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Updated: 1 hour 50 min ago

Well, It Worked in the 80s

Tue, 08/15/2017 - 08:03

John and Craig look at four films from the past and discuss how we could make them today.

Then we have more listener questions on internships and alternate jokes.

Next week is a deep dive on Unforgiven, so get to watching if you haven’t seen it recently.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 312: The Magic Word Is In This Episode — Transcript

Mon, 08/14/2017 - 17:44

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 312 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Today on the podcast, we’ll be tackling listener questions and follow up on previous discussions. And, if we have time, we may dig into the Steven Soderbergh new venture where he’s back with a new movie and a whole new way to release movies.

Craig: Mm-hmm. Well, we’ll see if we do have time. We have a lot of questions. And I’m just going to be honest with you. I cheated. I looked ahead. Normally I don’t. Normally I just, you know me. I like to get hit in the face with these things fresh. But I cheated and I looked ahead. Really good questions today.

John: Really good questions. What I’m so excited about is we can finally talk about some things that you and I have both known about each other’s work that is now public knowledge. So, I want to start with congratulating you on your HBO series which is about Chernobyl.

Craig: Yeah. Yeah. So this has been going on in my life for years. I don’t know, about three years or more now. And this was a project that I pitched a bit ago to HBO. It was the only place I went. I went with Carolyn Strauss, who is one of the executive producers of Game of Thrones. A fantastic person. And former guest of our podcast.

John: Very true.

Craig: And HBO said, yup, go ahead, write yourself a pilot there buddy. And I did that. And then we brought on another fantastic producer from the UK named — or as they say in England, called — Jane Featherstone, who executive produced Broadchurch among other excellent programs over there. And so we have our little team here. HBO went ahead and gave us the greenlight to make the series. We have a terrific director who is going to be doing all five episodes of this miniseries. There are five of them. I’m writing all the scripts. He’s going to direct all the episodes. His name is Johan Renck. Johan Renck, I don’t know if I mentioned him by name on the podcast, but remember back when I was extolling the virtues of Jack Thorne?

John: That’s right. The British writer whose work you loved so much.

Craig: Correct. So one of the things that he wrote that I loved so much was a miniseries in the UK called The Last Panthers. And that was directed entirely by Johan Renck. He also has directed Breaking Bad episodes and Walking Dead episodes. Terrific guy. Really, really good filmmaker, so we’re really excited about that. And Jared Harris has signed on to be our — we have basically three leads of the show. He has signed on to be the main — I don’t know, they’re all main because they’re leads, right? He’s signed on to be one of them, which is fantastic because he’s an amazing actor. Did you see The Crown?

John: I loved The Crown. And he was fantastic in it.

Craig: He was. He was so fantastic that when he died — spoiler alert, the king dies — I was like, oh, I guess I’ll keep watching. But I wish that mostly he was a ghost now and could walk around a lot and talk a lot more. Just make it about him. So, he was amazing in that and he’s always been great. And, of course, he is the son of the late, great Richard Harris, the original Dumbledore.

John: Yeah. So you have some quality people involved in your project. And when do you start shooting this thing?

Craig: We start shooting it next spring. We need a pretty long run up of prep, because there’s a lot of work to do. But also it’s just the way the calendar worked out. We’re going to be shooting this series in Lithuania and the explosion at Chernobyl took place toward the end of April, April 26, 1986. And the weather in Eastern Europe is sort of rough, rough, rough, rough, rough, hot, rough, rough, rough, rough, rough. So, we kind of need to get to that summertime weather that starts happening in April around there.

There’s a few colder scenes, but it’s really a weather thing. So, that’s when we’ll be starting. The other two leads, I think we are well on the way to casting those. Very exciting names, but I cannot say anything until it is all wrapped up and done.

John: And so, Craig, you’re going to be filming in Europe just like I was gone in Europe for the whole year. So you’re going to be there for months making the show and we’re going to have to do this thing with like a nine-hour time delay.

Craig: We’re going to have to do the dance again. But I’d like to point out that I have to be there. You whimsically chose to be there. So —

John: Yeah, I guess it’s a difference.

Craig: It’s a little bit of a difference. By the way, did you see that Jack Thorne has just been hired to rewrite the screenplay for Star Wars Episode VIIII, the one that’s coming after Rian Johnson’s Star Wars?

John: Holy Cow. So everything fits together. You’re basically the nexus of all things happening in Hollywood, or really worldwide at this point.

Craig: Well, don’t you think it’s a little odd that I just happened to make him my One Cool Thing, and I don’t know, three months later or less, fewer, someone goes, “Hey, you know who we should have to write the next Star Wars movie is Jack Thorne.” I’d like to think that Jack owes me quite a bit. Quite a bit. [laughs]

John: Yeah. So it really wasn’t his talent that got you to notice —

Craig: No.

John: No, it was actually your singling him out that brought him to this acclaim.

Craig: Let me put a finer point on it. It was his talent that brought him to my notice. However, no one else appreciates talent. They simply appreciate my appreciation of talent. That’s what I’m saying.

John: Yeah I think in Aline Brosh McKenna’s script for Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep’s character makes a similar kind of observation. Like things are already out there, but it’s your shining a light on them that makes them valuable.

Craig: It’s my imprimatur. So, Jack, if you’re listening, half. I think that’s fair.

John: That’s totally fair. 100%.

Craig: Half. Yup. 50% of 100%.

John: 50% of 100% is what you’re asking for.

Craig: That’s correct. 100% of 50%. And there’s only a 20% chance of that. So, anyway, that is exciting and I’m glad I could finally tell people about it. And for anyone who is wondering, it is going to be historical drama, so it is a dramatization of what actually happened there. It’s not a documentary. It is an as true to history recounting of the events surrounding what led up to Chernobyl, the actual acts in and of itself, and then the terrible things that happened after.

It’s going to be a while before you get to see that on TV, but that’s what we’re heading into. And then you have this wonderful thing happening in London with a fantastic actor.

John: That’s right. So, for the last couple months we’ve been trying to put this together. Now we’re finally able to announce it. We are doing Big Fish in London. And so we’re doing a new version of Big Fish that is not what we did on Broadway. It’s not what we did in Boston. It is a third new version of Big Fish. Starting in November in London with Kelsey Grammer starring.

Craig: Fantastic. And now Kelsey Grammer is also starring in Billy Ray and Chris Keyser’s show The Last Tycoon. So, I guess Amazon shows they get hiatuses like everybody, so he’s doing this sort of in a hiatus. Is that the idea?

John: That’s the idea. So, I’ve talked to Billy and Chris about Kelsey, and they just could not be more enthusiastic about what a great person he is, but the way schedules worked out he’s able to do that, he’s able to do a movie. So, in his break he is doing our show and we are so excited to have him. So we start rehearsals in September. And first performances are in November. So I will be back and forth to London a lot. So, we get to do the time change dance as well.

Craig: Oh my god. The good news is that you’ll be back from London right around when I’m going to head out there to Lithuania. So the important thing is that we maintain half a planet between each other at all times.

John: 100%. So, in the show notes you’ll see links to the announcement of Craig’s new series, and also where you can buy tickets if you’re in London to see Big Fish with Kelsey Grammer.

Craig: And before people write in asking, no, I have not left movies for TV. This is the only TV thing I’ve ever done. And I’m writing movies. Movies are happening, folks. But, you know, figured why not. You know? You can’t do this story — you can’t do it in a movie. It’s too big.

John: All right. We’ve got some follow up from previous discussions. First off, Tim writes in with follow up on our discussion with Chris Keyser about the WGA deal. Tim writes, “You guys were talking about the possibility of moving to a weekly rate for screenwriters. We all realize this is tricky for the first draft, but maybe there’s a way to combine the two models. If studios are resistant to returning to two steps as a minimum, we should push for one step plus three weeks with some minimum per week fee. That way it helps solve the problem of producers demanding eight drafts before the studio even sees it. And it’s something the studios are familiar with, as in weeklies.

“Essentially two steps just means rewriting, so it might be worth it to try at least some sort of minimum weeklies after step one.”

Craig, what do you think of this idea?

Craig: Well, it certainly has its heart in the heart place, Tim. The idea of providing some sort of relief valve is exactly the kind of solution we need to find here. Now, we always have to run these things through the unintended consequences filter as well as the reality filter. So on the unintended consequences side, what we don’t want to do is get into a rut where people who are perhaps making a bit more than minimum, and that accounts for I think probably most screenwriters, would then just see that amount of this extra relief valve carved out of their quote so that it remains zero sum. And, in fact, nothing really changes.

The other issue is that we don’t also want to suggest that if you have one step and then a three-week, I guess it would be an optional relief valve, or maybe it would be a required relief valve, that the producers would then say, “I got a relief valve and weeks don’t matter. We can just do this now for three, four, or five months.” We know that that’s essentially what they want to do all the time. So, what we’re trying to figure out here really is how to get the producers out of the mindset that this is their one bite at the apple.

This would help, I think, screenwriters somewhat. I don’t know if it would address that core issue. On the reality side of things, there’s a problem here that would make it a tough hill to climb. And it’s this. Studios are very protective about what they call weeklies. In general, they have policies. They don’t hire people on weeklies for development. It is a disastrous precedent for them because all of the big shot writers make more per minute on a weekly than they do on any other kind of structured deal. So the studios limit weeklies essentially to projects that are in production that have been green lit. And those are production rewrites, production weeklies.

If something is in development, and that means to say it’s right on the edge of production where you’ll sometimes also see weeklies being given — they just want to call things polishes, or rewrites, drafts of some kind. They want to get away from that weekly because they find it horrifying and dangerous to spend that much money on something they don’t know if they’re going to make.

Now, what Tim is suggesting here isn’t that people get paid $250,000 for one of those weeks. He’s saying some minimum amount. And, sure, there is a minimum weekly. It’s very tiny, by the way. It’s about $5,800 or something. But, just violating the precedent of handing out weeklies in development will be a serious issue for them. So, couple of challenges here and I’m not sure it gets to the heart of the matter, but it’s well worth looking at as a possibility, even if it is an incremental one.

John: I agree it’s well worth looking at. I think what it does try to address is that sense of they keep you in this first draft forever so they can keep getting work out of you. And I think making it so that your deal said like you have a first draft and a guaranteed three weeks of rewriting, that makes it clear like we know that you’re going to be rewriting this draft and we’re going to pay you for rewriting that draft. That’s part of the process. And so studios can feel like, OK, I know I’m going to get this rewritten to my satisfaction because I have these extra three weeks tacked on.

I agree with you about the sense of weeklies as they are currently used in filmmaking are really expensive things that happen during production or right before production where expensive screenwriters are paid a lot of money to come in and fix problems in scripts. This is kind of a different thing. And it’s probably a little bit more like what happens in television right now where writers are kept on as things are going into production or like as the final episodes in a series are shot. So, there’s a precedent for it, but it’s not really a feature precedent right now. So it’s a different way of looking at stuff.

But I think it might be worthwhile, because I think it addresses something you brought up in your initial concern when we were talking with Chris was that that first draft experience is different and special. And to make that all on a time basis thing could be not great. But, the stuff that comes after that first draft, the tweaking, that really does feel kind of like weekly work and if we could get paid for that I think it could improve stuff.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, what it comes down to really is when is that draft completed. And that is the crux of the problem. What we know is that we actually on our own can determine when a draft is delivered by delivering it. So, we’re dealing with a political and human problem here which is that, yes, individually any particular employee has the ability to draw a line in the sand. But our power generally is collective bargaining power. It’s not individual bargaining power. And individually writers are scared to do that when they’re being told that there will be repercussions.

So, we have to figure out how to get to the heart of that. And there are all sorts of solutions. Some try to be magic bullets and some try to be just slight improvements. At this point, we should be talking about all of them.

John: I agree. All right. Another bit of follow up. So, three episodes we talked about coincidence and we brought up the new Spider Man. Chris Ford writes in, “It was great to hear a plot point I worked on discussed on the show. I’m one of the writers of Spider Man: Homecoming and a long time listener of the show. I thought a lot about the super-link coincidence and how it could hopefully work. I think two factors helped us.

“We tried to make it absolutely as shocking as fun as possible so that as the audience settled into the idea, they were delighted with the comedy and the drama, and as a result they would accept it. But I think a deeper factor is that the surprise/coincidence like that is a genre element of Spider Man movies. There have been so many at this point that as we wrote it we were always playing against or playing with the genre of ëSpider Man movie,’ almost as clearly as if it was a Western and the audience was expecting a gun fight.”

Craig: Well, first of all, Chris, great to hear that you listen to the show and congratulations on the success of Spider Man: Homecoming. As John knows, I have not yet seen the film, but because of this letter I went and cheated and looked at the plot. Sorry about that. But, whatever, I’m a professional man. OK. It’s like two doctors talking to each other. Right? I think I’m allowed this one.

So, anyway, now I know what that coincidence is and I know how it works. And, yeah, it makes total sense. You know, one of the things that you can get out of a late movie coincidence is the coincidence is designed not to shock the audience, or make the movie any easier. The coincidence is designed to shock the hero. And make them realize that the way things were working isn’t in fact the way they’re working at all. And that’s fun for us to watch. We don’t mind that coincidence because it’s filtered through the characters scrambling to handle it. And it is fun.

So, that’s a kind of coincidence that I think you absolutely can get away with. And I think Chris is right that Spider Man movies generally speaking do have a lot of coincidence in them. The first Spider Man movie, the Tobey Maguire one, at least, I believe his best friend’s dad was Norman Osbourne, who became the Green Goblin, which is that’s an early baked in coincidence which is very soap operatic.

I mean, look, you want to talk about soap operatic coincidence, look at Star Wars. There’s a massive galaxy. How many planets are in a galaxy? I don’t know, a billion? Some crazy number. But everybody is basically related and two droids keep showing up everywhere. So, yeah, you know. It’s fine.

This coincidence is certainly less objectionable than any of those.

John: Agreed. Well, there’s always that sense, especially in Star Wars, like it’s a giant universe and a very small town. And everyone is always crossing paths with each other. And a listener named Elizabeth wrote in with another follow up about Spider Man. She says, “Number one, not only does it make the situation worse for our protagonist, it makes a dilemma. And that dilemma is deeply thematic. Peter Parker wants to be, is learning to be, and is learning to value being the friendly neighborhood Spider Man.”

They actually say that in the movie. “That means everyone cannot be and will not be anonymous strangers. In fact, it’s already been set up that the reason no one else has seized on this particular bad guy situation is because it is local. Perhaps this even makes the late-breaking coincidence not fully coincidental, or at least more likely.”

So, I think that’s a really good point. The coincidence and sort of the locality of it, like, oh, it’s in my own backyard aspect of it is really a fundamental part of this Spider Man. And so it makes more sense because thematically it all fits in all together.

Craig: Yeah. It certainly mitigates it. Certainly. I mean, if you’re telling a story where you have a working class hero facing off against a working class villain, it is not surprising that they are both living in the same working class neighborhood. So, yeah, that all feels perfectly legal to me. Chris, you have received the perfectly legal coincidence stamp from Scriptnotes. This is given out rarely. But, go ahead and put it on the cover of your magazine, Chris Ford Weekly. Seal of approval. It’s a ribbon. It’s a shiny ribbon. Silver. Silver?

John: Silver foil-ish. I mean, it’s not actual silver because actual silver would tarnish. But I think it’s definitely the kind of thing you’d want to keep up for a while. And then you’d be thinking about throwing it out, but then you feel really guilty throwing it out. Like it’s a gift you got that you never really kind of wanted. But now you have it. And so that to me is the Premiere Magazine Award that I have in my library. And it’s just this sort of square block of aluminum. So, I forget who the other director was. There was a director who got it the same year. And so Tom Cruise showed up to give it to the director. And they couldn’t find anybody notable to give it to me, so Rawson Thurber ended up giving me my Premiere Magazine award.

Craig: Aw. That’s so sweet.

John: It was so nice. And Rawson is awesome. But I have this thing, and I don’t really want this thing, but I cannot bring myself to throw it out.

Craig: Well, that’s hopefully how Chris feels about — I mean, that’s all we’ve ever asked from anyone who receives this, not that anyone has yet until now, but we just want it to be something that you want to throw out but feel a little weird about throwing out. Yes. A silver foil. That sounds good.

I was going to say we would use a silver-like foil because it’s just cheaper. But I think your tarnish reason also makes sense.

John: Yeah. So we want the gift to be made of 50% pride and 50% shame, kind of.

Craig: And then I get 50% of both of those. Because that’s what we’ve already established.

John: Shame or guilt. Either one works. It’s a fusion. We have a new question from Paul and he wrote in talking about coincidence as well. So let’s start with that. Let’s take a listen to Paul’s question.

Paul: Hi guys. My question is in regards to Episode 309’s discussion on coincidences. I’m currently working on a road trip style script where the main characters go on a journey and meet a selection of other characters along the way who are either a hurt or a hindrance or some sort of complication. Basically they all become relevant to the story, otherwise we wouldn’t meet them. So my question is how do we avoid making each one of these chance meetings feel like a coincidence?”

John: Craig, you’ve done a road trip movie. How do you make that not be a bunch of coincidences?

Craig: They’re not. By definition. You’re on a road trip. You’re going to run into people. Everybody understands that that’s the nature of a road trip. Coincidence is a problem when you’ve structured a story to be non-random. For instance, bank heist. That is a planned thing. People sit in a room. They talk to each other. They come up with a target. They come up with a plan. They execute the plan. If coincidences happen along the way that will be unsatisfying, because we know that they’ve planned so well.

When you’re on a road trip, you are saying we are embracing the unknown here. There will be things that happen. It is essentially episodic. The way you get out of it being episodic is for the people to meet random people along the way who then through their actions have some kind of thematic relevance and that is at the heart of every road trip movie. Even movies that you don’t think of as road trips, like the Wizard of Oz.

John: Agreed.

Craig: It’s not coincidence that she meets the Scarecrow. It’s just something that happens. You tend to meet people along the way. And who do you keep talking to when you meet people along the way. You know, in Identity Thief, Jason Bateman meets the hotel clerk. He says three words to her and that’s the end of that because her character isn’t interesting or relevant. But then they meet other people who are and they become a huge part of the journey because the characters perceive something in them that is relevant.

So I don’t think that there is any issue whatsoever about coincidence there because that’s not what coincidence is.

John: I agree with you. So, the middle section of Go is a road trip, so the four guys are on a trip to Vegas. And what I think is crucial about it is the people they meet, they are meeting because they are taking actions that are bringing them to face these people. And that because of the things they’re doing, those people may be following up on them later on. And there’s repercussions and consequences of the things they’ve done earlier. But it’s not coincidence that they are in those places. They are deliberately going to those places. They’re meeting these people because they have chosen to enter these locations and that’s why it’s happening.

So, I can understand Paul’s worry because you know a lot of times it can just feel like a series of things, one after the other. That’s general plotting though. That’s trying to make sure that it feels like the characters are in charge of this road trip and that it’s not just a movie throwing a bunch of stuff at characters.

If a bunch of people walk through the door, that’s going to feel more coincidence. It’s going to feel more episodic. That’s the challenge you always have with movies that are sometimes set in one location. And it’s just a bunch of people walking through the door. Clerks could feel that way if it weren’t a great movie. And we’ve seen the bad version of Clerks a lot, where it’s just random wacky people just coming through the door.

Craig: Yeah. Then it’s a long sitcom. And sitcoms are amazing for 22 minutes on your television, but they don’t work on the big screen because you’re demanding something that’s a little more whole and completed. A narrative that moves in a circle and ends.

You’re absolutely right. If you’re going on a journey, theoretically you have some purpose for the journey. That’s what’s driving you through. It would be a coincidence if on your way you randomly ran into your own mom. That’s a weird coincidence. That’s bad. But, just meeting the people that you meet, and then choosing to continue to talk to them, that’s not coincidence at all.

John: No. The other situation which could occur, and this may be what Paul is bringing up, is you might have characters you meet and then you see them again later on and it feels really coincidental that they’re still on the same trajectory as you are. Yeah, be mindful of that. If there’s no reason why we would see that character again, you seem like you’re heading in different directions, there will need to be a cause and effect thing happening there for like why they’re suddenly on the same path.

Craig: Right.

John: So do work on that.

Craig: Yeah. For instance, in Identity Thief, they have a random encounter with Eric Stonestreet, the character that Eric Stonestreet plays. And that scene has relevance for Melissa McCarthy’s character and it makes her make a decision. And that impacts the course of her journey with Jason and her relationship with Jason and the choices she makes at the end. We see Eric Stonestreet one more time when bad guys are trying to find Melissa McCarthy and they basically put together clues that lead them to him. But that’s it. If he had shown up again randomly where they end up eventually it would have made no sense. It would have been a coincidence.

John: Absolutely. Do you want to take the next question?

Craig: Sure, Macaar writes, “I’ve just completed a first draft of a spec feature and I’m now preparing to write a second draft. I’ve never done a full on second draft before, so I’m not sure where to start, both logistically and artistically. Do I make a new document and start from page one, rewriting everything I’ve written before? Or I do just fine tune the material that I already have? What should be my main goals for the second draft? I’ve identified problems with the script, but I’m afraid that once I start rewriting the script I might lose sight of my original intention and the script will turn into something completely different from the story I wanted to tell. How does one maintain the integrity of their initial idea while working on a second draft? Are there any additional nuggets of wisdom you could give me before I embark on this journey?”

John, it’s nugget time.

John: It is nugget time. So rewriting is crucial and fundamental and the second draft is one of the hardest steps I find. Because often the second draft is where things kind of get worse, because you are trying to take this thing which was your initial idea and bend it into a new shape. And you’re reluctant to get rid of some things. You are still grappling with what you actually wrote versus what you meant to write. So, some general tips I can offer you is go in with a plan. And so I always approach a rewrite, a big rewrite after the first draft with this is what I’m trying to do. And I will type it up if I need to. Like these are the things I’m going to try to do. This is my intention with this draft. These are the characters I’m going to focus on. This is stuff I’m getting rid of.

If it’s a big rewrite, what I will tend to do is start with a new document and copy and paste in the scenes that are staying, even if I’m going to rewrite them, but if there’s stuff that’s going away all together, I won’t copy them into the new document. I will leave holes for where those are going and work on it that way. Very, very rarely I have I actually just like kind of started over where I have the script sitting off to the side and I’m typing a whole new script. That kind of rarely is necessary for me. But once or twice in my career I had to do that, where I’m really starting over from scratch.

What I would urge you not to do is just a Save As and it’s a new script and then you’re just sort of scrolling through it. Because I find you will just change the commas, and you won’t do the real hard work you need to do in really breaking apart the script and putting it back together properly.

Craig: That’s all excellent advice. Macaar, you’re asking great questions and they are reflective of a writer’s spirit. You’re panicking a little bit and you’re feeling a little overwhelmed. And that’s completely normal. John is absolutely right. The second draft is the danger zone. Which means, therefore, that you have permission to go backwards. That is not only normal, it’s probably more likely than not to occur.

With that said, when you ask do I rewrite everything I’ve written before, or just fine tune the material I already have, there is no answer we can give you. That is your answer to provide. Because you have to figure out what the purpose of the rewrite is. You’re saying what should be my main goals for the second draft. Your main goal is to have a script that is better. That is vague.

So, you can’t just start rewriting because you’re supposed to. Nobody would know what to do with that. Nor can you just start rewriting because a bunch of people told you things to do that you don’t believe in, or understand, or feel. Before you start to write your second draft you need to absorb what is actionable, what you agree with, what you don’t, challenge all of it until you feel it. In other words, don’t start writing your second draft until you know what to write. Then suddenly it’s not so scary, because now it’s not rewriting, or writing, or any of that stuff, and the mechanics of new files or old files, that will become apparent to you because you’ll know what to write, so you’ll follow the path of least resistance there. And you’ll start writing.

You are well within your bounds to be afraid that you will lose sight of things. And, again, you have permission. I am granting you permission. You have a silver foil seal of permission from Scriptnotes. We’ve got to open up a seal factory.

John: Totally. 100%. So they’ll be available on the store by the end of the week.

Craig: And we’ve got to make sure that people know like when we do open up the seal factory, we’ve got to be really clear about what kind of seals we’re talking about here.

John: When we break the seal on the seal factory we have to make sure that they — we could have Seal come for the ribbon cutting when we break the seal factory.

Craig: That’s not a bad idea. That’s not a bad idea. So, anyway, Macaar, all these questions are great, but I guess the biggest nugget I have for you is figure out what you want to write before you start. Vis-a-vis, the script you have and the script you want to have. Don’t start writing until you generally know, otherwise you will wander. Oh boy will you wander.

John: I agree. Our next question comes from Samantha in Brooklyn. She writes. “Simple question. Does the fact that I’m a transgender woman in my late 30s, by the way, hurt my chances of becoming a working screenwriter? Thanks for all your honest, sometimes difficult to hear advice. I feel you guys have given me a more realistic sense of what’s probable regarding breaking in. I look forward to your candid response.”

Craig: Well, Samantha, no doubt you did not choose to be transgender, but if you had you couldn’t have picked a better time as far as I’m concerned. In Hollywood there is an enormous awareness of transgender issues and I think there’s also for the first time in as long as I’ve been working here a legitimate acted upon desire to start varying the kinds of people that are hired to do work and that doesn’t just extend to gender, or to race, or to age, which were the prior categories and limited to those, but also gender identity and orientation as well.

And with that in mind, I would say that the fact that you’re transgender is not at all a hindrance, nor should I add is it a state that requires you to write transgender themed movies or movies that feature transgender characters. Write whatever the hell you want. If I were your agent, I would advertise to potential employers that you are transgender because you bring a perspective that is limited in this town and you bring it at a time when there is a great appetite for it. In particular, I think you would be a very attractive candidate for television rooms, because they have just more potential for diverse hiring since they have rooms of people, whereas movies just have one.

That said, if you want to write movies, you write movies. But, no, I don’t think it hurts your chances even in the slightest. John?

John: I wonder if we’re painting this as too rosy of a picture as like too white guys in Hollywood saying like —

Craig: You’re white. You’re white, dude. David Duke tells me I am not white. And I, as you know, I listen to David Duke.

John: As two cis white guys, I’m gay, you’re straight, so I would say being gay in my situation has not hindered me whatsoever in my thing, but that’s not the same experience as being transgender. So, I can’t pretend that I know what the obstacles could be. And so I would agree with Craig that this probably the best time that has ever happened for transgender writers who are trying to break into Hollywood, but I don’t know what some of the obstacles could be that I’m just not seeing. So, I just want to make sure that I’m acknowledging that we don’t know sort of everything that could possibly be out there.

Craig: I do.

John: Oh, you do? Craig has magic knowledge.

Craig: I have a palantir.

John: Yes, he just peers into it.

Craig: Yes, I do. The great eye.

John: But, I will say please don’t use the possibility of obstacles ahead be any sort of deterrence from trying to do it. And I think that could be the biggest obstacle is your own worry that there are going to be walls put up in front of you. So, I would say go for it, do it.

You do bring up like you’re in your 30s, and in some ways I think that could be more of a factor than you being transgender, just because as we’ve talked about before a lot of sort of getting started in Hollywood is that sort of very beginning meetings and rooms and all the sort of grunt work of getting started. And it’s a little easier in your 20s than your 30s, but I don’t think it’s going to stop you.

Craig: Yeah, I agree with you on that for sure. If you’re looking at three factors here that Samantha is describing, one is being transgender. One is being in her late 30s. And one is living in Brooklyn. Late 30s and living in Brooklyn probably have more of a negative impact on her prospects than being transgender.

And, you’re right, I’m guessing here. I just see an enormous amount of good will and open-mindedness right now in Hollywood and I’d like to think, perhaps I am being rosy, but I would like to think that being transgender would not negatively impact Samantha’s prospects.

Samantha, here’s another thing to consider, particularly if you write features. You can write a spec script and if it’s awesome it doesn’t really matter what name you are, what your gender status is. It doesn’t even matter if you’re a human as opposed to some kind of weird sentient rock. A great script is a rare thing. And people will want it. And unlike most gigs in the world where you first have to show yourself and then work to prove yourself, in this gig you can hand somebody paper anonymously, essentially, because they don’t know who you are, even if you give them your real name it’s anonymous to them. And you are judged by the work. You could leave a name off entirely. Put a pseudonym out. You could do whatever you want. But that’s the cool thing about it.

Then, you know, look, people then have to eventually meet you and at that point your identity collides with the reality of people’s opinions and observations, but I remain optimistic and also, according to David Duke, not white.

John: This past week I was talking with a young writer and she was describing the script she was writing and she was super bright. I was pretty confident that she is going to succeed in the business. And she said she was applying to some diverse writer programs, which I also encourage her to do. And we were talking about the things she was going to write next. And I strongly encouraged her to write something that had a central character that felt like her. Because there’s something wonderful when you sit down with a writer and you feel — you’ve read their voice and then you meet the person and you feel like, oh, that voice really connects well with this person. And I think that’s one of the things about Lena Dunham’s work that is great, because you meet her and you read her work. It’s like, oh, I can see the match up there. And so while I think it’s great to have a range of writing that shows your diverse sides, if Samantha is working on a new script, like a third script, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to have a character in there that feels like Samantha, because then when they’re sitting across from you to talk about this great script that they loved, they can sort of see you in that. And it feels like they kind of know you before they’ve called you in for a meeting.

Craig: Yeah. That can be very useful. It is a narrower target to hit for sure to be the kind of writer who says, “Don’t worry about me. Worry about what I write, because I can write anything. Or, I can write a wide variety of things that aren’t necessarily connected to me. I can be essentially that multi-tool weapon that studios are always looking for.” And that is a much narrower target to hit. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a tough one. But, if you can hit it, then you become a very — you know, like for instance, John Lee Hancock. It’s interesting. You look at John Lee Hancock’s work, when he directs, you see him in it. Right? John Lee is kind of that, he’s sort of laconic, Midwestern/Southern spirit of America kind of guy. You feel it. When he’s writing, he writes everything. Everything. So he is that multi-pronged weapon.

It depends on who you are as a writer. But, look, at that point you’ve got a high class problem there, kid.

John: Yeah. Like they only want you to be one thing, while if they want you be that one thing, that’s awesome for you.

Craig: Yep. As long as they’re paying you, you know.

John: So Mark wrote in with a question. Let’s take a listen.

Mark: My question has to do with screenplay competitions. I’ve placed in about a dozen competitions now with two different scripts, ranging from a first place finish in a fairly prestigious competition to quarter finalist placings in what you could call tier two or even tier three screenwriting competitions. My question is this: how much weight do these placings carry when I go to cold query my scripts later this year? Can I leverage these placings to help me get a foot in the door, or is the industry kind of wary and jaded when you bring up screenplay competitions? Also, would it be best to be more selective and only mention the more prestigious placings, or should I just go and list every single award I’ve gotten when I go to pitch and query?

John: Craig, what’s your advice for Mark about his screenplay competition awards?

Craig: Well, before I get into the advice, I have a question for you, John. And for all of our listeners at home. I say query. Mark says query. I hear that a lot. Which pronunciation do you use?

John: I say query like it’s the second half of inquiry.

Craig: Yeah. So do I. I wonder if it’s a regional thing. Anyway, Mark, I’ve procrastinated long enough. Here’s what I think. Most competitions, and when I say most I mean essentially all of them, are useless. They will not help discriminate you from other writers, nor will they make your screenplay inherently more attractive to anybody. By and large, people do not care. There are so many of these things. They are mostly designed to take your money. You yourself say that you’ve placed in, or even won, what did he say numerous of them? So, what does that tell you? The deal with screenplay competitions is the more you mention them, the more I think frankly amateurish you seem. Certainly saying that I finished in the quarter finals of the blah-blah-blah screenplay competition only makes you sound bad, as far as I’m concerned.

You know, if you say, look, this script has won first place in every single competition I’ve entered in. Here’s a list of 20 competitions it’s won first place in, then I would be like, well, maybe this is pretty good.

John: I agree.

Craig: You know, but that’s not the case. If you have performed very well in the Nicholl, I think that is well worth mentioning. If you win the Austin, that’s probably worth mentioning. But by and large, no. I think it’s far better to let the script speak for itself and not attempt to guild it with the dubious lily of screenplay competition laurels.

John: So, Craig and I don’t actually encounter query letters very often in our lives. And so we’re not people who would be seeing this letter that has all the awards attached to it. At some point we need to have a manager on who is like signing new clients to get a sense of whether that matters to him or to her. Because I don’t think it probably does matter. And I certainly wouldn’t list everything you’ve done. Like only hit the very, very highlights.

Like the same if you’re doing a resume, you don’t put everything on your resume, you just put the things that are applicable to the person you’re sending the resume to. And in this case, if there’s a recent award for a thing and it’s a really prestigious thing, highlight that. But otherwise I wouldn’t.

Craig: Yeah. You know, you got to remember, Mark, that you’re sending your letter to somebody that accepts them. Everybody else that’s sending a letter to them has also entered a dozen competitions, almost certainly. So, letter after letter they’re being told look how special I am. Meaning none of us are special. These competitions are meaningless. Everybody has been a semi-finalist in four of them at this point. So, you know, they’re not looking for people that can do decently well in Single A baseball. There’s only one league here. That’s it. Majors. That’s it. No Minors. So either you are killing it out there and just crushing your competition, and hearing their lamentations, or don’t talk about it.

John: Mm. Yeah.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Do you want to take the next question here?

Craig: Timothy McGherry, that’s a great name. That’s a good song name.

John: 100%.

Craig: Timothy McGherry writes, “A Reddit user posted the following question.” Hang on, John. Hang on. I want you to grip your seat tightly now, because here we go. “So I was talking to my buddies about that screenwriting thing and turns out one of them tried this a while before quitting. He wrote a script and sent it to a few contests but didn’t place. He then told us we shouldn’t bother anyway. There’s a conspiracy to keep us out. I mean, why do you think some writers get paid over a million dollars and more for a screenplay while so many others struggle and have lousy day jobs. Well, there is a secret password you have to write within a script…”

By the way, this isn’t me talking, this is still the question. “…there is a secret password you have to write within a script and it automatically gets in front of people. Only a few people know it. It’s handed down within families who are extremely connected. They’re all trained to look for that password. Readers. Contest judges. And so on. And if they find it, you sell your screenplay for a million dollars. Otherwise, you’re rejected. And no matter how much you try, if you don’t know that password you’ll never break in. Anyway, that’s what my buddy said, and he’s a screenwriter. He knows what he’s talking about. Might just be a theory though. So, what do you think?”

Uh, John, this is provocative because we have been sitting on this for how many years now?

John: Well, it’s been 311 episodes, so even before the podcast, because you and I learned the password quite early on.

Craig: Yeah, of course, because your father was very well connected. What was his occupation again?

John: He was an engineer. But he was the engineer who actually invented movies.

Craig: Ah. And my parents were public school teachers, but my great-great-grandfather I think came over on a boat next to the boat that had Carl Laemmle on it.

John: Yeah. That would be amazing that he was that old and movies have only been around for a hundred years. But that’s how the conspiracy works.

Craig: Well, that’s how — Jews are all born elderly. That’s just a fact. And also we’re not white, according to David Duke.

Look, Timothy, this is the dumbest shit I have ever heard in my life. And normally I’m amused by these things. But it’s actually fascinating because it’s so perfectly stupid. All right, let’s just run it down. Your buddy tried this screenwriting thing a little while before quitting. But later you appeal to authority and say, well, you know, he must know what he’s talking about, he’s a screenwriter. No he’s not.

John: He knows what he’s talking about because he’s a failed screenwriter. So, yes.

Craig: No, he’s just some guy. Now, let’s analyze this. Let’s play the what-if-it-were-true game, because it is kind of fascinating. Let’s put aside the stupidity of the families and the secret password. Let’s just say that there is some way that you can automatically get a million dollars for a screenplay. How do you think business works? Because, see, the Hollywood I know, they will pinch pennies into powder. The last thing in the world they will ever do is give anyone a damn break with money. They’re brutal about it. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t occasional nepotism. There is. Maybe two people being roughly equal for the same job that actually has no real qualifications other than access, like internship or assistant, or PA, you know, starter positions.

But things like buying a screenplay, let me tell you something. If they grind us on every penny, I’m pretty sure they’re going to grind you, too. They’re not just going to go, oh shit, he put the word BALONEY in and he spelled it BOLOGNA, oh man, he knew the password. All right. Write a check. Brenda? Brenda, go get business affairs. Yeah, we got a bologna script. Yeah, no, he spelled it right. Yeah, a million. A million. Write it to, shit, Timothy McGherry. Who does he know? [laughs]

Now I want it to be true.

John: Yeah. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if it were true? The fascinating thing though is how do the studios decide who gets to write the check to Tim McGherry? I’m sorry, Tim, we know it’s not you. You were just asking the question.

Craig: It’s not you. No, you don’t know the password. And it’s not really bologna.

John: Who gets to write the McGherry check to buy the bologna script for a million dollars? You know what? I bet the all meet at the secret room. They meet at the secret room and they figure out who is going to pay the million dollars so that they can buy the script. And then make the — it makes sense. I don’t know why I was thinking — I was just thinking aloud.

Craig: Yeah, I’ll tell you the part that actually is a little concerning to me and now I’m starting to think that maybe this isn’t true. I know obviously it is true. Of course there’s a secret password worth a million dollars. But I can’t get over this one little problem, John. He says there’s a secret password and they are all trained to look for it. Password readers: contest judges and so on.

John: Oh, yeah, so why aren’t they using it?

Craig: Thank you. If they all know the password, why aren’t they using it and getting a million dollars? So my theory is that there are other families that are just essentially through time are part of a secret order, like the Knights Templar, and they are just sworn to live a life of penury. I mean, they are contest judges. They don’t get paid that much. But that’s their lot in life. They get it. They’re like, look, my point is to live in poverty and then if I read the password, someone else gets a million dollars. Yeah. I’m not sure how else it would work.

John: Yeah. I mean, like there’s essentially two classes of people. Like there’s the class of people who are just the reader types, sort of like the paroles, and then there’s an upper class that actually get to sell the scripts for a million dollars. But they’re sort of probably just like trading scripts among themselves for a million dollars each because they already have all the money.

Craig: Right.

John: I don’t know. I just sort of feel like this Reddit user — it’s not stated, but I think they think that the word is a Jewish word. I just feel like there’s some sort of secret thing about like these are the people who control all the purse strings. There’s something hidden back there.

Craig: Yeah. This thing is definitely a one-nut-hair away from being some sort of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. Yeah. Look, it would be nice if the world functioned this way. It would certainly explain failure, wouldn’t it? Because as Tim says his buddy mentioned why do some writers get paid over a million dollars and more for a screenplay while so many others struggle and have lousy day jobs.

One answer, far-fetched and absurd, is that it’s a very hard thing to do, even though it looks easy. And so very few people are worth a million dollars or more. And most people aren’t. And so must stay in their lousy day jobs. But I grant you that’s far-fetched. Far more likely that it’s just that a few people know the magic password. [laughs]

John: Yeah.

Craig: This was real.

John: It was real. I also feel like this Reddit user needs to meet our previous questioner, Mark, who like won all those awards and is wondering should I say that on my awards. Because like he should have gotten all the million dollars already and yet he’s not. So something about the system is broken.

Craig: Yeah. Like he’s been passed through. So the scribes of the Order of Scriptus say the password obviously in his material because they read it and they gave him an award for it.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So where’s the million dollars?

John: I don’t know. I think the million dollars is behind the gate in the library in Old Town. And so at some point you’ve got to pick the lock and get in there and get the secret book that has the password in it.

Craig: Right. Right. Well, that may be the missing piece of the puzzle here. It’s all sliding into place.

John: That’s what we try to do. We try to answer questions and really reveal the secret passwords behind the secrets of screenwriting.

Craig: Yeah. If you guys were listening to this in your car and you’re contemplating driving into an abutment, don’t. I understand the impulse. But don’t. Because this will pass. Don’t worry.

John: We have time for one more short question. So let’s do one short question. Alan from South Carolina writes in, “Not being in LA, would you advise getting an attorney that is closer to my location, or work with one that is in Los Angeles?”

Craig: I would recommend that you work with one that is in Los Angeles if you have access to one. All things being equal. The entertainment attorneys in Los Angeles have generally speaking far more experience handling the kinds of transactional agreements that we get into with studios, producers, executives, and so on. And they also almost certainly will have better relationships with agencies in terms of helping you maybe get an agent. Better relationships with the business affairs people.

You know, one thing that helps you negotiate a deal is knowing what other people like you have gotten for something similar. Well, they tend to know. And probably attorneys in South Carolina, simply by dint of not having as much exposure to our business, would not.

So, I would go with LA, all things being equal.

John: 100%. I think you want somebody who does this every day. And so you want an entertainment attorney. The entertainment attorneys you’re going to find are going to be in Los Angeles. Sometimes in New York, but really Los Angeles. That’s the one you want.

And don’t worry that you’re not sitting down face-to-face with this person. I almost never see my attorney. It’s all done by emails and phone calls. It’s absolutely fine. So, important to check references on an attorney, but it’s going to be fine. Pick an attorney who is in Los Angeles. You’re going to be much, much happier.

Craig: Agreed. And — and when you do find that person, give them the password.

John: Yeah, yeah, it’s crucial because otherwise they won’t be able to negotiate for the million dollars.

Craig: No.

John: It’s time for our One Cool Things. So my One Cool Thing, actually have two, but my first one is a follow up One Cool Thing. So, Brent Warkentine writes, “I started listening to your podcast about a year ago. Love the info so much that I shot a PSA based on John’s One Cool Thing in Episode 267, How to Tell a Mother Her Child is Dead. Thank you for bringing this op-ed to our attention.

So, Brent sent in a link to this PSA he shot and it is terrific. And so if you remember the One Cool Thing, it’s this article that describes how an emergency room doctor prepares for telling a mother that her child has died. And this guy, Brent, he shot a PSA that’s all based around it. Sort of uses the words from it. And it’s so well done. So, congratulations, Brent. I think it’s a really great use of this idea and it ends up becoming a very effective gun violence message to send out there. So, really well done.

Craig: What kind of name do you think Warkentine is?

John: I don’t know. It sounds like it could be Middle Earthian?

Craig: Right. It’s possible that he is a Halfling.

John: Hmm-mm.

Craig: Possible. I don’t know. There’s something vaguely Finnish about it to me. It’s probably not. Warkentine. That’s an interesting one.

John: You know who knows? Brent Warkentine knows where it comes from. So, Brent, write in and let us know where it comes from.

Craig: But please do include the password or it goes to spam.

John: It goes to spam. My second and new One Cool Thing is Mouth Time by Reductress. So, it’s a podcast that Craig will never listen to.

Craig: Never.

John: But if he did listen to it he would love it. And so the folks at Reductress, and Craig, do you read Reductress? It’s sort of like The Onion for women’s stories.

Craig: Like Jezebel meets The Onion?

John: Yeah.

Craig: Got it. No, I don’t.

John: So good. But now you will. It’s so well done. So two of the editors, Nicole Silverberg and Rachel Wenitsky, they play these characters Quenn and Dikoda and they are talking through their days and sort of the things going on in their lives and it is so pitch perfect and wonderful. And like when I say pitch perfect, it is vocally fried pitch perfect.

And so the characters that they create, they’re kind of like Romy and Michelle from Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion, but they’re just great. And I just started listening to the podcast. I think it’s fantastic. So I would strongly encourage people to check it out. It is called Mouth Time with Reductress.

Craig: Quenn is hysterical. That name is brilliant. Quenn. Well, my One Cool Thing is for those of you who like me are avowed fans of The Room games. We are up to The Room 3. I believe Room 4 has been announced and I’m super-duper excited for that. But you know you’ve got to wait, because those games, they take a while to make. And, you know, it’s just one of those deals where at this point I mark my life in terms of time between Room games, and Bethesda games.

By the way, you realize do you know when Skyrim came out, John? Do you remember?

John: 2012?

Craig: Close. It was November 11, 2011. 11/11/11. It’s been freaking six years.

John: Yeah. And I’ve played the remastered version and it’s just still terrific.

Craig: It’s still so good. I can’t wait till they get going with Elder Scrolls 6. Anyway, while you’re waiting for The Room, there is, well, I don’t know how else to put it except there is a rip off. And generally speaking I’m not a huge fan of rip-offs. Rips-off? I’m not a huge fan of rips-off. But this is actually very well done. The knock on it is that is just straight up rip of The Room, down to the special lens that lets you see things. They add a couple of other little features, but it’s just Room-like in its sound, its design, its playability. The whole thing is just look at us, we’re The Room.

It’s called The House of Da Vinci. So, if you are a Room addict like me and you need a quick fix, something to bridge you over until you get to Room 4, you know what? House of Da Vinci, they’ve earned your four bucks. I hope they kick some of it back to I think it’s Fireproof games that makes The Room, because it really is just shameless. It’s just a shameless rip-off. But it’s very well done for shameless rip-offs.

John: Very nice. I shall check it out. That is our show for this week. So 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 ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the ones we answered today. For short questions, I’m on Twitter @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. We are on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast.

You can find us on Apple Podcasts at Scriptnotes. And if you’re there, please leave us a rating or a review. That’s so lovely and it makes us happy when we read them. Craig doesn’t read them, but that’s fine.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That is also where you’ll find transcripts. We get them up about three, or four, or five days after the episode airs. If you read them really carefully, you can find the secret password buried in them. But you have to read through every transcript —

Craig: Every single one.

John: There’s some algorithms and like you have to print them out and draw things between them. And if you have string and pushpins that will help you triangulate what the secret password is.

Craig: And you’re going to try it, so don’t bother. It’s not UMBRAGE. Duh. We’re not stupid, OK? Otherwise we would be out of cash.

That said, there is a secret password buried in there. You get a million bucks. Your movie gets made. You know, just like the way John and I did. That’s how we got started.

John: You know, that system that was doing all the sort of deep machine learning on scripts, like the one that we sort of savagely tore apart and Franklin ended up taking down off the Black List. I bet that one I’m sure figured out the secret password and that’s how they got their VC money.

Craig: Oh god. It’s all making sense. It’s all making sense. Yeah.

John: Yeah. You can find that episode and all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. It is $1.99 a month. We also have a few more of the USB drives. They’re at store.johnaugust.com.

Craig: How much do I get from that?

John: You get nothing. Craig gets nothing from the John August Store. Not a bit.

Craig: That’s interesting.

John: Not a bit.

Craig: Well. Hmm.

John: But, he got a million dollars because he knew the password, so it all worked out.

Craig: Boom!

John: Boom! See you next week.

Craig: Bye.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

The Magic Word Is In This Episode

Tue, 08/08/2017 - 08:03

Craig and John tackle a bunch of listener questions, along with follow-up on previous discussions.

Are road trip movies just a series of coincidences? How do you start the second draft? Should you mention screenwriting awards in a query?

Plus: a Redditor insists there is a secret password you have to write within a script for it to be purchased. After 311 episodes, the time has come. We reveal that magic word.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 311: Scriptnotes Live Homecoming Show — Transcript

Mon, 08/07/2017 - 11:31

The original post for this episode can be found here.

John August: Hey, this is John. So today’s episode of Scriptnotes has a few bad words. So if you’re driving in the car with your kids, this is the warning.

Hello and welcome. My name is John August.

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are…

Crowd: Interesting to screenwriters.

John: You’re so good.

Craig: So good. Yeah. You guys remembered three words. Congratulations.

John: Craig sometimes doesn’t.

Craig: That’s absolutely true. Look who we have back, by the way. After a year. You know, you’d think you wouldn’t miss him, but you do. You do. It was really great to get you back.

John: Well thank you very much. You guys did two live shows without me. You did the Austin show and you did the LA show. They both worked. But I’ll be honest…

Craig: Well, I think they were two of our best shows ever.

John: All right. I will tell you that honestly there was an aspect of me that wanted them to be successful, but not especially successful. I wanted there to be some crisis like, oh, like John is irreplaceable.

Craig: I get that. But it didn’t happen. They were actually amazing without you.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Completely without you.

John: Yeah…that’s…yeah.

Craig: You had nothing to do with them.

John: Yeah, so that was a little sad.

Craig: Well, we’ll see how this goes.

John: Yeah, this could be fine. I was involved in more of the planning for this one, so you might notice things are a little bit more —

Craig: Planned.

John: Yeah. So a couple things about today’s show. We have three amazing guests. We’re so excited to bring them up. But we also have some audience participation stuff. We’re trying something brand, brand new. So as you came into the theater tonight, you were handed a ticket. That ticket will become important later on. So don’t lose that ticket. I love that everyone is pulling it out right now. That’s so awesome.

Craig: I just found out about the ticket thing. I literally saw tickets in the front and I’m like, oh, are you guys raffling something? And they said, “You’re doing a thing.”

John: Yeah, we’re going to do a thing.

Craig: And I didn’t know.

John: So at some point there will be a bowl and people will be drawing things out of the bowl. It’s going to be very, very exciting. But one of the things I love about live shows with guests is a chance for me to learn something about things that I don’t really know. Craig, you’re doing a TV show now. You’re starting that process. I’ve done some TV shows in the past. But we’re not TV people.

Craig: No.

John: We have TV people with us tonight.

Craig: Three of the best. Three of the best.

John: Let’s just get to it. Let’s bring these people out. Our guests tonight. First off, Wikipedia says Megan Amram is an American comedian and writer. She became well known after 2010 through her Twitter account, where she posts one-liners that make use of subtle word play, absurdism, and dark humor. She was a staff writer for the Disney Channel sitcom Ant Farm, NBC’s Parks and Recreation, and Children’s Hospital. Someone needs to update her Wikipedia profile. So you guys can do this in the audience tonight. To include that she’s also written on Silicon Valley, and The Good Place, plus, most crucially —

Craig: Oh, we’re going to save what that is.

John: All right. There’s a secret connection here. Let’s welcome Megan Amram.

Craig: Megan Amram. Should we invite up — just get everybody all at once? Merriam-Webster defines — no, Wikipedia says Thomas Schnauz is an American television producer and television writer. They forgot he’s also an excellent director. His credits include The X-Files, The Lone Gunman.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: Not as popular. Night Stalker. Even less popular. Reaper. Watch this now. Breaking Bad. And Better Call Saul. Tom Schnauz.

John: So, finally, I think this Wikipedia entry was actually updated this afternoon, because it changed from when I first emailed it to him. Wikipedia says Matthew (Matt) Selman is an American writer and producer. After two years of failed spec scripts, he was hired to write an episode of Seinfeld in 1996. Selman then joined the writing staff of The Simpsons where he has remained, rising to the position of executive producer. He has also co-written The Simpsons’ movie, The Simpsons’ ride. Simpsons’ videogames. And the names of many of the entrees at the Universal Studios Springfield Food Court.

Most importantly, he was also the host of the single episode of Duly Noted, the Scriptnotes after show. Matt Selman, come on up.

Craig: Short lived. Welcome, Matt.

Well, I’m exhausted after that.

John: It was a lot of chatting. So, we are mostly feature folks. And so we’ve done some TV over the years, but neither of us have really worked in rooms. And a lot of the stuff that you guys are doing is in rooms. So I wanted to start tonight by talking about rooms and sort of how rooms work in television. So, Megan, can we start with you? For a show like The Good Place, what was the process of figuring out this is how we’re going to do this series for TV? Like when do you come in and when was the room put together?

Megan Amram: The thing that’s amazing about TV is that it’s like little movies. It’s a really fun way to think about it. Just like a 30 to 60-minute movie might be helpful.

John: I like that you’re keeping it really basic for us. That’s nice.

Megan: I am not a television writer. I just am a fraud who came here.

So, I started on season one of The Good Place, which we just finished writing and shooting our second season, and which will air in the fall. And I have only really been in 30-minute comedy rooms, so add that to my Wikipedia please when you update it.

John: Someone in the audience, get on that right now.

Megan: I’ll Venmo $10 to whoever updates my Wikipedia right now. But we — I can speak for my shows. We start for what might be one to two months with very broad strokes where we just want to figure out where the season begins and ends.

Craig: And how many are we talking about in the room?

Megan: Anywhere from six to ten people. We might start with a smaller — we started with four people this year and just sort of sketched out what we were doing. But my show, if you haven’t seen it, is sort of a science-fiction comedy show, which is very specific in tone and we really unlike a comedy show where maybe you just want to do different refillable comedy episodes every time you tune in, we wanted it to really have an overarching story that had a beginning, and a middle, and an end. So, we wanted to figure that all out before we started breaking specific episodes.

Craig: Over how many episodes?

Megan: 13. So both seasons we knew the beginning, and the end, which our season that just aired had a big twist in it that we all — all the writers knew and were really trying to lay in to every episode.

So, yeah, so we start very broad and then work into what are 13 ways to split this up in comedic episodes. And then we get into the actual like what are scenes, what are people saying in it.

Craig: And your show is — Good Place is 30 minutes. It’s a half-hour comedy. In my mind, I think that when I consider the room for that, or I consider the room that Matt runs for The Simpsons, and then I think about what Tom does, that maybe it’s not that different. Am I wrong? I mean, you have an hour-long show. It’s not a comedy. I mean, there are comedic elements to both Breaking Band and Better Call Saul, but is it a similar process regardless of genre?

Thomas Schnauz: It’s actually very similar, except for the fact that we do start off, we talk big picture for a month or two about what’s going to happen in the series, but we don’t stick to that. We put up ideas on the board. We have a corkboard and we have index cards and we write all these ideas and we post them up. But then we go episode by episode and we don’t stick to that plan because our characters drive us through what happens next. And we will veer off wildly from that initial two-month planning if something interesting happens.

I mean, the one I always note is in Breaking Bad we had this big train heist and we had all these for Jesse Pinkman was going to be the big drug king pin. And then somebody came up with the idea that this character Todd shoots a kid on a motorbike, which changed everything. So, the thing is —

Craig: What, Jesse could have been a huge drug kingpin?

Thomas: That was something we talked about.

Craig: He never got a break. Ever.

Thomas: I know. That was something we talked about. And it just — once you come up with a different idea, a better idea, you just go with that. So we don’t stick to any game plan. Wherever the characters take us, that’s where we go.

John: Now, Matt Selman, you’re running really a brand new, fresh show that has like no history. There’s no set idea about a Simpsons episode could or should be. So it’s just, the same, it’s a whiteboard. Anything can happen. Arcs from episode to episode. Huge changes.

Matt Selman: I mean, you’re super right in that unlike your shows there’s very little continuity on The Simpsons. And to me the show is like Groundhog Day where you reset to the beginning. It’s a normal kind of blue color family. They’re troubled but love each other. And then you take them on an as crazy an adventure as you can get away with over that 20 minutes and 40 seconds you have. So, we don’t do a lot of season arc planning or —

Craig: Or planning.

Matt: Or whiteboard using. But, you know, like the thing that all these shows have in common is the most important thing is the breaking of the story. And, you know, you have X amount of time to do it. You have these creative people to do it with. How can you get the job done and have it be a satisfying story and then not down the line think of some awesome thing where a kid kills someone on a bike and it could have been so much better.

Craig: Right. You don’t have that issue.

Matt: You want to do it, but then you don’t want to think of something — you don’t want to miss out on an awesome other idea, which is always lurking. Oh, what if there was some better way to do it?

Craig: And you guys do 20 — ?

Matt: We do 22.

Craig: And so you do 13? Breaking Bad is, I’m sorry, Better Call Saul is — ?

Thomas: Better Call Saul is down to 10 episodes a season.

Craig: So 13 was like, oh god, I can’t even handle.

Thomas: Pretty much.

Craig: And you’re still cranking out 22. How big is your room?

Matt: 22-episode payments every year.

Craig: That’s true. That’s pretty sweet. That’s hundreds of dollars a year.

Thomas: We’re not about the money. We’re about the art.

Craig: Yes. Of course. Of course. Yes. But how many people are in your room to handle that workload?

Matt: We have two rooms. I run a room. And our real showrunner, this guy Al Jean, the iconic Al Jean, runs another room.

Craig: So if someone is in your room, are they being punished?

Matt: Well, there’s different schools of thought for that. Let’s just say we’re here now. We both have our, well, you guys tell me what you think. I’ve worked on one room for one show for my entire life, but I’ve worked with different room runners, myself included, and I’ve found that every room runner — when you run a room, you’re sort of like a screenwriter by yourself and everyone else has to be part of your brain and your process, however functional or dysfunctional, is kind of projected out onto the creative collaborators. And so that can be good or bad.

So when I run the room, I feel like the rewriting has my problems, which is that I just want to get it done with and get a version and, oh, we’ve just got to get something down and then we have to go back and realize it wasn’t awesome and have to do it again. Like that’s how I write by myself and that’s how I force my room to do it. And I wish I could improve but I can’t.

But, and I’ve seen other showrunner, room runner guys who are super tortured and, you know, progress is slow. And then his or her torture becomes everyone’s torture. I mean, do you guys feel that is accurate?

Megan: Yeah. The psychological petri dish that is a writer’s room is very fascinating. About how someone’s neuroses can just infect a ton of people at once.

I’ve worked for a bunch of a different showrunners. My showrunner on The Good Place is Mike Schur who is incredibly good at his job.

Matt: He’s kind of like the best in the biz, right?

Megan: Yeah. He’s pretty much the best, if you’re listening, Mike. But he —

Craig: If you’re listening, man that employs me. You’re the best.

Megan: Yeah, you’re really good.

Craig: You’re amazing.

Megan: But he’s very even-keeled. But what Tom was saying about how you sort of have to look at every type of idea and then you pick a path and you just do, and the thing about television, unlike movies, is that you also just have to finish it really fast, usually, and then it has to be on TV. And you just can’t change it. So, I think something that Mike is really good at and I’ve seen other showrunners who are both good and not as good at is just being like, “This is the idea we’re doing. And maybe we’re going to think of something really good in like six months, right before it airs, and you can’t feel bad about it. You just got to let it go. That’s what it is.”

And so I think it is a very interesting skill that’s not necessarily writing exactly. But it’s listening to all of your collaborators and making a uniform product. But then also just being like, you know, we’re doing our best and that’s what it’s going to be.

John: Tom, what’s your experience with showrunner’s processes and sort of how that makes the room work? And I don’t know how big the room is on Better Call Saul.

Thomas: We have seven writers, I believe, and then Vince is sort of coming in and out right now because he’s working on another project. But Peter Gould is running the room. Best guy in the business. I know he’s listening. He takes so much credit for your success, also.

Craig: So we’ve got a genius Al Jean, we’ve got the amazing Mike Schur. We have the wonderful Peter Gould.

John: Peter Gould, a former Scriptnotes guest. You weren’t there for that show.

Craig: Oh.

John: Yeah. An Austin show you weren’t there for.

Craig: Oh. Well I didn’t even know.

John: You didn’t listen, so. You would never know.

Craig: No. I don’t listen to podcasts.

John: So Peter is running this room. And so — ?

Thomas: We, I feel gross, because you’re talking about how much pressure it is to get the show. You have to just pick an idea. We spend so much time. I mean, like three weeks an episode. We will break seven episodes before we start filming. So if we make a mistake somewhere along the lines we’re like, oh, we can go back and fix that and change things. So AMC affords us a ton of time and we’re very lucky. Unlike a lot of other shows where it’s you got to do something. We’re in the room, get it on the air. We’re very lucky that way.

Megan: Yeah. We’re just like, “Fuck it. Just get it out there.”

Craig: That’s the Megan I know. You guys did 13 a year on Breaking Bad?

Thomas: Breaking Bad, there was the strike year they did only seven or eight.

Craig: That was the shorter one.

Thomas: And then 13 up until the last two seasons. We did eight and eight.

Craig: Interesting. Because this is a new thing, right? So Matt is still working in the old way of doing things, and there aren’t that many shows left even now it seems that put out 22 episodes a year. And it does seem like it has transformed everything. And so John and I, we don’t have the experience of the room. But what we’ve been watching is as the time that it’s required to make a season of television shrinks, essentially, and the desire of studios to want to pool writers together more and more to write movies, there is a weird kind of —

Matt: Well, movies are turning into TV and TV is turning into movies. In that your show is essentially a giant movie that they make every year that they show in 10 chunks. And you right them, you shoot them, you edit it, and that’s a giant movie. And, you know, there’s I’d say a little lot of cinematic universe out there from the Harvey Universe, that a bunch of writers are breaking those —

Craig: I would love that.

Matt: Little Lot of Dot Hot Stuff. They’re breaking those stories.

Craig: Lots of Casper, the Friendly Ghost.

Matt: And they’re writing those movies to be giant TV shows that come out every two years. So, there’s a crazy —

Craig: They hate us. You can feel it from them.

John: Absolutely. There’s a true antipathy. People listening at home may not be able to see, but the audience here can clearly see.

Craig: The TV people hate us.

Thomas: I mainly hate Craig.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: Then mission accomplished.

John: Let’s talk about this shift to shorter seasons and what it means for reality of like working in this business. We just did an incredibly wonky episode that just aired as we’re recording this today which was about the WGA deal.

Matt: I listened to it.

John: Yeah. God bless you.

Matt: In the car. [Crosstalk]

John: It was super, super wonky episode. But so if you’re doing 10 episodes or 13 episodes, what is the rest of your year like? Because, Megan, are you doing other stuff when that show is not on the air?

Megan: Yeah. I have been writing during — it’s an interesting thing where a show might write for half the year now, so you can sort of write for two different TV shows. So, I wrote for The Good Place season one and then on my break I wrote for Transparent, which is coming —

John: I’ve heard of that show.

Megan: It’s hilarious. It was a very different type of show than I’d ever written for before.

Matt: Right. A different showrunner’s psyche extrapolated on a group of people.

Megan: I mean, I do feel super lucky, because I’ve written for Transparent, and Silicon Valley, and Parks and Rec, which I would all call those as far away from each other as you possibly could be in a comedy room. But —

Matt: She’s working for Ballers next season, by the way.

Craig: That would actually —

Megan: Yeah. They don’t know that yet. I’m just going to show up and be like —

Craig: I think that would be welcome change for ballers. I really do. By the way, I don’t think we’ve told people about our thing. We should probably tell them. Should we tell them about our thing?

Megan: Oh yeah, definitely. It’s going to add a lot of rich, layered irony into this conversation.

Craig: So you know how Jewish I am? I’m so Jewish, you guys. So, I did the 23 and Me thing. Have you guys done 23 and Me? Yeah, OK. Nobody is as Jewish as I am. I’ll tell you that right now. 98.5% Jewish, or something like this.

So, I was out one night with a group of people, including Megan, and I was boasting about how Jewish I was. And she’s like, no, I’m more Jewish. And —

Megan: No, I’m more Jewish.

Craig: Yeah, that’s my impression of you. So, she said well let’s share your thing with me so we can see if we’re related, ha, ha, ha. And I said, OK. And so I did it and then I went up to go to the bathroom. And when I came back she was looking at me like this. Because we’re related.

Megan: Yeah. 23 and Me, I’m only 28% Jewish, so I —

Craig: Not even, 128% Jewish.

Megan: Yeah, it’s crazy. But 23 and Me told us that we were distant cousins. And we could have guessed that.

Craig: Made so much sense. It made so much sense.

Megan: Genetics are amazing. And Jews run Hollywood. Is that cool to say? Oh yeah, let’s get applause for that.

Craig: Not really a secret.

Megan: Now this feels funny and scary at the same time.

Craig: I know. It’s turning into a Boys Scout rally. Jew-S-U. Jew-S-U.

John: So, Tom and Matt, all three of us —

Craig: Here comes the adult. [laughs]

Megan: Really good segue.

John: All three of us are bald. So, I mean, there could be, yeah, balding. Matt has the most hair of the three of us.

Matt: Yeah, but it’s not good.

John: No. It’s not good. To steer us back away from genetics to television showrunning, my question for Tom is if you’re only running 10 episodes of this show per year, what is this writing staff doing the rest of the year? Because you want them to come back ideally for the next season, but they could be off on another show? What are the decisions about that?

Thomas: I mean, because we spend so much time on every episode, it takes up a pretty good hunk. But then when we get into production the writers will go to set and be in Albuquerque for the episode and some of us get to direct, which is awesome. And then we’re involved in postproduction. So it really fills up a lot of the year. But then people have other projects that they work on.

Craig: You know, in speaking of other projects, I’m kind of curious because so much of your careers, really I think exclusively for all three of you, you have been working in television. Is that accurate? So not to try and drag you over to the feature side, but have you ever thought about writing a movie? I mean, on the one hand everything that bothers you about being a room goes away. There’s no other people. There’s nobody else telling you what to do or what to say. On the other hand, you’re alone. And on the other side of it, even in success, you don’t have the kind of power that you do in television.

Thomas: I got into writing because I just didn’t want to be around people.

Craig: Right.

Thomas: And I started writing features. And I got into the Guild because I had a feature option back in the ë90s for Mark Johnson and Paramount Pictures. And that sort of got me out of my regular job and into writing. And then when I ran out of money living on the east coast, I thought I’d try television. And luckily it kind of worked for me.

Matt: Luckily Charles in Charge was hiring.

Craig: Great show.

Thomas: And one of the things I did during this break, I wrote a feature for Disney. So, we’ll see what happens.

Craig: All right, so you you’ve done it.

Thomas: Yes.

Craig: Now, OK, let me drill a little bit deeper. What did you think? I mean, just honest impression?

Thomas: It was a project that Vince Gilligan and I did together.

Craig: So you weren’t completely alone.

Thomas: Wasn’t completely alone. No. So we wrote it. And it’s been hands-off. And it’s just sort of going through the — they give us a few notes and we did them. So, it’s been pretty painless so far. They’ve been great.

Megan: I hope Disney is making like a super hardcore drug movie with you and Vince Gilligan. That would be amazing. Like a kid dies on a bike. [laughs]

Thomas: Goofy is the way he is for a reason.

John: I like that Goofy backstory. That’s really crucial.

Craig: Like the totally normal dog-man.

Megan: The gritty reboot of Goofy.

Craig: Like he was perfectly fine.

John: We are mostly feature writers, but a lot of people that we talk to they say, oh, should I write features, should I write for TV. We always say write both. Write whatever you most want to do, whatever you most want to see. But there’s a lot more jobs in TV than there are in features.

So, if someone is lucky enough to get into the room to be on one of your shows, what is a good interview and sort of if they get hired what is it like being the new person in the room on a TV writing staff? What are some tips you would have for getting in that room and also staying in that room?

Matt: The first thing is like hide your fear. Because you’re super scared you’re going to suck and be fired and everyone is going to think you’re dumb. But, hide it. Because your neurotic, primo, first-timer energy is sucking me down. And I speak for all showrunners when I say that.

Craig: Why did we have him on the show? So brutal.

Matt: I don’t want to get your energy, worried that you didn’t have a good day where you got a joke in. I’ve got a show to make, guys. Which is not really how I feel, but there’s a —

Craig: That is how you feel.

Matt: But there’s a giant kernel of truth to that in that you are just there to be super positive and be super helpful and not be a butt kisser, but really it’s not your job to save the day or be the hero. It is your job to just be a little bit of what John and I were talking about earlier, gravy. As a staff writer, you are just delicious gravy. And if you can make the show a little bit better and not suck it down with like needy first time energy, which I know is probably now accelerating the likelihood of you showing that. I mean, have a glass of wine before like Craig does. Or take a pill, that’s fine.

That’s my main first-timer’s note. You’re just there to be super positive. You’re just there to help. And don’t make it about you, because no one is thinking about you. They’re thinking about, oh god, please let this be a little bit good.

John: Megan, some thoughts, because you’ve been on numerous — ?

Megan: Yeah. I’m now rethinking my entire career and every experience I’ve had in a writer’s room. But I do agree, which is like the thing I was going to say is pretty much the same thing which is like —

Matt: But meaner.

Megan: But way meaner. I think that you just have to have the right attitude and what Matt said about you’re not there to save the day is true. It’s like you’re also there to learn and to understand the show you’re making. To understand the dynamics in the room that already exist. And therefore that you’re not shooting down the pitch of the boss. But also there to be, I think, like there’s a difference between a staff writer who gets up before work every day and writes 30 jokes before they get in and then a staff writer who is late every day and doesn’t seem like they want to be there.

You can really tell when someone wants to be there, aside from their innate skill in the room. And I think like on the shows I’ve been on, you can be pretty forgiving of their comedic prowess if someone is just there with the right attitude and is trying to learn as much as they can and is really trying to show up.

John: Did you actually write 30 jokes before you would come in?

Megan: I know that sounded, well, yes. I did. I’m like, well —

Craig: Well, I feel like you have the comedic prowess, so you can just be a dick.

Megan: Thank you so much.

Craig: You’re welcome.

Megan: But, no, no, no. I’m like a nerd. The people on the podcast cannot hear my hair flip, but it was very funny.

Craig: We’ll put in some indication.

Megan: Thank you.

John: Matthew, add a swoosh effect for that. That would be —

Megan: I mean, like when I got hired on Parks and Rec I was very young and was extremely nervous I was going to get fired all the time.

Matt: Hide it.

Megan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I hid it, obviously, and I just cried a few times after work. But I kept it together great while I was there. Everyone was so nice there. I just was very nervous all the time.

Craig: This is really just very damaging advice. I mean, you’re hurting people.

Megan: I love to cry. Just cry in the right places. That’s really the advice I have for you.

John: If you close the bathroom stall, make sure no one can peek inside and see you crying.

Craig: Just remember, some of your legitimate feelings are ugly.

Megan: Get a really nice car to just let loose in.

Craig: Get a crying car.

Megan: Yeah. Get a crying car. It could even be a second car.

Craig: Tom, do you cry a lot at work, in the car after?

Thomas: No, I don’t. I’m a man, Craig.

Craig: You seem incredibly well-adjusted.

Megan: Oh, that sounds awesome. Good for you.

Craig: So basically the people that do the dark and disturbing shows are actually incredibly well-actualized. And the funny ones are sick.

Thomas: Yeah. I mean, I feel incredibly lucky. I mean, we laugh every day. We’re probably not that funny. We’re just sitting around laughing like idiots. But, you know, everybody has a great attitude. And I think the most important thing, if you get in a room, being positive is not shoot down other people’s ideas. Because there will be bad ideas. I will pitch horrible ideas. The boss will pitch horrible ideas. You have to have a safe room. You have to be able to have the freedom to say something so stupid that it might lead to something good. And it happens all the time. So I think don’t ever when somebody pitches something say, “Boy that sucks. That’s never going to work.” Be positive. Find a way to find another idea.

