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Updated: 2 hours 9 min ago

Getting Stuff Written

Tue, 10/17/2017 - 08:03

John welcomes Grant Faulkner, Executive Director of NaNoWriMo and author of Pep Talks for Writers, to discuss the writing process and how to get out of your own way creatively.

We explore the ubiquity of the Other Syndrome and the perils of envy. We also look at pen names, “throw-away writing,” and the advantages of being a beginner.


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You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 320: Should You Give Up? — Transcript

Mon, 10/16/2017 - 15:33

The original post for this episode can be found here.

John August: Hey, this is John. So Craig and I recorded this episode almost a week ago. And a few things have happened since then. For starters, Harvey Weinstein. You know Craig has opinions about that so we’ll talk about that in a future episode.

Another thing that happened is that if you’re a screenwriter in the WGA West, you may have got an email from me and the WGA Board inviting you to a lunch to talk over screenwriter issues and this current state of the studio system.

There are five lunches conveniently located all over town, all happening this next month. So if you’ve got the email, please RSVP for one. I’ll be at two of the lunches, will even try to get Craig to come to one of them. So you can ask him in person for his Harvey Weinstein umbrage. Now, on with the episode.

Hello and welcome, my name is John August.

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is episode 320 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Today’s episode consist entirely of listener questions. We’ll be talking about Bulgaria, Netflix and the quote-unquote, “growth mind set.”

Craig: Okay.

John: But I thought today, we’d start with the giant question we’ve never actually addressed. Craig, do you want to tackle this big question?

Craig: So we’re going to present to you this question as if somebody wrote it in, but really it’s an amalgam of the question we’ve been asked a million times. And it goes a little something like this:

“ Dear John and Craig, over the past few years I’ve written a couple of scripts, I think they’re pretty good. Some folks have read them but no one is busting down my door to make them.

“My question is, at what point do I throw in the towel and decide that maybe screenwriting isn’t going to work out for me. I always think back to my high school coach saying, ‘winners never quit and quitters never win.’ But that can’t be right, can’t it? At what point am I allowed to say, ‘enough’ and move on?”

Oof, heavy one.

John: Oh, this is a heavy one. And I think the question kind of underlying a lot of the conversations I have, you know throughout the time we’ve been doing this, even back when I first started answering questions on IMDb for, you know, about screenwriting. It’s like I’m doing this thing but it’s not really working or doesn’t seem to be working, can I stop doing it?

The first time actually I heard it’s actually asked of me were sort of like, you know, come back to me was we did a live show and I remember being at the WGA Theater and it’s afterwards that this guy came up and it’s like, “Hey, I just want to let you know that like I listened to your podcast says, that it be okay for me like to stop screenwriting?” And at first I was just like, “Oh that’s horrible.”


John: And he said no, no, no, it’s good. Like, you know, maybe realized that like screenwriting is not a thing I actually really want to do and I feel like talking about it but I don’t actually enjoy it. And he was happy and so it made me happy. And so I thought we’d dig into this sort of all of the issues bundled up here about, you know, this aspiration of screenwriting and when you’re allowed to give up that aspiration.

Craig: And in doing so, we are not just standing on but embracing, hugging this third rail especially in our culture today. David Zucker, his answer to this one is always when someone says, “Should I quit?” He should say, “Yes, you should quit.” And if you ignore that advice, you’re halfway there to making it. And that’s clever but it is essentially a spin on the kind of advice you get all the time which is non-advice, apologies to David.

Because really what people are saying is, you should definitely not quit if you’re going to make it, eventually. And if you do quit, we know for sure you’re not going to make it. So the real trick is can you tell if you’re going to make it or not? Well, no. Generally speaking, you can’t. However, I think that for a lot of people, they can probably tell if they’re not going to make it.

And so part of the trick here is to have a very honest self-appraisal of the work you’re doing and the kind of response it gets and ask yourself, “Okay, if this just landed in front of me in a mix of scripts that eventually got turned into movies, would it even feel like it belonged in the same world of these other scripts? Or do I have enough evidence that actually this is not something that I can do at that level?”

John: Yeah, there’s a quality of self-delusion, which is so crucial to you know any new endeavor. And so whether you’re doing a startup, you’re like you’re launching a new business, a new venture, you’re some sort of tech product that you’re going to put out there, there has to be some level of self-delusion where like, “I know there’s a way I can do this.”

And at a certain point, you have to sort of stop and assess like, “Am I just still doing this because of sort of the sunk cost fallacy, like, I’ve invested this much into it emotionally and sometimes financially that I just have to keep doing it? Or can I step back and take an honest assessment of this is how far I’ve gotten, this is not where I want to be.

The hardest I think to appreciate when you’re in the middle of something is the opportunity cost of the things you’re not doing because you keep trying to do this one thing.

Craig: Right.

John: And it’s one of the things where like, you know, if you are pursuing a career you don’t like, you’re just like, “Oh, but I could go off and do this other thing.” And okay, that’s great. You know, I can make that natural change. But with something like screenwriting, like, you might kind of like it. I mean, you might feel like it’s hard to sit down and write but like I feel like I’m doing something each time but all the time you’re spending trying to make it as a screenwriter or as an actor or a musician, there’s a lot of other careers which are so similar, that’s time could’ve been doing something else, something else you generally would enjoy and be good at.

I sat down for dinner this last week with CGP Grey who’s a great YouTuber and podcaster and he had a video out recently and one of the things he sort of touched on was this toxic idea of “follow your bliss” and basically, you know, that idea you should be delightfully happy doing whatever it is that you’re doing and it creates this system where you feel like, “Well, if I’m not doing the thing that I love most in the world, I’m a failure,” and this is sort of self-perpetuating cycle of like nothing will ever be good enough. And so–

Craig: Yeah.

John: It might be worth an assessment of like what is it that you actually enjoy? What are the sort of goals you have in your life and is screenwriting high on that list? Great, but if it’s not high on that list then maybe you do need to stop and really think about where you’re spending your hours of your day.

Craig: I agree. I have some practical advice for folks who are starting out or maybe are early on in their journey, and it’s to ask yourself a critical question. What is it that you are fantasizing about? If you’re fantasizing about being a writer, that is dangerous. What you should be fantasizing about is writing. The amount of times in any given year that I experienced, let’s just call it the nowness of being a screenwriter is very limited. Here and there we have a meeting where you’re a screenwriter or somebody who refers to you as a screenwriter or you get a call from somebody, but most of the time, the vast majority of the time, and I’m sure it’s the same for you, we’re writing.

It’s actually a life of action not of being a thing and I think that people think because of what they see which is the final product that you’re a thing. I am a writer. If your identity is invested in that, then it’s going to be very, very hard for you to, A, honestly asses your own work and, B, let it go if it’s not working. Because now you’ve entwined who you are with this imaginary position in the world. I don’t really feel like I have any position. What I do is write movies, but I don’t think about a position that I occupy. I think about the work I’m doing every day. So if you make it about the doing as opposed to the being, I think you’re already better off.

And the second thing I would suggest to people is that you remove any notion of romance from what it means to be a screenwriter. In reality, it is terribly unromantic. I would argue everything that we think of is being romantic, every occupation. If you actually do it, is not romantic. The joy you get from writing television scripts or movie scripts, day after day, week after week, year after year, decade after decade, is like the joy of being married for a long time which is something that you and I both know.

It is not the heady excitement of an early romance. It is not intoxication. It is that more subtle, calm satisfaction. It’s hard to describe, but it is not exciting in this fireworksy kind of way. And I think sometimes people are chasing that. If you’re comfortable with “I am writing and I don’t need it to be romantic, I just like writing” then you keep writing. And make sure that you’re supporting yourself or anyone that’s relying on you while you’re doing it however you need to, and then you’re fine and either it will or will not happen, but, for you, you’re writing and so you’re okay.

John: Craig, I think that noun versus verb distinction is crucial and when I see people who are so obsessed with the status or the image, the idea of themselves as a writer as opposed to the person who’s doing the writing, it’s very clear sort of where they’re at in their process. In talking about, though, that the verb is what it matters that the writing is what matters, I don’t want to, you know, have people give up on their business because writing is really hard and writing isn’t fun. It’s not fun. It is hard.

And so the day-to-day process of sitting down at the computer isn’t always a joy, and in fact it is often really difficult. Even the stuff that should be fun can be really difficult. So I’m here in London and we’re doing Big Fish and so we’re in the studio, we’re preparing to get to the stage and there are things you see as like, “Oh , I actually need to write something new here because that isn’t going to work the way we’re trying to do it now.” And so, you know, I’ll move from, like, being the writer or sitting at the table. I feel like, “Crap, I need to figure out how to write something here that’s going to make this all make sense.” And that’s — it’s pressure and it’s sort of exciting that’s also sort — it’s work and it’s not easy and so I don’t want anyone to decide like, “Well, I’m going to abandon this because I don’t like sitting down at the computer everyday to work.”

Craig: Right.

John: That’s probably most writers — most working writers you’re going to talk to are going to have similar experiences there.

Craig: Yeah, you don’t necessarily have a thrill when you start writing. However, if you can’t find a certain deep sense of, I don’t want to call it joy, but I think satisfaction is the right word.

John: Yeah.

Craig: If you can’t find the deep satisfaction once you’re going —

John: Yeah.

Craig: Then that’s a problem because I think that being a writer is a symptom of writing and a lot of people think that writing is a symptom of being a writer. I hear a lot of things like, “Well, I’m a writer so I have to write.”

No. No. No. I mean, look, if they killed my job tomorrow and I had to do something else, I wouldn’t eat a gun, you know? I would be bummed out because I do love writing on some sort of deep, non-romantic, satisfying level but it is not the only thing in the world. There are other things I love. There are other things you love. So it’s really about the process and finding your satisfaction with the process. No one can take that from you and in fact there are people that go to karaoke once a week without fail and they have the best time. They cannot sing at all. No one ever says, “You’re an idiot for enjoying that,” because they’re not. They’re enjoying it.

Maybe you love the process or, again, you find that deep satisfaction and you’re just not very good at it but it still gives you something good inside, keep doing it. The world will let you know one way or another if money is coming, but if it’s not and you’re enjoying it fine. If there is something else you can do that is as satisfying where you will be rewarded more, then it’s okay to go do that.

John: I completely agree. So there’s a bunch of little questions that came in that are about the same topics, so I thought we’d fold them into this discussion. Let’s start with Michael from LA who writes, “What’s your opinion on aspiring screenwriters who are not yet getting paid as a writer saying, quote, ‘I’m a writer or I’m a screenwriter,’ in conversation with a person not familiar with their occupation, without the aspiring modifiers/disclaimer?”

Craig, what do you think of aspiring writers saying I’m a screenwriter?

Craig: It’s a tough one. I remember never doing that. If somebody would say “What are you doing?” then I’d say, “Well, this is my job but I’m working on a screenplay.” I would say that because I felt like it was a little pretentious in the most specific form of that word like “I was pretending” in that sense. You know, you can say you’re a painter but if you’re just painting on your own and no one is asking you to paint anything for them, you’re kind of a painter, but not the way people think of painters.

And so it’s a little bit — I mean, look, in the end it really is all about intent. If you are humble and you acknowledge where you are and you’re not trying to impress somebody or put one over on them or puff yourself up, then it’s okay. But if you feel like you need to say this to impress other people or to impress yourself, then I think you have a noun-verb problem.

John: Yeah, the noun-verb is the great distinction there, so I would always say identify yourself by your day job and then you can talk about that you’re also writing and then it’s fine to sort of transition the conversation about the writing that you’re doing.

Craig: Yeah.

John: When I talk to people at conferences and stuff, I will often ask like what are you writing because I’ll assume like if they’re here they’re probably a screenwriter and like it’s a natural thing to start talking about the work rather than sort of like “What have you actually gotten produced?”

Craig: I remember when I was first out in Los Angeles. I was 21 and you remember the 21 parties, John, when you were 21 in Los Angeles?

John: Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Craig: You’d end up in like someone’s bad apartment, like, jammed onto their balcony. Everyone drinking cheap beer and everyone is 21 and everyone is just reeking of desperation. Everyone is trying to get into this business and we’re all feeling each other out and everything. It’s a weird time. And I met this guy, I was just chitchatting with him and, you know, I didn’t know what he did. I don’t know — he didn’t know what I did and then someone else came over and then they asked this guy, “So what do you do?” And he said, “I’m a successful screenwriter.”

And I mean, I couldn’t believe it and I thought “If he is a successful screenwriter, what’s wrong with him? How do you become a successful screenwriter if you’re so bad at words that you would think that would be a good answer to that question?” [laughs] So then later I looked him up and no, he wasn’t. And, you know, it took me a while to kind of get over the 21-year-old umbrage into the more mellow middle age umbrage which was — not even umbrage, more, honestly, pity. You’re scared, you’re insecure, and you’re desperate for people to know that once somebody paid you 10 grand to do something, but it’s not a good look.

John: No. Not a good look at all. Ryan has a question which is “I have one issue that grinds my ears. Several times Craig has talked about the potential success of aspiring screenwriters in terms of quote, ‘having it or not having it.’ I think this is a toxic idea. I think the skills that have made you and Craig successful screenwriters can be learned. This is the difference between the growth mindset that says that skills, traits, intelligence are not fixed but are instead subject to be learned through effort, experience and training versus the fixed mindset which suggest that skills and traits are innate, we are just born with them. Craig, do you want to tackle the growth mindset?

Craig: Yeah, I feel like Ryan is script-splaining to us here. [laughs] You know, he’s explaining to us why we’re successful like your theory of why you’re successful is not at all correct actually. Oh, John, you know, I’m so woke.

John: Yeah, I’m very woke. Yeah.

Craig: John, I’m so woke. Oh my god, I’m the wokest. Right, so Ryan, I think actually what you’re suggesting is the toxic idea. Now, this should not be shocking to you. You probably knew this was coming, but it’s okay that we disagree. Here’s where I think you’re going wrong. You’re kind of engaging in the either-or fallacy. You’re saying, “Look, it’s not that you have it or don’t have it. It’s then you — and that the skills, traits and talent aren’t fixed, instead you learn them through effort and experience in training.” And so it’s that or the fixed mindset, and what I say is you have to have both. This is the worst news of all really. I believe that, of course, there is an innate talent to any form of artistic expression. I can’t necessarily prove this to you other than to say that if you’ve ever sat in a class in 3rd grade and everyone is asked to draw a picture of a clown, one kid’s clown is going to be fricking awesome and then one kind’s clown is going to, and mine, is going to look like this pathetic collection of squiggles to the extent that people might wonder if perhaps this 9-year-old child had suffered a stroke in the middle of it, okay?

There is a talent to artistic expression. It is innate. It is not in of itself enough. And when it comes to writing which is something that is influenced repeatedly by an expanding vocabulary and an expanding philosophy and an expansion of your human experience, absolutely you begin to grow as a writer. Effort and training and learning lessons and falling down and getting up and avoiding pitfalls because you’ve fallen into the pits, all part of it. But writing apparently is the one area where people say, “Unlike athletes or painters or singers, you folks, you just — you can grind your way to this,” and no, not even remotely.

Why — John, do you think it’s because everyone can write something so is that the confusion?

John: I think that is, because if you look at the other examples you listed so a singer and athlete, there’s a physical quality to them that is different than other people. So, you know, singers may have these remarkable vocal abilities that could be sort of how they are born and this is the reason why singing can run in the families. There’s — if you look at, you know, athletes, sometimes if it’s a case like basketball like height is a true advantage.

Craig: Right.

John: But there’s also marathon runners or sprinters. They’re just built in a certain way that is incredibly helpful for the sport that they’re trying to do, but at no point are we ever expecting like, oh, that person is always going to be that fast. He doesn’t need coaching. He doesn’t need any sort of training. He doesn’t any sort of —

Craig: Right.

John: Practice to do that stuff like, in fact, all we do if we talk about athletes is practice and training. And so while, yes, I think, you know, the practice of writing and the constant feedback can improve a person’s writing, and I’ve seen it time and time again. There’s also a reality check of, like, there are some people who are not going to be fantastic writers, and that doesn’t mean we should give up on them or sort of, you know, move away from them but to acknowledge that like there are some people for whom writing comes naturally and they can become better. And these people for whom writing is really a struggle and they can get better, but they’re probably not going to ever get up to the level of the people who is really great for. One of the other–

Craig: Terrible. You know, it’s okay to say these things.

John: Yeah, one of the things that I think is interesting about screenwriting as opposed to writing novels or other works is that because screenwriting is just this intermediate step towards making a movie, it’s conceivable to be a person who is, like, pretty good at throwing things on the page that will ultimately become a movie. There’s a lot of sort of writer-directors who are kind of really directors who are not fantastic writers and they made stuff happen and so there’s — you see like a whole class of people who are moving into screenwriting not really with the goals of, you know, writing the best thing on the page possible but just do like “I want to make a movie” and that that weird transitional thing is what’s odd about the career that we’ve chosen.

Craig: Yeah, I think that there is a flipside to what Ryan is suggesting, and I find it a little troubling, and that is that if what he’s saying is true then to all the thousands of people that are working very, very hard to try and sell screenplays and become professional screenwriters, well, they’re just not working hard enough apparently or they haven’t taken the right class or they haven’t read the right book. The point is there’s a thing to do and when they do that thing then they too will be like you, John. I think that that’s a rough thing to say to those people, because I think they’re trying incredibly hard.

I think that there is an industry of people who want them to believe what Ryan is saying: that they’re one book away, they’re one seminar away and there are quite a lot of film schools that are peddling the same thing. But the fact is that you and I, both, and honestly, anyone that’s every read any screenplays has certainly come across a screenplay where you think, right, this person should not be doing this at all. And there is no version where someone can come along like Henry Higgins and get this Eliza Doolittle to suddenly be something that she wasn’t in the beginning, because it’s not about learning how to pronounce your Hs and not go “aw.” It’s talent. Talent is a thing. It’s okay.

People — it’s one of the best parts of life. I am fascinated when I meet people who have these talents for things. I mean, you and I both worked with musicians. When I sit with Jeanine Tesori and I watch what she does on the piano, and I watch how her mind works, and I watch how she is doing a different kind of — a different kind of writing in her mind with a different grammar and when she does these things, I just think what a gift that I get to be here and watch it because in a million years I couldn’t do it. And I’m a musical person, but she’s got something else and it was certainly there from the start. How could it not have been?

John: But saying that it was there from the start does not negate that she’s not spent years of doing this and–

Craig: Right.

John: Learning this and teaching herself, and so it is both but there was something there to start with, I fundamentally believe.

Craig: Absolutely. Absolutely.

John: A question from Nate in LA. He writes, I moved to LA two years ago. In that time, I’ve managed to form genuine friendships with a handful of professional writers whose work I respect and whose careers I admire. So my question is, is there a reasonable way to ask them to read my work? These people know that I hope to write for TV, but so far none of them have offered to read my scripts or pass them along to agents or managers. I don’t want to soil the friendships by asking them point blank to do this, but, at the same time, I realized it’s a business of who you know and I actually know people who are situated where I would like to be someday. Do you have any suggestions for tactful and non-friendship risking ways of asking them for help with my career, or should I just keep things casual and wait for it to happen organically?

Craig: Well, this is a good question. When you’re talking about writers — so most writers aren’t going to be able to hire you to write something because they’re writing things, you know, so it’s a slightly different thing than if you were to say, you know, ask somebody whose job is to hire people or represent writers and so on and so forth. I think if you’re going to ask a writer, one way you could always say is, “Hey, I would love for you to read this, but I know what that means and I know nobody wants to read anything and I respect that because I don’t either.”

“So I’ll tell you what? I’d love to give you five pages, and you are allowed to just — that’s it. I’m not going to bother you about it. I’m literally going to give you five pages and I will never mention it again. Either you are going to come back to me and say “I want to read the rest of it” or you are going to come back to me and say “I’m not — I don’t want to read the rest of it but here’s what I think about the five pages” or you’ll never mention it again or you’ll never read it. I’m okay with that, but would you be okay with that deal?” I think most people would say, “Yeah, I’d be okay with that.”

John: There’s an episode in the bonus episodes of where I sit down and talk to Drew Goddard and talk through sort of how he kind of got started and it sounds sort of like what Nate was doing. And so Drew had been working as a PA on films shooting in New Mexico. He moved to Los Angeles. He didn’t really know anybody, but sort of started sort of picking up friendships with people, started hosting game nights with other writers and eventually people started reading him and eventually said like, “Hey, why don’t you come in and we can see if we can get you staffed on this show.”

It organically did happen, but it felt like what was crucial was he was never pushing it. And I think Nate has a good sense of like not wanting to push it or ruin it, but at the same time you can’t sit back forever and like not–

Craig: Right.

John: You know, not put it out there as a thing that could happen. The way you described it, Craig, is a term we coined around the lunch table — you’re sort of doing a pre-traction where like in saying — you’re actually retracting it as you’re saying it like, you know, “I know this is really a bad idea but” — or “I know it’s weird for me to be putting this out there but if you would ever like to read something I’d love to hear your feedback on it.” That’s totally fine and fair and natural to do.

So Nate, I think you’re right in the right spot in terms of figuring out how much to push and how much to sit back.

Craig: Certainly the tenor of Nate’s question is a good sign.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So he seems to be aware of what other people might be thinking or feeling, which is it turns out as one of the talents of being a writer. And I would say also, Nate, that when you have a relationship with somebody that is based on more than you want something or they want something or what they do for a job or what you do for a job but rather you’ve worked on something together or you have helped them or anything, then in that context things are different, because most people are decent. I believe that. And most people want to help somebody, and if you’ve been a good guy then I think there is — you know, there is a reason that people might go, “Yeah, you know what? You’re a good guy. Sure. Sure.” Not always but I think, yeah, sure.

John: Sure.

Craig: Sure.

John: Do you want to take this last question from this batch? This is Chaz from Glasgow.

Craig: Right, so Chaz from Glasgow says, “I’ve recently started writing everyday for the first time in a number of years. I’ve got a degree in scriptwriting and filmmaking, but in the six years since I completed my course I’ve bouncing from job to job and can’t seem to hold one down. I also have a criminal record so I can’t enter the United States. But anyway” — this is a great transition. But anyway enough about that.

“Is there much of a point in continuing screenwriting with my limited experience and general F-ed upness? I can imagine why no studio would want anything to do with me.” Well, Chaz is in a little bit of a bind here. What do you think, John?

John: Chaz shouldn’t sell himself short in terms of like “No studio would want to deal with me.” I think some people might find it fascinating that you have a criminal record. But I think he raises a good point overall. It’s like, if he’s in Glasgow, it sounds like it’s going to be hard for him to travel to the US. If he’s serious about filmmaking, he needs to be looking for stuff he can do in Scotland and stuff he can do in Europe so that it’s actually a possible thing.

I would also just say though, if he’s writing every day and he seems to generally enjoy writing, write some things that are not movies so you can actually see those things come to light. Like, write a book. Write short stories. Write something else that’s not movies if you’re really concerned that movies or TV are not going to be a thing that’s going to be possible for you based on what’s happened in your life and the challenge of trying to get outside of Scotland.

Craig: Yeah. That’s all great advice. I mean, look, here’s the good news, Chaz, writing is writing, right? So, your script can enter the United States and a good script is a good script. People will want it. Here’s what concerns me a little bit. You say that you’ve been bouncing from job to job and can’t seem to hold one down. And it doesn’t sound like you’re saying you’re bouncing from screenwriting job to screenwriting job. You’re bouncing from regular job to regular job, and can’t seem to hold one down.

Now, there may be other things going on in your life here that are causing some distress or keeping you kind of on a stable path. As it turns out, the only way to be a consistent, successful writer is to live a very — well, just kind of a rigid life. It requires a certain stable, patterned, consistent nose to the grindstone, disciplined life. And if you have trouble living that way, it’s going to be difficult to be a screenwriter at the very least. There are other kinds of writing that can be done by people who aren’t quite as patterned and disciplined in their daily work. But screenwriting, a bit tougher. Because unlike novels where it’s just you and your mind and you go as you wish, in screenwriting, you’re constantly being held accountable to what will ultimately be a crew of many hundreds of people as well as a studio chockfull of employees and then, ultimately, audiences.

So, I’m not sure, based on what you’re saying here, that screenwriting is necessarily the most compatible thing for you. But if you’re really good at it, you should just keep doing it. That’s the thing. The only other thing I’d mention to you is you don’t say what the crime is, just that you have a criminal record. Some crimes are — you know, you’ve paid your debt to society, you have a record, people understand and they evaluate your script without putting it in the context of your past.

There are other crimes that are a little more difficult. There are certain crimes that people consider, I think rightly, to be horrible. And if you have committed one of those, then people may be very reluctant to get into business with you. The thing about show business is it’s a very public business. So they don’t necessarily want, you know, a murderer. I’m not suggesting that that’s what you’ve done, Chaz. But I think, Chaz, I think you know what I’m talking about, the kind of crimes I’m talking about. I think you get it. But, no, if you were involved in a breaking and entering 10 years ago, I don’t think that’s an issue.

John: I agree with you. Craig, I do want to push back about sort of like “Writers have to have a stable life so they can have sort of a steady way of getting those words done every week.” I feel like I know a fair number of writers who don’t have a particularly stable life, who are the sort of like catch-as-catch-canning and like they will bunker down and get a bunch of stuff done and then they’ll just sort of go off the reservation for some weeks.

And I would say, yes, it’s more challenging to be a screenwriter that way because people are kind of counting on you a little bit more. But there’s a lot of kind of not particularly stable people who do the kinds of jobs that we do. So, I would try and figure out sort of what percentage of the writers I know I would say like, “Oh, their life is really well put together.”

Craig: Well, maybe I’ll shape it a little bit here and I don’t know if this will bring you closer to where I’m thinking or not, but it’s not so much their lives have to be stable, in a sense that they have healthy, stable relationships with another person like a partner in their home, or that they’re well dressed, or that they don’t drink too much, none of that. What I’m really saying is the writing part of their life is somewhat stable, that they get the writing done.

John: Yeah. Okay. That’s fair. And probably more so in screenwriting than in like sort of the classic person who goes off and — the songwriter can have a very chaotic life because there’s not that expectation of like, every day, I have to generate like this many verses. That can be just you can get a bunch of stuff done and then not do it again for a year.

Craig: Right.

John: The screenwriting is — I guess because you’re going to be writing such long documents that if you are not able to actually sit down and finish a long document, it won’t ever happen.

Craig: Yeah. That’s kind of what I’m getting at.

John: Cool. All right, some other questions that came in that we might tackle.

Craig: All right.

John: Josh from Albuquerque writes, “I have a question regarding the Paramount Decree which has been discussed a few times in recent episodes. How can Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon act as producers, distributors, and exhibitors while major Hollywood studios cannot? I understand the simple legal answer is that they are not, quote-unquote, ‘theaters.’ However, could you see a time in the next decade when streaming services become so dominant that the Supreme Court rules as an antitrust sort of Netflix Decree, or is the current entertainment landscape so broad, from movies to TV, videogames, YouTube, that we’ll never see another monopolization like there was during the Golden Age?”

Craig: Well, Josh, I don’t think that this is going to happen with, say, an antitrust Netflix Decree kind of thing, and here’s why. The whole point of the Paramount Decree was there are a bunch of theaters in the United States, they are physical spaces. And if the studios own those theaters, then no other studio can really come into be because a studio requires a theater to show its product and all the theaters are owned by these companies. A theater can’t exist just by showing a new company’s films because there won’t be enough. So, essentially, it was an anti-competitive practice.

None of that really applies to the internet, because there is an unlimited distribution space. Netflix is incredibly popular because people like their shows and certainly, there are a number of large players out there, all of which are owned by multinational conglomerates. But, someone can come along and start showing other movies on their platform if they can afford to license them and distribute them, and there is no physical space that they’re being locked out of.

Where it gets a little dicey is if, say, Warner Bros. which owns HBO said, “The only place we’re ever going to put any Warner Bros. movies is on HBO.” Then you could say, “Well, HBO has an unfair advantage.” The problem though is that other movie studios are going to put all their movies on these other things and Warner Bros. is going to start losing money because other people want Warner Bros. movies on platforms other than HBO.

So it does seem like right now, the kind of vibe is that things get spread around. The original content on Netflix just being on Netflix I don’t think is enough, frankly, for an antitrust Netflix Decree.

John: Yeah. I think it’s worth stepping back and taking a look at — so the Paramount Decree, you had limited physical spaces where those movies could be shown and that kind of vertical integration made it impossible for some — for a movie to break in to those spaces.

If you look at sort of how FinCEN worked in television where studios could not own networks and so that there had to be some difference of relationship, that all broke down — there was a sense of, like, there was limited space out there because we were on the airwaves, and so there could only be a certain number of channels. That sort of all fell away as cable rose.

And Josh’s question points out like, you know, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon act as producers, distributors, and exhibitors, well, really, so does Disney. I mean, Disney has its own channels that it’s putting stuff through. It’s already murkier than that. Where I think the interesting thing that’s going to happen down the road is the question of our antitrust laws, our ideas of monopolies just are from a very different era.

And so, if you look at the Amazons and sort of like how powerful they are and how much they can sort of use their incredible dominance in one area just to sort of move into another area into another area, that could become a factor as we look at media things down the road. But I don’t think it’s something that’s going to happen anytime soon.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, the test basically is not whether or not you’re a monopoly. Antitrust laws do not proscribe monopolies as far as I understand them. What they do is say “You cannot be anti-competitive.” So, if you’re a monopoly but you’re doing nothing to stifle the natural birth of new competition, I think you’re okay.

So, Microsoft, for instance, was a monopoly. They were the operating system monopoly, essentially. They vanquished Apple. And so, now, Windows was by far the dominant operating system. And that was okay until they created a new product that was a browser. And they weren’t the first browser. There was an incredibly popular browser out there called Mozilla which became Firefox and that was the dominant browser in the market. And then, Microsoft said, “You know what? Let’s leverage the monopoly we have on operating systems and force people — not really force them, but basically channel them towards our new browser called Explorer.” And that’s called bundling. And that got them into hot water.

If Amazon starts doing things like that or if Netflix starts doing things like that, then, yeah, definitely they’ll catch the eye of the Feds. Maybe not in this administration, but, you know, in a reasonable one. [laughs]

John: And the other thing to look for is classically in the US, antitrust concerns come over like whether prices are rising for consumers, and which seem to be a very natural way to sort of look at it. A weird thing that happened though is you look at Amazon’s dominance in e-books, and so, Amazon with the Kindle and controlling a vast percentage of the digital market there. When Apple came in with iBooks, really, it was Apple who was the one who got slammed by unfair —

Craig: Right.

John: — business practices because they cut deals with the publishers. Zooming out, it looks like the energy was misplaced by our regulators because you actually want competition and they were slammed for basically trying to create competition. So, that’s another kind of situation where I could see down the road these giant media companies jockeying for space, that kind of friction could happen.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, price-fixing is another big part of this sort of thing. But, I think, Josh, I think they’re kind of in safe — they’re in safe places right now.

We’ve got something here from Mike in London who writes, “I’m working on a script at the moment where there are lots of characters who feature more prominently later on in the film, but I also want to make sure that they are in earlier scenes. These earlier scenes include lots of people like weddings or other mass gatherings, but I find that putting them all in action lines pulls focus a little bit. There are only so many times I can write ‘Bob and Julie are also here. You’ll hear more about them later.’ And then, Bob and Julie are also present. So, for times like this, would it be acceptable to include some kind of note that simply says, ‘X character is present in scenes X, Y, and Z’? I just feel it would make it a little clearer.”

“Also, there are some specific notes I have regarding costumes and how they should deteriorate as the play goes on. Would something like this be okay to write in some kind of note section at the start of the script? I guess my questions both revolve around notes and whether it’s okay to include them or whether it steps on too many toes and I should just assume they’re unnecessary.”


John: It’s a very good question and I’ve definitely been in a situation where there’s characters who become important later on but they would have been in earlier scenes. I don’t have sort of one great blanket answer for you. I would say most movies do not find that they need to do this kind of thing where there’s sort of a meta note outside of the script that sort of says like, “These characters are in these things.”

But, if what you’re trying to do, it is just really clunky and sort of like include them in every scene or like call them out in every scene, then I have done it in my own scripts. Like, a little sort of bracketed note to sort of say like, “This is a meta note. Like, these characters are in the next seven scenes or like they’re in all the scenes that take place here, but I’m not going to single them out each time.” I would never say the “I’m”. But like, “The viewer will see these people and they’re going to become important later on.” That’s entirely fair.

This thing about costumes deteriorating, my instinct would be to just clock it along the way so that three scenes in, have some reason to say that his thing has gotten worse.

Craig: Yeah.

John: That his jacket is falling apart. But I wouldn’t sort of bring it out because that does feel too much like you’re just having a sidebar with the wardrobe department.

Craig: Correct. You don’t want to feel like you are having sidebars really mostly because it’s taking people out of the world of the movie, and you’re trying to show them a movie with your words. I wonder how frequently these characters need to be in these scenes.

What’s catching me a little bit is that you’re saying they’re in these scenes, but they feature prominently later on. Well, what are they doing in these scenes exactly? If they’re just passing by in the background, then, I think it’s fair to just say, “In the first time, in the background we’ll see so and so. We will see them later or we’ll hear more about them later,” like you say, and then just not mention them again because if you’re not making a point of looking at them in these subsequent scenes, do they even need to be there at all?

If you are going to put the camera on them, then there should be a reason that the camera is on them. If they’re literally just moving like background artists — and I’m just kind of wondering if we’ll even notice them at all. So I would suggest to you that maybe for some of these areas, you may have a decision to make about whether you really need them there or not. And if you do and you want the camera on them, give me a purpose for that camera there.

Lastly, I would say the one thing you should never worry about is stepping on too many toes. It’s your script, step away.

John: Yeah. I think one of the things we’re hitting on here is that Mike is looking at his script as being the blueprint. And like, if this were a blueprint for building a building, you cannot leave out those incredibly important like rafters and girders. But this is still like a reading document. So, make sure that it reads naturally and cleanly.

And so, in doing so, you may leave out some details that will become important for the AD later on, but you have to have trust and faith that, like, those other professionals who are going to be working on actually making this movie, they’ll have those conversations and figure out like, “Oh, do we want those characters in that scene?”

Craig: Yeah.

John: And so, you don’t have to sort of worry about like everything being incredibly logic’d out at this stage.

Craig: Yeah, and you’re right. If you have this note that you think is important, save it, wait for the green light, then send it to the production staff.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: And then they’ll know.

John: Ben in Colorado writes, “A question for John. In the writing and editing Scriptnotes, Craig mentions the dangers of auteurism in modern filmmaking. As someone who’s worked successfully with one of the great modern auteurs in Tim Burton, what is your experience with auteurism as a very successful screenwriter?” And I would say you also have worked with some filmmakers who have a very distinct style, so like, you know, working on the Zucker brothers movies.

Craig: Right.

John: Like that’s a person who has a very distinct style.

Craig: Or Todd Phillips, same thing.

John: Todd Phillips, another great choice. I would say one of the remarkable advantages of coming in, working with somebody who has a very distinct style and a very distinct cannon of work is that you can come in with a sense of like “These are the things that are going to be interesting to him, and these are the things where I know he can sort of knock this stuff out of the park.” And so that is a great luxury to sort of come in with a set of expectations that you can sort of push beyond. And so, you know, the first time I’m sitting down to write I guess Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the first new thing I’ve written for Tim, I can approach that meeting with like, “Okay, these are some things I think he’s going to really respond to just based on like all the other movies of his that I’ve seen.” And that is really, really helpful.

Auteursim as a general concept, for me, is just — it can be frustrating to see people write about auteurs as if everything they’ve done is entirely through their work and that there really were no other people involved in those things. That sense of like it’s just of this one sole creator behind stuff. And yet, I would say the process, at least for me working with Tim Burton movies, has been really great because you have a director who knows very much what he wants.

Craig: It feels sometimes that people confuse auteurism as it was originally imagined, meaning the director is the single creative authorship voice behind a movie with directors who have distinct styles.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: Having a distinct style doesn’t necessarily make you an auteur, particularly when you’re a director that’s not writing at all. Now, if you’re a director that writes and directs your own material, I think you can start to make arguments about this. But if you have a distinct style, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an auteur per se.

But in talking about directors who do have a specific style, I couldn’t agree more with John. There is such a relief, a burden lifted, when you’re sitting with a director whose style is unique to that person enough that when they say “That’s not going to work but this will” you don’t have to wonder if they’re right or not. They’re right because they’re making — because Todd Phillips is making a Todd Phillips movie and David Zucker is making a David Zucker movie.

There are directors that make all sorts of different kinds of movies and they don’t have this really clear distinct sharp style which is perfectly fine. Some of my favorite directors are like that. But then when they say, well, I’m not sure about this, I’m not sure about that, well, okay, let’s discuss it. But when somebody with a distinct style like Tim Burton says, “That is not — I don’t think that’s good for me at all,” there’s really no argument because what he’s saying is that’s not part of the Tim Burton thing. So then you’d be Tim Burton-splaining to Tim Burton which is just what’s the point, right? [laughs]

John: Yeah.

Craig: But then the greatest part is when they’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s going to work.” You think to yourself, “It’s going to work.”

John: One of the greatest moments in any pre-production I’ve done with Tim is I’ll go into his office and I’ll see like tacked upon on all the walls are watercolors of like different characters and the different stuff, the, you know, different sets. And it’s like, oh, okay, this has been processed through his brain. He knows how to do all this. This is going to be great. This is — there’s a plan for this. Like this is all making sense.

And I agree with you that sometimes you talk with an author who has a whole bunch different styles and those first, you know, three weeks of meetings with them is basically them figuring out sort of like what kind of movie they’re making in general.

Craig: Right.

John: And that’s great. That’s can be a part of the process, but, you know, when you have somebody who has a very distinctive voice and style, you can skip past along that and that’s incredibly helpful.

Craig: Yeah, I mean the flipside of course is that directors like that often as much as you love them and love working with them, you know that okay, well, this material — no, like you write things and you will, okay, the one person I know I cannot give this to is Tim Burton, he’ll hate it and it’s not at all what he does. Whereas I know some directors who I think “I bet you could probably direct anything assuming you wanted to, there’s nothing I would limit from you.”

John: Yeah.

Craig: And that’s — so I — you know, I never want to feel like I’m over praising the stylist, the unique stylist in any way that diminishes the other directors because I think I just — anybody that does a good job directing is a little miracle for me and so I’m just happy to know them all.

John: I agree. All right, last question comes from Andreas in Norway. He writes, “I’ve seen quite a lot of different takes about how a car chase is written especially in terms of formatting choices and the layout of the structure. For example, keeping the exterior to simply read ‘road’ and using terms of like ‘on a Land Rover’ or ‘on the Ford’ to shift the focus of the reader. I’d like to hear your guys’ takes on writing car chases.”

Craig: Yeah. I mean look — and car chases are like any other action sequence in that what you’re describing ultimately needs to be focused through the lens of humans making decisions and the world impacting them. So you’re making a chase and you’re trying to define it by what the character behind each wheel is thinking and doing. And then if a boulder rolls into the road, obviously you need to call that out as well. But “on the Land Rover,” “on the Ford,” “behind this,” “inside of this,” all that punchy kind of vibrant kinetic language I think is a perfectly good way to move around. You certainly don’t want to be languid. Your writing kind of needs to match the vibe of the score you would imagine playing under your scene.

John: One of the questions Andreas is trying to ask there is like, “Do I have to go INT/EXT for every time I go inside and outside of the car?” And that will kill you if you try to do that too much.

Craig: Oh god, the worst. The worst.

John: And so if every other line is a new INT or EXT, then people stop reading. So that’s where you use — getting down to single lines, getting to the “on the Ford”s. You know, let it feel like just the flow of what it would actually look like on the screen, but don’t get trapped inside of where we’re at in cars. It’s going to be intercut anyways. So just feel that energy as you’re writing the scene.

Craig: Well, that’s exactly the point. Look, the whole purpose of interior and exterior is not to satisfy some sort of format god in the sky. It’s there to help production understand what kind of lights are we using, because is it night or is it day, are we inside or are we outside, all that stuff, right? Once you establish the car chase, which is certainly going to occur in real time. You know, it’s not like — people don’t montage a car chase over the course of a day and a night. It would be kind of cool, I suppose, if they did. But typical car chase takes place in roughly real time in a movie. So once you establish “exterior,” so we’re not car chasing inside, which has happened for instance in the Blues Brothers, and what time of day it is, you’re done. You gave them the information they need. And now, what they really need to know is, “Okay, what car am I looking at and am I inside of it or outside of it while you’re describing things so that I get a sense of the geography and the movement?” Simple as that.

John: Yeah. I said the last thing was the last question, but in this setup, I said Bulgaria, so I wanted to get to this–

Craig: You promised us Bulgaria, John. So Peter in Bulgaria did write in to say, I’m a white male from Bulgaria, the poorest country in the EU. Am I a diverse writer?

Craig: [laughs] Yeah. I mean, look, this whole diverse writer thing, no, on one hand, if you’re talking about programs that are targeted to diverse writers in the United States, we’re not talking about white men from Bulgaria. That’s not to say that being in white man in Bulgaria is easy or that, frankly, being a human being anywhere isn’t easy because everybody’s got their own story and some people have it great and some people don’t. But specifically speaking for those programs, no. They’re not talking about white men from Bulgaria.

However, in the larger sense of things, obviously, your unique situation helps inform who you are and makes you interesting, certainly more interesting than a white male from Sherman Oaks, California. Lastly, I would say to you, Peter, don’t worry about that because the deal is this: people get wrapped up in this stuff and they forget that the reason that these programs exist is because the numbers are stark and clear. More white males are working at these jobs than not white males. So if you’re worried about the statistics, well, they’re still in your favor I guess is how I would put it as a white male. They’re still out of whack. I think people get really hung up on this stuff.

And I understand it, we’ve talked about it before from an emotional level. You never want to feel like you’re being judged for your race. Ironically, that’s exactly what’s going on regardless and that’s what some of these programs are trying to combat. So don’t get hung up on it, Peter in Bulgaria. The thing that you should be hung up on is writing something terrific. There is nothing that will stop a wonderful script, nothing. It continues to be, and I believe always has been, the single best way to get into the entertainment business.

John: Absolutely. Last bit is just actually follow-up. So in the previous episode, we talked about Exposition News as Craig called it. This is where you turn — there’s a cliché of turning on the TV to find it playing exactly the news story you needed at the moment. And so I was pretty sure that other shows had — or maybe said call it out as a thing and of course they did and of course our listeners are the best listeners. So they point to at least four examples of this being done. So we’re going to slice in at the end of the episode some examples of this. So, from Arrested Development, from Community, from The Simpsons, and from Shaun of the Dead. So you’ll hear snippets of how other shows have tackled that trope.

Craig: I think my favorite of them was the Arrested Development one because it was so awkward. [laughs] Loved it.

John: It goes on and on, yeah.

Craig: I just loved it.

John: All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things.

Craig: Yay.

John: My One Cool Thing is a thing that has actually been out for a while, but I had not known about it until I listened and clicked through a different story. So the BBC added Nigerian Pidgin as one of the languages that they have stories in on their website. And so, then I fell down a deep rabbit hole of like figuring out, like, what is Nigerian Pidgin.

And so, Nigerian Pidgin is a form of English but it’s not quite English, that’s spoken in that portion of Africa and linguists could argue whether it’s a Creole or a Pidgin because there are second generations that are speaking it. It’s still sort of this being formed kind of language. But it’s really fascinating, so I’ll put a link in the show notes to the BBC site for Pidgin.

And you can see the stories and like, you look at it, it’s like, “Oh, that’s English,” and then you’re like, “Wait, no, that’s not quite English.” You can sort of understand it, but some verbs are just working very differently. I thought it was fantastic and I thought it was, you know — as you read more about sort of like how they figured out how they were going to do it and how to sort of formalize and standardize some things that are still very nascent, just hats off to the BBC for this sort of new venture into Pidgin.

Craig: I love that word. I’ve always loved that word, Pidgin. When I was a kid, I had a little paperback book — I think I might have even gotten it from the Scholastic Book Club — that would teach you Hawaiian Pidgin. That was the first Pidgin I had heard about and the first time someone had said that to me, of course I thought it was pigeon like the bird. And in my mind still, it’s sort of pigeon like the bird.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And they–

John: Two different words.

Craig: And it eternally shall be.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Well, I have a related One Cool Thing. How odd. My One Cool Thing is a real-life Babel fish. So, if you’re a fan of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which you should be, then you know about Douglas Adams’ famous science fiction fantasy invention, the Babel fish, which solved this really annoying problem that Star Trek and other shows have solved by simply ignoring which is, why does everybody talk English across the galaxy? And his solution was this tiny little fish that you would stick in your ear and it would just automatically translate things back and forth. Wonderful.

Well, Google — you’ve heard of this small company — they have come up with these things — well, I mean, they kind of ripped them off from the Apple ear buds, you know, the new AirPod things where, okay, they’ve taken the headphone jack out of their new Pixel phone. But their little ear bud things connect to it and they flawlessly use Google Translate. So the idea is you hold your phone up, right, and someone is speaking in Spanish, your phone hears it, does a Google Translate on the fly and pipes that into your ear.

And as we have discussed before, Google Translate has sort of taken these huge leaps because of the new way that they’re processing it with the neural net. And right now, they have 40 different languages. It’s pretty bananas. And you can presume that if this works even okay, that means in 10 years, it’s going to be fricking awesome and everywhere, and then, then the world gets really interesting.

John: Yeah. That really will make a huge difference, because there definitely — like, you know, this last year, that I was living in Europe. You know, so in France, we can speak French and it was fine and it was easy. And then, you know, Germany, everybody speaks English okay. Even Athens, everyone speaks English. But then as we made our way out of central Greece and into the mountains, there were definitely some times where it’s like, wow, we were just having to communicate on really basic levels.

I remember going into a restaurant and trying to sort of start and they’re like, “No, no. Stop, stop, stop,” and then they hold up their phone and like they’re calling the one guy in town who can speak English, who then runs in and is like, “Oh, hi. Let me help you.” To be able to move past that I think will be fantastic. And there’s definitely, you know, amazing opportunities for letting people venture deeper into places where there’s not going to be anybody who could speak the same language.

Craig: I agree. I mean, that’s the key. It’s when we get rid of the language barrier finally, then a lot, I think, of the misery of separation begins to go away.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Not all of it, mind you.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I mean, I still hear people speaking English and saying insanely awful things.

John: Yeah. Weirdly, on a daily basis we’re hearing that.

Craig: [laughs] Yeah, sometimes at the highest levels. But I think it would help a lot and it would — look, more communication is only a good thing, I think. So this is an exciting thing. And, you know, unfortunately, it looks like it is only available on their phone, which, mind you, could be a possible antitrust thing if it gets big enough. Like, no, it’s going to be everywhere, pal. So let’s see what happens.

John: That sounds very exciting. Before we wrap up, I want to make sure that we’ve drawn a good enough bow around the — the fundamental question of the episode is, should you give up? And I hope that in talking about that question, we have not sort of inspired people to, you know, give up on their dreams, but to maybe like set themselves free of this vision of like, “Oh, I have to be a screenwriter or I’m going to be unhappy in my life.”

It was interesting. This last week, I was here in London talking at the London Screenwriters’ Festival and they had this special coffee thing. And I spoke to a couple of people who were like, they just like the show. Like, they were Scriptnotes fans who like the show and they like listening to us talk about stuff, who was like, “Yeah, I have no aspiration of actually writing a screenplay.” And that’s fine, too. It’s okay to not be a screenwriter, I guess, is what I’ve come back to.

Craig: That’s exactly right. And it’s okay also to write screenplays without necessarily insisting upon yourself that they must sell. Those things are going to happen, or they’re not going to happen. And while you can help it with a certain amount of effort, at some point, the script is going to have to speak and do the work for you, right, once you’re done with it.

So if you can find joy in the writing, then do find joy in that writing. I don’t think you should ever define your life by any vocation, at all. I think that we are all so much more interesting than some dream we imagine. Remember, if you’re not yet a professional screenwriter, your understanding of what it means to be a professional screenwriter is a massive guess. It’s just a huge guess. Even if you sat with me or John or any other professional screenwriter every day for a year, all you’d really find out is what it’s like for us to be screenwriters.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But what we know is, because we talk to each other, we’re all special little snowflakes. So you don’t know what it’ll be like for you. And that is true for all these things. So dreams are great, but just remember that they are dreams. The real thing on the other side is something else. So don’t define yourself by some dream that you are imagining. Let that be a motivation for you, but not your definition.

John: That sounds great. All right, that’s our show for this week. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro to send us, you can send that link to That’s also the place you can send longer questions like the ones we answered today. For short questions, on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin, I’m @johnaugust. We’re on Facebook. Search for the Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcast, look for Scriptnotes. While you’re there, leave us a review. That helps us a lot.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. We try to get them up about four days after the episode airs. You can find all the back episodes at and we now have the USB drives back in stock.

Craig: Yay.

John: So right before I came to London, Megan was busy, like, bundling them and putting labels on them, so they’re now back at the warehouse and they are shipping out to people. So if you want those first 300 episodes, you can get them now on your little USB drive.

Craig: Nice. Nice. Papa’s going to get a pair of brand new shoes. [laughs]

John: So looking forward to those shoes. They’re the fanciest shoes in the world.

Craig: Whoo.

John: Craig, thanks for a fun show.

Craig: Thank you, John. See you next time.

John: All right, bye.


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Scriptnotes, Ep 212 Rebroadcast: Diary of a First Time Director — Transcript

Fri, 10/13/2017 - 11:30

The original post for this episode can be found here. This episode originally aired August 25, 2015.

John August: Hey, this is John. So today’s episode is one from the vaults. Back in Episode 212, Craig and I sat down with Marielle Heller, who had just directed Diary of a Teenage Girl, which is terrific. So since the time we did this interview, she’s gone off and directed a couple episodes of television, but also a new movie starring Melissa McCarthy, so we can look for that in the future.

A little bit of housekeeping. So next week should be a normal episode with me and Craig. Then we’re going off and doing the Austin Film Festival, so if you’re coming to the Austin Film Festival, you should check out the Live Scriptnotes we’re doing, and then also the Live Three Page Challenge. If you’re going to be going to the Live Three Page Challenge, and want to submit your pages, make sure to go to and click the little tick box that says you’re going to be going to Austin, because we might invite you up on stage.

So thanks, enjoy this episode from the vaults. If you want to hear more back episodes, you can go to For two bucks a month you can listen to all the back episodes. Thanks.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is episode 212 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Today, we will be looking at how you get your first movie made, with special guest Mari Heller, writer and director of Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Mari Heller, welcome to our show.

Marielle Heller: I am so excited to be here.

Craig: Mari Heller. Here’s how she comes to us.

John: Right.

Craig: So Mike Birbiglia, standup comedian, filmmaker, occasional radio commentator —

Marielle: Yup.

Craig: I was in New York and he invited me to come to his house in hipsterton. I believe it’s in the hipsterton section of Brooklyn.

Marielle: [laughs] Yes. All of Brooklyn is sort of hipsterton. But, yes, North Hipsterton —

Craig: This was like North Hipsterton.

Marielle: Yes.

Craig: But as the night was winding down he said, “By the way, you know who lives right on the other side of this wall in my duplex here in hipsterton is Jorma Taccone and Mari Heller.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s cool,” because, you know, as I’ve mentioned on the show [laughs] many, many times, I think MacGruber is one of the great American films and should be in the Library of Congress.

Marielle: I totally agree.

Craig: And it’s awesome. But I didn’t really know much about you.

Marielle: No.

Craig: I was just very excited about Jorma. And he said, “Well, you know, Jorma and Mari are big fans of the show.” I was like, “Wow, this is great.” You know, and he said, “And she’s a filmmaker. She’s got this movie coming out.” And I was like, “Uh-huh, well, great.”

Marielle: [laughs]

Craig: [laughs] I’m sure she does. Why don’t we get them both on the show? It’ll be terrific.

Marielle: But really, you just wanted to talk about MacGruber.

Craig: Mostly. I was like —

Marielle: Let’s be honest.

Craig: I had MacGruber in my eyes and I was really, really excited. Head back home to my hotel. And there is an email waiting for me from Dan Chariton, another friend of ours, who said, “Hey, weirdest thing. I was at the park. We’re having a little baby play day and Jorma Taccone and Mari Heller were there. And they were talking about how they’re big fans of the show.” And I was like, well this is…this is…

Marielle: It was weird.

Craig: It was weird.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: So then we started talking. And then I realized actually that the movie you had made was supposed to be pretty awesome. And I was like, well —

John: But did Craig run out and see the movie right away? No.

Craig: Well, no, no. I don’t do that.

Marielle: No. I know.

Craig: Let’s just be clear. I don’t do things like that.

John: But you have seen it now because we both watched it last night. And it is fantastic.

Craig: Well, so this is the thing. And this is what I want to say to you before we let you start talking. Because when we let you start talking, then you go and you go.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And we won’t stop you. It’s better than MacGruber.

Marielle: Ohh!

Craig: And I know — and I feel a little weird about saying it. And I know some people would be like, are you being sarcastic? I’m not being sarcastic. MacGruber is a great American film. This is better than MacGruber. And obviously it’s a very different film.

Marielle: Very different.

Craig: But you two together ring both sides my bell so great. I mean your kid is going to grow up to be an amazing filmmaker who really pleases — I mean just was blown away. So thank you, Mari Heller, for coming to talk to us on our show.

Marielle: Oh my God, I’m so happy. And there are so many other weird coincidences on the other side of all of those coincidences.

Craig: Okay, tell me.

Marielle: You just — well, Mike Birbiglia is the one who introduced me to your guys’ show. We moved next door to each other randomly. We knew Mike. We bought our place in New York and we’re in escrow, we were like — we didn’t even have the keys yet. And I happen to go into our agent’s office and an agent popped her head out, and was like, “Hey, I hear you’re moving to blah, blah, blah,” named our address.

And I was like, “How does she know this? We don’t even own the place yet.” And she was like, “I know who your next door neighbor is.” And we’re like, “Who?” She was like, “Mike Birbiglia.” And we were like, “Wait, we know Mike. He’s our buddy. We didn’t know him that well yet.” So we ended up moving in randomly, sharing a wall.

Craig: Sharing a wall.

Marielle: We’ve become such close friends with he and his wife. Like they are just some of our best friends now. They have a baby, we have a baby. It’s like — it’s amazing.

Craig: So when there is one screaming, crying on the side of the wall —

Marielle: Who cares?

John: Who cares?

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: I think it would actually be cool if you did care and you were constantly banging the wall.

John: [laughs]

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: And when your baby was crying, you’re like —

Marielle: You’re like, “Get over it.”

John: Yeah.

Craig: That’s a baby, ass.

Marielle: Exactly. Yeah, so that was random. And then he is the one who introduced me to your guys’ podcast and got me totally addicted. And we talk about it all the time.

Craig: Yeah.

Marielle: We talk about filmmaking. We talk about your podcast. We talk about — we watch movies together all the time. It’s this great little —

Craig: That’s awesome.

Marielle: We’re building a great little life in Brooklyn [laughs] together. And we have a little artistic —

Craig: You’re little kibbutz.

Marielle: Yeah, kibbutz, exactly.

John: Well, now that you’re here with us, I want to talk about your movie. And people who have not seen your movie, which is probably most of America because you’ve just come out —

Marielle: Yes.

John: I want to give a little bit of a back story on what this movie is so people know what the hell we’re talking about. So Diary of a Teenage Girl is a new movie out in theaters right now. It stars Bel Powley.

Marielle: Bel Powley.

John: Bel Powley as the titular 15-year-old Minnie living in 1976 San Francisco. And we have a clip from it. So we’re going to play a clip from the trailer so people know what we’re talking about.

Marielle: Awesome.

Craig: We can do that?

John: We can do that.

(Video Starts Playing)

Minnie Goetze: My name is Minnie Goetze. I’m recording this onto a cassette tape because my life has gotten really crazy of late. I had sex today.

Female: What? So happy. [laughs]

Minnie Goetze: If you’re listening to this without my permission, please stop now. Just stop.

Female: I’m going to kill you.

Minnie Goetze: This makes me officially an adult. Do I look different than I did yesterday?

Male: Hey.

Minnie Goetze: Hey. It feels so good to imagine that he might be thinking about me. I wonder if anybody loves me who I don’t know about.

Male: (Inaudible).

Minnie Goetze: I get distracted sometimes, overwhelmed by my all-consuming thoughts about sex and men.

Female: I don’t know what’s wrong with you. I think he’d be more into boys.

Male: What are you waiting for?

Female: You have a kind of power, you know. You just don’t know it yet.

(Video Ends)

John: So the film also stars Kristen Wiig who you just heard as Minnie’s mother. And Alexander SkarsgÂrd as the mother’s boyfriend with whom Minnie begins a very complicated affair which is really the bulk of this movie.

Marielle: Yeah.

John: The film debuted at Sundance this last year to —

Marielle: Yes.

John: Huge acclaim. It is 94% Rotten Tomatoes. It’s just crazy and it’s really, really good. So thank you very much for —

Marielle: Thank you.

John: Coming here to talk to us about it.

Marielle: Yeah. And I also went through the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and Directors Lab with the movie.

Craig: With Scott Frank.

Marielle: With Scott Frank was one — so that was another connection.

Craig: So that’s another one. So Scott cast you in Walk Among the Tombstones.

Marielle: And cast me in A Walk Among the Tombstones, which I largely was cut out. I did have a scene where I was sort of alive, almost like a ghost and then —

Craig: You were briefly alive.

Marielle: And then I got cut out.

Craig: He sends his love. So he was one of your advisors.

Marielle: He was.

Craig: And he said he just thinks the world of you and is just —

Marielle: And I feel the same about him, yeah. I texted him at some point when you guys were talking about him on the podcast. And I was like, “I just heard them talking about you on Scriptnotes.”

Craig: Oh, yeah. He’s like, he hates all the — you know how I hate podcasts?

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: He really hates podcasts.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: Yeah.

Marielle: I can imagine that about him. But that makes me love him even more. He’s a great guy.

Craig: Obviously I agree.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: Obviously I agree.

John: Talk to us about your movie. So where does this movie come from? So I know it’s based on a graphic novel. And did you find the graphic novel and that was the start? How did this movie come to be?

Marielle: This project has been like an eight-year total passion project for me and actually was the project that started me writing. I was a theater actor mostly. And I just read this book that my sister gave me. She gave it to me as a Christmas present. And I fell in love with it. And I had been thinking about writing. And I had wanted to write something for a while and the right thing hadn’t come along, I hadn’t had the idea that I felt like was the right thing.

And reading this graphic novel, I was so blown away by this character. She felt like the most honest depiction of what it really felt like to be a teenage girl. There’s a lot of movies and a lot of books about teenage boys and not a lot what it really feels like to be a teenage girl.

Anyway, I was so blown away by it. I actually closed the cover and called the publisher. Like Googled the name of the publisher, picked up the phone, and started rambling about, “I want to make this into something.” And I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even have an agent at the time. So I was just trying to get the rights myself.

I got kind of shut down by [laughs] her agents at some point who were like, “Who are you? No.” And then just kept pestering and stalking the author and her agents until they eventually gave me the rights to it.

And first, I wrote it as a play, as a stage play. And then —

John: Did you end up performing it as a stage play?

Marielle: Yeah, we did the stage play in New York in 2010. I played the lead character. And I wrote it, produced it. I had other people direct it and I was in it. Kind of put it away for a little while and then started to think about it as a screenplay because meanwhile the project had sort of sparked me to writing. So over the course of the many years it took me to put the play up, I started writing screenplays, I started working with a writing partner.

We wrote a number of screenplays and kind of started getting work on, we wrote a couple of pilots and wrote a few screenplays, none of which got produced sadly. But, you know, we were like making our living as a writer. So I had gotten that bug and then I started thinking about this as a screenplay and started writing it. And somebody early on said, “This is going to be a really hard movie to make.”

John: Yeah. You set a very — you set a very low bar. So it’s a 15-year-old girl exploring her sexuality —

Marielle: Yes.

John: In period San Francisco.

Marielle: Yes.

John: Easy.

Craig: They do those all the time. That’s all Fox makes now.

John: Yeah. It’s 100% —

Marielle: Yeah, yeah.

John: They have a whole specialty label that it’s just those movies.

Marielle: I know. God, it’s like every other movie.

John: But what was it that sparked to you about this idea? Because we’re all too young to have actually lived —

Marielle: Yeah.

John: As a teenager in those times. And yet, there’s a specificity to what you’re trying to do with this experience.

