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Updated: 2 hours 6 min ago

Scriptnotes, Ep 267: Dig Two Graves — Transcript

Thu, 09/22/2016 - 10:44

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 267 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today is going to be a very good episode, because Craig you know how sometimes it feels like we’re crushing people’s dreams and hopes?

Craig: I know. It’s so much fun.

John: I know. But today is all about possibilities. Today is about saying yes. Are you ready to say yes?

Craig: Yes.

John: So, we’re going to be looking at four stories in the news and asking How Would this be a Movie. We’ll also be answering two listener questions about structure and adverbs, but first we got some answers from listeners.

Last week we asked you guys if any of you had managed to build a writing career while living outside of Los Angeles, New York, or London. And quite a few of you responded.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Yeah, so it was good.

Craig: It’s encouraging, actually. Perhaps these are the outliers, but then again as I like to say, we’re all outliers if we’re actually working as writers, right?

John: Exactly. On last week’s episode you said, you know, you don’t want to have a business plan where your plan is to be the exception to the rule. And we couldn’t think of a lot of writers who had started outside of Los Angeles. Who had like really gotten their careers going while they weren’t living in Los Angeles, or New York, or London.

Although the minute we wrapped the episode I thought back Ryan Knighton, who actually came in and met with us, and we had a whole episode about building a career while you’re not living in Los Angeles. He is a Vancouver writer. So, there certainly are cases where people have done that, and they do feel exceptional, but now we have I think four more people who have written in to say like how they got started outside of Los Angeles.

Craig: It’s interesting. Ryan Knighton is from Vancouver. Diablo Cody, who we mentioned in that episode, is I want to say Pacific North-westerner. Yeah? Is that right?

John: That sounds right. Sounds right.

Craig: So, at least they’re in the time zone, right. But here we have some people writing in who are not at all in our time zone.

John: Absolutely. So, let’s start with Angela Harvey from Atlanta. She wrote in and let’s hear what she had to say.

Angela Harvey: I heard you guys this week asking about people who became screenwriters from cities other than New York, London, or LA. And I got staffed as a TV writer out of Atlanta, so I thought I’d give you guys my story.

I was assisting a film producer in Atlanta and he ended up becoming the UPM on Season One of MTV’s Teen Wolf. So working the long hours on set in Atlanta, I got to know the showrunner pretty well. And my boss knew I wanted to be a writer, so he told the showrunner and slipped him a sample of my work. Then during Season Two, I came out to LA to be the writer’s assistant. And then later that year, the network wanted to do this online game where fans could log in and chat with the show characters. And that was a lot of non-union work, and none of the show writers wanted to take it on, so I did.

I spend my hiatus cranking out about 30 pages a week, mostly dialogue, but still was a lot of pages. Then, starting the next season, Season Three, I got staffed staff writer on that show. And now we’re writing 6V, which is going to be Teen Wolf’s last season. Now I’m co-producer level.

I got to LA in 2012 to start writing and signed with my agent and manager here about a year after that. And that’s my story. I think it was a perfect storm of being in the right place at the right time and working with the right people. And then also just working my ass off. And it was a long shot by all measures, but it happened for me in Atlanta. Thanks guys. Bye.

John: Well, congratulations, Angela. I am glad you are staffed as a writer and that you got started, but when I listened to her story I heard so many things that sounded so familiar to me. Which was that she was able to get a writer’s assistant job, and then move up to a staff writer. That she sort of made that one contact and sort of impressed the hell of them with how hard she worked in a slightly different job. And they said like you seem great, I’ll happily read something that you wrote.

Craig: Yeah. And it’s an interesting thing that she’s from Atlanta, because I suppose at this point we could almost put Atlanta in that boat with Vancouver for instance, where there’s a ton of production, because Georgia is one of the states that offers a top-notch tax rebate for film production. Film and television production. I think it’s pretty much the best deal in the Union at this point. Although, I know that some Georgians don’t like to consider themselves part of the Union. But, tough. North won the war.

Anyway, there is a ton of production in Georgia. And a lot of people down there are working quite regularly. Frankly, more regularly than below the line folks here in Los Angeles. So, that’s not surprising to me. And I agree with you that this story is often the same. People like someone. They like their work ethic. They like their attitude. They just like them. And they start to think, okay, well, what is it that you want to do? How can we make more out of you? Instead of you twisting their arm, they start pulling you because, frankly, good help is hard to find, as they say.

John: So, a couple months ago I interviewed Drew Goddard for the Writers Guild. And so you can find the bonus episode in the bonus feed. And talked about how he got started. And it was very much the same story as Angela. He was living in New Mexico. There was a production in New Mexico for like a TV movie. He got on the TV movie to just be a runner, a PA. And he just worked his ass off and impressed the people enough that they remembered him and they were able to get him more work down in the future.

So, his path was a lot longer than Angela’s in terms of getting paid to write, but it was really the same path.

And what Angela describes here could have easily happened in Los Angeles. She could have come out here, been a PA on a TV show or a movie, and just worked really hard. And someone said like, “Oh, I think you’re probably a smart, talented person. Yes, I’ll read your script.” And that could have been her first start.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, the benefit of a place like Atlanta is that it is a smaller pond, so there are fewer people to choose from. So, there’s a larger chance that you’re going to stand out. I mean, working for a line producer, you know, people may not know that a line producer isn’t really a creative producer, per se. A line producer is more of the physical production manager. They’re the person that’s handling budget, scheduling, payments. So, it’s not necessarily the way in for creative work, but what line producers can do is recognize that someone is creative and valuable and like the case here with Angela, help promote them.

So, excellent job, Angela. We’re glad to have you from Atlanta. We win. We take from Atlanta, yet again. Victory.

John: Yeah. So while Angela was happy to sort of leave Atlanta and come to Los Angeles where she wanted to work, our next caller did not do that. So this is Kirby Atkins. Right now he’s living in New Zealand. But this is what he had to say.

Kirby Atkins: Hi guys. I’ve had a strange screenwriting career and I’ve never lived in Los Angeles. I began as an animator at Lyca and moved on to a studio in Dallas. I directed the Jimmy Neutron show for Nickelodeon for a while. And during this time I sold a few specs to 20th Century Fox and Miramax, back when specs were still selling in the early 2000s.

After that, I had a pretty good career living in small town in Tennessee, in a house I bought for about $130,000. And writing. And I actually pulled that off for a few years. I even sold a thing to Robert De Niro’s production company. I did have to travel every now and then for meetings, but it was no big deal.

That career did run out after a bit, as the spec market dried up. And now I’m directing something I wrote, an animated feature with the Weinsteins being produced in New Zealand. So, we did sell the house in that little town in Tennessee and now we’re currently living in New Zealand making this movie.

But, I have never lived in Los Angeles. But I love the show. And thanks for getting in contact with me. Bye-bye.

John: Great. So that’s Kirby’s situation. Kirby is now shooting a movie in New Zealand. It feels like he has a specialty. Like he’s in the animation world, and a lot of animation is done outside of Los Angeles, New York, or London. There are places that specialize in doing a certain kind of animation, like Lyca, and that’s where he got started. And it seems like he’s not had to come to Los Angeles to do the stuff that he’s doing.

Craig: Well, it is true that there’s a ton of animation production overseas in Eastern Europe and in India and in China. And in Korea. But, when it comes to the writing of English language animation, that’s actually not that common overseas. It typically does start here in the United States. The big animation companies are here. Or sometimes a production company here in the United States will develop a screenplay and then go overseas to have it produced in France, or Canada, or India, or China.

But, this is interesting. I mean, oh, he’s working with the Weinsteins, so that’s cool. [laughs] good luck there in New Zealand.

John: Yeah, so Kirby’s start with Lyca reminds me of people who start at Pixar. And there are people who just start working as a tech at Pixar. They start working in a very specific area within Pixar and sometimes they have a good enough story sense that they are elevated to being writers or to being on the creative team. So that’s certainly a place you could start. But, you’re already at Pixar, so it’s not quite a fair comparison as starting from nothing. You’re starting at Pixar which is a very high place to begin.

We also got a letter from Jamie Nash in Maryland. He writes, “I’m a fulltime WGA APA-repped screenwriter who lives in Maryland and has never lived in LA. My credits aren’t exactly August/Mazin level, but I’ve been produced and able to make a living since 2008. I made my first dollars around 2005. I currently have a film about to be greenlit by Blumhouse and do a lot of work for Nickelodeon.”

So, here’s a guy who’s gotten some movies made. He’s working. He lives in Maryland. What we haven’t heard from Jamie is how often he’s coming to Los Angeles, how important are those in-person meetings. My hunch is he’s been out here a bunch to do that specific kind of work.

Craig: Yeah. This is rare. This is very specifically the rare circumstance. So you had Angela who was somewhere else and moved here. You have Kirby who is working in animation, which is scattered across the world. But this is traditional screenwriting. And this is rare.

And I’m thrilled that he’s making a living. And been doing so for quite some time now. Eight years at it, which is – for us in screenwriting years, that’s like 100 years. So, that’s terrific. And Blumhouse is a real company. They do big horror movies. Well, they’re small horror movies, but they make lots of money.

John: Very profitable horror movies.

Craig: Incredibly profitable. And he says that he does a bit of work for Nickelodeon, which is obviously a legitimate channel. Now, with Nickelodeon, that’s kind of a curious one, because it’s all television, and Nickelodeon jobs I think are exclusively episodic television gigs. So, I’m kind of curious how that works. And I’m also curious why he’s still there.

John: Yeah. We want more information from Jamie.

Craig: He doesn’t say. Yeah. I mean, it may be that Jamie has a family and they don’t want to leave, and he doesn’t want to leave, and I get that. I can’t help but feel that if you are working steadily for eight years, you could be working more steadily here. Just a gut feeling.

John: That may be true. Why don’t you read this next one? This is from Chris Sparling who now lives in Rhode Island.

Craig: Chris Sparling. That’s from Rhode Island. So, Chris Sparling writes, “Though I did live in Los Angeles for two years, it was way back while I was making a go as an actor. I had left college to do so, and ended up moving back to my home state of Rhode Island to finish school. It was also around this time that I started focusing more on writing than acting.

“Long story short, I stayed in Rhode Island, continued writing scripts, made a few no-budget projects, and then years later I finally found success with the script I wrote for Buried. Now, about eight years later, maintaining a career outside of LA has proven to be far easier than breaking in, thankfully. But it’s admittedly not without its drawbacks. For one, many of my pitches are done by phone or Skype, which makes for a lesser experience than physically being in the room.

“Secondly, there are very few if any people here who do what I do for a living, or work in the film/TV industry in any capacity for that matter, so I don’t have that watercooler coworker experience that LA-based writers and filmmakers have. The latter might seem somewhat trivial, but believe me when I say it does matter.”

John: Great. So, here’s Chris. He’s working pretty steadily. He’s living on the East Coast, so it’s definitely possible. I loved Buried. I thought it was a great movie. And he has a new movie that’s out right now called The Sea of Trees with Gus Van Sant, so this is a guy who is maintaining a career.

Craig: Absolutely.

John: It feels that he’s honest about the challenges that it presents. He’s having to come out to do some stuff. He’s having to do Skype things. I’ve been on panels with him, so he is coming out here sometimes to do that kind of panel stuff, or maybe it was coincidental to when he’s out here. But that’s also part of the job of being a screenwriter is just being there in person sometimes.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, so here’s a very legitimate screenwriter, not working in television, which I think is a help, obviously, because you and I are primarily feature writers. We may live in LA – well, you’re in France now – but normally we’re both living in LA. But 90% of the time we’re living in LA we’re alone. We could be anywhere. We could be on the moon, right.

Television, not so simple. So, Chris, at least the angle that Chris is taking on – and has taken so far with great success in the movie business allows him to be on his own in Rhode Island. But, I really took notice of his point and felt for him when he talked about that lack of the watercooler coworker experience. The funny thing is, years ago when you and I were starting out, even if we were all in the same town, there still wasn’t that much of coworker/watercooler experience. Because, again, we would just go back to our corners and write as feature writers.

But, as the Internet came about, we became far more connected as a group. And I’m happy to say I have dozens of friends who do the job that you and I do. And it matters. It does matter. It matters to be able to show them work and to ask them for advice. And to just go and have a drink with them. Or play Dungeons & Dragons. And feel like you are part of a community, even though you do spend most of your time alone. So, I feel for him. And open invitation to Chris Sparling, whenever he’s in from Rhode Island – Providence, or wherever – to come hang with us. Have a glass of wine and chill out.

John: And, Craig, I think you deserve some credit for how many screenwriters I know and how many screenwriters other screenwriters know, because you’ve been very good at sort of connecting us together. I had my site, you had your site, but we also just sort of got together a lot more. And I remember during the strike, the 2008 strike, that was the first time I really put faces with names for a lot of these people.

Like the strike overall I thought was a pretty big boondoggle, but one of the things I really got out of it was the chance to meet a bunch of writers. Like Jane Espenson, who I saw her name, I saw her on Twitter, but I never actually met her. Then you meet her and like, well, she’s delightful. And every day out on the picket lines I was meeting all these people and really getting a chance to connect with them. So when I would see them later on, or I’d see them at the grocery story, or I’d see them on panels, I really knew who they were.

The other thing which has been so helpful for me was the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab, is that as an adviser there I’m getting to meet some of these other really great writers. And a chance to talk with them about the actual craft. And that’s what Chris is missing right now in Rhode Island.

Craig: Rhode Island.

John: All right. Let’s do one from not the US. This is Pete Bridges who wrote in from Brisbane, Australia. And here’s what he had to say.

Pete Bridges: I wanted to let you know that it is possible to work for Hollywood without living in Hollywood. Late last year, I optioned my first spec script to Broken Road Productions which landed me a great manager at Madhouse and two great agents at Verve, as well as a spot on the 2015 Black List with a video introduction by the great John August himself. And this past July we have also just sold and set up another spec at DreamWorks, so so far it hasn’t impacted job opportunities and I get sent a lot of materials and invitations to pitch on different projects.

To make it all work, I fly over to LA every few months to do a week of meetings and the in-between periods are all handled over email and phone. I do the occasional general meeting over the phone if it’s important, but most people seem happy to wait until I’m in town to sit down and talk properly.

If I’m pitching on an assignment, I will usually submit my take by email and then we setup a call and discuss it later. The time difference is the biggest hassle and I sometimes have to set an alarm for 3AM to take a call. But mostly the assistants are pretty great about lining up a time that suits everybody.

Ultimately, I’m looking to move my family to LA as soon as possible, but it is a lot more difficult for us than loading up a truck and driving across a few states to California. My advice for others in my situation: you do not need to live in LA to break into the business, but you need to work much harder to do it and at least have the willingness to move there once you do.

If you’re going to cold query, don’t mention where you live. Setup your email program to send out your queries during LA business hours. Let you work stand on its own until they like it and then break the bad news to them. Be prepared to fly to LA every two or three months to do general meetings and build up your relationships. Calls and emails are great, but nothing beats sitting down with the people who may be looking to hire you on something. In between trips, always be generating spec material that your reps can send out to keep your name and work in people’s minds when you’re not there.

And if you can move to LA, move to LA. Until then, be prepared to work much harder, sleep way less, and travel further than everyone else.

John: Great. So, here’s a situation where he is thinking like he’s happy to be working, but he’s also thinking I need to move to Los Angeles. That’s what his next step is for him.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, there’s no doubt. Look, it’s hard to fly from Australia to Los Angeles and vice versa. Having done a similar flight from LA to Bangkok a couple of times, four times, it’s no good. It’s no good. It’s not something you want to do frequently. He’s doing this every three or four months. Three to four times a year. Not only do you have the stress and expense of flying, and all the jetlag and the rest of it, but then you’ve got to do this thing where you jam everything in. And so everything is high stakes.

It’s just a mess. And I love that he was able to get started from Australia, which does have its own very significant film and television base. But, yeah, I mean, look, he sold a spec recently to Amblin. He’s gotten a spot on the Black List. He – it’s time. It’s time.

John: Yeah. It’s time.

Craig: Listen, here’s the thing. Pete, the hard words, you know, when I listened to what you’re saying, the hard words are relocate my family. And I think we all get how difficult that is. You and I are friends with Chris Miller and Phil Lord. And Chris has a wife and kids and Phil and Chris are off in England now making the Han Solo movie. And that’s a relocate, you know, just like you’ve done it. And I’m sure you can say as well as anybody it’s tough to relocate your family.

John: One way to think about it though is what if you got picked to be a NASA astronaut? Well, you’d move to Florida and you’d just do that. And that would be like of course you would do that. And I think if you have the opportunity to pursue screenwriting, and that’s your ambition, and you have the chance to move to Los Angeles, there’s probably good reasons to do that.

And it’s sort of the career you sign on for. So I can see why a lot of people would want to do it. But I can also see why it’s challenging to be thinking about that at the very start of your career.

On Twitter this last week, a couple people wrote in sort of challenging us on what do you really mean by establish a writing career. Do you mean getting your first sale? Do you mean working continuously? What do we mean?

And I think you and I both came to the point of like being able to make a living as screenwriter or television writer.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Previous episodes we’ve talked about the myth of breaking in, as if there’s this giant wall and once you scale over the wall, then you’re inside the inner circle. That’s not really true. It’s the ability to work continuously is sort of the goal of a screenwriting career. And that’s a much more challenging thing to do outside of Los Angeles than inside Los Angeles. And I think the people who wrote in so far have really said that to be true. That there’s additional challenges that you wouldn’t think of when you’re trying to get all this happening while you’re not living in town.

Craig: Yeah. It’s a rough one. I mean, part of being a steadily working writer is not only being able to support yourself, or the people that rely on you, but having a reasonable expectation that you will be able to continue to do so for at least quite some time. And I love your NASA analogy in the sense that the odds are similar, right, of becoming an astronaut or becoming a screenwriter.

The big difference I suppose, other than the fact that astronauts are cooler and go into space, is that it’s rare for an astronaut to be accepted into the astronaut program, move to Florida, go through the training, and then have someone say, “Oh, you know what? Yeah, we’re actually not going to space. But thank you.” Which happens all the time in writing.

John: Yeah. We decided not to build that rocket, which is basically a screenwriter’s career.

Craig: Oh, sorry. You know what? We went with a more experienced astronaut this time. Yeah. Sorry.

John: So, if you are a listener to this program and you have your own story of how you got your career started, and are hopefully maintaining a career in writing film or television outside of Los Angeles, keep writing in. So, keep writing in to And if there’s some interesting stories to share, I’ll just post them on So, we can see your text there and we won’t have everyone read aloud. But thank you everyone who wrote in. And thank you for continuing to write in and telling us how you are doing it.

So, let’s get to some questions. People can ask us stuff. And so we have two questions today. Both of them have audio. The first one is from Nicholas Salazar who wrote in with a question about adverbs. Let’s take a listen.

Nicholas Salazar: In the last episode, Episode 265, Craig used, “Oddly, John doesn’t react,” in giving an example of an action line. It’s been drilled into my head by both English professors and screenwriting professors that adverbs are lazy writing and the work of the devil and must be eliminated from anything I write. How do you guys feel about adverbs? Thanks?

John: Craig, how do you feel about adverbs?

Craig: Well, you might think that I would rear up in high dungeon and extreme umbrage at this, but I don’t. Look, it’s unfortunate that some pedants take this too far and say things like, “Adverbs are lazy writing and the work of the devil and must be eliminated from anything you write.” That is not true. However, adverbs should be used with restraint. So, in a case like, “Oddly, John doesn’t react,” I’m okay with that. I like a nice introductory adverbial clause. That’s fine.

It’s when you start throwing them in junkily, when they could easily be removed. If I remove the word oddly from that sentence, it’s no good. It doesn’t work. The whole point is that it’s odd that you’re not reacting. But, yeah, it’s not a bad idea to go on adverb patrol, particularly L-Y adverbs. Because generally speaking they are a little junky.

John: Yeah. I’m on your side here. I think the reason why professors and screenwriting teachers tell you to avoid adverbs is that they’ve seen so many bad uses of adverbs. The high school English teacher probably read a bunch of essays where it was just jam-packed with adverbs to sort of pad it out. Or, adverbs are used as a lazy way of modifying an adjective around it, rather than just actually picking a better adjective. So, you know, “He felt very bad.” Like you know, there’s so many more specific choices you could have instead of just modifying bad with a very.

So, I get where it’s coming from, but I think a blanket prohibition on adverbs is really taking it too far. If you’re using an adverb, I would say take a look at it and see if this is really the best choice of how I should be expressing this idea, how I should be emphasizing this idea. And see if you can find a better one. But sometimes, I think in the case of “Oddly, John doesn’t react,” that’s just the right way to do it. And anymore words you try to throw at that are not going to be helpful to you.

Craig: Yeah. And it’s a really easy test, too, to just say, okay, if I take the adverb out, does this still work? The typical junky adverb use you’ll see is someone saying, “Jim ran quickly to the bus stop. Panting heavily, he got on the bus.” We don’t need quickly and we don’t need heavily. “He ran to the bus stop. Panting, he got on the bus.” That tells us everything.

So, a lot of times it’s just a repetitive or redundant sense of things. And especially when you have L-Ys directly modifying action verbs, like right next them. That’s where it feels sort of middle school. You know? I don’t how else to put it.

Of course, the other problem with these people is that they’ll say things like, “Don’t use adverbs,” but there are all sorts of words that we don’t know are adverbs.

John: Completely.

Craig: You know. Like how. So I don’t know if–

John: Or, like the well in well done. So many things are sort of invisible. We only think of the L-Y adverbs and there are so many more that are important.

Craig: Yeah. So the blanket prohibition on adverbs completely does not work. I mean, journalism would stop. But, yeah, I get it, Nicholas. Don’t go crazy with this. But, yeah, reasonable concern.

John: Great. Our last question is from Daniel Lewis who is writing in about structure. Let’s take a listen.

Daniel Lewis: Hi guys. I really love Craig’s explanation of screenwriting guru books. I think it’s in the vein of these are demolition experts telling you how to build a house. But I can never seem to shake the tendency of following prescribed beats when mapping out a story. For instance, X happens on page 20. Y happens on page 45, etc.

In the beginning of a screenplay and eventual movie, how much time do I have to grab the audience’s attention? The knock on the door beat that supposedly happens around page five, how accurate is that benchmark?

If my writing is strong and engaging, can I push it until page 10 or 15 for the first sign of a big plot catalyst? I assume the answer is yes, but wanted to get your opinions on audience attention span in general. Thanks.

John: So, Craig, I think I’ve heard this term “knock on the door,” but it feels so screenwriter bookie to me.

Craig: I know. And, look, it’s not like these things are wrong, right? It’s not like heroes aren’t called to action. It’s not like there aren’t knocks on the door occasionally. They are using the most reductive forms of these things. And I think what Daniel is getting at is the issue underneath them, which is a great thing, by the way, Daniel. I mean, you’re asking the right question, which isn’t should I be doing these paint-by-numbers things, rather why is everyone saying that? Okay, if they’re demolition experts, at least they’ve noticed that this is how buildings were built why they were building them up. Why is that way? And how much time do I have to grab the audience’s attention?

And my response to you, Daniel, is I don’t know. Because I think you never have any time to grab the audience’s attention. You should be always grabbing their attention. They will begin to squirm at some point if they feel like things aren’t going anywhere, but along the way until that thing happens, whatever that thing is, you should be engaging them and interesting them.

I don’t know when the door knock comes in The Godfather in terms of elapsed time, but I doubt it’s five minutes in. I know that movie pretty well. That’s a long wedding.

John: So, I would say my frustration sometimes about this like, oh, we have to get stuff started faster is it’s absolutely true that you want to get the audience engaged. The audience needs to be leaning forward, really looking forward to seeing what’s happening next. You need to get them like hooked on sort of what the world of your movie is. But that’s not necessarily the same thing as like starting all the engines of your plot.

And so often I’ll see in the development process there’s this pressure to like, “Oh, we got to get the story started faster,” by people who know where the story is going. They’re saying like, oh, well let’s get rid of this first stuff and get the actual A-plot going faster. And that’s often a mistake.

The most crucial thing is that we are onboard with your characters and the world that they’re in. And so if they don’t know the specific thing about the actual A-plot yet, that can be fine. So, going to your Godfather, you know, the actual A-plot of that story may not be kicking in right at the very start, but we’re completely fascinated and intrigued by all of the world and the characters we’re meeting in those first 10 minutes. And that’s what’s really crucial.

We know the kind of movie that we’re getting in that first 10 minutes, even if we don’t know the specific plot that we’re going to be seeing.

Craig: For sure. That is the joy of a movie that is operating on its own terms, with confidence. And if you don’t like it, and it’s boring to you, beat it. But The Godfather, the door knocking is Sollozzo showing up to ask about getting the Corleone family to help him sell drugs. That doesn’t happen until after the whole wedding sequence and after the bit where what’s his face, Tom, has to go out to Los Angeles to meet with Waltz and try and get Johnny Fontaine the movie, and the horse head. All of that stuff happens before the “door knocks.”

So, I’m with you. Look, I have said this so many times and it doesn’t matter, because it’s not changing anything. But I’ll keep saying it. They’ve got it – they meaning the people that make you speed up in the beginning – they’ve got it totally backwards.

When I go to see a movie, and I believe most people are like this, we are open and engaged and full of faith in the start. Okay, I’m going to go on a ride with you. I’m here, hoping it’s good. So I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt for a while. I’m with you now. I’m patient. It’s the beginning.

Where I think things tend to go on and on, and I wish they would speed up, is in the end. When the modern studio method often is speed up in the beginning, get it going so we barely know who people are, and then drag the third out to be 14 set pieces all piled on top of each other. It’s so boring.

So, maybe I’m the wrong person to ask this, but I think take your time, don’t worry about hitting some number. If you’re in it, and you’re engaged, and you’re fascinated, some movies have legitimate prologues to them. They do. And it’s totally fine. Totally.

John: I agree. Cool. All right, let’s get to our main feature for today, which is How Would this be a Movie. So this is the segment which we were supposed to do last week, but we ran out of time. So, we’ve had more time to look at these four stories that were in the news. All of these were submitted by listeners. And so I think actually one of them is by Craig, but Craig sometimes listens to the podcast.

Craig: True.

John: Let’s start out with Florence Nightingale and the Woman in Disguise. So this is the true story of Dr. James Barry, pioneering Army doctor who made many crucial reforms. Told off Florence Nightingale. Performed the first successful Cesarean Section. And was secretly a woman in disguise.

Craig: Great. So great.

John: Craig, what kind of movie would this be?

Craig: Well, this feels like it has to be the mood, right. There’s no way to do some side movie about this. You want to just go at it and do it as the movie. You want to do it as an examination of what it’s like to be a woman in the 19th Century, working in a field that is barely – barely civilized at this point. I mean, we’re talking like they had just figured out to wash before chopping legs off. And she is better than everyone and isn’t allowed to practice. And so she becomes a man.

And obviously there’s – it’s a modern story because we are only now really wrapping our minds around the fluidity of gender. And there’s this also like a really interesting twist to this story where Dr. Barry, whose real name was Margaret Ann Bulkley, Dr. Barry spent almost all of his life living with a black man who was her – I guess her assistant, her servant. Not her slave. Man-servant. Wasn’t a slave.

And this guy lived with her for 50 years and there’s this beautiful detail where every morning he would lay out six small towels which she would use to hide her curves and broaden her shoulders. So he was part of her thing completely. And there’s this wonderful combination of two characters who are living lives that are repressed and tightened down by the outside world, helping each other in the strangest way. But she had no – it did not appear to be a romantic relationship. In fact, Dr. Barry had a reputation as a ladies man. Not sure if she was gay, or if this was just a cover. It’s hard to tell. But, I think overall what I found so fascinating about this beyond the – I guess you’d call it the more prurient aspects – is that Dr. James Barry seemed like a real hard-ass.

Like, you know, I love – I think this is the greatest bit in a weird way, is that Florence Nightingale, the symbol of women in medicine, he was just disgusted by her. [laughs] Told her to beat it. Just like everything we know about grouchy jerk doctors. Yeah, you know what? Margaret Ann Bulkley, AKA Dr. James Barry, she got to be as jerky as she wanted. She did the first Cesarean ever. So, I would just tell this one straight up. And I would probably concentrate on her relationship with her servant, John.

John: The other relationship I thought was fascinating was her mother. And so her mother was around during at least the starting part of this, her going to medical school, and was clearly complicit in this whole act about this was not her daughter, but the son. That is a fascinating dynamic, too. So, what is going through the mom’s head as her daughter is doing all this stuff?

You’re also right to point out that even though this is a biopic set in a specific time, it’s a modern movie. And you cannot make this movie without addressing the modern dynamics of what we think about what she’s doing in this time.

So, if you made this movie 20 years ago, it could be sort of a crossdressing thing. But I think you couldn’t do this movie now without looking at like what are the real gender identity issues here. And we have to sort of put a modern label on whatever she’s doing. And you’re going to have to make the decision as a screenwriter how you’re going to portray that. Because you can’t just be ambiguous. You have to really make a decision about like does she perceive herself as a woman or as a man.

Does she perceive herself as something else? What is really driving her? And we have all these fascinating details, but it’s going to be the writer’s job to figure out why are those details there. Like what is actually going on inside her head that is making her make these choices?

Craig: Yeah. I agree. And I think that there’s something – hopefully you find, okay, the circumstances that connect you to now, to audiences now, and I think in this case it’s pretty clear what those are. But then there are the other things you’re looking for, which are the circumstances that connect you to a general human condition that has always been true. Something universal over all times, for all people.

And in this case, the thing that I read in this article that I thought might have been a hint to that, and I sort of touched on it earlier, is Florence Nightingale’s description of Dr. Barry as “the most hardened creature I ever met throughout the Army.” And there is something about the cost of hardening yourself so that you are not revealed.

And that is really interesting to me. And I would love to see what that cost might have been for Dr. Barry. And why she got so hard. And I think that’s an interesting – you know, there are people who refuse to let the world beat them. She certainly seemed like that person. I’m not going to let the world beat me. I’m going to become Dr. James Barry. I am a male doctor and I will not be pushed around. And no one is going to get in my way.

But then there is a cost. And so that’s fascinating to me. So, this actually is a movie. I think somebody should and could do this. There is a new biography of her called, or him, depending, Dr. James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time, written by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield. And it is available for £18.99. And I would be surprised if somebody didn’t – if somebody hasn’t already optioned the rights to this.

John: Yeah. There’s an actress chopping at the bit to play that part.

Craig: Precisely.

John: So, we’ll have a link to this in the show notes. This article we read was by Joseph Curtis who is writing for Mail Online.

Our next story is called The Perfect Mom. It was submitted by Brett Thomas in Sacramento. It tells the story of Gypsy, a girl with a litany of debilitating diseases, who grows up loved and cared for by her devoted mother, Dee Dee. Their relationship is admired by all their neighbors until one night a mysterious Facebook post unravels a tale of murder and deceit. The mother and daughter faked the girl’s illnesses for 20 years. The mother seemed to be imposing symptoms of muscular dystrophy and other diseases on the child.

Gypsy’s only escape was to contact her online boyfriend and convince him to help her murder her mother and disappear into rural Wisconsin. The two are eventually captured and tried for murder in the first degree. And, man, this story has everything.

Craig: [laughs] It’s got everything. Yeah. It’s got everything except the thing that I kind of want the most, where I was struggling to find the right way in here. I was struggling to find that thing that would illuminate something else.

This is a real thing, obviously Munchausen by proxy. And it’s a tragic thing. And the woman who was doing this to her daughter was a bad person. She didn’t deserve to be murdered, but she was bad. She was doing a terrible thing. Her daughter clearly was abused mentally and emotionally and perhaps her mental health was significantly impaired. She hooks up with this guy. He seems like a real winner, too. He commits this murder.

And that’s how it ends. And no one is really – who do I root for here? And what do I want to happen? I don’t even feel a sense of justice, frankly, that they’re caught and go to jail. I feel nothing except a general nihilistic – this is a true crime and it could be a great episode of a series in that sense, but as a movie it feels too nihilistic, I guess.

John: I agree with you. So, the challenge of a movie is that you want to have a main character you can follow. And so would either one of these be the main character you follow? Oh, that’s tough. Because if you follow it from Gypsy’s point of view, then you’re in on the ruse, so you sort of know that she’s not actually as sick as she thinks. Unless you were really changing things and she really believes she’s as sick as her mother makes her sort of state. And maybe over the course of the story you’re discovering with her that she’s actually not so sick.

You could do it from Dee Dee’s point of view, but that’s sort of an odd thing, too. Like, when you have your central character being this very dark force, it’s a challenging thing. Talented Mr. Ripley does that. And it’s great. So, maybe it’s the maternal Talented Mr. Ripley, in a way. But it’s a very challenging way into a story.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, Ripley, there’s a reason that that first Ripley novel has been made twice now, and I think they’re contemplating making it a third time, whereas many of the subsequent Ripley novels haven’t because there is something about a sociopath discovering his sociopathy and beginning on a journey that ends in tears and drama that’s interesting. This is not that.

This is basically the deal. This has been going on forever. There’s no other way to do it. You can’t start with a little kid. And just, yeah, I feel like it is a cool side show episode for something, but…

John: Yeah. So I think there is a Lifetime movie to be made about this. And I think the way you get into the Lifetime movie is like it’s one of the neighbors who starts to suspect something and sort of starts to unravel this. And so it’s Dee Dee versus this neighbor who is starting to pull the threads and have everything come apart. That’s a way in. But that’s not really a feature movie. That very much feels like a seven-act Lifetime made-for-television movie.

And there’s nothing wrong with those, but that’s not sort of the big marquee movie we’re dealing with here.

Craig: Yeah. And even in the Lifetime version, the neighbor would be the hero, you know.

John: Completely. And so the other option you have is if it is just an episode of a standard TV show, then it’s a little bit more straightforward because then you have – your heroes are already established. They are the heroes of every episode. And they’re coming in to investigate this thing. So, if it is the equivalent of a Law & Order or a Chicago P.D., they’re coming into this thing with one set of assumptions and there are new things being revealed each time that you go through it.

Craig: Right.

John: That’s much more straightforward.

Craig: Yeah. And that’s fun. Because – I mean, fun in a sick way. You begin to suspect, you know, around right before the second commercial break, or however they divide these things up, that wait a second, she’s not sick at all. Dum, dum, dum, commercials. And so that works, because you know you’re going to be able to wrap it up, send the bad person to jail, or figure out that she was the one that murdered her own mother. And you wrap it up and then two lawyers sit in a room going, “Wow. Life’s crazy, right?” [laughs] And that’s kind of how those shows work, right? Basically, right?

That’s how those shows work. So, yes, good fodder for a procedural, not a feature.

John: So, we’ll put a link to think story. It’s written by Michelle Dean for BuzzFeed.

All right, our next one comes from Rachael Speal, who wrote in with a story of an amateur sleuth. Craig, why don’t you talk us through this?

Craig: So, like a real life Nancy Drew case here. It’s kind of great. There’s this 12-year-old girl named Jessica Maple, which I must say is a great movie name. Jessica Maple.

John: It’s a great movie name.

Craig: So Jessica Maple, also a denizen of Atlanta, she went to a camp called Junior District Attorney Camp, sponsored by the Fulton County DA Office. And at that camp she learned how to be a detective. You know, and you can imagine how cute that is. You know, it’s like a camp for middle schoolers to learn basic detective stuff.

And then lo and behold, someone broke in and ransacked her great-grandmother’s home. And the police, you know, did a little swing by and said, “Well, whoever robbed the home must have entered with a key because large items were stolen and there’s no sign of forced entry.”

But, our junior sleuth, Jessica Maple, 12 years old, knew something wasn’t right, because the only people that had keys were her parents, and they wouldn’t rip off her great-grandmother. So, she investigated the scene and found in fact that on the side of the house of the garage the windows were broken, fingerprints by the glass. And lo and behold she went to the pawn shop down the street, as she had learned to do at camp, and found all of her grandmother’s stuff at the pawn shop.

And that’s how they actually found the guys that did it. So, Jessica Maple, Sleuth.

John: She is a preteen sleuth. You got about ten pages of movie there. You got like a premise. So, here’s the thing: she’s an interesting character, and an interesting sort of setup in a world, but there’s nothing else around that. That can’t sustain a movie just by itself. There’s not a through line there. There’s not a big thing to have happen.

So, if she is a center piece character in this, it feels that this is a thing that’s happening by page 15, or through all this, and then she’s on to some sort of like really grizzly murder. Or something goes way beyond, because you have to be able to sort of push beyond the like, oh, she found her grandmother’s stuff. That’s not enough.

Craig: [laughs] High stakes. Because, you know, great-grandmother needs her TV for the remaining four months of her life. You know, the biggest problem I think here is that we have seen the teen sleuth or the child sleuth in every permutation possible, once a month, for the last 40 years, minimum. It’s just a standard. Take a kid and turn them into a cop or a detective. It’s been done a billion times.

And usually they’ll throw some other twist on to it, just to make it a little more interesting. You know, oh, now he’s a spy or whatever. There’s no oil left in this ground. It is a dry well, I’m afraid.

John: Yeah. Craig, at any point did you pitch on Encyclopedia Brown? Did that ever enter your world?

Craig: It did. And I’ll tell you how. And it was the coolest and yet worst thing. It’s actually a great and sad story about my life.

So, one day Scott Frank calls me up and he says, and this is many years ago, Harold Ramis was still alive. And he said, “I was talking to Harold Ramis about you and he got very excited because he has something that he thinks you would be great for and he wants to talk to you about it.” And I just levitated. I mean, Harold Ramis, for god’s sakes. You know, I mean, just the greatest thing.

And Harold Ramis called me. And I spoke with him on the phone. And he said, “How would you like to write Encyclopedia Brown?” And I didn’t.

John: You didn’t?

Craig: I didn’t. I did not want to write it. And the thing is if he had said, “I’m going to be directing Encyclopedia Brown,” I would have said I’m in. But he’s like, “Yeah, I’m producing it. But we’re going to find a director somehow.” And I could tell it was like, oh yeah, I got this thing in my pile of stuff. Encyclopedia Brown. And I just thought, no.

John: No.

Craig: And I was an Encyclopedia Brown fan and everything, but it’s just, you know, well, you know, obviously, I mean, look at the last thing I just wrote with these sheep. I’m an Agatha Christie kind of a guy. I’m less of a Hardy Boys/ Encyclopedia Brown guy.

John: So, what is Encyclopedia Brown’s real first name?

Craig: Leroy?

John: It is Leroy. And so that was always my premise for the pitch is that he’s Detective Leroy Brown. Detective Leroy Brown does not sound like a 12-year-old white kid in Florida. It sounds like Sam Jackson. And so my pitch for it was always that it was a sort of mistaken identity thing where they thought they were hiring Sam Jackson detective, but they got the little boy detective. And so like the Sam Jackson character and he have to team up to solve this thing. Which I thought would have been fun.

Craig: Yeah. That would have been – but, I’d like to note, you are running away as fast as you can from what Encyclopedia Brown actually is.

John: I think you have to do all the normal stuff with Bugs Meany, and Sally, and all that stuff. That has to be playing in one thing, but also it gets incredibly Michael Mann level of car chases and violence simultaneously.

Craig: But then like inevitably Bugs Meany goes to prison because, you know, he said that he was in the treehouse eating cherries all afternoon.

John: Yes. But where were the pits?

Craig: Where were the pits? Bugs Meany needed a lawyer desperately, because any time he got busted all he would have to say is, “You know, I talked to my attorney. I don’t really think the Where Are the Pits is going to hold up in court, Pal.”

John: Yeah. Probably not. But then again, like, Encyclopedia Brown was being paid a quarter, so the dollar stakes were not especially high.

Craig: [laughs] And how embarrassing for his dad. Embarrassing bordering on humiliating. His father was the Chief of Police.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Routinely could not solve even the simplest of crimes, but Encyclopedia Brown would always solve it before dessert.

John: Is there an equivalent term for like cuckolding there? Which is basically like humiliating your father? [laughs]

Craig: Yeah. It’s kid-culking. Cuck-kilding. Cuck-kidding. It’s Cuck-kidding.

John: All right. So, back to Jessica Maple. We’ll have a link in the show notes for this story. This was from ABC News. It’s really just the slightest little whiff. So, there’s an idea about a character here, but there’s nothing to buy. There’s nothing to make obviously.

Craig: I mean, but good for the real Jessica Maple, though.

John: Great name. You can take the name Jessica Maple. It’s fine.

Craig: Yeah.

John: All right. Our last one, oh, is a doozy.

Craig: Now, I have to say, the little preface here. I was talking to my television agent today. She mentioned this thing. She didn’t know that we were doing this. I believe that she is one of the agents at CAA that is representing this currently. So, they’re going out to the town with this one. And she actually said, you know, would you—

And I’m like, no. But, it’s tempting. [laughs] It’s tempting.

John: So, what we’re talking about which is so good is by Christopher Goffard. It’s a six-part series in the LA Times spaced out over the course of a couple weeks of this story. But it very much felt like to me like a big Vanity Fair piece, because it very much had that sort of like peeling back layers.

It’s the story of this Kelli Peters, a mom in Irvine, California. She’s the PTA president. She gets arrested for drug possession. She denies the charge, claimed she got framed. But who could have done this to her? It turns out it was Kent and Jill Easter. They blamed Peters for an incident involving their son at school. And the couple continued to connive. They tried to get her fired. They planted the drugs. They covered things up. And it was just kind of amazing.

So, the story tracks the trial basically and the investigation onto why the Easters did this and sort of how they did this. And, Craig, how would this be a movie?

Craig: Oh, boy. I mean, so, it’s not a movie. It’s a television show, I think. I think it has to be a series, just like this article is a series. Because the unfolding is where the deliciousness is. The resolution itself is forgone. So, the only – you know, once you realize, once the police realize this lady is the first lady in history who is actually telling the truth when she says people planted – those aren’t my drugs – she’s the first one who told the truth in history. And once they realize that, you have to know already that these other two are involved.

In fact, you want to know. You want the audience to see them squirming and conniving. You want to be part of their squirming and conniving, because that’s where the fun is. For instance, the Mrs. Easter – god, what great names, by the way. They’re just like giving us great names. Mrs. Easter is having an affair, so I want to see that, too. Not only is she getting her husband to plant drugs in this woman’s car and fake calls to 911 using like a weird Indian accent, kind of, but she’s also berating her side piece for not being supportive enough of her when the police come after her. She’s incredible.

So, you want to be involved in all of that. You can’t wait for it to just all fall apart in the third act. It’s got to be like a six-parter, right?

John: I think so. One of the things I enjoyed so much about this piece as presented on the Times website is they have the actual audio of a lot of stuff, so they have like the police interviewing him and other little small calls. And so you actually – it’s one thing to see the transcript, but to actually hear it in their voices. Like, oh man, these people are just not making good choices. Bad choices all around.

So, I agree with you that we have to be able to see sort of behind the curtain and see what the Easters are doing. And they are the fascinating characters. You’re like, Kelli Peters, she’s great. I have nothing bad to say about Kelli Peters, but the fascinating thing is Kent and Jill and sort of what their real dynamic is.

And even at the end of this six-part series we don’t really know what was kind of happening in those conversations about when they were deciding to plant the drugs. We don’t know why he stayed. We don’t know if he was really behind things. If she was behind the things. The most fascinating dynamic to me, though, is that they’re both lawyers and the investigation was so hampered by their both being lawyers, because they had attorney-client privilege, which made it very hard to go through all their emails to find stuff.

Craig: Right.

John: They had spousal privilege about testifying against each other. So, it became this whole game about sort of how you get them to testify. So, there were a lot of really great things, but I feel like they are series things, rather than movie things.

Craig: Yeah. I agree. There is a difficult thing at the center here that would have to really be thought through carefully. And it’s not evident in this article yet. And maybe it’s the most fascinating thing, I suppose, that Jill Easter – and it seems like it was her problem initially – Jill Easter, the thing that makes her so upset, and it wasn’t like there was a history of a problem with this other woman, Kelly. It’s just one day her kid wasn’t out in front from the tennis court where he was getting a tennis afterschool lesson or something. And then the Kelli lady went and got the kid. Oh, yeah, like for three minutes he was kind of unattended on the tennis court. Which is just not that big of a deal.

And just so people understand, this whole story takes place in Irvine. So, when my son was playing–

John: The setting is so crucial.

Craig: It’s crucial. So, my son was playing tournament baseball for a while, and every Memorial Day we’d have to go to Irvine for this massive baseball tournament. Irvine is the most – I don’t know how you describe. It’s like a computer made a nice city. You know? Right?

I mean, the streets are impossibly wide in Irvine. It’s like every street is 12 lanes wide, and there’s no dirt anywhere. So, your kid being alone for three minutes on a tennis court is not the end of the world, and even if it were like you’d talk it out and she’d apologize and that’s that.

But this little thing sends this woman and then by extension her husband into a mania that is just unwarranted even by the merits of crazy people. And that’s the part that really concerns me about the adaptation of this story. I don’t mind villains doing crazy things as long as I understand the little sane kernel behind it. Like, you know, Holly Hunter did that wonderful movie about the true story of the murderous Texas cheerleading mom.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: But I get it. It’s like, okay, the hyper-competitiveness and the need to promote your child. I get that there’s a kernel of sanity that spirals out of control. There’s not even that here. It actually doesn’t make sense.

John: I think it does make sense. And here’s where I think the – this is the universal truth that’s underneath all of this. I think it’s equivalent of like the hygiene hypothesis. You know how like because we are so obsessed with keeping our hands clean and stuff like that we have horrible allergies now that we didn’t use to have.

I think in some ways Irvine and sort of our modern culture, everything is – there’s so little crime, there’s so little danger anywhere that we keep looking for it. And we sort of overreact to things that shouldn’t be things that we react to at all.

And so in her overreaction to this not really big deal, she goes like cavewoman crazy about how to defend her kid. And that, I think, it’s all about overreactions. And I think that is the universal thing you can get to underneath all of this. And that’s why I think the setup for this is also brilliant, because the author does a great job of really just describing how pristine this place is, but also how remarkably competent the police are.

As you were reading through this, weren’t you just struck by like, wait, they can actually trace all of those calls down to a specific payphone and actually find the video surveillance. Compared to like Serial where we couldn’t, like did [unintelligible] even have a payphone? We don’t know. Here they know everything. They know exactly where the cellphones worked for times. They have all these special pinging things. They knew everything kind of from the start. It was remarkable to me sort of how competent the police were.

They have like 20 detectives on this tiny little case. And, again, that feels like an overreaction to something that shouldn’t kind of be that big of a deal. No one got killed. So, it’s strange. The other thing I will say is I felt some sympathy for the Easter’s kids who are very carefully kind of left out of the story, but in a movie you’re going to see them there and you’re going to think like, oh man, something bad is going to happen to those kids because their parents are going to be in jail.

Craig: Yeah. And they are ruined. I mean, at the end of this, what was a very comfortable seems like upper-class lifestyle has been dashed to bits. The marriage is broken. All because of this insane thing. In a weird way, I wasn’t surprised by the Irvine police force’s ability to do this, because I don’t know what else they do. I mean, I’m not denigrating them. I know there is crime in Irvine, but my guess is that they have the time and resources to dedicate to this because it is a pretty safe city.

And I loved the conversation that is recorded, the real conversation you can hear in this article between the cop when he’s interviewing Kent. Because Kent is a lawyer and this guy is just asking him questions like where were you and what did you do and did you hear about this, and blah, blah, blah. And at some point he goes, “You know, I’ve been asking you questions now for a while. I think you know that there’s something probably going on here, right? I mean, you’re a lawyer. You know that cops just don’t chat you up for a while just ‘cause. So why don’t we just get to the point here, right?”

And then Kent was like, “Yeah, yeah.” It’s great. It’s great. That character was terrific. That conversation was terrific. It could be a terrific – yeah, it feels like a series to me, like a mini.

John: I think there probably is – there’s a way we’re not thinking about it that you could do as a movie. Because people say Gone Girl and it’s like Gone Girl could have totally been a series, too, but Gillian Flynn was so smart at sort of finding the way to tell that is a two-hour movie.

And I think there’s something about breaking it half where you actually crossover into the Easter’s point of view on things and really see what they’re doing. And that becomes fascinating. So, you’re going to see it. The universal truth behind all of this as well is like never go for revenge. Like the classic saying is when you seek revenge, first dig two graves. One for your enemy and one for you. And it’s so fascinating to watch how it boomerangs back at the Easters. They’re trying to destroy this woman’s life and in the course of maybe, I don’t know, 20 minutes of stupidity they destroy their own lives and their families. It’s remarkable how completely they’re able to ruin everything around them.

Craig: Yeah. And you get to listen to the actual call that Kent made where he posed as a man with an Indian last name but who did not have an accent until he sort of did. It is a – they should teach it in lying school, because it’s so clearly not valid. You can just smell it. You can smell that it’s a lie. It’s remarkable. There’s a lot of good stuff here.

And, yeah, I think you’re right. There’s a way to do it as a feature, but if you’re going to do it as a feature I think you are going to need license to stray. Quite a bit actually. To get to something at the end that feels like an end. That matters, you know.

John: I agree. So, we’ll have a link to all of these articles in the show notes so you can click through and see how you would make them into a movie, or not into a movie. But that’s it for that.

So, it’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is potentially depressing, but also really well done, so worth reading for that. It’s an article in the New York Times by Naomi Rosenberg, a Philadelphia ER doctor, called How to Tell a Mother Her Child is Dead.

Craig: Oh god. I’m sure this could be potentially depressing.

John: But I think it’s actually fascinating for screenwriters, because I’m always obsessed with procedure. Like what is the actual procedure when you have to do this thing. When there’s a certain kind of investigation. Well, this is the procedure you go through if you have to go into the room and tell a parent that their child has been killed.

And Rosenberg is incredibly thoughtful about what the experience is going to be like for the physician, what the experience is going to be like for the parent, and how you bridge the two of them. So, I’ll give you a taste here.

“When you get inside the room you will know who the mother is. Yes, I’m very sure. Shake her hand and tell her who you are. If there is time you shake everyone’s hand. Yes, you will know if there is time. You never stand. If there are no seats left, the couches have arms on them.”

Craig: Ugh.

John: So, it’s incredibly well-written. It’s just really thoughtful and smart about what that process is like. Even getting into the you’re not allowed to say that they were murdered. You’re not allowed to say they were killed. You say very specific things. They’re not allowed to see the body because there could be an investigation. It does everything just right. So, I really recommend all screenwriters take a look at it.

Craig: You know what would be a cool scene is if somebody knew this, they knew that when the doctor comes in and sits, even on the edge of the couch, it means the kid is dead. And then they have to go in. And the doctor comes in and site. Ugh. Blech. This is the problem with being a writer. You just think about bad things all day long.

Well, here’s a good thing. Maybe. This is a potentially cool thing, because I haven’t played it yet, and I’ll explain why. Obduction. Not Abduction. Obduction. O-B-duction is a new mistype game from Cyan. The Miller Brothers, who were the creators of Mist. So, it looks like kind of a Mist for 2016. And I’m sure you played Mist.

John: I loved Mist.

