched everything she’s done, and I’ve never seen her play a part like this. She said, “Gillian Jacobs can do anything.” And it proved to be entirely true.
Mike: Yeah. I feel very lucky. I quote you a lot in interviews and they say, “Wait, Craig who?” And then they say, “How do you spell that?”
Craig: And why?
Mike: And then I spell it. I say it over and over again. And then finally they just say, “Can we just say an anonymous screenwriter?” And I say, sure, doesn’t matter.
Craig: Jew. Can we just say Jew? Some Jew?
Mike: I’m not in this part of the conversation.
Mike: [laughs] No, but I quote this thing that you’ve said before, which is that TV is a chemistry experiment and film is a biology experiment, which is to say that TV you can work on the next episode, change this, add this ingredient, add this chemical. Next season we’ll try this. Next, you know, whatever.
Movies, you put in this cinematographer, this director, this cast, this gaffer, this makeup artist together, here’s what happens. It works or it doesn’t work. And so when I think about this movie, I just think, oh, I just got lucky.
Craig: Well, yes. But no. I mean, that’s the thing. Chance favors the prepared mind. You did all the right things. There’s no denying that luck happens, right?
Mike: Of course.
Craig: But even then the luck that occurs, I think, is a product of the fact that you are a talented guy that people love. Right? So Lena Dunham isn’t just chatting with other people.
Mike: A niche group of people. Sure.
Craig: But they’re a great niche of people. And I actually think it’s in your nature to be able to lead people to do things they may not otherwise have been comfortable doing. Because you’re so nice, and you’re so humble. I don’t know if it’s fake. It’s the best fake humility in history if it’s fake.
Mike: Thank you. No, I mean, I feel terrible about myself all the time.
Craig: Fantastic. Because it really shines through. And I think that, you know, I’ve always said some people motivate through fear and other people people just want to hug and make feel better. And I want to make you feel – I think everybody is rooting for you. And you somehow managed to be that guy, but also then be a legitimate leader, because you can’t survive directing a movie. Especially, I mean, look, directing low budget movies is hard.
Craig: I mean, how many pages were you guys doing a day?
Mike: At least five a day.
Craig: Yeesh. It’s tough.
Mike: It’s hard.
Craig: It’s tough. And it’s exhausting. And you’re acting in it. So how do you do that when you are tired and you are worried about the 14 other things that are happening?
Mike: Well, when I was casting the movie, Jorma Taccone, who we were talking about earlier, said you’ve got to play Jack, because it’s the best written part. And I was not being falsely modest. I said I’m not talented enough to play Jack. Like Keegan has a thing. Keegan-Michael Key has a thing that is – you look at him. You’re like, “What’s he going to do?”
Craig: I wouldn’t say that you’re not talented enough. I would say that that part requires the sort of person that Lorne Michaels would go, “You.”
Craig: Right. He has that glow.
Mike: He’s one of the great sketch comedians of the last 30 years.
Craig: That’s the other thing. In your mind you’re like, well, he does kind of deserve it, right? In real life he actually does have his own show, so yeah, he probably deserves it.
Mike: Yeah. And so then it was like, well, what part do I play? And in the readings I would do all different male parts. And with Miles, the part I play, it’s like, well, I can do bitter. I can handle bitter.
Craig: Well, you know what’s interesting. As I – when I saw the movie and I thought back to my initial impressions when I read the script, there were two interesting things that happened. One was that the character of Jack became so much more identifiable to me and sympathetic to me, even though he was succeeding and leaving people behind. I cared for him and I felt all of his dilemmas. Your character actually went the other way, because I felt so bad for your character. And it’s your portrayal, your directing and portrayal – on your own of your writing, he comes off as more broken.
Mike: He’s broken.
Craig: He’s broken.
Mike: Miles has had a hard time.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, and that’s your choice. You went for the broken guy. Who also is a little scummy.
Mike: Yeah. He’s a lecherous person.
Craig: Yeah. So that’s what you went for.
Mike: I know.
Craig: You could have picked anyone. Mike Birbiglia.
Mike: Yeah. But I’m lucky that the cast works in the way it works.
Craig: It’s brilliant.
Mike: It’s weird with movies. It’s like the biology/chemistry thing you say. You watch a movie and you just go, like sometimes when I watch Gillian Jacobs’s performance I go, “If she didn’t do that, wouldn’t be a movie.”
Craig: Well, that’s the thing. You know, and that’s where part of it is luck, but you also understood that that was the thing. Because in the end, the great fear of every actor, you know this, is that somebody in a room somewhere is going to make a decision about whether the camera should be on them or not, and which take to use.
So, it’s a credit to you. I mean, ultimately you can’t get more authorial than writing, producing, and directing your own movie, and starring in it.
Mike: I think there’s something to be said for when you do that you run the risk of spreading yourself too thing. And certain elements being not strong. But, the flip side of that, the positive is it pares down the amount of people on the set. So, it’s more likely that everyone is on the same page about what the vision of the film is. Because I think it’s Sidney Lumet who says in his book on directing, “The most important thing is everyone is making the same movie.”
Mike: And I can’t – if anyone is an aspiring director – I can’t emphasize that enough.
Craig: No one really is there to undermine you. Whereas I think, you know, a lot of directors making movies for studios, someone at some point is going to make them question everything. Which isn’t necessarily great.
Sometimes it’s important, but maybe not at that time.
Craig: Well, you did a fantastic job. I loved the movie. I think you did a great job.
Craig: I know that–
Mike: One of the things I want to, just in terms of the directing thing, too, is I’ve been traveling around the country, going to 30 cities with Liz Allen who coached our improv team in the movie. And she does these free improv workshops at these theaters and then I kind of speak about how improv related to my process as a director, and writer, and actor. And the thing that I always say, and I say this to everyone who listens to this, and I’m an avid listener to this show.
Craig: Of course you are.
Mike: So, we’re of the same people, all of us listeners. I would highly recommend people make something. If they’re aspiring, you know, they’re living in Austin, or Iowa City, or Chicago, or anything, and you feel like you have something to say, or a story to tell, we’re in an era where you can shoot something for nothing.
Craig: For nothing. With an HD camera in your hand.
Mike: Yeah. And if you don’t believe me, go on Netflix. You can use my password. And watch Tangerine. And you will just go, “Oh, that can be a movie. Holy cow.”
Craig: We say this all the time. There’s no real way to understand what the job of screenwriting is if you only do half the job. Because half the job is putting some document together. And then the rest of it is seeing it through.
Craig: I mean, you know the first time you saw what you wrote, then edited and put on screen, you thought, okay, now I have to go back and relearn everything and rethink everything.
Mike: Oh, of course.
Craig: Now I understand what this means. So, you’re 100% right. I don’t know – I mean, look, I think a lot of people do make little shorts. They’ll shoot a scene. But I wouldn’t suggest necessarily to people to go out and start making things so you can become famous and sell those things. Make them as part of your education.
Craig: You don’t have to show them to anybody. If you make something of your own thing, and you hate it, you’ve learned so much.
Mike: I did that in college. I shot a short film called Waiting to be Great.
Craig: It’s still waiting.
Mike: It’s still waiting. I mean, it was really not done. I mean, in the edit we kind of gave up on it at a certain point. And like we showed it to friends. And it was terrible. And they said, “Nice try.”
Craig: [laughs] These friends sound awful. Well, you are our good friend. We’re very, very proud of you. The movie is getting terrific reviews, although, frankly, you know, I don’t care about that.
Mike: You’re not a reviews guy.
Craig: I just care about my own review. Well, come on, Ira Glass is producing it. It’s like rubbing bacon on something and holding it in front of a dog. Of course they like it. Please. But I like it. And I matter. So, everyone should go see this movie. If it is playing in a city near you, think about going and bringing a friend, because it’s also good to support this kind of cinema, I believe.
Mike: I think it’s like your favorite coffee shop on the corner, your favorite sandwich shop. If you want it to still exist, get your coffee there.
Craig: Right. And best news of all, this movie is entertaining and funny. It is not homework. We’re not asking you to eat a bunch of sprouts on a plate. It’s good. It’s like comfort food.
Mike: The cool thing is people keep tweeting me things like I’ve seen it four times now. Yeah, that’s all I want to hear.
Craig: That’s amazing. So, fantastic. Why don’t we move on to some listener questions, because I want to hear your wisdom about things. I got to start with this question, because the name is so fantastic. [Ayish Taccuh]. I believe I’m pronouncing [Taccuh] correctly. [Ayish Taccuh] writes, “First of all, I’m a big fan of Scriptnotes and I appreciate what you guys are dong. Keep up the great work.”
Craig: I presume they’re talking to you and me, and not John.
Mike: Yeah, not John. No.
Craig: “So, I am writing a screenplay in which my plot demands to assassinate the President of the United States and the objective is completed. Can you please tell me if it is legal to do that? Or if it is a felony of some sort.”
Mike: Oh my gosh. It depends on how well it’s written.
Mike: It depends on what font it’s in. Don’t put it in ZDingbats.
Craig: Like clipped together newsprint. Yeah, exactly. You don’t want to scroll it on the back of a wrinkled picture of yourself in blood. You know, we get questions a lot–
Mike: Markers and blood.
Craig: Yeah, that’s probably a bad idea. With bits of your hair taped to it. That’s probably not the way to go. We get legal questions all the time. You know, so neither John nor I are lawyers. Obviously, Mike Birbiglia, admitted to the New York State bar and is a practicing attorney in the area of – what do you work in? Mostly family/divorce stuff?
Mike: Yeah. I do divorce law.
Craig: Divorce law. You are allowed to assassinate a fictional president in a movie.
Mike: In a movie script, yeah.
Craig: Of course. And you know this, Ayish, because it’s happened so many times in movies. But, no, you definitely don’t want to write something that makes people go, “Uh, is this a cry for help?” Just don’t be weird about it.
It’s actually a good question. You want to be careful to not make people think that you’re nuts, or that you’re – anytime that you write something that seems a little scary, it’s a reasonable question for people to say, “Are you also scary? Or is it just your movie?” You know, like was it Andrew Davis who wrote Se7en? Andrew Walker Davis, I believe.
Mike: I don’t know.
Craig: It would have been fair to say, “Is this guy okay?” Or he’s just a really good writer, right?
Mike: But that’s why you’d say don’t hold back. Like I always say I try to write in the morning at 7AM. I go to a coffee shop, before I’m afraid of the world.
Mike: You know what I mean? I never want to hold myself back from what’s in my subconscious. I like to blurt it out and then edit it later. It’s like the Hemingway quote which is like write drunk, edit sober. And I don’t write drunk, but I write sleepy.
Craig: By the way, I tend to write sleepy on the other side. You know, I let the day go through–
Mike: Late at night. Yeah, I’ve heard that about you. I heard people get emails from you at three, four in the morning.
Craig: Well, you know, it’s business hours somewhere.
Craig: The hell with them if they don’t like it.
Mike: No, they love it.
Craig: Look how quickly I get angry about everything. All right, next question, this is from John Lambert. John says, this is appropriate to what we were talking, being in your 30s and facing this crossroads. “I’m 34. I’ve made the conscious decision to move to LA and chase my screenwriting dreams. My long term goals, I think, are irrelevant at this point. My short term goal is sufficiently daunting and difficult. My short term goal being getting staffed on a TV show. I guess I’m just looking for some advice from two very trusted sources, whom I respect.” Or in this case, just one.
Mike: One, yeah.
Craig: “By the way, I’ve been speaking to a manager, but I know I shouldn’t expect meetings to be set until I’m an official LA resident.” So, he’s looking for general advice, I guess, being 34. It seems like, okay, maybe I’m starting a little later than the kid out of college. What do you think about that as a general?
Mike: Well, they say, I don’t write for TV, but I have friends who have come out here and written – they say write a spec. I’ve heard that, kind of let your imagination run wild, because no one is going to ever make the spec. But you can kind of show them the extremes that you’re kind of–
Craig: When you spec, you mean like a spec episode of an existing show?
Mike: I’m sorry. Write your own original.
Craig: Yeah, your own original. Exactly.
Mike: Yes. And then kind of like with no respect for budget or talent or whatever. Just sort of like let your imagination run wild, the way that Charlie Kaufman did with Being John Malkovich, I think, was intended as something that he knew would never be made.
Craig: Correct. Right.
Mike: And so he wrote this wild script, and then sure enough it got made.
Craig: Because I think Charlie Kaufman was working on, I want to say Alf. I mean, he was a sitcom writer.
Mike: Yeah. He was staffed on a lot of shows.
Craig: I think that sometimes people get a little too hung up on how their circumstances narrow their possibilities. You know, so John is 34, and I understand he’s a little concerned that maybe he’s not 20. And how do you get to this place. And I always think, well, I guess if everything lines up perfectly for you, the odds are a million to one. So, now maybe the odds are three million to one, or five million to one. What’s the difference? At that point, the odds are bad. Just presume that. Doesn’t matter who you are. Does not matter who you are, the odds are bad.
Absorb that. Now do you still want to go for it? Go for it. But I always say to anyone – I don’t know if John has a family. It doesn’t sound like he does. But if anyone is relying on you, please make sure you have a job, a job of any kind, with health insurance. Because it goes back to our dream discussion.
Dreams are nice and everything, but “follow your dreams” is actually terrible advice. Attempt your dreams while doing other things just in case your dreams don’t work out. I’m a big believer in that. I’m a bets hedger.
Mike: And I would say, this is just hitting me about the TV question, because I feel like I don’t write for TV, but I always think like I’m making independent film, not because it’s going to make me rich, because it won’t, but because it’s what I love. I would always say like if you love TV, go after that.
Craig: Don’t go after it just because you think the jobs are there. I completely agree.
Mike: Because they’re not.
Craig: Well, that’s the thing. You could say like, oh, there’s five extra jobs for the 14 million people that want them. You’re absolutely right. You’re best odds are you doing the thing that you’re best at.
Mike: Yeah. Do what you love and not what you like.
Mike: Doing what you like only leads to a lot – you’re in competition with people who love it. And that will lose.
Craig: I will give Brian Koppelman credit. This happens once every four years. Maybe the best two words of advice that I’ve ever heard for people that want to break into show business. “Calculate less.”
Mike: Oh interesting. I like that.
Craig: Because, man, they’re always, and I understand the instinct to try and reason your way to success, and if I do the following and I arrange these things. It just doesn’t work that way.
Mike: Eugene Mirman says this thing, because he gets approached by young comics all the time, and they say what do I do. And he says, “Start doing comedy, keep doing comedy, call me in ten years.”
Craig: I mean, isn’t that it? Right.
Mike: And I think that applies to anything in the artistic realm. It’s like it takes a hard ten years.
Craig: There is no – I know, it’s rough when people are like do you have any words of advice. He’s asking a reasonable question.
Mike: How can I get staffed on a show?
Craig: I’m just looking for some advice. There is kind of none.
Mike: Well, it’s the thing, and I think you guys have said this before. There is no path to becoming a professional screenwriter. And the reason there’s no path is that once someone has paved their own path, that path is done.
Craig: It’s done.
Mike: And so then not only do you have to be a great screenwriter, but you have to invent what your path is that hasn’t been done before.
Craig: That’s right. Which echoes, of course, what your value is to the business anyway, which is some kind of unique voice or expression. We see this when there’s a big explosion of somebody. And it doesn’t happen often, but when it happens, everyone notices. Quentin Tarantino or Diablo Cody.
Mike: Yes. Diablo Cody was a big one.
Craig: Or Lena Dunham for instance.
Craig: In their wake are a thousand pretenders who are like, “Oh, that’s how you do it.” No, no, that’s how they did it. The way is shut. When the way is shut, the way is shut.
All right, let’s get to Freddie. Freddie Hernandez has two questions. One, he’s always been curious as to how long it takes either John or I, or you, Mike Birbiglia, to write a feature. “Is there a timeframe I should try to build towards as a writer? I realize that timeline is probably driven by other factors, but I’m curious as to your thoughts in how long a professional screenwriter should take to crank out a draft, and what is acceptable in the industry.”
So, let’s start with that question. You have an answer for that?
Mike: My script of Don’t Think Twice took about a year and a half, which is a long time.
Craig: That’s one draft or multiple drafts?
Mike: Multiple. Probably about 13 to 15 drafts.
Mike: The Coen brothers, god love them, three months. I mean, it’s baffling to me.
Craig: They’re kind of amazing that way.
Mike: The degree to which they’re prolific, and Woody Allen the same way. Three months or whatever. I don’t understand it. I imagine you write scripts fast, because when you would give me notes on my script it was like your brain was like a fountain of ideas and solutions. And that was so sort of like flowing that I was astonished by it. And I thought that’s because you’ve been doing this for 20 years. Your brain is somehow like – how long does it take you?
Craig: Well, you know, we have to draw a distinction between a draft and coming up with a story and the final script. You know, Scott Frank says, “Anything good should take a year, minimum.”
Mike: I generally feel about the same way.
Craig: I agree. And the truth is it may take the Coen brothers three months, but I don’t believe that they just lock it down and then they’re not changing a word after three months. Plus, there’s two of them. And they’re brothers. Granted, they’re also geniuses. So, maybe their genius thing.
But for me, I think—
Mike: I wish that they had a podcast.
Craig: That would be amazing.
Mike: Then I could understand the secrets of them. But not to disrespect what you and John are doing.
Craig: No, no, of course.
Mike: But if the Coen brothers had Coen-Notes, I would subscribe to that so fast. And I would unsubscribe to this.
Craig: So would I.
Mike: Oh my god.
Craig: I would mostly come on this to just talk about what they said. God, would John get upset. Oh my god, would he get upset.
Mike: We’d start a podcast called Talking Coen-Notes.
Craig: That’s right. Post Coen.
Mike: It would be us and Chris Hardwick.
Craig: Oh, is he a big Coen–?
Mike: No, he does Talking Dead after Walking Dead.
Craig: This is how little I know about podcasts. We just had our own one, like John did as a joke, a quasi-joke, Matt Selman–
Mike: Talking Scriptnotes?
Craig: Matt Selman, who is the head writer at Simpsons, did a Talking Scriptnotes episode.
Mike: Oh, that’s awesome!
Craig: With Aline McKenna and Rawson Thurber.
Mike: Is that on the premium?
Mike: Oh my gosh. I got to get that.
Craig: Yeah. I haven’t listened to it.
Craig: Because I don’t listen to podcasts. But we’ll have to get to that.
Mike: By the way, Scriptnotes, I don’t know if this is a first, you’re thanked in the credits of the movie, Don’t Think Twice.
Craig: What? The podcast?
Mike: Scriptnotes podcast.
Craig: Wow. Oh, that’s fantastic. John’s going to flip.
Mike: And you and John, separately.
Craig: Nice, but did I get a slightly larger–?
Mike: Yeah. It’s a huge font.
Craig: Like I get my own card. Like the first time in history someone got their own special card at the end–
Mike: Single card.
Craig: In a picture. [laughs]
Mike: And your Facebook status. Married.
Craig: It’s so great. Thank you for that. Freddie, I think, I could tell you how long it takes me. It takes me usually about four weeks to really break out a story, and about eight weeks to get to the end of first draft. So now you’re talking about three months. But then another six months of revisions and thinking and revise, and revise, and revise. If it’s going to be done properly. I don’t often get that luxury.
A lot of times I’m told, “We need this to be fixed. We need it within—“
Craig: Yeah. Like there’s an actor who will say yes or no to this, so your job is to get an actor to say yes. At that point, my job actually isn’t screenwriting, it’s this other thing that I can’t really quite describe. But for things that I’m doing that are original to me, I’m looking at about a year.
So, don’t beat yourself up, buddy. Don’t worry. There are writers who will tell you that they work super, super fast. There are writers who will tell you they work super, super slow. If there’s any trend I can identify with the writers that I think are really good at what they do, they’re a bit slower. They actually seem to be taking their time.
Mike: And I think, again, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite I think is the key. I always try to think of get a pass done. I think John says this on the podcast that he’ll go away and break the back on the script, I think is what he says. And then revise from there.
I mean, when I was in screenwriting class in college, my professor brought the American Beauty screenplay in for us to read. And he said, “Note that it says Draft 13 on the front.”
Craig: Right. Exactly.
Mike: And we all were like, “Right, for this movie.” And you don’t realize until you’re in this field that, no, it’s 13 drafts, 14, maybe 20.
Craig: Right. And some of those are smaller revisions. Some of them are larger. But it will never stop, really. You stop writing the movie when you lock picture, basically. That’s the end of it.
All right. We have time for one more question. Let’s go for, I’ll skip his second question, because he only gets one. Here’s an interesting one. It sort of ties into Ayish’s question about assassinating the president. Chris Christ, that can’t – I mean…
Mike: Stage name.
Craig: Yeah. Chris Christ writes, “Huge fan of the show. Been listening for nearly four years now.” I wish that were the question, but there’s more. “My question is, is there such a thing as too violet a script? I have a scene where a main character is brutally murdered by the villain, and while the brutality aligns with the villain’s character, I worry that it may be off-putting to future readers. However, I then think about people’s heads exploding on Game of Thrones, or people being eaten alive on The Walking Dead. Where is the borderline between shocking yet effective violence and gratuitous violence?”
Mike: This is so subjective. I don’t enjoy gratuitous violence in film. But, yet, I love Quentin Tarantino films.
Craig: Well, there you go. So, gratuitous is the word we give to violence we don’t like.
Craig: And effective and impactful is the words we give to violence we do like. And it is – violence to me is like nudity. In and of itself, there’s an inherent power to it. And so you have to employ it with skill, otherwise you’re just being pornographic, or you’re just being gross. And it’s amazing how the slightest differences in tone can turn something from beautiful or evocative into porny or disgusting.
Craig: So, the answer is write it well. All right, I think it’s time for our One Cool Thing. So, my One Cool Thing this week is an app called FING. F-I-N-G. It’s free. It’s a wireless network scanning app. It shows every device currently accessing your wireless network. So, you got a Wi-Fi thing at home and you’ve got like 4,000 little bitsy-bobs in your house that are all on your Wi-Fi network, but something is not working or something is slowing down, this thing shows you every single device that’s currently connected.
Mike: Oh yes.
Craig: And it also shows you who manufactures the device and whether or not they’re connected through the Internet. And you can do a ping or trace route. If you are the IT expert in your home – are you? I’m going to say not a chance.
Mike: Not really.
Craig: The baby, right? It’s the baby?
Mike: The baby, Una.
Craig: Una is like–
Mike: Una Birbiglia. 14 months old. Tech expert now.
Craig: By the way, greatest name. Because her name is One Birbiglia in Italian.
Mike: Oh, my wife is going to love that.
Craig: That’s amazing. Una Birbiglia. Always wondering if she’s getting good ping on a particular device. So, FING. And it’s free. So an easy one to download if you are the IT expert in the house.
Mike: I used your One Cool Thing from many, many episodes ago, the password protector thing. One Password.
Craig: How great is that?
Craig: Isn’t that amazing?
Mike: Yeah. That’s phenomenal. And also, by the way, I always tell people about this podcast, and any aspiring screenwriter, and if people are listening for the first time because they wanted to hear me, and then unfortunately they have to listen to Craig, just know that all of the episodes – this podcast, there’s hundreds of episodes and they’re all brilliant.
And I think people always ask me what episodes should they crack into, and I always say the one with the psychiatrist.
Craig: Episode 99.
Mike: That one is phenomenal.
Mike: And then there’s one about TV versus film, what’s the difference.
Craig: Oh yeah. I don’t know the number of that one off hand.
Mike: That one was really interesting. Isn’t there an episode about what is the best episode? I think there is.
Craig: We’re not that self-serving.
Mike: Oh, yeah, okay. It’s not that?
Craig: You can do that on After-Notes, or whatever they call it.
Mike: Yeah, yeah, Talking Notes.
Craig: [laughs] Talking Notes. We have a name for it. I can’t remember. He came up with a name for it.
Mike: But listen to that doctor one. The psychiatrist one. 99.
Craig: That’s a great one. He’s a psychologist, actually. Dennis Palumbo was, I’m not in therapy currently, but for many years he was my weekly therapist. And he’s just awesome.
Mike: He’s a writer-therapist.
Craig: I mean, how amazing is that? He has an Oscar nomination. And he’s a therapist.
Mike: It’s unbelievable.
Craig: He’s terrific. And I think about what he says all the time.
Mike: So my One Cool Thing would be indie film. Support your local indie film cinema, wherever you are, so that more movies like ours, and Captain Fantastic, and Tickled, to name a few, get made.
Craig: And when you saw local independent cinema, are you talking about the movies – the places. Like the actual physical buildings that run these movies need people to show up.
