John August's Blog
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. So today’s episode has some explicit language. So if you’re traveling in a car with children, you may not want to listen to this episode in the car where your kids could hear it. Thanks.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show, we are going to be looking at narrative audio description and how that all works. We’re going to look at the WGA financial numbers and see what that means for screenwriters and for television writers. And we are going to answer a bunch of listener questions.
But first, last week on the show, we talked about Scriptnotes t-shirts.
John: There’s nothing more revelatory about what your audience thinks of you than what designs they send at you.
Craig: I can’t.
John: Looking through the initial batch of ideas –
Craig: [laughs] I don’t want to know. How bad is it?
John: Well, there’s a lot of Sexy Craig.
Craig: Oh well, as well there should be.
John: There’s a lot of typed pages. And typed pages like seemed a good idea for a podcast about screenwriting, but I don’t know that anybody really wants to read your shirt closely. So we’ll see if that’s the winning idea.
Craig: People don’t want to read screenplays either. [laughs] So I don’t want to read shirts.
John: [laughs] And there are a few references to Stuart. So I put a link to that in the Workflowy so you can see one of the Stuart shirts because Stuart is really the unvoiced third voice of the Scriptnotes podcast.
But if you have an idea for a Scriptnotes t-shirt that you would desperately want to see, you can go visit johnaugust.com/shirt and there are full instructions about sort of what we’re looking for and what we’re not looking for and sort of best practices and guidelines. Deadline is August 11th, so you have a few more weeks to figure out your ideal Scriptnotes t-shirt design.
Craig: Great. I can’t wait to see at least one or two of the Sexy Craig drawings. I mean you’re going to send them to me, right?
John: Yes, I will send to you the ones that are especially not safe for work.
Craig: You know who is not at all interested in Sexy Craig t-shirts?
John: Who’s that?
Craig: Sexy Craig. You don’t have to –
John: Does Sexy Craig not wear t-shirts?
Craig: No, he doesn’t have time for t-shirts.
John: All right, he’s too busy smoking and hanging out.
Craig: Well, it’s not what he’s doing, John. He’s busy though. Oh, he’s busy.
John: He’s probably busy playing Capitals. So your One Cool Thing last week was this game Capitals for iOS.
Craig: [laughs] That’s Nerdy Craig.
John: That’s Nerdy Craig. Nerdy Craig has beaten me probably four times I think in Capitals.
John: Right now we’re in the middle of an endless game that will, I mean –
Craig: [laughs] It’s, here’s what basically was happening is –
John: Through the next century, we’ll be playing this game.
Craig: I am denying John. He is going to win this game. It’s inevitable.
Craig: But I’m doing that — it’s like Masada. I’m basically now at the top of the hill [laughs] and at the very last moment, I’ll kill myself. But I’m going to make him lose — yeah, it’s 300. I’m the 300 Spartans. You’re Xerxes.
John: So I would say after a week of playing this game, my observation and my biggest criticism is that it falls into like a consistent kind of game design trap of once you’re ahead, it’s very hard to not stay ahead and sort of conversely, once you fall behind, it’s very unlikely that you’re ever going to win the game. So classically Risk is that kind of game. Monopoly, if you play the endless version of Monopoly, it’s sort of this game.
And I’m frustrated by Capitals for that reason, is that basically once you get into a position like we are in in this game, it’s just going to be a long, long stalemate.
Craig: Well, okay, but here’s the thing, what if I win?
John: If you win, then you’ve proven to be the exception to the rule and therefore, you know, you’re the underdog story perhaps.
Craig: That’s right.
John: And maybe there’s a narrative arc that you could find from your sudden victory in Capitals, but I have a feeling it’s just going to be a long slog because both of us are going to be play incredibly defensively in order to make this game go on forever.
Craig: Well, yeah. What I’m hoping for is that I get a random splash of letters that lets me break through.
John: All right.
Craig: And if I can do that –
John: You’re waiting for the miracle. You’re waiting for the sudden eclipse that sort of terrifies the soldiers and they flee and therefore you’re able to charge across the board and somehow capture my little castle dude.
Craig: You ask me for a miracle, I give you the FBI.
John: Very nice. Our second bit of follow up is also about capitals. This is a letter from Michael W. who writes, “It really hit me hard when Craig said that he was in favor of capitalizing whatever you want in a screenplay when in reference to the Aliens screenplay. This is without a doubt my biggest pet peeve in screenwriting. I don’t understand why it happens so often.
“Surely, you want the capitalization to really stand out and mean something. Whenever I see capitalization used more than once per page, especially if there seems to be no real pattern to what gets a cap, it just comes across as obnoxious and irritating, almost like a person who thinks that shouting random words in their sentences is a great way to get people to listen to them.
“I’m a big fan of caps when used sparingly. But when it feels like the text is in caps, to me, it just feels like a cheap gimmick that gets really old quickly and makes me want to pay less interest. So why the love of random caps, Craig? Why?”
Craig: Well, obviously, when I’m writing for the studio that Michael W. owns, I really pull back on those caps because I’m very concerned with what makes — what feels like a cheap gimmick to Michael W. and what gets old really quickly and makes Michael W. want to pay less interest. [laughs]
Normally, however, I’m not working for the studio that Michael W. owns. I work for the other studios and they don’t seem to mind. And so this here, this right here, we have an example, John, of someone who has externalized that their internal taste to the world. They have determined that because they loathe something, surely it is wrong and the rest of the world also loathes it. No.
Here’s my biggest pet hate [laughs] in opinionating. People who have a strong opinion and think it matters. I understand you don’t like it. If I were writing this letter, I would’ve written this letter, “I’m really surprised that you like that. For some reason, I hate it. It just strikes me wrong. But I get that other people seem to like it. So my question is, have you ever run across anybody in your professional life who’s pushed back on that or not?” That would be a good question.
John: It would be a great question.
Craig: It would be a really good question because then it would be relevant to other people instead of externalizing your individual [laughs] opinion to the world, you would be trying to find a consensus in pragmatic use for our podcast time together, Michael W., but you have failed to do that. So my response to you is –
John: I would love to answer the rephrased question that Craig just asked. And that I do feel like there are times in which one writer’s personal style can be to the detriment of his or her work being taken the best possible way.
And I think there is generally a band of which, you know, a certain amount of capitalization is fine up to that point and more than that, people will just sort of tune you out. And I think, you know, there are individual writer voices. Individual writer of voices are wonderful things as we write movies for Hollywood studios.
There is a — I find a fairly wide band of sort of what you can do in those pages in order to make it come across well to an average reader.
One thing I think we talked about on the show before is, Craig, have you gone in and done a rewrite and the writer before you had a very different page style than you did and you had to either adapt to their page style or go through and change the whole script, you know, the scene description to match your style.
Craig: Yeah, it just ends up frequently that on rewrites I am starting — often at times I’m starting from scratch. But there have been times, a really weird instance on The Huntsman where someone had come in to just do a week while I was off doing another thing. And then I had to come back to finish. And the stuff that they had done in the week, now we are in production, right?
So I’m looking at some of the things and I’m like, okay, that’s fine, but I just — I don’t like the way he does his dashes and his dot-dots. And there’s like a weird extra space between two words, it’s just a mistake. But if I fix it, it’s a changed page.
John: You’re not going to do that.
Craig: I didn’t do it. But God, I wanted to. It was driving me crazy. But yeah, I think that if you are working on something, I have done something where I needed to sort of fit in. I don’t try and fit into their style. I have to do what I’m doing. People are paying me to do whatever I can do.
So to me, where I need to fit in stylistically is with the characters’ voices. That’s the area where people will notice. But people in the audience will not notice that I describe things somewhat differently. My job now behind the scenes is to get everybody on the same page in terms of what the intention is.
You know, I don’t care if my three pages in the middle of your script look a little different in terms of how things are described. I just need to know that in terms of the choices that are made and the words the people say and the tone of the material on screen that it is seamless.
John: Yeah, I think that’s a good working rule is to try to make sure that you’re consistently carrying the torch of what an audience actually experiences. And if the scene description is not a cohesive experience throughout the entire script, that’s maybe not the most crucial thing.
John: There have been times where I have come in and I’m literally just going to be there for two days, I’m just working on one specific little thing. And if the other writer has a much more bombastic style, I will adapt to their bombastic style just so that the scene won’t feel weird.
John: Especially if you’re doing a lot of action sequences. And there’s some project in which the Wibberleys and I were both working on it sort of separately, but they were really the primary force there. And they are much bigger all caps, underlines, you know, some bold face in there. And I’ll happily do that when that is the case.
It also reminds me of TV shows tend to have house styles for how their scripts read and look so that it feels the same episode after episode no matter who wrote the episode. And so classically both the Damon Lindelof shows and the J.J. Abrams shows, they use a lot of fucking in the scene description. And so a giant fucking explosion will happen.
We just posted in Weekend Read the pilot script for Once Upon a Time by Kitsis and Horowitz. And they are from that camp. And so they use fucking all the time in their things and like this script had like seven fuckings in it just for like a 60-minute pilot.
And when we posted it, Adam Horowitz was like mortified. He’s like, “Oh, I can send you the cleaned up version that we use for when we’re having people sign scripts and stuff like that.”
John: “Doesn’t have all the F-bombs in it.” It’s like, no, it’s really how they write their scripts. It’s like they need the F-words in there to sell the scale of what those moments are like.
John: Both styles are fine.
Craig: I will do that at times. I don’t do that often. But maybe once or twice in the screenplay where I know it’s not meant to be rated R, I’ll still in description, you know, I might have somebody say, you know, she stares at him, “What the fuck?” You know, what the fuck is an incredibly evocative phrase. It puts a face on a character in your mind. You immediately know so much about what they’re thinking and how they’re supposed to look. It’s just really terse. You know, it’s a good way to quickly state something without any confusion in the reader.
I mean when it comes to this capitalization stuff, I’ve read screenplays from all sorts of people and while there are always little things that are like, “Oh, I wouldn’t, you know, I don’t do my thing like this. And I don’t do mine like that,” I’ve never read a script where I thought, “What’s with so — there’s so many capitalized words. My God, half the page is capitalized. I’ve never seen anyone even come close to that.”
Michael W. doesn’t want more than one per page which seems just like the most arbitrary and frankly dumb thing I’ve ever heard, like why? Why is two a problem? What does that even mean? This is a bad question. It’s not a question.
John: That’s not a question. It’s just like a statement or opinion, phrased as a question.
Craig: No, no. Yeah, he basically just wanted to do like his own version of an umbrage rant and then end it with, so why the love of random caps to make it officially a question. But look, Michael, I got to tell you, this isn’t how you do umbrage. You need a whole class [laughs] on umbrage because I’m not believing it. I don’t believe it. You’re not feeling it, man.
John: So what is the guidelines for umbrage? I think you need to firmly state your opinion and then like categorically break down the reasons why you have this opinion, sort of restate your opinion more strongly, and express moral outrage that somebody could have an opinion that is opposite than yours. Is that a schema? Is that a sort of way of thinking about an umbrage rant?
Craig: It’s not bad. Like it’s your understanding of it, which is really [laughs] interesting. But to me, it has to start with a kernel of something that you hold very true and near and dear to you. And then you have to see that other people are just denying it. They’re denying it. And they’re doing so in a way that is causing themselves and other people problems.
The umbrage isn’t about I have an opinion and the rest of the world needs to agree with me. I see things all the time, like, “I don’t like that.” But who gives a crap if I don’t like it? “I don’t like this sandwich.” That’s not umbrage material. “You capitalize too much.” That’s not umbrage material.
Umbrage material is more like, you’ve decided that the best way to go about something is to do A, B and C, and I’m telling you you’re hurting yourself and others. That’s umbrage material. I’m getting angry now thinking about my hypothetical example that only has A, B and C in it.
Craig: It’s an emotional place. You have to understand, it’s an emotional [laughs] place I can occupy. You know, like some actors can just cry on the spot?
John: Oh yeah, I’m a good crier actually.
Craig: There you go. I can’t do that, but I can become furious in a second.
John: That’s nice. And is it that you’re imagining the hypotheticals or you’re imagining the conversations or you’re imagining the other side of the argument? Is that how you’re getting to that furious place?
Craig: I’m literally just placing myself in the emotional space of watching somebody do something that is hurting themselves or other people. And I have a thing in my brain, I don’t believe you have, John, [laughs], it’s just another area in my brain that begins to pulsate and send out signals and it’s that — you see people don’t understand. The umbrage is not about this kind of snotty, hypercritical view of the world. I’m the opposite of — I’m hypocritical of art and personal expressions. I don’t care, like I — people were sending around, “Oh my God, you got to see this. This guy goes on this amazing rant about Pixels and totally takes it down.”
Well, I’m not going to watch that because I don’t give a shit. Oh my God, a guy worked himself up into a fake frenzy over a fucking movie? A movie for fucking 13-year-olds and that’s what you’re going to do, adult man? [laughs] You’re going to go out and you’re going to go crazy about that?” Something’s gone wrong with you and I don’t care. It’s not for you. What drives me crazy is the other stuff. It’s when I watch my union say, “We’ve got a great idea.” And I go, “No, you’re going to hurt people with that.” That’s what makes me crazy.
John: I want to briefly defend the Pixels rants because I was, like you, convinced like, “Oh come on, what are you complaining about?” Like this is the Pixels movie. And then Stuart watched it, so I actually watched it and I actually found there were moments of artistry within his anger that was not really manufactured, but actually a true expression of loss and sadness. That’s why I found that one to be interesting, but I agree with you the general sense of angry nerd ranting, there’s a column in Wired called Angry Nerd which is just that manufactured umbrage.
John: Which is just completely fake. It’s as fake as –
Craig: It’s fake.
John: A listicle in BuzzFeed.
Craig: And I’m sorry. If you legitimately have honest, sad, torn up feelings over fucking Pixels, then you need meds. You need meds. Meds. Meds. [laughs] Now, I’m getting angry. Getting angry about that.
John: Our next bit follow up. In last week’s episode, we talked about audio description for films and TV shows designed for the vision impaired or the blind and we really knew almost nothing about it. And our question was whether the people who are writing this description are using a script or if they’re just watching the filmed product and writing the description based on that. And so the minute the podcast went up, we had a bunch of emails from people who actually did this for a living and they were incredibly helpful, so I did a follow-up blog post which I’ll put into the show notes about that.
The short version of it is it’s really based on what shows up on screen and they’re very carefully tailoring the things they say and to fit them in small pauses to really give you the best experience of what this would be like if you were actually being able to watch the finished product. It’s an incredibly difficult job obviously because you are trying to, you know, with very limited time and resources create the experience of watching a thing when you only have audio. As screenwriters, we’re doing everything that we can to describe a movie with what people see and what we hear. Here, we have to take away all those visions and that’s an interesting challenge.
So I wanted to actually play examples because it was really strange to talk about something without being able to hear it. So here are two examples from Daredevil. So Daredevil is a TV show on Netflix. It was actually controversial when it first launched because the audio descriptions weren’t ready and so then they added them later on and they’re really good. So first I want to play you a scene from the pilot and this is just what you would see on screen, so just the audio that would actually match with the video that you would see.
(Daredevil scene begins)
Turk Barrett: Hey, hey. Man, shut up. I’m getting $1,000 a head for y’all. So, you be quiet, I’ll let you have a bucket. You don’t — .
Man: [Speaking Foreign Language]
Turk Barrett: Scream all you want. Come on, let me hear you scream. Scream louder. Nobody gives a shit down here. [laughs]
(Daredevil scene ends)
John: Okay. So, Craig, I think that we can safely assume that you’ve not seen the pilot for Daredevil because you watch no television.
Craig: Right, it’s on television, so you had a 99.9% chance.
John: All right, so let’s — just based on what you heard there, what do you think is happening in that scene?
Craig: Okay. There’s a bad guy. He’s black, I’m guessing from his voice. He’s got hostages. One of them has asked for a bucket, [laughs] I’m not sure why. And he says he’ll give them a bucket, and then he’s tasing them. It sounds like he’s tasing them to torture them, and then he’s laughing ha-ha-ha. Then I think we switched perspective to Daredevil because I feel like I’m hearing his echo location sound effect, and I assume then he comes in, just starts beating the crap out of everybody. And yeah, that’s what I think happens.
John: And that’s actually pretty close. But now, let’s take a listen to that descriptive audio that goes with that, and it will paint a little bit more a full picture of what’s happening here.
(Daredevil scene begins)
Narrator: Two thugs drag three young women to a storage container on the docks. A man in a leather coat appears around the opening door.
Turk Barrett: Hey, hey. Man, shut up. I’m getting a $1,000 a head for y’all. So, you be quiet, I’ll let you have a bucket. You don’t –
Narrator: He holds up a cattle prod.
Narrator: Then jams it into one woman’s belly while an overweight man in a lawn chair watches at the edge of the dock.
[Girls screaming] [Tasing]
Man: [Speaking foreign language]
Narrator: The injured woman and the others are shoved into the container.
Turk Barrett: Scream all you want. Come on, let me hear you scream. Scream louder. Nobody gives a shit down here. [Laughs]
Narrator: A man with a crude mask covering his head and eyes crouches behind the thug. The thug turns as the man leaps knocking him down. The cattle prod rolls on the filthy wet dock. The man stands, it’s Matt. He listens as the thugs rush in. One thug goes down instantly. The terrorized girls watch.
Matt fights the other thug. He batters the man in a storm of punches knocking him against the container door, then flipping him over onto the dock. The other creep charges getting in some hard punches before Matt knees him in the gut and headbutts him. As they fight, the leader comes too, woozily reaching into his back waist band.
Matt, crouched, swing kicks the thug, then snaps his leg at the knee. He hears the leader cock the gun. The leader turns and shoots. The masked man flings himself into a roll and grabs the cattle prod.
John: So, what did you think?
Craig: I mean, I kind of love it. It’s interesting. It’s a huge job, first of all. That’s what that I was thinking when I was listening was somebody has to write all that because that’s not the way we would write the screenplay. For starters, we won’t know all those things when we’re writing the screenplay. We won’t know exactly how the fight was going to go down. That gets structured by the stunt guys, and then sort of shown to everybody, and then done on the day, and then edited.
So, you can’t have the screenplay be as accurate as somebody describing what they’re seeing, meaning somebody is writing the description. And that’s a big job. Deciding what to say and what to not say is a big job. You picked an interesting one here because there’s not a lot of dialogue, you know, so you could see how he’s sort of getting out of the way when there is, and giving us some basic context. I like that everything — didn’t seem like they were skipping anything. So, you know, an overweight man in a lawn chair on the other side of the dock is watching. That’s information I didn’t have without the descriptive audio, and –
John: Absolutely. I think that’s crucial because like, I mean even the person who’s writing up the description for this episode doesn’t know if that man is actually going to come back and become important later on. So, you got to put him in there.
Craig: Yeah, and you’d also don’t know, even as the screenwriter, you don’t know exactly when you’re going to cut to that guy. I mean you might have an indication when you’re going to cut, but then in the editing room things happen, so again it’s all done after the fact as far as I could tell. It reminds me a little bit of like a book on tape because you immediately start painting your own visual picture in your head. I can see the shipping container. I liked that it was the wet filthy ground instead of just the ground. You know, so I liked that they were adding things that helped the mind paint that image. It was cool.
John: It was cool. And I thought it was actually really well performed like that the narrator they use for this does a great job. So the Daredevil pilot was written by Drew Goddard who’s amazingly talented. I’m trying to find the credit of the guy who or the people who wrote up the descriptive audio for it because I thought they did a great job too.
John: And I agree with you that it’s not — you know, when it got into the fight sequence, I wondered if they might have looked at what the text was from the fight as written on the page because like some of those flurry of blows, that kind of stuff, that felt scene description-y. I can see that being part of the fight scene description, but it’s never going to be so directly matching what the fight choreography was going to be. So, you know, I thought it was really well done.
Craig: Yeah, like maybe they take what’s in the script and then remove bits that have been edited out and kind of add things in that were done on the day. You know, so they use the script as a basis and then kind of go from there.
John: So, what Daredevil makes clear is that writing this descriptive audio is not easy. And I wanted to talk to somebody who did this for a living. So, yesterday I got on Skype with Alice Sanders in London. Alice, thank you so much for being with us.
Alice Sanders: My pleasure.
John: So, can you tell us some of the movies you’ve worked on?
Alice: Oh, I’ve worked on so many films. One of my favorites to describe was Up, the Pixar film. I’ve worked on Inception, and Bridesmaids. I tend to get given a lot of comedy films or films for kids. I did Nanny McPhee because apparently I have a light-hearted comedy voice. So you tend to write the films that you also voice, but that’s not always the case.
John: So, at what point does a film come to you for descriptive audio?
Alice: Well, normally when it’s completely finished, although again, that is not always the case. We have had films that have not had all their special effects and stuff finished, which obviously makes it very difficult to describe properly because we need to see everything in order to describe it for visually impaired people.
John: So, which company do you actually work for? Is it one place that does all of it for movies or is it different companies contract out?
Alice: No. Well, I work for Deluxe, but obviously I work in London. And I know that Deluxe in L.A. also does movies, but their movie audio description will be different to the British one.
John: So, for each market — so, the U.K. English versus the American English would have different descriptive audio?
Alice: Absolutely. The actual writing will tend to be very similar, although obviously there’ll be a few words that are different like, you know, lift and elevator and all those kind of things. But also the American one will have an American voice and the British one will have a British voice.
John: So, let’s take the movie Up. So, this movie comes to you for descriptive audio, what is the first thing you do?
Alice: The first thing I do is open the clip and start watching it. I don’t watch the film before I start describing it, but I don’t describe it in real time because that would be impossibly difficult. So, what you do is you pause the film. I mean you can stop, and rewind and fast forward, you know, wherever you like.
And then what you start to do is you time in what I would call a box, which is a single description. And obviously you do it between dialogue, so the shortest description would tend to be a second, you wouldn’t go under that. But you can have anything up to, you know, well even minutes and minutes of silence in a film, although you would tend to break that up into descriptions rather than record kind of five minutes straight of audio description.
John: So, when you do this process, are you typing up a document or is this in specialized software?
Alice: It’s in specialized software, which is also used for subtitling. On the program, we can time in a box to the exact frame of the film. So, I could have a box that was like one second. I could have a box that was like 38 seconds and four frames.
John: And so, once you have this box described, you’re writing up the description for what the narrator is ultimately going to say in that space?
Alice: Exactly. So, once you’ve timed in the box, then you write the description. And so, the description will include anything that’s going on visually really. If you have a short space, then what you’re trying to get in is the relevant piece of information for a visually impaired person to understand what is happening in the film conceptually like plot-wise.
John: Now, are there any cases where you have to sort of move a piece of information from one time period to another time period because there wasn’t a space there to get that crucial detail in there? The Daredevil thing we just listened to, there was like a man sitting in a chair by the river. And it felt like it wasn’t especially important that you establish that now, as long you establish it in the scene. So do you ever slide where you describe something?
Alice: As much as possible, you try to get it in at the moment that it’s happening because you almost always describe in present tense or present tense continuous. But occasionally, of course, that happens. So there’ll be dialogue over a very important action. And then you can do something in past tense.
John: Describing in the present tense, screenplays are also written in the present tense. Do you ever look at the original screenplay for the movie as you’re doing the descriptions?
Alice: Yes. If we have the script, that’s really, really helpful because, first of all, it will give you all the characters’ names. Because what you’re doing when you’re audio describing as well is, this sounds like a silly thing to say, but we’re trying to understand what’s going on as quickly as possible, which I guess you’re doing as a viewer of a movie.
But as an audio describer, you sort of have to be one step ahead. So you get very good at quickly understanding like a plot or a character and stuff like that. But having a script means that you have all the character names so that you can correctly identify characters easily. If you have a, what’s it called, like a spotting script, you’ll have visual directions as well, which of course are really, really useful to us because it’s not always really obvious where you are all the time.
John: What was the most difficult movie you had to describe?
Alice: The most [laughs] difficult film I have ever described, without a doubt, is David Lynch’s Inland Empire.
John: And why was it difficult?
Alice: Have you seen Inland Empire?
John: I have seen it. It feels like you would have a very hard time explaining what was on the screen.
Alice: So there were so many reasons that it was hard. I’m a massive Lynch fan, but it is a deeply weird movie even for Lynch. So you have these scenes where there are sort of like human-like figures but with bunny heads kind of interspersed into the other plot. I call it a plot. I mean, it’s certainly not a linear or obvious story.
The other thing that was really, really hard was that there’s two characters that are actors who also play a role that has a different name. So, essentially, they’re playing two characters. And at a certain point in the movie, you can no longer be certain whether they’re the actor or the role. You know, they switch between the two characters sort of fluidly and you don’t really know.
And so it’s the only time ever, really, in an audio description that I’ve broken the fourth wall because I just didn’t know anymore. So I just was like, “Listen, guys, it might be this character or this character. I mean, I’ll choose a name but, you know, from here on in, you can decide for yourself because I don’t know anymore.”
John: Well, it sounds like the descriptive audio is trying to make something that is potentially ambiguous and make it less ambiguous. So someone who’s listening to just the soundtrack might not really know what’s going on. And so your job is to make it more clear what’s going on.
And in the case of Inland Empire, you just can’t do that because you, yourself as a viewer, have no clear sense of what is supposed to be happening and what the audience is supposed to be feeling.
John: Do you ever use wes or like do you use the second person plural? In screenwriting, we often will fall back to ‘we see’, ‘we hear’, ‘we do this’, or is it just simple present tense scene description?
Alice: We tend to avoid that [laughs] because I think sometimes it can take you out of the moment almost. We tend to also avoid using any kind of technical language about shots or, you know, camera angles or anything like that. We may very, very rarely use those if it’s extremely relevant. Like, for example, in a kind of 3D thing, if something leaps out at you. Or if maybe somebody turns to the camera and sort of like addresses the camera directly, we might say that because that’s quite an unusual thing to happen in a film. But, yeah, we tend to just present tense, very simple.
John: Great. Alice, how does somebody get your job?
Alice: [laughs] Well, I just did a writing test and a voice test to get my job. Obviously, you have to be quite a good writer, she says bidding herself up. You have to be very concise a lot of the time because you’ll have so little time and you really have to get across those salient points for a visually impaired person to be able to understand the film.
You also have to sound fairly decent on a microphone. And I think sometimes having a nice voice isn’t always enough. I think it took me a while, actually, to sound natural on a microphone. At first, I think I was quite nervous. But audio descriptions should sort of fit in with the film. It shouldn’t jolt you out of the film. So you should be able to kind of weave in and out quite naturally, which is actually also more difficult than it sounds I think.
John: When you’re writing this description, how often are you going to be the person who’s doing the narration versus another person?
Alice: They tend to try and give you films that you will voice because it’s much easier to — because what you do when you record is, again, the software will queue you up to every description but only sort of a second or two seconds before each run. So if you’re reading your own work, it is of course much easier because you sort of have an idea of what’s coming up. You know, you don’t know it off by heart but you know what you’ve written.
Whereas if you’re sight-reading someone else’s work, that’s quite difficult. So they do try to give you the writing if you’re going to record. But it doesn’t always work out like that.
John: Are there cases where a movie will have a lot of women characters in it and they therefore would want to have a man be the other voice so no one gets confused or people just can sort that out?
Alice: Well, no, absolutely. And the film companies will often choose the voice of the film. So they might get sent a few samples. And, yeah, they definitely sometimes choose, you know, a man because it’s mainly women and therefore to sort of, yeah, differentiate. But, again, like I said, I sort of get chosen for a lot of lighthearted things because apparently I sound lighthearted even though I’m a very serious person. And normally, you’ll probably get a man doing an action film and a woman doing a rom-com and that kind of thing.
John: That’s great. Alice, thank you so much for talking us through this. I understand this so much better than I did five minutes ago.
Alice: [laughs] That’s good, great.
John: Great. Alice, thank you.
Alice: You’re welcome.
John: And that is descriptive audio. So, thank you to everybody who wrote in with suggestions and especially for people who put me in contact with Alice to talk about what it was like to write descriptive audio, a thing I knew nothing about and a week later, I know so much more.
Craig: Yeah. That’s a big job.
John: Big job.
Craig: You know, there’s this other hidden job that I would love for you and I — you know what, I just had an idea, John. John, every now and then, I have an idea. So you write a movie, the movie gets made. And then as we all know, the movie play overseas. What we forget is that all across the world, in many, many, many countries, there are people whose job is to dub the movie. Most American movies play overseas dubbed, I believe. I mean, you can probably find some subtitled versions, too.
But the people who dub in the other languages, that’s a fascinating gig because they have to essentially do this really quickly. Sometimes, you know, with the way things are released, they maybe have two weeks to dub an entire movie. And then translation is a real art. You know, especially in comedy, you have a line, it’s a joke but it’s based on wordplay, how do you translate that? How does it make sense?
I’d love to get somebody on who does that for a living, to talk to them about how they go through the way the screenplay is showing through the movie and how they turn that into another language.
John: So, luckily, I know several people who do this for a living.
John: Yeah. These are French friends who do it. And your instinct is right in that in many markets, movies are dubbed. In many markets, movies are subtitled. But often, the people who would do subtitling are not the same people who do dubbing.
John: And it’s a completely complicated, crazy world in which they work. But, yes, I can get them on the air and they would be fantastic. One of them, Mannu, actually did a blog post for me, talking through what his process was. So I’ll put a link to Mannu’s post in the show notes.
Craig: Well, great.
John: But we’ll get either him or my friend, Fred, on to talk about that job because it is really crazy. And so my husband, Mike, who speaks French, sometimes Mannu will email Mike saying like, “What does this joke even mean?”
John: Like, essentially, he’s looking at an American movie, he’s like, “I’m trying to understand what this is actually supposed to be.”
John: And Mike will give him some sense of what it could be and so then Mannu has to find the French equivalent.
Craig: What if Mike just had no sense of humor?
John: That would be awesome.
Craig: Yeah. So he would just guess at what it meant. It’s so confusing for the world over.
John: Yeah. Well, I think what’s also interesting, the difference between people who are doing dubbing and subtitling versus descriptive audio is that the dubbers and subtitlers are almost invariably, they are native speakers of the language they are converting into. So they speak English but they’re converting it into French or Arabic or some other language.
People who are doing descriptive audio necessarily need to be sighted so they can see what’s actually happening there but they also need to be able to experience the movie as a blind person would experience it. So the people who wrote in with their experiences about how they did it, some of them would talk about like watching something with the picture turned off just to see like what was there and what you could get with no visual information.
Craig: It’s a great idea. Right, like you think to yourself, “Okay, I almost need to see it.” I mean, I assume with practice, that’s no longer necessary. But to watch it first without the picture and then see what emerged from you, well, that difference is what you’re filling in. Very cool.
Craig: Very cool.
John: All right, onto this week’s show with some questions from listeners. Rick Silcox asks, “As a follow-up to the discussion about getting ideas from the media such as FIFA, can you talk about your processes for vetting your ideas? How much will you develop an idea in your head before you decide to start writing it or drop the idea? Once you’ve started writing, what will make you give up on the idea? Do you ever truly give up on a notion or do you keep it in mind in case some new revelation comes along?”
So, Craig, what is your vetting process for an idea?
Craig: Well, I would say there is the left brain vetting and the right brain vetting. The left brain needs to feel like there is a through line that can be followed where the end is a commentary on the beginning, that the process and journey of the movie will be interesting, and there will be places for characters to evolve and change, and that the premise of the movie is fertile ground for stuff to happen.
And that’s all good. But then there’s the right brain vetting which is, “Do I love this or is this just something I could do? Am I excited? Is this getting me going? Do I want to write this?” You know, early on in your career, you have to kind of shut your right brain down a little bit because you’re starving and you need to pay your rent. And so you’re like, “Well, I don’t love this but I could do it. So I will left brain my way through this. And maybe as I do it, I will come to love it. I will grow to love it.”
But, yeah, ideally, you want to have both. So I do drop ideas. I have ideas sometimes that people are like, “Yeah, we’d buy that.” And I think, “Great, let me just get to the place where I feel like I would be able to write it for sure.” And sometimes I don’t. And then I say, “Well, I’m not going to do it,” you know, because it doesn’t seem like something that would delight me.
And there’s only so many things you can write. We’re all on a clock. I’ve wasted a lot of time writing a lot of stuff I didn’t want to write. That’s the God’s honest truth. So I try now more than ever to only write things I do want to write.
John: Yeah. I completely understand that sense of lost time writing things that seemed like a good idea to write. It’s like your left brain convinces you like, “Oh, you should totally write that.” And I knew I could write that but it really wasn’t the thing I should have written. And there were some years that have been lost to sort of writing the wrong thing.
John: And some of those movies got made, some of those movies didn’t get made. Most of those movies didn’t get made. And on some level, it was I think in part because I didn’t fundamentally love them.
Craig: Honestly, it’s worse when they do get made. God’s honest truth, that’s the worst because then you’re sitting there like, “Why did no one stop this thing?” [laughs]
John: [laughs] One of my crucial questions for myself is, would I pay to see this movie? And if I wouldn’t pay to see this movie, then I have no business writing it. And that’s just a very simple gut check for me.
There was a project that got offered in my direction. I won’t say it was fully offered to me but like they said, “Hey, would you be interested in writing this thing?” And it was very tantalizing because it was very high profile kind of thing. And yet, as I had the phone call conversations with it and sort of went through it, I couldn’t fundamentally see myself being happy writing this movie three years from now.
And you have to approach any project like that as, you know, a multiyear commitment. And I just didn’t see myself necessarily wanting to spend all those years on this project to the exclusion of other projects. I mean, everything you say yes to is something else you’re saying no to. And the opportunity cost of this one was just higher than I was willing to spend.
That’s part of the reason why I think some writers in our position end up rewriting a bunch of other little things because the opportunity cost seems so much smaller to just spend a couple of weeks on something. It’s when you’ve done a couple of weeks on a bunch of things, you realize like, “Oh, wow, I could have written a whole other script in the time that I’ve been tinkering with these other people’s movies.”
Craig: I know. Yeah. I mean, people always wonder, “Why don’t they write original things anymore?” Well, because when you get the little jobs and they say, “Here, come on board for two weeks or three weeks,” in a weird way, there’s no pressure. People are saying, “Help us.” And you can definitely help in two or three weeks, always, you know.
I mean, if you’re decent, you’re hopefully not one of those people that’s going to make it go backwards but let’s say you don’t, you know what to do, you feel comfortable with it and you can make it go forward, it’s only two or three weeks of your life. That’s no big deal. And, you know, they pay you pretty well for those things. And you don’t have a sense of loss over it.
If someone says, “Oh, we just don’t like the thing you did on this part of it,” okay, I’ll change that. I mean, I get it. I’m here to visit for two or three weeks. You don’t feel the pain.
A lot of times, those jobs are like, they’re all ups and no downs. The only down is that, you know, you’re servicing something for two or three weeks and that’s not necessarily the kind of thing that you can do all the time. I mean, ultimately, Hollywood will ask you to do that stuff all the time, until one day, they go, “This guy is just one of those guys that just keeps taking from our plate. [laughs] What is he going to give?”
So you have to do both. And it’s tricky. These days, a lot of what I think about with my ideas is who would be the right person to collaborate on with this, whether it’s a director or a producer or an actor. And if I can think of the right person, then that also gets me excited because a lot of the work that I’ve done that I’ve been happiest with has been the product of good relationships.
John: That makes a lot of sense. Part of my vetting process is, “Can I write a trailer for it?” which seems really strange but like I have to have a sense of like I know what this movie would feel like on a screen. I know what somebody would see that would make them want to come spend, you know, $15 to see this on the big screen.
And so writing the trailer early on is sort of a crucial first step for me. Something I said in the 100th episode of Scriptnotes was I write the movie that has the best ending. And so if I don’t have a sense of where this movie is going to end up, I won’t start writing it.
And the last thing which has been really helpful for me is describing it to Kelly Marcel because for whatever reason, if Kelly Marcel is enthusiastic about something I’m thinking about writing, I suddenly want to write it because I want to keep Kelly happy.
Craig: She’s an amazing cheerleader that way. I’ve pitched many things over time to her and she’s just naturally very supportive about that stuff. Although, have you gotten like the anti-Marcel, like has she ever kind of just gotten heavy-lidded and like, “No?”
John: [laughs] You know, it was so funny because when you started to describe the anti-Marcel, I saw like a sadness in her eyes and I knew exactly what you were going for. Yes, I have seen that sort of like, you know, “Oh, yeah, I just felt my heart sink a little bit.” But those can be useful, too.
Craig: And then she went, “Um, John, um, I don’t know. I don’t know.” Yeah.
Craig: But that’s useful, too.
Craig: You know, you said a couple of things that I definitely do. I definitely think of the trailer. Specifically, I think of trailer moments because like I’ll go, all right, my left brain is good enough to know to not start writing something that you couldn’t make a trailer out of. But I’m looking for those moments where the trailer exceeds expectations and basically turns things on its head a little bit for people and they go, “Wait, what?” you know.
So that’s always useful. And the ending is everything. So, like you, I’m obsessed with the ending. And in fact, this thing I’m working on right now, you know, for months I’ve been thinking there’s something wrong with this beginning because I know what the ending is supposed to be but this beginning will never earn me that ending. And I kind of just had a meltdown about it two days ago and then went, “Oh, wait, wait, wait, I know what to do with this beginning.” And it’s the smallest thing and it will make me earn my ending and I’m happy now.
But until that happens, how do you proceed, you know? I need to know. The beginning and the ending is the movie. That’s the point of a movie.
