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Updated: 27 min 58 sec ago

The Rules (or, the Paradox of the Outlier)

Tue, 03/03/2015 - 08:03

John and Craig discuss this year’s screenplay Oscar winners, including the success of Birdman’s outside-the-box approach and Graham Moore’s speech.

Craig asked Reddit’s r/screenwriting sub to collect a list of the so-called rules budding screenwriters are told to follow. From the rules of the page to the rules of the industry, John and Craig look at these commonly-cited rules one-by-one, discussing which ones have merit and which ones are better ignored.

All this, plus follow-up on Tess Gerritsen’s Gravity lawsuit.

Also, John has a new app in the App Store called Assembler. Find out more in the links below.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Scriptnotes, Ep 185: Malcolm Spellman, a Study in Heat — Transcript

Wed, 02/25/2015 - 16:55

The original post for this episode can be found here.

John August: Hey this is John. Today’s episode contains some strong language, so listener warning in case you’re listening to this in a place with kids in the car, or somewhere where four letter words are not appropriate. Enjoy the show.

Hello and welcome. My name is John August.

Craig Mazin: Ooh, my name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 185 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Today on the show we are going to talk about directors being credited for a wordless economy. We will talk about trailers. We will talk about writing under a pseudonym. And the TV show Empire. That last one we are not at all qualified to talk about, but fortunately we have a guest who is. We would like to friend of the show, Malcolm Spellman.

Malcolm Spellman: Hello. Malcolm Spellman.

Craig: That was a perfect introduction for you. I have known Malcolm for, what are we going on now?

Malcolm: A decade?

Craig: A decade. A decade of Malcolm, of sweet baby.

Malcolm: A four course meal.

John: Malcolm Spellman is a screenwriter. His credits include Our Family Wedding, but most recently he has been writing on Empire. So, we brought him in here to talk about that and what it’s like to be a feature writer writing on pretty much the hottest TV show on the air at this moment.

Craig: And like for a long time.

John: Yeah.

Craig: It’s a phenomenon.

John: The rocket that is just hitting the stratosphere.

Malcolm: Yeah.

John: The other reason why Malcolm Spellman is great to have on the show is that Craig’s One Cool Thing last week was Fantastic Negrito. Malcolm Spellman is quite involved with the career of Fantastic Negrito, who as we are recording this just today charted on Billboard.

Malcolm: Yeah, that’s the most exciting thing in my life right now. It’s pretty amazing because — and I was telling John earlier, this whole process has been — it’s sort of like how I broke into screenwriting. It’s been completely fly by the seat of your pants. I mean, I got no idea what I’m doing. He doesn’t. And my other partner does. So, it’s to wake up in the morning. Billboard calls you and says, hey dude, you’re on Billboard.

Craig: So, Billboard — so like what is that call? Like Bill? Who calls you exactly?

Malcolm: I don’t remember the dude’s name.

Craig: But he calls — ?

Malcolm: And he’s just like, hey, you’re charting.

Craig: And Billboard is still a thing.

John: It’s still a thing.

Craig: It’s kind of crazy because back in the day DJs would spin records, Billboard would rank all that stuff. Casey Kasem would do the countdown. I feel like, but my son has no concept of countdowns or charts because everything is just like they just pick it up off of the Internet. But Billboard is still out there and still matters.

Malcolm: No one else wants to be the person that says, yeah.

Craig: Yeah. So there’s still a number one. And he’s on the chart, too. What was he, like number four?

Malcolm: He’s seven now.

Craig: Seven, with a bullet.

Malcolm: Yeah, exactly. Our shit hasn’t even really started. Like we got a big show for NPR coming up at the end of this month.

Craig: As a result of him winning the Tiny Desk.

Malcolm: And that’s when it’s really going to — it’s already on fire, but it’s really going to –

Craig: He deserves it. He deserves it. Frankly, it would have happened faster without you. That’s my theory. [laughs]

Malcolm: It only took him 15 years.

Craig: I know, exactly. Exactly. If he had had me, think about where he’d be right now. He’d be sick.

John: Now, he’s had a long career rise, but you’ve had a long career rise, too, because you’ve been at this for quite a long time. The first credit I found for you in IMDb was like a videogame version of The Sopranos from 2006. So, can you give us the history of Malcolm Spellman, screenwriter.

Malcolm: There were the years before I made it, right, I think that was like seven years of trying to learn to write screenplays on a professional level. I broke in in 2002 with a spec sale. That’s still the highlight of my Hollywood career in that I didn’t know anybody in this business. You know what I’m saying? Like there is — I’m a type of dude. You know what I’m saying? I’m the type of dude that doesn’t know people in Hollywood. And I did a blind submission to ICM I think it was at the time. I was still drinking. You know what I’m saying?

And I woke up hung over with like 40 messages on my phone on Monday from Nichelle who is my current wife, then ex-girlfriend.

Craig: That’s a show, by the way.

Malcolm: And ICM saying, dude, we want to rep you or whatever. And the agent literally came straight to — as soon as I called her back she’s like, you could tell, she was like I don’t want no one else to find out about you. I’m coming right now to sign you.

John: That’s crazy Entourage stuff. So, what is this script and how did it come to be? It hasn’t been yet?

Malcolm: No, it’s never — none of my shit ever gets made. That’s my specialty. [laughs]

John: Tell us about this. It’s 2002. It’s a spec script. Your first script?

Malcolm: Yup.

John: And what is the script? What’s the title?

Malcolm: The easiest way to describe it is it’s called Core. And it’s basically Blind Side, but about a skateboarder. It’s a skateboarder from the hood, who I saw a real life version of, meets a burnt out Tony Hawk type, and X Games ensue.

Craig: Right. X Games ensue.

John: So, ICM signs you. You reconnect with the woman who is now your life. What happens next? After they sign you, are they sending you out on meetings? Are they trying to get directors attached to this thing? Like what happens from 2002 until this more recent renaissance?

Malcolm: It’s a cautionary tale.

Craig: Of all the things you did wrong.

Malcolm: Yup. And that I see other screenwriters doing versions of. You know what I’m saying? So, because I’m black and at that time –

Craig: Wait, what?! [laughs]

Malcolm: At that time, I know, I don’t look black. By the way, no one on your Scriptnotes knows what I look like, but I’m black as fuck.

Craig: Well, you don’t look white.

Malcolm: Whatever.

Craig: Well, you’re half white.

Malcolm: Yeah.

John: Yeah.

Craig: You have blue eyes. I don’t.

Malcolm: Yeah. But I also got history. [laughs]

Craig: Exactly. You got history. You got the Bay Area, you got the ‘fro.

Malcolm: So, I break in and because I’m black there aren’t many people like me on — and there still isn’t. In feature writing there were, I think, where’d I hear the stat last night, something like 40 something movies about predominately black people, three black screenwriters. It was worse back then.

My shit was ringing off the hook. I’m literally getting calls from people like, you know, this guy is — but I’m not going to name names — but this big director — people were taking me to premieres. Execs at Fox, because they were fighting over me.

Craig: They were excited that you were black. They were excited that they had a black feature writer.

Malcolm: Well, what is this guy? Yeah. Like there’s a black dude who no one has ever heard of who in one week is now at ICM and has a script sold at Fox. And so I did the rounds in Hollywood and this the tail end. So Hollywood had just died. The spec system had just died or whatever, but no one knew it yet. Like this was still a time when my agent was giving me advice at the — . She’s a great agent. “You want to be the only writer on a movie if you can.” You know what I’m saying? Like the people still said shit like that.

And I was being offered, well, I was up for a ton of shit of just a variety of stuff because people were excited like, you know, I don’t believe in false humility or whatever, right. Dudes like me weren’t walking into rooms. You know, I had cornrows back then. You know what I’m saying? Like this was before every athlete had them. You know what I’m saying?

Craig: Right.

Malcolm: So I was an exciting thing and a ton of jobs I was up for, but more importantly a few places were like, dude, we’ll go to you exclusively. We just want you. You know what I’m saying? And –

Craig: How’d you fuck that up?

Malcolm: Here it comes. You know how we — there are guys who will remain nameless who right now are having a good run and they’re not aware of the various plateaus in Hollywood? Right?

Craig: They think this is lasting forever.

Malcolm: I’m thinking there’s me, and then I was telling John before you came, and then there’s Scott Frank. And that’s where I’ll be in a minute.

Craig: I got it.

Malcolm: I don’t know if there’s anything in between.

Craig: Right.

Malcolm: And I don’t like any of the stuff I’m up for. But I don’t know shit. Dude, I’m literally coming straight off the straights, straight from sobriety or whatever. I don’t know what — I don’t know what the process is. I don’t know you turn it into shit you like. And so I’m literally getting offers like he has the job if he wants it, we’ll develop it, we’ll figure that out later. And my response was — I can tell the truth because everyone is gone from there.

So MTV Films has a movie that they’re doing a remake on. They wanted to buy my spec and went to Fox. And they had a movie they were doing a remake on. It’s active, so I won’t name it. And they’re like, Malcolm has the gig. And my response was is it rated R. And they’re like, no. I’m not doing it. Shit like that. Right?

And I told my agent, that’s it, no more — I’m not doing no more meetings. These jobs suck. I should be writing Oscar movies. If I’m not going to be doing that, then I’ll just write my own thing.

And then I took two years to write that project. And when I came out of that hole –

Craig: Who are you?

John: Yup.

Malcolm: Three years of no work. Maybe four.

Craig: Okay, so, I mean, I have a question then. That is — we’ve seen this happen before. That’s not a unique story, sadly. This happens a lot. I guess my question is there’s no way to avoid it in a way. I mean, in a weird way I always feel like there are some people who need a certain amount of ego strength and insularity to get that first big explosion.

And unfortunately that’s who they are. Like I think sometimes these things are unavoidable. You have to kind of fall apart to be put back together as the guy that you are now.

Malcolm: I agree. Go ahead, John.

John: Well, I was wondering, in the cautionary tale of it all, it sounds like you had heat and you didn’t know how to use that heat in order to sustain a career. You didn’t know how to sort of play the game in terms of like taking the meetings even on projects you don’t really want to build relationships. And you were so focused on writing your own next thing that you didn’t sort of keep up all of the stuff about like how to be an employable writer.

Malcolm: But, you know what? Here’s the real cautionary tale. You believe — we all think we’re special. Every screenwriter I know thinks they’re better than all the screenwriters. And it doesn’t mean shit. And your heat doesn’t mean shit. And you aren’t special. I wonder if I should name my boy. Because I have a dude who was literally driving — he was Nichelle’s assistant and part time assistant. I work as a mentor with a bunch of writers. They’re all doing — and the same with Negrito, right? They’re all doing better than me. I take great pride in that.

And so my boy is the hot dude in town. And he’s genuinely talented. He listens to Scriptnotes, so he knows –

Craig: Oh, he’s a smart guy.

Malcolm: Who I’m talking about, right? And because you know there aren’t many — I consider myself a “real writer,” meaning I do something interesting and unique on the page and people seem to respond to it. Still that doesn’t mean shit. And that’s the cautionary tale is like you have to somehow understand that in a weird way, as special as you are, you aren’t special.

And that’s the thing — it’s really hard to grasp. I literally like my lawyer at that time was like I’m going to put you in contact with this great writer. He should be a mentor to you. Name is John Lee Hancock. Nice guy or whatever, right.

And I was like, fuck that, I don’t need a mentor. Because I’m starting to rail, man, you know what I’m saying? Because –

Craig: That would have been useful.

John: Yeah.

Malcolm: I don’t get that I’m not special and I don’t get that dude. There’s a whole fucking system in place that all you are is a part of that system, ultimately. Like meaning, I know that’s unromantic, right.

Craig: No, but it’s right. I mean, isn’t it like sports? I mean, everybody that plays Major League Baseball was not only the best, they were the best of the best. They were the best player not only at their high school, but in their high school’s history. Then they get to the Major Leagues and they’re just a guy. And sometimes they’re not even that good there.

Or they realize, oh, I actually don’t know how to hit a Major League curveball. I used to crush curveballs. I don’t — this is a new thing. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know where I belong. I have to start over again in a weird way. I’ve got to figure out who I am.

John: Well, the other thing is like you had learned how to write a screenplay and you had learned how to write, but that wasn’t about how to make a movie. And so you didn’t have any training on sort of like how do you do those next ten steps in order to make this thing into an actual movie. And for me that was Go. If I didn’t have a chance — if Go hadn’t happened, I would never have really learned that. And so I was lucky that that wasn’t my first swing at the bat.

And yours, you know, you had this great burst of heat on that first thing –

Malcolm: You can say it. [laughs]

John: Yeah. But you didn’t know how to do the next thing. And so like I was very lucky I think that my first two things were just assignments and there was no great spotlight on me. And so by the time I had that spec that was that sort of spotlight moment, I was ready for it.

Malcolm: I agree. And that goes with what Craig was just saying which is this: ultimately because of how awful I would have become as a person, I did need to be torn down. But I do think there are writers who listen to your podcast who might not become awful people.

Craig: We’re trying.

Malcolm: And what they have to understand is that there is a whole thing going on and you are having a moment and if you do things right, your moment will parlay into more moments, but this thing is so much bigger than you. If you can just check your ego you will understand if it’s not you, it will be someone else. And that’s what happened to me.

Craig: Hollywood has, just by nature of what it is, and what it produces, it’s always been excited by something that’s new. It gets incredibly excited by new things. But just as quickly, becomes unexcited with them. Hollywood is a bored 11-year-old boy flipping through channels, stopping at one thing going, “Oh, awesome. Eh, no, keep moving. I’ve seen that. Oh, okay, I watched four seconds of it. I got it. Next.”

There is no real heat. Heat is — it’s all false heat.

Malcolm: Yes. That’s the thing. And it is — you can’t imagine when you’re the new thing that, dude, literally my agent told me I couldn’t fucking — she was like, dude, you are the new piece of meat in town. And I couldn’t imagine, no, this is different. You know what I’m saying?

And one last thing. I really regard, I hope this somehow gets back to him. I had a meeting early when I was in my downward spiral and I didn’t know it was happening, with Jon Jashni.

John: Yeah.

Malcolm: And he was coming up. And you know he’s got this mellow vibe or whatever, right?

John: Very mellow.

Malcolm: And he, I know he won’t remember this, but he saw the arrogance, right, and knew it was misplaced. And he pulled me to the side and said, Malcolm, this is what I want to tell you. There is no real satisfaction in this business. And you need to look to things outside of this business to satisfy you or whatever, because basically what you’re chasing here isn’t real.

And you know what I thought?

Craig: What?

Malcolm: There’s no satisfaction for you.

John: Ah!

Malcolm: I’m special. You know what I’m saying?

Craig: [laughs] Right. Right.

Malcolm: And then four years, no work.

Craig: Right. So it turns out that Jashni was completely correct.

Malcolm: Yeah, it was a great, but I was –

Craig: He is totally correct. I mean, I’ve never, I’ll say this much: I don’t know why. I have never once believed in any heat. I’ve always thought it was false heat, maybe because I just generally don’t trust people. But I never had the problem with, I don’t know, thinking that Hollywood was going to be the answer to my problems.

Hollywood is another problem to me. It’s just another problem to be solved. And I hope that the young writers who are listening or the writers who are just getting started in their career, really listen carefully to this because Malcolm isn’t — he’s not — you know, you’re not a monster. You’re an awesome guy. And you figured out how to put it back together.

Actually you’re right. There is something very common about this egocentric “I’m special, I’m the one.”

Malcolm: John, before you jump in. Real quick stat. The average career for a screenwriter, I believe, is five years. Which means the average screen — but you know what that five years is?

Craig: Oh yeah.

Malcolm: It’s you sell a spec. You get hot. You flame out. And you’re done.

Craig: That’s right. Even that number is a lie.

Malcolm: Right. Right.

John: So, let’s talk about how you sustained and how you came back. And what were the next steps. So, you wrote this second thing, it took too long, the heat — whatever heat there was had evaporated. What did you do next and how did you get to this next place?

Malcolm: I got angry for awhile, which doesn’t help or whatever, right. But one thing is because of how I made it into this business, same thing we’re doing with Negrito right now. Because of how I had to learn to make money before I ever got to Hollywood, and because bless my mom’s heart I was always told that life isn’t fair, my reaction eventually became fuck that shit, I’m going to keep writing, and I ended up having to reinvent myself and –

Craig: What did you reinvent yourself as?

Malcolm: Well, black died.

Craig: Now, when you say black died, you mean black movies, black TV –

Malcolm: Black everything.

Craig: Everything.

Malcolm: Black everything was done.

Craig: Like everything died. What years are we talking about when the black death occurred? [laughs]

Malcolm: It was, so I sold in — 2002 is when I really broke in. Had a couple years. So, let’s say the early to mid 2000s.

Craig: Black died.

Malcolm: Right. Black died. And it’s been dead up until a couple years ago. Tyler had his run, but that’s –

Craig: He was his own brand.

Malcolm: Right. And so –

John: And when you say black died, it was just impossible to get a black movie made, a predominately African American movie made at a studio system?

Malcolm: Think about this. They’re making them now, and out of 42, three have black writers. They weren’t making them back then. That’s what I was getting at.

Craig: Right. So even when they are making them, they’re still not hiring black writers.

Malcolm: Yeah. And that’s in features. You know what I’m saying?

Craig: Features. Right.

John: So, you see this landscape, so what do you do? What’s your next choice?

Malcolm: It was I turned towards basically I had to get out of urban crime, which is where I was at, right, and I got into white comedy. And even then it was really difficult. What I discovered was a unique niche. Because I was telling Mazin this, John, is there aren’t really any writers — not any — there aren’t many writers out there like I had been before Empire which is this: there isn’t any reason to hire me. Right? I have no hit. I’m not new like the kid who is listening. He knows who he is, right? That’s a reason to hire you.

Craig: That’s a reason, yup.

Malcolm: A good screenwriter is not really a reason to hire you, right?

Craig: It’s not a compelling reason. Malcolm: So, because you’ve got to get on the phone and say who are we hiring. Malcolm. Who the fuck is he? He’s good.

Craig: Right.

Malcolm: Okay, what about the other guy you think is good and he’s hot?

Craig: Right. He’s not new. And he’s not a hall of famer, so you are that middle class writer. When we say middle class we don’t mean economically middle class. We mean that middle, big thick middle of writers in Hollywood.

John: Middle tier, yeah.

Craig: That are like, okay, I’m not the new rookie. I’m not the — whatever, the top of the heap. I’m that guy in the middle that’s punching my way towards jobs.

John: What’s an example of white comedy? So what did you write that was a white comedy?

Malcolm: The shit — well, none of it gets made, right?

Craig: That’s your specialty. [laughs]

Malcolm: Yeah, that’s my specialty.

Craig: That’s your genre.

Malcolm: So, I wrote a couple of like ensemble comedies, similar to like what Craig does with The Hangover, right. During this time period, let’s just include it all, because I had a couple of dry spells. And we can rewind it. I did write that script in 2009 which is — I had come out of the dry spell and was going dry again, Balls Out with Tim that that got on the Black List or whatever.

Craig: Let’s talk about that first, because that was actually kind of a big deal. So, you guys did — I remember when you showed me the script and I read it and I thought this is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.

Malcolm: I was surprised how good your notes were, too. Because I didn’t –

Craig: I know. Everyone is always surprised.

Malcolm: I didn’t get your whole thing yet.

John: So let’s back up.

Craig: I’m slow to warm up to. [laughs]

John: Let’s back up. The script we’re talking about is Balls Out and it’s written under a pseudonym, it’s you and Tim Talbott as the Robotard 8000. And did you write this movie with the intention of getting made, or just to make the most outrageous sample you could possibly write? What was the thought as you went into it?

Malcolm: What makes the Robotard great is Tim writes with no intention to get made and wants to be outrageous. And I’m like, you know, and I write from a different place. And that goes on all the way, even into the creative DNA of this thing.

I knew this: I knew about labels. I knew — I was starting to learn — I was very resistant when I was coming up to being pigeon holed. Again, I wanted to be Scott Frank who I was told works in all genres, right.

Craig: Which is true.

Malcolm: But I didn’t know, I was just saying this to John, is you need a platform from which to jump off, whether it’s an Oscar, or a hit, or whatever, you’ve got — meaning — or it could be Craig Mazin writes spoof comedies and from there can jump off of that into other shit. But if you don’t have nothing, if you’re just writing scripts in different genres, you know what I’m saying?

Craig: You have to start somewhere.

Malcolm: So, I’ve been over the last — if 2009 was Balls Out, I was starting to become clear that I need to give people, fuck my writing, whether I think it’s great or not, people need to get on the phone and have something to say. And so we did the Robotard thing because it was like I had to brainwash my reps into understanding this is going to be a different entity and a different — you are going to sell the Robotard as if Malcolm doesn’t exist.

Craig: And you can imagine –

John: Oh, they seem delighted.

Craig: I’m sorry. You and some fucking guy are writing a script that will never get and made and is disgusting.

Malcolm: Fuck you. It’s going to get made.

Craig: Under the name Robotard 8000. But, you know, I thought that — first of all it was evident to me, what you just described in that script was clear that it was absolutely chaotic and tasteless in the best way, the way that John Waters was tasteless. But there was also a formulism to it. There was structure. There was an actual story. So, you could see you and Tim and all that stuff going on in there. And you asked me like, what do you — and I was like no one is ever going to make this. But what did I tell you to do? Do you remember?

Malcolm: I remember one of the notes was really good –

Craig: No, what did I tell you to do with the script?

Malcolm: Oh yes, that’s right. So, Craig has us put it — which is funny because this kind of shit is the kind of shit people do now. But in 2009 — Craig was like, dude, throw it up on the fucking Internet. Have some people read it. And see what the fuck happens because that’s — you’ve done something.

Craig: And the key — I mean, there’s a big risk in that, right? If you put your entire script on the Internet what you’re saying is we’re pretty sure no one is going to make this movie, but we also think you’re going to love us.

Malcolm: That’s right.

Craig: And it worked out because early Black List, right, I mean how many years had the Black List been going at that point?

Malcolm: It was mid Black List. But I’m very proud to say look at the shit we were up against. Social Network. And off the Internet, like –

Craig: Still, like those are the movies they love.

Malcolm: I don’t want to bad mouth no one, but all the reps who got fired, let’s just say that. Right?

John: They loved you.

Malcolm: Refused to get behind it. Our shit got on on its own. But, by the way, again, another cautionary thing — this has to do with like people who are going to Sundance or whatever, or whatever kind of heat you’re getting, me and Tim didn’t really have a clear follow up to it.

Craig: Right.

Malcolm: So everyone in town wanted to meet us, 100%, at high levels.

Craig: And you just didn’t have anything to say?

Malcolm: Yeah. We were like give us a job.

John: So, give yourself advice now. Step in the time machine and give yourself advice about what you should have done at that moment.

Malcolm: The key is the second you understand that there is heat going on, you have to create a reason for that to turn into something. Right? Part of it might be building a narrative. That’s another thing that I’m still learning, like what is the Malcolm narrative. Like I know who you guys are. And I bet you whether consciously or not that has to do with some of ya’ll. Like it’s not just your reps building it, you guys are putting yourselves out as certain –

Craig: My agent doesn’t talk about me ever. I won’t let him talk about me.

John: He’s not allowed to mention your name.

Craig: I was just going to say, you’re not allowed to talk about me.

Malcolm: But, so there’s that, but also it is understanding you have something like Balls Out, right, who are the kind of people that would make a movie in this genre? What are you telling them when you get into the room that is a reason? You know what I’m saying?

It should have been a script. It at least had to have been a pitch. Otherwise, there is this idea that Hollywood will give you a job.

Craig: Never.

Malcolm: I was acting, well maybe when I was hot off my first spec, people were trying to give me jobs.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Oh yeah, sure.

Malcolm: That shit don’t happen no more.

Craig: No, not like that. And when you’re new and you cost scale, maybe then they say we have something we want you to rewrite. But see the interesting thing is when you guys did Robotard what you were essentially putting out in the world was we are this new team that’s wild and irrepressible and unique and original. No one goes to that with a job. They say what do you have that we can get behind, that we can actually make, unlike this thing.

Malcolm: But you know what that also is? So, that is — everything is a failure on yourself. If anyone is working harder for your career than you, like again, this goes to reps. Right? What I’m about to bad mouth, and those reps are gone.

Craig: Do it.

Malcolm: But there is this sense new writers have. All our friends, right, are jaded and don’t expect much from their reps. And, you know, their reps are awesome people who are not being regarded by, because we’re bitter motherfuckers right. But in general this idea that your rep should go out and do shit for you is a monumental failure in how you — right?

Craig: It’s not what they’re good at. I’ve always said what agents in particular what they’re really good at is getting you the most money for the job you got yourself.

Malcolm: Right.

Craig: Every now and then they will put you in a room with someone. Like, I give Todd Feldman a ton of credit, like –

Malcolm: You do give him credit.

Craig: I mean, look, he didn’t put me in a room with Todd Phillips for the first time. That was Bob Weinstein. But he was the one that kind of brought me back around to Todd, which was — I mean, you have to get your own jobs, but they really — they get you the most money once you’ve gotten the job. So, leaning on them and thinking that they’re going to go up — it’s a romanticized view of what agents do.

Malcolm: Yup.

Craig: And then writers will say things like I don’t understand, like I have an agent — every job I’ve ever gotten I’ve gotten myself. And I’m like, yeah, every writer every job they’ve gotten themselves. Why would anyone give you a job because your agent is yelling at them to give you a job? It doesn’t work that way.

Malcolm: No.

John: Nope.