Mike: They do. So your Landmark Cinema. The Main Art in Detroit. Or the Music Box in Chicago. The Landmark New Art in Los Angeles. Just look at what they’re playing, because chances are they care about what they’re playing. And they’re not just looking to play the movie that’s going to make them the most money.
Craig: No question.
Mike: If they wanted to make money, they’d play Batman v. Superman on every screen.
Craig: Well, they can’t. Because they don’t get Batman v. Superman. But that’s the point is that they will disappear if people–
Mike: If you don’t go.
Craig: If people say, “Well, oh, yeah, I loved Mike Birbiglia’s last movie. I’d love to see this one. I’ll Netflix it. I’ll iTunes it.” Well, okay, then these places will go and you won’t get to actually see them on – and especially a comedy like yours. I mean, it’s dramatic, and it’s sad, and it’s sweet, but it’s also really funny. There’s nothing like seeing it in a big room.
Mike: With strangers. To laugh and cry with strangers and to feel like, oh, I’m not the only person who feels like that.
Craig: Right. Exactly.
Mike: And BAM, in Brooklyn, we’re playing at. That’s a great cinema.
Craig: I’m going to say before we hit our little conclusion here that you did have your stand up show running in New York called Thank God for Jokes. Is that going to be touring?
Mike: I’m going to do probably 15 cities that we haven’t announced in the fall. And then we’ll film it and release it as a comedy special. But you can find out all that if you follow me. I’m @birbigs on Twitter. Or like me, Birbig Fans, on Facebook, which I try to go minimal political tweets.
Craig: Oh, yeah, me too. [laughs]
Mike: But I sometimes am so enraged. But, trust me, I hold back.
Craig: These days, I think, I don’t know, the gloves are off.
Mike: Follow Craig for all Ted Cruz – all tweets about a candidate who didn’t get the Republican nomination.
Craig: It’s so great. Feels so good, man. Are you going to be, I assume, Thank God for Jokes will be touring here in Los Angeles?
Mike: I hope so. Yeah.
Craig: Because I’d like to…
Mike: Like to check that out?
Craig: Yeah. Maybe come back stage.
Mike: Oh. I don’t think we’re available that night.
Craig: Oh, okay.
Mike: I’m not sure what the night is. But–
Craig: Who’s the “we,” anyway?
Mike: Well, it’s an organization of people. There’s a lot of–
Craig: I understand your team.
Mike: It’s my team.
Craig: Your team is not available.
Mike: There’s just not enough room backstage.
Craig: I understand. At the Pantages.
Mike: [laughs] But I appreciate your interest. But, no, of course I’ll invite you to that when it comes to Los Angeles. And I bow to you and John, whose seat I’m filling. It’s an honor to be sitting in your seat this week, John. I appreciate, and I think a lot of us appreciate what you guys do, making this podcast, for free.
Craig: For free. Always for free. That’s the most important thing. Except that I feel like John is making a lot of money. As always, meaning for a few days now, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from someone that Godwin is going to select, so it is a surprise to me, but we’ll be sure to credit him or her next week.
If you have an outro for us that you would like us to try, send it in to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also a place where you can send longer questions, of the type you heard today. For shorter questions, on Twitter I am @clmazin. John is @johnaugust.
You can find us on iTunes at Scriptnotes. Just search for Scriptnotes. And while you’re there, leave us a comment, because John always says to do that. And he loves comments. He loves them. You know, a lot of times he says, “You know what we should do? We should read some of the nice comments.” And I always think, oh, I want to read the terrible ones. I’m only interested in the terrible ones.
Mike: You want people to go after you.
Craig: And, you know, luckily my life has brought me a lot of that, so there’s never been a lack of abundance of criticism for me.
Mike: Yeah, you got to hit the Internet more.
Craig: Unfortunately, in this case, the comments are all incredibly lovely.
Mike: Oh, that’s nice.
Craig: And it’s weird for me. Mike, thank you so much for being here. And for everybody listening at home, please, if it is in your city, check out Don’t Think Twice in theaters. I think it’s got a 100% on the critical slurry site where they take all of the irrelevant opinions and blend them into a thin paste of nonsense.
Craig: And fear not, John will be back next week. And we will see you then. Bye-bye.
- Don’t Think Twice on Rotten Tomatoes
- Angela Duckworth New York Times Op-Ed
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on Good Reads
- Frank Oz on IMDB
- Episode 99: Psychotherapy for Screenwriters
- Landmark Theatres
- Music Box Theatre
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- Mike Birbiglia on Twitter
- Outro by Matt Davis (send us yours!)
You can download the episode here.
Craig and guest host Mike Birbiglia discuss Mike’s new film, Don’t Think Twice, a comedy about life as an improv performer. The two explore the current state of independent film and the challenges facing aspiring filmmakers.
Craig and Mike also answer listener questions, including one on assassinating a fictional president.
- Don’t Think Twice on Rotten Tomatoes
- Angela Duckworth New York Times Op-Ed
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on Good Reads
- Frank Oz on IMDB
- Episode 99: Psychotherapy for Screenwriters
- Landmark Theatres
- Music Box Theatre
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- Mike Birbiglia on Twitter
- Outro by Matt Davis (send us yours!)
You can download the episode here.
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 260 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, Craig and I are going to implore all screenwriters to think twice before using the phrase “begs the question.” We will also be doing one of our favorite features, How Would This Be a Movie? This week we’ll be looking at Anthrax, Amnesia, and Atomic Veterans.
Craig: Now, that in and of itself would be a fantastic single movie.
John: One hundred percent. I think you need some, like there’s a superhero aspect. There’s a courtroom trial aspect. Atomic Veteran just feels like a lesser grade Marvel hero.
Craig: Yeah, like, we can’t get Captain America, but we did find Atomic Veteran.
John: Completely. He doesn’t remember that he is Atomic Veteran because of the anthrax attack. But it will all be sensible by the third act.
Craig: Yeah. Atomic Veteran’s principal super power: reminiscence.
John: Oh, very – fond reminiscence but also a little heartbreak.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah.
John: The things he had to do. The flash of light that took away his true love.
Craig: Oh, wow. This is actually getting to be a really good movie.
John: It’s going to be a good movie. So, let’s save that for the key points, though. Because last week was a huge bombshell episode.
Craig: I mean, everything happened. We are the show where nothing happens for 258 episodes, and then at 259 the whole thing goes up in flames.
John: So, to recap, I am moving to Paris. Stuart is leaving us. We have a brand new producer, Godwin Jabangwe. Also, I sold a book.
John: And so on the episode last week I talked about it in a vague sense because the announcement hadn’t gone out, but now it is out. So, the books title is Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire. Arlo Finch is the lead character of it. It is middle grade fiction. It is sort of the kids’ fantasy fiction. The same kind of book as a Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. There will be three of them at least. And it’s Macmillan that bought it, so it’s a division of Macmillan. And I’m so excited. I am writing them now.
So, my year in Paris will be spent writing kids’ books that are not set in Paris.
Craig: Arlo Finch is so instantly recognizable as a YA hero name. And it’s great.
John: Thank you.
Craig: I kind of secretly want there to be a YA series where the hero is Jim Cummings, or Tasha O’Brien. Just something that’s so – it’s not even mundane. It’s in the weird uncanny valley between Jim Smith and Arlo Finch. You know, just like–
John: I see what you’re saying.
Craig: It’s so average, it’s nothing.
John: Like Tasha O’Brien is an interesting case, because Tasha could go somewhere and O’Brien could go somewhere, but Tasha O’Brien feels just like weird. And it doesn’t have–
Craig: Like a mistake.
John: Like a mistake. You’ve got that weird sort of Shwa at the end of Tasha O’Brien.
Craig: It’s terrible. It’s the worst thing. And I just thought of it. I have to give myself a pat on the back, because, you know, the things we ask our brains to do. I said, Brain, fetch me a name that is weirdly off.
John: Yep. So, I’m very excited to be writing it. At some point I’ll go into sort of more of the details on how I wrote it and how I sold it, but this was my NaNoWriMo project. I wrote a bunch of it back in November. I didn’t write all of it back in November. What you actually sell when you sell a book is often, in this case, the first bunch of chapters and then a proposal for the rest of it. And so that is what the editors read and that is what they bought. And it’s been exciting to go back and write the whole book.
Craig: Now, I see that it’s coming out through Roaring Brook Press. And Roaring Brook is part of Macmillan. So, give us a sense of the other kinds of books that we’ve seen from Roaring Brook so we know what your family is of books.
John: From that specific in-print, I cannot point to any titles that you would have recognized. The other books that my editor, Connie Hsu has worked on, they’re really good sellers and really well done books in that genre, but they’re not like big blockbuster names.
Craig: You will make Roaring Book Press – I mean, you will be the – Roaring Brook will be the house John August built.
John: It could be. So, it is good to understand, we always think in terms of studios, and so we have Paramount and we have Warner Bros, but within each of those big places you have the individual labels. Like Sony has TriStar, they have Columbia, they have Studio 8, and Sony Pictures Animation. There’s different houses within that. And that’s sort of is what it’s like with Roaring Brook Press. They are one of the labels within the bigger company, Macmillan.
So, while I’m so happy to be writing for Connie and for this division, bigger people at Macmillan had to make the call whether to say yes or no to the book, and so I’m happy that they did.
Craig: Did it go all the way to Macmillan?
John: It goes to Mr. Macmillan himself. He has a monocle. And so you have to speak very quietly and slowly, but then he says yes or no and it’s all good.
Craig: I will never, never release my child-like view of the world. I just presume, oh, the company is Macmillan, well, so when can I speak to Macmillan?
John: Exactly. But Macmillan is actually headquartered in the Flatiron Building. So, I’ve not actually visited their offices yet, but I’m excited to visit their offices because it’s that weird narrow building in New York City as you head downtown. And you always see that in movies and that’s actually where they will be dissecting every comma in my book.
Craig: I believe, just off the top of my head, I think the Flatiron building is right near a place called Eataly.
Craig: I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Eataly.
John: I’ve heard many legends of Eataly. I’ve never been there, but that is the famed sort of Italian market with a zillion restaurants and a place where everyone enjoys their Italian food.
Craig: Yeah. It’s really cool. I like it.
John: Cool. There’s other follow up. So, last week not only did we have the season finale episode, we also had Matt Selman , Aline Brosh McKenna, and Rawson Marshall Thurber discussing the season finale episode in a bonus episode we called Duly Noted. That was just the three of them. I wasn’t there while they were recording it. I hit record and I left the room. And so I want to thank them for doing that. It was just a weird lark experiment.
Craig, what did you think of it?
Craig: [laughs] I think you know the answer to that. I don’t listen to podcasts, John. I have no idea what they said whatsoever. I mean, I love all three of them. At some point I will listen to it. Was it good?
John: It was good. It was – they’re three very smart people. So, it was weird and fascinating to hear them talk about me and us without us being there. And so that was great. They’re all three big fans of the show. Matt Selman has never been on the show, but has listened to almost every episode, so it was great to have him as an outside voice dissecting sort of what we do. So, it was fun.
It was just sort of a lark. And I don’t know that there will be more Duly Noted, but let us know what you thought of that and if you’d like to hear more of those in the future. It’s not going to be a weekly thing. This isn’t going to be our weekly recap episode.
Craig: No. We can’t support that sort of thing. We’re just not that interesting.
John: No. I will say that if listeners find a given episode so noteworthy that they actually want to record their episode, I wouldn’t stand in their way. So, if you do want to record a response episode and you can do a good job of it, send us a link and I would consider putting it in the feed as a Duly Noted episode. You could be any random people who have the ability to have a good conversation about the show. I’d consider that. No guarantees, but maybe.
Craig: Wow. That’s very generous of you.
John: Well, I’m not really promising anything other than I might listen to it.
Craig: So, I take it back. That was just empty generosity.
John: [laughs] Last week, you had a One Cool Thing, and we had a listener who wrote in with a response to your One Cool Thing.
Craig: Yeah. So, I was talking about the idea that we live in a simulation, which I pretty much agree with. And then I had read that the existence of Pi and irrational numbers like Pi that never stop, the digits just keep coming and coming, that they prove possibly that we’re not in a simulation because there’s no end, and a simulation theoretically should be finite.
And about 14,000 dorks on Twitter patiently explained to me that that was not true. Alit decided to write in. So, we’ll give Alit the floor. Alit says, “PI being theoretically infinite,” well, hold on. Well, I guess that’s fair, because we never got to the end. “Pi being theoretically infinite doesn’t preclude a finite simulation including Pi as part of its construct. This is because Pi is defined as a ratio between a circle circumference and it diameter. Any representation of Pi in real rational form, that is 3.14, is necessarily an approximation, both in a simulated and non-simulated universe.
“So any simulation dealing with Pi would only need to compute Pi out as far as practically necessary for the simulation. Therefore, Pi exists, therefore we’re not in simulation argument doesn’t hold.” And a bunch of people said similar things. Including, oh, you know, if they’re smart enough to create a virtual reality as complicated as the one we appear to be in right now, they could probably toss on a few hundred trillion digits of Pi. I think we’ve managed to get up to a trillion or something like that.
John: Certainly. So, Craig, the important question is are you convinced by this line of reasoning?
Craig: Yeah. It seems convincing. I think I’m going to have to stand down on the whole Pi thing and revert back to my initial perspective which was that none of this is real. And especially not you.
John: And especially not the 10,000 Twitter people who tweeted you the answer that Pi was not proof, because they weren’t real either.
Craig: No. No. As far as I can tell, I’m the only one.
Craig: But, I got to say, I’m really enjoying the show so far. I mean, the show of reality is just terrific.
John: It’s really well done.
Last week we also talked about Overboard and one of our listeners had done a recut sort of as a request that took the Goldie Hawn comedy and made it a thriller. We have a different trailer that Latif Ullah also wrote in with, which also does similarly a good job of using moments from that movie to set it up as a thriller. So, we’ll put a link to his version, or her version. I don’t know if Latif is a male or female name, in the show notes.
Craig: Also in follow up, a little something about Phil Lord, who recently moved off to England with his writing and directing partner, Chris Miller. I went to Chris’s house for a little goodbye soiree and ran into Phil. And he told me that he listens to us in the shower. So, when Phil, and this is now the person that’s going to be imbuing life to the new Han Solo, when Phil is nude he listens to us. But more importantly, John, I wanted you to know that he told me that he uses Highland.
So, Highland theoretically now will be used to write the new Han Solo standalone movie.
John: That is pretty much amazing. So, Phil Lord, who I should also say has one of those names that is kind of broken and wrong in a Craig’s bad YA novel character way. Like Phil Lord, it’s like it’s two words, but it sort of comes out as one word. Phil and Chris are fantastic. And Phil had actually emailed me a couple weeks ago because there’s something they were trying to do in Highland and he couldn’t figure out how to do it. It was a Courier Prime problem, and I talked him through how to do it.
But I was so excited that he was using Highland to write this new version of Han Solo that he was working on. So, hooray.
John: Let’s get to questions. We have a question from Zack in the UK. And rather than us reading it aloud, I asked if Zack would actually record himself asking the question so we could hear his question in his own words. So let’s listen to Zack.
Zack: Hi John and Craig. Zack from London here. I wondered if you might be able to help solve a script problem that’s been driving us all nuts. We have a script in which a characters’ consciousness are transferred between bodies. When describing the character, it’s important to know which consciousness we are looking at, as well as which body. Both consciousness and bodies recur during the script, so we can’t just discard them after each switch.
So my question is, how would you suggest notating the script to make this clear to the reader. The danger is that bad notation turns a script into one big hot unreadable mess. Is there an elegant solution?
John: Craig, what’s your thought? Is there an elegant solution for dealing with a situation where the person speaking is not the person we see onscreen?
Craig: I think there is. I dealt with something like this when I writing a script called Cowboy Ninja Viking, which I guess still might get made. Chris Pratt has signed on to do it, so that’s exciting. And the idea of that property is that there’s a guy who in his mind has I guess what you’d call split personality, and so imagines himself as a cowboy, a ninja, and a Viking. And in these scenes, sometimes we would see those characters when we were in his perspective, but then from other people’s perspective, we would just see him.
And at times, he alone would be acting as a cowboy, or a ninja, or a Viking. So, what I did in those situations was the character’s name is Duncan, so I would have Duncan, and then I would have Ninja, and then I would have Duncan as Ninja.
So, in this case, I would probably do something similar. Like if it were you and me and were switching minds, I would say John, Craig, Craig inside John, John inside Craig. Something like that.
John: We have one listener in particular who is so hot and bothered hearing John inside Craig and Craig inside John.
Craig: It’s Sexy Craig, right?
John: That is.
John: Just awful. So, what you’re describing, Craig, is that in the character cue, so like the little bit that goes above dialogue, you are saying Duncan as Cowboy. That’s the name of the character who is giving that dialogue, correct?
Craig: Yes. Exactly. So I changed the character names, and this way – because as you’re reading through a script, as much as possible you want to keep the flow. The one thing we know that always breaks up dialogue is a character name. There’s no option to not have it there. So, that seems like good real estate to repurpose to kind of help get this across. It should do the trick.
John: It should absolutely do the trick. And so my advice is the same advice. There are times where I’ve had to do character name/somebody else. Usually that means you’re sort of hearing both people talking at the same time. Or, character name and then in parenthesis after it, like the form of the character that we’re actually experiencing. But anything like that to indicate what’s going on is helpful.
I will say that in general any kind of body switching movie, it can be very tough both on the page and in the movie to remind the audience of who they’re actually seeing. The Change-Up was a movie starring Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds, both friends of ours, and I had a hard time over the course of that movie really remembering who it was that I was watching and following. And sort of what I was supposed to be paying attention to and sort of who was doing the action.
I think it’s actually harder when the two people are kind of similar.
Craig: Little bit of a problem with that movie, wasn’t it?
John: It was sort of a problem with that movie. It’s much more obvious when you’re in a Freaky Friday situation. It’s like, oh, she’s being teenager and she’s being a mom. When it’s a huge difference between those two things, then it’s much more clear. Or, in Ghost when you have Whoopi Goldberg possessed, then you can sort of see what’s happening there. It’s tough when you have people who are very similar to the other form of themselves.
Craig: Yeah, for sure. In something like this, also, I think Zack you would be well advised to put a little paragraph in when this starts. And when it starts put a little paragraph, put it in italics, you can put it in parenthesis so everybody gets that it’s a comment. And just say when you see XXX or XXX, this is what it means, so people know.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Everybody gets the drill here. Clarity is hugely important. And it’s going to ruin everything if people are confused. So, that little note and then changing the character names so we understand, it’s Craig inside John, yeah.
John: That’ll do it.
All right, let’s get to our bit of umbrage for the episode. And this is a topic that I think most recently came up on Twitter. We had a little spat back and forth on Twitter. Not between us. Like we were in agreement, but someone else was disagreeing with us.
So, I want to dig into this issue of Begging the Question. And we’ve actually used this on the show. I searched the transcripts and back in Episode 188, we were doing follow up on the Tess Gerritsen Gravity lawsuit and you said–
Craig: Begging the question means building an argument around something that needs to be figured out by the argument. It’s essentially saying people are definitely hungry because they’re hungry. This guy – and this is the person we’re referring to – is basically saying I’m baffled by your continued defense of Warner Bros and Cuarón because they’re wrong.
John: Exactly. And, Craig, is that begging the question?
Craig: It’s essentially begging the question. Yes.
John: So talk us through what that term originally meant.
Craig: Originally, begging the question was a – it came up all the time in discussion of logic and philosophy. And the idea of begging the question was to take something that you were trying to prove and incorporate it into the basis of the argument to prove that thing.
And so you would end up saying, well, I believe B because the following is true – A, B, and C. It doesn’t work that way. And when you boil it down, really what begging the question refers to is a tautology. In its simplest form, the way it comes up is you can’t teach those people because those people don’t learn.
John: Exactly. So, some examples of begging the question would be opium induces sleep because it has a soporific quality. Well, induces sleep and soporific mean the same thing, so you’re basically arguing A equals A.
John: Let’s plow through some more examples just so it really lands. Strawberries are delicious because they taste good.
Craig: Yeah. [laughs] And you know it’s funny, when you say a proper tautological argument, one that begs the question like this, it sounds so ridiculous, but you have an example here that I think we actually hear all the time in slightly tweaked versions. If marijuana weren’t illegal, it wouldn’t be prohibited by law. Now, I hear a version of this argument these days a lot surrounding police shootings.
Craig: If they weren’t doing something wrong, they wouldn’t have been shot. Meaning you deserve to be shot because you were shot. Doesn’t work that. That’s begging the question.
John: You hear that with immigration as well. Like, well they’re breaking the law because they’re here illegally. There’s implicit like, well, that’s breaking the law because it’s illegal. Like, you’re not actually getting to what’s really the cause here.
Craig: Right. And so you end up drawing conclusions that are faulty because your entire argument is based on the thing that you’re attempting to prove.
Now, we are among the very few people that use it this way, which is the proper way. The vast majority of people say “that begs the question” to mean that invites the question.
John: Exactly. And so to the degree to which even in dictionaries now, sometimes they won’t even distinguish that it’s not the original usage of the phrase. The original usage of the phrase comes back form Aristotle days. And so it meant this kind of circular reasoning. And lawyers would use it. And rhetoricians would use it to describe this exact phenomenon. And my hunch, and I have no evidence for this being the actual case, is I think screenwriters and television writers are partially to blame for sort of how this phrase has drifted into modern usage.
My suspicion is that people would see courtroom dramas and they would see the defense lawyer stand up and say, “He’s the begging the question.” And really no one kind of means what that means, but they would hear that phrase begging the question. Like that’s an important thing to say.
John: And because they hear that important to say, they try to use it in their own speech. And they would use it in a way that really means to suggest the question, invite the question, elicits the question. Which is a very useful thing to say. So, I don’t want to be negative on the construct as like that’s a useful thing to have. I think it’s very, very useful. But, by using begs the question to mean invites the question, we’re sort of stepping over the original usage of the word.
Craig: It’s so funny that you bring up that courtroom thing. It’s absolutely true. And if you stop and think about it, that really should have been the place where people stopped and said clearly this doesn’t mean invites the question, because somebody would say, “Objection your honor. Begging the question.” And the judge would say, “Sustained.”
Well, if it meant invite the question wouldn’t everybody go, “True, go ahead and ask the question.” It’s just a totally different thing. This is one of those things where the war is not only unwinnable, it has been lost for years. You and I are like those Japanese soldiers they would keep finding on islands in the ‘50s who hadn’t heard the news we’ve lost. But I will still fight. I will fight on for the truth of begging the question.
Although I see that you’ve indicated a very good substitute for it which would definitely avoid you pedantically explaining to somebody what begging the question is, and that is to say, “Oh, you’re using circular reasoning.”
John: Yeah. And so maybe we could put this all to bed by saying when you’re trying to use the logical argument for it, maybe say circular reasoning so people know that that’s what you mean. Because I think people kind of figure circular reasoning, it makes a little bit more sense in terms of what logically the fallacy that’s happening here.
But if you’re using the phrase “which begs the question,” I would just ask you to please stop and think could I say which invites the question, or which raises the question. Some examples here. I have 40,000 Twitter followers, which invite the question, why am I not verified? Or which raises the question, why am I not verified. But to say which begs the question, well, that’s kind of ambiguous. And who are you begging? It’s a strange thing. You’re trying to use this smart-sounding phrase that isn’t actually the correct phrase.
Craig: I mean, you can see how this happened. I mean, someone goes, well, the idea is that it’s so obvious that it’s begging to be asked, right? But, yeah. Which raises prompts, invites, all that would be great. We’re losing this fight. Even right now, John, I feel the blood draining from me and the world grows dim.
John: The only reason why I think it’s worthwhile raising this thing, because I’m not even fighting this fight anymore, I’m just raising this because our listener base are the people who are writing movies and television.
Craig: Good point.
John: And I think as the people writing movies and television, let’s just be mindful of what words we’re picking and what words we’re putting in character’s mouths. And if there’s an opportunity to not use the sort of twisted version of begs the question, let’s do that. If there’s an opportunity to say circular reasoning rather than begs the question for this other thing, maybe we should do that.
And let’s also just be mindful of are we trying to use phrases we don’t really understand and putting them in the mouths of big Hollywood actors who are going to say them in blockbuster movies and therefore perhaps shift the usage of language or sort of break a phrase in language when we didn’t need to?
Craig: You know what? You’re right. You’re right. Fight on.
John: We will fight on. It’s our last dying battle for begs the question. So we just ask you to look at your drafts and look at any usage of begs the question. Look at the usage. Just do a find/replace for “which begs the question.” Because that’s almost the only construct you’re going to see this in. And anytime you see that, just consider using a different word rather than begs.