Craig: Right. It’s the greatest. So, I am super excited to play it. Ah, but I can’t. And why? Well, it is available for PC and Mac. Apparently the Mac version is having a little bit of problems. But my problem is that the only way to play it is to download it from Steam. And I maybe somewhat imprudently decided to just jump on the Sierra beta bandwagon. So, I’m running Sierra and I think the problem is Steam is like, oh no no, this game isn’t supported on your platform because they don’t recognize my OS version number. So, it’s like a weird thing like you need to hit a number, and if you’re too low you’re no good. And if you’re above the highest number that they recognize, you’re also no good.

So, hopefully that’s what the problem is. And when the official Sierra release happens, maybe Steam updates and then I can play this damn thing. Because I paid for it.

John: That’s good. I should say, Sierra is a challenge on a lot of different levels. So, both Highland and Bronson Watermarker, two apps that we make, they are going to have updates for Sierra because of like one specific thing that changed in Sierra, which we went back and forth with Apple a bunch of times on and they did not get fixed in the build master.

So, if you are using Highland or Bronson Watermarker on Sierra, there will be a new version out in the App Store hopefully by the time it ships on the 20th so that you will be able to keep using those apps.

Craig: Great.

John: But it’s challenging. I agree.

All right. That is our show for this week. As always, we are produced by Godwin Jabangwe. Edited by Matthew Chilelli.

Our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro, you can write into and send us a link for that. Also a place for the longer questions like the ones we answered.

On Twitter, I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. I’m also on Instagram. I use Instagram stories a lot for sort of all my time in Paris. And so if you want to see a bunch of photos of like kids carrying baguettes and little dogs in restaurants–

Craig: [laughs] I don’t.

John: That’s where you can find all of those photos.

Craig: Nah.

John: You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at

That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. Godwin usually has them up about four days after the episode airs.

All the back episodes of the show are at And on the Scriptnotes USB drives which are I think now just back in the store. We sold out of them, but we had a couple hundred more made. So, if you’d like to buy one of those, you can buy those.

We’re on iTunes, of course, so if you could leave us a review that helps. It helps people find our show. And that’s it for this week. Craig, thank you again.

Craig: Thank you. And adieu.

John: Adieu. Bye.

Craig: Bye.


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(Sometimes) You Need a Montage

Tue, 09/20/2016 - 08:03

John and Craig come to the defense of montages in screenwriting, giving examples of how and when the much-maligned device can be employed to benefit the story.

We also share our thoughts on the latest incarnation of Final Draft, plus new listener questions on sex scenes and resuscitating old scripts.


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You can download the episode here.

Starting a screenwriting career outside of LA (or New York, or London)

Fri, 09/16/2016 - 07:55

In a recent episode of Scriptnotes, we shared stories from screenwriters who managed to build careers while living outside of Los Angeles, New York or London.

We had more contributors than we could feature in the episode, so here are a few more tales from the trenches.

Chad from Nashville, TN: After studying film in college, I moved from NY back to Tennessee to get better at writing screenplays. It took eight years of writing to win Slamdance’s competition. I had been a finalist in others and even won a smaller festival, but they didn’t really matter besides being a barometer for my writing progression. But with the Slamdance win for my horror screenplay JUG FACE, I was able to get most anyone to read it.

I contacted a producer who had made other horror films that I felt my movie fit in with. At the same time, I had been in preproduction on a horror short and was about to shoot it the very next weekend after speaking with that producer. Three weeks later, I sent him the completed short and he called me that night and said we were going to make the movie with me directing it. Five months after that, we shot JUG FACE and it premiered at Slamdance the very next year. The film went on to get world wide distribution and did pretty good for an indy horror film.

Since then I’ve gotten management and have had a number of projects fizzle but have finally made the move to LA to make things happen. My family and I landed here six weeks ago.

Alan from Connecticut: I am a produced screenwriter with screen credits for two Lifetime movies. I have lived in Connecticut my whole life and attended an online college program through the Academy of Art based in San Francisco.

After graduating, I worked on several spec scripts and began the long process of manual queries. I placed in a few screenwriting competitions, but they led no where. I finished a MOW Thriller and used IMDB Pro to get production contacts for niche low-budget companies. After getting a few hits, I used my spec to get my first assignment and it was produced into the film “Her Infidelity”.

All of my meetings, contracts, and contact has been done through phones, email, and faxing. It has worked out fairly well. I have other projects in development, but have not reached a point where I am screenwriting full-time yet. I also edit wedding videos and do a lot of freelance writing to help supplement my screenwriting career.

I may not be a traditional screenwriter, but I am happy and proud of my credits and hope to have more in the future. I just wanted to let you guys know that I have had screenwriting success without stepping foot in California and am still in continual development on projects.

Chris in Arizona: I live in Arizona and recently got hired for my first feature. I had done a few episodes of TV prior to this and as all aspiring writers do, submitted many scripts for competitions and what not.

Unfortunately the show I was originally hired to do never made the light of day (due to the writers strike a few years back), but I have to always assume it’s the norm.

Regardless of that I worked as an exhibitor, a fancy way of saying I worked for a movie theater company. The way things really began is I started building relationships with people in the industry when our theaters would do research screenings and I was assigned to coordination and handling the “talent”. An easy job for me. I started out speaking with many post production supervisors and would ask for introductions to producers, editors, and directors during screenings. Not to pitch or be annoying but the chance to say my name, them to see my face, and do what I was supposed to do for my job.

Over time many of these industry professionals would use our locations consistently and began calling me directly on my cell phone for scheduling changes, requests, etc.. Eventually relationships became more and more relaxed and I was able to have more casual conversations which eventually led into THEIR inquiry of my enjoyment of my job. I never approached anyone myself but allowed the conversations to flow naturally. I didn’t want to be the norm of what I assumed they were used to.

Basically it was a right place, right time, situation for a lot of things but it happened outside of the traditional locations.

JJ in Chicago: I’ve managed to make some money screenwriting from out here in Chicago. So far it has only been in independent films.

It started when I sent a spec to a producer friend in LA. He passed it to another producer who happened to be looking for someone to do a rewrite on his script. He asked for more samples and I was hired a few days later.

After forming a relationship with that producer I’ve been hired for a few more projects since that first one.

That said, I still have a day job and am finishing up another spec with hopes of making it into the big leagues one day.

Isaac in Portland, OR: I graduated long ago with an MA in Film Studies but decided soon after that what I really wanted was to become was a novelist. I pursued that for a number of years, getting five books published, but none that were successful enough to keep me from simultaneously working various day jobs. My first real exposure to the movie industry came when one of my books, Tokyo Suckerpunch, was optioned, first by Fox Searchlight and later by Sony. Talking to folks who worked on it and reading various scripts that emerged from its long development process de-mystified screenwriting a bit for me. I started reading every script I could get my hands on, thinking maybe this was something I could do one day.

I wrote the requisite terrible first script that I showed to maybe two people before burying it. The next script I finished I uploaded to the Black List site. That one attracted the attention of a manager. The next one went out and won a few fans around town. I flew to LA for some generals. The script after that was eventually optioned by an independent production company.

My manager encouraged me to come up with some TV ideas. I was wrestling with a sci-fi pilot for months when I decided to take a break and from that and write this crazy idea that had been germinating in my head for a long time — a Michael Jackson biopic told from the perspective of his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles.

That script blew up in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Within a couple weeks of BUBBLES hitting the town, I was back in LA for a whirlwind water bottle tour — meetings with execs, producers, agents, directors (the experience underscored what you often tell listeners about finding an agent — when you’re ready for one, they will find you). The script ended up atop the 2015 Black List and eventually sold.

I’ve been steadily working since, though given that I’m less than two years into my career as a professional screenwriter, it remains to be seen whether I can maintain any kind of career longevity living outside LA. Moving there is not really an option for me at the moment — I have two young children and love living in Portland. But I spend a week in LA about every three months and my reps understand that if something comes up and I have to hop on a plane tomorrow, I’ll be there. I spend a lot of time on Skype and on the phone, but so far being at a geographic remove hasn’t hurt me in any way that I’m aware of (major caveat: all my work so far has been in features rather than TV). I’ve been told by more than one exec that I’m lucky because writing features is maybe the one job in the industry where you can live pretty much anywhere.

Raj in Toronto: I myself am not a working screenwriter, but I am a producer and have had a successful and busy career in film and tv living exclusively in Toronto, and producing only original content. I work with and engage with scores of screenwriters who live locally and earn a living through domestic (i.e. Canadian) work. Some writers (and producers and directors too) split their time between the US and Canada — either on a calendar basis (e.g. several months here, several State-side) or on a per project basis. Even more stay and work here 100% of the time.

Toronto is replete with the head offices of broadcasters, production companies and distributors, all of which can and do trigger millions of dollars of original production.

One issue we share with the US is that if you want a career in film and tv in Canada, and you live outside of Toronto or Vancouver, it’s possible but very difficult to stay where you are. If you decide not to move to either city, you do have to spend much of your time travelling to pitch and take meetings.

One major difference in Canada is that we have no studio system. Instead, we have a vibrant community of smaller independent producers and prodcos.

Ryan in Vancouver: I am a thirty-four-year-old working screenwriter, living in Vancouver, Canada. I have a literary agent here, and have somehow cobbled together a living writing for Canadian broadcasters, and for TV movies. I wrote for a couple of tween sitcoms that were shot and created in Vancouver and later sold to Disney and Netflix. I’ve also picked up the odd independent feature writing gig.

That being said, I do still aim to head to LA (this is the year, I’m thinking), and I have started making more use of the screenwriting competition circuit (at least the bigger festivals, etc.). On that note, I actually just learned that a feature I wrote is a Semifinalist in the Austin Film Festival’s Best Dramatic Screenplay category. #NotSoHumbleBrag. I’m hoping it will help in my quest for a US agent. Time will tell.

These stories follow a pattern we discussed on the podcast. It’s more challenging to get your foot in the door when the door is thousands of miles away. But it’s not impossible.

Some writers have found competitions to be a good way of attracting the interest of managers. But we have yet to find one that got started based on a query letter, unless writers are eliding that detail.

While some working screenwriters are staying out of LA — often flying in regularly for meetings — quite a few pack up and move here. I call this the Nashville effect: moving to where the business is.

Thanks to all the writers (and producers) who wrote in to share their stories. We may feature more in the future.

Dig Two Graves

Tue, 09/13/2016 - 08:03

John and Craig reprise their roles as development execs in “How Would This Be a Movie?” Looking at four true crime stories, the duo discuss what makes a great screenplay idea, and conversely, which stories work better as a serialized TV drama.

We also attempt to brighten the spirits of aspiring writers living outside of LA, New York and London, sharing the experiences of Scriptnotes listeners across the globe who have found their way into the Hollywood system from abroad.


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You can download the episode here.

UPDATE 9-09-16: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 266: Stranger Things and Other Things — Transcript

Fri, 09/09/2016 - 09:30

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 266 of Scriptnotes. A podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast we will be looking at the Netflix series Stranger Things and the writing choices that made it work so well. The WGA elections are upon us again, so Craig will tell you who to vote for. Finally, we will be tackling four recent articles in the news and asking our favorite question: how would this be a movie?

For the first time, all the stories we’re looking at come from listener suggestions, so thank you.

And, Craig, we’re back.

Craig: We’re back. You are currently in Europa.

John: I’m in Europe.

Craig: We are now separated by how many hours? Nine?

John: Nine hours. So it is nine in the morning as you’re recording this. It is 6PM as I’m recording this. I guess that’s our first bit of follow up. At the last episode, I was about to get on a plane to Paris. And I didn’t chicken out. I did it. So I’m now here. I’ve been here 10 days. It’s all going really well.

Craig: That’s fantastic. And you at 6PM and me at 9AM, we should be roughly the same amount of tired.

John: It should be. I’m about ready for some dinner, and then some winding down, and heading into bed. And you’ve got a whole day ahead of you.

Craig: Yeah. But also probably ready for wine and a wind me down. I like to wake up and immediately start winding down.

John: One of the things I found challenging about being in Paris this time is usually when I’m here it’s vacation, so like, sure, let’s have wine at lunch. Sure, let’s have ice cream every day. And actually living here, that’s not a sustainable lifestyle, at least for me. So, I’m having to learn how to pace myself. And what living in Paris John is like versus vacationing in Paris John.

Craig: God, you know, I never thought of that. But it’s true. You’re in a different country and you think, all right, well, it’s the weekend. Let’s go do four things until we’re deadbeat. Eat way too much. And then have somebody clean our room. Nah. That ain’t happening.

John: Exactly. There’s none of that. I’ve had to learn how to do very basic Parisian things, like go to IKEA to buy the desk I need that I’m recording this podcast at. I’ll be sure to include a photo in the show notes of the desk setup I got, because I had to buy a children’s desk, because all of the desks are too big. I could only use a child’s desk in this apartment.

Craig: Aw.

John: Aw.

Craig: Your little, little child’s desk.

John: I’m a little child.

Craig: Is it the [Sturmfuhrer]? Is it the–? No, what is it called?

John: It’s the Pahl desk. It’s the P-A-H-L, but with a circumflex – not a circumflex, the two dots above the A. The Pahl desk is what I have.

Craig: Pahl.

John: So, you know, I had to go shopping for school supplies. I’ve had to do lots of really normal Parisian things.

Craig: And how are you doing language wise? Are you hanging in there?

John: I’m getting by. It’s slowly coming back to me. So, I can get by in French, I’m just not a natural French speaker. And so the goal is to be able to sort of answer back more smoothly as people talk to me. But people can speak at me full speed and I can usually understand what they’re saying.

Craig: That’s amazing.

John: Yeah. It’s pretty good. For folks who are kind of familiar with Paris, there are all the Arrondissements, which are sort of confusing. They’re laid out like a snail. The easiest way to think about where I am in the city is you know how you see those tourist photos of people near the Eiffel Tower. There’s like a great big lawn and they’re usually taking a photo where it looks like they’re pinching the Eiffel Tower or plucking the Eiffel Tower through forced perspective. You know all those really annoying photos?

Craig: Yeah.

John: I live right near where all those people take those annoying photos. So, that’s who I see every morning as I cut through the park.

Craig: Every morning you see Tower pinchers?

John: I see Tower pinchers.

Craig: God. You start yelling at them out your window now.

John: Tourists!

Craig: Go back to your country! Swine!

John: Swine!

Craig: Because, you know, French people speak English, but with a French accent. I don’t know if you knew that? That’s what French is. It’s accented English. Yeah.

John: Very true. Well, actually, you know the British accent is just American English and they just change a little bit.

Craig: Yeah. They make it silly.

John: They make it silly. Yeah.

Two episodes ago we had Peter Dodd on, the UTA agent. And he said that agents read the Nicholls finalists, but they don’t necessarily read the semifinalists and quarter-finalists. And he said there are thousands and thousands of semifinalists. Greg Beal from the Academy wrote in and sort of gave us the real numbers. So, here’s the actual numbers of how many semifinalists there are.

So, he said, “In a single year, the most Nicholls semifinalist scripts ever was 140.” Which is a lot of scripts.

Craig: Yeah.

John: “That means in the history of the competition there’s approximately 3,000 screenplays that have been semifinalists but were never finalists.” So, considering that some writers might have had two scripts, that’s at least 2,000, 2,500 people who can say like I was a Nicholls semifinalist. So that’s a lot.

Craig: It’s a lot.

John: But he also sent a list of the people who were the semifinalist but not the finalist, and there’s some really good names on that list. So, I thought we would end on an inspiring note and say who some of those people are. Names like Michael Arndt. Ava DuVernay. Mark Fergus. Vince Gilligan. Gavin Hood. David Levine. Damon Lindelof. Josh Marston. Melissa Rosenberg. John Spaihts. Frank Spotnitz. Meredith Stiehm.

So there’s a lot of really great writers who were semifinalists but not finalists. So, that’s encouraging.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, the implication – I don’t think Peter’s implication was if you don’t become a Nicholls finalist, and you only are a semifinalist, you’re never getting an agent. I think his implication was you’re probably not getting an agent because of the Nicholls. The script may find its way to him some other way. Or, you may write another script that is more attractive that people find you via. But, you know, our general thesis in that discussion that contests are perhaps overrated and the notion that writers have that contests are their ticket to the big time is probably more of a myth than a reality.

John: I think there’s also a correlation versus causation thing here. The fact that those writers who I listed there were finalists, well, that was because they were really good writers. And they were successful because they were really good writers. But, being a semifinalist was not the cause of them becoming successful. It was a correlation because they were already really good writers.

Craig: That is the rule that is overarching all of this stuff. Because, in the end, if you’re good enough to be a finalist, you don’t need to be a finalist. You’re good enough to be a finalist. It’s one of those things. Somehow or another the good should be borne out. And the cream should rise. And great scripts will be found. So, I guess the advice to people is to think, you know, everything good that might happen because of this script will happen because of this script. I am not trying to use this script to have something else happen. And that’s the thing that makes the good things happen.

John: Yeah. The good writing is the good writing. That is the ticket.

Craig: Yep.

John: We had a question from Andrew in Maryland. And so he was good enough to send in some audio. So, let’s take a listen to what he asked about that episode.

Andrew: Hi John and Craig. I’ve been a faithful listener since the early days of Scriptnotes and have always found the podcast entertaining and extremely helpful. However, I was deeply discouraged by two episodes – the One with the Agent, and Sheep Crossing Roads. It seems you’re saying there is really no hope for those of us who love screenwriting but live in other parts of the country and world.

I have a hunch the burning questions on the minds of your listeners not in LA are what does this mean for us. If we can’t move to LA, do we just hang up our spurs and write novels? I have a young family, so it’s not feasible for me to move to LA anytime soon. Should we even bother pressing toward our goals of becoming career screenwriters? I would love to know what you think we should do, if anything. Your faithful listener, Andrew from Maryland.

Craig: Well, this is a question we get all the time. And the answer, Andrew, is no. We’re not saying there is really no hope. We’re saying there is little hope. But then again, there’s little hope for people here. [laughs] You know? I mean, the deal is, I think I’ve said this before, if it’s a million-to-one shot in Los Angeles, and it’s five times worse in Maryland, then it’s a five million-to-one shot in Maryland. Those are all terrible odds.

So, you know, the problem of course is you have to think that you’re the one in the X million. And then do what’s best. But, it’s tough. We can’t sugarcoat reality here. It’s tough.

John: I wonder though if there’s a reality that we don’t actually appreciate, because we just haven’t found the writers who have actually broken in from outside the system. So, we have so many people who listen to the show, including working professional writers. I’m wondering how many of them actually broke in from some place outside.

So, basically they were Andrew from Maryland, and they wrote a script that somehow got the attention of people here. And now they’re working as a screenwriter or as a TV writer. So, if you’re listening to this and you are a working writer who started someplace else and got it all to work sort of from Andrew’s situation, could you please write us and let us know. Because we’d like to talk to you. I don’t know a lot of writers who have had that situation, but it must happen. So, write in to us. Write into and we’ll try to get your story out there. Because I really feel for Andrew.

Craig: Yeah. I do, too. I would say if you are in New York, excuse yourself from this exercise. That doesn’t count. But the only one I know of is Diablo. I don’t know anybody else that kind of just shot in here from a non-New York or California, or Southern California location.

John: Yeah. Gary Whitta doesn’t live in Los Angeles, but I think he might have been living in town when he started working.

Craig: You know what? Let’s also excuse London. That’s a great point. Because London has its own industry, and they make their own films. So, I would say, because we do get a lot of London writers who come over here because they initially work on London productions.

John: Like Kelly Marcel.

Craig: Right. Like Kelly Marcel. Well, there’s a ton of them. I mean, Tess Morris. And Kelly Marcel. And Gary Whitta, I assume, is a London guy, because he sounds Londony to me.

So London doesn’t count. New York doesn’t count. I’m going to accept every other place in the world.

John: Great. So we’d love to hear your stories if you have been able to start a writing career in film or television from someplace other than Los Angeles, New York, or London. Write in. Let us know. Because we could be wrong.

Craig: Yeah.

John: We’re often wrong. We love to be wrong.

Craig: I mean, John is often wrong. I don’t recall ever.

John: Yeah. We cut something out of this segment just now.

Craig: John was literally wrong seconds ago. [laughs]

John: One thing I’m not wrong about is Stranger Things, which is a terrific show on Netflix.

Craig: Segue Man.

John: Even in France, I am Segue Man. I’m l’homme de Segue.

Craig: L’homme de Segue. [laughs] Stranger Things, so, so much fun. Who doesn’t like this show? Nobody doesn’t like Stranger Things.

John: I found one person on Twitter who I follow who doesn’t like it. And he could be wrong. Craig, I was just so happy you watched it, because I watched it a couple weeks ago and I thought, well, Craig won’t watch it because Craig watches nothing. And then you surprised me by watching it.

Craig: Well, my wife said, “You’re going to watch this show now.” And I said, OK. That usually works. When the boss tells me to watch, I watch. And, frankly, what’s great about my position vis-à-vis watching TV is to me TV is the greatest medium of all time because I only watch the absolute best of shows. That’s it.

I’ve seen Breaking Bad. I’ve seen Stranger Things. And Game of Thrones. That’s what TV is to me. It’s an amazing machine.

John: It must be so intimidating when you try to do television yourself, because you assume that everything on TV–

Craig: How is that possible?

John: –if you turn on any random channel, it’s going to be just a masterpiece.

Craig: Actually, I weirdly assume that television is nothing but advertisements and then Breaking Bad, Stranger Things, and Game of Thrones. How else do they fill their day?

So I was talking to Mike Birbiglia the other day, and I said you’ve got to watch Stranger Things. Because, you know, and I hate telling people watch a show, because I know how I feel when people tell me to watch a show. And that’s basically angry.

But it goes down so smooth. It’s like drinking chocolate milk. It’s just, fooop, it’s in you. It’s so easy to watch. So easy to watch.

John: Now, there’s a good chance that some of our listeners have not watched the show yet. So, what we’re going to do is Godwin, when he listens to this episode, he will note the timecode of when we start hitting spoilers and then he will give you a timecode for when we’re done. So you can just read in the show notes about what you should skip to.

Obviously we have chapter breaks, but if you’re listening to this on a player that doesn’t have chapter breaks he’ll also give you the timecode so you can jump to the next segment if you don’t want any spoilers.

But I think on the whole we’re probably not going to go too spoiler heavy. We’re mostly just going to celebrate the things it did really well.

We could talk about the casting. We could talk about the production design. The terrific direction by the Duffer Brothers. And Shawn Levy who also stepped up and did a great job as well. But I really want to focus on the writing, because what I thought was so remarkable about the show is it took this premise, which to me felt like if we could have a Stephen King book, or an early Steven Spielberg movie, and do it as an eight-hour show, what would that feel like. And they pulled it off so geniusly. They were able to take that idea for a story and break it out over eight episodes in a way that didn’t feel tedious or padded. I was just really impressed by how they managed the control of information, the reveals of character details. It just all felt like it was of one piece. And so it was smartly done.

Craig: Well, you can see how much planning went into it. And this is a good lesson for anyone writing anything. I do think certainly for people writing films. But when you look at these limited series, an eight run series like this, it’s just a long movie is what it is, right, broken up into bits.

And what they did so wonderfully was carefully ration out information in such a way that you never felt under-informed, nor were you ever over-informed. You just wanted more. And that is a tricky balance to strike.

John: One of the other realizations I had is that this show, because it was dumped all as a block, you got to see all the episodes in one sitting if you wanted to. There wasn’t that week-to-week fan engine of curiosity or theories about who this character was or what was really going on. I think they knew from the start, because they were doing this for Netflix, that a person might watch the whole thing all at once. And they built it in a way that was rewarding if you were to watch it all at once, and didn’t feel like it was a show that you had to watch one week at a time.

Craig: I actually loved the fact that it didn’t come out one week at a time. Maybe a little counterintuitive, but because you may think from an executive point of view, a Netflix point of view, we have a problem here: if we dump all eight episodes of the show out, and this is a mystery, with multiple reveals throughout, what’s going to happen after day one when people just go online and start saying, “Here’s what happened. Here’s how it ended.”

In fact, in today’s culture, I feel the opposite is true. I feel that people respect that and don’t do that anymore. What they don’t respect, however, is the time in between time-lapsed episodes. So, if you do release an episode once a week in the traditional way, between your Sunday and Sunday, you have a week of people going bananas online attempting to explain things and guess.

So it’s like watching a movie with somebody next to you constantly whispering saying, “I think I know what’s going to happen. I think that that means this. I think that this is going to happen.” And you just want to kill them. And I don’t like that over-analysis, the interstitial over-analysis that goes on. So I love that this thing just went bloop and nobody had a chance to post endlessly long, boring theories about what you were about to see.

John: Agreed. So let’s take a look at what might have been on their whiteboard as they were mapping out these eight episodes. We obviously don’t have time to dig into the individual things on each individual episode, but what are the big macro notes as they were figuring out who the characters were, what was going to be revealed about each character in which episode, and sort of how the flow of the eight-episode season was going to work.

So, we start with episode one. The whole thing centers around the disappearance of a boy named Will Byers. And so Will Byers is obviously a key character. His mother is a key character. His brother is a key character. His best friends are key characters. And so we’re going to need to establish all of them.

We need to establish all of them. We need to establish the town. We need to establish the sheriff who is going to investigating his disappearance. That he’s not just a functional investigator, but he’s actually a flawed hero kind of character himself. And then there’s one other family that’s going to be very important. And so it’s his best friend, and his best friend’s sister. The family to some degree we’ll get to see. Am I leaving anybody else out of that initial sort of tableau?

Craig: The only other thing that you get early on is they establish a villain. They establish something dangerous and murderous that we can’t see. And they establish a bad guy with very stark white hair.

John: Absolutely. It’s also in the first episode that we meet the girl we’ll come to know as Elle. We first meet her on the run. She goes and she sneaks into a diner. She meets the owner, a guy named Benny, who seems like he’s going to be a useful, important, sympathetic character. He gets killed off very gruesomely. Let’s you know this is the kind of show where people will die suddenly. And that her life is in real danger.

By the end of the first episode, we’ve connected Elle with the boys. And we’ve pretty much established what the show is going to be like. That the engine of the show is the girl and the boys, the cops, Joyce, the mother played by Winona Ryder, searching for her son, and the bad guys.

Craig: Yeah. And what they’ve done is set up a bunch of questions. These are good burning questions, but we’re not overdosed on them. Question, what is in that laboratory? Question, what is the dangerous thing that kills a scientist in the laboratory? Question, it seems like that’s the thing that came after young Will Byers, but instead of killing him, young Will Byers just vanishes. Where did he go? Why would it do that?

And, lastly, the strange little girl, who we presume probably comes from the same lab, I guess, this girl doesn’t talk, and she seems somewhat traumatized. What’s the deal? All great questions. And not too many. Not not enough.

John: Exactly. And I thought it was very important that they show you that, you know what, we’re going to connect threads. This is not going to be one of those shows where people are going to be working in parallel forever. The girl is going to meet the boys by the end of episode one. And it feels, OK, you see what the shape of this is going to be by the end of episode one.

You get a sense of what the series is going to feel like. So, episode two, Barb – who is everyone’s favorite character – she is Nancy’s best friend. I should have explained that this is essentially a John Hughes movie that’s happening kind of in one frame of this. And it’s about her virginity. It’s all very kind of classically ’80s teen stuff, played pretty straight, although I would say some of that stuff goes a little broader in a kind of fun way.

But Barb is just this amazing character who disappears at the end of episode two. Joyce sees something climbing through the walls. This is where the supernatural things have started to intrude into our world. And so it clearly isn’t just the mystery of the disappeared boy. This is something that’s going to keep going on, and people are going to keep being in danger from these supernatural forces.

Craig: Right. And, again, for every bit – and this is what these guys are really good at – every time they gave us answer, they would then give us another question.

So, they give us an answer about this girl, Eleven. One answer is that, yes, she is from the hospital, and yes, bad people are chasing her, and no, she’s not a bad person. She’s a good person. But we also learn that she can move things with her mind. How? And yet still more questions. And she gives, I think, the boys the ultimate question at the end of this episode when she attempts to explain to them where Will is.

And she does it by taking – silently, no words – she shows that – they are all on their little Dungeons & Dragons game board. And then she flips the board over, puts Will on the back of the board, and puts him near a monster.

So, that’s a ton of questions. What the hell does that mean, right? But it was great. We learned a lot. And then they’re like, uh-huh, did you enjoy that information? Here comes more questions. Same thing with Barb. Barb vanishes. We get a little bit of information. There is some blood involved. And then she’s gone again. And someone has taken a picture – Will’s brother has taken a picture. So there’s a little bit of evidence now of something. And we also have this wonderful story of a mother who we all believe, and no one else believes, and that’s always just fun, you know. That’s just fun tension for us.

John: Absolutely. One of the things so crucial here is as an audience we are basically caught up with the characters. So, Eleven obviously has more information than we do. The bad guys have more information than we do. But everybody else is basically where we’re at. In some cases we have more information because we’ve seen multiple perspectives on things. But we’re never given a lot more information than what the characters themselves have. And I think that’s part of the reason why we can relate so well to the characters because we understand their confusion and frustration because we are confused, too.

We’re really wondering what’s happened. We’re wondering whether Winona Ryder is crazy. We’re wondering what the next best thing is to do.

The boys are great, but they’re also cocky and confident in a way that really helps propel the story. And I feel like other probably older, more rational characters, might have taken a step back and really looked at it more objectively. I love that they just went for it. And because they were kids, they just plowed right ahead.

Craig: That’s the gift here. And it’s a great writing lesson. When you have something that’s a problem, you can easily convert into an asset. It’s a problem like to say, well, a policeman or a 30-year-old will look at this in a certain way and just grab this girl by the shoulders and say I’m going to have you now explain to me carefully.

But they don’t want that, so they use 12-year-old boys, who are Labrador puppies. And that’s so much more fun. Similarly, you have a moment in this episode where we see a flashback from Elle where she is remembering her past life with this white-haired villain character played by Matthew Modine. And he’s having her thrown into a little solitary confinement cell. We don’t know why. We don’t know why she’s having just that little scrap of a memory. We don’t know why she won’t speak.

But you know what we do know? She’s clearly been traumatized. And so they’ve taken this problem – why isn’t this person telling us everything she knows – and made it an asset. She’s traumatized. She can’t. It’s very smart.

John: Plowing episode, episode three, we see Joyce communicating with Will, but also Will’s body is found, which was a big shocker. That was sort of a – if this were a week-to-week episode kind of series, you would be stunned by that having happened. At the end of the episode, his body is pulled from the lake. After watching that episode, we took a break. We didn’t watch it anymore until the next night. And I thought for a while like, oh, so I guess he really is dead and maybe it’s a ghost. I mean, it really does change your perspective on the things you’ve seen up to that point, because you’re expecting like, oh, well, they’re going to find him somehow because he is somewhere. His spirit is somewhere. They’ll find him. His body will somehow come back.

And the answer is no.

Craig: This was the only thing where I stumbled a little bit because at this point in the show they have setup Elle as a kind of moral and informational authority. She’s right always. And she has superpowers and she’s been there. And she’s already told them he’s not dead.

So, the part of the show I liked the least was the character of the three boys, it was the skeptic character, because there was no damn reason for him to be skeptical. Once she closed a door with her mind, yeah, I’m in. I’m in. You clearly know what you’re talking about. And the fact that she literally got them to hear Will’s voice very briefly through a walkie-talkie and similarly Will’s mother is experiencing a kind of communication with Will through lights, which is really beautiful and interesting. So, I never believe for a second that that was actually Will’s body.

And I was shocked that even one of the boys believed for a second that that was Will’s body. Regardless, we have certainly more questions. Even if you don’t believe that that’s Will’s body, and I never did, why is there a fake Will’s body in the lake? [laughs] That, to me, is a really good question. And if the obvious answer is because people want to fool you into thinking he’s dead, the question is but why. So then they know where he is. We also – we get an answer to Elle. That this man put her in – that flashback – he put her in solitary confinement because she refused to use her powers to hurt a cat.

But what comes out of that, which is so – then this other question is why is he making her hurt a cat? And why does she call him Papa? And what is going on? You know, you want to know. And what is the extent of her power?

That’s the other thing that’s so interesting, you know.

And then, lastly, the creature who has made little hints that maybe he could come into our world, now very clearly is showing that it can come into our world. And so there is now the question of the threat will this happen again.

John: Yep. I was a huge fan of both Alias and Lost. They were great shows. I watched every episode of both. But one of the challenges those shows had is because they were longer series, and because they had to go on for multiple seasons and the creators didn’t even know how long they were going to be going on in some cases, the mysteries, the little things they would seed, you weren’t sure when they would pay off or if they would pay off.

Going into this series that was eight episodes long, I could see things like Will’s body, is that really a fake body. What’s going on here? And I knew like, you know what, it’s eight episodes. I have a strong hunch that it’s going to pay off. And I think I gave the creators a little extra pass on some things because I knew that they only had eight episodes and that there was a plan for it.

I always felt confident that they knew both where the whole series was going, but also how they were going to structure the information within the episodes. And that’s a very tough thing is how do you make this one hour really enjoyable, but also be a great puzzle piece for the whole eight episodes.

Craig: 100%. And, you know, look, I like the genre of serialized mystery. I really do. But when it isn’t closed ended, it inevitably turns bad. I loved Twin Peaks. I loved it. But at some point it became clear that they were in a space where they were not writing backwards from an ending. And that’s a dangerous thing, because theoretically you’ve lost all sense of unity. And a mystery, unlike other serialized shows, like action shows, cop shows, procedurals, a mystery has an ending. And so it is a dangerous thing to write an open-ended mystery.

You eventually will run afoul of setups that don’t pay off. It’s inevitable. And so, yes, I would not have started watching this if I didn’t know that it had an end. Wouldn’t have done it.

John: Once you know who killed Laura Palmer, there’s no reason to keep watching Twin Peaks. It’s not entirely true, but you can’t frame Twin Peaks as who killed Laura Palmer and expect us to watch after you’ve revealed the answer to who killed Laura Palmer, or sort of a murky half-answer to who killed Laura Palmer.

Craig: It’s like listening to a song, and the song has this interesting build, and there’s going to be a reveal. I’m listening to the Pina Colada song. And what’s going on? He’s taking out a personal ad. He’s going to cheat on his wife. He’s going to meet her in a bar. And she walks in and IT’S HIS WIFE. But, what if it weren’t? What if it’s like, well, and she didn’t show up, so I’m going to try a different thing. And now I’m going to try to meet another lady. And this song is never going to end.

No! End. [laughs] End. You know? And that’s the problem. Twin Peaks, once Laura Palmer’s murder is revealed, you begin to realize they’re vamping. This show has now turned into vamping. And nobody wants to watch vamping. Nobody. Unless you’re going to like an improv show, and then give me a three-minute sketch and get off the stage.

John: Yeah. Challenging. There will be a new series of Twin Peaks coming on Netflix soon. So, we’ll see if they’ve learned that lesson.

Craig: I hope they have.

John: All right. Quickly powering through, episode four, the boys really contact Will, so that’s the radio episode. We connect Nancy with the monster through Jonathan. And that’s the first time you feel like, oh, these different characters who aren’t really interacting about the monster, everyone is starting to have the same kind of information about things.

It’s also where we reveal that the body was fake. And so you can sort of feel like, OK, all of these threads are coming together in the way that a Stephen King novel, like those threads would start to come together, like in The Stand, or these things where you’ve been following these separate people doing their separate things. Now everyone is starting to understand that they have a common enemy, and they’re coming together.

That continues in episode five. That’s where Hopper sees what’s going on. We establish the geography of our world and the other world and how one is the shadow of the other.

We see Nancy cross over. And we also see Elle in the depravation tank in the flashback. And you see like, oh, that’s how she does her thing and establishing that’s probably how the monster got in.

Craig: Yeah. So you start to see an acceleration of answers here. Episode four isn’t really giving us too much new information, other than that Will is definitely alive, and that body is definitely a fake. So episode four was a little bit of a holding pattern, although it did have some fun character stuff with Elle and the boys. Because, remember also, while they’re telling the story of information and mystery, they’re telling a love story between Elle and Mike.

John: Yep.

Craig: And it’s an adorable love story. They also in episode four, they begin to relieve you of some of the burden of frustration. It’s a small town. There are six or seven characters. All of them know things that would help the other one, and they’re not talking, which is normal to create tension. But at some point you can’t keep it up. And in this episode they say no more of that; let’s start connecting our dots together. That really happens in episode five where everyone is sort of now becoming one big team.

But what’s great about episode five is it also gives you a huge answer. And that answer is what the hell is this other place? We don’t quite know until they very clearly show Nancy actually entering it, and then coming out. And then we go, oh, I get it. It is like upside-down our world. I get it now. I get exactly what’s going on.

And all the way back in episode two when she flipped that board over and stuck his little figure on the back of the board, that was actually incredibly accurate.

John: Yep.

Craig: So, you’ve gotten all of these really interesting bits of news, and you also now can position Elle’s origin story. We know that she has these powers. We know that she started by being used by the military to listen to spies. Now she’s going to be helping to kill spies. But while she’s in that zone, right, she was never meant to contact this creature. She was just traveling this other dimension to help spy, but while she’s in there she discovers this bad, bad thing.

John: Yeah. And that bad, bad thing follows her out. So, in episode six we learn more backstory on Elle. We learn about how she came to be. We learn why she calls the man because Papa, because her real mother was part of this secret government program. They did acid and tried to do sort of psychic experiments. She was pregnant with Elle during that time. So, this man who she calls Papa probably raised her. And that is all very, very troubling.

So, it’s not just a name she’s given him. She actually sort of does see him as a father figure. If I have a qualm with sort of how some stuff played out, there was opportunity to see some real affection between the father and the daughter figure, and it was never there. And I don’t know if they just sort of ran out of time, or they decided it was not a thing they wanted to see. But I didn’t have a sense of Frankenstein’s love for his monster, or any of that really manifested through the end of the show. Do you know what I’m saying?

Craig: I totally agree. And part of it is that Millie Bobby Brown, who plays Elle, is such an extraordinary actor that she was frankly more convincing than everybody else at any given time. When she’s crying out to Matthew Modine, our villain, and crying for his saying Papa, like please don’t hurt me and put me in, you know, don’t punish me, I believed that it was the anguish of a child not to someone that she was scared of, but somebody that she loved.

And I needed – I’m so with you – I would have loved to have seen that he had some of that for her. And instead you mostly just get that he’s kind of a stock government sociopath. And I would love if he’s – the implication is he’s no longer with us, but if he does return in season two, that’s something I would love to see explored.

John: I agree with you. If I have any other fantasy wishes for a scene that wasn’t able to fit in here, Winona Ryder I think is terrific in the show, but she has to play sort of one emotion, and she gets to dial it between nine and 11, which is sort of the panic/anguish of a mother who has lost her kid. If she had a flashback, had some other moment to give us some other flavor of who she was. If they’d given us a little bit of whatever her and Hops relationship was back in the past, that would have been fantastic. Because I missed seeing another flavor of Joyce, who in this show only gets to be panicked mother.

Craig: True. But I will give Winona Ryder all the credit in the world. What a difficult task. You have to be basically completely strung out and realistic as a woman whose son is gone and who everyone is telling you is dead, and yet you believe he’s not dead. You deny the fact you’re going crazy. You’re talking to him through your lights. You’re crying all the time. And I believed her. And that was amazing.

I could easily see that in the second season she kind of goes through a Sarah Connor transformation. Like Sarah Connor in Terminator was basically damsel in distress. Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 is transformed by the experience of Terminator 1 into this ultimate hard-ass warrior, which I love.

John: Yeah. I think I just wanted Winona Ryder to have her Emmy reel. And I wanted one more scene for her Emmy reel there, which would have been great.

Craig: Well, she’s got some good ones. I’ll tell you the one that I would put in, which I loved. It’s such a little scene, but she goes to the store where she works. We’ve never seen her actually working her job. She just goes there, confronts her boss–

John: And takes stuff. Yeah.

Craig: Yeah. She needs two weeks advanced pay. And she needs a telephone. And she needs a pack of Camels. I mean, that was great. So well done.

John: All right. So episode six, we got our backstory. Episode seven is where everybody comes together. So essentially all these characters who have been in different spaces, they’re now all under literally one roof. We’re in the gym. They’re building this giant bathtub thing so that Elle can float and find where the missing boy is. It was nice.

It was a thing that you sensed needed to happen at some point. Like everybody had to get together and be working together to do things. And there was still conflict between the different characters. Each of them had some slightly different agendas, but they were all generally on the same page.

We also could really feel the ticking clock that the bad guys were out there and they were going to find them sooner or later. So, everything was coming to a head.

Craig: Yeah. And good writing lesson here. When you need to create obstacles for your characters, try and create them out of elements of the world that you have organically put in there that nobody would expect would then become an obstacle.

So for instance, we have these flashbacks where we’re seeing how Elle first contacts this other dimension and a monster. And to do that, they’re putting her in this isolation tank. And we don’t really understand why, although it seems pretty quickly like, OK, it helps her concentrate and it helps her access her full power. How smart then for them later to say, oh, if we’re going to win the day, we need to reproduce that with her as good people so that it becomes this fascinating obstacle that no other show would have ever had.

We need to fill a bathtub up with water and salt. And how do we do it. How much salt do we need? And where are we going to do this? Very, very smart. It’s a really good lesson, I think, to take the things that you have, that only you have, and turn them to your advantage.

John: Yeah. Being specific rather than being generic. And then finally we get to our eighth episode. And the series has basically promised this from the start. We will go in and we will save the boy. And so Hopper and Joyce go in to save Will Byers. And it’s all cool. It’s all actually really well done. And so we have the tension of them being in this other world, whether they’ll get to the son in time. We have all the bad guys in the real world. We have the monster crossing over to face the boys. You knew that had to happen, but you weren’t quite sure how it would look, or where it would take place.

I mean, the boys at the very first episode, they’re fighting this monster. And now they’re fighting the monster for real. So it was nice to see it all coming together.

Craig: Here’s where all of our big spoilers are. It was not at all surprising to me that she sacrificed herself to destroy the monster and save Mike and the boys. That seemed inevitable from the start. I love my Christ figures so much, so when I see one walk into a movie I think, well, you’ll be dead. And that’s fine. Although, of course, in Stranger Things fashion, you get all of these answers. And the day is done, and then more questions are raised at the end to tease you ahead for the second season.

Maybe she’s not dead. And maybe Will Byers isn’t exactly OK. And the good questions to keep us posted for it.

Now, it’s interesting, when I watched it, it didn’t seem to me like a series that needed to continue with those characters, by the way. I could easily see a second season where it’s an entirely different story with different people.

John: And they haven’t promised one thing or the other, have they? So, there’s no guarantee they’re coming back.

Craig: They have implied, actually, so let’s talk about Barb for a second. So, Barb, the perfectly pitched friend character, the Jiminy Cricket character for Nancy, who’s saying don’t sleep with the boy just because he’s cool – and accurate. She disappears. She’s discovered to be dead on the other side, so that’s sort of the stakes for Will. That helps us know that Will is in legitimate jeopardy on the other side.

That’s really all that ever happened with her. Her mom answers the phone at one point. We never see the mom again. People on the Internet were a little upset. I mean, hold on to your hats everyone: the Internet got upset. Because they felt that she had gotten a short shrift.

Some of the anger came from the corner of gender/queer politics. That she was probably gay and another gay character died. Although, I don’t see why they thought that, just because of her haircut? I mean, I didn’t get that jump. I mean, look, from a writing point of view, Barb existed so that we understood that Will Byers could die. That’s why she existed as a character. But they did say that they heard some of the criticisms about Barb and that Barb would get some kind of justice in season two, which implies a continuity here, yes?

John: Not necessarily. It could be a more metaphorical justice. Like basically the bad things that were done to her will be avenged. Or that maybe Nancy will go out there and take down the bad guys. So we’ll see what happens.

Craig: All right.

John: I leave it to them. But let’s talk about what’s next for them, because I don’t know the development process on Stranger Things, the first season, but I suspect they pitched the pilot. At some point they wrote up a document that was sort of what we were describing. It’s basically the talk through what happens episode by episode. And I’ve had to do those kind of outlines. Craig, you probably had to do the same kind of thing for the HBO show you’re doing, right?

Craig: Sure.

John: And so the kinds of things we’re talking about today, really the broad strokes about what’s happening in a given episode, after you sell a series you’re going to be writing up that document. And that’s the kind of thing you’re going to be talking about with the people who are writing the checks for your show about what’s going to happen in given episodes. And sometimes there’s negotiation. I don’t know sort of what degree they had to wrestle over what things were going to be happening in which given episodes.

But those documents exist before there are ever scripts. And so they’re very important places for planning the big broad strokes of the story. And I thought in those broad strokes documents, I don’t know if they’ll ever be published, they were really good.

Craig: Yeah, for sure. I would love to see their show bible. We call it a show bible. Because inevitably things change. I mean, it’s funny. I’m in the process right now of conforming my – so I’ve written two episodes of the HBO thing. And they’ve asked me to kind of go back now and make changes to the bible to reflect how things changed in those first two episodes, because as they’re talking to other broadcasting partners, they just want all the materials to match up. And things do change. And I’d be fascinated to see where they kind of deviated from their plan, their initial plan.

But I suspect that the big points, in concrete. Have to be, or else I’m not sure how you survive writing a show like this.

John: Yeah. Cool. So if you skipped over our discussion of Stranger Things, please go back and listen to it when you’ve had a chance to watch the show, because we thought it was great. But now let’s get to the WGA election. And Craig will tell you who you should vote for.

Craig: Well, I’ll do my best here. This is what we call an off-year election, so no officer candidates this year. It’s just board members. We’re losing a bunch of incumbents, a bunch of good incumbents. I’m sorry to say we’re losing some feature writers. We may soon find ourselves with a board of directors that has no feature writers on it. It’s just horrifying to me.

Regardless, here’s who is running. Matthew Weiner of Mad Men fame. Glen Mazzara of Walking Dead fame. Zoanne Clack, who is medical doctor and a big TV writer. Jonathan Fernandez, who is an incumbent. Chip Johannessen, who is incumbent. Marjorie David is an incumbent. Courtney Ellinger, I’m not familiar with. Ligiah – I think it’s Ligiah Villalobos who interviewed me and Chris Morgan one evening at the Writers Guild. I can’t remember what it was about. Ali LeRoi, who is a big television writer. And Patric Verrone, evergreen Patric Verrone.

Look, some of these people I don’t know. But I figure probably the better thing is to say who I do know and who I definitely support. I definitely support Glen Mazzara. Glen is fantastic. I can’t believe he hasn’t been on the board yet. He’s hugely active in the Guild. He’s incredibly active in the showrunner’s training program, which is of vital importance. He is a great guy. He is super active in diversity efforts at the Guild. And he’s a practical, smart dude who listens. I love Glen. I love, love Glen. He’s terrific. So, please do vote for Glen.

I don’t know Zoanne Clack, but she’s a medical doctor and I just feel like people that – unless they are–

John: You know who else is a medical doctor?

Craig: Who?

John: Dr. Ben Carson is a medical doctor.

Craig: Well, yeah, I get it. But, see, she’s never said anything cuckoo like Ben Carson. And I’ve got a good feeling about her. Medical doctor. Also, it just seems like she does seem to have approval from a wide swath of people in the Guild. So, I am supporting Zoanne Clack.

John: Great.

Craig: Jonathan Fernandez, incumbent, terrific guy. Very, very pragmatic, again. Good and moderate and smart. We should absolutely get Jonathan Fernandez back on the board.

John: So I know Jonathan Fernandez from the picketing group. Back at the last strike, he was part of my picketing group. We picketed in front of Paramount Pictures. Every morning at like 5:30 in the morning. And so it was a small group of us and he was one of them. And since that strike he’s been sort of my go to person to ask questions about like, hey, what’s really going on here with these issues in the Guild. He’s very smart about younger writers and sort of the struggle of actually bringing home enough money that you can afford to be a writer. And so he has TV experience, feature experience. He seems like a great choice to get back on that board.

Craig: For sure. I can’t really speak to any of the other ones. That doesn’t mean they would be good or bad. Except for Patric Verrone. And Patric Verrone actually finished in ninth place in the last election. So, theoretically he should have been not elected. But one of the people who won an office position was Aaron Mendelsohn who was a board member. So there was a board member vacancy which meant they took and filled that position with the ninth vote getter, which was Patric Verrone.

I want to point out how extraordinary this is. Patric Verrone was the two-term president of the Writers Guild and he is so un-liked that he couldn’t finish in the top eight of board member elections last year. There’s a reason for that. He is a very, very smart guy. He is completely misguided on Guild politics. He has always been completely misguided on Guild politics.

He has one gear. And that gear is in moderation as a virtue. And Patric Verrone’s time is over. It should stay over. And he should find something else to do. So don’t vote for Patric Verrone.

John: Craig, I will guarantee you that I will not vote for Patric Verrone. So, if you are a WGA member, you got an email this last week that invited you to cast your ballots. So, do cast your ballot. It is important.

What Craig was saying is that this is an off-cycle election, so this is not the election where we also elect the president and do all of those other things. But these are quite important decisions you’re going to be making, because these are the people who are going to be taking us into this next negotiating cycle. So they’re not the negotiating committee, but they’ll be setting some of the agenda for going into that, so it’s important because it’s always important. And let’s pick some good people this year.

Craig: Yeah. And it’s important, too, that we have voices on the board who are actual voices. My experience on the board and my experience since in dealing with board members is that nine times out of ten board members do what they’re told to do. They’re told to do by the officers and they’re told to do by the executive director. And they have unanimous votes. And what they quickly become is large, boisterous discussion group that spends an hour or two yammering about stuff and then voting as they’re told. And we don’t want that.

We actually want a group that probably doesn’t spend as much time yammering to hear themselves speak, but also doesn’t rubber stamp things. We want thoughtful, independent, specific voices who are setting policy for our union.

John: I would agree with you. So, Craig, I’m looking at our recording time and it’s clear that we are not going to be able to get through these How Would this be a Movie. So what I propose to do is there are four different things we were going to talk through. And since we know what they are, let’s do that for our next episode. And we can actually put the links to these things in this week’s episode so people will see what they are, and they can read ahead.

Craig: Right.

John: And actually know what they are. So the four things we want to talk about, first is Florence Nightingale and The Woman in Disguise. It’s a story by Joseph Curtis writing for Male Online. It’s about Dr. James Barry. And, no spoilers, but Dr. James Barry had a very interesting life. And that was a submission by listener Craig Mazin, who occasionally listens to the episodes.

Craig: Rarely.

John: The second one is The Perfect Mom, submitted by Brett Thomas in Sacramento. It tells the story of Gypsy, this girl with a litany of debilitating diseases. An incredibly inspirational story of a mother and a daughter who really struggled against a million possible odds. And the community that supported them. And, wow, things go dark. Things go very, very dark.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: So, the story we’re going to have you read is by Michelle Dean writing for BuzzFeed. Our third one was submitted by Rachael Speal. It’s about an amateur sleuth. This is 12-year-old Jessica Maple. Her home was burglarized, but this pre-teen took it upon herself to find the scoundrels and bring them to justice. So, we’ll give you an article that is from ABC News that you could look at for that.

