John August's Blog
Craig and John take a deep dive looking at how the Writers Guild attempts to make a deal with the studios on behalf of film and TV writers.
Then we answer listener questions about writing for producers versus writing for the audience, and last steps when finishing up a script.
- Kellyanne Conway’s interview tricks, explained
- On shared false memories
- Allison Schroeder
- Avoid a Screenwriting Trap: No Film School article
- Fran Bow
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Kristian Gotthelf (send us yours!)
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this Episode 288 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we’ll be looking at what screenwriters can learn from figures in the news and what I learned from going through the copy editing process on my book. Plus, we’ll be answering listener questions about moving to Los Angeles and whether to use a pen name.
John: Craig, this last week something the first time happened to me here in Paris. I got sick. I got a cold. And my question for you is, when you get a cold, when you get sick, do you keep writing, or do you just stop?
Craig: Oh, interesting.
John: Because I had this debate on Monday whether I should try to work through it or just call it a day and play videogames. What do you do when you get sick?
Craig: I wish that I were the kind of person who could learn any lesson from my own past. I am not. I am as stubborn as a mule. When I get sick, every single time I say, “Not a problem. Keep going. Keep going.” And then I just find myself suddenly feeling tunnel vision-y and confused. And I just go, OK, apparently it’s time for bed. I’m the guy that still thinks that when a doctor says you need lots of rest that he’s just joking. [laughs] He’s a goof, right?
John: Well, you look at what we do, and we’re not working construction. And we’re not working in public service jobs, like a waiter who is going to get other people sick, so I feel like I’m at home, so why don’t I just keep working? But on Monday I realized like I was so sick that I could do real damage to this script. I just worried that I could actually make things noticeably worse by trying to work on it. And so I mostly just kind of vegged around. And then there was one new scene to write, and I could write that sort of by itself. I could sort of like lay there and shiver and think through the scene. And I wrote that one.
Craig: Aw. Poor John.
John: I got over my cold, but I almost like asked on Twitter, because I couldn’t trust my own judgment, so I was going to run a Twitter poll to say, “This is how I feel. Should I work today or just play videogames?”
Craig: Actually, that’s my theory about why it’s hard for us to do this, and why we don’t trust our own judgment, is because when we were children the only time that we ever made a determination about our own health was when we decided to fake being sick. Otherwise, somebody would say, “You’re sick.” And we would go, “Yeah, seriously. It feels terrible.” Right? But otherwise it’s like, ah, I really don’t want to go to school today. I’m kind of on the bubble. Let me wave the thermometer by the lightbulb and stay home.
And so I think that carries through to adulthood. I just always feel like I’m just – I don’t know – goldbricking, as the old folks used to say.
John: Yeah. I worry that I’m faking it. You know what, I probably could work on that scene. But I don’t want to work on that scene. Because procrastination in an illness are similar kind of symptoms. I just don’t want to do that. Almost anything else would feel better than working on that scene right now.
Craig: Yeah. Well, I love that you thought you would get good answers on Twitter, because I wish to god I could have, I don’t know, organized some response so that you put that up there and suddenly it’s like 98% of people think I should work.
John: All right man. I’ll do it.
Craig: OK. Twitter told me.
John: OK. Twitter told me to.
Twitter told you something as well this past week. There’s some follow up on last week’s episode where we were talking about Hollywood falling apart. What was the follow up here?
Craig: So Twitter user Nick Webber pointed out that I was incorrect when I said that Napster showed up in the early ‘90s. It did not. It showed up in 1999. I don’t know what kind of brain fever was raging through my head there. And I understand that Mike August also pointed out how wrong I was, hopefully to his great joy.
John: Yes. Mike, my husband, is very, very good about when things happened. And I’m not. I just have no skill at that at all. So like you could say, “Oh, you know, back in the caveman days, in the 1400s,” I would – I mean, it all just kind of blurs together for me. So there’s the past, there’s a future, it’s all kind of the same. I’m so much in the moment, Craig. I’m right here, right now. That’s all I worry about.
Craig: Love it. I’m all about the future, man.
John: You are?
Craig: Future Craig.
John: What is Future Craig most excited about?
Craig: Oh, Future Craig is, well, Future Craig actually – if Future Craig comes true, Future Craig could have some really cool news for everybody very, very soon, career-wise news.
John: Yeah, that’s good.
Craig: But Future Craig could also be curled up in a ball crying, which is usually what Future Craig ends up doing.
John: I’ve noticed over the last few months that Future John has been much more nervous about making predictions about projects because you have enough movies made, enough of things happen, and you sort of know that there’s a bunch of bumps coming. And so you don’t know when they’re going to come, so when I talk with my team about like, oh, these are the things. But there’s a very likely chance that this will just not happen at all. It’s because, you know, I’ve just been through this – it’s not my first rodeo. I’ve been thrown from the horse enough times.
Craig: That’s exactly right. It always hurts, but it does hurt less than it used to. If you get thrown off the horse at your first rodeo, I presume you think, “Well, this is it. I’m just going to be thrown off my horse over, and over, and over.” But, you know, then you have a few successful rodeos, and I’m not sure how that’s defined exactly in the rodeo world. Like how do you win the rodeo? Can you win a rodeo?
John: There’s judging. There’s the amount of time you stay on the horse. There’s things you do.
Craig: Yes, time.
John: The Bucking Bronco.
Craig: That’s right. There was a movie, it was called 8 Seconds. Do you remember it?
John: It was called 8 Seconds. Yeah.
Craig: With the guy from 90210.
John: Luke Perry.
John: What new TV show, what hot new TV show is Luke Perry starring in right now?
Craig: Um….you’re asking me?
John: This is my thing where I stump you on current events in popular culture.
Craig: Luke Perry is currently starring on – it’s called Mummy Dad.
John: No, but that would be great. Mummy Dad would be great. Because he’s both a mummy and a dad?
John: I like it.
Craig: It’s a great title. I mean, that’s going to show up on Nick. I feel like that’s going to show up on Nick next year.
John: 100%. Luke Perry is playing Archie’s dad in Riverdale.
John: The CW show.
Craig: And that’s sort of like the gothic David Lynch take on Riverdale?
John: Yes. Craig, really good. See, you got that part.
Craig: Well, you know, I love – did you know that I love Archie comics? Did you know this?
John: I had no idea that you loved Archie comics. So tell me about Archie comics. I don’t get Archie comics at all, so give me the one-minute pitch for Archie.
Craig: Sure. Well, by the way, this is why I will never watch this show because it’s not – it’s an alternate take. I want the real take. I want real Archie. So, my sister and I, we lived in a fairly small house. And we had to share a bathroom. And I had no reading material in the bathroom whatsoever. My sister would pile the bathroom high with Archie Comics Digest, which would include Archie, and then there was Betty and Veronica.
John: Of course.
Craig: Then there were some that were just Jughead based.
John: Wow, just Jughead.
Craig: Just Jughead. But, you know, and on occasion you’d get a little special one like a Dalton issue, who is always great, or Moose and Midge. Big Ethel. Here comes Principal Weatherbee. I know all of them. Mrs. Grundy. I know them all.
I know their last names. [laughs] Just kind of crazy. And so I would read them. It was either that or reading her Seventeen Magazine. And after two issues of Seventeen Magazine, you realize every Seventeen Magazine has two articles. One article is How to Look Sexy. And the other article is Don’t Have Sex. It’s the worst magazine ever. They should just call it, you know, Mind-F Magazine.
But regardless, I would just the Archie Comics. So I have read thousands of them.
John: I’ve never read a single Archie comic somehow. And so just through popular culture I knew just Archie, Betty and Veronica, and Jughead. I knew that those were four of the characters.
Craig: Well, you know Reggie, right? You know Reggie Mantle?
John: I have no idea who Reggie is.
Craig: So, Archie Andrews, Better Cooper, Veronica Lodge, Reggie Mantle, Jughead Jones.
John: Yeah, that makes sense.
Craig: Moose – ooh, I’m missing his last name. I’m not an A plus on Archie trivia. But, yeah, Reggie was the jerk.
John: OK, yeah.
Craig: He was Archie’s competition.
John: So it’s a TV show on the CW. So if you want to watch that show, you can watch that show and see Luke Perry there. A long way back around. So, usually we start with our leading topics and we get to our questions and we sort of rush through them. I was wondering if today we might want to start with our questions and really focus on them to begin with.
Craig: John, you know, that if you ask something my answer to you is yes. Always.
John: Our first question comes from Dorian in Tempe. And he wrote in with audio, so let’s take a listen.
Dorian: Hey John and Craig. My wife and I are having trouble deciding when we should move to LA. She’s a preschool teacher and I’m on my last semester of film school studying screenwriting. Because of the school year and her contract, we have to choose between moving in July of this year or moving out in January of 2018. So I guess my real question is should we wait until the winter before staffing season, or should we just move out as soon as possible? Yours in perpetual umbrage and grace, Dorian Chin. PS, hi Godwin.
John: All right, so Dorian, first off, welcome to Los Angeles whenever you do come. You need to decide July or November of next year, or January of next year.
Craig: January, yeah.
John: I say now. I think you’re honestly better showing up now, because people always say like, “Oh, I’ll move right before staffing season,” but it takes a while to get your bearings. I think you should just come now if you can.
Craig: Oh, Dorian, this is one of those days when you reach out to the people that you think are wise and they don’t help you at all. Because I don’t agree with John.
John: All right. Great.
Craig: I think you should – if your wife is working and earning money, and it sounds like you are not, because you are in film school, you should make as much money as you can before you get out here. You can start writing now. You can start working on spec scripts that you could then lob at studios, but I would always err on the side of saving up as much as you can. Unless your wife is able to line up a new job in LA. If she can, then of course you would come out here as soon as you can. And I would strongly urge that you consider that. This town is punishing to the unemployed. And you can presume that even if you are a fantastic writer, and I hope you are, there will be a break in period at a minimum. So, just make sure that you guys are financially secure. That’s the most important thing. I don’t want you and your wife to end up like so many couples do when money trouble happens.
So, my advice isn’t necessarily different than John’s. It’s just, I guess, a different angle.
John: Yeah. I agree with Craig that Tempe is probably a much cheaper place to live than Los Angeles, but there are preschool teachers in Los Angeles just as there are in Tempe. Dorian can get a job in Los Angeles. Dorian can probably get a job that’s more interesting or relevant to filmmaking in LA than he can in Tempe. So, usually if people are like just out of college, like if they were a senior in college and they just graduated I’d say move to Los Angeles immediately, because you’re used to being able to go someplace to live cheaply and just get started.
Now that you’re already married, you don’t have any kids yet, this might be a great time to do it, but yes, you always have to be mindful of your finances. But if you’re going to wait, waiting till January isn’t necessarily a better way anyway, because you don’t know that your situation is going to be any more stable or grounded in January than now. I’d say move.
Craig: All right. Well, just, Dorian, if your wife kicks you out, you know who to blame. It’s not me. I was your friend to the end.
All right, our next question is from Stuart in Minnesota who writes, “In the upcoming months I intend to submit my television pilot to a number of competitions to make my first foray into the business. These contests don’t let you put a name on the script itself, but the submission forms require a full name. Makes sense. However, I do not want my legal name attached to my script. I have a pen name that is only slightly different from my legal name, same first name, different last name. So as far as I can tell, registering my script with the WGA requires my full legal name. If I submit my script to contests under my pen name, am I running any legal risks or conflicts because it does not match up with my legal name? Should I just bite the bullet and submit under my legal name to avoid confusion? Should I just change my name legally to avoid all this hassle?”
Well, John, you changed your name legally. What do you think about all of this?
John: I changed my name legally. So, August was not my original last name. My original last name was an unpronounceable German name. And I changed before I moved out to Los Angeles, partly kind of for this reason, because I didn’t want the first 15 seconds of every conversation being correcting how people mispronounced my unpronounceable German last name. And also just for ease. Like John August is just a very easy name. And that’s been really useful.
So, Stuart in Minnesota, if you really intend to use this other name, not just for your work but in life, yeah, you could change your name legally. It’s not a bad thing to do. I’ve very much enjoyed having a simple name for my life. It’s been really good.
But, you don’t have to do that for a pen name. And a lot of people write under different names than their actual legal names. I cannot imagine that for this screenwriting competition the difference between your pen name and your legal name is going to be a factor. I wouldn’t let that freak you out. Use your pen name. Use whatever name you want to be identified as as a writer. Down the road at some point, you may need to file some paperwork. Do something to make it clear that this is your pen name. There is a WGA process for making clear what your pen name is. But that’s not really where you’re at right now.
For this form, for this competition, just use whatever name you think you want to be as a writer and send it in and win the competition.
Craig: Yeah. This isn’t really a problem, Stuart. I mean, let’s say your given name, the one that you didn’t want to use, your legal name was Stuart Smith. There are a million Stuart Smiths. Right? So people don’t care so much about the actual words of your name. That’s why we have Social Security numbers and addresses and other things that identify us. If you register your script with the US Copyright Office, which I should say is preferable to registering it with the WGA, I believe you do have to give a Social Security number or some other identifier – driver’s license number, passport number, and your address. I guess you’re concerned that maybe somebody that has your real name or your pseudonym would say, “That was my script because it’s my name.” That’s not the way the world works. I wouldn’t worry about it right now. The only issue really is later down the line, business wise, professionally, what do you actually want to call yourself? Call yourself that. But no legal issues now.
John: We’ve talked about the registering your script in previous episodes, so we’ll try to find a link to that episode. The really short version of this is people always freak out about registering the script with the WGA. That’s just a simple registration service. It’s not an ironclad contract. It’s no sort of like guarantee. It’s just a way of proving that at a certain point you wrote this thing.
What Craig says about registering with the US Copyright Office, the reason you do that is because it provides greater protections in case someone does infringe on your copyright. A lot of writers do neither of the above and it’s also fine and good. If you do register with the WGA, don’t put that registration number on your script, because it’s a dead giveaway that you are a brand new writer who is not versed in the ways of the business.
Craig: Dead giveaway. Do you listen to the Schmoyoho guys? The Songify this guys?
John: I don’t what that is.
Craig: You know the Songify this guys?
John: Oh, of course, the Songify people, yeah.
Craig: They’re the best.
John: They do Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt song as well.
Craig: That’s right. Or was that song in their style? I don’t know if they did it. I’m sure they did. We’ll check it out. The Gregory Brothers. Great guys. They have an excellent one – Dead Giveaway. It’s one of my favorites. Dead Giveaway. So good. I love those guys. And girl. They are guys and girl.
John: They’re fantastic. All right, let’s get to our main topics for the day. First up, Presidential Spokesperson Kellyanne Conway seems like a fictional character, but her real life way of speaking offers some fascinating insight for screenwriters. And a really good counterexample to some of the points we made in our episode a few weeks ago about dialogue. So, this is my true confession. Because I’ve been living here in France, I don’t see cable news. And because I don’t see cable news, I never actually saw her speak. I was only sort of familiar with Kate McKinnon’s impersonation of her on Saturday Night Live. And I love Kate McKinnon. She’s brilliant. But it wasn’t until I saw a clip of Kellyanne Conway where I was like, oh no, she’s actually a very different thing from what Kate McKinnon is doing.
Kellyanne Conway, she’s the Trump spokesperson, but she’s the spinner. And I had never actually sort of known what spinning was until I saw her do this thing. And it’s like, wow, that was kind of amazing. Spinning is actually a really good way of describing because it was like those talented acrobats who can spin a bunch of plates while walking on a wire. I just sort of couldn’t believe she was doing it and making it seem not effortless but like it was just a fascinating thing to watch.
So, I wanted to find the clip of the thing that I had seen, and I couldn’t quite find it. But go online and look at how she speaks because it’s really just a fascinating thing she’s able to do.
Craig: Yeah. It’s really instructive, too. Again, we’re just taking the politics out of it. If you’re writing a character who needs to evade someone’s interrogation, she has so many methods of evasion. They’re all evasive. And they are designed to make the evasion portion of the response as short as possible, and then the offensive part to redefine and refocus the conversation the longest part. So, she is – and all of these people to some extent – they are a master of, some of them call it pivoting, some of them call it spinning. Sidestepping very quickly and then attacking. It is an amazing thing to watch.
John: Yeah. And the thing I noticed in this clip, and this was before I read this article we’re going to link to, is that she could listen for the words the person was saying to her, and use those words in a completely different context and make it seem like she was answering the question when she really wasn’t answering the question at all.
So, a really great write up of sort of what Kellyanne Conway does specifically is by Lili Loofbourow. And so I’m going to put a link to this in the show notes. She’s writing for The Week. And she defines some of the terms that she sort of sees Kellyanne Conway doing. She talks about Agenda Mad Libs, Faux Frankness, Impatience Signaling, which is both a verbal thing, but also how she carries herself. When the other person is going on too long, she sort of shrugs her shoulders and like, oh, we’ve got to get on with it. It’s a way of sort of taking away that person’s power. Downgrading Confrontation to Repartee.
Craig: That’s the best.
John: It’s like, no, we’re just chatting. Sexisming, which is basically making it seem like it’s a sexist attack when she’s being pushed too hard. Ice Queening. Mothersplaining. Schoolmarming. Cool Girling.
I really urge you to check out sort of how Loofbourow defines these terms, because they’re so specific and so clever. And they feel accurate to the ways in which Kellyanne Conway is able to apply the different techniques to sort of escape from all these things. It’s like a Houdini way of getting out of an argument. It’s really quite ingenious.
Craig: It is. And I think it’s really valuable for screenwriters because it cuts to – I mean, this article in particular that analyzes her cuts to the underlying psychology and subtext of the words we use. And this woman is doing it on a very high level. Kellyanne Conway does it on a very high level. And so, for instance, Imply Bad Faith. And this goes a little bit back to our dialogue discussion about those connecting words. When she is responding to George Stephanopoulos, she says the following, “And you know full well that President Trump and his family are complying with all of the ethical rules, everything they need to do to step away from his business and be a fulltime president.”
Now, the second part of that is not true. Sort of factually. But the first part, the key part, the part for screenwriters to really carefully look at is, “And you know full well that Trump.” And what the author here, Lili, what Lili Loofbourow – what a great name, Loofbourow – what Lili Loofbourow points out about this Imply Bad Faith, she says, “Note how gently this implies that Stephanopoulos has in some unspecified way mislead the public on the point to follow. And the implication in “and you know full well” is I’ll tolerate your unfairness, but not your dishonesty. That is a brilliant amount of stuff to shove under this little tiny cluster of words. Instead of saying, “Trump, blah, blah, blah,” to say, “And you know full well.” There is this wonderful dialogue undermining of the person, as if to say everything you’ve said you know is a lie and we all know it’s a lie, too.
And then you follow it with your own lie. It’s brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant screenwriting. That’s what makes scenes sing, you know?
John: It is. And what I also think it keys into, which we talked a lot about in the dialogue episode, is that the point of dialogue is to change the other character’s, what’s happening in the other character’s head. You’re trying to create a change of mental state in the other character’s head. But when you see these two talking heads talking, they’re really not trying to change each other. They’re really both trying to communicate to the person watching them. And so they have to pretend as if they’re having a conversation with this other person, but they’re really trying to have a conversation – their point of influence is the person watching the conversation.
And that’s what they’re trying to do these sort of emotional signals for is to say like, no, listen to what I want you to feel. This is what you want. This is what I’m trying to get you to understand. Not the intellectual words, but the feeling behind what I’m saying here.
John: And so when I say, “You know full well,” it’s like that other guy, he’s being dishonest. He’s being emotionally dishonest and we all see this, right? It’s really quite ingenious.
Craig: It is. There’s another use for this in a strange way. Kellyanne Conway says these things obviously intentionally. She knows what she’s doing. It’s her job. It’s why she’s paid. But, if you imagine people saying these things earnestly, you have a very funny character.
Craig: There’s a great line from the first Hangover where Ed Helms says to Zach Galifianakis, “You are literally too stupid to insult.” And Zach says, “Thank you.”
So, here’s one. It’s called the Walkback. This is another one that Lili describes here. The day after an interview aired with a straightforward response, the White House response is that he’s not going to release his tax returns. The day after that, Conway annihilated its usefulness with this. “On taxes, answers and repeated questions are same from campaign. POTUS is under audit and will not release until that is completed.”
Now, what’s amazing is that she’s saying, B, yesterday we said A, today we’re saying not A, and the answers are the same. But by saying the answers are the same, you have confused everything. And if you have a character that literally can’t see that those answers are different, that’s a funny character.
John: Yeah. It’s great. And so looking back at our dialogue episode, we talked about sort of how important it is for characters to listen and there’s a very special thing that’s happening here. It’s like she’s listening enough that she can gather up the material she needs in order to say basically her monologue back. And so it has the aspect of a conversation, but not really – it’s not really fully a dialogue. It’s really sort of two intercepting monologues.
And that can work if one of the characters is trying to do that.
John: The challenge comes if too many characters are trying to do that. And so Kellyanne Conway does sort of feel like a Sorkin-y kind of character. Like one who is so hyper-verbal and able to keep spinning things. But you can only have a certain number of those people in a scene, otherwise there’s no one to be able to hit the ball back to her. It’s like she has to have someone to keep throwing her stuff, because it just won’t work.
Craig: Absolutely. I mean, what this says, the act of spinning or verbal evasion is essentially it’s cheating. You are cheating at the game of conversation. You are willfully violating conversational conventions. You are dismissing from the start the purpose of good faith conversation in order to achieve something. You can’t – it’s no fun watching a game where two people are cheating. It’s interesting watching a game where one person is cheating and the other one is trying to hold them to the rules. And that’s what these interviews are like with her.
Craig: But in a screenplay and in a scene, you can have one person cheating. And I think it’s also important to note that if somebody is inveterate conversational cheater in your screenplay, the audience will draw a conclusion that they are sociopathic. You have to be aware of that. I mean, sociopathic behavior is not limited to killing people. Most sociopaths don’t do that at all. But conversational good faith is one of those things that indicates that you have a certain moral character or pro-social point of view. And a repeated violation of those rules is the opposite.
John: Absolutely. And what I think is important to note is that by all accounts the Kellyanne Conway we see during one of these interviews is not the Kellyanne Conway in the green room beforehand. And apparently she’s incredibly charming and incredibly nice and gracious during those moments. And so that’s part of the reason why she’s able to keep getting invited back.
And so it’s maybe worth thinking about your own characters is there a performance version of them and then a backstage version of them? And the performance version of them may have some of these characteristics that you wouldn’t be able to stand that character for the whole time, but if you can see behind the curtain and see what they’re able to do when sort of no one is watching.
Some of George Clooney’s characters have this trait where they are so on and then you can see what they’re really like when they’re not in that full glare of the lights. It can be a really nice contrast to see the two sides of that person.
Craig: Yeah. Well that is certainly another place to go with somebody like this, which is to reveal to the audience their conscience. I mean, we hope – look, I think all of us hope, and that’s partly why Kate McKinnon’s impression of her is so endearing – we hope that Kellyanne Conway at home in private thinks to herself, “Oh god.”
Craig: “Ugh. I hope this changes, because this is very, very hard and I don’t like doing it. I believe in this guy,” I don’t know why she does, “but I believe in this guy, I believe in the program. It’s just that I am in a terrible position each day and I hope that changes.” You hope that that’s the case.
John: So, we’ve talked about sort of Sorkin characters, and you can imagine this in sort of a Sorkin world. But as I was looking at sort of the things that she’s doing, I got to thinking of another show that has a tremendous amount of like really rich dialogue which is Game of Thrones. And yet there’s not – I don’t see characters like Kellyanne Conway in the Game of Thrones situation. And I feel like in most of the talkie-talkie-talkie scenes I see in Game of Thrones, there is a listening happening. There’s always a sense of because you said this, this is the way I can respond. It’s never that sense of like I’m just going to plow through with my point. But do you feel that, too?
Craig: Oh completely.
John: Are there moments in Game of Thrones that are more Sorkin-y? I’m trying to remember, I’m thinking back to – because there’s some true sociopaths in Game of Thrones.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: I mean, I don’t see them doing quite this.
Craig: Well, no, they don’t do this. The sociopaths usually just reveal their sociopathian quiet moments to another person as a fact and then try and explain to that person their point of view. The most notable example is Littlefinger’s speech to Varys, I think it’s at the end of Season 2. I’m not that good on seasons. Where Varys is saying to him, “Look, what’s going on here, you’re doing bad things that are going to cause trouble and that will lead to chaos. And chaos is a pit.” And Littlefinger says, “No, chaos is a ladder.”
John: “It’s a ladder.”
Craig: And then he goes on this speech about how he sees chaos. And you realize, oh my god, this dude is definitely a sociopath. And he’s definitely scary. But what he’s saying has merit. It’s the ugly truth. I don’t know if the guys discussed it with us when we did our live show with Dan and Dave, but at some point I remember them saying that when they wrote their first season, because it was their first time doing television, they were short. Their episodes were too short. And they had to go back and shoot a bunch of padding scenes. And those padding scenes inevitably for cost purposes had to be two people talking in a room. And they said those are some of the best scenes of the series, because these characters would fence with each other, going back to our dialogue discussion – not at the viewer, but with each other. And it was very much about a little fight. And you always felt at the end – I always feel at the end of a Game of Thrones scene where two people are talking that one person has won. And that’s wonderful.
John: Yeah. It is a wonderful thing. All right, so that’s Kellyanne Conway. I just thought it was a terrific article. We’ll have a link to that in the show notes. And obviously we could spend the rest of the hour talking Melissa McCarthy’s brilliant performance as Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live.
Craig: Oh god. She’s the greatest.
John: But I think it’s been discussed enough. But like it’s so remarkable to see someone I’ve known and loved for so long just have a moment in the spotlight there and just steal that moment and smash that moment and just make it the best moment of the week.
Craig: Isn’t it just the best part of it is that Hollywood really is not a place where the good guys win. You know? Sometimes, but most of the time bad people do. She is the best person. It’s so – it’s so nice to be able to root for somebody who just can’t not win. She wins every time. And I root for her every time because she deserves it. She’s just wonderful. And, god, was that good. Oh, so good.
John: Yeah. So our second big topic is words and specifically the words I encountered as I was going through the copy edit on Arlo Finch. So, longtime listeners will know that I sold my first middle grade fiction book. It is a fantasy book called Arlo Finch that will be coming out March 2018, hopefully.
John: And I just went through the process of I turned in the book, we went through the notes with the editor, so three passes with that. Just went through the copy edit. And the copy edit is the stage that screenwriters never encounter. So a copy edit is when the manuscript goes into a different editor who goes through it word by word, line by line, checking not just for mistakes but also for little idiosyncrasies of grammar, timeline checking. It was like an autopsy of your book.
And it was overwhelming but also really cool to do. So, two weeks ago I had to sort of go through and look at this Microsoft Word document where she had marked up all of her questions and changes and notes. And what I had anticipated, and this is common, is that in this Word document she will actually just change the things she wants to change.
John: And then if I want to not change that, I have to mark it as Stet, which is Latin for like leave it the way it was. And then it goes back to the previous version. And so as screenwriters we’re never used to sort of like our script is taken away and they get redone by somebody. That just doesn’t happen. So as a screenwriter, a script supervisor might go through and mark stuff up for her purposes, but it’s never sort of taken away from us. And this sort of got taken away. And so then I had to go through and really look at all of her changes and see which ones I agreed with and which ones I didn’t agree with.
It was a really scary but kind of cool experience.
Craig: That’s remarkable. And I assume that many times when she made a change, you didn’t accept the change, nor did you stet it. You came up with your own twist?
John: There were quite a few times where there was a third way. Where I could definitely see what her objection was and I would word it a different way, or I’d find a way through it. A lot of times she was catching things like, you know, two pages I ago I had used this unusual verb and it just felt like too soon to use that verb again. I so appreciated her doing that, because especially in a book there’s just so many words that it’s so easy to get lost in them. And she was good about not getting lost.
But I wanted to talk about some of the things that were sort of unique for me coming into it as a screenwriter because there’s just things that I never encounter in our normal screenwriting profession. The biggest thing, of course, with writing a book is this is all written in the past. And so screenwriting is a present tense form. We use the past when we’re in dialogue, sometimes, like characters can speak in the past tense, but everything else in the script is the present tense. And so to write a book that was in the past tense, I was like, oh well, it’s just in the simple past. But you’re actually using two kinds of past. You’re using the simple past and you’re using the past perfect.
And figuring out the split between those two was not as straightforward as I would have guessed. You tend to use the past perfect when you’re pushing things further back in the past. So, if the present of the scene is in the simple past, then if I need to indicate something that happened before that moment, I go into like he had walked home that time. But within the course of a sentence, you might be using both forms. It was a really strange thing.
And particularly where when you start doing contractions.
John: So like he’d done this, as you speak you often drop off that D. But you need to put that D there for writing. So it was so many of the mistakes I was making were because I had sort of left off the D of the past perfect.
Craig: Well, it makes sense. I mean, you’ve been doing one kind of writing for so long. It’s not that you don’t know how to write prose, but we have a certain writing mind. And when you get into that writing mind, it’s only natural that you would – certain of these things would just feel unnatural. And some mistakes are going to be made.
It’s a wonderful thing to have an editor there whose job is to catch those things. I have someone who works with me and that’s her job, largely, is, well, to listen to me blather and write down notes, but then also when she reads things she works like an editor. Every writer should have an editor. The sad thing about screenwriters is we don’t have editors. We have, well, we have what we have, don’t we? [laughs]
John: Yeah. So I’m very lucky to have Godwin. So Godwin reads everything I write. And so he proofreads stuff. But it’s a different thing than proofreading. Proofreading, like I leave out words all the time, so he’s always catching that kind of stuff. But this was a very fussy kind of thing. So, here’s an example of sort of the ambiguity that would become a problem at points. Take this sentence: On Wednesday, Carole had emailed the entire office about the party, but she mistyped the date.
Is that OK? Or, do I need to say, “But she had mistyped the date?” Or I could say, “She’d mistyped the date.” Was it OK the first time, or did I need to put in the–?
Craig: I would prefer, I think both of those would be acceptable because I would understand them. But I would prefer that the verbs would agree and both would be in the had form.
John: Yep. And I think that would generally be my preference, too. But listen to the difference in this version. So rather than saying mistyped, let’s say mistook. So, “On Wednesday, Carole had emailed the entire office about the party, but she mistook the date.” Or, “On Wednesday, Carole had emailed the entire office about the party, but she had mistaken the date.”
So, that’s one of those situations where because mistook and had mistaken are so clearly different, the sentence really feels very different. Like you notice that change so much more dramatically.
Craig: Yeah. I agree. And those are tricky things. I mean, I assume that ultimately the name of the game is clarity, so that no one is confused.
John: Yep. The other things I ended up going through a lot about where the Oxford comma. I’m not an Oxford comma person.
John: Yeah, you’re an Oxford comma person, aren’t you?
John: So, here’s the thing is I’m entirely a fan of Oxford commas when it clarifies situations that could be ambiguous, but it ends up being a lot of extra commas in places where you don’t need them. Particularly I find if I have three characters in a sentence doing something, it ends up being like one extra comma in there that becomes just really frustrating and annoying.
Craig: Yeah. I think that if you’re talking about subjects of sentences, then I don’t even know if the Oxford comma applies there. So if we said, George, Alice, and Jim went to the mall, I would not put George-comma-Alice-comma-and Jim went to the mall.
John: Oh, but the copy editor would put a comma there.
Craig: Yeah. So to me I reserve my Oxford commas for the objects or the ends of lists. I would not put them in the subjects because I actually want to imply a conjoined action.
John: Yeah. Which makes sense to me, too. So there were a lot of situations where that, where I had to go through and Stet those kind of things and have an overall discussion about commas. But here is another thing which if find I had never encountered before. So, Craig, I’m going to give you a sentence, please tell me what word you’re going to use.
John: So there’s an object in the distance. You’re moving in a direction that will bring you to that object. You are headed ____ that object.
John: All right. I would absolutely say “towards.” I’ve said towards my entire life.
John: And so Toward and Towards are – you are an east coast person, I’m a Colorado person. It’s a Colorado book. Everyone is saying towards in my book. But I had to go through and there were like 17 times where I had to go through and Stet the Towards back to Toward.
John: My whole family says towards. I called my mom to ask her what she said. I double checked.
John: There’s other words that are just, they’re on the cusp. And so what I found very useful was to do – Google has what’s called an Ngram Viewer which will show you amazingly all the books that they’ve scanned and they can check by year what word is more commonly used. So you can compare two words.
So, knelt versus kneeled. Which one is preferred right now? Craig?
Craig: I would use knelt.
John: Knelt is still preferred. Kneeled is catching up quick.
Craig: Really? Interesting. OK.
John: How about the difference between each other and one another?
Craig: They sent messages to each other. They sent message to one another. I would go each other.
John: OK. And do you know what the “rule” is between the two choices?
Craig: Well, I’m trying to think. They kissed each other. They spoke between one another. I would put one another as the object of a preposition.
John: No. So the difference is supposed to be each other is two people, one another is more than two people.
Craig: Oh, OK. Oh, so if three people are in a polyamorous relationship, they kissed one another.
John: It’s all about kissing with Craig.
Craig: OK. Yeah. Yeah.
John: Which do you think is preferred right now: clearer or more clear?
John: You’re correct. Weaved or wove?
Craig: Ooh, he weaved a tale, he wove a tale? I would say wove.
John: So, I actually had a debate about this. Weaved is a different word than wove. So, it turns out there are two verbs, one is to weave cloth. One is to sway back and forth. They are similar in all their forms, except wove is for cloth, weaved is for swaying back and forth.
Craig: Now, which one would you use for in my little example was a tale, a story, I weaved a tale/I wove a tale? I would say wove.
John: Wove. Because you’re making something out of it.
Craig: Got it. OK. That’s fine there. There you go.
John: Further/farther? What’s the distinction between further and farther?
Craig: Those are question of distance, like actual physical or measurable quantity versus quality. So–
John: The monster opened its jaw – which?
John: All right. But that’s a measurable distance.
Craig: Yeah, but the opening of the jaw feels unmeasurable to me. No, farther. Farther. You’re right. It’s farther. It’s farther.
John: I’m very much a farther is for distances on the ground. So, I’m going for farther–
Craig: Yeah, but I think if he opened his mouth I would say he opened it farther than the monster next to him. Further would be, yeah, more conceptual.
John: Weirdly, I would agree with you. If you’re comparing two things, one is farther. But the beast opened its mouth–
Craig: Further. Yeah.
John: The usage I was using or it, further seemed to make a lot more sense than farther in that case.
Our last one which came up is less and fewer. So, tell us the rule about less and fewer.
Craig: Stannis Baratheon’s favorite. That’s my favorite is when he corrects–
John: That’s right, it was in Game of Thrones. Circling back.
Craig: Fewer. Less and fewer. Fewer is used when you have a specific quantity. Less is, again, a case of quality. So you are less likely to do something. There are two fewer people in this line than that line. Three items or fewer, not three items or less.
John: Ah, but we’ll see. Which is the correct one for this sentence? It was one less drawer to open? It was one fewer drawer to open?
Craig: It was one fewer drawer to open. Well, it depends. Depends. If you’re talking about three drawers, and then someone says, “You only have to open two.” You would say it is one fewer drawer to open. Drawer to open. Drawer, by the way, is a New York thing.
If you were saying, “Ugh, I got to clean out my house and I have to go through all these drawers.” And someone said, “Well, we’ve gotten rid of a bunch of them,” then you could say, “OK, it was one less drawer to open,” because it’s more of a quality of drawer opening. So it’s ambiguous there.
John: It’s actually not as ambiguous, because less is for a single object. So, it’s only one. So it is a single object, if that makes sense. The best answer is that there’s no good answer and you will always be marked wrong, whichever choice you make. And so that was a case where I ultimately had to rewrite the sentence, because there was not going to be a way to write that sentence that a school librarian would not say that’s the wrong word.
Craig: The only way to win is not to play.
John: That is absolutely true. So, that was my adventure in copy editing. It was mostly fun. It was so much more exhausting than I imagined it would be. I thought like when I got the document back like, oh, this will take an hour or two. It was like six, seven hours of work going through it bit by bit.
Craig: I kind of think I would love to do that job.
Craig: What fun.
John: It would be fun to do on a book you like, but I can’t imagine having to do it on a book you hated. I was a script reader for TriStar for a year. And so my job would be I would be assigned two scripts, I would take them home. I would read the scripts. I would write up coverage. And then I’d bring them back and I’d just do that every day.
And every once and a while you’d read like a really good script and like, man, I really enjoyed this, I really got it, I was excited to do it. But then sometimes you’re reading a script and you’re like five pages in and like I have no idea what’s happening, I don’t want to do this. And there’s another 115 pages. And then I have to write up notes on this. And that’s when I can imagine being a copy editor on something you just despise is just like, ugh.
Craig: I get it completely. Although there is something at least, look, when you’re script reading you have to summarize it, so you’re regurgitating it, which hurts when it stinks. And then you have to make a recommendation about it, so you’re critiquing it, which never feels good when you don’t like things. At least if you’re copy editing books, it’s like, well, I can just focus in on grammar, sentence structure, verb complementing, repeated words, you know, the usual stuff.
John: Anyway, that was my venture in copy editing. A thing that most screenwriters will never encounter, but it was a good experience.
Craig: Sounds like fun.
John: So it has come time for our One Cool Things, Craig. Do you want to start off?
Craig: Sure. My One Cool Thing this week comes from Chris Sparling, guest of the show, friend of the show Chris Sparling, screenwriter, filmmaker. And he wrote and said, “I wanted to pass something along to you guys to consider for your next One Cool Thing.” Considered and approved. “As it is a powerful and timely initiative that would benefit from the added exposure.” And now, John, the added exposure.
Chris Sparling’s wife has Type 1 Diabetes. So, for those of you who don’t know the difference, Type 1 diabetes is essential congenital diabetes. You’re born with it. It appears usually when you’re a child. In this case, with Chris’s wife, she was diagnosed when she was seven. It’s unlike Type 2 diabetes which comes generally when you’re an adult and largely is connected to poor diet and being overweight, so it’s not a lifestyle thing, it’s a genetic condition.
She’s very active in terms of advocacy and several years ago helped launch the Spare-A-Rose Campaign in association with the International Diabetes Federation. So, the way this works is pretty simple. On Valentine’s Day, people go out, they buy roses. Buy one fewer rose. Not one less rose. I agree with him here. It should be one fewer rose, no matter what your copy editor says. Buy one fewer rose this Valentine’s Day and donate the value of that flower to a child living with diabetes in a less resourced country. And again, less, properly used there.
So, I mean, that’s a wonderful idea. Because diabetes is a terrible, terrible situation for anybody. It reeks all sorts of havoc on the body. It is difficult for people in power countries to manage it because, I mean, the best way to manage diabetes in a child often involves not just insulin but an insulin pump that is connected into the body. There’s maintenance and expense.
So, please would you consider this folks? You don’t have to actually buy one fewer rose. You can buy one extra rose, or take the money for one extra rose and donate it. And so go to sparearose.org and we will put a link in the show notes. It’s something I plan on doing. It seems like a terrific cause. And I don’t know what the price of one rose is. Six buck? Seven bucks? I don’t know. It can make a huge difference to a child. So, Chris Sparling, great idea. That is absolutely One Cool Thing. And we’re happy to support it.
John: Very nice. My One Cool Thing is Eurostar Snap. So, Eurostar is, of course, the train between Paris and London. The one that goes underneath the English Channel. It is great and I love it. And it takes you right from the center of Paris to the center of London. The challenge with Eurostar is it’s not often all that cheap. And sometimes you can buy cheaper tickets on the planes between the outskirts of Paris and the outskirts of London.
So, what Eurostar Snap is, it’s a way to buy cheaper tickets on Eurostar. So, down to like 25 pounds each, which is great. So, with Eurostar Snap, you get to pick your day and whether it’s morning or night, but you don’t get to pick exactly what train you’re going to be on. If you’re flexible, like if you’re coming to visit for a general sense, you’re not there for a specific business meeting, it can be a really great way to sort of get between Paris and London.
You have to book seven days in advance. They only tell you what your train is 48 hours in advance. But for a lot of people it makes sense. So, if you’re coming to one of the cities, I definitely recommend you try Eurostar Snap. If it sounds interesting, it is snap.eurostar.com.
Craig: There you go. See, it’s either you save a child’s life, or you get a slightly cheaper train ticket. This isn’t a competition. Both things are cool. [laughs]
John: You can do both things.
Craig: Both things. Oh, Jerk Craig. Actually Jerk Craig is just Craig, right?
John: Jerk Craig is the real Craig.
Craig: Yeah, just Craig, yeah.
John: And that’s our show for this week. As always, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Panic Episode. If you have an outro that you’d like for us to play on the show, you can send us a link at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you send questions like the two we answered today. On Twitter, I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. That’s the place for all the short questions that you have about little things. And we both answered quite a few little screenwriting questions this week. So, write to us on that.
Craig: It works.
John: We like to see that. We have a Facebook page that Godwin updates and I occasionally check out. So you can leave notes for us there if you’d like to. We are, of course, also on iTunes. That’s where you can download the most recent episodes. You can leave us a comment. We love those. It’s also where you can download the Scriptnotes app. There’s also one on the Google app store. For getting to all those back episodes – it’s the only way to get back to our first 287 episodes.
John: Woo. 287 episodes. You’ll find transcripts for this show and all shows at johnaugust.com. You’ll also find the full show notes for the things we talked about.
And that is our show for this week. Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, John. See you next week.
- Riverdale Promo
- Kellyanne Conway
- Google Ngram viewer for toward, towards
- Spare-A-Rose Campaign
- Eurostar Snap
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by The Arbitrary Jukebox Experiment (send us yours!)
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.
John and Craig look at what screenwriters can pick up from Kellyanne Conway, plus what John learned from going through the copy-editing process on his book.
We also answer listener questions about moving to Los Angeles and whether to use a pen name.
- Riverdale Promo
- Kellyanne Conway
- Google Ngram viewer for toward, towards
- Spare-A-Rose Campaign
- Eurostar Snap
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Panic Moon (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Hello and welcome. My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 287 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we’ll be discussing the end of the film industry, unique character voices, and some things I learned going through the process of copy editing. Plus, we will answer those listener questions that have been sitting in the inbox for far too long.
Craig: Far too long.
John: Far too long. But we have some follow up. We have exciting follow up. The kind of follow up I love, because I love babies.
Craig: Aw, babies.
John: Aw. So, a few episodes ago we had Kelly Marcel on to help us with a Three Page Challenge. She told us on that show that she was expecting a baby with Mr. Steve Zissis, who is another Scriptnotes guest. That baby was born. So, pretty damn excited that we have a new Scriptnotes listener. The first Scriptnotes guest joint project baby.
Craig: Right. The Scriptnotes Baby essentially.
John: It is the Scriptnotes Baby. I mean, I think they were both guests. They now have a baby. I’ll let people do the math themselves.
Craig: It’s a Scriptnotes Baby.
John: Yeah. An interesting thing about this baby. Do you know this baby’s name?
Craig: I do.
John: Yes. It’s not named Craig. It’s not named Mazin. What is its name?
Craig: First of all, we don’t really know that. We know what we’ve been told, OK?
John: All right. Yeah. The official story, yeah.
Craig: But the baby’s first name is Gus. It’s Gus.
John: And that’s short for what?
Craig: For Gustave.
John: No, the baby’s official name is August. So–
Craig: That’s not – I don’t.
John: You know what? August did not used to be such a common name. I think it’s an increasingly common name. And, again, I don’t want to take credit for that. But I have to say like it wasn’t common, now it is common. My profile has risen. I let people draw their own conclusions.
Craig: This is Boasty John.
John: The worst version of Boasty John.
Craig: The worst version of Boasty John.
John: I mostly just want to thank and congratulate. I don’t want to thank them.
Craig: [laughs] I think we should thank them. No, no, no. Let’s thank them.
John: Thank them for being wonderful guests. And mostly I just want to congratulate Kelly and Steve on their new baby.
Craig: I like the idea that this is follow up. Because it’s not really. If we’re going to be technical, it’s follow up to them having sex as far as I can tell. That’s what babies are.
John: They are.
Craig: And in follow up news, a baby was born as a result of sex. Steve, here’s a great thing. So, I always think about first names and last names together. I mean, we do this all the time when we’re writing. We’re so obsessive about names.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: So Gus Zissis has more S-Zissis sounds in there. Gus Zissis sounds like a killer from the future.
John: I like it.
Craig: Gus Zissis.
John: Good choices.
John: This last week we had two episodes. One of the episodes was a little mini episode I did with Nima Yousefi about his experience as an Iranian refugee. A listener wrote in with a great link to a blog series called Their Story is Our Story. So, if you liked Nima’s story, there are a lot more stories that are sort of like Nima’s.