John: Let’s get on to the subject of the day, How Would This Be a Movie? And so on Twitter this morning I asked people to send in suggestions for this segment and we have the best listeners in the world, so a bunch of people sent in a bunch of great suggestions. I picked two of them and then one of them was a thing I just – was a deep Wiki hole I fell into myself.
But the first thing that someone suggested was The Day that Went Missing. It’s a New York Times Story by Trip Gabriel. And this was suggested by Elise McKimmie, who is a friend, and she’s also the person who runs the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. So she’s so smart and she wrote in with a suggestion.
So in this story, Trip Gabriel, who is a reporter for the New York Times, he’s discussing June 17, 2015. He went sailing and he does not remember this day whatsoever, because in fact all he does know about this day was waking up in a CAT scan machine and reading a Post-it note saying you’ve had an incident, you have a form of amnesia called Transient Global Amnesia. You’re going to be okay. You didn’t have a stroke. It’s going to be fine eventually.
Craig, what did you make of this story?
Craig: Well, this story falls under the general category of Oliver Sacks. And the great Oliver Sacks, sadly the great late Oliver Sacks, was a neurologist who wrote a book called The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. And it was a collection of stories based on his work and his research into others. People who were suffering from neurological conditions that changed the nature of the way they interacted with the world. And one of Oliver Sacks’ stories became the basis for the movie Awakenings, which was a wonderful movie. But it’s a genre to me. I think of this as the Oliver Sacks genre of what to do with someone whose mind is now functioning a way that changes their inherent way of dealing with the world around them.
We had the romantic comedy version of this is 50 First Dates. So we know about that.
John: The thriller version of this is Memento. In Memento he can’t form any memories, but this is sort of more limited version of Memento. But even in the story, Gabriel is discussing Memento with his doctors. He says like, “Oh, is this like the movie Memento?” And then a few seconds later, “Is this like the movie Memento?”
John: Finding Dory is another extreme example of a character who has no recollection and no ability to sort of form those long term memories.
Craig: Precisely. And in 50 First Dates they introduced an interesting twist where Drew Barrymore’s character would proceed through her day thinking that it was the day that she got into a car accident that caused the injury. And would be perfectly fine throughout that day, but then in the morning wake up and it was the same thing all over again. Sort of Groundhog Day in her own head.
These are hard to do because they are gimmicky by definition. Memento, for instance, I think smartly understood that it wasn’t enough to have somebody not remember stuff. They needed to tell the story backwards to make it really fascinating for all of us.
So, it’s a tricky thing. You can’t really do a movie that’s just like, oh my god, I have amnesia. What do I do? You can’t do a Terms of Endearment version.
John: I think there’s a version of this that could be like a Gillian Flynn novel like Gone Girl where it centers on this event that happened. So, in Gone Girl it’s her disappearance. In this case it’s like what happened during that day. And it’s all focused on a character wakes up and you’re trying to figure out what actually happened during the course of this day and reconstructing what must have happened. And obviously something very big must have happened during the course of that.
And that’s a classic setup for a story, and especially for a thriller, is not knowing who you were before this moment. I mean, The Bourne Identity is based around Jason Bourne waking up and not knowing who he was. Not just a day was missing, but a whole lifetime was missing before this moment.
Craig: Yeah, we like as audiences watching characters try and solve the puzzle of their own life. And that is what The Hangover was. And that’s what Dude, Where’s My Car was. And we enjoy that process. And we can induce that in all sorts of ways, whether it’s okay you drank too much, or you got hit on the head, or you were part of a secret government program.
John: Or you were roofied.
Craig: Or you were roofied. Exactly. Rohyphnol. The idea of sort of living with this as a condition – so I feel like, first of all, I would say I think we have a pretty good supply of movies where characters have amnesia that are then comedies, romantic comedies, thrillers, spy movies, et. So then the question is is there an Awakenings style movie here?
So, Awakenings was about a patient who sort of had like a – well, I guess we now call Locked-In Syndrome. They seem to be catatonic and yet they were awake. And so the question is are they alive in there, and if so, how do we get to them? And it’s Robin Williams plays the doctor who is interacting with Robert De Niro, the patient, and they do wake him out of this. And he wakens up.
But what we understand in the movie is really it’s about Robin Williams’s character and how he needs to wake up from his own life, which is sort of a flat line. So, you can do a drama like that with this. The problem with amnesia is it disrupts every relationship with that character. Constantly. I have to take my hat off to Tim Herlihy and everyone that worked on 50 First Dates because it really – I love that movie. And they manage to make the relationship work.
John: Well, if you look at that movie versus Overboard, like at no point in 50 First Dates do you feel like Adam Sandler is taking advantage of Drew Barrymore’s character. It would be very easy to set that up in a really uncomfortable kind of rapey way. And they were able to move past that, which was very, very smart.
Craig: Absolutely. And one of the ways they did that very cleverly was by having Adam Sandler meet her father and brother very early on. So he understood that there were people watching and taking care of her. And that they were naturally suspicious of anybody who is going to interlope.
But I’m not really sure this one says movie to me.
John: So, going back to your Oliver Sacks version, there’s a book I read a couple of years ago called The Answer to the Riddle is Me, by David Stuart MacLean. And this might be the longer version that sort of can build out to a full movie. So, in this version, MacLean, it’s a true story, he woke up in India and had no idea where he was. And was basically having this crazy acid trip and went through a horrible two weeks. And these people sort of took pity on him and kept him protected. But eventually they were able to figure out who he was and contact his family and had his family come pick him up and bring him back to the US.
So, it turned out that he was doing work in India and was taking this drug for malaria which sometimes causes these horrible freak outs. And it’s like a form of amnesia where it just kind of wipes your identity clean. And so it was the process of him trying to rediscover who he was and sort of the bad things about who he was. It’s like you always sort of think like, oh, if I could reinvent myself or sort of come back with a fresh slate, but you sort of never get that fresh slate. And all the bad stuff came back with him.
So, that might be the longer Oliver Sacks version, because the journey happens post-recovery from the actual syndrome.
Craig: But I don’t know. It just seems like a slog.
John: All right.
Craig: I don’t know. My studio is not buying this.
John: All right. Why don’t you pitch the next one? This is Atomic Veterans. This was suggested by Maxwell Henry Rudolph, our listener, and it’s all about the post-war atomic tests.
Craig: Yeah, so between 1945 and 1962, approximately 500,000 American soldiers were exposed to radiation from tests of atomic bombs. It’s hard to imagine because we live in a time where there’s a comprehensive test ban treaty and nobody tests atomic bombs. And technologically we would know if somebody did. It was going on constantly.
The US was constantly blowing these things up, as was the Soviet Union. And they were also constantly using – we were constantly using our own soldiers, almost exclusively men, as guinea pigs to see how close you could get.
John: Yeah. So, there are two articles we’ll link to in the show notes. The first is by Tom Hallman, Jr. The second is a New York Times piece by Clyde Haberman. The Clyde Haberman one also has a video that goes with it which is really well produced. But essentially after WWII, well, we detonated these bombs. We knew they worked. We knew they could level cities. But the question was how else can we use them? So we were testing like what happens if we blow them up above a ship? And so they would put a ship out there and blow it up and they’d have a bunch of sailors like kind of cover your eyes, watch it, while the ship goes up in the distance. And then the sailors would have to board the vessel and measure it for radioactivity.
But they’re just wearing tee-shirts. There wasn’t a fundamental understanding or, I don’t know, cleverness to sort of like say, wow, we should have some protective gear here. Or maybe we shouldn’t be doing this at all.
Then, of course, there were the bomb tests in the deserts where they’d be digging trenches and they’d blow things up. And we’ve seen versions of that in movies before where they’re seeing like could we level a house. Well, what happens next? Well, what happens many years later is you have a bunch of these soldiers with cancers that seem quite unusual. And in some cases we see cancers or other problems showing up in their kids and in the generation after that. So, these soldiers who weren’t killed by the blasts, but suffered some sort of radiation poisoning, and that becomes I think the focus of any movie that you try to make out of this.
Craig: Yeah. There are actually a ton of different approaches here. We can go on the nose. Let’s set this in the 1950s and let’s have somebody investigating the government’s effort to use our own men as guinea pigs. And let’s have a sort of domestic espionage movie.
You can definitely do a movie about the men now as they exist now as veterans. It’s very tricky when you’re dealing with older people who are in physical peril. Whether we know it or not, we are all little insurance actuaries in our own minds. And we do this narrative calculation the way that courts do calculations of how much money somebody who has been wrongfully injured should get. And a huge part of that is how long do you expect to live. Well, you’re 15, that accident cost you your eye. It was that guy’s fault. We’re figuring you got 80 years or 75 years of not having that eye. You get this much.
My grandmother, my late grandmother, was diagnosed with cancer when she was 80. And it was stomach cancer. And they strongly recommended that she have her stomach mostly removed. And so she went under the knife at 80, which is an enormous risk, and did survive the operation only for us to find out she didn’t have cancer at all. That it was a contaminated slide that the pathologist had messed up. And so my parents sued for malpractice.
And as you can imagine, one easily – it never went to court. But that’s when I learned, if you’re an 80-year-old woman, they’re like, well, we’ll pay you for the next, I don’t know, expected six years of your life. So, we do a similar moral equation when we’re watching movies and old people are at risk, because in part we’re like, well, all right, but you know, he’s 80. Uh, am I worried about him making it to 85?
And it’s wrong, but we do it.
John: My hunch is that the place where this movie wants to live is in the ’60s or ‘70s. And so these people aren’t especially old, but maybe they’re having their first kids with like birth defects. That feels like the sweet spot. Because what’s also fascinating about this point in time is they think they’ve been good soldiers and at the time of the tests they signed pledges that they would never reveal what happened. Basically it’s treason for them to talk about these nuclear tests.
But once your own kid is having these problems, or you start to have these problems, or your friends start to have these problems, you have to ask yourself like, well, do I hold myself to this pledge, do I risk treason to perhaps save my daughter’s life, to save all of my fellow solders’ lives? At what point do you cross over that line? And that to me I think is probably one of the really inflection points.
And the true story is this is where they first started appealing to the Senate for help.
Craig: There’s another like totally wild way to go is let’s just go fictional. Let’s go science fiction, because any time you’re exploding nuclear devices theoretically you’re messing around with quantum physics and stuff.
You’ve got some guys that are exposed to this. They’re too close. And it disrupts time/space fabric. And they are now moving through time, but always in other places where a nuclear device is about to go off. This actually feels more like a TV show.
John: Quantum Leap.
Craig: Yep. Quantum Leap.
John: Or Voyagers.
Craig: Yeah, it’s Voyagers is really what it is. So, it’s like, okay, it’s happening again. At some point in time, right, there’s now bad people who have nuclear devices moving through time and we have to keep up with them because they will detonate this nuclear device and destroy Paris in 1770. And so we are now there at the same time as them trying to stop them. It’s like there’s so many, you know, a movie studio, they’re not going to make the straight up movie. Ever.
Never, ever, ever. Because there’s just not enough, I think, for them to latch onto. But, the idea of a government – if you are writing a movie and you needed to show how the United States government mistreated its own soldiers, this would be a great scene to show it.
John: Yes. I think the straight ahead version of it could be made for an HBO. I think it could be made as a History Channel movie. I think there’s a venue in which the kind of Erin Brockovich-y version of this could be a really compelling movie. And it would have a really good home.
But I don’t think we’re often making the big end of year blockbuster movie about this very often. Although sometimes we do. So we make Spotlight. And this could be a Spotlight. It could be the one of these a year that we get that is focusing on one particular abuse by the government in this case and we are going to really show the character’s affected by it and the fight to have the story told.
Craig: Yeah. It’s possible. But unlikely. I think my studio will not buy this project either.
John: So, the actual people who are mentioned in some of these stories, Frank Farmer who is 80 years old during part of this, but I feel like the other characters you’re going to focus on would probably be lawyers, they’d be soldiers, they’d be bureaucrats. They’d be family members. No matter what, it feels like an ensemble version if you’re doing this.
If you’re doing the Marvel version, then they see the atomic blast and they get super powers. And we’ve seen versions of that quite a lot.
Craig: And they will never stop. Ever. Ever.
John: All right. Our last story for How Would This Be a Movie is about anthrax. And so I fell into this Wikipedia hole over the week because Mike Pence, who is the Republican VP candidate, I was reading an article about him and it mentioned he was a big proponent of investigations during the anthrax scare. And I had sort of forgotten about the anthrax scare.
So, this is what happened. In 2001, one week after the 9/11 attacks, letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to ABC, CBS, and NBC news, the New York Post, and the National Enquirer. And then later on two more letters were mailed to Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. So, the first letters read, “9/11/01. This is next. Take penicillin now. Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great.” The second letters read, “9/11/01, you cannot stop us. We have this anthrax. You die now. Are you afraid? Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great.”
And so the return addresses on these envelopes were a fake elementary school. Overall, 23 people were infected with anthrax and five of them anthrax. And so what followed is what’s considered one of the biggest FBI investigations in history. A lot of the initial suspicion focused on this guy, Steven Hatfill, who was eventually exonerated. He was a bioweapons expert.
Ultimately, the blame was pointed at this guy named Bruce Edwards Ivins who was an anthrax researcher who actually wanted people who was involved in the research effort for the FBI, he was one of the main sort of scientists trying to figure out where the anthrax came from. He committed suicide. And so in 2008 he killed himself with an overdose of prescription Tylenol. And the FBI closed its investigation.
So, I will say that there’s still a not too Tin-Hatty discussion that he really couldn’t have been the guy, or at least not the only guy. But right now it is considered a closed case and that he was the guy who sent the anthrax.
Craig: Yeah. I remember this whole thing. I remember that the letter was sent from very close to Princeton University. Here’s the part of this that jumps out at me and that I think, ooh, you could go anywhere with this. You don’t have to be stuck telling this particular story, because this particular story feels old and no longer immediately relevant, because we have bigger problems now, different problems with terrorism, both domestic and international.
But what fascinates me is the idea of the perpetrator being hired to find the killer.
John: Absolutely. I think that’s the most compelling thing. Especially if you as the audience either know or suspect that he’s involved in it from the start. That’s great. It’s compelling.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, there’s something about the government facing this challenge. Someone has done a very bad thing and they cannot figure out who it is. And this case has landed into – it’s always good when it’s some new law enforcement person who needs to prove herself, you know?
So, this is a big break. And you use the trope of the old drunk who used to be great. So the one person who can help you that we haven’t been able to get through is blah, blah, blah, because he’s out of the game. But there’s all sorts of ways you can get to that person. The point is, that person becomes her partner. And we’re telling that very familiar story of two odd couple/unlikely partners on the trail of a criminal.
And then she starts to suspect it’s him. That’s really interesting.
John: I think it’s interesting. That obviously you could take that in a fictional direction and it doesn’t have to be tied to this one anthrax attack. And you could set that present day. That’s a great dynamic between two characters. Classically like do you trust that partner? And so Training Day has an aspect of that, too, although that was much more sort of present tense.
What I think is compelling though about the original anthrax attacks, and made me surprised that I hadn’t seen a good movie version of this, is I feel like people kind of remember what happened during that time. I mean, 9/11 was sort of overwhelming everything, but I remember the paranoia that people felt. I remember like people handling their mail with gloves on. And this paranoia like where are the letters going to come next.
The Unabomber had a quality of that, too, where every couple of years the Unabomber bomb would go off and you’re like, oh wow, that’s still a thing that’s out there. To me I think the home for this kind of story would be as a limited series. Like a People v. OJ Simpson, where you chart through and you follow this session of history and really drill down into it.
I found myself really compelled by this, and if I weren’t just incredibly busy, I think this is the kind of thing I would pitch a network as a limited series because I feel like there’s a really fascinating story to chart through, particularly Ivins’s role is just so good and so castable. It feels like the kind of thing you can bring a movie star in to do this limited series and make something really cool.
Craig: Yeah. Absolutely. What you would need I think to find in there is that cultural relevance that obviously OJ Simpson had. You’re always looking for the bigger picture of, okay, I’m going to get you inside the minutia of this investigation, this story, because that’s an exciting soap opera. But ultimately, this meant something and it meant blah, blah, blah. And I’m not sure what the answer is with this one.
John: Yeah. I think what was so interesting about that time is that obviously 9/11 we had the attacks then and it was such a visible scar on the world, whereas this was almost more like a sniper attack. It was hitting individual things, but in some ways had a bigger effect of disrupting our news media and our entire postal system than the 9/11 attacks themselves did. It was strange that it was happening at the same time, and yet it was such a different scale.
And in some ways the people who were affected were just so kind of random. There’s a quality of, you know, sort of the cliché movie moment where they’re circling things on a map to try to figure out where something came from. This actually has that, where you had to figure out like well what mailbox did these all come from. And we have to trace it all the way back. It has those qualities which is compelling.
Craig: There’s a short story I remember reading from way, way back when about a detective who is on the trail of a killer. And he cannot find the killer. And it made me think of this. I was looking at the Wikipedia page that you linked to and interestingly we’ve combined two of our ideas here. Ivins apparently said to the FBI when they were investigating him that he suffered from loss of memory, stating that he would wake up dressed and wonder if he had gone out during the night.
And that led me back to my memory of that short story, because the trick of the short story, and there’s a serial killer out there who is cutting people up, it’s horrible, and it’s preying on this poor detective. And he comes to understand finally at the end it was him. When he thought he was asleep, he was doing these things.
That’s a really interesting thing. The idea that you’re chasing yourself. Tricky. I like that.
John: Yeah. So, I think there’s a lot of material to be mined there. So, whether it’s this individual attack, or it’s just that idea of the agent within who is subverting the whole thing is fascinating. We’ve talked about No Way Out on the podcast before, and that’s another great, compelling moment.
In No Way Out, they save it for the very, very end of the story, that reveal. But if you revealed early on sort of what’s going on, then that’s compelling. We love to watch the villain and sort of watch the villain try to stay ahead of things. There’s a tension that’s naturally there when we know something that the hero doesn’t know.
Craig: That’s very typical horror movie type stuff.
John: Cool. All right. So those are our three entries. Thank you to everyone who sent in suggestions for what could be a movie and How Would This Be a Movie. If you have more of those suggestions, always write in. So you can just write to email@example.com, or hit us on Twitter. When I see things that are interesting, I just file them away and eventually we get them sometimes.
It’s time for our One Cool Things.
Craig: So, my One Cool Thing is macOS Sierra beta. And this is the beta version, the preview version, of what will be the new Mac operating system to follow – what are we on now, Mountain, Tiger, what is this thing?
John: I think we’re in El Capitan now.
Craig: There you go. Oh, that’s right. They switched from cats to landmarks. And they’re still in landmarks for Sierra.
So, this is new for Apple. Apple went through this one very big thing where they suddenly were like, hey guess what, the operating system is free, which is awesome because you could just hear pants filling in Redmond, Washington as Microsoft was like, “What????”
So, yeah, and lo and behold, Windows, which used to cost hundreds of dollars, now free.
Craig: So that was the first big change that Mac introduced. But this is the first time I believe they’ve introduced a beta of the entire operating system out in the wild to anyone – anyone who wants it. And we’ll put a link up in the show notes for you to download.
I did download it because I’m crazy like that. And it’s actually working quite nicely. The big change is Siri. You have Siri built into the system, so it’s not just on your phone now. If I want to ask my computer a question, I can.
John: Have you found it useful so far?
Craig: Yeah, it’s about as useful as it is on my phone. Which is, you know, once every week maybe?
John: I find myself as a heavy Siri user. And so I haven’t installed the Mac OS beta because of some other issues, but on my phone I do use it a lot and I think it’s because I just – if you just sort of push yourself to use it more, you find it incredibly useful, especially in the car. I use it for sort of like quick math things. I won’t pull up the calculator. I’ll just ask Siri the answer. And she’s really good at that.
I find it generally pretty useful.
Craig: My problem, honestly, and I don’t know if I’m common this way or not, but my problem is I am so embarrassed, even when I’m alone, to say, “Hey Siri,” I’m embarrassed.
John: Yeah. And you don’t have to. You can just push the home button.
Craig: I know. But if I’m driving and my phone is over there, then I want to, then I’m like, oh my god, am I going to say it? Am I going to–?
John: I say it all the time. And I’ll ask for directions while I’m headed someplace and a lot of the times it works. It doesn’t always work, but it works enough that I’m actually really happy to have it.
You don’t have the Amazon Alexa, do you?
Craig: No. Alec Berg has it.
John: People love it.
Craig: Again, I can’t say, “Hey–,” sorry, I don’t want to say it. “Hey Thingy,” I don’t want to say that because I’m embarrassed. I feel like a dope. But I understand that there needs to be something for it to know that I’m talking to it.
John: It’s true. I mean, I do like that we’re kind of living in The Next Generation where they tap their little badges and ask the computer a question. That’s always been my fantasy. One of my very favorite episodes of The Next Generation was where Doctor Beverly Crusher discovers that she’s in a simulation – or not really in a simulation – she’s in a time bubble. And she’s the only character in that part of the episode, and so she’s only talking to the computer, and the computer is giving her answers back. But the computer is describing the ship as like, well, what was that sudden shock? Well, the first three floors no longer exist. It was decompression of the hull.
I love that sense of talking to the computer and talking to this disembodied voice. And Siri and Alexa, they’re getting us closer there.
Craig: What a surprise that you like talking to a computer.
John: See, if you had listened to the Duly Noted episode with Matt Selman and company, you would know so much more about that.
Craig: Now I got to listen to it.
John: Now you got to listen. My One Cool Thing is called Phased. It is a Vimeo video shot by Joe Capra. And what is it is a series of time lapses of different sections of Los Angeles. And so we’ve seen a lot of time lapses where clouds drift by and things are really lovely. This was shot in 12K resolution on this camera called a Phase One XF IQ3. It’s 100 megapixel camera.
John: So what that lets you do is you’re in this incredibly wide panoramic shot, and then you can punch into a pretty good close-up of a section. And so you can go from like the panorama to like, oh, I can see individual people. It’s really remarkable. And so I thought it was terrific. I can imagine lots of uses for this, particularly, I mean, for visual effects certainly, so you can get these incredibly detailed backgrounds on things, but other smart directors will find great uses for this just like they found uses for slow motion and for high frame rate photography.
There’s going to be something really cool to do here. So, I do want to stress that what I’m linking to is time lapse, so everything always sort of looks magical and cool because it’s time lapse. But there will be some great uses for this in the future I can sense.
Craig: Grand Theft Auto 7.
John: It does look like a video game already. And that’s what’s so remarkable. What I love about time lapse of cities is there’s just a glow behind things just because of sort of light bouncing around in special ways. And it does just look magical.
Craig: I think honestly the next generation of these big sandbox games will be normal. But I can easily see, like I don’t know, Grand Theft Auto is once every five years, something like that. I could easily see that, we’re maybe two years away, so seven years from now when Grand Theft Auto 7 comes out, they will have 12K’d an entire city. Or, maybe even the entire country at that point. And figured out a way for you to access it as you’re driving around, looking at the real – it’s going to be amazing.
John: It’s going to be Pokémon Go, but real. And basically you’ll just shoot real people. [laughs]
Craig: I can go to my own house.
John: So here’s what’s going to happen. Essentially they’ll just decide that the world is now Grand Theft Auto and the rules are just there are no rules.
Craig: The rules are there are no rules. I actually feel like it would be a more peaceful world. Because when you’re feeling really pissed off, you just go into your computer and you blow up people you want to blow up and you get it out of your system.
John: Yeah. That’s what we need. It’s like training for how you should deal with things in life.
John: Oh, shoot, I thought I could just hit reset, but I can’t hit reset. Like all those Brexit voters who thought like, oh, I can just refer to a safe state.
Craig: Well, Brexit voters are, yeah. They are not saved.
John: They are not saved. That’s our episode this week. There are links in the show notes to almost everything we talked about, including a lot of the articles we discussed. Our One Cool Things. So, definitely check those out.
If you’re listening to this episode in most podcast players, they have the links below the title artwork. Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe.
John: Our editing is by Matthew Chilelli.
John: If you have a question for us, write us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find us on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
We are on iTunes. You know how to leave a review for us. And that would be so fantastic if you would. It just helps new listeners find our show.
And our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro for us, send it in to that same address and we will maybe play it on the air. Thanks guys.
John and Craig implore screenwriters to think twice before using the phrase “begs the question.” We know it’s a losing battle, but if we learned anything from 300, sometimes those are still worth having.
We then dive into one of our favorite features, How Would This Be a Movie, looking at listener-suggested stories about anthrax, amnesia and atomic veterans.