John: Yeah. All right, next question. Will in San Diego writes, “I’m just starting to write my first screenplay. I wish to include the use of a specific song in my piece. Can I put the song in the screenplay and just change it later if necessary?”
Simple answer. What’s the simple answer, Craig?
John: Yes, you may. You may cite the use of a specific song in your screenplay that is completely fine and fair use and no one will look askance. Does that mean that that song will necessarily be in the movie? No. But does it help the reader get a sense of what that section of the screenplay feels like? Sure, it could help.
Don’t make your screenplay be like a playlist because that is annoying. To me, my pet peeve is like capitalization, like that’s the thing where it’s like, “Come on, I’m reading a screenplay not a playlist.” But if the use of that song helps, go for it.
Craig: Yeah. I think that what can strike a reader as amateurish is when you’ve got multiple scenes showing, say, a car driving down the road and we hear China Grove from The Doobie Brothers. You know, like, well, yes, we could hear a typical driving rock song there or another driving rock song. Don’t give me generic choices. If you’re going to do it, it has to be very purposeful.
Now, interesting, you got to find this weird middle space. It can’t be generic. It has to be purposeful. But it can’t be something that — at least I would recommend strongly that it’s not something that indicates to a buyer we absolutely must get this song because it’s now a plot point, you know.
Like in Cowboy Ninja Viking, there was this moment where the camera was sort of floating through this abandoned mental hospital. There is an abandoned hospital on — I’m not going to say where it is because I don’t want to give away my secret location. But this very cool, like from 1910, 1920 abandoned mental hospital.
And I wanted something that wasn’t like just creepy score. I didn’t want it to feel horror movie. I wanted it to feel like kind of odd and I wanted to comment on thematically what was going on with the main character who is about to enter this place.
And I’m a big Pink Floyd fan and there’s this great Pink Floyd song called If. And it’s, you know, as far as Floyd goes, it’s fairly obscure. Not a lot of people know it but it has these really beautiful lyrics and this really beautiful feeling to it, so I included that. I even included the lyrics because I felt like I’m writing a visual montage and I’m suggesting that this is sort of the tone that we would go for so that you understand how it feels.
And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean it has to be that song, but it’s not a generic song.
John: Yeah. In my script for Dark Shadows, there’s a section in which Barnabas Collins kills all the members of this terrible cult. And it is scored to Sunshine of Your Love which was just a lovely sort of counterpoint to the horrific violence of the scene. And it was a charming sequence which I wish would have shot.
And that’s the case where they probably would have used that song. But they didn’t have to use that song. But it gave you a good feel for what that section was supposed to feel like. It gave you a sense of what the texture of that section was.
Craig: There’s a great Sunshine of Your Love section of Goodfellas, I believe.
John: Oh, yeah.
Craig: [makes guitar sound]
John: [makes guitar sound] You know what, I said Sunshine of Your Love, I meant Age of Aquarius.
Craig: Totally different song.
John: This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. It’s a different song.
Craig: That is a completely different song.
John: But happy in that sort of happy in the ’70s way.
Craig: Yeah, because Sunshine of Your Love actually is kind of creepy. But, yeah, Age of Aquarius is a little more upbeat and “harmony and understanding”.
John: Yeah, so when you’re decapitating people with a sword, it’s a fun choice.
Craig: Yup, that is a fun choice.
John: Brad in Maryland writes, “I’ve been working on a buddy road trip comedy between a fictional character and a celebrity from a ’90s sitcom. The celebrity character is a completely outrageous, obviously fictional portrayal. The only thing he shares with the real person is his name and a love interest from the ’90s. I don’t intend for this to be made. It’s merely a writing sample. And if it generates buzz on The Black List, that’s a plus. Am I vulnerable to a libel lawsuit if I continue down this road? I know libel needs to be false and defamatory statements of fact. But do celebrities get special treatment because of their brand?”
Craig, what do you think?
Craig: I think celebrities do get special treatment in favor of you. They’re public figures. So, essentially, they are more open to lampooning and spoofing and parodying than people that aren’t public figures. You should be fine. I mean, the basic test is, would anybody reasonably assume that what you’re suggesting in the screenplay is true and that this person has done those things?
The fact that it’s already a fictional screenplay, I mean, you can write [laughs] a fictional screenplay on the cover if you want. But, you know, the other issue is damages. Generally speaking, if somebody, let’s see, it’s a celebrity from a ’90s sitcom. I’ll go with television’s Matthew Perry.
So, Matthew, you’ve written a buddy road trip comedy about, you know, a guy who meets Matthew Perry in a bar and they go on the road. Matthew Perry finds out about this and he goes, “Oh, my god, the script is suggesting that I’m blah, blah, blah and blah, blah, blah and I’m not. And that’s defamatory.” And he runs to his lawyer and his lawyer says, “Well, yeah, but what are the damages at this point? You’re going to sue this Brad in Maryland, you know?”
And Brad, I mean, unless you’re a DuPont — oh, no, those are Delaware, aren’t they? [laughs]
Craig: So I’m just going to assume, Brad, you’re just an average American guy who has a certain amount of assets that would not be significant to the star of a ’90s sitcom, so he’s not going to want to sue you. What he would want to do is wait and sue the movie [laughs] or the studio. And so their legal department will make their process through.
I don’t think that you would be vulnerable to a libel lawsuit. I, not an attorney, do not think that you would be vulnerable. So if you want to cover that base for sure, always best to talk to a lawyer.
John: Brad, I think you have precedent on your side, too. If you look at Being John Malkovich, John Malkovich was not involved in that project until it was going to become a movie. So his name was in the title and it was not yet involving him.
Another example is Harold & Kumar. I could be wrong but I think Neil Patrick Harris was always scripted in to be that role in Harold & Kumar. And he is obviously a fictional version of himself and he decided to do it. I think it’s not a bad idea, honestly, to take — a good execution of what you’re describing could be a great writing example that people enjoy reading. And the ability to sort of, you know, tweak a known celebrity’s persona could be fine.
So, basically don’t worry about it. Forge ahead, I say.
Craig: I’m with that, yeah.
John: Do you want to take this last one?
Craig: Sure. Anthony, Anthony writes, “The New York Times just published a feature about the lawlessness of the High Seas, basically crimes that can happen onboard cargo ships on Trans-Atlantic voyages. Note, the article isn’t about pirating, as portrayed in Captain Phillips. It’s a world I probably wouldn’t have known about if not for this one specific article. In doing some more additional research, there isn’t much documentation of it elsewhere online.
It’s not a commonly known or reported world and the events that take place in a completely fictionalized story would likely resemble events referenced in the article because the article talks broadly about the types of crimes that take place onboard these ships. Because this article is essentially the only source of that information, couldn’t The New York Times, theoretically speaking, say that I infringed their copyright or not obtained the rights to the article when they feel I should have?”
John: I thought this was a really good question because it talks about that sort of murky grey line between what are just facts that are available for everyone to use and what is specific implementation of details that are protectable by copyright. And I thought this fell in a really nice zone where he couldn’t find anything that wasn’t in this article that talks about the things he wants to talk about. And so if he wants to make a movie about this specific thing, he would be well-served, I think, having the rights to this article.
Now, let’s say he liked a lot of the ideas in it but like, “But I want to set this in space,” well, just go for it. But because, to me, this felt like he wants to use some very specific details that he could only find in this article, he should strongly consider getting this article. Craig, what did you think?
Craig: It is, I would say, de rigueur for studios to pick up articles like this. In fact, somebody probably already has. And therein lies your problem, Anthony. They’ll buy the rights to these articles. When they buy the rights to the articles, I always feel like most of the time what they’re really buying is the right to the whole body of work.
Craig: Because the article isn’t going to cover everything. So, all of their research, all of their sources, the ability to talk to their contacts, the contact information, it just becomes a lot easier.
Here’s a simple truth. Facts are in the public domain. So The New York Times does not own the facts in that story that they’ve reported. You may use any of those facts because they’re facts. People, so for instance, there’s a captain of one of the boats. Well, if elements of his life are suddenly appearing in your movie, that’s an issue most likely because he’s not a public figure. So you would have to get life rights.
A lot of times, what happens with articles is that agencies will represent both the article writer, the journalist, and the key person that the story is about or if there is a key person, the life rights, so that it’s all bundled together into one package so that you’re free and clear to make the movie you need to make.
In this case, I would think that you shouldn’t worry about The New York Times. You should worry about the people that The New York Times is quoting. That’s just my gut feeling. And that you should fictionalize your characters so that they’re not overlapping with real people’s lives. That becomes a problem. The facts that there are boats and these crimes take place, those facts are free and clear to all human beings.
John: I think you made some really crucial distinction in that in most cases, it’s not a screenwriter who goes out and gets the rights to a New York Times’ article, it’s a producer. It’s a producer or it’s a studio who says, we think there is a story idea here and we’re going to try to lock this down so that we can make a movie about this. And they want something they can protect and defend so that they can then hire on a writer to write them that movie.
And so a lot of movies you wouldn’t think are based on articles are based on things like this. So way back to like the John Travolta movie, Perfect, I think it’s based on like a Rolling Stone article about aerobics instructors. There’s –
Craig: Saturday Night Fever. Yeah.
John: Yeah. So there are weird examples of movies you wouldn’t think would have to be based on anything, which are based on non-fiction articles. So there is a precedent for it. Could you have made a movie like Saturday Night Fever without an underlying article? Of course, you could have. But somebody wanted to make a movie in that space and they bought that article and therefore the movie became based upon that article.
John: I would say in a very general sense, if you as an individual writer want to do something set in a specific world and there’s, you know, there’s limited research, but there’s one article you find. I would not set your hopes on getting the rights to that one article because you are then bound to that article and you’re bound to the underlying article rights of that article. And it just becomes complicated. The degree to which writer can control his or her complete destiny and not have any chain of title issues behind your property, you’re going be happier and better.
Craig: Yeah, I agree.
John: Cool. Last final topic for this week’s show is the WGA financial report which just came out. And Craig took a look through it. I’ve just cracked it open. But Craig, can you give us any highlights from this financial report?
Craig: Yeah, sure. It’s not good news for those of us who work in movies, I’ll tell you that much. Total earnings for writers were basically flat from the year prior, technically down 0.2%, I think that’s essentially a flat line.
And the number of writers reporting earnings, so how many of us worked, down 1% from last year overall. If you’re interested in knowing, the number of writers reporting earnings in 2014, 4,899. So just under 5,000 professional writers in the Writers Guild West. Very small amount.
John: Very small amount.
Craig: That’s it. Yeah.
John: If you want to read along with us, we’ll have a link for this in the show notes. You can see a PDF of the annual report. So the WGA is required to publish this every year to show what its members are actually earning, what’s coming in for both film and for television and in residuals.
And so the television picture is I think as we could anecdotally guess is not that bad. It was actually — there’s pretty good employment in television. If you are a writer who wanted to work in Hollywood, television would seem to be the place to go. So what’s the best numbers to look at? What’s the best chart here? Earnings and employment in screen.
Craig: Well, first we’ll say that television in terms of number of writers reporting in was sort of flat. It was up 1% and earning is up 2.3%, which is not bad. It beats the bank account these days.
Craig: But of interest is you’ve got 4,900 writers reporting earnings in Writers Guild West. Of that 4,900, a full 3,900 of them, so essentially, you know, three-quarters, right, or more are in TV. So that’s a lot. Now, there are some that write in TV and movies, so there’s some overlap. But the great bulk of people working and voting in the Writers Guild West are TV writers.
Now, if everything is flat, then hopefully it stayed at least flat or better in screen — oh, here comes the — here, it just get worse and worse. And by the way, as far as I can tell, no plan. Not plan to stop it. And I’m not sure that there is a plan that will stop it.
Earnings and employment in screen, the number of writers — so to contrast, in 2009, there were 3,166 working writers in television. 2014, 3,888. So that’s an increase of about 700 and a little bit. In screen, we’ve dropped about 300, from 1,836 in 2009 to 1,556 in 2014. But what is even worse is that that has been a steady trend down and down and down. For instance, this year, down almost 6% in terms of working screenwriters from the prior year. And I’m talking about 2014 to 2013.
And then of course, what are we making? And not surprisingly, fewer writers means less money. It’s not like they’re spending the same amount of money and just giving fewer writers more of it. The pie is shrinking. And it has been shrinking steadily year after year after year in a kind of grinding freefall. The total earnings reported in 2009 for screen were $432 million. In 2014, we’re down to $313 million. That’s about 70% of what it was in 2009. And it dropped 5.5% from 2013 to 2014. I have no reason to think it’s not going to get worse. It just, it’s bad. It’s bad.
Craig: And part of the problem for guys like you and me is that we are now kind of entering a minority phase in our union. We are both a numeric minority and we are a financial minority. And our interests will, as this — it’s a real catch 22, the less you make and the fewer of you there are, the less power you have to use, you know, to kind of exercise you and your muscle to help yourselves. So I’m not sure what to do.
John: I don’t know what to do either. If there’s any, you know, silver lining to all of this is that the gains in television have made up for some of the losses in screen, on the big screen. And so therefore, some of these writers who are not making a living on writing for features are making a writing living in television and maybe they’re happy in television, so maybe it’s not a bad thing.
But if you’re a writer, whose goal is to really work on the big screen, it’s increasingly less likely you’re going to have a great career doing that.
The last bit to look at here is total residuals, which seemed fairly flat to me. Theatrical residuals were down 0.15% from 13 to 15. Television residuals were up 4.8%. That’s not the worst thing.
Craig: Yeah. No, I mean the residuals are — because the residuals are based on the library, they will shield you from certain realities for a while. But there will be an echo. What’s happening now in feature film employment will echo forward. And we will see the commensurate drop in residuals down the line. It’s inevitable because they’re just not making as many movies.
John: Exactly. So fewer movies being made, fewer movies getting residuals. And then we don’t know what the structural changes to people not buying DVDs anymore, people streaming. We don’t know the full extent to which that’s going implement how much money is coming in on those checks.
Craig: Yeah. We did see a kind of an interesting bump in theatrical reuse, miscellaneous theatrical reuse. I don’t know what that means. I’m kind of curious about that because they breakdown theatricals residuals — the big number is in television.
So we make movies and then they replay them on TV all over the world for free essentially, but supported by ads of course. Then there’s home video, which we all know. It’s been, I mean, decimated from — it’s dropped from 2009 to 2014, that’s down 36%, horrendous.
Pay TV continues a nice climb. So that’s your HBOs and so forth. DVD script fee is nonsense, it doesn’t matter. It’s $5,000 every time you write a movie. New media reuse is up, not surprisingly, 1,421% [laughs] over the last five years. But in doing so, only now is starting to hit numbers that are significant. So for instance, pay TV generates $53 million in residuals in 2014 for screenwriters, new media reuse, $11.5 million. But still, better.
Then there’s this thing, this miscellaneous theatrical reuse. The numbers aren’t big. I’m just kind of –
John: I don’t know what it is.
Craig: I don’t know what it is either. I wonder what that is. Anyway, they’re small numbers, who cares? Point being, total theatrical residuals, down 1.5%. Total television residuals, up nearly 5%. And I got to say, anything that goes up 5% right now when a typical savings account is giving you 0.7%, is really good. And down 1.5% is really bad. And that’s going to — that number, I’m afraid, is going to get worse and worse.
John: Yeah, I’m looking through why the numbers are up for television residuals. And the big gains seem to be in obviously new media reuse, so that’s the new services that we have for doing stuff. And great, as we talked about on the show before, writers get more money in residuals if they rent a movie on iTunes than they would have if they were to stream a movie on Netflix and honestly probably more money than it would on a DVD sale, at least DVD sale at most common prices. So we’ll see. There’s some reason for optimism there.
It is time to wrap up our show. So let’s do our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is this weird sculpture website that I went to and actually bought something off it. It’s a place called Bathsheba. And Craig, click on the link because I think you’ll actually really dig these things.
Craig: All right.
John: They’re basically these things you can buy that are sort of paper weight size generally and they’re all 3D printed, but they’re 3D printed in metal. And there are these impossible shapes that look like, I don’t know, things we’d find in Star Trek. They are just kind of great.
So there are knots that seem impossible. The thing I’m holding is sort of — it’s four-sided, it sort of feels like a four-sided die, but it’s actually all one piece, but it’s sharp and spiky. It feels like you could throw it as cling on weapon. I just really dug it.
So I found this site through Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools site, which is another great site. I’ll put a link in the show notes, which has just like random stuff you can buy. So Bathsheba Sculptures is my One Cool Thing.
Craig: That one that you have, I think it’s called Rajina.
John: Yeah. It feels like a spiky kind of –
Craig: It could be Rajina.
John: Rajina, the queen.
Craig: Nothing there — a Rajina is not a spiky pipe. Okay. Here we go. One Cool Thing for me. Oh, so here’s like an interesting one. It’s like a One Cool Thing that’s trumped an old One Cool Thing. So it’s an app called MacID. So we talked about Knock before. That was one of our One Cool Things. And the idea of Knock was you’ve got your computer locked down with a simple login password. And instead of having to type in your password every time, you can just — your phone will know, the app on the phone syncs up Bluetooth-wise with your computer. It knows that it needs that. And it says, hey, knock on the back of me. And you knock on the back of your phone and it fills the password in for you and it’s great.
And that was great for a bit and then it just stopped working for me.
John: It’s not working for me too.
Craig: Okay. It’s just a mess. I don’t know what happened with it. But it ain’t working. Even worse, the whole point of it which was knocking on stuff basically became obliterated once they introduced the touch ID functionality. And even Knock was like no more knocking, just use touch. It just doesn’t work at least for me and for you [laughs] for 1,000% of us, it doesn’t work.
So MacID, same thing. I mean in terms of what it’s supposed to do and it does it. And it works.
John: It’s great.
Craig: So get it.
John: But I haven’t tried it yet. I’m excited to try it.
John: Now, Craig, my question for you is, you and I both have Apple watches. Shouldn’t our computers just that we are in front of them because we have our Apple watches on? Shouldn’t that be identify enough?
Craig: It should and it — well, it is. But the point is you may not want to unlock your computer just because you’re walking by it. So actually MacID works really well with your watch. So when I sit down — maybe the first time after a couple of hours, it takes like a second or two and then my wrist buzzes and I look down and I tap my thing and unlocked.
John: Oh nice.
Craig: But then after that, you know, it’s really quick and like, boop, boop, and it fills in your passwords. I’m very happy with it.
John: Great. That is our show this week. Reminder, that if you have an idea for a Scriptnotes t-shirt, we would love to see it. So go to johnaugust.com/shirts and there’s some instructions there for how you can tell the world about your Scriptnotes -t-shirt idea. August 11th is the deadline for that.
If you would like to know more about some of the things we talked about, there are show notes at johnaugust.com. Just search johnaugust.com/scriptnotes and you’ll see all of the back episodes including transcripts.
Thank you Stuart Friedel for getting those transcripts together. He’s our producer. Our show is edited by Matthew Chilelli who also did our outro this week. I would like to thank Alice for coming on the show to talk to us about describers and what they do. And Craig, have a great week.
Craig: You too, John.
- Submit your Fall 2015 Scriptnotes shirt design by August 11
- Capitals for iOS
- MovieBob Reviews: Pixels (NSFW)
- Subtitling for screenwriters on johnaugust.com
- Can you reference specific, proper-noun products/songs/locations/etc. in your screenplay? on screenwriting.io
- 2015 WGAw Annual Report to Writers
- Bathsheba Sculptures
- Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
John and Craig take a deep look at how descriptive audio for the blind works, with clips from Daredevil and an interview with a woman who does it for a living. It’s a fascinating form of writing, with many of the same challenges screenwriters face.
Also this week: Capitals, capitalization, the WGA financial numbers, and answers to a bunch of listener questions.
If you have a Scriptnotes t-shirt design, the deadline is August 11th. Click the link below for details.
- Submit your Fall 2015 Scriptnotes shirt design by August 11
- Capitals for iOS
- MovieBob Reviews: Pixels (NSFW)
- Subtitling for screenwriters on johnaugust.com
- Can you reference specific, proper-noun products/songs/locations/etc. in your screenplay? on screenwriting.io
- 2015 WGAw Annual Report to Writers
- Bathsheba Sculptures
- Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
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 207 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig and I were both in New York last week. We overlapped but we did not actually see each other in New York. But it was so nice to be back in the city. I had not been back since Big Fish had closed, so it had been a year and a half since I’d been there. It was wonderful to see the city in the sunshine. It was just a really fun week. Did you have a good time there?
Craig: I did. I always have a great time. Very humid.
John: It was. I kind of enjoyed it.
Craig: It was so humid. Oh my god, you walk outside and you’re already sweaty. But I did. I was there working but I also saw Fun Home which I would recommend to anyone within a day’s travel of New York to see. It’s so good. Everything about that show is good. Everything.
John: I was talking to a friend who’d seen it recently. I’ve not seen it yet, but he described how at the end he’s just like, “Oh wait, that’s the end? Oh my god, that was amazing!” Was that your experience?
Craig: Well, yeah, and also because they blow through. There’s no intermission, which I love.
Craig: And because the show doesn’t quite hit two hours. It’s like an hour and maybe 45.
It’s one of those things where you’re like, okay, sometimes you see a show and you’re like, “Well, I loved all the songs except these three,” or “I loved all the songs and those actors but not that one,” or “I loved all that stuff but then the set was really glum and everybody was moving around wherein it was hard to hear.” It’s in the round. Everyone’s around on top of it. Every actor is amazing. Every song is great. [laughs] All the lyrics are great, everything works. It’s just insane.
And there’s this girl, Sydney Lucas who plays — I mean the idea is that Alison Bechdel of the Bechdel test, it’s sort of the story of her life and how she grew up. And so there are three Alisons. There’s grownup Alison, and then there’s young, like 10-year Alison, and then there’s college age 18-year-old Alison. All of them were amazing. But the girl that plays 10-year-old Alison is kind of supernaturally good because I have a 10-year-old. I don’t understand how that — that kid is already better than everyone else on Broadway. It’s sick, it’s sick. I mean, not just singing and dancing, but her performance.
John: She did the Tony Awards, if I remember correctly. She sang that key song on the Tony Awards, didn’t she?
Craig: Yes. The, [sings] “ring, a ring, your ring of keys.” Yeah, amazing. And she’s 11 now, I think. Oh, yeah, over the hill. I honestly do believe that in 10 years, she’s just going to be running Broadway. Sick, so good. But an amazing show. So good. Michael Cerveris, very famous for Sweeney Todd among other things, incredible. Everybody’s incredible in it. Everybody.
John: So the only show I got to see this last time was a remarkable special occasion to see Andrew Lippa’s Wild Party. You got to see a special sneak rehearsal of The Wild Party, which was so great but we can’t really rave too much about it because it’s closed and no one’s ever going to get to see it because it was just a one-week engagement.
John: But one of my best times in this trip in New York was this random coffee that Andrew had set up with a friend of his. And without getting into too much detail about who she is and sort of what it was about, I find it so fascinating when you sit down with somebody who you fundamentally disagree with and you realize quite early in the conversation like, “Wow our overlap is so, so tiny.” But then when you realize it’s actually a very smart person, you can have these amazing conversations and sort of pull out bits of vocabulary that you would never encounter otherwise.
I find the same thing if I talk to like a really conservative Republican. You know, sometimes there’s that bristly feeling. But also, if they’re really smart, you sort of get this alternate worldview that is so enlightening and fascinating. One of the best hours of this whole trip was this weird coffee that was so uncomfortable at moments, but I found myself just recording, sort of, the phrases she was using to talk about things. Have you encountered that in your life?
Craig: I seek it out. One of the things that dismays me about modern culture is that there’s this desperation for consensus. And I love conflict. I mean, you know, not pointless conflict, but I love talking to people with whom I disagree because I do change my mind about things and I learn and I expand my view of the world. I mean, there are some things I’m set in. I just know I’m set in some things.
I don’t believe that homeopathic medicine works. I think it’s garbage. That’s just a fact for me at this point. But there are all sorts of wonderful things that people will say and I’ll go, “Wait, what?” And then we’ll have a great conversation. And like you, if I respect their intelligence, then I immediately have to give it a fair hearing and I have to really take it into consideration. I love that feeling.
John: Yeah. This was very much a homeopathy kind of conversation where our fundamental worldviews of how the universe functions were so divergent as to be like I live in this world and you live in Star Wars. But that can be kind of great because you just get to learn the terms that she uses to describe the universe she believes she lives in. And that can be great.
Craig: I’m just sensing that maybe like touchy feely spiritual energy?
John: Off-air I will send you the link to the website and you’ll be fascinated.
Craig: [laughs] Why did Andrew put you in this situation? Does he not know you?
John: I think he does know me. He knew that I would enjoy it and still chastise him for it.
John: So, today on the program, we have one-and-a-half topics to talk through. The half topic is sort of a follow-up question about credits and which script the writing credit is based upon. And then we’re going to talk about reshoots which was the topic that we had meant to talk about last week. We ran out of time, so we’re going to dig deep into why movies have reshoots.
But first, we have some newsy kind of follow-upy kind of things. In our last episode, we talked about scene description. And a listener to the podcast, my husband Mike, asked a question. He didn’t have to write in because he could actually just asked the question. What is descriptive audio?
And he was watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and other shows like Daredevil have what’s called descriptive audio where they actually tell you sort of what’s happening on the screen. So if you’re visually impaired, if you’re blind, you know what’s happening. And his question was, where does that action come from? Are they –
Craig: Wait. If you’re blind?
John: If you’re blind.
Craig: How do you see it on the TV?
John: They say it aloud.
Craig: Oh, they say it. They’re describing it?
John: They’re describing what’s happening.
Craig: Wow, I had no idea there was a thing like that.
John: And I don’t honestly know very much about it. So I bring this up not to answer the question but really to ask the question because I have a strong suspicion that somebody who listens to this show will have the answer for who is responsible for doing descriptive audio for these kind of programs. What is the process? Are they looking at the script or are they looking at the finished product and just figuring out like what they need to actually say so the thing makes sense? I think it’s amazing that it exists. I think it’s potentially great.
So, this is really a question. It’s like sort of where does descriptive audio come from? And to what degree are they using the script to generate the descriptive audio or is it just a person whose job it is, sort of like the person who would do subtitles –
John: Except they do the audio descriptions.
Craig: Yeah, I’m so curious how they manage to do it when they’re dealing with dialogue. If it’s like a walk-and-talk and two people are talking and while they’re talking they’re doing something that’s sort of important, how do they kind of sneak in their description while the characters are talking?
John: Yeah. Someone will know the answer. So I –
Craig: Someone will know. Ryan Knighton might know.
John: Ryan Knighton, our blind screenwriter friend, might know. Might. Might not.
Craig: He’s the only one. He’s the only one we have. And by the way, he’s the only one we ever will have. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve got room for one.
John: Yeah. Well, actually, he hires a team to go after any other blind writer who might consider going into the movie business.
Craig: That’s his thing.
John: That’s his thing.
John: There’s a great book that I almost adapted called The Ax. I think it’s by, it might be Donald Westlake. I’m trying to remember who wrote it. But basically, this guy is a specialist in one very esoteric kind of mechanical repair, I think. And he starts to realize that there are only like four people in the country who do what he does. He puts out an ad in the papers for this exact position and collects all the resumes. Then he goes off and kills them one by one.
Craig: That’s the blue collar version of Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which is also playing on Broadway, based on Kind Hearts and Coronets, where a guy is the ninth person in line to a great fortune and so he just goes about meeting all the people ahead of him on the list in his expanded family and bumping them off.
John: Yeah. That’s basically what Ryan Knighton does. So all these trips to Los Angeles which seemed like they are to take meetings and things, they were really just to kill people. Yeah.
Craig: To kill.
John: To kill. Also in last week’s episode, we were talking about the scene description from different movies and people really loved we went through that, so we should put that on the list to go through again to take a look at the actual scene description in movies that we love.
You and I had a disagreement about the script for Up and you thought that the single-line scene description was sort of — was not to your taste. A listener wrote in and said that he had seen an interview with Pete Docter where Pete Docter had singled out Walter Hill’s Alien script. That he loved it. And the Alien script did the same thing. And this reader was at least correct in the fact that the Walter Hill script for Alien does the same technique where it’s single lines to describe everything.
Craig: Yeah. And for whatever reason when I was looking at that, it felt a little more evocative and I could see what was going on. I found the Up script to be kind of cold. But I guess, the bigger point is that Pixar scripts are funny things. They kind of live side by side with enormous amounts of other work that is expanding.
I mean, I think in all animation, the screenplay is this funny thing that’s living in parallel to all this other support work. So you can kind of get away, I think, with a more sparse or even really Spartan style like that because you know that you also have reams and reams of story reels backing you up.
John: Absolutely. Everything in animation is a transitional state to get to that final rendered frame. And so, you know, the script is just, in many ways, is the precursor to what’s going to be the storyboards or what’s going to be the scratch reels. So, a different thing.
Next bit of news is Austin Film Festival. You and I are both planning to attend the Austin Film Festival this year.
John: Begins October 29th. There will be a live Scriptnotes, very, very likely. There will also be other panels, probably even a Three Page Challenge. So if you’re considering going to Austin and this tips you in the favor of going to Austin, please come because we will be there and we look forward to seeing you guys there.
Craig: See you in the Driskill Bar or upstairs. You know what, maybe I’ll get you to smoke a cigar this time.
John: I will never smoke a cigar.
Craig: I think I can get you to do it.
John: Yeah. Enough peer pressure and Craig will get me to do it.
John: [laughs] Okay. Craig loves it when I get just a little bit drunk and happy. That’s his favorite moment.
Craig: I mean, well, you know, Austin John August is the best of all John Augusts.
John: Craig was not there last year, so I’m looking forward to having your return there. And it looks like we’re going to have other Scriptnotes friends and family. Kelly Marcel will likely be there, so please come and join us.
One thing you may want to consider is wearing a Scriptnotes t-shirt so we can know that you are a Scriptnotes listener. And which brings us to the next point which is that we are kind of sold out of Scriptnotes shirts. We actually need to make a new batch of shirts.
And so what we’d like to propose to our listeners is that I suspect we have some incredibly talented designers and artists among our listenership. And I think this time –
Craig: Ooh, this is a good idea.
John: I think this time through, we should let the listeners design the shirt. So just the same way that we have great musicians who do our outros, make a cool shirt. And so this will just be for the LOLs, for the giggles. But if you have a great idea for a Scriptnotes shirt and you want to draw it up and send it in, we would love to see it. And so let’s put a two-week deadline on people submitting in their ideas for Scriptnotes shirts. We will put up a page at johnaugust.com/shirt and you can see all the submission guidelines for sort of what we need.
Most of our shirts have been one color. We could maybe do two colors, if you can convince us that’s a good idea. If you have a certain idea for the color of shirt it should be on, that’s also great. I don’t know whether it’s going to be a thing where people are going to vote on it or just whether Craig and I are going to pick our favorites. But I think we’ll have a really cool shirt out of this whole process.
Craig: John, when you were in high school, middle school, did you have the burnout t-shirt with the one color except that the sleeves were the different color? You know, like those concert t-shirts? You know what I’m talking about?
John: I associate that with like a baseball jersey. It’s a different thing?
Craig: Well, it’s kind of, but you know, like if you had gone and seen Van Halen, their concert shirts were always — they would have like the different sleeve color with — I just remember thinking that they were cool, and that all the kids that smoked wore those and I wanted to wear them. No?
John: That’s why you started smoking, Craig.
Craig: I did.
John: And that’s why you started smoking on the podcast. And then it became an e-cigarette podcast. The people who have, for the 200 episodes now, they’re going to — somewhere in the 70s or 80s where like you could definitely hear Craig smoking.
Craig: Good. Good.
John: Good, because you know what? We’ve moved on, we’ve evolved. It’s good.
Craig: Good. Yeah.
Craig: Yeah, man. You know who likes smoking?
Craig: Sexy Craig. Sexy Craig likes a nice — you know what? I need a cigarette.
John: Sexy Craig is leaning against a brick wall, smoking a cigarette.
Craig: [laughs] He’s so cool, that guy. Oh, I wish I could be him.
John: He is basically Snoopy in a leather jacket.
Craig: Really? [laughs]
Craig: Yes, he’s Joe Cool. He’s Joe Cool.
John: He is Joe Cool. Have you seen the trailer for The Peanuts Movie?
Craig: I loved it. I don’t know about you. I thought it was awesome.
John: I kind of loved it, too. I had weirdly low expectations. And then I realized like, “Oh, you know what, I actually liked the ABC animated specials. And so like, well, why wouldn’t I like this?” And I thought they actually did a great job.
Craig: Well, it was funny because the visual aspect of it was kind of brilliant. I mean, obviously they said, “We want to not be 2D. Nobody makes 2D animated movies anymore. But we want to really be in the zone of the way those 2D — all those specials looked on television.” And they did it without being creepy. And everything sounded right. And I just thought it seemed very much in the tone of Peanuts. I actually think it’s going to be great. But, you know, I could be wrong. But I loved the trailer.
John: Yeah, I don’t know that it’s going to work because my daughter has no interest in Peanuts whatsoever. She has no understanding of it. So I wonder if it’s going to be able to connect really to this group of, you know, kids who see PG movies or G-rated movies, but maybe it will.
Craig: This terrible generation, you mean, of ingrates?
John: This terrible lost generation of Minecraft players.
John: Lost. So, to wrap up t-shirts, just go to johnaugust.com/shirt. If you have an idea for a t-shirt and want to submit your t-shirt, I don’t honestly know what this page will say, but by the time this podcast comes out, we will put that up. This idea came to me about 45 minutes ago.
Craig: That’s good.
John: Let’s go to our topics. First off, this is a Craig topic. Craig, when we are determining credits for a screenplay, so when the Writers Guild arbitration comes through, what are we basing that determination on? Is it the script as shot or what’s actually up on the screen? What is the process here?
Craig: It’s a very good question. And it’s one, when we went through our big credits discussion, I failed to consider. And somebody on Twitter just asked it in a very — I thought it was a very kind of smart way, like, “Actually, do you watch the movie and base the credits on the movie? Do you do a transcript or was it the last — ?”
Here’s the way it works. The deal is that we all get what’s called the final shooting script, so that’s essentially the last printed screenplay. And when you’re in production, you know there may be lots of revisions and things. And maybe somebody comes and does one week of work at the very, very end. Well, their script is the final shooting script. And then the idea of credit arbitration is you go back and see, “Well, who contributed towards that final shooting script?”
The idea of the final shooting script is that it should represent the film on screen. But, of course, sometimes that’s not true. There are times when a final shooting script comes in, and it really doesn’t represent what’s on screen. Maybe the final shooting script is three hours and the film was three hours, but now it’s been cut down to an hour and a half. So, what do you do? How do you get some accurate sense?
Well, there is a little bit of a protection here. What our collective bargaining agreement says is that if, you know, when we get the notice of tentative writing credits, we also receive the “final shooting script.” Well, if any of the participating writers says, “This isn’t actually — this isn’t the movie,” then what can happen is the Guild can go back to the company and say, “Hey, can you give us a cutting continuity?”
And a cutting continuity is essentially, “Show me a list of scenes and how long they last in the movie in order.” And that document itself isn’t something that you give credit for, but it should help you vet the accuracy of the final shooting script, so that you don’t end up awarding credit to a document that doesn’t represent the movie. And that’s basically how we do it.
John: Now, in my experience as an arbiter and going through arbitrations, I’ve never had one of these situations come up. Have you had it come up?
Craig: It’s possible that you could, as an arbiter, receive both the final shooting script and the cutting continuity. But more often than not, if there’s a discrepancy, they’re going to go back and reissue a new final shooting script.
John: I see what you’re saying. So, they would take this continuity and then from that generate a script that shows omits for all the stuff that actually is not in the actual movie.
Craig: Right. The studio would have to do that. Or in the other direction, somebody could say, “Hey, the final shooting script doesn’t include like eight scenes that were, I don’t know, done on the day, but never written down,” or something like that, you know.
So, sometimes it’s additive. But no, as an arbiter, I’ve never been given anything to qualify the final shooting script. There is this quirky weird thing that the last writer is the final shooting script. I always found that odd. You know, like you have writer A, B, C, D, E. And writer E was just there for a week and it says, “Final shooting script writer E.” Well, that sounds very official and compelling. But, you know, the arbiters are pretty smart. We know to actually do the work and see who did what.
John: Absolutely. So, as we’re going through these A, B, C, D, Es, we’re only really looking for what did E actually change and how did the changes that she made really impact the movie overall, and is that enough of a change to merit either story or screenplay consideration.
John: So, this feels like a good segue into our big topic for today, which is reshoots. And so, often, an arbitration will come up, and this happened to me twice in arbitrations I’ve done, where the credit had been determined or they had started the process of determining credit, and they’d gone off and done reshoots. And because of the reshoots and new writing that had happened, they decided like, “You know what, we actually have to stop and look at this new material that’s going into the reshoots.”
So, let’s talk about what reshoots are, and why movies sometimes have reshoots. Because I think there’s a stigma attached to them, like a movie that has reshoots is in trouble. And in my experience, that’s not usually or necessarily the case. So, I’d love to sort of go through a bigger discussion of why movies have reshoots, what the writer’s role is in reshoots, and our own personal experiences in that.