John: A question about the credit for an idea. So, when I’ve been in rooms, so I’ve been in rewrite rooms where we’re taking a script, and someone will suggest something that’s not quite right, and then somebody adds something to it that actually feels like a better idea. But then it gets weird. Like whose idea was that really? How does that manifest in a room that you’re going to every day?

Matt: That’s the skill is to like — maybe it’s Zen or maybe it’s Judaism, but you let it go. You just let it go. Once you’ve been doing it long enough, you only care that it’s good. And you project that energy. I only care if this is good. It’s not about me. At all.

Craig: That is definitely Zen. It is not Judaism. But I agree with it.

Matt: Zen-Judaism?

Craig: No. It’s just Zen-Zen. Yeah.

Matt: And it’s like a little bit of — maybe a good experiment would be like on every staff writer’s first day be like make them run the room. Like you’re in charge. Here’s the pressure. And all of a sudden it’s not like did I get a joke in or did people know that I said the thing that turned into the thing that turned into the thing. Oh, they don’t know I said it! It’s like, that’s Judaism.

Craig: That’s Judaism. Right. [laughs] It’s so true.

Matt: It’s just the freedom of how can we make this excellent.

John: Now, at some point, you will have discussed the idea, you will have broken the story, and somebody has to go out and actually write that. So, any advice for the person who gets assigned now go off and write that episode? What is that like both on a half hour and on an hour show?

Megan: I think this goes for probably any show, but like on the shows I’ve worked for once you get to the stage that you actually would go out to write, you have like a very specific outline that everyone on the room has worked on for weeks usually. And I have seen it before where someone has gone out and just changed the whole thing and that’s not a good thing to do. It’s like we worked on this so that you could go and have fun with it and put your own dialogue and spice to it.

Matt: Yeah. Your own funny serials in the background.

Megan: Yeah. But it is — I think — just one more. I also think one more thing to add off of the “don’t shoot down other people’s stuff” as I’m thinking about it. It’s like I guess I thought this was intuitive and for most writers in a room I think it is. But there’s a way that you can offer up criticism in a constructive way where you pitch a replacement. And it might not be the right thing, but it at least is like you are sort of only allowed to shoot down someone’s thing if you do it with a pitch in its place. And I do think that that maybe is helpful to keep in your mind. You might have a problem with something, but it’s sort of not very polite to just be like, “That’s bad.”

Craig: Well, instead of saying no, you’re saying, “Or…” And it follows from —

Megan: That’s beautiful, Craig.

Craig: Thank you.

Megan: That’s poetry.

Craig: We deal with, we don’t have these other writers that we have to have that conversation with, but we have to have that conversation with producers and with studio executives. And I think sometimes writers think, well, if I’m just talking about it with studio executives or producers, I can just tell them no or argue, because we’re not in a creative partnership. But I’ve always felt like whatever skill you’re using to improve things in the room with human beings that are writers, it’ll work with producers and executives as well.

I mean, nobody wants to —

John: No, that’s not really true though. Because the difference is like there are writers in the room. And so the writers all understand like that you have to be able to do the work to do it. These producers and these studio executives, they don’t really understand sort of why those things are there.

Craig: No, no, I understand that. But my point is that the same manipulation that Megan is talking about applies to all stripes of humans. And really what it comes down to is Matt’s admonition to leave your ego out of it, which is the hardest thing because — I understand like, Matt, one of these folks is going to go on and be the — they’re going to have their first day in a television room. God help them if it’s yours. But hopefully it’s —

Matt: No, no, I’m super nice. I feel bad for everybody.

Craig: There’s no chance of that. But they’re going to have their first day —

Matt: I once let this guy go for two years before we all had to tell him we hated him.

Craig: That’s Christ-like.

Matt: And he’s now more successful than anyone on this panel.

Craig: That’s what I was hoping for.

Matt: Sadly.

Craig: You know, you’re Buddha-like. They’re going to have that first day and they are going to feel like if I don’t let them know that I was here, then I wasn’t even here. And it’s totally normal. But if you work on leaving your ego behind, it works on everybody, I think. Honestly it does. Unless, well, maybe not Tom. It might not work on Tom.

John: So, Tom, do you have any new writers on Better Call Saul? Or are they all veterans of — ?

Thomas: We have one new writer this year.

John: So, when he or she came in, is there a way to get that writer up to speed or get that writer comfortable?

Thomas: No. She just kind of jumped in feet first. And we just started talking story. You know, Peter interviewed her beforehand and sort of probably gave her an idea of what to expect. We didn’t do anything special for her. We just started the room as always.

Craig: Remarkably well-adjusted.

John: Far too well-adjusted.

Craig: It’s like disturbing how well-adjusted. Like, Matt, do you even recognize that sort of thinking?

Matt: Our show is like the crazy outpost that everyone kind of forgot about. And we have long beards and palm fronds and rattan everything. Like the crazy Roman outpost that — so new writers show up with their shiny armor, like let’s make this Roman army great. And we’re like, yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s how you do it.

John: Matt, one final question for you on The Simpsons. One of the challenges of a show that’s been on for 900 seasons is that so many things have been done. So, how often in the room someone is like, “Well what if we did this,” and that thing has already been done on the show? Is that a limiting factor?

Matt: Well, the ship has sailed a long time ago about not repeating ourselves. Like emotionally, we’ll do the same stories they did in season one every season. There aren’t that many combinations of father-son/mother-daughter/brother-sister/husband-wife/disappointment-jealousy-guilt-revenge, you know, alienation, etc. etc.

There just aren’t that many combinations. You just have to put a fresh coat of paint on it that you’re excited about and maybe you have fresh insights that you’ve had in your life that you can insert along the way. Like now that I’m an old married guy, like I’ve given Homer a lot of my husbandly observations I’ve put in his mouth. And I wouldn’t have been able to do that when I first started. But now — so Homer actually got a little wiser, as did I. [laughs]

But, so yeah, it’s a weird challenge. But Springfield just holds up a mirror of goofiness to America as it like finishes dying. And like so we don’t really run out of stuff. Like I always get excited about new stories. And it’s always fun. And that’s always the best part is the beginning of the first day of breaking the story when you’re excited about it. And then you have to make it work, and that’s hard. But to me like the first two hours of a story breaking where you’re just kind of burning off all the hot ideas that everyone has is like the best part of any show breaking experience.

John: Excellent. That’s a great transition to the first new segment I want to try on you guys. So, often on the show we’ll do How Would This Be a Movie, where we take stories in the news and figure out how could make these into a movie. So this variant I want to call How Could This Be Funny. So we’ll take things that are terrible kind of in the world and look at it like if this came into the room like how would we massage the idea so it could fit into a comedy that we want to make, or something funny, or in the case of Better Call Saul comedic-like moments.

Matt: Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul have high comedy moments, by the way.

John: They’re funny folks.

Craig: Legitimately funny.

John: All right. Our first topic. So, a few weeks ago a sheet of ice the size of Delaware broke off from Antarctica.

Craig: That’s funny.

John: Yeah. So, that’s thrown out there. Who wants to jump on that ball? Let’s make that funny.

Thomas: Like a funny TV show?

John: It doesn’t have to be the premise of the whole thing. It could be the premise of an episode. How do you do this as a plot point?

Thomas: Like if the sheet is played by Kevin James or somebody?

John: Exactly. Yeah.

Thomas: Gets a hot wife.

Craig: We’re off and running.

Thomas: I think this writes itself. This is an easy one.

Megan: Yeah, I instantly went to like kids’ movie place where the ice sheet is trying to find its way home. And it’s just very cute.

Craig: Awwww.

Megan: It’s not funny.

Craig: No, that’s sad.

Megan: It’s sad.

Craig: And I assume as it finally does make its way home and it sees its parent ice shelf it begins to melt and die.

Megan: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Craig: Or maybe its parent melts in front of it.

Megan: And then it farts. And then you win them back.

Craig: I think we nailed it.

Thomas: This was actually the Disney movie that Vince and I are writing.

John: Yeah, sorry.

Matt: It’s called Unfrozen.

Craig: Wow.

John: Next topic.

Matt: But like, no, I think that’s a good — sometimes the way you make something funny, as you guys well know, is what is the emotion behind. And the emotion is funny. And drama, and sadness, and rejection, and failure are funny. So if it were a Simpsons’ thing we would think what if this thing were heading for Springfield and Lisa wants to get it back because she cares about global warming. And this sounds like bad spec script. But Mr. Burns wants to harness it for his own personal super ice box. And cover it with sawdust and make like old timey thing.

So you just think like what are the characters’ unfunny, true, heart-full feelings and then the comedy comes, well flow, ice flow, much more naturally.

Megan: Gorgeous.

Matt: I said that to him.

John: To me, I was wondering if there was a sense of like that chunk of ice is sort of its own country sort of floating out there in the world. It’s a new land. So there’s some sense of people go there to claim we are in a new place because we claimed this ice for ourselves. There’s a universe where you could set a show on that ice drift.

Matt: Great. That’s awesome. But that’s shrinking, so they know there’s a finite time that you get to live in a fresh society.

Craig: Right. And then who gets to control the ice.

Megan: I feel like Gwyneth Paltrow gets to. Like she starts a Goop offshoot where people go and like cleanse their skin on the pure ice, or something. Yeah. And it’s just her on one tiny little ice flow as it’s melting.

John: I like it.

Craig: I’d watch that. I would watch that.

John: Our next How Could This Be Funny. Donald Trump, Jr. Just Donald Trump, Jr. You have him as a character. You can do anything you want.

Craig: Or Hitler. Pick one or the other.

John: That character. Introduce him or that type of person into a story. Like what does he give you as a character?

Matt: Well we have a joke coming up on a show about a guy named Kenny Hitler, which we wrote before the election, and we’re just like this Kenny Hitler guy doesn’t seem so bad. What are his views?

Craig: Kenny Hitler.

Matt: But everyone, I don’t know, you guys — I don’t want to hog it. You guys are funny.

Craig: Well, I mean, there is kind of an interesting show about the son of a tyrant. I mean, extrapolating slightly here, but the dimwitted son of a very powerful sociopathic man, trying to please his evil father. Like he’s just inherently sweet and nice and keeps screwing up because of that.

Megan: Well the way people keep talking about this 40-year-old man as a boy.

Craig: I know!

Megan: Is like the funniest thing to me. It’s so absurd.

Craig: But don’t you also think —

Matt: If we live.

Craig: Kind of true? Like normally I would say like, OK, why are we making this ridiculous excuse, except I kind of feel he is child-like. That picture of him sitting on that true. So sweet.

Megan: Yeah. I mean, he’s like Billy Madison.

Craig: Right.

Megan: Which is a hilarious TV show.

Craig: Like if Billy Madison was like lopping off the heads of giraffes and stuff.

Megan: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Craig: I’d killed a giraffe. Made a lot of money.

Matt: Yeah, you did that. They killed a real giraffe for that movie.

Craig: Four giraffes. It was four takes.

John: It strikes me that he’s almost like an anti-Leslie Knope character. Like he’s trying to please somebody who’s completely unpleasable. But he’s just doing it in all the wrong ways. And there’s something really kind of sickly endearing about that kind of guy.

Megan: He’s like a very earnest super villain, I guess, is like what the opposite of Leslie Knope is. He only understands very few things about the world, but he wants them all to be like the worst versions of them.

But it’s very hard to make this funny, because it just is the news. It’s like you’re just watching.

Craig: It’s funny already.

Megan: Man-boy with all of the animal heads is, I don’t know, the Vice-President or something. He like gets to be something big.

John: From NBC News, a large-scale scientific review has found a 40-year plunge in sperm count, specifically in men from North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. And the reason may be associated with common factors in our daily lives. So, sperm count drop.

Megan: I’m hearing a lot of cucks. You’re talking about cucks abound.

Craig: Cucks.

John: Yeah.

Craig: That’s a pretty good title for a show.

John: Cucks.

Megan: I can 100% guarantee that’s a show already in development.

Craig: Cucks, for sure.

John: Sperm count drop. Matt Selman? Is it low T? What are we talking about?

Thomas: Let me just say that this is actually true. One of my NYU projects was about the Nazis — Vince acted in my NYU short. I have the tape somewhere where he was the only person who didn’t drink the water supply and was the only one who had enough sperm to populate the town. And he was the milk man and he would go around visiting people.

So, I’ll have to put this tape online.

Craig: He was the milk man?

Thomas: He was the milk man.

Craig: When did you go to college?

Thomas: This was the ë80s.

Craig: What century was that?

Megan: Was that a double entendre?

Thomas: Yes. I have memories of milkmen in my life.

Megan: Just wanted to make sure.

Matt: I mean, all sperm is pretty much comedy gold, as is masturbating. You know, all that stuff is pretty funny. But like isn’t there already a comedy version of that called Children of Men? That was pretty funny, right?

Megan: I think about Children of Men all the time. And I also think about the suicide kids in Children of Men, which were very funny to me. Just watch that movie and laugh. You should all go watch it again. It’s very funny.

John: Hi-larious.

Craig: I think that all of these infertile people is kind of sad. I don’t think it’s funny.

Megan: No, I think it’s what Tom is saying is only like the stupidest guys, like Donald Trump, Jr. types, have the sperm count, and then they have to repopulate the world.

Craig: That’s getting funnier.

John: We’re getting closer to Idiocracy there. That sense of like —

Matt: Idiocracy not funny anymore.

John: No.

Matt: Children of Men, super funny.

Megan: It’s a great time.

John: Let’s go out on a risky one. OJ Simpson will be paroled soon. How is that funny? Go. OJ Simpson himself or a person in his situation, who was in jail for a long time who is now released.

Thomas: If he tripped and fell into an industrial-sized juicer and was just ground up into juice.

Craig: It’s ironic.

Matt: Well, what’s weird is now thanks to people like Megan, everyone is a professional comedy writer in the great egalitarian world of Twitter.

Craig: What the fuck?

Megan: I deserve that.

Craig: No you don’t.

Megan: This is our dynamic.

Matt: What, I called her a people, that’s what she is, right?

Craig: Is there anyone left in this room you will not abuse?

Matt: No. I mean, what’s weird is like The Simpsons will try to do takes on modern — we’ll kill our animators to do some like Donald Trump in the news Simpsons-y thing. Comes out like six days after the dumb thing happened and it’s already been done 50-hundred times the day of.

Craig: Right. There’s no more topical humor that’s possible.

Matt: So all the OJ-ish stuff, everyone in the world is like amateurishly and professionally writing goofy like OJ Does Find the Real Killer. Right? He’s innocent. He found him. Or her. That’s a take, guys.

Megan: Nothing is funny —

Craig: Well, we’re trying to not do the bad idea. Like, yes, there could be something in that.

John: Yes. Or —

Craig: See how useful it is? It is poetry, Megan.

Matt: I deserve to be “No, or.”

Craig: No. Or…

John: Another way to approach that would be to look at sort of like what’s changed in the time that he’s been in jail. And so he comes out into a world in which things are just different.

Megan: He never saw Avatar. He gets out and he’s just like, wow, the effects. Gorgeous. [laughs] And then you just watch all of Avatar.

John: Yeah. He’s just sitting at home in his 3D glasses.

Craig: That’s the best way to rewatch Avatar is to watch OJ Simpson watching Avatar.

Megan: This is the movie. He gets out. You get ten minutes. He gets home. Cracks his knuckles. He’s like what’s on TV? It’s Avatar. And then you just watch the four-hour cut of Avatar.

Matt: No, but it’s like when you’re a parent you can’t enjoy things, but you can enjoy seeing your kids enjoy things for the first time.

John: Totally.

Craig: Right.

Matt: So we would just take OJ around and show him new stuff. Like does he know that Caesar salads have chicken now? He probably does.

Craig: Makes me feel so young again, to bring OJ to these things.

Megan: I bet Brentwood has really changed. There’s like a Yogurt Land there.

Craig: Right.

John: It’s like you drive by the house, it’s like, wow, the house has a whole new number. They repainted the house. Isn’t that so crazy. It’s so weird. I was just here and now it’s changed.

Megan: He can watch the OJ show.

John: That’s got to be weird.

Matt: Watch OJ watching the OJ show. Swimming pools are controlled by apps now? Check it out, OJ. West side humor.

John: All right, we’re going to try one other brand new segment. All right, so on a recent of Scriptnotes, there was a listener question about is it OK to use an actor’s name in a character description. So the thing was an Aubrey Plaza type. And Craig is it OK to say an Aubrey Plaza type?

Craig: I don’t think it is OK.

John: I think it’s wrong to say an Aubrey Plaza type, because that’s unfair to Aubrey Plaza. You know Aubrey Plaza.

Megan: Yeah. She would hate that. No, I don’t know.

Craig: But an Aubrey Plaza type would hate it. I mean, the problem with the Aubrey Plaza type is that you should just write a part that Aubrey Plaza would want to play if you want to write an Aubrey Plaza type.

John: Absolutely. So I thought let’s not just have it be a piece of advice. Let’s make a game out of it. So this is a game we’re going to play called An Aubrey Plaza Type. So this all modeled on a show called The $25,000 Pyramid. Show of hands, who has seen Pyramid? Who knows how Pyramid works? Oh, that’s more than I would have guessed. So, on $25,000 Pyramid they would have these celebrities and these normal people who are partnered together —

Craig: Normal people.

John: Normal people.

Matt: Normal people?

John: We would have these great Americans and these terrible celebrities paired together and they would have to get the other person to name this list of words. And so in this case this is going to be a list of famous people. And so we’re going to do sort of the thing where you’re trying to get someone to think Aubrey Plaza without saying Aubrey Plaza. This is going to make more sense if Craig and I just try this. So let’s just try this.

Craig: Oh man, all right.

John: Oh man. So here’s what it’s going to be. Craig, you stand there.

Craig: I can do that.

John: And I’m going to stand here. And we’re going to put a name up on the board and I’m going to have make you think of who I’m going to describe.

Craig: Using screenplay description?

John: Only screenplay description. So something you would see after the character’s name. So you can say an age, you can say male or female, because obviously the name would have it.

Craig: Hot but doesn’t know it.

John: Hot but doesn’t know it. It’s OK to give the character a name if it suggests something about the character that’s helpful. Craig would like you to not use a character’s race.

Craig: Yeah, no race.

John: No race.

Craig: And I kind of almost want no gender, but it’s hard because pronouns will get in there. What about age? Should we allow age?

John: Oh yeah, age is fine?

Craig: And can you say Interior or Exterior, please? I’d like to know where they are.

John: Yeah, if you really want to you could do that.

Craig: Yeah.

John: OK. Let’s give this a shot.

Craig: I worked really hard at putting this all together, John.

John: Yeah, so let’s give this a shot. So let’s do our first demo here. So, Craig has no idea what’s on the board.

Craig: That’s right. Interior?

John: I’m not giving that. I’m just giving you sort of what’s in the parenthetical afterwards. 40s, glasses, a woman, tired of all your librarian stereotypes. Smarter than everyone else around her. But too kind to point it out. She’s surrounded by dummies.

So, see here’s the problem. Craig doesn’t watch anything, so I’m really at a disadvantage here.

Craig: Keep going.

John: Let’s see.

Craig: Is this INT. Library?

John: No, let’s say INT. Newsroom.

Craig: OK.

John: INT. Newsroom. Amanda —

Craig: Peet?

John: No. But you’re on the right track. Amanda Jenkins, glasses, tied of the librarian stereotypes.

Craig: Right, doesn’t like them.

John: You’re not going to get this one. So there’s also the option of pass. You can say pass.

Craig: Pass.

John: So, now you try and do one for me and see how this goes.

Craig: Great. OK, she’s a woman, 40. No.

John: The answer to that one was Tina Fey, by the way, for people at home. That’s going to be confusing to people. What would you have said? How would you have gotten him to say Tina Fey?

Megan: That was great. Like a wry smile.

Craig: Oh, a wry smile would have helped me.

Megan: She’s the only person who wears glasses. How did you not get that?

Craig: I was going to say, that’s just a piece of wardrobe we can put on anyone. All right, John, EXT. FIELD. DAY. Spaceship. Pursuing a man. 40s. Very athletic for his age. Running hard. Spaceship shooting lasers at him. He dodges left and right. Incredible. And just before they get him, he turns around, fires, blows up the spaceship and he’s like, “Whoa.”

John: That would be Will Smith.

Craig: Yes. That’s how you do it. We would have also accepted Tom Cruise.

John: Yes. So you’re going to see there’s some of these people who like you have two choices. Either one of those are acceptable. So, Craig was doing a little bit more scene work, which I think is awesome. I was thinking more just the inside of the parenthetical after.

Craig: EXT/INT. I’m all about it. Oh, you mean like a really long parenthetical. Like the name and then blah, blah, blah.

John: Yeah. Either one works. Whatever you guys want to do is fine because we’re done with this. Now it’s your turn to do this. So, what is your name?

Steven Fingleton: My name is Steven Fingleton.

John: Steven Fingleton, are you up for this?

Steven: I am well up for this.

John: All right, Steven Fingleton is well up for this. One crucial thing here is that Craig and I are going to be the judges if someone is cheating. You’re going to have 60 seconds on the clock to see how many you can get through. One might be great based on how we’re doing. Whoever gets the most is going to win a special prize. We’ll announce the special prize afterwards. Steven, would you rather give or receive? That’s how they say it on the show. Would you rather give clues or receive?

Matt: Now it needs the E for Explicit warning at the beginning.

Steven: I’m going to against my usual preferences and I’m going to give.

John: All right. Great. This is awesome.

Craig: I like this guy.

John: He’s a good guy.

Craig: He’s cool with who he is.

John: Ticker time, and on your mark, get set, go.

Steven: Exterior. Beach. Running. An Adonis of a man. Perfect.

Megan: Craig. David Craig.

Steven: He jumps into a sports car.

Megan: Michael Cera. Tom Cruise, he was already up there. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Craig: Keep going.

Steven: And he’s on his way to run for president because there’s nothing he can’t do. He looks impeccable in a tailor cut suit.

Megan: The Rock.

Craig: Nice.

Megan: Yes! Nice.

Steven: She’s an incredibly adorable, funny woman.

Megan: Emma Stone.

Steven: Who —

Megan: Me! OK, keep going.

Steven: Who does not fit the classical stereotypes of what a woman should look like —

Megan: Tilda Swinton.

Steven: And she’s totally cool with that.

John: We’re extending to two minutes just based on reality.

Megan: Like what age? What age are we talking about?

Steven: I would say 30s, 40s.

Megan: Claire Danes.

Steven: Very short. Absolutely not —

Megan: Oh, the woman from Poltergeist. Zelda Rubinstein.

Steven: Pass. Let’s pass.

Megan: Very short. Pass. Sorry.

Steven: OK. He’s a funny looking guy. The sort of guy who would play himself in a movie if he was an actor-type comedian.

Megan: Danny DeVito. Funny-looking guy.

Steven: And he’s always hanging with his group of friends —

Megan: Seth Rogan. Yes! OK.

Steven: Interior. Mall. Day.

Megan: Oh god.

Steven: A mall cop is looking for trouble.

Megan: Oh, Kevin James.

John: No, wrong Kevin.

Megan: Kevin Hart.

John: All right. We’ll give it to you. Yes. All right. Well done. Congratulations. Very good.

Craig: Thank you.

John: Thank you.

Craig: The woman from Poltergeist is the best possible answer.

Megan: The only short person.

Craig: She’s the greatest.

Megan: Yes, she was amazing.

Craig: She was amazing. Was. All right.

John: Can we help her with the one she missed. So I was going to say like a human cannonball. She’s —

Megan: This is a woman? A short woman?

Matt: Everyone is afraid to say a certain thing. I mean.

John: A heavyset woman.

Matt: I mean, we’re all friends. We’re everyone’s friends.

Megan: Melissa McCarthy.

John: Melissa McCarthy, yes.

Craig: I watched him sweat his way in avoidance. She knows she’s a bigger girl. She knows that. There’s no big deal with that.

Matt: Great personality. The best. Her personality is so good.

Craig: You’re a bad person.

John: So I counted three successful ones there. Is that correct, audience. You guys were keeping track. Three? Tom Schnauz, so he is going to guess. Tom is going to give. I’m going to put two minutes back on the clock.

Thomas: This is going to be horrible. OK.

John: And go.

Thomas: Very handsome super hero type.

Male Voice: Oh, I already saw this. Chris Evans, Chris Pine, or Chris Hemsworth.

Craig: How did you see this?

John: How did you see this?

Male Voice: It flashed up real quick.

John: All right. Skip. Go ahead. Reset.

Thomas: Older — can I say Quentin Tarantino type?

Craig: Sure.

Thomas: Older Quentin Tarantino type, very wise.

Male Voice: Hank Azaria.

Thomas: You don’t want to win this, do you?

Male Voice: They look kind of similar.

Craig: Hank Azaria in all of the none of Quentin Tarantino movies.

Male Voice: Samuel L. Jackson.

Craig: Yes!

Thomas: Older guitar-playing hippy, pot-smoking, laid back dude.

Male Voice: Willie Nelson?

Thomas: Actor type. Laid back dude. Dude.

Male Voice: Oh, Jeff Bridges.

Craig: There we go.

Thomas: Older action hero.

Male Voice: Michael Keaton.

Thomas: May be capable of doing his own stunts.

Male Voice: Jackie Chan. Your hints are too good.

Craig: But no one is saying Interior or Exterior.

Thomas: Interior, no, Exterior, Heaven.

Craig: Yes!

Thomas: God type. Actor. Very wise. Will do voiceover work.

Male Voice: Morgan Freeman.

Craig: Yes.

John: All right. One more.

Thomas: Deep voice. Sexy. Conqueror of planets. I don’t know — I’ve never seen his movies.

Craig: That’s clear.

Thomas: Pass. Journeyman actor type. I don’t know, super hero.

Craig: You’re not getting the Iron Man job.

Thomas: Just gave it away.

Male Voice: Downey.

Craig: Exterior. Robert Downey. I’m trying to spice this up.

Thomas: This is the longest two minutes of my life, by the way.

John: This is challenging. So I counted at least four solid ones there, including some skips. Well done, sir.

Male Voice: What was the skip?

John: We skipped over Vin Diesel. Thank you.

Craig: Now the fun begins, as America’s darkest writer faces off.

Matt: No, I’m not dark.

Craig: I’m not dark.

John: He’s not dark. Let’s see who gets partnered with our Simpson’s executive producer.

Matt: I have kids. I’m a good man.

John: Hello and welcome. What is your name?

Christie: My name is Christie.

John: Would you like to give or receive these clues?

Christie: I will give.

Craig: All right. I’ll take this.

Matt: This is going to be bad.

Craig: I’ll give this to you.

Matt: Hi, Matt. Nice to meet you.

Christie: I’m not a writer.

Matt: That’s all right. I’m barely one. I’m not either.

John: All right. And start.

Christie: OK.

Matt: Adam West.

Christie: Woman. Pretty. Older actress.

Matt: My wife. Meryl Streep. Glenn Close.

Christie: Drives a bus.

Matt: Sandra Bullock.

Christie: Yes. OK. Attractive man.

Matt: Me.

Christie: Yes, super hero, again.

Matt: Christopher Reeve, before the accident.

Christie: Funny superhero.

Matt: Funny Superhero. The Hulk guy? The guy who plays the Hulk?

Christie: No. Completely covered in a mask but still sounds good.

Matt: Man, I’m bad at this. Pass.

Christie: OK. We’ll pass. He will cut you. Makes great sequels.

Matt: The guy who plays Wolverine.

Craig: Yes!

Christie: Oh, she’s amazing. Perfect actress —

Craig: Let’s see if he could get it just from that.

Christie: Another superhero. Beautiful.

Matt: Ben Affleck.

Christie: Woman.

Matt: Oh, a woman.

Christie: Young. Blockbuster.

Matt: Gal Gadot.

Christie: Yes.

Matt: Israeli. Dismissive in that Israeli way.

Christie: OK. Trump impersonator. SNL.

John: I’m going to rule this out. This is actually just becoming celebrity.

Craig: This was always going to become celebrity. You know that, right?

John: So try to give a character description that will make you think about this person.

Craig: Like you’re writing a script.

Christie: OK, good-looking when he was younger, not so much now. Funny.

Matt: Say it again?

Christie: Good-looking when he was younger.

Craig: That’s accurate.

Matt: Michael Douglas.

John: Is that still accurate? True to the character.

Christie: Is still very active.

Matt: Robert Redford.

Christie: Good impersonations.

Craig: Your character does good impersonations.

Christie: Funny. He’s a funny guy.

John: And stop.

Matt: I fail.

John: Thank you so much.

Craig: Alec Baldwin.

Matt: Commanding. Commanding businessman.

John: How would we have gotten to that last one?

Matt: Most confident man in the room. I still wouldn’t have gotten it.

Craig: Alec Baldwin: Well, actually, I thought that you were on to something there. Because, you know, this was a guy who was once incredibly good-looking, but he’s older now and he’s settled into his frame. There’s a wit and a charm in his eyes.

Megan: Interior. His frame. Settled right in.

Craig: Already working. It’s what cousins get.

John: So there was supposed to be actually an educational point to this. It’s not easy to come up with these descriptions that in one sentence make you think of, oh, that actor, without saying that actor. Or to cite these other credits. But if you sort of search for it you can find like bearish would be good for Alec Baldwin, or sort of that most confident man in the room.

Matt: I believe, I’m dating myself. The pilot for the show Just Shoot Me had little character slugs, the beginning, and the one for the main lady was think Janeane Garofalo. You know, Laura San Giacomo, she took the money.

Craig: Just the last thing she was expecting on her drive to wherever she was going was to hear some guy take a shot at her over —

Matt: That’s not a shot.

Craig: She’s like listening to a podcast someone told her about. Hey Laura, check this out.

Matt: Here’s the only good piece of advice you’re ever going to get tonight. Take the money. Anyone ever gives you the opportunity, take the money as opposed to like the creative thing where you express yourself.

Craig: I don’t think these folks were not going to take the money.

Matt: The money. Always the money. I’ve had opportunities to take risks, and I always pick the money.

John: One show your entire career. Yeah. All right, we actually have some business to wrap up. We have to figure out who actually won that thing which we just did. I think our second person.

Matt: Second guy.

John: Second guy had the most.

Thomas: What did I win?

John: Oh yes, what did you win? You have a choice. You can have me and Craig read a script you’ve written, or you can get an automatic pass into the Three Page Challenge. So, afterwards find us, tell us which one you want. And we will give you either of those things.

Craig: Well wouldn’t the script one be better automatically because it’s all the pages.

John: It’s all the pages, but maybe he doesn’t have the whole script.

Craig: Oh, and maybe he stopped at three.

John: Yeah. Maybe it’s short.

Craig: I hope it’s that one.

John: But thank you to all three of our people for being brave enough to actually come up here. That’s awesome.

Craig: Thank you guys.

John: I think if we ever do this again, stronger judging. I think we need to buzz people on —

Craig: Well you can’t have me judge anything. I’m a child. You know that.

John: But like Taboo, where you press the little buzzers and it scares people. Oh yeah, you said those words. Yeah.

Thomas: Wait, after this you’re going to keep doing this game?

John: In hell we’re going to keep doing this game again and again.

Craig: There’s literally no chance.

Matt: I think it’s a great game. I think it would be good. You’re always doing projects, John. Why don’t you put together an app or a home version and Kickstart it.

Craig: There’s going to be a discussion about the game, obviously. There’ll be a post mortem over the game. I won’t be a part of it, obviously.

John: That is our show for this week. So, as always, we are so lucky to have a great listening audience, but to have them in front of us is an extra special treat and it’s so nice to be back and seeing your faces. And I recognize a lot of faces, too, which is crazy.

Craig: We should say who we are supporting, right?

John: So we’re here because of the Writers Guild Foundation, which does great work on behalf of writers, and not just writers who are currently in the guild, but writers who are aspiring to become —

Craig: Veterans.

John: Well, yes, it makes it sound like people who are aspiring to become veterans.

Craig: No, they are veterans now.

John: They are genuinely veterans. Or children. Programs for kids.

Craig: Oh great.

John: Yeah. They do all sorts of stuff. We help the organization. We don’t really know much about them. But we do know that Chris Kartje and the volunteers who helped put it together tonight are the best, so thank you so, so much as well.

We need to thank the people here at the Writers Guild Theater. This was a last minute substitution, so thank you guys so much for letting us be here. We want to thank our amazing guests. You guys are phenomenal.

Craig: Yes. Amram, Schnauz, and Selman. What a law firm.

John: Our show, as always, is being cut by Matthew Chilelli, but he’s cutting it from Japan. So he’s moved to Japan, but he’s like cutting it overseas now, which is awesome. So thank you for that. And our amazing intro came from John Spurney. So, standard things. If you have an outro, we have a whole bunch of Rajesh Naroth ones, which are fantastic, but we need more awesome outros. So, write us an outro and we’ll put it on the show.

Guys, you were fantastic. Thank you so much. Have a great night.

Craig: Thanks you guys.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 310: What’s in the WGA Deal — Transcript

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 12:23

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

Today on the podcast, we’ll be talking with one of the co-chairs of the WGA Negotiating Committee to learn what’s in the new deal and what work is left ahead. We’ll also be tackling some listener questions.

Craig: That sounds pretty good. I mean, I will say, not to give it away, but it’s Chris Keyser. That’s who is with us. Chris is not just the co-chair of the last WGA Negotiating Committee, the one that went through the whole big crazy thing. But he is also a former two-term president of the Writers Guild and you remember that show Party of Five?

John: He did that show Party of Five.

Craig: I think he made it. I think he created it.

John: With Amy Lippman, if I’m correct.

Craig: You’re allowed to talk.

Chris Keyser: Oh, I’m allowed. I didn’t know. I thought it was just you guys.

John: Welcome Chris Keyser.

Craig: Chris, would you shut up.

John: Chris Keyser, welcome to the program. Again. You actually called in on a previous episode a zillion years ago.

Chris: Oh yeah, I remember.

John: Yeah, you remember that. But your audio sounds better this time because you’re actually here in front of us. And Craig and I are in the same room for the first time in a year.

Craig: Wow.

Chris: It’s good to see both of you.

Craig: I know. It’s good to see you, too. We want to go through this whole thing because, look, we have a wide listenership. And to be honest with you, I think probably a large percentage of them are not directly dialed in to the sort of things that went on in the Writers Guild negotiations. But I think all of them, or a great majority of them, aspire to be. And we do have, of course, a lot of people that listen here in town, not only writers, but also a lot of executives and assistants and people. So we have people on both sides. And we like talking to both of them.

And this was a very complicated negotiation, not only from an issue point of view, but it was complicated procedurally, the way it went down. I think we should talk hopefully about everything. We can talk about what this deal was. What the problems were that were identified early on. How we went in there. As much as we can hear from you, we’d love to hear how it went. We obviously want to talk about what we got.

And then we want to talk about the future. Just a lot.

John: Absolutely. And to take a little burden off your shoulders, back in Episode 289 we did a full hour episode where we talked through the 101 of WGA negotiations.

Chris: I know. I read it. I read the transcript.

John: So you can assume our listenership has some sense of what the negotiation is like and that it’s two parties meeting in Glendale and they’re occasionally coming together.

Chris: You guys know what you’re talking about. You’ve been there.

John: We’ve both been there. But let’s talk about sort of what the issues were going in. And I thought we might start with sort of what the outcome was. So on May 2 there was the announcement that a deal had been reached. And there was a press release put out that said like these are the major deal points. And if you can just clarify a little bit sort of what they actually — what it means.

So, in it we made gains for minimums across the board, as well as a contribution to our health plan that should ensure solvency for years to come. So talk to us about the health plan, because that was sort of the spotlight issue six months ahead of going into this negotiation.

Chris: Right. The employee contribution percentage, it increases from 9.5% to 10.5% at the start of the agreement, and then goes up to 11% in the second year. And 11.5% in the third year.

Craig: That’s for health.

Chris: That’s for health. Right. Not pension. It’s specifically for health. Health is where our issues were most acute. Our pension plan is doing well. But the health plan is at risk, as all health plans are, in large part because health costs are rising at a faster rate than we’re actually making money back from we’re putting money in, either through earning money on our money, which you can only do a limited amount because you need that money to be available. You know, it’s not invested — the pension plan — more specifically the amount of — the percentage increase of employer contributions.

So this should help. This is a pretty large influx of money into the health plan. And based on all the projections, and we have projections done by our advisers constantly. They’re revising that. This should put us in good shape for a good long time. It’s hard to say exactly how long, because we’re at the mercy of–

Craig: The market.

Chris: The market, the inflation rate on healthcare. Although that has been going in the right direction at least.

Craig: So, people at home listening to this, the idea of this percentage is that we get paid a certain amount of money and then the companies take a percentage of that, over that amount, and send it to the plan. But that is only applied against the first, what is it, 250, is that still the number?

Chris: Yes. 250 — the only increase in caps is an increase in caps for writers who are on overall deals. 14E writers. And that went to 275 from 250 in that they make.

John: I love how Craig tried to make things simpler and then just like more jargon got spat out here.

Craig: Well, you won’t jargon us. But, listen, we’re the wonks, man.

Chris: Look, the real important thing to remember. First of all, yes, they fringed that. But they only fringed minimum, remember. And so it gets awfully complicated. So if you’re a television writer who is making a certain amount of money per week, some of that is applied to your writing services. That is your minimum. And they fringe only that. It is a little bit of a fiction. That’s one of the reasons why–

Craig: For television writers.

Chris: For television writers.

Craig: For us, it’s not. Yeah, for feature writers it’s not.

Chris: And that’s, in fact, one of the reasons why we’ve been talking about increasing minimums because — and outside increase in minimums when we went in, the thing that didn’t end up happening, in order to essentially balance the burden a little bit.

Craig: John, explain to everybody what the hell we’re talking about.

Chris: Sorry.

Craig: No, it’s good. We can have this conversation and then he’s going to tell people what we said.

John: So there’s a whole meme out there of explain it like I’m five, which is like really simplification. I’m going to try to explain it like you’re an 11th grader. The basic kind of things —

Chris: If I’m an 11th grader, I don’t care.

John: You don’t care. It all sucks anyway. Who even cares?

Chris: Rolling my eyes.

John: So let’s say you are a writer working in features, for example. You are hired by Sony Pictures to adapt a project. You come in and you write your screenplay. If they are paying you $100,000, a little extra money on top of that, which is called fringe, is being used to pay for your pension and your health. And so that is money on top of what you’re being paid, which is sent to the Writers Guild for these funds. You pension fund and for your health fun. That is what keeps the fund solvent. It keeps the money in there so we can actually pay for people’s health insurance.

The issue was that the overall fund was being depleted, or the fund wasn’t as strong as it needed to be, so we needed to make sure —

Chris: We had enough money to cover our costs, but the projections in the future were that the increasing health costs each year would diminish how much we had in reserve until we went to a point —

Craig: Belly up.

Chris: Where we had too few months in reserve.

John: Yeah. So when we talk about the cap, there’s a certain top limit to how much you’re being paid by one employer which they don’t have to keep paying the fringes on top of those things. And so that cap was at $250,000. And so making sure that they don’t have to keep paying beyond that point, but we want to make sure that we keep getting paid.

Craig: Yeah. You get paid $2 million, they don’t have to pay an additional 10.5 or 11% on all $2 million, just up to the $250,000 and then it stops.

John: And the other crucial point that was discussed there is that television writers are paid both for their writing services and for their producing services, but only the writing services kick those fringe monies in. And so a writer who is being paid a good amount on a TV show may still only be getting paid a minimum for the scripts he or she is writing. Is that fair to say?

Chris: No, it’s not about scripts. It’s about weekly salaries. So that your writing services are the minimum that we negotiate. So, in other words, the minimum if you were working for a normal year up until this contract was around $6,500 a week. You could earn more than that. That would be your above scale income. It was applied to your producing services. But $6,500 a week is the amount of money that fringe was calculated based upon.

Craig: That’s an important concept for people to understand. So much of what this negotiation was about and the reason why the Writers Guild was rattling its sword, its collective sword so loudly, is because in television there is two ways to pay people. And what the companies understood inherently was that one way cost them more than another, because of these fringes. It’s not like saying, “Look, I’m going to pay you $100. And I’m going to pay you $20 because I like your shirt and $80 because I like your pants.”

No. Because when you pay somebody as a writer you also have to then pay on top of it, this health fringe and this pension fringe. That costs them more money. So it’s in their best interest to pay the television writers as little as possible as writers and then all the rest, whatever the writers can negotiate for themselves, as producers. Because you don’t have to fringe the producing money.

In features, this is not a problem because they don’t want us to be producers of the movies. See, their desire to keep screenwriters out of the process of feature-making is so strong, they’re OK with paying us more for pension and health. This causes some strange inequities between feature writers and television writers, which we’ll talk about in a bit. But in television, so much of what this was about was handling this problem. That writers who are making a lot, or sometimes not that much, but more than the minimum were only putting into the system the minimum amount of health and pension. And qualifying to receive health. And so we were getting squeezed. It’s a tricky problem and I think you guys came up with a good solution. So.

Chris: I’ll say a couple other things about that. One is the money that was put into the health fund is necessary, but it is in some sense our own money, because it came out of minimums. In other words, although we’re not guaranteed a minimum increase contract by contract. Our minimums have been over the last couple of contracts in and around 3%. And, in fact, had we had no health fund increase, I think you might have assumed that we would have gotten a 3% bump in our minimums.

Instead, as I think you can tell, we took money out of the minimums and transferred them — instead of you getting a bump in your minimum salary, you get that money applied to your health fund. Now, that’s a good thing, by the way, because on the one hand not everyone receives the benefit of minimum increases. Because if for example I make $10,000 a week as a television writer, if the minimum goes from $6,500 to $6,800, I don’t see an additional penny, and the companies aren’t spending anything. But everybody has fringe on top of his or her salary. So they’re actually contributing more by contributing into the health fund then contributing into minimums.

But a lot of that is coming out of our own pockets. And part of the argument that was going back and forth is should they be actually paying some fresh new money. We didn’t end up getting that, but we did get a fair amount of money out of minimums into the health fund, and so that was on balance a good thing. But as in all things with these negotiations, it’s a compromise.

Craig: It’s great that you actually mention that, because I think a lot of people who follow along get a narrative that is remarkably boiled down. And reduced to very simple things. And when you are — and John knows this and I know this — when you’re on a negotiating committee or you’re on the board and you’re getting reports on it, it’s not just that the devil is in the details. The devil is the details. It’s all details. There is nothing but details. And everything that can go right or wrong happens in the details. We saw it coming out of the 2007 strike. There was a detail problem. And it was a disaster for us.

So, it’s great that you have the command of those details and we need people like you, particularly writers like you. I love staff, but we need writers who understand it. You do have–

John: A law degree from Harvard Law.

Craig: Harvard, right? Or business, MBA?

Chris: No, it’s a law degree from Harvard.

Craig: Yeah, I guess that’s better than a business degree.

Chris: I’m not going to get into that.

Craig: But you went to Haverford or Harvard?

Chris: I went to Harvard.

John: He went to school in Boston.

Craig: I love making that joke. That’s my favorite joke. I do that to David Kwong all the time. I’m like, oh, did you like Haverford? How was Haverford? I’m sorry–

Chris: I had a friend and somebody from her hometown saying Harvey University. She called him a Harvey Man.

John: He had a giant invisible rabbit who followed him around.

Chris: Yeah, we are very concerned with the details. Chip Johannessen who is — Billy Ray and Chip Johannessen were my co-chairs. And Chip is fantastic on the details. He understands it really well. And the writers in the room and the staff are extremely detail-oriented. And, look, we try, I think, as much as possible. One the one hand, to make writers understand what the gains are, but also to be pretty honest about the fact that these negotiations are always both successes and disappointments. And even though this one was talked about as bring ground-breaking in a number of ways, it’s also a disappointment. And we can talk about those things.

Craig: Well, I mean, they pretty much usually are. I think the only way to get to yes is if both sides walk away a bit disappointed.

Chris: That’s right. But, let’s be honest, in a world in which the money and the business is expanding exponentially and these have been incredible years for the companies, and our contract is valued at somewhat either $100 million over three years or some small multiple of that. We’re always falling a little bit behind as the years go on. So, there’s always a little bit of that frustration that we can’t keep up.

Craig: Granted, they would like to pay us nothing. So they–

Chris: Absolutely.

Craig: So they feel like they keep falling behind by not reducing us to nothing.

Chris: You know, and when you’re in the room and you know this, that’s a genuine feeling on their part.

Craig: 100%.

Chris: Because that’s the world they live in. They don’t step outside of it and like let’s be fair.

Chris: No question. I mean, like we joke about it, but if they could replace us with machinery, they would.

Chris: And the reason why, by the way, that we do reasonably well in an era where labor unions are not is because we’re not replaceable. We’re not fungible.

Craig: That’s right.

Chris: So, that gives us some power.

Craig: Some.

John: Let’s go back to the press release and talk about this next gain. And so it says, “We made unprecedented gains on the issue of short seasons in television, winning a definition, which has never existed before in our MBA, of 2.4 weeks of work for each episodic fee. Any work beyond that span will now require additional payment for hundreds of writer-producers.”

Talk me through the 2.4 weeks. What is all those?

Chris: I’ll go way back to the beginning, although anyone who has been part of the negotiation knows about this. This was maybe the central issue that we were facing when we talked to writers over the last few years, which is the change in the way in which television was being produced, from the traditional long season model, 22, 24 episodes on network television to a time that now which two-thirds of all shows are produced in shorter seasons, 8, or 10, or 12 episodes.

It was giving writers unprecedented creative opportunities but also presenting some real economic challenges. So here’s the reason why. In the old days, if you had a deal, you were on a television show that made 22 episodes, because the season was more or less set, there was a calendar. You know, you went to upfronts at the end of May. They made the decision what shows were being picked up. In June everyone went into a writing room and started writing. You needed to get your shows on the air by September, approximately. And by May those shows were done being aired. You were probably done writing sometime in April or so and then the whole thing started again with new pilots.

Well, that meant that you were working for 22 episodes, approximately 44 weeks. That’s not exact but more or less 44 weeks. And it couldn’t vary very much because you couldn’t start before the shows were picked up and you couldn’t end after the shows were done airing. That was a kind of protection because it meant that if your agent negotiated for you an episodic fee, and by the way, our fees were not always negotiated as episodic fees. They used to be weekly fees, but that was changed to episodic fees in an era in which by definition episodic fee meant two weeks.

If your agent negotiated an episodic fee, it meant that was being divided over two weeks of work. And so in those days whatever salary you were making, not necessarily whatever salary — that probably goes too far — but if you made a reasonable salary it was divided by two weeks and you did fine. You had 22 episodic fees a year. That’s awfully good.

Now, what happens if you only have episodic fees? And what happens if as if often the case, now there is no set calendar and so a studio asks you to spend a lot of months before the show is in production writing all the scripts before they’re ready.

Craig: You may spend the same amount of time you were spending getting 22 episodic fees, but you’re only get eight.

Chris: Exactly. So, your eight episode fees are now amortized over the same number of weeks. Which meant that what we were finding was that although our Writers Guild minimums were increasing, so that when we recorded Writers Guild earnings, which could only be done over minimums, our earnings were going up. In fact, once we asked writers to respond to a survey that said what’s your actual income, what’s your above-scale income–

Craig: Including producing.

Chris: Including producing fees. We found that writers were being diminished more or less toward minimum. In other words, what the studios were able to do was say let’s take — particularly for mid-level writers. What’s your salary, your episodic salary? Divide that by more or less by the minimum guarantee. That’s the number of weeks you work per episode. So if you made $19,000, you divided that by three and which was around $6,500 in 1995, that’s what you worked. And so writers were being driven down back toward minimum and that was really a problem because first of all there were only eight fees. They couldn’t take second shows, both because of options and exclusivity restrictions, and because schedules often didn’t permit it because they were working all year long. Writers’ salaries were plummeting. We needed to do something about that.

So the question was could we limit the number of weeks over which an episodic fee could be charged. That hadn’t been contemplated in the MBA. And the compromise we ended up with was 2.4 weeks. And so your episodic fee can now only be amortized over 2.4 weeks. So, if you have ten episodes, your contract for ten episodic fees can employ you for 24 weeks. If you work more than 24 weeks, every additional 2.4 weeks–

Craig: They got to pay you.

Chris: You’ve got to get paid another episodic fee. There are restrictions. We should talk about that. The restrictions matter a lot. In fact, if there’s anything I really want to talk about it’s why we failed in some ways to do everything we should have done and where that leaves the burden from here on out.

Craig: Well, we’ll get to those restrictions. But I want to talk about a couple things that I really liked about this. Aside from the obvious, which is that people are getting paid more. First, the suppression of television writer salaries down towards the minimum had this other dragon’s tail effect on our health plan.

Our health plan works in such a way that people qualify for a year of health care if they hit a qualifying number of income. And I think that’s something like $39,000 in a year. However, the actual cost of providing healthcare to any individual on the health plan on average is closer to like $100,000 a year, or something like that. So, how does that work? In part it works because a lot of people are making much more than the qualifying income, and so they are essentially helping offset the health costs of people who are making right at that minimum amount.

The more we had writers earning down toward that minimum and still qualifying for healthcare, the more strain on the system.

Chris: OK, so I hate to disagree with you.

Craig: All right. Let’s hear it.

John: I love when someone disagrees with Craig. I live for this.

Craig: Because you know where I’m going with this.

Chris: It sounds so good, but the problem is you only get paid for your healthcare on your minimum. So, in fact, not a single penny in the healthcare plan is lost by writers being reduced toward minimum.

Craig: Oh, in television. So that only works that way in features.

Chris: That’s right. So nothing is lost. Now, the truth is, one thing that might end up happening is writers will actually end up working more weeks because they’ll be employed for 24 weeks in a ten-episode order, and either they’ll be employed more or people — the show will say you’re gone. Now you can go off and get a second show. And if writers get employed more, it will help us. But week by week, we didn’t succeed in helping the health plan that way. It’s the reason why, by the way, one of the things that we had going in and we talked about this in the outreach meetings was the idea that we wanted to have a meaningful bump in minimums. Outsized as the companies would say bump in minimums.

I mean, one of the reasons why that was going to be good is exactly what you were talking about. So we actually didn’t succeed in getting that. Was one of the things that we left on the table.

Craig: OK, so that’s a fair and accurate correction. Interestingly, the thing that you look at as a failure I look at as a great success. As you know, we had discussions. I’m a vocal constituent. I never thought for a second that we were ever going to somehow break the pattern that was established of what the minimums increases actually were. But, what I thought was brilliant and creative and smart was the way that you guys said, OK, the minimums will increase as they have. We’re going to get them more frequently. That’s brilliant. And that is exactly the kind of thinking that we need and the kind of decision-making we need.

And, listen, we can disagree or agree on the probability of how pattern bargaining works in this town. But, regardless, I was really happy to see that we found this brilliant relief valve that allowed everybody to save face and got us — at least it was a sufficient amount. Right? We got a sufficient amount. It wasn’t great. But it was sufficient. So I thought that was wonderful.

John: Chris, can you talk through the practical ramifications of this 2.4 week clause? So, if I’m on the show and so it’s ten episodes, so that should be 24 weeks of employment, it goes into week 25, what actually happens? Is my agent submitting a bill saying like, hey, you’re employing him for another week, so therefore he needs to be paid another minimum? How does that actually kick in?

Chris: Well, it kicks in automatically. Yes, I suppose your agent can submit a bill, but the studios actually know that. It’s the same as how do they know when your next fee is due. It’s built into the schedule.

John: Because they’re cutting checks that has to happen.

Chris: That’s right. But each week would be one episode of a fee divided by 2.4. In other words, if you only work one extra week–

Craig: They don’t prorate it?

Chris: Yeah, they prorate it. So as many weeks as they need you for, they just pay you–

Craig: Can they prorate it by the day?

Chris: There is language about how to do that. I don’t remember exactly what it is. But as I said, one of the things that goes on now in negotiations is we don’t leave those rooms within a day of leaving the room where everything isn’t memorialized. So, nothing is left to chance anymore.

Craig: Thank you.

John: Good. So question, so you’re also a showrunner. You have a show on Amazon called The Last Tycoon, and we had Billy Ray sitting right where you’re sitting a year ago talking through that. So as you’re doing something like The Last Tycoon, you have to make decisions about which writers you’re going to keep on past a certain point. Which writers you’re going to keep on for the equivalent of the week 25. So that is a decision you’re making along with the studio and the other sort of money crunchers to figure out who you can keep going.

I guess what’s different now under this deal is you can’t just hold on to people because you kind of want to hold on to them. There’s really a cost to holding on to them.

Chris: That’s right. That’s a really good thing, I think. Yeah. I mean, first of all, as a showrunner, it’s my feeling, and certainly on our show, too little of our budget is spent on writing. You know, that arbitrary number that they claim is the writer budget is about 2% of the cost of the show. That’s really low. It could be higher than that.

It seems to me that one of the problems we’ve been having is companies are willing to spend on things and not on people. So, your VFX budget can go through the roof and you get extra days of production. They do all kinds of things. We build incredible sets. But if somebody says it would be good to have our writers paid reasonably for the number of weeks they’re there, that’s an impossibility.

Craig: It’s hard for them. They can’t quantify what we do. So they know, when the VFX guy says I need more money, it’s because I need this many more shots. And the people building the sets need that much more lumber and hours to construct things. And the costume people need glitter. And bangles. And cloth.

When they pay a writer, sometimes nothing seems to happen. Sometimes things get worse. It’s part of the nature of creativity. It’s not our fault. It’s how it works. And it’s very hard for them to wrap their minds around it. It’s not an excuse. It’s just something that I think — I always think that if we understand how they fail in their thinking, sometimes it might help us get what we want.

Chris: Right. And I think one of the things they’ve come to think about writers — and this is not good for writers in the way they develop as writers on television. And, Craig, you and I have certainly been in meetings in the committee on the professional status of writers where we talk about the same issue in features. Which is that the assumption now is that the showrunner, or the showrunner plus one other person will take care of everything.

Craig: That’s right.

Chris: Everyone else is actually fungible. We can take them or leave them. They can leave whenever they want. They can submit any script to you they want. Eventually you’ll make it right. You’ll take as many weeks as it takes to make it right and they’ll be fine. So they don’t worry about those things.

Craig: Well, it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because the more you treat staff writers as fungible, or the more you treat say the first writer on a feature as fungible, because we’re going to hire somebody for scale or scale and a half and then work them to death and then get a script out of them, the harder it is to train people. This is a business that requires training. There are a few writers who are sort of born as they are and they occupy their own space and that’s fine. But the vast majority of writers working in film and television learn and grow through experience. And when they don’t get it, because they are treated as fungible and discardable, you’re there to basically put some stuff on a page so that the showrunner can rewrite it or the A-list feature writer can rewrite it.

Then that base of writers is depleted. And then that’s all you’re going to get, because that’s all that’s there. If you treat them like crap, they will become crap.

Chris: Right. I think that is a real problem in features. It can be a problem in television. I don’t want to speak for everybody. My feeling about this, when Amy and I — Amy Lippman and I were doing our shows — and Billy and I do the same thing, is that we do as much as we can to make sure as much of the writer’s material stays. Or, I mean, obviously the obligation in the end is to produce something that is as good as it can possibly be. But we also, with all due respect to Damon on your show, send our writers to set. Send our writers to the editing room.

Our feeling is their first job is obviously to help us make sure the show is as good as it can be. But our second job is to prepare them to run shows. That it is a both a job and an apprenticeship. And no one else is going to teach them that. So, one of the issues I have, and you probably don’t want to talk about this now, one of the fears I have about all of this, about the way the world is working is that when you divorce the television show from the calendar, when you can write before you shoot, you diminish the writer’s ability to be part of all the different aspects of production.

John: That’s exactly what I wanted to get to. So if a season is written before it is shot, and in many cases a season is written before it’s even green lit. We have friends who have written whole seasons and then like, OK, now we’ve got the green light. Now we go off and shoot it. It ends up being the showrunner plus one other person who is the only person left around to sort of do that stuff. So your case of like a writer being on set or a writer being there in the editing room, that person is well beyond their 24 weeks or however long it’s supposed to be.

Chris: Right. And that’s a real problem. So for example, on The Last Tycoon, Billy and I said we want our writers to be employed through the end of production on their episode. We couldn’t get everyone employed straight through the end of all production, as used to be the case. But everyone stay for his or her episode. And if we could, even for a week or so of postproduction. And showrunners have an effect on that. And talk to Shawn Ryan about it. He takes care of his writers. And you see how somebody ought to behave.

It’s a problem. It’s a real problem. By the way, even shows that aren’t completely finished writing beforehand, they’re somewhat finished writing, and if writers have a 24-week span and you’re only partially through the production season then those writers go.

Now, having said that, it is not our job as the Guild to — we can’t tell people how long they need to hire writers except based on the number of episodes. So, what we need to make sure is that — and we try to make sure — is that when you’re working you are being paid a reasonable fee. Then you are free to go out and get another job. It is possible that one of the effects of this new proposal will be that writers will actually work fewer weeks on their shows because — they’ll make the same amount of money, but instead of working 30 weeks or 32 weeks for one show, we hope they’re working for multiple shows. And that is OK, I think.

Look, we’re going through a change, a real change, and there are real stresses on writers because of it. The idea — and I know lots of young television writers because we hire them — the idea that you need to find a job twice a year as opposed to once a year, and that often finding a job twice a year means that your connection to your original show, even if the show is successful, is attenuated. That’s full of uncertainty. It’s not a great position to be in. But that is — we’re not in control of the way the business changes.

Craig: Right.

John: But who is responsible for getting you your next job is often your agents. And weirdly they’re not part of this real discussion in terms of the negotiation between us and the AMPTP. Like they’re the ones who are ultimately going to be responsible for getting that person the next gig, and yet they weren’t in that room for this. So, was there outreach before this all started in terms of what the agencies are finding or what the agencies are experiencing with their writers and short seasons?

Chris: Well, the agency question is a very complicated one and we could probably have a whole separate hour–

Craig: Good, just jump on the third rail. Hug it. Hug it and lick it.

Chris: Wait, wait, I’m shaking. The agents are going to have a lot of responsibility coming off of this contract. The good thing for them is that we’ve made it plain now what writers are paid for. And so we will be able to see whether agents are doing the job they need to do to make sure that writers get the extra weeks of work or get onto another show.

Before, I think agents were — and you can talk about whether this was the agency’s fault or not — they were part of this general trend to saying, “You’ve got accept a deal that says you’re working essentially toward minimum. Take it or leave it. We’ll hire a different writer if you don’t say yes.”

Craig: Absolutely. Well, agents in general are defined by their laziness. I say this to my own agent all the time, and I love him. But if there’s something — they have this many clients and this much time. If there’s a way that they can make money and it’s less effort for them, then they’ll follow that, even if it means maybe they make a little bit less than they might have otherwise.

So, if they hear like, look, I get you on a show and then I don’t hear from you for a year. I did my job. I got you a job. So now they have to work a little harder. But I actually think that they will enjoy it more. The thing about agents sort of paradoxically is that on the one hand they’re lazy. On the other hand, they get excited when there’s a chase. It’s just the maintenance part that I think they hate so much. Like someone calls them halfway through the year and goes, “I’ve been on this show for 14 weeks. I’ve been paid about what I would normally get paid for three weeks. This stinks. Can you do something about it?”

“No. And this conversation is boring and I don’t like you.” That’s kind of what’s in their heard. As opposed to, OK, I’m coming off. What do we got? Where do we go? How do we get a job? Now it’s a hunt. And I think that’s more fun for them.

Chris: Right. Well, I hope we get to the point of the list of all the things that writers and agents need to pay attention to from this point on. Because it changes now once this new contract goes into effect.

But before we do that we have to talk about the other limitations on this new proposal.

John: Tell us.

Chris: The other limitations are first that it applies only to people writing on shows that are 12 episodes or fewer on broadcast, or 14 episodes or fewer on cable.

John: Cable and streaming? Or just cable?

Chris: Cable and streaming. And non-network/broadcast network. So here’s a little inside of like how things work in negotiations which is the AMPTP is not a united front. They don’t all have the same point of view. They are different companies with different business profiles. And so for example the 12-episode limitation on broadcast was a limitation that was very important to the constituents of the AMPTP who principally do or still largely do old-fashioned network shows. Who said, well wait, 13 episodes? That’s the kind of order we used to have when you start a show. You only get 13 episodes. You get your nine and your back half if the show is doing well. We don’t want to be restricted — we’re going to solve your new problems. We’re not going to solve an old problem of yours.

Now, we talked to them about the fact why that didn’t really make sense. That in fact when you do your 13-episode first part of your order you’re not actually attenuating writer’s services because you’re always anticipating the possibility of the back nine.

Craig: Correct. Actually, I mean, you call it a restriction. It’s sort of an easy restriction to give up because it doesn’t really — it seems mostly overcautious on their part. The point is not to spread those 13 weeks. That’s not how they work. So actually that’s not that bad.

Chris: I know. But nevertheless, it was a hobbyhorse of theirs and one thing that you find that’s tough about these things is they really do tend to be more open to solving new problems than old problems. So they said, “Well if that was a problem on 13 episodes, you never told us before. We’re not going to solve it now.” It wasn’t, of course, a problem on 13 episodes.

So, that’s the first restriction. And the second restriction is that it only applies to people who earn $350,000 or less in a season, excluding script fees. So that’s only episodic fees. That means that many showrunners or even co-executive producers will not be taken care of in this. The sort of thing by the way I should say goes into effect May 1 of 2018. So a contract that was signed beforehand does not include that. And for example I know a writer who was applying for jobs once our show went down and one of the studios who was looking to hire her said, “We want you to sign a two-year deal.” Because they’re looking to lock people up under the old terms for as long as possible.

Craig: This doesn’t start until May 1, 2018?

Chris: It can’t. Because the — you know, people are mid-contract. So it’s got to be new contract, as is often the case.

Craig: I mean, I don’t recall an MBA term that was that delayed before.

Chris: Yes, it’s not uncommon. The minimums will go up immediately, but certain things that are — for example, our options and exclusivity —

Craig: There was a lag on.

Chris: There’s always a lag on it because you’re not going back to old contracts or in the middle of saying we’re changing them. This is a way of saying anything past this date.

So, you may want to ask questions or I’m going to dive right into what this means.

John: Tell me what it means.

Chris: OK. What it means is that we negotiated as much as we could and we got as much as we could out of the companies. And a lot of this was really meaningful. The limitations are really meaningful as you talked about, Craig. And the 350 number on eight or 10-episode orders for a lot of writers is really meaningful.

We know, for example, how much that would have made writers in additional money had it applied to last year. Though there’s no guarantee that that will be true. And we know that it could be substantial. But there was a limit to what we could do. And they were limiting their liability and the $350,000 yearly cap and the episodic cap is a way of doing that.

What it means is that writers and their agents need to be vigilant about this and be able to say, particularly agents, say to companies, “You hired a client of mine as a co-producer and you guaranteed him or her an episodic fee that only amortized over 2.4 weeks. I’m not going to sign a deal for my supervising producer that brings them down to minimum.” That using this begins to change the way people think about the way writers should be paid.

I mean, I had a conversation with somebody at Netflix who said it’s actually changing the way we’re thinking about paying writers because you’ve done this.

Now, there’s no guarantee of that. And there’s no question that studios are going to push back on it. But there’s no way that this is going to work for everybody unless agents begin to use the leverage of their lower rung on the hiring ladder clients as pressure for those above.

I mean, I know as showrunners, and particularly showrunners on shows, many of them are extended many, many weeks beyond their 2.4, into the point where their salaries are getting closer and closer to minimum. The negotiations are going to have to be tougher on those things. And we’ll go back to it again. You know, we’ll go back to it again in three years if the evidence is that people are still being taken advantage of.

John: Can I restate this in a way that I think may make it more clear for certain people? So what you’re saying is that this negotiation, we’ll just talk about the 2.4 weeks, these are things that are going to apply to lower level writers.

Chris: Not just lower. $35,000 and episode for a ten-episode order is a good–

Craig: We’ll call them the middle class and down of — sort of exclusive of the, let’s call it the fancy writers.

John: Exactly. But the same way that sometimes top tier writers can negotiate things well beyond the norms, this may change the norms to a degree so that you can push from the bottom up. Some people who are not currently covered by the details of this contract.

Chris: That’s right.

John: So an agent can say like, “Hey listen, if this were 2018 and these things come into effect, this writer or a writer like this would be qualified for this 2.4 clause. We want that now.”

Chris: That’s right. We want contracts in terms of weeks. We want to know what your weekly salary is. It’s no longer okay to express things in episodes and keep our fingers crossed for a showrunner, for example.

Craig: I think that’s likely. Now, of course, agents also have to be aware that naturally, I would imagine, companies will say, “OK, well, we’re paying these people more. Who can we pay less? Oh, the guy that’s making more than $350,000. Let’s pay him less. Let’s pay her less.”

So, I always feel like these things are like water. The companies’ greed is like water looking for a crack. And agents’ greed is like water looking for a crack. You know, the way speeders and cops have always had this thing between the radar detectors and the radar gun. This is how it’s going to go.

But at least we’re in the right battle now. Whereas before everyone was just getting hit over the head and nobody could do anything about it. Like the way currently is for feature writers. When are we going to talk about that?

Chris: We’ll get to that.

Craig: Oh, good.

Chris: By the way, an analogy to this is the way in which the option and exclusivity clause that we negotiated into the MBA three years ago and extended this year I think has changed conversations. So, I know there was a point at which the idea that — let me explain what that means.

So, what are options and exclusivity? It means that if I am on a show and I don’t have the ability to go off and do something else, I can be held by the company who hired me while I’m waiting for the next season of my show to be picked up. And often, or not often, but many times in the new world you would make your show, it wouldn’t air for six months, they wouldn’t decide for four months. And then they had to go back into production. And so there are lots of terrible stories about writers who are employed for eight or ten episodes and waited for a year. This is the old days.

We negotiated — in addition to which there were also restrictions that said you couldn’t develop for anyone else or do any other work while you were under contract because of the exclusivity.

Craig: And this was the negotiation not this past one, but the one prior to that?

Chris: That’s right. It also had a bunch of restrictions on it. You couldn’t earn over a certain amount of money and have this apply. But what I think happened, and that number now is bumped way up in this contract. Even still, those provisions are not in and of themselves real protections for writers entirely because for example they include a 90-day waiting period. If people really applied that to writers, the difficulty of finding a second job in a year would be so great that most people wouldn’t be able to do it.

But I think that conversation, the open conversation, changed the way people viewed options particularly. And nowadays it is much rarer for a writer to be help. Certainly we on our show say go get work. You know, you’ve got to go. We hope you’re going to be back here if we get picked up, but we don’t know and you’ve got to survive.

So I hope that the conversation changes fundamentally. Because these things–

Craig: The contractual language does have ripples in the general culture of how things are actually done. Because a lot of things in our business are done according to the MBA.

But then there are a lot of things that are just general practices and there’s a sense of an influence. The companies have acknowledged that holding somebody all that time is just wrong. You don’t have to look at the terms. They’ve made that acknowledgment, so now I can use — it’s just part of our deal. And similarly now they have acknowledged that paying people on an episode basis only and ignoring how much time that takes is wrong. So now that’s part of our conversation. And I think that’s great.

Chris: In fairness to them, I mean, more to options and exclusivity than the episodic fee, they slid into this. No one was saying is there a way to–

John: To really hurt writers.

Chris: We keep writers for a year without paying them upfront. They made shows. They didn’t know if they were going to get a pickup for a long time. They were afraid of losing their writers.

John: Yeah, it was fear.

Chris: It was fear.

Craig: That’s actually a really important point. That, look, I’ll talk about the companies being greedy all I want, because they are. And I always feel like if I were to call them greedy to their faces they would say, “Thank you,” because that’s why they’re there.

But, we’re the last thing I think that they think about. What happens is the world changes. They follow the money. They follow a pattern. They look and see what the other guy is doing. She had success with this, I’m going to go do what she did. Then somebody goes, “Hey, do you realize what you’ve done here?” And they go, “No, we don’t care. We’re busy. We’re trying to make money.” And we have to kind of hit them pretty hard with a stick to make them realize, no, no, no, fine, go do what you’re going to do and make your money, but you have to address the changes you made down the line, which you don’t see or don’t care about seeing until we force you to see.

Chris: Right. Look, it’s a much more complicated world than it used to be. There were fewer writers employed in the world of a few networks. And the creative opportunities, particularly independent production ended, were much less than they are now. But there was a kind of logic to the work year. You get paid for a year. You take a couple of weeks off during your hiatus and when your show comes back you’re all available because there was nothing else you could do. That’s really nice.

It’s hard for all of us. I mean, it’s weird for the studios who don’t have writers available and showrunners who don’t, who can’t keep their writers around because the writers need to work. It’s even worse for ordinary writers who actually need to find jobs every five minutes. Let’s be honest. If you’re on a 24-episode contract, say 24-week contract, you need to be looking for your next job in the middle of that, maybe ten weeks in, because it takes a while. You can’t wait till the 24 weeks are over.

Craig: Oh, I wonder what that’s like. Oh, feature writers have been dealing with that for 20 years now. Minimum. I mean, I’m sorry and everything, but it’s so funny how so many of the problems that television writers are experiencing —

Chris: It’s completely true.

Craig: We have been dealing with for decades.

Chris: Divorcing the television production season from a calendar turns it into a version of essentially feature.

Craig: Well I’m glad that you took care of television writers now that they’re like us. But maybe also we should talk about feature writers and how —

Chris: Did you want to go to that next?

John: Let’s finish up one thing from the press release, because I just don’t actually know what was negotiated or decided. For the first time ever, job protection on parental leave. What happened with parental leave?

Chris: We asked for a certain number of weeks off, paid. We ended up with a certain number of weeks off with a guarantee that you get your job back when you come back, if your show is still in production.

John: So this is for TV writers who are in the middle of a season and leave because of the birth of a child.

Chris: Or the adoption of a child, or a foster child, all those things. And male and female. There’s no distinction made there. You have the right to take time off to do that and then come back. It is a meaningful, small additional step in the right direction. It’s not the same as paid leave to do that, but it’s a beginning. And it was something that we gained in the very last moments of the negotiation. At a time when a few things were left on the table, including our feature proposal.