- Arlo Finch on TUMBLR
- Duly Noted: Let’s Talk about Episode 259
- Craig’s One Cool PI Thing
- Latif Ullah’s Cut of Overboard
- Begging the Question
- Begging the Question Fallacy
- Trip Gabriel
- Oliver Sacks
- The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia on Amazon
- Tom Hallman, Jr.
- Clyde Haberman
- 2001 Anthrax Attacks
- Bruce Edward Ivins
- macOS Sierra
- Phased by Joe Capra
- John August on Twitter
Craig Mazin on Twitter
You can download the episode here.
The original post for this episode can be found here.
Previously on Scriptnotes.
John August: Subject: Podcasts. Wondering if you’d have any interest in doing a joint podcast on screenwriting?
Craig Mazin: A podcast would solve my “I want to talk about screenwriting, but I’m tired of writing about screenwriting” problem. So, yes, count me in.
John: Bonjour. Et Bienvenue. Je m’appelle John August.
Craig: Je m’appelle Craig Mazin.
John: There’s NaNoWriMo, which is National Novel Writing Month. I’m strongly considering actually just doing it this year.
John: And there’s an idea I have that is not a movie idea, or at least it’s not an idea that wants to exist first as a movie. And so I’m thinking about actually doing it this year and writing a book.
Bin Lee asks, “When can we hear Stuart’s voice on the podcast?”
Craig: I don’t know. I mean, we could just keep him like Maris, Niles’s wife on Frasier. Sort of a presence.
John: Indeed. Like in Fight Club the whole time through. I’ve always – I’ve actually been Stuart the whole time through.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 259 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the season finale of Scriptnotes, we have major announcements about the future of the show that listeners may find exciting and/or troubling. So, if you’re driving a car, please don’t swerve and hit a Pokémon Go player.
You might want until you get to a safe space. We will also be discussing that computer algorithm that says that there are only six plots, which is pretty much a layup. And, Craig, welcome. You are here in person. This was a big show, so we couldn’t do this by Skype. You had to be here live.
Craig: No, I had to be here live. I wanted to be here live. I did, unfortunately, mow down 14 Pokémon Go players.
John: Were they in a parking lot?
Craig: And nothing of value was lost.
Craig: I mean, what? What?
John: So, here’s what we were talking about before you came. It’s like if a Pokémon player dies while collecting Pokémon, do they all spray out like the rings like from Sonic the Hedgehog?
Craig: That would be amazing, because then the amount of murders – Pokémon Go related murders. Because then we would be living in Grand Theft Auto 5.
John: Yeah. It kind of feels like we already are. So, it’s a nice time.
Craig: Actually, that reminds me of my One Cool Thing. Because, as you know, I do believe in the fact that we are. But there’s maybe a way out. So, my One Cool Thing is going to be about the way out of that. But, no, I’m happy to be here. It’s very exciting. I don’t know what season finale of Scriptnotes means, since I believe our new season starts next week.
John: Our new season starts next week. But this is the end of five seasons. So, this is our fifth anniversary we’re coming up on.
John: Which is crazy.
Craig: What you get me?
John: Uh, nothing. I got you some changes. I got you some changes to the show, which is sort of exciting, too.
Craig: I hope they’re good ones.
John: And the reason I was thinking about the season finale concept is that when a television series comes to its series finale, there are certain things that are sort of tropes that are going to happen. And so there tends to be the defeat of a big, bad villain. I don’t know if we have any villains on our show. Do we have any villains?
John: Well, yeah. We have the death of a major character. The removal of a major character. Someone leaves the show. We have a change of venue.
John: He’s not a venue. He’s sort of a world onto himself.
Craig: Right. Good point. Good point.
John: We have meta conversations about the series and sort of how far we’ve come. There’s always that thing. There’s always that thing where you’re reflecting back on sort of all the stuff you did. Or like, hey, do you remember when.
John: So like at the end of a season of Survivor they used to do that thing where they had like all the torches, the torches of the fallen, and they got through all that. Jeff Probst listens to the show, so–
Craig: I know! I know. I think you and I are one of the 12 people that he follows on Twitter, which I think is fantastic. I was for a long time a longstanding Survivor watcher. It is a huge commitment of your life to be a first season to current season Survivor watcher.
John: I’ve watched every season.
Craig: That’s amazing. Admittedly, I – my wife continues, but I fell off somewhere in there. But that show is brilliant.
John: It’s really, really good. And so on that show they would always pass the torches of the fallen. And basically it felt like a huge filler, but it was excuse for showing footage of all the people who used to be on the show who are no longer on the show.
Craig: Well, it’s like in the Hunger Games when somebody dies, and then they show their face in the clouds. And they play sad music.
John: Yeah. But the last thing you always do on a season finale is really set up the next season. So that the wheels are in motion for next season. And like True Blood used to do a really good job of like they’d wrap up all their business like halfway through the final episode of the season, and then like introduce the whole new thing that was going to happen. Sort of tease that next thing.
John: Or in books sometimes they’ll have the first chapter of the next book at the end of the book. The kids’ series will have that.
Craig: Yeah, like when the season – I think two seasons ago on Game of Thrones, the last shot was Arya Stark heading off to Bravos. So, you knew, okay, exciting things would be happening with her in Bravos, which curiously just was kind of a zero in terms of it’s actual – like the one thing I can criticize about what those guys have done character-wise, and I don’t even think it’s their fault, because I think they had to… – It’s like, look, that’s a huge chunk of the books. But, narratively, if she had missed that boat and then hit her head and slept for two years, she’d be right back where she is now.
Well, with little changes.
John: With little changes.
Craig: Yeah. Little changes. She’s got some new skills.
John: So, we are to some degree sailing off to Bravos. Hopefully there will be some growth and some change, but that’s this episode.
And so we’re going to dig into it after we do some follow up. And we’ll start with some boat follow up, though. So, in an earlier episode we talked about magical dad transformation comedies, and someone brought up the Goldie Hawn/Kurt Russell comedy, Overboard. And we both, I think, commented that like that movie is really dark when you think about it.
Craig: Yeah. The actual circumstances of Overboard require a man to take massive advantage of a brain-injured woman, gaslight her, total gas-lighting her into believing that. And then kind of employ her as a domestic slave. And then also have sex with her.
Craig: And then in the end convince her to stay of her own volition.
John: So a troubling premise, really. And so we said on the show, someone could easily recut that trailer as a dark kind of thriller. And one of our listeners – because we have the best listeners in the entire world–
Craig: We do.
John: Did this. So, Fredrik Limi, we’ll provide a link in the show notes, he did what’s sort of a David Fincher version of it called Girl Gone Overboard. And it’s nicely done. I found it a little bit long, but I thought he found the really good shots that sort of told that very dark story from her point of view. Questioning like, wait, am I really the woman you say I am?
Craig: Right. Exactly. I wanted creepier music.
John: Yeah. Creepy music is very important.
Craig: We can’t help but criticize everything, right? We’re the worst.
John: We are the worst.
Craig: We’re the worst.
John: We’re the worst.
Craig: This guy did us a favor.
Craig: And we’re like, eh, it’s too long. Change the music.
John: I thought he did a brilliant job selecting out those moments.
Craig: He did. Actually, there were moments that I had forgotten happened, like when he’s pushing her head in the water. And you’re like, “Oh, god.”
Craig: It’s a terrible, terrible premise for a movie.
John: Terrible premise for a movie. Today’s episode is unique in the history of our podcast, because in this episode Stuart Friedel, who has always been a man behind the curtain, a person we refer to but don’t actually invite onto the show itself–
Craig: For good reason.
John: Yes, Stuart Friedel is here because this is his going away. This is his exit interview.
John: Stuart Friedel, the producer of Scriptnotes for five years, is finally leaving the nest. So we thought it’s about time to have him on the show to actually talk about what he’s done, what he’s doing, what he’s going to do. Stuart Friedel, welcome to Scriptnotes.
Stuart Friedel: Thanks for having me.
Craig: Wow. He did that so well. It’s like he’s learned. This is bizarre, because as you know, I still – even though I’m looking at you, Stuart – right now I’m not quite sure you’re real.
Stuart: I’m not either, frankly.
Craig: Good. So we’re on the same page.
Craig: So, I guess we should probably start by finding out why you’re leaving, right?
Stuart: Yeah. That’s a good question. I would say that I’ve hit the critical mass of other projects, so it’s just time for me to pack my bags and hit the road.
Craig: And your other projects are of what nature?
Stuart: TV writing, kids’ TV primarily, which is my – I’d say my life’s work. My passion.
John: So, I think it’s good for us to fill in the backstory and really chart the entire person who is Stuart Friedel, because so far he’s always been this name, or the person who answers the emails, or like sends out the tee-shirts, or gets yelled at when the phone rings while we’re trying to record.
Craig: Yeah. That’s my favorite part.
Stuart: [laughs] Those are all things that I do. This is true.
John: So, Stuart has been my assistant for five years. And I hired you from Disney Channel.
Stuart: You did. Yeah. I was working as the Assistant in original programming development at Disney Channel.
Craig: And how did you even come to find him there and pull him out like a bird stealing another bird’s egg?
John: That’s what it was. Stuart went through the Stark Program, the same graduate school program that I went through at USC. And so when Matt Byrne, when my previous assistant, was time for him to go, he got staffed on the TV show Scandal and is still a big writer on Scandal.
John: We put out the call to Starkies saying, “Hey, this job is open.” Whenever that job becomes open, people scramble for it. So, we don’t sort of put out the call too wide. How did you find out about the job?
Stuart: I was at the time teaching – is a very loose word – but I was instructing a third of a Stark class at nights, The Negotiation Game, which is awesome. And one of co-“adjunct professors” was on a Stark email list that I didn’t know existed. And they were like gossiping about it after class.
And I kind of kept my ear to the ground. We had Chad and Dara come speak to us, and I guess Dana come speak to our class, while I was at Stark.
Craig: All former John August assistants.
Stuart: Yeah. They all gave the advice, like if you have any interest in writing, you know, keep your ear to the ground. And my time at Disney, for this job specifically, my time at Disney was fine. I was definitely at a point where it was like a crossroads. And I was either going to be there for a long time, or not. And for a few reasons I kind of wanted to be in the “not” camp. And so this was like fate. It was the exact right moment. I was at Disney for 365 days on the nose. And I had always said I don’t want to do it for less than a year.
Craig: This means something.
Stuart: Yeah. So it was, you know, kismet.
Craig: Nice. And so then John plucks you away.
Stuart: Yeah. The application process was long.
Craig: Long and arduous.
John: Yeah. So I think during your session I met with like five different candidates, and I had you edit together a bit of the blog – because at this point there was no podcast, so it was mostly about the blog. It was mostly about johnaugust.com. And I had you read a script? What else?
Stuart: Yeah. So I remember the job description was like don’t write a typical cover letter. So I remember writing this two-page cover letter and like going over it. I remember I had line that was like “In the grand Disney tradition, I’m ready to be rescued,” and like all that stuff. I was really proud of it.
Craig: That’s adorable, Stuart.
Stuart: That was true. And then came in for an interview. And first round interview was just meeting. You sent me home with a script and said do notes on this. And it was like this whole prompt. And the last line was, “And proofread it.” Come in with like casting, all this.
And I got here an hour early and I was sitting in the car, and I was like all ready with my notes and my casting. And then it was like, “And proofread it,” and I had totally forgotten to do that. And I remember coming in during my interview and saying like you asked that at the end, and I was like I thought I had gotten through the whole, and forgot that you wanted us to proofread it. And I was like, “I got to be honest,” and I told that story. And I was like, “And while I was reading it, I found one mistake, which was you wrote four-poster bed, but it’s supposed to be four-post bed.” But then I looked up on my iPhone and it actually is four-poster bed.
So, not only do I have no mistakes, but the one mistake that I found wasn’t actually a mistake.
Stuart: And then, for some reason, you didn’t count me out. You sent us home again–
Craig: Yeah, I would have – just that ridiculous story, I would have, absolutely, I would have removed you from my premises.
John: So not only did you not follow instructions, then you were wrong when you attempted to follow the instructions, but at the last minute you scrambled.
Stuart: I owned it. And I admitted it. Hopefully I–
Craig: That’s the worst part. That’s the absolute worst part, is now you’re making me have to care about your problem. I would have had you removed from the premises.
Stuart: Yeah. I mean, that’s what I figured. If I make him internalize it. If I–
Craig: Well, that worked on him.
Stuart: [laughs] Yeah. And then you sent us home and it was like the next prompt was – or the hypothetical. I want to write a book that is the blog as a book, that’s very much like Chapter Three of Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants. And went to Barnes & Noble that day and I read cover to cover at work the entire book. And then you were like, “So what’s the table of contents of my book.” And we went, I think, three notes sessions back and forth.
And then I remember the day that you called me, and I went to the Disney Channel parking garage to take the call.
Stuart: And I got the job.
Craig: That’s spectacular. Now, for people that are thinking about breaking into our business, I don’t know – because I actually never did the typical assistant job. My first job was through a temp agency really. So there wasn’t much of an interview process. It was just, “How fast can you type? Yeah, you seem to wear clothes. You’re fine.”
Is this normal or abnormal?
John: I think it’s abnormal in the sense that most times when you’re hiring an assistant, you’re basically like can you keep track of my calendar and schedule and–
John: Phones, yeah. And that kind of stuff. And I recognized that over the years, my assistants, there wasn’t a lot of that calendar and phone stuff. But there was a lot of like the ability to talk about the script I’m working on, the ability to read stuff and proofread it. The ability to sort of recognize what was important and what was not important.
So, some backstory on my side. Like I’ve been lucky to have this string of remarkable assistants. My first assistant was Rawson Thurber, who has been a guest on the show. Then I had Dana Fox. I had Chad Creasey. And the Creaseys went on to do great stuff. I had Matt Byrne. And now Stuart Friedel.
And so I got to recognize over time that it wasn’t just about the person sitting there being barely level competent. You wanted somebody who could actually do something really good. And somebody who I wouldn’t be annoyed with sitting downstairs and doing their own stuff the whole day.
Craig: That’s the huge part. Because that eliminates almost everyone for me.
John: Yeah. Exactly. You don’t want anyone else in your space.
Craig: No. No, to look at somebody – I do have someone who works with me, and she’s been with me for years. And I can’t do – like if she came to me and said, “I’m thinking of moving on for a reason,” I would just say, “Well, then I’m retiring.” Because I can’t do this again. I can’t meet anyone new. I can’t look at a new person. It’s going to be terrible.
John: The other difference is that I’ve hired a lot of other people sort of in addition to assistants, so I’ve had designers, and I’ve had Nima who does our coding. So there’s been other people who have sort of come through the world. And so you get a sense of who is going to fit in and who is going to be additive in a great way.
Stuart: I remember in the final interview you said like, “I’m not always the best roommate, but in this situation we’re not roommates. I’m the boss. So you just have to be aware of that.” And I think that’s a very–
Craig: Perfectly. I mean, that is accurate. I wouldn’t have said that either. Because, to me, what do you not know that I’m your boss?
Stuart: Right. Right.
Craig: I’m already – you could see the problem with me, right?
John: So I’ll tell you that when I hired you, I really didn’t think you would last five years.
John: I thought you would last one year. And here’s why. I remember telling Mike my husband this. Is I thought like, well, he’s really good. I bet in a year he’s going to go back to kids’ TV, because he’s the only person I’ve ever met who actually genuinely loves kids’ TV. Like you’re not faking it. You really do love kids’ television. And when we come back from a trip, on the DVR we’ll see all the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon shows that you’ve recorded that you’ve actually watched because you keep track of that stuff. You actually know the names of the actors. You can recognize sort of trends and things.
Craig: Well, Stuart, you should be on children’s TV. I mean, people don’t necessarily know what you look like. But you look exactly like the sort of guy I would be thrilled to have my young child watching a la Blue’s Clues.
Stuart: Oh wow. I thought you meant as a child.
Craig: No, no. Steve from Blue’s Clues.
John: He very much has a Steve from Blue’s Clues quality.
Craig: Right. I mean, you look like fun. And you look safe.
Stuart: All right. Cool.
Craig: And you look nice and kind. And you would be – you should make a show for yourself.
Stuart: All right. I’ll take that one to the bank.
Craig: Only if you do it. If you don’t do it, now it’s just tragically upset guy.
Stuart: If I were a kid that lived in LA, there’s no doubt I would have pressured my parents to getting me on at least in the room for those things.
John: Stuart, who is the one kid I see on everything now who has the red hair, who is in the recent version of Wet Hot American Summer, but he was also the pseudo bully kid, but he’s also in Another Period recently? He’s in everything.
Stuart: Yeah. And he was on those commercials as the fairy that flies through that room. I don’t know his name, but you’re right that he is on everything now. He’s not really on many kids’ things though.
John: No. he’s always the kid in an adults’ thing.
John: But that’s sort of – he grows up to be you.
Stuart: Yeah. I had a kid when I was a camp counselor who I really liked, but he was like the punk red-headed kid that was in my cabin. He’s that kid, but this generation’s “that kid.”
Craig: That kid. Yeah.
John: And so I thought that you were going to be leaving about two years ago, also, because when my assistants are working for me they’re always writing stuff, and I never read their stuff until they ask me to read it. And so finally you asked me to read something. And I read it and it was really good.
And it may not have been the very first thing I read that said like, “Oh well, he can really do it,” but like the second thing I was like, oh, that’s really good. I can totally see–
Craig: Stuart can do this.
John: He can do this. And like you are going to get staffed, and then all this stuff was going to happen. And I remember actually talking with a showrunner who called in sort of doing a background check on you. And I was like, well, he’s totally—
Stuart: Oh really? I didn’t know that.
John: The MTV show.
Stuart: Yeah. I know what you’re talking about. I didn’t know that they called.
John: Oh, no, they called.
Stuart: I didn’t get the job.
John: No, you did not get the job.
Craig: What did you say, John?
John: I said lovely things about how talented he is.
Craig: Stuart should be a character on a child’s show. He appears to be an animated Muppet. Yes. Oh, what is your channel? MTV? Oh, no, no, no, no.
Stuart: Glad to hear that that staffing meeting went well, because I thought it went well, and then I was sort of disappointed that I didn’t get the job. But at least if they were calling about me it means I wasn’t crazy.
John: I’m sorry that for the last two years I haven’t told you that the meeting went well.
Craig: What else have you not told him?
John: That’s sort of the bulk of it. So, as Stuart is preparing to leave, I can tell you that there’s a pattern that happens where people’s scripts get passed around without them knowing they get passed around. And so when I started hearing from Stuart that like, oh, someone else read this thing and I didn’t even know they were reading it. When I started hearing those kind of conversations I was like, oh, his clock is ticking. This is all happening here.
And then people come to a point where the number of meetings they have to have and the number of phone calls they have to have is just tremendous. And I was able to sit down with Stuart and say like the most important thing for you to do is to take all these meetings and do all these things. And I need somebody who is here to answer the phones and do stuff. And so we’re at this threshold now. And I’m happy that we’re at this threshold.
And also, you’re–
Stuart: A lot of good stuff is happening.
John: And you’re getting married.
Stuart: Getting married in three weeks.
Craig: I’m so excited. I’m going to be there.
Stuart: Me too. Yeah. I’m pretty stoked.
Craig: Are you going to be there?
John: I’m going to be there.
Stuart: The all-stars Scriptnotes team.
Craig: Absolutely. Is your dad going to be there?
Stuart: My dad will be there.
Craig: I love Stuart’s dad so much.
Stuart: Me too.
Craig: Your mom is great.
Stuart: Yeah. I love my mom also. It’s her birthday today actually.
Craig: But there’s something about your dad. Oh, it is? Happy Birthday, Mrs. Friedel.
Stuart: I’ll pass it along.
John: Congratulations. Indeed. Stuart’s parents and even grandparents would come to live shows, which I just found remarkable.
John: Because live shows can be really filthy. Like, this is a clean episode, but sometimes they’re not clean.
Stuart: Yeah. I have a brother who lives out here. And he in the course of my working here has had two babies. And so I’ve been lucky enough to have four grandparents that will come for those things. And those things also seem to coincide with live episodes.
Craig: And all of your grandparents are alive?
Craig: Wow. Good genes.
Stuart: Yeah, right, it’s kind of crazy.
Craig: Is everyone red-headed?
Stuart: No one. I’m the only one.
Craig: Oh, really?
Stuart: Back to post – like before my grandparents. I’m the only one.
Craig: Then, if the pattern holds, you will also be the only one who dies young.
Stuart: There we go.
Stuart: As a statistician, you understand how these patterns and things work.
Craig: Absolutely. What I just said was mathematically valid.
John: We have questions from listeners and you’re here, so let’s have you answer some of these. Kevin writes, “I wonder, does Stuart – hi Stuart – keep a mental track of the best entries in his opinion in the Three Page Challenge? If so, that could be a great post on your blog, or yearend podcast material.” Stuart, do you keep track of the best entries in Three Page Challenge?
Stuart: Well, first of all, hi back Kevin. No I do not. If you’re saying best as in like most professional, I wouldn’t feel comfortable judging these scripts in three pages for that in and of itself. We were talking earlier about the Stuart Special–
Craig: Oh, the Stuart Special.
Stuart: It’s sort of something that happens–
John: Describe the Stuart Special.
Stuart: So, what has been deemed the Stuart Special is–
Craig: No, it’s the Stuart Special. [laughs]
Stuart: Is something happens exciting and then it’s like “two months earlier, six hours earlier,” you know, the flashback. The tease and then the flashback. And I do not go out of my way to purposely pick those. I think what happens is, so we say you can turn in any three pages of your script. Most people – and by most I mean over 99% of people – turn in their first three pages. And in your first three pages, you should hopefully be writing something eye-catching in some sense.
If it were me, I wouldn’t be turning in my first three necessarily. I would be turning in–
Craig: Right. I’ve always been surprised by that. I’ve always thought that more people would–
Stuart: I think people think it’s a precedent. I think people think like, oh, it’s supposed to always be your first three because they usually pick the first three.
Craig: We’ve only done the first three I think, right?
Stuart: I think we had one. I think we had one that wasn’t.
Craig: One that was in the middle? Okay.
Stuart: But, not only have we never said that, but it clearly says it I believe on the submissions page.
Craig: For sure.
Stuart: At least it has. So I think that people turn in their first three and then a lot of times there’s not something eye-catching there, or just not something to talk about or something exciting.
Craig: You mean, so they’re kind of forcing – they rewrite it to create a Stuart Special?
Stuart: Or, it’s just that those are the ones that wind up getting picked because those are the ones that have something in it that are not first three page moments. And so even though they are “the first three pages” but there’s something happening that’s actually a third-act or a second-act moment.
John: Because they’re actually starting in the middle of some action, so therefore there’s things to discuss that isn’t just like clearly like let’s open up the story.
Craig: Right. That makes sense. But you don’t necessarily pick the ones that you think are “the best.” You’re looking for the ones that you think will give us the most to discuss.
Stuart: Right. And I should be clear that if you are chosen, you are in like at least the 85th or 90th percentile. I am not picking the ones that are not competent. I am picking ones that are – I don’t think these people should be embarrassed to have their pages exposed. I would never purposely embarrass somebody.
And don’t think – like sometimes I would go on like Reddit Screenwriting or something in the early does of Three Page Challenges and see the way that people were talking about ones that got ripped apart. And I felt really bad because I was like I wanted to reach out to those people and say, “Oh, you were so much better than 75 others that I read at the same time that I read yours that I flagged yours for a reason.”
So, I’m not picking the best ones. The best ones – there’s nothing to talk about. Oh, you want to read good writing, I will tell you what professional screenplays you can read that’s good writing. You know, like it’s the one that if – my goal is we’re teaching a class and we’re going to take out that little slide projector thing that puts some pages on the wall and we are as a class going to go through this together and dissect it.
And what three pages of this pile of 1,500 submissions has something in it that the whole class will benefit from?
Craig: That’s the current amount that we have?
Stuart: It’s over 1,500. And by the way, since we switched to entering through the web page – it used to be an email submission, and we had however many more even before that.
Craig: Oh wow.
John: It’s a lot. So, you’re going to miss Three Page Challenges tremendously. You’re going to wake up in the middle of the night going how could I possibly – people will just start sending your Three Page Challenges just so you can enjoy them.
Stuart: Yeah. Yeah. I have no doubt. I mean, I’ve gotten that before. Like, I’ve met people at parties and they hear who I am and they’re like, “Oh, I’m going to send you three pages.” Or, “Oh, I sent my three pages. Can you go read them?” And I’m like, “Well, I probably read them.” My answer is, I never say like, “Yeah, I’m going to go home and read it today.” It’s either like I’ve read it, or I will read it, or, you know, and you don’t get special treatment. And–
Craig: I’m just, you know, I get very frightened when the reality of the podcast enters my vision, you know, because I like to just think that we’re talking and no one is listening to this. So that story makes me nervous. [laughs] I don’t like it. It’s scary.