Marielle: But I did grow up in the Bay Area. And the Bay Area has a really specific culture. And there was just something about this girl’s voice that felt really, really authentic. And I have this pet peeve about the way all teenagers but mostly teenage girls are depicted mostly in movies and TV where they’re always either — they’re just two-dimensional. They’re really quippy and they have like a perfect response for everything, which is just not how it felt to be a teenager to me.

I was really dramatic and everything felt like it was life or death. I was not able to cope with the world with everything rolling off my back and some little sarcastic response to everything that happened. It was actually a painful time of life for me. And I felt like this book kind of captured what that really felt like, even though it wasn’t my exact experiences. It was just, it captured what it felt like to be a girl starting to have sexual thoughts who doesn’t know what to do with them. And it just felt important for that reason.

Craig: Well, before we get into some of the interesting writing challenges that you had in the movie and how I think you sailed through them beautifully, let me just say I’m glad that you found writing and I’m glad that you found filmmaking because this is what you’re supposed to be doing. I’m sure that you were great on —

Marielle: Thanks, Craig.

Craig: I’m sure that you were a fine actor on stage. I’m sure. However, there’s like a billion of those people, right? There’s precious few people, honestly, who can do what you did. And what’s so interesting when I was watching the movie was every now and again — and, by the way, it’s not always when it’s the same writer and directors, because writer/directors can fall into traps as well.

But every now and then, I see a movie and I think it’s all of a piece. I don’t see the separation between the filmmaking and the writing and the writing and the directing and the acting and the dialogue. It’s all of a piece. It feels perfectly integrated. You did a spectacular job. I mean, you have such a good eye —

Marielle: Oh, thank you.

Craig: By the way. Just a remarkable eye. I mean, these are things that I don’t think anyone can teach. I know they try and teach these things but I think it’s a waste of time. You know how I feel about all that stuff.

I just love watching movies where I think, “Well, I couldn’t have done that in a million years. I don’t even know — why did she put the camera there? I don’t know. I’m glad she did. I would’ve never put the camera there.” So I just wanted to say right off the bat, you’re supposed to be doing this.

Marielle: [laughs]

Craig: So don’t do other things. Do this now, okay?

Marielle: I appreciate that. And this is what I want to do now.

Craig: Good.

Marielle: So —

Craig: Well, many people will be calling and offering you Transformers sequels but we’ll work on what —

Marielle: [laughs]

John: [laughs] We have a lot of creative advice for like sort of which projects to tackle next.

Marielle: I appreciate it.

John: Yeah. But that’ll be off air.

Marielle: Okay.

John: Talk to me about then moving from the play to moving to a screenplay. What were the writing changes that happened there? And then how did Sundance get involved? What were the next steps there?

Marielle: I sort of started from scratch when I started to think about it as a movie because obviously, it’s such a different — the play was sort of this distilled version of the story. It was five characters, it was a really intimate play. We performed it in the round. It was very theatrical. I thought the whole time when writing it, why does this have to be a play?

And I tried to write a version that couldn’t be a movie, that couldn’t be just a book, but that needed to be a play. And then had to basically toss all of that to start thinking of it, “Okay, now why does it have to be a movie? And what are the ways in which it’s inherently filmic? What are the ways in which it’s visual?”

It’s based on a graphic novel, so that sort of led to this animation. The graphic novel isn’t a traditional graphic novel. It’s not all comic book panels. It’s diary entries with full page illustrations and comic book sections. So it’s sort of a hybrid, so that kind of gave me the inspiration for the movie to be a bit of a hybrid and have mixed media all kind of playing with each other.

Yeah, and the world can be so much wider when you write it as a screenplay. You can have more than five people who speak.

Craig: Yes. Unless you’re the movie Ghost.

Marielle: Right, right. [laughs] I enjoyed that episode very much. Yeah, obviously I knew the material so inside and out after working on it as a play and I had written so many drafts of it as a play. So I had the material really already. It was all memorized also because I had played the character. But I really did kind of start from scratch when I started writing it as a screenplay.

And then going through the Screenwriters Lab was really key for me, too. It really changed a lot of things and kind of clarified — I was so clear about the story and all of the things that were important to me. But the ways that those were functioning the way I wanted them to be and the ways that I was failing at how I wanted it to function just became really clear.

John: Talk through the experience out of the Screenwriters Lab for you. So, you come into the lab with a finished screenplay.

Marielle: Yeah.

John: You’re sitting down with a bunch of advisors, you’re up on a mountain in Utah.

Marielle: Yeah.

John: What is the, I don’t know, psychological process of going through and talking with the different advisors about this thing you’re trying to make?

Marielle: I mean, it kind of breaks you down and sort of destroys you mentally in a really good way but I think forces you to learn how to take feedback. You sit down one-on-one with advisors who’ve read your script in a more detailed way than I’d ever have anyone read a script for me.

I was so used to having these really surface-level conversations with people who had done a really loose pass of reading the script and given me their first thoughts. And they would get the names wrong or they would miss whole sections when they were remembering how it had been. This was not like that. This is sitting down with people who are like, “On page 15, you have this moment where you,” and you’re like, “Oh, you are serious about this. Okay.”

John: Is that Susan Shilliday?

Marielle: [laughs] I did have a Susan Shilliday. But everybody there, everybody has read it in such a thoughtful way and is there just to help you make your movie the best it can be. There’s no second agenda there. It’s just to help you make your script as good as possible. But that doesn’t mean everybody agrees with each other, too. So you’ll have like a three-hour meeting with Scott Frank. You’ll sit down, he’ll give you all of his thoughts about the script. And you’ll leave going, “Okay, I know exactly how I’m going to rewrite.”

And then you’ll sit down with Dana Stevens and she’ll tell you something totally opposite. “Oh no, I loved that part, I hated this part. This is what I think about this.” And then you leave going, “Oh my god, now I have no idea what I’m going to do.”

Craig: That in and of itself is great training and you almost have to have a meta awareness of how this all works because we — I think we’re all sponges by nature. That’s how we do what we do. We can’t really talk about the world, describe the world, describe humans if we’re not absorbing the people around us.

Dangerously, however then, we absorb strong voices. Look, I’m writing a movie right now for Scott to direct and Lindsay Doran is the producer. They don’t always agree.

Marielle: Right.

Craig: But boy, they’re convincing when they’re talking. And what happens, you have to be really careful about is that feeling where suddenly you realize, “Where is my compass?”

Marielle: Exactly.

Craig: “Where is my vote? I’ve lost — “

Marielle: Exactly.

Craig: “I’ve lost my vote in here somehow.” And now I’m just kind of chasing. And then that’s a great time to step back and say, “Everyone, shut up.” [Laughs]

Marielle: Let me digest this. Let me figure out —

Craig: Now it’s my time.

Marielle: How it’s sitting.

Craig: Correct.

Marielle: And what they do so smartly at the Writers Lab is they don’t let you write.

Craig: That is a great thing because you have to absorb, absorb.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: And then you can’t write towards anyone, you go away. Because here’s the thing, you also learn a lesson there, which is, they can’t all be right.

Marielle: Right.

Craig: They can all be brilliant but they can’t all be right. They can only be right for the movie that they would make of your movie.

Marielle: Exactly. There isn’t really a right. All there is is who’s helping you get closer to what you want it to be.

Craig: Bingo.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: And unfortunately then what that means is the movie that you want it to be, your understanding of what it’s supposed to be, ultimately comes down to something that is inherent to you, is not teachable.

Marielle: Right.

Craig: Right? So there needs to be some core of substance there that people can work upon.

Marielle: Right.

Craig: They can’t make it for you. So —

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: I love the story because I love listening to people getting the disparate views and then synthesizing them through themselves.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: It’s the only way we get stuff done. Because you’ve gone through these iterations.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: I’m wondering, did you ever feel like writer Mari was having an argument with director Mari or vice versa? And how would those arguments be litigated? Or did it all feel like —

Marielle: I did feel like I had those moments mostly actually in production. Up until then, I was really much more in my writer place for so many years. And then I had this weird moment where I would be just sitting and talking with the actors and they’d go, “You know, could I change this line?” We did a lot of rehearsal, which not everybody gets to do on their movies. But I come from theater, I love rehearsal. I really wanted to rehearse with the actors. And I had great actors who wanted to rehearse.

But we would be sitting around and talking about a scene and, you know, maybe Alexander would say like, “I don’t know, the way this line is coming out of my mouth isn’t feeling quite right.” But what I loved about working with him and with Bell and with Kristen is they wouldn’t just change it. We would talk about it and I’d go, “Okay, let me rewrite that.” And I’d come back the next day with new pages based on their thoughts or their notes.

But sometimes they’d go, “Could I change this line in this?” And I’d go, “Yeah.” And then in my mind I’d go, “Wait, this is the final rewrite.” Whatever we’re deciding right now, I’ve done 85 drafts of this script over these many, many years. And it’s always felt fine to try something new and to shift something, “Yeah, let’s change that line,” because it was never a final choice.

Craig: Right.

Marielle: And then to suddenly be in production and to go, “Oh, wait, whatever choice we make right now, that’s the final rewrite.”

John: Yeah.

Marielle: That felt really scary all of a sudden. So I would have those moments where my writer-self and my director-self would kind of bump up against each other.

Craig: Yeah, I’m very familiar with that. You know, I don’t blame actors at all because they only see what you give them. They don’t see the mile behind it of stuff. And frankly, sometimes either they’re right because their perspective is new or it doesn’t matter, they have to say it.

Marielle: Totally.

Craig: And if it doesn’t come out right from their mouth —

Marielle: And their version of this character is maybe different than the version you had in your head, at least a little bit. Shade is different. And I had actors with great instincts. So often, if they came to me and said, “Something about this isn’t feeling right,” they were right.

Craig: Yeah. I think that you have to find some ego gratification in the sense that, look, I did this for all this time and now this person is coming and going, “Can I just change it?” and not think to yourself, “Oh, is it that easy? We’re just going to change it, la-la-la.” But to think what they’re asking to — their change only exists as a result of what I’ve done —

Marielle: Right. Right.

Craig: You know, and the current text around it.

Marielle: And what I grew to love about the way the actors were approaching it was they felt really protective of these characters because they had felt like they knew them based on all the work I had done. They felt like these were characters who they loved and they wanted to protect and they wanted to do right by. So if they wanted to make a change, it was because they were invested. And that was a good thing.

Craig: Right. They cared.

Marielle: They cared.

John: So you had many years to work on the writing of this.

Marielle: Yes.

John: How did you learn about directing? Because you seem to be a very quick study. It’s really, really well-directed. I mean on every level, on production design, on shot design, it’s all really smartly done and performances you get are astonishing. What was the process of learning how to direct?

Marielle: Well, I didn’t go to film school. I went to a theater school.

Craig: Good.

Marielle: [laughs].

Craig: Good. I’m telling you, good.

Marielle: Yeah. But as you said, my husband’s a director. And so I’ve been on a lot of sets and I’ve been around and honestly wasn’t that interested in directing for a long time.

Craig: Watching him you were just bored to death.

Marielle: No, no, I mean I was kind of like, “Okay, this is interesting,” and I enjoy being on set. But I was never eager to talk about like lenses with him or like how you were going to set up a stunt or anything like that. Mostly because I’m really character-based in the way that I get excited about things, too, and some of the technology felt like, “Well, this isn’t the thing that’s driving me.”

But as I started to imagine my movie being directed by somebody else, I was like, “Oh, no. I have to direct my movie. This is my movie.” So I just had to figure it out kind of. And I sort of used the Sundance Directors Lab as like my sort of film school.

John: So talk us through that because people might not be familiar with that part of it. So the screenwriters lab — were you the winter’s lab?

Marielle: Yeah.

John: Because you were up on a snowy mountain.

Marielle: Snowy mountain just in your head.

John: Just in your head, a bunch of writers.

Marielle: Yes.

John: It’s really small. Directors Lab is a much different experience.

Marielle: Directors Lab is like so physical. The Writers Lab is just this totally internal heady experience where you’re having one-on-one meetings. And then the Directors Lab is five weeks where you get a small cast, you get a small crew, you take the hardest scenes of your movie and you workshop them. And you shoot them.

And it’s almost like a reality show because you do like one day of prep, one day of shooting, one day of editing, and they limit your hours. So at 5 o’clock, someone knocks on your edit door and is like, “You’re done.”

John: Yeah.

Craig: That’s miserable.

Marielle: Yeah.

John: Yeah, but you probably learned a lot there. So which scenes did you pick to be the ones you wanted to — ?

Marielle: So —

John: They don’t say your hardest scenes, they say the ones that scare you the most.

Marielle: The ones that scare you the most. And these will only make sense if somebody’s seen my movie. But pick the scene where they do acid.

Craig: Right.

Marielle: Which was one of my hardest scenes through the writing process, [laughs] the shooting process. Every part of the process, that was a really, really difficult scene to nail because it’s a drug sequence. People have done drug sequences in movies forever. Sometimes they’re done really well, sometimes they’re done really poorly.

I didn’t want to do the same version that I’d seen before but it’s also a really critical turning point. And both of the characters have a major emotional moment that happens that has to be treated seriously, so you can’t just be laughing at them through the whole thing either like, “Ha-ha, they’re on drugs. Isn’t this hilarious?”

Craig: Right.

Marielle: You actually have to believe the emotional build that happens throughout the scene, too. So that was a really complicated one. That was the one I failed the most at when I was at the labs.

John: [laughs]

Marielle: I did a scene where they have a big fight in the car and she ends up going into this sort of fantasy sequence in the bath tub.

Craig: Right.

Marielle: And sinks down into the —

Craig: Yes.

Marielle: Into the —

Craig: Into the ocean.

Marielle: Yeah, yeah. So I did that sequence kind of trying to mesh a really realistic, difficult emotional scene with this sort of fantasy.

Craig: You shot even like the wide shot of her.

Marielle: I didn’t get the wide shot of her.

Craig: You didn’t get that one, right.

Marielle: But I did like in the bathtub and we did all of these practical effects and we did it in this really small way at the labs. That’s part of the fun thing about the Directors Lab, it teaches you how to do things really practically. And that was really good for me.

Craig: I was fascinated by the general, let’s call them the technicals of this movie. And there were a bunch of things that I watched over again just to watch and see. Like for instance, that one. I guess I saw it and the best of it is you don’t notice it. And then after it goes by, I think, “Wait, hold on, where did that ocean — “ I want to see like what’s the line there. And I watched it and so I can see what’s happening and I assume it’s a pool or something —

Marielle: It was a pool, yeah.

Craig: There was a big light. But I loved the way the light worked behind it.

Marielle: That was a pool with garbage bags lining it.

Craig: Yeah.

Marielle: And a giant light over it.

Craig: A big light.

Marielle: I mean it was —

Craig: It’s amazing how that works, right?

Marielle: And it was dirty. The pool got dirty and the particles ended up being like this beautiful —

Craig: Filter, right?

Marielle: It was amazing.

Craig: I mean first of all, I’m fascinated by the look of the movie because — did you shoot digital and then filter the hell out of it?

Marielle: No. We shot digitally but we shot anamorphic. And we shot with these beautiful lenses from the ‘60s.

Craig: Okay, so you shot —

Marielle: So we shot on the red epic —

Craig: Vintage lenses.

Marielle: But we shot with vintage lenses.

Craig: Fascinating. And then, but color-wise too, I mean it’s like —

Marielle: So this is a little tidbit I love. Brandon Trost who was our DP, shot movies like The Interview, Neighbors —

Craig: Wow.

Marielle: MacGruber.

John: So I was looking at his credits and I was like — it was such a great lesson to like not necessarily judge a person’s artistic abilities based on the things they had done before —

Marielle: Totally.

John: Because none of these things would ever suggest to me that he could do the DP for your movie.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: MacGruber was shot brilliantly.

John: Yes, but as a comedy.

Craig: Brilliantly.

Marielle: Brilliantly. And what’s really funny is I think Brandon sort of became the comedy DP because of MacGruber. But the whole reason that Jorma wanted him to do MacGruber was because he didn’t look like a comedy DP. He didn’t do this like blanket lighting, really bright —

Craig: Walmart lighting.

Marielle: He shot it like an action movie. And that’s what Jorma wanted for MacGruber. So he hired him because he was the anti-comedy DP.

Craig: Right.

Marielle: And then it ended up leading all of these people to be like, “I want that guy.” And so he’s done all of these comedies —

Craig: Yeah. This movie is going to change —

John: Oh, yeah.

Craig: That for him.

Marielle: The way people see him. I know.

Craig: Because, I mean it just was beautifully done. And then on your end of things and with your effects team, the way that the animation was integrated was really gorgeous and I loved how simple it was and —

John: Well, it looks simple. But I was watching this last night and thinking like, “Oh, she must have been so excited when she like wrapped production.” It’s like, “Oh, now we have to make an entire animated film on top of this movie.”

Marielle: Yeah.

John: I mean that was —

Marielle: We actually started the animation really early. That was the first element that I started. It was all done essentially by one animator, Sara, who’s an Icelandic animator who lives in New York who’s amazing. And she hand-drew everything.

So I brought her on creatively like a year before we started filming because I was like, “This is huge and I think we need to figure a lot of this out before we film.” Just so I could shoot based on what we needed for the animation. Some stuff we found later but a lot of things were planned out ahead of time. But also, she just had so much work to do with it.

Craig: There was a moment in the animation that I almost felt was like, “Is this rotoscoped?” And I couldn’t tell. When the guy is telling her you’re too intense and that, you know. And in animation, she’s holding the monster and just looks away and a tear. Was that rotoscoped or was that — ?

Marielle: The tear or the face?

Craig: Yeah, the face and the tear at that moment.

Marielle: The face was rotoscoped in that moment but not the tear.

Craig: Okay, but I knew the face were —

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: Because it was great.

Marielle: Yes.

Craig: All right, so rotoscoping, for those of you playing at home, rotoscoping is when you take film, live action film, and then you — it’s a process where you draw over it. And there are a lot of good examples of rotoscoping in movies where it’s essentially they’re animating real live footage. So it has that funky look to it. But there was something about that moment where it’s like it had to be because it had to be real.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: You know? And god, that look away that she does there is nuts.

Marielle: That’s one of my favorite kind of plays between the animation and the live action, too, is that sequence because it kind of really — there’s something about it. She’s having this experience with a boy who’s kind of shaming her and making her feel really bad about herself sexually and then she’s imagining herself as this gross big monster stomping through the city.

That’s how you feel emotionally in that moment and it was just personifying that. That was one of the moments that I was happy with how it came out. And I thought you were going to bring up the moment in the acid trip where she kind of turns into a bird, because that’s another rotoscoping moment.

Craig: Yes, that was rotoscoped. Correct. It was rotoscope because it needed to be rotoscoped —

Marielle: Right.

Craig: Because it was on her.

Marielle: But it was rotoscoped in maybe a way that you wouldn’t even know. What we discovered when we were doing tests for that was that in order to get the movement of feathers, it’s really difficult to do that animation-wise in a way that felt really real. So we did all these tests and she realized, you know, this looks better if we have real feathers moving. So then our costume designer had to hand-sew a bird suit where she sewed every single feather on in a way that they could all move. And so it was the most difficult —

Craig: And then you rotoscoped on top of it.

Marielle: And then we rotoscoped on top of — every single feather got rotoscoped.

Craig: Wow.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: Wow, well that works.

John: So before you had rotoscoped those feathers, you actually had to raise the money to put this movie into production.

Marielle: Yes.

John: And that’s the thing I was sort of most curious about watching this last night because, as we talked about, it’s such a difficult movie to get made.

Marielle: Yes.

John: So you’re dealing not only with period, you’re dealing with a young girl. You’re dealing with a really, potentially uncomfortable — I mean this would now be statutory rape, so —

Marielle: It would have been then, too.

John: Okay.

Marielle: I mean age of consent was 18 at the time in San Francisco.

Craig: She’s 15?

Marielle: She’s 15 and having sex with a 35-year-old man.

John: Right. And in certain markets like in England, you have like a harder time getting released.

Marielle: Yeah.

John: Here it’s a rated R movie.

Marielle: Yeah.

John: So these are all things that a financier would look at and say like, “Well, what is the upside of making this movie?”

Marielle: Yeah.

John: Like basically you wrote a movie that has to be just like brilliantly perfect. And good luck and congratulations it is but —

Marielle: And a lot of it was going to ride on execution and tone because some people would read the script and would find it incredibly dark. And what I’m proud of with the movie is I actually think there’s a lot of humor in it and there’s a lot of lightness. It’s a tough subject matter but it hopefully doesn’t make you feel horrible about the world.

John: What were the conversations? So like who were you sending this to? Were you sending this to small production companies, like what were the — ?

Marielle: I was sending it to small production companies or people that I was hearing were excited to take risks, who were interested in interesting projects rather than — obviously this was not going to be a giant budget movie. So coming out of the labs, I felt really like I’m ready to make this movie.

Jorma already had a relationship with a commercial company called Caviar and we knew they were wanting to start making movies. So we sent them the script and they were the first people who came on financier-wise. And they were really just excited about the script and felt like this is a project that I want to get involved with.

But actually, the way that the process really went was I actually got the actors involved first. So I got Kristen Wiig involved before I had even really set up the money.

Craig: Which helped?

Marielle: Which helped. And it was a juicy part. It was something she could get excited about. And it was kind of a backdoor way of getting the movie made was sort of getting the actors involved and then getting the money to follow basically.

Craig: What was the budget for this film? I have a guess number.

Marielle: I can’t really talk about it.

Craig: Oh, you can’t?

Marielle: I think I’m not supposed to talk about it, yeah.

John: You never supposed to talk about with Sundance movies —

Craig: You’re not allowed to talk about it?

Marielle: No.

John: They’re never supposed talk about it because —

Marielle: Because it’s Sundance, it’s a Sony and like —

Craig: Oh, that’s right. You have to sell the movie. But it already sold.

Marielle: It’s sold but I’m still — I don’t know.

John: Yeah, you still don’t ever say.

Marielle: I’m still not supposed to say.

John: With The Nines I never say what the budget was.

Marielle: But I can tell you after.

Craig: Yeah, let’s see if I was close.

Marielle: Yeah.

John: But you can tell us about sort of the challenges of production because —

Marielle: It was a small budget. I will say that. It was a very small budget and we shot the whole movie in 24 days in San Francisco.

Craig: Wow. That’s remarkable.

John: But shooting in San Francisco, you know, is notoriously one of the worst places on earth to film.

Marielle: So apparently if I had gone to film school, I would have learned a lot of things that I was not supposed to do on my first movie. Not set it in a period, not have 38 locations, which is what I think we had, not shoot in San Francisco. What are the other big mistakes I made? But I didn’t go to film school, yeah —

John: But you also had a lot —

Craig: And no dogs.

Marielle: A cat.

Craig: Oh, you had the cat.

Marielle: I had a cat.

Craig: And the cat had to hiss on —

John: That was good luck.

Marielle: That just happened. That was my cat.

Craig: That cat nailed it.

John: Domino.

Marielle: I know.

Craig: Nailed it.

Marielle: I know.

John: You also had situations where you had to shoot night for night because you were in this apartment and windows were looking out of the whole city.

Marielle: Oh, everything had to be.

John: But that was all great production design and production value, you know, out of that.

Marielle: Yes.

John: How early did you have a production designer, art designer on to find all of those yellows you have in your movie?

Marielle: Our production designer, Jonah Markowitz, who is brilliant, came on four weeks, eight weeks?

John: Wow.

Marielle: But maybe I met him eight weeks before we went in and we only had four weeks to prep. It was crazy.

John: So —

Marielle: Yeah. I mean, on such a small budget, we had so many sets and they had to basically take an apartment that existed in San Francisco, which did have the bones that felt like a real ‘70s apartment. But every single thing you see in that movie, every piece of wallpaper, every piece of furniture, every rug, every little detail, they did. They painted, they, you know.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And boy, does it look great.

Marielle: I know.

Craig: It reminds me because I mean, look, 1976, I was five. I can remember it

Marielle: We looked through a lot of our families’ pictures and kind of tried to really — because growing up in the Bay Area, there’s a specific vibe there. It’s different than Ohio in 1976 or New York in 1976. And so we really wanted to get that right of like, “There’s a lot of stuff from the ‘60s still hanging around. It’s not just the newest thing that came out in 1976.”

Craig: That’s right. That’s a mistake that people make —

Marielle: Definitely.

Craig: When it’s definitely like, “Look, everybody, it’s disco.” No, people actually don’t like — by the way, I had that tape recorder. I had it. I saw it and my heart just —

Marielle: Oh, I love that.

Craig: Exploded, with the stupid mic.

Marielle: Yeah. I mean, didn’t we all do that? Another thing I really related to about this character was being a kid who just makes projects out of anything.

Craig: Of course.

Marielle: You’re an artist. You’re always like recording things or recording yourself or pretending you have a radio show or —

Craig: Oh, my god. My sister and I —

Marielle: We didn’t know podcasts yet but —

Craig: My sister and I would record interviews with each other.

Marielle: Right.

Craig: It was insane. We would put on shows all the time.

Marielle: Totally.

Craig: Yeah.

Marielle: Yeah.

John: So what scenes did not make it into the movie? What stuff that you filmed isn’t in the movie we watched last night?

Marielle: There’s a whole story line where Pascal, who’s Chris Meloni’s character in the movie —

John: I had a hunch he had more.

Marielle: Sleeps with Minnie’s best friend, Kimmie.

John: Aha.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

Marielle: And Minnie finds out that they’ve been sleeping together. And has a huge breakup with her best friend, basically. So on top of everything else in her life kind of going really wrong —

Craig: I could see —

Marielle: She also has this breakup.

Craig: I knew why that’s there. That would make me really tense because I’m like, “Oh God, if that’s a problemó”

Marielle: Right. She has nobody.

Craig: But the truth is I also can see why you don’t need it.

John: So at what point did that storyline, you know —

Marielle: I cut it out in the edit, probably like, eight weeks in the edit, maybe more, where we had watched a number of cuts of the movie. And it was running a little long, but it was also kind of taking us off track emotionally. And I had fought to keep it in in the script.

Craig: Of course.

Marielle: There had been people who had suggested it going earlier and I wasn’t ready. And we shot it and I’m —

John: It was Scott Frank, wasn’t it? Scott Frank is the —

Marielle: No.

Craig: Well, it’s funny that mentioned, because Scott, I had a moment with Scott where he had shown me his draft of A Walk Among the Tombstones in script stage. And I said, “Look, here’s the storyline between Liam Neeson and Liam Neeson’s son that could probably just go.”

Marielle: Right.

Craig: And he’s like, “I know.” And he fought for it and he kept it and he shot it.

Marielle: Got cut out in the edit.

Craig: And the thing is there are times when people say, “You don’t need this.” And you fight for it. And you did need it.

John: Yes.

Marielle: Yes. And I totally had those moments.

Craig: Right. But then, there are those times where it’s like — and it just goes to show you can’t be perfect. That’s kind of why I love the way that you were able to sort of start making the movie before you made the movie. If everybody gets the chance to do that, because the truth is most people go and make the movie, they don’t have your experience at Sundance. So they can’t shoot the LSD scene —

Marielle: Right.

Craig: Three or four times. They just shoot your first bad version of it.

Marielle: Right. Exactly. And then, they go into the edit and they go, “What do I do?”

Craig: Pretty much.

Marielle: “This is not what I want it to be. This isn’t telling the story I needed to tell.”

Craig: I know.

Marielle: I also found it really helpful that I did a number of readings of the script, which Mike Birbiglia does those readings. There’s something about just hearing it out loud that I want to do for every movie I ever do also because you do just hear things and recognize problems when you hear — it’s so different than when you’re just writing something.

Craig: Every stage that gets it further away from text —

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: Is informative. The reading is informative. Watching them do it on set is informative, so you go, “Okay. This next take, let’s try something else.” Your first — watching your first cut is informative. And then as many times as you’ve seen the cut, watching it with other people, it’s like you’re seeing a different movie.

Marielle: Totally.

Craig: Every single time, you learn more.

Marielle: It’s true. Yeah. And I’m never going to get to have the experience of going to the Sundance Labs again with my movies, unfortunately. I wish I would, because you just learning as much as you possibly can before you’re shooting. Because shooting is so fast —

John: Yes.

Marielle: It happens so quickly.

Craig: And final.

Marielle: And it’s final. And there’s that weird feeling of this is final. I want to take as much time as I can before you get to that phase of getting to know all of your problems.

John: Yeah, I think sometimes people are afraid of doing the prep work because it’s like, “Oh, you know, I want to be bold. I want to make big bold choices.” But I find that, honestly, if you don’t do the prep, you’d end up sort of making way too safe of choices sometimes.

Marielle: I think that’s right.

John: You over cover things because like, “I don’t know how I am going to do this. I’m just going to shoot it a thousand different ways.” And you’ve lost that great shot you could have gotten because —

Marielle: Right.

John: You didn’t trust yourself.

Marielle: You don’t trust yourself to just, “Let’s get this as one big oner.”

John: Yeah.

Marielle: That’ll be so fun. And you if really know, if you’ve worked it out, you can trust that’ll work in my edit. I know this will work. And Sundance does that really well. They push you to take crazy chances —

John: Yes.

Marielle: When you’re shooting your scenes and to make mistakes.

Craig: Yeah, if you’re not prepared, you end up making other people’s choices.

John: Yeah.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: You end up making the AD’s choice or the DP’s choice —

Marielle: You get swayed by people on set. You get —

Craig: Absolutely.

Marielle: Swayed by your actors. You’re like, “Oh, look at that really funny thing the actor is doing. It doesn’t have to do with the original scene, but maybe that will be great.” And sometimes it might be great and sometimes it might take the scene totally off course.

Craig: Sabotage.

Marielle: Yes.

Craig: They’re all trying to sabotage you.

Marielle: Or, “Oh, look at that cool lighting that just happened.”

Craig: Right

Marielle: “Maybe we should shoot the scene like this instead because of that cool lighting.” All of those things are problems that —

Craig: They all see their own movie, right?

Marielle: Yes.

Craig: And the actor’s movie is about their character.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: And the DP’s movie is about the look.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: And the AD’s movie is about getting out on time.

Marielle: Yes. [laughs]

Craig: Literally.

Marielle: Yes.

Craig: Which is their job and they’re all important, but only you see all of it.

Marielle: Yeah. And the props department cares about that lighter. And whether that lighter gets used right —

Craig: Only about it.

Marielle: Yes. And you need everyone to care that much about their jobs in order to do a good a job, but you have to be the one who keeps it all together and doesn’t let yourself get —

Craig: Exactly.

Marielle: Swayed by all of those.

Craig: Because in the absence of your choices, they will fill in. Oh, my god, will they fill in.

Marielle: Yes, it’s so true.

Craig: And then, you’re at the mercy.

Marielle: It’s true.

John: So one of the biggest things in preparation you probably had to do is figuring out all of the sex scenes in the movie.

Marielle: Yes.

John: Because you have — there’s a tremendous number of sex scenes in the film.

Marielle: Yes.

Craig: So many sex scenes.

Marielle: So many sex scenes.

John: So much sex.

Marielle: There’s a fair amount of — there’s a fair amount of boning.

John: I think there’s like 12.

Craig: 12, really?

John: I bet there’s 12.

Marielle: I don’t think there’s 12. I think there’s probably about six.

John: Six. All right.

Craig: Yes, that sounds like —

John: Or maybe sequences.

Marielle: Well, it depends on how you can —

John: Yes, exactly.

Marielle: We have a little montage. [laughs]

John: I’m accounting you to the little shots of the montage.

Marielle: Yeah.

John: But you had to think about sort of —

Craig: The thing in the bathroom doesn’t count as a sex scene for me —

Marielle: Right.

Craig: That was a transaction.

Marielle: Right. Right.

John: But within the sex scenes, you have to figure out sort of, obviously, where you’re at with the characters emotionally.

Marielle: Yes.

John: But also, where, as a movie you are with the nudity, where you’re at with the relationship.

Marielle: Yeah, it’s a really fine line to balance all of the amount — how much nudity you’re going to see, how much sex you’re going to see.

John: So what are the conversations you’re having internally? And then, what are the conversations you’re having with your crew and with your actors and sort of how you’re going to do all of this.

Marielle: Well, I kind of made rules for myself while I was writing about — I never wanted the nudity to feel exploitative and I never wanted it to feel gratuitous, but you can’t make a movie about coming of age and a girl’s sexuality without showing some nudity and having some sex scenes. So I sort of just laid out certain guidelines, which is like, the scenes where you see the most nudity are non-sexual situations. So she’s examining her body in the mirror. They have a big fight, where she’s almost totally naked. They’re not sexual. And then, the sex scenes tended to be therefore sort of where there’s less nudity, you see less. There’s more implied. There’s actual sex happening, but we also wanted the sex to be more truthful. And so it’s not like shot with quick cuts and really sexy angles. It’s much more straight on.

Craig: I was surprised by the lack of saxophone.

Marielle: Yeah.

John: [laughs]

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: Really shocked.

Marielle: Especially after seeing MacGruber. You’re like —

John: Yeah. [laughs]

Marielle: They love saxophone.

Craig: Oh, God, MacGruber. The sex scene in MacGruber. Sorry.

Marielle: The sex scene in MacGruber —

Craig: May be the greatest sex scene.

Marielle: Ruined sex

John: Yes.

Craig: It may be the greatest.

Marielle: So many people have said to Jorma like, “Wow, that sex scene really kind of ruined sex for me for a while.”

Craig: No, that sex scene —

Marielle: Enhanced sex for you?

Craig: Absolute — it’s like all —

Marielle: Oh, that’s a problem. That’s a problem, I think.

John: [laughs]

Craig: “Uh, uh, ohh, ooh, I’m going to shoot.”

Marielle: “I’m going to shoot.”

Craig: “I’m going to shoot.”

Marielle: Oh, God.

Craig: I say that to my wife all the time.

Marielle: There’s one shot in MacGruber where you can see Kristen during the sex scene as starting to laugh.

Craig: Yeah.

Marielle: And she has to turn her head away from the camera.

Craig: I know that, too. I know that well. Of course, because I’ve seen it many times.

Marielle: And it — but it was such a good take of Will, you couldn’t cut away from it. It was too important.

Craig: And I’m sorry to hijack this, because we’re going to talk to Jorma about all of this. But also the look on —

Marielle: Ryan Phillippe?

Craig: No. no, no.

Marielle: Val Kilmer?

Craig: No. His dead wife.

Marielle: Oh, Maya Rudolph.

Craig: It’s so weird because I’m like literally Minnie Riperton’s daughter. That’s how like the mind works sometimes. We’re you’re like the obvious name is gone. The trivia is there.

Marielle: Yes.

Craig: Maya Rudolph is making this face when he’s having sex with her.

Marielle: Yes.

Craig: And it’s like — it’s not disgust, but it’s almost disgust. She’s like looking down her nose. I think she’s into it. It’s hard to tell.

Marielle: So she was eight or nine months pregnant —

John: Pregnant, I know.

Marielle: While they filmed that.

John: She’s basically always pregnant. [laughs]

Marielle: Yes, she’s had four kids. [laughs] She was so pregnant shooting the grossest sex scene in a graveyard.

Craig: So great. So great.

Marielle: [laughs] And then they had to like digitally take out her belly. It was so ridiculous. And I was — we were all sitting there during that sex scene when that was being filmed, just being like, this baby, like what is this baby’s experience of this?

Craig: I know. The baby is like, “Why?”

Marielle: This is so insane.

Craig: She will always have that moment on film.

Marielle: Yes.

Craig: Well, I think that you accomplished what you were setting out to do because the truth is I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with that much nudity where there was no arousal whatsoever on my part. There was nothing arousing about any of it. And it wasn’t like it was off putting either.

Marielle: Right.

Craig: It was more — I was really invested entirely in what was going on emotionally with the characters.

Marielle: Well, hopefully, you’re more in her perspective.

John: Yes.

Marielle: I mean —

Craig: Yes, 100%.

Marielle: That was sort of the point. It was like, being in the teenage girls’ perspective more than being — we tend to see sex scenes from a male perspective. That’s how they tend to be shot.

Craig: Right.

Marielle: That’s how they tend to be written. And this was a movie that we were just trying the whole time to not be in the grown up perspective and to not be in the male perspective. We wanted to be in the teenage girl’s.

Craig: Well, let’s talk about this for a moment because you succeeded on that level. And you also managed to — because sometimes when I have seen scenes from the — they’re strictly from the female perspective, that sex is then automatically a problem. I don’t like this.

Marielle: Oh, no. No.

Craig: Or this is, you know — she does like it.

Marielle: This is a character who’s totally into it.

Craig: She really likes it. And so, I guess the larger question is, it seems to me that you very cannily avoided tropes just everywhere you could.

Marielle: Oh, good. Yeah.

Craig: However, there is a risk when your primary goal is let’s not do what other people have done because, of course, at the heart of every trope, there’s something that’s real that connects to people. That’s how they became tropes in the first place.

Marielle: Right.

Craig: So, did you ever worry that you were essentially wandering off the reservation to the extent where maybe people would not be able to recognize themselves in this character or —

Marielle: Well, the particular trope that teenage girl characters tend to fall into, which is that they don’t like sex and that the narrative that we’re given as teenage girls is like boys are going to want us to have sex with you and you’re going to have to decide when to give it up.

Craig: Right.

Marielle: But you’re not going to want it yourself. That particular trope is just not true.

Craig: Right.

Marielle: And so for me personally that always felt like something that —

Craig: That was an easy one to smash.

Marielle: It was like this isn’t truthful and when you’re a teenage girl and you’ve never seen that told in a truthful way, it’s actually really damaging because you think something’s wrong with you, if you think about sex. And the only examples you have in movies are like boys think about sex, girls don’t think about sex.

Craig: Right.

Marielle: So for me, that made me feel when I was young, like, maybe I’m a boy? Or like, maybe something’s wrong with me because I think about sex. And so that was like no question. This is a trope that needs to go. This is a teenage girl who thinks about sex and —

Craig: Right.

Marielle: Wants to have sex. But I did worry, I suppose, about the whole movie being so specific and so about this one time and place. And I thought, I hoped that the specificity of it would make people connect to it more. But I guess I did worry that it might be a movie for a small group of people.

Craig: Well, it is — I think you made a movie that I would show anyone. And by the way, this is a movie I would show my daughter, not yet. She’s 10.

Marielle: How old is she? No. Yeah, not yet.

Craig: But here’s the interesting thing. What this character does is it reminds me a lot of movies, if I were to translate it over to the boy zone, where there are movies about teenage boys who do outrageous things that I go, “Okay, I understand why you did those outrageous things, I understand the spirit of those. I share that spirit and that impulse. I don’t do those.”

Marielle: Right.

John: Yeah.

Marielle: You don’t have to act on all of those impulses —

Craig: Correct.

Marielle: In order to relate to them.

Craig: Exactly. And so —

Marielle: It’s like Into the Wild. Like I never ran away from entire my life but there’s something about the humanness of that impulse to like get — just to leave your whole life, your parents, everything you grew up with, all of the rules that you’ve been taught your entire life and throw them to the wind and to just like go out into the wilderness. I’d never do it but I relate to the impulse.

Craig: I related. You know, that’s the thing. Even when she was doing things that were dangerous, I’ve — one of the best choices in the movie is when she and her friend, after the bathroom scene, say we should not have done that.

Marielle: Right.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Because I needed that.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: I literally needed it or I was going to start —

Marielle: You need the remorse.

John: Yeah.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: I was going to start to lose her.

Marielle: Right.

Craig: You know, I needed it because she’s making terrible choices over and over and over.

Marielle: As most of us did when we were teenagers.

Craig: That’s what —

John: Yes.

Marielle: Even if they weren’t like that extreme, we all still probably made some pretty bad choices.

Craig: We all made some bad — well, this is the thing. Children, we tend to idealize children in movies, when in fact, children are the worst of us. I believe.

Marielle: Right. [laughs]

Craig: Basically, they are the worst of us. If children ran the world, it would just be flames and broken glass in the next five minutes. But we then doubly do it to girls.

Marielle: Mm-hmm.

Craig: Because we ask that our female characters are more moral.

John: Mm-hmm.

Marielle: We do. Particularly, teenage girls, we want them to be examples of how we wished teenage girls were. We don’t want to see what they truly are.

Craig: And, you know, so you don’t have a sister, do you?

John: I don’t.

Craig: So my sister is a year and half younger than I am. So when I was in high school, and we shared a bathroom. So when I was in high school, I would, you know — when I would go to the bathroom, she’s got her Seventeen Magazines all stacked up. So I would sit there flipping through Seventeen Magazine. And it would make me laugh because every Seventeen Magazine gave girls the following two messages. Here’s how to look as sexy as possible. Do not have sex.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: Well —

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: How can we expect any girl to not lose her mind?

Marielle: Exactly.

Craig: So I loved all — I mean I just thought that you managed to avoid tropes but at the same time, there was — it was also you made a new trope. I don’t know, it’s like weird way of saying it, but like, a new thing that’s true, a truism, that people just weren’t ready to talk about.

Marielle: Mm-hmm. Interesting.

Craig: Which is the way that female sexuality is so scrambled up at the age. Anyway, you did a fantastic job.

John: You did a fantastic job.

Marielle: Thank you.

John: Has the TV show Girls come up in any of the making of the movie, the discussion of the movie? Because I —

Marielle: Totally.

John: I look at this character and you can see a Hannah Horvath character if she was transported through, you know, time and space and put there, some of the same issues and struggles that she’s facing. And has that been a useful thing for you as a filmmaker or a frustrating thing when those comparisons come up?

Marielle: Well — oh, no, it’s been useful. I mean, I started working on this movie before Girls came out.

John: Yeah.

Marielle: But I remember when Girls came out kind of feeling like maybe this will help me because people will be a little more open to this conversation right now.

John: Yeah.

Marielle: And it felt like I was sort of cluing into, I don’t know, this bigger conversation happening in our society about female sexuality.

John: That there’s an audience, there’s an eagerness to talk about —

Marielle: Yeah.

John: Sexuality

Marielle: And it’s always nice to think when you’re writing something, I don’t think you can plan it this way, but when suddenly you recognize that there’s a bigger conversation that you’re sort of stepping into and becoming a part of and it has to just — the timing has to work out right. And it felt that way with this. It felt like, “Oh, we’re sort of becoming part of the conversation.”

Craig: I have to say, though, this is why I love that movies are still here and I know that television does great work in — and has done better work lately than ever before, but this is the kind of thing that a movie does best. Because when you have television and the characters must continue on, what ends up happening is a sort of ultimately a trivialization of these incredibly I’ll say traumatic and yet wonderful experiences that happen to us in our lives.

Marielle: Right.

Craig: This is what movies do best, is they focus in on those moments — the big change moment of your life. Television will ultimately have to trivialize it.

Marielle: Right.

Craig: Because they have to keep doing it over and over again.

Marielle: Well, television has to be about more mundane things in order to kind of keep us involved.

Craig: Correct.

Marielle: And it can’t — it can’t — if the stakes were that high all the time in TV, you’d get burned out.

Craig: You’d get burned out. I mean, you — and the fact is just by repetition of seeing a certain circumstance over and over and over, you’d become burned out. This is what movies do best. And there is a — you know, this moment when your childhood breaks apart and you slowly put yourself back together, movies will always do this better.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: I mean, it’s a terrific coming of age movie. And I honestly feel like everybody over the age of 15 [laughs] should see it.

Marielle: Thank you.

John: Can we talk about the nature of your role now after you made this movie? The movie comes out at Sundance, it sells.

Marielle: Yes.

John: But you were still on a treadmill for quite a long time to —

Marielle: Yes.

John: Make this movie out. So, you know, we are friends through friends and that’s why you’re here, but you were on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. You were —

Marielle: Yeah.

John: You were talking. And this is going to be continuing all the way through the award season. So, your job continues.

Marielle: Nobody talks about this. How long —

John: So let’s talk about this.

Marielle: The period of —

John: Let’s talk about this.

Marielle: Movie making is.

John: It’s a haul. Especially —

Marielle: It’s a halt.

John: When you have a January Sundance movie that’s coming out the next year.

Marielle: And when you are first time filmmaker and so it’s the little film that really needs that kind of word of mouth and it needs the hustle behind it in order to get it seen.

Craig: Yeah.

Marielle: So, yeah, we’ve done the festivals circuit, so we did Sundance. We got bought by Sony Pictures Classics there, which was amazing and so much more than I could have dreamed. Then, we went to Berlin. I should mention, I had a 5.5-week-old at Sundance.

Craig: God.

Marielle: And then he was eight weeks by the time we went to Berlin.

John: This is a human child.

Marielle: Human child.

John: Not a dog. This is a human child that she gave birth to.

Marielle: Yes, yes, yes, exactly.

Craig: And then let’s also point out then all of the pregnant time prior to that?

Marielle: Right, so I wrapped filming and got pregnant within about a month and then was pregnant all of post.

Craig: Wow.

Marielle: And then —

Craig: So you weren’t throwing up after you saw that first assembly because it was bad.

Marielle: Right. Who knows? Who knows why I was throwing up?

Craig: It may have been bad.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: It may have been the baby.

Marielle: It may have been the baby. It’s hard to know.

Craig: Either way, you’re puking.

Marielle: Yeah, I was puking, puking, puking. Exactly. Yeah, there was — I had, I had a meeting set with distributors for the day that I went into labor. It was all like, it was all pushed up to the limit.

Craig: That happened to me.

Marielle: Yeah, I know it’s a classic story.

Craig: Oh, yeah.

Marielle: So then we did the festival circuit. We did New Directors, New Films at MoMA which was a really cool festival. The movie has travelled to even more festivals than I’ve been able to go to because it’s gone to like Sydney and Seoul and it’s gone all over the world. And I’ve been able to go to a certain number of festivals. Bell has gone to a certain number of festivals, the lead actress from the movie. We’ve gone to some together. Alexander’s gone to some with us. So kind of through the fall we did the L.A Film Festival. We’ve done a ton of festivals. And then we sort of started the bigger press roll out. So we’ve been doing press in L.A. and Dallas, and San Francisco.

Craig: The movie is out in theaters now.

Marielle: It’s out in theaters now. We just expanded this weekend.

Craig: This weekend, okay, this past weekend.

Marielle: This past weekend, right. This comes out on Tuesday’s. I know you guys, I’m a really big fan. So at this point, I think were in about 30 cities.

Craig: Great.

Marielle: So it’s getting much wider.

John: So this is sort of the Whiplash plan where like it’s a very slow rollout.

Marielle: Right.

John: And there’s no video-on-demand. It’s strictly theatrical.

Marielle: It’s only theatrical and the hope is that word of mouth helps build, you know, helps to build an audience because it is such a small movie. It’s not going to be the type of movie that we blast everywhere all at the same time but build slowly.

Craig: I hope that you’re getting a lot of attention from people at our movie studios because I if were running a movie studio, I would be saying to you, “Please, please even these are the movies I’m making pick one and do it.”

Marielle: I got to say I am getting a lot of attention.

John: Good, that’s fantastic. I put you on a list this morning.

Marielle: You did?

John: I did.

Marielle: Thank you. It’s a funny time to be a female filmmaker. There’s a lot articles being written, a lot of conversations, the ACLU hearing that happened. There’s a lot of conversations about how underrepresented women are behind the camera. 9% of Hollywood movies are getting made by women. That number hasn’t changed in 30 years.

So right now in this moment, though, I think public opinion has started to shaming the studios into catching up and there’s this feeling of like, “Oh, we got to be doing more. We need to be hiring more women.” And kind of am getting one of the [laughs] —

John: Great.

Marielle: I’m getting to see the benefits of that.

Craig: I’m going to disagree with you slightly. I do think that they are right now making an aggressive effort.

Marielle: Yes.

Craig: I do because I think they are embarrassed. I don’t think that’s why they’re calling you.

Marielle: Thank you.

Craig: I have to say, as one of the, it’s one of the unfortunate side effects of any kind of effort to improve diversity statistics is that then if they go up, there’s always that question are you —

Marielle: Of like did it happen because they were good or did it happen because they were just a girl?

Craig: Are you in here because affirmative action? Are you here because you’re a girl or you’re in here because of quota or whatever?

Marielle: Right.

Craig: And that sucks, it sucks all around, but I will say that in your case I truly believe that because, look, they just love money more than anything. They love money and I think they look at your movie and they look at you and I think this is an incredibly assured filmmaker with a voice and an eye and she writes. We can make money off of this person. That’s what I think it’s about.

Marielle: I think that’s probably true. I mean I feel I can tell the difference between the calls that are about people who truly love what I’ve done and the types of stories that I want tell and the people who are like what are the women? Who are the women? Who we’ve approved? Who do we put on this list? Let’s find a woman for this.

Craig: Just make sure that Mari is not like some European guy.

Marielle: Yeah, [laughs] exactly.

John: “That is a woman, right?”

Marielle: Like I did get a call, I think it’s okay for me to say this. There was that moment where the director of Wonder Woman fell out, there was like that one day scramble and my agents called and were like are you a huge Wonder Woman fan?

John: [laughs].

Marielle: Because your name is coming up and I was like, “Wow, they are really just pulling any woman that they can.” There’s just trying to find a woman director who they can — yeah. And I —

Craig: It was certainly there was — it appeared that there was like — there was that panic that day. Yes.

Marielle: For that one day, and now they have a wonderful woman involved and who probably should be and whatever but it was a funny moment where I was like, “I’m just getting this call because I’m a girl right now.”

Craig: Yeah, probably [laughs].

Marielle: Yeah, [laughs].

Craig: I think so [laughs]. That one, I’ll give you that.

Marielle: That one, yeah.

Craig: I’ll give you that.

John: I would step back and take a look at, you know, Colin Trevorrow coming off of Safety Not Guarantee jumping up to Jurassic World.

Marielle: Yes.

John: Like your movie and his movie, they’re similarly like really well done versions of tiny little indie movies.

Marielle: There, that’s a big conversations that’s happened out of Sundance is like why is it that the white male directors who come out of Sundance who make a million dollar movie get offered hundred million dollar franchises and the women very rarely. They might get their next movie is the $3 million movie. Why is that leap not happening?

Craig: Yeah.

John: Maybe, maybe break that pattern.

Marielle: Yeah.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Well, in part, it will require you to want to make one of those movies.

Marielle: Right.

Craig: You know, Colin Trevorrow wanted to make Jurassic World. And so here’s my secret hope because as again, I love MacGruber. So you know the kind of movies — I mean I love this movie, I love MacGruber. I love lots of movies.

Marielle: It’s a great double feature [laughs].

Craig: It really is amazing. By the way, the best of all.

Marielle: Which one should go first?

John: I think the mashup version is really good.

Craig: The mashup would be great no. You have to Diary first, to get everybody really like, “Wow.” And then just hit them with MacGruber.

Marielle: Yeah, and just get — the laughter just leaves you.

Craig: Take these broken wings — okay, anyway, so we’ll have that episode. But I hope you that actually you can find a movie, you know, because they open up their big cabinet and they’re like look at the stuff we stuff we want to make.

Marielle: Right.

Craig: A lot of times what they want to make is horrendous. But sometimes in there there’s something great and I hope you find something that you can get a budget for and you can get a big movie with, and you can get all the toys to play with and that you want to do.

Marielle: Right.

Craig: Because that would be the best thing of all. I mean I really — this is what you should be doing, do this for sure.

Marielle: I want to. I mean I really did enjoy it and this, there was something about directing that just felt really natural to me because I am an actor and I love actors and I love working with actors and I loved — and being on set is just so fun. It’s so infectious like it’s just a great experience. It’s so stressful, it’s so hard [laughs]. The whole thing is so difficult but it’s also so great.

Craig: You did a fantastic job.

John: Hooray.

Craig: Yeah.

John: It’s come time for One Cool Things. Craig, what is your One Cool Thing this week?

Craig: So, I actually have a One Cool Thing this week and I’m going to do it — while I’m talking about it, I’m going to do it.

John: Do it.

Craig: It’s so cool and actually weird and I got before I saw your movie, Mari, but it kind of flows into it. So this is called, VHS camcorder. And it’s like, I don’t know, four bucks or something. And so I’m going to do this, so it’s got this like little thing. And it basically turns video into like — into VHS and you can even change the — but it really actually does look like it. I mean it’s the weirdest thing.

John: So for people who are at home who can’t see this.

Craig: Put this up. Say hi.

Marielle: Hi.

John: There’s time code in the bottom and it very much feels like —

Craig: Now I sound like a crazy man. [laughs]

Marielle: Hello.

Craig: And there’s John.

John: And I’m here.

Craig: Hello and welcome to Scriptnotes and even though it says August 21, 2015, really?

Marielle: Does it look like the beginning of Elf?

Craig: It looks [laughs] do a head turn for me like you’re on Elf. Starring Mari Heller.

Marielle: Wait, wait. I have to be — I have to be on the phone.

Craig: Okay [laughs]. Okay, that’s perfect. Anyway, it’s a great app and it’s fun and it’s cheap. And I don’t know, for kids like I showed it to my kids, I’m like, “Look, this is what Daddy’s videos used to look like.” And they’re like, actually my son was like, “Wow, this is pretty cool.” Like because, you know, for them now everything is like add vinyl noise to my, you know, my electronic music track, so anyway that’s my One Cool Thing.

John: Very cool. My One Cool Thing is an article I just read this morning. It is called I’m Sorry I Didn’t Respond to Your Email, My Husband Coughed to Death Two Years Ago by Rachel Ward. And it’s a true story so she’s a producer for Morning Edition and it’s her talking through the last two years after her husband died. So she’s, you know, a young married woman.

Marielle: Oh my God.

John: Her husband died in a very sudden —

Craig: Literally coughed to death?

John: Yes.

Craig: Just like he started coughing —

John: And then died.

Craig: Just randomly?

John: Yeah. So, it goes into sort of what actually happened or to the degree to which they understand what actually happened. But on the podcast, previously, we talked about sort of how those moments of death that we see in movies and sort of the ambulance coming or the coroner like are never quite the way it is in real life. And so she talks through what that reality is, but also in a very smart way talks through what it’s like to have to introduce to yourself to new people as like, “I’m a widow.” Like it’s a strange thing.

Marielle: Yeah.

John: So what I’m bringing it up here is that she’s kind of actually kind of like a great movie character. You can very much envision sort of this is the start of a movie story and sort of what that is. So I thought it was just a really well written piece.

Marielle: It’s kind of like The Year of Magical Thinking.

John: Yeah it is, but a very, you know, young version of that which is so different. Also just fascinating to see it on Medium which is such a weird medium for it to be in because you’re used to this being like if it was a New Yorker article, you sort of know what that’s supposed to feel like but Medium where there’s like a comments like midway through and stuff. It’s an odd format for it but also very relevant at the time. Mari, do you have a One Cool Thing?

Marielle: I do, you guys I agonized over my One Cool Thing. I’m such a big fan of the show that I was like texting people being like I have to come up with a One Cool Thing. I don’t know that I came up with the best one but it’s a parenting thing and you guys do talk about parenting on here sometimes. I’m a parent of a young, young baby, 8 months and there is an app called Wonder Weeks that I have found to be really useful.

It kind of goes through the major cognitive leaps that a baby goes through, it’s really focused on brain development. And babies do tend to follow pretty clear patterns like between six and eight weeks this major leap happens to them, they learn to see patterns in the world or whatever it is.

At this point at four months, they’re able to understand the concept of something going inside of a cup and something coming out of that cup [laughs]. You know, these really kind of basic leaps but they — what happens is when a baby is going through a major leap, they tend to have a lot behavioral problems, their sleep gets disrupted because their brain is making this major leap and they’re figuring things out and they’re practicing when they should be sleeping, instead they’re like practicing things with their hands or their minds.

So it’s really helpful to know what those leaps are as you’re going along so that you can be a little patient and you can have some empathy for what your baby is going through and you can go, “Okay, this is just a normal leap they’re going through and in a week, it’s going to settle back down.”

Craig: Do they have that app for teenagers?

Marielle: They should. [laughs]

John: That would be awesome.

Craig: Because I would really like that.

Marielle: I don’t know if it’s as predictable with teenagers as it is with little babies. But yeah, I found it to be, to make me a more patient parent where I can look at this app and it has a whole calendar listing of where all the different leaps happen. It’s just, and it makes me kind of, it makes me empathize with him and what he’s going through and how much he’s growing and learning.

Craig: They don’t have the fear of the unknown.

Marielle: Yes.

Craig: So why is he shrieking all of a sudden for last three days?

Marielle: Right.

Craig: And usually people, the immediate thing that parents think is what did we feed him, what did we feed him?” He’s got — most kids are fine. You feed them whatever they want, they’re like goats. But that makes sense that they’re — that cognitively because think about it, it’s like it’s brain damage in reverse.

Marielle: Right.

Craig: I mean every time your brain changes, it’s traumatic.

Marielle: Right. And my kid just started scooting. So he’s just figured out how to move and it has totally flipped his brain out. I mean he’s so excited, but he can’t go to sleep because he’s like trying to scoot around everywhere and it’s —

Craig: Boys by the way are — they’re just so hyper.

Marielle: He’s so hyper. And he wakes up just bouncing off the wall, so excited because his body can suddenly do things that he’s clearly wanted to do for so long.

Craig: I’m so glad I didn’t have two boys. If I had had two boys, honestly, I would just — all right, I —

Marielle: Jorma and I were talking about that this morning. I was like, I have to say my biggest fear of us having a second kid is that I’d have another boy, and I’d just be this one lone woman in a house full of boys.

Craig: Yeah, in a house full of — yeah.

Marielle: It’s scary to me.

Craig: Yeah, especially during the teenage years. My daughter — I mean that’s other great cure for panic over what’s going through your baby’s mind is having your second baby, because then you’re like, whatever. It works out.

Marielle: It works out, I know.

Craig: I know what’s on the other side of this at the very least.

Marielle: I also just find it kind of interesting to understand what they’re going through and that babies do fall into such clear patterns and that almost every baby does kind of follow these patterns. It’s so crazy.

Craig: All those — you know the things that like this, this thing that the baby does, whatever they call it —

John: The Heisman?

Craig: They call it, yeah, the fencing maneuver, it’s like and then the startle thing, all babies do this.

Marielle: Yeah, that’s called like moray.

John: Yeah, reflex.

Marielle: Something reflex, right and it’s not moray, that’s when —

John: Yeah.

Craig: Yeah, but they think — they do that and no one can see because it’s a podcast. This is why I don’t listen to podcasts because you can’t see. Anyway, yeah, we’re all incredibly similar

Marielle: Well, and that one I heard the startle reflex is from when we were apes or when were — it’s evolution when we were having to hold on to our mother’s backs and the hair.

Craig: Wait, evolution, you believe in evolution? [laughs]

Marielle: No, no [laughs]. But that when that babies needed to hold on to their mother’s hair if they were falling, so they would do this in order to not fall off.

Craig: That would work with you though, you actually have incredible hair.

Marielle: My baby pulls on to my hair and uses it as ropes to lift himself up, yes.

Craig: I bet he does.

John: Good stuff. You can find that information about Wonder Weeks and VHS Camcorder apps and this article I talked about on our show notes on the show page, You can also find this on the iTunes store. We are at Scriptnotes, just look for us there, you can also find the app. Our outro this week is composed by a young composer named Jack Mazin.

Craig: Oh yes, my son has —

Marielle: How cool.

Craig: He’s been working — he’s starting to do like electronic music and stuff and this is one of his first compositions.

Marielle: That’s so cool.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Yeah. Our show is produced by Stuart Friedel. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Thank you, Matthew. And Mari Heller, thank you so much for coming and talking to us about directing.

Marielle: I want to keep going, I just don’t want this to ever be over. This is such an exciting moment for me.

Craig: We’ll have you back. I mean this isn’t the end. This isn’t the end.

Marielle: I’ll just come back when you have Jorma on to talk about MacGruber and I’ll just listen.

Craig: By the way, you have to be here. That would be great.

Marielle: Yeah.

Craig: And we should also put in the show notes just because it’s not like — there aren’t billboards out there, let’s put a link in for people to go get tickets to go see on Diary of a Teenage Girl.

John: Absolutely. So we’ll have a link to the website which will have all that information and to the trailer.

Craig: Great job, Mari. Mari, you were an excellent guest.

Marielle: I’m so happy.

John: Thanks.


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Should You Give Up?

Tue, 10/10/2017 - 08:03

John and Craig attempt to answer the question that many aspiring screenwriters dare not ask aloud: when — if ever — is the right time to give up on the dream of becoming a working screenwriter?

Relatedly, is it okay to omit “aspiring” when describing oneself as a screenwriter? How do you ask friends for career help without burning bridges? Is that criminal record a problem?

We also address listener questions about why the Paramount Decree isn’t an issue for streaming services, plus working with auteurs, and formatting car chases.

Thanks for sending us examples of Exposition News!