Craig: And they need to come.

John: I think it’s worth noting though that everybody else in that room was working for companies that probably already had parental leave.

Chris: Yes.

John: Because it’s really common among corporations in Hollywood for this to exist. So it felt weird that we didn’t have this kind of protection.

Chris: And that was certainly one of the arguments that we made. On the other hand, what is also true is it’s a complicated practical thing when you’re working for 24 weeks, for example. You know, it would have been an easier argument strangely if we had been back in the old world where you said, look, we’re all working essentially all year long. If somebody needs to take X number of weeks off, that doesn’t change your production schedule. But, you know, they come back and say we have five writers working. You want to take half — your time off for it comes in the middle of —

Craig: As a showrunner, I would imagine that’s a tough one. You’ve got a small staff. And you’ve got the money you’re spending. And you’re not getting more. And then you lose 20% of your staff for let’s say a crucial chunk of time. If you have to also pay them you can’t sub anyone in. It’s tricky on that basis.

Chris: And I don’t want to speak for other showrunners. Our point of view was people need to go and take care of what they need to take care of.

Craig: Of course.

Chris: But not everyone, A, feels that way, or maybe not everyone has that flexibility. Now it’s built in. And the truth is the problem was always, and it came back to us, you know, showrunners should be good about those things. And we say, showrunners could be good about those things, but we don’t want to rely on showrunners to say we want to be reasonable about that stuff.

Craig: Strange thing for the Writers Guild to be taking a position on since we represent all of the showrunners.

Chris: Right. But we don’t have the ability to say, I mean, you should not need to be reliant on the kindness of your boss to do things.

John: Exactly. That’s why it’s important to write these things down.

Craig: It’s so odd. It’s like we go in there and part of our argument is our own membership is unreliable and treats writers poorly. Can you treat them better?

Chris: Well, no, not in this case obviously, because I think it is a complicated thing — not that there aren’t showrunners who would do it, who would say go home, don’t work, we’ll bill the studio, and don’t worry about that. That’s a complicated position to put people in. We could have a long conversation about showrunner responsibility and the way showrunners do or do not serve the best interests of both their show and the writers at the same time. It’s a really complicated thing.

Craig: Well, we don’t have that problem.

John: Let’s do something simple then. Let’s talk about screenwriters. And let’s talk about the situation screenwriters find themselves in and sort of what was in this negotiation, what was not in this negotiation, and sort of where the future work is ahead for feature writers.

Chris: Well, Craig, you can talk about — I mean, the screenwriter proposal we came in with was one that you talked about at the meeting. So why don’t you talk about —

Craig: Well, I’ve been talking about it for a couple of years. And just as an aside, getting the Guild to recognize that there are issues that we can attack with the companies that are feature-based that aren’t as simple as what the minimum is, what scale is, is hard. It’s really hard. I had a long, difficult conversation with Tony Segal who is the outside counsel for the union. But, you know, it worked out OK.

We’ve been dealing with this problem of what we call free rewrites forever. And the problem has started and people got nervous and upset. Then it got worse and people got panicked. Then it got so bad that everyone became sort of overwhelmed and just said, well, that’s the world we live in now. But that’s not acceptable.

The practice is the studio hires a writer. They only guarantee them one step. We used to be guaranteed two steps. A step is a draft. And then a producer comes in and the producer talks to the writer and says show me the script before we send it to the studio. And the writer shows them the script when she’s done. And the producer says, OK, I have a ton of notes. We have to do a lot of work. We get one shot with the studio. This is going to kill it. Blah, blah, blah.

And part of the reason that happens is because the producers get paid almost nothing for the process of developing a screenplay. I literally think they’re down to like $20,000 for the process of developing a screenplay. They make an enormous amount of money, in theory, if the movie is made. They have a fee, a production fee, which is largely millions — million and over. And then they oftentimes have a percentage of profits. There’s a huge upside to them. They want to deliver, they are incentivized to deliver to the studio something that feels like you could just go shoot it tomorrow.

So, they make the writer rewrite it. And then they make the writer rewrite it, rewrite it, rewrite it, rewrite it. I’ve heard people do nine or ten drafts for a producer. They have been paid once. In fact, they haven’t even been paid once for that.

John: They’ve been paid half.

Craig: That’s right. Television writers, at least the fee is coming on a weekly basis. They’re paid half. That’s the commencement money. Half. They can’t do another job. They are doing what they should be paid seven or eight times for, per our contract. They’ve been paid one half of a time for. And finally then the script is turned in and lo and behold the studio has notes, and thoughts, and maybe we should get a different writer. Why is the script like this anyway? A lot of times these writers are sitting there going, oh my god, I had it right the first time.

OK, so what do we do about this? The Writers Guild attempted to enforce some sort of legal constraint on this and failed. My proposal was simply this: I understand why the studios don’t want to guarantee two steps to somebody like me, or somebody like John. They pay us a lot for one step. And it’s far more than scale. Fine.

But for the writers who earn, and my proposal was twice scale or less, they should be guaranteed two steps. The guarantee of two steps allows a relief valve. They can write a draft, show it to the producer. The producer, maybe they have two or three weeks of notes, which was common, and nobody has a problem with that. Do them. Then turn it into the studio knowing there’s another bite at the apple for the producer and the writer.

Get the studio’s input. Get everybody involved. Then send the writer off to do a second draft. And in this way this relief valve has hopefully reduced some of the enormous pressure of doing multiple drafts over, and over, and over. And if you limit it to writers who are earning double scale or less, you are essentially saying what we’re doing really is just maintaining our minimums. And the amount of money that this would cost the studios is not very much. I mean, first of all, if somebody’s quote is already double minimum for a draft. Fine. Pay them scale now for two steps. Their life hasn’t changed. They’re going to writing theoretically fewer drafts than they would have.

So, this was the proposal in principle. And I did not expect that we would get it. My great expectation was that we would begin that conversation.

Chris: And we obviously didn’t get it. It stayed on the table till the very end. It was not — and by the way, that’s not true about all proposals. We take things off all the time. We’re constantly narrowing our list of demands, as is the company, taking off things that are rollbacks or other requirements, or making adjustments so that when we get toward the end of the negotiations we have something manageable to have a conversation about.

And this was one of the few things that was left on the table in the last minutes. It had been the subject of a lot of conversation in the room. The big room when we were sitting opposite each other. Impassioned pleas from screenwriters on the committee. We don’t always speak in that big room. David does the negotiating, but periodically individuals get to speak on things that matter, particularly in where the power of a writer speaking may hold more sway.

We weren’t optimistic about it, but we were hopeful because the cost of it was so small in the long run. You can figure out why you think they said no, because they said no to some things they could have said no to. They could have said no to family leave and gotten away with it. We were — let’s be honest — not striking over eight weeks of unpaid family leave. Just as we were not going to be able to muster a strike over this.

We talked over there’s a possibility that they might do that. In the long run, the argument that said we want our creative people to make those decisions and we’re not as business people going to do that was an easy out for them.

Craig: Yeah, I think, look, I think their great fear is that what we’re trying to do is back door guaranteed two steps for everybody. And I don’t know how to tell them that that’s not what I would want. And, of course, it’s not like I have control over what the Writers Guild might say or do years from now. But the purpose of this is not that.

And I don’t know how to get that across other than to say it’s nice that we’ve started the conversation.

Chris: Right. And we are, by the way, internally having a lot of conversation. Look, I’m not on the board anymore and I’m not an officer.

Craig: Congratulations.

Chris: But I know that there are conversations about new approaches to this, because it’s been a frustration. You want to be able to go into a contract and say we have — it’s beneficial. It’s helpful to say we have something for all of our members. It doesn’t do us any good to say honestly in screenwriter meetings, you know, there is a limited amount we can do in MBA negotiations for you. So we are trying to figure out ways to begin to achieve some of those things.

Craig: There’s more than you think. I’m making a list.

Chris: Good. These are conversations that we’re going to have. I mean, look, one of the fundamental things is there’s a big difference between the economics right now of the screenwriting business and the television business. There is a —

Craig: You know why in part? Because the feature writer needs essentially have not been addressed. And this is just me saying it. It’s not surprising.

It’s not just that there’s a lot more employment in television. It’s that when there’s a lot more employment in television and then a problem emerges, the Guild coalesces as it just did and fixes it.

Chris: But we are helped by the fact that the demand is reasonable in relation to the supply. So, in a world in which as you know jobs are hard to come by for screenwriters, particularly the screenwriters you’re talking about, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to actually —

Craig: You could let us go. I mean, in all seriousness, the Writers Guild could let screenwriter go. I mean, there is an argument to be made that if a union can’t effectively negotiate for a segment of its employees, its membership base, it should let them go and seek representation that could. Otherwise, what’s the — now, we do as screenwriters we do submit a vastly disproportionate amount of dues, because all of our money is dues-able. As opposed to television writers, which as you pointed out, are getting paid minimum as writers. That’s dues-able. All the rest, not.

Chris: But remember, Craig, it’s not just a question of MBA negotiations. It’s also an enforcement of contract provisions that are in there and we have a difficult time enforcing those provisions in the contract in part — at least in part because we don’t have enormous member support for the enforcement of those things.

Craig: I disagree very, very strongly. I hear this all the time. It is the union’s favorite excuse. I’m going to give you an example. And I brought this up at the meeting. The Guild in response to an endemic late pay — the reason that John asked, by the way, about OK, if you work that extra week as a TV writer does your agent need to call, because that’s how it works for us.

John: That’s totally how it works for us.

Craig: For us. Nobody pays you until you go, “Hey, where’s my check,” and then you got to call and send a thing, and a thing. OK. So, the Guild in response to that said, OK, yeah, we’re having a problem here because the rules are that they should pay you on time. And they’re not. So, I’ll tell you what. On your form, when you’re declaring your earnings, so you know how much dues to send in, write when you delivered and the date you were paid.

They have all of that information. They have done nothing with it. They don’t need our help for that. They can just enforce that.

Chris: Well, exactly. We began during my term a late pay initiative that actually involves the agents in an attempt to rectify that situation, where we have now gone to agents and said you need to let us know when the day of payment is and when payment actually occurs. And all of that comes from the agent.

In other words, the idea is instead of putting it on individual writers to do that, the information comes back from the agents about delivery of drafts, first drafts, and that triggers the timeline for someone to be paid. I’m not at the Guild anymore, so I can’t tell you where we are with that.

Craig: No one has ever called my agent about that. And I’ve never heard anybody’s agent getting called.

Chris: Who is your agency?

Craig: CAA.

Chris: Well, we’ve talked to them plenty of times.

Craig: Yeah, but they don’t do it.

Chris: Well, that may be true. By the way, and I can’t, as I say, I don’t know what the compliance is. And it varies by agency.

Craig: But my point is I brought this up at this meeting and David Young, our Executive Director, was seemingly unaware that that data was there. And Chuck Slocum who is our data guy said, “Oh, yeah, we do have that on every single form from every single feature writer. And a lot of people fill it out and we just haven’t been doing anything about it.”

Chris: Right. And remember though the way you’re talking about it is always after the fact. It’s a quarter later at least. I’m talking about a way of doing it in the moment.

Craig: I’ll take a quarter later as opposed to what we have now which is never.

Chris: Look, the Guild is also in part making strides in its IT and making sure that kind of stuff gets inputted in the right way. I can’t tell you exactly how that works. And I’m not trying to make excuses for what’s going on.

Craig: Nor am I putting this on you.

Chris: But there have been attempts — there are attempts — by the way, I don’t think this is about the question of whether people want enforcement or not. There’s no question that there are things that we can do in concert with writers and with agents to make some adjustments in the way that late pay is handled. It’s a real problem.

Craig: I’ll give you another one. When you directed a movie, was it DGA or–?

John: Non-DGA.

Craig: So, first time I directed, day one, the DGA shows up. And it’s a nice lady and she talks to me and just sits with me for five or ten minutes and asks me a bunch of questions. And then she left and she was satisfied.

Now, we have a lot of writers. More writers probably than individual directors, although there are a lot of directors working on television, too. But, if a writer is earning less than a certain amount of money, and this is nothing — we can do this today. I don’t think we need approval from anybody. The Writers Guild should have somebody assigned to them. And they are called. And they have a conversation. And they find out who is the producer. And we’re going to tell you now how this works. Let me inform you how it works. Let me inform you what the dangers are of repeatedly doing drafts. Tell me if there’s a problem. I can help. But I am assigned to you. I am your caseworker because you’re new and you don’t make that much money.

Everything that I’m concerned about from that proposal to this is about protecting our most vulnerable feature writers because at this point now there’s a small island of A-list writers and then a large sea of vulnerable. And we are abandoning them. And we are hallowing out our minimums. And I tell Billy Ray this. We earn too much money. John earns too much money. I earn too much money. Because there’s so few of us now left. And they’re not training people. They’re not protecting people.

Chris: Right. We know. Yeah. By the way, I’m not disagreeing with any of that stuff. Look, I can’t speak to where a given proposal that you’ve made, if you’ve talked to somebody has gone or not. I think — you know, I found reasonable openness to being creative about this because it’s a genuine frustration on the part of the Guild.

Craig: Well, I’m sitting down with David Goodman in a week or two. He’s running, I believe, unopposed for president of the Guild. So, even David Goodman can win that election. [laughs] I love David. He’s a good guy.

John: I want to wrap this up by talking about the thing I see both in TV and features. Which is TV it started to become a definition of episodes were not a useful way of looking at sort of how we were doing the work. Because we were really talking about the writer’s time, and that was really the definition.

In screenwriting, for quite a long time, we get paid by the draft, but we really should be paid for our time. The time is the concern. That we’re being dragged out over all of these different months.

It’s also interesting to see that we have these feature rooms that have started up where they’re getting a bunch of writers together for four weeks to break the back of things. In those cases, you kind of are being paid on your time. It’s not about the draft. It’s not about the actual document that you’re creating at the end of it.

So I feel like we’re in this weird transition where we’re trying to figure out whether we’re being paid by draft or by episode, or by our time. By the time we’re spending.

Chris: And, in fact, by the way, I mean, the conversation didn’t even begin with television, by the way. I think you were probably there when we first started talking about this idea. I think we went to a CPSW meeting where we go, a small group of writers, to different studios and talk about the issues screenwriters are having. Late pay. Multiple rewrites. Lead behinds. Sweepstake pitching. All of those things.

And we began to talk separately about the idea of being paid for time. And I actually during my presidency made a presentation to the writers. David and I went around and said, look, the measures of our work no longer apply. And we began to talk for a long time about the idea of screenwriters being paid for time. It’s a complicated thing. And we got a lot of pushback from people.

Craig: I’ll push back.

Chris: It turned out to be more complicated than television. And by the way, television, we didn’t have those conversations. We didn’t even know it was coming at that point. Six years ago, the very beginning of this, it haven’t even occurred to us, or me, yet, that we would have the same problem.

Craig: But it’s always been a workplace where people show up on days, Monday through Friday, and they leave. And I know that you’re there doing the work. So there’s all sorts of ways to talk about how you might transfer feature writing, which is very independent and very freelance, to time, but the problems — initially the problems that come to mind: the second you move to time they’re going to take that as an opportunity to push everybody down towards minimums, which is what they like to do. We know that. For a fact.

You could then say, well, also they are going to enforce time limits on your drafts. But feature-length screenplays are not quite like television episodes. First of all, they’re much longer. And they are also incredibly flexible. They do not conform to a certain format. They can be very, very long and very, very short. So you can have a guy that’s writing an 80-page horror movie, just fill up that time. And you can have somebody who is writing a 180-page epic, struggling because they need more time and they’re not getting it.

And, also, there’s a problem, frankly, with writers that don’t deliver on time. And, look, they’re going to be aware of that problem. So, I think sometimes you could back stop it with time.

John: I think that’s what I’m talking about is the back stop of time. Because you and I both work on weeklies on projects and the great thing about a weekly is I know when I’m on the clock and I know when I’m off the clock. And if they’re calling me in to say like, hey, can you fix this thing, I’m like, great. Is this a new week? Or is this not a new week? And when we talk about these vulnerable screenwriters, they don’t have that kind of protection of like I’m not on this project anymore.

Craig: Well, in part because they’re not doing that kind of work. I mean, the proper weeklies come in when we’re dealing with movies that are in production. They are on a schedule.

John: We always get described work to us in terms of weeks. We think this is three weeks of work. And so we already are talking in terms of weeks, so I think —

Craig: Well, but not when you’re doing a first draft. I mean, no one talks about weeks then. I mean, I can say, look, I generally take about ten weeks to do this sort of work.

John: But some of our most vulnerable writers though are not being hammered on that first draft. They’re being hammered on the inevitable rewrites, or the rewrite of that other script that’s already out there. So I think they deserve the same kind of protections you and I get for the types of work that is a couple of weeks of work. And it ends up being a lot.

Craig: If they report it. Yeah.

Chris: I’m going to make an argument. You’re going to tell me I know less than you do, which is fine. We’ll just do it. We’ll just do it. So we’re going to make up numbers. You have ten weeks — your contract is back up at ten weeks. You get to the end of the ten weeks and a producer says, “This is so good. But if you did a little bit more work on this I think we’d be in really great shape.” And the Guild says, no, you’re done. And a writer says I don’t care about this because I need this. I’ve got to work my 11th week.

And we begin to, you know, in the same way that drafts don’t work, we begin to have that problem on the margins.

Craig: You do not know less about than I do about this. You know exactly as much as I do. And, look, also writers understand as feature writers it’s not like — we’re not like novelists, but we are closer to the novelist notion than we are to the staff writer in a television room option. We are writing something that is us and it is variable length and variable creativity. It is one thing.

It is not meant to be repeatable. No matter how many times I get hired to write sequels. [laughs] And there needs to be flexibility.

John: The challenge though, Craig, the argument is over what is the definition of the draft. I mean, so yes we’re writing a screenplay, but the problem comes I think, well, this is the draft. And everyone says, no, that’s not the draft. And so the good thing about time is like time is clear.

Chris: I think we’re going to continue to have those conversations and it’s going to be complicated. You know, I always said that one of the things is, I think it’s probably true for you guys in features. And for writers, particularly higher level writers in television in the old days, which is they paid us enough that we were essentially on an all services contract. Make me do whatever you want. Right now I’m feeling more like I’m making something than I’m being employed. And you pay me enough to feel that way, so I’m not going to say to you I’m in the middle of my 17th draft, I’m not going to do an 18th. I want this exactly right. And I want us all to be happy because that’s the way we’re going to make it. That was really great.

It stopped being great for feature writers when they got paid so little for their time and that was extended as if they were expected to do anything to make it right. Although that still comes into conflict with our natural inclination to think of ourselves as artists as opposed to just employees. And it does the same thing for television writers who are now being told you are going to be paid minimum. You can work as much as we want you to, seven days a week.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Well, I mean, a lot of times screenwriters are being treated like the showrunner for a brief period of time, but then we’re fired.

Chris: That’s right.

John: And that’s the issue. It’s all of the sort of like —

Chris: But the $100,000 screenwriter is also being treated like the showrunner.

Craig: That’s right.

John: Exactly.

Craig: And so they’re entrepreneurial and they’re responsible for their little staff in their head. Look, I have lots of things that we can talk about and I want to talk about with folks. You know, John is running for the board, so I’ll yell at him about it if he gets elected. Which, I mean, I’m going to vote for him. Am I allowed to say that on the podcast?

John: I’m not sure.

Craig: OK, well I’m voting for you anyway. I’m allowed. I have free speech. Landrum-Griffin Act.

Chris: We can’t ask you if you’re voting for him, but you can say you’re voting for him.

Craig: But I think that probably to start, tiny little bites. Tiny little nibbles of things targeted at the smaller, lower earning writers, would be great.

The CPSW, I don’t know if it’s gone around and had any conversations with the studios since I was last doing it with you and Billy and Susannah Grant a couple of years ago.

Chris: And Damon.

Craig: And Damon. It would be nice to come —

Chris: John, were you there?

John: I’ve done CPSW as well, yeah.

Craig: I think it would be great to go back and talk to Donna and talk to Shawn and say, OK, remember us from two years ago. Remember the things that you said? Here’s how you did. Here’s your report card. We promised them a report card, which I don’t believe we’ve delivered.

Chris: Right.

Craig: We need to do better.

Chris: One of the reasons why this negotiation worked the way it did, and every negotiation is different, and not a guarantee of future success or any of those things is because writers were engaged in this. They filled out surveys. So we had 1,000 writers in television telling us twice exactly what was going on with them. How much money they were making. How the world had changed. In the same way as screenwriters did with the screenwriter surveys and told us where we were and which studios were taking advantage of them when it was producer versus a studio.

That’s necessary for this process to work well. I mean, part of it is our responsibility to go out and hold those meetings that we do over a period of time. But sometimes when we ask people questions, as we do with these surveys, the more people who fill them out, the more accurate information we have, the better we are at assessing what’s worth fighting for and what’s not. So, that worked well this time around. And it triggered — because you were talking about the studio and the CPSW meetings, which were always on the back of the screenwriter surveys, were telling us what–

Craig: Correct. And that’s the frustrating part is we get surveys back from television writers and we mobilize for war. We get surveys back from screenwriters that are arguably worse and we go, “Oh, well…”

Chris: Well, we don’t go, oh. We try. And we have more success in the television field.

Craig: I haven’t noticed the trying. And I’m just being honest. I haven’t seen the kind of trying that I’ve seen the outreach level. And it may be easier to talk to eight or ten television writers at once in a room, and I get that. But easy is not the cause here. The cause is the duty of fair representation. We cannot keep going down the path of, well, it’s harder to represent screenwriters. It’s harder to go talk to them. It’s harder because of this or that. Then it’s harder, but we have to do it.

Chris: Yeah.

John: The last thing I would pitch for is that we have to always be mindful that we are representing our current members, but we also need to be thinking about the people who are going to be members really soon. And so a lot of people who are going out there for jobs right now, they’re not currently members, but they’re facing the same kinds of things. And sometimes they’re facing the bad situations before our members are. And so we need to do a lot more outreach to what’s happening to those aspiring screenwriters who have gone in for their 15th pitch at a place and what their life is like.

Because they’re not filling out a survey, but they’re incredibly crucial to our knowing what’s going on.

Craig: See, that’s why I would vote for him.

Chris: Yeah. We need people talking about those things. And we need people with the experience of coming straight up the ladder of screenwriting, which people are having a harder time doing now.

Look, I might take you on about the level of concern we have and that the Guild’s concern is honest or not. I think what you saw in this year’s negotiations was an attempt, once we went through all of those answers, to come back to membership and also be honest about what we believe we could achieve. In other words, it was a very conscious decision to be able to say, look, the world has changed in these ways since the last time we negotiated. That gives us an opportunity to make some big moves on our side if we can mobilize enough support. That was more true in television than in features. And many more of you are now doing television.

Doesn’t mean that we’re not going to think about that stuff, but we need to both be open and creative and not give up. And then be honest with the membership about what we believe is achievable.

Craig: I just think that as a general philosophy, and I would say this to anybody running for the board, like you, John, or David, who I’m going to see, who is going to be our next president, that we are past the point where we can be comforted or accepting of the argument that it is hard or difficult or easier to do this, or this, or this, or more achievable to do this. We have to make it achievable. If we don’t stop what has happened now, it will just erode into the ocean.

We are just letting it die.

Chris: Right. So there are some creative conversations going on at the Guild. It’s too early for me to talk about it and it’s not my place to talk about. New ways, really turning things — like you do in a writers’ room. It’s like story is not working that way, let’s turn it upside down and think about a new way of handling this. Because what we’ve been doing so far hasn’t made enough change, which is something you know.

John: Great.

Chris: I know that’s vague.

John: All right, let’s leave it there. So we typically wrap an episode with a One Cool Thing, which is a recommendation of something you think our listeners should be paying attention to, or reading, or watching. So, I didn’t warn you about this, so maybe you can go third, and just recommend something out there that you’ve seen that you like, or you think people should be paying attention to.

So, we’ll give you a few minutes here.

Chris: Yeah, because I haven’t seen or watched or done anything. I’ve been negotiating.

Craig: Honestly, I have nothing right now.

John: You prepared nothing?

Craig: No.

John: OK. Then maybe I’ll just do my one, because it’s something that you are going to love. It’s a new game. It’s on the iPad. It’s called Poly Bridge. And what you’re trying to do–

Craig: Poly Bridge?

John: Don’t pull out your phone quite yet. So, what you’re trying to do is build a bridge from one side of a chasm to the other side of the chasm, connecting little Lincoln log kind of pieces. But it’s incredibly well done and the physics behind it is great. So it reminded me a little bit of World of Goo, had a thing like it, but this is really good and sort of better in some really meaningful ways.

Craig: Poly Bridge?

John: Poly Bridge. So it’s also on Steam. I played the iPad version. The only thing I will say is that if you happen to have an Apple Pencil, it is an ideal use for the Apple Pencil because you’re putting some things in very precise places, so the Apple Pencil is useful.

Craig: I don’t have an Apple Pencil.

John: Now you need to get an Apple Pencil, because they are really good for marking things up.

Craig: OK.

Chris: I just started that. I started doing notes on screenplays.

John: Isn’t it really nice that way?

Chris: It’s fantastic.

John: So, when I’m on my phone I use Weekend Read, but when I’m marking up something on a full size script, I find a pencil — and I use PDF Expert which is just terrific.

Craig: Should I get one of those huge iPads?

John: No, you don’t need a huge iPad. You should get the new iPad Pro. And I’ll show it to you when we go in the house. It’s the 10-inch.

Craig: Because I’ve been using the iPad Mini forever.

John: No. Stop that.

Craig: Stop it?

John: Stop that.

Chris: I don’t have the new one, but I have the iPad Pro. It’s the perfect size for scripts.

John: It’s a great size for scripts.

Craig: Oh, and then I’ll get the pencil? And I can just write no.

John: We’re close to the Apple Store right here.

Chris: I would do this in a second draft if I were given this thing.

Craig: The only things I ever write on scripts when I read them is, “No.” That’s it. If I like something, I just think to myself, oh, I like that. But then if I get angry I just write no. So maybe I could do it like a macro where I just tap it with my pencil and the word “No!”

John: That’s good. You’ll love it. Chris, your opportunity, if there is something you want to recommend to listeners. You can use this spot.

Chris: I have to admit that I haven’t been doing much watching or doing anything since I had negotiations and producing this show. And it’s completely wrong for me to pitch my own show at a time like this. I kind of like this new book called Magpie Murders. It’s a mystery within a mystery. It’s like an Agatha Christie mystery inside another mystery. And she’s loving it.

Craig: What’s it called?

Chris: Magpie Murders. It’s the perfect summer reading.

Craig: I love Agatha Christie. There you go. That works.

John: That works. See, that’s exactly what a One Cool Thing should be.

Craig: Perfect. Thank you, Chris.

John: That is our show 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’d like us to play, send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions.

But short ones are great on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Chris, are you on Twitter?

Chris: I actually am. But I have no idea what my Twitter handle is.

John: So he’s not really on Twitter.

Chris: Yes, for my new show I’ve been tweeting.

John: So you’re having to do all that promo stuff.

Chris: Yeah. You can look me up.

Craig: I’m looking you up right now.

Chris: OK. You’re not following me? Apparently Billy Ray has a lot of followers and he won’t stop–

Craig: He doesn’t have a lot of followers.

John: No, not compared to Craig Mazin. Oh my god. Craig Mazin, are you over 100,000 now?

Craig: I’m close to 100,000. I’m like 97,000.

Chris: Oh, I think have over 100.

John: Congratulations.

Craig: Chris, nice work, Chris Keyser. Oh, is that you? Yeah, that’s you. Chris Keyser, you are @chrskeyser. And I’m following you now. You now have —

Chris: Three followers.

Craig: You have — oh look at that picture of you. You have 345 followers.

John: Oh, so that’s good. That’s a good start. You have a blue check mark.

Craig: Watch what happens after this. Watch what happens after this.

John: Oh yeah. So everyone follow Chris Keyser and tell him what you think. And watch his new show which is called The Last Tycoon. It is debuting on Amazon when?

Chris: On the 28th it drops.

John: How cow. It drops. That’s so nice. And by drops, all episodes all at once.

Chris: All at once.

Craig: I’m worried that you think that the words that Billy uses are cool. They’re not.

Chris: No, no, no. I had this conversation where Amy Lippman, my writing partner, said, “When’s your program going to…?” And I said it drops on the 28th. And she said, “Are you ashamed of yourself?” And I was.

Craig: As well as you should be. That’s great.

John: Final bit of boilerplate here. We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can look for us on Apple Podcasts at Scriptnotes. People leave us reviews and that’s just delightful. I get a little slap notification whenever they show up.

Show notes for this episode and all episodes are at johnaugust.com. But you can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. It’s $2 month. Plus we now have the new USB drives that have all the first 300 episodes. You can go back and listen to the first episode Chris Keyser was on so many years ago.

Chris, thank you very much for coming in.

Craig: Thanks Chris.

Chris: It was really fun.

John: It was a pleasure.

Craig: Thanks.

John: Thanks.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes Live Homecoming Show

Tue, 08/01/2017 - 08:03

John and Craig welcome special guests Megan Amram (The Good Place), Tom Schnauz (Better Call Saul) and Matt Selman (The Simpsons) to talk about writing television, from staffing to breaking story to the challenge of short seasons.

Then we try out two new segments: How Could This Be Funny and An Aubry Plaza Type. Do they work? It’s debatable!

There is also a Q&A, which you can find as a bonus episode for subscribers at scriptnotes.net.

Recorded live at the Writers Guild Theater on August 25, 2017. Thanks to the Writers Guild Foundation for hosting us, and a terrific audience.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 309: Logic and Gimmickry — Transcript

Tue, 07/25/2017 - 15:36

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: Oh yeah. My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 309 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Today on the podcast, we will be standing at the whiteboard to look at how story logic in our scripts may function. And then we’ll sit down to tackle some scenes and look at a few tricks to keep them interesting. And if we have time we may even answer a few more listener questions.

Craig: I love those.

John: Sound good Craig?

Craig: Yeah. I think everything you just said sounded fantastic. No notes, John. No notes.

John: No notes. Fantastic. I love those. Before we even get started, yesterday as we were recording this the Emmy nominations came out. And I want to rant just for like maybe two minutes about Emmy nominations.

Craig: Go.

John: Not about any person who was nominated or not nominated, but the whole idea of snubs. I am so frustrated with the concept of snubs, that people who did not get nominations should feel especially bad or weird. That we need to single out the shows that did not get nominated. I find it incredibly frustrating. And I don’t know, how do you feel about that, Craig? You don’t care about awards at all, do you?

Craig: Well, I don’t, but you are touching a certain nerve here. And that’s — it’s not enough to say here are a bunch of people that have put their hearts and souls into making things. And when I say a bunch of people, I mean everybody that made something that year. And what we’re going to do is we’re going to pit them all together, make them compete, pick five of the best ones, then make them compete on television. And then one of them wins. It’s not enough for that. Apparently, also then you have to talk about who you said — no — you don’t get it. I’m snubbing you. No.

And now obviously no one is really actively snubbing anyone, but it’s just the media. Yuck.

John: Yes. So the problem I have with snubbing is like snubbing implies intention. That you deliberately did not invite someone to the party. A conscious choice was made. But, of course, a group of people all voting independently cannot make a conscious choice as one body. They can simply choose certain shows, but they cannot deliberately exclude somebody.

And so when I see intention applied to any group of voters, I find it incredibly frustrating because all people have is their own individual things. So the whole idea of snubs just drives me just really bonkers. If you’re going to make a list of other great shows that didn’t get nominations, I guess that’s fine. Because if you’re trying to single out that The Leftovers is a brilliant show, fantastic. But if you want to make us feel about The Leftovers, or feel like The Leftovers was less good because it didn’t get on that list, I’m angry with you.

Craig: Yeah. I agree. And I think this is really just a manufactured story to sell clicks. That’s all. I mean, the whole thing, look, award shows of course exist to sell advertising. They don’t exist to actually award people. I mean, if you wanted to award people you would just do it I suppose. But primarily this is a business and they’re selling ads and they’re making money off of a show.

The secondary predatory business of making money selling ads off of things that talk about the thing that makes money from selling ads, that’s the industry that creates the snub. And people click, oh, because you know, ooh, someone in Hollywood got a snub. First of all, snub is a great word. Love that word. Just the sound of it is lovely. Snub.

John: It is nice.

Craig: Snub.

John: So that’s my bit of frustration. Let’s get to our actual real show. Some follow up. Our live show is coming up super, super soon and we have another guest to announce. Liz Meriwether. She is the creator and showrunner of New Girl on Fox which is entering its final season. She will be joining me, and Craig, and Megan Amram on July 25 in Hollywood. There are still some tickets left as we’re recording this. I don’t know. I need to check in with the Writers Guild Foundation to see how many are left. But if you would like to come join us, you should come join us in Hollywood for that special night.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So July 25, 8pm. Come there and see us. Talk with these two incredibly talented writers about sort of whatever. We don’t have an agenda yet.

Craig: No, but I will say that Liz is fantastic. Obviously I’ve already talked about Megan, my cousin. But Liz is great. You shouldn’t miss this, honestly. This is great. And it doesn’t matter if you write features or you write television. These are just two very smart people who are going to have I think tremendous insight on what’s going on. You know, I like the fact that we’re getting younger guests, also. You know, not that there’s anything wrong with bring Larry Kasdan on every now and again, but younger writers, they’re plugged in. They know what’s up.

John: Well, I mean, Liz Meriwether is younger than we are, but she’s also been running an incredibly popular TV show on Fox for five season now, six seasons now. So, she knows more than we do about things. And that’s my favorite kind of guest is someone who knows much more about something than I do.

Craig: 100%. Otherwise it’s just the two of us sitting in judgment.

John: Yeah. But that’s also good. But it’s not as exciting.

Craig: I kind of like those. Actually, those are my favorite episodes. [laughs] Yeah. I like those.

John: All right, so our first main topic today is about story logic. And this came up this week because so I just got back from Paris. I’ve been super jet-lagged. I’m over most of my jetlag. But this past week I went to a book signing for my friend. Julie Buxbaum has a new book out. It just came this last week, called What to Say Next. And she did a reading at the Grove, at the Barnes & Noble at the Grove. And it was my first time going to one of those events. It was cool to see how that all works.

And I was talking with another author there who was describing her new book and it’s a middle grade title. And she was wrestling with the mystery, she said. And she was talking about sort of the story logic. And we’ve been focused so much on character and motivation and other things in recent episodes, I thought we might step back a little bit and talk about the things that actually are just kind of plot. It’s the way in which pieces of information get out there and sort of how the overall shape of the plot and story work, which is sort of not always exactly driven by what the characters are doing. It’s sort of decisions that the author is making way ahead of time.

And that can be just puzzle work. It can actually a very different kind of process than sort of the writing on the page. So, today I want to talk a little bit about the mechanics and specifically one thing that I find incredibly frustrating and I think if we can focus on it you can often solve a lot of your story problems this way. Which is the difference between coincidence, correlation, and causation. The three Cs. And how you can use them to your best benefit in your stories.

Craig: Well this is going to be good. I mean, I will take a little something you said there and expand on it slightly. When you say it requires a slightly different way of thinking, I think it requires a completely different way of thinking. I mean, there’s this creative work that we do that’s rooted in a certain empathy. We create a human being in our minds. We must empathize with them, walk in their shoes, see the world through their eyes. Imagine how they react to the things that we throw at them.

It’s very emotional and it’s very empathetic. A lot of times we think of that as the creative meat of what we do. But then there is this other stuff that’s math. Story logic and the creation of the hardware of a plot is math. And it is a puzzle and it is a different part of your brain. I think it’s one of the reasons why so many people want to do what we do and yet so few ultimately get there. Because you can’t just be good at one of these things. You have to be good at all of them. And if you can’t quite get your hand around how to machine a plot, you end with a mess. And it is strangely the first thing that people will pick on when they walk out of a movie or they turn off a television episode. They say, “Why did that even have to happen? Couldn’t that person just have talked to the other person and then the show wouldn’t have happened?”

They notice it every time.

John: There’s a TV trope called Refrigerator Logic, which is as you step away from a movie and you’re getting something out of your refrigerator you’re like, wait, why did that happen? Like there’s things that sometimes will glide past you when you’re actually seeing the story up on the screen. And then later on you’re like, wait, that did not actually make sense. And so let’s talk about how those things can actually make sense.

And what you’re describing really is the different between — we talked about that metaphor about being on the train. And so as the writer, you’re responsible for like what you’re seeing out the windows, but you’re also responsible for being way up high and seeing where the train track is going. So as you’re laying out where that train track is going, you have choices about what branches and what decisions the story will make. And I was thinking back to a post I did ten years ago on the blog called the Perils of Coincidence. And that came after I watched Spider Man 3.

And Spider Man 3 is not a great movie. And there were some significant issues of coincidence where a bunch of things just had to happen in exactly a certain way. People had to be there at the same moment when this other thing was happening in ways that felt really, really unlikely. And so in that post I sort of broke through these are the coincidences. Here are some maybe ways they could have gotten out of those coincidences. Because when you see coincidences, you can always imagine at the outline phase. Like if they were turning in the treatment for that story there were a bunch of words like “at the same time, accidentally, luckily, unfortunately, meanwhile.” Those are all really signals that something is going on where it’s convenient for these things to happen but they’re not actually causing the other things to happen.

Craig: Yeah.

John: You always get I think one coincidence in a story that can be kind of fundamental. And so a fundamental coincidence to me is like, well, in Spider Man it’s Peter Parker gets bit by a radioactive spider. Anyone else could have been bit by that radioactive spider, but then it wouldn’t be Spider Man. So the audience will always give you that one sort of fundamental coincidence.

In Die Hard, John McClane happens to be in the tower when the bad guys take over.

Craig: Where his wife is. Yeah.

John: Where his wife is. Yes. But they’ve already established that he’s there because his wife is there, so that all makes sense. If his wife happened to be in the same building, that would be too many coincidences. But it made sense because they were all kind of bundled together in one thing. You wouldn’t have the movie if you didn’t have that kind of fundamental coincidence.

And usually that movie will spend its fundamental coincidence very early in the first act. Like page 10, page 20, page 30 at the latest. It’s interesting watching the new Spider Man, which I won’t spoil, but they use their fundamental coincidence incredibly late in the story. And it was surprising but I think actually really effective. So when you see the movie you’ll say like, oh, wow, OK. And because the rest of the movie works so well they’re able to spend that coincidence quite late in the story and that was exciting.

Craig: The notion of coincidence and making things convenient is correct and it is connecting to the convenience of the writer. I think this is why people find it dissatisfying. It’s cheating. I mean, we want to watch these things unfold in a way that is surprising and fascinating to us, but after we are surprised we go, oh, OK, that was — that feels good. I like that this happened. I understand why it happened. It makes sense. I just didn’t see it coming. That’s the fun part.

With straight up coincidence, what the audience feels is you wanted to do a thing, or you needed to do a thing, so you just jammed it in. We don’t mind that first big coincidence because we understand that it is necessary for us to enjoy a thing. I mean, really the first coincidence of any movie is that we have shown up to see it. That’s — you know, so we’re OK with like, OK, we showed up to see your movie. You go ahead and do a thing.

But then the joy of the story is that there aren’t these things that are happening that just cheat. Because what’s the point then? We in our lives do not recognize the drama around us and the things that concern us as deriving largely from coincidence, even though I think strangely it’s probably true that most of the crazy things that happen in our lives are the result of coincidence. But the things that we’re mostly interested in, the passionate affair, the decision to steal, falling in love — these things feel volitional to us and they feel like they are arising naturally from the circumstances around us.

So those are the dramas that we like. We’re not so interested in stories where someone is walking down the street and a piano falls on them. It’s shocking, but there’s not drama to that. It’s just like, oh, how odd.

John: Yeah. It is. It’s surprising. And, oh, he happened to be there at that moment when the piano fell on him. And in real life sometimes the piano does just fall on a random person. But usually when we see an unexpected event or really any event, we expect there to be a cause. We expect there to be a relationship between these two events happening that is either causal, like one caused the other. It is correlated, like some outside force caused both events to happen. Or if neither of those things make sense, then it truly is coincidence. I think in the real world we tend to ascribe causal relationships to things that often are coincidence and that’s a real problem.

But in movie logic terms, these are our universes. And so we shouldn’t have to rely on coincidence for most of the work of our stories. So, if we’re not going for coincidence, we’re looking for causality. We’re looking for A causes B. Ideally, something we’ve seen already in the story has caused this effect. And now we’re in this situation and whatever the characters are doing in the situation, ideally your lead characters, not just the villains, whatever they’re doing is causing the next thing.

We talk about actions and consequences. Causality is about consequences. It’s about what this chain of events is leading to next. And how our characters are responding to that and changing their own circumstances.

Craig: Yeah. It does seem to me that part of the danger of what we do, the negative impact of what we do, is that we make such a big deal about very dramatic, very extreme events being caused, being purposeful. There are no coincidences, right? In life, almost all these things I think are coincidental. And then we try and put causation — every conspiracy theory that you see out there in some way or another is attempting to make sense of what may be coincidental. Sometimes there are conspiracies. We seem to be currently in the middle of one. But largely, no.

But in movies and TV, well, hey, what can we do? This is what we crave is this sense of causation. And when you think about movies — The Godfather is an incredibly complicated movie in that it’s got dozens of characters, and a lot of moving pieces in the machinery of the plot. A lot of hardware there. But everything is caused. And it all starts with a very simple thing. Someone shows up and says, “I have a business proposition.” It’s not even a coincidence. “You’re a business man. I have a business proposition.” And the Godfather says, no, I’m not interested.

And from that begins a series of caused events. And it is so satisfying to watch. Someone makes a choice. If you don’t give me what I want, I will do this. I did it. I just saw what you did. I’m now going to do this to stop you. And so on and so on. And it builds, and builds, and builds. Everything is caused. And I think it’s important when people are laying out their plots, they at least start from a place of everything — everything that happens here will be caused. Everything.

There are ways to fudge it here and there. But I think that’s probably the best ambition you can have for the machinery of your plot.

John: And one of the dangers here is you can fall into a trap of thinking like, oh, this is mechanical. This is a Rube Goldberg device where like once you set this ball rolling down the ramp everything will happen. In some ways that is accurate. But you want it to feel like all the characters are making individual choices that are leading to the next thing. So you don’t want just one series of events kicks off and the characters are just, again, we go back to this metaphor of being on rails. They’re just being dragged through the movie.

It needs to feel like they have volition, that they have the chance to make their own choices. But the choices they make will cause the next set of circumstances. And that can be really tricky to do.

So let’s talk about how you do that. So if I’m standing next to this writer who is working on the mystery of her story, what is some advice that we can give her to tackling the mystery of her story? Well, I would say that if you have the luxury of having a TV writing staff, that’s largely what they’re there for. So, when you see a TV room together, you know, sometimes yes they’re pitching jokes, they’re pitching storylines, they’re pitching ways to get through a scene. But a lot of what they’re doing is figuring out how are we going to get from this, to this, to this, to this. Like what are the natural causes and effects of these things.

Craig: Now, if you’re on your own, as I typically am — in fact, as I have always been — I think a general best principle is to start thinking about how you want to end. Because if you don’t know how you end, the danger that you will begin creating this bizarro plot to get from point A to where you eventually end up is high. If you know where you’re going to end, you can machine your plot. And remember, the point of machining the plot is not to be obvious, but rather the opposite. To be surprising. The surprises are not random. They are not derived from coincidence. They are carefully constructed. They are paying off in a satisfying way what you’ve set up.

You can’t really do that well if you don’t know where you end. So I think if you have your ending, you can create that causal chain with interesting reversals and surprises and twists and back and forths so that everything feels sort of meaningful. It is also important if you find yourself laying out your plot and suddenly there are a lot of, well, bends in the pipe. You know, a lot of strange things where you’re going, well, I got to do this so I can do that. Stop. Always stop. You may think you can get away with it. It’s just going to get worse and worse. It’s going to become byzantine.

Sometimes what happens is we fall in love with the notion that something is going to happen. And the problem is what’s come right before that something that we want to happen isn’t leading directly to the something we want to happen. So what do we do? We jam it in. We create a coincidence. Or even worse, we put in a bunch of scenes in between those things so that it will kind of get there naturally, but now there’s bloat.

Sometimes you kind of have to cut the throat of the thing that you really, really, really wanted to do because it’s not laying in properly. It may be able to happen later, but it may be the wrong thing. Your story will want things to happen naturally and then you are going to want things. And you kind of have to get your ego out of it a little bit and let your stories’ wants take precedence over yours.

Because I’ll tell you this. This the last chance you have to be clean. Outside the gate are the barbarians. That’s a little uncharitable to the people that are trying to help us make our movies. But I will tell you, for instance, Identity Thief, after I wrote my second draft, or even my first, there was a note — and it wasn’t really a note. It was sort of an order. “We want more villains.” And I don’t know why. To this day, I’m not really sure why.

And, you know, I did my very best to say that’s not — I don’t think we should. And the response back was, “Do it.” And so I did it. And it created so many coincidenty poor plotty mechanics. That stuff just — and you know, look, happily I don’t think anybody goes to a movie like that for the exciting villain plots, and yet it hurts every movie. Every movie. When there’s obvious bends and kinks because something that doesn’t belong has been put there. And nobody quite has a sense of what does and doesn’t belong to a movie that has not yet been shot than the writer does. I wish people would listen a little more carefully when the writer says that doesn’t belong.

It’s one of our Spidey senses.

John: Absolutely. So let’s talk about what the actual process might be for you’re the writer working by him or herself and you’re trying to figure out these plot mechanics, the story logic, before you start doing your draft ideally. So, different writers have different approaches. Some make a simple outline. Some use index cards. Some will write out a treatment.

What I would say though is no matter what your process is, if you’re describing it to somebody — basically if someone is looking at the cards with you, or if you are sharing your outline with somebody, watch out for when you’re saying these phrases that signal, OK, there’s something convenient happening here. That it’s not necessarily natural to what should be happening in the story. So when you find yourself saying “at the same time, meanwhile,” which means that you’re cutting away to something else, or “just then,” those situations — they’re unlikely and you can’t have so many unlikely things in your script.

You’re going to be running into problems if you’re saying those kind of phrases a lot.

One of the other things to really be mindful of, and I think this is partly what happened with what you described in Identity Thief is sometimes there’s mechanics happening in the story that won’t be immediately obvious to the reader and therefore the audience. Like there’s behind the scenes stuff that’s happening. And one of the real challenges for writers is all that hidden machinery has to make sense, even though it won’t surface till later on.

So, what the villain was doing those three weeks, or like why that person showed up at that point. Maybe you have a reason for why they got there. Maybe you’ll even be able to say the reason why they got there. But the minute they sort of showed up there or something happened that was not visible to the audience, that’s going to be a surprise. And figuring out how you’re going to balance what the audience knows versus what the audience is going to find out later on can be really tricky.

And so whenever I have stories that aren’t just one main trajectory that can be a lot of my planning work is figuring out how do I make it clear to the audience. Like these people were doing these things in the background. You just didn’t see them. But here we are now and the characters are doing these things now.

Craig: Yeah. Just continuing the Identity Thief case, there was one villain — I know, that’s crazy, right? I wrote one villain. What? Anyway, and very early on, in fact, the first time we meet Melissa McCarthy’s character, she’s on the phone with that villain and he’s upset. And she’s lying to him. And then later on when she and Jason Bateman’s character finally confronted each other and he’s kind of got her where he thinks he wants her, the bad guy shows up. It’s natural. She lied. We know she lied. He never got what she said she would send him. And he’s here. That makes sense. Meh. You know.

John: Well, in doing that, that initial conversation, you set the expectation that we would meet him and that he would show up. And you’re paying off that expectation. So that does not feel surprising to an audience. And it feels like, OK, this is a thing I expected to have happen. I’m happy that it’s now happening. I’m a smart person because I expected it to happen and therefore it is happening.

Craig: It was caused.

John: Yes, it was completely caused. It was not just a random fluke.

And even movies that I think are really good, like this most recent Wonder Woman movie, there will be some coincidences in there. And that’s OK. And if the movie is working really well you don’t notice it so much. A coincidence in the new Wonder Woman movie, which is not really spoiler at all, there’s a moment in the story where Diana first uses her bracers and sends off the shock wave. And like, wow, she has sort of supernatural powers.

She heads off and then like literally two minutes later while she’s standing on the cliff, Steve Trevor’s plane comes crashing down. Why did that happen at the same moment? Well, because it was convenient. There was nothing about her doing the bracers that caused his plane to fall. It just happened to happen at the same moment.

We go with it because it’s sort of the mythology and it feels OK and appropriate, but it is a big coincidence that it’s happened at the same moments. They literally coincided in ways that weren’t natural.

Craig: Exactly. And, look, when you’re writing, that may be where you end up. But it’s always worth in a moment like that to say am I avoiding a problem or am I avoiding a gift? Can this thing that just happened cause that thing? Wouldn’t that be satisfying? Now, it may not work. You may not be able to make sense of it. Or if you try, it may cause other problems and a ripple effect. And then you abandon it. But try. You know, I think sometimes what happens is these things happen, they emerge, and we get scared and try and run away from them when we should be running toward them.

John: Yep. Absolutely. Every problem is an opportunity. So take advantage of those opportunities as they come up. All right, let’s go step away from our whiteboards and go into our actual scenes. And you had a suggestion for the topic of gimmickry and the creative little tricks you can sometimes apply to keep scenes interesting. Take it away.

Craig: Well, it’s a little dangerous to be talking about this, because I always worry that people are going to go wee and start throwing ketchup all over their food. But these things can be great. I was thinking about it because I’ve been watching Fargo, the television series, and I should mention that one of the things that Fargo does that’s interesting is they make a little bit of a religion of coincidence. You can get away with a lot of coincidence if your show basically says around here coincidence happens all the time. Sometimes it happens to make things worse. Sometimes it happens to make things better. But that’s kind of the world we live in. We live in coincidence world.

You know, Tarantino lives in coincidence world.

John: Absolutely. He just happens to be crossing the street and getting hit by the car.

Craig: Exactly. And we’re like, yup, that’s what happens in Pulp Fiction world. That makes sense. Totally.

So, gimmickry. Sometimes you find yourself writing a scene and the general conventional way of laying things out feels a little meh. Feels a little boring. I don’t mean to equate conventional to boring, because sometimes conventional is the absolute best way to tell a scene and it is fascinating. But there are times when you’re going to want to, I don’t know, throw a little glitter on.

So, I just thought of a few of these things that we can do and at least by codifying them we know that we have these tools in our belt. And the first one is kind of radical — I mean, I guess they’re all radical in a way. Change the arrow of time. And we generally think of time as moving forward and it is linear, but of course we have seen lots of movies and lots of TV shows where things move out of order. Sometimes they move backwards. Sometimes we see something that should have happened before the thing we just saw happening after the thing we saw. But we get it.

Do you remember how in Out of Sight he did that interesting — Soderbergh and Scott Frank did that interesting trick of editing and scene design where you had Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney falling in love but we found out about it out of its time in the movie. It was just fascinating the way it worked.

There’s nothing wrong with that. You just got to be careful when you do it. It needs to be purposeful. It needs to evoke something. You can jump time in little steps. You can also jump time in big steps. You can have, you know, a scene where two people are talking at a place and then one of them turns around and it’s 20 years earlier and now they’re children talking in that place. You can do these things. You just obviously have to have a reason why.

John: Absolutely. And as the screenwriter, you need to make it clear on the page what you’re doing. Because some of these effects will be really obvious in the film, but will be really hard to see on the page unless you’re upfront with the reader about like this is what’s happening. And you don’t have to explain why you’re doing it, but you have to explain like what it’s going to look like and feel like if you were watching the movie. That you’re acknowledging that you’re jumping this thing. Because when you’re just reading 12-point Courier it’s easy to sort of miss and get confused by these sort of sleights of hand.

Craig: Yeah. Similarly, if you change the arrow time, you can kind of change the nature of space by splitting the screen. When we think of split screens, I guess what immediately comes to mind are just bad sitcom split screen kind of jokes where one person is talking on a phone and the other one is also on the phone. And it’s a split screen. Wah wah.

But split screens I actually think can be incredibly valuable when you’re trying to create tension. So, I’ll go back to Tarantino, again. Because, by the way, Tarantino the most — he goes bananas with these gimmicks and he uses them so well. There’s a moment in Kill Bill where we see that Uma Thurman is in a coma and also we see Darryl Hannah’s character coming down the hallway with a syringe to kill her. And he splits the screen. And there’s something beautiful about watching a demon essentially stalking down a hallway. And then at the same time watching this completely helpless human being. And the tension just rises because what he’s telling us is there’s no chance she’s going to open that door and our hero won’t be in the bed. She’s going to be in the bed. You see her, right there.

You can also split the screen where you see the same thing happening from two different angles at the same time, which is a fascinating thing, because in one angle somebody is walking out of a car and they’re walking into a store and they’re quite happy. In the other angle, just because of the nature of the camera, we see that someone is watching them. And they don’t know.

It is the sort of thing that I think screenwriters should be thinking more about because when we don’t there is a danger that the director will. And I don’t mean to say that like directors are bad at it. They’re not. But if the gimmick is only directorial, it will feel more gimmicky. When it is connected to an emotion or a feeling or a purpose, which is our domain when we are writing these things, I think it can be terrific.

John: Yeah. You’re describing using these tricks to really enhance or underline the emotion or the story point you’re trying to get there. So it is better for the gimmick. The gimmick is just not there on top of what you’re otherwise seeing. It’s not a conventional scene with a gimmick applied to it. It is a scene that is better and unique because of the gimmick. And once you see it with a gimmick, it would be hard to imagine that scene without that moment.

Craig: Yeah. I think when some people watch these movies, I think critics fall into this trap a lot. I don’t mean reviewers. I mean analyzers of film. They will tend to see these things as style. They will tend to see them as visual style. But when we connect to them, it’s not because they’re visually stylistic. It’s not the aesthetics. It’s what it tells us about the people involved and how it makes us feel. It is actually again an extension of character. And an extension of the empathetic connection that we have with the people on screen.

There’s another thing that happens quite a bit and I think when we watch it we don’t realize how radical it is. And that’s just bending or even breaking reality itself. Sometimes somebody should just talk to a dead person. You can have a scene where somebody is just sitting in their bed and they say out loud to the ceiling, “Oh, Edith, I wish you were here. What should I do? I don’t know what to do. I’m lost without you.” Boring.

Or maybe Edith is just there. The beginning of The Iron Lady did this beautifully. Meryl Streep plays an aging Margaret Thatcher. And when we meet her she’s talking to her husband, played by Jim Broadbent, and the two of them are having the most mundane typical breakfast conversation. And she’s telling him, “You’re putting too much butter on your toast.” I mean, you have no idea that he’s actually dead. He’s not there. He’s not there. And then you realize, oh, he’s not there. Wonderful.

You can also bend reality by just freezing the entire world except for one person. And, of course, there’s the typical breaking the fourth wall, which is always a trickier proposition. But I guess my point is you have the ability to do things that are beyond the pale of what we experience in our everyday lives in terms of reality. And you just have to make sure that there’s an in and an out. And that once we get out of it, we know we’re out of it.

That’s the key. You can surprise people. You don’t have to tell them you’re going into it. You just have to let them know that it happened and now you’re out.

John: Absolutely. And it’s the kind of thing which you probably try to do relatively early in your film so you get a sense of like this is the kind of thing that happen in your movie. Because if you do it quite late, then it feels like, wait, you’ve broken the rules you’ve set. There’s a social contract you’ve signed with the audience and now you’ve broken that contract.

And always be mindful of, you know, you are defining your characters and their actions on the page, but you’re also defining the character of the movie. And so the kinds of choices you’re making in terms of the gimmickry, the stylistic choices you’re making, that’s the character of the movie. That’s what your movie feels like.

And so as long as it’s consistent with what the movie feels like, you know, the way that Tarantino movies feel consistent with a Tarantino world, it’s going to be — it’s going to feel right. It’s going to feel like something that can happen in your world.

But if you’re completely straight drama and then suddenly you try to pull this thing at page 80, I think the audience is going to rebel and quite understandably for your not following the basic rules you seem to have set for yourself.

Craig: I agree. I mean, every time you do this, you are breaking the tone one way or another. In 500 Days of Summer, everyone slips into a musical number. That is a gimmick. And believe me, I don’t use gimmick as a pejorative. I use it as what it is. It’s an exciting, dazzling way of attracting people’s attention. We know, OK, this is the kind of movie where that can happen.

So later when they break reality, again, and show us two simultaneous evenings, expectations versus reality, we understand that can happen here. And it’s all right. Similarly when we watch Kill Bill, the fact that suddenly the movie switches into animation, acceptable. There are also moments sometimes where the break in the tone is OK because the movie is silly. There’s not a lot of gimmickry, filmic gimmicky in a movie like say Woody Allen’s Love and Death, which is one of my favorite movies. I mean, it’s broad. It’s very broad. It’s very silly. It’s wonderful. He doesn’t really mess around with reality too much. But then it does.

Then there’s a sequence that turns into a silent movie, into a silent film, which is hysterical and amazing. But you have to be aware of what John is saying here, those of you at home. Your story has to be able to survive this. And just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

Gimmickry is amazing because it frees you. It gives you like these — like we used to have the box of crayons. I had the box of 16 crayons and someone showed up and they’re like, “I have the box of 64 crayons. I have seven more blues than you do.” OK. Well, gimmicks, those are the extra blues and the extra reds. It’s the big box of crayons. They tend to make us feel more creative. When you read them in scripts, they tend to make the read feel maybe more sophisticated or ambitious. But even then, that is kind of a gimmick. Because it only is ambitious and creative and advanced when it works.

So, do it if it makes something better. Don’t if it doesn’t. Just know that you can.

John: Absolutely. The bigger box of crayons will not make you a better artist. They will just let you do some things that you couldn’t otherwise do easily. And that’s important. That can be useful. And I think by limiting ourselves to the simplest things, sometimes you’re able to tell simple, and true, and very strong stories. There’s a reason why you may want to not use the gimmicks, not use the full set of tools that you could use.

But, there’s certainly circumstances where you want to try to do those. And I think those are great. And quite a few of my films have used some of those fancy crayons. Like my first movie Go. It restarts time twice. There’s scenes that you see from multiple perspectives. You ultimately recognize that there’s quite a bit more going on than you first thought. And that’s great.

My movie, The Nines, is sort of nothing but a bunch of crayons melting all over the screen. And it’s very deliberately playing with your expectations of what is the difference between these actors and these characters. And is there any real underlying reality behind all this. It breaks its tone. There are musical numbers. There’s reality stuff happening in there. Melissa McCarthy is playing herself. It’s a very different set of expectations than you would normally have going into a movie.

But that’s not the only way to tell a story. And I don’t try to apply as many effects as I can to every movie. Like you have to be very judicious and see what is right for the story you’re trying to tell.

Craig: And I think you’ll know. That’s the thing. There’s a certain sense of satisfaction. There’s a feeling, oh yes, you know, this feels so much better than just the usual way. You know, I remember Todd Phillips and I were like struggling with how to do a flashback. Like, oh, here’s a flashback scene. I was like, yeah, well, I don’t know. And then the notion that in Alan’s mind they’re all children and to do it with children, that’s a gimmick. But it made so much sense and suddenly it was a joy to write. It was exciting. You know?

And I feel like, OK, if we are chaining our hands to the keyboard and going, OK, here we go, blah, blah, blah, then it’s probably going to be a similar experience for the audience. When you get excited and it just flows, then you know you’ve got the right gimmick. But again, word of caution, most of the time it will be flowing and feeling great with no gimmicks at all.

John: 100% agree. All right, Craig, let’s try to answer one or two of these questions in our mailbox.

Craig: Let’s try, you know. Let’s try.

John: We have audio, so let’s first listen to Kate from Phoenix, Arizona, who wrote in with a question.

Kate: My question is about interviewing experts to create more realistic stories. The script that I’m writing deals with a crime and the legal consequences. Although I have a respectable working knowledge of these procedures for a lay person, I can tell it’s not enough. I need to find a cop and a lawyer to interview to get the details right. I found some people online who are more than willing to consult for a sizeable fee. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, but my wallet does. Do you have advice for finding and interviewing experts? Once I find them, is it customary to have them read the script and point things out? Or ask about procedures piecemeal?

Also, for a Murphy’s Law type of situation, if I change story elements based on what they say, can they claim some kind of story credit? That’s sort of the point of asking in the first place, to change the story and make it better. And I’m not opposed to giving credit if it were fair, but I would prefer not to share the story credits if I can help it.

Are there measures I should take to protect the intellectual property of my own work?

John: Well, that’s a great question. I don’t have perfect answers for Kate, so I’m going to preface this by saying I bet some of our listeners have good resources they might point Kate towards in terms of finding the cop and a lawyer who she could talk to.

But I can offer some general guidance which is, no, you should not be paying anybody. And, no, they should not be trying to take story credit. What you’re doing is just asking people about their jobs. And you’re asking them how they do their work and asking them some theoretical questions. That’s not story credit. You’re nowhere near that. So, anybody you’re talking to who would want to try to get that from you is not the right person for you to talk to. Craig?

Craig: Yeah, no question. There’s not going to be any payment here. I’m doing a project right now that has a lot of research involved. It’s more research than I’ve ever done for anything in my life. And I’ve talked to all sorts of people. But I specifically had to talk to a cop when I was working on Identity Thief, because I wanted to find out how does this all work, and how do you go through your job and deal with this stuff. If you call, I think if you just call, Kate, you say you’re from Phoenix. Call Phoenix PD up and just say, “Listen, I’m a writer. I’d love to sit down and interview an officer or a detective. Would you have somebody willing to talk with me for a half an hour? I just have questions for a story I’m writing.”

I would be shocked if no one said yes. Everybody wants to talk about their job. Everybody wants somebody to get it right. I think people are interested in being a part of something like that. I don’t think there’s any issue with credit because they’re not writing anything. They’re talking to you and you’re taking notes.

You certainly can give them an assurance that you’re not going to use their name. That you’re not going to use anything that’s identifiable to them. And if you are recording the conversation, that the recording will not be played back for anybody other than yourself. That it’s only for research purposes. But I think by and large if you just ask, same thing with law. If there’s an area of law. I mean, you must know somebody that knows somebody that has a lawyer. Have that person ask their lawyer. Who would be a good lawyer who might want to talk to you about this? Somebody sooner or later is just going to say, “I’ll do it,” because people generally want to help.

John: They do. So I think Kate’s social network is probably bigger than she realizes. So if she just goes on Facebook, throws it out there like, hey, I’m looking for any cop or any lawyer, does anybody know somebody? Somebody will know somebody who knows somebody who is going to be willing to talk with you about this.

Before I left for Paris, I was in an Uber. I was actually headed to Kelly Marcel’s house. And our Uber driver was from a country who was exactly the right person I needed to talk to about this project I was writing. And so I just started up a conversation with him and said like, hey, this is really crazy but would it be OK if I called you and asked you more questions about the country you’re from and when you came to the US. And he said, of course, that would be fine.

And so you will bump into people in your real life who are going to be helpful and will get you through that kind of thing. I was also years ago I was in upstate Maine doing research for this other project that never got made. And I was staying at this little hotel and whenever I would meet somebody new I was like, I would ask them about their job and I’d say like, hey, do you know anybody else who has lived here since 1970? Did you know any people who are old timers here? Because I’m trying to find out information. And so over the course of three or four days I was able to talk to ten different people about sort of what Maine was like in the 1970s. And it was great. It was fantastic. And it didn’t matter that I had credits or didn’t have credits. They were just like, well, somebody wants to know, I’m happy to talk to you about it.

So, you will find somebody who has the information you need. And if your listeners have other good suggestions for first places that Kate should look, we welcome them.

Craig: I talked to a detective at the Beverly Hills Police Department when I was doing research for Identity Thief. And he was describing how they work and how you deal with law enforcement when you catch them. And how you have to deal with it as a victim. And he was great. And when it was over, and I was leaving, he said, “Oh, by the way, what happens to the thief at the end?” And I said, well, I haven’t written it yet. I’m just in the research phase here. But I think she’s going to go to jail. And he said, “She should die.” [laughs]

And I said, what? And he goes, “She should die. These people are terrible.” And I thought, you know, I guess if you deal with the consequences of identity theft every day, day in and day out, and deal with the victims of it day in and day out, that’s probably how you would feel. That makes sense. Yeah.

John: So, useful advice for real world, but probably not useful advice for someone writing a comedy about an identity thief.

Craig: By the way, also, something to keep in mind, Kate. Reality is fantastic until it is not helpful. And then it is not fantastic. Especially if you’re doing something that is essentially a fictional dramatization of things that needs to be informed by reality. You know, use what helps.

John: Absolutely. Let’s do one more question. This is Jason from Los Angeles.

Jason: I’ve been living in LA for eight years and I just haven’t been able to break into the business the way I want to. I write consistently. I rewrite. I get notes from trusted friends. I rewrite some more. I’ve made short films. I’ve gotten into a few festivals. I recently posted a script to the Black List. And while all of these things have absolutely helped me to develop and hone my craft, they haven’t opened any industry doors for me.

I’m 33 years old. I’m married. So, jumping into something like an unpaid internship at a production company or spending five years in a mailroom doesn’t seem feasible for me. Which is why I’m considering doing something both of you have often opposed, and even more often with great umbrage. I’m considering going to a writing consultant. So, what I’m not considering doing is going to some online “guru” who has 12 tips for this and eight surefire techniques for that. No. What I’m talking about is basically a teacher. Someone who is all over YouTube. I’ve seen their ideas. I’ve seen them talk about their ideas. And they’re sound. They sound legit. It’s someone who has video testimonials on their website from current writers who are currently working in the business who are staffed on TV shows.

And I’m considering this for the same reason someone might consider hiring a tutor. This is a person outside my circle of friends who owes me nothing, knows their stuff, and best of all can give me notes face-to-face that can help me improve my script. I’ve looked into the cost and one year of meetings would run me about $3,500. Now, that’s not nothing, but it’s also not my life savings.

At this point in my life, that doesn’t seem like an unreasonable amount of money to try something new that can help me get where I want to go. Because what I’m doing right now hasn’t.

So, John, Craig, please tell me: am I crazy?

John: Craig, is Jason crazy?

Craig: No. He’s not crazy at all. He’s not crazy in the slightest. That’s why the industry of people that take money from folks like him is thriving and well, because they’re not preying on the insane. They’re preying on the sane and they’re preying on people who are scared and to some extent desperate. And I understand it. I mean, Jason has been at this for a while now it sounds like.

And he has a life. He’s created a life for himself. I assume he has a day job. Somehow he’s paying the bills. I completely agree that when you’re 33 years old and you have this life that you set up for yourself, starting in a mailroom or an unpaid internship doesn’t make any sense, and also it’s not necessary to be a writer or a director. It’s necessary if you want to be an agent or studio executive, I suppose.

So, no, Jason, you’re not crazy at all. But I’m glad that you did this — I’m glad you recorded this question because you get to listen to yourself back now. And I want to ask you — who do you sound like? Because to me, I’m concerned that you sound like the guy that’s about to lose money. And the reason why is you’re grasping at straws and I think you know you’re grasping at straws here. It’s not impossible that spending money on some outside help like this might help you improve your script. I think it’s highly unlikely it will help improve your script to the point where suddenly all those doors that have been firmly shut will fling open.

I don’t think it kind of works like that. I am concerned that after all this time it may just be that you don’t write or direct the sorts of things that the rooms you want to be in welcome. You may be a different kind of writer or director. It’s also possible that you’re not supposed to be doing this at all. I have no fear saying that. I know it is upsetting to hear and it’s particularly upsetting if next week you sign on and sell your movie and make a billion dollars and win an Oscar. Then I look like a dumb-dumb.

And I know that that’s the dream. So, I guess my advice to you would be this: think twice. $3,500 isn’t your life savings. It’s also $3,500. Think about who is asking you for that money and why they want it. Think about the nature of Hollywood. Think about predators and prey. And ask yourself if this is what’s right and best for you.

Generally speaking, as you know, I think it’s not. But, I also am aware that when I say these things, they are of no great assistance to somebody that’s trying to get one of those doors open.

John, what do you think?

John: Yeah. What I like about Jason, he already is thinking twice. In deciding to write into us and record his question, he is thinking twice. And he’s recognizing all of the sort of pitfalls ahead of him. So, he’s sort of done a lot of our work for us. And he’s further along in the process then somebody who says like, oh, maybe I’m going to start writing a script and I’ll hire this consultant.

So, I’m trying to step back and think about if I had $3,500 and I wanted to spend that $3,500 to improve my writing, what might I do? Well, I might take a class. I might take a UCLA Extension class. I might do something else that would sort of get me in a place where I’m around other people who are writing, who can help me focus in on what I’m doing. And so by that structure, I can’t say it’s the worst use of your money.

But I don’t know anything about this person he’s really going to. He says this person has YouTube videos, has a track record. I guess. Before I would give this person any of my money, I would want to know who has been using this person and what would they actually say. And the good thing about the Internet these days is you will find somebody who has had an experience with this person, positive or negative. Find out what that experience actually was. Because I don’t want you spending your money on just some charlatan who promises things.

I know that early in my career I was lucky to have some people who would read every draft of my stuff and would give me notes and I genuinely did get better doing that. Some of them were teachers. Others were producers who were trying to get my work on the screen. And I did get better. And so while I wasn’t paying them directly, or I was paying them indirectly through the university, it did help.

So, this could help you. I’m just concerned that it’s not the right person. I’m worried that you’re going to be writing in a year from now saying like, “Oh you know what guys? I spent that $3,500 and it was not the right choice. And I’m not any closer to what I want to be doing.”

Craig: Well, there is another negative outcome here. I mean, Jason mentioned that the person has testimonials on their advertising, and of course they do. The question isn’t whether or not people enjoyed working with this particular consultant. The question is whether or not this consultant got them their ultimate goal, which was to sell their screenplay or be employed to write another screenplay. And that’s not just sell it to some marginal player. There are a lot of those. But sell it to the kind of company you want to be in business with. Right Jason?

What these people do necessarily requires them to be good to you. When I say good to you, I mean, warm and fuzzy and encouraging because they want you to come back and keep paying them. They are actually less reliable, I think, then your friends in that regard. They will tell you, “Listen, this script has tremendous promise. You have tremendous promise. You can make this great. And you can get everything you want. Work with me. I will get you there.”

