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Updated: 2 hours 2 min ago

Scriptnotes Live in May

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 11:08

Our next live Scriptnotes will be Tuesday, May 22nd at the ArcLight in Hollywood. Tickets are on sale now, with special guests to be announced soon.

All of our live shows are benefits for great LA charities. This one is for Hollywood HEART, which runs special programs and summer camps for at-risk youth.

When we were trying to figure a venue for the event, I asked on Twitter for recommendations. Friend-of-the-show Eric Webb went way beyond, compiling a list of most of the major auditoriums in LA. I’m including it here for anyone else who finds themselves needing a venue.

Seats Venue 3156 Dorothy Chandler Pavilion 2703 Pantages 2345 Million Dollar Theater 2252 Walt Disney Concert Hall 2103 Ahmanson Theatre 2000 Los Angeles Theatre 1976 Orpheum Theater 1897 Saban Theatre 1850 Wiltern Theatre 1800 Fred Kavli Theatre (Thousand Oaks PAC) 1800 Royce Hall (UCLA) 1700 Mayan Theatre 1600 Valley Performing Arts Center Great Hall (CSUN) 1600 Theatre at Ace Hotel 1152 Grauman’s Chinese Theatre 1413 Alex Theatre 1400 Riverside Municipal Auditorium 1341 Regency Village Theatre 1300 The Rose 1270 Wilshire Ebell Theatre 1235 Bovard Auditorium (USC) 1200 Ricardo Montalbán Theatre 906 Tower Theatre 900 Forest Lawn Museum/Hall of The Crucifixion-Resurrection (Glendale) 739 Mark Taper Forum 686 Pasadena Playhouse 618 Egyptian Theatre 610 Geffen Playhouse 600 DGA Theatre 1 600 Leo S. Bing Theatre (LACMA) 538 Eli and Edythe Broad Stage 551 Bing Theatre (USC) 500 Bram Goldsmith Theater 496 Tom Bradley Theater (LATC) 473 WGA Theatre † 430 Colburn School Grand Building Auditorium 425 Aero Theatre 400 Janet and Ray Scherr Forum Theatre (Thousand Oaks PAC) 400 Vista Theatre 390 Campus Theatre (CSUN) 360 El Portal Theatre 350 Harmony Gold Theater 341 Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre Complex (USC) 330 LA Film School † 303 Nuart Theatre 300 Kirk Douglas Theatre 300 Landmark Theatre 296 Lupe Ontiveros Theatre (LATC) 294 The SilverScreen Theater (Pacific Design Center) 280 Alfred Newman Recital Hall (USC) 278 James Bridges Theatre 270 Roy and Edna Disney/Calarts Theater (REDCAT) 222 Downtown Independent Theatre 220 Annenberg Auditorium (USC) 200 Renberg Theatre (LA LGBT Center) 155 DGA Theater 2

† = previous Scriptnotes live show venue

Independent Bookstore Day

Wed, 04/25/2018 - 10:37

This Saturday, April 28th, I’ll be at Chevalier’s Books on Larchmont from 3 to 5pm as part of Indie Bookstore Day.

Come say hi and have me sign your copy of Arlo Finch. I can also recommend a few other great books for you to try.

Chevalier’s Books
126 N Larchmont Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90004

Check out the other authors who’ll be joining me in LA, or find your local bookstore event.

Conflict of Interest

Tue, 04/24/2018 - 08:03

John and Craig examine the myriad conflicts of interest that arise in Hollywood, from self-dealing studios to packaging fees to pilot season.

But it’s not just other people with issues. Writers grapple with their own conflicts of interest. We discuss what situations screenwriters might face and how to deal with them ethically.

We also answer listener questions on multicam formatting and elegantly establishing the time period in a historical piece.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 346: Changing the Defaults — Transcript

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 13:54

The original post for this episode can be found here.

John August: So, language warning. There are some bad words in this episode, so if you’re driving in the car with your kids you might want to put on some headphones. Well, don’t well headphones in the car. But you might not want your kids in the car while you’re listening to this. Or put on headphones and listen to it somewhere else.

Hello and welcome. My name is John August and this is Scriptnotes, Episode 346. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Craig just started shooting Chernobyl, so he is off in Lithuania. But I am lucky to be joined by Christina Hodson, a screenwriter whose credits include the upcoming Transformers spinoff Bumblebee. It was also just announced that she will be writing the upcoming Batgirl for Warner Bros. Welcome Christina.

Christina Hodson: Hello. Thank you for having me.

John: So mostly I don’t want to talk about big comic book movies or big Transformer movies–

Christina: Why not?

John: I want to talk about your experience on things like the Black List. I want to talk about inclusion riders. Characters’ races. Windows and mirrors. Who gets to write blank? The male/female splits in movies. Basically I want to solve the systemic issues of inclusion and representation in Hollywood in the next 59 minutes. Is that OK?

Christina: Great. I think that’s very achievable. And between the two of us I think we’re probably going to get it all done.

John: We’re smart people.

Christina: Yeah. I feel confident. Strangely confident.

John: We’re feature writers. So as feature writers, maybe we’ll only solve it for features. But I feel like that will be a good template for extending through to the rest of the industry.

Christina: Maybe the rest of the world.

John: Maybe so.

Christina: Maybe.

John: You know what? Because Hollywood is the world.

Christina: It’s true.

John: If it happens here, it can happen anywhere.

Christina: I mean, this is the most important place in the world.

John: It is the most important place in the world. I have a little news before we get to that, though. First off, I’m going to be at the LA Times Festival of Books. That’s the big event that’s at USC. That is Saturday April 21 at 4:30pm. I’m on a panel talking about Launch and Arlo Finch. I’ll be signing Arlo Finch copies. So if you want to come and see me and producer Megan McDonnell and producer Ben Adair, we’ll be there. April 21 at 4:30pm. Come to that.

Also, LA Times Festival of Books is great. Christina have you ever been to that?

Christina: I have not.

John: So they basically take over the USC campus and it’s all book stuff and it’s great. And there’s lots of stuff for kids, but also panels for grownups, so it’s cool for that.

Second off, I made a game. It’s called AlphaBirds. Christina has it in her hands right now.

Christina: It is very adorable.

John: It is a small red box. It is a word game, so if you are a fan of Scrabble or Boggle or things where you make words it’s like that, but it’s a card game. It’s really good for like two to five people. We usually play on Friday afternoons as we are drinking beers. And it’s good because most of these word games require such intense focus. This requires intense focus while it is your turn, and then you can just chat and drink your beer other times.

So, if you would like to see AlphaBirds it is at alphabirdsgame.com.

Christina, you are mostly a feature writer. Are you only a feature writer? Have you done TV?

Christina: I’ve developed one TV show for about five years. And the rights just lapsed. So mostly features, yeah. Features is where my heart is and I only did the TV show because the book that I was adapting was too good to do in two hours.

John: So talk me through where you started, because I think you came through development?

Christina: Yeah. So I started in London. I’m obviously British. Or I’m just putting on this accent for show.

John: It’s a really impressive accent. So nicely done.

Christina: Thank you. I’ve been working hard on it. I’m actually from Texas.

So I started in London. I was at Focus Features. I kind of worked my way up from the very bottom. I was a runner at Working Title first and then an intern at Focus. Worked my way up to a junior-junior executive there. Was in development. And then moved to New York where I ran development for a small strange company, mostly features but some TV.

John: A Small Strange Company is a really good name for a company.

Christina: By the way, it is. Now I’m going to take that and use it for my own company. Small Strange Company.

John: For your loan out.

Christina: Just to be creepy and mysterious. But I did not love it. I loved working with writers. I loved story. I did not love my job. So I started writing, weirdly actually I also wrote kids’ books. Dark, weird, twisted kids’ books. It was a cautionary tales book written in rhyming iambic tetrameter. I mean, it was–

John: It was poetic.

Christina: It was poetic. But very cruel and dark and sinister. It was Roald Dahl meets Edward Gorrie. And I gave it to one friend. They passed it around. And I got a call from a book agent at ICM saying, “Hey, thank you for your submission. I want to rep you.” And I was like I don’t know who you are, but great.

And then very shortly after that my now husband and I got engaged, married, moved, quit our jobs. Everything within four weeks. Moved to LA. And I had 90 days while my green card was pending. And I was like, well, I’ve got a book agent. Maybe I can write. Maybe I’ll just take 90 days and I tried to write a screenplay. And I got very, very lucky. And my first screenplay was Shut In, which ended up selling and then getting made into a movie that for a while was zero percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

John: Oh congratulations.

Christina: Thank you. Thank you very much. It’s a rare honor.

John: So what bumped you out of the zero percent? Someone liked it?

Christina: I guess. You know what? I stopped looking because they’re not as fun when they’re – the damning ones were really fun. The good ones were – I mean, few and far between, but not as fun.

John: So I want to back up here because this thing where you wrote this book and it got passed along and suddenly an agent at ICM was calling you, so often on the podcast this kind of thing happens where it’s a thing that you wrote that gets attention that you didn’t really mean for it. So you weren’t actively out there stumping for it. Just like people liked it.

Christina: Yes. I just got lucky. And that’s honestly a little bit what happened with Shut In as well. That script. I didn’t really mean for it to go out necessarily. I sat on it after I finished it for a month because I was too embarrassed to let anyone read it. I finally let my husband read it. He gave it to a friend who – and he gave it to one friend and one agent. And while the agent was reading it the friend slipped it to other people. So the agent then had to go out with it.

So my very first draft of my very first screenplay ended up being the one that went to the town, which was, you know, a weird experience. But yeah, with the book I had no intention of that at all.

John: So this script Shut In, that ultimately landed on the Black List. To what degree was it being out on the town was helpful or being on the list was helpful. This was 2013 Black List.

Christina: 2012.

John: 2012 Black List. So it’s still relatively – the Black List had been going for a couple of years, but it was still relatively new for that. What was the experience of that for you?

Christina: Honestly, I mean, I’m a huge fan of the Black List and what Franklin is doing. In my case it didn’t actually make a huge difference just because my script went out to the town I think in February. And we had optioned it by I think March. And I’d already gotten my first – I then got my first studio job in I think May or June. And the Black List doesn’t come out until December. So by the time the Black List came out I was already working and I had already done the water bottle tour.

I was very lucky to be on the Black List the next two years, and that then became a thing that was nice for my agents to be able to say like, “She’s been on the Black List three times.” It was helpful. For the first one it kind of came too late almost.

John: Talk me through the 30 days left on your green card, because that’s a thing that I hear from a lot of international writers who are here and they start to sort of panic, like am I going to be able to stay in the country. Like how do I sort of keep this all going?

Christina: It’s awful. It’s awful. So it wasn’t 30 days left on my green card. It was 90 days where I was waiting for my green card to come through, where you’re not allowed to be earning money. You’re not really allowed to be seeking employment. Honestly, like a lot of people would have worked through that or would have done cheeky things. I am just so scared of breaking any of the rules. And I’m trying to become a citizen right now. I’m in the middle of the process. I was just always so nervous of that. And my main advice to people that are international people that are coming here: don’t break any of the rules. Once you do it, you can’t go back. And it impacts. So I’ve been through a lot of visas. I started on a student visa. That’s how I came to America. I had all the right intentions. And I started an MA at NYU and just hated it. Mainly because I’d been working in the industry already.

John: An MA in English or writing?

Christina: In film and TV. It was at Gallatin so it was a very specialized MA. And it was great, and it’s a wonderful school. But I’d come from being a grownup in London and earning money and having a job. And then suddenly being in classes with undergrads, because it was mixed, it was Gallatin so it was MAs and undergrads at the same time. It was too much.

So I started working almost straight away. I think I got a trainee visa. And then I was a consultant for a while. And then I got an H-1B. I went through the whole shebang.

John: So you have these 90 days and you’ve written the script during this time. When you sell this script Shut In and then you get hired for your first WGA job, does anything flip? How do you go from there to being able to stay in the country longer? What was the next visa?

Christina: My green card just came through because of getting married. It was good timing. That’s why it was lucky that I did everything in those 90 days so I didn’t have to worry about that. It is much harder if you are dependent on screenwriting for your visa. You kind of have to be fairly established in your own country and then come over. It’s tricky.

John: So international listeners should know that there are special visas for like if you are a fancy British screenwriter who is already established and you’re coming over on a special talents and–

Christina: Yeah, I think it’s a 01 Artist Visa.

John: And there are special attorneys here and there who will help you make that all work. But since you already had your green card you’ve just been working on your green card this whole time through?

Christina: Yeah.

John: That’s lucky.

Christina: Yes. All good.

John: So marry well.

Christina: Marry well.

John: That’s a good thing. Going back to the Black List, news came out this last week that Franklin actually secured funding to make movies himself.

Christina: Oh. That’s exciting.

John: I’ll be curious to see what that next step is. So we’ll have Franklin on the show at some point to talk through what that next thing is.

Christina: He is a good person to give money to.

John: I agree. So it’s money that comes out of China and James Schamus is also involved with it.

Christina: My first boss.

John: Absolutely. So, we’ll see what kind of movies they’re able to make. But apparently three to five movies per year they’re trying to either make or invest in.

Christina: Very cool.

John: That’ll be a new thing. When we first started emailing one of the things you wanted to talk about was race and representation. So, I’m curious, how do you identify yourself racially?

Christina: Somewhere in the middle. I’m half-Taiwanese and half-Caucasian. In England I call myself a Halfie. And me and my sisters, we call ourselves Halfies. Here I think half-Asian people tend to call themselves Hapas.

John: To what degree has that influenced you think your career in Hollywood? Do you think you are thought about for certain jobs because of that? Do you think it has any impact on sort of the things you’ve been approached about writing or how meetings have gone?

Christina: Definitely not in the past. And I would say it’s only shifting in the last six months, probably around Black Panther honestly where I think people are wanting to do things that are more culturally specific. It’s obviously kind of strange because some of the things I’m being sent are about Korean-Americans and I’m neither Korean nor American so I honestly don’t – I know probably as much as you do. You live fairly near to Koreatown. But it’s also like a tricky one because if I could only write the things that I know I would only be writing about British half-Asian girls. So, yeah. I’m somewhere between.

John: It’s interesting with writers because to some degree you end up kind of casting a writer for a project. You sort of think, well, who do you want to write this thing. And I always think about actual real casting and sort of what roles do actors decide to put themselves up for. And to what degree do you feel like you are an appropriate person for writing this kind of story or for participating in this kind of role.

And it’s challenging to figure out sort of like what do you feel confident being able to write those things for. And so do you get sent stuff ever that you feel like they just wanted an Asian person to take a look at or take a pass on? Or that doesn’t happen in your career yet?

Christina: That has not happened in my career yet, but mostly because I don’t think a lot of people are doing Asian-focused stuff. I really hope that starts to shift and I would love to start being sent more of those things, not necessarily because I’m going to write them but because it means that there’s more of them out there in the world.

I have a few African American screenwriting friends who definitely get sent things because they’re African American. And they’re like nothing in my resume suggests that I would want to write this other than the color of my skin. That can get a bit weird but I understand why it happens.

But, no, so far I’m not getting stuff because I’m half-Asian. I am getting sent stuff definitely all the time because I’m a woman.

John: Great. Well let’s talk about that. So you just signed on for Batgirl and other movies you’ve done have had female leads in them.

Christina: So far I’ve only written female leads.

John: All right. So let’s talk about sort of coming to this last year. There has been increased focus on moving beyond the Bechdel test to really looking at sort of like what are the roles for women in these films, but also what are the roles behind the scenes. And so you’ve been involved in some of these discussions. What is the shape of these discussions and where do you think we are headed overall in the next five years? Where do you think the natural trajectory is and where would you like to see the trajectory go?

Christina: Well one of the big focuses of Time’s Up is the 50/50 by 2020 which is just trying to shift in front of the screen, behind the camera, in executive offices. There is a massive imbalance right now. I think one of the pieces of information that came up through a Time’s Up meeting that most struck me was a visual essay that The Pudding did that was a breakdown of film dialogue by gender which was so shocking. And I watched the Stacy Smith Ted Talk that was very famous where she breaks down the number of female speaking characters versus male speaking characters, which shocked me and whatever. But honestly seeing the amount of dialogue spoken in percentages and that breakdown shocked me so much more I think because even movies that you assume are pretty female heavy when you look at them they’re not. It’s really shocking how silent a lot of the female characters are onscreen. Even I think Frozen doesn’t break – I could be wrong – but I think it approaches 50% female dialogue, but I don’t think it breaks it.

Finding Dory was the only movie in the Top Ten in 2016 that was just over 50%. I think it was 52% or something. But it’s kind of nutty.

John: It is nutty. That’s the one of the things that writers can actually do. So let’s talk about sort of where you think the writer’s responsibility is in trying to find parity and try to find an appropriate level of female voices in these things. What advice do you have to screenwriters as they’re looking at their scripts, plotting out their scripts in a big way but also looking at the scripts that they’ve written? How do we improve this?

Christina: Am I allowed to talk about–?

John: You’re absolutely allowed to talk about things you want to talk about.

Christina: OK. Well, the reason that I reached out to you in the first place is that I wanted to talk about this issue particularly, and I wanted to talk about Highland because I think that we can be self-policing. And we can be looking at our own unconscious biases, and I think it will really help. I think there’s a lot that needs to be done later down the line with casting directors and executives and making sure that the background characters are all kind of appropriately diverse.

But I think we can be doing a lot of that stuff as well kind of before it even leaves our desk. Geena Davis who obviously has been doing amazing work for gender balance onscreen, one of the things that she said that really struck me is that one of the most effective tactics she’s had is not kind of publicly shaming people for their statistics in looking at their work but going into companies, showing them kind of, look, this is what’s going onscreen from your company. Did you know that it was this imbalanced? And that people want to be better. And self-policing is a good thing.

So I was thinking it would be great if scriptwriting software like Highland, like Final Draft, could shift and have a way of looking at your own work so that you can do that gender breakdown so that it’s not always done after the fact in some depressing study. And you were very magical and did things incredibly quickly. And I’ve been playing with it. And it’s a really fascinating tool to be able to – I mean, you can explain how it works. But I went back and I looked at all of my scripts and I was really shocked by some.

I mean, I write really female-heavy things, but some of the results were really surprising. And it made me think how important it is that we all do this.

John: Yeah. So what you’re referring to is based on our emails we went back and looked at Highland 2 which is about to release and we added a gender analysis tool to Highland. And so based on your script while you’re writing it, or when you’re finished with it, or you can even drag in a finished PDF, we can go through and look at what is the split of male and female characters in the story and what percentage of dialogue and what percentage of words, down to–

Christina: The words is weirdly the most important thing I think. And that’s why you’ve got to be careful with some of these statistics because number of female speaking characters will include a waitress who says, “Here are you pancakes, honey.” And that doesn’t really count. But it does affect statistics. So looking at number of words spoken was important.

John: Absolutely. It was also important to us that you had the fine tune control. That you could take out certain characters who really are not characters. Or if you have robots that are neither male nor female you can sort of account for those as well.

Christina: Yeah, unspecified.

John: Yeah. So that’s a tool that’s coming out in the next version of Highland. And I would hope to see other software being able to use it, but also just it’s a tool for the industry to take a finished script and just say what is this. Because you look at the analysis that other companies have done sort of after the fact and it’s really hard. If you’re just going through a PDF–

Christina: Incredibly hard.

John: — with a highlighter and so this is a thing that software can do.

Christina: They’re also having to retrofit things through IMDb and character names have changed and the scripts that they have that are often old scripts, not the shooting script. Or even if they are the shooting script the final film is so different than the shooting script. So this I think is an amazing tool to be able to look at your own stuff before it leaves your desk. Or for as you say executives to be looking before it goes to the casting directors.

Like the thing that struck me is how many of my minor characters who I really didn’t care about I was just kind of going Cop, but I was using male – I would check, because I couldn’t remember if I’d done female cop or male cop, and I’d have to go back and check. And often I would just default into like he, his. I was just making them men because they were forgettable. [laughs]

John: Exactly. And so it’s being specific in ways that’s helpful. So let’s stick with gender for right now, but I want to get race next which is a more challenging topic. But when you proactively make female cop, when you proactively give a gender to some of those roles, it lets the movie fit into our world a little bit more – not cleanly, but a distinctive choice. It’s showing a female police officer–

Christina: It’s more accurate.

John: It’s more accurate. It’s also showing a female police officer, it’s showing people in these roles that is important.

Christina: It’s so important. Especially with STEM jobs. I think, you know, there’s that saying “If you can see it you can be it.” And I think particularly for young girls, like as a girl growing up I was watching TV and not that I wanted to be Indiana Jones, but I wanted the option of having a hero like an Indiana Jones. And they were all 40-something year-old strapping white men. And I think it’s really important that we see even with tertiary characters where it doesn’t really matter. There was this other statistic that came up that really shocked me which is that you can watch 85 hours of popular TV or movies right now and you would only see a single instance of a black or Hispanic woman doing anything to do with computer science.

Which given how many TV shows we have where it’s a bunch of nerds sitting around tapping away on computers, that’s kind of shocking.

John: That is.

Christina: And with STEM jobs, particularly like why can’t we make those background doctors and scientists and researchers and computer analysts? It’s so easy to shift that. And, yes, a lot of that onus is on casting. But we can do it often in our scripts by just giving them a name or kind of, I don’t know, we can shift that ourselves I think.

John: One of the things I’ve discovered as I’ve been playing around with the tool in Highland is that bumping up those minor characters can sort of give a little bit more parity, but it tends to be more major characters who have more lines that is ultimately going to make a huge difference. And so it gets me thinking about sort of like, “Well what if that character were female. How do those changes ripple through if that character is female?”

And I think so often in our movies we expect that if there’s a man and a woman onscreen that there’s a romance, either they are mom and son or there’s a romantic thing happening. And to be able to say like, “OK, these are just coworkers. These are just people who are on the same team rowing in the same direction” is an important aspect of representation, too. Because we work in workplaces where men and women are not romantically–

Christina: Most of the relationships in our lives, hopefully, are not romantic relationships.

John: Yeah. So finding ways for that to be possible as well.

The natural segue though then is race–

Christina: Segue Man!

John: Segue Man. Race and representation. And where I find it very easy, usually, to take a role and say like that’s male or female, sometimes it’s harder to say like, well, this role is Thai. Or this role is Sub-Saharan African. Like trying to figure out where the natural place is to be specific but not so specific that you’re precluding a bunch of other options.

Christina: That’s the problem. And you guys talk about this very rightly on the show, a lot of specificity is key. Specificity is wonderful. You want to write characters that don’t just feel like generically Asian but like my Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. That’s a really specific good character that is written as part of that culture, not just generic Asian guy.

But, if we are too specific in our first drafts, are we then limiting roles to a very, very tiny pool of actors when really what we want is just to make the whole movie more diverse? So it becomes really tricky, particularly I think in the kind of movies that we write, you know, bigger studio movies that the story won’t necessarily need to be about the fact that the dad in the movie is John Cho, and is Asian, but it would be great if he were.

So, it’s hard knowing when and where to specify. And one of the questions that I reached out to you with because I was thinking about it is should we – because I know Craig and you have said on the show in the past like you can’t put race just in parenthesis next to age because that’s not a character, as your only character description, which is completely true and fair. That’s not what defines you. But there’s also characters often where you don’t want to waste the lines or the extra words on a bigger character description, but you would like that person to be other.

It becomes tricky because you have to kind of find a standard. If you only name the people who are other than are you suggesting that everyone you don’t name is Caucasian? The answer is no, it shouldn’t be. But honestly there is a problem with the default white read.

John: There is. Absolutely. So let’s go back through and talk through some of these issues here. So, one of the ways which a screenwriter can signal that a character is a specific race is to give that character a name that’s just what race he’s from. And so Gutierrez or Chu or Chow or something like that.

Your Crazy Ex-Girlfriend reference is – and people can listen to the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend episode I did with, I think it was a bonus episode I did with Aline–

Christina: Yeah. It was great. I listened to it.

John: Where they talked about originally it was I think Josh Cho, originally Josh was supposed to be Chinese. And they ended up finding an actor who is Filipino and they said like, well, that’s awesome. We’ll make your last name Chan. And they built out his whole universe as Filipino and they were able to find a great Filipino writer who was going to help them out with all of that. And it worked out fantastic. It was a very specific thing.

And yet if they felt themselves limited by their initial instinct to cast him as Chinese they wouldn’t have gotten to that guy. So finding that flexibility.

Christina: Yeah. And what if – I mean, it’s slightly different with TV because Aline is in there and can make changes as she’s doing it and she’s very much in control. With features, imagine if that was a feature and she’d written it just Josh and didn’t specify any race, would people have been able to make the mental leap when they were casting him to be like, “Oh my gosh can he be Filipino?” You know, to go from nothing to a specific race – if she started with Josh as Chinese, would it have then been fairly easy for them to cast him as Filipino and kind of then tweak the script versus if she just left it open, everyone assumed he was white, and then you have to go to Asian. It’s a tricky thing.

John: I want to get back to a point you made about specifying a character’s race might make it seem like it’s important that he be that race. That there’s going to be a story reason why that character has to be that thing. And it’s a natural thing we see in features is that every choice seems deliberate, and so therefore if you’re making the choice there must be a reason why you’re making that choice. And sometimes the reason is just because you want the movie to be more diverse.

Christina: Yeah.

John: So we can flag that by names. I still feel a little hinky when I see the “Chinese, 40” after a character’s description.

Christina: Of course, yeah.

John: But maybe we need to get past that hinky feeling or find another way to show in scripts like, “These are opportunities for inclusive casting.”

Christina: I know. The question is do you have some kind – do you say “open ethnicity?” Do you have some shorthand for it? Some standardized thing that everyone is using? Because I’ve been talking to people kind of since I’ve been looking into this and a couple of studio heads have said, “Yeah, when we send things to casting if it doesn’t specify race, 100% the casting list comes back and it says Caucasian now suddenly next to their name.

And obviously we can’t fix all of that. But maybe there is something that we can do to fix some of it. I just feel like because we are completely in control until we give the script in, it feels like there’s got to be something we can do. And at least having the conversation I think is important because it’s a scary weird messy conversation. And when you first asked me to be on the show I was like, “I don’t think I should.” But I also think it’s time for us to have the messy, tricky conversations. And there aren’t any easy answers. But it doesn’t mean we should stop looking.

John: Yeah. Often when I send in a script I’ll have an after page that will give additional notes about things. Like if I’m using songs in a script I’ll add a page that says these are the songs and these are the people who wrote the songs, just so I feel like I’m not just poaching people’s stuff. Or make it clear what was the original song versus what I added and so people know where stuff came through.

And so I can imagine we could come up with some sort of standard thing that doesn’t feel too scary that says like opportunities for inclusion or things like that, because you don’t want to list only the roles that could be non-white, but you want to make sure that you’re flagging–

Christina: That it’s clear that things are open. Craig also suggested when we were emailing – his suggestion was he’s always wanted a character breakdown at the front of scripts. I think doing them at the front of scripts in the ways that plays do is probably too much of an ask. It’s like a big change in this industry. I also think it kind of kills some of the mystery and romance of like, “Oh, who are we going to meet later in this script?” But I do think there’s a world where that’s a standard thing that you deliver with a script at the back, or as a separate addendum, which maybe could help there where you could literally have a slot where you’re listing the age range, where you’re listing is race important in this particular – is a specific race important in this role or is it open? And if you say open then it should be open and shouldn’t be white specific.

John: The conversation we’re having is really between what we do as a writer and what a director will do and what a casting director does, and obviously producers and studio heads have influence over this, too. But it’s how do we sort of get from this idea of what we have on the page to the actual breakdown. And that literally is the casting breakdown.

This last week someone on Twitter had posted – I think it was a Deadline article that I tweeted about a casting breakdown for a new show. And they were describing the different characters in this – it sort of felt like a Friends kind of show. And the female lead of the show, it was painful sort of how she was described where she’s like, “She’s a girly-girl who can hang with the guys. And she has a tattoo behind her ear.” And it didn’t talk anything about what she wanted or what her goals in life were. It was just like she’s the hot girl next door.

And I do wonder if there’s something that we as screenwriters can do to sort of help get past those casting breakdowns. Because I guarantee you those writers didn’t write that description. It was written by the casting breakdown person. But we need a little intervention there with them about how we’re describing these characters because it’s so frustrating for us, the writers, but also it’s got to be frustrating for every actor going in for that part.

Christina: But also kind of humiliating. Just depressing. Yeah, we do need to fix that. I also think that – and you and Craig again talk about this often and it’s so important is good character descriptions in the script when you first introduce a character. That aren’t all about how cute, effortless. Ugh. We need to work on that and we need to make sure that our character descriptions on the page – because by the way the casting breakdowns would love to just copy and paste something from our own scripts if we had great pieces of intro there.

The problem is how many lines you use up. And sometimes you try to pack a lot in and you can’t afford to do that. But also describing someone in a way that does leave it open racially. I wrote one of my spec scripts, where because I’m mixed race I generally am not assuming anyone is white. I’m kind of assuming anyone is anything. But I kept hearing that people assumed that the lead role was white and I couldn’t understand why. And I went through the whole script and I found there was a couple of places where I said that she pales. And they were like, “Oh, she must be pale. She must be white.” And I was like people of other colors can pale as well.

John: Yeah.

Christina: But little things like that, or comments on color of eyes can subconsciously be really rooting you in a certain race without you meaning to.

John: Yeah. A script I wrote recently that I may direct at some point, I wrote one of the main roles in it. And in my head it’s like, well, you know Octavia Spencer who was in The Nines would be fantastic for this. But I didn’t put anything in there specifically that said she was African American. And so it was interesting as I sent it out for – because we were doing budgeting – and I started talking with producers about this is who I was thinking about. They’re like, “Oh, I didn’t realize she was black.” And because I didn’t insist that she be black it did go to a default white.

Christina: The default white is crazy. I was in a studio meeting a year or so ago where someone said, “Oh, I’m really worried this script is too white.” I mean, I’m pleased by the way they were worrying about it, but I said, “Why? There’s only two people that are specified where it was important and one was Hispanic and one was African American.” And they were like, “Well, everyone is white.” And I was like, “No they’re not. They’re just not specified as being anything,” because again I don’t want to say that someone is Indian and then block someone that’s Thai getting the part. You don’t – they could be anything, but everyone just kind of – unless you point it out or unless it’s part of the story does kind of default white read most of your characters unfortunately.

John: Yeah. We only have about 20 minutes left, so I don’t know if we’re going to be able to solve default white reads.

Christina: Dammit.

John: I mean, come one, we promised people–

Christina: I know. I thought we would be so much further ahead than this.

John: I think part of the solving it though is the real discussion of it and sort of recognition of that if you don’t specify people are going to fall into that. Or maybe we can train readers to not slip into that thing so quickly. But it is frustrating.

Have you heard the term “windows and mirrors” used in terms of inclusion in writing?

Christina: Only from you.

John: OK. So this is a thing I heard a lot when I was doing Arlo Finch because in kids’ books they talk about it all the time, especially for middle grade. And so the idea is that books can serve as windows and mirrors for kids as they’re looking at those characters and trying to fit them into the bigger world.

And so a window is if you have a character who has a certain background or experience and so a kid who doesn’t have that can look through their eyes and see what it was like in their point of view.

A mirror is a person – if a kid who can see themselves as that character. Basically – especially like races or situations that have been underrepresented, they get to see themselves reflected back and they feel like, oh, I am part of that culture. And so often you’ll see African American writers who say, “I loved Chronicles of Narnia and all these fantasy books but there were never black people in any of these stories.”

And so to provide that character in there is a mirror back to their own experience or a specific life experience that they never see reflected back to them. So like Arlo Finch mirrors back that sort of mountain life that I grew up with that I just never see in books. But it is an interesting idea that I think is really popular in kids’ lit right now, but I think we need to start looking at in terms of what we’re doing in movies.

With Black Panther, I think part of its huge success was that it mirrored back something that the African American audience desperately wanted to see.

Christina: Super powerful, amazing, exciting way.

John: I remember before the movie opened and just people on Twitter or on Instagram people were with the standees and they were just cheering the standees. Just the fact that it existed was a huge thing.

Christina: I have to admit, and it’s weird, I cried in the casino scene in Black Panther because it was so refreshing to see this woman be so badass, and she was in a stunning, elegant dress, but she wasn’t like sexy for the sake of being sexy. She seemed powerful and strong and she was kicking all the ass. And it was so exciting to see. And I know a lot of women who had the same reaction in Wonder Woman in No Man’s Land. Just like so happy and overwhelmed.

John: I wept openly in No Man’s Land. Yeah.

Christina: You can’t believe it. And it’s so strange that we can’t believe it, but we really have grown up not seeing that. We’ve seen kind of the over-sexy, leather pants, skinny hot sidekick girl kick ass. But it never felt real, or true, or powerful in the same way.

John: The other thing which really struck me about the casino scene in Black Panther is that when we leave Wakanda we don’t go to Europe or America, we go to Asia. And it’s like we’re not going to the place where all the white people are. We’re going to Asia. And it’s a completely specific place that we’re going to. And I guess Martin Freeman is the one white person who is sort of wandering around in there. But it’s not about “We have to go to the ‘real world,’ the ‘real world’ being white. We’re going to a very specific Asian place.” And that was a really cool moment.

I haven’t seen a lot written about Martin Freeman’s role in Black Panther, but it is fascinating that the white people in the movie, they’re there to see some stuff but not to sort of make anything happen.

Christina: They don’t save the day.

John: They don’t save the day at all.

Christina: Thank god. We’ve seen enough of those movies.

John: No white saviors in this.

Christina: No white saviors for sure.

John: So, going back to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and other shows where in having Josh Chan be Filipino they were able to bring in a Filipino writer who could bring a very specific perspective to that. So often in features we’re the one writer, so we’ve got to write everything. They have a room for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but we are just the one person. Have you ever worked in any room situations in features? Can you talk about that?

Christina: So, the Transformers writers’ room was obviously a famous features experiment where we did three weeks in a room together and it was 12 writers, three of them were partnerships. But 12 writers in a room. It was not dissimilar to the TV thing in terms of we learned about the thing that we were doing, we talked about it as one big picture and then we each kind of picked an episode as it were. We kind of naturally gravitated towards different things. It was amazing how naturally we all went to different areas. There was no overlap. And then we each developed our own stories and helped each other brainstorm and it was a very collaborative thing where we would pitch a loose outline and then people would give suggestions or notes or thoughts. But we really kind of had our own pieces.

And then obviously I do, as I’m sure you do, like a ton of roundtables of things. I recently did with Paramount another writers’ room like that for three weeks.

John: So part of that seems so exciting because it gets more people and more brains involved on something on topics of inclusion and making sure that the world is fully representative. It gives you a chance because it’s more than one person looking at stuff.

Part of me also is just terrified of the sense of like it’s hard to figure out then who deserves credit for story. Because we’re not really set up to do that kind of stuff in features.

Christina: And I think it can get very tricky when – the situation that I have not done on purpose because I don’t like it is when it’s a ton of writers going in and you don’t know who is going to come out writing the job. And it’s one job. That I think can get super murky. And I know writers who have given very fundamental core ideas that have made the movie and that haven’t gotten credit.

So the ones that I have gravitated towards have been the ones where it’s more about collaboration and helping each other, which I think is a wonderful thing because we are such hermits as feature writers, we’re also good together and we like helping each other and we’re good at helping each other.

And as long as you don’t go in with too much of an ego and you’re open to that experience I think it can be a wonderful thing. The competitive bakeoff thing not so good.

John: Yeah. I had a friend describing situation where it was this four or five day room and then like whoever sort of did the best in the room was going to get the job.

Christina: It’s gross.

John: It feels gross. And usually what it is is they have some more powerful high-priced writers and then some inexpensive writers–

Christina: Who they milk.

John: Yeah, who they milk. But a lot of times it is one of the inexpensive people that they kind of want to give it to because they don’t have that much money. It feels weird. If I were starting in the business now, of course I would go to one of those things. And in some ways it’s no different than to have 12 writers going in to pitch on a project. But rather than doing it serially you’re doing it parallel.

Christina: Yes, except that you shouldn’t go in and pitch on things and then they just steal all your ideas. Like that’s also not nice.

John: At least you’re getting paid for it.

Christina: And, by the way, it’s OK to – like I’ve had an experience with a studio where I went very deep in the, I mean, I got beyond pitching. I was kind of meeting with the director and some of the producers for long periods of time. And they did the honorable thing. At the end I didn’t get the job but they wanted to use a couple of ideas so they gave me a contract and paid me as a consultant.

John: Yep.

Christina: Like it can be done not that expensively. So the getting people in to pitch knowing that you’re just doing it to steal their ideas, or doing those roundtables knowing that you’re just doing it to milk – ugh – milk writers and then pay someone cheaper. It is gross.

John: It is gross. So, hopefully it’s a thing we can move past. But I would say overall as the WGA we’re not well set up to figure out how to handle and treat these feature writers who are in these roundtables. Because during that roundtable you were probably paid like a producer – you’re paid like a minimum?

Christina: No. Transformers writers’ room, Akiva Goldsman ran that and was very adamant that we all be paid really well so that we wouldn’t hold back and say that it wouldn’t be kind of using and abusing writers. We all did that room for three weeks and then we all wrote our own treatments. And then if we then were sent to script, which I was and that’s how Bumblebee came about, then we get paid for that script separately. But we were paid for our participation in the room and for a treatment. So it was very fair and good and they did right by us on that one.

John: That’s great. I want to listen to a clip – so during the Oscars Frances McDormand said very early in her speech like, “Two words, inclusion riders.” So after she said that in the Q&A room she had a little explanation about what that was. So I want to listen to her explanation and then talk through what we think might be the possibilities and realities there.

Reporter: Can you please explain your comment at the end, the two words, inclusion rider?

Frances McDormand: Right? I just found out about this last week. There is – has always been available to all – everybody that does a negotiation on a film, an inclusion rider which means that you can ask for and/or demand at least 50% diversity in not only the casting but also the crew. And so the fact that I just learned that, after 35 years of being in the film business, we’re not going back.

So, the whole idea of women trending, no. No trending. African Americans trending? No. No trending. It changes now. And I think the inclusion rider will have something to do with that.

Christina: Women aren’t trending.

John: Women aren’t trending. Women have always been here. So this idea of an inclusion rider, I can’t envision any screenwriter getting anything like this.

Christina: I feel like you could, John. You could do anything you want, dammit.

John: Demand it. In some ways we are our own inclusion rider. We can shape the degree–

Christina: On the page.

John: On the page. And we’ll see sort of what happens. Do you see it working/happening? Do you think this is a thing that we’ll talk about?

Christina: Even if it doesn’t fully work we’ve got to try. You know, this is something that Stacey Smith came up with I think in 2014 and they’ve been working really hard on figuring out the legals of it and how to implement it and how to make it work.

And I could be misspeaking, but I think the idea is not that you have to have 50% diversity behind the camera, but that you have to aim to have 50% diversity behind the camera. I think there is such a natural kind of backlash and people freak out that like “under-qualified people are going to steal our jobs,” which there always has been with things like this. And people need to just chill the fuck out.

But I think, yeah, it’s about kind of implementing things like the Rooney Rule. It’s about aiming for that. Interviewing a lot of diverse candidates for the jobs. And trying to get that behind the scenes.

John: What is the Rooney Rule? I’ve heard it, but I don’t remember what it is.

Christina: I can’t tell if you’re pretending you don’t know or if you really don’t know.

John: I genuinely don’t know what it is.

Christina: So the Rooney Rule comes from NFL and the idea is that when you’re hiring – in the NFL it was when you’re hiring a coach or someone outside of the – not institution, well, institution – that you have to interview at least one candidate who is diverse. And it’s something that the WGA has talked about a bunch. They were talking about it for this recent round last year. It didn’t end up kind of kicking in. But it’s something that a lot of people are supporting and want. I think it’s hugely important and I would love to see it implemented. I would love to see it be obligatory. Because I think a lot of the time writers aren’t even getting in the room. You know, you’re not getting enough women in the room. You’re not getting enough people of color in the room. Get them in the room. Give them a shot.

Like on Transformers, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Lindsey Beer, and I were probably the diversity aspect. We were the only three women in the room. When they first announced the first four writers in the room they were all white males and there was a huge kind of backlash, like “How can you just have a bunch of white guys?” Thank god there was a backlash. They then hired the three of us, I’d like to hope not just because we’re women but also because we’re talented. But we were kind of probably the less experienced writers in the room. And we all did really well.

Like look at what they’re doing now. Geneva Robertson-Dworet wrote Captain Marvel. She just wrote Tomb Raider. Lindsey Beer is writing King Killer Chronicles for Lionsgate. She’s crushing it. She just spent three days in a room with Quentin Tarantino for Star Trek. Because we had that opportunity we got to prove ourselves. So I think getting people in the door and letting them fight for the job is so important and so worth doing. And it’s a big part of what the inclusion rider will do is give people the chance to get those jobs that they may otherwise not have gotten.

John: Absolutely. So in terms of in front of the camera, those changes can be challenging based on the nature of the movie. There are going to be movies where it’s going to be hard to find – if it’s a period piece, it’s a period WWII piece, it’s going to be hard to do that. So you’re going to have to be realistic about those. But behind the camera–

Christina: There’s no reason why we can’t.

John: Absolutely.

Christina: And in front of the camera we also have to remember, I mean, you mentioned Chronicles of Narnia. That’s fantasy. There’s no reason why there should be no black people. Like, if there are leprechauns, I mean, it’s not leprechauns. There are people with goat legs. They can have black people there.

John: I 100% agree. And I always get so frustrated when people like will poke at Cinderella for having a black character in Cinderella.

Christina: It’s Cinderella World!

John: Absolutely. It’s like it’s kind of Europe but it’s not really Europe.

Christina: It’s so crazy.

John: It’s frustrating. Even on Big Fish, I remember there was one time where we had a circus scene. And this is a fantastical world. And this extra came up and was saying like, “Oh, just so you know there shouldn’t be black people here.” And it’s like, “Yeah, OK, I can understand in an historical context, but remember we are in a fantasy. This is the idealized version of sort of what this world should be.”

Christina: It’s not the real world anyway so why can’t we do what we want with it?

John: Yeah.

Christina: It’s maddening.

John: It’s maddening.

Christina: Maddening.

John: A challenge with inclusion riders behind the scenes, and so I think there’s ways to say this that’s not sort of implying that you’re going to hire less qualified people. Sometimes it’s hard to find enough people, people who have training and stuff. So it feels like it’s also a mandate to make sure that you are giving people the experience–

Christina: It’s not going to happen overnight. We’ve got to train the people up.

John: Absolutely. So you talked about STEM and representation of STEM people. It’s like, you know, well if we want to hire more black female engineers we need to make sure that they’re–

Christina: That they’re going to university for it. Yeah.

John: That they recognize that it’s a thing they can do and make sure that they identify it early enough. And support them while they’re going through that.

Christina: I also think that’s really important once you’ve hired the person that you keep that support. I have a friend who is a producer who tried to hire an incredibly diverse team for the movie behind the camera. Hired someone in a very key position who was less experienced, but because she was a woman and she was a woman of color and they really believed in giving her a shot. But because she didn’t have that much experience she really struggled.

And I think what’s important is that person who made that decision to hire that person isn’t punished for that decision and that there is some sort of network or system or safety net so that that person doesn’t lose their job but they can be supported and helped and then get the next job, and the next job, and continue their career and continue to become more experienced.

John: Absolutely. You don’t want to put people in positions where they’re going to fail.

Christina: You want people to win.

John: Yes.

Christina: So mentorship programs I think are hugely important. But also just like starting on all levels. You can’t just suddenly change the top levels without working on the lower levels.

John: The DGA training program seems like it’s working well in trying to get more diverse directors out there, both literally directors and also assistant directors and those crucial roles of actually making the trains run on time.

Christina: Yeah. And I think TV can do a lot of help. They can really help out with features as well because you can take more of a risk on one episode of TV. You know, Ava DuVernay has done amazing things with her shows in terms of hiring very female-heavy crews and female directors. More people need to be doing that.

John: And the training equivalent for writing in some ways is TV. It is our writers’ rooms. And so that’s why you see an emphasis on trying to make sure that you are getting those diverse candidates in those rooms, both because it’s helping those candidates grow, but also because it’s making those rooms better. It’s bringing in new voices.

A frustration which I’ve heard about through the WGA is that a lot of times candidates who come in, or people who are brought into a show on the lowest level as the diversity hire have a very hard time getting the second job and the third job.

Christina: Well, often because they were the diversity hire their job was subsidized. And so then getting paid an actual salary is like, “Oh, but we can’t actually pay her real money.” I mean, it’s mental.

John: That has to be fixed.

Christina: That’s got to be fixed. It’s craziness. Craziness.

John: There’s a question we have from Kate and so let’s wrap it up by talking about her question. She writes, “I’m pondering why some movies feel timeless while others don’t. Why do some things have such staying power like The Princess Bride or Indiana Jones or Singing in the Rain, while other movies feel dated almost as soon as they come out?”

Christina, what thoughts do you have about movies that stay timeless versus ones that feel like, wow, they were of that moment and don’t last?

Christina: Interesting. I mean, this is a silly thing to say but one of the things I’m always careful of when I’m writing is not including too much technology if I don’t have to because that–

John: 100%.

Christina: The person doing whatever doing on their smartphone, that smartphone is going to look ridiculous in five years’ time. And I think that can often really date things.

But I think it’s also just about universal character arcs. Really relatable characters. Stories that feel like they aren’t – they don’t just belong to that one person but they are captivating in a bigger way rather than just kind of this specific girl growing up in very much the ‘90s or the 2000s or, you know.

John: A lot of things she references having staying power are fantasies. So, they have some grounding in the real world but they’re mostly sort of taking place out in another space and time and so therefore they don’t feel as anchored into our time.

You mentioned technology or cellphones, which are of course really a killer.

Christina: They’re also just a bummer, honestly. Who wants to see anyone texting?

John: They destroy us.

Christina: They ruin thrillers. They really do.

John: They do. But any reference to technology tends to be really time stamping. You know, Sandra Bullock in The Net. It’s like, oh no, you recognize that–

Christina: It was so cutting edge…for a minute.

John: Yes. But in some ways it’s the movies that ask kind of timeless questions or that have great heroes who feel like they’re out of time. Those are the ones that sort of tend to stay. And the ones that are asking very contemporary questions, in some ways that feels more like TV where it’s like you’re right of the moment. And also just think about the lead time to make a movie. It’s two or three years to make a movie. And by the time they come out it really might be a thing that has passed for us a bit.

So we’re going to hear Craig’s voice for a second because it’s time for a special feature.

Christina: Yay.

Craig: John’s WGA Corner.

John: So a couple listeners wrote in to ask, “Hey, will you and Craig talk about the thing that’s happening with the agency agreement being renegotiated?” And, yes, we will be probably next episode. But I’m curious, Christina, have you heard anything about the agency agreement or do you know anything about what’s going on?

Christina: I know a little bit about what’s going on, but I missed both meetings because I was out of town. And I would like to hear your episode on it because I want the breakdown.

John: Absolutely. So we will break that down and talk about what’s happening and sort of what’s not happening and it’s a very different thing than sort of when we negotiated our deal with the studios. So it’s going to probably be a very slow train. But we’ll talk through what that is and sort of why it matters.

And it’s interesting you brought up the Rooney Rule because there’s another sports connection between this is that writers are much more in some ways like NBA players.

Christina: I feel very much like an NBA player.

John: Yeah. Our relationship with the people who employ us is kind of more like our dealing with teams than it is dealing with the big factory. And so some interesting things happen because of that and because we have agents that represent us there’s actually some good parallels there, so we’ll talk about that.

Christina: And who’s working for who.

John: Exactly. And making sure that our agents are working for us and we’re not working for our agents. Have you been in any situations where an agency is employing you or some–?

Christina: No.

John: It’s happening.

Christina: It is?

John: Yeah.

Christina: Oh, of course, because they’re financing movies now.

John: Yeah they are.

Christina: Which is very tricky.

John: It’s very tricky. So we’ll get into a bit of that.

Christina: I don’t like that.

John: Other little bit is from Stuart Friedel, who is our former Scriptnotes producer, he’s also a new WGA member. Congratulations Stuart.

Christina: Ooh, congratulations.

John: He had these questions about dues and then he ended up finding a really useful PDF that talks through the process of sending in your dues. Because you’ve dealt with WGA dues.

Christina: It’s so old-fashioned. It’s crazy. The system is so hinky and weird and you can just put in whatever you want and make up. It’s crazy.

John: It’s crazy.

Christina: It’s getting updated though, right?

John: It’s getting updated. So, what’s weird about WGA dues, and so for people who don’t know, as a member of the Writers Guild you end up paying 1.5% of your earnings into the guild. And you would think like, “Oh, well that must get taken out of your checks.” It doesn’t. Like you are responsible for filling in a form every quarter saying this is what I earned on this project.

Christina: And you better type in all the numbers correctly or you pay the wrong amount and get in trouble.

John: And then you send them money. And so they don’t dock money. It’s a really strange system.

Christina: Really strange.

John: And so people as they do it for the first time have questions, so this little PDF I’ll put a link to helps answer some of those questions. But we might do an episode more about dues down the road because both dues collection has been updated throughout the guild and there are probably ways we could do even better down the road.

Christina: Yeah.

John: Cool. End of WGA segment. It’s time for our One Cool Things.

Christina: Oh shit!

John: Did you forget your One Cool Thing?

Christina: I completely forgot my One Cool Thing.

John: How about this? I will do my One Cool Thing first. And then while I’m talking you can think about something that you like a lot that you want people to see. It could be a TV show, it could be a book. It could be something great out there in the world.

My One Cool Thing is a book. It is a book called Mothers of Sparta by Dawn Davies. I actually met Dawn because she has the same publisher and we were at this dinner together. And so she stood up and she talked about her book and I’m like “That sounds really cool.” So I bought it and I read it. And it is really cool. To describe it, I would say if you’ve read any of David Sedaris’s books, like they’re kind of memoirs and they’re funny, this is like David Sedaris but if you grow up poor in South Florida. And there’s a little bit more sort of holy shit.

What I like about it is, you know, a bunch of stuff happens in her life. It sort of goes from her childhood up through where she is now. And a bunch of stuff happens that would sort of break other people. And it reminds you that so much of who you are is sort of the ways you got broken and healed. And it’s just really great and really funny and really terrific writing. It’s her first book. So I was just super impressed. Mothers of Sparta by Dawn Davies.