Malcolm: It doesn’t. Go ahead.

John: So you wrote this thing with Tim Talbott as the Robotard. Did you write other stuff with him, or has everything else been your own stuff after that?

Malcolm: I wrote a second thing that I’m proud of that Craig killed us on, but I’m very, very confident in my work.

Craig: I like Balls Out.

Malcolm: You know what I’m saying? I’m very, very confident. Like I don’t — I read everybody’s shit. And I don’t think I lack for anything, so it’s weird. I have zero self-esteem in so many crucial areas in how to navigate this business. I don’t even need people to read my shit if they’re not giving me a job. I don’t crave that shit, because I feel like –

And so we wrote something else that went down in flames. But I actually believe is really, really strong. The problem was there was fatigue for what was out there. We wrote it, again, fucking Tim man will tell you compromised. Like I don’t write from that place, right? I wrote what I thought we should be writing and what we like. Tim feels like we compromised, whatever.

What is true is whether or not the script was good, everybody was doing Hangover type of movies.

Craig: It was yet another Hangover.

Malcolm: It was even in Vegas. And we wasn’t doing it for that reason.

Craig: I mean, even at The Hangover we were getting yelled at for being too much like The Hangover.

Malcolm: But you do remember at the end of Balls Out we talked about the whale, right?

Craig: Oh, yeah, no, there was intertextuality.

Malcolm: It did not come from cynicism.

Craig: No, no, you guys weren’t purposely copying anything. It was bad timing. Which I think, you know when I read it, that was largely what I was concerned about.

Malcolm: It was. You know what Craig’s note was, John?

John: What?

Malcolm: Good structure, someone will buy this. We give him our script, he says, “Good structure. Someone will…” I’m like fuck you, dude.

Craig: I was actually not even right.

John: All right. Let’s talk about good timing.

Craig: Nobody bought it.

John: So this is from an article in Variety this last month and it’s talking about the staffing on the TV show Empire. “Malcolm Spellman, who had long resisted staffing a TV series, was ultimately lured by the show’s premise. ‘I’m bananas for hip-hop,’ he says.”

Malcolm: I get killed on that.

Craig: How did you — you must get killed for that.

Malcolm: I make that shit sound cool though when I say it. It doesn’t look good in print.

John: No it doesn’t.

Malcolm: But if you hear me say that –

John: Say exactly that line. I’m bananas for hip hop.

Craig: In print it looks terrible.

Malcolm: I’m bananas about hip hop.

Craig: [laughs]

John: [laughs] It’s still not a great line.

Malcolm: Fuck you guys.

John: “Now, he says, he’d join again in a heartbeat. ‘The show feels historic, onscreen down to the room,’ he says. ‘To have a show that’s this black, from the stars to the writers, it’s going to be like a nuclear bomb. It’s a watershed moment.'”

That before the show debuted.

Craig: I mean, talk about like now. There is one theory. One theory is that Malcolm talks that way about everything he does. This time coincidentally he was right.

Malcolm: No.

Craig: But I think that actually he was calling the home run. He called the home run.

Malcolm: I’m not in general a clear thinker. But when I am clear, I’m really, really fucking clear. And that was one of the things I wanted to talk about in general was sort of race and what’s happening in Hollywood right now.

So, there is — for Empire, I didn’t have no idea it would be this big, but one of the things I was saying to the people in Variety is this: now you have to cut through the noise. We do it with Negrito, right? We know this. When Negrito is on point, no one else is doing his shit like that. You know what I’m saying? People will imitate him.

When you’re looking at the TV landscape where everyone — I heard Overstock is about to start doing original content. I’m not lying.

Craig: Overstock?


Craig: You’re kidding me.

Malcolm: They’re like, fuck it, Amazon did it. We’re doing it.

Craig: Oh my god.

Malcolm: When you’re looking at a landscape that’s this saturated, how do you cut through the noise? I think — is it appropriate for me to talk about a show I think is going to do good that hasn’t come out?

John: Oh, absolutely.

Craig: Of course.

Malcolm: I think NBC is making a smart move with this DiGilio project called Warrior which is basically going to be — you should check it out. I don’t know how far — I think it’s public. It’s been in Deadline. I don’t want no one to get mad at me.

Craig: No one is going to.

John: If it’s in Deadline it’s fine.

Malcolm: All right. So, it’s Crouching Tiger and what they’re focusing on from what I heard from the execs is the right shit, which is that feeling of magic in Crouching Tiger. Whether or not it works, you know why that show deserves to live and why it could hit.

With Empire, you couldn’t at the time turn on the TV and see shit that looked like that or sounded like that. And the equivalent is if you were going to do a sci-fi show, this would be the sci-fi show that has $100 million worth of effects on it, because when you turn on that screen you’re like that’s a soap and that’s all black folk up there.

Craig: No one has ever done, I mean, there have been a ton of primetime soap operas. No one has ever done an all black or mostly black primetime soap opera in the history of TV. Is that correct?

Malcolm: I bet so. And this shit is –

John: Yeah, I mean –

Malcolm: This is a type of black. This is black like hip hop was black when it came out, and white folks were like, fuck, that’s hot. You know what I’m saying? That’s what’s happening right now.

Craig: It feels authentic.

John: It feels like, I mean, you could step back and say like, oh, you know, hindsight being 20/20, like you look at the Shonda Rhimes shows that are doing awesome. You look at Nashville, which is working. There is probably a version of that’s an African American driven show that is about music. This show could exist. But the show could also — you could make that show and it could be awful and it could not be a hit.

So, at what point did you encounter Empire? Had they already shot the pilot? How did you get involved?

Malcolm: They shot the pilot already. And for sure it was like, okay, this isn’t just black folk, right? This shit sounds black. If you know Lee Daniels, and I’m not dissing Danny or Ilene, who I love. They are equal — they are all equal voices. Those are all our EPs or whatever, right. But Lee will do little shit, you know what I’m saying? Like he’ll give you that shit.

Craig: That guy is amazing to me. So, I’m kind of curious how, because you know I’m a huge Precious — I think Precious is one of the best movies ever made. I love Precious. I’m obsessed with Precious.

Malcolm: It’s a great, great, great movie.

Craig: I actually think one of the things about Precious that people don’t understand is how fucking funny it is. It’s one of the — that weird thing where Precious imagines herself in like an Italian neo-realism movie with her mom. There’s just amazingly funny stuff, but it’s also that scene — like I’m still, like sometimes I’ll just if I’m bored I’ll just go on YouTube and I’ll just watch that scene near the end where Mo’Nique is sitting there with Mariah Carey.

It’s one of the best scenes ever put on film. It’s astonishing. Mo’Nique is astonishing in that film.

Malcolm: She scorches it.

John: She’s amazing.

Craig: Like I’m just kind of obsessed with Lee Daniels. And I feel like, so Lee Daniels, is he kind of like the tonal godfather of this thing?

Malcolm: What happens is you’re dealing with creative people, right? So, if you start doing shit, it gets absorbed by everybody. And other people can somehow put themselves in that place. You know what I’m saying? Where the tone becomes universal for us in the writing room. You know what I’m saying? Like everyone starts to understand what this show is.

An important point though, for Empire to exist, I do believe — so this is a watershed moment. Empire is a watershed moment. Like all watershed moments, on the heels of some other watershed moments. Everything in Hollywood I think is about to change, particularly because they’re finally let black folk in the game again. And in a different way than they did before.

Craig: As creators.

Malcolm: And they’re not letting. Black folks are putting themselves in the game.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And they seem to want it now, too.

Malcolm: That’s the fucking win. It’s all we do. And Shonda is the spearhead of that shit, meaning two years ago on the heels, when there was only Scandal, right, I’m out pitching and literally being told like the conversation wasn’t this blunt. It’s much more elegant. But here is my conversation in the room.

Can’t do the show. Has a black lead. Won’t sell international.

My response: What about Scandal.

Their response, and this builds into our thing we were emailing about earlier: That’s the exception to the rule.

Craig: Right. It’s always the exception to the rule when it’s black people right?

Malcolm: Now, Shonda has already populated Grey’s with a diverse thing, and it’s crushing, right? And it’s crushing in the demo. Then she fires off Scandal and they’re still hating. And then she comes with How to Get Away with Murder and at that point you know how Hollywood is. They’re like, fuck, we need black chicks to lead our shows.

Craig: Right. Because if there’s three exceptions to the rule in a row, maybe the rule is wrong. [laughs]

Malcolm: It is. And so there’s a certain amount of rage I feel. Craig gets these emails, John. Because what’s about to happen — there’s been this myth in Hollywood that’s going to — and it takes fucking logical contortions to support that overseas in particular black folks diminish your appeal. And what’s about to happen is so many things with black leads are about to do well, particularly coming out of the TV camp, but they can’t lie no more.

Like if Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Blackish, and Empire — got to shout out to Blackish.

John: Absolutely Blackish. Yeah.

Malcolm: Which is cutting edge stuff. Like I saw Kenya last night. I didn’t get to talk to him. I don’t know him well, but that’s high level on top of having black folks.

John: When he pulls out his African American Express Card, like that was just a great moment.

Malcolm: If all that shit does well overseas –

John: Well, here’s a question. What if it doesn’t do –

Malcolm: It is though. Too late. It’s already happening.

John: But I would postulate that even if Empire was not a giant hit overseas, it’s such a massive hit here that it kind of doesn’t matter. Things don’t always have to transfer.

Malcolm: There are two levels to my rage. Empire, I don’t know what it’s doing overseas, but I know those other shows are doing well overseas. And so the general thesis is what I feel like as a — and I don’t even just write black shit, but here’s an example of what happens to me, or used to.

I walk into a meeting at a studio. I can’t even name the specifics because everyone will know who I’m talking about. And there is the exec who breaks new writers. And he sits down, he’s not white, he’s not black, but he’s not white. And he starts off our conversation, because he read a project I wrote for Warner called Soul Train, and he says, “I just want you to know, we don’t do black projects here.”

Craig: Right. That’s it. Like, oh so –

Malcolm: Oh, I’m done. I’m done.

Craig: Yeah, because what else could you possibly do?

Malcolm: And I want to say, motherfucker, do they do your race’s project here? No. So, let’s fucking do some white shit, right? [laughs]

John: For a time there was UPN. For a time there was a whole broadcast network that was predominately, like all the black shows were there. And then it went away. But in some ways –

Craig: But were those black shows, or were those white shows with black actors? Like there’s a big difference. I feel like part of the –

John: Well, Girlfriends, though, was a black show. Wasn’t it? Wouldn’t you call that a black show?

Malcolm: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. There is a black sensibility there. Like we’ll kill the whole timeslot if we get into definitions of when something becomes black or not, but what I do think is important for us to talk about is do people overseas not want to spend money –

Craig: Okay, so here’s what we were talking about, and this is my theory about this whole thing, because we get into this with movies all the time. All the time they talk about this with movies. And what they’ll say is black movies don’t travel overseas. And my whole thing is, no, there are certain movies that are culturally very American that don’t travel overseas. A lot of black movies are very culturally American. Because when we say black, what we mean is African American. We don’t mean, like for instance in France, France we were talking about — what was the movie where in the UK it did great, but in France it didn’t do well? I think it was Ride Along.

So, Ride Along it made like $6 million in Britain and it made like $25,000 in France, because it’s just a different kind of black person there. Like our thing here, African American is a certain cultural niche. But the same is true for fucking NASCAR, right? So Talladega Nights does not travel. Talladega Nights makes $120 million here. And then makes $2 million overseas and nobody says white movies don’t travel.

Malcolm: And let me jump in here, because this fucking important. African Americans are the pillar of global pop culture.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: Right.

Malcolm: We travel and the whole thesis has been — and look at the Sony hacks. This isn’t paranoia. Right? I don’t know if that’s appropriate to say, but –

Craig: Go for it.

Malcolm: But this shit is stated by studio heads, right? The general thesis is that first they didn’t want us in sports, right? And there is the same arguments where if too many black people play baseball, people will stop coming out to the park. So, sports, music, we are dominant. We sell overseas. And they are saying that racist people are making the distinction that though we will buy their music, and watch — and buy their tennis shoes and all that shit –

Craig: We won’t watch them.

Malcolm: We won’t watch them. And all these motherfuckers are saying this. And the problem is it’s because they’re comparing Tyler Perry movies to fucking a Tom Cruise movie, as opposed to as the stuff we were saying back –

Craig: You should compare like, Tyler Perry movies, they don’t even release them overseas anymore. They used to try. They gave up. Because it’s an American cultural experience.

Malcolm: That’s right.

Craig: It’s about the Bible belt, for god’s sakes. They probably shouldn’t even release Tyler Perry movies in New York.

Malcolm: Right.

Craig: But, The Equalizer, right, has — we heard for years, we heard for years, “Well black actors, they don’t travel.” Denzel is traveling just fine.

Malcolm: Let me tell you how sick this business is though, dude. Amy Pascal doesn’t think that.

Craig: Well, she’s wrong.

Malcolm: But, that’s what you’re dealing with if you’re black. This is where the rage comes from.

John: Yeah.

Malcolm: So, for the people out there who don’t know, me, John, and Craig, Craig built this community of writers. It’s giant. And it’s very, very social. And we all interact and email each other. And so I’m having this argument with two of the writers that we know. You know what I’m saying?

Craig: Should I get rid of them?

Malcolm: No, they’re great guys. And there’s this pathological insistence that race is the reason. And so Denzel becomes the talking point. “Look at Denzel. He doesn’t do well overseas.”

Craig: But he does.

Malcolm: But that’s the fucking problem with racism.

Craig: Will Smith does great overseas.

Malcolm: Let me, without naming names, a lot of black people have bought into this belief, by the way.

Craig: Really?

Malcolm: I believe you were one of the people, proponents of it at a point. You know what I’m saying?

Craig: Well, I’ve been a proponent of everything at some point. I take every side of every argument at some point or another.

Malcolm: That’s right. But my point being there’s nothing you can do, like the statistics that undermine the idea that black folks don’t matter overseas are wealthy, but they’ll always make, “Well, Will Smith is an exception. Well Denzel…”

Do I have time to go through the etymology? No, we should actually just –

John: Well, let’s talk through — you were trying to decide when did this show become black. Is it a percentage of the cast that we see. Is it the percentage of creators? Is it the specific culture that the show is portraying?

Malcolm: So, again, this has been discussed ad nauseam. I don’t know — it’s an amorphous thing. You kind of know it, or sometimes you don’t know it. It’s hard to tell. And the fucked up thing is there’s like if Empire does well overseas, that show is black, meaning it has a black sensibility.

Craig: It’s undeniably black.

Malcolm: It’s black folks up in that room. It’s white folks, too, but white folks who are getting down with black folks. And I have a feeling it’s going to travel, and then it just becomes stop fucking talking about race.

Craig: Well at that point it’s undeniable.

Malcolm: And by the way –

Craig: It’s a shame that it has to be undeniable, though, right?

Malcolm: That’s the fucking rage which is in the wake of what’s happening in Hollywood, right, I believe that there’s a chance — by the way, they don’t push movies with black leads. They start to believe, like they forget Bad Boys starred two people that were not — they’ll tell you every reason, “But Will Smith…”

Craig: Everything is a but, but but.

Malcolm: Exactly. And I have a feeling Ride Along might get a push overseas, and I think it’s going to do pretty well.

Craig: For the sequel, yeah.

Malcolm: Yeah, the sequel. You look at my career, 13 years in the game, right. All these doors are opening up for me now. Motherfuckers want to deal with me. They’re letting me in. I’m stacked up, right? And –

Craig: Don’t get crazy with the false heat.

Malcolm: I’m not. I’m not. That’s over with.

Craig: [laughs] You’re scaring me.

Malcolm: I’ve got — Negrito is on fire now. I don’t give a fuck. I’m like what can we capitalize on. What can we do well? And Negrito ain’t like that either.

Craig: That’s my guy. You know. That’s the start of this thing.

Malcolm: For me and a ton of black actors and directors, and dude, there’s a big time black director who if you look at his list it’s like, dude, you got almost all wins in studio movies and you can’t get hot. Right? And for me who is a brilliant fucking writer, right, you guys have been killing me for ten years and you don’t even know you’re doing it, but look at the Sony hacks and what’s being said. You guys really do believe that. And that applies to me when I walk in the room.

Now, by force of us — by Kenya, Shonda, Lee, and Danny. Danny is honorary black fucker. You know what I’m saying with that, right? By just us being determined because we know our shit is hot, to make it happen — oh Malc, here’s more jobs than you can fucking handle. And you do feel like, fuck you.

Craig: I know.

Malcolm: I’ve been here the whole time and now you all are about to — here’s my metaphor, before we move on. It feels like — do not give me fucking hate mail. It’s not the same. This is a fucking metaphor what I’m about to say.

Craig: Here we go.

Malcolm: Because I got boys doing time or whatever, so I know the difference between what I’m about to say. But these brothers who get out of the pen after 36 years for a rape or murder they didn’t commit, thank you for letting me out the fucking penitentiary for those 36 — after doing 36. I am grateful. I am also fucking furious.

Craig: Right, of course. Of course. I mean, look, the problem is that it doesn’t — the system is unfair across the board. It is particularly unfair to black writers. I think it’s particularly unfair to female writers. But I think, I don’t know, like I’m not into ranking unfairnesses, but definitely — it’s undeniably unfair to black writers. The whole system is undeniably unfair to black writers, to black culture in general. The problem is that in success you kind of have to let that go.

Malcolm: Yeah.

Craig: Otherwise it’s going to ruin in. Then they win in a weird way. You know what I mean?

John: Let’s wrap this up, because –

Malcolm: I don’t want to seem angry.

John: No, no, but let’s wrap this up with just sort of you’ve been able to shoot more than any feature writer can ever shoot. And actually be able to get your words on screen in ways that no one else has ever been able to do and really learn how to do that. And you’ll come out of this with the opportunity to make your own show, make your own movie, demonstrate that you’re the person who can run this next — you can carry the ball yourself next time.

Malcolm: My inclinations will always be bad. You know what I’m saying?

Craig: “My inclinations will always be bad.” [laughs]

Malcolm: They just are. You know what I’m saying?

Craig: At least you’re aware of it.

Malcolm: Yeah, that’s how the fuck I got sober and got out of the streets.

Craig: That’s the double edge sword of you. I always feel like that stuff is like — it’s whatever fuels that bravado, you are fun to hang around. You’re confident as hell. Like, I know that you are, I mean, look now you’re a professional for whatever how long it’s been, a decade right?

Malcolm: Yeah.

Craig: You walk in that room, you haven’t written on a network TV show before and I guarantee you without me being there, without me knowing a thing, when you walked in that room you were the most confident person in that room.

Malcolm: It’s true. It is. And I know am aware of the cost of that. And I do value like — particularly like Ilene who is in charge of, she’s the grand collector of all the stuff that’s happened there, is really out of like I’m in the showrunner training program and it is textbook of all the right ways to nurture.

Craig: She knows it.

John: So I didn’t know that you’re in the showrunner training program, the WGA Showrunner Training Program?

Malcolm: Yeah.

John: Oh, that’s great. That’s amazing.

Craig: So, for people that don’t know, this is this incredible program that Jeff Melvoin spearheaded at the WGA and John Wells. And the idea was that there are all these great writers that are high level television staff writers and at some point they’re asked to run a show. But running a show is not writing. It’s writing, but then it’s also management. It’s managing staff, personnel, budget, the studio, production schedules. All this stuff that nobody teaches you at UCLA Extension. You just have to know how to do it from people that have done it before.

So, they have this incredible program. It’s for basically you can’t get in unless you are certain — you’re a pretty high up TV writer.

Malcolm: Yeah. People got shows. Like there are people in the program whose pilot has been picked up and it’s going to go.

Craig: Right. Like they’re either going to be show-running something, or they’re going to be asked to. And so you have guys like Glen Mazzara who runs Walking Dead, or ran Walking Dead.

Malcolm: Yeah. He’s great. Matt Nix.

Craig: Matt Nix. Guys who have just been doing it for years who essentially say here is what the real job is. It’s an amazing thing. There is nothing like that for screenwriters coming up.

Malcolm: And it’s real. It’s not bullshit. Like it’s the real –

Craig: It’s vocational.

Malcolm: All this stuff is the real winners are coming in who are still winning and talking about how they win and how they lose. Like it’s happening now.

Craig: It’s not like the retirees saying, “You know, back when I was running…”

John: Right. It’s the guys who are coaching the teams are coming in to tell you how to coach your team.

Malcolm: This is happening now.

Craig: Player coaches.

John: We have a bit more stuff on the agenda. Let’s power through this. So, you put something on about directors.

Craig: Oh, this is just a real short thing. Somebody sent me this review that was in The Guardian I think. Oh, sorry, in The Independent. Sorry, Guardian, it was in The Independent. And it was a review of Casual Vacancy which was a BBC adaptation of this J.K. Rowling novel that I think she originally wrote under a pseudonym.

John: Robert Galbraith.

Craig: Oh, was that her pseudonym? And it was a positive review and the reviewer is named Ellen E. Jones. And Ellen E. Jones had the following to say: “The Casual Vacancy does better than either Broadchurch or Fortitude at wrangling a large ensemble into a coherent story. The structure was already there in Rowling’s book, but director Jonny Campbell deserves credit for scenes that cleverly established character with a wordless economy.”

The director deserves credit for scenes that establish character with a wordless economy. And I presume that Ellen doesn’t know that what the director did was shoot the screenplay. It’s just unbelievable.

John: Is the screenwriter actually mentioned?

Craig: No! The screenwriter is not even mentioned and the director deserves credit for this wordless economy. What do these idiots think we do?

Malcolm: Well, what I’ve seen from all the people on Twitter now with these — the people who write about movies and TV really don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.

Craig: None of them is truly –

Malcolm: Like they made fun of Hass and Brandt once for being on a movie — props to being on a movie with so many writers and it’s just two writing teams who pretty much worked together. Yeah, you got them, you know what I’m saying.

Craig: Isn’t that amazing?

John: All right. So, my little bit is this Nathan Rabin article for The Dissolve and he’s talking about trailers and how so much of fan culture is based on the anticipation of movies coming and that the focus point of that anticipation is usually the trailer. And yet if we actually look at trailers, they’re not generally representative of the movie at all.

Like we remember trailers from the ’90s where like every trailer would have like a Smash Mouth song, or Two Princes. [laughs] And it’s like it became a thing. And it was a call for us to all remember that the trailer is there to try to convince us to see the movie, but the trailer may not actually represent the movie at all. And so it’s how frustrating it is that we spend so much time talking about this trailer, which is the only evidence we have of the movie, as if it represents the movie, when many times it doesn’t represent the movie at all.

So, I’ll link to his blog post. He actually has a good example of this Frank Whaley movie. There’s two different trailers, and one of them is cut like a comedy, and one of them is cut like the actual downbeat movie it actually is. And –

Craig: Well, you know, they have these great ones where people re-cut Mary Poppins as a horror movie.

John: Or The Shining as a comedy.

Craig: Yeah. That’s the point of a trailer. It’s designed to fool you.

Malcolm: But didn’t they used to be more accurate? They did, right?

Craig: Trailers used to be terrible.

Malcolm: No, I’m not saying whether they were better or worse. You knew what the fuck the movie was.

Craig: Sometimes. Sometimes not. Trailer science is like — I think of it a little bit like fast food science. Like you know how the fast food companies have figured out exactly what proportion of chemicals, fat and sugar, to make your brain high? The trailers are really good at making your brains super high. Like I watched the trailer for the new Age of Ultron.

Malcolm: I know. It’s fucked.

Craig: It’s just calculated perfectly.

John: It’s amazing.

Craig: And, frankly, they will come to you know with marketing the way they are. They will come to you and they will say, hey, I just went through this on a movie I was just writing where they said, “We need a line like this for this person for the trailer.” Done.

Malcolm: Yeah, it is. I do think though there is a really — in the end, as soon as you accept that, then you are accepting that somebody knows and they actually don’t. And that’s a dangerous fucking thing. Like we forget that there’s a great movie that a major studio put out that marketing killed.

Craig: Oh, marketing screws — yeah, bad marketing –

Malcolm: But if they knew then –

Craig: Well, good marketers, I think, know. Bad marketers don’t.

Malcolm: You don’t think that that’s the same marketing team that did a great job on a movie right before it?

Craig: All I can say is this: nobody is perfect. Nobody bats a thousand. There are some marketing teams, and by the way, here is the other dirty secret. The marketing teams aren’t cutting the trailers either. They’re hiring companies to cut the trailers. So, and then you have the directors and the studio heads involved, everybody is, you know –

Malcolm: Short trailer story. My boy worked at the trailer house that decided upon watching Snow Dogs, fuck it, let’s just say the dogs talk.

Craig: Absolutely. [laughs]

Malcolm: They don’t talk in the movie.

Craig: [laughs] No they don’t. That’s right.

Malcolm: But that would be good.

Craig: That would be good.

John: That’s amazing.

Craig: That would be good. That would be good. By the way, I had to look it up because Ellen E. Jones failed to mention her — Sarah Phelps was the writer of The Casual Vacancy miniseries on the BBC. Ellen E. Jones, you win my umbrage award of the week for frankly being stupid and not knowing how to do your job.

Malcolm: Wow.

Craig: I mean, you got to call it like you see it.

Malcolm: Wow.

Craig: If you don’t mention the screenwriter and then you give the director credit for a wordless economy, yeah, you’re stupid and you don’t know how to do your job.

Malcolm: Someone tweet her that.

Craig: [laughs] Somebody will.