Craig: Yeah, for sure. I mean, it’s a great topic. When you and I started, I think it would be fair to say that reshoots did have a bit of a stigma. At this point now, I don’t know of any movie that doesn’t have some sense of what they now just call additional photography because the process has become refined in a certain way. In the old days, I think a lot of movies avoided reshoots entirely. It was just like, “This is the movie and, you know, that’s the way it is.” And remember, we didn’t have a world of non-linear digital editing, so reediting things was really hard and cumbersome.
And when the movie was the movie, it was the movie. Reshoots were when things were disastrous. And plus, of course, they’re expensive. You’re reshooting a scene to make it better. You’re reshooting a scene because somebody stank in it. You’re reshooting a scene because you need a new scene. Nowadays, not so often the case, frankly. Yeah, there are movies in trouble that have additional photography. There are also movies that are scoring through the roof and audiences love them, and they have additional photography.
So, yeah, let’s go through all the different possibilities of why we end up shooting extra stuff after we’ve — and this is always after you’ve had a cut of the film, and almost always after you’ve screened it at least once for an audience.
John: Yeah. So, obviously, the first reason why you might reshoot something is because something went wrong. And so, either there’s actually some technical problem. In my first movie, Go, we literally lost some footage where it ended up being an insurance claim. But there was like camera damage and some of the footage was unusable. So we actually had to go back and reshoot something. That was an insurance day, and that was part of reshoots.
More likely, something went wrong and like something is just not working about the film. And you have made a decision that you’re going to shoot something new or reshoot a scene or recast an actor because something is not working, and it’s going to be worth your time and money to go back through and reshoot this to make the movie better. While not all reshoots are for something going wrong, it is still probably a principal reason for why you’re showing up there again.
Craig: Yeah. Sometimes it’s something’s gone wrong, and sometimes it’s something hasn’t gone quite as right as you think it could. And there’s all these little subdivisions of things going wrong. One thing that happens frequently is an issue of clarification. What goes wrong is that the filmmakers were hoping to be subtly engaging. They didn’t want to hit the audience over the head with stuff because that’s boring storytelling, so they were kind of doing the thing where they’re asking the audience to come along and discover things with them. And they miscalculated, and a large chunk of the audience has no idea what’s going on. They’re lost.
That is something that happens all the time, and sometimes in the smallest ways. But in the smallest way, you get into such trouble because people are confused, and you need an extra line or sometimes you need an extra scene.
John: Yeah. I mean, if you need an extra line, you will always try to find a way to throw it on somebody’s back so you don’t have to go shoot it all over. So when I say throwing it on somebody’s back, that’s literally like where you are looking at me, so you are on camera but I’m saying a line. And that is to clarify like, “Oh, this happened last night,” or “I just got the call from Martinez and we’re going down to the station.” That can be really hacky, but it’s often the easiest and simplest way to do that stuff.
In my experience, when you’re actually going through to shoot something new for clarification, it’s often because you cut something out of the movie. Maybe you realize like the movie is just too long and we need to cut out this little sequence, but there was important story points that were in that sequence. And so, you can’t cut it out because of the story points. So, what we can do, though, is have a replacement scene that does the job of what those three scenes did and gets us past that point.
John: And so, as you’re editing, you’re like, okay, you’re literally putting like a piece of black there with type on it that says like, “New scene, something, something, something, something,” that does the job of what used to be there.
Craig: It is so frustrating when you’re in the editing room and you’ve got 10 minutes of stuff that you think should go. It’s not helping the movie. People don’t seem to enjoy it. It’s not working the way it’s supposed to, but you’re jammed because in the middle of it is this thing that they need to know. It’s a fact. And it can be so frustrating because you’re like, “Oh, I wish we could just hand out a pamphlet at the beginning of the movie saying this fact and then we wouldn’t need that stuff.”
So you’re right. In those moments, you sometimes add to take away. I’m going to shoot a 40-second walk-and-talk to replace 10 minutes of stuff. As you said, the first instinct of the producer in the studio is ADR.
So, ADR is our term for automatic dialogue replacement or sometimes you will hear it called looping. And that is when the actor can come in and record their voice and we just use the audio. And as John said, we’re looking at something else. So, two people look at a building, we cut to the building, and we hear them off-screen saying, “So, that’s where so and so shot blankity blank yesterday.”
It can be hacky. There’s a great Patton Oswalt bit where he’s hired to go work on an animated movie for a big company and they’re like, “Look, the animation’s all finished. It’s done. We’re just looking for extra jokes that we could throw in on audio.” And he just goes through this whole thing of how ridiculously hard that is. And kind of just go, “It’s just a folly to think that you could be funny with these weirdo lines just bombing in from nowhere.” [laughs] But they always think that that’s going to solve everything.
It rarely does. And if it does, it doesn’t solve it as effectively as shooting something to stitch things together.
John: I hosted a panel with the editors of the second Star Trek movie. And these women we were talking about how there was literally a shot they needed and they had already done the reshoots, they couldn’t do it. So they literally just pulled out their iPhones and shot it in like the corner of their office, like literally one little matching shot they needed.
And that’s sort of the visual equivalent of ADR. They needed this one shot and apparently it ended up in the movie. And it was a piece of crucial connective tissue. And a lot of times when you see reshoots scheduled you’ll see like all this sort of punch list of things they need, it’s because they need those tiny little pieces to make things fit together.
John: And sometimes it’s because there’s actually a happy reason why they want to do more photography. It’s because somebody who was in the movie is now a much bigger star. An example I think was Channing Tatum in the second G.I. Joe. He blew up and became a much bigger star after the first movie. And they’re like, “Let’s put more Channing Tatum in this movie.” And I think they probably had to pay him some more money to do that. But that’s a good reason to do it. You know, if you have a bigger star than you thought you did and there’s more stuff for him to do, you do it.
Craig: Yeah. Often, when you make deals with actors, it covers additional photography, pending their schedule. I mean, that’s the big thing. And the schedules become nightmarish because actors, they’re constantly going from movie to movie to movie. And you’d think, “Well, okay. We’ll just, you know, grab you on your day off.”
Well, first of all, no one ever thinks about these poor actors getting a day off. It’s like, “Well, if you have a day off, we’ll shove in another thing.” But the bigger problem is when they go to another movie, they cut their hair or they grow a beard. [laughs] Or they dye their hair or get a tattoo or something. Whatever it is that they do, it’s some kind of permanent change for that role and you’re stuck — you know, I remember we were really jammed because we had to shoot this one thing for the third Hangover movie and Bradley had already moved on to American Hustle and had started to grow his beard.
Craig: And we had to get rid of the beard because he doesn’t have a beard in the scene [laughs] because the scene is, you know, it’s just not there. And you can add a beard, you can’t take one away. So it was like a whole negotiation. Like, literally, getting a guy to shave becomes a negotiation between productions.
But you do find yourself in situations where you test a movie, you experience a movie with the audience, and you think they love this person, we need one more bit with that person. Or, like you said, maybe it’s calculation. They become a big star. But sometimes it’s just that they’re killing it in the movie, you know.
John: Absolutely. I’ve had the exact same situation where you need to reshoot with somebody and their hair is different. It’s going to be very, very challenging. My movie, The Nines, Ryan Reynolds plays three different characters and they all have vastly different hairstyles and different hair colors. And so we had two days of reshoots but he had to play bits of all three characters.
And so, I’m trying to find a way. It’s like, “So how do we make your hair blonde for one shot?” And it turns out there is that technology. There’s actually a gel you can put in that could, in a quick shot, will make you believe that it’s blonde hair. And so, it works in the movie. But somebody will win the Oscar for digital beard removal. And we’ll all be saved.
Craig: Well, trust me when I tell you, it was discussed. [laughs] There was a whole discussion of can you remove — I mean, because now, everyone’s first option is “Well, what can we do in a computer? I mean, can we take the computer and — “
John: Yeah, just put little tracking dots on his beard and they just paint it over.
Craig: I’m telling you, we had this [laughs] –
John: Of course you did.
Craig: Research was done and then concluded, “No. that’s not possible.”
John: But on to the topic of tracking dots, the death of Paul Walker and The Fast and the Furious movie was another example of you need to do massive reshoots and really retooling the whole story to accommodate what footage you had and what movie you could make out of what had already been filmed. And so that was a case where Chris Morgan and company had to stop and really look at sort of what is the movie now and how are we going to address this.
So, most cases, you’re not going to be having to deal with such a huge issue. But that’s the reality you live in, is that you are depending on these flesh and blood actors to be able to do these things. And if it’s not a death, like that’s sort of the worst case scenario, but it could be a pregnancy that makes it much more difficult for somebody to do something, or an injury. On Go, Sarah Polley had an injury that forced us to really restructure how we were filming some things.
Craig: This is maybe not a situation where people who dream of being screenwriters fantasize themselves being in. This doesn’t feel like the romanticized version of an artist writing the great American screenplay. But I will tell you, this is where the big boys and the big girls play.
There are times when large changes need to be made for a whole bunch of reasons. And in this case, it was tragedy, right? So, the movie star has passed away in the middle of production, what do you do? And once the powers that be make their decision about what the ultimate goal is, and in that case, it was to move forward and retool the movie, you have to sit down like a field marshal.
You have to take your artist hat off for a second and you have to sit down like a field marshal and look at what you have and start coming up with a plan to cut away the stuff that will no longer work under any circumstances, preserve what should be preserved, and then put your artist hat back on and imagine how you fill it all in in a way that makes it feel like it was always meant to be like this.
And so, people know because there was a big article that came out about how World War Z worked out. And there was big surgery on World War Z. And that stuff, that is advanced screenwriting 505, as far as I’m concerned. That’s when it gets really dicey and crazy, but also can be — well, it’s the closest we come to, like, mass unit surgery, you know, where there’s blood everywhere and no one seems to mind, you know.
Craig: It can be exciting.
John: Let’s talk about what the writer’s role is because I think World War Z is the extreme example where, essentially, let’s make an entire new second half of the movie which was a huge change with new writers with Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard coming into really rethink what the whole ending was and they threw out, you know, an entire sequence which had already been filmed, versus most movies where hopefully the — a principal writer is the person who is writing the new stuff that needs to fit in there and what the function of that writer is.
Now, best case scenario, the writer has been involved through the whole production and has a sense of what was happening on the day. But often in my experience, being able to step back and not know about how the sausage was made is incredibly helpful when you’re looking at a cut and it’s just not working at all. And you get to sort of put on your storyteller hat again and recognize the movie wants to go here rather than where it is right now.
And you get to again like create solutions rather than just point out the problems. You could define like, well, if this thing did exist then we could go from here to there or, you know, quite often like that’s not where the movie wants to end. I know that’s, you know, I wrote this whole movie. I really had a vision for where it got to, but the movie you actually made doesn’t deliver me there. It actually delivers me over here. And that new place is a great place. So let’s make a new ending. And so often the ending is what you end up rewriting. Beginnings and endings get the most attention in reshoots.
Craig: Yeah. Beginnings and endings for sure. And endings really for sure. I mean I know also that Chris McQuarrie did a lot of work on World War Z, too. I mean the thing that essentially goes unsaid with a lot of this stuff is that if you get into a place where major surgery is required, there has been a disconnect, either the writing wasn’t really solid enough to begin with and the director has done his or her best job with it but there are huge problems.
Or, the director maybe has wandered away from what people liked about the screenplay. Somehow there’s a disconnect. And it has resulted in this — it’s rare that a writer and a director are both tight together, working as a tight team from start to finish and they deliver something that everybody goes, “No, there’s incoherent stretches and we got to” — you know, it’s usually because of a disconnect. Because two people have been making two different movies at once.
And then you throw in a star. And maybe the star –
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: And maybe the star wants to make a third different movie. Oh, this is how it happens, right? And when they bring the new writer in and it’s almost always somebody new, everyone — and this is where if you’ve ever been in this situation, and I’ve been in the situation, this is when you learn what the business really thinks of screenwriters.
We’ll get a lot of dismissive stuff. And we will complain when we’re not mentioned in news stories or when the New York Times does a review, doesn’t even mention the screenwriter’s name, any of that stuff, garbage, who cares. When they call you in and they say, “Our movie is dying and we need you to fix it,” and everybody looks at you, that’s when you find out the value of the screenwriter. That’s when you find out that the role of the screenwriter.
At that point, the screenwriter does become the architect of some new vision. And in part it’s because — look, directing is the hardest thing. I’ve said it before, a million times. Directing a movie is the hardest job in Hollywood. And when you are done directing a movie, you’re near death. Emotionally, sometimes physically, you are sick.
And then they come to you and they say, it’s not working. And it’s really not working and we need to do another two weeks of work or three weeks of work. You feel terrible and you feel lost. And you feel maybe there’s some shame, and tired, and confused. Somebody needs to put you on their back for a little bit to help. And it’s that screenwriter who comes in and kind of says, all right, let me be your hero for a little bit. And try and deliver what I would call the illusion that this was always meant to be this way. And it’s funny, you know. I loved World War Z. I loved it.
John: I loved it, too.
Craig: Yeah. And I remember watching it and thinking, okay, I want to try and find the spot. I want to see if I can find the scene because I knew that the bulk of the stuff was really the ending. And I wanted to see like, can I find the seam? And I was close but even the seam I thought was done so well, they really just did a great job. And that’s, I love that. I just love stories like that. They’re inspiring to those of us who practice the craft within the madness of the studio system.
John: Now, circling back to sort of why and when you bring in new writers. I think what would be important in that situation where things were clearly not going well with the film is that the new writer can look at sort of what is shot and has no baggage about what the intention was. He can only look at sort of like this is what we have, like these are all the Legos that you’ve given me. With these Legos, I can build this thing and we could add new Legos to build this whole bigger thing. What do you think of this movie that I could present to you?
And that’s really compelling. When Aline was on this last time, she was talking about the pilot that she and Rachel did and how it didn’t go at Showtime. And then they had this vision for like, you know what, we could actually do it as a broadcast show, but what we need to do is really rethink sort of how some stuff works and write new scenes. And what I loved about what they did is they just, they approached it kind of like a reshoot. They wrote all the stuff. And so like here’s what we shot. Here’s what the full thing will be. This is the vision for what it is. And that’s what reshoots are, is the chance to say, acknowledging this was the original intention. This is what the new intention can be and this is what the final product can look like.
Craig: It’s not fair in a way to the original writer because when you come in and you’ve seen half a movie and you know what works and you know what doesn’t, you have this remarkable head start. You have a clarity that the original writer could never possibly have. And it’s why, more often than not, the writers who come in and do that work will not receive credit. They kind of do it in the shadows. And I think that that’s appropriate for a lot of these situations. And it happens so much more often than people know because it is this massive leg up.
John: Let’s talk what the leg up is. This subsequent writer has the ability to see the performances, see the world, know exactly what did work and what doesn’t work. And so, when he’s writing new scenes, he knows not to go in those terrible pits because he knows that will just never work. He knows that like, that actor is just not — is the death of comedy.
John: So, don’t try to throw any comedy towards that actor. Let that guy be just the straight man. And knows that like the director has a great ability to do this kind of thing, but whatever you do, don’t throw this kind of thing at him. And that’s a huge advantage.
Craig: It’s huge. And especially when you’re talking about comedy, when you know what the biggest laugh in the movie is and then you have the ability to then write a call back to that laugh at the end of the movie, talk about an advantage over the poor guy that was just guessing the first time around, you know. So you’re standing on the shoulders of everybody that kind of got you maybe to the 70 yard line, you’re supposed to get it all the way, you get it all the away. 30, I should say 30 yard line. There is no 70 yard line, 30 yard line.
John: I guess you’re right. So let’s talk about our own movies and just quickly go through some of our own experiences. So I talked a little bit about Go. And in Go, we ended up reshooting the ending. And I think there’s a perception that is like, oh, because the ending wasn’t working. No, because we literally had no audio for a crucial scene. Our very first day of filming, somehow we ended up losing all of the audio. And so what used to happen at the end of Go is the guys who came to Vegas — the guys who went to Vegas, arrived back in Los Angeles. They were holed up in Simon’s apartment and expecting the guys from Vegas to show up and the guys ended up going over to Gaines’s house and it was a very different scene.
So basically, the guys in Vegas, they all paid off. And so we shot that scene, it was on the very first day, I remember cheering when like there’s a — we have a scene in the can. What I did not know is that the audio was lost forever. And so we had this silent scene that we were going to have to re-voice completely if we wanted to.
And it wasn’t really that great of a scene. It just didn’t turn out very well. And so when we needed to go back and reshoot stuff, I wrote the new scene where Simon goes to Gaines’s apartment which is a much better scene. Anyway, so I was happy that it resolved that way. But that was the bulk of the reshooting.
And the rest of it was just connective tissue. It was the, we needed a shot of Katie Holmes walking at one point to the get us from the rave to when she meets up at the restaurant. There were little tiny bits of things that on the day of shooting, you didn’t really believe you needed. But in the editing room, you found out you actually desperately needed.
Craig: That debate is my favorite. [laughs] When you’re on set, you’re constantly debating. Do we even need this? And there are times when you think as a writer, yeah, we need it because I wrote it and that’s how we saw it and then you’re like, oh, jeez, we really did not need that. But then there are those times where you know and you’re like, you guys, you’re applying the same kind of don’t need it test to this and I’m telling you, you need it, you need it.
And even if we don’t need it eventually, it will be only as a result of the audience proving to us we didn’t need it. We’ll never look at it in the cut and go, yeah for sure, we don’t need it. We should shoot it. And ideally, you will have that relationship where you can make the case, but sometimes you don’t. Sometimes reshoots are essentially making up for the times when the production ignored the script.
John: Absolutely true. And I will tell you that on several of the movies I’ve worked on, the best friend of the writer can be the editor whose watching the dailies and is whisperings to the director, you need this shot. You didn’t get the shot of this cutaway reaction and you desperately need it. And if you’re still in the same location, you will find that gets added to the end of the day’s work and it gets in there because the editor knows what she’s cutting and knows that she’s going to need that shot to make that scene work.
Craig: Yeah, there’s the work flow. The editors get this material at night. They go start looking through stuff and part of their job is to send a red alert to the producer if they think something crucial is missing. Not maybe artistically crucial, but just physically in terms of continuity crucial. And so you will sometimes get those, they feel like we blew it there. A lot of times what you’ll get is you shot that in the wrong — yeah, they were looking the wrong way. There’s a lot of stuff like that, you know, you get those things. It happens.
John: I should also clarify. I don’t think we’ve ever talked about on the show what inserts are. And so, in a weird way, I think we do less inserts now than we used to. Although they’re very common in television. Whenever you cut to like a prop sitting on a table or like somebody hand somebody something, that can be considered an insert where it’s not part of the principle photography, it’s like just a little small bit of action.
And in the old days, there used to be whole insert stages where they would film just those little bits of like that briefcase being handed off or that little shot or like that telephone ringing there. You don’t see that quite as much anymore, but inserts can be their own special little subunit. Sometimes the second unit will take care of that. On Go I did a lot of the inserts so literally like the money sliding under the door, that was my second unit was doing that but also little bits of reaction shots from other characters. So sometimes that will happen, those inserts will be shot during production. But inserts are often kind of added to the workflow of additional photography, those little bits and pieces that an editor needs to make a scene work.
John: So tell me about your movies.
Craig: Oh well, the stuff I did with Todd Phillips, we didn’t do much at all in terms of additional photography. I think in Hangover II, we didn’t do any. There’s one thing that got shot on a stage in LA and it just looked stagey. It didn’t look real, so we reshot in Bangkok, but it was still part of principal.
And in Hangover III, we had saved — we wanted to see the movie before we figured out like what to do in the last, last, tiny, tiny bit, the little coda bit, so we did. So it was always like a scheduled sort of thing that we knew was waiting there.
My big reshoot story was Scary Movie 3. And I was still pretty young and I had had a couple of movies made, they didn’t work in theaters. I was doing Scary Movie 3. I was scared [laughs]. I didn’t know what was really happening. The movie was done in an incredibly rushed fashion and Bob Weinstein, frankly, was being Bob Weinstein, which is a force of complete chaos and demanding things that, you know, in our defense, we warned him just would not work. And demanded script changes that we warned him would not work.
And they didn’t. And we had a — I mean some of it was also some of the stuff just didn’t work that we wanted. So we had this, just this thing. It was like this weird piece of Swiss cheese. And in a movie like that which is all about laughs, if it’s not funny, it’s not in the movie. And if it is, it is. That was it. So, we had like — I want to say we basically had about 55 minutes of movie.
John: [laughs] You’re doing great, Craig.
Craig: Yeah, we had 55 minutes of movie. We needed 75 minutes of movie and not including credits. And we had I think four weeks, four weeks. So, I remember I still have the documents somewhere. I put together a roadmap and it was basically, okay, in a day, I sat down and went here’s what we have that works. Here are the big things that are coming out. These are the gaps we have. Here’s a new story that will make sense of all that plus new scenes that will fit into those spots that will be better now that we know what we’ve seen.
Now, we’re going to write that and we did in a week. And now, we’re going to shoot it, and we did in 10 days. And all that stuff went in, all of it worked really well. And by the time it was done, the movie had gone from this 55-minute, what the hell is that, to this thing that played great in test screenings and then went on to be a hit. That was me growing up. I mean I was scared to death and I honestly thought that I was just basically sitting in Skylab while it was falling out of the sky. But I’ve never worked faster and harder. It was insane.
John: Tell me about the document you created there. So was it essentially a memo to the whole team saying like, this is where I think the new work is, basically like, there’s this scene and I think it’s just blocking out in sentences like what would happen in this intermediary scene?
Craig: I’ll see if I can dig it up and we’ll put it on the thing. Well, first of all, that was when I learned that all formalities go out the window when a movie is in trouble, all of them. All of the things that people are sticklers about, like don’t talk to them until you talk to me, but no, all of it, gone. Now, it’s literally, here’s the note to the whole everybody involved in this, everybody at the studio, everybody in the production, everybody. This is what we’re doing. We don’t have time to argue. We’re doing this. And either we’re going to have a movie if we do this or we can discuss it but not have a movie.
Craig: And so, it was this. And yeah, it was very much like a manifesto of how to — I mean and — and think about it, it’s like all that effort and manifesto [laughs] and battle plan for a movie that’s ridiculous.
Craig: Where every scene is ridiculous, like the silliest movie ever but, you know.
John: I was just going through my files and I found some of my old memos from that time. And I had forgotten that those were all faxed. Like I was faxing those things through — were you at email by Scary Movie 3, or was that still faxes?
Craig: It was both but Bob was completely fax. In fact, I have this memory of sitting in what my son’s room is now. So he was just a baby and he was off in a different room near my wife. And I’m in this room as my office. And it’s like, I think it’s midnight, my time. It’s 3 AM, New York, where Bob is. He’s still awake. And he’s having me send him pages for the new things. And so I’m faxing them. He’s reading them as they come out of the fax and giving me notes as he reads them. So, I’m getting notes while I’m faxing [laughs] in live. So sick.
John: Yeah, that’s familiar.
Craig: Faxing. I mean, God, can you believe it?
John: Just the sound of the fax machine connecting.
Craig: So we’re old.
John: We’re old. That’s basically what we’re telling you. There were these things called fax machines and you wouldn’t believe them. It sounds like technology from the future, but it was actually terrible.
Craig: Terrible, truly terrible.
John: Truly terrible. I talked a little bit about The Nines with Ryan’s hair color, but actually the bigger thing we ended up shooting with The Nines, we shot a new ending which is very costly when you do. Largely, that was because I sort of had a Channing Tatum in my movie which is Elle Fanning, who was great. And we’d cast Elle because she said yes. She was talented. But I’d written the role deliberately to be kind of actor-proof and so the character was mute, so I wouldn’t have to deal with a terrible child actor on the set. And then we ended up casting this brilliant child actor who could do so much more.
And so as we looked at the footage, it’s like, oh my God, she’s great. And I actually want much more Elle Fanning in the movie and, you know, her stuff with Ryan was great. Her stuff with Melissa was great. And so I wrote new stuff for her. So she was in three new scenes that were not part of the original script. And so we got this all in, in a day.
What is sometimes challenging about reshoots is it’s likely not the same crew that you had before, because that crew went off and they’re doing other movies just like actors are doing other movies. And so you assemble a brand new crew who has no idea what your movie is necessarily. It’s where you really recognize how important it is that all of your original crew takes really good notes. And so like our costume designers were fantastic and had everything marked and labeled exactly right so that we could put the right thing on the right actor at the right time.
So it was a whole new crew, a new DP doing this reshoot, but you wouldn’t know what was old and what was new. That’s the advantage of having these tremendously professional crews who can just do anything.
Craig: They’re really good at that. And they also know that they can’t leave behind a mess for the next people because often times, they’re the next people.
Craig: You know, so they all kind of move back and forth between, okay, I got a big movie or I’m not working right now and there’s a reshoot going for a week, I’ll go do that. They all rely on each other. You can’t survive in this business if you leave behind a mess and you’re unprofessional.
I will say that more often than not, when you’re doing additional photography, the same DP is there. That’s somewhat rare –
John: It’s unusual.
Craig: Yeah. But it does happen where they just get booked like that and they got to go.
Craig: And that’s a rough one.
John: So Nancy Schreiber, our DP, had a conversation with Matthew who took over and did this. And so they were able to talk through exactly the stocks, exactly the light, the look, you know, how everything should work. But she was off shooting another movie. And that’s how things go.
Craig: It happens.
John: As I say this, I’m realizing that I don’t think we necessarily talk enough on the show about how amazing crews are because we are a show about screenwriters, mostly. But the people who are making movies are these tremendously talented craftsmen and artisans and technicians who can do these ridiculously difficult things and make it seem really easy. So, I know we have listeners who are working below the line in all sorts of other capacities, but just I want a little shout out to them for all their ridiculously hard work in making these things possible.
Craig: I mean, if you don’t love the people who work so-called below the line, you’re an idiot. Because you forge relationships with them. I mean, there are certain — there’s a makeup artist that I’ve worked with, I don’t know, like three or four different times. There are hair people I see all the time. The same people — I see grips I know from god knows back when.
Craig: And then sometimes, I meet people — I remember I went in a meeting once. I think it was at Reese Witherspoon’s company and I met with her head of development. And she mentioned that she was married to a grip that I had worked with and that he liked me and that — you know, these things — people talk. They all know. If you’re a jerk on set, then you’re just bad. I mean, you have to take care of these people. Now I will say, there are times when there’s struggles on sets and you’re dealing with temperamental artists, at times. And below the line people are artists, too. I mean, especially when you’re talking about production designers and costume designers and — so things can get heated and sometimes, there are blowouts. And it happens.
But there has to be a level of respect underneath it. And I have enormous respect for everybody that shows up to do that job. I mean we’re all freaks, right? Everybody that works in show business is a freak.
Like, if you’re an electrician and you choose to do that instead of, you know, just go and get paid a whole bunch of money to fix people’s wires and circuit breakers, you’re a freak. But you’re my kind of freak. You’re the best freak. You’re somebody who wants to be in the show, you know. It’s like we’re all in all the big show. And you got to love those people. You have to. And you have to stand by them, you know.
Craig: I’m a big defender. This stuff, like I’m a huge believer that there needs to be, like, proper turnarounds for crews because they are falling asleep, dead on their feet, on their way home. It’s really dangerous for them. I’m a huge supporter of anything that keeps production here, in our neighborhood, where people have come to make their livings, you know. I stand by my crews.
John: I do too. Well, let’s wrap up our conversation about reshoots.
So I think the take home from this should be is that reshooting is not a sign of distress or trouble, necessarily. It is a, I think, an increasingly common aspect of filmmaking. And I think, even over the last decade, more and more productions I’ve been going into have an anticipation that things will be reshot. That it’s not you have to get it right the very first time. There’s going to be things that you will discover along the way.
Digital technology probably has helped that. I think digital editing has helped that. But also just the sense that we know we can do it, so we will do it when we need to.
John: All right. Let’s get to One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is just a little blogpost article. It’s a conversation between Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro about genre. And I thought it was such a great conversation between two writers talking about what it’s like to be writing in a genre versus writing sort of traditional literary fiction. And the sort of artificial distinctions we make but also how reader expectation and critic expectation colors an appreciation of the work.
And so, as a person who writes in different genres, I thought it was just a really great discussion between two very talented writers.
Craig: Yeah. I had actually read that on my own. I should have made that my One Cool Thing at some point. It was a really good discussion that those guys had.
John: So there’ll be a link to that in the show notes. And I actually know your thing too because on this last trip I was going to challenge you in this game. So tell me how much you love this game.
Craig: Right. Well, I got two One Cool Things because I didn’t have one last week. So it’s called Capitals. And I give full credit to my friend, Peter Carlin, for turning me on to this one.
And it’s another word battle game. Basically, you’ve got like a honeycomb kind of grid laid out and each player has a little home base tile. And then, you’re trying to make words out of the letters that are in between you. And the more you can kind of take control of spaces by making words, you can protect your base and then you — you know, it’s pretty simple. You’re trying to take over the board. And if you can make a word around their home base, then you get an extra turn. And at that point, you just start to crush them.
It’s very similar to when you and I used to play — what was that game we used to play?
John: It was Letterpress.
Craig: Letterpress. It’s a very similar thing. So Peter and I have been playing this one game. He started a game with me. And it was like two weeks ago. We’re still playing it. It’s like such a — it’s like a war in Russia, it’s just going on and on. [laughs] And we’re like barely moving back and forth. It’s brutal, but fun. So, that’s Capitals. Definitely, iOS. Probably, Android. But I don’t care about Android and neither should you.
And then, my other One Cool Thing — so my Two Cool Things, is Bloom County is back.
John: I’m so excited for Bloom County.
Craig: I’m so excited now, because I have — one of the great joys of my life is having a friendship with Berkeley Breathed. I found out about this and I’m going to be just a clunky name dropper here, because he emailed me to tell me.
Craig: I know. Very exciting. And it’s been — this is real Bloom County. So, he’s doing Bloom County again like the proper four-panel strip, black and white, and bringing all the old characters back. He did tell me — I guess I’ll just let this out of the bag that he might not go back to some of the — like Portnoy and Hodge-Podge where the talking — you know, so we had like a rabbit and he had a hedgehog or goffer, [laughs], I’m not quite sure what that guy was. Goffer?
Because he felt like talking animals, like casually talking animals used to be interesting. And now, everybody has casually talking animals. So we might not do them. He might just stick with Opus and the humans, but we’ll see. I have a feeling. I have a feeling they’ll all come back. And it’s like a being a kid again, because it’s — you can go back again.
Craig: It’s great. And the first strip was hysterical and they’ve all been really good since. And so, check it out. And so, if you want to — by the way, here’s the other thing, he’s distributing it on Facebook.
Craig: So if you just go to Berkeley Breathed’s page. You know, it’s not like you have to be his friend. It’s one of those pages that you can like. And then, he’ll show up in your feed and every day there will be a Bloom County.
John: That’s very, very nice. On Instagram, I think I posted this last week or a week before, the same — sort of digging through the files where I found these faxes I had sent back and forth to Dimension, I found my Bloom County that I had saved from when Bloom County closed, when the very last –
Craig: Ah, yes.
John: Sunday comic of Bloom County, which was ’99, I want to say.
Craig: The door, it’s like the open door and it’s Ronald-Ann or something like that, right? Isn’t that the last one?
John: No, no. The last one is like, it’s a beautiful day of snow. It’s like, let’s go have an adventure. So like, basically it’s –
Craig: Oh, wait. Oh, you’re talking about Calvin and Hobbes. I’m sorry. I thought you’re talking about the last Bloom County.
John: Oh, my God. I’ve been talking about Calvin and Hobbes. What am I doing?
Craig: I know why. I’ve been talking –
John: I want Calvin and Hobbes to come back.
Craig: [laughs] I thought you were talking about Bloom County because you said –
Craig: [Laughs] You were — that was the mistake I made. I trusted you.
John: That really was the — you trusted my words. So basically, I had nostalgia for the wrong thing. But I really do — I do know that there are two separate universes. I do know that Opus never talks to Calvin. But that crossover could be kind of great.
Craig: It actually would be kind of great. I know that Berkley is a huge admirer of Bill Watterson. I mean, everyone that works in the comic space is a huge admirer of Calvin and Hobbes and Bill Watterson, so –
John: You know, Craig Mazin, we have been so instrumental at connecting people. Maybe we can make this connection happen and make this crossover event occur.
Craig: [laughs] I’ll do my best. I’ll handle Berkley. You take on the other guy.
John: All right. [laughs] Bill Watterson?
Craig: Who’s a notorious reckless that talks to no one.
John: Here’s what I think it is. Somehow, I associated the recluse story of Bill Watterson with Berkeley Breathed. I conflated the two artists and sort of their — why they stopped doing their things. And so –
Craig: You know, it — there’s worse things than to be conflated with the man who made Calvin and Hobbes. I mean, that’s — I always think of like there are three great strips from my childhood and one of them I would just read because it was like vegetables and that was Doonesbury, which felt like eating vegetables. I never actually liked Doonesbury but I understood it was certainly a better quality and more interesting than, you know, Family Circus.
So I would read Doonesbury, sort of like as homework and then — but I loved Calvin and Hobbes and I loved Bloom County. Those were my, and the Far Side, those were just amazing.
John: Oh, right. They’re incredible. And of course, Cathy. There was actually a period in my life where I just loved Cathy.
John: But I was like eight. I was like, oh, it’s Cathy. It was like, I can very much relate to Cathy. She’s a bit, ack.
Craig: So Cathy, for those of you that never read it. It’s a strip about a woman with severe eating disorders.
Craig: Severe eating disorders.
John: And body dysmorphia.
Craig: Body dysmorphia and fear of men and a sweating problem, constantly sweating. But most –
John: And a noncommittal boyfriend. Yeah.
Craig: Right, noncommittal boyfriend. But mostly, it was about an eating disorder. It was like a lot of the strips were like, oh, no, chocolate. Well, I guess I’ll be fat, you know. [laughs] It was horrible. Horrible. I mean, I didn’t enjoy Cathy. I’m just being honest. It just didn’t –
John: No, I outgrew my Cathy pretty quickly. But then I was dating a guy who still loved Cathy. And who was like 23 or 24, and just loved Cathy and had Cathy strips on his refrigerator.
John: Which was –
John: A warning sign.
Craig: That’s a disqualifier. It’s what we call that. [laughs] You’re out.
John: It is a giant red flag. Oh, but, you know, I would still go for the crossover Cathy-Garfield. That feels really good.
Craig: Yeah. Like Garfield –
John: What if Cathy started dating Jon and then like it could be like the really vicious relationship between Cathy and Garfield and like fighting over lasagna.
Craig: Or both, kind of — again, Garfield having this weird eating disorder [laughs] issue. Like he’s, kind of — he would gorge and she would starve herself. I mean, really, there’s an amazing comic to be done where the two of them are actually in a clinic together, like a rehab center, just getting better and like learning how to just accept their bodies and their appetites and just being done very seriously. I would love to — that I would like to see.
John: Also in the show notes today, we’ll put Garfield Minus Garfield –
Craig: It’s the greatest.
John: Which I’m sure is the strip you’ve seen –
John: Which is just so great. It was just — the Garfield comic strip with him removed and so it’s just the other –
Craig: It’s just Jon.
John: Usually, Jon the owner, just talking to no one. That would be great.
Craig: [laughs] Sometimes he doesn’t say anything. Sometimes he just is tired looking for three panels and then the fourth panel, his eyes go really big. [laughs] It’s awesome. It’s so great.
John: [laughs] Good stuff.
John: All right. So you can find that link and the links to almost everything else we talked about today in the show notes. Those are at johnaugust.com/podcast or johnaugust.com/scriptnotes. Those will both take you to the right place. You can subscribe to Scriptnotes on iTunes. Just search for Scriptnotes. There, you’ll also find the Scriptnotes app which will let you download all those back episodes. There’s also an app for Android. Our outro this week is written by –
Craig: Leon Schatz.
John: Leon Schatz. Leon Schatz, thank you for writing your great outro. It’s a very good summer kickback vibe.
As always, our show is produced by Stuart Friedel –
John: And it’s edited by Matthew Chilelli. If you have an idea for a Scriptnotes t-shirt, you should go to johnaugust.com/shirt and look through the instructions we have there for how to submit your shirt. I know there will be some Twitter hashtag that you can also apply to your image so that people can see what a genius artist you are.
I’m kind of excited to see what people do. I have a hunch we have really talented listeners who can make a really cool shirt.
Craig: No question. I know we do.
John: I know we do. Craig, enjoy the last bit of this vacation and I will see you next week.
Craig: See you next week, John.
- Fun Home on Broadway
- Sydney Lucas performs Ring of Keys
- Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party on Wikipedia
- Audio description on Wikipedia, and The Audio Description Project and examples from the American Council of the Blind
- The Ax, by Donald E. Westlake on Amazon
- A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder on Broadway
- John and Craig will be at the 2015 Austin Film Festival
- Submit your Fall 2015 Scriptnotes shirt design
- The Peanuts Movie trailer
- Scriptnotes, 193: How writing credits work
- Patton Oswalt on punch-up and ADR (mildly NSFW)
- What is an insert? on screenwriting.io
- Let’s Talk about Genre, with Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro
- Capitals for iOS
- Bloom County on Wikipedia and Berkeley Breathed on Facebook
- Cathy on Wikipedia
- Garfield Minus Garfield
- Outro by Leon Schatz (send us yours!)
Weekend Read 1.5.4, available now, adds optional push notifications for new scripts in the For Your Consideration section. It also fixes a really annoying bug where the app might insist that your library was full when it wasn’t.