The final one, and it’s maybe kind of good that we’re pushing this back, because new pieces are still coming out and I haven’t read all of it, was submitted by Phil Hay who is a screenwriter friend of ours. One of the writers of The Invitation who was on a previous episode. This is called Revenge in Irvine. It’s a series of stories in The Los Angeles Times about a PTA mom and drugs and accusations. And it seems just great. It seems like a Desperate Housewives kind of story.

Craig: Yeah. It’s wild. Yeah, this guy, Christopher Goffard, is the writer. And I think he’s done four segments so far, and maybe two more coming out. I’m not sure.

John: So by the time we’re recording our next episode, maybe everything will be out and we can discuss the whole thing.

Craig: Excellent.

John: I thought it was just fantastic. So, we’ll have those up for next week we’ll discuss them. So if you want to read ahead, go read ahead.

Craig: Great.

John: All right, time for One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is oddly related to something we discussed. It is Angelo Badalamenti explaining how he wrote the Laura Palmer’s Theme for Twin Peaks. It’s so great. The music for Twin Peaks is so incredibly important for Twin Peaks. So it’s Angelo Badalamenti sitting at his piano with David Lynch as David Lynch is basically trying to evoke this feeling in him and Angelo Badalamenti is creating the music that matches that feeling.

It’s just a great description of the process for trying to create any piece of art, especially a piece of collaborative art. So, I really loved it. How he worked with composers. It’s one of those really strange things where you’re trying to describe something that you can’t really describe, so you end up using a lot of poetry, a lot of just imagery to try to evoke something. And yet it’s the responsibility of the composer to make that be music. And it worked out so brilliantly here.

So, I recommend everybody watch this.

Craig: Such a great theme. I mean, that theme song does so much to help you watch the episode that comes after it. The Game of Thrones theme song has a similar thing. It just puts you in a certain place, in a certain mood. There aren’t a lot of themes that do that for me for television shows. But, I mean, look Twin Peaks came out when you and I were in college and I can still, you know, I can hear it.

So, awesome. That’s excellent. Well, my One Cool Thing, how could it not be HD 164595? Now, HD 164595 is a star. And it is kind of flipping people out a little bit, because it may be the first time that we’ve actually picked up a signal from space that may not be natural, but rather alien-made.

So, this is our Contact movie story here. And so what they’ve done is they’ve found these particular kinds of spikes of signals that seem like they could be artificial. And it happens to be the case that this star is very much like our sun. It’s really close to the size of our sun, so it seems like maybe it’s in that Goldilocks zone for a nearby planet.

And so they’re now pointing all their stuff at it. Pointing all their stuff at this thing.

Now, to put some – to put a little damper on it. There is one possibility that this is not at all extraterrestrial. One of the things that’s concerning is that the frequency matches military frequencies. So, what we may be picking up is ourselves and we may be picking up some classified military signals from some satellites bouncing back that we just didn’t know were there. And, of course, no one is going to tell them.

But, I don’t know, because the thing is the Russians picked this up first, and now we are looking at it. If it’s not the Russians, and it’s not us, maybe it’s an alien.

John: It could be. Now, in the past when they found these strange signals, sometimes it became part of a revelation of other things out there in the universe. My understanding is like pulsars or quasars, one of those, like we thought at first that signal is too regular, too perfect, that must be the alien contact. But it turns out like, oh no, there’s actually these rotating stars that do cool things.

So, if nothing else it’s worthwhile to explore interesting things to see what’s there. Same situation with that star where it looks like there’s stuff circling it that could be something that people built.

Craig: Yeah. Tabby’s Star.

John: It may be nothing, but it shows us that there’s something we don’t understand about how stuff around stars can form. And so that’s useful to pointing out telescopes out as well.

Craig: They did say that if it is artificial, that it is of such a nature that this would be a very, very advanced civilization, because of the strength and the type of signal that it is. So, I’m always reminded of this thing that Neil deGrasse Tyson once said. He said that on our planet we have, I think, 99% genetic overlap with chimpanzees. And so it’s that 1% that make us so much smarter than chimpanzees and account for everything that we’ve done to our planet and all of our technology that chimpanzees don’t do. And if we meet an alien species and they’re just 1% different than us, which is really close, but their 1% is to us that we are to the chimpanzees, we have a problem. [laughs]

So, you know, hopefully they’re nice, if they are real.

John: Well, I think the encouraging thing is as a world we function very well together, because we have very sensible leaders who really think through about all the possible repercussions of every action. And so I’m sure we would be completely reasonable and act in a very unified manner about these kind of situations.

Craig: What we’re going to do is we’re going to build a wall. And these people from HD 164595, they’re sending rapists. They’re sending murderers. We’re going to build a wall, folks. It’s going to be the greatest wall. And they’re going to pay for it. [laughs]

John: Totally going to pay for it. With their advanced technologies, they can pay for it.

Craig: That’s right. From 94 light years away, they’re going to Venmo us a payment for the wall.

John: Yep. It’s going to be nice.

So that’s our show this week. Hey, it worked.

Craig: It worked!

John: All the way across the ocean and the whole US, we recorded the episode. The show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from John Venable, and oh, it’s a good one.

So, if you have an outro you can send it to us at That’s also the great place to send your experiences if you are a working writer in film or television who started someplace else and actually was able to start a career not living in LA, New York, or London. We’d love to hear from you.

But we’d also like to answer your questions like the question we answered at the head of the show. So, send those to

Short questions are great on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. You can find the show notes for this episode, including how to skip over the Stranger Things information at That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. We try to get them up about three or four days after the episode airs.

You can find all the back episodes at You can also find them on the Scriptnotes USB drive and on the Scriptnotes app which is in the App Store. So, Craig, thank you so much.

Craig: Thank you, John. And I’ll see you next week.

John: Have a great week. Bye.

Craig: Bye.


You can download the episode here.

Stranger Things and Other Things

Tue, 09/06/2016 - 08:03

John and Craig dive into Netflix’s Stranger Things, discussing how macro writing decisions contributed to the show’s success. (There are inevitably some spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you can skip from the start of that segment to the next one, which begins at 41:22.)

We also look at the upcoming WGA election and the candidates.

Next week, we will be doing a new installment of How Would This Be a Movie, so follow the links below to read ahead.

John’s high-tech setup.


Email us at

You can download the episode here.

There are no black beans in France

Tue, 09/06/2016 - 00:44

Before I moved here, I knew that some common American foods were rare in France. Plain Cheerios, for example, can only be found in specialty import stores where they sell for €12. Same with boxed macaroni and cheese.

I’d read that kale was only recently re-introduced to France. While I love kale, I can live without it for a year. France has plenty of other delicious green vegetables.

But France doesn’t have black beans. And this is a problem.

I love black beans. I eat them almost every day,1 as does my daughter. For years of her life, most of her calories came from black beans and rice, lovingly prepared by her Honduran nanny.

In Los Angeles, black beans are ubiquitous. Any given supermarket will offer six brands of canned beans in a variety of sodium levels. My favorite is from Whole Foods, where you get a discount when you buy a case of 24. That’s every month for us.

So our first week in Paris, we went looking for black beans.

The stereotype of France is that it’s a bunch of tiny little shops. A butcher here, a baker there. And while those definitely exist, there are also a ton of supermarkets. There are at least ten in easy walking distance of our apartment, each of them bigger than your average Trader Joe’s.

Inside you’ll find aisles of candy and cookies, including American brands like Oreos. Head over to the refrigerator case to marvel at more varieties of yogurt than anyone could ever sample. In one corner, you’ll find Chinese and Thai foods. Near the pasta and rice, you’ll find quinoa grown in Ethiopia.

But you won’t find black beans.

We looked in expat forums and food sites where we found others struggling to find black beans, and other foods from Latin America.

Ultimately, we were able to find dried black beans (haricots noir) at two stores: a Peruvian market in the 15th, and a chain of organic groceries called Bio c’Bon. They cost about €4 per pound — considerably more than the U.S., but hardly a deal-breaker.

Dried black beans aren’t nearly as convenient as canned, but it’s not that much work to cook them. Just follow any recipe you find online or, if you want maximum flavor with minimum effort, invest in a pressure cooker.

Back in Los Angeles, we use a Instant Pot IP-DUO50. I was happy to find Amazon has a 220-volt version for Europe and the UK. They look like crock pots or rice cookers, but with lids that lock on tight. Pressure cookers seem intimidating, but trust me, they’re easy.

And suddenly, it’s a food blog

Here’s my recipe for making a big batch of black beans in a pressure cooker:

  1. Dump one pound of dried beans out on a tray, or a wide bowl. Pick through them, tossing out anything that doesn’t look like a perfect black bean. Sometimes tiny stones end up in the bag. I don’t know why, but it happens. So don’t skip this step. It takes two minutes.
  2. Rinse them in a bowl or a colander. Can’t hurt. Plus it makes them look all glossy rather than dry and dusty.
  3. Dump the beans in the cooker. Add one small yellow onion, cut in half. (Or half of a larger onion.) Add 3/4ths of a teaspon of salt. This seems like too little, but really, it’s fine. Add one dried bay leaf. (They’re called “laurel” in French, which is awesome.) Then add six cups of water. That’s 1.5 liters.
  4. Attach the lid and turn on the machine. Set the timer for 37 minutes. Let it start. The little valve in back should be set for “pressure” not “vent.”
  5. Walk away. Return in about an hour for delicious black beans.

You don’t need to release the pressure valve. It will come back to normal by itself, at which point the lid will unlock. The beans inside will be hot and steamy, so keep your face away when you first open it.

With a spoon, retrieve and discard the onion and bay leaf. You’re done.

This recipe produces way too many black beans to eat at once. Fortunately, they freeze well. And they’re significantly tastier than even the best canned black beans.

You American monster

I suspect that about ten paragraphs back, several readers rolled their eyes and asked, “Why don’t you just eat something else, something French?” or “Why live in a foreign country if you’re just going to make it like Los Angeles?”

These people have a point. I suspect they also don’t have kids.

Also, living abroad is about cultural immersion, not assimilation. If we insisted immigrants only eat the dominant foods of the U.S., we wouldn’t have Tex-Mex or pizza or Chinese take-out, all things we now take for granted.

Black beans are the food of my So-Cal culture. It’s great to have them back.

In my next installment, I’ll be teaching you how to make Cheerios from scratch.2

  1. I’m the one person you know who still eats Tim Ferriss’s “slow carb” diet.
  2. Step one: gather sawdust.

I live in Paris now

Sat, 09/03/2016 - 02:19

Two weeks ago, my family and I moved to Paris. We’ll be here for about a year.

I’m not here for work, or to escape this nightmare of an election. Rather, this sojourn has been in the planning stages for several years, going all the way to back to a screenwriters trip organized by Film France back in 2009. My daughter is attending sixth grade here. We’ll head back to Los Angeles for seventh.

While I’m here, I’ll be writing Arlo Finch. And we’ll still be doing Scriptnotes. We recorded a new episode this week. I think we’ll be able to keep up with our normal weekly schedule.

The biggest adjustment so far has been learning how to navigate Paris as an inhabitant rather than a visitor. For example, setting up a French checking account is a nightmare, but it’s a prerequisite for almost everything else (phone plans, electricity, transit passes). Paris busses are remarkably handy in ways I never considered as a tourist. We don’t have a car, but so far that’s been a plus.

Ex-pat American writers living is Paris is a complete cliché, so I won’t be blogging or tweeting about it much. If you want to see what I’m doing during my days, I’m an active user of Instagram stories. So follow me on Instagram if you want to see lots of pictures of kids carrying baguettes and dogs in restaurants.

Scriptnotes, Ep 265: Sheep Crossing Roads — Transcript

Fri, 09/02/2016 - 13:28

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 265 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we are going to be discussing obstacles, those things your characters hate but desperately need. We’ll also be doing some follow-up on previous episodes and answering a bunch of listener questions.

So, Craig, we should come clean, we are recording this before I actually hop on the plane to Paris. And so while I may sound tired and jetlagged, it’s just because I’m tired and jetlagged from packing, not from actually traveling halfway across the world.

Craig: This is theoretically the last podcast for about a year where one of us isn’t absurdly exhausted.

John: Yes. We have not quite figured out how we’re going to manage the schedule issue. We’re recording this on Skype, like we always do, so that won’t change at all. What will change is that one of us is going to be either about to go to bed, or waking up very early.

So, Craig, you’re happy to get up at like seven in the morning, right?

Craig: I’m going to go ahead and offer myself for the late shift, John.

John: OK.

Craig: I would prefer that greatly.

John: All right. So, Craig will be burning the midnight oil and I will be bright eyed and croissant’d in the morning as we record these future episodes.

But, the episode that aired last week, which we actually recorded yesterday, was the episode with Peter Dodd, the agent, and I thought it was just terrific.

Craig: Yeah. I was thrilled. I don’t know Peter. And I’ve never dealt with him professionally, so it was a total question mark on my end, plus you know me, I just immediately assume that everyone is terrible. So how delightful it was to meet him on the air and he did a fantastic job I thought. Not only of elaborating on how you become an agent and what an agent, but he was very specific in answering questions that I think people are constantly asking and getting the wrong answers to.

So, he was great. We should have him back again. I could easily see him joining us for a live episode where people can ask him questions, because I think they’d be fascinated by this sort of thing.

John: But then they’d rush the stage, and that would be bad.

Craig: We will surround him with your staff, each of them holding a pugil stick.

John: Indeed. We’ll surround him with managers, so that the agent can escape. So, what I thought was great about having him on is that we can say certain things, but they’re not necessarily true – not that they’re not true, but you would not necessarily believe them. But when an actual says, “No, I don’t care about that,” then you can take heart that like agents don’t really care about that.

He reminded people not to worry about log lines. So, maybe log lines are important for a competition, but no agent cares about log lines. Or query letters. He doesn’t sign people off of query letters. I mean, there are whole workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter. Does not work on him. Not a bit.

Craig: And those workshops, are they free?

John: I don’t think those are free workshops. I think those are highly paid workshops where people are burning their money unnecessarily.

Craig: Garbage. Garbage.

John: I was talking with my own agent today, David Kramer, and told him that Peter Dodd had done a fantastic job. And he was mentioning that there’s one person who emails him every single day with a new subject heading about this new script he’s working on. It’s like the same person emails every day. And so then David Kramer went up to see Jeremy Zimmer, and Jeremy Zimmer said like, “Oh, that guys’ really persistent. He emails me every day also.”

Craig: Wow.

John: And they laughed. But they don’t read the emails. They just delete the emails, which is what Peter Dodd does, too. That’s not an effective way of getting anyone to read your script.

Craig: No. I thought it was particularly interesting to hear from him that he basically signs people through recommendations. And, again, I want to reiterate how clear the culture is – for me at least, and I’m sure it is for you – on our side of the business where it’s not like your job as an aspiring writer is to convince someone to represent you. That you’ve got to really make them see and make a great argument for it.

No, no, hardly that at all. The only way they’re ever going to represent you is if they’re in a position where they want you so much, they’re trying to convince you.

John: Yeah, I thought it was so great when he was talking about how he will call like on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday afternoon if he just read something that he loves, and he will hunt that person down. He will Facebook stalk them. He won’t like bother to try to go back to the original person and get the contact information. He will find that person and call them and tell them that he loved the script, because everyone loves to get that call.

And so I think so often writers are trying to chase down an agent. Well, in the real world, and this is actually what I found, a lot of times the agent is chasing you down. And that’s a scenario you really want to be in.

Craig: It’s kind of the only one that results in success. Because there are a million people trying to get representation, trying to make a sale, trying to get a job, and it’s not possible for anyone I think on the other side of the equation to succumb to things like, well, long, carefully thought out, well-argued debates about why you should or shouldn’t take on someone.

It’s entirely about saying, “I must have this person.” And then they find you.

John: And what they’re responding to, it was very clear from what he is talking about with his reads, is by page 30 he wants to know does this person have a voice. He kind of doesn’t really care that much about the story, or the plot. He’s looking at this as a thing, maybe he can sell this one item, but he’s more like is this a fascinating writer who I’m going to be able to market to the town and get hired to do other things. That’s what he’s looking for. He’s looking for a brilliant voice, not a competent pusher-around of words.

And that can be dispiriting, but it can also be encouraging, because it lets you know that, yes, there a zillion people trying to do what you’re trying to do, but if you are brilliant at it, there’s a good shot that he will see that and respond to it.

Craig: We always said, well, it’s not so big of a deal or a problem if you write an original screenplay and it doesn’t fit into a category or an easy genre, and it isn’t seemingly the kind of movie that studios are making, because they’ll read your script and think, “OK, you’re a really good writer. Now let’s hire you to write what we do want to make.” We always thought of that as a “see, it’s not so bad.” In fact, apparently that’s the only thing they want.

They only want writers who are original and fascinating and unique. They’re not really looking to sell anyone’s screenplay. They’re looking to get you hired.

John: On our last Three Page Challenge, one of the scripts we had, it was a long title that involved Huck Finn. And we weren’t so enraptured with the writing of it, but we were intrigued by the title of it because it was the kind of title which suggested that the writer might have the kind of voice that would be clutter-busting, would be distinctive. That a person would remember and that you could sort of understand why they were recommending you read this script.

That’s sort of what we’re talking about. So just the 19th version of Die Hard in-a-something is not going to be the thing that’s going to get Peter Dodd excited about signing you. And that’s the reality.

Craig: Yeah. It’s also why so many of these people that take your money to instruct you on how to writer screenplays and formulas and structures and all of this nonsense, all they’re doing is pushing your work towards some mushy middle, where it can be viewed as an acceptable replicable of a screenplay.

No one needs you for that. No one. They would much rather that you write something fascinating and greatly imperfect than something that is very well-structured and tight and boring.

John: Absolutely true.

Now, we learn things on these podcasts, too, and the thing that was so striking to me is he said that 80% of his clients had managers, which was a much bigger percentage than I would have guessed. But, again, you and I are from a generation that didn’t have managers, at least didn’t keep managers. And his people do.

And so it was interesting watching his reaction as he raised issues about managers, because he clearly – they’re part of his world, they can be really good, they can be really frustrating. I think he would encourage you not to look at a manager as a second agent, but really like what is the manager bringing to the table. And it seemed like some of the best managers he was dealing with could really help writers focus their writing, just deliver the best possible script. And if that’s a function that you can find in a manager, maybe that’s a good thing.

Craig: That’s true. I’m never going to be the person who says there’s no such thing as a good manager because I know some of them. They are good. The ones that I like tend to be more like producers than managers, and they tend to work at the large management firms.

But, I guess the existential question I would ask, if I could, to the agent and management community is if we’ve gone from a place where no writers had managers to 80% of writers have managers, can you tell me, honestly, that things have gotten better for screenwriters? Because it sure seems like they’ve gotten worse. So, life and the business has gotten worse for screenwriters, but at least they get to spend another 10% of the dwindling money they make.

John: Yeah. That is a real concern. And was that function that the managers are performing, was no one doing that function before? Or, were agents performing that function? Were producers doing that function? Who was doing that job before? Or is it a job that needs to be done? Apparently now it is a job that enough people feel like needs to be done. It’s just – it’s a real good question about making sure you’re paying that 10% to someone else who really deserves it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: The last thing I thought was good for him to be able to answer for us is do competitions matter. And he said winning the Nicholl Fellowship is great. You should do that. You should be a Nicholls finalist. But they don’t really gather together and discuss all the other award winners or certainly not the quarter finalists.

So, while that may be a way that somebody could notice your script, it’s not the way that agents actually find your script. And so maybe that’s a way that someone else who could send something to an agent might find your script, but it does not feel like that should be a focus of a lot of aspiring screenwriters’ time and ambition.

Craig: Much to the chagrin of the people marketing these contests. But while some of them are probably run by good people, and maybe some of them are run by people that have terrific taste, in the end all of the chatter and traffic and Sturm und Drang about what competitions to enter and how they’re run and how high your finish – all noise. It doesn’t matter. Nobody cares who wins the Blue Cat. Nobody cares who wins Austin, apparently. Nobody cares who almost wins the Nicholl. They care about one thing, sort of. Right?

And when he said “care about,” what he really said was, “We’ll read those.”

John: Yep.

Craig: That’s all he really said. He didn’t say, “Oh, you’re getting an agent.” He said, “We’ll read them.” Because in the end, they’ll decide. OK, well, I’m glad the Nicholl’s people thought that this was one of the top ten of all the ones they get. Doesn’t mean we’re going to represent that person.

John: So here’s where I think it’s going to be frustrating to aspiring writers who are not living in Los Angeles is that a competition or a query letter, those were all those things that a person who was living in Boise could say like, “Oh, that’s a way that I can get someone to read my script. How I can get my foot in the door. How things can get started.” Whereas it sounds like what Peter Dodd is saying is that the stuff he’s reading is coming from recommendations from people who are in this business. And generally they’re probably reading people’s scripts that they actually met.

So they’re reading like that intern who worked there. Or they’re reading that person that they knew from someplace that they might have read something as a favor and found that it was really good. It seems like it’s going to be harder to get your script read by anybody in this town if you’re not kind of in this town. Which is why I think we’ve always been upfront about this is a town, sort of like how Nashville is for songwriting. Hollywood is the town you’re in when you’re trying to make movies.

And if that’s really your ambition, coming here and getting those sort of entry-level jobs and meeting a bunch of people who are trying to do the same thing you’re going to do is really important. Probably much more important than if you’re going off to write a book someplace. Because there are novelists who live all across the country. There’s no one central hub for being a novelist. But, for being a screenwriter, this is it.

Craig: We sometimes want to ignore the obvious, because it’s so discouraging. But here’s an obvious point: nobody becomes a screenwriter from outside Los Angeles. Now, you can say, well, that’s not exactly true. It happens here and there. And, yes, that’s a fact. But when I say nobody I mean virtually no one. And the virtually no one thing, you don’t want a business plan for yourself that hinges upon you being the exception to the virtual rule.

John: Yeah. Sorry. This is depressing, and yet also inspiring just because he could provide the real answers that we can sort of only talk about in abstract. Also, I thought it was interesting, he said 80% of what he really is gauging about a client is based on what he read. And while the in person part of it is important, it’s not usually what’s going to make or break it. And so having a great interview, having a great sit-down with him is not going to convince you that you are a writer he should represent. He’s looking at the material.

Craig: Yeah. You love it, I’m sure, as an agent when you find somebody who is writing terrific material and then is fun to be with in a room. You know that person is going to work. But we both know lots of terrific writers who probably aren’t great in a room. I mean, Ted Elliott always said that he and Terry were just the worst, always, from the beginning. Just not very good in a room. Didn’t seem to slow them down one bit.

John: They did just great. All right, let’s reach back two weeks to the episode we did about frequently asked questions about screenwriting. And that was centered around this 81-page PDF that we put out, which is based on A bunch of really basic questions about screenwriting answered mostly by Stuart Friedel. And we looked at a couple of the questions in there.

A couple thousand people have downloaded that PDF now, which is fantastic.

Craig: Excellent.

John: And one of the nice things about it being a PDF is we will update it and we will make corrections. There’s lots of typos that people found. So thank you for sending in those typo corrections.

We’ll also update some of the answers. Like Craig had some different better answers for certain things, and so we’ll be updating the PDF and sending out the updates to anybody who downloaded it. So, thank you for downloading it and thank you for sending in those corrections.

But I also think we need to make sure we give an extra big thank you to Stuart Friedel who actually wrote most of those things. And I think if you look back through the transcripts, he got sort of the short shrift of the episode as we were talking through really the heroic work he did on that.

Craig: Yeah. I’m a professional short-shrifter. Stuart did a great job, as he has done with all things we have asked him to do. And it’s – some of these things people are just going to argue over, well, what is a high concept idea. Hey, everybody can debate that till the end of time. And you know I just like to argue. But it’s actually kind of remarkable that he did all of that.

I don’t really know how Stuart did all of those things.

John: Yeah. Stuart did a lot. Basically, I would just tell Stuart like do this thing, and like a machine he would just keep doing it. And so I would sort of forget about for months at a time, and then like, oh my gosh, there’s another 60 answers in there. And that’s Stuart. So that’s remarkable.

Craig: It could have been tragic. If you had asked him to do something that you didn’t intend for him to do, at length. And then just forgot to have him stop.

John: Well, classically that’s how AI leads to oblivion. They’ll create a machine, they’ll build AI for it to say like just keep signing this autograph until whenever. And the AI will say, “OK, my job, the goal of the universe is to sign this autograph onto these baseballs, like these fake baseballs, or something.” And so then it will build other machines to keep doing that until the whole world is just a bunch of fake baseball autograph machines.

Craig: Yeah. That’s exactly right. But I’m thinking Stuart probably had a little more agency than that.

John: I think he had a lot more agency than that. So, anyway, I want to make sure that we give proper shout-outs to Stuart for actually doing all of that stuff. And so the book only exists because Stuart did it. So, thank you, Stuart.

Craig: He remains our hero. Even in absentia.

John: Indeed. That’s very noise.

Many people’s hero is Aaron Sorkin. And four or five episodes ago we talked about this Masterclass that Aaron Sorkin is teaching online. It is a series of I think 35 videos. They’re like five minutes long. That are talking through screenwriting.

So, we looked at it. We looked at the promo video. We said, “Hey, if anyone out there is actually going to listen to it, or watch it, tell us what it’s like, because we’re never going to watch it.”

And one of our listeners did that. His name is Rawson Thurber. And he is, in fact, a frequent guest on the podcast. He is an accomplished writer-director. Most recent credit is Central Intelligence. He’s also a fan of Aaron Sorkin, and so I sat down with him and asked him what he thought of the videos.

So, Rawson, tell us what it was like.

Rawson Thurber: It was a walk down memory lane. I really enjoyed it. If you like Aaron Sorkin, like I do – I’m a huge, huge fan – it was super pleasant. It’s five hours cut into 35 bite size episodes, I guess, for lack of a better term. And highly enjoyable. Highly enjoyable. If you like Aaron Sorkin. If you like anecdotes. I guess if you kind of want to get a glimpse into what a writer’s room on a television show might be like. If you don’t know anything about that, that might be helpful.

If you are trying to learn screenwriting, it almost has zero value as an instructive tool. You could pick any five episodes of Scriptnotes at random and be three times as well off in terms of your knowledge.

John: When I saw the promo videos, there were other students who were in the class. And so do you get to know them? Do you see samples? What are they up to?

Rawson: Yeah. There are five other writers. Young writers. I think they selected the group out of various graduate screenwriting programs. I think most of them USC, but I’m not sure on that. There’s a section in which each of them brought in ten pages of either a feature script or a television show that they’re working on. And the table reads it and discusses it. Although they only read the first couple pages, and then it kind of fades out and fades back up and they start talking about the pages that they read.

There is a PDF you can print out, so you can read along. You know, it was hard not to draw a comparison or a parallel between the Three Page Challenges that you and Craig do. The one thing Sorkin does talk about a lot is the tenets of his writing, which is intention and obstacle. That every scene has to have an intention, a clear intention, and an obstacle to achieving that intention. Which I think that is really super helpful.

Yes, it’s a founding principle and a driving force, but it’s also kind of esoteric.

John: So it’s billed as a Masterclass. Do you think it’s maybe more intended for people who have maybe written a script or two and have some experience?

Rawson: Oh, that’s a good point. I never thought of that. I guess I imagined it was called Masterclass because a master is teaching it, as opposed to it is a graduate level program. OK. So, then if you know screenwriting, if you’ve written a few screenplays, if you’ve maybe even been hired on something, or paid for your work, it’s really enjoyable and fun. But if you already are kind of at a “master level” or needing to sort of attain that level, I don’t think there’s anything in here that you don’t already know, or wouldn’t have already sort of messed up enough to figure out on your own.

Maybe there’s a sweet spot where you kind of have done it, but you’re still moonlighting a little bit, and you’ve read a few books, and you’ve written a few screenplays. And, yeah, there might be some value there.

So, just to be clear though, it is really enjoyable. It’s valuable in that I really liked – I watched all 35. I learned some fun stuff about, you know, behind the scenes on The West Wing, and how Sorkin does it, which is kind of interesting, right, because if you think of one of the best baseball players of all time, Willie Mays, like great hitter, great player, I don’t think he was a great coach. Like just because you can do it doesn’t mean you’re the best instructor.

It’s a bit of a feathered fish, I think.

John: So, Rawson liked it, basically.

Craig: Well, I’m not surprised. It is Aaron Sorkin. He is a genius and one of the first ballot hall of famers of what we do.

John: And so one of the things Rawson focused on there was how Sorkin wanted to approach every scene characters have an intention and an obstacle. So I thought we would steal that little bit from Sorkin and really focus in on what we mean by obstacles. And how obstacles help us shape not just scenes but the entire movies that we’re trying to write.

Craig: And how did we miss this? I don’t understand. We’ve spoken about intention four million times, and somehow we forgot obstacles.

John: Well, we’ve talked about obstacles in a lot of episodes. So I did a Google search of previous transcripts, and so we bring obstacles, and especially in terms of conflict, and I think that’s a really good way to look at it. Because conflict is what drives scenes.

Craig: Right.

John: But it’s really obstacles are the structure on which you hang conflict. If you just have conflict without a visible obstacle, then it’s just people bickering at each other. The obstacle is really that thing is preventing the hero from going from where they are right now to what their goal is.

Obstacles can be physical. They can be emotional. They can be mental. They can be just other narrative devices. But there’s got to be something that keeps it from being a straight line from, hey, we are going to stop these terrorists to like, oh, we caught the terrorists. There have to be obstacles along the way. And I thought we dig into sort of what kinds of obstacles there are out there.

Craig: Yeah. It’s a good idea. Because I don’t know if people ever really think about these things. You know, what would happen if you took obstacles out. Well, what happens if you take obstacles out is you have your day, today, for most people. I mean, we don’t really deal with obstacles through our day. The obstacles that we do deal with we actually work very hard to build pads around them.

That’s why the coffee machine was invented, so that you didn’t have the obstacle of making the coffee in the morning. So, in our lives we’re constantly trying to avoid obstacles. Which is why our stories require them, because our stories are only interesting because they’re not what our lives are.

And young writers or new writers are constantly being told to throw obstacles in there. Well, sure, but how? And what? And why?

John: Exactly. So, obstacles can be both the big sort of macro issue, so the thing that is sort of the point of the movie. The hero has to get past this thing in order to achieve his or her goal. But a lot of times you’re really talking about the obstacle within a scene. And so the scene starts and there has to be thing that needs to be accomplished for the scene to be over. There’s something the hero needs to overcome in order to get to the next moment.

But sometimes you can break it even smaller, and the obstacle is like how do I convince this person of the next thing. The obstacle could be a very small little thing. How do I get this person to see what it is I’m trying to do? How do I like pick this little lock without them seeing me? What’s weird is they’re all sort of the same thing. Whether you’re looking at the little micro thing, or the big thing, it is what in this moment is stopping the hero from taking the easy way through this path.

Craig: Yeah. And the real answer, the answer every single time, no matter what your situation is, is you, the writer, are the obstacle because you are thinking very carefully about what the worst situation would be here. It doesn’t have to be the worst as in the most calamitous, but rather the most dramatically deserving.

If I want to slow Shawna down, I can slow her down all sorts of ways. I can have a truck drive by and some stuff falls off of it. That’s not what she deserves, though. That’s not what she needs. Because Shawna must be punished by the drama gods for her failures as a character. And so you begin to think about how to craft the world and the circumstances you have in such a way that the obstacles that are put in front of your character are suiting them, challenging them in an extraordinary way, and hopefully also changing them. That would be nice.

John: Yeah. We always talk about world-building as being sort of this big metaphorical like fantastical land, so it’s J.R.R. Tolkien. Like you’re building this whole constructed universe. But really even in stories that are taking place in present day normal life, the screenwriter is doing a tremendous amount of world-building to create a structure around that character to make it challenging. You’re basically putting in obstacles. You’re essentially building the puzzles for the escape room that this character is going to have to go through in order to make this an exciting adventure for us to be following, because otherwise they would just float right through it.

And so sometimes those obstacles are physical. You’re literally preventing them from going to the next place. Sometimes those obstacles are characters. They are characters who are either in direct opposition or are just hindering in some way. It could be the clingy girlfriend who is lovely but is not letting the character do what he needs to do in the moment.

They can be the meddlesome sister-in-law. They can be the principal in any sort of like high school movie. Those are the characters we’re used to seeing as obstacles. But so often the character themselves is the obstacle. There’s something about the character that is preventing them from doing the thing they need to be able to do. It could be a fear, it could be a phobia. It could be something the character himself is not even quite aware of that he needs to learn he has a problem in himself so he can overcome it. There’s something about that character that is making this much more difficult for him than it would be for any other character in the situation.

Craig: Well there you go. So, it’s tailor-made, in a sense, and you should just keep thinking as you are engaging in the “I must create obstacles for my character exercise” how to tailor make your obstacles for that character. And, ideally what you’ll find is that the obstacles that are tailor-made for your character also provide opportunities for your character in success. That’s what we want. We don’t really care if a character has to get something and a pipe bursts and so they have to spend some time mopping up water. Because there’s no opportunity for real success there. Anyone can mop up the water. It’s just annoying.

So, you’re tailoring your obstacles so that they are particularly challenging for this character for some reason or another, and then by definition once they are overcome, particularly rewarding.

John: Exactly. So ideally the obstacle should be related to something the character has done, or the character is partially responsible for having constructed the obstacle. So an example I can think of from my own movies, in the first part of Go Ronna is trying to pull off this very small drug deal. Well, why is she trying to do that? Well, she’s about to get evicted. So, essentially all she needs to do is make a couple hundred dollars. That’s her only real need. And she can do that any number of ways. But she has this sort of clever idea of like, oh, I could try to pull off this really tiny drug deal. And so her first obstacles are her friends who are trying to convince her it’s not a good idea. She’s able to kind of win them over. She ends up sort of leaving Katie Holmes behind as kind of a hostage until she gets back with the money.

She ends up falling into the wrong trap for this drug deal that goes sort of awry. Her best friend, who she’s relying on, ends up taking a bunch of the ecstasy. All sorts of things end up unfolding, but they unfold because she started the chain of events. And she was so cocky, in a way, about her ability to do this thing that she’s set off this whole chain of events and has to figure a way out of them.

The obstacles are created by her initially and then they feel natural to the world. If I threw in a mountain lion, that would not be a natural obstacle. But throwing in the kinds of characters and kinds of situations that believably could exist within this universe, those feel like honest obstacles.

Craig: Yeah, so I call those kinds “self-inflicted wounds,” because that’s basically – and good characters are constantly self-inflicting wounds. And those are very real obstacles. We never question whether or not they are tailor-made for our hero, because it’s our hero that’s creating them in the first place. How could they not be tailor-made?

We all understand that when we wound ourselves we’re doing it for some deep-seeded reason. There is a broken thought process going on, but there’s certainly no lack of intention. So, self-inflicted wounds are great. Another kind of obstacle that I like to think about are ironic obstacles. And they’re ironic because the circumstance seems so outlandish and odd for the character, and yet that’s what makes them interesting.

In my sheep movie, my movie about detective sheep, at some point they realize they have to leave the meadow, which they’ve never left in their lives, and go into the town to start gathering clues. But to do that, they have to cross the road. And it turns out that that is horrifying for sheep. It’s something they’ve never, ever contemplated the world beyond that road suddenly – it’s agoraphobia to the maximum.

So, their great obstacle is taking ten free steps across some dirt path. But, we understand why. It’s made clear why that’s a real obstacle. And so when they do it, you have the ironic enjoyment of watching people do something that should have been easy to do, but clearly wasn’t.

John: Absolutely. So, again, you’re matching specificity to, you know, the nature of the characters, and therefore it’s a good obstacle for them. And so, yeah, an obstacle doesn’t have to be the same obstacle for any normal character. Like, crossing the road would not be an obstacle for Batman, but it’s completely appropriate for the characters you’re describing.

Craig: Yeah. And that’s something to think about that the nature of an obstacle itself, play with it. You know, there’s nothing wrong with playing with it. If I had taken that road and made it a slightly dangerous road, or a road with lots of things in it that make hooves hard to go through, that wouldn’t have been good. That just would have been like, yeah, no, I can see why any – that’s not surprising to me. And that’s another thing you want to try and do with your obstacles is make them surprising, because that’s where we find delight, I think, as an audience.

John: The other thing I want to make sure people understand is that an obstacle doesn’t necessarily mean the main villain of your story. If you look at Ripley in Aliens, so obviously she’s going to face Mother Alien there at the end, but the obstacles are all of the roadblocks that are thrown in her way. She has Newt, they’re about to go off, and then Newt is snatched away. She falls through. And she has to decide whether she’s going to go to the jump ship and go back up to the big ship in the sky, or is she going to go after Newt.

And so she has to make a choice. Choices are always good. Choices are an obstacle. They’re forcing her to choose between two options. And then she has to find a way down to her, and then all the way back up. And there are structural obstacles put in there both structural not just narratively, but literally like she has to get the elevators to work, and the elevators won’t work. She has to figure out how she’s going to find her. There are all these things that are being put in there that feel very natural to the world of Aliens.

Craig: Yeah. And it’s great that you mentioned that she has to make a choice. Because choices can be obstacles, particularly when they’re dilemmas. This is, Sophie’s Choice, you know, talk about an obstacle that a character has to face at some point.

Dilemmas are terrific because they feel like proper obstacles. If it’s a choice that isn’t quite so torturous, then again, probably not that big of an obstacle.

John: Yeah. So, is there any sort of bigger box we can put around obstacles? I think it’s just that when you’re conceiving a story, you really have to conceive of the story in terms of the obstacles. Obviously, you’re going to have a character, you’re going to have a world and a situation, but quite early on you have to figure out what is the thing that they’re going to have to overcome. Because if it’s just a young woman’s journey of self-discovery, well, there’s no obstacles there. But, if it is a – once you get into the specifics of what is it that she needs to overcome. What are the obstacles that are going to prevent her from having that moment of self-discovery? What are the obstacles that are going to keep her from pursuing her dream of ballet? Then you can start to figure out what your actual story is.

Until you know what those obstacles are, you sort of have nothing. And that is the reality of trying to create a cinematic narrative.

Craig: Yeah. I think we have a choice. Some people start with a character and some kind of dramatic/thematic problem. Other people start with an idea. If you start with a thematic problem of, say, a parent who is clinging too hard to their child, then you may ask yourself what would be some obstacles best suited for that. And really what I’m saying is what would be the meanest thing we can do to that person.

But, you could also say we had this idea for a fish who has to find his son and his son is lost in the ocean. OK. So now that I have an obstacle, who is that obstacle the worst for? Either way, however you’re working it, you have to think about your obstacles in context of character. And your character in context with obstacles. So that the obstacles that you put in your movie aren’t merely roadblocks or inconveniences, but rather direct challenges to that character’s state of mind, emotional state, status quo, everything. And obstacles that exist in such a way that when they are overcome, we understand that some kind of dramatic uplift has been achieved.

John: Yeah. Your point about Nemo is great, because a fish lost in the ocean, that’s a huge, great, big idea. But it’s all the little small detours along the way, all the little challenges, the little obstacles of how you’re going to get to that next step, and how he’s going to get a little bit closer and what’s going to happen next – those are the obstacles that you spend months in front of a whiteboard trying to figure out and go through multiple revisions. That underlying idea, that was a great sort of general obstacle, but it’s the specifics, it’s what’s going to happen beat by beat and how is it overcoming each of these obstacles going to really change those characters and make it feel like we are moving forward as a character and not just moving forward towards a destination.

Craig: Et voila.

John: Et voila. All right, let’s get to some questions from listeners. Our first question comes from Matthew Gentile who sent us audio. So, let’s listen to his question.

Question: I’ve written a script for an ultra-low budget feature that I’m directing and producing. The story was in part inspired by a true anecdote I heard over a year ago from a couple friends in the industry. This anecdote inspired me to write a feature script and now functions as a pivotal part in the third act. I recently learned, however, a high profile book has just been published with said anecdote in it. While the script and story has evolved since I heard this anecdote, there are some key elements that still bear resemblance to what I heard and what happened.

The film as of now is not being billed as based on a true story or inspired by true events. And I did register my script with the WGA almost a year before this book’s copyright. However, I wanted to ask you your opinion on what happens if you use a story someone told you in passing about someone and then that someone’s story becomes published. Is it public domain if it’s out there? Can someone claim to have the rights to that? What would you do if something like this happened to a script you were writing? Thank you.

John: Craig, what do you think? What would you do if something like that happened?

Craig: Well, something that is a fact that happens in life is not property that an individual can possess. What somebody can possess is their written version of it. Somebody can say, “Look, this is my telling of this anecdote, so you can’t just start lifting phrases and sentences and things from it.” But I suspect that Matthew is going to be just fine, however, this is an area where, as always, you need to be listening to the LawyerNotes podcast and getting legal advice from lawyers.

Even if you are on the safest of technical grounds, you always have to be aware that our justice system is not as simple as that. And if a studio wants to restrain you, they can make your life difficult. So, my guess is you’re in fine shape, but you should talk to an attorney.

John: Yeah. I think you’re going to be fine as well. So, an anecdote is sort of a weird thing to describe, because like how big is an anecdote. I can think of many examples in my life of like, oh, this little story I heard. That’s not really a story in the sense that there’s a plot, there’s a character, and a whole thing that happens. It’s just like, no, oh, the ice cream shop blew up and that was so strange. That’s not a protectable element. Like an ice cream shop blowing up is not a thing.

So, Craig is covering the legal side of it. And sometimes there’s a legal issue, but most times there’s not really a legal issue. More often, though, there’s sort of an ethical issue. And what happens a lot is – you heard this anecdote from friends – and you need to make sure that they weren’t planning on using that anecdote in anything.

An example, again, from Go is my friend Tom told me about he was working at a hotel and the hotel room caught on fire. And like that’s so strange that this hotel room caught on fire. And he told me the whole scenario. And it’s like, well, that’s kind of great, and I didn’t need anything else from his story but the sense of his hotel room caught on fire and sort of what he did as a manager when his hotel room caught on fire, that was great.

And so when I wrote the scene in Go where Simon is having sex with the two women and the hotel room catches on fire and he doesn’t even notice it, I thought like, man, I hope Tom is not planning on using a hotel room catching on fire, because I’m going to feel really crappy if I’m taking his bit.

And so I emailed him, or I think this is even pre-email. So I called him and said like, hey, were you planning on using a hotel room on fire as of your scenes, because I don’t want to step on that. And he’s like, no, no, no, no, that’s fine, it’s good.

And there’s been a couple things in my life where I’ve been at a place with other writers and something has happened. And we’ve had to have sort of a discussion of like is anyone planning on using that, because that’s a great little moment.

Craig: [laughs] Who gets this?

John: There’s a great episode of Riki Lindhome’s show, Garfunkel and Oats, where she’s starting to date this guy who is also a writer, and something comes up and he like basically takes her joke as a tweet and like tweets it out. And that’s crappy. You got to be really mindful of that.

And so I’m less concerned about Matthew’s question as a legal question and more sort of as an ethical question. Let’s make sure you’re not taking something that someone else really wrote and was planning on using themselves.

Craig: You know what we’re doing, Matthew? We’re helping you keep your friends, OK? I mean, come on. All right, we got a question from John from the UK. And he asks, or writes in, “I was interested in the discussion you had about the John Carpenter court case and the implications it had for an individual screenwriter. Let’s say you sell an original script to a studio. If another party claimed you had infringed copyright on a released film like Carpenter is claiming here, could you personally be found liable for the case?” Very good question.

John, what is your answer to this excellent question?

John: So, I will tell you that when you are selling your script, you’re going to be signing a bunch of legal documents. And one of those legal documents will be saying like I did not steal this from anybody. And they do that to sort of help protect themselves.

At the same time, you know, it can be really murky. I can’t promise you that they would never come after you, but I can promise you that it’s not a common scenario. Craig, you know more about this than I do. What is the thing that you’re signing when you sell that script?

Craig: You’re signing simultaneously two of the strangest comments, separately not strange, together bizarre. On the one hand, you are absolutely warranting that this is entirely your work. So, just as you said, you’re not ripping anybody off. Anything that you are writing for them, or any literary material you are selling to them is wholly yours and not pilfered from anyone else.

At the same time, you are saying, “But, the studio is the author.” So, I swear to god I’m the author, but I’m not the author.

Now, the studio as part of the deal will indemnify you, the writer, from lawsuits presuming that you haven’t ripped somebody off. So, you know, in the case of – I can’t remember which of the Hangovers, some nut job sued and said we had stolen his life story, which still cracks me up. I didn’t have to pay anything to defend myself. The studio sent – I never even had to do a deposition or anything, because it was a ridiculous case. But the studio handled that. They indemnify you.

In the specific question here, John, my guess is that if the concern is that there’s another movie out there that you have somehow infringed upon, the studio would know about that movie. And the studio would have made the determination at this point that the story you’re writing does not infringe upon that.

John: Here’s an example I can imagine, though. Like let’s say that John wrote this script and he was really ripping off this Korean film that no one had ever seen. Like he was just wholesale ripping it off, because I can imagine a scenario in which the studio buying it had no idea that he stole it. That’s a grim scenario. I don’t know what would happen there.

Craig: Well, I think in that case the studio would probably hold the writer in breach of contract, and rightfully so. The studio would probably not have to indemnify the writer from lawsuit, because the writer had breached the contract. The studio would attempt to collect damages from the writer. It would be very, very bad.

What you’re talking about is fraud. I mean, that’s fraud. You’re taking something that someone else wrote and then turning around and selling it to someone else for money. Fraud.

John: Yeah. So what I think would become the murky middle terrible case there is the thing where like you’re really just riffing on a genre, or you’re riffing on a kind of film. And somebody comes who says, “No, no, that’s quoting my film. That’s really a reference to my film.” The way that Tarantino really is quoting a lot of other films. And if somebody came after him and said, “No, no, you stole my movie there,” that’s a challenge. And I’m sure those cases are out there. I’m just not aware of which ones they are.

But, yeah, you’ve got to be really mindful that if you’re referencing something, reference it in a way that is not going to feel like you’re stealing it. And that’s easy to say and sometimes hard to do.

Craig: And be as transparent as you can with the person that’s giving you money. There’s nothing wrong with saying to them, “Listen, before we all do this, here are a bunch of things you need to know. So let’s all have a discussion. Make sure that we collectively don’t get into any trouble here.” Which is perfectly valid. And they now have fair warning. And they can make their own determination about whether they feel that it’s a gray area, or something that they’re happy to defend.

The goal for you is to be honest, to not surprise anybody with any malfeasance, and to therefore protect that clause that says I’m not responsible for the legal defense of the work that you have now said you are the legal author of.

John: Absolutely. Let’s do a simple question. Joe writes, “Can you be a member of both the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild? Do you have to choose one? Is it advisable to choose one over the other? I believe for the Academy voting you have to pick only branch to belong to.”

Craig: Joe, let me unconfuse you here. It is not a question of can you be a member of both the WGA and the DGA. If you meet the membership requirements for either one, you must become a member of either one. So, I’m a member of the WGA. I am a member of the DGA. I’m a member of SAG/AFTRA. I am a member of IATSE. Because in various cases and in various capacities I met their requirements and therefore was compelled to join those unions.

It is a very different situation than a non-union voting body like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That is a club, essentially. And a club can set whatever rules they want, but the unions that you’re describing are not clubs. They’re federally chartered unions and they follow federal labor law.

John: Absolutely. So I can tell you about the Academy Awards club. The Academy has a writer’s branch and it has a director’s branch. And in the Academy you are a member of exactly one branch. And so that is why sometimes you’ll see a person who is in the writer’s branch, but they’re also a director, or they’re directors but they’re also writers. That’s because they had to pick one branch to join. Essentially, one branch invited them to join. They said yes. And then from that point forward they are always in that branch. And so that’s how it works.

So like Julie Delpy, for example, is in the writer’s branch rather than the actor’s branch because she was a writer on Before Sunrise and that was what got her into the Academy.

Craig: And it makes sense because you don’t want individuals to have more than one vote.

John: Nope.

Craig: So, I get that completely. James asks, “Would you ever write the action line ‘John doesn’t react’?” I feel like that action line happens to me in every podcast. “My gut tells me no, as this is a non-action action line. But how else would you describe it when a character does not react to something that any other normal person would react to? An example would be if an alien bursts from someone’s stomach, most people would react. But how would you write it if they didn’t?”

John: So no reaction is a reaction. It’s absolutely fine to say John doesn’t react. It’s a scene description. It’s saying – the function of scene description is describing what a character is doing or what an audience would see on the screen. So, no reaction is a reaction.

Craig: No question. Action line is a misnomer. It doesn’t mean Action. It means Not Dialogue. It means stuff you’re seeing, but not hearing. So, yes, not reacting is absolutely appropriate for it. Let’s call it a description line, and I think that probably would make this a lot easier of a discussion.

If you have somebody who is making, or you as a writer, making a point of having a character not react where other people would, you might even want to say, “Oddly, John doesn’t react. Doesn’t even seem to care.” You can make a moment out of it, so people really get the intention there, as opposed to sort of a passing minor, oh, okay, well, is that important that he didn’t react?

But, no, no question. Not doing something, if it is meaningful not doing something, put it in there.

John: Yeah. I’m going to put a link in the show notes to this video analysis of Gillian Flynn’s screenplay for Gone Girl, which I’ve never actually read the screenplay of it. I’ve read the book, but never read the screenplay. But he sort of shows what the actual stuff looks like on the page. And she actually does a great job with scene description. And she uses colons a lot to indicate those ways that characters are interacting with eye lines. And it’s a great version of sort of how you show someone not reacting to something.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, I love that part of screenwriting personally. That’s my favorite part is storytelling in the description line, which is probably why I get so angry when these ding-a-lings and know-nothings and frauds keep telling people “don’t direct inside your script.” No, go ahead. Direct inside your script. I want to see everything.

It’s insane to suggest to anyone that the only thing screenwriters are allowed to convey are the spoken word and action. No. ridiculous.

John: Kate Powers writes, “Craig, when are you going to do another one of those WGA Finances for Screenwriters talks at the Guild?” She also says, “Also, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, starting listening as an assistant, got bumped to staff writer on Rectify. Now on a Sony Crackle show. Scriptnotes has been invaluable to me every step along the way. Thank you so much. Also, I effen loved Duly Noted.”

Craig: I’m struggling to remember the first time I did a WGA Finances for Screenwriters talk.

John: Didn’t you? I kind of thought you did.

Craig: Did I?

John: Or was it part of like an overall panel? Did you go in to like new screenwriters?

Craig: It may have been. I mean, I do a talk about how to survive the psychological turmoil of development. I do that once a year, typically. I don’t remember doing one on finances.

John: Maybe she was hallucinating. Or maybe she misremembered. I think you would do a great job for a talk on finances. What would be your three bullet points for new Guild members about their finances?

Craig: Well, bullet point number one: save. Save as much as you can save.

Bullet point number two: if you are incorporated, which you will be if you’re earning above a certain amount of money, you have to prepare for your tax bill, which will come due all in one big swift hurrah. They’re not withholding taxes from you and it’s very easy to fall into the trap of spending money that is not actually yours to spend.

And then third, I would strongly recommend to any writer to learn how to use Quicken. Because there are a lot of writers, most big writers I know employ people to handle their finances for them. Not investments and things like that, but I’m saying paying bills and making payments on things, and dealing with the health fund, you know, and sending in forms. Not me.