John: And it’s really well put together. So, I would encourage people to check out Their Story is Our Story. We’ll have a link to that in the show notes.
Craig: Fantastic. See, that’s follow up.
John: That’s truly follow up, because it just happened in an episode and now I’m talking about it. This is also follow up. So, a previous episode, like last week, we talked about those little marker words that sort of indicate that you are paying attention. And so in Madrid when I was there, in Spanish you often hear Vale which is basically OK. It’s just sort of an acknowledgment yes word.
A listener pointed my attention to a Spanish short film directed by Alejandro Amenábar called Vale which is actually delightful. And it wasn’t only at the very end of this delightful short film I realized it was actually a beer commercial.
John: But it’s a really well done beer commercial. So I will point you to the video for that. It’s quite well done. It stars Dakota Johnson. My question for you, Craig, Mazin, who is Dakota Johnson?
Craig: Watch what I do now? Watch how I blow your mind. Dakota Johnson is, A, the star of 50 Shades or Darker of Grey. And she is the daughter of Don Johnson and another person, as people are, like Gus Zissis. Sure.
John: Isn’t it Melanie Griffith? I’m actually not sure if that’s true. But, Dakota Johnson has a very special relationship with a previous Scriptnotes guest. That is my challenge for you. Who is that Scriptnotes guest that she has a special relationship with?
Craig: Well, Kelly Marcel is one of the writers of 50 Shades of Grey. Is that it?
John: Well, Kelly Marcel, is the writer of 50 Shades of Grey, but there is another screenwriter guest who she has an incredibly direct relationship with.
Craig: Dakota Johnson used to be married to Derek Haas.
John: That is not correct.
Craig: No. Oh. Sorry. I thought that was true.
John: This is going to be really embarrassing when I tell you this. So, are you ready?
John: So, Dakota Johnson played Kate in Ben & Kate, a show created by Dana Fox. She played essentially Dana Fox’s equivalent character in Ben & Kate. Not only that, she was the star of the movie that Dana produced and wrote, called How To Be Single, that Dana was on the show to talk about.
Craig: Yeah. You think I’m embarrassed by this? First of all, I don’t watch television, so not embarrassed at all. And second of all, I didn’t see her movie. I have no problem telling people I didn’t see – I feel like I’m now shielded completely from any negative feelings about this because people know that basically I just spend all day writing and playing video games and just it’s the saddest thing. It’s so sad.
John: It’s a lovely life.
John: Our last bit of follow up is about the Amazing Live Sea Monkeys.
Craig: Thank god.
John: Thank god. We’re finally through to the Amazing Live Sea Monkeys. So, Craig Good, a listener, pointed this out. Craig Good, he might actually be named for you. That’s a possibility.
John: Craig Good.
Craig: Yeah, like Good Craig.
John: It’s like the good version of you.
Craig: [laughs] All Craigs are the good version – everybody is a good version of me, because I am the worst version of me.
John: Yeah, you’re the best version of the Craig Mazin we love. He wrote in to point out that the puppeteer filmmakers that I mentioned who were co-creators of the show, it’s pronounced Chiodo, no Chiodo, but more importantly they’re also the people behind Killer Clowns from Outer Space, which is a cult classic. Which I’ve never seen, but is a cult classic, and I recognize the title.
Craig: Was Dakota Johnson in that?
John: She could have been in that. Craig would never know.
Craig: By the way, I’m happy to believe it. If you tell me it’s true.
John: Let’s get on to our main topic for this week, because I think it’s a pretty important topic. It’s going to be the end of Scriptnotes, basically, I think, because Hollywood is over.
Craig: Hollywood is done.
John: Which is – it’s done.
Craig: Nothing left to talk about really, right?
John: So, we’re going to center our conversation around an article that appeared in the most recent Vanity Fair titled Why Hollywood as we know it is already over. But hopefully we’re going to bridge out sort of beyond the article to talk about this kind of article. This article is written by Nick Bilton, who I actually know. So this is sort of my preamble to say that I like Nick. I think Nick is a really good writer. I’ve enjoyed a lot of things he’s written. And I talked to him originally about a book he wrote about Twitter, which I thought was really good.
I don’t think this piece is good. And Craig thinks this is also not good. So, we’re going to be sort of picking this piece apart sort of as a premise and as some details. But I want to make sure we’re able to circle around about the question of like well what if he’s right, or what if in a general sense it really is going to collapse. And what signs should we look for when it does collapse.
If you get exhausted with us just ripping apart this article, stick around, because I want to look for how we might find out if the premise of the article could be true.
Craig: All right.
John: How do you want to start, Craig?
Craig: We’ll obviously have a link in the show notes, so you folks can read along with this. Let’s just talk first, if we could, about this kind of article. This article comes out every year. Every year.
John: Multiple times in the year, but especially–
John: Yeah. But I mean, I’ve read a version of this article for the last 20 years.
Craig: Correct. So, very famously Lorne Michaels once said that every season of Saturday Night Live some brilliant television critic issues a review entitled Saturday Night Dead. And it has now been running for 31 years. And no sign of stopping. In fact, it seems more popular than ever.
The death knell of Hollywood has been sounded repeatedly really since television, I think, was created. And it seems like people take different tacks on why it’s no good, and will go away, and it’s all over, and that’s the end of that. In general, I think people do like writing articles like this because they’re very provocative. And ultimately they are low-risk/high-reward.
No one will remember your fake false prediction about something ending when it doesn’t end. But everybody will go rushing headlong back towards you to say, “Oh my god, this guy saw it coming,” when in fact just on average someone just guessing will “see it coming.”
So, you see this a lot. It is ultimately sensational journalism designed to provoke and feed into a general desire to see things fall apart. We do have this in our hearts, this weird rooting for things to collapse.
John: Yeah. I think we’re also at a very unique moment in American history right now where we are seeing some institutions that you thought like, oh, that could never fall apart, seem to be falling apart.
John: I think it’s natural to sort of say, well, Hollywood will fall apart. And, again, it could. But I don’t think it’s going to fall apart for the reasons that Nick Bilton does. So let’s start with the article itself and sort of how he gets us into this, which is that he’s visiting a TV show that’s shooting. He’s in a discussion with the screenwriter on the set. There is a raindrop on an actor’s shoulder. And the screenwriter brushes it off. And the wardrobe supervisor or the person responsible for that actor rushes over saying like, “No, no, don’t do that. That’s my job.”
So, that is sort of the premise that he’s introducing us to the current Hollywood world with.
Craig: Yeah. So, this is a terrible anecdote. Horrendous, really. The anecdote makes the following points. Creating film and television is incredibly inefficient because while he’s talking to a screenwriter about how inefficient things are, there are 200 members of the crew who are milling about – I’m just quoting from the article – “milling about in various capacities, checking on lighting or setting up tents, but mainly futzing with their smartphones, passing time, or nibbling on snacks from the craft service tents.”
Let’s start there, shall we?
John: Yeah. Let’s be… – A person who is not working in film and television visiting a set, I think that’s honestly kind what you would see. And if you don’t sort of know what everyone’s job is, you might see that and say like, “Oh, why aren’t people working?” I would argue that if you were to go into a Silicon Valley startup and see people sitting at their desks, you might have sort of the same question. Like, what are they actually doing? They’re maybe typing something, but are they really working? And sometimes if you look at a film set you might say like those folks aren’t working. They are working.
Craig: Yeah. So film production is not like a typical factory plant where everybody is working. After they clock in, then they get their lunch break, then they go back to work. Nor is it like working in retail. The way films are made, you need a lot of different people who are able to do different things. But, the nature of the crew is that it’s a lot of people, none of whom are always needed, but all of whom are sometimes needed.
It’s just the way film production is. It goes in ways. Like a little bit of a military campaign. When you are engaging in a military effort, not everybody does their job at once. When you are on a football team, half the team is on the bench, the other half is on the field. Are the people on the bench just sitting around, futzing?
So, when you’re turning lights around, the grips and the electricians are working. And when you’re shooting, hair and makeup are working. And when you’re blocking out a scene, you have your ADs and you have the cinematographer, and then you have set-dec, and you have props people coming in and getting approvals. Sometimes they’re on the truck. They’re ordering stuff for the next day.
The truth is, if you don’t understand how film production works, then you might think, “Oh, this seems inefficient.” What’s remarkable to me about articles like this is that the author never stops to ask, “Hmm, do I understand how this works? Is it really just – is the easy observation that it’s all just bizarrely bloated in some kind of crazy way possibly true?” If we were to put a camera in Nick Bilton’s office and just run that 24/7 for a week, I wonder how much work we would see happening, and how much other stuff?
John: Yeah. It would be challenging to see. So, let’s look at – he segues from this scene of a film set, to talking about other industries that were disrupted. So, let’s quickly go through some of the other industries that have been disrupted and sort of what the fair analogies are and the unfair analogies.
Let’s start with the music industry. Obviously there was a massive disruption in the music industry. Recorded music sort of fell apart. And the so the profits that you used to come into the recording industry are not there anymore. It’s a very different industry, obviously, but that was the one that was sort of most directly hit by mp3s, piracy. It all fell apart.
To a lesser degree, you see what happened in the newspaper industry. You saw book publishing. Other industries where disruption sort of upended everything. But the music industry is probably the most direct one, so let’s take a look at that first.
Craig: Well, the music industry was disrupted in this fashion in the ‘90s. We’re talking about 25 years ago now. I think Napster was, and Limewire, and all these sites – I mean, remember Limewire? These were around in the early ‘90s. And I think everybody watching what that did to the music industry naturally said, “How long will it be before the television and film industry falls to the same fate?”
And really the only thing that seemed to be limiting it was just bandwidth capacity and sizes of hard drives, which probably within six years had reached the place where it could happen. And it has not happened. And they keep talking about this like this is the mistake that old people make. Sorry, Nick. I assume – even if he’s my age, he’s old. We think that because we clearly remember this happening that it’s going to happen again right around the corner. That is a quarter of a century ago. And it has not happened.
Why? Huge difference between the way the music industry works and the way our industry works. The music industry was never developing work because music is not massively collaborative. The only collaboration you find in music really is between maybe a producer and an artist, or four or five people in a band. But the truth is, one person with a guitar can make a hit song. The music industry was always about finding those people, the way that indie companies find movies at festivals, and then supporting their work financially like patrons, and then advertising and distributing the work, which is the only apt comparison to the way Hollywood functions for television and film.
It has never been true and it never will be true about movies and shows that one person or two people or four people can do it. In fact, it takes armies of people. The very armies that this guy thinks might not be necessary, but are, to make these shows happen. And so we are simply in a different position. If this industry around us went the way of the music industry, there just wouldn’t be the content. But we know that that’s not true for music. It’s odd to me that the question isn’t why hasn’t this happened to film, rather than the statement clearly this will happen to film.
John: Yeah. I think that’s a great question. It was what I wanted to hit next. And we don’t have time for it today, but let’s try to circle back in a future episode basically why has film and television not fallen apart to piracy the way we always kind of thought it might, because there really is not a fundamental difference in terms of technology of why a television series can still be viable now, even though there is rampant piracy, and we know about Game of Thrones. There’s rampant piracy. And yet it hasn’t happened. So, to predict that it’s going to happen seems naïve.
Moving on through the article, he talks about “Hollywood these days seems remarkably poised for a similar disruption. Its audiences increasingly prefer on-demand content. Its labor is costly. And margins are shrinking.” Craig?
Craig: I don’t agree. First of all, I don’t know what he means by Hollywood exactly. He never quite defines that terms. What is that? When I first showed up in Los Angeles in 1992, in the era of Napster, somewhat optimistically, defying all the predictions of disaster, I remember driving through Hollywood. Actually seeing Hollywood for the first time and going, “Wait, what? This is a slum. There’s nothing here. There’s just a bunch of warehouses and a couple of post-production facilities and graffiti and shambling heroin addicts.”
Hollywood, I don’t know exactly what it means. Yes, audiences prefer on-demand content in one sense. I think they prefer it over the traditional way of delivering television series, which was you get one once a week for 22 weeks. You have to wait. There are commercials inside of the episode that you have to wait. Of course they prefer that. They don’t seem to prefer on-demand content when it comes to movies. At all. That’s just a fact.
But the larger question, I mean, margins are shrinking. We’ll have to take a look at his data on that. But, why is Netflix not Hollywood in his definition? When Netflix employs the same crews, and the same writers, and the same actors, and the same directors, using the same methods that he’s decrying here, to make their shows. How is Scott Frank’s upcoming western miniseries that employed hundreds of people and big Hollywood stars, and he’s a big Hollywood writer-director, for Netflix, how is that – and a big budget – how is that not Hollywood?
John: Yeah. So we talked about disruption, and clearly you can look at Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, they are disrupting the model of standard television. But they’re disrupting it in very kind of conventional ways. They didn’t find a new cheaper way to make television. They just made really expensive television, and made money making really expensive television. So, it’s a weird kind of disruption.
Classically, you wouldn’t think of disruption as like, oh, you’ve changed the distribution model, you’ve changed – we’re able to make things for like a quarter of the cost. That’s not actually happened. And over the years I’ve seen experiments with like we’re going to see if we can do this kind of movie for a million dollars rather than $10 million. And they do one of those and it tanks. There’s kind of a reason why things cost what they cost. I don’t sort of buy the overall “it looks like it should be disrupted, so therefore it will be disrupted” argument.
But let’s do take a look at some numbers, because one of the things he cites in here, and actually I did tweet at him to ask where he got this number, and I haven’t heard back as we’re recording this, so if I do get the answer I will edit this in here. But he writes that, “Movie theater attendance is down to a 19-year low, with revenues hovering slightly above $10 billion.”
So, again, I don’t know what his source was for tickets sold, but for what I saw, 2016 had 1.3 billion tickets sold domestically. 1998, which is 19 years ago, had 1.4 billion. So, it’s lower, but it’s like a point of a billion. So, it’s not like a huge falloff.
I looked at the MPAA statistics, so for 2015, which was the last year I could find them, admissions or tickets sold were 1.32 billion. And average tickets sold per person increased 4%. That means that two-thirds of North Americans saw at least one movie in the theater, which is a 2% increase over moviegoers from 2014. So, that’s actually a pretty amazing statistic that it says two-thirds, actually 69% of North Americans saw at least one movie in the theater. That’s kind of huge.
Craig: It’s enormous. And when you see movie theater attendance is down to a 19-year low, that is classic misinformation. If it’s down to a 19-year low, but it’s down by, like you said, some tiny amount, that’s not particularly meaningful. Nor does his 19-year low take into account what was going on inside those 19 years. So, in 1998, 1.44 billion tickets sold. In 2003, 1.52 billion tickets sold. So, I don’t quite see where he’s coming from here. In 1997, total inflation adjusted box office was $11.6 billion. And in 2016, it $11.25 billion. That seems remarkably stable for an industry that he is suggesting is in some kind of freefall.
I generally do not like these kinds of sensational statistics manipulation because it makes me start to question the motivation here, which I don’t think is evil or malicious as much as over-zealous in support of a grabby click-bait headline.
John: Yeah. And obviously writers don’t pick their headlines, and so a lot of what he’s describing here can be sort of charitably taken as this is sort of the experience of sort of what it feels like here. And as a tech person coming in and seeing this stuff, he sees these patterns which are classically setup for Silicon Valley disruption. But what I find so fascinating is the Silicon Valley money from Amazon, from Netflix, they’re spending the same money. They’re changing some things, but they’re actually still spending all the money to make the big, expensive prestige things.
You look at the kinds of series they’re doing. You look at the kinds of money they’re spending. It’s not actually different.
Craig: It’s not. And by the way, this is not for lack of trying to disrupt. That’s the other thing that’s really important to understand. Amazon, we did an episode about this a number of years ago. When Amazon came into this world of content creation, they absolutely wanted to disrupt it. In fact, their entire model was based on the presumption that is being stated in this article. That Hollywood system was inefficient, clumsy, unnecessarily cumbersome. And that by disrupting it and going straight to content creators and then crowd-sourcing the material and crowd-editing it that they would arrive at much better work, essentially kind of Ubering their way around a taxi cab industry. And they failed not big, but disastrously, to the point where they have just forgotten about that whole thing completely. That was just a complete whiff.
And they failed for all the reasons we suggested they would. So, believe me, they would. Oh my god, would they have disrupted us by now if they could.
John: I don’t think they’re going to. And part of it is also you have to understand the economics of things are not sort of what you might anticipate. He talks about a modest episode of a television show could cost $3 million to shoot and produce. By comparison, the typical startup in Silicon Valley will raise that much for a team of engineers and servers for two years. It feels like a very faulty analogy considering that $3 million you’re spending on that television episode is immediately profitable.
John: Because of foreign right sales, that $3 million you’ve spent, you’ve already made it back. Like by the time it airs, you’ve made your money back. So the return on investment on that $3 million is really good. And I think that’s part of my frustration is you see people investing new money in Hollywood all the time, including these tech people, because it’s genuinely profitable.
Craig: Right. That’s the strange paradox at the heart of this. He’s saying that Hollywood is going to be disrupted by Silicon Valley, and yet Silicon Valley keeps giving money to Hollywood. Right? So, you could take that $3 million if you really want to be efficient and just buy bean pickers. You could buy, I don’t know, 10,000 bean pickers in how many bean fields. It’s not the way this works. It’s a dumb comparison.
And here’s the other thing. People routinely make the mistake of applying classic ROI analysis, return on investment analysis, to Hollywood, forgetting one very important thing: that people don’t want to just be in the entertainment business because of the business part. There’s that old saying, you know, it’s not show fun, it’s show business. This is show business. Yes, but the flip side of that is it’s show business, not business-business, not money business. Show business.
You and I could make more money doing something else. If everybody simply went towards what was the most efficient way to make money, then I guess, yes, we would all be hedge fund managers, or I don’t know. But even the business people, the suits, that are in our business want to be in our business because they’re drawn to the show. To the glamour. And the celebrity. And the artistic experience. And the notion of creating culture as opposed to a slightly more feature-laden spreadsheet. And that’s why Silicon Valley is so fascinated by Hollywood. They can say it’s because they need content for all their new delivery systems, but in the end content is fascinating. And a lot of this other stuff like how to maximize server load is not.
John: It’s not. It’s fascinating for certain people, and god bless the people for whom that is fascinating and they get paid well by Google. Let’s bring this a little closer to home and back to screenwriting. Because he talks about if you could give a computer all the best scripts ever written, it would eventually be able to write one that might come close to replicating an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.
John: It’s very close to the a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters thing.
John: Like, yes, that could happen. We looked at the first scripts sort of written by an AI program starring Thomas Middleditch. It was not fantastic.
John: Do I believe that that kind of stuff will get better? I do believe that kind of stuff will get better. Do I believe it’s going to replace our expectations of screenwriters writing scripts? I do not believe that.
John: It falls into a line of sort of Amazon’s model in terms of crowd-sourcing things. Or the kind of inevitable A/B testing that’s done on the tech side, which has the equivalence in our focus group being in Hollywood. They are processes. They are processes that don’t necessarily lend themselves to great works of art.
And I think a thing which may be easy to overlook from a distance is that this isn’t like sort of what color should the links be on Google’s home page, which they can test for. It’s like is this movie working? Is this movie going to be the one that’s going to bring a billion dollars in? That’s not the kind of thing you can actually sort of test for. It actually has to be good. And there’s a qualitative versus a quantitative thing that’s very hard to sort of hit to. You have to get filmmakers and a vision behind that for those things to work.
Craig: Well, they keep trying. We will discover every year or so another one of these companies that believes they’ve found an algorithm, and they haven’t. I love sentences like, “If you can give a computer all the best scripts ever written, it would eventually be able to write one that might come close to replicating an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.” Oh, OK. Well, I can’t wait for that day. Here’s what we know about that wonderful day. Aaron Sorkin has to exist first. Aaron Sorkin has to write a screenplay first. This is the kind of thing that people say at a cocktail party and you just go, “You know what, I have to excuse myself to the bathroom,” because I can’t talk to this person anymore. They’re out of their minds.
It’s not that I’m one of these people that thinks stupidly that computers aren’t going to become smarter, and smarter, and smarter. We’re fascinated by this. We talked about this remarkable leap forward that Google took with translation. But they only were able to do that by feeding enormous amounts of data, meaning language, into that computer, and then having the computer parse through all of this stuff.
And you can’t do that with movies. You’ll just end up, I mean, what’s the point? We’ve tested this with everyone on the planet and we’ve come up with the perfect version. Great. They already saw it. It doesn’t matter. What if computers could write Vanity Fair articles? What if computers could make Michelin Star worthy food? What if robots could play baseball? Putting “what if” in front of a prediction adds exactly zero credibility to it. It’s just provocation for provocation sake. And in particular, when you’re talking about movies, what we crave as an audience and as humans is the new. Computers are really good at copying what’s happened before, right?
When we say that Google translation has made a huge leap forward, what we’re saying is they’re catching up to what humans have already done with translation work. They’re not translating hither to untranslated languages. But with movies, we want new. We’re always looking for cultural disruption. Computers will not be able to do that. That’s not what they do. We do that.
John: Yeah. You look at the progress in AI, and it’s always really good at solving games. And so translation you can think of as a game. Like are you getting the right result? And so computers just this last week kicked ass at poker, and they were able to do poker really well, and that was a huge breakthrough. The thing is, there’s not a perfect answer in terms of like what is the right movie. Because you can have the right movie. I’ve seen the right movie. And then I’ve been in like three-hour arguments with producers and studio executives over the right movie that’s already finished and they keep wanting to change things.
There’s not going to be a place where you get to like this is the perfect movie. This is the best movie it can possibly be. There’s always going to be opinions. And there aren’t opinions in poker. It’s clear who won.
John: And you don’t have a clear winner in this. But, let’s do that dangerous “what if” and let’s ask the question of what if he’s right, or what if essentially even if he’s wrong on some of the details, he’s right in saying that Hollywood as we know it is going to end, or it’s going to collapse, it’s going to fall, there’s going to be some reckoning coming. What should we look for if that is going to happen?
Craig: Well, you would start to see major studios with names that have great brand awareness shutting down completely. I think if you saw Warner Bros or Universal or Fox or Columbia, Disney, just say we’re out of the business of making television shows and movies, that would be a huge sign. And I think one of those things would have to happen while also not being replaced by some equivalent. So, it’s not like Circuit City goes out of business because Best Buy is just doing the same job but better. But rather we’ve just lost something, the way that brick and mortar stores are disappearing. We know that Sears is disappearing. Best Buy is gone. Circuit City is gone. That’s a sign.
John: Yeah. I would say if you saw a lack of investment, basically money was not chasing Hollywood anymore, that would be a sign that they’re saying like, “OK, we don’t believe we’re going to be able to get our money out of this investment.” And we are not seeing that now.
So, I’m not saying that the money spigots will always be flowing at sort of maximum volume, but I’m still seeing a lot of money coming into Hollywood. You’re seeing a lot of Silicon Valley money coming into Hollywood. And that is considered pretty smart money. They must have a reason why they’re trying to do this.
Craig: No question.
John: I would also take a look at sort of movie theaters themselves. And we didn’t sort of hit on this part of the article, but it’s always that question of like will the big screen experience persist, because you know television, yes, got disrupted, but when you think of movies they’ve actually been very much the same experience for the past 100 years. You go into a big room with a bunch of other people. The lights go down. And on a big screen in front of you, you see a story being told, about two hours long, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And you’re seeing it with this big group of people and they’re all having sort of the same communal experience. The lights come on, and you leave.
Weirdly, that has not changed that much. The theaters have gotten better. The projectors have gotten better. We no longer show film. But it’s the same basic experience. And will that go away? I guess it could? There could be a situation where VR goggles are so much better than the experience of being in that theater that it goes away to some degree. But I think there still will be a social aspect of going out to the movies that persists.
But if we see that the big exhibitors go away, like if money goes away from the AMC theaters, the Carmikes, and all those, then maybe that’s a sign that the big screen movie business – it’s days are numbered.
Craig: Yeah. I think that there is some concern there. There’s a realistic concern about the exhibition business, which I think he is confounding here with Hollywood. Hollywood is not in the exhibition business. Hollywood is in the content creation business. And the distribution and advertising business. But it is forbidden by law, and he acknowledges this in the article, it’s forbidden by law to also then control the exhibition business, which is movie theaters.
Movie theaters have been in trouble for a long time. And they’ve been in trouble for a long time because in part they’re being squeezed in all sorts of ways. And you can see that because they pass along those squeezings to you in the form of $20 cup-full of popcorn. And yet, with all the complaints that people have about movie theaters, and concessions, they still go. We know that. We just talked about the ticket buying practices.
Hollywood continues to try and figure out ways to get around the one price fits all model. And they are constantly butting heads with the exhibitors over that one. Hollywood would love to be able to charge $25 a ticket for a Star Wars movie, which they know people would pay, and the exhibitors are terrified of that because those people are not going to then also spend $25 on Goobers.
So, there’s struggles there. And the movie theaters are struggling. So far we have not seen any kind of wholesale shuttering of those facilities. I don’t think VR is going to – VR to me is completely irrelevant. Has nothing to do with watching a movie. All of us are quite addicted to watching things projected on flat things. Children, too. Where things have changed is when you look at the iPad and little videos of babies trying to touch and swipe magazine pages because they think they can interact with it.
But, no, VR to me feels like a trap, frankly. It just feels like a gimmick.
John: I’m going to disagree with you on VR. I think VR actually probably will become something amazing, but I think it’s a mistake to sort of assume that it’s going to replace movies. I think it’s going to be its own thing. And I think trying to make it be something it’s not is foolish. It’s going to become its own special and probably amazing art form.
But the same way that videogames are not replacing television. They are different things.
Craig: I actually agree with that. I mean to say that I think it’s a gimmick when it comes to movies.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: But I agree with you that the applications are pretty remarkable for other things.
John: Cool. All right, let’s skip ahead to questions, because I worry that we’re not going to get to questions if we just don’t tackle these.
Craig: Yeah, and we’ve been punting these down the line, week after week.
John: So I feel bad for Jessica. Would you read Jessica’s question for us?
Craig: Sure, Jessica from New York – oh – asks, “I am writing a feature loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s folktale The Red Shoes.” Which, by the way, John, have you ever read The Red Shoes?
John: I’ve read The Red Shoes.
Craig: Oh my god, it’s horrifying. Hans Christian Andersen, boy was he a dark dude. Anyway.
John: Yeah, well we talked about The Little Mermaid and what the original ending of The Little Mermaid was, which was incredibly dark.
Craig: And that’s nothing compared to The Red Shoes, where you dance until you’re dead. OK. So, “I’m writing a feature loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s folktale The Red Shoes. Since this is in public domain, I know that I’m good to go. However, The Red Shoes was also a novel written in 2013 by John Stewart Wynne. I haven’t read the book, but I have read the summary. The novel is based in New York, like my story, and addresses similar themes. While I know that my take on this folktale will be entirely different as far as plot, I worry there will be some inevitable similarities. Would I ever have a potential legal issue with the author of this novel if my screenplay were optioned or purchased?”
John, what do you think?
John: So, here’s the place where we remind you that we are not lawyers, so we’re only going to give you our opinions that are not legal opinions. I would say that there’s always a chance that someone could come to you and say like, “Hey, that’s my thing, The Red Shoes, which was set here and was an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s whatever.” And then it could be a thing. And you just don’t know it’s going to be a thing. But if you’re paralyzed by that worry now, don’t be.
I would say write your great script, write your great movie, and don’t worry about this other thing. I think you are smart not to have read the other thing. I mean, I mean you did write into a podcast where we’re talking about it, so this wouldn’t be great for a future lawsuit.
There’s no project you could conceive of writing that would not have some other thing out there that could theoretically sue you. So, to be paralyzed by it now is foolish.
Craig: I agree. I’ll even go one step further. There is an entire world of precedent for different works based on the same underlying public domain properties. There have been god knows how many versions of bible stories alone. So, right off the bat, you’re talking about a novel that’s based on something else and you’re basing something on that same thing. So, similarities are inevitable, and the similarities in theory would be ones that are related to the underlying material which is accessible to everyone because it’s in public domain.
More importantly, you actually would I have potential legal issue if my screenplay were optioned or purchased? No, because the people purchasing your screenplay, forget option because they haven’t bought anything, but purchase, they are going to do their due diligence and make sure that you haven’t stepped on anyone’s toes, which you’re not doing. You’re not infringing. You’re not plagiarizing. And at that point, part of your contract is that you’re indemnified.
So, if somebody does sue, then the studios just handle them. And they do. They sue and as John and I have pointed out many, many times, seems like every week we hear about somebody suing, and every never we hear about somebody winning.
John: Write your script, Jessica. Just write it.
John: Our next question comes from Tully Archer. Let’s listen to what she had to say.
Tully Archer: We’ve all read bad scripts, some of them just shockingly, horribly bad scripts, but I sort of cheerily assume that there’s almost always something promising in there. Some cool idea, or interesting phrasing that we can point to to say this script could be good. It just needs work. However, have you ever read something or interacted with someone where you came away thinking, wow, this person will not make it? If so, what was it? What was the thing? Is there something that when you see it you recognize it as that thing that spells irrefutable doom for the screenwriter in questions? Thanks again. You guys are awesome.
John: So, Craig, any signals of inevitable doom as you’ve interacted with other writers?
Craig: Yeah. Certainly. You know, we all have had that experience. I think there is weirdly a kind of freedom that is attached to that experience because you don’t particularly have to worry about hurting that person’s feelings. Life is going to patiently explain to them that this is not for them.
Sometimes these people are deeply delusional. What I tend to pick up on immediately is a series of writing mistakes to the exclusion of anything good. Every possible way you could succeed has been foreclosed. And all you have is bad description, bad characters or nonexistent characters. Really that’s more than anything is just they’re not even there. So the characters aren’t characters. The dialogue isn’t dialogue. The action doesn’t seem to be happening. The place where you are doesn’t seem to be real. Everything is just off completely. And at that point, you could try and explain to the tone deaf person why they’re not going to be a professional singer, but really you could just say, unfortunately, sometimes what I’ll do is, “I just stopped reading at page 10. I had a whole bunch issues, I’m happy to tell you why. But I’m probably not the person that this script was meant for. I just am not connecting with your writing.”
And then you move on because it doesn’t matter. They stink.
John: Yeah. So now if Craig tells you that, that he didn’t connect with the writing, he doesn’t think that you have a shot.
Craig: I don’t read anybody else’s stuff anymore. [laughs] I’m out of that.
John: Yeah. I have similar experience about reading through a script and they just fundamentally don’t get it. And especially if like, oh, this is my third script and like I’m reading through and it’s like, no, this person doesn’t understand sort of what a screenplay actually is. There’s a weird thing where it’s like nothing actually clicks. And you flip a page and it’s like you’re in a whole new movie, or you flip a page and it’s like you’re just reading the same scene again and again. There’s just nothing to it. It’s just empty.
So, that’s the experience on the page. Sometimes I’ll be talking with somebody and they’ll be describing the movies they want to make, or how they want to work in Hollywood, and sometimes they’re just brand new, and they’re naïve, and they don’t sort of know what it is. But sometimes they just have a fundamental misunderstanding of what movies are. Or what television is. And I can’t talk them through all of that. And so I can say, oh, we make a podcast about it. Maybe you want to listen.
But there’s people who don’t seem to fundamentally understand not even the business but the creative endeavor of trying to write for film and television. That it’s a lot. And some people just kind of don’t get it. And you can see that they just don’t get it.
Craig: Yeah. You know you’re in bad shape when you read a few pages and you think what this person needs to do is find one of the most formulaic, basic, by the numbers, copycat movies out there, and read the script for that. They’re not even there yet. They don’t know the alphabet. Never fun.
John: It sounds like, oh, there’s a gleeful sort of – oh, this person just doesn’t get it. No, it’s actually upsetting when I encounter that. Especially when they’re really genuinely nice people.
Craig: Of course.
John: Because you’re rooting for them. You want them to succeed. But you also want to somehow be able to tell them I don’t think this is going to work for you for these reasons. And I’ve never been the guy who can sort of say that.
Craig: Very few people are. You know? If you’re on a television show, and that’s your character that’s fine. You could be Simon Cowell. I always admired that. But in life, there’s really not much of an upside to that. One time I did tell somebody this is not for you. And they took it very poorly. It was probably about 15 years ago. They are not currently a professional screenwriter.
John: I have had the experience of like there’s the people who are actually genuine good writers, but they’re not good at the whole thing. Like they’re good at certain parts of writing movies. And I feel like you need to find a writing partner who is good at the rest of this stuff. Because you clearly have some great skills. You’re really good at dialogue, but you can’t sort of do everything else right. And you don’t seem to have a good grasp of how you should act in a meeting and that kind of stuff. Those are the people who kind of frustrate me most, because I can see the right circumstances and the right combination of elements they could write something brilliant. But, it’s not going to be me who is going to be able to get them there.
That’s honestly sort of the heartbreaking situation. I have friends who I definitely sense could do it with just like the right combination of things.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, the truth is if you ask what is sadder, a kid who believes he should be, or whose one dream is to be a major league baseball player, but just can’t make his own high school team, or a triple A player who is almost good enough, but not. It’s just triple A player is sadder.
John: it is sadder. It’s a strange thing. To be so close and not get it. To go to the Olympics and not make it to the medals round.
Craig: Right. Really, you’re so much better than so many people, it’s just that you’re not good enough. That’s rough. Yeah. Well, but happily that’s not what this question was about.
John: Yeah, that’s not this question. The obvious people.
Craig: Complete ding-a-lings. Oh, we have another question from New York. This is New York day.
John: You can take it.
Craig: All right. Alyssa in New York asks, “I’m writing a script where a character is interviewing another character who does not speak English, with a translator acting as a go between. Basically she asks the question, the translator translates it, the woman answers, and the translator translates her response. How do I show this in a script? Do I need to write all the lines twice and indicate that one time they’re in a different language? Or can I just write in an action line Woman talks and then have a line with just the translator saying what was said?”
How would you handle that, John?
John: There are multiple ways to do it. When Aline was on the show, she was talking about her French ladies script that had a bit of this where they had to switch back and forth between languages. And she described it basically there would be lines in French when they needed to be in French, but mostly everything was in English. And I think English is genuinely your friend here. So just stick with the translator in English as much as reasonable or possible. There may be cases where if the person who is speaking the foreign language is actually the more important character, I would probably give them the dialogue header. Like put their character name and then in italics or something else put what they’re actually saying, so that we get the vibe of like this is all being translated in real time. But it’s clear that we’re looking at the person and not the translator who is doing the speaking.
Craig: Yes. Years and years ago I was working on a script and I made the mistake of having people say something in their language, and then underneath putting the translation. And Scott Frank almost killed me. He almost slit my throat over it. Because it’s unwieldy. And ultimately you don’t get any credit for saying, look, I know words.
So, in a situation like this, especially when you’re talking about repeated, and as a conversation, not just one or two lines, I would probably describe the situation. So, Alyssa is asking questions and Jean-Pierre is answering and Jean-Pierre’s translator is serving as the go between. And then when it’s Jean-Pierre’s time to talk I might say Jean-Pierre/Translator and then put his dialogue in italics.
Craig: That’s probably what I would do.
John: That’s a smart way to do it. And, again, if Jean-Pierre is the more important character, then Jean-Pierre, just give him the lines and just say woman talks in scene description. But that’s probably not going to be the case in the story you’re describing. But I would say just basically never do your own translation work in the script. You’re just burning page and you’re burning the reader’s attention. Because the reader doesn’t want to read those two lines in different languages.
Craig: And god forbid Scott Frank ever picks it up.
John: Oh my god. It’s just the worst.
Craig: And when he wants to cut your throat, he uses script paper. He uses three-hole punch. So it’s like he’s paper cutting your throat open.
John: Well, he’s an expert. He really knows how to do all this stuff. He’s done all those violent movies. And he’s learned some ways.
Craig: A thousand ways to kill you.
John: It’s really good. So, Craig, we’re at the point of the show where we have two more topics that we didn’t get to, so rather than try to cram those topics in, we’ll save them for next week’s show. So, next week we will talk about, oh, there’s good stuff with Kellyanne Conway here. There’s good stuff I learned from my copy editing experience. But they’re kind of evergreen, so we will get back to those next week. It was important that we answered these questions this time.
And so important that we get to our One Cool Things. So, my One Cool Thing is incredibly self-centered. I was reading through the comment thread on IMDb about my movie Go.
Craig: Oh my god.
John: I would generally not do this, but someone had pointed me towards it saying like have you seen this thread. And I’m like, OK. And so this thread was started by a user asking this question. “Did anyone else notice that even though the film was shot in 1999, and focused on young people, that no mobile phones appeared in the phone? Unless I missed something, it seems like this was a deliberate decision by the makers of the film. I like the choice.” And there’s an edit here saying that the strip club sort of seems to have a car phone, but it doesn’t explain why no other characters in the movie use a mobile when they clearly had the opportunity.
So, Craig, what is your answer? Why do characters not use mobile phones in Go?
Craig: I’m going to guess it’s because that would have ended the movie in about 40 seconds?
John: No. Weirdly it isn’t. Because most cases in screenwriters and cell phones, I did a whole presentation on screenwriters and cell phones and how cell phones are the death of screenwriting. But it actually wasn’t that. People assume that like, oh, mobile phones were common in 1999, but they actually need to wind the clock back.
So, the movie came out in ’99. The movie was shot in ’98 and it was written in ’97. At the point in 1997 when I wrote the script, these characters would not have had mobile phones. And it’s so hard to remember back in that time, or if you weren’t born at that time, to know that people didn’t always have mobile phones. And these characters would not have had mobile phones and that’s why they’re using pagers.
What I found so great about this thread, though, it goes on for 13 pages. So, hundreds of people wrote in with their theories about why there were not cell phones in Go. So, I found it delightful. I love when people obsess about things that I actually know the answer to. So, it was fun.
Craig: It’s great.
John: It was nice.
Craig: It’s that moment in Annie Hall where you get to be, “Don’t you wish life were always like this?”
John: Yeah. It’s like that. Craig, what’s your One Cool Thing?
Craig: My One Cool Thing this week is the much needed resurgence of journalism. Talking about disruption and industries falling apart, much like the music industry, the newspaper industry was absolutely blown apart by the emergence of online media and suddenly overnight their profit base, which was essentially subscriptions to their print versions, disappeared. And they struggled greatly.
And yet now we find ourselves in desperate need of them. Which must be very nice for them to know. It turns out that we need these people to say the truth. And to question people if they feel that those people aren’t speaking the truth. So, what I would like all of you to consider, regardless of your politics, is to actually subscribe to a reputable periodical. There are disreputable periodicals to the left and the right of the political spectrum. But I’m going to list five here that sort of run the gamut from middle left to middle right: The New York Times, The Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times.
These are excellent periodicals that do investigative journalism. They have slightly different points of views. But more importantly, they are experiencing a moment now where everyone says we need you because we’re drowning in nonsense. We live in a time when a presidential spokesperson goes on TV and decries a massacre that literally never happened. And within minutes people will start tweeting about this. And televised news is terrific in its own way. But only publications can really dig down into the, wait, why did she say that? What is that about? What did she mistake it for? What does this mean? You don’t get that from television.
From television you just get people yammering at each other. So, considering subscribing to one or more of these publications.
John: I subscribe to three of these publications. And going back to this notion of disruption, I think podcasts have clearly disrupted some of the traditional media landscape, but what I’ve been so happy to see is The New York Times really stepping up its podcast game. So this past week they started The Daily which is a 15-minute podcast. Incredibly well produced daily podcast that’s looking at one or two stories in depth. So, it’s great to see these venerable institutions like The New York Times really embracing how they can tell their stories now. So, I really do urge people to subscribe to one of these or another great publication of your choice.
John: And that’s our show for this week. So as always, it was produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Malcolm Nygard. Thank you, Malcolm. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For shorter questions, I’m on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
We are on Facebook. Some people left some really nice comments about Nima’s episode, so thank you for that. If you want to find us on Facebook, just search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can also search for Scriptnotes Podcast to find our app, which is right now the only way to get to all of our back episodes, as you’re walking around. It’s $1.99 a month for all those back episodes. You can sign up at Scriptnotes.net.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts, about four days after the episode airs. And that’s it. So thanks so much, Craig.
Craig: See you next time John.
- Scriptnotes Extra: A Refugee Story
- Their Story is Our Story
- Hollywood is already over
- MPAA Statistics
- IMDb is shutting down its message boards
- Go IMDb Thread
- New York Times
- Wall Street Journal
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Malcolm Nygard (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.
Craig and John discuss a Vanity Fair article about the impending disruption of Hollywood and are unimpressed. The better question worth asking: if this were the end of the film and television industry, what signs would we look for?
Then it’s finally time to answer listener questions about folktales, translators and writers who just don’t get it.
- Scriptnotes Extra: A Refugee Story
- Their Story is Our Story
- Hollywood is already over
- MPAA Statistics
- IMDb is shutting down its message boards
- Go IMDb Thread
- New York Times
- Wall Street Journal
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Malcolm Nygard (send us yours!)
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: And my name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 286 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, well, way back in Episode 37 we discussed dialogue. Today we’re doing a follow up on that. A part two on dialogue. The ways in which characters communicate with each other and let us know what’s inside their heads. Then we’ll be discussing two terms often applied to screenwriters and I will be urging people to stop using those terms.
Craig: Yeah. That’s a great idea.
John: Plus, we’ll have a chance to answer some listener questions if we don’t run out of time, so we should probably get started. Craig, last week we asked How Would This Be a Movie, and several of our listeners wrote in to say that was already a TV show.
Craig: Yeah, who knew? So, this was the Alexis Manigo story. This was the girl who was stolen from her parents when she was born, from the hospital, and raised by an entirely different woman. And then comes to find out when she’s 17 or 18 what the truth is, and it was an interesting story. So, she was born Kamiyah Mobley and then was raised as Alexis Manigo, and I guess now she’s back to being Kamiyah Mobley. Regardless, many folks wrote in, including – do you remember this guy, Stuart Friedel? [laughs]
John: Vaguely. I think he was a producer early on on Scriptnotes. That’s maybe how we knew him, Stuart.
Craig: Only for the first 98% of the shows. Regardless, Stuart and others wrote in to direct our attention to an MTV series that was called Finding Carter. And that show was about – we’ll see if this sounds familiar- a teenage girl whose life is turned upside down when she discovers that the woman she thought was her mother had abducted when she was a child. That’s the exact same story. And it was created by a writer named Emily Silver. So, yeah, looks like I guess life has imitated art there?
John: Perhaps. Or Emily Silver was ahead of the game. Perhaps she traveled through time and she saw the story and went back in time so she could be the first one there with that story.
Craig: That’s the most likely explanation.
John: That is absolutely. Occam’s razor suggests time travel is clearly what was at work here. It’s a good idea for a story in general. So that was a fictional version of that story. I kind of remember a promo for it, because I don’t watch a lot on MTV, but I watch MTV’s The Challenge and I would see promos for Finding Carter back in those days.
Craig: I got to tell you, I have forgotten that MTV even exists. I mean, look, when we were kids MTV came out and it was the bomb. Right? We all loved MTV. The astronaut dancing around. Videos were this new thing. We were just thrilled.
John: We also said words like The Bomb.
Craig: Right. Like that’s how old we are. And then MTV stopped playing music videos and started doing other stuff. And we were like, meh, I don’t know. But then they had MTV’s The Real World. And that became the new hotness. Right?
John: I loved The Real World. I probably watched the first six seasons of The Real World.
Craig: I don’t know how long I stuck around. I think I probably checked out after San Francisco, which was kind of the height of drama. At least as far as I could tell. And then I stopped watching MTV. I don’t even know where to find it. I don’t know what’s on it. And I’m not sure that’s necessarily a function of me being an old dude. My son is 15. My daughter is 12. I don’t even know if they know that MTV is a thing.
John: I think MTV is still a thing, it’s just because channels have become much less important, networks have become less important, and programs have become more important. So, like Teen Wolf is a big MTV show.
Craig: Ah, OK.
John: And so that is a big scripted show. And so that is sort of what they do now. And Finding Carter was a series, like Teen Wolf, but it didn’t break out in the way that Teen Wolf broke out to become a phenomena.
John: Yeah. I think you can still make some sort of movie version of that story, but I kind of feel like we were – obviously we weren’t going to know about Finding Carter. We’re just not in that demographic. But I think a TV series is actually a really interesting way to go with that idea, because it’s an ongoing journey. It doesn’t have to be a one-time situation to discover that you’re kidnapped. There’s a lot of story that you can stretch out ahead there. And so a TV series is a good way to do that. Congratulations, Emily Silver, your time travel seems like a great opportunity for narrative.