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Diary of a First-Time Director

Tue, 10/03/2017 - 08:03

John and Craig sit down with Marielle Heller, the writer and director of the acclaimed feature The Diary of a Teenage Girl, to talk about the journey of getting her movie made, from optioning the novel to the Sundance Labs through production.

We discuss sex scenes and ’70s wallpaper, anamorphic lenses and leaving subplots on the cutting room floor. Plus there’s a lot of MacGruber.

This episode originally aired August 25, 2015.


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Scriptnotes, Ep 319: Movies Dodged a Bullet — Transcript

Mon, 10/02/2017 - 11:39

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

Today on the show, it’s a new round of the Three Page Challenge, where we take a look at samples sent in by our listeners to see what’s working and what’s not. Then we answer perhaps the most important question of all, is how do we number our files.

But first there’s exciting news. This past Monday, or actually a week ago now that the podcast comes out, I got elected to the WGA board.

Craig: You didn’t just get elected, John. You got more votes than anyone, which actually does matter. It means that when you go into the boardroom as a new board member everybody is going to know that you’re for real. You’re the real deal, buddy. And I couldn’t be happier. Obviously I voted for you and endorsed you wholeheartedly. We are in desperate need of you on our board of our union.

And so I wish you the greatest of luck.

John: Well thank you very much. I want to thank everybody who voted. These elections are always sort of low turnout because they end up being sort of low turnout, but I’m really grateful to everybody who did go out and vote. Also, the other candidates are terrific. And so most of them will be joining me on the board this next year, so I’m looking forward to that.

So, by the time this episode comes out I will have been through my first WGA board meeting. I will have gone through the gauntlet and all of the hazing rituals. And will hopefully have come out the other side.

Craig: Yeah. The hazing rituals is really a hazing ritual and it never stops. The nature of the ritual is to bore you to death. I’m telling you, man, those board meetings, the homophone is appropriate.

John: Mm-hmm. I will post a link to two things that I have written about the WGA experience. First is on the site there is a link now for WGA. So, if you are a WGA member who has something you need to tell me about what’s going on, that is a link you can click. Also on the blog I just did a post sort of outlining general objectives for what I hope to be able to look at these next two years. The short version is that there’s a lot of stuff that’s affecting writers on a day-to-day basis, and I want to look and see what we can do on just an enforcement basis. That’s not a negotiation. That’s not a big fight, but it’s just sort of getting people to honor the contract we already have.

Secondly, I want to be able to spend these two years looking at what’s down the road. And making sure that we’re prepared for big changes in the industry and the impact they could have on writers like you and me and the brand new writers who are just now joining the guild.

Craig: Music to my ears. We are always in a state of looking forward these days. I think this is a problem that our generation has far more than the generations that preceded us. The business basically was the business for many decades, but with the advent of technology it’s been a little nuts. So, we do have to look forward constantly. But even more important I think is that E-word you mentioned — enforcement. Because we have been locked in a cycle for a long time now where we fight very, very hard and occasionally even strike to get terms in our contract. And then we don’t really seem to do a fantastic job of enforcing those terms when they are violated by the companies.

So, excellent news. You know what? I do not regret voting for you as of this point.

John: As of yet. So join us next week to see how I’ve disappointed Craig.

Craig: The regret will kick in. And just the fact that you’re the cohost of this podcast will not save you.

John: No. Not a bit. I will take the full wrath and umbrage of Craig Mazin for my role in the WGA.

Craig: Gonna be good.

John: Revisiting past umbrage and confusion, MoviePass was something we’ve talked about twice on the show before. The first time it was sort of a head scratch and a “huh,” like how could this possibly work. And then in the second bit of follow up we said like, oh, I guess I can see sort of a way that it could work. And now there’s more follow up. So, for people who forget what MoviePass is, this is a service you sign up for for now $9.95 a month. You can see unlimited movies in the US. And that seems impossible. Like theatrical movies, in the movie theater.

It turns out it’s actually a credit card you are getting. With that credit card, when you buy your tickets, the money is refunded to you. So, we have more information. This week an interview by Rob Cain for Forbes, in which he talks to the CEO of MoviePass about sort of what the actual plan is.

And, Craig, I don’t know about your experience with this, but I felt like, oh you know what, I could see a way this could actually work for MoviePass. What’s your take on this new information?

Craig: Yeah. Now that I look at it, I do think, “OK, there’s a possibility here.” I mean, first and foremost what Mr. Lowe says, this is — what’s his first name?

John: Mitch.

Craig: Mitch Lowe. What Mitch Lowe says is that he expects that in time most users of MoviePass will settle into what they believe is a fairly predictable rate of usage, which is essentially one movie a month, or I guess he says a pattern of just over a movie ticket per month. Because, you know, you could do digital fractions of things. But so, OK, if the average cost of a ticket is $9 and he’s charging about $10 a month for MoviePass, he’s breaking even on that. That’s his expectation over time.

So you’d say, OK, well, fine, you broke even. But how do you make money? And the way he’s making money it seems is that he’s creating essentially a targeted advertisement platform, as far as I can tell.

John: Yeah. That seems to be part of it. I guess originally our concern was how do you make money if people are going to three movies per month and it’s costing you all that money and they’re only paying $9 a month. And I have some increased belief that he actually knows what he’s talking about because he comes from Netflix, he comes from Redbox, so he does have a lot of background in sort of customer behavior when it comes to movies.

And the case that he makes in this interview with Cain, he says that, “We found that at $40 per month, subscribers would attend an average of 3.8 times per month. At a higher price they would attend more frequently. At a lower price, a lot less. So at $9.95 a month we expect the average subscriber to settle into a pattern of just over one movie ticket per month.”

So he’s targeting sort of the reluctant moviegoers. And he describes it as basically bad movie insurance. So the people who don’t go to movies all that often, people might go once or twice or three times a year, there’s a fear of loss, of what if I buy a ticket and I don’t like the movie. Well this sort of psychologically gets them out of that fear because the ticket was essentially free for them for that month.

Craig: Yeah.

John: I can see in some ways it could increase movie-going if the people who are actually subscribing to MoviePass are in that sort of reluctant filmgoer mindset.

Craig: Yeah. He’s also talking about perhaps capturing a small commission on concession sales. Not quite sure how that works and we’ll see if the large movie theater chains want to go along with it. But what is interesting about what he’s doing is he’s capturing information that nobody else is capturing. The point of sale other than MoviePass is of course the movie theater ticket box office. There are some other ticket purchasing outfits out there, you know, if you buy online through Fandango or something like that. But I think a lot of people they go up to the box office window and they say I want a ticket and they sell you a ticket. And the theater isn’t collecting any information on you.

And so here he is going to collect an enormous amount of information on the kinds of people who go to certain kinds of movies and how frequently they go. And he’ll be able to sell that information to studios and say, by the way, here’s a group of people that are going many, many times to the movies each month. Here is a kind of movie that gets a lot of repeat business. Here’s this. Here’s that.

So, you know, I can see how this could work. It really is all based essentially on the guess that people will not overeat at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

John: Yeah. This was the most intriguing part of the whole article to me. “When we get to ten million subscribers, we’ll be able to generate $7 million in additional box office for an independent film. At that point, it makes sense for us to get into the distribution business.” And so circling back to our conversation about how theatrical exhibition works, movie theaters like Loews, like AMC, they cannot make movies themselves. That is part of the consent decree. They cannot become movie producers.

But this guy, MoviePass, he can totally make movies if he wants to make movies. And at a certain point if this is successful enough, if it becomes like a Netflix, it will make sense for them to make movies because they’ll have tremendous information about who could buy their movies and could offer discounts on their movies. I could see it becoming a thing.

Will it become a thing? I don’t know. But I can see a way that it could evolve into something that is good, and new, and exciting.

Craig: Yeah. If he gets to his 10 million subscribers and he wants to go ahead and get into the distribution business, at that point he will almost certainly face a gauntlet of legal challenges that will either be initiated by the government or by large movie chains lobbying the government. That will be a fight. No question about it. They’re going to want to–

John: Why do you think there will be a fight? Because he’s not an exhibitor. He’s just a distributor the same way that a studio is a distributor.

Craig: I think there is an argument to be made that he is selling movie tickets, and therefore is directly selling movie tickets to people through MoviePass and therefore he is kind of an exhibitor.

You know, like Paramount Pictures can’t sell you movie tickets that you then go and bring to a theater. That’s kind of part and parcel with the whole split up of the producers and the exhibitors.

It’s not to say that what I’m saying is determinative or that he won’t get there. There’s no question that if he’s thinking about it, it means plenty of lawyers have said we can make the argument that this will work. But it’s going to be a fight. The AMCs of the world are not going to lay down and let this guy start basically playing by rules that — new rules or not having to play by the rules that they played by.

So, you know, let’s see what happens. It will be interesting.

John: It will be interesting. I agree. Last bit of follow up, listener Matt wrote in to say, “I was wondering if you could elaborate more on Episode 315 in which you touched on how the music industry was crippled by the digital age, but movies did not suffer the same fate. Being a former musician, I know this better than most, but I was wondering if you could go into more detail on how exactly film managed to survive. I know the midrange movies took a big hit as DVD sales declined, but what else happened, and why?”

So I threw this on the outline without doing any additional research, so this is just going to be speculation and opinion.

Craig: We’ll wing it.

John: We’re totally winging this. Some things which occur to me that are different about movies versus music. Theatrical I’ll say is sort of like our live performance. And so the same way that recording artists took a giant hit when their songs became downloads rather than CDs that were purchased, and they were then making their money sort of going out on tour, our movies in movie theaters are sort of like being out on tour. They are that public performance where everyone is going to buy a ticket and see the thing live in front of them on the big screen.

And that’s been surprisingly resilient, even in the face of new challenges, because it’s a chance to get out of your house. It’s a chance to go on a date, or hang out with your friends. It’s an excuse to get together with people. So I think that has helped the movie business buck up a bit.

I think a difference between movies and music, which was important at the time but is much less important now, is that the files are huge. And so it was easier to schlep around music files. It was much harder to schlep around giant movie files. And so torrents made that easier, but still they were much bigger files and as bandwidth increased it became easier to send around giant movie files. But they weren’t happening as much as early.

Once you have those files, it’s harder to get them onto your TV. Clever people can always find a way to do that, or they’ll be willing to watch them on their laptops, but it’s harder to get them on the screen. And if you’re watching these movies overseas and it’s a western movie in English and you want to watch it with your subtitles, solutions have sort of come up for like how to pirate movies and slap on the subtitles, but it’s not easy. It’s not simple to do that. And I think that’s another thing that has slowed down some piracy of movies or at least let movies sort of get some — it gave them some time to get ahead of piracy.

Craig: Well that all sounds accurate to me. I would add on a couple of other things. When Napster happened, and started to change the way that people were paying — or in this case not paying — for audio, and for music, the radio business continued as it continues. You know, the radio business plays music for free. I’m talking about not the satellite subscription, sort of terrestrial radio. You listen to music for free and then they pump ads at you. And that’s how they make their money.

Well that’s exactly how broadcast television and a lot of cable television works. Right? So the difference being that that was how you got the product in television, broadcast television, and cable television. It’s not like you were going to a store to buy this product before it was running on television. You had to go to the television to get it in the first place, which meant you were getting the ads on you right off the bat.

If I buy an album, if I buy a whole bunch of albums and music that I want to listen to, I don’t have to go listen to the radio station to hear that music because I own it. And in fact that directional issue is I think a lot of why music suffered and the movie business didn’t.

In general, like you said, movies are like concerts, right? And then the DVDs are like the albums. Well, notice that in movies and in television the performance comes first. That is the main product. And then the album equivalent comes after. That’s something that the fans then buy afterwards because they want to see it or experience it again.

Not the case with music. In music, you buy it first. If you like it, then you go to the concert. So, if the first option is free, that’s what people are going to want. And in movies, they’re not free. The first option is you’ve got to go to the theater. And television a lot of times the first option is free, or there’s a monthly subscription that they’ve already gotten used to, going to HBO and so on and so forth. And then if they liked it, yeah, you know, most people who go and see a movie and they love that movie and they want to see it again, they would go — they were used to renting it. They would go to Blockbuster and rent it. So they’re in the pattern of paying for that. No big deal.

The excitement of short-circuiting the entire thing and getting something new for free by stealing it was, I think, the problem with the music business. Because the free part, the change part, happened at the front of the experience. Not at the middle or end of the experience the way it did in television and in movies.

John: I think you are hitting on a key point here. And if you look back historically, the movie business existed long before there was home video. So for many, many years there really was no way to watch Gone with the Wind if it wasn’t playing at the theater down the street. And yet the movie business was completely viable.

And so as home video arose, that was a whole bunch of new money. And it was fantastic. And we made a lot more stuff and it benefitted writers tremendously because residuals became a more meaningful thing. So the rise of digital downloads, legal and illegal downloads, did hit home video in a really hard way. But there was still a way for movies to make money. And that’s I think why they were able to survive.

When you look at music, yes, there had been that tradition of live performance, but we’d had recorded music for so long. It had been so expected that you go out and buy an album and that was your primary way of consuming music. That when that got disrupted the whole business model did collapse.

Craig: Yeah. It is fascinating. The other aspect of music that’s so interesting to me is that there isn’t a work-for-hire in the music business the way that there is in movies and television. So, part of the problem with the music business was that all the album sales, the first part of the experience, almost all of that money went to the companies. And then the — I mean, some money went to the artist, but a lot of it went to the companies. And then the performance, going out and touring, that was all about the artist.

But then they would have to send back money if the company promoted it and stuff like that. Or the company fronted them money for videos and so on and so forth. And so when you chop that thing in half, then I think for a moment maybe artists thought this is good because that side of the business, the album sales side, I was always getting screwed on anyway. But, you know, the performance side is going to be great and I’m still going to sell t-shirts and make my money.

Except that they kind of forgot that no one goes to a concert for an act they don’t know. And that all the promotion was coming from the companies and the album sales. So there was a symbiotic relationship that got really disrupted there. And so you do have this strange thing now where we have these acts, the most successful touring acts, are old. With rare exception.

You know, The Rolling Stones still, you know. It’s hard to break new bands that then make a ton of money on tour. At this point now, a lot of them are I guess manufactured bands that are literally created for the purpose of this sort of thing. But when I look at the list of the highest grossing concerts, I’m like, oh my god, everyone is old.

John: Yeah. I do think it’s worth going through the thought experiment of like what if there had been more bandwidth earlier. If a few variables had changed, I do think we would be in bigger trouble. I do think if there had been tremendous bandwidth and it had been easier to get pirated movies onto your TV, I think home video would have collapsed more fully, more quickly. I think the economics would have changed. I still think the theatrical experience would remain. I think all the doomsdayers are saying like, oh, your TV at home is going to be so great and people are going to want to stay home rather than go out and suffer through the movie theater experience. Those are old people. Those are old people who don’t want to be around teenagers. Teenagers want to get out of the house and movies are a good excuse for doing that.

Craig: Yep. As long as kids want to make out in a dark room, there will be movies.

John: And there will be a MoviePass or something like that to try to get them to do more of it.

Craig: Naughty children. Well, that probably — that should get us to our Three Page Challenge, don’t you think?

John: We absolutely should tackle these three pages.

Craig: What should we start with here?

John: Let’s start with Steven Wood, a script called This is Absurd. Now, if you want to read along the three pages as we go through them, you can find them on the show notes. Just go to and look for this episode. We’ll also have them up in Weekend Read so if you’re on Weekend Read you can read along with us.

So here’s a synopsis for this first one. A dapper middle-aged gentleman works the front desk at a motel. He stands perfectly still, with his hands clasped. A single room key hangs on a peg behind him. Joey enters, tired. He waits to be greeted by the manager. He rings the bell, but still no acknowledgment. Finally, Joey speaks, only to be cut off by the manager.

The answers do not quite feel stock, but the conversation is disjointed and unnatural. The manager accepts Joey’s payment without knowing the amount and sends him to his room. Joey and Dale, with whom Joey arrived, share a smoke outside their room. Joey mentions that the manager didn’t even count the money.

In the dingy motel room, Dale clicks the TV to a new station. Joey warns that “They’re going to find the car.” Dale is not worried. He wiped it down for prints. He goes to the bathroom just as the news anchor announces these two men as fugitives.

Craig, do you want to start us off?

Craig: Sure. So we talk a lot about confusion versus mystery. I think these three pages do a very good job of creating mystery as opposed to confusion. The manager and the nature of this motel are a mystery. You and I don’t know what it is, but if it turned out that the manager is the devil that would make sense to me. If it turned out the manager was an alien that would make sense to me. If it turned out the manager was a robot that would make sense to me. There’s all sorts of possibilities about what’s going on here.

The way it plays out and the scene craft is quite good, I think. The first scene here between Joey and the manager. Mostly good because I think the manager is created really interestingly. It’s a smart thing to have the manager say nothing until the bell rings. It makes us wonder what was it about the bell. See, they’re all like little hints.

I also like the way it was set up visually. And the part I liked was it says, “A leather-bound ledger is atop the counter along with a fingerprint-free brass bell.” That’s interesting. It’s almost as if this motel has been waiting. It’s like it popped up out of nowhere and is just waiting for these two guys like a Venus fly trap or something.

So, I liked that. And the fact that Joey has to sign his name and his room number felt very, I don’t know, hell-like to me. So, all that was good.

If I have any criticisms, it’s that the introduction of Joey is kind of a whiff. So, the manager gets MAN in all capitals, Joey doesn’t get anything. The description of Joey is as follows: Joey. That’s it. That’s all I get. Joey. I don’t know his age, I don’t know his height, his appearance. I don’t know anything. Until it says he, I didn’t even know if Joey was a man or a woman.

So, that’s not good. I want to know more about Joey. Similarly, when Joey does enter through the front door, it says tired. He slams his forearms on the counter. I don’t think anybody has ever done that. I don’t know what that means. How do you slam your forearms on a counter? That’s a very odd motion.

John: Yeah. So I think it’s throwing your weight down on the counter. So I got what he was going for, but I had read it twice or three times.

Craig: Yeah. I wasn’t quite sure about that. And then following that it says, “Dale waits outside.” Um, who? Dale? Oh, OK. I don’t know who Dale is either. And also how do I see him. Is there a window? Is the door–

John: Glass?

Craig: Yeah. What’s going on here? So, the descriptions were really scant. Joey I don’t think is quite interacting with the manager the way I would expect somebody normal to. And it’s not that Joey has to be normal. But when you have a character in a scene who is so wildly abnormal, isn’t that the title of this? This is Abnormal?

John: Yeah. This is Absurd.

Craig: This is Absurd. So we have an absurd character in the manager, which means we in the audience sort of need to be anchored in a non-absurd character opposing him in this back and forth conflicted scene. And Joey doesn’t quite get there. I wasn’t really with him on this. But, you know, it wasn’t bad. The line that sort of stopped me was when Joey says, “I’m going to wait” — ”I’m gonna to wait,” so let’s fix those typos. “I’m gonna wait and let you finish with your little spiel so you can stop interrupting me.”

It didn’t really seem like the manager was, I don’t know, interrupting him that aggressively. They’ve done bad things, Joey and Dale, and now they’re in a deadly motel of some kind, where they will receive some sort of punishment. That’s my prediction. But overall good.

John: Yeah. I enjoyed it as well. So, I have exactly your same criticisms in the sense that the manager is so well described, the environment is so well described, and Joey is just nothing. He’s just a name. And so giving us some specificity on who he is so we can relate to him and relate to his experience interacting with this manager is crucial. So even if you don’t want to tip us off that Joey is a bad guy, just give us some sense of who he is so we can get a sense of what his voice is going to be as he starts talking.

I also agree with you that I felt — it’s not that the manager was too pushed, it’s just that Joey’s reaction to his being pushed didn’t seem reasonable. And I flagged the same moment at the end of page one that you did.

I think if I had a bigger concern is that I’ve seen The Twilight Zone. I’ve seen Tales from the Dark Side. I was thinking back to that sci-fi series, The Lost Room, that I liked a lot. The idea of a haunted motel is a bit stock. But it’s still delightful. And it harkens back to almost like an Edgar Allan Poe kind of sense of like “this is the place where your sins are going to be punished.“

I just needed — I wish I got a sense after these three pages that our screenwriter sort of knew the tropes and could push past the tropes, or could at least know that he had a plan for sort of going past those easy things. Because by the time I got to the end of page three I was like, “OK, yeah, they’re criminal on the run,” but I’m not confident that this is going to be the subversion of this kind of story I’ve seen a lot.

And an example of something of where I thought we were missing an opportunity is at the start of page three. We have our only exterior. So “EXT – MOTEL – OUTSIDE ROOM FIFTEEN — NIGHT. Dale and Joey take a few drags off a smoke before going inside.”

That action is great. So, that they’re sharing a cigarette is also great. But where are we? If we’re exterior someplace, we have to be someplace. And so is there a rain storm? Are we in a desert? Are we in the middle of a city? We’re nowhere. And I think it’s absolutely a valid choice to start in a place where you don’t have any sense of what’s outside this room, but once we are outside this room you’ve got to give us some environment. And that’s where I felt like, OK, we’re on a sound stage someplace in Toronto and it’s going to be one of those sort of incredibly teeny tiny budget things that doesn’t really add up to anything.

Craig: Unless these three pages are not the first three pages. You know, if — and I would imagine people would probably let us know, but if these aren’t the first three, because we’ve never said that people have to send the first three. If it were in the middle then, OK, I would understand why Joey isn’t described and why Dale isn’t described and why the general area isn’t described.

But, some other things to consider. And certainly if this is the first three, no question about what you’re saying. When they’re standing outside Dale and Joey take a few drags off a smoke before going inside. “He didn’t even count the money.” What’s Dale thinking? Does Dale even know what he’s talking about? I feel like I’m missing something there. It’s like Joey is presuming that Dale is watching the movie with us. He wasn’t in there. He didn’t even hear any of that.

So, what is Joey trying to impart to Dale there exactly?

John: There’s a sense of which this could be the end of a conversation. So if you wanted to signal that like this was the last part of a conversation you’d say like, “Yeah and it’s weird, he didn’t even count the money.” Crushes the cigarette. Goes in the room. Like the sense that this was the end of a longer thing. But I agree, it just hangs there in a weird way.

Craig: It’s sort of a naked line because there’s no action inspiring it. It’s unmotivated. So what you end up happening is — you have two actors and they’re out there and you say, “Action,” and they’re smoking, and then one says, “He didn’t even count the money.” And the other one looks at him. Shrugs. And then they both go inside. But then why did you say that? It will seem like an odd cut.

You can certainly do what you’re suggesting, which is you get there and they’re smoking and then Dale says, “Really?” And Joey says, “Yeah, he didn’t even count the money.” And then you go, OK, I get it. I’m at the end of a conversation.

Lastly, I want to point out that trope-wise the news anchor, the helpful expository news anchor working for Exposition News Nightly, needs to be driven from the planet, ejected into deep, deep space. The news anchor helpfully informs us, “The two men have been identified as Dale Shelton and Joseph Williams, both should be considered…”

You know what? No. First of all, news anchors, when was the last time you heard a local news anchor say, “Both should be considered armed and dangerous?” Oh please. So, anyway, there’s so many better ways of doing this. If this happens in the middle, then we don’t need to know. But if it doesn’t happen in the middle and I don’t think it does, I think these are the first three pages, then he says, OK, “You know they’re going to find the car, right?” “Who cares, I wiped it down.” Good. Not expository. Just intriguing. Fine.

And then show me casually one of them putting his clothing in the drawer and as he’s moving his underwear in there’s the gun. Or show me that he wipes his hair back and we see that there’s a blood stain. Show me something else that makes me go, OK, these guys are bad guys and they’ve done a bad thing. The news anchor has got to go.

John: It’s got to go. That to me is the new air vent. It’s just the convenient thing that’s there which would almost never happen in real life.

Craig: And also it’s amazing. Every time they turn on the news that’s what they’re always talking about.

John: Isn’t that great? Yeah.

Craig: How cool is that?

John: I’m sure there are shows that have hung a lantern on that idea of like that trope and so if people who are listening to the show can point me to things where they point out the absurdity of that, we will maybe run those on a future episode, because it has to be just called out.

Craig: Yeah. I think somewhere somebody must have done Exposition News Network, because… — All right. Well let’s see, which one should we do next?

John: Before we go on to the next one, there’s one last thing I want to signal. Five paragraphs in, “An awkward moment passes, no one speaks, Joey waits to be greeted by the Manager, who only stares, not making eye contact.”

So, that’s a lot of commas in a row. And there’s ways in which that could be great. It just wasn’t great for me there. So breaking that up into some sentences would help you out.

Craig: No question. And also they’re not used properly. “An awkward moment passes. Period. No one speaks. Period. Joey waits to be greeted by the manager, who only stares, not making eye contact.” Grammatically speaking, that’s how you would do that.

John: There’s no stylistic reason why those commas are helping him out there.

Craig: No. None at all. They just sort of mush up your sentence there.

John: Cool. Do you want to do the next one, Craig?

Craig: Sure. How to Make Friends by Elizabeth Boston. OK, so a beautifully lit garden party is filled with happy guests and Bon Voyage balloons. We follow a partygoer to the restroom. She knocks, but inside the restroom is Tula, 30, who politely calls back through the door and says, “It’s occupied.” After a second knock, she claims to be pooping but she is not.

She gets a text from her friend that says she’s running late, but that Tula should socialize. Instead, we see a quick montage of Tula killing time in the bathroom. Painting her toes. Plucking a stray hair. And then actually pooping.

We then cut to Pam and Katie, both 30, who are skipping arm-in-arm down the street a la the Laverne & Shirley opening, for those of you old enough to know what that is. And then we smash cut to reality. Oh, that’s not really what was happening. What’s really happening is Kate is super-duper drunk and attempting the Laverne & Shirley routine. She pukes. Then tells Pam that Pam will miss her when Katie is in New York.

Pam says they are late to her, meaning Pam’s, goodbye party. Katie kneels down near a sleeping homeless man to tie her shoelaces, but is actually doing it to steal money from his collection can.

And that is How to Make Friends. John, dig in.

John: I shall dig in. So, my guess after these three pages is that this is a story about the three women. So, it sort of looks like it’s a Tula story, but I believe that the weight is probably going to be shared between the three women, or at least Katie who is such a drunk in this thing, maybe she becomes more of a thing that is carried around through the course of the story. So maybe it’s more Katie and Tula.

I was frustrated because I was happy to see these women sort of having their individual moments, but it wasn’t adding up to a lot for me. And I didn’t feel like I was seeing anything remarkable that was intriguing me to read more down the road. And some of it was — I’m going to say that horrible word again — specificity. From the very start, “EXT. PHILADELPHIA STREET — NIGHT.” Night.

Then “EXT. BACKYARD PARTY — NIGHT.” So the Philadelphia Street gets no scene description at all. So it should just not be there if you’re not going to tell us anything about that Philadelphia Street, because a Philadelphia Street could be a giant boulevard. It could be a tiny back alley. It could be in a posh neighborhood. It could be somewhere else.

I just don’t know what this is. And so then we go to this backyard party. I still have no sense of where are we. Are we at some sort of row house? Are we at a mansion? You’ve got to anchor us in a place or anchor us with a character in those first shots so we can really see what’s happening.

Then we follow a partygoer toward the house. Well, partygoer, so I see the kind of shot we’re trying to describe here, which is where we’re sort of floating behind somebody who is leading us into the house to get to a place. But is that partygoer a man, a woman? Who are the people at this party? And without any of those details, I have a hard time getting into Tula’s point of view or any of these other women’s point of view, because I just don’t know what situation I’m in.

Craig: Mm. Yeah. I’m right there with you on this. I think that we appear to have a Girl’s Trip/Hangover-y sort of thing going on. This looks like three crazy characters who love to party. I know a little something about this. It’s not really breaking any ground. I want to talk a little bit about tone. We’ve got pooping on page one and we’ve got puking on page two. There is something that we call the cumulative effect in comedy. We know that certain transgressive things get big laughs. And sometimes pooping gets a big laugh. And sometimes puking gets a big laugh. But the more you do it, the more it sort of collects. And there is a cumulative effect.

It starts to make people angry. There’s a fine, fine line. And, granted, it’s different for different people. But to go one-two punch on page one and page two like that is signaling the wrong thing. I think it’s telling people you’re going to be in the toilet for a while.

John: Yeah. And I think it’s actually not a one-two punch, but it’s a two-three punch maybe? A number two and a number three punch?

Craig: Oh, wow.

John: What do you call — is vomit number three? Like in terms of bodily fluids being expelled?

Craig: Now this podcast has a cumulative effect.

John: It does. So, I think that’s a very important point that I never really sort of thought about before. But you look at Melissa McCarthy’s moment in Bridesmaids where she’s in the dress and she has diarrhea and uses the sink. I mean, it’s all those things on top of each other that make the diarrhea so funny. Because if she’s not in the big dress, if she’s not doing it in the sink, then it’s not funny. But it’s the specificity — I’m sorry, again — that makes it so funny. And it’s Melissa McCarthy and she’s amazing.

Anything that Melissa McCarthy does that involves a fluid is hysterical. Like her salad dressing sketch from Saturday Night Live is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

Craig: Amazing. It’s amazing. Well, that scene, you know, the other thing about that scene in Bridesmaids is it’s a set piece. So when we talk about comedic set pieces, what we’re talking about are extended sequences that are built around large comic actions. They are usually physical in nature. And they are motivated. So they’re carefully set up like little machines, like little Rube Goldberg machines, or like imagine one of those little Domino things. And then something flicks the Domino and then there is a cascade. And so it escalates into insanity.

The Hangover movies do this, of course. And most mainstream comedies will have the big set piece, or two, or three. That one is a good example. There really isn’t bathroom humor in that movie until you get to that point. So that set piece is motivated by Kristen Wiig’s character and her desire to one-up her competition to be the bride’s best friend. And who insists that everybody go to this Brazilian all-you-can-eat buffet. And they all get food poisoning. They are all now very, very sick. And we understand why. And it’s not like, oh, you’re very, very sick because you’re just kind of a pig that drinks too much. You’re very, very sick through no fault of your own and now it’s funny.

And then we watch it all kind of come apart. And what do they do? They’re brilliant. They put it in an all-white room. And everything is pristine. And then it all just goes to hell.

That’s a set piece. This is just casually I’m going to puke. And I’m going to poop. So it’s just, meh, look at me. I’m pooping. Ha-ha. And that’s — you know, you can do it. And you can do it once. Like if all that had happened here was, OK, she’s pooping, I’d go, oh, OK. I get it. It’s this kind of movie. But then one page later to have another thing like that right off the bat, it starts to make me think that this is just going to be dopey.

And unfortunately I’m kind of with you, nothing else really got me out of the dopey. What we’re dealing with aren’t really characters. We’re dealing with caricatures. So Tula is kind of just singing a little hip-hop to herself. Having some fun. Being sort of selfish. Not letting other people come into the bathroom.

And I’m not really sure frankly why she’s doing all this.

John: That was my frustration. If there’s a reason why she barricaded herself, because she just didn’t want to talk to these people because she was nervous around them, because she wanted to smoke a joint, because she just wanted some me time, I could get that. But I wasn’t getting that out of any of those reasons out of these scenes.

Craig: Yeah. She’s just sort of motivationlessly grooming herself. So, not really sure what the deal is there. I enjoyed the contrast between the kind of fantasy imagining of these two women, seeing themselves as Laverne and Shirley, and then, OK, here’s the reality, they’re not. Except I don’t know who they are. Also, whose dream is this? Because the two of them are in the dream. And then when we come out of the dream, not really the dream but the fantasy I guess, one of them is doing it and the other one isn’t.

So, that was sort of confusing to me. Also don’t know who they are. It takes a while for me to figure out that the party that Tula is at is supposed to be for Pam. And then you’ve got kind of a — Katie appears to be just, you know, train wreck. She is the train wreck. She is drunk. And she’s stealing money from homeless people. Wow.

John: So, the second half of these three pages, the stuff with Pam and Katie, it reminded me of Broad City, which I think is a phenomenal show. And it made me think more about sort of why Broad City works and sort of the central sort of premise of how those two characters work together. So you have Abbi and Ilana. Abbi is the wrecking ball who keeps knocking everything down and couldn’t care about offending anybody, but is completely obsessed with Ilana and sort of making Ilana happy. Ilana is mortified by everything and so she’s the one who like terrible things will always happen to. She’s the one who would have food poisoning and have to try to find a place to deal with it.

And you have to have those two competing interests — people who are aligned with each other, but are also going to push each other’s buttons. And maybe that can be — maybe Pam and Katie can have those similar dynamics, but we’re seeing them in a moment where we don’t have any sense of what their real relationship is, or sort of why they’re together.

And so stealing the money from the homeless man is like, “Oh, that’s shocking and transgressive,” but I don’t know anything about Katie or Pam to know why that moment should land or not land.

Craig: Well, right. And to confuse matters, Katie is really, really drunk. So like at the beginning of The Hangover, we see Bradley Cooper’s character, Phil, collecting money from his students. He’s a teacher and he’s collecting money for a class trip, which we then realize he’s just stealing to use in Vegas. He’s not drunk. He’s — we learn a lot about who is right there.

But she’s drunk here, so when she’s stealing the money from the homeless man’s tin can, I’m not even sure if she knows what she’s doing, so I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about it.

John: Yeah. Yeah.

Craig: I just want to be really clear for Elizabeth’s sake, I don’t have a problem with lowbrow humor. God knows I don’t. Just go ahead and check my IMDb page out. I love it. But there is a science to it. And I think we’ve all made all the mistakes that I think Elizabeth is making here. We’ve all made. But the problem is that she’s making all of them kind of in these three pages all at once.

We need clarity. We need specificity about who these characters are and what they want and what their problem is. And if we’re going to be transgressive, we have to set it up. We have to understand why. You have to let me know that I’m supposed to be learning something and I need to know what I’m learning. In a very annoying and craft-based way, comedy requires the most care and attention. Because it’s always a soufflé. Even the dumb ones are soufflés. In fact, the dumb ones are the most soufflé-ish of soufflés. The slightest little thing and it all just collapses. It’s science.

So you have to be scientific about it, and unfortunately these three pages, they have a lot of sloppiness in them. And so we’re not quite sure how to feel or think. And I agree with you, I think that they need to be reworked or people aren’t going to keep going.

John: Something I do want to highlight, “TULA ANDERS, Black, 30, with the outfit of a fifty year-old middle school teacher.” I like the outfit of a 50-year-old middle school teacher. Give me more like that. Let that inform what I’m going to see next, because I don’t have any action or dialogue from her that reinforces that idea of the good character description you gave me there.

So, reading that I think maybe she has tremendous social anxiety disorder. There’s something about her that would help explain why she’s barricaded herself in the bathroom. So I’d just say like maybe look for — find little details and build out from those to create your characters and you’ll maybe get to a good place.

Last little things I want to point out on the page. Let’s talk about the ellipsis, dot-dot-dot.

Craig: Oh.

John: It’s just three periods. There’s no spaces between the periods. And so they’re used all the time in screenwriting to sense a trailing off or connecting two things. So don’t be afraid to use them, but it needs to just literally be dot-dot-dot. So, in this case we have extra spaces between them. It looks weird. Please don’t do that.

The other thing you have to watch out for, on the Macintosh, sometimes the Mac will try to substitute the ellipsis character — which is like three dots really close together — don’t use that either. You just literally want period-period-period.

Craig: Yeah. The biggest issue I think with the same way that Elizabeth is doing the dot-dot-dot is that it just eats up a lot of space. And so we try and limit that. Just a suggestion, Elizabeth, for you if you do want to re-approach these pages and think about a different way of getting into them, you have the partygoer, Anonymous Partygoer approaching closed door, knocking. Maybe you should start with Tula. And start with presenting us with somebody. And so here is this 30-year-old woman, she’s black but she’s British, so that’s an interesting combination for Americans. But she’s got this frumpy, old way of dressing. So we’re kind of getting this interesting sense of who she is. And then she excuses herself to go to the bathroom and then shows us a totally different person inside that bathroom. Maybe that’s just a way to kind of be intentional about all of this, because right now it just sort of feels haphazard.

John: There’s nothing more relatable I can imagine than showing up at a party for a friend and that friend isn’t there and sort of how mortifying it is. Like, I don’t have any anchor at this party. I don’t know any of these people. And then I completely understand the instinct to just barricade yourself in a bathroom. Like that is a start that — and it doesn’t have to be a lot. Like you could just start on her face and then — or one of those sort of locked off cameras where you’re just moving through this party with her and she’s like “There’s no one here I know.” And then stop, and cut to in the bathroom locking the door, and she’s just going to bunker down until her friends get here.

That is a completely relatable experience and that tells me a lot about Tula that helps me so much in the scene that you have there.

Craig: Yeah. Yeah. You know, what’s interesting about that notion is that it’s actually short-circuited by the way Elizabeth has done this here. Because we start with Tula in the bathroom. She’s already decided not to come out. Then the phone says Pam, meaning Pam — this is the other thing. If Pam is sending the message, it’s weird to have the message say, Pam, be there in 10. Because now I’m thinking Tula’s name is Pam. But let’s put that aside.

Pam is telling her I’ll be there in ten minutes. Sorry. Got held up. So, she’d already decided to put herself in the bathroom. If she’s walking around this party, she clearly doesn’t know anybody, and then she gets a text, “Sorry, meant to be there. I’m running 30 minutes behind.” At that point I understand the panic and the “What do I do, what do I do.” So get out and socialize or go around and socialize. And Tula decides I know exactly what I’m going to do. The opposite of that. I’m going to lock myself in the bathroom.

Now I understand what’s going on. I just need motivations. Motivation.

John: Motivation is a crucial, crucial thing. All right, let’s get to our third and final Three Page Challenge. This is Shaker Heights by Dan Pavlik.

We start at a community pool, bustling with the excitement of a youth swim meet. RJ, 38, attempts to give his son, Hudson, 8, a pep talk as he gets ready for his race. RJ is not so good at pep talks and says things that would only make a kid more nervous. Rondell, the starter, who wears a sweet baby blue sweat suit, calls the swimmers to the pool. The other boys are wearing Speedos, besides Tyler, 8, who wears a full torso high tech suit. Hudson, meanwhile, wears trunks.

On the other side of the pool, RJ dismisses his son’s ability to Tyler’s dad, Stefan. It appears that they have placed bets on this race. The race begins. Tyler and Hudson are neck and neck, but Tyler barely pulls through for the win. RJ shouts in celebration. The pool goes silent seeing RJ celebrate his kid’s loss.

Hudson is disappointed. RJ tries to recover.

So, in reading this synopsis I would say I did not the first time reading through it know that they were betting on the race until quite late. Craig, what was your take on the betting or not betting?

Craig: I just found out that they were betting on the race from that summary. I didn’t see any — I mean, I didn’t understand the hustle line. But I also didn’t see any indication that these guys were betting. So I don’t get it.

John: All right. So, what did you get from these three pages?

Craig: Well, let’s start with some simple crafty, format-y stuff. And these pages are again by Dan Pavlik. So, Dan, I see you, and I see what you’re doing, which is expanding your dialogue lines to be way longer than a dialogue line should be. So there’s margins, right? Now, we can all fudge margins here and there. You know, if I’m writing dialogue and the whole thing spills over so that the fourth line of dialogue is the word “all” or “you,” OK, I’ll cheat the margins to pull that up. That’s no big deal. It’s not going to deform the script. It’s not going to make that paragraph look bizarre.

But here’s all one line: “Next up, event 32, boys 8 & under backstroke.” No. And to make it even worse, to shove that all in one line, you also used “8,” the number eight, for eight when generally the rule is ten and under you spell you out. And then you ampersanded the word “and.” What? We don’t do that.

John: Nope.

Craig: Just don’t do it. You can put “&” in dialogue if the person is referring to the title of something that has an ampersand in it. Other than that, nope.

John: Nope.

Craig: Just we don’t do it. So there’s some cheaty stuff going on here. And it carries throughout. I just saw a number of dialogue lines where I thought, “OK, these margins are way too loose.” But that aside, we start off — I can see the room, I can hear the room, which I like. And I have no problem with things like “A drone shot, high & wide shows a packed pool deck.” I’m fine, you know me. I think we’re allowed to direct things.

John: Yep.

Craig: And then we have this pep talk between a dad and a son. And it’s cute. I mean, we get the idea which is, OK, I’m nervous and I’m going to use my nervousness by telling you not to be nervous. And that I really don’t care if you win or you lose, but obviously I do or else I wouldn’t keep talking about it. And the kid seems to be well onto his own father and just like “Leave me alone, I want to go swim.”

So that was all fine. I was good with that. By the way, we have a couple of issues with default whiteness I noticed in two of these, where we mention that someone is black but we don’t mention when people are white. You know, if you want to mention race, mention race, but then mention race.

John: Yeah.

Craig: We have — and maybe an indication of something, I wasn’t quite sure on page two. There’s certain bits of description that I think are important, but then they kind of fell in between the “Is this important or is it not important” zone, and I need to know.

So, it says, “At the far side of the pool, we see RONDELL RI’CHARD (48). Rondell is a black man, wearing a sweet, baby blue sweatsuit.” OK, he is the race starter. He calls for the race to begin. Hudson, along with five other boys, step up to the edge of the pool. Next to Hudson is Tyler Kim, a wirey” — spelled wrong, I believe.

John: I looked it up. Yeah, that is incorrect.

Craig: Yep. Korean kid. Now here’s the part where I got, huh. Four of the boys wear baby blue Speedos. Tyler wears a full torso, high tech baby blue suit. Hudson wears regular swim trunks. So, on the one hand I get what’s happening here, which is that these other kids are advanced swimmers who are geared up and ready to go. And Hudson is wearing the wrong kind of bathing suit, so he’s not. But baby blue Speedos. So, are they on like a team that the guy that’s the starter is the coach of? Because he’s got the baby blue sweat suit? Or is that just random?

John: I agree with you. I was confused as well. It felt like they’re all on a team and he’s the guy competing against them. But that doesn’t actually make sense. So if it’s a meet, they’re not all going to be on the same team. So, that was just weird. I just feel like “baby blue” trickled in in places where it did not need to be there. It would also just make more sense — the point is that most of the kids are in Speedos, this one kid has an amazing full body suit, and the joke is that Hudson is in just regular swim trunks. That’s the point. Not the colors.

Craig: Correct. Exactly. So you want to just be clear. You don’t want to muddy these things up, because now I’m just confused about what I’m supposed to be paying attention to here. When we get across the pool, so the race is about to begin, and we go across to where Dad is, RJ. And he’s standing with Stefan, “a tall, athletically built Korean-American man.”

So we’re going to presume, I guess, that he is Tyler Kim’s dad, because Tyler is a wirey Korean kid. Interestingly Tyler is from Korea, whereas his dad is Korean-American, so we got to figure out what’s going on here. But RJ says to Stefan, “He doesn’t stand a chance.” Who doesn’t stand a chance? Is he talking about his own kid? Probably. But then tell me that he’s nervous. Tell me that he’s embarrassed.

Obviously he knows Stefan, right, because you wouldn’t just start saying that to some guy you don’t know. But then Stefan says, “The board shorts don’t fool me. He’s got the eye of the tiger.”

John: Can I pitch a fix here?

Craig: Please.

John: This is what I would say. So, first off my daughter competed in swim team last year, so I actually learned a lot about swim team, and I would say most of the details here feel kind of correct. Except for the board shorts. That would just not happen. It’s not a thing. Like a kid who competes on swim team is not going to be in board shorts, unless — and this would be your opportunity — if RJ’s line of dialogue here is like, “Man, I can’t believe I packed his board shorts rather than his Speedos. What an idiot I am.”

If he were to say something like that, it would take the curse off of the board shorts and make us believe that he’s an incompetent father. And then the overall joke that basically he’d been rooting against his son would make more sense in the end. That he’s basically trying to sabotage his son so that his son wouldn’t win this race.

Craig: Well, we’ll get to that part, because I really got confused about that. But I think you’re right. We need to explain this one way or the other. Either the dad forgot and screwed up, or the kid forgot and screwed up, or they’ve never done this before and this is his first time. And so they didn’t know. And he’s embarrassed.

But either way, the problem is his relationship with Stefan implies that they know each other, so it’s weird to have Stefan making comments like this as if he’s never met Hudson, the kid, before. And then RJ says, “My boy doesn’t possess the intensity gene.” So he’s sort of apologizing for him. And then Stefan says, “Maybe so, but at least this isn’t his first backstroke event ever.”

OK, now, so OK, I guess he has been doing this for a while, so then he shouldn’t have the board shorts. Why would he have the board shorts if he has done it before? And Stefan seems to be implying that his son, Tyler, has never done the backstroke before. And then RJ says, “Did you just hustle me?” So they did bet on it? But if they bet on it, then why would RJ bet on it because he says that his kid doesn’t stand a chance and he doesn’t possess the intensity gene. And he doesn’t.

So, I don’t understand what’s going on I guess is my point. And at the end when he roots — he’s happy that his son loses. Is it because he bet on Tyler?

John: Yes. He bet on Tyler. He bet against his own son in the race. That I think is meant to be the overall point of this scene. Like here’s a dad who bet against his own son in a race. And was trying to sabotage his son in the race. So I think if you read through what’s there, I think it supports that thesis. I just don’t think that it does the best job of supporting that thesis.

Craig: OK, if that’s what’s going on, first of all, “Did you just hustle me?” when Stefan says, “At least this isn’t his first backstroke event ever,” why is Stefan talking down his kid if RJ has bet on Tyler? Hustling him would mean talking Tyler up.

So I don’t understand exactly what’s going on. But regardless of that, if you’re going to do something in a script that is as extreme, and frankly interesting, as a father betting against his own kid, I need to see it happen. That’s the interesting part. Not this other nonsense.

Sorry, I don’t mean to be a jerk and say nonsense.

John: Yeah, I get it.

Craig: You know what I mean? That’s the moment I want to see. So the scene is you have these two guys and one of them is like I’ll put $30 on Tyler. And he’s like, you sure? He’s never done this before. I’m putting $30 on him, don’t worry. And then he’s going to win. And you’re like, OK, this guy is betting on, I don’t know, what? Don’t know. Then they walk out of the locker room or parents’ area into this school thing and the kid — and this guy who has just bet on Tyler walks up to his kid and says, “Listen, you can do it, blah, blah, blah. Go get him, Hudson. Oh, hey Tyler.” And you’re like, oh my god, whoa.

Right? There’s a way to do this that is exciting and pays something off and makes people gasp. This isn’t it.

John: I agree. So, I think what you’re describing is the scene as written right now, there’s probably not a version of like this is all happening in one real time thing that could do the best job of it. The way I would pitch for it is if they get up to the starting block and you’re starting to see that these guys have the conversation. You could do the flash cut back to like their betting in the parking lot, or some moment beforehand where they said like my kid is worse than your kid. My kid is going to tank. No, no, my kid is the worst. That could have been the thing basically before this thing started, so you’re recontextualizing what just happened and then you start the race is another way you could do it.

But I agree, it’s going to be challenging to — the fact that you got confused in these three pages and being able to go through this a couple times on the page, it’s probably not going to work especially well even if you shot it just like this.

Craig: No. This one definitely is not in the mystery zone. It’s not trying to be a mystery. It’s confusion.

John: Great. Let’s talk about an interesting choice that Dan has made with bold face. So bold face is a thing that exists in computers and you will see bold faced in scripts. Dan is choosing interesting things to bold face, like Lane Markers. Starting Blocks. Goggles. Sort of some random things seem to be boldfaced. I don’t think it works in this. I think it’s fine to sort of experiment with the form and bold face things that would not normally be boldfaced, but the choices he’s making here don’t seem to merit that.

Usually you’ll find in screenplays when boldfaced is used it’s because you got to really call out something to make sure that someone who is skimming does not miss this thing. Goggles does not deserve bold-facing, in my opinion.

Craig: I’m with you. In general if there are key props, I might put them in all caps. Boldface in action is for — I think I would probably just reserve it for some enormous reveal. Something that’s supposed to shock people. In dialogue, boldface always looks better onscreen, and then you print it out and you’re like, oh god. It just, you know, if I really need to emphasize something in dialogue, I’ll use italics or an underline, but almost never boldface.

John: A few other things that are just confusing for the read. Rondell Ri’chard wears a “sweet, baby blue sweatsuit.” I think it’s a “sweet baby blue sweatsuit.” I think it’s all one thing. Because breaking off that sweet just confusing the read.

In American English we put commas inside quotes, which is just how we do it here. If you’re British, don’t have to do that. But we do that here. So I see that on page two.

We tend to do uppercase for things like “the crowd cheers.” We tend to do uppercase for when we introduce groups of people as well. So like “the crowd.” It’s not the end of the world if you don’t do that, but just to know that it’s a convention.

And reaching back to our first Three Page Challenge, one of the arguments for those were not the first three pages is that the manager got uppercased but the other two guys walking in did not get uppercased. And they wouldn’t be uppercased if it was not their first scene. So that could be an argument that they actually had a scene before the three pages you sent through.

Craig: Correctamundo.

John: I would use PA Announcer (OS) rather than (OC). OC is off-camera, OS is off-screen. I just don’t use OC really at all and I just don’t see it being used at all. Do you use OC?

Craig: No, I use OS.

John: OS. I think OC just has kind of gone away. I think OC would kind of make sense just in the sense of the character is just past the eye line. Like one character is talking to an off-camera character, but OS is general purpose and is better used here I think.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, it’s not–

John: Not a big deal.

Craig: Not a big deal. But yeah, generally speaking I don’t see OC.

John: Last bit of grammar thing I’m going to point out. Page three, “We hear victorious shouts; YES, YES!” No. That’s not a semicolon. That’s a colon.

Craig: Sure is.

John: It is. Any time you use a semicolon your first question should be like is this really supposed to be a semicolon? And I would say 75% of the time the answer is no.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, basically unless you are using it to separate a series of items that include commas within the items, semicolons should be completely interchangeable with periods.

John: That is correct. So it’s a way of joining together two sentences that could exist separately but by fusing them together with a semicolon they ascribe meaning to each other, I guess.

Craig: Yeah. The sentence, I guess second independent clause, is in some way explaining or illuminating the first.

John: Yeah. And just the nature of what screenplays are, we’re not going to use that a lot.

Craig: No. I don’t think I’ve ever used a semicolon in a screenplay.

John: I know I’ve used one or two, but it’s just for very random small things like that. All right, those are our Three Page Challenges. Thank you, guys, for sending them in. You guys are incredibly brave to share these with us. We pick them because they have valuable lessons for hopefully our listeners at home, so you guys are awesome for doing that.

If you have three pages you would like to send in to have us look at on the air, you can go to, and there’s a little form. And you attach a PDF and you click a button and it gets whisked away to Megan’s special little inbox where she looks through all of the Three Page Challenges. She read like 40 yesterday to help pick these. She’ll be reading even more because we’re going to do a live Three Page Challenge in Austin. So if you have three pages you would like us to look at at the Austin Film Festival and you will actually be there, there is a special little checkbox to say I will be at the Austin Film Festival. And if we choose your three pages, we may invite you up to talk about your three pages so we can actually ask, “Hey, are these actually the first three pages” or “Hhat happens to these characters after page three?”

Craig: And we’re nice. We’re not mean. And we will also — by the time this episode airs, so you’re listening to this now, and the Austin Film Festival has put up their official schedule. So you will see on that official schedule that I am doing some events in addition to the Three Page Challenge, but most notably John and I will be doing another live show. This will be on Friday night at 9pm.

Last year we did it Friday night at 10pm which was amazing because everybody was kind of toasted and was a good, fun time. But this year they moved it up to nine because I guess, well, what they said was it’s overlapping with some parties. And I think we actually impacted the attendance of some parties because this was a very popular event. They put it in the big, big ballroom at the Driskill Hotel. It was a great time. So please do make that a part of your schedule.

We will show up slightly inebriated. It will be a fun time. Last year the format was stand up and ask us questions. Because that’s why you’re here. And we had a great, great group of people. We had Tess Morris. We had Malcolm Spellman. We had Katie Dippold. We had a great group of people. And I expect that this year we will have a similarly fantastic group of people. I think we’ll have Megan Amram and Scott Frank and Dana Fox, or somebody. I don’t know. We’ll figure it out.

John: And you’ll have me. That will be a key change to the lineup, because I was not there last year. And there will probably be little bit more order. Just the nature of things.

Craig: There’s going to be an adult. It won’t be as much fun.

John: I’ll be the Ilana to your Abbi.

Craig: It will not be as much as last year, because dad will be there. But still it will be fun.

John: It should be a good time. All right, let’s get to one question here. This comes from Clive, which is apparently a fake name, in Los Angeles. He writes, “I have what is possibly the most boring question in the history of the show. What filing and or naming conventions do you use for your script files? And do you distinguish between drafts or major changes, polishes in your file names? I don’t mean for production revisions, but just for your own internal purposes. Also, how do you guys collate all your notes on a draft and file them so they make sense? I’ve been putting them in the same folder for whatever draft they were for, but it’s quickly become quite messy.”

Craig, I have known you for years, I have no idea how you number your files.

Craig: I’m pretty simple. The first draft is Draft 1. And then I work on that. And then when I send it in, I put the date in parenthesis along with the name, so then if there are some little notes before I’m sending in an official draft one, then it will Draft 1 with a new date. And then when the official one is designated, I’ll just say Official Draft 1. So, you know, I have multiple versions of it.

All the while, I’m generating PDFs, which I’m handing back and forth between myself and Jack Lesko, who is my editor. And so that’s roughly how I do it. And then I go to Draft 2. I don’t distinguish between drafts, polishes, rewrites. Everything is a draft. Draft 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Doesn’t matter to me. And in terms of notes, yeah, I mean, I don’t really write down a bunch of notes. I mean, they give you a bunch of notes, or in a meeting I’ll take notes of the notes. And then I just print it out and look at it.

But I don’t really collect the notes per se. I just do the thing. So I just have folders. You know, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. That kind of thing.

John: Yeah. So on Dropbox, I have everything on Dropbox. I’ll have a folder for a project. So I’ll have a folder for Aladdin. In that folder I’ll have — once I start assembling a script, I’ll just give it a date. So whatever date I’m turning in that script — so whatever date I’m putting on the title page, that will be the number at the end of it. So it will say Aladdin 2.28.17, because I like dots in my dates, because I’m that guy. And that will be the draft.

And so that will the draft for both my Highland file and also for my PDF. I’ll use that same convention for numbering, for putting the date on things. And then everything for me is just the date on it. So the file just shows what the date would be on the title page of that script. I don’t say first draft, second draft, whatever draft. It’s just that–

Craig: Just the date.

John: Just the date.

Craig: I had to figure out a slightly new system because Chernobyl was in episodes. I’ve never written anything in episodes before. But I just made folders. Each episode got a folder. Episode One. Episode Two. And it worked out just fine.

It’s a little annoying, actually, because in movies we’re on the draft we’re on. So I just know like, OK, I’m on the second draft. I can live in that folder for a while and not have to worry about going in between folders. But to keep things neat for Chernobyl, I did divide it up by episode or else it would have gotten out of control.

And the other thing I do is when a movie goes into production, then there are other folders that get made. And then I’ll make a production draft folder. And that’s when you do get into your revisions and I’ll have a folder for casting, and a folder for storyboards, and a folder for this, and a folder for that.

John: Once we get into color revisions, then I will sort of label the script, like Blue Revisions, and stuff like that. Which is natural for this.

The other thing I’ll say is that there are going to be times where you’re cutting stuff out of your script, like there’s a scene that you want to hold on to that’s not part of it. What I used to do was create a separate scratch file of things that got cut out of it, so I could go back to those things if I needed them. In the new Highland, there’s bins. So there’s a place you can just drag stuff over and it will just keep it there. And so I just tend to use the bins that are sort of part of the file itself. And so I don’t ever lose those little pieces.

Craig: That’s smart. Yeah. In Fade In there is a function where you can also bin large chunks of stuff within the file without it showing. But I still will — just as force of habit, I’ll just make it, you know, cut–

John: Cut and paste. Yeah.

Craig: Command N for a new file. Paste. Save it as, you know, and just write a description of it. Maybe three or four times every project there will be three or four of those that get shoved off to the side.

John: Cool. All right, one of the most important questions of the history of Scriptnotes has been answered today.

Craig: Thank god.

John: It’s time for our One Cool Things. I have two One Cool Things. I’m going to cheat. The first is a book I am reading right now called Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. It’s delightful and it’s one of those rare cases where I’m trying to read the book before everybody else in the world has read the book because I usually read things like a year or two late, and all the conversation has past. So, there’s going to be Slate Book Club stuff talking about this book and so I wanted to read it now.

It’s quite good. She’s an Irish author. It revolves around two college students in Dublin, Frances and Bobbi with an I. It’s their relationship with a married couple named Melissa and Nick. It’s good and it reminds me so much of my early 20s and how obsessed I was about studying very tiny interactions and my paranoia of what people were doing around me and my social status. It’s a very well observed thing.

And your early 20s are a fascinating time. I think this author really nails it, so I would recommend that. I’m only halfway through, though, so maybe it completely falls apart at the end and I’ll retract my observation.

Craig: That would be awesome.

John: A thing I have watched to the end is a short called Meet Cute. It is written by Ben Smith. It is directed by Ben Smith and Scriptnotes producer Megan McDonnell. And just this past week it went up online. It’s delightful. So I will send you to IndieWire where you can watch it. It stars Jon Bass and Juno Temple. And I don’t want to spoil what happens in it, but you think you know what’s going to happen and something very different happens. So it’s a quite well done little short film. So I recommend you guys take a look.

Craig: Well, you did two, so I don’t have to do any. Phew.

John: Craig escapes once again.

Craig: Yes.

John: Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to That’s also the place you can send questions like the one we answered today.

On Twitter, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. We love to answer your little short questions on Twitter. So hit us up there. We are on Facebook. Just search for the Scriptnotes podcast. Megan actually kind of uses Facebook, so maybe she’ll answer questions there, too. Who knows?

You can find us Apple Podcasts at Scriptnotes. That’s also where you can leave a review for us. That’s always delightful. Helps people find the show.

Pretty soon we’re going to have actual information about who listens to episodes because they’re going to release all the download — beyond sort of downloads, they’ll have very specific granular information about who listens to shows all the way to the end. And we will know so much more about who tunes out halfway through the Three Page Challenges.

Craig: That’s going to be awesome. I love it. We can call them up and let them know we know.

John: That would be Mike. Mike does not listen to the Three Page Challenges.

Craig: I don’t think Melissa listens to any of these. You know what? Let’s find out. Let’s see if she does. Melissa, if you listen to the podcast, then I want you to say the word Umbrella to me really loudly and, if you do, I will do all of the laundry for a week.

John: That is a hell of a deal. That’s good. You’re betting on yourself, and that’s what I like.

Craig: I think I’m going to win.

John: You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at That’s also where you’ll find the Three Page Challenges we just did. You’ll find transcripts. Within a week of the show airing we’ll have the transcripts up.

We have all the back episodes at We used to have USB drives and we ran out of USB drives. We actually had to refund some money to people who bought USB drives and we didn’t have, so sorry about that. We’ve ordered more, but it could be a couple weeks before we get more of the first 300 episodes on USB drives. We’ll let you know when those are back available. But there will always be back episodes at

And, just this last week I was at your party and I was talking to a young writer/director, a woman who has been a guest on the show before but I don’t want to spoil who she is at this moment, but she said that after being a guest on our show she paid for the premium subscription and has gone back and started listening to key episodes and she loves the back episodes.

Craig: Fantastic.

John: So yet another person who is paying us $1.99 a month.

Craig: Paying you $1.99 a month.

John: Oh, me, us, it’s all the same.

Craig: No it’s not!

John: No it’s not.

Craig: I get nothing.

John: Craig, thanks for another fun show.

Craig: Thank you, John.

John: Bye.


Email us at

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 317: Writing Other Things — Transcript

Tue, 09/26/2017 - 13:18

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

Today on the podcast we won’t be talking much about screenwriting at all. Instead, we’re going to be looking at writing books and songs and other things with some advice for collaborating with folks outside of our normal expertise. To help us do that we have Aline Brosh McKenna back to join us. Welcome Aline.

Aline Brosh McKenna: I am back in black.

John: So Aline Brosh McKenna is the Joan Rivers of our podcast in the sense that she is a frequent visitor, but also special in a way that Joan Rivers was special to us all.

Craig: Yep.

Aline: Everyone tells me that all the time.

Craig: All day long.

John: Before we get into the meat of the episode we have some reminders. Craig and I will be at the Austin Film Festival at the end of October. We’re going to be doing a live show. We’re also going to be doing a live Three Page Challenge. So for the Three Page Challenge we’re doing at Austin, we have a special little checkbox you can mark if you are submitting a script to the Three Page Challenge that says I will be at Austin and will be in the audience.