John: All right. It’s time for One Cool Things. I’ll start off. It’s a book I’m reading right now that was actually sitting on the shelf for a long time and I just randomly grabbed it and started reading it. And it was actually fascinating. It’s The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. It is the history of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys mysterious, which I didn’t really read that much growing up. I was more of a Three Investigators guy.

Craig: I love the Three Investigators.

John: Oh, the Three Investigators are great. You were a Jupiter Jones, weren’t you?

Craig: Well, I liked all of them, but I love that Jupiter Jones lived in his secret hideout underneath the garbage.

John: Uncle Titus’s junkyard.

Craig: Yeah, garbage. Junkyard. I wanted a secret hideout in the junkyard.

John: I suspect there are a great number of screenwriters of our generation who were huge Three Investigator fans. So, this one talks about Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys which are a product, they came in a little bit before the depression, and what I hadn’t really appreciated was what a uniquely weird character Nancy Drew was, because she was like this oddly empowered teenage girl who went out and solved crimes and dealt with adults and was able to do a lot of things that a girl her age should not have been allowed to do. And she was a huge phenomenon.

So, the other thing I wasn’t aware of is that all of these books have one name writing it. So, Nancy Drew is written by a woman, but it’s actually all the creation of one guy, Edward Stratemeyer. And he would write, talk about writing under a pseudonym for Robotard, he would write all the outlines for all the books, for the Nancy Drew books, for the Hardy Boy books and all these other adventure things. And then he would just hire ghost writers in to write them. And so it’s always different writers writing those books.

Craig: And like all work-for-hire.

John: All work-for-hire, like paid a hundred dollars a book.

Malcolm: He’s a book showrunner.

John: Yeah, he’s a book showrunner. That’s what he was.

Craig: My dad had his collection of Hardy Boys books. He had the whole collection from when he was a kid, so I think they were originals. And I sat there and I read them as a kid. I went through a Hardy Boy phase. I never read Nancy Drew.

John: Yeah. Hardy Boys has that classic sort of cliffhanger. Every chapter is like they’re in mortal danger. And Nancy Drew has sort of more subtlety and stuff. But I just thought it was fascinating.

Craig: You’re right. Like actually the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were incredibly insulting to boys, because they just were like boys like idiots running around and action, being hit and stuff. Fires.

Malcolm: Boys are so stupid.

Craig: Yeah, like lava. There was one with lava.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: And then girls are like, they’re going to reason their way and using inference of deduction, solve a crime.

John: Like Nancy is going to perform a perfect sonata, like even though she’s never really played piano.

Craig: Right. She’s going to use just inherent skill and quality whereas the boys were just running in circles yelling.

John: Like smash, smash.

Malcolm: I can’t believe you guys read Nancy Drew.

Craig: I didn’t read Nancy Drew.

John: I didn’t really read it.

Malcolm: Sorry, there’s a difference to me.

Craig: There is. The Hardy Boys are boys. Nancy Drew is a girl. If you were a boy, you know –

John: But, I mean, the Three Investigators are really, I mean, they’re our generation. Because the Three Investigators I think were relatively new in the ’70s, and that’s why –

Craig: The Three Investigators actually were cool. So, like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew was all about 1940s and ’50s, like gender stereotypes. The Three Investigators were three dorks. Well, really one dork, one athletic kid, and one –

John: So Jupiter, Pete, and Bob.

Craig: Yeah, Bob I never got a read on –

John: He was a librarian. Bob was going to be gay.

Craig: The cool thing about the Three Investigators was that they were friends with Alfred Hitchcock. And I don’t know how this worked out that they got Alfred Hitchcock’s name and the rights to use him. They would go visit Alfred Hitchcock. They had one –

John: He was their sponsor sort of. Yeah.

Craig: And they had won the right by guessing gumballs in a thing to have a limo drive them around. And Alfred Hitchcock would give them an assignment and then they would go solve a mystery.

Malcolm: Oh, that’s great.

John: But then later on in the series, after Alfred Hitchcock died, they had a new, like some other famous mystery writer was their sponsor. And so they changed –

Craig: They couldn’t keep having ghost Hitchcock.

John: And so another point of trivia, my last name August is kind of derived from one of the books of the Three Investigators. There was a character named August August August which I thought was just the best thing ever. And so when I was picking my new last name, it was August.

Craig: Wait, I thought that was your middle name.

John: It was my father’s middle name.

Craig: Oh, okay, so that counts.

John: So, it’s family.

Craig: You know that John wasn’t really John August.

Malcolm: Listen, I didn’t know that. There is a story here, huh?

John: Yeah, my last name is German.

Craig: Misa? Misa?

John: No.

Craig: Miza?

John: Meise.

Craig: Meise.

John: That’s why I changed it.

Craig: Meise.

John: You got Spellman. Yeah, Spellman is pretty easy.

Craig: Meise is such a Nazi. It’s so scary.

Malcolm: Someone named Spellman owned slaves many years ago.

Craig: Somebody named Spellman.

Malcolm: My French mama got that last name.

Craig: You’re French — Rifkin. You’re French Jewish.

Malcolm: Rivlin. That’s a big name, by the way.

Craig: She’s a Jewish French.

Malcolm: Yeah, yeah. Came from Russia to France, no, Russia through Germany, then in France.

John: I wonder if you’re related to Aline.

Craig: Oh, because we all know each other, John?

Malcolm: No, that clan is huge. Like we got –

John: French Jews.

Craig: The French Jews.

Malcolm: No, no, but it’s not just French. In Israel there is a Rivlin Street.

Craig: There’s a lot of Rivlins. I’ve heard that name.

Malcolm: It’s a common name.

Craig: My guess is that Rifkin, I bet you Rifkin and Rivlin are the same thing, it’s just because like when the Hebrew letters got translated over in this. Anyway, the point is you’re Jewish to me.

My One Cool Thing is this SNL App. Did you get this?

John: I didn’t install the app. Tell me.

Craig: It’s awesome. I actually can’t believe they did it.

Malcolm: What is it?

Craig: It’s the Saturday Night Live — of course, Saturday Night Live. Yeah, you still carry around like an old briefcase.

Malcolm: Yeah, do you know Rian had to talk me into how to get hardcore history. I loved it, though.

Craig: He talked you through it?

Malcolm: He was like, dude, just download. Because shit scares me.

Craig: I know. I know. You get a little –

Malcolm: I’m scared of technology.

Craig: You are. I can tell.

Well, Saturday Night Live did this amazing thing. I honestly don’t know why they did it. So, it’s great. They have an app and the app gives you access to everything.

John: Wow.

Craig: I mean, like as far as I can tell, everything. And they organized it by eras, but they also — you can look for certain actors, or kinds of things. You can look for the commercials. It’s just like, you could sit there all day and just watch old Saturday Night Live.

John: That’s awesome.

Craig: And, you know, I’ve got say, Saturday Night Live, for all the shit it takes, it’s still –

John: Come on, 40 years of doing that.

Craig: It’s still like, yeah, after 40 years, I don’t know.

Malcolm: See, I haven’t fucked with it in like — every time someone says you got to watch whatever, there’s not enough for me to be like that was worth it.

John: That’s why it’s a classic DVR show. If you’re bored with a sketch, just keep going.

Craig: By the way, the app is for you, because you don’t have to watch it in the moment. You don’t have to sit and wait for it to get good or bad. You just find what you want. You know, you find the best-ofs, and those are pretty great.

Malcolm: What’s going to happen if I try and download it?

Craig: You’re going to be calling me, so don’t.

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

Malcolm: It’s random, but I just saw a voice pathologist today. I lose my voice. I get stressed out and then I found out — I thought it was my vocal chords, but it was actually the muscles on the side of my throat constrict to the point that I have no — like that’s what had been happening to me.

Craig: Because your voice sounds fine now.

Malcolm: Yeah. Because a few days I didn’t have no voice. Remember, I said, I think I sent an email. And I went to a laryngologist, whatever. She was like, dude, your voice is fine. I think I know what’s happening. She sends me down the hall and this woman does deep tissue stuff and literally she’s like, ooh, there it goes. And the muscle just relaxed and I could talk.

Craig: Whoa. Like that instantly?

Malcolm: Yup.

Craig: Wow.

John: That is our show for this week. I have one little tiny bit of news. Is that I’m going to be heading to Boston for the next three weeks, so we’ll still keep doing the show. But while I’m in Boston, on March 13 I’ll be there for a Q&A after the premiere of the Big Fish Boston show. So, we’re doing a very stripped down version in Boston. So, if you’re in the Boston area, come see Big Fish there.

Craig: Is that going to run for awhile?

John: It’s running for a month. So, it starts on March 13. There’s a hundred stagings of Big Fish this year, but this is the one that Andrew and I are going through and making some tweaks to make a fit with a much smaller cast, a much smaller space. And it should be really good. I’m excited to have the chance to dig into it again. So, come on March 13th, or any time in Boston. There will be a link in the show notes.

Our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth, who did some other great outros for us.

Craig: Yeah, he’s a good one.

John: He’s a good one. As always, it has been edited by Matthew Chilelli and produced by Stuart Friedel.

Craig: Boo.

John: Oh, Stuart is the best. Stuart is running and getting us lunch right now.

Craig: Stuart’s got a Mohawk now.

John: Stuart has a Mohawk.

Craig: He’s got a Jew-Hawk.

Malcolm: But it’s red, isn’t it?

Craig: He’s got a red Jew-Hawk. Yeah.

John: Yeah.

Malcolm: Is he Jewish?

Craig: Oh, my god. Like the most.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Stuart is like 12 Jews smashed into one.

John: If you are listening to this show on a device that listens to podcasts, you should subscribe to us on iTunes. You can look for us on — just search for Scriptnotes on iTunes. While you’re there, you should leave us a comment. You should talk about what a great guest Malcolm Spellman was.

Craig: So good.

John: So good. I am on Twitter @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Malcolm, you are…?

Malcolm: @malcolmspellman.

John: Great.

Craig: And you got to watch Empire because –

Malcolm: Oh, and @fantasticnegrito. That’s the one that matters. But that shit is on my thing.

Craig: And @robotard8000. Or is Robotard — ?

Malcolm: No, Robotard is still happening, but I’m all about Negrito.

Craig: You’re all about Negrito.

John: So, the Robotard account, but either one of you can tweet it, so therefore I never knew who I was talking to.

Craig: No, but that’s the best game. What is it, @robotard8000?

Malcolm: @therobotard8000.

Craig: @therobotard8000. The best thing is you try and figure out who is tweeting what, and there is sometimes there is little subtle clues, but a lot of times you cannot tell. It’s a good social experiment.

Malcolm: We do that on purpose.

John: That’s good. If you would like to listen to the premium feed that has many more episodes with swearing, like this episode, you can find it in the premium feed at There is also an app you can download those episodes in. Scriptnotes, just search for it on the App Store, or in the Android App Store.

Malcolm Spellman, thank you again for being here with us.

Malcolm: Thank you guys for having me. I really appreciate it.

John: Cool.

Craig: Do you?

Malcolm: I do.

Craig: But do you? He’s looking at his phone. He doesn’t appreciate it.

Malcolm: Shit’s happening.


Malcolm Spellman, a Study in Heat

Tue, 02/24/2015 - 08:03

Screenwriter Malcolm Spellman joins Craig and John to talk about his big break, blown opportunities, and getting momentum back. Now part of the smash hit Empire, he talks about the changes and challenges African-American writers face both on the small screen and the big screen.

Also this episode, we look at a review that credits the director with the screenwriter’s work and the role trailers play in shaping audience expectation. Plus the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Three Investigators, SNL and literally losing your voice.

Trivia: “A Study in Heat” was the name of the sandwich Malcolm ate after recording this episode.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Is automatic (cont’d) a bug or a feature?

Mon, 02/23/2015 - 14:56

We got a question in the Highland support queue this morning that is less technical than philosophical:

I started using Highland to finish a script I started in Final Draft.

In Final Draft when a character speaks, then stops to do something physical, spots something, etc, then speaks again, a (CONT’D) is automatically added.

When I finished writing the script in Highland I noticed that Highland does not add the (CONT’D) so I had half a script with (CONT’D) and half without it.

In short I am curious is the (CONT’D) needed? Should I add it to what I wrote in Highland, or do I go back and remove it?

I am going to submit this script to the Black List website, and am still an aspiring screenwriter. I personally think the (CONT’D) just takes up space, and understand why Highland doesn’t automatically add it, but wanted to get your opinion first.

Many thanks. I love using Highland, and won’t be going back to Final Draft ever.

What he’s describing is automatic dialogue continuity,1 which is a source of no small amount of consternation to screenwriters. I wrote about it back in 2010, and that advice still holds true.

But my opinions have clearly influenced the direction of Highland, so it’s worth revisiting.

In some cases, you’ll absolutely want to use (cont’d) to indicate a character is still speaking. It’s a signal to the reader (and the actor) that the character is continuing the same thought, regardless of the intervening action.

An example:


(looking at his phone)

According to Dark Sky, a storm is coming in four minutes.

A tornado suddenly touches down, flipping over cars. Tom is oblivious.


We should probably go inside.

In other cases, it’s much less clear whether dialogue continuity makes sense. If a bunch of action has occurred between the last time the character spoke, is it really correct or helpful to have that (cont’d)?

Consider Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity. Minutes may elapse between her spoken dialogue, but Final Draft will default to adding the (cont’d) since no other character has spoken in the interim. You can delete the (cont’d), but it’s a hassle, and it will come right back if you reformat text around it.

With Highland, we made the decision not to do add the (cont’d) automatically. The screenwriter is always the best judge of whether the dialogue is continuous, so you can just type it yourself.

That’s sort of the philosophy of Highland and Fountain: your script is exactly what you type, nothing more, nothing less. If you want a (cont’d) there, it’s deliberate.

In recent editions of Highland, we’ve given users the option to have Highland automatically add (more) and (cont’d) at page breaks.

Again, I think that’s consistent with the Highland philosophy. The app is doing behind-the-scenes work to make the page look great, with algorithms to break dialogue at the period where possible, and squeeze in an extra line if necessary. This kind of (cont’d) only shows up if you really need it, so there’s no reason to bake it into the text itself.

On the subject of Highland, we have a new release in the Mac App Store today. It fixes a bug that was preventing .fdx export.

  1. “Continued” can be noted as (CONT’D) or (cont’d). Both are fine. Pick one and stick with it.

Scriptnotes, Ep 184: Go Set a Spider-Man — Transcript

Thu, 02/19/2015 - 14:56

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: Uh, uh, uh, uh, my name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is episode 184 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Craig, you are in the thick of it.

Craig: I’m in the thick of it. Every now and then, you get a writing job that is truly a job.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Okay. You have three weeks. We’re shooting a movie. Fix a whole bunch of stuff. Go very, very fast — faster, [laughs] faster.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Please write for budget, please write for schedule, please write what the movie stars want, please write what the studio wants, please write what the producer wants. Listen to everybody, do everything right. Get it right the first time. Go, go, go, go, go.

John: Yeah. And I’ve been in your situation before and I know how stressful it is. And then I remember that people who write for one-hour dramas on television, that’s their life every day. As tough as it is for us, at least at some point, you’ll be able to hand this in and say, “Bye. Enjoy making the movie.” Versus a TV show, you turn this in and they’ll be like, “Oh, your next script is already late.”

Craig: The only thing I’ll say –

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: In our defense –

John: Okay.

Craig: Is that while episodic television is brutal, particularly primetime network episodic television where you’re doing 26, 22?

John: Yeah, it’s 22, but it keeps cranking up –

Craig: Keeps cranking up.

John: Because they want more.

Craig: So you’re doing a ton of these things. But the characters are there, the voices are there, the settings are there, a lot of the plots have been broken before or at least the general storylines. You know, you’re not shouldering this burden of all of it and kind of building a train as it’s rolling down the tracks. That’s the scary stuff.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: But, you know.

John: What you’re doing is a little bit more analogous to shooting the pilot where it’s just like there’s a real question like what is this thing even –

Craig: Yeah.

John: Supposed to be?

Craig: That’s right.

John: And there’s a lot of competing voices for what this thing is supposed to be.

Craig: Yeah.

John: The challenge of course of network TV or really any TV is you could be already making the thing and they could tell you, “No, it’s not the thing that we want you to be making.” And then you’re going to have to deal with stuff you’ve already shot, stuff that’s going to come down the pipe, it’s just — it’s bad.

Craig: Yeah, this is the stuff where you just want to be able to say to people who are observers or analysts of movies and how movies are made, I just wish that we could all work in some sort of Plexiglas booth so they can watch and go, “Oh…”

John: “Now, I understand.”

Craig: “Oh, that’s why sometimes movies are the way they are.” [laughs] And the crazy thing is sometimes it works.

John: Sometimes it works brilliantly and sometimes that pressure cooker creates great stuff, so.

Craig: Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. All I know about this is certainly these jobs are difficult and they are exhausting. And it’s a little bit like giving birth, I think. You know, my wife said after our first kid, “Well, I’m not doing that again.” And then she did. You sort of forget because time passes and then you’re like, “Yeah, yeah, it’s no big deal.” So, whatever, two, three weeks. Whoop-tee Doo. You know, these two, three weeks, they feel like five years.

John: Yeah.

Craig: They feel like five years. So anyway, I’m almost out of the woods on it. I’m doing the best I can. And in many ways, it’s been a lot of fun. But I’m a little a tie-tie.

John: I understand it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Today, we’re going to walk you through a very gentle discussion of many different topics, some of them suggested by our readers. We have follow-up on previous episodes, talking about Gravity, talking about Australian television, some suggestions about the premium feed, a question about film by credit.

And then because rights are so much in the news these days, we have three sort of related stories about film rights and how much studios want to hold onto things. So it’s a good continuation of our chain of title discussion.

Craig: Great. I thought that our, I don’t pat myself on the back very often for our podcast. But I thought our last podcast about the Gravity situation was one of our better podcasts.

John: I’m really happy with our episode. It was one of our more sort of detailed and planned going into it episodes where we really figured out what we were going to talk about. And this is going to be completely the opposite of that because I literally just put the notes together about half an hour ago.

Craig: Great.

John: But we can start with a follow-up question about Gravity.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, Nick writes, “Let’s say that there is indeed absolutely no evidence that Gravity, the movie, was based on Gravity, the book. However, what if there were evidence that the screenplay, what Gerritsen did subsequent to publishing the book was directly lifted and used in Cuarón’s movie?” So essentially, what if she really did write some other stuff and somehow Cuarón or Warner Bros read this stuff and tried to incorporate it into the movie?

So her book was not utilized, but her script work was. What kind of case would she be able to make against the WB? Certainly, nothing about her book contract would necessarily directly apply. But would there be an arbitration claim? What would the scenario be like if the work she had done that wasn’t part of the book somehow made it into the movie, Gravity?

Craig: I’m going to presume that she is aware of this. I’m going to presume that prior to the movie coming out, she is aware that in this scenario that the movie has appropriated what she believes is work that she’s done in her screenplay stuff.

Now, if she’s written this material and it was not purchased by the studio and then she lobbed the charge here, most likely what would happen is the following. There would be, yes, it would be a WGA issue. There would be pre-arbitration. So a pre-arbitration and/or a participating writer investigation which is sort of like a pre-pre-arbitration, where you’re trying to figure out is this person a participating writer, did they provide literary material that was used on screen for this movie?

If that’s the case, the studio is going to need to give her a contract for her work, pay her at least minimum, and then Ms. Gerritsen would become a participating writer for the purposes of arbitration, and then her material would be entered into the arbitration, and people would decide, “Okay, does she deserve screen credit or not?”

Now, the tricky part here with this is if that were the case, the next question would be a non-WGA question. This would be a question for her attorney and that would be does the stuff that she’s written that ends up in the movie, is that so closely related to the material in the book that we can now assume that the book is part of the chain of title here, that this is a derivative work of her book, in which case, we’re back to this contract claim situation.

John: And so, in our discussion of Gravity, this last episode, we noticed we didn’t really bring the Writers Guild into it at all. And usually, when we talk about credits and we talk about sort of who’s the author of the movie, we’re always bringing it up the Writers Guild. Because the Writers Guild is who determines, in US movies, who gets screenplay credit, who gets written by credit. All that is the screenwriting work of creating a movie.

The Gerritsen case is about these underlying rights to this novel and her belief that the underlying rights to her novel were utilized to make the movie, Gravity, and Warner is saying, “Uh-uh. That’s not what happened.” So if she truly had created screenplay material that somehow made it into the movie, and again, it’s not just like a Warner’s executive says like, “Hey, you know what would be a great idea is if this kind of thing happens.” It has to be real material that makes it in.

If that somehow happened, then that becomes — that enters into the universe of the Writers Guild. But independent of that, it would never be a Writers Guild thing. And I think a lot of times people assume that, “Oh, well the Writers Guild handles everything related to rights in movies.” And that’s not actually correct. Everything that is sort of underlying material is ultimately something that’s being dealt with in contracts and copyright law. It’s only when you have to figure out who gets that written by credit on a movie that that underlying material becomes a factor for arbitrations and for the Writers Guild.

Craig: Yeah, “Written by,” Story by,” “Screenplay by,” and so forth. I mean, the Writers Guild has control over what their deal with the companies gives them control over. It’s entirely tautological. So we have a collective bargaining agreement like any labor union does with the companies. And Theatrical Schedule A, which is online if you choose to read it if you’re suffering from –

John: Masochist.

Craig: Insomnia one night or you’re a masochist.

Theatrical Schedule A lays out exactly what the rights are of the Writers Guild and how these processes are handled, and what the procedures are. And from that comes our Screen Credits Manual and all that. There have been cases. I know of some where writers have said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. You’re using some of my stuff that you never bought.” And the companies have had to very quickly buy it, and naturally, they don’t have a lot in the way of leverage, you know.

John: Yup.

Craig: So one of the things that the Writers Guild has raised a red flag about numerous times, and it’s not germane to the Gerritsen case, but there’s this odious practice of inviting multiple writers in to pitch on projects to try and get a job. And then sometimes the studio executives will say or sometimes the producers will say, “Well, can you write us up a, you know, write us up a little pitch.” Or, “Write me the first ten pages.” Which we are, by our working rules, not allowed to do at the guild.

Writers may do this. “May,” meaning they could realistically do it, not properly do it. And if they do, the companies expose themselves because they don’t own that material. They haven’t bought it. If they don’t buy it, they don’t have the rights to use it. If any of it shows up in a movie, they’ve got a real problem. So that’s one of the tactics that we have used to say to the studios, “You got to stop doing this stuff.”

And frankly, the business affairs people completely agree. The business affairs people who do write up the contracts are fastidious about securing as many possible rights as they can. The fact that the folks over in the creative wing are sort of willy-nilly having people write stuff that they don’t buy or get the rights do freaks these lawyers out and for good reason.

John: Yeah. So I want to issue a caveat here which I think Craig is going to agree with me on. If you are a writer who’s going into one of the situations where it’s an existing project and they’re inviting multiple writers in to pitch, and the producer or the studio executive says, “Hey, would you write me up something?” You have a choice. You have a choice to write that thing up or not write that thing up.

And you might have just heard what Craig said, it’s like, “Well, it sounds like I should write this thing up and turn it in because then maybe I have like a copyright claim.” I don’t think that is your best course of action.

Craig: No.

John: I think you should actually follow the instructions and the rules of the Writers Guild and not write up something without being paid for it because that is part of the whole reason we have a guild and a union to make sure that people aren’t doing work they are not paid for.

Craig: Yeah, look, that’s the moral argument which is a correct argument. And here’s the practical argument. 999 times out of 1,000, they don’t use the work. You’ve just wasted your time, and more importantly, you have once again lowered the bar for all of us. You know, this is the proverbial race to the bottom that we’re trying to avoid here where the ultimate end of it is everybody write a script and we’ll just pick the one what we want and buy that one.

If you’re a professional writer in the Writers Guild, you get paid to write. You don’t have to get paid to pitch. You can go and tell them as much as you want. You can go and say, “Hey, look, I will talk about this all day long to anybody you want. I’m not writing a word. I am not printing a letter until I’m hired.” That’s the deal, that’s how we’re supposed to do it. And I would argue that those of you who are not doing this are actually hurting yourselves because you are, A, being taking advantage of, and B, signaling that you are the kind of person who is willing to be taken advantage of.

John: Well, it’s a dangerous position to put yourself in.

Craig: Correct.

John: So speaking of people doing their jobs properly, we have follow-up from Ben in Australia who writes in reference to the Rebel Wilson episode and the clean Rebel Wilson episode, not the Dirty Show.

Craig: Yeah.

John: In the clean episode, she talks about writing her show for Australian TV and how there really aren’t censors and it was a completely different experience than what she found on American television. So, Ben, who actually works in Australian TV writes, “You call it ratings. We call it classification, tomatoes, tomatoes.

“I want to clarify a misunderstanding. Rebel mentioned that Australian TV channels don’t have the equivalent of standards of practices. This is incorrect. All the commercial networks equivalent to NBC or CBS, the public broadcasters like PBS or BBC in the UK or pay TV, like cable TV, have in-house professionals called classifiers. Network TV in Australia is relatively tame like the USA. However, there is plenty of scope for provocation in the evening. Rebel probably didn’t hear from a classifier because her TV series didn’t require edits.”

So Ben is saying, yes, it’s looser. Yes, they probably have some different standards, but there are sort of standards and practices. And they actually have people who have the equivalent jobs of the American ratings people.

Craig: Well, all I can say to Rebel, who we know listens, is for shame, you’ve failed to discuss the classifier to such an extent that they call you.

John: Indeed. So, Rebel, basically, you had extra head room. And you could have gone even dirtier and you didn’t. So basically, you sold Australia short.