Christina: I would love to pretend that I have just suddenly come up with a great One Cool Thing. So I’m going to come up with a One Cool Thing that is a general idea.

John: Sure.

Christina: Which is – and it’s a piece of advice I think for all aspiring writers – which is my One Cool Thing is my female writer friends.

John: Oh, tell me about this.

Christina: I think it is really important that you find your – people are so worried I think in this industry about networking and about networking up. And I think honestly it’s the wrong way of approaching it. I think you’ve got to focus – sure, network if you want. I find it gross. But find your peers. Find your people that will stay with you through this industry. You know, I mentioned Geneva and Lindsey earlier. We support each other. We take care of each other. We text each other when we have painful experiences in pitches or whatever. Julia Hart who is a female writer-director. You know, there are days when we have horrible experiences, where we’re really struggling, where the system is misogynistic and painful and awful. And if I didn’t have my girls supporting me and like by my side I would have a hard time just emotionally.

I think it is really important – boys, find your boys, or your girls, or whatever. But I think women in this industry, find each other, support each other. There is this myth that we’re all competing with each other and we want to push each other down. It’s the opposite. And I think it’s really wonderful to – particularly in this moment – women represent only 25% of the Writers Guild. That’s so sad. There need to be more of us. Find young female writers you can mentor if you’re an established female writer. Make there be more of us.

John: Absolutely. Screenwriting was invented by women. And it’s crazy that–

Christina: I did not know that.

John: I’ll have to Google to find out her name, but sort of the first established and known screenwriter was a woman.

Christina: Of course she was.

John: Because as the screenplay format sort of came into being, because of course originally it was just like they were pointing cameras at things and shooting. But eventually you had to have a plan for what that is. So one of the first sort of credited screenwriters is a woman.

Christina: I love that.

John: And as the screenplay format evolved, she evolved with it. So, it is–

Christina: I bet she had good girlfriends.

John: I hope she had good peers. I hope she had a good group there. Yeah, thank you. That’s a very good One Cool Thing.

That is our show for this week. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Hunter Christensen. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place you can send longer questions. For short questions, on Twitter Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. Christina, are you on Twitter?

Christina: I am not on anything.

John: Congratulations.

Christina: I literally have no social media.

John: That’s very nice. You can find us on Apple Podcasts at Scriptnotes. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there, leave us a comment.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts. We get them up about four days after the episode airs.

You can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. We also have a few of the USB drives that have the first 300 episodes available if you want those for your bunker. As the world falls apart and you just need to listen to Scriptnotes, you can listen to those.

Christina: Wear your USB around your neck.

John: Absolutely. Just plug it in whenever you need to. It’s very, very nice. Christina, thank you so much for coming on the show. It was a pleasure talking to you.

Christina: Thank you so much for having me. I really didn’t swear as much as I thought I was going to.

John: Congratulations.

Christina: Thank you. I’m very proud of myself.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 345: Love, Aptaker & Berger — Transcript

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 18:23

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 345 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Today on the podcast we’re doing something a little bit different. We often answer listener emails, but I thought we’d actually have the listener here with us as he asks his email. So, would you mind asking your question that you wrote in to us with?

Isaac Aptaker: Yeah, sure. “Dear John, you are one of the rare few to have both a successful screenwriting career and an accessible email address. I am an almost out of high school 18-year-old planning to pursue a career in TV. Next year I will enroll in the screenwriting program at either USC or NYU. I’ve gotten tons of advice from guidance counselors, family members, even a chatty, slightly overzealous cab driver. I wanted to ascertain whether you believe one school has a significant advantage over the other.

‘I’m inclined to stay on the East Coast for a few years before I make the move to LA for what I assume will be the majority of my working life. And I tell myself that a solid spec and good people skills are what really matter. But then I read those oh-so-persuasive articles about the SoCal-educated Josh Schwartz wunderkinds of TV. The ones who sell scripts right out of college and are helming their own shows before they can get rental cars. And it seems they always throw in a thanks to those Trojans shout-out.

“So, if you can offer any advice I’d really appreciate it. That cabbie made a damn good U-turn, but I’m not sure he knew a ton about scripted television. Thanks, Isaac Aptaker.”

John: All right. I wrote Isaac back and I wrote, “Hey Isaac. Both schools are great and more than anything count your blessings. Two questions: where do you want to live and what do you want to do? If you want to live in NYC, go to NYU. While it’s not an easy city to be broke in, you’re more likely to be content in your poverty living there during college than afterwards.

“In terms of Art, with a capital A, if on a given weekend you’re more likely to see the indie movie than the blockbuster, NYU might be the better choice. My sense is that there’s more independent bent at NYU and less of an asking for permission attitude.

“In terms of screenwriting programs themselves, I can only speak to USC’s which I didn’t attend but I visited. I think it’s good but only as good as you make it, which probably applies to any writing program anywhere. If you want to be a Hollywood screenwriter for the good and the bad that implies you’ll get more exposure to that career and the whole film industry at USC.

“Honestly, a lot of what you learn at USC wouldn’t happen on campus but navigating your way through internships and meeting people for the drinks. The film industry is a much bigger part of daily life in LA than it is in NYC. It sounds like your instinct is NYU. Listen to it. If you decide to move to LA after that you’ll have some catching up to do, but that shouldn’t be the deciding factor. Whichever place you decide to go, here’s my one piece of advice: work really hard. Don’t think about grades as much as becoming the writer you want to be. Josh Schwartz didn’t get the OC because he was lucky. He got it by working his ass off. John.

“P.S. Let me know what you finally decide.”

Now, he also wrote to Craig, so Craig you had separate advice for him.

Craig: He did. I don’t see his version of the email that was sent to me. So I’m just going to assume that he also started with, “Dear Craig, you’re one of the rare few to have both a successful screenwriting career and accessible email address.”

I wrote back, “Isaac, I strongly recommend USC.” I just want to point out, I always strongly recommend things. Always.

“I strongly recommend USC. My understanding is that USC’s program is far more vocational than NYU’s, which is a bit more, shall we say, academic. However, don’t make any decisions just yet. I’ve forwarded your question to Howard A. Rodman who teaches at USC. I’m hoping he has a more informative answer for you. Full disclosure: I didn’t go to USC or NYU, so no bias here. Craig.”

John: All right. So, Isaac, we have you here with us. We’ve been wanting to know the answer to this question. What school did you choose to go to?

Isaac: I went to NYU.

John: All right. And has that all worked out OK for you?

Isaac: It worked out. It did.

John: All right. It worked out so specifically well that here is the twist in all of this – the emails that you sent were 13 years ago.

Isaac: Yeah.

John: So you were a high school student. You are no longer a high school student.

Isaac: I’m not. Unfortunately. Or fortunately. Both.

John: You are a writer working in film and television. What are the most recent things we would know you for?

Isaac: Yeah, my writing partner Elizabeth and I just wrote the movie Love, Simon and we’re also the co-showrunners of This is Us on NBC.

John: So that’s a pretty busy life. Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger, welcome to Scriptnotes.

Isaac: Thanks.

Elizabeth Berger: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

Craig: This is so cool. Because, I mean, first of all we were so nice.

Isaac: You guys were so nice.

Elizabeth: So nice.

Craig: You have to understand, because this is 2005 when Isaac writes this to us. So we actually don’t even really know each other at that point, or barely. We kind of knew each other.

John: Yeah. At this point did he have his website up?

Isaac: Yeah, you must have.

Craig: So we had talked a couple times on the phone, but we were far from doing a podcast together or anything like this. And we were both actually very – we wrote you back. Thank god. I mean, how often does this work out, right?

Elizabeth: You’re inspiring me as I’m sitting here. I’m like I need to write nicer emails back to people. It’s really incredible. And I imagine you really took it to heart.

Isaac: Yeah, it was a big deal. It was like, oh, this is so cool.

Craig: Well, that’s nice, probably though – maybe John you always write back to people like this, but I generally will be nicer if the email is well written and there’s some indication of intelligence there and I don’t think I’m completely wasting my time writing to this person. So, good eye for talent. We should have signed him.

John: We should have signed him then.

Craig: Right. We should have gotten both of these.

John: Yeah. Little finder fees. So I guess the reason why I did write back the more lengthy answer is because your email was asking one specific question between two different schools. You seemed smart. You had like a whole narrative to like what your story was. The cab driver was a recurring character in it. That was a question I could answer that you would actually maybe take my advice seriously.

And, of course, you did take my advice and not Craig’s advice.

Isaac: I did. Yeah. It’s true.

John: And went to NYU.

Craig: Which worked out.

Isaac: It did.

Craig: I mean, although, in my defense—

Isaac: Who knows what would have happened?

Craig: Correct. I mean, no offense to Elizabeth—

Elizabeth: Totally.

Craig: He could currently be everything.

John: Because you’re doing OK.

Elizabeth: There is room for improvement.

Isaac: I haven’t created a franchise yet.

Craig: I think the good news is the worse of his outcomes has been pretty good. But I was at least honest about the fact that I really didn’t know how to answer your question. And so I sent him off to Howard Rodman who obviously blew it.

John: Did you end up talking to Howard Rodman?

Isaac: I don’t remember. I don’t know if he ever reached out. I do remember it was a little trickier, because I had actually – I had applied to NYU early so I had already signed a contract and committed and then I found out I got into USC. So there was this whole like I would have to break that. There was a whole legal situation to it, too. But I don’t remember if Howard reached out.

John: All right. So, what I’m so excited to have you guys on the show for today is to talk about writing as partners, to talk about writing film and TV, and to your role in terms of running a show and what that is like now because this is all stuff that Craig and I don’t know a ton about. So, this is – it’s great to have people on who know more about what the kinds of things that writers are actually facing. So let’s start back to NYU. So you wrote this letter. You decided to go to NYU because you got good advice from me.

Isaac: Yes.

John: How far in this process did you meet Elizabeth?

Isaac: Oh, I think we met pretty much on day one, right?

Elizabeth: Yeah. We were both in – we were dramatic writing majors, which is a concentration in screenwriting, television writing, and playwriting. And we were both in sort of the core class that you have to take which is called The Craft of Dramatic Writing. And we met on day one.

Isaac: Yeah. We became – in those classes you have to read your work out loud and people critique it. So we knew we liked each other’s just sort of general sensibility. We became friends. And then towards the end of school we became roommates with another guy in the East Village. And we decided to write a pilot together about sort of that 20-something pilot or movie that everyone kind of has to get out of their system.

Craig: Yes.

Isaac: So we wrote that and got a little $10,000 grant from NYU to actually produce it in the apartment we were living in with this very generous third roommate who let us take over. And we didn’t kind of kill each other through that experience of making a show in our home in this tiny little place. So we decided to move out here and give it a go professionally.

John: Great. So NYU was undergrad, right?

Elizabeth: Yes.

John: So it was undergrad so basically you’re 18 years old, you’re in NYC, you’re going through this film program together. You’re also doing all your other college requirement classes. You’re roommates. You shoot this little pilot. How soon after graduation did you move from NYC out to Los Angeles?

Elizabeth: Pretty soon. Isaac went pretty much immediately. And I think – thank goodness he did because he sort of – I would have probably dragged my feet longer otherwise. Isaac went. He found an apartment. He found me an apartment in the same apartment complex. And then he was sort of like, OK, I mean, you can tell from his letter who you’re dealing with. And then he basically was like I’ve got everything set up. Are you coming? And then I followed.

Craig: I think that’s wonderful. And I think that every time I hear these stories about two people that meet each other in a writing class and then you hear her writing and she hears your writing. And then I hear these other stories of like he goes out and he does the thing. In my mind I’m already working on the psychological profile. What safety and comfort does she bring you and what safety and comfort do you bring her? Because it’s so scary to do these things, to move to LA, to write at all. I mean, John and I, we just like being scared alone. But there’s something that you guys do for each other. And it was like there from the start which I think is amazing.

Elizabeth: For sure. And I will say even that first day at NYU, like we are all sort of gathering as freshmen. And Isaac is the one person in a buttoned down shirt and like slacks. And I was like who is this guy. And I think there was–

Craig: Who’s this nerd?

Elizabeth: No, who is this grown up amongst us?

Craig: He’s clearly disinterested in fashion.

Elizabeth: From the beginning I could tell that he had a plan. And that was something that was very helpful for me who loved writing but wasn’t necessarily thinking about what’s the most pragmatic way to go about this.

Craig: Right. And so he brings the plan and you do all the writing?

Elizabeth: I do all the writing. He’s never written anything.

Craig: He’s kind of more your agent really is the deal.

Elizabeth: No, Isaac does a lot of writing, too.

Craig: Sure.

John: So a very classic thing has happened here which people are always writing into us about. Basically when should I move to Los Angeles? And you decided to move to Los Angeles right after you finished film school. You had a couple things written together. What was done before you got out here?

Isaac: We had written two pilots together. Back then they were like really big on writing a spec of an existing show. They were like you have to write – that was all we did at NYU for such a high amount of money. So we had a 30 Rock spec that we wrote together.

Elizabeth: But that was when we came out.

Isaac: Oh, we wrote that when we first came out, yeah. And then Elizabeth had a job writing celebrity gossip that she took with her from New York and I got a job working for this movie producer named Robert Cort who produced like all the movies that we grew up, like he had 40 or 50 credits in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Like his lobby is insane.

Craig: Bob Cort.

Isaac: Exactly. And so I was his assistant at a very small company, just a couple other people, and he found out that I was a writer and was very generous and said “I want to do more young comedy. Come in and pitch me whatever you’re working on.”

Craig: I love that you called exploitative generous.

Isaac: Hey, at the time—

Elizabeth: He was amazing for us.

Craig: Listen, you move out to LA and you’re like, “Exploit me. Would somebody please exploit me?”

Elizabeth: You’re like, “You want to do anything with me?” Yeah.

Isaac: Somebody who has actually made something? So we were writing our first movie at the time. We came and pitched that to him, which was this movie called Lauren Pemberton is No Longer in a Relationship. And it was right when Facebook was just sort of becoming a huge thing. And it was that notion of like what happens when that girl you’ve been in love with forever finally becomes single. And then all of these guys come out of the woodwork in the Something About Mary kind of way and pursue her.

Craig: Oh, that’s smart. I like that.

Isaac: So we developed that with him for like eight or nine months while I was on his desk rolling his calls and stuff. And then he was cool and sent it out and we got signed off of that. So it was pretty – we were fortunate. It was pretty fast.

Elizabeth: We were very lucky.

John: All right, we got to connect more dots here. So you wrote this 30 Rock spec. What was the premise of your 30 Rock? What was the A story? What was the B story?

Isaac: Oh man.

Elizabeth: Oh my god.

Isaac: It was called Traliz Jormon. And the premise was that in the cold open Liz Lemon and Tracy are accidentally photographed hugging. And then the paparazzi assume they started dating. And it’s very good for the ratings of the show. So Alec Baldwin forces them to continue this charade and hilarity ensues.

Craig: That sounds about right.

John: A very good premise for that episode. So you write this spec of 30 Rock. What else were you writing while you were developing this pitch for Bob Cort? Would we even call it a pitch?

Elizabeth: No, we were writing a movie.

Isaac: We wrote it on spec. We were just writing a movie.

John: So you wrote the movie on spec.

Isaac: We wrote that pilot about prostitutes in a department store, right? That was not good.

Elizabeth: I don’t know. But, yeah, we were mostly focused on Lauren Pemberton.

Craig: You do know. You know.

Elizabeth: Yeah, that’s very vague in my mind. No, we were writing the movie and Robert was amazing. He was really giving us development lessons. He was really pushing it forward and it really – it took more time because we were learning a lot while we were doing it.

Craig: And you guys were – we’re talking 22?

Isaac: I was 20.

Craig: 20, OK.

John: So you went to college early?

Isaac: I graduated a little early. And then moved out here.

Craig: Did you skip a grade?

Isaac: In a high school I did, yeah.

Craig: Yeah, he skipped.

Isaac: But I moved out here and I couldn’t get into bars to go to those assistant mixer things. I would like talk to the bouncer, and I was like “I’m running out of money. Please, I’ll have a ginger ale. I’ve just got to go in there and talk to someone.” And eventually it worked.

Craig: Just by time elapsing you got to 21 and then–

Isaac: Yeah. And then I was allowed to drink legally so it was all fine.

Elizabeth: I was like his older companion that would travel with him.

Isaac: Elizabeth was 42 at the time.

Elizabeth: No, I am two years older than Isaac.

Craig: I’m always fascinated to hear these stories about that particular time when people come out here because it just reminds me of when it was me. And it was the same thing. I had just turned 21. Got in my car, drove out here. And everything that happens to you is so vivid. And even now it is still so vivid to me the people you meet, the meetings you had, and the fact that you were late for one. And I still think about it. Getting lost in the Paramount lot, trying to find parking.

Isaac: Yeah. All the time.

Craig: Everything that happens to you in the first year is so vivid and so panicky.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Craig: And sweaty, and terrible, and wonderful. And I just love the – did you have the, because you went to–

John: Oh, absolutely.

Craig: I only ask if it’s different for you because you were here at USC. So there was kind of already a little bit of a connection.

John: There was a little bit more structure around you, but it was still the random people you’d meet out at drinks became important, or not important, or the sense that like, “Oh, that person who I just met now has a giant TV show. And they were just like – I was buying them a drink last week.”

Craig: I know. And then you start to analyze. You’re constantly analyzing. OK, what did they do? How did they do it? Why didn’t it happen for me? What’s going on? What do I do? What am I missing? All this thinking, right?

Then, I’m just jumping ahead a little bit. We’ll get back to it. Then you guys end up where you guys are now and you go, “All of that wasted thinking.”

Elizabeth: Yeah. The anxiety.

Isaac: I know.

Craig: Because none of it was really important at all.

Isaac: But it’s so important at the time. Every meeting is so important.

Craig: Every choice you make. Everything you wear. Everything you say. Everything you do, where you go.

Isaac: It’s exhausting.

Craig: It’s exhausting. I know, I love it.

John: So, you write this script. So Bob Cort is going to be producing this thing. It goes to representatives first, or it goes out on the town? What was the process for that?

Elizabeth: Reps first.

Isaac: Managers first, yeah.

John: So you sign a manager off of that, and then an agent? Or what was the process?

Isaac: Yeah. We signed with our manager who is still is our manager to this day, Aaron Brown, who was at Industry Entertainment at the time. And that was like December of 2009, I want to say. And then first thing in the New Year they sent it out to agents and we took meetings, because they wanted us to have a team before they sent it out as a spec. So then we signed with Verve, who was a brand new agency at the time.

Craig: Verve.

Isaac: Then they sent it out really wide and everybody had really high hopes for it. And we were like, “Oh my god, this is incredible.”

Elizabeth: “We’re huge writers.”

Isaac: We did it! And it did not sell, of course. But what did happen is we took a ton of generals off of it. They did a great job getting every single person to read that script. And it had enough kind of heat that everybody talked about it. And so we were able just to go out and meet so many people.

Craig: That does actually take the sting away. I mean, there’s certain outcomes in this business are final outcomes. A movie opens, it bombs, final outcome. Wah-wah. But those things, I’m sure it was kind of a rough weekend maybe, you know, but then suddenly you have these meetings. People are like, “I loved it. I loved it. I love what you guys do. I love your writing.” They start telling you what you do well, whether they’re right or not.

And then jobs occur. I assume jobs occurred?

Elizabeth: Yeah, and it’s healthy psychologically too, because even though you’re not making any money, you’re at least like I’m in the industry. I’m going to meetings. I’m talking to people. And it makes you feel like you’re on your way to something as opposed to just waiting around.

Craig: So a little pro tip for people that are looking to exploit young people arriving in Hollywood, it’s validity that we are so desperate for more than anything. We want validation. We’re so, so desperate for it. And there is an entire psychological maelstrom that is going on in our heads during that time. So it was good that you guys got that. It kind of got you back on the horse.

Elizabeth: Yes.

Craig: And then jobs.

Isaac: And then jobs.

John: So I was in the same situation with Go. So like Go went out and everyone read and is like, “This is fantastic. We’ll never make this movie. But write us something that’s like this but that we can actually make.” And so you were getting – I suspect you went into a lot of meetings where it was like the water bottle tour of Los Angeles and you’re chatting about stuff, they like your thing, and they pull out this little card that has all the projects that they’re looking to make.

Isaac: Yep.

John: And then you go back in and you try to pitch on one of those. Was that the next step for you?

Isaac: Yeah. We made so many mistakes.

Elizabeth: Because you just want to be working, so you’re just like “I’ll do that one, and I’ll do that one, and I’ll do that one,” and you’re not really thinking it through very carefully. And it’s something that we had to learn was don’t say yes to everything. Like even if it feels like that will move things faster, it actually moves things slower because you end up committing to a bunch of stuff that is sort of half-baked and that you’re not that passionate about.

Craig: Correct.

John: What was the first thing you were paid to write?

Isaac: The first thing we were paid to write. We were only really pursuing feature stuff, but through the director David Dobkin, because we had sent him Pemberton to direct, he had a pilot that Neustadter and Weber wrote called Friends with Benefits that went to series on NBC. So we weren’t like formally staffing but Jeff Kleeman, who was Dobkin’s exec at the time, really liked our writing and said you guys should come to the show. You’d be great for the show.

So Ira Ungerleider, who was the showrunner, met us. And it was our first ever staffing meeting, because that wasn’t what we were doing. We were so scared. We were terrified. And he tried to intimidate us a little to see if we could handle a writer’s room. And we got that job. So that was in the spring of 2010. And that was our first – that was our Writers Guild job.

Craig: So Kleeman is responsible for this.

Isaac: Kleeman, yeah.

Craig: That guy is great.

Isaac: He is. He’s the best.

Elizabeth: Yeah. We love him.

Craig: Does he still run the Ellen DeGeneres Company?

Isaac: I believe so.

Craig: I love that guy.

John: Great. So suddenly you’re staffed on a TV show in its first season, correct?

Isaac: Yes.

John: And it ran 13 episodes?

Isaac: 13 episodes.

John: Great. So you’re figuring out how to write a half hour. You’re figuring out how to put all that stuff together. And that was a single-camera half hour, correct?

Elizabeth: Yes.

John: So it was still within the realm of experience of what you’d actually written before. So it was like your script probably.

Elizabeth: Yes.

Isaac: But it was still scary.

Elizabeth: But the experience of being in a room was so different and so terrifying. And we were with real seasoned veterans. I don’t think either of us said a word for about 14 days. And finally Ira called us into his office and was like “You guys deserve to be here. I need you start speaking.”

And then we were like, “OK, OK, OK.” And then we came back the next day and we started to talk.

Craig: And then you started speaking. And I bet everybody was like, “Wait, where did these two come from?” Well, because that’s kind of the way it works. I remember definitely being intimidated by everybody that had done the job before because they all seemed very relaxed. And I was not relaxed ever.

Isaac: Right.

Craig: And over time I started to realize that a lot of them really it’s just that they were relaxed. They actually didn’t have anything else of value to offer. They were just super comfortable sitting. And then I thought, you know what, I think I can do this. I think I can write. I just need to be relaxed now. And then I got it made. So I just had to work on relaxing my body.

John: Can we talk about some finances during this early period because–

Craig: Do you have receipts?

Isaac: Are you going to audit us?

John: Absolutely. So you guys had moved out here straight from college. Obviously your expectations of living standards were low because you had just come out from college. So you guys are living separately in the same building. You’re making kind of no money, and then when you start working you’re splitting a salary. Was it lean those first– ?

Elizabeth: Oh yes. Yes. Isaac found me an apartment that I couldn’t quite afford, which was a one-bedroom apartment which had like a living area and the bedroom off of it. And we were like, well now I need a roommate, but I don’t have another bedroom. So we found the one person in Los Angeles, this lovely girl named Sara Randazzo who was like, “That’s OK. I’ll live here and I’ll build a wall out of bookcases.” So I basically had this girl living behind shelves with me.

Isaac: It was so dangerous.

Craig: In earthquake country.

Isaac: Yeah. Like nine-foot-tall IKEA Billy Bookcases that were not secured in any way to the wall. Just like waiting to go down on her.

Elizabeth: And then I had my freelance gossip job, which I actually could just pay my rent with, which was good once I was splitting it with Sara. But we did not have a lot of – when you were saying that you remember things so vividly, it’s those meals that we would eat are so clear in my mind like with what we would have.

Craig: What was your go to?

Elizabeth: The two of us combined. I just remember a night of broccoli with breadcrumbs.

Isaac: And marinara. Every night. Frozen Trader Joe’s.

Elizabeth: Frozen pudding.

Isaac: What’s frozen pudding?

Elizabeth: I feel like Isaac is pretending he doesn’t know what this is.

Craig: There’s frozen pudding?

Elizabeth: OK, I think it was pudding and then berries that were–

Isaac: Frozen berries that you microwave on pudding. Yeah, yeah.

Elizabeth: I’m sorry.

Craig: Because they don’t really sell frozen pudding. By the way, they should.

Isaac: That sounds delicious.

John: Well, there’s pudding pops.

Elizabeth: Right.

Craig: Yeah. But we can’t talk about pudding pops anymore.

Elizabeth: No, it was just pudding and frozen berries.

Craig: I remember when I first moved out here I got an apartment in North Hollywood, near the high school, and this is in 1992 when it was bad. Like a guy literally was murdered outside my window. I’m not joking. Like they knocked on my door in the morning. “Did you hear the murder?” And I’m like I didn’t hear the murder. What happened? There was a murder?

And so I had a friend of mine from college who was sharing the apartment with me. And he was Korean-American. He had Korean relatives. And they would just give us this huge industrial shipping crate full of ramen. And that’s what we just – [name of ramen]. That’s what it was. It was like, oh, it was the best. Like five days in a row, awesome. Day six, you’re like, oh man, no.

And where was this apartment building?

Isaac: Now it’s really cool. Back then it was East Hollywood adjacent. Now it’s where Sqirl is and all those cool places on Virgil.

Craig: This is how it goes.

Isaac: Nothing was there when we were there.

Craig: But you know, like in New York, too, I mean, it’s insane.

Elizabeth: Oh yeah, how different, yeah.

Craig: Crazy.

Elizabeth: Crazy. Even when we lived in New York, we were on 6th Street between—

Isaac: Fifth and B.

Craig: Oh, Alphabet City.

Elizabeth: And it was just starting to be an OK neighborhood when we were there.

Craig: Because when I was a kid you literally couldn’t – Rent – the whole point was like we can live in a building here and light barrels on fire. Like, no you can’t, not anymore.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Now it’s so fancy. Now it’s so trendy.

Isaac: When we were there a guy died on a bench outside of our building. It was still like that a little.

Craig: Death bench.

Isaac: Yeah, death bench. It’s still there.

Craig: It’s still there. Sorry John.

John: No, so you guys were going through – you were working on this show, you were splitting a salary. So I just want to make sure everyone is clear that you guys were splitting one writer’s income. You were paying a manager and an agent and a lawyer.

Isaac: And a lawyer.

Craig: That’s 25% right there.

Isaac: I mean, you can look it up. Back then it was like $3,500 a week minus 25%, split. And it’s for 20 weeks, because it’s a 13-episode show.

Craig: And then taxes.

Isaac: And then taxes. And you have to pay your Writers Guild initiation which is a lot.

Craig: And they found you for that one, didn’t they?

Isaac: Oh, they find you right away.

Elizabeth: I feel like you have to pay it before you start getting paid.

Isaac: Before you get health insurance.

Elizabeth: You have to pay it so quickly.

Craig: You do. I mean, that was the first thing – that’s how I knew for sure that I’d been hired was that Corinne Tippin from the Writers Guild called me.

Isaac: I know. And they keep calling and calling. One guy, another staff writer on our show who was also new was like dodging it, like dodging the draft. He was determined not to – he was going to go to Canada and cut off a finger.

Craig: They will garnish your wages.

John: They will find you. So, these 13 weeks pass. That show only went one season, correct?

Elizabeth: Mm-hmm.

John: And so what happens next? Do you immediately start trying to staff for another show? Were you guys writing a feature?

Isaac: So by that point we had met Dan Fogelman who we share a manager with. He was on the set of Crazy Stupid Love and had a lot of downtime and was looking to read new writers. So our mutual manager sent him that script, Lauren Pemberton, and he really liked it. And so we met up for a drink and he was like, we hit it off, and he said, “I would love to produce your next thing.”

So we started developing a movie that we were going to send to him to produce, and simultaneously we saw on Deadline an article about an MTV show called I Just Want My Pants Back that we thought sounded very cool. And we were both desperate to go back to New York at that point. It was filming in Brooklyn.

We went to our representatives and said we want to go up for this cable show. And they were like, you’re crazy, you’re getting off of an NBC show. It was different.

Elizabeth: Yeah, now there’s no stigma like that. But back then–

Craig: But then still it mattered.

Isaac: They were like, no, you’re on a network show. You stay in network.

Craig: Because streaming hadn’t muddled anything.

Isaac: Right. It wasn’t a thing yet. So there was this clear definition. But we really pushed them on it and we said it’s Doug Liman and we want to work with him. We believe in the show. And we got that job. And so then we packed up, after being here not that long, and moved back to New York to do that.

John: I never saw the show, but I can imagine a show produced by Doug Liman was chaotic.

Isaac: It was so chaotic.

Elizabeth: It was chaotic, but it was amazing for us because they kept Isaac and I on. We wrote all of those first and then they shot the show. And they kept us along with the showrunner to be sort of the onset presences. And it was so – it was all on location throughout Brooklyn with Doug grabbing the camera on the fly and sort of running around filming. And for us it was just like this incredible crash course in production.

John: That was probably the best part of it. Because doing a normal 13-episode show, there’s a whole bunch of people whose job it is to do that stuff. And with a Doug Liman production, I can tell you that your job is to do all the stuff – pick up all the pieces that fell on the floor.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

John: In the best possible way. So that was probably as much film school as your NYU experience was.

Isaac: Yeah. The budget on the show was so low, so we would film two units simultaneously. So the showrunner, David Rosen, would go with kind of the main whatever bigger scene was happening. But then we would be left with this whole unit and we had never been on a set before. We didn’t know what we were doing.

And one night we were with Doug. He’s friends with so many people. He had convinced them to turn off the power. We were doing a blackout episode. So we turned off the power in a big chunk of Greenpoint. And I was alone with Doug. I was like 22 or 23. And trying to give him a note on a scene in the pitch black. And he doesn’t want to hear it from this dumb kid. And I’m like how am I being entrusted with this right now.

John: That’s great.

Craig: That’s kind of how it works. No one really can prepare you for these moments because they just happen. And when they happen, honestly, I do believe those are the moments where people either stay or go. I really believe it. That at some point the school is over and the safety is over. And then something happens and you are put in a crucible. And I remember my crucible like that was – I was working for this ad agency. It was before I wrote any scripts or anything. And this is when networks used to do fall campaigns. And I was 22. And my job was to write every single thing that every single CBS primetime

star was going to say. And then I had to go into all of their trailers and convince them. They didn’t want to be there. They didn’t want to do it. They were forced.

Had to convince them to do it. Rewrite it if it needed to be. Do it all day. And I’m talking like Candice Bergen, William Shatner, Dick Van Dyke – William Shatner was, no shock, the weirdest one. Angela Lansbury. The best.

Isaac: That’s a good one.

Craig: She was the greatest. I learned a lot. I learned so much. And that was I think a day where when it was over I’m like, wait, they let me do that?

Isaac: Yeah.

Craig: That’s insane. I love that you guys just jumped in like that and did it. It was so smart of you to not stay safe.

Elizabeth: Uh, yeah. You kind of have no choice in those moments. But, yeah, for us it was the best time. It was like film school, except on the streets of NYC making this little show.

Craig: I love it.

Elizabeth: It was cool.

John: So it was a phenomenal hit and of course got like 19 seasons.

Elizabeth: [laughs] Oh yeah.

Craig: Once again, the show killers.

Isaac: Exactly.

Elizabeth: We brought our magic touch.

Isaac: Just did our 12 and out. Yeah.

Craig: You guys are ratings round-ups.

John: You guys were able to come back to Los Angeles, and were you on another show after that? What was the next step for you?

Isaac: So we had a good experience with MTV, so they wanted to keep us in the fold. So they had a couple new shows at the time and we wound up going on this show called Zack Stone is Gonna Be Famous, this little whiz kid Bo Burnham who was a YouTube star/comedian. He’s so talented.

Craig: Really funny guy.

Isaac: Created – he’s a genius. And so we did that for – that was really short. That was like a few months.

Elizabeth: It was really short.

Isaac: Which was a ton of fun.

Craig: And you guys killed that show.

Elizabeth: We killed that. Quickly.

Isaac: Killed that show. Brought that one down. Three shows in under two years we killed.

John: Nice.

Craig: You guys did what you do.

Elizabeth: Yeah, we brought our little touch.

Isaac: Sprinkled our death dust all over it.

Craig: By the way, I mean, there is kind of a point though that unlike directing, and I think acting to this, writing – there is – it’s not the show succeeding… – I mean, hits are hits, and they’re wonderful for you, obviously. But you don’t die because the show dies. If you work and you’re responsible and you do good work, they kind of just keep the writers going.

Isaac: Right.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Which I think is great.

John: So you’re plowing through, killing shows.

Isaac: Just taking them down.

John: At what point are you back in Los Angeles full-time working?

Elizabeth: That was back in LA. So we did Zack Stone. And then after Zack Stone, Dan Fogelman created The Neighbors, this alien sitcom on ABC.

Craig: Which you killed.

Elizabeth: We did two seasons on The Neighbors.

John: Wow.

Elizabeth: That was huge for us.

Isaac: Kept that one on life support for a while.

Elizabeth: So that was a lot of fun.

Craig: But that show ultimately could not withstand your participation.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Isaac: Dan elevated it enough that he squeaked out two years as we tried to bring it down.

John: Can we talk through your credits, basically what you’re credited onscreen for these things, because it seems odd – so you started in on this first show as staff writers?

Elizabeth: Staff writers.

John: And then for I Just Want My Pants Back, were you still staff writers? Or what was your credit?

Isaac: We were still staff writers.

John: Even though you were basically–

Isaac: That’s the hardest bump to get.

Elizabeth: Yes. It’s a hard bump. And also there were only like four writers on that show. And they were looking for staff writers. That was the only position we went up for.

Isaac: What we did get, pro tip for anyone who is listening, for young writers: we were able to negotiate script fees, which is a thing I don’t think people know to ask for. But if you’ve been a staff writer and you’re returning and you’re willing to not take the bump, they’ll sometimes give you script fees, which is a big deal.

John: So as a staff writer on a TV series, their staff writer salary that they’re paying you normally would include one or two script fees?

Isaac: It’s however many you write until it exceeds what you’ve been paid as a staff writer.

John: So essentially you have to be paid scale for the script you’re writing unless the salary they’ve already paid you would be more than that scale.

Isaac: So, for example, on Friends with Benefits, we wrote three episodes of the show. But that did not exceed our total pay, so those were totally free scripts. Whereas another writer would have gotten $25,000 to $30,000 for those.

Craig: Right.

John: So getting paid your actual script fee on top of your staff writer salary is a great thing to negotiate.

Isaac: It’s a big deal. It really helps.

Craig: Fresh cash as we call it in Hollywood. Fresh cash.

John: Talking up through the hierarchy of titles for television, so you start as a staff writer. You got bumped up to story editor at some point? Or you skipped over that step?

Elizabeth: We skipped that. On Zack Stone we were Executive Story Editors.

John: Fancy ESE.

Isaac: ESE.

Elizabeth: It was huge.

Isaac: That’s the weirdest title in all of Hollywood.

Elizabeth: All of them are sort of bizarre.

Isaac: Executive Story Editor.

John: Does that actually mean anything different? Or that was just a different title?

Isaac: No.

Elizabeth: No.

John: OK. A lot of people will go from Story Editor to just Producer.

Isaac: It goes Co-Producer. There’s so many of them. Co-Producer. Producer. Supervising Producer. Co-Executive Producer. Executive Producer. And then Consulting Producer is this wild card title that nobody understands.

John: Consulting Producer is often a person who was an experienced producer from some other show who is being helicoptered in to do a little bit of work on something.

Elizabeth: Right. Exactly.

John: All right. So, quickly can you talk us through some of the other shows you worked on to get up to where you are now?

Isaac: Yeah. So we did two years on The Neighbors with Fogelman, then we jumped over to – we wanted to work with Jason Katims. We were big fans. And he had About a Boy. So we jumped on to that for the second season of the show. And then after that we talk an overall deal to work at 20th and that landed us on Grandfathered, which was the John Stamos sitcom, which was a lot of fun. That Fogelman also produced.

And then from that, This is Us came along. And we jumped over to drama.

John: Great. So Fogelman, Katims, you’re sort of bouncing back and forth between the two of these sort of showrunner-y producers. At what point were you not just the folks brought in to sort of help along?

At what point were you more sort of fundamentally involved in the overall direction of a first season? Does that make sense?

Isaac: Yeah. I mean, I think we’ve been really lucky where most of the showrunners we’ve worked for were real mentors, starting with Ira. He was on the original Friends when he was very young. So he took a real interest in us and would let us sit in on notes calls. And he would send us off to go try to write a draft without a lot of help just to like push us.

And then Dan was the same way. He really sort of helped grow us and gave us a lot of scripts to write. Would send us to set and send us into editing by ourselves, sort of giving us increasing responsibility, both I think because he’s awesome and was a mentor, and also because I do think at a certain point we showed we could do it and it would make his life easier.

Craig: Let me just give you a little insight into this. Dan is a great guy. So I’m not denying that he was being generous and mentoring. However, to have people you can rely on, I mean, if I can say, “OK, I have 14 million things to do today, I am petrified. There’s no one I can trust – oh, no wait, I’ve got Elizabeth. I’ve got Isaac. Hey, you guys, I have a great opportunity for you.”

I mean, it is the most rare and precious thing. This is how you get ahead. How do you get ahead in Hollywood? By being someone that other people can rely on in their moment of need. And every moment that they have is a moment of need.

Elizabeth: It’s really true. And we see it now as showrunners. Like if you have that person that you’re like please rewrite this scene for me while we go into editing and it can be done when you get out, it’s the best. It’s like a hug. It’s like really the best feeling ever.

Craig: Comfort.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

John: To what degree are you guys together as one brain – to what degree can you guys split apart and just do your own separate things? Because that’s a real challenge with writing partners is the degree to which “Are they one person or are they two people that can be used?”

Elizabeth: In television, we were pretty much together all the time until we became showrunners of This is Us. And then it’s just too massive for it to be possible. So it was actually pretty new for us to be like, “OK, you rewrite this script, I’ll be in editing. I’ll see you in four hours.” But it’s just sort of the nature of the show.

Isaac: Yeah. We kind of had to rethink the whole way we work together. Because now it’s like we come in a little early, we have a morning meeting and make a plan for the day, and then usually we go off and don’t even necessarily see each other until dinner.

Craig: Aw.

Isaac: It’s sad.

Elizabeth: But not all the time. I mean, there will be moments where we’ll both have four hours in the writer’s room and that’s fantastic. But just when it gets crazy.

Craig: See, the more successful you get, the less time you have to do your job.

Isaac: Yes.

Craig: And do it the way you like doing it.

Elizabeth: Right.

Craig: It’s really frustrating.

Isaac: There’s so many emails.

Craig: There’s so many emails.

Isaac: There’s so many. You could do email all day.

Craig: Listen, this is my first deal with it now because of this miniseries. Every morning when I’m here, because they’re all in Europe. Every morning I wake up and there’s 40 emails about – and it’s not about any of the things I’m used to talking about, like writing. It’s all like “This wig, is this OK, and this person has decided to move this scout to this…”

It’s a lot.

Elizabeth: It’s a lot.

Craig: So much. So it’s good that you have two of you.

Elizabeth: I know. And Isaac does those well. Thank god.

Craig: Well, yes, it’s Isaac, it’s you, it’s Dan. So maybe I’ll just take one of them.

John: Pull one away.

Isaac: It really is a multi-person job.

John: What happens when you guys don’t agree?

Isaac: It happens, but it’s not that prominent.

Elizabeth: It’s pretty rare. I mean, it would only be related to a script and then we can usually compromise.

Isaac: Usually if it’s like we really – it’s whoever is more passionate wins, it tends to be. Like, if Elizabeth feels really strongly about something and I feel sort of strongly, she’s probably right because she cares about this particular point more. That’s usually how it goes.

Elizabeth: Yeah. But we don’t have disagreements on like this is the correct way to have a meeting or anything like that. It’s always like very nuanced debates that then, like Isaac said, one person will be like, “All right, you seem to care about this.”

John: Now, with This is Us you’ve not managed to kill the show yet. It’s actually incredibly successful.

Elizabeth: We’ve been trying. [laughs]

John: So can you talk us through the development of an episode of This is Us? And so let’s say it’s not the first episode of the season but episode three. What does that look like? What is the process of going from, “OK, this is the blue sky sense of this is what’s going to happen in this episode” to the room, the board, the outline, the writing of the episode? Like what is that process of figuring out episode three of the show?

Elizabeth: Sure. Well, we break everything as a group. So we would say, all right, this is episode three. We know generally where we’re going in the season by the time we’re up to sort of doing one at a time. And then we just figure it out really as a room for a few days. And sort of slowly start putting down scene by scene what everything is going to be until one writer is ready to go off and do it.

John: Are you doing act breaks first? What is the process for This is Us?

Isaac: No, on This is Us, it’s weird, the act breaks are not that important. There’s so many stories and an episode is so tricky that a lot of times we completely restructure the episode in post. So we really – we keep the stories all pretty separate and break them and then blend them together. And what’s really important on This is Us, because it jumps through so many times, is finding the transitions between scenes when you’re jumping from past to present so it feels cohesive. So those we look for.

And we do break it with acts, of course.

Elizabeth: But we’ll do that later. So we’ll think like, “OK, here are five great Kate beats for our story.” And then once we’ve done that with everyone then we start organizing them and sort of thinking, “OK, this will be an artful way to go from this present day story to this past story.” But that’s sort of next layer.

John: So how you’re moving back and forth between them, that’s still done as the group?

Isaac: Yes.

John: On the big board. That’s not the individual writer who is responsible for the script? He or she will come in knowing like this is the plan at least for how we’re going to get between these two stories?

Elizabeth: Exactly. Not that there aren’t occasionally things that are found in a cool way once you’re off. But we try and lock those things down, just because the show is so complicated that the more someone goes off with the more chance they have of being successful.

John: Are both of you in the room while these things are happening? Who is responsible for that whole process? And how many writers are in the room as you’re going through this big thing on the board?

Isaac: There’s ten writers.

John: That’s a huge show.

Isaac: Yeah, it is. Because it gets small so fast, because once you get into production someone is always on set, someone is always in prep, someone is always writing. And all of a sudden your ten writers, it’s like “Who works here?”

Craig: It’s like three.

Isaac: During preproduction we’re both there because there’s nothing going on. Once it gets up and running it’s usually one of us, because there’s set and editing and content meetings and director meetings and so much going on. And then Dan is very involved in the show, extremely. He’ll come in, you know, he’ll come in and hear every story before it goes off to script. And he’ll give extensive notes. He loves editing. He lives there a lot. So he bounces around. But he’s super involved.

Craig: And then you just kind of together are on this hamster wheel that moves along. I mean, because how many episodes we’re talking?

Isaac: We do 18 a year.

Craig: So it’s like slightly under the traditional massive number of network episodes, but it is still far more than the length, so last week I was talking with Alec Berg on the show. So Alec does Barry, he does Silicon Valley. I think they do eight, maybe ten. Maybe?

Elizabeth: Yeah. We get so jealous when we hear this.

Craig: I know. And it’s like Robert King, because somebody was talking about just how rough it was schedule wise on their show because, I don’t know, the cable network had decided to go from 10 to 12. And he was like, “Oh, did they?”

Isaac: Oh, really, boo-hoo. I know. I love that The Good Wife owned that for their award campaign. They were like we make 22.

Craig: That’s a very Robert thing to say and do. But he’s right. And 18 is a lot. I mean, it’s a lot.

Elizabeth: Yeah. It gets pretty crazy. Because what did we do, we aired 10 in a row this last season. There’s a point where it just becomes you’re just racing against the clock. You’re trying to finish one script and you’re trying to edit something that goes on television in a day.

Craig: It gets a little scary I would think, you know, just that thing of, “Wait, is this good anymore? Because we’re going so fast.” But it’s good that you have each other.

When they talk about – I don’t know if they discuss the economics of all this with you, but it used to be that it was really simple. They would do 22 episodes on network television a season. And the whole point was you did 22 a season. Roughly at the end of the fifth season you had enough to syndicate and everything else after that is – but they don’t really syndicate anything anymore. It’s very hard to rerun shows that are highly serialized like This is Us. So why do you have to do 18 episodes?

Isaac: NBC just wants – that’s the number. They want more. But, yeah, the 100 episode thing is not really relevant anymore. Our show is presold into syndication. Hulu bought it domestically right away. And internationally it’s different places. But the whole model is so different. Because, yeah, like you said, with a show where it’s so serialized, it’s not like you pop on an SVU and it’s contained.

Craig: No, you’ve got to basically binge seasons.

Isaac: So in that sense for the streaming services it’s really valuable because it just keeps you going.

Craig: Yeah. My daughter has definitely started mainlining This is Us. She’s all about it.

John: So while you guys were doing a TV show, you’re very, very busy. So I think you should add features on top of all this. So let’s talk through some feature stuff, because two weeks ago you had Love, Simon come out, which is fantastic. Congratulations. But why do features on top of TV? What’s the motivation?

Elizabeth: I don’t know.

Isaac: We’re crazy.

Elizabeth: No, I think it’s so different to write a movie. You have this space to create and to write. And it just is such different pace. And we really love it that we kind of can’t resist.

Isaac: It’s so nice to write something with an ending also. I mean, network television goes on. You just have to find an engine to keep things going. Just a story that’s two hours and it has a beginning and a middle and an end is so satisfying.

Craig: Yes. That’s why I still like – I just never think about true serialized television because I don’t know what the ending is. I’m just dumb. I need to know how it ends. I don’t know what to do otherwise.

Isaac: Right. I know. I’m so jealous of what you’re doing. I would love to write a miniseries. Like Big Little Lies. Just that whole kind of template is so cool.

Craig: Do it. I mean, do it. You guys can do whatever you want.

Isaac: One day.

John: When you’re not busy. So talk us through Love, Simon. How does Love, Simon come to you? So it’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. This book comes into your orbit. What was the process of getting Love, Simon together?

Elizabeth: Sure. The producers at Temple Hill brought us the book. And we love those guys. We’ve wanted to work with them on something before and it just had never sort of materialized. They brought us the book and we were sort of like, “Oh, we’re really busy in TV. I don’t know if we want to do this.” And then we read it and we loved the book. And we also then learned that there had never been a major studio movie with a gay teen lead like this before.

Craig: I love that they had to learn that. It’s actually a really good sign though.

Isaac: It seemed crazy to me.

Elizabeth: We thought it was nuts.

Craig: When we moved out here if somebody said “You realize there’s never been a gay teen – yeah, no, we realize that. There’s never been gay people onscreen.”

Elizabeth: We were like how could that be true?

Isaac: We didn’t believe it. Yeah.

Elizabeth: But there’s been these amazing smaller movies, but there just hasn’t been this before. And we were just like we want to do that. That feels like that should be done, and we couldn’t resist doing it.

John: All right. So you read the book. You figure out your take on it. It’s a Fox/2000 project. You go in, you say like we’re the ones to do this. How are you stacking this work on top of TV work that you’re doing. Because this was before This is Us, I assume?

Isaac: Yes. We were on Grandfathered at the time. And it worked out nicely. We were a little bit on the show when we started writing it, but what’s so great about network TV is it does move so fast that you have a few months off. You have a hiatus. You’re killing yourself for eight or nine, 10 on This is US, months of the year, and then you have a couple months to do other stuff. So we wrote that on hiatus from Grandfathered before we went onto This is Us.

I mean, we’ve written a bunch of assignments, and this one was so just charmed. Elizabeth Gabler and Erin Siminoff at 2000 got it. They wanted to make the movie right away before anyone was involved. They said we’re going to shoot this in the spring. Let’s get a director and just do it.

Craig: See, it’s one of those movies you can’t stop.

Elizabeth: We’ve never had anything like that.

Craig: And you won’t again, by the way.

Elizabeth: We don’t think so.

Craig: I’m serious. But when it happens, it’s crazy. It’s amazing. And not always, by the way, does it mean that the movie is going to be any good, so in this case like everything lines up. That’s fantastic. Are you now sort of tempted to – well, I don’t want to get you in trouble or anything, but it’s fun writing movies isn’t it?

John: You guys are doing another Temple Hill thing which I don’t know if it’s announced yet.

Isaac: We’re doing John Green’s new book, Turtles All the Way Down with them and 2000, because we just had such a good experience.

Craig: Keeping the band together. I love that.

Isaac: Keeping the band together. And we’re trying to find something else with Greg Berlanti who was phenomenal.

John: That’s great.

Craig: Terrific.

John: Turtles is going to be a really tough adaptation. I don’t know where you guys are at in it, but I read that over the Christmas break. And it’s just delightful writing but it’s so incredibly internal to her experience. And so good luck externalizing some of that stuff.

Isaac: Thank you. We just started.

Elizabeth: Thank you. That is obviously the biggest challenge of it is it’s such a beautiful book, and how do you take a thought disorder essentially and make it cinematic. So in even thinking about should we do this/can we do this that’s obviously the number one challenge. But we’re excited. We have plans that we hope will go well.

Craig: Here’s what you should not do. I’m obsessed with Dune, David Lynch’s Dune. I just have this thing about it. I love it. And one of the things I love about it is it what you shouldn’t do, but it is fascinating and I talk about it every now and then because I just think it’s so bizarre. When people think things in his movie they do their own voiceover while he’s on their face. So they’re having a discussion, like we’re talking, and then suddenly I’ll stop talking and the camera is still on me and then you will hear me go, “He doesn’t understand.” It’s the craziest decision that’s ever been made in movies and I love it so much. Don’t do that.

Elizabeth: OK. We won’t do it that way.