Stuart: And you guys, and now I’m an old man, I’m settling down and getting married, but in the day when I was going out on Saturday nights and meeting random people–
Craig: Oh, really?
Stuart: Well, you know, at parties. It’s Los Angeles. Go to Los Angeles parties. Then I’d fairly regularly come across people that were listeners and had entered.
Craig: You know what I’m going to ask you now?
Stuart: What’s that?
Craig: Did it ever?
John: Did it help?
Craig: Did the whole, “I’m the producer of Scriptnotes,” did that – did it Stuart?
Stuart: Uh, it most certainly did not.
Craig: I had a feeling. [laughs] It probably does the opposite.
Stuart: It’s a conversation starter for certain people, for sure. And, great, I’m happy to talk about it. If you ever see me, I mean, there’s a gentleman who I’ve seen at Village Bakery in Atwater a few times who is really nice and said hi to me. And I was like, cool, I’ve officially been recognized now.
Craig: Oh nice.
Stuart: First time in my life. And probably only. He’s probably listening to this now.
Craig: Until you get your show.
John: Till now. Next question is from Andrew in DC who writes, “After a few years of development hell, the $200 million movie is finally being made. Who plays John and who plays Craig in the Scriptnotes movie?” So, Andrew proposes Thomas Middleditch for me. Tony Shalhoub for Craig.
Craig: It’s the worst.
John: And Douglas Rain for Stuart. And Douglas Rain being the voice of HAL in 2001.
Craig: This is terrible.
John: Terrible question. So who plays you though?
Craig: Who plays me?
Craig: I don’t know. That’s a tough one.
John: I could see like Paul Giamatti, but you’re much younger than Paul Giamatti.
Craig: That’s the thing. I definitely have the hang-doggy, grumpy, and then vaguely ethnic–
John: Steve Zissis could play you.
Craig: That’s who I want. I want Steve Zissis to play me. You are not played by–
John: I’m not Thomas Middleditch. He hasn’t seen me.
Craig: You’re older and you should be, ooh, there’s those actors that look like you.
John: So, I’m blanking on his name right now. He’s always the villain in things. He’s always a secondary character.
Stuart: Danny Trejo?
John: Danny Trejo is really who I should be.
Craig: That’s who should play John.
John: I’ll think of his name in like five minutes. But he was the villain in Ant-Man.
Craig: You know what? When I was a kid, I don’t know if you guys had them where you lived, but we had the commercials for Hebrew National hot dogs. And the mascot for Hebrew National hot dogs was Uncle Sam. And he said we answer to a higher authority. It was like, okay, god is telling us what the…
And that guy is probably dead by now, but in his prime, that’s who you were.
John: Sounds very good.
Stuart: He may have been, I don’t want to say a One Cool Thing, but I think that – I mean, I’ll find the link again for this episode, but I think we’ve actually linked to that in a previous episode of Scriptnotes.
Craig: To the Hebrew National guy?
John: Corey Stoll is who I was thinking of. Corey Stoll as the Ant-Man villain.
Stuart: He’s great.
Craig: That works.
John: I’ll be Corey Stoll. But who should be Stuart now? Because obviously this person has no idea what you look like.
Stuart: Is it just a voice?
John: Yeah, I guess you’re just a voice.
Craig: No, I mean–
Stuart: If it’s just a voice, it’s Billy West, who is my favorite voice actor.
John: Is he on Futurama?
Stuart: He is on Futurama. And he is on Doug. And he’s on Honey Nut Cheerios commercials. But, if it’s just a voice, I mean, I might as well shoot for the stars.
Craig: Yeah. No, it shouldn’t be a voice. Obviously we get that kid that we were just talking about.
Stuart: That child? That 13?
John: Because in the movie version, he is a child.
Craig: That child? By the way, the best thing is that Stuart is played by an 11-year-old, but we give him all the dialogue of an adult. And we never comment on the fact that this child is producing our show.
Stuart: Louis C.K.’s agent in Louis.
Stuart: I wrote a pilot that I’ve done nothing with called Recessive Genius, about a redhead that wants to be a rapper, and all of his red-headed family members. And so I have a cast list somewhere of all the redheads in Hollywood. We can pull that.
Craig: There’s a good amount.
Stuart: Yeah, there is. I mean, it’s cast-able. Homeland.
Craig: What’s her name?
Stuart: Faye Dunaway?
Craig: Ron Howard’s daughter.
Stuart: Paige. Oh, Bryce Dallas. Sorry.
Craig: Bryce Dallas. Bryce Dallas Howard.
John: Good stuff. Our final question comes in from Mark in LA. He says, “Have you seen the writing credits for the new film Ghostbusters? I almost fell out of my chair when I saw that Ivan Reitman’s name is listed in the writing credits as Based on the 1984 film Ghostbusters, directed by.” So, let’s talk through sort of what the writing credits are, the writing credits block on the new Ghostbusters, because it is a little bit strange.
So, it says written by Katie Dippold and Paul Feig, based on the 1984 film Ghostbusters directed by Ivan Reitman, written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd.
Craig, you are the credits master. Talk us through what’s going on here.
Craig: Well, it is very odd. Typically you will have a “Based on” when there is source material. And that’s the company can sort of say, okay, we’ve assigned you a certain amount of material. So, in this case, certainly when Katie and Paul sat down and made their deals to write Ghostbusters, they were assigned everything. So, I guarantee you they were assigned every prior Ghostbusters, the scripts that have been written, like Lee and Gene had done one, and a whole bunch of people, right?
So, all of that was assigned to them. And also Ghostbusters 1 and Ghostbusters 2, the original movies were assigned to them as source material. So, yes, normally what you’d see is it would say “Based on Ghostbusters,” but it doesn’t have to say that, by the way.
I mean, on remakes typically they don’t bother with that. So, in this one they did. And then they added the credits in. So, Mark is not correct. Ivan Reitman’s name is not listed in the writing credits. The credits are actually accurate. He’s the director. And then Dan and Harold are listed as the writers, which is correct.
So when I saw this, I assumed that what happened was Paul Feig and Katie Dippold went to the Guild and said this is something we want to do. Would you grant us a waiver? It would require a waiver. So, the Guild can – because our credits are governed by our contract, right? So any time we want to do a different kind of credit, and the studio wants to do a different kind of credit, the Board of Directors has to vote to grant a waiver. And so I suspect they went, because they wanted to do this, and the Guild said sure.
John: To clarify, the based on, that whole section is considered the underlying materials credit. So that’s not the actual writing credit on this movie. That is the source material credit. And does the Guild have like final authority on determining what is the source material for the project?
Craig: Yes. So, typically what happens if there’s any dispute about it, then that’s a pre-arbitration and that has to do with the company. But usually it’s pretty well-governed because the contract that we all get is a – we call it a Guild-covered contract. That means the contract is conforming to our collective bargaining agreement. And one of the ways you conform to it is you say I’m assigning you the following material. That now becomes underlying material. So the Guild doesn’t actually have to do after-the-fact choices. It’s just sort of baked in.
But like I said, on remakes – one thing that does happen on a remake is the writers of the original movie actually go in to the arbitration as Writer A, which is an interesting thing. Now, it’s rare that that writer does get credit, because usually on a remake quite a bit changes.
But there have been cases of it. 3:10 to Yuma. And most notably the new – the remake of The Omen. Only the writer of the first movie got credit because essentially they felt that nothing had changed substantially in such a way that another writer should have credit. That’s remarkable. And I don’t know of any other movie like that.
But, so for instance, when Gus Van Sant remakes Psycho word-for-word, the first writer gets credit alone.
John: So in the case of the new Ghostbusters, Harold Ramis’ estate and Dan Aykroyd, they are not getting residuals for this new thing because they are not the credited writers on this new movie.
Craig: Right. So all of the residuals for this movie will go to Katie and Paul. They will be split in half exactly.
John: Because they are ampersand, we should clarify. They are ampersand as a writing team.
Craig: Whether they were ampersand or not.
John: They’re a single writing credit, yeah.
Craig: Exactly. So, if one team, they would share it. If two separates, they would share it. And they are the only ones. It’s possible that Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis had a separate producing kind of thing, but that’s aside from what the Guild does. That’s extra money on top of things.
So, the writing credits are – in terms of who actually wrote the screenplay of the Ghostbusters that’s in theaters now – Katie Dippold and Paul Feig, and that’s it.
John: Very good. All right, many people on Twitter this week wrote in talking to us about these six plots. So, essentially what happened is a bunch of researchers at the University of Vermont in Burlington, they used sentiment analysis, which is where you look at strings of words to determine their emotional content. You set algorithms in computers to do all of this.
And they mapped the plot of 1,700 works of fiction. Most of these are novels, but some of them are plays. And so they track the changes of sentiment from moment to moment. And they build these charts of the overall arc of these different works. And from there, they determined there are basically six categories of works.
There are works that have fall, rise, and fall, like Oedipus Rex. There’s rise then a fall. There’s fall then a rise, like a lot of super heroes. There’s the steady fall. There’s the steady rise. There’s a rise, and a fall, and a rise, like Cinderella. So, we’re basically out of business because the computers have figured out that there’s only six plots.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, look. Everyone knows that Romeo and Juliet is a timeless classic and still works to this very day because it has a steady fall.
John: Yeah, that’s really–
Craig: WTF to the maximum level of WTFs.
John: Because there’s no moments of happiness or joy in Romeo and Juliet. There’s no rise, there’s no love, there’s no flash of love.
Craig: There’s nothing frankly at all except a steady fall? This is the dumbest of all these things. And many of them are dumb. I love the graph. A stupid graph. And then the fact that these… – This is what happens, unfortunately. I love science. You know, I’m a scientist. But, see, I don’t go into labs and start pressing buttons. And I really wish that scientists would not go into novels and start pressing buttons, because what they’re doing is they’re just engaging in a kind of reductive analysis, which anyone could do.
You could also say that there’s really only one plot: beginning, middle, end.
Stuart: Right. There’s arrows. There’s up and down. And in a macro view – we’re not even going to look at the way there’s up-down-up-up-down-down – just in a macro view, look at where the up is, and look at where the down is. There’s only six plots.
Craig: And also, why are the ups and downs now how they define plot? That’s not how I define plot at all.
John: So, Nima who works for us, he was pointing out that essentially there were theoretically eight different plots you could find. But they compressed them down because you could theoretically have rise-rise-fall, or rise-fall-fall, but they compress those down to just rise-fall.
So, even in potential plots, they’re just compressing them down.
Craig: It’s like trigonometry. Side-angle-side. Side-side-angle. Angle-angle-side. It’s the dumbest. Of all of these, this one truly is the dumbest because it is useless. It’s bad science that provides click-baiters something to say. It teaches you nothing. It informs nothing. It doesn’t inform you as a reader. It doesn’t inform you as a writer. It doesn’t help you think about the world in any way. It is the emptiest of noise.
I hate it.
John: [laughs] I knew this would be a simple layup here.
Craig: I do always rise to the occasion. I mean, never once will I ever resist umbrage. When you wave a red flag in front of me, I’m going to do what I do. I’m a simple man. Rise-fall-fall.
John: All right, so it’s time for our second big announcement on the show, about a huge change that’s happening. Which is something that, Craig, you’ve known about for quite a long time, but I’ve deliberately sort of not said anything about it because it’s one of those things where you tell people that it’s going to happen and then everyone is like, “Ahhhh….” And it makes people sort of nervous.
And so now it’s 30 days away, so it’s time for us to say. I am leaving Los Angeles. I am moving to Paris. And so I’m going to be living in the City of Light. I’m going to be a writer there in Paris.
Craig: But not permanently.
John: Just for a year. So, for one year, I will be in Paris. And I’ll be living there. So, it’s always been the plan. This is not in reaction to something. I don’t have like insight about what’s–
Craig: You’re not fleeing.
John: I’m not fleeing. There’s no investigation. I’m not nervous about sort of the – well, I am nervous about the election. It always has been the plan that I’d be gone for the last part of the election.
Craig: Well, Europe seems to have managed to screw themselves up even worse than we are.
John: Absolutely. And there’s a French election coming, too.
Craig: That’ll be brilliant.
John: Really genius. And so the plan has been for quite a long time that my family and I are going to be moving to Paris starting in August and going through next August for my daughter’s 6th grade year of school. So, she’s been at a K-5 school. The schools we want to go to start in 7th grade after that. And so for 6th grade we had to do something.
And so a bunch of years ago Film France took a bunch of screenwriters over to Paris and showed us a bunch of locations that they wanted us to film in. So, I was on a trip with Derek Haas, [Unintelligible], and John Lee Hancock. And John Lee Hancock – and Justin Marks – but John Lee said, “You know what? I’m loving this. I’m going to pull my kids out of school and we’re going to live in Paris for a year.”
And I said that’s a great idea. I’m going to steal it right now. And so that’s been the plan for–
Craig: But he didn’t do that.
John: He never did it.
Craig: No. Because I could have told you that John Lee Hancock does not run his household. Holly Hancock, on the other hand–
John: Yeah. Holly Hancock is fantastic.
Craig: Amazing. And surely said to him, “No.” And that was the end of that discussion.
John: But you’ll notice that now they are single parents because their kids are off in boarding school.
Craig: Not far from here. So they’re visiting them plenty.
John: They’re visiting them plenty. So, anyway, I stole John Lee Hancock’s idea. It’s been the plan for the last five years that we’re going to be moving to Paris. And now it’s finally suddenly here.
And so I want to talk about why you don’t expose that ahead of time, because I didn’t want sort of everybody in Hollywood to know that I was moving because then it’s that weird thing like, well, are you going to hire somebody for a job knowing that they’re not going to be around to deliver the second trip.
Craig: Absolutely. This comes up. I remember actually – not to bring everybody down – but I remember having a long talk with my friend Don Rhymer, who was a working screenwriter for many, many years.
John: He did the Rio movies.
Craig: He did the Rio movies. Exactly. And Surf’s Up. And then he had worked in television for many, many years, like on Evening Shade and other shows like that.
And he got sick. He got cancer. And he was really worried about who do I tell, because I don’t want people to not hire me, because right now I’m happy to work. And he did, by the way, he worked – it was remarkable. His whole cancer odyssey was about four years long and unfortunately did not end successfully. But, the entire time he worked.
Craig: And at some point he was unable to keep it from people. But, it’s a real thing. You don’t want people to suddenly put you in the box of, “Oh, you’re moving to Paris. Well that’s like you’re dead.”
John: Yeah. Women writers often face this with pregnancy. And so our friend, Dana Fox, who was on the show – I’m not sure quite where it was in her development process – but she had a pregnancy that required her to be on bed rest, and yet she also had a tremendous amount of work to do. And she had writers to meet with.
And so she had to sort of keep the pregnancy a secret from the people she was working with so they wouldn’t freak out about her TV show.
Craig: She just pretended to be incredibly lazy?
John: I think she’s fine with me telling you. She faked a back injury to sort of explain why she was having to take meetings at her house rather than at the office.
Craig: In her bed.
Craig: I feel like I want to that now, just so I don’t have to get out of bed.
John: It’s a really good plan.
Craig: It’s amazing.
John: It’s an amazing plan. So, obviously we live in 2016 in a time where I can remotely on anything, and so most of what I do is emails anyway. It’s not going to be significantly impacting my ability to do my work. But it is a real change. And even when I was in Chicago doing Big Fish, or New York doing Big Fish, I was always sort of in the country and in the same time zone.
And so a challenge for our show is that we do the show by Skype, and so that’ll be the same. But we’re also on really different clocks.
Craig: That’s the problem. So, Paris is 10—
John: Depends on what time of year. But, yeah, 10 hours.
Craig: Does it go down to nine when we–?
John: I think there’s some times where we’re at nine, and sometimes where it can go more.
Craig: Based on Daylight Savings. So, that’s a terrible time split.
John: It is.
Craig: It’s nearly flipping AM/PM. So, it’s always going to be one of us either too early or too late. But I’m happy to take the late shift by the way. That’s my jam. I don’t like getting up.
And then the nice thing is, you’re right, we could be on different planets the way we do the podcast normally. But, you know, we have some plans to – that I don’t think will disrupt your… – I mean, I’d like to think because – not because we care about our listeners but because we’re just the way we are—
John: We are the way we are.
Craig: We deliver a consistent product.
John: Agreed. And so you’ve done episodes without me. Like the Alec Berg episode you did, which was terrific. And so there’s already a plan for a solo one that you’re going to be doing very soon. There are writers in the UK and in France who I may be talking with in doing some solo things, too.
We’ll find ways to make it work. You don’t listen to any other podcasts, but if you did, you would know that some of them actually go to like a season format where they’re off a few weeks, and then they’re on for a bunch of weeks. So, Serial does that. And other shows do that. I don’t think we’re going to go quite that far, but there may be some weeks where we’re doing a best-of, or we’re just off. And we’ll let you know if that happens. But I think we’ll be able to keep up sort of like a normal schedule.
Craig: Yeah. I think so. Certainly we’ll have plenty to discuss. I’m not freaked out about it completely. I’m freaked out like 78%. You know, because I’m your child. Daddy is leaving.
John: And Stuart is leaving. So it’s a lot of change.
Craig: But I never believed Stuart was really real. So, that’s not a problem for me at all.
John: Matthew though is staying put. Matthew is still editing our show.
Craig: Thank god.
John: Matthew, you’re listening to this right now. Please – please stay.
Craig: Good. Okay.
John: The other sort of big change and sort of big bit of news is this next year I’ll be doing a lot less screenwriting because I sold a book. I sold a series of three books, which is very exciting.
John: So, this next week, sometime they’re going to announce it. By the time you’re hearing this podcast, it may already be announced. But we’re recording this on Thursday, so I couldn’t be sure that the news is going to be out there. But back when we were at Austin Film Festival and you remember this last year there were those horrible storms and everything. And Melissa was there and my husband Mike was there.
I was talking on the phone with this novelist who had written this middle-grade fiction book that was really good. And we were talking about whether I would adapt his book. We had a great conversation and I asked him a lot about sort of the history of the book and sort of the history of writing and sort of stuff, and over the course of this hour-long conversation I realized like I really don’t want to adapt this book, but I think I kind of want to write a book like this.
I don’t want to be the guy who gets sent all these adaptations, but actually the guy who like writes the original book. And so that was October 30. And then November 1, start of NaNoWriMo, I just sat down and I started writing the book.
Craig: So this is the one that came out of NaNo – I’m not going to say that word, because I hate it. Hate it. It’s a nonsense word. It’s nonsense. This is the one that came out of the National Book-writing Month?
Craig: Fantastic. You may be the only person that has ever made a dollar. I’m a terrible person. I’m a bad guy.
John: That’s fine. You’re not bad at all.
Craig: No, I’m bad.
John: So for people that don’t know NaNoWriMo at all, we actually mentioned it on the air that I was thinking about doing it, and then I did it. It’s this idea where you write every day in November and you can build up to a full book by the end of November. And I didn’t write the entire book then, but I wrote enough of it that like, oh, this feels like the outline of this book.
And so it’s middle-grade fiction. It’s the same genre in general as a Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. It’s very much sort of my childhood and sort of pushed into a fantasy realm. And it was just a delight to write. It was a delight to write fiction. You’ve written some fiction over the years.
Craig: Yeah, not much. I mean, honestly, I’m still deeply on the hamster wheel of screenwriting.
Stuart: Popcorn Fiction.
Craig: Well, yeah, no, I’ve done it. And I have a little secret novel that I work on every now and again that, you know, is mostly for me. But, yeah, no, I can’t tell if I’m envious of you or not. I think I am. Because I’m currently on a – it’s a hamster wheel.
John: So, what’s interesting is we obviously know a lot about how screenwriting works. We know how the screenwriting industry works. We know about Hollywood.
And when I went off and did the Broadway show, I got to learn how all that works. And you recognize: these are things that are the same, these are the things that are very different. These are the gatekeepers. This is the process. And with the book, I got to learn all that again. And I’m still learning it now. So I’m just taking a lot of notes as I sort of see it. But, I’d written this first third of this book, I’d written the proposal for the rest of it. You show it to your agent. Your agent shows it to another agent. You find a really good book agent. You’re very lucky that she says yes.
And then you go out with it, and it’s very much like going out with a spec script. But rather than going to studios, you’re going to the big publishing houses. And there’s this whole conversation about which editor at which house is the right one. And all these discussions and debates.
And then you make your top choices. You go out. And I was very lucky that the place we wanted to do it said yes.
John: And bought it up and bought it for three books.
Craig: And that’s Hustler? Hustler Press?
John: Hustler Press, yes. That’s what it is.
Craig: Got it. Good. Good label.
John: Raunchy middle-grade fiction – it’s really – that’s the future there.
Craig: Well, they put a lot into marketing.
John: They do. So, anyway, I’ll have more to say in the coming weeks about it, and I’ll have stuff on the blog, and there will probably be a second site that’s geared more towards the people who would ultimately be reading this book.
It’s weird writing something that is not sort of for my age to read. It’s a strange thing, too. But I’m really looking forward to all of it.
Craig: Well, that sounds fantastic. And since I have, you know, our daughters are essentially the same age, so I’m sure that my daughter will be reading. In fact, she can be one of your beta readers.
Craig: Or even gamma reader. Is that–?
Craig: Oh that’s right. It goes–
Stuart: There’s an alpha bed.
Craig: Right, so gamma would be like, oh my god, we’re almost about to–
John: Yeah, absolutely. So there’s a whole thing called Advanced Reader Copies Arcs that you send out ahead of time. And our mutual colleague, Geoff Rodkey, is a writer and he’s been incredibly helpful sort of in those initial conversations about like what do I even do. What is the process here?
And so I’ll be trying to sort of keep track of the process. And I may end up doing a second podcast that is just like a six-episode leading up to the book to sort of show this is how you actually do it.
Craig: I don’t have to do anything for that?
Craig: Because then I can just – now I can stop paying attention to that.
John: You can not even listen to it.
Craig: I’m sorry. What were you saying? [laughs]
John: That would be the most Craig thing you could do.
Craig: Got to be me.
John: The last and most crucial thing we need to do today–
Craig: This is the big one.
John: This is the big one.
Craig: You thought that all that stuff was big.
John: That’s all–
Craig: Jettisoning Stuart. Moving to France. Writing a book. None of that matters.
John: Yeah. So some of you listening to the show may go like, well, without Stuart, like what’s going to be here. Or should I polish up my resume because Stuart’s job is now open?
And so we need to hire somebody. Maybe there’s going to be a giant competition, where we’re going to ask our listeners to send in stuff.
Craig: That sounds great, John. Let’s do that.
Stuart: The best Three Page Challenge gets picked.
John: Becomes my new assistant and becomes the producer of Scriptnotes.
Craig: What a great idea.
John: It’s a great idea.
Craig: Or, no.
John: No. Or actually no. But I think we are going to do something very different. And we sort of hid Stuart away for five years, our new producer is not going to be hidden away anymore. It is time for us to actually introduce our new producer of Scriptnotes. We’d like to welcome Godwin Jabangwe.
Godwin Jabangwe: Hi.
John: That’s Godwin Jabangwe!
Craig: That’s perfect.
John: That’s fantastic. Godwin, you are my new assistant. You are the new producer of Scriptnotes. Have you listened to the show ever?
Godwin: Yes. I have. And I love it, obviously.
Craig: Thank you.
Godwin: And I’m really, really excited to be here and to be playing a part in this.
Craig: Well, I already like him better than Stuart.
Stuart: Great, thank you.
Craig: But that’s not saying much.
Stuart: The bar is low.
John: Godwin, some backstory, you are currently at UCLA. You are studying screenwriting?
Godwin: Yes, I am. I just finished my first year. I am going into my second and final year at UCLA. Go Bruins. And I just have to throw that in.
Craig: Of course.
Godwin: And, yeah, I love it. I am excited. I’m from Zimbabwe, so this is like a big deal for me.
John: So you were born and raised in Zimbabwe, and from Zimbabwe you went to–?
Godwin: I went to a small college in Michigan where I got my undergrad in film production. And then I applied to UCLA and somehow they said yes. So, yeah.
Craig: Well, I mean, they obviously saw what – I feel like whatever we saw in him, and really it’s John. I mean, that’s the truth. John, no big surprise, did all the work here. Obviously.
Stuart: Hiring his own assistant.
Craig: I would have also picked you. I would have done it quicker. I would have done it with much less drama. But, no, of course, they saw in you whatever John saw in you. It’s exciting. And I believe that we know your instructors at least are the Wibberleys.
Godwin: The Wibberleys. I took a class with them last quarter. And they are fantastic. If they’re listening, hey.