Craig: Yeah.

John: I hope you feel good about yourself.

Craig: You weenie.

John: Rebel, you’re the best.

Craig: Not bad.

John: Oh, I just love her.

Craig: I do too.

John: She gives good hugs.

Craig: Yeah.

John: All right. We have a question or sort of a suggestion from John who writes, “Big fan. And all about paying Stuart and Matthew’s bills.” So he’s a premium subscriber and so he’s saying that he’s paying Stuart’s salary and Matthew’s salary because he is a premium subscriber. So thank you for that.

Craig: Great.

John: He asks, “What if you did a premium Three Page Challenge episode where you only receive submissions from premium subscribers? Or even do a Golden Ticket thing again where you choose one Three Pager from the show and privately read their whole script or pilot. People go nuts for that. Not sure how you’d verify. Maybe you only say the URL in a 30-second premium clip or through the Libsyn site, just an idea. Stay funky.”

Maybe. I sort of throw this out there as a, “What do you think, Craig? And what do other listeners think?”

Craig: Well, first of all I’m not going to stay funky. I want to be clear about this, I’m funky on my own schedule, I don’t just stay funky. I go in and out of funky –

John: Actually, if you followed his orders to stay funky then you never had funk.

Craig: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. You know what the most funky thing you can do? Not stay funky. Okay, now that aside although that one –

John: Craig, you were a normcore before there was even a norm.

Craig: Damn straight. I think it’s a perfectly — Look, I believe in rewarding our premium subscribers as much as we can if there is a simple way to check a username against a subscription account. I think that that’s a perfectly good idea to say, “Okay, this is only open to premium subscribers.”

John: We’ll look into it. It’s all through the Libsyn stuff and so Libsyn is the people who host our podcast. It’s the people who make the app. It’s what makes putting the podcast out in the world not onerously expensive. So it’s a matter of whether we can actually get that user ID sort of detail information, but maybe. And I’ve been, you know, honestly, I’ve been happily surprised by how many people subscribed I think apparently for the Dirty Show and for the extra bonus episodes. So, maybe. I think it’s kind of a good idea.

Craig: Great. Okay. Well, we will work on that and see if we can’t get that going, but thank you, John, for writing in and for helping to pay Stuart and Matthew’s bills.

John: It’s very nice. Craig, while we’re on sort of the metatopic of the Scriptnotes podcast, we’ve discussed off air the possibility of doing a live show sometime spring/summer and I think you and I both sort of said like, “Yeah, maybe not,” but then Stuart pointed out that our 200th episode is actually going to be coming up, like, in May. Maybe that it is a call for a live show.

Craig: Yeah, 200, geez Louise.

John: Two hundred episodes.

Craig: Yeah. What are we going to do for a 1,000th episode?

John: Yeah. With a thousand episodes we’ll be — that’s like 15 years from now.

Craig: I know, we’ll both be in the home.

John: Yeah. Or at that point maybe there will just be like artificial intelligence that will speak with our voices very knowledgably about contract-related things.

Craig: Thank god, so I can just sleep. Well, for the 200th episode it does sound like maybe we would want to do something, I mean, when we talked about it I was just a little concerned that we were maybe falling into the “If you don’t go away, how can we miss you?” trap, but if there’s demand for it, you know, if people like it.

John: Yeah. So , I would ask our listeners, if you have suggestions or things you would like for our 200th episode or if you think we should maybe not do a 200th episode like live show, that’s a valid opinion as well. Short thoughts like that, just hit us on Twitter I’m @johnaugust, Craig is @clmazin or if you have a longer thoughts or suggestions about things that would be great for our 200th episode write in at and we’ll think about it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, our next question is so in Craig’s wheelhouse, I mean, like this person just woke up in the morning and said like, how can I ask a question that Craig will know the answer to?

Craig: I’m feeling it.

John: Craig will know the answer.

Craig: I’m feeling funky already.

John: So, this person, this is a guy named Jay I actually met at the Austin Film Festival.

Craig: Okay.

John: He writes, “I recently wrote and directed my first feature film, Seven Minutes, an indie film. It premiered at the Austin Film Festival and we sold it to Starz.” Congratulations!

Craig: Yeah.

John: “I had a film by credit at the top of the credits. The WGA called me to make sure the story originated with me and that I was the only writer. DGA had approved the credit as well, they did or at least they appear to. We got a letter saying that the film by credit was no good and had to go because WGA says a film by credit at the top of the film can only go there if all the credits are at the head of the film. Our credits are at the end. This is because according to WGA’s logic audience members assume that film by credit is the director’s credit and they don’t stay until the end of the movie. They would not know who the writer is.”

Craig: Okay.

John: Craig, I have no idea about the current state of a “film by” so can you catch us up to speed?

Craig: Well, this has been a long, longstanding debate between the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild. A film by credit started to appear some decades ago and began to stick in the craw of writers as you would imagine. It initially was meant for, well, first of all it naturally blossomed out of the whole auteur theory which drives writers crazy and because also it’s not true or at least it’s invalid, but it was initially was like look a film by Steven Spielberg, a film by Martin Scorsese, you know, something that might mean something.

But overtime it became a film by anyone and what the hell does that even mean? So, the Writers Guild has hated this credit. As the story goes, the Writers Guild apparently convinced the studios in the ’80s, I believe, that they should get rid of it, that they should disallow a film by credit. And as the story goes, I’m not sure this is true or not, this is just a legend.

As the legend goes, the DGA heard about this, freaked out and threatened to strike for the first time in their — or at least legitimately threaten to strike for the first time of their existence and the company said, “Well, we don’t really care about this. It’s fine you can have it.” And so, in fact, every three years when the Writers Guild negotiates this big collective bargaining agreement included in it is a letter that basically says the Writers Guild is saying that we hate this film by credit and the companies are saying, “Yes, we have heard you, you hate it.”

John: Yeah.

Craig: It has become enshrined as something we permanently hate. Now, the WGA and the DGA have been sort of trying to get a grip on this thing because even the DGA started to feel, I think, a little embarrassed by the proliferation of this, what we call the vanity credit. It’s one thing to say film by somebody that we all respect. It’s another thing to say film by some effin guy, right?

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, yeah, I think that this is part of the brokered solution between them is, yeah, if you’re going to do a film by credit, you have to also have the writer’s credit up in the front of the film, otherwise, yeah, it does seem like you just did everything.

John: So, my question is really, what is Jay encountering? Is he encountering a policy? Is he encountering a formally agreed upon rule? Like, what is he actually bumping up against? Because if it’s not part of our contract with the studios, is it just a mutual agreement between the WGA and the DGA? What is he actually hitting?

Craig: I cannot say for sure that it is in the contract, but I suspect if the WGA is saying you can’t have it there, it’s in the contract, I can get confirmation of that. Let’s say it’s not in the contract and it’s just effectively an agreement between the DGA and the Writers Guild. That’s just as good essentially.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I will say that aside from the rules here I’m going to talk to Jay and anyone else that’s directing movies. Whether you write and direct it or just direct it, really think about this film by credit and think about what it means. If you’ve written and directed it you can say, “Well, I understand why this would be offensive to a writer, but I am the writer,” well, yeah, great, so we have a credit called directed by and we have a credit called written by or screenplay by, but then there’s the editor, there’s the DP, there’s the costume, there are the actors –

John: There’s the producer.

Craig: The producer. I mean, what is this film by? What does that even mean? It certainly not a film by any one person. It is the most bizarre credit, the most pointless credit designed to aggrandize one person in defiance of fact. I don’t get it. I don’t even know what it’s for, why even have it? It’s embarrassing. I find it embarrassing that you have to announce that this is a film by you. You directed it, take credit for what you’ve done. It’s really egregious when someone says, “A film by me, but I didn’t write it, I didn’t come up with the story, I didn’t come up with the characters, I didn’t come up with the dialogue, I didn’t come up with the scenes, I didn’t come up with the point, the theme.” That’s just embarrassing.

John: So, I’m looking for examples of where I feel it makes sense and so I look at sort of, you know, people who kind of feel like they are auteurs in a way, like a Wes Anderson. So, like, if somebody says like “a film by Wes Anderson” I can sort of imagine that because I can sort of imagine what font it’s in, it’s all in that cohesive universe. And yet if that card weren’t there it would still be a We Anderson film. I mean, it’s a Wes Anderson film because it is completely his, you know, it’s in his universe, it’s his canon.

So, I take weirdly greater umbrage at the word “by” than having someone’s name there. So, weirdly for me a Joe Schmidt film is not offensive to me because you could also say the thing about a George Clooney movie, I mean, when he’s an actor not a director. It’s just like it’s identifying what category it falls into rather than the authorship of the movie or the, you know, the creator of the movie.

But again, this is opinion, this isn’t sort of standard practices and rules and that’s what Jay was encountering was apparently was some form of agreement between the WGA and DGA about how this is going to work.

Craig: Yeah, I know what you mean about Wes Anderson and I — there are directors that have clear styles just as there are writers that have clear styles. And I do think that that’s what the directed by credit means. The style, the look, the fonts, those are directorial choices.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But why should Fantastic Mr. Fox, a film by Wes Anderson, when Roald Dahl wrote the novel. I just don’t , I mean –

John: Yeah.

Craig: You know, it’s a film by a whole ton of people but you’re the director, so I just find that credit to be obnoxious. I’ve always thought it’s obnoxious. I find it to be like a weirdly insecure credit.

John: I think I agree with you there. And I have friends who’ve taken the credit, dear people who I love, but if I really sort of scrape back the layers and get to it I think it’s insecurity that is feeding their desire to have that extra credit on the movie.

Craig: Well, I think also to be fair to a lot of directors it’s like a thing where now it’s harder to not take it. Well, okay, all my friends take it, everybody else is taking it, why am I not taking it? Why am I the one guy that’s waving this flag against this credit? So it’s like the path of least resistance now to take this credit.

So, you know, I’m not a big fan. So, I would say to Jay, hey, you know what? The way to avoid this whole brouhaha: don’t take that credit.

John: Exactly. The easy solution to the question he writes in with.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, while we’re making suggestions for people to stand up and do something that’s against the grain of things, this is off the show notes but — so every year I host a couple of the Director’s Nights at Film Independent and I love doing it. So I do a Q&A. I just did a Q&A last night with Damien Chazelle of Whiplash and his editor and his composer. You met Damien. He’s just the best, I loved him.

Craig: What a jerk, right? [laughs]

John: What a jerk! He was fantastic.

Craig: Yeah, he’s a sweet, sweet dude.

John: And so we showed clips and we talked through stuff and answered questions and then he had to do another Q&A right after that because that is what you do this time of the year is you — if you have a movie that’s up for awards consideration or in this case nominated for many awards, you are on this circuit where all you do is press for your movie, screenings for your movie, and I kind of think it has to stop.

I think it’s weirdly a destructive practice that I would love to see — I don’t think this is going to ever actually happen because I think if one director or one film said, “You know what? We’re not going to play this game. We’re not going to sit down for The Hollywood Reporter for two hours for this roundtable. We’re not going to go to this photo shoot. We’re not going to waste all of our time doing this because it is a waste of time.” But if you were the one movie that did that you’d be screwed because you potentially would miss out on awards, you’d missed out on some of the box office bump.

But if a group of the top films sort of got together and said, “You know what? Let’s not do this. Let’s just not play this crazy game,” our system would be so much better and we’d allow filmmakers to go back to actually doing what they should be doing which is making movies, not answering the same question a thousand times.

Craig: Yeah. I suspect that a lot of the people that are involved in it agree with you. The problem is that they’re not really the ones that are pushing it. It’s the studios, it’s the financiers, I mean, you know, if anybody has any misconception that awards are about merit or art, they are not. The awards exist to support two financial streams: one, the actual award show which is a financial stream; and then the promotion of the winners to create box office bonanzas.

John: So, here’s where I push back on those two things. I think you can honestly still have the award shows without the 17 weeks of promo and special issues and other madness and special screenings that sort of go into this. I think you can actually have those award shows and we wouldn’t sort of suffer. I think you’d still be able to make money off of those.

In terms of the actual financial gain for doing all that stumping, I wonder and I’m sure some very clever statistics person could go through and do a study of these are the movies that came out over this 10-year period that were sort of “for your considerations” and look at their box office and chart sort of how much the bonus they got from their award. And I don’t know that it’s fundamentally worth it.

I like the idea of awards as we talked about before in a sense of celebrating great works of cinema and just look at these awesome movies. It’s a great thing that happens and I love that movies like Whiplash which might otherwise not sort of get a bigger audience get that bigger audience because people know them from the awards. But I think, I’m frustrated not just for Damien, but sort of for all directors and writers and cinematographers who are pulled away from doing the stuff that they should be making which is their next movie because they’re having to feed this industry.

Craig: Yeah, some people put the — lay the blame at the feet of Harvey Weinstein, and certainly those feet are surrounded by lots of blame for lots of things.

John: And lots of Oscars.

Craig: Yes. Well, that’s the thing, you know, so people can go, “Well, hey, you know, do you remember when, I don’t know, Shakespeare in Love won the Oscar? Well, that’s because Harvey went bananas and promoted like crazy and then that movie made a lot of money afterwards.”

And, you know, unfortunately it’s a cheater’s game. And so the game theory is everybody either has to be decent together or the cheaters win and then everybody suddenly just goes, “We’ll, I guess we’re all doing it now.” And look, I’m with you. I mean, the part of the awards that are great or the part that are pro artists and pro art and the part that’s bad is the cynical part where it’s being used to, you know, line pockets and it’s a shame because you’re right. It’s kind of nuts that anybody would have to suddenly have this new job of three months of self promotion. Even actors get a break. I mean, they don’t do self-promotion for that long, you know, on a typical movie. So –

John: So a director who you and I both know who has a reputation for being a bit of a jerk, I remember someone talking about his availability on something and when he’d be free to do something. And he had a movie coming out that he said, like, “Oh, yeah. Well, I won’t be available for these three months because I’ll be doing all the Oscar season push stuff for it.”

And he said it in a way that had the assumption that, like, his movie was going to be so well received that everybody would be talking about it for an Oscar, and then it wasn’t at all. And there was something, I remember feeling this wonderful schadenfreude when the event didn’t happen. But in a weird way, he was being realistic in a way that I as a younger self had not appreciated that, like, it really is three months of your time that would be sucked away. And so he was being — if his movie had turned out better, he really would’ve lost all that time.

Craig: You just can’t say that. I mean –

John: Yeah. You shouldn’t say it. Exactly.

Craig: No.

John: Yeah.

Craig: No, you never say that. I mean, that’s crazy.

John: Yeah. You say, like, you know, “My newborn daughter is going to be a supermodel.” You don’t say that.

Craig: Yeah, like, I can’t, yeah, I know we’re supposed to have a reunion of five years. I probably won’t be there because my kid is going to be at Fashion Week.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: Maybe.

John: Maybe. Could be.

Craig: Yeah, well, you know, the bone structure is changing.

John: My closest experience with the awards season stuff was Big Fish. And so Big Fish, we got some nominations so we did that whole push, but we didn’t get any serious Oscar nominations so it just stopped. Once Oscar nominations came out, largely it just stopped. And there were parts of it that were actually great. And so I got to meet, like, other filmmakers. And so I got to meet Peter Jackson and all these folks who are on that same circuit doing all the same stuff. Anthony Minghella I met and just loved.

And that part of it was really, really cool. But, you know, after, like, the third time you’re sitting around a table with the same people, it just becomes this grind and it’s not — I don’t know, it’s not a good thing.

Craig: I was talking about that whole thing with John Gatins because he was on that circuit when –

John: Oh, for Flight.

Craig: When he was nominated for Flight. And he said something that made me laugh that they would — the same, you know, so all the same writers are gathering over and over and over and they’re all around these tables. And everywhere they would go, there would be some sort of lunch. And at every single lunch, all of the actors and writers and directors would get served lunch with rolls. There would always be a roll and nobody would eat the roll. [laughs]

John: [laughs]

Craig: Because they all were like, “I got to be on camera.”

John: Can’t eat bread.

Craig: Can’t eat carbs, yeah. Just wasted rolls.

John: I think I remember talking with you and Aline on the balcony at the Chateau Marmont at a special little party for John Gatins.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And so here’s the thing. I love John Gatins. I love Aline. I love so many people that were up there. But the fact that that was considered a necessary part of what you do at this stage of the awards season was frustrating. I mean, it was lovely to see people, just it was annoying that that’s a thing that needed to happen.

Craig: Was that something that, like, because I just thought that that was just a, “Hey, I’m gathering my friends.” But was that like a studio thing?

John: Oh, no. There was a list formed, yeah, of people who –

Craig: Oh, the studio do that?

John: The studio did that and I think, you know, smart people. And I think Aline probably had a hand in that, too, because she wants to make sure , because here’s what you do in those early for your consideration stuff, you want to make sure the people who might love your film see the film early enough and so they can start talking about it, so that there’s a critical buzz of this kind of thing. And that, the management is crazy.

Craig: You know, it’s not probably going to be an issue for me but — [laughs]

John: [laughs]

Craig: If it ever does, somebody else is going to have to do all that. I can’t. I can’t even –

John: Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to have just basically Sia. We’re going to have somebody who’s acting the part of the writer and saying the things you would say but it’s not actually you.

Craig: That’s a good idea. You mean like that girl that does the dancing?

John: That little girl, the little dancer. I’m going to hire that little girl.

Craig: You get me that little girl.

John: She’s going to wear the same blonde wig. People will ask her a question and she’ll just dance the answer.

Craig: I want that girl to do all my stuff.

John: I want Shia Labeouf to do it. That’s what I want.

Craig: I don’t want to do, like, any more interviews. I don’t want to do another interview for the rest of my life. And I just want that little girl to just dance some stuff.

John: [laughs]

Craig: With that wig on.

John: So good. I think I just got an interview request to talk about one of the other topics that we’re going to get to in the show and it’s for a magazine. I think I’m just going to send the woman back a little gif of that little Sia girl dancing.

Craig: Yeah.

John: That’s my answer.

Craig: That’s my answer. [laughs] That’s my answer. I mean, we should — I don’t want to — I mean, we should pay her.

John: So, here’s literally the question that I was asked. It was about the Harper Lee case.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And this is a new thing that came up this last week. So Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, famously has kind of nothing else you can read of hers, no other books.

Craig: Right.

John: But apparently she had actually written another book called Go Set a Watchman which To Kill a Mockingbird is sort of excerpted from. So it’s kind of a sequel, kind of a prequel. It’s the same characters. And so there’s lots of sort of general news stories about this because there’s a lot of question, Harper Lee is 88. Why is she doing it now? Is she really in full control of her decision process?

Craig: Right.

John: That’s all interesting but I have no special insight to that. What you and I can talk about, because we talk about it all the time, are rights. And so what’s interesting about this situation is the rights to those characters because these characters first appeared on screen in the Universal movie. So Universal owns rights to the 1962 movie and that was a huge hit. So $13 million back in the day, that’s more than $100 million today, won three Academy Awards, Best Actor. But would they own the rights to the characters to make another movie? So, you know, they obviously don’t automatically get the rights to this book, but would somebody be able to make a movie version of Harper Lee’s new book without the rights to those characters? And it’s confusing.

Craig: Yeah. I mean I would presume that some of it, a lot of it, has to do with the nature of the rights that Universal owns. So there’s a piece of paper somewhere, I hope that they still have it, that delineates precisely what the rights are and what the terms of those rights are and if they have the rights to all of the characters in that book. Like, for instance, you could see, “Oh, it says here we have the rights, the exclusive rights to make movies based on the characters in this book.” Well, yeah, well, those characters are now in another book. Does that mean you have the rights to the characters in this book also or just the characters in this book?

John: Yup.

Craig: This is how lawsuits happen. This is why contracts are so awful and why the language is so tortured because, you know, contract law is kind of a game of, “Yeah, but you didn’t say exactly that.”

So who knows? I mean, this has come up before a lot of times. What happens is in lieu of the very expensive lawsuit, the two interested parties kind of just agree and do it together.

John: Exactly. We’re going to link to an article in the Hollywood Reporter that talks about Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter, and sort of the complicated rights to the Thomas Harris books, and ultimately, the way they got out of it without sort of like suing each other to death was to do a coproduction –

Craig: Yeah.

John: Because apparently the Clarice Starling character complicated the whole issue. So to be able to do stuff with her was incredibly challenging.

Craig: Yeah. And so they worked this stuff out. This is an interesting case though because it does have this added twist of is this her family making some cash here, is she really, why, you know, why suddenly at the age of — how old is she? 88.

John: 88.

Craig: And she’s had a stroke so, and it’s not like she has gotten on the phone and said, “Yeah, I’m Harper Lee. I’m into it now. Let’s do it.”

John: Yes.

Craig: So, you know, I mean, it will be a mess.

John: It’ll be a mess.

Craig: Oh, god.

John: The easiest solution would be for Universal, if Universal wants it, Universal wins the rights, there’s not going to be a problem. If some other studio pushes really hard for it, they’re going to always have to have in the back of their head, like, we’re going to have to deal with Universal at some point. So that’s a decision going into it. We don’t know that people necessarily want to make a movie of this book because we haven’t read the book.

Craig: Well, that’s the other thing. Who knows if it’s any good?

John: Who knows if it’s any good? So on a similar topic of studios coming together to work out complicated rights about a character is this last week it was announced that Sony and Marvel had come to an agreement about how they were going to handle Spider-Man. And also it is all related to — it’s interrelated with Amy Pascal stepping down from running Sony Pictures.

Craig: Right.

John: So the plan at this point, as I best understand it, is Spider-Man will be allowed to enter into the Marvel Universe through the Disney Marvel Universe. He could appear in Captain America: Civil War or other Marvel properties down the road.

Craig: Right.

John: But Sony will essentially still be allowed to make Spider-Man movies. And so Sony gets out of this the ability to have a fresher, newer Spider-Man that they like, that people are excited about. But they are sort of kind of leasing the character back to Disney/Marvel. Apparently, Marvel really, really, really wanted Spider-Man back and wanted to pursue an outright sale. And Sony’s only agreeing to lease it back.

Craig: I guess I’m a little confused about the way this works. So they can both make Spider-Man movies?

John: No, as I understand it, Spider-Man can appear in Marvel movies but –

Craig: Okay. He can appear in them, okay.

John: It’s not a standalone movie.

Craig: Got it. So now I get it. So basically, Sony is saying, “Yeah, you can now use, like, he can show up in The Avengers, say, and that’s awesome promotion for our Spider-Man movies.”

John: Absolutely.

Craig: And so that, now what’s so fascinating about this is that it underscores how valuable Marvel’s brand is and this is in a business where there are almost no true brands. You know, for a long time, I think the only real brand in Hollywood was Disney. And then Pixar became a brand for sure. Marvel may be the strongest brand of them all at this point.

John: Marvel or Star Wars, they’re both incredibly strong brands.

Craig: Well, Star Wars is a movie. It’s not a — you know what I mean?

John: Oh, come on, Star Wars is a brand.

Craig: No, no, it’s a brand. I mean, I’m talking about companies. I mean to say, like, studios.

John: Okay.

Craig: Studios didn’t have brands. Like there’s no, Universal doesn’t mean –

John: I see what you’re saying.

Craig: You know what I mean? So, I mean, surely, there are movies that are brands, no question. But Marvel, as a company, has the most brand value of any studio and they’re literally getting the right to use this guy that they didn’t otherwise have for free because of their brand equity, because their brand equity actually boosts Sony’s product. That’s wild to me. That’s amazing.

John: It’s wild. So the other news that was announced. So Amy Pascal will produce the new Spider-Man movie which can happen on a faster time schedule. But Kevin Feige from Marvel will also produce it.

Craig: Yes.

John: There can be, again, he’s been very, very smart about making really good movies and it certainly is in his best interest and Marvel’s best interest for the Spider-Man movie to be excellent because that helps them for using the Spider-Man character in their own thing. So it’s a weird synergy but potentially kind of cool.

Craig: Right.

John: Now, a counter example of this is a less valuable character is Quicksilver who appears in both the X-Men movie and in the new Avengers and they didn’t reach some sort of a magical agreement. Somehow they both had the rights to the character but they cast him as different actors. They didn’t try to make it one character across those two franchises.

Craig: Yeah, because Quicksilver isn’t sort of a needle mover the way that Spider-Man is. And so, I mean, it’s fascinating that Kevin Feige, who is essentially the head of a studio, is going to be producing a movie for another studio. But what’s so smart about it, and Kevin Feige is clearly one of the smartest guys in Hollywood, is that he can now integrate the Sony Spider-Man storylines into the Marvel storylines.

John: Yeah.

Craig: He is essentially giving the fans what they want. What a surprising thing that he would put the fans first and play the long game and show foresight.

John: I love the long game.

Craig: Kevin Feige, are you nuts? Don’t you know you’re supposed to just be shortsighted and make as much money? Now, now, now.

John: Nope.

Craig: So good on him. Very smart. And as for Amy, I have to say, having never worked — and you did a lot of work for her.

John: Oh, yeah.

Craig: Never worked for Amy, never met Amy. I’m thrilled because I’m so disgusted by the nonsense, the Internet nonsense and the shame machine and the outrage baloney. And this is a long, a well respected, long-serving professional who, I said it before, came off better in her emails than practically anybody else would if their emails were exposed. I’m glad that she has this and, frankly, I suspect she will be much happier.