I’m not paying 1% of my income for that. Hell no. I can do it myself on Quicken and it takes me an hour a week. So, those would be my three big bullet points.

John: That’s great. I do pay somebody. I don’t pay them 1%. One-hour a week is worth more than it costs me to pay that person. So, that’s why I end up doing that.

Craig: I love my one hour. It’s so relaxing.

John: Oh, so you like that stuff.

Craig: It feels good.

John: I can’t agree more about saving. The thing which is so hard to understand is when you first start making money as a writer you’re like, wow, I have some money. This is crazy that I’m actually being paid to do what I love. But, that won’t always be there, and there will be ups and there will be downs. So, you need to have a great big rainy day fund, if possible. But also really be thinking about your retirement, because you’re not going to be doing this forever. And while there is a pension, it’s not going to be adequate. So, you’ve got to save money.

Craig: Well, first of all, you may not get your pension. You have to be vested to get it, which means you need I think five years of pension earnings before they’ll let you get a dime. That’s not coming until you’re sixty-something anyway.

You’re absolutely right. The benefits for saving for retirement go beyond just saving and not spending. That’s also money that you get a terrific tax break on. Anything that you can do to reduce your taxation, which is going to be very high as a screenwriter, is helpful to you and your family.

John: Cool. All right, let’s do our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a media post by Sara Benincasa.

Craig: So great.

John: Which she answers this anonymous question, “Why did you gain so much weight?” And what I love about her answer, and it’s a long post, she really goes for it. She really explains out her boyfriend who was deployed overseas in the army and then her switch to a different antidepressant and how that caused some weight gain. And she really sort of explains all the steps of how she put on weight. And the whole time it’s very, very funny. She’s a really very funny writer.

But what I love about it is throughout the whole thing she’s sort of like apologizing for being heavy, like it’s this horrible thing that she’s inflicting upon the world by being heavy. And the punchline is that she comes to Hollywood, she expects to have the worst issues with weight and such, and she does great. And so she sets up with Diablo Cody and Red Hour and she gets a lot of work done. And she does really well.

And, again, she’s constantly in her head apologizing for her weight. Like how do they not notice that I’m heavy? And it’s a good reminder that so often the things that we think are problems about ourselves are really just things we are creating in ourselves. We’re sort of creating people’s expectations about what we’re supposed to be like, and what we’re supposed to be doing. And when you sort of get past those, and just do your work, sometimes that work is rewarded in wonderful ways. So, it was a great essay. I know a lot of people have shared it. So, by the time this episode comes out, it will probably have won the Pulitzer in media.

But it’s just a great post.

Craig: I loved it, too. I loved it. It was so fearless. And that’s the thing. Basically everyone that gets wrapped up in these things, some idiot sends you an anonymous question like this. And really it may not be what they’re hoping for, but the worst outcome is you get scared. You get scared that people are seeing you a certain way. You get scared that you’re too this, or too that.

She’s so not scared, or even when she is scared, she’s OK to talk about being scared. So, to me, there was just this wonderful bravery to everything. And she also linked to a video piece she did that’s even braver than what she wrote. I mean, really just like I’m so impressed with her and kind of want to – I would be OK with maybe a 20th of her courage. Because I have none. [laughs] So, I’ll take – a 20th seems like it’s a fair ask. I’m not being greedy there.

I’m saying courage is a zero sum game. She would have to be reduced down by 1/20th. But I would take 1/20th of her courage. It would a big improvement for me. So, highly recommend that as well.

My One Cool Thing is coming up in, well, I don’t know when this – well, probably around when this is airing. August 30th or something like that, Nuka World! The final and presumably largest DLC for Fallout 4 will be available. And it looks awesome. It looks so great.

So, you get to explore the post-apocalyptic ruins of a horrible theme park that was built by the Nuke World Company to celebrate their products. It looks awesome.

John: That’s great.

Craig: So we’ll include a link to the trailer. You need Fallout 4 to play it, but you should have gotten Fallout 4. That’s my feeling.

John: Yeah, it was a previously One Cool Thing. So, people are way behind if they’re not doing it. I did not play Fallout 4. I did play the Fallout iPad game, the thing where you’re like managing the little – it was like the SIMS.

Craig: Oh yeah, the shelter.

John: And it was fun. And then it got really, really tedious. But it was fun for a while. And I do enjoy all the little details in their world that build so well together.

Craig: Yeah. Those guys are great. I mean, that whole company is fantastic. The two video game companies that I always perk up when I hear their names are Naughty Dog, which did The Last of Us, and the Unchartered Games, and the folks at Bethesda.

John: Yeah. They’re talented.

Craig: They’re just really good. And they also do Elder Scrolls. So, awesome.

John: Hooray. That’s our show for this week. So, as always, we are produced by Godwin Jabangwe. We are edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Matt Davis. If you have an outro for us, you can send it to That’s also where you can send questions like the ones we answered. You can also reach us on Twitter for shorter questions. I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.

You’ll find the show on iTunes. If you leave us a review there, those are wonderful. And I actually read through them and they were just delightful. So, thank you for that. That’s also where we have the Scriptnotes app where you can download the back episodes all the way back to Episode 1. You can also find those at And on the USB drive we sell, which has all 250 episodes. Those are at the store, so you can get those.

That’s it. So, Craig, next time I speak with you I’ll actually be in Paris. And we will be tired.

Craig: You’re going to be tired, man. I’m going to be freaking awesome.

John: That’s going to be great. You’ll be sober, I hope.

Craig: Uh…bon voyage. [laughs]

John: It’ll be the first time for anything. So.

Craig: I’ve never done this drunk.

John: I’ve never done this drunk either. Well, I’ve done it with a glass and a half of wine at our live show.

Craig: That’s perfect. We want that.

John: You got to be a little loosened up. But, no, not drunk-drunk.

Craig: Well, there’s a first for everything. Maybe when you’re over there we’ll do it. I’m actually looking forward to it. I think something wonderful will come out of this.

John: Which would be great. Craig, I will see you next week.

Craig: You got it. Bye.

John: Bye.


You can download the episode here.

Sheep Crossing Roads

Tue, 08/30/2016 - 08:03

John and Craig discuss obstacles, those things your characters hate but desperately need.

We also follow up on the great Peter Dodd episode and answer listener questions on writing action, anecdotes as IP and other topics.


You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 264: The One With the Agent — Transcript

Fri, 08/26/2016 - 14:07

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 264 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. So, way back in Episode 2 we discussed how to get an agent. And in the 262 episodes since then the subject of agents has come up quite often, largely from listener questions. Well, today we are going to speak with an actual agent about what he looks for in a writer client and how he sees the relationships between writers and agents and managers and executives. And so that’s our whole episode is just an agent today.

And that agent is sitting across from me. Peter Dodd is a Motion Picture Literary Agent at UTA where he represents a range of clients, including me. Peter, welcome to the show.

Peter Dodd: Hello guys. Happy to be here.

Craig: Hey, welcome Peter. Welcome. I’m very glad that you’re here, because as much as John and I ramble on and on for 263 episodes, I think honestly everyone out there has been waiting for us to just – can you please just tell me how to get the damn agent? So, we’re really glad you’re here.

Peter: Thank you. Well, I am happy to be here. I’m excited to try and answer some of these questions, so shoot.

John: Great. Well, let’s start with the basics. How long have you been an agent?

Peter: I’ve been an agent for about four years. I’ve been at the agency for around seven years.

John: So that’s a long time. So how do you get to be an agent? What was the process from starting there to becoming an agent?

Peter: The process is everyone starts in the mailroom, like historically is told, that exists. We start delivering the mail.

John: So, classically, when I started out in Hollywood, you were literally delivering mail from like office to office and doing runs. But there’s probably much more to that now in 2016. What does a mailroom person do?

Peter: Well, it’s interesting, I wonder if there’s more or less, because now that everything is digital, you send all of your scripts over email. So you’re not – so the function of a mailroom trainee initially was to pick up scripts and run them to actor’s houses, or drop them off in the mail to be sent to whoever for whatever purpose. Now, you spend your time in the mailroom, A, sort of collecting all the mail that comes in the day, dealing with all the stuff that agents are sending out, and delivering mail that comes in on a case-by-case basis. A lot of it happens to be Amazon packages.

John: So, you’re doing that at the very start, and then what is the process after you’ve been in the mailroom? Do you get assigned to a desk?

Peter: You start in the mailroom. After you spend a sufficient amount of time in the mailroom, you earn the right to interview for agents. And so that becomes the assistant pool that agents can choose from. So, if there are say 20 people in the mailroom delivering mail every day, I might interview five or six of them to be assistants on my desk. And then you select one of them to become your assistant.

So, then they spend the next year of their life basically answering the phone calls, setting meetings, sending scripts out. You know, arranging the life of the agent and manufacturing everything they need to do from the beginning of the day to the end of the day for the agent and for the clients they work with and represent.

John: Great. So on a desk means that you are an assistant to an agent. So, my first interaction with you is you were on David Kramer’s desk, who was my main agent, and so you were answering the phone. Is that when I first met you?

Peter: Yes.

John: So, what is the process from going being the guy who is answering the phones to the person who actually has clients that you’re representing?

Peter: It’s a tricky one. Basically, you have to stay at the agency for a while. No one gets promoted in their first year, although everyone is overqualified to do the job. That’s sort of not the point. It’s not about whether or not you can answer a phone or set or schedule a meeting. It’s about whether you’re doing the job of an agent. And so typically you’ll work for a junior agent for a year, and then you switch desks. You’ll work for a more senior agent for a year. And then you might switch desks again and work for an even more senior agent. And then at that point, when you’ve been there for anywhere from three to five years, there’s an inflection point whereby you either succeed and you make the jump to agent, or doesn’t feel like it’s going to work out and you leave and go work at another place.

Craig: But that sounds like the ultimate disaster. Right? I mean, I’m sure that it’s not for some people who decide, you know what, the agent’s life is not for me. I don’t actually want to be an agent. But, my god, to put in all those years in the mailroom, and then as an assistant, and then as an assistant, and then as an assistant, and then somebody one day goes, “Eh, meh.” That happens, right?

I mean, people do sort of get pushed off of the platform at some point. It has to, right? Because there’s so many agents an agency needs, right?

Peter: It happens all the time. It happens all the time. And, honestly, the job is a tricky one. It’s arduous. It’s not fun much of the time. And if you don’t love it, you’re going to self-select out anyway. And so it makes sense for people to guide you down a different path if that’s the right thing for you.

John: So, Peter, of the cohort of people in the mailroom with you, how many of those people are agents now?

Peter: Just me.

John: Great.

Craig: Wow.

John: And how many people were in that first group?

Peter: I started on the same day as six people. There were probably about I want to say 20 people in the mailroom overall. But on my day there were six of us. Five of them left. Of the five that left, one has left the industry completely. Works in real estate now. The other four are executives, producers, working in film and in TV. One guy is in reality TV. But anywhere from kids’ stuff to producing movies. So everyone has a career in entertainment, for the most part.

John: That’s great.

Peter: But not everyone stays at the actual agency.

John: And just to back up a little bit more, what was your background before going in there? You had an undergrad degree and then you applied to get into the mailroom? How does that work?

Peter: No, I graduated from Harvard with a degree in religion and political science. And after that, I got a job as a consultant. So I was a strategy consultant for big business for like three or four years. I left there and I worked at the Walt Disney Company in corporate strategy, so doing lots of acquisition work for the company. Always trying to get closer to storytelling and closer to movies. And they were actually quite getting there.

And then after I left Disney, instead of going to business school I decided, you know what, I’m going to try this agency thing for a year. If it works out for me, I’ll stay. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll go to grad school and I’ll have felt that I checked that box.

Craig: So you went from working on business transactions at the corporate level to standing in a mailroom with five other people, delivering Amazon packages?

Peter: Correct.

Craig: Wow.

John: I always want everyone to understand the glamour of the industry that you entered into.

Peter: By the way, it’s super sexy. But what’s also interesting is that in the mailroom you have people with law degrees, you have people with business degrees, you have people that went to some amazing schools. You have people from all walks of life. And it’s really, really interesting to see how everyone sort of settles in and how some people last and some people don’t. And the skills that you think it takes to be successful at this job are not necessarily the skills that everyone has. And so it’s an interesting sorting process.

John: What are the skills required for being successful as an agent?

Peter: To be successful as an agent you have to be dogged. You have to be tireless. You have to accept no as only an entry point to a conversation, and not necessarily as the be all and end all of a conversation. You have to love movies, or TV, or whatever it is that you choose to spend all your time in, because frankly you do spend all of your time in it. And in my case, you have to love reading. I love reading. I love good stories. I love writers. That’s why I’ve gravitated towards the literary side is I’m just much more interested in that side of the business. Working with humans, working with actors, working with that side isn’t necessarily for me just yet.

Craig: But you have to find that you also love the kinds of people that you have to represent. And we’re not always the most lovable types. It takes a certain kind of person to be married to a writer. John and I have talked about that. And I presume that you have somewhere in there one of those weird quirky personalities that actually likes talking to writers.

Peter: I guess so. Maybe I do. I don’t know. But for I think the thing that always interested me was, you know, when you work at an agency you’re at the center of all the information. And so you hear everything that’s happening all around town at all times. And I like being at the hub. And I like being able to help disseminate that information to people that I think it’s relevant for, and helping, you know, on the other side to introduce people – buyers, producers, etc. – to people that I think are really special.

So, from my perspective, I’m sort at this nexus point and from either end I can get people excited about new writers or new directors or get new writers and new directors excited about projects or talent that I think are really special. So you’re sort of like at a high level you’re a matchmaker.

John: So, when did you start making matches? When did you have your first clients that were your own? Or when did you start representing other people’s clients? When does that transition happen?

Peter: Well, I have found my way into a lot of client teams just by sheer force and energy. I think if you start doing the job of anyone above you, they will appreciate it, especially at an agency. You know, agents never have enough time to read everything, to know every project, to know exactly what’s going on about every facet of everything. And so what I found when I was an assistant still, even working for David, was if you just pick one or two clients and you say, “Look, I want to work for this person. I want to act as if I’m their agent,” it can become practice.

So I would read for specific directors and I would say, “Oh, these scripts are great. We should call these directors and send it to them.” Or I would say, “Oh, these scripts aren’t so great. We should pass for them, or send it to them with the caveat that we don’t necessarily love it, but they should read it anyway.”

John: You started doing this while you were an assistant for a bigger agent?

Peter: The way that you get promoted is that you demonstrate that you can do the job of an agent. And so while you’re an assistant, you have to do all of the assistant tasks. You have to manage their client lists. You have to deal with all of their submissions. You have to manage them and their phone calls, etc. Plus, on the weekends you are trying to figure out what’s right for their clients, your boss’s clients, and you’re trying to see everything, to read everything, to discover new voices that you can bring into the agency. So, in my – the year before I got promoted, I would just constantly try and bring a new director to agents at the agency that I thought was really special, that I thought they should watch. Or I would try and get a director that my boss represented to take a script seriously.

And it got to the point where I had a relationship with some of these clients where I would just call them myself. I would pitch them material. They got used to talking to me and to listening to me and reading what I sent them. And that worked out really well. So, ultimately, after my assistant time had ended, it’s a pretty natural fit to transition from being an assistant to a boss, to having your own desk, having your own phone, and building your own relationships.

John: So, I introduced you as a Motion Picture Literary Agent, but that may be confusing because people think literary and they just think books, they just think written words, but you represent writers and directors. Is that basically the umbrella of people who are doing that for movies is your specialty, correct?

Peter: Correct.

John: And so if somebody is interested in television, they would also have a television agent who would be representing them for TV at the agency?

Peter: Yes.

John: And you’d all be in conversation about sort of what that person is up to?

Peter: Conversation is one way of phrasing it. I like to think of it as competition for what that person is up to. Because often we have conflicting agendas. I mean, from a larger perspective, we all want the client to be successful, but from a parochial perspective we want the client to be successful in our medium. So I want you writing movies. Your TV agent wants you writing TV. And everyone is competing in a positive way to try and get you work. That’s how it should work.

John: Great. So, who were the first clients that you represented who are sort of your people? The people you brought in and became the people you were representing. You don’t have to say names, but like how did you find those people?

Peter: Pretty much all of the clients that I have, and all of the ones that I’ve signed, have come from recommendations. I am a recommendation based engine. There is so much volume of content and material just out there in the world that it’s very easy for people to get overwhelmed by the 30 or 50 unrepresented scripts they get submitted a week.

So, in the course of my assistant years I spent a lot of time networking, a lot of drinks, a lot of weekends, a lot of commiserating with other assistants who then went on to get promoted as young executives, and those people that survived I think all have amazing taste. And so I sort of cultivated a group of around 15 people whose recommendations I will read always, and quickly. And they are the ones that feed me probably 60% of my clients.

So, all of my early clients came from that group of people.

Craig: And this group of people, they are currently working as producers, studio executives, managers?

Peter: Exactly.

Craig: So they’re not your direct competition.

Peter: No. Because if they were my direct competition, they’re probably looking after the same–

Craig: They wouldn’t tell you.

Peter: Content as well. They’d have incentive to tell me. When you go through the difficulty and the challenges of being an assistant, you know, when you’re that guy trying to set a meeting at ten o’clock at night for 8am tomorrow morning in London with a director client, and you’re on the phone with the producer, or the producer’s assistant who is London and it’s three o’clock in the morning for them, you know, when that happens a few times you begin to develop this connection that exists beyond just email addresses. And so now those people who have been promoted at this point are all people that, you know, you went to battle with, and these people help you, and you help them. And that’s sort of the circle of life.

John: What does that conversation look like? Are they just emailing you out of the blue saying like, let’s invent a writer, let’s say Christina. There’s a writer out there Christina. And so the executives have read Christina’s script and said like, “She’s really good. Hey, you should read her.” Or, are you reaching out saying like, “Hey, tell me who is good?” How does that–?

Peter: No, no, no. It always comes from them. Almost always comes from them. I don’t really solicit.

John: OK. So they start, they say like, “Hey, I read something that’s really great. You’ll want to read her.” And what is the next step for you? So if they said you should read her, are you reaching out to Christina? Are they sending you the script? What’s happening?

Peter: 90% of the time they’ll include the material. They’ll say, “Hey, I just read a great sample for this project. You should check this out. I don’t think this writer is represented.” Or they’ll say, “Hey, I read a great sample. You should check this out. I think this person is unhappy with their agent, or unhappy with their manager. This could be an opportunity.”

John: Great. So, what’s an interesting is none of what you’re saying is about a query letter. Like a writer has not written to you saying like, “Hey, I’m looking for an agent.” Does that ever – are any of your clients based on a query letter, like they reached out to you?

Peter: No.

John: Not a one?

Peter: Never.

John: All right.

Peter: Never happens.

John: No one that you met at a conference who offered you a business card or pitched you a script?

Peter: No. People have tried, but no. None of the actual clients that I work with now have come in that way.

Craig: This is why John and I spend a lot of our time frustrated, because there is – I’m sure you know this – there is a large cottage industry designed to take money from people, and in exchange give them the secrets to getting an agent, and getting representation, all the rest of it. And there’s this obsession over query letters. It’s absurd. It is the most bizarre Fellini-esque circus of nonsense you’ve ever seen.

Peter: And it’s complete highway robbery, because that’s not the way that agents look at or think about material.

John: Do you care about a log line?

Peter: In a submission letter?

John: Yeah.

Peter: I’d actually rather not have a log line frankly.

Craig: I love this. This is so great.

Peter: I’d rather have someone say, “I read this and I love it. You read it and tell me what you think.” Because frankly people suck at writing log lines.

Craig: Well, everyone, because log lines stink anyway. I mean, what are you going to sum up a movie in two sentences? It doesn’t tell you a damn thing. Particularly, it doesn’t tell you if this writer has capabilities to do more than just this one idea, or if they’re the kind of writer that’s written an idea that you now have to go get John August to rewrite because they can’t actually write.

I mean, what’s coming through, which I find so fascinating, and I think it’s hard for a lot of people to get their minds around this who are trying to get into our business is that they think somehow they have to do something to get you. And really what it comes down to is on your side of things you’re looking for people to help you. In other words, you’re looking for writers and somebody says, “This person would be great for you. You should get them before someone else does.” It is an entirely different mindset, but I think on their side they think, oh, no, no, I have to show them how wonderful I am, or something like that.

It just doesn’t work.

Peter: Not at all. You know, I get many, many query letters a day from people that figure out our email addresses and send us these crazy subject lines that obvious click bait. I open them and I’m like what on earth is this, how can delete it faster?

Craig: Oh man.

Peter: I don’t even read them. And if it’s not from someone I know, or I can tell that it’s fake, automatic delete.

John: So, let’s go back to Christina, and so an executive at a production company that you trust, you think has good taste, has recommended you read her script. Has attached the script. When do you read that script?

Peter: That depends on the context with which they send it. So, for example, there was a Christina that was sent to me last year, probably around this time, end of summer last year. The executive that I like said to me, “Managers are chasing this person. He’s meeting with 15 different managers over the next two weeks. This is a hot script. You should read it right away.” I read it that night. I reached out to the writer. Contacted them. Etc.

So, in situations like that where you know there’s a lot of heat and where you feel like that’s true, it goes very quickly. If I don’t know, or if it feels like it might be able to wait, I’ll often just wait till the weekend. And then on the weekends, that’s when I do most of my reading.

John: Great. So, let’s talk about that weekend read that you’re doing. So, you’ve sat down with her script. How much of her script do you read before you decide whether to keep reading or set it aside?

Peter: Honestly, it all just depends on the context of who is sending it to me. Like, typically I will read, you know, the first 30 plus pages. I almost always feel that’s at least giving the person the benefit of the doubt. You know, when I was a young agent I did this exercise. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the thousand hours, or the amount of time it takes to become really good at something. So, when I was a young agent I was like, you know what, I’m going to read every script completely because if I read them all completely I’ll have a great sense of what good writers do.

But what I did was after 30 pages I would always take my notes, whether or not I liked it, who I liked it for, etc., and then I would finish. And then at the end I would look at my notes and say, “Did anything change in reading the subsequent 70 pages from reading the first 30 pages?” And it never changed. You are rarely moved to tears, you are rarely excited by something in the last five pages of a script that you can’t sense in the first 30.

John: Well, it’s also interesting because you’re not looking for is this the movie we want to go shoot. You’re looking at can this person write. Your standards for whether to sign Christina as a client or not are not sort of like is this going to be the best possible movie. It’s like can she write [repeatedly]?

Peter: For us, and for new clients, it’s all about voice. Do you have a voice? And it doesn’t matter if the voice is in the most uncommercial sounding script in the world. That could still be an amazing voice that we can take and use that unconventional/uncommercial script and launch them into the stratosphere as a cool writer.

Craig: I think everyone is listening to this and going, OK, so I’ve learned my lesson. I’m not going to sit here and freak out over log lines. I’m not going to sit here and write cutesy query letters to agents. I’m going to accept the fact that my work has to be of such a nature that now I’m helping them, as opposed to me trying to convince them to help me.

How do they go about getting – I mean, from your point of view, and I don’t know if you know the answer to this because you’re an agent, but how do they get to those people that are going to get to you? How do they start their little chain of recommendations?

Peter: You know what’s funny? I thought this was such a confounding question when I was just getting into the business, because they always say Hollywood is about who you know. And when I moved out here after being in business in New York and in Boston, I didn’t really know anyone that worked at an agency. And so what I did was I went through like my college alumni network. I found a guy who was an executive at a studio. I reached out to him cold. And I said, “Hey, I’d love to come and get coffee with you.” I sort of did the informational interview thing.

And then I asked him who else I should meet. He introduced me to another five people. And it sort of spread like a virus. And it actually wasn’t that hard for me. I sort of feel like everyone knows a person who knows a person in Hollywood. So, if you can get someone to read who is a step or a degree closer to where you want to be, like that’s the way to go. That’s sort of the way in.

So, it’s sort of a non-clear answer, but I think that that at least makes sense to me.

Craig: You don’t stress competitions, contests? Does that mean anything to you guys?

Peter: Yes. Competitions and contests do, if you win.

Craig: You have to win. Yeah, people say like everyone is a semi-finalist. Literally in the world, everyone is–

Peter: Literally everyone is a Nicholl semi-finalist. There are thousands and thousands of people.

Craig: [laughs] Everyone. Exactly. That doesn’t count.

John: So let’s start with the Nicholl finalists. So, would you read through each of those scripts, or would somebody – would your assistant read through all of those scripts? Somebody looked at all of those scripts to see if any of those people are–?

Peter: Yes.

John: So that is actually – they’re going to get read by every big agency in town because they saw you there?

Peter: Correct.

John: How about Austin? Would they read all of the Austin finalists?

Peter: I don’t know. No, not every agent. No. I mean, the ones that people go to are really the Nicholl and the Black List five years ago. To some extent now scripts that are on there and scripts that do really well have already been out in the world, so they’re not as undiscovered gems in terms of representation, even though the rest of the world might not know how great the script is, a lot of them do have agents.

You know, I find another way that we get scripts a lot that works well is by clients. You know, if you were to send me a script, Craig, or you were to send me a script, John, I would trust that a lot more than if my aunt sends me a script.

Craig: Isn’t that interesting?

Peter: Because you’re professionals in the business.

Craig: Yeah. No one ever talks about that. No one ever thinks, “Oh I know, I’ll show it to a writer.” Now, granted, my standard line when people ask me to read a script is, well, A, I can’t. And B, I can’t help you. [laughs] Do you know what I mean?

But, I guess secretly I could.

Peter: But you could, Craig.

Craig: It’s true.

Peter: If you gave your script to your agent, you know, even if your agent doesn’t read it immediately, your agent will have a younger agent read it. And have an opinion.

Craig: If I tell him to read it, he’s reading it. [laughs]

Peter: Right now. Drop everything.

Craig: I will. I’ll make him do it.

John: So, Peter, what would Christina’s script be? Would it be a spec feature? Would it be a TV episode? Like are you only reading features to sign feature client? Or what are you reading?

Peter: No, I’m reading everything. I will read anything and everything that tells a story. So, 90% of the time it is features, but I will read the hot pilot that’s going around. I’ve no qualms about signing a TV writer on the feature side. But the format that it takes is of much less interest to me than the skill that it demonstrates. I’ll read playwrights. I’ll read shorts. I’ll read whatever.

John: So, let’s say you’ve read Christina’s script over the weekend and you like it. What is your next step?

Peter: If I’ve read it and I love it and I have her contact information, I will contact her. I will call her first. I will email her. If I don’t have either of those things, I will Facebook stalk her. I will tweet at her. I will Google search her. I will find a way to get to her.

John: Now, she may not necessarily know that you’ve read her script. Is that correct?

Peter: Yeah. She might not at all. So, often it’s a cold call. But, first of all, every writer or director likes hearing that you like their work, so frankly it doesn’t matter whether they have an agent, or they don’t have an agent, whether they know you’re calling, or whether you’re calling cold. If you call someone and tell them that you love what they’ve done, everyone takes that positively.

Craig: Interestingly, you are going after them. A lot of times what we’ll hear from aspiring writers is, “Well, I know that my script got to an agent. And it’s been a month and I haven’t quite heard back. When can I send them another thing and a follow up and all the rest?” And we give them advice, but in my mind I’m thinking you won’t need to.

Peter: Exactly.

Craig: They’re going to come find you. Or, it’s no.

John: So, my very first script that I wrote, this is while I was in Stark, was this romantic tragedy set in Boulder. And it’s pretty well-written, but it’s not really a movie. And a producer took it over to CAA and she wasn’t really a producer. She was sort of a producer. She took it over to CAA and this agent there was reading it. And four weeks sort of went by. And I just remember looking at the answer machine like why is there no message about this? And then she was like calling to try to get an answer. And then we find out the answer and it’s a no. But it’s sort of course it was a no. it was four weeks and that was just too long. It wasn’t going to be a yes answer.

So, your goal is to read that script over the weekend and then call her on Monday if you like the thing that you’ve just read?

Peter: If I like it, Monday. If I love it, Sunday, Saturday afternoon. Whenever it is I finish it.

John: In that conversation, are you trying to look for other things of hers that you can read? What are you trying to get out of that conversation?

Peter: I love to read second pieces. I think that that’s really important. I think a lot of writers do get signed off of one script, and that’s fine, but I feel like a lot of people have one script in them. I feel like a real writer has two or more. And so it’s important to me to read a secondary piece, just to have that perspective that they’re not just a one-trick pony, or that one script hasn’t been worked on for ten years. Right?

But, no, I’ll call them. I’ll tell them what I thought of the script. You know, if it feels makeable, if it feels like a real play, it’s something we can go after, you know, I might talk to them about some directors or some actors that might make sense for it. And if it’s not makeable or if it’s something that’s super tricky or just less clear path, I’ll just talk to them about where they come from, and their background, and what their aspirations are.

You know, a lot of times you have to suss out whether they really want to be writers or not, or whether they wrote it for some other reason.

John: So, one of the things we stress on the podcast a lot is that agents, mostly they are there to get their clients work. I mean, they are there to be an advocate for their clients. They are there to help support their clients. But mostly they want clients who work. So, at one point do you meet with Christina to see whether she’s a person you think can actually be employable?

Is it all based on what she’s written? Or does that face-to-face meeting change your opinion of whether to sign her as a client?

Peter: The face-to-face meeting is definitely important. I would say it is – if you’re weighting them, I would say it’s probably 80% based on the work. But what you find is that the people that tend to work continuously often are they’re charismatic, they’re fun, they’re people that you want to be around and hang around with.

I mean, in the script process for features, which both of you guys know, it’s a long process. It’s a lot of meetings. It’s a lot of phone calls. It’s a lot of collaboration. And if you are a curmudgeon who can’t talk to people, or you’re someone who writes a script and then thinks that it’s carved in stone, and that it’s not going to have notes, or people aren’t going to have their opinions, then this isn’t the career for you. You should write novels. Or poetry, you know.

So, you have to understand that there is a business side to the art that you do. And that working with other people is a requirement in this business. It’s not just about your words, although it is mostly about your words.

Craig: But you can see how without even pointing it out, it’s second nature to you, but I think it’s surprising for a lot of people that when you read a script by Christina and it is something that isn’t particularly marketable. It’s not something that a big studio is going to make. It doesn’t fit whatever the market is insisting upon at the moment, that doesn’t stop you at all. The idea is, oh good, I found somebody with an original voice. Let me see if I can now get her to work on movies that studios are making. Is that fair to say?

Peter: Right. 100%. And that’s often a part of the matching process in the signing pursuit. When you sit down in that room, you are trying to figure out whether they actually want to make movies and whether they can work. Or whether they want to live in sort of this isolated sphere which is reflected by the sort of beautiful and charming idiosyncratic script that they wrote that got your attention.

John: Great. So, let’s talk about the other side of the equation. So, you have these clients, but you’re also dealing with a whole bunch of other people who are making movies. So, you’re dealing with producers, you’re dealing with executives. How much of your day is spent dealing with them versus dealing with your clients? How much of your life is spent figuring out what they want and how to match up your people to their needs?

Peter: I would say it’s probably 60% spent on my clients. And then 40% spent on what the other people want or need.

John: Do you have like one studio that you are responsible for covering? Or one place that is yours, like within the agency like, “Oh, that’s Peter’s place and he’s responsible for knowing everything that happens there?”

Peter: Yes.

John: OK. And so how do you get that information in general? Is it by talking to the executives? Do you have spies? How do you know what’s really going on?

Craig: Spies. Say spies.

Peter: Spies, yes. That’s exactly it. I spend a lot of time talking to the executives, talking to the producers, and trying to figure out what their real priorities are. You know, every time they make a deal on a project like say they’re going to do a Chutes & Ladders movie, you know, that will be set up at a studio and there will be a producer involved. And the producer’s job is to put that movie together. So the producer will call me and they’ll say, “Hey, we just set up Chutes & Ladders. We’re really excited about it. We’re going to make it like Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s going to be awesome.”

And they’ll be like, “What writers do you have that can write that kind of a movie?” And so I will say, look, these are the ten writers that I think make sense for it. Of the ten, these four are available. And we should send them the material right now. And they’ll be like, “Great. Got to talk to the studio. And then we’ll send you some ideas.”

John: OK. So, I need to come back to you with like, so you say ten and then four, but then those are essentially four of your clients that you’re sort of pitting against each other for this one job. I mean, to some degree you are setting your children against each other to try to get this one thing. Does that weigh on you at all? Is that a factor in sort of how you’re thinking about your job?

Peter: No.

John: No?

Peter: No. you’re not really setting your children against each other, because you also have to imagine that in the larger landscape of any given project. Of Chutes & Ladders, for example, they’re calling every agency. They’re asking every covering agent the exact same question. And if I put one person up, and they put one person up, and the other person puts one person, you know, that’s four or five writers competing. You have the best chance of filling the job as a covering agent by putting up the right people and by putting up a few of them.

Craig: The conflict of interest that fascinates me, and it’s inevitable as well, so I don’t think it’s an ethical thing. I’m just kind of curious how you navigate these waters. Is not between writer clients, but between writer and director clients. When you have a director on a project and you have a writer on the project, and the director is making way more money, and the director say, “I may want to get a different writer from some other place even.” Or, the director wants the writer to do something and the writer is not sure.” How do you navigate that?

Peter: I sort of think you have to keep a separation of church and state. I think you are the advocate for each of these clients individually, but as you address these problems you have to put on your writer hat, or your director hat. And oftentimes if there are real conflicts of interest, like you represent both the writer and the director, you’ll have someone else on the team sort of jump in and be the lead advocate for the writer in this case on a particular circumstance that might happen.

Craig: Because, I mean, ultimately you’re walking this interesting line between keeping something going, but also not ending up favoring one over the over to the extent that one of them leaves, because behind you all the time is this issue of competition. That artists have choices. And they don’t have to stay.

So the tricky job, I mean, that’s the part – you know, when I project myself into somebody else’s job, I always find something that makes me feel very anxious. And I think that’s the thing that would make me feel the most anxious if I were doing the job.

Peter: I feel like the conflicts of interest that you’re talking about though happen very rarely. This is not something that we spend all day/every day agonizing about.

Craig: That’s good.

Peter: These situations do happen, but that is not the day-to-day job.

Craig: Good.

John: So let’s go back to the common scenario, though, so let’s say the Chutes & Ladders movie, and maybe Christina is one of the four writers you want to put up for that, because her spec would be a great sample for that. So, what is the phone call or the email to her to explain what it is? Are you responsible for pitching their take? Talk to us about sort of what that–

Peter: So, the interesting part, you know, you guys bring up conflict of interest and pitting your children against each other as it relates to the selling process. We haven’t even spoken to Christina about Chutes & Ladders. Christina might be like, “I would never write a board game. Why would you even talk about me in this context?”

So, of the four people that I’ve talked about and got the studio approval, and their excitement about, she might self-select out just because she doesn’t even want to participate.

But let’s assume that she does want to participate. So then I’ll call Christina and I’ll say, hey, such and such studio has just set up this project and they’d like you to look at their materials for Chutes & Ladders. In some circumstances, the studio and the producers will have very clear outlines for what they want the movie to be. They might have a treatment or a document or some piece of material they’re going to share with the writer. In other cases, they don’t. They have a title. They have Chutes & Ladders. Come up with a movie.

John: So, classically, the challenge I always face with these is like they were fishing expeditions. You were never quite clear whether there was a movie to be made there, or if they’re just meeting with every writer in town. And so you could be the tenth meeting of the day to go in on Chutes & Ladders. And I felt like I was burning a lot of time doing those.

Like I was lucky to get one of those jobs pretty early on. I got How to Eat Fried Worms, but it was me versus a bunch of very funny Simpsons writers all trying to get this one gig. And I was lucky to get it, but there were a lot of those gigs I didn’t get.

Now a thing I see a lot with these sort of IP titles is these rooms that they’re putting together where they’re basically bringing a bunch of writers on to crack Chutes & Ladders or to figure out how to do all these different board games. What are those calls like for you? And are those good ways of employing your clients? How do you feel about those personally and as an agency?

Peter: Well, I can’t speak entirely for the agency. I don’t think that’s politically correct. But, personally, I don’t like the idea because when you assemble rooms of writers, basically what they’re doing is they’re saying, “I want to pay as little as I possibly can to these people that you believe in as artists and steal their ideas. And then I may or may not hire them to be the writer on the movie.” So, from my perspective, if it’s something that is that ill-formed or that poorly thought out I would rather you write a script that’s original and let me try and sell it. Then have you give your good original idea and let them brand it with a piece of IP or a title.

So, I mean, that’s philosophically how I feel about it. In reality, though, for a lot of younger writers, for newer writers you’re trying to break, it is a good opportunity. Because for a lot of them, A, they get to work with some other writers they wouldn’t know. B, they get to work with someone senior who is running the writer’s room who gets to see how they perform, how they interact, how they collaborate, etc. You know, they get to work with the producer and the studio executive who might not know them. So, in terms of introducing them to the world of features, it’s not that bad.

But, if you’re talking about a writer who has written a lot of movies, or someone who is going to run the room, etc., it’s not really the best use of their time.

Craig: That’s something that I worry about all the time because while there are some new things like these writer rooms, the idea of the fishing expedition and everybody going in to pitch some well thought out ten or 15-minute version of a movie, that’s been around since John and I have been around. But, what’s changed dramatically is the amount of movies that are made and the ratio of developed to made movies, which used to be much, much higher.

So, we have about two-thirds of the amount of movies that we used to get made, and probably a third of the amount that are in development, or fewer. And so I’m kind of curious from your perspective as an agent, are you concerned that the farm system of the newer writers, their only way in are kind of through these arduous things that burn up a lot of time and energy and have a very high noise-to-signal ratio. And that somewhere down the line eventually all of the big money keeps going to the same pool of people. Is it harder to transition writers from baby writer to steadily-working writer to A-list writer?

Peter: 100% yes. Because the only way you move up that chain is by getting your movies made. And so if you spend a lot of time writing and the movies never get made, then you don’t increase your own quote, etc., in the system.

John: All three of us can think of writers who work all the time, but they don’t really have produced credits. So there’s no movies you can point to saying like, oh, that’s that guy’s movie. And they really aren’t moving up the chain. I’m sure they’re making money, which is great, and they’re continuously working, but there’s no way for them to progress because there just aren’t movies with their names on. There aren’t movies that they can really take credit for as being their movies.

Peter: Right. Which is why I think original material is so important. And which is why getting caught in the system and doing just the rewrites and just the roundtables and just the studio types of projects can be a never-ending cycle. You’re just sort of spinning your wheels in a lot of cases.

John: But the spec market is not at all what the spec market was when Craig and I were first starting out. There used to be this truly vibrant spec market where people would sell million dollar scripts it seemed like every week. It was a very frequent occurrence. And that’s not so common now. So, if a Christina says, “OK, I’m going to go off and write a spec script,” do you want her to pitch you what she’s going to write ahead of time, so you know what it is, so you can tell her whether that’s the proper thing? Are you going to try to get her partnered up with a director from the start?

What is your approach to Christina going off and writing her own original thing?

Peter: Well, you’re right, the spec market has totally changed. It’s completely different. You can’t just sell a – I mean, it very rarely happens that a writer goes off and sells a script for seven figures. So, now when we talk about writers writing new material, if they are interested I would love for them to talk to me about it beforehand. I’d love to hear two or three ideas, and then we decide, oh, this one feels like the right one for you.

Often it’s going to be whichever one you’re most passionate about, because ultimately you want a writer to write something they care about. That just gets you the best material for the end of the day. But, if they are interested in input, I would love to participate before they spend two months writing a new piece of material. And then once we get the piece of material, what we try and do is package it with producers, or with talent, or with a director that make the sale more of a fit. That make it going out into the marketplace noisier.

And so you’ll give it to a piece of talent. You’ll give it to an actor or an actress. You’ll give it to a filmmaker because, again, that increases the auspices around that particular piece.

John: Talk to us about managers. So, how many of your clients also have managers?

Peter: Most of them, probably 80%.

Craig: Wow.

John: What is your relationship to the managers?

Peter: My relationship to the managers varies in many situations. In some situations, the managers are nonexistent. In other situations, the managers–

John: When you say nonexistent, like they’re ineffectual? They do nothing?

Peter: Right. In some situations, the managers are on my phone sheet every day and are very omnipresent. And it cuts both ways. You know, oftentimes I work well with managers who are good developers of material. I really like managers who dive into the story and will help a writer sort of crack their story or will read and give feedback and notes and things like that on a script. You know, they can be very detailed and sort of help a writer break a storyline that maybe doesn’t make sense. I like very literary-driven managers. I think they add a lot of value.

I think there are some managers who basically do the same job I do, and they’re calling studio executives, and they’re selling clients, and they’re pitching clients, and they’re sending submissions. And that feels a little bit redundant to me. But my relationship – it’s like any relationship with any person. It just depends on how well you connect with them, what your vibe is together, and what kind of clients, and sort of how you work with these clients.

John: Are there any writer clients who you have declined to represent because they came with a manager you didn’t want to deal with?

Peter: Yes. There are managers I won’t work with.

John: All right.

Craig: Interestingly, you’ve never had to decline a client because they didn’t have a manager. [laughs] That doesn’t come up.

Peter: Correct. Correct. That’s never been an issue.

John: So obviously you’re not going to name names, but how would a writer find out that their manager is a toxic manager, or is a manager who is not well-liked? Any clues that a person could glean, a writer could glean that their manager may not be a good manager?

Peter: I honestly don’t know. Yeah, it’s tricky. I mean, I guess, if the piece of talent were that amazing and the manager was really challenging, I might try and make it work for a period of time and just see if you can tough it out. Because oftentimes you just gravitate towards the material and you work with everything else that comes with it. You know, things that come unencumbered are so rare these days. But, god, you know, you try and protect them if you can.

Craig: I mean, I’m very manager skeptic. I’ve said as much on the show many, many times. I do recognize that there are some managers out there who do work as producers for their clients and in the way that you’re describing, they help them write a screenplay. And I find it a curious position to be in, because sooner or later there’s going to be a different producer on there who will also be producing the screenplay. But, I understand. At least to get it to a place. Very good.

But, it seems to me that a lot of what the management business has become is just a way for people to double up on agents. You can’t have two agents at once. I mean, you can share two agents at an agency, obviously, but that’s the same 10%. You can’t hire CAA and UTA, but you can hire UTA and a manager. And so I agree with you. I think a lot of these people are kind of just extra agents.

John: So, I will speak up for Malcolm Spellman and for Justin Marks who believe that managers are – good managers are fundamentally a blessing. And that they truly help them out a lot.

And I will say that I know some mutual friends of ours who are represented by one agency, yet also have a really cozy relationship with another agency at the same time. It sort of feels like they’re kind of split between two worlds. I see you nodding, so that’s a thing that happens. Is it frustrating when you see that?

Peter: It’s very frustrating. Yes. But I also understand that at a certain level everyone knows each other. You’ve been in this business for long enough, you know, you have relationships that transcend agencies.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, that’s actually really interesting, because I don’t know how that would work. I mean, I’m friends with David Kramer, but I don’t feel like that relationship does anything strange. It’s not like we’re hanging out together at dinner.

What do you mean by the kind of dual agency? I feel like I’m missing out and I should be doing something.

John: Off-air I’ll tell you the name of the person, but a mutual friend of ours, he’s both at UTA and he’s also sort of at CAA at the same time. And it’s always struck me as so strange. But I’ll have conversations with him and like, “Oh yeah, well, my agent at CAA says this, and my agent at UTA says this.” And I think he’s technically only with one of the agencies. Basically he’s managed to not choose between them. And he’s chosen not to choose.

Craig: Interesting.

Peter: I’ve never heard of anybody being that explicit about it, but I do know of people who just have relationships with agents who are at different places, who might run a business question by an agent that doesn’t necessarily represent them that they’re close with. And I’ve heard that and I’ve had that happen before.

By the way, my best friend is a client who is not at my agency. And who I don’t represent. And who asks me questions about his agent all the time. And I’m like, you need to chill out, your agent is doing a great job.

Craig: Good for you.

Peter: I don’t even work with you, but it’s interesting. When you’re friends with a writer, you can really talk to them about what their issues are, and also I think I’ve become a better agent because I get to learn what his particular neuroses are.

Craig: Well, and god help you if he turns to you and says, “You know what? You have to be my agent.” And then you’re like, oh no.

Peter: Yeah.

Craig: I know how crazy you are, bro.

Peter: It’s super tricky. But I found myself defending agents who don’t even work at my agency, just because the demands or the expectations of my friend can sometimes be a bit ridiculous.

John: So let’s wrap this up with Christina. So you’ve managed to land her her first job. It’s an adaptation. So she’s going to be doing it for Sony. What kind of deal are you able to make for her on her very first Hollywood writing job? Is she getting scale? Is she getting scale plus ten? What does that look like for Christina?

Peter: Typically, writers who are making their first adaptation will get scale plus ten. I mean, that’s sort of the starting offer.

John: And we’ll explain scale plus ten. So scale is the minimum that they are allowed to pay you based on the WGA rates. Plus ten means plus ten percent, which basically they have to pay you.

Peter: Right. And then any sort of beyond that is what you get in negotiation based on the heat of the writer, the heat of the project, the talent that’s attached, the importance of the project relative to other projects within the studio. And so oftentimes you can convince them to go beyond that, but that’s sort of the starting point.

John: I bring this up just because listeners may not realize that – we talk about WGA negotiations and everything happens, and WGA only sort of sets the floor. And everything that’s above the floor is the agent’s job, and the lawyer’s job, and manager’s job, I guess, to some degree to raise that floor up higher and higher.

I haven’t talked about lawyers. So, when it comes time to make Christina’s deal, you’re dealing with her lawyer also who is helping you make the deal. Is that correct?

Peter: Mm-hmm.

John: And so what is the discussion between the two of you about what you’re asking for?

Peter: Most of the time, the discussion between the two of us is about what are the justifications for getting them more money than they’ve been offered. It’s not just about – you can’t just say, “I want more.” That’s never an acceptable line of argument. It’s, you know, based on the reviews of their previous movie, it’s based on the box office performance of a previous movie. It’s based on the elements that are attached. It’s based on the need and the demand for the writer. It’s based on their specific abilities within this world that other people don’t have.

So, you have to justify and you and the lawyer work together to figure out what those justifications are as you’re making the calls.

Craig: And you’re not dealing – people may not understand this – you’re not dealing with the people that have hired the writer in the first place, because those people are on the creative side of the studio, the studio executives along with the producer. These are business affairs people who are walled off, church and state style.

Peter: Which is the craziest part of it. The fact that I’m arguing about content, I’m arguing about artists and their skills with people who might not haven’t even seen the movie of the writer we’re talking about.

Craig: Almost certainly haven’t. Yeah, and don’t care. Because they literally have a computer model for what that person should be paid. They talk to each other, so now you have the business affairs lawyer at one studio talking to another one, because they hate setting precedent. If they give you a raise, then they get yelled at by other studios, because the other studio has to pay that higher rate now for your client.

And it’s a very – the only time I ever feel bad on my side as a client is when they’re like, “Well, business affairs says they should only pay you this.” And I’m like, well then no, screw them. And then someone calls them and says, “Stop being a jerk.”

But it’s got to be difficult when you keep coming back to these same people after you just had a fight with them an hour ago, to have a new fight with them about a new client, right?

Peter: It’s wild and crazy. Yes. It’s bizarre. You know, I would say to any writer who is able to do it, the best thing that you can give your agent, the greatest gift, is the power to walk away. If you are willing to say, “No, I just won’t do it for this price,” then your agent can go crazy on the lawyer and know that you’re not going to fire them if they aren’t able to make that deal. That is when it becomes very fun.

Craig: You know, my agent knows – he knows I want to walk away from everything. I don’t want to do anything. So, he has the best gift in the world. You know, any time I say, OK, let’s go make a deal. And he’s like, “All right, but this is what I’m going to ask for.” I’m like, no, no, no. Just understand, I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to do anything. I want to retire. So, go, armed with that.

And, you know, the truth is that attitude, you technically could have that attitude at any point in your career. It just occurred to me later that I should have it. But what’s to stop you, right?

Peter: You could, but for some younger writers, they need rent money. So, for them making a deal is important.

Craig: They’re going to get it anyway. I mean, you guys know. I mean, my point is you’re not going to let – if you know it’s right for your client, you’re not going to let them walk away. If you know you have a really good deal for the right project for them, then you’ll sit them down and say, “Hey, dumb-dumb, do this.” I presume.

Peter: 100%. I mean, I’m in the business of representing the best voices, the greatest artists, people that should be creating movies and television. And if the person that I’m negotiating with doesn’t recognize or respect that, then I have no interest in doing business with them, or putting my client in business with them. That’s not what’s good for my client. And if that becomes a deal breaker for me and Christina, then so bet it. They’re undervaluing themselves in the marketplace, and that’s not acceptable.

John: Last two questions, both come from trends in television, and I’m curious whether they exist in features and whether you’ve seen them in features. So first off, over the last few years staffing of junior levels in TV, diversity has become much more important. You see a lot more efforts to hire diverse writers at the starting level. Do you see efforts to hire diverse writers for features at those starting levels?

Peter: You do, but nearly as clearly defined as they are in television. I mean, in television they will specifically call covering agents for diverse writers. And diversity means a number of different things, but they are very explicit about it. In features, they will say, “We’d love it if a woman wrote this movie.” Or, “We’d love to have a writer or director of this particular background.” But, no, there’s nothing as clearly defined as it is in television at all.

John: Peter, you’re African American. Do people come to you looking for African American writers or minority writers? Does that happen at all?

Peter: All the time. Yes. Yes.

Craig: Because you guys all know each other? [laughs]

Peter: I’m the resident expert on African American writers at UTA, and WME, at CAA, everywhere.

Craig: Everywhere. It’s amazing.

Peter: Literally everywhere. We all know each other. We all represent – yeah, I know everyone.

John: Good stuff. My other question about TV practices that are hope are not going to ever come over to features, in TV a lot of times they’ll say like, “Oh, you’re a great young writer. Unfortunately we only have one spot and there’s two writers, so we’re going to partner you up and paper team you, pretend you’re a team.” Is there paper-teaming happening in features? Have you ever seen that happen?

Peter: I have seen it happen. It happens pretty rarely, though. That sort of forced marriage is strange and unnatural and doesn’t tend to happen.

The craziest thing is I once saw it happen across agencies.

Craig: Whoa.

Peter: So imagine trying to make a deal with a lit agent from another agency, you’re both advocating for your client. You don’t necessarily know that they’re worth the same. It would be like if I paired you, Craig, with a baby writer, and said, “OK, we want to ask for this much together as a team.” Well, then how do you split it?

Craig: I take everything.

Peter: It becomes very, very tricky.

Craig: I get all of it. That’s not tricky. That person should be thrilled. Thrilled.

Peter: It’s a gift.

Craig: I’m literally giving them the gift of my knowledge.

Peter: That’s the key to Hollywood, really. That’s what you should tell everyone that’s listening. They should just pair with one of the two of you.

Craig: [laughs] Exactly.

John: We have one listener question that I thought was actually much more appropriate for you. So, this is actually an audio question, so we’ll listen to the audio.

Question: Hey John and Craig. What’s the viability of making short films in the current climate as a means to break in to the industry?