John: I don’t think that’s going to work for you. The other challenge, and so I’m not trying to make your road more difficult ahead of you, but obviously what you’re going to see here is that the book sets up an expectation that it’s going to be a mystery that’s solved in a classic way and it’s not solved in a classic way at all. So you guys are going to have to do some work that you’re not going to get credit for in a weird way in terms of like honoring our expectations of like what’s supposed to be happening in a movie versus what happens in the book, and because the book is so successful you also have to meet everyone’s expectations about this is what happens in the book.

Craig: He’s telling you to quit.

John: I’m not telling you to quit.

Elizabeth: I think it’s the challenge of an adaptation is how do you preserve what’s so beautiful about a book, but also make it your own in a way that strengthens it for the screen but still preserves what’s incredible.

John: Absolutely. And some of the John Green books have been just remarkably good transitions. Neustadter and Weber did a fantastic job. So just do what they did.

Elizabeth: We’re going to try.

Craig: Do you know those guys by the way?

Isaac: Yeah. We do. Weber sent us a very sweet email like, “Welcome to the John Green adaptation club. Good luck. That’s awesome.”

Craig: They are the best guys.

Isaac: They’re the best.

Elizabeth: They’re the best. It’s actually, it’s kind of a funny story. But when Fault in our Stars first came out, Isaac and I read it. And we were like, “Oh my god, we love this so much. We would love to write this so much.” And we kind of knew, but we didn’t have all the information that they were talking to other people. And they were kind of far along. We didn’t know how far along they were. We wrote 20 pages of The Fault in our Stars.

Isaac: In one night.

Elizabeth: Because we were going in to meet with Temple Hill. So we were like what else do we have, we have to try. And we went in and we had our 20 pages. And we meet with Wyck Godfrey and he was like, “Guys, I can’t read that.”

Craig: By the way, good for Wyck.

Isaac: He felt so bad.

Craig: Marty would have absolutely read it.

Elizabeth: Yeah, Marty would have. But he was like heartbroken for us. But he was like, “Guys, we pretty much hired these guys. And even if we hadn’t, it’s illegal for me to read that.”

And we were like, “OK.”

Craig: Yeah. Marty would have had them writing the other 80 pages.

Isaac: I’m like, great, it’s already a quarter done.

Craig: Yeah, keep going.

Elizabeth: But it worked out because obviously those guys did an incredible job, and I think we were so heartbreaking that Temple Hill remembered us and came to us down the line.

Craig: When you have some passion – again, what are people looking for? They’re looking for people that will comfort them. They’re looking for people that they know they can rely on. They’re looking for people with passion. And as it turns out, weirdly enough, I think 90% of the people that are trying to “make it” in this business don’t have that passion, aren’t comforting, aren’t the people you can rely on. If anything they’re here to kind of take.

There’s a lot of people that show up here looking to take, fame and money. And it doesn’t work that way. You guys did it the right way, which is fantastic.

Isaac: Thank you.

John: To circle stuff back around, so 13 years ago you sent through this email. If some kid were to send you that same email right now and write to you—

Craig: Delete.

Elizabeth: No, Isaac answers stuff.

John: What advice would you give him or her about sort of entering the industry now or sort of like what choices to make now because you guys are much closer to this than we were obviously? So, what advice would you give to a young kid applying to one of these film schools or thinking about how to get started in the industry?

Isaac: I actually just got asked this a couple days ago by a kid I used to babysit for who wants to be a writer. What I see so much right now is that people get so caught up with like how do I find an agent, how do I get a job, how do I become an assistant that they don’t leave themselves any time to write. And so they’re great and they wind up in a position where they have all this access and all these people who are rooting for them and would love to read their script and they don’t have the script because all they’ve been doing is networking and getting writers lunch and all that stuff.

So I think you have to find a lifestyle that allows you time to write the thing and also meet the people who will read the thing. Because without both parts of the equation you’re not going to get there.

Craig: So, so true. And I got to tell you, I still don’t really know what networking is. I mean, I know what people describe as networking. I’ve never done it. I don’t know what it is. I didn’t do it when I got out here. I did my job during the day and then I would go home and write.

Isaac: Right. Exactly.

Craig: And other people were networking. But to what end? If you don’t have anything to show?

Isaac: If you don’t have a script no one can help you.

Craig: Congrats on your networking. That’s not a job. Really, your job is going places, having two drinks, and boring people with your talking. Which is, again, a wanting. It’s a need. I’m here to see what you can all do for me.

Isaac: Exactly.

Craig: And I was always just trying to write things to see what I could do for other people. You guys did it right.

John: Elizabeth, any other advice for that writer who is– ?

Elizabeth: Yes. I mean, tacking on to Isaac, I think it’s write as if someone is waiting for it. I mean, one of the things that was so incredible for us about having a partner is we would set deadlines for each other. And of course they didn’t really matter our deadlines, but we took them so seriously. So if I knew I had ten pages due the next day for Isaac I was staying up late and writing those pages. And he was doing the same.

And I think if you work as if someone is waiting for your work, at a certain point someone will be ready to read it and you just want to be ready for that moment.

Craig: Discipline.

John: That’s awesome.

Craig: Discipline.

John: All right. It’s come time for our One Cool Things.

Craig: Love these guys.

John: Craig, start us off with your One Cool Thing.

Craig: OK, my One Cool Thing. So, as everybody knows who listens to this podcast I’m a big crossword puzzle guy. There is a collection of crossword puzzles called Queer Qrosswords. I’m going to read their description. It’s a dynamic pack of 22 LGBTQ+ themed crosswords which you can get just by donating $10 or more to a LGBTQ+ charity like the ones listed below, and then they have things like the Trevor Project, and even broader ones like ACLU, and Immigration Equality, and so on and so forth.

I’m a friend of the LGBTQ+ community, but also really mostly I like crosswords. So, I chucked some dough at the ACLU, I got this pack. I’m about halfway through. I do a couple a day now. But there is – I think I’ve talked about Mark Halpin on this podcast before. He’s one of my favorite crossword constructors. And he does this amazing puzzle omnibus meta puzzle madness thing every Labor Day. He has a puzzle in this that is just spectacular. He’s so good at it. It’s really clever. It’s really smart. He’s very good with the meta stuff.

So if you like crossword puzzles, Queer Qrosswords. And this is the annoying part, but we’ll have a link. But it’s Queer and then Crosswords they spelled with a Q. I don’t like that. But it’s QueerQrosswords.com

Isaac: That’s tough.

Craig: Yeah. I don’t like it. That’s the one mistake they made. Otherwise, great pack. And, you know, it’s a good cause. $10 to help some people out.

John: Very nice. My One Cool Thing is taking Twitter off your phone while you’re on vacation. So I went to Japan for two weeks and I deleted Twitter off my phone and it was incredibly helpful. I find that if I have Twitter on my phone those dead moments I’ll just pull up Twitter and I’ll just become outraged. And it also keeps me too connected with my life here. So just deleting it off my phone, I still had it on my iPad so at night I could check Twitter. But it was great. And so I put a little pin at the top saying “Hey I’m going to be slow responding because I took Twitter off my phone.” And it was really good.

So I put Twitter back on my phone now that I’m back in Los Angeles, but I would just say when you take a vacation take a Twitter vacation as well. And it was a really good thing for me to do for these past two weeks, so I really enjoyed it.

Craig: Smart.

John: Do you guys have One Cool Things for us?

Isaac: Do you have a One Cool Thing?

Elizabeth: I have a similarly technology-based one to John’s. I’ve been doing this thing where I’ve told myself I’m not going to be embarrassed to just sit while I wait for someone to show up. Because usually I’m like – I look weird if I’m not on my phone. So even if I don’t want to be on my phone I’m on my phone. But now I’m like, no, I’m going to sit and that’s fine. Like I used to do before I had a cellphone. And you notice the world. Like you notice interactions that you haven’t noticed in a while.

Craig: You also have to figure out what to do with your arms.

Elizabeth: It’s very unnerving. I mean, I hate it right now. I’m still in the process where I’m trying to break myself out of feeling uncomfortable, but I think it’s good. It’s like we used to have those moments to sort of process things and now we don’t do them as much.

Craig: That’s absolutely true.

John: Isaac, do you have a One Cool Thing?

Isaac: Well, related to that. A lot of people already know about this, but Elizabeth introduced me to it. This app called Headspace. It’s a guided meditation app. It is my favorite thing in the world. Do you guys talk about this on the show a lot?

John: These two weeks in place of Twitter I put Headspace in the same spot.

Craig: So this is me, just so you understand, like This is Us, This is Me. I have it. I have not used it. Every day it sends me a reminder. Get some headspace. Now I’m angry at Headspace.

Isaac: It’s making you anxious.

Craig: It’s actually making me anxious and angry.

Isaac: Oh, it’s so great.

John: Isaac, how long have you been doing Headspace?

Isaac: A couple of years now. Every day at lunch usually for 10 minutes. I lock the office door and try to get Elizabeth to do it with me, or she answers emails while I do it. But it’s so accessible. I’m not a meditation guy. I’m not a yoga guy. It’s like these fun cartoons. You get levels up like in a video game. And this guy Andy who invented it just has the best speaking voice I have ever heard.

John: It’s crazy how good it is.

Isaac: And if you’re ever stressed there’s these three minute packs. You just put it on and you just learn how to control your body. It’s great.

John: Yeah. The best metaphor that he sort of has done in these first two weeks I’ve done it is essentially there’s all these cars going by and you just notice the cars but you don’t try to hold on to the cars as they go by. And it’s really that same way with thoughts. That thought just went by and I don’t have to hold onto it. And it really is good for that because, you know, as writers we tend to be so worried about like that – what if that idea gets away from me? And it’s like, nope, just let it go.

Isaac: It’s the best.

Craig: And you’ve been doing it a while and it hasn’t stopped him from writing or anything like that. And he seems pretty well-adjusted.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Craig: He’s pretty well-adjusted? You’re the nervous one?

Elizabeth: Oh, Isaac? Well, the best is when we both – there are those rare times we’re both doing Headspace in our office, lying on the floor, and praying no one walks into the room.

Isaac: Our assistant doesn’t come in and be like, “Oh my god, where do I work?”

Craig: They’re sleeping again. Yeah.

Elizabeth: We’re pretty creepy.

John: Very cool. Guys, thank you so much for coming.

Isaac: Thanks for having us. This was great.

Elizabeth: Thank you so much.

John: Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Travis Newton. If you have an outro you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the one Isaac asked.

For short questions, we’re on Twitter. Craig is @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust. Are you guys on Twitter? Do you want people to tweet at you?

Isaac: @iaptaker.

Elizabeth: Oh yes. I’m @bergernight.

John: Fantastic.

Craig: She’s so proud and not proud.

Isaac: That’s also the name of her company.

Elizabeth: The fact that I have to spell both words doesn’t exactly make it roll off the tongue.

Craig: You miscalculated.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Craig: Berger Night.

John: You can find us spelled quite simply on Apple Podcasts for Scriptnotes. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there leave us a comment. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. They go up about four days after the episode airs.

All the back episodes are at Scriptnotes.net. If you want to see things that Isaac and Elizabeth have made, you should watch This is Us, which you guys are about to go back into the room to start writing.

Isaac: Yeah. We’ll be back on September on NBC.

Craig: Yeah, get to work. My daughter demands it.

John: Love, Simon is in theaters right now. What else should they look for you having done?

Isaac: That’s pretty much all we have out this year.

Elizabeth: That’s it for now.

Isaac: Hopefully Turtles All the Way Down will be out in theaters in a couple years.

Craig: Nice.

John: Guys, thank you so much. Bye.

Elizabeth: Thank you.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Changing the Defaults

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 08:03

John sits down with screenwriter Christina Hodson to discuss race, gender, and representation in Hollywood, and how screenwriters can help correct the status quo with the one thing they can control: the words on the page.

We tackle the nuances of designating race for open-ethnicity characters, the assumption of whiteness, the pros and cons of feature writers rooms and the promise of inclusion riders.

We also answer a listener question about why some movies are timeless and some feel dated as soon as they premiere.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 344: Comedy Geometry — Transcript

Wed, 04/11/2018 - 16:40

The original post for this episode can be found here.

Craig Mazin: Hi this is Craig. Today on this podcast there is one F-bomb that gets dropped, so if you do have some small kids around you in the car or at home just be aware that that’s going to happen at some point. You might want to put the ear muffs on.

Hello and welcome. My name is Craig Mazin and this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

John August will not be with us today. He is in Japan doing stuff. Later on in this episode we will have a “What is John doing in Japan?” lightning round because I honestly don’t know. But I have some guesses.

I will be your sole podcast host, but not alone as we bring back one of our favorite guests, or at least one of mine. I don’t really know what John thinks about him. But I love him. The writing master of not one but two – count ‘em two – hit comedies on HBO. Mr. Alec Berg. But first, say nothing Alec Berg. Say nothing. There’s some follow up.

We did an episode recently, you know what, go ahead. Say a little something, because you can join in on this part.

Alec Berg: Hello. Hello. Can anyone hear me?

Craig: You can see why he’s so, so successful. A couple of weeks ago we did a show about money. Money stuff that writers have to deal with. And got into some nitty gritty things about payroll and corporations. It was a laugh-a-minute, Alec. We have a follow up from Anonymous who writes the following.

“I work for an entertainment payroll company.” You know this is going to be good, right? You’re already excited?

Alec: My interest is piqued.

Craig: “So I finally have a correction for Craig. Loan out corporations generally can’t collect unemployment.” All right, so I had this whole thing. All right, so you get paid, you work at Starbucks, you get a paid a wage. And they take out unemployment insurance. It’s UI. It’s on your paystub. And then when you lose your job, if you should, then you can file for unemployment and you start to collect that money back. That’s how that works.

Alec: Yeah.

Craig: I believed that when we pay ourselves from our corporation that a corporation does the same thing on our behalf. And then we could reclaim that money back if we stopped working.

Alec: And?

Craig: This guy basically says, “Shut up, idiot.” I’m not going to read his whole–

Alec: That’s a terse summary.

Craig: The whole email is much, much nicer than what I just said. But basically what he said is dumb-dumb you’re working for your “company” and you’re still working for them. You don’t stop working for them because they’re paying you a regular salary. So therefore it’s not really happening – you would have to basically fold your company for that to work that way.

He’s right. I’m wrong. Thank you, Anonymous.

We also have another question, Jeff from Seattle following up on the money topic. “I enjoyed the discussion in Episode 342.” That’s how many–

Alec: What?

Craig: I know. I know. Oh, I should say this is Episode 344. John usually handles that sort of thing. “I enjoyed the discussion in Episode 342 where you touched on the business side of screenwriting including agents, managers, lawyers, corporations, federal taxes, state taxes, etc. At the end of the day, how much is left? Let’s say you sell a screenplay for $100,000 or $1 million. After everyone is paid how much is left? Can you walk us through the math?”

Alec, do you want to take a shot at that? Let’s say you’ve been paid $1 million.

Alec: Yeah, I think the last time I did the math my take-home is about $0.47 on the dollar.

Craig: That’s not bad actually.

Alec: Well, I don’t pay taxes to the government. They’re not listening to this though, right?

Craig: You know who is? This guy from the payroll service. Anonymous is certainly going to report you. So you get paid $1 million. Let’s take off $100 for your agent. If you have a manager, I think a lot of writers do.

Alec: I do not. I have a lawyer. That’s 5%.

Craig: That’s 5%. And I’m going to presume that there is a manager in the mix because I think you and I are actually weirdly the exceptions now. So, we’re going to take off $250,000 of your million right there. Now you’re down to $750,000. And of that $750,000, what we’re saying is between taxes, maybe half of it goes away?

Alec: Pretty close.

Craig: Pretty close. At that point what you’re talking about is $375,000. $0.37 on the dollar.

Alec: Well, but that’s the manager. That’s the difference.

Craig: That’s the difference. Exactly. So, I think Jeff from Seattle what you’re looking at is somewhere between let’s call it $0.35 to $0.50 on the dollar, which is a bit sobering. And it’s particularly sobering – and this is a point we’ve made on behalf of the WGA to the companies – when you do sell your screenplay for $100,000, because now you’re talking about $37,000 for the year maybe.

Alec: Yeah.

Craig: Your big dream of being a huge, wealthy Hollywood screenwriter has suddenly been a bit impinged.

Alec: And that’s if you work as a solo act. And I spent the vast majority of my career working with sometimes one and sometimes two other partners. So I was taking home $0.47 on one-third of a check.

Craig: Right. You were taking home $0.47 on a one-third dollar.

Alec: Yeah.

Craig: So my first job, I had a writing partner, and I think we got paid $110,000. That was our deal. So I got $55,000, which meant really at the end of the day $20-something thousand dollars.

Alec: $27,000. Yeah.

Craig: You know, which was less than I was making at my other job. So, it’s a bit sobering, Jeff. And it kind of works out where to make – well, I guess to have a comfortable living as a screenwriter you need to do more than one thing a year. You need to sell more than one thing a year or you need to get the amount that you get paid up quite a bit.

Anyone who is out there thinking that this is a big lottery, well I guess it kind of is a lottery in that you’re probably not going to win. Well, and this has been Scriptnotes Podcast. OK.

Alec: The shortest and least satisfying Scriptnotes Podcast of all time.

Craig: Stop doing this job.

Today’s featured guest is the mighty Alec Berg. In his past collaborations with aforementioned partners, Dave Mandel and Jeff Schaffer, Alec wrote for and then ran Seinfeld. Lame. And he also wrote for and then ran Curb Your Enthusiasm. Not at all funny. And also wrote movies such Euro Trip and Bruno and the Dictator. Well, now this joke is getting a little awkward, isn’t it? I’m not going to continue the rub.

Alec: It’s no less true.

Craig: But lately, lately, he has been most prominent as the showrunner and head writer along with Mike Judge of Silicon Valley on HBO. And now as of literally this week or this past weekend–

Alec: Yep.

Craig: A new show, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say a new hit show that he is running with Bill Hader. Barry. So, yet another hit from the ha-ha money machine known as Alec whatever-your-middle-name-is Berg. Alec, welcome back to the show.

Alec: Well thank you. It’s lovely to be here. And by here I mean my home where we are right now.

Craig: It’s kind of weird right? Like you have to feed me. You have to give me a green room. You have to take care of me.

Alec: It’s lovely for you to be here.

Craig: I think it’s fantastic. So, let’s talk about Barry. I know that you’ve been doing a lot of this – this is what happens when you have a show come out. You have to do a lot of this chitchat.

Alec: It will be remarkable how bad I am at it still, having done–

Craig: It already is quite remarkable. I think everybody at home has noted that. Well, here’s what I want to know. You have a new creative partner in Bill Hader. How exactly is it that you came to find another creative partner and give birth to another project and then actually make it and produce it and I think probably direct a little bit of it?

Alec: Yeah. I directed the last two episodes.

Craig: You did all of that while you were running another television show. How did that happen?

Alec: Mistakes were made. Poor decisions were made.

Craig: Run it down for us.

Alec: I mean, the only way that I could really do it is when we do Silicon Valley and now Barry we don’t do that many episodes. You know, when you do a network show it’s 22 or 24 episodes a year. Silicon Valley’s order has always been 10. Well, not always. The first season we did eight. And actually this season we did eight. Part of the reason we’re doing eight is because of the load that Barry put on me that doing 10 was just—

Craig: Too much.

Alec: Too much. So we did eight Barrys this year and eight Silicon Valleys.

Craig: But even then the comparison isn’t quite perfect because you’re talking about 16 episodes of television, but you are serving so much more of a role on those 16 than you would say when you were doing Seinfeld. You had, you know, I would imagine a whole lot more writers.

Alec: Well, no, we have a staff on Silicon Valley and we have a staff on Barry.

Craig: So you are kind of lazy in a sense?

Alec: Yeah, no, I smiled and waved at them.

Craig: Why are you complaining? I’m not quite sure then.

Alec: Because I complain. That’s what I do.

Craig: Oh, OK.

Alec: No, it was – both had to be on the same lot because I was going back and forth. And so they were both on the Sony lot and I bought a bike. And I would go – we were writing both shows at the same time, so from 8am to like 1 or 2 I would work on one show.

Craig: Wow.

Alec: And then I would get on my bike or eat my lunch while I walked from one office to the other. And then I would work at the other office from 1 or 2 until 9 or 10 at night.

Craig: Was it just the bike ride and the lunch walk that gave you the opportunity to essentially reset your brain?

Alec: Yeah, I mean, oddly doing two different shows, they’re slightly different muscles and the tones are slightly different. So, it’s not – like if I had been doing double the work on one of those shows in a weird way it would have been more arduous than doing the same amount of work but splitting it between two shows, if that makes sense.

Craig: It does. But you still – the two shows have more of tonal overlap than for instance I’m able to say, “OK, I’m going to work on this, like Chernobyl, so there’s episodes about period piece/historical drama and then in the evening I’m spending a week on someone’s comedy and so it’s just two totally” – this is not totally different. Did you ever kind of have these moments where Barry popped up in your mind in a Silicon Valley episode?

Alec: There were definitely moments where — it was mostly like, “Wait, have we done that? We had a line about this. Wait, was that this show or the other show?”

Craig: Oh god.

Alec: It’s mostly like back catalog stuff where it’s just like wait a minute, did we already do something like this? Or was that the other thing?

Craig: Did you have two writing staffs that were sort of each jealous of your time or–?

Alec: You know, I have a running joke with the Silicon Valley cast that they’re wishing me success, but not that much success on Barry. I got a lovely call the other day from Zach Woods, you know, who said like, “Look, as much as I want to hate Barry, I watched it and I enjoyed it.”

Craig: I think that’s actually nice. I would be a little more concerned if they were like, “Go Barry! Take up all of your time.”

Alec: Yeah, you know, “If you don’t want to come back that’s fine.”

Craig: “Geez, we hear the folks at Barry could really use you.”

Alec: “Maybe you should do one show. Not this one.”

Craig: Right. Yeah. “If you’re here for us, that’s—“

Alec: But I also, you know, I have really good partners on both shows. You know, Bill Hader is an immensely capable and creatively prolific guy. And Mike Judge is not a slouch. So, if it were just me on both, sure, that would be trouble.

Craig: It would be trouble.

Alec: But I have a lot of – and I have a good writing staff on each show. And, you know, Silicon Valley has been on for five years so everybody knows what’s going on. And the production people are great and the crew is great.

Craig: So it works?

Alec: Yeah. So, you know.

Craig: No complaints.

Alec: What do I have to complain about?

Craig: Well, quite a bit.

Alec: Yeah.

Craig: I want to talk a little bit about your work ethic because we are sort of joking about what do you have to complain about, but I really do believe that most people, including professional writers who even have a lot of experience, I think most people would have crumbled under the burden that you carried. You have an ability to carry a tremendous burden. And this is a bit of a philosophical question that I think will be applicable to everybody listening, not just people that have two shows on HBO, because obviously there are many people like that. There’s you…

Alec: Um…

Craig: Yeah.

Alec: There’s me. Yeah.

Craig: All right. So this has general application for all of the writers listening. There’s a balance that has to happen in your mind between work ethic and then kind of a just a need for rest to be creative. And I’m just kind of curious how you negotiate the difference in your mind between a work ethic, proper work ethic, versus a desire to please or fulfill what you have been told to do. And on the flip side how do you negotiate in your mind whether or not it is that you need a recharge and a rest for your own creativity or you’re just being a bit lazy that day. Can you even parse those out?

Alec: Yeah, you know what I’ve gotten much better at is there are days where it’s like, “OK, I have to write this episode or these six scenes.” And I sit down to start writing and immediately I just know my brain is not there. And it’s not going to happen. And what I will end up doing is spending four hours sitting at a computer farting around and not getting anything done. And at the end of four hours I will have nothing to show for it except that I spent four hours that I could have spent resting or thinking about something else.

So, that’s one sort of thing that I’ve gotten much better at is forgiving myself those moments where it’s like “It’s not happening right now. You know, for the next few hours my brain is garbage and I need to just listen to that and take a step away.” That said, you know, that is a luxury to be able to do that because there are a lot of times where it’s, like, I don’t have that time. Like it’s like whether my brain is there or not I need to be productive.

Craig: I actually think those are very dangerous times because what I have found when I don’t have it, my brain isn’t there, and I need a rest, I need a break, and then someone says, “Uh, yeah, too bad. You can’t have one.” The dangerous thing is then I say, “OK,” and I do it.

Alec: Yeah.

Craig: And the lesson you learn from that is you can actually override temporarily at least. It’s like riding your car, you’re on fumes, or you’re riding on a donut, not a real tire. It’ll work for a while. But then it’s not a rest that’s coming, it’s just a collapse.

Alec: Yeah. I’ve gotten very close. Season two of Silicon Valley, Mike Judge and I directed all 10 episodes the two of us. So, he did five and I did five. And the combination of doing all of the writing and directing half of them, or supervising the writing and directing, that’s the closest I’ve come to – there were a couple of days where like I was walking to my car and I got so dizzy. I literally had to sit down. And I started laughing because it was just absurd. I was just like I’m honestly about to collapse.

Craig: This is the thing I don’t think people quite get. Mostly because their experience of writing is either the experience of watching a finished product, which has been designed to appear effortless. Massive amounts of work have gone into making it look like it took no work at all.

Alec: Ideally.

Craig: Ideally, correct.

Alec: If it works right, it seems like it–

Craig: It just squirted out of the sky like this.

Alec: It just emerged out of whole cloth.

Craig: Or if they’re writing something, they’re writing it on their own terms, in their time, in their own way, without any budgetary issues, meetings, actors calling and grousing, not that you’ve ever had to deal with anything like that.

Alec: No. Never.

Craig: The remarkable quantity of work at times is overwhelming.

Alec: Yeah.

Craig: And I wonder sometimes how many people we’ve actually lost that would have done really, really good work if not for the fact that this business runs in a crucible-like fashion.

Alec: Yeah. And that’s kind of the complaint that most of the people who do what I do for a living that I talk to are like, “God, I wish there was a way to do it that was financially viable where you could just do it at three-quarters of that pace.

Craig: Exactly. Even looking at the shooting day. I mean, the hours that go on here. Interestingly, I was talking with – you know, we’re about to start shooting and so we’ve been having–

Alec: Congratulations on that, by the way.

Craig: Well, thank you very much. And we’ve been having a lot of sort of production-y meetings, organizational meetings now because we’re getting so close. And this is where they do – there are fascinating differences between the European model, because this is an entirely European production, and the US model. And one of them, at one point we were talking about a little bit of a scheduling issue. And, well, we can’t put that on this day because we have this on this day. So we’ve got a problem. And I and the director, we both said, “Well, maybe we just go long that day.” And they said, “Oh, no, no, we don’t do that.”

They don’t do it.

Alec: Really?

Craig: They don’t do it.

Alec: Wow.

Craig: It’s a 12-hour day and then you go home.

Alec: Huh.

Craig: And in the United States, I mean, yes, I’m sure there are occasionally bits of overtime, but it’s never planned that way.

Alec: No, but as much as you would like it to be a complicated and like, “Oh, we don’t do that,” it just becomes about money, right?

Craig: Right.

Alec: It’s just like, no, whatever you can end up doing – and this is why I think crews get abused, right?

Craig: Yes. Yes.

Alec: Because it’s just, “Oh, we need to do it and it’s money, so we’ll work a 19-hour day. And we’ll just pay them more.”

Craig: That’s right. And that’s the danger.

Alec: And knowing that you can do that I think leads to a lot of abuse where it’s like just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Craig: Precisely. And we have an epidemic in the United States of fatigue on sets. I don’t really know how anybody is doing any good work at that point anyway. It’s a bit tragic. So I’ve been sort of fascinated by that aspect, but I do think that there is a certain element of self-care that we ignore as writers because we’re actually not hauling cable, you know, or setting up flags, or driving a truck. We’re just sitting, right? Seems like–

Alec: Yeah, how hard could that be?

Craig: Turns out pretty f-ing hard.

Alec: Yeah. But the flip side of it I guess, and this is where I keep getting deeper into more and more work is like on the one hand, yeah, it’s hard, but on the other hand it’s like, you know, if people want to hire me I still do struggle a little bit with that thing of like but there’s an opportunity here and this could be good. And I want to work with that person. And I don’t want this to go away. You know, and as we all know nobody ever calls you in this business and says like, “OK, you’re done.”

Craig: Ever.

Alec: Like there’s no pink slips. You’re the last person to know that your career is over.

Craig: Yeah. When we go away we go away the way squirrels go away. Where do they go to die?

Alec: No idea.

Craig: Small pile leaves. Nestle under there. And you’re gone.

Alec: Where did that squirrel go with my career?

Craig: That’s basically right. One day you wake up and it’s all gone.

Alec: A squirrel has buried your career under an oak tree.

Craig: Well, that dilemma of when to say no versus a fear of not saying yes, that is a topic for another day, but it’s a good one we should do.

Alec: But it’s also – it sounds like such a whiney high class problem to have. “Oh no, I have too much work.”

Craig: Yes and no. Because the truth is it’s actually a huge problem I think when you’re starting out. Because when you’re starting out you’re desperate to do work, right? You’re desperate to start your career, to make money. And someone is going to come to you and say, “Do this absolute career-killing pile of crap.”

Alec: Yeah.

Craig: And you at that point have a choice to make. Actually more likely that is where you’re going to have the hardest of those choices I would imagine at the very beginning.

Alec: Yeah. But that also you’re factoring the quality of the offer. Right? I’m talking about just like at a certain point it’s just like you can do what you want to do, right?

Craig: Yes.

Alec: I find myself fortunately through an enormous series of good breaks to be in a position where–

Craig: Oh, is that what it was? Good breaks?

Alec: I’ve stood next to a lot of very talented people. But, you know, luckily enough I’m at a point where the issue I have is like, “OK, well what do you want to do?” Look at Barry. That really was, the whole thing was Bill and I sat down and it’s like, oh, “We’re fans of each other and we want to do something together. What do we want to do?”

Craig: And it just happened.

Alec: And it’s not because I’m in a contract year. And it’s not because I’m a corporate shill. I will tell you HBO is the best in the business, as you know. You’re working with them as well.

Craig: I am. They have been wonderful to me.

Alec: I’ve had nothing but great interactions with them and they genuinely believe in the quality of the product and they trust you and they leave you alone.

Craig: It’s actually quite – like I don’t quite believe it.

Alec: No. No, I find myself wondering what the hell is wrong with them. When are they going to wise up?

Craig: This is obviously a trap.

Alec: Yeah.

Craig: But, well. That’s what working for the Weinsteins did to me. I’m now like, it doesn’t matter who I meet. I’m just like, “Where and when does the knife go in?”

Alec: Yeah. It’s obviously behind me somewhere.

Craig: Well speaking of knives going in, and this is where – John likes to do things like that, these segues.

Alec: Oh.

Craig: And I make fun of him.

Alec: Speaking of ham-fisted segues.

Craig: Segue Man. Knives going in. So, I want to talk a little bit about what your experience is now as somebody who is writing not one but two shows that are widely seen that are actually huge – they’re occupying spaces in pop culture. Barry is already doing it. I see it happening. And then there’s that interesting other side of that sword. When you occupy a space in pop culture suddenly people have quite a bit to say to you. You went through some storm clouds over Silicon Valley and gender representation.

Alec: Sure.

Craig: And then there was the departure of TJ Miller which was fascinating to watch from the outside.

Alec: Oh was it?

Craig: Probably not so much fun from the inside. [laughs] Just like your show, incredibly enjoyable for me and costing nothing. And for you–

Alec: Yeah. It’s lovely to parachute in and watch for half an hour, isn’t it?

Craig: For you you’re fainting and laughing. How have you come to deal with all of that? Do you have any advice, strategies, or thoughts on how we as writers should be dealing with pop culture as we occupy it and it starts to occupy us?

Alec: I just think you have to – all of that commentary – Bill Hader is friends with the writer George Saunders. And Bill was saying that he talked to George Saunders about critiques and reviews. And George Saunders said something I thought was really interesting which is the vast majority of all criticism is really about the person writing it, not about you or what your thing is.

You know, so I think you just have to take that all with a grain of salt. And it’s like if somebody is angry about something that’s going on on something you’re writing it has as much to do with what they’re going through in their life as it does what you’ve rendered.

Craig: I think that there’s truth to that.

Alec: And you just have to take that all with a grain of salt. And you just have to believe in what you’re doing, and also every once and a while somebody has something interesting to say and you go, “Oh, that’s actually an interesting point. I hadn’t thought about that.” But this idea of trying to write your way out of criticism is – it’s folly. Like if you don’t believe in it.

Craig: What about this other thing that is less I guess criticism and more of a kind of wave of feedback. Twitter in particular has a way of – well, it’s like the wave in a stadium. 12 people can start it.

Alec: Yeah.

Craig: But within 10 minutes you have 50,000 people moving in unison, explaining to you that you’re terrible. Right?

Alec: Yeah.

Craig: So it’s like a wave of awfulness. And I don’t think you’ve experienced that.

Alec: But that’s fundamentally different than my everyday life, so.

Craig: Right. That’s sort of what it’s like when you wake up.

Alec: Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, I guess I’m used to writing that way.

Craig: Well, I also think that – I suspect that, given the way those things work, I believe that no matter what you do, if you were caught tomorrow cutting puppies up with scissors it would obviously be a big news story and people would be very angry at you. Twitter would just be up in arms with scissor emojis and puppies and how could you and you’re the worst person in the world.

And I do believe on that day if you got on a plane and went to Fiji and just waited two weeks when you got back no one would be talking about it anymore because something else would have happened.

Alec: Yeah.

Craig: I think about two weeks. And then you’re kind of out of the woods on it.

Alec: Yeah, I mean, obviously depending on the degree of – I feel like cutting puppies up with scissors may be–

Craig: I don’t know. I actually think–

Alec: Maybe three weeks? Maybe a month?

Craig: The problem is you’d think that. But on Day 13 someone else does something insane. Or people just get bored. They just get bored.

Alec: Well, I do think, I mean, that’s the most interesting thing. To me there is this culture now of outrage as a recreational activity, right? Where people are just like, “Oh, what are you going to do for the next hour? You could watch TV or you could just go on the Internet and rage about things. Or I could go outside and shoot some hoops.” You know what I mean? It’s like one thing or another–

Craig: It is very satisfying. I understand it in the sense that maybe because I actually am not very good with being part of a group. I’ve never felt comfortable sort of sharing my identity with a group. So I get little snacks, like little tastes of it if I’m online. And everybody is teeing off on, well, let’s just say Ted Cruz just for the funsies of it.

Alec: Just for example.

Craig: It’s nice to be part of a group all of a sudden. Like, I’m so used to being the one in the corner going, “Wait everyone. Stop. Let’s think about this. You shouldn’t all just necessarily…”

Alec: Yeah, sure, it’s fine. But the fundamental problem with that is that as the firehose pans from left to right.

Craig: Ah yes.

Alec: Slowly. Eventually it pans back to you and you get blasted.

Craig: Voila. Yes.

Alec: You know what I mean?

Craig: Live by the mob, die by the mob. I completely agree with you. I want to ask you one final question, but it’s about what I call the Bergian machine.

Alec: Dear god.

Craig: Yes, the Bergian machine is a comedy engine by which small decisions in the beginning of a story loom larger and larger as the narrative unfolds and eventually emerge surprisingly in the final motions of a story to either save or completely upend our character. This is the Bergian machine. I have noticed this throughout all of your work, even as tones change and plots change and things change. Maybe it’s at its strongest in Seinfeld. But it is still there in Silicon Valley. And maybe to a lesser extent in Barry, but still there in Barry. I see it.

And it occurs to me that there’s a kind of life philosophy that’s being applied by this a little bit. Because I think funny things are funny for a reason. They reflect our reality. And it’s the idea that the more we try and control the world around us the more likely we are to sow chaos and undo ourselves. And I’m kind of curious like where you kind of instinctively get your hooks into the Bergian machine.

Alec: Well, first of all, please stop using that name.

Craig: Well, it’s Bergian. And it’s a machine. I’m talking about the Bergian machine now.

Alec: I understand. No. You’ve said that already.

Craig: So let’s discuss that.

Alec: I guess to me it’s just I learned – really I learned to write at Seinfeld. At that was my graduate school of comedy writing. And so much of what I do to this day is, you know, entirely due to what Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld taught me about, you know, that sometimes the satisfying connection between two stories is better than a satisfying beat. You know, if you’re kind of following one thread and it’s like this happens and because of that this happens, and then because of that this happens. But something coming from another story and intersecting one story. The fact that you’re getting this sort of two-for-one where it’s like a beat in two different stories but it’s one beat is sometimes the most satisfying beat of the story. And so – and that I learned entirely from Larry. Where the stories intersect. And when you’re outlining stuff and it’s like, you know, “Oh, our lead character is dating a guy and another one of our characters is buying a bike from a guy.” And you go, wait a minute, what if that’s the same guy? And now it’s like, oh, not only does the story have an economy and efficiency to it, but now you’ve got two of your main characters that have opinions about each other. And you’re always trying to get characters – you know, it’s all about conflict. So you’re always trying to get characters that have opposite opinions of something. And, oh, she likes this guy, but he hates this guy. So now he wants her to do something about this guy.

You know, and now you’ve got all this energy between your characters.

Craig: So, in short, there is nothing fancy about the Bergian machine. It’s actually quite practical.

Alec: Honestly, we called it Comedy Geometry. You know this from writing. I feel like there’s two fundamentally different types of writing when you’re outlining. One is inspiration where it’s just we need a great reason for this guy to go from here to there. Or a great way that she learns that her father is this guy. And that’s just sometimes you work for days and you don’t have it. And then you get in the car and as soon as you stop thinking about it you go, “Oh my god, this is it.”

Craig: You get it. Right.

Alec: Or sometimes you just have a weird thought of like an image in your head of like, oh, this is really funny. I just have this visual image of this thing. And then you go, oh wait, that could be that thing.

Craig: Right.

Alec: And that’s the inspiration part of it. But the honest answer is the vast majority of what we do in series TV is the other type of writing and that’s just elbow grease.

Craig: It’s math.

Alec: And it’s just working it, and working it, and working it. And what about this, what about this, what about this, what about this. And Bill Hader and I sort of liken it to two idiots standing at a piano going, “What about this note?” Ding. Nope. “What about this one?” Ding. No? “What about this one?” No. “Wait, wait, hold on, hit that one again.” Ding. Ding. Wait, that’s it.

Craig: Really, see, in a sense, let’s come full circle here, because it really does come back to work ethic in a sense. There is the talent part to me is knowing that when you do hit the right note that it’s the right note. But I think people without talent sometimes land on these things and they don’t know it.

Alec: Yeah. And, by the way, I will say that people always say, “Oh, you’ve been doing this for a while. You must have figured out how to do it. You must have a system. Must have gotten easier.” No. It’s not any easier. In fact, it’s harder because, one, I’ve done way more stories.

Craig: Right.

Alec: Right? So I have 25 years’ worth of stories I’ve done so that when somebody pitches me something and says, “What about this?” I go, oh yeah, season two. When I was at Seinfeld 20 years ago we did this thing with George so we can’t do that.

And the other thing that makes it harder is I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten any better at coming up with good material. But I’m much, much better at telling you whether something is good or not.

Craig: Well, that’s really important.

Alec: Whereas it used to take me, you know, whatever. I’d have to come up with five ideas before I’m like, oh, that’s a great one. Now it’s like it’s 50 or 60.

Craig: The experience of watching material go from page to screen is vital for you to start to hone that metric. You can’t – I don’t think until you’ve actually gone through production, a lot of production, you really can’t fine tune your sense of whether something is or is not a good idea. Because you actually haven’t seen all of it yet.

Alec: That’s right. And a lot of times people will be very excited about something we’re working on and I’m like, you know what, I’ve died on that hill.

Craig: Yeah.

Alec: I’ve died on that hill twice.

Craig: Exactly. I can assure you. And in fact I was you telling another me why I was wrong and that me tried to keep me from the hill.

Alec: Yeah. That other me warned me.

Craig: Right.

Alec: I didn’t listen.

Craig: I didn’t listen. And that’s why I only have eight fingers. No, it’s absolutely true. Ted Elliott once said that screenwriting/television writing is one of the few jobs where people can get paid quite a bit to only do half of the job. Because they never get to that second half. And there are people that do – most of the things that they’ve done they’ve been paid for have not been made.

Alec: Yeah.

Craig: And that’s, well, I think less and less now with the rise of television.

Alec: I will say that’s the other thing that I love about TV is that in my years in the movie business the most frustrating thing, as you know, is you write a lot of things and then for whatever reason it’s like movies have this energy about them and they either come together and the wind is blowing in the right direction and for whatever reason they happen. And if they don’t happen in a brief amount of time then they just go into this purgatory. And it’s like, “Oh, well that idea has been kind of sitting around for a while, so–“

Craig: Yeah. It’s boring to us. Therefore it’s boring. Right.

Alec: Right and they just go away. Whereas TV, the great thing about it is it’s just about making the trains run week in and week out. And the great thing is when you make a deal to do a TV show when you get to a point where it’s on the air it’s like, “Oh, we’re picking you up. You’re making eight of these or 10 of these. And this is when you start shooting. And this is when they air.”

Craig: That’s right. It’s fascinating.

Alec: As opposed to when you’re pitching a movie where it’s like I have an idea and I want to get it made. This is the opposite. It’s like here’s when we’re putting 30 minutes of something on the air.

Craig: Right. Fill it.

Alec: Go figure out what the hell that is. But you’re backing into delivery, right? So it’s like–

Craig: Well, we do that in movies now, too. Unfortunately there are – some of the bigger movies – the ones that weirdly cost the most money, we are backing into those. It’s terrifying. In part because, well, you get one episode don’t you? I mean, that’s the issue with movies. You get one.

Alec: I never got those jobs when I was–

Craig: Well–

Alec: I don’t know that feeling.

Craig: It’s not a good feeling.

Alec: But there is something nice. Like it’s part of what I love about doing TV is that, I mean, look, I never thought of myself as an artist. I feel like I’m a craftsman. And there’s art in that, you know, when you make a chair or a table. There’s a tremendous amount of art in there, or there can be. But it also has to serve a function, like a chair has to support the weight of a human sitting on it.

Craig: I have to say every time I hear someone, a writer, say I consider myself more of a craftsman than an artist I think to myself that’s a real artist. And every time I hear someone say I’m more of an artist than a craftsman I think, nah, you’re a craftsman. [laughs] It really – like to me there is that aspect of kind of keeping yourself humble and your fingers on the keyboard and doing the work is necessary to actually be the thing that pretentious people pretend to be.

Alec: I suppose. I don’t know. I mean, I feel–

Craig: There you go again.

Alec: I’m hesitant to look inward–

Craig: Because you are a genius.

Alec: But, look, I make clocks. And sometimes you go “Oh my god this gear fits perfectly in that gear. That’s awesome.” And sometimes it’s like, “Dammit, I have this gear that’s a really cool shape. But I don’t know where to put it.”

Craig: That’s the worst feeling.

Alec: But ultimately like if the thing doesn’t keep time, doesn’t matter how much art is in it.

Craig: Well, absolutely.

Alec: You know, your watch is six minutes fast and it stinks.

Craig: But this is what comedy – comedy is a cruel task master because unlike drama comedy has accountability built in. When you say it doesn’t work meaning they’re not laughing at it.

Alec: Yeah, although, I will say – and I think Barry is I hope a prime example of that, your mileage may vary once you see it – that area is starting to get grey where it’s like, you know, I feel like – Barry I feel like is neither a drama nor a comedy. Like in the best possible way. And a lot of the reaction we’ve gotten to it, which thrills me, is people go, “What? What is this?” Which is awesome.

Craig: Well, it’s been received beautifully and I’ve seen quite a few of the episodes. I’m ahead of people just because I know you and it’s great. It’s fantastic. And I think actually the tone of Barry is – well, it’s the kind of tone where you are aware in a great way what the arrangement is between yourself and the show. The show is not saying to you, “Right, huh, yeah, funny?” It’s not doing that.

Alec: No.

Craig: It will sneak up on you and make you laugh really, really hard when it wants to. And there are a couple of characters that are – you know, they’re there more for laughs than others. Although I always think that those are the ones that are probably going to end up making me cry. But there is that arrangement. And so then really what’s fascinating to me is your understanding of whether or not the clock is working is your understanding of it. You basically are saying this tells time. I know it. Here it is everybody. And you’re not waiting to – like in movies, god, I mean, you have the experience of sitting in the test screening and finding out if you’re funny or not.

Alec: Yeah. Yeah. And there’s nothing sweatier than a movie or a TV show that’s like “Is this work?” Do you know what I mean? As opposed to, you know, I mean the comics who always kill are the ones who are like – there’s a confidence, right? I mean, it is just like I’m going to do this.

Craig: I don’t care if you–

Alec: If you don’t get it–

Craig: It’s your problem.

Alec: Then fuck you.

Craig: Right. Exactly.

Alec: And people go, whoa, what’s this guy got? I better figure out what this is as opposed to like somebody, “What about this? Do you like this?”

Craig: Precisely. Well, it’s begging. Begging is just–

Alec: It’s unseemly.

Craig: It’s pathetic. It is unseemly and pathetic. Shall we answer some listener questions?

Alec: Oh please.

Craig: All right. Emily in Los Angeles writes, “Somebody recently pointed out to me that the American film industry does not make tragedies. Their opinion is based on the theater terms for comedy and tragedy. Tragedy goes from order to chaos, versus comedy which goes from chaos to order. Most movies seem to tie up their stories with a pretty pink bow and don’t explore the cathartic value of tragedy. What are your thoughts and opinions on this idea?”

Alec Berg, Harvard graduate, what are your opinions on this?

Alec: Do I get one pass? Because I don’t even understand – my brain hurts. See, this is one of these things where I do feel like this is like cutting open the bird’s throat to see how it sings.

Craig: Let’s skip that question. It might not be – do I want to know this?

Alec: When I was at Seinfeld we got somebody’s graduate thesis on the storytelling of Seinfeld. And it was like this 100 and something page thing. And we used to joke when people would come in to like pitch ideas we’d be like, “Hold on, let me see here. Go away. Read this. This is really all you need to know.”

Craig: Exactly.

Alec: “And if you read this and really internalize it.”

Craig: But if you had read it, it probably would have ended the show.

Alec: Well, no, because it was just utter – it was like there are 11 main archetypical stories on Seinfeld. There’s the this story, and the that. And it’s like, what? No there aren’t.

Craig: I think Emily’s question is – there’s an interesting thing about American – I’ve been having this question a lot with Johan Renck, our Swedish director, on Chernobyl. Every now and then he’ll say, “You know, this one thing here, it’s a little American.” And I’ll say, “You mean successful?” [laughs]

Alec: [laughs]

Craig: And we go back and forth about this all the time. I’m like, “I know, this moment here where we’re given information we need to understand what comes next rather than two old men mumbling over a piece of pickled herring? Yes, this is an American” – but you know what, a lot of times when he says it I’m like, “Oh you know, that is a little American.” I’m starting to understand what it means.

Alec: That’s so funny. A friend of mine was making a movie years ago and he had a French cinematographer. And they did a couple of takes of something and the producer came over and said, “Hey, the studio is just going to want to make sure that we get one take where you cover this line a different way or something.” And he was like, “I don’t really like that.” And the producer is like, “Look, just do one more take. Just cover us.” And so he turns to his DP and he goes, “All right, we’re going to do one more take.” And the guy goes, “You are going to do that?” And he goes, “Yeah, they want us.” And he goes, “You are going to listen to that?”

And he goes, “Yeah, I just think we have to. I think it will be easier.” And the cinematographer just says, “This just became a job.”

Craig: Oh wow. That’s rather Francais.

Alec: Yeah.

Craig: “This just became a job.” Well, there is a balance between these things.

Alec: What was it before? You’re still getting paid the same. It was a job.

Craig: There is – everyone has different thresholds for their integrity.

Alec: By the way, I don’t know if you’ve ever worked on the John Ford stage at Fox.

Craig: Nope.

Alec: But if you’ve ever done a sound mix there, it’s where we did the sound mix for Euro Trip. There is a plaque on the wall of the John Ford sound mixing stage that has one of the quotes that makes me the happiest that I’ve ever seen in show business which is this long thing about, you know, I tried to do good work, I tried to be as artistic as I could and be true to stuff, but at the end of all my days I knew this: it was just a job.

Craig: Wow.

Alec: And it’s this thing where you’re there at four in the morning, tearing your hair out, trying to get this thing right. And then you pass by this plaque every time you go to the bathroom and you read it and you go, “Oh yeah, what?” Like ultimately this is not – we’re just trying to get this as good as we can.

Craig: It’s a job. It’s actually a great place to put it, too. When you’re in the sound mix it really is a job. Well, Emily, we didn’t really answer your question, but we gave it our best shot. Christina has sent in an audio question, so here it is.

Christina: I just wrote my first screenplay and I set out to write a comedy. I just read the first draft and realized that I started to write a thriller or a suspense movie. I think it’s really hard to do both of these things well, and I would like to hear your thoughts on how I should make the decision of whether I should just focus on making it a comedy or focus on making it a suspense movie.

Alec: I think the question is backwards. Like that implies that you’re trying to force it to be one thing or another thing and you’re pushing it in a direction. The analogy I always use is it’s like pushing a rope. You have to pull a rope. And a rope won’t go a certain direction.

And with Barry, Bill and I didn’t say we’re going to make a thing that’s exactly this. We just went “What’s interesting?”

Craig: Right.

Alec: And we started working on it. And it’s like, “Oh, it feels more like it should go this way.”

Craig: Followed your instincts.

Alec: Or it feels more like it should go this way. And ultimately we just felt like as long as what we were doing was interesting and true and was an observation of real human behavior it just was whatever it wanted to be. And, you know, it sounds very pretentious, but I always feel like you have to listen to the material. And it’s like if it starts to want to be one thing and not another thing–

Craig: Yeah. Let it be that.

Alec: Like, you know, when I was doing Curb, people would come in sometimes – actors would come in – and they’re “improving” a scene, but they clearly had a joke that they wanted to get to.

Craig: Yes.

Alec: And so in the middle of a scene it’s like, “Larry, do you ever go bowling?” And you just go, “What? Why are you – oh, because you have a joke about bowling you want to get to?” And it’s like this is not organic at all. It just felt like as soon as that happened you just go, no, no, don’t do that. That just doesn’t feel real.

Craig: I’m sorry, you’re fired. Yeah.

Alec: And let’s not do your joke.