It’s a free update for all users.
We’ve been adding a lot of new scripts recently — but you could easily miss them if you’re not checking the app every day. With push notifications turned on, you’ll get a banner telling you the moment there’s something new to download.
And there’s a lot to download. Each Friday this summer, we’re putting up new scripts in the Featured Friday section. These scripts are only available for the weekend, so you don’t want to miss them.
Tomorrow’s theme is Pilots, and includes early drafts of shows you’ve seen plus unproduced work from the Black List.Keeping count
For the past few weeks, nearly 100% of our support emails were a version of the following:
I love Weekend Read, but it keeps telling me my library is full when I only have one (or two, or zero) scripts in it. Help!
No matter what we did, we couldn’t reproduce the error. We could offer affected users a fix — delete the app and reinstall it — but that didn’t solve the underlying problem.
Nima finally figured out what was wrong. Because of an API change, scripts imported directly from Mail were getting double-counted. Even when they were deleted, the count was wrong.
The fix took several weeks, then several minutes, but now it’s done.
You can find Weekend Read on the App Store.
On this week’s episode of Scriptnotes, I wondered aloud how descriptive narration for the blind was written, and whether those writers consulted the screenplay.
Several listeners quickly pointed me to WGBH, and this FAQ:
Closed captions and descriptive narration are created as part of a movie’s post production process. Once a film has been finalized, a script and a copy of the film are provided to WGBH’s Los Angeles production office.
While the screenplay is a good starting place for captions, descriptive narration really depends on the finished work:
Descriptions are written by specially trained writers called describers.
A describer initially listens to the film without watching it, in order to approximate the experience of a person who has limited or no vision. The describer pays close attention to what is already communicated by the soundtrack. The describer uses specially designed computer software to map out the pauses in the movie and then crafts the most expressive and effective description possible in the space available.
After a script is written, it is edited and rechecked several times. The script is checked for timing, continuity, accuracy, and a natural flow. Professional narrators then read the script while watching and listening to the program.
Thanks to everyone who wrote in. We’ll try to arrange a conversation with a describer for a future episode.
Reshoots used to be a sign that something had gone horribly wrong. But not anymore. John and Craig look at the reasons why Hollywood movies often go back for additional photography, and how the writer is involved.
Also this week, arbitration esoterica about the “final shooting script,” descriptive text for the blind, and news about the Austin Film Festival. (We’re going.)
It’s been almost a year since the last round of Scriptnotes t-shirts. So let’s print some more. We likely have amazing artists among our listeners, so if you have a design for a shirt you want to see, follow the link below for details. (The deadline for submissions is August 11th.)
- Fun Home on Broadway
- Sydney Lucas performs Ring of Keys
- Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party on Wikipedia
- Audio description on Wikipedia, and The Audio Description Project and examples from the American Council of the Blind
- The Ax, by Donald E. Westlake on Amazon
- A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder on Broadway
- John and Craig will be at the 2015 Austin Film Festival
- Submit your Fall 2015 Scriptnotes shirt design
- The Peanuts Movie trailer
- Scriptnotes, 193: How writing credits work
- Patton Oswalt on punch-up and ADR (mildly NSFW)
- What is an insert? on screenwriting.io
- Let’s Talk about Genre, with Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro
- Capitals for iOS
- Bloom County on Wikipedia and Berkeley Breathed on Facebook
- Cathy on Wikipedia
- Garfield Minus Garfield
- Outro by Leon Schatz (send us yours!)
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 206 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, it’s great to be back on the air with you. Last week was a strange episode because it was the first time in the Scriptnotes history where I had not actually listened to the episode before it was aired. So the interview with Alec Berg, I had heard none of it, and suddenly it’s there in my ears as I’m on the treadmill. And I thought it was delightful.
Craig: Well thank you. I was a little worried just because we were winging it technologically. I mean, we were just basically sitting around my laptop because I had stupidly forgotten the microphone and all that other stuff. But, you know, it’s proof that content is king. It doesn’t really matter what it sounds like as long as what people are saying are interesting. And Alec, as always, was fascinating.
John: He’s a great guy. And so thank you for doing that interview. We are back at our real microphones on Skype. We are on different coasts, but it’s more like a normal show this week. This week on the show we’re going to be talking about revenue sharing. We’re going to talk about scene description. And we’re going to talk about reshoots. These are three kind of cool topics. So, I’m eager to get into it.
But first, follow up. On last week’s episode of the show I talked about the USB drives that have all 200 episodes of Scriptnotes on them. I said that you could use the special promo code — what was the promo code, Craig?
John: I said you could use that promo code and save 20%. I was wrong. It’s 10%, which is $2. I just got math — math is hard for me in my head as I speak. So many people used the code Singularity that we’re almost sold out. So, it may be moot by the time you’re hearing this podcast. We may be sold out of those USB drives. But thank you to everyone who purchased one of those.
Craig: That’s great. I’m glad that people are picking those up. You know, it is our contention that if you don’t have the money to go to film school, but you do have — how much does this thing cost?
Craig: $20, minus ten percent.
Craig: $18, plus tax, not a bad option. It’s certainly cheaper than the cheapest film school is per day.
Craig: So, give it a shot.
John: Give it a shot. This week we want to talk about revenue sharing. And this was a topic that got sent into us by a friend on Twitter. I’m sorry, I didn’t look up who actually sent us the link to the article, but I thought it was really interesting because I had not heard about this kind of plan before. So, what’s happening is Paramount Pictures, AMC Theaters, and Cineplex Entertainment are cutting this new deal for two movies that they’re going to be releasing.
First is Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, and then there’s also Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. And when they release them into theaters, very shortly after being released in the theaters they will be coming out on home video. Now, we’ve seen other movies before that have done sort of day and date, a lot of indie films will do the same weekend they’re out in theaters they’ll be available on iTunes. But this is sort of a special case where it’s going to be wide releases of these movies and then at whatever point it drops below 300 screens it goes out on home video very shortly thereafter.
Craig, what did you make of this?
Craig: Well, it was very interesting. It’s smart, but I want to get into why it’s a very specific targeted strategy. Let’s walk back for a second to the history of this situation. There’s a natural push and pull between the studios and the exhibitors. The studios understand that they make most of their money from the first couple of weeks in exhibition, and then following that they get less and less coming back to them.
The theaters continue to take a pretty healthy piece of the ticket sales, but of course a bucket of popcorn costs just as much on week five of a movie as it does on week one. What concerns the movie theaters is, look, if you give us a movie and then you turn around four weeks later and put it out on digital, people just aren’t going to come to the theater. They’re just going to wait the four weeks because it’s maybe easier than driving to the theater. They’ll just wait and they’ll see it at home. They won’t feel like they’re missing out on an experience. They won’t feel like, you know, oh my god, everyone around me has seen this movie except for me and I’m waiting the three months before it’s available on video.
So, the studios naturally want to shrink the window between theatrical release and digital release. And the exhibitors want it to be as long as possible. So, here’s what Paramount does. They say, look, on these two films what we’re saying to you guys is let us release this thing on digital way earlier than we normally would. We’re going to really shrink that window. But to compensate you for this we’ll give you a piece of what we make on the digital following three months after the initial theatrical release. So we put it out in theaters, 17 days go by, and now it’s still running in your theaters, but you can also watch it digitally at home.
For those people who watch it digitally at home, from that — up until 90 days from the start of the theatrical release — we’ll kick back a little piece of it to you guys. And when I say a little piece, it could be a big piece. We don’t know what the actual percentage is.
And it’s fascinating because, of course, the exhibitors, the theater owners, they have nothing to do with you at home buying the movie. It’s basically the studio buying the right from the theaters to run the movie in the theater and then allow them to sell it to home video. Of course, look at the movies that they’re doing it with, and there’s where it gets –
John: Yeah. So, the two films are Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension and Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. And those are genre movies and there’s a really telling quote from one of the theater owners. Ellis Jacobs says, “Some films generate 99% of their gross in the first four to six weeks of release, followed by a two-month window where they’re completely unavailable to the legitimate marketplace.” And that term “the legitimate marketplace” is really what’s underlying all of this discussion.
When movies are released in the theaters, people go see them in the theaters because that’s the only place to see them, until they show up on torrents. Until everyone is just illegally downloading them. And so there’s always been that period of time where people could download those movies and watch them at home. It just wasn’t legal.
And the studios are saying, listen, we want to actually capture some of that money and be able to make money off of these movies during this time when people are just streaming them, or illegally downloading them.
Craig: That’s right. So, the studios want to shrink the window in part because they want to make more money, and in part because they want to defeat piracy. On these two movies, the exhibitors understand that when they say — I think the quote you said, “99% is within the first four to six weeks of release.” He’s being really generous with that number. My guess is that on a movie like a Paranormal Activity title, 99% of the theatrical gross is within the first three weeks.
Because it’s such an opening night business. It’s very teenage driven. It’s also — they have a high Latino turnout. They have a high African American turnout. We know that Latinos and African Americans are big drivers of early movie-going, like first week of movie-going. They are right on those releases.
So, on a movie like a Paranormal Activity, everybody, Paramount and the theaters, they know that, meh, after 17 days of a theatrical run, a lot of that juice has been squeezed out of the orange anyway. So, this way the theaters are kind of saying, well, we probably weren’t going to make that much money off these movies anyway after 17 days. And since you guys are willing to kick back to us some of that sweet digital money for another 73 days, why not? What you won’t see are any arrangements like this with movies that theoretically play in a more traditional way.
John: Agreed. I think it’s important to understand that the relationship between studios and exhibitors, exhibitors being the theater chains, they are contractual, but there’s also some governmental influence underneath this. Because once upon on a time these used to be vertically integrated companies. And so Paramount used to own its theaters. And if we still were setup that same way, Paramount would have done this a long time ago. Paramount would have recognized that like, listen, why bother with a window. Just get it out there, get a big push, and like next week we should put it on digital.
But they have to have this complicated relationship with their exhibitors now because they’re not allowed to own them, so they have to have a negotiation. And that negotiation has been sometimes favored towards the studios, sometimes favored for their exhibitors, but they need each other, because they’re not allowed to own each other.
And so exhibitors quite reasonably are worried that if the average theater goer understands that a movie is going to be available two weeks after it’s on the big screen, they’re just going to wait and see it at home. And that is really their worry and that’s why they don’t want most films to go this way.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, the theaters and the studios do this interesting dance. It’s a dance of negotiation where the exhibitors desperately want the big movies. The studios want them to take all of their movies, right? So, there’s that whole negotiation. Yeah, you can have The Avengers if you also take this. Right?
Okay, so there’s that part. Then the theater owners obviously want as much time as possible in the theaters exclusively, because that’s why people go to the movie theaters. The companies, of course, want to make money however they can, as fast as they can. Then, the studios really want the exhibitors to make movie theaters as awesome as they can. The studios want movie theaters to be all digital, and have great seats, and to be clean.
They don’t want movie theaters to charge too much for tickets to drive people away, unless it’s a really great movie, then they would love that. If the movie theaters had their druthers, popcorn would be free, because they don’t make any money off of it. And they know that movie goers are annoyed by the high prices of concessions. All these interesting things are going on here. So, far so good — both businesses seem to be okay. It’s a weird thing.
I’ve always felt that the nature of the exhibition arrangement is one of the reasons why you see this remarkable permanency in Hollywood studio corporate history. You have these big five studios and they’ve always been the big five studios and they pretty much always will be because they’re the ones that have the libraries and the negotiation clout with the exhibitors.
John: Yeah. It’s one of those kind of weird oligopoly/olinopsony, what is the equivalent of the oligopoly for the buyer side? There’s a very limited number of buyers. There’s a very limited number of sellers. In this case you have two of the buyers, if you want to call them buyers, the exhibitors, dealing — cutting a deal with one of the big sellers. And it’s an experiment that I think everyone is going to be watching because a lot of studios are making movies that are in this window. A lot of Lions Gate movies feel like they’re kind of in this window.
Craig: I agree. And if it works out mutually to everyone’s success, now, of course, it creates a whole other channel of negotiations because if this works then the next thing that happens is the studios say, well, we’ll do it again, but we’re not going to give you quite as much of the digital. You know, this will always be the way that corporations deal with each other. It is fascinating.
I think from a screenwriter point of view, this is a good deal. Because all of our residuals are for what we call ancillary markets. So the primary or what they call secondary exhibition. Primary exhibition covers theatrical release and curiously enough releases on airplanes.
Craig: So, we don’t get any money from the run in the theater. We only get money from sale to television, downloads, rentals, etc. This is good for the writers of Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension, and the writers of Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse because they should get a nice boost on the digital sales. So, from a writing point of view, all of us should be very much in favor of this.
John: Fast forward to the next negotiation and how much do you want to bet the studios want to put a clause in there that defines ancillary markets as being markets that are encountered within like a 90-day window after theatrical. I just feel like there’s going to be some way that they’re going to claim that, well, this is still part of the theatrical release because we’re still sharing the proceeds back with the exhibitors.
Craig: I think they may ask. I mean, the obvious response is –
Craig: You can share with anybody whatever you want. But we get a piece of your grosses, period, the end. That’s it. You can give it all to charity. We don’t care what you do with your end.
John: Mm-hmm. But I would not be surprised if this becomes — if this is successful and other studios try to emulate this model — I would not be surprised if we see this kind of hybrid approach being a factor in upcoming negotiations.
Craig: It may very well be. We’ll see. We’ll see. I hope not. Because to me it feels like kind of a big strike issue, unless we can show that this is a minor, minor deal. Like, okay, if you’re giving away 1% and you want to take away 1% of our residuals during that 67 days, I suppose there’s a negotiation there. Maybe. Because it’s minor. But, you know, but — ah…eh…
John: I don’t want us to put a dark cloud over what I think is overall an interesting idea and an interesting experiment because everyone who goes to see these kinds of movies recognizes that there’s something really weird and broken about sort of how long that window is between these kind of movies and when you can find them legally online.
John: And honestly, all screenwriters want — we’re not getting paid any residuals on those stolen movies, so –
Craig: That’s right.
John: We want those to be converted to legitimate sources.
Craig: That’s one of my beefs with the Writers Guild is that they — we should be as aligned as possible with anti-piracy efforts. Sometimes I feel like we’re not quite there the way that the DGA is. But, yeah, no question. The system is old in a new era. And these sorts of creative solutions will happen more and more, but I do think that they will happen in this way, in a very a la carte way. Because this is not a model that applies to most movies I would even argue. It just applies to some.
John: Yeah. So far we’ve only seen this applied to these kind of special genre movies and as we’ve talked about in previous episodes the day and date releases, home video, and theatrical for indie films, sort of like the Sundance movie –
Craig: Right. Because those movies tend to only be running theatrically in a few cities anyway.
John: Exactly. Cool. Our next topic is something we’ve never actually done before, which is, you know, we’ve done Three Page Challenges where we’ve looked at three pages that listeners have sent in and gone through them. We end up talking a lot about the scene description, but we’ve never really talked about scene description just by itself. And so I thought this week we would go through and take a look at seven examples of produced screenplays, movies you’ve seen, and what those looked like on the page.
And so if you want to read along home with us, there are little snippets that are available. You can follow the links in the show notes at johnaugust.com. And they’re just little graphics that take a screenshot of a piece of the page so that we can talk about what those words were on the page that became the scenes that you saw. So, the six movies that we’re going to look at are Aliens, Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s 11, Unforgiven, Wall-E, Wanted, and Whip It.
So, these are just a random sample I picked this morning of different movies, some of them are what we consider action movies, others are just dramas or comedies. But just a sense of what those words are like on the page and by scene description let’s just talk about our terms here. I’m really referring to everything that’s not the character’s talking.
So, it’s everything that would be on the page to help describe what the movie actually is, but isn’t a character talking. And so those are the action lines, those are how you are moving across the page. What punctuation you’re using. What nouns you’re choosing. What verbs you’re choosing to sort of show how things look.
John: So, let’s take a look at Aliens. Aliens is really one of those movies that screenwriters of my generation sort of go back to, because it’s one of the first scripts we just read and loved and kind of tried to copy James Cameron’s style.
This is an example from the start of Aliens. This is him describing the Narcissus. I won’t go through all of this, but I’m just going to give you a sense of what it feels like on the page.
INT. NARCISSUS. There’s no day or night. Just INT. NARCISSUS.
Dark and dormant as a crypt. The searchlights stream in the dusty windows. Outside, massive metal forms can BE SEEN descending around the shuttle. Like the tolling of a bell, a BASSO PROFUNDO CLANG reverberates through the hull.
CLOSE ON THE AIRLOCK DOOR. Light glares as a cutting torch bursts through the metal. Sparks shower into the room.
A second torch cuts through. They move with machine precision, cutting a rectangular path, conversion as the torches meet. Cut off. The door falls inward revealing a bizarre multi-armed figure. A ROBOT WELDER.
So, that’s the very start of Aliens. This is coming to find Ripley in her spaceship. And I remember what that looks like when I saw it in the movie, but this would have given me a very good sense of what this movie felt like. Craig, how do you react to this?
Craig: Well, this to me, I think of this, and I’m not sure if it’s because the script was so influential, or if it’s simply within a tradition that’s longer, this feels like a very typical way of doing things. And I don’t mean to say boring at all. I mean to say this is sort of how you do it. Like when I think of like a good classic way of writing description, it is a little bit prosy, right? He doesn’t shy completely away from prose. “Dark and dormant as a crypt” is evocative.
But he’s using — he’s not writing full, complete sentences. He’s doing a lot of little bursts. Like, “Sparks shower into the room” is a technical sentence, but it’s not like a full, or like the words “Cut off” is a sentence. That obviously is a little bit of a fragment.
So, he kind of goes fragmented at times. Mostly the action description is focusing you on the visuals and on the audio, which is important. So, to me, this is a very classic way of doing things. There’s not a lot of stuff in here — there’s nothing cute. There’s nothing clever or referential to the reader. There’s nothing that you wouldn’t know if you weren’t watching or listening to the movie.
This, frankly, is pretty much the way I like to approach things. Also interesting is his use of capitalization which is very much the way I use it. And it’s when I feel like it.
Craig: So, you know, sometimes he’ll say, like he’s using it in a typical way when a new character enters. ROBOT WELDER. THREE MEN. Sometimes he uses it to call out a specific prop. HYPER SLEEP CAPSULE. Sometimes he uses it for a sound, or even an action. Like he says, “Outside, massive metal forms can BE SEEN.” And it’s there just to help you. It’s almost like you can see the camera swinging to it, you know what I mean?
Craig: So, this is very classic. I think you could not go wrong if you adopt this as your style.
John: Absolutely. Let’s talk about the literary techniques he’s using. So you have metaphor and simile in here. So, “Dark and dormant as a crypt.” “Like the tolling of a bell.” So, obviously you can’t see metaphor and simile up on a screen, but that’s how you’re trying to create the image in the reader’s head, or create the sound in the reader’s head.
He’s not afraid of referencing the camera. So, it does say, “ANGLE INSIDE CAPSULE,” “f.g.” for foreground, which is not common, but you totally get what’s happening there. This feels like a script that was both written to be shot, and written to be read. He actually has a great appreciation for the person who is spending the time to read the script and is trying to create on the page as close to the experience as what he wants to create on the big screen down the road.
John: So, this is terrific on that level.
Craig: Yeah, I agree. And it’s one of the reasons I get so frustrated when so-called script whatevers say, “Don’t do…script…” because what he’s doing here isn’t so much writing a script like, oh, I’m just writing directorial notes for myself. What he’s doing is helping the reader watch a movie. Everything he writes in here, everything, is essentially him describing to you the movie that’s running in his head. So, “Dark and dormant as a crypt” is evocative and I can see it. And then I see, “Searchlights stream in the dusty windows.”
I see all of it, and it’s — even “Like the tolling of a bell, a BASSO PROFUNDO CLANG.” So, some people might not know what a Basso Profundo Clang is, but they know what the tolling of a bell is. So, we’re good.
Craig: “Light glares as a cutting torch bursts,” I can see it. It’s all about helping me see, and the angles help me see.
John: The next last paragraph, “ANGLE INSIDE CAPSULE as light stabs in where the dust is wiped away, illuminating a WOMAN, her face in peaceful repose.”
So, here we go. This is a long sentence for what this. So, “Inside the capsule, light stabs.” Great. I totally get what the stabbing is in that case. “As dust is wiped away.” So here it’s like we’ve moved to passive voice kind of here for a second. You know, dust is wiped away. But we’re inside and he’s using the whole sentence to sort of let us know this is a longer shot. We’re inside something. It’s meant to be mysterious and it’s meant to be a little bit more serene inside here. It’s just terrifically well done.
Craig: It’s so good. It’s so good. And it’s so purposeful. Like this is my favorite kind of description, frankly, because it is both creative and utilitarian. I’m a big fan of this sort of thing.
John: Great. Next up we have Erin Brockovich, and here’s a snippet of the script by Susannah Grant.
INT. MASRY & VITITOE — lord, I have no idea what the name is — RECEPTION AREA — DAY.
Morning. Erin walks in, wearing her usual garb. She passes the coffee area where Jane, Brenda, and Anna are milling. Brenda sees her, gives Anna a nudge. They both check out her short hem. Anna nudges Jane, who looks as well. Erin glances over just in time to see all three of them staring back at her judgmentally. She stops in her tracks and stares back.
Y’all got something you want to discuss?
The women go back to stirring their coffees. Erin walks on.
INT. ED’S OFFICE — DAY
Ed is walking over to his office with the coffee cup in his hand when he trips over the same box of files again.
So, a very different style here. This first paragraph, all the scene description before Erin talks is just one block. And yet it works really well for me because it gives me the feeling that this is a oner, that basically this is all happening in a single shot. This is all sort of one idea is them looking at her. And then we’re going to circle back around to what her reaction is to them looking at her.
Craig: Yeah. This is a very common way of describing scenes that are not about the camera. The camera should not be noticed here at all.
So, when we look at James Cameron’s opening, it’s incredibly visual because there is no dialogue and it’s entirely about telling the story of the mystery of a space that’s being illuminated and exciting things are going on.
This scene is about people and what’s going on in their heads. And about what looks mean and what looks don’t mean. And looking away and looking at. And in that case this is appropriate because I don’t need to know the angles on that, at all. The angles, frankly, will be incredibly boring and obvious.
It’s entirely about the performance, so in this case I like the fact that the action takes a back seat to the performance. And all of the action is now actually describing what’s happening inside people’s heads, so that when Erin says, “Y’all got something you want to discuss?” and then they go back to stirring their coffees, I know exactly what happened.
You could have done this in dialogue. You know, it could have been whispered. “You see what she’s wearing?” “Y’all got something to discuss?” “No, no, no.” Right?
And so I like that in this case you go, no, no, I don’t want to do that in dialogue. I want to do it in action. Well, this is how you do that in action.
John: Yup. I mean, if you didn’t understand English, you would still understand this scene. And you would understand that they are looking conspiratorially and reacting. And that she says something back that shuts them up. That’s all you really need to know. So, honestly the line of dialogue isn’t especially important for making the scene work.
Craig: Yeah. This is one area where — I don’t want people to think that just because I say you’re allowed to use camera angles means you should always use them. This would be a place where it would be very clunky to suddenly say, “Angle on Erin. She stops in her tracks and stares back.” You just don’t want that. Because it’s a boring shot.
John: Yeah. This makes it seem easy and sort of thrown off in a way that’s just right. I wanted to talk about that last line before we go to the next scene. “The women go back to stirring their coffees. Erin walks on.”
It’s a great example of just varying your sentence length to create a good rhythm on the page. So, those were some long sentences beforehand. It was a big long block. Here we just have two short sentences. “The women go back to stirring their coffees. Erin walks on.” A three-word sentence that lets us know that that scene is done and we’re on to the next thing.
You don’t need a Cut To when you have Erin walks on. That short sentence is your cut to.
Craig: That’s correct. And I would also say that let’s say your intention was that she would say, “Y’all got something you want to discuss?” and then you just for whatever reason wanted to cut away to something else, sometimes I’ll read in scripts where people end a scene on a dialogue line. It’s just a bad idea I think in general. Because you do want the line to land somehow.
Now, here you clearly need it to land, plus Erin is leaving. But I think in action it’s best to begin and end a scene with action.
John: Yeah. And of course you’re not making a blanket –
Craig: No, it’s just a good –
John: Yeah, so I’m sure you have scripts where you’ve deliberately ended on a line of dialogue and I’ve done it, too, but it’s a very sort of unique special case where you definitely want to leave the feeling that the camera is ending up on that person as they say this line, and you’re not supposed to be getting the reaction. That the next shot is the reaction to what they just said.
Craig: Yeah. I probably even in those circumstances, I’d probably pull a Cut To in there because I want some sense that I know what I’m doing. That it’s intentional.
John: Yeah. I think the Cut To is almost required for doing that technique.
Craig: Yeah. Ooh, I want to read this one.
John: You can read this one. This is Ocean’s 11 by Ted Griffin.
Craig: Right. And here in this little snippet you’ll see that these are all called out as individual scene numbers. So, this is from a production script where everything was numbered. So, I’ll sort of emphasize where things are capitalized.
MIRADOR SUITE. Now empty, Livingston’s monitors still displaying the masked men in the vault.
WHITE VAN. Navigating the streets of Las Vegas.
FIVE SEDANS. Tailing the van, security goons piled into each, and maybe we NOTICE (or maybe not) the Rolls-Royce tailing them.
TESS. Pacing in Benedict’s suite, biting her nails, debating whether to blow the whistle on Danny. ON TV: a newscast of the contentious aftermath of the prize fight.
UZI GUARDS, bound and unarmed, unconscious to the activity within the vault.
RUSTY’S CELL PHONE opened and unmanned.
BENEDICT listens — the line has gone dead. He hangs up.
Ooh, good job.
John: So good.
Craig: Good job, Ted.
John: Good job, Ted Griffin. I wanted to include this because so often you see like, well, the question is like well how do I do a montage, how do I format a montage and, you know, sometimes you do it with bullet points, sort of you quickly go through a list of shots. But this is more commonly what you’re really needing to do in a montage which is you’re moving between different people and different places and they all have to build up to sort of one greater sequence. And this is great example of how you actually do that.
So, you notice that the start of each one he’s in all caps in uppercase doing the where we’re at. So, MIRADOR SUITE, WHITE VAN, FIVE SEDANS, TESS. And then the description right after that is set up in a parallel structure, so it’s always navigating, tailing, pacing. He’s coming with an adjectival, participle phrase to sort of give you a sense of what the action is, but not really the verb. So, it could be, “White van navigates the streets of Las Vegas.” But instead it’s, “White van, navigating the streets of Las Vegas.”
It’s a continuous action that we’re just catching a glimpse of it while it’s going on.
Craig: Yeah. This is all about creating the sense of flow across things that otherwise would be considered fragmented. So, let’s just go right off the bat here. Ted gets rid of INTs and EXTs. Doesn’t need them. Doesn’t want to bother with them. And I don’t blame him at all, especially when you have so many of these in a row. It would be just like word salad to have all these INTs and EXTs, and we don’t need them. We know that the white van navigating the streets of Las Vegas is outside. And we know that Tess in Benedict’s suite is inside.
We’re getting all of that. So, he says, eh, screw all that formality. Don’t need it. I also love that the way it’s running here, there’s a rapidity to it. We can feel the pace of these scenes. We can see — there’s a motion going on to all of this.
And then there’s this interesting — this would fall — I would put this in the school of extreme utility. But, then there are these little twists. For instance, “FIVE SEDANS tailing the van, security goons piled into each, and maybe we NOTICE,” and in parenthesis, “(or maybe not) the Rolls-Royce tailing them,” which is great, because that’s different than what Cameron does. Cameron probably would never write that, because what do you mean, maybe not? Well either we do or we don’t, right?
But actually that is something. Like the instruction there is a careful viewer who is paying attention to that will see it, but otherwise they won’t. We’re not making a deal of it.
John: In the script I just turned in, there’s some scene description of an apartment that we go to the first time. And I call out that there’s some memorabilia from an earlier scene in the set decoration, but it’s not crucial. It’s like it’s a useful thing that’s there that helps sort of connect it to an earlier thing, but it’s not an urgent thing that the viewer doesn’t see it that the world comes crashing to an end.
And so that “or maybe not” is a useful thing. It’s not saying like throwing up your hands like you don’t care. It’s saying that it’s like it’s there and it’s interesting, but it’s not essential.
Craig: Right. Similarly, there’s a thing that probably I don’t think Cameron would do in his description, but I like that Ted does it here. On Tess, “Debating whether to blow the whistle on Danny.” Well, can you film that? Yes, you can.
As long as the screenplay has made it clear that she’s in a position where she would be debating that, what you’re saying there is act like you’re debating that. And I’ll see it. I should be able to see — that’s something that an actor can act. So, I like that that’s there. And then you see that on TV there’s this prize fight going on. So there’s all these layers of stuff.
I love that Rusty’s cell phone is his own scene. It’s just great. Because that — here’s the other thing. Once you start down the road of a pattern for a montage, you’re in that pattern.
Craig: So, you can’t just suddenly go, okay, now here’s a bunch of things all together in one scene. No. Uzi guards and now Rusty’s cell phone is his own scene, just sitting there, all good, and then you go back to Benedict. “The line has gone dead.” Great. Great. Great.
Just a really good way to move you through this moment. It’s fun. You can feel — like you can almost feel the music through this which is great.
John: Absolutely. Probably a good sign for almost any montage is that you should be able to sense the underlying audio, which is generally music, that’s going to be the bed that’s going to tie all these things together.
And each of these shots feels about the same length, even though they consist of very different material in them.
Circling back to what you said about Tess, “Pacing in Benedict’s suite, biting her nails, debating whether to blow the whistle on Danny.” In all these examples, these are scenes that were already set up someplace else. And so if you’re coming back to something you don’t have to sort of do all the work again to establish who that person was, what they were doing. We had an earlier scene where we saw her. We saw or we knew what her situation was, so we don’t have to do the full recap here. It’s just like, you know, remind us like, oh, she’s debating what she’s going to do.
John: Great. We got it.
Craig: Yeah. And it’s really underscoring also how much work the screenplay has done well, because there’s a simplicity and a clarity. There’s no confusion at this point what her pacing is about. That means the screenplay has done its job. So, excellent work there. Ooh, can I read this one, too?
John: You can read this one, too.
Craig: Only because it’s like my favorite and I just feel like maybe I’ll get smarter for having read it. [laughs] So this is a little bit from Unforgiven by David Webb Peoples. Obviously one of the great, great screenplays ever.
BAH-WHOOM! Munny fires and smoke belches out…
Skinny is blown back against the wall and falls to the floor a bloody mess and…
Little Bill is reaching for the Spencer which is leaning against the bar near his leg but he freezes because…
Munny has turned the shotgun on him and Munny sees Ned’s Spencer there and his eyes show how feels about it.
For a moment while the smoke clears the bar is silent and there are nervous glances cast at the bloody body of Skinny but Little Bill keeps his eyes on Munny.
Little Bill says, “Well sir…You are a cowardly sonofabitch because you have just shot down an unarmed man.
Actually, I think in the movie they flipped that. Regardless.
Then….It has become a very formal moment and there are, figuratively speaking, only two people in the room, Munny and Little Bill…and WW Beauchamp is watching them, scared to death, but this is it, what all those Easterners dreamed about, the showdown in the saloon.
John: So much to love here. And so different than some of our other examples. And that’s why I thought we would include it.
John: So, let’s talk about dot-dot-dot and dash-dash. So, here David Webb Peoples is sort of continuing the continuity of the action by ending each line on a dot-dot-dot. So, and…, and…, because…. So, there’s a cause and effect to each time that we’re cutting.
You know, you don’t necessarily have to believe that each one of these paragraphs is its own shot, but it kind of feels that way.
We’re always in the present tense, and yet look at the choices he’s making about present tense. Skinny is blown against the wall. So, rather than saying the shot blows Skinny back, he is blown back, so we’re seeing the effect of that shot from a previous cut.
Little Bill is reaching for the Spencer which is leaning against the bar near his leg, so we are — so often in screenwriting books they’ll talk about like oh don’t use –
Craig: Get rid of I-N-G. Wah!
John: Yeah, exactly.
John: But here twice in a row, because we’re establishing geography and location and sort of the continuity of a person’s action.
John: It’s so fascinating here, I think, where Munny has turned the shotgun on him. So rather than saying Munny turns the shotgun on him, like it has already happened, so we’re coming into a moment that has just happened, so we’re seeing the effect of what has just happened.
Craig: It’s so great. It’s so great. And, you know, this is where these, again, these screenwriting knucklehead gurus out there, I just want to put them all on a spaceship and send them into the sun, because they don’t even understand, ooh, here it comes, they don’t understand –
John: Yup. I knew it was coming.
Craig: They don’t understand the point of verbs. This is a — this is masterful. What peoples is doing here is masterful. And if you pay attention you can see the movie happening because of the verb tenses, right? Little Bill is reaching for the Spencer means when the camera cuts to Bill he’s already in motion. Not reaches for, which means he makes a decision to reach and then reaches. He’s already moving. The thing is already there. And then, but he freezes because Munny has turned the shotgun on him.
Munny has turned the shotgun on him means that Little Bill is discovering something that has happened off-screen that he didn’t realize happened, and that’s so impactful for the audience. Because it means that he’s going to see something first and we’re going to see in his eyes fear. And then we’re going to reveal what he’s scared of.
This is how verbs work, you enormous pile of [laughs] of exploitative –
John: You’re not talking to me. You’re talking to some strawman –
Craig: You exploitative mother-f’ers. “Don’t use I-N-G verbs.” You idiots. Right? So this is what it’s about.
And I love it!
John: Mm-hmm. This last paragraph is so fascinating to me, because “It has become a very formal moment and there are, figuratively speaking,” so it’s a huge long paragraph. This phrase, “it has become a very formal moment,” doesn’t that feel like a slow pullback to you?
John: It’s like you’re just like you’re recognizing like, oh, we’ve been in these little moments and then suddenly we’re getting bigger and wider and we’re sort of seeing what exactly has happened here.
So, it’s like it’s taking stock of the last few moments and sort of like what the scene is like now. And you don’t have to do this, but in some ways to write to Unforgiven you have to do this, because that’s what the movie feels like.
Craig: Absolutely. And, by the way, I think wrong. I think that this is exactly the order that Little Bill said it in. It’s just maybe he fiddled with a couple of words. But, no, of course, it’s exactly right. So, here’s the deal, right, I love dot-dot-dots. I’m a huge fan of them because what dot-dot-dots do for me is they kind of imply you’re holding your breath. You know, like Walter Murch wrote this great book called In the Blink of an Eye where he talks how the audience will naturally blink where you kind of want to cut, you know.
And that’s just the way our brains work. And similarly, when things like this are happening, it’s common for people to say, “Oh my god, I finally breathed. Like I was holding my breath through that whole thing.” That’s what dot-dot-dot is doing. It’s saying hold your breath. Hold your breath. Hold your breath. And then Little Bill says this, and the way that David Peoples writes this last paragraph it implies you’re breathing now. In fact, we’re going to take our time to breathe and discover this tableau, that it’s now formal. Now, all the action is over and we have entered this new weird thing where two gods among men have dropped all the pretenses and are cutting to the truth.
And then I love this, “And WW Beauchamp is watching them, scared to death that this is, what all those Easterners dreamed about, the showdown in the saloon,” which is something that is acted beautifully in that moment. It’s just great. And there’s nothing wrong. It’s not too wordy, as far as I’m concerned. I feel like this is really bursty, like quick bursts, and exciting, and then when the movie becomes a little bit languid, the action becomes languid.
So this is poetry to me. The use of action is helping imply the pace of the scene itself.
John: Great. Our next example is from Wall-E, which has a similar sort of strange style to it, like sort of not conventional style. But completely suits the movie that Wall-E is. So, Wall-E, if you remember, so much of Wall-E takes place like a silent film. And if you read the script, it sort of feels that way.
So, I’ll describe this to you and if you look at the actual sample, these single sentences are all their own line. So there’s no paragraphs here. They’re all just given their own line. They’re blocked together in some ways to sort of imply a bit of more continuity of action, but they’re all single sentences.
EXT. TRUCK — NIGHT
Wally motors outside. Turns over his Igloo cooler to clean it out. Pauses to take in the night sky. STARS struggle to be seen through the polluted haze. Wally presses the “Play” button on his chest. The newly sampled It Only Takes a Moment plays.
The wind picks up. A WARNING LIGHT sounds on Wally’s chest. He looks out into the night. A RAGING SANDSTORM approaches off the bay…
Unfazed, Wally heads back in the truck. It Only Takes a Moment still gently playing.
…The massive wave of sand roars closer…
Wally raises the door. Pauses. WHISTLES for his cockroach to come inside. The door shuts just as the storm hits. Obliterates everything in view.
Craig: Well, I love Wall-E. Love Wall-E. I would not recommend that people write traditional screenplays this way. I wouldn’t even recommend people write animated screenplays this way, because this document feels like a notes documents for people who are all working on a movie.
This document feels like it’s in support of reams and reams of storyboards and story art. And on its own is simply not going to do the job. Like, I read this and it doesn’t make me see the movie at all.
It feels like a support document. So, I think that this is a more technical way of doing things within a framework of a storyboarded process, but I don’t think that this would be advisable for a movie where somebody didn’t know your story at all and was going to read it.
John: I disagree with you. I think I could read this document and have a really good sense of what the movie felt like.