So if you’re going to go to Austin and you would like us to consider your Three Page Challenge, you need to go to Attach your script like normal, but then also check the little box that says I will be at the Austin Film Festival.

And so our producer, Megan, will be going through those scripts and picking some great ones for us to talk about live on stage and to invite those screenwriters up on stage with us to discuss what they wrote.

Craig: And we’re pretty nice to them. I mean, we don’t soft pedal anything when we do those in Austin. I don’t think we are any more or less discriminating about our comments, but I don’t want anyone to think that we beat you up or humiliate you in front of anyone. That’s never happened. We’re very nice.

Aline: Have any of those turned into movies or sold screenplays?

John: So, yes. Some of the Three Page Challenges we have looked at have sort of moved up through the ranks. I don’t know if anything has actually been produced yet, but they’ve placed well on Black List things. They’ve gotten people started. So, every once and awhile we’ll get — actually, the last episode somebody wrote in saying the three pages we looked at were instrumental in the rewrite and so therefore they were thanking us for helping out down the road.

Aline: And have you guys ever thought of sending in three pages of your own to see how it went?

Craig: We did it.

John: Craig and I on an early episode we took a look at our first scripts.

Craig: The very first ones.

Aline: But I mean sending it in randomly.

Craig: [laughs]

John: Absolutely. The other one wouldn’t know that it was one of us.

Aline: I think you should just to see if it made it past your producer.

Craig: I think they will. I think they will. Yeah. Not to put down our pool of applicants, but yeah, I think we would make it through. I got to be honest with you.

Aline: I just found an old script from 2000. I mean, I went into the garage and I looked at the titles on the side and I was like, oh my god, I forgot that one. But I found an unsold spec from 2000. And the first 15 pages I was like this is pretty cute, and then it was just shame spiral.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Have you gone back to redo any of your old scripts? Have you tried to dust anything off?

Aline: You know what? A producer called me like a couple months ago and wanted to some of my old stuff. So most of it wasn’t on a computer anywhere. So, I had to scan it. That was pretty funny. And it had my notes in it. And a couple of those were pretty good. Those were two that had sold and I don’t think he’s going to do anything with them, but you know when people ask me if I have anything, I point them towards things.

John: Well you were so busy writing new things, so tell us about the new things. First off, you have a new season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend happening.

Aline: Indeed.

John: This is season three. So when do we start to see the new episodes?

Aline: Friday, October 13. Friday the 13 we start airing.

Craig: Right around the corner.

Aline: So we’re midway through shooting the season and so I’m pretty tired. But yeah it’s exciting. I can make an announcement here.

John: We’re so excited.

Craig: Oh! God!

Aline: Your friend and our friend, John Gatins, is going to be appearing on our television program.

John: Is he playing a high school quarterback?

Aline: He is not. He is playing somebody really handsome and memorable. And someone sings a song about him.

Craig: Huh. OK.

John: That sounds great. So John Gatins was also in my movie The Nines. I don’t know if that was his last acting credit, but he’s a very talented screenwriter but also a person who can be put in front of a lens without breaking a camera.

Aline: Yes. He has another thing coming up that he’s acting in, but I’m not at liberty to disclose. But I think this is a burgeoning little area for him. I think we should all as we retire look towards these like cottage industries. This leads naturally to what we’re saying.

Craig: Yeah. There’s no surprise here. I mean, John Gatins is an A-list screenwriter who would at any given point swap out whatever he is working on as a screenwriter to do one day on a show with three lines. That’s a fact. He is a — I guess the most frustrated actor. He was an actor. He should have been an actor. He’s a pretty good actor, you know.

Aline: He still seems like a movie star.

Craig: He does. But the problem is he’s got skills. Like he’s got skills — his skill as a writer is extraordinary. His skill as an actor, forgive me John, is not extraordinary. It is good. But it’s not–

Aline: Well he was smart enough to figure that out.

Craig: Yeah. Yeah. But, man, he’s got the bug. You can tell.

John: All right. So we have Aline here not to talk about John Gatins, but to talk about and really to plug her new project. So this is Jane. This is a graphic novel that is the retelling of the story of Jane Eyre. How did this come to be? So first off, we should say — full disclosure — this book is available today as this podcast comes out.

Aline: September 19.

John: That should be the day this episode drops.

Aline: Great.

Craig: Drops.

John: September 19, they’re buying your book. Everybody who is listening to this podcast should pause and buy the book and then listen to the rest of this podcast so we can talk about this book.

Aline: Yes please.

John: What is it and how did it come to be?

Aline: So about six years ago I signed on to adapt a graphic novel called Rust, which I loved, which was published by a company named Archaia. And in adapting that graphic novel I kind of fell in love with graphic novels in general and started just devouring them. And I got infatuated with this artist named Ramón Pérez who did a book called Tale of Sand. And I had had an idea that I thought could be a movie but wasn’t necessarily a movie. And so I started talking to the folks at Archaia, including Stephen Christy who now runs their — Archaia was later bought by BOOM! And Stephen runs BOOM!’s movie department.

So I started talking to them about doing a book. And I really wanted to do it with Ramón. And I was always obsessed with the Bronte sisters’ novels as a kid, particularly Jane Eyre. And what I loved about Jane Eyre was the kind of sensual relationship that the books kind of in three parts, her growing up, her being with Rochester, and after Rochester. And I was always kind of infatuated with — and would go back and reread the Rochester section.

And I realized that was sort of my love template was the sort of remote kind of emotionally constipated difficult dark man. Love stories that I like. I think people who like Wuthering Heights are more into those stories where the love interest is like your sibling, like twinning. But I was always interested in men who were very other.

So I always wanted to do kind of an updated version of that. So I pitched that to Archaia and we got Ramón on board. And then–

John: Can I stop you for a second?

Aline: Yeah.

John: To talk about what a pitch is like to a comic book or a graphic novel house. So, how are you describing it? Was it sort of like going on a movie pitch? This is what it’s going to be and these are the beats of the story? What were you describing it as?

Aline: I don’t know if I can have the most representative experience, because I was working with Stephen and Archaia every single day. So Steve and I talked about it a ton and I wrote an outline for it and I gave it to him. Maybe I wrote like a five or ten-page outline that I gave to him. But, we were sort of dying to work together, so it was like — I think I had less of a screening process than you might normally have.

I will say that every single piece of it took forever. Sending in the outline. Them deciding to do the book. Finding Ramón. Getting Ramón. Making Ramón’s deal. Then waiting for him to be available, because he’s like one of the premier comic book illustrators and he’s always booked back to back to back.

So we had to wait for him, so in the meanwhile what we did was Ramón did a first series of drawings. And basically the book is like the sensual part of Jane Eyre, the Rochester part, in contemporary New York. And it’s a young girl who goes to be a nanny for a rich powerful man who is sort of Bruce Wayne like and gets pulled into his world. And at first it was going to be a little bit more genre spy and have more action in it. And so as we started working on it we thought, hey, this could be a movie. And so we sold it to Fox 2000 with Kinberg attached to produce it five years ago.

John: This is Simon Kinberg?

Aline: Simon Kinberg, yeah. So Simon Kinberg and Genre, his company, we pitched it around. Fox 2000 was the one who bought it. And I worked on it as a screenplay for maybe two years. And I had many different versions of it. As a movie, it was very hard to crack because as you guys know when you put any action intrigue thriller stuff into your script, it’s one of those things, it’s like dropping a tiny spore in a glass and then you come back a couple days later and it’s just covered in mold. Any little bit of action or intrigue that you build to — that you put in the beginning of a script really has to lead to something kind of monumental.

And that collision of that genre with the romance was always very difficult to calibrate. And at some point it seemed like the studio was looking for really just an updated version of Jane Eyre and I had wanted to add this overlay of kind of intrigue and corporate plotting. So, I developed it with them for a couple years. They had an option on the book. And then they fell out of option. And so Ramón and I started working on the book with three or four different drafts that I had written for Fox 2000, all of which were a little bit different.

John: So, to back up here, you have this idea for a book.

Aline: Yes.

John: And you make the deal for the book. But before you actually write the book you’re selling the rights to Fox 2000 and developing the screenplay and there’s still no book?

Aline: No, my god, we’re so far from a book. So we had sample drawings that I brought around with me and I met with everybody. And it’s actually, as you know, great to walk in holding something. So I had these beautiful drawings from Ramón. And so that was part of the sales pitch of it. And in working on the screenplay was sort of developing the book at the same time. And I was waiting for Ramón to be ready, also.

And so there was no book for a really long time and I think the studio started to believe there never was going to be a book. And I have never waited for a man more than I have waited for Ramón. I mean, I was like metaphorically waiting outside his doorstep for a very long time. And then he — when he finally turned his attention to it we kind of sat down, looked to what I had done with the screenplay, and then kind of formulated a story which was actually quite different from the screenplays. Because I had become convinced overtime that the kind of Hitchcocky plot needed to be very streamlined. And it could for a book.

And that’s what was great was like for a movie, especially in the moment that we’re in right now, you can’t really have — I mean, if you look at a lot of the Hitchcock movies they crescendo to a moment of great tension, but not action and not things blowing up, and not nuclear briefcases. And maybe you guys can think of one, but I can’t really think of a movie that has that sort of like Hitchcockian thriller thing but doesn’t build to a big genre — doesn’t then owe a third act where people are shooting each other in armor tanks.

Craig: Well, Get Out sort of I think is a kind of neo-Hitchcock kind of thing.

Aline: Yeah, horror. But that really is like, yeah for sure. And horror is definitely — like Get Out is horror but not very gory. But it’s a little bit more in the world of jump scares and Jane is a little bit more in the world of like Rebecca.

Craig: Right. Right.

Aline: Where it’s a romantic drama with thriller elements — suspicion, those kinds of things.

John: What you’re describing sounds more like what we do in television now, or what you do on limited run television, like a Netflix show can have that sustained build but doesn’t have the expectation of giant set pieces all the time.

Aline: Right. And so as a movie I started to understand why they were nervous about it and what was good about that was having explored that then when we got a chance to go full boar on the book we just were able to throw that aside and really go for the simplicity of the romance. There is an intrigue plot and there is a big twist in the book that I came up with after I saw the first schematic that Ramón did.

Ramón did a book that had partly finished art and then partly kind of sketches. And it’s really beautiful. I have it in my house. It’s gorgeous.

John: So, Aline, what were you actually writing? What was the document that you created that then Ramón would use as he went off to do art? Like what were you handing him?

Aline: Well, in our case because we had so many scripts we kind of started with that. And then he would do like a sketch book that was sort of taking certain bits and pieces of it and then I would respond to him with notes about the story. And then we had a couple of meetings where we went through and at that point you’re kind of — you’re kind of outside of text in a way because you’re in — you’re just in pictures, so you’re kind of making a silent movie in a way, like Ramón is.

You know, he’s really looking to boil down the pictures and it takes a while before you get back to the dialogue part. Because we were just talking about kind of purely visual storytelling. And this was — a lot of the stuff I did before I was working on the TV show. And a lot of what was driving me was before I did the TV show, I think I’ve talked about this here, I had really reached a point with movies where answering to directors is really challenging, especially when you’ve been doing it for twenty some years, and not having control over your finished product. Whether you love the director or don’t like the director, at the end of the day not having final say gets to be excruciating.

And so the book was someplace where Ramón and I were collaborating but his skills are different from mine. But I had final say over the story, so it was kind of like directing in a sense. But like sitting with your DP and they’re coming up with amazing visuals to translate the story. So there was a whole period time where it was really just pictures that were going back and forth. And I would look at the sequence.

And so because Ramón is so busy and because we had taken so long, Ramón finally gave me a pass that had all the images in it and kind of temped dialogue, you know, which you can imagine what that’s like. It was sort of temp dialogue. Some of which had been in the screenplay, but not a lot of it. Some from the beginning had. But then a bunch of it was just like stuff that had been slugged in there to kind of reflect what was happening.

So then I did two or three giant passes where I went through the book and I did dialogue. And what was funny is no one ever gave me a script. I kept asking them, “do you have all of the dialogue in one editable document?” And I probably could have had somebody do it. Instead, what I did was I kind of drew pictures and wrote notes and scribbled on it and drew bubbles. And so we ended up doing that all the way through two or three times to make sure that all the dialogue matched the action. And then there’s a little bit of, you know, at a certain point when we had this deadline Ramón had drawn some things and I wanted to tweak the story a little bit, but the art was already done. So it reminded me a lot of editing where you just got what you got, and then you’ve got to make it make sense, which is always kind of fun and challenging.

So we did a lot of passes through the dialogue once the images were all in there. And he’s very innovative in terms of the way he chooses to tell story. And it’s way, way sparer than a movie is. And there is some voiceover in there. You know, at the end really scrambling and getting drafts back was really fun, and the letterer is incredibly talented. It’s very beautiful. And the woman who did the color with Ramon is very talented. I can give you their names and their Twitter handles.

And so he’s a true artist in a sense that — as writers and directors like, yeah, you know, he’s an artist, she’s an artist. Meh. But like an artist-artist that you think of as a kid. You know, like somebody who picks up pen and ink and makes art. I think he’s a magician.

John: Let’s talk about your use of time. Because this was five years of your life. And so it wasn’t continuous, but it was a lot of your time. And every time there was a new draft there was more stuff to do. And I don’t know the economics of all it, but I’m 90% sure that this was not profitable to you in any useful way.

Aline: It was not, no.

John: But so why do it? Why — was it worth it?

Aline: I really wanted to have a finished product that I could hold in my hand that was mine. As I was saying, I just had had a lot of experiences with movies where I could kind of see my work in the movie if I squinted my eyes and didn’t look too closely and it had been changed so much by the time the movie got made and that’s a tough thing. So I really wanted to do something that I could have the final say over.

And then the other element of it was I always thought I was going to be a novelist as a kid. At a certain point it became clear to me that I was not really like a prose person, like a person who lives to sort of polish prose. And I remember being at a point thinking, god, what am I going to do if I want to be a writer but I’m not like somebody who wants to describe a forest for half a page.

So when I found graphic novels it was kind of similar to when I discovered movies. I mean, obviously I knew movies existed. But when I started looking at them as something I could do, it’s a format I really love because it’s also visual storytelling. But you don’t have to have a director tell you you can’t do what you want.

John: It sounds like you made it through the whole process without ever sort of hitting a graphic novel or comic book script. Because there is–

Aline: There is a more official format for graphic novels and I’m sure you can find samples of it. And they look like treatments and they’re very dense treatments and they’re like for a whole book they’re probably 60 pages. But because I had written multiple versions of the script we kind of started in conversation about that. And the other thing was it gave Ramón a lot more leeway.

And because I hadn’t written a lot of graphic novels, I wasn’t like panel six is this, panel nine is that, panel 12 is this. And I don’t think he would have enjoyed that. I think one of the reasons that he wanted to work with me was because there was a lot of room for him to invent in the storytelling and sort of come up with visual ways to translate the story beats.

John: Craig, you know, you’re going off now to do your TV show for HBO, and is there any part of your experience that is similar to Aline’s in the sense of like you want to do something that is actually just yours, that’s new territory? It’s not something that you’ve done before?

Craig: Well I suppose I would say that foolishly every time I start anything I think of it as mine. The difference here is that it’ll stay mine. And in movies they take it away. So, I just never learned the lesson. I don’t know how else really to write anything anyway unless I just think, well, this is mine. It’ll be mine as long as it’s mine.

But I think the major difference is going to come down the line. I mean, I have had the experience a number of times in movies where I have not worked like a typical screenwriter. You and I have talked about the Screenwriter Plus. So, I end up in editing rooms. And I end up in lots of meetings and talking about budget and planning and all the rest of it. So, I’ve had the experience there, but ultimately in film, yeah, at some point–

Aline: Yeah, I have, too. And I know John has, too. But when you’re in a room and you know somebody else can — you know, ultimately someone else has final say, you will really enjoy being in a situation where you’re the commander of the writing.

Craig: Yeah. Well, I’m definitely the commander of the writing. There’s no question about that. And I think the good news is that our little family that we’re putting together is pretty great. And we’re all very respectful of each other and I think we all want to hear from each other. And so I’m not really actually dwelling that much, frankly, on the specifics of the authority fact, you know? I’m just kind of going about trying to make the best thing I can with these people.

John: I got to visit Aline on set this season to watch them filming a musical number, which was fantastic. And there’s still glitter that I find in my shoes. And one of the things that really impressed me about it is you had sort of a quiet authority as we were sort of sitting in video village watching things. And you would sort of ask me a question or you would sort of make an observation and the director, you were totally respectful to the director and to the choreographer and to Rachel who is doing stuff, but you were mindful of things that they might not otherwise have seen.

And I think that can be a crucial role for a writer on any set, but particularly when it’s your thing. You have a vision of what the overall thing is you’re trying to achieve. I didn’t hear you saying do this, don’t do this, but you were sort of reminding people of what your priorities were.

Aline: The three of us have often talked about how strange it is that there isn’t an onset writer on every project. Because we know the story. We’ve imagined the world before anyone else. So the only reason to cast that person aside is an ego reason. I can’t see any other reason to do it. And the directors that I worked with that welcomed me into the process where I was that Screenwriter Plus were the most confident ones.

So, you know, and a TV show, it emanates from the writing. And that is a cultural — I actually found as a screenwriter I thought a lot more about, hey, how can I get my point across in a tactful way? And in TV you don’t really need to. You just are the person that they’ll go to to ask which pants should they be wearing and what source music should be playing. And what color should this character’s hair be? And you know all those things.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, the weirdness of the delineation in movies is such that they think that the writer is just responsible for whatever they consider to be writing. But the problem is what they consider to be writing is a very narrow view. It’s certainly an incomplete view. And in television, somehow magically, they all understand that writing encompasses everything. We don’t go into these things not thinking about all of this stuff. It is a bizarre business we work in because I think that for everybody else it comes down to questions of title.

Literally. I don’t know why they are so sheep-like in their need for titles and authority that is rigidly defined by titles. But it is why when you are making a television show if you’re the head person on that television show, you need to be called Executive Producer. That’s it. If you’re not, you’re not. Because they need it. It’s the weirdest thing.

And really it should just be writer like in charge.

Aline: Well, because it’s a military operation, you know. It is. And so in those situations they need to know and it really is for practical purposes. You know, on our show from the beginning Rachel and I and Erin Ehrlich, we had three executive producers, but I’m the showrunner which is an extra designation. And you need to have that also because if there’s multiple executive producers, really for all practical purposes, the people on the crew need to know who they can go to to get the fastest answer that won’t change. Because you waste money and time if you’re going to this person and then they change and then it changes and then it changes.

So, having one person who is answering that shirt should be blue; the watch should be black. He should have blond hair. You want to make that one person for practical purposes as much as anything else. And in television that’s the writer.

Craig: Yep.

Aline: And, you know, I just wanted to say movies are in a desperate place creatively right now. I mean, I’ve left my house to go to the movies I think four times this year. And I think one of them is Get Out. We’ve all seen Get Out. Kind of a cut above. And TV is so good right now because it belongs to writers. It’s run by writers. I firmly believe that. And through whatever accident of circumstance made that happen, I’m really hoping that the movie business learns from like if you let the people who create the stories manage the stories, your stuff will be better.

Craig: Although, I have to say if you look at the historical context of these things, you could also point to the ‘70s and say that in the ‘70s, at the height of auteurism, movies were vastly superior to television. There was still the same delineation. The directors were in charge of movies. Writers were in charge of television. And an enormous amount of television was horrendous. Nothing like what it is now.

It seems to me that one of the keys to all of this is what’s happening on the other side of the creative line between us — all of us, directors and writers — and the companies that are asking us to make things. In television right now, because of the multiplicity of formats and the delivery system, I think that the people on the other side are adventuresome and also craving content. They are content hungry. Which means people are getting a chance to try things. And on the movie side, on the other side of this line, the people making movies are frightened. They are very restricted in how much content they want. And they are very limited in the kind of content that they’re willing to pay for.

So, all of that is a squeeze down. It is tempting to say, well, if we put the writers in charge, as opposed to putting the directors in charge, everything would change in film. I think it’s just as easy for people to point to this weekend with It and say, well, there is a director who is in charge and a different person who wrote the script.

Mostly I wish I could just say to the people running the movie studios, the movie parts, the feature parts, that writers don’t need to be in charge of movies any more than directors need to be in charge of movies. Writers and directors together should be in charge of movies. At any given moment on a set, if they decide that the director needs to have the ultimate authority there in that moment. That’s fine. But it’s the philosophy of auteurism that’s the stupidest thing and I think does rot away at a lot of what would have been otherwise been good films.

John: I can definitely see that. And circling back to what Aline was saying about sort of having to have one person in charge, having a militaristic operation, I think the reason why we get to that point is that the stakes are so high. Time is limited. Money is limited. Someone has to make those decisions and there’s all this pressure on it. And I wonder if part of the reason why you wanted to go off and do this graphic novel is because there was no pressure. There were not stakes. It was just basically — for you it was kind of a lark. And if it turned out great, fantastic. If it didn’t turn out great, there’s no skin off your back.

And to me like the Big Fish musical was to some degree that, at least in the early stages. Once it became — we were headed to Broadway, then the stakes were incredibly high. But for years as we were developing that show, the stakes were just like, well, we wrote a song. Like we made a thing. That song was delightful. And it’s a thing that didn’t exist otherwise.

Some of the stuff I do with apps is a similar kind of thing where the stakes just aren’t as high. I don’t have to get somebody’s permission.

Aline: And also you get to derive that beginning, middle, and end of a process of a product, of having something you can hold in your hand. And, you know, the writer girl that I was at 12 years old would be super thrilled to see this graphic novel about Jane Eyre. And rather quite confused by the giant pile of unproduced scripts in my garage. So, you know, you don’t set out to generate a bunch of printed out pieces of paper. You generate to make things. And I think now more than ever people want to make things. And screenwriters who are in a more frustrating circumstance, kind of everyone I know is making some thing.

John: Yeah. We always talk to these aspiring writers who say like, oh, it’s so frustrating as I do these things, and we always try to remind them unlike an actor or unlike a director a writer can just go off and write something, which is fantastic. But I think sometimes we forget that lesson ourselves is that we end up sort of seeking permission to write the things or we might go off and spec our own thing down the road, but usually we’re busy enough writing the stuff for the studios and we’re sort of in that grind.

Aline: But Craig, same thing for you. Or Chernobyl was like, yeah, I’ll do this. And it was sort of a sideline during many years of doing busy screenwriting stuff.

Craig: No, no, not really.

Aline: No?

Craig: No.

Aline: I mean, not on a sideline, but it’s certainly not making you as much money as the other stuff.

Craig: Oh, no, financially it’s nothing at all like that. No. There’s no question about that. But the amount of time that I have devoted to it and the amount of time I’m going to devote to it will probably make it the thing that I have worked the longest and hardest on, actually. I mean, because it’s five scripts. They’re each 60 — well, the last one is a little bit longer. So, think of it as like basically three movies. So it’s three movies worth of scripts and then there’s, you know, all of the prep and then the production and the post. It’s going to be a lot. And then just an enormous amount of research, also.

The nice thing about writing some kinds of movies, and I did about two weeks of research for Identity Thief. You know, I’ve done years of research for this. So, no, this is a pretty serious endeavor for me.

Aline: Can I say you have one of the most eclectic, delightfully eclectic filmographies of anyone I know.

Craig: It’s about to get more. I’m about to achieve levels of, yeah, strange eclecticism. No one would…

Aline: IMDb head scratcher.

Craig: Yeah, I think that’s great.

Aline: Oh, I think it’s great, too. I mean, listen, a lot of the writers and directors that we love from like the ‘30s and ‘40s in particular, it’s like they did everything. They made every kind of movie. George Cukor. They made every kind of movie. William Wyler.

John: As I always say in interviews, my favorite genre of movies are movies that get made. So I will happily write anything that can possibly exist.

Craig: Pretty much. But I think that there is a nice thing that does happen after a while. If you do spend a lot of time doing what you are asked to do, and what you’re being paid well to do, then eventually you do arrive at a moment where you have the luxury of saying I’m going to spend a lot of time now on something that I’m not going to make a lot of money on, but I just care about. I couldn’t have done that before. I just, you know, this is where when people do talk a little bit about the economic realities of starting out in Hollywood now, I am incredibly sympathetic to people who are like, look, this whole business now seems to be designed to be a place where independently wealthy children can begin to work. Because–

Aline: Boy, I really agree with that.

Craig: You know, I couldn’t have done — I had nothing. I don’t think any of us came here with a big bunch of money. And so, you know, I’m certainly grateful to all — I think all of the things that you do prior to something were necessary for one reason or another to get you to what you’re doing at this moment, just as whatever you do now will be necessary for what comes next.

John: Yep. So one of the things I did this last year was just a lark. And so a friend of mine, Sam Davis, was the dance arrangement composer for Big Fish. And so he’s one of these people who can hear a melody and then make it a thousand different versions which is what you have to do for a Broadway musical because you have to be able to fit things to the choreography. It’s a really unique skill and he’s just remarkably good at it.

But he’s also a composer himself. And so I was having lunch with him and I said like, you know, Sam, we should just try to write a song together sometime. That would be really fun to do. And it wasn’t to like be part of anything else, it was just to have something to do.

So he sent me a folder on Dropbox with a bunch of little things he’d written, and just little snippets of melodies. And so if there’s anything here you want to do, take a shot at it. And so this last year I did that.

And so I want to talk through sort of this project I did, and you guys both heard the final version of this, but I don’t think you’ve heard any of how this all came to be. So, I’m going to play a couple little clips to hear what the original stuff sounded like.

So, this is what Sam originally sent me.

[Clip plays]

So that was the original melody he sent me. It’s a waltz. It’s lovely. It feels very emotional, but as I listened to that I felt like, oh, there’s words that can go with those plunking. Does that — Aline, you’re writing songs all the time now. Could you hear where words could go?

Aline: No. My version of songwriting is I get in the room with songwriters and I throw out a bunch of lines and I hope some of them get in so I can get five or ten percent of the songwriting. But I am no more capable of hearing a melody and writing words to it than a child.

John: Craig, you’ve done quite a bit of this recently, too. So, do you hear–?

Craig: Yeah, with Jeanine Tesori, the great, great, great Jeanine Tesori. Yeah, no, for sure. Well, it sounds like he’s not just playing an accompaniment there. He is giving you the melody. He’s giving you the vocals, which is actually a remarkable thing that these people — these musicians — can do.

So, you know, when you sing a song you would never play the melody along with the vocalist, right? You’re accompanying them. But they can just sort of adjust to play it. So, [hums], you can just hear it coming out. And you can hear the way the sentences would be structured. And then the little sort of wistful part as it kind of comes down and hits that funky little minor thing. Yeah. No for sure. It’s begging for it.

John: It’s begging for it. So, what I heard in that main melody was “I want … I want…” And so it felt like an I Want song to me. And so that was my sort of initial instinct is that this feels like it wants to be an I Want song. It probably needs to speed up a little bit, because it’s a little slow for an I Want song. But imagine the faster version of this. Like, OK, “I want … I want bop-bop-bop-bop.” And so like, well, I started with I Want and who is the character who wants something? What do I want to do?

So, a thing which occurred to me as we were auditioning people for Big Fish is that there aren’t a lot of great I Want songs for boys. In the Disney canon you have all the princess I Want songs, so you have “Part of Your World” and that aspirational kind of I Want song is really common for women, but not for boys. So, like, well I want the song with which a guy will audition for a prince role, for prince charming, in a Broadway show.

And so that was my inspiration. And so I said like, OK, well, what is that character — what does the prince — the aspirational prince kind of character like? And so I wrote out all the lyrics and sort of tried to match them to the melody, including a lot of stuff that wasn’t part of that main melody line. So I just had sort of blank stanzas to sort of get us up before we got to that melody.

And so I’ll talk through the next part of that. So I sent this long document through to Sam and he’s like I don’t know what to do with this. I can see where the chorus is, but I don’t know what to do with this. So the next thing I sent through is what I call the Snap Track. And so I just snapped along to the words to sort of give him a sense of like what the meter of it would be. So, we’ll take a listen to that.

[Clip plays — But at night I have dreams that seem more like a calling. Where this lonely apprentice can end this appalling excuse for a nothing life, common life, lesser life, not a life. I want to live. But dreams are for night, and nights are not long when you wake to bake before dawn].

So with that I wanted to give a sense that like, OK, there’s some triplets in there–

Aline: Wake to bake? Oh why, because it’s a baker? Got it. Got it. Because I only think of pot when you say that. Keep going. Ignore me.

John: So I wanted to be able to communicate to him like, OK, there’s triplets here, but we’re still sticking in three. But I didn’t want to sort of poison him with the music I heard in my head, because I definitely had my own melody, but I didn’t want that melody to bleed over to him. So that’s why I kept it snapping.

Craig, you probably — when you’re working with Jeanine, do you have that same situation?

Craig: We did a slightly different kind of thing. The basic way we would start is we would have a long discussion about what we wanted a song to be about. And we were working off of a script I had already written. So we had characters. We had situations. We had the general sense of it, but then we were like, OK, but let’s get to the meat of what this is really about and how this is going to work, particularly because two of the three songs we did are duets.

After we figure out what the song is really about, then I thought what would happen is Jeanine, being the Tony award-winning composer that she is, would write some brilliant music and then I would attempt to just clumsily put words in. But she was like, no, you send me words first. So I would write these poems.

Now, I have no melody or music, but I would kind of form a little bit of a melody in my head, but I would never sing it or anything like that for the same reason that you wouldn’t do it either. You don’t want to unduly get into the head of your composer.

So, I would write these poems basically, lyrical poems out of what the song would be, and then she would read those and then she would then send over kind of like a here’s a thing. And then she would fill in nonsense lyrics sometimes. You know, and da-da-das and just whatever. Just fake words and things like that.

And then by going back and forth, we would find the shape of the song, the A, and the B, and the C. And then I would start really dialing in on the lyrics. But sometimes I would write lyrics and I would send them to her and she’s like I don’t know if this fits. And I would say it does. Let me send it with stress. And so I wouldn’t do the snap thing. What I would do is I would just underline where the stresses were of the words on the beats and stuff. And then she would go, OK, I got it, I got it, I got.

Because sometimes it would get kind of complicated. You know, what we were doing. And she’s very — and thank god for this — she is a stickler about consistency and true rhyming. She’s like no half-rhymes, no slant rhymes. Full rhymes. And if you pull some sort of wordplay in the first verse, I want a similar version of that wordplay with new words in the second verse. She’s rough. But it forced me, it really forced me to concentrate and work as hard as I could to try and machine these things so that they’re nice and tight.

I loved it. I just loved the process of it.

John: I loved this process, too. What was so different about this than any of the stuff I did with Danny Elfman, because I have like seven songs with Danny Elfman, is in all those cases I wrote lyrics and they were in the script and then they went off and Danny just made the song. And so in some cases he would tweak the lyrics. In some cases he sort of left the lyrics as they were. But there was very little collaboration between us.

Like, you know, we might have a dinner where we talk over what the songs were basically about, but there was no sort of direct working together.

Aline: I think our show is different, because there are jokes, there are sketches. So a lot of the songs I have credit on were things where I came up with the joke and the title and a couple lines. So like the concept of it and sort of — but one time there’s a song in last season where I said to Rachel and Jack, oh, they could sing a song called something like “we should definitely not have sex right now.” I went to the bathroom, I went to get something to eat, I came back and they had written almost all of the song. That’s usually more of what happens.

And then when I hear it I’ll contribute some jokes. But I would never — I mean, with comedy songs it’s really — they’re very, very conceptual. They’re like sketches. And they have to have very clean games.

So, I don’t actually — I rarely set lyrics down to paper and send it to them.

John: But a crucial part of your process though is the demo. So once you have the idea of the song, you have to record a demo so that everyone can sort of sign off on it and so people can plan how they’re going to build the episode.

Aline: Yeah.

John: So what is the demo process like for–?

Aline: Adam, Jack, and Rachel, who are the songwriters, often sing their own demos into an iPhone. And then they send them to Adam, and Adam turns them into real demos with demo singers or often Adam. And what I love is Adam was in Fountains of Wayne, so we have numerous, numerous, numerous Adam demos for like Adam singing “Where’s the Bathroom?” which is a Tovah Feldshuh song, and Adam singing Rachel’s songs. And Adam singing everybody’s songs if he can’t get a demo singer in and we’re going really quickly.

And then we listen to the demos and I give notes on the demos. And a lot of times, you guys are more kind of it sounds like immersed in the technical. I refer to it as “I’m the monkey” and it has to make sense to the monkey. Because they’re much more steeped in music, so sometimes the jokes are abstruse or the lyrics are confusing. Or it needs to make sense to me. And then a lot of times my notes are like this needs to be a little bit more visceral, or this needs to be more joyful. Or its adjectival input.

John: Well that goes back to sort of what your discussion was with the artist for Jane, because you’re not drawing yourself. So you have to find a way — metaphors or similes to describe what it is you’re going for, because you don’t want to tell them how to do his job. It’s the same working with a composer. You find you end up describing a tone, a feeling. It’s in this world rather than that world.

Aline: Well, that’s actually a great thing for all writers to learn. It’s going to be applicable to what Craig is about to do. You know, I have multiple department heads. You have to describe what you want to someone and you don’t do what they do. So, you are going to say to the costume person, you know, we need something that looks like this, that evokes this. And they’re going to come back to you with choices. And part of being a good collaborator is letting people do what they’re great at and understanding what they’re great at. And sometimes when we have directors show up on our show, it makes me giggly that they get super camera talkie and they want to talk a lot about–

John: The crane?

Aline: Yes. And technical stuff. And that’s important and that’s wonderful. And I’m going to say that men do that a little bit more, because they want to show you that they know their lenses. It’s as important to be able to express what you’re trying to get emotionally and what’s the story you’re trying to tell. And that’s the same with songs and that’s the same with the book. That’s the same with, you know, if you’re trying to get a story across, it matters what color the mug is. But you don’t need to choose the mug. You need to be able to extract the salient detail and say to the person who is the artisan to say it’s important to me that it’s this.

And I think it’s good to collaborate on things that get made so that you have practice. So even if that’s just taking your iPhone and going to the yard with your friend and figuring out this needs to be blue. It doesn’t matter what color this is, but this needs to be that. And that’s really the key to — because a lot of what drowns artistic endeavors is unnecessary amounts of — confusing amounts of detail. So, you know, learning how to be really specific about what you want out of any process, a song, a book, a movie, a play, a bedtime story, is important. And learning how to communicate that is really important for writers.

John: Yeah. So for the case of this song, the case for “Rise,” what was great is we were able to finally record a real good true demo. So we got in–

Aline: When did you get the rise-rise pun baking idea?

John: Oh, the rise-rise pun came pretty early on. Actually–

Aline: How did it come to mind?

John: So I envisioned that this guy was a baker. So this kid was–

Aline: Why?

John: I’m not quite sure why baker was the initial sort of instinct behind it. So, I did envision like this is a guy who was toiling, but had sort of this fantastical notion of what it would be like to be a prince. And, again, you don’t see people aspiring to be princes. And this is about what it would be like to aspire to be a prince.

So, I saw him as like — I think originally he worked as a blacksmith, but then a baker felt better. And once I was in baker, then it’s like “Rise” became natural. And “Rise” felt like a very sing-able word for where he was going to.

Aline: Are you writing a play to go with this?

John: So I could write a play to go with this. And that’s what’s actually so interesting, so once we got the whole song together and once we recorded a demo, so we recorded a demo with a great Broadway guy named Curt Hansen who is in Wicked and could really do it. Like it was so surprising to hear the song. We only heard ourselves singing it poorly and like the aspirational notes we couldn’t quite get to, and this guy could actually belt it and sort of do the real good version of it.

Once we actually had it, then we had our sheet music, this is from the baker prince. So, eventually somewhere down the road it could become a thing, but I also just want it to be its own thing. I want it to have sort of value in and of itself. It’s a kind of song that people can download and sing or use for auditions. It felt good on those terms, too.

Aline: Can I ask you a question which I may already know the answer to and you can cut this out, but it is a same-sex love story thing possibly?

John: Not intended to be.

Aline: Because there’s not enough of those. There’s not enough of those that are in the genre of like longing wish-fulfillment romance. There seems to be more that are tragic, you know, tragic stories. And I think it would be awesome to have more fairytales about that.

One of my best friend’s husband is the same-sex Pasodoble Gay Games national champion.

John: Fantastic, yes.

Aline: And I’m waiting eagerly for the day that they have same-sex ballroom dancing on Dancing with the Stars. But having same-sex narratives in more kind of traditional “straight” genres I think is a great thing. And if that’s what that was, I’ve already bought my ticket.

John: Yeah. I think you and Craig both asked that question when I sent you the song months ago is like, oh, is this where it’s going to go to? And Rachel I think sort of fell in the same place, too.

Aline: Were we all stereotyping?

Craig: I think inside John’s — he goes, oh, yeah, you all thought that’s where this was going.

Aline: But I think, by the way, I think that could be a very important and compelling thing.

Craig: You know what? Here’s the thing. I don’t like those stories that much. I’m just going to say, because I haven’t had any–

Aline: Fairytale love stories?

Craig: I just find them so boring and cliché at this point. Now, granted, I’m older now. So children really do like them. But I like the tragic crazy stories. You know what’s a great song, to give Jeanine Tesori some credit, but she gets plenty of anyway, she’s a genius, is “I’m Changing my Major to Joan” from Fun Home.

Aline: Of course.

Craig: Which is a great same-sex love song that isn’t tragic. It’s joyous. But it’s not–

Aline: Well, “Keys,” forget it. “Keys.”

Craig: Well, “Keys,” that’s not a love song as much as like an aspirational kid seeing acceptance. But also an amazing song. But I don’t, like I don’t necessarily–

Aline: But I’m saying Frozen, Tangled, you know, I’m saying a fairytale. It’s just a genre that — one of the reasons you may perceive it as being a little tired is because it’s inhabited by the same types of characters all the time.

John: I think my other frustration, so people should go back and listen to our great episode with Jennifer Lee talking about Frozen because there was always such an instinct originally in Frozen that we have to have sort of classic love interests and Elsa has to be a villain and all these things. And once they actually figured out like, oh, it’s about sisters. Oh, they could actually build the whole thing out.

To me, it’s that we never see princess romances from the boy’s point of view. It’s always from the girl’s point of view.

Aline: Totally.

John: And so even if it remains sort of–

Aline: Hetero.

John: Mixed sex, hetero, then to see it from his point of view and sort of what it’s like — we don’t give young men good instruction on how to be noble heroes towards women.

Aline: Well, like the boy Cinderella stories tend to have a lot more genre, Harry Potter, Star Wars stuff going on, as opposed to romantic stakes.

Craig: But there are some. I mean, “Agony” is a great, great song written from the point of view.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: But it’s also a satire. It’s kind of making fun of those songs.

John: It’s spoofing the idea of those things. Yeah.

Craig: Right. It’s true. I think in the old days, in the old classic musicals you would have songs where men would sing these sort of moony love songs.

John: Oh, absolutely.

Aline: Well, Aladdin is–

John: “A Whole New World,” yes.

Aline: Right. But they tend to be a little bit more jaunty and adventure-based rather than romantic and yearning, although that has lots of stuff in it.

John: And it also becomes a duet though. And if it was just Aladdin’s solo, “let me share this whole new world with you,” it would be — it wouldn’t quite land the same way.

Craig: You know what else just came to mind is Andrew Lippa’s “The Moon and Me,” right? Which is a beautiful song and is the most non-traditional romance between a man and an orbiting celestial body. But it is a love song. And it is solo. It’s not a duet. And it’s gorgeous.

So, they’re there. I don’t like them that way. I like them non-traditional.

John: All right.

Craig: That’s my jam.

John: This might ultimately become that thing, but until then it is a song, so if people want to check it out you can look at the lyrics and there will be links to video things so you can see for it at I’ll also put the full track at the end of this episode instead of an outro, so if you want to hear the whole thing you’ll know what we’re talking about.

Craig: It’s a good song.

John: Thank you.

Craig: You’re welcome.

John: So, let’s try to answer one or two listener questions while we have Aline here. Let’s start with a question from Niraj in Allahabad, India. He writes, “I’m an author based out of Allahabad and have been in discussions with a Hollywood production company for optioning the movie and TV writes for my historical fiction novel, Daggers of Treason.”

Craig: Daggers of Treason!

John: “While they’re offering 2% of the starting budget for theatrical releases, their stated rates for episodic serials is abysmally low. 1/5th of the WGA rates. Can you please guide me to how much a non-US or WGA author should expect for a 60-minute serial? And who would help me in procuring a fair deal? I understand I cannot become a WGA member being based in India but would appreciate your help. Regards, Niraj.”

So, where do we start here? I think one of the places we can start is we can be so frustrated with the WGA, but when you’re outside of the US and you look in, it’s like, oh, having the WGA to set minimums is a really nice thing.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, you don’t necessarily not have to have a WGA deal here, Niraj. So, the deal is if you’re writing in India but you’re working with a Hollywood company. Question number one is are they signatory to the Writers Guild or do they have a subsidiary that’s signatory to the Writers Guild? Still doesn’t mean that they have to employ you under a Writers Guild contract. However, what you can ask is that they employ you under the equivalent of a Writers Guild contract.

Now, all these things come down to leverage. How much do they want what you have and how much are they willing to spend on it? Sometimes I think companies will look to places that have burgeoning talent but aren’t covered by the WGA so that they can get better deals. And if these folks there are asking for more money, then suddenly it’s not as attractive a proposition. So you have to kind of gauge the interest level here.

Who can help you in procuring a fair deal? A lawyer. I don’t know where you live, oh, you said Allahabad. I don’t know Allahabad. I don’t know how large of a town that is. But I think if you reached out to a law firm in one of the many enormously large cities in India you will find an entertainment lawyer. India has a massive entertainment industry as we all know.

And the fact that you already have interest from a Hollywood production company I think would certainly mean that somebody would be willing to take your call and talk to you and perhaps represent you. Once that happens, that’s the person you’re going to be asking these questions of. That would be my first move.

Aline: Me too.

John: That’s a great idea. And the other place I might point you to is it could make sense for you to get an LA-based law firm to supervise the contract. You just need to figure out who has been doing this for other projects sort of like yours. And you end up paying them to do that work as well. But I wish you good luck with this.

The next question comes from Mack who writes, “I usually read my scripts on the screen in the screenwriting software, but I’ve heard the printing one’s script and reading it on the physical page offers a new perspective that may help with the rewriting process. So now my script is printed and ready for me to read, but before I undertake reading it for the 15th time I was hoping you could offer some insight on best practices for reading for rewrites.”

Aline, I saw you nodding, so you agree that people should print out scripts?

Aline: Yeah. I don’t do it as much as I used to. I think I’ve developed my skill at looking at a screen as critically as I do at a page, and in TV we’re just moving so quickly that having that extra paper step sometimes is a pain.

But, you know, get your pen out. It depends on what you’re reading it for. But sometimes if you just like change the size of the font on your screen or make it look a little bit different. If I’m proofreading, I read it backwards. Just anything that makes it look new to you. Reading it in a new environment sometimes will do it. There’s nothing for catching typos like sending it to someone. The second you send it for some reason you open it back up and you’ll find six typos.

But anything that makes it look fresh to your eyes is great. And then I would say reading it aloud with or to someone is a great way to go. And Simon Kinberg and I wrote a script together and when we were revising it would read it aloud. And it was really fun. That seems like one of the fun reasons to have a partner, to read it and scribble on it.

John: Craig, are you a printer? Do you print your scripts?

Craig: Yeah. I do. Usually by that point I have gone through them quite a bit, but my basic process once I get to that stage, I really am mostly looking for typos or things that jump out as reading a little weirdly. So I’m reading it aloud a lot as I’m going through and I don’t do the double-sided print thing because I want the blank back of a page on the left side to be there for notes or things that I need to remark on.

And when I do that I just dog ear it so I have a reference. Then I go back through and I make those changes. But, you know, I don’t think I would get too freaked out about this. Everybody has their own speed and their own way of doing things. I’m pretty sure that there are some wonderful writers that don’t print it out. Whatever works for you, Mack. Honestly. Whatever works for you.

Aline: One thing I really thought a lot about with writing in a TV environment as opposed to a film environment is sometimes I found, as a screenwriter, I would overly machine things because I had so much time with it. And so I would tinker with things to make them scan perfectly when actually they play better just the way they splurted out of you.

And in TV, especially when you’re writing comedy, if a room pitches a joke and it works, you don’t change a syllable. So it may not scan perfectly, it may not make sense perfectly, but that’s the comedy milieu in there. And so I find that screenwriters way more than TV writers, just because of time, just tend to overly machine their dialogue and sand off all the rough edges. And I like the idea of sometimes it’s the imperfect perfect thing. So, there’s a lot of like dithering and busy work that is really tempting to do when you’re getting ready to send a script out. And I think sometimes you can ruin things that are lovely because you’re trying to make them perfect.

John: Yeah. I would stress that if you’re going through to read, make sure you’re really reading. And that’s why I think printing is so helpful because you can’t actually fix things while you’re reading it. So, I like to print the script and I go to someplace new. I go outside. I sit at the table. And I’m flipping through the pages because I will see things I don’t see other places and things will occur to me that haven’t occurred while I’m cutting whole little short scenes because I just don’t need them anymore.

And if I were trying to do that on the screen, I feel like I might go through and like make a few little corrections right at that moment, then I wouldn’t be reading anymore. I’d really be writing. And that’s not what your goal is.

Aline: It’s a different mode.

John: Yeah, different mode. All right. Let’s change modes ourselves. It’s time for One Cool Thing. Craig, start us off.

Craig: Oh, I got a good one today if you like puzzles. Do you love puzzles, folks?

John: We all love puzzles.

Aline: Yeah, we’re all puzzlers.

John: After this podcast we’re going off to play games at Aline’s house.

Craig: Well, I’ll tell you, these are brutal but amazing. So there’s a gentleman named Mark Halpin and every Labor Day he puts out a puzzle pack. The puzzle pack consists of many, many individual puzzles. You solve all those individual puzzles, and then there is a meta puzzle that encompasses all of the answers you’ve pulled from the many, many puzzles. And so this Labor Day weekend, David Kwong and I eagerly downloaded this year’s puzzle package from Mark Halpin called When First We Practice to Deceive.

We have completed all of the individual puzzles except for the last one. We’re halfway through that one. They are really, really hard. And they are really, really good. They are super well done. Very complicated. Really, really just tricky. One of them has — one of them looks like it’s a word search. No it isn’t. I mean, it kind of is, but mostly it isn’t. And there’s about five different levels just to that puzzle alone to get to the answer of that puzzle.

So, Mark Halpin offers these for free, but there is a tip jar link on his page. If you do download these, I strongly urge you to chuck him some remuneration. He worked clearly extraordinarily hard on these. And we will put a link in the show notes for you. So, again, that’s Mark Halpin. And his puzzle pack this year is called When First We Practice to Deceive.

John: Very nice.

Aline: Very cool. My One Cool Thing — my favorite TV show right now is Insecure on HBO. And I’m obsessed with Issa and I’m obsessed with the show. And I watch it as it airs, or soon after. It’s the best romantic comedy I’ve seen in a long time, but it’s so much more than that. And I just love it. And it’s so great to have a TV show that I’m excited to watch. And so I think — and I have an ax to grind — but I think sometimes things that are created and written by women and deal with love and relationships don’t quite get the due that like a somber crime drama will get.

And I think Insecure is just an excellent show. And belongs up there in any critical appreciation of the best shows out there right now. So, I highly recommend that, and go to HBO to find it.

John: Cool. My One Cool Thing is a book by Jessica Abel called Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio. And so it’s done in a graphic novel format, or an illustrated book thing. It’s not fiction. It’s all real interviews that she did with the people behind This American Life, The Moth, Radio Lab, Planet Money, Snap Judgments, Serial, Invisibilia.

Aline: Whoa.

John: And so what’s clever is she recorded all these interviews, but then she built it out sort of in a graphic novel format. So she’s having these conversations with people, she’s inserting herself into it. And it’s a brilliant look at sort of how this kind of radio is made. And sort of both how reporters go out to find and really cast the people that they’re going to be interviewing, but then how the stories are found in the edit. And what the edit process is like, which is much more like really like your writer’s room than you would think.

So, they’re reading their scripts, they’re playing their tape, and they’re just digging in on story for hours and hours at a time.

Aline: Wow, that’s so cool.

John: It’s really great. So, I would recommend it to anybody who is interested in radio, but I also I thought there were interesting lessons about how storytelling works for the radio that I think most screenwriters would find fascinating.

Like one of the things about how they pitch these stories is it’s about blank, but what’s interesting is blank.

Aline: Right.

John: And so–

Aline: That’s almost a podcast cliché. It’s about bananas. Everything you didn’t know about bananas. Yeah.

John: So, you know, you have your topic, but then your actual hook is something that is not the topic.

Aline: Your take on it.

John: Yeah. And that’s–

Aline: Hey, before we go, I’m going to sign my book at Barnes & Noble at The Grove.

John: Fantastic, what day?

Aline: And also at Chevalier Bookstore on Larchmont. And the book signing at The Grove is on Sunday, September 24 at 5pm at Barnes & Noble at The Grove.

John: Fantastic. I will be in London so I won’t be attending that one, but I’m so excited to see you and–

Aline: Well then perhaps you can go to the book signing at Chevalier’s on October 1 at 5:30.

John: That sounds great. Hooray! So we’ll have links to–

Aline: Plug. Plug. Plug. Plug.

John: We will have links to Aline’s book and the events which you can go visit Aline and have her sign your book. Also in the show notes you’ll find a link to the song I wrote and we’ll put that on the outro for this week’s episode. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli.

If you have an outro, a traditional outro, you can send us a link to That’s also the place where you send questions like the ones we answered today.

For short questions, we’re on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Aline is–?

Aline: @alinebmckenna.

John: Fantastic. She’s on Twitter finally.

We are on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts at Scriptnotes. Just look for Scriptnotes and while you’re there leave us a comment or a review. That helps a lot.

You can find all the show notes at If you have a Three Page Challenge for Austin, remember that’s

Transcripts go up about a week after the episode airs. And you can find all the back episodes at

Aline, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Craig: Thanks Aline.

Aline: Cheers, you all. Cheers.

John: Cool. See you soon. Bye.


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Movies Dodged a Bullet

Tue, 09/26/2017 - 08:03

John and Craig speculate about why the film industry fared better in the transition to digital while the music industry struggled.

We also follow up on the WGA elections, hearing John’s priorities as a new board member. Lured back into the intrigue of MoviePass, we discuss new information on this business model.

Then it’s another installment of the Three Page Challenge, in which we discuss listener-submitted pages of their screenplays.

Finally, we answer the most provocative of listener-questions: how do you name your files?


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I’m joining the WGA board

Wed, 09/20/2017 - 16:40

On Monday, I was elected to the board of directors for the Writers Guild of America, West. I’ll be serving a two-year term.

Huge thanks to everyone who voted, and the folks who encouraged me to run.

At one of the campaign mixers, I had the chance to speak with some writers who had only been in the guild for a few weeks. It got me thinking back to the first time I voted, about 20 years ago. I remember going through the campaign booklet, reading every statement, and marking each one on a scale of one to ten. Then I’d go back through and pick the six or eight candidates I was going to vote for.

I took it really seriously, and I still do.

What’s funny to realize is that most of those candidate statements from 20 years ago could have been written today. They were talking about many of the same issues: late payments, improving diversity, free rewrites, protecting our health plan. And it’s easy to see why: these are some of the fundamental objectives of the guild. The WGA exists to make sure our members get paid and protected.

We’re always going to be fighting these fights, whether it’s through negotiation or enforcement. It’s always been the same.

That’s not to say nothing has changed in 20 years. Things are changing quickly. And that’s why I decided to run this year.

Through this site and Scriptnotes, I get the chance to talk to a lot of writers, both in features and TV. Established writers, aspiring writers, everyone in between.

And the consistent thing I’m hearing is, huh. Nothing is working the way it used to, or “supposed to.” There’s a ton of TV being made, but the seasons are short. Features are being figured out in writers rooms, and no one’s quite sure when the “writing” begins, or how we should figure out credit.

We’re in the middle of a disruption. The industry is shifting to some new form, and none of us know what it’s going to become. No one in the guild, no one on the studio lots in Burbank. We’re all flying blind.

Maybe it will be great for writers — like the start of home video, or cable, with new opportunities and new revenue streams. We’ll all be getting fat paychecks to write VR experiences unlike anything we’ve seen before.

But maybe we won’t.

What keeps me up at night is that second possibility, that we’re facing a future where it becomes almost impossible to make a living as a professional writer in Hollywood. I worry that those new WGA members I talked to at the mixer won’t be working 20 years from now because the industry will become unrecognizable.

For me, these next two years are not about a negotiation, but an investigation of where we’re at and what our priorities should be. We elect the board to be trustees of the guild. And part of that is making sure there is still such a thing as a professional writer.

But while we keep an eye out for future dangers, we have to make sure we’re doing everything we can for writers today.

From late pay to unpaid rewrites to exclusivity clauses, there are many areas where members are looking to the WGA to take action.

Some issues can only be addressed through negotiation. But I believe better enforcement is key to improving the day-to-day life of writers — and screenwriters in particular. I talk with feature writers trapped in an endless fog of development, hostage to a paycheck that never comes.

We need to make sure the WGA represents writers not just collectively at the negotiating table, but also individually when employers abuse their power.

I want to believe I’m approaching the work ahead with an appropriate blend of idealism and realism. As I said in my campaign statement, many of the issues we face are structural, historical and/or intractable. But the progress we’ve made in recent negotiations points to our ability to address new problems with new solutions. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing along with the new board and officers.

Writing Other Things

Tue, 09/19/2017 - 08:03

John and Craig welcome back Aline Brosh McKenna to talk about writing projects outside the familiar constraints of screenwriting.

We discuss the surprises and adjustments involved in the creative processes of different media: Aline’s graphic novel Jane, Craig’s HBO miniseries Chernobyl, and John’s original song, “Rise.” We also dig into why screenwriters sometimes need to be amateurs again.

Then we answer listener questions about making fair deals as someone in a different country, and how best to read one’s script before rewriting.


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Scriptnotes, Ep 317: First Day on the Job — Transcript

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 14:49

The original post for this episode can be found here.

John August: Hey, this is John. A small language warning. There are some big words, some bad words, in this episode. So this might be a good time to put in headphones if you’re in a place where it is not appropriate to hear the F-bombs.

Hello and welcome. My name is John August.

Craig Mazin: Craig Mazin named Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 317 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Today on the podcast, we are debuting a brand new segment where we look at how different movies handle the same kind of scene. We’ll also be tackling listener questions about “therapy pieces” and writing for the international market.

But first we have some follow up. Craig, start us off.

Craig: All right. So we have some follow up from Anonymous Animation Writer. It would be great if that was this person’s full name.

John: Fantastic.

Craig: And they didn’t actually work in animation, but I think they do. I don’t think it’s their name. Anonymous Animation Writer writes, “I just finished listening to episode 310 where you dove,” I think we dived, “into the recently passed WGA deal. I am a WGA member, but primarily I am a fairly successful animation writer.” Hats off to you.

“The reality is most animation isn’t WGA. We get no residuals. The pay rate is extremely low. And yet our material is played and replayed constantly. Kids, you know? And, our material is the primary driver for toy sales. Animation employs a huge swath of writers in Los Angeles, yet I feel as though we are the most neglected segment of the writing community. Can you address or have somebody from the guild address why all animation is not covered by the WGA?”

Yes. We. Can.

John: Yeah. It’s actually one of those rare cases where we can answer the question fairly definitively. So, animation is writing. It is completely the same kind of writing as writing for features or for television. Animation should be covered by the WGA, but it is not covered by the WGA because it never has been covered by the WGA.

Once upon a time when animated films were going to be made and when animated television programs were getting made, that writing was not covered by WGA. And it got covered by other unions, specifically a branch of IATSE covers it. So you, Anonymous Animation Writer, probably are working for a union. You’re represented by a union. It’s just not the WGA. And it sucks for you. And it’s going to be very difficult to get you covered by the WGA.

Craig: It will not be difficult. It will be impossible. So, here’s the deal with the law, Anonymous Animation Writer, and this bums us out as much as it bums you out. Well, I grant you you’re bummed out even more. You basically have two options for employment. You can either work non-union or you can work union. That’s just in general in life, right? It’s sort of binary. You’re working non-union, or you’re working union.

In closed shop states like California, if a union covers a work area, and there are companies that are signatory to that union, then you are covered by that union. Period. The end. There’s no other way for John or I to write a live action movie for, let’s say Warner Bros, unless it’s done under a WGA deal.

The union that has jurisdiction over animation is as John stated IATSE. And specifically it’s IATSE Local 839, the Animation Guild. Locals are subsidiaries of a larger parent union. But essentially it’s part of IATSE. Like most of the crew and stagecraft unions are.

The deal that 839 has with the companies is such that there are no residuals and, as you note, the pay rate is much lower than the WGA pay rate. The WGA can do nothing about this. Jurisdiction between unions is a matter of federal law. It’s like the jurisdiction police departments. You can’t have Philadelphia cops rolling on into New York and arresting people. It’s just the way the law works. You can’t overlap.

So, the choices in animation are if you’re working for a signatory company it has to be through Animation 839. Or, you may be working for a non-signatory company in which case it’s not union at all. Pixar, for instance, not union. I’m sure one of the other big ones is not union. And so really the choice that you face as you’re taking employment as an animation writer in Hollywood is whether you’re going to have a bad deal or a worse deal. And there is absolutely nothing the Writers Guild can do about it. Zero. Period. The end. And it is so frustrating for us, but it is just fact.

John: Yep. So, Craig, talk us through quickly there are certain primetime animated shows that are WGA. Why are they WGA?

Craig: Right. So, what we’ve been talking about is feature animation. Now, primetime animation was never clearly covered by any jurisdiction. So what happens is once a union makes a collective bargaining agreement with a bunch of employers to cover a work area, that’s theirs.

From what I understand, primetime animation was never seized, because there was never that much primetime animation. There was a ton of Saturday morning animation on television, of course, but primetime I don’t think there was particularly much. So when The Simpsons happened, then there was this opening. And for the first time in decades an animation football was up in the air. And The Simpsons writers very quickly organized to become a WGA shop. Because, specifically, there was no primetime deal for Fox. Fox, which made The Simpsons, had never signed, I believe, any collective bargaining agreement covering primetime animation.

So, open field. And they obviously — Fox I think, probably quite strongly, pushed them towards Animation 839. That was something that happened also with DreamWorks made a show called Father of the Pride, which they successfully got to push over to 839. But in this case, The Simpsons writers, probably because of the amount of leverage they had, were able to get a WGA deal. And once they did, all primetime animation made by Fox is a WGA deal. So Family guy, WGA deal. And what are the other ones? American Dad. And all those.

John: Bob’s Burgers.

Craig: There you go. So any primetime animated show made by Fox is WGA. Now, this does give a little bit of a glimmer of hope. For instance, I don’t think Pixar has ever signed any collective bargaining agreements. So, theoretically all of the writers that write Pixar movies could organize and demand to be covered by the WGA. And I wish they would. But easier said than done, because of the nature of feature films.

In television, you have to crank out episodes, particularly primetime network television. I mean, so that’s 26 right?

John: Yeah.

Craig: If your writers stop working for 10 minutes, you’ve got a huge assembly line problem. Not the case in feature animation, where those movies take years and years and years and there’s one of them. So, if there’s a halt for six or eight months, or two years, well, they absorb it. Much, much trickier to do. So, hopefully that answers the question of why The Simpsons, for instance, is a WGA show and not say a primetime program that maybe Sony Television is making.

John: Absolutely. So basically the way to get all animation covered by the WGA is to build a time machine and go back and have the decisions made differently. But I think with that theoretical time machine we can also be looking forward. And we need to be looking forward to what are the things coming down the pike that are going to be sort of like this animation situation. And how do we make sure that the people who are writing for those screens are covered and that they are WGA writers who are making a WGA living down the road. I think that’s a thing we need to focus on. And take the lesson we’ve learned from animation to make sure that we’re not leaving stuff uncovered.

Craig: Yeah. The legend — I don’t know if this is accurate, but the legend that I have heard is that way, way back in the day feature animation writers went to the WGA, the nascent WGA in the ’40s and ’50s, and said, “Hey, we want you guys to cover us.” And the WGA said, “Oh, no, no, no, we’re real writers. You people are making cartoons. We don’t cover cartoons.”

I don’t know if that’s true, but man it sounds true.

John: It does sound true.