John: So, the Wibberleys are married screenwriters. They worked on – they did the National Treasure movies. They also worked on the second Charlie’s Angels movie. I met them because they rewrote me on the second Charlie’s Angels movie. And the very first time we had a phone call, the very first time I actually met them in person, was at the Charlie’s Angels premiere. They were seated behind me. And so we just talked.
And they were so cool. And they’ve been great. So, when it became clear that Stuart was leaving, I did put out some small feelers, both to Stark Program which is where I’ve always gotten my assistants, but also to other folks. And the Wibberleys raved about Godwin and they were correct.
Craig: So, not a Stark guy.
John: Not a Starky. First non-Starky.
Craig: Good. Let’s break that tradition.
John: Let’s break that mold, yeah. So, I was able to meet with five fantastic candidates. And there are just remarkably talented people out there. And gave them different assignments than what Stuart had, but a chance to sort of talk through their work, to sort of see how their brains worked. And it’s been a pleasure to have Godwin be part of this.
Craig: So how does this work with Godwin being a student and also doing this job? Tell us how that’s going to- or one of you can tell us.
Godwin: Well, it will be a lot of work. But it’ll be fun work, because what I am hoping to learn and pick up is what I’ll be applying to my schooling. You know, the writing program at UCLA is intense and it’s a lot of work, but I’ve been doing this for a while and I know that I am not – I’m not here to play, either in school or at work. So, it’ll be a fun challenge.
John: Stuart, any advice for?
Stuart: Your classes are at night, right?
Godwin: Yes. I mostly take my classes at night.
Stuart: I mean, honestly, I think you will find, especially with John away, that this is like – sometimes you get detention in high school and it’s a blessing because you get all your homework done. I think you’re going to find that your life is actually kind of a little easier. You’re getting up. You’re going into an office. And you’re just going to do the work that you are going to be doing.
Craig: That’s another good point. So, you’re going to be John’s assistant, but John is going to be in France.
John: Yeah. So one of the things I had to warn him about, all the applicants before they even applied, saying like we’re going to be starting work at 7am LA time, so that we have some overlap of hours.
Godwin: Yeah. So, but–
Craig: Oh man.
Godwin: I wake up early anyway. So I’ll be fine. I can handle it.
Craig: All right. I wouldn’t have taken this job.
John: No, clearly.
Craig: I mean, 7am.
John: It’s early. You’ve seen 7am, but usually on the other side of 7am.
Craig: No. I’ll tell you, this is why – I love production, but the worst part of production is waking up.
Stuart: Oh god.
Craig: I hate it. I hate it so much.
John: For me, the worst part of production is when you’ve done a night shoot, and you’ve done all night, and then you’re racing to finish night shots before the sun comes up. And when you’re cursing the sun for rising, that’s a bad sign.
And then you’re driving home against rush hour traffic. That was Go. And I will never write a movie that’s mostly shot at night again.
Craig: I love shooting nights. Oh my god.
John: I love how quiet it is. But then I hate the end of it.
Craig: So great. I love it. I just love being – because now, yeah, the world has gotten out of your way. There’s just something, I don’t know, calmer at night. But I got a lot of mental problems.
Godwin, I’m very excited. And now as the producer of Scriptnotes, maybe you could finally explain to me what the producer of Scriptnotes does. Because I don’t know.
Stuart: I would love to hear this.
Godwin: I’m looking at Stuart like help me out here. I think creating the transcripts of the show. Making sure that everything is right with each episode. Making sure that it’s uploaded to the website. That it is shared on Facebook. You know, just bringing it to the people.
John: I always forget that Stuart actually has to manually share it on Facebook.
Stuart: Yeah. I think, honestly, I think that the credit I’ve been given is a little generous at times. At the same time, I think that there’s probably a lot of little things that you guys don’t even realize I’m doing to help the machine stay well-oiled.
Craig: I didn’t realize you were doing anything. So, it all goes under the folder of “What does Stuart do?”
Stuart: Yeah. And sometimes I – when I talk to my dad about it I say like, it wasn’t something specific, but we’ll have a conversation at lunch, and then next week that conversation is the fodder for what becomes the episode. As simple as that.
Craig: Well, you know, Stuart, I like to tease you, because you’re adorable.
Stuart: Well, thanks.
Craig: But you’ve done a spectacular job. And I know it’s a lot of work, because I know I’m not doing it. So, we’re going to miss you.
John: We will both miss you very much. You’ve done a fantastic job.
Stuart: Thanks guys.
Craig: You have big ginger shoes for Godwin to step into.
Stuart: Get ready.
Godwin: I’m looking forward to it.
Craig: But you will be available, I assume, as a resource if he calls you?
Stuart: Well, let’s put it this way, if you ever need me, feel free to email me. I will reply to you as quickly as I can. I hope to be too busy to be [unintelligible] very quickly.
John: Yeah, we’re being cagey about sort of what he’s heading off to do. But I think it’s going to be a big, noteworthy announcement.
Craig: It’s not war?
John: It’s not war.
Stuart: It’s as much war as waking up at 7am for production is war. Hopefully. We’ll see. Knock on wood things continue to go well.
Craig: I like this. This is exciting. Perhaps one day Stuart will be our guest.
John: Oh, that would be very exciting, to announce the launch of a certain project.
John: That could be good.
Stuart: I’m coming back.
Craig: That’s right. It’s like coming back to host Saturday Night Live.
Stuart: Yeah. Like graduating, you come back to your old college.
John: See all the people who are still there, yeah.
Craig: I love it.
Godwin: So, one thing, you guys were talking about who should play Stuart. Justin Timberlake.
Craig: Kinda, yeah. Actually, I kind of get it.
Stuart: One of my first days here, John’s daughter told me I looked like Phillip Phillips, who I had never heard of at the time. And I looked him up and I look nothing like this person. And I’m the worst singer in the history of the world. And now I’m apparently being compared to another very good singer, who is significantly better looking than I could ever dream to be.
Craig: I would love to hear you sing.
Stuart: Oh, well, you know, if you guys stick around for 150 episodes, I’ll take out my guitar, and then we’ll delete it before we put it in.
John: It’s time for our One Cool Things. Mine is actually a recommendation from Aline Brosh McKenna, who is our favorite sort of go-to guest. She recommended this podcast called My Dad Wrote a Porno. And what it is is these three guys, three British people, one of whose father was trying to be Fifty Shades of Grey, but he’s like a 60-year-old man trying to write erotic fiction.
Craig: Oh no.
John: So they read aloud the chapters and it is sort of half commentary while they’re reading it. It’s just delightful.
Stuart: That’s fabulous.
John: It’s fantastic. So, the book that they’re reading is called Belinda Blinked.
Craig: Belinda Blinked?
John: It’s just remarkable. So there will be a link in the show notes to My Dad Wrote a Porno.
Craig: Wow. Awesome. My One Cool Thing is a little bizarre, but you know I talked before about how I think that this is not real and that in fact what we think of as reality is a computer simulation. And there are a lot of very fancy physicists who have put this theory forward.
And one of the arguments for it goes like this: if we can create – eventually we’ll be able to create a simulation in which the people in the simulation don’t know that they’re in a simulation and they are fully intelligent. And if that’s the case, what are the odds that some other civilization like us hasn’t existed and made us that?
Okay, so an interesting argument has emerged against this. And the argument basically boils down to pi, the irrational number. Because pi never ends. And the argument is if we’re in a simulation, the simulation must be finite because it is created. If it is finite, you can’t have a number that never ends.
And I think we now have a computer that has calculate pi to the three-trillionth digit, with no repetition of pattern, and no suddenly a trailing bunch of twos. Basically, think of pi as like Truman in the Truman Show sailing on that water. But he never gets to the wall.
So, it’s possible that this might – I’m now saying this is a chance this is real. It’s a slim, slim chance.
John: But the counter-argument would be that there’s some programming that’s happening that’s making us believe that pi is incalculable. Essentially, Nima, our coder, says that’s absolutely true.
Craig: That we are essentially being manipulated in this. But what a bizarre and pointless manipulation. Or is the point of the manipulation to make us think that it’s real? This is the great trick.
John: Exactly. That’s the great trick. The greatest trick the devil ever played.
Craig: Okay, so then whoever is listening now above us, and watching our simulation, must be concerned that we’re onto them.
John: What if this is actually the last episode of Scriptnotes?
Craig: Or the last episode of existence.
John: That, too. Both are tragedies.
Craig: Wow, man. One Cool Thing.
John: We’re going to give Stuart the last word, so Godwin, why don’t you give us your One Cool Thing.
Godwin: My One Cool Thing is something that is happening in Zimbabwe. We have this incredibly brave one man who has stood up and started what can be called the Zimbabwean Spring. And so you should check out the hashtag called #ThisFlag and see how people are finally speaking up in Zimbabwe and it’s about time.
So, I’m really thrilled about that.
Craig: What is the man’s name?
Godwin: His name is Pastor Evan Mawarire. And so—
John: Say that back three times.
Craig: Well, I knew about Morgan Tsvangirai.
Godwin: Tsvangirai. He was an opposition leader. This guy is not a politician. He is not starting a party.
Craig: He’s a religious man?
Godwin: He is just getting the people to get up and—
Craig: Robert Mugabe cannot leave soon enough from this earth as far as I’m concerned. Well, we will definitely check that out. That’s excellent.
Godwin: You should.
John: So, the hashtag is #ThisFlag?
John: Great. Stuart Friedel?
Stuart: Thanks for making me look petty.
Craig: So, his was that entire nation. Mine was about the nature of reality. And tell us, Stuart, what’s your One Cool Thing?
Stuart: Right before we started recording, John said like do you have a One Cool Thing? And my response was it’s 260 episodes. I’ve had over 260 One Cool Things. I just haven’t been able to say any of them. And in the time that I’ve worked here I think I’ve introduced John to some things that I’m proud to have introduced him to, like Nathan for You, and the iced tea that we drink in this office.
But there is one thing that I’m perhaps most proud to have introduced him to. And it is my One Cool Thing. And I’m going to pitch it to you, to all of our – I think it’s going to be helpful to our listeners as well. And that thing is specifically the chicken kabobs at Fiddler’s Bistro on Third Street, right near the Grove. And here’s my pitch.
Craig: That’s right up there with #ThisFlag.
Stuart: Right. Exactly. So, you’ve probably all seen Fiddler’s Bistro. Like you drive down Third Street. It’s just sort of there. It’s unremarkable. It’s just a sign. It’s just there. It’s near the Grove. It’s next to 7-11.
John: It’s part of a motel complex, right?
Stuart: Part of a motel. It’s the bistro in a motel. Exactly. And I remember once a few months ago, or I guess a few years ago, you and Mike made a joke that I had heard before that’s like, “Whoever goes to Fiddler’s Bistro?” And I was like, ah-ha, I have. And it’s awesome.
It is right near the Grove. I hate the Grove. I absolutely hate the Grove. And my least favorite part about the Grove is parking there.
Craig: Yeah. It’s terrible.
Stuart: So, if you go to Fiddler’s Bistro, there is parking on the street. There’s also a little lot and there’s parking right around the corner, so you can park there if you’re going right before the Grove and then walk to the Grove. Leave your car there. Easy.
But the best part are these chicken kabobs. So you get there, you walk in, it is unpretentious. There are a lot of restaurants in Los Angeles that look really fancy and pretentious and their food is not very good. Fiddler’s Bistro is the exact opposite of that.
It caters this motel, so they have everything on the menu – breakfast all day. But, there’s one section that is differentiated, that sticks out, and that’s the kabobs section. And there’s a reason for it. Their chicken kabobs are out of this world.
So, you sit down. First thing they give you is warm bread with this roasted red pepper dip that is fantastic. And then the chicken kabobs. Simple marinated chicken that is so succulent and delicious. You have no idea.
Craig: This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard.
Stuart: Some of the best hummus you have ever had. Really good pickled beets. Great rice. Peppers. Onions. Pita bread. Absolutely delicious. If you live at Park La Brea, you’ve probably seen it 500 times. You never thought to walk in. It fabulous. And if you read the reviews online, you’ll see that it’s either five-star or like two-star. The five-star reviews are all from people that either got the kabobs or this chicken couscous soup that I’ve never tried, but now I have to try.
And the two/three-star reviews are all from people that were staying at the motel that just got regular food and were not terribly impressed. But the chicken kabobs at Fiddler’s Bistro. My One Cool Thing.
Craig: My mind is blown right now by the – I love – I’ve never seen you this enthusiastic about anything.
Stuart: Find something I love, and I—
Craig: Turns out the answer was chicken.
John: Chicken kabobs at one place. So, Stuart brought in the kabobs from there this week. And the hummus was wrong. And there was no red pepper sauce.
Stuart: And the credit card machine wasn’t working. But first time in seven years that I’ve been there that there has been any sort of blip.
John: Everything is falling apart.
Stuart: Now that I’m leaving. Such a forgivable blip, though.
Craig: But how were the chicken kabobs, John?
John: They were fine. But without the red pepper sauce, it’s just not the same. The red pepper sauce is what sort of pushes them over the edge to me.
Stuart: Well, John had this idea that in all my years of going there, I first was introduced to this place by a friend of mine from Stark. Matty C. Matt Conrad, if you’re out there, hi Matt. And Matt lived near me.
Craig: He’s doing shout-outs now. This is unbelievable.
John: I just love that. He’ll be like turn down the radio while I’m talking on the phone.
Craig: When did we become the Morning Zoo?
Stuart: Five years. Five years! Five years!
So, Matt was like, oh, we got to try Fiddler’s Bistro. And I was like, “That place I’ve walked by a thousand times? Why would I go there?” It’s a perfect place to like sit back, relax, and write.
This red pepper sauce is what like – the second they brought that out, I knew I was somewhere special. And when I brought it here the first time for work, John saved some. And the next day I came in and was like, “I use that on my eggs.” And that is a game-changer.
Craig: Oh, the red pepper sauce on the eggs?
John: That’s how you do it.
Stuart: Get it to go. Save some of the extra. Use it on eggs the next day.
Craig: I’m just—
John: You’ve learned so much.
Craig: I’m happy. But, that was pretty great, actually. I got to say.
Stuart: Oh great, good.
Craig: You delivered.
Stuart: Thank you.
John: Well done. That is our season finale, but we’ll be back next week with the start of the new season.
Craig: Which is the most ridiculous thing. I’m going to miss Stuart.
John: I’ll miss Stuart, too.
Stuart: Thank you guys for five fabulous years. I mean, all I’m doing is pushing buttons. You guys are the—
Craig: Yeah, but we love you.
John: You’re the only one here getting paid, so.
Craig: Exactly. That’s not true. I know you are. I know you are, John. I know it. I know it.
John: At some point there will be forensic accounting and you’ll see all the millions that we’re raking in.
Stuart: We’ll show you the numbers. You’ll have a good laugh.
John: The other person getting paid is Matthew Chilelli who edits our show. Thank you, Matthew. And our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro for us, you can write in to email@example.com and send us a link.
Scriptnotes is produced by Stuart Friedel and Godwin Jabangwe. And, yes, we did pick him because he had a good NPR-sounding name. It’s just a fantastic—
Craig: That was the only reason?
John: It’s a reason. Not the only reason.
Godwin: It’s funny you say that, because I have been writing like tweets to NPR for years saying I have the perfect name for NPR. It’s paying off.
Craig: It’s finally paying off.
John: It’s finally paying off.
Craig: Godwin Jabangwe reports.
Stuart: Close enough. It is so phonaesthetically pleasing. It’s like Cellar Door. Godwin Jabangwe just flows so – it’s like Best Ever Death Metal Band out of Texas. You know that song by Mountain Goats?
Stuart: It just flows. Like your tongue is in exactly the right place for the next syllable.
Craig: Godwin Jabangwe. You’re right. It’s like typing the word point.
John: I’ve been looking forward to it all week to be able to say it.
Craig: All right.
John: Guys, thank you very much, and thank you to our listeners for five years. That’s just crazy and remarkable this has been going on for five years. And we look forward to what happens in the next couple years. See you.
- Girl Gone Overboard, cut by Fredrik Limi
- Stuart Friedel on Twitter
- The Peter Stark Program
- Matt Byrne, Chad Creasey, Dana Fox and Rawson Thurber
- Thomas Barbusca
- The Three Page Challenge
- Steve Zissis and Corey Stoll
- One of John’s doppelgängers as Hebrew National’s Uncle Sam
- Ghostbusters (2016) credits on IMDb
- Gizmodo on The Six Plots
- Godwin Jabangwe on Twitter
- The Wibberleys at UCLA TFT
- My Dad Wrote a Porno
- Do irrational numbers like pi disprove humanity being a simulation? on Quora
- Pastor Evan Mawarire on Twitter, and #ThisFlag
- Fiddler’s Bistro chicken kabobs and red pepper dip
- The phonaesthetically beautiful cellar door and The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton
- Outro by Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)
You can download the episode here.
I first met Adam Davis in 2006, back when he was finishing up at Drake University, my alma mater. He loved movies, and was wondering whether he should bite the bullet and move to Los Angeles. I said yes, definitely — but he should prepare to work his ass off when he got here.
Unbelievably, it’s now his tenth year in Los Angeles, so I asked him to recap what he’s accomplished, what he’s learned, and what he would have done differently.
Exactly 10 years ago I arrived in Los Angeles for a summer internship at Marvel Studios and quickly realized this town and industry was for me. I was turning twenty-two and was driven by the surefire fact that I was going to make my debut feature film and have my manager or agent by twenty-three, just like Robert Rodriguez. Because I was one of those young genius savants, not one of those poor shlubs that actually had to work years at honing their craft, right?
Let’s just say twenty-three was a mighty depressing birthday. Ah, but twenty-seven, that’s when I would strike it big like my other idol, Quentin Tarantino! As you might guess, birthday number twenty-eight was even more depressing. Nothing big was happening. Nothing I could tell people about. But what I was doing in all those years was the work. I was writing, trying to get better with each script. I was directing one short a year, when I could afford it. I wasn’t out doing drinks, I wasn’t networking like crazy, I was just doing the work. Because I needed to get better.
I got sidetracked of course, captivated by those stories of a self-published novel that was becoming a movie. A bidding war over an indie comic. The funding contests. The screenplay competitions. Maybe, just maybe, if I tried another door, I’d finally win the prize. So I adapted one of my features into a novel and self-published it to a whopping five mediocre reviews and zero dollars. I adapted script ideas into comic pitches and submitted to rejection. I submitted projects to funding contests that set you back a couple hundred bucks. Rejection. I submitted to the Blacklist. More rejection. I tried making videos for YouTube. No one cared. Was it me? Was it everyone else? Was there just too much competition and content? I felt like I was trying everything and failing, but the one thing I always came back to was the work.
No one was going to hand success to me, that much I had learned. But people could help or provide advice if I asked. So I took a chance and reached out to a successful writer that I had a few pleasant interactions with and asked him to lunch. I just wanted to know what his path was. The conversation was informative and fun and out of that came a request to read a script my writing partner and I had written. Turns out a stuntwoman he knew, Heidi Moneymaker, was looking to have an action script written for her to star in. He liked our script enough to pass it along, Heidi read it, liked it, we had a great lunch and walked away with a pro bono writing gig and a production company tentatively attached to produce. That project stalled and eventually died, but we had another solid script under our belts and a new relationship. We still wanted to do something with Heidi, so we came up with an action/horror short film idea called NO TOUCHING starring her and her friend, Zoë Bell. We pitched them our idea over sushi and they agreed to star in it and produce with us.
To fund it, we ran a Kickstarter campaign and miraculously raised the $30,000 we needed in 15 days. Family and friends really stepped up to help us reach our goal, but things were rocky the night before the campaign ended the next day. We were down $2,500. Everyone we knew had pledged, so it was up to fate. I went to bed not knowing what we’d do if we failed. That would be the end of it. All that hard work and nothing to show for it. My mind raced. Could I pledge the rest myself? Put it on a credit card? I had no answers so I went to sleep, preparing myself to jump into action in the morning. And then something amazing happened in the middle of the night. Unbeknownst to us, a Xena: The Warrior Princess fan page on Facebook had found the campaign and posted about it, since Zoë was the Xena stunt double. And by this random occurrence, one fan graciously put us over the edge. In the morning I woke up to numerous texts and voicemails saying that we had done it. It still remains one of the most surreal events that’s ever happened to me. I’ve never considered myself lucky, but this seemed like a textbook example of it that I’m forever grateful for.
So we were well on our way to shoot it in fall of 2014 when Tarantino’s Hateful Eight intervened. Zoë got whisked away earlier than expected to begin training and we had to make the hard decision to push a full year due to her and Heidi’s schedules. I was devastated. One year! This was supposed to be the project that got my foot in the door and I had to postpone for one year! What was I going to do with one year? 2014 was ending. In a half year I would turn thirty-one. I had set milestones for myself, all of which I had failed to meet. Thirty-one was approaching 10 years of true, constant effort. Thirty-one was my breaking point.
So I had a tough conversation with myself. I had to wait a year. There was nothing I could do about that. So what could I do? I had not accomplished my goal of directing a feature film by the time I was thirty so I promised myself that I would finally do it before I turned thirty-one in July. That gave me 6 months to write and direct it. Which I had no idea how I was going to pull off, but I knew I had to. There was no other choice.
In January I began writing the script for an idea I had, a single location drama called CONFERENCE CALL and wrote a first draft by the end of February. As I rewrote I began the pre-production process, looking for crew, reaching out to actors, asking people for help and things started falling into place. The project was a quickly moving train and anyone wanting to be a part of it had to be willing to jump on and run with it. And the best people did. There were temptations, offers from actors of connecting me to this or that producer who might be able to get funding if I cast them, but I stuck to my guns. I couldn’t wait for anyone. I was self-financing it which meant we only had the budget to shoot it in 4 days and we had to make that happen.
As I kept up with the momentum and ran headfirst into production, I was able to lock down the perfect cast, the right crew and an amazing location. I didn’t, couldn’t, stop and things somehow kept falling into place. The cast and I rehearsed the script like a play for 2 weeks because we had to shoot quickly, only allowing them a few takes per scene. And the script was ninety-five percent dialogue, being a group of people stuck in a room together. But the cast was up to it and they performed better than I could have ever imagined. At the end of June, after 4 grueling days spread out over 2 weekends, we had everything in the can. Apologies in advance for getting way too honest here, but on the last day of shooting I came home and all I could do was sit in my car and cry for a solid 5 minutes. They were happy tears, grateful tears, because somehow I had done it. I had finally accomplished my biggest goal.
By December, the film was finished and submitted to festivals. CONFERENCE CALL premiered at the Pasadena International Film Festival in March of this year and was nominated for Best Feature. The festival run since then has been pretty limited, as a micro budget movie about the film industry with no stars in it is a tough sell, but I know there’s an audience out there for it. It may take me a while to find the best way to reach them, but I’ll keep trying. And if nothing comes out of it, it will still have served its purpose. I learned more than I’ve ever learned through that process, I worked with some amazing actors that I’ll be casting for years to come, and I now had an answer to that question I knew I would be asked when trying to get a directing gig, “Well, have you ever directed a feature?” Yep. I have.
In the fall of 2015 we finally shot NO TOUCHING. Through Zoë and Heidi’s connections, we were able to add Jake Busey, Tracie Thoms, Kevin Daniels and Doug Jones to the cast. Shooting action and horror on this scale was another great learning experience and because of the feature I had the confidence to work with a much larger cast and crew.
It’s interesting to have two very different movies going through the film festival circuit at the same time. NO TOUCHING has gotten into more festivals than CONFERENCE CALL because it’s a short, which means higher acceptance rates, a genre for a wider audience, and has notable faces in the cast. It’s played a couple fests so far this year and coming up we’re playing in the San Diego Comic Con Film Fest as well as Fantasia and some others we can’t announce just yet.
For NO TOUCHING, running the festival circuit is all about getting the word out about the film before we eventually release it wide online and meeting people and making connections. And it was about trying to attract a manager or agent. Until it suddenly wasn’t.
It didn’t happen because of our social media efforts. It wasn’t because an agent saw it at a festival. It came down to something very old-fashioned. A friend who saw the short and believed in it enough sent it along to an agent he knows. She liked the short and one of our other scripts and set a meeting with us. And at the end of a great meeting she did the unthinkable and said she wanted to sign us in the room. We said yes. Much jumping and high-fiving happened in the elevator down to the parking garage.
My path was never going to be through a novelization, a graphic novel, a tweet or a competition, although that works for others. As much as I fought it, it was always going to be the old-fashioned way, through someone’s belief in the work and kindness in passing it along.