John: Silver! Next up, we talked about sea monkeys. And, again, there was a TV show. I have no idea there was a TV show. There was a television program that ran for 11 episodes in 1992 called The Amazing Live Sea Monkeys. It starred Howie Mandel as the professor. The show was created by Howie Mandel, along with Stephen Charles and Edward Chiodo, who I looked up and they are like puppeteers. They are puppet makers. And so this was a live action show. The sea monkeys had sort of puppeted faced. I mean, they were like makeup faces. And so they were full size people.
I should probably just read the Wikipedia summary. “The plot revolved around the notion that the Professor had accidentally enlarged three sea monkeys to human-size, and plotlines followed their ensuing comical ineptness in the world. Each Sea Monkey displayed a certain odd character trait: Aquarius could not keep a secret, Bill was afraid of an Imperial, Dave would grow excited at the sound of polka music. They occasionally come into contact with their next door neighbors the ‘Brentwood’s, whose daughter Sheila becomes the Sea-Monkeys best friend.”
Craig: First of all, what is happening? I mean, we’ve talked a lot about what it means to build a character. This is a good example of what to not do. “Dave would grow excited at the sound of polka music” – not really a solid substitute for verisimilitude in a living creature. But, what the hell does “Bill was afraid of an Imperial” mean? What?
John: I don’t know. I feel like we shouldn’t entirely judge a show based on its Wikipedia summary.
Craig: The Wikipedia summary. Right.
John: But we will put a link in the show notes to the YouTube clip so people can watch it. I feel like if you were taking advantage of California’s new medical marijuana laws, this might be the thing to start watching, because it is surreal in the strangest ways.
Craig: Well, it is. I watched about, I don’t know, two minutes of it. And it is – “ensuring comical ineptness” – sounds correct. There was comical ineptness all around there. But I was struck by how, once again, John, how old we are, because this show looked honestly like it was – other than being in color, it could have been made in 1840. [laughs] And it was from 1992. I graduated college in 1992. I can’t believe that this was what was happening back then. Not good.
John: No. Not good. I will say that this falls into that gap of – I grew up watching Saturday morning shows. I think this was a Saturday morning show. I hope this was a Saturday morning show. But I grew up watching those. But then, of course, you turn to junior high and high school and you stop watching those shows. And so there’s a whole generation of those shows that you would not have caught.
So, Stuart Friedel, again, probably would have watched this show.
John: But you and I would not have watched this show.
Craig: I bet you Stuart still watches it occasionally.
John: Stuart is a huge fan of children’s television. And I guess sort of young adult television. That’s why he knows about Finding Carter. He can tell you what’s happening on the Thundermans. He’s very good at that kind of stuff.
Craig: And not in a weird way, by the way.
John: No, there’s nothing at all weird about Stuart Friedel. He’s as straight-forward as you could come.
Craig: He legitimately loves children’s–
John: He really does.
Craig: I had dinner with Stuart the other night.
John: Tell me about dinner with Stuart Friedel, or after the air if it’s too embarrassing.
Craig: No, it was – well, after dinner was what normally happens with me and Stuart. And, you know what, we’re good. We’re cool. It was delightful. It was delightful. He is a lovely person. And a very, very smart person. He’s doing quite well.
John: Yeah. And he’s married. Congratulations, Stuart Friedel.
Craig: He’s married. Yes. One day our show may be produced by Jimmy Friedel, Stuart’s son.
Craig: [laughs] Yeah, just named his kid for him. Why not?
John: So, if you’re curious about the sea monkeys, we will link to an episode called the Octapotomus, which is just fantastic.
Craig: People should know, by the way, that this episode is going to be wild, because normally we try and do this where it’s kind of mid-morning for me, and early evening for you because of our continental divide. But because of scheduling issues, it’s currently nearly midnight for me and crazy early in the morning for you. This is going to be wild.
John: It’s going to be wild.
All right, last bit of follow up here is the Sinbad genie movie. So, we talked last week about the Sinbad movie that never existed in which he plays a genie. And so as we were discussing it, in our show notes we were going to talk about the Mandela Effect. And there’s even a link in last week’s episode to the Mandela Effect because we were supposed to talk about it. We didn’t talk about it.
The Mandela Effect is a general term for situations like what’s happening with the Sinbad genie movie where people have a memory that is not actually true. There’s a collective memory that’s not true. And the Mandela Effect describes people’s memory of Nelson Mandela dying long before he died. Sort of a theory that there’s something weird and metaphysical happening there. So, we didn’t get into the Mandela Effect last week.
But, Craig, this past week you were describing a situation you had with David Kwong which sounds like a very similar kind of phenomenon.
Craig: Yeah, so the Mandela Effect I guess posits that there’s parallel universes and there’s like a glitch in either the computer simulation that we all live in, which I believe we do, or a glitch in parallel universes so that a lot of people are accessing some parallel alternate reality in which Sinbad did in fact play a genie in a movie called Shazam, which he did not.
So, David Kwong, our friend of the show, world famous magician, and now creator of a TV show. He’s got a new TV show that he’s doing. I was at dinner with him and the word dilemma came up, you know, just in use. And he said, “You know, up until three years ago,” and David Kwong for context, Harvard educated, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life. He said, “Up until a couple years ago, I was convinced that the word dilemma was spelled D-I-L-E-M-N-A.” As in “dilemna.” With the M sound sort of being like autumn, which of course ends with M-N.
And he said what prompted him to go down this rabbit hole was he saw a poster for the movie a few years ago called The Dilemma, and he thought, “Oh, that’s somehow they’ve done a pun or something. Because they’ve spelled dilemma wrong.” And he looked it up and realized, no, you spell dilemma with two Ms, not M-N.
So, he goes online and realizes that he is one of many, many people who not only were under the impression that the word dilemma was spelled D-I-L-E-M-N-A, but have very clearly memories of being instructed that this is the case in the way that we are instructed in school about words that we might think be spelled one way, but are in fact spelled another way.
You know, so in school I remember we learned that the word separate, there was a poster that said, “There’s a RAT in SEPARATE,” because people sometimes misspell it Sep-e-rate, and it’s Sep-a-rate. These people have clear memories of being instructed, even textbooks instructing them that it’s DILEMNA, and there’s a website dedicated to this called dilemna.info.
So, we’ll link to that one.
Craig: And you can read all about this bizarre glitch in the matrix.
John: Yes. So when you told me about David Kwong’s situation there, I have a memory, too, of having spelled dilemma with an N in it for some reason. And I don’t remember being specifically instructed, but I do remember thinking like, oh, that’s how you do it. And words like column or autumn have similar sort of patterns so it would kind of make sense. Also, dilemma is a word that you don’t use as a child. It becomes a middle school word at earliest. So, I can see sort of how that happens. I still think dilemma looks a little weird with two Ms. There’s something just really strange about the word dilemma. So, it’s not surprising to me that we have this weird situation around it.
Again, I don’t think it’s a metaphysical Mandela Effect necessarily. But, I get it. I get why people are a little bit creeped out by a false memory of having learned it a certain way.
John: So this idea that it was in your textbooks, well, we can’t find the textbooks that would actually have it printed the wrong way. We can’t find dictionaries that have it printed the wrong way. Yet, I could believe that teachers might have taught it the wrong way. And it’s not a recent phenomenon. Apparently it goes back 80 years. You see examples of people misspelling it in that specific way. So, something is going on there.
Craig: Right. And at the dilemna.info site you have – because the one theory was, well, if it’s people from a certain generation, maybe there was just like a bad textbook or something. But there’s a 90-year-old man who remembers this. There are 20 year olds who remember this. It’s a weird one for me because I always remembered how to spell dilemma because of Lemma. I don’t know if you remember the word “lemma” when you were doing geometry or not, but so it’s a Greek word. And dilemma is just two lemmas.
So, I – this is a weird one for me. I’m surprised. And, by the way, they do – they talk about how they remember it in textbooks, but no one can find them because, of course, they don’t exist.
Craig: Or do they?
John: Or do they? Hmm.
All right, let’s segue to our main topic today, which is words again. It’s dialogue. So, way back in Episode 37 we had Let’s Talk about Dialogue, was our first conversation about how we write dialogue for film and for television. And I wanted to sort of revisit that, because I’ve been thinking about that more over the last week. I’ve been doing some polishing. I’ve been doing some nips and tucks on a project. And it comes down to the dialogue for what I’m doing right now.
And I thought we’d start with sort of a history of what dialogue is, because obviously human beings who have been speaking for our entire existence – that’s one of the things that sort of makes us human. But dialogue is a very special case. And so I was thinking back to well what is the first example of dialogue. It would probably be reported speech. So, if I’m telling you a story and I’m using the speech as the characters in the story, or like I’m recapping something and saying like that he says, then she says, and it’s that situation where you’re modeling the behavior of what was said before. And so you can imagine sort of cavemen around the campfire doing that kind of reported speech would be the first kind of dialogue. Within a monologue, it’s the speech in that. Sort of like how an audio book works.
But then we have real plays. And so have the Greek dramas, the Greek comedies. If you think about the Greek dramas, a lot of Greek dramas are not people kind of talking back to each other. It sort of feels like I say something, then you say something, and there’s not a lot of interplay. But the Greek comedies, they do actually sort of talk to each other in ways that are meaningful. Of course, Shakespeare has plays in which characters are really communicating with each other. The thing I say influences the thing that you say back to me.
And then you have the Oscar Wilde comedies, which are all about sort of the craft of those words, and sort of like badminton where they’re just keeping the ball up in the air. It’s not a ball, but I’d say it’s a birdie.
Craig: Yeah, exactly. I went through a period where I was reading some of the old Greek comedies, Aristophanes and so on, and I was stunned at how contemporary they felt in terms of the back and forth of dialogue. It was kind of remarkable. And they are plays – so you’re reading essentially a script. A thousand and thousand year-old script. And they had figured a lot. It’s actually insane how little has changed.
John: Yeah. But I think it’s important to distinguish the comedies from the dramas, because when I look at the old Greek dramas, there is back and forth, but it’s not the same kind of back and forth. And it ends up being sort of a lot more like I’m going to tell you this whole long thing, and the next person is going to tell you this whole long thing.
John: There’s less of that sort of back and forth.
Craig: I agree. It’s very declarative. The dramas are very much about speeches.
John: Yeah. But then you look at what happens next is as we get into radio plays, then it’s all dialogue. So, when you have stage plays, you can see the action happening in front of you. You have people there. But we get to radio plays, it’s just people talking. And so the words have to do so much more in order to communicate not only what’s being said, but sort of the world around what’s being said. And so it’s more naturalistic in some ways, but it also has to be sort of pushed in a way because it has to explain everything through just the dialogue.
Same time we were seeing radio come up, you have the silent movies. And so in silent movies, of course, you have characters in scenes together, but the dialogue, if there is dialogue is just title cards that are put there. So, you have characters emoting a lot and then we cut to a card that has a very shortened version of what they would say. That’s a strange form–
Craig: It’s very strange, because the cards – they don’t make conversation possible so even though people are talking together, they will choose a, I guess, some kind of representative line of dialogue for one person to sum up this entire exchange that these two people might be having. And, of course, that is probably why a lot of silent films also de-accentuate conversation. And it’s very much about one person making speeches, while another person listens.
John: Yep. Then, of course, we transition to the talkies, and then everything is changed, because in once you actually have dialogue and characters that are in a scene together, it changes the frame of reality around things. So you can’t just have a person emoting wildly and then you cut to a title card. They actually have to have a conversation. You have to keep that ball up in the air. And it’s a huge shift in sort of how the audience’s experience of a story and really the writer’s experience of how you’re going to communicate this information. You cannot expect the audience to just be watching and gleaning something. They are expecting to have a real conversation happening in front of them. And that changes everything.
Craig: It also famously changed the skill of acting. I mean, the school of acting prior to talkies was very much about being emotive and really more of a filmed version of what people would do on stage, which was very formalized.
And because their faces and movement had to stand in for so much, but once you shift to sound, we begin to see the birth of naturalistic acting which peaks with the method movement that leads to all – you know, famously some of our greatest American films of the ‘70s.
John: Yeah. So there’s an expectation that the performances are naturalistic, and therefore the dialogue is supposed to be more naturalistic. It’s not always that way, but the dialogue gets twisted towards naturalism quite heavily once you have real characters speaking to each other.
Craig: But then eventually you get to the sea monkeys, which that’s a different kind of–
John: That’s really the pinnacle. It’s sort of sad that we peaked in 1992, but at least we have YouTube so we can go back and look at sort of what the sea monkeys were able to do.
Craig: [laughs] Because they talk, their mouths are all – ugh.
John: It’s amazing. Television in general was a huge shift in dialogue as well. Because you think about how people watch television, you’re watching the screen, but sometimes you’re not really watching the screen. Sometimes TV is playing off in the background. So, there’s a midway quality between what our expectations are of film dialogue and radio dialogue. There’s a little bit of over-explaining that tends to happen in TV. I think less so now than, you know, 20 years ago. But TV dialogue could be a little bit more artificial because there was an expectation that you got to talk people through the process. Even procedural shows right now, there’s an unnatural quality which is sort of inherent to the genre where you are talking as if the other character doesn’t have that same information so you can get it out to the audience.
Craig: And prior to – a fairly recent revolution where so much of our television is streamed, commercial-free for instance, if you’re watching it on Netflix or Hulu. Network television which dominated all television was highly bifurcated/trifurcated/quadfurcated because of commercials. And there was an understanding that some people were just coming in, you know, they had missed it. Or, they went to the bathroom while stuff was going on. There was no TiVo. There was no pausing. So, people were constantly reiterating things so that folks wouldn’t get lost just because they went to go get a sandwich.
John: Yeah. As you were saying, in recapping what just happened.
John: So let’s talk about what characters are doing in scenes and sort of what ideally you would love to have your dialogue be able to perform in the scenes you’re writing. So, the first thing we’re looking for is dialogue, which means characters talking to each other, with each other, and not just intersecting monologues. And one of the great frustrations I have in some of our Three Page Challenges is I feel like characters are just having a monologue that’s just occasionally interrupted. Or like two parallel monologues that don’t actually have anything to do with each other.
When dialogue is working well, it should feel kind of like Velcro. Those two pieces of conversation, they’re designed for each other. And so they can only exist together and they’re strong when they are together. But you couldn’t take those people’s lines independently. They would be sort of meaningless. They’re all informed by what the person just said before that.
Craig: That’s a very good way of describing a common rookie limitation – intersecting monologues. And it’s understandable because the complexity that is required to create dialogue that answers and is responsible to the reflection back from another character, it is logarithmically more complicated than one person saying something and then another person saying something. The listening is that, you know, they always say that silence is just as important in music as a note. And it’s the listening of dialogue and the reacting and the incorporation and the adjustment, that’s the swordsmanship. So, I think when we look at stuff where we have the intersecting monologue problem, it’s like we’re watching two fencers who are putting on an exhibition for us, and they’re showing us their fencing moves towards us.
But they’re not fencing each other, which is just a totally different thing.
John: It is. So let’s take a look at sort of how we indicate in the real world that we are listening to each other and how listening shapes the lines we’re going to say next. And so I want to talk about discourse markers, which is the general term for those words that function as parts of speech that are not quite nouns or adjectives or anything else. They’re basically just little markers that say, “Yes, I heard what you said. I’m acknowledging what you said. And here is my response to it. So, I’m talking about words like you know, actually, basically, like, I mean, OK, and so. Things like also, on the other hand, frankly, as a matter of fact. As I do very often, as you’re talking, I go, “Uh-huh.”
John: It’s those small acknowledgments that I hear what you’re saying and keep going, or I’m about to respond back to you.
There’s an acronym which I found online for it called FANBOYS. So if you’re trying to remember those words it’s For And Nor But Or Yet or So. Basically it’s ways to take what has just been said and put your spin on the next thing that’s going to come out. And so let’s take a look at why you would use those discourse markers and as a screenwriter how to be aware of those things. Because I think so often we try to optimize our dialogue to the point where we’re getting rid of all the natural parts of speech. But without some of these little things to help you hook into the previous line, it can be hard to make your speech flow naturally.
So, here’s one function. It’s when you want to soften a blow, especially if it conflicts with what the person just said. So, it’s an example of like, “Well.” “Well, that’s not entirely true.”
John: You could say, “That’s not entirely true,” but that’s a harder line. The well takes a little of the edge off that. And sort of connects like, “Yes, I heard what you just said, but I’m going to say the opposite.”
Craig: Yeah. So, these words are wonderful to indicate that the person who is starting their sentence with them has changed. Somehow what you said to me changed my brain. I’m not saying it changed my mind in that I have a new opinion. But it has changed my state of brain, which is exactly what goes on in conversation. So, as you’re talking to me, you’re changing my brain because I’m listening to you. Actors understand this. They’re taught very carefully and very rigorously how to listen. You can always tell a bad actor because they’re not listening. They’re just thinking about their next line.
Craig: Similarly, bad writers write characters who are just thinking about their next line. And so you lose these little things. And when we talk about, well, everyone is familiar with the phrase “an ear for dialogue.” A lot of what an ear for dialogue is is this. It’s really not so much an ear, it is a sense of human psychology and an understanding of how it feels to listen.
So, when you’re writing two people talking to each other, you have to schizophrenically – I use that in the wrong sense – you know, split-mindedly say something and then immediately throw yourself into the other person and hear it. And that is what will naturally lead to some of these very useful words.
John: Yep. So, you know, we talked about softening a blow. A lot of times you’re also comparing two ideas. And so an example would be, “So, it’s like Uber for golf carts.” And so you’re basically taking the idea that’s been given to you and synthesizing it and putting it back. You might want to add onto an idea. So, that’s, “What’s more, there’s no evidence he even read the book.” So that “what’s more,” you could take that off, but without it it doesn’t connect to the previous line of dialogue.
Craig: Right. It’s not an acknowledgement that you’ve heard that. You’re agreeing with it, tacitly. And now you’re adding. So much gets unsaid by a “what’s more.” But we hear it, and the audience hears it, and they know so much because of it. That’s amazing. I’ve never really thought about that. Interesting.
John: Yeah. It’s a way of like sort of underlining that previous point. Another example would be indicating that a point has already been conceded and that you’re kind of moving on. So, an example would be, “No, you’re right to be concerned.” And so essentially saying like, “You said to be concerned. I’m agreeing with you to be concerned. Let’s move on to the next point.”
John: What I also find so fascinating about that no is that’s an example of how no can mean yes in dialogue. And I hear myself doing it all the time, where I will say no when I mean yes. And it’s basically that no means I’m putting no argument up against you. I’m agreeing with you. I’m not denying you. It’s awkward that, and of course, it’s an example of no really meaning a yes. But it’s just the way that it works in our language.
Craig: Sometimes I think the – we’ll call it the affirmative no – sometimes when people use it, I feel like they’re actually responding to themselves. So you say something, I’m thinking a thing. You give me a different point of view. And I say, “No, yeah, I think that’s right,” as in, “No, stop thinking the thing you were thinking. This new thing is correct.”
Craig: It is fascinating how many words we elide as we go through. Yeah.
John: A lot of times you’re going to use one of these words to demonstrate a sense of logical sequence. So, “OK, once we disable the cameras, then we can start working on the vault.” Basically, I am going to now set forth a chain of events that describes what’s going to happen next. Or, we’re going to offer an illustration, an example. So, “And we all remember how drunk he got at the Christmas party.”
Again, you could take off that “and” and start and say, “We all remember how drunk he got at the Christmas party.”
Craig: Yeah, that’s not a–
John: But that “and” is really helpful because it means I’m adding on to the thing you just said. I’m giving you an example of the situation that we’re talking about. That “and” is incredibly helpful and without that “and” the sentence doesn’t mean the same thing.
Craig: I think sometimes when educational therapists, there’s a whole world of people who work with kids who have autism, or Asperger’s and they struggle with social interaction. Some of these things are the things that they’re actually instructing them, because for some people, that “and” is absolutely superfluous. And from an informational point of view, it’s close to being superfluous. But what they’re missing is that they’ve eliminated that social glue that says, “Just so you know, I listened to you, and I heard you.” When, of course, somebody who is very regimented and perhaps rigid in their thinking might think, “The fact that I am here staring at you is an indication that I heard what you said.”
And some people need to be taught these things.
John: When I was in Madrid last week for the screenwriter’s event, it was the first time I clocked that people say in Spanish say “Vaya” all the time. And Vaya is basically OK. It’s like it’s the uh-uh, it’s the acknowledgment. The equivalent would be d’accord in French. And a non-fluent speaker doesn’t know to say that. And so I don’t know to say that. And so therefore I seem kind of autistic in Spanish or in French because I don’t have the social cues to sort of like acknowledge that thing. So I can sort of nod and sort of say that I’m getting it, but the Vaya is that sense of like, “Yep, got it.”
Craig: That’s why you seem autistic in French? Really, John, that’s why? Not your autism? [laughs]
John: No, my robot programming.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a phrase that I picked up when I was taking Italian in college. We had a professor who was a native speaker and he would constantly say, you know, he was giving us a lesson and then he would pause and go [vediamo un po]. And [vediamo un po] means let’s see a little. I think that’s what it means. Yeah, vediamo un po. Let’s see a little. Which is like, okay, so it’s a version of that. And, yes, you’re right, it’s the kind of thing that makes you seem like you’re in the moment. And when you’re not a native speaker you just don’t have those little bits and bops.
John: You don’t. But talk us through sort of then the modes of dialogue. What are the tones of dialogue? What you’re trying to do in basic structures of dialogue.
Craig: Yeah, I was thinking about this question of the kinds of ways that we – we meaning humans or characters – speak. And if they could be divided up into categories. And I don’t know if these are all of them, but these are certainly many of the ones that you’ll see and use as a writer all the time.
The first one is the easiest and most obvious, which I just call neutral. And that’s sort of the way we talk throughout the day. It is – it’s how we’re talking right now. It’s low stakes. It’s even-tempered. It’s not particularly loud or soft. It can be inquisitive, or informative, or social. It’s two people chatting at lunch. And in movies sometimes that’s what’s going on, but it’s important to match the neutral mode to the actual circumstances. You don’t want to have people speaking neutrally when perhaps it might be more interesting or dramatic or appropriate for them to be speaking a different way.
Craig: Then there’s emotional. And that’s what we probably think of when we think about Oscar movies and so forth. But emotional dialogue is in every movie, of all kinds. And that is dialogue where the character is revealing some part of their inner emotional state. It is typically well controlled speech. It can often be uneven because we understand that it is an expression of the lizard brain, our flight or fight type of instinct. Very often this kind of dialogue is irrational. It can be contradictory. It can be very loud. It is rarely well-articulated – and this we’ve seen a lot in Three Page Challenges. People speak in this remarkably well articulated, even – well, I won’t say even-tempered, but very well-articulated way when in fact in the moment they should have an emotional mode which is clumsy and often truncated or weird.
John: There was a screener I was watching this last week, a movie that I genuinely loved, but there was a moment in there where a character has a huge emotional moment and I was frustrated that the character was far too articulate in that moment. They actually dialed up the sophistication of the dialogue in that incredibly emotional moment. And the actor was talented enough to pull it off, basically. And, yet, it didn’t actually track. It didn’t actually make sense. Like the moment should have been less coherent and more emotionally clear. And it was sort of too precisely, too finely written for where that character was supposed to be at emotionally.
Craig: Well, it sounds like perhaps the writer fell into a fairly common trap where when you should be emotional, you opt for something that I’ll call declarative. This is the mode of speaking when you are intentionally getting across some kind of meaningful insight or important news or dramatic revelation. Declarative, the most obvious example would be a lawyer giving a final argument. There’s that moment in – what was that movie called, A Time to Kill, where Matthew McConaughey delivers this impassioned speech about what happens. And then he says, “Now, imagine she’s white,” which is a very declarative, insightful, there’s a wisdom to it. And actors and writers love these moments because they are so remarkable.
You know, Yoda is always declarative. These very – but when you are emotional, you should not be declarative. That would make the emotion seem fake and it would make you and the character and scene feel inauthentic.
John: Yep. It’s the reason why the lawyer can’t give that passionate closing argument after having just found out that his wife died.
John: There’s a mismatch of sort of what’s going on in his mental state to be able to do that. And it’s a very controlled thing for him to do that remarkable speech.
Craig: That’s right. And, by the way, that example that you just gave, oh and interesting, I just used “by the way” which is another great signifier to indicate that I heard you and it’s triggered something else. Sometimes you’ll see these notes come up where somebody will say there’s a mismatch in the way this moment with how they feel and without putting their finger on it what they’re saying is you’re using the wrong mode of dialogue for what would be the mental state of this person.
Interestingly, there’s this other mode that I’ll call manipulative, which makes it sound Machiavellian, but I’m using it more as an over-arching term. And manipulative dialogue is anything where you’re trying to either convince somebody or calm somebody down or inspire somebody or avoid their questions. You’re using dialogue purposefully to achieve an effect in this other person. And if you think about our example of the lawyer, that’s the difference between a lawyer who is trying to get one over on a jury, and a lawyer who fervently believes what he’s telling them. One person will be manipulative, and the other one will be declarative.
John: Absolutely. So, what I find so fascinating about everything we talked about with dialogue in this segment was it’s all about the emotional state and the emotional content of dialogue. So, in no ways are we trying to talk about dialogue as a mechanism for conveying story, at least story in terms of plot. We’re really talking about like how do you convey characters’ emotional states and how are you going to let them try to change the emotional state of the other characters in the scene.
That’s really what dialogue is supposed to be doing as it functions now. Not like how it functioned historically, but what we do now when we write dialogue is to be able to provide insight to the audience about what’s going on inside the character but also let the characters try to change the emotional state of the characters around them.
It’s part of the reason why the example of neutral modes of dialogue, that’s why those scenes are generally not so exciting because there’s not going to be a conflict there. There’s not a challenge for the character there. There’s nothing they’re trying to do to the other characters in the scene. There’s no inherent drama there.
Craig: Precisely. And this is one of the great challenges of writing a scene is that you have to be – let’s just say – we’ll limit it to two people talking. Forget three or four. You have to be three different people at once. You have to be the architect of the story, who understands in an intellectual way that something must be achieved in terms of plot and character to advance this narrative.
Then you have to be both people, who do not know that, and don’t have access to that, and are reacting and living in the moment. Reacting to the world around them. Reacting to the feelings inside of them. And most importantly, reacting to what the other person is saying. So, that is very difficult for a lot of people. When we talk about talent in writing, sometimes I think that’s what it is. Those are three different people at once and the best writers are the ones that are talented at being all three of those people. The writer, and then the two people in the scene. And one of the ways I think I immediately am aware of quality in these moments is when there’s a mismatch of mode between two characters. Maybe one character is being neutral, and the other one is being manipulative. Or the other one is being emotional, and the other one is being declarative.
You know, Luke is very upset and Yoda is very calm and wise. Or, somebody is very emotional and the other person is calming them down. So, whenever possible you do want that mismatch because that is creating conflict or resolution. When two people are emotional, it’s just two people yelling and absorbed in their own minds. And when two people are being wise and informative, you’re wondering why they’re both telling each other these incredibly wonderful fortune cookie insights.
Mismatching these modes is a huge help when you’re navigating your way through a scene.
John: Absolutely. You want to be able to give the characters someone to play against. And if they’re trying to play the same melody, it’s not going to be nearly as exciting as if there’s a conflict between what they’re trying to do and sort of where they’re at in the mode of the scene.
John: But, talking about the skill of the writer here and sort of good writing versus bad writing is a great segue to our next big topic which is two terms you hear thrown about about screenwriters, specifically the quality of screenwriters, and I’m going to urge people to stop using these terms because people don’t really use these terms. And whenever I hear them, the hairs on the back of my neck go up.
And so I want to talk about and hacks.
John: So let’s talk about script doctors, Craig. Do you ever hear people in Hollywood use the term script doctor?
Craig: The only people I ever hear use that term are insecure writers trying to convince other people that they’re important. That’s it. And thankfully there are not too many of them. But every time some on the bubble or low self-esteem writer announces that they’re doing some script doctoring, everybody else puckers up, clenches their buttholes, and gets very awkward. Because it’s atrocious.
John: It’s atrocious. And so I heard this term a couple times the last months. When Carrie Fisher passed away, some of the articles talked about her “script doctoring,” always in quotes, and then when I was in Madrid someone asked what is it like to be a script doctor. And I had to say like, “First off, no one uses that term.” And truly, honestly, the only people who use that term are people who are like outside of Hollywood who have seen that term in a magazine and thought it was a term that was being used.
So let’s describe what they’re trying to talk about here and the real words we use for that work. So, I think by script doctoring they’re meaning a writer who comes in to do a short bit of work on a specific project, usually a movie that’s about to go into production. Usually in a sort of high stakes situation. There’s actors involved, directors involved, lots of money is on the line. And that writer is coming in to do specific work to fix, change, alter something in the script to make people happier. That is the function of what these writers are doing in those situations. But we don’t call them script doctors. And we shouldn’t call them script doctors because doctors are like – Doc McStuffins’ mom is a doctor. These are just screenwriters.
And Craig and I both do this kind of work, but we would never call ourselves script doctors.
Craig: No. And you put your finger on why it’s so gross. It’s a forced romanticization of what we do. Oh no, the movie is in trouble, we’re two weeks away – what do we do? Call the doctor! That’s ridiculous. And then I’ll come in with my eyepatch and I’ll say, “Everybody, get out of my way. I need a computer, a glass of water, a window.” [laughs] I don’t know, it’s ridiculous.
It’s not how it works.
Craig: At all. What you’re doing is you sit down and you’re like, OK, I read the script, here’s what I think. What do you guys think? What are you trying to achieve? Got it. OK. Here’s what I think I can do in the time I have. Let me talk to the director. Let me talk to the producer. Let me talk to the actor. OK. Here’s my proposal of what I should do. Does that sound good? Great. Let me start writing it. I’ll start sending you pages.
And then hard days ensue where you’re too tired. You’re not some – they might as well call it Script Hitman, or – do you know what I mean? Like Script Assassin. Script Savior. It’s ridiculous.
Craig: Script doctor.
John: I don’t know where the term first originated. I remember the first time I heard a Hollywood person use it, I think, was an interview with Spielberg where he was talking about Steve Zaillian coming in and doing something. And I’m paraphrasing here, but I remember saying like, “Oh, we call him the doctor because he comes in and can solve these problems.”
Steve Zaillian is Steve Zaillian. He’s a remarkably talented writer. So, as a metaphor to say that he was a doctor who was helping out on something, fantastic. But it’s not a term that’s used in daily life here. No development executive is going to say like, “Oh, we need to get a script doctor in here to work on this.” Just doesn’t happen. And so when I hear people outside the business say that term, I think of like – it’s like me describing an NFL kicker as a “field goaler.”
It reflects what’s actually be done, but no one would actually use it. And when they hear me say it, they think, “Well, he’s an idiot.” And so I would just urge people to stop saying it.
Craig: Right. When Ted Cruz was in Indiana and referred to a basketball hoop as a basketball ring. [laughs] What an idiot!
John: Yeah. Remember Ted Cruz? Remember that life?
Craig: Don’t worry. He’ll be back.
John: He’ll be back.
Craig: He’ll be back. No, you’re absolutely right. It’s grating. It sets your teeth on edge because it’s so goofy. And, yes, sometimes in conversations when we’re doing this work we might say, “Look, we’ve got a sick patient here.” You may do that – internally, you may talk about things like that. “Or like, no, there’s definitely a pulse here.” But you would never describe yourself as a – that’s just like a silly metaphor. You’re not a script doctor. That’s ridiculous.
John: It’s ridiculous.
Craig: And I guess, more to the point, if Steven Spielberg wants to call you a script doctor, great. But god knows you should never refer to yourself as one. That is just goofy.
John: That is goofy. So, if script doctor is the glorious term applied to the very high level writers who are doing this work, hack is the opposite of that. Hack is a pejorative, reductive term. Because it’s pejorative, you know, sometimes it’s used on yourself, sort of self-mockingly, like I feel like such a hack for that scene. Or, this line of dialogue feels so hacky. So, it’s one of those things I will hear writers refer to themselves that way. But I don’t hear writers refer to other writers as hacks. Or if they do, I throw some major side eye there, because it’s not cool at all.
Craig: I know. Again, it’s clunky. If you want to go after some writer and, you know, look, I never do that publicly. Like you and I never do that on this show. Not once in all these episodes, nor do we ever do it on Twitter. But in a private conversation, you may say, “Look, I don’t understand why everybody loves this person. I think they stink.” You know? And you might say, “I just feel like they’re kind of a fraud. I don’t know, they just seem hacky to me, or whatever.”
But that’s private. You know? Where I’m shocked is when people use that word seriously and you’re like, what are you, from 1930? “You’re a hack, kid.” It’s a dumb word because it doesn’t mean anything. It’s taking the place of what you should be saying which is, “I don’t like their work,” which is completely fair. That’s your opinion. And the work is meant to be absorbed by other people. Naturally, some will like it and some will not. But if the purpose of the term is to denote somebody who doesn’t care about their creative work, which is I think what that word means, somebody that literally doesn’t care about the quality or the writing, the passion, nothing. They’re just doing it for a check. That person doesn’t really exist, as far as I can tell. Or exists very briefly. [laughs] And is never hired again.
I mean, do you know anybody who consistently just writes whatever they need to write so someone gives them a check without any care, love, passion, concern?
John: You know, I have encountered some writers who at a certain point in their career seems like they stopped caring. They would literally just take any note and just do that note and not sort of worry about. And seemingly not lose sleep over it. And so that’s, I think, what we are pointing towards when we talk about hack. Who is doing the lowest common denominator version of any joke, of any scene. You sort of feel like a robot could write those things.
But I’m not going to call those people out as hacks, because I don’t know sort of what their real situation is. And a lot of times I think the people who are pointed at as being hacks, they’re trying to do something very specific and very true. And they’re actually killing themselves to do it. It’s just not working out especially well. So, it’s such an ad hominem to attack the person rather than to look at the work that they’re actually doing.
Craig: I think hack is the definition of ad hominem, right? You’re saying I know why you wrote something I don’t like. No you don’t. It’s OK to just not like it. But to presume that you don’t – I mean, reviewers will use the word “lazy” all the time, like, what? Were you there? What? Lazy? How do you know? [laughs]
I mean, that’s lazy, right, to just decide that somebody was lazy because, you know. A lot of times when people look at something and they go, “Oh my god, I saw that movie. That guy is such a hack.” They don’t understand that that guy or that woman showed up to try and make something good and it was destroyed by the process, or by other people, or maybe that person showed up and something was bad and they just did everything they could to make it a little bit better.
Nobody knows why these things happen because they’re not there. And Hollywood is really good at concealing its process from everybody else. They are a restaurant where you cannot see into the kitchen. The more you see into the kitchen, the less interesting the food is. It’s an illusion business.
So, while there is somewhat ironically this enormous industry that professes to know what’s going on behind the scenes and what’s going on inside people’s minds and their hearts and why they do things, the truth is most of the time not only are those implications of hackery or motivation wrong, most of the time as far as I can tell they’re nearly completely wrong.
John: Yeah. It’s so maddening. So, I think we are casting major aspersions on anybody who uses the term script doctor on themselves positively, or calls any other writer a hack. Because they’re unacceptable. And so if you see this being done on Twitter, please mock them and CC us. @ reply us so we can join in on the call for these two words to not be used.
Craig: It will be a nice break from the current Twitter stream I have from Nazis. [laughs] Oh my god. John, there are so many Nazis on Twitter. Like legitimate Nazis.
John: Why are Nazis a thing again? It frustrates me so greatly that like, you know, I like them as a historical and fictional adversary. Not actual adversaries who show up in our lives.
Craig: It’s so strange. My wife was like, “Does this upset you?” Because some people are using terrible slurs and talking about putting me in an oven and so on and so forth. And I just thought, no, I actually feel great. This is kind of remarkable. I don’t know why it put me in such a good mood. Something is really wrong with me.
John: Something is really wrong with you. Not a shock. Not a surprise.
Craig: I know.
John: Also not a surprise is that we completely ran out of time for our questions. Sorry Jessica and Alyssa and Telly Archer. We will get to your questions. We promise.
Craig: We’ll get there.
John: But it is now time for our One Cool Things. And this actually ties in very well with your Twitter escapades. This is a great article I read this last week written by Mirah Curzer called How to #StayOutraged Without Losing Your Mind. And so what she’s describing is how – it sort of goes back to right after the election you and I had that horrible short episode in which we talked about like not that everything will be OK, but this feeling will end.
John: And you described I think in very good psychological terms why you cannot stay at this level of peak paranoia and fear, because your body just will just it down.
John: So, what she’s looking at is how do you stay outraged, how do you stay fresh to what’s going without just completely falling apart. And as I was reading it, I was nodding a lot, but I was also recognizing that a lot of what she’s describing is not just about our current US situation. It’s really about any sort of like long term conflict, like which is making a TV show, or a long shoot on a movie. It’s how do you sort of keep fresh on something when it’s just so hard day after day.
So, the four things she sort of focuses on that you need to look away in order stay fresh. To see clearly, you have to be able to look at something else. And that’s something I’ve really found while filming or trying to run a TV show, you have to not be thinking about it for certain hours of the day, otherwise you cannot even see what you’re doing. You have to be able to focus on something in the distance so you can come back and take a look at it.
If we’re in the editing room, doing a cut, if the editor is working on the cut, I will deliberately put my gaze someplace else so that I cannot see what he’s doing. And then I can look back with fresh eyes. And you have to do the same with in a bigger scale for sort of world events.
She stresses you can’t do everything, so you have to pick what you’re going to focus on and let others pick what they’re going to focus on. And that’s a thing I really learned as a director is that I can have an overall vision for how the things are I want to do, but I have to let people who are specialists in different fields really focus on those things. And so I can look at the things that are most important to me, but I’ve got to let other people worry about those things because I can’t do everything.
John: You have to make it fun. You have to have some enjoyment in your days. You have to look forward to going to the set. You have to look forward to being part of that. You have to find some moment of joy in your day, or else it’s just going to be horrible.
And then, finally, you have to focus on staying healthy. And people who are on TV shows a lot of times, like they will not go to the doctor or the dentist for the entire run of filming, and then in the two months of hiatus they’ll have to do all that stuff. You can’t do that. You got to go to the gym. You got to sleep. You got to get your appointments. You cannot, you know, put aside your entire life just for this one thing. You got to do all the other stuff to stay healthy.
So, I thought it was a great article both for sort of how to address the current conflict in the world, but also how to look at the long term conflicts that a person is going to encounter in their life.
Craig: Yeah. It’s really smart. I wonder if – I don’t know if this is in there, but I would my own little fifth thing to that, which is don’t respond to or take seriously anybody who tells you that these things aren’t right. Because there are people who are like, “Why are you talking about this when this is going on? And how can you laugh at a time like this? And why are you spending your time blah-blah-blah when you seem to care about…”
Just ignore all of that. Ignore all of that. There are people who will demand that you express your outrage purely and perfectly. But you can’t. So, don’t.
Craig: And don’t bother defending yourself either. Just ignore them. Man, I find that I have become an ignoring addict. I love it.
John: On Twitter, you just ignore it? Oh yeah, I love it.
Craig: Yeah. There’s so many things where like, you know, there are phases of it. I think the first phase is people say things and you respond and you’re in fights. That’s like the first run of your life online. And then the second run is you start to respond to them and you go, no, I’m deleting this. Then you get to the enlightened place which is, well, that’s stupid. Ignore. [laughs] It’s gone. It’s literally gone. And the funny thing is that the people who are poking at you, they’ve forgotten about you and the thing they said the second they’re done typing it.
Craig: So why not give them the gift of that in return?
John: I was talking with a friend who was describing – she got this long email and she was going to respond to it. And then she’s like, “You know what? I’m not going to respond to it.” And she just deleted it.
And so this person wrote back this long response. And we talk about the joy of deleting without reading. To know that somebody spent half an hour writing this thing and you’re like–
Craig: I know!
John: It did not even hit my inbox. It’s just gone. You’ve wasted your time.
Craig: Talking about declarative modes of dialogue, when my wife first started getting really active in PTA and she was the president of the school PTA, and then there was this older woman who was the president of the council, which is the Over PTA for all the schools. And Melissa was talking to her and saying, “I’m getting these – I got a couple of wacky parents, a couple of wacky moms in particular, who keep emailing me these long things and I don’t know how to respond to them because I think they’re crazy.”
And this older woman just looks at her and went, “Delete.” [laughs] I thought that was the best advice ever. Just delete. That’s it.
Craig: And you’d think like, but they’re going to keep writing me and demand why I haven’t written back. No they don’t. They don’t. Because they have 12 other letters they have to write to people. And whomever responds, that’s the winner of the day for them. And they just keep going with them.
Well, speaking of staying outraged, my One Cool Thing, John, is women.
John: Women are great.
Craig: Women are spectacular. And I say this today that seems perhaps a little general. A little too wide of a category. But specifically I’m saying women because the Women’s March was remarkable. Not only was it massive. I think the largest protest in history in our country? I think. I think.
John: Yeah. Yeah, probably.
Craig: But it was the most peaceful protest I think we’ve ever had in this country. Not just in Washington, DC, but in New York, and Los Angeles, in Boston, in Chicago. In every major city and every minor city it seemed. There were women that were marching in Alaska and Antarctica, all across the world. And everywhere it was perfectly peaceful. No violence. No ugliness. It was the utopian ideal.
Craig: Of what a civil protest should be. And it could have only been that way because it was women. Because if you throw – like once you hit, I don’t know what the tipping point is, probably 15% men, you have fist fights. Fist fights. Molotov cocktails. And people getting punched in the face.
So, fantastic job, women. Outstanding. What a great example. And also great proof of, I think, hope for us all. And for humanity as it goes through this challenging time.
John: I had a delightful time with the Women’s March in Paris. I was there with my family, with my daughter, with a friend’s family. And it was just remarkable seeing everyone gathered together. We marched from Trocadero down past the Eiffel Tower, and to the Ecole Militaire. And it was remarkably well put together and run. Every sign was great. Some were in French. Some were in English. But just to see everybody coming together to do this was great.
It was also wonderful because of time zones, again, we were ahead of the US marches, and so this went really well. And so fingers crossed that the American marches are going to go great. And, of course, they were nutso and fantastic. And the Los Angeles march was off the charts great. So, I’m so proud of everyone who did it. And also inspired by sort of what can happen next given this energy. So, more hope.
Craig: It was great. I saw they were talking to a cop in New York. And he seemed stunned. They were asking him about the march and were there any problems. And he said, “No. Nothing. I’ve never seen anything like this.” Actually, he seemed a little scared. Because he’s just like this isn’t the way this goes.
It was just great. So, congratulations and thank you, women. Outstanding job.
John: I would also like to single out Carrie Fisher as the Princess Leia’s character was featured in many, many signs, sort of a woman’s place is in the revolution. It was wonderful to see. I think she would have been delighted to see her place in the memes of this march and I think what’s going to be coming forward.
John: That’s our show for this week. Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Puddles Pity Party.
Craig: Oh, of course it does. [laughs]
John: So, I’ll put a link to the video, because you’ll see that he’s actually a clown who sings. But he’s singing the Mary Tyler Moore theme, because Mary Tyler Moore passed away this past week. That show was a huge inspiration for me growing up. It is so well constructed. It is a character on a journey. It was an amazing show. She was an amazing talent. And, weirdly, the Mary Tyler Moore theme song is kind of close, melodically, to the Scriptnotes theme. So I’m going to call an audible there and say it’s sort of like the Scriptnotes theme.
Craig: That’s what they were thinking at the time.
John: That’s what they were thinking.
Craig: It’s certainly not that our theme is a little bit like the Mary Tyler Moore theme, because that would be ridiculous.
John: No, come on, Mandela Effect. You know, they traveled through time. Somehow it all bled over. So, I’ll let you listen to this.
If you have an outro, you can send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. A link is fantastic for those. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the ones we neglect to answer. But for short questions, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
We’re on Facebook as well. Look for Scriptnotes podcast. Also iTunes. That’s where you’ll find us. Leave us a review. That helps people find our show on iTunes.
We have an app that lets you get to all the back episodes. It’s through the app store for Apple and for Google Play. You can find us there. Scriptnotes.net is where you sign up for all the back episodes.
We used to have USB drives. We no longer have USB drives for the back episodes, so right now the only way to get to those back episodes is through the service, through Scriptnotes.net.
You can find show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com.
Craig, thank you so much for staying up late.
Craig: Thank you for waking up early.
John: All right, and we’ll talk to you next week. Bye.
- Episode 37: Let’s talk about dialogue
- Finding Carter Trailer
- The Amazing Live Sea Monkeys
- The Mandela Effect
- David Kwong and Dilemma
- Discourse Marker
- How to #StayOutraged Without Losing Your Mind
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Puddles Pity Party (send us yours!)
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.