Craig: Sounds super-duper freaking true. So, if there’s anything to guard against moving forward, it’s any hint of snobbery or exclusion, because whatever you think — if you look down at, I don’t know, content that’s made for YouTube, well, that will be the thing that’s destroying you 40 years from now. We really can’t afford to turn up our noses at any kind of writing for any screen as far as I’m concerned.

John: I agree. Second piece of follow up comes from Tim in Asheville. He writes, “I wanted to let you know how thankful I am for your feedback on the Reconstruction of Huck Finn over Mark Twain’s Dead Body in Episode 263.” So that was a Three Page Challenge you and I did.

“That story has reached the quarter finals of Nicholl,” and I actually just checked, it made it to semi-finals. “And although you only gave feedback on the first three pages, your thoughts engendered a come-to-Jesus type rewrite. And let me tell you, Jesus was not having that draft. Thanks for your thoughts and your inspiration.”

Craig: I like catty Jesus here. I am not having this draft. Oh no. Oh no! That’s great to hear.

John: Yeah. So congrats to Tim in Asheville. And we’ll put a link in the show notes to all the people who were the finalists in Nicholls this year. It’s the only I think competition that Craig and I both feel good about saying, yes, if you do well in Nicholl that’s fantastic. That is a feather in your cap and people actually do pay attention.

Craig: They do.

John: Congratulations to those folks.

Craig: They’ve already released their finalists?

John: Yes. So the article I read showed like the 10 finalists, but out of those 10 apparently five get fellowships, so there’s still another culling that happens. I can’t say I honestly understand how it all works, except that I’m very happy for the people who get to be a part of those lists.

Craig: So do I. And I hope that at least one or two of them, I mean, this is how crazy our business is. You think, well, there’s thousands of scripts, I assume, sent to the Nicholl Fellowship each year, and then it comes down to 10 finalists. And then five of them get fellowships. And here I am saying I hope one of them becomes a professional screenwriter. But that’s kind of — that is kind of the mesh size of this filter. It’s tough.

John: It is tough. Indeed.

All right, let’s get to our brand new segment. So this was suggested by Megan McDonnell, she is our new producer. And her idea was to take a certain class of scenes, a certain kind of scene you see in a bunch of different movies, and take a look at how different movies play that kind of scene. And so we’re going to be comparing and contrasting scenes from four different movies that are all about the same thing.

And in this case it is about the first day on the job, which is sort of a stock scene. And actually very common, I think, in features because as we always talk about features are about characters going through a journey they can only go through once. And so the first day on a new job is a very classic moment that your characters are going to have in lots of different kinds of movies. Comedies. Dramas. Everything in between.

Craig: Yeah, no, for sure. It’s a fun scene to write. I mean, we look forward to scenes like this. Sometimes we know what we have to accomplish in a story. We know how people are going to get in, and we know what we need to have them thinking or doing on the way out. And then the nature of the scene itself seems a bit, well, foggy. And then you have to figure out how to make it work.

No one has to really get lost in a fog over this.

John: No.

Craig: The first day of work we’re throwing characters at you. We’re throwing responsibilities at you. I know everyone knows how that feels. We’ve all been there before. So really it’s just about what is your unique perspective on this shared experience of the first day at work.

John: Absolutely. Well, let’s jump right in. So I put out a call on Twitter for people to send me their suggestions for great movies with great scenes about the first day on the job. And, of course, our listeners are fantastic and threw back a lot of suggestions. Probably the number one suggestion was one I hadn’t thought of which is The Hudsucker Proxy. So this is a screenplay by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, and Sam Raimi.

In the show notes for this episode you’ll find links to the full PDF, but also the individual scenes we’re taking a look at. So, Craig, why don’t you read the setup to this scene? This is scene 14 in Hudsucker Proxy.

Craig: Sure.

“SWINGING STEEL DOORS that read, ”MAILROOM.” They burst open as Norville, who wears a mail clerk’s leather apron, imprinted: HUDSUCKER MAILROOM/The Future is Now. The hellish mailroom is criss-crossed by pipes that emit HISSING jets of STEAM.

As he wheels a piled-high mail cart down the aisle, Norville is accompanied by an orientation AGENT who bellows at him over the clamor and roar of many men laboring in the bowels of a great corporation.

John: And now let’s take a listen to the scene.


You punch in at 8:30 every morning except you punch in at 7:30 following a business holiday unless it’s a Monday and then you punch in at eight o’clock You punch in at 7:45 whenever we work extended day and you punch out at the regular time unless you’ve worked through lunch!

What’s exte–

Punch in late and they dock ya!

People on either side bellow at Norville and stuff envelopes and packages under his elbows, into his pockets, under his chin, between his clenched teeth , etc.

This goes to seven! Mr. Mutuszak! Urgent!

Incoming articles, get a voucher! Outgoing articles, provide a voucher! Move any article without a voucher and they dock ya!

Take this up to the secretarial pool on three!Right away!Don’t break it!

Letter size a green voucher! Folder size a yellow voucher! Parcel size a maroon voucher!

This one’s for Morgatross! Chop chop!

Wrong color voucher and they dock ya!Six-seven-eight-seven-zero-four-niner-alpha-slash-six! That is your employee number!It will not be repeated!Without your employee number you cannot cash your paycheck!

This goes up to twenty-seven! If there’s no one there bring it down to eighteen! Have ‘em sign the waiver!DON’T COME BACK DOWN HERE WITHOUT A SIGNED WAIVER!!

Inter-office mail is code37! INTRA-office mail is 37-dash-3! Outside mail is 3-dash37! Code it wrong and they dock ya!

I was supposed to have this on twenty-eight ten minutes ago! Cover for me!

This has been your orientation! Is there anything you do not understand? Is there anything you understand only partially? If you have not been fully- oriented–if there is something you do not understand in all of its particulars you must file a complaint with personnel! File a faulty complaint…and they dock ya!

Craig: That’s great.

John: It’s delightful. So this is a very classically kind of what we expect on that first day, where everything is being thrown at you. You are just barely trying to catch up with the action around you. And it’s important to set up the environment of this world they’re entering into. This is a sort of dystopian hellhole of corporate machinery. And from sound design to sort of the monologuing of the orientation agent, you get a feeling for all of it.

Craig: Yeah. Classic bit of filmic storytelling to take the normal emotions that we have in shared universal experiences and then externalize them in these very broad, caricatured ways. Even though nobody has ever experienced a first day at work like this, you can argue that this is how it feels to us. Everything is confusing. Everything is scary. Everyone around you seems to be perfectly meshed together and frantic in a way you are not because you don’t understand what’s going on. And you are laden down with rules that you do not understand and consequences you do understand. So, you don’t know what you need to do to succeed. You just know what happens when you fail. Very, very first day.

John: Yeah. They will dock you. So, this is a great example of like this orientation agent is not a major character, so he’s just going there and he’s just establishing the rules of the world. He is basically — he’s just part of the setting really. This is not a significant character.

But I want to contrast that with the first scene from Devil Wears Prada, or at least the first day scene from Devil Wears Prada. This is a script by Aline Brosh McKenna based on the book by Lauren Weisberger. Here we see the same kind of orientation where you have somebody starting to lead somebody through the office, and yet this case it’s Emily Blunt leading Anne Hathaway through. And Emily Blunt is a major character. Emily Blunt is a character who we’re going to come back to again and again. And so you can see the scene is actually taking some time to establish her as a more important significant character who has a depth to her that this orientation agent doesn’t have.

Let’s take a look at the scene on paper first, and then we’ll take a listen to it. It starts in reception. “Andy is trying to arrange herself on the uncomfortable sofa when suddenly a taller, thinner, and amazingly more groomed version of the women in the room walks in. This is Emily, who looks the part of the sleek fashionista, but is propelled by a core of barely tamped anxiety. Andrea Barnes? Emily looks up, their eyes meet, as Emily takes in how different Andy looks from everyone else. Andy springs up and follows her down the hallway.”

Let’s take a listen to the rest of the scene.



Sleek, elegant, hard-edged chic. Behind the reception desk is an elegant logo that says RUNWAY. ANDY walks over.

Hi, I have an appointment with Emily Charlton–

Andrea Sachs?

(EMILY (and MIRANDA, later) pronounce ANDREA Ahn-DRAY-a. ANDY refers to herself as AN-dree-a.)

ANDY turns and sees a taller, thinner and, amazingly, more groomed CLACKER. This is EMILY. She looks the part of the sleek fashionista, but is propelled by a core of barely tamped down anxiety. She examines ANDY.

Human Resources certainly has a bizarre sense of humor.
(sigh, annoyed)
Follow me.


EMILY briskly walks ANDY down the hall.

Okay, so… I was Miranda’s second assistant, but her first assistant recently got promoted so now I’m the first…

ANDY glimpses an office in front of them, seductively bright.

And you’re replacing yourself.

I’m trying. Miranda sacked the last two girls after only a few weeks. We need to find someone who can survive here. Do you understand?

Yes. Of course. Who’s Miranda?

(eyes widening)
You didn’t just ask me that. She’s the editor in chief of Runway. Not to mention a legend. Work a year for her and you can get a job at any magazine you want. A million girls would kill for this job.

Sounds great. I’d love to be considered.

She smiles. EMILY tries to think how to break it to her.

Andrea, Runway is a fashion magazine. An interest in fashion is crucial.

What makes you think I’m not interested in fashion?

EMILY gives her a look. ANDY smiles, like she has no idea what EMILY could mean.

Suddenly, EMILY’S Blackberry goes off. She gasps.

Oh my God. No. No, no, no.

What’s wrong?


A black sedan pulls to a sudden stop outside the building.


EMILY begins rapid-fire dialing four digit extensions.

(all but screaming)
She’s on her way — tell everyone!

Just then a dapper man of about 40 walks briskly by.

I thought she was coming in at 9.

Her driver text-messaged. Her facialist ruptured a disk. God, these people!

NIGEL turns and sees ANDY. Looks at EMILY. Who is that?

I can’t even talk about it.

No time to discuss. NIGEL calls down the hallway.

All right, everyone. Man your battle stations!

John: First off, it’s great to have Aline on the show, even if she’s not literally on the show, we get to hear her words and see her work. I think it’s a delightful scene. And so here we’ve already established Anne Hathaway’s character in the movie, but this is our first time meeting Emily Blunt’s character. And it’s a sophisticated thing that we’re seeing here. So, you get to see that Emily Blunt is trying to do her job, but she’s also very skeptical that this girl could even possibly be working here. We’re establishing the stakes of the world and we’re establishing that everyone else who has been hired for this job has been fired very, very quickly.

And then we end this scene with this moment of like, “Oh no, the boss is coming.” And then we get into this sort of montage of Miranda Priestly arriving at the office and everyone panicking and scurrying around to sort of prepare for her. So you’re establishing this big character entrance for a character who has not yet shown up in the movie.

Craig: Yeah. In some ways, this is the opposite way of playing a first day moment than the one in Hudsucker Proxy. It doesn’t seem like it starts as the opposite, because in walks this young woman who seems to be perfect, as opposed to our protagonist. But then as they move through the building and begin to talk what starts to come out is that our hero, Anne Hathaway’s character, doesn’t even know who Miranda is. And is oddly sort of Zen. You know, “I’d like to be considered.” She just seems so much calmer and more centered than Emily Blunt’s character, who is already kind of twittery panicky.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And when they hear that Miranda is coming early, you see Emily kind of fall apart. So, what this first day is setting up in a sense probably the arc of these two characters and what is going to happen ultimately with Anne Hathaway’s character, I think.

John: What’s also great in this scene is we’re used to the sort of bulldozer coming in and our protagonist being sort of run over by the bulldozer. Anne Hathaway’s character does stand up to her. “Well what makes you think I don’t like fashion?” Basically, she’s taking some agency. She’s actually willing to sort of hit the ball back over the net. And that becomes important in the next scene where she actually is interviewing with Miranda Priestly to make it clear like, you know, you are going to say that I’m not qualified to be here, but I really am. And you should take a chance on me. She’s actually going to stick up for herself in ways that are incredibly important for the character.

What I’d like to do now is actually compare it to her first actual day on the job. So, this is clip from later on in the film where she’s trying to get through her first real day after she’s been hired. And there’s a moment, which I think has become sort of one of the iconic moments in the film, where she is dismissive of sort of what it is they’re doing in general. She makes the mistake of laughing about how absurd it is. And let’s take a listen to what happens in that scene.


ANDY lets out a little giggle. And it’s like she set off a grenade. Slowly everyone turns to her.

Is something funny?

No, no, no. It’s just…

And MIRANDA says nothing. ANDY twists in the wind.

It’s just that both of those belts look the same to me. I’m still learning about this stuff, so–

And the silence is deafening. Everyone looks to see what MIRANDA will do.

This… stuff? Okay. I understand. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and select, say, that lumpy blue sweater because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what’s on your body. What you don’t know is that your sweater is not blue. It’s not even sky blue. It’s cerulean. You also don’t know that in 2002, De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns, Yves St. Laurent showed a cerulean military jacket, Dolce did skirts with cerulean beads, and in our September issue we did the definitive layout on the color. Cerulean quickly appeared in eight other major collections, then the secondary and department store lines and then trickled down to some lovely Casual Corner, where you no doubt stumbled on it. That color is worth millions of dollars and many jobs. And here you are, thinking you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry. In truth, you are wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.

She smiles at ANDY. Who quakes.

John: What I love about this clip is that it shows a crucial aspect of first day on the job which is failure. And that sense of the protagonist comes in with a head of steam. They think they’re sort of figuring it out. And then they meet a huge obstacle and a huge setback. And that setback is generally the antagonist. In this case, it’s Miranda. And it makes it really clear that as plucky and as smart as Anne Hathaway’s character is, she is out of her depths in sort of this situation and specifically opposite Miranda.

Craig: Yeah. Most movies that are workplace movies will involve a hero who is new to the job pushing up against an antagonist or villain who is established on the job. It could be a boss, as it often is. Or it could be a rival for a promotion. But no matter what, that villain, that antagonist, needs to have some formidable weight. This is a very common note that studios will give, and for good reason. It’s a good note — make your villains formidable.

So, we could easily begin to see Miranda Priestly as a nut. Just a tyrannical nut who should be laughed at. And, of course, a lot of fashion does seem, on its face, absurd. And it makes perfect sense for us to be with Anne Hathaway and thinking I see through everything here. I can see the matrix. This is all baloney and this lady is nuts.

And it’s really important for the movie and for the character for Anne Hathaway to hear, “No, you don’t see anything at all.” And it has to be done in such a way that in the audience, in the theater where we’re sitting we go, “Oh you know what, that’s a really good point. You’re right. It’s not just that you’re mean about it, or strident, you’ve convinced me. Right? And by doing so I now understand that the character I was identifying with and feeling really proud to kind of be in the saddle with doesn’t maybe know what she’s talking about. And doesn’t see all the things she thinks she sees. And now I feel that way, too.” This is the bedrock of making people care about characters in a movie.

So, it’s a terrific way to use a first day on the job scene to not only set up what it is that people do, but also set up the basis of a rivalry. And to take your hero, and as we always should, push them down. Push them down, because there is no satisfaction in their rise if we do not push them down.

John: I’m thinking about the archetypes of this relationship and you see this all the time in military movies where you have the drill sergeant. But you also see it in teacher movies. You think of Whiplash. And this is very much the same kind of dynamic in Whiplash where you have the upstart who thinks he knows what’s going on and then meets this incredible asshole of a teacher who really can show him up and sort of prove that he knows nothing.

And that’s a crucial dynamic. I think so often we think of the antagonist as being the villain in the story. And villains don’t always wear capes and sort of try to destroy cities. A lot of times it’s how they are challenging our heroes. And that’s what you’re seeing in Devil Wears Prada.

Craig: Yeah. And it is really important for people to note, in a time when a lot of movies do seem to feature villains that only are interested in the most broad villainous desires like total power and total destruction, that the most satisfying cinematic villains are the ones who in some way at the end of a story are actually vaguely proud of the fact that the hero has risen up.

It took a long time, it took three movies for Darth Vader to get to that point. But he did. And we really liked it. It’ll take one movie for Miranda to get there at the end, but that’s exactly where it ends up with the two of them. You get the sense that Miranda is a combination of antagonist and mentor. And that’s a great combo.

John: That is a great combo. When it works, it’s fantastic.

Craig: Yeah, exactly.

John: We always think of mentors as being like the kindly old wizard or the caring teacher, but oftentimes it is a confrontational role that is pushing them to the next place. So, it’s great to see it here.

Let’s take a look at another sort of mentor figure and sort of authority figure in Hidden Figures. So this is a screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Ted Melfi based on a book by Margo Shetterly.

So in this scene we see Taraji P. Henson. She’s going to work in the larger office with the engineers rather than just being the calculator off in the little back room. Let’s take a read through the scene and then what actually happens.

So we’re inside the Space Task Group office. “Katherine steps into a cyclone of activity and stress. ENGINEERS chalk equations on blackboards, slug coffee. AIDES and SUPPORT STAFF scurry, answer phones. This is the Space Task Group: the world’s most exclusive scientific club. At the back of the room, Harrison paces in his glass bubble, talking with Karl Zielinski. For the briefest moment, everyone seems to be looking at the black woman who just entered their world. But it’s just a passing moment, there’s far too much to do.”

And so we’re going to actually skip ahead a little bit in the scene to listen to when she first has her conversation with the character played by Kevin Costner.


Ruth. What’s the status on my Computer?

She’s right in front of you, Mr. Harrison.

Ruth motions to Katherine. Harrison gives her a once over. Not what he expected either.

Does she know how to handle Analytic Geometry?

Absolutely. And she speaks.

I do, sir.

Which one?

Both, sir. Geometry and speaking.

Harrison waves a finger at Ruth.

Then give her the-

She knows exactly what he’s talking about. She always knows what he’s talking about. She snatches a bundle of worksheets off her desk, rushes them to Katherine.

(to Katherine)
Do you think you can find me the Frenet frame for that data using the Gram- Schmidt–

Katherine glances at the data sheets.

–Orthogonalization algorithm. Yes, sir. I prefer it over Euclidean coordinates.

That’s all Harrison needs to hear. She knows her stuff.

Craig: Right. So this is a fairly common way of doing these things. You have somebody that no one would expect to be really, really good at something because of their gender or their race or their age. And they are going to impress somebody. It’s not actually — I mean, it’s a really, really good movie. This is a fairly cliché way of doing these things.

But there is something pretty interesting in it, and that is — and you can pull out and sort of go, ah-ha. You know, sometimes when there are scenes that feel cliché, you realize that one thing isn’t. And it’s a little bit like those puzzles when we were kids, like find the things that are different, right? And those little differences are actually really illuminating. And I’m certain quite intentional. And the little difference here is Kevin Costner just says, “OK, all right. Do you do this? Do you do that?”

There’s no “I don’t think so, or is this some kind of joke?” That’s the difference. And you will see that little bit play out and grow in their relationship over the course of the movie. So there’s a little seed in what is a fairly stock kind of execution of something that is different and refreshing and kind of counter to the hyper formula of this kind of moment.

John: Absolutely. So this is a moment that happens midway through the story, I think, because we’ve actually established quite a bit of backstory with the women that we’re going to be following. And they’re sort of all going through first day experiences. They already worked at NASA. They worked as calculators in the sort of backroom doing the difficult calculations. And one by one they’re sort of being pulled into greater responsibilities, so Janelle Monáe’s character is going to work with the heat shield people. And Octavia Spencer is really managing these women and basically wants to be credited with being their manager and being paid as their manager.

So, Taraji P. Henson is of them the most lead character of them, and so she’s going to work in the biggest room with the biggest most important people. And I think we have a natural expectation that her relationship with Kevin Costner is going to be classically antagonistic where she has to impress him and change him.

He starts pretty far along the journey, and so it’s really more about his coming to see the world from her point of view. And basically recognize his own ignorance about sort of what was going on. So it wasn’t that he was this horrible racist. It’s that he had never even thought to question what she was allowed to do and what she wasn’t allowed to do and how frustrating that would be for her. And so it’s nothing like the Miranda Priestly sort of relationship. It’s not — he’s not even sort of teaching her how to grow into this bigger thing. It’s her just through her quiet competence pushing him and the rest of this group forward.

Craig: Yeah. And that is kind of the thing that jumps out of this exchange. Because it is, like I said, it’s a very — we’ve seen this before.

John: Yes.

Craig: Many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many times. So, that’s the thing that is the little payload. I think there’s a really good lesson there, actually, that when you are writing these scenes sometimes people are so panicked that they’re writing a stock scene. And I think it’s not something to panic over as long as you are putting some kind of twist or thing on it.

It’s when you don’t. It’s when you fail to surprise in any way whatsoever that the thing just starts to lie there and feel super derivative.

John: I think one of the other reasons why this didn’t pain me when I saw it in the theaters is that it’s part of a much longer scene. So we did some of the setup, but she’s just standing around this office for a long time while people are waiting and doing other things. She has this moment, and then the scene just keeps going on where she has to — where she’s finding her desk. And so it really places you into her perspective of what it’s like to be there.

One of the brilliant tricks that this movie does is that by fully grounding the experience in these women’s lives, you see everything from their point of view. And so when we go into these sort of white male enclaves, we are going into it as her. That is the foreign territory we’re heading into and we are completely identifying with her perspective on things.

And so letting her be sort of quietly competent in this moment and not have her big speech here, but save it for later on, you know, saves our powder and lets us sort of really stick in our perspective.

Craig: Yeah. I agree completely.

John: Cool. Let’s take a look at one last first day, which was the second most highly recommended thing on Twitter when I put out the call for these scenes. This is Training Day by David Ayer.

Craig: Of course.

John: And this whole movie is a first day on the job essentially. So, let’s take a look at a scene that happens in a coffee shop. So, we’ll read through the setup here.

Craig: Yeah, it’s a good one. All right.


Old and tired, near Good Samaritan Hospital. Jake struts through the door, confidently looks around. JAKE’S POV: DETECTIVE SERGEANT ALONZO HARRIS, in black shirt, black leather jacket. And just enough platinum and diamonds to look like somebody. He reads the paper in a booth. The gun leather-tough LAPD vet is a hands-on, blue-collar cop who can kick your ass with a look. BACK TO SCENE Jake walks over. Slides in across. Alonzo’s eyes will never leave his newspaper.”

John: And let’s take a listen.


Good morning, sir.

A young waitress pours Jake coffee, offers a menu. Jake waves it away.

I’m okay, ma’am. Thank you.

Have some chow before we hit the office. Go ahead. It’s my dollar.

No, thank you, sir. I ate.

Fine. Don’t.

Alonzo turns the page. A long beat. Then:

It’s nice here.

May I read my paper?

I’m sorry, sir… I’ll get some food.

No. You won’t. You fucked that up. Please. I’m reading. Shut up.

Jake does — Jeeez, sorry. Pours a ton of sugar in his coffee.



The waitress pours refills. Alonzo reads. Jake fidgets.

Sure wouldn’t mind not roasting in a hot black and white all summer.

Alonzo sighs, carefully folds his paper. Glares at Jake.

Tell me a story, Hoyt.

My story?

Not your story. A story. You can’t keep your mouth shut long enough to let me finish my paper. So tell me a story.

I don’t think I know any stories.

Alonzo waves the paper in Jake’s face.

This is a newspaper. And I know it’s ninety percent bullshit but it’s entertaining. That’s why I read it. Because it entertains me. If you won’t let me read my paper, then entertain me with your bullshit. Tell me a story.

John: This is a fantastic scene. I remember loving the scene when I first saw the movie. This is establishing the dynamic between these two characters. This is like the Miranda/Anne Hathaway relationship in that the nature of their relationship is going to be the entire movie. And this establishes it so well.

Craig: It does. And the story he goes on to tell also helps quite a bit. Indeed. We, I think, have all had an experience where we’ve met somebody that puts us on our heels permanently. Because not only are they aggressive and preternaturally in control of themselves it seems, but they are bizarrely unpredictable. They feel dangerous to us. And you try and catch up to them. You try and get into their good graces. You try and match them and their tone. You try and figure out exactly what wave length you’re supposed to operate on with this person until eventually you find out you can’t. That’s never going to happen.

And what’s interesting to me about this first day scene is that Denzel Washington’s character puts Ethan Hawke back on his heels really, really hard. Really, really aggressively. And Jake, Ethan Hawke’s character, goes ahead and does as he’s ordered. He starts to tell a story. And this guy keeps interrupting him, and he’s doing it in a way that is, again, dangerous. Until Jake finally starts telling the story kind of the right way.

You can see Ethan Hawke trying to tell it in a way that would entertain Alonzo, because that’s what Alonzo has demanded. Entertainment. And he does and Alonzo gets entertained. And Jake feels really good about it, you know? Until Alonzo smashes him down again. Verbally, of course, in this instance. You get everything you need to know in this first day on the job scene. This is not a scene where you are trying to catch up with somebody who is going to teach you lessons. This is not a scene where a large business is overwhelming to you. This is a scene where you’re meeting a dangerous person, and you’re trying your best and using all of your skills to make it work and none of them are working at all.

John: Absolutely. So, in contrast to all these other scenes, we’re not going into the classic workplace, except that the workplace of these two characters is going to be just them together in a car, in a place. We’re not going to be in sort of the bullpens. It’s not that kind of movie. And so the workplace of this movie is going to be wherever the two of them are. And so it’s a really good way of establishing what the dynamics are going to be there and telegraphing what to watch out for.

I think what’s so great about how Denzel Washington’s character is playing through this moment is he’s not boxing, it’s more like a kind of Aikido or a Judo where he’s just continually knocking Ethan Hawke’s character off balance. And so that he can’t sort of figure out what he should say or do next. And it his desperation to figure out what to do next that can sort of compromise him.

It’s just ingeniously set up.

Craig: Yeah. And the rhythm that this establishes will repeat over and over and over. And you realize that the only way that this rhythm will ever break is if Jake breaks, essentially. And the movie itself, I mean, I love Training Day in part because, for a movie with a lot of action and a lot of plot, honestly — there’s a big kind of, well, you know, internal affairs-y sort of conspiracy going on and you’re meeting characters and people are getting double crossed and all the rest of it, but it is a movie about these conversations. It really is. And obviously those of us who have seen the movie, we all understand the metaphor here of what the training is exactly meant to be.

But this scene is a good example of when you and I talk about a little seed, you know, our first three pages. This is a great little seed. All of the stuff that is going to happen in this movie is essentially all packed into this one scene. So that’s another great way to make use of these first day on the job scenes is by giving them double duty. It’s first day on the job and it is the thematic and character DNA for the whole film.

John: Absolutely. Some other choices that were suggested for these scenes included Swimming with Sharks, The Sound of Music, Hot Fuzz, 9 to 5, Men in Black, Mr. Mom, Tootsie, Soapdish. There’s a whole wide range. And so in picking these four movies we didn’t necessarily pick the best scenes, but the ones that I thought could show us a good contrast between the kinds of things that happen in your first day on the job scenes.

So, this was fun. I enjoyed doing this as a new segment. If you have an idea for a future installment of This Kind of Scene, let us know and we’ll try to do this in the future.

Craig: Yeah. You know what? We can do whatever we want.

John: Yes. But we like your suggestions.

Craig: Oh yeah. I mean, well, you do. I just like doing whatever I want. Here’s the sad truth: I say that, and then I just do whatever you want. So really that’s what it comes down to. Do you want their suggestions? You get them. I do what you want. And here we are.

John: And this is how it all happens.

Craig: This is how it all happens, folks.

John: We have two listener questions we’re going to try to hit. So, first off, we have John who wrote in a question regarding how to write for an increasingly international market. Let’s take a listen.

John Listener: Do you think that the international audience has become significantly more important to the studios than the domestic audience? And if so, when you guys are working on studio projects how do you keep in mind the international audience? Do you try to limit dialogue, for example? Add more action? Add more CGI? Or do you not really worry about that?

How do you make your projects, you know, feel like they’re not pandering? Lately it seems like a couple films have been pandering to Chinese audiences, for example, and it sort of backfired. And the Chinese audiences rejected them knowing that they were being pandered to. So, how do you avoid situations like that?

What do you think we can expect, basically, going forward in movies and how can we train ourselves to be thinking about international audiences? Does it start at the concept phase? Should we come up with stories that are less regionalistic, for example? Would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

John: So, Craig, what John’s referring to is there have been some movies that definitely steered things in a certain way so they could either capitalize on Chinese dollars or avoid angering Chinese audiences or Chinese censors. Basically, it could be very hard to get your movie to play in China if China doesn’t want your movie to play there. So, there have been movies that have been nipped and tucked in order to play in China. And movies that have included a scene of characters drinking a Chinese product because it was important.

But, I will say that as a person who writes some big studio movies, it’s never come up for me that I needed to be writing something specifically different for China. Have you felt this?

Craig: No. I haven’t. But I suspect that it was probably couched in something else. Sort of the way you give your dog a pill by shoving it in a piece of cheese. We do hear things from studios: casting suggestions, and maybe, oh, we need another action set piece, or something like this or that. The truth is that we are in a strange dance right now with the rest of the world when it comes to our business and how important the international audience is.

For some movies it’s kind of important. For some movies, it’s really, really important. In general, the studios get a much lower percentage of the returns from international box office. But international box office at times dwarfs domestic box office on a movie by movie basis.

I’m thinking for instance of a movie like Warcraft. Warcraft was made by Universal. It starred people speaking English. So it seemingly was intended for a domestic audience. But I suspect it was really largely intended for an international audience, because Warcraft is just so much bigger in Asia than it is here. It used to be pretty big here, but it’s huge still in Asia, and, not surprisingly, Warcraft made a massive amount of money overseas. Far more than it made here. Far more. People think of that movie as a huge bomb. It’s not.

There are, of course, movies that then — and I think John is absolutely right when he points this out — they pander. And that’s horrendous. And hopefully we stop doing that because I don’t think it’s productive. One thing I know for sure is you’re going to be very hard pressed to have a hero in your movie from Tibet. You’re going to be extremely hard pressed to have the villains in your movie be Chinese people. That’s not going to happen. Nor North Koreans. It’s hard for that, too, because again China is incredibly protective of that sort of thing. And they have a strict government control over what gets released and how long it is in theaters.

So, it has been very disruptive to our business, I think. The emergence of this massive new market, and also a lot of capital, has been disruptive. But creatively speaking, I also feel like domestic audiences are moving closer to where international audiences used to be. They just seem mostly interested in spectacle. I think that’s why we are awash in superhero movies and will remain so for some time. They are massive spectacle. And they cross all cultures.

John: I would agree with you. I think we would be making those kind of movies regardless, because those movies are incredibly successful in the US. And so you look at how our movies have become sort of bigger and flashier and sometimes dumber when they’re trying to be the giant blockbusters. But we’re also still making really good movies that are intended for a domestic audience that do really well. And so you look at Girls Trip, which was made by Universal, and was incredibly successful. Nowhere in their calculations did they say like, oh, we have to be able to release this movie in China. That just wasn’t sort of on the table for it. And so it’s still very possible to make an incredibly successful movie that is mostly playing in the US. And that’s good. We want to have a range of things being made.

Also, to date, the television that we’re making, some of it goes overseas, but some of it doesn’t go overseas. We’re still able to make television that is appealing to a very American sensibility that’s about sort of America right now. And I think that’s only going to continue.

So, I’m not too pessimistic that we’re going to lose the ability to have a culture of filmmaking that is sort of uniquely looking at American culture because we have that, it’s just sometimes not on the big screen.

Craig: Yeah. From a practical point of view, I don’t think there’s much sense in tailoring your writing for some imagined studio executive’s desires. Look, if in your heart what you really want to write is Pacific Rim, well, congrats. Good news. That is the kind of thing that studios probably will look at and go, OK, that feels like it could play really well internationally. And, yeah, that will give you a leg up.

But you have to want to write that. You have to feel that. You can’t calculate these things. If you do, you just end up with a calculated piece of crap. And believe me, we’ve got enough of it. We’ve got enough calculated pieces of crap coming from highly trained professionals. So we don’t need amateur calculated crap. What we need is stuff that feels authentic and passionate.

So, the truth is you kind of have to play the hand you’re dealt by your own passion and your own desire as a writer. And just know that there are still avenues for everybody. There are — good news — far more avenues now than there were five years ago for, for instance, grown up dramas. Because now they don’t necessarily need to exist theatrically. They can exist in a very real way on Netflix or on HBO. So, you’ve got to write what you want to write. Don’t try and game the system. You will lose.

John: I agree.

All right, our last question comes from Arvin who writes, “I’ve received notes back on several of my short scripts. One person keeps giving comments back that I am writing a ‘therapy piece’ and I’m putting my own issues into the script and not dramatizing the conflict. What is a therapy piece and how do I avoid writing one?”

Craig: Oh, well, I can guess. I mean, it’s not really a common term, meaning I’ve never heard it before.

John: I never heard it before either. But I understand what the friend is saying. And to me what the friend is saying is that if feels like you’re writing this to work through some issue that is not necessarily interesting to a reader or potential viewer of this product.

Craig: Yeah. So we have all seen scripts that feel like they’re navel-gazing. Somebody is writing a script because the events in their mind and the insights that they are having about circumstances particular to them are occupying their every waking minute. And now they’re putting it into a screenplay. It is a terrible miscalculation to do that because by and by those specific details of your life are remarkably boring to everybody.

There is a reason you have to pay therapists. It’s not just for their expertise. It’s also because nobody else wants to listen to that shit week after week after week. It would be exhausting. Literally exhausting.

We all have our problems. We are all carrying our baggage. And it is fine to be informed by that, or inspired by that, to write something that would be universal for everybody, that would be exciting for everyone.

If you are writing a screenplay to exercise your own personal demons and you’re not doing it couched in a larger story that would play to somebody who has no interest in your personal demons, then yeah, you’re kind of not doing it right. That said, Arvin, one person is saying that. I don’t know what other people are saying. And, you know, there are smaller movies that kind of do this somewhat successfully. I mean, you could argue that a lot of Woody Allen’s films are — I guess you’d call them therapy pieces in a way. But they are done with such wit and intelligence that we are entertained.

John: When people make intensely personal movies, that can be a really good thing, as long as that intensely personal thing speaks to a larger universal truth. It gives you an insight to the human condition that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. And so some of our great filmmakers make things that are intensely personal to them and yet we’re able to see through their lens a much broader perspective around us.

Speaking to the sense that this one person has read your script and it feels like you’re just working through your own stuff, you know, you’re not doing the other things well. And so you’re probably having characters speak the kinds of things you wish you could say, and in doing so you’re basically writing yourself into it, but not in a way that is entertaining for everyone else.

You look at Aaron Sorkin, I mean, you could say that most of what Aaron Sorkin writes sort of feels like therapy pieces. It sort of feels like you’re going through a therapy session with him. And yet he has such tremendous mastery of craft that you’re sort of delighted to go through those therapy sessions with him. So, it may just be picking stories that let you examine things that are interesting to you — internally interesting to you — but finding a way to externalize them in a way that they’re interesting to other people as well.

Craig: Yeah. There’s a term that has become very popularized. Mary Sue. Or Gary Sue. Depending on gender. And the idea there is a writer creates a character that is essentially a stand in for them. And this character is an idealized perfected them. So, whenever something goes wrong, it’s because this character is being unfairly wronged. And they are able to quickly fix the situation and come out on top. And it’s just basically sort of a teenage fantasy version of yourself. It’s an immature, childish expression of kind of an overpowered perfected you, which in and of itself implies a need for actual therapy, which I think is pretty universal and common to all human beings.

I’ll make a suggestion, Arvin. Check out, if you haven’t seen it already, 500 Days of Summer by Neustadter and Weber and directed by Marc Webb. Because it is a therapy piece I think. I think — I think it was based on a relationship that Scott Neustadter actually had. And it is very much that and yet manages to be extraordinarily entertaining and I think provides a kind of universal pep talk for us all.

So, we don’t feel like we’re watching one person getting back at someone or proving to themselves that they’re OK or that they were wronged. We watch someone go through something that we feel we’ve all felt. So, take a look at that and maybe you’ll get some good lessons from that.

John: I think that’s a great suggestion. And what’s crucial about 500 Days of Summer is that you see the suffering and you also see the mistakes that the protagonist is making. And so often in the Mary Sue stories or the Marty Stu stories, the character is flawless and therefore uninteresting.

Craig: Correct. That kind of is the hallmark — I like Marty Stu. I don’t know why Gary Sue. I saw Gary Sue and I did think like that’s weird, because Sue is still, like no one is named Gary Sue. So Marty Stu. I like that. That’s much better.

John: Our friend Julia Turner was talking about that on the Slate Culture Gabfest today and they were talking through fan fiction and the prevalence of the Mary Sue and the Marty Stu character in fan fiction.

Craig: Yeah. It’s definitely out there.

John: It’s out there. All right, it is time for our One Cool Things. Craig, I am so fascinated by what you put on the outline that I want you to talk me through it.

Craig: Well, this is the most — it’s just bizarre. So, George Plimpton, you know, George Plimpton knows — I don’t even know why George Plimpton is famous. I’ve got to be honest with you. I never quite got it. He was — I think he wrote some books about sports and —

John: But he was mostly a talk show guest is what I think of him.

Craig: Yeah. He was famous for being famous and for having that incredibly patrician American accent. And then he was also famous, I think, for people of my generation because he was the guy that advertised I think in television or something like that. But anyway George Plimpton was also quite rich apparently. And he purchased a 3,700-year-old tablet from the ancient civilization of Babylon. You know, and they had this cuneiform, we all learned that in school, their manner of writing which was these little wedge shapes in clay. And then eventually the tablet was gifted to some academics.

So, a guy named Dr. Daniel Mansfield, along with his team at the University of New South Wales in Australia, took a close look at this tablet. Everybody knew that it was basically mathematical in nature. What they figured out, in fact, is that it was a tool — it was essentially like a times table, except it was a trigonometric table to calculate right triangles at different sizes.

And what’s fascinating about it is it is actually a more advanced trigonometric system than the one the Greeks figured out 1,500 years later which we are still using today. So, our system of trigonometry is limited to our number system, which is basically base 10, you know. 1, 10, 100, 1,000.

But the Babylonians were using base 60, like time. So they divided things up into time. Which meant that they could have many more perfect divisions of things as they calculated them and they wouldn’t end up in these weird repeating fractions. Like if you want to take a third of 60, it’s 20. No problem. It’s exact.

You want to take a third of 10, it’s 3.33333 forever. Not as exact. So, really fascinating stuff. And we’ll throw a link here in the show notes. It actually will make sense to you when you read it. It’s not a particularly — you don’t need a math degree to understand this. All you need to know is there is a clay tablet from 3,700 years ago that may change the way we do trigonometry today. And that is awesome.

John: That’s very cool. My thing will not change the world, but it was a great observation. So this is a piece by Hana Michels writing for The Cut called Sword Guys are a Thing and I’ve had Sex with All of Them. And she talks through Sword Guys.

And Sword Guys are guys who own swords. And she really finds this sort of subculture of men who buy swords. Asian swords or other swords. And prop swords. Some are cos players, but many of them aren’t. And there’s just a very unique kind of man she’s describing as the man who owns a sword.

And she likens it to cat ladies, in the sense of like we have an idea of what a cat lady is and all the stereotypes about them, and you can kind of do the same things with any man who owns a sword. And so her piece I just thought was delightful, so I would recommend them.

It very much feels like the kind of observation you could see in a movie and say like, oh, wow, I totally get it because that guy has a sword hanging above his fireplace. It’s just very true.

Craig: I read this and I thought it was terrific but I didn’t think it was real. It seems not real. This is real?

John: Oh, this is real.

Craig: Are you sure?

John: I am going to bet $5.

Craig: Ok, because here’s the thing. Sword guys are real. There’s no question about that. I have sex with all of the sword guys feels made up to me. That’s not a thing. I just don’t believe that.

John: Well, I think I have sex with all the sword guys is the exaggeration of what it is like to be in a part of that piece of culture. Basically she’s saying I am the kind of girl who ends up having sex with the sword guys.

Craig: OK. I can see that. I don’t know. At some point while I was reading it I thought this is a master work of comic fiction. But if it’s real than I just am a bit confused, to be honest with you. Then I’m confused because the article seems to be both acknowledging and embracing what is — it seems to be painting this as a sort of pathetic pursuit and then also really appreciating it. I’m confused.

John: Yeah. So, you know, I think it would be delightful if I was confused and took this piece of fiction as a real fact. But I’m pretty sure that this is more on the order of a Modern Love kind of column in the Times where it’s like this is kind of a real thing. And so it’s a well-told version of the real situation.

Craig: I mean, she is a comedian.

John: She’s a comedian. Yeah. So like all comedians, there’s going to be exaggeration and things twisted around to make the joke better. But it feels real to me.

Craig: You know, she also wrote something called My Imaginary Boyfriend, Josh. I don’t know man. This can’t be real. Well, we’ll find out.

John: We’ll find out.

All right, that is our show for this week. So, our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. Edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For shorter questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.

We are on Facebook. Just search for Scriptnotes. You can search for Scriptnotes on Apple Podcasts and add us and subscribe and leave us a review. That is so nice and helpful when you do that. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at Go there. You can download the PDFs of the full screenplays for all these things, but also the individual scenes that we talked through.

That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. So Megan gets them about four or five days after the episode airs.

You can find all the back episodes at We also have a USB drive with the first 300 episodes available at Craig, thanks for a fun new segment.

Craig: John, thank you as always for being a podcast innovator.

John: Ah, we do our best. And I’ll see you next week.

Craig: You got it.

John: Bye.


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First Day on the Job

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 08:03

Craig and John debut a new segment: This Kind of Scene, looking at how different movies handle similar situations. The Hudsucker Proxy, The Devil Wears Prada, Hidden Figures and Training Day all need to introduce their heroes to their new workplaces. We examine how those scenes work, both on the page and on screen.

We then discuss what it means to write for an international market, and determine what a “therapy piece” is and how to avoid writing one.

We also follow up on our discussion from episode 310 on the WGA deal and explore why animation writers aren’t included in the WGA.


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Scriptnotes, Ep 316: Distracted Boyfriend Is All of Us — Transcript

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 15:42

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

Today on the podcast, it’s another round of How Would This Be a Movie. This time we’ll be looking at stories from Arkansas, to Copenhagen, to WWII Paris. Trying to figure out which ones might lend themselves to the big screen treatment.

Craig: Excellent, but first, before we get to any of that, little business, John.

John: All right. Do the business.

Craig: The business of democracy, my friend. Right now elections are going on for the Writers Guild of America West and presumably the Writers Guild of America East. Although as you know, I think there should just be one Writers Guild of America.

John: But that’s not a thing you can vote on in this election.

Craig: It’s not. But what you can vote on are the officers and board of directors for the Writers Guild of America West, if you are a member of said union. And one of the people running is my co-host today and always, John August. I personally have voted for you, John.

John: Oh, thank you very much.

Craig: I’ve already voted. I voted for you. And I think everyone should vote for you, personally. There are a couple different ways to vote. We have electronic voting and we have regular old paper ballot voting. Paper ballots should have arrived in your mailbox by now. Generally speaking, those of us who live up closer to Pasadena get them later, you know, maybe a day later than everybody else. So, they should be in everybody’s mailbox by now. And also you can vote online, which is super convenient.

A brief reminder. For those of you who are strategy-minded about how to vote. We elect eight candidates to the board in any given cycle. I believe in this cycle one of the current board members is also running for an officer position, which means that the ninth vote getter would then also be taken in and appointed to fill her seat for the remainder of her term. You don’t have to vote for eight people. So there’s, again, for those of you who are strategy-minded, there’s something called bulleting your vote. And the idea is basically let’s say I really want John August to be on the board, which is true. One thing I could do is I could vote for eight people and include him among them. Makes sense.

I could also just vote for him. And what bulleting does is it strengthens your vote for whom you want, because you are not voting for somebody that he is also running against. So, the downside for bulleting your vote is that, well, you’re choosing fewer people and you’re gaming the system a little bit.

So, I tend to vote for about four or five candidates. That’s usually my move. I feel like, OK, I’m doing a pretty decent job here. I’m being democratic. But, I’m also giving a little extra oomph to the people I really like. So, we’ve discussed who we like, don’t we?

John: I think we have. So, there are people who are running who are from various backgrounds. We are electing probably nine people of the 12 candidates running. In general, in past years, we’ve said we want a mix of different voices and different backgrounds to make sure we have feature writers and TV writers represented. There are certainly plenty of TV writers already on the board and folks who are running who are TV writers as well.

So, a mix would be great.

Craig: Yeah. For sure.

John: The other thing I’ll say is that you would have gotten a paper ballot in the mail by now, but you can also vote electronically. If you look through your spam filter, it sometimes gets caught in that, but it’s from is where the ballot for online voting would be found.

Craig: Yeah. That’s exactly right. So please do vote, and vote for John August. He’s not allowed to say that, I don’t think. But I am allowed to say it over and over and over. Because I am protected.

John: All right. And voting concludes September 18, which is a Monday, but there’s no reason to wait till September 18.

Craig: No.

John: You should vote now.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Pause the podcast to vote now.

Craig: Just do it.

John: Do it. Other bit of news is my news. Big Fish in London is happening. And so it runs from November 1 through December 31. So, if you are in London or you will find yourself in London during that period, come see the show, because I think it will be really good. It’s a different version than we’ve done anywhere else. This version stars Kelsey Grammer. And there will be a link in the show notes to where you can buy tickets.

It’s selling really, really well, which is fantastic. So, if you’re thinking about getting tickets, maybe don’t think about it too long. Maybe just get some tickets because the page I’ll send you to shows the relative availability of different dates and many dates are not that available.

Craig: May I ask you a question, sir?

John: Please.

Craig: As an early viewer and fan of the first iteration, the Broadway iteration — well, not first iteration, but it’s the one that matters. In the version in London, does it include different or new songs?

John: It does include different and new songs. So, structurally it works a lot differently, but yes, it includes different songs, including a song that was in the Chicago version which was not in the Broadway version. It has one entirely new song. It has some songs that have been restructured. And actually I would say most songs have been restructured in some ways because things have moved because of the nature of what we’re doing in this version. And it’s spoiling nothing to say in this version the Edward character, who was played by Norbert Leo Butz fantastically on Broadway, that role is split between two people now, more like how the movie works.

Craig: Right.

John: So Kelsey Grammer is playing the real older Edward and a great actor named Jamie Muscato is playing the younger story version of Edward, more like the Ewan McGregor character. And so because of that, the songs work differently because different people are singing them. And it allows for some great possibilities.

Craig: That was the second question I was going to ask. And you have answered it in such a way as to satisfy my curiosity.

John: Fantastic. Let’s do some follow up. So, last week we talked about MoviePass and we were searching for explanations on how MoviePass actually works and we just couldn’t find them in time. But right after we recorded the episode I found out more information. So, I’m going to link to an article from Gizmodo by Rhett Jones that talks through more of the backstory behind. But a crucial thing which I did not understand as we recorded last week’s episode is that MoviePass actually functions as a MasterCard. And so the reason why they don’t have to have a specific relationship with a theater like AMC is it’s just a credit card. So you just buy it with that credit card and they can refund the whole amount to the user.

So, AMC still gets the full price that they paid on the credit card, but it’s the user who gets that money refunded to their account. So, that is how they get around having any specific relationship with an individual theater.

Craig: So, I go into AMC. A ticket costs let’s say $14. I hand them this card. They charge me $14. Then, because I have a $10 a month deal with the MoviePass people, MoviePass — and I’ve already spent my $10 — MoviePass just sends me back $14.

John: Exactly.

Craig: Then how does MoviePass make money? It seems like they’re losing money every time somebody goes to see a movie.

John: So that is more of what you can find out in this article. And other people who wrote in. So, specifically one of our listeners, Udhaya, wrote in saying, “There’s one reason the MoviePass idea might work. While it appears not to be a money-maker, the people funding this might work out some kind of special access leverage with buyers of the MoviePass which would allow them to target the market holders of the MoviePass by showing special products to them. Think about it. You have a millennial to Gen-X target audience who go to movies frequently.

“If these MoviePass guys could select custom products and services to them, it’s a fraction of their marketing budget to get out more MoviePass.”

So essentially she’s saying — I don’t know if Udhaya is a man or a woman — is saying that it’s the data that’s actually really helpful for MoviePass, because they get to target people who go to movies very frequently. And by collecting all this up, they can actually do something with it that might be useful.

So, and it turns out that the person who is now the CEO of MoviePass was a Netflix person, so it comes from that sort of data background. It made me a little more — a little bit less skeptical that there’s no way it could work.

Craig: I guess. I mean, I guess. Look, I don’t understand how they make money. $14 over and over and over — or $12, or $10 — whatever it is, if the average MoviePass person spends more than $10 in actual ticket prices per month, which I assume they do, and frankly the more they use it, the more expensive it becomes for the MoviePass people. That is the most extraordinary cost of data acquisition I can imagine. Especially because once you have their data, they’re just beating the crap out of you over and over, every time they go to see a movie.

So, I don’t know. I’m missing something clearly.

John: What I would say though is that same criticism could be leveled against the original Netflix model and the current Netflix model which is that the people who use it a lot are costing Netflix money. And so the people who were getting those discs, who are like watching one movie by mail every day, they were costing Netflix a lot of money. But it’s the people who, kind of like us, who would get the discs and sort of sit on them and not really get the maximum value out of it, those are the people they make money off of.

So I think they’re anticipating people will sign up for MoviePass, they’ll use it heavily for a while. It will taper down till they get back to sort of more normal movie-going habits. And it will sort itself out. I think that’s the hope.

Craig: Well, we’ll certainly find out.

John: We will certainly find out. So, it is filed away for a one-year follow up. We’ll see where MoviePass is one year from today.

Craig: Great.

John: All right, it’s time for our feature, How Would This Be a Movie. It’s a periodic look at stories in the news or stories we find other places and we examine them to look at how they could be adapted into movies. Usually we’re talking about big screen movies. Sometimes they’re more like made-for-cable movies. Occasionally we’ll decide that, oh, it’s actually more of a TV series idea, or it’s just a bad idea that should never have been put on the outline for us discuss.

But this week we’re going to actually try to do a bunch of them. Usually we do three. This time we might cram though as many as five. But we’ll be a little bit faster going through them and seeing what are the possibilities, what are the downfalls of this kind of movie.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So the first one is something I put on the list. This is a New York Times story by Sabrina Tavernise. It is also a great episode of The Daily. So she came on to talk through it on the New York Times podcast The Daily. And the stories are very complementary. You know, her written version of the story versus the audio version of the story, they are structured differently, but they tell the same story, which is that one year ago 20-year-old Abraham Davis and some friends in Western Arkansas graffitied a mosque in their town with racial slurs and swastikas.

Abraham Davis was eventually caught because of radio surveillance on the mosque. So while in jail, he was unable to make bail. He wrote this letter apologizing to the leaders of the mosque, who then became kind of his allies. They tried to get his felony charge reduced to misdemeanor, not wanting his life ruined for this one stupid thing he did.

So ultimately the New York Times story sort of frames Davis as both a villain and a victim in this situation that’s really more about — as much about class as race and sort of the consequences of some really bad spontaneous decisions.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Craig, what did you make of this story? As a story and as a potential movie?

Craig: Well, as a story it’s heartbreaking because you’re dealing with front line of failing America. There is a broken family with a deceased abusive father. And a mother who cannot make ends meet. They are living in poverty. And as is often the case, into that environment slips drinking and bad thinking. And blame. A search for blame.

And so on the one hand, this is a postmortem of let’s just call this almost a run of the mill kind of racist act. This isn’t the act of a coordinated group like those ding-a-lings in Charlottesville. This is more of the random guys get drunk on a Saturday night and go do something stupid. They act out. But they do so hatefully against the most vulnerable of people, namely outsiders. People that don’t fit into the status quo. And then we dissect why.

And underneath it we find that Abraham doesn’t really know why. And he comes off in his own way as sympathetic, because he feels terrible and he apologizes and he wants to make amends. And the people that he harmed, the members of this mosque, who seem like wonderful people, who have been trying very, very hard to live their lives in a place that is, well, inherently hostile to them, behave in, ironically enough, the most Christian way. And they forgive him and they try and help him.

All of that stuff feels very lovely. As a movie, the problem here is that this is too easy. There’s a wonderful moment in Mississippi Burning where Gene Hackman’s character is explaining how racism actually works to Willem Defoe’s character, because Willem Dafoe is a northern FBI guy. Gene Hackman is an FBI guy from the south.

And Gene Hackman’s own father, I believe, in the story does a terrible thing, a racist thing. And when Gene Hackman is done telling the story, the conclusion is he just couldn’t see — his father couldn’t see — that being poor was what was killing him. And that worked great as an object lesson inside of a movie that was about large historical events, people being murdered, and a courtroom drama. This does not have that, so it’s kind of operating on a simplistic Upworthy-like level.

John: Yeah. I can see that. And I think Upworthy is a good comparison to it, because I remember that site, and it would always have these sort of heartwarming stories of like, you know, you sort of won’t believe what happened next. And there’s a generosity of spirit that the leaders of the mosque show towards Abraham that is unexpected because it’s very easy to sympathize with their point of view is that they are sort of frightened to be in this town and suddenly have this spotlight on them because of this act that these guys took.

And the prosecutor in the small town decides to go after them for a felony, partly to make an example of them, to try to keep these things from happening again. And yet the leaders of the mosque really want to see this reduced down to a misdemeanor so this guy’s life isn’t destroyed.

I agree with you that I think what’s missing here is the bigger hook that sort of makes it a full story. This feels like a setup and right now it’s sort of like we’re kind of just floating in the second act. We don’t sort of see what his ultimate transformation is going to be. I’m assuming we’re looking at this from Abraham’s point of view, but we could look at it from other characters’ points of view. But what is the ultimate really outcome? What is the end of this journey? And I just feel like we’re still kind of in the middle of this journey right now.

The inciting incident was this decision to go graffiti this mosque. The surprise turn is that the mosque — not that it’s just that he’s caught, but that the mosque comes to his aid.

But we still don’t have anything to sort of push us towards that third act, much less a third act itself.

Craig: Yeah. Look, it is a wonderful story in that it does exemplify what is the best I think of human behavior. But when you tell a story like this, you are immediately in danger. You’re on somewhat thin ice because partly the whole thing feels a little bit like an apologia for a racist. And even if he is not as much a racist as a misguided, poor, impressionable young person, I don’t think too many people are that interested in investing their empathy and sympathy in him, because on the other side you have these poor people that are doing everything right, following all the rules, putting up with every day racism, and then somebody comes along and puts swastikas, oddly enough, on their mosque. It’s not exactly the most historically enlightened racists.

And so really they’re the ones who deserve all the empathy. There is an interesting dramatic debate there between the prosecutor and then the victims, the actual victims, in the mosque. But overall it’s not a movie.

John: Yeah. You look at other stories of southern racism and sort of like discovery. You look at To Kill a Mockingbird, and in To Kill a Mockingbird, you know, Harper Lee has made some very specific choices about whose eyes we’re going to see all of this through. And by putting it in Scout Finch’s eyes, we see the whole story. It allows for a kind of simplicity to sort of really take in the whole thing at once, which would be very difficult if we were just seeing it from her father’s point of view, or from any of the sort of damaged parties’ point of view.

So, I don’t think we have a Scout Finch in this story yet. And maybe that is actually the way in is to focus on Abraham’s brother or some other character that lets us sort of take a wider point of view on what’s really going on here.

Craig: Yeah. There is a character in here that appears briefly. And, of course, when we talk about these things we don’t mean to be insensitive. The whole point of this is to figure out how it’s a movie. This isn’t a character, it’s a human being, but, in the context of trying to figure out how it’s a movie, there is a character who is Abraham’s friend from high school who is Muslim. And his friend forgives him at the end, and that is certainly an interesting angle because, again, there is something a little sickly underneath all of this which is this weird desire to take the time to understand why this kid did this.

On the one hand, maybe that’s exactly what we need to do because that’s how we pull people away from this stuff. And on the other hand, is that the best use of our empathy right now? It’s a tough one?

John: So one last little bit that I want to make sure we didn’t elide from the story is the whole reason why Abraham Davis had to stay in jail is because he couldn’t make the bail. And so it does raise the real issue of sort of cash bail in the US legal system in that if he’d had any more money he wouldn’t have been in jail in the first place.

So, if you were to make this story or some version of this story, I think that’s an interesting detail to make sure you include in there. Because it speaks to the fundamental unfairness of the system as he’s seeing it.

Craig: Yeah. And just so people understand how poor Abraham and his family is, the bail was $1,580. And we presume that a bond would have cost a couple hundred bucks or something.

John: So in the audio version of the story you get into a little bit more of his family and his stepfather. And both of his parents are on disability. It’s really desperate times there. And so that I think is also part of the story if you’re trying to tell this story on some sort of screen.

Craig: Yeah.

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

Craig: Yeah. Sure. So the next one is sent to us — we were tipped off by Mark Harris. Mark Harris — he’s fancy.

John: Yeah. He’s a bona fide journalist there.

Craig: He’s a bona fide journalist. And husband of Tony Kushner. Is that right?

John: Yeah. That’s absolutely true.

Craig: Husband. Tony Kushner who I’m sure — by the way, Mark Harris is listening to this going, “Great, you know, I am my own person. You don’t have to mention the Tony Kushner thing. Do I always have to hear about the Tony Kushner thing?”

Yeah, you kind of do. He’s Tony Kushner. What are you going to do?

Anyway, fantastic story in the New York Times about a woman named Jeannie Rousseau de Clarens, who was a spy in WWII. And the article was spurred by her death at the age of 98. So Jeannie de Clarens was an amateur spy. She spoke fluent German, flawless German, no accent. And during the war, I believe after the Nazis had already occupied France, she became an interpreter in Paris for an association of French businessmen representing their interests as they negotiated with the German occupiers.

And while she was doing that she used all the things that were true about being a woman in the 1940s to get information out of the Germans. Essentially she played dumb. There’s a wonderful line. She said, when she was talking to these Germans, for instance when they spoke of this astounding new weapon that flew over vast distances she would say, “I kept saying what you are telling me cannot be true. I must have said that a hundred times.” And it totally worked.

So she heard all of this stuff and passed it along to the British. And then she was caught. She was actually caught a couple of times, different times, and ended up in a concentration camp. And would not talk about her experience in the concentration camp after. She did however meet her husband, who had also been imprisoned in Buchenwald and Auschwitz. And she didn’t speak much about her wartime exploits.

But it is a remarkable thing that these stories of heroism can just be invisible to us for so long. And then we uncover them, and we just marvel at how everyone, the most unexpected people, suddenly stepped up and put their own lives at risk to do what was right.

And I thought it was fantastic.

John: One of the things I liked about it was during the time where she was working, you know, translating for the Germans, she seemed to be complicit with them. She seemed to be sort of on their side. She was certainly helping them to be able to negotiate the occupation of France. And so anybody looking at her — a French person looking at her at the time would see her as an enemy, or see her as a collaborator with the Germans, not knowing that she’s actually working with the secret French intelligence network, the Druids, which is the best name ever.

Craig: Right.

John: To provide information. And she’s providing incredibly detailed information, because she had a near photographic memory. So, she’s asking all these questions, but she’s ultimately convincing them to show her plans to, like, the VI and VIII rockets that could have leveled London. So ultimately it was the information that she passed along allowed for bombing raids that took out sort of key production factories along the way.

So, incredibly important intelligence she was providing, yet at the same time to anybody — any French person watching her would think that she was aiding the enemy, which is a crucial thing about spy life. You don’t know who you can trust and no one is trusting you, which is crucial and difficult.

There were also some really good cinematic moments. There was a moment where she’s just about to get out and she’s caught at the last minute. There were some good near escapes. And I could see it. There was a visual quality to it that I think is important.

Craig: And as a character she has all the things you want. Because she is not an ordinary person who just happens to overhear people and so in a sense becomes a hero by luck. She’s a genius. So as you already point out, she has a photographic memory. She performed, this is from the article, “brilliantly at the elite Sciences Po, graduating at the top of her class in 1939.”

This is a very, very smart woman. And yet what do they have her doing in the war? Well, translating for men. Right? And just being kind of secretarial in that regard. And she exploits that.

That is a huge Achilles heel. And in wartime when all of these men are doing everything they can at the highest, most cat and mouse levels, to steal information from each other, they’ve left this massive backdoor open because they don’t know that women are as smart, or smarter, than them.

So, she gathers, for instance, documents regarding the German rocket program into a report called the Wachtel Report. And when this report was looked at by intelligence — there’s an intelligence analyst in London named Reginald V. Jones, which is an incredibly British name. Reginald V. Jones. When Reginald V. Jones saw the Wachtel Report he called it a masterpiece in the history of intelligence gathering. And when he asked who sent the report he was told that the source as only known by the code name Amniarix and that she was one of the most remarkable young women of her generation.