And it would take me a little while to get into this strange spare style, but honestly it does feel what certainly the first half of Wall-E feels like to me, which is a bunch of individual shots where he is a small figure against a large landscape or, you know, just he’s center frame and there’s just this giant emptiness around him.
I really dug it. And so even if you were to try to apply some of these lessons to a more conventionally written screenplay, I want to talk about trimming off subjects of sentences because you don’t need them a lot of times.
So, let’s imagine these first couple of sentences where in a more conventionally formatted script. “Wally motors outside. Turns over his Igloo cooler to clean it out. Pauses to take in the night sky.” You don’t need the He’s, you don’t need the It’s, you don’t need Wally’s, as long as you have parallel structure between those sentences, we get it.
And particularly if you’re writing action sequences, you’re very often going to trim off those subjects because we know who’s doing it, so just give us the verb and let’s keep going.
Craig: Yeah, I agree. I do that all the time, and I obviously write in a more traditional sense. Where this doesn’t work for me, if I weren’t familiar with Wall-E, if I didn’t see artwork, I hadn’t been looking at storyboards is things like, it says, “A raging sandstorm approaches off the bay…” but that’s it. It’s just a raging sandstorm. Okay.
And then it’s a “massive wave of sand.” And then it says, “The door shuts just as the storm hits.” It’s so flat and I’m not excited. And I want to be excited in things like that. He says, “Whistles for his cockroach to come inside.” I’m not sure if a cockroach does come inside there, or not. I don’t know. And it says “obliterates everything in view.” It’s all so flat and it feels very much like Wally himself, like Wally is writing this script. But I don’t want Wally to be writing the script. I want somebody like Pete Docter to be writing the script to make me feel for Wally, which is in fact what was going on.
I think it was Pete Docter who did this one, right?
John: Yeah. Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton.
Craig: Oh, Stanton.
John: Other credits were Jim Reardon, yeah.
Craig: I’m just fascinated by this. You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to ask our friend Emily Zulauf like what the deal is with this, because I can’t imagine that they would give this to somebody that didn’t know anything else and say what do you think of this movie we’re making. So, I’m in a different place than you are on this one.
John: Yeah. For sure you could imagine this document along with the artwork, or the sense of like each of these lines became one panel of a storyboard. And maybe that’s sort of how their internal process works. But I really do think this is a way you could write a script and have it be quite successful. So, all right, next is a much more conventional thing but also quite delightful thing from our friends Derek Haas and Michael Brandt. This is from the movie Wanted.
THWAP! A bullet finds its way through the space and hits the Electrician in the back of the shoulder, spinning him around.
CLOSE ON: Cross’s gun. Another shot and we follow the bullet, across the dock, and dipping low into the next space in the paper stack — right where Electrician is now leaning…
…the bullet buries in his eye, sending him to the floor.
Wesley sees Cross race for a set of stairs. Just as Wesley is about to cut him down, Cross fires at a wooden beam holding back some massive rolls of NEWSPAPER. The rolls tumble over and Wesley has to dive out of the way, allowing Cross to escape up the stairs.
Wesley, Fox, and the Waiter all race for the stairs.
Craig: Yeah. To me, this is, again, very traditional way of doing action. One thing that the guys do here is they’re not shying away from violence, right, so the action — when we write action, you can say like, “He’s shot, falls to the ground.” And the action is telling you this is a movie about the ballet of violence. When it’s “THWAP! A bullet finds its way through the space and hits the Electrician in the back of the shoulder, spinning him around,” we understand that we’re doing ballet now. First of all, we know that we’re actually following the bullet, which tells us, again, about pace.
When “the bullet buries in his eye, sending him to the floor,” it’s underlined. They’re like, hey, this is what we’re about here. This is a movie in which violence is supposed to be operatic.
And people running and dancing around, like I don’t know what these guys are thinking, and I don’t need to. I don’t know what their characters are in this moment. It’s not about that. So, contrast this with say like in Unforgiven we can see like, oh my god, he turns and then there’s this moment of dread. And then we reveal this. This is more pure action.
And this is a very typical way of writing pure action. High energy. And use the action to let us know exactly how lurid we’re going to be.
John: Yup. Also, the use of underlining is part of the reason why I chose this section of the script. Action scripts will tend to use underlining as like an extra form of punctuation. It’s like a way of sort of visually indicating what the key crucial beats are. And so you will underline the things that you want to make sure the reader doesn’t miss, but also it’s just going to give you a sense of this is already a very loud scene, so what are the loudest parts within this loud scene.
And sort of what do you need to make sure you’re focusing on. Even within the uppercase, like that NEWSPAPER still gets capitalized because — it’s not just because it’s a key prop, but because it’s a big thing you need to make sure you don’t miss. It’s a thing that’s going to be causing the action in the next section.
John: It’s essentially its own character for the rest of this paragraph.
Craig: Yeah. And so like if you don’t capitalize newspaper and so everything is just underlined there, you’ll notice it, but massive rolls of newspaper you’re like, well, okay, so massive rolls of newspaper. Newspaper doesn’t seem very massive to me. Massive rolls of all capitalized newspaper, I’m just already imagining lots of newspaper, like a massive amount of newspaper, which is what they want. So, they’re smart that way.
I thought this was done really, really well. And, by the way, just side note, love this movie. Love — so entertaining. I was so entertained by Wanted.
John: Yeah. Wanted is a movie that knows what it is in a way that so many movies don’t. It never shied away from being its own true self, and that’s what I really appreciated about it. It was nutso.
Craig: Yes, it was.
John: And wasn’t Chris Pratt in that? Chris Pratt plays like –
Craig: Yes, he plays like his jerk buddy at work who is screwing his girlfriend.
John: Like on a copy machine. There’s some crazy –
Craig: Yeah, exactly. He hits him in the face with the keyboard and the keyboard letters spell out F-U I think, or, I’m trying to keep it clean. But it was very cool. I don’t know, Timur is nuts, man. That guy — I love that movie.
John: Yeah. I love it, too. Whatever happened to Chris Pratt?
Craig: I don’t know. I don’t know. For a moment there, uh, you know, I think he’s just mostly doing that role, like he plays that guy, the jerk.
John: The jerk. Yeah.
Craig: Like the jerk who is in a movie for a scene to make the hero look good.
John: Yeah. Sometimes you get typecast because it’s really who you are.
Craig: Yeah, well he gained a ton of weight. He’s like 300 pounds now.
John: It’s rough. Our final example is from Whip It. And I wanted another example of a montage. And this is a movie that has a lot of montages because like most sports movies there’s time where you’re really trying to summarize down what a match feels like, what a game feels like, to sort of those key moments. So, here is one of the matches in Whip It.
MONTAGE: THE BLACK WIDOWS VS. THE HURL SCOUTS.
The First Jam — Bliss CHEERS Crystal Death on from the bench, Robin Graves sneaks past to get the points for the Widows.
Johnny Rock-It says, “Robin Graves makes off with three points. The Widows take the lead!”
Bliss watches as jam after jam the Hurl Scouts get smoked. Her team is disorganized, each girl doing her own thing.
Smashley jams for the Hurl Scouts, but gets frustrated and starts a FIGHT with one of the Black Widows.
Letha jams as Smashley sits in the penalty box.
The SCOREBOARD reads: BLACK WIDOWS 20, HURL SCOUTS 3.
Smashley is back to jam, but takes a nasty BLOCK. She’s hurt. Malice turns to Bliss.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, it gets the job done.
Craig: Yeah, this is pretty spare, actually. I mean, I’m kind of a little surprised, because I’ve seen the movie which is so much fun, and these things are such high energy. I mean, I guess I am being a little critical. Like I kind of want sound. I want sound. I want crunching. I want like, you know, like starts a fight, like how? Like punches her?
John: Punches her? You know, I feel like I actually got some of that sound and some of the feel just by the use of the verbs she did choose. So, “jam after jam they get smoked.” Picking the fights. Takes a nasty block. I think this scene comes from later on in the movie, so this may be after we’ve had quite a few examples of like what these matches feel like, so this may be one of the shorter matches in the movie overall.
Craig: Right. Okay, well that’s a good point. Because there is a real fatigue that can set in. It’s one thing to do the ballet of the bullet smashing into eyes, and people smashing into each other, but if this is the ninth or tenth of these at some point in the movie, then I guess short-handing makes sense, because one thing that does happen — and everybody knows this as you’re reading a script — is you read faster. It’s like faster, faster, faster because if the script has done its done its job right, you want to see what happens
Craig: You want to see what happens. So, you start to go faster and faster. You don’t want quite as much really painstaking detail in here. And perhaps, you know, if Smashley has started a fight before, then — and it’s been spelled out really clearly, then starts a fight here, I kind of get how she’s doing it.
So, that makes sense to me.
John: Cool. I hope this was helpful for people. So, you can find all of the examples that we talked about here. There’s little images that you can download on the Internet. Just go to johnaugust.com/Scriptnotes and in the show notes for this week’s show you’ll see all of these images that you can read along with us. Thank you, Craig.
Craig: You know what? That was great. I feel like we’ve got a pretty big show here. Maybe we should push reshoots to next week?
John: I think we’re going to push reshoots to next week. So, in next week’s episode we will talk about what are reshoots, why do movies have them. How do writers get involved with reshoots? What happens if the original writer is not the writer on the reshoots? And we’ll talk through some of our own examples with our films that have gone through reshoots and what has worked well and what has not worked well.
But there is time for One Cool Things if Craig has a One Cool Thing.
Craig: Uh, my One Cool Thing is your One Cool Thing.
John: All right. My One Cool Thing is A World Without Work. It’s an article by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. And I thought it was just a really good think piece overall about what is the future of America and other western economies going to be like as more and more of our work gets replaced by technology. And so to date we’ve seen like factory jobs being replaced, but as clerk jobs and transportation jobs and other things get replaced, there may just not be a place for some people to have jobs in the classic sense that we’ve had jobs.
And what does the world look like, not just in terms of how does the economy work, but psychologically how do we deal with a society where not everyone is going to be employed or needs to be employed. And so I thought it was interesting for everyone to sort of take a look at.
Also, the kind of work that you and I do, Craig, is sort of kind of weird luxury work. And we’re not kind of crucial or fundamental to any part of the economy. And we could easily, while we’re not going to be replaced by computers tomorrow, it just got me thinking about sort of what my life would be like and what my identity would be like if it weren’t the job that I had.
Craig: You know, artists have never been essential to society the way that people that grow food are, or doctors are, but we’ve always been in demand. I mean, well, not all of them, but a bunch of them.
So, the nice thing is I always feel like what we do at least, there’s always a place for it. People will always want to be entertained. It’s just innate to the human condition. So, yeah, I don’t think we will be replaced by computers.
I think I could be replaced by a computer. [laughs] That’s just me.
John: I think it does, and this article does lay out, is that it does allow for a greater number of people who have artistic ambitions to sort of fulfill those artistic ambitions because there’s no fundamental need for them to be working.
And so I think it may create a class of people who were never kind of looking for a job, or just decided to have sort of the minimal jobs and just become artists in whatever capacity they wanted to be because there’s no pressure to define yourself by making a certain amount of money.
Craig: All right.
John: We’ll see.
John: Craig, thank you so much for another fun podcast. Our show, as always, is produced by Stuart Friedel. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. I’m not sure who did the outro this week, but if you have an outro for our show, you can write into firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send your questions, long questions are the place for that.
Short questions are great on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
If you would like to subscribe to our show, you should subscribe to it in iTunes. Just go to iTunes and search for Scriptnotes. Also in iTunes you can find the Scriptnotes App which lets you get access to all the back episodes of the show. There’s also one for Android.
If you would like a USB drive, there’s a small chance that there are still some left in the store. So you could go to store.johnaugust.com and get one of those. There’s a 10% discount if you use the code SINGULARITY.
And that’s our show this week. Craig, have a fun week.
Craig: You too, John.
- Scriptnotes 200 Episode USB drives are available in the store while supplies last
- Paramount, AMC and Cineplex try new revenue-sharing initiative on The Wrap
- Excerpts from Aliens, Erin Brockovich, Oceans 11, Unforgiven, Wall-E, Wanted and Whip It
- A World Without Work by Derek Thompson
- Outro by Stuart Neville (send us yours!)
John and Craig take a deep dive into scene description, looking at how seven produced screenplays arranged the words on the page. With samples from Aliens, Erin Brockovich, Oceans 11, Unforgiven, Wall-E, Wanted and Whip It, we tackle verbs and metaphors, ellipses and underlining.
You can look at the show notes to see the exact scenes we’re discussing.
Also this week, Paramount has cut a deal with two exhibitors to greatly shorten the window between theatrical and home video on two upcoming releases. We look at why, and what this experiment means for writers in the near and long-term.
- Scriptnotes 200 Episode USB drives are available in the store while supplies last
- Paramount, AMC and Cineplex try new revenue-sharing initiative on The Wrap
- Excerpts from Aliens, Erin Brockovich, Oceans 11, Unforgiven, Wall-E, Wanted and Whip It
- A World Without Work by Derek Thompson
- Outro by Stuart Neville (send us yours!)
In most stories built around a heroic quest, the big confrontation comes at the end. The heroes face off against their well-established nemesis, and likely prevail. After that, there’s a little time left for wrap-up and rebuilding.
This is the common pattern for most feature films, with a battle or competition happening in the third act.
But it’s not just movies. In novels, the showdown generally happens in one of the final chapters. In series television, the quest to defeat the Big Bad might span a whole season, but the main event comes in the finale. In videogames, this stage even has a name: The Boss Level. The player finally has the skills and hit points to kill Diablo.
Whenever you see such a clear narrative pattern, there’s a great opportunity to subvert it.
Moving the fight earlier can take both your reader and your hero by surprise.
There are three basic structures for getting the fight to happen earlier than expected.
The hero rushes in. Perhaps the hero gets a tip that the villain is momentarily exposed. She is forced to make a decision: go in fast or wait for the next opportunity. She decides to strike now, for better or worse. Without the benefit of time and planning, she is forced to improvise.
The villain surprises the hero. Rather than wait for the hero to show up, smart villains often attack first. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling lets Voldemort trap Harry so he can battle him face-to-face, breaking the expectation that the showdown would only happen at the very end. In the real world, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is a classic example of the enemy
Fate intervenes. Some outside force — the boxing commission, an avalanche, pure coincidence — puts the hero and the villain in the same space when neither was quite ready for it.
However your hero and villain end up battling, the outcome should have a huge impact on the rest of your story.
Letting the giant score an early victory helps in several ways:
- You’ve established what a powerful threat the villain is.
- You’ve knocked your hero down. Almost anything that’s bad for your hero is good for your story.
- You’ve warned the reader not to assume your story will follow conventional patterns.
Maybe you’ve even decided to Kill The Hero:
Sometimes, it’s fun to let your hero win this early battle. Maybe the presumed villain wasn’t the ultimate villain after all — or in killing him, the hero has unleashed something much worse. Perhaps That’s Not the Dragon:
In most cases, both hero and villain will survive this early brawl, but both will be changed by the encounter.
Like every card in Writer Emergency Pack, Fight the Giant can be used at both macro and micro levels of the story process.
Fight the Giant might be a key plot point on which your entire story hangs. Perhaps an unexpected, early defeat sends your hero’s allies packing, and he must now assemble and train a new army from the remnants.
On a sequence level, Fight the Giant is a great way to ratchet up the tension. Your hero had a plan for how this was supposed to go down, but the villain had a plan of her own. And she moved faster.
Finally, Fight the Giant can be a great focus in a single scene. Your cat-burglar hero was expecting three minutes notice when the villain would be returning to his penthouse, but suddenly he’s here in front of him.
No matter how you use Fight the Giant, make the most of its surprise factor. Catch your hero flat-footed, and keep your heroes on their toes.
Every Friday this summer, we’re featuring exclusive scripts in Weekend Read. Some of these will be produced works, others just titles that caught the attention of readers.
Today’s collection includes:
The first draft of The Spectacular Now written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber. Scott writes, “First draft we ever turned in I believe. Bit different from the finished film, so hopefully interesting to the readers.”
The shooting script for Erin Brockovich by Susannah Grant, who notes that the published script in bookstores “just prints exactly what ends up on the screen, so for your purposes, this is better. It shows how much editing takes place in post.”
Three Months by Jared Frieder, recommended to us by our friends at The Black List. Franklin Leonard says, “This is a really good one. Won the Austin Film Festival contest last year and I believe Oren Uziel is attached to produce it.”
You can find these Featured Fridays scripts in Weekend Read’s For Your Consideration section. Each Friday’s scripts are available for that weekend only, and only in the app.
For a limited time, we’re selling USB flash drives loaded with the first 200 episodes of Scriptnotes — including all the bonus shows, the Dirty Episode, and special interviews. They’re $20 and available in the Store.
These custom-printed 8-gigabyte USB flash drives include:
- Every episode in mp3
- Full transcripts
- Three Page Challenge pdfs
- Boundless love and umbrage
- Our autographs printed right on the side
As of Thursday at 4pm PDT, we have fewer than 50 left, so we’ll likely run out. If you’re a collector, a completionist, or survivalist planning for the post-internet future, this is your chance.
We’re shipping these from the same warehouse that handles Writer Emergency Pack, so if you want to get both, you can save yourself some shipping charges.
Both are available at store.johnaugust.com.
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 205 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Now like most weeks, I’m here in Los Angeles, but Craig is way off in the other side of the country. He has kidnapped a famous writer/director who we both like, Alec Berg, and he’s holding him hostage in a house. So this can be sort of a special episode because Craig is going to interrogate him and get all the information he can out of Alec Berg.
Craig: Yeah. The Bergs and the Mazins are on a little mini vacation together right now. All of the children are out of our hair, spectacular. And what we like to do when we go on vacation is record podcasts.
John: Yeah, absolutely.
Craig: So I’ve got him. And I’m going to be asking him all the questions that people want to know. You know, a lot of questions about Alec Berg that have gone unanswered over the years and they’re all going to be asked, and I will get answers. Oh, I will.
John: And I’m looking forward to it. So before you do that, let’s do just a tiny bit of follow up.
John: In the last episode, we described the new 200 episodes Scriptnotes USB drive that people can purchase. A bunch of people purchased them so we are not quite in danger of selling out of them but they will sell out relatively soon. So if you would like to get the entire back catalogue of Scriptnotes on a USB drive, you should go to store.johnaugust.com and probably not wait too long for those because they will go. But thank you for everyone who bought one of those.
And Craig, do you remember what the promo code was that you picked for these USB drives?
Craig: Yes, the promo code was SINGULARITY.
John: That is the promo code that will save you 20% which would almost cover the shipping cost of those in the U.S. So if you want one of those –
Craig: Huge savings.
John: Huge savings. Second, our final bit of follow up — I’m kind of sad about this, on Tess Gerritsen and her Gravity lawsuit. Craig, talk us through it.
Craig: Well, you know, we’ve been following Tess Gerritsen. She alleged that she was owed a whole bunch of money because the Warner Bros. film Gravity, at least in her point of view, was based on her book Gravity that she had sold the rights to New Line, and she’d been suing. And all along the way, we had been following this and saying, “We don’t think she has a case.” Well, neither did the judge, repeatedly. And now she’s saying, alas, she’s giving up.
But she’s saying she’s giving up in the weirdest way. And it’s kind of consistent with everything she’s done so far. I mean, her whole thing is — she would go on her blog and say, “This is why I have this amazing case and this is why it’s terrible and this is why Warner Bros. can’t get away with this.” This is an incredibly one sided thing that even then both you and I felt was flimsy and not substantive.
And her final goodbye here is similar. Rather than saying — so the title of the piece is Gravity Lawsuit: Why I’m Giving Up. The proper answer is because I have no case. That’s not the answer she gives. The answer she gives instead is because the court is nuts and didn’t allow us to prove our justice and so forth. But I disagree. I disagree.
She even cites — I don’t know if you noticed this John, she cites for the first time something, right? What she never gave us was anything from her book and then something from the movie for us all to look at and say, “Oh yeah, that’s very, very similar.” What she does instead now is she cites something from her contract and she believes that this is determinative, and it says, “Owner agrees that the company may assign this agreement blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” May, she just doesn’t see the word may there. Interesting, very interesting.
John: Yeah. So this is the end of our Gravity saga and I guess I’ll kind of miss it. The good news/bad news is that people have been tweeting in with all sorts of other lawsuits that are similar, some of which are making it through the court system as we speak. So in a future episode, we will talk through some of these other ones that have percolated up.
My hunch is that we are seeing more of these but they’ve always been there. You and I have both been around long enough that we’ve seen a lot of these things happen, what’s interesting to me is I think more of these are actually going to trial rather being settled before they ever become publicly known. So we’ll talk through some of those. I expect our opinions on them will probably be similar to the Gravity lawsuit but we’ll look at them as they come up.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, a general rule of thumb is if it goes to trial, the studio is going to win. They don’t go to trial with losers in general, they just settle them. They never came close to settling on this one as far as I could tell. I think, you know, when I see something like this, I just keep thinking that at some point, somebody must have reached out from the plaintiff side to say, “Well, do you guys just want to make this go away or what?” And when the studio says, “No. Actually, we would love to go all the way with this.” That’s when you know, they just — that’s just not the way corporate lawyers behave when they don’t have something locked down.
John: Yeah. I doubt it’s a philosophical change where the corporate lawyer decided to just become much more aggressive and like, “Oh yeah, we’d love to go to trial.” I think there’s something that has shifted in terms of how they respond into these kind of complaints or just that they felt there were no grounds for the complaint.
Craig: I agree. I’ll tell you that I don’t blame Tess Gerritsen for anything she did. I am concerned with her lawyers who I think kind of sold her a bill of goods here, but that’s my opinion, my non-lawyerly opinion that her legal team may have led her down the primrose path.
John: Great. So for the rest of this podcast, you are going to be talking to Alec Berg and I will not be there in the room to defend Alec Berg as you beat him up. He’s tied to a chair. You’re going to slap the answers out of him, correct?
Craig: Oh, yeah. I’m going to slap a lot out of him.
John: But what I’d love to know is how he helped create such an amazing show called Silicon Valley and how he actually topped the work in the first season with the second season. And how he prepares for the crushing disappointment of the third season which cannot possibly live up to expectation.
Craig: You know, it’s funny, I was not aware that he was involved in a show called — what is it? Silicon what?
John: Silicon Valley.
John: And so apparently it’s about the silicon mining industry, and also intercut with the plastic surgery industry. So it’s really a great, gripping drama that enfolds over, you know, this sort of nonlinear storytelling mode. So maybe while you’re on vacation with him, you could, you know, rent the DVDs and watch them.
Craig: Just to be clear, I’m here with a guy name Alex Berg, I don’t know — do you?
John: Oh man, the wrong person, sorry.
Craig: Yeah. But this is Alex Berg. He’s not — I mean he’s a writer of a kind-ish. [laughs]
John: Well, Craig, I’ll leave it to you to figure out who this man is and why he should be on our podcast.
Craig: All right, here we go. So at last, I’m here with Alec Berg.
Alec Berg: Indeed you are, sir.
Craig: Got rid of Alex Berg, turns out he was useless.
Alec: Alex Berg, a real guy, actor.
Craig: Not useless.
Alec: No. There is an Alex Berg who is an actor, and there’s an Alec Berg who’s a musician, I believe, in Portland. And there’s an Alec Berg who is a tech writer, oddly enough. I think he’s in upstate New York and he tweets constantly. So if you go to Twitter, he’s Alec Berg and I had to be pretentiously real Alec Berg like he’s not real because I’m the real Alec Berg, but –
Craig: By the way, you’re not real –
Craig: And he is probably real.
Alec: He’s much more real than I am.
Craig: He seems real than you are.
Alec: He certainly tweeted several hundred thousand times more than I have.
Craig: Oh, he’s doing — oh, and that means, therefore, real.
Craig: As we all know, volume equals substance.
Alec: Well, sure.
Craig: Well, [laughs] so here I am with the real, real Alec Berg –
Craig: And we are on vacation together.
Alec: We are.
Craig: With our wives.
Alec: Not the way –
Craig: I don’t want to start any weird rumors or nothing, although we do have a free path to happiness across the country.
Alec: Craig, please, this is going out to the public.
Craig: That is true, that is true.
Alec: We will end at that part.
Craig: Yes, yes.
Craig: Let’s keep it in. So Alec, I’ve known you for many years but I’ve never interviewed you. So I’m going to start a little bit where most of the interviews start and then we’re going to wander off. Because what we like to do on our show is talk about things from the writing perspective as writers. It’s not the same old questions. Nonetheless, I’m going to start with the same old question. You began your Swedish life as a writer at Harvard, I believe. Were you writing even prior to college?
Alec: Yeah. I mean, I did a lot of like, you know, the usual creative writing classes and things like that. And those were always the classes that I was, you know, enjoying the most in junior high and high school. I went to high school with Ted Griffin who I don’t know if you’ve had on this podcast or not, but –
Craig: No. Ted is simply not important enough.
Craig: No. We’ll get him on for sure.
Alec: Screenwriter of much repute –
Craig: Ocean’s Eleven
Alec: Ocean’s Eleven and Matchstick Men.
Craig: And Matchstick Men.
Alec: And he created a show on –
Alec: FX called Terriers which was amazing.
Alec: Anyway, Ted and I went to junior high and high school together and he was, you know, probably from birth, like just obsessed with the film business. It’s in his family. His grandfather was a director. So he was aggressively making short films. We were actually editing short films together where we would have to plug two VCRs into each other and you would have to play from one into the other.
Craig: Basically like the first EditDroid from Lucas.
Alec: Yes. Yeah, right, right.
Craig: But only with two instead of like twenty.
Alec: Yeah, right. But like I remember sitting in his apartment when I think I was in like ninth grade and he was in seventh grade and we were, you know, editing. And I grew up in Pasadena so it was close enough to the film business that I knew it was there. Like I wasn’t like a child of the film business but I definitely was very aware of it.
Craig: Did you look at the film business as kind of a trap for feckless dreamers?
Alec: I had no sense, really, of what it was. And I certainly had no pretension of like — I always assumed like even from that age like, “Oh, I’d like to do something peripherally pertaining to entertainment.” I was really obsessed with stand-ups. Like when I was eight years old, I could do two-and-half hours of Bill Cosby kind of word perfect.
Alec: And then Steve Martin became like the game changer for me, like those few first few albums.
Craig: It’s interesting. I went through the same thing. I remember Delirious, Eddie Murphy’s Delirious. It’s like you memorized it almost word for word.
Alec: Well, somebody just wrote an amazing piece. Somebody interviewed like a hundred comedians and said, “What was the thing that made you want to be a comedian?” And of those hundred comedians, I think like 80 of them referenced Eddie Murphy’s Delirious. Like that really was like the — that’s the Star Wars of stand-ups.
Craig: It kind of is. And I remember, yeah, you would sit with your friends and sort of compete to see who had the most word for word.
Alec: Yes. And it’s still amazing. If you watch it now, it’s like it’s not one of those things where you go, “Oh yeah. Well sure, 30 years ago.”
Craig: It’s still really funny stuff, yes.
Alec: It’s unbelievably edgy. It’s great stuff still. So I was kind of a comedy nerd and we did — Ted and I did — but I mean Ted, far more than I, like driven by show business, show business. So I came to be enamored with the entertainment business, but I always thought I’d be an executive or, you know, an attorney or something like that. Like I don’t really ever think — until I got to college and I started writing — I worked at the Harvard Lampoon and that was where all of a sudden I became aware of like, “Oh, there are people who graduated a few years ago who write for Letterman, who write for The Simpsons,” had just started. The Simpsons started when I think I was a sophomore in college.
Alec: And that was one of those things where it’s like, “Oh, this is a thing.” Like people actually, like they don’t get jobs, they don’t go to law school. But I don’t think I was really like, it’s become a very weird thing now where like, there are like sophomores at the Lampoon who are like writing spec scripts and, “Oh yeah, this is my sketch package.”
Craig: Weaponize their ambition, yeah. .
Alec: It’s like what? Like I didn’t even know what that was or like that’s how you got a job. But I did a bunch of filmmaking in college and then the part of it that I thought I was sort of best at and I was most interested in was writing.
Craig: Right. So you were in that — it’s interesting, I was — because we’re going to leap ahead to a question I was going to ask you later, but I want to ask you now because you kind of segued into it perfectly. When you and I — we both got into the business roughly around the same time, in the early mid-90s –
Alec: Yes, the good old days.
Craig: The good old days. And we came out of what does seem like a fairly naive place. I mean, I remember, when I first came to L.A. that I got this book, Ken Auletta I think was his name, he wrote a book called Three Blind Mice and it was the story of the networks. And I got it because I just didn’t understand what the difference was between a network and those stations that weren’t networks and who made shows. Wait, wait, networks don’t make shows and I had no idea how any of it worked.
Alec: Well, the nice thing is that nobody knows how that works still to the this day –
Craig: Still to this day, exactly.
Alec: And now more than ever.
Craig: But, you know, you were at the Lampoon going, “Oh wow, there’s people who write on those shows, maybe I could do that too.” And you’re right. Now it seems very formalized. Everybody seems to be aware of everything very early on. Do you think that — and I promise we’ll get back to you in a second, but do you think that whatever you call it, the farm system, the incubation of new writers, is that damaged beyond repair or is it just too self-aware right now?
Alec: You know, it’s funny, I have no sense — people always ask me like, people always like people ask me questions like all the time.
Craig: Like just this morning this guy asked you.
Alec: Yeah. I can’t go anywhere without people asking me. When I do get asked about like how do you break into the business, the answer I sort of come around to is I kind of look at it like breaking into a bank. Or it’s like, I can tell you how I robbed the bank.
Alec: I can tell you what I did to short the alarm system and to fool people into thinking I was the security guard –
Craig: They’ve closed that loop a lot, yeah.
Alec: That’s my thing. It’s like people are like, “How do I break into the business?” And my honest answer is, “I have no idea.”
Alec: Like I know what people were expecting of me back then, like you’d write a couple of spec scripts of existing shows. The rule then was, don’t write a spec pilot because people don’t want to read spec pilots, they want to read existing shows, they want to read –
Craig: Just the opposite of what it is now.
Alec: Right, right. And now it’s like when I read writer submissions, it’s like — nobody’s writing Modern Family. Like all I’m getting are pilots because that’s the thing people do now.
Craig: Do you think that the cohort — I mean, I’m asking to throw an entire generation under the bus, but you don’t have to. But do you think that the cohort of writers that you came up with is stronger at least in inception than say this one now?
Alec: I think it’s a generational thing. It’s always going to be, you always think that like because you prize your skills in a certain, you know, order, I think you value certain things that people of your era valued, right?
Craig: Right. Like quality.
Alec: Well, it’s like, you know, the whole point of like rock music was to piss of your parents. And if your parents like the music, it’s not working correctly. It feels like it’s the same thing where it’s like each generation — like personally, I feel like — especially in sketch, you feel the influence of UCB and that kind zany improv like, “Oh, the twist in the middle of the sketch is this thing goes completely sideways and it turns out we’re on an alien planet watching this on TV.” And to me, as a sort of traditionalist, that offends me, because when I think of sketches I think come up with a really solid premise.
Alec: And serve the premise. And this idea of like in the middle of the sketch you go zany sideways, and it’s — you turn the whole thing upside down. That feels like a quit to me. But people who grew up prizing those zany left-turns as like, “Oh, that’s the comedy gold,” I think that –
Craig: Oh, but you know –
Alec: That feels right to them. So I guess what I’m saying is, without even realizing it, I’ve become hacky and –
Craig: [laughs] At last I’ve led you to the truth.
Alec: It’s over. It’s over for me.
Craig: Halfway through this, you’re going to quit the business.
Craig: And at the end you’re going to shoot yourself.
Craig: This is going to be great, yeah.
Alec: People would just say, we always used to joke about this, like the hardest thing about show business really is like you never get pink slipped, right?
Craig: That’s right.
Alec: It not like somebody just calls you and goes, “Yeah, we appreciate your contributions. Here’s your severance package. Don’t come in tomorrow.”
Craig: Your last day looks just like all your other days.
Alec: Right. You keep going in and then all of a sudden you realize that you haven’t been on the payroll for weeks.
Craig: That’s right. And you don’t know any of these people.
Alec: No. But also, everyone else knows you’re not working there anymore but they haven’t said anything.
Alec: And that’s the most brutal part. It’s just like it’s a very slow, quiet, there’s no definitive end moment.
Craig: That’s actually great news for us, I think. Because I plan on just drifting out of the business.
Alec: But the terrifying thing is that, we may be done.
Alec: Without even knowing it.
Craig: You said it’s terrifying and my heart is singing right now. I’m still happy. It means we can extend this vacation. Let’s just keep driving, man, like Thelma and Louise.
Alec: Wouldn’t that be amazing? You suddenly realize there’s just no compelling reason to go back.
Craig: Well, you know, a lot of people — no one really knows this except for you and for me, but we’ll share it with them that you and I have this fantasy –
Craig: We’ve been talking about it for years — quitting writing.
Alec: Dare to dream.
Craig: Dare to dream, quit writing, and the two of us just open some kind of — we’d become lawyers. And I honestly feel like we could get our law degrees — I’m not kidding — in months. I feel like if you and I tried really hard –
Alec: I think you can get a law degree. I don’t know if it would be reputable at all but it does seem like –
Craig: It would be a degree.
Alec: It would be a physical piece of paper that says we have –
Craig: Right. If you and I said, “Look, the bar is one year from now, let’s start studying now,” and we’ll take the bar a year from now, I think we could do it.
Alec: If our sole reason for studying was to pass the bar, as opposed to amassing actual useable legal knowledge –
Craig: Not interested in that.
Alec: [laughs] That’s applicable in some real world.
Craig: I already feel like I’m more of a lawyer than you are because of the way I’m approaching it –
Alec: Yeah. No, you’ve already — you adjudicated this entire thing.
Craig: Your scruples [laughs] –
Alec: Masterfully. Yeah. No. See, again, this is the problem, I’m out of that business also before I even got in.
Craig: I need a new partner. You and I become lawyers and then — and sort of, like, lawyers-managers-agents. We become like some sort of weird new thing. We take on all of our friends, we stop writing, and we just advise them on how to go through their careers. We probably would end up making more money. Now, we’re taking 10% of 20 or 30 A-list writers.
Alec: Yeah. And I don’t know that I would end up being more happy doing that, but I’ll bet you I would be less sad.
Craig: Well, and then there’s that. Let’s talk about that. Why –
Craig: So Alec, this is what I think a lot of people will never understand. So you and your occasional partners, and for many years you were really tied at the hip with Jeff Schaffer and David Mandel.
Craig: So Berg, Schaffer, Mandel. Even when I started working, I remember people were like, well, there’s Berg, Schaffer, Mandel. That’s like a thing. They’re like a big comedy corporation. And you guys did everything — Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, a ton of movies. You wrote and directed EuroTrip and then there was a lot of movies that you worked on that you didn’t get credit for –
Craig: But a ton of work there. Everything seems to be going great and yet, sad. And I talk about this all the time. And I think in a weird way, people, when they hear me say that I’m sad a lot, they I go, “Yeah, you should be.” [laughs] But I think people would be surprised to hear that you get glum about things. What is going on?
Alec: I’ve made peace of it. It’s the creative process. That’s just what it is. I think in any creative endeavor, I feel like if you’re not unhappy with where your product is, whatever it is, you’re not going to strive to do better. Like as soon as — I think complacency is just absolutely anathema to doing good work. Especially in comedy which — I mean, you know, this is a sidebar, but like comedy really is binary, right? Like it’s either funny or it’s not. It’s not like, “We’re going to get it to a certain level and then we’ll just make it a little funnier and a little funnier.” Like certain things are like, “That’s funny,” or, “That’s not funny.”
Alec: Right? So if it’s not working, it’s just white hot death. I think as soon as you start to feel smug or complacent or satisfied, you know, unfortunately, you stop trying desperately to make everything better. And I feel like everything I do creatively, I always approach from the standpoint of, “This is terrible. This is going to get out into the world, and people are going to laugh at me in a bad way.” Not like a “Ha-ha, this is hilarious” way, like in a “This is what passes for professional work? This is a joke. That guy stinks. He’s terrible. We’ve discovered his dirty secret. He’s talentless.”
Craig: Right. There’s a lot of that going around.
Alec: And that is the way I approach everything. And it’s like — it makes it difficult because even, you know, when I get an occasional Emmy nomination, for about 10 seconds, that’s awesome, and then it becomes, “Oh, my God. The fall is going to be even more precipitous and more ugly, and people are going to watch –
Craig: What do I do now?
Alec: The crap that I turned out next and go, ‘Somebody got nominated for an Emmy for this?'”
Alec: But ultimately, as awful as all that sounds, I’ve sort of made peace with it because it’s good for the work. It just is. It’s a professional hazard but it makes the work better because I don’t stop.
Craig: But do you think it’s possible to be happy and still also be committed to — for instance, Jerry Seinfeld, you worked with him for many years.
Craig: He strikes me as the guy that isn’t torturing himself. Am I wildly off-base there?
Alec: I think he is very hard on himself, but no. He definitely has figured out a way, I think, to feel positive and good about the good work that he’s doing and –
Craig: In a healthy way.
Alec: The pleasure he derives from his work seems not to have led him to a place of complacency and mediocrity.
Alec: But there’s a reason that you’re citing him as an example because he stands out.
Craig: Exception to the rule.