Peter: I honestly think short films are pretty outdated in terms of a way to break into the film industry. They work if you want to be a director. In terms of being a writer, no one signs people off of getting their short film made. It’s just not a thing. It works for directors or writer-directors who are transitioning to bigger movies, and only to the extent that your short serves as a proof of concept of a larger movie.

So, if your short is the first chapter of a movie, that’s fantastic. That’s something that people can see, they get a sense of what you want to do with it. And there’s sort of an obvious next step to where the project goes.

If your short sort of lives in a bubble and doesn’t serve as part of a larger hole, doesn’t really help.

John: Gotcha. Cool. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a new podcast, it’s actually the second season of an old podcast, but it was in Australia, now it’s in the US. It’s called Science Vs. It is hosted by Wendy Zuckerman. And what she does is she takes a look at issues in the news, or just general topics, and really looks at them scientifically, sort of to really break down like what’s actually going on behind the scenes and what’s actually true and what’s not actually true.

So, the three episodes I listened to so far, one was on attachment parenting, one was on fracking. She did a two-part episode on guns. And they’re all just terrific. They’re really well-produced. So, if you’re looking for another podcast, I would recommend Science Vs. by Wendy Zuckerman.

Craig: Hmm, that sounds like I might actually like that. The only issue is, of course, it’s a podcast.

John: Craig doesn’t listen to podcasts.

Craig: Why would I? Why does anyone? I don’t understand it.

Peter: People with long commutes.

Craig: I guess, though, it’s the thing. I don’t have a long commute. [laughs] So, my One Cool Thing is maybe the dumbest of all of them, but so I already did one beard related One Cool Thing, because Peter, you don’t know this, but I’m a possessor of a one-year-old beard now. And I’m bald. I mean, I’m not fully full bad, but I’m fairly bald. So I don’t have to worry about like hair stuff. But now I kind of do, which is weird.

Anyway, found this awesome stuff, also Australian, by the way, called Uppercut. And it’s like a beard good that keeps your beard kind of tight, so it’s not flying off your face. And it smells like coconut. Yeah!

Peter: I didn’t even know that was an issue for people with beards, but I guess. I mean, you have hair like everyone else.

Craig: Well yeah, like if it gets frizzy, then you look like a bedraggled sea captain. You know? So you want to keep it natty and everything. And also beards are super dry and this stuff kind of makes it not so crispy.

Peter: Well, that’s interesting because, as John pointed out, I am an African American male, and so my hair is very short. So I almost never think about my hair. I don’t invest in hair products. I don’t really gels or anything. It’s never something that I’m really conscious of. And I also don’t have a beard.

Craig: Well, look, by the way, keep it that way. But I got to tell you, the joy of not having to give a damn about hair stuff is one of the – now that I have to give a slight, slight damn, it’s one of the great joys of life.

Peter: Consider me blessed.

John: Peter, do you have One Cool Thing to share with us?

Peter: Yeah. So my One Cool Thing is a book that I read over my vacation which is called Dynasty: The Rise and the Fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland. The book came out last fall and I read an amazing review of it, which is sort of how I got into it. You know, as agents, while we read scripts all the time, I do try and read for pleasure, because I do want to have informed conversation and I’m just curious about a lot of things. This book is – it’s sort of the latest history on the House of Caesar from Julius Caesar through Caligula. And as you look at the first five Caesars, what you realize is that the Roman Republic wasn’t as republican as it seems, or as it claims to be.

The characters are larger than life. I mean, it reads like a Game of Thrones episode, except minus the dragons, and with more prostitution. So, the book is fantastic.

Craig: Even more prostitution than the actual Game of Thrones, which is prostitution-heavy?

Peter: Oh, very much so. I mean, there was an emperor who used to take all of the young senators’ children basically to an island and make them prostitute to each other for his pleasure.

Craig: Well, we’ve had Denny Hastert. We’ve had a few. We’ve had a few of those guys.

Peter: So, yes, that’s my One Cool Thing.

John: Very, very cool. All right, that was show for this week. As always, we are produced by Godwin Jabangwe, and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Roman Mittermayr. If you have an outro for us, you can send it to us at That’s also where you send questions like the one we answered before.

You can find show notes for this episode and all episodes at That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. Godwin gets them up about four days after the episode reads, so you’ll be able to read all about what Peter said.

You can find all of the back episodes of the show at and on the Scriptnotes USB drive which you can get at the store, the store.

For short questions, I’m on Twitter, @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Peter Dodd, do you use Twitter? You don’t want people reaching out on Twitter.

Peter: No, no, no. Not Twitter.

John: Not Twitter.

Peter: I don’t know anyone who uses Twitter anymore. I feel like it’s dead, by the way.

John: Oh my god, we’re on Twitter all the time.

Craig: That’s the most agent thing of all time.

Peter: Maybe it’s just me.

Craig: I don’t use it, so now it’s dead. Classic.

Peter: It doesn’t exist.

John: Peter Dodd, you were a fantastic guest. Thank you very much for being on the show with us this week.

Peter: Thanks guys. Happy to be here.

John: All right. Thanks.

Craig: Thank you.


You can download the episode here.

The One With the Agent

Tue, 08/23/2016 - 08:03

Craig and John speak with agent Peter Dodd about what he looks for in a writer client, and how he sees the relationships between writers and agents and managers and executives.

We ask all the questions: How does he find new writers? Do competitions matter? How about query letters? And once he has a script in his hands, how much does he read before he knows if wants to sign the writer as a client? Peter answers everything candidly. Even we gasped a few times.


You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 263: Frequently Asked Questions about Screenwriting — Transcript

Fri, 08/19/2016 - 16:28

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 263 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast we’ll be doing another round of the Three Page Challenge, but this time with a twist. We’ll also be looking at the 100 most frequently asked questions in screenwriting.

But, Craig, a couple episodes ago you were gone when Billy Ray was on because you had a terrible ear infection.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Today, this is my day for a gory ear story. Are you ready?

Craig: I am. In fact, I’m more than ready. I’m thrilled.

John: So, I guess a general trigger warning. If you do not like stories of ear pain, use the little chapter button to skip ahead right here. I’m going to give you the quick lowdown on what happened with my ear today.

So, as you all know, I’m leaving for Paris in less than a week.

Craig: Boo.

John: And so I have to do all of these doctor’s appointments for the doctors I will not see over the year that I’m in Paris. Today was the allergist. And the allergist was fine, no issues, but she was looking in my left ear and she said, “You know what? You have a lot of wax build up here. I’m going to send the nurse in and she’ll get that wax out.”

I’m like, great. So it’s like a paid Q-tip. So she comes in and she has this amazing instrument I’d never seen before. It’s like a plastic pick, a clear plastic pick that has a hoop on the end and then attaches to a little light, so she can use that to look inside and see the wax and get it all off. And I’m like well this is amazing. A new technology. I was so excited, until she put it in my ear.

Craig: Hmm.

John: It was one of the most painful experiences of my entire life.

Craig: This is not a gory story at all. This is what happens to me four times a year. I thought for sure there was going to be blood or they were going to find a worm or a nest of spiders.

John: So, there was blood. There was quite a bit of blood. And my ear is actually bleeding as we’re recording this podcast. So, in getting this stuff out, they opened something up, and so there’s been a lot of blood coming out of my ear for the rest of the afternoon.

Craig: Yeah, I don’t mean to downplay the pain. It is incredibly painful. So, I’m in your boat. My doctor said, “Some people are wax makers. You’re a wax maker.”

John: We are wax makers. That’s maybe why we’re screenwriters. Maybe the secret of our podcast. I do wonder if maybe having these headphones on my ears a lot, because I end up wearing them a lot, is part of what is building up all the wax in my ears.

Craig: It’s unlikely. It’s not likely.

John: It’s genetics.

Craig: It’s just genetics. Exactly. And, in fact, there’s two specific kinds of ear wax that are very related to genetics. There’s wet and there’s dry. I guarantee you you have wet, because wet wax people are the ones that have these problems. And then maybe you go in there with a Q-tip to try and clean some out every now and then and you do, but you’re also compressing a bunch in there. And then it gets all slammed up against the wall. And then they can’t see. And then to get it off they’re basically – it’s like they’re ripping a scab off the inside of your ear.

John: It really is basically what they did.

Craig: Yeah. It hurts so much.

John: It hurts so much. It hurts so much more than I was expecting. Because I’ve had tattoos. I’ve had a kidney stone. But this was just a very uniquely sharp pain. Just imagine a toothpick being shoved into your brain. That’s what it felt like.

Craig: Yeah. It is an incredibly sensitive part of the body. Unfortunately, it’s not like they can put you under general to take these. And then when you look at finally what they’ve pulled out you feel like, oh my god, you must have pulled out like a pound and it’s like a tiny little pebble.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Very annoying.

John: But, anyway, I’m better now. And so I hear you delightfully clearly in ways I probably haven’t for weeks.

Craig: Through blood, which is my favorite way to be heard.

John: Oh, so good. This week also I was talking with a friend, Elan, who was at Gen Con. So he’s the guy who developed and designed Exploding Kittens. And so he was there at Gen Con, the big D&D conference, with Exploding Kittens and they sold out of that, which is congratulations. Awesome for him.

But, he was telling me about this conference. And as he was describing it I could not believe that you and I were not there. So, this is the once a year giant Indianapolis convention for all the D&D geeks, and other gamers, and with all sorts of board games. But, Craig, we have to go there.

And the specific story he told me that made me certain that we had to be there was this thing called True Dungeon. Do you know what True Dungeon is?

Craig: No.

John: So, it’s a live action thing you’re going through that is a D&D adventure. So you’re going from these rooms to rooms. It has aspects of an escape room, but also aspects of D&D. You’re there with your party. You are assigning your attributes. You are winning treasure. And based on the treasure you win, the next year you come in with an advantage.

Craig, why are we not there?

Craig: Well, I mean, look, the only reason I can think is that I don’t like people, so obviously that’s a little bit of an issue for me with these things. But, it does sound like the kind of convention I would very much like to go to. And don’t you think that they would be interested in like a screenwriter-hosted game of D&D? We could DM, or I could DM, or you could DM and actually play. Would be fun. Do these people care about us, or are we nobody to them?

John: That is a question I think it’s worth asking to our listenership. I’m curious what the Venn diagram is overlapping people who know about Gen Con and would know whether we could actually get into Gen Con and maybe speak, or maybe do a live episode at Gen Con. I’m curious sort of how many of the people in our listenership are actually decision makers at Gen Con, or at least know the decision makers at Gen Con.

So, if you are involved with Gen Con and would like us to maybe come to the Gen Con 50, it’s the 50th anniversary of Gen Con next year, August 17 through 20, drop us a line. Drop us a line at That’s how we got the Kates on the show, so maybe that’s how we’ll get ourselves to Gen Con.

Craig: That’s absolutely true. It’s worked once before, and at this point I have to assume it’s going to work again, because past success is a predictor of future success.

John: 100 percent.

Craig: Always.

John: And while we’re in the follow up topics and we’re talking about The Katering Show – The Katering Show is now on YouTube. So if you did not have a chance to see season two when it was on the weird special channel it was on, it is now available on YouTube. So I would encourage you to watch all the episodes of the wonderful Australian Kates and their amazing television program.

Craig: So great.

John: So great. To our main topics this week. Way back in the early 2000s, I used to write a column for IMDb, which I was answering a bunch of really basic screenwriting questions. It was a weekly column. It got kind of frustrating. I was answering the same questions again and again. So in 2003 I set up, the website where you’re probably listening to this podcast through. And on that site I answered a bunch of questions. I did that for a couple more years. And then I got really tired of just answering questions again and again.

And, Craig, you did the same thing on Artful Writer, didn’t you? You’d answer questions about the industry and the business?

Craig: Yeah. I mean, I probably did it similarly to you and the way we do it on the podcast. I would store up a whole bunch of them and then I would do Q-a-Apalooza.

John: Yep. And you would have plowed through them. And then over the years I just got really tired of doing that. And I also got tired of the site as a blog, just always being these questions. It felt like the wrong kind of way to be doing it.

So, when Stuart started working for me, this is five years ago, I said, hey, let’s make up a new site that’s really, really basic questions about screenwriting. It should be the answer to a Google search for any of these things. And so he started generating questions and he set up the site. And then as people would write in questions, he would just answer the questions. And so it was a great sort of way to let Stuart just do all of that stuff. And so he would answer questions like what is a brad. Like really basic questions, but they were just fundamental questions that if you didn’t understand that, then the rest of screenwriting would be very hard to understand.

And so over the years that built up and there were about 500 questions on that site at times. And this last year I said, you know what, let’s take all of the most asked questions and stick them together as one PDF that people can just download to answer all those things.

And so that’s out there right now. So if you go to, click on the little link, you can download the 100 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Screenwriting. And it’s free. It’s just meant to be the basic answers to the very basic questions that you’re likely going to have.

So, even the questions that we get on the podcast tend to be more sophisticated than these, but I thought we might hit some of the questions that Stuart answered in this book and see if we agree with how Stuart answered the question.

Craig: I love that there’s the chance that we can beat up Stuart in absentia.

John: Yeah. Isn’t that sort of great? It just keeps going on. I thought we might take a look at three questions and see how Stuart answered them and if we agree with how Stuart answered them. And I want to stress here, Stuart sometimes asked me questions about the questions, so he would say like, “I got a question about this, and what should I say?” And I would just tell him what to say. But I really have not read this book.

And so this is one of the rare cases where I’m putting something out there saying like I think this is probably accurate, but I haven’t read through all 81 pages of this book carefully, because in some ways it’s their thing, not my thing. So I was just the person giving them a job.

Craig: I hope so much that it is wrong.

John: It would be so good if it were wrong. Let’s start with question number 32. If you look at the index, all those are clickable links, so you can just click on it. Question 32. What does “high concept” mean? Here’s what Stuart said: A “high concept” idea is one that can be easily and succinctly explained. It was originally coined ironically, in opposition to “high art,” which is why to some the term is counterintuitive. A good (albeit extreme) example is Snakes on a Plane — the title itself explains the idea.

Craig: No.

John: Craig, what do you think of that definition of high concept?

Craig: No. No, no.

John: All right. Give us a better one.

Craig: Well, my objection is that easily and succinctly explained could apply to a low concept movie, such as My Dinner with Andre. A high concept movie to me is one in which the plot circumstance is more remarkable than anything else you’re going to describe. The hook of the movie, or the premise of the movie, is outlandish or big or vibrant. It’s in your face.

John: Great. I think that’s a much better definition than what Stuart gave. So, one of the lovely things about an e-Book is we can just change it. And so perhaps even by the time people are downloading this book, we will have changed that.

But one of the reasons why we will ask for your email address when you download the book is we will update it and fix things. And so probably by the time next week rolls around, we will fix this to incorporate more of what Craig said.

Craig: I’m already enjoying this process.

John: Great. Let’s do question 23.

Craig: Are scenes that take place in cars INT. or EXT.? And here’s what Stuart wrote: Car scenes often use camera placements that are both INT. and EXT., so INT./EXT. is usually appropriate for their scene headers. This is not a hard and fast rule. If your scene is obviously either INT. or EXT., indicate it as such. For example, if you have a movie about a family that has encountered a shrink ray, and your centimeter tall characters are adventuring from the back seat of a car to the front, your scenes are probably strictly INT.

John, what did you think?

John: I mostly agree with what Stuart said here. I think his example was really weird at the end, like the shrink rays/people in a car, but yeah, you’ll very often see INT./EXT. for car scenes. It very often kind of won’t matter a lot. So, if most of the action is taking place inside the car, I tend to use INT. if most of it is taking place outside the car, I say EXT.

Craig: I’m with you. So, Stuart’s 0/2 right now. This is great. This is great.

John: All right. Let’s try number 56. What is a two-hander? A two-hander is a movie where there are two main characters of roughly equal importance to the story, and whose arcs are given roughly equal screen-time. Romantic comedies and buddy cop movies are often two-handers, but almost all genres have their examples. The Sixth Sense is a thriller two-hander.

Craig, what do you think?

Craig: I think Stuart nailed that one.

John: Stuart Friedel for the win.

Craig: Nice. This is a good one. How do you format two characters talking at once? When two characters are talking at the same time, it is referred to as “dual dialogue,” and the two speakers’ text blocks go side-by-side. Most screenwriting programs have an option for this. In Final Draft, if you type the dialogues normally with one below the other, highlight both, and select Format —> Dual Dialogue, it will put the blocks side-by-side.

I agree with this, but it also points out how bad Final Draft is at making dual dialogue. So bad.

John: Yeah. It also seems strange that Stuart wouldn’t have mentioned how you do it in Highland, which is the app we actually make. Or how you do it in Fountain, yeah.

Craig: [laughs] I mean, I’m starting to feel like, I mean, listen, don’t speak ill of the dead.

John: Stuart’s not dead. Stuart’s alive and married.

Craig: Oh. Oh, he’s alive. Oh, I thought he died.

John: No, that’s not why he left.

Craig: Oh my god. I sent his parents flowers. What a mistake.

John: They deserve flowers. They’ve had to deal with 30 years of Stuart Friedel.

Craig: He did actually a very good job for him to have done all this. And, yeah, that’s exactly right. You put them side-by-side. It’s something that you should use sparingly, I feel. It’s actually kind of hard to read.

John: It is hard to read.

Craig: And so you’re asking the reader to do some math, because of course we can’t hear it simultaneously. We have to read it in sequence. It’s just the way time works and when you’re reading. So, you’re approximating something. That’s why you should use it kind of sparingly. And only when it’s really important. Because you know throughout a script people are going to be overlapping plenty. So just don’t go nuts with this.

John: Yeah. You’re other option is always to call it out in parenthetical. And so you can say overlapping, or sometimes it will say “overlapping throughout.” Sometimes I’ll even do that as scene description, sort of like “Overlapping throughout–“and then it’s a big run of dialogue and different people talking.

And that just gives you a sense this is meant to be pandemonium. People are all on top of each other. Don’t worry about how this person’s dialogue interacts with this person’s dialogue. They’re all talking. And that sometimes is the more crucial sense you’re trying to convey.

Craig: Yeah. That’s exactly right. If you’re dealing with a crowd and you’re going to have four different people shouting out something in the crowd, rather than give them each a name and dual dialogue it, you can just say make a character called crowd and say the things they’re saying and maybe just shift return to put them on their own lines. Or put little slashes in between them just to get a sense of this is all simultaneous yammering.

John: You’ll often see that with news reports, where you’re cutting between a whole bunch of things. Even on previous Three Page Challenges we’ve had that, where it’s a news report going through a bunch of different talking heads describing the scene behind us.

Craig: Exactly.

John: Cool. Great, so if you want to download that, that’s at And you will just click, give us your email address, and we’ll send it to you.

So, Godwin Jabangwe, our Scriptnotes producer, has also gone through and edited this. So, he’s done some proofreading on it, but there will still be mistakes. And so one of the things you’ll see on the second page of the PDF is just a link to click, where basically if someone is broken, something is not right, or something could be better. So people can click that link and we can also improve things along the way.

Craig: It’s a great service. Just adds to the pile of good works that you do.

John: Why thank you.

Craig: All right. Well, I guess it’s probably time for our Three Page Challenges.

John: Absolutely. So, as long time listeners know, we occasionally take a look at three page sample sent in by our audience, offering our honest assessment in the hopes that people learn from them. Not just the people who wrote them in, but also our listeners.

If you would like to read along with us, you can find the PDFs in the show notes, so just scroll down and you will see the PDFs and you can see what it is we were talking about.

So, normally this is the point in the podcast where Craig or I try to lamely summarize what’s happening in the three pages, so people who are listening without looking at it can know what we’re talking about. I thought we’d try something different, which is invite our producer, Godwin Jabangwe, on to give us a synopsis of each of these projects before we start describing it. So, Godwin, if you could please hop on the line.

Craig: You know what’s great? Poor Godwin just listened to us beating up Stuart, and now he’s thinking, “The day I leave, they’re going to turn on me. This is terrible.”

Godwin Jabangwe: I’m never leaving.

Craig: Oh, smart. Smart.

John: So, would you start off with Tierra Blanca by Salvador Medina?

Godwin: All right. We open in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico, on a blazing hot morning. Ben, a man in his early 30s, tries to evade a truck that’s trailing him. He pulls into an auto shop where Diego and Rob are playing cards. Ben tells the mechanics to take their time. He’s in no rush. He’s resigned to his fate as the truck he’s been trying to escape waits patiently outside.

We cut to the past, two years earlier, to meet a younger, skinnier Ben. And that’s it.

John: So, everyone who has listened to this segment before knows that when we cut to the past at the bottom of page three, what is that called?

Godwin: It’s a Stuart Special.

Craig: I mean, do we rename it at this point, because Godwin picked this one. So this is on Godwin.

Godwin: This was an homage to Stuart.

Craig: Oh, OK. Fair enough. Fair enough.

John: We were discussing maybe a Godwin Gotcha.

Craig: [laughs] I like that. A Godwin Gotcha. So, Tierra Blanca is writing by Salvador Medina, who is Mexican. We know this because he put it on his title page, his contact information is that he lives in Mexico City. So, I’m going to avoid commenting on maybe some little tweakity things with English, because his English is vastly better than my Spanish.

This is a perfectly good way to start a movie. And we give the Stuart Special a lot of grief, but here’s what really works – I can see everything. I can see the streets. I can see the time of day. I can see the light. I can see what Ben looks like. I can see the heat. I can see the colors of the trucks. All of this is working great.

But, this I thought was not a great use of real estate in terms of the first three pages in the sense of what was happening. Here’s what’s happening. Ben is driving along. He’s in Mexico. He is not Mexican, clearly. And he realizes someone is following him and in that moment realizes that he’s going to die.

Now, what I just said, that’s not on the page. What’s on the page is that he sees the pickup truck behind him running a red light to keep up with him. And then Salvador writes, “Ben, surveys with his eyes.” That’s it.

John: There’s under-reaction there. And that’s the case where you’ve got to make that a playable moment for the actor. Surveys isn’t the verb there that sort of tells you what he’s doing.

Craig: No, exactly. It doesn’t give us a sense of what’s in his head. And what is in his head there should help us transition to this next scene. In the next scene, Diego, who runs an auto shop, is going to just greet him like he’s any customer. And Ben is going to explain to him that he can’t go outside because they will kill him as soon as he does. And Ben is depressed. He’s miserable. He’s in despair. That would all work if I understood the moment that caused the despair was actually causing despair.

That said, there is a card game going on between Diego and Rob, who are coworkers, that doesn’t really seem to be adding anything. I didn’t care about it. I don’t know what it could possibly be doing for us other than taking some time and setting some flavor, but once I see that Ben knows he’s going to die, I need to be with him.

John: Yeah. I think that aspect of being with him is my biggest question about this. It seems like we’re in Ben’s POV, but we break POV to come to Rob and Diego who are playing this card game, yet they’re not given very specific characters. And so my question going forward is are they main characters? Are they supposed to be main characters? Is there a reason why we’re shifting to their POV?

A strange thing that happens on page two, “Rob chuckles and takes the money. A white pickup truck parks in front of them.” Well, that’s Ben’s white pickup truck.

Craig: Right.

John: But to say a white pickup truck, like wait, is it the same pickup truck? And so I ended up having to skip back a page and I was looking for who has a pickup truck, who has a pickup truck. And I see the first INT./EXT., there you go, answer to a Stuart question. It says Ben’s car rather than Ben’s truck, or Ben’s pickup truck.

And so, again, this may be an English thing, but when I see car, I’m not necessarily thinking truck. And so I was looking to try to match up what was actually happening here. And so my belief is that you’re trying to set a Tarantino kind of world where there are multiple people who can have storytelling power and people can cross over, but it’s only page two. And so it felt really strange for it to suddenly be shifting to these guys’ POV and to not really be focusing on Ben through these moments.

I can imagine a scenario in which Ben sees the car behind him, decides to pull into the auto shop, and we’re staying on his POV about what it is he’s trying to do next in order to watch the guy who is waiting for him to come out.

Craig: Yeah. This thing between Diego and Rob, it only really works if it happens before I know there’s any trouble at all. So for instance, there is a version here, Salvador, where you cut the scene, i.e. Ben’s car. Take all of it out. We’re not meeting Ben there. We’re not seeing him driving. We’re not seeing his truck. We’re not seeing somebody following him. We just open on Sinaloa, and you have subtitle that’s explaining to us that this is home to Mexico’s biggest drug lords. And that this Tierra Blanca is the neighborhood where most of them come from. So, we’re in a dangerous place.

And the next thing we see is an auto shop where a couple of guys are goofing around playing cards. And that doesn’t seem dangerous at all. Well, that’s an interesting contrast. So they have their little back and forth chit-chat, and then a guy comes in. Some white guy walks in and they’re like, oh okay, yeah, we’ll fix your car. This is all very mundane. Until he says, “They’ll kill me as soon as I leave here anyway.”

And then you have surprised people. And you have surprised Diego. And we are surprised with him. I think this is just a better way to think about things. How do you manufacture surprises, even though, look, let’s face it, it’s not really that surprising, right? You’re making a movie about drug wars. There’s going to be a problem.

John: We’ve seen movies before.

Craig: Right.

John: I think what I would pitch though about your version of this is that initial conversation between Diego and Rob just has to be a lot better. You only get one first line in the script, and one first moment, and so like whatever that card game is, it has to feel like even if the other stuff never happened, we’d be interested enough in these characters based on the dynamic that we saw there.

And so look at what that card game is. It can feel very naturalistic. But just it needs to tell us more. It needs to be more important for why it’s there.

Craig: 100 percent. And I’ll point, Salvador, to a scene that I love in a movie I love. Kill Bill. This was in the first one. Uma Thurman’s character goes to meet a man named Hattori Hanzo, who makes these brilliant Japanese swords. He’s the best. But he’s since retired, and now he just works as a sushi chef. And he has this guy that’s basically his underling. And she walks in there pretending to just be some ding-a-ling American tourist who can’t speak Japanese.

And he’s just, you know, it’s a goofy scene. And all of his back and forth with the guy that’s working for him is funny. And it’s the comedy of the mundane and the ridiculous. He’s not moving fast enough. He’s so stupid. And then she finally drops the bomb that she knows who he is. And know he’s talking Japanese to her and it takes on a very different pallor.

You got to find some life if you’re going to do this, right, because that’s the point.

John: So, last things I want to look at, first off it starts with a title card. And so here’s the text of the title card: “Culiacán, Sinaloa, home to Mexico’s biggest drug lords. Most of them come from one of its oldest neighborhoods: Tierra Blanca.” I really like that as an opening thing. I can see that being really helpful for setting the mood. But if we’re going to say that, then three lines later you don’t have to say, “We’re in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico.” We got it based on the title card.

Craig: Agreed.

John: Other thing I want to focus on is the first page, he has his WGA registration number. You don’t need it. It’s one of those things that automatically smacks as being like doesn’t really get it. You won’t see those on scripts in Hollywood. You just won’t.

Craig: Nor will they actually ward off any trouble.

John: Not a bit.

Craig: It doesn’t work. Yeah, it’s like taking vitamin C when you get on a plane. Just turns your pee bright yellow. Doesn’t save you from anything.

John: Not a bit. So what is important on that title page, email address, so that people can email you to tell you how much they love your script and that they want to make it with a big star.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: All right. Godwin, come back to us and tell us about Normal Park by Laura Bailey.

Godwin: We follow a beat up minivan as it drives through Normal Park, a desolate manufacturing town in the mountains. The residents of Normal Park, led by Manfred, watch the first cut of a promotional video to lure the movie industry to town. The dissenters, led by Bonnie Duncan, argue the video should be live action, not animated. Manfred fires back that he couldn’t afford actors and that Bonnie herself can show the mayor the video since she’s the mayor’s wife. We end with a question: where is the mayor? And that’s it.

John: So this is a comedy. I’m taking this as a comedy. And for a script called Normal Park, I had a really hard time placing where Normal Park was. I think Normal Park is the name of the town, and yet I didn’t quite see the town. And I didn’t quite know where to place the town in my mind. I needed someone to say like, oh, this is in Michigan, or this is in Ohio. It’s someplace. But someplace that needs to be very specific. And I just wanted to know on page one what state am I looking at. And I wasn’t getting that here.

We open up with this sort of montage that’s showing us what Normal Park looks like, I guess. It felt like something that would play under credits, which could be great. And then we get to this cartoon movie that’s talking about the real people of Normal Park and this discussion about how to attract the movie industry. I really started getting into it once this whole idea of like how are we going to attract the movie people. That felt like a great premise. I just wasn’t getting hooked on that premise until page three, and I didn’t sort of know what movie I was watching for quite a long time.

Craig, how did you react to it?

Craig: Yeah, I had trouble. I was struggling here. First, I will start by letting Laura off the hook. So, Laura chose to include scene numbers on all of her scenes, which is something we do when we go into production. And you don’t do that unless you’re in production. But, lest you feel ashamed, Laura, I made that mistake.

So, John Glickman, whom John August went to school with at USC, was my producer on the first movie I was ever hired to write with my writing partner Greg Erb. And when we turned our first draft into him, we had put scene numbers on. We just didn’t know. We were very young.

And I will never forget. He said, “By the way, I like that you put scene numbers on. Very confident. Take them off.” [laughs] I just liked the idea that, well, if you put scene numbers on, we have to go into production, right?

John: Totally. Yeah, the scene numbers are set.

Craig: Yeah, we’ve done it, right? So, take the scene numbers off.

The initial drive through with the minivan is described in a wonderful way. “A minivan held together by rust and curse words.” It’s good. I really enjoyed that, because I understood what it was. However, that minivan is going to naturally start to color what I’m seeing around it. So when you say, “It’s held together by rust and curse words, backs down the driveway of a modest ranch and starts through a post-war neighborhood,” in my mind I’m thinking this town is a mess.

Because the minivan is a mess. It may not be that that’s exactly right, but that’s what – I’m just telling you that’s how it kind of works through me. The big problem is once the van passes the mountainous abandoned auto plant, and goes through downtown, the next thing is we’re inside a community center. That is not an acceptable transition, especially on the first page of a screenplay.

You can’t have me following a car as it winds its way through town and then suddenly I’m in some building. Where? I need a transition. The minivan can go past a particular building where somebody is walking in and we can see that person entering. They’re late. And these people are watching this thing on screen. Somehow or another you need to connect that.

John: It’s a very natural audience expectation, that if we’re following a car for a long period of time, we are going to see the person in the car and they are going to be a central character. That’s a natural expectation. You don’t have to obey that expectation. But we’re going to expect that. So, I think the minimum you need to do is what Craig said. Where it’s a drive-by and it hands us off to the next character.

It’s very Tampopo way of doing it.

Craig: Oh, excellent reference. Yes, the handoff – I mean, the most cliché opening transition shot in any movie is, you’ll see this all the time, it’s a party scene or a ball or a gala of some kind. And the director will start maybe like on a nice shot to show the room, and then he booms down, and a waiter, he starts following a waiter. And then the waiter sweeps by a table and now the camera stops at the table, because there are your actors. Right? There’s a way to do the handoff.

The issue with the movie, first of all, the movie is not funny. We only see like one second of it, which I think is a mistake. If the movie is bad, I want to see it. And make it funny. Make it ridiculous. And I will understand the tone of the movie and all the rest. This feels Waiting for Guffman-ish. That’s the problem. This is nowhere near as sharp as Waiting for Guffman is.

In particular, there’s a kind of a clunky exposition going on on page three, where Bonnie instead of continuing her argument with Manfred, which I think feels too back-and-forthy and samey, turns to the room to announce the plot. This is inelegant. And it just wasn’t kind of sizzling on the page.

You know, it’s the curse of the big idea, the big comedy idea like this, is that you kind of got to make me laugh pretty early, or at least smile, you know, something. It just felt flat.

John: So here’s what gave me some hope, is that I felt like just like the description of the minivan, some of her descriptions of characters were actually really charming. So, Manfred always walks like he’s wearing epaulets. Oh, that is useful. I can see what that person is like. And that tells me about his posture. It tells me about sort of how he perceives himself. I loved that.

Nick is described as, “Window-licking stupid.” Great. Another really good description. I need to see them doing that, though. It can’t just be the surface description of them.

I have a suggestion for a trim on page two. An example of how tightening up might make things work a little bit better. So, Bonnie says, “You didn’t see anything wrong?”

Manfred, “No. What’s the problem?”

“It’s a cartoon. The real people of Normal Park are cartoons.”

“We wanted to tell personal stories.”

“Then use people.”

Skip these next two lines. Go to, “They aren’t camera ready.” Continue with Manfred, “As director of the Normal Park Community Theater program you rely on my professional opinion.”

Too often I felt like we were stopping the possibility of jokes to just get other lines in there. Let it keep going through. Less will give you more here in terms of the ability to deliver character punchlines.

Craig: You know, you’re right. And you’re making a great observation that Laura is very good at character description. That’s where the best writing is. Unfortunately, no one will ever see it. Ever. Right? So, I love that epaulets line. I like that Bonnie is wearing enough bling to decorate a Christmas tree. And these things are fun and the town is a “town only a mother could love.” I mean, this is all clever.

It’s all wasted. All wasted cleverness, because we’re never going to see it, and we’re never going to hear it. Now, there is a kernel of a comic confusion going on here that also I thought, well, I’m not sure what she was going for, but when he shows this cartoon and then he says, “What do you think,” and Bonnie says, “You don’t see anything wrong?” And he says, “No, what’s the problem.”

And she says, “It’s a cartoon. The real people of Normal Park are cartoons.” Now, I think she means aren’t cartoons. And I hope so, because that makes–

John: I think she’s meaning air quotes around the real people.

Craig: Oh, meaning in the movie the real people are cartoons. That’s fine. The point being, is Bonnie upset because she thinks that people are going to think that people in Normal Park are actually cartoons and not people? You know, that’s a weird objection to make unless you are profoundly stupid. Which makes me think maybe that should be – Nick’s problem is that we’re not cartoons. Of course we’re not cartoons. Why would anyone think we’re cartoons? Because that’s what you told them that we are.

John: Maybe they could film an animated movie in this town.

Craig: [laughs] Exactly. That’s a really funny joke. See, that’s funny. I don’t know. I’m just saying it needs to be funnier, it needs to be sharper. It feels a little shaggy dog in its execution. The argument feels circular. And it just doesn’t have that thing, you know, that kind of – there’s something about small towns, and Christopher Guest, he understands this so, so well. You see it in so many of his movies. It’s the comedy of people fighting while being polite. Which I find fascinating.

So, anyway, stuff to think about there.

John: Great. I also have a question, last final question on page one. “Guttering light from the streetlamps glints off a baby crib strapped to the roof and overflowing with possessions.” What is guttering light?

Craig: Uh, I don’t know.

John: I don’t know either.

Craig: And I’m pretty good with words.

John: I’m looking it up right now to make sure if there’s actually a–

Craig: Is it glittering light?

John: Oh, it’s absolutely true. Examples being the candles had almost guttered out.

Craig: Huh.

John: But if I don’t know it, then most people reading this won’t know what that is.

Craig: I didn’t know that word either. I’ve never seen that. I’ve never even – I don’t even think I’ve seen that printed. But, let’s say I did know it. It doesn’t really matter, because your choice of vocabulary should generally match your movie. You don’t want to get highfalutin with vocabulary in a movie that’s probably going to be a broad comedy. This feels like a broad comedy.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, and when I say broad I mean, you know, meant to be a comedy-comedy. So, yeah, not a great choice there.

John: Cool. Godwin, come back and tell us about our third script of the day, which is The Reconstruction of Huck (Over Mark Twain’s Dead Body!) by Tim Plaehn.

Godwin: All right. We open on the escape at the end of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with Tom Sawyer shot, Huck offers Jim the chance to go on without them. Jim says, “Tom wouldn’t desert him, so he will stay.”

Cut to 17-year-old Allie Chesnutt’s bedroom. A firebrand feminist, Allie is enraged by what she just read. She takes umbrage – yes umbrage – at Huck saying he knew Jim was white inside. She listens to the Shaft theme song and gets even more riled up.

In the kitchen, Allie’s mom gets ready for work while listening to NPR discuss the Freddie Gray case. Mrs. Chesnutt asks her daughter if she finished the essay she was supposed to be working on. But Allie is too incensed with Mark Twain to respond. Mrs. Chesnutt concludes that Allie did not work on the essay. And that’s it.

John: Cool, Craig, what did you think?

Craig: Well, let’s start with the title. It’s fantastic. It’s such a great title. The Reconstruction of Huck Finn (Over Mark Twain’s Dead Body!) Talk about like if you’ve got a pile of scripts to read, you’re probably going to pick that. You’re not going to just go, oh yeah, there it is, same damn thing. What a great, great exciting title.

And there’s a note on the title page which probably would be better served going inside the script. I suspect that maybe Tim did this because he wanted – he had three pages and he didn’t want to lose a bit. But he’s saying essentially that the screenplay is going to be doing double casting where the same actors who are playing scenes from Huckleberry Finn are going to also be playing scenes in Allie’s real life. So, it’s an interesting concept. You can see how this is going to sort of unfold. And it could be fantastic.

Now, I was not as thrilled once I got through these three pages. In part because I thought maybe I was a little bit too long with this initial bit of Huckleberry Finn. Jim’s speech in particular is quite long.

John: And Jim’s speech in particular is very, very hard to parse, because it’s written in dialect. I think this was a great choice for Godwin to put here because it’s so tempting to write character’s dialogue in a dialectic kind of speech. And yet it is so impenetrable when you actually have to encounter it.

So, on page two, there’s a big long chunk. And I’m sure this is taken from the book. I’m sure it’s probably what he said in the book. And it may be written the exact same way, but it’s so hard to parse in the script. You’d be much better served by cleaning that up, using the same word choices, but not trying to make it phonetically exactly the way that Jim is speaking.

Craig: Yeah. You need to use your license here and appreciate, Tim, that if you are – in fact if your intention is these are the words from the novel, you are allowed to rewrite the spelling of the words so that the reader here, you know, I don’t think it’s a desecration. You’re not changing the text. You’re simply changing the way people are reading the words phonetically. Help them out. I think that’s a great idea.

When we get to Allie’s bedroom, I was a little concerned by how on the nose everything felt. I just felt like I was being punched in the face. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe the point is that Allie is – that we’ve gone from the stereotypical view that was enshrined in Huckleberry Finn of Jim the slave to this stereotypical 17-year-old moral crusader who isn’t just a feminist but needs posters of Gertrude Stein and Hermione, and Angela Davis on her walls.

That kind of production design is really beating me in the face. And it’s also – it makes her boring to me, because to me an exciting young woman with strong political attitudes, who is progressive, and who is really feminist would have far more interesting people on her wall than that. That’s like the feminist version of, you know, [unintelligible] The Kiss, which is on every boring bedroom in a dormitory.

It just feels so cliché.

John: What’s challenging is that we’re always telling people who submit the Three Page Challenge that we need to know who the characters are. We need to get a sense of who they are. But in this case, sometimes you’re telling us way too much too quickly. Or you’re basically painting this stereotype so quickly that you’re going to have a hard time surprising us with new information later on.

Like, we’re so locked into one point of view on who she is by the bottom of page two, that I feel like, oh, I know exactly who this is. And Chloe Grace Moretz is already in hair and makeup. It’s a very sort of set specified thing that we’ve just seen before. At least how we’re getting to the story on page two.

Craig: Yeah. There’s a bit of a challenge that you have in your transition from fantasy world to the real world, or imagined literary world to the real world. You have Huck say, “I knowed he was white inside…”

That’s in voiceover. Because I guess Huck thinks it in the novel. And then we have off-screen, “Ahhh!!!” That’s going to be very challenging. Because he’s thinking something in fantasy world and then real world is going to come in, but they both come from the same place, essentially.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: Which is off-screen. That’s just not going to work cinematically at all. It’s going to be extraordinarily confusing. We’re not going to know what the hell is going on. It would be better, frankly, to unfortunately bend a little bit – bend a little bit there – and have Huck say out loud, “I knowed you was white inside…” And then hear, “Ahhhh.”

And then you cut to – now, here is the other problem. You want her screaming over there, because you think that’s interesting, and it may very well be so. Then it locks you into her having already read it. So, when we cut to her she’s throwing the book across the room. And then, “Ahhh,” it’s painful for her to announce, “I knowed he was white inside. What kind of blah-blah-blah is that?!” She’s just repeating what we heard and telling us so that we understand that, you know what I mean, it’s clunky.

John: Yeah. I mean, if she’s going to be reacting to that specific line, she either throws the book, or she repeats the line, but she doesn’t do both. And I felt like there was too much here. Plus, she’s going to throw the book and then we’re going to spend an eighth of a page sort of describing her before getting to her dialogue right now. It’s not the best use of our time and our space.

Craig: Yeah. And the end of the scene is simply not continues in any recognizable human fashion. A girl is reading a book. It enrages her. She throws it across the room. Pronounces out loud why she’s thrown it across the room. Then, the theme song from Shaft begins playing. I’m not sure if that’s inside the scene or if that’s score. Regardless, Allie chooses now to pack up her books, pull back her hair, and then start singing along with it, so I guess it is in there, but where did it come from?

Did she start playing? And what a weird thing to ask the audience to do. To watch a girl pack up her backs in her bag. You couldn’t ask for something more likely to be cut.

John: Agreed. So, I don’t think we’ve really dug into diegetic and non-diegetic sound in previous episodes, but diegetic means we can see the source of the sound within the room. And so if she presses play on her Walkman, or on – depending on what era this is – or she’s putting in her ear phones, then we believe that’s diegetic sound. That is sound that the characters are actually experiencing in their world.

If it’s stuff that’s just playing on the soundtrack, that’s non-diegetic. And so the same thing can be said for Huck’s voiceover and her voiceover, that sort of scream that gets us out of the Huck Finn stuff. You got to have an answer for where that stuff is coming from. Because right now it seems like she’s reacting to something that we’re not sure she should be able to hear.

Craig: Mm-hmm. Exactly. So you just got to figure, you know, it seems to me like it is diegetic and he’s just missed the moment where she turns something on. Otherwise, I don’t know how she could possibly be singing along to non-diegetic.

Then, we finish off with a kitchen scene that feels so cliché that it is almost too cliché for commercials. A busy business mom, checking her iPhone, while the little brother eats cereal from the box. There’s that little brother and his cereal box. That kid gets around. He’s in everything. It’s rough to see those–

John: He’s a Clip Art kid.

Craig: He’s a Clip Art kid. He really is. And this is where maybe if I’d just been hit in the face one time with the “Look at me, I’m a feminist” posters from the “Look at me, I’m a feminist” factory. Then we’ve got this NPR thing playing about the Freddie Gray situation. So, now I’m getting hit with like, oh okay, I understand – believe me, you’re making a movie called The Reconstruction of Huck Finn (Over Mark Twain’s Dead Body!), I know you’re going to be tangling with issues of race and gender and politics and all of it.

It just starts to feel like, oh god, this is going to be an afterschool special.

John: Yeah. So, I want to highlight one moment on page three which I thought worked really well, so people can look at this. So, Mrs. Chesnutt asks, “Did you finish your Rotary Club essay.” In action: Allie considers lying. Continues on. “He just made white the only way to be good. White!” A very smart way to let another character think about what they’re going to say and choose not to say it and then just plow ahead. It calls it out without sort of stopping everything to do it.

And you can do that in a parenthetical, but I really liked how Tim did it in this moment.

Craig: Yeah. I did, too. And I thought that he could probably cut the next reiteration of it and just have her mom say, “That means you didn’t.” Because her mom is smart enough to know that, yes, you may have a fantastic point about the inherent racism of Huckleberry Finn, but you didn’t do your homework. And so that works. I just feel like this is such an audacious and smart idea and frankly something I think would find an audience. It can’t be done like this. It has to be done with far more subtlety I think.

John: So, I would say about this title and this idea is it’s the kind of thing that done really well gets on the Black List, because it’s a thing that people – it sticks in people’s heads. It has great execution on the page. It may never get made, but that’s OK, too. It’s a thing that sort of announces you as a talent. It’s a thing that gets you meetings. It’s a thing that gets you rewrites assignments. It gets you staffed on a TV show. I think it’s a really nice idea that’s very execution-dependent. And so I think what we’re pushing Tim to do is just make sure your execution can match what we think is a really nice idea.

Craig: Yeah. And I’ll tell you what, Tim. You really need to listen to us here, because the thing is – here’s what’s real. We rarely talk about this in Three Page Challenges, because usually we’re just dealing with three pages. But let’s talk about how this business actually works.

John’s right. This is the kind of title that is grabby. And it’s a kind of subject that is grabby. And I could absolutely see this ending up on a Black List. I could see this getting attention, assuming that it plays out in a surprising and enlightening way.

But, it is exactly because it is execution-dependent, it is exactly the kind of script that comes along I’m telling you once a week. There is a script that comes along where people go we just got a script. It’s an amazing idea. It’s an amazing title. We can cast it. We got to find somebody to rewrite this right away. Somebody who knows how to write a movie.

You don’t want to be that guy. You don’t want somebody else coming in and redoing this. You want to be that guy.

John: Agreed. Well, that’s our Three Page Challenge for this week. If you have three pages you want us to take a look at, actually if you want Godwin to take a look at it, because he’s the person who looks at all of them, there’s a form you fill out. So go to, all spelled out. There are instructions there. You click some things. You attach a PDF. And it goes into Godwin’s inbox, so he will look through them.

Godwin, thank you again for picking these three and for all the other ones you didn’t pick, but you had your read. So thank you very much for joining us.

Godwin: Thank you so much. This was fun.

Craig: Good job, Godwin.

John: All right, now it’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a creature. It’s a creature that was newly discovered, but what was discovered this past week was how old they lived to be. So, this is the Greenland Shark. So, a lot of things that live in the sea live for a very long time. Jellyfish are essentially immortal. They keep reforming themselves. Koi can live a long time. Shellfish. But now they’ve discovered that this Greenland Shark is the longest living vertebrae.

It can live at least 400 years, which is basically two centuries longer than the previous record holder. So, how do you find out how long something can live given that you weren’t there around when it was born? So, it turns out that in the mid-1950s, back when they were testing a bunch of thermonuclear devices, they left residue. And so that residue gets into the ocean and that’s how they can actually track how old something is based on how much of that residue is stuck in the creature and where it’s stuck and sort of they can use that as a marker for like how old something is.

And so the new estimate is these things can live to be 400 years old.

Craig: 400-year-old shark.

John: Yep.

Craig: So, inevitably people are now going to catch the shark, kill it, and then try and figure out why it lived so damn long.

John: Exactly. So, some of the secrets of living a very long time seem to be you grow super slowly. So, the slower you grow, the slower you grow old, I guess. But, yes, they will try to figure out why it lived so long and people will sell pills that are supposed to have shark cartilage in them or something like that.

What I found most interesting about this, though, is thinking back 400 years and sort of like how much has happened in the last 400 years, specifically what life was like when one of these sharks was born. So, 400 years ago, who else was alive? Well, Shakespeare. Rene Descartes. Galileo Galilei, John Locke, Isaac Newton, Elizabeth I, Peter the Great. Ice cream was just invented. Paper money was just being figured out in the form of bank notes. They had just invented calculus. And also they just printed the first King James Bible.

So, one of these creatures was alive when all that stuff was brand new.

Craig: God. That’s amazing. I can’t believe that ice cream was invented.

John: Yeah. You had to invent it.

Craig: Somebody had to sit there and do it.

John: Yeah. All you need is ice and cream and a churn, but you have to figure it out.

Craig: Salt. I think you need salt.

John: You need salt. You have to have it colder than just ice. You have to have like super cold ice.

Craig: That was probably whoever Mr. Ice Cream was, that’s why he got to name it that.

John: Yeah, he’s really lucky to have such a good name. What if his name had been like Basselfaffer.

Craig: [laughs] Like the Earl of Sandwich. Or Lord and Lady Douchebag. OK. That’s classic Saturday Night Live.

John: I like it.

Craig: my One Cool Thing also scientific. This is kind of remarkable. Scientists in Australia, Sweden, and the United States – so they’ve been working across the world together – have identified a molecule that may hold the key to identifying the cause of suicide. Suicidality. Now, here’s a shocking thing. It turns out that when you test people who are admitted to hospital for suicidality/suicide attempts/suicidal ideation, and you compare their cerebral spinal fluid with those of other people admitted to the hospital for not suicide-related things, there’s this thing that is much higher in people who are suicidal.

And it is a marker essentially that it’s a Quinolinic acid. And it is a marker of chronic inflammation in the spinal fluid. Essentially there is some kind of inflammatory response in the central nervous system itself. And they have also found that suicidal patients have reduced activity of a certain enzyme that lowers production of this other asset that protects against. You know, because all of these things are layered systems.

But the point is the way we’ve always treated people who are suicidal is to treat their presumed depression. And what these people are saying is depression works more on a serotonergic pathway. This is something else. And we need to treat the something else. And what’s fascinating to me, just fascinating, is that as we go forward as a human species, we become more and more aware of how things we presumed were entirely within our control, or aspects of our “personality” are in fact not at all.

John: Yeah. Obviously correlation is not causation. So, as they do more studies they’ll need to figure out is this inflammation marker – is it the cause of the suicide ideation, or is it just another byproduct of something else that’s going on in the body?

Craig: Right.

John: But as they do more research on schizophrenia they’re finding really interesting reasons behind how some of that stuff happens. Things that are genetic but also not genetic, that are things that happen just through environment.

So, yeah, it’s an exciting time to be studying brain stuff.

Craig: It really is. And also I think it’s an exciting time to reconsider how we view each other, particularly when we’re talking about people who either have committed suicide or have attempted it. That it is not as simple as, oh, you gave up. Oh, you are a quitter. Or, oh, you didn’t get the help you needed.

There is a strong possibility that this is very physical in nature, and that is just shocking and amazing to me. And a lot of cause for hope.

John: I would agree. That is our program for this week. So, if you have a question for me or for Craig Mazin, you can reach us on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. If you have a longer question, you can write in to And Godwin looks through those and forwards them appropriately.

If you would like to leave us a review on iTunes, that would be so much appreciated. Just search for us, Scriptnotes on iTunes. That’s also where you can find the Scriptnotes app that gives you access to all the back catalog. We also have a few of the 250-episode USB drives that give you all the back episodes and all the bonus episodes as well, so you can find those at the store at

There will be links in the show notes to most of the things we talked about, including the Three Page Challenges. So, if you are on one of the popular players, you can probably just scroll down a little bit and see all of those links there. They were missing for a week, but we figured out what was wrong, so Godwin has them restored. So you click and get all that stuff right there.

Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe and edited by Matthew Chilelli, who also did our outro this week. And next week will be our last episode from Los Angeles.

Craig: Oh boy.

John: Oh boy. So the plan is that we will still keep doing the show over Skype the way we usually do it, just with a huge time gap between us. There may be some more episodes that are Craig with a person here in Los Angeles. There may be some episodes where it’s me and someone in France or the UK. But, we will try to keep doing Scriptnotes every week. We’ll let you know if we fall off of that schedule, but I think we can do it. I’m optimistic.

Craig: Yeah. I know we can do it. I know we can do it because I’m sure that you will do it. How about that.

John: [laughs] All right. We’ll find a way. Thanks.