So after 10 years, I’m finally getting that beginning I’ve always wanted. Soon will come the general meetings, the water bottle tour. But I’m ready for it now. I know that I would have crashed and burned had I been given this opportunity back at twenty-two, when I thought I was ready. Honestly, I sucked back then. I had a lot of heart, but I sucked. All I know for certain is that I suck a little less now.
I’m not sure how many screenplays I’ve written. At least 30. Maybe 50.
I have ten produced credits, so that means a lot of unmade movies. As much as I love screenwriting, it’s like being the architect for a bunch of buildings that may never get built. Screenplays are transitional documents, plans for making the “real” thing.
Novels, however, are the real things. Even if they’re later adapated into movies or TV shows, the books themselves are finished works. They’re permanent in a way screenplays could never be.
So in between other projects, I decided to write one. And now it’s getting published.
Here’s the key bit from the press release:
Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, has signed a 3-book deal for a new middle grade series by award-winning screenwriter John August, who counts Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Go among his credits.
In the first book in the series, Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire, set to be published in early 2018, readers are introduced to Arlo Finch, a young boy who joins a mountain scouting troop and discovers that his fellow campers are not just training in outdoor survival—they are also learning to harness the wild magic that lies deep within the forest. Through treacherous adventures and close calls, Arlo is awakened to his unique destiny and the foundations of the Rangers’ Vow: loyalty, bravery, kindness, and truth.
As a screenwriter who frequently gets sent these kinds of books to adapt, it’s been fascinating to see the other side of the business. I’m asking a ton of questions. I’ll be sharing what I learn here and elsewhere.
Since middle grade fiction readers are not the core demo of this site, I’ve also set up a Tumblr at arlofin.ch that’s just about the book — and is more kid-and-parent friendly.
If you’re curious about the behind-the-scenes of writing and producing the series, I’ll be starting a sporadic newsletter with updates and sneak peeks along the way. More details soon.
Huge thanks to Jodi Reamer, my agent at Writers House, and my editor Connie Hsu for making this happen. It’s going to be a busy couple of years, but I’m looking forward to the journey ahead.
Matt Selman (EP of The Simpsons) sits down with Scriptnotes favorites Aline Brosh McKenna and Rawson Marshall Thurber to discuss what went down in the season finale.
- Listen to Episode 259
- Matt Selman
- Aline Brosh McKenna
- Rawson Marshall Thurber
- Stuart Friedel on Twitter
- Godwin Jabangwe on Twitter
- Order your 250-Episode Scriptnotes USB here
- Pitch your John August/Craig Mazin script to Matt Selman on Twitter
- How Wall Street Bro Talk Keeps Women Down
You can download the episode here.
In the season finale of Scriptnotes, John and Craig reveal big changes to the podcast.
After five years, a much-loved supporting character is leaving the show. We look back at his time with us, what he learned and what he’ll take with him to his new screenwriting adventures.
Meanwhile, one of the hosts is leaving Los Angeles entirely. We discuss what’s taking him to a different time zone and the impact it will have on the show.
Finally, a fresh voice joins the podcast, bringing an international flavor and a name worthy of NPR.
If all these changes sound scary, please be assured we’ll be back next week with the start of a new season.
- Girl Gone Overboard, cut by Fredrik Limi
- Stuart Friedel on Twitter
- The Peter Stark Program
- Matt Byrne, Chad Creasey, Dana Fox and Rawson Thurber
- Thomas Barbusca
- The Three Page Challenge
- Steve Zissis and Corey Stoll
- One of John’s doppelgängers as Hebrew National’s Uncle Sam
- Ghostbusters (2016) credits on IMDb
- Gizmodo on The Six Plots
- Godwin Jabangwe on Twitter
- The Wibberleys at UCLA TFT
- My Dad Wrote a Porno
- Do irrational numbers like pi disprove humanity being a simulation? on Quora
- Pastor Evan Mawarire on Twitter, and #ThisFlag
- Fiddler’s Bistro chicken kabobs and red pepper dip
- The phonaesthetically beautiful cellar door and The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton
- Outro by Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)
You can download the episode here.
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 258 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast, we will be looking at three new entries in the Three Page Challenge. We’ll also be answering listener questions about disabilities on screen and which WGA you should join.
Craig: Hmm. This is going to be a good episode already.
John: It’s going to be a great one. I think it’s also going to be short, because we are trying to wedge this in between my going to pick up my daughter at summer camp and you have a thousand things on your plate, some of which I know about, and some of which I don’t. So, it’s a busy time. Summer is supposed to be easy for us, but summer got really busy for both of us.
Craig: It’s the worst. Summer is the worst.
John: It’s just the worst. Here’s the thing: it’s the worst because it’s super busy and everyone is also gone. And so we’re recording this the week after July 4, but half of Hollywood seemed to say like, “Oh, we’ll take the whole week off.”
Craig: I know. People are like, “Hey, so are you going anywhere this summer?” And the question shocks me. Like what? No. I have too much to do. I’m not going anywhere.
John: But then there are some people who are like, “Oh yeah, we’re going to go to the East Coast for four weeks.”
John: In summer. Like landed gentry.
Craig: Right. I don’t have that. Apparently I’m forever bougie.
John: Yeah. That’s fine.
John: Last week, we had a discussion with Gabe from Southampton who was shocked we had not heard of Anagnorisis because his tutors had talked about it often.
Craig: Yeah. So I was very confused, and I think John you were as well, by the use of the word tutor. Apparently in the United Kingdom, tutor is the word they use for college professor, hence our confusion.
John: Our confusion. So, that was yet another word we did not know. We also got some feedback from other British folk. Tony Lee wrote in to say, “I’m a British screenwriter like Gabe. I don’t know any British screenwriters, professional ones at least, for a second think that Americans do the story and Brits do the characters. It’s an idiotic belief and one that any screenwriting teacher worth his salt would try to shy away from.”
And I think that is our message as well is that screenwriting professors around the world hopefully recognize that story and character are not two different things that are done best on two different continents.
Craig: Yeah. Quite a few of our British friends wrote on Twitter. They seemed completely stumped by Gabe’s professor’s point of view. It doesn’t seem like a shared opinion. And I was happy to see that.
John: Yeah. All around the world there are good writers listening to our program, so thank you very much for writing in.
Let’s get to some questions from this week. So, Brian in Chicago wrote in to ask, “Do you guys think there’s a ‘moment,’ for lack of a better term, going on with disabilities in film and television? I am myself physically disabled, and while far from an activist or a person terribly interested in ‘disability issues,’ it’s hard to miss the current visibility of physically disabled characters in film and television.
“Game of Thrones does such a good job with Tyrion because of how his malady occupies both the foreground and background of Tyrion’s character, but isn’t his total character. He’s many things. A dwarf is just one of them. It’s relevant when it needs to be, or makes sense to be, such as his relationship with his sister, the Battle of Blackwater, but it’s not so singular as often happens with other disabled characters.”
Craig, what do you think? Do you think there’s a moment happening?
Craig: I do. I think there’s a moment happening for physically disabled characters. I think there’s a moment happening for characters of color. There’s a moment happening for characters who are LGBTQ. And the reason why — and it’s the strangest thing — while on the one hand we have a very strong academic tendency towards identity studies, the interesting symptom of our concentration on identity is an ability to look past these identities as all-consuming things for our characters. Whereas a while ago you would say, “Well, describe this character.”
Oh, he’s a blind guy. That’s his character, right? Blind guy. No one does that anymore. Well, I’m sure people do, but most of us now our whole thing is, great, that’s an interesting aspect of a human being, and their experience, and we should now be curious and we should be authentic to that experience as best we can. But it does seem like there’s a moment in general where we are all as filmmakers growing up very rapidly about all of these things and underlying all of it is a general movement toward presenting full human beings whose “labels” are merely an aspect.
John: Agreed. I think there’s two facets I’d like to look at. First off is that it’s the recognition that the world is complex and beautiful and filled with many different kinds of people and many different kinds of situations and that it’s great if the stories that we’re telling reflect the diversity of persons and diversity of experiences that are out there in the world.
And so that means looking beyond the initial sort of stock presentations of a character or a character with a disability, to look at sort of what is the full range of that, and how would having a person with a given set of physical circumstances impact both how he or she is perceived in the world, but also how he or she perceives the world. Let that be a jumping off point, but don’t let it be the entire character.
I think Tyrion is a really interesting way of looking at that. At first I said like, well, that’s not actually a disability. He’s just a very small person. And yet it actually does track the way we think of characters with different abilities in stories. There are things he cannot do because of his small size, but there’s things he does differently and smarter because of his small size.
And not having read the books, my belief is that in the books don’t they make more of his small size? Like he’s like nimble and spry in ways that are important?
Craig: I think in the book, and I could be wrong about this, but I think he’s more — he’s more of a small person, whereas on the show they’ve cast Peter Dinklage who has dwarfism, which is a physical condition. It’s a congenital condition. It’s genetic.
And when we say physical disability, there is obviously an implied pejorative there. There are certain physical downside beyond size to having dwarfism. There are difficulties. And so it’s not merely about being small, but it’s about how joints work, and hips, and knees, and elbows, things. But in general, I think we’ve all gotten a bit braver, too, about not running away or shying away from these things. Nobody on Game of Thrones is afraid, either — either in front of the character, or in the writing room, behind the scenes. Nobody is afraid to talk about the “elephant in the room” to the extent that it’s not an elephant in the room.
Everyone is very blunt about everything. And so you begin to demystify and de-taboo-ify a lot of these things that we previously thought of as somehow dividing us.
John: So, a few weeks ago I was in on a meeting about remaking an older film. And there’s a character in it who can present as being very problematic in terms of a — I guess you’d call it a disability, but there’s sort of a supernatural reason for why the disability exists.
And I thought it was actually a really interesting moment to look at that story now in the current light about, well, what is the reality of living with that condition. And this is very much like a condition that a large percentage of the world population actually encounters. And so let’s not run away from it. Let’s actually sort of embrace that and sort of not let it be a curse that a character is under, but actually an opportunity to explore a world that had otherwise been shut off from that person.
And so I do think there is a moment happening here. If we are using the wrong terms for any of this stuff, if Craig and I on this podcast, or people out in Hollywood are using the wrong terms for things, apologies, but also know that we are — I think it’s more important to be discussing the opportunities here than to be running away from them. Or to not engage with them as characters who were sort of missing from film and TV.
Craig: I completely agree. I’m very — I’m actually very excited by the way things are going, and also how fast it’s gone. So, an excellent question from Brian. Thank you, Brian.
I guess we should get in this question from James.
John: Go for it.
Craig: And he’s from Brooklyn, so I have to read it, right? I won’t do the accent. Because also no one in Brooklyn has this accent anymore. It’s just all hipsters now.
James in Brooklyn writes, “I know you guys have occasionally mentioned differences between the WGA East and West. The West has more members and more lawyers, for example. But could you break down more of these differences, or at least go into a little more detail why an East Coast writer might be better off joining the West. I mean, why shouldn’t I join the WGAw, despite being based in New York City?”
John: Craig, I’m so glad you’re on this podcast, because I do not have a good answer here. So, an important thing to understand, which does not really make sense, but is just how things really are, is that there’s a Writers Guild West, which is mostly what Craig and I mean when we talk about the Writers Guild. That represents Hollywood. It represents most of the things you see and are familiar with.
There’s also a Writers Guild East, which is based in New York City. It represents the writers in New York City. The Mississippi River classically divides the East and the West of the United States, but I don’t have a good sense of why right now in 2016 a writer joins one versus the other. So, tell us, Professor Craig.
Craig: Well, I won’t go into the history of why it is the way it is, other than to say that when the guilds were founded New York was a much more important media center. It was the center of television, for instance. Whereas now essentially television — at least entertainment television- is centered in Los Angeles, just like screen.
It is the Mississippi River, that’s the dividing line. And the way it works is if you gain your first employment and your first qualifying employment to become a member of the union, if you are working east of the Mississippi you are funneled into the East. And if you’re working west, you’re funneled into the West.
Now, that actually does not prevent you from changing. You can change. There is a mechanism by which you are allowed to elect a change. The instructions of which are buried somewhere online. It’s not a common thing, but if you call up the Writers Guild East and ask how you should change to the West, after they attempt to stop you from doing it, I think they would — I have to tell you, it basically involves writing a letter to the executive directors of each union and then they have to process it.
Why would it be valuable to join the West, first of all, it’s not unless you are a screenwriter or you are working in entertainment television, or the kind of television that the West is the main operator on for contract. So, there are members in the East who work in news media. And they are almost certainly better off in the East, because that’s where the majority of news writers are. But, you know —
John: But, also, there are a lot of live — the late shows that are often writer WGA shows that are based in the East Coast. And so if you have a bunch of people who are making that same kind of thing on your side of the country, I guess it would make sense to stick around.
Craig: Kind of. Here’s the big advantage to being in the Writers Guild West, whether you work on late night television, or you work on a sitcom, or you work in movies. And it comes down to how we negotiate our big contract. The contract that does cover late night TV, and sitcoms, and movies, and all the stuff we think of as entertainment television. Without getting into too much of the boring details, the Writers Guild West takes point on that.
Essentially, the way it works is that there is a negotiating committee. The membership is proportional, which means the vast majority of members of the negotiating committee are from the West, so we have a larger voice in that committee. And then we take the lead. So, once the committee comes back with a proposal for a contract, the board in the West votes on it. If we vote to approve it, the East then — their council, which is their equivalent of the board, they vote, but they can only undo it if they vote against it by two-thirds.
So, they have this — there’s a barrier there for them. And even then, if they should vote by two-thirds to negate what the majority did in the West, it’s not over yet. Then, they add all the totals together of all the votes, and if there’s still a majority for approval, then it goes to the membership. So, if the WGAe votes unanimously to approve a contact, and there’s nothing the East Council can do to stop it from going to the membership.
So, basically the big benefit to being in the West is you have a vote for the people that are going to be probably making the determinative decision about what we get to vote on. The board members in the West, the members of the negotiating committee in the West.
Is it a huge benefit? No. It’s small, but it’s something.
John: So, another possible benefit, and you will tell me why I’m wrong to think this is the WGA West handles many, many, many more arbitrations than the East does. And so there are situations in which an arbitration is handled in the East because the writers were in the East, and they may not have the proficiency with the arbitrations. Is that fair? Is that accurate?
Craig: It is fair. If there’s a theatrical arbitration, and the writers are all members of the East, the East does handle the arbitration. It’s not that they are incompetent — I would never say such a thing. But to be fair, our credits department I think is larger than their entire staff in the East. And our credits department is jammed packed with attorneys whose legal specialty is credits. That’s it.
So, I tend to think that they are much more thorough and there’s just a larger wealth and breadth of experience there. If you end up with one of these difficult arbitrations, and boy, do we get them? So, I do think that that’s a benefit to being in the West.
John: Yeah. So it’s a situation where if you’re going in for heart surgery, you’d like to go to the place that does heart surgery all the time versus the place that does heart surgery a couple times a year.
And it’s not to say that you’re going to have a bad outcome at the smaller place, but if things go poorly, you want to be at the place that has done it a lot of times before and has seen all of the stuff that can happen.
Craig: Great analogy. Perfect.
John: Great. All right, let’s get to our Three Page Challenges. These things are so far away from being finished movies, but who knows, they could end up in arbitration themselves.
Craig: Segue Man.
John: Segue Man. Now, what I sometimes forget to do is to tell people where they can read along with us. So, if you are in your car, do not try to read these on your phone as you’re doing this, because it would be dangerous. But if you’re someplace safe, or if you can pull to the side, you’ll find links in the show notes to the three PDFs we’re talking about. So, just go to johnaugust.com/scriptnotes and you’ll see this episode and you’ll see the PDFs that we’re discussing.
So, these people were incredibly brave to write in and let us see the first three pages of their screenplays. Sometimes they are pilots, but in this case they all feel like features to us. And they have agreed to let us show these on the air and discuss them.
And Stuart goes through every single entry and he picks three that he thinks are interesting. And something Stuart would like me to remind you is that he doesn’t pick the best entries. He picks the ones he thinks are going to be most interesting to talk about on the air. And so these are ones that have interesting strengths or weaknesses or possibilities so that we can really dig into them.
So, it’s not meant to be a competition that you win. And Stuart sometimes gets frustrated when people think like, oh my god, I was featured on Three Page Challenge and now my career is going to be set. It’s not. It’s not going to be.
Craig: No, no.
John: Hopefully we will give you some good advice and other people can learn from the things we tell you. So, let’s get started.
Craig: All right.
John: Which one should go first, Craig?
Craig: Well, the first one in my hand is The Real Pearl. Shall I summarize?
John: Go for it.
Craig: Okay. The Real Pearl, written by Philip Lemon. What a great name. Philip Lemon.
John: I like it.
Craig: Okay, so we begin in a warehouse. We’re looking at Pearl who is a 25-year-old woman. She is in distress. And in fact a plastic bag is yanked over her head. We watch from her perspective as this large man beats her and then tosses her into the trunk of a car.
She wakes up, she comes back into conscious, in the trunk of the car, and she gets out of the plastic bag. She’s breathing. And she sees another woman in the trunk with her. This is a dead woman. She kisses the woman’s lips lovingly, closes her eyes, and then begins to look for a way to escape.
We cut to inside the car. And we see that it’s being driven by Ivan, a Russian. And he is driving at gun point. In the passenger seat, holding the gun, is the man who presumably was the one who was beating Pearl. Ivan realizes as they’re driving to some distant location that the trunk lid is rising. Pearl manages to escape. She leaps out of the trunk. The people in the car keep going. They don’t notice. She lands on the road and then she is just about to get run over by another car coming toward her when we smash cut to Pearl. And now she’s actually in a city street, bracing for impact, but there is no impact. In fact, now she’s dressed completely differently. She’s got makeup on. She looks terrific. She’s standing in the middle of a city street. And a cab driver just yells at her.
John: Yep. So, I feel like maybe I should have put a trigger warning at the start of this thing, because if you have any experience being taken or being kidnapped or being sort of restrained, this would make you feel very uncomfortable. I could see this provoking some bad feelings.
It provoked some bad feelings in me, too. I don’t know how to even dig into this, because a lot of the writing was fine. And yet I didn’t want to sort of keep in the world of this movie. Do you see what I’m seeing?
Craig: Well, I do. And I think that it’s important sometimes to discriminate between the writing and our taste. You know, so this may not be your kind of movie. And generally it’s not my kind of movie either, although I was fascinated by these pages.
Philip I thought did — putting the — let’s put the content aside for a second. I saw everything. I heard everything. I understood perspective perfectly. I always knew when I was with Pearl, which I thought was fascinating. There was a mystery without confusion, which I thought was great, particularly the mystery of the corpse in the trunk with her.
And I was very surprised by the way the pages ended where it seemed suddenly this might not have happened at all. This may have been in her head. That was fascinating to me. So, I thought these are actually wonderfully written. There are some spelling issues, and Philip included his phone number on the cover page, which obviously we don’t share with you guys. But I can tell you that he’s from Australia. So there’s no excuse for not being able to spell dilapidated or gorgeous.
But I thought that regardless of whether or not this is your genre that Philip did everything you’re supposed to do in three pages of a screenplay.
John: I’m mostly there with you in terms of his ability to visually create the world and to strongly ground us in a perspective. And we’re largely in the perspective of the woman who is being kidnapped and sort of her journey. So, having made a movie with a character locked in a car, trunk of a car, I sort of know what that feels like and I thought he did a good job feeling us through that with her.
I didn’t believe or buy the corpse or the woman in the back of the trunk with her. Sort of the intimacy and the kissing and the touching, it really pulled me out. I loved that her reaction to the corpse was not just an “oh my god, there’s a corpse in the back of the car,” that there clearly is a reaction. This is somebody she knows. At the same time, I didn’t believe the actions that were there.
I loved the introduction of the Russian who is driving the car and the man holding the gun on him. I thought it was very smart to sort of set an expectation like this is clearly going to be the bad guy driving the car, and then realize like, oh no, he’s actually also a captive in this situation. That was terrific.
John: As we got to the end there, I was reading this as a Stuart Special. I believe that we’re actually jumping back in time to a time before her makeup was messed up. And so I think there was going to be on that next page a “Six Weeks Earlier” or “Four Hours Earlier” that just sort of show us how it had gotten to that situation.
But, I don’t know. I think the alternate explanation that like this is all in her head, or that there is some other movement in time between the two is also possible.
Craig: Well, I would be disappointed if it were a Stuart Special, as I’m about to be disappointed by our other two Stuart Specials. But, again, for people that don’t know, a Stuart Special is when you open a movie with a scene and it’s, “Oh my god,” in media res, and then you go, okay, but six months earlier, and then you start the movie.
You’re right. That may actually be what’s going on. Philip, very quickly, you’ve got a typo in addition to some spelling errors. On page two, olive-skinned, you have olive-sinned.
John: I love olive-sinned people.
Craig: But, overall, I was interested. I thought, also, I’m going to — I mean, again, you know, if this makes you uncomfortable, just turn it down, but this is how it opens, and we talk a lot about how you describe characters, right. And you know my whole thing — hair and makeup. And maybe people are taking this to heart.
“INT. WAREHOUSE — DAY. A WOMAN’S TERRIFIED FACE,” that’s all in caps, “fills our vision. This is Pearl, 25, blonde, sweat smeared makeup, lips curled back, eyes bulging as she — “
Next line. “SCREAMS,” capital, “her lungs out, struggles desperately.”
This is very — I mean, I’m gripped. And what I thought was really interesting was there was no commentary about how she’s pretty, or how she is this sort of — there’s no unfilmmables, as we say. I’m in the moment and I can see it. So, I thought Philip did a really good job and, you know, on some material that isn’t always for everyone.
John: Agreed. So, let’s take a look at a few specifics that I wanted to single out here. About halfway through the first page, “We frantically snap bicycle KICKS up at him; he bats them aside.” I tripped on bicycle kicks. I had to read it a couple of times where I was like, oh, he means the kind of kicks where you’re doing that, like where you’re pedaling a bicycle. Bicycle didn’t help us there, so I’d just get rid of the word bicycle. It helps us out there.
Craig: I like bicycle kicks.
John: Fine to keep then. I would say capitalize bicycle, too.
Craig: Mm-hmm. I like that. Yep.
John: So it all stays together as one idea, because when you capitalize part of it, and you don’t capitalize the other part, they read as different ideas.
John: Let’s look at the first transition here. ” BRUTE cocks a meaty fist, SMASHES US INTO: INT. CAR TRUNK — DAY.” That was just a weird transition. We’re missing a word. So, brute cocks a meaty fist and smashed us into INT. CAR TRUNK. Just like the and would just help — let it read as continuous thought.
A general goal is if you’re going to do that kind of the dot-dot-dot transition even without the dot-dot-dot. Make it read like a complete thought, so they’re not just weird fragments out there. Let it read as one continuous line.
Same page. “PIN PRICKS OF LIGHT stab into the BLACKNESS transforming it to GLOOM.” I don’t know what gloom is. I don’t know how you transform into gloom.
Craig: Yeah. I think he means like low light or something like that. But, yes, gloom is not the right word.
John: No. “The plastic is RIPPED open and Pearl GASPS, collapses back.” The plastic rips open. Again, it’s a situation where keep it as present active tense as you possibly can. Passive voice can be lovely, but this was not a passive voice moment in any way.
We go to “crazed pit bull” twice. You know, it’s fine to describe somebody as a crazed pit bull, but don’t use that as the thing you’re going to hang that character description on later on. Same way he uses olive-skinned twice. Don’t repeat “crazed pit bull.” It’s a one-time description. Don’t ever use it again to — don’t use it as the noun. Use it as the archetypal phrase to describe who this person is this first time we see him. Don’t keep coming back to it.
Craig: I agree with that. I for sure agree with that. Anything else? I mean, I would also say one thing for readability on that first page, Philip, is after “Brute cocks a meaty fist, smashes us into,” and then you have “INT. CAR TRUNK — Day. Blackness.” That’s always tough. And it’s accurate, because it is day, and it is black. You might want to move blackness above. So, “Brute cocks a meaty fist and smashes us into — and then on the left side, “Blackness.” Then say “INT. CAR TRUNK — DAY — footsteps and muffled.” So we’ll know, okay, we’re in black. And then “Pin pricks of light stab into the blackness,” you know, or “Still black to just make sure people know.”
But blackness, if it’s ahead of that thing it might help you a little bit there.
John: It’s also a weird thing where “into” above an “INT,” you sort of read both things the same way. So, the simplest thing might be “Smashes us to — INT. CAR TRUNK — DAY.” It feels like it’s less of a repeat there. Just some way to make that feel like one continuous thought would help.