They will say that probably no matter what because that’s what’s going to make them the most money. And there are people who after a year or two will say, “I’m going to — I will gladly give you a testimonial because you’ve made my script better and you make me feel good in a world and business that otherwise makes me feel terrible.”

But $3,500 is a lot of money for that. And that ultimately really isn’t going to get you what you want. So, be careful of that praise. And be careful of that encouragement. They probably won’t say to you, “Hmm, I read it. This is no good. And I can’t help you with it. I don’t want your money.” You know?

The whole business is soaking in a certain kind of conflict of interest.

John: Yeah. It occurs to me listening to Jason’s question is that I feel like over the course of our 309 episodes we haven’t done a great job of introducing listeners to people who were sort of similarly positioned to Jason who made it. And there are some. And I’m thinking of a friend now who I can’t believe I’ve not had on the podcast who in his middle 30s, late 30, sort of finally got it started and finally got staffed on a TV show and is now running his own show.

It does happen. And because it’s rare doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. And I want to have him on the show to talk about sort of what he did and sort of the choices he made. And what he would do differently. Because he might have better advice for Jason than you or I would because we started at such a different time.

So, in hearing Jason’s question I’m recognizing that there’s probably a group of our steady listeners who we’ve never really directly addressed with how it can work. We’ve always sort of given them negative advice in a way. Like, you know, don’t do these things rather than like these are the things that actually work for people. So, that’s going to be a goal to get my friend on the show in the next couple of weeks.

Craig: I think that’s really smart. Because, you know, we do want to help. Obviously we want to help, because we’re trying to help people who are writing. And we’re trying to help them write better. And happily we don’t take — well, John takes their money hand over fist. I don’t get anything. But we don’t have much in the way of saying, “And we also want to help you get that job.”

We keep hitting this thing of write a great script, you’ll get the job. But, there are some practicals. It would be great to hear from somebody who has gone through it, especially somebody who is older than the typical right out of college “here I am, I want to be a writer.”

I will say that Jason sounds incredibly nice. He just sounds like a good guy and that makes me nervous. I’m nervous because sometimes it’s the good ones that end up getting fleeced the hardest.

So, you know what, Jason, talk to your wife. She knows you better than anybody. I guarantee it. I guarantee it. You say to her — I got to think of a good name for Jason’s wife. I’m going to go with Marissa. “Marissa,” so close to my wife’s name. Anyway. “Marissa, tell me something because I don’t trust myself on this issue. Does this sound like a good idea? Should I do this? Should I not do this? Give it to me straight. I know that you love me either way.”

I hope that’s true about Marissa

John: Yeah, you never know. Never assume how other people’s marriages work.

Craig: You’re right. You’re right. Like he may call in next week and say, “Well, I’m divorced now. I asked her. And apparently that was the only excuse she needed to just pack her stuff up and, yeah. So…and now I have half of that $3,500.” [laughs]

John: Oh, community property. California state law.

Craig: Ruining lives one podcast listener at a time.

John: Let’s move on and go to our One Cool Things before we wreck anymore havoc in the world.

Craig: Great idea.

John: My One Cool Thing this week is the bus. Which bus? Well, really any bus. But my whole year in Paris, one of my revelations was that as a tourist I was always taking the Metro to get from place to place, because Paris has a Metro, so why are you not taking the trains.

What was so great about this last year is the busses are actually fantastic. And I was always sort of scared to take the busses because I didn’t quite know where they were going, or how to use them, or how it would all work. The huge advantage, the huge change, is that Google Maps now has all of the busses in the map directions. So if you are someplace, you want to get someplace, Google Maps will tell you get on this bus, it’ll take you to the place. And it was fantastic. And the busses in Paris were great. And so convenient. And while I was on my bus I could do my Duolingo and it was a great experience.

So, coming back to Los Angeles I vowed, you know what, I’m going to start taking the bus more often.

Craig: Hmm.

John: So this last week I took the bus to Beverly Hills. It was fantastic. And Google Maps worked just as well. And so the busses in Los Angeles are not bad at all. And people are always kind of afraid of the busses and they shouldn’t be. They were the same as the busses in Paris. It got me where I needed to go. It was easy and delightful. It was cheaper because I didn’t have to park my car in Beverly Hills. So, just try the bus. It sounds so simple and obvious because obviously I grew up taking the bus in Boulder. But a bus in the big city can be really great. And if people took the bus more often, I think they would be surprised.

Craig: It’s true that the thing that keeps me from the bus is just general fear of where the hell I’m going. Because these busses pull up and I just don’t know the bus system well enough. Like in New York, I’m here in New York right now, that’s why this microphone sounds weird, I take the subway all the time. I take the subway everywhere I can take it. And it’s really clear. I know exactly where it’s going. And they’ve got letters on them. And they never change. And that’s that with those.

And then the busses come and they have these letters and numbers. And I just get confused. I get confused.

John: You know who does know? Your phone knows. Your phones knows everything. And so Google Maps, you punch it in, it will tell you exactly when that bus is coming, when to get on it. It’s great and convenient. And also because you’re not underground you don’t lose service, so you can actually do things on your phone. It’s great.

So I would just recommend people try the bus. If you haven’t tried the bus in years, take a bus sometime this month and see what it’s like.

Craig: Following this podcast, bus murders, up by 30%.

John: Ha-ha. Always the best.

Craig: I mean, let’s face it: our listeners are easy marks. Well, I’ll continue with the transportation theme of One Cool Thing. Hyperloop One.

John: I saw that. They tested.

Craig: And it was successful. It worked. Now, they were testing — was essentially like a chassis, like a little sled. It wasn’t the full car where you can put people. And it wasn’t at full speed either. They talk about being able to go up to 700 miles per hour. In this case, the test I think was just 70 miles per hour. But it worked. They have a tube. It’s a vacuum. And they got maglev. And it shot down the track and it worked.

So, at least you’ve got this first theory into practice mode and I got to say the way that people are jumping on board with this thing, it feels like it’s going to happen. It legitimately does not feel like bunk.

You know, look, obviously I know that what do they call them, Super Trains? What do they call the — bullet trains? Bullet trains are real. I know they’re real. I’ve ridden on a bullet train. But when California said we’re going to spend billions of dollars to make a bullet train I thought no you’re not. It’s not going to happen. You’re going to spend billions of dollars, but we’re not going to have a bullet train. And we don’t.

We have spent billions of dollars. There’s no bullet train. This thing feels like it’s going to happen. And if they can put it together, they’re saying you can get on board in Los Angeles and be in San Francisco within I think 50 minutes.

John: It’s crazy.

Craig: It’s amazing. And that’s 50 minutes without going to an airport and getting in the line. It’s just hope on a tube and you’re there.

John: Yeah. So we’ll hope. Yeah. I mean, we’re in a weird time when we have all these amazing things that can be happening even while the world seems to be falling apart. So, it’s going to be a real race to see which future we end up in.

Craig: I do believe the world is essentially separated into two tribes at this point. Builders and tearers-down. And builders, the one advantage that builders have is that they’re ingenious. And the one advantage that tearers-down have is they are indiscriminate. They’ll just tear — if it’s standing down, they’ll tear it down. They don’t care.

John: Yeah. Just swing that crow bar and you can just knock things down.

Craig: Exactly. Yeah. They’ve certainly got inertia on their side, don’t they?

John: They do. Gravity works. They have all the stored energy in there. They can just make things fall.

Craig: Exactly. And what’s the — entropy. They have entropy. Inevitably, the tearers-down win.

John: Well, in the end everything becomes dust. But it’s just how cool things can be before they all become dust.

Craig: Before the universe ends in heat death. 100%. Yep.

John: As we wrap up, I will remind people that the Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide is available. It’s the first 300 episodes of the show, plus all the bonus episodes. People recommend which things you should check out. So, if you’re new to the show and you want to dig into the back catalog that is a great place to start.

You can listen to those episodes on the new USB drives. So you can go to store.johnaugust.com and get one of those USB drives. They are lovely and sturdy.

And that’s our show. Our show is produced by Carlton Mittagakus.

Craig: What?

John: It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth.

Craig: Of course.

John: If you have an outro, you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you can send questions like the ones we answered today. We are on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can also find us on Apple Podcasts. Look for Scriptnotes. And while you’re there, leave us a review.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. We try to get them up about four days after the episode airs. And you can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net.

Craig, thanks for a fun episode.

Craig: Thank you, John. And next week, same time zone.

John: Oh, so nice.

Craig: So nice. See you then.

John: Bye.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

What’s in the WGA Deal

Tue, 07/25/2017 - 08:03

Craig and John talk with Chris Keyser, one of the co-chairs of the WGA Negotiating Committee, to learn what gains were achieved in the most recent deal, and what work lies ahead.

Warning: it’s a super-wonky episode that presumes you’re familiar with the basics outlined in episode 289.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 308: Chekhov’s Ladder — Transcript

Tue, 07/18/2017 - 16:23

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

Today on the show, we’ll be looking at how screenwriters signal to audiences. What kinds of things can and cannot happen in their films. And why that’s important. We’ll also be looking at suggestions for reducing sexism in screenplays and answering listener questions about writers on set and giving feedback on friends’ scripts.

Oh, it’s a big show.

Craig: That’s a lot. We got to motor, dude.

John: We got to. We got to pack a lot in, because I am packing up. I am moving back to the US in 24 hours.

Craig: I mean, are they going to let you back? Because, you know, it’s gotten a little weird over here.

John: It has gotten kind of weird over in your country. Yeah, I think so. We have our visas for living here in France. As a US citizen I believe they need to let me back in the country, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to stop other people.

Craig: Well, we are certainly excited to have you back. It’s going to be nice. And honestly just from a selfish point of view, we can stop doing this bizarre thing where it’s either crazy late at night for me or crazy late at night for you. We get to just go back to our normal — just our normal thing.

John: Yeah. Our normal thing. Where we sacrifice the small animals at the altar and then we fire up our microphones and do the normal show.

Craig: I know. For one year we’ve been sacrificing large animals. Ew.

John: Just the amount of blood that you have to go through and living in a small apartment, it’s just a mess.

Craig: It’s gross.

John: Even with the tarp down, it’s a lot.

Craig: I know. Well, I used to use like the disposal tarps, and then I was like bills started piling up. So now we just hose them off.

John: Yeah. Well it’s a good thing. You have to be environmentally conscious when you’re sacrificing animals to produce a podcast about screenwriting.

Craig: Damn straight. This show has gotten so weird. I love it.

John: It does get kind of weird. I was really happy with our last episode. It was both weird and like educational. And the right combination.

Craig: Yeah.

John: We will jinx it by not being nearly as good today.

Craig: Nah, we’re going to be better.

John: Even better? All right. We’ll start with follow up. Last week we talked about the Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide which is where our listeners of our podcast, the best listeners ever in the history of podcasts, put together this guide of the back episodes, the first 300 episodes, and their recommendations. A bunch of people have downloaded it, so thank you for downloading it. If you would like to download this free PDF for yourself, it’s 113 pages. You just go to johnaugust.com/guide.

And we’ve also been selling a bunch of the USB drives. So we have the first 300 episodes, plus all the bonus episodes, on a USB drive. They’re at the store.johnaugust.com.

Craig: Oh man. So much money coming my way.

John: So, so much money coming your way.

Craig: Can’t wait for that check.

John: So I have notifications turned on on my watch, so whenever one of those ships I get a little buzz on my watch. And my watch has been buzzing, so that’s great.

Craig: Nice. Nice. Great.

John: Nice. Finally, bit of follow up, our live show on July 25, I think as we’re recording this there are still tickets. Our guest is Megan Amram, plus some other special people to be announced soon. So, if you are in Los Angeles on July 25, and you’re not at our show, I’d just like to know why. I’d just like to know why you’re not at our show on July 25.

Craig: Well, until we announce the other guests, who are going to be terrific, I get why people are sort of going, OK, now that sounds great so far, but is it great-great? And it’s going to be great-great. It is.

John: I wonder if we have set expectations askew by everyone is like, oh, there must be this fantastic, amazing, ungettable guest that makes you want to come in to see the show, when really shouldn’t they be coming to see the show for all the special live stuff with you and me?

Craig: Or just me.

John: Yeah, basically just Craig. An excuse to see Craig Mazin.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, I’m great. I’m amazing. People should just come to see me. In fact, we should have a live Scriptnotes that’s just me.

John: Yeah. It would sell tickets. I’m pretty much a drag on this whole show.

Craig: Yeah. I could sit there in a chair like, you know, when Hal Holbrook would do his Mark Twain show. I’ll just sit there.

John: 100%.

Craig: And I’ll chat.

John: Or Val Kilmer, when Val Kilmer did his Mark Twain show.

Craig: I missed that.

John: I missed that, too. Oh, there’s always Val Kilmer.

There’s a universe in which Val Kilmer is a bigger star or does not exist. Like, in a previous episode we talked about the Mandela Effect in which things were different in a slightly different parallel universe than sort of how that all could come to be. We talked about the movie starring Sinbad which never existed. This next link which was sent to me by Craig McDermond reminded me of that, because it is a trailer for the Netflix series for The Addams Family. And it’s a well cut together trailer for the show that does not exist at all. And yet in a different universe it definitely does exist. So I’ll put a link in the show notes. It’s a well put together for The Addams Family as a presumably one-hour Netflix drama.

Craig: So it’s like Riverdale kind of thing where they take it seriously and it’s dramatic and emo?

John: I’d say it’s kind of dramatic and kind of emo. So, once again, Craig has not clicked on the links inside of the outline.

Craig: No, not until I get my check from those flash drives. [laughs]

John: Ha-ha. But it’s good. So I would recommend checking it out because it definitely feels like a thing that could exist and in a different universe does exist.

Craig: All right. All right. I will check that out.

John: So two other links in our outline, both related to something we talk about a lot on the podcast, which is writing stuff where there’s real people involved or things that are based on true stories. And our general advice has been go for it, but know that you could hit some rough waters down the road. And here’s two examples of rough water being hit down the road. Do you want to talk us through either of these?

Craig: Well, sure. So the first one is actually remarkable because it involves Olivia de Havilland, who is just about 101 years old. Olivia de Havilland is a classic movie star from the golden age of cinema. And the thing that’s remarkable about it is that this is not the first time that Olivia de Havilland has been involved in a fairly high profile lawsuit. She really was the person who kind of broke the old studio system, where studios would essentially own actors. And I don’t know if any of our listeners have heard the expression “an actor out on loan,” it’s a lyric that’s in a Doors song of all things.

And that’s the way it used to be. Actors were controlled by individual studios who had these long contracts with them that they couldn’t get out of. And if another studio wanted to use them, the studio would loan them to that studio in exchange for maybe borrowing one of their actors. But it was a bit like the way baseball used to — you were on a team and they controlled you. And then eventually free agency came along.

And so Olivia de Havilland was involved in that, but now a little something else. So Ryan Murphy Productions has made a show called Feud. It’s on FX. And Feud is basically about — true story of a feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And Olivia de Havilland is involved in it. And is portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones. And basically what Olivia de Havilland is saying is that portrayal was not true. The lawsuit argues that de Havilland has built a reputation of integrity for herself and refrains from gossip. The series however paints an opposing picture. And it’s interesting because it’s not exactly about defamatory actions. It’s more that she’s saying she has this thing — and it’s true — this right to publicity, which is something that has emerged in our laws over time. Basically if you are a public figure, your right to publicity extends towards your ability to make money off of yourself, your image. So, while I can make a movie and have somebody portray say John Wayne walking through a scene, what I can’t do is then use that person’s portrayal of John Wayne to sell a product and say, you know, as if John Wayne were supporting it. Because now I’m infringing on John Wayne’s — even though he’s passed away — his right to publicity.

So, there was a famous, semi-famous soda commercial or something a few years ago that did in fact weirdly revive John Wayne to have him sell something. Clearly there the estate had been paid for the license to use the rights of publicity. She’s saying essentially this portrayal is violating that right.

Uh — seems like a stretch.

John: This feels like an incredibly slippery slope, too. So when I first saw the headline, I assumed it was a standard kind of libel thing where like how dare they make say that. I never said those things. And she kind of says like how dare they in this suit. But really it is over this right of publicity. The statutory right of publicity, unjust enrichment, invasion of privacy. And it’s interesting because she’s still alive. And yet so much of what is at play here really could be from the estate of — if she even weren’t alive. And so that’s what makes me really kind of queasy about this, because does it sort of like wall off anybody who is sort of famous can never be in a movie again? And that would just be a crazy situation.

So, while I can understand why a great actress would want to protect her legacy and her image, I do worry that this is a really bad precedent to set if she were to come out victorious here.

Craig: I agree. And the thing that’s salient to me here is that she is suing for Common Law right of publicity, statutory right of publicity, unjust enrichment, and invasion of privacy. But what she’s not suing for is defamation. And that’s — well, it’s kind of telling the story there. It seems to me that she’s complaining about defamation, but her attorneys probably looked at the situation and said we are not going to win that. This does not rise to the level of defamation. So, let’s try these other things.

People do this. I mean, for a while it was all the rage for aggrieved almost screenwriters to sue studios for implied contract. So, instead of saying you stole my script, because they knew they couldn’t win that, they would say you implied that you would pay me if you made a movie like this. Which of course they never did. The argument being you had a meeting with me, therefore we had an implied contract. No we didn’t. That’s never won. It’s never going to win.

And in this case it feels like another sort of an end run. But, you know, as always, you and I, we’re not lawyers. It will be interesting to see what happens here. I share your squeamishness about the unintended consequences that could result if she prevails.

John: It’s also worth pointing out that Ryan Murphy has a whole cottage industry of taking things that are sort of real life stories and dramatizing them for these limited series. So, Feud is an example of that. I worry that if this were to be a successful lawsuit, it makes it very difficult to make those kinds of stories about real life people ever again. So, I’m hoping this goes away and that maybe it’s the last we hear of it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Actually a more fascinating thing also happened the last two weeks. So this former Vibe journalist named Kevin Powell filed a federal lawsuit against the makers of the film All Eyez on Me. And so this is the biopic of Tupac Shakur, which I’ve not seen, but the lawsuit is really interesting because it claims that the film uses a character that Kevin Powell actually created in his articles, a composite character that Kevin Powell created in his articles about Tupac Shakur. So it sort of takes away the defense of like, oh, we’re just basing things off real people because this is not a real person. So he’s basically saying that you have appropriated this artificially created character in my stories, which is a really interesting thing I haven’t seen in other lawsuits about work being appropriated for the screen.

Craig: Yeah. This is interesting. My question — I have not seen the movie, nor have I read Mr. Powell’s article. What I’m curious about is whether or not his article presented this character who is named Nigel — and it says in this article describing the lawsuit that Nigel is a creation of Powell. It’s meant to be a composite of a real person named Haitian Jack and presumably a few other people combined in there. And that’s something that sometimes people can do. It’s a bit of dramatic license, but Powell wasn’t writing fiction. He was writing an article.

So the question I have is would anyone reasonably expect that this person Nigel in the article wasn’t real? Because if I’m gathering resource materials together and I’m looking at articles, journalism, and there’s a report, and there’s an individual that is cited and his actions are described, it seems reasonable that I would presume that’s a real person. And so I’m not copying fiction because I don’t presume it is fiction.

John: This is the problem with single sourcing. So, if you think back to the episode we had with Irene Turner where she was talking about her film about Madalyn O’Hair, she pointed out that her lawyer as they were going through working on that true life story, they were like really, really concerned whenever there was only a single source for a story. So, if it wasn’t in the public record, like that you can find multiple people all reporting the same thing. If you’re basing something off of one account of things, that is a written, owned account by somebody, and apparently this Nigel character is only going to exist in this guy’s reporting, because he doesn’t really exist in real life, that is a troubling thing.

So, whether or not the article made it clear that Nigel was a composite character or not, I don’t know that gets the movie off the hook.

Craig: Yeah. I agree. I think that there actually is a case here where infringement may have occurred. It seems to me that this is a trickier place. Powell is asking, or his attorneys are asking that the Lion’s Gate film be pulled from theaters and is seeking an unspecified amount to be determined by a jury. I don’t think the movie is going to be pulled from theaters. I don’t think it’s done particularly well anyway. It’s done OK.

I think that this feels like a settlement kind of thing. Like, OK, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to pay you some money. That’s generally what happens when there is an actual infringement. There is a settlement.

John: Let’s take a look at both of these stories from the perspective of you are a screenwriter working on a story that involves some true life people. And what you can learn from these two examples about best practices and what you should do. So, in the case of de Havilland, I don’t really know what to say. If you’re working on an historical account there’s going to be some real life people mixed in there, some of which could still be alive, some of which may be dead, some of which may have estates who are litigious. I would not let that stop you from writing the best possible story involving those characters you need to do. And just know that down the road it could be a problem.

In the second case, the Tupac Shakur, I’d be just extra vigilant that when you are doing the research on your stories, really make it clear who are real people and who are not real people. Look for multiple sources. Just don’t rely on one account for things. Because if you don’t control that underlying material, you’re going to be potentially in a bad spot down the road. And, again, I don’t know the specifics of what happened here. We’re basing this off of one LA Times article that we’ll put a link to in the show notes. So, this could be much more complex than what we’re seeing right here.

Craig: Yeah. And I think that if you are working on material that is based on real people — dead, or alive, or both — that the most important thing is that you are very up front with the studio for whom you’re working, and if at all possible you do an annotation of the screenplay so that they can see the sources that you’re relying on. And then allow them to make suggestions because ultimately the deal is as long as they are aware of what you’ve done, and you have not lied to them, you’re indemnified by them.

But if you do lie to them, even if there’s a sin of omission, you may be liable and you may be in breach of your contract. I mean, ultimately you can’t — in every contract we are saying this is our work. We’re not infringing on the work of anyone else. So, get that relationship going and work with your studio and be up front about it. I mean, the project that I’m working on right now is historical drama and it’s at the forefront of my mind. And we’re annotating up the wazoo, you know, because I want to make sure that we’re covered.

John: And when you say annotating, my suspicion is — and correct me if I’m wrong — the actual screenplay which you’re working off of is a main document. That document is not replete with annotations? It is rather that you have a separate document that refers back to your script that says like, OK, these characters and these situations are based on real life things. That’s what you’re talking about with annotating?

Craig: That’s right. There’s a separate document that goes page by page and says here are the sources for this, for this, for this, for this. And then also this is dramatized. So that everybody understands. I mean, it’s really important to I think be up front about where you’re taking dramatic license, as you need to from time to time, but ideally you’re doing it for dramatic license without trampling truth. And that you are covered on things because you’re not proposing something that just is — no one said has happened, or maybe one person said happened. So, yeah, that annotation is sort of a big thing. I actually have a researcher that I’ve been working with on this project and she is — once I’ve completed the final script of this series, she’s going to spend three or four weeks and annotate. That’s her job. You know, write it all up, so that we’re covered. Because these things can happen.

But, don’t freak out about this stuff. Just be open with your studio and you should be fine.

John: I agree. All right, let’s get to our first big topic this week. This comes from Emilia Schatz. She is one of the lead game designers at Naughty Dog, the studio that does The Last of Us, Uncharted series, really great videogames. And I found this article. Jordan Mechner had linked to it. And I thought it was just terrific. So, the article talks about how a videogame designer thinks about affordances. And affordances she defines as the objects in a story, in a videogame, that the player can interact with. And so as you go through the article you’ll see scenes from Uncharted in which it’s just the Nathan Drake character walking around on wire meshes. And they’re figuring out sort of like, OK, what does the player think he or she can do at the moment and what do you want them to be able to do or not be able to do?

And so she’s coming at this from a videogame perspective, but as I was reading it I kept thinking like, oh, you know what? We’re sort of doing the same thing as screenwriters all the time. We are sort of defining what it is in our stories that the characters are allowed to do or not allowed to do. And we have to communicate to the audience like these are possibilities and these are not possibilities. And so I thought it was a terrific article and it really applied very well to a lot of things we are doing on a daily basis as screenwriters.

Craig: Yeah. I’ve never thought about this concept, but I do play a ton of videogames, including The Last of Us and Uncharted. And I know what she’s talking about. And you notice it most clearly when you interact with an object that actually doesn’t impact the storyline at all. So, you know, a game that does this thoroughly is Dishonored. And Dishonored 2 in particular. You will walk through a room and there’s a globe and you spin the globe. And there’s a piano and you play the piano. And there’s a glass and you pick it up and then you drop it. None of that is required for you to advance through the game. It’s just interactable. And it does create a sense of richness and reality to the world. It’s also as a videogame player when there’s too much of it it’s frustrating. Because you think, OK, I’ve walked into a room. One of these things, one of these affordances, is necessary to me. The other ones are not. I wonder which one. Now I got to pick up and smash every little thing, right?

So there’s an interesting balance. And when we’re writing scenes, I often think like, OK, in terms of objects, props, there are going to be some that are important and then there are some that are just there for vibe. And, of course, since we have our characters moving through the space, we can’t frustrate the audience with this sense of overwhelming interactability. But we do have to make those determinations. And I think a lot of times what happens with newer writers is they start with what are the key props that I need to make this scene work, and then they stop. They never get to the second bunch of affordances which are what makes this feel real. You know, what little touches can I add here to just make this seem like it’s alive. I don’t know if you’ve ever found this, John, but sometimes those sort of tonal affordances become plot affordances. Because now that they’re in the space, you suddenly realize, oh, I can use that. You know?

John: 100%. So as I’m sort of doing the set dressing on a scene in my mind, I’ll find like, oh, you know, that actually is really interesting and that provides a necessary break in the conversation or a way to pivot to get through a scene because I have that thing.

I think the first time I was ever aware of the difference between sort of sets and props was weirdly watching like a Tom and Jerry cartoon growing up. And if you look at old animation, quite often if there’s a dresser with a bunch of drawers, you can always tell the one the character is going to touch because it’s a slightly different shade. Because that drawer is going to be the one that gets pulled out. And for whatever reason it’s just painted slightly different. And so ten seconds before the character touches the drawer you can tell like, oh, that’s the drawer he’s going to pull out, because it’s just painted a slightly different color. And you have a sense of like, OK, in a weird way that’s an affordance. That’s a thing the character can actually act upon, versus everything else is just background. It’s just set dressing.

And what she’s describing here is that it is useful that characters can do so many things within a scene, but if you give them too many choices they can be paralyzed, the way you’re saying. Or if they see something that they cannot interact with that they expect to be able to interact with, it breaks their reality. And so a great example she gives is ladders. And so if you show a ladder in a scene, and the character cannot climb that ladder, they will be frustrated because our rules of videogames is like ladders are meant to be climbed. So you see something that looks like it should be climbable and it’s not climbable, you’re going to have a very frustrated player and they’re going to lose faith in your videogame.

I think the same kind of thing happens in movies a lot where we see an opportunity for the character. It feels like that’s something that is being set up, but if it’s not actually used in any meaningful way, we get frustrated as an audience.

Craig: Well, we begin to ask this very fundamental and irksome question for the filmmaker, or the videogame maker: Why is that there? Why would a ladder be there? If I can’t go up the ladder, what’s it for? To make the room look pretty with ladders? I don’t get it. I just don’t understand. I know why windows are there. I’m very used to videogames where there’s a room full of windows and I need to escape the room. And for the love of god I can’t open a window. I can’t run through the window. And, oh well.

But I get that. I understand there’s like a basic deal there and I can retcon in some reason why I can’t go through the window. It’s bulletproof glass, or it’s leaded glass, and it just doesn’t work. Or the frame is stuck and old and rusty. Whatever, there’s some reason. I can’t go through the windows. What are you going to do?

But if you’re going to give me a ladder and I need to go somewhere and I can’t use it, then, well, now you’re just screwing with me, right? And you do get that sense sometimes when movies provide potential avenues of action that would be useful to the character, and then deny the character the ability to use them. That is a kind of a cheat. And it’s honestly an avoidable mistake. There’s really no reason to do it in a movie.

John: Agreed. Because movies fundamentally, as we talked about last week, they are on rails. You control the experience of going through the movie. So nothing has to be there that you don’t want to put there. The great classic example of this is Chekhov’s Gun. So, Chekhov in talking about sort of what you build into your world and what you don’t build into your world and what you don’t build into your world said, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter there’s a rifle hanging on the wall, or in the second or third chapter it is absolutely necessary that it must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

And that’s really what we’re talking about. Is that if there is something that is visible in your story that could provide a solution, that feels like it should provide a solution, you either got to use it or get rid of it, because otherwise it’s going to be frustrating to your audience and they’re going to stop believing in the journey that your characters are on.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, Chekhov’s Gun is one of those things that really ought to be expanded past the word gun. I think a lot of people get too hung up on gun. But there are Chekhov’s Characters. There are people that are implied are dangerous. Well, they better be dangerous at some point. They better do the thing that we were warned they can do. The best example I can think of is like — it’s like Chekhov’s Movie, you might as well call that — is Unforgiven.

Clint Eastwood is Chekhov’s Eastwood. We are told time and time again that he was once an incredibly dangerous man. And how do we meet him? He is an aging pig farmer who cannot even get back on his own horse. He’s not particularly good at shooting people anymore. He’s not really shooting that straight. He doesn’t really want to do any of it. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t seem particularly mean. He’s done nothing to warrant this reputation.

Until the end of the movie, when he becomes the devil. And there it is. The gun goes off.

So you can think about characters that way as well.

John: So I saw Wonder Woman for the second time yesterday and I really love the film and I think it deserves as much acclaim as it has been getting. But there is a Chekhov’s Gun moment in it. It is a guy with a rifle. And so there’s a guy who is set up as being a master sniper. And you can just feel something got cut. Something got changed along the way. And so he’s supposed to be a really good shot, and he never shoots. You never see him actually do the thing he’s supposed to be really good at. And the movie kind of tries to get through it and tries to pay him off a little bit, but it wasn’t the most important thing to sort of pay off and they never really do pay it off especially well. I think it’s just especially — egregious is too strong a word — but you notice it because it literally is a gun and because like, well, that gun should be fired at some point and it’s never fired and it’s never really addressed in a meaningful way.

Craig: Yeah. Isn’t it weird that there’s this psychological satisfaction to that? We know, in comedy there are movies like Police Academy. In Police Academy, you meet a compendium of characters. This is a very time-honored comedy tradition. A compendium of characters who each have a very special bizarre individual skill. And at some point by the end of the movie they each use that special skill to kick some butt. And it’s so satisfying. You know it’s going to happen. But you’re happy it does.

John: Ultimately we’re talking about expectation, which we’ve come back to time and time again on the podcast. Which is an audience approaches a movie with a certain set of expectations. There are the expectations before they even sat in the theater based on the genre, based on the trailer, based on sort of what they know about how movies work.

Then there’s also the expectations that are set up within your movie about the things the characters have said, the sequence of events, sort of like the natural flow of what they think should happen next. And most times you want to give them what they do expect is going to happen next. Just give them the best version of what’s going to happen next.

But there’s definitely some things you should be mindful of as a writer as you’re writing these sequences that if you call something out, if you shine a spotlight on it, if you give a character a name. If you make it clear that the characters within the world have a name for that character, there’s going to be an expectation that that character is going to do something meaningful. If that character doesn’t do anything meaningful, that’s going to be a problem.

If you’re shining a giant spotlight on the “McClinty device,” that McClinty device has to do something or we’re going to be very, very frustrated. You’re also always setting expectations about the nature of the universe that your characters are living in. So, the economic universe. Are we in a world where Monica from Friends has an amazing apartment that’s never really explained? Or are we in the world of Girls where Hannah lives in a realistic apartment for who she is and what she’s making?

Are we living in Bruce Wayne kind of richesse, or Richie Rich kind of rich? And those are both crazy wealthy, but they’re different kinds of crazy wealthy.

Craig: I loved Richie Rich. I read those —

John: I hate Richie Rich so much.

Craig: Loved them.

John: He’s my most despised character ever.

Craig: I loved him.

John: He has no redeeming qualities whatsoever other than —

Craig: No, he’s wonderful. He’s so nice.

John: There’s no character that’s ever been created that makes me as angry as Richie Rich.

Craig: His family has a waterfall of money.

John: Yeah. That’s good. He has McDonald’s in his house. That’s how rich he is.

Craig: That’s right. He has a Professor Keenbean, to make inventions.

John: Yeah. He’s got everybody. And you know what? He deserves it. He totally deserves all the good things that happen to him because he’s rich.

Craig: Every now and then someone would try and kidnap him. It never worked out.

John: No, no. Of course it would never work out. My daughter started to watch the Richie Rich Netflix show, and I came in the room and said, “No, you’re never watching that again. It is despicable on every level.” It was like one of the few times where I really intervened on something that wasn’t about sex or language or anything. It’s just like, no, that is a horrible, horrible message. And, no.

Craig: I love it. Well, you know what? Here’s the thing. My sister and I would read Richie Rich comics when we were kids and it was great for us because we were Poorie Poor. So it was like a fun fantasy of like, wow, can you imagine that mansion where you had to have a car to drive from room to room? And also your parents were really nice? And you had the money waterfall. And it was just, you know, it was very nice.

But, look, listen, your daughter will get over it in therapy at some point.

John: [laughs] At some point, yes. Let’s talk about the other kind of rules you set for your universe. You’re always setting expectations about how the physics works in your world. So, you know, there’s a certain kind of Charlie’s Angels physics. There is a Thor physics. Like, you know, Thor is really, really strong, but he’s not strong enough to move the world. Some Super Man movies he is strong enough to move the world, which seems impossible without a lever, but that’s fine. You’re always setting expectations about how all that works. What the magic can do in your world. That’s really important.

And so if you establish a kind of magic in Harry Potter, you have to be true to that magic throughout the rest of the series or people are going to stop believing in you.

Craig: Yeah. There is I guess one exception. You can create an enormous anticipation or expectation for something and then not do it, as long as you make a point of saying we’re not doing it.

John: 100%. You have to just acknowledge that you set it up and then call out that you’re not doing what you’ve set up.

Craig: Right. Exactly.

John: That’s great. And that works really, really well. And in some ways my frustration with Wonder Woman is if they had one or two more lines, they probably could have done that with that character and like see him not take the shot or get over not taking the shot. But they don’t seem to do that. And, look, that happens. I mean, we’ve all been in edits where like something has got to give and that has to go away. But that was my frustration there.

Another thing you have to set up about the rules of your world is practice and mastery. So, is this going to be the movie where we see people working really hard to do the thing that we’re seeing them do? Or do they magically just do it? And so I think about the difference between — in Glee the kids can just put on this amazing show and you never actually see them having to work at it. Pitch Perfect also has that sense of like, yeah, you see them rehearse a little bit, but basically —

Craig: It’s a montage. They do the classic montage.

John: They’re montaging through it. But Glee they don’t even montage through it. They suddenly can just like sit down at the piano and do this amazing thing without any practice. Compare that to the football in The Blind Side where you see like, oh you know what, it’s a tremendous amount of work to be that good at football. And that becomes an important story point. So, think about sort of the rules you’re setting for practice in the world.

Craig: I love it when you say “the football.”

John: The football. You got to practice the football.

Craig: The football.

John: We’ve talked about hanging a lantern before. And hanging a lantern is when you sort of call out that you’re doing something in the film. And it’s a really important skill. It can be done really awkwardly and haphazardly, but it can be really useful in saying like this thing I’m doing, you see that I’m doing it and I acknowledge that you see that I’m doing it, but this becomes really important. You’re shining that spotlight on something or acknowledging that you are doing something that is different than expectation and done carefully, done with the right finesse it can be a really useful way to signal to the audience like, yeah, I get what’s happening here and that’s OK.

You see that being done a lot in the Iron Man movies where you can have Tony Stark acknowledge the sort of improbability of what’s happening and yet it just rolls off him because he has the charisma to sort of sell the idea.

Craig: Yeah. You just have to be careful to not overdo it. Because what happens is the movie will start to push towards a general irony zone. Now, you may want to be in irony zone. For instance, Deadpool is just — that’s a big irony machine. So it’s perfectly fine to do that constantly in Deadpool because people want that from that movie. They don’t want it to be the other kind of movie that takes itself seriously.

But if you are kind of in that middle zone, and you do the lampshade or the lantern thing one too many times, the movie starts to feel a little cheaty. Because here’s the thing: everybody knows it’s cheating, right? Now, you get away with it once or twice because you’re saying we know we’re cheating, so don’t be insulted. But the more you do it, I think the chintzier it all starts to feel.

John: Yeah. It feels like the kind of rules about coincidences. You get one coincidence, maybe two coincidences in a film. More than that and we’re like, OK, we’ve stopped believing in the movie itself.

Craig: Right.

John: Here’s the last thing I want to say about this idea of affordances and sort of what characters can do and what they can’t do. Sometimes it’s helpful to just have a character say it. If you need to rule something out, sometimes it can be useful just like a character has to acknowledge that it’s a possibility and then explain why that cannot happen. Or, you can sort of physically set up your world in a way that that option is taken off the table. So you’ve taken away that as a possibility for the character to consider. So, you’ve like burned that bridge. You’ve forever sealed that door. There’s no way to go back to that thing. And, again, that’s a real advantage to the way that our movies do work on rails. Like very carefully disguised rails, but you can move the characters through to a place but there’s no way to get back to that option that seemed so useful before.

And that can be really useful dramatically, too, because the journey of a character should be like things get more and more desperate. So if you take away that simple solution to the problem that is a terrific thing.

Craig: And this is something that I think good screenwriters spend a lot of time on. Because ideally you never want anyone to stop and go, “Oh, I see, there’s a lot of explanation for why they can’t do this or that, which would make the movie not work anymore.” You’re always looking for those elegant solutions that don’t seem like solutions at all. The problem isn’t a problem because this is just clearly true and therefore this must be true and so on and so forth. It all feels seamless.

It’s more important oddly in comedy. Because comedy relies on a certain sort of effortlessness. And if anyone ever catches a whiff that you are changing the rules of the world so that you can do a joke, the joke just isn’t as funny. In dramas, I think people get away with it a little bit more. Again, this is why only comedies should get awards.

John: [laughs] 100% agreement there. All right, let’s get on to our next topic which is something you found. So, talk us through this.

Craig: Well, actually this was sent to me by Derek Haas, friend of the podcast, and co-creator of the many Chicago shows. Chicago Fire, PD, Education?

John: Chicago Vet. Yeah. Chicago Social Services where they deal with all of the characters and the families who are displaced by the events of Chicago PD or Chicago Fire. I think it’s a really noble show. It’s not doing as well in the ratings. I think it’s pulling about a 0.1. But, you know it’s crucial. And so I think it’s good that NBC is keeping it on the air just to sort of fill stuff out. Because I always have a lot of questions about what happens to that family after their house burned down or after their father was arrested for that crime.

Craig: Tell you what, it’s doing better than Chicago Permit. It’s just the office that does the permits. Yeah.

John: What’s so funny about the Chicago Permit show is mostly they’re pulling permits for shooting the Chicago shows in Chicago.

Craig: I know. It’s weird.

John: Again, there’s a snake eating its own tail quality, but I like that. I like that the shows have been willing to get so meta. I think the crossover with Hawaii Five-0 is fantastic. You know, it’s all feeding well. It’s a cross-network crossover, which is the best.

Craig: Chicago Rubber Roasts. Oh, that’s right, I said Rubber Roast. So, this is an article by Radha O’Meara who is a lecturer in screenwriting at the University of Melbourne, which I believe is the Australian Melbourne. And this is what — I believe Radha is a — I think she’s a woman. I think Radha is a female.

John: Radha Mitchell is an actress who is a woman. So I’m going to say all Radhas are now women.

Craig: All Radhas are women. So, we’ll throw a link on in the show notes, but she had some suggestions for how to avoid general sexism in screenplays. And I thought they were all very good suggestions. I had zero umbrage on these. So, I thought I would go ahead and share the bullet points here and then you at home can read further.

So the first one is a real simple one. Give female characters names. And there’s a very interesting reason that — I mean, sometimes characters don’t deserve names. And as you mentioned, sometimes if you name them, it might stop people and think, oh, that must be a very important character. And then they turn out not to be. Sometimes a character should just be named Waitress or Cop, because they have one line and it’s not particularly important.

What she says is if you give female characters names, oftentimes named characters are paid more. Now, I think that probably is a little bit of a non-causal correlation in that generally named characters are named because they are more significant, therefore they are paid more than non-named characters. But I do think that it does open things up a little bit and at least gives you a moment to think, particularly if there’s a chance for you to take this character that you think is just there as a type to say a word and maybe make a little bit more of a human being out of them. It’s certainly a good thing to keep in mind, wouldn’t you agree?

John: I would absolutely agree.

Craig: All right, so the next one is give female names to lines of dialogue/action. Meaning then when you have choices about those random bits of lines that come up — passersby, cab drivers, a barista behind the counter, whatever it is — if you make a conscious choice to assign female names to those characters you are helping to just improve the general balance of the dialogue in the movie. Because what they have found in analyses is that movies tend to be, at least the talking in movies, tends to be dominated by men. And even something as small as just as much as you can getting some of those random lines that are not necessarily tied to specific characters that you need in the movie, assigning as many of those as possible to women just generally makes the movie closer to reality where, as I will remind you, half of all people are women. So, a good idea.

This one is something that you and I have discussed. I think we did a whole show on how to intro characters. Give all characters a similar amount of description when you introduce them. In general, I don’t think these little short, tiny, nondescript lame-o descriptions are very good like “hot but doesn’t know it.” That’s the most amusing and stupid one, which we’ll refer to later when we get to Rick and Morty. But if you are describing a male character and you’re using terms that get into their motivations, their mannerisms, their desires, whatever it is, you should have the same kind of description for your female characters. You shouldn’t just default to short physical descriptions only, which is reductive.

And also — this is something that I’m just going to add this. I don’t think she included this in her article, but I’m going to add it because I think about it all the time. You have a character and you describe her as like hot. Librarian hot. Hot librarian. Whatever you want to do. It’s some dumb reductive way-too-short description that reduces a human being down to just physical appearance and one little thing. Here’s what happens. Somewhere down the line there is going to be a room full of women who are all trying to be actors who are working hard in this business who are looking for their break. And they have all shown up to this audition. They’ve come from their acting classes and trying to perfect their craft. And they’re all now sitting in a room trying to figure out how to apply all of that skill and all of what they’ve learned about sense memory, and emotion, and reactions, and internal life to “librarian hot.” And it’s demeaning. And it’s a bummer.

That’s the side of Hollywood that no one ever sees. And it all starts with us. So, we, the writers, have a responsibility to try and short circuit that before it happens.

John: This last week on Twitter somebody tweeted at me a question asking what do you think about when you’re reading a screenplay like “Aubrey Plaza type?” So basically using that as a character description. And my answer was you’re a writer, use your words. It’s so reductive to say that somebody is like an Aubrey Plaza because like, well, what is an Aubrey Plaza like? I can see what you’re going for. There’s a wryness. There’s a sarcasm. There’s a think. But like use your words to describe what that thing is rather than just coasting on the term Aubrey Plaza.

Because if you’re a studio executive who cannot describe people, then saying Aubrey Plaza type, I get it. But you’re supposedly a screenwriter, so like use your words to describe what that person is like. And that way you will not just reduce it to she’s like this other actress who a person may have heard of, or you’re just giving a physical description and not getting into what makes that character interesting and specific and unique.

Craig: I think that the Aubrey Plaza type is just creatively bankrupt. At its fundamental core, you are saying I want you to act like Aubrey Plaza. Not the characters that she plays, but her. Even Aubrey Plaza can’t play the Aubrey Plaza type, because it’s not a thing. She plays characters.

Now, every actor brings a certain essence of themselves to various characters. But I’d love you to sit down with Jack Nicholson and say, “OK, Jack, in this movie the character you play is, yeah, it’s like just do your Jack Nicholson thing.” OK, well, enjoy your last day on the set my friend. Because you ain’t coming back. That’s ridiculous. It just denies what acting is. It also denies what writing is. We are creating characters. There are actors that are better suited for certain characters than others. That’s what casting is all about. But if you say Aubrey Plaza type, what you’re essentially saying is I don’t understand what my job is. I literally don’t get it. I know that I’ve created this document, but I’m not really a screenwriter.

John: So, here is your task as a screenwriter is if you think Aubrey Plaza should play that role, then you need to create a character that a person reading the script says, “Oh you know who would be fantastic for this? Aubrey Plaza.” So, without you having ever said Audrey Plaza, they in their head say like, oh, you know who would be fantastic in this? Aubrey Plaza. And if you write a role that is exactly perfect for her, there’s a chance you might get her. But even if it ends up not being here, you created a character who is so specific that you will find a great actress for that part.

So, that’s my challenge to you is create a role that you want to put her in that position.

Craig: Yeah. There’s a thought. Create a human being that is unique, that we haven’t seen before, and then that will attract high quality actors. See, that’s how it goes. Now, it’s perfectly fine for you to write this part and then when you send the script off to the studio in your email you can say, listen, for these characters these were the actors I was thinking of. So you have a sense in your mind of how I would cast this movie. But you open the script and you start reading a description of the character, you’re reading a description of my character. The person. The human being I invented. Not, oh you know, just whatever, that lady.

Because all you’re doing is just drafting off of the other writers that did their jobs. Right? And wrote characters that Aubrey Plaza wanted to play. Oh, it’s — oh my god, I’m going to break something.

John: This last point in the article was actually the most challenging I would think to implement which is that to call out women in the crowd. And so she uses a quote from Geena Davis that says, “When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, ëA crowd gathers, which is half female.’ That may seem weird, but I promise you somehow or other on the set that day the crowed will turn out to be 17% female otherwise.” Craig, what do you feel about that?

Craig: Well, it hasn’t been my experience. You know, thinking of the crowd scenes that I have witnessed being shot. And they were pretty well balanced. The director usually doesn’t pick those people. Usually it’s a producer or the First AD who goes through the list of extras that is provided by the extras casting director. Then they bring the list over to show the director like look at all these photos. Does this seem roughly like the kind of crowd you want? And the director goes, oh yeah, that looks good.

But there’s usually some general instruction. The crowd should be roughly this age. Let’s say it’s a night club. Like I remember we shot a scene in Hangover 3 where Mr. Chow was singing karaoke in a night club in Mexico. That crowd, it’s a karaoke club, for dates, so it was 50/50.

Now, I think there’s got to be a better way than saying a crowd gathers which is half female. I would argue that this is probably one where Geena Davis is talking to the wrong people. This isn’t actually on screenwriters. This is one that you need to kind of get out to directors, first ADs, extras casting people to say, “Make an effort.” Unless there is a reason. If this is a scene where you’re gathering conscripts for a war, that’s probably going to be heavily male. And if this is a scene where you’re gathering members of the elementary school PTA, demographics tell us it’s going to be heavily female.

But otherwise, you guys should aim for 50/50. If we wrote in a script, “A crowd gathers which is half female,” we’re signaling that that’s really important, because that’s how screenplays work. But then it’s not important. It doesn’t actually turn out to be important and that’s going to be confusing for the reader, I think.

John: I agree. Where I think you may have an opportunity is if the composition of this crowd is important enough that it merits a second line, that it merits a texture line to sort of describe what the crowd is like, there may be an opportunity in there to sort of signal that like even if you say like the women — if you call out the women first in the crowd, that will sort of clue people in like, OK, the women are actually important to this thing. Or it will make people think like, oh, that’s right, I’m going to need to make sure that the women are represented in the crowd and that they are appropriate to what this crowd is. That I totally can get.

If you want to signal like, you know, if you’re calling out individual things in it. So like there’s a mom with a kid strapped to her chest. Then there’s actually a woman that you’re sort of signaling is in there. But in general, this line as Geena Davis sort of states it would feel so weird in the script that I would sort of stop if I read it right there. And maybe in some way it’s a good exercise to make people stop every once and a while and think about that, but I don’t think it’s going to help your read individually for this one script to do it.

I think you’re right to say that making sure that representation in films is diverse and inclusive is sort of everyone’s job. And so a screenwriter needs to do his or her job, but everyone down the road needs to make sure they’re doing their job as well.

Craig: Yeah. We just don’t pick who — we don’t pick the extras.

John: Nope.

Craig: We can describe roughly a group of people. You know, and it can be as simple as, you know, a crowd gathers, men and women, all ages. I’ve written things like that, to sort of say it’s a general crowd. At that point, I think I’ve done my job. And you can also say sometimes a diverse crowd gathers, men and women, all ages, all races. Whatever you feel would be the right kind of look. But to call out like half female, it’s too salient. It’s going to be misleading to the reader. They’re going to spend the next three pages wondering what’s going on with the women in the crowd. That’s just the way we read scripts.

But it is everyone’s job. This was a very good article and I thought it was just a good thing for all screenwriter to read as we go about our jobs and try and make the world a better place.

John: Indeed. All right, we have two questions this week. I think they’re actually fairly short answers, so let’s get to them. The first one comes from Nick in Michigan. He sent in some audio, so let’s take a listen.

Nick: My question is about being a screenwriter on set. You’ve covered that in some situations the writer is very involved day to day throughout the entire production, while other times the writer might not ever even come to set once. So my question is if you are a writer on set acting only in your capacity as a writer, are you getting paid for that time? It’s something that hasn’t really been touched on and I can see it going either way. From what I’ve heard in most situations, a writer doesn’t really have any obligation to be on set. I might be completely wrong in that. But if there’s no financial incentive or contractual obligation, it just seems like a lot of time and energy.

Adding to that, is there any difference if you’re really active with the script still even during production, working with the director, or doing a pass every morning on that day’s sides, versus just sort of being there and hanging back with the producers? Also, is there any difference if the production is local versus being on location? So, the difference of shooting Go in Los Angeles as opposed to shooting the Hangover 2 in Thailand? Thanks so much guys.

John: That’s a very good question. So my short answer is that in many cases I’m not being paid any extra for being there on the set. I wasn’t paid any extra for being on set for Go. Technically I was a producer on that, but as a writer I was not paid extra there. And there have been a number of shows in which I’ve been on set for some portion of filming and I don’t get paid anything extra.

But what often happens is that as the movie goes into production, you’re paid what’s called an all-services deal, which means after a certain point they say like, OK, we’re going to pay you X dollars and it’s just going to cover anything else you’re doing through the rest of production, including post-production. And that’s fairly typical I found.

So, in situations where I’m not there in a crisis mode, where I’m being paid as a weekly, an all-services deal will often kick in. Craig, what’s your experience?

Craig: Yeah. I actually have not ever been on set without being paid. And I don’t think I would go. To me that’s just visiting. You know, to me if you’re on a set and you don’t have a job, then you’re already in a troubled spot. If you have a purpose on the set as a writer, it is in fact to occasionally write. And if you’re going to write, you need to be paid. And so I always have an all-services deal.

The nature of all-services deals are such that generally they often don’t really cost the studio anything, because the way our deals are designed, if those things are pre-determined, that gets applied against your screenplay credit bonus. So if you’re earning, if you’re going to get sole screenplay bonus, like you did on Go or something like that, or the way that Todd and I did on Hangover 3, then you know, OK, that’s the big number that I’m getting paid here. And all these steps and things, first draft, second draft, polish, all-services deal are applied against it. So they’re paying you money they’re going to have to pay you anyway, either this way or that way. But yes, I always have an all-services deal. And this way also the writing that I do is then owned by the studio.

If you don’t have a deal, they don’t own it. So, that’s a problem for them. So, yes, all-services deal for sure. What was the other part of Nick’s question? Oh, the traveling?

John: Does it matter whether — yeah, travel. So, if they want you on set and you’re not in Los Angeles, they’re going to fly you out there. They’re going to put you up someplace good. And that is going to be pre-negotiated in your contract before you started working on the project.

Craig: That’s right. In every contract there is a travel provision and it says essentially if you’re required for a certain amount of time to go to production and it is this amount of distance away, then here’s what happens. They cover your airfare. And the question is do you get business class or first class. Business class I believe is guaranteed by our collective bargaining agreement, but you can individually negotiate up to first class, which I try and do.

They also then give you a per diem. You’re going to be in a hotel, you pay for it with your per diem. You have to go out to dinner, you pay with it your per diem. But that’s essentially a weekly allowance that they then pay you that is not applicable against bonuses or anything like that. And that amount is set to the size of the city. So the big cities of the world, New York, London, Paris, they get your highest number. And then the next tier down gets you a little bit less. And usually there’s also a guarantee of some kind of transportation while you are there.

So, it’s all pre-negotiated by your attorney. We’re not there footing our own bill.

John: No. So our next question is about how honest your feedback should be when giving notes on a friend’s script. Let’s take a listen.

Question: I have some friends in the business and every once and awhile they will send me their material for feedback. And generally my philosophy is it’s not about telling that person what I like and what I don’t like about the script. What’s important is to recognize what they’re trying to accomplish with the story and then point out for them the ways that they’re successful in doing that and the ways that they’re not successful in doing that.

That is what I thrive to do when giving people feedback. But every once and awhile you get a script and you read it and you’re like, oh god, this is bad. And I know you guys have talked about it on the show before. Sometimes you get writing from people and you’re like, oh god, this person will never make it. This person is just bad. So my question is as sort of raw, subjective thinking, is it ever useful to relay that back to somebody? Should I still follow my philosophy or is it best just to be honest with that person?

John: Craig, what do you think?

Craig: We’ll go to just this extreme case. Someone has given you material to read. You read it. And three or four pages in you realize it’s just inept. When I have encountered those moments, I ask a couple of questions first. Who am I dealing with? What kind of person are they? Are they kind of person who has a certain amount of ego strength? Are they the kind of person that I intuit is going to be defensive? Are they a very sweet, kind person?

And then I tailor things to them, because first do no harm. I don’t want to make someone miserable. I don’t want to make someone cry. I don’t want to make somebody outraged. So a lot of times what it comes down to is I say, listen, this did not connect with me. I’m only going to talk about how it made me feel. And I actually stopped reading here. And I want to walk you through my relationship with these first 10 or 15 pages.

And then you have a choice of whether or not you want me to even — I just may be the wrong person for this. And so then there’s no presentation of objectivity. I’m not a judge saying you suck, you’re never going to make it. Give up your dreams. I just let them know how I felt. And where it was not working for me.

And I have so far — and this doesn’t happen frequently — but so far I have managed to avoid tears and lashing out. But I don’t know how you feel about this, John, but my feeling is if you read that script and it’s inept and that person is never going to be a screenwriter, they’re not going to stop because you tell them. They’ll stop when they finally realize it.

John: I agree. My saying something will probably not be the one thing that forms a wall that makes them sort of decide like, OK, now I’m going to take this other path. I always wanted to be a doctor, and now I’m going to go be a doctor. I don’t think my feedback is necessarily going to make that choice, that decision.

I often come back to our friend Kelly Marcel, I sent her one of my scripts to read. And she was so smart and she asked, “Do you want me to tell you that you’re brilliant, or do you want me to tell you what’s wrong?” And it was such a smart way of setting up the conversation, before she’d even opened up the script. Because then she could sit down with the thing of like, OK, am I going to read this to enjoy this and to point out the things that are working so well? Or am I actually going to look for the things that are wrong?

And that’s a thing you can do with another professional writer who you know has a certain level of competence. When you come to something where it’s like, oh man, I can’t even start here, I often go back to a thing that happens sometimes at the Sundance Labs in that up at the Sundance Labs you have these really talented filmmakers who are often coming from different backgrounds who may not be the best writers on the page sometimes. And so over the course of this long weekend as we’re looking at their scripts, different advisers are reading them and sitting down with these writers and talking about what they’re trying to do. And I found that there’s different roles people sort of naturally slot into based on who they are and sort of like where they sort of fall in the batting order in terms of talking with these writers. So, there’s that first person who is just there to suss out what was the intention behind the script.

Then there’s the one who is there to gently challenge and nudge and see where there are opportunities. Where is there flexibility? Where can we get a little bit of stuff to happen here?

There’s often a person who is just the sledgehammer. Who is just there to smash things apart and point out everything that’s wrong, everything that’s not working, and really sort of say this is not a movie yet. You have a lot of work to do here.

There is a person who sort of bats cleanup who sort of like puts the pieces back together, sort of emotionally reestablishes somebody. And then often my function is that cleanup or sort of the getting that person to think about what’s going to happen next. And so the Sundance model, like those are all probably people who kind of get it on some level. They’ve been through that creative process before. They have a sense of sort of what the work is ahead of them.

When you get that script from your drycleaner who has not read other scripts and you’re like, ugh, man, I just don’t know where to start here. That is the tough situation. And that’s where I think you go back to the Kelly Marcel of like, great, do you want me to tell you what’s fantastic, or what’s not working? If they say tell me if I suck, then I think it’s kind of on them. And if the writing is just not good, I think they do deserve your honesty. A kind honesty, but an honesty about like this is not working at all right now. And these are the kind of things I think you need to do next if you’re going to keep trying to write.

Craig: I don’t really believe when people like that tell me, “Oh, no, no, give it to me straight.” I’ve definitely had a few of those where I started to give — I mean, I hadn’t even gotten to third gear. I was in gear two of 100, and I could tell they were already getting defensive and bristling, and so I just backed it down to gear one.

The truth is that no one who isn’t inside of our business and has done what we’ve done for this long — no one can really understand what the true unvarnished meat grinder looks and feels like. We have experienced the meat grinder from the people paying us. And there’s nothing like paying somebody to make you feel entitled to tell them exactly what you think. So, we have been flayed and ground up and beaten to pulps.

When we talk to each other, we all have a shorthand and we also have a shared empathy and experience. We understand that these things are hard. We also understand that you’re one draft away from something much, much better all the time. There is always a hope, right? If I read something — I read something by mutual friends of ours, a writing team, and I love their work. I really do. But this one particular script they had written, they were working a spec and I just didn’t get it. I didn’t get it. And I had many, many, many problems. And I started off by saying, “I may be the wrong guy here.”

And they were like, “Or not, so tell us.” And I did. And they took it like champs. They took it like champs because they had the ego strength to know that I wasn’t saying you suck, stop writing. What I was saying was you, like all of the rest of us, have gone down a blind alley here. Back out, find a different path. You can do it.

That’s the difference between these things. When you’re dealing with somebody who has not succeeded yet, the implication is this is not working and nothing you ever do is going to work. Beat it. And that’s a whole level of emotional anxiety that I just — I’m really aware of. And I don’t want to be abusive about it. So, I try and put it in the context of me and my relationship to the material. And then I ask a ton of questions. Instead of saying this is stupid, that doesn’t work, that doesn’t make sense, I’ll just be very Socratic about it.

Here’s how I felt here. What did you want me to feel? And I think in a sense our obviously Canadian questioner already does that. And I would say to him keep doing it. You’re doing it right.

John: I agree. This last year I’ve had a chance to catch up on a lot of TV shows that I’ve missed along the way and one of those was Rick and Morty. And so this last week I was watching an episode of Rick and Morty and I feel like we cannot close this segment without doing a clip from this season two show in which Rick and Morty go to visit a lighthouse keeper on this alien planet. The lighthouse keeper agrees to help them as long as —

Craig: You listen to my tale.

John: Listen to your tale. And so it’s a screenplay reading. And so we’re going to play a little clip of that and it’s basically the worst case scenario for notes giving. And I should set up if you have kids in the car, there’s a bad word said three times. Not the very bad word, but the S-word. So kids-in-the-car warning here.

[Clip plays]

Lighthouse Chief:

Blane: Maybe I don’t need a new friend.

Jacey: Maybe you’re the only friend I need.

Blane: Need, or want?

Jacey: I’ve never been much for wanting.

Blane: Spoken like someone with needs.

Morty: Oh, geez.

Lighthouse Chief: Hmm?

Morty: Uh, sorry. K-keep going.

Lighthouse Chief: Jacey reaches out and touches his face. It’s clear he needs what she wants. She’s a woman. He’s a man. The city burns in the background as he takes her in his arms. Fade out. Title… The End — Question mark.

Morty: Wow.

Lighthouse Chief: Yeah?

Morty: It’s… G-good job. Good job.

Lighthouse Chief: You liked it?

Morty: Of course I did.

Lighthouse Chief: You didn’t laugh at the scene in the bar.

Morty: I…Thought it was funny, but I wanted to hear the rest.

Lighthouse Chief: Do you have any thoughts? Notes?

Morty: No. I-I just enjoyed it. That’s my note, you know? Please write more.

Lighthouse Chief: Seems a little insincere.

Morty: What? No.

Lighthouse Chief: You don’t have to mollycoddle me. I want to improve my writing. Tell me your real thoughts.

Morty: All right. Well, um, I’m not a huge fan, personally, of the whole “three weeks earlier” teaser thing. I feel like, you know, we should start our stories where they begin not start them where they get interest —

Lighthouse Chief: — Get out.

Morty: Um, what?

Lighthouse Chief: No, I’m sick of this. You bang on my door, you beg me to help you, I share something personal with you, and you take a giant shit on it.

Morty: Hey, man, we asked if we could put up a beacon —

Lighthouse Chief: Well, you can’t. I want you out of here. You’re a petty person, and you’re insecure, and you’re taking it out on me. That’s a good script.

Morty: What the hell?

Lighthouse Chief: I don’t care. I want you out.

Rick: What?

Lighthouse Chief: Take that thing down. Your grandson is a shitty person. Leave now.

Rick: Morty!

Morty: Rick, I didn’t do anything. I sat through his entire screenplay…

Lighthouse Chief: You sat through it?

Morty: Yes! Did you want me to weep with joy? It’s terrible!

Rick: Whoa! Morty! We’re guests here.

Morty: I tried to be a good guest! He dragged it out of me!

Lighthouse Chief: I’m taking down this beacon. No, stop! That’s not fair! Just because you hate your own writing doesn’t make me a bad person! You like that? You want me to cut to three weeks earlier when you were alive?

Rick: Whoa, Morty. You just purged.

[Clip ends]

John: I just love that they actually call out the Stuart Special in clip. It’s so fantastic.

Craig: Isn’t that great?

John: It literally is the Stuart Special we’ve read so many times.

Craig: It is. Well, it’s pitch perfect, right? I mean, not only is the terrible writing something that I’ve seen many, many times before, but that’s that phenomenon I’m talking about where someone will say, no, and they seem so believable. No, please tell me, I want to hear it. Because they can’t yet conceive of a world where somebody doesn’t like part of it. They think that they’re going to get these minor things like, you know where you said she was in a big car, maybe she should be in a little car. Oh, OK, I can see that. I can see that.

But the second there’s any kind of scratch at the surface, all of that terrible stuff just pores out of them. Pores out. And that’s the nightmare. That’s the absolute nightmare. It’s just wonderful. It’s wonderful. It’s perfect. I watch that clip probably once a day. Because it just makes me — just also just the way he’s so self-satisfied as he sits down to read his terrible — and also, because you think like, OK, he’s going to read a tale. It’s going to be some fairy tale or something. The second he says Fade In, you know, EXT., blah, blah. And the look on Morty’s face as he realizes this is a script. And he looks like he’s dying. It’s wonderful.

John: It’s fantastic. All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is this video and physics paper that go together. It’s about toppling dominoes. And so we’ve seen a lot of dominoes be toppled and sort of like billions of dominoes all falling at once, but this is about the physics of how a smaller domino can topple a larger domino. And so the mathematics work out to be I think it’s 1.5 times the size of the first domino can knock the next one over. And it ends up scaling in a really fascinating way. So, you don’t need to read the physics paper, but the video that goes with it is actually really great because it starts with this teeny tiny little domino that you have to hit with tweezers and it can knock over bigger and bigger until there’s this giant tombstone size domino falls, but it’s only like ten dominoes in a chain to do that.

And so there’s all sorts of metaphors you can sort of obviously take for dominoes falling down. But I thought it was great. And the thing I had not understood until I watched the longer part of the video is that I always wondered — in some ways, how is that possible? And it’s because potential energy is actually stored in the larger dominoes as they’re stacked up on their end. And so that’s why this little tiny domino can knock down that bigger domino.

And that’s why when the small domino knocks down the bigger domino, there’s basically potential energy being converted into kinetic energy. So I thought it was just terrific. So, if you enjoy things falling down, which you are a screenwriter so you probably do, check out this video.

Craig: Yeah. Because you just need enough force to move that larger domino in a position where then gravity pulls it down the rest of the way. So all you have to do is — you just need that little bit, and then gravity pulls it down the rest of the way and that then is more force because of momentum and blah, blah, blah. Physics.

John: Physics! Now, Craig, we haven’t done one of our special episodes where we just rip something apart for a while, but I fell down this rabbit hole, not a very deep rabbit hole because the nature of physical reality, about flat-earthers. I find flat earth truthers to be one of the most fascinating kinds of crazy. So maybe somewhere down the road we need to do a flat earth episode, because I just love it so much.

Craig: Yeah. Flat-earthers have to make a lot of excuses. Tons.

John: Tons.

Craig: They have to excuse away almost everything we know. Normally, the conspiracy theorists just have to excuse away a few things. Not them.

John: Because usually a conspiracy theory simplifies things in a way that it may try to make something simple that’s actually complex. But it actually makes everything much, much more complex than just, you know, we’re on a sphere that’s circling the sun.

Craig: Yeah, it’s an incredibly complicated thing. So this past week I went and did one of those wonderful escape rooms. You know I’m a big fan of those. And I went with this just all-star team of geniuses, including our friend David Kwong, and another crossword genius/lawyer named Dave Shucane. And a bunch of other people, including a girl named Tiffany, I think it was a woman named Tiffany. I believe. She was very young-looking, so I don’t know if she qualifies as girl. She’s got to be at least 30, right? And she was a member of like an international escape room team at the Escape Room Olympics. I didn’t even know that this was a thing.

John: That’s amazing.

Craig: I was so impressed with her.

John: And now Craig must compete.

Craig: Well, no, I’m not. I don’t think I could. Well, I don’t know. See, you don’t want to do these things to me, because I will.

John: You totally will.

Craig: So we went to this terrific escape room in LA. An Evil Genius Room. Was Evil Genius 2, I think. And it was a very hard room. Only 20% solve rate. We obliterated the record. I mean, I really was with some ringers. I mean, I helped. I wasn’t useless in there, but I was also aware that I was not the best person in that room. So it was a great bunch of people.

And so I’m a big escape room guy. There’s a ton of not great escape room apps that you can buy. A whole lot of them are just shoddy and lame. But I did find this one group of them by one guy. His name is Mateusz Skutnik. And he has created a series. I believe there’s 14 in this one sequence that all is part of this larger story called Submachine. And so you can find this online. We’ll throw a link on. But it’s at mateuszskutnik.com/submachine. Don’t worry about spelling it. We’ll give you — we’ll let you cheat on that. And start with Submachine 1, the basement. And proceed forth. They are very cool. I like them a lot.

John: Craig, I’ve only done one or two escape rooms. But when you are on a really good team, what is the general strategy? Should everything be focused on the same problem at once, or do you just fan out across the space and everyone tries to do as much as they can in their own little space? What is a good strategy for a team?

Craig: Most escape rooms are best conquered by a team that is fanning out and then communicating constantly. So, the second you find something, you announce it out loud. Because many of the puzzles are interacting across spaces. So somebody is working on something and then someone says, “I just found a puzzle piece.” And you’re like, wait, I need that. Bring that over here. Or there are levels of things, right? And sometimes it’s as simple as I’ve just found a look that was hidden under a thing.

Occasionally you will find some that you kind of need to separate off a little bit. There’s a really, really good one called The Alchemist which is part of Escape Room LA Downtown. And that one kind of requires you for a while to split up into four groups because there are sort of four isolated sections and then it all comes back together. But generally best practice is fan out, parallel problem solving, constant communication.

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

We are on Facebook. Just search for the Scriptnotes Podcast.

You can find us on Apple Podcast at Scriptnotes. Search for us there and while you’re there leave us a review, because those are delightful.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. If you want to listen to all the back episodes, go to Scriptnotes.net and there’s also an app in which you can listen to all those.

You can get the USB drives now for sale at store.johnaugust.com. That has all the back episodes.

And we also have tickets for the live show in Los Angeles on July 25th. So you’ve not already purchased those, purchase them now. It’s a fundraiser for the Writers Guild Foundation.

And that’s it. Craig, I will see you in Los Angeles before too long.

Craig: Stateside buddy. Have a safe trip.

John: Thanks.

Craig: Bye.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Dennis Lehane on novels vs. screenplays

Tue, 07/18/2017 - 10:40

Scriptnotes listener Eric in Boston pointed me towards this quote from Dennis Lehane on the difference between writing novels and screenplays:

They’re apples and giraffes. Completely different, outside of their core narrative DNA. When you write a novel you’re God, in charge of the whole universe, from the farthest galaxy to the smallest pebble. When that book is published, everything in it was filtered through you and you alone (with some nudging and advice from your editor, of course).

When you write a script, you’re like a house painter in a large mansion. You give the rooms their color but you don’t build the house or concern yourself with the plumbing. A screenwriter is one of, say, 140 people who contributes to the film. And your script is just a schematic to be interpreted by a director, actors, the director of photography, the set designers, costume designers, editor, producers, studio execs, and on and on and on.

It’s much harder to be God; novels take way longer to write than scripts and are much more emotionally and psychologically taxing but they’re also—by a longshot—more fulfilling.

I largely agree with Lehane, but want to caution that screenwriters shouldn’t take his house painter analogy too far. You’re not just decorating the rooms; you’re deciding where the walls need to be so that the whole thing doesn’t collapse.

Particularly when working on their own original projects, screenwriters must be just as invested in every galaxy and pebble. They may not include these details — screenwriting is an art of extreme economy — but you have to know what you’re leaving out.

I’m writing book two of the Arlo Finch series right now. The process is rewarding and exhausting, but the level of responsibility I feel to the story’s universe and characters is not fundamentally different than when writing the first draft of a script. In both cases, I’ve moved into their world, and am writing what I see.

The biggest shift comes later, once I’m ready to show the work to others.

With a screenplay, I need to coordinate my vision with dozens of other decision-makers so we can make a movie. That’s the psychologically taxing aspect of the job: writing as if it’s all yours while knowing it’s ultimately not.

With a book, I’ve made decisions down to the comma and conjunction, knowing they’ll persist. Arlo Finch isn’t a blueprint; it’s the thing itself. No matter what happens down the road, my choices are preserved on the page.

Lehane’s right: books and screenplays are like apples and giraffes. I like both of them, and hope to have more of each in the years ahead.