Lewis Wallace, the only transgender reporter working at public radio’s Marketplace, was fired for this blog post questioning whether journalistic neutrality was a futile ideal:
Obviously, I can’t be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity. The idea that I don’t have a right to exist is not an opinion, it is a falsehood. On that note, can people of color be expected to give credence to “both sides” of a dispute with a white supremacist, a person who holds unscientific and morally reprehensible views on the very nature of being human? Should any of us do that?
Referees for sporting matches can be neutral because they don’t have any stake in the game. The same could be said for generations of straight white reporters as they covered civil rights and gay equality. In their hearts, they might be rooting for one side, but it was obvious how to keep their personal viewpoints out of their stories.
Marketplace staffers must keep their political views private.
How, exactly? As a transgender person, Wallace’s existence has a political dimension. The same holds true for an African-American, a woman who uses a wheelchair, or an immigrant with an accent.
The ability to keep one’s political views private is a privilege not everyone has.
Marketplace fired a reporter for daring to point that out.
John and Craig return to the topic of dialogue, looking at how characters talk in film and why dialogue matters.
We also discuss two terms often applied to screenwriters, and why people should stop using them.
- Episode 37: Let’s talk about dialogue
- Finding Carter Trailer
- The Amazing Live Sea Monkeys
- The Mandela Effect
- David Kwong and Dilemma
- Discourse Marker
- How to #StayOutraged Without Losing Your Mind
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Puddles Pity Party (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 285 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, oh, it’s another episode of How Would This Be a Movie where we take a look at stories in the news, or things we just kind of came across, and try to make sense of them the only way we know how – which is to try to squeeze them into a two-hour block of big screen entertainment.
So this week we’ve got Sinbad, we’ve got sea monkeys, we’ve got kidnapping and Nazis. We’ve got metaphysical paradoxes. We’ve got a possible Nicole Perlman situation. I think it’s going to be a good round of the How Would This Be a Movie.
Craig: I’ve got to tell you, I think there’s a great movie where you jam all of that together.
John: Oh, 100 percent.
Craig: And I think the title of it is Possible Nicole Perlman situation. And it’s Sinbad, it’s sea monkeys, it’s kidnapping, it’s Nazis, it’s metaphysical paradoxes. I mean, I’d see that. I’m not sure if I’d see any individual one of those.
John: Yeah, but all together?
Craig: All together.
John: This could be one of those rare situations, because we’ve had so much success in How Would This Be a Movie before, where we talked about the bank robberies, and we talked about sort of the weird Southern California people trying to frame each other. But this one, it’s going to be tough to make each one of these individual movies, but I think they need to gang up together. You need to get all the rights, put them together, put them in the blender, hit puree, and then you’ve got a movie.
Craig: Hit puree. That’s the tag line for the movie.
John: Absolutely. It was so delightful listening to this past week’s episode with you and Derek Haas. So, Derek is a good friend in Los Angeles. I realize that I hadn’t heard his voice since I moved to Paris, and it’s because I don’t call people on the telephone. Like, I don’t call friends and talk on the telephone because who does that anymore? It’s all emails. And so I’ve emailed with him, but to hear his voice was just lovely.
Craig: Aw. That’s nice. It’s true. The phone call is essentially dead. It’s only used for business at this point. My kids never, ever – they will – when they talk to each other – sorry, when they talk to their friends, they use FaceTime.
Craig: But the idea of just an audio-only call. No one does that. Ever. They just text or they FaceTime. That middle zone is gone.
John: So, I’ve emailed Kelly Marcel many times, but the only time I’ve spoken to her since I’ve been here was for the podcast.
Craig: There you go.
John: That’s crazy.
Craig: See that?
John: Yeah. But it was delightful. Thank you for bringing Derek on and answering a whole bunch of listener questions. We have three more listener questions we’ll try to get to today.
John: But you guys did that episode without me because I was in Madrid last week, and it was so much fun, and I want to talk about that. So, I was a guest for ALMA, which is the Spanish Writers Guild, and it was a two-day thing. I spoke at a university and then I did a master class on a Saturday where I spoke for six hours, which is madness, which I don’t think I’ll ever do that again.
Craig: Six hours?
John: Six hours. It was basically just me. And so I went through two–
Craig: Oh my god.
John: Sort of like slide show presentations. I did some audience Q&A. I had a little interview section. But it was just tremendously fun. It was also my first time doing live translation, so where I would talk and people would have headsets and sort of like at the UN they’d be translating in real time. And my translator was phenomenal. Stella, thank you very much for what you did. But it was so much fun. And I really enjoyed it. I had great, smart questions.
If you are curious what I spoke about, two guys wrote up the whole experience, and so I’m going to link to the blog posts they did. So it’s Àlvar López and Carlos Muñoz Gadea and on Bloguionistas they wrote up sort of what I talked about. And if you don’t speak Spanish, you can probably Google Translate it and get most of it. But it was a really good fun conversation.
Craig: You know, have we talked about Google Translate? Was that my One Cool Thing, how they’ve had that crazy huge leap? Have we discussed that?
John: I’m not sure we have. But let’s have that conversation now, because it’s gotten so much better. And you’ve read the articles about why it got so much better, right?
Craig: Yeah. So they completely changed their entire way of approaching it. It used to be a very formal kind of thing of this word goes to this word, and here are grammar rules. And they switched over to an entirely different thing which is essentially a kind of a neural net learning process. And it’s fascinating.
So, they turn this thing on and just let it start learning kind of. And they have made this enormous leap forward in their ability to translate things. And I did sort of check it out. I wanted to go see like, okay, let’s see how good this is. It’s really good. And the way you can tell it’s really good is because you can take something – I mean, the test they always say is take something in the language you know, have the translation turn it to a different language, and then have that translation turn it back to your language and see how close it is. And it was like really good.
They have taken this huge leap forward and they’ve also – there’s this interesting thing, I don’t know if you read about this, where it seems that what the Google Translate software is doing is creating what they call – I can’t remember quite the name – it’s like an intermediate language–
John: It’s like an Esperanto, like a machine language Esperanto.
Craig: In a weird way. Like it’s kind of having this weird midpoint. It’s not like it’s invented its own language. It hasn’t. But it’s doing this thing that actual translators do, which is that there’s this weird middle language in between the two languages that they’re moving things back and forward through. It’s kind of amazing.
John: Yeah. The process of translation is phenomenal. And to see Stella do this work in real time, so she has to be able to pay attention to what I’m saying and still keep the translation going. I was looking over her notepad and she had sort of a shorthand she kept for like what I was saying. But it wasn’t in words. It was all in symbols. And so she would have like a circle to, with an arrow out, and it was all just a way of keeping track of what I was saying so that she could do it. It was really a remarkable skill.
John: And to have to do that for six hours is just nuts.
Craig: Six hours. My god.
John: So, the other thing which was fascinating going to Madrid is I had not been to Spain since high school. And I had liked it in high school, but I had never been back. And so I thought, you know what, my Spanish is actually probably pretty good. I mean, it’s probably a little bit messed up because of my French. My Spanish was actually like really surprisingly pretty good. And so at the start when I was doing press interviews on the Friday before, she was doing translation. Like they’d ask a question and she did a translation. And by the third interview I was like, you know what, I kind of got this. And so I was able to hear the question in Spanish, answer back in English, and it was just delightful to actually be able to hit the ball back over the net, which I still don’t feel I do very well in French.
Craig: That’s fantastic. I would not have done that. I look at myself as just I try and be an expert in English. [laughs] But that’s my thing.
John: You do pretty well in English, Craig. You really do.
Craig: I’m really trying my best. You know, we have a new president now. And he has set a very high bar for English proficiency.
John: He’s using the best words.
Craig: He’s all the best words.
John: So important to have. The last thing I want to point out about going to Spain, so I was talking with this Writers Guild of Spain. It was called ALMA. And only this year did I start to realize like, oh you know what, there really are Writers Guilds in all the different countries, but they’re not like our Writers Guild. So, Howard Rodman came over to Paris in the fall and he was talking to all the European Writers Guilds. And so Spain has one, France has one, UK has one. And in the US, our WGA is a genuine union. We are actually a labor organization. In most of these countries, they’re not. They don’t have the same sort of negotiating power that we do. And you would think, well, in some ways that’s great. They’re not going to go on strike and do crazy things. But they don’t have the leverage that we do.
In fact, some of the Spanish people were telling us you can’t, even on their website, give like recommended minimums for how much you should charge for a draft. That is considered restraint of trade. And so it’s so weird to enter into a system where everyone is just a free agent and when everyone is a free agent, prices do not do well.
Craig: Yeah. It’s the strange unintended consequence of what at least at first blush is a very pro-writer policy. And that is that in the rest of the world there is Droit Moral, the author’s right, and so what they don’t have in Europe, certainly not in Spain, is work for hire, which we have here in the United States. Work for hire in the United States means that when we’re hired to write things, the employer can retain copyright. So that seems not as good for writers as would be the case in Spain, where no one can take their copyright. They always have copyright. But what it does for us is it makes us employees. And as employees, we can unionize.
So, we do have things here in the United States that they just simply can’t get over there, because they’re not employees. And that is where you run into things like restraint of trade because they are not employees, they’re not unionizing, they’re independent people that are essentially colluding to try and fix prices in an open market.
And so also the other things that come with being an employee, like pensions, healthcare, and all that other stuff aren’t there. In the United States, we have our system, when we talk about residuals that is essentially our attempt to mimic royalties, which obviously copyright holders do get.
So, yeah, it’s kind of a – it’s not even a double-edged sword. I think it’s a one-edged sword. I think our system is actually better for writers, at least in screen.
John: I think it’s better for writers to make a continuous living, and that’s really I think what most writers want to do in film and television. I’m starting to recognize that it is an artifact of sort of when Hollywood came to be is that we came up in a time when there were strong unions. And I have a hard time imagining that if today movies were invented, we’d be able to organize. And I mean it’s the same reason why video game companies have a hard time organizing those employees. We’re not in a labor time these days.
Craig: I completely agree. And you can see the impact of that on animation. Let’s just say, we’ll call it computer animation, CGI animation, which didn’t exist really until the ‘90s in any meaningful way. In the feature business, that is not a union business. So the people that write any of these movies, well, any animation period. But all the Pixar movies, not one of those writers, not one of those directors has ever gotten a penny in residuals. And that’s not great.
Craig: I completely agree with you. If we had not built our industry in a time of enormous unionization, we would not be unionized.
John: Yes. It’s true. All right. Let’s move onto our big feature topic today, which is How Would This Be a Movie. And so we’re going to take a look at three stories in the news, or things that fell over the transom, and talk about them in their possibility of moviedom.
So, let’s start with the story from the New York Times this past week. It was written by Frances Robles. Abduct at Birth and found 18 Years Later. It tells the story of Alexis Manigo, who at 18 finds out that she’s been kidnapped as a newborn from a hospital in Jacksonville, Florida. Authorities tell her her real name is Kamiyah Mobley. And Gloria Williams, the woman she thinks of as her mother, actually abducted her when she was a baby.
So, Alexis says, “I never had any ID or driver’s license, but other than that, everything was totally normal.” She did acknowledge stymied a few months ago when she applied for work at a Shoney’s, but lack the Social Security she needed to get the job. And when she was kidnapped from the hospital, there was this large financial settlement that her birth family got from the hospital for basically mismanaging her, or basically for letting her be kidnapped. And now she’s 18 and it’s really unclear where that money goes.
So, this is the framework. Craig, what’s the movie here?
Craig: Well, so you have somewhat of a Lifetime movie-ish kind of thing. Baby stolen, raised by another woman, family never gives up. 18 years later, they find her and get her back. OK.
But here’s what’s fascinating about this. This is a quote from Ms. Manigo, who is the young woman who was kidnapped talking about Gloria Williams, the woman who is alleged but it seems quite clearly did it, the woman he kidnapped her. She said, “She took care of everything I ever needed. I never wanted for anything. I always trusted her with it.” She said that Ms. Williams, her kidnapper, was not mentally ill and that she had not been overprotective. “She was a very smart woman.” Ms. Williams worked at a navy yard, handling medical records, and was set to receive her Master’s Degree this year.
So, what’s remarkable is that this perverts everything that we would think would be the case about a criminal, because it’s a criminal act. And remarkably what this young woman says in response to being raised by this woman, Gloria Williams, the kidnapper, is “I feel like I was blessed. I never had a reason to question. A blessing like that. Someone loving you so much.” Fascinating.
I mean, what do you – to me, that’s where you begin. Right?
John: I think it is. I think there’s obvious movies trace back to sort of we talk about the Lifetime movie version of this, which is sort of the sensationalistic. And I don’t want to sort of dis all Lifetime movies. I think there’s a reason why that genre of movie exists. But I think there’s a bigger feature version that we’re sort of hoping for for this.
You look at Room. And Room is a story of, of course kidnapping, but that’s an incredibly bleak story of survival and escape and what you do afterwards. And here she’s not trying to escape anything. It’s basically her whole life has been upended. It’s more like you’re not the person you thought you were. How do you find a new identity?
It also reminds me of this most recent year’s movie, Lion, where you have a guy who is like on a quest to figure out who he really is and who is family was. So, there’s templates for it, but what I also find so unique about this template is, so, she’s African American. Everybody in this story is basically African American. If you look at the picture of her in the New York Times article, she looks like an Obama daughter. So, it’s not the classic sort of pretty white blond girl being kidnapped.
And l love, though, what you’ve singled out about what she’s saying. That doesn’t even feel like Stockholm syndrome. She actually had a pretty normal life. And she had no reason to suspect that anything was wrong until pretty recently.
Craig: Yeah. So, to me, what the movie is about is about an 18-year-old, through whom we can all identify, and we should, coming to grips with a couple of strange things about life. Namely, somebody can do something very bad to you. That is a harm to you. To steal you from your own parents. And, yet, be a good person to you. And maybe even be a good person for you. That is a very complicated thing.
And then, of course, there’s the notion of finding a relationship with these people that now you come from. And struggling with the fact, I mean, I think there’s a wonderful scene here. Sometimes you think about these movies and you think what’s the great scene. And the great scene is after the hullabaloo of being found and returned and all the rest, and recriminations, and how could this woman have done this, and all the rest. And I thought I knew her, and I don’t. Being in the home that you were supposed to be in with the people you’re supposed to be in. And wanting to go back.
Craig: To the only mother you know, who never treated you wrongly, except for this thing that was in fact terribly wrong. That, to me, that’s an interesting movie. That’s pretty deep stuff. And I’m fascinated by it because it feels real.
Lifetime movies, some of them are very good. I completely agree with you. When we say Lifetime movie, it’s a little bit unfair to Lifetime. Really what we’re talking about is a soap opera-ized movie. Which is kind of an overwrought thing where everything is pushed out dramatically. And here, I think it’s the opposite. Here I think we’re asking these really tricky questions about what it means to love somebody and care for somebody and even the nature of parenthood. Because I think a lot of people who adopt children will say quite eagerly, you know, obviously they’re not stealing somebody. Right? They don’t commit a crime. But they love somebody that they did not give birth to. And that person loves them.
We know that love is real. What do you do when that love is real, but it’s predicated on a crime? That’s fascinating to me.
John: Absolutely. And, you know, this is the maternal love. But we’ve seen those sort of love stories where like it’s a relationship that was based on a fundamental lie, and yet 30 years later they find out the truth behind things. Sort of like what is the statute of limitations on that truth? And when does that misdeed become forgiven?
I think her motivation, Gloria’s motivation, is also really fascinating here, because obviously we’re going to see this from the point of view – the story is going to tell us from the point of view of this girl and her family who was searching for her for all these years. But what was the inciting incident that happened with Gloria that made her hold this baby and say like, “You know what? I’m going to take this baby with me.”
John: And was it a spontaneous decision? Was it something about this family? Was it something she read about this couple and their daughter made her think like either I could take this, or I should take this baby, because this baby is not safe with them? And I know nothing about the actual biological family here. I’m hoping they’re lovely and wonderful.
But there’s definitely a version of this story where Gloria perceives herself to be the hero, saving this kid from a bad life. And to some degree, she has some vindication because it looks like she gave her a pretty good life. And she seems like an organized stable woman who managed to get a Master’s Degree, which is, again, not the stereotype, the prototype we think of for a kidnapper.
Craig: No. It’s true. And we do know at least one fact that at the time of this, let’s see, her name again – well, she has so many different names. Alexis Manigo, whose real name is in fact Kamiyah Mobley, that when she was born the mother, I think, was 16 years old. I think that’s what the article says. So, yes, it’s possible that this woman though, “Oh, I’ll be rescuing this girl from a bad situation.” It’s still a crime, of course. It’s not her call.
There is another interesting way in on this. So, Kamiyah/Alexis’s real parents, her birth parents I should say, are Craig Aiken and Shanara Mobley. The fact that her real name is Kamiyah Mobley, I suspect maybe Craig Aiken and Shanara Mobley are not still married. I don’t think they indicate – or were ever married. I don’t think that was ever an issue.
But there is another way in which is Shanara Mobley. So, this is a young girl, a 16-year-old girl, I believe from the article, who gives birth to a baby. The baby is stolen. She never gives up believing that that baby is still out there somewhere. And she is fighting a system, trying to find this kid. And nobody seems to be able to help.
And then she finally gets her back. And she now has to try and become a mother. And the interesting thing is she never actually had the chance to. She was supposed to be a mother and all of this time goes by and now she is one. But she’s not a mother of a baby. She’s the mother of an 18-year-old young woman. And adult. Who has been raised by somebody else entirely. The feelings that she has towards this girl – is this girl a stranger to her? Even though she has her face?
And what does she feel about this other woman, who she must hate on the one hand, and on the other hand in a weird way has to kind of – she owes her something for keeping this child alive and raising her so well. So, that’s another way in, is the mother.
John: Yeah. In that version of the story, we have other prototypes for the birth mother who gave up for adoption and then the adoptive mother and sort of what the tension is between those two. This is just heightened in such a strange degree because it’s not an adoption situation. It is – there’s a crime underneath all of this. And I think that makes it potentially fascinating.
I’m curious whether this specific story is worth pursuing for a movie. Like whether it’s worth it to try and get the rights to this specific case and this specific situation, or do you do it like Room where you are just – you’re taking a general sense of these kinds of situations and building a fictional story out of it.
I can see both sides. My hunch is that you’re not going to get a lot of specific value out of these individual people. And that you might be better off looking for a fictional situation to build around this kind of story. What do you think?
Craig: I agree with you. I totally agree. I think it’s actually important that you not use their story, because I’m not sure how much more road there is dramatically to drive here. I think we may have gotten it. And you need to be able to create your own circumstances to tell a dramatic story here with a point and a resolution. And so I don’t think you want the life rights here.
I think you just want an idea, which is a baby is stolen and raised beautifully, apparently, by this criminal. And then it is exposed. And that’s probably the end of act one, or something like that. And then what happens after? And you have the story also of parents that never gave up, and so on and so forth. And I think that actually could be a terrific movie.
I think it’s a small movie. It doesn’t need to be a lot of money.
John: No, it doesn’t at all.
Craig: I don’t see any call for a large budget here. I love the fact that it’s African American, because I think we tend to see these kids of – I think you pointed at this. We tend to see these kinds of dramas, like what was that movie, the Michelle Pfeiffer movie, The Deep End of the Ocean. I think Steven Schiff wrote that.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: They tend to be white families mourning the loss of white children. And there’s something good and valuable about representing these kinds of stories with African American families that aren’t about the kind of tropes of drugs, and shootings, and gangs, and all the rest of it. But, just a regular family drama. Which I think is really interesting. So, I do think this could be a terrific movie.
John: Yeah. Going back to sort of how you structure it, I think what you described is probably the most natural structure for it, where early in the film you discover something is wrong. Probably by the first act break, that’s when Gloria is arrested and now you’re going back and you’re having to sort of meet this new family. And things proceed from there. So it’s sort of like the second half of Room, where you’re trying to reintegrate into a life.
But I think there’s also potentially a version of this that slices up time in interesting ways. So that we get the reveal of like this is your real family, and then we go back and time to see it from Gloria’s point of view, or you basically get the kaleidoscope version of what this is. And that in the round version of this you see multiple points of view and really understand that it’s much more complicated. You’re navigating through a minefield. And you don’t try to focus on just the one protagonist, but you just sort of see a kaleidoscopic view of this weird situation, and what it means to – thematically that sense of motherhood and sort of what that is like and how it can drive a person to make some big choices.
Craig: Absolutely true. You don’t have to be chained to any kind of traditional narrative with something like this. You only want to chain yourself to the version that lets you get the most emotional resonance out of it. When you look at movies like this, one way to think of them – think of them as disaster movies. Like Titanic is a disaster movie with a romance in it, right? And in Titanic, because it was based on a real thing and everybody knew the story of the Titanic, they didn’t bother surprising you with the fact that the Titanic hit an iceberg. If anything, they begin by showing an old lady in a movie saying, “This is how it worked,” and then she goes, “Nah, it was actually a little bit more interesting than that.”
So, you have a disaster here which is a woman steals a baby. And you could work backwards to that. You could begin with it, it could happen in the middle. It could be a memory. It could be a dream. It could be any – there’s all different ways to do this. The key is to find that core thing that you’re really trying to hammer home to people. And for me, it’s that strange love. And the existence of that strange love. And maybe even the notion that love can be bad. There’s no such thing as pure love. That there is something maybe dark on the other side of all love. That’s fascinating to me.
So, somebody brilliant – this is an ambitious thing though, if you’re going to do it. As they say in the movie business, John, it’s execution-dependent.
John: It is. It does not sell itself. You have to really write this one. And you have to make this one. And it has to sort of just work. You have to stick the landing on this, or you don’t got a movie.
Craig: Do you worry that when we do these that 5,000 people then turn around and attempt to write – and suddenly the market is flooded with versions of this story next year?
John: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it would be better than some of the other kinds of tropes that get trotted out.
Craig: There you go.
John: But if Franklin Leonard at the Black List gets overwhelmed with these, he’ll tell us.
Craig: He’ll let us know. It’s our fault. Sorry.
John: Sorry. All right next up, we have something potentially light and fun. We’ll see.
Craig: No. [laughs]
John: So, sea monkeys. And so when I put this on the outline I’m like, oh, well everybody knows what sea monkeys are. And then I realized, you know what, they might not, because we have international listeners. And sea monkeys I perceive as being a largely American phenomenon, because they were a phenomena we grew up with. They were big in comic books. Can you talk us through just the quick version of what sea monkeys are, in case people have no idea what we’re talking about?
Craig: Sure. So for you and I, kids who were growing up in the ’60s and ‘70s, every comic book you got had ads in it, pages where they were selling novelty items. Things that were meant for kids, like prank bubble gum that would turn your mouth black. Or, you know, sneezing powder.
John: X-ray specs.
Craig: Yeah, which were not X-ray specs. But the biggest ad was always for sea monkeys. Sea monkeys were these remarkable creatures, and the cartoon portrayed them as a family. A nuclear family. A father. A mother. And two lovely children.
John: A teenage daughter and like a younger brother.
Craig: That’s right. Exactly. It was a little bit like the Jetsons in that regard. And they were these sort of pink creatures with weird sort of projections on their head that looked like little crowns to me. And they lived in a fishbowl, with a little castle, and they were just having the best time. And they were sea monkeys. And you could buy them.
And you would send a dollar in, and what you’d get back were these packets and what the ad promised was that you would put the packets into a regular fishbowl of water and lo and behold within seconds these sea monkeys would come to life. And they were trainable. And they would do acts for you and put on shows. [laughs] And, you know, even as an impressionable child who probably still thought that there was a Santa Claus and all of that, I knew – no.
Craig: Well, it turns out that sea monkeys are in fact brine shrimp. And brine shrimp have this strange property where when they lay eggs, the eggs can stay dormant and essentially dehydrated and dormant for a long time. And if you put them in water, they will then reconstitute and hatch and out will come brine shrimp, which look nothing like the cartoon of sea monkeys. They’re just tiny little bait shrimp.
John: Absolutely. They’re tiny little specs of sand that are kind of floating around and do not even look that cool. So, I remember getting sea monkeys with my brother, and we put the conditioner pack in the water and waited the 24 hours you have to wait. And we put the little sea monkeys, the second packet, and put that in. And you look at them and you’re like, well that’s interesting for about 20 seconds. And then what do you do? And then eventually the water dries up and you just toss the whole thing away. Because there’s not even a pet. It’s like even a hermit crab. It could kind of move around a little bit.
John: This was not even that.
Craig: No. No. It was a terrible thing. It was essentially a scam. One of the remarkable things about those packets is the first packet is special water purifier. And so you had to pour that in the water. And for 24 hours it would purify the water. And then the second packet would be the sea monkey eggs. And they would immediately come to life. Well, as it turns out the first packet are the eggs. It takes them 24 hours. And the second packet was a blue dye to make it so that you could actually see the damn things.
And, yet, there is this story lurking behind it that’s kind of remarkable.
John: Before we get to the story behind it, let’s say that someone approached you with just the story of sea monkeys. We have the rights to the name sea monkeys. So let’s talk about this version of this, because we’ve all encountered these things. And we make fun of the Slinky movie, but like there are bits of IP especially based on toys that they’ll be shopped around as like, “Hey, we’re going to try to make this movie.”
And so when we encounter those things, sometimes they are like, well, we got this piece of property. Come in and pitch us your take on how you would do this thing. And so team after team of writers comes in pitches them like how they would make this movie. More increasingly what happens is they’ll get together a writers room of some experienced writers, some newer writers, and they’ll spend four weeks breaking possibilities for stories for sea monkeys in the room. And Nicole Perlman, our friend, who is a twice guest on the show, she runs a lot of these rooms. She’s really good at this, apparently, at sort of talking people through how we’re going to do this. And running that team that’s figuring out how we’re going to take this piece of intellectual property – in this case sea monkeys – and make them into a movie.
So, what would those sea monkey pitches be like? What do you think, Craig?
Craig: Well, you know, if somebody put a gun in my mouth – it would have to be in my mouth, by the way. If the gun is to my head, I’m going to take my chances that it maybe ricochets off my skull. But if it’s in my mouth, I would say, well, you could do a story where the guy who originally – the mysterious man who is selling sea monkeys insisted until his dying day that he saw real sea monkeys. He did. And that it wasn’t a lie. And that one day people will see. And that these things – one of them, it’s going to happen to him, because he did it himself. And they were real sea monkeys. And he swears.
But, you know, he’s been dead for a while, and nobody believes that. But they’re still selling sea monkeys. And this kid, who is very lonely and maybe, you know, usual thing. Mom died. Dad died. Divorce. You know, one of those things. He’s lonely and he wants sea monkeys. And they’re like, “You’re stupid. Sea monkeys are baloney.” And he gets the packet of sea monkeys. He puts it in and it’s just, yeah, there they are, the little dots of brine shrimp, and it’s lame.
And he goes to bed. And then there’s like a meteor or something and aliens who were the original sea monkeys. The guy was telling the truth. They get into his water and he has real sea monkeys. And they need his help to get home, or something. That’s probably… – And then hopefully the gun would come out of my mouth. [laughs]
John: [laughs] They’re like, OK, that was just good enough to get the gun out of your mouth.
Craig: Exactly. Exactly. Or, at that point I’d feel so bad I’d pull the trigger myself.
John: I should stipulate that in Frankenweenie, there actually is sort of the equivalent of sea monkeys. I’m sure we don’t call them sea monkeys. But that same idea where everyone is trying to resurrect their dead pets. And so this guy like dumps all the sea monkeys in the pool and they become giant live things. So they become like one of the big monster threats of Frankenweenie, these things that are like sea monkeys.
I was thinking more on the order of Smurfs, where you basically just take the name and then you sort of create what is their life like. And so it’s an animated movie where you are following the adventures of these sea monkeys and you establish whatever rules. And you really sort of go by what they sort of look like on the package. So, it’s, you know, it’s the Jetsons under water kind of to some degree. I don’t think that’s a movie you make, but I bet it’s a movie that would get developed. If the right producer with the right hustle and like ended up at the right studio that was appropriately desperate, you could go through a couple of development cycles on Sea Monkeys.
Craig: [laughs] That’s a great way of saying – if you had the exact perfect mix of people, you would get to go through a couple of development cycles. You know, the thing about sea monkeys–
John: Well, Craig–
John: Craig, we did make the movie Monster Trucks.
Craig: We did. Well, we didn’t.
John: Yeah, but as Hollywood, together, we all basically made Monster Trucks.
Craig: But, you know what, let me say something about Monster Trucks.
John: Let’s talk about Monster Trucks.
Craig: Let’s talk about Monster Trucks. So, this movie came and crashed and burned. And it was very, very expensive. And any time this happens, people go bananas in our town. And, you know, look, you see the trailer for Monster Trucks and you think, well, this does not look particularly good. It’s kind of corny. It feels very old-fashioned, sort of like Herbie the Love Bug, expect instead of the Volkswagen being alive, there’s an incredibly expensive CGI creature that’s making the truck move.
And it looked very paint by numbers, you know, guy finds a friend and his buddy. And even the design of the creature borrowed from other movies like How to Train Your Dragon, and so forth. But, you know what? They weren’t building it on an existing title. They were trying to make something new. So, for that alone, you know, I tip my hat. Maybe it didn’t work out. OK. And maybe it wasn’t a good bet and it cost too much damn money. But they were at least trying to do something new.
I mean, the problem with things like sea monkeys is what happens is – as you know – people just sit in offices making lists of names of things people know and then backing movies into those things.
John: I would argue Monster Trucks is exactly the same situation, Craig. Because we both know it was a title. They had sort of no idea what that was going to be, but it was a title. And then basically a title. It’s like Cars, but they’re trucks. That’s really what it is. So, I’m not going to give you a pass on the like, “Oh, no, it’s a brilliant original idea.”
Craig: I didn’t say brilliant. I didn’t say brilliant.
John: OK. This was not The Matrix, Craig.
Craig: All right. I’ll give you that.
John: And so I really don’t mean to hate on that movie, but I would say that like you shouldn’t compare against the worst possible example of something, but I feel like there’s a movie – the Lego Movie, like sea monkeys at least have faces. I mean, they have a thing to them. They’re not as popular as Lego, but like the Lego Movie is a really good movie. And so I think there probably is a really good movie you could make out of sea monkeys, but you have to have the equivalent of those guys to do it.
Craig: Well, sure, but also, no, because the thing is Legos are an experience that multi-generations have. And they are an experience connected through creativity. And there’s an enormous amount of Lego stuff, of varying types, for different ages. And, of course, you’re not able to do the Lego Movie, I don’t think, if you don’t have the existence of all the encompassed brands that Lego has.
John: That is true.
Craig: Sea monkeys are one thing. That’s it. And they’re not interactive. And they’re not multi-generational. My child today, I mean, I don’t think either one of my kids would have any clue what a sea monkey is. None.
John: All right.
Craig: You would have to play on the nostalgia somehow and – but it’s not like the Smurfs even. You know, the Smurfs are also a global brand. I don’t think sea monkeys are a global brand.
John: The Smurfs are Les Schtroumpfs here.
Craig: They’re Les Schtroumpfs. I think the way – it’s funny, because you listed a few movies down here. And before you listed those movies, in my mind I’m like, the real story here is the John Lee Hancock version of the man who invented sea monkeys. That’s the real story.
John: Yeah, so the man behind this, we’re going to link to a really good film by Penny Lee that is like a short documentary that she made for CNN Films that talks about the guy who created sea monkeys. And so essentially he wasn’t an inventor. He was really a really good marketer. And he figured out, like, I want to sell the bait. I want to sell these sea monkeys, these little brine shrimp, but I’m going to call them – he came up with the name sea monkeys. He came up with the artistic concept. Advertising them in the back of comic books. And he built this whole thing.
So his name was Harold von Braunhut. He died in 2003. So he also made X-ray specs. You know, and so you could look at this as like, well, congratulations to this guy. He was able to find value in this thing. He sort of brought joy to kids’ lives for like the 20 seconds that these sea monkeys stayed alive.
But he could trigger that thing in the imagination, which was great. And so you could see like that’s a very American story. But, he’s also, Craig?
Craig: Well, he is also – was also a virulent racist who supported the KKK and a number of white supremacist groups. This is a guy that they actually have on film saying, “Heil Hitler.” And talking about blacks and Jews using words that are not black and Jew. Just a horrendous person, and, yet, oddly, was born Jewish.
Craig: So, what? [laughs]
John: You got a lot there. You got a whole thing. And so I find that that’s so fascinating. Because, well, you naturally kind of want him to be the protagonist of the story, because he’s the main guy. He’s the guy who comes up with the idea. He goes through struggles and adversities. He sees the ups and downs. But then you’re like, but it’s also like a KKK person. So he can’t be the hero of your story. I mean, not the hero in the sense that you’re actually genuinely rooting for him. So it makes it very uncomfortable, which is why I think it circles so nicely John Lee Hancock’s movie because you have The Founder and like I saw his movie this last week and Michael Keaton is phenomenal–
Craig: He’s great.
John: And his performances are great, but John Lee Hancock does not, you know, he’s making a story about a guy who was ultimately not the guy you kind of want to be rooting for. And he’s not a Nazi, but it’s like, I mean, you can’t sort of compare with the KKK.
John: But it gets to a really uncomfortable place, which I was surprised by, because I was thinking, oh, it’s going to be an inspiring story about the guy who created McDonald’s.
Craig: No, not at all.
John: No. No it’s not. And so I’m curious whether you think like the sea monkey movie but Braunhut could be a movie-movie, it is an HBO movie? If you make this, where do you make this movie for?
Craig: Definitely not for theatrical release. Because, you know, even The Founder is kind of a limited target audience. I think it’s opening this weekend – by the way, for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, because I believe it’s opening a few days before this airs, do see The Founder. It’s terrific. But, you know, it’s platformed and it’s meant for a narrow audience. But, that’s about McDonalds, which is one of the truly well-known global brands. Sea monkeys, not at all. It does feel like maybe an interesting hour-long thing for HBO or something like that. Maybe even it might actually be a better documentary in a weird way to sort of expand on this video that we’re linking to into more of a – I think it’s about an 18-minute video or something like that. Maybe it could be a 45-minute kind of thing.
There is something that struck me when I was reading about Harold von Braunhut, the Jewish anti-Semite and racist, and that was when I was a kid and I saw the sea monkey ads, one of the things that struck me was how mainstream and kind of aspirationally American the sea monkey family was. Even though they’re sea monkeys, they’re clearly white. They have very Caucasian features. Very WASPY features. They have that kind of perfect American family thing. They weren’t six Jews crammed in too-small house, screaming at each other, like my family.
Although they were in a fishbowl, it seemed like a much nicer place to live than Staten Island. There’s an interesting angle there that this guy had this weird self-hatred. And this worship of an idealized life that he thought he was robbed of being a part of. And even with these stupid things, he understood that this was something people would want. Joe Orlando, who was – I don’t know if he still is – a major guy at DC Comics, he was the guy that drew the illustrations. And it was something that obviously struck a chord with kids.
It’s not just the copy about – it’s the pictures. You wanted that perfect family in a fishbowl. Like is your family terrible? Would you like a perfect family, in a fishbowl? You can have one with sea monkeys.
John: Yeah. That classic thing of like the utopian ideal, which is really destruction. Basically like you want to erase the part of yourself that you hate, and so therefore you portray this idealized version of how things could be or should be. And so you don’t want to make Hitler comparisons, but this guy was the Hitler of brine shrimp.
John: He was selling this vision of not Aryans, but sort of aquatic Aryans.
John: Where everything was better in the little bowl. He’s like the reverse Little Mermaid. He wants to go back into the water.
Craig: Exactly. Well, and you know–
John: Because it’s happier there.
Craig: There’s certain parallels to Disney. You know, Disney always sold a perfected view of white America. And you can see it now, too, with the Make America Great Again. The question is, well OK, that means it was once great. When do you think it was great? There’s some interesting videos where they go and ask Trump supporters, “OK, when was America great?” And they give a lot of fascinating answers that seem pretty unaware of things like slavery, and war, and disease.
Craig: But when you look at Disneyworld, for instance, or Disneyland, and you walk down Main Street, it’s like 1910, early 1920s Americana. So right before the Great Depression. Right before we became an international country, really. You know, we were still just America, despite our doughboys sort of kind of participating in WWI. And before everything fell apart. And you get a similar kind of vibe here. It’s a castle, by the way. The sea monkeys have a castle.
John: Of course, because they have a little crown, so of course they have castles. They’re royalty.
Craig: They’re royalty. There is something really interesting about the creepiness underneath all of it. But to me, probably better served by a documentary than a movie.
John: I agree with you. But I would not be surprised if within the next five years we see somebody buying that title as an idea for an animated something. I just feel like Nicole Perlman is going to get a phone call and she’s going to decide, do I do this? And maybe she does it because she’s so good at it.
Craig: Well, listen, the thing is they’re not just going to say, “We want to make a sea monkey movie.” They’re going to say, “We want to break a three-movie sea monkey arc.”
John: That’s what it is. It has to be. Yeah.
Craig: All right.
John: Five seasons and a movie. Finally, a unique case where we’re not talking How Would This Be a Movie, but we’re talking about a movie itself. And so most of us are probably familiar with Sinbad. I shouldn’t say most of us. Many of us are probably familiar with Sinbad. He was the standup comic and actor. Made a lot of movies in the ‘90s. But then over the Christmas holiday, you Craig, you emailed me about this movie. And I was like, oh wow, that’s actually so fascinating.
So I was sitting across from my husband, Mike, and we were at the hotel bar downstairs. So, I’m going to play some audio and you’re going to hear the chatter in the background, but bear with it because I was asking Mike about his experience with the Sinbad movie where Sinbad plays a genie, and he had a very specific memory of it. So, let’s play the audio and then talk about our experience.
John: So there’s a movie where Sinbad played a genie, did you see it, or was it at your theater? What was it?
Mike: When I was working on Woodland Hills, managing that location, I think the movie was out then and Sinbad lived nearby. And so I remember him sort of coming in maybe around the time of the movie being in theaters.
John: What was the name of the movie?
John: And it was about the DC Comics character? How was it spelled?
Mike: I think so.
John: Great. So you would say ’95?
Mike: No, it would have been, if I was working in Woodland Hills it would have been between ’97 and ’99.
John: OK. And just him. Do you remember anybody else being in it, or any trailer or anything?
Mike: No. I vaguely remember – I can vaguely picture the poster. And I think there might be two kids in it, which makes me think that somehow he might be like the family maid, or like manny or something like that. And he’s a genie/he’s a nanny, or something.
John: All right. Can you think of any reason why I would be bringing this up or asking questions about it?
Mike: Other than you’re having another Shazaam movie.
John: OK. Craig just sent through an article about it and about the movie and a whole Reddit thread about the movie. So, everyone has essentially your memory of the movie, but the movie never existed. So, what’s strange is a lot of people have exactly your memory of Sinbad in a movie–
Mike: Well, and Sinbad lived in Woodland Hills and he still used to come into our theater.
John: Do you believe that? Or do you think it’s a hoax, someone is pretended it never existed?
John: So, Craig, talk us off this weird metaphysical ledge. Is it a hoax? What is the deal with the Sinbad genie movie?
Craig: Well, it’s not a hoax, because I think far too many people have far too strong of a personally held belief that they remember this movie existing. So, some facts. The movie did not exist. At all. We know this because it’s impossible to hide a movie in 2017. And Sinbad himself is absolutely mystified by this whole thing. [laughs] You’d think he would remember. It’s also not something that would have any reason to be covered up, or hidden, or buried, or squirreled away.
So, what you have is a failure of memory in the precise way, in the precise same way across lots of people. Now, there are explanations for this. Why people have the same faulty memory. And, of course, it’s easy to think, oh, there must be some kind of – let’s call it a metaphysical reason.
John: A glitch in the matrix.
Craig: A glitch in the matrix.
John: Or like a parallel universe and things crossed over, things disappeared.
Craig: But in my mind, it’s as simple as this. And perhaps I’m being reductive here. But Sinbad, the comedian, his real name is not Sinbad. He took the name Sinbad, I’m not sure why, but Sinbad himself, that’s a fictional character from Arabian folklore. There have been movies where Sinbad has appeared, the character of Sinbad, who generally wears a turban and comes from the same culture and the same stories that included genies. And so I think people in their minds there’s an unconscious dot-dot-dot between Sinbad and genies. And I think for a lot of – I’d be interested in seeing the racial statistics on people who remember Sinbad being in a genie movie called Shazaam, because Shaquille O’Neal, the basketball player, was in a genie movie called Kazaam.
Craig: And I wonder if a lot of this is white people just confusing two black actors, who are roughly the same age, playing genies, at roughly the same time. But beyond that–
John: I think there’s clearly more than just that. So, the Shazaam/Kazaam thing was sort of my first go to. It’s like, oh, they’re just confusing that, and because they’re both black people. And I agree with you that the Sinbad name carries with it that whole Arabian folklore thing. So those little parts of your brain sort of connect. But what’s so interesting is when you dig down into these threads and you talk to people who were not preconditioned to have a certain response, they’re like, “Oh yeah, I remember Kazaam. That’s a different movie. And I remember not seeing Kazaam because I thought it was just a remake of the Sinbad movie.”
Craig: A rip-off of Shazaam.
John: It was a rip-off of Shazaam. And so people have very distinct memories of the whole plot of it. And so, again, I’m not saying that this thing actually happened, but I think it’s actually more interesting and more subtly confusing, sort of the way that the dress that looked two different colors based on when you looked at it.
John: It’s the narrative version of that. Like there’s a version of your memory where that actually did happen. And I think it’s so interesting that we think of our memories as being written down someplace, but they’re actually just rehearsed. So this one memory can sort of feel like it really happened, but it’s just this little loop that’s rehearsing and creating a fictitious memory there. And it’s fascinating that for so many people it’s essentially the same memory.
Craig: That’s right. I remember in college I took a class on cognitive psychology, which is a fascinating field, because this is all it really concerns itself with. Essentially the flaws of cognition. And one of the theories that they had at the time, I don’t know if it’s still the case, is that the experience of déjà vu, which is universal, and which in the Matrix was in fact explained as a glitch in the Matrix, that déjà vu occurs because there is a neurological routine that serves to give us the sense of familiarity. When we see something that is familiar to us, we feel it is familiar because our brain goes, “Hit the familiar button on this.”
And déjà vu is essentially a hiccup of that. It’s when the brain hits the familiar button on something that isn’t familiar. But we can’t tell the difference. All we know is familiar is familiar. And if it’s familiar, it’s familiar. And so part of this may just be that this thing is naturally tweaking. There’s something about the combination of these elements that is naturally tweaking the familiarity button in people.
In the end, we’re left grasping for straws here because we just – there’s no really cogent, convincing explanation of this. This does go into the “we don’t know what’s going on box.”
John: I think why this is so appropriate for this segment because I think it is the How Would This Be a Movie mechanism is kicking in and I feel like we see the combination of Sinbad, a genie, what would that movie be like? And I think we would all chart basically the same kind of movie. Like you imagine, oh, these kids find a genie in a bottle and he does these things. You can sort of imagine the things that would happen in that Sinbad/genie movie really easily. And you can sort of picture the time that it’s happening.
So when I drilled deeper with Mike about what do you think was actually really going on in your head there, how do you think you got this confused, and he’s like, “You know what,” so he was looking through IMDb, like other Sinbad movies. “You know, what? I think I was taking the poster for First Kid, which is a Sinbad, and sort of combining it with Kazaam.” He could sort of see like what he was doing.
It was a strange situation though where he was literally working in the theater where Sinbad was coming in all the time, so it felt so specific that he was thinking like, oh, this movie that must have come out between this year and this year because he knows what movies come out what year because he worked in a theater. It is just a strange thing where like sort of like The Dress, it just hits those buttons in your brain and makes you think, oh, this must be – it’s a narrative optical illusion.
Craig: It’s a narrative optical illusion. I think that’s a great way of putting it. And it’s funny, we know that optical illusions fool us. And we don’t question whether or not they’re real. We don’t. Even the ones that are really, really good, like the one with the grey squares and the white squares, which is amazing.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: We just accept, OK, our eyes and our brain are bad at this. But we don’t accept it with memory. And we don’t accept it – so, a lot of what cognitive psychology was about was investigating things like the reliability of eye witness testimony, which is terribly unreliable. For these reasons. And, by the way, this is why we do what we do and why people want to see the things that writers do. Because our brains are narrative. It’s also what gets us into trouble as we can see around us right now.
Politics. Everything. Everybody has figured this out. Every marketer, every politician, every lawyer in a courtroom. Everyone has figured out that the way to make the most effective impression on another person’s mind is to do so through narrative. Because our brains are wired narratively.
John: I think the only remaining question is do you make the Sinbad/genie movie now? Just should you take advantage of this weird moment and just go back and retroactively make the movie? And you should make it like it was in the ‘90s and just like actually make it and blow everyone’s brains. Just like, oh, now it exists. This thing that you always wanted to exist, now it’s there.