And I think that that was absolutely true.

John: So let’s think about this as a movie. So one of the fundamental questions I come up to is what language do you shoot this in? You’re going to make this for an American audience, either French or German is going to be switched into English so that we don’t have to read subtitles the entire time. Would you agree?

Craig: Absolutely.

John: So, French becomes English and German stays German?

Craig: No question.

John: All right. And so we’re doing that and so all of the French people are going to be speaking English. I basically get that. Who is our prototype for Jeannie herself? Who do we see in that role? Because it seems like a star role.

Craig: For sure. So, she was born in 1919. This is taking place around 1943. So we’re talking about a 24-year-old woman. And she was beautiful. That was part of the deal was that she was kind of notoriously beautiful. So, you know, here we are looking for a beautiful woman in her mid-20s who we also believe is brilliant. There’s that thing behind the eyes that some men and some women have, and some men and some women do not.

John: Yeah. That actress can be found. I’m not actually so worried about that, thinking about that age range. I mean, as you get older we have this generation of remarkable talents, the Cate Blanchetts, the Nicole Kidmans. But I think we have a new batch of those who are in their 20s who could do that. A Daisy Ridley. There’s some great British or American actress who I think could do that role brilliantly.

Craig: No question. I think that there are quite a few. And the other — you would want, I think, the thing that this article does not give you really is that key relationship. A relationship will emerge eventually. She does meet this man and they get married. But that’s after.

John: That’s the end.

Craig: Right. So you need that key relationship in the middle. It doesn’t have to be romantic, but it has to be valuable.

John: So the obvious choice for that would be her key handler. Whoever with the Druids she’s dealing with that she has to pass along the information to. That feels like a natural choice. But it could also be the main sort of German person she’s talking to who, you know, to the degree to which he’s an enemy but she has to continually manipulate him. And like how much does he know/how much does he not know? That’s always a great tension where like you’re not sure whether he’s on to her or not on to her. That’s always delightful.

Craig: I agree. You’d want to personify the enemy in a villain. You want one guy that represents that real threat. But you also need that other relationship to have significance that is beyond the details of the story. Even if it is her handler, there has to be something there between them that’s greasy.

And, again, I don’t think it’s romance. I think it’s guilt. I think it’s honor. I think it’s a question of what to do and what to not do. Cowardice and courage. But it’s got to be sticky. It’s got to be greasy. There has to be conflict between them to make that relationship mean something and in all likelihood when she ends up marrying this other guy, that other person, whoever it is, man or woman, has to be gone. It does seem like the war has to take things from you that matter, you know? And that means people.

John: Yeah. It’s delightful if that handler is married. And so every time that he’s off meeting with her it sort of seems like they’re having an affair. So even if there’s not a sexual relationship, there should still be the threat of a relationship there. There’s the possibility there that can never be explored because of the nature of how things are set up. That’s great. That’s the human drama behind the sort of spy drama we’re seeing.

Craig: Yeah. You would need to put that together. But I think that there is a possibility here. I think that — I would say if I were at a movie studio I would not do this as a straight biopic. I would —

John: No, no.

Craig: I would want to use it as inspiration for a fictional narrative.

John: Oh, I might use the real story but knowing that you’re going to be inventing some things because there’s just not documentation of certain things. But I think you could use the real story but just not market it as a biopic. Just market it as a great spy thriller that happens to be based on true story.

Craig: Yeah. I would go with inspired by. I would have some more license.

John: Sounds good. All right, our next one is a very different kind of thing. This is the Distracted Boyfriend meme. So, because we’re an audio podcast I will have to describe it, but once I describe it you’ll say like, oh, that thing I’ve been seeing all over Twitter and I’m really annoyed by.

So, the meme is an image. And the original image stars three people. There are two women and one young man. The young man is walking arm and arm with presumably his girlfriend, who looks over at him horrified because he’s looking back at an attractive woman who is slightly out of focus on the left side of the screen. So it has been dubbed the Distracted Boyfriend meme. And there are a bunch of articles I’ll put in the links of the show notes that talk about the meme and sort of where it came from and sort of how it was used.

Well, I should say that the original image is what I described. The meme became a thing once people started putting labels on the people, sort of identifying the people as ideas, or as types, or as goals. Basically you don’t want the thing that’s on your right arm. You want the thing that’s out of reach back over there. And so sometimes the faces get superimposed, but usually it’s labels.

And I think it was an effective meme that is now burning itself out quite quickly. But I put this on here because I’m curious what kinds of movies you could make out of this meme. So at first I was thinking this is straight ahead what happens when you are the stock photographer who has taken this shot in 2015 and now it has suddenly become a giant meme. Or you’re one of the actor/models in this thing who are suddenly identified with this worldwide phenomenon for something you did in an afternoon three years ago.

But there’s also I think the possibility of, like, what is it about the Distracted Boyfriend meme that feels kind of like all human drama? That you have the one thing, and you’re always looking for that next thing. I feel like so many of our stories that we try to tell on big screens, especially you know our two-hour sort of character dramas are about that guy or about one of those two women.

Craig: Yeah. I don’t think there’s a movie, but I do think that there is a good lesson here for screenwriters. And if you were somehow doubting that a picture is worth a thousand words, this one has generated far more than a thousand. And it’s because it’s incredibly extensible. I mean, you look at this and there are a million possible different analogous things that you could put on it, and people are.

And it is because there is a relationship and a conflict. The key to the Distracted Boyfriend meme is the distracted boyfriend’s girlfriend. So the girl that the distracted boyfriend is looking at is unaware. She’s — they’re behind her and she’s walking away. So, to me it’s all about the girlfriend looking at him like, “Ehh, what are you doing?” And that relationship of you’re looking at her because you want something you don’t have, and I’m looking at you because I’ve just realized that you’re gross.

Because there’s this incredible realization on her face that I think is the birth of a revelation. That is a wonderful little bomb that you can set off to make an entire movie out of. But, yeah, no, it’s not an actual movie.

John: Yeah. It strikes me that we’ve probably made a hundred times movies from each of those characters’ points of view. So from the girl who has no sense that she is a wrecking ball as she’s walking down the street, where she has such an attraction that everything around her sort of crumbles and she’s blissfully unaware of it. That’s a delightful character sometimes to see.

We make a lot of movies about that guy, the cad. That guy who keeps screwing up but you still love him for some reason. But we’ve definitely made the girlfriend’s movie a bunch of times, who gets betrayed by the guy who thinks that she loves or thinks that she likes. And so sometimes that moment happens on page 10. Sometimes it happens on page 30. Sometimes it’s the strategy of a whole journey and discovery. Sometimes the movie is — realize she originally was the girl in soft focus at the left side of the screen and she’s become the girl on the right side of the screen.

So, those three characters are kind of — I think part of the reasons why this became such a good meme is those characters are really archetypal. It’s an experience we all have seen a hundred times and experienced in our own life.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But it’s not a movie in and of itself.

Craig: Nah.

John: It is worth clicking through — Martin Belam for The Guardian wrote up a piece about the original photographer. The picture was originally called “Disloyal Man Walking with his Girlfriend and Looking Amazed at Another Seductive Girl.”

Craig: That is accurate.

John: That’s fantastic. And so it was a stock photo image by a 45-year-old professional photographer, Antonio Guillem, from Barcelona. And he uses those same three models in a bunch of things, so it’s fun to see those same actors in just a bunch of different situations. So it’s fun to click through if you want to see more about that meme and its origins.

Craig: The craziest thing is these other things involving those stock photo actors and the craziest one is jealous girlfriend. There’s a sequence of four photos — jealous girlfriend and her husband — it doesn’t seem like the same guy — they’re happily looking at a pregnancy test. She’s pregnant. Then the next photo is she has a baby and she’s feeding it from a bottle. And then the next bottle is looking at a thermometer. The baby is not a baby anymore. She’s like two. And jealous girlfriend, now mother, is staring at a thermometer worried. The last photo is the jealous girlfriend sobbing as she stares at a toddler’s shoe. And it’s clear that the kid died. [laughs] It’s the craziest — I mean, actually this photographer has the ability to reduce narrative down in a way I’ve never experienced before.

I mean, it’s incredible.

John: Yep. The other four set of photos shows essentially the same — it’s a flipped version of the same couple looking at a girl who walks past. So, originally he sees the girl walking past, and then it’s like, oh hey, we know that girl. And so they’re friends. And then the two girls are having coffee. The guy is in the background. And then the two girls are kissing.

Craig: It’s getting better and better.

John: Yeah. So it can work many, many ways.

Craig: It can work many, many ways.

John: All right. Our next story comes from, there’s a bunch of different things I can send you to. I’ll link to a New York Post article about it. But ultimately a Daily Mail article which is sort of a more extensive follow up.

So what happens is Lisa Theris, she’s 25 years old, and she goes missing in the dense Alabama woods. Search parties with dogs go to look for her, but they never find her. Her family makes pleas for anyone with information.

Investigators then say that Lisa Theris was with two men who burglarized a hunting lodge in the woods. Eventually each man accuses the other one of killing her. Then a month later, almost 30 days later, Lisa Theris emerges from the woods, onto a highway, and is spotted by a motorist. She’s lost 50 pounds. She’s bedraggled. She says she was drinking water out of a brook and eating berries and mushrooms for all these weeks. She has bug bites and scratches. She looks horrible.

And originally the story is built like can you believe this woman somehow survived. It is a miracle. And then the story gets extra complicated. Do we want to jump to the spoiler right now, or do we want to talk about that initial part?

Craig: The spoiler is the only reason to do it, so we might as well talk about it, because otherwise it’s like whatever.

John: Right from the first time I saw this article and bookmarked it for like we’ve got to talk about this on a segment, there is something that doesn’t add up here. No young woman without any training is surviving for 30 days in the woods. And she wasn’t that far away from places either. So something else major was going on.

I initially suspected, OK, there’s some serious mental illness or something happening here. One of the initial stories said that she was legally blind. I didn’t see that in the follow up stories. But I thought like, you know what, there’s drugs here someplace. And it seems like there probably were some drugs here.

Craig: Yeah. Not just drugs. America’s favorite drug. Meth.

John: Meth.

Craig: Meth. I went into meth forest and I had meth mushrooms. So, Lisa Theris was hanging around with these two guys who were no good. She doesn’t seem to be any good either, to be honest with you. And when I say no good, I mean trouble.

They were talking about robbing a place. They were, it appears, to be completely out of their mind on meth. And she goes wandering off because she’s out of her mind on meth. Here’s the best part. The cops pick up these two guys. And they say what happened. And eventually they confess that they shot her in the head, which they believe they did because they were on meth.

John: Yep.

Craig: That’s where this story starts to go to the next level. I don’t think it’s a movie, but it could be an awesome episode of something. Or like even a plot device of something where two characters are absolutely convinced they’ve killed somebody and it turns out that, no, you were just on meth.

John: Yeah. So I really want Gillian Flynn to tackle this. Like Gillian Flynn who did Gone Girl. The same way that she was taking some real life events and sort of spinning them into her own fictional fantasy world for Gone Girl, I feel like this had the beginnings of an idea that needed to be further built out. And so you need some characters who actually had a little bit more agency here. Because one of the frustrations is like all three of the people involved here seem to just be idiots. And so you want somebody to be a little bit brighter and have a little bit more forethought.

But then it’s great when people do have some forethought and still get backed into a corner, which is what is so great about Gone Girl is that everyone ends up being sort of trapped by their own egos and their own devices. There’s something here that could be great, but it just needs a lot of extra stuff to sort of shape it and fill it out.

Craig: Yeah. It’s kind of silly. Because in the end no one dies. No one is hurt. No one even gets burglarized. It’s just three knuckleheads losing their minds on meth. For those of you who might be thinking about trying meth, we don’t think you should. You shouldn’t do it.

John: I would think we can come down pretty strongly on that actually. Because we don’t want to tell you how to live your life, but I think we can say that meth is not good.

I don’t know a lot of tremendously successful people who are heavy meth users.

Craig: I actually don’t know any of them. We won’t tell you how to live your life, but we will tell you how not to not live your life. [laughs]

John: [laughs] We can only offer, like, cautionary tales of things. And this would be a cautionary tale.

Ultimately what I think is appealing about this story is the sudden twists. So like a girl goes missing. That’s heartbreaking, but we’ve seen that before. Oh, these guys confess to killing her, but they don’t know where the body is. Oh, that’s a good twist. Oh, she stumbles out of the woods. Well that’s great. And so then like well what happens. And what we’re lacking right now is a “What happened?”

So we’re somewhere in the second act and there’s nothing — it’s not clear that there’s enough machinery built up to carry us through a second and a third act.

Craig: Agreed.

John: Agreed. Let’s go on to Copenhagen. Do you want to try to set this one up?

Craig: Copenhagen. Oh boy. This is a weird one. So, in Denmark they found a woman’s torso, without a head, arms, or legs. In the water. What happened here?

Well, [laughs] it’s just too weird to be true, but it’s true. A famous Danish inventor by the name of Peter Madsen had built a homemade submarine. And he took a journalist out on a little submarine ride because she was, I believe, writing a story about his submarine. Her name was Kim Wall. She ends up dead. Initially when she went missing he said that there had been an accident on board, which had caused her death, and that he had gone ahead and just buried her at sea.

And that already was not good. But when the body turned up missing a head and arms and legs, it does seem like maybe he didn’t just bury her at sea. That maybe she didn’t just have an accident. And so right now we’re kind of in the middle of this crazy case where this third rate Elon Musk has apparently pulled some Silence of the Lambs crap on his own submarine.

What? John, help.

John: So here’s what we have. We have a fantastic setting. It’s Denmark and it’s a homemade submarine. And you have this guy who aspires to be Elon Musk, or a Richard Branson. And he’s convinced this journalist, or maybe she sought out this interview, to go on this homemade submarine with him. And she’s an accomplished journalist herself. She’s Swedish. That’s all really interesting.

And then she dies. What’s tough, though, is to figure out where do you start the story. Do you start the story before this murder happens? Do you start the story with the body washing up? And who are the principal characters other than this guy? And are we following it all from his point of view? Because there’s definitely a dark, dark movie where you’re basically with him this entire time, sort of watching things go awry. But there’s also probably a Fargo-ish version where we have multiple point of views and particularly some law enforcement person who is pushing into the crazy here, to just help — he is thrown into this.

Again, we don’t have enough beats here yet. There’s not enough story here yet. So we have a really compelling world. A compelling central character. We’re not sure we’d follow him as a dark protagonist or as the Hannibal Lecter of the story. But we don’t have really an engine.

Craig: I agree. I think that there are quite a few, maybe one could argue too many at this point, television series that center around a single murder, an unexpected murder in a quiet place. A number of these series, in fact, are Danish and Swedish. And you could see this being episode one of an eight-episode series, trying to figure out how someone ended up armless and headless and legless after taking a submarine ride. So there’s certainly the potential for a good mystery here.

But I don’t think it’s at all a movie. It does sort of inspire, though, an idea for a movie.

John: Tell me.

Craig: A serial killer on a submarine. Like a real submarine.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: It’s like a locked-room mystery. So people just keep turning up dead on a submarine and you’re the guy in charge of figuring out who did it. That’s kind of cool.

John: Oh, OK, great. I was hearing that a completely different way. So you’re describing that it’s Murder on the Orient Express but you’re on a submarine?

Craig: Exactly. Exactly.

John: That’s great.

Craig: But it keeps happening. Like Murder on the Orient Express, one person is murdered. So in this one — this is more like And Then There Were None on a submarine.

John: I originally thought you were describing a serial killer who like got into places on a submarine. Basically that’s why no one could ever detect him. Because he was coming in on a personal submarine.

Craig: That would be cool.

John: That would be kind of cool.

Craig: And weird.

John: And weird.

Craig: Yeah.

John: All right. Let’s get to our final one. This is a much kind of looser idea for a story. I guarantee you there’s not a movie about specifically this, but I thought it was an interesting framework for sort of a thing that feels old fashioned yet still apparently exists.

So, this is a story in Fast Company written by John Paul Titlow. And he follows Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer who are starting an online business. And they’re able to do everything great. Things are set up and working well, but what they find, or at least what they suspect, is that sometimes their vendors or other people they’re dealing with are dismissing them, and they think it’s because they’re women.

So they create a fake male cofounder and start using his name on the emails going out. And they find a very different reaction when the email comes from a man’s name rather than a woman’s name. So it basically tracks what it’s like to create a fictitious guy in the company that’s actually run by two women.

Craig: I actually think that there is a movie in this.

John: Tell me about it.

Craig: Well, there is a long tradition in comedies, and I think it would be a comedy with an edge and purpose, of characters creating a lie, losing control of the lie, having to face the consequences of the lie. Usually the point of that is you shouldn’t have lied. And in this one the point can be, oh, you shouldn’t have had to have lied. And there is a possibility of two women creating this man and suddenly encountering all this success and having to farcically keep up the man and his presence and send him into meetings and all the rest of it. It’s a bit like Cyrano de Bergerac but for business. And instead of trying to win over the heart of a woman, you’re trying win over the heart of a VC guy. So you’re sending in some dopey guy who — essentially you hire a bro.

You hire a tech bro to be the face of your company and the entire thing is essentially a satire on sexist Silicon Valley. And then it all comes crumbling down. I think there’s potential for a funny movie there.

John: I agree. So, part of what they’re describing here is essentially the premise of Remington Steele. So that was a great detective drama that I loved, or detective comedy that I loved, in the ë80s, starring Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan.

And so Stephanie Zimbalist’s character was a private investigator and no one would take her seriously so she created Remington Steele who would be the man runs the agency, but he was always off on business. Pierce Brosnan shows up as somebody asking for Remington Steele, basically realizes that there’s no real person, and basically fills that spot. And so the tension is between them and this guy who shows up. So that’s certainly a possibility.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also had a plot line where Rebecca had basically created a fake boyfriend based on this guy on Facebook. But that guy turned out to be her own stalker. And so he shows up and hilarity ensues.

So, there’s definitely a great tradition of that where you’ve started a lie and the lie just keeps spinning out of control. And you’ve lost the ability to sort of manipulate it, but that’s part of the fun of that.

So, I agree some person occupying the spot of that guy ultimately is what’s going to have to happen.

Craig: It does seem like that. Who, by the way, is in the great pantheon of culture — who is your favorite fake boyfriend?

John: Do I have a favorite fake boyfriend?

Craig: Because there is an answer.

John: What is the greatest fake boyfriend?

Craig: George Glass.

John: What is George Glass from? Is that from Not Another Teen Movie?

Craig: No. He is from The Brady Bunch.

John: Oh my god. The Brady Bunch. Of course.

Craig: Jan invented George Glass because Marcia was making fun of her for not having a boyfriend. George Glass.

John: George Glass is great.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So I think there could be some movie there and, again, the casting of these two women is so fundamental because their basic chemistry is going to have to be driving a lot of this. And then you add the third element of whoever this guy is who fills that spot. And some good stuff could happen. You could have the tension between the two women. You have the tension between the two women and this guy. The outsiders. It’s a good way of sort of framing the craziness of Silicon Valley or VC culture. So I can see all of that stuff happening.

Craig: Yeah. I think somebody should do this.

John: All right. Maybe someone will do this. So, I want to thank Andrew Ellard who pointed us towards this article. And we also had a bunch of readers who pointed us to other articles that we talked about today. Like nine people pointed me to the submarine thing, so thank you for that. Again, you guys continue to be the best people.

Craig, of all the movies we talked through today, you think this one could be a movie and probably the spy story could be a movie?

Craig: That’s right. That’s where I’m coming down, John.

John: All right. I think those are good choices. But I would say I wouldn’t be surprised if people keep digging around about the meth story and even this New York Times story, which got a lot of attention, there’s something appealing about the worlds in which they’re set. There’s just not enough story here quite yet for either of those other two stories.

Craig: Agreed.

John: Agreed. Craig, it is time for our One Cool Things. Do you have a One Cool Thing?

Craig: I do. I do. Today’s One Cool Thing is something that was a cool thing in my life years ago and is about to become a slightly larger cool thing again. The Lego Company is putting out a new Millennium Falcon model. So, the last time, and this is the big one, right. So there was a big one back in the day that I built. It was 5,000 plus pieces. 5,195 pieces. And I built it, John. I built it. It was enormous. And it took me a long time as you can imagine.

John: Well, when you say a long time, it was weeks or days?

Craig: Weeks. Weeks.

John: Wow.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, it had to. 5,195 pieces is more than you think it is. It’s so many and a lot of them are tiny, tiny, and you’ve got to find — and the instruction booklet is like a phonebook. So, I built it. I built it. And then over time I actually gave it away to one of my son’s friends, so he has it now.

But they’re reissuing — not reissuing — they’ve created a new one. The new ultimate collector series Millennium Falcon. It’s going to have 7,541 pieces. And it looks so good. And I’m going to buy it. And I’m going to build it. Yeah. I’m going to do it, John.

John: So, where will you put the Millennium Falcon when you’re done with it?

Craig: That’s a great question. I’ve been thinking about that. I think I’m going to put it in my office. But I’ve got to find a real good spot for it. It’s heavy. I want to build it where I’m going to be, because transporting it is a huge pain in the ass.

John: Yeah. So and will you hang it some way, or will it be a pedestal? I suspect there will be a whole aftermarket for like custom pedestals for the Millennium Falcon.

Craig: I’m just going to put it on top of something. I’m not going to — hanging it would be very difficult. It is heavy. I can’t remember what the actual weight was of the first one. But it was probably 30 pounds, 40 pounds. I mean, it was really heavy.

And this one, one of the cool things about this one, just to get super dorky, is that they’re giving you a choice. As you build it, you can build it to be a replica of the original Millennium Falcon, or you can build it to include some little tweakies that have since come aboard the version that is in 7, 8, and 9.

John: Nice. Cool.

Craig: So I can build the Rian Falcon or the non-Rian Falcon.

John: That’s awesome. And so one kit will be able to build both, or you have to buy the special kit?

Craig: No, one kit will build both. There aren’t that many differences, so they’re able to do that.

John: Really nice. Cool. Maybe you could get Rian Johnson to sign your Millennium Falcon.

Craig: Ooh, I’m gonna. What a great idea.

John: I have good ideas every once and a while. My One Cool Thing is a website called the Living New Deal. And it’s basically a giant Google Map that shows little pins for all of the New Deal projects built across the United States. So, for people who don’t know US history, during the Great Depression there was an act called The New Deal which was to build a bunch of things across the country to basically put people back to work. So, there were major engineering projects, bridges, dams. But also a lot of artistic projects, so like a lot of artisans were put to work building murals and other sort of works around.

And you look at this map and it looks like some horrible outbreak has happened in the US, but it’s all like cool stuff that was built. So you can zoom in, or you can even type in your zip code and see what’s around you that was built as part of the New Deal. And I lost a lot of time just clicking through and seeing stuff because it’s really an impressive achievement of what an organized spending plan can do to create cool things in the world and keep people working.

So, particularly our national parks. That’s one of the great achievements of the New Deal was really building the infrastructure for our national parks system which is still amazing.

Craig: Yeah. This is a great map. I know that some people feel like government doesn’t do anything, but when you look at this it is astonishing.

John: Yeah. And over a period of — the New Deal lasted eight years I would say, max. I don’t really know. I don’t know the outer boundaries of the New Deal.

Craig: Roughly. Yeah.

John: But it was making stuff. And it’s cool when people make stuff. And it’s cool that so much of that stuff is still around because you get to see it. And even in Los Angeles, you know, you kind of can’t go too far without encountering a grade school that has a mural from the New Deal, or our public libraries. So, check it out.

Craig: Yeah. There was a time when this country actually functioned.

John: Remember that? All right, that is our show for this week. So, final reminders. You should vote in the WGA elections because it’s important to vote and set a course for the next two years of the WGA. And buy Big Fish tickets in London if you are going to be in London because it will be a fun show and I’d love to see you.

Our show is produced by Carlton Mittagakus. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Jonathan Mann.

Craig: Oh, I like Jonathan Mann.

John: And Craig will especially like this one, because Craig is all over this outro.

Craig: Well, you know. I’m pretty useful for outros.

John: If you have an outro, you can send us a link to That’s also the place where you send longer questions, but short questions are great on Twitter. I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. On Facebook, look for us at Scriptnotes Podcast. And look for us on Apple Podcasts to subscribe. While you’re there, leave us a review. That’s always helpful. Thank you for people who do that.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. Transcripts have been a little bit slower, so it’s about a week after the episode goes up that we have the full transcripts. But it’s nice. It’s searchable.

You can find the back episodes of this show at or on the USB drive. Just go to

Craig, have a fun week.

Craig: You too. And I’ll see you soon.

John: Bye.


Email us at

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 315: Big Screens, Big Money — Transcript

Wed, 09/06/2017 - 14:07

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is…my name is…my name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 315 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Today on the program, we’ll be taking a look at how the movie business makes money on the big screen. And two plans to disrupt the status quo. We’re also going to be answering listener questions about creative rights and producer promises.

Craig: OK. [laughs]

John: But first, we have another event coming up here, which is not a Scriptnotes event, but is a Writers Guild Foundation event. It is a poker tournament, which Craig competed in last year. Craig, are you competing in the WGF poker tournament this year?

Craig: I’m not sure. I’m going to endeavor to do so, but it’s a little shaky one way or the other. But it’s a very good event. A lot of big fancy writers are there. A lot of regular, average, cool people are there. New writers are there. And I assume it’s for the benefit of the same program it was last year, which was the Veterans’ Writing Program.

John: Absolutely. So it’s to benefit the great work that the Writers Guild Foundation does. It is on October 20. It’s a Friday. It’s a $250 buy in. That gets you the chips and lets you compete against other screenwriters who may or may not be talented in poker, but are certainly talented at the craft of screenwriting. So if that is appealing to you, there’s a link in the show notes for that. So, another good WGF event to attend.

Now, Craig, last week we talked about Unforgiven. It was a popular episode. People seemed to really dig it.

Craig: Well, it makes sense because I’m not patting myself or you on the back here, it’s a great, great movie. And I generally have this theory that even though the massive majority of commentary on the Internet about films and television is negative, snarky, and mean. What people actually want when you get down to it is positivity. They don’t want bland, vapid positivity. Golly gee, I sure did like that movie. They want passion. It is so much more interesting, I think, for people to listen to anyone — not just you or me — anyone talk about something they love and talk about why.

So, maybe there’s a lesson in this for the purveyors of snarky slop.

John: I wonder if some of the fandom theory mongering that happens, basically like oh, this is how all these movies are really connected or this is the secrets you did not notice about this movie is an attempt to sort of create positivity. Like it’s an attempt to talk about movies that people genuinely love and because there’s this fear of like well why would I write that this movie is really good because everybody knows that movie is really good? So, sometimes I wonder if people are generating sort of controversies around movies just so they can have something to talk about and not feel pointless.

Craig: Well, that may be true. It may also be true that they simply have impoverished imaginations or a poor ability to understand why they actually like something. And so they don’t know how to express it. I mean, any idiot can yell at a movie. It requires no neural wattage, as far as I can understand. But the best people who write about films are the ones that write lovingly and in detail and insightfully. And it’s fun to read those things. It’s so much more rewarding to read those things than anything else because they bring you to a new movie, or they have you reconsider something that maybe you didn’t quite like before. So, I’m hopeful that maybe a few more people out there might start to do things like this.

John: It would be great. And so we will try to do another one of those deep dives on a movie before it’s another year. We always sort of promise we’re going to do one and we never do one. But let’s try to promise to do one in the next six months. How is that?

Craig: I hereby do vow. And you get to pick the next one.

John: I will pick it.

Craig: So again, people can either watch Tuff Turf now. They could read the script now. They could wait and watch Tuff Turf right before the episode if they want to get refreshed on Tuff Turf.

John: Yeah. I think it’s always a good choice to read Tuff Turf, but I will promise you that that will not be the movie that I pick.

Craig: God. I guess I’m going to read Tuff Turf for the 20,000th time.

John: You have to make those choices.

Craig: I was just talking about being positive and here I am, I’m pooping on Tuff Turf. I have never seen Tuff Turf. I just like the title.

John: I barely know what Tuff Turf is. I assume Tuff Turf is a football movie?

Craig: No. No.

John: I was wrong then.

Craig: The turf is like sort of gang turf, as far as I can tell. And obviously it’s tough. So, I don’t know actually what happens in Tuff Turf. And I don’t really know what it’s about to be honest with you. I think my turf thing is correct, but I’m not sure.

John: Well, if Pixar were to make Tuff Turf it would be about the brave glades of grass who have to fend off invaders. And it’s literally about the grass itself being tough. And like is the grass tough enough? And like one blade of grass would have to take a great journey in order to learn how to fight back against the lawnmower.

Craig: Yeah. And maybe the lesson in the end, true Pixar style, is being tough is a trap. It’s just a trap, you know?

John: I mean, the blade of grass has to learn how to be more emotionally connected to its fellow blades of grass, because they are all in this together.

Craig: They have to accept the best of what they are and understand that this is how it is. And that one day new sod will be there.

John: So whether it’s the Tuff Turf from the 1970s or the Tuff Turf of 2017, the common thread behind them is that at some point they’re going to be huge blockbusters on the big screen.

Craig: Segue Man! Tuff Turf, by the way, was I think the ’80s, not the ’70s. I don’t think the ’70s could have possibly produced Tuff Turf.

John: The Warriors was also the ’80s, was it not?

Craig: The Warriors I believe was late ’70s. Let me check. Because it seems like in my mind it was right on the edge of the decade turn.

John: This will be the episode that never actually starts.

Craig: Well, I’m good with that. I mean, listen, I think people don’t — 1979. Nailed it.

John: All right.

Craig: I don’t think people want us to actually start.

John: No. They want us to talk about Tuff Turf and like how little we know about it. So, I know it’s Warriors Come out and Play. That’s basically all I know. And that there’s baseball bats and they’re on a subway train.

Craig: Yeah. I remember Warriors was a movie that every single kid in my school was talking about. And I was not allowed to see it. So I was confused. I felt isolated. The problem for me is, so I was eight years old. We’re talking about third graders, I guess, at that point. And third graders are the worst at explaining movies. So, my understanding of the Warriors for the longest time was as it was conveyed through third graders, which is mostly just, “And then, and then, and then.”

John: Absolutely. Everything is episodic because that’s the way that kids describe these things. I was also really confused by Kiss at the time. And I bring up Kiss because I perceive that in Warriors there’s makeup and there’s disguises and faces and masks and things. And I didn’t understand whether Kiss was serious or a joke about rock. And I just didn’t understand Kiss at all in my youth.

Craig: I’m with you, actually. There were two bands when I was growing up in the ’70s that puzzled me. One was Kiss and one was The Grateful Dead. For the same reasons. Because I looked at Kiss and they seemed very serious to me, especially because of the blood. So Gene Simmons would bite a thing and then blood would come out of his mouth. And so I’m pretty sure they took it seriously. And my friends would collect Kiss cards. They had Kiss trading cards. And they were really serious about those. But then I heard the music and I’m like this is just pretty much bland pop rock. I know the Kiss army is now coming after me. But I want to rock and roll all night…that’s just sort of a boppy little rock tune.

John: Yeah. It feels good.

Craig: It’s just a pop song. And so I was so confused by that. And the other one was The Grateful Dead, because their name was The Grateful Dead and there were skeletons and skulls all over their stuff. And I finally listened to them and I’m like this is not the Swedish death metal that I was expecting at all.

John: Not whatsoever. I think the first Grateful Dead song I was really aware of was Touch of Grey, which is of course not indicative of their whole what they were sort of doing.

Craig: No.

John: But that’s the first song I heard. And like well that’s just almost a folk song.

Craig: Oh, no question. You were very late to the Dead. The first Grateful Dead song that I remember was Truckin’.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: So I’m ready for The Dead. Like, OK, it’s The Grateful Dead. They are embracing their death and their skeletons and skull faces. And then Truckin’…like the Doodah Man. Truckin’. What? What is happening here?

John: Craig Mazin, what was the first live concert you saw of a big name act? Like an act you would hear on the radio?

Craig: The first concert I saw of such nature was Crosby, Still, and Nash. No Young.

John: Pre-Young. Pre-Young or post-Young?

Craig: It was post-Young. Post-Young. So I saw CSN. My first concert was Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

John: Mine was The Bangles opening for Cyndi Lauper. Or it could have been Cyndi Lauper opening for The Bangles. It’s a little unclear sort of where they were at in their respective trajectories. But it was at CU and it was kind of great. Like I still love both of them in their way. And it was my first show.

Craig: Let’s see, so you had The Bangles and you had Cyndi Lauper.

John: Yeah.

Craig: This was in 1980…?

John: When would that have been? Like 1986 I want to say.

Craig: God, I feel like The Bangles opened for Lauper.

John: Yeah, that’s got to be true because Cyndi Lauper would have already been a hit. She would have already had her True Colors and those moments.

Craig: Yeah. She wasn’t going to be opening for anybody. She’s Cyndi Goddamn Lauper.

John: Were you more Cyndi Lauper or more Madonna?

Craig: Oh, definitely more Cyndi Lauper. I did not like Madonna music — I have never liked it. I’ll be honest with you. I’ve never understood the Madonna thing at all. It has always confounded me because the songs are very pop generic, which is fine, but she herself just seemed so weirdly bland. I never got it at all. Whereas Cyndi Lauper just seemed like a genius. And so — I mean, there is no one like Cyndi Lauper. There’s never been anyone like her before her. There will not be one like her again. She’s Cyndi Lauper. And I was always — to me like Cyndi Lauper or the Eurythmics. You know, and I’m thinking about sort of synth pop ’80s bands, and I’m not even talking about like the arty ones. I’m just talking about sort of the mainstream ones. Like Annie Lennox fascinated me.

Madonna? Meh.

John: Yeah, but I think when it comes down to Madonna is you recognize the singular ambition. So, independent of talent, like you know, you take Cyndi Lauper or you take Annie Lennox, they are remarkable talents you feel like would find a way to be discovered no matter what. Madonna was good in her zone, but she was so ambitious that she was going to be successful no matter what. And I think that’s what I always sort of respected about Madonna was this desire to be at the top of everything. And that’s — it’s kind of — that’s kind of great. I love to see that.

Craig: I guess. On an individual basis, person by person, that can be very admirable. But I can’t help but feel like if that is true, a lot of people then grew up and said I’m going to be like Madonna and now we have Kim Kardashian, whose only talent is ambition apparently.

John: Yeah. That’s true. I’m not saying it was a good thing to be out there. I don’t like it in the Kim Kardashian’s. But I guess I can now understand why some people might like Kim Kardashian for being just empty ambition.

Craig: [laughs] Exactly. Well, I’m sticking with my Annie Lennox and my Cyndi Lauper.

John: That’s absolutely fine. And I will continue to enjoy my classic Madonna even as I don’t sort of celebrate the new Madonna stuff.

Craig: Yeah, OK, well you know what? I feel good about this.

John: I feel good about this. I think it was a good use of listeners’ time. Let’s get to a 101 on how the film industry works when it comes time for the big screen. So it’s a weird thing that I don’t think we’ve ever really talked about on the podcast. And it’s really strange the more you dig into it.

So, I first learned about film economics 101 back when I was in the Stark Program at USC. And it was great, but it was also kind of overwhelming. You recognized that the flow of money is really strange and different than I was sort of expecting.

So let’s talk about what exhibition is and how studios relate to it. And use that as a background to look at two new things that are happening in the industry and sort of why they are disruptive.

Let’s start with exhibitors. And so exhibitors are what we call the general term for what we call the theater chains, or actually even individual theaters. And so in the US the big chains you tend to recognize are AMC, Regal, Cinemark, Cineplex. But there’s also a lot of regional local chains. And so Pacific is really big here in Los Angeles, in Southern California. Every little city or community is going to have its own chains. And they’re important because within a region they tend to be not monopolies, but oligopolies. There’s not going to be that many theaters competing within a region because there’s just not that many people to see movies. Like you can’t have 15 different theaters within one little tiny pocket. There’s only a certain geographical range from which you can draw.

So, theaters are incredibly important for literally getting butts in seats. They own the seats that are going to be holding the butts that are watching the movies that come out on that first weekend.

Craig: That’s certainly true. Theaters are a strange business because they plop themselves down in the physical space and sell you something which is a movie plus all the popcorn and the so on, whatever you’re buying. But other than the concessions that they’re selling you, they don’t own the stuff they’re selling you. They’re kind of letting other people sell it to you through them. It’s almost like a trading post for movies really. So, it is true that you can’t plop these things down because they can’t really compete. They don’t have different products because they don’t make their own products.

They don’t sell unique products. It is, I guess, a little bit retail in that regard, but because of the way the pricing works, and we’ll get into that, you don’t have the kind of competition that you would have anywhere else. You don’t have where Target and Walmart are near each other and you say, well, I can buy this backpack at Target or I can buy it at Walmart. Let me sell, well, they’re selling slightly different backpacks and those are a little more expensive.

No, there’s one Justice League movie. Where is it going to be? That’s where I’m going. And it won’t be playing across the street from itself unless you’re in a city where you can get away with that sort of thing.

John: Yeah, in general within cities they tend to carve cities into zones. And so that a given movie will not be showing at one theater and the theater across the street. Occasionally on super huge movies they’ll break the zone, but in general a movie is playing at one place in Hollywood rather than two places in Hollywood. And that’s just how it has evolved. That’s how it has come to be.

And Craig makes a crucial point. They’re showing exactly the same movie. So, two theaters, they can only compete against each other on the intangibles or the niceties. Like ArcLight is a better experience than a crappy theater two blocks down, so I might choose to see the movie at the ArcLight. I might choose to pay a little bit more money to see the movie at the ArcLight. But that’s about it. They’re showing the same film. It’s only the stuff around the film that changes.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So let’s take a look at where they’re getting their movies. Well, from the studios. And so the big studios, we all know, it’s Disney, Warner, Fox, Universal, Sony, Paramount, and then there’s a couple other places that will bubble up from time to time. The Lions Gates. The other people who make big movies. And of course there’s independents. There’s the A24s. There’s going to be some other movies that come out there in the world. But it’s those big six studios that are controlling most of the product that is being shown in these theaters.

And so it seemed really natural that like, well, why don’t the studios just buy the theaters. Why don’t they just control the whole chain?

Craig: That’s a great idea. Why don’t they do that?

John: It would be so, so smart, and once upon a time they did.

Craig: Oh…

John: And so in 1948 there was a consent decree. It’s called the Paramount Decision. And basically it prohibited the studios from owning theaters. Up until that point, studios could control the theaters and it was ruled to be an antitrust violation. It was unfair restraint of trade because independent theaters couldn’t get access to these movies, so they broke them apart. And so you will still see some theaters called like a Paramount theater, but they are not owned by Paramount anymore.

Craig: Yeah. It was one of the early examples of what we talk about all the time now — Vertical integration. You control the entire chain of supply and in doing so you create a situation where you can manipulate prices and control the market and suppress competition unfairly.

If you had, let’s say think about your typical grocery store, if they were also making all of the food and packaging all of the food and selling you all of the food, and they controlled that entire chain of supply up and down, then they could start to undersell everybody. And it would be a problem for competition, right?

So, when the studios owned every single theater, you would as a consumer be forced to see whatever it was that they were showing. There was no chance to see something they weren’t showing. They could effectively create a system of censorship because if they all agreed they weren’t going to be showing certain kinds of movies in their own theaters, you couldn’t see them. Enter the Hays Code, I think it was called the Hays Code, right?

John: I think so.

Craig: And they also would force you to watch other stuff you might not want to watch, which is called bundling. So, Microsoft got into trouble with this one, especially in Europe. When they were selling Windows they would also sort of force you to now use Internet Explorer. This was a huge problem and it’s called bundling, where you lean on one monopoly to force people to start buying another product that isn’t necessarily required for the Monopoly to work. And now you’ve created a second Monopoly. And so Internet Explorer went from what the hell is this to the biggest browser in the world — if you can believe it, because remember that piece of crap?

John: Yep.

Craig: So, they would start bundling short films. They would start bundling their other movies together. If you want R movies, you have to — and you’re not — and we don’t own you. We still kind of own you. Because if you want any of our movies you got to buy them all now. It became a real problem. And they fought it. Man, did they fight it. They fought it all the way to the Supreme Court.

John: And they lost.

Craig: They lost.

John: So, the realities today is that the studios and the exhibitors are negotiating on a per-movie basis for which theaters are going to carry which films. And so if you look at the negotiation from both sides, the studios want the best screens. The exhibitors want the biggest movies. And so each of them is doing the calculation of like how much am I will to fight to get this movie or this screen and what is it worth to me to get that. And the terms they can be negotiating over are basically how much money are we going to split between us on this film.

Classically, the split has been on the first weekend or the first two weeks, the studio might get 90% of the money that comes back. Well, that’s not entirely true. They might split it 90/10, but with a certain fee guaranteed to the theater for that screen. That’s called the House Nut. And so that split would over the course of weeks generally equal out to be about 50/50 split between the studios and the theaters. But it’s all a negotiation. Even like the amount of that house nut would be a negotiation between the studio on that picture and the theater for that screen. So, it’s a complicated series of decisions and magnified by the fact that AMC has thousands of screens and Pacific has 30 screens. So there’s different levels of power between these two players as well.

Craig: That’s exactly right. The leverage is complicated on both sides. Obviously the larger the exhibitor, the more leverage they have. Of course, through economy of scale, their costs are lower than those of smaller theaters. So there is that to consider. And then there’s the question of the product itself.

The movie studios are still allowed to bundle, they’re just limited on how many movies they can do it with. So they can say, well look, if you want this you’re going to have to take this. So this is all part of the arrangement. I think most people don’t understand that when newspapers — ha-ha newspapers — when your online click-bait hell hole is reporting the box office for a movie, I think people assume the studio gets that. They don’t. They get, like you said, roughly half. For the amount of money that is collected in overseas arrangements, it’s even less than half. Because there are other distributors in between now that have to be paid. But when you think about it, it starts to make sense. A typical movie theater probably has, what, ten screens now? I mean, multiplexes used to be this crazy thing. Most movie theaters were one theater. One screen.

Then it became these multiplexes. Now everything is pretty much a multiplex, but your average, you know, OK, I’m going to the mall, I’m going to AMC, they’ve got — I don’t know — ten screens in there. It’s a lot of space. They’re paying rent. They have a lot of labor, still. They got to clean it. They got to maintain the equipment and the sound and all that stuff. So, there’s a certain sunk cost. And then, of course, they have to make a profit. And I think as many people suspect, the profit is probably largely from the concession stand.

John: Yeah. So whenever you see those stories saying that movie theaters make most of their money on concessions, you might think like, well, that has to be impossible. Because if a ticket costs $16, I’m not spending $16 on popcorn and a drink. But, maybe you’re spending more than $8, which is the half that the movie theater is taking from that ticket.

So, going back to Craig’s earlier point, I think that’s a really crucial thing to underline, and really for all of our listeners when they read stories about this movie cost $100 million and it made $100 million at the US box office, that does not mean it’s profitable. That the studio has taken in about $50 million if it’s made $100 million. So, it still has a good long way to go to make its money back.

The money that comes back to the studio from the movie theaters is called the Theatrical Rental, which is such a confusing word. And I really wish — I mean, I’m sure if we had a time machine we’d go back and we’d pick a different word for that because it’s confusing with rentals of video and everything else. But that money that comes back to the studio is called the rental on it. And that is an important figure for figuring out the profitability of a movie, for figuring out down the road whether a writer like me or Craig gets some percentage of profits on the film. The answer will be no. We don’t get any percentage of profits on the film.

Craig: [laughs]

John: But theoretically that’s how a movie becomes profitable is if the money coming back in to the studio is high enough. And that money coming back into the studio from the theater is called rentals.

Craig: A lot of it is done digitally now, but in the old days the studios would make a massive amount of prints and then the money was a rental fee. So, partly it was calculated by how many tickets you sold, but essentially what you’re renting is the reels of film that you’re projecting. And then you send them back.

John: So, my husband, Mike, used to run all of the movie theaters in Burbank, so he worked for AMC. And so he had 30 screens I want to say. And so I would hear all the stories of like how challenging it was to manage theaters. And you’re managing a largely teenage staff. He was still dealing with physical prints that had to be set up and spliced and sometimes you’d sync them between multiple theaters so you could actually show the same print in multiple theaters at the same time.

Craig: Oh my god.

John: It was just an incredibly exhausting job and, of course, all normal holidays are crucial times for the theater business. So those were the times you absolutely couldn’t take time off. Exhibition is a great, wonderful part of the business that we don’t talk enough about. Those people are wonderful. I think it’s good for screenwriters to understand the people who are showing our movies in the theaters, they’re not part of the studio machinery. They’re their own separate business.

Craig: By law. By law. Yeah.

John: So all the theater owners together are represented by the National Association of Theater Owners.

Craig: I love that. Because they’re NATO.

John: They’re NATO. They are NATO. We’ll put a link to the Wikipedia article for NATO in the show notes. But crucially you may have heard of CinemaCon, which used to be called ShoWest. That is the annual event where they — maybe it’s twice a year — where they trot out all the stars to go to Las Vegas to hype up the big movies that are coming out. And so it’s crucial to understand that theater owners themselves are a crucial audience for studios, because the studios want to make sure that the theater owners are excited about what they’re going to be bringing, so they promote stuff in the theater as much, so they’re more likely to strip that trailer in front of a given movie. So they’re going to be willing to put the giant cardboard standee in the lobby. That they’re willing to swap out their popcorn tins to promote that movie.

So that becomes a crucial very early marketing push for the studios to get the studio owners excited about it.

Craig: Yeah. Imagine that car dealerships weren’t exclusively connected to a certain automobile manufacturer. So they can sell any car. So my auto dealership, what I have here are ten different cars from ten different manufacturers because I think that these are the ones that are going to sell well. So, as a car manufacturer, you want to impress that guy. These ShoWest things are remarkable. They are this quiet thing that happens with an enormous amount of celebrity wattage.

These exhibitors, their representatives, see entire movies very, very early, or sometimes they see special 25-minute presentations of those movies. All designed to get them excited to display them in the theater. And it’s high stakes stuff. Some movies are, I think, probably made or broken right there and then at ShoWest.

John: I would say the only other industry that gets as much attention from studios at this early stage is toy manufacturers. Because I have friends who have worked for the big toy manufacturers and really quite early on they’ll be invited in to see rough cuts of films or the sort of sizzle reels to sort of hype up these things because toy manufacturers have such a long lead time to get those things done. They have to make decisions quite early on like are we going to try to do a tie-in with Guardians of the Galaxy for toys and they have to look at the movie and say like, OK, do we think this is a toy-worthy movie.

So for the case of —

Craig: Toyetic.

John: Is it toyetic?

Craig: That’s the word they use. Toyetic.

John: Does it want to be toyetic?

Craig: That’s ridiculous. That’s not a word. Toyetic.

John: And from the movie theaters’ perspective, I mean, they don’t have real control over what the film release calendar is, but they’re going to have some influence. I mean, all the studios know what weekends different movies are coming out and they have to figure out will I be able to get the screens I want for this movie if I come out on this weekend. And that’s a whole complicated dance.

Craig: It is. And similarly there are, the exhibitors are taking risks. For instance, we know that movie studios will traditionally counter-program against big movies that skew heavily towards one demographic or the other. Or perhaps sometimes against television events. So Super Bowl weekend, maybe there’s movies out that the studio might think appeal to demos that aren’t as interested in football.

So, now exhibitors have to say, OK, am I going to be counter-programming that weekend or am I going to be just going with the big boys that weekend. Look, I don’t know how they do this. I want to believe that there’s a science to it. I want to believe that their expertise matters. I think maybe it’s just luck. I mean, you know?

John: Well, I think it’s probably a combination of like good spreadsheets and some institutional knowledge that lets them predict overall things. But there’s always going to be those Black Swan moments where it’s like, oh, now it’s Titanic. And like now this movie is going to be playing endlessly for months.

Mike was telling me about when Titanic was in his theaters, I mean it made a tremendous of money for them but he hated it because they had to basically keep adding new shows to it. The movie was endlessly long, but they could add an 8AM show and people would come to an 8AM show of Titanic. It was just unstoppable. It was a juggernaut.

Craig: Yeah. It’s crazy. I mean, they have these things now that they never used to before where they’ll say, OK, if it’s a big movie we’re going to show it and it comes out on this date. It’s embargoed until this date. 12AM or 2AM screening. I mean, when Star Wars comes out, they do stuff like that. And that’s, ugh, but people show up.

John: People show up. It’s exhausting and hard for everybody. So, I wanted to do this 101 sort of talk through the theatrical film business so we could have some background on these two news stories that came up in the last few weeks. The first is about MoviePass. And so I was only vaguely aware of MoviePass. It is a system that you can buy this pass and basically go to unlimited movies over the course of a month. And the price of MoviePass was originally around $30, and then it dropped to like $19, and now they’re lowering it to $10 a month and you could essentially go to unlimited films over the course of the month. Which if you are a frequent filmgoer that’s a hell of a deal.

Craig: I mean, it’s frankly kind of a hell of a deal if you go to a movie once.

John: Yeah.

Craig: When I read about this, because I didn’t even know about this, I thought, well, OK, is this a way for exhibitors to kind of do this brilliant end run on the studios. If they make all their profits off of concessions, this is a way to essentially figure out how to get more people in at the expense of the studios, and then make a whole bunch of money off of concessions.

But in truth, that’s not really how it works. Because the exhibitors’ portion of ticket sales is what’s offsetting their costs so that the concessions can be profitable. If you lose that amount, then you’re losing money. And it seems like that’s in fact exactly what the exhibitors are saying now. That’s not sustainable. If one movie ticket costs an average of $8, you can’t let people see every movie they want in a month for $10. That’s nuts.

John: Yeah. It does seem just generally nuts. And so this kind of system exists in Europe. And it seems to work relatively well in Europe. But the prices are higher. So the prices, I’m going to link to an article that Jeremy Fuster wrote in The Wrap. But in Europe those prices are set between 16 and 20 Pounds a month, so that’s $21, $24, $25 per month, which is twice as much as what MoviePass is going for.

You know, classically when you reduce the price you hope to increase the frequency. And so I think the idea is like, well, from the movie theaters’ perspective you’re going to get more people through the door. They’re going to be buying stuff. It’s going to be great. But MoviePass is an independent company. So what’s weird to me is that it’s not like AMC has this program that they’re rolling out to try to do this. It’s this independent company that’s going to be reimbursing AMC. AMC was the impetus of this article. They’re the ones who are fighting back against it. And part of it is a perception issue.

They don’t want to perceive the price of movies to be going down. Because how much is a movie worth? Well, if it’s only worth nine bucks for unlimited movies, people are going to feel weird about paying $16 for that one movie.

Craig: Exactly. I mean, what they’re saying at AMC is, look, you can’t sustain this. This $10 price feels like a loss-leader kind of first sample of crack to get you hooked. But at some point then the price goes up and people are going to be annoyed because once people — you know, they hear, well, a song costs $0.99. It took Apple a long time to make a song cost $1.29. And it’ll take longer and longer still to kind of move up from there. But to move up dramatically would never work, right?

A song costs $0.99. Oh, now it actually costs $5. Wait, what? Well, that’s kind of what’s going to happen here. If you see three movies a month and you’re paying $10 for it, and then they come back they’re like actually now you’re going to pay $24 for it, well people are going to freak out.

I don’t understand this. And I don’t understand — I mean, in order for MoviePass to work, didn’t AMC have to make an agreement with them to honor it?

John: AMC must have originally had an agreement with MoviePass at that higher price point. They figured something out. And so it’s crucial to note that MoviePass’ money comes from some other place. So I don’t know if it’s VC money, or some other pool of money that’s paying for this. So, essentially they would be burning through this money in order to sort of grow up to a size. And then at some point magically flip a switch and become profitable.

We have examples of Netflix which had a subscription service. It went through conniptions as it sort of pivoted, but it has now become tremendously successful. So I can see from a Silicon Valley perspective like, oh, it’s disruptive so therefore it’s worth investing in. I just wonder if it’s disruptive in a way that is good or bad for people who love movies.

Craig: Well, the movie business has been a remarkably stable one. I don’t mean to say in terms of how much money it makes or loses from year to year, but rather structurally. The way the movie business works structurally has been remarkably stable for a very long time. Longer I think honestly than any other industry in our country.

John: Because if you want to look at the fundamental idea of what movie exhibition is, is that people are going to buy a ticket to come into a dark room, watch a movie projected, and then they’re going to leave. Like that’s the experience of going to see a movie. And that’s been the same experience for 100 years.

Craig: That’s right. And behind the scenes, the business structure behind it is Group A makes a movie, and Group B shows the movie. That’s the way it has been since 1948 when the United States vs. Paramount Pictures ended studio ownership of movie theaters. So, for all that time this is how it has worked. I understand the desire to disrupt it. The problem is I’m not sure you can. I don’t think this is particularly susceptible for disruption because it is kind of a great system. It works.

It works really well. It’s not like we can’t see the movies we want to see, you know? Remember when movies selling out was a huge thing. It was a problem. Movies don’t really sell out because they’re smart. They know how to just open another screen. They balance these things out. They’ve got good data. The system works. I don’t think MoviePass — I don’t understand it.

John: Absolutely. So we’re going to file this away to maybe come back to in a year and see what’s happened with MoviePass. I try to do some research before we talk about things on the air, but I still don’t fundamentally understand how MoviePass is supposed to be making money.

Craig: I’m with you.

John: Cool. A thing I did understand better was Steven Soderbergh’s business plan behind Logan Lucky. It is a new crime thriller that came out a week ago as we’re recording this. Basically he raised the money independently to make this film and then he hired a company to release it, to distribute it. So it was not really done through a traditional studio model.

And his plan was to sort of go into theaters, particularly concentrate his advertising in the final weeks. Concentrate on a southern strategy. The article I’ll link to by Brooks Barnes, sorry Craig, it’s a Brooks Barnes article.

Craig: It’s all right. We’ll make it through.

John: Quotes, “Mr. Soderbergh noted the box office for success is lower under this setup. With nearly everything prepaid and no hefty distributor fees coming off the top, even a modest $15 million opening would be a win.”

So, the movie did not hit that number. It hit $7.6 million on its opening, which was disappointing to I would imagine all the people involved, but I don’t think it necessarily negates the idea behind this business plan which is basically Soderbergh wanted more control, not just over his cut of the movie but how the movie was going to be marketed. He wanted to really be his own studio on it.

Craig: Yeah. I’ve been looking at this pretty carefully and trying to figure out exactly what’s going on here. And I think I understand it. There’s a larger question about whether this is advisable to do, in part because you are going to struggle replicating some of the things that studios actually do well.

So, but I understand, look, the impetus is this: it’s not about creative control per se, because there are a lot of directors that get creative control working in the studio system. So Christopher Nolan has final cut on his movies. And he, I’m sure, has an enormous input on what the marketing campaign will be and look like. And then the movie goes off into the world. It’s not just about creative control. It’s also about eliminating the studios as middleman.

As the article points out, it’s not exactly new for a filmmaker to be able to raise independent money to make a film. All right, in this case he wants to raise I think it’s $30 million. You can do that. And then the idea is you make the movie, it’s yours, you control it, and then a studio comes along and makes a distribution deal with you. They then work with the exhibitors to distribute the movie into theaters. They market the movie, etc. And you get whatever remains.

So, as the investors of the movie and the creator of the movie, what you get back is all the money that came in, minus what the theaters take, minus what the studio takes for distribution and marketing. Then you get what’s left.

So, he didn’t want to do that. But how do we get rid of that? So, his first idea was let’s just make the movie and go right to the theater owners. Brilliant. Except, as you and I have just pointed out the federal government looks very dimly on the owners of movies getting into these direct relationships with the owners of theaters. If a theater owner is now dealing directly with a movie director, and paying the movie director money so that they can — you start to worry is the theater owning the movie, is the movie owning the theater? They don’t like this so much.

So, here’s what I think happened basically. Soderbergh goes to this other company and they’re called Bleecker Street Media. And according to this article they have a total staff of 20 people. Bleecker Street would do the marketing campaign and they would receive a token fee of less than $1 million. If the film hit certain box office thresholds, they would then get a slice of ticket sales.

But, the point being they’re charging nowhere near what a traditional studio would charge to be the middle man. Essentially they’re kind of a fig leaf middleman to keep the whole thing legal and not running afoul of antitrust laws. And that’s kind of their purpose, as far as I can tell.

Did it work? This time, no. But the play here is to go after the probably exorbitant distribution fee that studios charge.

John: Yeah. So some of what you’re describing Craig is not that different than what happens on classic indie movies, the Sundance movies, because for each of those big six studios I talked about at the start of the podcast, there are a ton of little distributors who do that kind of negotiation directly with theaters to get those movies onscreen so people can see them. And so that is actually a pretty common thing.

What’s different here is that, you know, rather than them picking up the rights from this film, Soderbergh is basically going to them and saying, OK, I’m going to pay you to do this thing, but I’m holding on to everything myself. And that could work with the right film. Certainly when you look at how Lucas used 20th Century Fox to do the three Star Wars prequels, there’s a similarity there, too, where like Lucas really controlled everything but he was basically renting Fox to sort of put the stuff out there.

My hunch though is that Fox had some really meaningful percentage participation in there so that it was really in Fox’s interest to make sure that the Star Wars movies worked. Also the Star Wars movies were presold, so they were going to be a hit no matter what.

Logan Lucky is just another hopefully great Soderbergh film, but there’s no guarantee of success in that. And so that’s a challenge.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, look, from a studio point of view, even if somebody that has an incredibly desirable property like Star Wars comes to you and says I want to make a marketing distribution deal with you, from a studio point of view you don’t really have to run the numbers. You know what it’s going to cost. You tack on some percentage above that as profit. You win. That’s it. There’s no risk to you. You’re not paying for the movie’s production. Nor are you on the hook if it underperforms in theaters. You’re getting a fee.

So, I think studios generally like these things if they feel like it’s going to work out well for them and not damage their brand. I think they’re aware that everyone assumes that if they release a movie they made it, which is often not the case.

Here with this one, Soderbergh was aiming for something that kind of hadn’t been done before which was to release a film a la an independent, but to release it wide.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, I don’t think this has ever happened before. They opened it over 2,500 locations I think was their goal here. So, that’s like a big movie release.

John: And he had big movie stars in it. I think if you’re going to try to do this with a non-franchise movie, this had the right combination of elements. You have Channing Tatum. You have big stars. You have a big director. But this one didn’t catch fire.

Craig: No. But that in and of itself is not really a comment on the business plan. It may be a comment just on the material itself and the attractiveness of the movie to people. I mean, because obviously big studio movies flop all the time.

Will this happen again? It certainly won’t happen as quickly as it would have if this one had worked.

John: Yeah. I agree with you. I think if this had sort of caught fire, you would see every A-list director going to their agency saying like I need to find the people who can do this for me, because I want to have all those controls. I want it to all be mine. Because this didn’t take off, I think there’s going to be a little more reluctance on that. And I think there’s going to be a bit more of appreciation for sort of what all those hundreds of people at the studios do to sort of make the machinery work to put out a big studio movie.

Craig: No question. I mean, for as much stick as we will give the studios for their sometimes questionable ability to creatively shepherd work, they are outstandingly good at being banks and being advertising agencies and being distribution agencies. They are fantastic at it.

And if you want to go it on your own, it’s not just a question of can you do it. There is an opportunity cost because you’re not doing it with the people that do it really, really well. So, OK, well this time it didn’t work. Let’s see what happens next time. I suspect there will be a next time. But who knows.

John: Who knows? All right, let’s get to two quick questions. First off, Tom writes in. “I’m a screenwriter who has just had his first movie produced. Is it worth making a stink if the studio violated your creative rights? I’m particularly asking about the right to view a cut before your movie is released? I called the WGA about this and they started talking arbitration. That scared me because it feels like it’s burning a bridge.”

Craig, what should he do?

Craig: I understand the fear of burning a bridge. You are not burning a bridge. We are trained to believe that we are constantly walking over gasoline-soaked bridges with little Zippo lighters in our pocket. And any time we dare question something or stick up for what we deserve, we’re just flicking that Zippo open. This isn’t just something that the bridge owners are telling us. This is something that agents and managers are constantly repeating to their clients. Everyone lives in fear of this burnt bridge.

Here’s what I have come to understand about this business after all this time. The bridges are not flammable, at least not on their own. Bridges become flammable when you do bad work. If you write something and it’s good and it makes money, you could be the one dumping the gasoline all over it. You could have yourself a good little torch party on that bridge. You can burn the whole damn thing down. They will build you a new one, because they want to make money.