Craig: Bye.


You can download the episode here.

Frequently Asked Questions about Screenwriting

Tue, 08/16/2016 - 08:03

John and Craig introduce “The 100 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Screenwriting,” a curation of questions from

We also take on the Three Page Challenge, with stories from Sinaloa, Mexico to the mind of Mark Twain.


You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 262: Tidy Screenwriting — Transcript

Fri, 08/12/2016 - 12:30

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: This is Episode 262 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we will discuss the art of tidy screenwriting and that weird French copyright case involving Luc Beson. We will also be answering listener questions about what constitutes a draft and making characters gay.

Craig: Gay.

John: Gay. Craig, thank you so much for hosting last week. You and Mike Birbiglia did a fantastic job. I did not listen to the episode in advance of it being published. I listened to it like any other listener and I was delighted you did such a good job.

Craig: Well, first of all, I appreciate the faith. Because if I had to bet money I would have said, oh my god, John is certainly going to listen to it before he puts – because you know me, I’m crazy. But, I have to say, I was a little nervous, because I had to all of the grown up stuff that you do. But I cheated. You know, I went to the transcripts so I didn’t miss anything at the end. And we had a great discussion. We had a great time. It was very easy. And Mike is obviously very good at talking. It’s kind of his job.

John: It is his job.

Craig: It was a good discussion and made all the easier by the fact that his movie lends itself to our topic.

John: Absolutely. It is group of aspiring writer/performers – really performers more than writers – but trying to navigate the difficult industry that they are in. A lot of things that they are dealing with our listeners are probably dealing with as well.

Craig: No question.

John: And you hate it when your friends become successful.

Craig: [laughs] Of all my flaws, that’s the one I don’t have. I love it when my friends become – it just reflects well on me, I think.

John: Absolutely. You picked good friends.

Craig: Yeah. I picked good friends. Or, by being friends with me, something happened, and they became successful.

John: As a friend, you recommended that I go to an Escape Room for my birthday, which I did. I would like to thank you for the recommendation you made, which was called The Theater. It is one of the Escape Room LAs in Downtown Los Angeles. It was terrific. So we had a great time. We escaped with seconds to spare. And it was great.

So it was a bunch of people from the office, along with Mike and my daughter, and it was a great, fun time. So thank you for recommending that.

Craig: My pleasure. Actually, if it makes you feel better, my little group also escaped with seconds to spare. Which makes – we won’t give any spoilers here – but the last thing you have to do is a bit silly and a bit fun, but you’re also panicked that you’re not going to be able to get it done in time. So, it was great. We loved it. And I’m glad that you had a good time.

John: Being completely new to the whole environment of escape rooms, this was apparently a larger escape room and we were only a group of seven, or 6.5, my daughter was with us. And it felt like the kind of room where more hands on deck could have been useful.

Craig: I generally tend toward the smaller group kind of vibe. We also did that one with six people and that one wasn’t too bad. The problem with extra people is sometimes they just get in the way, or you give them tasks that they’re bad at and it would have been better if you had done it on your own.

But I will say that if you do attempt The Alchemist, which is one of the rooms there, eight people would be super helpful for that one.

John: Sounds very good. I want to circle back to Mike Birbiglia for one second, because on Twitter this last week he brought up to the MPAA, “Hey, isn’t it really strange that my movie is Rated-R for one scene of drug us and Suicide Squad is Rated PG-13 for quote on the actual ad review there, ‘Sequences of violence and action throughout; disturbing behavior; suggestive content; and language.’”

Craig: Well, let’s put this in the bucket of a thousand other examples of the MPAA’s Byzantine ratings process. And if Byzantine weren’t bad enough, then there’s just the question of the substance of their decisions. So, the way these things work is that there is somebody who works at every studio whose job is to interface with the MPAA. And then they engage in negotiations essentially. Well, if you take this out, maybe we’ll give you the PG-13. And so on and so forth.

The existence of PG-13 is because Steven Spielberg got angry. There’s nobody working for you when you make an independent film, a true independent film like Mike’s, Don’t Think Twice. So, you get what you get. And his point was, hey, so adults smoke pot in my movie, I get an R. Adults shoot and kill people in Suicide Squad and they get a PG-13. That doesn’t sound right.

John: It does not sound right. And so an argument could be like, well, smoking pot is illegal, except that increasingly it is not illegal. And so I do wonder whether pot smoking as a thing will be less of a threshold for whether a movie gets its R-rating down the road. Because, you know, them having a drink would have not have pushed it into R. So, I’ll be curious whether that changes over the next ten years as I think marijuana legalization becomes more and more common throughout the US.

Craig: Yeah. It’s more of a question of social norms than legal status, because of course in all states murder is illegal.

John: That’s a good point.

Craig: And people are constantly being killed in PG-13 films. But the way the ratings work is there’s a group of people that watch the movie and those people are recruited essentially as representative parents. So, it comes down to what are these representative – allegedly representative parents – think they would be OK with their kids seeing without say them accompanying them by rule, which is the case for a Rated-R movie. And it seems like these people are OK with their kids seeing murders, they’re just not OK with their kids seeing people getting high.

And it’s confusing. It’s also not necessarily consistent over time. For instance, the movie Poltergeist, which came out many, many years ago, has a scene where the parents are getting high. And that movie not only got a PG-13, it got a PG-13 even though it had people getting high and also horror themes and death.

So, over time they don’t necessarily seem to comport, which I guess makes sense, because the parents change over time. But it’s a reflection of just general social mores. I believe that regardless of legal status, that the restriction about things like smoking weed are going to probably get softened.

John: I think you’re probably right. I guess my last question would be is the R rating hurting Mike’s movie? Probably. The people that are going to go see that movie are probably grown-ups. But I would want to hope that like a 16-year-old kid who wanted to go see his movie could see his movie. And in some parts of the country, that kid can’t because of this MPAA rating, which is frustrating.

Craig: I would guess if it has any effect at all, it’s probably a beneficial effect. Because when adults go to a comedy, and the movie is a comedy among other things, they like the idea that it’s going to be Rated-R. It’s clearly a movie for grown-ups. I can’t imagine there’s a lot of teen appeal there.

But the bigger issue is just sort of a moral issue.

John: I agree with you. Last bit of follow up here, so after our season finale a few weeks ago we had a special Duly Noted episode, in which Aline Brosh McKenna, Rawson Thurber, and Matt Selman discussed what transpired. And they proposed this special Three Page Challenge which would be a John and Craig fan-fiction Three Page Challenge.

Craig: Oh boy.

John: And so a couple people have actually written in with those. And so I guess we’re going to put them in a folder and eventually we might address those. I don’t know if we would address them, if someone else would come back to address those.

But if you have one of those John and Craig fan-fiction Three Page Challenges, you can write into the normal email address,, and Godwin will dutifully take that and stick it in a folder. It may never be seen again, but if you wanted to write it, you wrote it.

But I would ask that if you’re writing a normal Three Page Challenge, just go through the normal routes, so that’s, and there’s a whole contact form for how you send in that stuff.

Craig: Is this going to be fan-fiction or slash fiction?

John: I think it’s a little of both. And so I’ve only skimmed what’s come through so far. There’s a little of column A, a little of column B.

Craig: I just feel like I’m going to be the bottom. I just feel like it’s inevitable.

John: Yeah.

Craig: It’s cliché. You know what, guys, if you’re going to write John and Craig slash fiction, don’t go the trite route of making me the bottom. But it’s going to happen. [laughs] I’d write it that way, too.

John: One of my favorite episodes of South Park from the last year was Tweek and Craig are Gay, it’s the one where they are portrayed by these Asian school girls as being gay. And they’re in complete freak-out over it. And I could see us having a Tweek and Craig moment.

Craig: Did you know about that whole Yaoi sub culture thing?

John: I did know about that culture. I didn’t know the name of it, but I knew it was a thing that happened. And just because, you know, I’ve watched enough TV shows that had sort of that – like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and some of the other shows had that kind of interest in them. And so I knew that there was like a slash thing. And I saw the visual equivalent of that slash fiction, which is Yaoi.

Craig: Yeah. I knew that there was – slash fiction goes all the way back to Star Trek, like the original Star Trek stuff. But I had no idea that there was this other thing going on where specifically this anime depiction of otherwise straight guys or theoretically straight guys in homosexual relationships. It’s so specific.

I love things that are so incredibly specific you think like, okay, that probably interests one or two people. And then it turns out, no, it actually interests millions of people.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: Mind-blowing.

John: Well, it’s the thing about percentages. Like a tiny percentage is actually a lot of people when you look at it worldwide. And so if it interests like one-tenth of one percent, that’s a huge number.

Craig: It is. Absolutely true. And still just marvel at it. Because it’s cute. That’s the thing – anything in anime is adorable. Anything.

John: Anything. Everything. [Unintelligible] is adorable.

Craig: Adorable. So cute, with his little fish head. Little octopus mouth.

John: So, let’s transition to our main topic today which also involves Asian subcultures. So, Marie Kondo wrote a book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. And I read it this last week and I thought it was going to be my One Cool Thing, but as I thought about why I was going to mention it on the podcast I realized like, well, it’s actually its whole own topic. So, I pushed this up to a centerpiece topic for today’s conversation.

So, you probably know this book or know people talking people about this book or have been annoyed by this book. It’s a small white book, written by this Japanese woman, who goes in and unclutters people’s apartments and houses and gets them to throw away bags of garbage. And about two years I think it was sort of a bigger deal, and I had sort of skipped it the first time through. But I was over at Dana Fox’s house and I saw it sitting on the table.

And so I flipped through it, prepared to be amused and annoyed by it. And I saw like, oh, you know what, actually it’s sort of charming in its own weird way. She has this very strange voice. And like a lot of gurus, you can tell she’s kind of crazy, but there’s something just delightful in her crazy.

So, I started reading it basically thinking like, oh, is this an interesting character, and then I actually recognized that there were some useful things in there, not only for like getting crap out of your house, but also getting stuff out of your screenplays. And so I thought we’d make this a centerpiece for today’s conversation.

Craig: What a great idea. I have the book and I have read it. And I haven’t done any of the things, but I recognize that there is wisdom there. I also – you can smell the crazy coming off of it, no question. But, sometimes we need crazy people to light the way, even if they are on the extreme edge of things.

We could all probably use a nice decluttering.

John: I think so. Let me try to bullet point her three main ideas in the book, or at least the three main ideas I took from the book. The first is the exercise of going through all of your possessions and keeping only the ones that spark joy. Now, “spark joy” is one of those phrases that sort of immediately raises my hackles, like, ugh, it’s so charming and specific but marketing-ish. And just kind of meaningless.

But what she means by “spark joy” is that it’s the things that you actually want to have in your life. And that in holding them you feel like, oh yeah, this is a good thing. I’m happy I have this thing. And the things that don’t spark joy like that, you’re supposed to get rid of. And to summarize it, if you don’t love it, don’t keep it.

Craig: Well, it’s not hard to draw a parallel from that to what we do. It’s hard to experience that joyful feeling, that sense of true love for everything in a screenplay. That’s too much to ask. Because a lot of things in screenplays aren’t joyful as much as they are well-crafted or utilitarian. Or necessary.

John: So, I’ll quickly summarize the rest of the book points, but let’s dig in on each of these things for how they apply to screenwriting. The second big point I took from the book is when you’re getting rid of something, you can thank it for its existence, which sounds very sort of weird and animistic, and she really kind of genuinely does believe that everything has a soul. At least, if you read the book that way, she thanks her purse for carrying her stuff over the course of the day.

Craig: Oh god. That’s where I roll–

John: Yes, that can be kind of maddening. But I really liked this idea of thanking things for existing when you’re getting rid of them. And so as we were sort of going through our own closet, like I could take this shirt that I kind of remember loving, but I never wore anymore, and I didn’t really love now. And I could sort of say goodbye to it and not feel bad about it. And that’s a thing often in writing I find is that it gets so hard for me to get rid of certain things because I just remember how hard it was to write them, or I remember so fondly what it was like to write that and it’s hard to get rid of them. It’s a useful way to get rid of things when you can say, “I understand why you were put in this script at that moment. That time has passed. I say goodbye to you.”

Craig: Yeah. Dennis Palumbo talks specifically about this. He says sometimes the things we cling to the most we’re clinging to because of what they meant to us when we wrote them. They signified a breakthrough or a new way of thinking about things, or they were really hard to get to.

John: Yes.

Craig: It’s not relevant to anybody else at all.

John: Nope.

Craig: It’s just relevant to you. And you have to recognize that sometimes its value is not the value that it would have for the story or the audience, and therefore you can cut it and not lose the value.

John: Completely. She would say that – she talks a lot about sort of when you get presents, and she says the value of a gift is the moment you receive it. It’s that joy that happens the moment you receive it. That if it is not a thing that’s useful in your life, you should get rid of it. And that’s the same experience with writing. It’s like there can be things that were so valuable at the time, that were so delightful when you found them, but it does not necessarily mean that they need to stay in your life forever.

Craig: How hard is it to be this lady’s friend, though?

John: Oh, so tough.

Craig: You get her a gift, right, and then like three days later you show up and there’s your gift in the dumpster. And you’re like, oh, and she’s like, “No, no, no. The joy was in the moment I got it. But then like five minutes later I’m like this is a piece of crap. But you get it, right?”

“No, I don’t get it!”

John: She throws it away in front of you. [laughs]

Craig: Right. Like I had my moment. It was great. And I’m done.

John: I like what she says about a sweater. And so I think about this in terms of a cardigan. You taught me that cardigans don’t work for me. And I could completely envision that where like I’ve gotten something – I really want to be the kind of person who wears a cardigan, but I just cannot wear a cardigan. And so sometimes it’s been that way with a script where it’s like I really kind of want to be the person who writes this kind of script, but that’s just not me. And that is a thing that that script taught you. It doesn’t mean you have to keep working on that script.

Craig: So true. I bought a vest once. I really want to be a guy that wears a vest. I am not–

John: You’re not a vest-wearer.

Craig: My torso is specifically designed to not be vested. So, I get that. And certainly it’s the case with what we do as well. I mean, there are times when you really want to be, you know, I think comedy writers love to be fancy, and I think fancy writers love to try and be funny. That’s the one that always blows my mind. When fancy writers want to be funny, and they’re so not funny.

John: Yeah, that’s the worst.

Craig: So not funny. The other thing is comedy writers approach fancy writing like, OK, I’m going to try to climb this mountain and be a big boy. And fancy writers approach comedy like, “Oh, let me just turn my brain off and be silly for a while.” No! [laughs]

John: Doesn’t work that way.

Craig: No sir. David Zucker calls that, “Kids, don’t try this at home.”

John: The last thing I took from her book was that things have a place. And if you have something that doesn’t have a place in your house, it’s just clutter. And so she takes it, of course, to a bizarre extreme, where when she comes home she takes everything out of her bag, she puts everything back in the place it belongs, and then puts her bag in its special little box, and then she can relax and sit down. That is crazy-making.

And yet there’s a point of logic there that I think is so easy to miss is that anything that you invite into your story, into your world, if you don’t have a place to put that thing, it’s just going to sit out there and it’s going to be pulling your attention at all times. And so often in writing, the things that aren’t working in scripts are things that probably just haven’t found their home. There’s no place for them to land and so they’re just grafted onto some other thing, and it’s not a natural home for it.

Craig: Yeah, you know, it seems to me that in thinking about how we write our stories, placement is purpose, and purpose is placement. They are connected. People talk about structure, particularly the self-described gurus talk about structure as this thing that lays down first. You know, like a scaffolding, and then you sort of build something around it. And that’s ridiculous. All things are interrelated. The structure is part of the things that are over the structure, and vice versa. And when you have something that you love, but it doesn’t have a place, I guarantee you it also means it doesn’t have a purpose. A true purpose in the story.

John: I would say that Marie Kondo would argue that these structuralists are basically the people who are trying to sell you closet organizers.

Craig: Right.

John: They’re trying to make you put everything into a specific little drawer, a specific little slot, whether it wants to be in that place or does not want to be in that place. And that is my great frustration with both closet organizers and these people who sell you on structure books, because that’s not the way people naturally live their lives, and it’s not the ways stories naturally want to function.

Craig: Absolutely. And, in fact, to extend the analogy, what you end up with if you follow one of these books, if you’re trying to Save the Cat or being a good Robert McKee disciple is you end up with one of these cliché closets that have the little things with the stuff, and that stupid hanger for the ties that everybody has. And it’s not you, right? It doesn’t necessarily fit to you.

But even if it did fit to you, it’s not unique at all. It’s an imposition of some kind of economic model. But when we’re talking about what gives us joy, and we’re talking about creating the living space around us, and we’re talking about the structure of our story, it’s supposed to be unique. If it’s not, who needs it?

John: Who needs it? So, let’s dig in and talk about this specifically for writing. And so let’s go back to our first point from the book which is keeping only the stuff that sparks joy, keeping only the stuff that you love. And so let’s talk about how do you keep only the scenes, only the moments, only the characters that you love. Let’s try to figure out some practical guidance for doing that.

I would start by saying look through everything, look through it sort of by category. So look through it by scenes and look through it by categories. Maybe look through it by locations. And ask yourself is this something I truly love, or is this just functional? Is this just getting the job done? Is it satisfying the moment that I can get to the things I actually love?

And challenge yourself to say like, wait, do I really want this here? Would I be happy with this scene representing my movie? If that is not the case where you would be delighted to have this scene in your movie, then that scene should not be in your movie. And you should probably stop and find a different way to get through that moment to do the function of that thing, but in a way that you actually love that scene.

Craig: This is something that I think separates professional writers from new writers. And it’s not necessarily that professional writers have more talent, because there are people out there who are currently not professional but one day they will be and they will be spectacular. The greatest writer who ever lived has not yet been born, right?

So, the trick though that I think professionals learn over time is that there are moments where you need to do a job. Someone has to get somewhere. Someone has to learn information. Somebody has to see a thing. It’s a piece of story requirement. And they know after all this time, and particularly after seeing what it’s like when they don’t do it right, they know that it is a requirement to go and look at those things and make them delightful in one way or another.

Delightful could mean also horrifying, but engaging. And interesting to the audience.

John: Absolutely. And so if you’re going back through your script, or you’re going through someone else’s script, and you’re asking the question why is that there, and the answer is, “Well, because it’s there, or because it’s necessary, or it gets me to this other thing,” that’s probably a red flag that there is something wrong. And not just with scenes with sequences, but also with characters.

Look at your character list and you need to go through and like do I love this character. Does this character make me excited when this character shows up? Do I understand it? Do I love him, or hate him, despise him? Does he bring special joy to this movie? And if the answer is no, then maybe you have the wrong character, or maybe you have too many characters. Maybe that character doesn’t need to be in your movie whatsoever. And it may be worth stopping to think like what happens if that character leaves the movie completely. The things I have this character doing functionally, might they be better served by one of the other characters who would be left?

Craig: Yeah. It seems to me that if the challenge is to only keep the things you love, your choices as a screenwriter are get rid of it, or make it something you love. But what you can’t do is keep it if it’s just sort of meh. Nor, can you keep it if, I think if you love it but it’s not doing anything, then the question is do you really love it.

John: Yeah. Now, practically speaking, if you’re going from your first draft to your second draft and you’re asking all these hard questions, one of the best ways to get to that second draft might be to say let’s go through the first draft and really identify the things that I love. Copy and paste those things into a new document. Don’t start rewriting your current document, because you’ll just be sort of trying to clean up the stuff that isn’t working.

Copy through the things that are actually fantastic. The things you love. The things you think best identify the movie you want to make. And you’re going to end up with a shorter document that just has the stuff you love. And then go back through and figure out like what would I need to do so that these moments can tell the whole story. That I can build out from these moments to create the rest of this movie?

Craig: One thing you have to be cognizant of as you do that process is that there is a relationship that happens between what you’re creating and what people are experiencing. If there’s somebody, anyone, that you trust – or that you think could be helpful to you in their reaction, give them a look. Because you may find that actually something is fantastic that you didn’t realize was fantastic. It’s funny how that happens.

And, of course, similarly, you may find that something that you loved is sort of, meh, not really working that well for somebody else. So, before you begin your winnowing process, maybe put one pair of eyes on it, or one pair of ears.

John: I would agree. The other thing I would caution about, if you’re going through this process, it can be so tempting to focus so tightly on these moments that you love that you forget like, oh, I am making a whole movie. And so the things you love shouldn’t just be the bright pinpoints of light, but also the connections between those bright pinpoints of light. And how you’re moving from this place to this place, and what’s actually happening in those bigger moments.

There was a criticism about two weeks ago, I guess we weren’t on the air for it, but Nerd Writer did a very good sort of breakdown of Batman v. Superman. And one of this primary criticisms of it, and I thought it was a good observation, was that the Zack Snyder movie, it had all these moments but had very few scenes. And in some ways I thought it was the Marie Kondo thing taken too far in the sense of like it was just these bright things that he loved, but there was no sort of scene or framework for these moments to have happened. So, you went through the whole movie feeling like it was kind of just on fast-forward. And like you were watching a trailer for a movie that didn’t quite exist.

So, you have to mindful that in writing you’re not just creating those bright flashes of intense things that you love, but also whole moments in which these bright flashes can happen.

Craig: There is value and love for silences in music. And there’s some wonderful pauses that are my favorite things in songs. Love them. And they are essential. They aren’t flashy, but they need to be there to make the flashy flashy. And it is absolutely true that there is – and I don’t – I tend to not blame the filmmakers. I may be a little chauvinistic about this, but knowing what I do about the process of getting these movies made, there is an endless pressure, an external pressure – take that for what you will – to continue to reduce the sauce because, oh, if you boil more water out the flavor is more intense. Correct, until it is just gross, and it’s too much. And you’ve lost any sense of balance.

And I think that’s happening more and more in big movies because there’s this feeling that if you are not constantly dropping jaws, then people aren’t going to enjoy it.

I remember our friend Malcom Spellman, he loved Transformers. He really liked it. But he said, “You know, if that movie had been better, it could have made so much more money.” And there’s room. You can see, there’s a lot of room for that movie to just be way better than it is. And they went for all of the fun, you know, and then they missed a lot of the things – the quiet things – that would make it better.

John: So, there’s a director who I’ve worked with who I do love as a person, but our relationship has always been sort of like we’re baking a cake together. And I would say, OK, so here’s the recipe, so we need some flour, we need to sugar this, and he kept trying to throw in more sugar. And I’d say, no, no, no, it’s all going to fall apart. It’s a cake. It’s not like hard candy. We need the flour. He’s like, “Yeah, but the flour is not interesting.” No, we need the flour.

And at any moment that I would turn away, he would just dump more sugar in. And that can be the frustration. They keep trying to add more and not actually recognize the fundamental structural integrity of the thing you’re trying to make. You sort of forget what it is you set out to do because you keep intensifying the things that you think you love about it.

Craig: One of my least favorite notes, curiously, is the following positive note: “We love what you did with blah, blah, blah. Let’s do more of it.” No. No. You love Sriracha on that, don’t you? Well, let’s dump a bottle on. No!

No, you love it in part because it’s properly balanced and we kind of have a working philosophy of how this – it’s not random.

John: You love it because there’s a contrast to what was there before. Exactly. If it was that way through the whole movie, it wouldn’t feel different.

Craig: It’s weird how that makes me angrier than, “We don’t like this thing.” And I’m like, ah, you should like it. But, OK, you don’t like it, fine. But, “We love it. Do it again.” Noooo! Ugh. It makes me crazy.

John: Yeah. So next bit of advice from Marie Kondo is about cutting things, or she would say like how do you get rid of things, but in our line of work it’s just cutting stuff out, and getting rid of scenes, getting rid of characters, getting rid of things.

And I’m often sort of reluctant to do it because of really that philosophy of loss aversion. It’s like it’s so much more painful to get rid of something than the thought of like gaining something back. It’s also a sunk-cost fallacy. I spent so much time getting that thing to work as well as it’s working. For me to cut it now feels like a failure. It makes me feel that I’ve wasted my time. That I did not do my job well. That I don’t even know what I’m doing.

I’m sure we’ve all felt this.

Craig: Yeah. Well, if you want to be a screenwriter, you better make your piece with wasted time now, because as I’ve said before, not really sure how many drafts it’s going to take you to get to the final one, but a lot. And all of those drafts, with the exception of the last one, can be viewed through the lens of, well, I wasted my time.

Obviously you didn’t. You’re not perfect. Your process is imperfect and highly inefficient. Inefficiency goes hand in hand with any kind of creativity as far as I’m concerned. If there were some clean efficient path to creative success, people wouldn’t be required. We would have software. You know, I had that discussion with Mike last week and he I know firsthand went through countless drafts to get to where he ended up. Countless.

And I don’t think he ever stopped and said, “Oh, I’m wasting my time.” You have to understand that the winnowing away of things you don’t want to do is in and of itself productive.

John: Yep. And it’s not just sometimes I’m cutting a scene, I’m cutting a sequence, I’m restructuring things. Sometimes I am walking away from a project. And that is one of those things which was so hard early in my career, because I think like, well, but I just made a movie on paper, and I want this movie to happen. So, I would keep calling these development executives saying like, “Well what’s happening on this movie that we worked on that you said you loved and it’s not there anymore?”

And at a certain point I crossed over to recognizing, well, I get that phone call about like, “Oh, they don’t like the draft, and so I don’t think it’s moving forward, or we’re going to sort of think about it.” And then I felt kind of a relief. I started to recognize that like, oh, by this project not taking up my time, I’m now free to do other things. It felt like, oh, I’m allowed to sort of move away from it and not let it occupy so much brain space.

It’s tough when it’s your own project, when you actually own it, and you could keep pushing it forward. Those are the harder things to walk away from. When it’s sort of taken away from you in a certain way it’s liberating because that space has just suddenly cleared for you.

Craig: This is a very dangerous thing for new writers, obviously. This is one that they all struggle with and I sympathize. Because you’re going to come up with the standard rap on aspiring writers is that they start 20 projects and finish none. Very common. And obviously not possible to continue that way and expect to be a successful writer. So, naturally I think for people like that they may feel the need to force themselves through to the end for fear that they are falling down that hole.

And they might be. And maybe when you’re first starting out you should just whip yourself until it’s done, just to say, OK, I did it. And I’m not the guy that just starts and stops. But, certainly we will all at some point come face to face with the end of life for something, whether it’s because it’s taken away from us, or because there’s just a general loss of interest. And, frankly, that’s the most common outcome.

John: Yeah. So I’m not the animist that Marie Kondo is about sort of like thanking all of my stuff, but there are a couple scripts that are dead now that I kind of consciously do thank for existing, because they were really helpful lessons along the way. So I don’t look at them as failures, but basically like it was really important that I wrote that script because it taught me X, Y, or Z.

And so my first script, it taught me this is what the screenplay format is like. This is how I can get people to really engage emotionally in the things I’ve written.

There’s this project that will never happen which I wrote out of a place of just incredible anger and frustration. And I think from that I mostly take the lesson of thank you for teaching me not to do that, because that was a real mistake. That was a lot of wasted time. And a lot of sort of living in a very negative space for no good reason whatsoever.

So, you know, take the cuts, take the walking aways as little victories and not as failures.

Craig: There are really no failures. I look at it that way. Because in a strange way, there are so many failures. There aren’t any failures. We’re soaking in them. So, at that point it’s hard for me to look at anything as a failure. And, yeah, there are times when the lesson is clear. There are times when, I mean, I’ve done a couple things where I thought afterwards, “I don’t know why I did that. Nothing is going to happen with it. I’m not sure I learned anything. That’s a total wash. OK.”

But, you know, it is part of my life. What can I do? I chalk it up to that inherent inefficiency. You just have to make peace with it. You are going to make mistakes, all of you, and it’s essential. It’s just essential to who we are.

John: Circling back to your sense of like having some people put eyes on the things you write before you go between this draft and the next draft, one of the phrases that I’ve learned that’s really helpful is saying pretend you have magic scissors and you can cut anything. What would you cut?

And the phrase magic scissors is useful because it gives people permission to really tell you what they think they would want to drop out of a script without having to worry about the repercussions of it. Or how hard it would be to lose something. Because it’s your job as a writer to figure out how you would actually do that. But you want to solicit the opinions of like really, seriously, what would you cut. And I do that in drafts, but I also do that in first cuts of movies. Just like tell me what you’d like to get out of that script and I’ll find a way to do it if I agree with you.

Craig: It’s really smart. Because a lot of times we are afraid to say, well, I just don’t like this storyline, but I understand why it’s there. I know what it’s doing. But if 20 people say, “They don’t like it, but,” then you should get rid of it and fix the but, right? So that’s very smart.

John: Cool. The last point is like the finding a place for things so you don’t have clutter. And this is what I would say when I’ve come in to do a rewrite, like a big studio rewrite, my first pass through it is mostly just decluttering. There’s always all this stuff that is sitting in the script from previous drafts that really has no business being in the script. So, that first week when I’m handing back a draft they’re like, “Oh my god, this is so much better.” It’s like all I did was take out the stuff that was getting in the way of the script that you kind of all had there. You just didn’t see it.

I’m getting rid of those decisions that were made that sort of like were these small little additions that were added because someone had this note or that note that no longer needed to be in the script. And so when you find stuff that’s out of place, well sometimes you can just get rid of that stuff. And sometimes you have to find a new place to put things. And that’s, I think the hardest lesson sometimes to learn is that you might have a great idea, but unless you have a place to put that great idea, and a place in a movie means a character who can voice it or demonstrate it, and a place both geographically and over the course of the timeline of the movie where that idea can take place, you’re just not going to be able to ever make it into your movie.

Craig: Absolutely true. And like you do, I spend a lot of my time rewriting stuff that’s in trouble. And I am very aware in those initial meetings where I say, “Look, here are some things that I think we should just get rid of, blah, blah, blah.” And everyone just lights up and says, “Oh, thank god you’re here.” And I think, hmm, thank god anywhere is here, really. Somebody else would have said this. It’s not me, it’s new, right? So new eyes have come in and unlike you, who have lived with the construction of this house and can’t even remember why the chimney is top of the garage like that, someone is coming along saying, “Lose the garage. Then you don’t have the chimney problem. You don’t need a garage. And do this…and why is that wall there?”

Oh, you know, I can’t even remember why. Well, sometimes because they asked for it to be there. You know, that’s the other thing. When new people come in, they don’t have the knowledge of who asked for what. So there is no embarrassment, whereas if I’m the first writer on it, well I know that that weird wall is there because the vice president of such-and-such demanded it. I can’t say get rid of it now, because they all know that that guy demanded it, and he knows, and I know, and it’s embarrassing.

But the new guy doesn’t know that that guy asked for it. So he’s got cover. Save face. Yeah, sure, yeah, let’s get rid of it. The other writer must have thought of that. It happens all the time. And similarly I know if I am the first writer on something and someone else comes in after me, they may very well be feted as a genius for a while, in part for the same reason. It’s not a reflection on me anymore than my arrival is a reflection on the writer before.

John: Yep. And so I would say as you’re looking at your own work, as you’re going between like your first draft and your second draft, people will come to you with a bunch of ideas. And you’ll have a bunch of idea. There will be things that you’ll want to incorporate. But I would just caution you like don’t bring home homeless ideas. Don’t try to sort of wedge extra things into your script unless you really have a natural place for them. And so often I think the reason why second drafts are worse than first drafts is because people are trying to incorporate a bunch of things that they’ve discovered and the things they really want to have in their script, but there’s no place for them because they haven’t actually cleared out all the stuff that’s already there.

And so you’re going to have to be very mindful about where those new ideas are going to land. Who is going to be able to voice them? How are you going to have these situations that reflect those ideas? Where it will it fit structurally? Because sometimes you’ll see these scenes that could have just fallen at any place over the course of the movie, and those are never good scenes. Unless there’s a reason why that scene had to happen at that moment, that scene probably should not be in your movie.

Craig: It’s also the big problem that we experience when we arrive at that second draft and are attempting to address input. Because a lot of input is not place-able. At least it’s not place-able in the story we’re trying to tell. So you end up shoehorning things, or sticking things on top of things. It’s not going to work. No one is going to like it. It’s hard because sometimes the thing you can say that would lead to the best movie is also the thing that will lead to you being fired. It’s rough to say to somebody, “Everything you just said will not work and it will make the movie worse. A few of these things will make it better.”

But, you know, unfortunately people want things. You know, it’s that problem, like we said, “Oh, we want more.” Well, there’s no place for more. So, an enormous part of what we do is negotiating with people who are legitimately trying to help, but are not actually helping.

John: Yeah. It’s like those people who come to your house saying like, “Oh, I got this thing that’s going to fit in perfectly in your house. It’s great.” And you look at and say, yes, it’s beautiful. I think it’s just really wonderful. But it doesn’t fit your house at all. There’s no place for you to put it. And so it’s going to sit on the counter for a while and you’re going to feel bad about it sitting on the counter for a while. And you can’t remember sort of like, wait, who brought it to us? And like three years later it’s still sitting on the counter and you have no idea how it got into your house.

Craig: Yeah. Being a screenwriter is a bit like being a homeowner, except that the bank that owns your mortgage is allowed – and in fact required – to come in and tell you how to decorate and how to change things.

John: Yes.

Craig: So go ahead and decorate it as you like, but then we’re going to send a bank official over who is going to say, “No, change that wall color to this. I don’t like that bedroom there. Let’s get rid of it. And your house is arranged now.” What? “Oh, and you’re living here. And we own it, so do it. Or we’ll move you out and move your friend in.” [laughs] Blech.

John: Blech. So, let’s try to end this on a more positive note. I would say that the movies I love most are not cluttered. And that’s the thing I would sort of stress about this lesson we’re trying to impart to you is not like all the bad things that happen when people try to shove too much stuff at you, but the really great movies when you step back and you really look at them, they are remarkably clean.

They are not overburdened by things that are not important. And sometimes that came out very naturally in the writing process. Sometimes that came through arduous filmmaking and editing and reshoots. But the end result of those movies that I love are really just delightfully clean and there’s no more there than needs to be, there’s no less. They feel just right put together.

And so as you’re writing your scripts, aim for that in your drafts. You won’t always hit it, but really try to find that clean and decluttered way of telling your story and not feel obligated to take in everything that somebody is going to want to hand you.

Craig: Yeah, you know, I can point to each movie I’ve made and say, “Here’s some clutter that I was imposed.” And it’s hard. And then it’s really hard because you try and – the worst part is when you’re like, OK, I have to use my skills, whatever they are, to make this seem OK. But now the new bar is OK. It’s not good. Just, OK, yes, I see how that logically follows. I don’t like it. I don’t need it. It’s distracting. But, yes, it’s not bizarre. That’s the new standard.

Not good.

John: OK. Let’s move onto our next topic. A bunch of people tweeted this at us this week. This is a second round in a French case involving Luc Beson. So, last week an appeals court in Paris found in favor of John Carpenter who argued that Luc Beson had committed copyright infringement in the 2012 movie Lockout, borrowing key elements from Carpenter’s 1981 cult classic, Escape from New York.

And this is notable because this basically never happens, Craig, right?

Craig: It basically never happens. That is correct.

John: So, in previous episodes we’ve talked about like Tess Gerritsen’s Gravity lawsuit, where she was arguing that Gravity borrowed from her book. We’ve talked about other people claiming like, oh, they stole my script. But in most cases we’ve just shot that down because it’s common for those kind of lawsuits to be filed. It’s very uncommon for them to win. But this was such a weird case because this is about two movies that actually exist that you can see both of them on your TV.

And basically Carpenter is saying, hey, that movie you made is basically a copy of my movie that I made 30 years ago. You have committed copyright infringement.

Craig: Yeah, well, OK, so a couple of things that stand apart from the usual whack job alleges theft: neither of these people are whack jobs. They’re both incredibly successful filmmakers. So, that’s an interesting thing that sets this apart. I don’t even think I know of any other case like it.

The second thing that sets it apart is that this is not a United States decision. This is a French decision. Personally, I think it’s a horrendous decision. But, copyright law is different in France. And I guess that may have been the difference. But, I am not thrilled with this decision.

John: Well, let’s talk about what the decision is, because it’s a little bit strange. So, Luc Beson, who is one of the cowriters of Lockout, but he didn’t direct it, he produced it through his Europa Corp production company. And the lawsuit was initially filed in 2014. So Carpenter won that first round in the lawsuit and he won about $100,000. The appeals court decision raised that to about $500,000.

So, that’s money, but that’s not a lot of money. It felt like pretty low numbers for what you’d think of as a big copyright case.

Craig: Yeah. And again, this may be part of the fact that it’s French. I don’t know. Although, I agree with you. It seems like a very small amount of money, frankly, considering what’s being alleged and what’s being ruled here. And I don’t know if there is yet another round to go in the French judicial system or not. The implication from the media was that the company Europa Corp, which is Luc Beson’s company, will just go ahead and pay this amount.

John: And why wouldn’t you? $500,000 is not a lot of money.

Craig: Well, why wouldn’t you have just gone ahead and taken the gimme at $100. I think it’s the same reason. Pride. And principle. I haven’t seen Lockout, but I’ve seen Escape from New York. It sounds to me like Luc Beson, yeah, wrote a movie that is similar in general story to Escape from New York, but just set it in space, I guess.

And as far as I know, that’s perfectly fine. I mean, I can make a list of 20 movies in the United States that do similar things, but this one is in space. And everybody kind of understands you’re doing a version of that movie but, you know, in space.

John: It’s one of those weird things where it falls somewhere between a rip-off and a homage and a remake. And I think Carpenter is arguing it’s essentially a remake but they put it in space. And Luc Beson would argue like, no, no, it’s the same kind of story but told in space. And telling it in space fundamentally changes everything.

The same way we have a whole bunch of haunted house movies, but we also have essentially the same story, but like on a spaceship. And that feels enough different that we’re not worrying about that.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, everybody who sees a movie can say, “Basically they’re just doing a movie like this.” I mean, every time there’s some big movie that comes out of nowhere, there’s 20 other movies behind it that do the same damn thing. We all – we’ve seen that happen. You know, in the United States, copyright infringement comes down to unique expression in fixed form. It’s basically like plagiarism, right, like what Melania Drumpf did, or her speech writer.

You have to lift stuff. Clear stuff. Right? And that doesn’t seem to be at all what happened here. For instance, the similarities that are cited: The hero manages undetected to get inside the place where the hostage is being held. After a fight in a glider/space shuttle, finds there a former associate who dies. He pulls off the mission in extremis, and at the end of the film keeps the secret documents recovered in the course of the mission.

Um, I’m going to argue that more than two movies have done that.

John: Yeah. So, the other similarities are your hero is sentenced to a long period of isolation, and incarceration, despite his heroic past. And he has to free the President’s daughter who has been held hostage there in exchange for his freedom. So, like it’s the President’s daughter hero combination thing, which I think tipped the people off the first time. Like, oh wait, this is a lot like Escape from New York.

But being a lot like Escape from New York is not copyright infringement. Copyright infringement is actually copying Escape from New York. And so I agree with you that I think it would be a harder case to win in the US. And my suspicion is that it takes place – the lawsuit took place in France just because that’s where Luc Beson is and that was the right venue for it.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, nobody in the United States is going to say, “You know, Akira Kurosawa should sue Pixar because Bugs is Seven Samurai.” Because that’s insane. How about that? That’s just flat out nuts. And he didn’t. And, you know, I look at this – I mean, if you go through John Carpenter movies, I guarantee you you’re going to find some elements he’s lifted from other movies.

John: Yeah. So it’s a question of elements v. total structure. So, you know, Secret Life of Pets, which I thought was pretty charming, but it’s almost exactly Toy Story. So my daughter left the theater and she’s like, “Well, it’s basically Toy Story but with animals.” And I’m like, yeah, it’s basically Toy Story with animals. Most of the beats really do match up to Toy Story, but with animals. And it was a good enough version of it that in no way could I ever imagine Pixar suing over it. It’s just the same kind of framework of how you tell the story of these characters and their situation.

Craig: Yeah. The price you pay for hueing too closely to another basic narrative is the audience rejecting it. I don’t – this is such a weird decision to me. I mean, look, if there were specific lines and stuff lifted, but the notion, like you have to rescue the president and get him out of a thing and his daughter. Well, it’s so generic. I mean, I’ve seen so many movies where somebody had to go rescue the president.

John: Yep.

Craig: I don’t know.

John: So, let’s go to a listener question which is actually very related. So, this is Joe who wrote in and he was nice enough to send his audio. So, let’s listen to Joe’s question.

Joe: Hi John. Hi Craig. What’s the rule on IP that is specific not only to a certain genre, but also a certain story? For example, zombies tend to all look and feel similar to those put on screen by George Romero and we don’t see him suing anyone. Likewise, the Puppet Masters and Invasion of the Body Snatchers both contain similar plots about emotionless humans who are actually aliens, or being controlled by aliens. Yet, both exist without being seen as having stolen the idea from each other.

I have a show idea that borrows certain specific elements from other stories in the genre. How do I make sure it reads as homage rather than infringement? Thanks?

John: So, Craig, he’s facing a similar situation. He wants to do something that someone watching the movie might say like, oh, that’s like that, or that’s from that. How do you do that without crossing a line?

Craig: Well, pending this legal ruling, maybe avoid making it in France. But, the truth is you can’t avoid a certain amount of overlap, because you’re going to overlap with movies you haven’t even seen. It’s inevitable. There’s going to be some scene or moment that does that. Or there’s going to be some basic idea that does that. We have thousands and thousands of movies. All of which are layering on top of each other and are remakes and reimaginations and recontextualizations.

Infringement is a very clear thing, at least in the United States. Lifting chunks of dialogue. Recreating clear scenes. Picking a character out of a movie and doing a very similar thing. Let’s say, for instance, you’re making a serial killer movie and you have a FBI agent going to interview a serial killer because he’s going to help her catch another killer. Than in and of itself is clearly a – well, it’s a reference to Silence of the Lambs. But what I’ve just said to me doesn’t feel like infringement.

What’s infringement is if she’s walking down a dark hallway and finds him in a room that’s not metal bars, but a glass box, and he turns around and he’s in his nice little neat suit. And he has a quid-pro-quo discussion with her. Now it’s like what are you doing? You’re clearly just copying another movie.

So, the test is are you copying a movie, or are you copying a general kind of story or arrangement?

John: Absolutely. I would point Joe over to Everything is a Remix, which is a great series by Kirby Ferguson where Kirby sort of argues that everything you’ve ever seen in movies, and really most of popular culture, comes from different places. And you may not be aware of the references, but they all sort of stack up on each other to get us to where we are right now.

And so, you know, Star Wars is derived from a bunch of preexisting things. And it was assembled in a way that was delightful and wonderful. And it is original in the sense this is the first expression of Star Wars, but everything that is in Star Wars are ideas that were already out there, and they were just assembled in a great way.

So, I would say, Joe, you have to be mindful of don’t let your references just be references and don’t copy. Just make sure you’re using the stuff of the genre that is appropriate and building something new out of those Lego blocks.

Craig: I wonder – this is absolute idle conjecture. But I find it odd that in France an American suing a Frenchman was ruled in favor of. And I wonder in part if this is something to do with Luc Beson and some kind of French thing with Luc Beson.

You know, there is this thing that happens – I was talking with somebody. She’s an English producer. A UK producer. And she said it’s a little bit of the tall poppy syndrome. That if you get too successful as a UK production entity with movies that play well in the United States and around the world, then now you’re suddenly no good.

I wonder if that has something to do with this.

John: It might.

Craig: Well, conjecture.

John: Do you want to read a question from a different Joe?

Craig: Yeah. So it’s good that we have multiple Joes. A different Joe writes, “A long time ago, you had a guest on Scriptnotes, I forget who, that had written a crazy ass unproduceable screenplay who knew it was insane to ever get made. So he and his partner just put it online. If you know who I’m talking about, can you tell me the screenwriter’s name and the name of that script?”

John: We know the name of the writer and the script.

Craig: We do.

John: So that is written by the Robotard 8000. It is actually Malcom Spellman and Tim Talbott. The script is called Ball’s Out. And it is just a wild comedy. I’ve never actually read Ball’s Out. I just know it sort of as a legend. And they put it up online so people can read it.

Craig: Yeah. You can actually hear it. So I was part of a group of people that did a recorded reading of Ball’s Out for the Black List. So they will occasionally – because it was on the Black List. The selected one. And they will do these podcasts where they have a cast of people come in and do an actual reading of a movie. And so you can hear it. It’s bananas. Absolutely nuts.

But interestingly following the publication of that screenplay, Tim Talbott went on to win the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance for his movie The Stanford Prison Experiment. And Malcom Spellman is currently one of the big writers on Empire.

John: And also one of the most polarizing guests on Scriptnotes at times.

Craig: And would we have it any other way?

John: No other way. Brian from Syracuse writes, “Generally speaking, how much of the work do you think needs to be altered in order to feel comfortable calling something a new draft? Is it 10%? A new scene? Rewriting one scene? Furthermore, how much does the amount of work on a new draft differ from that of a polish?” So asking what is a rewrite, what is a polish, and how much is enough to call it a new draft?

Craig: There’s no math. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, it falls into the category of we know it when we see it. Every now and then you will have to get into a bit of a negotiation with a studio. Generally speaking, they want to tend to call things polishes. And you want to tend to call things rewrites because you get paid more for a rewrite.

Polishes to me really are more of a function of time as opposed to percentage of change. I’m going to do two or three weeks of work, that feels like a polish. I’m going to do more than a month – it’s a rewrite. Kind of that zone. And then you get into that ticky-tacky area where it’s like, well, it would be like between three and four weeks. Is it a polish? Is it a rewrite? Eh, let’s figure it out.

John: And so what we’re describing is when you’re being paid by someone to do specific work. If you’re just doing your own stuff, don’t really worry the distinction between a polish and a rewrite, or if you’re changing one character’s name throughout the whole script, well, that’s fine. If you want to call that a draft, whatever.

I would just caution people don’t put the number of the draft on the script. Let your scripts be dated and use a current date for what the scripts are. But don’t say like Third Revised Draft. Not helpful to anyone. Just date them.

Craig: Agreed. Taylor writes, “Recently there’s been a big push from the audience for studios and writers to make characters gay. Example, a few months ago the hashtags #GiveElsaAGirlfriend and #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend ran rampant through social media. And in the new Star Trek movie, Sulu is revealed to be gay.

“My question is why aren’t people pushing for gay and lesbian writers to take up the reins and write new content that the community can appreciate. Why does the community seem hell-bent on cannibalizing already established characters? Wouldn’t it be more meaningful for a character to be gay from inception than to be retroactively changed to appeal to the gay community? I hold myself to the ideal that if I want something done a certain way, I should go and make it. You want to make a character a certain way, then go write one. Don’t demand that someone else do it for you.”

What do you think about Taylor?

John: I was with Taylor up until hell-bent on the cannibalizing established characters. That’s where it sort of tipped over to the, ah, you’ve got an agenda here.

So, I think it’s fantastic to have representations of all sorts of people in movies, because that’s where we see our popular culture in movies and TV, where we see popular culture expressed. And so I think Taylor’s frustration is that there are characters he perceives as being white straight people and if those characters are not portrayed as being white straight people, that gets him a little bit frustrated.

And he can go off and be frustrated. I just think that sometimes it’s worthwhile to look at sort of is what makes the character fascinating aspects of his or her personality, or is it this default assumption that it is a straight white male?

Craig: Yeah. I think that there are – I basically had the same break point as you. Because I do think that the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend and #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend hashtags are pointless. Because what is it that you’re asking exactly?

And we’ve discussed this before, that movies should now conform their character’s essential makeup to whoever is yammering the loudest on Twitter? It’s insane. It’s just insane. You may want a character to be gay. You may want a character to be white. You may want a character to be a woman. But if the creators don’t want that, and they’ve been pushing them forward in a different way, that’s life.

I mean, tough. You know, the whole “we demand that Elsa have a girlfriend” is stupid and childish. On the other hand, sexuality is an enormous part of what makes a character interesting. And the last thing I want to see is yet another generation of the same character in the same damn way. I’m just so bored to death.

Remember when Daniel Craig was announced as James Bond, people flipped out because he was blond.

John: How can you possibly have a blond Bond?

Craig: Blond. It’s like forget not white. We can’t even handle him having blond hair. You know, I’m a huge Bond fan. I’m a huge – to me what makes Bond interesting is, you know, the way that this incredibly sexist caricature of a man is forced to evolve over time. And also the areas in which this character refuses to evolve.

But I’m delighted by certain changes. I want changes. I find it interesting. I liked it when M became a woman. And now I’m happy that M is a man, because look, that changed again. I like that.

Sulu, now, it’s an interesting thing with Sulu because George Takei apparently wasn’t too thrilled about this. I don’t know if you read about that.

John: I did. And he sort of came out saying like, oh, you should add a new character rather than gaying a current character. And I disagree with Sulu and I agree more with J.J. and with Simon Pegg who said that if you just try to tack on an extra character, then that character is only defined as being gay. And so what was so useful about the Sulu character is, you know, we’re in a parallel universe. There’s no set logic about who that character has to be in this universe whatsoever. I thought it was a fine choice to make him gay.

And by the way, I saw the movie. It’s the least gay character. I mean, he has sort of a side hug. I guarantee you that all the fan fiction that listeners are writing right now for me and Craig is much gayer than Sulu is in Star Trek.

Craig: [laughs] Well, I haven’t seen the movie yet. I’m sure that it is the most incredibly not-gay gay. The only thing that I thought George had a really good point on was look, you’re making Sulu – you could have picked any of these people to be gay. You’re making him gay because I’m gay, because I played him. And that’s a reasonable criticism because, you know, they could have made Bones gay.

John: They could have made Scotty gay. They could have made any of them gay.

Craig: Right. It was a little like, you know right, just like the guy that played him, right? You know, like OK, you know.

There are some things I think that do resist some kind of change. For instance, if you have a character named – what’s his first name, like Hikaru or something like that? I’m not a huge Trek guy. Like Hikaru Sulu, that’s a Japanese name. He should be played by an Asian person. And an Asian person that reasonably looks Japanese.

Some things you probably can’t change.

John: I’m generally not a fan of hashtags and sort of like fan campaigns to do things that are trying pressure creators to do things. I think they’re kind of ridiculous.

What I thought was fun about like #GiveElsaAGirlfriend or #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend is they were just trying to provoke a discussion about like would the world really come crashing to an end if you let Cap and Bucky make out the way they sort of seemed to want to make out the whole time through? Or really the assumption that Elsa as a princess in a Disney has to be straight, when like a lot of her does kind of read gay anyway. So, what would the worst thing be if you actually had a lesbian princess in one of these movies?

So, I think they’re useful in the sense of just like provoking the discussion. I don’t think you necessarily need to honor that discussion as a creator, but I thought they were interesting idea bombs to throw out there.

Craig: Yeah. I’m totally down. Like there are hashtags #CaptainAmericaAndBuckyAreLovers. OK. Good. Make your argument. That makes sense to me. I buy it.

But it’s the demand that you will do this or we’re not going to buy tickets anymore that I find petulant and frankly counterproductive.

John: Oh, for sure. But I don’t really think either of those campaigns were about we’re going to boycott this movie if they don’t do this. I think they were more sort of just like trying to provoke the discussion.