John: I think that is a very strong possibility.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So our last story is really about rights once again. And this is something that a reader had sent in to me and I wasn’t aware of it but you had actually already seen the clip from it. It’s just fascinating. So it’s this thing that aired on FXX 1:30 in the morning on Monday, February 9th.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And it was an adaptation of Robert Jordan’s incredibly popular Wheel of Time series. And so this series started in 1990. It’s a 14-book cycle. So it started in 1990, went through 2013. And so huge books, a lot of people said, like, “Oh, this could be the next Game of Thrones.” It’s incredibly complicated but has super fans. It’s a bestseller. And the rights to this are owned by a group called Red Eagle Entertainment.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And so what seems to have happened is there was a ticking clock and they had to produce something or the rights were going to revert.

Craig: Right.

John: And so they made this thing that they aired at 1:30 in the morning. And Craig, you watched more of it than I did so can you –

Craig: [laughs]

John: Tell us?

Craig: All right. So to be fair, I’m not familiar with the Wheel of Time series but from what I understand, it is very much — it’s very popular. It has a huge fan base like the way Game of Thrones has, the novels.

So I clicked on this thing because I though, I think the article I read said something like, “Watch the worst show ever made.” [laughs] So I clicked on it and it was fascinating. I watched about 10 minutes and I would say the first five minutes featured a man walking through an empty mansion and he’s shouting for his wife and his children. And they appear to be playing a hide-and-seek game so we’ll hear occasional giggles. I believe his wife is Ilyena. And he yells Ilyena maybe 30 times. [laughs]

John: [laughs]

Craig: And so it’s just four minutes of, “Ilyena! Children!” And then, “Hehe,” and then he turns, “Ilyena!” on and on and on. It’s the most insane thing.

As if somebody said, “Look, we have nine minutes of show. How can we have an hour of show?” “Let’s take every single bit of footage we have of this guy playing hide-and-seek and string them all together.” [laughs] It’s wild. I mean it’s really weird.

John: So there is precedent for this and most of the articles including the article that we’ll link to talk about Fantastic Four. So what happened with Fantastic Four is the rights to it were going to revert back to Marvel or whoever Marvel was back in those days. It was quite a long time ago. And the studio hired Roger Corman to make the cheapest possible version of the Fantastic Four. And so little bits of that Fantastic Four movie have leaked out and it’s predictably sort of what you’d expect. It’s horrible special effects but just apparently the bare minimum of what you needed to do to say, like, “Well, it is a Fantastic Four movie.”

And so that sense of, like, again, how important it is to hold on to these underlying rights. You will do crazy things like make a crappy version of an adaptation because you know that there’s a great adaptation out there that is potentially incredibly valuable.

Craig: Yeah, the trick of this all is that a lot of these rights deals say, “Okay. We have the rights to make a show of this thing until this day, you know, five years from now. And if we don’t then you get it back. But if we do, then we have the exclusive option to renew the rights cycle for another five years, right? So if we just keep, if we keep making these things, they still belong to us.” I suspect that’s probably why Fox will hold on to the X-Men forever. We keep making X-Men movies, we still get the rights.

John: And that same thing happened with Spider-Man so –

Craig: Yeah.

John: Sony basically had to keep making Spider-Man movies or else the rights were going to revert. And I think Marvel was clever enough that there was a [laughs] — they can’t just make a $1 million Spider-Man movie. There was the requirement for how much they have to spend on a Spider-Man movie. And so talking with people involved in the reboot, the Amazing Spider-Man series, there really were ridiculous time pressures placed upon them not just to hit a release date because of, “Oh, we have a slot in schedule,” but like, “No, no, no, we’re going to lose Spider-Man if we don’t make this movie.”

Craig: Right. That’s why you can see the natural alliance between Sony and Marvel where Marvel is saying, “Look, if you guys just keep doing this, you’re going to damage this thing that we care about, that we think there’s a lot of value to. Why don’t we all just take the foot off of each other’s necks here and work together?” So that’s smart. Now, this thing, this is bizarre. And almost certainly there’s going to be some kind of lawsuit as a result because, you know, at some point, you have to say, “Well, define making something.”

I mean, was this made in good faith? Now, when I read this article, and it’s not in the link you have here, and I believe this is the case, adding to the strangeness around this is that the director died in a car crash like a day after he finished shooting this thing. So for those of you who are into conspiracy theories –

John: Absolutely.

Craig: Now, I’m not. I just –

John: I know a well known screenwriter who’s a big conspiracy buff.

Craig: Yeah.

John: I’m sure he has a whole plan on this.

Craig: Yes, I’m sure that he does while he’s figuring out how we filmed the moon landing and so forth. But no, I think it was just a terrible coincidence or maybe not a coincidence. Maybe he was so tired because from what I understand, they were shooting like 30 hours in a row and they literally made the thing in like, I don’t know, two or three weeks or something. It’s insane.

John: Yeah.

Craig: What a weird, weird thing. I mean, we’ll have a link to the pilot. It’s on YouTube. But I don’t know if FXX is going to be defending their copyright on this particularly aggressively so.

John: Yeah. I’m not also clear whether FXX is really the people who instigated sort of making this thing or if they basically just rented out the 1:30 time slot, that someone else did that because that –

Craig: Good point.

John: Was going to happen, too.

Craig: Also, I didn’t know there was a channel called FXX. [laughs]

John: Well, yes, you did, because The Simpsons marathon played on that.

Craig: Oh.

John: That’s the channel that did the 24-hour marathon.

Craig: Oh, okay.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Oh, so there’s Fox, there’s FX, there’s FXX.

John: Yes.

Craig: Okay.

John: But is there FXXX?

Craig: Oh, probably.

John: It’s going to be a big franchise. Vin Diesel will be in it.

Craig: Yeah, but you know who likes that channel?

John: [laughs] Sexy Craig loves FXXX.

Craig: Yeah, I’m just going to be at home watching FXXX.

John: It’s so good.

Craig: Why don’t you come on over?

John: But in the interest of, like, wrapping this all up, it’s like there’s really a time situation where, like, you’re scrambling to make this movie really quickly so the rights don’t revert. It’s almost the situation described at the very start of this podcast where you’re talking about how in the race to get something into production, you also end up making these choices which, lord knows, you hope they’re the right choices. But the train is leaving the station and you just got to do it.

Craig: Yeah. I –

John: I think whatever you wrote is probably better than The Wheel of Time.

Craig: [laughs] I hope so.

John: [laughs]

Craig. Yeah. No, it is a rare film and perhaps a non-existent film that is made under ideal circumstances.

John: Yeah.

Craig: There is always something going on. In this case, there was a lot going on.

John: Well, honestly, art without any constraints is generally dismal. I mean, constraints are what make art possible. It’s just sometimes the constraints are ridiculous constraints or choices made for reasons that wouldn’t be, you know, artistically awesome choices.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And so, so much of the job of these last weeks as you’re moving a movie into production is figuring out, like, “Okay. What movie are we making and what’s staying and what’s going out?”

Craig: Indeed.

John: Indeed. All right. It’s time for One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is something that everyone had said was really, really good and I just kind of ignored them for a long time because I think I misunderstood them. And now that I just took a chance on it, and now I understand them and I was wrong. So my One Cool Thing is Broad City.

Craig: Okay.

John: A comedy on Comedy Central. And I think I thought it was, I don’t know, edgy and gritty in sort of a, I don’t know, “how to make it in America” kind of way. And it’s actually more of like if you were to just take Girls and Workaholics and put them together, it’s just great. And I just love it. If you sort of took Laverne & Shirley and just, like, had them sort of doing shit in Brooklyn.

Craig: Oh, I like Laverne & Shirley.

John: Oh, my god. Who does not love Laverne & Shirley?

Craig: I love Laverne & Shirley.

John: And so there’s just these two girls hustling and [laughs] they’re really funny and they’re hustling. So the first season is up on Netflix. It’s also on Comedy Central now. It’s on demand. Watch Broad City. It’s really, really good.

Craig: You know, before I get to my One Cool Thing, let me just say Laverne & Shirley, I’ve often thought, is the kind of sitcom we need again. The physical comedy of it, it was so great. I just love, you know, the only people that do that now are like Disney sitcoms for kids.

John: Yup.

Craig: It’s like they stopped doing physical comedy. I loved that stuff when I was a kid. I just loved it. And I love it now. I love Laverne & Shirley. They’re the best.

John: They’re great.

Craig: Really great.

John: I mean, we think of Penny Marshall but Cindy Williams was awesome on that show.

Craig: Cindy Williams, Michael McKean, and I mean –

John: Yeah.

Craig: All of them.

John: It’s the first show I remember traveling where they started, it’s Milwaukee, right?

Craig: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

John: Hasenpfeffer Incorporated.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And then they moved to Hollywood in the last season, or last two seasons, and it’s just, like, it was just bizarre.

Craig: Yeah, I know. They would occasionally do that back then. [laughs] That was, you know, trying to goose the ratings.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But hey, come on. Carmine Ragusa?

John: Oh, so good.

Craig: The Big Ragu.

John: Big Ragu.

Craig: Big Ragu. I mean, God, she had an L on. She would always drink the Pepsi and the milk.

John: So, again, one thing I appreciate about Broad City is that like Laverne & Shirley, they’re kind of broke and, like, their being broke factors into it a lot. And, you know, I really love Blackish which is sort of the opposite of that show and, like, the characters are really rich. But it’s so much fun when you find sources of external conflict and being broke is a large part of it.

Craig: Yeah. And their show is about women living together that are broke. I think there was one that was — wasn’t there 2 Broke Girls, wasn’t that a show?

John: That is a show.

Craig: It’s a show now?

John: It’s a show but it’s not really about –

Craig: Oh.

John: That.

Craig: Oh, it’s not?

John: It’s a multicam.

Craig: Oh, it’s multicam? It’s not, well, Laverne & Shirley was a multicam show.

John: That’s true it is a multicam show. I don’t know why, I’m being so weirdly judgy because Laverne & Shirley was an awesome multicam show. And maybe 2 Broke Girls is fantastic. I just — modern CBS multicam shows just give me –

Craig: They give you hives.

John: Hives.

Craig: You know, I don’t have that. I can’t say anything about 2 Broke Girls because I haven’t watched it. What a shock, okay.

John: It’s always a safe bet.

Craig: My One Cool Thing is a band. And the band is largely the work of a singer/songwriter. It’s called Fantastic Negrito. And Fantastic Negrito is out of the Bay Area and I’ve been following these guys for a while because my friend, Malcolm Spellman, who writes on Empire, which is now an empire, has been friends with the lead musician/songwriter of Fantastic Negrito for many, many years. And so I, you know, sort of follow him on Facebook and so forth. Outstanding stuff.

The guy’s name, one of the greatest names of all time, Xavier Dphrepaulezz. Xavier Dphrepaulezz. There are more Zs in there than you think. Outstanding stuff. And so, you know, I’ve been just following them, well, it’s like, well, my friend has a band. Cool, they’re actually awesome. Great. NPR ran this thing called Tiny Desk Concert Contest. It’s basically like, you know, a little original song and video contest. And guess who won?

John: Fantastic Negrito.

Craig: Fantastic Negrito, the winner of the Tiny Desk Concert Contest, very cool. We’ll provide a link. I just think Xavier is the coolest and it’s just good music. You know what it is? It’s like real black music. It’s old school black music. It’s soul. It’s like real soul from the ’70s. It just feels — it’s not Hip-Hop. It’s not modern. But it’s not like lame-o old, old. It’s just real. It’s so good. I love it. I just love it. I just think this guy is the best.

John: Yeah. So Fantastic Negrito played at the Black List party this year.

Craig: That’s right.

John: And so I got to see that. And he was fantastic. I’m going to call him he. It’s one of those weird situations where you can say it’s a band, or you can say it’s a person, but it’s really his music project.

Craig: Yes.

John: So you really just identify it as him.

Craig: Yeah.

John: He is fantastic and he is, like, this weird, like, James Brown and Beck sort of like somehow merged souls or something. And as a performer he’s just spectacular and electric and fantastic. It was the completely wrong venue to see that.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And so it was just too loud for the small space. But he’s one of the people I would track down and see at a club anywhere in this country. So we will provide links to this and videos as well because he’s great. And Malcolm has been a huge promoter from the start and I should’ve listened to him earlier.

Craig: Yes. And we will try and get Malcolm on the show as well because he is in and of himself blowing up right now over Empire which is a phenomenon.

John: Yes. So Craig, you’re going to need to watch the show Empire at some point.

Craig: Oh, no.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Is that –

John: I’m sorry. Homework.

Craig: Is it on TV? [laughs]

John: [laughs] It’s a show on the television.

Craig: I don’t –

John: Yeah.

Craig: You know I’ve been watching –

John: Have your son explain how to turn on the TV?

Craig: He won’t know. He’s the last person to know how to turn on a TV. I’ve been watching Togetherness.

John: Which I hear is great. I haven’t watched it yet. And I feel bad. Jay Duplass — I adore him, so I want to see it.

Craig: Ooh, it is good. It had the best depiction of bad sex I’ve ever seen in my life in the last episode. If you’re a fan of bad sex the way I am, check it out.

John: Sounds good.

Craig: Yeah.

John: That is our show for this week. So our outro this week is provided by Manoel Felciano. It is great and involves Craig’s voice a lot. So Craig, you’re actually going to want to listen to this one. If you have an outro that you would like to provide to us, send us a link to it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Just send it to That is also the email address to which you can send questions or follow-up comments. Short things, you should write to us on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. This show is produced by Stuart Friedel.

Craig: Yeah.

John: It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. And if you’re on iTunes, you should leave us a comment or leave us a rating because those are helpful to help other people find the show. Subscribe to us while you’re there. Our premium feed, which we’ve mentioned before, is available at We also have an app that’s in the App Store and at the Android App Store.

Craig: John, is it expensive?

John: And it also gets you all stuff –

Craig: Is it expensive?

John: So the app is free to download.

Craig: Oh, that’s not expensive.

John: If you, no, that’s free. It’s the best you can get. What is costing you some money is the monthly subscription to the premium feed.

Craig: Oh, no. How much?

John: $1.99.

Craig: What?

John: Yeah, it’s a crazy bargain. That gets you all the back episodes to the very first one, and it helps pay for things like Stuart and Matthew and all our transcripts, so thank you very much for people who subscribe to that.

Craig: Yup.

John: That’s our show. Craig, I’ll talk to you next week.

Craig: Thanks, John.

John: Bye.

Craig: Bye.


Scriptnotes, Ep 183: The Deal with the Gravity Lawsuit — Transcript

Tue, 02/17/2015 - 14:21

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: Uh…I am John August.

John: You’re not the only person who can change things up.

Craig: My name is John August.

John: Yeah, but it’s really not. He’s Craig Mazin, I’m John August, and this is Scriptnotes, Episode 183. Scriptnotes is a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Craig: Look at this, you’ve shaken me up, you’ve shaken yourself up.

John: I know. Everything is upside down and topsy-turvy.

Craig: It’s crazy. The world has gone mad.

John: Before we get into the world going mad, one mad thing that happened this week is our insurance company was hacked.

Craig: Everyone’s insurance company, basically. Yeah, so no doubt you’ve seen the news. Anthem, which is a massive provider of health insurance to millions and millions and millions of Americans was hacked. They have yet to really indicate — they’ve indicated the scope of it. They’ve said about 80 million people, so not that many.

John: No, just a few.

Craig: Basically everyone. At that point I would say 80 million people, we’re discounting children, so everyone’s information has been hacked, possibly by the Chinese they’re saying. It wasn’t clear if they meant hackers who were Chinese, or the Chinese government. But, regardless, here is the deal — all of the major SAG, AFTRA, DGA, and WGA, our health plans, are funneled through Anthem.

The DGA sent an email — the Writers Guild did as well — and the long and short of it is that they don’t really know much yet beyond what Anthem is saying. Anthem is saying that they’re going to send out letters to people letting them know if their information was compromised, which I think is a fair bet.

John: That’s a fair thing to do. So, we’re recording this on Friday, February 6, so by the time you listen to this podcast may information may come out. But the information may include mine and Craig’s Social Security numbers, so who knows?

Craig: Yeah, great. I did take with Chris Keyser today who is the president of the Writers Guild of America West and he confirmed that they’re trying to figure this out. The only possible silver lining is that for the DGA and for the WGA, I assume it’s the same for SAG although I don’t know, Anthem actually doesn’t provide the health insurance. Anthem is processing some of it. I guess the deal is that because our plans are fairly small, for instance, the Writers Guild health plan — I don’t know how many people are members, but we’re talking under 10,000 I would imagine. That’s very small.

So, the health plan insures us — our health plan insures us. But they use Anthem’s purchasing power to get better rates and things. So, there is a question as to how much of our information actually gets funneled to them. There is a hope — and I’m basing this just on the fact that it’s possible — that what Anthem has from us are our names, addresses, and our health plan numbers, which aren’t Social Security numbers.

John: Okay.

Craig: But, I mean, we just don’t know yet.

John: It’s going to be a mess.

Craig: It is currently a mess and everyone is saying, well, you know, you’ll get free credit protection. You know, these credit protection things, you know they don’t work, right?

John: Yeah, it’s basically an alarm. Basically like, oh, something is happening.

Craig: It’s not even that good. To me, as far as I can tell looking at what they provide, it’s more like you hired a security guard and when you get home he’s sitting there in a chair, on your lawn, drinking. Going, yeah, someone broke in.

John: Ooh.

Craig: Yeah, they took some stuff.

John: But someone has a job.

Craig: Right. [laughs] But somebody has a job. So, anyway, it’s the end.

John: It might be the end.

Today on the podcast we are going to be talking about the deal with the Gravity lawsuit which has been one of the most tweeted things that I’ve actually had in the last maybe six months. Like a lot of people asked me about it, and kept asking me about. And we promised that we would speak about it on the show today. So, we are going to spend most of the episode really talking through it because it’s a fascinating way of looking at what are contracts, what’s chain of title, what are books, what are movies. And so we’re going to spend a lot of time on that.

But I want to talk a little bit about writing, because that’s a thing that Craig and I both did a lot of this week. Craig, how was the writing?

Craig: Frantic and fast-paced, but so far so good. I’m in one of those production rewrite things where, you know, I finish 15 pages and turn it over to director and a production manager or studio executives, producers. It’s wild and wooly. But so far so good.

John: And I am in the opposite situation where I am in a first draft and I’m at a place now where I’ve assembled things together. It’s not all written, but like a lot of stuff is being assembled and there is still stuff to write. And I had to do this thing which comes up occasionally which is not my favorite thing is I had to start cutting stuff, which is normally I would love to write the whole draft and then like cut the stuff that should get cut. But I started to recognize like, oh wow, if I don’t cut this now, I’m going to be writing stuff that’s going to have to payoff — I’m going to try to payoff things that aren’t going to be in the movie.

Craig: Right.

John: It’s one of those situations where I think most writers who have written a couple of movies, you have encountered this where you’re still in that first draft but you’re recognizing that thing I wrote can no longer fit because it just can’t be there anymore, which is both sad because they’re like lovely little scenes and they’re moments that are no longer going to be part of the movie, but very, very necessary.

Craig: Yeah. I am far more of a cutter I think, just inherently, a writer-cutter. As I go I get really parsimonious about stuff at times, maybe too much, so it’s good to have somebody working with me who can read it and say, no, no, no, you’ve hit bone there. You don’t want to do that.

It is true. The process is one — sometimes people will say, “This is not the time to worry about that. Go ahead, explore, right what you need.” And I do, I want to, but there is — I was listening to Lord and Miller, Philip Lord and Chris Miller, were talking at an event last night. And they were talking with Damien Chazelle. They were talking about the theme of Whiplash which was, you know, do you have to suffer for your art. And something Phil said that was really interesting to me, he said on the one hand he’s always appreciated people who are incredibly encouraging of everybody because there is something in there that only survives in the environment of encouragement, even if it’s just you writing.

But that rigor is essential. And that word rigor I think is why at times we need to cut while we’re writing.

John: So, some strategies if you find yourself in this situation. And they could be when you’re done with a draft, or as you’re writing, is there are moments that I needed to cut out, including something I talked about on the show this last week which was that police interrogation which I was so proud of. I had written a great police interrogation scene that was different than anything I’d seen before. And I cut it last night.

Craig: Ooh.

John: I was supposed to be at the same event with you last night and I was writing and I cut the scene. So, if you’re going to do that, make a new file, call it Trim, and then the name of the scene, and paste that stuff in there. So, at least you’ve held onto it. It’s still there if you ever needed to go back to it. It’s existing in its own little universe. You remember that it’s there. But that scene that I was so delighted with, I recognized that it was, while I love it, it wasn’t absolutely essential. And it became time in the script that I needed stuff that was absolutely essential.

Craig: I do love that advice, though. I do that all the time. If I’m going to take out any significant chunk of something, I always save it in its own little file because you never know. And at times, that has come in handy.

John: What I was looking at in terms of pacing in this project I’m writing right now is a lot of times we talk about we’re not in Kansas anymore, so basically at the end of the first act and you come into your second act, it’s like Dorothy when she reaches Oz. Like, oh, we’re not in Kansas anymore. We’re in a whole new world. And my script got to Kansas really well, but then I recognized that, wow, I’m spending a lot of time with the Munchkins of Lollipop Guilds.

And so I needed the characters to sort of hit the road. I needed the things that needed to happen to happen. And there was just more setup that wasn’t going to be able to be paid off. So, those were the brutal scenes I had to cut last night.

Craig: Well, it’s part of the gig.

John: It’s part of the gig.

Let’s get to our big topic this week which is the lawsuit over Gravity and sort of what the situation is.

Craig: And we got bombarded by everyone on this one.

John: Yeah. And it felt like it was a slow trickle, so like a few little hits and then three days later I’d get another nine little bursts of things. And not just from our normal screenwriters. It was actually a bunch of novelists and sort of other fiction writers who were tweeting me saying what’s the deal with this. And even some DMs from like people who were genuinely freaked out. So, let’s give some context here.

We’re all familiar with the movie Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón. It stars Sandra Bullock. It was a giant hit. There is also a novel called Gravity which was written by an author named Tess Gerritsen. And she’s not a random crank. She’s actually written a bunch of books, including a series of books that became the basis of Rizzoli & Isles, a TV series that I never saw. But it’s real.

Craig: It’s got –

John: Angie Harmon.

Craig: Yes, thank you. And also the other one.

John: Yeah. And now you have to tell me which character is which character.

Craig: From ER. I think it’s Julianna Margulies?

John: That’s not her. No, Julianna Margulies is on The Good Wife.

Craig: Oh. Oh, geez. Man, who’s on — I’m looking it up right now. [laughs]

John: Okay, while you look it up, I’ll continue on with this. So, on April 29, 2014 –

Craig: Sasha Alexander. I’m so sorry, Sasha Alexander.

John: I don’t know who Sasha Alexander is.

Craig: Oh. Oh. Yeah, she’s Medical Examiner, Dr. Maura Isles.

John: The other one is Rizzoli.

Craig: She does, by the way, looks nothing like Julianna Margulies. And Julianna Margulies is on a bit hit show. [laughs] This is like — it’s just a failure, a remarkable failure.

John: But everyone who is a fan of the podcast knows you don’t see any television or movies.

Craig: None.

John: None. So, the fact that you pulled Julianna Margulies out of the air, it was just kind of remarkable in and of itself.

Craig: Because I saw her in NYPD Blue, right?

John: I think you get a gold star for just even knowing who Julianna Margulies was.

Craig: I really do think that I’ve achieved something. Anyway.

John: So, Tess Gerritsen, the author, she filed a lawsuit on April 29, 2014 and she sued Warner Bros claiming that she was owed money for the film Gravity. And then on June 20 Warner Bros filed a motion to dismiss that lawsuit. And then just very recently, on January 30 of this year, the US District Court issued a ruling that seemed to mostly agree with Warner Bros saying that, yes, the suit is going to be dismissed, but there were some caveats in there that we’ll talk about.

Craig: Right.

John: But most of what people were tweeting at you and me about wasn’t about the lawsuit per se, but really one blog post that Tess Gerritsen had written about the lawsuit, and this is what happened this last week, and the repercussions. And so I read this, I read people’s responses, and I emailed you, Craig, saying like, well, maybe we should have Tess Gerritsen on the podcast.

Craig: Right.

John: And you said?

Craig: Uh, no. Because, and the reason why is not because — it makes sense to have her on the podcast, but it seems to weird to have one side of this argument on the podcast and not the other side. It would start to become a bit lopsided and biased of a discussion. And there is no chance that Warner Bros is going to be sending a lawyer to talk to us about this on our podcast.

I mean, frankly, the actual other party that would be of interest would be Alfonso Cuarón, who I also doubt would be available for the podcast. So, I thought that maybe we should sort of stay in the more neutral zone.

John: I think the neutral zone is a perfect place for us to stay. And the reason why I really want to talk about this case is that actually it gives us an opportunity to talk about contract law and what authors do and what adaptations are like. And we can sort of take what she’s written in her blog post and really look at it from that perspective.

If we had her on the air, we’d have to be sort of talking with her. And here we can sort of take the word she’s written and what everyone else is saying and have a discussion about what it actually really means.

So, if this were a blog post we were doing ourselves, it would be one of those things where we do a lot of block quotes, where we like sample from her things and put a block quote and then respond to it. That’s really awkward to do in a podcast. So, what I did is I asked a friend of the show, Christy Miller, if she would record just some snippets from Tess Gerritsen’s blog post so we could play those, you can hear it in not Tess Gerritsen’s words but in Christy’s voice so we could actually respond to what she was saying there and talk through the issues that are being brought up.

Craig: Very clever.

John: So, let us do the first of these clips. This is from Tess Gerritsen’s blog post about the lawsuit.