Craig: Or, you do a meta thing where it’s like you find Sinbad, because you’re like I know that this actually happened. And I think you are a genie. I think you got rid of it because you’re a genie and you don’t want people to know. And I get why, you know, it’s like because people were bothering you because you’re really a genie, but I know you’re a genie and I need your help. And Sinbad is like, you’re crazy, you’re out of your mind. And then it’s like, OK, yeah, it’s true. I’m a genie. What do you need?
John: [laughs] I made the wish to make the movie go away because it was bad.
John: So, one of the things I’m sad that I’m missing that’s happening in Los Angeles right now that I’m hoping you get a chance to go see. You know the Jerry Maguire Video Store?
Craig: I’ve read about this. The crazy pop up Jerry Maguire Video Store that only sells I think thousands of copies of Jerry Maguire.
John: On VHS.
Craig: Yeah, of course.
John: So it’s like an art installation that you can visit, but it’s a video store that just sells Jerry Maguire. And I find it fascinating. And it feels like it’s related to this whole sense of like this movie that doesn’t really exist that everybody remembers. It’s all of a piece. There’s something magical happening there. So, we’ll put a link to that in the show notes as well.
Craig, we have these three questions. We don’t have time for these questions. They’re going to get punted back for another week because we got busy talking about Nazis and Nicole Perlman.
Craig: Yep. Nazis and Nicole Perlman. That’ll keep us busy.
John: I don’t regret a bit of that. But I have a really good One Cool Thing. So, this is the video for Wyclef Jean by Young Thug. So it’s directed by Pop and Clout, which I think is just the director’s name for Ryan Staake. So, the video is terrible. It’s just awful. And the reason why you should watch it is the director basically explains what went wrong in the course of the making of the video. So, they spent $100,000 to shoot this rap video for Young Thug. And Young Thug never showed up. And so he was like ten hours late and then never got out of his car. And so Young Thug had very specific instructions about things he wanted in the video. So they started shooting just like B-roll footage for what that stuff was, but then he never actually showed up to be part of it.
And so if you watch this video, it will show the footage, but then it will just be these insert title cards from the director explaining what was supposed to be happening here. And it’s one of my favorite videos of the year. It’s just delightful.
Craig: And that’s the video, by the way.
John: Yeah. It is the video. The real video is the director’s video.
Craig: That’s the real video. So it includes like, “Audio of Young Thug explaining what he wants which is incoherent and insane.” And then this guy doing it and just remarking on the stupidity of it all. And it’s the video. [laughs] That’s the thing. And I guess either Young Thug never watched it, or was just like this is dope. Let’s put it out.
It’s great. It’s the video of the year.
John: So I want to thank Matt Jebson in my Twitter feed for recommending it. It really is just terrific.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah. My One Cool Thing is, it’s a little dark. A little dark today.
John: Man, so I just expanded the little tab to see what it was, and my heart got palpitating, because I know what this is for, and I’m not happy to see this. It’s not a One Cool Thing.
Craig: Sorry, it’s not.
John: It could save a person’s life, I guess. But oh no, Craig.
Craig: It’s a One Scary Thing. Well, listen, I’ve been working on this – I haven’t talked about this HBO thing. And I don’t want to yet until it’s like real. We’re close on this. But it is a miniseries that involves – the topic of radiation comes up.
John: It’s Silkwood 2, but yeah.
Craig: What’s that?
John: It’s Silkwood 2.
Craig: It’s Silkwood 2. It’s Silkwood meets the Sea Monkeys. But I’ve been doing a lot of research and we live in an uncertain time. It seems to have gotten a bit more uncertain. And I’m not suggesting that we are on the verge of nuclear war. I don’t believe we are at all. But we are currently threatened, all of us, by at least the proliferation of nuclear material and terrorism and the possibility of dirty bombs and so forth.
And so there’s an item that I think everybody should have just as a matter of course, like a standard first aid item, just the way you would protect against earthquakes if you live in an earthquake zone, and things like that. And it’s potassium iodide. And you can get potassium iodide pills quite easily. They’re over the counter. You can get them on Amazon or local store. And the reason you should have them is simply this: if there is any kind of radioactive disaster, or accident, one of the most dangerous isotopes, radioactive isotopes, is the radioactive isotype of iodine. And your thyroid gland is really good at absorbing iodine. And so we see that one of the first impacts of any kind of radioactive disaster is an increase in thyroid cancer. Sometimes a dramatic increase in thyroid cancer, which can kill you.
So what they suggest, if something like this should happen, is that you take potassium iodide, only by the way when this happens. Do not take it normally. That is not good for you. But, if there is some kind of problem, you take potassium iodide which is a stable form of iodine. The thyroid will essentially uptake that and be flooded with it and not want to take any more iodine. And so if radioactive isotypes of iodine then waft over to you, you will not be up-taking and absorbing them. It’s very cheap and it’s just a good thing to have around. Sorry to be a downer.
John: Man, we should have reversed the order of our One Cool Things. But, yes, I agree it’s a necessary thing. It’s a thing that I was already planning to get, have in our first aid kid, and in our survival things. So, yes.
Craig: Sorry about that, guys.
John: That’s all right. That’s our show for this week. As always, it was produced by Godwin Jabangwe and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is a Matthew Chilelli classic. So, thank you, Matthew, for making such great music.
If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the ones we meant to answer today. For short questions, we’re on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. We’re also on Facebook. Look for Scriptnotes Podcast.
You can find us on iTunes. Search for Scriptnotes. That’s also where you’ll find the Scriptnotes App. We also are now in Google Play Store.
Craig: What? That’s a thing?
John: No, actually I think we’re the Google Music. People wanted us to be accessible through this Google thing, and so we sent them a URL. And now magically our podcast shows up there.
John: If you’re in any of those places and want to leave us a comment, we really will read those. And maybe we’ll read them on the air at some point, because those are always fun to do.
Show notes for this episode, and all episodes, are at johnaugust.com. So that’s where you’ll see the article links for the stuff we talked about today and for buying potassium iodide for impending nuclear winter.
Craig: [laughs] Sorry.
John: And we’ll also have transcripts to read. So, you know, while the lights are out, you can maybe print them or something and remember what Scriptnotes used to be in the days before the big flash and bang.
John: And thank you to everybody who subscribes at Scriptnotes.net. That’s where you get all the back episodes. So, we have no more USB drives, but if you want all those back episodes, including episodes with John Lee Hancock talking about The Founder, Kelly Marcel, Nicole Perlman, who has been on the show twice when she’s not running writers rooms–
Craig: For sea monkeys.
John: When she’s not surrounded by sea monkeys and Nazis. She is on previous episodes and is phenomenal. So, you can find those at Scriptnotes.net. It is $2 a month.
And that is all the boilerplate I have to offer. Craig, thanks for a fun episode.
Craig: Thank you, John. Talk to you soon.
John: All right. Talk to you soon. Bye.
- John’s Madrid Talk
- John’s Madrid Talk II
- Abducted at Birth and Found 18 Years Later
- The Real Story of Sea Monkeys
- Sinbad in the Genie Movie
- The Mandela Effect
- Young Thug – Wyclef Jean
- Potassium Iodide
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.
Writing for Slate, Osita Nwanevu makes a compelling case for running for office:
The most meaningful thing you can do in the age of Trump, for your community, for your country, is run for office. Across America, Republican politicians stand ready to do their part in the implementation of the Trump and GOP agenda. Beat them.
Across America, Democrats blind to the stakes of the moment, comfortable in their positions or too timid to fight effectively against the Republican Party, stand, like bowling pins, ready to be knocked down again. Replace them. Not with some milquetoast professional or former lobbyist groomed by the state party. You. You, with the undocumented parents; you, who remembers when your town was a steel town; you, PTA regular; you, professor; you, concerned citizen, should run.
Nwanevu is calling for getting rid of well-meaning but complacent Democrats. Even more importantly, we need to make sure there’s someone running against every Republican in the country.
In November, incumbent Republican Pete Sessions was easily re-elected to the House despite Clinton’s win over Donald Trump in his Texas district. How? The Democrats ran the worst candidate they had against him: nobody.
After the Women’s March, there’s been a lot of talk about how to channel that energy into results. Elections matter. But it’s not just about taking back the White House and Congress. From state legislatures to school boards, every one of the 519,682 elected offices in the United States affects people’s daily lives.
First-timers often win these spots. The Tea Party did. It’s time for new people to step up. Nwanevu’s article has great links to resources for people thinking about running.
Over the next four years, I suspect we’ll see unprecedented energy and money flowing towards state and local races. Like the Tea Party, we’ll make gains. And like the Tea Party, we’ll no doubt elect some idiots.
But we’ll also elect some visionaries, the kinds of folks who would otherwise be launching start-ups.
We’ll elect military veterans concerned about gun violence and clean water.
We’ll elect moms who want to defend reproductive rights and freedom of the press.
Even if your life-long dream isn’t politics, it’s probably consuming a huge percentage of your brain cycles these days. Do you feel the country sliding off the road? Perhaps it’s time to grab the wheel.
John and Craig take a look at stories in the news — and elsewhere — to ask How Would This Be a Movie?
This week, we’ve got brine shrimp, Nazis, sympathetic kidnappers, and metaphysical paradoxes. What’s more, we’ve got a possible Nicole Perlman situation.
- John’s Madrid Talk
- John’s Madrid Talk II
- Abducted at Birth and Found 18 Years Later
- The Real Story of Sea Monkeys
- Sinbad in the Genie Movie
- The Mandela Effect
- Young Thug – Wyclef Jean
- Potassium Iodide
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.
On Tuesdays, I try to leave reviews for a few things that I love.
Super Mario Run, $10 for iOS
I nearly deleted this game after the first day. It seemed so simple, so basic. But now it’s been weeks, and I find it’s become one of my go-tos for those empty gaps while waiting around.
The game’s simplicity is misleading. When you go back through earlier stages attempting to collect all of a certain color of coin, you realize how clever the level design is. I found myself having to rewatch the tutorials to figure out the more complicated jumps.
Rally mode, in which you compete against the ghost of a previous competitor, is genius.
Negative reviews for the game because of its price are maddening. It’s more than worth it.
My only negatives: The game shouldn’t require an internet connection, and the error messages are clumsy. But on the whole, the experience is delightful.
Pastebot, $10 for Mac
I’ve been using clipboard managers for years. Shift-Command-V is muscle memory at this point. It’s incredibly useful to be able to hold more than one thing on the clipboard at a time. I can’t imagine using a Mac without this ability.
Last week I switched over to Pastebot, based on the recommendations of other nerdy colleagues.
Pastebot can do a lot of fancy transformations and automations, but at this point I’m still using it mostly for clipboard history. It’s fast and nicely-designed. Plus the Tapbots folks have been around for a long time, so I’m confident they’ll keep the app updated and working great.
Words on the Move: Why English Won’t–and Can’t–Sit Still (Like, Literally) by John McWhorter, $11-18 on Amazon
Another terrific, approachable book by McWhorter looking at how English has evolved and continues to change. Every few pages, I found myself wanting to tell anyone nearby about a fact I’d just learned.
“Did you know that the adverbial -ly comes from like?”
“Those little words we use to smooth the cracks in conversation? They’re mostly there to acknowledge the feelings of the person who just spoke.”
“What’s happening with ‘literally’ already happened to ‘really.’”
Rather than blurting out these ideas, a better choice would be to recommend they read the book. (And if they like it, they should also listen to his podcast on Slate.)
Craig Mazin: Hello and welcome. My name is Craig Mazin and this is Episode 284 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today you might sense a little bit of a change. For one, the microphone sounds weird because I’m, well, doing kind of a weird microphone thing here for a reason. And, also, there’s no John August. He’s not here.
It’s me, today, with Derek Haas, who’s been on the show twice before. Today though, special day, because today it’s Craig and Derek answering questions. Welcome to the show, Derek.
Derek Haas: Thank you for having me again, Craig. It is my third time.
Craig: Third time?
Derek: That makes me a friend of Scriptnotes, right?
Craig: Well, you’ve always been a friend of Scriptnotes, but now you’re a valuable friend of Scriptnotes, which is a little bit better. Last time we spoke with you, I think you had still only one show, possibly two, now you have 12?
Derek: I was in Chicago the last time, and John was in Chicago, and yeah, we had just Chicago Fire. And it had just started.
Craig: Amazing. And now you have Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D., and Chicago–
Derek: And Chicago Justice starts in a month.
Craig: Wow. We’re running out of Chicago nouns. It’s remarkable. Before we get into the meat of today’s show, we do have some follow up to discuss. Sundance Episodic Lab. If you are a long time listener to the show, you know that we’re big fans of the Sundance Labs. It’s where they bring in writers and filmmakers to workshop new stuff. Ilyse McKimmie was a guest on the show. And they tell us that every year a few of the projects come in because people have heard about the labs on our show, which is fantastic.
For writers interested in television, Sundance is now taking applications for the Episodic Story Lab until February 1. The application can be found at applications3.sundance.org. And, of course, we’ll put a link in the show notes.
So, the Episodic Lab, here’s what goes on there. You work with accomplished showrunners, as well as non-writing creative producers and studio network executives. And the fellows – those are the people that are picked to do this – participate in one-on-one creative story meetings, pitch sessions, writer’s rooms, and group conversations focusing on the key creative and tactical elements that are central to their success in episodic storytelling. This is pretty good.
We mostly know Sundance for their Screenwriting Lab, but they’ve also had success in a lot of other mediums. For instance, Lisa Krone won two Tony’s for Fun Home – by the way, Jeanine Tesori also won a Tony for Fun Home, but she wasn’t at the Sundance Lab. Fine.
And Barry Jenkins is having an incredible experience with Moonlight. And so there are some previous participants that we’ll throw some information on for you to take a look at. Rafael Agustin, Calvin Reeder, and Ebony Freeman, and Mike Flynn.
So, that’s our follow up. Now, we’re going to get into questions. So, Derek, I’m not going to do a lot of questions for you.
Craig: Because people have questions for us. We’ve gotten questions, of course, from our normal listeners, and then I asked some folks on Reddit to lob questions at us. So we’ll take a look through those as well. Derek, just to start with you for a second, are you ever coming back to movies, or you’re a TV guy now forever?
Derek: I don’t see in the foreseeable future when we would have time to write a movie, just the way Hollywood is working these days, where you are beholden to the studio for six, nine months at a time. We just don’t have time right now. We do have a movie that Brandt and I wrote prior to Chicago Fire starting that just got shot this past winter and I’m going to see a screening of it on Monday for the first time. But it was a foreign film, all shot in France, starring Scott Eastwood called Overdrive. And I, like you, am curious to see how it turned out.
Craig: [laughs] I’m not at all curious how it turned out.
Craig: You’re not like me at all. No, I’m sure it will be excellent. But it sounds like we’ve lost you basically. Like we’ve lost so many people to television.
Derek: Yeah. Come on over, Craig. The water is fine.
Craig: Well…that’s what I’m hearing.
We’re going to start our questions with one from Kyle. And Kyle has an audio question that he sent in. And here’s what he asks.
Kyle: I’m a veteran, having served ten years honorably in the United States Navy. And I was recently awarded my MFA from a top college. I’ve been in LA since May of 2016 and I’m struggling to figure out how to get started. I’ve worked a couple feature films as a PA, but that’s not what I want to do. I want to write and direct. I volunteer at the WGA as often as I can, and I’m applying to any and every job I can find, but I’m not having much luck. What do I do? My savings are dwindling and I’m starting to worry. Is there some kind of secret? Is there some kind of website devoted just to writer’s assistants? Any advice you guys could have would be great.
Craig: OK. Well, Derek, what advice do you have for Kyle?
Derek: It’s the age-old question. It’s the hardest one to answer as a screenwriter. The most often that we talk to our friends about how they broke in we find that every story is different. In television, certainly the best thing you can do is be a writer’s assistant on a show that’s going.
Craig: But how do you get that?
Derek: It’s hard. I mean, you need to write a great spec pilot of a TV show. And then get it into as many people’s hands as possible. I’ve had four assistants since Chicago Fire started. One came as a recommendation of a friend who had gone to – like an alumni situation, where they had gone to the same college, and then slipped me her pilot. She then went on to work for NBC. She wanted to be on the producing side.
And then my second wanted to be an actor and came through from a Baylor recommendation actually. Baylor College, where I went to school.
Derek: And then the last two have been through the Universal Writer Program and just reading resumes and reading scripts. And we’ve also promoted several of our writer’s assistants on to staff. To me, that’s the best way to break into TV. But, I mean, it comes down to write a great script and get it into as many people’s hands as possible.
Craig: Yeah, unfortunately that’s kind of the secret is that there’s no secret. It does come down to these things. Well, first of all, Kyle, thank you very much for your service to the Navy and to our country. I do know that the Writers Guild Foundation has a program for veterans. And I don’t know if you’ve taken a look at that, or not, but I would strongly suggest that you do. And you can speak to somebody, since you’re already volunteering at the WGA, just get in touch with somebody over at the WGA Foundation. I think their website is wgafoundation.org. They have a writing program. I think it’s called the Veterans Writing Program.
And that may be a nice entry point for you. But, yeah, I think Derek is right. Unfortunately, well, let me just say, that Kyle you’ve been LA since May of 2016. That’s not that long.
Craig: You know, you do have to be a little patient here. But, also, just be aware this is not for everyone. It’s barely for anyone, frankly. Not a lot of jobs. And it’s a fairly narrow skillset. So you need to, I think, first assess your skills honestly and accurately and if you feel like, yeah, you’ve got what it takes, then you’re going to have to persist a little bit here.
Derek: My one thing I’ll add is I see a lot of writers who write one script in a year. And then they wait on 20 people to read the one script. And they get notes. And they go back and work on that script. And I’m just telling you the more things that you can do, there’s no reason why shouldn’t have two to three scripts written in a year. Especially if you’re writing pilots. I mean, we do 22 episodes in a year. That’s like doing 22 short films on the show. And Michael and I write six to nine of them. And so – and that’s 60 pages. That’s two-thirds of what a movie script is.
Derek: You really got to put the nose to the grindstone and write as many as you can in the genres that you like, that you actually feel passion for, not what you think that the industry wants. Don’t write a comic book movie if you don’t like comic books. If you like thriller, write a thriller. Don’t try to guess what’s going to be great and write something great.
Craig: I think that’s excellent advice. And, certainly, Kyle, make sure if your savings are dwindling that you also have a job. Get a job, you know. It’s good to put money in your pocket. You can write at night.
All right, next question. This is from Dave Jenkins. And he writes in and says, “I’ve been working with a team of producers for the past six years on an original script of mine. During that time, we’ve had three different directors attached, four development cycles, one financier, and more drafts than I can care to count. This was a low no dollar/no dollar option, which I agreed to due to their names and past credits. The initial contract was for two years. Subsequent extensions were granted as attachments came on board with the promise that I would be paid when financing came together. Unfortunately, this has not happened and the current extension expires later this month. So, my question is this: when is it okay to part ways? Is six years more than enough time? And how in the F did I get here? The producers still want the script but are unwilling to pay for it. They feel they’ve worked on it thus far. And as a result, should be given more time.
“I have other parties who have expressed sincere interest – producers, directors, and managers. But have warned that I would be burning a bridge were I to part ways like this. Any advice or drinking recommendations would be helpful?”
Craig: Yeah. So, Derek?
Derek: My advice is that they’ve had more than adequate time to work on it. You have been way, way, way generous with them. And you should send them a letter right now and say we’re done, especially as soon as the last extension expires. And go on and feel completely unencumbered to them. You can take it wherever you want. You own it. And it doesn’t matter what work they’ve put on it. And don’t let their mafia scare tactics keep you from getting your script finally realized.
Craig: Wow. That was definitive. I’ll be a little more circumspect. Slightly. Not much more. I do think that Derek is right. They’ve had six years. They can’t get it done.
Derek: And paid zero dollars, by the way.
Craig: Right. So you’ve gotten no money out of it, but I understand neither have they. So, the whole point of these things is that it’s a mutual assistance society, but they haven’t gotten it done. And I think if you have other legitimate people who have expressed interest who might be able to get it done, at some point I think you do have to cut bait. And I don’t think you’d be burning a bridge. Or, hey, look at it this way: maybe you are burning a bridge. That bridge isn’t really going anywhere. So, you know, everybody in this town is always worried about burning bridges. And sometimes you just get paralyzed. You have to light one on fire every now and again. You know?
Derek: And movies do take a long time to get made. I mean, we’ve had movies that have been over eight years from when we started working on it, to when it got shot. And it’s true, however, after six years and four directors, they’re just flailing. And what they’re looking back at is we’ve put a lot of work into this. Now somebody else might make it and we’re going to get cut out.
Craig: That’s right.
Derek: And that’s what they’re operating from. But that’s not your fault.
Craig: It is. It’s not your fault. It’s not your problem. So, search your heart and ask yourself, do you still want to be married to this people or not. And if you don’t? Divorce.
We’ve got another question, an audio question, from Seth. Seth from Nashville. And here’s what he has to ask.
Seth: So, there’s a movie coming out that looks really good, but appears to share quite a few similarities to a movie that I’m currently writing. Is there any danger of me seeing this and it influencing what I’m writing? Would you avoid seeing it? Would you see it? Am I overthinking it? Is this really even a thing?
Craig: Well that’s an interesting question. Normally, people will say there’s a movie coming out that has similarities to what I’m writing, should I stop writing it. And we also say no. But this is an interesting question. Would you see a similar movie?
Derek: That is an interesting question. I would avoid it only – I don’t want anyone to think anything I did had anything to do with the other movie. So, I would avoid it until after you were done.
Craig: Yeah. I’m the same way. I feel like if you see the other movie, it’s not even that you would be tempted or would have some kind of subconscious lifting of material from that movie. More to the point that I feel like suddenly your movie would be a response to that movie.
Craig: I don’t want that. I want my movie to exist as its own, honestly, and without any kind of context of the other film. So, yeah, I think I would avoid seeing it. All right, we’ve answered that. Tice from Amsterdam – now, Derek–
Craig: Tice from Amsterdam spells his name Thijs.
Craig: Now, when I saw that, I thought it was maybe Thigis.
Craig: It’s not.
Derek: How do you know?
Craig: I looked it up. It’s Tice. Well, it’s Thijs.
Craig: By the way, I’m going to Amsterdam.
Derek: My last name is Dutch.
Craig: That’s right. But are you Dutch? Or did you just steal a Dutch man’s last name?
Derek: Well, I think we must be somewhere on the Dutch/German border, because half the world pronounces it Haas – actually most of the world pronounces it Haas, which is the German version. And my family pronounces it Haas. I actually did that test where they swab your thing?
Craig: Yeah. 23 and Me.
Derek: I did the 23 and Me. More England.
Craig: Oh, of course. Look at your face.
Craig: I say. So I’m going to Amsterdam in the summer?
Derek: Are you going to see Thijs?
Craig: Thijs. I don’t know if I’m going to see Thijs. It’s necessarily – he was not on my list.
Derek: Maybe if you answer his question sufficiently, you guys could have a drink.
Craig: He might open his home to me. Thijs from Amsterdam writes, “For various reasons, I’m a bit of a slow listener and it seems I’m getting more and more behind. I’m currently listening to Episode 173, from December of 2014, which is great so far. I have 20 more minutes to go.”
I love Thijs. He’s a good guy.
Derek: Why are we answering this question? He won’t get to it for another two years?
Craig: Well, Derek, be patient. Watch what happens.
Craig: “Every time you mention on the show things like tickets for live shows, t-shirts, and goodies, I obviously have no access to that. I know you cannot help me, but could you do me a favor? Could you leave a message for me in a future show, so I have at least something special to look forward to? I’ll probably listen to it in two to three years’ time.”
Craig: Thijs. This is your special message. We are recording this in 2017. Early 2017. By your own reckoning, it’s probably 2019 or 2020. I hope to god the planet is still here. Right now it looks a little shaky. We love you Thijs.
Craig: Do you have anything?
Derek: I just think it’s going to be weird now when you show up on his doorstep in Amsterdam.
Derek: And he has no idea what’s going on.
Craig: Why are you here? I mean, yeah, I listen to your show, but this is weird.
All right, those were some of the questions in our hopper, but I want to switch over to some Reddit questions now. Is there anything, by the way, that you would prefer to talk about, Derek?
Derek: I love answering questions.
Craig: So do I.
Derek: It makes it so easy.
Craig: I love it when you answer questions on Twitter and then sometimes if I see you doing it, oh…
Derek: Yeah, so I do regularly answer seven questions on Wednesdays and Sunday mornings. And I do it in the order received after I put the notice up. Mostly it’s questions about Chicago Fire or Chicago P.D. And then every now and then Craig, who does not watch either show, starts to answer the questions as though he is an authority on the show. And so you can–
Craig: It’s fun.
Derek: Maybe he’ll do it this week. You never know.
Craig: You know, you never know. So here’s a question from Reddit user Fighting Against Time. He says, “In a world where people are constantly looking for original voices and turning to web series to find them, like Insecure, Broad City, High Maintenance, et cetera, how the hell do you get noticed,” and this kind of goes back to Kyle’s question, “how the hell do you get noticed when everyone and their great aunt has some original thing on YouTube? The immediacy of film equipment and editing software has made it so anyone can put their ideas from page to screen with relative ease. But the oversaturation makes it so easy to get lost in the crowd. As an insider, what advice do you have to help great content be seen in a medium where somebody screaming at a cat gets five million views?”
All right, so Derek, how do you stand out?
Derek: Well, it depends, what do you want to do? Do you want to have your own television series? Your own web series? You still have to be original. Or you do unoriginal really well. I started watching this show Luther. Apparently it’s been on for a few seasons already, but I am catching up to the old. And it’s a cop show. It’s even got standard cop “I’m chasing a bad guy who is murdering cops, I’m chasing a serial killer who killed her parents, and she’s a criminal mastermind.” But they do it really well. The dialogue pops. The characters are interesting.
You can take something that’s already been done. You could do your own show about weed distribution like High Maintenance, but your voice has to pop. The voice doesn’t mean the original idea. The voice is the way you tell that story.
Craig: I agree. Look, there are ideas that are grabby for YouTube purposes, like somebody screaming at a cat. And I get that. But that’s not a destination for anybody. It is stuff that we sort of snack on. But it’s not a meal. And so the combination of things that has to occur to stand out, Fighting Against Time, is both a quality and a sense of extensibility. That there’s actually a show worth following. That there are characters worth following. That there are people’s lives that are worth investing in.
At that, to me, is the difference. It’s not so much how do I stand out. It’s how do I stand out and appear to be something that could go on. So, Derek is right. The idea sometimes is the least important thing. I mean, look, what’s the idea of Chicago Fire? Firefighters.
Derek: It’s a show about firefighters.
Craig: Right. What’s the idea about Chicago Med?
Derek: It’s a show about doctors.
Craig: Not only has there been a show about doctors before, there’s been many shows about doctors in Chicago.
Craig: So the idea itself, it’s the execution, and the voice, and the characters. Those are the things that make it specific.
Derek: I might have said this before, but to me, when you’re writing something, the goal on almost every page is you need to surprise the reader. I can’t emphasize it enough. You want them flipping the pages, but you also want them to – as they’re going, think they know where this is going, and then it zigs. Even within a dialogue line. Some sort of surprise is – when you’re dealing with these old ideas – is the way you keep it fresh.
Craig: Yeah. I also feel like sometimes I worry that the generation that is being raised on YouTube now, like our sons, and my daughter, that they believe that the measure of success is something going viral, or something seizing America’s imagination briefly. But that’s not the case at all.
Craig: That, in fact, what happens is those things pop for a moment, everybody freaks out for a week or two, and then they’re gone. Forever. And the people that made them are gone. Forever. Because it was just a thing that happened in a moment. In fact, it is this kind of strange workaday stuff that stays with us and I think gives you a career. I don’t see, with rare exception, I don’t see people getting careers because they screamed at their cat.
Craig: All right. So here’s a question specifically for you, Derek. It comes Redditer King Cartwright. And he asks, “Derek, what kind of material do you look for when staffing your television shows? Do you ask for specs or original pilots? And what important traits do you look for in writers that you want in the room?”
Derek: A great question. I know in the old days and some other shows might do this, they wanted you to spec their show. We don’t want that. We look at original pilots. We want to make sure that whoever is writing has their own ideas. Has their own characters. Has their own wit and can write with surprise and, for lack of a better word, write fiercely. Nothing that’s just lying on the page. And I think it’s too easy if you were just trying to write our style, the style of our show. You already have all of those characters laid out for you, so you’re just riffing off of our characters.
And we found that the people who write the excellent spec pilots end up being our best writers.
Craig: Makes so much sense to me. I remember when I first started in the business. It was still the era of writing specs.
Derek: Write a Seinfeld. Remember?
Craig: It was write a Seinfeld. Exactly. And it seemed to me that all this would do is just engender an employee pool of people that were doing almost parodies of your show really. Because you’re not writing the show. You’re writing a copy of the show. It’s a strange thing. So it’s like a caricature. It’s just magnifying all of these things.
So, I think it’s actually great that you guys for original stuff. And then for writers that you want in the room, I mean, personality-wise? I mean, personality is obviously a huge thing for you guys, right?
Derek: Yeah. It’s funny. I think the more and more I get into it, the room part of it for me, personally, is overrated. We have a lot of smart people and a lot of people throwing out great ideas. But essentially the ones who can execute the ideas are the ones that stay around. And so having good ideas is definitely one part of it, but to me it’s a third. And the two-thirds is can they write. And I’d much rather have someone who was a bump on a log in the room who turns in a script that I realize I don’t have to work on.
Craig: Right. Yeah, see, that’s the misery of the showrunner is that you have these people in the room, you’re relying on them, but if they don’t do the job well, you have to do it.
Craig: And that’s just a disaster. OK. So, here’s a question from Huge 67. “What are the demographics of working screenwriters you know or know of? With a lot of fellowships specifically targeting diverse writers, have you seen a shift or predict seeing a bigger shift in the near future?”
Derek: Well, unfortunately in the time that I’ve been in the Guild, which is 17 years, I don’t think that there’s been much of a demographic shift. If it is, it’s been within two or three percentage points. But, I do know there are a lot of programs targeting diverse writers and a lot of programs targeting female writers, and specifically even that bilaterally, just based on gender. And so I know that it’s a problem within the Guild. And we’re certainly looking more and more for ways to diversify the staffs on the four shows that we have.
I’m hoping – hopeful – it’ll get better. It’s definitely – you definitely felt in the last three to four years a shaming that’s been going on.
Derek: Public shaming of the Guild and staffs. And I know there’s been a positive response toward it.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, in terms of the demographics of screenwriters I know, I do think there has been a notable increase in female writers. I’ve seen a notable increase. I’ve seen a notable increase just among people I’ve met, just offhand. And a notable increase of women being credited on films. So, that means that they’re being hired more frequently and writing more frequently.
So, I don’t know if the statistics yet reflect this, but it seems to me like there’s been an improvement in that area. That doesn’t mean that it’s where it should be. But, I just anecdotally I sense this. I need to look at the data to see if, in fact, that is true.
Craig: But, in terms of seeing more black writers and more Latino writers, and more Asian writers, I have not seen.
Craig: Now, because I’m a screenwriter, you know, I’m a lone wolf out there. You have a much better sense of it because you have staffs. So, it sounds like things are maybe slowly improving?
Derek: Yeah. And it’s funny, too, because when we ask for scripts when we know what are needs are going to be for the next year, we get scripts sent over from the agencies. And Michael and I and Matt Olmstead, who also is a showrunner on Chicago P.D., when we look at – we just look at the scripts with names on them. We don’t know – you know, you can usually tell what the gender is just by the name. But then once we’ve read the script, then we say, OK, these are the ten people we want to meet.
So, we’re not even thinking that way, but we do ask for the agencies to make sure you send us a diverse mix.
Craig: Would you ever consider something, I know some people do this, where they get scripts and they don’t see – they don’t even see the names?
Derek: Yeah, I’ve never thought about it, because I’ve never seen that done. I mean, we don’t ask for it that way.
Craig: Right. Well, that’s because you don’t care. [laughs]
Derek: [laughs] I just want the best.
Craig: I hear you, Derek. All right. Here’s a question from Redditer Bottom.
Derek: That’s the name? That’s like Shakespearean, right?
Derek: From Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Craig: I’m sure. I’m sure that’s what it means. Take that, Princeton. Baylor, woo! Here’s what Bottom wants to know. “I’ve listened for a while now. I notice that you and John are very good at having different POVs, even if you have opposing views. You’ll express them to each other clearly before dismissing John as a robot.”
Now, listen, I don’t dismiss him as a robot. I accurately label him as a robot. Bottom continues, “I direct and write, so I’m paid for my opinion. Sometimes I find myself in an awkward situation where my employer and I have opposing views, and sometimes I’m passionate about changes, or left dumbfounded about absolutely ridiculous suggestions. And it can be difficult to keep my cool. Do you guys have any suggestions, techniques that you use, either consciously or otherwise?”
Well, how do you keep your cool in these moments, Derek?
Derek: It’s experience. I think early on in my career, I felt the way you do, which is any change or suggestion that I didn’t feel merited a response from me would be met with haughty derision. But now I’ve just learned, one, good ideas can come from anywhere. And the best ideas should win. Two, you don’t have to get heated if your response is logically laid out. If you have the best response, it’s going to win. And if you don’t, sometimes you take one step backwards so you can take two steps forward.
I think you were the first one, Craig, to tell me that your first answer doesn’t need to be no. Your first answer should be yes, and then you take the time to figure out, OK, what’s the best way. Because maybe the way they suggested isn’t the best way.
Craig: Right. And so also when you say yes, even if you know the answer is no, saying yes gives you some time to then come back and say, all right, I’ve thought about it. It’s actually no, but here’s why.
Craig: The difference is being heard. You know, so I would say, Bottom, that the key here is to first ask yourself what is it that you’re trying to achieve. Because when I’m thinking about these things, what I’m trying to achieve ultimately is make the script better, make the project better. Get it made. Right? All these things I want to do. But really at the end, get a movie made that does well.
My emotions in any given moment have nothing to do with that. Nothing. My pride and being right has nothing to do with it. My anger, my frustration, has nothing to do with that. So, what I try and do is put those in second position. I have feelings, you know, and there are times when you get that sinking feeling, and you just have to sort of say, OK, I’ll deal with that after. I will curl up in a ball after. Right now I have to be clinical about this. And I have to be part of a team that’s working on a movie together.
And if it gets to a point where they’re making suggestions that would destroy what matters, then, you know, I trot out my favorite line, which is, “I just don’t know how to write that.”
Craig: Which usually stops them in their tracks. Because I think everybody giving notes underneath it has maybe the suspicion that they’re wrong. You know? Like they’re a little worried, like, am I right?
Craig: So, people want to be heard. So, concentrate on hearing them and being respectful in that way. Put your feelings second. And I think you’ll find that actually you can keep your cool easier if you recognize that losing your cool has nothing to do with what you actually want.
Derek: And I think the moment you hit on is that time in the notes where you just say, “OK, give me time to think about that.” They’re not always expecting you to have an answer right there in that meeting. You write down the note. You say, “OK, give me time to think about that.” Then, when you come back with what you have thought about, a lot of times you’ll have solved maybe one of their problems without even knowing that that’s what it was. Oh, it’s the note beneath the note, as they say.
And, also, they really do judge you based on not only how you do on the page, but do I want to spend a year with this person? And if I’m in meeting one and that person is already fighting me tooth and nail on the most minor suggestion, then I’m going say, “When can I get rid of this person?”
Derek: “At what point can I get rid of this person? How much do I need them?” Anyway, it’s a collaborative business. I’ve learned that over doing this for a long time. Every part of it is collaborative. Unless you’re going to animate a movie that you’re voicing the characters, and you’re drawing the illustrations, and you’ve written it, and you’re directing it, then you’re going to have to collaborate with everyone. And so, work on it.
Craig: It’s so true what you’re saying that, you know, making movies, making television shows, it’s very hard. It’s arduous. The last thing you want is to be going into battle with somebody that is just fighting you all the time. There’s something that screenwriters do, or television writers, that I think is really counterproductive, and I always urge them to not do it.
Everybody involved in the making of something is talking about making the thing. A television show or movie. The only person not talking about that, at times, is the writer who is talking about their script. That script is not the thing that people are making. They’re making a television show or movie. So, I always caution writers to not get into a place where you become a defender of a document, because whether they love the document or hate the document, or love you, or hate you, the document is not the end point.
Craig: So, everyone now shares a goal, except for you – that becomes, oh, well, yeah, OK.
Derek: [laughs] Right.
Craig: So, try and get in the same mind frame with everybody. Counterintuitively, by concentrating less on the document, you will end up being a better defender of the document. A more capable defender of the document.
Derek: Plus, I’ve found out that all these arguments you have in those first six months on a project, once the green light happens and you’re actually making it, all of those arguments go out the window. And now you’ve got a new thing that’s being made, which is the movie. And that argument you had six months ago about whether or not the guy would be eating a hot dog, that scene is gone. The hot dog thing that you argued for is long gone. And you will have time to put things back that you liked and all of those kind of things. But just get to that green light.
Craig: That’s right. You’re absolutely right. And this is something producers understand. This can be sometimes frustrating for writers when they feel like a producer is sort of going, oh yeah, we don’t have to do that. The producers just want to get to the place where they’re making the movie.
Craig: They’re smart enough to know, and then we’ll do what we kind of want. That’s the big secret. This is the thing that studios don’t want us to know, but of course we all know it. The second that the movie gets made, you know, green light happens, they have lost a massive amount of control.
Craig: Merely all control.
All right, so here’s a question for you, Derek. Derek, this is from Woodward or Bernstein.
Derek: This is Craig addresses me any time, by the way. If he calls me on the phone, “Derek! Derek!”
Craig: Derek! “I’d love to hear how Derek balances the demands of a career as a novelist,” oh boy, here we go.
Derek: Oh god.
Craig: “Balances the demands of a career as a novelist with those of a screen/TV writer, and especially if he has any tricks for how to easily switch between projects and mediums if he has to work on both a script and book during the same time period. I ask this as someone who has a first draft script assignment due in just a few days, and I am also handling notes from my book agent before she sends my manuscript to editors. Thanks.”
Derek: Great question. Yes, I’ve written five books while I’ve been doing this, and I have a sixth one that’s due in March, so I’m in the middle of that. As we speak, I don’t know how other people do it. I get up early in the mornings, before my kids get up. I get up at five in the morning. And I work for an hour and a half on writing a book. And then when that hour and a half is done, I’m done with it for the day. It’s the only way I can do it. I don’t know how other people do it.
Because then my kids get up, I make them breakfast, I get them off to school. Then I come in and I do my job that I’m supposed to do, this show-running on Chicago Fire. And I would never have somebody walking into my office and see me working on a book while I’m supposed to be working on the show.
That’s the only way I do it. I compartmentalize it. I’ve never had a problem flipping back and forth between projects, and as a TV writer, especially if you get in a position where you’re show-running, you will be flipping back and forth between episodes where something that happened in the past – you’re now in the future, then you got to go back to the past. And you have to write new scenes. And so that’s a skill that you should really try to master.
I mean, Craig, I know you’ve worked on multiple screenplays at the same time in totally different genres.
Craig: Yes. Yes. The only way that I’ve been able to do it is to make sure that they’re at different stages. So, every project has a lifespan. You begin breaking a story, you write a script, then there’s revisions of the script. Those are three different things. I can’t break two stories at the same time.
Craig: I can’t write two first drafts at the same time. I can write a first draft and then do revisions on something, or break a story and write a first draft. But, it’s hard. Honestly, it’s hard. I don’t like doing it and I feel like, I don’t know, sometimes I feel stupid, like I’m probably costing myself opportunities and things by saying I’m too busy and I can’t, but then I think, no, actually the reason that you get opportunities is that you actually concentrate on the jobs you have.
Derek: And you do a great job on them.
Craig: You try to–
Derek: If you spread yourself too thin, then you won’t be, yeah.
Craig: At that point, and we know writers who kind of have famously done this. You know, they went bananas and took every job. And then suddenly they failed at every job. How could you not? I panic if I feel like I don’t have enough time to do a good job. I literally start to panic.
Craig: All right. Well, hopefully that helps you out, Woodward or Bernstein. Here’s a question more for me, but it’s for you as well. This is from Austin B, otherwise known as Time Machine 1994. “I’m curious on your thoughts on a few things, of which could be summed up in one answer.” That is an amazing sentence.
Derek: I want your thoughts on a thing–?
Craig: I’m curious your on thoughts on a few things of which could be summed up in one answer.
Derek: That might be a robot that wrote that.
Craig: [laughs] Maybe. But the rest of it sounds right. “I’ve heard before on the podcast that you, Craig, tend to look down on screenwriting pitch festivals. Have you changed your opinion on them? As a screenwriter from Florida, it’s hard to rub shoulders to get the deal, so pitch festivals seem like a really great way to get work out there. And if nothing, just to get practice at pitching and sharing your idea with strangers. Are pitch festivals a hopeless endeavor? A business to take advantage of writers? Or can there be a differentiation between pitch festivals that offer real growth, versus ones looking to make a quick buck? What would you like to see at a pitch festival?”
All right, well that’s a good question. I generally think that in fact they are a hopeless endeavor and also a business to take advantage of writers. And the reason why is precisely for what you just said, Austin. You’re a screenwriter from a Florida. It’s hard to rub shoulders to get the deal, so pitch festivals seem like a really great way to get work out there. The keyword is SEEM. They are aware that they seem that way. That’s why they exist.
I do not know of many success stories that come out of these things, or any success stories, but regardless, I always feel like if you had something that was worthy of being purchased by reputable people, it would have been purchased anyway one way or the other. I think pitch festivals by and large are kind of hokum and bunk. And, also, that’s not really how our business works. I mean, I judged the pitch contest at the Austin Film Festival, you know, the screenwriting conference this year. And it struck me that these people were mastering an art that simply doesn’t exist in Hollywood. There is no pitch something in a minute and a half art.
People really don’t pitch that much stuff like that anywhere anyway. That’s more like what movies tell you Hollywood is like. It’s actually not like that. There are much more substantive, lengthy discussions involved than these kind of rat-a-tat advertising sales-type pitches.
Derek, what’s your feeling about all this?
Derek: I couldn’t agree more. It feels like that was something that was done in the ‘90s and nobody does it anymore. I mean, if you look at what the studios make, they’re not making movies off of original pitches. And they’re certainly not going to hire you unless they know you can execute that idea.
Craig: Right. I’m with you on this. I just feel like it’s a little bit of a blind alley. And they are taking advantage of the fact that you don’t have a lot of opportunities, so they’re dressing themselves up as one. So, I would still say, yeah, be very, very cautious about spending money on these things.
Derek: Do you know I’ve never been to one. Even at the Austin Film Festival, I never sat in on those. I don’t even know what it is. It sounds like you’re doing a standup comic routine for a minute thirty.
Craig: Almost. So I judged the final round of it with Lindsay Doran and they get a minute or something and they come up, and it is a very practiced rat-a-tat patter. And it’s at this packed bar.
Derek: So it’s like log lines? They’re giving you basically?
Craig: It’s like, Jim is da-da-da, and blah, blah, blah. And the thing is some of them are really good, but they’re really good as a kind of strange kind of haiku that isn’t necessarily, I mean, ultimately you would say, oh OK, that’s a really interesting story. You seem like a funny, interesting person. I would read five or ten pages and see if it were any good.
Craig: But the point is, we live in a time now where you can just put your script online. You can write a synopsis. It’s there. I don’t know.
Derek: And it seems like buying pitches is for people who have already sold scripts. Like they know that you can execute, so then they’re apt to hear your pitch, as opposed to I’m just going to buy your idea and hope you’re a good writer.
Craig: That’s right. So, if I say, look, I have an idea. This is what it is. I’ll just have a casual conversation about that. But, it’s not, yeah, you’re right. It’s not like studios are saying, whereas they did in the ‘90s, “Oh sure, yeah, I’ll have a meeting with so and so because they have an idea to pitch.” That just doesn’t really work that way anymore.
I think that the benefit of crafting these pitches is just maybe forcing you to think about your story in a structured way.
Derek: And public speaking, nothing is wrong with trying to be better at public speaking. It will help you in life.
Craig: I think that’s absolutely true. All right, here’s a question from Semi-Fake. “What questions should you ask when choosing an entertainment attorney?” And his second question, or her second question is, “What’s your favorite guilty pleasure movie?” Derek, questions to ask when choosing an entertainment attorney?