Alec: Right? Like, “Oh, there is somebody who can do that and he’s that guy.” Like the vast majority of people are, you know, when Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld worked together on Seinfeld, Jerry was always the positive one who’s like, “If we set our minds to this, we will do it and we will crush it and we will be great.”
Craig: And Larry –
Alec: And Larry’s whole thing is, “No, we can’t do this. This will never work.”
Craig: [laughs] Right.
Alec: “Let’s not even try, because what’s the point?”
Craig: And that was a pretty great combination.
Alec: And the yin and yang of that was really exceptional.
Craig: And that’s an interesting thing for you to bring up because for many years you did have this very — it was a unique partnership. You don’t see a three-man team or a three-person team almost ever.
Craig: In writing, at least. It’s every now and then, but you guys really are the only one of note that I can think of.
Alec: Well, Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker.
Craig: Well, yeah, those three guys were — there’s a slightly different division of labor there.
Alec: Yeah you’ve worked with those –
Craig: Yeah. I mean –
Alec: So you tell me.
Craig: Because in a weird way, there was almost four of them because Pat Proft was usually in the mix as well. One of them, often David, was directing more, you know. But you guys were like a traditional, like the three of you would write a script.
Alec: Yeah. And the three of us would direct when we directed. I mean, it really was — yeah, that is a –
Craig: Correct. It was extremely –
Alec: That is the interesting thing about that partnership because I do see a lot of partnerships where like one guy is the this guy and the other one is the that guy. All three of us did everything.
Craig: Right. All three of you did everything in a kind of an equal way. But now, you have sort of said, “Okay, just as Schaffer is off doing The League and Mandel is currently now running Veep.”
Alec: He just started running Veep, yes.
Craig: Right. And you are running Silicon Valley, and have been running it as the writer from the start.
Alec: Yes. I came on after the pilot.
Craig: Oh, came on after the pilot.
Craig: So, after everybody else had done the hardest part of it.
Alec: That’s right.
Craig: And cleared away all the possible mines that you certainly would have stepped on.
Alec: Yeah. No. I showed up for dessert.
Craig: You showed up after they loosened it and then just went wee, wee, wee, and out came gold.
Alec: That seems fair.
Craig: Right. So congrats.
Alec: Thank you.
Craig: Nice job. But that’s an interesting thing that you have wandered away from what I would imagine would be this comforting nest where you knew, okay, maybe, and each of you might have had this thought at some point. Maybe on our own, we’re only a third of a great person but together we’re one great person?
Alec: I think part of us thought that way. I don’t think we ever had one discussion about, like, how do we work and what is our — like, we just did the work. There wasn’t a lot of, like, you know, talk about process and who does what and who’s better at what and why and how can we, you know, make this process more efficient or hone it in any way. Like there was no –
Craig: The other two guys just agreed that you were the best of them.
Alec: Well, I always used to joke that Jeff and Dave argued and disagreed about almost everything. So functionally, I got to make every decision because that’s the way — it was majority rules.
Craig: [laughs] Right.
Alec: And that part of it –
Craig: You would just wait
Alec: Yes. So in a funny way, it was really like it was — they were helping me make decisions but really –
Craig: They should have just even stopped trying to make decisions.
Alec: Yeah. Which is not entirely true. I mean –
Craig: It’s entirely true.
Alec: All right.
Craig: It’s entirely true.
Alec: No. I mean, we just didn’t spend a lot of time analyzing how it worked. We just did it. And actually, I would say it’s funny. Like there are a lot of writing teams, particularly in comedy, of two people. And you’re right, not that many three-person teams. What’s weird is a three-person team actually makes it much easier. Because with two people you get into these deadlocks –
Alec: Where it’s like, “I think it should be black,” “I think it should be white.” And you fight about it. You fight about it, and all sorts of teams have all sorts of different ways of breaking the ties. Some alternate, some flip a coin.
Alec: With three people –
Craig: There is no question.
Alec: If two people really have an argument, they argue it out and the third person is almost literally watching it like a tennis match. Just listening to the argument meaning that in the end, well, a lot of times, me, but –
Craig: I could totally see it.
Alec: But really — but here’s — this was also the –
Craig: Here’s what’s going on. You have one Swedish guy, you, watching two Jews beating each other up, just waiting.
Craig: Just waiting for them to tire each other out with words.
Craig: And then you come in and in your flat affect way, just say, “We will do the following.”
Alec: Yeah. But what was interesting is, you know, I got outvoted a lot. And what was interesting about that is there just was a level of trust. Like, those guys are both really talented, skilled guys.
Alec: And you just get to a point where you go, “I think they are absolutely wrong. I don’t see what they’re agreeing about here. They’re just flat wrong.” But if both of those guys see something in going this other route –
Craig: There might be something –
Alec: There must be something.
Craig: There must be something.
Alec: There must be.
Alec: Like we just got to that level of trust where it’s like, “I think you’re wrong — “
Alec: “But I also believe that because of past experience, if both of you see it, you’re right.”
Craig: Yeah. I always felt — when I was writing with Todd Philips and he would say, “No, no, no. This should be this way,” and I would think, “I don’t like that. I don’t think that’s true. But I know that if you see it, then you will at least know how to make it good.”
Craig: And when I say good, I mean, I may never love that one thing but I’ll know that it will work.
Craig: Because in your mind, if you say to me, “I know how to make this work,” I trust you, you know how to make it work. I would imagine that it was probably that way with those two guys.
Alec: Absolutely. No, 100%. That even the things that I was most like adamantly opposed to, in the end I would always come around to and I’d go, “Oh, okay. Now, I get it.”
Craig: All right. So the brief journey here, you graduated from Harvard, which is a second tier school, you end up in Los Angeles.
Alec: Yeah. It’s the Princeton of Cambridge.
Craig: [laughs] It is the Princeton. It’s the Princeton of — I don’t even think — I think it’s actually the Cornell of Cambridge, but fine.
Craig: So you end up out here back home, essentially.
Alec: Yes, yeah.
Craig: Where you’re from.
Alec: Well, my folks moved to Boston after I graduated from high school. So I finally –
Craig: To be near you?
Alec: No, my dad is a college professor, my mom is college professor. They got work on the East Coast.
Alec: Yeah, they went that way.
Craig: Got it.
Alec: So I finally, after graduating college, moved really away from them for the first time.
Craig: Yeah, I was going to say. Like you thought you were getting away from them?
Craig: And then when was that? Like freshman year? Surprise.
Alec: Yeah. Well, no. What was really funny is — no, they moved the summer before my freshman year.
Craig: Oh, my. You never even had a day?
Alec: So we sort of went to college together.
Alec: But what was funny is, my brother went — my brother’s in college in Connecticut, he ended up seeing and talking to my parents much more than I did even though they were ten blocks away. Because psychologically I’m like, “I don’t have to call them, they’re right there.”
Alec: “I don’t have to go see them, they’re right there.” And so I would go months –
Craig: The distance –
Alec: Without talking to them or seeing them.
Craig: I’m really rethinking my strategy of moving halfway across the country, entirely across the country with my parents. I should be next door.
Alec: Yeah. No, I was — I didn’t have to call them, they’re right there.
Alec: Why? What do I need to call them for?
Alec: I could shout to them.
Craig: And so I won’t.
Alec: Yeah, so –
Craig: So, you came out here –
Alec: Yeah, I graduated. I spent about six months living at home, writing specs because I had a friend who was a couple years older who had moved out to L.A. and had worked in an agency.
Alec: Chris Moore.
Craig: Oh, yes, Chris.
Alec: Who ended up producing the American Pie movies. And he worked at a little agency called InterTalent. And he basically said, “Look, I just got promoted. I have my own desk. I’m an agent now and I don’t really have a lot of clients. I can sort of represent you, but you’ve got to move to L.A.”
Alec: And he said, “When you get here, you need writing samples.” So I spent six months writing.
Jeff Schaffer graduated the same year I did. He basically lived in Cambridge for six months. And we didn’t work together-together, but everything I wrote, he read. Everything he wrote, I read. We would trade things back and forth. Yeah. We were, you know, we helped each other.
Craig: And somewhere out there was Mandel.
Alec: Mandel was a year younger.
Alec: So we had worked with him on a bunch of Lampoon stuff but he was still in college when we were out. So Jeff and I moved — packed up his Toyota Camry and we moved to L.A. And our intention initially was to work.
Craig: He had a Camry?
Alec: He did.
Craig: Rich kid.
Alec: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
Craig: Rich kid. I had a Corolla.
Alec: It was something.
Alec: With the leather and the –
Alec: Yeah. Oh, it had a CD player in it.
Alex: Ooh, yeah, no, it was fancy.
Craig: God. CD player?
Alec: Yeah. I actually ended up crashing his car at one point.
Alec: So I took him down a peg.
Alec: So we moved to L.A. and we sat down with Chris Moore. And Chris Moore at that point was trying to get more into features. He represented a young Zak Penn and Adam Leff actually who had just sold the Last Action Hero.
Craig: I always put Leff first just to piss Zak off.
Craig: Leff and Penn. That team was –
Alec: And Zak is –
Craig: It was Adam Leff, and Adam Leff’s partner.
Alec: Yeah, that’s right. And a slight annex of Adam Leff.
Craig: That’s right.
Alec: So we moved out. Chris was going to represent us. He became a feature agent, so he put us in a room with two kind of fledgling TV agents, one of whom we ended up working with. The other of whom was a young kid named Ari Emanuel.
Craig: That kid’s name was Ari Emanuel.
Craig: And was it Ari Emanuel or just a different Israeli?
Alec: Who can tell, really? I’m Swedish, I can’t tell the difference.
Craig: Alec Berg, anti-Semite. I got my news story.
Alec: Edit this out.
Craig: No, editing it in.
Alec: The thing that happened immediately was these agents all said, “Look, you guys have the same background, you like the same shows, you want to work in the same places, you have very similar samples, you’ve worked together for several years in the Lampoon — “
Craig: Right. Formalize it.
Alec: “Be a team.”
Alec: “We’re going to send you out against each other or we can send you out with each other,” and people feel like rightfully so they’re getting more for their money when they hire a team because you really are getting two — especially in a comedy room they’re –
Craig: Yeah, they’re getting more.
Alec: You’ve got two brains instead of one.
Craig: Let’s take a side trip and talk for a second to the — because, you know, we have a lot of people who listen to the show that are aspiring writers, many of whom have partners. How do you get screwed when you’re a — I mean, you guys got particularly screwed as a three-man team but what are the ways that writing teams get screwed?
Alec: Well, I mean, you know, there’s a big thing going on with the Writers Guild about paper teams, right? Where like TV shows will basically say, “I want to hire you and I want to hire you. You don’t work together, but if you become a team, I can hire both of you for one salary and you guys can both work at the show.” And people who aren’t actually teams –
Craig: Yes, they’re getting their salaries halved — they’re getting their residuals halved.
Alec: Team up and basically each take half.
Craig: Right. There’s also — for you guys, there’s — you know, we get money — when we get paid there’s a percentage on top of that that the studios kick in for our healthcare and our pension. And they don’t really double it exactly or like they don’t double the cap for teams. And tripling God only knows what it is.
Alec: You know far more about –
Craig: What I’m trying to tell you that you’ve been really damaged over the years.
Alec: Yeah, no, just –
Craig: Deeply damaged by this.
Alec: I was aware of that, I just don’t know the extent to which I’ve been damaged.
Craig: Let me take out a spreadsheet and then just take a look at these numbers.
Alec: I feel like knowing the extent to which I’ve been damaged is going to damage me that much further.
Craig: Yes. So as I said, at the end of the show, you’ll kill yourself. [laughs] I’m working towards the gunshot.
Alec: Yeah. You’re just going to show me a printout of my career stats and I’ll off myself.
Craig: Here’s your pension information. Here are some texts that I’ve had with your wife. Here’s — okay.
Craig: But now –
Alec: File all of these under “mistakes made.”
Craig: [laughs] Exactly. This is the conception of this thing that eventually turns into this amazing career in television. And I want to talk about this — what I think of as — because I’m catching up to Silicon Valley in a way. I’m going to, like, I’m speeding through Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, getting to Silicon Valley in part because I feel like there’s something that unites them. And I always think of a certain kind of story as very Bergian. You prefer Bergian? Bergess?
Alec: I prefer neither.
Craig: Bergish? Yes.
Alec: Speaking [crosstalk].
Craig: So Bergian, we all know what Bergian means. Crap.
Craig: But also –
Alec: That’s what I’m thinking in my head. That’s Hollywood translation.
Craig: Yes, but also, “God, that’s Bergian.”
Alec: On the fly.
Craig: But also there is a certain kind of recursive self-referential plotting, a kind of a Rube Goldberg plotting that goes on, I see it Silicon Valley the way I would see it in Curb and Seinfeld, too, to maybe a lesser extent, but it’s there. And it’s this thing where these really funny jokes happen. And when you’re writing a comedy and there’re jokes that are connected to plot, they’re on plot, they’re on the specific character relationship that story is about. Then there are these little side jokes, they’re there for funsies. Those become important to the plot. You just don’t realize it’s happening.
Alec: Absolutely. No, there’s nothing better than something that plays purely as a joke that all of a sudden you realize it’s like a magic trick.
Craig: That’s right.
Alec: And it’s just like –
Craig: This is what I think of as Bergian.
Craig: I guess my craft question is how intentional is that? I mean, do you stop and go, “I know I need something that doesn’t seem like plot and seems like pure icing to turn into cake later.”
Alec: That’s a great question. The answer honestly is we cheat, which is that I would say way more often than not, that little joke early that becomes plot was written after the plot was written.
Craig: Got it. So you’re retrofitting.
Alec: That’s the big difference is that you watch a show in a linear fashion.
Alec: The show is never written in a linear fashion. And in fact, one of the great joys of Silicon Valley is because we only do 10 episodes, we can do the same trick from show to show where we’ll come up with something in show six as we’re writing it and we’ll go, “Wait a second, there was a moment in show two where we talked about a similar thing. Let’s go back — “
Craig: Let’s go back and retrofit.
Alec: “Let’s put something in the show two script — “
Alec: “That sets this up.” And there are things that we do all the time in the show where, you know, there’s a conversation in the first episode of the season where somebody says, “Watch out or this will happen, you got to be careful.”
Alec: And then in show nine or 10, that happens.
Craig: What’s the board, the — ?
Alec: We have a big grid on the wall in the office.
Craig: No. I mean, on the show itself, what’s –
Alec: Oh, the SWOT board?
Craig: The SWOT board, yeah. Like that was something that you could see like, “Okay, that was just funny. That was just a sad joke.”
Craig: And then it became like a runner. I mean, even like the condor, you know, the joke was –
Alec: That’s a great example.
Craig: It was like, “Okay, we’re making a joke about Schrodinger’s bird, Schrodinger’s egg.”
Craig: And then that becomes — I always think of that as a very Bergian thing, the ferrets.
Alec: But that’s the rewriting process, right, is that you go, “Oh, we can reference that here, we can set that up here.” And you’re basically, yeah, you’ve got a chunk of something and you’re pulling little tendrils out of it and plugging them in in other places so that eventually everything is woven in, right? I mean, that I learned from — that’s Larry David. You know, Larry and Jerry kind of invented –
Craig: He invented that in a way.
Alec: I think so. I mean, I don’t know, there’s probably somebody who did something 10 years earlier who’s listening to this going, “Damn you. It was me.” But –
Craig: Well, sorry, sucker.
Alec: Yeah. I just made a joke about somebody listening to this.
Alec: No, but the honest answer, that’s where I learned it is the whole method of telling stories in Seinfeld is, first of all, there were no freestanding jokes in that show. And it’s what makes that show endure, I think, is when you tell somebody the plot of a Seinfeld episode, that’s the comedy, right?
Alec: It’s not like a traditional sitcom where it’s like, “Oh, he told somebody that he was he was going to do them a favor and then he didn’t want to do it and here of the funny jokes that happened during that.” The story of Seinfeld episodes, when you just say what happened, that’s the comedy of it.
Craig: Right. How far can we go without running out of gas?
Alec: Right, exactly. But those are the laughs, right?
Alec: Is the comedy and the story are the same and that is something that I kind of learned to do from Larry. And we did that in Curb also, that like, what’s the story? The story is the comedy, right? Like what’s a funny idea? Oh, that’s a comedy idea? That’s what happens.
Craig: Right. Jerry Zucker, I think — I don’t know, David will probably say that he said it first because that’s the way they are. But he said early on they said, “Make plot points jokes, and make jokes plot points,” which is very similar. But what’s different about what you do and I’m using you as the common thread even though obviously all you ever did was just rip off Larry David.
Alec: I hope this analysis doesn’t screw me up because I’ve never thought about what I do or how I do it, I just do it.
Craig: Let me reiterate again. At the end of the show, you will kill yourself. [laughs]
What you do specifically is you make non-plot jokes plot points. There are certain kinds of jokes that never feel like they’re meant to be plot. They just seem like minor, they seem like minor things that are just there because they’re amusing. And you take those out and really — and no one ever sees that coming because we’re trained, I think, now as just consumers of so much culture and a lot of comedy, we’re trained to see setups and payoffs. We know they’re coming.
Alec: Yeah, well it’s like the insert shot of something, right? Like if somebody puts their phone down, there’s a tight shot of the phone. It’s like, “Oh, okay. Here it comes.”
Craig: That means something. Right. We are trained for setups and payoffs. You know, we know when somebody says, “There is absolutely no way I’m going in there…” Right? And you’re really good at paying off setups that we didn’t think could ever be setups for anything anyway, like why would the ferret thing ever be relevant?
Craig: You know.
Alec: Well, the condor is an example of like where we wanted Jared’s idea of live streaming the condor egg to be just a dumb Jared suggestion.
Craig: Correct. But that’s exactly right. Like, I thought the joke was Jared is just being a sweet dork the way he is and these guys are torturing him by making him think that he’s going to kill the bird by calling, which is classic those guys, right? And so that felt great to me. And it turns out, yeah, and then in an Alec Berg way — so sorry for the suicide that’s coming — you say, “That’s what we should be paying off. Not, for instance, making a huge payoff about the guy and that the other company and their competing software,” which is what I think everybody else would do.
Alec: Yeah. But again, the way that’s actually constructed is a lot of times in reverse, right? Where we know that we’re doing this thing at the end where there’s this guy on a cliff and that’s the live stream and that catches on. And then we sort of back into all that other stuff.
Alec: And sometimes it’s the reverse. Sometimes you have a funny joke and then later in the show you’re like, “What are we going to do here?” And then somebody goes, “Well, what if that thing becomes this?” “Oh, great.” Boom.
Alec: But a lot of times, you back into it. You know, you go back and you go, “Oh, this should be the funny thing that we do there.”
Craig: Really, to me, I think what makes you special and different than a lot of writers is –
Craig: It’s not good [laughs]. It’s just how incompetent you are –
Alec: Yeah. [laughs]
Craig: And yet you still get paid at such a high level.
Alec: Oh, shocking.
Craig: It’s that it’s what you choose. It’s when you go backwards, where do you go backwards to? And I find that that’s where you make interesting choices all the time. Because, I mean, you know, everybody, I think, plays the setup/payoff game. But where you go looking for those setups in the kind of retroactive fit ways is very clever and it’s always really funny.
Alec: Oh, thank you.
Craig: Now, so Silicon Valley, I suspect that you felt great going into the second season. You thought, “We’ve had a great first season, what could possibly go wrong in the second season?”
Alec: No, no. Precisely the opposite. I mean, actually in a weird way, the first season was very freeing because it was — “We’re doing this show.” “What is it?” “I don’t know. It could be this.” “What if this is the show?” “How about they — ” “Yeah, that could be the show,” “This could be the show,” “That could be the show.” And you’re just — you’re vamping. You’re just kind of like, you know, you’re really like kind of freeform –
Alec: And it’s like, “This could be the show.” And if it’s not the show, no one will see us fail because no one’s watching the show.
Craig: No one will see it. Exactly.
Alec: So it’s very freeing in a way because it’s really like you’re just backstage doing it for yourself. And then when it got out and it sort of worked, Season 2 was like the, “Okay, now prove this wasn’t a fluke.”
Craig: Well, first of all, you guys suffered a ridiculous tragedy in between those seasons. I mean –
Alec: Well, it was in the middle of Season 1 –
Craig: You were in the middle of Season 1, right.
Alec: Chris Evan Welch who played Peter Gregory, brilliant, brilliant actor, unbelievably great guy.
Craig: And potentially the reason — I mean, this is the thing, that when I heard the news about that, what killed me was that — and I think we all knew by the time the show started airing, correct?
Alec: He died when we were shooting shows five and six of the eight initial shows.
Craig: But he didn’t die after the first episode aired on HBO, did he?
Alec: No, no. He died while we were filming.
Craig: While you were filming.
Craig: So we all knew.
Alec: There were scenes that we had written for him in the last two episodes of the first season that — and toughest thing I’ve ever had to do as a writer is soon after learning of his death, it was like we got — this train is on the tracks and moving –
Alec: You know, the show must go on. I had to sit and delete him from these scripts –
Craig: Oh, my god.
Alec: I mean we loved him, we loved the character, we loved the scenes.
Craig: Right. You are part Swedish and, I don’t know, maybe you have a thousandth of the average human’s emotion.
Alec: Do I? I can’t find it. I defy you.
Craig: If I ever were on a show where the main character died in the middle and I had to do these tragic things like delete their name while I was in mourning and replace them, I would call you.
Alec: It was awful, it was really –
Craig: Yeah. Even you thought it was awful.
Alec: It was grim. No. I was like, I realized in that moment, I’m like, “Oh, this is what it’s like to feel.”
Craig: [laughs] At last.
Alec: Yeah. No. No wonder –
Craig: And then you said, “Ow.”
Alec: Yeah. No wonder my wife gets so down. Like if this is what it’s like, god.
Craig: She’s like this every day.
Alec: Yeah, man.
Craig: But he was potentially the reason to watch that show.
Alec: He was amazing. Amazing. He was the guy who every time you shot with him –
Craig: Something happened, right?
Alec: For the next day or two, everybody like, you know, at craft service was like mimicking his delivery and his lines and it was like –
Craig: It was a kind of an impossible creation because it doesn’t seem like you can do anything truly new in that space, in a performance space like that. All you can do is versions of things. I had never seen anything like that in my life.
Alec: He was brilliant. And what was amazing about it is it was completely farcical and insanely broad but at the same time 100% real.
Alec: Like you believed everything he did was a real human, a very strange –
Craig: Very strange but internally –
Alec: But very particular human being.
Alec: But everything was real. And that was his brilliance. Like there was not a phony beat to anything he did.
Craig: No. It was all consistent to his character. You know, when he called the hamburger buns breadings, I believed it 100%. And these breadings have sesame seeds, these breadings do not.
Alec: Yeah. And, you know, have you been to Burger King.
Craig: Yeah. Burger King.
Alec: Do people like it? Is it enjoyed?
Craig: [laughs] Is it enjoyed? And then there’s that thing he did that you made me notice. I mean, I think I would have noticed it anyway, when he has that chance encounter with –
Alec: Yeah. Belson, yeah.
Craig: With Gavin Belson and the rest –
Alec: I think my favorite scene to date that we’ve done on the show.
Craig: And instead of saying goodbye, he does like a weird hand –
Alec: His wave.
Craig: His wave.
Alec: It’s very strange, where he has his hand at his side and he kind of brings it up sort of across his chest and lowers it like he knows he’s supposed to wave because someone has told him that moving your hand in a certain way is a human way of communicating farewell. And he knows that he’s supposed to –
Alec: But it’s just a fascinating thing.
Craig: And the reason I also love –
Alec: And that was all him, by the way, like there was no like, “Hey, do a weird wave.” He just did it.
Craig: And we’re going to get into that question, too, in a second. But that character, what I also loved about him was I believed all of his behavior, all of his behavioral problems, but I also believed because of the way you guys portrayed him that he actually deserved every cent of his billions of dollars.
Alec: This is one of the things that we worked I think probably hardest on in Silicon Valley is that there’s a huge amount of protecting the characters. And we talk about that all the time. We can kick the crap out of Richard a lot –
Craig: But he has to be at least –
Alec: But you have to believe that he’s good at this because ultimately you want to root for him to succeed. And like when we first started, a lot of people, especially like tech journalists and people in the tech business were like, “Wait, is this just like — are you just like kicking the tar out of us? Like is this just a poison pen letter?”
And the answer was, no, of course not. Like, we’re going to take shots and we’re going to call out, you know, things that we see as ridiculous. But we’re not indicting the tech business because our characters are striving to succeed in that business. And if we’re saying that what they’re striving to do is nonsense, then we’re telling the audience not to root for them to succeed.
Craig: Not to root for them, not to care about our show.
Alec: Right. So ultimately, what we’re saying is there’s a right way and a wrong way to succeed in the business, you know. But we’re not saying that success in that business means that you’re a bad person or is a bad thing because then the audience is going to go, “Well, why am I rooting for somebody to get to something that I know is bad?”
Craig: It’s odd to me that the tech community missed the subtle cues of what you were presenting there. But nonetheless, I think you guys do a great job of that. And, you know, particularly good job with him because he did seem like if you pushed him even three or four more millimeters one way or the other that I would just stop believing that he had actually earned all that money. Whereas a guy like Gavin Belson, I think of as somebody who actually probably can’t do much but was a very aggressive businessman.
Alec: Of course. No, I mean look, we play with that a lot, too. Like, we can’t render Gavin as a complete buffoon because he needs to be formidable.
Alec: Right? We need a real enemy. We need a real heavy that Richard has to actually battle and those battles have to be real and hard. And if Gavin is just a buffoon –
Craig: Well, you look at him as this incredibly — he is like a Steve Ballmer kind of guy, like I don’t think of Steve Ballmer as a big tech head, but I think of him as a corporate bully.
Alec: Yeah, but oddly, most CEOs are not engineers.
Craig: That’s right, exactly. Gates was — Jobs really wasn’t –
Alec: Well, we did a joke in the pilot about that, right, where Richard sort of, you know, raises his nose at Jobs, right, because Jobs didn’t even write code, right?
Alec: And it is a funny like engineers versus management thing.
Alec: It was like Jobs versus Woz. You know there is a yin and yang. Where engineers traditionally don’t make great CEOs because they’re so in their heads.
Craig: Exactly, and so that’s what’s interesting that that’s the story that you’ve set up now for Season 3.
Alec: Yes. But we have to have that conversation about protecting all of the characters. Like Gilfoyle and Dinesh giving Jared crap is something where it’s fun to watch, but we have to be very careful about making Gilfoyle and Dinesh too mean because it’s just like once they’re just slapping a baby, it’s like you hate them for that. And so it’s like you like them beating him up, but we have to be very careful about how far we go.
And it’s funny, we always talk about — Mike and I have kind of come up with this thing that we call the Price is Right school of comedy where it’s better to be significantly under the line than to be even one penny over the line.
Craig: One dollar over, exactly.
Alec: Right? Like you’d rather be $10 under than $0.01 over.
Craig: Well, because nobody really gives you credit for being slightly over the line. Either you are or you’re not.
Alec: It is damaging, and sometimes it just destroys everything. And so you’d rather miss under, under, under, under, under than ever miss over.
Craig: When you were evaluating this, I mean, because here’s what I think people probably — for people that are writing, they put so much pressure on themselves to get it right. When you’re writing especially this kind of comedy which is truly about generating laughs, you just acknowledge upfront you’re going to blow some things. You have to. There’s no way, you can’t hit home runs if you’re not occasionally whiffing. So there’s I assume this very painful and painstaking process in editing where it’s like, “No, that went too far.”
Alec: 100%. No, we do it in the writing process, we do it on the stage when we’re shooting, we pull people back, we, “Okay, go for it. Try it. And if it doesn’t work, you know, we’ll pull it back later.” And yeah, we do a tremendous amount of writing in the edit on the show where there’s a huge amount of lines on people’s backs that we do in ADR, and reconfiguring things.
And, you know, a lot of times if you’re on somebody’s close up and you want to build a pause into that, that pause is not they were pausing when they performed it, there was somebody else off-camera talking. And we take that line out so you build a pause in, like you play with rhythms and –
Craig: You know, when it comes to comedy, I wish that there could be some kind of program or something for up and coming comedy writers to watch comedy people edit comedy because that is where you see so much happening. The rescue missions that happen when you’re editing comedy and the tricks, the bag of tricks that are enormous, I mean, especially when you’re doing joke-based comedy and you and I both spend time doing a lot of jokes-based comedy. It’s all about the rhythm and finding, oh, my god, if I need him to just stare and then look briefly to the right, where is that? Find that.
Alec: Oh, the number of times like you’ll use a piece of like after you’ve cut –
Craig: After you’ve cut.
Alec: And somebody says like, “Hey can we do one more?” And the actor will kind of look up to hear who’s off-camera talking to them.
Alec: You use that piece because it’s like we need something where he turns to his right so that we can cut to that guy and he looks like he’s looking.
Craig: Have you ever done one where you played it backwards?
Alec: We have. We did it. There was a scene in an episode in the first season where they hired a guy named The Carver and then we shot two scenes and we realized in the edit that those two scenes really should be one scene. And we glued them together. We had a shot of Kumail in the second scene standing up and leaving. And we used that shot played in reverse so that at the end of the first scene, we cut to a shot of Kumail sitting into his chair which was actually a shot of him standing up from the second scene.
Craig: This is the epitome –
Alec: And you put some footsteps in, so you hear him enter.
Craig: These are the tricks.
Alec: Right. So when you’re watching the show, you go, “Somebody’s walking into the room.”
Alec: And then you caught to Kumail sitting. You go, “Oh, that was Kumail who walked in.” And then the second scene starts.
Craig: Kumail does act ambidextrously. I mean, the reputation that he has is like –
Alec: You can’t tell.
Craig: You can’t tell. Even when he’s walking forward, if you play him backwards, it seems natural.
Alec: It’s his gift. He walks forward backwards.
Craig: He walks forward backwards. He’s incredible.
Alec: He’s a talent.
Craig: By the way, I mean like I’ve told you many, many times, if all the show were Gilfoyle and Dinesh talking, I would watch it. I would. I know I would.
Alec: But see, here’s all I will say. And those guys are brilliant, super, super funny. I respect the hell out of them. But –
Craig: Throw them under the bus.
Alec: But the fact is, this is an ensemble show. And the reason that you want to watch those guys all day every day –
Craig: Of course. You’re right.
Alec: Is that they’re part of a bigger machine that works.
Craig: You can’t eat dessert all day. I get it.
Craig: I get it. And it’s true. And –
Alec: But it’s great that people think that. Like people want the Erlich show, people want the Jared show, people want the Dinesh and Gilfoyle show.
Craig: That means you’re doing it right.
Craig: It’s interesting. I saw an interview with those guys and they said something that made me so happy because whenever actors are being interviewed for junkets and things, somebody inevitably, in comedy always, will say, “How much of this is improv?” And the actors will always give one answer and the writers will always give another. It’s just hysterical.
Craig: “Yes, you know, they let us kind of do, you know, obviously there’s the script and, you know, then they kind of — we find stuff in the moment.” And the writer answers always like, “Less than you think. Less than you think.”
Craig: [laughs] “Ever here and there.” And what I find fascinating about you guys is that you guys switched. In this interview, the actors are all like, “No, the scripts are really tightly put together, so we stick to them.” But when I talk to you, you’re like, you know, you’ll say like Zach Woods is an incredible improv artist and that Kumail and –
Alec: They’re all super nimble and yeah.
Craig: Yeah, and that they go on these incredible runs and that there is improv in the show. So is it just that you guys are all incredibly humble or is the answer sort of somewhere in the middle?
Alec: I think that we’ve just found a balance. And I’ve worked on shows where the writers are very sort of hostile about the cast and the cast are very hostile about the writers and there is a lot of like, “Oh, you want me to go out there and say this? I’m going to look like an idiot.” And that there’s this animosity and there really is this cliquishness where like the writers are mad that the actors are tanking their jokes. And the actors are mad that the writers are giving this garbage. It’s exactly the opposite on this show. I just think that it is a special show in that regard that I think the actors have tremendous respect for the writing and we all have tremendous respect for them as performers. And it’s just a good –
Craig: It’s a good mix.
Alec: It’s a good ecosystem. And I credit Mike Judge for that as well, like he’s just a super laid back guy. He was a musician and you can tell from the way he writes and the way he directs that it’s all done by ear. It’s not “I have rules and I’m going to, no, this is the way I shoot.”
Craig: He feels it.
Alec: “I have a style.” He just listens. And if it sounds right, it works. And if it doesn’t sound right, he wants to adjust.
Craig: And so, heading into Season 3, I assume now at last, right? So, okay, first season’s whatever.
Craig: Second season, very scary. I mean, what are we going to do?
Craig: We lost a key cast member and I was so worried. But then we put together a really good season. So now you’re comfortable and happy and perfectly ready for Season 3 knowing that nothing can go wrong.
Alec: Of course.
Craig: And by the way, here’s the gun, here’s how it works.
Alec: Yes, right.
Craig: Now, answer the question. Yeah. [laughs]
Alec: I see what you’re doing. Yeah.
Craig: Yeah. So, what do you think?
Alec: You’re [crosstalk].
Craig: [laughs] Are you excited?
Alec: Look, I feel like, like I said, there was a freedom to Season 1 that, you know, I think in the moment, I was terrified because, “What is this? We have to make a show out of this. How do we do that?” Look, this applies to everything. I feel like I wish that I could figure out a way to enjoy anything that I’m doing in the moment.
Alec: I enjoy an enormous amount of what I do retroactively.
Craig: Like this for instance.
Alec: Right. Yes.
Craig: You will later look back at this.
Alec: Like, right now, this is awful. And at a certain point, I might look back after I realized that this led to the freedom of not having to work again where I’ll go, “Oh, that was good.”
Craig: This was the moment.
Alec: Yeah. That was pink slip moment. But, virtually, nothing that I do, like during any of it, during the writing process, during the directing, during the editing, if you said to me, “Are you having fun right now?” The answer, 100% of the time, is no.
Craig: Is no. So, you’re looking forward to more of that?
Alec: “But did you enjoy doing that?” I did. Tremendously. “Did you enjoy that thing?” I enjoyed having done things.
Craig: In the past. Right.
Alec: Yes, of course.
Craig: So, you appreciate the past.
Craig: The present is misery.
Alec: I wish I were better because there have been an enormous amount of things that I’ve done that I look back at and I go, “That was awesome that I got to do that. That was an amazing thing that I was allowed to do.”
Craig: “But while I was doing it, I hated it.”
Alec: “I wish, in the moment, I had been able to relax and have more fun doing it.”
Craig: I mean, let’s –
Alec: I can’t. I can’t.
Craig: Let’s end with this.
Craig: [laughs] That was Alec Berg in his last interview.
Craig: [laughs] Reporting live from the Sonoma County Coroner’s Office. Do you think it’s possible, when you say you can’t, if you at least intellectually acknowledge that you’ve worried in all of the moments, some of the results have been good and some have been bad.
Craig: Therefore, we can take that variable out. The worrying isn’t what makes the work good. Can you at least then say, “Well, why don’t I just stop worrying since it’s having no effect?”
Alec: But, see, I feel like you’ve made a spurious leap of logic there.
Alec: Which is I believe, unfortunately, that the worrying is what makes the work good. That being so terrified of caulking it up –
Alec: Is what makes me reexamine and reexamine and shred and tear apart and rebuild and –
Craig: Okay. But let me –
Alec: And if I’m ever enjoying this machine that I’m building in the moment and going, “This works great,” then I’m not scrutinizing it to the point where I’m going to make it work as well as it can.
Craig: But I think you’re confounding joy with satisfaction. In other words, you can enjoy the process while saying, “Well, it’s not good enough but it will get better.”
Alec: Except that I believe that my motivation to really push and work hard –
Craig: Is dread.
Alec: I’m not a person who runs to something. I’m not running to quality. I’m running from failure.
Craig: Okay, running away. Well, it’s Woody Allen’s thing, you know, that his big goal when they asked him, “What are you always trying to achieve when you make a movie?” And he said, “To not embarrass myself.”
Alec: Yeah. And that’s it. That is the sole drive. And I know you would think having done this the way I’ve done it and having worked on the things I’ve worked on, that worked the way a lot of them worked, that at a certain point I would go, “At this point, having done this 20 plus years, I kind of know what I’m doing.” I don’t feel like that at all. I feel like I know less now about how to do it than I did when I started. What I know is I think I have a better idea of what doesn’t work.
Alec: So, I can look at something that 20 years ago I might have looked at something and I might have said, “Yeah, I think that’s pretty good.” Now, I’ll look at it and go, “This doesn’t work, and here are 50 reasons why. That’s no good. This is no good. That guy shouldn’t be this way, that guy shouldn’t be this way, she shouldn’t be talking like that.”
Craig: Suddenly, the channel for success becomes incredibly narrow.
Alec: Yes. But I don’t know any better now how to make things work.
Alec: I just am much better at identifying flaws.
Craig: You just see all the mines in the field.
Alec: So, it gets harder and harder as I do it. Not easier and easier.
Craig: Well, there is one way out, Alec.
Alec: Yeah. No, I think we’ve come to that.
Craig: Yeah. Here, let me show you how this works. [laughs] And take that. No, no, don’t touch that yet.
Alec: What’s this X here?
Craig: That, you want to push that down.
Alec: Orange dot. What do I do with that?
Craig: The orange dot you want to be looking at directly or taste it.
Alec: Oh, that’s right.
Craig: Well, Alec, a tremendously insightful conversation. I, like you, am soaking in misery all the time. I share this with our listeners constantly.