Craig: So, I guess what we’re saying, and I completely agree with you. Christina, if you set out to write a comedy but you wrote a suspense movie instead–

Alec: Does it work?

Craig: You wrote a suspense movie. That’s the thing you wanted to do. I think you should focus probably on the one that you ended up writing. One movie by the way to look at, Christina, if you have not yet seen it is The Last of Sheila. Have you ever seen that one?

Alec: I have not.

Craig: Last of Sheila. Fascinating movie. 1970s. Murder mystery with some comedy overtones in it. Sort of like a modern whodunit, or a modern Agatha Christie for the ‘70s. Written by Tony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim.

Alec: What?

Craig: They wrote the screenplay. It’s really good. It’s a really good movie. Last of Sheila.

Alec: Wow. I never heard of this.

Craig: Yeah, Last of Sheila. Ted Griffin, the great Ted Griffin, he of all ‘70s movies, turned me onto that one.

Let’s do one more here. We’ve got Mike from Boston. Yo, Mike. He writes, “I’m currently working on some half-hour comedy pilots to send around to potential managers. My question is should these pilots feature explicit act breaks where I label act one and end act one and so on. Does it depend partly on the style of show? Neither of the pilots is very networky in the vein of say multicam sitcom, but at the same time I don’t think they’d only work as a streaming show. Does this apply even if the pilots are meant to be writing samples rather than actual pitches?”

Where do you fall on this whole act one da-da-da?

Alec: I think if it’s meant to be networky where you’re putting commercials into those breaks then you can write act breaks. If it helps you to organize your thoughts, I think you can think in terms of act breaks. I always did that when I was writing features. But even then you’d get into a discussion about like, “Well, I think the first act ends here.” And somebody else would go, “No, I think the first act ends here.” And it’s like it’s all subjective. And if it works it works.

I will say personally I haven’t written or thought about an act break in 20 years. That’s not how I write.

Craig: I mean, after Seinfeld you were kind of out of commercial interrupted television, right?

Alec: Yeah. Curb there were no, I mean, it was just – and it was interesting with Curb where we’d get to this point, and it was the same point on the board every time. And we almost joked that you could take a Sharpie and draw a red line on the board right where you get to it where it’s like that’s the barrier that you always have to jump over and we always get stuck right there.

Craig: Because that’s where the commercial would go?

Alec: Well, it’s because that’s where you’re turning for home, and if you hadn’t set up the stories correctly and if all the stories had sort of played their last beats at the same time, it’s kind of what I was talking about about connections. Like what you need right here is this story is kind of logically done and this story is logically done. What you need is some other story to come in and knock the pins over. So you go, oh my god, now we have to pick them all up again. But we never thought in terms of act breaks.

I think if it helps you to organize, but I don’t – you know, personally I don’t think any single camera show that isn’t for network, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an act break in any of those.

Craig: Well then, you know, it sounds like what we’re hearing, Mike, is it’s up to you. It’s totally up to you, buddy. Should we do one more? Should we do one more question?

Alec: Sure.

Craig: Oh, this is kind of a good psychological question for a tortured Swede like yourself. Christina from Malibu writes, “How can I tell if I’ve just been replaying this movie, a period biopic, in my head for too long and it all seems familiar, or if everything I’ve written is a horrible cliché?”

So this is sort of like the internal version of the studio saying, “Yeah, you know, it’s been sitting around here for a while therefore we’re bored of it, therefore it’s no good.” Or maybe it’s boring and no good. What do you do?

Alec: I think the answer a lot of times is you’ve got to show it to somebody.

Craig: Yeah.

Alec: Like I always felt like – even somebody who has no idea what they’re reading. Like sometimes people who have no “expertise” are the best audience because they can just go, “I don’t know how to read these things, but yeah, that’s just like that thing I saw in this.”

Craig: Right. Or it feels very cliché or it feels like I’ve seen all this before.

Alec: Yeah, that’s like that thing from this movie, or that’s like that thing. And you go, oh yeah, that is kind of familiar.

Craig: Well, I guess in that sense if you’re showing it to people with, I guess with that honestly in mind, that maybe you think it’s cliché that if they say, “Oh, this is cliché,” you won’t fall apart or lash out.

I always worry about people showing things to other people simply to hear applause. That’s a real syndrome. But it sounds like Christina would be the kind of person with a good work ethic.

Alec: Sure. Based on what?

Craig: We’ve known her for quite some time.

Alec: Oh, is that right?

Craig: She’s from Malibu.

Alec: Ah.

Craig: We know that much.

Alec: Oh that’s Christina. Oh, sure.

Craig: I said Christina. Did you not hear?

Alec: No, I guess I didn’t.

Craig: Anyway, Christina is pretty great. So, hopefully, Christina, that helps you. I agree with Alec completely. Show it to somebody and get somebody else’s perspective on it because a lot of times it is impossible to tell from your end.

A little bit of a lightning round here before we get to our finish. What is John doing in Japan? What is John August doing in Japan? Thoughts? Go.

Alec: You’re asking me?

Craig: That’s right. I have no idea what he’s doing. What do you – knowing him as you do – what do you think he’s doing?

Alec: I think he’s enjoying some sort of fish-based food substance.

Craig: Like a paste?

Alec: Perhaps with some noodles of some sort?

Craig: A substrate? A slurry?

Alec: Yeah. Maybe an Udon.

Craig: Oh, OK, an Udon. He went there for an Udon?

Alec: Yeah. Well, the Udon.

Craig: The Udon. I think he’s possibly getting some sort of parts upgrade.

Alec: Could be. Could be. And those parts generally are made in Japan?

Craig: I think they’re made in China but installed in Japan by one of their–

Alec: Oh, OK, like iPhones.

Craig: Precisely. A Xybotsu.

Alec: Sure. Either that or he’s inspecting a nuclear facility.

Craig: OK.

Alec: Just to make sure things are–

Craig: He’s impervious to radiation obviously. That’s the point. He can go in.

Alec: Yes, that’s correct.

Craig: Where humans could not.

Alec: No, I mean, even a helicopter would be irradiated immediately and crash into the sea.

Craig: Correct. But he can wander in and then wander back out. Just to report.

I think of the three scenarios we just mentioned that one does sound like the most likely. So we’re going to go with John is in Japan–

Alec: Inspecting a defective nuclear facility.

Craig: What else could it be?

Alec: Seems like the most likely.

Craig: Of course. So we like to end with One Cool Thing where you just literally toss out One Cool Thing. Do you have anything?

Alec: I do. And we just discovered it when we were starting this podcast. You tried to log onto my wifi.

Craig: Oh yes! That’s right.

Alec: And my phone buzzed and I went what is that? And it said, “Share your wifi password with Craig Mazin?”

Craig: Right.

Alec: And I clicked yes and you didn’t even have to type the password on your computer.

Craig: Freaking magic.

Alec: That’s the coolest thing ever.

Craig: So I didn’t even know that–

Alec: I didn’t know I had it.

Craig: No, neither did I. When did this happen?

Alec: I don’t know.

Craig: Oh, you know who would know? John.

Alec: Yes. Well, when he emerges from that defective nuclear facility.

Craig: From that glow pile?

Alec: Yeah. And his parts aren’t too irradiated to function.

Craig: Slowly decaying uranium, then he emerges. He’ll be able to come back–

Alec: Maybe he’ll be stronger and smarter.

Craig: Well, I don’t know how that’s possible. Well, stronger. I could see him getting stronger.

Alec: He’ll recharge.

Craig: Smarter, no.

Alec: He’ll internalize all of that radiation and emerge stronger and slightly taller.

Craig: Yeah. That’s right.

Alec: And even more articulate.

Craig: Like the Borg? You know the Borg? They assimilate. He’s going to assimilate this new–

Alec: Do I know the Borg? I’m Swedish. I know the Borg.

Craig: Of course, “Do I know the Borg?” Do I know the Borg?

Alec: Hey, I freaking invented the Borg?

Craig: It’s like if the Borg had gone through the universe and finally assimilated one Jew and that was all it took. “No, they’re all Gilbert Gottfried.”

All right, my One Cool Thing, I think I’m going to go with The Last of Shelia. I don’t know, maybe I’ve given that before as a One Cool Thing. But The Last of Sheila is a fantastic movie. It’s funny. It is tense. It’s scary. It’s got a great ending. Stephen Sondheim. Stephen Sondheim decided one day, “You know what, I’m going to write a movie.” And then he wrote a great movie. And then he’s like, “Nah, I’m done with that.”

Alec: “Too easy.”

Craig: “So easy.” You were talking earlier about laziness and it reminded me of one of the great, great, great stories of all time which occurred when you and I, along with our families, were on vacation together in the Bahamas. I would like you to tell this story.

Alec: Oh, yeah, yeah, of course.

Craig: We’ll finish off with this amazing story.

Alec: We were at the lovely Atlantis which one of us enjoyed more than the other one.

Craig: I’m the one that hated it. And just to preface, we had been kind of talking a lot when we were there about how many New Yorkers were there. I’m from New York. So, I naturally want to defend New Yorkers, but there were a lot of New Yorkers there. It was oppressive.

Alec: By the way, the next time I stopped into the Atlantis for a day I literally saw Joe Girardi walking around at Atlantis. I’m like the King of New York is here.

Craig: It’s amazing. Alec and I were at a bar and just talking in Atlantis and a fist fight broke out. It was just a New Yorky fist fight.

Alec: It’s like, oh, oh, those guys are going to go.

Craig: That’s right. And it reminded me of going to a Yankee game in 1979 and two people just suddenly beating the crap out of each other in the stands. So it was a very New Yorky place.

Alec: Super New Yorky. So, there’s a giant outdoor fish tank full of sharks. And this woman covered in – she’s outside in the sun. It’s 90 degrees. And she must be wearing 40 pounds of gold. These giant clip-on earrings and massive gold–

Craig: From New York would you say?

Alec: Yeah. So she walks by and she looks at this shark pond and she turns to her husband and her two kids and she just says, “What do they do all day? Just swim around? Lazy.”

Craig: [laughs]

Alec: And I think we said that phrase 50 times.

Craig: It’s so great.

Alec: And it was one of those things where as soon as I heard it I just went, “Oh my god, I have to find somebody and tell them this.”

Craig: This is why we came here. Because this – I’ve gone through this in my mind so many times. And I just love the implications, the layers of implications. These sharks should be starting businesses.

Alec: Yeah. What are they doing?

Craig: They should be studying.

Alec: It’s such a waste. Why aren’t any of them in medical school?

Craig: This is what she said, “What do they do all day?” The only thing they do all day. Lazy. That’s what they do.

Alec: She was so judgmental about sharks.

Craig: About sharks literally doing the thing sharks were designed to do.

Alec: And I can only imagine how much she must have ridden her own children to do more with their lives. If a shark isn’t living up to its potential.

Craig: That’s all it does is the only thing they have ever done. They’re no good. And neither are you.

Alec: Lazy.

Craig: Wherever she is, madam we love you.

Alec: Thank you. That was a gem.

Craig: All right. Well, Alec, that was a fantastic show. This show, Scriptnotes, is produced by Megan McDonnell. And it is edited by the great Matthew Chilelli. Oh yeah. Our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth.

If you have an outro you can send us a link at ask@johnaugust.com. That is also a place where you can send longer questions. For shorter questions, on Twitter I am @clmazin. John is @johnaugust. And Alec Berg is–

Alec: @realalecberg.

Craig: @realalecberg.

We are also on Facebook, which I am no longer on because apparently it’s a Russian platform for stealing our lives. You can search for Scriptnotes Podcast – are you still on Facebook?

Alec: No, I deleted it.

Craig: Yeah, deleted. Oh, felt so good. However, Scriptnotes is still there. You can search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can also find us on Apple Podcasts under Scriptnotes. Just search for, get it, Scriptnotes. And while you’re there leave us a comment because John August 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 to get them up about four days after the episode airs. You can find all the back episodes of the show at Scriptnotes.net.

Alec Berg, thank you so much for being a guest.

Alec: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Craig: You’re amazing. Folks at home, next week our wonderful John August shall return. Thank you for listening.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Love, Aptaker & Berger

Tue, 04/10/2018 - 08:03

John and Craig welcome Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, the writing team that showruns This Is Us and just made history with Love, Simon.

We discuss their experience of breaking into the industry, writing with a partner, running a hit show, adapting YA novels for the screen, and the broccoli/marinara/pudding meals that got them here.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Comedy Geometry

Tue, 04/03/2018 - 08:03

Craig welcomes Alec Berg, executive producer of two current HBO comedies (Barry and Silicon Valley), to discuss balancing productivity and creative energy, “comedy geometry,” and identifying as a craftsman rather than an artist.

We also answer listener questions about committing to a genre, the necessity of act breaks, and how much writers actually get to keep of their paycheck.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 343: The One with the Indie Producer — Transcript

Mon, 04/02/2018 - 18:34

The original post for this episode can be found here.

John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August. This is Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Craig is off in Europe working on Chernobyl. Luckily we have a guest who is more than his equal. Keith Calder is an indie film producer with credits ranging from You’re Next, to Blair Watch, to Charlie Kaufman’s animated Anomalisa. His new film, Blindspotting, debuted at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival where it was purchased by Lionsgate. It comes out this summer. Keith Calder, welcome to the show.

Keith Calder: Thank you for having me.

John: So when Craig is gone I love to have a guest on who knows about things that Craig and I don’t know about. And I really don’t know very much about indie film. So, I have worked at the Sundance Labs helping out projects that are going into production. I had a movie that came out at Sundance, The Nines, but that was 10 years ago. And I feel like indie film changes a lot year-by-year. So, I’d love to talk about sort of the state of indie film right now. And a lot of our listeners are people who are trying to put together movies, and I want to know what that’s like. So, I think you might be the person to help us out.

Keith: I can try. [laughs]

John: What do you actually do as an independent film producer? What is your day-to-day life in trying to put together movies?

Keith: You know, it’s interesting, because it’s a question that gets asked a lot is “What does a producer do?” I get asked it even on the sets where I’m doing my job and people still don’t know what it is. And I think it’s a hard question to really even define. The more – I think I used to have a bunch of glib answers and a lot of kind of easy quick responses. And the more I’ve done it the more I realize how useless most of those are. So, I’ll try to give a more complete answer.

The simplest is I think you sort of have to separate the concept of the credit of the producer from the job of the producer. The credit of the producer could go to really almost anyone. It could go to someone who was friends with the writer. It could go to someone who knew that an actor might have been looking for a certain piece of material. It could go to someone who just has some money that they want to put into a movie. Or it could go to someone who is doing the more full set of jobs that is a producer.

Or it could go to someone who is actively trying to sabotage your movie. They just end up with a credit anyway.

John: Let’s go through the range of those possibilities. And first of all we’ll talk about what kind of producer are you mostly? Are you a producer who is on set every day getting the shots, making sure that the movie happens? Are you the person who finds financing? What is your role in the movies I have described?

Keith: I think traditionally I’m a – first of all, I would say I work with a producing partner who is my wife, Jess, and we’ve worked together on almost all the movies we’ve made. So to a certain degree when I’m answering, what I’m really answering is how we as a unit work. But I would say that predominately we’re a beginning to ending producer. We’re there from often concept through to marketing campaign. And that means being in the room for casting sessions. It means being there, deciding who the director is. It means being on set with usually one of us at the monitor all the time and the other one, if not at the monitor then kind of preparing for the challenges of what’s coming up later in the day or the week or the rest of the shoot.

What I would say is that as I’ve grown as a producer I’ve come to realize that that’s not necessarily always the right answer. Like I think that a lot more of what I do now is I do what the job requires. And I think on some films it means you have to be there for everything. And some films you actually shouldn’t be there for everything. There’s other people that can make those decisions and be there. And that your job is choosing when to actually step in and when not to step in.

John: Absolutely. So on projects where you are the producer from beginning to end, so this is a thing where you have found either the filmmaker or you found the script and here is a nascent idea for a movie and you’re the person who gets it to the next step. Talk about what that part of the process is like. Because so often what Craig and I are talking about – so in the background you’re going to hear my dog whining. This is Lambert, my dog, who is the best dog. But he’s very excited to have a guest in the office. So if you hear some whining in the background that’s Lambert.

Keith: It was very kind of you to excuse my horrible whining sounds that I make by blaming them on your dog.

John: Exactly. Always blame the dog for the farting noises and everything else.

Usually when Craig and I are talking about putting a movie together we’re talking about there’s a pitch and you’re going in, you’re pitching to a producer, then you’re pitching to a studio. And there’s a whole sense of “this is how movies get made.” But it’s a very different process that you’re describing. Most of the movies that you’ve made, what is the process of – is it a filmmaker first? Is it a script first? What is the thing that got that project to come together?

Keith: I think it’s different with every project. I think I’ve come to realize that each film takes its own path. I will say that for me and for Jess a lot of the things that we’ve made started with us identifying talent that we wanted to work with. And then building a film from there. So in the case of our most recent film, Blindspotting, it is one way the most typical version of how we would make a film, and in other ways completely atypical.

About 10 years ago Jess and I decided we wanted to make a movie based on the world of spoken word poetry. And so we started watching a lot of Def Poetry Jam and watching a lot of poets on YouTube, and finding whatever we could. And we found this young poet, Rafael Casal, who is based up in the Bay who had appeared on Def Poetry Jam a couple times. Jess reached out to him I think via YouTube and just said, “Hey, have you ever thought of making a movie? We feel like you could write a movie or star in a movie.”

We flew up there, met with him, and he’s like, “Well, I love movies but I don’t know anything about it whatsoever.” We then spent really nine years working with him and then meeting his friend, Daveed Diggs, and developing a film from scratch that they wrote, starred in, and produced with us. But it was really from us identifying a type of movie that we wanted to do. And then finding the right collaborators, and then building it from the ground up from there.

I mean, I say building, really they did most of the building. They were writing the script. But we were sort of helping them figure that out the whole time.

John: Great. So you identified an area. There’s a movie to be made in this world.

Keith: Yeah.

John: Who might be the person to make that movie? And then you sort of nurtured them along the way.

Keith: Exactly. So that’s a good case there. And then I think with You’re Next was a movie where we had produced a few horror movies, and it was a genre that we liked working in. But we found it really hard finding projects, like films that were horror movies but also had an interesting voice or something to say. Or something that separated them from the rest of low budget horror.

And we had a film doing the festival circuit the same time that Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett had A Horrible Way to Die. And a few friends said, oh, you guys should really meet because I think you’d work well together. We finally grabbed dinner and started talking about movies. And the four of us all really hit it off.

And Simon mentioned that they were working on a home invasion movie, and we kind of spent the rest of the dinner talking about a lot of what we all considered the problems with that genre and kind of how those problems could be opportunities if you approached it the right way. And I think within two months Simon had a script that he sent us that we liked and we immediately signed on to produce it and put it together. And we were shooting it in the spring. And that was the first of three movies we’ve made with Adam and Simon. And I think that, yeah, it was about the person first for us, and then the idea, the sort of what the movie could be. And then just a lot of conversations about how you go from idea to execution.

John: Absolutely. So in the case of You’re Next, which I thought was terrific, and it was a very smart exploration of the home invasion genre and sort of what that’s like. Basically really question the motivations of why these characters are doing what they’re doing. You have a script now. So you have a filmmaker you like. You’ve seen the thing that he’s made before. You have a script you like. What is the next step in figuring out where we shoot this thing, how we do this thing? And while you’re figuring out how you’re making it are you also planning how it gets released? What the venues are for it getting out there in the world?

Keith: Yeah, I mean, You’re Next is an interesting case study for this, because we knew we wanted to do it. Simon and Adam were coming off of making a movie for I think about $100,000 and they wanted a step up in budget. We had had some experience in making movies in that sort of $500,000 to $1 million range, which is in a way a really huge range, but also a very small range. So it was kind of figuring out where in that range the movie made sense to do it.

Adam and Simon had worked on A Horrible Way to Die in Missouri, and so they were really excited about the idea of going back to Missouri to make You’re Next. So the location was kind of figured out in a grand sense from that. Like we knew we wanted to go to Missouri to shoot this movie.

The actual location of the house was something we found literally a week before we started production. It’s not like we had a specific place where it was going to happen. In terms of building it, we had the script. We started casting. We brought on a foreign sales company, Hanway, which is the company we had a relationship with from prior movies. Hanway started selling the film off the script, and I think before we started production we decided we just wanted to try to sell one major international territory. And then kind of take risk for the rest of the equity on the film. And so we sold the UK I think for about half the budget, which is really unheard of. And once we did that we were like, “Oh OK, we’re fine, we’ll just go make the movie. Keep the rest of the world as upside and know we’ve kind of covered half the cost out of the UK.”

And our goal was very much to shoot the movie in the spring. To have it ready to bring to Toronto to premiere at the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival, which I view as one of the top places to launch a low budget horror movie. And luckily for us Toronto saw the movie, and liked it, and accepted it. And so it was definitely a case of we had a plan for each step and it all went according to plan. But to a certain degree those plans are ludicrous. Like it’s nonsense to assume you’re going to sell half your budget from one territory. It’s nonsense to assume that your film is going to get into the exact festival and the exact thing you want. And then it’s going to sell to the one distributor that you think is probably the best distributor for it.

And I think it’s easy to look at the success stories and say, “Oh, that’s the path.” It’s only the path because it was successful. If we hadn’t taken that path, we would have had to find some other way to have the movie find success.

John: Absolutely. So I want to go back and define some terms, just because people may not know some of the things that you’re talking about. So when you say equity, so basically this is money that you had found. That you had/you found. Basically it’s money that you could write a check for or have somebody to write a check for for making the movie. So, in a small budget, in this case it was half of that. But other times you might write the whole thing and sell stuff later on. There’s many ways of finding the money to make the movie the first time.

Keith: Yeah. I would say the thing that makes it hard for people to learn too many lessons from our path is that we have financing. So we can put our own money into films at this point. So a lot of the more traditional independent film producers and model are about finding other people to put money into the film. For us it’s much more about feeling comfortable with where we’re putting our equity in. And if we’re making bigger movies it’s finding other partners or finding ways to justify it.

You know, the truth is with independent film even if you do have financing it’s a hard business to stay in business in because the nature of it is that most films don’t succeed. And if you’re a studio, most films not succeeding means that you recoup half the budget. In independent film, the film not succeeding means no one ever buys it. It never gets seen by anyone. And you recoup nothing. So it’s a high risk/low reward business, so kind of the worst of them all.

John: Yeah. Good choice of career here for you.

Keith: Yeah.

John: Just to define other terms. So you talk about foreign sales, or foreign presales, or foreign sales. And so classically most indie movies back 10 years ago when I was doing The Nines, either you would – based on the script, the director, and the cast you would go to international markets and say like, “OK, I have this movie that stars these actors, it’s this budget, it’s this thing. Here is a mock poster for it. Will you give us a certain amount of money for France, a certain amount of money for the UK?” And hopefully you get some people bidding against each other. You raise enough money from those people essentially saying “We promise to buy your movie when it’s done” that you’re able to then go back and get financing in order to do it.

So, essentially you have a commitment that they’re going to buy it when the movie is completed and then you go and get a bank loan essentially, a special kind of bank loan, to make the movie. Is that still the common model? Because I feel like in the last 10 years with the rise of streaming, with the rise of other sort of distribution platforms that may not be as crucial. And also some budgets, just because of technology and other things, some budgets have come down a lot lower. So, what are the models right now for making a movie?

Keith: I mean, it’s definitely the Wild West now. I think that what you described was the dominant model for, I’d say, pretty much from maybe the late ‘80s through to maybe six or seven years ago. And I think it still exists. There’s still a lot of independent films that get financed off of the foreign presales model where you use that to kind of fill in the gaps. And you put it together that way. I think more and more it’s a hard model to make work, because a lot of foreign distributors are struggling in their own territories to kind of make their businesses work. They aren’t being as aggressive on pre-buying most movies. The sort of star value system is in a different place than it was in the past. Like I think there’s a view that a lot of stars that used to be bankable just on their own now are maybe bankable with other stars, or bankable within certain types of intellectual property. Or bankable within certain genres. Or bankable if you are also spending $20 million on P&A. So it’s less of a given that you can kind of raise money off of a package.

The other side of it is that the market for films now a lot of time are driven by worldwide buyers and the foreign sales model can really hurt the chances of a film when you do that. So Netflix for example is a big buyer of movies now. They’re not super excited about buying a film that already has a lot of foreign territory sold off in advance, because they want the entire world. Same is true for Amazon. Same is true for even some of the traditional distributors like a Fox Searchlight. They kind of want to have the world when they’re buying a movie.

There’s definitely a weird chicken or the egg problem there because you sometimes need to try to sell those rights to finance the movie, but then you also are expected to retain those rights to sell the movie later.

John: The situation I find even sort of more frustrating and dispiriting is when you see a movie that’s gotten made that’s not perfect but there’s something promising there, and they clearly have not thought about distribution at all. And so I’ve gone into 20 screenings where I see this film and it’s like “This film is good and it’s interesting and it’s promising, but there’s a very good chance that no one will ever see this film because it will never get released in a meaningful way.” And that’s the real heartbreak is that when people come to me saying like, “Oh, I was thinking maybe I’ll just raise some money and do this myself.” I want to be encouraging because you want them to be that sort of one thing that breaks out that gets that big attention, but it might not be that thing that breaks out. And they could have spent all of their life savings trying to make this movie that no one will ever see. So, figuring out like what the overall plan or strategy is for distribution feels so crucial at an early stage.

Not only what is this thing that you’re trying to make but how will people see this thing you’re trying to make.

Keith: I completely agree. It’s interesting because I think a lot of people, when they’re approaching independent film, are looking at the movies that exist in the marketplace, meaning like things you can just watch on TV or in theaters or on Netflix, and their assumption is, “Well, if I make a movie that’s better than the worst of those then that means I will get to be released in those same ways.”

John: The plus one fallacy.

Keith: Yeah. And it’s the same thing that happens with people writing spec screenplays. They look at the movies onscreen and they say, “Well, if I write a script that’s better than the worst of them then that means that I will be able to succeed.” And it’s just not the way that the world works. And I think that one of the key things to realize is that most of the movies that you see in the world are movies made by companies that already own their own distribution system. And the nature of that is that they will always rather release the worst movie they’ve made than the best movie you’ve made. It’s just fundamentally the nature of their business is that they need to try to return money on their bad movies over making you money on your good movies.

I would agree with you. I would be very cautious to advise anyone to go out and try to make an independent film. I think it’s a tricky business, and it’s a tricky creative path to take. That said, sometimes it’s the only way you can make a movie and sometimes for certain types of movies it’s the only way they would ever be made. And I think that the models that we kind of touched on a little bit, but the other models for making independent films these days are really relying on soft money, which is when I say soft money that usually means tax incentives. In Europe or Australia or certain other parts of the world they have heavy arts funding bodies where you can kind of get big chunks of your budget that way. And independent film financiers that are looking for different returns than just financial returns. Like there are definitely people that are putting money into movies because they want to support the arts, or because they want to – for the more callous reasons is that they want to hang out with famous people and things like that.

I’m not saying that I wouldn’t advise that. That’s what people do. But sometimes that is the source of money you need to get your movie made.

John: So let’s talk about a hypothetical filmmaker who has a script that’s in a genre that they know the genre, it’s a pretty good script. It feels like a movie that should be made independently. It’s fairly low budget. It’s the next Adam and Simon.

So, if Adam and Simon were to come up today, what would your recommendation be for their next steps? Should they shoot a short that’s a proof of concept? What would be the way to get their movie made, whether it’s You’re Next or their movie before that? What would you recommend that they do?

Keith: I think the key advice I would give anyone is when you’re starting out make things as cheaply as possible. I just think that there is a path for just making things so cheaply that the minimal value that most independent films get can still help you recoup your budget. And I think that that’s a path that I think the Duplass brothers took really well and I think it will always be a path. There’s always going to be an appetite for movies of a certain sort. And if you can achieve quality with very low budget I think you can find a path within independent film.

I think a lot of it is about deciding where you want your career to be and what type of filmmaker, either as a writer or as a director, or any aspect of filmmaking. You want your path to be. I think that if you’re looking at what you hope to do and it’s Marvel movies or Bond movies or just movies that require a lot of money to go do, I’m not convinced that the independent film path is the best path there right now. Even though a lot of the studios have been hiring independent filmmakers, it’s a lottery ticket path rather than like actually doing things that show you can do the work to get there.

John: So your hunch for going down the Marvel path or the James Bond path would be through screenwriting, though visual effects, like how would you recommend that person get to the big prize of making those things?

Keith: My advice is always that your path to success is to do the things that you’re the best at. And I think a lot of time the things that you’re the best at are the things that you have the most passion for. And I think those are the two areas I would always recommend people focus on. I think that it’s more likely that a fantastic amazing stunt coordinator is going to get hired to direct a big movie than someone who has made another big movie really badly. Like I just don’t think that – it’s an industry where you get over-rewarded for things that you do really well. And I think that those are the things that you need to focus on.

I think it was Guillermo del Toro said that all of the things that are flaws about you when you start doing well just become your voice. And when you’re not doing well they’re all the things people point out as problems.

John: Yes.

Keith: And I think if you focus on all the things that you do great, then all the things you don’t do great you either figure out how to get around or you they just become part of your voice.

John: That’s great. So, let’s talk about, when I was doing The Nines, a big push at that point was that you had to – you really wanted a deal that guaranteed theatrical release. And if you didn’t get your hand stamped in theaters that was a real mark against you both for the value down the road in home video, but just as a filmmaker you wanted to have that theatrical release. Do you still see that as being such a crucial thing for a movie that’s coming out of a festival right now? Like Blindspotting is going to have a theatrical release, but if Netflix had come to you and said we’re going to buy it for more money and we’re going to promote it a certain way, would that matter to you?

Keith: To me, yeah, it probably would still matter to me, if I’m being honest. I mean, part of that is that I’m what I view from a sort of in-between generation of people that kind of grew up with Netflix as their primary form of entertainment and people who grew up with theatrical film experience. If Netflix were offering a lot more money and that meant that our financing was recouped and that it had a higher profile in the world then yeah, for sure, I would go that path.

But I do think you have to kind of compare these things realistically. So I think that a lot of the time people will overvalue the theatrical release because they’re imagining that the film will break out in some massive way. And the truth is that very rarely happens. So I do think that you have to be fiscally responsible. Like you shouldn’t go with the theatrical distributor that is paying you nothing over a non-traditional or what is it, I guess, online release or something like that where you are actually able to recoup your investment and get your film out there and seen by a lot of people.

John: Yeah. The question of like “seen by a lot of people” is such a weird thing with streaming because obviously anybody who looks at Netflix, you scroll through and you see like what are all these movies. What are all these things? Who could watch all these things? But living in Los Angeles you actually drive by billboards for all of these different limited series and movies and I’m halfway convinced that some of them don’t actually exist. That like if somebody actually looks for them, then they’ll go off and make them, but they’re just trial balloons for things because it’s a giant expensive billboard for something like I don’t know what that is. I’ve never heard of this thing. And yet somehow you made this thing. We’re in a very strange time.

I feel like all the extra money being thrown into that system is leading to some really weird choices. And obviously people are – you know, it’s production that’s happening, which is great. But if I were that person with that billboard I would be excited but I would also really be wondering is anyone actually going to see this thing that I’ve spent years of my life making.

Keith: I’m always curious about those billboards in LA. But I feel like part of it is just about these streaming platforms proving to the rest of the industry that they’re legitimate and big and promoting their movies. And I think it’s so much of the billboard – the billboard game in LA seems to be about advertising within the film industry rather than advertising to consumers. It’s an odd sort of ego game more than anything else.

John: Yeah.

Keith: You can also see that – I know that studios will buy billboards near the actors in their movies so they feel like they’re spending money on the movie. And I think the same thing happens where Netflix are buying billboards based on reminding certain production companies that “Hey you should come sell your thing to Netflix” and things like that.

John: That’s very true. We got a question in from a listener and I thought – I already emailed it back because I actually know the person, but I thought I’d read it and get your take on it because this is sort of your wheelhouse. And it’s about a decision of life kind of moment.

So he writes, “After working for a reality TV company for over two years I was just laid off. With a downturn in show production came downsizing, and it turns out I was more expandable than I thought. Stressful, but I’m realizing that I have basically unlimited possibilities in deciding what’s next for me. I’m unmarried, no financial dependents except for a low maintenance dog. I’m not tied to any geographical location or job. And the world is essentially my oyster.

“If anything, I see this as an opportunity to take steps towards big picture career goals: writing and directing features or writing and producing television is the real goal here. In the moments of calm self-reflection that I’ve been able to find between bouts of panic, two distinct potential next moves have clarified for me.

Option one: I focus all my energy on making a feature film directorial debut. I drive Uber, work part-time, sell myself to extras casting to make ends meet while giving myself the flexibility and time to develop, write, and put together an achievable indie feature film. It’s hella ambitious, but I still have a lot of connections in my non-LA places to crew something like that up for a non-union low budget feature within the next year or three.

“Option two: I still work on my own projects in my spare time but stay working in the industry. Jump to the bottom of a more useful ladder, such as a PA or assistant in the lands of scripted television or features and then work my way up.”

Keith Calder, so these are two very different paths and they’re sort of what you were describing. That sense of like do you go off and make the independent film or do you try to work a more normal path and inch your way up? What would you want to talk to David about?

Keith: I think that my main advice for David, not knowing anything beyond his scenario from what he’s kind of outlined here, is that I don’t think you should view these paths as mutually exclusive. I think that writing is something that as long as you have time within your day you can set aside a large enough portion that you can focus on it. You can do really no matter what else you’re doing, especially when you don’t have kids and you don’t have other draws on your free time. So I think that if he wants to write I think that’s something he can do while he’s still supporting himself financially with an income of some sort.

I also think that when you’re trying to make a film, especially a micro-budget independent film, you need to have resources other than money. And those resources are a crew base that are from people that you know or that you have worked with or that you have mutual fondness of film together. And I think that you build that by working within film or working on other people’s films or doing things like that. I think that there’s a danger to think of this as, “Oh, my path to making movies is to silo myself.” And I actually think for most people your path to making movies is to surround yourself by other people that are making movies.

So, I would advise that, if he wants to take the path of writing and potentially directing and making an independent feature, I think that it’s something that while he’s writing it he can be building a crew base by going out there and PA-ing and working on other people’s independent films or on short films or whatever it is. And I think you build the team that you then use to go make your micro-budget film.

John: I think that’s the right advice. When I was writing back to him I said, I first off asked does he have that project that he’s passionate about. Whether it’s written or not written, you have to have that thing like you’re going to wake up every morning saying like “Hell or high water I’m going to make this thing.” And figuring out what that is is a crucial first step.

And so to put everything else aside, to write this thing which you don’t know what it is yet, feels like a mistake. But I really agree with you. You have to find who your group is. Who your core people is you can collaborate. Because so much of making a movie is essentially entrepreneurial. You’re basically figuring out how to do all that stuff. And if you’re figuring out how to make a movie and how to sell a movie and how to cast a movie and how to do all of these things for the very first time, you’re not going to be great at all of those things. So you need to witness the process through other people. And so you’ll learn about how to physically shoot something by physically shooting some things. That means crewing on some other people’s films. Not just little student university shorts, but some bigger things. Seeing the ups and the downs. And then make your own stuff and sort of work your way up through.

On any crew you’re going to be able to pick three or four people who are like, “Oh, they’re great. They really know what they’re doing.” Help them out and get them to help you out and sort of rise up together. Because you see even the people who have gone through to do the bigger studio features, people who have done Star Wars, they tend to still bring along some of their indie film people because those are the people who are really smart that they trust, but who also have a vision who can do a thing that other folks can’t. So, I’m urging David to spend these next couple of years finding those people and finding that place rather than try to do the lottery ticket where I’m going to write the one thing that’s going to breakout and everything is going to change.

There’s a thing, you know, a term called “silent evidence” where we only see the successes and we sort of miss all the things that fail. And I feel like it would be helpful for people to go to a second or third tier film festival and see all the movies and then follow up on like what actually happened to those movies. And some of them you’re going to love and some of them you’re not going to love, but most of those movies are not going to find a home anywhere. And yet each of those filmmakers had spent years of their life trying to make that thing. And so recognize what a gamble you’re making by sort of putting everything into just one thing.

Keith: And to think about those second tier, like those mid-level tier film festival, are still rejecting other movies that don’t even get into that festival. So, yeah, it’s absolutely true. I think independent film and film and entertainment in general is dominated by success. And I think that that success is all that’s visible. And it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that the lower tier of the things that are successful is the lower tier of everything. And it’s just not true. You’re just seeing the top 1% of what’s being made. And you’re looking at the bottom of that top 1%.

John: Yeah. It’s crazy.

Starting to talk about film festivals, how important are film festivals for an indie film that’s coming out right now? Theoretically you would have finished – like a movie like Blindspotting – you would have finished it. You would know what it was like. Why go to Sundance to debut it rather than just like you know who the distributors are. You could’ve just had a screening and invited them to come. What’s the decision process there?

Keith: You know, it’s interesting. I think there’s a few key festivals that are really, really important to trying to sell an independent film. There are festivals that are wonderful for exposing audiences to independent cinema and for building great relationships and things like that, but I do think there’s a few that are really markets for selling finished films in a way that still provides a lot of value. And I think Sundance is near the top of that list. And there’s a huge variety of reasons. Things that you can read about and I’ve thought about a lot over the years.

I think the key ones are just the decision makers are actually all watching your movie at the same time. And are aware that they probably have to make a decision quickly. I think those two things lead to being able to sell an independent film and create not necessarily a bidding situation but the idea that there’s an understanding that this film will probably get distribution within the festival or shortly after the festival if it’s a commercial movie that people recognize that side of it.

I think other festivals it’s really hard to do that just because honestly the distributors don’t go. So you can go to an even just slightly tier below Sundance and have an amazing screening, and it doesn’t have that same benefit because the decision makers aren’t in the room. Maybe the junior people below them are and they can kind of say, “Oh, it was good, you should watch it at some point.” It just doesn’t have the same environment that I think Sundance and Cannes and Toronto and a few of these other film festivals will have.

So I would always – if you have an independent film that doesn’t have distribution, I think it’s always worth targeting the biggest film festivals that you can. You can do your research and see which films have launched out of which film festivals and sort of start to get a path saying that, “OK, my film is like these types of films that did really well at this festival. That’s probably a good festival to premiere at.”

John: So, when we were doing The Nines one of the crucial things we had to have was a PR/marketing company who would plan the festival basically with us. Basically so we could go in with a message and this is how we are going to communicate. These are all the different media venues we’re going to talk to. Is that still a thing? Is that still a crucial aspect of this early part of the process?

Keith: If we have a film that’s premiering at Sundance or Toronto, which are really the two main festivals we’ve had films at as premieres, the two things that I would make sure that we have are a festival publicist that is just handling all of the PR requirements for that festival. And a sales agent, whether that’s a foreign sales agent or domestic sales agent.

I think that if you’re trying to sell a film at a festival, especially at a major festival, those are two very important elements. The sales agent especially if you’re making your first movie. You don’t know how to, A, manage the sort of market process of getting distributors to show up to the screening. But certainly you don’t know how to manage the process of handling proposals and how to counter the proposals and when and when to have filmmaker meetings and when not to have filmmaker meetings. And there’s a whole rigmarole to selling a movie at a festival that you just won’t know how it works on your first movie or probably your second movie either.

And then with the publicist, there’s a lot of things that you can do as a savvy producer to help promote your movie, but the publicist will have a better sense of how to target it towards critics. Which critics to get into which screenings. A lot of times they’ll be helpful thinking about sales strategy. But they’ll also give you good advice on what not to do. So there’s simple things that I would advise filmmakers not to do when premiering a film at a large festival. And a lot of those things go against what the festival is encouraging you to do. So I think that you don’t want to release a ton of still images. I think you usually would want to release one, maybe two, and I don’t think you should be putting up your own trailer and your own promo. I don’t think you should be releasing clips for the movie.

And really all the things that on the surface seem like really logical things to promote your movie I would advise against.

John: Why?

Keith: I think that if you have a movie that has anticipation, where either it seems like it’s a commercially-minded movie or it seems like it’s the launch of a really interesting filmmaker or interesting acting talent and you have a good screening slot in the festival, I think you have to have confidence in your movie and confidence in the festival that you’re in that people will want to come see it. And I think that the more materials you release the more you’re potentially seeming desperate, which I think doesn’t help the market around your movie. And I think the more that you are putting out into the world things that your eventual distributor will regret that you’ve put out into the world.

Almost every time I’ve worked with a really great distributor it’s something they’ve brought up is that they’re really thankful that we didn’t have some trailer that we cut in-house and put out there because as – I mean, as I think everyone knows now, once something is online it’s just forever. And so suddenly anytime anyone wants to see what’s going on with that movie they’re opening the trailer that you did your best intentions to do a good job cutting a trailer for, but it’s just not what a studio would use to sell your movie.

John: You’re going to show up with some sort of one sheet, some sort of art work that can represent it on a board but it won’t be the final artwork.

Keith: If that. If that.

John: So you wouldn’t even do that?

Keith: We do do that, but we only do it if we’re doing it properly. So, I mean, we’ll use poster vendors and we’ll go through the process and get a lot of comps and kind of really make sure that either it’s a really strong poster or something that could not be considered anything other than a teaser image. I think that your strongest step forward at a festival is purely non-traditional marketing, or very teaser-based marketing that don’t reveal much about your movie.

I think that the more you reveal about your movie before it plays at the festival, the more that you’re either elevating anticipation to the point that you’re setting expectations differently from what you want them to be, or that you’re giving distributors a reason to pass on your movie. I think that a trailer that doesn’t fit how they would sell a movie or a poster that doesn’t fit how they would sell a movie is a strike in their heads against your movie.

John: All right. So all this advice that you’re giving are things that a first time writer-director is not going to know going into this. So it feels like that writer-director wants to have someone like you, an experienced producer who has done this kind of thing before. How would you recommend that writer-director find the producer who might be the right person to do this movie, or to do all these parts of the job, but especially this part of the job which is so different?

Keith: I think that if you’re making a low-budget independent film, especially if like your friend David, like if he’s making a movie that’s really a micro-budget movie where it’s a group of friends coming together to make a movie, I don’t think you need to have a producer like me where I have a bunch of experience at festivals and things like that. But I do think that’s where you want to have a good sales agent and you want to have a good publicist.

I think that you can find someone like me to give advice. I mean, every year at Sundance there are filmmakers that I know or friends of friends or things like that that will reach out for advice on what to do at the festival and I’m happy to give it. But I’m not a big – I’m not a big proponent of filmmakers making a movie and then seeking a producer to put on it to help them with the sales process. I think that the kinds of producers you would convince to do that are not the kinds of producers you actually want to be in business with, generally.

There are people who exist in that space doing – giving the advice that you’re looking for. And really those are sales agents and festival publicists.

John: So, the flip side of that question, so let’s say that you are a person who loves movies and loves independent film, but you are not a writer-director yourself. How does one become a person who is making films? Is it what you’re describing where you find a filmmaker you like at a festival and you say like, “Hey, I want to sort of help you make your next thing?” Like what is the process of–?

Keith: Of becoming a producer?

John: Of becoming a producer. Of becoming sort of like what you’re doing.

Keith: You know what? I actually do think that if you live really anywhere in the world and you want to be a producer, I do think that your best step forward is to go to your local film festivals. Wherever you live there’s probably one within driving distance. And see what the local talent base is like and see if you can build a local filmmaking community of some sort and make movies that way. I don’t think that that is necessarily a path to financial success and kind of success within the larger industry, but it is a path to working within the arts and making movies in the same way that I think if you want to do theatre you can go be in your local theatre production. You shouldn’t have an expectation that that’s going to lead to you starring in a play on Broadway.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making regional cinema. I think that’s actually a great way for people to spend their time. And I think you can do really cool work that can expand way beyond that. But I do think that the arts has a tendency to look at the absolute most success and then say, “Well how do I get to that?” And there’s very rarely a real path to that other than doing what you can do as well as you can.

John: Yeah. I think your metaphor for like theatre is appropriate because most people are not making a fortune in theater, especially not smaller theater. You do it because you love to do it. And so there aren’t people who are making a fortune off of independent film. There was sort of that heyday in the rise of Miramax where it felt like, “Oh, that’s where all the excitement and all the money is.” Fox Searchlight does really great, but that’s not what most indie film is really like. It’s making enough money to make that movie successful and be able to make the next movie. It’s not giant mansions.

Keith: I think it’s also tricky with independent film is that a lot of movies get sold as independent film. Like it’s viewed in the world as being independent film, but they’re truly studio movies. And I think that a lot of the most successful movies you would consider independent — that the general people would consider independent films — are essentially studio movies that were just made for a low budget that they were able to convince everyone to work for cheaper by pretending it was an independent film.

John: That’s true. So how do you like to define independent film right now? Because we’re talking Fox Searchlight or we’re talking A24, they’re making the movies that are kind of like that but they are really their own studios. They’re getting approvals – it’s not like they’re buying that movie off the festival usually. So what is independent film to you?

Keith: I would still consider, I mean, this is a definition that everyone has differently. For me, I’m pretty strict in the sense that I think that if the source of financing of the film was not a major distributor, then it’s independent film. And that can include really very large movies as well as small movies. Like I would include a movie like Looper as an independent film because it was put together, the model we talked about earlier, where they were doing foreign presales and they were piecing it together that way. But it’s a big budget movie with movie stars and everything in it.

Arrival I think is a similar thing. That’s an independent film because it was made independently. And then a studio really wanted to buy it and they bought it. I wouldn’t consider a lot of Fox Searchlight movies for example as independent films because they were really just low budget movies made by a division of a studio that makes low budget movies.

John: Yeah. “Specialty” might be the better term for it.

Keith: Yeah. They can still be an art house movie. Like it’s released in art house theaters, but that doesn’t mean it’s – to me it wouldn’t be an independent film. That’s kind of my criteria.

John: Absolutely.

Keith: So I would still consider an A24 movie an independent film because I think that they are an independent company. That they also release their own movies doesn’t mean that they’re not independent of the larger major studio system.

John: Absolutely.

Keith: To me, the sort of ground where I’m not sure is you could make a case that Lionsgate’s movies are independent films. I mean, it’s an independent studio, but it’s also a majorly traded public company at this point with a large valuation. I guess mini-major is kind of what you call it now.

John: But to be clear, you’re trying to distinguish between independent film represents a business model whereas specialty or art house represents a style or a placement of a kind of movie, regardless of the genre.

Keith: Yeah.

John: So you can have big budget sci-fi indie movies and you can have studio-made art house films and that’s fine. But not to try to conflate the two things together.

Keith: Yeah. I mean, for me, to a certain degree, I’m not sure what – if a studio is financing a movie I’m not sure what it is independent of. I think independent should be defined by it being independent of studio financing. I think that is what independent should mean.

Yeah, I think it’s more helpful to describe films by how they are originated rather than how they end up being seen.

John: Absolutely. Sometimes it’s also the sources of financing are a bunch of things cobbled together. So Participant felt like that kind of thing, where Participant was a company with a specific sort of agenda in terms of progressive ideas. And so they would funnel money into a bunch of things. And so a lot of those movies feel either they truly were independents or they were kind of studio movies where Participant was participating in them.

Go was originally a totally independent movie and so we had foreign financing. We had a list of – we had to get a white male star, 45 years or older, to be in it. And we just couldn’t put all the pieces together. And at the very last minute Columbia came in and took over. And that – it was a combination of things. And still it happened, it’s called a negative pickup, where essentially the studio has already agreed to buy it and basically they’re the bank that’s paying for everything. But we were still able to work like an indie film, where we didn’t have quite the oversight that a studio would have.

That’s another way of thinking about it is that I talk to sometimes Sundance filmmakers who are – they have a certain plan. They’re going to do it in a very classic way and then a studio comes in and the studio just becomes the bank that takes over the making of things. So you don’t know what it’s like. I think sometimes being flexible about sort of how you’re actually going to do it is the key. You have a vision for what the movie is going to be. Who paid for it and how it is coming out in the world is sometimes less important.

Keith: Well, yeah. I wouldn’t put a value judgment on whether something is independent or studio. Like I think that there are movies where you maintain more autonomy and creative ability within a studio than you do independently. Yeah. I think there’s so many emotional things tied to the idea of something being independent or studio that I think in every given case is not the reality.

John: Yeah. What are some movies that you’ve seen lately at festivals that you want to make sure that we are aware of that we look for that are coming out in the next year?

Keith: I’ll be honest. Like, at Sundance, I was at Sundance. We had our movie there. I saw one other movie. It’s just when you have a movie premiering at a festival that you’re selling and doing all the marketing PR around you don’t – I find I don’t have time to watch anything.

The film that I saw recently that it’s not helpful because it’s not out in the US. There’s a movie called Down Under that’s an Australian independent film that’s fantastic. And it was so good that I immediately reached out to that writer-director about doing his next movie which we luckily were able to do. But it’s a comedy about a real race riot in Australia. And it has tinges of Get Out and that type of where it’s a commercially-minded movie that deals with very real issues in the world. And I’d say Down Under is an incredible movie. And if you are in a country where it has been released, I highly recommend checking it out.

John: Talk to me about how you reached out to him. Did you reach out through Twitter? Did you reach out through official representatives and channels? How did you get to him?

Keith: So, I’ll tell you. The short version is that it premiered at Fantastic Fest, which I wasn’t at, but I have had films at before and I kind of know people there. And a friend of mine who lives in Austin was at Fantastic Fest and he said, “Oh, you have to see Down Under. It’s the best movie at the festival.”

I then went on Studio System and looked up the director. And I saw that coincidentally he had just been signed by the same agent who represents Adam Wingard who is a director I’ve worked with a bunch. So I reached out to the agent and said, “I hear this movie is great. Is there any way I can see it?” And he got me a screener. I watched the movie with Jess and we both loved it. And I said, “Can I talk to the director?” And the agent set up a Skype and we Skyped.

John: Great.

Keith: And then the next time he was in LA we got dinner together with him and with his producing partner.

John: Great. So that’s the situation of this wasn’t anything he did to get to you. He made something good, put it out in the world, and people came to him because it was good.

Keith: Exactly. And I will say that that’s often what the path is. I think that there’s a tendency to feel like the proactive thing an aspiring writer-director should be doing is reaching out to people with query letters or emails or things like that. And I actually think the proactive thing you should be doing is making things. And then showing them to as many people as you can show them to and hope that that goes somewhere.