Craig: Either way, if somebody takes a character that has existed in many versions, played by many different people, and changes their sexuality to add some new twist on something that has become beyond boring, that’s not cannibalizing anything. Cannibalizing implies you’ve eaten it and killed it. No.

John: Not possible.

Craig: That’s not the case. So, we reject this, Taylor.

John: We reject this. [laughs] All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is Difficult People on Hulu, which I may have actually recommended once before, but I want to recommend the second season of it. So it’s created and written by Julie Klausner, who also stars in it along with Billy Eichner. They play under-employed writer-comics in New York City. It’s just delightful. It’s on Hulu. You can stream all the episodes.

It’s very much in the Seinfeld/Larry Sanders model of like really intricately plotted things that have a bunch of jokes that stack up together and then sort of fall down like dominoes at the end. But I really appreciated the second season is that they have a bunch of supporting characters who are both like punchline machines, like everything they say is funny and just meant to be funny, and yet they’re so oddly wonderfully specific. And so one of the new characters in the second season is played by Shakina Nayfack. Her character’s name is Lola. And she’s a transgender 9/11 truther. And so almost every line she says is both about her being Trans and being how 9/11 was an inside job.

Craig: So great.

John: And you would not think you could possibly make those things match up, and Julie Klausner does. So, I strongly recommend you take a look at that one. Again, it’s on Hulu. It’s not serialized at all, which is also great. So you can just drop in and watch any one episode. If you’re going to pick one episode, I’d recommend Italian Piñata from the second season. It’s a great episode.

Craig: I’m going to give it a watch. It sounds good. I just love the name Shakina Nayfack.

John: Isn’t that a great name?

Craig: It sounds like you’re trying to get away with something in Pig Latin.

John: It really does. [laughs]

Craig: My One Cool Thing this week is a game for iOS called Severed. It is – now hold on to your seats – it’s seven bucks. So don’t freak out or nothing. But it’s a terrific little game, in part because they managed to get me to play a move around game on iOS. I hate the way most touch applications work for controls. The kinds of moves that you would make with a console handheld controller are very hard to do with touch. Sometimes they give you like a virtual controller, which I loathe. This one they actually just simplified it down to a way where just, oh yeah, OK, I’m going to tap in a direction I want to go. Two fingers to move my head around and then tap again in the direction I want to go.

And it’s beautiful. It kind of reminds me of old school flash art. Old school meaning like when you and I were still in our 30s. And the mechanics are very simple and it’s very much like Fruit Ninja meets walk around and look around and Creepy Beauty. And it’s casual as hell. So, if you’re looking for something, iPad only, not phone, Severed. I believe the company is called Juice Box. Very good game.

John: Very good. So that is our show this week. There will be links in the show notes for most everything we talked about, so if you’re listening to this on your favorite podcast player, just keep scrolling and you’ll find links to all those things.

If you’re visiting us on, it would be great if you would also subscribe to the show in iTunes because that’s actually how we know how many people are listening to our show. And leave us a review while you’re there, because that’s super helpful as well.

If you have a question for me or for Craig, you can write to On Twitter I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.

Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe.

Craig: Yeah.

John: It is edited by Matthew Chilelli.

Craig: Woo.

John: Our outro this week comes from John Venable, so thank you John for sending that in. Our outro last week was by Matt Davis. So you didn’t know who did it, but Matt Davis did that.

Craig: There you go.

John: If you have an outro for us, you can write into the same email address,, and send us a link to your outros. We love those outros. But we’re running a little bit low. So, if you have some great themes for us, please send those through. And thank you very much, Craig.

Craig: See you next week, John.

John: Bye.

You can download the episode here.

Tidy Screenwriting

Wed, 08/10/2016 - 05:52

John and Craig apply the principles of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” to screenwriting. How can screenwriters learn to let go of beloved scenes, characters, and entire scripts?

We also answer listener questions, including the recent plagiarism ruling in favor of John Carpenter in a French court.


You can download the episode here.

Tidy Screenwriting

Tue, 08/09/2016 - 08:03

John and Craig apply the principles of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” to screenwriting. How can screenwriters learn to let go of beloved scenes, characters, and entire scripts?

We also answer listener questions, including the recent plagiarism ruling in favor of John Carpenter in a French court.


You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 261: Don’t Think Twice — Transcript

Fri, 08/05/2016 - 08:44

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Mike Birbiglia: And my name is Mike Birbiglia.

Craig: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Mike: To screenwriters.

Craig: [laughs] Today on the podcast, John has been replaced, upgraded, possibly downgraded, we’ll find out in a few moments with comedian, filmmaker, friend of the podcast, and plain old just friend me, Mike Birbiglia. And we will be discussing his new movie, Don’t Think Twice, which is in theaters now. And we’ll also be answering some listener questions. All told, I believe based on the circumstances, this will be the best single episode of the podcast we’ve ever done. No pressure.

Mike: I believe so, yes.

Craig: Mike Birbiglia, welcome.

Mike: Thank you very much.

Craig: So, you are here in Los Angeles on a bit of tour, bit of a press tour.

Mike: I am.

Craig: To promote your new film, Don’t Think Twice, which you have written, you directed, you star in as one of the ensemble.

Mike: With Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs and others. Yeah.

Craig: And others. I like that they all just get shoved into others.

Mike: Kate Micucci. Tami Sagher. And Chris Gethard are others.

Craig: Very good. I have seen this film. Aside from being a terrific movie, I think it also has a lot of relevance. The film and its topic has a lot of relevance for what we do as filmmakers and for what our people at home who listen to the show care about. So, first, why don’t–

Mike: It may crush them.

Craig: Yeah.

Mike: It may rip their hearts in two.

Craig: That’s all I’ve ever wanted.

Mike: [laughs]

Craig: Right? I mean, you know me.

Mike: Yes. You’re doom and gloom. Or you want–

Craig: Winnowing. Winnowing.

Mike: Winnowing.

Craig: A constant winnowing. I just don’t – I hate the idea that somehow this podcast or anything that is encouraging might keep somebody from pursuing a career in which they would discover some life-saving medicine.

Mike: I agree.

Craig: And instead they’re working on as a fourth level staff writer on a–

Mike: My wife and I talk about that all the time. I did a benefit for – because my wife and I always talk about how it doesn’t seem like science is something people are – the kids are aspiring towards, because we need someone to cure different types of cancer and what not. And I did a leukemia/lymphoma society benefit recently, and there was one of the sort of the top researchers in the field was speaking and did a bit with Ellie Kemper. It was like Nick Kroll, Ellie Kemper, a bunch of people. And I just did stand up. John Oliver was in it.

And I asked this guy, because, you know, you never get to talk to these people, the top researchers in the field. And I said, “My wife and I always feel like, tell me if this is wrong, like there’s not enough young people who are interested in science in America. Like everyone is interested in sort of getting famous or whatever.” And he said, “Yeah, it’s a huge problem.” And the other huge problem is the US government gives very few grants for research.

Craig: Right. Well, it is – we live I think in a culture that celebrates dreams, chasing your dreams, don’t give up on your dreams. Dreams, dreams, dreams, dreams, dreams. And science isn’t so much about a romantic dream. It’s about rigor, and commitment, and hard work.

Mike: Discipline. Helping the planet. There’s this great op-ed, Angela Duckworth I believe wrote it, in the New York Times around the time of commencement speeches where she said, “If I were to give one, I would say don’t think about what you want to be when you grow up. Think about what’s the world I want to live in and how can I help be a part of that?”

Craig: Well, that’s a wonderful message that apparently did not sink in to any of the characters in your movie. Because your characters are absolutely right in the pocket of dreamers.

Mike: They are.

Craig: They are all dreaming of becoming big comic stars. So tell us about, just give us a general sketch of what this movie is, what it’s about.

Mike: So, this movie, Don’t Think Twice, is about a group of best friends in an improv group, and it’s sort of a Big Chill-esque sort of dramedy where someone gets a chance to audition for like a Saturday Night Live type of show and the rest of them don’t. And they’re losing their lease on their theater we learn very early in the film. And it’s this staring in the mirror of these characters in their 30s, late 30s, and early 40s, going, “What am I going to do? What do I do now?” Which is something that I think me and a lot of my friends have faced in our 30s.

Craig: It’s a true story, even though it’s fictional, because that is the nature of these more well-known improv troupes, Second City, and the Groundlings.

Mike: Yeah. And UCB. And all these places.

Craig: I’m sure there are many people who participate in those for the joy of it. And there are many people who participate in those because that’s where they want to be. But it does seem like the advertisement is this is how you get onto Saturday Night Live, and then that’s how you become a movie star.

Mike: Except it’s unspoken advertisement, I think. I don’t think that UCB, for example, is saying this is how you get on SNL. But it’s hard when you read an article about Kate McKinnon and saw that she was in a sketch comedy group there. And then you see that Aidy Bryant was in Second City. It’s hard not to draw the connection.

Craig: You’re movie, I think, suggests that a lot of the people that do enroll to take classes, as well as the people who are there teaching and part of the troupes, they’re certainly aware. I mean–

Mike: I think so. Yeah.

Craig: Yeah, you are proposing, I mean, it’s an interesting thing. The way you are proposing a very unromantic view.

Mike: It is.

Craig: You’re movie is assiduously unromantic in its portrayal of the creative life and creative ambition and the petty, often envious, nature of creative people. Which I loved, because I thought it was so true and so brave. But I’m kind of curious why every movie – like you could write about anything, right? And this is your first truly fictional–

Mike: Fictional piece. Yeah, it is.

Craig: And you wanted to write this. Right? Like the anti-love letter to yourself.

Mike: Oh my god. [laughs]

Craig: And your friends, right? Why?

Mike: Oh god.

Craig: Why?

Mike: When you phrase it that way, Craig. Well, when I think about it, my first film, Sleepwalk With Me, is about success, is this is a film about failure. You know, I think someone kicking around in my head was, after the first movie, I had a lot of people come up to me and say I started doing standup because I saw Sleepwalk With Me. And I thought, well that’s not what the movie is about.

Craig: Yeah.

Mike: The movie is actually about finding your voice in whatever field that you might be in. And so I felt like why shouldn’t there be a movie about failure and how life is unfair.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

Mike: You deal with studios all the time. I don’t deal with them. But I imagine they’re not loving a pitch like that. Like the movie is about failure. How does that go over at Universal?

Craig: I think it’s cute that you thought it would even get that far.

Mike: [laughs] Like I’d get a meeting.

Craig: Right. Like they don’t ask you what the movie is about. They’re like, “First of all, we’ll tell you what we want movies about. Is it one of these four things? No? No.”

Mike: Wow.

Craig: Is it about a superhero? Is it about an explosion? Is it franchise-able?

Mike: Wow.

Craig: No? How will this play overseas?

Mike: Oh my god.

Craig: No? Right. So all of those questions, you would be able to happily check no to. But this – listen, independent film more than ever is distinct and discrete, clearly separate from studio fare. There was a while where every studio was like, “We want a Miramax, we want a Sony Pictures Classic. We’ll all start doing that.”

Mike: Right.

Craig: Not anymore. So now it’s back to independent. And this is about as independent as it gets.

Mike: They’ve all kind of disbanded that part of their company, right?

Craig: Well, they were like, “So, after we made 20 of these semi-independent films, we made like $12.”

Mike: There was like Paramount Vantage or something, right?

Craig: Absolutely.

Mike: And there were all these Universal blah, blah, blah. I don’t know, like you know this better than I do.

Craig: Universal had Focus.

Mike: Yes! That’s right.

Craig: Which was their specialty arm. Paramount had Vantage. Warner Bros had Warner Bros Pictures Independent I think it was called. They did March of the Penguins, I want to say.

Mike: Sony still has Sony Pictures Classics, but they do less movies I think than they used to.

Craig: Disney had Miramax.

Mike: Yes.

Craig: They finally got rid of it completely. And then Fox had Searchlight.

Mike: The jury is out: Hollywood doesn’t like making independent films, or small films.

Craig: They do not. It turns out they like making Hollywood movies. But the good news is you are the beneficiary of that. You have made a true independent film in all regards. I love it when independent films are movies that the studious wouldn’t have also made. And this is clearly one of them. I’m kind of curious, when you go down the path of being the writer and director, and I assume you’re also a producer of the movie.

Mike: Yeah.

Craig: And you’re in the cast. So the downside of working for a studio is you have multiple layers of people meddling, each with an agenda, some of whom are well-intentioned, and some of whom are not. You have nobody technically meddling. So then the question is–

Mike: It’s all on you.

Craig: And I’m always fascinated with this, and I guess this will lead into our how we kind of interacted on this early on, but how do you deal with the struggle when you are entirely in charge of something? Okay, if somebody tells me they don’t like a thing, and I make a change, am I somehow selling myself out? And on the other hand, if someone tells me they don’t like something and I say, “No, you’re wrong,” am I somehow being self-indulgent? How do you play that balance?

Mike: That’s a great question actually. I would have these readings, as you know, because you were at one of them at my house. I encourage all screenwriters, aspiring screenwriters, to do this. My friends are actors and writers. They don’t have to be. They can just be friends, random people, just reading the script out loud. And I would offer pizza afterwards.

Craig: You did.

Mike: And it was always great pizza.

Craig: It was really good. Well, because you live in Brooklyn. Even bad Brooklyn pizza is good.

Mike: With [Colley], you know, [Tecca], Luzzo, like I made sure the pizza was good. And at the beginning of each reading I would say, “This script might be bad, but the pizza is phenomenal, and so it’s all going to be fine. Like don’t worry about it.”

Craig: Actually it was curiously comforting to hear that.

Mike: Yeah. Well, because, you know, and this harkens to your question, or this dovetails to your question which is like I would encourage people to give me their harshest criticism. Like I would invite you and Brian Koppelman and Phil Lord and Nicole Holofcener, and I would–

Craig: Michael Weber.

Mike: Yeah. Michael Weber. Greta Gerwig. Like I did ten of these. A zillion people came. But I invite people who are better than me at it. [laughs] I want people who are smarter, better. Ira Glass. You know, like people to come at me hard with notes and say the toughest thing.

I mean, you said some stuff to me that was so tough in the early process and it was so helpful. That’s the thing that I think writers, particularly aspiring writers, don’t get. The idea of early on, and I didn’t get in my 20s either, to be clear, is that you actually want the toughest notes.

Craig: You do.

Mike: Not because they’re right, but because you want to know how your vision is being conveyed. Is it being conveyed well or not well?

Craig: Right.

Mike: Is what’s in your brain working with people, or is it not working? Because it doesn’t mean – just because you read my script and something’s not clicking for you doesn’t mean that the idea in my brain is wrong. It means that the idea in my brain isn’t on the page.

Craig: Right.

Mike: I heard Ron Howard say in an interview once that he shows rough cuts of his movies to strangers, not to find out what the vision of the movie is, but to find out if the vision of the movie is connecting with people. And if it’s not, then he makes a ton of changes.

Craig: Well, that’s something that you inherently understand because you’re a stage performer. And there’s this – I don’t know if you ever read this book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Mike: I don’t know that one.

Craig: It’s a fantastic book. A very difficult book. It sounds like it would be fun. It’s actually maybe the most dense and difficult to understand book I’ve ever read in my life.

Mike: Sounds great.

Craig: Written by this guy named Robert Pirsig, who’s a moral philosopher, among other things. And in it he investigates this question of quality. What is quality? What’s good? And where he eventually ends up is that there’s no such thing as an inherent quality, but it’s not also true that just because lots of people like something that it is quality.

He said ultimately quality comes down to the relationship between a thing and the people observing it and listening to it. It’s about a relationship. Comics, standup comics, I think know this better than anybody. Right.

You go up there – I’d have to assume, I’ve never done it, but I have to assume that you have been in two different rooms on two different nights, feeling the same, telling the same stories and jokes, and getting two completely different responses.

Mike: Constantly. Oftentimes I’ll take jokes to like three different places. I’ll take them to somewhere like Cincinnati, I’ll take them to Brooklyn, and I’ll take them to Manhattan. Three completely different responses. And what I want, ultimately, and Cincinnati could be Iowa City, it could be St. Louis, whatever. What I want is the jokes to work in all three places, because what I’m ultimately trying to grasp at is something that’s human.

And when I would show people drafts of the script and drafts of the movie, or cuts of the movie, it’s the same thing. I want old people, I want young people, I want everybody to have an experience that ultimately is just a human experience.

Craig: It seems to me that you, through your experience as a standup, would have a kind of a comfort that I’m not sure a typical screenwriter gets. Because you have experienced so many times–

Mike: Being hammered. The audience just crushing you.

Craig: But knowing that the material itself, maybe it’s just, okay, this group here. But this works generally. So, let me not go home and tear it all up.

Mike: Agreed.

Craig: You know, so that helps you keep your – because I, you know–

Mike: It even makes me lose my breath hearing you describe it, but it’s so true. Yeah, I have shows all the time where I bring something to the Comedy Cellar in Manhattan and it doesn’t work, but I know the seed of what’s there is right.

Craig: And so you experience this rejection, but you do not turn in on yourself. That is an amazing ability. It’s something I struggle with all the time.

Mike: I think we all do, yeah.

Craig: You know, someone says, “I don’t like it,” and I immediately think, oh, okay, what do I need to do to make you like it? That’s not actually a great instinct.

Mike: Yeah.

Craig: At all. But it’s the normal instinct, I think. It’s how we’re brought up. You know, well, if somebody is upset with you, stop doing that. You know what I mean?

Mike: Yes. Yes.

Craig: But this is different and so I went to your house. By the way, you live next door to Mari Heller.

Mike: Marielle Heller and Jorma Taccone. Power directing couple.

Craig: Amazing. She was on our show as well. That building, it’s a duplex, right?

Mike: Well, we share a wall.

Craig: You share a wall. If there’s like a gas leak in that building, American culture will suffer. Primarily because we lost the writer of MacGruber.

Mike: That’s correct.

Craig: Because you know how I feel about MacGruber?

Mike: Oh, I feel identically about MacGruber. It’s one of the great comedies in American history.

Craig: The greatest. The greatest.

Mike: Along with Popstar, Jorma’s recent movie.

Craig: I haven’t yet seen it. But I’m going to, because I believe in him.

Mike: You will love it.

Craig: I will. If I loved MacGruber. So that’s an amazing home.

So I go to your home and you have this very impressive group. You have Frank Oz, by the way, reading one of the parts.

Mike: Yeah.

Craig: I didn’t know that was Frank Oz.

Mike: That’s what Ira said.

Craig: I didn’t know. I walked in, I sat down–

Mike: He’s like, “You’re getting notes from Yoda?”

Craig: I know! So I showed up, I sat down next to this guy, I didn’t really know anybody except for you and Mike Weber, who hadn’t shown up yet. And he’s just this nice man.

Mike: He is.

Craig: And I just started chatting with him and we were just like, you know, laughing and stuff. And then someone told me that was Frank Oz and my heart just – you know, like when your heart sinks and rises at the same time. You’re like, I’m scared and thrilled. I mean, it’s funny, like Yoda, but really for me, Grover.

Mike: I know.

Craig: It’s Grover. Like this man was there when I was four.

Mike: And he’s Cookie Monster.

Craig: I know. Miss Piggy.

Mike: He’s Miss Piggy. He’s Fozzie. He’s Animal.

Craig: Plus, he’s Frank Oz. I mean, the guy’s made some terrific movies.

Mike: Oh my god, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob? You could list them all day.

Craig: Did he make In & Out?

Mike: Bowfinger. In & Out.

Craig: Amazing movie.

Mike: Yeah. I know.

Craig: Paul Rudnick script, I believe. Very funny guy.

Mike: Those films are a great example of films it doesn’t seem like Hollywood is making right now.

Craig: Because they aren’t.

Mike: What?

Craig: They’re not. They just don’t make them. They don’t.

Mike: And those are great comedies. Those are great studio comedies.

Craig: It’s a tale for another time. But that room was very impressive because you had intentionally assembled a lot of high powered people.

Mike: Wrecking crew.

Craig: A wrecking crew. And then exposed yourself to them. And then everybody has opinions. So many opinions.

Mike: Oh yeah.

Craig: And there were so many opinions that I made a choice to just write all my opinions down.

Mike: That was very generous of you.

Craig: Because ultimately, you can’t – I don’t know about you. I get into opinion overload where suddenly everything, my brain stops. I get numb.

Mike: Oh yeah. I had that. Every single reading.

Craig: It’s a weird feeling, isn’t it?

Mike: Yeah.

Craig: And you just want people to leave and take their pizza. Just get out of my house.

Mike: I would drink a lot.

Craig: [laughs] That’s healthy. I think that’s a great idea. Because from my understanding, drinking solves all emotional problems.

Mike: Yes. But, Craig, be cautious. Use it in moderation. No, there’s extreme stories.

Craig: Really?

Mike: Yeah. I’ll tell you. When the podcast ends, I’ll tell you all about it.

Craig: Sounds alarmist. Anyway, I want to talk to you about the paradox involved in writing a movie about a troupe of improvisational comedians. You’re doing the least improvisational thing there is, writing a screenplay.

Mike: Yeah.

Craig: And yet you somehow–

Mike: You’re trying to immortalize an ephemeral art from.

Craig: Correct. You are attempting to catch lightning in a bottle and freeze it, which of course then ruins it, right? There’s no way to have great improv that’s not improv’d. Everybody can smell it, right?

Mike: Yeah.

Craig: So how did you approach this from a screenwriting craft way?

Mike: I was doing a regular show at the Upright Citizens Brigade called Mike Birbiglia’s dream, where Tami Sagher from the movie and Chris Gethard from the movie and a rotating cast of people each week, Connor Ratliff, sometimes Aidy Bryant would play. Sometimes Gary Richardson would play. And we’d improvise every week and I would always ask as a prompt, “Has anyone had a hard day?”

And there’s a few, like in the movie where someone said like I saw my dad for the first time in ten years and he was driving a taxi. And that’s from a real show. And so I wouldn’t rip from the shows’ improv, actual improv, but I would rip sometimes the suggestion.

Craig: That’s fair.

Mike: And then I would free associate as though I were all the characters. And then I brought the cast to town early. Actually, Frank Oz gave me this piece of advice. When he came to the reading, he says, “The script is pretty much there. Just get the cast to town and take them bowling.”

Craig: Wow.

Mike: It’s something he does when he directs films. And it worked. We all went bowling.

Craig: Take them bowling?

Mike: Yeah, he said because if they’re believably friends, the movie works. If they’re not, it doesn’t.

Craig: He really is Yoda.

Mike: I know.

Craig: Why? [Yoda impression]. I mean, it works. It legitimately works that way. I want him to do that for me all the time. That’s great, great advice. Because the thing about the movie that buoys everything, I think, is the absolute believability of all of those characters. There isn’t one of them that feels like they’ve been dropped in by a screenwriter. And it’s the best compliment I can give you as a writer.

Mike: Thank you. And I will compliment you on something that you’ve said on the podcast before, and then you said to me – your notes on my specific script is, you were like, “Cut a character.” You and John have said this before, many times, I believe. Think about cutting a character. It’s easier for your cinematographer to make frames. It’s easier for the audience to follow these characters.

One of the things that we found in the edit is that we had to cut a whole plot line and a character back to like a minimal amount because the audience can’t always follow all these characters. When you have six principals, it’s like how many more characters can people juggle in their head?

Craig: One thing that has always surprised me – it never stops surprising me – are the confusions that audiences do experience. I think, you know, on studio sides, they’re always obsessed with confusing the audience. So, they think audiences are confused by details and plot, and that’s why in movies a lot of times people are telling you things in a way that feels insulting to your intelligence, because many people’s intelligence was not insulted by that information.

But mostly what people are confused by are the strangest things like, “I didn’t know that those two people were two different people until halfway through the movie when they were in a scene together.”

Mike: That’s why casting is crucial.

Craig: Yes. Yes.

Mike: I had to keep that in mind when casting the six principals. Do they look different enough from each other so people don’t think that person is that person?

Craig: Exactly.

Mike: It sounds like we’re exaggerating by the way, and it’s actually 100% true.

Craig: Even smart people. Very smart people will say, “I didn’t understand that that person was her boyfriend.”

Mike: For example, I will never be cast in a movie with Ike Barinholtz.

Craig: Well, hold on.

Mike: It’s not going to happen.

Craig: There’s a good reason for that. Ike Barinholtz, way funnier than you.

Mike: Wait, I will walk out of this podcast right now.

Craig: So much funnier. Better looking.

Mike: Better looking, sure.

Craig: Better looking you. Funnier. He’s basically the best version of you. He’s like, if I’m making a movie of your life, I’m casting him.

Mike: Well, Seth Rogan is moderating a Q&A of the movie this weekend, and I’m going to make a pitch to him privately. “Can I play all the Ike Barinholtz parts in your movie? Because I’m cheap. I’m cheaper. I’ll do it for less. It’ll be more fun.”

Craig: By the way, it’s that classic thing.

Mike: I look like him. You can sub him out.

Craig: Who’s Ike Barinholtz? Get me Ike Barinholtz. Get me Mike Birbiglia. The young Ike Barinholtz. Who is Mike Birbiglia? [laughs] Get me Ike Barinholtz. This is Hollywood. This is it.

Tell us about the rollout of your movie. Right now in theaters.

Mike: Yeah. So we’re in that stage where we’re being sort of tested in the major markets. So it’ll be like in Chicago, Detroit, Boston, DC, Seattle, Austin, Portland, Los Angeles, all that kind of stuff. And then if it does well, it could end up in 500 or 1,000 theaters. There’s no way to know.

Craig: And who is releasing – tell us about the business of this.

Mike: A company called the Film Arcade is releasing it. It’s a company owned by Miranda Bailey, who is a great producer, and run by Jason Beck and Andy Bohn, who are – I had a meeting with Miranda, and Andy, and Jason like right after Sleepwalk With Me came out. And they said, you know, we have this company. It’s a small distribution company. They did Afternoon Delight. They did James White, which was a good indie film from last year.

Craig: Right.

Mike: I think it’s a company – I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying this – but I think it’s a company that gets outbid a lot by companies like A24 and some larger mid-range sort of indie distribution companies.

Craig: Tough business to be in.

Mike: Tough business, yeah, out of the festivals. And so they were game for this idea of like I said, “Here’s what I learned from releasing the film with IFC Films last time. I learned that when I show up around the country that it works. That you end up with people who, I answer questions, I went to 10 or 15 cities with Sleepwalk With Me. And when you talk to people about your movie, they can kind of see how much you care about it.”

Craig: Right.

Mike: Because I really do care about these things I make. And I try not to put out garbage. And I try desperately not to. And so I said to them, I was like I want to do that bigger. I want to do 30 cities. And I want to really strategize with you guys. And they were game for that.

And we’re like in the middle of it right now. I mean, it is a doozy.

Craig: This one is bigger than Sleep was, right?

Mike: It is. And it has the potential to be bigger. I think like what’s weird about it is in some ways it’s filling a need for a type of film that studios aren’t quite making, like we were saying, which is movies like The Big Chill, and like Hannah and Her Sisters, and Beautiful Girls, even, Almost Famous. These like mid-range budget films that actually are–

Craig: But you’re movie isn’t even in that what they would call mid-range budget, in other words like studios will say we’re trying to not make the $35 million adult drama.

Mike: No, I know.

Craig: This doesn’t cost $35 million.

Mike: No, no, no. It’s a fraction of that.

Craig: But the point is that–

Mike: But that’s the niche, I think, we could fill.

Craig: Yeah. I think it does. I think there is this desire to see adults navigating life. This group of characters that you put together is kind of remarkable. I think they work together beautifully. I believed them all as improvisational comics. I mean, they all are.

Mike: Yeah. Yeah. They’re all comedians and comedic actors. But I had them come to town two or three weeks early, which was, you know, this is an indie film, so you have to sort of beg people like on the phone. “Hey, it’s all about us being friends, so can you come to town and we’ll rehearse things. And I can’t pay you. It’ll be fun.”

Craig: Right. Don’t tell SAG.

Mike: Yeah. And so they came and we did these improv workshops with Liz Allen, who is sort of an improv guru and friend. And we did improv shows. UCB and the Magnet. We actually did shows–

Craig: I didn’t know that. That’s amazing. As a troupe?

Mike: Yeah, to the point where like–

Craig: How did it go? Just out of curiosity.

Mike: Pretty good.

Craig: Really?

Mike: Yeah, the shows were–

Craig: That’s a risky move, Mike. Because you’ve put your cast together. You do a show. And you guys bomb and you’re like, oh boy.

Mike: Well, yeah, it’s ridiculous. I mean, Gillian always makes the joke that we’re doing a photoshoot in New Jersey for photos that are in the movie. And then they were like, okay, next thing in your itinerary is you guys are performing at UCB at 8 o’clock. And she’s like, “We are?” So, yeah, I mean, and I would say to them, like you don’t have to participate a lot if you don’t want. You can. You can stay on the backlines.

But anyway the point is we improvised and, I mean, Gillian got to be so good as an improviser. She denies this, but like she’s incredible. She was recommended by Lena Dunham, who read the script and said you have to get Gillian Jacobs for this part. And I said I’ve watched everything she’s done, and I’ve never seen her play a part like this. She said, “Gillian Jacobs can do anything.” And it proved to be entirely true.

Craig: Amazing.

Mike: Yeah. I feel very lucky. I quote you a lot in interviews and they say, “Wait, Craig who?” And then they say, “How do you spell that?”

Craig: And why?

Mike: And then I spell it. I say it over and over again. And then finally they just say, “Can we just say an anonymous screenwriter?” And I say, sure, doesn’t matter.

Craig: Jew. Can we just say Jew? Some Jew?

Mike: I’m not in this part of the conversation.

Craig: [laughs]

Mike: [laughs] No, but I quote this thing that you’ve said before, which is that TV is a chemistry experiment and film is a biology experiment, which is to say that TV you can work on the next episode, change this, add this ingredient, add this chemical. Next season we’ll try this. Next, you know, whatever.

Movies, you put in this cinematographer, this director, this cast, this gaffer, this makeup artist together, here’s what happens. It works or it doesn’t work. And so when I think about this movie, I just think, oh, I just got lucky.

Craig: Well, yes. But no. I mean, that’s the thing. Chance favors the prepared mind. You did all the right things. There’s no denying that luck happens, right?

Mike: Of course.

Craig: But even then the luck that occurs, I think, is a product of the fact that you are a talented guy that people love. Right? So Lena Dunham isn’t just chatting with other people.

Mike: A niche group of people. Sure.

Craig: But they’re a great niche of people. And I actually think it’s in your nature to be able to lead people to do things they may not otherwise have been comfortable doing. Because you’re so nice, and you’re so humble. I don’t know if it’s fake. It’s the best fake humility in history if it’s fake.

Mike: Thank you. No, I mean, I feel terrible about myself all the time.

Craig: Fantastic. Because it really shines through. And I think that, you know, I’ve always said some people motivate through fear and other people people just want to hug and make feel better. And I want to make you feel – I think everybody is rooting for you. And you somehow managed to be that guy, but also then be a legitimate leader, because you can’t survive directing a movie. Especially, I mean, look, directing low budget movies is hard.

Mike: Yeah.

Craig: I mean, how many pages were you guys doing a day?

Mike: At least five a day.

Craig: Yeesh. It’s tough.

Mike: It’s hard.

Craig: It’s tough. And it’s exhausting. And you’re acting in it. So how do you do that when you are tired and you are worried about the 14 other things that are happening?

Mike: Well, when I was casting the movie, Jorma Taccone, who we were talking about earlier, said you’ve got to play Jack, because it’s the best written part. And I was not being falsely modest. I said I’m not talented enough to play Jack. Like Keegan has a thing. Keegan-Michael Key has a thing that is – you look at him. You’re like, “What’s he going to do?”

Craig: I wouldn’t say that you’re not talented enough. I would say that that part requires the sort of person that Lorne Michaels would go, “You.”

Mike: Absolutely.

Craig: Right. He has that glow.

Mike: He’s one of the great sketch comedians of the last 30 years.

Craig: That’s the other thing. In your mind you’re like, well, he does kind of deserve it, right? In real life he actually does have his own show, so yeah, he probably deserves it.

Mike: Yeah. And so then it was like, well, what part do I play? And in the readings I would do all different male parts. And with Miles, the part I play, it’s like, well, I can do bitter. I can handle bitter.

Craig: Well, you know what’s interesting. As I – when I saw the movie and I thought back to my initial impressions when I read the script, there were two interesting things that happened. One was that the character of Jack became so much more identifiable to me and sympathetic to me, even though he was succeeding and leaving people behind. I cared for him and I felt all of his dilemmas. Your character actually went the other way, because I felt so bad for your character. And it’s your portrayal, your directing and portrayal – on your own of your writing, he comes off as more broken.

Mike: He’s broken.

Craig: He’s broken.

Mike: Miles has had a hard time.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, and that’s your choice. You went for the broken guy. Who also is a little scummy.

Mike: Yeah. He’s a lecherous person.

Craig: Yeah. So that’s what you went for.

Mike: I know.

Craig: You could have picked anyone. Mike Birbiglia.

Mike: Yeah. But I’m lucky that the cast works in the way it works.

Craig: It’s brilliant.

Mike: It’s weird with movies. It’s like the biology/chemistry thing you say. You watch a movie and you just go, like sometimes when I watch Gillian Jacobs’s performance I go, “If she didn’t do that, wouldn’t be a movie.”

Craig: Well, that’s the thing. You know, and that’s where part of it is luck, but you also understood that that was the thing. Because in the end, the great fear of every actor, you know this, is that somebody in a room somewhere is going to make a decision about whether the camera should be on them or not, and which take to use.

So, it’s a credit to you. I mean, ultimately you can’t get more authorial than writing, producing, and directing your own movie, and starring in it.

Mike: I think there’s something to be said for when you do that you run the risk of spreading yourself too thing. And certain elements being not strong. But, the flip side of that, the positive is it pares down the amount of people on the set. So, it’s more likely that everyone is on the same page about what the vision of the film is. Because I think it’s Sidney Lumet who says in his book on directing, “The most important thing is everyone is making the same movie.”

Craig: Exactly.

Mike: And I can’t – if anyone is an aspiring director – I can’t emphasize that enough.

Craig: No one really is there to undermine you. Whereas I think, you know, a lot of directors making movies for studios, someone at some point is going to make them question everything. Which isn’t necessarily great.

Sometimes it’s important, but maybe not at that time.

Mike: Yeah.

Craig: Well, you did a fantastic job. I loved the movie. I think you did a great job.

Mike: Thanks.

Craig: I know that–

Mike: One of the things I want to, just in terms of the directing thing, too, is I’ve been traveling around the country, going to 30 cities with Liz Allen who coached our improv team in the movie. And she does these free improv workshops at these theaters and then I kind of speak about how improv related to my process as a director, and writer, and actor. And the thing that I always say, and I say this to everyone who listens to this, and I’m an avid listener to this show.

Craig: Of course you are.

Mike: So, we’re of the same people, all of us listeners. I would highly recommend people make something. If they’re aspiring, you know, they’re living in Austin, or Iowa City, or Chicago, or anything, and you feel like you have something to say, or a story to tell, we’re in an era where you can shoot something for nothing.

Craig: For nothing. With an HD camera in your hand.

Mike: Yeah. And if you don’t believe me, go on Netflix. You can use my password. And watch Tangerine. And you will just go, “Oh, that can be a movie. Holy cow.”

Craig: We say this all the time. There’s no real way to understand what the job of screenwriting is if you only do half the job. Because half the job is putting some document together. And then the rest of it is seeing it through.

Mike: Yeah.

Craig: I mean, you know the first time you saw what you wrote, then edited and put on screen, you thought, okay, now I have to go back and relearn everything and rethink everything.

Mike: Oh, of course.

Craig: Now I understand what this means. So, you’re 100% right. I don’t know – I mean, look, I think a lot of people do make little shorts. They’ll shoot a scene. But I wouldn’t suggest necessarily to people to go out and start making things so you can become famous and sell those things. Make them as part of your education.

Mike: Yeah.

Craig: You don’t have to show them to anybody. If you make something of your own thing, and you hate it, you’ve learned so much.

Mike: I did that in college. I shot a short film called Waiting to be Great.

Craig: It’s still waiting.

Mike: It’s still waiting. I mean, it was really not done. I mean, in the edit we kind of gave up on it at a certain point. And like we showed it to friends. And it was terrible. And they said, “Nice try.”

Craig: [laughs] These friends sound awful. Well, you are our good friend. We’re very, very proud of you. The movie is getting terrific reviews, although, frankly, you know, I don’t care about that.

Mike: You’re not a reviews guy.

Craig: I just care about my own review. Well, come on, Ira Glass is producing it. It’s like rubbing bacon on something and holding it in front of a dog. Of course they like it. Please. But I like it. And I matter. So, everyone should go see this movie. If it is playing in a city near you, think about going and bringing a friend, because it’s also good to support this kind of cinema, I believe.

Mike: I think it’s like your favorite coffee shop on the corner, your favorite sandwich shop. If you want it to still exist, get your coffee there.

Craig: Right. And best news of all, this movie is entertaining and funny. It is not homework. We’re not asking you to eat a bunch of sprouts on a plate. It’s good. It’s like comfort food.

Mike: The cool thing is people keep tweeting me things like I’ve seen it four times now. Yeah, that’s all I want to hear.

Craig: That’s amazing. So, fantastic. Why don’t we move on to some listener questions, because I want to hear your wisdom about things. I got to start with this question, because the name is so fantastic. [Ayish Taccuh]. I believe I’m pronouncing [Taccuh] correctly. [Ayish Taccuh] writes, “First of all, I’m a big fan of Scriptnotes and I appreciate what you guys are dong. Keep up the great work.”

Mike: Agreed.

Craig: I presume they’re talking to you and me, and not John.

Mike: Yeah, not John. No.

Craig: “So, I am writing a screenplay in which my plot demands to assassinate the President of the United States and the objective is completed. Can you please tell me if it is legal to do that? Or if it is a felony of some sort.”

Mike: Oh my gosh. It depends on how well it’s written.

Craig: Exactly.

Mike: It depends on what font it’s in. Don’t put it in ZDingbats.

Craig: Like clipped together newsprint. Yeah, exactly. You don’t want to scroll it on the back of a wrinkled picture of yourself in blood. You know, we get questions a lot–

Mike: Markers and blood.

Craig: Yeah, that’s probably a bad idea. With bits of your hair taped to it. That’s probably not the way to go. We get legal questions all the time. You know, so neither John nor I are lawyers. Obviously, Mike Birbiglia, admitted to the New York State bar and is a practicing attorney in the area of – what do you work in? Mostly family/divorce stuff?

Mike: Yeah. I do divorce law.

Craig: Divorce law. You are allowed to assassinate a fictional president in a movie.

Mike: In a movie script, yeah.

Craig: Of course. And you know this, Ayish, because it’s happened so many times in movies. But, no, you definitely don’t want to write something that makes people go, “Uh, is this a cry for help?” Just don’t be weird about it.

It’s actually a good question. You want to be careful to not make people think that you’re nuts, or that you’re – anytime that you write something that seems a little scary, it’s a reasonable question for people to say, “Are you also scary? Or is it just your movie?” You know, like was it Andrew Davis who wrote Se7en? Andrew Walker Davis, I believe.

Mike: I don’t know.

Craig: It would have been fair to say, “Is this guy okay?” Or he’s just a really good writer, right?

Mike: But that’s why you’d say don’t hold back. Like I always say I try to write in the morning at 7AM. I go to a coffee shop, before I’m afraid of the world.

Craig: Interesting.

Mike: You know what I mean? I never want to hold myself back from what’s in my subconscious. I like to blurt it out and then edit it later. It’s like the Hemingway quote which is like write drunk, edit sober. And I don’t write drunk, but I write sleepy.

Craig: By the way, I tend to write sleepy on the other side. You know, I let the day go through–

Mike: Late at night. Yeah, I’ve heard that about you. I heard people get emails from you at three, four in the morning.

Craig: Well, you know, it’s business hours somewhere.

Mike: Exactly.

Craig: The hell with them if they don’t like it.

Mike: No, they love it.

Craig: Look how quickly I get angry about everything. All right, next question, this is from John Lambert. John says, this is appropriate to what we were talking, being in your 30s and facing this crossroads. “I’m 34. I’ve made the conscious decision to move to LA and chase my screenwriting dreams. My long term goals, I think, are irrelevant at this point. My short term goal is sufficiently daunting and difficult. My short term goal being getting staffed on a TV show. I guess I’m just looking for some advice from two very trusted sources, whom I respect.” Or in this case, just one.

Mike: One, yeah.

Craig: “By the way, I’ve been speaking to a manager, but I know I shouldn’t expect meetings to be set until I’m an official LA resident.” So, he’s looking for general advice, I guess, being 34. It seems like, okay, maybe I’m starting a little later than the kid out of college. What do you think about that as a general?

Mike: Well, they say, I don’t write for TV, but I have friends who have come out here and written – they say write a spec. I’ve heard that, kind of let your imagination run wild, because no one is going to ever make the spec. But you can kind of show them the extremes that you’re kind of–

Craig: When you spec, you mean like a spec episode of an existing show?

Mike: I’m sorry. Write your own original.

Craig: Yeah, your own original. Exactly.

Mike: Yes. And then kind of like with no respect for budget or talent or whatever. Just sort of like let your imagination run wild, the way that Charlie Kaufman did with Being John Malkovich, I think, was intended as something that he knew would never be made.

Craig: Correct. Right.

Mike: And so he wrote this wild script, and then sure enough it got made.

Craig: Because I think Charlie Kaufman was working on, I want to say Alf. I mean, he was a sitcom writer.

Mike: Yeah. He was staffed on a lot of shows.

Craig: I think that sometimes people get a little too hung up on how their circumstances narrow their possibilities. You know, so John is 34, and I understand he’s a little concerned that maybe he’s not 20. And how do you get to this place. And I always think, well, I guess if everything lines up perfectly for you, the odds are a million to one. So, now maybe the odds are three million to one, or five million to one. What’s the difference? At that point, the odds are bad. Just presume that. Doesn’t matter who you are. Does not matter who you are, the odds are bad.

Absorb that. Now do you still want to go for it? Go for it. But I always say to anyone – I don’t know if John has a family. It doesn’t sound like he does. But if anyone is relying on you, please make sure you have a job, a job of any kind, with health insurance. Because it goes back to our dream discussion.

Dreams are nice and everything, but “follow your dreams” is actually terrible advice. Attempt your dreams while doing other things just in case your dreams don’t work out. I’m a big believer in that. I’m a bets hedger.

Mike: And I would say, this is just hitting me about the TV question, because I feel like I don’t write for TV, but I always think like I’m making independent film, not because it’s going to make me rich, because it won’t, but because it’s what I love. I would always say like if you love TV, go after that.

Craig: Don’t go after it just because you think the jobs are there. I completely agree.

Mike: Because they’re not.

Craig: Well, that’s the thing. You could say like, oh, there’s five extra jobs for the 14 million people that want them. You’re absolutely right. You’re best odds are you doing the thing that you’re best at.

Mike: Yeah. Do what you love and not what you like.

Craig: Right.

Mike: Doing what you like only leads to a lot – you’re in competition with people who love it. And that will lose.

Craig: I will give Brian Koppelman credit. This happens once every four years. Maybe the best two words of advice that I’ve ever heard for people that want to break into show business. “Calculate less.”

Mike: Oh interesting. I like that.

Craig: Because, man, they’re always, and I understand the instinct to try and reason your way to success, and if I do the following and I arrange these things. It just doesn’t work that way.

Mike: Eugene Mirman says this thing, because he gets approached by young comics all the time, and they say what do I do. And he says, “Start doing comedy, keep doing comedy, call me in ten years.”

Craig: I mean, isn’t that it? Right.

Mike: And I think that applies to anything in the artistic realm. It’s like it takes a hard ten years.

Craig: There is no – I know, it’s rough when people are like do you have any words of advice. He’s asking a reasonable question.

Mike: How can I get staffed on a show?

Craig: I’m just looking for some advice. There is kind of none.

Mike: Well, it’s the thing, and I think you guys have said this before. There is no path to becoming a professional screenwriter. And the reason there’s no path is that once someone has paved their own path, that path is done.

Craig: It’s done.

Mike: And so then not only do you have to be a great screenwriter, but you have to invent what your path is that hasn’t been done before.

Craig: That’s right. Which echoes, of course, what your value is to the business anyway, which is some kind of unique voice or expression. We see this when there’s a big explosion of somebody. And it doesn’t happen often, but when it happens, everyone notices. Quentin Tarantino or Diablo Cody.

Mike: Yes. Diablo Cody was a big one.

Craig: Or Lena Dunham for instance.

Mike: Absolutely.

Craig: In their wake are a thousand pretenders who are like, “Oh, that’s how you do it.” No, no, that’s how they did it. The way is shut. When the way is shut, the way is shut.

All right, let’s get to Freddie. Freddie Hernandez has two questions. One, he’s always been curious as to how long it takes either John or I, or you, Mike Birbiglia, to write a feature. “Is there a timeframe I should try to build towards as a writer? I realize that timeline is probably driven by other factors, but I’m curious as to your thoughts in how long a professional screenwriter should take to crank out a draft, and what is acceptable in the industry.”

So, let’s start with that question. You have an answer for that?

Mike: My script of Don’t Think Twice took about a year and a half, which is a long time.

Craig: That’s one draft or multiple drafts?

Mike: Multiple. Probably about 13 to 15 drafts.

Craig: Right.

Mike: The Coen brothers, god love them, three months. I mean, it’s baffling to me.

Craig: They’re kind of amazing that way.

Mike: The degree to which they’re prolific, and Woody Allen the same way. Three months or whatever. I don’t understand it. I imagine you write scripts fast, because when you would give me notes on my script it was like your brain was like a fountain of ideas and solutions. And that was so sort of like flowing that I was astonished by it. And I thought that’s because you’ve been doing this for 20 years. Your brain is somehow like – how long does it take you?

Craig: Well, you know, we have to draw a distinction between a draft and coming up with a story and the final script. You know, Scott Frank says, “Anything good should take a year, minimum.”

Mike: I generally feel about the same way.

Craig: I agree. And the truth is it may take the Coen brothers three months, but I don’t believe that they just lock it down and then they’re not changing a word after three months. Plus, there’s two of them. And they’re brothers. Granted, they’re also geniuses. So, maybe their genius thing.

But for me, I think—

Mike: I wish that they had a podcast.

Craig: That would be amazing.

Mike: Then I could understand the secrets of them. But not to disrespect what you and John are doing.

Craig: No, no, of course.

Mike: But if the Coen brothers had Coen-Notes, I would subscribe to that so fast. And I would unsubscribe to this.

Craig: So would I.

Mike: Oh my god.

Craig: I would mostly come on this to just talk about what they said. God, would John get upset. Oh my god, would he get upset.

Mike: We’d start a podcast called Talking Coen-Notes.

Craig: That’s right. Post Coen.

Mike: It would be us and Chris Hardwick.

Craig: Oh, is he a big Coen–?

Mike: No, he does Talking Dead after Walking Dead.

Craig: This is how little I know about podcasts. We just had our own one, like John did as a joke, a quasi-joke, Matt Selman–

Mike: Talking Scriptnotes?

Craig: Matt Selman, who is the head writer at Simpsons, did a Talking Scriptnotes episode.

Mike: Oh, that’s awesome!

Craig: With Aline McKenna and Rawson Thurber.

Mike: Is that on the premium?

Craig: Yeah.

Mike: Oh my gosh. I got to get that.

Craig: Yeah. I haven’t listened to it.

Mike: Wow.

Craig: Because I don’t listen to podcasts. But we’ll have to get to that.

Mike: By the way, Scriptnotes, I don’t know if this is a first, you’re thanked in the credits of the movie, Don’t Think Twice.

Craig: What? The podcast?

Mike: Yep.

Craig: Awesome.

Mike: Scriptnotes podcast.

Craig: Wow. Oh, that’s fantastic. John’s going to flip.

Mike: And you and John, separately.

Craig: Nice, but did I get a slightly larger–?

Mike: Yeah. It’s a huge font.

Craig: Like I get my own card. Like the first time in history someone got their own special card at the end–

Mike: Single card.

Craig: In a picture. [laughs]

Mike: And your Facebook status. Married.

Craig: It’s so great. Thank you for that. Freddie, I think, I could tell you how long it takes me. It takes me usually about four weeks to really break out a story, and about eight weeks to get to the end of first draft. So now you’re talking about three months. But then another six months of revisions and thinking and revise, and revise, and revise. If it’s going to be done properly. I don’t often get that luxury.

A lot of times I’m told, “We need this to be fixed. We need it within—“

Mike: Fast.

Craig: Yeah. Like there’s an actor who will say yes or no to this, so your job is to get an actor to say yes. At that point, my job actually isn’t screenwriting, it’s this other thing that I can’t really quite describe. But for things that I’m doing that are original to me, I’m looking at about a year.

So, don’t beat yourself up, buddy. Don’t worry. There are writers who will tell you that they work super, super fast. There are writers who will tell you they work super, super slow. If there’s any trend I can identify with the writers that I think are really good at what they do, they’re a bit slower. They actually seem to be taking their time.

Mike: And I think, again, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite I think is the key. I always try to think of get a pass done. I think John says this on the podcast that he’ll go away and break the back on the script, I think is what he says. And then revise from there.

I mean, when I was in screenwriting class in college, my professor brought the American Beauty screenplay in for us to read. And he said, “Note that it says Draft 13 on the front.”

Craig: Right. Exactly.

Mike: And we all were like, “Right, for this movie.” And you don’t realize until you’re in this field that, no, it’s 13 drafts, 14, maybe 20.

Craig: Right. And some of those are smaller revisions. Some of them are larger. But it will never stop, really. You stop writing the movie when you lock picture, basically. That’s the end of it.

All right. We have time for one more question. Let’s go for, I’ll skip his second question, because he only gets one. Here’s an interesting one. It sort of ties into Ayish’s question about assassinating the president. Chris Christ, that can’t – I mean…

Mike: Stage name.

Craig: Yeah. Chris Christ writes, “Huge fan of the show. Been listening for nearly four years now.” I wish that were the question, but there’s more. “My question is, is there such a thing as too violet a script? I have a scene where a main character is brutally murdered by the villain, and while the brutality aligns with the villain’s character, I worry that it may be off-putting to future readers. However, I then think about people’s heads exploding on Game of Thrones, or people being eaten alive on The Walking Dead. Where is the borderline between shocking yet effective violence and gratuitous violence?”

Mike: This is so subjective. I don’t enjoy gratuitous violence in film. But, yet, I love Quentin Tarantino films.

Craig: Well, there you go. So, gratuitous is the word we give to violence we don’t like.

Mike: Yes.

Craig: And effective and impactful is the words we give to violence we do like. And it is – violence to me is like nudity. In and of itself, there’s an inherent power to it. And so you have to employ it with skill, otherwise you’re just being pornographic, or you’re just being gross. And it’s amazing how the slightest differences in tone can turn something from beautiful or evocative into porny or disgusting.

Mike: Yeah.

Craig: So, the answer is write it well. All right, I think it’s time for our One Cool Thing. So, my One Cool Thing this week is an app called FING. F-I-N-G. It’s free. It’s a wireless network scanning app. It shows every device currently accessing your wireless network. So, you got a Wi-Fi thing at home and you’ve got like 4,000 little bitsy-bobs in your house that are all on your Wi-Fi network, but something is not working or something is slowing down, this thing shows you every single device that’s currently connected.