So, with that said, if the studio is happy with your work and happy with you and they have violated your creative rights, I would not worry so much about the bridge burning. Also, it’s worth pointing out that the aggrieved party here is not you, Tom, it’s actually the Writers Guild, because these terms, these creative rights terms we have have been negotiated by the Writers Guild and they are in our collective bargaining agreement. The Writers Guild has a right to go ahead and pursue arbitration on your behalf with or without your consent, as far as I know. Because, well, their contract with the companies was violated.

I do believe it is important for us to stick up for these things. If we do not, then we don’t have them. We can keep going on strike and turning ourselves inside out every three years, and screaming about the companies and how unfair they are, because we want things. But if we do not actually demand what we already have and deserve on paper, then why are we bothering to ask for anything at all?

John: I agree with you, Craig. So, I have a movie going into production so just this week I got a letter from the WGA saying, hey, this movie is going into production. Here is a reminder of your creative rights. Also here is your reminder that many of these creative rights have a time-based quality. And so it is up to you to be proactive to try to make sure that you’re getting the opportunity to do these certain things along the way.

It was a great reminder. I will be sort of making sure that those creative rights are acknowledged as those milestones come up along the way. But if any of those creative rights were violated, I would let the WGA know because it is important to put that on record and to make sure that everyone knows when those things happen and when they don’t happen. You’re not narking on anybody. It’s a thing that was supposed to happen.

So, I would say to Tom, if anyone at the studio or producer contacts you about saying, hey, did you complain about not seeing a cut, the answer is the Guild contacted me to ask if I’d seen a cut. I said I had not. It’s the Guild’s responsibility to do that. And you know what? Let the Guild be the bad guy.

You know who is great at being the bad guy? The DGA. The DGA is so good at being the bad buy and I would love to see the WGA be the bad guy more often.

Craig: Halleluiah to that. And this is not something that writers have just started pointing out and asking about. As long as I’ve been in the Guild, writers have been saying why are we not more like the DGA when it comes to protecting the creative rights of our own members? Every director, big or small, gets a visit from a DGA representative on set to make sure that they are being treated properly and in accordance with the contract. And do you know who has no problem with that? The studios. In fact, they’re quite concerned. They want to make sure they don’t get into trouble with the DGA. The DGA is aggressive.

We are not. We’re just not.

John: Nope. So on the topic of aggression and following up on things, Leeann from Brooklyn wrote in with a question about how to navigate promises from a producer on a first time feature project. Let’s take a listen.

Leann: I recently finished my fourth feature script and passed it on to a producer contact of mine as a project I would also direct. She said she loved the script and with my permission passed it on to an exec at an independent studio which she reportedly has a solid relationship with. She said my script is exactly the kind of movie both she and the studio are looking to make right now, which is exciting for sure.

However, it’s now been three weeks since my last phone call with her, during which she said she would be getting a face-to-face meeting with this exec soon, whenever that is. But she also said if he didn’t work out, she would look for other funding options for the project this fall when her production schedule frees up.

So, I’m basically in a holding pattern. Or am I? My question is what should I be doing during this time? Should I take her at her word that she’s going to do whatever she can to get the film made? Or should I still be sending my script to more producers? I don’t want to sully what could be a great business relationship, but I also don’t want to miss out on any opportunities. Are all things fair game until something has been signed, or has essentially a verbal agreement been made between her and I and I should just stick with it and see where it leads?

While the phrase wait and see sounds passive and unproductive to me, could that just be my naïveté making me antsy? I would really love to hear what you both think about this situation and how you would recommend a writer-director looking to get her first feature made to act and react given these circumstances. Thank you both so much for all your work. You are mentors and wizards.

John: Actually, Craig is a barbarian in the current campaign we’re playing, but in general we very much appreciate the sentiment. I was nodding along a lot to Leeann’s question because I remember being in sort of exactly her situation, where I had come back from my internship every day to my apartment. And I would look at the answering machine, because it was still the answering machine time, waiting for this producer to give me word about this agent who was supposedly reading my script.

And about three weeks passed and it was incredibly infuriating and exhausting.

Craig: Yeah. Boy, this is a tough one. Well, good news, Leeann, you are a member of a large fraternity/sorority here. We have all been through this. Waiting is part of the deal. Unfortunately people take time to read things. People are busy. They have more to read than we can possibly imagine. If it makes you feel any better, I was talking to an actor last week — an actor who is on TV, he’s been on TV, he’s in movies — and he’s got a project that he’s working on and he’s been waiting for somebody to read it now for four months, and he’s the kind of person that you’d think, well geez, somebody would just read that in the next minute.

This goes on. The trickier part of your question I think is managing your own ambition and activeness. This is something I think we all struggle with. You have given the script to this producer. That she’s not a producer — it doesn’t sound like — she doesn’t have an exclusive relationship with this one studio that she’s talking to, because she said she can take it to somewhere else. She’s kind of now your producer. There is an implied relationship there.

You can certainly say, you know what, I think I want to give this to other producers, not you. But at that point what you’re saying is you’re not the producer. So, bye. And that will essentially sever that relationship.

You are more I think forgiven if time goes by — a reasonable amount of time goes by and nothing happens. But this is a tricky part. If you give the script to a producer and the producer is not particularly good and they kind of show it around to a bunch of places and those places say no, those places have said no. It’s not like you can get a new producer and they’ll suddenly say yes.

So, you have to ask yourself what your relationship with this person is. It sounds to me like you don’t have a manager or agent working on your side to kind of intercede on your behalf. You may want to talk to this producer and say, hey, are you aware of any managers or agents that you could hook me up with if you don’t. If you have representation, they should be inserting themselves into this process, obviously.

If you don’t, see if maybe this producer can segue you to someone, and then that person can start to give independent advice. It is a dangerous thing to suggest one clear course of action to you because we just don’t know enough and the potential for harm is significant.

John: I agree. I would underline what Craig said about trying to use this producer to try to get yourself to a manager or an agent is great. So, I think you definitely need to lob an email back into her saying like, hey, checking in. This is what I’m working on right now. I’d love to have a conversation with you about agents and managers because that’s definitely a next step I see being important for me.

But I don’t think your script is — I don’t think you should assume that your script has to be frozen and locked down and that no one else can put eyes on it. And so I would say whoever wants to read your script, let them read your script. And make it clear that there’s a producer attached to the script. There’s a producer onboard the script. But it’s going to have to get out there in the world a little bit wider so that people can read it. And maybe a different scenario will come up or somebody else will say like, oh, I know the perfect person who would want to make this kind of movie. And then you can direct your producer towards that person.

I just know so many people who have been in this situation where they have a producer sort of involved on a project and then like a year goes by and there’s no forward momentum. That’s what I’m worried about for Leeann.

Craig: I am, too. I mean, the one nice thing is that producers can accumulate, unlike writers. You’re the writer. You’re the director, Leeann. You have a producer now. But what happens sometimes is somebody — you give it to somebody else, they hand it to somebody else. That person says I’m a producer. I want to do this. And I can set it up. These people already want to buy it. And you say, OK, I can’t turn that down. That sounds great. I do have a producer involved. Well, they’re still involved.

And then it gets worked out. And the thing is you don’t have to work it out. The producers work it out. They figure it out. So that’s between them.

I will say to you that the one thing you definitely don’t want to do is just hit pause on your life and your creativity and your output because you’re in waiting mode. The waiting mode that you’re in never ends. Your life will be a waiting mode. It is such a trap to think I can’t do anything until I get the clarity of the call, because when the call comes all questions will be answered. It will be clear and definitive what’s happening. Trust me when I tell you it will not be. And it never actually gets that way. The only times things finally seem incredibly clear and definitive to me is when I’m at a premiere. That’s about it.

Other than that, it’s an endless series of negotiations and questionings and forwards and backwards. It’s just the way it is. So you have to get used to living in this constant state where you’re waiting on a thing while you push something else ahead.

So my strong advice to you is if you’ve had something else that you’ve been thinking about working on, if you’re thinking about working on this thing maybe hit pause on that for a moment because it’s out there. But if there’s something else you want to do, do it. You are not in waiting mode. You’re in Leeann living her life mode.

John: Absolutely true. I’d say the other moment which things become crystal clear is when they just completely fall apart. When that thing gets shut down and it’s done and it’s dead. And in a weird way that can be a relief, too. Because rather than this sort of floating ambiguity, I’m sometimes happier when something is just done. Like I can’t do that there. The ship has sailed. That can be kind of weirdly freeing. And I’ve found so often when I’ve been stuck in this waiting mode I get the “no” and that no is actually much better than the sort of Schrödinger’s cat of this half-dead/half-alive project out there.

Craig: Yeah. I’m thinking about the sheep movie. And the first time I read that novel and Lindsay Doran gave me the novel. And the seven year odyssey to get the rights to it. Seven years. And at no point did we ever succumb to any kind of fatalism. The amount of time involved was such that impatience was not even psychologically possible. You just had to accept it. You just had to accept. So, these things take remarkable amounts of time. When we read stories about things that have taken remarkable amounts of time, in our minds we just glide over it. Like oh yeah, that’s crazy. It took ten years to get to the screen. Wow.

Try living those ten years. That’s ten years. So, it’s just part of the deal. It’s just part of the deal.

John: Thinking back to Unforgiven, David Webb Peoples wrote that script and Clint Eastwood sat on it for all those years. And it turned out great. Everything was just wonderful and remarkable, but we did sort of skip over the fact that David Webb Peoples had no guarantee that movie would actually get made. It could have just not happened.

Craig: That’s right. I mean, he has written this script. I assume he understood on some level no matter how humble he may be that it was amazing. And there it was. In a drawer. Doing nothing. Yeah, very frustrating.

John: All right. Good luck Leeann.

It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a thing that was sitting in my drawer for a very long time. It’s a book called Party of One by Dave Holmes. And it was not literally in a drawer. It was on my Kindle, but so far back on my Kindle that I’d forgotten it was there.

So it’s a book from last year. It’s Dave Holmes, who sort of became famous as a VJ on MTV. I only kind of remember him from MTV because he rose up after I stopped watching it regularly, but the book talks about his sort of growing up in St. Louis. The chubby gay kid and sort of his so desperate to fit in and sort of the choices he made along the way. And also the wrong choices he made along the way. And how it worked itself out.

It’s one of the rare books where because he’s almost exactly my age, like every reference was just exactly right. I felt like I was just back in each of those years as he was describing them. So it’s a book that sat on my Kindle for far too long, but it’s just delightful. And really funny. And he’s a really talented writer, so I can’t wait to see what he writes next. So, Party of One by Dave Holmes.

Craig: Excellent. My One Cool Thing this week was a recommendation from Kumail Nanjiani and it is Hellblade, Senua’s Sacrifice. This is an independent videogame that is available for Microsoft Windows — yuck — or PlayStation 4.

Let’s see, it’s developed by a company called Ninja Theory. The director is Tameen Antoniades. And it was written by Tameen Antoniades and Elizabeth Ashman-Rowe. So, I’m not through with the game yet. I think I’m about a third of the way through. It’s incredibly simple on the one hand. You’re playing a woman who is some sort of ancient Viking type lady. And you are on a journey to rescue the soul of your lost love. And you’ve gone into the region of hell basically. But what sets the game apart is your character is psychotic. Not psychotic like blah, but actually has the mental illness of schizophrenia and psychosis, so there are constantly voices in your head that are the voices in her head.

And they worked with actual psychiatrists to make it accurate and to simulate the kind of voices and the incessant intrusion of those voices and the variety of those voices and the nature of the sort of things that those voices say when people have legitimate mental illness. And it is fascinating. And disturbing. And kind of remarkable.

I like it a lot. And for that reason alone — and you know, if you don’t like — it’s not actually heavy on combat. It’s a little bit more keyed towards puzzle-solving. And if you don’t love combat that much you can just set the combat to easy and, you know, not worry about it, because I don’t really care that much about combat. I’m more about the story and the puzzles.

So, very cool game. So thanks for that one, Kumail. I’m playing it right now.

John: Cool. That is our show for this week. Our show is produced by Carlton Mittagakus. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth.

If you have an outro, you can send us a link to That’s also the place where you can send questions like the ones we answered today.

For shorter questions on Twitter, I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.

We’ve had a lot of questions on Twitter this last week and they were good.

Craig: Yeah.

John: We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts at Scriptnotes. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there, leave us a review. That’s always so helpful. Through iTunes you can download the Scriptnotes App for your phone, or the other app stores. You can find it there as well.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts.

You can find the full back episode catalog at It is $1.99 to get to all of those back episodes. We also have some of the USB drives. And so if you’re looking for one handy item that holds all the back catalog, go to That’s where you’ll find the drive.

Craig, thanks for a fun show.

Craig: Thank you, John.

John: And so I will continue to debate whether Cyndi Lauper should have the higher place in my esteem than Madonna for her role in the ’80s.

Craig: No debate here.

John: No debate. She-Bop.

Craig: She-Bop. I’ll see you later. Bye.

John: Bye.


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Distracted Boyfriend Is All of Us

Tue, 09/05/2017 - 08:03

John and Craig dive into another round of How Would This Be a Movie, looking at stories (and memes!) from around the world to figure out which ones might lend themselves to big-screen treatment.

Will it be the forgotten French spy from World War II? The repentant racist in Arkansas? The fake male founder exposing startup sexism? Or should it be the monthlong meth trip in the Alabama woods? Help us decide.

Plus, we follow up on how MoviePass actually works, and why their business model shares so many similarities with early Netflix.

Reminders! It’s WGA election season so be sure to cast your ballots. Plus, Big Fish is coming to London in November. You can find links to both below.


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Scriptnotes, Ep 314: Unforgiven — Transcript

Wed, 08/30/2017 - 14:21

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

Today on the show, we’ll be taking a deep dive into 1992’s Unforgiven, looking at why Craig calls it a perfect film. Is that a fair assessment? Is it a perfect film?

Craig: Well, no one really knows what perfect is exactly. But for me, perfect.

John: Perfect. Is it perfect in the sense that if you had written it you would stop writing any other movies because you would know you would never top it?

Craig: Nah. I don’t think — if I ever do write the perfect thing, which you know is probably — we’re probably just months away from that, I’m sure, nah, I’d just keep writing anyway because I like it. I like writing. I would have no problem slowly falling off the mountain of my own success.

John: I understand that. I believe that Unforgiven is a terrific film. I do not think it is perfect, so as we get into our discussion I will point out some things which I found not so amazing about Unforgiven. But also reasons why I thought it is a fantastic film for anybody who loves movies to study because it does so many things so incredibly well.

Craig: Yeah. And that’s all reasonable. I mean, it’s a rare thing to be able to say, OK, well I just think this movie is perfect. And that’s always an individual relationship. All of our reactions are individual relationships that we have with these things. But there are so many concrete lessons for screenwriters that are contained within this script, which is wonderful. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to get this script and as the legend has it Clint Eastwood got it from David Webb Peoples when it was initially written I think in the early ’80s. And he read it and said, “OK, yup, I’m going to shoot this. Don’t write no more. This is good. I’m going to shoot it. And I’m going to be in it. But I’m not old enough yet, so I’m putting it in this drawer. And then when I’m old enough I’m going to make it.” And that’s exactly what he did. But the exhilaration of receiving a screenplay like this must have just been, well, something else.

John: So let’s do some setup on Unforgiven. So, the film came out in August 1992. So this is the 25th anniversary of Unforgiven. Craig, do you remember when you first saw it?

Craig: In August of 1992 in a movie theater.

John: I remember when I first watched Unforgiven, it was the summer of ’92, August, right when it came out. And I watched it with my friend Jason Hallett here in Boulder, Colorado. And I was just about to go off to film school for the first time. So I graduated from college, I was getting ready to pack up and move to Los Angeles. And it was one of the last movies I saw before I started film school and I think it had a big impact on me for just that reason. I knew I was heading into the industry that could make something like this movie.

Craig: Yeah. In August of 1992 I had just arrived in Los Angeles. I’m guessing I probably saw this movie with my then girlfriend and now wife. And we were probably at the Beverly Center, which wasn’t — you know, Beverly Center is this mall in Los Angeles. And they have a movie theater in there. I assume they still do. Haven’t been in a while. With lots of little tiny — there were like little mini theater rooms in there. So, it probably wasn’t the best way to see Unforgiven, but I do remember just being blown away by it from top to bottom.

It’s one of those movies where as you leave and you start thinking about it you realize, oh wait, everything I’m thinking about was amazing. And I didn’t even know at the time of that amazing scene that more amazing scenes were coming.

John: Agreed. This is the 25th anniversary of the film, so let’s go back and take a look at sort of what it was like to actually make the film. It had a budget of $14 million. It grossed $159 million in the US. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director for Clint Eastwood, Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, Best Film Editing for Joel Cox, and the screenplay by David Webb Peoples was also nominated but it lost that year to The Crying Game, which was another terrific movie.

Craig: Yeah. The awards stuff is always dispiriting to me because I love The Crying Game and I love Unforgiven. It seems absurd to say that the screenplay for The Crying Game is better than the screenplay for Unforgiven is just stupid. It similarly be stupid to say the screenplay for Unforgiven was better than Crying Game. This is why I just don’t understand these sorts of things. They’re both brilliant.

But certainly if you do believe that the Academy Awards are a general echo of people’s appreciation for certain movies, no question everyone really loved this. So Clint Eastwood had at this point had kind of gone through this period which was a little bit of a — well, it wasn’t creatively his strongest period. I mean, he had come out of the great Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns. And then he had made the Dirty Harry movies which started in a kind of ’70s grindhouse spirit and then, well frankly started to devolve, I think, into just a broad vigilante fantasy world.

And then he had made — I mean I know people like Any Which Way but Loose, but it’s a movie about him and a monkey. It was starting to get a little silly. But here he comes along as a director and this movie going in I would imagine a lot of people, critics or audience goers might think, well, Clint Eastwood, he came out of westerns. He made The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Fistful of Dollars, and The Outlaw Josey Wales. And that was a while ago.

But, you know, now he’s a little bit of goofy, and so is this going to be another devolution of a genre that he was once really good in? And imagine their surprise.

John: Yeah. It turned out to be a fantastic movie and it’s hard to imagine Clint Eastwood not in this role. But actually this was my first time reading David Webb Peoples’ script. So I should say that we’re going to be providing a link to a script that very accurately reflects the movie. So, the draft we’re going to be linking to is from April 23, 1984. Quite a bit before they shot the film. This is David Webb Peoples’ draft. It says “shooting draft.” Some stuff has changed from this draft to what you see on the screen, but it’s incredibly, incredibly close.

But if you look at the descriptions of the characters, William Munny’s character is meant to be in his 40s. Like it’s not meant to be that old. And so Clint Eastwood I think is actually older than that character is supposed to be, but his age works really well for sort of what’s happening on this character’s journey throughout this story. If you want to read the script, you’ll find a link in the show notes, but we also have it up in Weekend Read. So if you have Weekend Read it’s just in the Scriptnotes Extras folder.

If I refer to page numbers at any point, I’m referring to this draft, but most drafts you’re going to find online are going to have the same kinds of scenes. The page numbers may just be different.

Craig: Yeah. The age factor is an interesting one because you could argue that back in the time that the movie is set, 40 was already quite a bit older than 40 is now. But, yeah, it seems clear that Clint Eastwood understood, OK, this is a certain kind of age that I’m going to need here to make this work. And we’ll get into why in a bit. But I want to point out that your assessment of how close the film hues to the script is absolutely correct. It’s remarkably close. And, again, to reiterate, the script that we’re looking at here was written eight years before the movie came out. And in that eight years of time Clint Eastwood just waited. It is a remarkable act of confidence in a write and you can — this is what happens when you have a great script and everybody just is OK with that. And there isn’t this endless desire to just keep working on it because you can.

There are very, very few changes. There’s one tiny little change that I think is crucial and it’s two words that comes much, much later toward the end. But by and large, Eastwood shot the script. And the reason why I wanted to talk about this movie from a screenwriting point of view is because I can’t think of a better example of a screenplay that is about something. And I’m kind of curious, John, when you watch this movie and when you read this script what you kind of think it’s about.

John: I think the script takes our expectations of what a western is supposed to do and what the hero of a western is supposed to do and what the tropes of a western are supposed to do. It explores them and ultimately sort of rips them apart and sort of lays bare the pain and the suffering that’s underneath all of that and sort of tries to get back to the common humanity that underlies all the sort of mythic heroes that we have coming out of the western genre. I don’t you can make Unforgiven without a good knowledge of all of the westerns that came before it. And the audience’s expectations about what’s supposed to happen in a western.

It’s not sort of playing with the tropes as much as sort of just lighting them on fire and watching them burn away. Is that your experience of the film?

Craig: By and large it is. I think that there is certainly a deconstructive aspect to this. It is the deconstructed western. So the lawman is corrupt and the savage killer is our moral hero. And every story that we’re told seems to be false. But from a human point of view, I think the movie even getting past what it does to westerns, from a human point of view the movie I think speaks directly to the power of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. And how sooner or later those stories will crumble in the face of truth.

Some of the stories that we tell are worth telling. And some are just there to cover up some ugliness. But they all in the end crumble in the face of truth. And it is no small mistake that a key character in this movie is a writer. This writer, David Webb Peoples, is in many ways critiquing the power and the danger of writing itself.

John: All right. So let’s take a look at the characters and sort of the principal characters we are setting up here. Because one of the things I found fascinating as I went back and watched the movie this past week and read the screenplay was that it really doesn’t follow the very classic patterns of, OK, now we’re setting up this protagonist who is going to go on this specific journey. Yes, you have William Munny and he literally takes a journey and then comes back changed. But not changed in the ways you’d normally expect.

So let’s take a look at our principal characters and how they interact. So you have Clint Eastwood who is playing Bill Munny, William Munny. You have Gene Hackman as Little Bill Daggett. If you notice in the script, Eastwood’s character is always called Munny and Gene Hackman’s character is always called Little Bill. So even though they’re both Williams it is never confusing in the actual execution of the screenplay.

You have Morgan Freeman playing Ned Logan. If you look through the actual script there is no reference to Ned Logan’s race. It was just a choice to make Ned Logan be Morgan Freeman. And he’s fantastic. But watching the film I realize like, huh, it does seem curious that no one is addressing the fact that Morgan Freeman is black. It doesn’t matter really that it’s not addressed, it’s not acknowledged.

You have Richard Harris playing English Bob, a terrific character who comes in very late in the story. Is there for a while and rides right out of town. And I want to get into sort of why he’s important and why he’s included in the film, because some of the early reviews said like, “Oh, you could just cut English Bob out of the movie.”

Craig: No. No.

John: Which is crazy. The other two I say fundamental characters are Jaimz Woolvett plays The ‘Schofield Kid.’ He’s the kid who arrives with the offer like hey let’s go kill these two cowboys. Finally, you have Saul Rubinek as W.W. Beauchamp, who is the journalist/novelist/author who is originally following Richard Harris’s character, English Bob, and ultimately is trying to document the myth of the West. Would you say those are the principal characters we need to follow most closely?

Craig: Yeah. I think the only other one that is well worth mentioning is Frances Fisher’s character of Strawberry Alice, who is the head prostitute of a group of prostitutes that work in town. And she is the main driving force behind their call for vigilante justice.

John: Absolutely. So, she plays a very central role early on. If I have a frustration with the film, which I’ll talk about later on, she and the other prostitutes do sort of disappear in a way that gets to be a little bit frustrating. They are magically there when they’re helpful and disappear other times. But you’re absolutely right in that if you want to say the inciting incident of this film is the assault on Delilah and her being cut up and then Frances Fisher’s determination to raise a bounty to kill these two cowboys, which definitely seems like the inciting incident, then she is the driving force behind that. She is the engine of the film and her frustration that this horrible act is going unpunished is what is setting the wheels of this plot in motion.

Craig: Yeah. And as Peoples introduces these characters one by one — this is the beautiful intention of these characters — each one of them essentially is displaying on the one half who they are supposed to be and on the other half who they really are. Everyone seems to be essentially some compendium of a fake story they’re projecting to the rest of the world.

We know — and this is why Clint Eastwood really was the only person I think who could play this part — we know who Clint Eastwood is when he’s wearing western clothing and a hat and when he has a gun in his hand. We know that he is the most dangerous man in the west because we’ve seen all those movies. Sometimes casting does an enormous amount for you. And yet in the beginning of the film he is a broken down pig farmer who can’t really shoot straight. Can’t even get on a horse.

We have Gene Hackman, the sheriff, who is an upstanding lawman, building a house. But his house is crooked and you get a sense pretty quickly that so is he. That he is, in fact, sadistic and does not understand the purpose of the law at all.

You have Ned Logan, who seems to be a happily married man who has left a life of crime behind him. But at the first offer of a chance to go out and live that life again, he jumps at it. He jumps at it, leaving his wife behind without even a word.

John: What I will say is he jumps at it, but he — and I think this is actually underscored a little bit more in the script than in the film. Like a few lines got cut. He basically says he chose the life with the wife because he wanted comfort. Because he was tired of sleeping outdoors. He just wanted a roof over his head. There’s actually a bit that got cut out of the movie where he talks about a roof. And I think it was a little too on the nose compared to Little Bill and his inability to make a good roof.

But he wanted that comfort and that stability. But your earlier point in terms of like it seems like he has a good life with a woman and all this, but he is the one who is eager to find a prostitute. He is the one who is happily going upstairs at the billiards room because that really is more of what he’s into.

Craig: Correct. And this comes up over and over, multiple times. You have Richard Harris’s English Bob who is incredible, and you can’t cut him out of the movie. He’s crucial. He’s crucial first because of what he allows Little Bill to demonstrate to the audience, which is a sadism. But also Richard Harris is the ultimate self-aggrandized liar. You begin to understand that all these legends we hear from the west, and he is one of them — he’s essentially presented as Billy the Kid — is not. He is a fraud. He is a fraud and a drunk. The stories that he has told his slavishly-admiring writer are bunk. The man that he heroically killed in a bar he didn’t heroically kill. That man shot himself in his own foot and then his gun blew up in his hand. And English Bob was drunk and walked right over to him and just shot him like a coward.

Even Strawberry Alice. So, the movie begins with this terrifying incident. Well, it begins with us seeing Clint Eastwood briefly. But the movie-movie, the plot begins with a terrifying incident. In a whorehouse in this little town a cowboy, whose masculinity is questioned by a whore named Delilah, attacks her with a knife and starts cutting her face. It’s terrifying.

And Frances Fisher, who plays Strawberry Alice, the leader of the prostitutes, decides that they are all going to pool their money together to take revenge, because Little Bill, the sheriff, will not give them justice. He actually says I’m not going to even whip them. I’m just going to make them give ponies to the man who owns the establishment, a guy named Skinny. So, there is no justice here whatsoever and they’re going to seek vigilante justice.

But what’s fascinating even then is you have two cowboys in the beginning, one is murderous and sadistic and evil, and then his friend who is almost just a boy. And who is as terrified and shocked by what his friend has done as anyone else is. But he’s now lumped in. And when they come back with the horses, that one who is lumped in with — Strawberry Alice says we’re going to hire people to kill both of those guys. Well, that young one, he wants to give a horse to Delilah, and we can see she wants the horse. And Strawberry Alice won’t let him. Everybody essentially is a bundle of terrible contradictions.

David Webb Peoples won’t even give us two clear-cut villains. He’s going to say I’m going to give you one villain and one innocent man and they’re both going to be at the end of a barrel of a gun and you’re going to have to watch it.

John: Yeah. Looking at Strawberry Alice’s arc here, and I don’t think it fully completes. There could be a way in which you could imagine a character who has a beat in the third act where you see her make a choice that clearly differentiates a path she could have taken or a path she couldn’t have taken. But this moment that you’re singling out is really crucial because there’s this moment where she could have taken the horse and they could have called it done. If her best interest was really for Delilah, she probably would be done. But her interest is sort of agency. She wants to take power, take control of the situation. And that means killing these cowboys kind of no matter what.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, in that moment you understand perhaps her anger is not at all about Delilah. Her anger is about herself and her position and the way they’re being treated. “We’re not cattle,” she says. And so if it means that this poor kid who didn’t do anything has to die, so be it. And if it means that Delilah, the victim, the perfectly innocent victim here needs to be deprived of something, so be it. It’s not about her anymore. Nobody is really about what they say they’re about.

John: So, let’s talk about this opening sequence where we’re basically setting up our world before Bill Munny goes off on the trail. Before he goes off on this quest to kill the two cowboys. So, what I really appreciate this, you know, now watching it 25 years later and reading the script is how Peoples does a really great job with some very difficult things that he makes seem so simple. Which is basically setting up the overall engines of plot and sort of like this is what’s basically going to happen. He does a time jump that’s really natural and smooth where we see the initial incident. We see the cowboy is told to come back in a year with these horses. We set up Bill Munny. And then we come back a year later and they’ve come back with the horses. And it feels really natural.

I can imagine so many other movies which would really creak and strain under this jumping ahead a year, and yet it feels really simple and natural the way Peoples does it. Just like, you know, it’s a new season. They’re back with the horses. You get a sense that everything is going to take a while here just because the distances are so great. It was just — it really struck me as really good writing and execution to be able to pull off this time jump and make it feel so good.

Craig: Yeah. There is no wasted movement here. Everything that happens is gorgeously compact. And you can see that there is nothing that isn’t by careful design. The nature of the attack is horrific. And it is immediately followed by the introduction of Little Bill. And everything he does and says there tells you everything you need to know about him. It also creates a situation that is a time bomb, which is wonderful screenwriting. To have already, I believe she says — we know on page eight she’s gathering money. Page eight she is gathering money to hire vigilantes to come kill these men. A fuse has been lit. It’s already moving. On page eight.

And yet we’ve also had a tremendous amount of exposition. We’ve met a lot of characters. We don’t particularly feel like the movie is moving breathlessly. This is kind of amazing.

John: Let’s take a look at page three. Bottom of page three is where we first meet Little Bill Daggett. And so cleverly Peoples is setting him up before he walks into the whorehouse, the billiards hall, so that we know who he is independent of this moment. It’s a conversation with Clyde. Clyde is not important. But so we establish Little Bill’s physicality. And the initial dialogue is:

LITTLE BILL …wouldn’t let you settle it, huh? CLYDE Hell, you know how Skinny is. Says he’s gonna shoot ’em…an I says, “Skinny, you can’t do that,” an’ he says, “Well, then get Little Bill down here an’ let’s settle this” an’ I says, “Bill’s sleepin’, Skinny,” an’…

So, in that little bit of dialogue we’ve established Little Bill’s name. We’ve established how important he is to the town. We don’t know necessarily he’s the sheriff quite yet, but we know that he is the guy you call when there’s a problem. And that Skinny, this guy who we just saw with a gun, is not going to do anything until Little Bill gets there. It’s such a crucial way of establishing the power and authority of a character before they’ve entered the scene.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, look at that last little bit is amazing. “An’ I says, ‘Bill’s sleepin’, Skinny.'” So, a guy comes to Clyde — this is Clyde, one of the lawmen in the town, and describes what has happened. Cowboys have come in. one of them has savagely cut up a woman. And Skinny is going to kill that man. And Clyde says you can’t do anything until we get Little Bill, but I don’t want to wake Little Bill up.

Well, that tells us so much about Little Bill and what happens when you do wake him up, because apparently waking him up is way worse than not telling him about all this stuff. And that is an enormous gift. Right in that little bit of dialogue we know that Little Bill already is probably bad.

John: Well we at least know you don’t want to cross him. You don’t want to wake him up. And what I think is so fascinating about the scene that follows is we see the two cowboys tied up and we establish now, OK, he must be the lawman, he must be the sheriff. And so he’s going to take care of this situation. And then within the course of the scene we realize like, oh no, no, he is the villain. He is a bad person. Is such a great revelation. Because basically all the men we see in the scene are bad people. They’re just different kinds of bad people. And the only people we can have sympathy for are the prostitutes who are upstairs who are being completely cut out of the situation.

So, it’s a great scene because we don’t know exactly where we stand with Little Bill at the start, but we see his actions tell us what we need to know about the character.

Craig: Yeah. And the nature of this scene is largely a little miniature trial. Which I thought was brilliant. Because he doesn’t come in there and start talking big and breaking hands and punching people in the face. He’ll do that later. This is actually an insight into how his mind intellectually works regarding the concept of justice. And he has an almost lawyerly negotiation with these men and with Skinny. Skinny literally pulls a contract out. He says, “This here’s a lawful contract… betwixt me an’ Delilah Fitzgerald, the cut-whore. Now I brung her clear from Boston, paid her expenses an’ all, an’ I got a contract which represents an investment of capital.”

Little Bill, and then in parenthesis, sympathetic to the argument, “Property.”

They are having a discussion of law. And when you get to the end of it you think, oh boy, the problem with this man isn’t that he is an emotional hot head, or a naturally violent person. Turns out he is. But right off the bat what Peoples wants you to know about this character is his intellectual concept of justice is completely corrupt.

John: Absolutely. I want to talk a little bit about this parenthetical which is “sympathetic to the argument.” And so every screenwriting guru will tell you like, oh, avoid your parentheticals. Here is a great and crucial parenthetical. Because without that parenthetical to properly phrase property, we could be reading that many different ways. We could say like, oh no, you’re a jerk to be saying that these are your property. Like it could spin you off in a different direction. But by making it clear like this is — that he’s going along with this argument, all his other lines thereafter are colored. It’s a small thing, but that parenthetical ends up becoming incredibly important for our understanding of the second half of the scene.

Craig: Yeah. It’s one of the reasons why I detest people that say don’t use these things. The reason that Peoples puts that in there, as you point it, is because it’s necessary. But more important I think to understand the writerly process is that David Webb Peoples understood it was necessary. That’s the part that a lot of writers miss. They will write these things and they will not have an innate accountability to the audience. Eventually this becomes second nature, I think, to a good writer. To know that this will be ambiguous unless I specify what I mean.

And when people say don’t use these things, they are not only saying something that is stupid, but they’re saying something that is dangerous, because it is literally cutting off a growth process toward being a better writer. This is part of good writing is clarifying ambiguity. And by doing it parenthetically, doing it in such a way that allows an actor to act something, which I think is wonderful.

John: This same scene, the same kind of scene took place later on in the story, you may not need that parenthetical because we would understand Little Bill well enough that it would be completely clear what the color was on that line. But because it’s his first scene, we need that to understand what’s happening.

Craig: Right.

John: The other thing I will point out just because there’s a zillion examples of really great dialogue throughout here, but just take a look at sort of how Peoples is setting up the dialect of people without killing us. And so it’s not every word is spelled out in a funny way, but the things that are interesting he’s choosing to call out. So the betwixt, the least ways, he’s using specific language for different characters so their voices sound different, but he’s not going nuts with the dialect. You don’t have to like stare at a sentence to try to figure out like, wait, what does that actually mean. You don’t have to sound it out. It’s clear what it is, but it’s also clear that it has a voice to it.

Craig: Yeah. He makes you feel like you’re in the place without feeling like you’re in a pretend version of that place. And he says here, you know, and in the hands of a bad writer this can start to choke the emotional payload from certain lines, but when you’re dealing with somebody like Peoples who is an expert, it somehow makes it better. Alice is reasonably upset because Little Bill isn’t even going to whip these guys, much less hang them, which is what she wants. He’s just finding them some ponies. And she’s protesting. And Little Bill says, “Ain’t you seen enough blood for one night? Hell, Alice, they ain’t loafers nor tramps nor bad men. They’re hard workin’ boys that was foolish. Why if they was given over to wickedness in a regular way…”

Hey Alice, they ain’t loafers, nor tramps, nor bad men. That’s a very archaic western construction. And somehow it makes the insanity of what he’s saying worse. I just love that language.

John: I also love that he’s calling Alice by name. So he does know who she is, knows exactly what she does here. And so he’s willing to speak to her, but he’s not willing to give her argument any weight whatsoever.

Craig: Exactly. Everybody is very familiar with each other. The town in another brilliant bit of sub-textual information that Peoples has delivered to us through this scene, we understand that this town is perfectly stable. That even when something like this happens, you cannot break the stability that Little Bill has placed over it. It is under control.

John: Absolutely. So I want to jump ahead to when The Kid comes to visit Munny to encourage him to come with him on this quest. There’s a moment which Peoples in the script describes the house. And I thought it was a terrific description and really indicative of what you can do with very few words to establish what a place is really like. So, this is on page 11.

INT. SOD HUT – DAY Munny selects a tin cup from a wash pan of dirty dishes. It is dark and cool inside his one room sod hut… and poor. The Kid checks one of the three chairs for stability before sitting down.

That’s the extent of it. I’m reading this after having watched the movie, so I’m not sure if that’s actually what was done in the movie. I’m not sure that the beat of checking the chairs actually happened, but it’s such a smart choice to be able to say this is what his place is like. He doesn’t have chairs that work properly. That he’s living in this little dirt hovel.

We’ve already seen him with the pigs, but to establish that the inside of his place is also so desperate is crucial. Because without the physical environment being right for us to be able to understand why Munny would go on this quest we’re not going to buy it. If things seemed OK, we’re never going to believe that he went on this quest to kill the two cowboys.

Craig: Yeah. It’s a terrific description. And it implies an instructive method for creating these places in a screenplay with just text in such a way that people feel like they’re there. I think sometimes writers create a place as if they were alone in a theater directing the creation of a set and then when it’s just the way they want it they call on the actors. But that’s actually not great. And it’s how you end up with actors moving around in sets that they’re disconnected from. Here is a situation where he builds the set with the actors in place. He’s tell us what the reaction and interplay between human and stuff is. And in doing so it now feels so much more vivid. I love that.

Very smart of you to call that out. And while we’re in this wretched hut, we’re meeting this new fascinating character. By the way, The Kid, he’s showing up here — Schofield Kid shows up on page nine. What a great name. We’ll get to that in a second. And we’ve met so many characters at this point. So many. Just to run it down we’ve met Alice, Silky, Delilah, Skinny, Little Bill, Clyde, the two cowboys. I’m missing a few other. I’m sure I’m missing more. And now we’re meeting more people. And it’s all working. It’s working gorgeously.

John: So we’ve met Munny. We’ve met Munny’s two kids. And now we’re meeting the Schofield Kid who is one of our last sort of new characters for a while. And but they’re all good. And this is classically a stranger comes to town. So we have established the normalcy of the house and now this new person is coming to town.

A thing which we skipped over in the very beginning is the script begins with that same crawl or that same sort of opening talking about William Munny’s wife. Weirdly the script does that over the attack on Delilah. And when you see the film, Eastwood does a bookend where it’s the same wide shot with the beautiful sunset. That’s where the crawl now reads, which makes a lot of sense. But the actual script started in a slightly different place.

So, and I think it was a good choice ultimately for the film because it let it be clear that the story is really about this man and not about this woman we’re about to see attacked.

Craig: It was a good choice. I think if they had let that voiceover or crawl play over the attack in the whorehouse, everything would have been robbed of value at that point. You would be reading while you’re supposed to be feeling. You’d be feeling while you’re supposed to be reading. You’d be talking about what guy that you can’t see. And you’re confused. There’s a hundred reasons why that change made absolute sense. But here we are with our main character, this guy that we’re told — and we are being told again by The Kid — is essentially the devil.

This kid shows up. He’s got this ridiculous name. He calls himself the Schofield Kid. So, again, we have a liar. Somebody who is selling his own legend. And this kid is acting tough. He’s so bad at acting tough it’s funny. We don’t buy it for a second. Nobody buys it, really. I don’t even think Clint Eastwood buys it.

John: Let’s pause there for a second. Because if I have an objection to the movie as I watched it this last time is I didn’t believe — I didn’t believe that anybody bought Schofield Kid from the start. And I didn’t believe that Eastwood would have gone along with him at all because he was so clearly out of his depth. I didn’t believe that anyone ever thought he’d killed a person. What’s your take?

Craig: I agree with you. I don’t think William Munny agrees to go along with this kid because he thinks that he’s got a partner that’s going to kill anyone. I think he agrees to go along with the kid because he needs money. He needs money and also underneath there is still that little itch of the adventure. This kid is related to a guy that used to work with William Munny.

And so all we’ve seen of William Munny is this broken down pig farmer who doesn’t look like much. And here’s what the kid says. Munny says, “You’re Pete Sothow’s nephew, huh? Hell, I thought maybe you was someone come to kill me…for somethin’ I done in the old days.” Notice not at all scared of the kid whatsoever. The Kid says, “I could of…easy.” Munny, “Yeah, I guess so.”

Kid says, “Like I was sayin’ you don’t look like no meaner than hell cold-blooded damn killer.”

And Munny says, “Maybe I ain’t.”

Now, let me pause for a second. Of everybody in this movie that is constantly selling their legend, William Munny does the opposite. He is the legend, and undersells it. He denies it over and over and over. So, the Kid says, “Well, Uncle Pete said you was the goddamndest meanest sonofabitch ever lived an’ if I ever wanted a partner for a killin’, you was the worst one. Meanin’ the best. On account of you’re cold as snow an’ don’t have no weak nerve nor fear.”

Now, who he’s describing here is a legendary killer and a very frightening man. And we don’t see that. We see an old broken down guy. He doesn’t even seem to be thrilled by this account. He seems sort of bummed out. And then, you know, then the Kid says, “I’m a damn killer myself, only I ain’t killed so many as you because of my youth. Schofield Kid, they call me.”

That’s ridiculous. And Munny goes, “Schofield? You from Schofield?” This is why William Munny is the only person who just cuts through truth. Like why the hell would you call yourself that?

And he goes, “On account of my Schofield model Smith and Wesson pistol.” That’s ridiculous.

So, anyway, the point being here’s somebody who is pitching the legend of you and you’re saying no. This is the only way that goes across. But in our minds, whether we realize it or not, here on page 11 David Webb Peoples, one of the most efficient screenwriters who ever walked the face of the earth, on page 11 he has essentially pulled a slingshot back. And the slingshot is this man is the devil. This man, William Munny, is the devil. And he’s going to hold that slingshot back the whole way through until…pretty cool.

John: Yeah. Another crucial moment that happens in this meeting with the Schofield Kid is the description of what they’re going after. So, going to kill a couple of no-good cowboys, what for, for cutting up a lady. They cut up her face and cut her eyes out, cut her ears off, and her tits, too.

So, it’s not enough that they cut up her face, like every time that her injuries are mentioned they keep getting added to which I think is just a brilliant choice. It’s like, you know, it has to be worse than what actually happened for it be worth going after these guys. So there’s a classic sort of like we have to save the princess thing, but because she’s a prostitute like well, you know, they did a terrible thing to her and it has to be a more terrible thing with each next person we meet to tell the story.

Craig: Yeah. Once again we live in a country of legends and lies. And nobody seems to have a handle on what’s real. Nobody. Which is awesome.

John: Yep. So this could be a 19-hour podcast as we go through scene-by-scene and talk about them being fantastic, but what’s another moment we should jump ahead to and really single out?

Craig: Well, there’s a few things we learn that we can sort of gloss over, but they support the points we’re already making here. We find out that the Schofield Kid is actually blind, or not completely blind, but can’t see very far. So there again is another possible just lie. And another indication that this kid is full of crap. But he also seems really angry, so something is going on there.

And Little Bill hearing about the vigilantes who are coming to town posts a big sign that says No Arms Allowed in Town. Here comes Richard Harris/English Bob, telling stories about how wonderful he is. And then Little Bill just beats the crap out of him. Savages him. And I’d like to jump ahead to the scene where he’s in the jailhouse and he’s got English Bob in a cell and he’s now coopted W.W. Beauchamp, the hagiographer, the mythologizer, I guess, and he’s now setting the record straight. And you see this writer pivoting from the guy who used to by my hero to my new hero because he has to aggrandize the west.

John: Absolutely. It’s an amazing scene which I had not recalled from my previous viewing of it. And I just didn’t know what was going to happen. It was a startling scene because I knew that Bill was capable of incredible violence. I knew that Beauchamp was an idiot, but also cocky. There were so many things that could happen that I was at the edge of my seat throughout the entire scene.

So, a really ingeniously done scene. Get us into it.

Craig: Sure. Some time has passed. They’ve cut away from the Little Bill story for a while. We’ve spent some time with our three heroes, Ned, William Munny, and the Kid. And now we’re back in jail. And it begins with Little Bill reading this book that W.W. Beauchamp has written about English Bob. And the book is called The Duke of Death. Little Bill keeps mispronouncing the word Duke as Duck. And he’s so amused by this, because he knows English Bob and we know he knows English Bob. The first time English Bob sees him he says, “Shit and scrambled eggs,” to himself. What a great phrase. Like, oh god, not this guy.

And Little Bill explains to Mr. Beauchamp that everything that he has been writing about the west is nonsense. He tells him the true story of what happened with English Bob. And the true story is the opposite of romantic. There’s nothing romantic about it. This dashing guy who is defending a woman’s honor is in fact completely drunk and acting like a jerk. The guy who is the villain is not a villain. He’s just unlucky. And we see W.W. Beauchamp’s — well we see the bubble being burst, right?

But what’s fascinating, and this is why I think this is David Webb Peoples’ critique of the danger of narrative, is that when the mythology is burst Beauchamp doesn’t just give up. He goes looking for a new one. And he begins to talk with Little Bill to try and get information. OK, tell me the real story. And what Little Bill does is he plays a game with Beauchamp ultimately which is I’m going to give you my gun because it’s hard to kill people. And you go ahead and you try and kill me. And he can’t. And Little Bill says, “Hard, ain’t it?”

And now we’re starting to see that everything that we thought about the way killing in the west worked just isn’t true.

John: Yeah. So this scene, basically page 64, there’s two scenes that are all taking place inside this jail. And the first is sort of setting up the mythology. The second is this test that Little Bill pulls on W.W. and on English Bob. And it’s really well done because as an audience member you don’t have any more information than English Bob or W.W. Like you don’t know if the gun is loaded. And you’re constantly thinking through like, OK, what are the options. You are game-theorying it of like, well, if I pull the trigger and it’s empty, then he’s going to kill me. But if I had it to English Bob…it really puts you in the place of this biographer in a way that’s fascinating and great.

And it’s such a great example of this is the kind of scene that would so often be on the chopping block in a normal development process. They’d say like, well, Munny is not in it. It doesn’t really affect the plot if the scene were to be taken out. It’s just an amazing scene. And so is it worth the time and the money and the screen time for this amazing scene? And the answer is absolutely yes. But it can be hard to convince people of that before you start shooting the movie.

Craig: Yeah. I think that the true value of the sequence is only felt a bit later. Because one thing that we learn from that scene is that in this world of liars and self-aggrandizers, Little Bill is actually the real deal. He is lying about who he is. He’s lying when he says I’m a lawman and I care about the law. Who he is in fact is a cruel sadistic man. But he is. You know that because he just proved it.

He proved it. He had no fear whatsoever. His hand was steady. He is not a liar like English Bob. He’s the real deal which is why Beauchamp then follows him to his house to hear more stories. But the reason this is so valuable is because it is setting up a confrontation that we know will be formidable. It’s going to be between two real people. And the next major sequence that happens in the movie is our heroes arrive in this town. Clint Eastwood’s character, Munny, is suffering from a terrible fever. He’s delirious. He has a gun on him. Little Bill comes into the bar and absolutely obliterates him. Beats him to a pulp, which is incredible.

Now there’s no question. The only question we have now is is William Munny the devil, or is he just a broken down guy? Because he sure seems like one.

John: Yeah. It’s a great choice to, like building that confrontation early, because classically you would hold off that confrontation for the third act. At the very end we’d have that moment, or there’d be some reason why the two heroes were separated. They have a class but they both go off. And to have our hero so profoundly defeated so early really by the weather, just by the environment to start with, and then by Little Bill is just terrific. We really have a question about like, oh, is this movie where the hero just dies off really and it becomes about Ned? It’s such a surprising turn.

And honestly the kind of turn that I can imagine so many A-list actors now would not let this scene happen. I can — you and I both know so many actors who would not put up with their characters being so squarely defeated this early in the story.

Craig: Right.

John: Like, no, it’s humiliating to me. It’s emasculating. Exactly what it should be. And it works so well here because it gives us a reason to really dig in and sort of explore this character more and be ready for that final conflict, that final comeuppance.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, being brought low is the best way to set up a triumph. You’re absolutely right.

John: But classically we also say like, oh, he’s beaten at the end of the second act and in the third act he rises, but this is still pretty early in the story. He’s just gotten to town and he’s been defeated. There’s still a lot of movie left here. And the worst of the worst, the low points, they’re still coming. And that’s what’s kind of great about how Unforgiven unspools. There’s still a lot more to go here. They still haven’t really started their mission of killing these cowboys. We’re not even there yet.

Craig: That’s right. And in this moment now where he has been beaten down and is sick, they get him away and he appears to be dying. He says so. He’s delirious. And he’s saying to Ned, “I seen the angel of death Ned, an’ I seen the river.” And he’s talking about these visions. And he’s saying I’m scared. And we’re like, god, he’s scared and he’s dying and he’s talking about his wife. And in the end of his vision, this is where you start to get a hint of what might be waiting. He says, he’s talking about the angel of death. “I’m scared, Ned. Ned, I’m gonna die. I seen her… I seen Claudia too…”

And Ned says, “Well, that’s good now, ain’t it, Bill? Seein’ Claudia an…?”

And he says, “She was all covered with worms. Oh, Ned, I’m scared of dyin’…”

And then he says, “Ned… don’t tell nobody… don’t tell the kids… don’t tell ’em none of… none of the things I done.”

He spoke earlier in a remorseful way about some of the things he did, which were horrifying, including shooting a man so that his teeth came out of the back of his head. But that’s on one level it’s a kind of a rational discussion of remorse. This is a feverish dying man expressing his greatest fear and his greatest wish which is that nobody know his story. And that, again, is just — we talk about thematic unity of a movie. Over and over and over, this is a movie about stories and truth. And Peoples never lets off that gas pedal on it. It’s just brilliant.

You know, when you ask the question, well, what am I supposed to be writing here, the theme will tell you.

Of course he comes out of this fever and what happens next is kind of remarkable. They go and they kill these two cowboys. The first one they kill is terrible because it is the opposite of everything we’ve ever seen in a western, where you show up, there’s either a standoff in the street or a big showdown outside of a saloon. It’s a non-descript valley. It is slow. It is drawn-out. The shooting is incompetent. And the man who is killed isn’t killed instantly. He’s hit once and lies there and they talk for a while, while he dies.

And it again is another reminder that the stories we tell are just junk. And the one person who isn’t surprised at all by how the truth unwinds is Bill Munny.

John: Absolutely. I want to talk about Little Bill and sort of the parallels between Munny and Little Bill. Because both of these men are trying to sort of move past what they were before and build a new life. And Little Bill has been more outwardly successful. He’s building this new house. He doesn’t have a family, he doesn’t have kids, but he has this new house he’s built for himself that’s completely crooked and the roof doesn’t work. But he is successful. He’s pulled himself out of this life of crime from before and is now the king of this little town.

Bill Munny is not successful. You know, he’s a pig farmer. He’s desperate. He’s sick. He is at his last ends. And that is the central conflict. You’ve created these two characters who come from a similar place who are inevitably going to have to come head to head with each other. And so this killing of the first cowboy is he’s essentially an innocent. He is a person who is collateral damage in this thing, in this bigger fight that’s going to have to happen. And we have to see it. And I agree with you. It’s the kind of death we don’t see in westerns because it’s a medium length death.

We’re used to the person who gets shot and immediately dies, who falls over and they’re dead. We’re used to the long drawn-out like there’s a bullet in my abdomen. It’s going to take a week to die and it’s going to be terrible. This is just a couple of agonizing minutes and it’s a cool death that we had not seen before.

Craig: That’s right. And when we come out of it, there’s more collateral damage, because the one person — two of the three could see this clearly. The Schofield Kid can’t. He’s too far away. But William Munny knows what he’s done and so does Ned. Ned was supposed to kill this guy but couldn’t. Lost his nerve. And as a result, having seen this, he says I can’t do this anymore. He just doesn’t want to do it. He has to leave.

And so we find out, OK, Ned is changed. That the truth here is he’s not that man anymore. But now the Kid is excited. He wants to be the next one to do the killing. And in fact he is. He’s the next one. The guy who does frankly deserve to die, the Kid shoots him. And in shooting him the Kid finds out that this is not at all who he is either.

John: A crucial moment that’s happened between these two killings though is that Ned has ridden off and he’s going to go back to his normal life. And in many movies he would either go off. In other movies we would see him being captured and that would be the central focus. Instead, like he’s just brought in to town like already having been captured. Even Ned’s death happens off screen, which is such a fascinating choice. Usually we would want to see the killing stroke that brought our guy to death. Not in this movie. This movie we are finding out with other people that Ned has died. And that is a great transformation. We are with Munny as he finds out that his friend is dead and we don’t have that information before him. That’s great. And that’s such a strong choice for this movie that is so smart about deciding what to show us and what to tell us about what’s happened.

Craig: That’s right. And it builds to one of the greatest scenes ever put on film. And it could only work if Peoples creates that flow of action the way he has. We know that Ned’s been caught. We see Little Bill torturing him, whipping him in a cell. We know he’s in trouble. We know that Munny and the Kid have just killed the second guy and now it’s just about getting their money. And so now we’re at a scene where he and the Kid are waiting on a hill under essentially the most perfect tree ever put on film for its purpose. And while we’re watching this rider, who is one of the prostitutes, slowly riding toward them with their money they have a discussion. And the Kid is essentially saying, despite his best attempts to convince himself, the way Peoples writes it is, “The Kid wipes whiskey from his chin. He has been working hard to make the hysteria he feels into a high… but it won’t quite come.”

And the Kid says, “That was…the first one.” He admits he’s never killed anyone before. And then he says, you know, I can’t do it — I can’t kill anybody else ever again. And one of the great lines ever, William Munny says, “It’s a hell of a thing, ain’t it, killin’ a man. You take everythin’ he’s got… an’ everythin’ he’s ever gonna have…” Which is profound, particularly within the context of a western, which is a genre in which people are constantly being killed. And in which we, the audience, are constantly cheering or meant to cheer. And suddenly here’s somebody who again refuses to go along with the legend. And he doesn’t have to because as it turns out he really is a terrible person.

When the prostitute shows up with the money she tells them that Ned has died. And she tells them that Little Bill killed him and made him say things. And while she’s talking, Munny starts to drink, which we know is the thing that he has not done because his wife cured him of that. But we also know that everything that he ever did that was terrible he did while he was drunk.

And this is what she says. This is just, ah, she said, “First Ned wouldn’t say nothin’… but Little Bill hurt him so bad he said who you was… He said how you was really William Munny,” I’m changing — the script is slightly different, “how you’re really William Munny out of Missouri… an’ Bill said “Same William Munny that dynamited the Rock Island and Pacific in ’69 killin’ women and children an’ all?” An’ Ned says you done a lot worse than that.”

Now, let me stop right there. She starts crying while she’s telling him this. And she’s not crying for Ned. She’s crying because she’s scared to death of the man she’s saying this to. She’s looking at him, understanding he is in fact the devil. And what happens next? The devil.

John: Yeah. So we’ve been promised the devil from the start of the film and the devil finally comes. And going back to the holding off the reveal that Ned is dead, you know, once we know Ned is captured our natural instinct is like, oh, well he’s going to have go save his friend. And so we always think that’s going to be a possibility. And so eventually we’re going to get there. And so we’re willing to put up with the Schofield Kid being all whiney about like, oh, it’s my first time ever killing a man because we know that, oh, he’s going to have to go out and save his friend. But then she comes and that’s taken away. That option is taken away. That pathway no longer exists.

And so the only things that are stopping him from becoming the devil are now here and that’s when he starts drinking.

Interestingly in the script, at least the script that I’m reading right now, does not show him drinking right then. But watching it in the movie, it’s such an incredibly strong moment because people are talking around him. He just takes the bottle and starts drinking. And you know —

Craig: You know.

John: Exactly what’s going to happen. And it’s fantastic.

Craig: Yes. So finally the slingshot is released. And now we cut to the town and it’s night and it’s rain and it’s thundering. Essentially it is now in fact a movie. It is a — so you wanted a western, we’ll give you a western. Here it is. Here comes the lone rider in on the horse. Here comes Clint Eastwood now.

You asked for it. You’ve been cheering for him. And now I’m going to frighten you to death with him. And I’m going to make you think about who it is exactly that you find so heroic. Because when he walks into the bar, he is, I mean, his face alone is terrifying. And he’s facing down this entire room full of men. He immediately kills Skinny. And then he points his gun at Little Bill and Little Bill says, “You be William Munny out of Missouri, killer of women and children.”

And in the script Munny says, “I have done that… killed women and children… I have killed most everything that walks or crawls an’ now I have come to kill you, Little Bill, for what you done to Ned.” And in the movie, what Clint Eastwood says before that is, “That’s right.” And it’s the scariest thing ever because this guy just says I guess you are and then rambles off this outrageous legend of a nightmarish person. And for the first time in this whole damn movie someone says, “That’s right. That’s me. And now I’ve come for you.” And it is terrifying. And in there you see Beauchamp leaning forward like, oh, this is it. This is the real thing.

John: So that last sequence, which would normally be like — it’s both kind of the orgy of violence that you expect to see in a western, but because of the setup and because this character is reluctant to do it, it plays so differently. It doesn’t have — I think Eastwood does a smart job of under-pedaling the fantasy of it. Because the whole movie has been set up so carefully. The script has set up so carefully to sort of puncture all of the excitement over this moment. So that it can both be a great guns a-blazing, but it’s not the end-all/be-all sort of like shoot them up amazing lucky shots coming through. It’s just what you want to see happen and you sort of know inevitably has to happen.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, essentially it’s real. You have one man who is a killer. And you have a bunch of guys who aren’t. And remember that scene that you’re right, dopier people would have said cut out, where Little Bill describes what it’s like. He said fast isn’t the thing. It’s keeping your cool. Well none of these guys can keep their cool. They are shooting not just wildly, but some of them are shooting straight up into the air. They’re terrified. They’ve never done this before. They’ve never killed anyone. We know they’re terrified even early on. They’re terrified to confront English Bob. Not Little Bill.

So William Munny starts shooting them. And he is moving slowly, just like Little Bill says a real killer does. He’s not fast. He is methodical and he keeps his cool. Everybody else is shooting wildly and quickly. And when it is over, a whole bunch of them are dead and the rest of them are leaving. Little Bill is on the floor, we think dead. And now Munny has an encounter with the second most important character in the movie, I’ll keep saying, W.W. Beauchamp.

And Beauchamp, the writer, who has gone from one person to another to another looking for the real legend has this discussion with him. He says, “You killed five men single-handed.” And Munny says, “Yeah.” And Beauchamp says, and god, it’s such a great bit of acting. Saul Rubinek, truly one of the great, great actors. Wipes his mouth, like he’s sweaty and he’s scared, but also excited. And he asks, “Who did you kill first?” That curiosity, that sociopathic curiosity of someone for whom reality is somehow subordinate to legend. He has to know. And Munny, the question to Munny is absurd. “Huh?”

And then Beauchamp, I love this, in parenthesis Peoples puts, “Reciting.” “Wh-wh-when confronted by superior numbers, the experienced gunfighter will fire on the best shots first.”

Munny goes, “Yeah?” I think in the movie he goes, “Is that right?” And then he starts going through all these questions. You killed him first. You killed Little Bill first, didn’t you?

And Munny says, “I was lucky in the order. I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killing folks.”

Beauchamp keeps going. Who is next? Was it Clyde or was it — ?

And Munny points his gun at him and says, “All I can tell you is who’s going to be last.” Which means essentially I don’t care about your storytelling. I don’t care about any of the lies or nonsense. I am the truth. Period. The end. And it trumps everything that you want to do here. Leave or die. And that, again, I think is Peoples great comment on what it means to mythologize things. That the truth has no time for the myth. But what happens after he kills, he finally kills Little Bill, a terrifying moment. Little Bill says, “I don’t deserve this, to die this way. I was building a house.” Lie.

Munny says, “Deserves got nothing to do with it.” Because this isn’t a story. Stories have morals and people deserve things and such. Not to this guy.

John: Yeah.

Craig: He kills him and when he comes outside he delivers this terrifying speech, terrifying, where he essentially in full flagrant Satan mode says, “I’m leaving and if anyone takes a shot at me I’m going to kill them, and I’m going to kill their family. I’m going to burn down their house.” And you believe it. You believe he will do these things. You understand who he is underneath.

And then I think cutting these other scenes and getting to that last bit really makes the last bit valuable. Because you understand from that last bit he returns back to the story that his wife told him that he needs to try and live. And he does. And you understand throughout the story that his intentions ultimately are to redeem himself. He’s trying. He’s the one person in the movie that’s actually legitimately good and honest to Delilah, the victim.