“Tess:” In 1999, I sold the film rights to my book Gravity to New Line Productions. The contract stipulates that if a movie is made based on my book, I will receive ‘based upon’ credit, a production bonus, and a percentage of net profits.

John: Great. So this is talking about she sold the rights to her book and let’s just sort of dig in on what that actually means. And it’s one of the unique things about this court case is all this stuff is public record. This has all been filed, so you can actually read what that document looks like. What does it look like when you sell your book to a studio?

Well, we have a link to it. So, in the show notes we’ll link to the actual contract for her sale of the book to this company called KATJA which was a subsidiary of New Line.

And have you looked at it, Craig? It’s a pretty standard contract. It’s 12 pages long with a lot of additional exhibits and things about music rights and publishing and other stuff. She notarizes it. You see where she signed it. But it’s a straightforward contract.

Craig: Yeah, it is. And this is why for those of you listening along who might be wondering well why — what’s in this for me? What in this podcast is of value for me? This suit is going to help us explain quite a bit of how the machinery of this business actually works. So, listen carefully because there’s a lot of good stuff here as we go through.

So, yeah, a novelist has copyright in their novel. Tess Gerritsen owns copyright in her novel. Unlike, for instance, screenwriters who almost exclusively work on a work-for-hire basis for the companies where they commission a work to be created by us, but they retain copyright. So, in the case of somebody who owns the copyright of a novel, they’re not giving their novel to New Line and saying you now own this book, you’re the author of the book. No, no, I am the author of the book. However, I’m licensing through a sale the rights to make a film of this book. And when you license the rights to make a film, almost always they are exclusive rights, of course. Why would anybody buy the rights to make a book that somebody else could also turn into a movie?

And then there is a negotiation of other rights that may be incorporated, how long you get to hold onto the rights, do you have the rights in the United States, over the world, throughout the universe? They literally will say throughout the known universe at times in case they start opening up IMAXs on Mars. And the idea being that you’re going to get money either if they decide to make the movie out of your book, or you may get money, period, the end. In this case, she gets some money, right, right off the bat?

John: Yes.

Craig: And then there is additional compensation that is provided to you if in fact the company does go ahead and make a movie of your book.

John: And we could see right here in this contract she is paid $1 million for the film rights to her book.

Craig: Which I’ve got to say, that’s a big sale.

John: That’s a huge sale. That would be one of the biggest sales of the year. And I should remind everybody, this is 1999. So, this is 16 years ago that this happened.

Craig: Yeah, that’s a big sale.

John: That’s a big sale — in any year that’s a big sale. And there’s also a $500,000 production bonus if the movie goes into production. There is backend in there, which I didn’t look through really carefully, but Craig and I will just tell you in general the backend is going to be meaningless. Even on a movie as successful as this, it’s unlikely she would see net profits out of a movie like this.

Craig: Yeah. Net profits are sort of the imaginary things that — now, we should also mention that when she sold this to New Line, that New Line was technically part of Warner Bros, but here’s what was going on at the time: New Line existed as its own company and then in 1994 it was bought by Ted Turner, by TBS. So, they were not part of Warner Bros. In 1996, three years before this occurs, TBS, Ted Turner’s company, merges with Time Warner.

Now, interestingly, at that time there were some companies that were part of TBS like Hanna-Barbera and Castle Rock, which became full functioning units of Warner Bros itself. But, New Line was not. New Line, although it was owned by this parent company Warner Bros, was kept as its own entity until quite recently, about four years ago, or five years ago, or something like that.

So, it had its own kind of control within this parent company.

John: Yeah. If you look at the contract, the contract is between Tess Gerritsen and KATJA, but it’s care of New Line. So, this KATJA, which you will see referenced a lot, and New Line, I think we’re safe to look at them as being one entity.

Craig: Yes.

John: What’s going to become an issue later on is whether New Line and Warner Bros is one entity. That becomes a big issue.

Craig: Correct.

John: Now, let’s talk about, this is an outright sale. So, it’s $1 million for the film rights. They write a check and they own the film rights from that point forward. This isn’t an option. And if this had been an option, they would be paying her some money to hold onto the rights for a period of time, or to hold on to the chance to buy the rights at a certain price for a period of time. That was actually probably much more common for both spec screenplays that are sold and for novels that are sold is that for a period of 18 months, three years, you get to hold onto the rights to this thing and you can’t sell them to somebody else. But we don’t have to write you a giant check right now.

In this case, they wrote her a giant check.

Craig: They wrote her a giant check and what that tells me — this is conjecture — is that in 1999 when she went out with this book, that there was a bidding war. It tells me that multiple studios were interested, so the seller, in this case Ms. Gerritsen, had quite a bit of leverage. And that she was saying, look, I don’t have to option it to anybody. Somebody has to actually pay me for this if they want it. And New Line must have thought, yeah, we’re making this movie. Nobody spends $1 million on a book if they’re not going to make the movie.

Granted, in 1999, there was still a very healthy DVD market. An enormously healthy DVD market. And things were a little, well, the money ran a little more fluidly back in that time.

John: Definitely. So, let’s also talk about what chain of title means, and this is where the chain of title begins. And chain of title does not refer to the title Gravity, which is not the title of the movie. Chain of title is more like the title to your car. It is ownership of a property. And the chain of title begins with the original copyright holder, which is Tess Gerritsen, and then the chain of title on the film rights to it through this contract has been vested in New Line and KATJA, this production entity.

Craig: Yeah. Chain of title, and people get really confused because of the word title, and I don’t blame them. Because a lot of times you can tell what the chain of title is by the title of the project, you know. But in this case to be really clear, because it’s going to start to get confusing, title is really nothing more than your interest in certain rights. And why it’s important in this case is because when you are told something contractually like if we make a movie from your book you’ll get this, then a movie gets made, you need to be able to say that movie was part of the chain of title of this project.

You took my rights to my novel, you then hired somebody to write a screenplay based on my novel, you then hired somebody to rewrite that guy. Then somebody rewrite that guy. Now, you’ve made a movie. I can follow the chain all the way back to your initial interest in the title, meaning the rights to my novel. Therefore, you owe me the money.

John: And clearing the chain of title, which is that term you go through for making sure that you actually have the rights you think you have to something, can be incredibly complicated. And sometimes it will hold up — contracts will hold up a production or development because they’re trying to make sure all that stuff is done and done properly. Because when it’s done improperly, it can be a huge disaster.

Craig: Yes.

John: Quite famously, the Dukes of Hazard movie, it turned out the chain of title was not clear and the Dukes of Hazard, the TV show, was based on some other property and they hadn’t gotten that property properly and it became a very expensive thing for, I think it was Warner Bros.

Craig: It was.

John: And I can also tell you from personal experience, I wrote an adaptation of Barbarella, and it became clear between the first and second draft that the chain of title was impossible to clear and that different people could claim different things about whether they had the rights to make the movie. And that froze it, because no one wanted to spend any more money because they were pretty sure they would never be able to make that movie.

Craig: Right. So, you can’t go out there with something based on something that you don’t control from start to finish. Every link of the chain has been cleared through you. My personal experience was a very odd one. And that was the tattoo in Hangover 2, which turns out that that tattoo apparently was very similar if not exactly similar to a tattoo that Mike Tyson has on his face. And the tattoo artist improbably had specifically retained copyright on that tattoo. And it was not cleared.

So, there’s its own little chain of title of a tattoo. And he got something, as far as I know. They settled with him. Yeah.

John: So, in 1999 when this contract is signed, the chain of title is about as clear as you could ever hope for it to be, because Tess Gerritsen wrote the original book and New Line/KATJA bought the film rights for it. Everything is happy and good.

Craig: And, I should also say, that when we are hired on a project that has underlying material, that’s our term of art for everything that you are basing a movie on — a book, a song, a play, a picture, whatever the hell it is. We know that the chain of title of sure as we get our contract because it always says that they’re assigning this material to us. So, we know in our screenwriting contract, yes, I’m writing this based on this novel. It’s assigned material to me.

John: Yeah. Everybody remember that, because that becomes an issue quite a bit later in this discussion.

Craig: Yes.

John: All right. So, let’s talk about what Tess Gerritsen’s book actually is. And so here is how she talks about her book in the blog post.

“Tess:” The book is about a female medical doctor/astronaut who is stranded aboard the International Space Station after the rest of her crew is killed in a series of accidents. A biological hazard aboard ISS traps her in quarantine, unable to return to earth. While my film was in development, I re-wrote the third act of the film script with scenes of satellite debris destroying ISS and the lone surviving female astronaut adrift in her spacesuit.

John: All right. So, there are two things to sort of get into here. First, her description of what the plot of her book is, and then this rewrite she did which is sort of unexpected and certainly makes it seem more like the Alfonso Cuarón movie we saw.

So, let’s get into her description of it, because from that quick summary description it’s like, ooh, I can see how that’s kind of like the Cuarón movie I saw.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But then as I looked online at other people’s summaries, and these weren’t people who were weighing in on the lawsuit, these are just like summaries that existed on Amazon or on Good Reads, they weren’t quite as similar. So, I want to read you two of the summaries that I found online about her book. And the first one is from Good Reads.

“An experiment on microorganisms conducted in space goes wrong. The cells begin to infect the crew with deadly results. Emma Watson struggles to contain the deadly microbe while her husband and NASA try to retrieve her from space before it’s too late.”

John: So, it’s odd that her name is Emma Watson.

Craig: I know, isn’t that strange?

John: Yeah, like the actress Emma Watson. But, no, that’s just a good name. And this is the summary from Amazon.

“Dr. Emma Watson has been training for the adventure of a lifetime to study living beings in space, but her mission aboard the international space station turns into a nightmare beyond imagining when a culture of single-celled organisms begins to regenerate out of control and infects the space station crew with agonizing and deadly results. Emma struggles to contain the outbreak, while back on earth her estranged husband, Jack McCallum, works frantically with NASA to bring her home. But there will be no rescue. The contagion now threatens Earth’s population, and the astronauts are stranded in orbit, quarantined aboard the station — where they are dying one by one…”

Craig: Now, you can see that the summary that she provides in her lawsuit or I guess is it connected to it through her blog post has been somewhat massaged to seem more like the movie Gravity than say what other people have read. And I haven’t read the book, but certainly this from the other summaries, it does sound like this book is more of the contagion in a spaceship kind of model.

John: Yeah. It sounds like Outbreak in space.

Craig: Right. Outbreak in space.

John: And, by the way, Outbreak in space is totally a book that would sell.

Craig: It did sell. [laughs]

John: It did sell. Exactly. I can completely imagine why someone would buy that. And, you know, there were actually several outbreak movies that were in development at the same time. Outbreak was one.

Craig: The Hot Zone.

John: Crisis in the Hot Zone. So, I can see what that movie would be, but I think she’s very carefully crafting something that’s not leaning in towards what her book sounds like it really is about, which is much more of a medical thriller in space and less about one person drifting through the whole movie.

Craig: But then there’s this interesting thing where she says she rewrote the third act of the film script, so somebody else was writing the script. And then she says, “While my film was in development, I rewrote the third act of the film script.” So, and when she rewrites the third act of the film script it says here from her complaint “to assist in the development of the Gerritsen Gravity project, Gerritsen wrote and delivered additional material that constituted a modified version of a portion of the book. The additional material included scenes of satellite debris colliding with the international space station, the destruction of the space station, and the surviving medical doctor/or astronaut left drifting in her spacesuit alone and un-tethered, seeking the means rather to return to earth.”

Now, what’s interesting is what she’s saying here is that she didn’t rewrite the third act of the film script, she’s saying she rewrote additional material that constituted a modified version of a portion of the book. She’s saying two different things.

John: I find it strange. I also find it kind of weird that we’re not ever talking about the development of the actual screenplay. So, I think you and I know who the screenwriter is, or at least one of the screenwriters who worked on this, and his name hasn’t been brought into it, so I don’t want to be the first person to bring his name into it, but there was active development on it.

At some point she claims to have written this material. We don’t see what this material is, but she’s talking about it because it makes it sound more like Cuarón’s movie.

Craig: Right.

John: And that’s a change.

Craig: And this is one area where this is kind of like our version of Serial, I guess, because we’ll never know. But she says two different things. On her blog she’s saying I rewrote the third act of the film script. In her complaint, she’s saying I rewrote the book. And, now, she may have done both. So, one thing that’s interesting that has not been indicated by her complaint, as far as I know, is it doesn’t appear that she had a contract to write screenplay material.

John: Yeah. It’s not been introduced by her or by Warner Bros as far as I can see.

Craig: And if that’s the case, I mean, look, if she had she would almost certainly introduce that. So, I’m a little puzzled by this. But, let’s just take it face value that what she’s saying is, look, let’s say even if she didn’t write screenplay material, she did write essentially new book stuff. And that per her licensing agreement for the novel, New Line also had access to and the rights to this new book stuff.

John: Absolutely. So, I think part of the reason why she’s introducing it in this way is to make it clear that she didn’t just go off and write something else that no one ever saw that was more like the ISS stuff. She wrote it, she sent it in, and it was — to her telling of it — it constituted more of the underlying literary material from which the project was based.

Craig: Right.

John: All right. So, next, let’s hear her talk about the Cuarón movie Gravity and sort of how that relates.

“Tess:” Sometime around 2008 — 2009, Alfonso Cuarón wrote his original screenplay Gravity about a female astronaut who is the sole survivor after her colleagues are killed by satellite debris destroying their spacecraft. She is left adrift in her space suit, and is later stranded aboard the International Space Station. I noted the similarities, but I had no evidence of any connection between Cuarón and my project. Without proof, I could not publicly accuse him of theft, so when asked about the similarities by fans and reporters, I told them it could be coincidental.

John: All right. So, here she’s saying that she was aware of the Cuarón movie Gravity and she assumed that it just had to be a completely different thing because she assumed that Cuarón would not have known about her book and that it was just a coincidence.

Craig: Yeah. She says, “Without proof, I could not publicly accuse him of theft, so when asked about the similarities by fans and reporters, I told them it could be coincidental.” That’s not quite her saying that she actually believed it was coincidental. That’s her just saying I can’t prove that he’s stolen anything.

Now, again, this is at a point now, sometime around 2008/2008 where, in fact, Warner Bros has now fully absorbed New Line. New Line is now not its own completely independent entity. They’ve now absorbed it and there’s a much closer interaction as Cuarón begins to write his original screenplay, Gravity.

John: But we should point out that Cuarón is not writing the original screenplay for Gravity for Warner Bros. This project, I believe, is at Universal at this point.

Craig: Yes. You’re absolutely right. It is, in fact, at Universal. Correct.

John: And so an interesting thing, so a year ago I actually hosted Alfonso Cuarón, the conversation about Gravity. And I talked to him about the early development and I don’t have any of the audio from our talk. This was for Film Independent. There are other clips of me talking with him, but like this part didn’t make it in, at least to the stuff online.

But, I did find Dave Poland talking with him during the run ups to the award season last year — last year — two years ago? — about Gravity and sort of how this all came. So, I want to play two little short clips from David Poland talking to Alfonso Cuarón about his development of the screenplay for Gravity. So, this is with his son, Jonás Cuarón, and sort of how they wanted to write a story about adversity.

Alfonso Cuarón: In this one, so we sat, we started talking about the themes and the set themes and there was space and we immediately recognized the amazing metaphorical possibilities that space would offer. So, we start pretty much mapping the story and it took us like three weeks to finish the script.

Jonás Cuarón: The first draft.

David Poland: That’s not bad. Do you usually write that quickly, or — ?

Alfonso Cuarón: Yeah, look, I believe that screenplays they take three weeks or five years to write. And, you know, usually I prefer to do the ones that take three weeks. I would like to do something about adversities. You know, I was going through a lot of adversities and it was just — I actually was in the midst of the adversities. And in many ways sometimes you do things just trying to make sense of where you are.

And so that we defined that that was going to be the theme. So, when we started coming out with the scenarios, like the debris as a metaphor for these adversities. But then many other elements, you know, was the first image that we had was this thing of an astronaut floating into the void. And so we started discussing the metaphors of that. You know, it’s a character who is drifting towards the void, a victim of her own inertia, getting farther away from human communication. Living in her own bubble. You know, so we started having all these elements. So, there was already kind of like — that was our — our springboard for where to jump.

John: Okay, so that’s Cuarón’s description of what Gravity was like when he and — or his project of Gravity was like when he and his son were writing the screenplay for it.

So, right now you could say like, well, you could argue that maybe these are just two completely separate projects and Cuarón would have no idea that her project exists. But, she says, she recently learned that he did know about her project and her book. So, here is her talking about that from her blog post.

“Tess:” In February 2014, my literary agent was informed of Cuarón’s attachment to my project back in 2000. Now the similarities between my book and Cuarón’s movie could no longer be dismissed as coincidence. I sought legal help, and we filed a Breach of Contract complaint that April. Please note: this is not a case of copyright infringement. Warner Bros, through its ownership of New Line, also controls the film rights to my book. They had every right to make the movie ó but they claim they have no obligation to honor my contract with New Line.

John: So, there’s a lot to unpack here. First she says that Cuarón was attached. Craig, what does attached mean?

Craig: Well, in a general understanding, attached means that someone said I am interested in working on this movie. If I’m an actor, I’m interested in starring in it. You can tell people that I want to star in it. If I’m a director I’m saying, yeah, I would like to direct this. But, I haven’t been hired to do it. My interest in it is more like planting a little flag and less like actually showing up and doing a job. From a legal point of view, people attach themselves to stuff all the time and it’s simply not even papered because no services are actually rendered.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, when she says “My literary agent was informed of Cuarón’s attachment to my project back in 2000,” what we don’t know is, well, we don’t know, A, who informed her literary agent. We don’t know, B, if that information is correct. But most importantly, C, if we stipulate that all of that is true, we don’t know the nature of his attachment.

John: Yeah. So, it could be anything from he read it and said like, oh yeah, that’s interesting. Or, he was like, I’m determined this is going to be my next movie.

So, I think it’s also important to look at, this is in 2000. So, let’s look t who Alfonso Cuarón was in 2000. He had directed A Little Princess and Great Expectations. Great Expectations, which was not a giant hit. This is before Y Tu Mamá También. It’s before Harry Potter. It’s before Children of Men.

So, if I were New Line would I go to Alfonso Cuarón to direct this probably expensive movie in space about a medical disaster? Maybe. Maybe I recognize that he’s so brilliant, that he’s the person who should do this, but I kind of wonder whether you’re going to him with a giant property at this point.

I’m not saying they didn’t, but it would be sort of surprising to me if he was attached in a sense of like scare-off all other directors because he’s our guy.

Craig: Well, that’s the problem with this phrase attachment because you never know really what it means. Sometimes people attach themselves to stuff and a studio will go, oh, have they told you that they’re attached to this? Not according to us. All sorts of funky things go on with that. But, I’m willing to extend the benefit of the doubt here and say that he was attached, which is not a — it’s nothing formal. You know, sometimes, and this is where the legal — these legalisms kind of hit the reality of the road. You know, they may say:

Hey Alfonso, what are you interested in doing?

You know what I really want to do, I’ve got this idea and I want to do this movie about a woman drifting in space.

You do? Guess what? We have a book. We have a book. It’s got that.



All right, let me read it. Oh, yeah, well this isn’t quite what I was thinking. This is more like, you know, Contagion — well, they didn’t have Contagion — it’s more like Outbreak in space. I’m not really thinking that. But, you know, maybe I could figure something out.

Well, you know what? We want to attach you to this and you’ll have some interest –


John: To be clear, Craig is just conjecturing. We have no idea what the real situation was.

Craig: That’s the point. It’s all conjecture. Yeah.

John: And so I think what I would like to stress is that attached means maybe.

Craig: Right.

John: That’s really what it means. Because one of our mutual friends is a hot director and he’s attached to like seven projects. And so you ask him, what are you going to direct? He’s like, I don’t know. One of them.

Craig: Oh yeah. We hear this all the time. Sometimes you have a screenplay and the studio wants to make it and an actor says I want to do that. And then someone says, well wait a second, I hear that they’re attached to this. And then you ask them, well, how are you going to do my movie, you’re attached to that? Oh, no, no, no, that’s nothing. That’s not real.

You hear that every day. So, this idea of the attachment isn’t particularly — it’s not particularly compelling. But, what it does for Gerritsen is it obviously removes that roadblock that she felt was kind of between her and a lawsuit here.

And what she’s saying is that unlike most of the cuckoo nuts out there who say “you stole my life from me, you ripped off my script,” which is always — and 99% of the times bananas — she’s saying, no, no, no, I’m saying that what’s happened here is Warner Bros through its ownership of New Line has violated my contract. They made a movie that I believe is connected by chain of title to my book. They owe me money.

John: Yup. So, there’s really two ideas competing here and we don’t want to gloss over them. First off, “could not be dismissed as coincidence.” So, she’s basically saying like, oh, no, no, he saw it, I know he saw it, so you can’t just say that it was completely independent because I know he saw it. That’s not a fact we actually know, but she’s stating it sort of like it’s a fact.

And this third point which is Warner Bros, through their ownership of New Line, also controls the film rights to my book. And that weirdly becomes the whole issue here is whether they do, or don’t control the rights. What she’s I think very smartly saying in this block is, “Please note: this is not a case of copyright infringement.” So she’s trying to really lean into this sense of like I know you think I’m going to be one of those kooks who says that my book was stolen, and it wasn’t. It couldn’t have been stolen because Warner Bros owns it through New Line. And weirdly the case is about, well, maybe they didn’t. Or maybe they didn’t in the way that we sort of think they did.

Craig: Well, yes. Now, she’s also doing something — and her lawyers — are also doing something kind of clever here with this as well that’s a little more subtle. When she says this is not a case of copyright infringement, in addition to separating herself from the pack of lunatics, she’s also doing a little bit of a sleight of hand — these are not the droids you’re looking for.

In fact, down the line somewhere that’s exactly what’s going to need to be figured out. And here’s why — what she’s arguing is, hey look, Warner Bros is saying that they don’t have any responsibility for their contract with me because that’s a contract that was made with New Line, it had separate management, not them, they’re not responsible. Which, by the way, the judge has agreed with. They’ve agreed with Warner Bros’ argument there.

And she’s saying, no, no, no, but we’re going to come back and show that, in fact, they do control the film rights. If she is successful in that, that’s not going to be enough. Then, she’s going to have to show, okay, fine, okay, the judge has said we’re responsible for your contract. Great, we’re responsible for it. Still, this is a different project.

John: Yeah. So, it’s just the stage one. Let’s talk about what the judge actually did rule in this case. This is judge Margaret Morrow. And this is from her decision. I’ll just read one little quote here. “Even when her allegations are construed in Gerritsen’s favor, it is apparent that she cannot plausibly allege a claim under traditional contract law theories. Gerritsen pleads that she entered into contract with KATJA and New Line that entitled her to payment if KATJA produced a motion picture based on her book. And that Warner Bros, not KATJA, produced a film that is allegedly based on her book.

“No plausible inference arises from these allegations that Warner Bros was a party to the contracts or that KATJA produced the final film. Thus, absent an alternative theory of liability, Gerritsen’s claims must be dismissed.”

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, Morrow’s decision is about 48 pages long. It’s super long. And in it Gerritsen is now allowed to file an amended complaint within 20 days, so probably ten days from now. And one of the things that Gerritsen is seeking is discovery. Gerritsen is seeking the ability to look for things that sort of bolster her claim that this has happened, that it’s based on this. And Morrow is saying basically, no, like you haven’t shown enough facts to lead to discovery.

And there’s a quote here which is from somebody else, but I thought it was a really interesting quote. “The court will not unlock the doors to discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions.”

Craig: Right.

John: So, basically saying like you kind of want to go fishing but I’m not going to let you go fishing because I think you don’t have enough to bolster your claims here.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, and just to make it really clear — that quote that you said was not from Judge Morrow.

John: That’s not Morrow. She’s quoting some other decision.

Craig: Right. But that’s what it comes down to. I mean, look, discovery is a really powerful thing. When you are involved in a civil case, discovery means, yeah, I get to actually look through everything. I can look through all your emails. I can look through all your stuff. You have to show it to me.

It’s not like a criminal case where you can plead the fifth. And, yeah, so Morrow is saying you haven’t actually given me any reason to think that you would discover something. You can’t just come up with a conclusion and then use that as some kind of pry bar to open up Warner Bros’ stuff to look for something that would fit your conclusion.

But, the judge did on some level at least, you know, this is what Gerritsen believes, kind of guide her to sort of say, here, if you sort of change things this way or this way, maybe then I would entertain your case. Well, not quite as sanguine about her prospects as she is there.

But, normally at this point it would be the end of it. And I should mention that Warner Bros has settled things before. For instance, the tattoo case. In this situation, they did not settle. They said, no, no, no, good, court. We like our odds. And they won. Typically it would end here.

But it is not what ended here. In fact, Gerritsen does something that people don’t typically do and she is a unique situation as far as these things are.

She went public.

John: She did. So, the snippets that we’re playing are actually from the blog post after she lost this case, or had most of this case dismissed. And she went public and the reason why we’re talking about it right now is because everyone tweeted this link to her blog about sort of what the situation was. And so this is the alarming language that was in there that set everybody off. So, let’s play one more snippet of that.

“Tess:” This is why every writer who sells to Hollywood should be alarmed.

It means that any writer who sold film rights to New Line Productions can have those rights freely exploited by its parent company Warner Bros ó and the original contract you signed with New Line will not be honored. Warner Bros can make a movie based on your book but you will get no credit, even though your contract called for it.