Logic and Gimmickry

Tue, 07/18/2017 - 08:03

John and Craig step up to the whiteboard to look at the story logic in our scripts, then examine how tricks and gimmicks can help keep scenes interesting.

We also answer listener questions about paying experts for research help, and whether hiring a writing consultant ever makes sense.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Chekhov’s Ladder

Tue, 07/11/2017 - 08:03

Craig and John discuss the concept of affordances — player expectations for what videogame characters can do — and how writers can apply these principles to their film and TV scripts.

Teaching the audience to know what is and isn’t possible can be hard to do artfully, but often makes all the difference.

Also this week: reducing sexism in screenplays, plus answers to listener questions about writers on set and giving feedback on friends’ terrible scripts.

Tickets for the July 25th live show are on sale, GET YOURS!

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 306: Teaching Your Heroes to Drive — Transcript

Mon, 07/10/2017 - 11:51

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 307 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, Craig, what are we talking about?

Craig: Today on the podcast, John, we’re going to be answering some listener questions as we often do. We’ve got some exciting follow up to cover from our prior podcast. And our main topic today is going to be talking about how characters can drive story instead of the other way around. Should be a good episode, John.

John: It should be a great episode. Craig winged that and did a fantastic job. In our follow up we’ll start with something that has been long promised but is finally now here. The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide is now available. There is a link in the show notes. Or you can just go to johnaugust.com/guide. So this was the thing that Craig wanted to call Scriptdecks. But no.

Craig: Interesting.

John: This is a 113-page document, a PDF you can download for free, that has the listener recommendations on the best episodes of Scriptnotes in case you are catching up on the show late in the game.

Craig: That sounds like, what, $19.99? Or…?

John: No, I already said it was free. It’s a free PDF download.

Craig: So like about $8 maybe?

John: Yeah, so less than that. It’s actually all the way down to $0.

Craig: Not including shipping and handling, or?

John: The shipping and handling is handled, we email it to you. So essentially if you are already on the Scriptnotes mailing list, we’re just going to send it to you, so you will have already gotten it.

Craig: Oh, like that U2 album that Apple gave us, and they just gave it to us.

John: No, but, no, they forced it upon you. This we’re not forcing upon you.

Craig: Oh, OK. OK.

John: So I guess we’re emailing it to you, but it’s like not already – I guess it’s in your email system. In some ways, Craig, your analogy is completely appropriate. I feel bad.

Craig: Well, no, it’s more like if people used Kindle or iBooks and this just showed up in it. That would be the U2.

John: That’s probably the more accurate thing.

Craig: What a weird thing, right? Like they gave us a free album from one of the best bands in the world and everyone was like, “Screw you. Get this out of here.”

John: Here’s the thing. Nobody really wanted the album. Like nobody was into U2 for new music at that point and just it felt intrusive. It was tone deaf. Weirdly tone deaf for Apple.

Craig: I think there’s also this psychological thing. When someone says to you, “Hey, by the way, I’m going to give you something that you would normally consider paying for, or certainly somebody would have to pay for, I’m just going to give it to you for free.” You look at it like, oh, well, it’s not very good then, is it?

John: Well here’s the thing I would also say like let’s say you like fish, you like to eat a nice piece of fish, but someone just shows up and hands you a fish. No. I don’t want a piece of fish. I want a fish when I want a fish, not when you want to give me a fish.

Craig: I like that you use the article A. When you order fish you have A fish. You ask for an entire fish. Not some fish. You ask for, I would like, you know what I’m in the mood for some fish tonight. No, I want A Fish.

John: I live in France where they serve you a fish. They serve you a whole fish. It’s got its head on it. It’s got all the pieces.

Craig: Un fish? Un pechine? What is it, pechine? What is it? No, it’s poisson. Poisson.

John: Le poisson. Le poisson.

Craig: Oh, so it’s un poisson.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: Very good.

John: And fish is always delightful here. Once you have this PDF of the Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide, and by the way Craig I thought of you often because I went through so many debates about where to put the apostrophe for the Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide. So you will see in the notes, so that’s wrong here. So in the notes I listed it with apostrophe-S, but in the real thing I put the apostrophe after the S.

Craig: Thank you. Because otherwise it’s the guide of one Scriptnotes listener. And we’re really implying that we only have one also. You know, the Scriptnotes listener? This is her guide. [laughs]

John: The argument in favor of apostrophe-S was that it’s good for a listener.

Craig: That would be A Scriptnotes Listener’s Guide.

John: It’s true. It could be read that way. So this is the guide belonging to and a product of the listeners of Scriptnotes. Once you have this in your hands, you can use it to listen to the back episodes. Well, you might choose to listen to the back episodes. You could find those at Scriptnotes.net, but also on the brand new 300-episode USB drives.

Craig: Ta-da!

John: Craig, have you clicked through to see what these drives look like?

Craig: I’m doing it right now. Because, you know, I like to wing things. That’s my style. I find that I’m more exciting. Whoa. Look at that. This thing looks like a little mini-grenade.

John: Yeah. It’s a grenade full of knowledge.

Craig: Yeah. It looks like a little mini-mag light. It looks like so many little mini things. It’s very cool. Is it metal?

John: It is chrome-plated, apparently. I’ve not actually touched these. Etah had them and they were all in our office for a while before we shipped them off to the fulfillment company. But yeah, so we have a bunch of them, so people can buy them. They are $29. It has all the back episodes, including the bonus episodes, the dirty show. Has all the transcripts. It has all of the Three Page Challenge scripts. So, it’s handy. It’s got it all there. And it’s waterproof, or at least strongly water resistant.

Craig: Nice.

John: It will survive a lot. We had to bump up to the 16GB, because we just talked so much on the show.

Craig: Well, the good news is that the price per GB goes down far faster than we can talk. So by the time we hit the, what, 400-episode flash drive, or 500-episode flash drive, we’ll need a Terabyte and it will cost $0.04.

John: Yeah. Moore’s Law is in our favor.

Craig: Yeah. And how much is this? $80? $100? Something like that?

John: This is a $29 USB drive.

Craig: Wow. Unreal. And of that $29, I presume the customary amount comes to me of nothing?

John: 100% of the customary amount goes to Craig Mazin.

Craig: Unbelievable.

John: Yeah. So good.

Craig: You know what? Buy them. Please, everyone, just buy them so I can get thousands and thousands of nothings.

John: Another thing Craig will be making no money on is our live show. July 25 in Hollywood. Tickets are on sale now. It’s a benefit for the Writers Guild Foundation which does great work on behalf of writers and people who are aspiring to become writers. Megan Amram is our fantastic guest. We have other guests to be announced soon. It’s 8PM July 25 in Hollywood, so come see us there. And then I think we’re going to do some other special little event kind of things there. Some little games. Some stuff that you’ll benefit from being there in person. I want a little more audience participation in this one, not just questions. So, I think we’re going to get our people involved more.

Craig: Like a big Simon Says kind of thing? Or something more screenwritery?

John: I think one lucky listener will get something.

Craig: And you get a car. And you get a car.

John: So the danger is like all the listeners of that show are going to be checking underneath their seat to see if there is something because you’ll remember at our very first live show–

Craig: That’s right.

John: There was something hidden underneath a seat. And we read their script. That’s right. We read their script.

Craig: And we read their script. And it was good. So, what will be under the seat this time, John?

John: I don’t know.

Craig: Oh, that would ruin it. Plus, there’s not going to be anything under the seat.

John: We’ll have to see. You’ll have to come to find out. So, Craig, please do show up July 25.

Craig: How about as people are coming in we microchip them?

John: Oh, nice.

Craig: Yeah, OK. There will be a little soreness, a little redness at the spot of insertion. However, at the end of the show, we will scan the audience and somebody with the lucky serial number will receive a prize.

John: That could be good.

Craig: And then we can track them for the rest of their lives.

John: Yeah. I mean, that’s really the thing. I mean, Mail Chimp is a start. But I think beyond Mail Chimp we really want to have some full knowledge about our listeners, because that’s how you monetize, Craig. That’s how you monetize.

Craig: Oh, you know what? I got an idea for a new thing that we can start.

John: Tell me.

Craig: It’s called Chip Chimp. OK? I know that Mail Chimp doesn’t have real chimps, but Chip Chimp will. And Chip Chimp’s name is Chim-Chim, you know, like from Speed Racer.

John: So Chim-Chim, the Chip Chimp. Oh, I think it’s great.

Craig: Chim-Chim, the Chip Chimp. Well, he obviously roller skates through the audience and just – and then ka-donk right to your upper arm. Right in the fleshy part of the upper arm. Moves around. You know, doesn’t necessarily do it in order, because I mean, folks, he’s a chimp. OK? Let’s not get crazy. He can roller skate. He knows how to do essentially a medical procedure, which is the sterile insertion of a microchip into your arm. So, if he doesn’t quite go in the order you’d like, I don’t want to get any complaints.

Anyway, it’s a great idea.

John: I think it’s important to keep in mind though when we selected this monkey, I guess it’s not really fair to call him a monkey.

Craig: No.

John: He’s a primate ambassador to a greater world view.

Craig: He’s a chimp.

John: We had to really compete against a bunch of other possible candidates, but this is the one who won. This is Chim-Chim, the Chip Chimp champ. And he’s going to be there live in the audience.

Craig: Honestly, it came down to him and Chris McQuarrie. [laughs]

John: Chris McQuarrie? He was busy shooting a movie.

Craig: He wasn’t so busy that he couldn’t apply. And honestly, you know, I was not expecting the tears that we got when we told him that he just didn’t quite get it.

John: It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Because there have been, what, like 19 Mission: Impossible movies?

Craig: Right.

John: There’s only one Chip Chimp.

Craig: Chim-Chim Chip Chimp. Yeah. And it’s not McQuarrie. You know what though? I got to say so much spirit from him. So much spirit.

John: We got a listener review from Pedro Lisbow. So, I wanted to read this aloud because I thought it was so revealing. So, at the end you’re going to find out what he does for a living, but I want to see if you can figure out what he does for a living before we get to that point. So, let’s listen carefully, OK?

He says, “This is my favorite podcast. I found it by chance. And though I’m not a writer, I find the discussions pleasant and illuminating.”

Craig: All right. Clues. Clues.

John: “More than once, I’ve applied the advice they give to writers on my profession. You would be surprised how much of it is universal, provided you adapt the boundary conditions on it.”

Craig: Huge clue.

John: “Recently I entered a small screenwriting competition. Might as well test one’s self, right? And got honorable mention on my first short.”

Craig: Fantastic.

John: “In summary, if this back office quant can benefit from listening to the podcast, so can you.”

Craig: Is quant supposed to be a giveaway? Because I don’t know what that means.

John: Quant is a number cruncher who generally works for a financial services industry. So, sometimes they have degrees in physics or like really esoteric mathematics, but they end up working generally for financial services.

Craig: It’s shot for like a quantifier?

John: Quantitative Analysis.

Craig: Got it. So did you just give away the answer of what he is?

John: I did. I did. But hopefully people along the way – you figured out that he was some sort of number cruncher nerd.

Craig: Yeah, boundary conditions is very mathematical. Very codey sort of term.

John: All right. Last week we punted on a question. So, we are going to jump on that ball and continue our sports metaphors into this week’s discussion.

Craig: Jump on that ball! You know, most games require it. Jump on it.

John: They do. Jumping on the ball.

Craig: Jump on the ball.

John: That’s the game I made up. Going to answer a question from Ferris. He was asking about – he was actually sort of demanding that we give him some new answers about how to truly get into the mind of a character, understand their motivations, and how they’ll react in certain situations. How do you go about making the character drive the story instead of the other way around?

So, Craig, tell us. How do you do that?

Craig: So this is a big one. I remember we brought this up towards the end of our last podcast and thought, oh no, no, no, we can’t short thrift this. You need two things, I think, to make this work right. The function of having a character drive the story. One, you need an actual character. We say character to cover anybody that has a name ranging from a real name to Cop Number 3 and who says stuff and does stuff. That’s actually not a character. That’s the loosest term of the phrase.

A character is a person, a persona that you are creating, that feels realistic. That feels like an actual person. That’s a character. Otherwise, you have a characterization. I don’t know how else to put it.

John: I think it’s great that you’re focusing on that character, because I also want to define these terms as well. So, let’s define story. If a character is going to define a story, let’s make sure we’re talking about the right things in terms of a story. For story, let’s talk about a sequence of events, a sequence of narrative events that feels greater than the sum of its parts. So it’s not just a bunch of “and then this, and then this, and then this.” It feels like it adds up to something bigger and that ideally, especially in movie stories, it’s the journey of that character from one place to another, either literally or metaphorically. That’s what we’re watching.

So, when we say we want this character we’ve created to be driving the story, we’re talking about what Craig is saying. A very distinct individual person driving a very distinct individual series of events that’s happening, at least for movies, just once.

Craig: Yeah. The question that Ferris asks, which I will read verbatim, how do you go about making the character drive the story instead of the other way around, implies a kind of Cartesian duality between character and story. When in fact, they are related to each other. They are in a relationship with each other.

Plot, you can define down I think as very much a series of events that flow one to the next, perhaps and hopefully some causality between them. And beginning, middle, and that’s plot. But story to me is the phenomenon that emerges when a character is moving through a plot. Because when we tell the story of a movie we’ve seen, we don’t – like if someone says tell me the story of The Matrix. Machines have enslaved humanity and they are sucking electricity out of them and enslaving them and they make humans think that they’re in the world when they are really not. And they’re defeated.

John: Yeah. So that is a definition of that’s plot. It’s the underlying thing of it, but you’re not talking about Neo. You’re not talking about who is actually in charge of your story. And you’re not talking about the experience of watching your story through that principal character’s eyes and the choices he’s making, the discoveries he’s encountering as these things come to light in the story.

Craig: Yeah. The only interesting way to experience a plot is through a character’s movement through it. And that is the story. The story is humans or sometimes people serving – sorry, animals serving as humans, or machines serving as humans, but human-like creatures moving through a plot. And from that marriage and relationship and synthesis comes story.

So the first thing that’s really important to say is there isn’t one and then the other, because you fall into the trap – if you look at Ferris’s question carefully, you can fall into the trap of thinking, OK, there’s a story that happens. Then my character walks in, hits a thing, that changes what will happen next in the story. My character now reacts to that. Very reactive. Even if your character is reacting, and then hitting a thing, and then causing the next thing, your character is simply becoming a plot mechanic. The way that the cops showing up in a story are a plot mechanic. Or an asteroid is a plot mechanic. Or a blackout is a plot mechanic.

That’s not how it works with characters.

John: When you were talking about moving through a story, the one thing I want to stress though is movement alone is not enough. So if a character is on a rollercoaster, they are moving. And they can be on a rollercoaster that is sort of the plot of the story, but we’re going to be frustrated as the viewer because they’re not making any choices. They’re just on rails. And so they’re being dragged through the story. And when I see scripts that aren’t working, it’s often because that character really has no agency. Has no real decision-making capability on what’s going to happen next.

Either they’re always responding to what the villain is doing, or what other characters are sort of instructing them to do. They’re put upon, they’re directed, they’re instructed, but they’re not actually doing anything themselves. So, you could write the most delightful dialogue ever for that character. It would still be a frustrating movie because you don’t see that character making any choices, having any control of his or her life within that movie.

Craig: And you can see how videogames struggle with this life on rails problem. Because the nature of a videogame – well, I’m only talking really about let’s call them the higher narrative videogames – they tell story. They tell narrative. They aspire to be movie-like. But ultimately the experience is defined primarily by a series of obstacles that you, the player, must overcome. Those are very plot obstacles. They are essentially plot obstacles.

Every now and then you’ll find a game that attempts to pretend that you’re making moral choices. But you’re not because there are only so many choices in their decision tree they can handle. I don’t know if you ever played Mass Effect, for instance.

John: I know of Mass Effect. I never played it myself. But I know that it had a bigger built out set of choices and outcomes. It was a little more like a Choose Your Own Adventure situation than an Uncharted, which you truly are on rails. Like incredibly well disguised rails, but there’s like one way through Uncharted.

Craig: That’s right. Absolutely on rails. No question. And even in Mass Effect, you’re on rails. And that’s where it actually becomes really frustrating, videogames, when they try and pretend you’re not on rails. One of the reasons why Bio Shock was such a wonderful game is because they pointed out that you were on rails. That was the big twist. Surprise. You’re not making any decisions at all. You’re on rails. And that was brilliant because it acknowledged this big thing. In movies, the experience is not one where we are primarily overcoming obstacles and therefore there is a very narrow set of choices and decision trees that are available to us.

In movies, we’re watching someone’s life. What has happened has happened. We are being invited into watch somebody. And that is the experience of our lives in general. What happens, happens. And the excitement, I think, of proper storytelling in movies is not that we’re watching a character going through a story, but rather we are watching an event in this person’s life that needed to happen to them. Because movies are purposeful, and because they are truly intelligently designed, the way that some people wrongly thing the universe was, everything is absolutely fated. It is intentional. It is as if god created all of this in such a way as to make a point and help this person change. Or fail.

John: So, I think you hit on the sort of Cartesian duality here is that you are trying to create a system in which it seems like your protagonist, your hero, is in charge of the decisions he or she is making, when in fact you are – you as the writer are in charge of the decisions that are being made. You are creating a universe where those are the decisions that are going to lead to the most interesting outcomes. And so you’re definitely making it feel like that character is in charge when in fact that character is working for you. That character is working for your story. And so I think the way to sort of back into the answer to Ferris’s question is to be making sure that you have a sense of what the story is you’re trying to tell.

Likewise, have a sense of who the character is in the story and at every moment those stitches have to be working together. That this character needs to go on this journey. This character needs to make these discoveries. Therefore, I will create a universe in which he can have these moments of challenge, these moments of opportunity so that it can change the character. And you’re creating the universe of the story and the character of the story at the same time.

Craig: Right. So, at the core of this, Ferris, is a question of design. When you say how do you go about making the character drive the story, here’s how. You design a character, you design a problem that that character has. A fatal flaw. A primary challenge. You design a story, plot rather I should say, that will repeatedly test that character. That will force them to leave their comfort zone. That will force them to confront terrible truths. That will cause them pain. That will threaten to tear them apart. And the only way that that character is going to be able to survive is if they overcome what has held them back. If they overcome what is wrong with them. And in the end, success.

Or, they fail. Either way, both are fine. I mean, traditionally they succeed. Happy endings and all that. But sometimes they don’t. Either way, you have designed a person and then you have designed a plot that are married together. The person does not understand that that plot is going to lead him or her to something important. They have no idea.

There’s this wonderful analogy. I think it was in Slaughterhouse Five. Where the Tralfamadorians, the aliens, they don’t experience time the way we do. And so they’re describing it, it’s like as humans the way we experience time is we’re on a train and there’s a window. And what we see in the window is our present. And when it leaves the window, because the train is moving, that’s our past. And then the future rolls into our present and we see that.

But what we cannot see is what’s coming. We’re only looking out the window. The Tralfamadorians, they’re outside the train. Right? They know where the train is going. They can see it all. Very clear to understand.

You, Ferris, are outside of the train. Your character is inside the train looking out the window. Your job is to create a path for that train which you can see that is going to cause problems for this character. And then your job is in a very strange psychological exercise to exit outside, go into the train, put yourself right in that little train car, and ask, “What do I see out the window? What does this mean to me?” I don’t know anything other than what I have seen and what I’m seeing now.

So there’s two of you, Ferris. There’s the outside guy who can see it all, and there’s the inside guy who can only see what’s there. And your job is to make sure that you can do both of those jobs perfectly well so that they work in harmony and this exciting story emerges.

John: Yeah. Screenwriting is always about that shifting your frame of reference. And you’re trying to see only what your characters know and then also know everything that your characters don’t know. It’s ridding yourself of the curse of knowledge of what’s to come, of the motivations of other characters that they couldn’t possibly see.

So, the questions to fundamentally ask is – and we can put a link in the show notes to an earlier episode where we talk about what characters want – but really ask yourself what does this character want right now. And when I say right now, like what are his basic motivations? The primal kind of things they’re going after. What are their higher aspirations? Are they hungry? Are they frustrated? Are they sleepy? Ask yourself all those questions. Look at their sort of near term. Like what are they trying to do in the next ten minutes, in the next two hours, and then also be able to ask the question like where do they see themselves a week from now, a year from now.

Not every scene is going to address those things, then you have to have a sense of what those are for that character, so you can get inside his or her shoes and really understand the world from their point of view. And then when you start to ask those questions, make sure you check in on those motivations, those general goals and wants and wishes throughout the story. And you may need to find excuses and reasons to have your characters expose those to us so that we can see them and so we can remember them.

Because unlike the novelist who can just get inside a character’s head and just tell us what that character is thinking, in screenwriting we are very limited. We don’t really have insight on characters unless they say something or if they’re in a musical they can sing something. So, make sure that we really understand what this character is experiencing in case we can’t see it just by what’s being put on screen.

Craig: You know, I went through this whole Sherlock binge. There’s a moment in one of the episodes where I believe its Mycroft, my favorite character, Mycroft Holmes, tells this little story called the Appointment in Samarra, which it’s an old story but it was most famously told by Somerset Maugham. So I’m going to read this story to you. It’s very short.

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw Death standing in the crowd and he came to Death and said, Why did you make a threating gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, Death said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

Now, I love that story. So, you, Ferris, or any screenwriter, you’re death. You know where people are supposed to be. You know exactly what’s going to happen to them and they cannot avoid it because you’re writing it. But, your characters have no concept of this. They are, therefore, free to make choices. And this is a very kind of strange, Calvinistic, pre-deterministic way of looking at life. I don’t think this is actually how reality functions happily, but it does function this way for your universe you’re creating.

Your characters must react. They must have agency. They must have free will. They make choices. But in the end, the movie that will happen to them must happen to them. So, part of what makes “character drive story” is the dramatic tension and often the irony that is connected to characters making decisions and then dealing with the circumstances of those decisions as you create them.

If you know what’s going to happen to them, you have all of the opportunity in the world to make it seem to them that they have succeeded. In fact, it’s a very common dramatic trope in movies to give the characters everything they do want, only for them to discover they no longer want it because of the journey they have been on. And then they must turn away from that to want something more, or something better, or the thing they should have wanted in the first place.

It’s a very difficult thing to do. But once you understand that the plot is there to serve the character’s life, so that when the movie is over the character is either healed or broken, then you understand there’s no other result than to have the “character drive the story.” The character is the story.

John: I would refer him back to our episodes on The Little Mermaid, which is of course a mermaid makes a very dumb choice and deals with the consequences, or Groundhog Day, which is nothing but a character getting what he always wanted and then suffering for it, and having to learn how to overcome it and his ongoing struggle.

We’ve never talked about Aliens, but the second Aliens is a great example of a movie that feels like it could just be on rails, and yet isn’t because it’s so carefully constructed that Ripley is on a journey. That she’s on a journey – that she’s making choices herself the whole time through and you really feel her making those choices. They’re not easy choices. There’s continual consequences. And it works so well because of the marriage of plot and character to create story.

Craig: Yeah. You have this remarkable tool as a writer. And for lack of a better word I call it torture. You can and should torture your protagonist. No one wants to see somebody very easily arrive at a solution. That’s a boring and short movie. So, you know that there’s a problem in them. And you know that you need them to be the opposite of that when they finish this journey. Torture them. That’s how you make the character drive the story. The story becomes painful for them. It’s hard. When they have to do the right thing, it comes with terrible costs. When they try and do the right thing, punish them for it.

This constant pushback, this constant torture, this crucible that you create is what we want to see because that creates empathy in the audience and a desire for the character to succeed.

The worst possible outcome is for a character to make this large, grand change in their lives and you don’t feel like it was that hard for them to do. You want it to be the hardest thing, because after all, this is the movie. Their lives – they don’t really have lives, but we imagine they do. Clarice Starling had a life before she shows up at the FBI and gets the Buffalo Bill case and has to go talk to Hannibal Lecter. And she has a life afterwards. But that stretch of time where she’s dealing with that case and Hannibal Lecter, that’s the most important time in her life.

So, for her to finally get to the end has to be excruciating for her. Otherwise it didn’t deserve to be a movie. We should have found some other part in her life that was a movie, or maybe her life isn’t a movie at all.

John: One last note before we wrap up this topic is we’re both screenwriters. We mostly talk about movies, which are two hours of entertainment, and you’re following one character’s life. But I will say in great TV, like the TV that we get to watch every day now, you do see characters driving story in ways that they probably didn’t do so much ten years ago. And so you see characters making difficult choices in everything from Game of Thrones to The Americans. They’re not simply responding to things. And they’re not trying to just recreate the normalcy of the routine. They are being challenged and they’re pushing beyond those challenges to get to new things.

And so I really do believe that most of the advice we’re talking about can apply to one-hour of television, and two hours of movie, it’s just you have to find ways that you can use those characters and let them continue to grow over the course of a season rather than just one two-hour movie.

Craig: 100%. It gets really complicated in television because you do have to now prioritize your characters and your story and television shows do it in so many different ways. There’s a method by which there is an A character and that is the primary story. That character drives the major portion of the story. But there are other characters who have smaller stories inside of the stories that really are driven by them.

And when we say “driven by,” what we really mean is a function of. OK, I think Ferris that will be the cleanest way to kind of resolve your problem. Characters don’t really drive story. Story is a function of character.

So you have a lot of choices about how you handle these things. But ultimately whatever you choose, you do make a choice. And you know your story is a function of character.

John: All of our TV writer friends are back in the room now writing the next season of their shows that come in the fall, or come in midseason, and that first week, those first two weeks they do a lot of big whiteboard stuff where they figure out where are all the characters going this season. And that’s what we’re talking about here. They’re figuring out the broad arcs for these characters over the course of the season. And then within episodes how far can they take them within this episode. And that’s great. And that’s the kind of thing that is amazing about the TV we make right now.

So, a lot of this advice can apply to TV as well.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, imagine how backwards it would be if you showed up on day one for a season and the showrunner said, “OK, we have three characters and we got to kind of arc out how the season is going to work. But here are a few things I definitely know. There should be a train crash somewhere in the middle of the season. I want a huge train crash. And you know what? I’ve always wanted to do a thing where an airplane – it’s like a car chase but with two little small twin-engine planes.”

John: Little Cessnas? Yeah.

Craig: “Through a city. I want to do that. So those are on the board. So let’s figure out how we can kind of make…”

No. That would be the worst. No.

John: Yeah. You and I have both worked on movies that have had that kind of situation. Oh, it is the worst.

Craig: It’s the worst. Because in the end you’re just now I guess retrofitting characters that would then have the ability to find meaning in those sequences. But, oh god, it starts getting bad real fast. But if you sit in a room and someone is like, “Here’s the situation. These two guys are best friends. At the end of this season, one is going to kill the other. Now, let’s talk about how that happens.” OK. Now we’re on to something.

John: All right, let’s wrap that up. And Craig could you read us our next question?

Craig: So, a person whose name is the same name as a famous person’s name writes, “I share the exact same name as a remarkably famous celebrity. I won’t mention who, but I will say he is a household name and sadly one of the most famous people on the planet. It just so happens that this particular celebrity is a total cretin who is very well known for being a major douchebag. My concern is that sharing my name with this incredibly talentless parasite will negatively affect people’s opinions of my screenplay before they’ve even read it. What are my options here?

“Should I use a pen name, so I’m not mistaken for this bungling idiot? Or should I keep my name and dedicate a line on the title page to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that I am definitely not him? Or since he’s famous as hell, should I just keep the name and just roll with it? A famous name might generate more interest, I guess.”

John: This is a really easy answer. Do not use that famous person’s name. It will only be confusing and will not help you in your career or your life. Pick a pen name. Use your initials. Do something else. But you will benefit not at all by sharing a name with whoever that is.

Craig: Slam dunk of slam dunks here. There’s no point, really. Let me be honest with you, whoever you are. Let’s just call you Donald Trump. That’s not who it is, but it would be funny. Even if the celebrity that you shared a name with was a fantastic person that everyone loved, it still wouldn’t be–

John: Like Tom Hanks. Let’s say your name is Tom Hanks. Not helpful.

Craig: No. It’s just going to be an endlessly annoying discussion you have with people that will start a lot like this. “Is that really your name? What’s that like?” Every meeting you have. Every – look, you already now. You deal with this in your life anyway.

So, no, John is absolutely right. Get a pen name. I believe you have to register those with the Writers Guild, right?

John: Yeah. I think you’re supposed to register pen names. I legally changed my name before I moved to Los Angeles. So, for people who don’t know the backstory, my original last name is German and it looks pronounceable, but we pronounced it weird. It was a challenging last name. And so I was deciding as I went through high school, like I think I’m going to use a different name for my career. And I think I might go be a screenwriter, so it was like my mom’s maiden name is Peters. And I’m like, Peters is a good name. I could be John Peters.

Craig: Whoops.

John: But, nope, there’s a famous movie producer named Jon Peters. He’s J-O-N Peters, but that would have been confusing as heck. And so I’m really glad I didn’t pick that. So I picked my dad’s middle name, August, and it’s worked out for me very, very well.

So, Kanye West, or whatever your name is, I think you should make a similar choice and pick a name that you like. It could be your legal name, if you want to change your name legally.

You know, if you got an annoying name like that, just change your name legally. It’s not going to help you at all to have a weird name.

Craig: I agree. If it’s really bumming you out, just change it. What’s your actual – what’s your middle name, John?

John: Tilton. T-I-L-T-O-N.

Craig: And you didn’t want to be John Tilton?

John: To me it always felt like I was missing a name there. Like Tilton didn’t feel like enough of a last name to me.

Craig: Because you just knew it as your middle name.

John: I knew it as my middle name. And it feels like a cheese.

Craig: John Tilton?

John: Like Tilton cheese.

Craig: No, that’s Stilton.

John: It’s Stilton. I know. But it’s close enough. I just didn’t like it. I didn’t love it.

Craig: God. You are just so WASP-y. John Tilton August.

John: Yeah, but the Tilton is gone completely. It’s been banished. It hasn’t been part of my name for 25 years.

Craig: Tilton.

John: Tilton.

Craig: Tilton.

John: Tilton. Ben in LA wrote in and he sent audio, so let’s take a listen to what Ben wrote.

Ben: I have a quick question. It’s about writing for humor. Now, there’s a thought that “you can’t teach funny,” which I believe to be fairly true. But, is there a method you use to improve, construct, workshop humor in your scripts? I have my own script that I’m trying to break right now that has a decent character and set up, but trying to find all these possible and best scenarios it could go. For TV, you have the audience of the writers’ room, but on features you tend to work alone and I don’t necessarily laugh at all my own jokes.

So, anyways, any advice you have would be greatly appreciated. And, again, thank you very much.

John: Craig, what advice do you have for Ben?

Craig: Well, this is a tough one. I mean, so no, you can’t teach funny. But certainly funny people can get funnier. And I think that every funny person starts out as an amateur funny person, a class clown, or someone who writes funny emails to their friends, or funny texts. And then hits the rubber and road of being a professional funny person, where you are now not just being paid to make people laugh. You are accountable for people laughing. And that is a whole different world.

The demands of that take some time to develop. Any standup comedian will tell you that time is required. And I doubt any standup comedian’s first set went particularly well. And it’s the same for comedy writing in movies. The first scripts you write tend to be broad. I think basically there’s a lot of insecurity. You know, you’re so worried about people laughing that you try and make them laugh every three seconds and it gets really big and really broad.

The only practical tip I have, other than going through the experience of seeing people react to your work, which is easy enough to do. Have a little reading with some actors and see if people laugh. Is to always keep in mind that surprise is at the heart of laugh out loud comedy. You can’t really get it without surprise. So think about how to surprise people.

John: Yeah. I think sometimes we over emphasize this “you can’t teach funny” idea. And we sort of generalize it to like you can’t learn funny. And I think the funny people I know, they definitely spent some time learning about funny. I just finished reading Lindy West’s book, Shrill, which I really liked a lot. And she was talking about how growing up she used to tape Saturday Night Live and SCTV and basically anything she could possibly find. This is back in the days of VHS tape. And she would tape them all, and she would rewatch them, and she transcribed them, and she cut them together into super cuts. And she was really just trying to study and break down how it all worked.

And so she was a funny person, but she was also studying her craft. The same way I think people have musical talent but they also work really hard at it and they sort of – they study it. They really pick it apart to see how it all functions so they can do it themselves. And so I don’t want anyone to sort of think like, oh, because you can’t teach funny no one can learn. People definitely do learn. And it’s important to sort of keep that in mind.

I think one of the first things you’re going to learn is the difference between something being funny situationally and funny because the character is saying funny things. And they’re really different things and we sometimes conflate them. So, situationally funny things are that sense of a mismatch between the character and the environment they’re in. The bull in the china shop kind of stuff. Funny situation is a character trying to keep a secret, physical absurdities. The stuff that’s situationally funny will tend to work even if the sound was turned off, or a language you don’t speak, you could sort of get situationally why it’s funny.

The ability to write funny dialogue is a different thing. The ability to write jokes is a different thing. And you have to understand more what’s happening in the listener’s mind to get a funny line, to get a joke to work. And that, again, takes practice. It’s a different kind of thing.

You know, we talked about shifting frames of reference. Being funny is you as the person telling the joke or setting up the comedy, you know where it’s going to go, but you have to be able to put yourself in the mind of the person who doesn’t know where it’s going to go to see exactly where they’re at, and then be able to surprise them with where you took them. And that takes skill and talent, but also practice. And so you have to dedicate yourself to that.

Craig: Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. I mean, comparing it to music. You can carry a tune, so you can sing. OK, you want to be a professional singer, here are 5,000 technical things you need to learn that are all the way from breath control to different kinds of bravado to how to transition from your chest voice to your head voice. It’s the same with comedy. You do have to be a funny person. You have to know how to sing. But the technicality of comedy is extraordinary. It is far and away the most technical aspect of any writing I think that’s done.

And the rules and the constraints that you set up for yourself are really important. I mean, I can’t tell you how much I learned from David Zucker. And it’s not that I generally even write in that vein of comedy, but I learned technically an enormous amount from him. I also learned a lot technically from Todd Phillips. It was a very different style of comedy. But you have to be an endless student of the technique of comedy because it is rigorous.

Nobody – well, I’m not going to say that. I will say this. There are people that make comedies and they think that the easy part is the joke parts and they’re wrong. Those are the hardest parts. It is a rare thing to find a director that can shoot a funny movie. There’s just not that many of them because that’s where all the technique has to happen. Even if all the technique is in the script. So, what I would say, Ben, is practice. And look at it rigorously. And like John says, study technique. Watch funny movies, that are funny to you, and then stop every time you laugh and go, OK, hold on. Back up. How was that set up? Where did I laugh? Did I laugh when they said the thing, or did I laugh when they cut to that person reacting?

Was it all in one shot? Was it physical? If it was physical, were the elements in play before that physical occurrence blew up? All these things. Analyze them carefully. Analyze them really, really carefully. Because that’s the physics of comedy. And it’s hard. I find it hard, obviously.

John: I think the other thing to watch is to watch for trends and watch sort of what’s happening out there. Because something that was funny ten years ago may not play funny now. Watch where the puck is headed. Like I watch Catastrophe, which I think is a terrific show, and smart on so many levels, but one of the choices they’ve made which I’ve seen them talk about is if I’m saying something that’s really funny, you’re going to laugh about it because it’s weird that people don’t laugh in comedies. And so a choice they made in that show is that if he says something funny, she’s going to laugh, and vice versa. They’re going to acknowledge that they’re saying funny things at times. That’s the rules of their universe. That’s the rules of their world. And I can see that happening probably outside of that sort of indie sensibility. I think it’s going to bleed out.

So, look for that kind of stuff. Look for what is out there and what’s possible.

Now, yes, if you’re writing on a TV show, there’s people around you and there’s other people who are going to help you sort of find that funny, which is great. And also to be writing for established actors playing those characters, which is also great. But in most of my experiences I’ve just been like the one guy alone in a room. And how do I know if something is funny? Well, you just kind of know. And to me what I’ve found to be most useful is if I’ve written a scene one day and I can go back a week later, a month later, and that scene is still funny, it’s probably actually funny.

It’s the thing that I wrote and the next day I’m like, ugh, this is just not funny at all, I trust myself in those situations and I rip them up. But I go back and start again.

Craig: This is a process that if you are a professional writer, Ben, you will be studying this changing it and perfecting it, whatever you want to call it, for your entire career. It never stops. Comedy is like magic. So, somebody comes along like David Kwong and says pick a card, and you pick it, and then he effortlessly pulls it out of your butt and you go how the hell did you do that? That’s amazing. It’s like magic.

It’s not like magic. It’s actually the result of thousands of hours of practice. And very careful misdirection and a ton of setup. And physics. Literally physics. So, that’s kind of the gig is you got to work at it.

John: The other reason why I think that magic metaphor is good is that there are different kinds of magicians. And so there’s people who do really great close up work, or sort of like Kwong does amazing things with numbers and words which are all great. But he’s not making planes disappear. He’s not doing that sort of big look at this giant stadium I have full of stuff. There’s different kinds of magic that are out there. And there’s different kinds of comedy also.

So, a person may be tremendously funny and really good at the jokey-joke stuff, and we love them for that, or the little sketch things, but they don’t really thrive in situations where they have to play the longer game, or they have to figure out the bigger movie. And that’s OK. I think it’s great that there’s people who are good at different kinds of things. And so as you’re writing, and you’re figuring it out what it is you like to do and what you’re good at, you may find that you have a strength. And play to your strengths. Go for what makes you happy.

Craig: I agree.

John: Cool. I think it’s time for our One Cool Things. I actually have two this week, so I’m sorry, I’m going to cheat. So my first one has been on my list as a One Cool Thing for a long time, but this week it’s especially relevant. So it’s McMansion Hell. Do you know this site, Craig?

Craig: Yeah, it’s the best.

John: It’s just the best. And so it’s only because it’s this last week that I know that it’s actually run by this 23-year-old. Her name Kate Wagner. And the blog is great. So McMansion Hell, it’s actually a Tumblr and just every week or sometimes twice a week she goes through and she pulls all the listings of these McMansions across America in different states and she takes like the relator listings and draws on them like little captions for all the horrible stuff you sort of see there, and like the bad architectural decisions. And so it’s really funny, but it’s also really good criticism of the choices that we make to make these giant monstrosities of houses. And how unlivable they are and how just impersonal they are.

So I’ve really learned a lot from this 23-year-old woman who does this great analysis of McMansions. And so I’ve loved the site for months and I should have mentioned this earlier on. But this last week, Zillow, the real estate company, sort of the online relator listings company, sent a letter basically cease and desist. You cannot be using our photos anymore. And basically she pulled down her blog.

So lucky the EFF stepped in and responded to her lawsuit. I’ll put a link in the show notes to what they wrote. And Zillow backed down. And so the site is back up. So you should go. You should enjoy it. You should support her on Patreon like I do. It’s a great site and I’m so happy that this – it’s one of those rare things that it just turned out the way it should have turned out.

Craig: I love that site. Where I live in La Cañada, there are a lot of McMansions. I do not live in one. I live in a very – I don’t know if you’re an architecture guy, but there’s an architect named Cliff May who kind of invented the California ranch home. And we live in one of the homes that he designed. It’s old and it’s rambly and it’s not at all a McMansion. It’s the opposite of a McMansion, which is why we love it.

But I look and see the real estate listings in La Cañada and so many of the homes that were built in the ‘90s and 2000s, they are essentially the same. They have this bizarre – I only like to talk about the interiors – this bizarre Italian great entry hall. There’s a sweeping staircase.

John: Well, it’s called the Lawyer Foyer.

Craig: OK, the Lawyer Foyer. That’s fantastic. There’s a sweeping staircase. Sometimes two. There is a very formal dining room. There is an oversized kitchen with an oversized island. There’s always a wood paneled study and then some weird creepy wine drinking thing with bad Tuscany kind of vibe. And it’s always the same. And it’s over, and over, and over.

John: Always the same.

Craig: Always. But you know what’s not interesting at all? The ceilings and the walls are just bland and flat. And they all use the same lighting. And it’s just, I don’t get it. I don’t get it. Why people look at that and go, yeah, this is amazing. I want to live here. It’s like that’s their idea of what a mansion looks like, the way that for some people Trump is their idea of what a rich person is.

John: Yeah. I was going to use that same metaphor. Yeah, it’s very much that. It’s a weird obsession. An aspirational idea of like if I have this kind of house I will be happy. But, I don’t think those people are happy.

Craig: No. No.

John: And if you a Patreon subscriber to her blog, she sends you a link to a slide show that has abandoned McMansions, which is just an extra kind of thing. And so at first you’re like, well, how can you tell they’re abandoned. But then you actually start to look. The yards are completely overgrown and sometimes the windows are like busted out. And it’s just like, oh, it’s great and sad.

Craig: It’s a real mess.

John: So my other One Cool Thing has also been on my list for a while, so I’m just going to knock it out. It’s call Yoink. And I’ve managed to use it quite a lot while I’ve been here in Paris because I’m on a 13-inch MacBook for this whole year. And mostly it’s been good, but there have been times where I needed to drag files around and just do organizational stuff, which on a bigger screen is easy, but on a small screen, man, it just bites.

And so what Yoink is, it’s a little docky kind of thing that you just drag something over to the edge of the screen and it just holds on to it for you, so then you can navigate to the next thing you need to go to and just drag it back out. It’s so simple, but I use it like nine times a day for putting stuff together. Even for doing the Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide. It was so helpful for just dragging stuff in and out and around.

So, Yoink. It’s a utility. You’ll love it. So, I’ll link in the show notes for that.

Craig: I purchased it. I purchased it and now I just have to remind myself to use it. Sometimes I get these very handy utilities and then I forget that they’re there and I keep doing my old stupid way of things. So, I’m going to do my best to Yoink it up.

My One Cool Thing this week is Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest. Can’t believe this hasn’t been one of my One Cool Things before. So Matt Gaffney is a fantastic crossword puzzle constructor. And he has this website – we’ll put a link in the show notes. It’s Xwordcontest.com. And what’s unique about his site, and what he does, there’s only one crossword puzzle a week. It comes out on Friday. But that crossword puzzle is not just a crossword puzzle. It’s a meta puzzle.

In every single one of his crossword puzzles there is a larger meta answer you have to pull out of it somehow. And then you send that in as your contest entry. And as the weeks go on, it gets harder. So there are two kinds of months. There’s the four-week month and then there’s the five-week month, depending on how the calendar is that year.

So, in a four-week month, you get to week four, it’s pretty tough. On a five week month, like for instance the one we are in right now, the fifth puzzle is generally brutal. David Kwong and I are big fans of this. We try and solve them together when we’re stumped. I’ll give you an example, for instance, of a recent one. The puzzle had running through the middle of it this big long answer that was subprime lending. Or subprime borrowing I think is what it was.

And the way to get to the meta answer was to look at all the prime numbers in the crossword puzzle on the grid and then – because it was subprime borrowing, go one letter below that. Take that letter, take all of those, and then unscramble them to get the ultimate answer. That’s the kind of brutality that Matt Gaffney visits upon everybody. Well, I love it.

This week, the entry – this was the first month he had done guest constructors. And this week, the fifth week, the guest constructors are myself and Mr. David Kwong. We have created a puzzle for Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest. And I think it’s going to stump quite a few people.

John: Very nice.

Craig: Yeah. Really happy about that. If you are interested in subscribing, it is a subscription-based service only. You get one month free as a little taster, and then you got to sign on. But it’s $26 for the year. It’s $0.50 a week for, I mean, I don’t want to tell Matt how much I would pay, but it’s 50 of the best cents I spend every single week. I absolutely love the work that he does. He’s a pretty brilliant guy.

So if you like crossword puzzles and you like brain teasers, this is for you.

John: Nice. Craig, I don’t think you know this, but because of you I have started doing the crossword puzzle every day. The New York Times. What? And so including David Kwong’s. This past week he did a New York Times crossword puzzle which was terrific.

Craig: Yes he did.

John: And I got it. And, yeah, so I quite enjoy it. So thank you for turning me on to the New York Times crossword puzzle.

Craig: And are you able to handle the Fridays and Saturdays?

John: I am most Fridays and Saturdays. There’s a couple times where it was like, you know what, I could spend an hour on this, more than an hour, and it’s not going to be rewarding, so I will reveal it. But here’s what I try to do. If I’m going to reveal, I reveal a word at a time so I can use that to help me get other stuff. So I can at least learn from it.

I don’t reveal the whole thing.

Craig: You will get really, really good. It’s just – I mean, I’ve been doing the New York Times now for, I don’t know, 20 years essentially. And you get really good. But it takes time. You pick up things along the way. Some of it is just picking up annoying words like Etui, and Esai, and R, and all that stuff. But some of it is just horse sense. You’re just like, oh, you’re not going for what I think you’re going for. You’re going for this instead.

John: Craig, is there a term for people who are famous only because they are useful in crossword puzzles? So, like Uma Thurman, Esai Morales, Enya, she shows up all the time. There’s a class of people who would seem much more famous than they actually are, but it’s just because their names fit well in crossword puzzles.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, there’s general crossword-ease, and then there are these crossword-ease people. There’s not a specific term for them, but it’s like Uma Thurman, she’s legitimately famous in her own right.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: But I think in today, Friday’s New York Times crossword puzzle, spoiler alert, one of the answers is Anna Sui.

John: Oh yeah, and I did not know who that was, but she felt well in this thing.

Craig: Yeah. Anna Sui is basically only–

John: She’s a designer or perfumer?

Craig: Yes. She’s only famous because of crossword puzzles. Esai Morales, wherever he is ranked on IMDb Pro, he’s ranked number one for actors in crossword puzzles. And when you start to make them, you begin to understand why. When you build, so I’ve started making them now, and you realize that you get – you know, the basic concept is you lay down your answers that need to be there. Your theme answers. And then you start working around. And occasionally you get into a spot where you’re like the only thing that’s going to make this all work is if I can have an E-S-A-I here. So, it looks like Esai. Let’s get him in.

It’s just an incredibly useful name.

John: Yeah. I mean, if we can just make Godwin more famous, Godwin Itai Jabangwe, that Itai could be a useful crossword.

Craig: It would be huge.

John: Huge.

Craig: To have Itai would be amazing. I-T-A-I. So, the most valuable words for constructors to make their lives easy are short words full of vowels.

John: Mr. Jabangwe, it will be very lucky to be used in crossword puzzles.

Craig: Oh my god, if he became famous, Itai would revolutionize crossword puzzle construction.

John: That is an immigrant success story. That is Hamilton for all right there.

Craig: That’s right. Immigrants. We get the job done.

John: The job done. Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro, send us a link at ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you send the questions like the ones we answered today. We love it when people send in audio files, so just read your question aloud and attach it to your email. And that is helpful for everyone. Because otherwise Godwin may have to email you and ask you to do it, so just do it the first time.

We are also on Twitter. I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. On Facebook, search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there, leave us a review like the nice one we read aloud today.

Show notes for this episode and all episodes are at johnaugust.com. If you go to johnaugust.com/guide, you will get the Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide which you can download. And in the store, store.johnaugust.com, you can get the USB drives.

The other way to get all the back episodes is at Scriptnotes.net. It is $2 a month for the whole back catalog. We’ve got transcripts. We’ve got everything else. So just visit johnaugust.com and see those there.

And, Craig, a fun episode.

Craig: Terrific episode, John. I’ll see you next week. Bye.

John: Bye.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 306: DRAMA! — Transcript

Mon, 07/10/2017 - 11:25

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 306 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show, we’ll be taking a look at what happens when the drama is behind the camera and the difference between what’s reported and what’s really going on. Then, we’ll be answering listener questions about writing for specific actors and how to keep your hero driving the story.

But first we have big news. We have such exciting news that I’m so excited we get to share.

Craig: Does it involve me?

John: It does.

Craig: OK. Then I’m going to pay attention then.

John: We’re having a live show. So, we are having the first live show with both of us in about a year. It is July 25. That is a Tuesday. In Hollywood, California. I will be in Hollywood, California for this live show. And so will Megan Amram who is one of our special guests. So, I am very excited to be sitting next to you and to Megan to be having a live show with our audience back at the LA Film School where we do a lot of our shows.

Craig: Yeah. We’re getting you back. And it’s long overdue. This has become a problem for me and that therefore is a problem for you, as far as I’m concerned. That’s how we prioritize the problems in our lives. My problems first. And then also second.

So, we’re getting you back, which is great. And this is going to be our first live show together in, well, since you left. Megan Amram is not only a brilliant writer for many, many television shows that you know, like Transparent, and The Good Place, and Parks and Rec, but she is also a very popular Twitter personality with I think 4 billion followers. I think she’s up to 4 billion.

John: I think that’s the right number.

Craig: And more importantly she’s also my cousin.

John: She is your cousin.

Craig: Granted, distant cousin, but still. So, Megan is going to come on the show with us. She is amazing. And one of the funniest people on the planet. We’re talking to a few other people and I think those of you who attend will be pleased. But you’ll know ahead of time.

John, are tickets on sale?

John: We believe tickets should be on sale by the time people are listening to this podcast. Like many of our shows, this is through the Writers Guild Foundation, so we will direct you to their website – wgfoundation.org. Or there should be a link in the show notes that you will click and follow and purchase your tickets. This is not a big venue. This is not as big as the thing you did at the ArcLight. So, tickets will sell pretty quickly. So if you are listening to this podcast when it comes out, maybe pause. Maybe just check and buy yourself a ticket. Because it’s a Tuesday. It’s Hollywood. It’s going to be a good fun time.

Craig: Yeah. And we are the Jon Bon Jovi of podcasts. We sold out the ArcLight. If we can sell out the ArcLight, I’m feeling like – well, we always sell out. That’s what we do. We’re sell-outs.

John: We began as sell-outs. We’ll end as sell-outs.

Craig: That’s a good segue for this next bit.

John: [laughs] So why don’t you let us know about this new bit of information?

Craig: Well, we are approaching the next round of WGA elections. The Writers Guild has elections every single year. There are certain years, and this is one of them, where we elect both half of the board and also new officers. And then on the other year we’re just electing the other half of the board. So, this year we’re going ahead and we’re going to end up with a new president. And we’re going to end up theoretically with a bunch of new board members.

In terms of the officers, it appears that our next president will be David Goodman, because no one is running against him. I thought about it briefly, honestly to just annoy him. Because that would have just been fun. I actually like David a lot. He’s a good guy. He’s wrong about almost everything when it comes to the Guild, but he’s a really good guy. So I thought maybe I should just run against him for funsies, but then I remembered that I didn’t want to.

So, he’s going to be the president of the Guild for sure. And among the candidates running for office, there is one who hosts this podcast who is not me.

John: That’s correct. There’s a person running for the board who hosts Scriptnotes podcast who is not you. So, that will be really interesting to see how that all shakes out. I’m as curious as anyone to see what will happen down the road as the board is elected.

The other candidates are also fantastic, including good friends of the show like Andrea Berloff and Zak Penn. So, there’s lots of good people. Here’s what’s going to be happening in the months ahead. This is the announcement of the candidates. Down the road, there will be candidate statements that will be printed in the election booklet, so you get to read through those and see what everyone is talking about. There is an official Candidates’ Night, which is August 31, where people can come. And after that there is voting. So, the voting finishes September 18. We’ve still got quite a few weeks ahead of us before this election process is finished. But it’s exciting for me and I look forward to this years’ encounter more than most. I think I will be paying much more attention than in previous years.

Craig: Yes. You’ll certainly be more involved. And I suspect great success is going to be coming to a person who is not me, but who is in fact you. [laughs] It’s good. Because I want you to have that experience. I want you to know what it’s like. I did it. Now you’ll do it.

John: So, I want to circle back to this idea of there’s only one person running for president, also one person running for vice president. Technically, there should always be two candidates. And technically there were two candidates. The other candidate withdrew her name from running. So the rules were technically met, but there’s only one person running right now.

Someone else could run though. There’s a possibility of becoming a petition candidate. So, the deadline for petition candidates is July 21. If you are a WGA member in good standing who would like to run for president, or vice president, that’s a thing you could do. You could also run for the board that way. I think, you know, more voices, more discussion is always helpful. So if someone out there really feels like he or she could be that next person, there’s still an opportunity.

Craig: Well, maybe I should run for president.

John: Ugh, Craig. This would be a really complicated situation.

Craig: I don’t think it would. I think it would be–

John: No? You don’t think so?

Craig: No, I think it would be uncomplicated by smooth victory. Yeah, I could just run for president. You know, mostly to mess with Goodman. That’s a great motivation for things. Just, you know, cause trouble. Look, I’d be an amazing president of the Writers Guild.

John: Yeah. I do agree with you there. I agree you’d be an amazing president of the Writers Guild. So, if you would like Craig to run, you should tweet at him. Fill up his Twitter timeline with demands. And, also, specific things that you want him to fix when he does this.

Craig: I’ll fix them all.

John: He’ll fix them all. Let’s get to our marquee topic, because this was tweeted at us by many, many people. And this was not one thing, but many, many things that were tweeted at us over the course of the last really two weeks. And we thought we’d sort of lump them all together and talk about them as one thing, both the actual events, but more importantly what kind of happens when these things happen and what it’s like to be on a movie when these things are happening. And what we can take from it both as the writer who might be on set, but also an outside observer watching these things.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, we’re talking in a very general sense about the drama that happens behind the scenes which is now reported in the trades and now in the popular press and how we should respond to that. So, we can start in many different places. I thought we might start with The Mummy. So, The Mummy is a movie that came out. Did not perform well in the US. Performed much better overseas. But I’ve read a lot of articles recently – or not really read. I’ve seen headlines for a lot of articles I didn’t click through of really behind the scenes, this is what went wrong with The Mummy. This is the behind the scenes drama. And you know what? There’s always behind the scenes drama.

I have not been surprised these articles come out, but they only kind of come out when movies underperform.

Craig: Yeah. They do. I can think of one interesting exception and that was World War Z, where the movie was actually a success, but the story of it was so salacious and titillating to people that it earned itself an enormous Vanity Fair article. Well, we’ve entered a new era. So there were always these things where people would talk about this sort of stuff.

When we were starting out, I remember fewer of these things. It seemed like there was maybe a little bit of a collegiate agreement between the trade press, which at the time was really just a printed Variety and a printed Hollywood Reporter, and the business, because of course they relied upon each other symbiotically. The only people buying ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter were studios and networks. So, there was a general understanding of like we’re not going to bury you or expose this stuff to an incredible extent.

That all changed when Deadline came along, and then ultimately everything moved to online. And then social media has now essentially taken over anyway. Any little scrap of anything reported by any blog becomes fodder, it seems, for this massive discussion. And we have had this strange confluence this past two weeks of a bunch of these things happening and what I want to talk about with you today is just how remarkably confident the world seems to be about something they know nothing about.

John: Yeah. 100%. You talked about this Vanity Fair look at World War Z, and I’m trying to remember whether the World War Z article came out after the movie had come out and proven to be a huge success, or if it came out before then. Because World War Z had this long trajectory. There’s a long period of time where it was in limbo. I’ll put a link into this Mummy article which is also Vanity Fair, but of course it’s the Vanity Fair online. And I think what’s happened is because of the Internet, because time frames keep accelerating, you just find out about these things so much earlier. And when we were starting out, the only places you’d read these kind of stories were in the trades, rarely, or Premiere Magazine, which was like the only kind of film magazine that would dig into sort of the business of things. Sometimes Spy would get into there. Spy was a great magazine.

But now everybody has to sort of go through those things. And so things will blow up on Twitter and you find yourself responding to things.

So, this last week, the thing which we had to respond to is Lord and Miller. So, Chris Miller and Phil Lord left the Han Solo movie, which is currently in production in London. And people said, oh my god, this is amazing, and they would tweet at us because they know that we knew so many of the people involved. Friends with both those guys. Lawrence Kasdan was on our show. He was a guest where we talked about Star Wars. And so everybody wants to know what’s the real story, what’s going on behind the scenes.

This is what was officially put out about this. This is Lord and Miller in an official statement. They say, “Unfortunately our vision and process weren’t aligned with our partners on this project. We normally aren’t fans of the phrase ‘creative differences,’ but for once this cliché is true. We are really proud of the amazing and world class work of our cast and crew.”

Craig: So here’s what happens. The world goes bananas for a few days. There is an article written that is then essentially reproduced by 4,000 different independent websites, all saying the exact same thing. So you have this world of people that are just shooting the facts at you. And then you have the interpretation machine that begins to spin up. What happened? Who are the heroes and who are the villains?

It’s remarkable how quickly everybody just stampedes towards a dichotomy. If something like this happens, there must be a villain and a hero. There must be a justice and an injustice. Somebody was bad, somebody was good. It’s amazing how this happens. And here’s the truth. The truth is, A, nobody talking about this casually on the Internet or in social media knows what happens, because they weren’t there.

If you were there, there are decent odds that you would have a different interpretation of what it all meant and why it all happened than the person standing next to you who was also there. These things are complicated. And we’re talking about people who all have tremendous success behind them. And sometimes stuff doesn’t work out. And the part that confuses me the most about the response to all this is who cares. I know people do care. That much is clear. What I don’t understand for the life of me is why. Because it doesn’t matter. I go to see a movie to see a movie. I don’t go to see a movie to see the end result of some social experiment I was invested in. I’m just going to see a movie.

Either I like it, or I don’t. What does it matter to me who got along with whom on a set?

John: I can understand I think why some of this curiosity kicks in. I’m going to try to do a sports metaphor here, so everyone just bear with me, because I’ll probably make some things very, very wrong. But here’s what I’ll say. Like on a sports level, it should be who won the game. Did this team win, or did the other team win? But, between the games you’re following the drama of the players. You’re following the decisions that the coaches are making. Whether that was a good trade, a bad trade. Whether they should have benched that player or not benched that player. You’re following all of that stuff.

And I think to some – especially in nerd culture – I think Star Wars and these big properties are kind of like our sports teams. And so when we see something that could be damaging to our sports team, or will clearly affect our sports team, it’s going to peak our interests. And so when we see that there’s a change, we swapped quarterbacks, that’s a big deal. And so I can understand why there’s this discussion.

But I agree with you that ultimately the team will win or the team will not win. And the game is still being played. It’s a like time before we know the outcome of this Han Solo and how that’s all going to shake out. And I would guarantee you that what Phil and Chris are saying in their statement is probably very largely true, because it very much matches with what the statement came from the other side is that like there was a disagreement about what was going on and they left. We don’t need to know all of the details. And even if we knew specifically, this was the moment where this happened, and this moment, and this person said this thing. That may not still really be the reason.

I bet five years from now you could interview everybody involved with this movie, which is probably going to be a hugely successful movie. They would all have a slightly different version of what actually happened. But I would bet you that in the movie’s success, they would all be appreciative of the good things that had happened getting up to that point.

Craig: Yeah. I agree. And your sports analogy is apt. And I understand the fandom curiosity and interest. It’s when, unfortunately this is also true in sports fandom, the need to impose a narrative upon things just is unfortunate.

You know, like you said, we’re friends with these guys. I’m friends with Lord and Miller. We’re obviously friends with Larry. And we love and respect all of them. You start to see these things, well, you know, finally a writer gets to fire a director. Well, Larry didn’t fire anybody. And also Chris and Phil are also writers. There’s no real writer versus director. I don’t really think this is – also then it was like evil corporate Disney versus creative people. No, I don’t think that that’s quite it either. I think that this was just one of these complicated situations where something didn’t work out. And I wish that that were enough. I wish that you could just say to people, “You know what? Here’s the thing. I could tell you…”

Let’s say I knew about every single thing that happened. And by the way, I do know a lot. But let’s say I knew every single thing happened. And I would tell all of it to you. At the end of that very, very long discussion, I think you would be less titillated by everything than you are without all that information. The more you know and the more you talk to people and the more you understand about any kind of situation, the more boring and mundane it suddenly – you’re like, oh yeah, yeah, well, I can see how that. Yeah, it’s complicated. Oh, that’s tricky. Well, you know, everybody went into it with good faith and it just didn’t work out. And so now it’s…

It’s just not exciting, the more you know. So, where it’s hard to read all this stuff on the Internet about behind the scenes things because people don’t know. It’s like a weird opposite situation. The less you know, the more excited you are. And the more excited and titillated you are, the more you cling to this theory that is uninformed. And that part, I think, is actually weirdly corrosive to the movie business, because it leaks back in. That I don’t like.

John: So, a thing that was tweeted at us often was speculation about who would get credit for directing the movie. And because we’ve talked about writing credits on the show, people assume that, oh, it must be a similar process for how the DGA determines credits. It is not a similar process at all. And so I had to look it up.

So, there’s a basic agreement between the DGA and the studios, just like there is one for the Writers Guild and the studios. And it spells out that if there’s multiple directors on a project that the production company makes an initial determination of who the directing credit will go to, the one person who will get the directing credit. The other people involved, the other directors involved can appeal to DGA. The DGA can then make a determination. Ultimately, though, it is the production entity that will make the final decision of who is credited on the movie. We’re still a really long ways away from that there though now.

So, it’s reported as we were recording now that Ron Howard is going to be taking over the reins.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But we don’t know what’s ultimately going to happen. We don’t know what name we’re going to see on the screen. And I’m not going to say it’s not important, but like it shouldn’t be the focus of a lot of our attention and energy. It should be – I guarantee you that all the filmmakers involved are looking at the actual film that’s after the credit and not that person’s name.

Craig: Oh, yeah, no, 100%. This does actually happen. People generally don’t hear about it much. Because it’s rarer that a director leaves than say a writer be replaced, which bums me out, but fine. And also the Directors Guild is far more draconian in their credit system in that there’s one credited director. That’s it. They don’t do shared directing credits.

So, these things do happen. And certainly when you look at the Star Wars, I mean, Rogue One famously had a bit of a directorial change there. That was maybe more of a typical one because what will happen sometimes is a movie is completed, it’s cut together. Everybody looks at it. They say, “We need to do a lot of work. We need to do some significant changes. So, we’re going to actually get another writer and another director to do that work.” And that becomes sort of an addendum production. But typically the director that was overseeing principal photography will keep the credit.

I also get the sense that directors probably – I may be a Pollyanna about this. I suspect there’s less fighting about it than maybe there is in the Writers Guild. Where we’re routinely trying to arbitrate credits and there is an opportunity for multiple writers to be credited. With directing, I feel sometimes that maybe a director is more inclined to say, yes, I’m going to come in and I’m going to do this work, but I’m not going to take a director credit.

But the DGA has the ability just like the Writers Guild to make that determination. The one person that can’t get directing credit or be the director, well, it’s not just one person. But one person for sure is Larry Kasdan because of something called the Eastwood Rule.

John: So this goes back to The Outlaw Josey Wales where Clint Eastwood was an actor on – he was the star of The Outlaw Josey Wales, and took over the directing of the movie from the director. The rule prohibits that situation from happening. So a person already involved with the production cannot take over the directing responsibilities.

Craig: Well, little bit of a tweak there. A producer or an actor. But I don’t think the Eastwood Rule applies to writers. In this particular case, Larry is also a producer on the film. So, any of the actors – the cast can’t take over. You can fire a director. You just can’t replace them with one of the producers of the movie or one of the actors. But I think a writer you can. If that writer is not a producer.

John: What we should say is Craig and I both have had experiences where you get into post and the movie is not working. And the director is pushed aside, let us say. And then other people end of sort of really doing the work to finish the film. And that director still has his name on the film. And it’s still his movie. And everyone talks about it as being his movie. But that person did not end up finishing the movie. And so crucial decisions were made without that person.

Sometimes another person came in to do the directing on reshoots. That happens. And that’s just a quietly done thing that occurs. So, it is unusual that in this Star Wars situation they’re in the middle of production. They’re deep, deep into production and this is happening. I fully grant that that is unusual. But the idea that a movie changes direction, changes directors, is probably more common than I think people are aware.

Craig: No question. No question. And that’s the other part of this. Because Star Wars is so public and because there seems to be this general insatiable desire for commentary about these movies, this one becomes the main topic of discussion. But the love of drama does bleed back into things. And there’s a story that was circulating around in the wake of the success of Wonder Woman. Some people were digging up Joss Whedon’s unmade Wonder Woman script that he wrote a number of years ago. And basically saying, “Look, this compared to the Wonder Woman that’s out in theaters that we all love, this is bad. Boo Joss Whedon.”

And I’m reading this stuff going what the hell? Why? What is this about? And how is this even accurate to anything?

John: Yeah. I don’t know how that helps the world to dig out an old script and say this is worse than the movie that we actually got. So, what exactly?

What’s interesting is that this was the converse of a thing I see quite often. Where like a movie does not work. It’s just a bad movie. And they find an old script and say like this script was actually pretty good. And they dig out an old thing, and so what went wrong. That kind of forensics, I guess I can kind of understand. Because a lot of times those are scripts that were in the chain of title. They were along the process that got them there. And you’re sort of figuring out, OK, this is where things kind of got off the tracks.

But this was not along the process of the way to get to the Wonder Woman that we saw. The process of getting to the Wonder Woman we saw, you and I both know, and I think everyone in Hollywood knows, was a very tumultuous time. It was not a smooth sailing ship across calm waters.

And yet the movie turned out fantastically. So we’re not talking about all the storms that happened along the way because the movie did so well. And I think that’s the fascinating thing about this is we only want to stir up the drama on things that were just already problems. Good ones, we just ignore that.

Craig: Yeah. Look, if we could go back in time and say to people, “OK, everybody on Twitter, you’ve heard the good news right? Joss Whedon, whom you love, is going to write Wonder Woman.” And everyone is going to go yay. And then you say, “But hold on. Guess what? Warner Bros is then going to fire him.” Boo. “Oh no, it gets better. And then what they’re going to do is they’re going to hire a series of about six different writers. And you know who is going to be somewhere in the mix? Zack Snyder. He’s going to be working a treatment. And you know the guy Jeff Johns who runs DC. He’s going to be working on it, too. And then they’re just going to cobble together from all that stuff. And then they’re just going to make a movie. And it’s definitely not going to be Joss Whedon’s vision.” Everyone is going to go, oh my god, DC, blah, blah, blah, Zack Snyder, blah.

OK, but that’s exactly what happened. And it worked out great. And that wasn’t enough. Now they have to go back to Joss Whedon’s script. Dig it up. And kick it around. Like exhuming a body so you could play with it. Here’s the truth. The truth is we don’t know why Joss Whedon’s script ended up the way it did exactly. Because we don’t understand on the outside of things how any particular development process might go.

You write a script. You pitch something. You hand it to somebody. And then they read it and then they come back to you and they say, “Here’s the problem. We want to get this star. They don’t want to do this. We want to get this financier. They don’t want to do this. We can’t release this in China if you do this. Here’s a bunch of notes. Here’s what we want to do.”

And so a second script is created. And then that’s the one people find and go, “Boo.” We don’t know. Or, hey, how about this? Maybe – and this is crazy now – maybe Joss Whedon has days where he doesn’t write the most amazing script ever. I know. I know. Maybe he’s a human being and not every single thing he writes is incredible. And so you know what we should do? Let’s punish him publicly for it.

There is an internalized, weird, self-loathing of writers, because I see writers doing it all the time. Like what is wrong with you. This is the last thing we should ever do to another writer. And we certainly shouldn’t applaud while other people are doing it. It’s gross.

John: So here’s where I think there’s a case to be made for reading old scripts that were never made. I got to do this when I was at USC. And USC had a good script library. This is before we had PDFs. And so you were literally checking them out of the script library and taking them home and reading them and bringing them back in.

And I got to read a lot of things that were never made. And I learned a lot from that, but I also got to learn like, oh, you know what? This amazing writer, their script never got made. And maybe there’s some reasons why that never got made, but it was also really helpful for me to see like, you know what, not everything is going to be perfect. Really talented people do some things that are not the best things I’ve ever read.

Craig: Right.

John: And as something to check out of a library and read, I’m fully in favor of something like an old Wonder Woman script. I think that can be great and helpful to an entry level writer to learn about the craft. But to do a big public unveiling of this script, and then to hold it up as like this is not nearly as good as you think it would be, and Joss Whedon sucks for some reason is ridiculous.

Because you know why Joss Whedon doesn’t suck? Because we’ve seen so many other things he’s done. We’ve seen hundreds of hours of television that he’s done that do not suck. We’ve seen movies he’s made that have been fantastic. So, just stop Internet. Just please stop.

Craig: Yeah. Just stop. I mean, look at the Han Solo situation. So you have Kathy Kennedy. You have Lord and Miller. You have Larry Kasdan. All three of those entities have done remarkable work, repeatedly, over and over with extraordinarily high batting averages. What it comes down to is sometimes there’s just a mismatch of people or material. That is fair. That is human.

Maybe Joss Whedon was mismatched with Wonder Woman. That’s fair and human.

Here’s the truth: we pretend that everything that works out is intentional. It’s not. I know that’s a scary thing to contemplate. Wonder Woman, believe me – believe me – you and I know this very, very well. The way it ended up was not the result of a carefully planned, clean, efficient, smart, unrandom process. It was messy. It was not intentional. Nobody would design a path, a business model that byzantine and with that many stops and starts and turn-arounds and go forwards.

But in the end, the sum total of decisions created a good movie. So, it was a messy, unintentional process, but then the right people were matched with the right material, and that wonderful confluence occurred. When a movie comes together and works, it’s a miracle. I don’t think people quite understand that. When you end up with the right director, the right cast, the right script, the right producer, the right studio, the right marketing, at the right time, it’s a little miracle.

John: One of my very first classes was taught was taught by Laura Ziskin. And she produced many wonderful films, but the biggest hit she ever had was Pretty Woman. And so she would tell us the stories of Pretty Woman. And Pretty Woman for people who don’t know the backstory was a very, very dark drama about a guy who picks up a prostitute in Hollywood. And it became Pretty Woman.

And what I loved about Laura is that she was always thoroughly honest about like we have no idea how it became what it became. It was just every day we would show up and we would keep changing things and changing things. And we were literally cutting and pasting lines out of the script and gluing them together because it was before we had computers to do these things.

And it eventually became Pretty Woman and became this phenomenon. But she never presumed that she understood how it all worked or how it all happened. She’s always said they should give an award for just getting a movie made. And that’s really the truth. It’s remarkable that any movie turns out at all.

Craig: It really is.