John: I’ve had a series of assistants who have gone on to become great writers and busy employed writers. And they always ask me, “How will I know that it’s happening? How do I know that it’s all going to happen?” And to me it’s always when I hear that their scripts got passed around to people who they didn’t hand them to. And basically when someone read something that was good enough that it just got passed around. And that’s almost always kind of the case where it’s the work itself. And so it’s doing really good work, putting it out there in a way that people can discover it, because it’s not going to do any good on your shelf. And then it just kind of happens. It’s what happened for me and it sounds like it’s what happened for this filmmaker.

Keith: Yeah. I think so much of what launches careers is word of mouth about your work and word of mouth about you as a person. Those are the two things. And I think that in the case of with Adam and Simon it was the word of mouth that you would all work really well together, which I heard from four or five different people. With the case of Abe who did Down Under it was, “Hey, you have to see this movie. You’ll love this movie.”

John: Cool. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a book called Liar Town: The First Four Years 2013-2017 by Sean Tejaratchi. I’m going to mispronounce his name. But Liar Town is a great site on the Internet. You should go type, I think liartown.com. And you will see that there are absurd images and memes that this guy has created with ridiculously good Photoshop skills. They’re always found things, as if he found this book that existed on a shelf, but of course he made it up. The book version of this sort of takes all the stuff that he’s done on his site and prints it in a terrific form.

If you buy this book you should not leave it out where children can see it or your parents can see it because there’s lots of dirty images. But it’s one of the most hilarious things I’ve seen to the point where like, if I read it at night, I hurt from it – stomach and chest hurt from laughing so much. So I’d recommend Liar Town: The First Four Years.

Do you have a One Cool Thing?

Keith: I do. I thought about this a lot, because I’m an avid listener to the podcast, so I’ve heard many cool things at this point. Mine is the Eco-Cha Tea Club which is a – there’s a lot of these online things where you sort of pay a subscription fee and they send you different things each month. This is an oolong tea club based in Taiwan. These guys that go out and find small farms that have small stock oolong tea leaves and they send you a bag of tea leaves every month. And it’s different ones every month and they are all delicious and incredible and I’ve now become a big supporter of Eco-Cha Tea Club. And I’ve been a member for a few years and I’m never let down by the tea they send me.

John: That’s fantastic. That is one of the most esoteric One Cool Things. Well done, Keith Calder. That’s a very good job.

I have a tiny bit of WGA business here at the very end. So the WGA will have just sent out a screenwriter survey to all of the screenwriters in the WGA about what they’re experiencing in their daily life. It takes about 10 minutes. I think it’s a well-designed survey. We went through so many iterations of it. So if you are a screenwriter in the WGA West you will get an email with a link. Please click that link. It takes 10 minutes to fill it out. It will really help us figure out what you’re facing out there in the world.

And that’s our show this week. Our show is produced, as always, by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Luke Davis. If you have an outro you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you can send questions like David’s question.

We’re on Facebook, maybe. I don’t know if we should still be on Facebook. Facebook seems like it’s a sinking ship. But you can look for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can look for us on Apple Podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there you can leave us a comment.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. And the transcripts which go up in about a week.

I am on Twitter @johnaugust. Keith, you are on Twitter as well.

Keith: I am Twitter @keithcalder.

John: Yes. You often answer questions about film and stuff and you’re a great person to follow. I’ve followed you for many, many years.

Keith: I sometimes answer questions about film. Mostly it’s nonsense.

John: Nonsense is what Twitter is for.

You can find all the back episodes of Scriptnotes at Scriptnotes.net or you can buy a USB drive with the first 300 episodes at store.johnaugust.com.

Keith Calder, thank you so much for coming on the show. It was so good to be able to talk to you about film stuff that I just don’t even know about.

Keith: Thank you so much for having me on. I hope that I gave useful answers.

John: Great. Thanks Keith.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Introducing AlphaBirds

Tue, 03/27/2018 - 18:45

In addition to making apps like Highland and Weekend Read, my little company makes physical stuff, including Writer Emergency Pack and One Hit Kill.

Today, we’re releasing a new game called AlphaBirds. It’s a word game like Scrabble® or Boggle®, but faster and more fun.1

AlphaBirds is ridiculously simple to learn.

  1. On your turn, draw two cards.
  2. Play one card in front of you, and one in front of any other player.
  3. Make words if you can. Longer words are worth more points.

Yes: there are more rules. But that’s the gist. Most players pick it up in 30 seconds or less.

We’ve been playing AlphaBirds in the office every Friday afternoon for more than a year. It’s the perfect game for lunchtime or beer o’clock. You can carry on a conversation while playing, and don’t have to keep things in your hand. You draw; you play; you’re finished until it’s your turn again. Most games last about 10 minutes.

AlphaBirds isn’t a Kickstarter. It’s available today. It’s $19 + shipping.

For now, AlphaBirds is only available through our own store. If you like word games, I think you’ll dig it.

  1. As a fan of both Scrabble and Boggle, I stand by this statement. AlphaBirds is more fun than either of these games.

Scriptnotes, Ep 342: Getting Paid for It — Transcript

Tue, 03/27/2018 - 11:03

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 342 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

We’ve had a bunch of craft episodes back to back, so today I thought we’d take a look at the business side of things. We’re going to talk about getting paid, getting credit, and getting rid of a bad manager.

Craig: Yes! Oh my god, that’s like the trifecta of stuff that makes me pleased.

John: Very good. We’ve done almost no preparation for this episode, so it’s going to be making up answers as we go, which is sometimes the best thing.

Craig: You know, John, welcome to my world buddy. This is every episode for me.

John: We have some follow up though. Chaz from Disney wrote in to say, “On the last episode of Scriptnotes, Craig and John pitched a ‘standing offer’ to come and discuss the notes process with any studio that was interested in having such a discourse. I ran the idea past our president, Sean, and we agreed. As two gentlemen that we hold in very high regard, we’d like to take them up on that offer.”

So, that’s one studio down.

Craig: It’s not just one studio. It’s actually five studios. So, if I could have picked one studio to do this, it would have been Disney, not because they’re particularly good or bad at giving notes. It’s more that they cover so much. They now own Fox, in terms of movies, and Disney, and Disney Animation, and Pixar, and Marvel, and Lucas Film. That’s a lot of notes going out the door. And Sean Bailey, who is the head of Walt Disney Pictures, so that’s their live action film arm from Disney, is fantastic. We both know him and have worked with him and for him.

And I’m not surprised that he’s the guy who said yes to this, by the way. It’s very Sean-like to want –- he’s a good scientist in this regard. You know, he’s very rational and he loves the idea of kind of hearing another point of view on this.

So, I want to say to – so first of all, we’re doing it, for sure.

John: Yeah. We need to figure out when we’re doing it. Sometime post-Chernobyl or sometime.

Craig: It will be post-Chernobyl. I mean, we are all living in a post-Chernobyl era, but probably as we get into the summer. But I would also like to point out to any of you listening at Sony or Universal or Warner Bros., Disney is doing it.

John: It’ll be nice.

All right, so the question is what exactly are we going to say because it’s very easy to point out like bad things about notes, but even since we got this email in I started asking other writer friends about what are examples of good notes –- what is a helpful way to sort of give notes?

So, if you are a writer who has gotten good notes from a studio, or have received notes that were actually helpful or presented in a way that was helpful. It could be the means of getting the notes, or the structure of the notes, or who was giving the notes, let us know about that because we’d like to talk about best practices and not just complain about things that are terrible.

Craig: Completely. And, in fact, I don’t think it’s particularly useful to run down a list of here’s the dumbest note I ever got. That’s not what this is about. For me, this is entirely about process and philosophy. And very specifically what is going on in our brains, in an emotional sense, and in a productive sense. What is happening inside of our heads when we’re doing this? And what are the general philosophies that work best?

The whole point of this is entirely to get better work made. So better work out of us. Better work for them. And some of it is a little counterintuitive. There are things that I think have just become encrusted in the notes process that need to be looked at freshly and then dismissed. They are no longer useful. They’re not the right way to do it.

John: Yeah. They are barnacles on the system that need to be shaken free.

Craig: Hells yeah.

John: Hells yeah. Next up, Jen writes, “In Episode 340 both John and Craig use the term ‘central casting’ to describe a character. Can you describe what you mean by this?”

Craig: This is an old Hollywood term that’s kicked around forever and then has made its way into general lingo out there. Central casting refers to the most stereotypical example of how you would fill a role. So, if you say, OK, well this character of the prison guard is straight out of central casting, well who would you imagine is the most stereotypical prison guard? This big beefy guy with a buzz cut and kind of tough looking.

I mean, whatever it is that you imagine. It’s just the most stereotypical version of that person.

John: Yeah. So central casting, there was a casting department at a lot of studios. I think there still is a casting department at most studios. I know like networks will have the casting department. But it doesn’t sort of work that same way now. When we talk about central casting, we’re describing the look of the person. So it’s both the actor and how that character is made up. And so that’s the, again, the incredible stereotype of what that’s supposed to be like.

So it’s the nurse with horn-rimmed glasses. There is a very set idea of what that thing is like. So, you can say central casting in your script if you’re trying to sort of push against it or that it’s an example of why you want to be the biggest stereotype possible. But it’s not generally helpful. And so usually, if hear the term central casting, it is pejorative in that it is not well thought through.

Craig: Yeah. Inside of our business it’s pejorative. So you’ll say, OK, well you’ve written this butler character to be straight out of central casting. He’s a ramrod posture British man at the age of 60 who says, “Very good sir.” That’s central casting. It’s cliché. We don’t like it so much.

In the outside world, behind Hollywood, a lot of times they use it as a compliment like, well, we had to hire ourselves a new head CEO and we found this person and they were straight out of central casting, meaning they’re just the ideal person for that gig. So, two different meanings, but inside Hollywood not so great. Outside, generally pretty good.

John: I’m not sure. I think it’s changing outside of the world, too. Like your example of a CEO out of central casting, it does feel a little unimaginative. Like you’re worried that that person does not have a vision.

Craig: I think in the business world that’s considered a plus.

John: Although I would say, you know, the central casting version of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, like that I totally get. You still see that out there.

Craig: Right. Exactly.

John: Yep. With the hoodie.

Craig: With the hoodie.

John: Kevin writes, “I’m listening to you guys argue about Sarah Paradise’s three pages as I type. I’ve been a stuntman in LA since 1999. Craig, you’re right.”

Craig: Oh, let’s just stop the podcast here. We’re done. Wrap it up. We had a great run. Folks–

John: 342 episodes.

Craig: At that’s our episode. Scriptnotes is produced by–

John: Now fill out your forms. Make sure you return all your uniforms. Erase all those little notes in the margins because we’re done.

Craig: We’re done.

John: Craig has finally been proven right.

Craig: Finally.

John: There’s a little bit more to the email, so we’ll get through it.

Craig: Ah, OK.

John: “Stunt people don’t punch each other in the face, especially stunt people who happen to be attractive women. If we are accidentally hit during a fight on a show or a movie we pretend it didn’t happen, then whisper to the person who did it to say you clipped me on that one. Then they apologize profusely. This is because how we look is a large part of how we get employed. Hell, we don’t even get haircuts for fear of losing work because an actor has to be doubled with long hair.

“Side note: I’ve been writing for about 17 years. I’ve been listening to current episodes as they come out, but I’m also on Episode 80 on the back catalog. The back episodes are fresh and informative because I’m a different writer now than I was a few years ago. I recommend that every listener go back through the old episodes again. It’s not like watching reruns. It’s more like watching Fight Club for the second time.”

Craig: Wow. That’s a hell of a compliment.

John: That really is.

Craig: Thank you, Kevin. I mean, by the way, also just a brilliant analogy, because I remember the first time I watched Fight Club and I was like what is this garbage? Then I got to the end. And then I watched it again and I was like, oh, this is my new favorite movie of all time. And I’ve seen it a billion times since.

Yeah, by the way, Kevin, first of all thank you. You sound like a very responsible stunt actor, stunt performer, so thank you for also doing that job. We need you. And also I’m a different writer then I was back then, too. I think everybody is changing constantly. This podcast as it goes on is an interesting kind of archeological record of me and of John and of all of us. So, thanks. Really nice comment.

John: It is a nice comment. I would say that making Launch, the other podcast I did for Arlo Finch, even as I was making it I realized like, oh, this will actually be a great little time capsule of who I was and where I was at that time, because it’s really like what the experience was like of making that book. And I’m looking forward to being able to go back 10 years, 20 years from now and listening to that again.

I don’t know that I’ll go back to listen to the old Scriptnotes, but I’m sure if I did go back and listen to some, there’d be advice I gave or things I talked about which I have a different opinion on now just because things have progressed and changed. The industry has changed and I have changed a bit as a writer.

Craig: I mean, and the world around us. Everything. Everything. If we were the same, what would be the point anyway? Right? I mean, things keep changing. Even though I’m joking about how exciting it is to hear that I’m right, the truth is as writers we spend most of our day being wrong. That’s part of the process. And that’s how good things will eventually come. You recognize that you’re in motion all the time. So, we’re like little butterflies that flit around, then we land on an opinion. We can stay there for a little bit, and then we’ve got to flit away and find something better. So, all good. Thank you for that Kevin.

And I have a little bit of follow up myself. Because I talked about being wrong. OK, so I had my one brief moment of being right there. Yay. Now let’s get back to me being wrong again.

My One Cool Thing last week was Alto’s Odyssey, a game I was really enjoying and still am. But I had one complaint and that was that when I downloaded it for my iPad it did not show up on my iPhone. In fact, the iPhone was saying, hey, you got to give us more money now. And I thought, oh, they’ve made this app where you have to pay for it twice for some reason because it’s on an iPad versus an iPhone.

No, no. It’s just that I had stupidly disabled my automatic iCloud app download function thingy. So, when I flipped that back on suddenly Alto’s Odyssey was available for download for no money, because I had already paid for it. I apologize Alto’s Odyssey people. My mistake. Sorry.

John: Yeah. It was user error.

Craig: It was totally user error. And you know what? I’ll tell you, it’s not like anyone told me. The Alto’s Odyssey people didn’t call up. If they heard about it, they probably just shook their heads and said, “Idiot.” But they let it go.

John: Yeah. Because you were that one person. I mean, there might be like 10 or 12 people in the world who are using this app and you are one of them. And I’m sure they were saddened that one of their 12 players wasn’t getting the best experience out of it.

Craig: Well, first of all, they spend their days listening to us. And specifically me. I’m pretty sure what they do is they just listen to my side of it. And, you know, they hang on every word. I get it. And I’m sorry. What do you want from me? I apologize.

John: All right, let’s get to some questions and all of these questions are from our listeners and they’ve written in about things that relate to the business of screenwriting. So, I thought we’d dig into those. They’re almost all feature questions, but I think there’s going to be some relevant things here for people writing for TV, both scripted TV and variety talk shows.

Craig: Right.

John: So we’ll start with Anonymous in LA. Writes, “I’m a young screenwriter who recently quit my well-paying salary job to pursue screenwriting full-time.”

Craig: Oh boy.

John: “I can hear Craig saying oh boy as I type this.”

Craig: Oh, interesting.

John: “Last year I wrote a script that earned a substantial amount of attention. And placed near the top of the Black List. It got me an agent and several dozen meetings with studios and production companies. Because I was taking mini meetings each week and could no longer fulfill the duties of my job, I decided to quit about three months ago. While I do not regret this decision, I have never been without steady work. And this new situation is quite frankly terrifying. I find myself in a constant state of anxiety and depression surrounding my unemployment. I am working towards securing work by pitching open assignments, but so far I have landed nothing.

“My question is, how do you deal with the anxiety and depression that comes from the instability of this profession?”

Craig: Well, we have talked about this quite a bit. So, first of all, Anonymous, you’re going to want to listen to Episode 99, that’s a big one I think that we talk about a lot. That’s where we had psychotherapist Dennis Palumbo, and also former screenwriter, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Dennis Palumbo onto talk a little bit about the psychological challenges that we face as screenwriters. It is very, very hard to do what you’re doing. I feel anxiety and depression and terror surrounding potential unemployment and so when you are actually unemployed I can only imagine it is even more crushing. And I can also imagine it becomes extremely hard to be creative and inspired. My guess is the adrenaline is really good for volume, that is you will write because you’re terrified, but the quality of it is going to start to become warped by your perception of what they want and what they will give you money for.

Suddenly the money becomes really, really, really important. It’s not to say that when you start out you shouldn’t be taking jobs for the money. It’s not a bad idea. You have to pay bills. And all experience is good experience. But I am concerned about your situation because you did quit and you are scared. And you have not been paid yet. And so I think it’s fair to say that you should try and find something that brings in some money. Maybe there’s some freelance work you can do. Maybe your agent, for instance, can hook you up with somebody that needs some copywriting done. Little things. Anything. Just to get a little bit of money in so you’re not in just a total freefall about money going out and nothing coming in. That is terrifying. And more than anything it’s not so much about your bank account, it’s about your head space and feeling like when you sit down to write you’re not doing it with a gun in your mouth.

John: Yep. I will say Anonymous I think you made the right choice. And I don’t know anything about your situation beyond what you described, but in your situation that is when you just decide, OK, I’m going to have to pursue this fulltime because otherwise I can’t take these meetings. I can’t make this all happen.

So, you got to pull the ripcord at some point and you probably pulled the ripcord at the right moment. But it is scary. And I was exactly where you were at where I left my last job and I had not sold anything, but I had an agent and I had some traction. I was taking meetings. It looked like something could happen. But there were about four months there, five months there where there was just nothing and I was just falling. And one of those slow motion falls where you’re sort of swimming through the air. So I definitely remember what that felt like.

I think Craig’s suggestion of trying to find some way to get some income is good. And freelance copywriting could be something. Uber or Lyft could be something. Something so there’s a little bit of money coming in would be great.

Minimizing your expenses would be great, because if you’re a person who came from a salary job you’re used to like, oh OK, I can make this all work because I know how much money I have coming in. When you don’t know how much money you have coming in that all changes. And you’ve got to be realistic about how your life is going to change. Because even when you hopefully do get a job or sell something, that will be a chunk of money and that chunk of money will disappear.

So what I did in Anonymous’ situation was I had a little spreadsheet and I had my monthly expenses. I knew how much it cost for me to live each month with rent, with utilities, with food. I minimized those as much as I could, but I could see like this is how much money I have. This is how I can live for six months on the money I have. And you’ll get through it.

So I think you’ve done the right thing but I think you’re also right to be thinking about “How do I prepare for this thing that could go on a little bit longer than I’d hoped.”

Craig: Yeah. I think she or he has done the right thing, too. I definitely think so. I mean, based on what you’re saying, placed near the top of the Black List. You have an agent. You’ve had meetings and attention. All that says, yes, you did the right thing.

And I will tell you that the worst part of your fear, I think, at least for me, is the fear of the fear itself -– that it will never go away. That this is your life now. That you now live in a terrible freefall as John described. And it’s not going to get better. Or, if you do get a job it’s only a brief respite and then you’re right back in the fear pit again. So all I can tell you, Anonymous, is no.

Here’s the situation: you will either succeed in a reasonable way so as to make yourself a life and a career as a screenwriter. Or you won’t, and then you will go back to doing what your well-paying salary job was. The good news is you’re young so it’s OK to be afraid but don’t think this is forever. The feeling that you’re having now is not forever.

John: Yeah. It will morph into a different kind of forever feeling.

Craig: Which is also exquisitely horrible. But wait until you’re in your 40s and then you’ll know about that one.

John: Yes. So what I would say is different about my advice for Anonymous than for some other writers is that Anonymous is in a situation where –- we’ll say she –- she placed well on the Black List, she has an agent, she’s going out for these meetings. It’s not just an idle dream that she has of being a screenwriter. Like she’s a screenwriter, it’s just a question of getting paid to be a screenwriter and whether that will happen. I think it probably will happen. As we’ve always said, any person starting in the feature business right now has to also be looking at television, so hopefully your agents are sending you out on great television meetings as well.

But I think something will probably happen because you seem to be a good writer who is asking smart questions.

Craig: Yeah. One last bit of advice for you, and then we’ll move on from Anonymous, it’s good that you’re going out for the open assignments. Open assignments are lotteries really. Because what happens with open assignments is they are casting a pretty wide net. You’re going up against a lot of people who are exactly like you. And at any given moment either one of them will get the job, or someone like John will bump into the executive one day, they’ll have a chitchat over a drink. That executive will say, “Oh, we’re working on this thing.” And then John will say, “Oh my god, based on that book? I loved that book as a kid.” “Really? Would you want to read?” “Yeah, I’ll read that. You know what? I can do that.” And then it’s over. There is no more open writing assignment.

So, point being, don’t let those things –- and this is the hardest part because you have to prepare. It’s like you’re writing a movie a week preparing to pitch on these things. But don’t let that distract you from what got you in this position in the first place which was your voice and writing your work. That is the one thing that John can’t do, nor can anyone else. No one else can write your script. So, keep that going. That is going to keep you fresh and in people’s eyes.

They are so much more interested in writers that are sending them things than writers who are coming in with their hand out saying give me something.

John: Yeah. The third possibility in those open writing assignments is that the job just completely goes away because they decide like, oh, maybe there isn’t a movie to be made about this. And I would say in more than half the cases they hire nobody for those jobs. And so that is the other frustration. But what you’re describing, that process of going out for an open writing assignment, or a quasi-open writing assignment, like they’re not even sure they’re going to really be making this movie, is it’s like an actor going out on auditions. And auditioning is a crucial skill for actors and pitching on these things is a crucial skill for writers.

I’d hoped to have her on the show at some point and maybe we’ll still have her on the show, but Jenna Fischer has a really good book on being an actor and sort of an actor’s life. And she talks a lot about that audition process and how crucial it is in terms of finding your own voice going through that audition process. So I’m going to recommend that to you to read through as well, because actors and writers have a lot in common in this area.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Cool. Theo writes in with four questions. So we’ll take each question one at a time. His first question is, “How many scripts did you write before making your first sale?” Craig Mazin?

Craig: One.

John: So you wrote one script. What was that script?

Craig: It was a script that I wrote with my then writing partner called The Stunt Family.

John: Oh yeah, we’ve talked about The Stunt Family.

Craig: It was not good. But it was funny. It was just not good. It was very dated, very early ‘90s sort of Simpsons-y kind of live action thing. A very broad comedy about a legendary family of stunt people. Very silly. Sort of like a Chris Farley kind of thing.

John: Did they hit each other in the face?

Craig: Oh my god, like that was constant.

John: Because according to our follow up, they shouldn’t hit each other in the face.

Craig: Well, that’s the thing. Because this movie was so ridiculous and over the – I mean, they lived on the studio lot. Their house was part of the studio tour, so every day a tram would go through and an “earthquake” would rip their house apart. It was very, very broad.

John: I wrote three scripts before I had anything sold or I got paid to write. So, Here and Now, which was a romantic tragedy set in Boulder, Colorado, my home town. Devil’s Canyon, which is a cross between Unforgiven and Aliens I want to say. And X which was the short film version of Go, so it was just the first third of Go. So those are the scripts I’d written before that.

My first sale was actually an assignment. I was hired to write the adaptation of How to Eat Fried Worms. Was your first sale a sale, Craig?

Craig: Yes. Well, it was a pitch.

John: It was Rocket Man?

Craig: It was Rocket Man. That’s exactly what it was. When we pitched it the title that we had was Space Cadet, which we eventually were not allowed to use because Lucas Film apparently was squatting on Space Cadet, which I’m still waiting for the Lucas Film Space Cadet. It’s been about 22 years.

John: Any day now.

Craig: Any day. They’re on it.

John: Theo’s next question is, “How many scripts have you written that have not been made?” For me the answer is at least 11. I was counting through in the folder. It’s probably more than that, but at least 11.

Craig: Now, does that include things like, OK, where I came in and I was rewriting something and then eventually that project just never happened?

John: Yeah, so I’m not counting those. I actually have printed original full scripts I wrote that were not based on a previous script.

Craig: Oh, I see. Geez, maybe like three. Not that many. Because most of the time I was either rewriting something that somebody else had started or it was an adaptation of something that kind of had been sputtered along. Or it was kind of like a sequel. There was a lot of that.

John: Theo’s next question, “How many scripts have you written that have never been optioned or sold?”

Craig: I’ve never optioned anything.

John: I’ve never optioned anything either. The only thing I ever sold was Go.

Craig: I’ve never sold a screenplay.

John: Well except for Rocket Man.

Craig: That was a pitch.

John: Oh, it was a pitch. The pitch. That’s right. A pitch.

Craig: Yeah. I’ve actually never sold literary material like that. I’ve either been commissioned to do it, or I have sold a pitch.

John: Yeah. I’ve sold some original pitches, but I’ve never sold a spec script, except for Go.

Craig: Except for Go, yeah.

John: “And what was the story behind your first sale? How much did you sell it for?” Well, my only sale was Go. I think it was about $75,000, sort of all in. So it was purchasing the script and the rewrite on it. That was for a little tiny company called Banner. We ended up selling the project to Sony right before we started shooting. But it was really done as an indie film.

So, that was fine money for what that was. So they said in that deal that I’d be a co-producer on the film and I’d be involved in the whole process and they were true to their word. So, it was a very good deal for me to have taken.

Craig: Yeah, so my first sale was the pitch for Space Cadet/Rocket Man. It was to Disney. It was 1995, I think, is when it happened. Roughly I believe we got something like $110,000, which then we had to split, of course, and then we had to pay our manager, and our agent, and our lawyer. So, it dwindled pretty quickly. And that was also when we learned how long it would take the contract to actually be finished therefore how long it would take us to actually get our money. So, for one day we felt like billionaires, even though we understood $100,000 was not a billion dollars. About eight months later I was like, “Can I please have my $15,000?” Because that’s all I’m getting out of this really. After taxes.

But, yeah, at the time it seemed pretty awesome.

John: Yeah. So I will say the first thing I actually got paid for, sort of two things I got paid for. I wrote the novelization of Natural Born Killers and that was the money that I was living off of for those six months before I actually got paid for other things. The money I got for How to Eat Fried Worms was WGA scale. So the minimum they could legally pay me. It was about $35,000 I want to say. But then I ended up doing multiple drafts on it, so over time I got more money than that.

But that’s why we have to have scale. If we did not have the WGA enforcing minimums, there’s no way I could have been a professional screenwriter.

Craig: No. No way anybody could be. I mean, that’s the whole point.

John: Well, some really rich people could be.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, but what a weird way to spend your life as a really rich person, just idly writing screenplays that make other people massive amounts of money but not you.

John: Yep.

Craig: Hmm.

John: Hmm. Do you want to take James’s question?

Craig: I do. James says, “I recently found myself owing $1,500 to the tax man. And it started me thinking about the business side of being a screenwriter. Do you treat your screenwriting as a business? By that I mean registering as an LLC, a limited liability company, or other entity? And what sort of expenses could you claim as a writer? Especially when you have no guaranteed income if you’re working on a spec script.”

John, all good nuts and bolts questions. What do you say?

John: So, yes, I do treat it as a business. And most screenwriters do treat it as a business once they start getting paid. So for our international listeners I think we should explain a little bit about companies in the US and how it all works. An LLC, I think it’s called a limited corporation in the UK, every country has some ability to have a corporation where instead of paying you as an individual they pay a company. And that company then employs you to do the work.

So, for screenwriters it is either through S-Corp or a C-Corp rather than an LLC. I am a C-Corp. Most screenwriters I know are S-Corps. There are subtle differences about how they can work, what deductions they can take. Both are fine. I’m a California corporation. You can incorporate in another state if that is more helpful to you.

But, yes, at a certain point you’re getting paid enough money that it makes sense to be a corporation rather than an individual person. So like for Go, my first sale, that was purchased from me. And so those checks go to John August. They don’t go to my corporation. So it’s always weird because I get separate residual statements for those things. And everything else goes to the corporation.

I will also say I do also have an LLC. So like this podcast and my software business, those are all run through the LLC rather than the C-Corp. It has to do with like a C-Corp really can’t have inventory and stuff like that. Whereas we have t-shirts and USB drives and stuff like that. And for accounting purposes it was really important that that be through a different branch. And that’s all through the LLC.

Craig: That’s how you’re laundering money and keeping it away from me. I know what’s going on. Continue.

John: That’s true. Craig, are you a C-Corp or an S-Corp?

Craig: I’m an S-Corp. I do not know the difference, but it’s just what they told me to be. I, like you, am incorporated in California. You have two numbers when you’re a corporation in the United States. You have a federal ID number which begins with the number 95 and then you have your state corporate number. And the reason is you’re paying taxes to both federal and state.

It would be awesome if you could incorporate in any state. And, in fact, you kind of can. If you’re a large corporation you often incorporate in Delaware because they have incredibly, well, just loving, lovey laws for corporations. They end up paying far, far less in taxes and all the rest.

However, when it comes to what we do it’s essentially impossible to incorporate anywhere other than the place where you are actually doing the bulk of your business. Believe me, I wish that I could do the bulk of my business across the state line in Nevada, and then I wouldn’t have to pay any state tax at all, although then I would just be a bad person. But pretty much every screenwriter is incorporated either as a C or an S in California. Like you, John, my residual checks for Rocket Man come to me and maybe Senseless, not that there’s that much coming in for that one, but regardless everything after that comes in through the corporate thing.

And, James, you’re right. You can claim all sorts of expenses as a writer. Easy ones off the top: every dollar you pay to your agent. Every dollar you pay to your lawyer. Every dollar you pay to your manager. That is a fair deduction. Also, the dues you pay to the Writers Guild. A fair deduction. Then if you have an office or office rent. You can even get away with a home office, although it’s a little bit of a red flag for the IRS. Computer equipment. Paper. Toner. Your cellphone.

Now, here’s the thing. One of the reasons that they tell us to incorporate is because it allows us to deduct a lot of these things without running into this whole alternative minimum tax business. I don’t really understand it. I’ll just be frank about it. All I can tell you is everyone is told to do it. It can’t be wrong. It just can’t be. So that’s kind of how it works.

John: Absolutely. The other thing I would say is helpful about a corporation is as a WGA writer you have a WGA pension. It’s lovely that we have a pension, but there’s a limit to how much you can sock away in that pension because it’s a union plan. You can establish your own pension and put money in for your pension for your corporation and that is a helpful thing as well.

So, for long term planning that is a reason why you would be doing that.

Craig: That’s my first level like every year the first level investment is the retirement plans and so forth that we’ve set up through the corporation. Because that is the best investment you can make because they don’t take tax off of it until you finally withdraw it later on in life.

John: Yeah. It’s been interesting. I’ve had some assistants, like Stuart Friedel, who were with the company long enough that they actually vested in the pension plan, which was kind of great. So it’s funny that Stuart has a pension through my corporation.

Craig: It’s going to be paying out for a long time because Stuart just seems like the kind of guy that’s going to make it to 148.

John: Oh, easily. Stuart Friedel will never die. He’ll find a way out. Like death will show up for him, and Stuart will negotiate a much better deal.

Craig: Forever Friedel.

John: Anonymous writes, “I was recently having lunch with an actor friend. The actor told me that all actors freely claim unemployment when they are not working. Up to $300 or $400 a week. I Googled it and SAG even has instructions on how to do this. The idea is that actors are only working while they are on set basically. All other times they are ‘looking for work’ and therefore eligible for unemployment. Does the same apply to writers in the WGA?”

Craig: I believe so. The issue has to do a little bit with this whole loan out company situation, but basically then your loan out company, meaning your corporation, as they pay you they’re paying the unemployment money. So the idea is when you work your employer has to send a bunch of money to the state on your behalf out of each paycheck that they’re responsible for, which is unemployment insurance. And then when you are out of work you apply to receive that unemployment back.

So, yeah, I’ve actually never done it.

John: So, Craig, I don’t think he was talking about the writers who have their own corporations. But what you’re saying is just fascinating, because I don’t know any writers with their own corporations who have done that. I think of that as sort of the writers who are still trying to get up to the point where they will have incorporated.

Craig: I mean, I think it would work either way. Now, when you are paid as a corporation what happens is a bunch of money comes into the corporation and then the corporation gives you a salary. This is part of how the corporation is viewed as legitimate by tax entities. So out of those paychecks there is some unemployment. But, yes, generally speaking if you have a corporation, money is coming through, this is not a problem for you anyway. But, yeah, I mean, look, it’s your money. Somebody once explained it to me, because I think a lot of people think, “Oh, he applied for unemployment, it’s like, oh, he went on welfare. He’s on the dole.”

No. It’s your money. It’s money that your employer had to send into the state on your behalf specifically for this situation. So, while I’ve never done it, I don’t see why you shouldn’t. It’s not a question of applying to writers in the WGA. It’s a question of applying just to citizens who work in the United States.

John: Yeah. So I know that production office staff will also do this where production office people will be working incredibly long hours on shows and then when that show wraps they will take some time off and get their unemployment for a while. They’ll do what they need to do in order to be “looking for work,” but that is sort of a planned part of how it all works.

I don’t know where the ethical lines are on claiming unemployment, but I will say that it is a not uncommon practice. And if it allows a class of people who are writers and actors and production people to exist between jobs, I get it.

Craig: Yep. For sure. That’s what it’s there for.

John: All right, Jay, in Los Angeles writes, “I sold a screenplay two years ago to a major studio. The script went into production this past September.”

Craig: Hmm.

John: So, “The script went into production this past September. I found about this through a friend working on the film.”

Craig: Wow.

John: “I also found out the writer-director attached to the film reworked the script, turning it into a sequel to a mildly successful comedy, all still using the title of my script to the film. The film is scheduled to come out in theaters in October of this year. No one has contacted me in regards to the film. I see write-ups on the film, but my name is not attached. I’ve looked up information on the film, but I have yet to see my name attached to it anywhere. All of the credits are listed on IMDb, except for the writer, which is odd. It’s as if they’re purposely not posting the writer’s name.

“My greatest fear is that the writer-director will take full credit for the film and I will be left out in the cold without a credit even. Even though I sold the original script. I also found out that a production company, not connected to the studio, financed the film. The studio I sold the script to will only be distributing the film.

“In short, studio buys my script. Separate production company offers to finance it through their company. It is then reworked to become a sequel. The production company shoots the film. The studio will distribute the film. I’m not a member of the Writers Guild, so what the F do I do?”

Craig?

Craig: Well, all this comes down to one single question. You are not a member of the Writers Guild, and yet you have sold a screenplay to a major studio. The major studio, by definition therefore, is a signatory to the Writers Guild. All major studios are signatory to the Writers Guild. Which means it had to have been a Writers Guild deal. If it is a Writers Guild deal, that is to say your contract is covered under the terms of the MBA, well first of all if it’s a screenplay and you sold it you should have become a member of the Writers Guild. But putting that aside, if it’s covered under the Writers Guild Minimum Basic Agreement then you don’t have to worry because the credits are going to be determined by the Writers Guild.

Now, you have to be on top of this because – well, actually you don’t. You don’t have to be on top of it because the writer-director has written on it and therefore there’s going to be an automatic arbitration. And you are guaranteed minimum Story by credit if it’s an original screenplay. And you may very well earn yourself Screenplay credit as well, depending on what the actual shooting script ended up looking like.

If you somehow didn’t sell it to a signatory, I would be confused how that happened considering that you said you sold it to a major studio, then in this case your script is viewed as source material. It is not covered by the Writers Guild. The studio, I believe, will be obliged to say based on a screenplay by Jay in Los Angeles. You will not get residuals for it. They don’t have to invite you to the premiere. There’s no guarantees of anything. That’s it. That’s what you get. Which is all the more reason why no one should sell screenplays to anyone if it’s not under the Writers Guild Minimum Basic Agreement.

John: Very true. So, Jay is not his real name. I emailed him when I saw this question this morning to try to get more details. Clearly some things have been changed in this email because I can’t Google to find out what this is. So don’t go Googling sequels in October because I think he’s changed some dates deliberately to obscure what’s happening here.

But I emailed him to ask what it actually was so Craig and I could figure out a little bit more closely like what might actually be happening here. I’m a little concerned that it could be a situation like The Disaster Artist. And we haven’t gotten into that because we just don’t know all the details yet, but essentially the lawsuit that was filed in The Disaster Artist was a very different kind of suit than we’ve seen in other things where like, “Oh, I sold my script” because clearly this person was writing a script for the actor and director of the film, but then other writers ended up writing a completely different script. And it became really unclear where this person’s script fell in the chain of title, or if there was a chain of title. It was a mess.

I’m worried that Jay’s situation may be a mess for some things we just don’t know about. So, that it wasn’t really a major, or sometimes – I remember back when I worked with Miramax, Miramax would have a whole separate arm that would buy non-WGA stuff. And that it could be some sort of weird arm’s length thing that they’re doing when they bought this thing. Or they bought it basically just for the title.

So, I’m a little concerned that there’s something going on here that we don’t know.

What I will say to Jay is don’t just sit on your hands and say like, “Oh I hope this all works out OK.” If you sold this thing, then you have an agent, a manager, a lawyer. You have somebody who represented you. Call them right now and ask. And then figure out who you sold it to and call them and ask what’s going on with this. Because just delaying and delaying, all you’re going to do is increase your anxiety. And you’re not going to make it worse for yourself by asking.

Craig: Right.

John: Ask now. Figure out what’s going on. Because it sounds like a situation where there should be a WGA credit arbitration. But if there’s not going to be one, you need to know that now.

Craig: Best advice.

John: Cool. Do you want to take Peter’s question?

Craig: Yeah. We’ve got Peter writing in. He says, “My wife was a full-time writer on a network late night show and now she has a successful full-time show of her own on a major podcast network. Two shows a week. But it is not a WGA show, which leads to my question do you have any suggestions on how to keep our health benefits through the WGA?”

All right, John, so she is doing a podcast. It’s not WGA. What does she do? What do they do?

John: Well, I don’t know of any WGA podcasts, but there probably should be and probably will be in the future because I think podcasts are occupying a space that feels a lot like what television has been in the past. What those deals are going to look like, I don’t know. But I think that’s a thing that will be coming at some point.

But at some point will not get you WGA insurance right now. So, if I were in your situation, Peter, I would encourage you to encourage your wife to find some WGA employment, writing on something that is covered by the WGA contract so she will earn WGA money that will pay for the health plan. Because WGA health insurance is fantastic and keeping it is a very good idea. So, if she can find some writing for some other late night show, for some other WGA-covered program, I think it’s probably worth it for her to be doing that because as busy as she probably is doing her own podcast, you know, keeping that WGA coverage is really a good idea.

Craig: Yeah. There’s nothing that is going to happen now in terms of this podcasting, even if down the line the WGA starts making deals for podcasts, it’s quite likely that the initial deals won’t involve health. I mean, the contributions from the employers to healthcare are the single largest expense that they incur as a result of their deal with the WGA, I think even more than residuals. I could be wrong about that, but it’s a lot.

And so all I can say Peter is if she’s loving this job and loving what she’s doing, maybe whatever you’re doing on your side can get you guys some health insurance because it’s not going to happen through the WGA this way. And there’s really no suggestion of how to keep it. The only way you keep WGA health insurance is by qualifying by hitting the income minimum each year. And if you don’t, then you get a little bit of time with COBRA as an extension. And if you’ve over-earned in prior years you have the point system, so you can use those points to kind of extend it a little bit. But after that, no.

So, check with the plan. Maybe you have some points where you can extend it a little bit. But that’s about it.

John: Yeah. This is the brief political rant I’ll have here. The idea that we have to be freaking out about her health insurance and Peter’s health insurance at this moment is maddening to me because it stifles innovation and it stifles this person who has gone off and does something else that’s great because she has to be worried about keeping her health plan. So she may need to go write on a crappy home improvement show just so she can keep her health insurance. And that’s just ridiculous.

Craig: Yeah. That’s a whole – you know, that’s a good side podcast, too. Maybe we can solve one of the great intractable problems of American politics. But it does seem like things are happening in a weird way. It was the strange response to Obamacare in our country, followed by the strange response to the threat of taking away Obamacare. We are an irrational people.

John: Deeply, deeply.

Craig: But things are happening that are different than I have noticed before. And I think the trend is toward universal coverage. That’s the way it feels to me. But it’s a long road ahead.

John: Yeah. Everyone outside of the US is saying–

Craig: Like what?

John: What do you mean? How do you live with this?

Craig: Duh.

John: Not well.

Craig: Yeah, well, yeah. Gina writes, “I optioned a script with a manager about nine months ago, and since then I’m not happy with the manager.” OK, Gina, you’re in my wheelhouse now. “And plan on cancelling our contract when it is up in a couple of months. My question is the script I optioned while with him is in the late stages of development and it’s really picking up steam towards financing. After I leave my current manager, is he still a part of the option? That is to say, does he get his 10% and the money going through him before it gets to me? Am I stuck with him forever on this deal? Or, am I able to dump him and get a new manager by sweetening the pot with a late developed screenplay on the table. After the current screenplay option ends I could sign a new one with the new manager, right?”

John, I like the way Gina thinks. Let me just put out there, I like the way her gears are turning. I like the way she thinks a lot.

John: Yeah. Getting rid of bad, unhelpful people is a goal we encourage. So, your situation depends on whatever this contract was you signed with him. There’s probably things beyond that, but this contract will be the thing that determines ultimately I think whether he stays attached to this project or not.

I don’t know what your contract look likes. Manager contracts can look very different. My hunch is you will not be able to shake him completely from this thing because it started underneath his little mantle. But that should not deter you from getting a better person on your team, because waiting it out for the clock to run out is not going to help you.

Craig: Yep. OK, so a couple of things, Gina. First of all, take a good careful look at that contract and discuss it with your lawyer. Most of us don’t sign contracts with representation. When they ask you to sign a contract it in general is a red flag. And what I would say to any manager or agent is if you need me to guarantee to you that I’m not going to leave for a while, that does not speak well of you. You should have the confidence to know that I’m going to stay because you’re doing your job well.

That aside, in these contracts very typically there will be an escape clause that says something like “You are bound to be the client for a two-year period, however this contract can be nullified if employment does not occur within any consecutive 90-day period,” let’s say. So you have to take a careful look at that and see if perhaps you can escape based on that clause alone. Because options are not employment. And, in fact, you’re saying, “Well, it’s in the late stages of development,” but have you been employed?

Right, so anyway, take a look at that. Second thing: after you leave your current manager, is he still part of the option – does he get his 10%? OK, so here’s the deal. Managers are not agents. Agents are attached to deals permanently. Agents are also bound by the Talent Agency Act. Managers aren’t. That gives them certain upsides, but also certain downsides. The way it has been explained to me by an attorney, and this was proven in my case through jurisprudence, managers are what they call on the wheel/off the wheel. They are not being paid for a deal. They are being paid for their ongoing services to you on a day-to-day basis. Meaning the day they stop working for you as a manager is the day you stop paying them.

So, there are a lot of ways to handle this. There are also things that you can – look, it depends on how unhappy you are with this manager. If you’re really unhappy, well talk to your lawyer and take a careful look and see if he’s violated the Talent Agency Act by attempting to procure you employment. And if you have proof of that that’s one phone call to the Labor Bureau in California and suddenly you have quite a bit of leverage there.

This is why I’m not generally a fan of the way a lot of these managers operate. You have more leverage I think than you realize. Definitely talk to your lawyer.

John: Great. I’ll go back to the first sentence here: I optioned a script with a manager about nine months ago. I don’t quite know what that means. And so I don’t know whether that manager signed on as a producer or kind of what happened there. I’d look at sort of what the actual agreement was there between you and this person who is a manager, but sometimes managers are also producers. If it’s a producer situation, whatever the deal is there is going to show up in that contract.

Craig: Yeah, you know what? There is an ambiguity there because the way I read it was that she optioned a script and the manager was along with her when they optioned it to a studio. But you’re right. It could be that he optioned the script, or she optioned the script, and then they’re acting as a producer. This is why I don’t like managers.

John: Yep.

Craig: Ugh.

John: It’s also why we don’t want agents to be doing managerial jobs, which they increasingly are doing.

Craig: God no.

John: God no.

Craig: Let’s hear from Mark.

John: Mark says, “I recently completed my first historical feature script and I’m currently looking for my next topic to tackle in the genre. However, I recently found out the historical figure I wanted to write about already has a major spec script sold about him with A-list actors attached to boot. I brushed it off and pivoted to a new historical event that was less famous, only to find out that this subject is also in development with A-list talent attached. Granted, one of the scripts has been in ‘production hell’ for over a decade. And the other is a fairly different take on my subject compared to what I had in mind.

“So should I just continue writing on these topics and hope that preexisting projects stay in production purgatory? And/or bank on my take on the subject matter being different enough? Or should I move on to a seemingly original topic to tackle?”

Craig, what should Mark do, our historical fiction writer?

Craig: Mark should stand still while I approach him and slap him. Slap! What do the five fingers say to Mark? Slap.

Mark, listen to me. Listen carefully. Everybody that anyone has ever heard of has a script about them in development somehow somewhere. Everybody. There are 12 different Winston Churchills on screens at any given moment on any given day all across the world. 10. 12. 15. Possibly 20 Churchills. It never ends. OK?

You will – listen to me, Mark – you will not care about that stuff. You will write your script. Either your script will or will not get made, but if it is beautiful and it is wonderful it is going to do wonders for you. The fact that one of the scripts you’re worried about has been kicking around for over a decade, well what else do you need to know? And the other one is a different take on this. You’re being way too concerned and scared and timid. My guess is that the historical figure you wanted to write about was a pretty brave person. Perhaps take some inspiration from them. And get back in there and do what you want to do. Write what you want to write. That will be the best script you are capable of writing.

John: Yep. I’d also say to Mark that it seems like your deal is that you love historical fiction about events and people of the past. If that’s your lane, stay in that lane. Do that thing and write really good scripts in there. And it’s helpful I think at the beginning to be a little bit stereotyped because then they know to go to you with that thing. So, don’t worry about it. Write the best script you can and then write the next best script you can.

Craig: That’s exactly right.

John: Cool. It is time for our One Cool Things. Craig? Oh, I know your One Cool Thing.

Craig: Well, I’ve been obsessed with this now for weeks. I think it went viral basically. There is an old advert, as they say in the UK, put out by the British Pork Counsel, Concern, you know, like these industry organizations that promote a particular meat or drink.

John: Milk does a body good.

Craig: There you go. Exactly. Pork, it’s what’s for dinner. Or Beef, sorry, Beef, it’s what’s for dinner. That was a–

John: Pork is the other white meat.

Craig: Pork was the other white meat. That was the American version. Well, in England back in the ‘80s there was an ad for British pork and I think the slogan was, “It’s got the lot,” meaning it’s got everything. But what is fascinating about this ad is that it is – it features a family. There is a man and his wife, and they’ve got friends and perhaps their children, all sitting around a table having lunch on Sunday. And they are serving roast pork.

And the man delivers all of the dialogue. No one else is allowed to talk. And it is the creepiest thing I think I’ve ever seen. What he’s saying is creepy. The way he says it is creepy. The way he says it is creepy. The way he looks at the camera, at you at home, implies that this is not really about pork at all. That he’s a killer. And that this may be – he may have killed Nana. This might not be pork. And he’s threatening you is really what he’s doing. It’s threatening. You feel unsafe watching it. It is astonishing that it was ever approved, written or approved, and put on the air in the first place.

Well, we have it for you to watch. I don’t know what to say. Just enjoy the subtle insanity of this British pork ad.

John: Yeah. So I have it paused here on my screen. And I had not really noticed, because I have only seen it on my phone, so now I get to see it on a bigger screen. It’s so fascinating, like the table they’re sitting at is incredibly tiny.

Craig: Yes.

John: Tiny in a way that doesn’t seem that it could possibly be real. And it’s also a great thing to look at because you might have a question like what are eye lines. What is that term? Eye lines are not what this ad should teach you. Because he’s looking in really strange places. And when people look up at him, they’re not looking all the way in the wrong direction. It’s not like crossing the line problem. But they’re not looking at him. And it feels like a character choice, like I don’t want to look directly at him because he scares me.

Craig: Right.

John: When the wife looks up at him in his general direction, and she quickly looks down, it’s just so fascinating. And it’s such a great example of how even if you took out his oddly menacing tone, you would know there is something deeply wrong in this family.

Craig: No, there’s something really – and I’ve been trying to figure out what’s going on. All right, eye line wise, so what’s happening is he’s standing over this pork. And he’s apparently going to slice it up and hand it out, but everybody already has their food completely. So I don’t know what he’s doing standing over this pork anyway.

But the next time we see him, the way he’s standing is such that when they go in close it appears that he’s sitting. His posture is odd. So then people are looking up at him, but it appears that he’s sitting, so the eye lines are bizarre. And what he’s saying – what he starts is, “My wife, she’s got what it takes.” She’s got what it takes. Which is the weirdest. Like what do you mean she has what it takes? This is about sex? What is this about? My wife has what it takes?

And then he starts talking about pork, which is a total non-sequitur. And he starts talking about how they have plenty. You know, he’s got plenty. They’ve got plenty. We’ve all got plenty. And when he says, “We’ve all got plenty,” it’s like he’s saying “Don’t you dare tell me that we don’t have enough meat in this house. Screw you, man.“

And then he returns once again to his, “My wife.” And it goes to her. And she looks so terrified, and is so clearly not allowed to speak. It is awesome. It’s awesome. I’ve watched it 100 times.

John: Yeah. So I think some of the backstory on this is this from 1984 apparently. These are times of trouble. This is like an economic downtown. This is not the peak of success. And so to have pork for Sunday dinner was considered not necessarily extravagant, but like the sense of like we’ve got plenty is like “I’m able to provide for my family.”

Craig: Right. I get that.

John: So you as the homemaker should be cooking a Sunday ham to prove that I am a successful breadwinner.

Craig: Yeah. It definitely is Thatcher-era, what do they call it, austerity. And he’s saying essentially, yes, that we won’t be hungry today. But he’s doing it in such a way that you think if I don’t get pork, a steady of supply of pork, to feed these people – who by the way are dressed in suits for some reason. If I don’t get this pork, I’m coming for you. I’ll cut your throat. You’ll be my pork. He’s terrifying.

John: Yeah. And the fact that he’s addressing camera directly. I mean, it’s a little unclear whether his eye line is supposed to be down the lens to us, or that he’s talking to somebody else. But no one else seems to be hearing him.