John: It’s a call to arms. It’s a call to arms to all writers who might sell their books to Hollywood.

Craig: Well, first, before I talk about her alarming comments here, I should say that if you’re listening and you’re thinking to yourself, boy, John and Craig seem a little hard on this lady and a little soft on Warner Bros, I want you to understand that every time these things happen I make a real effort to remember and consider that it is never a case of one writer accusing a corporation of ripping them off.

It is one writer accusing a corporation and another writer of ripping them off. And my feeling has always been that in our brother and sisterhood of writers we need to give all of the writing parties’ benefit of the doubt. There is no greater accusation to make than plagiarism. And she is accusing Alfonso Cuarón and his son of plagiarizing her.

So, everyone flipped out. And they flipped out because she said her case means that any writer who sold film rights to New Line Productions can have these rights freely exploited by the parent company, Warner Bros, and the original contract you signed with New Line will not be honored.

In fact, that is not correct at all. That is a ridiculous jump in logic from her situation. What she’s saying, to be clear is, because I failed to convince you that Warner Bros doesn’t have to honor this contract, Warner Bros never has to honor these contracts. That’s actually not true.

John: Yeah. It’s a fallacy of over-generalization. So, your one specific incidence of things that happen to you is a universal truth. So, if your Toyota catches fire, all Toyotas catch fire. And this was a really sort of unique circumstance. And I don’t know that she’s consciously doing a sleight of hand, but a sleight of hand has happened where she’s taking the results of this lawsuit and trying to say well this is what’s going to happen to everybody else in the future.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, look. Let’s say Gerritsen never sells her film rights to New Line Productions. Okay? She just publishes her book. She goes on her merry way. And then one day Warner Bros makes Gravity. Same situation. The only thing that’s different is that she didn’t sell the film rights to New Line. Would she not be able to sue Warner Bros? Of course she would. And what would the lawsuit be? It would be a copyright case.

Now, when she sells the film rights, she’s not giving up copyright of her book. So, when she says, well hey, it’s not a case of copyright infringement, what I’m hearing is I’m saying it’s not a case of copyright infringement because I know I can’t prove copyright infringement.

That’s what I’m hearing. Now, I don’t know if that’s true. But that’s what I’m hearing. So, what I want to say to you at home is, no, if you sell your film rights to your novel at New Line and then Warner Bros goes and makes a movie of it, if they’re using your unique expression in fixed form, you absolutely have legal recourse. No question.

John: Yes, so that legal recourse is complicated to a degree because let’s say it wasn’t New Line. Let’s say, oh, let’s pick Disney. Let’s say she had sold it to Disney and then Warner Bros makes Gravity. And Disney say, uh-uh-uh, that’s really based on this book that we control the rights to. Disney is the one who would go after Warner Bros.

Craig: That’s right.

John: Probably more likely than Tess Gerritsen. So, in this case, New Line is not going to sue Warner Bros. And so I am sympathetic to — I can very much see how it feels to her, because she’s saying like, uh-uh-uh, I’m not — New Line should be suing you and New Line is not suing you.

New Line is not suing them I really think for one really clear reason that it’s probably not based on the book that they bought, but clearly even if they thought it was based on the book they bought, they would not be suing Warner Bros.

Craig: I still feel like in the case that you said, Disney says we’re suing you Warner Bros because we have exclusive rights to make a film based on this book. That’s fine. But if they have, in fact, made a movie based on a book that they don’t have rights to. The author, too, has a copyright case because –

John: They absolutely do.

Craig: Because the rights to make derivative works is incorporated in copyright. One of the things of copyright is the right to make copies, but it’s also the right to make derivative works, including films of your novel. So, if somebody goes and makes a derivative work of your book and you haven’t given them that right, absolutely you can sue them. What I feel like — and I can’t say this is true — but what I feel like is that she knows she can’t prove that, so she’s trying to basically get them from a chain of title argument. And the judge is saying you can’t.

John: Yeah. Let’s listen to the last little clip of this, and this is how she sort of wraps up. And this was the final call to arms, which I think is what got so many people tweeting this at us this week.

“Tess:” It means that any parent film company who acquires a studio, and also acquires that studio’s intellectual properties, can exploit those properties without having to acknowledge or compensate the original authors.

This is alarming on many levels, and the principles involved go far beyond my individual lawsuit. Every writer who sells film rights to Hollywood must now contend with the possibility that the studio they signed the contract with could be swallowed up by a larger company ó and that parent company can then make a movie based on your book without compensating you. It means Hollywood contracts are worthless.

John: Craig, are Hollywood contracts worthless?

Craig: No, of course not. Now, when you — look, I have to be fair and honest here. When you enter into a contractual agreement with a multinational, multi-billion dollar corporation, you know you are in an asynchronous state. You are an individual and they are not. And if they — if you perceive that they have violated your contract, it’s going to be a tough fight. There’s no question. And I’m aware of that. That said, I have never once in 19 years ever had a situation that even approached a company violating a contract. It costs them too much to violate there.

If they clearly violate the contract, they know they’re going to lose. In this case, what she really — here is how I would sort of express her argument. Let’s say you write a novel and you sell it to a studio. And then that studio is bought by another studio that makes a movie that you think is connected to your novel in some way, but doesn’t actually contain stuff that you think is pulled from your novel in terms of intellectual property, then they don’t have to compensate you.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Yeah, that’s right. [laughs]

John: That’s really what it comes down to is that like in many ways what she doesn’t perceive is that her book Gravity is still a New Line property that they could still make into a movie.

Craig: Exactly. Exactly.

John: And so I think it would actually be really fascinating if just New Line said like, you know what, it still is a really good idea, because you know what, it kind of does sound like a good idea. They could just make it. They probably wouldn’t call it Gravity because that title has already been used, but I mean, she perceives that her book has been turned into a movie, and New Line says it hasn’t.

Craig: And let’s talk about what — okay, she’s alarmed by how she perceives reality now. I’m alarmed by the reality that she wishes to impose. And here’s why.

John: Oh yeah.

Craig: So let’s say that Ms. Gerritsen gets her way and Warner Bros is held responsible for this and now Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is no longer considered an original screenplay, but in fact it’s based by a novel by her, a novel that he may or may not have read, and it doesn’t matter. That’s the way it is.

So, now, let’s talk about what that means for screenwriters. You go to a studio and you say I have an original idea and I’m going to sell it to you. Or, I have an original screenplay, I’m going to sell it to you. And they say, great. We love your spec script. We want to buy it. However, because of Gerritsen v. WB, we have had to run through our archives of all material that we own, including material owned by companies that purchased it before we purchased the company, and we have found seven different books that we have contractual obligations to that are similar in topic.

John: In that sense that they involve horses.

Craig: Yeah. You have a horseracing movie. That’s a perfect example, because there have been about, I don’t know, one every three years. Okay? You have a horseracing movie. We have seven different books that are basically about the horseracing and they all include a character of a girl who falls in love with a horse. They include an alcoholic. They include a horse that nobody had — that was going to go to the glue factory. Basically we have seven books that include a lot of horse movie tropes. So, your original screenplay is now actually based on seven different books. It’s a nightmare.

It’s a nightmare.

John: So, let me give you a scenario that I think is actually much more plausible and likely, that you could really see happening. So, let’s say you are Sony and you buy a great book about Harry Truman and it’s like, oh, we’re going to make a movie about Harry Truman. And then two weeks later Aaron Sorkin comes out with a really amazing spec script and it’s like, oh my god, this is amazing, so you buy it. Do you then have to go to Aaron Sorkin and say, oh, Aaron, by the way, I know you wrote this original script but it’s now based on this book? That’s really the scenario that you’re running into now is that like anything that looks like it could be similar that you already own the rights to, well it’s suddenly source material for this project.

That does come up, by the way. There definitely are situations where a spec script — they’ll own a book and they’ll say like, you know what, we’re going to incorporate some of this stuff but I’ve also had it happen just in bizarre ways. I had a friend who was in production on her movie. And this was a pitch she sold and she was so excited and they were in production. And they’re like several weeks in and they said like, oh by the way, this movie is based on a book. And she had no recourse, essentially. This thing that she thought was an original thing is now based on a book.

Craig: Right. It happens. What we don’t want is for it to happen sort of post hoc, you know, where you sell something and then a book is thrown on top of it, or you sell something and somebody throws a book sort of in it as we have to, sorry. We mistakenly have the rights to a book that is sort of the same kind of topic. You know, we’ve talked about what is and is not unique expression in intellectual property. We’ve talked about how ideas are not intellectual property.

I’m a little concerned — the thing that concerned me maybe the most about Ms. Gerritsen’s complaint was what was not there. And what was not there was any kind of literary material that I could read, a passage, a paragraph, a sentence, and say, oh, you know what, I saw that in Gravity. Nothing. And what concerns me then is that she is suing, she is casting aspersions on the authorship of Alfonso Cuarón and yet she can’t actually back it up. And I have to say that is not a good feeling there. She may be right. And she may be proven right. And if that’s the case, then I hope she gets every dime she deserves.

But right now, I’ll tell you what, there is a very famous short story called Kaleidoscope by Ray Bradbury. Have you ever read Kaleidoscope?

John: I never have.

Craig: It’s probably on the web. We could probably throw a link on, well, actually, that’s copyright violation anyway, so we won’t do that. But it’s an amazing story and it’s about a bunch of astronauts on a rocket ship and the rocket ship explodes from something, meteors or something. And all the guys basically are falling through space and as they’re falling through space they can talk to each other. So, they’re basically above the earth, just like Gravity, and they’re falling in freefall towards the earth, just like Gravity, and they can talk to each other.

And the short story is entirely about what they say to each other in these last minutes knowing full well this is it.

John: Well, I can’t believe Cuarón ripped him off.

Craig: [laughs] Well, that’s the thing. You know, this is where we have to be so careful because, you know, if she got her way here basically everybody would just be locked into the strangest world, you know. It’s not feasible.

John: You know what it actually reminds me of? It sort of reminds me of patent trolls. You know how the way that technologies get patented and then people use them as weapons against each other. And I could definitely see if this were to actually come to pass where you could say like, uh-uh, you can’t do anything involving this little subset of intellectual property because I own all of these things. And that would just be a horrific situation.

Craig: Yes. I’m really curious if anyone has actually read the book and if they perceive any real specific connection beyond the fact that the hero is a woman and that she’s in space and falling. That’s not enough at all.

John: So, I want to address sort of like why I think so many writers are so freaked out about this.

Craig: Ah yes.

John: And I could totally feel why they were panicked because you look at it, especially look at it from how she is portraying it. And I also would say like I genuinely think and believe she believes what she’s writing. I don’t think there’s anything false about this. I think sometimes she’s optimizing her words that she’s using to describe her own book, but I think she genuinely believes what she’s writing. And I think if I were in her situation, I would kind of genuinely believe it, too.

Because I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to defend my authorship of a movie that goes into production, or arbitration where I say like, well, clearly this is my work. And it’s frustrating when sometimes that’s not acknowledged. But — and so, well, the writers who tweeted us this link, they felt like, oh my god, this is something that could happen? This is awful. And so what I’d love for people to remember though is there is a whole bunch of other writers that aren’t being acknowledged in this conversation.

There is the screenwriter who adapted her book who that movie never actually happened, but there is a script somewhere with this guy’s name on it that’s based on a book that could be a movie at some point. And there are the Cuaróns who wrote this movie. And to hold up on a pedestal this novelist for her book and for her idea, which is sort of a different idea, over the actual creative work and expression of writing a movie and making a movie feels like a — you’re omitting a really crucial part of the discussion.

Craig: Yeah. Everybody roots for the underdog. I mean, sure. And, you know, when she comes out and very candidly frames this as writers versus companies, of course every writer is going to go Defend, Defend, yes, circle the wagons. Always, I say, always defend the writer and circle the wagons. Just make sure that you’re not circling the wagons and excluding a writer while you’re doing it, or running over a writer while you’re doing it.

In that case, that’s what’s happening here. And the writers are — the writer of the screenplay that was actually based on her book and by chain of title and also Alfonso Cuarón, unless — by the way — unless in a court of law she proves that Alfonso Cuarón and his son plagiarized her work. And if that’s the case, well then, they ought to get what’s coming to them. I mean, you know, I mean, I’m all for that. But, you know, when we sign contracts, it’s one of my favorite little hypocrisies of the screenwriting contract is on the one hand we say, look, for the purposes of copyright, Warner Bros is the author of the screenplay. However, I also swear to you that I am the author of the screenplay. Nobody else. I am not stealing anything. I wrote this. Me, me, me.

Meaning, you can sue me. If I sell you a screenplay that in fact I’ve ripped off from somebody else. So, it’s not like we — when we get jobs that we are aware that we are warranting college honor code style that this is our work. And we’re not stealing anybody else’s work. The only work that we’re allowed to access is the work that’s assigned to us. The prior screenplays and the underlying material.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Well, Craig, thank you very much for a discussion, a very thorough discussion through all of this, and we’ll keep an eye on it. We’ll see what happens. There’s supposed to be another ten days or so before she has to file a new thing. So, if she files that and it goes to another round, we may see more about this.

John: Yeah, for sure.

It is time for our One Cool Things and keeping with our science-fiction theme, my One Cool Thing is two blog posts by Tim Urban on Wait But Why, his site. And they’re both talking about artificial intelligence and they’re very, very long posts where he just sort of goes through what modern artificial intelligence thinkers think is going to happen with artificial intelligence. And at what point we will achieve artificial intelligence that can sort of do what we do, and then at what point will we create a superior intelligence that can do things we cannot possibly imagine. And what the timeframes are for that and what the outcomes are for that.

And it’s just a really good, thorough deep dive into that whole area of discussion. So, I had read some of the books that he’s referencing, and Kurzweil, and your best friend, Elon Musk, has huge concerns about artificial intelligence.

Craig: Yes, I wish he were my best friend.

John: Well, yeah. But one day. And Bill Joy, who is famously sort of negative about the future not needing us. So, I think it’s just a great look at sort of where our thinking is for artificial intelligence right now. One interesting little statistic I’ll pull from it is they did a survey of artificial intelligence experts to f figure out — really asking them when do you think artificial intelligence will achieve human intelligence?

And the median answer was 25 years, which is really soon. The question then becomes, at what point after achieving our intelligence would it become super intelligent and those range from about two minutes to 20 years. And there really isn’t that — we cannot know, because it’s potentially an exponential growth that would fundamentally change everything. And so, while you’re there reading those two stories, it ties in well with the Fermi Paradox, which I’ve brought up before, about why we don’t see other civilizations. How it’s entirely possible that they are computers now and that’s why they’re not in our universe.

Craig: Yeah. It’s possible that we are also computers.

John: This could all be a simulation anyway, so what does it matter?

Craig: Right. What does it matter. Well, while we’re here stuck in the matrix, my One Cool Thing — why not — let’s make it Ray Bradbury and his book The Illustrated Man, which was published in 1951, and it contained 18 science fiction short stories, including the aforementioned Kaleidoscope. Did you go through a science fiction short story streak like I did when I was a kid?

John: Absolutely. I think it was seventh grade that I read a lot of them.

Craig: Yeah, I just went bananas. I mean, I went bananas on Bradbury, Asimov, various collections, Heinlein, and Bradbury was, I thought, the best writer. Some of the writing of that time period isn’t great. A lot of times you feel like the people writing the stories are really good with plot, terrible with character and dialogue. Everybody speaks ridiculously and on the nose.

Bradbury was a very good writer. And loved actually the idea of what he did with Kaleidoscope. I mean, granted, it’s dated. It’s from 1951. But, definitely check it out if you can, literally, from your library. The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, including Kaleidoscope.

John: Fantastic. So, you’ll find links to Ray Bradbury’s works and these two posts I just talked about. All of Tess Gerritsen’s stuff we’ll try to have links up to the PDFs from the lawsuits and from the original complaints, so you can see them and look through them and maybe even sort of read through them with us as we take a look at what the Gravity lawsuit means.

If you would like to talk to me or Craig more, you can tweet at him. He is verified –

Craig: Oh yeah!

John: @clmazin.

Craig: Who do we have to thank for this?

John: Well, weirdly, so we have to thank Brian Koppelman for it. But we also literally at exactly the same time that that was happening with Brian Koppelman, I was dealing with Twitter about a bunch of impersonators. And thank you to everyone else who helped me with Twitter and those other stupid impersonators.

But I got verified sort of at the same moment, so it was all a glorious blue check moment for us all.

Craig: Yeah, Brian Koppelman, he’s — I don’t know how he does it. He’s just like one of those guys that knows every person that you should know or that you would want to know.

John: Yeah. You sort of feel like, you know, if you were walking up to a club, Brian Koppelman will get you in.

Craig: Oh, no question. That’s like — that’s elementary Brian Koppelman.

John: And I saw that Rian Johnson also got verified at the same moment. So, I think it just all happens.

Craig: Oh, no, Rian did? Because he was unverified and dangerous.

John: Yeah, now he’s verified. I have a hunch that Twitter said like, oh you know what, these screenwriters, let’s just verify them.

Craig: [laughs] While we’re at it…

John: While we’re at it. Gary Whitta had one a long time ago, but that was because of Star Wars.

Craig: I’m looking to see if Rian still says he’s unverified. No, he says, “Dignity. Always Dignity.” He’s changed it. Oh, well, you know, the truth is the blue checkmark doesn’t mean a damn thing, but –

John: [laughs] No, I thought there would be like a giant parade or whatever. I thought they would send me a little sweatshirt with a little blue checkmark, but it was a momentary little adrenaline rush.

But, anyway, I am @johnaugust. He is @clmazin. You can tweet at us with your thoughts about this episode or other episodes. If you have longer questions, the place to send them is

You can find this episode at along with the show notes and all these links.

If you would like to listen to the premium feed and all the special episodes, including the dirty episode from last week, you can find that at That will also be playable through our app which is both on the App Store and the Amazon Android App Store.

We are on iTunes. You should subscribe there and leave us a comment. Just look for Scriptnotes there.

And I think that is it. So, I want to thank Christy Miller again for providing the voice of Tess Gerritsen for this. Our outro is probably by Matthew Chilelli. We’ll see. But he also edited the show.

Craig: Yeah!

John: And Stuart Friedel produced it.

Craig: Oh, yeah! Stuart.

John: Oh yeah! Craig, have a great week.

Craig: You, too, John.

John: Thanks.


Go Set a Spider-Man

Tue, 02/17/2015 - 08:03

From Harper Lee to Sony to the Wheel of Time, it was a big week for studios trying to hold onto intellectual property. John and Craig discuss why those deals take such strange turns, including 1:30 a.m. airings on cable.

In follow-up, we look at why the WGA isn’t directly involved in the Gravity lawsuit, and how Rebel Wilson was lucky she never ran afoul of Australia’s classifiers.

A listener writes in with a question about “a film by,” prompting one Craig rant. John returns the umbrage about award season, and how we keep our best filmmakers from actually making their next films.

The 200th episode of Scriptnotes is fast approaching, and we want your suggestions for what we should do. A live show? Something else? Tweet or email your thoughts. Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

The Deal with the Gravity Lawsuit

Tue, 02/10/2015 - 08:03

John and Craig do a deep dive on Tess Gerritsen’s lawsuit concerning Gravity, using the case as a way to talk about contracts, chain of title, adaptation and corporate ownership. Spoiler: It’s really complicated, but it’s really interesting too.

Both novelists and screenwriters will find a lot to discuss.

We also talk about editing while writing, and when it’s worth it to cut now versus later.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Scriptnotes, Ep 182: The One with Rebel Wilson and Dan Savage — Transcript

Fri, 02/06/2015 - 16:14

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, Princeton University.

John: And this is episode 182 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Craig, this is actually the third time this week we have spoken in a Scriptnotes capacity.

Craig: Normally, we have a little bit of a break but we’ve had a lot going on. We’ve got our Dirty Show under our belt now, so to speak.

John: So our Dirty Show which is — it may be live by the time you’re hearing this or maybe it’s coming out the same week but on our Dirty Show, we can now finally announce our guests. So on Monday, we sat down with Rebel Wilson, the actress, writer, comedian, star of Pitch Perfect and all-around funny Australian person. And that was so much fun.

Craig: Yeah, it was great. I thought we had a great time and, by the way, managed to talk about some things that were dirty and also not dirty, which was nice.

John: Yeah, we were able to talk about like studio notes which was actually really helpful and sort of like how challenging it is to get your voice on a network television program when your voice is filthy like Rebel’s is.

Craig: Right.

John: So we talked a lot about pooping in berets and things like that and Australian slang and other good things. Then on Wednesday, we had a conversation with Dan Savage, the famed sex columnist and author. And that was great also.

Craig: Yeah. He’s just a cool cat. I’ve always admired that guy. As I mentioned when we were talking with him, I just — I love rationalists. He’s such a rationalist and he’s a rationalist about something that is completely irrational, namely sexuality. So that was fun. And plus, we got to talk about stuff that we never get to talk about.

John: Which was fantastic.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So we got to get really, really dirty because that’s what he deals in is things that are sort of uncomfortable to talk about. So we’re going to have excerpts from both our Rebel conversation and our Dan Savage conversation because there were things that we talked about that weren’t actually all that dirty.

And so at the end of this episode, we’re going to have little bits of Rebel talking about Australian TV, Tall Poppy Syndrome, her general writing process. We’ll also have Dan Savage talking to us about what he wishes Hollywood would do when it comes to portrayal of sex in movies and TV.

Craig: That’s excellent. And if you enjoy that stuff and you’re not one of our premium subscribers for — John, how much is it again?

John: It’s $2 a month.

Craig: $2 a month, $24 a year, if you’re not one of those people, then you really should consider becoming one because then you would get all of the really good stuff that is disgusting –

John: Disgusting. So the Dirty Episode, I should stress, like it has — it’s Rebel and Dan but it’s all different content. So there’s nothing that you are going to hear in this episode that is duplicated in the Dirty Show. The Dirty Show is all thoroughly filthy from top to bottom and Craig saying horrible things, so, yeah.

Craig: I thought they were all beautiful. [laughs]

John: [laughs] They were all beautiful because the human body is beautiful.

Craig: Yeah, I’m beautiful in every single way. And words won’t bring me down.

John: No. We learned a lot about Craig’s budding sexuality. I think it’s a meaningful episode. It’s going to be canon. So I think if you’re a Scriptnotes completist, you’re going to want to listen to the Dirty Episode. And exciting news, the Scriptnotes app just today got updated. So if you’re listening to this on iOS, the Scriptnotes app is so much better than it was yesterday, which is lovely.

So, again, we don’t make the Scriptnotes app. It’s a different company that does it. So it just showed up today and it’s better. So you can actually download episodes and favorite episodes and listen to back episodes much better than you could 24 hours ago.

Craig: Well, good job, elves that make that app.

John: It is wonderful. So the other people who we need to thank a lot are the maybe 15 to 20 to maybe 300 people who wrote in as follow-up on — last week’s episode, we talked about sort of standard operating procedures on things. And someone had written in saying that when someone dies and there’s an actual body, it’s not the EMTs who take the body away. It’s the coroners who take the body away.

Craig: Right.

John: And that’s so often portrayed the wrong way on television. And I said, well, wouldn’t it be great if somebody one time did it right. And then of course everyone wrote in to say, ah-ha, someone did do it right. And it was this great episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — I’ve completely forgotten that they did this — called The Body.

And so we’ll link to a clip from The Body but the whole episode is just fantastic. But exactly what we sort of wished would happen does happen in that episode where the EMTs show up, like Buffy’s mom is dead — spoiler — and they say, you know what, we got to take another call, the coroner’s going to come. And they leave her with the body, which is just a great moment.

Craig: Yeah. You see, this is one of those instances where reality is so jarring and unsuitable for what you would call paced drama that you actually — if you’re going to do it you have to build an entire episode around it and then it becomes the drama of real time, you know, which is very cool. I love that.

John: Yeah, so the little clip we’re going to show you is really the teaser to that episode. It’s like a 10-minute long teaser and they don’t cut. And so they’re doing it as a oner. It just gives you that oppressive sense of like the real-time agony of just being in this place with a dead body. So a really well done episode, and a really great example of, you know, sometimes researching how things are really done in real life can get you great moments that otherwise can be overlooked.

Craig: Wonderful.

John: So other topics that we’re going to talk about today are exploding scripts, stock scenes, and the difference between spec scripts, shooting scripts and for your consideration scripts, three topics that are sort of new and we haven’t gotten to before.

Craig: It’s amazing that after all this time you and I can still keep it fresh.

John: So I emailed you this question this morning. It’s like, Craig, have you ever dealt with exploding scripts? And you said, “I’ve never even heard of them.”

Craig: Yeah, what is that?

John: So this is something that I heard about for the first time over the weekend. So I was at a party and there were some other screenwriters there. And the screenwriting team was saying that this project that they’re working on, it’s highly locked down. So they don’t email anybody anything. They don’t email sort of like plot lines and they certainly don’t email scripts. They don’t email PDFs. Everything is printed and hand-delivered.

But more so than even that, if they need to send something to an actor, like they’re casting something, it’s all sent with these exploding scripts. And I said — because I picture me with like my hands folded on my chin and my fingers saying, like, “Please tell me more.”

Craig: Yeah. [laughs]

John: So exploding scripts, what this is is basically they’re sending them — they’re sending actors or crew people a link that they can open up and it opens up in a special app. And within the app, they can read something but like literally page by page it’s sending a message saying, like, “This page is now being read, this page is now being read.” There’s no way to screenshot it. Basically you could maybe like take your iPhone and like take a photo of the screen but you can’t really capture on the screen itself.