Alec: Yes. But that’s the job.
Craig: It’s kind of the gig. It’s part of what we do. I try as best I can now to find little bits of joy.
Alec: Yes. It’s funny, we always used to have this running joke that there’s not a funny comedian on earth with washboard abs. And the reason is, once you take the time to focus on yourself and take yourself seriously enough to sculpt your body like that –
Alec: You’re taking yourself seriously.
Craig: That’s right.
Alec: And you’re not kicking the tar out of yourself and you’re not going to be as funny as you can be. And I sort of have just embraced that.
Alec: At a certain point, I’m sorry for all the misery that I caused my wife and every time I come home and I say, “This show is not good. You don’t understand,” I know I said it wasn’t good before, this time –
Craig: That you’ve been saying this to me, I mean, like, you were really worried about this season.
Craig: Really worried.
Alec: Desperately worried. I was convinced that it was a colossal — like we had just driven it right into a cliff.
Alec: I swear to you, it’s not a –
Craig: It’s not false –
Alec: I need approbation, somebody telling me how good I am. It’s really not. I was genuinely 100% convinced that Season 2 was a disaster.
Craig: When you said that to me, it wasn’t like I thought to myself, “Oh, no, no. There’s something I can tell him that will make him feel good.” I thought, “He’s giving me something as he sees it as a fact.”
Craig: I’m not going to tell him that his, you know, dead cat is really alive by shaking it in the air.
Craig: And I understood, by the way, exactly where you were coming from. Exactly. Because it’s a very hard thing to do. I mean, it’s essentially a sequel. Every season is a sequel. And you’re always on the horns of, “I want to be different but I don’t want to be so different that it’s — “
Craig: We have to kind of the same, we have –
Alec: It’s like releasing albums. I think like every band, you know, like, there are AC/DCs who just make the same album over and over and over again. And they’re great.
Craig: And that’s what their fans want.
Alec: Right. There’s Madonnas who, like, “Oh, now, she’s this woman. And now, she’s the Marilyn Monroe lookalike, and now she’s Vogueing,” and there are people who can reinvent themselves and each version is good.
Alec: Right? And then there are bands that, you know, they do an album or two and then they put something out and you go, well, I don’t want this. It’s over.”
Craig: [laughs] It’s over. You’re done. Here’s your gun, go ahead.
Alec: Yeah. Yeah, they are the one-hit wonders.
Craig: No, I got actually why you were so upset or concerned, really.
Alec: Yeah. Terrified.
Craig: But what I know about your show is that the characters are so strong. And I think that no matter what you do plot-wise — because here’s the truth, if you were to say to me, “Figure out the Season 3 plot line,” I think I could sit and come up with a plot line, sure. Would I care about it? I wouldn’t care about the plot line as much as I would care about the characters as they moved through it. To me, that’s the heart of television. The true heart of television is the characters.
Alec: Everything is so interdependent that I’d think you care about the characters because the characters care about executing certain things. And that’s the plot.
Craig: Yes. But I will tell you as just — this is my experience of the show. I was not worried that they were going to lose their company. And here’s why. Either they were going to lose their company and then I was excited to see what those characters would do, or they were going to get their company and I was excited to see what those characters would do. The dilemma and the building the case — by the way, the lawyer, I mean, just an amazing performance. It was a great, great performance.
Alec: Oh, Matt McCoy?
Craig: Matt McCoy.
Craig: Just crushed it.
Craig: That’s another great lesson, by the way, is those little characters have to be like your best characters you know. Just your best characters in their own quiet way.
Alec: Yeah. And he was so freakishly good. So great.
Craig: So good, so good. Anyway, I wasn’t worried. I’m not worried for Season 3 either, although you probably will fail this time.
Alec: Oh, we just started writing a couple of weeks ago and I’m already — I just go, “That’s it. It’s over.”
Craig: Actually, this time I believe you.
Alec: We had a good run.
Craig: Yeah — not even — two seasons is not a good run. [laughs]
Alec: Eighteen episodes, that’s a lot.
Craig: In Britain. [laughs] I mean, come on, man.
Alec: We had a good run.
Craig: No, this is going to be one of those like, “What happened?”
Craig: “Did you ever watch Silicon Valley?” “No. Should I?” “Well, only the first two seasons. Only the first two seasons. Don’t go after that.”
Alec: By the way, you’re channeling — this is my internal monologue.
Craig: Yeah. I wonder how I know what that sounds like.
Craig: Ladies and gentlemen, Alec Berg. Thank you very much for joining us.
Alec: Thank you for having me. This was fun.
Craig: And we’ll do it again. We’ll get you on live with John.
Alec: Would love to, yeah.
Craig: So you can face his withering questions.
Alec: Bring it on.
Craig: All right, that was Alec Berg and now back to the regular show.
John: So, Craig, that was your interview with Alec Berg which I did not hear a bit of, but I assume that you got all the answers out of him, that he’s not bleeding too hard, that there are not any marks that cannot be healed with time or with plastic surgery.
Craig: Not only that, but I fully expect a Pulitzer for — I mean, truly one of the great coops of journalism right there.
John: It was basically Frost/Nixon but in a podcast form.
Craig: It was. It was Frost/Nixon except important.
John: Yes. [laughs] Let’s talk about our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing this week is a video that was sent around because the subway, the purple line of the Los Angeles subway is being constructed very, very close to my house. I will be near one of the new subway stops. And so they sent through all this information about the street closures and everything else they have to do to make this subway happen. It’ll be open in like in 2020, so it’s quite a ways off.
The coolest thing they sent was this video that describes and shows how the subway boring machine works, how they actually create the tunnels. And it is so different than you would think. I had a hard time believing that such a robot existed. It felt like something of Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, that we’re actually able to build this thing that can bore and also take all the ore and transport it back.
It was so amazing that I immediately want to set a movie inside a subway digging construction. So it’s a 15-minute video I’m going to send you from a German subway boring tunnel machine. And I think you will find it fascinating.
Craig: That is such a boring machine. You know who drives the boring machine? Arkham Knight. Are you playing Arkham Knight?
John: I’m not playing Arkham Knight. Is Arkham Knight great?
Craig: It’s the greatest and the Arkham Knight who is not Batman. That’s the whole question is, who is the Arkham Knight? I know. He drives a boring machine at one point.
John: I think that’s great. You know, the villain at the very end of the Incredibles is the Underminer. Perhaps he is the boring knight.
Craig: He is the boring knight.
John: Arkham Knight, is it a open sandbox or is it a strict sort of campaign storyline?
Craig: Yeah, if you’ve played the other Arkham games, it’s essentially the same thing. You’re in a general sandbox area but your missions are on rails. It’s Arkham. It’s very, very good. It’s very, very good. But that’s not my One Cool Thing this week.
My One Cool Thing this week is “Rex Parker Does the New York Times Crossword Puzzle”. And when I say One Cool Thing, I mean one kind of cool thing because the truth is, Rex is not cool at all. [laughs] He’s not cool. Rex Parker is a man named Michael Sharp. He is a professor I think at — I want to say SUNY Binghamton. I’m guessing on that one, I think.
But what’s interesting about Rex is that he runs a blog, “Rex Parker Does the New York Times Crossword Puzzle”. He does the New York Times Crossword Puzzle every single day. And then he puts the solution on his blog and then analyzes and critiques the puzzle.
And what’s fascinating is, because I do the puzzle every day, and it’s like, if there were no film critics in the world, if nobody reviewed movies at all, that wasn’t even a thing, except for one guy, one guy did it, that’s kind of what this is like. He’s the only crossword critic I think that exists.
And amazingly, even though he’s the only one, he is incredibly typical for critics. He’s just cranky as hell. He hates most of the puzzles that he does, so of course you’re left thinking, “Why do you do them every day?”
He hates about 90% of them. That’s just my unscientific tally from reading his reviews each day. He particularly hates bad fill. Fill is what they call in crosswords — you have your longer theme answers and then Fill are the shorter answers. So, you know, a lot of bad crossword words that people learn, he’s not a big fan of those.
But I do check him out every day after I do the puzzle and it makes me understand how people use movie reviews I think because the way I use his stuff is, I complete the puzzle and then I go over to Rex to see if I’m either angry at him because he’s wrong, or happy with him because he’s right. Either way, I get validation. I get the validation of anger at him because he’s stupid or pleasure with him because he’s smart. It has nothing to do with him. It has everything to do with me. And as it turns out, I agree with him about 50% of the time.
But if you are interested in getting started on the New York Times Crossword Puzzle, you could do worst. At least at his site, you can get the answers pretty quickly and you can see how he constructs his solutions. And to be fair to Michael Sharp who is cranky, cranky, cranky, he’s a very good solver. His solve times are fairly extraordinary. Well, as he says on his website, he is the 9th greatest crossword solver in the universe based on the 2015 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament.
John: He sounds like an amazing character, so even though I could not care less about crossword puzzles, I will check out his site just because that persona you’re describing sounds amazing.
Craig: It’s kind of great.
John: What do you think is his day job?
Craig: I know in the day he’s a professor, so I think that his deal is he is — I want to say a professor of English, possibly? Yeah, at SUNY Binghamton, I believe. So he’s an academic.
John: Cool. Very nice. I have one last plug. So every Friday this summer, we are going to be putting up some brand new scripts in Weekend Read. Weekend Read is the app that I make for iOS, for iPad and for iPhone.
And so the scripts are only up for the weekend. It’s truly only a weekend read. So if you’re listening to this on Tuesday, there are no scripts up there for you to read because they were only available from Friday until Sunday night. So you just missed out on Josh Freedman’s original script pilot for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, you missed out on Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and a highly recommend Black List script.
So, every Friday, check out Weekend Read because there will be brand new stuff up there all summer long.
John: Our show is produced by Stuart Friedel who’s also on vacation on the West Coast. Matthew Chilelli edited our show and did the amazing outro of this week. Our thanks to Alec Berg, our wonderful guest. I hope his wounds heal. Craig, have a great week.
Craig: You too, John.
- Scriptnotes 200 Episode USB drives are available now!
- Tess Gerritsen on why she is giving up the Gravity lawsuit
- Alec Berg on Wikipedia, IMDb and Twitter
- The Harvard Lampoon, and on Wikipedia
- Jeff Schaffer and David Mandel on Wikipedia
- Silicon Valley on HBO.com and Wikipedia
- Christopher Evan Welch
- Crenshaw/LAX Tunnel Boring Machine
- Batman: Arkham Knight
- Rex Parker Does The NY Times Crossword Puzzle
- Check out Featured Fridays on Weekend Read
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
Craig sits down with Silicon Valley writer/director Alec Berg to talk about set ups and payoffs, editing comedy and how writing teams get screwed.
Also this week: Tess Gerritsen gives up, but that’s not the end of you-stole-my-idea lawsuits.
The 200-episode USB drives are in the store, but for how long? If you want one, don’t wait.
- Scriptnotes 200 Episode USB drives are available now!
- Tess Gerritsen on why she is giving up the Gravity lawsuit
- Alec Berg on Wikipedia, IMDb and Twitter
- The Harvard Lampoon, and on Wikipedia
- Jeff Schaffer and David Mandel on Wikipedia
- Silicon Valley on HBO.com and Wikipedia
- Christopher Evan Welch
- Crenshaw/LAX Tunnel Boring Machine
- Batman: Arkham Knight
- Rex Parker Does The NY Times Crossword Puzzle
- Check out Featured Fridays on Weekend Read
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
The reason I decided to become an artist has nothing to do with what would make me the most money, or what I was “talented” at, or even what I necessarily always enjoyed the most. It was simply something that, in my gut, I just knew was the right choice. Without anything better to go on, that’s what I relied on.
From this moment, the fear began. I have spent every day since, with some variance, utterly terrified of failing. Of not being good enough. Not making enough money to support myself. Being a horrible, embarrassing failure.
And it was this fear that propelled me to improve.
Every writer can relate.
One of the things that’s impressed me about working with Noah is his commitment to working on his own projects in addition to assignments. Particularly in the fantasy art industry, it feels like there’s an easy path to burnout. How many orcs and angels can you really be proud of?
Working screenwriters face a similar grind with endless pitches and revisions, while TV writers have to find new stories to tell with the same characters each week.
Devoting time to your own work is one key to staying sane. The work you do for yourself is almost always a better expression of your potential, because you’re not trying to meet anyone’s expectations.
This is one Noah’s personal illustrations. It’s what first got my attention:
I have no idea why this piece exists, but it compelled me to contact him. When stranger shows up offering you work, you’re doing something right.
Growing up in Colorado, you kept track of your 15-and-a-half birthday. That was the first day you could take the written exam to get your driver’s permit. You wanted to get it as soon as possible, because you couldn’t take your behind-the-wheel test for your license until you’d held your permit for six months.
Over the weekend, I was talking with a fifteen-year-old neighbor. She had no immediate plans to get her permit, or her license. She felt no urgency whatsoever. She just didn’t see the need.
I realized then that I’d made the classic mistake of confusing the product with the solution.
Growing up, there were obvious benefits getting my license:
- Independence. I didn’t need to rely on my parents to go where I wanted, or the whims of the RTD bus schedule.
- Income. I could get a job. I did freelance design work, and often needed to haul things to and from printers.
- Identity. As someone who could drive a car, I wasn’t a kid. I was very nearly an adult. And as a practical matter, a driver’s license felt like legitimate proof that I was somebody in a way my school ID didn’t.
- Inclusion. I wanted to hang out with my friends.
- Isolation. I could get out of the house, and play my music in the car.
This young woman could easily get the same benefits without driving.
Because of Uber and Lyft, she could get anywhere she needed to go, including her job. Because very few of her friends drove, having a car wasn’t a key part of her social identity. Besides, she saw them online all the time, and her Instagram name was more important than a plastic card with a photo she couldn’t even choose and filter.
And with headphones, she had the ability isolate herself anywhere.
Will she learn to drive? Probably, someday. Unless self-driving cars become viable. Unless she keeps living in a big city. Unless the subway they’re building below her house makes it even less important.
Even if she learns to drive, it won’t be the classic trope of a teen driver and her stressed-out parent. That time has passed. If you have a scene like that in your spec script, take it out.
I wonder how soon driving a car will be like riding a horse: something you only do in certain circumstances, and only if the mood strikes you.
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 204 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
So, Craig, as you know, I’m watching these two dogs for this summer and really enjoying it. I’m enjoying my life as a dog sitter. But as I was putting them to bed last night, I had a sudden flash of this one dog, who’s 12 years old. She’s, you know, she’s the Maggie Smith of these two dogs. She’s older, the dame –
Craig: The dame. The Dame Maggie Smith of dogs.
John: And so, while I want her to live another 20 years, that is just not just likely, and so she is at the — nearing twilight of her life. And I suddenly had this horrifying thought, like, what if people only lived as long as dogs? And whether society could even exist if humans did not live as long as they live?
Craig: I think so. It would look very different.
Craig: There would be so much more sex.
John: Oh, yeah, it would have to be.
John: Well, except you would have sex with teenagers though.
John: That’s all weird.
Craig: Oh, oh, is that…
John: I guess, what I’m postulating is, what if humans developed as quickly as dogs do so they could actually, like, you know, that a four-year-old could do something useful and productive. But would you actually have society if people only live such a short period of time?
Craig: I think so. I think so — I mean, look, we’re the weird ones in the animal kingdom, you know. I mean, most four-year-old animals are perfectly capable of doing everything that animals must do. We’re born stupid because we have to be born too early because of our huge heads.
John: That said, you know, we are the weird ones, but we’re also the only ones who developed speech and culture and the ability to build cities and roads and do all sorts of other things. So I wonder if the other postulate would be, if we could live twice as long or three times as long, would society be vastly different?
Craig: It would be crankier, the driving would go downhill, just the overall quality of driving. I wouldn’t go anywhere near a farmer’s market, I’ll tell you that much.
John: Yeah, there would be so many slow shuffles
Craig: Oh, God. Just, you know, it would get — I think we’re in a decent spot now. They keep telling us that sooner or later, they’ll be able to take our brains and put them in a computer and we’ll live forever. Here’s my question for you, John. This is what keeps me up at night.
John: All right. I want to hear.
Craig: All right. So the brain is a big network of neurons, and though we can’t do it now, it’s — at least, let’s stipulate that one day it will be possible to take a scan of your brain, see every neuron, analyze every connection and then replicate it technologically.
John: I would agree.
Craig: Okay, fine. Stipulating that, what happens when I take you, copy your brain, put it in the computer and then I turn it on while you’re still alive.
Craig: There’s two of you now.
John: Well, you’ve made the world significantly better.
Craig: But here’s my question, which one is you? Is the computer you? Are you you? You don’t see through the computer’s eyes at the same time, so there’s two you. So, if I kill you — you, you, you’re dead. But then this other you is alive, so are you still alive?
John: Oh, no. You certainly committed a murder because you killed a human being. I think the other interesting question is, if you turned off that computer, did you — is that the same kind of murder as murdering a living, breathing human being?
Craig: But even putting aside murder, you don’t really live forever in that circumstance. What happens is your clone lives forever. But you, you, with the experience that you have, you’re going to die.
John: Yeah. You know, you’re fundamentally asking the question of, is a person the body and the organs and the everything else, or is the person the processes — is the person the hardware or the software? And that is a question that has been wrestled with by philosophers even before there was a real distinction between hardware and software.
Craig: Well, especially because the brain is both. You know, the brain is hardware-software. So I wonder about that. To me, really, what I’m hoping for here is that they figure out a way to take my brain and keep my brain alive forever because that’s me.
Craig: So then I’m good. I’m covered.
John: All right. In the first two minutes of this podcast, we’ve outlaid a number of premises for a sci-fi movies that Hollywood won’t make. But we can talk through the day’s work ahead of us, which is, the question is, is Hollywood making too many movies overall? What does Apple music mean for screenwriters? And we will also take a quick run-through a screenwriter’s job from pitch to premier. Those are big topics for today’s show.
But before we get to it, we have exciting news. So way back in Episode — I don’t know — 201, we asked our listeners whether — if we had a USB drive that had all of the episodes of Scriptnotes, all 200 episodes, plus the bonus episodes, would they want to buy such a mythical USB drive? And people said in a loud chorus, yes. So we are making those USB drives and we will be shipping them starting next week.
So if people would like to buy a USB drive with all the episodes of Scriptnotes and all the Three Page Challenges and all the other supplementary things, The Dirty Show with Rebel Wilson and Dan Savage, they can do so now. So it’s at store.johnaugust.com.
Craig: And would you say that’s like a $70,000 value?
John: It is — probably, you know, as we’ve gone through the ways that people could spend their money on screenwriting, I think it’s a pretty good bargain at $20.
Craig: I think it’s a great bargain at $20, yes.
John: But, Craig — I mean, do you want to offer any incentive to our long-time listeners? Is there anything we’d want to make sure that the people who actually listened to the show, who listened through our two minutes of philosophical ponderings about death and immortality –
John: Should we cut them a break? Should we give them a discount?
Craig: I hate discounts, but yes.
John: All right. So you can pick whatever words you would like and that can be the word that they can type in for a discount because we haven’t set this yet, so it’s your — it’s up to you, Craig.
Craig: I’m going to go with “singularity.”
John: Wow, that’s a challenging word but I like it. “Singularity”. So at checkout, if you type in the word “singularity” in a special little promo code box field, you can save 10%, so –
Craig: That’s $2. Totally worth it.
John: Totally worth it. That basically covers your shipping. So shipping in the US is like $2.79.
Craig: “Singularity” has saved you money.
John: Singularity has saved your money. Yes, so they’re brand new. If you bought the 100 episode one way back when, you’ll recognize it’s a similar kind of thing. So this one is white, it has our signatures on it, so, yeah.
Craig: Have we discontinued the confederate flag USB drive?
John: You know what? It was a controversial choice and it was really a lot of hemming and hawing, but no, we’re no longer selling the confederate flag USB drive that we never sold.
Craig: I’m disgusted. We’ve bowed to pressure, outside pressure. We had a tradition, sir. [laughs]
John: Yes, we had a tradition of not doing something and we’re going to continue not doing something.
Craig: Confederate flag, come on.
John: Oh, it’s madness
Craig: I know. That’s on our other podcast.
John: [laughs] Indeed. The old timey racism podcast.
John: Good stuff.
John: Craig, we have a lot to follow up on this week, and you wanted to start off with something about reversion, which is a topic we covered in last week’s episode.
Craig: Yeah, we got a nice comment in from a writer out there whose lawyer had, I guess, reviewed what we said and added one factor that I had forgotten about, and it’s absolutely true. We talked about if you write an original screenplay, you have the chance to get the rights back. It’s involved, you got to pay them the money they paid you and all that.
But the timeline was such that five years after the sale or the completion of your first employment on the project, you have this window. And it was basically a two-year window to get the rights back and set up somewhere else. And the little part that I forgot was that that two-year window has to happen within a five-year window. So you have these two years, but five years after the window begins, it shuts and you lose reversion possibility, I think permanently.
John: All right. So in my head, I’m trying to visualize this. And so what I see is a gray bar, and then after that gray bar that was five years long, and there’s an equally sized gray bar, equal size but like maybe a lighter gray bar, and within that lighter gray bar there’s like a red two-year slider that — it has to fall within that two-year slider within that five years. This is why movies are so rarely reverting to the original writers.
Craig: Yeah. You’ve got a very limited window. But the truth is, I wish that this were the worst part of it, but it’s not. The financials, the fact that the purchasing company has to pay back interest on all the development fees that the first studio paid. Those are the things that really make it very difficult. But the timeline is tough. I mean, look, the truth is, practically, if you haven’t figured out how to get the reversion rights back within, you know, two or three years of the window opening, it’s never going to happen anyway, so.
John: Yeah, I agree with you. What’s interesting to me is that the point at which the writer had the most leverage to try to negotiate better reversion terms is also the moment which he or she was not likely to push for them. So that moment at which you’re selling this project for the very first time, that was the moment where you could have pushed for really strong reversion rights. But you’re also pushing for a lot of other things, and mostly, you’re pushing for upfront money which is a very reasonable thing to be asking for. And paradoxically, that upfront money that you’re getting is money that would have to be paid back. There’s a whole bunch of other reasons why studios don’t want to pay both a lot of money and make it very easy for you to get the script back.
Craig: Yeah, it’s true. And there’s also psychologically a little bit of a problem when a studio says, “We want to buy your screenplay,” and you start negotiating with them and one of your big points is, “Now, when this doesn’t work, can I blank, blank, blank?” Just psychologically it’s a little harder to do that and to be really aggressive about it. Everybody on the other side starts thinking, “Why are you so concerned about this failing?” So it’s a tough one, but, yeah.
John: Craig, something that occurs to me, which we didn’t really get into in last week’s episode, was what happens when a studio goes bankrupt? So let’s say you sold this to a production company that no longer exists.
John: Those assets could theoretically be purchased by another studio or — is are there sort of fire sales on intellectual property? What have you seen?
Craig: Yes, that’s exactly what happens. Basically, if a company that — and let’s presume it’s a WGA Signatory, because otherwise it doesn’t really matter. A WGA Signatory that owns screenplays goes under, they are either bought by another company in whole or they begin to sell off their assets. The WGA — the minimum basic agreement has many, many, many pages dedicated to assumption agreements.
You’re assuming certain rights when you buy things that have WGA stuff, but it’s very complicated. It’s very complicated and it does come up. You know, I’ve never worked for anyone other than the big studios, so I’ve never worried about it. But interestingly, I had like a weird thing happen when — back when we were doing the Scary Movies.
When we started them, Miramax was owned by Disney. By the time we finished the second one, I think, they had gone off on their own. And when they split, Disney and Miramax kind of decided they would share custody of the Scary Movies stuff as part of the divorce agreement. So we had two employers there at one point. It gets complicated. But honestly, if I talked about assumption agreements, I would be way out on a limb. That is advanced lawyer stuff.
John: Absolutely. And part of the reason why assumption agreements are so important is that, sometimes these companies are bought and sold, but the movies that actually were produced, somebody has to be responsible for continuing to pay the money that is owed to those writers for residuals and everything else. So it becomes an important part of our contract.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, it’s like, if you buy a company and they’re selling you things that have liens on them essentially, so, I go out of business, I’m a restaurant owner, I’m selling you all my kitchen equipment, but I owe a bunch of people money for that kitchen equipment. Well, when you buy it, you now owe those people money for the kitchen equipment. And it’s the same thing with movies. They’re assuming responsibility for all the residuals.
Now, there is an interesting thing that happens. There have been cases where companies have gone out of business. The assets essentially don’t get purchased and they become what we call orphan works.
Craig: Most of the orphan works are very old but there’s been a real effort between the Directors Guild and the Writers Guild to get the United States government which controls the Copyright Office to recognize screenwriters and directors as co-authors. That means copyright holders of orphaned works that had been owned by other people as part of work for hire, but those entities no longer exist. So it’s an interesting thing. In modern era, it will never happen because everybody now understands how valuable IP is.
John: Yeah. Next bit of follow up, back in Episode 201, we talked about the FIFA scandal. And we wondered aloud if it could become a movie. Craig, what is the answer?
John: Yes, indeed. So this past week, just today as we’re recording this, it was announced that Ben Affleck will be producing a FIFA movie for Warner Bros. all about the FIFA scandal. This is the summary here. Capping off eight days in negotiations, Warner Bros. has won a bidding war for Houses of Deceit, a book by BuzzFeed investigator reporter Ken Bensinger which is being seen as a definitive account of the American FIFA exec Chuck Blazer and his role in the largest sports and public corruption scandal in history.
John: Gavin O’Connor who recently wrapped the Affleck thriller, The Accountant, for the studio is attached to direct and will co-write the script with Anthony Tambakis. So –
John: That movie is going to be there. So we were speculating what kind of movie they would make and this doesn’t say specifically, but it gives us some hint about it. They’re focusing on Chuck Blazer who’s an American exec, which is certainly kind of reasonable to make it for an American audience. What else do we see from this summary here?
Craig: Well, in terms of the tone, it sounds like they’re approaching it the way we thought a studio would, that is head on. Not from the side as a comedy or something else, but head on. One interesting thing that they had picked up on it, that we just didn’t know, you and I just didn’t know about it, is that this guy, Chuck Blazer, I think was involved in the corruption itself. He became, as far as I can tell, I could be wrong, but he became essentially an informer.
And so what you have now is more of — their take is a little bit more like the movie The Insider.
Craig: I don’t know if you remember that movie, a really good movie. And they did say, Loretta Lynch, I guess teamed up with this guy back when she was just working at the IRS or something like that, so she has been actually tracking this. Now that’s interesting. Because if you start this character before she’s — you know, we said, “Look, the Attorney-General is too big,” and we were right, but if she’s not yet the Attorney-General and she becomes the Attorney-General towards the end of it, that’s really interesting. So an interesting version of it.
I’m kind of curious to see what the theme of it is. I’m curious to see if the theme is at all related to my thing about America finding its way towards kind of promising American justice again, or if they go a different way and there’s a whole different theme. Very interesting. But note, the movie is about two people, it’s about a relationship, it’s about one who is a soccer person and one who isn’t a soccer person. We nailed it.
John: We did.
Craig: Not that hard really. [laughs]
John: It really wasn’t that hard.
Craig: It’s kind of obvious.
John: I was curious like who they would pick as the character to focus on. And I didn’t really know about Chuck Blazer’s role in this, but it seems like a very natural fit for the kind of movie we would actually want to make.
Craig: For sure.
John: Yeah, good luck to them.
John: So obviously, how many movies get announced versus get made? Quite a few. But I think the people involved have a good track record of being able to make movies, so let’s hope.
Craig: Also, good object lesson for people out there who are like, “Oh my God, they stole my movie idea.” No, they didn’t. Shut up. Is there one cell in your body that’s like, “We talked about it and now they’re doing it” — even one?
John: Not a bit. Oh, God, no. No.
Craig: No, no, no. It’s ridiculous. Ridiculous. I’m now manufacturing umbrage. I’m making something up that isn’t true and then getting angry about it.
Craig: You know why, because it’s been too long.
John: Yeah. Now, if next week there is a Hadron Super Collider romantic comedy announced — and actually, it turns out there was, like I think David Koepp had worked on a romantic comedy many years ago, somebody like sent us a link to that. But if all three of our what-ifs became movies, then I would be a little bit suspicious. Or I would wonder whether we were not making the best use of our time. That we should have been out pitching these movies rather than describing them for free on a podcast.
Craig: Hey man. Pitching is easy. It’s the writing that sucks.
John: Yeah. We’re going to talk about that in our third topic today.
John: The next bit of follow-up comes from Joe in Rancho Cucamonga. So in episode 194, you guys answered a question for me about how I would receive credit on an indie movie I co-wrote if I were in the WGA, and now I have another question regarding that situation. The movie did in fact go into production and wrapped a couple of weeks ago.
John: I was sent a copy of the shooting script and I discovered that I did in fact receive a written by credit with the director but so did another writing team. There’s really nothing I can do about it. But what I want to know is, assuming the best case scenario, once the movie gets picked up for some kind of distribution, how can I benefit from this movie?
It’s impossible for anyone watching the movie to tell what I wrote, so how will agents or managers or producers know what value I have as a writer? Am I at the mercy of whatever opportunities come to the director’s way and hope he reaches out for me again? I contributed quite a bit to this movie, and if it’s successful, I’d like to be one of the people recognized for it. I’d love your opinion on how to proceed with all of this.
Craig: Okay. Well, I’m going to make an assumption here because it’s not quite clear in the question. And the assumption is that this movie was not a WGA movie.
John: No, it was not. So flashing back to the previous episode, he wrote this thing but it was not a WGA covered movie whatsoever. So he said, you know, “What would have been different if it had been a WGA movie?”
Craig: First of all, he’s not allowed to do that. I hope he knows. Not allowed to write on non-WGA movies if you’re in the WGA, I believe, but fine.
John: Clarify more. He is a writer who has not joined the WGA.
John: So he’s a pre-WGA member. So he wrote on this indie film that is not a WGA film. He’s not WGA. So he wrote in asking in his initial question –
Craig: Oh, if I were.
John: Yeah. “How would it be different if I had been a member of the WGA?
Craig: Well, now that we cleared all that up, I have a clear answer for Joe from Rancho Cucamonga. So what happened is they decided on their own what the credit would be. That’s what happens when it’s not a WGA film. You get a written by credit sharing with an ampersand director and then these other two who the producers have stuck their names on perhaps legitimately and who knows also as written by. So written by A ampersand B, and C ampersand D.
What you’re asking is, how am I going to be credited for this in reality inside the business? The answer is that, in my opinion, you will absolutely be lumped in with the director. If people loved the movie, they’re going to immediately want to know who the director is. They’re going to see that the director was writing with somebody. And they’re going to lump you in as the director’s writing partner.
If you want to not continue to work with that director then you have to go and make an aggressive tour to say, “Look, let me explain the narrative of how this movie came to be,” and in that narrative you are the hero. And I’m just going to presume that that’s true.
Craig: Not that people don’t occasionally tell stories that aren’t true, but presuming that’s true, you say, “Look, here’s how this actually came about and here’s what I think the reality of that movie is.” And if you talk about it in a convincing way, then people will understand that you were clearly a part of it.
But I want to caution you, Joe, that there will not be, unless this movie is literally nominated for an Oscar or makes a hundred times its budget, you will not get waves of attention for this credit.
John: I completely agree. You know, we don’t know exactly what genre of movie this is. If it is a small little thriller or a horror film or whatever, if people like the movie, that’s great. And that will only help Joe. There’s nothing in the situation is going to hurt Joe. While he hasn’t taken any steps back with his credit, it hasn’t pushed him very far forward.
So I think he still needs to think of himself as, “I’m a writer who is very fortunate to have something I wrote produced.” And if you were talking with an agent or manager or producer, they can see like, “Oh, he’s actually been through the process to some degree, like words he’s written have actually been filmed.” So that’s useful. But they’re mostly going to be hiring you based on the script that they’re reading on the page rather than this movie that you were one of four writers on.
John: Yeah, and so that’s fine.
Craig: It is. You’re right, there’s no bad news here. I mean, that he’s better off today than he was a year ago. But he does have to be realistic here. And I actually love that he’s asking the question because it’s an indication that he’s already — that A, he doesn’t have a tendency to sort of smell his own farts. I mean, he knows that he has work to do still. And he’s going to have to tackle this.
This isn’t necessarily a clean kill. So he’s right to think about how to circumvent the obstacles that that credit is created for.
John: So I would also say that if the movie is good, and he should be really honest about whether the movie is good, what his feelings are and what other people who see the movie, what their response is, and if his relationship with these producers and the director is good, he should try to become involved in the publicity and news of the movie as it goes out there. And so that means to the degree that there are screenings and stuff, try to make sure that he’s invited to those things so he can talk about the movie as a major participant in it.
If the movie is not good, he’s not helping himself by going to those things and he can just stay home and write.
Craig: I’m with you on that one.
John: Cool. Our first topic today, is Hollywood making too many movies? That is the headline which is usually generally best answered by Betteridge’s law of headlines, in which if the question mark comes at the end of the headline, the answer is no.
Craig: I love that.
John: So this is an article by Brent Lang writing for Variety. And the central question really is not is Hollywood making too many movies? But it’s looking at the kinds of movies that Hollywood makes and asking the question where are the sort of mid-level movies? Like, you know, we seem to be making a tremendous number of indie films and releasing them theatrically, and we’re also making a huge number of giant movies. We’re not making any sort of mid-budget level movies. And mid-budget but also sort of like mid-performer movies. We’re making very few movies that make between $50 million and $100 million dollars. We’re only making sort of giant blockbusters and things that make $0.30.
So some of the stats he cites, in 2004, roughly 490 films were released on fewer than 1,000 screens according to data compiled by NATO the people who actually track this stuff. Last year, that number ballooned to 563 movies. So 490 to 563. The problem is that the greater profits didn’t follow the influx of films.
In 2004, revenue from films in this sector hit $380 million while admissions topped at $61 million. Ten years later, revenue stood down at $370 million while admissions sputtered to $45 million. So basically, we released a lot more movies on fewer than 1,000 screens but they made collectively less money.
Craig: Yeah. John, I am so puzzled by this article. The statistics are irrelevant. They don’t answer the question that he’s asked. I’m so puzzled by Brent Lang’s article here.
John: I think this would have been much better served by kind of three different articles because I think trying to address this all in one article is part of where the problem lies. Lay? Lies?
Craig: One of those.
John: Yeah, either one is great. English is an evolving language, I could say either one.
Craig: That’s right.
John: So let’s talk about this Indie film argument because I think this is actually something I felt is real and true is that this sense of getting your hand stamped by a theatrical release and then going to video on demand. A ton of movies that are sort of put out every weekend to the point where the New York Times and other major outlets have said, “You know what? We don’t have enough resources to actually review every movie that comes out theatrically, sorry. We’re stopping that policy.”
John: That’s a real change the affects people who make smaller movies.
Craig: Ish. Ish. I mean, because look, when you say hand stamped, that’s exactly right. So people have to understand something. When financiers make an independent film, they are funding it not with money out of their own pocket typically but rather from foreign presales. So they’re going to all these overseas people and saying, “Would you be interested in having the rights to run a movie starring these three people about this topic?” And they go, “Yeah, we’ll give you this much for that. We don’t even care about the script and who’s in it. Just those names, that, we’ll give you this much money.” “Great, thank you.”
They collect all those pledges of money. Now they have enough to make the movies, sometimes they have more than the movie costs and off they go. But part of the deal is, “But you can’t just give us some direct to DVD movie or direct to online movie, we need it to be an actual theatrical release. And here are the terms of what qualifies as theatrical.” So that gets worked into the whole business plan. And then at times they will go out and do a “theatrical release.” That release is to qualify them to then go and collect on all the money from all the foreign distributors. So it’s not really being released is the point. If we have more of those movies, we will have more of these rubber stampers.
John: The scenario that you just described is absolutely true for certain kinds of movies. And I remember a couple of years ago, there was an article about this movie, Zyzzyx Road, that had made the least amount of money theatrically of any movie. And that really was one of those situations where it was completely just supposed to get its hand stamped. It ran like three showings at a tiny theatre somewhere in the U.S and it was that scenario.
What I see more often though now is the movie that was like pretty good at Sundance that used to not get a theatrical release which now does get a theatrical release because of this day and date video on demand releasing, so we’re releasing to theaters and video on demand at the same time. Now, I think an interesting question to ask is, is that theatrical release component mostly just there to please the filmmaker or does it have a true value for the good of the film?
Craig: I think, still, that most of the times when you’re talking about — even though — here is why the statistic is so bad. He’s talking about movies that are released on fewer than 1,000 screens. How many screens? 999 or 1?
John: Yeah, I think that’s a weird cutoff.
Craig: Way too broad of a number there, right? Because, you know, if you’re talking about movies that are released on fewer than 10 screens, it’s all rubber stamping, it’s all to satisfy the filmmaker or an actor or to satisfy the terms of the deal and has nothing to do with a real theatrical release. If you were to say to me, “Look, the world of movies that are released on 800 screens, that’s really suffering,” that would mean something. But I can’t tell that from this number. So I’m going to refuse to draw a conclusion about how movies with smaller releases are actually performing.
John: Great. So the more interesting article which I think you and I would actually love to talk about is the article that looks at, what movies are we not making? Because the only movies that get released theatrically are these tiny ones and these super giant blockbusters, the movies that are incredibly expensive, that open super wide, and have to make $200 million for the movie to be successful.