John: So before we get into some advice for when you find yourself in this drama, I do want to acknowledge, because someone is going to point this out, it’s another weird thing that happened the last month is that Joss Whedon is going to be taking over the postproduction on the new Justice League movie because Zack Snyder is dealing with the death of his daughter. So, a horrible situation and it’s great that Joss is stepping in.

As people look forward, I would say whatever happens with the Justice League movie, please do not ascribe all credit or blame to Joss Whedon or to Zack Snyder, or to what the civics of this situation are. Let’s try to look at the movie. Let’s try to look at the actual film itself and what works at it and celebrate it if it’s great, or find the things that don’t work if it doesn’t work. But let’s not try to make everything be about this one moment if we can.

Craig: I agree. What a sad tragedy. And Zack’s wife, Deborah, is also involved in the production of those movies, so it was both of them together dealing with this. That’s actual drama. That’s actual human drama. And that’s the real stuff of life that hurts human beings. The rest of this is who cares.

So, you know, you have just given a very grown up, wise admonition and it will not be followed.

John: Not at all.

Craig: But, no, but I salute you and your attempt to do so, because it’s the right thing. We have to start – I don’t know when this happened, when the soap opera of behind the scenes became just as interesting as the soap operas in front of the cameras. But I don’t like it. I wish it would stop. And it won’t.

John: It won’t.

So, let’s say that you are a writer who is involved in a film that is achieving new levels of sort of behind the scenes drama. Let’s think through these scenarios, because you and I have both been there, and offer some guidance. I want to talk about the kinds of drama that you may encounter. I listed five here, but there’s as many variances as you can possibly imagine.

The one kind of drama you’ll encounter is that one person is freaking crazy. One person is just nuts. And the entire production is focused around getting this one insane person to not destroy the movie. So sometimes that is a major star. Sometimes it’s the director. Sometimes it’s a producer. But there’s just one crazy person and everything is about making sure that one person doesn’t ruin everything. That is a frequent behind the scenes drama.

Second one I’ll point out is too many cooks. So there’s basically no one who is in charge, or no one with enough power to get everyone to sort of go in one direction. Or what I think happens more often and sort of more subtly is that there are enough people who are important enough that they can’t ever be sort of ignored. And so it just becomes this churning thing where on a daily basis there’s sort of one monster you have to fight. That’s’ a – you’ve probably encountered that many times.

Craig: I think I’ve encountered every single thing on your list here.

John: My third thing would be a power struggle, which is usually there’s two people who are vying for power in the movie. They might have different creative visions, but they are just not compatible visions. They might have thought they had compatible visions, but they fundamentally don’t have that. And something has got to give, because you can’t make two movies. Well, actually, you often do make two movies. There are two competing cuts of the film somewhere down the road. And then what’s so fascinating is while you’re shooting you can just keep shooting. And then eventually you have to decide on one movie. And it just becomes unpleasant.

Craig: Yep. I mean, that’s the part where I start to feel physically ill just contemplating it. Because if I said to you, John, I have this idea. You want to write this script? And you say, “Oh my god, I’ve thought about it and I have this wonderful vision for it. Yes, I want to write it.” And I say, good. While you’re writing it, I also want you to write a different version of it that’s like this. You would rather eat a gun. The mental math and the emotional dilution required to write two versions of something. It’s like, here, take a kid and raise him, but on every other day raise them as a different gender and with a different value system. Do that.

You can’t. You can’t. And yet sometimes directors do find themselves in situations where that’s kind of going on. It’s horrifying to consider.

John: It’s horrible. Other bad situations are really just an outside force. Like something completely crazy beyond anyone’s understanding happens. Sort of the force majeure situations where there’s weather, there’s a weird budget thing, there’s a war in the country you’re trying to shoot in. And suddenly like some outside force has just taken over all normal, rational decision making.

And then finally, and sort of most sadly, things are actually going relatively well, but then the movie just sucks. You actually see the film and it’s like, oh, this is just terrible. There’s just not a movie here. And we’re going to have to do something very different. And that’s actually one of the most frustrating things because you can’t point to anyone person and say like that’s the person responsible for why this is in such horrible disarray. It’s like, no, everyone was just doing their job and sometimes it’s not Pretty Woman. Sometimes it’s just a movie.

Craig: Yeah. This movie should not have been made.

John: Yeah. Oh, I hate those.

Craig: I’ve experienced all of these. I have to say I’ve been somewhat lucky in that with rare exception I haven’t really been in the center of the swirl. I’ve found myself on the edge of the swirl, watching the swirl happen. Which is, I guess, in terms of climatology I should be in the center. That’s where it’s calm. I think I’m in the center. I’m in the eye of the storm, but I’m not on the edge where the cars and tractors are hurling around.

So, I’ve been kind of lucky that way, but it’s hard to watch.

John: Well, Craig, I think you’re honestly, you’re a little Stockholm Syndrome there. Because I do know from situations you’ve described that you’ve been in those storms. You’re like, oh, this is just weather. This is just some rain. When by any normal human standards it’s a downpour.

Craig: Yeah. I guess what I’m saying is it’s bad, but I found – for instance, I found myself, I’ll just be open about it. When I was making movies with David Zucker and Bob Weinstein, I spent a lot of time trying to diffuse what was between them. You know, and that was crazy and there was an enormous amount of drama. It wasn’t about me. But, it was less the yelling at me. I guess that’s what I’m saying.

And sometimes that’s the worst thing, because you realize I can’t get off this ride. I’m the only adult in the car. [laughs]

John: Yeah. You were the child trying to make your bickering parents get along.

Craig: That’s right.

John: But you were the adult child. The adult child of divorce.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So here’s some advice I have for if you find yourself in this situation. It’s just bullet points, but it may be helpful. And I’m sure Craig will add to this.

If the press come to you, you don’t say anything. Do not say anything. If you’re in the middle of the situation, you’re doing no one any benefit by speaking publicly about the trouble in the movie or in the film or in the TV series you’re in. It doesn’t help anybody. And I would also be careful about venting on phone calls. If you’re talking to your agent or your manager, so often someone else is listening in, an assistant. That stuff can just get out. Even if they don’t sort of use your name, it gets out there in the world. Try not to do that.

If you leave a project, don’t light the building on fire. There’s this temptation to burn it all down behind you. Never do that. Because then you make it impossible for you to come back in and help if there’s something there to salvage later on. It’s never a good idea to just kill it all.

And make yourself available if you think you can be. So, as I’ve left projects I’ve tried to be always really clear like, OK, I’m going now. I still love this movie. If you need me to come back, I’m so excited to come back. And down the road if they do come back to you and it’s just a horrible situation, it’s very easy to make yourself unavailable. Say like, “You know what, I would love to do this. I just don’t think I can do this now. I have these other things going on.” Make up some work. Just don’t burn relationships. Just disappear if you have to. That’s a situation where like ghosting I think is fair.

I’ve made myself unavailable to like see a cut of a movie, or to go to a premiere because I wasn’t going to benefit anybody by going to it.

Craig: Yeah. You know, when you’re in the middle of it, I think the most important thing is to just try and be the person that isn’t throwing fuel on the fire. Maybe the most public bit of drama that I was attached to peripherally I suppose was when there was a dispute between some cast members and Todd Phillips and the studio about whether or not Mel Gibson should be in Hangover 2.

And it was a big news story. And Mel Gibson was going to be in it, and then he wasn’t going to be in it. You know, in those situations, you may be the sort of person who feels like you should get involved. And if you are that person, you should recognize that feeling. And appreciate that that feeling is perfectly fine to have. And then don’t do it. Just don’t do it. Because you can feel like you want to get involved. You can feel like you have a great answer. You can feel like you have that one wonderful thing to say to somebody in private that’s going to make it all better. You don’t. And it’s not. And now you’re involved. And it’s just hard.

This is a show for writers, so it’s actually easiest I think for all these people for writers to just put their heads down and write. We don’t have to deal with quite the level of politics that the directors do and that the cast does between the director, between the studio, amongst themselves. Put your head down and do the work as best you can. And try and not make a difficult situation more difficult.

Because I’ll tell you this much. I have seen this happen. I have seen two strong parties at war. And I’ve seen a third party enter in to the middle to either attempt to diffuse or help one party, and the two parties at war turn on that person, destroy them, feel really good about it, and get back to work.

John: Yeah. You don’t want to be that sacrificial lamb.

Craig: No. No you don’t.

John: So, two things I think I can pull out of what you just advised though. That put your head down and write can be a really good helpful thing, especially in post I found. Is that if I’m the person who like writes the notes after seeing a cut, and I’m the first person with the most notes, the clearest notes, and those can go in and everyone can respond to those notes, that can be really helpful. Because then people are responding to a thing in front of them and they can sort of see that. And that can provide some logic and framework. That’s great. The other thing I will say is that if you find yourself in the middle of a crisis, like during production, or a TV show that’s going off the rails, recent Scriptnotes guests, both Damon Lindelof, Andrew Goddard talked about how they really got their opportunities because they were on sort of a sinking ship.

And on that sinking ship, that [unintelligible] suddenly gets to steer the ship for a while because there’s no one else to do it. And so if you find yourself in those bad situations, you may actually get to step up a few notches and do some important things.

Early in my career I got in the editing room on some of the movies that I probably didn’t really have business being in there, but I seemed to know what I was doing and they needed me. And so when things are going south, look for things you can do that might actually be helpful.

Craig: Yeah. That’s great advice. That’s certainly the bulk of the new experience I got working on the movies with David Zucker was because of the nature of the production and how tumultuous it was and frantic and dramatic and hyper fast the schedule was. I had to – I was impressed into service, essentially, and had to sit in the editing room and had to take on more than a screenwriter should. And it was really an incredible education.

And you’re right. If you’re on a very stable movie, your role is very, very stable and it’s exactly what you presume it will be, and then you’re done. So, you’re right. There are opportunities here. You just got to be careful to not confuse opportunity with ambition. Ambition is a desire. Opportunity is something that comes to you. There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious. I think there is a danger in being ambitious because you see crisis around you. And you think, oh good, this is my chance.

And I’ve seen people do that, too. That generally doesn’t work.

John: I’m going to try another sports metaphor. This is going to be an unprecedented episode of Scriptnotes.

Craig: Wow. Wow.

John: But I would say if the ball lands near you, and like no one else can pick up the ball, pick up the ball. That’s what I’m saying. Doesn’t really matter what the sport is. If it’s a sport where you’re allowed to pick up the ball, I say pick up the ball and run with the ball.

Craig: [laughs]

John: If you go back to the previous episodes and listen to Drew Goddard, he was on a TV show that was behind in scripts and it was crazy, but he got – it was actually a Joss Whedon show. He got to pitch to Joss and sort of help figure out an episode. In Damon’s episode, he talked about he was on a show that was not doing well and he just went home over a weekend. He was the writer’s assistant. And just banged out a script and presented like, hey, I know you can’t use this. I do not mean to sort of be a burden and a drag on you. But I wrote this. If it’s at all helpful, if you want to rewrite it. If it’s anything this is good for, I just wrote you a script. And they loved it and that got him started.

So, when you see things falling apart, if you can help put them back together, help.

Craig: Exactly. Exactly. Help. Help. Try and be the person that makes things better. It sounds so obvious, and you’d be shocked how few people either seem to know this or put it into practice. It is shocking to me how many times I see trouble and drama and then somebody running toward it with a bucket of gasoline. It’s amazing. I just – and I don’t understand it. But, it’s what happens.

John: All right. Let’s wrap this up by talking about if you’re not the writer inside the situation, but you are the person who is reading about these situations or seeing these headlines. What advice can we offer? Maybe don’t read the stories, but at least don’t retweet them. Don’t celebrate them. I don’t think that’s helping.

Remember that there’s at least one other side to what’s going on. So, whatever theory you’re reading about what happened, there’s somebody else who has the exact opposite theory, which is not wrong probably. There’s many perspectives on things.

And just finally remember that everybody involved in the situation chose to be part of that situation. They signed up to be part of something. And they weren’t going into it saying like let’s make a terrible movie that’s a disaster and everybody hates each other. They were going in there with really good intentions. And even with those really good intentions, sometimes things go wrong. And that’s just the reality of it. But don’t have schadenfreude for a movie that’s not working.

Craig: Yeah. And resist if you can drawing large conclusions about the state of the world, the state of the entertainment business, the state of anything. Because here’s what I have noticed over time. I said this on Twitter. Essentially 90% of the time 99% of what I read about the entertainment business is false, any particular story. It’s just not right. Not only – not that it’s off or incomplete. I cannot say how many times I’ve read something and I’ve known the truth. And what was being put out there wasn’t just wrong or incomplete. It was the opposite of what was right. It’s frustrating.

I suppose if you are interested in reading about this stuff, what I’m saying to you is you can’t trust what you’re reading. And you can’t. Because it is always incomplete and soaking in a kind of narrative. And then on social media it’s only really narrative. No one seems at all concerned with – and you just watch as the allegiances shift and change and they decide who is good and who’s bad. Why is Joss Whedon winner one day and goat the next? Well, the truth is he’s just the same human being who is doing his best, which as it turns out is really, really good. And it’s not always perfect. And also sometimes you have to presume when you’re reading things that aren’t on the screen, maybe that wasn’t even where it ended. You know? It’s all – you can’t take it with a grain of salt. You have to take it with all of the salt.

John: Yeah. Take all of the salt. That’s our diet advice. Take all the salt.

Craig: Take all of the salt.

John: Let’s see if we can give helpful advice to two of our listeners. First, we have a question from Philip and he wrote in with audio, so let’s take a listen to what he said.

Philip: My name is Philip and I’m an aspiring writer-director who is fresh out of film school. I’m about to embark on writing my next feature screenplay and there’s a young actress who I have worked with on multiple projects before that I’m imagining for the lead character in my screenplay. Neither of us have any industry notoriety or actual prospects to financing the film, so at this point the project is really just more for practice than anything else. So my question is am I doing myself a disservice as a writer by crafting a character around this performer? Of course, it’s going to be helpful to picture someone as I write, but am I perhaps closing myself off to potential takes on this character by having her already cast in my head?

Finally, how do you think this situation might be different in a professional’s position? Obviously big stars have writers write roles for them all the time, but do you think this is limiting?

John: Philip asks a great question. He’s mindful of my first bit of advice which was going to be, no, it’s great to sort of write for somebody because then you at least know that somebody could do the part. There’s a specificity that you’re probably building into it by writing it for one person.

But I would say don’t worry about the role is going to be limited because you had this one person in mind. I bet if this person is really as good as you think they are, you’re going to make really great choices that are going to bring out the best of what she can do and ultimately if it becomes another actress, it’s still going to be a better role I think because of the attention you paid to it.

Craig, what’s your thought?

Craig: I agree. First of all, Philip sounds like such a smart guy.

John: Yeah. We have the best listeners.

Craig: We do. We have the best listeners. He just sounds smart. I like people that speak in complete sentences. I agree with you. I think that the ultimately question, the test to apply to any of this stuff is what’s going to help me write my script. What is going to help me write my script the best that I can?

And I find that writing for an actor is an enormous help. Even if you are essentially closing yourself off in some ways, the truth is that’s part and parcel to achieving specificity. You have any millions of choices that you can make. But if you’re going to end up with a specific character on the page, you have to begin closing off choices by the thousands, in big waves. And when you are writing with an actor in mind, that’s essentially what you’ve done is purposely closed off a whole bunch of options and narrowed it down to one that allows you to be specific.

What ends up happening is as you write your script, you start to see this character as very discrete and separate from the actor per se. Because it’s becoming yours. But it’s a wonderful beginning to at least have a sense of a person who is real and occupies space and has a face and a manner of speaking and a rhythm of speech. So, I would definitely recommend if you have somebody that’s going to help you write this, then you should use them.

I don’t think you’ll end up in a position where should somebody else read this script they will say, “It’s amazing. The only problem is I can’t imagine any actor in the world doing this part.” And then you say, well, this is the actor. And they say, “Oh my gosh, that is the actor, but unfortunately we can’t make a movie based around her because she’s not famous. So no movie for you.”

That’s not how it works. There will be actors to which that role applies. It’s more about helping you do your job. So, I would encourage you to do whatever you think will help you write a good script as best you can.

John: I completely agree with that recommendation. Also, you and I have both written roles specifically for Melissa McCarthy. Like knowing that is for Melissa. And I’ve even written her into things where she did not end up playing that part. So, there’s a role in Big Fish which is played Missi Pyle, but I wrote that for Melissa. And Melissa was not available to do the movie. But that was written for Melissa. And that role completely makes sense with Missi Pyle in it. Missi Pyle brought her own special energy to it, but it wasn’t worse for having been written for one actress and then another person cast it in. It was better, I think, for it. The specific choices were made.

The only thing I would caution Philip on is to make sure you’re doing all the work of actually describing that character and making sure what is unique about that character translates to the page. Because sometimes if you’re writing for someone who is just such a unique talent, you might not be really capturing that spirit on the page. Because you know what they can do. But you’re not putting it on the page. So make sure you’re making a role that we can see, even if we don’t know your friend.

Craig: That exactly right.

John: All right. Last question comes from Ferris. And, again, he has audio. We love when people have audio.

Craig: We do.

Ferris: I’ve just crossed the threshold of listening to more than half of all episodes in the app while simultaneously keeping up with the new ones. There’s one thing I really wish you would go into depth about and that’s character development. Like my stride is I’m pretty decent at coming up with good plot, with twists and turns and interesting philosophical questions that the viewer can ask themselves. However, I’m being stuck on a current script and I’m realizing my lack of handle on my characters is really road-blocking me.

So, how do you truly get into the mind of a character? Like understand their motivations. How they would react in certain situations? How do you go about making the character drive the story instead of the other way around? I understand there are stock answers to these questions. If we go a bit further than that, that would really be great.

Craig: Oh boy.

John: So, Craig, he’s not going to take any of your stock answers. You got to push deeper. Again, an incredibly smart question. We’re now an hour into the podcast, so I’m not sure we can get into all the depth that we possibly could.

Craig: You know what? I mean, maybe we should just–

John: Punt?

Craig: Yeah. I mean, maybe we should just have a big discussion about character development in the next show and answer this question as in depth as we possibly can. Because it’s a huge topic.

John: It’s a great question and a great topic. That will be our next show. Well, we always promise it will be the next show, but then something else comes up. In a future episode, we will tackle Ferris’s question in greater depth and it will be fantastic.

Craig: Yep. It’s going to be the best question of all time.

John: No pressure.

Craig: It will be the best answer of all time. It will be the best answer of all time.

John: It’ll be fantastic. It will be better than any other answer.

Craig: Do you know what I want to happen? After that show airs, everyone else that’s ever written about character development is just going to quietly commit suicide.

John: Indeed. They’re like, man, I thought I asked the question that would get the best answer, but no you didn’t. No. Because he did.

Craig: Yeah. He did. He did.

John: Building this up too much. All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is genuinely a One Cool Thing. To the point where I feel like everybody who is listening to this show will probably actually want to click through to the link and see what this thing is and what it does.

So, this is Computational Video Editing for Dialogue-Driven Scenes. It was a paper and a demo video from a team at Stanford. And what they did is they shot a very simple scene between two actors sitting at a table and they did it very much the way you would cover this. So, there’s a two shot. There’s over-the-shoulders. There’s tighter shots as well. So it’s basically five setups in this. And they feed all the video into the computer. The computer figures out what the shots are. They figure out the different takes. They match it to the script. And then they can say Assemble. And the algorithms will put together an assembly of what that scene could look like and figuring out, OK, here’s how we’re moving between the wide shots and the over-the-shoulders. Here’s the close-ups. This is the rhythm we’re trying for.

But then you can change the parameters and will give you a new version, and a new version, and a new version. So, in my description of this you might say, “That sounds fantastic, or that sounds absolutely horrifying.”

Craig: Yeah.

John: And the truth is sort of both at once. So, if you are a person who loves editing like I love it, you would say like, oh, you know what, there’s a point at which this is incredibly useful and helpful. Because there’s so much of an assistant editor’s job is just like pulling that stuff apart and figuring out what are the takes where they do this thing or that thing. That is really, really good. But I was surprised at the degree to which I might be at least curious to see the initial versions of what it’s assembling, because I think if you could have a baseline version of like this is what a computer algorithm could do, then you can sort of take the handles and figure out what do I hate about this and how can I do something better.

And so I think it’s a great starting place for a discussion of editing and sort of how algorithms could be used in doing some of the really more mechanical parts of the process. And then the greater question of like to what degree do we allow computers to do some of the artistic work. So, take a look at the video. It’s a really well done video.

Craig: Siri, edit my movie.

I like doing that because then people’s phones start going, boop-beep-boop. Alexa, edit my movie.

John: Yes.

Craig: Excellent. I mean, you know, I’m always deeply suspicious about these things. But listen, as long as it involved editors losing their jobs, and not writers, I just…

My One Cool Thing this week is potentially cool. I have not yet used it, because I haven’t completed the enrollment process. But in theory it should be great. Are you a Global Entry guy, by the way?

John: I am a Global Entry guy. I love Global Entry. It’s so good.

Craig: It’s the most amazing thing. So we’re a Global Entry family. And I think it might have been my One Cool Thing. Yeah. It’s basically you go through a registration process with the Customs and Border Patrol agency. And you pretty much have to have a clean record. No arrests, I think, or stuff. And you have to be on the up and up. And they ask you a whole bunch of questions. And then they register you and they get your fingerprints. And you are essentially now – well, first of all you’re automatically registered for TSA Pre-Check, which is lovely. And when you are returning to the country, you don’t have to fill out a customs slip. You don’t have to wait in that long line. You can just insert your passport and then scan your fingers. Answer a few questions on the little computer screen. And you walk right out. It’s lovely.

So, coming back from the Netherlands, after we came back in with our Global Entry card I thought this is great. I wonder is there another level, because I’m all about speed at the airport. So, there’s a service now called Clear. And it is in most of your major airports. It just opened up at LAX. And it’s a similar kind of deal. You put in all of your information and the enrollment finishes when you actually sit with them briefly in person. So I have to do that. And they have a lot of places where you can do it. And when you get to the airport, instead of going through the normal security and check in, there’s a little kiosk. You tap your finger or they look into your eye and then you get through security lines in five minutes or less. I think they literally take you to the front of the TSA line. There’s a whole thing.

So, I’m hoping that it’s good because, you know, I like going fast.

John: You like going fast. I think there’s a good discussion on a show that’s not our show about sort of the way in which people can just keep buying their way past the worst parts of life rather than necessarily dealing with those worst parts that should be sort of fixed by government. That’s not our show. But I think it’s a show that someone else could have.

But I am curious to check out Clear. I’ve seen those lines. And I’ve never actually seen them working, so apparently now it’s working in some parts of the US. Cool.

Craig: Yeah. So I’m hopeful.

John: While we were doing our show, I just got confirmation that tickets will be available for the live show on July 25. And so by the time you’re listening to this program you will be able to click through. So, now is the perfect time.

At the bottom of this episode you will see the show notes. You can also find them at johnaugust.com. That’s where you’ll find the link to all the things we talked about, but more importantly the tickets for the live show.

Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions, like the ones we sort of answered and sort of punted on today.

For shorter questions, I’m on Twitter @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.

We’re on Facebook. Just search for Scriptnotes Podcast. Look for us on Apple Podcasts. Search for Scriptnotes. Leave us a review. People left us a review this last week, like three or four people. It was great.

You can find the transcript for this episode and most of our episodes about four days after the episode posts. And you can find all the back episodes of Scriptnotes at Scriptnotes.net.

And if you’re back there, I would say definitely check out the Drew Goddard special episode, because that’s really good. And, of course, the Damon episode is great, too. And the Larry Kasdan live show we did a zillion years ago.

Craig: Indeed.

John: Indeed. Craig, thank you for a fun episode.

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

John: Bye.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 305: Forever Young and Stupid — Transcript

Mon, 07/10/2017 - 11:12

John August: Hey, this is John. So, one of the scripts we’re discussing today has a few bad words, so if you’re in the car with your kids, that’s your warning.

Hello and welcome. My name is John August.

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Scriptnotes, Episode 305, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show, it’s another Three Page Challenge where we take a look at scenes written by listeners and see if they follow the rules set forth by the Screenwriters University.

Craig: The laws. The laws of Screenwriters University.

John: Not mere rules. They’re actual laws.

Craig: Law.

John: We’ll also be answering listener questions on vintage screenplays, maturity, Smash Brothers, and writing with a budget in mind.

Craig: Oh, Smash Bros. Smash Bros, just so you know.

John: Smash Bros. Was it Bros?

Craig: Well, it is Smash Brothers, but they abbreviate the Brothers “Bros,” which my son’s generation apparently doesn’t realize stands for brothers. So they all – every kid I’ve ever met calls it Smash Bros.

John: And that’s actually a good shibboleth for Hollywood. If someone says Warner Bros, then they’re not actually in the industry. Because everything with Warner Bros is always Bros, but you say Brothers. You never say Warner Bros. You say Warners, honestly.

Craig: Right. I had a friend growing up whose name was Thomas. That was his given name. But his parents liked to abbreviate it as Thos. Which is the old fashioned way of abbreviating Thomas. And he just started going by Thos.

John: I like Thos. That’s a great name.

Craig: Yeah, Thos.

John: When we get the Three Page Challenges, Godwin actually did pick ones he thought had interesting correlations or challenges to the rules put forth by Screenwriters University, so I wasn’t completely making it up in the intro.

Craig: Good.

John: So, hold tight. Some follow up first. Last week we talked about a new initiative where Sony Pictures would be making available the clean versions of some of its movies. Now, you and I did not have a lot of problem with this. There was minimal umbrage from us. But some people – they had some umbrage.

Craig: Predictably, the DGA.

John: Yeah. So the directors were not nuts about this. The DGA was up in arms about this. And so Sony backed down. So today as we’ve started recording this, we’ll link to a Variety article, but basically it said, oh, you know what, if the director objects, we won’t do it. So, some of those movies will not have the clean versions released into the world.

Craig: They are obsessed, the DGA is, with the authority of the director. And it’s so funny. When I read this I immediately knew it had to be the DGA, because in my mind I thought, well, what if the writer has a problem with it. Nobody cares, apparently, in features. Now, in television, no one would care if the director of an episode had a problem with anything. They’d be like, Piss Off. You know? Oh, my god, but the writer-producer, he doesn’t want it or she doesn’t want it, well, we better not do it.

And in features – this is the most arbitrary, bizarre delineation – it is growing more and more obviously stupid every passing year as I live. I’m just stunned by the, I don’t know, the dumbness of it all.

John: So, I have tremendous sympathy for a director wanting to have his or her work portrayed in the way that was originally intended. I totally get that. And yet when it comes time for a home video release, I think there’s by nature going to be some concessions kind of made. So, for example, if your movie is showing on broadcast television, you know there’s going to be an edit happening there. So I think it’s actually not uncommon for some directors to take their names off of movies or use a pseudonym for the TV edit of things. And I get that. But I also get why you need to do a TV edit of things because it’s broadcast television and you’re putting commercials in there. I just can’t work up significant outrage over this affront.

Craig: Neither can I. Well, you know, look, I love these directors who take their names off of things. Oh, like now somebody is going to turn it off. Nobody cares, for starters. Unless you’re Steven Spielberg and you took your name off, it’s not a news story. Nobody gives a damn.

Second of all, screenwriters working in the feature business, I mean, the people that are constantly telling us, hey, things have to change are directors. And now directors are just shocked. Hey, it’s the same deal with us. You took a check. You did something as a work-for-hire piece. Shut up. Piss off.

I mean, now I’m just angry at directors. Listen, if they came up with a system where the writer and the director, if the writer and director agreed, then they could do it. And if they writer and director didn’t agree, then they couldn’t. I’d be fine. But I’m just so – just the DGA’s cavalier presumption that half of their raison d’être is to promote the creative primacy of the director in features. It’s just so ugly to me. As somebody who has directed and as somebody who writes, I just find it so dumb.

John: Yeah. I’m glad that this topic actually was able to generate a little umbrage from Craig, even if it wasn’t the initial intention of it. Umbrage was found.

Craig: Yeah. It was a secondary umbrage infection.

John: So, previous umbrage to go back to is everybody remembers Patrick. Patrick was that guy who wanted 75% of this writing teams’ money for this feature idea which never went anywhere and it sat around for like 14 years. And so we advised KB when she wrote in that she could go back to Patrick is she really wanted to redevelop that idea, but honestly she should just focus on something else.

Well, KB wrote in and she sent us an audio clip. So, let’s take a listen to what’s new with KB.

KB: I really appreciate you guys dedicating so much time of the podcast to my question. And to give you just a little bit of follow up, my writing partner and I have agreed to let it be for now. I have a big project I’m trying to undertake and I am fully content to just throw myself into that instead of worrying about this other thing. And in the meantime I may very well try to reach out to Patrick and see if 13 years later he is interested in renegotiating with a much more reasonable rate for the work that we all did.

Again, thank you so much for helping us come to a conclusion on this. And I appreciate everything you guys do. You guys are the best.

John: Well that’s lovely. So, I’m glad she’s taking our advice. I’m glad she’s moving on and doing other stuff. And if she reconnects with Patrick, I hope it’s on better terms that are not 75%.

Craig: I would imagine it would be. I mean, time generally does put things in perspective, doesn’t it? And people grow up and move on. And there’s an immediacy to ownership in the middle of things. Also, when there is nothing but potential, I think everybody is probably a little paranoid that they’re going to be that guy who owned Apple along with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and then sold it all away for a handful of magic beans. They don’t want to be that person. But now all these years have gone by. OK, it’s not Apple. It’s not Star Wars. So, let’s all keep it in perspective.

But the one thing that she’s definitely right about is that we’re the best.

John: No question about that whatsoever. So, let’s see if we can be the best for some other listener questions. We’ve got a whole batch to go through. Craig, do you want to take the first one here?

Craig: I do want to take the first one. Daniel, from Los Angeles, writes, “I just finished reading a shooting script of the Sullivan’s Travels screenplay. I noticed the formatting was significantly different than modern production drafts. It was broken down into sequences with each scene heading being a shot description instead of a location. My questions are why did they change old production screenwriting methods into what we have today. And how much can a writer or director manipulate format when it comes to the shooting script?”

That’s a great question, John. And I’m a little worried, because I’m not sure how to answer this one. What do you think?

John: So, I’d actually done a little research on this for a blog post many, many years ago. And so my blog post isn’t fantastic, so I’m going to instead link in the show notes to History of the Screenplay by Michelle Donnelly. She wrote it for Script Lab. But basically as screenwriting developed, it developed hand-in-hand with shooting movies. So, it’s about 100 years old. And originally the first screenplays were just a list of shots. And first off, it was just a list of shots for the director to figure out. Like, oh, these are the shots I need.

And then as you started to have sound, you started to have recorded dialogue, they got more sophisticated. It got a little bit more like a play. But there are many different kind of formats for how they were doing this. What we kind of call now the Master Scene screenplay, which is just to you and me it’s just like a screenplay. It’s the only thing we’re used to. That started around with like Casablanca. That’s when you start to see scripts that kind of look like our scripts.

Now, they become more literary over time. If you think about the original scripts, they really were just like plans for making a movie. The scripts that you and I write now are plans for selling a movie. They’re very much like here’s the vision of the movie and in reading this script you’re supposed to be getting the sense of what this movie is going to feel like. But the initial drafts and probably what the Sullivan’s Travels screenplay was like was kind of more minimalist. And it wasn’t doing some of the standard conventions that we just think about with screenplays now where everything was a scene heading and everything was laid out a certain way on the page.

So, the history of it is interesting. I’m sure there’s probably really good books out there. I haven’t read the books. But right now we’re at a place where there’s a pretty standard screenplay format that most people in western countries end up using.

Craig: And it’s a fairly enduring format, too. It has essentially not changed since you and I began and now we’re on two decades now. And I don’t think it was vastly different prior to that.

Of course, with individual variations. Some writers are idiosyncratic in the way they approach it. But I think you kind of put your finger on what is almost certainly the truth. That back in the days of Sullivan’s Travels and Preston Sturges, my guess is that what happened was the head of the studios said to Preston Sturges, “I need another Preston Sturges film.” And he said, well, here’s an idea I have. And the guy said, “Great. We’re making that movie. Can you get an actor?” Well, here’s an actor. “Terrific. Make it.”

At that point then the screenplay becomes a very internal document. It does not serve the purpose that we have now. A screenplay now either is something that needs to be bought, or if it’s being developed at a studio it needs to be evaluated and signed off on and approved by many, many layers of people. And then it needs to attract actors. And then it needs to attract directors.

And so the screenplay needs to be fully fleshed out and also universally understood, like a Rosetta Stone of a movie, so that all of these disparate elements can come to it and then agree to participate whether they are financial elements or creative elements. So, that makes total sense to me. I’m going to accept that as the right answer, John.

John: Very good. So the second part of his question was are there alternates, or like how much can you push the form. And you and I both see some screenplays that do things a little bit differently. A classic example is some screenplays don’t really use the normal scene headers. Instead they’ll sort of go to slug lines that are a shot or a sequence. And it doesn’t do normal INT/EXT. That’s OK. Ultimately if you do that kind of thing, the line producer down the road is going to assign scene numbers to some of those things, but it will still all work.

As long as what’s on the page is a reflection of what you’re going to be shooting and what people are saying, it’s going to work. But you can’t push it too crazy far. At a certain point, people aren’t going to recognize this as a screenplay and they’re going to have a hard time really understanding what you’re going for. And they’re going to freak out a bit for that.

Craig: Correct. And in fact what you start to realize is that all of the stylistic variations ultimately are superficial. They are almost certainly employed to help the writer just do their job. Scott Silver writes in this kind of funky quasi-format format, but really it’s the format. It’s just that there’s a few stylistic differences. And it helps him do his job. It helps him write the way he writes. Everybody has those little quirks and bits and bobs.

But none of it really does ultimately undermine the functions of the elements of a screenplay. Because people are relying on those. And if they’re not there, they’re going to hand it back to you and say, “Can you put them in there.” It doesn’t really matter if they look exactly the way they do in most screenplays. But we do need some version of them because we need the information.

John: So I’ve written a fair amount of animation, as have you, and in animation, sometimes the scripts look a little bit different. They will number sequences out. And honestly the process of making animation, the script is really important, but the script goes through another process where it becomes storyboarded and that becomes more the shooting template before you actually get into a production.

Craig: Right.

John: In the bonus episodes, I have a really great article with Justin Marks where he talks about Jungle Book. And for Jungle Book he wrote a script and people read his script. But he also had like all these presentations where they had to show through sequences of what things were going to look like. In our conversation it’s clear that it was a much more interactive process of getting that script and the production and sort of what they’re doing – he was writing little bits and pieces all the time. And that tends to be very true in animation. And the kinds of things we’re making are often sort of hybrid animation.

So, I think you’re going to see a little bit more experimentation in certain kinds of screenplays that are designed for like not traditional point a camera at something and shoot.

Craig: 100%. I mean, I’m going through it right now on my Lindsay Doran movie, because it’s a live action movie but it’s Jungle Bookish in that there are a lot of entirely CG-created creatures. And many of their scenes are separate and apart from humans. Those essentially become animated scenes, comped against live backgrounds, but essentially plates.

So, we’ve been doing some previs work there and what I do is I take the relevant pages from the script and I just make a new document. That’s now a sequence document. And I start fiddling around with it, you know. And coming up with ideas and thoughts and adding things in. That’s the freedom that you get from animation. And then that really becomes – all of those sequences ultimately will in aggregate become the screenplay of those sections of the movie. Screenplay is a functional document. And when it ceases to be functional, it’s perfectly fine to transition to a more functional document. There is no need ultimately to worship the original format of that document. If it runs out of usefulness, let it go.

John: Agreed. All right, our next question comes from Varune in Pennsylvania. He writes, “I was wondering how important it is to consider budget size when picking a project from a list of ideas to write. I know you often say write the movie you wish you could see, but when you’re equally interested in say four or five ideas, and they vary from being something that would be low budget or higher budget, which is the one that you realistically as someone who is trying to break into the industry should focus on?” Craig?

Craig: I wouldn’t get hung up on it. There are really very few exceptions to what I just said to you. The issue is this. You may think, well, if I write a higher budget movie, there is a higher barrier to production, therefore there’s less of a chance that this gets made or it gets bought. Well, I’m not sure that that’s true. In fact, studios tend to now make fewer but higher budget films. So, there is this enormous appetite for tent poles and more importantly most of the jobs that are available at studios are to rewrite or work on the development of high budget movies.

Now, that said, there are certain genres where low budget is kind of a plus. If you are a horror fan, writing low budget is probably smarter because there is this tremendous renaissance in low budget horror film. They do extraordinarily well at the box office relative to their budget, and sometimes relative to any budget. And writing a high budget horror movie will probably raise a few eyebrows in terms of what are we supposed to do with this. We don’t really make these.

But mostly I would say don’t get hung up on it because if it’s terrific, then you have done your job. Far better that you write a terrific blank budget movie then a so-so blank budget movie.

John: Agreed. I would also say it’s important to understand what is the kind of budget for the kind of movie you’re trying to make. And so if you’re making a romantic drama but you are writing it in a way that it’s going to clearly cost $100 million, that’s a weird mismatch. So, that’s where you need to be aware of the budget. Likewise, if you’re doing things, the single room horror movie, great. That’s always going to work.

If you have an aspiration to do big comic book movies and you want to write one of those, well, write one of those. Write something that is up to that scale. And it would be a good experience for seeing what it’s like to write that kind of stuff on the page. It’s much less fun than you think it’s going to be. I guarantee. It’s actually really tedious to write those big sequences. But read those scripts and if you want to write one of those scripts, absolutely write it. I think it’s useful, especially as you’re starting out, to not limit yourself to only things you think could get made, or only things that could get you staffed. Write the things that you think you could do great at. Or, you don’t know if you can do great at, but you have the opportunity to experiment when you’re just starting out.

Craig: That’s great advice. It is actually quite boring to write those large, noisy scenes. There’s always, hopefully, some bits and pieces in there that are inspiring to you. That’s why the scene or sequence is there. But the actual choreography of things falling and blowing up is sometimes can feel a bit tedious to do.

By the way, you can always go down and stay interesting. For instance, if you want to write a low budget superhero movie, that would be totally fine. You can write a fascinating $1 million superhero movie because it’s genre-bending. It’s just when you’re going up, that’s where because you’re asking people to spend a lot of money, you probably don’t want to get particularly experimental or artistic about it. You want to live within the pocket of stuff that is popular because you’re saying, hey, I’m expecting you to spend a whole lot of money.

You know what movie comes to mind? I don’t know if you ever read the original script for Hancock which was entitled Tonight He Comes.

John: I did. And I actually got to help out on that movie a little bit.

Craig: There you go.

John: I loved that script. And I absolutely love what Vince Gilligan did with that script as well.

Craig: Yeah, so you know, initially Tonight He Comes, it was that kind of strange thing where the script was a big movie, but it was – it had an indie sensibility. And, of course, over time the sensibility was changed to match the budget. And I actually like Hancock quite a bit, but you can do it, it’s just that it becomes a challenge. Whereas writing down towards a budget I think is always a perfectly reasonable choice.

John: I agree. Do you want to take the next question?

Craig: Sure. James writes, “Do you think it’s easier to write when you are young and stupid?” Ha, James. “In your teens and twenties you believe you know everything. The ideas you have are better than anyone else’s. The plot points are obviously the best way things could occur. In your thirties you realize human behavior is a little more complex. Your earlier plots start to feel a little naïve and unlikely. In your forties, so many of the exciting, interesting ideas become totally implausible. Do you find that your own perspective on writing has changed over the years? How do you make sure that the weight of life experience becomes a launch pad and not an anchor?”

Fascinating question. We have excellent listeners. They’re smart.

John: They are so smart.

Craig: Yeah. The ones that aren’t in their twenties. They’re young and stupid. [laughs]

John: James, it’s less of a question and more of an observation. Naturally, things are going to change over the course of your career. There are things that I loved about being a writer in my twenties because I didn’t – in some ways I was more worried about more things then. I was always worried about screwing up. And I’m much less worried about screwing up now. The advantage of experience is I can recognize opportunities and problems much further in advance. And so I don’t have to write my way into the middle of a scene, or the middle of a movie. And you’re always like, oh wait, that’s just never going to work. Or I should have done this differently.

But I think in some ways, like part of the reason why I went off and did Arlo Finch as a book is because it was a chance to be 20 again and to be like brand new at something. And that’s also really exciting. So, I think there’s no reason why your experience at 40 is going to slow you down as long as you’re continually trying to push into new things and not keep doing the same stuff again and again.

Craig: I agree. I think, actually, James, you’ve kind of found the right dichotomy here. There are plusses and minuses to all of these stages of your life. There’s no question in my mind that after 20-whatever years I’m a better writer now than I was when I started out. Certainly the wisdom that comes with experience is greatly helpful. It speeds things up. It’s a bit like – somebody once told me having a pool doesn’t add value to your house when you sell it, but it makes it sell faster. And I think sometimes age is a bit like having a pool. You probably aren’t going to be better at solving particularly intractable problems, you’re just going to see them a lot faster. So, there is real benefit there. I also think that as you go on in time, hopefully if you’ve had success along the way, there’s a certain comfort level that comes with that.

You naturally will begin to accrue an authority, because you’ve been doing it for a while. It’s only – I mean, it’s human nature. If you’re sitting in a room and you’re 22, the people in that room with you are almost certainly older than you and almost certainly have more experience than you. And that will color the way that they read your work and speak to you. And, of course, the converse is true. If you are older than they are and you’ve been doing it longer than they have been, even if they are technically in a position of authority over you, there’s a natural deference that occurs. It’s earned. And it is reasonable. And as you’re older, when you run into trouble you tend to panic less because it’s trouble you’ve been in before. It’s not your first time in quicksand.

Now, the one thing I will say about being in your 20s is that there is a freedom to the way you write that is glorious. Because you do not see things ahead of you. So you are running fast and wild with no concern whatsoever that you’re going to get smashed in the face by, you know, a boulder trap. Later on you realize it’s nothing but boulder traps. The idea of just stepping on a twig, a thing is released, and a boulder smashes you down. That’s kind of what screenwriting is.

Alec Berg I think said once that he was going through some old stuff and he pulled it out and he was reading it and he thought like, well, it’s not as good as what I write now, but there’s a freedom to it. And he said he missed it. Just a certain abandon.

So, you know, you – we are always where we’re supposed to be. That’s the truth. And I don’t think that as we grow older life experience becomes an anchor. If you start feeling the weight of an anchor, I think it’s probably not so much that your life experience and your age is getting you down, it’s that you have now been doing something long enough to know you don’t want to do it anymore. Which is an entirely legitimate feeling. And there are people who just stop. And look at Dennis Palumbo, our Scriptnotes favorite therapist, who was a very successful writer in television and then in film. He got an Oscar nomination. And then just decided I don’t want to do this anymore. And just stopped and became something else.

That is a voice to listen to. But, yeah, every decade of your life comes with ups and downs. Alas.

John: Alas. That’s how it goes. Let’s do one last question. This is from Reed. He writes, “I’m currently writing a script that is basically a road trip movie with gamers. Super Smash players go on a road trip to a tournament and play Super Smash Bros really throughout the story. As far as the characters in the story, they are all original, but much of the content they discuss and play I don’t have the rights to. I finished the first draft and am preparing to send it out. I’m wondering what people in the industry are likely to say given the nature of the story. Will they laugh at me because I made a rookie mistake? Or is it something they could potentially work around?”

Craig, what do you think? Is Reed going to be laughed at?

Craig: No, he’s not going to be laughed at. I think in this case, though, because it’s so heavily weighted on somebody else’s IP, there’s probably value in acknowledging to people when you send it, hey, I am aware of this. Just so that people don’t go, “Is this guy the dumbest person in the world?” There is a difference between sending somebody a script and saying, “Buy this, make it,” and “Read this, I’m good.”

Reed does need to understand that he has put himself in a very difficult situation. There is no chance that this movie is going to be made without a lot of input and control ceded to the Nintendo Corporation. By and large, they don’t do this frequently. And when they have, it hasn’t worked out very well for them.

So, if he’s aware of that, then I think it’s fine to just sort of say, hey look, this is about the writing.

Now, I have to say, my son went through a Super Smash Bros phase in his life and one of the questions is how necessary is that specific element to this. Can it survive without it? It may not be able to, but it’s something worth at least asking.

The other movie that comes to mind is Fan Boys, which centered on guys on a road trip trying to break into Skywalker Ranch. And it was very Star Wars heavy. But there are so many Star Wars elements that are now essentially doable because they’re part of culture and there’s kind of a fair use thing going on there. So, no, I don’t think they’ll laugh at you. But I think it probably would be good if you somehow acknowledged that you knew.

John: A way I might acknowledge that I knew would be the intermediary title page which is like you have the title page to your script and then after that you have what would be like a dedication page in a book where you might say like Super Smash Bros is a worldwide phenomenon, sold this many things. It’s property of the Nintendo Corporation. It’s not mine. And then the script starts. It’s a way of saying like, look, this is a really big deal. I don’t own the rights to this, but you’re going to read this because it’s a really good script. That’s a way of sort of setting up what you’re going into.

I would also say like, Reed, you wrote a writing sample. We’ve talked about this on recent podcasts. You know, you wrote something that you really wanted to see out there in the world, and if it’s good, people will read it and they might hire you for other stuff. And maybe there’s a way you can swap something else in.

What I found so fascinating about Reed’s question is he’s worried what people are going to think and say. He’s sort of worried about his feelings. Don’t be so worried about your feelings. Write the thing you want to write. And if it’s great, people will respond to it.

Craig: What are these feelings you experience, Reed? [laughs] Oh, I will say though that you’ve given him excellent advice, by the way, of how you described that intermediate page, because there is something very clever about saying this is what it is, this is how many people play it, it is owned by these people. Not only are you acknowledging that you’re very aware of what you’ve done, but you’re also telling them this is huge.

The issue is somebody might pick it up and go, “Well, this is, A, somebody else’s property, and B, who gives a damn about Super Smash Bros?” Well, 80 million people. You know, whatever it is. That number is going to perk them up. They always get excited about that sort of thing. So, very smart.

John: Cool. All right, let’s get on to some new work. Let’s get on to our Three Page Challenges. So, as always, we have a special guest reading our synopses this week. Craig, do you want to set up this guy, because he’s your hero.

Craig: He is my hero. Steve Zissis, my sprit animal, my Greek brother from another mother, star of the dearly departed series, Togetherness, on HBO. And Steve has now kind of branched into his own deal. He’s a proper entrepreneur now. He has set up a new series – and who is that with, that new series? Oh, I don’t know if it’s been announced yet. So I’m not going to say. But he’s got something going on. How about that?

He is the partner of friend-of-the-podcast, Kelly Marcel, and they have a child. So he’s a new dad. And we thought since he was probably up a lot at night he could just do this for us.

John: So thank you, Steve, for reading the synopses. If you would like to read the full Three Page Challenges, there are links in the show notes, so you can open up the PDFs and read along with us. So let’s let Steve take us off with our first Three Page Challenge.

Steve Zissis: Oh Fuck, I’m Invisible, by Wyatt Cain. We open on Vlad and Ilyich, two Russian soldiers, standing guard outside a Siberian military base. They chat about weight loss plans, when suddenly an invisible creature snaps Vlad’s neck and strangles Ilyich. Cut to Dave’s apartment, where Dave watches his roommate, Mandy, through the key hole, waiting for the chance to make his escape. He thinks he’s clear, but then Mandy spots him and regales him with a story of how she finally fucked that adopted chick.

Dave emerges from his apartment, checking the time. He spots, Kalman, his decrepit Polish neighbor. Kalman invites Dave inside to look at his new painting. Dave is too polite to decline. Now, seriously, Dave rushes down the street. He’s accosted by a crazy homeless lady muttering a prophecy about the one who casts no shadow. She follows him. At Leo’s Tacos, Mohammed waits. He sees Dave and homeless lady approaching. Homeless lady in the middle of a prophetic proclamation. With that, we reach the bottom of page three.

John: Craig, what do you think of Oh Fuck, I’m Invisible?

Craig: Well let’s start with the title first. Obviously it is designed to provoke. Oh Fuck, I’m Invisible. Now, these sorts of things when we started out would have just been like, what? But it’s quite trendy now to do this sort of thing. Obviously Wyatt Cain is very well aware that you cannot release a film called Oh Fuck, I’m Invisible, but Wyatt Cain quite cannily also understands that that’s OK. He’s just trying to get his script read. And in a big pile of scripts, the idea here is, oh, somebody might pick up Oh Fuck, I’m Invisible.

It is quickly becoming overdone. I see a lot of this. The cutesy title. But that in and of itself, there’s no judgment there. There was generally speaking here a very solidly put together three pages. There’s some mystery and there’s some confusion, but mostly tends towards mystery, which I like. So, just going through it roughly.

First of all, just the appearance of these pages is correct. If I don’t read them and I just look at them, they look correct. A lovely balance of action and dialogue and the action is rarely more than three lines long. Only once really. So I love that. Very, very good.

A little bit of a problem right off the top, just always worth proofreading here. It’s not really a proofreading thing, it’s more of a think-o thing. We’re EXT. Siberian Military Base. Night. “Frozen tundra. Just bleak, icy bullshit in every direction,” which is hysterical. That’s funny. “The only dot on the landscape –,” Dot on the landscape, “A Russian military compound. Two RUSSIAN SOLDIERS, Vlad and Ilyich (30s), stand guard outside a heavy bunker door.” Well, if it’s a dot on the landscape, how the fuck can I see Vlad and Ilyich? They are dots inside of the dots across the bleak icy bullshit.

So, you want to like move in there. You can establish your exterior. Really, what I think you want is EXT. Siberia. Night. And then the only dot on the landscape—new thing. EXT. Military Base. A Russian military… So that we know we’re jumping in.

They have a little bit of pointless chit chat and then they are killed by an invisible creature.

By and large, it was exciting. It was fun to read. Lots of underlines and capitalizations and italics, which were reasonable because it was something that was kind of shocking. It wasn’t random. There was an invisible man or woman trying to kill them.

There’s an attempt at a transition, which I don’t think would actually work. Pushing in on Vlad’s bulging eyeball and MATCH CUT to an eye peers through the crack of a door. That’s almost certainly not going to work. But, you know, at least his heart is in the right place. I mean, if you just imagine it, it’s just not – either Wyatt hasn’t written his intention right, or he just hasn’t thought it through. One or the other. It’s not quite right.

And I did have to read a bunch here back over and over, because the geography was a little cluttered to me. He’s in his apartment. An eye peers through the crack of a door. I immediately – I don’t know if you did this – I immediately went to he’s at the front door looking out into the hallway.

John: 100%. I got confused on geography quite a few places in here. I’ll just jump in to say like what I love so much about this is Wyatt gets it. From the title forward, like Wyatt understands what he’s doing. And he seems to have probably read a bunch of scripts and sort of knows how this all works. I felt like I was in really good hands tonally throughout the whole thing. Sort of like he knew what we were expecting and he knew how to sort of honor that and push past it in ways that were really smart.

So you start with these Russian guys talking. The first guy is like, “I’ve lost seventeen pounds in six weeks. All I did was cut bread and sugar.” Which is like the weirdest thing to have Russian guards say, but it was just delightful and gave me a really good sense of like what the tone of this was going to be. But then the action sequence with this invisible guy killing them was great. So I loved all of that. Just really, really well handled.

But I had the same kind of like I had to reread a few things that I don’t think Wyatt understood that we could get confused on. So this confusing geography from the front door, but also on page two, Mandy is in the kitchen and Dave is trying to sneak out past. And we hear, “Yo, Dave, you’re up,” and reveal Mandy is in the bathroom, pissing with the door open. But she was just in the kitchen.

Craig: Right.

John: So I got – like wait, what? So here’s how you could make that make sense. So if Mandy was OS at that point, basically she’s walked off camera. So he doesn’t know where she is. He’s probably assumed she’s gone back to her bedroom. Then if that’s OS, then we hear this, he turns back, and then it’s revealed that she was closer by than he thought. But that seems so trivial, but if I had to read this three times to understand it, there’s a problem.

Craig: I completely agree. Those little things are important. It’s annoying. It’s frustrating. Because there’s actually no creativity involved there. You’ve already done the creativity. So Wyatt has imagined this apartment. He knows. He could draw us a picture of the apartment perfectly. And he might even understand that the time lapse between her cooking breakfast and her in the bathroom is a bit elastic. It’s just that we don’t see it. So there’s this annoying busy work that must be done to protect the creative parts. Think of it that way, Wyatt. It’s just you’re protecting all of your brilliance by doing the annoying parts so that we can see it. It’s as simple as that.

But, yeah, and you know, and Mandy, there’s kind of a fun way of revealing that Mandy is a lesbian, or bisexual. And then we’ve got a great little screenwriting convention here. You’re always looking for some sort of propulsive force through things. You know, we don’t like reading scenes where nothing is happening or people are simply floating through. He’s late for something. We don’t know what it is. Classic simple mini-mystery.

He glances at his watch. It’s 12:07. He’s trying to get out. He gets pulled aside by his neighbor. And now he’s even more late. Now, and this is the part where it’s on that think border between confusing and mysterious, he encounters a crazy homeless lady. He is not taking her seriously until she says something that’s not particularly more crazy than the first thing she said, or the first two things she said. And then he decides, oh OK, you’re coming with. That was one point where I actually wanted to see him react. I needed a moment there where I understood that Dave heard something in what she said the third time that wasn’t there the first two times. And even though we can’t tell the difference, he can.

So, I needed a little moment of recognition there.

John: Craig, I think you actually misread that. And I had the same problem here, too. So, Dave says, “That’s great. I actually have to—“

“…about the one who casts no shadow.” So that following, I think it means that she gets up and starts following him.

Craig: Oh.

John: And so if you take that, so take that parenthetical and break that out as an action line. She gets up and physically follows him. Because then his line like, “Oh, OK, you’re coming with.” Basically she’s just started walking after him because then he sees like Dave and homeless lady are approaching in the next scene. So this homeless lady is just like following him.

Craig: Oh OK.

John: And kept talking to him. It makes good scene sense. It just didn’t make sense with the words on the page.

Craig: Yeah, no. So that was just executed incorrectly. Because following shouldn’t be in parenthesis. The problem with “following” is it’s an ambiguous word. People follow each other just with speech. They follow by understanding, whatever. So I thought he meant following, like I get what you’re trying to do, but I’m going to keep talking.

So you do need to put that in action. And then when Dave says, “Oh, OK, you’re coming with,” I think then Wyatt means to say that Dave is like, “Oh, OK, you’re coming with, like you’re not leaving me.” That does require a parenthesis of like (oh shit) you know. We need to know what his attitude is there, because those words on their own are far too ambiguously read for me to get what’s going on there. But I mean, overall these were very good–

John: Good pages.

Craig: Pages. And it’s a fun tone. And certainly makes me want to keep going. I think you put your finger on it. Wyatt seems to know what he’s doing. And we’re in good hands here, so good job.

John: Cool. All right. Let’s get to our next Three Page Challenge. Mr. Steve Zissis, if you would please give us our next entrant.

Steve: TMU, a pilot by Azhur Saleem. London. 1847. Night at the Tabbard Inn. In a lodger’s room, an oil lantern flickers. A leather case slams on the table. Ervin, a small haggard man, frantically grabs his belongings around the room. He lifts the mattress, retrieving reams of paper – mechanical schematics, machinery layouts, anatomical drawings of human body parts.

Ervin folds the papers away into his carry case. He scrawls a message on a sheet of paper, then doubles over, throwing up a thick tar-like substance. As he tries to compose himself, a burly man bursts into the room. The two men tussle, with burly man going for the carry case. Ervin fights back, rescuing what he can of his papers. In a final desperate effort to escape, Ervin leaps out of the second floor window. Burly man expects to see his [unintelligible] dead on the street below, but to his surprise Ervin is gone.

And those are Azhur Saleem’s three pages.

John: All right. I will start off this one. So, I had a lot of notes here. I had a lot of things that I had a hard time following just on the page. I liked overall where this is going. I liked overall the tone we were able to create. It felt overwritten to me. And I felt like every sentence was about one clause too long. And so I want to sort of really just dig in to the words on the page here less than about the plotting that I saw.

So, this starts with a teaser, so this is some sort of pilot for some sort of show. We’re in Bethnal Green, London. First line here: “Hopeless poverty stains the fabric of this borough. Down one squalid street, several silk weavers close up shop.” So those first two sentences we had fabric and silk, which is sort of the accidental parallel and makes it feel like they’re the same thing, but fabric is a completely different thing than silk for how you’re trying to use it. It was poetry doing you wrong there. So, clean that up a bit I’d say.

I would also advise to sort of combine these first two sections. Because it’s meant to be this establishing shot that gets us into London 1847. And then we’re at the Tabbard Inn. But I kind of felt like we were in the same place the whole time. Maybe it’s one tracking shot. Maybe it’s some way to get us to the Tabbard Inn, like follow somebody to get us there. But it was a lot. I had to sort of slog through it.

The other word that got repeated a lot in this opening section was light. So, “The windows glow with a warm light, which peters out on the river of mud squelching through the street.” Not quite sure what squelching means there.

Craig: Yeah. Mud doesn’t squelch on its own.

John: “Above all the noise and clamor, a second-floor window with a solitary light that illuminates one room.” A light illuminates – it was just a little – again, just a little too much. I felt like there were extra words being thrown in there just to sort of be pretty that weren’t actually helping tell any story or get us moving through the scenes.

Craig: Yeah. Yup. Keep going.

John: Keep going. So, we get into the Tabbard Inn. “An oil lantern flickers on a wooden table.” God, we’ve had a lot of light here so far. Let’s get rid of the rest of this sentence and finally get to our main guy. So, this guy Ervin, he’s described as being blustering around the room. He blusters around the room. Not entirely sure what blusters means in this thing.

But there’s some actions in the next paragraph that are really helpful. “He grabs his belongings from around the room. Throws them into the carry case.” Let’s let that be our first encounter with Ervin and then give him the sentence that describes what he’s like. I felt like I had to go through a long description of what he was like before I could see what he was doing.

He’s in the middle of action. Let’s see the action first before we kind of get into it.

Then finally we start to have this encounter with the burly man. I like the burly man’s dialogue. “Don’t kick up a shine now.” That felt great. That felt period. And the action within this was all good. I was curious to see that there’s something kind of Lovecraftian/Steampunky kind of happening here. And that was really interesting. So l liked when we actually got into the action sequence. I just wanted to get there a little bit faster.

Craig: Yeah. Generally I’m with you. I think that these are good pages in terms of what happens. The character, what he’s doing, and the encounter that occurs is perfectly fine. I agree with you that there’s a bit too much poetry. Here’s the danger with poetry. If it’s good poetry, well, your script has a bunch of unnecessary good poetry in it. If it’s bad poetry, oh boy. And there are things here that are just bad poetry. “The windows glow with a warm light, which peters out on the river of mud squelching through the street.” I don’t know how light peters out on a river of mud. If the windows are glowing with a warm light, they’re glowing. And mud doesn’t squelch on its own. Boots can squelch through mud. It just becomes sort of pointlessly ornate. And it starts to undermine confidence in what’s going on.

My bigger problem with the first half of this page is that it’s boring. If I’m shooting it, I’m so bored. So, I have a shot of a street. I have a shot of an inn. This is London in the middle of a sort of nightmarish, Victorian-ish time. And this is a rough part of town. There must be some better way to do this. Is there a rat running? Is there something – what are we following? Can we follow somebody who is leaving a prostitute and maybe she’s trying to get away and he grabs her and yanks her into the bar. And then we come up to see the light. There’s so many dynamic, fascinating, disturbing, funny, terrifying ways that you can do this and you’ve done none of them. You’ve just shown me a street and then shown me a building.

People and action are interesting. Streets and buildings are just streets and buildings. So, I wanted so much more. And remember, this is the first thing we see. The first thing we see. And you are using this to advertise your creativity here. And if it is not meant to be quiet and soft and small, then it must be somehow invigorating, provocative. And I think that given the tone here you want invigorating and you want provocative.

Similarly, when we get inside the inn, I just was missing a sense of direction. You have this image. He’s going through, he’s rummaging through his room. We’ve seen that a million times, so let’s not imagine that that’s interesting. He’s grabbing up all of these papers. Well, we have a mild interest in what those are. One particular image that we’re going to see – a figure suspended in the air. “Holding him aloft, six mechanical cables IMPLANTED into his back. Man and machine fused together…”

That’s something that could be just sitting there in the foreground. And in the background, there’s this man going around. Somebody lifting up a mattress and pulling stuff out is vaguely interesting because we understand he hid it for a reason. But that’s something that might be more interesting if the show is saying we have more to say than just that. Look at this picture. And then he comes up and then he grabs that picture at the last moment. Or maybe he doesn’t grab that one. That’s the one that he grabs in the fight. But make it special. Make it provocative and bizarre. Give us a moment to look at it so we can be looking at that while he’s doing these other things.

There is some good mystery going on. He’s puking up this creepy black substance. And then, of course, this man appears who is sort of Mr. Hyde-ish. And there’s a good fight. I like the way the fight is spread out. There’s a nice use of white space here, which is all terrific. And then here’s what happens. What happens is we see a street and we see a bar and we see room. We see a guy grabbing papers, and then a man comes in. He beats the guy up. The guy throws himself out a window. And then when the guy looks out the window, that man is gone. There is nothing there that is actually quite shocking to me.

The only thing that is shocking to me is the picture that has been drawn. That is the thing where I got, ooh, what is that? Yikes. Even the puking up black stuff. I’m like, OK, I guess there’s a supernatural thing going on here. Maybe that’s the last thing we see.

But, somehow or another this was well written, it just wasn’t well directed. And–

John: I would agree with you. This is an obvious thing to say, but I think the obvious thing might be the appropriate choice here. So, the action of this scene is that Ervin is like panicked and he’s packing up all his stuff to get out of there. So, why didn’t we start with him outside? Like he’s racing back to the Tabbard to get his stuff to get out of there. And so if those opening shots are like we’re following Ervin as he’s frantically trying to get back to his place and get past the prostitute and the guy fucking in the alley. And then get into the place, to get up to his room. He throws open the door. He’s packing up his stuff. And then the guy shows up. Then there’s at least some – there’s a reason why we had those earlier shots. And he’s helped introduced us to the world.

There might have been also just one opportunity for him to say something to somebody, or some other interaction would have happened before we got into this room and started fighting with this guy.

Craig: Yeah. I agree. Also I thought that the arrival of the burly man was a bit anticlimactic – or not anticlimactic, anti-pre-climatic, because his arrival is announced by footsteps. And generally speaking, if I’m in a show here where this guy is puking up weird creepy black stuff, and he’s dealing with man and machines, this man that’s pursuing him, there should be some hint of Something Wicked This Way Comes. Even if that man himself is not supernatural, here’s a tinkling. There’s somebody outside. The prostitute who is laughing with a guy. And the two of them, suddenly they’re not laughing anymore. Do we hear a body outside hit the ground?

There needs to be some exciting way to let us know, oh shit, the bad person is coming. And so there’s just more – there just needs to be more creativity here, I think.

John: I agree with you. The last thing I want to point out is that in both of the blocks of dialogue it’s starting with dot-dot-dot. But there’s no sort of pre-dialogue to get us into there. I don’t understand why there’s dialogue that’s starting dot-dot-dot. So he says, “…No, not yet.” “…Don’t kick up a shine now.” I don’t understand why the dot-dot-dots were there.

So, get rid of the dots.

Craig: Yeah. I’ve never actually done the preceding dot-dot-dots unless there was a trailing dot-dot-dot prior to it. And usually I wouldn’t capitalize the first letter of the first word following a dot-dot-dot because it is a continuation of something. It’s not the beginning of something. So, yeah, but that didn’t – believe me, if everything else was great, I wouldn’t have cared.

John: I wouldn’t have cared either. All right, Mr. Zissis, bring us home. If you could please read us the third Three Page Challenge.

Steve: Four Nineteen, but Ashley Sanders. The year is 2002. On a street in suburban Manchester, parents and their kids leave a birthday party. Owen Millar drives his four-year-old son, Sam, home. At home, Owen feeds his son, bathes him, then puts him to bed. Later, Owen’s wife, Sara, comes home. Takes off her makeup as Owen reads in bed. Through the course of the night, we come back to the time on the clock. 11:47. Owen tosses and turns. 1:12. Sara gets up to go to the bathroom and checks in on Sam. He’s fast asleep. 4:18. A moan from Sam’s room wakes Owen. 4:19. Owen goes to investigate. He opens the door to find two figures standing over Sam’s bed. One lifting the still sleeping child. That’s when we reach the end of page three.

Craig: I really enjoyed this. There is a strange thing that happens I think when stuff is working somewhat well. And that is it can impart a feeling without any individual piece of something telling you this is what you should feel. And overall what I felt was a growing sense of weird, unsettling dread. And I didn’t know why. That’s the best kind of dread. Because that’s actually how dread works.

You start to feel something and you don’t know why, because not one single thing that’s happening in and of itself is demanding of anxiety. And yet anxiety is what you feel.

So, let’s talk a little bit about sort of the first page. We’ll call this the normal life of things. We’re EXT. Suburban Street, Manchester. Please tell us if this is Manchester, United Kingdom, Manchester, New Hampshire, Manchester, Texas. Where are we?

John: Yes.

Craig: Manchester in and of itself is not specific enough. Opening credits and music over “4 TODAY party balloons tied to a garden gate.” I understood that, but I think four should probably be spelled out F-O-U-R, because otherwise it’s 4, number 4 today, what is it 4 Today party balloons? It’s weird to start a sentence with a digit.

John: Yeah. What did you take that as? Were the balloons printed with 4 Today?

Craig: No.

John: Or there were four Today balloons. Four balloons printed with the word Today.

Craig: Today. Like the party is Today. I think? But hard to tell. Generally speaking, what you don’t need to say is something like, “The cars, clothes and haircuts tell us this isn’t present day. CAPTION: 2002” The caption does it. Also, we don’t really call them – captioning is more of something that is imposed upon a movie to indicate this is what these people are saying in another language, or this is what this sign means in another language. Generally we would say Title.

John: Or super.

Craig: Or super. Exactly. Not caption.

John: Here’s my suggestion for that sentence getting into it. I would get that down to, “The cars, clothes, and haircuts tell us we’re in…,” here’s a good use of dot-dot-dot, “Super: 2002”

So you’re letting the page do some of the work for you here.

Craig: Right. I think that’s exactly right. I like actually how mundane this is. It’s so boring, and that’s exactly the right choice. So we have Owen. He’s the dad. And he has his young four-year-old son, Sam. And they’re returning from a birthday party. And now they’re in a – and I like the way also that this was done here. Ashely, our author, has done something that answers a question that we get all the time, which is how do you slug line or scene head scenes that take place in a house but in lots of different rooms and all sort of smushed together. This is how I would do it probably. We’re INT. MILLAR HOUSE. DAY. And then as we move around she just gives us bolded notes for where we are, which rooms we are. And we understand therefore that time is passing. And it is compressed. And there’s no need to over-explain it.

They’re watching dinner. He gives Sam a bath. They’re enjoying it. He reads his son a book. Now he’s alone. Suburban boring life. He’s drinking a beer, standing outside on the patio. His wife comes home. She gives him a kiss. Now she’s getting ready for bed. He’s getting ready for bed. There’s a little bit of a reminder that we are post-9/11. Owen reads a colour supplement in bed. Now I know, by the way, we’re in Manchester, United Kingdom, because it’s colour and supplement.

The front cover is a picture of the Twin Towers, the strap line: One Year On.

John: Strap Line. Yeah. So many things in one sentence revealed it. Yeah.

Craig: It’s the most English sentence in history. Colour Supplement. Strap line.

So in America we will not know what a strap line is, nor will we know what a colour supplement is. Twin Towers would be capitalized because that was a proper noun. And now they’re sleeping, kind of.

So, by this point on page two, either this is intentional or it’s not, but if it’s intentional I am enjoying how perfectly boring this is. It feels intentionally boring. That’s what we want.

And then what happens is Ashley delivers more intentional boredom, but now the dread begins to grow. There are these elements. Each parent wakes up for whatever reason. As mundane as I need to pee. And then goes right back to bed. Every time they move across the landing, there’s a floor board that creaks. Does it mean something? Maybe not. It happens each time. There is a little nightlight. Sam is sleeping. The clock keeps advancing. Keeps advancing. And then at the end of page three, he just again – repetition – the clock changes to 4:19. Owen gets out of bed. He crosses the landing. There’s the creak again. He steps into Sam’s bedroom. And gets an adrenaline jolt like a brick in the face. Very good.

And two figures are standing over Sam’s bed. One lifting the still sleeping child. This is very exciting. And we know from the title that the time 4:19 means something. I felt like this was expertly done, in my opinion. I really enjoyed it.

John: I really enjoyed it, too. So, a few things I would suggest for Ashley. I liked how she moved around the house. I would say for INT. MILLAR HOUSE on page one, rather than DAY say VARIOUS, which gives a sense of like, OK, this is going to be at different times. Or DAY TO NIGHT. Because you ultimately are going into night. So it’s a way of cluing in the reader we’re going to be here for a while, so just go with me.

I thought the Twin Towers stuff was on the nose when I read it, but it totally could work. I mean, nothing else bumped me, so I would totally forgive the Twin Towers stuff. And it does let me know that something bad is going to happen, probably, so that’s useful.

I loved near the bottom of page two, “Sam is spread-eagle in bed, sleeping the way only little kids can.” Absolutely true. Here’s what I liked about Ashley’s writing here. She was observant of normal human behavior in a way that felt like, oh, these are actual people. This is not just people in a movie. And that was great.

So, I loved the suspense I was feeling. Like the suspense of like I know something is going to happen just because of how she’s doing this on the page. And I’m really nervous. And there wasn’t thrum. She wasn’t talking about the music. Just the way it was done on the page, I could feel what the movie was going to feel like, and that was suspenseful. So, really nicely done.

Craig: Really nicely done. And also a little note on the title of the episode. So the series is called Four Nineteen. And this is episode is Episode 1, Sleep and Dream of Home. What a fantastic title. And I’ll tell you, that actually goes further with me than, Oh Fuck, I’m Invisible. Because it’s not gimmicky and yet I’m already somehow nervous. Sleep and Dream of Home. It’s very Neil Gaiman-y. It was all just really well done.