He’s the one person. He is trying to be good, but his nature is awful. And so the very end it says, his mother-in-law, “Some years later, Mrs. Ansonia Feathers made the arduous journey to Hodgeman County to visit the last resting place of her only daughter.” That was William Munny’s passed-on wife. “William Munny had long since sold the place and disappeared with the children… some said to San Francisco where it was rumored he prospered as a dry goods merchant under a different name.” And there’s nothing on the stone, meaning the gravestone of his dead wife. “And there was nothing on the stone to explain to Mrs. Feathers why her only daughter had married a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.”

Huh. What a way to end.

John: Yeah. It’s a great ending. So let’s look at how we actually resolve the film because this is a difference between the script and what we see on the film. So in the final film William Munny rides off. Then we come back to the farm and we basically come back to that same shot we saw at the start. So we do have the payoff, the celebration of sorts, that he does get to be back with his family. We’ve worried about his kids. His kids are OK. There’s a cross fade. And then we start our end crawl. So it’s literally a bookend to the story we’ve seen before and we find out he’s gone off to San Francisco to open a store.

The script has more. And there’s stuff there that I think if I were making this film I would say like, oh, well you’re going to absolutely need those moments because we want to see what happens with the kids. You’re going to want to see that everything resolved nicely, but I would be wrong. Because I think the film actually does a really good job at just sort of being done. Like once we’ve seen that violence and once we’ve seen that like, OK, once we know that he’s gotten back we don’t want to see those kids ever again.

And so the movie version we don’t spend time with those kids again. They have no more scenes. It’s just we’re into the next chapter.

So, that’s Unforgiven. And so I would encourage you to read the script in addition to watching the movie because you will see basically how good the script was before it became the movie, but also look for sort of what Peoples is doing on the page. You will notice a tremendous number of I-N-Gs. There are a lot of present progressive verbs being used where especially if we’re setting up the start of the scene, characters are in the middle of action. They’re in the middle of I-N-G’ing a lot of things. And it feels really nice and really natural.

The other thing you’ll notice, especially in the first half of the script, he is very kind of novel-ish about sort of his sentences. They sort of go on for a while. They’re not like tight and crisp a lot at the start. But they’re really good and they create a really nice feel. So look for the word choices he’s using but also the sentence length and sentence structures are really different and fascinating and I think work really well for the script.

They’re not often what we would point to in Three Page Challenges as like this is what you should do, but I can assure you that if we got these first three pages we would love them because they speak to a voice. They speak to a real understanding of what it’s like to read these pages and see the movie in your mind.

So, definitely do check them out. You’ll also notice that there’s some things that are in the script that are different that I actually really like a lot. So there’s a moment on page 53 where Schofield Kid, they’re talking about his being blind, and in the movie he throws a canteen on the ground and shoots it. And I didn’t know sort of how to take that as I watching this in the movie. In the script, there are these three turtles and he shoots them one-by-one. And it’s clear that he’s actually a really good shot, just at things that are close up.

And it’s a moment that I think plays better in the script than in the actual movie. It made me believe that Ned and Munny might think that the Schofield Kid could possibly kill somebody. That he actually has some kill. So it’s an interesting scene that didn’t make it into the script that way. I can understand why. It’s probably a little bit longer and a little bit — it’s just there’s a little shoe leather there that is not so great. But it was an interesting choice to let us understand like, oh, maybe the Kid is actually good at something. Because right now the Kid is sort of good at nothing.

Craig: Yeah. It could be that they were one a field and they didn’t have the stream and where would the turtles go. And then you got to get turtles. And you got to wrangle turtles. And you got to shoot turtles. And you got to rig fake turtles, because you can’t actually shoot turtles. Yeah, I understand it.

I also want to point out to folks that read the script here that David Webb Peoples apparently didn’t get the memo from all the brilliant script consultants and gurus out there who tell you to not put direction in your movies. He puts direction throughout. He slaters the script with direction. And I’m just picking one page at random, the very last page, here’s something in the middle. “VIEW ON MUNNY We are looking at him by now and there is nothing easy on his face, no big emotions, he is just looking at the grave.” We are looking at him. We. Oh my goodness.

John: We.

Craig: Oh my goodness. No. This must be why he didn’t win the Oscar, because probably the script for Crying Game didn’t have any We in it. Oh, god.

John: So Peoples scene direction of choice is View On, so it’s an intermediary slug line. It’s not a scene header. It’s all caps, single line. And he uses it a lot. And I know he uses it a lot because this afternoon I was going through the script to get it into Weekend Read and sometimes Weekend Read was thinking that those were character names rather than slug lines. So I had to sort of go through and correct them.

So, almost always he’s using View On for these different things. Totally great and valid choice because View On is basically calling out a shot without saying it’s a shot.

I think the trend now has been to leave out the View On and put the noun that’s there, so you wouldn’t say View On, you might say On Munny, or just say Munny does the next thing. But he’s good and he’s consistent and you never have confusion about what it is we’re supposed to be looking at. And that’s good screenwriting.

Craig: Yeah. It’s good screenwriting. And people also will say Angle On. It’s all fine. The point is you are directing, absolutely, don’t run away from this. You are directing a movie on the page. You’re directing it in a way that doesn’t get in the way of the experience of the movie, but rather makes the experience of the movie possible. And that’s exactly what happens here.

When he tells you we’re looking at something, there’s a reason. But therefore if there is a reason you must tell us. He does a fantastic job here. The script is well worth studying for its dialogue, for its structure, for its economy. It is just wonderful in that regard.

Most importantly, I think, the script is incredibly instructive on theme and character and how they intertwine and how all characters are like spokes, all leading to the hub of the wheel of the theme. And I just don’t know how to do it better than what he did here. It is just a spectacular, spectacular example of the best of what screenwriting can be.

John: So Craig, this is my true confession is when you proposed Unforgiven I said, “OK.” And then you went on Twitter and immediately said we were going to do Unforgiven, so I was sort of stuck with it. And I kind of resented it for a little bit because I — like, ugh, I’m going to have to watch this movie, I’m going to have to read this script. And I will say after watching the movie I’m like, yeah, you know what, it’s really good. And then after reading the script I’m like, you know what, it’s really good. But I think the testament to why these conversations can be good and productive is at the end of this hour I do genuinely like Unforgiven much more than when I started.

And I think the process of talking through the choices that Peoples made and that Clint Eastwood made in making this film really let me see some of the beauty in what was actually happening here. So this is not a movie that I started out loving. It’s not a genre that I started out loving. But I think you have sold me on why Unforgiven is one of the great scripts and one of the great movies that we should be paying attention to.

Craig: Victory. Well, I’ll tell you what. Thank you. I very much appreciate that. You get to pick the next one, which I presume is going to be Tuff Turf.

John: 100%. If it involves people posturing aggressively, then that’s my kind of movie. I’ve never seen Tuff Turf.

Craig: Tuff Turf is a movie from the ’80s I think, or early ’90s, starring James Spader. Sort of a teen romance. Derek Haas is obsessed with Tuff Turf. There’s a song in the middle of Tuff Turf — we’re not making fun of Tuff Turf, I swear to god. But whatever, look, you pick the next one. I’m in all the way. Let’s do it.

John: Excellent. So, that is our show for this week. Our show is produced by Carlton Mittagakus. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth.

If you have an outro, send it to That’s also the place to send longer questions, or questions that have audio files attached. We love those.

But on Twitter, ask us your short questions. I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.

We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast.

You can find us on Apple Podcasts. Just look for Scriptnotes. While you’re there, leave us a review. That helps people find our show.

You can find the notes for this episode and all episodes at While you’re there, go to to download the episode guide to all the previous episodes and that will include the previous deep dives we did on Little Mermaid. God, help me out, Craig. What were the other ones we did deep dives on?

Craig: We did Little Mermaid. Well we sort of did The Addams Family. We did Groundhog Day.

John: We did The Addams Family as sort of a general franchise.

Craig: We’re missing a big one. Oh, Raiders.

John: Raiders.

Craig: That was the biggest one of all.

John: That’s why we have a guide. So, you can find the guide for all those things back there. If you want to listen to those back episodes, they’re available on the USB drive., or at where you can get the entire back catalog for $2 a month.

Craig, thank you so much for a fun show.

Craig: Thank you, John.

John: Cool. Bye.

Craig: Bye.


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How Arlo Finch got his name

Wed, 08/30/2017 - 10:27

A reader asks:

What other names did you consider and how did you land on Arlo Finch?

I have a very hard time writing a character if I don’t love the name. So I obsess over picking the right one. I’ll spend hours staring in the middle distance, trying out various combinations until something clicks.

The right name would be especially important in this case. From the start, I was pretty sure the book was going to be titled some variation of Boy’s Name in the Place of the Noun, so I needed something appropriate for both a 12-year-old boy and a three-volume fantasy series.

For Arlo Finch, the last name came first.

I’ve always liked Finch, either as a first or last name. It’s been on my what-about list for years. It has the combination of feeling classic but unusual — I’ve never met anyone named Finch, but I wouldn’t be surprised to. Culturally, I’d believe that the family was American, possibly of English descent.

Of course, “finch” is also a kind of bird. I’m not much of an ornithologist, but I knew they were small and flitty. So I googled them.

Here’s a house finch:

From the photographer’s description:

that look is the quintessence of cool plainness. “I am extraordinarily ordinary.”

Male finches can actually be quite colorful, but I really like the simplicity of this brown and tan female.

Finch happens to be the last name of the family in To Kill A Mockingbird. That’s a great pedigree. But it’s also related to my own family’s name.

My original last name is Meise, which is the German term for the bird we call a titmouse.

Here’s the tufted variety:

So the Finch and die Meise are both small flitty birds. They’re not the same, but they’re the same general idea. Since I knew the main character of the book was going to be a stand-in for my 12-year-old self, it felt right to give him a name similar to mine.

Once I had settled on Finch, “Arlo” came relatively quickly.

Working off a list of common boys’ names, I started by ruling out single-syllable names, like John or Jim or Rob. The staccato one-two of these names can certainly work (e.g. Huck Finn, John Wick, Tom Ford), but it didn’t feel right for this.1

Moving up to two syllables, you quickly realize that almost all boys’ names have the stress on the front half: DUH-duh rather than duh-DUH. But even within that pattern, there’s lot of variation on where your mouth ends up when finishing the weak syllable.

Try saying the following names out loud:

Liam Finch
Jacob Finch
Logan Finch
Joseph Finch

In the first two examples, the final ‘m’ and ‘b’ require you to put your lips together, which makes for a weird transition to the start of “Finch.”

The ’n’ of Logan is easier, but still requires a fair amount of tongue-repositioning for the ‘f.’

And Joseph Finch sounds like one word: jossefinch.

Ideally, you’d want to end the first name with a vowel sound so it would be easy to hit the ‘f.’2 But there aren’t many boys’ names that end in a vowel, and they tend to sound Old Testament-y:


Henry was a contender. It worked well with Finch, and was my father’s name. But it didn’t quite feel like the character. I ended up making Arlo’s best friend “Henry Wu.”

I found Arlo quite low on the list.3 I loved it immediately. Like Finch, it was a name that I’d never seen in the wild but certainly believed could exist.

“Arlo Finch” is easy to pronounce. The ‘o’ flows naturally into the ‘f.’ (Almost too naturally — some people hear it as “our loaf inch.”)

Typographically, its four letters look good together — an important consideration for a word that will show up multiple times on every page. And it balances really nicely with Finch when you see both words together.

I chose the name on October 29th, 2015. The next day, I set to work writing chapter one. Arlo’s sister became Jaycee Finch — another two-syllable first name ending in a vowel. His mom became Celeste Bellman Finch.

Months later, I discovered there’s at least one real person named Arlo Finch. But that’s not particularly surprising. There are quite a few Harry Potters and Tom Riddles out there as well.

Ultimately, what makes a name work isn’t that it’s unique, but that it uniquely suits the character. For this book, for this kid, I was really happy to find Arlo Finch.

  1. “Ray Finch” sounds like a private eye. “Bill Finch” sells insurance.
  2. A ‘r’ would also work. Yes, it’s a consonant, but at the end of a word it stays open like a vowel. “Roger Finch” is easy to say.
  3. It’s #502 on this list, but has apparently risen to #299 for 2017. I have a hunch its popularity is going to continue growing, regardless of what happens with the book. It feels like a new Noah or Wyatt.

Big Screens, Big Money

Tue, 08/29/2017 - 08:03

John and Craig offer a 101 on how movies make money at theaters, and why a 1948 Supreme Court case changed everything.

Then we look at two recent disruptions to the standard model: Movie Pass and Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky.

We also answer listener questions on waiting periods and creative rights.


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You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 313: Well, It Worked in the 80s — Transcript

Tue, 08/22/2017 - 10:03

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

Craig, are you at all afraid of the number 13?

Craig: No, not even in the slightest. No Triskaidekaphobia for me.

John: Not even a tiny little percentage of it for me. And I was thinking about this. I don’t have very many superstitious quirks really at all. The only thing I think I do on a regular basis is if I’m driving and I go underneath a red light or an orange light that’s about to turn red, I will scratch the roof of the car. And that’s a thing I started doing in college. And it’s a little OCD, but it’s also just kind of comforting to me. Do you have any of those?

Craig: No. I have drummed them all out of my life because they’re stupid. Every now and then what I will do is I’ll create momentary tests of fate. So, for instance, if there’s something where it’s going to be close, but I feel like I can do it, like for instance, oh, I let — like the door to my office is on a hinge, a springe hinge, right? So, it’s going to close. I open it and it’s closing behind me and then I think, oh, I forgot something in there. I turn around and then very quickly in my mind I think if I can get to the door before it closes then everything is going to go great today. And then I do it.

John: It’s the Raiders of the Lost Ark sort of escape from underneath the — yes.

Craig: But it’s an absurd thing to do.

John: Yeah. I do notice that even among our friends when we’re playing D&D, there are certain ones of us who will like, OK, that dice is no longer lucky, so we’re going to swap out which die were rolling for 20-sider. Which is, of course, crazy.

Craig: Well, it’s not entirely crazy inasmuch as the dice that we’re using, we have lots of them, and they’re old. And in time a die can go out of true. And then — so you might think, well, there’s some — but we aren’t rolling those dice anywhere near enough times to make that determination. So, you’re right, essentially it is irrational. But also part and parcel of D&D. I feel like when you’re playing D&D you are accepting that you are in an irrational world with magic and stuff, so you might as well just, you know, extend that and keep it going.

John: Absolutely. Bring the fantasy into the real world.

Craig: Correct.

John: Correct. Today on the show, we’ll be trying out a new segment where we look at four films from the past and discuss how we could make them today. Plus, Craig, we have more listener questions.

Craig: Well, I’m excited to do all of those things.

John: Hooray. But I know you’re especially excited about a future episode in which we’re going to be talking about Unforgiven. This was your idea. And so I want to warn listeners in advance that Unforgiven is coming, so if you have a chance to see the film or read the screenplay, or do both, this would be a good week to do it. Craig, what do you want to set up for our listeners about Unforgiven?

Craig: Unforgiven is coming and we’ve all got it coming, kid. So, this is our — what are we up to now? Our fourth deep dive? Four? We don’t do these very often, but Unforgiven is a fantastic, brilliant, brilliant script by David Webb Peoples. The movie was directed by Clint Eastwood, of course. Starring Clint Eastwood. And Gene Hackman. And Morgan Freeman.

And it is a wonderful movie to dissect in my opinion as a screenwriter to talk about the choices that were made all throughout. It is one of the best examples of a thematically cohesive film. Richard Harris also in the movie. And it is beautifully structured without feeling too short or too long. It has pretty much everything that I would ever hope for and it does it within a genre. And so it is one of the most literate — it’s certainly the most literate Western I think that has ever been made. And a gorgeous movie to dissect.

So, if you have not seen Unforgiven, or it’s been a while, of course it is available to you on all the normal avenues. And I suggest you take a look, because next week we’re going to be going in.

John: So if you’re looking for a screenplay to read, I’ve been doing some cursory Googling and there are quite a few Unforgivens floating out there. They all seem to be about the same. So, I wouldn’t worry too much about which draft you’re reading or sort of what’s in it. If somebody has a link to what they think is the definitive Unforgiven, send it in to We’ll try to link to that in the show notes for next week’s episode.

What’s interesting as I was sort of Googling things is that more recent movies, because it becomes so commonplace for the Academy nominated films to send out their screenplays as PDFs, it’s a much more acceptable — like this is the definitive draft for people to read of the movie. Back in that day, it wasn’t the same way. So, there can be many different versions floating out there. But they all seem to be hitting the same scenes. They’re a pretty good representation of what people’s intention was as they were set to make this movie.

The legend of Unforgiven is that it was a — they shot a white script. Basically that Clint Eastwood took the script and filmed it. There was no rewriting. There was no changes of the script before they shot it. We’ll try to investigate that, too, to see whether there were any things that did change over the course of production.

Craig: Yeah. I’ve read — first of all, if you’re looking for scripts, avoid the transcripts. All that is is just somebody writing down what they hear on screen. But there are a bunch. I did see one that was — it said Shooting Draft. And it did seem like there may have been a few revisions, although I didn’t really see much in the way of asterisks. The movie is remarkably faithful to the script. There are few places here and there where there is a touch of wandering. It is typically when Clint Eastwood’s character of William Money is talking. He occasionally made slight adjustments. But they are very slight.

And in one case I thought a brilliant two-word adjustment that I just loved. But by and large, they shot it. They shot it just as it was written. And, oh no, I don’t want to upset anyone but, boy, he puts a lot of camera direction in his script, David Webb Peoples. I know we’re not supposed to do that, but, um, oh dear. Oh dear. Where are my pearls? I must clutch something.

John: So, that is coming in an upcoming episode, but also coming soon is the Austin Film Festival. So at the end of October, this October 26 through 29, Craig and I will be in Austin, Texas for the umpteenth annual Austin Film Festival. We’re there every year. There’s always a live Scriptnotes. There is one this year. It’ll be a nighttime thing. I think it’s the Friday night that we’re doing the Scriptnotes.

Craig: Yeah.

John: There will be a party afterwards, so you should go to both of those things. There’s going to be a live Three Page Challenge, like there have been on previous seasons. So, what we usually do is there’s going to be a special webpage you’re going to go to submit saying like this is for the live Three Page Challenge at Austin, because we only want to have entries there for people who are going to be in the room with us. And so we can bring you up on stage to talk about what we read and what your intention was.

It’s a really cool exercise for us to be able to see like, OK, we just read this thing, but what did you actually mean. So often when we do the Three Page Challenge, we’re just sort of talking into the void. And to talk to the writer, that’s very exciting. So, next week or the week after there will be a special link for how you submit to the Three Page Challenge live at Austin.

Craig: Well, that’s going to be fun. It is our umpteenth. Always a good time. And this live show, it’s sort of a continuation of what we did last year, which was a bit of a departure, but it worked out pretty well. The general theory is we do it later in the evening, on Friday, when everyone is drunk. Everyone. And just creates a much better show as it turns out. It’s just much more fun and freewheeling. And we answer your questions. Don’t show up like — don’t be actually drunk. Don’t be actual drunk.

What I mean to say we’re all screenwriter drunk, which means we’ve all had a little more than 1.5 drinks. That’s what screenwriter drunk is.

John: All right. So you’re not required to drink for the live show.

Craig: No. God no.

John: So please don’t take that as an invitation to binge-drinking.

Craig: No barfing at our show.

John: Absolutely none. None of that.

Craig: We just can’t handle that.

John: One of my I would say frustrations of the live show we just did in Beverly Hills was that we did not have alcohol at that event, and the show was lovely, but I felt like a cocktail beforehand would have been just great.

Craig: Well I somehow got myself a glass of wine out of it.

John: There were two bottles of wine in the green room, so I did have like a glass of wine there. But I felt like the audience, there’s just a party vibe when everyone has access to alcohol.

Craig: Yeah. I agree. I agree. Look, we’ve been really clear about this. And I think it should be our rider, like our backstage rider. Everybody who shows up with the exception of people who are on a program has to have had 1.5 drinks.

John: Well, I think there’s more exceptions there. I think the people who are under 21 should not have had drinks. Just the liability there, Craig, it’s a lot.

Craig: All right. Fine. And the dangerously old shouldn’t drink either. Yeah.

John: There’s a lot.

Craig: There’s a lot.

John: It’s a good thing that there’s somebody here looking out for us on a legal liability basis, because there’s so much money to lose here.

Craig: Right. I mean, they could literally get our nones of dollars.

John: Yeah. All our t-shirt money.

Craig: Aw, t-shirt money.

John: Good stuff. And people have been asking will there be new t-shirts. There will eventually be new t-shirts. I think before Christmas there will be new t-shirts because you have to look good.

One of the joys of coming back to Los Angeles is that I will just walk around and I will see people wearing a Scriptnotes t-shirt and it makes me very happy.

Craig: It’s crazy. I see them all the time. It’s crazy.

John: But lovely. So, thank you for wearing your t-shirts with pride.

Craig: Can you imagine what it’s like to have had partnership in a business that creates a product and you see the product everywhere and you’ve never received a dime. Do you have any concept, John, of what that’s like?

John: I think it would be like having done a lot of work rewriting a film and then not having your name on it, and therefore not receiving any residuals. And I would know what that’s like.

Craig: Or doing a whole lot of work on a movie and then getting your name on it and another person’s name is on it and they didn’t do much at all.

John: Yeah. There’s that, too.

Craig: That’s the guy to be.

John: Mm.

Craig: Mm.

John: All right. This is a new segment. So, you know, 313 episodes in, we keep trying new things. This segment was suggested by Annie Hayes who actually helped us out at an Austin Film Festival a couple years ago. And she was awesome. And so she came up with this idea for a segment and I think it’s a really good idea. So we’ll see.

She’s calling this Modernize This, which is the sense of how do you take an old movie and make it new. Or sort of take the idea for an old movie and how would you do that movie today. So, we’re not talking about remakes or sequels. So we’re not talking about Robocop or Ghostbusters or Escape from LA. But like how do you take an old movie and make a movie that does the same kind of things today? What would change and what would be the challenges and the opportunities of making that kind of movie today?

And I was thinking about this, I was flying back on a plane from Ohio and I watched the movie You Get Me, which was a Netflix original movie. And I dug it. I genuinely dug it. It is a teen thriller. It’s basically a teen fatal attraction. And it was gorgeously shot. I liked it.

I landed in Los Angeles and like turned off airplane mode and Googled, pulled up Rotten Tomatoes, and it was not well-reviewed. And I was frustrated by that because it felt like, you know what, maybe it’s just not possible to make a teen fatal attraction now that’s going to get good reviews, but I still dug the movie.

Craig: Hmm. It’s weird that you liked something but the critics didn’t. I think you should just stop liking it now, John.

John: I should probably stop liking it now. I should question my basic assumptions of what is good and what is wrong.

Craig: You’ve been told.

John: But quite often when you and I are in meetings, it will come up like, ìOh, we want to do something that’s like this.î Or we want this dynamic to be like it is in that movie. And so I thought let’s take a look at some of those movies that are always cited and how would you make that kind of movie today.

Craig: Well, let’s do it.

John: All right. Let’s start with the one I think that comes up more often than any other movie which is for me Romancing the Stone. So Romancing the Stone from 1984. It was written by Diane Thomas, directed by Robert Zemeckis. If you haven’t seen it, just see that. See that along with Unforgiven this week, because it’s just great.

So the basic plot is Kathleen Turner plays a romance novelist. She heads off to Colombia because her sister has been kidnapped and she finds herself in this relationship with Michael Douglas who is kind of an Indiana Jones-y kind of adventurer, but he’s a scamp. He’s not a good guy, he’s not a bad guy, but like their relationship becomes the focus of the adventure of the story. And so often when I get something to — sent something to rewrite, they’re looking at the central dynamic between the man and the woman and they’ll say like, ìOh, like Romancing the Stone.î You’ve probably gotten a note like that, too.

Craig: Yeah. For sure. So it’s a great shorthand for a woman who is not looking for love and does not like this rascally man. And a man who is an uncompromising gruff guy. Are thrown together in buddy cop style, essentially. I don’t like you and you don’t like me. And then they fall in love.

John: Yep. Guardians of the Galaxy uses this trope between the two mains, between Zoe Saldana’s character and Chris Pratt’s character. That is the central kind of dynamic. She comes in much tougher than the Kathleen Turner character comes in. But it’s that same kind of thing, where they hate each other, they’re fighting, but ultimately they are going to fall in love. You just know that it’s going to have to happen.

Craig: Yeah. It’s interesting. We simply cannot abide relationships where women and men don’t like each other. And then it’s only because they really just want to sleep together. You know, sometimes women and men do not like each other. Did you know that? [laughs]

John: It does happen.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Weirdly, a movie I was working on last year, there was the suggestion like, oh, could we change this friend character to a woman. And I said yes you can, and we can totally do that. I just want to make it clear to everybody that the audience will expect there to be a relationship between these two characters. And I can’t fix that. There’s going to be a basic assumption that if that character is a woman, given what that character has to do, there’s going to be an assumption that their sparring and their bickering is going to turn into romance.

So like I would have to rewrite that whole character. I can’t just simply change the gender because of the expectations of society.

Craig: Yeah. I think that’s basically right. When we see men and women bickering and arguing we just presume it’s foreplay. It’s just elaborate foreplay. And maybe that’s part of the key to reimagining and modernizing something like Romancing the Stone. So many of the examples that we’re going to be dealing with, the problem that exists now with modernizing them is that they existed in the first place.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: So they led to a lot of knock-offs. A lot of lesser-thans. And a lot of versions, not just of the plot, but the character dynamic as you’re describing has leaked into all sorts of movies across all sorts of genres. So maybe one way to reconsider Romancing the Stone is to come up with a relationship between a man and a woman that is not romantic at all, and never will be. Let’s just get rid of that. Let’s make it about earning respect or understanding another person, walking in their shoes. There are other ways to perfect a relationship which is, I guess when you get down to it, what movies are about. Two people perfecting a relationship.

John: So let’s look at ways you could stick a man and a woman together on screen and not have the expectation of romance. Well, if you establish from the beginning that they are brother and sister, then you take the sting of that off. So they’re an estranged brother and sister who have to come together to do this thing. We’re not going to expect them to hook up at the end unless it’s Game of Thrones.

If there’s such a disparity between the two characters that we don’t see them ever — doesn’t seem plausible that they would hook up romantically, like there’s an age difference. That they’re just vastly different types. You can sometimes do that. I mean, there’s still going to be — it’s going to be ageist. It’s going to be sort of body-shapeist, but there is — it breaks that expectation that that natural thing is going to happen.

Craig: You can get that dynamic even if you don’t push things too far in kind of an obvious direction. Even if you have a very good-looking 60-year-old man and a very good-looking 25-year-old woman, if the dynamic from the jump is parental and it’s about getting the lessons from this person before they die, or whatever it is, I mean, there are ways to push relationship into father-daughter in a way where you would never think, oh, oh now I don’t want them. That wouldn’t feel right. This feels so much more father-daughter or mother-son to me that I don’t want.

I mean, ultimately that’s the key. Your job is to just take away the emotional desire from the audience to have them get together. And by the way, one of them could be gay if they’re opposite sex and then you’ve solved that problem immediately.

John: You have solved the problem but I think there’s always going to be that question of like, oh, but is this going to be the exception? Is the going to be the she’s a lesbian who is going to crossover for this one guy, or vice versa? There could be something there. I think it’s — I definitely hear that instinct, but I do just wonder if some part of me is going to think like, oh, but I really wanted them to get together.

I remember when My Best Friend’s Wedding came out. There was a huge contingent of people like, oh no, she should have ended up with her best friend. But he was gay. It’s like, oh, but they were delightful together. There’s always going to be that sense of like the people who want Will and Grace to get married.

Craig: [laughs] Well, yes. But I think that that — I think we live in a different time now. I think in particular if Kathleen Turner shows up and meets grumpy Michael Douglas and he’s rugged and tough and they’re quarreling and he’s gay, then once we have that revelation what we are now looking for is, OK, what is the new perfected state of this relationship? That’s the most important thing. You’ve got to substitute something. You can’t just take it away. There has to be something else. So that partly is a trick. I think of modernizing something like Romancing the Stone from the character point of view, because I agree with you, I just think that the romance of Romancing the Stone has been done too many times.

John: So, but I would say like let’s put a pin in sort of killing the romance and let’s look at sort of fundamentally the DNA is like this sparring couple ultimately does fall in love. So is there a way to sort of do Romancing the Stone that doesn’t fall into exactly the same traps? One of the easy and obvious things to try to do is to basically flop the genders, so that he is the romance novelist come down and she is the bad ass. She is the Lara Croft that is ultimately getting in here. And they despise each other for different reasons. It’s a little harder to imagine. Weirdly, I can picture the Lara Croft character more easily. Imagining that novelist coming in, I think it’s a different character coming in. I think he’s coming in with different sets of expectations and different biases.

But I think there’s a version of it that could work. And maybe you’re not going to the jungle. You’re going to some place more exotic, some place farther out. Make them culturally more different so that there’s wider space for them to travel to get together.

Craig: Yeah, I think that that would be interesting. And I think you’re right. We would need to send them farther flung than — further flung? Further flung?

John: It’s a distance. It’s both a distance and a journey, so it could either.

Craig: There you go. They need to be sent somewhere even more remote than they were — because, look, Romancing the Stone in and of itself was borrowing from Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was basically saying what if you did romantic Raiders of the Lost Ark. And we’ve seen a lot of those movies, too. And so you need to go somewhere stranger. I actually think a real cultural difference would be nice. I mean, in Romancing the Stone we’re in this remote jungle in Colombia and it’s just two white people. And the villain is a white guy. And so it’s just white people running around in Colombia. And I think that there is an interesting story to tell where you’re dealing with people who are native to their country, indigenous people, really deep into parts of the world that are maybe not quite as modern and yet are probably far more modern than we realize here where we live. And playing around with culture I think could be really interesting.

John: Agreed. All right, let’s move on to our next movie. This is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Again, this is all from the ’80s. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off if you haven’t seen it, again, add it to your list. It’s really remarkable. Written and directed by John Hughes. It tells the story of Ferris Bueller who takes a day off from school and the adventures he has over the course of that day. It’s a classic sort of breaking the patterns of normal reality and just having the lark, having the adventure.

So, I guess there’s a couple ways to approach this. First off, how possible is it to make a movie that stars essentially a 16, 17-year-old protagonist that can break out past sort of a teen audience? And weirdly I feel like teens aren’t going to see movies with teenagers anymore, too. But how do you make this kind of movie with this kind of protagonist open up and become a broadly accepted movie?

Craig: I don’t know how you can do this because it was singular. I mean, it was a singular piece of work. It was one man’s vision from top to bottom. It was done perfectly. And it was not particularly — I mean people think of it as being very ’80s because John Hughes was a master at the accoutrement of teen life in the ’80s, but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came out in 1986. Ferris Bueller was 16 years old in the movie. And I was 15 years old watching it. And I did not recognize that world at all.

John: No.

Craig: It looked nothing at all like my world. I didn’t talk like that. I didn’t dress like that. Nobody in my school looked like that. And yet it felt real.

John: How a movie can be both feel true but also be kind of aspirational at the same time. No kid was actually kind of like that. And yet it captured the feeling of what suburban Chicago would feel like. Everyone speaks in a much more sophisticated way than they actually would in real life, which is sort of a movie convention. But the way that Ferris is able to address us directly to camera. It is a very singular unique voice. So I don’t think we can duplicate that exactly.

But I wonder in the DNA of that, the sense of like you know what, maybe just don’t go to work today. I think that is an idea that you could do today and actually make something really special out of. Like you know it doesn’t even have to be a teenage protagonist, but just like the person who is supposed to go into work and doesn’t take the exit ramp and just has the wild day. That feels like a movie that’s evergreen.

Craig: Yeah. I think so, but there’s something about it being a kid. You know, adults can take days off. Kids, you know, they’re prisoners in a sense. I would — the one thing about John Hughes was that he was a master at articulating a vision of upper class white Illinois America, teen America, always Illinois. So it was Midwest.

It would be interesting to go to a filmmaker now and say this is the basic premise. You have somebody who is smarter than everybody around them, who is popular for reasons we can barely even fathom, he can barely even fathom. He gets away with everything. He is going to rig himself the best day ever and he’s going to get away with it. And his friend is going to have to deal with the ramifications. But they’re black and it’s also Chicago but it’s South Side. Now, give us — and by the way, put it in the ’80s also. Don’t take it out of the ’80s and give us the other version of this. There’s a whole other world. And sometimes the most fascinating thing is when you’re not going across the globe and saying well what was it like for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in Yemen. No, what was it like for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off literally 45 minutes south of where Ferris Bueller’s Day Off happened?

But still it’s funny. Don’t fall into the trap of like it all ends in gunfire and gang violence. Make it funny. Make it amazing. You know, but build it around that character. I think could be a really interesting — I mean, they could even pass each other.

John: That’s what I was thinking. It would be fascinating if during the parade or something, during Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or like the car, you focus on the valets who took the car at one point. It’s the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Craig: Yeah. Yeah. I think there’s something — that’s what I would do. Somebody is going to do that right? I feel like somebody is going to just do what we just said.

John: Yep.

Craig: And you know what, again, I don’t think we’re going to get any money, unless you’ve been getting money. [laughs]

John: You’ll never know. There’s no auditing of the show. Let’s go on to our next ’80s classic. This is Rain Man. So this is a story by Barrow Morrow, screenplay by Morrow and Ron Bass. Directed by Barry Levinson. So, again, if you haven’t seen it you need to see Rain Man. Tom Cruise plays a guy who has inherited a fortune but he’s also inherited his autistic brother played by Dustin Hoffman. And it is a cross-country trip because his brother will not fly.

Craig, how do you do a story like Rain Man today? Can you?

Craig: Um…I don’t think so.

John: So, what is the obstacles of making Rain Man today?

Craig: Well, when Rain Man came out it autism was still quite exotic. And it was only after really starting in the, I guess, late ’90s/early 2000s that diagnoses of spectrum disorder started to explode. And autism became kind of a national conversation. Our understanding of what autism was expanded from — even, you know, look, even Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal was a very kind of narrow slice of — I mean, profoundly autistic weren’t talking at all. But it expanded way beyond that to people that we deal with all the time in our lives and who are quite functional and move around and do in fact fly and probably are pilots. But I think probably the autism part just doesn’t feel right anymore.

The question of a brother having to finally become a brother to a brother who is somehow disadvantaged, disabled, is interesting. I think you could do a Rain Man today with a brother who has schizophrenia. I think that’s a very unexplored topic. And a very tragic one. That’s probably the direction I would go.

John: Yeah. There’s a smaller Sundance-y version of the story that is two brothers taking a trip across the country and one of them has a profound situation that impacts his ability to process the outside the world. And the other brother is just an asshole who has to become less of an asshole over the course of the trip.

I think if you’re trying to make the big studio version of this, you have to have the big studio version of this that can plug two giant actors in to those roles at the time. I think Rain Man wouldn’t be Rain Man if it weren’t for those giant stars in those parts. And so finding who those people would be is really crucial and planning for these are going to be sort of big showcase marquee roles to do it.

So, I think it’s possible. It’s not easy. And it also feels like the kind of movie, we’ve talked about this on the podcast before, where a studio will make one of these movies a year. Basically we’re going to make this movie and try to get an Oscar for it. But we’re not going to try to make this movie if we don’t think this there’s going to be an Oscar looming for us.

Craig: Yeah. These were made all the time back in the day. They are rarely made now. Oftentimes when we see movies like this from a studio it’s because they’re distributing it. But some other entity made it. And I agree with you it has to be star-driven. It’s practically the definition of a star-driven movie. But it is doable.

John: My hunch is that this kind of movie would be based on a book today. So there would be a book that they bought that was a bestseller that was beloved and sort of as the book was taking off and attracting a lot of attention people were already sort of plugging in who those stars were going to be. That to me feels like the kind of way you’d make this movie today. I don’t think you’d make this movie without a book behind it.

Craig: Yeah. I just agree. I agree. Well, although you know, look, if you wrote a great spec. If you wrote a great spec about a brother, or make it sisters, because we don’t see sisters very often in this capacity where one has to care for the other. I mean, we have but not frequently enough I don’t think.

Look, I don’t know how else to put it without sounding callous and exploitive. When we portray heartbreaking conditions, mental conditions or physical conditions on screen, we do it in part because of a certain exotic nature of them. And I know the word exotic makes people’s hair stand up because it sounds like we’re, I don’t know, making people into freaks. We’re not. It’s just a question of interest. I mean, it’s just simple interest. What interests us? What fascinates us? I mean, the movie Mask, which is a beautiful movie — not the Jim Carey one, but the Eric Stoltz/Cher one — that is about a very exotic condition. And it fascinates us. The Elephant Man fascinated us.

Well, the Elephant Man’s condition ultimately wasn’t as fatal as someone’s glioblastoma, which doesn’t fascinate us because it’s not physical. It doesn’t have these huge — you know what I mean? So it’s about exploring something and in a way educating. The truth is Rain Man actually did a lot of good, I think.

John: Yeah. Agreed. I think it took conditions which had always been like not discussed and sort of put them out in the open. And while we didn’t have the best words for discussing them then, I feel like it allowed a conversation to begin. So that can be a good thing.

I agree with you that like swapping in a woman for the Charlie character could be useful. I can envision a Sandra Bullock/Oscar Isaac story that is this kind of thing. Or she may be too inherently likeable. But some A-list actress opposite an Oscar Isaac who would be magnificent in playing whatever condition or situation you want to put the other character in. There’s some version of that that could work.

Craig: I like that Oscar Isaac is listening to this and he goes, so, anything? Really? Any disease you can think of? Any condition, you just think of me?

John: I think Oscar Isaac is one of those unique actors who is just so good that like, oh yeah, you know what, he could totally do that. He could pull that off.

Craig: Oscar Isaac is so good. He’s so good. It’s actually exciting to see that actors are still good. That’s a weird thing to say, because we’ve lost so many movie stars, per se, you know, the star system has gone away. And when we grow up we think of Hollywood always in nostalgic terms about the great actors of old. And then we compare them to what we have now and every generation it always feels silly. Like, oh, well they had, you know, Cary Grant and we have Arnold Schwarzenegger. Well, now Arnold Schwarzenegger is the actor, you know, and then we look, but we have — the actors just continue to renew.

John: Agreed.

Craig: They really do. I think more than great directors and more than great writers. I think there are probably more great directors, more great writers back then because there were more movies being made. But great actors, they just keep coming. It’s exciting.

John: Yeah. Easy to write roles for them.

All right, our final one to talk through is Coming to America which is a 1988 film. Story by Eddie Murphy. Screenplay by David Sheffield and Barry Blaustein. Yes, I know there’s controversy over the origins of Coming to America, but it was directed by John Landis. So it tells a story of this very spoiled African prince who comes to New York and has to learn sort of the common ways of America.

How do you get into a story like Coming to America today? So it doesn’t have to be a prince. It doesn’t have to even necessarily be Coming to America. But that central idea of a pampered person coming to a place and having to learn it from the ground up. What does that story feel like today?

Craig: It’s tough because what’s happened since 1988 is all of the very, very wealthy powerful people in places that are so different enough from America that the journey and arrival would be exciting have already been to America. They all come to America. They come to London. They buy large amounts of land and property in these places. So, it was a bit novel to imagine a very small perhaps Central African nation which had a son who had not been exposed at all to America, but I don’t know where I would go to find that person now.

You know, the truth is Coming to America does not age particularly well. There is, you know, at the heart of it a very clichéd story.

John: And I think you really need to look at for what are the tropes you’re going to be following into if you’re not very careful. So, in terms of a culture coming from money coming to America, you talk about sort of vast wealth from overseas coming here and buying stuff up. There’s a version of this where you have somebody who is incredibly wealthy from the Middle East or somewhere who comes to America and for whatever reason does not have access to his money and has to sort of see America from the ground up.

And there is something — there could be something delightful and charming about how those outside eyes can see what we are like and also be able to see how a Midwesterner perceives a person from the Middle East. Like there could be a story that is actually — I can imagine a story that’s good about that. I can also imagine so many pitfalls in sort of how you’re doing that.

Craig: Yeah. I don’t know if this one is worth it. You know, we really should just run a studio.

John: Done. I mean, if anybody wants to throw us some VC money and just build us a studio that would be great. Because we have a friend who apparently just came into a lot of money to make movies, so maybe those same people who have given him some money could give us some money.

Craig: So, what I think though, John, is that we should get an actual studio. I mean, one of the studios.

John: Oh yeah, like Paramount.

Craig: They give these studios, ultimately, they have to give them to someone to run. Have to, right? And if you have one of those studios that’s maybe struggling, why wouldn’t they just give it to us?

John: That’s a valid question to ask.

Craig: We’re really good at this. We’ve written a lot of hit movies. We know that. You know? And we know people.

John: We have good relationships with a lot of writers. And we only have bad relationships with a few writers. And, you know what? Screw them. We don’t need them.

Craig: They’re not going to work there.

John: [laughs]

Craig: It’s just as simple as that.

John: Our blacklist is very, very short. But, I mean, we get along with a lot of directors. And the few that we don’t get along with, oh well. That’s OK.

Craig: Right. You can’t get along with everybody.

John: No. That’s not possible.

Craig: But generally speaking we know lots of people, lots of producers. And we have a good eye for material. And I feel like we would do a really good job.

John: Yeah. I think it would be challenging to be a development exec working for us.

Craig: Well, yes. And we would have to really just get the best. But you don’t need that many. See, that’s the other thing.

John: You don’t.

Craig: Let’s say you’re making five movies a year. How many? I mean, honestly do you even need any? I mean, if we found two that we loved, you know, because the truth is we wouldn’t be developing a lot of stuff we didn’t want to make.

John: Yeah. That’s classically what everybody says as they come into this job. It’s like, ìI only want to spend the money on the things I’m going to make. Or I only want to make the hits.î That’s the other thing they say a lot.

Craig: Only make the hits. Only make the hits.

John: That’s a great business plan is to only make the hits.

So, I don’t know that we made any hits today, but I kind of enjoyed that segment. So, again, in all these things we’re talking about, we’re not really describing like let’s take the original IP and make a remake it. So let’s not make a new Coming to America. But how do you make that kind of movie I think is a valid thing? And if we do this again, I really want to get into the sex thrillers that used to exist in the ’80s because they were great. And we just don’t make them anymore.

Craig: No. The Erotic Thriller. Yeah, the age of the erotic thriller.

John: I want a Jagged Edge. We don’t make a Jagged Edge anymore.

Craig: We just don’t. I think that somewhere a borderline producer is frantically trying to find a writer to do our Chicago South Side Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

John: Yep. That’s a situation where you would have to have some control over the original rights to do that, I think.

Craig: If you wanted to do the overlap, certainly. No question about that.

John: Cool. Let’s get to some questions. First off we have a question from Jacob. Let’s take a listen.

Jacob: I’m a 22-year-old film student from Phoenix, Arizona. My question is about making the most of opportunities in the industry. I was lucky enough to snag two unpaid development internships in LA this fall. I really don’t want these months to fly by and have nothing come out of it. Both said job opportunities are possible afterwards, but of course no guarantee. I would just love any tips on what I could be doing during these internships to really stand out and be remembered. How could I ensure that the time spent with these companies will truly be fruitful and worthwhile?

Craig: That’s a great question.

John: That’s a great question. We have great listeners.

Craig: We do.

John: I remember being in exactly Jacob’s situation. I was 22 when I had my first internships here. And so I was reading for a company called Prelude Pictures which had a deal over at Paramount. And I think I did basically the right things. I asked sort of what they needed me to do. And that was to write some coverage. I asked for samples, like can you show me some good coverage, like coverage you really like? And I tried to do the best job I could on the coverage to give them the coverage that they would like.

What I always did as I turned in coverage, like I tried to see if they actually were reading it and if they could give me some feedback on what I was doing. And you should never feel needy but at the same time if it’s an unpaid internship, which I think has to have some college component at this point. I think studios are very wary about unpaid internships in general, but like make sure you’re getting something out of it and making sure that you get sort of what the company is trying to do and how you can be helpful.

Craig: Yeah. Some practical tips for you Jacob. Show up a little bit early every time. Leave at the very end. When you are asked to do something, do it and deliver it before you’re supposed to deliver it. Essentially, every step of the way exceed expectations. Every single step of the way. Exceed expectations. If they give you four tasks to do, and they say you have all week to do it, do it in two days and do it great. Do it great.

Forget about everything else. Forget about everything else. Just be a killer. And do a really good job.

It’s sad, but you’d think that everybody would kind of get the message here, that exceeding expectations is how you get noticed. They don’t. Good news, Jacob. That means you’ll be special. So, you just have to go above and beyond. In addition to that, be pleasant. Be humble. Listen. Ask people if they are ever willing to sit down with you at lunch and you can just ask them questions about themselves and how they got where they got and get advice from them. They love that. And they love people who ask.

So, in general, you will be this very lovely, very intellectually curious person who is a hard worker, who is always there, who does more than he’s asked to do and does it very, very well. That will get you noticed. And in the end that’s how you take advantage of these things. By getting noticed and becoming somebody that they would miss if you weren’t there. That’s how you get the job.

John: Completely agree. And what you might be looking for down the road after this internship when they say there could be job opportunities, what it really means is you might be an assistant. You might get a job answering phones and doing that kind of coverage for pay. And that is probably a good thing. So try to get to that point.

What Craig says about like see if you can sit down for lunch with people, like don’t go right ahead to the producer or whoever is running the company. Like have lunch with the assistants. Get to know them. Get to find out how their job works and so they will tell you about tracking boards and all the other stuff. Just learn. Just learn how all that works. Figure out how you could be a good assistant because one day that assistant is going to call in sick and they’ll say like, ìHey Jacob could you take over the phones for a few hours.î And you say, ìYes, sure, I can do that.î And you can prove like, you know what, you’re a competent person that they can trust.

On that last topic of trust, don’t talk about the stuff that you’re doing. Don’t talk about the internal stuff that you’re finding out there with strangers. Just make sure that they feel like they can trust you to not spill the beans on everything that’s happening in the company.

Craig: Yeah. One last bit of advice. At every workplace there is somebody who will resent anyone who does well. That is a person who has given up. Or who is scared of their own mediocrity. And it will be tempting to find yourself in conflict with that person or to let them get in your head. Don’t. Don’t.

John: Don’t.

Craig: They’ll be there. You’re going to get a job there after your not-paid-job. You’ll get a job. You’ll work your job, you’ll get promoted. You’ll get a better job. Then you’ll leave and then you’ll move on. And ten years later you’ll be doing something else, hopefully wonderful. They will still be there.

John: Yeah. Lastly, I would say there’s a time limit on these kind of internships. And if you’re doing this for more than three months, maybe you need to move on. Especially if you’re doing two different ones. At least pick the better of the two and maybe continue that one on a little longer, look for a different thing. Because you’re not there to be just free labor and hanging out. So, it should be a growth experience for you, too. And when you’ve stopped growing, move on.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, that’s the idea. Is that you get to that place where you say, OK, I should be paid at this point. And then you say to them, listen, I am going to have to move on if there isn’t a paid job here. Make sure that you have somewhere to move on to. And that will make them very scared. And that’s how you know, by the way. If they say, ìOh, well we’ve loved having you. Good luck,î well, then you didn’t really stand out.

John: Or there really wasn’t a job for you.

Craig: Or there really wasn’t a job. Exactly. But if there was, and they let you go, then OK, that’s information. And if there is a job and they get nervous and say, ìWait, wait, wait, we don’t want you to go,î then you know you’ve done it.

John: Yep. Last thing I will say is the topic of unpaid internships naturally brings up the question like well who can afford to have an unpaid internship? And I think there is a basic question of fairness at work. The people who can afford to have an unpaid internship have money from some other place. And so we can’t sort of dig into this now, but I just want to acknowledge that part of the reason why I’m down on unpaid internships is because they fundamentally favor people who could afford to take an unpaid internship.

Craig: It’s true. I never did one because I couldn’t afford it. The first internship I had was through the Television Academy and there was a stipend. That was the only way I was able to do it. They paid money. I mean, it wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough to live. Yeah, I’m with you. I think everybody should get paid.

To the companies that have these unpaid internships, please don’t tell me you can’t afford to pay minimum wage. You can. Come on.

John: Yeah. So if it really is a deal that you’re cutting with the university, I get it. There could be reasons why it’s all an educational thing. But I agree with you. You can pay minimum wage. Pay minimum wage.

Craig: Yeah. Come on.

John: All right. Next question. Brandon writes, ìI’m writing a comedy script and was wondering if putting in a few alternate jokes, maybe in parentheses or italics or somehow otherwise noted, would be a boon or a detriment. Would the reader think, hey, this guy has got jokes, great? Or, boy, this is unprofessional amateur, bad? I haven’t seen it done in any of the comedy scripts I’ve read, even in the very early drafts. What if one of the jokes makes the reader laugh more than the other? It’s sometimes difficult to tell which joke is most funny.î

Craig, alternate jokes?

Craig: Alternate jokes in a standard screenplay format for someone who is not involved in the development of the movie are problematic because they don’t know how to read them. They’re not designed to be read in secession. They’re designed to be read as a matter of choice. Pick one. So, you’re stopping the read and now asking them to do math. You can, for instance, Fade In software allows to do an alternate system where you can click on something if you want to see alternates, and then a bunch come up.

So, if somebody has that they can do it that way. But by and large it’s something that’s not really great for people who are reading your screenplay because at some point it pulls them out. It just reminds them that there’s a writer there who is now doing some math.

What you can do at times is — and this is something that a lot of modern comedies have kind of gravitated to — frankly I think over-gravitated — is you can create a structure where someone can ramble off a whole bunch of those things. That’s fine. Those can work sometimes. People like those.

But, by and large I would say pick your best. Check with your friends. See what they think. No any one particular line or another is what is going to make or break your comedy script. It’s really about the characters and the situations. Some set pieces. Key set pieces that are really, really funny. Individual lines we tend to overemphasize because they’re so written. We think that they’re more important than they are.

John: So, I agree with Craig. I’ve never seen this sort of alternate line stuff done in a feature screenplay. Where I have seen this happen is in television comedies. And so I think I’m remembering this correctly that in an episode of New Girl, like a script for New Girl, I saw where a character would have their dialogue and there would be a slash-slash and there would be a different line, and then a slash-slash, and then a different line. Which is basically saying like these are alternate lines for this character to say here. And like on the day they would shoot those lines in quick succession and sort of see which one works the best. And it could be sometimes a springboard for other things they’re doing in different takes down the road.

That’s New Girl. That’s a show that thrives on that kind of rapid fire stuff.

I’ve also, and again, Aline is probably going to listen to this and say I’m misremembering how they do it, but I think when they’re going through a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend script they have it on the big projector and Aline is scrolling through and at each joke there will be a script note listed there that she could pop open and see like which line are they going to try to use for that thing.

And so the alternates are written in there and they make decisions before the script is finalized about which of those would be there. So, you know what Craig says about Fade In in terms of those little notes, or Final Draft. In Highland we have these double brackets which you can put anywhere and put any text in there you’d want to save, but not actually print in the script. So there’s always ways to do that. I would just say don’t put them in something you’re sending out to a person who is not directly involved in the production of this specific comedy that you’re trying to make.

Craig: Yeah. Exactly. Once you’re in production you can do whatever the hell you want. I mean, the script is now serving a production. If you have 12 different lines, throw them all in there because everybody gets the drill. But if you’re sending something fresh for somebody to read to see if they want to purchase it or option it or produce it, no. I wouldn’t do it.

John: Great. One last question. Raphael wrote in about dialogue. Let’s take a listen.

Raphael: So, I found a film that I now really, really love due to its stylistic choice of dialogue. So, I’ve watched the film again, but with the subtitles on because I wanted to see how the words could have possibly read on page as a script, as opposed to it being performed. And at times I felt that some of the lines would have read for lack of better words sort of cheesy and tacky and weak. But when it was performed by professional actors, you know, it sounded like music. It sounded beautiful.

So my question is how do you deal with dialogue that you’re not sure is working? I know that you guys are really busy and you don’t always have time to do table reads before shopping your script. But is that something that you suggest that I do?

And my second question is how do you differentiate bad acting versus bad dialogue in a scene? Thanks. Love you.

John: We love you, too, Raphael. All right. First off, we should say that if you turn on the subtitles for a movie, what you’re seeing is basically a transcription of what the actors are saying, which may not necessarily reflect what was scripted. And so always be mindful that what you’re seeing presented on the bottom of the screen may not really be what was printed in the script as they were shooting the scene. So, there can be some differences there that would make the line that they’re saying feel really weird on the page if it were written that way.

But, I think Raphael is describing something that like it’s a very stylistic kind of writing. It could be like what Rian Johnson did in Brick. They’re talking in a very stylized way. I feel like that’s going to work on the page the same way it’s going to work in the movie. And if you’re not creating an environment as you’re reading the script that signals to the reader like listen to it with this voice, you’re going to run into some troubles.

Craig: Yeah. Some great points here. The fact is that there is this weird gap, Raphael, between written dialogue and performed dialogue. We’ll see it every now and then poke up when we go into Unforgiven, although for the most part David Webb Peoples is so good that there was no gap. But at times the way we write things on paper read amazingly well, and then when the actors perform them just like that it’s not so great. And then the actors sometimes drift away and it sounds wonderful, but if we were to put what they drifted away into words it just doesn’t work at all, you know, on page.

There is a gap there. It’s inevitable because it’s something approximating something else. And so you just have to kind of deal with that. I do think that you absolutely should have actors read your script aloud. John is correct when he says that if you have a stylized manner to your dialogue, as long as it is consistent throughout your script what ends up happening is a cumulative effect. People just fall into the world of the way people are talking there.

If you sit and you read the script for Sin City, after three or four pages you get the drill and now you’re in it. And everybody is doing it. So, you understand that it is intentional and not just mistakenly clunky, for instance.

But, yeah, you should take the time. You should have actors read it. What’s the difference between bad actors and bad dialogue? You’ll know. You’ll just know. It’s one of those things. Bad acting is bad acting. It’s just bad. You know, I don’t know what else to say.

John: And sometimes you fall in this weird valley where it’s like it’s not quite the line, it’s not quite the acting, it’s just like it just doesn’t fundamentally work. And so let’s close off this segment and let’s play a clip from the first X-Men movie. And there’s a notoriously awful line that made it through to the very end which was Halle Berry asked the question about — asked the question of Toad. And this is a line, I think Joss Whedon wrote the line. You don’t do better than Joss Whedon. Halle Berry, an Oscar winner. She actually can tell a joke. But it just did not work at all in the movie. So, let’s close this up by taking a listen to a not great line from a great actor and a great writer.

Halle Berry: You know what happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning? Same thing that happens to everything else.

Craig: It’s not a good line. It’s just not.

John: Well let’s talk about — how could that line — I can envision a scenario in which that line works. And I think it would only work if you cut to Toad and he goes, ìHuh?î It has to be much quicker. Or like he’s really thinking about it like, huh. But no.

Craig: Well yeah. The editing did not help because it’s like it’s a riddle. How did the chicken cross the road? Wait. Wait. Wait. Show a different thing. Come back. Wait. Wait. To get to the other side. Wait. Wait. [laughs] The pacing is really bad. But also it doesn’t really make sense.

Do you know what happens when a toad is hit by lightning? The answer is he’s electrocuted. There’s no mystery to the solution here. There’s no interesting quirk to her response because, well, yeah. Yes.

John: Yes.

Craig: Yes. That’s right. It’s electrocuted. Is there something else that happens? Yeah.

John: I think if there’s something that this example illustrates though is that so much of what can be blamed on bad writing or bad acting ultimately is just editorial choices that did not help the writer or the actor. And that is an example of something. The proper editorial choice I think would be to cut out that line and just have her zap toad guy.

Craig: Yeah, you know. Exactly. I will say that pacing is the thing that ends up hurting comedy the most onscreen when directors are too languid with the pace of dialogue. Faster and faster. It’s hard to go too fast, frankly, when you — if you look at the speed with which the Marx Brothers did things. It is blinding.

We were constantly, you know, when I was making movies with David Zucker or making movies with Todd Phillips, we were constantly trying to get things to go faster. At the same time, you hate cutting because it’s more fun when it’s all in one. So, a lot of it is just getting the actors on their horse to go faster and faster.

One really cool thing that this movie that I’m working on with Mark Webb, there’s this animated component so you’re recording actors who are having a discussion and their voices will be then animated into creatures. And we can make them go faster. Just digitally. It’s awesome. Because at some point you can go too fast. I mean, some of the screwball stuff in the ’30s, which was notorious for its blinding speed, goes almost too fast. But it’s hard for actors to kind of feel things and be in the moment if they’re racing. But now you can kind of help them along a little bit and it becomes snappy and timing. Turns out that, I don’t know if you ever heard this, but timing is everything.

John: Timing is everything. And I want to clarify I’m not meaning to slam any given editor. I mean this as a call to be really nice and respectful for editors because they make us look so much better.

Craig: I love everybody that works on a movie. God’s honest truth. I’m trying to think if there’s anybody that works on a movie that I find annoying. No. Need them all.

John: Need them all.

Craig: Need them all.

John: Need them all. All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is an article by Peter Aldhous which is BuzzFeed. And what they did is they were able to figure out spy planes flying over the US based on machine learning. Basically fed all this flight information data into the computers. They had it develop its own algorithms for figuring out where these planes were flying.

And through it they could figure out like, oh, you know what, a bunch of these planes are just flying in tight circles over certain parts of the country. And so they are along the US/Mexico border. They are searching for drug planes and other things. They are listening planes in other places. So, it was a great example to me of how machine learning can fundamentally change our ability to discern patterns in the world because no one person could actually look at this mess of data and figure out like, oh, there’s something going on here. But with these new tools and machine learning they were able to figure out like, oh, there’s actually all these very cool and very specific flights happening which must be for a specific purpose.

And so I’d urge you to check that out. I think it also raises interesting questions about the degree to which obscurity can be a benefit in terms of ability to monitor narcotic trafficking and other things like that. So, you know, if we have these tools and we’re putting them out there, other people have these tools as well. So, it raises interesting ethical and sort of governmental issues in how we’re collecting this data and how we’re using these tools.

Craig: Yes, the cat and mouse game continues. Cat and mouse game continues.

Well, my One Cool Thing this week is a book called The Maze of Games. This was recommended to me by a gentleman named Dave Shukan who is an intellectual property lawyer here in Los Angeles but also a puzzle master. And genius. And friend of the official magician of Scriptnotes, Dave Kwong. And The Maze of Games is awesome. So, big, big book. It’s a story but it’s kind of an interactive story. And you solve essentially a game of some kind on every other puzzle on every right-handed page. Sorry, every other page. Every right-handed page is a puzzle. And the puzzles are excellent and incredibly varied. Some of them are easy. Some of them are really challenging.

And you cannot really proceed through until you finish them all. And then there are meta puzzles. And apparently there is a meta-meta puzzle. So, I’m like about halfway through this thing and just having the time of my life. The story is written by a guy named Mike Selinker. And excellent illustrations by somebody named Pete Venters. And we’ll through a link on. It’s sold through Loan Shark Games and we’ll put a link on there. If you are interested, like I am, in solving the Maze of Games.

John: You know what? Mazin would be a great last name for you.

Craig: I know. I know.

John: There’s a meta quality to your very existence.

Craig: I am meta.

John: Our show this week is produced by Carlton Mittagakus. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Jonathan Mann. And Craig will especially love this outro.

If you have an outro, you can send us a link to That’s also the place to send questions like the ones we answered today. So several of these people attached audio recordings of them asking their questions. That is terrific. So, do that if you’d like to.

We are on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. Look for us on Apple Podcasts to subscribe and also leave us a review while you’re there. That is so helpful.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at which is also where you’ll find transcripts. And you can find all the back episodes, all 312 episodes that happened before this, plus the bonus episodes and stuff at Or on the USB drive we sell at

And a reminder because I keep forgetting to plus this, we have the Listeners’ Guide that talks through the first 300 episodes of the show and gives you good suggestions for which episodes you should not miss. So you can find that at

Craig: How much does that cost? Does that cost a lot?

John: Everything is free. Well, that’s not true at all. That is free. The USB drives are, I think, $30. And the is $2 a month.

Craig: And I get none of it. Great show, John. Still a great show.

John: Great show. All right. Have a great week.

Craig: You too. See you next time.


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Tue, 08/22/2017 - 08:03

Craig and John take a deep dive into 1992’s Unforgiven, looking at how the David Webb Peoples script works on the page and on the screen.

In the links below, you’ll find the PDF of the script we’re using. It’s also available in Weekend Read.


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