Derek: It’s funny, I was so young, and I’ve had the same one for 17 years, that I didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t even know what to ask. I barely knew what Hollywood was, so I’m the wrong person to ask. But I feel like they should be telling you about themselves and what they’ve done and who their clients are. And so you don’t need to be asking questions. You should just know by who they’ve worked with whether or not they’re legit. That’s how I feel.
Craig: I agree. Same situation for me. I’ve had the same attorney for 23 years now, or 22. And, yeah, the question I asked was what can I do to thank you.
Craig: You know, I mean, and also what questions can you ask? Like how good are you at law? I guess do you have a degree? I mean, I don’t know.
Derek: Who are your other clients? That’s what I would ask.
Craig: Sure. But then they’re like, what do you care? You’re right. I mean, look, the thing about an entertainment attorney is if they do a good job, you keep them. And if they don’t do a good job, you change.
Craig: It’s as simple as that. Now, what is your favorite guilty pleasure movie?
Derek: Oh, do I have to feel guilty about them?
Derek: I love Adam Sandler movies. And I have since they started coming out. Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison and Water Boy. And it’s great because my kids are now 11 and 10 and so I’m getting to show them, again. And they hold up. My kids are dying laughing at the same stuff I was laughing at 15 years ago.
Craig: That’s a good one. Favorite guilty pleasures. See, I would call those non-guilty pleasure movies.
Derek: Yeah, I don’t feel guilty about it.
Craig: I will watch Battlefield Earth if it’s on TV. I will watch it. I will watch it every damn time. Because it’s incoherent, but it’s a guilty pleasure. It’s just kind of remarkable in its badness. And so I’ll just watch it. I don’t know.
Derek: It’s good bad, versus just painful. Painful bad.
Craig: It kind of is good bad.
Craig: All right, we’ll do a couple more.
Derek: Scientologists everywhere are writing in to the hotline. Do you guys have a hotline for very serious urgent questions from podcast listeners?
Craig: We have Twitter?
Derek: No, no, no, but I mean, is there a line that rings?
Craig: Oh, like a red phone?
Derek: That you pick up and they say, “Craig, how do I break into the business?”
Craig: Yes there is. [laughs] All right, here’s a question for Derek. This is from Ethan. “I was wondering how many drafts of a script you will go through before you are satisfied with the result? Have you ever found yourself doing too many drafts and just had to say enough is enough?”
Derek: Well, not the drafts that we write for ourselves. Michael and I send scripts back and forth. We typically do two to three drafts before we’re ready for somebody else to look at it. After that, you know, if it’s a manager who looks at it, or your representatives, or you’re ready to give it to a producer and you say, “Will you give this a quick read,” kind of thing. And then it’s on to notes.
But typically two or three drafts. But I’m not one of those who is doing 15 different versions of what… – If it’s not working at that point, that’s probably not the best way to spend your time.
Craig: Yeah. I think probably because I’m in this routine of writing screenplays for studios, I don’t really have the luxury of–
Craig: You know, now, interestingly when I worked this script with Lindsay Doran, I wasn’t really doing drafts as much as pages. So there was no sense of a draft thing. And we would just rework, rework, rework.
Derek: Right. But you were also being paid, right? That was an assignment?
Craig: Yeah. I was being paid.
Derek: So it’s not a spec situation.
Derek: I mean, when you’re on a movie, I think on Wanted we probably had 75 drafts before, you know, as we were shooting.
Craig: Geez Louise.
Derek: Yeah, I mean, like you said, it would be a scene here. And that constitutes a new draft.
Craig: Oh, well sure. Yeah.
Derek: You know, at that point you’re on all services, so you’re just doing whatever is needed that day.
Craig: Right. It’s a tricky thing to know when it’s done. You know? I mean, sometimes, you just have to look out for, I think Ethan, the syndrome of being afraid to show it, which can sometimes lead you to think, oh, I’ll just keep rewriting this forever. And then I don’t have to face the music.
Derek: The other big thing is that you get bored with your own idea. So, the scene that you wrote that when somebody read it they were shocked, surprised, whatever, well, on draft 10 they’re not surprised anymore, and all of a sudden that becomes vulnerable. And you have to tell yourself and your producer, “Remember how you felt when you first read that? That still holds.” I’m sure that’s even more for jokes.
Craig: Oh yeah. For sure. Yeah, jokes, exactly.
Derek: People who are dying laughing on the first draft, now they’ve read it 40 times and they’re like, “Don’t you think we need a punch up here on?” That would be hard.
Craig: Yeah, it is unfortunate, as some of stop writing jokes now.
All right, let’s go for – we have time for a couple more. Here’s kind of an interesting little specific craft question. This is from Flirsee. “How wary or aware should you be as a script writer…“ I love it when people call it script writers.
Derek: I like script writer. I’m a script writer. It sounds more British.
Craig: Well, and it’s also accurate.
Derek: I’m a script writer.
Craig: I’m a script writer. Script writer! “How wary or aware should you be as a script writer for weird repetitions in dialogue? For example, a line like, ‘Well, that went well,’ really bothers me because of the repetition. And I spend time looking for alternate words for either ‘well.’ Is this effort worth it? Or am I wasting time I could be spending elsewhere?
Derek: Oh, no, it’s worth it. I can tell you, we go through the scripts on our shows and if you see the same word three times, even like alternate character’s dialogue, I just think – it hits the ear wrong. And so, you know, if somebody says, “Really?” And then the next character says, “Really.” And the next character says, “Really,” you circle that. And you give it back to the writer. Find something else there. And I know you’re using “well” and “well” differently, but even that I would be like, it would hit the ear wrong.
Craig: Absolutely. I think this is probably the best sign that you’re a writer, Flirsee. Because that’s exactly the kind of thing we’re constantly looking for. And if you listen to our podcast and you hear some of the Three Page Challenges we do, we call people out on that all the time. Repetitions of words feel like glitches in the Matrix. It’s supposed to seem effortless and smooth. And it’s not effortless and smooth if you hear those repetitions. It’s just, yeah, your ear snags on it.
Derek: This sounds so obvious, but you should read your scripts out loud to someone. Read it to your wife, or your girlfriend, or your husband, or your mom and dad. Because you will find yourself as you’re saying words that you wrote out loud that looked so good on the page, and then they just make your mouth move in weird directions. Make you mealy-mouthed is what I was trying to say. Read your scripts out loud.
Craig: Absolutely. We recommend this all the time. Here is an interesting one. “My question is this,” from Croon 23. “Do you find screenwriters succeed making a living purely as writers, or do they often meld into directing, producing, and other aspects of film? Is this any more beneficial to getting your work made?”
Derek: The writers I know, most of them make their living just as screenwriters. But, what’s your passion? Do you want to direct? If you want to direct, and write and direct, then chase that. But if you’re just doing it because you think, oh well, I could do that, too, then you’re not going to be successful.
Craig: I agree. I don’t think there’s much value in asking a question like is this any more beneficial to getting your work made. It’s not beneficial if you’re not supposed to be directing your own work.
You know, look, I prefer to have somebody that is a better director than I am direct the things I write. I like that. So, you know, Mark Webb is going to be directing a movie that I wrote. He’s a better director than I am.
Craig: By far. This is good news for me. Yeah, most of the screenwriters I know make their living purely as writers. A bunch of them as they get older will start to direct. Because, you know, the other thing about directing movies is you go away for a while. So, when you’re younger, you have younger kids. They’re in school still. It’s a little bit harder. But as you grow up, you know, and you grow older, then the opportunity maybe is a little more clear to direct. And there are some that are producers, too. But, yeah, there’s plenty of people that are–
Derek: But nobody is doing it calculatedly of career longevity. Yeah, if you don’t have a passion for doing the other things, then don’t do them.
Craig: I’m with you on that one. All right, let’s ask one last question here. “What’s the one thing you told yourself when you were just starting out that kept you motivated, even in the toughest of times?”
Derek: Let me think about that one. Do you have an answer?
Craig: No, because I didn’t tell myself anything. I was mostly just scared. It wasn’t like a mantra that I repeated. It was just my, “Uh…ugh.” That was it. That’s what I told myself. “Uh…ugh.”
Derek: [laughs] I’m trying to think. I mean, my thing is don’t be so hard on yourself. I think people try to be – they take every little slight – you have to have thick skin. I can’t say this enough. This business requires the thickest skin imaginable. The level of Internet trolling that goes on is nothing compared to just one note session on your script. And if you’re – you just have to be thick-skinned about your work and, I don’t know how else to say it.
Craig: Yeah. I think you said it beautifully. God, I wish I had something inspiring to say there. But the truth is, when I was first starting and I was trying to get going, I was mostly just scared. And panicky and nervous. And ambitious. And so I guess as I was telling myself was, “Mm…go. Work.”
Derek: Yes, work hard.
Craig: Work hard.
Derek: I know Michael and I were always – we were definitely always trying to do the unexpected. We were trying to zig when somebody would zag. We weren’t chasing what was the next thing that was going to be popular. You know, we weren’t trying to write a vampire movie because vampires were popular. We just tried to do things that interested us and we liked. And then always trying to surprise the reader. And then hopefully the director. And then hopefully the audience.
Craig: And now you have 20,000 shows on television.
Craig: Truly amazing.
Derek: We did just cross the – now Michael and I have produced over 200 hours of television.
Craig: Damn. That’s amazing.
Derek: It’s crazy.
Craig: You guys are like, you’re going to be in museums, right? In the Museum of Television and Broadcasting?
Derek: I don’t know.
Craig: Don’t you get like some kind of Hall of Fame thing?
Derek: I don’t think so.
Craig: A plaque?
Derek: No, I don’t think so.
Derek: No. I don’t think we’re going to get–
Craig: Do you get an island?
Derek: That would be…no. We were up at the Writers Guild doing that gambling, or what was that night? That poker night.
Craig: That was for the Veterans Program.
Derek: That was for the Veterans Program. We were doing this poker night. And they have a script library, which I just hadn’t been on that floor of the Writers Guild. I don’t spend a ton of time up there.
Craig: It’s the Foundation Library.
Derek: But I saw this library of all these scripts. And I’m looking, you know, and it’s in alphabetical order. And then I see the Chicago Fire pilot. And I look over and I see the Chicago P.D. pilot. And then I saw Wanted and 3:10 to Yuma. I was like, I am somewhere! I’m at least in the Writers Guild Library.
Craig: You’re in the Writers Guild Library. It’s huge.
Derek: [laughs] It’s huge.
Craig: That’s huge. Whenever, I don’t know why this is, but I’ll get these emails from the Motion Picture Academy saying, “We would love a copy of your screenplay for our library.” Like we would love a copy of Identity Thief for the Academy Library. And I’m like, oh OK, really?
Craig: All right.
Craig: All right. Did you see it? You want it for the Academy? OK. Anyway, oh, you want Scary Movie 4 in the Academy? OK.
Derek: Somebody is going to study this.
Craig: They’re completionists. You know, what can I say?
All right, well, that was an excellent show. Normally, we do a One Cool Thing, but you know, I’m always like trying to avoid the One Cool Thing.
Derek: Oh, OK. Well, you’re putting me on the spot.
Craig: No, no, no. I’m saying we don’t have to do it.
Derek: Don’t do it. OK. This microphone is cool.
Craig: This microphone is cool. Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. And our outro this week comes from Bleak Gilliam. I feel like–
Derek: These are great names.
Craig: Like none of those names are real.
Derek: I want to steal some of these names.
Craig: Well, Godwin and Matthew are definitely real. But Bleak Gilliam. Amazing. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also a place where you can send longer questions. For shorter questions on Twitter, I am @clmazin. And John is @johnaugust.
We are on Facebook, apparently, according to John. Search for Scriptnotes podcast. You can find us on iTunes at Scriptnotes. Just search for Scriptnotes. And while you’re there, leave us a comment. And, Derek, do you know why people should leave us a comment?
Craig: John loves comments. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you will find transcripts. We try and get them up about four days after the episode airs. You can find all of the back episodes of the show at Scriptnotes.net. And also on the Scriptnotes USB drive at store.johnaugust.com.
That’s where John steals money from me, Derek.
Craig: How much money do you think he’s making on this show?
Derek: How much money do I think John August steals from you? Well, here’s the way – I look at the raw numbers, OK. You guys have about 400,000 regular Scriptnotes listeners.
Craig: I don’t think that’s accurate.
Derek: Yeah. 400,000. Dude, we’re in a post-fact America.
Craig: Oh, right. Well, make it higher.
Derek: 400,000 each week. For a total of about 8 billion a year users. Now, if you consider maybe 10% of those buy t-shirts.
Craig: Of course.
Derek: What’s 10% of 8 billion?
Craig: Derek went to Baylor University. That’s Baylor University.
Derek: I don’t know math.
Craig: In Texas. What’s 10% of 8 billion? Really?
Derek: 800 million? I don’t know.
Craig: Very good, Derek. You just move the decimal. [laughs] Well, this was the best ending of the show of all time. We’re keeping all of that in there.
Derek: How much do agents make?
Craig: [laughs] This is why Derek’s agent is taking so much of his money. Derek, 10% is all of it. Thank you very much, Derek. You were a terrific guest. Thank you to all the people who wrote in questions and all of the folks on the Reddit Screenwriting Sub-Reddit that asked questions. We hope we gave you good answers. And we will be back next week with Mr. John August.
- Scriptnotes Midnight Blue T-shirt
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- Sundance Episodic Story Lab
- 9 Celebrated Sundance Screenwriters Lab Alumni
- Rafael Agustin
- Calvin Reeder
- Eboni Freeman and Mike Flynn
- WGA Veterans Writing Project
- Derek Haas on Twitter
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Bleak Gilliam (send us yours!)
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.
Craig and Scriptnotes friend Derek Haas answer listener questions ranging from getting started in Hollywood to interviewing entertainment attorneys.
We also leave a message for a Scriptnotes listener to hear years in the future.
- Scriptnotes Midnight Blue T-shirt
- Scriptnotes Gold Standard T-shirt
- Sundance Episodic Story Lab
- 9 Celebrated Sundance Screenwriters Lab Alumni
- Rafael Agustin
- Calvin Reeder
- Eboni Freeman and Mike Flynn
- WGA Veterans Writing Project
- Derek Haas on Twitter
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Bleak Gilliam (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 283 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. We are starting off the New Year with a new round of the Three Page Challenge, where we take a look at three samples from listeners and offer our honest feedback. We will also be discussing the DGA deal and its impact on writers.
John: But first, really important follow-up. Craig, the t-shirts are back. People can order the Scriptnotes 2016 shirts for about one more week. So, they’re doing a second printing because people wanted them.
Craig: People wanted them.
John: If you want to get a replacement shirt for Melissa, this is your chance.
Craig: You know what? I probably should get a replacement shirt for Melissa. You’re right. Because I messed up that one. That’s a great point. Ah, I just got to remember now what she wanted.
John: Yes. I think she wanted a shirt that fits properly.
Craig: Yes, of course. And I like ones that are tighter. Okay.
John: Yeah. But, anyway, we’ll stop the podcast right now so everyone can order their shirts.
Craig: Yep. Good job everyone. You did it.
John: You did it. Some more follow-up. A few episodes we talked about reality and fiction and fact and our responsibilities. Will from Albany, New York wrote in to say, “One thing which drives my fiancé and I insane: empty coffee cups. It feels like on every television show and movie scene where a character has a takeaway coffee cup, the cup is so obviously empty that it’s painful to watch them pretend to drink from it.”
Craig, this annoyed you as well. I thought it had. And it turns out this was one of your previous One Cool Things.
Craig: Yes. So there’s an entire award for – Empty Cup Awards. And strangely enough I was watching television last night with Melissa, and that’s strange because I just don’t watch television, but she said, “Oh, the Menendez brothers. They’re doing a follow-up show on the Menendez brothers.” So I was like, all right, I’ll watch the Menendez brothers. Because I did in fact go to school with Lyle briefly before he got kicked out for plagiarism.
John: You went to school with everybody. It’s crazy.
Craig: Yeah, yeah. He was at Princeton. And then he got kicked out a second time for murdering his parents. Regardless, in betwixt the segments on the Menendez brothers, there was an ad for McDonald’s coffee. It was a very bad ad, I might say, because the premise was ridiculous.
There’s some sort of hip company and they’ve sent out their new intern on a coffee run. And he comes back with coffee from McDonald’s. And they’re all like, “Wow, this coffee is great and you saved us money.” No, in the world what would happen is if an intern comes back to the office with a bunch of coffees from McDonald’s, they throw them in his face and burn him.
John: [laughs] And then there’s a lawsuit, but yes.
John: Because the coffee was too hot. Yeah.
Craig: But the coffee cups were the most empty of all coffee cups I’ve ever seen. And Melissa said, “You know what else? Watch luggage commercials. Or just anything. Shows where people are picking up suitcases. Always empty.” Always. So, you’re not alone, Will. You’re not alone.
John: You’re not alone. Two episodes ago we talked about homeopathy and Jonathan Hall wrote in to say, “I was a little bothered by the way in which a distinction was drawn between science and other forms of knowledge. In particularly, religion and narrative. You explicitly linked homeopathy and religion, which I thought was problematic, as homeopathy makes pseudo-scientific claims about the physical world, claims which you – as you rightly pointed out – are scientifically falsifiable. But the key claims of religion are precisely not claims about empirical reality that can be falsified with physical evidence. Religious ways of knowing are rigorously distinct from scientific ways of knowing. So they shouldn’t necessarily be lumped together with pseudo-science.”
Craig: Uh…what? I mean, look, if you are a religious person and you believe, you believe. You should not be concerned about my lack of belief. It doesn’t impact you at all. But I think it’s crazy to suggest that religion does not make claims about the physical world, or what you would call pseudo-scientific claims. Religion, in fact, claims how the world was created. It claims that the world is overseen by this presence of a god. There are an enormous amount of people in this country who believe that man and dinosaurs walked around at the same time and they were all on Noah’s Ark.
Of course, I mean, what? In Catholicism, they have an entire branch of just investigating whether miracles have occurred. The whole point of a miracle occurring is that something has happened in the physical world that is miraculous, and therefore not scientifically provable.
I’m sorry, Jonathan. I disagree.
John: I think my frustration is that when you ask people to take something on faith, they can take more things on faith and it just keeps snowballing. So, while I agree with you that people’s religious beliefs and religious faiths can be wonderful things, I think so often that same muscles that they’re using to have religious faith, they are trying to apply the things that can’t be scientifically tested, and that is my frustration with homeopathy.
Craig: Correct. I’m not really sure what a religious way of knowing is, so I don’t know how you can make it rigorously distinct from scientific ways of knowing. I know what scientific ways of knowing are, because science spells them out very clearly in steps. These are the steps you follow to pursue truth and knowledge. Religion has no such thing. I think you’re supposed to pray or look inwards, or imagine stuff. Sometimes people hear the voice of God talking to them. Sometimes they see God talking to them. Sometimes those people are highly respected, and sometimes they’re wandering around the street yelling at their own hand.
What is this religious way of knowing that’s so rigorously distinct? I don’t know what it is. That may just be my deficiency.
John: I believe there are scientists who are very, very good scientists who are also deeply religious. And they have found a way to sort of keep these worlds separate in ways that are meaningful.
John: Fantastic. That’s awesome. I hope that they are not practicing homeopathy, because that would make me question their scientific rigor.
Craig: Deeply. And speaking of which, we got another letter in. Letter. I’m old fashioned, aren’t I? Something else came over the transom. From Jennifer Fisher. And she writes, “If there’s an archetype for the cynic/skeptic/devil’s advocate” – three different things – “that’s me. But I think you may be wrong about homeopathy.” John, are you ready?
John: I think I might be ready. I might be wrong. So prove me wrong.
Craig: This is Jennifer now. “I’ve taken certain homeopathic potions without knowing what the side effect symptoms are or even that symptoms were to be expected. And experienced specific textbook symptoms. I’ve also had great success with Oscillococcinum, both before I knew anything about homeopathy and afterwards. Its effects then and now are exactly the same. You will probably put that down to the placebo effect.” Correct. “Which I also strongly believe in.” Not really. Sorry, I’m editorializing as I read the question.
“But when I first started taking Oscillococcinum, I highly doubted it would work. Call me an idiot, as I expect you will.” We’re almost there. “But I was surprised that as two creative beings you were so condescendingly dismissive of other folk’s beliefs and practices.” John?
John: Yeah, so I didn’t want to edit that down, because other folk’s beliefs and practices, that’s the religious aspect of it all.
John: Yeah, come on, you’re stepping on my beliefs. It’s like, well, you know what? Science–
Craig: You’re beliefs are stupid. [laughs]
John: There’s science. And so let’s unpack some stuff in here. Placebo effect, yes, it’s meaningful. Oscillococcinum, like oh it worked for me. Well, what did it actually do? Did it cure your cold? The cold that was going to go away anyway? That is, you know, sugar pills can do that. They can do exactly nothing and that nothing will actually work because you were going to get over that cold anyway.
Craig: What do you do with this person?
John: I don’t know. I mean, here’s the frustration. She’s very bright. She’s articulate. She’s able to explain her case to a point. But at the same point I can’t do anything with this. Basically you’re saying like I know it may be a placebo, but it works for me. Well, you know what? Maker’s Mark whiskey works for me, too, but I’m not claiming it has any scientific validity. I’m just saying it’s helpful.
Craig: Well, Jennifer kind of gives it away at the end when she says, “I was surprised that as two creative beings,” and somehow being creative we should, I guess, we divorce ourselves from reason. “You were so condescendingly dismissive of other folk’s beliefs and practices.” And there it is. She felt that we were condescending to what she felt was true. This is her belief and practice.
Jennifer, you do not have a right to a belief and a practice without also somebody looking at it and saying, “That’s stupid,” if, in fact, the belief and practice is stupid. If you tell me that you strongly believe in ghosts, I’m going to tell you that is stupid. I’m not saying you’re stupid. I’m saying that is stupid. Because it is. Because there aren’t any ghosts. Nor are there Oscillococcinum shimmering microbes. Nor is there anything in an Oscillococcinum pill other than lactose and glucose.
You believe something that’s dumb. And so, yes, I am condescendingly dismissive of it because it deserves condescending dismission. Which is not a word.
John: But it should be a word, because we all know what that word means.
Craig: It should be a word. Exactly. So, first of all, you say that you’re an archetype for the cynic/skeptic/devil’s advocate. Those are three different things. Cynicism is not skepticism. Skepticism is not devil’s advocacy. You seem like a devil’s advocate, kind of, but mostly you seem like somebody who believes what you want to believe and you don’t want other people making fun of it. But we can make fun of it because it’s stupid and wrong. We’re allowed to. That’s part of our gig as reasonable people. Just as you point at other people who believe absolute nonsense and say, “That’s stupid and wrong.”
You say you’ve taken certain homeopathic potions. The use of potion is remarkable to me. Without knowing what the side effect symptoms are, or even that symptoms were to be expected. I don’t believe you. Why would you take something without knowing what it does or why it does it? Why would you do that? You just randomly drink stuff? I don’t believe you. You’re not running double-blind experiments on yourself. That’s ridiculous.
You’ve had great success with Oscillococcinum. I don’t know what that means. You can’t define it. [sighs]
John: Yeah, she’s random study out of a group of one person. Yes.
Craig: And then here’s the deal. Exactly. You are literally doing the thing that science is designed to prevent. Right? If you take a – imagine, Jennifer, a 1000-sided die. That’s a big die. Two dice. But let’s take one die. One thousand-sided die. And you roll that thousand-sided die and it comes up 1,000. And then you roll it again and it comes up 1,000 again. The odds of that happening twice in a row is a million. One in a million. It’s going to happen. Do you understand?
Science is there to aggregate an enormous amount of things to rule out these little blips and blobs. Your individual experience with homeopathy is meaningless. The fact that you think it’s meaningful is not my problem. It’s your problem. So, if you thought I was condescendingly dismissive in your beliefs and practices before, I’m sure at this point now you are ready to delete us from your podcast list.
But since we don’t get paid, it’s all right.
John: Yep. The last point I would like to make is that if a person individually chooses to take homeopathy, I think that’s really dumb. But whatever. They’re making their own choice. My frustration is sort of the whole back half of that episode which is that like there’s actually a cost to those choices. And there’s a societal and an economic cost, billions of dollars cost, to this. And it’s precluding other valid treatments from the funding and the awareness that they should be getting. And that is my real frustration with her reply here is that I’m dismissive of her beliefs. Well, I’m actually concerned that by taking homeopathy seriously, it’s like selling ghost insurance. You know what? Some people really believe in ghosts, so do we need to have ghost police out there? Because some people really genuinely believe in ghosts, so maybe the police need to start responding to ghost emergencies. I don’t think they should.
Craig: You’re being condescendingly dismissive. [laughs]
John: Yes. And so, yes, I’m being condescendingly dismissive by comparing it to ghost emergencies, but I think they’re equally real and valid.
Craig: That’s right. That’s right. Literally, there is as much chance of Oscillococcinum being an effective medicine as there is ghosts.
John: We’re going to get so many ghost emails after this.
Craig: Good. Good. By the way, let’s weed you all out. I don’t care.
Look, you know who ends up losing money on this gig? John August. Because he’s the one making all the money. We know that. This whole t-shirt thing. [sighs]
John: All right. Let’s get to happier news. Back on Episode 238, Dana Fox was our guest. And she was amazing. And so she talked about how she planned on segueing from being a writer-producer to being a writer-director. And this past week she did just that. She directed an episode of New Girl which aired this last week. And it was fantastic. So I’m just so happy and so proud of Dana Fox.
But it’s also a great segue to the other bit of news that happened this last week which was the DGA deal. So, the Directors Guild of America negotiated a new deal with the AMPTP, which is the group that represents the studios, which “more than triples residuals for members working on original content in the highest subscriber tier, among many other adjustments.” So, it’s basically how much the members are going to get paid for different things for the next three-year contract.
John: Why this matters to our listeners is the DGA deal tends to set the parameters for what the WGA deal is going to be. And that’s heading into negotiation right now.
Craig: Yeah. Well, it doesn’t tend to set it. It sets it. This is the deal. The way the AMPTP, that’s the consortium that represents the studios, they put together a package. There are all these terms in the package. Your minimum earnings. That number will raise a little bit. And how we pay out residuals. We’ll raise that a little bit. Here they’re saying instead of all these residuals getting pushed into a big pie and then split up equally among say Netflix shows, if your show gets really, really subscribed to you get more.
But all of that payment is one big number that they’re saying over the next three years, because these contracts are three-year contracts, we’re going to pay out this much money. That’s the number. Now, when the WGA sits down, it can figure out a different way to divide that number up. But that’s basically the number. You know, makes sense, because it’s not like the DGA is going to do this and then the WGA is going to get a better number, because the DGA will turn around and go, “What? What? No. Why would you give you them more?” So, that’s the number.
John: If the numbers are the numbers, what ends up being sort of fascinating about these deals are the things that aren’t about the numbers, which are about sort of specific concerns that an individual guild raises. And this is the one that sort of set off some alarm bells this last week. So, this is also from the DGA press release. “Another focus of the DGA was to address the lack of opportunities for those who aspire to become career directors by seeking to curb the practice of gifting limited first time directing experiences to individuals who are not serious about a career in directing.”
So, this is a new provision that’s in the contract that all first-time television directors in drama, who do not have prior directing experience, or who have not completed and enrolled in a studio-sponsored television director development program, or attend an orientation program provided by the DGA before their employment begins. Basically you have to be in one of these sessions in order to be a first-time drama TV director.
John: So, Craig, you and I don’t work in TV, but a lot of our friends do. And a lot of them were really pissed off at this.
Craig: Yeah. Well, so this is absolutely a thumb in the eye of showrunners and to a lesser extent staff writers. The DGA resents, I think, systematically the fact that writers are in charge in television. And writers hire directors, specifically the showrunners, who are this hybrid of writer-producer. So, writer and employer. They hire directors. They determine who gets a directing job. And they will often give first timers a shot, whether they are writers on staff, who they say, okay, we’re giving you an episode to direct, or sometimes the actors. They’ll say we’re giving you an episode to direct. Sometimes those actors turn out to be fantastic directors.
Jonathan Frakes, you know, who made one of the best Star Trek movies. He started by getting episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation to direct. They don’t like this so much because they feel like writers are now gifting – they’re saying – gifting these gigs. And they’re putting this in as this weird kind of roadblock. It’s a somewhat impotent roadblock. I think that there’s some nervousness about how frequently this orientation day is going to be offered. If they offer it every single day, it’s not much of a roadblock. If they offer it once a month, it’s a huge roadblock. Because they’re saying, okay, we offer this on the first of the month. If you decide on March 2 that you want your writer to direct the episode two weeks from now, they can’t until they come here and do our orientation program. And god forbid you’re shooting in Louisiana. They got to fly them to New York or LA.
So, it’s an anti-writer, anti-showrunner thing. A lot of people are concerned that it is going to basically limit the opportunities of people that could be new directors. A lot of those people are women, are people of color. It’s going to keep a lot of the jobs in the same old pool of the standard DGA director who tends to be a 55-year-old white male. We, I believe, unfortunately can do nothing about this right now. It’s done, as far as I can tell.
John: So let’s talk about a little bit more of the problem, and then we’ll talk about the remedy. So, the reason I’m bringing this up in relation to Dana Fox is like Dana Fox was a first-time director of a television show. It’s a comedy, but if the same sort of basic rules apply. She knocked it out of the park. She did a fantastic job. But she and Aline Brosh McKenna theoretically would have had to have gone through an orientation to be allowed to direct an episode of the show. In the case of Aline, to direct an episode of the own show that she has created.
So she has been supervising directors all this time, but to direct the episode she’s supposed to get clearance from the DGA and go through this orientation to do it. That’s kind of crazy.
John: So, I tweeted about sort of my frustrations over all this and Paris Barclay, who is the head of the DGA, tweeted back at me saying like with a link to this is the sort of the backstory of why we’re doing this. And it was this diversity report the DGA did. I didn’t really buy it. They’re basically trying to claim that like, oh, because first-time directing deals are so important we need to make sure that it comes from a pool of diverse candidates. And it looked very much like a solution in search of a problem. It was a way of sort of defending what I think is ultimately going to result in fewer first-time directors being hired for these projects because it’s not just that I need to pick a director to direct that episode next week. Directors for TV series are slotted out months, and months, and months in advance. And are you going to be able to say to this first timer, like, can I guarantee that you’ll actually have had that orientation session when I’m hiring you for something that’s six months away. Maybe you can’t. And so therefore you have to go pick somebody safer. And I worry that it’s going to actually preclude opportunities rather than opening opportunities.
Craig: It certainly seems like it to me. I can’t imagine how they can argue with a straight face that this is in order to promote diversity. They’re saying we don’t want new people. We want to just use the people we have. We prefer to have the people we already have. The people you already have are not as diverse as the population of the United States. That’s a fact.
So, on its face that is just wrong. It’s a wrong claim. And there’s no possible way that this is somehow going to – I mean, they’re saying we want to make sure that the pool – what does that mean? I don’t even know what that means.
First of all, to be clear, they can’t tell the companies who they can and can’t hire. It’s not like you show up at this orientation and they go, “You’re not the right kind of person. You can’t do this.” You’re doing it. You just literally have to sit there. You can play Candy Crush on your phone all day during this thing. There’s no grade. They can’t flunk you. They’re not allowed by federal labor law to prevent you from working if you pay your dues and you sign a contract.
In fact, if they really impose this and it becomes a huge problem, I think what you’re going to see is a lot of first-time directors becoming Fi-Core non-members of the DGA. And then you don’t have to do this damn thing at all. Yes, you still need a DGA-covered contract, and you’ll have to pay a slightly reduced rate in dues. You’ll still get residuals. You’ll still be covered by the DGA contract. But you won’t have to do this other stuff. Because it’s stupid.
Sometimes unions, man, they just – argh.
John: Yeah, it is frustrating. So, let’s talk about what the remedies are here. So, because writers are the most frustrated by this development, you could imagine becoming a point of discussion in the WGA negotiations, but it’s not really part – it’s not part of our contract. So, it doesn’t seem like a useful thing to sort of try to argue with the AMPTP while we’re doing our own negotiations. If it manifests in a way that it feels like it is precluding who studios can actually hire, then that is an actionable thing. And that feels like it’s a whole separate lawsuit situation. That’s like a labor practices kind of thing.
But it’s not a negotiation you go into a room and talk it out.
Craig: No, we don’t really have standing to argue about this in negotiation. First of all, the people that are most aggrieved are the showrunners, but they’re aggrieved in their capacity as producers. A union doesn’t represent employers. It represents employees.
Now, we can certainly say on behalf of our employees, on behalf of writers who want to be first-time directors that this seems onerous. And the companies can say, “Well, sorry. We’ve done it. That’s it.” They’re not going to get involved in some sort of tit-for-tat war. They’re not going to give the WGA some sort of return clause that allows them to mess around with the directors. Frankly, the AMPTP likes the directors far more than they like us. That’s why they make the deal with them first. And these are the little kinds of rewards they get. You know?
They’re going to keep chipping away at these things. And the only way to prevent, honestly, is for the WGA and the DGA to make amends and achieve some sort of detente. I cannot emphasize how apart the two unions are right now in terms of their leadership and philosophy. So, believe me, I don’t say this lightly. I’m not saying, oh, and it could happen next week. No. No. It won’t.
John: If the same kind of thing were presented but it was the WGA rather than the DGA, there would have been fire in the streets. Like basically that any writer who is going to be hired to do something has to go through an orientation program ahead of time, no one would have put up with it. And it’s so strange that we look at directors as a different class of things. This was a thing that the DGA could do that the WGA could never do.
Craig: Well, they have been flexing their muscle about this TV director thing for a bit now. In the last negotiation they were getting terms about scripts. That the director needed a chance to have the script with enough time to prepare. They know that in features the director is treated like royalty and in episodic television, which is – as we all know – that’s where all the employment is right now, the director is not. And so they are clearly pivoting to fight on behalf of the television directors. It’s interesting how both unions are becoming more television-oriented. That is why I think you’re going to start seeing more and more of this.
The DGA does not like the fact that writers are in charge in television.
John: Yeah. So, one of our very favorite features on Scriptnotes podcast is the Three Page Challenge, where we invite our listeners to send in the first three pages of their screenplay, or their pilot, and we take a look at them and offer our honest opinions. You can read along with us if you’d like to because all of the scripts we’re going to be talking about, the PDFS can be found in the show notes links. Just keep scrolling or go to johnaugust.com. You can see these pages.
So all three of these writers or writer teams sent in these things asking for our honest feedback, so we are going to be very honest as we do it.
Now, oftentimes it’s just me and Craig talking, but it’s always much more fun when we have a very special guest on. And so I’m so excited for our very, very special guest. One of our favorite people in the world, Kelly Marcel, welcome back to the podcast.
Kelly Marcel: Thank you. Hello everybody.
John: So, Kelly Marcel, you are the writer of many movies, but the one that we sort of like all fell in love with you for was Saving Mr. Banks. What have you been working on? I hear you’re working on a project with a certain fella.
Kelly: With which certain fella?
John: A certain fella who you have romantic feelings for? A certain former Scriptnotes guest, Steve Zissis. I hear you’re working on a project with him. Is that accurate? Fair to say?
Craig: Yeah, you guys have been cooking something up?
Kelly: We’ve been working on a project together. We’ve actually been working on two projects together. So, we just finished – workwise we just finished Cruella for Disney. And in real-life we’ve been working on making a miniature Marcel-Zissis.
Craig: Oh. Mini-Ziss.
John: The product of this things is about to hit the air, and we’re so excited for you.
Craig: To extend the analogy, we are going to have some notes. Congratulations on your new baby. It’s a great start. However, we have some concerns. Is that the penis? Is that what it’s going to be? Or–?
Kelly: He’s terrible Greek-looking.
Craig: Already. But he’s not born, you know. You know what? We like the Greek. It’s just too much Greek.
Kelly: Yes, can we tone the Greek back a little bit?
John: I think really the audience testing is showing us, like the top two boxes are strong, but there’s definitely areas we can work on. We can tighten some things up.
Craig: Yeah. We love, I mean, the feet we love. So let’s not even talk about those. Those are great.
John: Oh, god. Baby feet are the best.
Kelly: Feet good. Snout good.
Craig: The snout is terrific. Tests very, very well. It’s just…it’s the Greek. So, we’ll – we have work to do. [laughs]
Kelly: I’ll let Steve know.
Craig: I hope he has Steve’s eyes. That’s really the only important thing. Honestly, you know, the blimp face eyes. I mean, for those of you who remember back in podcast whatever it was when we it was our live show in Austin and we came up with a pitch for a lonely blimp that had floated away. I think it was the best movie idea we’ve ever come up with on the fly in one of these shows.
Kelly: I still think we have to write that movie.
Craig: We probably should. And Steve did this face of the blimp. And his poor – like his puppy dog eyes. He’s blimpy dog eyes. Well, congratulations. That’s very exciting.
Kelly: Thank you.
John: We’re all very excited.
Kelly: Thank you.
John: All right. Let’s get to our work. We have listeners who have written in with some three pages for us to take a look at. Let’s start with No Man’s Land by Julian von Nagel and Gathering Marbet.
Craig: We have some amazing names today. Everyone. I think all three of them we have awesome names. I don’t know if Godwin is like, look, my name is Godwin Jabangwe, so I need people to kind of match with that. Like Julian von Nagel and Gathering Marbet.
John: So good. I went with the Marbet. But Marbet is another fair guess for that name.
Craig: It depends on how Frenchie they want to be about it.
John: Yeah. So everything is French to me now. Let me read the synopsis for this script for people who do not have it in front of them. So, we open inside a hospital room in an alternate universe with ‘80s cyber-punk feel. Rusted tubes pump a murky liquid into the back of a middle-aged woman’s head. She lies motionless, slack-mouthed, and covered in sores.
The window opens. Eli, in his 20s, enters, a satchel slung over his shoulder. He pulls a makeshift device out of the satchel, switches it on, and shows it to the woman who we learn is his mother. He mentions he is pretty damn close, thanks to the poor rats. Eli proceeds to apply medicine to his mother’s sores. He tells her how security around the hospital has tightened up, but nothing can keep him out.
He promises to get her out of the hospital soon, before slipping out a window as a nurse enters the room.
We pull back to reveal Quo has been watching Eli all along. He instructs the security officer not to block Eli’s access to the hospital. On his way up to the hospital rooftop, Quo debriefs an unseen voice on Eli’s progress with the device. The voice asks about Eli’s father. Quo assures him that Eli’s father is dead. Quo watches Eli disappear into the streets below, vowing to pick him up. And that’s the bottom of our three pages for No Man’s Land.
John: Who wants to start? Craig, do you want to get us going here?
Craig: Happy to. Happy to. We have some issues, Julian and Gathering. I got a little tripped up right from the very first line. Alternate universe, ‘80s cyber-punk aesthetic. You don’t necessarily want to announce to me that it’s an alternate universe with an ‘80s cyber-punk aesthetic. What you want to do is put me in the middle of a movie. And I will sense from your description that I am in an alternate universe and that I’m experiencing some kind of aesthetic. Many readers will not know what ‘80s cyber-punk aesthetic is. I would like to say I am one of them. I’m pretty familiar with cyber-punk. And I’m familiar with the ‘80s. But I don’t know the specific sub-genre of ‘80s cyber punk. So, I’m not quite sure what that’s about.
So, I got a little hurky-jerky from the start there. There is this hospital room is not hospital room the way we think of them. So, that’s probably how you would get that across. You know, you’d let the reader intuit this. The window bulged, which I didn’t understand. Because that sounded sort of metaphysically weird to me. Then this kid comes in and starts doing stuff that I think is supposed to be mystery. We’ve talked a lot about mystery versus confusion. I was mostly confused here. But I understood that a lot of it was mystery. I don’t know what the device is. I don’t know what it means that it turns on, but that’s okay, I’m sure I’ll find out.
I don’t know what the deal is with the poor rats. I’m sure I’ll find out. What I do know is this. This is his mother. Okay? And she is very, very sick. And she is in a lot of pain. And this dude is chattering in a way that did not feel appropriate for that. He’s giving us a little bit of an info dump. “You never kept me out of anything. How many times did you have to look up the lighter fluid before you gave up and got me gloves and a face shield?” It’s almost bad comedy about his recklessness and how he used to be a kid. And she groans. His mother groans, still motionless. She wants to tell him something. He just keeps yapping over her. “Hey, don’t worry about me. I’m not going to blow up myself.”
Eli, shut up. Right? Your mom is very much in pain and trying to tell you something. I got very, very – the relationships were not functioning for me. I mean, it was like, okay, here’s Quo. He’s watching. But Quo is apparently going to talk to somebody on a roof. Who is on the roof? Who hangs out on a roof? So, I had many issues here.
John: Kelly Marcel, how did you read this?
Kelly: I’m in agreement with most of what Craig said. And apart from Craig said I know this is his mum, I actually didn’t know it was his mum until we were well into him talking about the lighter fluid and all of that kind of stuff.
I felt like when he came through the window, I couldn’t really discern whether he was talking to the device that he had just switched on, or whether he was talking to the mum on the bed. So that threw me completely. I didn’t know who he was talking to. And also the description of him – resilient in spite of himself, the cautious gene just isn’t there – kind of took me off the page for a bit, because I had to sit there and think about what that actually looks like. Like what is that? How do you act that? How do you play that? I’m not quite sure how that’s telling me who this character is immediately.
And then tonally, and I think Craig was just saying this, I couldn’t tell whether it was supposed to be funny or whether it was supposed to be serious because of things like the conversation about the lighter fluid and his mum trying to talk, who is clearly in an enormous amount of pain and him not allowing her to talk. So, on page two I kind of don’t know tonally where I’m at.
That said, all in all I was kind of intrigued by it and I would have continued reading, because I did want to see where it was going to go.
John: I agree with you. I was actually intrigued enough that I would have read a few more pages. I had the same issues that you guys did, especially with looking at sort of the words on the page. I wasn’t actually so bothered by alternate universe/’80s cyber-punk aesthetic, because I had a vague sense of what it was. But by highlighting that at the very start, I stated reading the things in here and reading them with this like, okay, it’s like a cyber-punky kind of feel. And it was a useful shorthand for me. I don’t think I would do this personally, but it didn’t bug me so much to call it out as cyber-punk from the very start.
What did bug me was that a lot of the descriptions – there were just a lot of extra words thrown in that I thought hurt you sentence by sentence. So, looking at this first paragraph, “The uppermost screen, ducted to the ceiling, casts a SICKLY GLOW while emitting a RELUCTANT BEEPING.” I don’t know what ducted actually means. Like attached to the ceiling? Attached to the ducts of the ceiling? Is it duct-taped? And then what is a reluctant beeping?
Craig: You know, like beep. Beep.
John: That’s what it is.
John: It’s Steve Zissis’s not really wanting to beep but kind of has to beep.
“Rusted tubes hang.” Well, pipes rust, but do tubes rust? I think of tubes being plastic. So, word-by-word I kind of got knocked off of the track. And I think if I would ask for anything it’s just to clean up a lot of this stuff in this first bit so we can get to the business which is that this guy is coming in and he’s talking to his mother. It’s not a terrible version of like monologue-ing to somebody in the bed, but it’s not acknowledging that she’s in pain or like sort of what he’s trying to do.
John: If he’s trying to keep the one-sided conversation going to sort of not acknowledge that she’s in a lot of pain, I get that, but I wasn’t feeling that dynamic here on the page.
Craig: Yeah. I circled reluctant beeping as well because that’s nonsense. And I think a lot of times people do this. They get a little purple with these things. They forget how they read things. You know, so, you have the first paragraph, “…a tall, bulky machine with CLUSTERS OF KNOBS, switches, and several monitors precariously stacked on top of each other.” Or, there’s a large medical machine. The uppermost screen casts a sickly glow while emitting a beep – or while beeping. You know, we don’t really need – the tubes with murky liquid. Oh, each tube administers – this is – see, I really got tripped up on this stuff. Each tube administers a specific drug through needles that puncture the back of a middle-aged woman’s head. Ooh, okay, well that’s creepy. Except she’s lying motionless on a heavy-framed hospital bed. So how do we see needles going into the back of her head?
Craig: And, you know, people might think, oh, it doesn’t matter. No, this is exactly the kind of conversation that people have all the time. And the conversation is entitled how do we shoot this. And believe it or not, every time you do these things and you’re not clear about them, it stops people. Even if they don’t know why they’re being stopped. Although, I have to admit, I realized I made a mistake. Quo – there is no one on the roof. Someone is talking in his ear in an ear piece. But I think Voice (O.S.) is the wrong thing. That should be Voice and then in parenthesis it should say (earpiece). O.S. means off-screen but present, to me.
John: That is a fair assessment. So, let’s talk about Quo here at the end, because we get to the surveillance footage and then we’re seeing his perspective on all this which in general can work. So, you established your main character and you establish the people watching the main character. But Quo’s first dialogue here frustrated me. He says, “However he’s getting in, don’t block it. I don’t have room for oversights.”