John: And those are genres in which you and I have traditionally written some movies and those movies are, in some cases, much harder to make these days.
Craig: That is true. And if only Brent had talked about any of that, but Brent doesn’t talk about that. Because what you’re talking about is budget. What Brent is talking about is how much the movies made, which is the weirdest choice of focus for this article and that question, that the headline questioner is asking or even what the article seems to be addressing.
I don’t care how much the movies make. He’s essentially equating high performance with high budget. That’s not the way it works. There are movies that cost $80 million that make $20 million and there are movies that cost $30 million that make $150 million. So there’s a really good question to be asked about the middle-budget movies.
John: So I think there’s sort of two questions that are co-related here. Are we not making these movies because they’re not successful at the box office? Or are they not successful at the box office because we’re just not making them? Is it evidence of absence or absence of evidence for the reason why we see so few mid-budget thrillers, why we see no romantic comedies of a certain size being released anymore?
Craig: All right. So now we’re talking about the article that you and I would write. And here’s what I would talk about. I do think that part of the issue with the middle budget movie is that in success, they don’t make enough, which is a weird thing to say. But the cost of marketing has accelerated dramatically as movie studios seek to drag you away not from just three networks but from 78 possible entertainment options at home, plus the Internet, plus whatever the hell else is going on in your life. So it’s really expensive.
If you make a $30 million movie, you’re going to be spending more than the cost of the movie to advertise it. That’s a tough one, right? You know, whereas if you make a $200 million movie, you’re probably going to spend $200 million to market it. That would be overkill. So they’re expensive. And you may say, “Well, the $30 million movie made $150 million domestically,” and they’d say “Great, it was profitable.” It wasn’t. I mean, like I can’t really do a jig that it’s profitable because the studio next door, they just put out Avengers 3 and grossed $2 billion. What am I supposed to be? Happy that my movie made $20 million? Nobody cares. It’s just — so there’s a question of how profitable can that middle budget be.
The other thing that’s squeezing the middle budget movies is that in the non-comedy areas, a lot of the genre that used to live there — thrillers, police stories, what we call adult dramas, not pornographic dramas, but dramas about adult things — television has really come so far and done such a great job narratively in those genres that people seem to be more interested in watching those things play out episodically than they are in a self-contained two-hour format. So there’s the double squeeze that’s happened there.
John: I agree with you. The marketing thing is the challenge of — it’s like a switch you flip and you have to spend a tremendous amount of money or sort of no money if you’re sort of just like putting it out on a screen and going to a home video. If you’ve committed to releasing a movie wide, you’re committed to spending tens of millions of dollars, and that’s just the reality of a wide release.
The other thing I think is a factor is salaries. And so if you want to cast Jason Sudeikis in your movie, and you’re making a tiny little indie movie, he does it for free, essentially he does it for scale. If you’re trying to cast Jason Sudeikis in a bigger sort of action comedy, he’s going to full rate. And so there’s — it becomes very difficult to make movies for the sort of inexpensively enough that you’re saving enough money to make it really make sense to make that middle budget movie. Either you’re paying him all his cost or not paying all of his cost. There’s no sort of in between rate for these sort of romantic comedies or something else.
The other thing I would talk about is technology. And so it’s true that it’s never been cheaper to make a great looking little indie film. And that’s because we have amazing cameras, we have ability to do great stuff in computers, we can make things look great. And so we see these demo reels of these sci-fi short films like, “My God, that looks like a full theatrical production.” It’s absolutely true, you can do amazing things.
The challenges on making a real feature film, the cost isn’t in the technology, the cost is in time and days. And that does not scale. That does not get cheaper you know with technology just days or days you’re spending money on actors in making a movie and trucks and all of that stuff. So it’s very hard to realize those cost savings from technology in making these movies. And so if you’re making a romantic comedy, at a certain point you’re still — you know, you’re still doing 40 days of shooting and that’s going to add up.
Craig: No question, it’s a really good point you’re making. Bob Weinstein, I remember he used to constantly complain, why does this cost so much? Some guy is doing this on his computer. Yeah, well he’s doing one shot on his computer. You’re exactly right. If you’re making a typical VFX-laden feature film, you’re talking about hundreds of shots, hundreds of VFX shots.
And the only places that can deliver that many shots, and you can’t divide it up between a hundred different companies. There has to be some cohesion, I mean you can use two or three, and plenty of movies do, but not much more than that. Well, the only places that can handle that bulk, are large places. And guess what? They are fully aware that they are in low supply. There are not a lot of companies that can do the work in the amount of time you have. Therefore, they charge you. Of course they do. And you’re right, they are charging you, as they say, good fast cheap pick two. Well, when you want it good and you want it fast, and trust me when you’re making a movie, it has to be fast. Cheap goes out the window. No question. Yes.
John: Absolutely true. So let’s take a look at sort of what some of the solutions are for this, because there are some movies and some genres that we’re able to make and make money at. And so I was thinking about the sort of low budget horror film that get released, you know, there’s one coming out this weekend. We have a template for that. We have a template for making those movies inexpensively, releasing them wide, and they make money. And so that’s the thing that we sort of figured out how to do. Tyler Perry figured out how to make movies with predominantly African-American casts that would make money.
There’s a pattern for how you make those things. And I wonder if we can find a pattern for making the mid-budget comedy, a pattern for making the romantic comedy again so that those things become profitable to make. And it may not be that the giant studios are going to be willing to spend the money and time to figure out how to do that because the point that you made is like, “Well you know the guys next door just made $2 billion. We need to make $2 billion.” But if you’re another company that’s making no movies at all, it may be worthwhile for you to look at like, “I would love to make a movie that makes $50 million.”
Craig: Sure, of course I mean that’s the problem. You’re sitting in the office, you’re running a studio, and you’ve got three movies that each cost $40 million. That’s three sets of producers that are driving you crazy, three sets of actors that are insane, three sets of directors that won’t listen to you, three sets of writers that screwed up. All the problems that you have running a studio, there’s three of them right? The best you think — you’re thinking though, “Each one might make $50 million.” That’s a $150 million for all the blood, sweat, and tears that go into managing three movies.
Down the street they’re only making one movie, that one movie makes $1 billion. And they only need to deal one crazy producer, one crazy director, one crazy actor. So you can see how seductive it becomes. And certainly, the world of corporate America is not to find in a binary fashion of make money or lose money. It’s, how much did you make. I can’t keep you on if everybody else in the competitive space is making more in profit than you are. There’s something wrong with you. That’s the way it works, right?
Now, that aside, we know that occasionally there are movies in that $30 million to $50 million space that make a ton of money and are also repeatable. So a film like Pitch Perfect for instance comes along. It’s a smaller budget movie. It doesn’t even do that well box office wise the first time out, but then has this huge second life in ancillary markets, so they can go and make another one and make a ton of money off of it. For comedy, I think the mid-budget comedy is actually still the rule.
John: And what would you define as mid-budget in 2015?
Craig: 2015 mid-budget is $20 million to $50 million. So between $20 million and $50 million — and really I think $20 million to $40 million is the sweet spot. What you’re trying to do is get one or two comic actors that you know are brand names with the audience. And you are trying to keep the production aspects as manageable as possible because you know from a comedy point of view that people aren’t laughing at stuff because it’s lavish, they’re laughing because it’s funny.
So a movie like Identity Thief is not — it’s far from lavish. I mean, it’s really what it was, ultimately, was an independent movie budget at a studio because by the time you’re done paying Jason and Melissa and me and Seth and Scott Stuber and all the people that are above the line, there’s not that much left to make the movie. You’re kind of making it shoestring, and you’re doing the best you can. And we were cutting corners everywhere. And that was okay, you know. And I’m sure part of what happens, it’s interesting, is when comedy directors have a bunch of hits in a row, they tend to start being able to command larger budgets. Inevitably there is a snap back at them because the larger budgets usually don’t end up warranting themselves.
You know it’s interesting like I’m looking at Spy. I don’t know what Spy cost, but I’m guessing it cost a lot. And it’s interesting because I don’t think it’s going to make that much more than The Heat did, at least not domestically, overseas it’s doing much better. But that’s where comedies get risky when you start getting into that, like the Hangover, the first Hangover I think was $32 million. Now the second and the third started costing a lot because of the above the line but it was understood they would make their money back, and they did. But to go out and make a first — like a first of a comedy, and have it be $70 million, it’s risky. I wouldn’t do it. I’d be nervous.
John: So Craig, not talking about any one specific ones of your movies, but let’s say you’re making a $40 million comedy, what is the split above the line versus below the line? And to explain terms, above the line is your top tier actors, it is your director, your producers, your writers. So what is the split between above the line and below the line?
Craig: If I’m looking at a $40 million comedy, I would have no problem. Literally no problem with like a 40-60 split, where like 40% of that went to cast, writer, director, producer, and the rest was to make the movie, because I know that people aren’t coming to see a spectacle, they’re coming to see Melissa McCarthy, they’re coming to see Zach Galifianakis, they’re coming to see Jennifer Lawrence. That’s what matter. You know when you’re making a Hunger Games, it’s Jennifer Lawrence. You need Jennifer Lawrence to pay for the spectacle. But for the comedy, you need Jennifer Lawrence so the people go see Jennifer Lawrence. That’s what they want you know. So I would be aggressive about that.
John: So circling back, you look at one of these comedies that you’re making for $40 million, and there is the possibility that it breaks out and it becomes a giant, giant hit. And those are wonderful when it happens, but more likely, it’s like well it’s going to make some good money. It’s going to cross over 100 and people are happy?
It reminds me though of a conversation that I was just listening to on StartUp Podcast. So StartUp, talks to a business that’s just beginning and is trying to raise VC capital and grow. And they’re talking about two kinds of businesses, they talk about you know the Twitter, the Facebook, the giant and sort of moon shot corporations, and those are the ones who are trying to become you know, reach a billion dollar valuation. And they talked about lifestyle businesses sort of pejoratively, basically it makes money but like it’s not really interesting to investors because it’s not a good use of their time and their money. And I think in many cases, we dismiss these other types of movies that aren’t going to make you know a billion dollars as kind of lifestyle businesses where they’re just like, “Yes, it’s not the thing we want to do.” And I think, to a large degree, the major studies have been focusing on just these giant hits because that’s the pressure that they’re under.
Craig: Yeah, I mean I honestly don’t blame them. I think that if I were running a studio, I would hand this off in a way say like, “Here’s a division that makes comedies from this number to this number.” And so then those people understand that it’s not a problem if their movie returns 10% or 20% on investment. And it’s not a problem that the people down the street just made a billion dollars because that’s not their job. Their job is to do this, and to make money this way. And it would be nice to see especially because the hits can really take off and be hits for a long time. And they generate money in the library for years and years and years.
You know I mean look, Vacation, I mean the movie Vacation was made decades ago. It was a risk like anything else. I guarantee you it didn’t cost a lot. Well, now there’s another Vacation and how many Vacation sequels were there? And there will certainly be many Vacation sequels of this Vacation reboot. And you know the upside is real for these things. So that’s what I would do, I would say, “Hey, big studios, make a little — make a little division, you know.”
John: You know our friend Billy Ray is directing a movie for this company STX, which I had no idea of what this company was. I saw their logo when I saw a little screening of his film. And it’s a company set up deliberately to try to make adult dramas that no one else is making. And maybe that’ll work, maybe it won’t work, but it was an opportunity for Billy to make a movie for grownups. And that is an exciting opportunity.
Craig: Yeah, there’s been a lot of written and many tears shed over the demise of the grownup movie. And I don’t know. I don’t know if they’re coming back. I — you know it would be nice, but I don’t know.
John: Ben Affleck will make his FIFA movie and maybe that will be a watershed.
John: FIFA! By the time this podcast comes out, Apple Music should be existing in the world. It’s supposed to launch Tuesday that this episode comes out. So Apple Music is a subscription music program that Apple has promised and should be unveiling. People can sign up to stream all the music they kind of want to stream. About two weeks ago, Taylor Swift sent an open letter to Apple complaining about their plan to not pay artists during the three-month free trial. Apple reverses course and is now going to pay its artists. So we are not singer-songwriters. Well, Craig sings, and I’ve written songs.
Craig: There you go.
John: But that is not our main focus of this podcast. We’re mostly talking about things interesting to screenwriters. So I wanted to talk about what does streaming mean for screenwriters and what analogous situations could we find for people who are writing for film and television to the singer-songwriters who are concerned about Apple Music?
Craig: Yeah, we’ve been in this situation for a while now. We just have one major difference between ourselves and singer-songwriters. So we’ve had iTunes streaming television shows and episodes for free supported by ads in certain circumstances or Hulu. And of course there’s Netflix. Netflix is the ultimate subscription service. You pay your monthly subscription and it’s all you can eat of the movies they have to offer you. And the difference between us and singer-songwriters like Taylor Swift is that Taylor Swift when she writes a song has copyright, we don’t. So the people that we fight with, all the time, in this circumstance become our best friends and our advocates.
This is the great value of the percentage base residuals formula. The more they make, the more we make. So we rely on the studios to be as rapacious with these other vendors as they are with us. And they are. So they negotiate very aggressively with Netflix and all these other companies to try and get as much as they can for the product that they’re giving them. And interestingly, the networks themselves like television networks will say to writers, “We want to stream. We, ourselves will stream a couple of episodes for free, to get people to sample the show and we’re not going to pay your residuals for those.” And we go, “Okay.” But they don’t let anybody else do that.
It’s not like they let Netflix stream their movies for free for a while. They don’t. So we’re actually fairly well covered in this front. And I’m glad that Taylor Swift did this because the truth is, that Apple can afford to pay everybody while they’re not making money for three months. Apple could afford to pay everybody while they’re not making money for 15 years. That’s the God’s honest truth. So while it made business sense for Apple to do that, I’m glad that they kind of caved to the pressure. It was the right thing to do.
John: Yeah, thinking about sort what our situation is versus the artists that are going to be covered by Apple Music, it also reminds me of like authors and their dealings with publishers and their dealings with Amazon. It’s very complicated, the nature of the people who make the work and the people who buy the work and what the relationship really is. And it’s also complicated by the fact that we’re moving to sort of post-ownership society. So traditionally when you or I have written a movie, and someone purchases that movie, they’re buying the DVD, and we get that residual payment exactly once. Now, that person pays to rent the movie, in this case, they’re paying a monthly fee to — the ability to stream whatever movies for sort of all they can eat. And we’re given a percentage of the money that the studio has gotten from Apple for that thing.
It’s just another layer of abstraction and it’s harder to track viewing or units or anything like that. We just know that a number comes to us, and that is the money that we are receiving.
Craig: That’s right, and so the guilds will collectively audit the companies every few years. I suspect this is part of it. The companies themselves have to do a pretty good job of the counting because part of their decision about making movies now is, — well, okay, let’s run the model. How much will we get from Box Office? How much will we get from paid TV, from free TV? How much are we going to get from Netflix? So when they get — Netflix says, “Well, we’ll give you this much for this movie. And then these many people stream it and we’ll give you…”I don’t know how it works. All I know is that they have to, the studios have to account for the Netflix money.
It’s not like, “Oh, we just have a bunch of Netflix money. This movie got this much Netflix money, this movie got this much.” So that’s how we get our little piece of it. It’s a pretty good arrangement for us actually, because we don’t have to go toe to toe. We don’t have an ASCAP or BMI that we’re dealing with. But the real question is, and this is the thing that people have been puzzling over is, “What will end up getting us more? The old way where people would buy the DVD or the new way where people will…” — I mean I’ve watched my daughter rent the same movie five times. I’m like “ehh.” But that happens a lot.
John: It does.
Craig: And we actually, our deal on internet rentals is spectacular.
John: Talk to us about the deal, difference between internet rentals and internet streaming and sort of which is generally better for a screenwriter.
Craig: The best thing you can do to support directors and — well, I don’t know what the directing deal is — the best thing you can do to support screenwriters is to rent on the internet. So, you go to iTunes, it’s not a Netflix deal, you’re going to iTunes and you’re renting the movie and let’s say it’s, I don’t know whatever it is, like three bucks to rent or something. We get whatever the studio gets. So Apple keeps a piece, they send the rest off to the studio. Of that amount, we get 1.2%.
John: That’s good.
Craig: It’s very good. If somebody buys the movie on the internet and that’s like $9.99 or whatever, Apple takes their cut, they send the rest to the studio, we get something like 0.6%.
John: All right.
Craig: It’s not as good.
John: Yeah, and it’s not as good also because if your daughter rents the same movie three times in a row, we’ve made so much more money.
Craig: Yeah, it’s just a better deal.
John: So basically, our financial solvency is dependent on your daughter making irresponsible choices.
Craig: On my specific daughter which I think bodes well for all of us.
John: [laughs] She’ll never learn.
Craig: She will never learn.
John: Talk to us about the accounting for the Netflix model. So Netflix agrees to purchase a bundle of movies, the rights to a bundle of movies that they can air during a certain window.
John: Now, if I choose to watch Identity Thief which is while it’s on Netflix, is my individual viewing of Identity Thief at all accounted for you in your residuals, or was it only in the deal that was struck between the studio and Netflix for that window of time?
Craig: The God’s honest truth is that I don’t know.
John: It’s so complicated.
Craig: Yeah, I know for instance when you talk about HBO, it’s not accounted for by viewing. So HBO will negotiate to air a particular movie. They’ll say, “Okay, I want to put Go on HBO. What’s going to cost me to run Go for a year?” And they’ll give you a number and they’ll negotiate and that’s the number and that’s it. It doesn’t matter if a million people see Go or five people see Go. Obviously, the people that are selling Go will try and figure that number out because if it seems super popular, they’re going charge HBO more for the next cycle. I imagine the same thing is true for Netflix but I don’t know. Netflix may even have a situation with the studios where they are apportioning things out by these — I just don’t know.
Craig: They’re really secretive about the whole thing. I mean they won’t even publish the viewing data for the shows they make.
Craig: I don’t blame them.
John: Yeah. All right, let’s talk through really quick, we’ll try to do this in two minutes, the process of a screenwriter’s job from the initial idea and pitch to premiere. And just look at sort of what are the stages that a screenwriter goes through, and also really notate at what points in this process are you getting paid? Because I think there’s a misconception sometimes along the way. So, let’s say you have an idea for a movie, Craig, that is about, it can go back to your initial idea of what if people lived for only 12 years and then they were dead.
Craig: That was your idea.
John: Oh, it’s my idea but you can take it.
Craig: Oh, great. Thank you. Okay, so I have this idea, I write up a little pitch on my own, and then I call up my agent and say, “I’ve got this idea for a movie, set me some pitches up.” And he calls around and people say, “Yeah, I like that or I don’t.” And then I have a bunch of meetings. I’d go and I’d pitch it out and I get a call. One or more than that were interested and we agree that’s the one and we make a deal.
John: Great. So, at this point you’ve done a lot of work, but you’ve not received any money.
Craig: Not a dime.
John: Not a dime. But the deal is now made.
John: And so you’ve signed your contracts, the contracts have gone in, and you are starting to write, and you’re writing your first script and ka-ching, you get paid.
Craig: Kind of.
John: Kind of?
Craig: Maybe. So a lot of places will say, especially new writers, we’re not going to pay you until the full long form contract is signed, and we’re going to take months to create that long form contract. Most places with established screenwriters or if your lawyer has a good working relationship with, the company will say, “While we’re working on the long form contract, can we all agree that these are the basic points of the deal? Let’s sign a certificate of authorship where the writer is saying okay, I’m officially acknowledging that you guys own copyright in this, I’m doing it as work for hire, that will get me my delivery money.” So get your delivery money.
The key is, when you’re ready to turn that first draft in, make sure you get your — if you haven’t gotten your commencement money yet, sorry, it’s commencement money to begin with. If you haven’t gotten your commencement money, don’t turn it in.
John: Yeah. For people who don’t understand, usually, when you’re writing for a studio, you’re paid half the money upfront and half the money when you deliver the script. So it’s just sort of keeps both sides honest that you’re not doing this for free and that you actually have to deliver in order to get the rest of your money.
Craig: So, you’ve written the script, you’ve turned it in, you’ve gotten your commencement money, you’ve gotten your delivery money, now they have a whole bunch of notes and you’re going to move on to your next step. And you’re going to do it again, and maybe there’s a polish and blah, blah, blah, and then suddenly they’re like, “You know what, we like this movie. Let’s go out to a director.”
John: Great. And you might have a chance to weigh in on who that director is, you might not. You will hopefully have a chance to meet with that director and discuss your shared visions for what the movie is supposed to be. That doesn’t always happen, it’s just really situational.
Craig: That’s exactly right. It runs the gamut from, “Oh, did you hear? There’s a director on your movie now, to sit in a room with us while we audition directors.” And I’ve been in both of those spots.
But then they’ll say, “We have our director and we’re going to go into production.” At this point, the director — and I’m just presuming that you haven’t been fired yet. So the director’s like, “Hey, I’ve got a bunch of thoughts, let’s sit for a while and talk about this.” So you start doing some production work on the movie. And you’re doing your pages and your asterisks, and your scene numbers if you’re a good-doobie.
John: Absolutely, and perhaps there’s even a table reading where all the actors gather around the table and read your script aloud just once so you know they actually did read it once. And maybe you’re doing some work after that because you’ve realized that certain actors cannot say certain words or that there are opportunities that you had not foreseen until you had this cast in front of you.
Craig: And God forbid maybe one of your precious lines of dialogue is sucky. It happens. So then you — there’s a big production meeting, the day or a couple days before the first day of shooting where all the departments sit around a big, big table and they ask questions and occasionally someone turns to you and goes, “Yeah, what is that? What did you mean there? When you said a tree, what kind of tree?” So you have that big meeting and then there’s production where you hopefully have some time to be on the set and watch your work being produced.
John: Yeah, and that can, again, run the gamut from being there every frame shot to — oh, hi! This is the writer. Okay, bye. And then you’re done.
John: You don’t know what it’s going to be, but you probably have some sense of what it’s going to be based what the process has been up to that point.
Craig: That’s right. At that point, by the time production rolls around, you should know where your place is in the world of this movie. And then the movie is done, right? So they’re going to run a screening, you’re probably going to go to the first test screening if you’re still involved with the movie. There may be some additional photography required. You know what, we really need a scene here.
John: Yeah. Some of my best experiences in making movies has been in that post-production process where you’re sitting in the editing room, you’re seeing opportunities, you are offering suggestions to help make that movie better because you have some fresh eyes that the director does not have because she’s been starting at this footage this entire time. You can remember what the original intention was. So maybe you’re useful in that point.
Craig: And also when you are writing for additional photography, it’s so surgical, it’s so targeted, everybody — you know that you’re writing something that fits right in between existing footage so it’s just easier to do I think. You know, there’s less of a theory about it and more of a fact, a plan.
John: Yeah. And I do want to point out one thing. So everything we’ve described, the only times you’ve gotten paid, have been times where we said write.
Craig: That’s right.
John: And so, you weren’t getting paid for these meetings about directors, you weren’t getting paid for usually the time that you were in — it depends. The time that you’re in production, contractually by WGA standards they don’t have to pay you if you’re just watching. Is that correct?
Craig: Yeah, they have to pay you if you’re writing stuff down on paper. So, if you are going to be doing any writing, what they usually do at that point is make what they call an “all services deal” where you’re no longer delivering drafts, you’re just — they’re just saying, “This is an amount of money for all the writing we need you to do from now until the movie is done.”
John: Exactly, so could include these rewrites you did during post-production or additional photography — there’s some deal that you’re probably happy to sign because your movie is getting made. Hooray.
Craig: And then they sell it, they make posters and trailers. You usually look at the trailer and you go, “Oh my God.” And then you send some thoughts to somebody that maybe gets listened to and maybe doesn’t. And then there’s a premiere and you get two tickets.
John: Ooh boy.
Craig: Usually. Sometimes you get more. You go to the premiere, you realize that you don’t know anybody there, you realize that the premiere is not at all for people that made the movie. The premiere is to sell the movie. You are uncomfortable typically at the premiere. There’s a party afterwards. You again don’t know any of the people there. If the movie does really well, there could be an awards thing going on. Most movies, that is not the case.
John: Some cases you will have to do some post release marketing so even if it’s not awards stuff, there might be things about the home video release or might be like going in and doing a DVD commentary. They’re may be some additional stuff they ask you to do or other special screenings that they set up after the release. I remember for Big Fish having to go out to the Palm Springs Film Festival and they wanted somebody from the movie to be there, so it’s me and Alison Lohman. And they had these fish balloons for us to stand by, but they were like the Finding Nemo fish.
John: And so there’s these great photos out there of like, me and Alison Lohman and the Finding Nemo fish for Big Fish.
Craig: That’s terrible.
John: Yes. So was I getting paid for any of that? No.
John: Because as a writer, you get paid for writing, you don’t get paid for anything else.
Craig: Correct. Literary material as they say. And then you’re — at this point, you probably never want to think about that movie again.
John: The only thing you might want to think about is, if this was your original idea, which in this case it was, you do own the publishing rights to the screenplay so you could theoretically publish the book form of the screen play and you would make absolutely no money in that, but that is a thing you could do.
Craig: You mean that’s not valued at $70,000?
John: No. It’s not valued at really any money whatsoever.
John: That took more than two minutes, but I just wanted to sort of really walk through the whole process and point out that writers only get paid for writing and there’s so many more parts of the job that you have to do and sometimes your life coaches and marketers and other hats you have to wear, all of which are just part of your job but not getting paid part of your job. It’s time for One Cool Things.
Craig: So, my One Cool Thing, easy, gay marriage.
Craig: So the Supreme Court, five to four, I don’t think that tally is at all surprising. If anything, maybe it could have been six to three. We didn’t quite know where Roberts was going to end up, but five to four. And you know what, what I kind of — other than the fact that I think it’s a terrific decision and a well-warranted decision, what I thought today was, you know, it’s so American to beat up America. It’s what we do. The rest of the world thinks that we’re all self-absorbed and self-satisfied. Far from it.
We beat up America more than anybody else does in a way that French people don’t beat up France and English people don’t beat up England. We really are this — we think of America like a business that could be doing better all the time. But I have a certain American optimism as well and my optimism is that even though at times it seems like we’re going backwards or down, that over time, America gets better. Over time I believe that. And I think that today was a real sign of how over time, America got better.
John: I agree with you. And so I’ve been involved with various versions of lawsuits challenging for federal marriage equality for eight years now?
John: And so it’s a great outcome and so I’m incredibly happy for everyone involved and I liked as people have acknowledged this victory that it was actually the result of many, many, many tiny steps all along the way and little acts of courage. I was gratified to see this and hopeful for what it bodes for the future.
My One Cool Thing is Neil Gaiman’s advice to writers who just can’t get anything on paper. And so I will put a link to this in the show notes, but essentially some fan wrote to ask, you know, I have all these great ideas but I can’t seem to put it down on paper. And Neil Gaiman wrote a fantastic Tumblr post of his advice for how to get those things down on paper which includes in part, “You must catch, with your bare hands, the smallest of the crows, and you must force it to give up the berry. The crows do not swallow the berries. They carry them across the ocean, to an enchanter’s garden to drop one by one, into the mouth of the daughter, who will awake from an enchanted sleep only when a thousand such berries have been fed to her.”
So he goes through this elaborate process for everything you can do if you choose not to actually just sit your butt down in a chair and write. There’s a whole magical way that Neil Gaiman outlines for getting your story written.
Craig: That is the most Neil Gaiman-y anything ever.
John: I loved it.
Craig: An enchanter’s garden, dropping berries into the mouth of his daughter, she has enchanted sleep. Very Neil Gaiman.
John: It’s very Neil Gaiman. And this has been our very Scriptnotesy podcast. So if you would like to subscribe to our show, you should go to iTunes and subscribe to Scriptnotes. If you would like a USB drive of 200 episodes –
John: Plus bonus episodes of the show, you should go to store.johnaugust.com and you should enter the promo code “singularity” in order to save 10%. That’s Craig’s choice for “Singularity.” Our show is produced by Stuart Friedel. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. If you have a question for Craig Mazin, you should write to him on Twitter, he’s @clmazin, I’m @johnaugust. Longer questions you can write into email@example.com. And, Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: See ya. Bye.
- Scriptnotes 200 Episode USB drives are available now!
- Ben Affleck to Produce FIFA Scandal Film for Warner Bros.
- Scriptnotes, 194: Poking the Bear
- Is Hollywood Making Too Many Movies?
- Betteridge’s law of headlines
- STX Entertainment and on Wikipedia
- To Apple, Love Taylor
- Taylor Swift Scuffle Aside, Apple’s New Music Service Is Expected to Thrive
- Supreme Court Ruling Makes Same-Sex Marriage a Right Nationwide
- Neil Gaiman’s advice for getting idea on paper
- Outro by Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)
At the start of the month, I wrote a post urging readers to go ahead and send happy support emails. Quite a few users took me up on the offer. Thanks to everyone who wrote in.
Emailing developers is a great way to let them know you like what they’re doing.
Leaving a review in the App Store helps pay it forward, letting potential buyers know that an app has fans. We get an alert in Slack whenever a new review is posted, and immediately take a look.
Here are the four most recent Highland reviews: three raves, and one disappointed user.
This afternoon, pdx-j wrote:
Of all the screenwriting apps I’ve tried, this is my favorite by far. Once you learn to write in Fountain (it’s really not that hard; I promise), writing in Highland becomes intuitive.
I hate having to tab through different screenplay aspects and becoming distracted by how your writing appears on the screen. It hampers the creative flow. Most of the other screenwriting apps out there are so busy and complicated, filled with cumbersome extras in order to make it appear it’s worth the high price.
With Highland, you can just write and write and then convert it all into screenplay format at the end of the day. Fantastic. And because you write in plain text, you can write in pretty much any word processor and easily paste it into Highland. I often write scenes in Evernote on my phone when I’m away from my computer, and then just paste it into Highland later. I’ve never had any problems with this process.
And that’s just the writing portion of this app. The ability to convert files between PDFs, Final Draft, and Fountain plain text is amazing. Thanks for making a great app!
An MBA might say that Highland has good “market fit” with pdx-j. We’re an app that works the way he wants us to work. Both sides are happy.
As we go through reviews and support emails, we find at least half of the negative ones are from users who were expecting a different kind of app. We’re unlikely to be able to make them happy. That’s why we make our Mac App Store screenshots clear and straightforward. It’s also why we have a standard email that walks users through the process of getting a refund from Apple.
On Friday, ngonzale3 wrote:
It really is like magic how Highland works out the formatting so that the writer can go on writing. I have Final Draft 8 and instead of upgrading to 9, I upgraded to Highland.
My only, constructive criticism is that it would be great to have the software remember some of the names that will repeat themselves somehow. This way we can save more time from setting up the names for Highland to format it properly.
Again this is a minor, spoiled-bratty request from a truly grateful writer. This software actually makes me believe that I am, strangely as that sounds, rather than a programer trying to write a screenplay, the way Final Draft can.
Auto-completing character names is a completely reasonable request. Other screenwriting apps do it, and it doesn’t violate the spirit of Fountain or Highland.
The challenge comes in designing an interface for dealing with the list of character names. Do you let users see the list? Edit it? Export it? Each “yes” adds complexity, so it needs to be worth it.
In May, David Witus wrote:
I really liked Highland for the first month or so that I used it. But then I started noticing two problems.
1) it would quit unexpectedly. This wasn’t a huge problem because it seemed like it could re-open easily enough without any lost (unsaved) work. That is, it seemed to just pick up right where it left off.
But 2) the PDF output would drop text at the bottom on assorted pages. This was a much bigger problem.
Dialogue that I knew did not follow other dialog appeared in the PDF saved version, but in the input version, it was there. I could not figure out why this was happening and noticed that if I added an action, it would go away. But it would come back up eventually somewhere else.
When you are talking about a 120-page screenplay, this is a huge problem. In fact, I registered a script that had this problem before I realized it and had to get the Copyright Office to reset the link so that I could upload a corrected version. I chose a different application for the second try, and have not used Highland again.
David encountered bugs that made him lose his trust in an app that he really liked.
Highland is a pretty mature app, so why does it have bugs at all? I can think of a few reasons:
It’s dealing with a lot of files it didn’t create. While its native Fountain format is pretty much bulletproof, both PDF and Final Draft files can be incredibly strange. Importing and exporting these documents can be problematic. And each time a new app comes on the scene, its files may be weird in entirely new ways.
Squashing bugs sometimes introduces new ones. When Nima gets a support email, he often asks for a sample file so he can reproduce the problem. Once he fixes the issue with that file, how can he be sure it won’t mess something up with another document? The best answer is probably to run the new build through a large corpus of known files and look for anomalies, so we’ve started to do exactly that. But…
We’re never quite sure what people are trying to do. Because Highland is essentially a text editor, you can type anything into it. You can type a novel, a grocery list, or a 4,000 page manifesto with no white space. When you hit the preview button, it shouldn’t crash. But because the app is expecting Fountain format, it’s making guesses that may be very wrong. In the case of David’s screenplay, it sounds like Highland was miscounting page lines. Without seeing the file, Nima wouldn’t be able to figure out where the issue arose.
These are explanations, but not excuses. If I had David’s experience, I’d be frustrated too. Had he emailed us first, Nima might have been able to send him an interim build that fixed his issue. But I understand the instinct behind leaving the two-star review.
(As far as I know, David may still have Highland installed, so the most recent build may have already addressed his issues.)
On Wednesday, kencarell wrote:
Love this app. I was using Adobe Story for a while but it was clunky and hard to use.
It takes a little getting used to if you’re used to those auto-format screenwriting softwares but after some practice, it’s really easy to use. I like that you can switch the font you’re typing in around but it still shows up in Courier (or Courier New or Prime, depending on your settings) when you look at it in preview mode.
My only critique with it is I would like to see some more added to it in future versions. I know it’s not meant to be a whole production software but add something as simple as scene numbers would be nice.
A lock mode would be good too with revisions afterward (so it numbers pages with A/B, etc.). I know this is supposed to be very streamlined so it’s unlikely these things will be added but they would be a good bonus.
Otherwise though, love how clean and smooth this software runs. Great stuff John!
Highland actually already has scene numbers. Simply put the number surrounded by hashtags after the scene header.
INT. HOUSE – DAY #32#
In the preview, that number will move to both the left and right margins.
I use Highland every day — in fact, I’m writing this post in it. A lot of what the app is today and will become in the future is driven by my needs.
Upcoming versions of Highland will be adding some remarkably useful things, but we’re not looking to become a Final Draft or Fade In killer. Each of these apps does a credible job with locked pages and other production drudgery. It’s simply not that interesting for us to try to do it better.
Rather, we want to create apps that make writing slightly more delightful. All four of the reviews above feel like they came from our ideal users: writers who want an app that gets out of the way and lets them focus on the words. So our goal is to keep those people extremely happy.
You can find Highland and all of its reviews on the Mac App Store.
Craig and John look at why certain genres of movies — mid-budget thrillers, adult dramas and romantic comedies — aren’t getting made, and whether there’s any way to get them back.
We also look at Apple Music, and what streaming means for screenwriters. Finally, we chart the screenwriter’s job from pitch to premiere, and how few of those steps are actually paid.
Big news: we have brand-new USB drives with the entire Scriptnotes catalog available at store.johnaugust.com. Quantities are limited, so don’t delay.
- Scriptnotes 200 Episode USB drives are available now!
- Ben Affleck to Produce FIFA Scandal Film for Warner Bros.
- Scriptnotes, 194: Poking the Bear
- Is Hollywood Making Too Many Movies?
- Betteridge’s law of headlines
- STX Entertainment and on Wikipedia
- To Apple, Love Taylor
- Taylor Swift Scuffle Aside, Apple’s New Music Service Is Expected to Thrive
- Supreme Court Ruling Makes Same-Sex Marriage a Right Nationwide
- Neil Gaiman’s advice for getting idea on paper
- Outro by Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)
Gina Ippolito writes about how she got staffed on her first TV show:
I went to the meeting and basically just talked with three of the dudes who work on the show, including the creator. They asked me about myself and I talked about my love of geeky sci-fi shows, the stuff I do at UCB and iO, and the fact that I’ve been playing chess competitively since I was little. The creator was also a huge chess nerd. One of the other guys loved sci fi shows. We geeked out for a while. Basically I just hung out with them and I left the room feeling like it was a fun time. The next day they emailed me to say they’d like to staff me.
So that’s the story. No insane coincidences, no extreme nepotism, no “I saved the life of the president of Cartoon Network’s daughter from being hit by a car so they gave me a job!” All simple, straightforward, and something that anyone could accomplish, with the right tools.
Ippolito’s tools include persistence, collaboration, and being nice to everyone along the way. It’s classic advice, but also easy to forget.
You should also read her post on How to Get and Keep Writing Jobs.
Every Friday this summer, we’ll be featuring exclusive scripts in Weekend Read. Some of these will be produced works, others just titles that caught the attention of readers.
Today’s collection includes:
The final shooting script for National Treasure. Story by Jim Kouf and Oren Aviv & Charles Segars. Screenplay by Jim Kouf and Cormac Wibberley & Marianne Wibberley.
The outline, script and season one arcs for my 20th/ABC pilot Chosen.
I Fucked James Bond by Josh Hallman, which won the “Fade To Black Award” sponsored by Franklin Leonard and The Black List at the 2014 Austin Film Festival.
You can find these Featured Fridays scripts in Weekend Read’s For Your Consideration section. Each Friday’s scripts are available for that weekend only, and only in the app.