My last little bit is on page three, “Pearl, staring in disbelief, spots the BOX CUTTER.” Disbelief doesn’t feel like quite the right word for a woman who has just like rolled out of a moving car onto a highway. There’s something — disbelief feels like, “I can’t believe she said that.” Versus the shock that you’d actually feel, or the bewilderment, the overall kind of daze that she would be in.
Craig: I think that’s absolutely right. You don’t have time to be disbelieving there. You should be, you know, you get the feeling that she’s gone into animal mode there. Animals never disbelieve anything.
John: Yep. For sure.
Craig: All right.
John: Let’s get on to our next one. This is How I Unleashed Mayhem and Saved the Free World, by Lynn Esta Goldman.
Craig: Great title.
John: It’s a fun title.
Our story opens over black, a voice over from Max. “I didn’t mean to cause trouble. Or to kill anyone. And I don’t think that I did. At least, not intentionally.” We meet Max as he is running for his life. He is 24 years old. Max Klovis is wiry and thin. He is a sort of parkour expert. He’s running from four thugs who chase him through alleys, through a Chinese restaurant. Ultimately, they corner him. He’s holding a phone. And that’s apparently what they’re going after. Then, Stuart Special —
John: Eight Days Earlier. We are in an office where we see Max being interviewed for a job by Howard Cobb, who is pale, wire-rims, generic as the furniture. And they’re talking about this coding job he’s interviewing for.
Max explains he had top grades from Stanford, but he had to leave to take care of his father who had cancer. Trying to defend that Steve Jobs dropped out of college. But the interviewer, Cobb, is not having it. He says that, “We have other candidates who are much cheaper, much better, who didn’t hack into the Fox News website and put obscene comments up there.”
And so we leave the end of the three pages with Cobb saying, “We’ll keep your resume on file.”
Craig: Yeah. Well…
Craig: These are certainly competently written pages. There’s not so much an issue with the structure of them. I mean, there are a few little tweaky things that I’m going to point out. I think the larger issue is that I believe I’ve seen this foot chase a billion times.
Craig: This precise foot chase, in this precise way, including the run through a restaurant that should be called Foot Chase Restaurant, where you go through the Foot Chase Kitchen, and the Foot Chase Chefs go, “What?” And you go into a Foot Chase Alley.
John: I think they have whole sound libraries which is just for the “Whaaaa?” of like someone running through your kitchen.
Craig: The clattering pots. And somebody yelling at you in Chinese, or something. There you go, it’s a Chinese seafood restaurant. Of course it is.
So, these are very cliché. There’s nothing wrong with the concept of starting with somebody running for their life, but you have the burden of a thousand movies behind you. And you have to at least take a moment to say what can I do to surprise somebody here and not give them a foot chase that we’ve seen in Steven Seagal movies. Right?
So, that’s a primary objection. After we do the Stuart Special and we’re in the job interview, Lynn, first of all, you tee yourself up here. And this is a dangerous thing to do with a character. Max in his voice over leading into the Stuart Special says, “It all started with an iPhone, in a bar. Actually. It started with the job interview from hell.” Now, first of all, we can’t do that anymore. We can’t say anything from hell anymore. That is at least 15 years of corniness on it. But the bigger problem is you’ve told me now this is going to be one hell of a scene. This is going to be one hell of an interview. It’s the interview from hell. It is not.
It is not remotely the interview from hell. It’s mildly uncomfortable. That’s what I would call it. And the information that’s coming out — so this is not an inappropriate and inelegant way to do an info dump, and that’s what we’re doing here. We’re getting Max’s backstory. And what we learn about Max through the info dump job interview is that he’s a dropout because his dad had cancer, so he must be a good guy. He is a hacker who obviously was doing sort of, oh, kind of puckish little pranks that we can all get on board with like, you know, screwing with Fox News and so forth.
He’s got martial arts expertise. And he really, really, really wants a job. But no one is going to hire him because, you know, he doesn’t fit their — again —
John: Everything felt very shoe-horned into this interview. So my dad had cancer. I was at Stanford. I’m really into martial arts. It was — you could feel everything being crammed in there in ways that weren’t particularly rewarding. And if you’re going to show us the job interview scene, just like the foot chase scene, you are fighting a hundred scenes that were just like that we’ve seen in other movies. You’ve got to recognize that it can’t be just a version of that scene we’ve seen a hundred times before.
John: What I thought was interesting is like you I thought it was actually well done on the page versions of sort of these very stock familiar scenes. And like I could imagine if you were to watch that foot chase scene, and your assignment had been like, okay now having watched this, now write the script that goes with it. I thought she did a good job of actually charting what that could feel like on a page and actually making it feel good. A good representation of that thing that we’d already seen on the screen.
It just wasn’t exciting because it didn’t seem to acknowledge that this is the stock version of that scene, and therefore I’m going to spin it in a different way. I’m going to present something brand new that you haven’t seen before.
Craig: A hundred percent. It’s got craft. And that’s a great sign, Lynn, because you know a lot of people just can’t work in this format. And it’s not uncommon for writers, particularly if you’re starting out, to ape. And you may not even realize you’re aping. You may think you’re writing something original, but what you’re really doing is you’re aiming towards the familiar, because you’re trying to emulate something, instead of working in our own voice and being dangerous a little bit. You know, and especially when you’re talking about the kind of movie that I think this is setting up — a little bit of danger is terrific.
You know, the thing about Max in this job interview is the job interview is a terrific instrument to give us facts. But it is a terrible instrument to reveal character, because you’re not yourself in a job interview. In fact, it is one of the few times when you weirdly and formally force out information about yourself when people are usually a little less forthcoming about these things. You don’t just randomly tell somebody on the street that you took care of your dad because he had cancer. But in a job interview, suddenly you’re forcing it out there.
So, I actually learn nothing about Max’s character. I just learn about his circumstances. And those are two very different things. So, if you’re going to keep the job interview scene, one suggestion is to reimagine it from the point of view of what is the essence of this guy’s attitude and feeling about the world. The way he holds himself and how he communicates with other people. And how can I get that across in a job interview? Vastly more interesting than facts.
John: Absolutely. Look for what is the conflict in this scene as well. What is it that Max is trying not to reveal or trying to get the other person to see? Right now there is not conflict in the scene. It’s basically just a ping pong match back and forth. But there’s no real stakes there. And I don’t know what Max even wants.
And you’re teeing this up that it’s the job interview from hell, so I don’t understand why Max wants this job. So, you’re fighting a lot of things there.
The other thing I’ll say about job interviews, and I like your point about people are not themselves in job interviews. They’re this idealized version. That’s I think why job interviews are so good for comedies. Because you have a character who is trying not to reveal who they are really are. And the natural tension and sort of the little lies that they get caught up in over the course of their job interview can make for such great comedy moments.
But this doesn’t feel like this movie wants comedy here, at least not from what we see in these three pages.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I could see a version of this where Max is describing himself, and it sounds fantastic, and exactly what this guy wants. And this guy is like, “Boy, you really are everything we could ever want. Do I have any other questions? Oh yeah, here’s one: why did you get arrested for hacking?” You know, and like how did you find out about that is now the question.
So that Max was attempting to hide something, and now it’s a game of how much do you know? So should I keep lying or not? And of course you keep lying. And he keeps busting them on the lies until finally it all unravels.
Something like my dad had cancer is very private. And it’s very serious. And so that’s another thing that you may want to think about how or if it should be revealed.
So, good craft.
John: Yeah. A few little small things I want to point out on the page. Page one, we see his face. “Boyishly handsome. A bad-boy glint in the eyes.” You get one boy. Not two boys. You can’t be a boyishly handsome bad boy.
Craig: Yeah, also it’s very hard to — frankly I think, you know, we had talked about there was that run of really bad introductions to female characters. This kind of falls into the opposite version of that. This is your hero and you’re describing him as “boyishly handsome, bad-boy glint.” That’s a little bit like hot but doesn’t know it. It just feels very cliché and very vanilla pudding.
And, also, difficult to show realistically when in fact when we’re looking at his face he’s running in fear from thugs. So —
John: Exactly. So, you get that glint if you are hitting on a girl at the bar, but you don’t get that glint when you’re running for your life.
Craig: Nor do you look particularly boyishly handsome in that moment.
John: You don’t.
John: Bottom of page one. “The three Thugs advance toward him… his back’s against the brick wall, it’s the worst place to be.” It’s the worst place to be — it’s not interesting, good information for us. I would scratch that kind of stuff out. Keep it simple. Keep it short. Like, “Back against the wall.” We know what back against the wall means.
Craig: We know how brick walls work.
John: We have seen that.
Last little thing. Page two, Max has two blocks of dialogue in a row. So he says, “I left to take care of my father. He had cancer.” Action line is, “Cobb continues to glare at the resume.” “Steve Jobs dropped out of college. Bill Gates. Mark Zuckerberg — “If a character is going to keep talking with an intermediary line of action in between, it’s a good idea to put the CONT’D, the continued after his name. It just reminds people this is a continuous block of dialogue.
It’s not a must. The world won’t come crashing to an end. But it’s useful. And you will often see in a table reading if you don’t have those things, characters get confused because they’re like, “I said my line. Someone else needs to talk now.”
Craig: Yeah. I’ve stopped doing those. But what I will do is if I’m going to do a split like this, I include something about Max as well. I don’t want to — because the problem is, for shooting purposes here, Max is continuing and he doesn’t seem to be reacting to what Cobb is doing. So, I would be okay with Max stopping if I understood that he was stopping.
“Cobb continues to glare at the resume. Max sweats. You know, juggles.” Whatever, you know, scrambles. Just something so that I know this is happening for Max and not just you’re just stopping him talking so that I can see this guy stare at something.
John: Yeah. So what I’ve done is I’ve turned off the automatic character CONT’Ds, but for when it’s just one line in between, I’ll usually use the CONT’Ds. The reason why I turned off the CONT’Ds overall is sometimes you’ll have like three paragraphs worth of action that takes place in the middle point. And then it’s ridiculous to actually Max Continued, like it’s not the same thought. A bunch of other stuff has happened in between.
But for these cases where it’s just a single line, I usually will use it. The world doesn’t end one way or the other.
John: Agreed. Our final entry, do you want to take care of this?
Craig: Yeah, because I really want to say this title. Baby Alligators.
John: I love Baby Alligators.
Craig: Couple of good titles here. Actually, all of the titles were good.
John: Well done, title makers.
Craig: Good job, guys. Baby Alligators by J.E. Alexander. So, we don’t know gender there. We’ll just go with J.E.
And here’s what we have for Baby Alligators. We being over black. A woman’s voice, low and ragged, saying something that’s not quite in English. Then we cut to a skyline and we see a vast industrial district with factories and blast furnaces. Heavy industry. The sounds of industry. We move in closer and closer and closer until suddenly it’s not that industrial district at all, but rather a model of it. And a big female hand coming into view. She’s building the model. This is Laura Hayes.
She is a perfectionist. We cut to she’s in a studio, I assume meaning like an art studio. We then go into the toilets, the bathroom, and she’s washing her hands. She hears a rattling coming from one of the cubicles.
J.E. must be from England because I think cubicles is like our stalls. Laura is curious about this — it’s a little eerie. What is that gurgling noise? And then she sees that it’s a water pipe that’s hanging from the ceiling. She leaves. She exits the studio, which is the Sparks Model Makers Ltd, lights a cigarette, puts on her headphones, and heads across a wasteland. And we see a canal and some train tracks. There’s a sense of decay. A car speeds by with a drunken man yelling at her. She gets to a residential, evening, gets off of a bus, and goes to her apartments.
She notices a disheveled hooded figure shuffling on the lawn of her apartment building. She waits until that person leaves and then she runs inside to her apartment building. Tries to lock it, but it doesn’t work, so she uses a fire extinguisher to barricade the door.
Heads to her flat, her apartment, asks for Kate. And we see that Kate is another woman who is sleeping in one of the rooms. She watches — Laura watches Kate sleep and then heads into the bathroom, turns on a bath, and begins combing her hair.
John: And that’s our three pages. I really like the tone of these three pages. I don’t know what’s happening in the story, and I’m not yet frustrated by my lack of understanding what’s happening in the story. But I like the world that J.E. has sort of framed for this.
I like the sense of like the industrial skyline and then pulling out that that’s a model. But then the actual real world outside is also kind of bleak and dark. I was intrigued by all that.
I don’t know much about our lead character at the end of these three pages other than she is nervous. And I can appreciate why she’s nervous because the world seems a little bit scary.
I was not concerned, but a little confused, like why is she the last person in this model building space. Has everyone already left? Is she the only person who works there? I think there were some opportunities to give me a little sign of why she’s leaving now, or why she’s staying late. Sort of what’s going on here, because I didn’t know if she was the only person, or if this was a larger space. So, I didn’t know if she was the boss or an employee. And that does kind of matter.
And I think we could have very easily gotten that information in these first few — even if we didn’t want to have any characters speaking, which I think is great, but just the sense that everyone else is packing up, or you see those other people leave and she has to be the last person to lock up could be great.
It felt like a horror movie set up kind of, in that you have this sense of dread. You have these noises. You have the ominous guy in front of the doorway. It was all well-handled. I didn’t know where it was taking me, but I would have read the next ten pages.
Craig: Yeah. I’m similar to you. I think I could have used a lot more funneling of me as I went through it, because it careens around in so many different ways between — you keep expecting, and it doesn’t do what you’re expecting, but nor does it particularly surprise you. So, you start to feel a distance. And I think it’s very — I think that J.E. has done a good job. This is a great of example of three pages that with some careful adjustment could be terrific.
First off, we begin with over black, “A woman’s voice. Low and ragged.” And the voice says, “Ajutati-ma…” Okay, that is some foreign language. That voice is not referenced again in the next three pages, which is challenging. It’s particularly challenging because as the reader, the first person I’m going to meet is someone named Laura Hayes. Well, she speaks English. And the second person I’m going to meet is Kate. Also speaks English.
So, the problem with starting with something that off the beaten path is that you need to at least acknowledge that it happened. Nothing acknowledges that that happened here. That’s tricky.
The transition from the skyline that appears to be real, and then we transition into the model, on the page is problematic. Because we’re seeing it for real, we believe it’s real. That means we’re shooting it for real, right? Then, we go INT. STUDIO — EVENING. “Suddenly, the very same scene becomes still and silent.” That’s not going to work. That’s not how the world works. It could dissolve into a model version of it, right?
John: Yeah. I was taking this that J.E. meant that literally you see this thing and you sort of assume, we hear the sounds of all this stuff, and then a hand comes in. And then we’re pulling out to see this. But that’s not how it’s described on the page. And I like my version better.
Craig: Well, yeah, I mean, look the problematic word then, if you’re correct, is churns, which I actually loved. I love that word, right, so I was so happy when I saw it. “A VAST INDUSTRIAL DISTRICT churns darkly against the sky.” So already in my mind I see smoke belching out and fires and something turning. And, you know, conveyor belts. That’s what churning is. There’s motion. But this model is — and it says, “We are no longer looking at the real skyline, but a MODEL version of it.” So, I do think I’m right, I just think that the transition isn’t correct.
So, you got to help us with that transition, because you can’t film it the way you’ve described it.
The bathroom scene, so I think, okay, this is science fiction. That’s what I feel like after a half a page. I’ve got fake language, and I’ve got a dystopian industrial district turning into a strange model with this woman building it. It seems science fiction-y.
Then she goes to the bathroom and has a Japanese horror movie scene. Which is a creepy noise in a bathroom and it turns out to be a misdirect. But, absolutely. At that point I’m like, oh no, no, no, this is a horror movie.
John: But I will say what I liked about the bathroom scene at the start, why I wanted more specificity and detail is that she shows her sort of like getting all the glue and paint off of her finger nails. I’m like, oh yeah, I can believe that, because that’s a thing that would happen. So it matches her to the job we just saw her doing. It feels connective.
But I agree with you that it doesn’t feel — the sounds that she’s hearing isn’t going to connect to the stuff we’re feeling later on in the story.
Craig: Precisely. And so here’s where a very simple thing like connecting a little piece from the prior scene to the bathroom scene will help me feel like it’s all one story, and not like we’ve begun a new movie, which is a horror movie. If the gurgling sound — she hears a gurgling sound for a moment while she’s making the model, and then it goes away. Huh. And then she’s in the bathroom. She’s washing her hands. And then the gurgling sound again.
Then I would think, okay, this is all part of the same movement. I also need to know, is this expected? Is it meaningful to her? Because right now she is staring at this gurgling sound intently. Now, either that means she’s scared by it, because it’s unfamiliar, or she’s concerned by it because it may be familiar. We don’t know. And she doesn’t tell us. Nor do you, J.E. And I kind of need to know. I kind of need to know.
When she heads outside, she now no longer seems concerned at all. She seems quite carefree. That’s what people are when they light cigarettes and put headphones on. And yet she is now walking through a wasteland. And then I thought, wasteland, do you mean actual wasteland? Or is that a figurative wasteland?
John: Yeah. And so, again, it’s one of those situations, like we don’t know whether we’re talking Mad Max, or we’re just talking like a bleak part of town.
Craig: Exactly. And so there’s an area where I need you to funnel me a little bit. Help me out. If it is, in fact, Mad Max, give me a little hint of Mad Max when she walks outside before she puts her headphones on. If it’s not, let me know that this is almost like a wasteland.
John: Yeah. I have a hunch that it’s not Mad Max, because Mad Max does not need model makers. There’s just not a job. Like what do you do? I build models in a Mad Max post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Craig: I agree.
John: So, wasteland is the bad word there. And so look for ways to describe bleak, but without sort of making it feel like there’s going to be crazed mad men running past.
Craig: Now, she’s heading home. She’s walking home now. Right? And she’s walking obviously where cars go, because a car speeds by and a drunken young man sticks his head out of the passenger window and snarls like an animal. Which makes me think, oh, maybe it is a little Mad Max-ish. She frowns. Hmm. Now, again, I’m not sure what is this world and what does she think of it?
Then we’re in a residential area and she’s getting off a bus. When did the bus happen? I thought she was walking home. See, this is all just — I’m getting discombobulated. She sees this disheveled hooded figure and she waits anxiously, clearly reluctant to engage with this person. Is that a monster? Is it a zombie? Is it a post-apocalyptic guy? Is it her boyfriend? Is it her dad?
John: It’s probably a creeper. Let’s go back to the road. So, you know, she’s walking along the road and then your concern is like now suddenly we’re on a bus. But if she walked to the bus stop. If we saw her at the bus stop and the guy goes past and does the face, and then she’s getting off a bus, then we’ve connected those two things.
John: Oh, I get it. She was walking to the bus stop. And now we’re here.
Craig: Exactly. All is forgiven. Yeah.
John: So, the general sort of macro note I want to give here, which goes all the way back to the very first “Ajutati-ma…” over black is you have this opportunity to build trust with your reader and with your audience. And that trust contract is basically if you give me your attention, I will make it worthwhile for you to have given me your attention. But you can only ask the audience to hold on to a certain number of things that aren’t being paid off until the audience goes like, “Okay, I give up. I don’t see how all of this is connecting. I’m backing away.”
And so being very mindful of the things you’re asking the audience to hold on to and not forget. And at the end of three pages, I’ve already forgotten about “Ajutati-ma…”
John: You have to make sure that you acknowledge that you’re asking the audience to hold onto that and you’re going to make it worthwhile for them. So, it means repeating it again, or finding some other way of rhyming back to that idea so that the audience knows like, oh that’s right, that’s a thing that I need to hold on to because it’s going to pay off.
Craig: Yeah. I guess my overriding note for J.E. is that the mysteries that you’ve built in here and the subtleties and the originalities are all potentially wonderful. And my advice is simply to recognize that we will identify very closely with Laura. And so we are — our comfort level will entirely be through her responses and reactions. Her responses and reactions don’t seem to calculate. They don’t feel consistent to me, or they’re not present. So, I don’t know how to feel, because I don’t know how she feels. So, it’s the circumstances and the weirdness of the world are less discombobulating to me than her lack of or inconsistent responses to it.
John: One hundred percent.
So, again, thank you to all three of these writers who were so brave to share their pages. If you have your own three pages you would like us to take a look at, the way to send them to us is go to johnaugust.com/threepage, all spelled out. And there is a form there that you sign a little thing and you click to attach a PDF. And it magically shows up in Stuart’s inbox so he can look at them and find your three pages for a future Three Page Challenge.
So, again, thank you to everybody who has sent them in, and especially to these three writers for letting us talk about them on the air.
Craig: Yeah. Thanks guys.
John: It is time for One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a simple infographic by David McCandless. It is on Information is Beautiful. And this is Common Mythconceptions. Like Myth — I’m not mispronouncing that. But they’re basically myths that are widely believed to be true and often spread by the Internet. Things like that dropped pennies will kill people.
Craig: I love that one. [laughs] This is great.
John: Salty water boils more quickly. Sugar is hyperactivity. Goldfish have a three-second memory. There are things that sometimes there’s a kernel of truth in there, but the general accepted truth to them is not actually true at all. And so you have to be mindful of these things. And some of them are completely unimportant, and some of them are actually sort of more important.
So, there is a list of about 40 of these and I thought it was a good thing worth sharing.
Craig: This is great. I’m really enjoying this. I’m just reading through these.
John: So, one example being we have five senses. And we think of the five senses, but of course we actually have a lot more. And we all know about proprioception which is the sense of where your limbs are in space. But you also have your balance. You have pain. You have hunger. You have thirst. And just because they’re not the same kinds of senses as sight or sound, they’re still incredibly important to us. So, getting past your preconceptions of what senses are is very important.
Craig: My One Cool Thing is Patrick Patterson. Who is Patrick Patterson, you ask — Patrick Patterson is a gentleman who let us know on Twitter, “Yesterday I donated my bone marrow and saved a life all because I heard about Be the Match from John August and Craig Mazin on Scriptnotes.”
John: Patrick Patterson, you are my favorite listener of the day.
Craig: I mean, of the day? Of my life.
John: That’s just remarkable.
Craig: We saved a life, theoretically. This podcast actually did something that I respect. [laughs]
John: I think it is remarkable. So, we’ve talked about Be the Match on several occasions. We have friends who have benefitted from its remarkable work. Bone marrow is one of those things that is so crucial to saving people’s lives and it’s not at all difficult to be tested for. Craig and I have both done it. We strongly encourage you to, also. So, we’ll have a link in the show notes for how you can sign up to Be the Match.
Craig: How great is that? Patrick, you’re awesome. And I don’t know if the person whose life you saved is aware that you are the one who saved it, but it would be great to hear from them, too. Just so that I could hear from the person whose life I saved. [laughs]
John: All the evil Craig has done in the world is wiped away by that one thing.
Craig: Sweet redemption!
John: By One Cool Thing.
John: Very nice. As always, our show is produced by Stuart Friedel. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Sam Comer. If you have an outro for us that you would like us to try, send it into firstname.lastname@example.org. Links are great. Or SoundCloud links. However you want to send it is fine.
That’s also a place where you can send questions like the ones we answered on the air today. On Twitter, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
You can find us on iTunes at Scriptnotes. Just search for Scriptnotes. And while you’re there, leave us a comment. We meant to sort of read aloud some comments today, but we forgot. So, on a future episode we’ll read aloud some of your great reviews and comments. Thank you for doing that.
If you would like to send in three pages to the Three Page Challenge, there’s a link in the show notes for that. And we’ll be back next week.
Craig: See you later, guys.
John: Thanks much.
John and Craig take a look at three new entries in the Three Page Challenge, with scripts tackling kidnapping, dystopia and parkour hackers. We look at both how the writing works on the page, and what the writers seem to be trying to say.
We also answer listener questions about the increased visibility of characters with disabilities on screen, and the differences between the two WGAs.
- Submit your Three Pages here
- Three Pages by Philip Lemon
- Three Pages by Lynn Esta Goldman
- Three Pages by J.E. Alexander
- Common MythConceptions
- Patrick Patterson saved a life with Be The Match
- Outro by Sam Comer (send us yours!)
You can download the episode here.
In 2007, Ryan Reynolds and I visited Malawi, a land-locked country in southern Africa, where we helped out with a group that runs day centers for thousands of orphans.
Since then, I’ve kept up with the organization, helping to build a secondary school and medical clinic.
Marathoner Brendan Rendall is currently running the length of the country to raise money to build a new wing for the secondary school, which is bursting at the seams. The block will include two science labs, an art room and a general classroom.
Brendan is running 650 miles. That’s 25 marathons back-to-back.
The school and related programs are run by Friends of Mulanje Orphans, which is one of the best charities I’ve ever enountered. Over the years, it has supported a generation of kids who are now helping run the program.
- If you zoom in on the map, you can find Mulanje south-east of Blantyre.