Ashley Sanders can do this and I’m excited for whatever this is. You never know, right? I mean, these things can turn into this wonderful series or not, but she can write. And she can write in this format. So very well done, Ashely. Very well done.

John: One last wrap up note. For both Ashley’s script and for Wyatt Cain’s script, which had title pages on them, they left off the word Written or Written by, so traditionally on screenplays and teleplays you will spell out Written by for this kind of thing, rather than just By or rather than just your name. So do say Written by. Put it on a separate line. That’s sort of the standard format here. And it’s just – it’s nice. There’s no reason to not do that on your title page.

Craig: Agreed.

John: So I would also want to celebrate the wonder of Steve Zissis, so thank you very much for reading these aloud for us. If you have three pages you would like us to take a look at, go to johnaugust.com/threepage, all written out there. And there’s a form you can fill out. You can attach your PDF. And it will go into Godwin’s inbox. And he will take a look at it. So he picks the ones he thinks are going to be the most interesting, so not necessarily the best, never the worst, and we take a look at them every couple of weeks.

Thank you to all three of these writers for being so brave to share these with us.

Craig: Indeed.

John: All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things. Mine is A Speck of Dust, the new Netflix comedy special by Sarah Silverman. It is delightful. So if you have Netflix, it is there. And you should watch it. I loved Sarah Silverman’s show on Comedy Central. And I was at the taping actually for one of her previous specials, Jesus is Magic, which is just so great. And I haven’t gone back to watch the special, but I feel like if the camera ever pans past me, there are moments during that special where I couldn’t breathe anymore. Like I had to sort of close my eyes and recapture oxygen in my body.

What I really appreciated, though, about this new special, A Speck of Dust, is what a good writer she is. Because she’s, I mean, after doing this for so many years, she’s a really good performer. She knows how to sell a joke, but the very careful ways in which she sets things up and comes back to them.

There’s a moment pretty early on in the show where she does a throwaway line, and then she stops and she goes back and she explains what a throwaway line and why she threw that joke away. And how it’s all going to – basically why you throw some jokes away, because they work better that way. But then she folds that back in to where it’s going. You recognize that it’s all so carefully planned and yet so effortless. It was really remarkably done.

So, I’d really recommend everybody check out A Speck of Dust, by Sarah Silverman.

Craig: If the world were fair, only comedies would receive awards. The level of skill and awareness and specificity and craft that goes into things like this are just remarkable, and she is an exceptionally good performer and writer. There’s no question about that. She really is at the top of her game.

So, my One Cool Thing, is somebody else who is at the top of their game. John, did you watch the BBC Miniseries, Sherlock?

John: I watched the first two seasons. I have not watched this most recent season. I will tell you that I fell off the Sherlock bandwagon, but I think you’re right in the middle of the Sherlock bandwagon, aren’t you?

Craig: Well, I went ahead and binged the whole damn thing because I was on a long flight and it seemed like a good idea. And the truth is there are parts of the show that I absolutely love, and there are parts where I’m like, meh. But my One Cool Thing is Mark Gatiss, who is both the co-creator and co-writer of the series, and also he plays Mycroft Holmes.

John: Oh, I didn’t realize that was the writer. He is so fantastic.

Craig: Yes. He really is – I hope I’m pronouncing his name right. It could be Gatiss. It’s Gatiss. Probably should have done the homework on that. Regardless, these are the people that somehow make me feel so terrible about myself because here he is, he was a performer and writer in a popular comedy troupe in the UK. Then he was running, writing, and occasionally acting in Doctor Who for a number of seasons. Then he does this. And he acts in it. And he does all these other things.

Ugh, I didn’t do anything today.

His portrayal of Mycroft Holmes is phenomenal. I would love a show that’s just Mycroft Holmes. That would be the most amazing series, just the Mycroft series. It’s spectacular.

He also, if you watch Game of Thrones, he also has appeared as Tycho Nestoris, I think the character’s name is. He’s the banker from the Iron Bank of Bravos who sits there–

John: Of course, that’s right.

Craig: And patiently explains to Stannis why they’re not going to back him with cash. Mark Gatiss, just spectacular. And, again, do look at – if you haven’t seen the show, and if you don’t get into it, you don’t get into it. But his portrayal of Mycroft is just wonderful.

John: Agreed.

All right, that is our show for this week. So, as always, it is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Sam Brady. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you send questions like the ones we answered today. But the short questions, we love them on Twitter. So Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.

We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts. Just look for Scriptnotes. If you’re there, leave us a review. That does help – helps other people find our show.

You can find the show notes for this episode, including the PDFs for the Three Page Challenges at johnaugust.com. You’ll also find transcripts there. They go up about four days after the episode posts. And you can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net, including the Justin Marks episode I reference today, which is really just terrific.

So, Craig, thanks for a fun episode.

Craig: Thank you, John. I will see you, whether you like it or not, next week.

John: Awesome.

Links:

Teaching Your Heroes to Drive

Tue, 07/04/2017 - 08:03

John and Craig explore how story develops from a synthesis of character and plot, and why writers need to continually shift their frames of reference between “inside” and “outside” the experience of their heroes.

We also tackle the idea of “you can’t teach funny” and what to do when you share a famous person’s name.

The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide is out, and fantastic, and free! Plus we now have 300-episode USB drives in the store. Links below.

Plus, don’t miss our live show in Hollywood on July 25.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

DRAMA!

Tue, 06/27/2017 - 08:03

Craig and John take a look at what happens when the drama is behind the camera, and the difference between what’s reported and what’s really going on. We also offer some advice on what one should do, should they find themselves caught up in the crazy.

Finally, we answer a listener question on writing for specific actors and the challenges/opportunities this presents.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 304: Location Is Where It’s At — Transcript

Sun, 06/25/2017 - 10:35

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 304 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show, we’ll be looking at how screenwriters describe locations and how those choices impact production and the final product. Plus, we’ll be talking a look at how podcasts have become a new source of IP for adaptations. Also, how to deal with that note to make your characters “more likeable.”

Craig: Argh.

John: Yeah. Craig, for the first time in 11 months, we are in the same time zone.

Craig: It’s so nice. So I am here with my family in Amsterdam and having a lovely time. And we are on the exact same time you are. Central European Standard time, which in France is nice because it’s – c’est – it is.

John: It’s really, really nice.

Craig: So yeah, we’re here at the same time. The place where I’m staying, it’s a very large room. You know, the Dutch people are the tallest people in the world. You knew that, right?

John: I did not know that. That’s scientifically proven that they are?

Craig: It is a fact. And so the ceilings here are very high. They’re so much higher than any human being would ever be. For instance, the average height in America, it’s shorter than you think. Because it’s an average. So, some people are very, very small. In the Netherlands, the average height of a Dutch man is 6 foot. That’s average.

John: That’s tall.

Craig: Yeah. In the United States, I think the average height for a man is like 5’8” or something, or 5’9” maybe.

John: Yeah.

Craig: They’re very tall people. So, anyway, it’s very boomy and echoey in here. But, hey, you know what? We’re on the same time, so there’s that for us. Nobody else will appreciate it, but we can.

John: I was going to say, it’s going to be one of those rare cases where neither one of us is tired, is except that you’re probably a little bit jet-lagged. So, we will get through this together.

Craig: Yeah, no, I’m actually not jet-lagged now. Today is the first day of non-jetlag. And you know, that’s usually two days before you leave. And in fact it is. So, it’s just beautiful how you get perfectly attuned and then you get on a plane and do it again.

John: Because you’re no longer jet-lagged, you probably have the energy in you for these first two things. So our listeners, again, the best listeners in the entire world, they sent us two pieces of chum this week, just like bait to get us going. And this first one was really targeted towards you. It’s from a place called Screenwriters University. Craig, get us started.

Craig: Well, someone sent this thing. First of all, Screenwriters University, which is not a university, of course, and I assume they mean it’s a university for screenwriters, but then wouldn’t it have an apostrophe? They don’t have an apostrophe. So it’s just Screenwriters University. Those two words. They sent a list of what those people think are 20 common sense script rules. Now, you know, John, you and I are big fans of rules here, right?

John: 100%. We’re completely rules followers. If you give us a template, if you can give us some sort of like dogma to follow, it really helps us out a lot.

Craig: Well, normally when people put these things out, we don’t necessarily know if they mean them as dogma or not, but the people at Screenwriters University did us an enormous favor because they just went ahead and said right there at the top, “Note: These rules will not make you a better writer. They will simply keep you from annoying your average reader or crew member.” What? But here’s the best part. Per Screenwriters University, “You must learn these simple rules or consider another line of work.” [laughs]

John: That’s a fairly strong statement. Like basically you have to do this or else you’re not even a screenwriter.

Craig: Yeah. You don’t have a chance. There’s no world in which you cannot learn – learn – the rules according to ScreenwritersUniversity.com. There’s no chance for you. If you don’t, you’ll never work.

So, let’s go through a few of these. You know, some of them, sure. So, for instance, Fade In at the beginning of your film. Fade Out at the end.

John: Well, see, I’m already jammed here. Yeah, I’m already in a horrible position here because I’ve written many scripts that don’t start with Fade In and don’t end with Fade Out. So…

Craig: Well, John, I’m going to have to ask you to consider another line of work. [laughs]

John: Fortunately today we are actually at the Musée des arts et métiers which is the arts and trades museum. And I saw all sorts of other professions I could get into, such as like plumping or weaving. So that could be my next step if I can’t master Fade in and Fade out. At least I have those.

Craig: I’ll direct you to Weavers University for their 20 cents common sense rules. All right, so then we have things like, for instance, slug lines have no times of day. No afternoon, morning, mid-afternoon, evening. No.

I do it all the time. I write afternoon, morning, mid-afternoon, evening constantly. Now, by the way, when I got to this – that was number four – when I got to number four I stated to think, “Oh dear, I’m only a fifth of the way in. I hate these people so much I want to fire them into space. How will I ever make it to the end?” And I forced myself, John. I forced myself.

John: Well, the way you got through it, you probably didn’t use a Cut to, because that’s line number 14. Don’t use Cut to. Specifically, “I don’t care if people still use it, or scripts you’ve read have it in spades. I’m telling you the reader will throw out your script for such a small and petty offense. Learn the proper way to do it, and when you’re world famous you can bring the Cut to back into everyone’s good graces. And then we’ll wonder what we ever did without it.”

So, again, just this last week I used a Cut to and, man, it’s a problem.

Craig: Well, you never learned the proper way to do it because you didn’t go to ScreenwritersUniversity.com. Of course, we get to number 15, your favorite, my favorite, the eternally favorite and wonderful Don’t Use We See. And this is what they say, “Seriously, one ‘we see’ per script is plenty. And that’s only when you absolutely must, because you’ve exhausted every other possibility of explaining what we see without actually saying we see.”

Now this is where I put my hands around the virtual neck of Screenwriters University, squeezed and rotated in opposite directions until I heard the snap.

John: My theory is that someone is deliberately doing this just to anger you. That you’ve made an enemy somewhere in your life and this enemy wants to sort of rile you up and distract you from other things. And so therefore they’ve created this whole website just to antagonize you. Because that’s the only reason I could see wording these things in this way. Because I look through all of these rules and at each one I could say like, OK, there’s a general case to be made for like pay attention to this thing, but absolute prohibitions are never actually valid.

So this list of 20 things, they are probably 20 things that are useful to look at here, but they are all phrased in ways that I find maddening.

Craig: Maddening. And inaccurate. And misleading. And then in certain cases just wrong. For instance, their “we see” thing is wrong for a hundred reasons. But what fascinates me is they don’t even understand what it’s for. They literally don’t get it. They think the “we see” is somehow a substitute for explaining something. It’s not. Rather, it’s indicating to the reader who is seeing something. Us. We are. As opposed to say the character. It is mindboggling to me.

Now, I’m going to say the following as diplomatically as I can. And this is where it’s good that I know, you’ve changed me, you’ve made me a better man, John. You have.

John: All right.

Craig: Because I think three years ago I would not have been this diplomatic.

John: I think in some ways you could draw a parallel between our relationship and the key relationship in Wicked. Because if those two protagonists had not met each other at that point in time, who knows the arcs that their lives might have traveled in. But because I knew you – because I knew you, I have been changed for good.

Craig: [laughs] That’s right. Well, I don’t know if you’ve been changed for good. I think I’ve changed you for evil. But you’ve changed me for good. So, I don’t say this diplomatically just to cover my tracks. I feel what I’m about to say. This is honest. I naturally was interested in who wrote this. They did not put a name on it.

So then I looked to see who actually teaches at Screenwriters University. Now, any one of these individuals may be a fine writer. That is absolutely possible. There is nothing that says that a lack of shiny credits means a lack of talent, nor is there anything that says a presence of shiny credits means a presence of talent. However, there is a general lack of experience here and what I would say relevant experience.

This is not a collection of individuals that inspires a tremendous amount of confidence in me that they are in tune and have good grasp of the way feature films are currently written and sold today. And I don’t see any other reason for anybody to be going to Screenwriters University and spending money – quite a bit of money – at Screenwriters University, because I do not believe their instructors are necessarily in a position that is any more informed in any substantive way than most of the people who are paying the money.

That’s the diplomatic version. How did I do?

John: Very good diplomatic version. Craig, I was incredibly impressed. You really withheld some of your umbrage and your fire. I think there’s some really good choices you made there.

What I will say is like some people go to college for the social experience. And so maybe you’re going to Screenwriters University for the social experience. Maybe you’re going there for the parties, for the fraternity life.

Craig: No.

John: Maybe you really want to play Division III football. So, I mean, those are all reasons why you might want to go to Screenwriters University. But I don’t think you are going there for the quality of the education.

Craig: Yeah. They don’t have any of those things. They don’t have a building or anything. So…yeah. No.

John: Then maybe you could save your money.

Craig: I think maybe you could save your money.

John: This was sent I think to anger me, but this is the second bit of umbrage bait. So Sony Pictures Home Entertainment announced that it’s going to start releasing clean versions of some of its movies. There’s a list of 20 movies that they have picked which “allows viewers to screen the broadcast or airline versions of select Sony films free from certain mature content.” So basically in renting the film you can rent the original filthy version or you can rent the clean sanitized version.

I think some people have sent this to me, but I also saw Seth Rogan sort of pleading with Sony like please don’t release the clean versions of R movies. So this was sent to me I think to make me feel like well that’s horrific and Sony should not ever do this. And I had a hard time working up a proper amount of umbrage over this. Because it looked like what Sony was going to be doing is essentially when you download a film you have a choice of the original version or the clean version, or basically they send you both of them. You get to choose which one you’re going to do. I’m kind of surprisingly fine with it. But, Craig, I want to see how you feel about it.

Craig: Well, I’m not outraged. It’s not like they’re eliminating the proper version. And we have children and we understand what it means. I guess I’m a little confused. I’ll just come at it as a parent now. I’m going to take myself out of the movie industry and I’m going to put aside any impulse I might have for artistic fury here and just talk as a parent. I can’t imagine that there is a movie that I want to show my child but I just want certain things taken out of it. At that point, I just don’t want them to see the movie. Either they’re ready for a movie or they’re not. The “clean” version thing is something that never really is very satisfying. You know, when I say to my child, “Hey, you should watch this,” I’ve thought about it and I thought they’re ready for this, if it’s something that requires that sort of thought. Obviously a Pixar movie doesn’t.

And so it’s OK. I don’t really think I would ever use this service. I don’t want my child to see Goodfellas but with the cursing and blood taken out of it, because they’re not going to like it. It’s going to stink. I’m not sure what this is good for.

John: I pulled up the site and it’s talking through the movies that they’re originally going to release with the clean versions available. And some of them I think actually do make some sense. And so like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a movie that I can see kids enjoying because it’s just beautiful, but there probably is some stuff in there that you might want to have a younger kid see. I can kind of imagine that.

The three Spider Man movies, the original – actually all five Spider Man movies – they’d release a clean version of that. I guess. I can’t even imagine what’s so dirty about them. But I think they were PG-13, so it may move a PG-13 down to sort of more of a PG level.

But White House Down? I don’t want a kid seeing White House Down because of the language. I just don’t want them seeing White House Down.

Craig: Yeah. Exactly.

John: Captain Phillips?

Craig: Captain Phillips? What’s the point of watching a cleaned up version of Captain Phillips? What child is sitting there going, “I really want to watch Captain Phillips, daddy.” Well, I don’t know, there’s some cursing and there’s some blood. “Well, if we got rid of that, could I then watch the escapades of Navy snipers and shipping captains facing off against Somali pirates?”

What the F? See, I just did it myself. I cleaned myself up. So weird. Captain Phillips?

John: Yeah. So here’s the thing. There have been services out there that have been trying to do this sort of not officially sanctioned by the studios for years. And so to have essentially the airline version of this be available for people to choose, I don’t see a huge crisis there. Now, I do know that there are filmmakers who will take their names off of the airline versions because it’s not their original version. I think that makes sense as well.

And I guess I like that all the edited versions are just as a bonus feature. So essentially you’re downloading the real movie, but under the Extras feature you can choose to have the cleaned up version. I guess I’m just not that outraged by it. If it lets that 10-year-old kid who really wants to see The Amazing Spider Man, it makes his or her parents feel more comfortable watching that movie, I guess that’s not so bad.

Craig: Yeah. Like I said, I can’t. I’m not lit up on fire over it. I’m just more confused by it. As far as the airline thing goes, isn’t the airline cut kind of going by the wayside anyway? Because that was always – you know, in the old days they would have a screen that came down and your five rows were all watching the same movie together because there was one movie. But now everybody gets their own movie on the back of a seat, right?

John: Yeah.

Craig: So I don’t think they clean those up anymore, do they?

John: Yeah. They do clean them up sometimes. I’ve definitely been on some flights where you’ll see a bit of nudity got blurred in the thing. I think it’s because they’re figuring there might be a kid sitting next to you who could be seeing the same screen. So sometimes you will see a little bit of cleaning up in those. But, yeah, I just can’t be that outraged by that.

I think a fairer question to ask is what does cleaned up really mean and what kind of content are they taking out? Because if they’re taking out that tiny bit of gay content in Beauty and the Beast, then I just get a little bit annoyed that that’s the filthy content that you have to protect young children from seeing. But I still can’t be all that outraged by it.

Craig: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I’ve been kind of, I don’t know, marveling at the general liberalism and progressivity of the Netherlands here. I took my daughter to the science museum and they had half of a floor dedicated basically to sex. And this is one of those museums where, you know, elementary school classes are coming through. And there were young children there. They’re like, yeah, it’s sex. You’re here. Go look at the sex now. Let’s talk about how the sex works. They have no problem with it.

So, I can’t imagine what the Dutch would make of this whole thing where we’re snipping out pieces of a movie. I think that they would just find that absurd. So, I’m with you. I can’t get too upset about this. But, seems kind of weird and vaguely useless. I’m probably mostly just umbrage hungover from Screenwriters University. Which, by the way, just to bring it back to them for a second. You realize they’re charging people like $500? I’m going to lose my mind.

John: Yeah. It’s a lot. All right, so let’s give some free education here. Let’s dive in on a topic–

Craig: Segue Man.

John: That we’ve talked about in previous episodes, but a new thing came up this week which made me think about it again, which is location. Which is how we are describing the locations we’re using in the movie, how we’re picking those locations, and how the locations we’re using really can impact the story that we’re trying to tell. So, obviously Screenwriters University can tell you that locations are preceded by an INT or an EXT. But there’s an important level of specificity here. So I want to quickly go through some of the choices you’re making as a screenwriter when you’re picking a location for a scene. And then really look at how those locations you’re picking are going to influence what characters are doing in that scene. Because that’s the new piece that really occurred to me this week. So, let’s look through some questions that a screenwriter asks when picking a location for a scene.

The first one is always what is the most likely location for this scene. And so this scene is a police interrogation, well, that police interrogation headquarters room feels like the natural place for that. It’s the most obvious place for that. But the second question should be what is the most interesting place for this scene to have happen. And I think you always owe it to yourself to go through and like brainstorm five more interesting places for that scene to take place. Before you commit to that first location, really think through like where are the other interesting places I could set this. And what opportunities would occur if I set this at a different place.

Craig: Yeah. You know, you’re right that sometimes your best move is to present the expected location. If you do have, you know, you’ve given the example of an interrogation scene. We know where those take place. And for good and legal reasons it’s rare that you can do them on the rooftop or in a basement. They’re generally going to take place in that room.

But then your job as a screenwriter, I think, when designing that location is to say is there something about that location that is slightly off, a little bit of a twist. Is the paint peeling? Is there a leak in the ceiling because it’s raining outside and that’s this annoying drip-drip into a coffee cup while they’re having this.

You have to do something. Because otherwise it just feels, well, this is not to disparage television, because television is wonderful and they’re putting out better and better television every day, but when I think of the traditional style TV where they got to shoot really fast and they’ve got to shoot a lot and they just don’t have time sometimes to deal with stuff. So you’d end up with these stock locations. Especially if you’re writing a movie, you really want to either not be in a stock location or turn your stock location into something that’s interesting and memorable.

When Clarice goes to visit Hannibal Lecter, that’s the mental institution. That’s a hallway. That’s bars. That’s people inside. But look what they did with it, you know?

John: One advantage to using the stock location, the expected location, is you get a lot of stuff for free. And so going back to the example of an interrogation room or a doctor’s office, we know how those work. We’ve been there ourselves. We’ve seen them in movies before. So there’s no process of like getting the audience used to the location or having to figure out where this place is. We just get it immediately. We see it. We know exactly what it is. And in some ways it’s helpful because the location doesn’t demand a lot of our attention. And so that can be a very useful thing about picking a stock location.

But, I would just say like don’t default to the stock location unless you have to.

Craig: Agreed.

John: Another question I ask myself is are the characters moving or are they standing still? And if they’re moving, you need to give them a space to move through. And so in a location where they’re going to feel hemmed in, it’s not going to be a good choice for a scene that should be on its feet and should be up and moving.

Conversely, I get frustrated sometimes where I see in movies where they have this incredibly active and vibrant location and then they just have the characters standing there. It’s a real mismatch between the production designer picked this great location or the director picked this great location, but the action of the scene doesn’t demand them to be moving at all. And so therefore there’s just a bunch of business happening around them.

So, really ask yourself do the characters want to be moving through a space? Or are they standing there, sitting there, just talking through some idea?

Craig: Yeah. You know, there’s the question which is do the characters want to be moving. And then there’s also a question does this location want them to be moving. Because there are locations that entice you to move. If you’re at a fair, and there are people moving through and around. And there’s rides and things turning all around you, it’s really hard – like if you go to Disney World and you just get into the middle of Main Street and stand there, it’s going to get annoying really fast for both you and all the people around you. So, there is a natural need to keep moving, which is good. Obviously, there are scenes where the motion is the whole point. A chase, for instance, and then that’s a whole different idea.

But if you’re in a situation where you’re thinking, oh, it would be great if my characters were actually moving. They weren’t just standing on their two feet, find something in the environment that naturally gets them to move. Because what I don’t like is the unmotivated walk and talk. It’s just a dreadful thing. And you see it all the time. It’s just two people walking and talking and there’s no reason for them to be walking, because they’re not going anywhere. And they’re just doing it because the camera guy thought it would be nice. And it’s odd.

John: Yeah. They’re doing it because another static scene would just be a killer. Everyone would get bored if they were just standing there, but like there’s no reason for them to be moving. That’s the real frustration.

A question I ask myself is what color do I want to see on screen. And this seems like a weird thing, but we always talk about like hair and makeup and wardrobe and sort of what are we seeing. And hopefully you’re seeing something. But what color are you seeing? And I try in my movies and other things I write to really have a progression of color throughout the story. And so that we’re in a period where we’re in greens and we’re outside a lot, or we have periods where we’re in reds. We have a period where it’s white, because it’s a lot of snow. And so think about what color we might have seen in the scene before. What color would make sense for this scene? Do we want to be consistent? Do we want to mix it up? Just think about sort of what colors you want and that can help point you to a good choice for location.

Now, sometimes based on the nature of the story you’re telling, you may pick a look just to differentiate between two different things. For instance, you may have an A plot and a B plot. And when we cut between those two locations they have a very different color palette just by their very nature. If people watch The Americans, this last season we were in Russia for a lot. And they just slap this massive blue filter on every scene in Russia. And so I feel so bad for the people in Russia because they clearly don’t have enough lights and it’s always blue. But that’s just the nature of the show, the world they’ve chosen to describe. And so it’s always going to blue when we’re in Russia. So, I try to make some of those choices in my head while I’m writing and that can help inform people down the road as you’re actually moving into production.

Craig: Yeah. I put color in all the time. I’ll talk about the color of the walls sometimes, or the color of the floor. I don’t describe the color of everything, but there’s always one thing that I think will catch your eye. And that’s interesting. An old grimy yellow. I can see it now. And I know that it’s grimy because it’s neglected and that’s a thing. I also know that whoever painted it probably didn’t paint it in the last two years.

So, you learn these things from little bits and pieces. I do tend to think about them in contrasting ways. I don’t have an overall color palette for the whole thing. I think of it more the way I think of, you know, when we talked about transition, size changes, you know, like when you go over here suddenly it’s sort of very bleak and gray and cold. And then you go over here and you’re inside with different people and it’s warm and reddish and brown. But those notions of cold and warm, you know, temperature to me is part of location. And temperature informs color. I just think of cold as being bluish and grayish and I think of warm comforting places as those oranges and reds.

And it helps paint the movie for people. You know, this is I guess the opposite of Screenwriters University tells you to do, so forgive us. Because they’re really good. But we’re making a movie. I don’t know how else to put it. You’re making a movie. All these people that tell you, “Don’t step on blankety-blank’s toes,” there’s no toe I don’t step on. Just to be clear. When I’m writing a screenplay, I step on every toe. I am directing the movie, I am casting the movie, I am production designing movie. I’m putting props in the movie. I’m costuming the movie. I’m doing it all on the page as best I can in a way that is evocative so that all those people that come after have something to go on.

But more importantly somebody somewhere read it and said, oh yeah, I’ll spend the money to make that. That’s the point. So, I think it’s great. Color. Yes, use it.

John: You’re making choices that describe the feeling, and that’s sort of my next question I always ask is if this location were a character in the movie, what would its personality be? So if this location could speak, if this character could take an action, what kind of character would it be? And a lot of the adjectives you use to describe in this previous section really apply here. It’s warm. It’s cold. It’s inviting. It’s foreboding. Think about what that location would feel like if it’s a character and then try to figure out what location could embody those ideas. And that’s incredibly helpful to really think about is it sleek and cold and fastidious or is it a jumbled mess? And putting the same kind of scene in those two different locations will greatly impact the scene.

Craig: Yeah. It’s a chance for you also to impart some authenticity to your story, especially if the point is that it’s set in a recognizable place, a specific place. This is where doing research is really, really helpful. And it’s important when you present your version of this real place that you’re not just relying on things like, you know, we’re in Chicago. There’s Wrigley Field. There’s Sears Tower. But you also, you know, you get the vibe of the contradictions of the place, the magic, the ugly, the beautiful.

We spent – Todd Phillips and I spent a lot to time just studying Bangkok. Studying Bangkok online. Then going there and walking around into every kind of neighborhood. And offering people a glimpse of all of it, because there is squalor and there is wealth and there’s beauty and there’s ugliness and there’s crime and there’s peace. It’s got everything. And we kind of wanted to really hand that over. So, that’s kind of how you start to make the place the character is by knowing it as best you can. You know, obviously if you’re not there, start with Google, I guess.

John: That sense of like which Chicago you want to show is so crucial. Because I get really frustrated when I see the establishing shot of Wrigley Field and now we’re at that Fountain. That kind of stuff is just so cheap and tourist brochure that it doesn’t help me at all knowing what kind of movie it is that I’m seeing. And so, yes, ideally you should go travel to the place where you’re setting your story and figure out what parts you want to actually describe and what it actually feels like.

It also means giving yourself the space in your script to describe some of those things especially early on the script to give us a feel for the texture of where we’re at. And hopefully you’re not just flying by some of these places before you get to a real scene. Hopefully you’re setting some of your early scenes really in those places. So your main characters are moving through these locations and giving us a feel for what kind of Chicago we are seeing in this.

I get so frustrated when I read in scripts, you know, it just says, “Chicago,” but I have no idea of what just Chicago means.

Craig: What does that mean?

John: It could be anything. And you just don’t know. And also keep in mind that people are doing to judge the look and feel of your movie very much based on those early scenes. And so if your initial Chicago scenes are in these glamourous hotels and suites and skyscrapers, it’s going to feel like that kind of movie. So if that’s not what most of your movie is, or if we’re starting there and we’re going to someplace else, you’re going to have to spend some page real estate to really paint the picture of where we’re at for the rest of this story.

Craig: But you can do it economically. I mean, nothing of what you just said and nothing of what I have said requires people to burn a lot of space. It’s just that you have to be specific and know what it is that you want to communicate. Because ultimately whatever you want to communicate, it is in its own way going to be very directed and compact.

If you’re telling a story about the seedy under belly of someplace, that is a compact notion. Now, let us get that vibe without you saying it, but rather by describing a street, a place, a smell, a look. Taking a camera and showing me something beautiful and then the camera just lowers down, down, down, and now we’re below a bridge. Now we’re below this. Now we’re in the gutter. Whatever it is, it actually doesn’t require a lot of time. What it requires is attention and care. Sometimes I think that when we write scripts it’s like we’re a 3D printer and we’re putting these layers on top of layers on top of layers.

And the script comes out I guess misshapen if we forget a layer somewhere in there. And this is one of them. This sense of location is a really important layer.

John: So here’s an example. “Jane unlocks her apartment door and goes inside.” So, you know, if you just give me that sentence, I don’t know anything about the apartment. I don’t know anything about Jane. I don’t know anything about the neighborhood. But if she has to unlock three locks on her door, and there’s trash in the hallway, and the light behind her is flickering, and we hear off-screen shouting, then I know a lot more about Jane and her apartment building and everything that’s going on.

Versus if it’s like a sleek high tech glossy, people sort of float by silently, someone tosses a look over her shoulder that Jane’s not dressed well enough to be in this building, or is suspicious of Jane, that tells me so much more about the building, the universe we’re in, and who Jane is. And that’s two sentences early in your script.

Craig: Yeah. They also give you an opportunity to learn something about her. Because she’s interacting. You’ve given her an environment, a location that can be interacted with. So, how she responds tells me about her. When somebody looks down on her, does she internalize it? Does she not give a damn? Does she argue back? Is she scared of living where she is? Is she unscarable? This is the kind of feedback loop you can create. And it’s why you – it’s hard. Sometimes I feel like we give these lessons and it’s unfair to you guys because we’re making things sound easier than they are. They’re actually kind of hard. Because it’s like a circle that feeds into itself. And you have to figure out where you’re going to jump into the circle – character, location, description of location, reaction to location, purpose of moment.

All of that stuff weirdly has to feed into each other. So, you think I know what I need to do. Where would that kind of happen? It could happen here. What would she do? Well, maybe this place could help me show that if it were like this. But now this place means da-da-da, and so the circle goes.

This is how writing kind of happens. It’s hard, John, sometimes, you know.

John: So this last week I’ve been on a rewrite, and part of the reason why I wanted to do this episode was there was a scene that I encountered which I strongly suspect used to take place somewhere else and so the location does not match what’s actually happening in the scene. There’s a kind of generic conversation that’s happening between two characters and yet the location is really spectacular and kind of fascinating and really could speak very well to these two characters, but it’s not speaking to these two characters because I think they just changed the location and basically kept the scene the same way. And so as I look at sort of how would I redo this scene, the location is really driving my choices.

Because to me it just feels weird that they’re in this location and they’re not acknowledging it. It’s a really visual change in the movie and they have to acknowledge that they’re there. And so I’m using that as the basis for really the comedy that’s hopefully going to sort of help drive the information in the scene. So ultimately the scene will still get through the same – it will still stick off the same beats as before, but it’s just going to use the location to acknowledge why they’re there, what’s going on, and hopefully find some new life between these two characters that felt perfunctory before.

Craig: Yeah. Well, it speaks to how important location is, because when you’re stuck with it, that’s when you really feel how it drives so much. I mean, I worked on – I mean, it’s public record that Frank Darabont was going to direct The Huntsman and he left. There was an amiable departing. I don’t know, whatever you call it. And the studio hired a new director and yet kept essentially to the schedule, which meant that the principal photography was going to start in about two weeks. And so I got called in and they said, “All right, we’re starting in two weeks. We got to make a bunch of changes. Here’s the situation. We’ve built a bunch of sets and so we’re using them. And these are what these sets are for. These are the locations.”

That is a tough box inside of which to work. And, you know, these are the things of course people who casually comment on movies don’t understand. This is sometimes what happens.

So, you have to write some scenes in certain ways because the location has happened before you. That’s obviously a very rigid thing in a – that’s a fairly rare circumstance. But it’s a very common thing even when you’re doing a regular rewrite, but a producer or a big star says I really want to do – I love that sequence in Monte Carlo so we’re doing it. OK. I guess we’re going to work with that, but it is one of the fundamental pillars of the story. So, choices are now that much narrower.

John: But the same kind of thing happens on indie films as well. Because if there’s a kind of move that’s so driven by location, indies generally have a very limited selection of what locations they can use to shoot in. And so if you are making a film that is by necessity going to be taking place in one or two locations, those locations become exponentially more important to your story because we’re going to be seeing them the entire time.

Or, on the other hand, sometimes the choices about locations are not really the writer’s choices. They are the choice of production. And so some of the practicalities you’re going to be encountering are costs. Can they afford to rent that amazing penthouse apartment that you have written in page 37? If that location is just there for that one day, and they can’t make it work because of money, or more often they can’t make it work because of schedule, because there’s only sort of one scene there and it’s half of a page, so they have to marry it with some other days’ work. Sometimes you just can’t make that fit.

Sometimes they can’t make a location work because that’s great that you want to set the scene in Rio de Janeiro. There’s no money to go to Rio de Janeiro. So we’re going to have to set this in Guadalajara instead. That’s a change. That’s a change you’re going to have to roll with.

And finally controllability. And I find this a lot where people want to set things in big public spaces. Well, that’s great. And you get a lot of sort of free production value because you get all the monuments behind you or something great in the center of Paris, but you can’t control those locations. And sometimes you’re just not allowed to shoot there. And so figuring out what the balance is going to be can be a real challenging thing.

So, I guess we’re saying as the screenwriter you have to be ambitious in your choice of locations as you’re writing, but you also have to be smart in understanding what’s going to be changing during production and being able to roll with it to make the best use of the locations you actually do get to use when the line producer comes back to you.

Craig: Yeah. It is one of the most frustrating things because the first moment of rubber meets the road/reality check/whatever you want to call it is when you’ve written the screenplay and everybody is on board and it has gotten the green light. And then they come back and they say, “Well, we’ve gone through. This is our budget. This is what we can do. Here’s what we can’t. We just can’t do it.”

And it’s so hard because everybody has been so invested in creating this crystal tower with you, and now someone just comes along with a hammer and goes, “Nope. Not here.” And sometimes you end up in situations where you just think we are being asked to fail. The smartest of the Indies are the ones that anticipate all of that. You know, I’m thinking of for instance Phil Hay and Karyn Kusama and Matt Manfredi. When they did The Invitation they knew they didn’t have a lot of money. They barely had any money at all. So they made a movie that took place in a house. They spent a lot of time trying to find the right house. They found the right house. They’re good. They don’t have to worry about something falling through. That’s kind of the way to go. Protect your key locations because if you don’t, someone is coming with that hammer. And then, oh my god, what a mess.

John: Yeah. Get Out is another movie that is essentially all in one house. There’s a few things that venture out beyond the house, but it is essentially one house. My movie, The Nines, is largely one house. And so when the line producer came back with a budget which was wildly too expensive, I had to sort of talk her through saying like, no really, this one house is mine. We can control this. And you don’t have to worry about rentals or leaving and coming back. This is a safe place. And so that can be the jumping off point for all of the other little field work along the way.

When you are the writer-director, a lot of times you will have in your head like this is where I want to shoot this thing. That can be fantastic. But I had to learn how to let go of some things that I really wanted to shoot in certain places because it just wouldn’t work for budget or more often for schedule. Like there was no way to find that seedy hotel within a three mile radius of where we were going to have to shoot this other thing. And so you make it work.

If you go back to the conversation I had with Chris McQuarrie, he’s on a giant, expensive Mission: Impossible movie, but the same kind of things still happen. It’s like, well, we have this grand vision for what we want to do, but this is the reality of what we have. We don’t have enough extras to make this party scene work. And so we’re going to have to flip the scene around so these 200 people feel like enough people for this party.

That happens at every level.

Craig: You know, it’s funny, when I write and I come up with a location, I start doing some math in my head. It’s never about expense, per se. it’s more about how much is going to be required to dress it. Because what happens is when you get on a movie set there is a negotiation that begins to happen. This is really in preproduction, frankly. There’s a negotiation between the production designer and the cinematographer. And the cinematographer is essentially saying, “I want to be able to see as much as I can.” And the production designer is being held to a certain budget and knows that they have to plow money into sets and other locations is saying, “Yeah, but could you tell me where you probably will be looking? Because then I don’t have to create a whole bunch of world that you never even look at,” because that’s expense.

And one of the expenses that goes separate and apart from what production designers do is extras. Filling a space with people is expensive. You don’t realize it until you show up on a movie set and you see the area where they’re keeping the extras. And you go, oh my god, that’s a lot of people that we have to feed. And someone has to make sure that they’re wearing appropriate clothing. And they’re going to all get paid for the day. And wow.

[laughs] Bob Weinstein once asked me, he goes, “Hey Mazin, do all those people get paid?” I was like, yeah. He goes, “Really?” So, Bob, I think it’s slavery if they don’t get paid, right? And he goes, “Wow, man, never thought of it that. Ha-ha.” What a dick.

John: The only time I will somewhat come to Bob Weinstein’s defense is that it is a little strange that studio audiences for sitcom tapings are not generally paid. So, we are hearing their laughter. I guess they’re getting a free show out of it all. Sometimes they’re getting prizes. But they are not paid. But an extra is really paid.

The one other thing you will find if you are in a place where movies are being made often, sometimes you will walk into an area where they’ll say, “Filming is currently happening here.” And basically by entering this space you understand that you may be in a shot. That’s another thing that can happen.

So, in my movie, The Nines, there are some shots in New York where we didn’t control that at all and Ryan Reynolds is just running down a street and he’s passing real people and we make it all work. But there was one moment where we needed to have an upfronts party. So, when a new TV season is announced, when the network is announcing its whole schedule, they throw these giant parties in New York. And so I needed one of those giant parties. But I could afford like six extras. And so like how do you do that?

And so you do it by figuring out very carefully what your shots are going to be. We did the check in table. We used a hotel and we used a hallway at the hotel. And we just made those people feel like a lot of people. And you use sound design to make you feel like there’s a lot of people over there somewhere to your left, but we’re just not focusing on them. And it works for what the scene needs to be. We needed to sense that there was a big thing happening, but the actual scene was small and intimate so therefore I didn’t want to be in a giant space.

Craig: Yeah. These are the – it becomes a Rubik’s Cube. It really is. It’s a Rubik’s Cube of – once you get into production it’s a Rubik’s Cube of money and practicalities and creativity and vision. But when you’re writing your screenplay, remember your goal here is to attract financing and attract actors and attract directors, if you’re not directing, and terrific crew. Create the world you want to see, and then, you know.

Now, if you know, like I said, that this is the kind of movie where you’re going to be dealing with a couple million dollars for your budget, create a world that you’d like to see that you could probably do for a couple million dollars.

John: Absolutely. All right, our next topic. So, in previous episodes we’ve done How Would This Be a Movie. We’re usually looking at stories in the news to figure out how they could be converted into a big piece of blockbuster entertainment. But a new thing happened this last two weeks that I thought was really interested.

So Julia Roberts has attached herself to star in a TV adaptation of a podcast series. So it was a podcast series called Homecoming which is a fiction series created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg. And Mr. Robot creator, Sam Esmail, is supposed to be doing the TV adaptation of it. It was just really interesting that essentially it was a radio drama done as a podcast form but now going to be adapted into TV.

And the first time I could think of that transition happening, which I think we’re going to see a lot more of.

Craig: Yeah. You may very well. Again, you know, I don’t listen to podcasts. But it seems to me that the ones that I keep hearing about are the ones that are narrativizing true life things. This one was fictional the whole way through?

John: This one is all fiction. So, Catherine Keener played the main character in the radio version of it, the audio version of it. Julia Roberts would play her character in the next version of it. I think radio drama is really hard to do, and so god bless them for doing a good job with this. I haven’t listened to it, but I’ve heard only the promos for it. But people loved it. So that’s great. And it’s great that it’s getting traction in another form.

What I see more often happening is another Gimlet show called Start Up is being converted into a TV comedy called Alex, Inc. So Zach Braff is staring in that and it’s about the birth of a podcast company. So it is more the classic thing where it’s like it’s kind of like Shit My Dad Says, where it was a Twitter feed and it became the basis of a real sitcom. This is a comedy based on one guy’s quest to get a business started. And you can sort of more clearly see like, OK, you’re fictionalizing the real versions of people.

Craig: So when is our show?

John: That’s really the natural next question. So, when is our show? How are we divvying up the credits on it? Who is playing whom? These are tough choices, but I guess we should probably ask our listeners, because our listeners are the smartest people out there.

Craig: Well, I mean, look, I know who should be me. If it doesn’t work out with Homecoming, I would love Julia Roberts to play me.

John: Oh yeah. That’s a nice choice. I’ve always seen myself as a Sandra Bullock type. So, she’s both a free spirit, but also a little restrained at times. And I think the two of us, I think casting it as women opens up new possibilities. It really can speak to our sense of the challenges as working moms in this business.

Craig: I don’t think we’re interesting enough to get gender matching casting. It’s too boring. Literally, we need a gimmick. We need a gimmick. We have to be played by women because we’re not women. If we were women, we should be played by men. Basically, we should be the opposite.

John: So, I’ve been thinking like who should play Aline and how about Stanley Tucci?

Craig: Great.

John: Yeah. Just mix everything up.

Craig: Absolutely. Like really what I’m saying is the Scriptnotes show should not resemble Scriptnotes in any way. In any way.

John: Yes. But something I’ve learned about television development is by the time it would get on the air, it would not resemble the original pilot whatsoever.

Craig: Yeah. I’m requesting something that’s just going to happen anyway.

John: One of the first things that will come up as people start reading the script based on Scriptnotes is the same thing that Tom Sanchez tweeted at us this week. “Hey guys, I got a note to make protagonists more likeable. Any tips or basic principles or advice?”

So, Craig, when they read the script and they go this Craig Mazin character is not likeable, how do we fix that?

Craig: You don’t, because it’s not a problem. And this is the worst note to get, because it’s not a thing. This is hard. I don’t know how to combat it in any clean way. If I hear this, I know I can’t say, “No, that’s stupid. Doesn’t matter.” People actually love unlikeable people. There are entire actors that have made a career out of it. It’s wonderful. Grouches are delicious. And, I don’t know, I could sit here and name 4,000 television shows and 4,000 movies that you love that star unlikeable people.

I could sit here and show you Walter Matthau in Bad News Bears. But I don’t have time. I can’t say any of that, so in my mind I start backing for the door. I got to be honest with you. When I hear somebody say, “Well, the protagonist should be more likeable,” I judge that person for giving me the dumbest note in the world. It’s not a real thing.

It is ignorant of the way movies and television work. The key is that the protagonist should be understandable. So I guess that’s my only defense.

John: That is my defense of it, too. Is that sometimes you’ll hear the likeable note and they just don’t actually have a read on the character. There’s something about the Velcro of that character that’s not quite gripping. And so you may need to look for some moment early in the script that gives that character a specificity, something really fascinating about that character that makes people want to engage with them.

So, it could be, you know, a joke. It could be some action they take very early on that is interesting, relatable, remarkable, something about that character that makes say like, “Oh, I get that dude. He’s fascinating. I want to be on his story.” But I get the likeable notes, too.

And so in Big Fish, Will is always considered not likeable. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s the movie version, or the Broadway version, you always get the note “I just don’t like Will. Will is just not likeable.” And it’s just really a functional problem, because he’s the antagonist to a character who is tremendously likeable. There’s a sort of dual protagonist/antagonist relationship. And if he was this charming, life of the party kind of guy, there is no story. I can’t make Big Fish work if Will comes on as being the most likeable kid in the world.

So, we always have to be mindful of that sort of structural challenge in casting a Will that we just don’t cast the most dour, bleak person ever. You have to have a spark of life in the actual actor we cast. But functionally the role is not especially likeable at the start. And hopefully by the end of the story you’re loving him.

So, Tom Sanchez, when you get that note, I just say like, you know, try to figure out whether they’re understanding the character before you try to make huge changes to what the character is doing.

Craig: Yeah. It’s helpful, too, if you can at least point out that your character doesn’t like him or herself either. So they are aware. I do think that it is off-putting when there are characters who are unlikeable and are perfectly happy with themselves and we don’t quite know what to make of that. That’s just Ted Cruz, basically, right? So, we look at Ted Cruz and we say, “I don’t like you and, also, you seem to love yourself.” That’s a terrible combination. That’s where we start to feel like we’re dealing with an alien.

But with characters, for instance, Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa. It’s hard to be more unlikeable than that guy. He is a thief. He is a drunk. He is mean. He is racist. He’s hurtful to children. But, we know that he is in terrible pain. And that whatever it is that he is dealing out he is dishing upon his own head even more. And so we understand there is a potential redemption. And we move toward him. That’s important. If you can underscore that, then I think you’ll be fine.

But I hate it. I hate the whole likeable thing. It’s stupid. And basically it’s the kind of thing you’d expect to be taught at Screenwriters University.

John: 100%. I think you can actually get a special certification in likeability if you pay an extra $500.

Craig: [laughs]

John: All right, it has come time for our One Cool Things. I actually have three things, but they’re all short and related to locations.

So, the first two are maps. There’s a great new Metro map of Paris called the Circle Map designed by Constantine Konovalov and other folks. It’s just fantastic. So, every time you try to do a map of a Metro or bus lines or underground subways it’s always a balance between representing reality and sort of an idealized version that is clear and simpler to understand.

And this version is really just fantastic. It chooses to bend the lines into sort of circles rather than keeping them quite as naturally flowing as they would otherwise be. But it makes the Metro much, much easier to understand. So I’ll put a link in the show notes to that.

Also, a great one that Craig you’ll dig is the Roman Roads. So basically all the roads that the Romans built, but done as sort of a subway map of Europe. And showing sort of like, wow, they did a hell of a job. They really built out a lot. And it’s fun looking at the stops along the way to see what are now cities and sort of like how those Roman names of cities became the modern names of cities. So, another great one.

Finally, you can’t talk about locations without one of the greatest games I think ever for iOS that now has a sequel out. Monument Valley 2 is now shipping and it’s just delightful. So, it has the same impossible geography as the first one, with some other great choices and changes. So, if you’ve not played the first one, play the first one, then play the second one. They are both just great games.

Craig: Yeah. Currently, I don’t know how far in I am, but I’m in it.

John: I would also say Monument Valley, especially the second one, has really good storytelling between the mom and the daughter for like characters who don’t speak. Just their little tiny physical interactions are so well animated that I’ve just really loved watching them.

Craig: Yeah. It’s good stuff. Well, I have a One Cool Thing this week that’s also a game, but I have not loved a game with this much fervor and joy in a long, long time. It’s called Human Resource Machine. No, that’s not my nickname for you, John August. But, it is sort of John August-like. It is very simply a game where you are creating code. They don’t really tell you so much on the nose that you’re creating code, but they give you tasks. Here are a series of numbers or letters and here’s what we need you to do. So here’s your inbox. That’s what your inputs are. You take them, you design a system of things to do to them, and then there’s a result that goes out. But you don’t have a lot of commands. You have very few. In fact, I think there’s a sum total of 13 commands. And it starts off pretty darn easy, and then it gets crazy hard. But every time I did something, I was so proud of myself. So proud because it really hurts your brain. But it’s all doable. I loved it so much. And, it is also wrapped in this very bizarre kind of meta story that was kind of this extra bit of surreal glee for me.

So, the company that makes this game is called Tomorrow Corporation. They are I believe the people that did World of Goo, which I know a lot of people liked. But this is just – I’m just in love with this. Human Resource Machine. John, I think you will like this game.

John: Craig, I can guarantee that I will like this game. Because while you were talking I went through Google and this was my One Cool Thing in Episode 254.

Craig: [laughs]

John: So let’s pull up the transcript and we’ll see how you made fun of me for Human Resource Machine.

Craig: Did I?

John: You did. You made fun of me. So, let’s see.

Craig: OK.

John: This is what I said. The second one is a thing that Craig will make fun of me for. It’s called Human Resource Machine. It’s a game. “Oh, I get to make fun of you for it? Fantastic,” you say. So, Craig says, “This is so great because he is a robot. He’s a robot playing on a robot machine, pretending to be a robot.”

Craig: That’s accurate.

John: Yes. So, I’ll send you a link to the show notes for this one, too, so you can see what we said about Human Resource Machine. I really did love it. And so have you finished it yet?

Craig: The only one I – I’ve gotten halfway through my last level that I have to do which is prime factory, which is brutal.

John: It is brutal. And some of the things are – you know, the interface is delightful, but when you have to make really complicated ones, it gets to be just really, really exhausting. So I think there may have been some left hand forks of some of these things, which I didn’t end up doing, but I really did love the game and thought it was just perfectly well done.

Craig: Yeah. It’s great. And so you were right. And now here I am, 50 episodes later, which that’s about right. I need about a year.

John: I’m about one year ahead of Craig on all things.

Craig: Well, this is not the first time this has happened either. Generally speaking what happens is you say something, I go that’s stupid and you’re dumb, and then about a year later I go, John, I’ve heard of something wonderful.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And then you say, “I said that a year ago and you called me stupid and dumb.” And then, weirdly, I don’t retract any of that.

John: No.

Craig: I say, oh, yeah, you were, but because I’m thinking it now, I feel it.

John: Yeah. The thing you’re doing right now, that’s the thing you do.

Craig: That’s right. That’s what I do.

John: You are 100% consistent. That’s our show this week. As always, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions, or things you want us to rant about, on Twitter I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.

We are on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts at Scriptnotes. And while you’re there, leave us a comment. That actually does help in the algorithms of things.

You’ll find the show notes for this episode at johnaugust.com. Transcripts go up about four days later. That’s the only way that I can really keep Craig honest by proving that I did actually recommend something years ago.

Craig: Yep.

John: You can find the back episodes of the show at Scriptnotes.net. Godwin says that the USB drives have just now arrived in Los Angeles, so they are probably two weeks away from being available to order. So, if you would like a USB drive of all the back episodes, hold your fire because they are coming soon.

Craig: You should get those.

John: We should get those. We will also have a PDF version of the Scriptnotes Listener’s Guide, so thank you to everybody who has contributed to the Listener’s Guide. It turned out so, so well.

Craig: Awesome.

John: Those will be coming out soon.

Craig: Great.

John: Craig, have a great rest of your time in Amsterdam. Don’t fall in a canal.

Craig: I’m going to do my best to not fall in a canal and I will see you next week.

John: All right, thanks.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 303: 75% of Nothing — Transcript

Sun, 06/25/2017 - 10:29

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

Ira Glass: WBEZ Chicago. It’s This American Life, I’m Ira Glass.

Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.

Male Voice: [Unintelligible].

Male Voice: I’m [Robert Grolich].

Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.

Phoebe Judge: I’m Phoebe Judge. This is criminal.

Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.

Roman Mars: I’m Roman Mars.

Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.

Karina Longworth: I’m your host. Karina Longworth.

Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 303 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the program, we will be answering listener questions about writer agreements, page-one rewrites, and resuscitating dead projects.

Craig: We’re not going to talk about what just happened though? [laughs]

John: What just happened?

Craig: The weirdest intro that we have ever had.

John: It’s a pretty great intro. So that intro came from Jonas Madden-Connor. Jonas, thank you for cutting that. Again, we have the best listeners in the entire world.

Craig: We really, really do. I don’t know, there’s been a number of these that people have done, but that one was the most interesting and therefore also the most disturbing.

John: Yeah. It was wonderful. I had an interesting disturbing day and I want to talk to you about it, because it was strange and I want your feedback on it. So, today I got an MRI. I got a brain scan.

Craig: Oh.

John: Which I’d never had before. So, to cut to the end, I’m absolutely fine. There’s nothing wrong whatsoever. And it was a scan that my French doctor wanted me to have and my American doctor says that’s ridiculous, you don’t need that. But I ended up deciding, you know what, I’m curious what a brain scan is actually like, what the experience is. And so I’m going to cross this off my bucket list. I will have a brain scan. The answer is it’s not especially pleasant, but was fascinating in a way that I’m glad I did it. So, I did it here in Paris. And I’ve had scans, like of my chest before, but this was the first time where like they lock your head into a cage and you can’t move.

And have you ever had that done, Craig?

Craig: No. But I’m actually going to in the summer because some researchers at Princeton – I may have even mentioned this on the show – are doing a study about writers and neurological function and I guess the idea of visualization in the brain. And they’re using screenwriters specifically. And so they reached out to me and I said yeah. That’s like everything I love all in one. So, I don’t know what the – the test is sort of a challenge test, I think, where they’re scanning your brain and then they’re also asking you to perform mental tasks.

John: Ah-ha.

Craig: And then they are looking at how it works inside your head. But, yeah, I’ll have it done then. And generally speaking, I mean, it isn’t really – there’s no real good reason, you really shouldn’t do it. But–

John: It’s not dangerous to do it. Here’s what I’ll say. I’m not a claustrophobic person, and I’m generally not claustrophobic in small spaces. I wasn’t freaked out about doing this whatsoever. But there becomes a moment about ten minutes into this where I did start to panic a little bit. And the fact that you cannot move your head at all is really jarring. The other thing which was strange is the way that the little cage is set up, there’s a mirror where I can sort of see my eyes, and I can sort of see forward, but I couldn’t quite figure out what I was seeing. There was sort of this landscape ahead of me that felt very sort of science fiction. And like I was moving through a tunnel in a Kubrick movie.

And it was only after a few minutes of staring at it that I realize like, oh wait, I’m actually looking at over my shirt and my pants at my shoes. But my brain couldn’t process what I was actually seeing. It was really strange – it was cool.

So, I guess on the whole I would recommend it to people, but it wasn’t a pleasant thing. Like I was happy to have it be finished at the end.

Craig: It doesn’t hurt.

John: It doesn’t hurt whatsoever. It was good for the experience. It was also good to prove that I do have – I now have a scan to show I have a brain and a heart, so I’m really not a robot.

Craig: You have what we would call a vestigial brain and heart. I think that you have those organs, but they’re essentially redundant because your CPU and I think you have some kind of pump. Like a motorized pump that moves the nutrient fluids and the lubricants, the coolants, through the ductwork.

John: It must be contained somewhere down in my lower extremities, because so far in the head and the heart the magnets haven’t been set off by that–

Craig: No, no, there’s no reason to mimic the inefficient design of the human anatomy. It’s probably all packed in somewhere around where your kidneys are, or would have been.

John: Great.

Craig: Yeah.

John: That actually makes a lot more sense. I feel much better knowing that now.

Craig: I mean, that’s where your food port is, isn’t it?

John: [laughs] Indeed. That’s where I inject my food port. I go through all the efforts of looking like I’m eating normal food at restaurants, but no, it’s all for show.

Craig: You do this incredibly rhythmic chewing that actually freaks people out more, but you don’t know.

John: Oh, it’s good stuff.

We have some follow up here. Why don’t you start us off here?

Craig: Oh, Kevin Walsh. Kevin is a guy that you and I play Dungeons & Dragons with. I think we’ve mentioned him on the show before. We definitely mentioned him when we did the D&D podcast with the Wizards of the Coast folks. And Kevin is the ultimate D&D rules lawyer. And apparently also chess lawyer. So, he wrote in to say, “Just heard you guys discussing errors in specialized details. And the example of the impossible chess scenario in The Office jumped out at me. I’m a poor player, but I know enough to realize—“

He’s already lying, by the way. I’m sure he’s great. “The setup of two bishops on white squares, while highly improbable, is not impossible due to the promotion element of the game. When a pawn reaches the eighth rank, it’s almost always promoted to a queen. But you actually have the option to promote it to any non-pawn piece, so you could conceivably promote a pawn on a white square to bishop in addition to a bishop already on the board.”

Yes, that is technically true. Who the hell would do that? I mean, there’s no reason to do that, at all. Ever. I can’t imagine anyone has ever done that.

John: So, invariably when we do the podcast we talk about articles and blog posts we’ve read and we summarize because it’s in audio format, but if I recall correctly in the longer blog post that we were drawing from the author, who I believe was a woman, did single out that, yes, there is a possibility in which he could have gotten two bishops on white squares, but the way the game was actually set up, or at least how you saw the game being played, it wouldn’t have been possible.

Craig: It just doesn’t make any sense, because the queen moves in all directions as many squares as she wants. So, she’s already – she can be essentially every piece on the board. Well, she can’t move like a rook. I’m sorry. Like a knight. But she can move diagonally like a bishop. And she can also move one square over and then start moving diagonally, so who the hell would promote a pawn to a bishop? I don’t know, now a bunch of chess people are going to write in and call me–

John: They’re absolutely going to write in and you should write those things with Header Craig.

Craig: John, why would you say such things? [laughs]

John: In Episode 301 we talked about writing a pilot based on a property you don’t own as a writing sample. Charles writes, “I’ve written several episodes of a television series based on an existing property, specifically the Fallout game series.”

Craig: Ooh.

John: Craig loves Fallout.

Craig: I do.

John: “The game developer, knowing nothing about my script or plans for the series as a whole, won’t answer or return any of my calls regarding obtaining the rights for said property.”

Craig: [laughs] You don’t say?

John: “I’m sure an agent would be able to make some headway in this department, but as you’ve probably already guessed, I don’t have one of those. I’ve thought about contacting agents who have developed similar properties, but articles I’ve found on the subject suggest that contacting an agent without already possessing the rights would present a substantial hurdle. Any advice you could offer would be greatly appreciated.”

Craig: OK. Charles, here’s your advice. There’s nothing wrong with what you’ve done, per se. You’re into this and you’re writing episodes. What you’re writing is only valuable to the extent that someone might read it and say, “I like the way you write, Charles. I’d like to hire you to write something else. Or I’d like to see if you have something original that you’d like to write.” Under no circumstances will Bethesda, the massive corporation that makes the Fallout game series, and Elder Scrolls, be willing to discuss with you the notion of licensing derivative works. They maintain very careful control of those rights and they will only license them to the largest of entities for the most possible amount of money.

To date, I don’t think they have. I think they’ve actually – they don’t even want to license this stuff to Warner Bros, much less Charles. Do you know what I mean?

So, stop calling them. They’re never going to – and they will also very intentionally tell you that they’re not reading anything you’ve written because the last thing they want to do is deal with you then coming down later and saying you stole some of my stuff for Fallout 7, or your Fallout movie. So, they’re never going to read it. They’re never going to contact you. They may never acknowledge that you have even done what you’ve done.

Technically speaking, I mean, what you’ve done isn’t a violation of their rights unless you try and make money off of it. Then it is. So, you should stop pursuing this like it can happen. You should only think of this as either a writing exercise for yourself, great practice, a way to learn, or as a sample for other people to read who might be looking to hire a writer to adapt their video game which is perhaps a smaller property that isn’t quite as a massive as Fallout.

John: 100% correct. And I think this is a case of sort of over-applying something we said in Episode 301. So in Episode 301 we talked about this guy who wanted to do an episode of Dallas or a pilot based on Dallas that was turned into a comedy. We said, yes, go for it with the giant caveat that like that is a great writing sample. A writing sample is wonderful, but it is not a thing you’re going out to try to make. So, stop pursuing Bethesda. Stop pursuing an agent with the goal of making this into a thing. Try to make people read it because hopefully it’s really good writing.

Craig: Yeah.

John: I’m going to put a link in the show notes to a short film about Portal, made by Dan Trachtenberg, who is a guy we should absolutely have on the podcast at some point.

Craig: Oh yeah. He’s great.

John: He’s great. And so he’s gone on to become a director of note. But the first thing I was aware that he did was this short film inspired by Portal. And I don’t recall the full backstory on this. I don’t think he had any rights or blessings from the Valve folks. It’s a film that’s sort of set in the Valve universe, but it is not – to my understanding – was not sanctioned by Valve before he made it. But it was very useful.

So I think the same way that Charles’ Fallout script could be useful to him as a calling card, this was useful to Dan Trachtenberg as a calling card. But he was not setting out to make a Portal movie to make money.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, basically you’re writing fan fiction, Charles. And there’s nothing wrong with it. But you could – certainly you could put it on the web and just have people, if they want to read it, for free. Can’t charge them for it. That’s for sure.

John: Yep. Last bit of sort of meta follow up, in previous episodes we’ve done How Would This Be a Movie. We did a How Would This Be a Movie last week. A lot of those How Would This Be a Movie are becoming a movie. And so I wanted a place for sort of consistent follow up on like all those things we talked about, which ones of those are actually becoming movies. So, Godwin, our producer, is going through and tracking all those projects now. So, there will be a link in the show notes for sort of the tracking board of the previous projects to see what’s going on. So we’ll be updating that periodically as we have news on which of those movies are actually going down the roads into production.

Craig: Smart. Is he going to keep a little report card of how we’re doing on our predictions?

John: That’s a really good idea, too. We’re figuring out what the good forum for it will be. I think it will be just a single page on johnaugust.com. But it will be some sort of table. There will be, you know, a good little indicator of like what’s where.

Craig: Fantastic. Great idea. And you know what? Keeps Godwin busy.

John: It does. You got to keep him busy, because you know what? Our listeners are paying Godwin’s salary. Well, technically I’m paying his salary. But our listeners are helping to pay Godwin’s salary.

Craig: And, uh, idle hands are the devil’s playground.

John: They certainly are. You know who else works for me who has idle hands sometimes is Nima Yousefi. And he asked a question which I figured we would discuss here. So it is our first of many questions this evening. Is there a name for the kind of movie that is just stuffed with stars, like the Garry Marshall films, such as Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, or Love Actually? Craig, can you think of a title for that kind of movie, that genre?

Craig: I don’t think there’s a specific one. Sometimes you might refer to those as star ensembles. But, you know, on television, when they used to make television movies, sometimes they would do this and they would call it an All-Star Cast. We don’t really do that in movies. That sounds ridiculous. I just call them Star Ensembles.

John: I guess a Star Ensemble would make sense. You know, it feels it could be weird to write that kind of movie if you weren’t anticipating it being stuffed with stars in a strange way. You know, it’s hard to envision Love Actually if you didn’t anticipate like, OK, there’s all these different characters who are sort of running around. If they weren’t kind of notable actors independently would you really try to make that move? I don’t know. I also think of like the Cannonball Run movies are just full of actors in ways that we don’t commonly make those anymore.

Craig: That’s right. I don’t know if Love Actually specifically – it’s not quite the same Star Ensemble sort of thing that maybe some of the Garry Marshall films are. Those really are like, look, over here, and over here, and over here. It’s not my favorite genre. I will admit.

John: I’d agree.

Craig: I’m not one of those people that loves or hates Love Actually. It’s such a polarizing film in a weird way. I like it. You know, like I’ve never felt passionate about it. But the holiday movies, they’re not really – mostly what happens is they get very sentimental in certain kind of way. And I like certain kinds of sentiment, and then other kinds of sentiment is just not for me. It’s just, you know, it’s a personal taste thing. So, I’m not big on those.

And I never really liked the Cannonball Run movies. I didn’t. Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World? No. Not really. No.

John: Not so much. You know, I think of the Judd Apatow movies and also the Seth Rogan/Evan Goldberg movies, they tend to have big casts, but it doesn’t sort of feel like I’m cramming this one actor in for just this one scene. They very much tend to stay on plot. I mean, Apatow will sort of like – sometimes you will sense that somebody was there just because they were funny and they sort of got three scenes because he wanted them in the movie. But it’s not the same sense of like, oh look, it’s that famous person who is just being that famous person and improvising.

Craig: Yeah. There are some filmmakers that have a little bit of like a Mercury Theater group of actors they always use. And those people keep showing up. And how some of those people get into that clique. It’s really more of a clique, because when you see a movie like the Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day movies, you don’t get the sense at all those actors hang out all the time. But Jon Hamm seems to hang out with these people. Like he hangs out with Kristen Wiig. I don’t know how that happened. It just did. And now he shows up in those movies. So, that’s more of a – yeah, I would call that a Clique Movie.

John: It’s a Clique Flick.

Craig: Oh! How did I miss that?

John: See? I knew if we talked about it enough we would get it out.

Craig: It’s a Clique Flick. Dude, seriously, that’s great. That’s exactly what it is. So Apatow makes Clique Flicks.

John: So good. I think we should stop the podcast right here.

Craig: I think we should stop everything. I may just stop. That may be it. I may walk out into traffic now. I’m not sure how it gets better than this.

John: It’s all downhill from here.

Cord writes, “I was wondering, what percentage of the rewrite gigs that you take on are page-one rewrites? And would you say that percentage represents other writer’s workloads, too? Or are some writers more apt to say no to page-one rewrites and other writers yes?”

So, Craig, that’s an interesting question because I guess we have to define what is a page-one rewrite and does the notion of a page-one rewrite change how likely you or I are to approach a project.

Craig: OK. Well, we’ll start with the term. So page-one rewrite is an assignment where there is an existing script. Sometimes there are bunch of existing scripts. And either because the studio feels this way or they are going along with a writer, a new writer, who feels this way, we’re essentially starting over. We’re not throwing out the basic idea, but we’re saying, you know, we’re not taking the document of this script and then going into it and making adjustments throughout. We’re going to begin again. We’re going to break a new general plot. There could be wild shifts in character or tone. Certainly in story. And then we’re going to write – all this is new. We’re basically starting over.

I find that most of the time the rewrite work I do falls into two piles. One pile is you’re going to be on this for a week to three weeks. And then the other pile is page-one rewrite. It’s not that they come and say that. But inevitably if I’m not doing a short-term assignment, which means usually the film is in preproduction, it’s been green-lit. There’s a lot of pressure to color within the lines. A lot of times – you probably get this all the time, right?

So you get a call from your agent. They’re like, “Yeah, they’re calling about blah-blah-blah.” And you’ll say, OK, well what are they saying in terms of work? What do they think it is? “You know, they’re saying like three weeks.” In my mind I go, that’s a page-one rewrite. [laughs]

John: Usually I hear it, it’s like, “It’s a couple of weeks.” I’m like, oh yeah, it’s a couple of weeks.

Craig: Couple of weeks is trouble. Three weeks is right out. Because they underestimate everything essentially.

John: Here’s the interesting thing about a couple of weeks. A couple of weeks means that like, OK, they’re going to want to meet you and they’re going to have to have discussions and basically you’re going to have to pitch them what you’re going to do. And then they’re going to decide and then they’re going to hire you. So, a couple of weeks, it could be a couple weeks before you would even get the green light to sort of get to writing. And so then you’ve just burned a tremendous amount of time. At that point you could have just rewritten the whole script more like.

A page-one rewrite to me is – generally it’s an adaptation or there was something preexisting and whoever took the first crack at it didn’t deliver what they wanted to do. I don’t get a lot of the “this was a spec script we bought and now it’s a page-one rewrite.” That just doesn’t happen to me very much, just because not a lot of spec scripts tend to get sold. But this is like, you know, we’re kind of starting over here. Or we need to have a whole new framework. So even though you might take the same characters, you’re changing a lot.

Craig: Yeah.

John: I tend to say no to those, honestly because I would rather be the first writer on something or I would rather be working on my own stuff, because a page-one rewrite is really just a brand new movie.

Craig: That’s right. It is. I will do them probably more frequently than you will because I don’t mind so much that I’m not necessarily the first person in if the topic is exciting to me and I feel like I can see a way through. That’s what happened on Identity Thief. It was a page-one rewrite. But what I do find is that it’s actually rare that the studio will say, “This is a page-one rewrite.” They’re always weirdly hopeful that there’s a fast, easy magic bullet to fire at this thing. I mean, in their dreams they imagine a screenwriter walking in and saying, “Oh, you guys, give me four days. Pay me only for four days and I will fix everything. You guys didn’t see it. It’s just this, and I got it.” And they go, “Oh my god.”

That’s their dream scenario. That’s not realistic, of course. Normally what happens if there is something that’s troubled, you got to start over. And then, yes, it is a lot of time. I do prefer if I’m going to do all that to just be the first person in. But when there’s a really interesting project or a really interesting director, then I’ll come in and do a bunch of work. What I try and avoid is the middle. And I don’t always avoid it.

I’ll give you – perfect example from my career is the Huntsman sequel. That was the middle. So they had a screenplay. And they were happy with the basic shape of the story, the premise, the way the characters were moving in and out. They just wanted work done on tone and dialogue and some new scenes. And this and that and all the rest. And that became – that was essentially about seven weeks. And it was one of those middles. It wasn’t a page-one rewrite. It wasn’t a short rewrite. It was heavy rewrite. And then the movie got green lit and then I had to come back and do another two weeks for production stuff. But at that point a lot of things had gone wrong, including the director getting fired and a new director coming on, like a week before shooting.

And I never felt like, OK, I mean, the credits on that are absolutely fair. Even Spiliotopoulous and I really wrote that movie. He wrote it and I wrote it. Not together, but separately. That’s one I try to actually avoid. I’d rather just say I was never here. Nobody knew I was here. I do my two or three weeks. Or, I wrote it. You know? But, well, you live and learn.

John: Yeah. For sure. You know, the page-one rewrite generally comes up when it’s a project that the studio says, “We really do want to make this movie. This is just not the script to make this movie out of.” So it’s a big adaptation of some piece of property that they really want, or it’s a sequel. Those tend to be prime candidates for rewrites.

So, there’s a lot of Bruckheimer movies where they just page-one rewrite it a zillion times. And that’s a thing that happens and I try to avoid those. There are projects I can think of over the last few years where it was a page-one rewrite but it was basically like I had a completely different concept for how to take this existing property. And that was intriguing to me, so to me it felt like a new movie.