And it is a strange thing in commercials where the actors will sometimes address camera directly, even though there’s other people around them. But this doesn’t work.

Craig: No.

John: It’s like an Uncanny Valley situation here.

Craig: Oh, it’s so weird.

John: It’s not quite to us. It’s not quite to them.

Craig: And it’s so quiet in the room. And you just hear the clinking of – you understand that what happened is he said, “I’m going to talk to my imaginary friends about this pork. You’re all going to sit and eat it. You’re not going to say a damn word. None of you. Not one word. Do you understand?”

And they’re all like, mm-hmm. “And when I point at you, you smile.” OK daddy. Please. “Good.”

It’s so great. What’s your One Cool Thing, John?

John: My One Cool Thing is the pilot for Champions on NBC. So Champions is a new show, a half-hour comedy, written by Charlie Grandy and Mindy Kaling. This pilot is directed by Michael Spiller. What I really admired about it is how it makes me remember how much information you have to pack into a pilot.

And so with the pilot episode like every time you’re going to a new set you have to establish that set. You have to establish who those people are in this set. You have to actually do the jokes, and be funny, and move the character things along, move the plot along. And pilots are just this weird beast. And I thought it was just a really great example of form of this really strange weird beast we do.

It made me think back to the first episode of 30 Rock where you have to set up Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy who is taking over as the new boss. And what their whole dynamic is going to be. And their sets. And sort of what the show is trying to do. Yet it’s all for the first time. And so this was just a very good recent example, I thought, of how a pilot does all these things and sets all these wheels in motion.

And it’s so breakneck speed because there’s just so much to cram in. But just remarkably well done. Like you can actually still feel all the jokes in there. You can feel it all working. So, I just – I’ve never written a half-hour. I don’t think I ever could do it. But it was just an impressive version of like what a half-hour pilot can do.

And I wonder if I would be able to read it on the page and really see what was going to need to happen in front of the lens to make that all work. So, the writing was great, but I thought it was also really nicely directed.

Craig: Well this is why the writer of the pilot and the director of the pilot are handsomely compensated for the run of a show, because they really do set so many things in motion in that first. In a network pilot, you’re talking 23 minutes effectively?

John: Yeah.

Craig: It’s an astonishingly restrictive writing form and therefore it requires enormous craft. And, again, I will just say all awards should be given to comedies. All of them. Even best drama should be given to comedy as far as I’m concerned.

John: Absolutely true. So check that out. I have a link to the little trailer in YouTube, but you can also check out the full episodes on iTunes or probably NBC.com.

Cool. That’s our show for this week. As always, our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions or follow up like the things we answered today.

For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. Leave us a review. We love those reviews.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts. We still get those up about a week after the episode. And you can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net or on the USB drive which you can find at store.johnaugust.com.

Craig: Hmm.

John: Hmm.

Craig: Hmm.

John: We’ve got plenty.

Craig: We’ve all got plenty. Plenty to go around.

John: Have a good week.

Craig: Take it easy, John.

John: Bye.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

The One with the Indie Producer

Tue, 03/27/2018 - 08:03

John welcomes independent producer Keith Calder to discuss what a producer actually does, how financing and distribution strategies have changed with streaming, and how to approach film festivals as a filmmaker.

We also answer a listener question about which career path to take after being laid-off: climb the Hollywood ladder or bootstrap and just make films.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 341: Knowing vs. Discovering — Transcript

Wed, 03/21/2018 - 12:00

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 341 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Today on the podcast we will try to answer the question how much do you need to know before you start writing. We’ll also discuss when to take a note and when to stand your ground.

Craig: Ooh, I like that one.

John: Stand your ground! But first we have some follow up. In our recent How Would This Be a Movie segment we looked at a Bloomberg story about debt collectors. And listener Joe wrote in who said, “The writer of the article, Zeke, is a buddy of mine from back in high school in Boston. He’s very excited that Hollywood people are talking about his story. And here’s the devastating news: Zeke Faux is actually pronounced Zeke Fox. I know. I’m sorry.”

Craig: Uh, it’s not. You mean, I think what listener Joe means is that Zeke Faux is actually mispronounced as Zeke Fox. I mean, that’s Faux. It’s F-A-U-X. It’s a word.

John: It is a word. It’s a French word. But he pronounces it Fox.

Craig: That’s fine. I mean, he can pronounce it Fox.

John: Like Guy Fawkes Day sort of pronounces it.

Craig: Right. But what he should do is go with Faux.

John: Yeah. So I sympathize with Zeke because I had an unpronounceable last name, which I ended up changing. But we pronounced my last name Misey, everyone else in the world pronounced it Mease, because that’s sort of how it looks. It should have been pronounced My-za in German. There was no winning. So Zeke has chosen his cool looking name, but he’s going to pronounce it Fox. I get it.

Craig: Yeah, listen, it’s cool. Whatever – I mean, it’s his name. But I’m just saying if you’re trying to be a super hero or villain, Zeke Faux is just cool.

John: It’s a cool name.

Craig: You know who loves that name?

John: Who loves that name?

Craig: Cool Craig.

John: Ah, Cool Craig. Oh, welcome back Cool Craig. Cool Craig, like are you a cousin of that other guy who doesn’t show up anymore?

Craig: Oh no, he shows up man.

John: All right.

Craig: Yeah. Cool Craig is actually a very close cousin of Whole Foods Craig. Whole Foods Craig cares more about you.

John: That’s good. I think the thing about Sexy Craig is there’s nothing wrong with Sexy Craig as long has everyone consents to Sexy Craig’s appearance in the podcast. And sometimes I don’t consent to it.

Craig: Sexy Craig weirdly is just learning about consent. Sexy Craig – he’s into it. Believe me, he gets that the world has changed and probably isn’t as hospitable to guys like Sexy Craig as it used to be. But, no, he’s learning about it. He’s into it. But he’s evolving.

John: That’s good. It’s crucial that this fictitious persona evolve along with all of the characters out there. So many characters in stories that I love are really problematic looked at through a modern lens. And that’s just a thing we have to accept.

Craig: Yeah. Exactly.

John: Do you want to take the next one about MoviePass?

Craig: I do. I do. Here we go. So, Brian in Winchester, Virginia writes, “An interesting situation arose this weekend with Red Sparrow.” That’s the Jennifer Lawrence film that’s out right now. “The regular 2D screenings of the film were not available on the MoviePass app. Each listing was grayed out just as the premium screenings of other films are, even in theaters that accept MoviePass. The scuttlebutt is that the distributor wouldn’t sponsor or pay for MoviePass to promote the film. Users have been getting direct emails to see certain films with their subscription. So MoviePass flexed their might and leveraged its users by preventing us from seeing the film on the opening night/weekend, likely impacting the box office.

“I’ve enjoyed MoviePass. I see more films and save money, but we are getting direct promotional emails to see certain films. It seems like a very slippery slope to use us subscribers as leverage against distributors. Both are options that could drive the value of the program down.”

Well, John, oh boy, here we go.

John: Yeah. This does seem like a slippery slope. And not even a slope. A thing just happened. The classic scheme of this would be you’d have a person who comes in and says like, “You know, it’s a really nice movie you’ve got here. It would be a shame if anything happened to it.”

Craig: Yeah.

John: This doesn’t feel great. Now, we’ll zoom back out and say like there are people who influence the outcomes of opening weekends and movies all the time. And there’s always the sort of quid pro quo where you’re doing publicity with people and stuff like this, but this feels like a very kind of direct transactional thing. And they’re coming to us and saying like, “Hey, would you like us to promote your movie?” And if you say no then they will sort of unpromote your movie. And that doesn’t feel good.

Craig: Yeah, you can now see what they’re doing. Right? The classic Internet truism is “If you are not paying for the product you are the product.” And in this case it appears that the subscriber base for MoviePass is the product. So MoviePass very cannily is monetizing this by advertising movies to their base and, yes, it appears that if you – it may not even be as much as, “OK, well if you don’t advertise with us then we’re not going to let our people see your movies.” It may also just be these people are advertising with us and they’re in direct competition with you. So part of our deal with them is we’re sending our hordes to them. This is sort of the Groupon model of things.

If they push this a little too hard and a little too quickly, which I think they are, I could definitely see a situation where studios – and this is where they have to be careful about not running afoul of antitrust – but I could see them all just going, “This service is not in our long term best interests. Let’s stop advertising with it.”

John: Yeah. No, it’s a really interesting situation. Now, I didn’t do any research on this, but I know in the past there have been controversies over things like radio stations that will have their annual holiday Christmas concerts. And there’s that sense of like if you are a band who is asked to play that and you don’t play that, you will not get radio play on that station. They’ll cease to promote you.

That is a form of a distributor coming in and saying to the artist if you do not basically pay us by your free performance we will not support you. That kind of thing happens in Hollywood all the time where if you don’t do Entertainment Tonight they’re not going to talk about your movie. There’s always that kind of situation. This just feels much more obvious of an impasse between these two powerful parties.

Craig: And I think also that if MoviePass pursues this method, at some point their patrons will become frustrated. I mean, I don’t think it was in the user agreement – I mean, it is, of course – but it wasn’t certainly out front that you would get to see all of the movies you could see in a month, except for the ones that they don’t want you to see because it’s not good for the MoviePass company. That’s not attractive.

John: I agree. I agree. So Netflix in its heyday when it was still sending out DVDs, there were limitations. They wouldn’t always have every movie available. There was sort of some built-in shortages there, but this was an artificial scarcity that they were just creating here and that is the thing that is going to make people less happy than they would otherwise be.

Craig: You know, a movie like Red Sparrow, I mean, come on. This movie – these are the movies we need to be helping. And I haven’t seen Red Sparrow. I don’t even know what Red Sparrow is about. All I know is that Red Sparrow is not a $100 million or $500 million budgeted massive brightly colored explosion festival. And therefore it would be nice – and it stars a movie star. And it’s not a little tiny, tiny like little indie-indie movie.

Right? It’s the sort of movie that Hollywood used to make a lot of. They’re frightened to death of making them. And now MoviePass is going to choke the life out of it. I mean, that’s just wrong.

John: I agree. All right, continuing our follow up. Last week we talked about the plan or lack of a plan in Return of the Jedi. Sian Griffiths wrote in to point out that maybe the worst thing about that opening sequence wasn’t Luke’s plan, but the metal bikini. So I’m going to link to her blog post she did which was a really good analysis of sort of how in that third movie of Star Wars, the initial trilogy, so much of what we had learned to love about Leia kind of becomes undone because the Leia character is suddenly sexualized. A quote from the article is, “The ultimate crime of the metal bikini is that it turned Leia from being a force of personality into merely a body.”

Craig: Yeah, you know, I don’t know quite what to think about these things because I’m so easily swayed. I am very much a weathervane on these things, right? So I read something like this and I go, yep, yep, yep. And then I’ll see some other article where women talk about how they thought it was the most body positive thing and they love to cosplay as her in the bikini. And it’s a huge part of their – and I’m like, OK, yep, yep. You know what, I don’t know. I’m defaulting to my hands up. I don’t know.

John: Yeah. I don’t know either about Wonder Woman and her outfit versus Captain Marvel who has a non-sexualized outfit. I don’t know. I mean, I want women to be able to own and present their sexuality as a powerful part of their force. But I don’t want them to be limited to it. So, I don’t know what the right answer is.

Craig: Women disagree about things the way that men disagree about things, which makes sense because they’re human beings. When women are disagreeing about things that have to do with women, I have learned to shut my mouth. And just listen. You know, I’ll let them hash it out.

John: All right. We also had several listeners who wrote in with their own theories about what was possibly happening. We could get into this, but I don’t know that it’s really going to serve anybody to get into the more elaborate theories of why people were doing what they were doing other than to say you can make anything kind of make sense, but what we’re actually seeing on screen right now doesn’t really make a lot of sense if you stop to think about it.

Craig: No. I mean, people can torture some sort of bizarre bendy pipe cleaner explanation for this, but in general good storytelling observes Occam’s razor. Even if it’s not an explanation that you could have predicted, it’s a surprise, in the post-analysis of it you should be able to say that’s a very elegant thing that happened there. The more complicated and twisty and bendy it is, the more of a – well, just a screenwriting artifact it is to allow the writer or the filmmakers to achieve moments they wanted to achieve separate and apart from a compelling storyline or character motivation.

John: Absolutely. That actually is a perfect segue into our first main topic which is sort of knowing versus discovering. And sort of what you’re describing in terms of tortured logic to get you to a certain place. That can often come about because a writer has a plan for how things are going to fit together and that plan may not be the most natural way of getting about it.

So, this all sprung from a conversation I’m having this week and the people who are inviting me to have this conversation threw out this question, which was how much does a screenwriter need to know before he or she sits down to write a scene, which I thought was a great question and we haven’t really talked about that. We’ve talked about writing a scene, but we haven’t talked about what you really need to know beforehand. And so my first instinct of course was to make a checklist.

So, I’m going to read through this checklist, and then we’re going to throw away the checklist. And I wanted to read through sort of like what might be on that checklist.

So, you might ask, “Well, who is in this scene. What should those characters want? What are they hiding? What is the central conflict? Where does the scene take place? What just happened before this? What’s going to happen next? What’s the first image we see in the scene? What’s the first line? What absolutely has to occur in this scene in order for it to make sense and for it to move the story forward? And, finally, how does this scene change the direction of the story?”

So, these are 10, 11 points that might be on a checklist as you’re sitting down to write a scene. And I made this checklist and quickly realized almost every scene I’ve written I couldn’t answer all these questions and I think that’s good. I think if you did have the answers to all these questions you’d sort of be paralyzed. And I’m curious what your thoughts are on this checklist.

Craig: Well, it’s a good list. I think all of these are valid and I would – I guess in maybe a slightly more vague way some of the questions I ask myself are what’s the point of this scene. Why do I want this in the movie? And how will the scene be entertaining? Because I’m constantly terrified by being boring. And so those are two big things that hang over my head.

I actually try – I do try and answer as many of these questions as I can before I start writing the scene. And then I give myself permission, and I don’t even have to do it, it just sort of happens that as I’m writing things begin to occur. So I feel much more comfortable and targeted when I have a plan and I have a lot of answers.

And I think simply because I feel comfortable when I begin to do the writing other stuff starts to happen. But it happens within the context of an understanding about some hard answers. Even if part of the thing that results is a deviation from the plan.

John: Yeah. So you and I have never written on classic TV shows where there’s a room and as a room you’re breaking the story. So you’re breaking the big beats and you’re breaking the smaller beats. You’re breaking it down to scenes and often you’re breaking down sort of what happens in the scene. And there’s something wonderful about that because you have the ability to have a bunch of different brains working through something and sometimes you can come up with something really great.

Where I wonder if I would be incredibly frustrated is when I get that big document and then have to write the actual scenes that become the screenplay, or the teleplay, the kind of weird paralysis I’d feel that I was locked into the scene is going to happen the way that we broke it in the room. You’re going to have to follow these beats.

Because I have a very hard time writing a scene if I know exactly what’s going to happen in the scene. Like I have a hard time making that scene feel spontaneous and feel like the characters are making their own choices in the moment versus the scene making the choices. It’s the difference between character-driven versus plot-driven. And we always think about character-driven as like the whole movie is character-driven. The sense that these characters have a big someday wish that they are setting out on a quest to sort of get to that someday wish. They’re facing these challenges. They’re changed by the journey. That’s what movies are.

Craig: Right.

John: But I think within the context of a scene that same thing kind of happens where characters come into it with a certain goal, a certain ambition, and by their own actions they’ve changed things. And you want to feel that they are making choices within the moment, line by line, what they’re saying, what they’re doing, how they’re reacting that is causing the effect of the change of the scene.

If I came in with this sort of master plan document for exactly what’s going to happen in the scene and how we’re going to get through the scene, I don’t know if I could do that very well.

Craig: I do a master plan. And I have the opposite emotional requirement. I find it hard to write a scene if I don’t know how it begins and how it ends and roughly all these things that are supposed to happen in it. But what I find is that what I really need to know when I’m writing a scene is – it’s a bit like, OK, I’m about to throw some characters into a lake. I need to know why I’m throwing them into the lake. I also need to know that at the end of the scene they’re going to emerge from the lake at this point on the shore for this reason. So, then I feel good. I’m like, great, I know why I’m throwing them in. I know what’s going to happen when they plunge down. I have a general sense of how they’re going to struggle to get back up to the surface. But from that point to the point I know must occur at the end, let’s see. Let’s see how it goes.

John: That’s I think what I’m describing. It’s that you just talked about your goals for this scene. Basically you as the writer, the sort of meta like what is the intention of the scene. Why does this scene need to be in the movie? What is the thing that’s going to happen to it? But the characters in that scene, they shouldn’t know where it’s going to go. They shouldn’t know what’s going to happen. And to the degree that we sense that they do know what’s going to happen or where it’s going to go, we’re bored.

Craig: That’s right.

John: It has lost all of its spark or magic.

Another analogy I’d have for it is sort of like a road trip. And so you can think of a movie as being like a big road trip and you can sort of pick where the destinations are going to be on that road trip. So we’re driving from LA to New York. Are we going to take a straight route there? Are we going to stop in Houston? Are we going to stop in Bozeman, Montana? Is it going to be on a time clock like we’re in a hurry, or is it just whenever we get there that it’s going to be that? That’s the scope of the movie feels that way.

But, an individual scene isn’t like a road trip in that way. It’s more like an errand. Like you’re going out to do something. You have a very specific goal. Like you have to stop at the drug store and pick up this thing.

And within the course of that scene you could just have them go in the drug store, pick up that thing, and pay for it and leave. But you can also do so much more. And if you let the characters, give them some space to breathe and sort of make their own choices you can find a much more interesting way to make that scene work than just the functional version of it. It’s like, OK, well that scene works because they picked up the thing that they needed to pick up. Those tend to be the least interesting versions of those scenes.

Craig: I agree. And this is why so much of the fun part of writing for me is the part where I try and see as much as I can in the space of the scene. So, if I have a scene that is designed to serve a plot purpose and also a character purpose, and I know what those are. And then I’m imagining the moment and trying to make it real. And so I have two characters that are in this pharmacy and they have to go pick up medicine, because that’s the errand as you say. I’m literally using an errand to describe the errand. And one of them is eating a Snickers bar. He has bought a Snickers bar and he’s eating it. And his friend is at the counter and she’s waiting for the pills to come out. And they’re having a conversation. And I know that the point of the conversation is they disagree about something. Well, there’s no way in the world that in my master plan I would have said and this guy should be eating a Snickers bar.

That’s just something that I kind of fill in. But now that I know that he’s eating the Snickers bar, at some point I want her to slap it right out of his mouth. Because that’s exciting. And that’ll just happen. There’s no plan for that, right? So you start to like use the stuff in your environment. The only way to surprise people is to surprise yourself. And to have characters surprise each other. Life is surprising, particularly the parts of life that we find fascinating which we’re supposed to be presenting in movies.

So, there is this kind of need to plan so that your scene isn’t this rambling, shaggy dog, pointless mush, which we see a lot of from early writers. These like long runs of rambly dialogue going nowhere because they think that’s what’s real. But, then within your disciplined moment you’re just playing in this very real world. And then if you know, “Well, my purpose here is for him to realize that she is no longer going to take his crap, well now the Snickers bar is the way I’m going to do it.” And I could have never foreseen that.

John: Absolutely. So, what you described with sometimes beginning writers, or other writers who they seem to become in love with their characters’ voices, but they don’t actually have them doing anything interesting, is these characters just sort of keep wandering down these blind alleys. That it’s not moving the actual story forward. So, the individual scenes might be really funny, but they don’t add up to anything. Or even within the course of scenes there’s not really a shape to them. They’re sort of just in this moment. And a lot of times you’ll notice this in scripts where you go through a whole sequence and you realize like they basically just have been talking or doing the same thing for like ten pages. Nothing has actually progressed. And if I were to take these ten pages out we’d still be in the same moment.

So, that kind of planning problem can definitely happen. I guess you can’t let this process of discovery just lead you away from where you’re actually trying to get to. And if your whole scene became about the chocolate bar and slapping things, and then became a huge slapping fight inside this, and they got arrested, and they got taken away, well, that probably wasn’t what the scene needed to accomplish.

Craig: Right.

John: And so it does go back to that initial question of like what absolutely needs to happen in this scene? Because the scene happened, this next scene is possible. Well, what is that next scene in general? Or how is it leading us to the next thing? And I have seen many cases where people get seduced by really interesting things that happen in the moment and they get led astray. And I face that in real life all the time. Like there will be times where a scene will take me in a really interesting way and I will decide like, OK, you know what, I was going to go there, now I’m going to go here. I think I can get myself back over there. Most of the time I can, but sometimes I will have to just chuck a scene that I really do like because it really wasn’t getting me where I wanted to go. It was a really interesting character scene that couldn’t actually contribute to what it needed to contribute to the story at that point.

Craig: Oh yeah. Happens all the time. You have fun when you’re writing and sometimes you have fun in a way where you go, “Wonderful.” And sometimes you have fun in a way and go, “Yeah, no, I got to delete all that.”

Anybody that is concerned about efficiency should not be a writer. It is not an efficient process. If it’s efficient you’re doing it wrong, I’m pretty sure.

John: I was reading this blogger recently who talked about how every night he makes a plan for the next day and he has his day scheduled out to like ten minute increments. It’s called hyper scheduling. And I could, A, never do that. But I do feel that sometimes aspiring writers are attempting that in their screenplays. And probably because they’re read too many screenwriting books they see like this big macro thing, like this is what structure is, and this is what happens in a scene. Or they read some book that tells them every scene needs to flip from positive to negative, and then negative to positive. And there’s a whole way things have to happen.

And so they get incredibly granular in figuring out like, “OK, what’s going to happen in this scene before I write it.” They keep trying to optimize this unwritten thing.

So I think there’s a real danger to over-knowing. And it’s you sort of preclude new discoveries. You preclude new possibilities because you’re so determined to hit these beats that you’ve already set out for yourself. And sometimes it goes back to even like character backstory. Like a lot of times before writers will start writing a script they’ll do these elaborate bios for their characters about where they come from and how many brothers they have and what their favorite cereal is. And I’ve never found that helpful for me because if I know those details part of me wants to use it in some way which is almost never going to be helpful. And by locking down those details I’ve taken away my ability to be surprised by something that happens in the moment.

Like if I knew that Lucky Charms was his favorite cereal that’s probably not going to help me. But, how you made that decision might preclude some other interesting decision down the road. So people obsess about that stuff which is just kind of so often busy work I find.

Craig: Yeah, look, everybody has a certain amount of busy work they do to comfort themselves as they prepare to do this thing that often is miserable to do. I would say this: if you are having success – and creative success is I guess the most important thing there. I mean, the rest of it hopefully is following along. And your method is to backstory the hell out of your characters because that’s how you do sort of your running jump, your running start. That’s your running start. I’m with you. I don’t really find those things to be particularly important. And generally speaking when I get to a moment where I think, oh you know what, it would be good to know what her attitude is about blankety-blank, then I start to go back and fill those little bits of the map in.

But I don’t feel a great need to do any of that stuff myself. And I think that new writers are trying to exert control over a very scary process. Who wouldn’t? I mean, we are trained to exert control over circumstances in order to achieve results. And when you try and control things like screenplays you end up with very dead things. There is a kind of madness that is required along with this remarkable sobriety. You kind of have to have both going on at the same time or you’ll either have this very wooden thing or just a rambly, bizarro mess.

John: Yeah. I think there’s essentially a great compromise we tend to make. Because you want your characters to be free to do what they need to do, to explore themselves. And you also need to get them to go to the places where you need them to go. And so I think the bargain we make is that the characters can sort of move however they want to move, but we are the ones who are going to lay down the road for them.

So, they can go anywhere they want, but these are the roads. And so you’re ultimately going to get them to where they need to go, but exactly how quickly they’re going to do that. They still have a feeling of control, even though you are the one behind the scenes who is sort of mastering everything. And I think that speaks to also why when people do these elaborate backstories sometimes they’re describing a character who is still. They’re describing a character who is like in a museum. But the characters we see in stories are in motion. And so if you’re so focused on where the character came from and all these things, it’s like this frozen in time snapshot of who that character is. But in a movie you’re always seeing them in motion. And so be looking for what’s changing. Be looking for what’s challenging them. Try to do the work to figure out what that character is like when they’re moving and talking and curious and frightened, not just who they were when they were ten years old.

Craig: Yep. I agree with that. I think that the more you lock yourself in on that stuff the less you are concentrating on how that stuff is no longer who this character is supposed to be. And that’s what your movie is about. It’s about taking somebody from A to B. And so much of what the beginning is is establishing what you believe the audience needs to know. So, there’s the question what do we need to know to begin writing a scene and then there’s this other question which I’m asking all the time, which I suppose informs the first question: what does the audience need to know coming out of this scene?

And too much information is bad. It’s not only boring, but it starts to reduce a sense of wonder and mystery and participation. There’s that notion of active viewing. That you are leaning in because you know you have to pay attention. And it’s interesting and also things will be left out that you’re going to have to fill in for yourself.

So, another question I suppose we could put on our long list is what does the audience need to know before you start writing your scene. Because I think about that all the time.

John: Yeah. The weird things about a screenplay versus a book is that as a screenwriter we are sort of the proxy for the audience. We are sitting in the seat watching the story unfold on a big screen in front of us. So when we say we see/we hear, we’re saying that as the audience. Like this is what we’re experiencing. And so we’re always trying to remember what the audience knows, what the audience expects, what the audience is looking for. Because, if we don’t have a sense of what this story looks like from the audience’s point of view, we’ve lost.

Craig: 100%.

John: All right. Let’s switch point of views to the screenwriter who is taking notes from somebody. Notes from a producer. Notes from a director. Notes from a studio executive. Craig, can you talk us through and answer definitively when should you take the note and when should you stand your ground?

Craig: I don’t know! I’ve been struggling with this my whole life. I did a talk about this at one of these creative salons that we had here in Los Angeles a while back. John, I assume you’ve read Le Petit Prince, The Little Prince, of course.

John: Of course.

Craig: So, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, wonderful book, but it opens with something that even as a child confused me and concerned me. So in the beginning of the book he says when I was a kid I used to draw. And I drew things – the idea was I drew a snake that had eaten an elephant. And so the snake – the elephant obviously is inside the snake so you can’t see the elephant in the snake – but he’s drawn a snake that has eaten an elephant and the shape when he shows it to adults he says, “Look what I drew.” And they would always say, “Oh, what a nice hat.”

But he knew that in fact it was not a hat. That’s the boring interpretation of it. And that in fact it’s an elephant inside a snake. And now he is a grownup and he’s crash landed in the desert and he meets the Little Prince who is the embodiment of innocence and child-like wonder. And he shows him his picture and the Little Prince says, “Oh, what a nice snake that has eaten an elephant.” And you’re like, ooh, finally, somebody gets it.

And as a kid I remember thinking, “But it looks like a hat?”

John: It does look like a hat.

Craig: It’s not fair. You’re not being fair. And that in fact that is a reasonable note that it looks like a hat. But I’ve always been a bit envious of people – and you and I, we know all sorts of writers and directors. And there is a certain sub-segment of our community that has absolutely no problem saying “What I’ve done here is an elephant inside a snake and if you don’t see it that’s your problem. I’m not changing it. I’m right. I have this bedrock faith in my instincts.“

When we go through this medium, this collaborative process, we are constantly getting input from people. And sometimes we think they’re right and sometimes we think they’re wrong. But the big question that I have, and I struggle with all the time, and maybe we can help people as they struggle with it is how do I know when I’m right and how do I know when I’m wrong. Because if you go too far one way or the other you end up either as a pushover or as this arrogant person. Or you could be this brave person, or you could be this weak person. And I struggle with it all the time.

How do you deal with it?

John: You know, I think a couple strategies I might employ at different times. One is just try to figure out consensus. So, if one person has the note, well, that could just be their opinion. If nine people have the note, then, OK, there’s something about that. There’s something that is hitting a lot of people a certain way and I need to really pay attention.

Another strategy might be to look back at my original intentions. Like what was I trying to do here and would taking this note change my intentions. Would taking this note bring me closer to my intentions? When I’m doing that sort of internal audit, I might also ask why am I reacting this way to that note. Is it because I’m afraid that they’re right, which is sometimes is the case. I might be afraid that they’re right and it’s going to be a lot of work, or I won’t even know how to implement that note. That might be something that I’m struggling with as I’m hearing that note.

But sometimes at the end of this assessment I’ll just decide, you know what, they’re wrong. And then I have to figure out like are they wrong enough that it’s worth sort of planting my foot and saying no I will not/I shall not budge. Or do I need to find a way to change something that addresses their concern without sort of implementing their solution if their solution is bad. I don’t know if any of these things are familiar to you.

Craig: No, they all are. And I’ve thought a lot about this. I think that there are certainly these moments where we get input and we have an emotional response. And that muddies the waters. And I’m almost saying let’s take that out of the equation. Let’s jump ahead. It’s two or three days later. You’ve calmed down. And now you can soberly look at this comment and even now you’re wondering “Am I right or am I wrong that they are right or they are wrong?”

And it’s not just about I’m right/they’re wrong. Sometimes I worry when I’m thinking they’re right and I’m wrong. And I worry about this because when we examine ourselves honestly what we will see is a lot of irrationality and a lot of cognitive errors. We change our minds, for instance, all the time. Sometimes our response to something is colored entirely by the fact that it is our first encounter with that thing.

Then the second or third encounter is a much different experience. So I’m wondering is my problem that I’ve seen it too many times? Is my problem that I just heard this note for the first time? I’m always sort of digging into this to try and figure out if I’m causing harm or not.

And over time I’ve come to the following conclusions, which are not super-duper helpful, but how could they be given the conundrum here. Conclusion number one is that there is no perfect way to do this. I will absolutely make mistakes. There are going to be times where I say no and I should have said yes. And there are going to be times where I say yes and I should have said no.

Conclusion number two: When I am particularly ambiguous or confused about whether or not I should be saying yes or no, that in and of itself is an indication of a problem. And so there’s a problem underneath all of this. Because even if there are times where I feel 100% confident and it turns out later I should not have been, generally speaking in those times my batting average is pretty high. Whether, again, sometimes I feel 100% confident that what somebody has just told me to change is exactly the right thing to do. But that happens because the writing around that spot is generally in the place it should be. And here’s a change that makes sense.

I get wishy-washy when the ground is not as firm under my feet as it should be.

John: Absolutely on all three points. And I’ve definitely been in situations where I’ve had the emotional response. I’ve stepped back. I’ve taken a look at it. I can look at it in terms of the work, the words on the page, the plan for making a movie. Obviously the screenplays we’re writing, especially if we’re not going into production quite yet, is just a plan for something that has not been built yet. And so sometimes we have difference of opinions on like well what should we build. And so it’s not a question of like is this the right way to do this thing. It’s like “Is this even the kind of thing we want to build?” And so those difference of opinions, like you have to sort of wrestle through those all the time.

Where it gets harder, and honestly I’ll say that half the notes I face tend to be in the second category, where I feel like the note is not actually about the work. The note is about something else. The note is about that other movie that opened last weekend. That note is about some other sort of defensive posture that this producer, this studio executive, this director is taking that has actually nothing to do with the work in front of them.

Those are sometimes the most frustrating notes because I have to then ask myself is it worth trying to implement this note if I will not ruin things because this is apparently something they feel they need to address in order for this project to move forward.

Sometimes you do those notes and sometimes you don’t do those notes. And I’ve been burned both ways where I’ve stomped my food and said, no, I’m absolutely not doing that. This is a ridiculous note. This is not helpful. And sometimes I’ve even said, “I can see why you’re saying that, but this is not the right thing. This is not the movie I signed on to write.” And I’ve left the project.

There have been other times where I’ve stayed on the project, and I’ve written those notes and it didn’t matter anyway. Because they were going to go in a different direction down the road. And so we’ve both been through situations where you’ve killed yourself for six months to sort of fine tune this thing and that line of dialogue on page 32 which you went back and forth over for three weeks and there was all this discussion. That scene is not in the movie anymore and they’ve completely changed how that whole thing works.

That’s the frustration, and the decisions that we have to go through, whether we’re taking a note or not taking a note. Because there’s a cost. There’s a cost to taking that note in terms of your time, in terms of your sort of pride in the work. You want to be the person who gets hired by that producer, by that studio again, because you are collaborative, but you also don’t want to just be a typist. Because that gets to be the real frustration.

Craig: Yeah. I think you’ve hit on something really interesting here. Because most of the time when I’m feeling ambiguous and wishy-washy and doing my whole Hamlet routine it’s because someone has given me a note that they believe in. And anytime someone gives me a note that they believe in I have a natural instinct to give it credence or at least give it a fair shake.

But there is this other thing that happens. And I know that we have some executives and producers that listen to us and if you are an assistant and you’re looking ahead, you’re on that track to be a producer or an executive listen well. Listen carefully to what I’m about to tell you.

You know how one of the most common notes that you guys give us is, “Um, this writing here didn’t feel quite organic.” So, in Hollywood people use the word organic to basically mean natural, elegant, realistic, flowing, it doesn’t bump you is another term they’ll use. In other words, it seems nice and smooth and connected and integrated. It doesn’t feel artificial or inorganic. Well, there are inorganic, artificial, synthetic notes. And we know it when we’re getting them every single time. You guys think we don’t. You guys think that we can’t tell the difference between notes that you believe in because they have to do with this true creative feeling you have. And notes you’re giving us because of synthetic stuff. Like we want to hit a certain audience, an older audience, a younger audience, a whiter audience, a blacker audience. We are concerned about how this will play in China. We don’t know if we can get this on the schedule unless the budget is this. There is an actor that wants to do this movie here, and if we give them this one then they’ll do this one. There’s a million of those things.

And when you guys give us notes in order to help you achieve something inorganic – the marketing department thinks that blah, blah, blah. We know it every time. And it would be great if you would just say, “Here’s something that we are trying to accomplish that is separate and apart from just pure creativity.” Just be honest about it and own it. We’re not dumb. We’re not children. If you say, “Listen, we have a problem. We need to keep this budget under blank, which means we have to shoot it over here. And right now we’re concerned that we’re not going to be able to do it that way. So, we have suggestions that will help us get there. And you may not like them, but at least you’ll know why we’re giving them to you. We’re certainly not giving them to you because we think they’re brilliant creative ideas.”

It would go over so much better with us. And we would feel so less, I think, agitated. And then you see we would have I think much more mental capacity to handle the actual creative notes that are honest and organic.

So, to sum, if you are a producer or an executive or an assistant who wants to be a producer or an executive, be aware that we know when you are giving us synthetic notes. Give us synthetic notes and acknowledge they’re synthetic notes. It will really help all of us.

John: I really agree. And I can envision the document sort of being broken into two parts. Like these are the notes that are actually about the script itself and moments in the story that we feel could be better. Opportunities that we think aren’t being paid off. Moments where we are were genuinely confused. Great. Love all of that.

A second part of the note saying like these are things that we need to talk about because we don’t have this in the budget, because this is too similar to this other movie that we’re concerned about. That there’s some other extraneous forces that we need to be looking at here. Great. I get that, too.

Rarely do I see that in notes. And so instead when I get notes, when I get like official printed notes, is a paragraph that says, “We’re so excited. This has so much great possibility. It’s going to be an exciting movie, unlike anything we’ve ever seen. That said, here are our notes.” And then they go on for like seven pages. And they’ll be broken into little sub-heads about things. And they can be better written or worse written, but invariably there’s going to be contradictions. And sometimes the contradictions are called out. They hang a lantern on it like, “We’ll we said we want to see more of this character, we’re concerned that it not distract from the hero.” Basically they’re asking for – I want to see the hat and the elephant in the snake simultaneously.

Craig: Yes.

John: They’re asking for impossible things.

Craig: It’s what Lindsay Doran calls “a close-up with feet.”

John: Absolutely. That’s the best term for it. And those are maddening. So sometimes you’ll get to go in and you’ll sit down with the executive or with the producer and you’ll talk through them. And you can describe honestly like this is what I get, this is what I don’t get. Is there a plan for going ahead?

Another thing I will say that early on as I started out as a writer I loved the notes, because they’re notes. People have read my script. I will do whatever you tell me to do because I want to – not only do I want to please the teacher, I’m terrified I don’t really know what I’m doing so therefore I will just do your notes because you’ve made movies before. And I’ve not made movies. And that’s not a great scenario either.

Craig: No. No it’s not.

John: Again, you always have to be able to think about notes in terms of the context of like what the ultimate product is going to be. And that ultimate product is going to be both a movie you’re seeing on the screen, but also a movie that gets made. And so sometimes you’re balancing what this movie could be in this perfect form on the screen versus this movie actually existing. And it’s a delicate thing and you don’t quite know which side to push on.

Craig: Yeah. I wish that I could teach a class at every studio on how to effectively give notes to screenwriters. Not because I’m trying to help screenwriters, but because I’m trying to help them. I mean, their goal is to influence the work. The way that they do it, generally speaking, it’s not very – there’s a low batting average as far as I’m concerned. First of all the document, the notes document, is generally something I think we can all dismiss. Because I think even internally they’re dismissing it. Part of the reason why is that document is the result of some kind of political brokering process. There are multiple parties at a studio that are at multiple hierarchy levels. And they are all sort of throwing their opinions in. So you can have a situation where one person just keeps harping on something and everyone is like, “Well, none of us agree but that person is slightly above us. Let’s give them that one.”

John: Yeah. Let’s put it in the document even though it doesn’t match any of the other notes in the document.

Craig: Correct. Well, we don’t know that. And, furthermore, you won’t tell us that, understandably. Right? So, that document starts to get silly. Also, that document often gets really granular because just like I think rookie screenwriters try and exert too much control over the process. That’s what I think a lot of newer producers and executives do. They’re trying to control this thing that ultimately cannot by being really granular. Like when you get into these page notes it’s laughable. Page notes literally ignore how movies are made. But there I think is a process that’s incredibly useful, that I find incredibly useful, and that’s the one where we get rid of all the formalities, and I and the producers and the executives just have essentially a therapy session for the screenplay.

We just talk.

And we just listen.

And we see where it is that we really are caring. And we don’t worry so much about trying to treat this thing like it’s a broken radio that just needs a few extra diodes and maybe a piece of wire here. It’s this living, breathing thing. It’s a story about human beings. So let’s just have a therapy session about it. And more often than not, just like in real therapy, the stuff that people were saying is what they wanted isn’t really what they wanted. And then you get to the meat of it. And then you can actually make things better.

John: Yeah, you could. Craig that was probably a very dangerous thing for you to wish because you say you wish we could just like go and teach a class to all the studios about how to give notes. That feels like a thing we could actually do.

Craig: Oh, OK, I’ll do it. I mean, if they are willing to actually sit there and listen to me. Because I actually like good notes, I just want to tell them how to do it better so that they don’t end up with either frustrated, angry, miserable, demotivated, or confused writers.

John: That’s totally a doable thing. Don’t you think? It’s totally a doable thing.

Craig: Well, you know, it’s really up to them, isn’t it?

John: Yes.

Craig: Standing offer, folks.

John: All right. Let’s wrap this up and go to our new segment which we call–

Craig: John’s WGA Corner.

John: So today in the Corner, if you are a WGA member you got an email from the WGA that’s talking about the AMBA. You probably never heard of this term before. I hadn’t. But it’s essentially the Agency Minimum Basic Agreement. It is an agreement between the WGA and all of the agencies. And there’s discussion about what the future of that agreement should be. And there are some meetings coming up. So you should go to one of these meetings because it’s actually really important.

So the two that are coming up in the future are March 14 at 7pm at the Sheraton Universal and then Tuesday March 20, 7pm, at the Beverly Hilton. So in the email you go there’s information about how you RSVP for these meetings. But it’s really good if you go. I’m going to be at the one that’s on Saturday, so it will have already passed by the time this episode comes out. But it’s really good. And there’s good information about what’s happening and what the decisions are ahead.

Craig: It’s the new hotness in the Guild. So the old hotness was getting grouchy with the studios. The new hotness is getting grouchy with the agencies. So let’s see where this all goes.

You know, I remain, John, as you know endlessly skeptical of these things, but you know the last negotiations with the companies I thought really shook out some great things. Wouldn’t have done it necessarily the way it was done, but I can’t argue with the results. And so I guess I’m kind of hoping for the same thing here. I’m not sure if I kind of get how this going. But then again me getting how something is going isn’t necessarily the criterion which matters. How about that?

John: Indeed. So if you are in the Craig Mazin camp and are not quite sure what to think of it, these meetings are a good place to start. So, we’ll be telling you more then. If you don’t get to one of these meetings, the only thing I would tell you is that most writers who are represented by agencies have never signed agency papers. Have you ever signed papers for any of your agents?

Craig: Never.

John: Never. Like 1% of WGA members sign papers with their agencies. If your agency is suddenly like this week or next week says, “Hey, we need you to sign a contract with the agency,” don’t do that. That’s probably not a great idea.

And also I’d be curious if they are asking you to do that. So just email me at ask@johnaugust.com to let me know that, because I’m curious whether that’s going to start happening. Because we could envision a scenario in which a lot of agencies try to make their clients sign longer term agreements with agencies, which would be very unusual.

Craig: It would be. And my guess is that the larger agencies really aren’t going to go through the pain and weird awkwardness of asking their big money earners to sign these contracts because it looks weak. And if your client doesn’t want to be there, they’re leaving. It’s just not worth it. It’s not good for you. The worst possible thing in the world for an agency like CAA or UTA or WME would be to have a high profile client that hates them, doesn’t want to be there, and the agency won’t let them go. I mean, that’s just – that would be a nightmare.

John: Yeah. That would not be good. But other writers might not be in the situation where they can so easily feel like they can leave and so if this does happen, if you get this email or call from your agent, I’m just curious about that. So, just drop me a note at ask@johnaugust.com.

Craig: I feel like the managers may have people signing things.

John: I think it’s more common with managers.

Craig: I’m not a big manager fan as you know.

John: Yeah. At some point we will have the manager conversation. Most of these writers who I’ve met at these screenwriter meetings have managers.

Craig: I know.

John: And it’s incredible common.

Craig: I hate it.

John: And most of them if you ask them why they have a manager they say it’s so their agent will work harder for them.

Craig: The whole – it’s just – oh man. It’s sort of like, what’s the best way I could think of this? Like if there’s a limited supply of positions. Every single artist requires an agent. So that’s one-to-one. I mean, it’s not really one-to-one because an agent, you have lots and lots. But for every writer, they can only have one agent. They can’t employ two agents or three agents, right? So this business just invented a new term. Here, now you can have two agents, because we just name this one a manager.

Well, why don’t we just have a third one now called a talent coordinator? And that will be your third agent. So I have an agent, a manager, and a talent coordinator. What else can we get in there? I mean, you obviously have a lawyer who does a very specific job. And maybe there’s a fourth thing that we can do so that more and more people can take our money.

John: That would be good. I will say that as I’ve been talking to different screenwriters at lunches and various things, people tend to like their entertainment attorneys who take a 5% commission or charge an hourly fee, and who are – I don’t know. They’re just responsible folks. And at some point I just want to give our entertainment attorneys a big hug because they’ve worked very hard for both me and for you.

Craig: Oh, listen, that’s the biggest scam of all. Is that you’ve got agents taking 10%. You’ve got managers taking 10%. Plus managers producing and getting backend fees. The lawyers are doing almost everything. The lawyers aren’t just writing up these long form contracts. They’re also negotiating the terms.

You know, typically the agent is really saying, “OK, this person wants to talk to you about doing this job. Great. Let’s talk about what the big number is that you’ll get paid. Great. Lawyer, literally do everything else.” Everything. That means it’s the big number, and how the bonuses break out, and blah, blah, and the options and the so-and-sos. The lawyers do so much more and they get half. And believe me, they know. They know they’re getting screwed. But, you know, they’re still doing pretty well.

John: But they’re not getting that big backend money.

Craig: No. Well, in that sense they’re like screenwriters.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Screenwriters just traditionally in features they’re like you guys don’t get first dollar gross, but dopey director Jim who has done four mediocre films, but he’s a director, he can get that. Why? Why? It makes no sense.

John: Agreed. Yeah. The only thing that makes sense are One Cool Things. Talk us through your One Cool Thing.

Craig: Segue Man! My One Cool Thing this week is a sequel, John.

John: You like the sequels.

Craig: I do. I like the sequels. So, there was a game a while ago that I think we probably had on as a One Cool Thing called Alto’s Adventure.

John: It’s so good.

Craig: Yeah, great little free runner for iOS and probably for that other platform that neither of us care about. And you play a guy skiing down a mountain, or a girl. Actually, you’ve got a guy, a girl, and then a big guy and a big – no, it was actually just one girl. She was the one I liked the most. I liked playing her the most because she had the tightest spin. I like a nice spinning.

So, anyway, love that game. Played it to death. Well, they have a sequel out called Alto’s Odyssey. And instead of you being in the snow, now you’re in a desert. And you’re sandboarding. So it’s a very different environment. But I thought like, OK, you know, so you changed snow to sand, and the graphics are a little updated. Cool, but what else?

They’ve come up with so many other things in this that are so much fun that build beautifully on the platform that was there. Just really very clever. And it’s such a fine line between not enough and too much. And they got it just right I thought. So, the only thing that bothers me is I downloaded it on my iPad. And then I went to my phone because I’ve got it like OK if you do it here it shows up there. And on my phone it wasn’t there.

And they’re going to charge me again. So there are those certain apps where they charge you separately. Because the iPad version I guess is slightly different than the iPhone version.

John: Yeah, sorry.

Craig: Is that a thing?

John: It’s a thing, yeah. So you can have combined bundles where it’s one bundle that can install on either iOS device, but they also have separate iPad versus iPhone versions. It’s the developer’s choice.

Craig: Yeah I don’t like that so much. So that was annoying to me. But, you know, listen, I can pay the $4, or the $5. It’s $5, I think. So, anyway, fun game. Alto’s Odyssey. Check it out.

John: And I did play through the most recent Room, per your recommendation, and it really was terrific. And so no spoilers, it’s basically all inside a creepy Victorian dollhouse and it was delightful.

Craig: It was delightful. I don’t know I would say, I mean delightful, the ending is disturbing.

John: Yeah, but they’re all disturbing endings.

Craig: I know. I love it. I’m so sad that it’s going to be another like two years. John, where is Elder Scrolls 6? What’s going on?

John: I don’t know what’s going on.

Craig: Do you realize Skyrim came out in 2011?

John: Yeah, so last year in France I started playing the up-res version of it, and it’s still just a terrific game. Like the same basic mechanics. It was still just great. But, yeah, I think they’re ready for a new one.

Craig: Yeah, like come on. Come on!

John: My One Cool Thing is simply a song and a video. It is by a band called Superorganism. The song is called “Everybody Wants to Be Famous.” It’s just good. Someone recommended it on Twitter. I listened to it. I’m like, you know what, that’s a really good song. I liked it. And it reminded me a little bit of Rachel Bloom’s version of the Scriptnotes theme where she sings When I Will Be Famous. And this is a whole song that is basically that same vibe.

So, we’re going to play this as our outro this week. So that is the music you hear underneath me as I’m speaking.

Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli.

Craig: Wow.

John: If you have an outro or a question for us, you can write in to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place to send me notice that your agent has started asking you to sign a contract, because I’ll be curious if that happens.

We’re on Facebook. You can search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us at Apple Podcasts. Just look for Scriptnotes. While you’re there you can leave us a review. People leave lovely reviews, so thank you for that.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts, going back all the way to Episode One.

You can hear all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. It’s $2 a month for all those back episodes. Or we have some of the USB drives that have the first 300 episodes. Those are for sale at store.johnaugust.com.

Craig, on Twitter, is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. And have a really good week.

Craig: You too, John. See you soon.

John: Bye.

Craig: Bye.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Getting Paid for It

Tue, 03/20/2018 - 08:03

John and Craig delve into the business of screenwriting from money to managers to medical plans.

We answer listener questions about collecting unemployment, registering as a corporation, firing a rep, quitting your day job and handling the anxiety that comes with such an uncertain career path.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 340: What’s the Plan, Anyway? — Transcript

Wed, 03/14/2018 - 17:34

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: Episode 340.

Craig: Sexy Craig.

John: Specificity.

Craig: Umbrage.

John: Segue Man.

Craig: Don’t you die on me.

John: That’s why they call it a One Cool Thing.

Today on the podcast it’s another round of the Three Page Challenge where we look at the pages that listeners have sent in and tell them what’s working and what’s not working. We also have some follow up. We have a deep dive into the plan behind Return of the Jedi.

Craig: If one can call it that.

John: Yeah. But I think we’ll actually be able to talk about plans in general, especially opening plans of movies. Because I think it’s sort of a special case.

So that is our episode for today. But first we have some follow up. Wyatt from Florida wrote in, “On Episode 80 of Scriptnotes, Craig Mazin said that it takes four hours to drive from Miami to Atlanta which is a grossly inaccurate statement. To give some context, he was talking about how in Stolen Identity it was mostly filmed in Georgia, making for a less breathtaking road trip than he desired. But, still, I find this to be upsetting as a resident of Florida. Google says this trip takes about 10 hours with a car, which will probably be more like 14 hours after you’ve stopped several times to keep your brain from exploding.

“While I agree that the trip from Miami to Atlanta is not an interesting drive, quite the opposite, it does take a very long time. I think it’s understandable that I would take a certain amount of umbrage with this claim.”

Craig Mazin, how do you answer Wyatt from Florida?

Craig: Well, I think I was using a little bit of poetic license there, Wyatt. If you’re going to do a road trip movie, probably you should limit your units to days. How many days will this road trip be? Will it be one of those weeklong road trips? Is it a three-day road trip? A one-day road trip is not a road trip. That’s just a long drive for the day. So, yes, the trip does take about 10 hours in the car. That’s true. You are absolutely correct that visually speaking the trip from Miami to Atlanta is a festival of flat unchanging landscape.

But the sentence here that I’m going to seize on, Wyatt, is, “But, still, I found this to be upsetting as a resident of Florida.” I think you have other things to be upset about right now, Wyatt, as a resident of Florida. I can think of like 20-hundred things that as a resident of Florida you should probably be worried about. But that said, you’re right. And, yes, tip of the cap.