John: I have no idea what that sentence could mean.
Craig: It’s contradictory.
Kelly: Well, also we just saw how he got in. He’s watching him.
Craig: [laughs] And then there’s that. So, there’s like, wow, there’s many, many sins in this one bit of dialogue. Kelly is absolutely right. This guy is watching. He knows how he’s getting in. And if he’s saying, “I’m glad he’s getting in, don’t block the window.” Then it’s not – I don’t have room for oversights. That would mean… – He should say, “It’s an oversight, but I’m OK with it.” Right?
John: Yeah. I was thinking oversights as like a different word. Like you’re assigning an oversight. It’s just weird. It didn’t feel like a good English sentence. And then Quo says, “It turns on.” “And?” “And nothing. He’s experimenting with rats. I’ll get eyes on that.” So, it turns on is the device, but like it was a weird thing. I wanted to single out that they’re really interested in the device and not the kid from the start. It tripped me up there.
Craig: John, don’t you find it a little odd that we get an enormous amount of description of the medical equipment surrounding this middle-aged woman, but this device, which is apparently important, it gets the following description: makeshift device.
Craig: I think we could do better than that, right?
John: I think we could, too.
Kelly: And also it actually turns out they are – I mean, yes, they’re interested in the device, but then it turns out that after that they’re not interested in the kid, the device, or what he’s doing. They’re interested in his dad.
Craig: And then there’s that.
Kelly: There’s a lot of misdirect in three pages in terms of what are these people actually interested in.
Craig: Well, and that, you know, this is the thing. So we’ve done an entire episode about balancing mystery and confusion. And I think that Julian and Gathering, they clearly get the difference, and they have put in a lot of mysteries without necessarily being confusing. I think they could say, look, we’ve clearly indicated that these are supposed to be mysteries, but at some point you have so many mysteries, you don’t know which one to pay attention to. And they all just mush into equal value.
John: All right. So, should we move onto our next Three Page Challenge?
John: Craig, do you want to do the description on this one?
Craig: All right. This is All the Ghosts are Girls by Christine Trageser. I told you, all of our names, what do you think?
Kelly: Trageser, I reckon.
Craig: Trageser. I’m going to go with that, because she reckons. All the Ghosts are Girls by Christine Trageser. Nina Ocasion, twenty-something Filipino doll designer, presenters her Marty styling head doll to the company executives. She tries to show off the doll’s functions, but the demo fails. She blames the batteries.
Nina’s boss, Val, is tired of the excuses and questions Nina’s dedication to the brand. Karen, Nina’s coworker, defends her stating how Nina was at work all through the night repainting the model. Val is not convinced, even as Nina claims to have played with her Marty dolls until the seventh grade. Nina snaps, firing back at Val, and making out with the Marty doll to prove her love for her job. Val storms out in disgust.
Back in her factory loft, Nina confides in Susan, telling her how nothing ever seems to work out for her. Susan tries to console Nina, who maintains her innocence for the demo failure. A little girl appears next to Nina, Susan perhaps, who may or may not be there, and pats her shoulder as we reach the bottom of page three.
All the Ghosts are Girls. Who wants to take a shot at this?
John: Kelly Marcel, do you want to start us off?
Kelly: Sure. I actually really like the title of this movie, for a start. And l liked that Christine started the movie with conflict. That we’re immediately into a scene where two people are having a disagreement with each other over something. And it’s big.
It was really hard for me, because we got to the bottom of page one and I got a bit umbrage-y about something and it was hard for me to move on from that. And I will tell you what it is.
Craig: Oh, goodie.
Kelly: She describes everybody – I actually really like the descriptions of all the characters. It gave me a really good visual of like who I’m seeing and what I’m looking at. So we get a good description of Nina, the petite lumberjack, and Val who is waspy. And everybody that we meet. And then we come to a character called Karen and her character description is “African American.”
Craig: That’s enough. Right? [laughs] What else do you need to say?
Kelly: And so I just wanted to talk about that for a little bit. Actually, Craig and I had a text conversation about a script recently that he had read that also had the same character description in it. And that’s not a character description. That’s the color of somebody’s skin. And it really threw me on page one and stuck in my head and made the further two pages really difficult for me to read. So, I just wanted to talk about that for a bit, because I’ve seen it a lot. And it annoys me.
John: I think it’s a great thing to talk about. So, I’ll take the defense position here, just so we can actually have a full discussion. I would say that there are certainly characters in scripts who are sort of not crucial or important. Like Karen may not show up ever again. And so often you just do Karen, 40s, and you wouldn’t put anything more for her. We’ve all done that. There’s just a character who’s only in a scene and you really don’t fully describe them out.
Craig: Sure. Bank manager. Yeah.
John: The question becomes if you do then specify a race, it makes it sound like you’re not going to give a full character description, you’re just calling her African American. I just can see the logic of like we always tell people to be specific and to sort of like not let everything be default white. Not let everything be sort of default lowest common denominator.
John: So, in this case, Christine is saying like, no, Karen is not white. But it bugged you because it felt like you didn’t get the rest of your character description there. And you felt like it was a shortcut. Is that right?
Kelly: I did. And I totally agree with everything you said, but Karen then goes on to have quite a lot to say. So, she does need a character description.
John: You want something to give us a sense of her personality and who she is in this world other than just African American.
Kelly: Absolutely. Because she says as much as anybody else, and all those other people got a character description. And they didn’t get, I mean, apart from Nina who is Filipina, I don’t know what color Val is. I don’t know what color John is.
Craig: Well, Val is white.
John: Val is white. She’s waspy.
Kelly: Oh, okay. OK. All right. I’ll let that go.
Craig: You know, I like to think about wardrobe, hair, and makeup. That’s my first go-to when I’m introducing a character. What are they wearing? What’s their hair like? What’s their makeup like? Do they have scars? Do they have a weird eye?
You can’t – John’s right, and we all know there are sometimes when you have a character that you’re passing by and like, “Cop, black, yells at him, ‘Slow down.’” But, no, Karen clearly is a character and, yeah, she deserves more description than, you know, black. That’s not enough.
How is she dressed? Is she important? Is she thin? Is she sturdy? Is she blinged up? Does she have on like a watch with the Marty thing because she’s like a real corporate follower? We need something – especially when we have Nina as the petite lumberjack with giant glasses. I mean, that’s such an interesting way of describing somebody.
Kelly: Everybody else is really interestingly described. And I think, as well, it’s really important that, I mean, even if you just say that Karen is really good friends with Nina, because she clearly is. She totally stands up for her over the next two pages and tries to protect her from Val, who is pissed off with Nina. So, even that, you know, is important to know.
But other than that, I sort of loved it. It spoke to me about my childhood. I used to have those dolls that you’d put makeup on and stuff, so I really loved it. I was like, oh, I love those.
And then I did get very confused at the very end when Nina is in her apartment and she’s drinking and then there’s this disembodied voice talking to her. And her hair rises into the air and then falls again. So, she’s clearly talking to a ghost, which I can determine from the title of the film. But it wasn’t clear enough for me. Like, it says a girl with braids in a plain cotton dress. An apron appears next to Nina and pats her shoulder. Where does she appear from? Does she appear from thin air? Did she come from another room? Is this the voice of the person we’ve just been hearing? I got a bit confused about that. And if that’s our first introduction to these ghosts that are mentioned in the title, then I need it to be kind of a bigger moment or a clearer moment at least.
And I just, also as an addition, I didn’t really know where we were. Like what time period we were in. What year we were in. Because it seemed, the doll seemed quite modern, so I just wanted to get a sense of where I was in the world.
Craig: John, what do you think?
John: I really liked a petite lumberjack with giant glasses, but I felt like the opening sentence was really awkward. So, let me read it aloud for people here. “NINA OCASION, 20s Filipina doll designer, a petite lumberjack with giant glasses sets up her prototypes on a table at the front of a presentation theater for executive review.” That’s one hell of a sentence. It’s a long sentence. So, the problem here is that there’s two clauses and she’s basically trying to describe Nina twice, both as 20s Filipina doll designer, and a petite lumberjack with giant glasses. Break those into two sentences and make those two different ideas, because it was just one mushy thing for me. I couldn’t parse all that. And they’re both good ideas, but give us a description and then tell us what she’s actually doing.
I think like Kelly I was happy that it was starting on conflict. I didn’t believe all of Val’s lines. Val felt like she had been dialed in from a slightly harsher movie than everybody else, or a little bit more arch movie than everybody else. So, I didn’t necessarily believe Val, but I did like that there was a conflict at the center of this and that Nina was trying to stick up for herself. And once it was set up that Nina had been up all night doing this presentation, I could more believe that she would go off on her. Because we’ve all been in that situation where you’ve been shooting all night and something finally snaps and you do yell at people in front of the crew.
It felt like that kind of moment to me.
The ghost at the end. It’s in the title, so I get it. I had a hard time connecting storylines though. Like the Nina from the first part doesn’t feel like the Nina from the second part. The last thing I sort of expected in the second scene was like, oh, and now there’s a little ghost.
Craig, tell us?
Craig: Well, I think commas would be a great help here. Commas are wonderful little things and they can smooth out these issues. So, Christine is dropping some commas where she needs them. For instance, your problem, a petite lumberjack with giant glasses, if there’s a comma after glasses it helps an enormous amount. Because right now it says, “A petite lumberjack with giant glasses sets up her prototypes,” so is the lumberjack setting up the – no, no, she’s setting them up. She is a petite lumberjack.
Similarly, “VAL JEFFRIES, super WASPy 40s, queen bee marketing VP glances up from her phone.” No. Queen bee marketing VP, glances up from her phone.
So, commas will help you kind of break apart your little bits of pieces here. I had to go back and forth a bunch of times on some of the names, because we have a lot. We have a lot and we have them quickly. And they are all roughly the same length and style. We have Val, Nina, Karen, John, Susan. I think that’s all of them.
So they’re all like sort of — — — — and Karen, this is the real symptom of what happens when you under-describe somebody that’s important. So, Kelly has pointed out “Karen, 40s African American.” By the way, 40s, African American. Not 40s African American. Means you’re an African American from the 1940s. So, again, commas.
John: That would make a great character.
Craig: [laughs] 40s African American. Like where did she come from?
John: I mean, it’s impressive that Karen has become a boss of this toy company in the 1940s. So that alone is a distinction.
Craig: I mean—
Kelly: You have to say with “John, 50s, engineer” as well.
Craig: There you go. Exactly. The symptom of this is that when I got to Karen, who has her first line in the middle of page three. I had no idea who she was. I was like, who’s Karen? Who’s Karen? Karen, to the back of Val.
Kelly: Page two. Top of page two, Craig.
Craig: I’m sorry, top of page two. Oh, there it is. Sorry. Even then, “Why don’t we move on to the salon?” I kept reading and I kind of confused Karen with Nina at that point because Nina’s having a back and forth with Val. That’s what happened. And there’s this Karen. And then I got to Val. “It’s always China, China.” I’m like wait, oh, who’s Karen? And I had to look back. I couldn’t find her for a while until, oh, at the very bottom of the page, there she is, with nothing else. And, oh, she’s the boss. Okay. So, there was some confusion there.
But, my biggest issue, honestly, jibes with what John said. I don’t believe a single – it’s worse, Christine, I’m afraid. I don’t believe a single word of what anyone is saying here. Not one word. No one is speaking like an actual person in an actual situation, to me.
I don’t understand the way – why Val is overreacting. They’re at a toy company. Occasionally something fails. I mean, they all work for the same company. Things sometimes don’t work. They’re acting like the big boss has flown in from the company to make layoffs. And if you’re thing doesn’t work right, you’re fired on the spot. Everyone just seems really super keyed up over this thing because the servos aren’t working. And a lot of what Val is feeding back feels expositional. “I’m sick of product development’s excuses. You know, Nina, I thought moving you to this brand would be great for the team, but now I’m questioning your dedication.”
Okay, so I’ve learned some information and also that’s not a realistic thing to say. Why would you question her dedication? Because a servo isn’t moving? That doesn’t make any sense.
And then Nina says, “Sometimes China gets the face paint wrong.” What does that have to do with what happened here? And then Val, “Do I have to go on yet another factory trip to justify your screw-ups?”
This is crazy. You should have fired her weeks ago if this is who you feel about her. But the response is where I really started to lose touch with who this character is and the tone of this piece. Because Nina says, “I played with my Marty dolls till seventh grade. I love being on this brand.”
John: The line isn’t set up at all.
John: And so the line that could get to Nina’s line is something like, you know, “Do you even understand what Marty is?” That’s the line that could feed the response.
John: I marked the same thing. There’s no connection between these two ideas.
Craig: None. None. And then Nina’s response back is also nonsensical. Val says, “Yeah. Well I’m not seeing it.” And Nina says, “Why? Because I don’t walk around in hot pink suits and stupid heels like you?” That’s just a flat out non-sequitur. Well, A, fired. B, I would fire – if someone said that to me, and I were Val, I would fire them not for being insulting about my look. I would fire them for trotting out a non-sequitur in the middle of a business meeting.
It does not follow. It doesn’t follow. And then she says, “And I’m totally dedicated to this line. I’ll show you love.”
“Nina grabs the styling head prototype by the hair and makes out with Marty who suddenly begins to speak.” We need another comma there. And suddenly begins to speak. Who would do that? That’s insane. That’s not the kind of love you’re saying you’re supposed to have for a doll. “I played with my Marty dolls till seventh grade.” Little girls don’t make out with their Marty dolls. That’s not the connection they have to them. This is just bizarre.
John: Kelly, do little girls make out with their makeup dolls?
Kelly: I didn’t make out with mine. But I can’t speak for everybody.
Craig: There may be some girls that made out with their makeup dolls. [laughs]
Kelly: There may be some.
John: Some girls may do this.
Kelly: But then I also read this, just to go on the defense of her a little bit, I did read this as she’s totally mad, but that was the lead up to – that we were seeing that’s she’s mad. And that was leading us up to, oh, she’s seeing things. She’s seeing ghosts as well. And this is her like – she was having a mental break.
Craig: Okay, I did not see that. What I saw was this is a standard kind of working person’s movie where they’re being put down by the man. And then they go home and the twist is they share their apartment with the ghosts. And the ghosts are going to help her do her job, or something like that. But that the ghosts are real and that she’s not crazy. But the problem is she’s acting in a way that actually is crazy. Which is – see, to me, the setup here is like… – This is what I would do. I’m a doll designer. I make this doll. I’m super proud of it. It works great, but it’s kind of old fashioned. And Val is like this is boring. You don’t really know, like girls don’t like this.
And you’re saying, no, no, no, they do. I was one of them. And she’s like trust me when I tell you, your stuff is old and it’s lame. Catch up with the rest of this crew and get into the corporate mentality, or you’re going to go. It’s that simple.
And then she goes home and there’s this little girl who is like, “I love this doll.” And she’s like, “I know you do.” She’s like, “It reminds me of the doll I had when I was growing up.” And Val is like, “Yeah. But you grew up in 1883. That’s kind of my problem.”
And then you’re like, oh my god. That’s a ghost girl.
Okay, so getting back to Kelly’s point about how you introduce – you have two choices of how to introduce this ghost. Either it’s a shocking oh my god there’s a dead girl in the apartment, except that our main character isn’t shocked. Or, there’s a normal girl in the apartment and then, oh my god, she’s a ghost. You have to pick some sort of fascinating way to introduce this concept.
Anyway, that was a lot.
Kelly: I think what’s so interesting there as well is that Craig and I read this in such different ways, which is ultimately the overall problem of these three pages. You know, we’re reading two totally different movies. And that’s no good. That can’t work. We need to know what the film is.
John: This didn’t land as one film. So, all right, let’s get to our final entry in the Three Page Challenge. This is Escapism by Pascoe Foxell.
Craig: Pascoe Foxell. I mean, this is awesome.
Kelly: None of these people are real.
John: I think these people have figured out the secret to getting Godwin to pick their scripts.
John: Is an amazing name.
Craig: Pascoe Foxell.
John: So, I’ll quickly summarize this. A businessman sprints down the street pursued by a man in a tracksuit. A young woman, who we will soon know to be Zoe, watches from her apartment window, high above the action. As tracksuit guy catches up, the businessman hops onto a bus. Tracksuit guy rushes on by, not even glancing at the businessman.
Up in her apartment, Zoe takes it all in, and she brushes her teeth by the window. She goes back to her bedroom. Searches for clothes to wear. At the Rex, a rundown cinema, Zoe returns from her smoke break to witness a child mid-tantrum after dropping his ice cream. She acknowledges Callum, her coworker, as he walks through an employee-only door.
Zoe goofs off in the box office, playing with piles of brown sugar and lit matches. Her boss, Arjun, admonishes her for laziness and sends her downstairs to check on the toilets as we hit the end of page three.
Craig: Is Godwin writing these summaries?
John: Godwin is writing these summaries. And so I felt like we missed some crucial things in the summary.
Craig: So Godwin, the honeymoon with Godwin is over. Now he goes right into the way we used to talk about Stuart. [laughs] Godwin, you kind of missed the point here, buddy. The point of the pages here is that we’re in a Walter Mitty kind of thing where Zoe is seeing things that are astonishing and fantastic. And then the movie reveals actually, no, they’re quite mundane. So, for instance, at the Rex, a rundown cinema, Zoe returns from her smoke break not to witness a child mid-tantrum, but rather a child being devoured by a monster, which is then revealed to just be a child mid-tantrum after dropping his ice cream.
So, Godwin! [laughs]
John: Godwin! And we should note that this is listed as being episode one, so it’s meant to be a pilot. That doesn’t necessarily change what we read on the page, but it may change what we think about in terms of this is setting up a world for a TV show apparently.
Kelly: [clears throat]
Craig: Oh, that sounds like – that’s the Kelly Marcel throat-clearing of doom.
Kelly: Actually it’s not. I loved – I liked this. But – but – I did. I loved it. I thought it was really beautiful if it’s a movie. I think three pages is an enormous amount of real estate to give to a lot of vignettes when you’re setting up a TV show. It’s not – you need a teaser. It needs to open with a bang. And I need to kind of know what this is about and where we’re going. You know, I need to have a cold open for a pilot. And this didn’t – this felt like a lot of pages for that.
John: Yeah. We get three of these like sort of vignettes back, to back, to back, and we still haven’t really gotten into what’s going on. Who is she?
Kelly: Is she mentally ill?
John: Yes. What is the framework around why we’re seeing what she’s seeing? So, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that has these sort of Walter Mitty-esque breaks, where it goes into musical numbers, but it’s really clearly set up like how they function in this universe.
John: We have three of them in the first three pages here. And I don’t understand sort of how they’re going to be driving the show, or to what degree I need to be thinking of the real world in the show being the real world.
Kelly: They’re beautifully done. They’re really – I thought they were lovely and really beautifully done. And they kept me reading them, but I also by the end of page three was like, ugh, I don’t know what this – I really have no idea what this is, what it’s about, and I felt like am I about to just watch a pilot that’s all this?
Craig: Yeah. Yep. Yep. That is a very reasonable objection. There are too many – so the Zoe looks at the mundane world around her and then per the title Escapism she imagines something much more fantastic. And the imagination here is actually quite impressive. I thought the scene of the monster eating the kid was actually scary. And I was so relieved when it turned out that it was just a kid crying because of his ice cream. And it was a little dog slurping in his ice cream. That was wonderful.
Craig: And I really enjoyed the bit with the sugar, where she is lighting sugar on fire, and it was like some incredible fantastical sand planet. But there were three such sequences in three pages. And in addition to making each one successfully less special in a row with the procession of them, we’re also starting to get concerned that Zoe is doing this 24/7. That it never stops. That would be exhausting. I mean, you’d put a bullet in your head. Especially because I think the point here is that it’s volitional. That she’s choosing to do this.
Walter Mitty, you know, makes his choices occasionally when it is well-earned. And he’s super-duper bored. The one that did not work for me annoyingly enough was the first one, which is the one you want to have work the best. In the first one, here’s what we see. “A businessman sprints down the street, panicked, ragged breaths. Head whipping back to look over his shoulder. He forces himself to speed up.
“From somewhere up above a striking, noirish 25-year-old woman, all in black, looks down on him.” Now, I’d love to know where from above, but I guess, you know, because it’s her fantasy she could be perched on a gargoyle, the edge of a roof, something, but I want to know where.
“She’s keeping track of every movement. Excited. Her gaze flicks behind the businessman where a tracksuit-wearing man is coming fast. He’s gaining with ease, a wide grin stretched across his face. The tracksuit gets closer. Closer again. The businessman pushes hard. No good though. Closer again.”
And then it’s revealed he’s just running to get on a bus, and the tracksuit guy is just jogging. Now, here’s why I was annoyed. Because it’s the first one, you’re telling me what the rules are essentially. Now, here’s some bits that she’s imagined as far as I can tell. She’s imagined the businessman looking back over his shoulder, because in reality the businessman wouldn’t do that. And she’s imagining the tracksuit guy smiling with a big, wide grin as he pursues this businessman, because there’s no reason the tracksuit guy would be smiling like a dope for no reason. Right?
So, she’s put that in there. But the real thing is they are actually running. So, I’m already confused about what I just saw. And I feel like it cheated me. I would have rathered if the guy was running, and the guy was chasing him, and then we reveal that the part that she cheated was herself. And they really are running, but for a different reason. The cheating bothered me.
The cheating doesn’t bother when I see an alien that turns out to be a kid, because obviously that’s all invented. But the opening here put me off a bit.
John: Yeah. I had the same issue with the opening. I thought the other two were much stronger. I think my biggest concern was that she is not really part of the action at all. She’s just standing at a window, brushing her teeth. And it was a really not helpful perspective on what that is. Like, I could imagine a version of this where she’s ultimately on the bus and watching the guy get on the bus. And the other guy goes running past. That I could see. This is her daily life. This is the way she sort of zones out. And she’s closer and part of the action.
But watching from a window didn’t feel like it was letting me know anything about her or her life.
Kelly: Yeah, I agree. And it is the weakest of the three. I would love if we started the pilot with the little boy on the ground, because that’s a really shocking image. And it’s really well-done the way she does it. And then because these come one after the other, I wonder if the fix is that we then build story in between these – if she thinks up a new one for the running guys, or just makes that clearer, we build story in between these three vignettes that would happen over an entire pilot.
Because those three seem enough for a pilot, to me.
Craig: Well, if they recur somehow, I mean, generally speaking, if somebody is having these flights of fancy, it needs to be either disrupting their real life, or helping their real life, or commenting on their real life. These are not. But I would absolutely open this thing with a woman, Zoe, she’s walking into a foyer. And it’s kind of creepy. And she stops and she hears a noise. And we just think we’re in a normal horror movie. And she looks around the corner and she sees this thing and she’s absolutely terrified. And she’s about to scream when someone pushes by her and goes, “Oh, morning Zoe.” And she’s like, “Oh, morning.”
And then she looks back and now we see it’s just a kid crying, and a dog, and a thing. And we go, oh, I get her.
Kelly: Yeah. And then you introduce the boss guy and you see how these fantasies that she’s having are actually affecting her work life. Because that does happen on page three. Her boss comes in. She’s been burning sugar on her desk. And he talks to her about it. But I think you bring that right up front as well and then immediately you have story and conflict and this weird thing that’s happening.
John: Yeah. I really love burning the sugar because it’s such a specific character choice. It’s a thing you see her doing, so it’s not just she’s having a fantasy. She’s lighting sugar on fire on her desk, but it tells you something about who she is and sort of how seriously she takes her job. And so that’s a nice thing to move up earlier in these three pages.
Craig: Yeah. Just as good imagination here. You know, the way that these things work best is when what we’re seeing, especially when we know that it’s not real, is surprising to us when the truth is revealed. We go, oh, that’s the that. That’s cool. So I know after I see the kid and the fake alien that when I’m in an undulating, expansive, brownish yellow dunes, and a bright fiery orb of light searing in, I know it’s not real. But I don’t know what it really is. And then when she shows me that she’s holding a lit match over piles of brown sugar, this is just really inventive and it’s satisfying. So, I guess what we’re saying, Pascoe, is that this needs to be better tied into character. And we need to see more about why she’s doing these. Why she makes the choice to slip into fancy. What choosing to slip into fancy does to the rest of her life, for better or for worse, and we need a much better way in.
John: Agreed. So, as always, we want to thank everybody, all these writers, for letting us take a look at their three pages. They’re so helpful. So Godwin reads everything that comes in to the account. If you have three pages you want him to take a look at, you go to johnaugust.com/threepage, and there’s a form you fill out. You attach a PDF.
He picks scripts that he thinks are most interesting for us to talk about. So, I want to stress that he’s not picking necessarily the best things he reads, but the things he thinks will be interesting for us to talk about on the air. So, if you have something you want us to read, send it in to that link and we will take a look at it.
It has come time for our One Cool Things. Craig, what is your One Cool Thing?
Craig: My One Cool Thing today is an article, eh, it’s sort of an article in the New Yorker, but it refers to another website. It’s an article about the Glossary of Happiness. So, there’s a gentleman named Tim Lomas. He is a professor at, or a lecturer, at the University of East London. Kelly, is that a good school?
Kelly: It is.
Craig: Oh, fantastic. Not like those pikers at the University of West London.
John: West London is the worst.
Kelly: Pikeys, Craig. Pikeys. Get it right.
Craig: Pikeys. Sorry. A bunch of pikeys. Anyway, Lomas has launched something called the Positive Lexicography Project, which is essentially an online glossary of untranslatable words into English. These are these compound words that describe positive feelings about things, or sometimes negative feelings about things. But, for instance, here’s a word from Yagan. I don’t know who speaks Yagan. But the word is Mamihlapinatapei, which means a look between people that expresses unspoken but mutual desire. It’s that great? Mamihlapinatapei.
And then there’s like these words from Dutch. Queesting, which means to allow a lover access to one’s bed for chit-chat. So, there’s just all these great, great words that describe these fascinating things. And some of them are incredibly specific, like Utepils, which is Norwegian for a beer that is enjoyed outside, particularly on the first hot day of the year. [laughs]
John: I am looking forward to that beer. That’s certainly a good thing.
Craig: Exactly. So, tons of these words. Describe things in one word that we don’t have one word for. So, check out The Glossary of Happiness. We’ll put a link in the show notes.
John: Fantastic. My One Cool Thing is Search Party, a show on TBS, which I devoured and loved. It is a half-hour comedy created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter. Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers also directed most of the episodes. It stars Alia Shawkat, from Arrested Development. It is just terrific. So, it’s a half-hour, which really means 23 minutes if you’re watching it on iTunes, but it follows a mystery. So, it’s she and her incredibly self-obsessed friends are kind of halfway investigating the disappearance of a college acquaintance.
And it’s really just terrifically well done. And very specific and odd. And I think what I admired most is that it manages to be really funny but also does the mystery stuff really well. Like I was genuinely fascinated to see what was going to happen in the next episode as I was watching it.
Now, if you do take a look at it, really do watch the first two episodes. I almost bailed after the first episode because I hated the characters so much. And you will love them by the end of the second episode. So you have to sort of get past their uncomfortable edges, and then you will fall in love with it.
So, highly recommend it. Search Party on TBS.
Kelly: Totally agree with that. I think TBS are killing it right now, by the way. I think they’re doing some really interesting stuff over there.
John: Hooray. Kelly, what’s your One Cool Thing?
Kelly: My other half just told me about this amazing thing, which is that Sony are coming out with smart contact lenses. And basically they can record every moment of your life, which means you can relive memories through them.
Craig: Wait, like the Mission: Impossible contact lens things? They’re making those?
Kelly: Sony are making them. Yeah.
Craig: Oh, boy, the potential for abuse here is astonishing. I mean, how are they going to…? You could relive every morning of your life, and I could also relive every moment of your life. That’s terrifying.
John: Just think about the sex tapes that will be made now with this technology.
Kelly: Oh, yes, let’s think about those. Yeah, no, I know, that is really terrifying, but also completely fascinating. I mean, I imagine that you could probably record stuff with those Google Glasses that came out, so it’s not–
Craig: Yeah, but I know you’re wearing the Google Glasses, because I can slap those goofy things off your face. But I don’t know if you’re wearing contact lenses. So at any point anyone can be recording you surreptitiously and you won’t know.
Kelly: And that’s illegal, no? Isn’t that illegal?
John: It’s illegal, but it still happens. I would say that from now on you’re going to have to start blindfolding yourself and blindfolding your romantic partners just to make sure that they’re not recording you. That’s going to change everything.
Craig: Oh my god.
John: Now, Kelly, you wrote a movie called Fifty Shades of Grey. This could be a plot point in that, could it not?
Kelly: I mean, they have missed a trick. I’m telling you. Erika needs to write a fifth book, because, you know.
John: Yes. Definitely.
Craig: Wait, there’s four of those.
Kelly: Well, there’s Fifty Shades, Fifty Shades Darker, Fifty Shades Freed, and then she also wrote a book from Christian Grey’s point of view. So–
Craig: And what was that one called?
Kelly: Uh…Grey? I think it’s called Grey.
Kelly: Yeah. But now she could write the contact lens book.
Craig: Oh my god. This is absolutely terrifying. I’m seriously terrified and I hope that he just had a dream and thought that this happened.
John: [laughs] I think he was watching Black Mirror and he thought it was a documentary.
Craig: He thought it was 20/20?
Kelly: I think it’s not fair, because what about those of us that don’t need contact lenses?
Craig: Well, you still can get – I mean, you can wear the contact–
John: You can still wear them.
Craig: Kelly, my god. [laughs] Oh my god.
Kelly: But I don’t want to just stick things in my eyes for, you know, no reason.
Craig: Well, of course, nobody likes to. No, but you can have a reason like I’m going to, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to go sit down. I’m going to have a very good open chat with somebody where they kind of spill their secrets about something to me. I’m their friend and they’re confiding in me. But I’m recording it the whole time. And then I’m going to upload that to YouTube so the whole world can see it.
This is crazy. Oh my god, I think we just caught a glimpse of how it all ends.
John: Maybe so.
John: Well that’s how this show ends. Our show, as always, is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Adam Pasulka. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also a place where you can send longer questions. But for short ones, ask us on Twitter. Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. Kelly, are you on Twitter? I forget?
Kelly: I am @MissMarcel.
John: Fantastic. We are also on Facebook. You can search for Scriptnotes podcast. You can find us on iTunes. Just look for Scriptnotes. That’s also where you can download the Scriptnotes app. Or there’s an Android app as well.
If you want to find transcripts, they are at johnaugust.com. They go up about four days after the episode airs. You can also find the show notes there.
If you want the back episodes, where we had Kelly Marcel on several times before, you can go to Scriptnotes.net and see what she talked about. There’s also a few last remaining USB drives at the store – store.johnaugust.com.
But for me, John August, for Craig Mazin, and for Kelly Marcel, guys, thank you so much. It was so nice to talk to you guys again.
Craig: Likewise. Come home soon, John.
Kelly: We miss you, John.
John: Oh, I miss you guys very much. And congratulations, Kelly Marcel.
Kelly: Thank you so much. Thank you. Bye.
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- Three Pages by Christine Trageser
- Three Pages by Pascoe Foxell
- Send us your Three Pages
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- Search Party
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Hi, Paul. I think you’re one of the most fascinating characters in American politics. Really!
You’re a hot nerd dad who does his homework. You probably listen to podcasts.
People may call you white bread, but c’mon: you don’t eat carbs.
Republicans had to beg you to be Speaker of the House. Was your reluctance to take the job real or calculated? Either way, well done Mr. Ryan. You got one of the most powerful posts in America without looking like you wanted it.
While I disagree with your positions on almost everything, you’ve long struck me as cool-headed and intellectually consistent. It’s clear there are principles guiding your decision-making process — or at least, decisions are retroactively framed within your principles.
(I suspect some Republicans view Obama this way: they don’t like his policies, but they can’t help but admire his professionalism. Maybe you do, too.)
But from the moment Trump became the Republican candidate, something has changed, Paul. It had to. You finally met your antagonist.
Trump is the antithesis of you on almost every metric: fat, old, lecherous, capricious and unprincipled. A screenwriter couldn’t develop a better villain to challenge your character and belief system.
But what story are we telling?
Is it a tragedy where the hero is corrupted into becoming the thing he despises most? Is it an inspirational tale of the stalwart squire saving the kingdom? Is it a comedy like Veep or The Office where life stumbles along despite persistent chaos?
I want to imagine that you, Paul Ryan, lie awake at night, wrestling with the choices you have to make, and the story in which you find yourself the protagonist.
In that spirit, here are some questions I’d love to ask you in those liminal moments of pillowed pondering.
What do you tell your kids about Trump? Do you say he’s a good man? A flawed man? A man who needs our help to make the best choices for America? I’ve always thought that what parents tell children reveals a lot about their worldview.
You’ve met the guy face-to-face. In your heart of hearts, do you think Donald Trump is sane? For the sake of this question, let’s define sane as “capable of consistently rational thought so as not to be a danger to himself or others.”
If the answer is yes-he’s-sane, how do you explain his third-person tweets and sudden reversals? Is it all planned? Is he secretly smarter than we realize?
If the answer is no-he’s-not-sane, how do you feel about Trump having control of our nuclear arsenal?
Back in July, during the controversy over Trump suggesting that a judge’s Latino heritage should disqualify him, you said, “Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment.” If that’s “textbook racism,” is there a specific more-racist thing he could say where you’d bail on him? Is it the n-word?
Seriously, don’t these cabinet picks drive you crazy? Yes, it’s the Senate that has to deal with them, but it must kill you that several of these guys seem to have no qualifications other than liking Trump.
In interviews, you’ve said that Atlas Shrugged is one of your three most re-read books. Ivanka Trump is flattered by comparisons to Dagny Taggart. Which Rand character do you identify with? The pioneering Hank Rearden? The elusive John Galt?
In October, tape came out where Trump bragged about his exploits with with women: “Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” Are you comfortable leaving your wife, daughter or young female staffer alone in a room with Trump?
Also in October, Trump tweeted, “Our very weak and ineffective leader, Paul Ryan, had a bad conference call where his members went wild at his disloyalty.” Then, at the start of the new session, you couldn’t talk your members out of an ill-conceived backroom plan to gut the congressional ethics system. So was Trump sort of right? Do you worry that you’re an ineffective leader?
Seriously, the white supremacist stuff: Does it freak you out that Nazis are a thing again?
And Russia. Do you believe they have compromising information on Trump? It’s crazy that we’re living in a reality-show version of The Americans. (For the record, I don’t believe the Russians have anything compromising on you beyond the handful of times you started a late-in-the-day Other workout on your Apple Watch in order to hit your Move goal, which is set really high anyway.)
As a student of economics, I’m sure you’re familiar with the sunk cost fallacy, in which people make irrational decisions based on prior investment. Is Trump a sunk cost? That is, should you continue to spend political capital on him because of what you’ve already invested? Or is the smart choice to cut your losses and move on?
You have an agenda to reshape many governmental institutions, starting with repealing Obamacare. You have a majority in both houses. But you’ll need Trump to sign it. What happens if he refuses to sign the bill, perhaps because it’s unpopular?
At the Republican National Convention, you said you were looking forward to the State of the Union, where you’d be “right up there on the rostrum with Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump.” Can you still envision that speech? You’d be sitting behind Trump while he says — well, what will he say? Will he go off script? Will you applaud when he says something shocking? Either way, that’s some pretty damning video.
Among colleagues, have you discussed scenarios in which Pence becomes president? C’mon. There’s got to be a codename for that, something like Silver Surfer.
If you had a time machine and could travel back one year, what would you do differently? I can imagine several timelines in which you became the Republican nominee, much the way you became Speaker of the House.
What else keeps you awake at night? I’ve listed some of my guesses, but I’m certain you know some terrifying things the rest of America doesn’t.
Finally, do you have a plan? Because I’ll tell you, from an outside observer’s perspective, it doesn’t look that way. You seem aware that you’re standing next to a toxic, dangerous narcissist, but seem reluctant to face him head-on. That can earn an audience’s sympathy, but not their respect.
It’s simply hard to root for a character like that.
John and Craig look at the newly-negotiated DGA deal, and what it portends for writers — in particular, TV showrunners and those who want to direct.
Then Kelly Marcel joins us for a new round of the Three Page Challenge, where we look at 80’s cyberpunk, dollhead ghosts, and the whimsical delusions of a bored movie theater worker.
Because you demanded it, they’re printing an extra run of the 2016 Scriptnotes shirts. This is the last week to order, so get yours now.
- Scriptnotes Midnight Blue T-shirt
- Scriptnotes Gold Standard T-shirt
- Empty Cup Awards
- The DGA Deal
- Three Pages by Julian von Nagel & Gathering Marbet
- Three Pages by Christine Trageser
- Three Pages by Pascoe Foxell
- Send us your Three Pages
- The Glossary of Happiness
- Search Party
- Sony Contact Lenses
- Kelly Marcel on Twitter
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Get your 250 episode USB
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Adam Pasulka (send us yours!)
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.
Atrocities: The 100 Deadliest Episodes in Human History by Matthew White
I read this book a few years ago under its original title of The Great Big Book of Horrible Things. I’m re-reading it now because it’s oddly comforting to see how bad things have been in ages past.
Somehow, humanity made it to 2017, so there’s a good chance we’ll make it through.
I am probably the last podcasting nerd in the world to have gotten on the AeroPress bandwagon, but here I am. Our apartment in Paris came with a Nespresso machine that makes only so-so coffee and has ecologically-unsound pods.
The AeroPress is really simple, and makes one cup of very good coffee. That’s all I need.
Now to destroy any coffee credibility I’ve built up by finally getting an AeroPress: have you tried instant coffee lately? It’s not good, but it’s substantially better than you remember. I’m drinking instant decaf in the afternoon, and it’s perfectly acceptable. It’s pre-measured and foolproof.
Why play a digitally-upgraded version of an old game when there are new ones out there like Witcher 3? Because I really liked Skyrim, and it’s fun to be able to try all the DLC content that wasn’t in the game when I played it the first time.
My big accomplishment of 2017 is that I finally learned how to solve the Rubik’s cube. It’s oddly satisfying once your fingers start doing it without conscious thought.
John August: Bonjour et bienvenue. Je m’appelle John August.
Aline Brosh McKenna: Je m’appelle Aline Brosh McKenna.
John: Et vous écoutez l’Episode 282 de Scriptnotes, un podcast sur l’écriture de scénarios et des choses intéressantes pour les scénaristes.
Aline: Ah, très bien. Très bien, Paris.
John: So we are here in Paris. That’s why I’m doing my introduction in French. Aline Brosh McKenna flew all the way over here just to record a podcast.
John: That is the dedication of a true friend. Aline, welcome to Paris.
Aline: Thank you. And I am looking forward to the mocking that I will get from Craig for actually taking time during my family vacation to come here and podcast with you. But, come on.
John: Come on. It’s Scriptnotes. You have to do it for Scriptnotes.
Aline: Priorities. And also – all you and I know how to do together is podcast at this point. We see each other, we just instantly begin–
John: The microphones come out. And we start recording a podcast.
Aline: No matter where we are.
John: It’s really embarrassing, especially when there’s nothing to actually talk about other than filmmaking. Today on this podcast, we are going to be answering some listener questions about cheating reality and bilingual characters, appropriate for being here in French. And we’ll also be inviting a special guest on to talk about the process of adaptation and autobiography.
Aline: Great. That all sounds great.
John: That’s this week. But also something terrible happened this week, which was the death of Carrie Fisher.
Aline: Oh gosh. Quickly followed by the death of Debbie Reynolds.
John: Yes, which is terrible. So, we’re recording this where it’s all sort of brand new news. By the time this comes out, it won’t be new news. But I wanted to talk with you because Carrie Fisher, obviously we know her as Princess Leia, we know her as an actress, but I really thought of her mostly as a screenwriter. That was sort of how I encountered her.
Aline: Yeah. When I first came to LA she was sort of the premier script doctor. And, you know, was very witty and funny and was sort of brought in to make things sort of, as I understood it, wittier and funnier and warmer. But she also obviously had a great presence as an actor.
My favorite Carrie Fisher performance is Hannah and Her Sisters. It’s probably my favorite Woodie Allen movie, and that performance, the subtle competition between her and Dianne Wiest is great. So, yeah, that’s been really sad. And then also for me, as an ‘80s baby, the George Michael thing was devastating. And I spent a day listening to every George Michael song that, you know, back to back. It’s been a weird week.
John: Yeah. I wrote up a little piece about George Michael when I got the news, because just a few days before it happened we were listening to a George Michael song at a café in Italy and it’s like, oh, I wonder if George Michael is still alive. Like it occurred to me like is he still alive. And then two days he had died. And so one of the nice things about all artists, including Carrie Fisher, is that they can physically die but the work that they’ve created lives on forever. And so I’ve been trying to listen to George Michael songs, but also songs from other artists who I might not have thought of recently, just because that’s how you sort of keep them alive.
Aline: Right. And I think of Carrie Fisher as a wit and as a novelist and Postcards from the Edge. But, of course, my son is a huge fan from Star Wars. And so he was very sad and upset when we found out the news and we were waiting to hear when we first heard about the heart attack, we were waiting to hear if she was okay. And he was posting on Facebook about it. So she means something to different generations of people which is great.
John: Did you have a chance to meet her ever?
Aline: I never did. No.
John: So, I met her twice. The first time was at a screening of Big Fish. It was at the ArcLight in Los Angeles and it was sort of our LA premiere. And the lists had come down and Dick Zanuck was nearby and Bruce Cohen was nearby. And this woman came in and she sort of like, she put up the armrests and sort of like curled up on the seat. And it was Carrie Fisher. And she came to watch the movie.
And then a few weeks later, I think, I was at a birthday party that she’d thrown for her friend and met her there. And she was exactly kind of the person you hoped Carrie Fisher would be. And she was generous, and warm, and cool. And like you I sort of encountered her mostly as a script doctor. As a person who was paid a lot of money for weekly work on something.
And I remember I was an intern at Universal and they were discussing bringing her in to do a weekly on this project. And I heard her quote, which just blew my mind that we paid that much per week. And what her job would be. And that was actually very inspiring. Like, I kind of want to be a screenwriter if you can do that. [laughs]
Aline: Yeah. But it’s rare to be a famous actress and sort of screen icon and also be doing that kind of work a day work.
John: There’s a quote I saw this last week about this where in a Newsweek interview they were talking about her working as a script doctor. And they say like do you still work as a script doctor. She says, “I haven’t done it for a few years. I did it for many years. Then younger people came to do it. And I started to do new things. It was a very long, lucrative episode of my life, but it’s complicated to do that. Now it’s all changed actually. In order to get a rewrite job, you have to submit your notes for your ideas on how to fix a script.”
Aline: Oh wow.
John: “So they can get all the notes from the different writers, keep the notes, and not hire you. That’s free work. And that’s what I always call life-wasting events.”
Aline: Can’t say it any better than that.
John: Absolutely. So, we’ve all encountered that situation where you’re brought in to do this work or not do this work, and they mostly want your opinions.
Aline: Right. For free.
John: Some follow up. So, episodes you were not involved with, but maybe you listened to. Back in Episode 277 we discussed film versus reality. Justin in Beijing wrote in to say, “So, listening to the podcast about how film and TV teaches bad medicine, if my friend gets stabbed and my dumb friend pulls out the knife, should I put the knife back in my stabbed friend?”
Aline: What’s your follow up? I’m guessing you should not do that.
John: Yeah. Craig is really our doctor on the podcast. But I’m guessing you should not put the knife back in.
Aline: I’m guessing not.
John: But just yesterday I saw the movie Passengers and that exact moment happens where she pulls the thing that’s impaling her out. And I wanted to say, no, don’t, leave the bolt in.
John: Because you will just bleed more when you pull that thing out. No. Don’t do it.
In Episode 280 we talked about the Reed College protest over Boys Don’t Cry. Did you listen to that episode already?
Aline: No. I’m really way behind.
John: It’s fine. But that was the one where I got really angry, and so actually had like more umbrage in that episode. We got a bunch of good responses about that, and some stupid ones, too, inevitably. But the one that stuck with me most was from a listener named Kate Hadley. And we’ll put a link to her piece up in the show notes.
What I liked so much about her piece is that she was able to focus on some things that Craig and I had not even considered. And one of the issues you have when you have cis-gendered actor playing trans is it sort of perpetuates that idea that a trans person is just playing dress up. That it’s all a disguise. And that it feeds into these terrible bathroom laws and stuff like that where there’s this perception that it’s just a man who wants to get into the women’s restroom. That it’s not a real person with a real identity.
So, she wrote it much more articulately than I just expressed it, but I’d really encourage you to take a look at what she said, because even though she, like I, disagree with the Reed College protest, she really was able to scratch at what I think was underlying that issue over sort of trans representation in film.