Craig: Right.

John: Certainly to the previous writers, it felt like a page-one rewrite. And both can be true at the same time.

I tend to only really look at the rewrites where it’s a movie that I would want to make anyway. So then, sure, I’ll go in and do it. Or, sometimes I’ll read something and like I really do have the pretty simple solutions to things. I can tell you exactly what’s not working here. I can tell you how to do it. And I’m so excited because this script is really good and I can fix these things that I think we all agree are the problems. Those are the times where you get to feel like, OK, I’m actually helping something.

Craig: Yeah.

John: A lot of times with these page-one rewrites I just don’t feel like I’m necessarily getting that much closer to them making a movie.

Craig: Well, yeah. I won’t take one of those unless I do feel like there’s a real chance. You know, that I have an excitement like it’s something new. And you’re right. It’s a bit like being handed a book. I mean, you don’t write the book but you’re asked to adapt the novel and you feel like you are the writer. Well, sometimes there is a book and also five scripts, which they’ve pushed aside. And they’re saying just go back to the book and start again. And then it feels sort of the same.

But I never want to take – I mean, Ted Elliott I remember once somebody asked him, we were on like a panel or something. And somebody said to him, “When people are offering you opportunities and movies that you can write or rewrite, what sort of movies are the ones that you want to write?” And he said, “Oh that’s easy. I want to write movies that they want to make.”

John: Yep.

Craig: And that’s kind of true. And sometimes you think I can make you want to make this. But that’s a harder circumstance than the normal one which is, “Oh, they want to make this. They really want to make this, so let’s see if I can be the last guy who gets the seat before the musical chairs song stops.” It’s risky.

John: I will tell you that as I do a mental survey of our screenwriting friends, the ones who are consistently employed but often the least happy are the ones who are doing a lot of those middles.

Craig: Yeah.

John: It’s the ones who are – they’re the fifth writer in on this project that has broken many other people before and will it break them? Probably. But they’ll pick themselves up and they’ll go on to the next thing. It’s a lucrative thing to be in that middle spot, but it’s not actually particularly enjoyable.

Craig: No.

John: So, at this moment I’m happy not to be doing a lot of those.

Craig: I agree with you. The one thing – let’s put money aside. Let’s say money is not the object. You don’t need a job at any particular moment. You’re lucky. And you have some choices. The one thing you want to avoid I think as a screenwriter is that gig where they’re clearly flailing around in the dark. And they’re hoping that somebody will give them something that excites them. They’re not already excited. Maybe you’ve got – they’re in a situation – there’s politics involved. There’s a property. A producer who controls something they need, a franchise, is also obsessed with developing this other thing. And so they’re letting the producer do it and they’re paying for development. They don’t necessarily really want it.

Or, there’s an actor who is attached to something. It’s a passion project. And they’re using that as bait to get the actor to do their franchise again. Those are scary. Because they will pay and you will work. And it will never satisfy. Because they don’t really want it.

John: What I will say is that as a young writer, some of those jobs were incredibly important to me, because they were a paycheck. And they were experience. They were a chance to sort of work in the system and figure it all out. So I don’t want to scare people away from those jobs early on. But you can’t only do those jobs because then you will never get a movie made.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And so that’s part of the calculation you’re doing. I always say my favorite genre of movie is the movie that gets made. So very similar to Ted Elliott’s. And I’m always doing a check on things saying like do I really think they’re going to make this movie. And based on where I think that is, I will make a calculation like this is the right project for me to hop on or not hop on. And that’s shifted over the course of my career.

Early on, I needed to grab on to any movie that was going to pay me, any script that was going to pay me because that was incredibly important, to get both the experience and to keep the lights on.

Craig: Without question. Yeah, when you’re starting out, my god, take the job. Always take the job. Because let’s say somebody comes to you. The screenwriting fairy comes to you at night and says, “They’re never going to make it.” That’s OK. You’re going to learn something from the project. You’re going to be a better writer. You’re going to go through the experience of dealing with notes and producers and studio executives, politics, whatever it is. It will make you stronger. The experience will make you stronger. Even if it is an entirely negative experience, then you have learned something to avoid. Either way, there is no I don’t think, short of being abused, which unfortunately can happen quite a bit – there is no cost to taking a job when you don’t have another job to do. And you don’t have something of your own that you are burning to write. And you need to keep paying your bills. And you need to keep yourself as a viable option. They have lists. And you’re on one. And there’s upward and downward mobility on the list. Far more than you would imagine.

So, working is good. If you’re lucky enough to get to a place where you can be picky, well, look, I think probably you and I are in the same boat in this regard. We can kind of steer our ships between the three happiest islands which is: production rewrites, which are short, weeklies; page ones, where we can feel like we own something and make it; or our own stuff.

John: Yeah. And I’ve been happy to be able to do my own stuff these past couple of years. But I also enjoy working on other people’s movies. And so when those opportunities come up that make sense, I will do those as well.

Craig: Yep.

John: Let’s go on to Lucas’s question. Lucas from Melbourne, Australia writes, “As we all know, scripts can change during production.”

Craig: What?!

John: “So if the film itself does not include specific dialogue that was in the original script, how much can we as authors hold on to legally? I know ideas cannot be owned, but I’m wondering if dialogue can be.”

Craig: Uh…maybe Lucas you’re asking this question because you live in Australia which doesn’t have work-for-hire the way we do in the United States. But here in the United States, we don’t own any of it anyway. We’ve signed over all of the copyright on our work to the studios. They own every word that’s in the film. Whether we wrote it or an actor ad-libbed it. We actually aren’t the technical authors of our screenplays. The studios are.

So, it’s not applicable to us.

John: No, I think he’s saying morally. I think he’s really asking the question of like I wrote this brilliant speech in this movie and then the script was shot and then for various reasons it never filmed. So basically in the third draft of the 19 drafts I did on this movie, there was this character who had this speech, or had this moment, or had this line of dialogue. Can I take that line of dialogue that never shot, that was never used–?

Craig: Oh, and reuse it?

John: To use that somewhere else? Can I use something from a previous thing?

Craig: Well, I was just – he said how much can we as authors hold on to that legally. So, I was taking him at his word. But I think you might be right. That really what he means is sort of morally legally. And the answer is you’re fine, I think.

John: I think you’re fine, too.

Craig: If it never got used, and the line itself is sort of multi-purpose, I don’t see a problem with that. I can’t imagine anybody calling you up and saying, hey, that line was in script three of 12 of a movie. They won’t remember. And even if they do, they don’t care. They chose not to use it. It doesn’t really have any value. I can’t imagine.

You know, the way that these work from a legal point of view is you’re always asking, well, who is the damaged party and how were they damaged. And in this case I don’t see how they were damaged at all, really.

John: Yeah. It’s a really hard case to be made for like, oh no, Paramount was planning on using that line of dialogue from that script in some other movie two years from now. That’s a very hard thing to accept. So, I think you’re OK.

And, the other way to think about it is let’s say that your movie did get made and that line of dialogue was in there. If it was a line of dialogue, it wouldn’t be illegal for another film to use that line of dialogue. It would be kind of crappy. It would be like lame for them to use it, but it wouldn’t be illegal for them to use that same line of dialogue.

So, you’re fine.

Craig: Well, it depends. It depends on how much.

John: A line of dialogue is not going to do it.

Craig: Probably not.

John: A whole speech could be a problem. But a line of dialogue, you’re fine.

Craig: Yeah. It’s one of those kind of know it when you see it things. But it would be a bizarre case to bring. I have never heard of it happening in all of my years. It’s not – by the way, it’s not particularly common anyway. There are some writers who will say, “Oh my god, I saved this line. I’m definitely using this and definitely using that.” And I always think like, yeah, or make a new one. You know. I mean, you can make new ones.

John: Yeah. It’s very easy to imagine that these are sort of Lego pieces that you can sort of put together and reassemble, but I would say that in my life I rarely had the chance over, you know, I don’t know, god, 70 scripts I’ve written to use anything from one thing in another thing. There have been times where I’ve had ideas for like an action sequence or like some way that an exchange can happen that move from like one movie to another movie. But that’s really, really rare.

Craig: Yeah. For me it is rare to the point of it has never happened. I don’t recognize that being a thing that I’ve done. But in any case I think, Lucas, you should be fine. I don’t really think there’s going to be an issue there.

John: I agree. All right. This last one is a question that came in and the question was so long that I decided that it would actually make a much better blog post. And so if you go to johnaugust.com or follow the link in the show notes you will see an article I wrote and it starts with a little preamble, but then it goes through this question by a writer named KB who is talking about this project that a mutual friend had pitched to her and her writing partner.

So, essentially this guy Patrick had come to this writing team with an idea, a premise for a TV show. And said like, “Hey, why don’t you guys go off and write that.” And so KB and her writing partner did that. They went through like six months of work. They brought it back to this guy Patrick but Patrick said, “No, I don’t really like it.” And it just sort of fizzled there.

But someone else did like the project and so it was starting to get some traction, starting to get some heat. And this Patrick guy said like, “Oh, OK, well no, I really do like it and I want 75% of whatever you make off of it,” which is just nuts. And it became a huge fight. There was no contract ever signed between Patrick and this writing team.

13 years later, this writing team still likes this project and wants to redevelop it and do it as an indie pilot and they wrote in asking for our advice. I gave them my advice. And, Craig, you read my advice, but I’d like to sort of talk through what you think about – first off, Patrick. Second off, best practices for dealing with writing teams/collaboration. This sort of early nascent situation.

And then maybe we can segue into talking about when do you dust off an old project and sort of try to bring it back to life.

Craig: Well, I would urge everyone to think of it like this. Hollywood has a very long history of negotiating these things between various interested parties. And over time there have been some best practices that have evolved. So, people that have ideas that then bring it to a writer generally are considered producers. Producers make their own deal, however they are attached to the project. The writers make a separate deal for the script, but they’re all associated through a chain of title.

This has all been kind of litigated over time. And even so, after all these decades, there are disputes. Now, you’re out there, you’re not in Hollywood, and some guy comes to you and you’re having a conversation at a coffee shop and you’re like, hey, we should do something together. You don’t have any history behind you. You have no best practices. You have no tradition, agents, lawyers, any of that. The odds of it going smoothly are essentially zero. You’re flying blind in a very, very dangerous situation. Collaboration is dangerous because ideas and expressions of ideas, it’s not like they’re physical objects you can carve up. There are no shares in the company.

And since no one has decided whose role is what and how much is you and how much is me. The potential for disaster is extraordinary. And we hear things like this. You and I hear these stories constantly. And it’s frustrating for us, but it’s also understandable. Because there’s a certain social contract when people start having a conversation and saying, “Oh, you know, I have this idea.” And someone is like, “Oh my god, I love that. What if blah-blah-blah. Ooh, that’s great.” And everybody is feeling good. They’re having a conversation.

It would be bizarre for somebody to say, “Hold on. Stop talking. Everyone stop talking. We need to get lawyers.” That would seem aggressive and weird.

It is, however, exactly what you have to do. otherwise, you end up in this spot where a guy like Patrick has wildly overestimated, at least based on this account, what his fair share and fair due is. And yet because there is no prior agreement, it’s all subject to disruption. And it is challenging in the best of circumstances to sell material to buyers. It is nearly impossible to do it when there is any kind of distressed attachment, challenge, legal problem.

John: So, let’s talk about when you introduce this idea of a contract or some sort of agreement. So, in the blog post I put a link into a surprisingly straightforward and standard collaboration agreement the WGA has available to download. So we’ll put that in the show notes as well. You can see what that looks like. And it’s the kind of collaboration agreement you might do with your writing partner if you are going to be co-writing something. And it feels like this Patrick guy, he was more than a producer, so maybe you fold him into this collaboration agreement as well.

But importantly it sort of spells out the terms of like who is doing what and what the splits are going to be. I think it also puts people on notice that like we’re taking this seriously. We really are going to discuss this, so Patrick can’t come back six months from now saying like, “Oh no, I should get 75%.”

Craig: Right.

John: This is no longer just a bunch like sitting around a table at a bar talking. This is like we’re going to actually try to write something. And so I think the time to introduce this kind of contract of this discussion is before anything gets written. Before anybody sits down to actually start saying like, “OK, let’s outline this. Let’s figure out what this all is.” That’s when you need to start doing this because you’re going to have a real problem before then. And so the minute it goes from just an oral conversation to words on paper, really break this out and start to look at it.

Craig: If you’re sitting there with your buddy and Patrick walks over and starts talking about this idea he has for a clothing store and you guys are like, oh my god, we’re designing clothing. And he’s like, “We should figure this out and we can open a clothing store and it will be a great clothing store.” You wouldn’t go, “Great. Let’s all start.”

No. No, no, no. That’s a business. Everybody would go, OK, let’s draw up a business plan. Let’s talk about how this is going to work. Terms of ownership and shares and collaboration. But when it comes to writing things, because the capital costs are essentially nothing, and there’s no barrier to starting, people leap. They leap before they look. All day long.

And you have to make a concerted effort to not be swayed by that zero entry, no barrier, no capital costs problem. And take that to mean, “So let’s just start.” You have to treat it like you are being asked to invest money, because in this case your time and effort is the equivalent.

John: I would 100% agree. And so I’m going to point you to this collaboration agreement. I can’t vouch that it’s the best collaboration agreement in the whole world. I will tell you that if I were in KB’s situation, I probably would not have hired a lawyer. I would have looked at something like this and probably have been pretty happy with this. And I think it probably would have dealt with most of KB’s situations. Again, I’m not a lawyer, but this is my best advice – this would have at least been a very good start into fixing the situation.

But what I found so fascinating about KB’s question is that this is 13 years later and now she’s looking at revisiting this. So, when I answered this on the blog I said, OK, there’s a chain of title problem here, because this guy came to you with some drawings and such. There is a chain of title issue here. He does own something. Clearly.

So if you try to make this without consulting him and you try to go to a festival, you try to sell this to somebody else, he’s going to come back in some way and it’s going to be terrible. So I said you’re going to have to bite the bullet, track him down on Facebook and say, “Let’s talk about what this is and sort of go through and find and an agreement that makes sense.” And if it doesn’t make sense, walk away, because it’s not worth trying to do this without him or do this with him too involved.

Your time is better spent doing other things. Do you agree with me on all that?

Craig: I do. You know, after all this time, you can always go to somebody and say, “Listen, we’re going to work on this, and we’ve been advised by attorneys that we’re free and clear to do so. That you have no copyright ownership of anything. However, we want to make sure that you’re attached as a producer. So here’s an agreement. You would be attached as a producer and you would be allowed to negotiate a fee should we set this up somewhere. But you have essentially quit claim on anything else.”

And then, you know, that guy has an opportunity to decide does he want a piece of something or 75% of nothing, because that’s the alternative. I mean, there are ways to do that sort of thing, but yes, you certainly don’t want to proceed and pretend that, oh, he won’t care. He will. He will.

John: He will care. He will find out and he will care. But let’s talk about the 13 years later of the whole thing, because my suspicion when I sort of looked into KB and why this project was coming back up is this seemed to be the only thing that was really getting attention out of all the stuff that she and her writing partner had done. And that might be why it was sort of coming back. And I want to dig into the psychology of trying to go back and pull up those old projects and make them happen versus writing something new.

And on the blog post I described it as being like a fashion thing. Like if you were a fashion designer and you made this amazing cape and people liked this cape, but it never sort of took off, it never really became a thing. 13 years later, if you look at that cape you designed, is this the time for that to break out into the world? Probably not. Fashions change. It’s unlikely that that cape is going to be the thing. You need to be designing for whatever fashion is right now. And my hunch is that whatever this thing was, it struck some zeitgeist moment right then 13 years ago. The odds that it’s going to strike the zeitgeist moment right now are small.

But I can understand why she might be attracted to going back to it because at least it had something. There was some heat. And there’s the nostalgia for like you remember what that felt like when we were younger and there was an excitement about what we were doing? I’d like to get that again. And I completely understand that, but I don’t think you’re going to get there by dusting off this old project.

Craig: We should do Scriptnotes capes.

John: Again, you thought there would be no other great ideas in this episode. You thought we should stop way back then, but Scriptnotes capes. Come on. It’s a writer’s cape.

Craig: Because, you know, when you sit down to write, what do you need? Well, you need a pads and pens, or you need your laptop. You need your cape. And a cup of coffee, really, I think.

John: Yeah. So next live show, any screenwriter, any guest who shows up with a cape I think gets some special reward. That person definitely gets a photo with me and Craig. There’s no question.

Craig: Oh, you’ll have to remind me. Because here is what’s going to happen. Somebody is going to walk up to us with a cape and go, “Check me out.” And I’m going to go, um, why are you wearing a cape? [laughs] And then you’re going to say, “Craig, do you remember…?” And then I’ll say, nope, but OK, let’s take the picture with the cape.

Yes, you are correct about this. There is a sense memory of the what-if. And the thrill of the anything is possible. The most exciting script in the world is the one you’re about to write. The least exciting script is the one you’re on page 80 of. And so it’s only natural to still carry this torch, the way that we can look back on our lives and think of a boy or think of a girl and say, “Oh, you know, there was a chance there and I went this way and they went that way. What if, what if, what if?”

Well, what if is, you know, maybe you would have had one or two terrific weeks and then, oh god. And then you would have never thought about them again. So, you have to put it in its proper psychological perspective. That said, if you’re in a meeting and a lot of times what a producer or studio executive will say to you is, “We really like what you’ve done here, and we like what you’ve done there. Do you have anything in your drawer?” They love to say that.

Again, they’re grasping for straws. They’re hoping for a magic bullet so that you go, yes, I have this Matrix trilogy in my drawer. Would you be interested in this? I forgot it was there.

Yeah, it doesn’t really happen. But it is fair for you to say, “You know, there was this thing, and we’re going to tell you what it is, but we’re also going to tell you right up front there’s this guy out there who feels like he owns a piece of it. But we’ll tell you what this is, and if you love it, well then you can deal with that guy.”

So now it’s all open, you know, in the air. And if they really do love it, and they want it, they’ll go find him. They’ll go make him go away. They’ll make him go away with money. Or they’ll make him go away legally. Whatever it is, it’s now their problem. And they’re so much better at it than we are.

So, that’s always a possibility. And at the very least then you’re not writing it in a vacuum. Someone is saying, yes, I want that. That would be nice.

John: That would be wonderful. Every once and a while I will hear a story of a screenwriter whose long lost project got made. So something that he wrote ten years ago. Actually, I was thinking, Damien Chazelle who did Whiplash, but then he did La La Land, I guess he had written La La Land many years before and then, of course, he got the chance to make it and it was terrific. So, you will hear that story of like, oh, that great thing that they wrote back then which they now got a chance to make and it’s fantastic. And everyone was a fool for passing on it back then.

I love those stories, but I also worry that the prevalence of those stories creates a false expectation about how common that really is. Because if I look through the things I wrote in my earlier days, or even ten years ago that haven’t gotten made, there’s generally a reason why those didn’t get made. And there’s very few of those that I really want to dust off and say like, OK, I’m going to spend all my time and energy trying to get this thing back up the hill to try to make it a movie. There generally was a problem or it just didn’t come together right. And I’ve usually felt that my time is better spent looking forward and writing the next great thing than the last great thing.

That’s not to say like, you know, on a phone call with an agent, like every couple months, I will check in with them about those sort of zombie projects. And I bet you have some of those, too, Craig.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Where it exists someplace. And a director could go on. Something could happen. And it’s still technically in development at the studio, but I just don’t know what’s going on with that. There’s no forward movement. And I could try to push that thing forward, but my history has shown that I’m not especially good at pushing that thing forward. So there are just some zombie projects out there that I kind of can’t do anything with.

Craig: Yeah. I have one of those for sure. And I just don’t think about it. I just don’t think. Maybe one day something will. Maybe something won’t. It’s just no sense in thinking about it. If they hired somebody else to work on it, then I would think, oh, OK, now I’m going to think about it.

But they haven’t, so it’s just there. There’s no point. And you’re absolutely right that we only tell stories of exceptions. We’re only interested in the notable. But by definition that means it’s rare. So it is notable and exciting and rare to hear about somebody’s ten-year-old script suddenly being reborn. And it is notable and rare because it is notable and rare. You certainly don’t want to rely on that. Almost always, it doesn’t happen. And we don’t tell those stories because they’re boring.

John: There’s a lot of silent evidence of all those projects that did not get reborn that are still sitting on shelves. And that’s most of what’s out there. It’s the dark matter of screenwriting.

Craig: I want to say that, because I’m a little hung up on Patrick. And I hear this a lot. These people have these crazy ideas about what they deserve. So here’s a little rule of thumb for you guys, when you’re sitting at the coffee shop with somebody. It’s real simple. If somebody brings you an idea – art work, a poem – anything that isn’t written, non-words on a page, but rather spoken or graphics, that’s great and that’s good. They’re a producer now. Either they are going to be writing or not. Writing is what the writers do. So the rights to the screenplay, the story and the screenplay, belong to the people writing them.

Now, that person then is attached as a producer because they have given you something of value and they deserve something of value in return. And that’s fine. But, when someone says, “OK, and then I get 75% of everything.” No. When it comes to the money that’s given to the people that wrote the script – or let’s forget that. The money that’s given for the script specifically, you get zero percent of that. Because you didn’t do it. It’s that simple.

So, you can say to somebody, OK, if you want to write the story with us, all three of us are going to work on the story together, then that means you’re writing it with us. We write a document that is a prose story of what a screenplay is going to be. Then we’ll go write the screenplay and the screenplay will say Story by the three of us, Screenplay by da-da-da. And then that money is divided in a very simple way, per the basic residual formula of the Writers Guild. That whatever money is given for that script, 75% of it goes to the people that wrote the screenplay, and 25% of it goes to the people that wrote the story, divided amongst each other equally.

Then if you want to get money, you deserve money for being a producer because they have to pay you as a producer, you negotiate that. And you know what we get of that? Zero. That’s how it works. That’s the way you should do it. Anybody that’s like I want 75% of stuff is, A, an idiot, and B, greedy.

John: I would also say that in Los Angeles, a special note for you will meet many, many actors in Los Angeles. And some of those actors are incredibly talented and you might say like, “Oh you know what? I want to write something for that actor.” Or that actor might come to you and say like, “Hey, write me something. It will be really fun.”

Maybe that’s a good idea. Maybe that person really is talented and really has a great shot. But, do what Craig says. If that person is going to write the story with you, then write up the story document with that person. And then in your deal make it clear that you are writing the screenplay and it will be Story by Actor and you, Screenplay by you. That’s all great and good. But just like the person who is showing up with a bunch of drawings for a premise, the actor is showing up with a premise. “It’s me, but in a comedy.” Don’t give them all your power, because you are the person who is actually writing the thing.

Craig: Seriously. And this is why Patrick drives me crazy, because first of all maybe he can make an argument he’s supplying story material. He’s flipped the percentages, so instead of 25/75, he’s decided it’s 75/25. He’s also asking for all of that. It’s parasitical and it’s insulting to what is required to write something. It’s ridiculous. It’s as dumb as a screenwriter saying, “Also, I want 75% of what the director makes, because I gave them the script.” What? No. They’re doing a different job.

John: Yep.

Craig: Ugh, Patrick. You know what, Patrick, it’s not his real name, is it?

John: I don’t think it’s his real name.

Craig: I wonder what his real name is. It’s probably Steve.

John: It probably is Steve. Damn Steve.

Craig: Steve. What a jerk.

John: Yeah. Jerk. Steve does not get a cape.

Craig: No.

John: All right. It is time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a great essay that I was turned onto by Tess Morris. Tess Morris, friend of the show. Oh, I’m so excited to be back in Los Angeles soon to see Tess Morris.

Craig: Ray of sunshine.

John: She is wonderful. It is this great essay by Rebecca Solnit called The Loneliness of Donald Trump on the Corrosive Privilege of the Most Mocked Man in the World. You know what? People have written so much about Trump that it feels ridiculous to sort of write anything new about him, but man, Rebecca Solnit just does it. It’s a really great character study of what it must feel like to be him and to have had this kind of privilege and to have everyone kissing your ass sort of your entire life, and just be completely rudderless.

There’s a metaphor she uses where it’s as if all the compasses point north in whatever direction you tell it to point north. Basically you have just no way of knowing how the world functions. And there’s essentially an isolation, a loneliness that happens behind that. So, it was great writing. I took some solace in the reassurance that our president is probably miserable. And I just encourage everyone to read it.

Even if you love Donald Trump, I think you will find it a fascinating character study, because it makes you feel like, oh, there really is a great character there. I just wish he were not running our country.

Craig: Yeah. It was. I also read it. It was also just very well-written.

John: She’s a terrific writer.

Craig: She did a great job. So excellent choice there. My One Cool Thing is a fun game. I want to say it’s on the iPad and iPhone, but I play it on the iPad, of course.

And it’s called Faraway Puzzle Escape, which is a terrible generic name. There’s like a billion puzzle escape/escape room games. They’re mostly horrendous. This one is terrific. It’s beautiful. Faraway is one word, which makes me itch, but fine. It’s very Myst like in its vibe, but much simpler. And it is executive summary I think there are 18 levels. And you are proceeding from the start point to an end point. And each one works the same way. I have to get from here to this gate. I have to stick a thing into the gate. There’s a portal, I move onto the next level.

But the way in which you manage to get that piece and get through the thing involves puzzles that play on all sorts of interesting, very abstract things. And then there’s this bizarre meta game that you can also play once you finish the whole thing by collecting all these notes you found along the way.

It’s very good. It’s really well done. And I found it remarkably diverting. So, I strongly recommend Faraway Puzzle Escape. It is premium, I think the deal is like a bunch of levels are free and then you have to pay, plus there are a bunch of ads running. Or pay the $4. There’s no ads. And you can play all the levels and be cool.

John: Pay the $4.

Craig: Pay the $4.

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

We are on Facebook. Just search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes there. While you’re there, leave us a review. That is terrific.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. And you can look for back episodes of the show at Scriptnotes.net.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Craig, thank you very much for a fun episode.

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

John: Bye.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 302: Let’s Make Some Oscar Bait — Transcript

Sun, 06/25/2017 - 10:21

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

Craig Mazin: Hi, my name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 302 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show, it’s another round of How Would This Be a Movie, where we try to figure out how to adapt three stories in the news. Only this time we don’t want to just make a movie. We want to make our parents proud and enemies jealous by bringing home a shiny gold Oscar.

So, we’ll be aiming high with these adaptations.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Plus we’ll be answering–

Craig: I mean, I’m always looking for that Oscar. You know, I’ve come so close so many times.

John: Time and time again. So, this will be the one that finally does it for Craig.

Craig: Yeah.

John: After that we’ll be answering a listener question about why the hell the AMPTP can do what it does.

Craig: Well. Got a good answer for that. At least we have an answer.

John: There’s an answer. One of those rare things where’s actually just an answer.

Craig: Concrete answer.

John: We have some news and some follow up. So, the WGA deal was ratified by the membership. 99.2% of members approved the deal. That’s a good figure. Very close to 100%.

Craig: I want to meet, something like 18 people voted no, I think. I would love to meet them. Just kind of curious.

John: Yeah. So, we had promised that there will be an episode with Craig Keyser where we’ll talk through the deal and sort of everything in the landscape of the deal. And so we are still trying to schedule a time for that. So, there’s people traveling, but at some point we will him on to talk through what’s in that deal, what’s not in that deal, and sort of where things are in the process of us and the studios and film and television.

Craig: Yeah. And he is coming on. We’re just trying to figure this out between everyone’s vacation and all that.

John: Cool. Last month we actually crossed a milestone, but I didn’t notice it because I don’t often check the stats. But Scriptnotes crossed its 10 millionth download.

Craig: Whoa.

John: In its lifetime, which is just such a huge number.

Craig: That’s kind of insane. So, you’re saying that the show has been downloaded ten million times?

John: Yes. And that’s only since we moved over to Libsyn. So the earliest 50 or so episodes or even more than that weren’t on Libsyn. So since the point where we’ve had good statistics, it’s been 10 million, which is great. So–

Craig: God. I’m losing so much money.

John: Well, and things that used to cost us money, like each download used to cost us a lot of money, which is part of why we moved over to Libsyn, and now we don’t have to pay for that. So, that’s great.

Craig: Oh, so wait, so if we don’t have to pay for that, then am I finally making money again?

John: I think you’re making as much money as anyone is making on this.

Craig: D’oh. That’s still zero.

John: Sorry. But thank you to all of the people who are our premium subscribers, because you guys are fantastic and you help pay for things like Matthew who edits the show, and Godwin who produces the show, and all the other stuff around it. So, thank you for that. And our transcripts, which are one of our biggest expenses.

Craig: Yeah. That is awesome. We do appreciate that very much. So, John, let me ask you this question then. Because I know downloads are a bit like hits in that they’re slightly misleading. How many people – is there a way to know how many people listen to this show?

John: That’s actually one of the interesting challenges of podcasting, because it’s kind of a black box. So, podcasting works under a system called RSS. Basically syndicated – it’s an XML file that gets passed around. But basically you’re tracking downloads, but you don’t know a lot more information about that other than just like the file was downloaded and sort of the general things you figure out, like where it was downloaded. But you can’t tell when it was played.

And so right now there’s a movement amongst some of the providers to be able to provide much more granular data so they can sell ads against it. Basically they just want to know where stuff is.

So like Spotify has some premium things where they can tell you exactly who listened and who skipped the commercials and that kind of stuff. Midroll bought Stitcher, or Stitcher bought Midroll. They combined. So there’s changes happening in the podcasting world. And including Apple itself. So we’re not supposed to call it the iTunes Store. You’re supposed to call it Apple Podcasts. So, we ask for people to leave a review on Apple Podcasts now. And there’s talk that there will be some new stuff happening probably around WWDC with how podcasts work for Apple as well.

Craig: Well, as long as I continue to get ripped off, I don’t care. I just like to know the tune to which I’m being ripped off.

John: You know what else you won’t be making money from is Cotton Bureau sent an email saying that they’re going to print more of our t-shirts. So they’re going to print more of the blue t-shirts. If you are a Scriptnotes listener who does not have one of the softest t-shirts ever made–

Craig: Yeah, they’re soft.

John: They’re so soft. The blue Scriptnotes t-shirts are back up for sale at Cotton Bureau. So just go to Cotton Bureau and get yourself one of those. They’ll be up until June 8. And that will be the last day you can order one of those.

Craig: Those are good shirts. You should get one.

John: They’re good shirts.

Some news from WGA. So I got this email and I emailed her to ask if it’s okay to share with other people and she said sure. So, they’re doing a first-time staff writer boot camp for all people who are new staff writers on TV shows. It’s a one-day boot camp, which sounds like a really good idea, sort of talking you through the crash course and how to be a staff writer. What it’s like being in the writers’ room. Best practices. It’s a good idea. So, Saturday June 17, at the WGA. If you are first-time staff writer on a TV show, you can write into tvdigital@wga.org with BOOT CAMP in the subject line. You need to include in the message what the show is and who your showrunner is. Because they really will be confirming that it’s a WGA show and that you are staffed on that show.

Craig: Great. That’s an excellent thing. And anyone who is starting out should be grasping for any bit of driftwood in the water that they find. This a particularly good bit of driftwood to cling onto. I suspect that the people that are going to be teaching it will have been there before.

John: Yes.

Craig: Always a good service. I love that sort of educational effort from the WGA.

John: In the spirit of education and correction and making things correct in our podcast, last week I said the seed vault had flooded. It turns out the seed vault has not flooded and the seed vault is actually in much better shape than had previously been reported.

So, there’s been sort of a seepage, but the seeds themselves are fine.

Craig: Well it seems like if the seed vault is okay, we ought to get back to the busy work of destroying seeds left and right.

John: Absolutely. Because we got it back up there.

Craig: There’s nothing to worry about anymore. Let’s go burn some seeds.

John: [laughs] Or put them on delicious buns, because you never know what seeds – like poppy seeds are delicious. Let’s try all the seeds and see what you can make out of them. Or like a tahini. Grind up some seeds.

Craig: I don’t like tahini.

John: I love tahini. The little tahini made into a hummus? Come on, it’s the best.

Craig: See, hummus to me is hummus. That’s chickpeas. I’m down. I’m all over that.

John: But you can’t make hummus without tahini. Tahini is a crucial ingredient in hummus.

Craig: Yeah, I know. But it’s like a little bit of it. It’s not all of it.

John: Yeah. I get it. Finally, last bit of follow up. It’s also a good segue. Another one of our How Would This Be a Movie is being made into a movie, or at least being optioned as a property. So Universal bought the rights to the New York Times column You May Want to Marry My Husband, written by the late author Amy Krouse Rosenthal. So it was a bidding war between Paramount, Sony, Netflix, Studio 8, and Universal. And so it was Mark Platt, a very seasoned producer at Universal, whose credits include Legally Blonde, and La La Land, and Craig has worked with him. So he is going to be a person shepherding this project into the world. So no writers announced yet, but it looks like there will be a movie version of that story at some point.

Craig: Yeah. You know what? I’m really interested to see how this all works out. You and I both saw the opportunities in that piece, but I think we also recognized that there were real challenges to it. I’m currently developing a movie with Mark. It’s a musical, so it’s totally off the beaten path of this. But he’s a very prolific producer and if anyone can get this one made, I think it would be him for sure.

What is remarkable is how many people went after it. Sometimes I think that there are ideas that are harder to turn into a movie than people realize. But they have a certain immediate grabbiness that makes everybody want them.

John: Yep.

Craig: And then there’s that flip side movie where there’s nothing shiny or loud about something, but somebody just finds it in a pile and goes, “Oh my god, this is gold.” It’s interesting. I think this is one of those pieces that is going to be much harder to do than you might think. But that’s not to say that it cannot be done. It’s just going to require quite a bit of skill.

John: I agree with you. Let’s take a look at three new stories in the news and figure out which ones of those could become a movie. One of these I think has that shiny quality which everyone will chase. The other two maybe not so much, but I think there’s interesting movies to be made out of here.

The three articles we picked this week, the first one is written by Alec MacGillis, who is writing for ProPublica. Was also published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, so everybody read it. This is The Beleaguered Tenants of Kushnerville. So I’ll give you a little bit of a synopsis of this. The story follows these housing developments where there’s 20,000 people living in them in sort of the Baltimore area, but there’s other developments across mostly the eastern seaboard. They were generally owned and managed by different firms. But the firms fell on hard times and this one company started buying them up and started managing them.

And people who lived in these units would often get out of their lease. They’d go on and do different things. The reporter follows some of these people who were then sued by the people who bought out these different apartment complexes. And were sued sometimes for really small amounts of money, but they were just really dogged in sort of going after them.

The apartment complexes themselves, there’s in some cases black mold. There’s bad maintenance. There’s a lot of things you could consider being the bad landlord kind of story. The fascinating twist on this is that the bad landlord, the person behind JK2 trust is…

Craig: Jared Kushner. The presidential son-in-law and I believe current architect of a lasting peace in the Middle East.

John: Yes. So, a busy person. But this was sort of a fascinating escalation of sort of what could be a very normal sort of situation of class and race and real estate. But this sort of bumps it up a notch. So, Craig, what are you thinking of this as a movie and how would we even get into this as a movie? What kind of movie would you see making out of this story?

Craig: Well, we have some real opportunities. We have a wide variety of people, because these apartment complexes are enormous. And inevitably there are going to be some people who move out, do nothing wrong. I mean, there’s a number of instances cited here where people followed the rules but either the paperwork was lost, or a mistake was made when money was moved from one account to another. And then Jared Kushner’s company pursues these people doggedly and tenaciously and ultimately cruelly and unfairly to extract money from them, even going so far as to garnish their wages, which means that essentially a court gets between you and your paycheck, takes that amount of money out that you owe somebody, and then gives you the rest.

So you have lots of different kinds of tenants. That’s exciting. You have single moms. You have black tenants. You have white tenants. You have some tenants who are Trump supporters who then find out that it’s Jared Kushner that’s doing this to them. So good opportunity there.

But it seems to me that the only efficient way in is a way that gives you an efficient way out. That requires some kind of funneling through a character. And if ever a movie were asking for the Erin Brockovich treatment, or the A Civil Action treatment, it’s this one. Somebody has to get a case and then go about that case, even if they’re not a lawyer or a private detective. They’re just somebody who is going to help do one little thing and they start pulling on a thread that begins to unravel this thing and go all the way up to somebody in the White House.

However, because it’s somebody in the White House, we have to kind of either wait for a news resolution to this story, or fictionalize who is actually in charge.

John: Yeah. So I agree that there needs to be a center point of focus. With something like Erin Brockovich, it’s an outsider who comes in, because Erin Brockovich is not directly involved with the water stuff until she becomes involved with general case work. I think it’s more fascinating if it’s one of these – if you could sort of take one of the characters who is living at that complex. We have a lot of names of people and they’re all great, but I think it may be a new person that you’re creating who is living there, basically has all the paperwork. They just picked the wrong person and she’s the one who said like, “This is not fair. This is not right. I actually have the paperwork. You cannot do this to me.” And she just keeps challenging them and ultimately uncovers, oh, you know who actually owns this, it is the president’s son-in-law. That feels like the natural way up through that.

And it would be great to have somebody who is inside it so that it doesn’t just feel like this weird way of the outsider comes in and saves everybody. That, to me, feels like the frustrating thing.

The other movie that struck me as being a good way into look at this is The Big Short. Because The Big Short was able to take a bunch of different characters looking at the same situation and see it from their different points of view. And so there’s complicated finance things to explain which some complicated finance people could explain to us, but there’s also all the dealings on the ground and then there’s the dealings in the White House or sort of the bigger legislative issues happening.

Craig: It’s a little tough to apply that to this because it doesn’t – this story doesn’t quite have the global impact or the cliffhanger nature of that event. It doesn’t have a major market crash. It doesn’t have mad geniuses pushing their crazy theories against conventional wisdom to be proven wrong and then to be proven right. But, I like your idea of maybe having our savior come from within.

I do always think about relationships. What is the relationship we will care about in a movie like this? And there is something really interesting – the bit that sort of jumped at me was this one guy is a Trump voter and he’s complaining about the state of affairs in this apartment building and how he’s been screwed over and his apartment is neglected. And the company treats him unfairly and everybody unfairly. And he’s told that the landlord is Jared Kushner and he goes, “Oh. Really? Like they don’t have enough money?”

And it’s a fascinating moment. Fascinating in part because these buildings, specifically where these – the Baltimore buildings are in this interesting transitional Exurb – it’s not quite suburb, you know – where you have poor black people and poor white people. A lot of people getting Section 8, which is federal support for housing. And I can see a situation where one tenant starts a crusade and tries to find help among her fellow tenants to essentially fight back.

And she encounters this guy. And they are completely different on paper and yet also if you take away race and politics exactly the same on paper. They have the same class and they have the same place and they have the same power status. And there is a relationship between the two of them. It doesn’t have to be romantic, although why not. But a relationship where the two of them change and become something together.

There is something exciting about watching people without power not only fight the power, but stop fighting each other. I think that sometimes is the most uplifting part of this. So, I think I would probably come at it from there. All that said, probably this is not going to be turned into a movie.

John: I would never say never, because there’s certainly a smart way to do it and the right filmmaker could find a way to do it. There’s also potentially – there’s The Wire. There’s the series version of this which could be really fascinating, too. Where you basically are examining this community from different sides. And you’re sort of looking at it from different perspectives. But going back to what is that fundamental relationship is you’re hitting on a key thing, because whether there’s romantic conflict or just straight on conflict, you don’t just want your protagonist going up against this sort of faceless entity or Jared Kushner, who is not going to be a person you’re going to be able to see directly.

You need to have somebody who is right there in his or her life who most of the conversations are going to be going with. So, think of Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures. And so she’s clearly your central protagonist character, but she’s surrounded by people who are interesting who are challenging her in interesting ways. So they’re her friends, but there’s also Kevin Costner’s character. There’s the Sheldon character. There’s other people around her who can be foils for her for her next step. And that may be the kind of thing you need to be trying to build out early on in the story figuring out who is it that she’s not going to just talk to, but who is going to challenge her to make it to that next step.

Because it can’t just be like the next judge, the next thing. That’s not going to be interesting.

Craig: Right.

John: Erin Brockovich, you have her boss. And even though they’re on the same side, they have to be able to butt heads.

Craig: They have to be. And I think that this is a mistake that I encounter constantly in screenplays from new writers. They miss this big part where we really do experience narrative through the lens of relationships. It’s how we’re programmed as humans and it’s certainly how we’re programmed as movie goers and television watchers. We need it.

We don’t really feel – this is something that Lindsay Doran has talked about a number of times, including at Ted. The ends of movies are – what we feel at the end of a movie is not elation at something having had happened. We feel elation with a relationship experiencing joy in something having happened. And so it’s easy to just forget that part and write about somebody fighting the court. And that’s about justice. And that’s about what’s right and what’s wrong. These are moral things. You’d think they’d be enough. They are not. Even remotely enough.

John: It’s not emotionally satisfying. That’s why Star Wars doesn’t end with blowing up the Death Star. It ends with everyone being together and getting their medals. Which seems like, oh, you could just cut that scene. But, no, you can’t cut that scene because then it’s not Star Wars. You haven’t paid off the emotional arc of what those characters have gone through. And that’s the kind of thing you’d be finding for this movie is like what have the characters been able to achieve together and what does that look between those central characters at the end of this story? And that’s what you’re trying to build to.

Craig: Yeah. You get to this exciting courtroom conclusion and if it’s just legal fireworks, then it’s contextless. It doesn’t matter to us. It’s not within the confines of a relationship. Whereas when Luke blows up the Death Star, he’s doing it because he’s talking to his key relationship and he’s finally getting the lesson. When Tom Cruise lights up Jack Nicholson on the stand in A Few Good Men, we understand that that is the culmination of a character choice to finally stop playing it safe and be more like the man his dad was, which in turn is a response to the challenge he’s received from Demi Moore’s character. It’s all about the relationships. It’s not about the legal stuff. Otherwise, well, okay, yep, you got him there. You know? It’s just not as interesting.

John: That’s why this is a fascinating article because of the things it provokes, but you’re basically adding all new characters and all new character dynamics to tell this story. So someone comes to you with this, you can say like, okay, that’s a fascinating backdrop, but almost everything you’re going to be inventing wholesale to find a way to get at these things.

One of the most fascinating questions that the article asks and never really finds a great answer for is why is this firm so doggedly pursuing things that cannot really be profitable for them to pursue. They’ll go after these $5,000 bills and their legal fees are clearly much higher than that to go after them. And so one of the theories is that they do it just basically to intimidate everybody else who is currently in the building from trying to leave or from trying to raise any kind of a fuss because it will just get around that, no, no, they will sue you and they will never stop suing you.

I just finished rereading 1984 and there’s a long section at the end where Winston, your protagonist, is wondering like why are you doing this to me. You’ve already won. Why is it important to you that I completely surrender, because you could just kill me? And that’s actually the point of the end of 1984 is it has to sort of break you of that. And it seems like such a strange drive from the other side. And a movie could hopefully find a meaningful answer for that in the course of the story.

Craig: And this is where the story boils my blood, because it’s true. And because essentially this corporation is being punitive and bullying and somewhat sadistically so. And Jared Kushner should be held responsible. And I can only imagine, and this is where journalism can really work wonders, that these poor people – not figuratively poor, literally poor people – who cannot afford lawyers are about to get some. I can’t imagine there aren’t at least a few large firms who are looking at this going pro bono, let’s do this class action.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I mean, it’s just outrageous. And maybe then that could – that might give you the ending you want. But we have like kind of an interesting opposite sort of situation with this next story. And I assume that this is the one you were saying is flashy/blingy for studios. I can only imagine – I mean, this is My Family’s Slave, written by the late Alex Tizon, who is writing for The Atlantic. If this hasn’t been optioned already I would be shocked. Shall I give a little summary?

John: Absolutely. And if you’ve listened to any other cultural podcast for the last two weeks, you’ve heard this discussed, because it’s been the focus of a lot of conversation.

Craig: Yeah. This is a fascinating one. So, Alex Tizon was a Filipino-American and when his parents come from the Philippines they brought along a woman names Lola who Alex’s grandfather had essentially given to his mother as a slave. It’s interesting how long it takes him in his life to realize that she’s a slave. She is always with them. She is their domestic. She is their cook and their nanny and their maid. She doesn’t get paid. She has a little space, but sometimes she just falls asleep in the corner with the laundry. Both of Alex’s parents are fairly abusive to her. The mother, in particular, has a very complicated relationship with her, in which she’s not only abusive but seemingly also jealous of the relationship that Lola has with the children, including Alex.

And eventually after Alex’s parents die, he takes Lola to come live with him, but of course not as a slave, just to give her a place to live and give her freedom and take care of her. And even so, she is not really able to do so and keeps sort of working because that’s the life she knows. And yet there’s this profound sadness with her. She never knows love. She never has sex. She never learns to drive. She never really lives independently whatsoever. And is permanently estranged from her family back home. And eventually she passes away and in a quite beautiful moment Alex brings her ashes back to her village where she is from and gives her back to her family.

But this story does not take place in the 1700s or 1800s. Quite obviously, it takes place in the ‘70s, and ‘80s, and ‘90s.

John: Yeah. It’s a fascinating story and unlike the first story which is all abstract, sort of like big picture things, this is nothing but characters. It’s all characters here. And so I think the reason why this is such catnip is because it’s a way of exploring our relationships with the people who work with us, work for us, and the sense of what is slavery. What does it mean to have somebody be working for you but not being paid? It’s all so relevant and the characters are so interesting and compelling.

The most fundamental question though is when do you start. When do you start telling this story? Because do you start telling the story when Lola is essentially given to the mother, so she’s 12 years old. Do you start the story then, back in the Philippines, and you sort of meet the crazy grandfather who is abusive, who beats Lola for something that the mother does? Or do you start it later on? Do you start it in the US with this kid who has this nanny he loves and eventually starts to realize, oh wait, she actually is not getting paid – this is sort of the family secret.

It’s a fundamentally different movie based on when you start it. Do you start it with Alex being in the story, or do you start it back in the Philippines and come to the US?

Craig: It’s a real challenge. This is the perfect example of a very shiny property that will pose an enormous amount of problems as you try and turn it into a movie. And, again, my question – it’s always my first question – what’s the relationship that we care about?

It seems here that the greatest potential of a lasting relationship that we can care about and find joy in is the relationship between Lola and Alex. She is his slave, too, even though he’s a child. And then later an adult. But she loves him clearly. And he loves her, clearly. And, in fact, a lot of the dissatisfaction and conflict he has with his own mother is because she mistreats Lola and because frankly he loves Lola more than he loves his own mother. There’s stuff there.

Now, this is a minefield because we have seen this movie before. We have seen the kind of movie where someone finally realizes that they have been taking advantage of and oppressing another person whom they love. And so they set them free, thus becoming the hero of the story when really they’re not. They’re just kind of correcting something that’s horribly wrong. And we’re meant to experience their kind of enlightenment as a positive, but ultimately for the slave there is really no happy ending.

So we’ve seen that. It’s a challenge to avoid that narrative here because there is no great change for Lola. There is really only the sadness of an unfulfilled broken life.

John: Yeah. One of the real challenges here, in the bad version of the story Lola is nothing but an object. She’s just something who is looked at but never sort of explored internally. And I think that is the real danger here is that you’re not getting inside what her drives are. Because they’re actually complicated. And Tizon does single out some moments where she kind of can’t leave, she doesn’t want to leave. She loves the kids. But she also wants to go back. She realizes that she has not ability to sort of function here and she’s scared what’s going to happen if she rocks the boat at all.

I wonder if the fundamental relationship is essentially a love triangle. It’s a love triangle between Alex, his mom, and Lola. And the very complicated thing between the three of them, because Alex loves his mom and he loves Lola, but it’s very hard to fit all that together. Like the mother is horrible to Lola and yet also needs Lola. And Lola needs to be needed. It’s messed up in really fascinating ways. To me, that feels like the crux of all this is the pull between these three people.

I mean, usually as an audience, we would probably sit with Alex because it’s the most comfortable place to come into the story. But I wouldn’t want to limit the POV to only Alex’s point of view because then I think we’re not going to really understand what the mother is going through and what Lola is going through.

Because if you look at the story from the mother’s point of view, she’s like look how hard I had it here. I came to the US. We had nothing. I worked three jobs. If I didn’t have this nanny, how would I do this? How would I provide for my family? She’s panicked at every moment. She wants the best for her kids. And Lola’s health and happiness can’t be anywhere on her priorities. I think it’s a fascinating story to look at where you have some sympathy for where the mother is.

Craig: Yeah. And then you don’t, because–

John: Then you don’t, yeah.

Craig: I mean, ultimately she didn’t have to be cruel. And the problem with the relationships there is that ultimately the stakes of those relationships which come down to “am I loved, who do I love, is it wrong to love you, is it wrong to not love you” all pare in comparison to the stakes of “I’m a slave.” It’s hard for me to–

John: Okay, and here’s the thing. You don’t want to slide into moral relativism or to – we could also post links to some good threads on people’s criticisms of the piece and support of the piece talking about sort of you don’t want to justify it based on like, oh, this is actually common in Filipino culture or like you’re misunderstanding what some of these things are. But I think there’s a universal aspect to this which I definitely felt where a person in Los Angeles who has a Latina nanny, like that is a complicated relationship. That person is being paid. But is that person living their best life? Are they living the dream that they had hoped to live? Well, they’re certainly in a better position than Lola, but it’s still complicated.

Craig: It is. Yes.

John: Here’s another complication. Imagine Lola was a relative. Imagine Lola was a niece or a spinster aunt who was basically in the same situation. Well, is that slavery? Well, technically I guess it sort of is. But that’s actually much more commonly accepted. Like a relative you are not paying. That’s sort of natural. It’s almost in a weird way that she was shanghaied into being part of this family with no choice of escaping.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, there is a genre where people explore the nanny relationship. It goes way back. Mary Poppins was a nanny. And then in The Help you had a nanny. And in the modern phenomenon of the Latina nanny in Los Angeles and the Jamaican nanny in New York. But they’re paid. That is a job. And you can talk about the nuances of class and love and race, but at the very least there is a basic dignity that they are paid and they are free to leave.

This girl is not even sold. She’s just given. She’s just taken and given and separated from her family. Not allowed to go back. She’s never taught to read. They deprive her of an education. It is hard to look past the fact that she is essentially imprisoned and indentured and is owned. And has no free will. And that, to me, trumps all of the other possible concerns. And it’s very heartbreaking. The saddest thing in the world is an animal that is so used to being in a cage that when you open the cage door it doesn’t even understand that it can walk out.

And when you see that in a human being, and you see that, people have spent a long time in prison. Notoriously have really hard times when they leave because the freedom is overwhelming to them. Well, she’s never even – she can’t even have the freedom when she gets the freedom, because she has been essentially – she’s been broken. And it’s hard for me to look past any of that. It overwhelms everything.

This will require a very, very deft touch. And, I do think whoever writes this should be familiar with this culture, because I think nuance is going to be really important here. And this is a very interesting take on slavery. We have a lot of experience with culture investigating slavery in the United States. But we had a very specific slavery of African people. This is a different kind of slavery. And it’s a different kind of culture. It would take a deft hand and a very knowledgeable hand.

John: Agreed. I think one of the crucial choices to make sort of going back to, you know, when do you start the story. If you came into the story not knowing that she was essentially indentured at 12 years old things change a lot. If you believe that she actually came into this at 18 or at 20, that it was a choice, and like that things didn’t go well, it definitely shifts how you perceive this story. So, if you start the story when she’s 12, I’m going to have a very hard time ever becoming sympathetic to the mother.

Unless, and this is again very tricky, but the mother is a child as well. And if the mother as a child just cannot fundamentally understand that this girl is being forced here against her will, then maybe you’ve got something. But it’s really tough.

Craig: I mean, there is a version of this with a slightly amended ending where you don’t talk about the fact that this woman is a slave at the front. She is the beloved nanny. The son is older now. The mother dies. And the nanny doesn’t know what to do. And the son realizes that she’s not really leaving him. And he’s not sure what the deal is there. And he starts to try and give her some life that she didn’t have before because of the mother. And he decides, you know what, you’re pretty old. Let’s take you back to the Philippines. Why didn’t you ever go back?

And she makes excuses. They go back. And they have a journey to this very remote village where she’s from. And along the way the ultimate discovery is you weren’t my nanny. You were a slave. The truth emerges. And then in the end she does die.

There is a version there which is a version of discovery.

John: Honestly, from the article’s point of view, I found the trip back to the Philippines to be the least interesting part. When I reread it, I ended up just skimming them because that wasn’t–

Craig: She wasn’t there. That’s what I’m saying. If she were with him.

John: She was just a box of ashes.

Craig: Yeah. If she were with him, I think that could actually be sort of interesting because here’s somebody who is uncovering what he thinks is a trip where he’s going to uncover his “past” because he’s going back to the place where his people are from. But really the past he’s uncovering is his recent past. That’s interesting.

John: To me, the most fascinating and sort of cinematic moments for me though are when Alex is I think 12 or 14 and a friend is coming over. And the friend starts asking questions about who is this woman. And he gets caught in the lie where like, oh, she’s a relative. No, you said she was your grandmother. And basically like it’s almost like The Americans where you’re caught up in these lies and you can’t risk it being exposed because if it did get exposed, because Lola doesn’t have documentation, like the whole family could get shipped back to the Philippines. So that pressure on a 14-year-old kid who both loves his mother and loves Lola, that’s a really fascinating moment.

And in a certain way if you didn’t move forward in time but just let it be about that, that’s a really fascinating meaty bit of drama right there.

Craig: Yeah. It is. I don’t know. It’s a tough one because we know. So we’re watching this and we feel bad. And then those people leave and we still feel bad. I’m looking for that engine to figure out how to make this story work. I mean, that’s why I’m going, “Is it a road trip?” I’m looking for something that is an engine here, because the other way to go is to go completely unconventional and do a magical realism take on this where we’re with Lola and she’s a slave and this is her life. But then she has this other life she leads in her head, which is the what-if. It’s really about what is the point you’re trying to make here and what is the thing you want to unlock for people. And the feeling you want to leave them with.

And you sort of make your decision there and work backwards, I guess.

John: Another choice you’re going to have to make early on is at what point are people going to start speaking English, because you feel like they’re not speaking English inside the house, but then that’s a lot of subtitles to read. So, figuring out how you’re going to make that split is really fascinating, too.

Craig: Yeah. I would think that you would stay pretty much in English. It’s accented English. I mean, you have a little help there in that the kids are American. So, even though they probably speak Tagalog, the parents and Lola will speak them in English, but then you can certainly hear – it would be interesting to hear the two of them fighting in Tagalog and not have subtitles and you just know it’s not good.

John: Yeah. All right, our last story is nothing like the other stuff, so it’s a completely different kind of story. This is The Mystery of the Wasting House-Cats. So this is a story in the New York Times by Emily Anthes and it tracks the outbreak of a really rare feline condition that they started noticing in the ‘70s which is hyperthyroidism. And basically cats don’t get hyperthyroidism where your – well, you should explain what it is because you’re the medical person. But essentially a gland in your brain pumps out way too much, is it insulin? What does it do?

Craig: Well, the thyroid pumps out growth hormone in part.

John: And so in humans when humans have hyperthyroidism they lose weight, they become incredibly hungry. It’s a thing you don’t see in cats. But then they started seeing it in the 1970s in cats. And so it starts to look at like, well, why would that happen. And scientists looked back at the previous autopsies of cats. It didn’t happen before then. So something new is happening, so they need to investigate why. And so it becomes a medical investigation story of like why are these cats getting it. What has changed? And the leading culprit is a flame-retardant which has been put into cushions for upholstery and other things. It’s meant to be there to protect us, but it’s getting into the cats and the cats are doing poorly for it.

And the real question is at what point does this become a human problem as well? Are these things we’re putting out there going to hurt us as well. So, it’s a detective story. It’s a little bit of an investigation. There’s a lot of cats, so you got to kind of like cats to like this movie.

Craig: [laughs]

John: But to me this struck me as it could be Erin Brockovich again where you’re going after the bad chemical makers. There’s something really interesting about this. It’s not Outbreak. It’s not one of those sort of disease movies. But there’s something fascinating about this. Craig, did you like anything of this?

Craig: No. By the way, I want to clarify it’s not really growth hormone. The answer is thyroids put out thyroid hormone, but I was like that’s not a really good answer. They’re mostly about controlling the metabolic rate. Which is why people who are hyperthyroidic, you know, get skinny and sometimes their eyes get a little buggy.

Yeah, the problem here is that the cats aren’t dying. So, when we see an epidemic where a lot of animals are suddenly dying like the collapse of the bee colonies, we’re like, “Oh no.” They’re not dying. There’s actually a pretty reasonable way to treat this. And it does seem like the cause here, the environmental cause, has been determined – PBDEs. And it’s not like the movie can really come up with a better solution than what we’ve already come up with which is to stop using those, because we have. So, those – I mean, they’re out there still because they’re sort of grandfathered into a lot of materials, but we don’t make them anymore.

And, first of all, cats will chew on things that humans don’t. So, we’re not necessarily chewing on our sofa cushions. It does not appear that there is a spike in hyperthyroidism among adults, or hypothyroidism for that matter among adults. So, it doesn’t really seem like there’s a problem for us, so mostly just seems like if you’re a super cat person, but no one is going to go to a theater and watch this. I can’t imagine.

John: There’s anecdotes in here that I really liked. In the 1950s in Minamata, Japan, all the cats seemed to go mad at once. And this seems kind of amazing. So they began to stagger, stumble, and convulse, limbs flailing in every direction. They hurled themselves at stone walls and drowned themselves in the sea. That’s cinematic. That’s crazy.

Craig: Yeah. Cool.

John: And so that’s terrifying. And then it started happening to the children. And, oh, that’s horrible. Now you’ve got a movie. At first you’ve got sort of like an “oh, that’s curious,” and once the kids start dying then you’ve got a real problem.

So it turned out to be that one of the local chemical plants was dumping stuff into the sea. The fish were eating the chemicals. The people were eating the fish. The cats were eating the fish. And that’s what happened. So, classically that’s a canary in the coal mine. That’s why often environmental impacts will be seen first in animals, and therefore you’re watching those to extrapolate out from there to other places.

And so in a movie where you saw cats or some other animals like suddenly perish, there will be that instinct of like, oh, isn’t that so interesting that that’s happening. But as an omen for things that are going to happen next, that can be a great way into the bigger problem that’s about to happen.

So, again, I’d love to pitch what the Oscar version of this is. And I’m now sort of regretting putting it on the outline, because I can’t see what that Oscar version is.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But in terms of the horror movie start, that’s the great horror movie start. The cats acting insane is a great horror movie start because then the people start acting insane and you get a good foreshadowing of what’s to come. That’s always delightful.

Craig: Always delightful. Yeah. And we do see in movies like Contagion and the Hot Zone, and what was it, not Contact, but–

John: Outbreak.

Craig: Outbreak. There is almost always a scene where an animal goes bananas. And in the case of the one cited in this article is methyl, not ethyl, methyl mercury into the bay. Because the anti-vaccine people love to think that methyl mercury and ethyl mercury are the same thing. They’re not, dopes.

So, yeah, that’s super bad. And there are definitely things, I mean, we have at times realized that we are in trouble because of the way animals were acting. But, of course, animals aren’t people and they will do things that people don’t do, like eat feces. That’s one of the big ones. We generally don’t. [laughs]

John: But if you saw people doing that in a movie, you would know something is wrong.

Craig: Or something was right, like in Pink Flamingos, the great Divine rest in peace. So, yeah, I mean, maybe there’s a crazy black comedy to be done like this.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: There was a movie out of New Zealand I think where the sheep went nuts.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: Like a horror movie. Which is kind of fun. You know. And so the idea of cats going crazy is kind of fun. So it’s a black comedy or sort of like a horror-comedy. But there’s no Oscar potential here for the cats. They’re just going to get better after some mild treatment. [laughs]

John: There will be a Pixar version of it where the cats notice the humans are going crazy, and the cats have to band together to save the humans. The humans are the canaries in the coal mine and the cats realize there’s a problem coming.

Craig: Right. Like the cats suddenly realize that Donald Trump is the President of the United States.

John: No, no, we’ve got to stop him.

Craig: Yeah, that’s not good. Something has gone terribly wrong here.

John: The new Cat Constitution. We could stop trying to save it. I regret putting it in here.

Craig: No, you should never regret. Never regret. Ever.

John: No regrets. That’s the thing I’ve learned about 2017 is no regrets ever.

Craig: No regrets.

John: Predictions. Will any of these things become movies?

Craig: Yes. I think My Family’s Slave is going to become something. It may be a Netflix kind of television-only piece. But if you attract the right filmmaker, the right actor, and you really kind of nail a specific and enlightening angle on a story to kind of honor what’s unique about it and not jam it into the same old story that we’ve seen where the slave owner is finally enlightened by the slave, then yeah, I think that one. Certainly someone is going to buy it, if they haven’t already. That’s unquestionable.

John: Yeah. I think that’s a slam dunk. And I think Kushnerville, something like that could happen. I don’t know if it’s necessarily based around this article, but I think the idea of doing something about those housing projects is fascinating, but the hook of having Kushner be the guy behind it is also just great. So, I don’t know that it’s a big screen feature thing, but I could see a premium cable movie coming out of this. There’s something that it’s political, and targeted, and smart.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So I could see something happening with that, but I don’t think there’s going to be a cat movie. At least not a cat movie based on this article.

Craig: [laughs] No, there is not going to be a cat movie. I think that there is a good story to be told. Someone should start working on this. Or, hey, just hire me. There’s a good story to be told about two people falling in love and one of them is – and it doesn’t matter which gender is which. It doesn’t even matter if they’re homosexual or heterosexual. All that matters is that one party is lower class and black, and one party is lower class and white. And you’re watching the two sides of that coin and the interesting thing that has happened in this country where they have been seemingly pitted against each other, coming together and actually falling in love I think would be spectacular. Because that’s the crazy thing.

I mean, I think we discussed that sketch on Saturday Night Live this year where Tom Hanks was on Black Jeopardy.

John: Oh yeah. Absolutely. That’s a great sketch.

Craig: And it kind of cuts right to it. Which is the experiences of our life are actually so much closer together than the experiences of say people like Jared Kushner, who don’t want to talk to either one of us, and don’t live like either one of us, and don’t respect either one of us. There’s something there. There’s a really good story to be told there. And this is an interesting – it’s certainly a way in. I don’t know if it’s the way in.

John: I agree.

All right, let’s get to our big feature question of the episode. This is from Nick in Los Angeles. And we have audio. So let’s take a listen.

Nick: This is a question that occurred to me during the last round of WGA negotiations with the AMPTP. And that is basically why is the AMPTP allowed to exist? Why are all the studios and networks allowed to get together and decide collectively what they’re willing to pay writers and directors and actors, even though they’re all separately owned companies, when that is not allowed to happen in other industries? Like, for example, Ford and GM and Chrysler can’t put all their CEOs in a room and say, “Okay, this is what we’re going to pay United Auto Workers Union next time there’s a negotiation. And if they want more than that, too bad. We’re all united on this.”

That’s an illegal trust and it can’t happen. So, I wonder why it’s allowed to happen in the case of the studios, even though it seems like it’s the same situation. They’re separately owned companies in the same industry that are basically colluding on what they’re going to offer their employees. So there must be a legal distinction there, but I don’t know what it is and I would like to understand. Thanks.

Craig: Well the AMPTP is considered a trade organization. And so this is a – it’s not just a phrase. It’s a term of law when it comes to collective bargaining. Specifically they are a multi-employer bargaining unit. And federal labor law, as has been interpreted by case law over time, because every part of the national labor relations act has been litigated up and down the line. The companies are allowed to form a multi-employer bargaining unit to negotiate with a common pool of employees. And it doesn’t always make sense, but a lot of times it does. For instance, in sports it makes complete sense.

So, if you’re Aaron Judge, you play for the Yankees. You are an employee of the Yankees. You’re not an employee of Major League Baseball. You’re an employee of the Yankees. But you are part of a bargaining unit, the Major League Baseball Player Association, that does not bargain with the Yankees. It bargains with the Major League baseball team’ multi-employer bargaining unit.

Similarly in Hollywood, we do the same thing. Nick says the CEOs of Ford, GM, and Chrysler can’t negotiate with the UAW as a group. I think they could, actually. They choose not to, and it makes sense in part because while the auto industry was once very, very centralized, it is no longer so. Hollywood is unique in this sense. It’s pretty centralized. There is this very specific walled-off pool of talent, just as there is in professional sports, which is the only real analogy I think to – or cognate to what we have.

Frankly, it probably wasn’t smart for the auto companies to not form a multi-employer bargaining unit way back at the height of the UAW’s power. But, yeah, long story short, they’re allowed to do it and they can do it. And for our situation here, it is not going to change any time soon.

John: It’s worth noting that I think nothing precludes – this is doing the 2007/2008 strike, there were discussion where the WGA was going to start negotiating with some of the members separately to do deals. And that’s a thing that could still happen. But I would like to remind Nick and other writers that it’s actually useful for the WGA to negotiate with all of the people at once, because if we had to make a separate deal with Paramount and a separate deal with Disney and a separate deal with Fox, it would be a mess. Because your terms would change based on who was employing you and that would be really bad really quickly.

Unlike the auto worker who is working for Ford and is working for Ford for 30 years, we are working for different people all the time. And it’s very useful to have common terms across all these different things. And so this is the fantasy of like, oh, we could pit them against each other. In real life, it would probably not work out very well for us.

Craig: Yeah. They don’t seem interested in being pitted against each other. They have chosen to band together in this multi-employer bargaining unit. And, look, it’s not just the big companies. The big companies are the ones that run the negotiations on behalf of the AMPTP. Well, I mean, the staff of the AMPTP runs the negotiations, but the big companies are the ones in the room with Carol Lombardini who is their chief negotiator.

But, the AMPTP is negotiating that deal on behalf of hundreds of companies. Every small company that wants to hire WGA writers has to become signatory to the contract. They essentially become members of the AMPTP. And it makes complete sense because why wouldn’t they? If they just agree to sign on board with the AMPTP, they get to have that contract. People who say, well why don’t we negotiate those people separately and get a better contract, the answer is because they don’t have to. Because they’ll just take that one. They can with the stroke of a pen. And so it goes.

John: There’s always going to be a discussion of like, oh, should we make a separate deal with Amazon or Netflix or some other brand new player who actually has a lot of money and is doing something different. That will always come up. I don’t know that it’s ever going to happen. But that does come up.

And the WGA does have different deals in certain cases because it’s a very different kind of company. So the WGA also negotiates on behalf of some TV news writers. It’s a completely different kind of thing. And those are done in a different way.

Craig: Yeah. And really specific, because for instance the WGA West represents news writers employed by KCBS. That’s it, as far as I know. Oh, and also 1010 WINS News Radio, I believe. So, they don’t even represent the whole business there, so that is an employer-specific negotiation.

Netflix and Amazon have agreed to just basically tack themselves onto the AMPTP. Smart business. I think they’re well aware that the only possible thing that could end up happening if they negotiate with us separately is them having to pay us more. Because we’re never going to take less than what the AMPTP gives us, so what’s the point? It just sort of resolves itself. That is kind of the deal and, yeah, it’s going to stay the deal.

John: It will stay the deal. It’s time for One Cool Things. Craig, what do you got?

Craig: My One Cool Thing is a bit of a sad thing, but also a very lovely thing. My grandmother-in-law, my children’s great grandmother-in-law, my wife’s grandmother, Millie Hendrick, passed away this past weekend. She was 98 years old. She was a spectacular lady. It was fun to know her for as long as I did. She was born in 1918.

John: That’s great.

Craig: You know, just imagine all the things you saw. Yeah, first six years, you don’t remember any of that. So let’s spot her at 1925 to make it a nice even number of when she starts realizing what’s going on. She’s there when the stock market crashes. She’s there during the depression. She’s there during WWII. She’s there during the Eisenhower era. She’s there during Korea. She’s there during Vietnam. She sees all of it. And then the computer comes.

Just think of the way the telephones changed. She was there when TV showed up. And there she was at the end just being her cool self. Fantastic lady. Lived a great life. Really active in the Peace Corps. And she loved bird-watching. My wife loves bird-watching. Bird-watching is one of those things where it’s like–

John: I just can’t.

Craig: What is that? [laughs] What possible joy are people – and yet they, oh my god, do bird watchers love bird watching.

John: I have to say, Craig, the way you feel about bird-watching is how I feel about most sports. I could totally understand some people find joy in this, but I just can’t find joy in this.

Craig: I mean, you can at least acknowledge that in sports there is an outcome. Right?

John: That’s true. There’s a mystery. Yes.

Craig: In bird-watching, they’re just watching birds. Anyway, she loved bird-watching. She was a terrific person and it was an honor to know her. And, you know, when someone dies at the age of 98, you can’t really be sad. I mean, you can be mournful.

John: Celebrate that they lived 98 years. That’s great.

Craig: What a run. What a run. So my One Cool Thing this week, Millie Hendrick.

John: Very nice. My One Cool Thing is a song and video called Dear Mr. Darcy. It is done Esther Longhurst and Jessica Messenger. It’s an open letter addressed to Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. It is just terrific. I just loved it. It reminded me of my favorite things about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Another Period, Hamilton. It was sort of like Empire with empire waist lines. It was delightfully perfectly done little short thing. So it’s just a little delicious treat to enjoy if you like Jane Austen things, which I suspect many people on this podcast do like.

So, I will use this as the outro for tonight’s episode so that people can enjoy a little bit of this song. And that’s our show for this week. So our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also a place where you can send questions like Nick’s today.

People ask us do you have a voicemail line for when people leave those messages like Nick’s. No, just attach you asking your question to the email and then we might use it. So, that’s a way to do it. You can just record it on your phone or however you want to do it.

On Twitter, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts as Scriptnotes. While you’re there, leave us a review, because that helps people find the show.

You can find the show notes for this episode, including links to all these articles we talked about, including additional things about My Family’s Slave, at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts in about four days.

And all the back episodes of the show are found at Scriptnotes.net. We have 300 episodes back there, plus bonus episodes with cool other people. So thanks.

Craig: Thanks John. See you next time.

John: Craig, have a great week.

Craig: Bye.

John: Bye.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

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