John: Yes. We want to be an accurate podcast. I mean, we have a whole staff of fact checkers behind the scenes, but even they will let some things slide through. So that’s why we rely on our listeners to keep us honest and keep us – we don’t want any fake news in this podcast. We want this to be a completely accurate podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. So, Wyatt, thank you.

Craig: I kind of imagine Wyatt was listening to Episode 80. He was like loving the podcast, right? He’s just totally gorged on one through 79. And here he is on 80, he’s just humming along. And then he hears me say this and he turns white. Like white as a ghost. Then he rips his headphones off, finds a baseball bat, and just destroys his computer in a rage and then finally calms down, breathes, breathes, breathes. Gets out his phone and is like, “OK, I got to fix this. I got to make this right.” And then he sends this email.

So, I hope that’s not what happened. But if it did, I get it, Wyatt. I also get angry.

John: So Wyatt is listening to Episode 80 of Scriptnotes, so quite a long ways back. So either he’s listening to Scriptnotes.net where all the back episodes are, or he has the 300-episode USB drive. So I could envision that maybe he pulled the USB drive out from his device and broke it in half, because his faith had been shattered.

Although his email does go on to say, “Love your show. Hope to send in a Three Page Challenge soon.”

Craig: Yeah, no, I think he calmed down. In my scenario he got a hold of himself. I get it.

John: You get it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: All right. A thing that caused umbrage on Twitter this week was a tweet by–

Craig: That’s weird. That never happens on Twitter.

John: This is actually an article by Mike Ryan from Uproxx. And I first saw it as a tweet, but then I clicked through the article. We’ll link to the article. Mike Ryan was talking with his friends about Return of the Jedi. And they happened to be discussing the opening of Return of the Jedi, which if you’ve not seen it for a while involves a plan – well, a bunch of actions that are taken to free Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt, which was he had been sold off at the end of Empire Strikes Back. And Mike and his friends were wondering, wait, what was the original plan before everything went south.

Craig, can you talk us through either what does happen in the movie or what might have been behind what was happening in the movie?

Craig: Well, I can try. So, this is a movie that we all know really, really well, generally speaking. So you’d think that we would have noticed this collectively many, many times before. This is a movie I’ve seen, I don’t know, probably 20 times since it came out in the early ‘80s. And then the question that he asked here, “If Luke’s plan to rescue Han from Jabba had worked perfectly, what would that plan have been?”

All right, well, great question. So here’s what happens roughly in this opening sequence. This rather long opening segment of Return of the Jedi. First, we know that Jabba the Hutt has Han Solo. He’s got him frozen in carbonite. So he is a prisoner. He’s like a decoration in Jabba’s palace.

We see that Luke has started his plan by sending in C-3PO and R2-D2. R2-D2 plays a little message that basically is like, hey, I know you’ve got Han. Let’s bargain for him and I’m giving you these droids kind of as a show of goodwill. And Jabba is like, great, I’ll take your droids and I’m not bargaining with you at all.

OK. So now the droids are there. We also reveal that Lando Calrissian is working in Jabba’s palace kind of clandestinely. Right? He’s incognito, disguised as one of the guards. We’re not sure what he’s doing exactly, but we know that he’s a good guy and he must have a plan, too.

Then, next, Princess Leia arrives. We don’t know it’s her at first because this little bounty hunter with a mask comes in. You know, who talks like that. And the bounty hunter is bringing Jabba another prisoner, Chewbacca. And the bounty hunter, you know, is bargaining for money and then Jabba makes a deal. And now Jabba has captured Chewie.

Later on that night, the bounty hunter is revealed to be Princess Leia. She tries to rescue Han Solo. And they are caught really easily by Jabba the Hutt who now enslaves Leia and makes her wear the crazy metal special bikini.

John: The iconic bikini.

Craig: The iconic bikini. At this point, at long last, Luke – the Jedi – shows up, does a quick Jedi mind-trick on some of the pig-faced guards. I know they have names. Whatever. And then he shows up and he basically tries to Jedi mind-trick Jabba and Jabba is like, no, that’s not going to work, hits a button, and Luke falls through the floor, lands in a pit, and has to face a big monster. I know it also has a name. I think that one is called the Rancor. And he beats the Rancor, but you can tell he was not at all planning on falling into the pit and having to face that thing, because he almost dies. But he doesn’t. He beats the Rancor. And then Jabba is like, “OK, fine. You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to throw you all into the Sarlacc pit, which is terrible.”

And during the Sarlacc pit execution scene Luke gets everybody to sort of work together to kill Jabba and rescue Han and save everybody and off they go. That’s how that all works. At no point until this gentleman, this mind-blowing Mike Ryan, mentioned that that makes no damn sense did it ever occur to me that that makes no damn sense.

John: Yep. And here’s my theory about why you never worried about it. Is because I think we give special dispensation to opening sequences in movies, where we see a plan that’s already in the middle of action. For whatever reason we don’t go too deep into thinking about, wait, how did this all come to be? What are they exactly trying to do? What are the next steps? Because we’re enjoying it. So as long as we’re buying it moment by moment we’re like, oh “OK, well this is the next thing that’s happening.” We’re always curious like well what’s going to happen next.

Because most plans in movies, most heists if you think about like in Ocean’s 11 or any sort of big thing that has a plan, we’ve seen the characters make the plan. And there might have been certain details omitted, but we know what the general steps are supposed to be and so then when things go wrong we know that they went wrong because we saw all this.

But with opening sequences like this we don’t see any of that planning. And so we’re just assuming that they have some kind of plan. And as long as they seem to be behaving competently we just don’t kind of question it. So think back to any James Bond movie you’ve seen, they almost always start with some kind of big stunt sequence. It never really kind of makes sense how he got into that situation or why there’s a nubile young woman waiting for him at the end of it, but it’s James Bond so you just kind of go with it. And it’s interesting how for 20+ years we’ve just gone with it for Return of the Jedi.

Craig: Well, I’ll push back a little.

John: Sure.

Craig: So, for James Bond, those opening sequences are clearly picked up in media res, right? So we are in the middle of a plan and we don’t need to therefore know how he got into that place. What we’re excited to see is how he gets out of it. And each James Bond movie, with a few notable half exceptions, stand alone as their own stories. They are not sequels to prior movies.

Now, in this case, we don’t start in media res. We begin with a plan. So at this point in the beginning of the movie Jabba the Hutt only has one prisoner, which we know he got at the end of Empire Strikes Back. He doesn’t possess Chewbacca. He doesn’t possess R2-D2, or C-3PO, or Leia, or Luke, or Lando. And so we’re starting in the beginning, and Luke kind of just wings it. And then everybody seems to be winging it independently of each other. And I have to say even though I didn’t notice that this plan made no sense, now that I look at it and I see that it makes no sense it explains something to me about my own reaction and relationship with that movie, which is I don’t like it as much as the other two.

And one of the reasons I think I don’t like it as much as the other two is because that long opening sequence felt a little – character-wise it was always missing something for me. So, in The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, there’s a scene where Lando Calrissian sells out his friends to Darth Varder. And we can tell that Lando is conflicted because he’s trying to protect his own place, but you know, what are you going to do and he’s selling out a friend and he feels guilty. And all of that is good character stuff. There’s no character stuff in the beginning of this movie. Nobody is doing anything from character. Jabba just happens to be able to resist Jedi mind tricks. Luke doesn’t really seem like a very good Jedi, nor does he seem to have an interesting plan. It seems all a little light. And, yeah, you know, it’s not great. And I’m not sure that there is any way to logically explain the rationality behind his plan.

First of all, for this to make sense at all, Luke cannot know what Leia is doing. Right? Because what she’s doing has literally nothing to do with what he has done.

John: Yes. That is true. And if you look through this original article we’re going to link to, there are some alternative theories laid out about what we might be missing. What the original plan could have been that could have gotten us there, including the possibility that these people are actually kind of working independently. That like Leia had her own plan. And Luke had his own plan. They were essentially acting independently and really had no sense of what was going on.

But here’s where I will push back against you. You said like, well, this isn’t in media res. Clearly this is in media res to a large degree because Lando is somehow there. So he’s already part of something. He’s already in the middle of some thing is happening. Luke has already hidden his light saber inside R2-D2. So there was some thought of putting that thing in where he could get to it later on. But the question of like do they anticipate they were going to end up in the Sarlacc pit together at some point?

Craig: No.

John: That seems like an impossible stretch.

Craig: It’s crazy, yeah. No, that’s crazy. And also, you’re right, Lando is definitely in media res, but how? And why? What’s he been doing that whole time? What was his purpose there at any given point? And why would Luke hide his light saber in the droid? What’s the point? Just show up and start swinging it and kill people. I don’t get it.

John: The only thing I can sort of be happy about is that I know David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have just announced they’re going to be doing the three Star Wars movies. Apparently they’re all about how we got to this moment at the beginning of Jedi. That’s really–

Craig: I would watch it.

John: That’s where they’re going to spend $300 million to fill in this missing detail of how Luke got to this point.

Craig: I would love to do a kind of weird gritty – like a $10 million movie that’s just a gritty film about how Salacious Crumb came to end up sitting on Jabba’s lap like that. But like where he comes from, the whole Crumb family.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: And just living on the streets and hard times. Drugs. Drugs. And, you know, prostitution. And just like — he’s seen it all.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And he’s lost his mind. He’s just lot it.

John: Yeah, but I mean maybe it’s not that bad of a gig for Salacious Crumb to be there, because you know he’s got – he has interesting people. I mean, he’s surrounded by interesting people all the time.

Craig: And he loves to laugh.

John: Yeah. And there’s lots of opportunity for comedy, which is a – he’s sort of like a Dobby the House Elf but in the Star Wars universe.

Craig: But I think he’s hiding an enormous amount of pain. I mean, that’s the story I want to see is sort of like what are you running from, man.

John: Yeah. Well I think the stories where you can take the villain and really re-contextualize him as an anti-hero and ultimately a protagonist, those are the most rewarding. So, again, I think that’s why – I mean, David and D.B. have told us secretly that this is really what their whole mission is. Is to fill in this crucial bit of logic behind this important piece of Star Wars canon.

So let’s try to generalize back out. This idea of opening sequences and plans where you don’t know what the characters are planning but the ones that work and the ones that don’t work. I’m thinking back to Pitch Perfect 3. And Pitch Perfect 3 opens with a sequence on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean and suddenly Rebel Wilson and Anna Kendrick are there and they are trying to save the rest of the Bellas from something.

It’s absurd, but it also gets to play in with our expectations of like what kind of movie this is. You know, it’s Charlie’s Angels. It’s deliberately sort of nuts. And ultimately we’re going to come around to see that moment again.

So, it was crazy when we first see it in the movie. It’s crazy how it actually happens in the movie. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it’s fine for that kind of movie.

Other genres have much higher expectations of like these pieces all have to fit together.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, in comedy yes we do have a little bit more leeway on these things and they usually are not quite so complicated. But I can’t disagree with you. We have a grace period at the beginning of the film. People are more accepting and maybe you can get away with a few things that you wouldn’t be able to get away with later. But, there is a kind of weird hidden cost.

Nobody, you know, with rare exception people don’t have access to their – whatever the underpinnings are of their response to a story. There’s always going to be some weird impact that these things have on some people. And until I read this I didn’t realize that this was part of my – you know, it’s not that I don’t like it. I do. I just – I’m not a huge fan of that whole sequence. And I think now this is why. Because it just kept like – at one point he describes it, it’s becoming sort of like bad comedy. Because the plan is: droids show up, Jabba takes them. Chewie shows up. Jabba takes him. Leia shows up. Jabba takes her. Luke shows up. Jabba takes him. It’s just like what is this clown car being taken – and they definitely were not doing the whole “Don’t you understand I wanted to get arrested.” None of them wanted to get captured. Clearly.

Clearly. So it just became, I don’t know. I don’t know, Mike Ryan has really opened my eyes. And, you know, F-d up my head.

John: Yep. Now Craig, I know I have had experiences as a screenwriter where, over the course of development and then production, things that were simple and logical became much less simple and much less logical. And it’s maybe worth discussing sort of how these things happen. And we don’t know how it happened with the case of Star Wars. We don’t know whether this was the initial vision as written down in the script and this is what they shot, or if just a bunch of ideas all got thrown together and this is the result of a bunch of competing ideas being thrown together.

But in my experience when stuff doesn’t make sense, it wasn’t because the screenwriter said like, “I want to make the least sensible version of the sequence possible.” It was that people with strong opinions came in with specific agendas and someone had to find a way to match these specific agendas. So sometimes it was actor agendas. It was a studio saying we need more of this character, or could we shoot new stuff so this character is actually part of the sequence that they weren’t originally part of. Could we get rid of that scene that actually explains why they’re here and what they’re doing?

There are a lot of reasons why sequences which should make sense don’t end up making a lot of sense in final movies. Are there any other factors you’ve encountered over your years of working on movies?

Craig: Yeah. I consider logic to be a very dangerous weapon in the hands of certain people. And what happens is everyone is looking at a script and somebody might say, oh you know what, there’s a problem here. I don’t quite understand this. Or this doesn’t make sense. Or this maybe feels contradictory. And a good writer will attempt to solve problems from a place of character and simplicity and elegance. But a lot of other people, what they have is logic. They just have hard cold logic. And they will begin to add things to fix it. They are “helping it.”

So when you’re watching a movie and somebody suddenly just starts saying some stuff because apparently you need to hear it so that something makes sense, it’s rarely a screenwriter. It is typically a producer or a studio executive or somebody well-meaning who is attempting to solve a problem by just pouring logic ketchup all over it. But that is not good storytelling. It’s just fixing a problem. We don’t come to movies to see that. So I worry about that when that happens.

John: Yeah. And I would say in some ways the Star Wars situation is the opposite of that where no one is talking about what they’re actually trying to do. And so therefore it’s completely opaque. And it almost feels like there was a mandate of like all these characters need to be involved in this thing. Just introduce them separately. They can’t sort of be coming in as a block, except for C-3PO and R2-D2 because we always love to see them together. And everybody has to have heroic moments. And it is actually one of the challenges of supporting a large ensemble cast is finding things for each of those characters to individually do. And sometimes you end up with these kinds of sequences which are a little bit mish-moshy.

Craig: No question.

John: Any of these movies that we talk about that have sort of large ensemble casts – Charlie’s Angels, the Pitch Perfect movies – you want each of those characters to have their little moment of shine and spotlight. You want to get to them as quickly as you can. But in doing so you end up sometimes creating kind of Frankenstein sequences.

Craig: Without a doubt. I think that’s a really good point. There’s also a demand of sequels, because you’re not sort of meeting these fresh characters. I mean, Jabba is sort of a fresh character. But we’re not meeting fresh heroes like we do with say Lando or something like that in the second movie. So in sequels it’s basically, OK, everybody knows these people already. Give them stuff to do. What you don’t get to do are these quiet, like look how we meet Han Solo in Star Wars. He’s sitting at a table, chitchatting about his ship. And then another guy comes along and he has a chitchat with him and then he shoots him.

Well, by the time we get to the third movie, when people make their entrances they’re dressed up as bounty hunters and threatening to blow you up. And then they’re saving the one that they love. And he’s blind. And then another guy comes out and goes, “Ha-ha, I knew you were there and now you’re going to wear a bikini.” And you’re like, wait, this is what sequels do to you. And believe me, I’ve written enough of them. They are very, very difficult to write because all of the tools of surprise and freshness and introduction are gone. It’s tough.

John: It’s tough.

Craig: Yeah.

John: The lesson we’ve learned. So I guess the takeaway we could give to our screenwriter friends is if you are hired to write the third movie in a giant franchise that’s sort of world-changing, be careful with your story logic.

Craig: Yeah. But also you could say the other lesson is don’t worry about it. That movie did pretty well.

John: No one will notice your story plot holes for another 20 years.

Craig: It’s literally another 20 years. And then two nerds will talk about it on a podcast. But even then you’ll be all right.

John: You’ll be just fine.

Craig: We should do some Three Page Challenges right?

John: We should absolutely.

Craig: It’s been so long.

John: It’s been a very long time. So I think the last time we did this was the Austin Three Page Challenges.

Craig: Oh my. Whoa. That’s like a half a year has gone by.

John: Maybe so. Or I could be forgetting another one, but anyway we have three great new entries that Megan has picked. So the general theme she decided for this one was point of view. So characters who have either limited point of view or sort of different point of views that are uncharacteristic of other movies. So we’ll start with Pudgy by Jay Emcee.

We’ll have all of these Three Page Challenges linked in the show notes, so you can read the PDFs along with us, but here’s a summary in case you’re driving in the car:

A 10-year-old named Pudge observes his neighborhood from his stoop. He plays a CD in is well-worn portable CD player and starts nodding along to the gritty East Coast hip hop. Phat Boy, who appears next to him in Timberland boots, died jeans, and a gold chain raps along like it’s his music because it is his music. The two sit side-by-side on the stoop in the freezing cold, pouring rain, and blazing heat.

Fat Boy’s outfit never changes. Pudge makes sandwiches for himself and Phat Boy, though Phat Boy has more sophisticated taste than the ingredients left by Pudge’s mom than the fridge can accommodate. Craig, get us started on Pudgy.

Craig: Well, I generally liked this. Just to start, I don’t know if there’s a reason why our writer Jay Emcee has not told us what city we’re in. It seems like it’s New York. If I see brownstones and I’m hearing East Coast hip hop then I’m feeling like it’s New York, but I’d love to know. Just helps.

And I like the way we revealed his imaginary friend, right? So this is sort of like Hip Hop Harvey. We have a character who sees an imaginary person that nobody else sees because he’s not real. And I liked the way that this guy was introduced. This is a smart way to introduce somebody. You have a fact. He’s not real. Well, there are a lot of uncreative, boring ways to show that, like I’m sitting there and he’s rapping and then I cut to somebody else’s POV and there’s nobody else there except for this little kid named Pudge. And then we go, “OK, we get it. That guy is not real.” And what I like is that he didn’t do that.

Instead, what he did was he showed time passing, and because Phat Boy never has to change his clothes, never gets wet in the rain, never gets hot in the heat, our suspicion, which I think we will all have from the jump that Phat Boy is not real is confirmed. That’s a creative way of doing this. So I really liked that.

And there’s an interesting promise of a story here. And I liked that there was a kind of well-worn relationship between the two of them. I think sometimes people will create a kind of internal relationship that you would have say with an imaginary friend, somebody who lives in your head. And once those two characters start talking it’s like, wait, have you guys met each other because you’ve lived with each other your entire lives. There should be a complete, total, easy intimacy between you two. And that’s exactly what you see here.

I don’t quite get what’s happening on page three in terms of the food. I was a little thrown by that because Phat Boy seems to fill a role which is to be the kind of musical hip hop star that maybe Pudge wants to be, but Phat Boy also has really specific and quite extensive dialogue about how picky he is about food. If that’s meant to just be kind of flavor and sort of fun flavor, I don’t know if we need basically six-eighths of a page or whatever it is, three-quarters of a page to deal with that. I would probably limit that and get quickly to what we want to know which is what is Phat Boy doing for Pudge. Why does he exist for Pudge?

John: I agree. So I think “aioli” is a funny word. It’s used a little bit strangely here. Aioli is mostly a mayonnaise kind of situation rather than a mustard situation and it’s confusing that we haven’t gotten to the mayonnaise situation when he starts complaining about the aioli. So there’s some sequencing issues on page three that don’t really track for me. But I mostly agree with you. By page three I got it and I’m ready to sort of know what kind of movie I’m headed in for. Because at this point you’ve established this is a really good Hip Hop Harvey kind of situation, but I have a hunch that it’s not just about the two of them and their relationship. There’s going to be a third thing and I’m curious what that third thing is going to be. What does Pudge want? And he hasn’t really expressed anything that he wants.

We sort of get his situation. Now we know what his normal situation is. What is the change that’s going to come? What is the thing that he’s yearning for that’s going to take him on this two-hour journey? So, but I really liked the writing. I agree with you that the way we’re introducing Phat Boy and sort of going through the time passage is really well done. The observations of the other people on the other brownstones are really smart. It’s a little central casting, but it also feel specific to the thing he’s trying to do.

A moment that didn’t quite work for me is on page one he opens up his CD player and takes a look at the disc so we can see it. And then he closes it and plays it again. Like, well, you wouldn’t do that. And so maybe we need to find a way to introduce the name of Phat Boy without doing this. Or maybe he’s sitting down at the start of this and he’s putting in his headphones and we see the disc spin up or something. But it felt weird to really make a big show of opening it, looking at the label, and starting it again.

Craig: I had the same feeling, too. That was the one bit of clunky exposition and you don’t need it because you can just see it spinning inside or you can just see that he’s written Phat Boy, Money Hungry on his sneakers because that’s his thing, or whatever it is. Like there’s ways – I mean, kids write the names of their favorite artists all over things. There’s other ways to do it. And, by the way, he’s rapping. I mean, rap stars have been known to announce themselves in their songs. So, you know, that’s OK too. I think he could do that. So, yeah, that felt a little kind of, yeah, like ‘80s TV.

John: Yep. Because I’m a person obsessed about fonts, I’m going to talk about the fonts for a second. So this script is written in Courier Prime, which is the typeface I commissioned. It looks beautiful. It is delightful. But there’s other fonts used in here, too. So on page one where it says Phat Boy, Money Hungry that is in a bold type face, like it’s some sort of Sans-Serif bold. On page two there’s a note from his mom says, “Fresh cold cuts in the drawer. No music after 8pm. Xoxo, Ma.” Some people get really annoyed by this. For me, it’s fine. You’re trying to break something out as the thing you’re going to be reading on the screen and so to stick it in a different font for me is kind of fine. It doesn’t feel too cheaty for me. But I’m curious what you think, Craig.

Craig: I have no problem with it whatsoever. In general, I’m so bored with reading scripts that the one thing that blows my mind is this notion that people who read scripts are desperate for absolute violent conformity. That there must be always one Courier and this…and I’m just thinking oh my god if my job were to read scripts all day I would be desperate for one little blob of some other font there every now and again just to wake me the F up. So I have no problem. As long as it’s purposeful, and here it was, cool.

John: Cool. Last note on the title page. It just Pudgy, Written by Jay Emcee. That’s all fantastic. If I were to be turning in these three pages to somebody or showing them in the world, I might stick a date on them just so I could show when I wrote it. I would also put an email address just so if somebody loved them they could reach me. Because with a name like Jay Emcee, which doesn’t even feel like your real name, no one is going to be able to track you down otherwise. And so it’s good work. So, make sure that people can find you to tell you that it’s good work.

Craig: Yeah. I liked it. Good job, Jay.

John: Cool. Do you want to take the next one?

Craig: Yeah, what should we do? Which one do you think I should do?

John: Do you want to do Trucker?

Craig: Yeah, man, I’ll do Trucker. I’ll do it. Sure. Trucker, written by Erno van der Merwe. That’s a pretty Dutch name right there. Merwe. That’s a great name. Anyway, Trucker. So, here’s the story with this:

Sarah, 13 and tiny, observes a butterfly as Baron, 40s, packs up a truck. They prepare to drive off, but Sarah sensing that something is off asks if everything is OK. Baron offers a reassuring smile. As they drive, Sarah points out that they haven’t taken a vacation in a while and she pitches a beach in the Caribbean that she’s seen in a magazine. She shows him the picture and it does look lovely. She’s flipping through the magazine when Baron shouts at her to get down. She scrambles down to the floor of the truck’s cockpit. They are approaching a police checkpoint. An officer shines her flashlight in as she inspects the truck. It’s tense. Finally, she waves Baron on.

Good summary there, Megan. I like that.

John: Yes.

Craig: So, John, kick us off with Erno van der Merwe’s Trucker.

John: All right, so if you’re looking at the PDF of this you’ll notice that Erwin has chosen to sort of keep all the lines on the left hand margin. So they’re not paragraphs, they’re just single lines. That’s a style. It doesn’t really bother me. I don’t think it especially works for this script and we’ll talk about why.

I had a bigger problem with, actually, descriptions overall. And so I don’t know if English is Erno’s first language. I don’t know where Erno is from. It’s not the US because there’s definitely British choices in here. But the overall choice of words didn’t help serve the story especially well. So, start with the truck. First line, “SARAH is lying on top of a truck’s bonnet.” So, bonnet, the hood. This is the hood of the car. We know this is a British word. But, wait, what kind of truck is this? Because when I saw this I’m like, oh, it’s like a pickup truck, it’s something like that. But, no, it’s a big truck. And so if it’s a full big truck, how are you lying on the top of a big semi-truck? I just had a hard time envisioning what kind of truck this was.

Later on, you know, halfway down page one we are INT. COCKPIT – LATE AFTERNOON. I don’t think they call that a cockpit in British English either.

Craig: No.

John: That is the cab of the truck. Or just say INT. TRUCK because we know that we are in the part of the truck that you can sit in, the cabin. But don’t call it a cockpit because suddenly I’m in space, or I’m in a jet. So, when I see words that aren’t the actual words for things it just makes me lose a little faith in the writer and the writing. And so pick those right words because in screenwriting you have so few words. They really all have to be the right words.

A few other small things. Second line, “An orange sun is lighting up her face.” An orange sun? There’s two orange suns? The orange sun. Orange sunlight. Sunlight is lighting up her face. Just giving us an orange sun, are we looking at the sun or are we looking at her face. And there’s a whole subject predicate thing that happens when you have sentences this short that we focus on, “Wait, what are we actually looking at here.” And by line two I was losing a little bit of faith.

Craig, talk me through what you’re experiencing.

Craig: Well, yes, so we definitely do have a non-native English speaker, or American English speaker at the very least. You know this from the very first scene header, EXT. PETROL STATION. So, petrol is what they call gasoline in the UK. And bonnet is a UK term as well. And in general I’m OK – look, I just had to go through this process with every single page of Chernobyl putting in Briticisms and taking out Americanisms just because everybody is UK or European on the crew and in the cast. So, you can write flashlight, but they call it a torch and, you know, why just not make it easier for them. Call it a torch, you know.

So, I sympathize and I’m not going to go after Erno so much on that stuff. I also really weirdly love this format. It is its own weird format. I don’t know if Erno is doing this because he’s just cool and doesn’t like to follow instructions. Or if he’s doing it because he doesn’t know. Either way, it was kind of cool.

I agree with you that there were some descriptive problems. There was some confusions. I do need to know what kind of truck we’re dealing with. It appeared to me that what we were talking about was a semi, like the kind of truck–

John: Tractor trailer.

Craig: Yeah. Tractor Trailer. That hauls a big thing. I don’t know how the hell she would get up on the hood or bonnet of that truck. They are way up there. And I don’t think she could just hop on down easily either. She jumps off the bonnet. She jumps off that bonnet, she’s dropping a good six feet I think. So, yeah, I need to know what kind of truck we’re dealing with. But I really liked the back and forth between these two. I’m curious, this is good mystery as opposed to confusion. I don’t know what their relationship is. I don’t think they’re father and daughter. It seems to me more like a situation where he is taking her somewhere where she can be safe. That maybe somebody is looking for her. I just got that feeling.

So I liked the way that they went back and forth. I liked how much more she talked than he did, which felt very real to me. I got so much of her personality just from the way she kind of pushed him and kidded around with him a bit. She seems like she’s almost in charge, and then he gets in charge because here come the police. That was all really good. So I actually think there’s some really good character work here. There’s some good back and forth. It kept me going.

In general, Erno, you know, if you can sort of pull back a little bit on some of the fancier descriptions, because they do distract a little bit from the nice spare nature of your characters and their dialogue. For instance, “The truck roars to life and shoots out a ball of smoke. They drive off towards the sunset into the night. Slowly disappearing over the glazed horizon.” I get it. And I know exactly what you’re seeing. But, when you read it like that, it starts to sort of mush over into Bad Poetryville. Especially from your formatting.

So, I would maybe get a little – just pull back a little bit on some of that stuff. But I kind of loved it. I did.

John: OK, so I did not love it. And for me it fell apart in the character work really. I thought all of the scene description lines where he’s trying to do essentially the parentheticals about what’s going on between the characters, it was too much and it didn’t really work. So, if we took those all out and just had what was just in dialogue I could track it better, but I still wouldn’t love it. So, let’s just hear just the dialogue. Sarah says, “You know, we haven’t taken a vacation in a while.” “Oh yeah?” “Yeah. We’re always so busy. We need to relax every now and then.” “Look doesn’t that seem really cool?” “It looks nice.” “Ah-huh. It says it’s in the Caribbean. We should go.”

So, if I had that all together as one piece, I would be fine with it because I get what’s happening in there. I get sort of what she’s trying to do. He’s kind of engaged but not fully engaged in it. But instead in the actual what we have on page two is, “Baron knows what she’s trying to do. Always trying to be the optimistic one. He decides to entertain her.”

“Oh yeah.”

“Yes! She has his attention. Now it’s easy.”

“Yeah. We’re always so busy. You need to relax every now and then.”

“She sits up on her knees and turns her back. Shuffles in the back of the truck and pulls out a pile of magazines. Falls back into her seat and gives him a bright smile. Baron shakes his head. He is slowly loosening up. She takes the top magazine and opens it up to its centerfold. Holding it in front of her face she shows it to Baron.”

All of that action that he’s describing along the way is getting in the way of understanding what the real dynamics are between these two people which was done perfectly well in the dialogue. So, that’s my frustration with the character work in here. It’s making it seem like a whole bunch of stuff has happened when really nothing has happened and just dialogue in a screenplay can do that work for you.

Craig: I can’t disagree with that. I think it’s also exacerbated by the format because what would be three lines of action are seven lines of action when you present it this way. And that’s a long bit of page real estate to cover to get to the next line. And I agree. I think just pulling back on these descriptions would help a lot. But I could see his face and I could see her face. And I could see the place and I could see what she was kind of needling him on.

I’m kind of forgiving a bunch of that, but I will say Erno that don’t rely on people forgiving you anything. Maybe I’m just in a weirdly good mood today.

John: A generous mood. Then on page three, so this is the first real action of the piece which is like they’re slowing down because of the roadside check ahead. Here’s where Erno’s style is getting in his way a bit here. Because breaking it down into single sentences can work for moments of tension and sort of give you a sense of shot by shot by shot by shot. But by not putting any white space in here and just stacking the lines it is a real temptation to give up. And when you see a big block of text like that you’re like “I don’t know what to do with that.” That’s why poetry is broken into stanzas. You’ve got to give us a little space here so we will actually follow and see what’s important and what the changes are as we’re going through this.

Craig: Can’t argue with that either.

John: Cool. All right, Erno thank you for sending in your pages. Next up we have an untitled script by Sarah Paradise:

Lou Abern, a woman in her 30s, is getting viciously beaten by Keenan, who is also in her 30s. Both women are beautiful, tough, and fighting like they mean it in a glamorous LA nightclub. Onlookers heckle and cheer. Keenan grabs Lou by the collar and drags her across the bar top, sending all the glasses to the floor in chards.

Mitch shouts for them to stop from behind the bar. After a vicious bout of wrestling, Keenan emerges victorious. Lou exits to the alleyway and stretches her sore shoulder. Keenan playfully scolds her for giving her a small cut on the face. Lou counters that it’s not like she has a photoshoot tomorrow. Keenan mentions a movie that she’s working on that they need a stunt woman. Lou says she has retired from stunts but Keenan says she wasn’t asking.

Mitch pays them for their performance, but it was less than they agreed on. He scolds them for not avoiding the bar top like he told them. Glassware is expensive.

Craig, what did you think?

Craig: OK, so the generosity is over. I have many issues. Issue number one, we meet Lou Abern who is blonde and we meet Keenan who gets one name for some reason who is black. And they are women in a bar and they are having a crazy fight. Like a full-on punch you in the face fight, throw you over bars, smash into glassware. They land on a booth. They jump on booths, grabbing each other. At one point one of them slams headfirst into the end of a bar.

And this is not on a movie set. This is in an actual bar. And people are going crazy. And they’re shouting drink orders because apparently in the world of this movie people only order drinks at bars when two other people are fighting, when in reality when two people are fighting in a bar everybody backs the hell away because it’s dangerous.

Regardless of that, the next scene we see them and it’s like, “Oh, get it? They’re stuntwomen and they are putting this on kind of like professional wrestling to fool people into thinking there is a fight because according to this script that’s what gets people to buy drinks.” By the way, this has never happened in any bar in the world. And despite the fact that they have been punched in the face and had their heads smashed and fallen, it’s no problem. Keenan actually runs out and is like, “Wee!”

And they have kind of banter. So, which is it? Am I supposed to watch this fight and go “Oh my god this is a crazy fight. I understand that everybody is screaming for a reason. It’s a wild fight.” Or, is it just fake? Because when I watch professional wrestling I know it’s not a real fight. Everybody in the crowd knows it’s not a real fight. People don’t just punch each other in the face over and over and not fall down or bleed. And that’s what’s happening here.

The page two and three is a long discussion that feels mostly quippy and fake. I don’t know anything about Lou. I don’t anything about her. I don’t know where she’s from. I don’t know how she thinks. The way she talks is not particularly different than the way Keenan talks. I don’t know anything about Keenan. I just know that the two of them are stuntwomen who do this scam that isn’t real. And then Mitch is like central casting jerky sleaze ball. Like, “Sorry ladies, you broke a bunch of glass.” This all felt fake to me.

So top to bottom, I would say this to the writer. This is decently structured. You have a good sense of shape. You know how to begin, middle, and end a scene. You get pace. You have all these things working for you that a lot of people don’t. Like a lot of the stuff that’s in between the words. Where you’re going wrong is just simply believability. You have created unbelievable – and I see this so many times. You come up with what you think is a good idea and then you just start jamming this non-reality into words using the skill that you clearly have to do so.

So, I don’t believe the reality of this. I don’t believe the premise. I don’t believe that that’s the discussion they would have. I don’t believe the guy in the bar. I just didn’t believe any of it.

John: I liked this so, so, so much more than you did. I thought this first page was delightful. And I – and this is just people read things different ways – I read this as a crazy knock down roadside bar brawl that I have not seen two women ever have before. It seemed over the top, but kind of delightfully over the top. When they smashed the glassware on the bar I’m like, “Oh, that’s so cheesy, we’ve seen that so many times.” But then I was delighted to know that it was all faked. I guess I started reading this thinking like, OK, well this isn’t probably real. This is not actually the way it should go. And when you read it with that intention it’s like, “Oh yeah, I can see sort of kind of why they’re doing it.” Does the whole thing make sense? I don’t think we have enough information to know the degree to which the audience, the bar patrons, know that this is real or know that this is not real. I think it would be more fun if midway through this fight we sense that the people were there for the show. That this is a thing that they do. Because I would go to see that. If I could see two really good stunt people having a staged brawl in a public space that could be great. If I knew they weren’t really fighting that could be really, really cool.

So, I think it would sell drinks. I think there would be a reason why you would go to that fight, that bar to see that kind of fight.

The dialogue afterwards is not fantastic, but it’s getting us out of that setup and we’re trying to establish who Lou is and sort of what her background is. I don’t think it’s great. And I think we need to have more spin on Lou to know sort of what it is she tries to want. All we’re getting out of this right now is that she does not want to be a stunt woman anymore. And that doesn’t really seem to track with the brawl we just saw.

Craig: No. And also if this were in some skanky roadside bar somewhere I guess maybe. This is in a Los Angeles nightclub. You can’t get a Los Angeles nightclub to probably allow people to dance on a table, much less sponsor brawls that break glass. The liability problem is insane.

John: Well, but it’s fake glass.

Craig: Fake?

John: I took this whole – yes.

Craig: It’s not fake.

John: Well, I chose to believe that the things they were doing were stunt person kinds of things that they could survive. The sort of things that stunt people could do and so that stuff was deliberately staged, but some of the stuff that they broke was stuff they weren’t supposed to be breaking.

But I would say I totally believe that an LA nightclub would do it just because they want to get desperate attention. There was a bar on Santa Monica that used to have like Cirque du Soleil acrobats on Friday and Saturday nights who do the stuff like true acrobatic stuff above the crowd.

Craig: Sure.

John: That was really cool. This is not that different than Cirque du Soleil acrobatics in a bar.

Craig: It is massively different.

John: I don’t think so at all.

Craig: I can’t think of something more different. Here’s the thing, for me at least, if people believe that this is a real fight then a bunch of them are going to call the police. If they don’t believe–

John: So where on page one does it say that the crowd believes this is real? I see, “The crowd REACTS riotously to this while MITCH,” so they’re shouting, they’re cheering.

Craig: Here’s what I see. I see she’s punched in the face. That means it is real. You don’t get actually punched in the face in movies. They fake punch. She’s punched in the face. That’s a real fight. In fact, if you’re faking a fight and you punch somebody in the face it has now crossed over into a real fight. But, also, you’ve got drunk men heckling them. She crashes into – she gets kicked in the stomach. Again, real.

John: See, I guess I don’t understand why you believe that this fight has to be real, because we’ve seen good fake fighting a lot of times.

Craig: Because he’s selling it – or he or she – they’re selling it as real. I’m looking through this thing and I’m like so she gets her head slammed into the end of the bar and falls to the ground. Defeated, she rolls over and looks at the ceiling, breathing hard. That’s not from anyone’s POV. That’s meant to see like – that’s that shot at the end of a fight when someone is like, “Ow, that hurt. I lost.” And there’s broken glass, which is not fake glass. It’s real because at the end he says, “I’ll go bankrupt buying glassware.” Also, stunt people don’t smash into real glasses because they’d cut themselves and die.

None of this makes sense to me. I don’t get it at all. We’ll just have to agree to disagree. I just think if I saw a trailer for this movie I would be like, “Fake, not going.”

John: All right. That’s fine. I think there is an interesting idea here. I don’t think that pages two and three work especially well. But let’s go back to the actual writing on the page. I thought if this were meant to be a real fight, so take out the fact that it’s in a bar, just the action of two people having a knock-down, drag-out fight, it was pretty good writing. I never jumped out of the action writing.

Craig: Totally.

John: And that’s a hard thing because this first page is nothing but action. There’s no dialogue at all. And it got me all the way through the page and that’s a hard thing to do on a page one. So I want to give her props for that.

Craig: 100%. In fact, I liked page one so much that when page two showed up I got super angry because I thought that it was just undermining something that was good. Like I agree with you. I’m watching these two women in an LA nightclub having a drag-out, vicious physical battle, and they’re not like two 21 year olds with long hair and high heels who are kind of, you know, having that fight that we see on YouTube or World Star. This is like – like they could kill each other. These are two tough women going at it and I love that. And I was like who is this lady and what is her problem and how did she end up here. And then I get to the second page and I’m like, “Oh, never mind.”

John: Never mind.

Craig: This is baloney. It’s all baloney.

John: All right, I guess we both agree that page one is really good. We disagree on whether pages two and three deny the premise that this could ever be a real thing.

Craig: Welcome to real life, author of this script. This is how it goes. And here’s the good news. It doesn’t matter who doesn’t like it. It only matters who does like it. So, in this case, you would succeed, at least if John and I were in the business of buying screenplays.

John: Which we are not.

Craig: God no. What a silly business.

John: It is. I got asked to participate in an article that was being written about the death of the spec script market. And I was like I don’t know that it’s dead. I don’t know anything. I don’t try to sell spec scripts, so I’m the worst person to ask for it.

Craig: Yeah. Spec script market, well it’s like this new phase of the spec script market where there’s no longer a spec script market. It’s a spec project market where people will go around – Rawson just did this.

John: Of course.

Craig: Where you come up with an idea, you find an actor that’s meaningful for studios. You find a director or you are also the director. And then you go studio to studio and say here’s our package. It’s what Stephen Gaghan did with Dr. Doolittle and it’s what Rawson just did with the Rock, with Dwayne, on – what is it, a skyscraper movie?

John: That’s the one he already shot. So the next one is called Red Notice, I think. So.

Craig: Yeah. So it was a huge, huge deal. And so you go and you go to like five studios. Five studios used to all read a script on a Saturday and then get into a bidding war on a Sunday. Now, you go around to every movie studio on Monday and Tuesday and with just a meeting and a presentation and they’re bidding on something where there is no script yet on Wednesday. Fascinating. But it is akin to the same kind of market.

John: It is. It’s just a different kind of thing. And there have always been spec scripts that went out with talent attached. This is sort of a super version of that.

Craig: Yeah. I will say this much, and not good news for everybody listening. The barrier to entry for this version of a spec market is way higher. Way higher. It’s rough.

John: It’s tough.

Craig: Yeah.

John: All right. Let’s wrap up our Three Page Challenge by thanking our three entrants to the Three Page Challenge. If you have a Three Page Challenge you would like to send in to us, just go to johnaugust.com/threepage. It’s all spelled out there. And in there you’ll find the instructions for what we’re looking for, how to attach a PDF. You’ll sign a little thing that says it’s OK for us to talk about your three pages on the air. And we might look through it.

So, Megan reads everything that comes in. So, send in your three pages if you have three pages you think we should discuss on a future episode of Scriptnotes.

All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is also font related. It’s called What the Font? And I may have talked about this years ago, but the app sort of stopped working and now it’s working again, so let me describe what it is.

So often I’ll be out in the world and I’ll see a type face and wonder what is that type face. Like I kind of recognize it but I want to know specifically what it is. So I pull up my phone, I open What the Font? It has a little camera. I click, take a photo of it. It scans it and tells me what typeface that is. It is a thing that is delightful for me. So I think if you are a type nerd like I am you will enjoy this.

There’s a web version of it, so if you’re just finding stuff on the web you can make a screenshot and do it through. But mostly I use the camera on my phone to do it, and it’s great. It’s so very useful. It’s put out by the people who sell a lot of typefaces so that’s really the business model behind it is they’re trying to sell you these typefaces that you identify. But it’s really good, so I recommend it. What the Font?

Craig: You know, nothing is as saucy as a font-based joke. What the Font?

John: What the Font?

Craig: So fonty. That is the most John August thing I can imagine. Here is the most Craig Mazin thing I can imagine. My One Cool Thing this week is Weird Al Yankovic’s Hamilton Polka. He has done a very bizarre kind of overture style summary of the show Hamilton by the great Lin-Manual Miranda. But he has done it in polka style. It is disturbing. It is weird. I love it. And you can enjoy it too, for free, on the YouTube.

John: Nice. That’s actually interesting. I mean, YouTube feels like the right place for Weird Al Yankovic to live. I mean, I have always perceived him as being a comedy and really kind of video person. And so YouTube feels like a very good fit for him.

Craig: Weird Al Yankovic, his career is fascinating. He has had this remarkable longevity. You know, a lot of these – you would think, like “Oh well, it’s a novelty act. It will come and go.” When you were a kid did you ever listen to Dr. Demento?

John: I was just about to ask about Dr. Demento. Of course I did.

Craig: Yeah. So Dr. Demento for the vast majority of you who are too young to know what the hell we’re talking about. Like, OK, first of all there used to be a thing called radio. And then you would tune into a station. And on some random night in your town, whatever your local weirdo station was, Dr. Demento would come on. It was a nationally syndicated radio program. And it was just this fun, old, kind of dorky nerdy guy who curated novelty records. And novelty records and comedy songs have been around forever. But you can’t really point to any one act other than Weird Al Yankovic that lasted beyond maybe two songs.

I mean, most of them it was like, “Well, there’s the guy who sang One-Eyed, One-Horned, Flying Purple People Eater. And there’s the guy who did Monster Mash. And there’s the guy who did, you know, whatever it was, like Fish Heads. And here’s Weird Al Yankovic with two decades and multiple albums.” And it’s remarkable. He’s just unstoppable. I love it.

John: So we will put a link in the show notes to Dr. Demento, the Wikipedia article. I am finding out that Dr. Demento is still alive. He is 76 years old. His real name is Barret Eugene Hansen. I don’t think we would have a Weird Al Yankovic without his radio program.

Craig: No.

John: Oh radio. It was nice.

Craig: You know what? This is amazing. Dr. Demento you’re saying is 76 years old now?

John: Yeah.

Craig: Because he seemed like he was 76 when I was listening to him when I was 12. He’s always been 76.

John: Craig, I assume you are not watching The Crown on Netflix.

Craig: Well, I watched a bunch of the first season because it was part of my general Jared Harris deep dive. And I really enjoyed it. I thought it was really, really good. I loved – particularly it was an episode about his portrait being made. Churchill’s portrait being made, which I thought was fascinating. But, no, I haven’t gotten around to the second season. I’m scared because I suddenly realized, “Oh god, The Crown will never stop because, you know, they’ve got many decades to go.”

John: Yeah. They’re jumping ahead quite quickly. But the second season is fantastic. The reason why I ask is because I’m looking up that he’s 76 years old. I was watching an episode last night that was largely about Philip, and Philip is 96 years old. I had no idea he was still – I mean, I knew he was alive, I just didn’t have a sense that like he’s 96 years old and still a person in public life. That’s kind of amazing.

I intend to be a person who is 96 years old and still in public life. That’s my goal.

Craig: Well, you know, there’s a possibility that right around before we croak they’ll come up with a way to just keep us alive forever.

John: Whether we’ll hit that magic spot right now. I think our kids probably will.

Craig: Yeah. If they want it. If they want it, you know? Yeah, I mean, who needs it.

John: Who needs it?

Craig: Ugh, enough already.

John: That’s our depressing way of ending this episode of Scriptnotes. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Matthew also did our intro/outro. If you have an intro or an outro, or really more an outro, you can send us a link at johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you can send questions or follow up like the follow up we answered today.

You can find us on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. Leave a review there if you can.

All seven episodes of Launch are now up and available. That series is basically done, so I’m really happy with how it turned out. If you are person who doesn’t like to listen to series until they’re done, well, now it’s done, so you can hear it all together.

Craig: Great.

John: You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. If you have a Three Page Challenge you want to send in it’s johnaugust.com/threepage, all spelled out.

You can find all the back episodes of Scriptnotes at Scriptnotes.net or on the USB drives we sell at store.johnaugust.com.

Craig: You sell them.

John: Well, I guess Shopify technically sells them, but they exist in the world.

Craig: Mm-hmmm.

John: Mm-hmmm. Craig, have a great week.

Craig: You too, John. See you soon.

John: Thanks. Bye.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Knowing vs. Discovering

Tue, 03/13/2018 - 08:03

John and Craig consider how much a writer should know before going into a scene, looking at the perks and pitfalls of planning and letting oneself discover.

We also discuss taking notes from producers and executives. When should you stand your ground? When should you accommodate? What if it’s an excellent drawing of an elephant that’s been eaten by a snake?

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 339: Mostly Terrible People — Transcript

Tue, 03/06/2018 - 11:30

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 339 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Today on the program it’s one of our favorite features, How Would This Be a Movie, where we take complicated real life situations and boil them down to two hours of filmed big screen entertainment. The only way we know how to process life.

Craig: Yeah. Exactly. Can I just stop for a second and say Episode 339 – we almost have a year of podcasts.

John: Very true. You could listen to a podcast a day, which would be a way to spend your life. I don’t think it’s necessarily the best way to spend your life. But an hour with John and Craig every day. And actually if you counted all the bonus episodes I bet we’re super, super close to a full year.

Craig: We are. We’re probably super close. I’m just quickly doing the math in my head. This means we’ve been doing the podcast for roughly seven years, or 52 years.

John: Yes.

Craig: It’s one of those, right?

John: One of those two. Math is hard for us. But it’s one of those two choices. It’s been a good, long time. But it’s a been a good, fun time. A few weeks ago we aired an old episode because you and I were both traveling and people said like, “Huh, the sound quality wasn’t so good.” And you know what? You’re right. The sound quality wasn’t so good. Expectations have increased.

Craig: Well, you know, technology and all the rest of it. We’ve gotten better at those little bits and bobs. But even so, I’ve got to say – you know what it is? I’ll tell you, John. You and I, we’re the marrying type. So, when we started this podcast it’s like we got married.

John: Yeah. Absolutely true.

Craig: We don’t get – our heads don’t get turned.

John: Not a bit. So I’ll say that on an early episode I said like, “You and I, Craig, we’re not really friends. We’re not talking outside of this podcast.” And I could sense that you were really crushed by that. And, fair. And then I think we’ve become much better friends. We weren’t even playing D&D together when we started this podcast. That’s how long it’s been.

Craig: Which seems impossible. I’m crushed when anyone says that we’re – well, you know, we’re not really friends. And I think to myself, but why?

John: But why aren’t we friends?

Craig: I’m delightful. [laughs] I don’t understand what the problem is. No, I think we are friends. It’s true. I mean, it takes roughly 339 hour-long recorded conversations to really get to know you. But approximately one or two to get to know me.

John: And I always feel gross when I drop the word friend with somebody who is not really a friend. So I was on Chris Hardwick’s show a few weeks ago. It was a delightful conversation. You should listen to it because it was a really good time. And he’s on episode like 900 of his show.

Craig: Oh god.

John: But when they first proposed this, I was like, “Oh yeah Chris and I have been friends for years.” And then I realized like are we actually friends? No, we’re people who know each other well and when we recognize each other we’ll say hi and catch up. But it’s not like we’re hanging out every weekend. And so it was weird that I would ascribe Chris Hardwick as being a friend and not you back then.

So, I apologize.

Craig: Yeah, well no apology necessary. I think the word friend has been absolutely shredded to bits by the modern age, and particularly Facebook, which as it turns out is not this vaguely annoying thing. It turns out to be a bit of a melanoma on the skin of society.

I used to think like, ugh, Facebook is just annoying because it has distorted what it means to be a friend or to have a friend. And everybody is now engaging in this strange narcissistic display. No, it turns out Facebook is much, much worse.

John: But, Craig, they’re going to fix it all because they’re tweaking the algorithms.

Craig: Oh yes. Of course.

John: So all those problems of the past, they’re going to go away.

Craig: Is there a more annoying Facebook post than the, “Dear friends, they’re fixing the algorithm. If you wish to keep hearing…” No. No. Don’t talk to me.

John: Do not do that.

Craig: No.

John: Facebook should only be about cute photos of babies and dogs. That’s all I want to see.

Craig: Pretty much. Anytime someone is like just respond so I know that you’re still listening to me. Mm-mm. Mm-mm.

John: Don’t do it. But on the topic of responding so that people know that you’re listening, Sundance Episodic Filmmakers Lab, which is actually like TV lab. We’ve talked about this before. It’s a really good program and they asked us to hype it up again so that they can get more great entries. The Episodic Story Lab is really, really great. And so it’s people who are doing television series, but also things that are kind of like television series. They put together showrunners and TV staff writers and people who are aiming for that kind of job together in a room up at the top of the mountains and they make great TV the same way they’ve been able to make great indie films.