John: Cool. Last bit of follow up here. Matt wrote in about French titles. And he wanted to clarify – we talked about the Zak Efron movie, which was called something else, but the Australian title was Are We Officially Dating, and it turned out that was the initial script title for the movie.
John: So for the Australian version they went back to the original script title, which was unusual.
Aline: How did they know that?
John: You know, my hunch is it that it may have been one of those sort of foreign rights deals, or that it was a negative pickup in some way, so that–
Aline: It had been circulating with that on it?
John: Maybe so. Or, that some other international entity was a financier in it. So, in their head it was always called this other title. And the American people had changed the title.
Aline: Got it.
John: Aline, what have been the titles of your movies overseas?
Aline: I have no idea. I never look them up.
John: So The Devil Wears Prada would make sense.
Aline: I think it’s basically The Devil Wears Prada in most countries.
John: But I mean some of your things must be – like Morning Glory would be a very different title I bet in different countries.
Aline: I have no idea.
John: Cool. But we also had a follow up from Rodrigo in Brazil. And so if you can read to us what he wrote.
Aline: Sure. He says, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but Brazil’s title for The Hangover is even worse. Instead of calling it Ressaca, which is the regular hangover translation, Hangover in Brazil is called Se Beber, Não Case!”
I really made that up. Made that completely up.
“Don’t Drink and Marry. Brazil has a long list of bad title translations. The best one I can recall is when Teen Wolf got translated to The Boy from the Future, because Back to the Future happened a couple years before earlier. And marketing. Which brings us to a topic I think you never talked about in your podcast. How important is the title of the screenplay and how often does it get changed until it hits the screen? All You Need is Kill, Edge of Tomorrow, Live, Die, Repeat comes to mind.”
John: Let’s talk about that. Titles for screenplays. How important is the title for you when you’re coming up with a screenplay?
Aline: Oh, I think they’re critical. If you don’t have a title – if things are floating around for too long with an untitled, it seems like something is wrong with your idea. You just can’t hone in on what the idea is.
I think that a lot of the genius of Devil Wears Prada was in Lauren Weisberger’s selection of a title. It’s just so evocative. It tells a whole story. You know, it encapsulates the whole movie. And 27 Dresses, that was kind of – that’s the whole movie also.
John: That was your original title.
Aline: That was my original title. Yes. That was the whole idea – the whole idea is the title. So, I think it’s a good – I have worked on things before where I didn’t have a title way into writing it. It’s not a good sign. It’s really not a good sign.
John: I can see that. So, Morning Glory, so she’s a morning TV anchor.
John: But was that always the title or what happened there?
Aline: Yes, that was always the title. That was the one that I worked on with J.J. and I remember – we were talking about it, maybe I had worked on it for like a month, and then the title kind of hit me, and I… – I don’t think that’s a great title because it has a pun in it ultimately.
Aline: And also because I didn’t realize that Morning Glory in lots of places in the country means boner.
John: Ha-ha. Excellent.
Aline: Did you know that?
John: I had no idea. But I can see that. It’s like morning wood.
Aline: Morning wood is morning glory. And also there’s a Katherine Hepburn movie. That I did know. But I don’t think it got – like Broadcast News kind of tells you not only what it’s about, but it tells you its sort of take on it, that it should be the news. And one of the problems with Morning Glory as a movie is we never really honed in on like what we were saying about the news business. So, the fact that it has one of those titles that’s a bit irrelevant.
And then I’ve written movies also where people for the life of them can’t remember the title. Laws of Attraction. Or, you know, I Don’t Know How She Does It. Well, I Don’t Know How She Does It is a book, I guess.
John: I Don’t Know How She Does It actually makes sense. Like it feels like something that a character in that world would be saying. And it expresses her underlying–
Aline: It’s a great title for the book. As a movie title, I don’t think it widens out at all. I mean, obviously we would have called it that because it’s the book title. But you need to have something that really is – I mean, I think The Hangover is a brilliant title.
Aline: It’s just very simple and very clear. And what you’re looking for is I think something very clear that describes the movie.
John: In Rodrigo’s question he references what was called Edge of Tomorrow, was a Tom Cruise movie when it was released. But originally the title for it was All You Need is Kill, which I think is a great title.
Aline: Great title.
John: But it didn’t test well, or they didn’t feel like it marketed – they were concerned about it. So then Edge of Tomorrow, which felt really like I have no idea what that means.
Aline: Edge of Tomorrow reminds me a lot of Edge of Night, which is a soap opera.
John: It also reminds me of Oblivion, which was the other Tom Cruise sci-fi movie.
John: And so for the home video release they changed it to Live, Die, Repeat.
Aline: Wasn’t technically Live, Die, Repeat was the slogan, but it was like ten times bigger than the title? That was just somebody in marketing saying, “Don’t make me go and release this on home video with the same title. You’re killing me. Can we use this other thing?”
John: It’s challenging because it was a movie that was critically liked. It performed well, I guess. And sort of would otherwise deserve a sequel. But the title didn’t catch people.
Aline: That’s a surprisingly good movie. But I think it needs to be something where – I think a good test for writers is you want to be able to turn to your friend and say, “Oh my god, did you see this yet?” And have it be something which they’re not going to go, “Wait, which one is that?”
I think titles which are like Nowhere Fast, which are sort of like assemblages of vague terms, gerund nouns, or gerund adjectives – Running…
John: Running Water.
Aline: Running Scared. That is a movie, isn’t it?
John: Running Scared is a good one.
Aline: Yeah. Or Being Blank. There’s a lot of. Finding Blanks. And Being Blanks.
I have a script that I’ve been working on for a number of years. It’s this movie that I wrote about my mother and her friend. And it’s about these two French women. And I always refer to it as French Ladies. Because when I was talking to my agent or talking to anyone, French Ladies was what I always called it. But I was going to call it The Best Revenge. That was a title I was using was The Best Revenge. But I never referred to it as The Best Revenge with anyone, with my agent or anyone.
So, I started just calling it French Ladies. And then finally the producers were like, “We should just call this movie French Ladies because that’s the only thing we refer to it as.” And it just sticks to your ear.
So, it’s got to be something that you can turn to your friend and say, “Boy, we should really go see…”
John: Yes. 100%.
Aline: And they won’t go, “What?”
John: Yeah. I’m having a lot of what these days because it’s screener season, so you and I are getting all of the Academy screeners. And so a lot of these are movies I haven’t otherwise seen. And so we get this big list and I’m like I have no idea what this movie is. I’m sure it came out, but I have just no idea.
Aline: You know what’s the best, one of my favorite – well, The Meddler is a great title. And I loved that movie this year. One movie that I loved but the title took a long time to lodge in brain is Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Aline: I kept trying to recommend it to people and saying like–
John: Wilder beasts?
Aline: Something wild. You know, I couldn’t, it didn’t kind of lodge in my brain.
John: That was a previous One Cool Thing. The only reason I know about that is because the Kates recommended it.
Aline: It’s a great movie.
John: I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Aline: It’s a great movie. But somehow the title, Hunt maybe wasn’t a thing that landed in my brain as the thing that it was.
John: Yeah. With my movies, like Go was originally called 24/7. And 24/7 is an interesting title, but it wasn’t the right title for what that movie was.
Aline: That really makes me think it’s about a convenience store.
John: Totally. And it’s not about that. It’s not Clerks 2. But when I came to Go, it was like, oh, that’s what that movie feels like. And that was a title that I took from another pitch that I had set out that had never sold.
Aline: Oh really?
John: Scavenged. The Nines is a similar situation where The Nines was a short story I had written and it’s like, oh you know what, I’m going to take that title–
Aline: Didn’t The Nines come out close to Nine?
John: Yes. So that was a whole title mess. And that’s another thing worth discussing is that a lot of times you’ll have a great idea for a title and someone else will have already claimed it. So, it’s not a copyright situation. It’s the MPAA has a whole registry – actually, I take that back. I think it may be AMPAS has the registry. No, it wouldn’t be. Which one would it be?
Aline: It’s the MPAA.
John: It would be the MPAA. Has the registry of titles. And so you have to clear your title and make sure that it’s not confusing with another movie that’s out there.
And so The Nines was the first one to register The Nine. And then 9 came out, which was the animated version. There was also Nine the musical. And we were first. And so we had to give permission for those other things, so it becomes a whole negotiation.
Aline: You could have called it John August’s The Nines.
John: Yeah. You could have.
Aline: Like Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
John: Absolutely. Or Disney’s The Kid. There’s ways, you know, the studio title in there to get it done. But, yeah, going back to Rodrigo’s question, titles are crucial and important. And there’s honestly nothing more frustrating when you wrote a movie and you shot a movie under one title, and then it suddenly changes title at the end. You don’t even recognize this thing that you spent all this time working on. And I definitely know friends who have had that situation where like it’s called something crazy. Charlie’s Angels, the second Charlie’s Angels, the script I originally turned in was Charlie’s Angels: Forever. And that was going to be the movie title for a long time. And then they came back to us with a whole bunch of little things that had tested. They tested a bunch of different titles. And Full Throttle was a title just by itself that they tested. And so they decided to call it Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.
Aline: But with sequels, I don’t know what the words are after the first part.
John: Yeah. I have no idea what the next Fast and Furious is.
Aline: Oh wait. But isn’t–
John: I’m going to get it wrong if I try to guess.
Aline: I don’t know. It’s all the kids have been talking about. We seem really old and out of right now. Because the trailer just came out a couple weeks ago and that’s all the kids talk about.
John: Your sons are in the other room, and they probably know the real title.
Aline: They know. They know.
John: But we don’t. Chris Morgan knows, but we don’t know.
John: We have a question from listener Tom Dowler who wrote in. Let’s hear what he said.
Tom Dowler: My question is inspired by Craig’s recent list of very commonly seen yet completely nonsensical medical practices. My wife and I actually keep an ongoing list of things only seen in movies that characters do all the time, yet no one does in real life. And that list includes things like someone sitting alone on the back seat of a car, but is sitting right in the middle of that back seat rather than directly behind the driver or the passenger seats. Or, someone who is stressed walking into a bathroom just to splash cold water onto their face and then star meaningfully into the mirror. Or, someone carrying on a complete conversation while brushing their teeth, but somehow not covering their chin in toothpaste suds or choking on their own spit.
So, my question is this: should we as screenwriters embrace these ridiculous conceits if they help us tell our story and fit in with the Hollywood establishment? Or should we strike out in the name of truth and reality? Do you risk alienating your audience if we present a vision of life which is unlike what they’re used to seeing on screens, even if it more closely matches real life? Thanks very much.
Aline: I mean, to me that’s an easy one. Those things are goofy and they’re kind of the mark of a bad – someone sitting in the middle is probably because it was easier to shoot, and I don’t think that would pull you out as much as sort of weird human behavior. The thing that I’ve noticed more and more that really pulls me out of a movie is Joe Cornish who is a director I worked with for a little bit has this thing where when people are being so serious in a movie that you just want to go over and tickle them.
Like there’s these movies now where everybody is just – it’s so dire. And everybody is saying things like so seriously. And it’s all so portentous. And you want to go and poke people and be like, “You fart. You laugh.” I really so dislike things where one mode of being subsumes every other mode of being. And I think you’ve got to be funny. You’ve got to preserve, even when you’re inside a big budget serioso space opera or action movie, I mean, sometimes those just get so goofy in terms of tone. And people sort of stentorianly explaining to each other the plot and you’re just thinking like – you want somebody to be like, “Do you want to get a sandwich? The cafeteria, ah, they got my favorite thing today.”
Like those glimpses to me of human behavior, the lack of that to me is the silliest, fakest, weirdest thing that will pull me out of a movie more than anything is… – And I’ve really noticed more and more that because we’re in this world where every movie is either Moonlight or some gigantic $250 million movie, it seems like all the human behavior now is being relegated to the tiny movies. And in big movies now people are acting like weird, solemn robots who don’t have bodily functions or senses of humor.
So, I think inhabiting, you know, if you watch Alien and see how many like real human little moments there are of humanity inside of that, that really grounds you inside those characters and that behavior. And I think it buys you permission later to have some big piece of like super serioso exposition or action.
John: What I hear you describing is both a writing concern, basically you’re not creating the scenes in which characters are going to have those sort of real moments and can puncture this veil of seriousness, but also performance and directing. So basically how you’re portraying your world so that people feel alive and present in this. And I think some of that is the writer’s responsibility, and some of that is just the weight of the movie and the weight of the movie machinery around it. So, you talk about these movies where people are being so incredibly serious. It’s as if they understand what movie they’re in. What I always love about Alien, and I’ve said this many times before, is that the characters in Alien think they’re in a movie called Space Truckers. And they have no idea that an Alien is supposed to show up. So they’re not philosophizing. They’re not planning for a horror movie to break out. They’re just being in the movie Space Truckers. And then things go horribly wrong.
But some of what the original question is asking about are things, are shortcuts that we’ve taken for production that are just convenient. And we’re sort of used to them now. They’re conventions. And they really are annoying.
So, he talks about a character sitting in the middle of a backseat, which is of course ridiculous. No one ever does that. People also don’t drive around with their head rests missing, and yet you see that all the time in movies so that you can see into the backseat more easily. A lot of times we’ll remove the rearview mirror so you can have the shot going through the windshield. And you don’t realize that the rearview mirror is missing, but it’s gone in more than half the movies you’ve seen.
Aline: I notice more things that are there because of vanity. Like when people are waking up in full makeup. Just giant eyelashes. I’m really noticing that. And also the constant kissing without teeth brushing. Just people – you don’t even want to – forget kissing. It might even be easier to stomach kissing than speaking. People wake up in the morning and look at each other and have these conversations that it would be like, you would really be shielding yourself. Or you would say, “Wait a second.”
John: So, you guys are doing Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. So, when you’re filming those episodes, and you directed episodes, how much are you willing to bend reality? Are you sitting, Rachel, in the middle of the backseat?
Aline: Well, there’s some stuff like that that is just production stuff. But the thing that we’re always battling is the vanity and the touches and the touchups. And they’re always attacking the actors with the makeup brushes and the hair. And that’s a constant back and forth. Especially when we have to go quickly, because those people have a responsibility to do their job. They want to do their jobs. They want to erase every under eye shadow. But Rachel and I both would always try and err on the side of like, well, she’s had a shitty day. She loves a day where she’s not wearing makeup and she’ll always – I’m always getting texts from her saying, “Can I please not wear any makeup in this scene for this reason?” And sometimes she’s even like stretching it, because she just wants to not be doing it.
But, you know, the perfect hair and makeup, you have to – like our show has a certain extra crank over reality. So it’s not a movie where you can – you know, it’s not Kids. We’re not really doing something where people’s hair looks exactly the way it would like Donna Lynne when she’s playing Paula, like clearly someone – her hair wouldn’t look quite that great for the office. So, you’re kind of walking a line where like you need some aesthetics, but not so much that people seem distractingly done.
So, I think for every piece you’re doing, when you’re making it you have to find sort of your level of – but a lot of those things that he’s – I mean, there’s two different things. Things that are bent for production, which you have to do kind of frequently, and shooting in cars is kind of a nightmare, and so things are often kind of wonky. And then there’s stuff where people are just behaving not like humans.
John: Yeah. My last bit of advice would be to recognize when you’re about to walk in to one of those tropes, and if there’s something you can gain out of not doing that trope, or sort of calling out that trope, that could be great. And so, I mean, that tooth brushing thing might be like if you’re movie can stand the joke about the tooth brushing, do that as the joke. Acknowledge sort of the trope of it and move past it. Or like don’t let people have that conversation while they’re brushing their teeth. Or make the other character stop them from having that conversation while they’re brushing their teeth.
Aline: One scene that really stuck with me was in Fun with Dick and Jane, the original one, Jane Fonda sits on the toilet and pees while she’s talking to him. And pees, and wipes, and gets up. And that really always stuck with me in life because it was like, god, you’re never really seeing people peeing in movies, or talking while they’re peeing, or continuing conversations in the bathroom. And I just feel like as a culture we’ve moved away from movies where people pee in toilets while they’re talking, except in these super small movies. But in a big movie now if you did that, it would be–
John: Oh, we get noted to death on that. Because it’s like, you know, we get notes from the studio executive about that’s not going to look really good. I don’t want to see Charlize Theron peeing. And then on the day you get that note, and then there will be the second guessing, and it wouldn’t got shot. Or if it did get shot, it wouldn’t make it through the edit. They’d say like, “What parts did you not like in the movie?” “I didn’t like the part where she was peeing.”
Aline: She was peeing.
John: And then we could cut from that. That’s the frustration. And because these big movies have all that weight and all that responsibility of they have to test well. Anything that people don’t like is going to get nixed.
Aline: Right. And in the context of doing that sometimes you’re straining out human behavior. And, you know, at the end of the day, don’t we still go to movies to see how people behave, should behave? So, I think it’s good to preserve those things and it’s a mark of a good writer that you can inhabit those big moments with the little moments.
John: I would also point out that I think female characters have a much higher standard for what kind of real behaviors we’re excited to see them do on screen, versus male characters. So, like Seth Brogan peeing on screen. Great. You know, beautiful actress peeing on screen? No, we don’t want to see that.
Aline: There’s definitely movies I’m watching where I’m going where is the salon? They’ve been roughing it in the outback for six weeks and her hair looks fabulous.
John: So Passengers is a beautiful movie, and I really enjoyed large parts of it. Chris Pratt, who is a very handsome guy, gets to look really crappy at times, which is completely appropriate and character appropriate. When Jennifer Lawrence needs to look bad, it’s basically like she’s a little shiny. That’s about as bad as they make her look. And, yes, part of it is the sort of romantic comedy fantasy. Like if you were on this cruise ship and you had all this stuff. But did she spend four hours on makeup just to get up in the morning? The suspension of disbelief is really high.
Aline: But I think it’s establishing a language for your movie. Because if you’re making La La Land and there’s this sort of veneer of wish fulfillment about it, and he dialed in the level of wish fulfillment, because they’re not perfect. They don’t look perfect. The movie has edges to it. But for large parts she looks beautiful and is wearing aspirational things. And he looks quite handsome and is wearing aspirational things. But not to a level that pulls you out of the movie. But if you’re making a grittier film, then people need to look like that.
And what is often, I personally find annoying, is when you have actresses in a littler film where they should be grubby and instead they look like they just wandered from the Méche Salon on Robertson, having just gotten their tips done. So, I think that’s more on production though than writing.
John: Yeah. I remember interviewing Winnie Holzman when she was talking about My So-Called Life. And they set up rules for that first season where Claire Danes’s character could only have certain outfits. So basically they picked her outfits and then she would have to repeat outfits, because she didn’t have an unlimited wardrobe, which I thought was actually a very smart idea. A good sort of structure to impose upon yourself. Like we’re not going to go nuts with her wardrobe.
Aline: And that suited the tone of that movie which was a real exploration of her psychology. And I think when you can tell – we always talk about this, how you can tell within 30 seconds whether you’re comfortable in a movie or not. It’s just so instant. And there are those little, you know, humans are so incredibly good at scanning faces and behavior for authenticity. And the minute you see somebody doing something which doesn’t suit the world, which sticks out in some way, it’s very noticeable. But a lot of what he’s also talking about are just like poor writing clams.
And talking to yourself is a thing that writers get stuck with because they’re struggling to get exposition out. And so I think if you’re writing a scene and you’re really super tempted to have someone talk to themselves, just try and think of another way you can do it. Just try and think of another means to get that information out.
A lot of it is you may not need that information to come out then. It may be something that can come out more naturally later, and you can sort of have the character express the emotion that you’re looking for and find out the exact news item in another way.
John: Absolutely. The moment where the character steps in the bathroom and splashes cold water on his face, which is so cliché, and I don’t think people do in real life, find another way to sort of – you can use the look of what he would be doing in that moment to do–
Aline: Have you ever done it?
John: I’ve never done it.
Aline: Never splashed yourself with water. Have you ever, though, looked in the mirror and said, “John August, you go out there and give the best meeting of your life.”
John: Oh, I have looked at myself in the mirror and psyched myself up, but I’ve never actually spoken. So, actually, I’m curious about your opinion on mirrors. I think mirrors are incredibly helpful sometimes when I’m writing dialogue because sometimes I’ll need to look in a mirror and actually have and sort of talk through that conversation, or think through stuff. Somehow looking in a mirror is actually really helpful for me in writing sometimes.
Aline: I don’t do that. To me, the characters are like in a little screen projected in the back of my head.
John: For Big Fish, when I was writing the death scenes and stuff like that, I would look at a mirror and get myself to cry and then I–
John: And then I would write those scenes. And so it was very, very method. But I would bring myself to tears and get myself–
Aline: This is where Craig makes jokes about your robotic programming and how you have to mimic the feelings of a human by recreating them in your software.
John: Absolutely. All I can say is that algorithm worked.
Final question comes from Brian Sanchez who writes, “I’m a new listener to the podcast and you guys have inspired me to try to write this idea I’ve had in my head for a sitcom, mainly just to see if I can do it. It features a Latino family and I would like the dialogue to ring true to how an actual Latino American household sounds. Growing up with Cuban parents, we constantly switched between English and Spanish in the same conversation. When writing these scenes, would you put the translations in the script, or would this be confusing to the reader?”
Aline: Well, in French Ladies what I did was I translated little things. I mean, I left small sentences that the other character – so if one character spoke and said something that the other character could respond to in English. So, if the French character said, you know, “Let’s go to the café for lunch.” Then the other character would say, “I don’t want to go to the café for lunch,” so that you would hear whatever information you needed to know in English. And so I often did it that way by the responding, the other character would tell us what had been said.
And then for the reading purposes I would say in French, Subtitled, and then just write it in English. That’s mainly what I did. It really depends on who you’re writing it for. And if you’re writing it as something you want to sell to an American TV audience, then – but if you’re sending it to someplace that is a Spanish language place, you could probably do both and you could then subtitle whatever one you… – You know, I’m always impressed in The Americans they super committed to the Russian. Giant long, long, long scenes, very articulate Russian. These are very highly educated people and they must have a ton of people working on that. But they super committed and then you just sit and you read the subtitles. And…
John: I love The Americans. And we watched all three seasons while I’ve been here.
John: Actually, I’ve only been through three seasons. Sorry. So don’t tell me what happens next.
Aline: Four is real good.
John: Oh, wait, no, maybe we did watch four.
Aline: Let’s tell everyone what happened now.
John: Let’s spoil things for people. I love to watch that show. And so we’re plowing through the show, I’ll tend to be looking at something on my iPad at the same time, or I’ll be playing a game. And then it gets to the Russian sections and you can’t follow it because you actually have to look at the screen to do stuff.
Aline: Are you that person who watches stuff and then is also doing other stuff?
John: Oh, we’re very much that family.
Aline: Really? So you’re watching a series and you’re also playing a game?
John: Sometimes, yes.
John: I won’t do it for like a movie. But for an ongoing series, especially like things that are talky that you can sort of figure out. So I’m looking up and down to do that.
Aline: Wow. Wow.
John: Yeah. But back to the issue of multiple languages, I would say there’s two things to be thinking about. First off is what does it read like on the page. And so how do you make sure it makes sense on the page. And so italics may be a way to do it. You might just have an introductory note saying like everything you see in italics is actually in Spanish. Some way to do that just so it’s as efficient as possible on the page so you’re not wasting page space.
But really the bigger issue is thinking about what is it going to feel like to the person watching the show. And are you going to expect that they can understand the Spanish or not understand the Spanish? Maybe you’re targeting this for Telemundo where everyone would get both languages and that’s awesome.
Aline: Sure, I mean, Jane the Virgin is a bilingual show. In Jane the Virgin they subtitle it and I’m assuming they just reverse the subtitle or dub it for the reverse. I think anything which is clear and easy to understand.
John: Yeah. So, if you’re sitcom is sort of like Jane the Virgin, I would say like pull some Jane the Virgin scripts and do whatever they do because that’s working quite well for them and they’re in their fourth season.
Aline: They’re in their third season.
John: Yeah. And they’re a good show. Their show is partnered with yours currently, or not?
Aline: No. They are with Supergirl and we’re with Vampire Diaries now.
John: And when are you back on the air? So we’re recording this at the end of December. When is your next episode?
Aline: January 6 we are back on the air with two episodes back to back, eight and nine.
John: Holy cow. I’m so excited.
Aline: Back to back. Yeah.
John: I love your new introduction for the show.
Aline: Thank you.
John: I think I sent you guys an email about it, but I just adore it. And it was such a great choice to go through and sort of reframe the show based on sort of what the nature of the central dramatic question of this season is, which is like I’m just a girl in love. You can’t sort of blame me for this thing, which was actually established in the very pilot episode. It’s the thing that Donna Lynne Champlin says in the pilot.
Aline: Yes. You’re in love.
We – because the premise of the show changes every season, the credit sequence for the first season makes no sense, because the first season is all about, oh what, you’re here, I’m here, what, that’s so weird, that’s funny. And then the second season is really her being like, no, no, no, you love me. You love me. So, it required that.
So, we’re doing a new one, if we get a third season, we’ll be doing another one for that season. And sort of because the premise for the show is rather slender, one of the reasons that to us it seems sustainable was because we were going to take a slightly look at being an obsessive ex every year. And so that’s what keeps it kind of going. And so every year will be a slightly different look that dynamic.
John: Yeah. You’re not The Americans where there’s just a new Cold War bit of espionage you can throw in. It’s not a procedural where every week there can be a new thing.
Aline: It’s kind of unique to our show because if we had stayed in the mode of the first season, we would have run out of steam pretty quickly. And also the trajectory of being obsessively in love with someone is something that has different phases to it. And the first phase is like, what, you’re here, I’m here, that’s so weird. I don’t know why I’m in your Starbucks on the other side of town. And then the second one is like, no, we’ve slept together, and you love me. And so they’re different phases. And when we pitched it we had pitched four completely different phases of her pursuit.
John: Yeah. I was just impressed that you blew up your series so completely in the second season, which was a great choice. So, hooray, congratulations.
A thing we do on the show quite often is How Would this be a Movie. And usually in those cases we’re looking at three different stories in the news and discussing sort of how would you take them and make them a movie. Today we actually have a special case because we have a story, a true story that we can look at and look at sort of how it is progressing towards becoming a movie.
So, I’m going to try to give the very short encapsulation of the idea. But we’re going to hear sort of how it expands and the other ramifications of the idea. This is a story that starts in 1949. Max Schneck was found murdered. It was a scandal covered for months by all the major newspapers here in France. Journalists told the story of a man killed by his supposed lover, who cut him into pieces and traveled through France with parts of his body in his suitcase.
The story of the murder became the basis of a book, The Indestructible Mr. Schneck, written by his granddaughter, Colombe Schneck. She’s a friend of Aline’s. And she’s sitting right beside you. Welcome Colombe.
Colombe Schneck: Hello. Very nice listening to you. And I learn a lot.
Aline: So if you’ve heard those little laughs, those are Colombe.
Aline: Can I say who Colombe is?
John: Please. Tell us everything.
Aline: So, Colombe’s father and my mother were friends from school, so I’ve known Colombe all my life basically. And Colombe was a journalist and she was on television and then it’s fair to say – and the radio – and it’s fair to say when she got to be about 40 they did what they do in America which is they take women and they remove them. They remove them because they can’t be seen in public. [laughs] And it was a good excuse and opportunity for Colombe to do what she had been wanting to do, which was to become a writer. And it’s just funny for us having known each other since we were born that we both ended up becoming writers.
And so Colombe has written numerous novels, nonfiction books. She’s also on the radio and has had a radio book review show. And she’s now also getting into filmmaking and has been making documentaries. And this book that you’re talking about is a book she wrote, was her second book. Her first book. Her first book. Is that the one that you’re thinking of turning into a movie?
Colombe: Yes. Exactly. This is the first book I wrote ten years ago. And when I wrote it I was kind of innocent. But what it means to write a book about your family. I had bumped, I don’t know, how do you say, into this incredible story in my family. I learned by accident reading a glossy newspaper. I love to read glossy newspapers. Old one. That my grandfather, Max Schneck, was murdered in 1949. At the time was a huge story in all the newspapers. You know, John, you just told us the punchline which I was I think incredible to learn that your grandfather was cut into pieces, was gay. Pieces of his body were traveled by his murderer all over France.
So, for years I kept that story in the – I don’t know how you can keep this kind of secret, because the kind of shame in my family because of that. And one day, I don’t know why you begin to think you can write. It kind of makes a mediation and freedom and say maybe I could do something about that. And I began to write the story of my grandfather with the help of my grandmother. We never talked about it for 40 years.
So, I went to do some research and went to find the newspaper of that time and I found out all this story was fiction. The newspapers made a fiction about my grandfather. He was killed by a man, but it was not his lover. They were both in love with the same woman. He was cut into pieces. He was killed by [[unintelligible 00:38:37]]. But the worst story was as interesting as the fiction story. So, I wrote a book, very simple, very short, about my grandfather and my grandmother, because all the way, all the year I wrote the story I talked to me grandmother about her life, her love for her husband. And I spoke also about my grandmother was kind of a character I didn’t know.
I tried to be sincere and tried to do something. I didn’t know it was a book or nothing. I didn’t know I could write a book. But at the end I read the thing and I thought, well, maybe I could send it to a publisher. And this great publisher published it. It was a success.
But the thing which amazed me – I wasn’t ready for that – is my family wasn’t very happy about it. I thought they would be happy to know the truth. That at least I was writing and publishing a book. And they were very mad at me. And I was very surprised. I thought they would approve.
So, ten years after that, I published many books about my family. I continue doing the bad things. And begin to do some documentary films. One day I talk of maybe it would be interesting to – I had many production house ask me to write to do the film about my first book, and it never seemed right. I didn’t like the way – we didn’t find the good films.
After all ten years, I could make the film myself and write the screenplay and maybe direct it. And that the story would be interesting, is not only the story of my grandfather, but what happened in the family when you write a book about your family.
John: Great. So let’s stop there and let’s all have a discussion about sort of the different ways this kind of story could be told. Because when I first met you, you told me the story. And I thought, well, that is fascinating. And so I encouraged you to pursue the movie and we talked about Sundance Labs, or other ways you could develop this kind of story.
The things that really triggered for me, is like obviously it’s this initial sensational story, but there’s a truth underneath the sensational story. But also the degree to which a scandal in the past has ripples into the present. How you don’t really want the story, the true story, necessarily to come out. And how the very process of investigating the facts, the truth, can rip a family apart. Those are very much the ideas behind Big Fish as well, which is that you have a journalist coming in who is trying to find the truth of his father’s life and ripping things apart in the process. And sort of the conflict in that. What is the writer’s responsibility to the truth versus his or her family?
Those are all great themes. But also I think really difficult and a really challenging sort of first movie to make. Aline, what’s your–?
Aline: What I think is really interesting about it is that there was a secret that was in the family, something she hadn’t talked about, and then sort of by lying around in her house and reading some tabloids she stumbled upon this thing. And it’s almost like this thing reached into the future and made her into a writer. And what I think is interesting is since the book was published in those years, she’s fully become this thing. And I think partly maybe people’s shock was a reaction to there’s also a thing when you become a writer.
Like I ran into my high school boyfriend really early in my 20s and he said, “What are you doing?” And I said I’m a writer. And he said, “You’re a writer?” And then he said, “You tell people that?” And for some reason people find it insulting. And also because when you’re a writer your responsibility is to tell the truth and this was a truth that people don’t want.
And I remember the very first time I met Peter Morgan, who writes primarily nonfiction-based things, we were sitting on a panel together and somebody was talking about the difficulty of working on real life stories. And he said, “We’re assassins aren’t we?” And that really has stuck with me, because I have another friend whose sister-in-law is quite a famous novelist and her rule is if you don’t want me to write about, don’t do it or say it in front of me. Because otherwise it’s fair game.
So, I do think it’s really interesting that this story is the thing that sort of made Colombe a writer. And then she experienced kind of a larger version of what most people do, which is people didn’t want her to be telling her truths. And she’s then gone on to tell stories about the apartment she grew up in and her family’s experience in the Holocaust. And they’re really amazing books. Are any of them available in English, by the way? No?
Colombe: No, it’s French-language published, and German, and Lithuanian.
Aline: Not English yet?
Colombe: Not yet.
Aline: They’re really wonderful books. So, but I think it’s a very good way to approach it. So it’s like a detective story where you’re becoming this thing and you’re following this thing and sort of how it affects everyone you know.
John: But what I find so fascinating is that you are a character in this story. In almost any version of the story that we’re telling, you are the protagonist of the story. You’re the character who changes. Who comes from being a person who is not investigating the past, to starting to investigate the past, and the process changes you and makes you into this thing. So, in any version of the story presumably your grandfather is a character in the story and we’re going to see an arc through there. But it’s so interesting, like Big Fish is obviously autobiographical both to me and to the original author, Daniel Wallace. But we got to be able to hide behind, like, oh, it’s a fictional story. That’s not me. That’s not my name. That’s not who I am.
And this – it’s going to be a process no matter what you do. That character is you and you’re going to be exposing yourself–
Aline: Can you think of a movie like that where somebody has – I mean, there’s All the President’s Men. There’s lots of movies like that. Spotlight, or whatever. But what are movies where the person, the first person, I’m sure there are. I’m thinking about–
John: A movie that I didn’t end up writing, but I ended up sort of circling around was called Born to Run. And was about this journalist who decides to start running. And one of the challenges I really faced is that he was the character in the story, but I didn’t feel like he was a movie character in the story. And so where are your responsibilities? Your responsibility is to yourself, to truth, to the story, and in order to make the best version of the story you may need to change certain aspects of what you really did.
Aline: You’ve already written the screenplay?
Colombe: Yes. And one of the characters in the screenplay, the character who is telling the story, says I’m a thief, because you take story from, you know, from your family, from people around you. But you also are a liar. I’m a thief and a liar. But I changed things to make it as a story, as a good fiction.
So, that writer is a very bad character. And I want to tell about that. But there’s no other way around. [[Unintelligible 00:45:05]] how much he steals from his family life, his wife, his mistress, and put them in a book and his films, like for the arrangement. And how it’s difficult for his wife to see her character in the arrangement of the awful wife. But there’s no other way around it. There’s a way we should all do that. We are all thief and liar. And those are the things of a good writer.
John: But usually we get to hide behind the veneer of fiction and pretend like, oh, no, no, that’s not really you. And, of course, in this situation there’s no way to do that. And so you also face the dilemma of, you know, your family already had the frustration over your book. But a movie is going to be reopening those wounds.
Colombe: It’s a mother/daughter story, so I changed – this is the real lie. This is my imagination and I could put so much more writing and that’s when I have fun.
John: There’s the simplification that can happen, because obviously there’s going to be more characters than you need to do. There are characters who aren’t going to be relevant to this. So, you can do some trimming around there [[crosstalk 00:46:06]].
Colombe: I remember one of my book, I wrote about my family, there’s one character close to my family was a person, a real person, was very unhappy at me because I didn’t put her in the book. She was really like pissed off and furious. And she doesn’t want to speak to me anymore because I didn’t put her in the book. And she felt she was very important in my family. But, I didn’t need her for the story. So, that’s true, we are all liars. We take people and, no, no, yes, this one yes. This sentence, I like it, but I’m going to change it. So, that’s a problem.
John: One of the most frequently asked questions we get on the podcast is I want to do a story about a real life person, and what are my obligations and responsibilities? And it’s obviously messy, because if someone is in your life and you’re portraying sort of who they are in your life, that’s fair game to a large degree. But if you are libeling them, then that can be a real issue as well.
And so, I mean, obviously you’re going to be sensitive to like not making them absolutely monsters. Or, if they’re monsters, not making them do something that is patently false. Or like kill a person that they didn’t actually kill.
But it becomes a real tricky issue.
Colombe: Yeah. When I take a character, pass them around me, and put it in a character in a book, in a screenplay, it’s not the person anymore. It’s a personage. It’s a fiction person. It’s not the person. I don’t feel – maybe I can take a few things, but most of those things come from my imagination. I will change them. I will talk to him and I don’t feel any responsibility for the person. Because that’s not even him anymore.
John: Yeah. I always feel like my first responsibility is to the audience. And it’s the person who is going to be watching this movie and making sure that they can follow and understand the story I’m trying to tell them. And, yes, you have other responsibilities to, you know, the other filmmakers involved and to the people giving you the money, and everyone else. But, I mean, your first responsibility is what does this story want to have happen so you can tell the best version of the story.
Colombe: For instance, for this first screenplay I’m writing about my grandparents, my grandmother [[unintelligible 00:48:04]] I was a great character for a book. She was very, how do you say [[unintelligible 00:48:09]] in English? Cranky. And she was bit panicked. And she was really – she was very funny. She was a very good character. But so I took so many things from her, which I will, but also I put more so I make it more funny, because I need more. You know? I need some humor.
John: So let’s talk about where you are at right now with your process and trying to get this into a movie. Because when I first met you, you’re a novelist who has made documentaries. You have this great story. To me, it seems like a slam dunk. Well, she’s going to be able to do this. But it’s not easy to do this. It’s a challenging step. And probably different – I’m not saying more challenging – but different to try to do it here in France than it would be to do it in the States.
Colombe: Yeah. When you write a novel you do [[unintelligible 00:48:52]] fiction. It’s great because you have all the freedom of the world. You can invent your methods. You can invent the way you write. You go where you want to go. There’s no rules. Which his kind of frightening and difficult sometimes, because you have to invent what you’re going to do.
And when I begin to write screenplays, which I like very much, it’s suddenly you have rules. You have things you cannot do. It’s a more collective process. And I like it very much.
And the problem I had is I put too much talk, too much blah, blah, blah…
John: Just dialogue, yeah.
Colombe: Dialogue. I’m a writer. And difficult to admit. I need to translate this blah, blah, blah into images. So this is the difficulty I had.
As a documentary writer, which is great, documentary film director I like because you don’t have to invent anything, you know. You film and great things happen in front of you. It’s wonderful. It’s like, wow. I haven’t done anything but the person are doing things for me.
This I had to myself. So, this is what the difficult things I had to–
Aline: Translating. That’s a great way to put it. Translating the blah, blah, blah into images is as concise an explanation of what being… – And when I started writing I was also very dialogue-based, because that’s just how my brain works. And I was writings wraps and wraps of dialogue. And I would have to go back and put in action things into the page so that it wasn’t just tons and tons of people talking.
And that’s something I still find that – over time that’s something that’s difficult for writers is to figure out how can I just have this happen without commenting, or announcing, or, you know, it’s a skill you learn. It’s like any of the other things that you learn. But I think it’s very brave and interesting to go from journalism, to fiction, to nonfiction, to documentary films, to fiction films is, you know, she’s made the transition so many times before.
John: Yes. That’s why I’m convinced you’ll be able to do it, because I think screenwriting is like journalism. There’s a lot of structure to it. It’s like fiction writing in that you’re trying to build out a world that doesn’t exist beforehand. It’s documentaries in that you are trying to find a way to tell a story cinematically rather than just with words. So, I have a hunch it’s going to work, but I’m fascinated to see sort of what’s going to happen next.
So, thank you for sharing this part of the process so early on.
Colombe: I don’t know. [[Unintelligible 00:51:15]] New things, you know, when I first went into journalism, or to write a story, I didn’t know how to do it, you know? I just had to do it. And well I shouldn’t think too much about what I’m doing. When I was writing my first fiction book, my first book about my family, I think maybe it’s going to be nothing, or maybe it’s going to be a book. I don’t know. I’m going to do it and we’ll see after. When I did documentary films, it was the same kind of process. Now, I’ve kind of experienced what I’m able to do, the way I’m working, and so I’m less innocent about the way I’m going to do these fiction films. But I still – the truth is I still don’t know.
I can even things and face problems and try to respond to it. I don’t know if this is a good American way to do it. But–
John: Yeah. It’s absolutely the American way to do it.
It has come time for our wrap up segment which is One Cool Things. So, at the end of every episode we talk about One Cool Thing. So, I don’t know if we warned you about One Cool Things.
Aline: I will tell you my One Cool Thing. I have a very good One Cool Thing. So, I’m in Paris and the dollar is quite strong. And then there’s duty free. So, I went to Hermes to buy a scarf for myself and for my mother. So, I–
John: This is the most Aline One Cool Thing ever. It’s great.
Aline: Yes. So I go in to buy the scarf and I’m picking out some ones that I like. And I find one that I like and the woman and I were speaking in French, which is always fun for me to get to use my French. And she’s chatting away in French. And I pick one and she says, “No, that’s not good for you.” [laughs] And I said, “Oh, really? I like this one.” And she says, “No. No, no, no. This is not good.”
And then I am trying not to be bossed around by her, and I’m saying, “No, no, I like this one. Show me some other ones. But I like this one.” She’s just showing me other ones and I’m noticing that that one is scooting away from. It’s just scooting down and into the drawer, never to be seen again. She was just not going to sell me the scarf that she thought did not look good on me.
And so she just kept bringing me new ones, and new ones, and new ones until I found one that I liked as well. And it just was the perfect French experience of buying something, you know, overpriced in the best way and being completely bossed and judged and having their aesthetics imposed on you. And I couldn’t have been happier. By the end we were great friends.
John: Speaking for Craig I have to say like that’s crazy. There’s no way that’s a One Cool Thing. That is actually some sort of like weird – it’s the failure of the commercial system. That’s amazing, and yet I do understand sort of what happened there.
Aline: I absolutely trust her and I know that this was better than the thing I had picked out.
Colombe: One of the cool things I’ve done this year, and this is not far from Aline. For my screenplay, the mother and the daughter are walking in the shop, selling clothes, which is kind of my fantasy. Walking in the story, selling clothes. A family business [unintelligible 00:54:17] store, you know, like we have. So, for a week, I went to a store being a seller to help me to write my screenplay. And I just love it. I just love it. To be able to – it’s like to be in a movie theater. You know?
You hear and you watch the women coming in and they all when they come in the store they all are depressed. That’s what the seller told me. They need something, but they don’t know what they need. So you have to help them to go out from the depression. It’s a depression selling them a dress or scarf or anything.
John: Or a Hermes scarf.
Colombe: Or Hermes, yes. So you look at them and you listen to them. And you help them. So, this week of selling clothes was one of the best things I’ve done this year.
John: Very nice. My One Cool Thing is a book. It’s called Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.
Aline: Colombe and I ripped out some girly stuff about clothes. Yeah.
John: So it’s a book I read. It’s by Cathy O’Neil. She’s also the host of a podcast I like a lot. I’ll put a link in the show notes to it. But her book is really good. It’s about the degree to which the algorithms behind big data, which are meant to sort of make things more equal and fairer, like for like credit lending or for sentencing for criminal offenses, for getting into college. They have all these computer algorithms, which should make things more fair. Because they’re supposed to be taking race out of it and things. But they end up sort of baking the race and poverty into it. And it ends up making things much, much worse.
And so just a great book, a quick, easy read.
Aline: I have notes on our One Cool Things. I think they’re clams. They’re just too on-the-nose. Yes, all of us. We just did. It was too on-the-nose what we did.
Aline: If I had had the algorithm book and you had had the Hermes scarf that would have been more interesting. Yeah, we’d make different choices.
John: Yeah. We got to do this again. That is our show for this week.
So, as always, our show is produced—
Colombe: Très bien. Merci.
John: Très bien. Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is also from Matthew. If you have an outro, you can send us a link at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the ones we answered today. On Twitter Craig, who is not here, is @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust. Aline is not on Twitter. Sorry.
Aline: Oh, you know what? I’m going to do it.
John: Oh, okay. So when Aline has a Twitter handle–
Aline: I’m going to – should I do it? Rachel tells me all the time I should do it.
John: You should totally do it.
Aline: I’m going to do it.
John: Once you have a Twitter handle, we will give you – we’ll put it on the air?
Aline: I’m doing it. Are you sure? Oh, okay, you’re on Twitter and Instagram.
Aline: Colombe Schneck.
John: Colombe Schneck is also on the Instagram and on Twitter.
Aline: Okay. If I go on Twitter and I don’t like it…
John: It’s fine. She’ll leave. You can leave and protest. Because actually part of the process of being on Twitter is leaving Twitter. [laughs]
Aline: That’s a thing everything does at some point?
John: You have to do it. You have to leave it.
You can find us on Facebook. Just search for Scriptnotes podcast, or on iTunes. Search for Scriptnotes. That’s also where you’ll find the app for listening to the back episodes. You can find the show notes for this episode, and all the back episodes, at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. They go up about four days after the episode airs.
We have like 20 of the USB drives left. Very, very few. But you can always get to all the back episodes of Scriptnotes on Scriptnotes.net.
And for Aline Brosh McKenna, Colombe Schneck, I’m John August. Thank you very much for joining us on Scriptnotes.
Aline: Au revoir.
John: Au revoir.
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