Mike: Oh yes.

Craig: And it also shows you who manufactures the device and whether or not they’re connected through the Internet. And you can do a ping or trace route. If you are the IT expert in your home – are you? I’m going to say not a chance.

Mike: Not really.

Craig: The baby, right? It’s the baby?

Mike: The baby, Una.

Craig: Una is like–

Mike: Una Birbiglia. 14 months old. Tech expert now.

Craig: By the way, greatest name. Because her name is One Birbiglia in Italian.

Mike: Oh, my wife is going to love that.

Craig: That’s amazing. Una Birbiglia. Always wondering if she’s getting good ping on a particular device. So, FING. And it’s free. So an easy one to download if you are the IT expert in the house.

Mike: I used your One Cool Thing from many, many episodes ago, the password protector thing. One Password.

Craig: How great is that?

Mike: Phenomenal.

Craig: Isn’t that amazing?

Mike: Yeah. That’s phenomenal. And also, by the way, I always tell people about this podcast, and any aspiring screenwriter, and if people are listening for the first time because they wanted to hear me, and then unfortunately they have to listen to Craig, just know that all of the episodes – this podcast, there’s hundreds of episodes and they’re all brilliant.

And I think people always ask me what episodes should they crack into, and I always say the one with the psychiatrist.

Craig: Episode 99.

Mike: That one is phenomenal.

Craig: Yeah.

Mike: And then there’s one about TV versus film, what’s the difference.

Craig: Oh yeah. I don’t know the number of that one off hand.

Mike: That one was really interesting. Isn’t there an episode about what is the best episode? I think there is.

Craig: We’re not that self-serving.

Mike: Oh, yeah, okay. It’s not that?

Craig: You can do that on After-Notes, or whatever they call it.

Mike: Yeah, yeah, Talking Notes.

Craig: [laughs] Talking Notes. We have a name for it. I can’t remember. He came up with a name for it.

Mike: But listen to that doctor one. The psychiatrist one. 99.

Craig: That’s a great one. He’s a psychologist, actually. Dennis Palumbo was, I’m not in therapy currently, but for many years he was my weekly therapist. And he’s just awesome.

Mike: He’s a writer-therapist.

Craig: I mean, how amazing is that? He has an Oscar nomination. And he’s a therapist.

Mike: It’s unbelievable.

Craig: He’s terrific. And I think about what he says all the time.

Mike: So my One Cool Thing would be indie film. Support your local indie film cinema, wherever you are, so that more movies like ours, and Captain Fantastic, and Tickled, to name a few, get made.

Craig: And when you saw local independent cinema, are you talking about the movies – the places. Like the actual physical buildings that run these movies need people to show up.

Mike: They do. So your Landmark Cinema. The Main Art in Detroit. Or the Music Box in Chicago. The Landmark New Art in Los Angeles. Just look at what they’re playing, because chances are they care about what they’re playing. And they’re not just looking to play the movie that’s going to make them the most money.

Craig: No question.

Mike: If they wanted to make money, they’d play Batman v. Superman on every screen.

Craig: Well, they can’t. Because they don’t get Batman v. Superman. But that’s the point is that they will disappear if people–

Mike: If you don’t go.

Craig: If people say, “Well, oh, yeah, I loved Mike Birbiglia’s last movie. I’d love to see this one. I’ll Netflix it. I’ll iTunes it.” Well, okay, then these places will go and you won’t get to actually see them on – and especially a comedy like yours. I mean, it’s dramatic, and it’s sad, and it’s sweet, but it’s also really funny. There’s nothing like seeing it in a big room.

Mike: With strangers. To laugh and cry with strangers and to feel like, oh, I’m not the only person who feels like that.

Craig: Right. Exactly.

Mike: And BAM, in Brooklyn, we’re playing at. That’s a great cinema.

Craig: I’m going to say before we hit our little conclusion here that you did have your stand up show running in New York called Thank God for Jokes. Is that going to be touring?

Mike: I’m going to do probably 15 cities that we haven’t announced in the fall. And then we’ll film it and release it as a comedy special. But you can find out all that if you follow me. I’m @birbigs on Twitter. Or like me, Birbig Fans, on Facebook, which I try to go minimal political tweets.

Craig: Oh, yeah, me too. [laughs]

Mike: But I sometimes am so enraged. But, trust me, I hold back.

Craig: These days, I think, I don’t know, the gloves are off.

Mike: Follow Craig for all Ted Cruz – all tweets about a candidate who didn’t get the Republican nomination.

Craig: It’s so great. Feels so good, man. Are you going to be, I assume, Thank God for Jokes will be touring here in Los Angeles?

Mike: I hope so. Yeah.

Craig: Because I’d like to…

Mike: Like to check that out?

Craig: Yeah. Maybe come back stage.

Mike: Oh. I don’t think we’re available that night.

Craig: Oh, okay.

Mike: I’m not sure what the night is. But–

Craig: Who’s the “we,” anyway?

Mike: Well, it’s an organization of people. There’s a lot of–

Craig: I understand your team.

Mike: It’s my team.

Craig: Your team is not available.

Mike: There’s just not enough room backstage.

Craig: I understand. At the Pantages.

Mike: [laughs] But I appreciate your interest. But, no, of course I’ll invite you to that when it comes to Los Angeles. And I bow to you and John, whose seat I’m filling. It’s an honor to be sitting in your seat this week, John. I appreciate, and I think a lot of us appreciate what you guys do, making this podcast, for free.

Craig: For free. Always for free. That’s the most important thing. Except that I feel like John is making a lot of money. As always, meaning for a few days now, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from someone that Godwin is going to select, so it is a surprise to me, but we’ll be sure to credit him or her next week.

If you have an outro for us that you would like us to try, send it in to That’s also a place where you can send longer questions, of the type you heard today. For shorter questions, on Twitter I am @clmazin. John is @johnaugust.

You can find us on iTunes at Scriptnotes. Just search for Scriptnotes. And while you’re there, leave us a comment, because John always says to do that. And he loves comments. He loves them. You know, a lot of times he says, “You know what we should do? We should read some of the nice comments.” And I always think, oh, I want to read the terrible ones. I’m only interested in the terrible ones.

Mike: You want people to go after you.

Craig: And, you know, luckily my life has brought me a lot of that, so there’s never been a lack of abundance of criticism for me.

Mike: Yeah, you got to hit the Internet more.

Craig: Unfortunately, in this case, the comments are all incredibly lovely.

Mike: Oh, that’s nice.

Craig: And it’s weird for me. Mike, thank you so much for being here. And for everybody listening at home, please, if it is in your city, check out Don’t Think Twice in theaters. I think it’s got a 100% on the critical slurry site where they take all of the irrelevant opinions and blend them into a thin paste of nonsense.

Mike: [laughs]

Craig: And fear not, John will be back next week. And we will see you then. Bye-bye.


You can download the episode here.

Don’t Think Twice

Tue, 08/02/2016 - 08:03

Craig and guest host Mike Birbiglia discuss Mike’s new film, Don’t Think Twice, a comedy about life as an improv performer. The two explore the current state of independent film and the challenges facing aspiring filmmakers.

Craig and Mike also answer listener questions, including one on assassinating a fictional president.


You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 260: Anthrax, Amnesia and Atomic Veterans — Transcript

Mon, 08/01/2016 - 15:21

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 260 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, Craig and I are going to implore all screenwriters to think twice before using the phrase “begs the question.” We will also be doing one of our favorite features, How Would This Be a Movie? This week we’ll be looking at Anthrax, Amnesia, and Atomic Veterans.

Craig: Now, that in and of itself would be a fantastic single movie.

John: One hundred percent. I think you need some, like there’s a superhero aspect. There’s a courtroom trial aspect. Atomic Veteran just feels like a lesser grade Marvel hero.

Craig: Yeah, like, we can’t get Captain America, but we did find Atomic Veteran.

John: Completely. He doesn’t remember that he is Atomic Veteran because of the anthrax attack. But it will all be sensible by the third act.

Craig: Yeah. Atomic Veteran’s principal super power: reminiscence.

John: Oh, very – fond reminiscence but also a little heartbreak.

Craig: Yeah. Yeah.

John: The things he had to do. The flash of light that took away his true love.

Craig: Oh, wow. This is actually getting to be a really good movie.

John: It’s going to be a good movie. So, let’s save that for the key points, though. Because last week was a huge bombshell episode.

Craig: I mean, everything happened. We are the show where nothing happens for 258 episodes, and then at 259 the whole thing goes up in flames.

John: So, to recap, I am moving to Paris. Stuart is leaving us. We have a brand new producer, Godwin Jabangwe. Also, I sold a book.

Craig: Yeah!

John: And so on the episode last week I talked about it in a vague sense because the announcement hadn’t gone out, but now it is out. So, the books title is Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire. Arlo Finch is the lead character of it. It is middle grade fiction. It is sort of the kids’ fantasy fiction. The same kind of book as a Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. There will be three of them at least. And it’s Macmillan that bought it, so it’s a division of Macmillan. And I’m so excited. I am writing them now.

So, my year in Paris will be spent writing kids’ books that are not set in Paris.

Craig: Arlo Finch is so instantly recognizable as a YA hero name. And it’s great.

John: Thank you.

Craig: I kind of secretly want there to be a YA series where the hero is Jim Cummings, or Tasha O’Brien. Just something that’s so – it’s not even mundane. It’s in the weird uncanny valley between Jim Smith and Arlo Finch. You know, just like–

John: I see what you’re saying.

Craig: It’s so average, it’s nothing.

John: Like Tasha O’Brien is an interesting case, because Tasha could go somewhere and O’Brien could go somewhere, but Tasha O’Brien feels just like weird. And it doesn’t have–

Craig: Like a mistake.

John: Like a mistake. You’ve got that weird sort of Shwa at the end of Tasha O’Brien.

Craig: It’s terrible. It’s the worst thing. And I just thought of it. I have to give myself a pat on the back, because, you know, the things we ask our brains to do. I said, Brain, fetch me a name that is weirdly off.

John: Yep. So, I’m very excited to be writing it. At some point I’ll go into sort of more of the details on how I wrote it and how I sold it, but this was my NaNoWriMo project. I wrote a bunch of it back in November. I didn’t write all of it back in November. What you actually sell when you sell a book is often, in this case, the first bunch of chapters and then a proposal for the rest of it. And so that is what the editors read and that is what they bought. And it’s been exciting to go back and write the whole book.

Craig: Now, I see that it’s coming out through Roaring Brook Press. And Roaring Brook is part of Macmillan. So, give us a sense of the other kinds of books that we’ve seen from Roaring Brook so we know what your family is of books.

John: From that specific in-print, I cannot point to any titles that you would have recognized. The other books that my editor, Connie Hsu has worked on, they’re really good sellers and really well done books in that genre, but they’re not like big blockbuster names.

Craig: You will make Roaring Book Press – I mean, you will be the – Roaring Brook will be the house John August built.

John: It could be. So, it is good to understand, we always think in terms of studios, and so we have Paramount and we have Warner Bros, but within each of those big places you have the individual labels. Like Sony has TriStar, they have Columbia, they have Studio 8, and Sony Pictures Animation. There’s different houses within that. And that’s sort of is what it’s like with Roaring Brook Press. They are one of the labels within the bigger company, Macmillan.

So, while I’m so happy to be writing for Connie and for this division, bigger people at Macmillan had to make the call whether to say yes or no to the book, and so I’m happy that they did.

Craig: Did it go all the way to Macmillan?

John: It goes to Mr. Macmillan himself. He has a monocle. And so you have to speak very quietly and slowly, but then he says yes or no and it’s all good.

Craig: I will never, never release my child-like view of the world. I just presume, oh, the company is Macmillan, well, so when can I speak to Macmillan?

John: Exactly. But Macmillan is actually headquartered in the Flatiron Building. So, I’ve not actually visited their offices yet, but I’m excited to visit their offices because it’s that weird narrow building in New York City as you head downtown. And you always see that in movies and that’s actually where they will be dissecting every comma in my book.

Craig: I believe, just off the top of my head, I think the Flatiron building is right near a place called Eataly.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Eataly.

John: I’ve heard many legends of Eataly. I’ve never been there, but that is the famed sort of Italian market with a zillion restaurants and a place where everyone enjoys their Italian food.

Craig: Yeah. It’s really cool. I like it.

John: Cool. There’s other follow up. So, last week not only did we have the season finale episode, we also had Matt Selman , Aline Brosh McKenna, and Rawson Marshall Thurber discussing the season finale episode in a bonus episode we called Duly Noted. That was just the three of them. I wasn’t there while they were recording it. I hit record and I left the room. And so I want to thank them for doing that. It was just a weird lark experiment.

Craig, what did you think of it?

Craig: [laughs] I think you know the answer to that. I don’t listen to podcasts, John. I have no idea what they said whatsoever. I mean, I love all three of them. At some point I will listen to it. Was it good?

John: It was good. It was – they’re three very smart people. So, it was weird and fascinating to hear them talk about me and us without us being there. And so that was great. They’re all three big fans of the show. Matt Selman has never been on the show, but has listened to almost every episode, so it was great to have him as an outside voice dissecting sort of what we do. So, it was fun.

It was just sort of a lark. And I don’t know that there will be more Duly Noted, but let us know what you thought of that and if you’d like to hear more of those in the future. It’s not going to be a weekly thing. This isn’t going to be our weekly recap episode.

Craig: No. We can’t support that sort of thing. We’re just not that interesting.

John: No. I will say that if listeners find a given episode so noteworthy that they actually want to record their episode, I wouldn’t stand in their way. So, if you do want to record a response episode and you can do a good job of it, send us a link and I would consider putting it in the feed as a Duly Noted episode. You could be any random people who have the ability to have a good conversation about the show. I’d consider that. No guarantees, but maybe.

Craig: Wow. That’s very generous of you.

John: Well, I’m not really promising anything other than I might listen to it.

Craig: So, I take it back. That was just empty generosity.

John: [laughs] Last week, you had a One Cool Thing, and we had a listener who wrote in with a response to your One Cool Thing.

Craig: Yeah. So, I was talking about the idea that we live in a simulation, which I pretty much agree with. And then I had read that the existence of Pi and irrational numbers like Pi that never stop, the digits just keep coming and coming, that they prove possibly that we’re not in a simulation because there’s no end, and a simulation theoretically should be finite.

And about 14,000 dorks on Twitter patiently explained to me that that was not true. Alit decided to write in. So, we’ll give Alit the floor. Alit says, “PI being theoretically infinite,” well, hold on. Well, I guess that’s fair, because we never got to the end. “Pi being theoretically infinite doesn’t preclude a finite simulation including Pi as part of its construct. This is because Pi is defined as a ratio between a circle circumference and it diameter. Any representation of Pi in real rational form, that is 3.14, is necessarily an approximation, both in a simulated and non-simulated universe.

“So any simulation dealing with Pi would only need to compute Pi out as far as practically necessary for the simulation. Therefore, Pi exists, therefore we’re not in simulation argument doesn’t hold.” And a bunch of people said similar things. Including, oh, you know, if they’re smart enough to create a virtual reality as complicated as the one we appear to be in right now, they could probably toss on a few hundred trillion digits of Pi. I think we’ve managed to get up to a trillion or something like that.

John: Certainly. So, Craig, the important question is are you convinced by this line of reasoning?

Craig: Yeah. It seems convincing. I think I’m going to have to stand down on the whole Pi thing and revert back to my initial perspective which was that none of this is real. And especially not you.

John: And especially not the 10,000 Twitter people who tweeted you the answer that Pi was not proof, because they weren’t real either.

Craig: No. No. As far as I can tell, I’m the only one.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But, I got to say, I’m really enjoying the show so far. I mean, the show of reality is just terrific.

John: It’s really well done.

Last week we also talked about Overboard and one of our listeners had done a recut sort of as a request that took the Goldie Hawn comedy and made it a thriller. We have a different trailer that Latif Ullah also wrote in with, which also does similarly a good job of using moments from that movie to set it up as a thriller. So, we’ll put a link to his version, or her version. I don’t know if Latif is a male or female name, in the show notes.

Craig: Also in follow up, a little something about Phil Lord, who recently moved off to England with his writing and directing partner, Chris Miller. I went to Chris’s house for a little goodbye soiree and ran into Phil. And he told me that he listens to us in the shower. So, when Phil, and this is now the person that’s going to be imbuing life to the new Han Solo, when Phil is nude he listens to us. But more importantly, John, I wanted you to know that he told me that he uses Highland.

So, Highland theoretically now will be used to write the new Han Solo standalone movie.

John: That is pretty much amazing. So, Phil Lord, who I should also say has one of those names that is kind of broken and wrong in a Craig’s bad YA novel character way. Like Phil Lord, it’s like it’s two words, but it sort of comes out as one word. Phil and Chris are fantastic. And Phil had actually emailed me a couple weeks ago because there’s something they were trying to do in Highland and he couldn’t figure out how to do it. It was a Courier Prime problem, and I talked him through how to do it.

But I was so excited that he was using Highland to write this new version of Han Solo that he was working on. So, hooray.

Craig: Hooray.

John: Let’s get to questions. We have a question from Zack in the UK. And rather than us reading it aloud, I asked if Zack would actually record himself asking the question so we could hear his question in his own words. So let’s listen to Zack.

Zack: Hi John and Craig. Zack from London here. I wondered if you might be able to help solve a script problem that’s been driving us all nuts. We have a script in which a characters’ consciousness are transferred between bodies. When describing the character, it’s important to know which consciousness we are looking at, as well as which body. Both consciousness and bodies recur during the script, so we can’t just discard them after each switch.

So my question is, how would you suggest notating the script to make this clear to the reader. The danger is that bad notation turns a script into one big hot unreadable mess. Is there an elegant solution?

John: Craig, what’s your thought? Is there an elegant solution for dealing with a situation where the person speaking is not the person we see onscreen?

Craig: I think there is. I dealt with something like this when I writing a script called Cowboy Ninja Viking, which I guess still might get made. Chris Pratt has signed on to do it, so that’s exciting. And the idea of that property is that there’s a guy who in his mind has I guess what you’d call split personality, and so imagines himself as a cowboy, a ninja, and a Viking. And in these scenes, sometimes we would see those characters when we were in his perspective, but then from other people’s perspective, we would just see him.

And at times, he alone would be acting as a cowboy, or a ninja, or a Viking. So, what I did in those situations was the character’s name is Duncan, so I would have Duncan, and then I would have Ninja, and then I would have Duncan as Ninja.

So, in this case, I would probably do something similar. Like if it were you and me and were switching minds, I would say John, Craig, Craig inside John, John inside Craig. Something like that.

John: We have one listener in particular who is so hot and bothered hearing John inside Craig and Craig inside John.

Craig: It’s Sexy Craig, right?

John: That is.

Craig: Inside.

John: Just awful. So, what you’re describing, Craig, is that in the character cue, so like the little bit that goes above dialogue, you are saying Duncan as Cowboy. That’s the name of the character who is giving that dialogue, correct?

Craig: Yes. Exactly. So I changed the character names, and this way – because as you’re reading through a script, as much as possible you want to keep the flow. The one thing we know that always breaks up dialogue is a character name. There’s no option to not have it there. So, that seems like good real estate to repurpose to kind of help get this across. It should do the trick.

John: It should absolutely do the trick. And so my advice is the same advice. There are times where I’ve had to do character name/somebody else. Usually that means you’re sort of hearing both people talking at the same time. Or, character name and then in parenthesis after it, like the form of the character that we’re actually experiencing. But anything like that to indicate what’s going on is helpful.

I will say that in general any kind of body switching movie, it can be very tough both on the page and in the movie to remind the audience of who they’re actually seeing. The Change-Up was a movie starring Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds, both friends of ours, and I had a hard time over the course of that movie really remembering who it was that I was watching and following. And sort of what I was supposed to be paying attention to and sort of who was doing the action.

I think it’s actually harder when the two people are kind of similar.

Craig: Little bit of a problem with that movie, wasn’t it?

John: It was sort of a problem with that movie. It’s much more obvious when you’re in a Freaky Friday situation. It’s like, oh, she’s being teenager and she’s being a mom. When it’s a huge difference between those two things, then it’s much more clear. Or, in Ghost when you have Whoopi Goldberg possessed, then you can sort of see what’s happening there. It’s tough when you have people who are very similar to the other form of themselves.

Craig: Yeah, for sure. In something like this, also, I think Zack you would be well advised to put a little paragraph in when this starts. And when it starts put a little paragraph, put it in italics, you can put it in parenthesis so everybody gets that it’s a comment. And just say when you see XXX or XXX, this is what it means, so people know.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Everybody gets the drill here. Clarity is hugely important. And it’s going to ruin everything if people are confused. So, that little note and then changing the character names so we understand, it’s Craig inside John, yeah.

John: That’ll do it.

All right, let’s get to our bit of umbrage for the episode. And this is a topic that I think most recently came up on Twitter. We had a little spat back and forth on Twitter. Not between us. Like we were in agreement, but someone else was disagreeing with us.

So, I want to dig into this issue of Begging the Question. And we’ve actually used this on the show. I searched the transcripts and back in Episode 188, we were doing follow up on the Tess Gerritsen Gravity lawsuit and you said–

Craig: Begging the question means building an argument around something that needs to be figured out by the argument. It’s essentially saying people are definitely hungry because they’re hungry. This guy – and this is the person we’re referring to – is basically saying I’m baffled by your continued defense of Warner Bros and Cuarón because they’re wrong.

John: Exactly. And, Craig, is that begging the question?

Craig: It’s essentially begging the question. Yes.

John: So talk us through what that term originally meant.

Craig: Originally, begging the question was a – it came up all the time in discussion of logic and philosophy. And the idea of begging the question was to take something that you were trying to prove and incorporate it into the basis of the argument to prove that thing.

And so you would end up saying, well, I believe B because the following is true – A, B, and C. It doesn’t work that way. And when you boil it down, really what begging the question refers to is a tautology. In its simplest form, the way it comes up is you can’t teach those people because those people don’t learn.

John: Exactly. So, some examples of begging the question would be opium induces sleep because it has a soporific quality. Well, induces sleep and soporific mean the same thing, so you’re basically arguing A equals A.

Craig: Correct.

John: Let’s plow through some more examples just so it really lands. Strawberries are delicious because they taste good.

Craig: Yeah. [laughs] And you know it’s funny, when you say a proper tautological argument, one that begs the question like this, it sounds so ridiculous, but you have an example here that I think we actually hear all the time in slightly tweaked versions. If marijuana weren’t illegal, it wouldn’t be prohibited by law. Now, I hear a version of this argument these days a lot surrounding police shootings.

John: Exactly.

Craig: If they weren’t doing something wrong, they wouldn’t have been shot. Meaning you deserve to be shot because you were shot. Doesn’t work that. That’s begging the question.

John: You hear that with immigration as well. Like, well they’re breaking the law because they’re here illegally. There’s implicit like, well, that’s breaking the law because it’s illegal. Like, you’re not actually getting to what’s really the cause here.

Craig: Right. And so you end up drawing conclusions that are faulty because your entire argument is based on the thing that you’re attempting to prove.

Now, we are among the very few people that use it this way, which is the proper way. The vast majority of people say “that begs the question” to mean that invites the question.

John: Exactly. And so to the degree to which even in dictionaries now, sometimes they won’t even distinguish that it’s not the original usage of the phrase. The original usage of the phrase comes back form Aristotle days. And so it meant this kind of circular reasoning. And lawyers would use it. And rhetoricians would use it to describe this exact phenomenon. And my hunch, and I have no evidence for this being the actual case, is I think screenwriters and television writers are partially to blame for sort of how this phrase has drifted into modern usage.

My suspicion is that people would see courtroom dramas and they would see the defense lawyer stand up and say, “He’s the begging the question.” And really no one kind of means what that means, but they would hear that phrase begging the question. Like that’s an important thing to say.

Craig: Right.

John: And because they hear that important to say, they try to use it in their own speech. And they would use it in a way that really means to suggest the question, invite the question, elicits the question. Which is a very useful thing to say. So, I don’t want to be negative on the construct as like that’s a useful thing to have. I think it’s very, very useful. But, by using begs the question to mean invites the question, we’re sort of stepping over the original usage of the word.

Craig: It’s so funny that you bring up that courtroom thing. It’s absolutely true. And if you stop and think about it, that really should have been the place where people stopped and said clearly this doesn’t mean invites the question, because somebody would say, “Objection your honor. Begging the question.” And the judge would say, “Sustained.”

Well, if it meant invite the question wouldn’t everybody go, “True, go ahead and ask the question.” It’s just a totally different thing. This is one of those things where the war is not only unwinnable, it has been lost for years. You and I are like those Japanese soldiers they would keep finding on islands in the ‘50s who hadn’t heard the news we’ve lost. But I will still fight. I will fight on for the truth of begging the question.

Although I see that you’ve indicated a very good substitute for it which would definitely avoid you pedantically explaining to somebody what begging the question is, and that is to say, “Oh, you’re using circular reasoning.”

John: Yeah. And so maybe we could put this all to bed by saying when you’re trying to use the logical argument for it, maybe say circular reasoning so people know that that’s what you mean. Because I think people kind of figure circular reasoning, it makes a little bit more sense in terms of what logically the fallacy that’s happening here.

But if you’re using the phrase “which begs the question,” I would just ask you to please stop and think could I say which invites the question, or which raises the question. Some examples here. I have 40,000 Twitter followers, which invite the question, why am I not verified? Or which raises the question, why am I not verified. But to say which begs the question, well, that’s kind of ambiguous. And who are you begging? It’s a strange thing. You’re trying to use this smart-sounding phrase that isn’t actually the correct phrase.

Craig: I mean, you can see how this happened. I mean, someone goes, well, the idea is that it’s so obvious that it’s begging to be asked, right? But, yeah. Which raises prompts, invites, all that would be great. We’re losing this fight. Even right now, John, I feel the blood draining from me and the world grows dim.

John: The only reason why I think it’s worthwhile raising this thing, because I’m not even fighting this fight anymore, I’m just raising this because our listener base are the people who are writing movies and television.

Craig: Good point.

John: And I think as the people writing movies and television, let’s just be mindful of what words we’re picking and what words we’re putting in character’s mouths. And if there’s an opportunity to not use the sort of twisted version of begs the question, let’s do that. If there’s an opportunity to say circular reasoning rather than begs the question for this other thing, maybe we should do that.

And let’s also just be mindful of are we trying to use phrases we don’t really understand and putting them in the mouths of big Hollywood actors who are going to say them in blockbuster movies and therefore perhaps shift the usage of language or sort of break a phrase in language when we didn’t need to?

Craig: You know what? You’re right. You’re right. Fight on.

John: We will fight on. It’s our last dying battle for begs the question. So we just ask you to look at your drafts and look at any usage of begs the question. Look at the usage. Just do a find/replace for “which begs the question.” Because that’s almost the only construct you’re going to see this in. And anytime you see that, just consider using a different word rather than begs.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Let’s get on to the subject of the day, How Would This Be a Movie? And so on Twitter this morning I asked people to send in suggestions for this segment and we have the best listeners in the world, so a bunch of people sent in a bunch of great suggestions. I picked two of them and then one of them was a thing I just – was a deep Wiki hole I fell into myself.

But the first thing that someone suggested was The Day that Went Missing. It’s a New York Times Story by Trip Gabriel. And this was suggested by Elise McKimmie, who is a friend, and she’s also the person who runs the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. So she’s so smart and she wrote in with a suggestion.

So in this story, Trip Gabriel, who is a reporter for the New York Times, he’s discussing June 17, 2015. He went sailing and he does not remember this day whatsoever, because in fact all he does know about this day was waking up in a CAT scan machine and reading a Post-it note saying you’ve had an incident, you have a form of amnesia called Transient Global Amnesia. You’re going to be okay. You didn’t have a stroke. It’s going to be fine eventually.

Craig, what did you make of this story?

Craig: Well, this story falls under the general category of Oliver Sacks. And the great Oliver Sacks, sadly the great late Oliver Sacks, was a neurologist who wrote a book called The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. And it was a collection of stories based on his work and his research into others. People who were suffering from neurological conditions that changed the nature of the way they interacted with the world. And one of Oliver Sacks’ stories became the basis for the movie Awakenings, which was a wonderful movie. But it’s a genre to me. I think of this as the Oliver Sacks genre of what to do with someone whose mind is now functioning a way that changes their inherent way of dealing with the world around them.

We had the romantic comedy version of this is 50 First Dates. So we know about that.

John: The thriller version of this is Memento. In Memento he can’t form any memories, but this is sort of more limited version of Memento. But even in the story, Gabriel is discussing Memento with his doctors. He says like, “Oh, is this like the movie Memento?” And then a few seconds later, “Is this like the movie Memento?”

Craig: Yeah.

John: Finding Dory is another extreme example of a character who has no recollection and no ability to sort of form those long term memories.

Craig: Precisely. And in 50 First Dates they introduced an interesting twist where Drew Barrymore’s character would proceed through her day thinking that it was the day that she got into a car accident that caused the injury. And would be perfectly fine throughout that day, but then in the morning wake up and it was the same thing all over again. Sort of Groundhog Day in her own head.

These are hard to do because they are gimmicky by definition. Memento, for instance, I think smartly understood that it wasn’t enough to have somebody not remember stuff. They needed to tell the story backwards to make it really fascinating for all of us.

So, it’s a tricky thing. You can’t really do a movie that’s just like, oh my god, I have amnesia. What do I do? You can’t do a Terms of Endearment version.

John: I think there’s a version of this that could be like a Gillian Flynn novel like Gone Girl where it centers on this event that happened. So, in Gone Girl it’s her disappearance. In this case it’s like what happened during that day. And it’s all focused on a character wakes up and you’re trying to figure out what actually happened during the course of this day and reconstructing what must have happened. And obviously something very big must have happened during the course of that.

And that’s a classic setup for a story, and especially for a thriller, is not knowing who you were before this moment. I mean, The Bourne Identity is based around Jason Bourne waking up and not knowing who he was. Not just a day was missing, but a whole lifetime was missing before this moment.

Craig: Yeah, we like as audiences watching characters try and solve the puzzle of their own life. And that is what The Hangover was. And that’s what Dude, Where’s My Car was. And we enjoy that process. And we can induce that in all sorts of ways, whether it’s okay you drank too much, or you got hit on the head, or you were part of a secret government program.

John: Or you were roofied.

Craig: Or you were roofied. Exactly. Rohyphnol. The idea of sort of living with this as a condition – so I feel like, first of all, I would say I think we have a pretty good supply of movies where characters have amnesia that are then comedies, romantic comedies, thrillers, spy movies, et. So then the question is is there an Awakenings style movie here?

So, Awakenings was about a patient who sort of had like a – well, I guess we now call Locked-In Syndrome. They seem to be catatonic and yet they were awake. And so the question is are they alive in there, and if so, how do we get to them? And it’s Robin Williams plays the doctor who is interacting with Robert De Niro, the patient, and they do wake him out of this. And he wakens up.

But what we understand in the movie is really it’s about Robin Williams’s character and how he needs to wake up from his own life, which is sort of a flat line. So, you can do a drama like that with this. The problem with amnesia is it disrupts every relationship with that character. Constantly. I have to take my hat off to Tim Herlihy and everyone that worked on 50 First Dates because it really – I love that movie. And they manage to make the relationship work.

John: Well, if you look at that movie versus Overboard, like at no point in 50 First Dates do you feel like Adam Sandler is taking advantage of Drew Barrymore’s character. It would be very easy to set that up in a really uncomfortable kind of rapey way. And they were able to move past that, which was very, very smart.

Craig: Absolutely. And one of the ways they did that very cleverly was by having Adam Sandler meet her father and brother very early on. So he understood that there were people watching and taking care of her. And that they were naturally suspicious of anybody who is going to interlope.

But I’m not really sure this one says movie to me.

John: So, going back to your Oliver Sacks version, there’s a book I read a couple of years ago called The Answer to the Riddle is Me, by David Stuart MacLean. And this might be the longer version that sort of can build out to a full movie. So, in this version, MacLean, it’s a true story, he woke up in India and had no idea where he was. And was basically having this crazy acid trip and went through a horrible two weeks. And these people sort of took pity on him and kept him protected. But eventually they were able to figure out who he was and contact his family and had his family come pick him up and bring him back to the US.

So, it turned out that he was doing work in India and was taking this drug for malaria which sometimes causes these horrible freak outs. And it’s like a form of amnesia where it just kind of wipes your identity clean. And so it was the process of him trying to rediscover who he was and sort of the bad things about who he was. It’s like you always sort of think like, oh, if I could reinvent myself or sort of come back with a fresh slate, but you sort of never get that fresh slate. And all the bad stuff came back with him.

So, that might be the longer Oliver Sacks version, because the journey happens post-recovery from the actual syndrome.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Maybe.

Craig: But I don’t know. It just seems like a slog.

John: All right.

Craig: I don’t know. My studio is not buying this.

John: All right. Why don’t you pitch the next one? This is Atomic Veterans. This was suggested by Maxwell Henry Rudolph, our listener, and it’s all about the post-war atomic tests.

Craig: Yeah, so between 1945 and 1962, approximately 500,000 American soldiers were exposed to radiation from tests of atomic bombs. It’s hard to imagine because we live in a time where there’s a comprehensive test ban treaty and nobody tests atomic bombs. And technologically we would know if somebody did. It was going on constantly.

The US was constantly blowing these things up, as was the Soviet Union. And they were also constantly using – we were constantly using our own soldiers, almost exclusively men, as guinea pigs to see how close you could get.

John: Yeah. So, there are two articles we’ll link to in the show notes. The first is by Tom Hallman, Jr. The second is a New York Times piece by Clyde Haberman. The Clyde Haberman one also has a video that goes with it which is really well produced. But essentially after WWII, well, we detonated these bombs. We knew they worked. We knew they could level cities. But the question was how else can we use them? So we were testing like what happens if we blow them up above a ship? And so they would put a ship out there and blow it up and they’d have a bunch of sailors like kind of cover your eyes, watch it, while the ship goes up in the distance. And then the sailors would have to board the vessel and measure it for radioactivity.

But they’re just wearing tee-shirts. There wasn’t a fundamental understanding or, I don’t know, cleverness to sort of like say, wow, we should have some protective gear here. Or maybe we shouldn’t be doing this at all.

Then, of course, there were the bomb tests in the deserts where they’d be digging trenches and they’d blow things up. And we’ve seen versions of that in movies before where they’re seeing like could we level a house. Well, what happens next? Well, what happens many years later is you have a bunch of these soldiers with cancers that seem quite unusual. And in some cases we see cancers or other problems showing up in their kids and in the generation after that. So, these soldiers who weren’t killed by the blasts, but suffered some sort of radiation poisoning, and that becomes I think the focus of any movie that you try to make out of this.

Craig: Yeah. There are actually a ton of different approaches here. We can go on the nose. Let’s set this in the 1950s and let’s have somebody investigating the government’s effort to use our own men as guinea pigs. And let’s have a sort of domestic espionage movie.

You can definitely do a movie about the men now as they exist now as veterans. It’s very tricky when you’re dealing with older people who are in physical peril. Whether we know it or not, we are all little insurance actuaries in our own minds. And we do this narrative calculation the way that courts do calculations of how much money somebody who has been wrongfully injured should get. And a huge part of that is how long do you expect to live. Well, you’re 15, that accident cost you your eye. It was that guy’s fault. We’re figuring you got 80 years or 75 years of not having that eye. You get this much.

My grandmother, my late grandmother, was diagnosed with cancer when she was 80. And it was stomach cancer. And they strongly recommended that she have her stomach mostly removed. And so she went under the knife at 80, which is an enormous risk, and did survive the operation only for us to find out she didn’t have cancer at all. That it was a contaminated slide that the pathologist had messed up. And so my parents sued for malpractice.

And as you can imagine, one easily – it never went to court. But that’s when I learned, if you’re an 80-year-old woman, they’re like, well, we’ll pay you for the next, I don’t know, expected six years of your life. So, we do a similar moral equation when we’re watching movies and old people are at risk, because in part we’re like, well, all right, but you know, he’s 80. Uh, am I worried about him making it to 85?

And it’s wrong, but we do it.

John: My hunch is that the place where this movie wants to live is in the ’60s or ‘70s. And so these people aren’t especially old, but maybe they’re having their first kids with like birth defects. That feels like the sweet spot. Because what’s also fascinating about this point in time is they think they’ve been good soldiers and at the time of the tests they signed pledges that they would never reveal what happened. Basically it’s treason for them to talk about these nuclear tests.

But once your own kid is having these problems, or you start to have these problems, or your friends start to have these problems, you have to ask yourself like, well, do I hold myself to this pledge, do I risk treason to perhaps save my daughter’s life, to save all of my fellow solders’ lives? At what point do you cross over that line? And that to me I think is probably one of the really inflection points.

And the true story is this is where they first started appealing to the Senate for help.

Craig: There’s another like totally wild way to go is let’s just go fictional. Let’s go science fiction, because any time you’re exploding nuclear devices theoretically you’re messing around with quantum physics and stuff.

You’ve got some guys that are exposed to this. They’re too close. And it disrupts time/space fabric. And they are now moving through time, but always in other places where a nuclear device is about to go off. This actually feels more like a TV show.

Remember like–?

John: Quantum Leap.

Craig: Yep. Quantum Leap.

John: Or Voyagers.

Craig: Yeah, it’s Voyagers is really what it is. So, it’s like, okay, it’s happening again. At some point in time, right, there’s now bad people who have nuclear devices moving through time and we have to keep up with them because they will detonate this nuclear device and destroy Paris in 1770. And so we are now there at the same time as them trying to stop them. It’s like there’s so many, you know, a movie studio, they’re not going to make the straight up movie. Ever.

Never, ever, ever. Because there’s just not enough, I think, for them to latch onto. But, the idea of a government – if you are writing a movie and you needed to show how the United States government mistreated its own soldiers, this would be a great scene to show it.

John: Yes. I think the straight ahead version of it could be made for an HBO. I think it could be made as a History Channel movie. I think there’s a venue in which the kind of Erin Brockovich-y version of this could be a really compelling movie. And it would have a really good home.

But I don’t think we’re often making the big end of year blockbuster movie about this very often. Although sometimes we do. So we make Spotlight. And this could be a Spotlight. It could be the one of these a year that we get that is focusing on one particular abuse by the government in this case and we are going to really show the character’s affected by it and the fight to have the story told.

Craig: Yeah. It’s possible. But unlikely. I think my studio will not buy this project either.

John: So, the actual people who are mentioned in some of these stories, Frank Farmer who is 80 years old during part of this, but I feel like the other characters you’re going to focus on would probably be lawyers, they’d be soldiers, they’d be bureaucrats. They’d be family members. No matter what, it feels like an ensemble version if you’re doing this.

If you’re doing the Marvel version, then they see the atomic blast and they get super powers. And we’ve seen versions of that quite a lot.

Craig: And they will never stop. Ever. Ever.

John: All right. Our last story for How Would This Be a Movie is about anthrax. And so I fell into this Wikipedia hole over the week because Mike Pence, who is the Republican VP candidate, I was reading an article about him and it mentioned he was a big proponent of investigations during the anthrax scare. And I had sort of forgotten about the anthrax scare.

So, this is what happened. In 2001, one week after the 9/11 attacks, letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to ABC, CBS, and NBC news, the New York Post, and the National Enquirer. And then later on two more letters were mailed to Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. So, the first letters read, “9/11/01. This is next. Take penicillin now. Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great.” The second letters read, “9/11/01, you cannot stop us. We have this anthrax. You die now. Are you afraid? Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great.”

And so the return addresses on these envelopes were a fake elementary school. Overall, 23 people were infected with anthrax and five of them anthrax. And so what followed is what’s considered one of the biggest FBI investigations in history. A lot of the initial suspicion focused on this guy, Steven Hatfill, who was eventually exonerated. He was a bioweapons expert.

Ultimately, the blame was pointed at this guy named Bruce Edwards Ivins who was an anthrax researcher who actually wanted people who was involved in the research effort for the FBI, he was one of the main sort of scientists trying to figure out where the anthrax came from. He committed suicide. And so in 2008 he killed himself with an overdose of prescription Tylenol. And the FBI closed its investigation.

So, I will say that there’s still a not too Tin-Hatty discussion that he really couldn’t have been the guy, or at least not the only guy. But right now it is considered a closed case and that he was the guy who sent the anthrax.

Craig: Yeah. I remember this whole thing. I remember that the letter was sent from very close to Princeton University. Here’s the part of this that jumps out at me and that I think, ooh, you could go anywhere with this. You don’t have to be stuck telling this particular story, because this particular story feels old and no longer immediately relevant, because we have bigger problems now, different problems with terrorism, both domestic and international.

But what fascinates me is the idea of the perpetrator being hired to find the killer.

John: Absolutely. I think that’s the most compelling thing. Especially if you as the audience either know or suspect that he’s involved in it from the start. That’s great. It’s compelling.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, there’s something about the government facing this challenge. Someone has done a very bad thing and they cannot figure out who it is. And this case has landed into – it’s always good when it’s some new law enforcement person who needs to prove herself, you know?

So, this is a big break. And you use the trope of the old drunk who used to be great. So the one person who can help you that we haven’t been able to get through is blah, blah, blah, because he’s out of the game. But there’s all sorts of ways you can get to that person. The point is, that person becomes her partner. And we’re telling that very familiar story of two odd couple/unlikely partners on the trail of a criminal.

And then she starts to suspect it’s him. That’s really interesting.

John: I think it’s interesting. That obviously you could take that in a fictional direction and it doesn’t have to be tied to this one anthrax attack. And you could set that present day. That’s a great dynamic between two characters. Classically like do you trust that partner? And so Training Day has an aspect of that, too, although that was much more sort of present tense.

What I think is compelling though about the original anthrax attacks, and made me surprised that I hadn’t seen a good movie version of this, is I feel like people kind of remember what happened during that time. I mean, 9/11 was sort of overwhelming everything, but I remember the paranoia that people felt. I remember like people handling their mail with gloves on. And this paranoia like where are the letters going to come next.

The Unabomber had a quality of that, too, where every couple of years the Unabomber bomb would go off and you’re like, oh wow, that’s still a thing that’s out there. To me I think the home for this kind of story would be as a limited series. Like a People v. OJ Simpson, where you chart through and you follow this session of history and really drill down into it.

I found myself really compelled by this, and if I weren’t just incredibly busy, I think this is the kind of thing I would pitch a network as a limited series because I feel like there’s a really fascinating story to chart through, particularly Ivins’s role is just so good and so castable. It feels like the kind of thing you can bring a movie star in to do this limited series and make something really cool.

Craig: Yeah. Absolutely. What you would need I think to find in there is that cultural relevance that obviously OJ Simpson had. You’re always looking for the bigger picture of, okay, I’m going to get you inside the minutia of this investigation, this story, because that’s an exciting soap opera. But ultimately, this meant something and it meant blah, blah, blah. And I’m not sure what the answer is with this one.

John: Yeah. I think what was so interesting about that time is that obviously 9/11 we had the attacks then and it was such a visible scar on the world, whereas this was almost more like a sniper attack. It was hitting individual things, but in some ways had a bigger effect of disrupting our news media and our entire postal system than the 9/11 attacks themselves did. It was strange that it was happening at the same time, and yet it was such a different scale.

And in some ways the people who were affected were just so kind of random. There’s a quality of, you know, sort of the cliché movie moment where they’re circling things on a map to try to figure out where something came from. This actually has that, where you had to figure out like well what mailbox did these all come from. And we have to trace it all the way back. It has those qualities which is compelling.

Craig: There’s a short story I remember reading from way, way back when about a detective who is on the trail of a killer. And he cannot find the killer. And it made me think of this. I was looking at the Wikipedia page that you linked to and interestingly we’ve combined two of our ideas here. Ivins apparently said to the FBI when they were investigating him that he suffered from loss of memory, stating that he would wake up dressed and wonder if he had gone out during the night.

And that led me back to my memory of that short story, because the trick of the short story, and there’s a serial killer out there who is cutting people up, it’s horrible, and it’s preying on this poor detective. And he comes to understand finally at the end it was him. When he thought he was asleep, he was doing these things.

That’s a really interesting thing. The idea that you’re chasing yourself. Tricky. I like that.

John: Yeah. So, I think there’s a lot of material to be mined there. So, whether it’s this individual attack, or it’s just that idea of the agent within who is subverting the whole thing is fascinating. We’ve talked about No Way Out on the podcast before, and that’s another great, compelling moment.

In No Way Out, they save it for the very, very end of the story, that reveal. But if you revealed early on sort of what’s going on, then that’s compelling. We love to watch the villain and sort of watch the villain try to stay ahead of things. There’s a tension that’s naturally there when we know something that the hero doesn’t know.

Craig: That’s very typical horror movie type stuff.

John: Cool. All right. So those are our three entries. Thank you to everyone who sent in suggestions for what could be a movie and How Would This Be a Movie. If you have more of those suggestions, always write in. So you can just write to, or hit us on Twitter. When I see things that are interesting, I just file them away and eventually we get them sometimes.

It’s time for our One Cool Things.

Craig: So, my One Cool Thing is macOS Sierra beta. And this is the beta version, the preview version, of what will be the new Mac operating system to follow – what are we on now, Mountain, Tiger, what is this thing?

John: I think we’re in El Capitan now.

Craig: There you go. Oh, that’s right. They switched from cats to landmarks. And they’re still in landmarks for Sierra.

So, this is new for Apple. Apple went through this one very big thing where they suddenly were like, hey guess what, the operating system is free, which is awesome because you could just hear pants filling in Redmond, Washington as Microsoft was like, “What????”

So, yeah, and lo and behold, Windows, which used to cost hundreds of dollars, now free.

John: Yep.

Craig: So that was the first big change that Mac introduced. But this is the first time I believe they’ve introduced a beta of the entire operating system out in the wild to anyone – anyone who wants it. And we’ll put a link up in the show notes for you to download.

I did download it because I’m crazy like that. And it’s actually working quite nicely. The big change is Siri. You have Siri built into the system, so it’s not just on your phone now. If I want to ask my computer a question, I can.

John: Have you found it useful so far?

Craig: Yeah, it’s about as useful as it is on my phone. Which is, you know, once every week maybe?

John: I find myself as a heavy Siri user. And so I haven’t installed the Mac OS beta because of some other issues, but on my phone I do use it a lot and I think it’s because I just – if you just sort of push yourself to use it more, you find it incredibly useful, especially in the car. I use it for sort of like quick math things. I won’t pull up the calculator. I’ll just ask Siri the answer. And she’s really good at that.

I find it generally pretty useful.

Craig: My problem, honestly, and I don’t know if I’m common this way or not, but my problem is I am so embarrassed, even when I’m alone, to say, “Hey Siri,” I’m embarrassed.

John: Yeah. And you don’t have to. You can just push the home button.

Craig: I know. But if I’m driving and my phone is over there, then I want to, then I’m like, oh my god, am I going to say it? Am I going to–?

John: I say it all the time. And I’ll ask for directions while I’m headed someplace and a lot of the times it works. It doesn’t always work, but it works enough that I’m actually really happy to have it.

You don’t have the Amazon Alexa, do you?

Craig: No. Alec Berg has it.

John: People love it.

Craig: Again, I can’t say, “Hey–,” sorry, I don’t want to say it. “Hey Thingy,” I don’t want to say that because I’m embarrassed. I feel like a dope. But I understand that there needs to be something for it to know that I’m talking to it.

John: It’s true. I mean, I do like that we’re kind of living in The Next Generation where they tap their little badges and ask the computer a question. That’s always been my fantasy. One of my very favorite episodes of The Next Generation was where Doctor Beverly Crusher discovers that she’s in a simulation – or not really in a simulation – she’s in a time bubble. And she’s the only character in that part of the episode, and so she’s only talking to the computer, and the computer is giving her answers back. But the computer is describing the ship as like, well, what was that sudden shock? Well, the first three floors no longer exist. It was decompression of the hull.

I love that sense of talking to the computer and talking to this disembodied voice. And Siri and Alexa, they’re getting us closer there.

Craig: What a surprise that you like talking to a computer.

John: See, if you had listened to the Duly Noted episode with Matt Selman and company, you would know so much more about that.

Craig: Now I got to listen to it.

John: Now you got to listen. My One Cool Thing is called Phased. It is a Vimeo video shot by Joe Capra. And what is it is a series of time lapses of different sections of Los Angeles. And so we’ve seen a lot of time lapses where clouds drift by and things are really lovely. This was shot in 12K resolution on this camera called a Phase One XF IQ3. It’s 100 megapixel camera.

Craig: Geez.

John: So what that lets you do is you’re in this incredibly wide panoramic shot, and then you can punch into a pretty good close-up of a section. And so you can go from like the panorama to like, oh, I can see individual people. It’s really remarkable. And so I thought it was terrific. I can imagine lots of uses for this, particularly, I mean, for visual effects certainly, so you can get these incredibly detailed backgrounds on things, but other smart directors will find great uses for this just like they found uses for slow motion and for high frame rate photography.

There’s going to be something really cool to do here. So, I do want to stress that what I’m linking to is time lapse, so everything always sort of looks magical and cool because it’s time lapse. But there will be some great uses for this in the future I can sense.

Craig: Grand Theft Auto 7.

John: It does look like a video game already. And that’s what’s so remarkable. What I love about time lapse of cities is there’s just a glow behind things just because of sort of light bouncing around in special ways. And it does just look magical.

Craig: I think honestly the next generation of these big sandbox games will be normal. But I can easily see, like I don’t know, Grand Theft Auto is once every five years, something like that. I could easily see that, we’re maybe two years away, so seven years from now when Grand Theft Auto 7 comes out, they will have 12K’d an entire city. Or, maybe even the entire country at that point. And figured out a way for you to access it as you’re driving around, looking at the real – it’s going to be amazing.

John: It’s going to be Pokémon Go, but real. And basically you’ll just shoot real people. [laughs]

Craig: I can go to my own house.

John: So here’s what’s going to happen. Essentially they’ll just decide that the world is now Grand Theft Auto and the rules are just there are no rules.

Craig: The rules are there are no rules. I actually feel like it would be a more peaceful world. Because when you’re feeling really pissed off, you just go into your computer and you blow up people you want to blow up and you get it out of your system.

John: Yeah. That’s what we need. It’s like training for how you should deal with things in life.

Craig: Ooh.

John: Oh, shoot, I thought I could just hit reset, but I can’t hit reset. Like all those Brexit voters who thought like, oh, I can just refer to a safe state.

Craig: Well, Brexit voters are, yeah. They are not saved.

John: They are not saved. That’s our episode this week. There are links in the show notes to almost everything we talked about, including a lot of the articles we discussed. Our One Cool Things. So, definitely check those out.

If you’re listening to this episode in most podcast players, they have the links below the title artwork. Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Our editing is by Matthew Chilelli.

Craig: Woo.

John: If you have a question for us, write us at You can also find us on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.

We are on iTunes. You know how to leave a review for us. And that would be so fantastic if you would. It just helps new listeners find our show.

And our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro for us, send it in to that same address and we will maybe play it on the air. Thanks guys.

Craig: Thanks.