So there’s going to be a link in the show notes to the application process for the Episodic Story Lab. Definitely consider if you’re considering writing TV. And if you are a writer headed towards this industry why aren’t you considering TV? So it feels like a good thing to consider applying for. I think the technical deadline for applying has passed, but they are still reading stuff realistically. So, get your stuff in there. Get into the Episodic Story Lab.

Craig: Yeah. Just a fine organization and we keep seeing great people graduating from that program and doing great, great things. So, seems like a no-brainer to me. Yeah.

John: All right. Let’s get to some follow up. Craig, will you take the first one here?

Craig: Yeah. We’ve got Steve in Los Angeles who writes in, “I’m a regular Scriptnotes listener and years ago I attended a Q&A with you at USC. Someone asked,” is he talking to both of us or just you?

John: I think it’s probably just me. We’ll see.

Craig: Just you. Because who is you? I mean, I’ve done Q&As at USC, but you’ve probably done more.

John: I’ve done more.

Craig: Your name is on a room there.

John: I got a name on a room.

Craig: Yep. “Someone asked you the proverbial question how do I break in as a writer.” That is not a proverbial question.

John: Yeah. What is a proverbial question? Let’s discuss proverbial questions. Is it an unanswerable fundamental question?

Craig: I don’t even know if there are proverbial questions as opposed to proverbial examples or the proverbial complaint or the proverbial – but a typical question, or the often asked question, but proverbial, I don’t know. Because proverbs aren’t in the form of questions.

John: No they’re not. They’re just sort of statements. [Unintelligible].

Craig: Yeah, I would say someone asked you the hackneyed question, “How do I break in as a writer? You answered that selling a spec screenplay is like winning the lottery. The best way to win is to buy as many tickets as possible. I took your advice to heart and my writing partner and I worked hard to stack the odds in our favor. There have been countless rejections over the years, but last week after writing 17 spec scripts we won.

“Our sci-fi spec, Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers, sold to Warner Bros. I wanted to reach out and say thank you. Your advice motivated me to keep buying lottery tickets.”

Wow.

John: Wow. Well congratulations, Steve, and to your writing partner. It’s awesome that you sold your spec. It’s awesome that you wrote 17 scripts. And I think it’s good for people to hear that it’s not about writing a script, or writing two scripts. It’s often about writing a whole bunch of scripts.

You know, Jonathan Stokes, who has become a friend, he is a middle grade fiction writer but he’s also a screenwriter. He works a lot in both. And it took him a long time to get his first purchase or his first spec sale, but then he ended up selling a bunch and he basically had this big old trunk full of scripts and he kind of sold them off one by one. So I’m curious whether that’s going to happen for Steve.

Craig: It’s a very common thing when people are interested in your work and hiring you for them to say what do you have in your drawer. So, Steve and his writing partner have another I guess 16 scripts in their drawer. But another thing to point out here, if we extend the analogy of the lottery ticket, unlike normal lottery tickets in which your odds remain the same, i.e. horrendous, in spec screenwriting with every script you write I think your odds get just a little bit better, because you theoretically at least are getting a little bit better each time.

John: Yeah. In the next episode of Launch, which I guess came out the same day as this episode of Scriptnotes, which is crazy, the final episode of Launch actually we talked to Tomi Adeyemi who has a book that comes out next week and her book is going to be huge. And sort of like Steve’s situation though, it wasn’t her first book. It wasn’t even really her second book. It was a bunch of stuff before this. And so she’ll seem like an overnight success, but there was a lot of work behind that overnight success-ness. So I would definitely tune in for her story in the next episode of Launch as well.

Craig: Yeah, there is the proverbial overnight success – proverbial used correctly there. And typically people will say, “Yes, my overnight success came over the course of 4,000 nights.” We just don’t see all that other stuff. What we see is the result. We see the outcome. So don’t get fooled by outcomes, folks.

Take a lot at the process. Steve has shun a light upon it.

John: Indeed. Winston in Los Angeles writes, “I recently wrote to you about my creative paralysis and I want to thank you for the advice you gave me on the podcast. It was affirming and encouraging. And now I’m happy to report that a production company has since agreed to produce my passion project. Of course, this is very exciting and I’m now in the process of attaching a showrunner before we take the project to the market. I’ll be having my first meeting with a potential showrunner very soon. And this writer on paper seems to be a great fit for me and my project.

“My question to you, John and Craig, is how should I approach and handle this meeting?”

So Winston is talking about a situation where he has written something and they’re going to partner him up with an experienced showrunner to go out to market. Like this is a person who would sort of godfather the project and sort of be the backstop to guarantee to the studio and to the network that this is really a show that can happen. And Winston who doesn’t have experience running a show will have somebody who does have experience running the show.

So, Craig, if you are meeting up with a potential creative partner for the first time what do you recommend you do?

Craig: Well this one is a tricky dance. I’ve never had this meeting, but I’ve definitely talked to people who have, from both sides. And so I think if you are aware of the potential pitfalls from both sides you’ll probably be well served.

So the showrunner is someone who has experience doing a lot of the things that Winston you may not have experience doing. Some of those are very managerial tasks. Managing human resources, as the corporates say. We are going to be hiring writers. We are going to be assigning writers things. We’re going to be figuring out our budgets. We’re going to be firing writers. We’re going to be hiring writing assistants. We’re going to be promoting writing assistants. We’re going to be dealing with notes from the studio. We’re going to be dealing with notes from the network. We have postproduction schedules to hit. We have staff to hire. We have staff to fire. We have crew to hire. Crew to fire.

We have directors to deal with. On and on and on. Oh, and let’s not forget the actors who occasionally will tromp into a trailer and complain about their characters or ask for more money or ask for more lines. All of this stuff is business-y stuff. So, I think Winston you should just be aware that when you’re speaking with the showrunner that there is a certain amount of experience they have that’s valuable to you, as opposed to going into that meeting and thinking, “So, nobody trust me because I’m new but they should trust me because I’m great. And so they’re just sticking somebody on here to be my babysitter.” That is not at all the case.

However, also then from the other side of things, for the showrunner, I think it’s important for a good showrunner to realize that somebody new to the business has created something that is unique and worthy of attention and thus has created a job for the showrunner.

John: Yep.

Craig: And that’s really valuable. So, the more the two of you can learn to trust and love each other, and the more the two of you can recognize what the other brings to the relationship that is irreplaceable, the better off it will be. If you feel like the showrunner is dismissive or disinterested or imperious then I think it’s fair for you to say I don’t want them.

John: Yeah. You got to trust your gut instinct there. And if the first meeting does not go well, I doubt that the third meeting and the 17th meeting will go well. In many ways I would recommend that this not be a meeting. If there’s a way you can have this first encounter not be in someone’s office talking over stuff, I think you’re going to be better off. Because so much of this relationship is going to be kind of a relationship, a mutual trust in that we’re trying to make the same thing. So if you can find some neutral happy spot to have some coffee in and chat that could be great. Where it doesn’t feel like you’re in an office environment necessarily, where you can just talk about overall visions, overall strategies. Where challenges could come up. What some of the opportunities are. Talk about your vision for what is going to happen over the course of the season.

You know, you are the person who wrote this thing that got this all started. And they are going to be the person hopefully who is going to help you carry this all the way through to the end. So, if you can find a neutral place to talk through the story that way that will be great.

A dynamic I don’t think you want to see is where they are suddenly kind of in charge of everything and you are their employee. That’s not going to be healthy either. So, you got to find some place where there’s a good balance that you’re trying to work together to make something rather than you are working for them.

Craig: 100%. And it’s good to be able to point to examples of the kinds of working relationships you admire and desire so that there isn’t any of those weird fussy moments where – you know, I was just talking to somebody today, a journalist, and she’s doing an article about our casting director on Chernobyl who is also the casting director of Game of Thrones, Nina Gold, and the journalist asked me this interesting question about how it works with hierarchies where everyone is sort of together in a room. You’ve got your executive producers. You’ve got your director. You’ve got your casting directors. And there’s a difference of opinion. How does hierarchy come into play?

And I had never really thought about the question before, but it did seem to me that in cases where things are working well, like for instance on our show now happily, it doesn’t. That hierarchy is irrelevant. What matters is general trust and faith and another person’s instincts, respect for another person’s feelings and opinions. Respect and belief in your own feelings and opinions. And a general appreciation for passion. Both strong negative and strong positive. And then things get hashed out.

Rather than situations where rank suddenly becomes very important. I find those to be diminishing and dispiriting and I think sometimes what happens is showrunners can take over a show and then you realize, “Oh, they’re a general and I’m some sort of weird lieutenant colonel that no one is saluting or carrying about because they don’t have to because the showrunner is ranked higher.” That’s a bummer.

John: Yeah. You’re sort of the founder, but they’re the CEO who got installed above the founder. That sort of thing does happen. I haven’t had a lot of like long term creative partnerships, but the longest I’ve had has been with Andrew Lippa on Big Fish. And a thing that Andrew and I figured out very quickly is that we’re not always going to agree on everything. But publically, when we’re in front of other people, we are in 100% agreement. And we will never disagree with each other in front of other people. And that may be a dynamic you find with this showrunner is that you can close a door and work through all the stuff you need to work through, but when you’re in the room with a network, when you’re in the room with the studio you are one united front.

And if you’re not one united front, they will find ways to pit you against each other, not because they’re trying to bring the show down, but they’re just trying to get their views heard and understood. So, the degree to which you can talk about how to be united in your vision publically, even when you are still figuring out privately what that vision should be. That’s got to be a goal.

Craig: And I would even carry that through to writing rooms.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: And to casts. Basically, you guys form your own little mafia and you don’t take sides against the family in public. Because you need to be a little mafia. You need to protect each other. Making television shows and movies is a process that is both necessary to make creative dreams realized and also it is a process that is corrosive to creative dreams. And the only thing that will protect you from the corrosive aspect is a mafia-like you and me. You and me, buddy, no matter what, back to back.

And if we have a fight, let’s fight behind closed doors. But when we come out, our ranks our closed. And it’s us against the world. And then everybody will follow along.

John: Yeah. That’s the goal.

All right, our last bit of follow up is a slightly different piece of follow up. So we’ve talked about MoviePass several times on the show. So MoviePass is a service. You subscribe for a monthly fee. I think it’s now $10 a month. And with that you can see unlimited movies basically. Or a movie a day.

We originally questioned well how is this possible. This is a way to lose a lot of money for a company called MoviePass.

Craig: Right.

John: And then people wrote and said, “Oh, you know, I think there actually is maybe a viable business plan here.” And then when we were doing our live show in Hollywood, a guy came up afterwards named John who said, “Oh, you were talking about MoviePass. I’m a MoviePass user. I’ve seen a movie every day on MoviePass.” And like well that’s crazy and great. And would you please write in and tell us about your experience. So, he did. And so here is his testimony of his experience using MoviePass.

And I thought I would just play it in total because if we were to get him on the phone and talk to him about it he’d be answering exactly the same stuff. So, here is John Parker talking about his experience with MoviePass.

John Parker: Hey John and Crag. John Paul Parker here. I’m a MoviePass subscriber and I just want to let you know that the service is not a scam. It actually works as advertised. I received my MoviePass card on January 5, 2017. And since receiving my card I have seen a new film in the theater every day. I’ve literally not missed a single day at the theater since getting my card.

Living in Santa Monica there are major multiplex chains like AMC, and also smaller art house shops like the Laemmle Theaters all around me, so I have yet to run out of a new film to watch each day.

The greatest thing about MoviePass is not how many films you get to see, it’s how many really good smaller budget independent films you will see and support. Films like Maude, Tragedy Girls, Ingrid Goes West, Good Time, and Landline are all films I went into completely blind and absolutely loved them. If it wasn’t for this service it is very unlikely I would have dished out the cash to see these films in the theaters unless someone strongly recommended one of them to me.

While the service is not perfect due to its nearly impossible to reach customer service when there are issues, or the inability to get seats early, for what you’re paying for it’s really hard to complain. When I got my card in early 2017 the plan was $500 for the year. It’s now dropped down to $120 per year. Seeing the amount of movies that I have has added up to roughly $5,000 for this year. So I’m definitely getting my money’s worth.

Originally it seemed like MoviePass’s business model was to hope that people wouldn’t use the service as much as the monthly plan is actually worth. Kind of like a gym. But now that the price has dropped down to $10 a month my guess is that what they’re trying to do is just acquire enough customers so that they can use their members to leverage them against the studios and theaters.

The App Store says that they have over 500,000 downloadable users. If that number rises to say 5 million users and each one of their customers sees at least one film a month at an average of $10 a ticket, then you’re looking at $50 million of US box office sales a month that they control.

I hope this information helped you out. All the best to you.

John: John Parker that was amazing. Thank you very much for writing in with that. And I should say that Megan McDonnell, our producer, she also uses MoviePass and she’s had a pretty good experience with it. So, I guess I’m wrong. Or I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know how long MoviePass is going to last. I don’t know what it’s going to become. But for me to have dismissed it out of hand was incorrect I think.

Craig: Yeah. So certainly someone like John is rare. I don’t think a lot of people can – even have the time or the freedom – to see a movie a day like he does. But the deal, just to refresh my memory, is MoviePass is reimbursing the theater and therefore the studio for the cost of the ticket?

John: Essentially what happens is through the app you go in, you say I’m going to see this movie at this theater. And basically it’s GPS bound so that you’re literally at the theater. You’re clicking the button. It’s activating. It’s putting that money on your special MoviePass credit card. You’re using that MoviePass credit card to buy the ticket. So that is the transaction that’s happening.

So from the theater’s perspective, it’s essentially invisible.

Craig: It’s the same. It’s the same thing. Right. So, listen, we kind of went through this last time where it seemed like maybe what MoviePass was doing, and John is getting to this as well in his comment, they’re building a database of information and customers that could theoretically then be leveraged. Which is frightening, a little bit. I get frightened by – what’s the thing? If you’re not paying for something, then you are the product?

That worries me somewhat. But for now I guess, you know, go John Parker, go.

John: Yeah. I like that it has challenged himself to see a movie every day. He’s seeing a lot of movies he wouldn’t have otherwise seen. So that’s great and that’s fantastic.

I know there’s also been some challenges where certain theaters in Los Angeles and other markets are no longer on MoviePass and that was an unpleasant surprise to some folks. But I’m curious about new models. I would love for it to actually help the theatrical experience to get more people into theaters on a regular basis, because I think big screen entertainment is something worth fighting for.

So, I want it to help big screens and not hurt big screens. I’m not quite sure how it’s going to end up three or five years from now. But we’ll see. Because after all this podcast is going to go on for the next 20 years. So we’ll go through all of these cycles and see what it is. And we won’t believe what we were saying way back in 2018 about MoviePass.

Craig: Well, I mean, look at what we were saying in 2016 before things changed.

John: Indeed.

Craig: Long sigh. Long sigh.

John: Imagine that different world we lived in way back when.

Craig: Yep.

John: All right. It’s time for one of our favorite features. This is How Would This Be a Movie. Listeners send in articles from the news on Twitter to us, @johnaugust and @clmazin. They say, “Hey, this is like a How Would This Be a Movie.” And usually they’re correct. And so I hit the little fave button. Or if I really like it I save it to my pin board and we gather them all up. And occasionally we go through and take a look at these stories and ask, well, how would they be a movie?

So, we have five different articles that were suggested in. Many of these were by multiple listeners. So we will tackle them and see which of these stories might really be well-suited for the big screen.

Craig: Right. Or maybe amend that slightly to big screen or Netflix screen, you know, like perhaps an Amazon movie or a Netflix movie, but a feature film.

John: A feature. And sometimes we should say we’ll go through a story and say, you know what, it’s really a TV idea. It’s really a TV series idea.

Craig: Right.

John: And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with television.

Craig: Not at all, says the guy who’s writing television right now. So, I agree.

John: We are not big screen chauvinists. We just know more about big screen stuff.

The first article is by Zeke Faux for Bloomberg, which is just what an amazing name.

Craig: Right? Like Zeke Faux? Faux. That can’t be real. That has to be faux. It’s just crazy. That’s crazy. I mean, it would be like meeting somebody whose last name was “False.”

John: Yes. The headline of the article is Millions Are Hounded For Debts They Don’t Owe. One Victim Fought Back With a Vengeance. One of our listeners said, “There’s an intriguing criminal network and a great, great persistent protagonist, but also a lot of dramatic action based around spreadsheets and phone calls. Shruggy face.”

I love shruggy guy built out of punctuation.

Craig: Shruggy guy is the best. You know who introduced me to shruggy guy?

John: Who?

Craig: Stuart Friedel.

John: That feels completely Stuart Friedel. Stuart Friedel, our former producer.

Craig: Yeah. He actually is the human shruggy face guy. Occasionally you can just imagine Stuart going, “What? What are you going to do?”

John: Our story follows Andrew Therrien. I guess I’m pronouncing his name right. He is a normal person with a normal job. Gets a phone call from a bill collector about a bill he does not owe. And a second phone call. And a threat to rape his wife. And other violence from these bill collectors. And most people would be frightened, annoyed. Andrew, it almost feels like one of those death wish things where you cross the wrong person.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And he goes on a mission to track down who this person was who is harassing him. But really what the whole industry was like of these people who are trying to collect debts, especially these really basically fake debts. And so this is a long dark slide I would say I would describe this article. Craig, did you feel a sense of a movie in here?

Craig: I did. I did. I don’t think it’s necessarily something that’s going to park in cinemas, as they say, but it could be an excellent feature on a Netflix or an Amazon or something like that. And here’s why. There is some general kind of interest in a new sort of villain and a new sort of scam. There’s a great tradition in movies of the little guy fighting back against a shadowy network of bad, bad people. I remember seeing that George C. Scott movie Hardcore, which was really gut-wrenching. But you could feel it. It was like there was a decent person trying to fight this thing that was so much bigger and just so much dirtier than he was. And how was he ever going to possibly win?

And so I like that. That’s good old traditional stuff. And there is an interesting onion-like method to this where you keep peeling layers and finding more and more stuff underneath. And finding people that are oddly sympathetic. And in fact in one point one of the middle men that was handling some of these fake phantom loans ends up killing himself because he’s so miserable about what’s happened and his life has fallen apart because of it.

But the reason that I think this actually could be really interesting to watch and unique is that there’s this fascinating notion of extreme people colliding. So you’ve got – and in the center of this onion there is a bad guy. The bad guy is named Joel Tucker, I believe. Joel Tucker kind of sits on top of this empire of awfulness. And he’s the one that has put all this in motion and he’s the one that has to be stopped.

And Joel Tucker, his scheme impacted millions of people. And if you impact millions of people the odds are you’re going to run into that one-in-a-million guy. And to me that’s sort of already the movie poster. You know? If you hurt a million people, you’re eventually going to hurt that one-in-a-million guy. And the one-in-a-million guy is our hero.

And our hero simply doesn’t care. It’s like, “Oh my god, I found the man who will not stop. His life is designed to find someone like me at any cost.” And he does. I love that.

John: In many cases that type of character is the villain. It is the unstoppable killer. It is the Terminator. It is the Freddy or the Jason who just keeps popping back up and is just relentless. And so it’s nice to see the relentless hero for a change, because looking through this guy’s basic makeup it’s not that he classically has the great story or the arc where he was this mild-mannered thing and then someone killed his wife. It’s not that.

It’s just like something was going to piss him off and this was the thing that pissed him off. And once he got pissed off you just don’t stop.

When I first started reading this I thought like, “Oh, there’s an interesting story to be made overall about this predatory bill collecting, about payday loans, about this whole industry that preys upon people who are just between checks on things.” And so you could do the Adam McKay version, The Big Short version, where you’re really looking at it as an overall industry. But in some ways I don’t think it’s as rewarding as the one that focuses on a single person.

We often cite Erin Brockovich as that story of the one person who stands up against a system. And this guy feels like that person standing up against the system.

Craig: Yeah. This is a little bit like an Average Joe version of John Wick. Now, movies like John Wick are fun and they’re very similar to Taken and Taken is very similar to other movies before it where there is somebody who is an established dangerous person that other people in the world of danger know about and respect. And then somebody mistakenly comes along and screws with them. And then we just have the visceral fun of watching a guy on God mode, basically playing a videogame level, you know. I mean, Old Boy and all that stuff. It’s basically just videogames on God mode.

But this is different because nobody knows who this guy is. And, in fact, it’s almost like this man was waiting for this moment. That his life had been just about being on pause until such a moment that his super power could be required. And his super power is to never stop until he gets the right guy on the phone, and gets that right guy to admit what he’s done, and bring him to justice.

It is the strangest story. And it’s fascinating.

John: Well, because usually he would have some sort of structure backing him. So either he’s a journalist who is doing this for a newspaper article. Erin Brockovich, she is working for a law firm who is investigating this. But this was just – he was personally offended. And personally wronged. And that is what starts him on his quest, which is very relatable but also just unusual for this kind of story because he doesn’t have the backing of a greater thing behind him.

Craig: Right. That’s why I love it. In fact, there’s no evidence in his life as far as this article indicates that he would have even had the capacity for this. This man’s job – Andrew Therrien, his job was salesman for a promotions company. And then later in the article they talk about what he specifically did as salesman for a promotion company. He was promoting ice cream brands and hiring models for liquor store tastings. That is not a dangerous man. That’s also not a man who becomes obsessive about avenging this harassing phone call for $700.

Just to be clear, it started with a request for $700. And this guy went bananas. And I love that. I just think that’s so cool. And this is the kind of movie where if you got somebody like let’s say Leonardo DiCaprio to just become sort of bizarrely fascinated by this nut as I am, and he’s like a good nut, then you actually would get that in the movie theater. Because it’s like, “Oh my god, he will not stop. This is awesome.” I love that.

John: Here’s also why I think you might make the movie version of this is the situation he finds himself in general is relatable. So, I’m not behind on debts but maybe once a year I’ll get that call from a bill collector who is after somebody who used to work for me, or like they’re trying to collect the debt on the sister-in-law of someone who used to work for me. Basically they’re casting out the widest net possible to see if they can put pressure on somebody for some bogus debt. And it is horrible and I hate these people when they call and I let them know how much I hate them when they call.

And so we all have that experience either directly or by one step away and so I think we can relate emotionally to what that experience is like. It’s just like we are the people who wouldn’t snap, and he is the person who snaps.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, this guy bucks the trend. If the world feels like all of the chips are stacked against you, and here is a guy who just walks into a poker game with no chips. And just doesn’t stop until he wins. It’s fascinating. That part of it to me is remarkable. And I think it’s one great actor away from being a thing. But you need that great actor.

John: Well, and a script, too.

Craig: Oh, yes, of course.

John: We always forget somebody has to write the script. Another potentially great role is in Worst Roommate Ever. Do you want to set us up for that?

Craig: Sure. Worst Roommate Ever. This has been going around and around. And I got sent this because a lot of people were like, “See, you didn’t have the worst roommate ever.” I don’t know. I think I still did. I think Ted Cruz was worse than this guy, even though this guy turns out to be a murderer. But in his own way, Ted, I believe – you can make an argument he’s complicit in murder. Side thing. We have to get to our – we owe people the – you know, every now and then we do the Scriptnotes side show. And I think gun control. We may need to do the gun control one. We had promised at some point.

John: I think we need to. I think we had promised that, so we should dig into that.

Craig: We’ll get to it. OK. So, this story is about a man who, again, a bit of a one-in-a-million kind of guy. And here’s what he would do. He would look for people who were advertising sublets, like I need somebody to help split the rent with me. I’ve got a spare room so you’ll pay a little rent and you can move in. And he would move in. And he was a 60ish kind of guy. And for a few months he would be just the best. He would be the best roommate. A gentleman. A kind man. He would pay on time. And then things would start to get bad.

And he would become sort of a nightmare tenant. And what he was doing as it turned out was trying to get people to sue him. This is where this one goes so weird. His whole thing was essentially to create conflict for conflict’s sake. He wasn’t really trying to steal people’s homes from them. He wasn’t trying to extort money from them really. He just liked getting into fights. A little bit like the Joker. Just chaos for chaos sake. So he’s like Roommate Joker.

But eventually it gets much, much worse. I mean, he clearly had serious mental problems and eventually he does end up killing his own brother and goes to prison. And when he is in prison he commits suicide. So he’s not around to torment people anymore. But it is a remarkable story of somebody that would go from rent share to rent share with only one motivation: to enter into a chaotic relationship.

John: The article we’re talking about is written by William Brennan. It is in New York Magazine. And what I found so fascinating about him as a villain, it reminded me a lot of the villain in Dirty John. So if you listened to that podcast or read the newspaper series, where superficially charming or charming enough, and sympathetic to the degree that he’d moved to town because of a sick family member and he needed to be closer to the hospital or he’d just been displaced by some natural storm. He showed up with a cat and a dog who he seemed to care for a lot.

So, you felt sympathy for him. And it’s a very classic technique where when you do a favor for somebody you feel extra indebted to them. And so he was doing a favor by moving into the apartment and helping to pay your rent. But, you know, in you doing a favor for him by taking him in you felt this bond. And then he clearly is – Craig, I mean, you’re the psychologist, but like a psychopath? Sociopath?

Craig: I don’t know.

John: To some basic degree he did not seem to – maybe he understood people’s misery and trauma but he liked to inflict it. He seemed to just really get off on just twisting the knife in there.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And he went to law school and was apparently a brilliant law student. Failed the bar and never took it again. So, he had this legal background that he could use. But not necessarily use particularly well. He may have perceived himself as the victim in all of these stories. It’s not quite clear. But he’s not a person you should ever let into your home.

Craig: No. He’s not. And so there’s a – you probably saw that movie Pacific Heights. It’s a couple decades old now at least. Michael Keaton is essentially in a similar situation. A couple is looking to rent out some space in their home and Michael Keaton shows up and he seems perfect. And then he never wants to leave. And then he becomes a nightmare. And then it becomes a thriller and stabby and so forth.

The reason why I think this is not a movie is actually because the nature of this bad guy is puzzling. I don’t mind watching puzzling heroes because I’m meant to empathize with them, so I will learn about how they are and maybe even aspire to be a bit like them. But this guy’s problem is so strange. His reasons are so strange that they feel a bit arbitrary. And in real life that happens all the time and it’s a very, very scary thing. In movies, it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating if we feel that our villain is purely arbitrary.

And even in a movie like Dark Knight where we are meant to think, at least for a while, that the Joker is arbitrary and loves chaos, he has a point he’s trying to make about the nature of humanity to Batman. This guy has no point. He just likes getting into fights. And that strikes me as just a profound personality disorder. It is bizarre. And there is no explanation for it, nor do I find it particularly satisfying. I don’t want to hate him because I don’t understand him. I feel bad for everybody involved. And then he dies in the end and there’s no real sense of tragedy. The person that he kills, his own brother, there’s not much of a narrative story between those two either. I just don’t think this is a movie.

John: Yeah. I don’t think it’s necessarily a movie either. But I think it’s an interesting example of the Blank from Hell genre, which we went through a whole bunch of those. It’s the Nanny from Hell. It’s the Roommate from Hell. It is–

Craig: The Adopted Daughter from Hell.

John: The Assistant from Hell. That sense of like you’ve invited this person into your life and then this person becomes someone incredibly dangerous to you and to your sense of normalcy. And that happens in real life. We all have experiences where somebody who you thought would be cool ends up not being cool and being kind of a nightmare. And so to take it to the nth degree is really interesting.

But I think you hit a crucial distinction is that when a hero is complicated and it’s sometimes hard to understand exactly how their head is working we kind of lean into it because, all right, I’m going to try to sort this out. When a villain is doing that, particularly a villain who wouldn’t necessarily have full storytelling power, we’re like, yeah, I don’t get it. That doesn’t make sense to me.

Even movies that are, I think, have really great things to them can be frustrating because of that opacity. I really liked I, Tonya, but at the end of the day I have a hard time saying what I believe about Tonya Harding or Jeff Gillooly or actually a lot of the people involved in that story because I don’t think we can really even know. And I don’t think the filmmakers can definitively tell us what was going on inside their heads. And that is frustrating on a narrative level.

Craig: Yeah. There is a difference between moral ambiguity and I’ll call it motivational ambiguity. I don’t mind wondering at the end of a film if someone is good or bad, because the truth is usually we are both. It’s a very human thing to be morally complicated. And those are interesting endings to movies when you are left discussing with your friends and loved ones afterward what do you think about that character and can you understand why they did what they did. I think we see the villain in Black Panther, Killmonger, is a great example of someone who is morally complicated. And at the end of the movie you can have great discussions about where he came from and why he did what he did.

But motivational ambiguity is frustrating. Why he did what he did, crystal clear. Whether it was wrong or not, that’s a different story. But actually motivated him, no question. He tells you. And when we don’t quite know why people are doing things from a simple motivational point of view it does get frustrating.

John: Yeah. So a writer who chose to adapt this story would have to make some fundamental choices like he’s doing this because of X. You’re going to have to pin something down which may not be really true or based on reality, but you’re going to have to give the audience some clear framework for why he’s doing this, or I think you’re going to end up with a very frustrating movie. Or more likely a movie that doesn’t get made because the notes are like, “I don’t get why he does this. It’s a pass from us.”

Craig: Yeah. And also pretty good litmus test for whether you should adapt something or not. If you have to invent the beating heart of the thing, what are you adapting it for? I mean, the whole point of these things is that you find something that gets you excited in it. That is inherent to it and honest to it. You can then, you know, paint outside the lines and invent, but there is a connection to something true. If the thing that you are ultimately connected to in a story like this is your invented reason for why this guy does stuff, then what do you need this for?

John: Yep. All right, let’s go to another story with a complicated hero, or villain. A character at the very center of the story who we’re not quite sure why she’s doing what she’s doing. So this story is Teen Girl Posed For 8 Years As Married Man To Write About Baseball And Harass Women. This story we’re reading is from Lindsey Adler who is writing for Deadspin.

So it tells the story of baseball fan turned writer Becca Schultz who for eight years was pretending to be a man writing about baseball. She started this persona when she was 13 years old and it was revealed much later that she was in fact a woman ,but she wasn’t just writing about baseball. She was harassing women online and doing some things which are kind of despicable. And it’s very hard to say exactly why.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, well, she tries to explain it. And the explanation starts, well, the way you would expect which is “I wanted to be a valid heard voice in a man’s world. And I was not a man, nor was I even an adult. And so I took upon the mantel of an adult man to be heard.” And that’s a fascinating thing and it’s an interesting commentary on our society.

It’s also – you could look at her performance as an adult man as a horrendous critique of adult men, because she went ahead and did the things that adult men so often do, which is harass women, make them feel bad, pressure them sexually, get them to do things they didn’t want to do sexually, berate them. Except as she says, you know, at some point it wasn’t intentional like an act. She says it slowly led her down a path to some things that she was very uncomfortable doing but didn’t even realize were happening. And then she was in too deep. And I think what ends up going on is people like this create relationships that matter to them.

Everybody, myself, everybody has had a relationship with somebody – even if it’s brief – on the Internet. It doesn’t have to be sexual. It could be a combative relationship. It could be anything. Where you realize I’m in a relationship with this person, for better or for worse. And it’s doing something for me, because I keep coming back to it. And it is a fascinating sort of example of how human relations can become quicksand when you remove accountability. But that in and of itself doesn’t feel like a particularly new or fresh observation to make cinematically.

John: Yeah. So at the heart of this is the concept of catfishing. And so this is catfishing where you’re not going into this proposing a relationship where you’re like presenting yourself in a relationship as a person you’re not. We’ve seen tons of stories of that. And I don’t know if there’s been a great movie version of that, or at least a great sort of big screen movie version of that. This one is weird because of the addition of baseball. And the sense that she was just a teenager when she was starting to do this.

But, I mean, teenager-hood is the time when you are trying on personalities anyway. So to try on an adult male personality online, and then carry it through to making up a fake wife and fake kids and then have these online relationships with these women who believe that you are a man – yeah, you can see sort of how it happens. I have a hard time understanding or envisioning how you would make this a movie in the sense of like whose perspective are we in.

Craig: Right.

John: Because if we’re just seeing her go through all these steps it’s hard to really picture what are we seeing onscreen. This is the kind of thing where I feel like you need the internal voice of the main character who is doing this. And so it feels like a book rather than a movie. I just don’t know how you make sense of this character without having real introspection.

Craig: Yeah. Yeah. I understand her. And it is a very juvenile kind of thing that she did. And it was a – I can empathize with the desire for intimacy, even when intimacy goes wrong and turns abusive. I understand essentially what was going on. It doesn’t puzzle me. I just don’t think that there’s anything larger to learn. So it doesn’t need to be represented as a movie, I don’t think. I hope she gets help.

John: Yeah. I hope she gets help, too. And I think if there’s a story to be told out of this, or something that’s not quite this story but this general area of a story, it feels to me like a book. It can weirdly be like a stage musical where you can have the ability to sing the song of who you are inside. Or do double casting where you are the same people. She is both herself and the person she is presenting herself. Those are compelling ways to do this. I just have a harder time seeing this as a piece of visual entertainment up on a screen.

Craig: Yeah. I think actually a musical is a pretty good idea.

John: Yeah. I will always fall back on a musical. But yes.

Craig: Well, I mean, isn’t Dear Evan Hansen is kind of in this world, right, of a kid who tells a lie and can’t get out of it.

John: That’s true.

Craig: So, yeah, anytime you are dealing with a very internal, complicated, ugly, greasy, yet beautiful and sad and lovely mush of human emotions, I hear a song.

John: I hear a song.

All right. Our next story is from The New Yorker. It is a piece by Rachel Aviv entitled What Does It Mean? “When Jahi McMath was declared brain-dead by the hospital, her family disagreed. Her case challenges the very nature of existence.”

So, Craig, you are our resident almost-doctor. What did you make of this story? And do you want to talk us through the framework here? So essentially a young woman goes in for a tonsillectomy. Something goes wrong. She ends up in a coma. And beyond a coma she ends up brain-dead. The family does not believe that. And essentially keeps her or her corpse, you’ve got to decide where you stand with whether she is alive or not, for years it seems now. And she’s still in this state in their apartment. And I guess it makes you question are they right, are they wrong. Who are the heroes and who are the villains in the story?

Craig: This is a classic bioethical conundrum tale here. This girl had – at least it’s suggested – may have had a physical condition where her corroded artery was really close to her pharynx and when that happens that can raise, as the article points out, potentially raise the risk of hemorrhaging. It does appear, in fact, that she was hemorrhaging. And ultimately that led to her heart stopping, a loss of oxygen to the brain. The heart eventually restarts but the brain appears to be dead.

So, you have these situations where Patti [sic] Schiavo was sort of the one everybody knew about. Someone whose brain shows no provable activity on an electroencephalograph. But the rest of the body can be kept alive with a ventilator and all the rest of that. And so the heart keeps beating and so on and so forth. And you’re on a feeding tube, etc.

So, what do we have here? And this is where it gets mushy because this article kind of paints everybody out weirdly to be a villain. That’s how I felt. Like the doctors all felt a little too callous about it and a little too dismissive and a little too, “Ugh, whatever, it’s a vegetable, she’s dead.” And there’s implications that race was a factor.

The family seems to be reading a bit much into some of the body movements that occur with their daughter. Which, you know, sometimes it could be a real thing. I mean, there’s locked-in syndrome and all the rest of it. But it still doesn’t look like she’s alive. I mean, they do bring a doctor in from Cuba who insists that she’s alive. But it’s a little upsetting. And there’s this other strange thing that’s happened. So they talk about the Jahi McMath shadow effect. A rise in the number of families, many of them ethnic or racial minorities, going to court to prevent hospitals from unplugging their loved ones from ventilators. The notion there being white doctors are telling us our kids are dead when they’re not really dead, because they’re racist and don’t care, or care less. And we’re going to fight back.

I don’t believe that that is the case. I don’t.

John: I don’t believe that is the case either. Here’s my real worry about this as a movie is I could see this being made as a movie and in the movie version of this the family are heroes and the doctors are bad guys and she clearly is still alive and this is Lorenzo’s Oil and she probably wakes up at the end. You bend it just enough to see like, “Look, they persevered. They believed when no one else believed and look at where we are right now.” And that version of the story doesn’t tell about all the loss and of the costs that happened because of the decision to keep believing that she’s alive when everyone says she’s dead. The costs to the rest of the family. The costs to the medical system. The costs to other people who didn’t get help because this money and time and resources were being spent on this situation.

So, I get so nervous about this because I can’t envision a movie version of this story that doesn’t have this family as the heroes in it.

Craig: Yeah. You’re right. I mean, you don’t want to do a story where the point is these people are delusional and need to let their kid go. I mean, you could, and generally speaking the way you would do that is by having a disagreement between family members so it didn’t feel like there was some outsider coming in just yelling at them until they finally said, “Oh you’re right. What are we doing?” And then they bury their kid.

But this is not something that really is part of the common human experience.

John: Well, I say it is part of the common human experience in like that faith in miracles. That faith in like, no, no, we just have to keep believing longer and then we will – all our faith will pay off. I mean, that’s ultimately what this is is that if we believe hard enough and long enough we will be proven correct. And that is a common experience, whether it has to do with death or not death. And every one of us is also going to face end of life decisions. We’re going to face those choices of like do we start hospice or do we do some other great intervention on behalf of an elderly parent. Like we all do face this. This is just the more extreme version of it.

Craig: Yeah. It’s tough when it’s a kid because the whole point of a child is that they’re supposed to live. You know, if there’s someone who is 85 and then the doctors are like “Brain-dead,” you’re like, “No, grandma is still alive.” Well, it’s grandma. What are you going to do? So, I understand the misery of it. And my heart goes out to anybody that has to suffer from this. But I think that we have yet to really come to grips with accepting the notion that we die and that people die. And there is also, look, if you believe religiously then you’re just going to keep these people alive because you believe in a soul and neuroscience doesn’t. Neuroscience believes in electricity.

John: Yeah. But you’re going to keep these people alive even though they’re being kept alive by artificial means that were not sort of part of your cultural tradition before this moment. So, that’s the weird thing, too. It’s only going to, in many ways these kind of decisions are only going to get harder as we get better and better at keeping more and more people, their bodies functioning even after what we had decided was death has occurred. That’s an interesting thing, too.

Also I should have said the other big cost of this is, of course, organ donation which is the one thing that can actually save people’s lives.

Craig: Yeah. That’s the part that’s so rough because it’s impossible to say how you would handle something like this, but I’d like to think the way I would handle it would be to let my loved one go and then save as many lives with their organs as I could. And certainly, oh my god, if it’s me – I mean, if I get a bad headache, go ahead and harvest my organs. [laughs]

John: There’s a story this past week, I’ll try to find a link to it, about the actor Jon-Erik Hexum. So he was–

Craig: Oh yeah.

John: He was a star who was on this show called Cover Up. He was like a big hunky model guy. And he was messing around with a prop gun and fired a blank that lodged a piece of paper into his head and he died. What I hadn’t heard about the rest of that story is like they donated all of his organs, because it was the perfect death because everything was in ideal condition. And so parts of him are still alive in so many different people, which I think is just an amazing legacy to carry on.

Craig: I knew him from Voyagers. He traveled through time. No question. That was a joke that did not work and he died. But, yeah, you save all these lives. And I think that’s wonderful. I would love to do that. But, you know, is this a movie? No.

John: No. It is not a movie. It is an interesting story to talk about at a dinner party when you want to depress some people, but it is not a movie. What will not depress them is our final opportunity. A Carnival Cruise Descends into Anarchy. There’s many stories about this one, but it’s Avi Selk writing for the Washington Post is the one we’ll link to.

Essentially on a Carnival Cruise ship, apparently one family that had like 12 or 24 people just created this tremendous chaos. And there’s video of just these brawls happening. Passengers were scared for their safety on the boat. They were like locking themselves through the cabin. We laugh because it’s absurd. I’m sure it was terrible for the people involved. I feel like there’s a movie space here, or at least there’s an episode of a TV show here, because that is sort of like one of my fears. Because it’s awful when you have people on a flight who are misbehaving. Like that’s terrible. But on a boat where you’re there for a week and these people are always around. It’s that sense of like a small village in the middle of the ocean. There’s something really interesting and fun to do there.

Craig: Yeah. There’s some broad comedy to be done about a cruise. I mean, they’re Australians. They’re like a family of Bogans basically. That’s a word that we learned from Rebel. Yeah, there’s something. I mean, I don’t know. What bums me out is this is the one that probably most studio executives would be like, “Get me that Carnival Cruise thing. Get me the rights to that.” Because it just feels like, you know, it will be that movie. So I don’t even want to help them. I don’t want to help them.

John: It’s like Murder on the Orient Express but like funny and on a boat.

Craig: Exactly. Yeah. That’s what they’ll say.

John: And could we make it less snowy, and funnier, and could some people be in bikinis. And could we put Seth Rogan in it?

Craig: You’re helping them. Stop helping them.

John: That’s a movie.

Craig: Stop it.

John: [laughs] Yep.

Craig: No help.

John: All right. So, of the How Would This Be a Movies that we talked through, I think it’s clear that the debt collector one is probably the most compelling movie of this batch.

Craig: Yes. For me. But the most likely to be made is the Carnival Cruise descends into anarchy.

John: I think you’re probably right. Here’s what I’ll say. The Carnival Cruise, you do not have to buy the rights to that Carnival Cruise. There’s really nothing especially great or remarkable about the scenario there. The general sense of like what if you had Animal House but on a cruise ship. That’s a free idea. Free idea for anyone in Hollywood to run off with.

Craig: And begin…type…type…type.

John: It’s time for our One Cool Things. I have two One Cool Things. My first is Portal Bridge Connector. So, Craig, you’ve played Portal. You’ve played the amazing videogame Portal.

Craig: The cake is alive.

John: The cake is alive. The cake is delicious. Portal Bridge Connector combines all the fun of Portal along with the Bridge Connector games where you’re trying to move a vehicle from one side of the screen to the other side of the screen by building a physics enabled bridge. It’s really ingenious. I’m playing the version for the Mac and I’m sure there’s other versions, too. But it does all the fun stuff about bridge things with all the warped sense of humor of Portal. It’s very, very clever so I recommend you waste a lot of your time on Portal Bridge Connector.

Craig: OK.

John: My second one is a great podcast by The Onion called A Very Fatal Murder. It is a parody of true crime podcasts. It is ingenious. It is so, so good. So I don’t want to say too much and spoil it for you, but the episodes are really short. So, download the whole season. You can burn through it in a little over an hour. But it just so nails all the tropes to the degree to which you won’t be able to listen to other true crime podcasts because you’ll recognize, oh yeah, that’s a trope. It’s just ingenious.

Craig: See, now I’ll listen. And you don’t have to worry about me not listening to other true crime podcasts, because that wasn’t going to happen anyway. But I do find that whole thing pretty up its own butt. And so I love the idea that they’re taking the piss, as the Brits say. Because it is all very kind of formalized.

You know, this is my problem with podcasts.

John: Now that you’ve listened to three podcasts–

Craig: These things keep popping up, even in the three I listen to. There’s like – have you ever seen the video that someone did about YouTube voice?

John: I haven’t seen that. I should find it.

Craig: So, YouTube voice is this thing. People who do YouTube videos where they’re talking about whatever the hell interests them, they all speak somewhat similarly. And they also edit their sentences so that there’s never any breaths. And in fact a lot of times purposefully clip off the ends of words. It’s so strange.

John: Yeah. That editing style is really annoying. It’s really clear when you see it.

Craig: There’s also podcast voice. And I don’t like it. [laughs] I don’t like podcast voice. And you know what? Neither one of us have podcast voice. Although I will say that in Launch you kind of have podcast voice. You have podcast voice in Launch.

John: I do have more podcast voice. And so in the later episodes where it is just more just chatting because I’m literally just in a hotel room and I’m exhausted, I’m a little less podcast voice-y later on. But finding my right voice was hard. And we threw out the entire first episode and rerecorded it because I was too podcast voice-y. It really felt weird and forced.

But it’s the difference between me spontaneously talking like I’m doing right now and reading off a script. And I have to read off a script because I have to be able to make these points and connect these dots in ways.

Craig: Well sure.

John: That I wouldn’t have to just speaking.

Craig: There’s this cadence that we are familiar with for instance on news broadcasts. The local reporter, “I’m standing here where just minutes ago,” and then in England it’s very much – there’s a wonderful, again, a person did a video where someone is just saying garbage but in the intonation of a British news reporter. And you realize how formalized that is. And it’s becoming formalized for podcasts, too. But you know who does a great job of not doing podcast voice, even though it’s an incredibly scripted show? Karina Longworth.

John: Yeah. I would agree. I would say part of it is that when you actually just talk to Karina in a normal setting that’s her real voice.

Craig: That’s right.

John: But it fits really naturally. Her normal speaking voice is a little bit not like how other people would speak.

Craig: Her voice is authentic there. You don’t get a sense that she’s doing the podcast voice. Like for instance Leon Neyfakh, and I really, really enjoyed the Slow Burn podcast, so I hope he doesn’t take this as some sort of terrible insult, but he’s got massive podcast voice. And I actually want to say to him, you know what, you don’t need the podcast voice.

John: Well as the expert in podcasts, I feel like you should step in there. Having listened to so many podcasts, you are the person to–

Craig: I’ve listened to ones of them. Ones and ones of podcasts.

John: Tell us about your One Cool Thing.

Craig: Super-duper late to the party here, but I went on a binge and watched The Good Place. And I love that show so freaking much, written in part by my cousin, Megan Amram. So sorry that I’m so late to the show. But I hope you guys are watching it. If you’re not, watch it. There have been two seasons so far. Each season has I think ten episodes. So, very manageable. The cast is so, so good. I mean, the writing is amazing and the cast is great. Jameela Jamil – do you watch the show? Or have you watched the show?

John: So I’ve watched every episode and I watched the first season twice because I went back and watched it to sort of see what really happened. And I watched it with my daughter who is 12 and she loves it as well.

Craig: Yeah. Jessie, my 13-year-old, thrilled. Jameela Jamil may be the prettiest person in the world. Just like – I’m doing the thing where I’m fanning my face because she’s the hottest person alive. And hysterically funny on that show. William Jackson Harper plays Chidi and I want to be his friend so much because he’s basically like every nerd friend I ever had in college where we would sit and talk about Nietzsche and nonsense like that. And just loved it. And even like earlier in the episode I said Leap of Faith and in my mind I hear Chidi saying, “Well actually you know Kierkegaard, really it was better translated as a leap into faith.” It’s just so great.

Kristen Bell, the greatest, has always been the greatest. She’s first ballot Hall of Famer. And then Manny Jacinto is the latest in this wonderful television tradition of impossibly stupid people. I want to do a history of the impossibly stupid person on TV. You know, like Woody Harrelson on Cheers was one of the early ones I remember seeing. Like that’s not possible to be that stupid. And then Homer, of course, one of the great impossible. And then Manny Jacinto is even dumber than all of them.

And then lastly I just want to point out that on The Good Place they do diversity properly. You don’t get a sense that the show is diverse because a social justice warrior was whacking them on the knuckles with a ruler saying, “Come on. Fulfill the quotas.” It’s diverse because the show is about humans who are dying and going to the afterlife. And if you just go by the odds, I looked this up. If you by the odds, and you’re just going to randomly scoop up ten people that just died on our planet, the odds are that out of those ten people two of them will be Chinese. Not Asian. Chinese. Two of them. Two of them will be Indian. Two of them will be of predominately African descent. So we’re now up to six people. We’ve got two Chinese people, two Indian people, two people of predominately African descent.

There’s probably going to be one more non-Chinese, non-subcontinental Asian, so we’re talking about Indonesian or Filipino or Thai or Vietnamese, or Japanese, or Korean. So now that’s seven people.

We’ve got three people left. Divide them roughly up between Hispanic and non-Hispanic white people. That’s basically the world. If anything, they’re a little skimpy on the Chinese people. Other than that, they’re really good about being appropriately representational of the world.

And also there’s one person from America, which I loved. You know, it’s great. Because there’s not that many Americans.

John: You left off one person who is fantastic in the show who is Ted Danson who anchors it in way that is just so remarkable. And is clearly having a fantastic time doing it, but also has a weirdly difficult role that he just nails. It is just an incredibly ingenious show. Megan Amram’s puns are worth it. It’s the show where you actually do pause to look at all the signs that they’re constantly changing out. Drew Goddard directed the pilot and it’s hard to imagine that he had such a vision for what that show is going to be so early on. The writing across the board is fantastic. So, hooray.

Craig: Yeah, it’s just so good and so smart. And it’s legitimately laugh out loud. I cannot wait for the next season.

John: Cool. That is our show for this week. As always, our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you send questions and follow up and feedback-y things.

If you have a short thing, on Twitter I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. That’s where you can send us articles for us to consider for How Would This Be a Movie.

We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. Leave us a review while you’re there. That is lovely if you do that.

You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. It’s also where you’ll find transcripts for this and all the back episodes. You can find the most recent 20 episodes or so are on iTunes, but the whole back catalog is at Scriptnotes.net. It is $2 a month for all the back episodes. There’s also some USB drives with the first 300 episodes available at store.johnaugust.com.

Craig, thanks for a fun exploration of How Would These Be Movies.

Craig: John, it was a great show. And 339, ooh, 340. We’re coming up on 340. So excited.

John: Oh, it’s going to be good. All right, have a great week.

Craig: See you next time.

John: Bye.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

What’s the Plan, Anyway?

Tue, 03/06/2018 - 08:03

John and Craig speculate what Luke Skywalker’s plan might have been in the opening of Return of the Jedi. They consider heroes’ plans generally, the allowance we grant as an audience for opening sequences and the foul taste of “logic ketchup.”

We then engage in a long-awaited Three Page Challenge, focusing on scripts that play with point of view.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Mostly Terrible People

Tue, 02/27/2018 - 08:03

John and Craig evaluate another set of exceptional news stories for their fitness for the big screen in this week’s How Would This Be a Movie?

We consider stories about counterfeit debt collectors, the worst roommate ever (beside’s Craig college roommate), the girl who posed as a grown man online and began exhibiting genuine symptoms of toxic masculinity, a family that fights to preserve their daughter after she’s been declared brain dead, and a cruise ship that descends into anarchy.

We also follow up on the mystery of MoviePass with a listener that has seen a new film each day for months. Did we judge this model too quickly?

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.