And they said that it was so locked down that there was a person they were — a crew member that they were interviewing to take the job and that crew person took another job, like the line producer found out that person was taking another job. And so they like pulled her script while she was reading it. So she was on like page 43 and they pulled it and she called and said like, “Wait, my script disappeared.” They’re like, “Yeah, because you took another job.”

Craig: Wow.

John: Isn’t that crazy and amazing?

Craig: Well, I guess how does it work where you can’t screenshot it?

John: So basically the app locks out the ability to sort of do that thing where you press the home button and the power key. The app will, you know –

Craig: Oh, because it’s –

John: Will burn the script.

Craig: It’s a mobile app. It’s not –

John: It’s a mobile app. I should stress that, yeah.

Craig: Okay. So you’re reading it on your iPad or your iPhone and it locks out your ability to screenshot. So they figured out the thing that Snapchat apparently hasn’t figured out? [laughs]

John: Yeah. No, I think Snapchat — yeah, I don’t think you can take a normal screenshot. I think you can take a photo of your screen with another phone.

Craig: Oh.

John: But I don’t think you can — I think it’s like Snapchat in that way that you can’t just literally take a screenshot.

Craig: Okay. I mean, it sounds good. Although, I have to say that when you’re at that level of security, there ultimately is no substitute for come into the office and read it in that room.

John: Yeah. And apparently, that’s what they do a lot. And even when they have cuts of what they’re doing, it’s like, “Okay, we will fly to New York and show it to you.” So they won’t even put it on like the — a really kind of locked down PIX System. And so, you know, people who make TV shows often deal with dailies and sort of stuff that come through it, even like big features, a lot of those dailies are in the sort of secure kind of intranet thing that shouldn’t be able to get out onto the world. But in a land after the Sony hacks, I think filmmakers are even nervous about that.

Craig: Yeah. For those entrepreneurs out there who are looking to make a billion dollars and following the traditional line of necessity being the mother of invention, the entire world, much less Hollywood, needs some version of the old Mission Impossible “this message will self-destruct.” We are desperate for something that cannot be duplicated, that can be consumed once by your eyeballs and then disappear truly. It can’t be photographed, it can’t be screenshotted, it can’t be printed or retransmitted or saved in any way.

And I wonder if it’s going to come down to some sort of device. That, in other words, let’s say somebody made a special tablet and the screen was of a certain kind where it just wouldn’t — if you tried to take a picture, you get nothing. And the operating software of that was designed so that nothing could be screenshotted or printed. It was truly locked in. Maybe then?

John: Maybe then. So what I’ll say is that it sounds like this system, and apparently it’s called Script It! Script It! is very close to that. I mean, obviously they can’t, you know, make it so the screen is unphotographable but it feels very locked down. The closest I’ve encountered this in my own real writing life was there was a project that I was — they were coming to me for a rewrite. And they sent it to me on an iPad that had been locked down.

So basically I could only read it on this one iPad and there was no way to sort of like get a cable into it or do anything else to get the thing out of it. And so it’s what you described, except that, of course, I could literally if I wanted to take a photo of every page on the screen and do it that way.

So, Craig, you’ve done some big sequels like the third Hangover. There was a printed script, though, wasn’t there? People –

Craig: No.

John: No, there wasn’t?

Craig: No. On Hangover 2 and 3, it was the same routine. The only copies of the script that existed until it was time to actually make the movie were on my computer or Todd’s computer or for Hangover 2, Scot Armstrong’s computer.

So we had our copies as the writers. When we gave it to the studio, I believe we printed individual copies that were watermarked for the executives. When we sent it to the guys, we FedEx’d them printed screenplays, watermarked, and had them send them back. And for crew people, department heads who needed to read the script, we had them come into the offices on Warner Bros, on the lot. And they had to read it in a room and then leave.

So that was as locked in as I’ve ever been. You know, nothing else yet has been quite that high-pitched.

John: Yeah. I’m wondering whether we’re going to be all dealing with those issues. And I want to look at sort of the pros and cons of that because certainly the cons of that is that it’s a huge hassle. It’s a huge hassle for the people who have to lock down the script but also for all the crew people, for everybody who sort of like, would love to be able to just like work on something at home or just do any kind of normal process or something. It’s making stuff much, much harder.

And so you’re having to basically synthesize this thing down. And so like you’re having to make a one-line schedule based on, you know, a script that you can’t actually print out and you can’t do the normal things to.

But I’m also looking at it as like — I can imagine projects that I might write where honestly just aiming for that level of security might, I don’t know, boost its stature a little bit, the exclusivity aspect of it.

Craig: Yeah, I know what you mean because [laughs] when we think about movies that require this much — I immediately jump to the new Star Wars movies that they’re making. So on the new Star Wars movies, I can only presume that there is — just as there’s an electrical department and costume and production design, there’s a security department that has staff that’s separate from the normal apparatus which would be, you know, the UPM and the production coordinator.

And the security department has to essentially manage the traffic of this stuff in such a way that it is completely locked down because even — forget the screenplay. How about just every day you shoot there are sides, which for those of you who don’t know, they’re little miniature pages that are the day’s work, the screenplay pages that are that day’s work in small form for the actors, the crew, everybody.

And they float around the set like confetti basically. Well, not on a Star Wars set. I mean, I can only presume that those things are numbered and must be returned. And if you don’t return your sides [laughs] and maybe you don’t even get them –

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, yeah, you’re right. I mean, if you’re putting a — you may be selling a spec to put it out in such a way that like this we are protecting this. Well, if they value it so much, maybe it’s valuable. [laughs]

John: Yeah. So my company makes Bronson Watermarker which is a watermarking app that a lot of, you know, studios use for watermarking scripts that go out. And so there’s TV shows I know that use it every week. But that’s a less — that’s not quite such a big concern because if you are — you know, episode 17 of that ABC drama that’s not like highly spoilerific, kind of who cares? I mean, it’s not a big deal. There’s not that kind of lockdown versus the sort of the Star Wars of it all.

In terms of like what can replace sides, I think it would honestly be an app on your phone. So just the same way that this Script It! thing, you know, had a Mission Impossible sort of like the script will explode after a certain period of time, there’s probably a way you can do sides on, you know, a phone-sized device that could work for sides.

Craig: I’m kind of curious. I wonder if maybe Rian Johnson would be willing to tell us how they’re handling that. My guess is that they won’t even discuss how they do it, you know, because even that, in a weird way, is giving away something important. But, I mean, look, that’s the scariest stuff because there are certain movies that the great engine of spoilering is desperate to spoil, which is so sad to me.

I mean, if I could just take a step back and talk about what’s going on behind all this, it’s a bummer. You know, obviously when you and I were growing up this wasn’t a problem. Nobody could possibly spoil a movie for us, much less print the screenplay online and then [laughs] much less critique of the second draft of a thing.

And what’s so I guess puzzling to me is that the spoilers so often come from people that are loving something to death. It’s not even out of malice. It’s out of a strange obsessive love. And it’s just sad. It makes me sad.

John: Yeah. It’s like these pop cultural things that are like the little rabbit who’s getting squeezed too hard until it’s dead.

Craig: Yeah, Lennie. Lennie, lighten your grip.

John: Yeah. [laughs] Important lessons to learn. Always take a nice light grip to your Star Wars and your treasures, icons of cinema.

Craig: Indeed.

John: It’s tough.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So the next topic I want to get into is stock scenes. And by stock scenes, I mean those things that you’ve seen a thousand different versions of them because they are just — the thing I had to write this week was the first time I’ve ever actually had to write it. I had to write a police interrogation room or interview room.

Craig: That is the most stock scene.

John: Yeah, it is. I mean, that or like the guy up on the witness stand is probably another sort of great stock scene. But like we sort of know all of the tropes. We know sort of how it’s supposed to work. And it was fascinating to get into it because the existence of the scene was necessary. It was a useful scene to have because it let us communicate some important story points and it was useful because one of our main characters is the guy being interviewed.

And that I think is one of the crucial differences is that I only wanted to keep it in there because it’s our hero who is being interviewed. If it was a cop interviewing somebody, that would be even sort of more cliché. But it was challenging to find a way into that scene that didn’t feel just — wow, like this is the 19,000th version of the scene you’ve ever seen.

So I wanted to sort of talk about stock scenes and ways to approach them to hopefully make them less painful.

Craig: Well, it’s certainly a tall order. I mean, in particular, that stock scene has been done not only a million times in movies but also a million times in a million cop shows. And it’s hard sometimes as a writer to shed this built-in thing. It’s as if we feel like we’ve been in an interrogation room just from the collective memory of a thousand of these scenes.

It’s a dark room. There’s a metal table. We’re on one side, they’re on the other. Maybe it’s good cop/bad cop, maybe it’s one guy. There is that single bright light. At some point they start yelling at us. At some point they start telling us that someone’s going to roll over on this — and so much of it is the same. And a scene like that, for instance, I’ve actually never had to write that scene.

If I did, I think I would probably think to myself, “Is there a way I could actually do this, first of all, not in a room? Let me see if I can just avoid the room entirely.” And then, “Is there a way that I could do the scene so that the person being interrogated does not realize that it’s an interrogation until it’s too late?” Can I maybe make something out of that, you know. But that one is really hard.

John: So what it sounds like you’re talking about is changing the fundamental expectations of what that scene is supposed to be like. And so you talked about the setting. And so that’s one of the first things I looked at. It’s like I had that same picture in my head of like, you know, what this interrogation room is, which is basically there’s one overhead light and the walls are dark and everything’s pushed away and there’s a mirror there.

And so I very deliberately like pushed away from that expectation of what that is supposed to be like. And it was useful because I’d done the research so I sort of knew what the sheriff’s department actually looked like and it’s nothing like that at all.

Then I also looked at sort of like how could — what is the latest possible moment I could come into that scene, because the useful thing about stock scenes is we sort of know how they work. So you could come in much, much later than you sort of think you could come in. And so I could come in in the middle of a conversation and really just get the experience of it and very quickly the audience can fill in everything that must have happened before that point.

And that is a really useful thing about these stock scenes. So I was able to get in really late and leave really early.

Craig: That’s smart. I like that you play with that. I mean, one of the hidden challenges of the idea of moving — I guess you would call it resituating or relocating that scene to a different place is that with stock scenes, sometimes the trap you’re in is that if you move it out of the stock setting to be fresh, it feels like suddenly people feel the writer because it feels like, oh, I get — oh, look, they’re playing tricks with the stock scene, you know.

John: You don’t want to fall into that trap of so many scenes from Bruckheimer movies where like that exposition scene takes place in a boxing gym because boxing gyms are cool.

Craig: [laughs] They have that. The light is always streaming in. Every boxing gym is like set up so that it’s backlit and –

John: Yeah, falling down, big shafts of light.

Craig: Always.

John: So those are things I was looking at. But I was also thinking about like what are versions of that scene that I’ve actually enjoyed recently. And so True Detective is largely structured around that kind of police interrogation scene and does such great job of bending our expectations about what is supposed to happen in that scene because that whole series is sort of built around those scenes. I also thought Gone Girl did a great job of it because partly we’re not sure how much to trust Ben Affleck in those moments. We are sympathetic to both him and the detectives through a lot of it. And so by letting us find ourselves in that moment was really, really useful for those scenes. It wasn’t entirely clear that either side knew exactly what they were doing in those moments and that’s a really rewarding thing, too, because it defeats our expectation about what’s supposed to be happening here.

Our expectation in that kind of stock scene is like the police officers are in charge, the suspect is going to try to lie and squirm his way out of it, and that’s where you’re going to be at.

Craig: Yeah. And that’s sort of the idea of the interrogation that’s not really an interrogation because the truth is that — and they did a nice job in Gone Girl of contrasting her with her partner who is, you know, Johnny jump to conclusions. And so we understood her mindset, so we understood it actually wasn’t an interrogation.

She was kind of feeling blindly and he was answering in a very real way, in a way that frankly you don’t normally answer when you realize that you’re sitting in an electric chair. He actually never got shifty and guilty because he was actually just naturally stupid in a way [laughs]. He was just being honest.

So they did a nice subtle thing without doing anything that was particularly ostentatious, you know. I mean, it was still in a police department. It wasn’t necessarily that room we’re all familiar with. I mean, the interesting thing about True Detective is that [laughs] I remember noticing early on that they — that Cary Fukunaga did this tiny, tiny thing that actually made such a difference and it was so smart because he knew how much time he was going to be spending in that room.

The typical stock setup for an interrogation is that there is a rectangular table. The cops or cop is on one side of the wide part and the interrogee [laughs], the person being asked questions, the suspect, is on the other. Here, he turns the table so that it’s actually a long way. He puts McConaughey at the head of the table, on one end, and the he puts the two cops kind of catty-corner around the corner from each other. And suddenly, it felt more like three guys almost like talking at a bar.

John: Yeah, that was a crucial distinction. And literally a bar because, of course, McConaughey is drinking through a lot of it.

Craig: Right.

John: But I think that’s really important, too. And even when you look at the Woody Harrelson interviews, the key is framed back and you can see there’s a whole office behind him, so it doesn’t feel like he is a suspect. It feels like he’s more just — it’s just they’re chatting. And the blurring of lines between like when are we like looking through the video tape of this moment and when are we live there present in the moment is a good distinction as well.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Craig, can we think of some other sort of stock scenes that exist in movies and TV so often. And just maybe make a quick list of like what are the things that you see so much and when you encounter them, you’re like, ugh, a version of that.

For me, it’s certainly weddings, people standing around the coffin at funerals, anyone hitting an alarm clock when they wake up in the morning. That first shower is a stock scene. The couple in bed reading before going to bed.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Just like — can you think of some other ones that are just that?

Craig: Sure. There’s sitting with the sick person who’s dying in a hospital.

John: Sure.

Craig: And boop, you know [laughs], if you hear boop, you’ve officially gone deep into stockville. There is the cop knocking on your door and telling you that there’s been an accident. You’ve already mentioned the law situations. In romantic comedies, there are the people colliding on the street.

John: Yes.

Craig: We’ve seen this — I mean this is almost now we’re of kind of drifting more towards cliché than stock scene, but the idea of two people meeting on the street like that.

John: The blind date or so the first time date or like the two people at the bar who don’t realize that they’re supposed to actually be together, again, it does feels a little, I guess stock scene versus the cliché is a small distinction. But there are scenes that are sometimes necessary but just get to be like, “Wow, I know what that scene is. And I don’t necessarily need to see that scene again.”

Craig: Yeah, there are the Mexican standoff scenes where everybody is –

John: Oh god.

Craig: Very hard to do those in a different way. We did a scene that was essentially a Mexican standoff scene at the end of the third Hangover, although, it was kind of a one — sided one, you know, but it kind of was playing like that. Those are tough.

John: Yeah. And sometimes you can skip the scene. And sometimes that’s actually your best choice. If there’s ways to sort of like, you know, lead up to the wedding and then like don’t actually show the wedding itself because like we know what a wedding is, we don’t necessarily need to see it.

And by, you know, slicing that little part out, maybe you can use some of that time to do something else much more interesting. You know, you can find some moment that’s usually not dramaticized which sort of like back to the Buffy coroner moment. Is that we don’t normally see the moment where the coroner is coming to take the body away. We don’t normally see the EMTs leaving. And that’s sometimes great.

Craig: Yeah. You know, I mean you can’t live in fear of these things because there are times when it will happen. I will say that if your characters are good and your story is good and compelling, you can survive this. You know, Gone Girl really didn’t reinvent the interrogation wheel but they survived it and you barely even noticed that it was happening and that it was a stock scene because the characters were intriguing and specific.

John: Yes.

Craig: So you don’t have to run too far away from this if you don’t want. But you certainly want to make sure that there are some little twisty bits even if it’s something as small as the orientation of the table to let the reader know that you didn’t just lazy your way into the same damn setup.

John: Yeah. For sure.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Our third topic today is the difference between spec scripts, production scripts, and for your consideration. And by for your consideration, I mean sort of the scripts that are sent out officially, as like this is the movie. And so when they’re being — scripts are sort of designed to be read by people who may have already seen the movie or will be voting on that movie for awards.

And the kind of question that comes up a fair amount from readers who are — listeners who are confused about sort of like, oh, well you can do that in the spec script, but you couldn’t do that in production script. So I want to talk a little bit about what the terms mean and what the terms kind of don’t mean because I think sometimes there’s this idea that you write one kind of script to sell a movie and you write a completely different kind of script to shoot a movie. And that’s not accurate.

Craig: No.

John: But we want to talk about sort of the different kind of scripts you might find on someone’s table and sort of how to visually tell that they’re different and what kind of things might be changing when you see those different kinds of scripts.

So I want to talk about — so the scripts that we are reading like when we’re reading a Three Page Challenge or if we’re reading, a friend asks us to read a script. You can call it a spec script, the original script. It is the script that the writer has written that has not gone into production. It’s just a clean script, it’s just to be read. And that’s the first — that’s what Craig and I are first writing. That’s the script that is the idea, it’s the thing you sold, that’s what’s hopefully going to go into production.

Craig: Yeah, it also comprises 95 or it may be even more, maybe 99% of the script pages that exist on this planet.

John: Absolutely. So most screenplays you’re going to read, that you’re going to find online, those are going to be what we will call a spec script. It’s just a pure script. Now, sometimes you will encounter scripts that have little truncated pages. And there’s little asterisks in the margins.

And there will be scene numbers and there’ll be scene number A-142, and AB-142, and there will be weird numberings on things. And they’ll be in different colors sometimes. Those are production scripts. And they can honestly have sometimes the exact same text that’s going to be in the original printed script. They have those weird numberings because something has changed. So new pages have been added, scenes have been cut, things have been moved around and that’s a production script.

And all the changes you’ve seen, they’re because something has come up in production that has needed them to add pages, remove pages, change scene numbers around.

Craig: Yeah, it’s still basically the same thing. I mean all the little doodads are there. So people know, okay, I don’t have to read the whole damn script again. I can just read these pages with the asterisks and okay, I don’t have to pull the whole script out of my binder. I can just replace 20 and 21. And I know what my scene numbers are. By the way, it’s just like — I don’t know if you notice this, but all right, so every scene when you’re shooting a movie, every scene gets a number.

John: Yes.

Craig: And those of us who are on the writing side of things, we just press a button in our software and numbers are generated for each scene header. But we never, like it’s funny — Todd and I would talk about this all the time in the Hangovers, we don’t know scene numbers. We know scenes, we know the story. But crew people, they know the scene numbers.

John: Yeah, they have no idea what the actual content of the scene is. And so they say like, oh yeah, we’re going to shoot 140 after lunch. I’m like, I have no idea what that scene is. Tell me what happens in the scene.

Craig: I know. Like the worst is when they’ll come up to you and they’re like, “I have a question, in 79, is Phil supposed to have the cut on his face?” I’m like, “Do you think honestly that I know what 79 is?” I have no idea. Not one number ever. But man, they’re super Rain Man-y] about it. Anyway, point being–

John: Well, the reason why they’re Rain Man-y about it is their preparation is based on a schedule that has scene numbers. And so they’re looking at this is the scene number that has this thing in it. And so I have questions specifically about this scene numbers. So they’re not looking at the script that often.

Craig: No. They’re also not thinking about the script in terms of story. Like so, everything that we think about is contextualized in terms of narrative. And they really are looking at it broken down into blocks of — I mean if you’re working in hair and makeup, you need to know like, okay, in these numbers, from this number to this number, we have this look. From this number to this number, you have this look. This scene, we know we’re going to be dealing with blood and so forth. So we have such a different way of approaching things.

But if you do come across a production script that has half pages and asterisks and omits and stuff like that. It’s fine. You just keep reading it. And it’s just the same experience. But the only thing I would say that sometimes changes is, and I was talking about this the other day with somebody, one of the strange things about the art form of screenwriting is that you are simultaneously trying to serve two masters.

You are writing something that must translate well into a movie, but you’re also writing something to be read so that it’s either bought or approved or green-lit or an actor wants to do it, et cetera, et cetera. So sometimes, when you cross the Rubicon and you’re now in production, some stuff will start to come out because it’s no longer necessary for the reader.

So when you come across a production script, if you find that it doesn’t read quite as fully or lushly as you’d like, that oftentimes is why, because a lot of things have been dispensed with.

John: Yeah. And sometimes when you’re making those changes in a production scripts, I’m not looking for the perfect word in scene description. I’m looking for like, it’s honestly just more description like this is what actually happens. Or sometimes, it’s been like we’ve shot the scene and we actually shot it a slightly different way than was written. And so I’m writing a version of the scene that really reflects that this is what we actually shot. And so in those cases, I may not be picking the most beautiful words for some line of action because it’s functional. It’s showing like this is what actually happened.

Craig: Yeah, yeah, you’re better off not reading production screenplays.

John: Yeah. So this leads us to the last question about what kind of screenplays should you read? And so a great follow-up letter we got from an Oscar-nominated producer. So we’ll call him Leo because he doesn’t want to talk about the specific movie, but here’s what’s going on.

He writes, “I had to drop you this comment when I heard the conversation between John and Craig and Aline about voting for screenplays and whether you should read them or not. As a long time learner in this industry, I used to devour the screenplays that studios would post on their for your consideration pages. I’d constantly marvel how incredibly talented the filmmakers must have been to write a screenplay that so closely matched the final film. Sure, there was the odd line or scene that was different, but 90% of the time, the screenplay matched the film.

“Over the years, I started to think there may be a conspiracy afoot. Well, this year my own film has been Oscar nominated and the screenplay was made available on the for your consideration website. And guess what, it’s not the screenplay we shot at all. It’s a cut-and-paste of the original screenplay that matched the edited film.

“I discovered after the fact that the writers did this at the request of the studio before the script went out for your consideration. On my movie, there were very significant changes made in editorial. It really was a case of rewritten in the edit. And the film benefited immensely as a result.

“I think the process of following the script out to the screen would be fascinating for students, but of course, evidence of that journey has now been eradicated by the studio which has rewritten history. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel like a crime has been committed here. I’m not trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. I just think it’s a shame in a way.

“Aspiring writers out there who hold themselves to the standard of these Oscar-nominated and awarded writers without seeing the before and after, well, I worry they’re left with the impression that these screenplays are not rock solid and require little to no reinvention in post.”

So he’s saying, basically, I think he’s worried that people are going to read these screenplays and think like, “Oh my god, it was an actually perfect screenplay.”

Craig: Yeah.

John: “Because they look exactly like the movie.” And that wasn’t actually the case at all. Like, the reason why that for your consideration script reads exactly like the move is because it was edited to look like the movie.

Craig: Yeah. This is the syndrome of the 14-year-old girl looking at, you know, another — a 17-year-old girl on the cover of Cosmo and thinking, “Why doesn’t my skin look like that, why is my waist not like that?” Well, because they photoshopped her. It’s not real.

I mean the interesting thing about this is that it cuts to the question of what exactly are you voting for? And, you know, my — we talked about this last time, my feeling is that the screenplay is the screenplay of the movie. That’s what I’m voting for. I’m not voting for the screenplay that the movie kind of used or mostly used or drifted away from. I’m voting for the screenplay of the movie.

And you can argue whether or not that makes sense if the writer was kind of undermined or subverted by the production process or the editing process. But look, you know, it’s all a big mush. As I said before, you know, screenwriters direct a ton of the movie on the page before a director is ever hired. But we’re not asking that, you know, people wonder what the director does. So I think that it’s perfectly fine that that’s the case.

It’s more interesting, I do think, to read — if you want to be a screenwriter, I think you should read the screenplays as they existed prior to production. And you don’t need to draw too many conclusions from what happened between that screenplay and the end product because ultimately that will not be in your control regardless. What you do know is that that screenplay was bought and it was made.

So for writers, I’d say there is a very good lesson to read the original screenplays. For people that are interested in film in general, I think, you know, you can read those too. But personally, I have no problem with what he is describing.

John: Yes. So I would urge, of course, screenwriters to read screenplays because there’s no way you’re going to understand the form without reading screenplays. And the screenplays that are going to be most available to you are the for your consideration scripts. And so read them if that’s what you can find, read them. If you can find earlier drafts, that’s useful too. And you’ll see sort of what the process was, you can see sort of what this looks like back then and sort of what it ended up being in the final place.

You won’t necessarily — if you’re reading a for your consideration script, you won’t have a good idea — and it’s the only thing you have, you won’t have a great sense of what they changed along the way and sort of what happened in the editorial room to get us there.

And I used to feel more strongly that, you know what, we should read the screenplays. Really it should have based on who had the best screenplay, what the best writing was. But then if you look at the other categories we’re voting for, we don’t really know that information either.

So if we vote for like best actor, well, how do we know that his performance was really sort of all one great performance and how much do we know that that was just terrific editing to make that performance look so good? Or by the same token there’s been probably great performances that have been ruined by crappy editing. So it’s hard to say. All you can do is base it on what is visible in the final product that suggest like, oh, that was a great performance underneath there or there was great writing underneath all that.

Craig: Yeah, you have to vote on — yeah, I mean look, we’re — I hate all this voting stuff anyway and all these awards. But if you’re going to do it, you just have to work with what you’ve got which is the movie. The plan that the director has is she shows up, she has a shot list, she does her shot list, she fiddles around, maybe does some other shots. And then in her mind, she has edited the scene together. She’s happy.

In the editing room, suddenly it becomes something else. Is she no longer the director of that scene? Of course not. This is how movies go. They defy this kind of fascicle categorization. The movie, if it’s done properly, is an amalgam of a lot of people’s input and talent. And who’s input is primarily featured on screen at any given point changes from moment to moment, film to film.

John: Absolutely.

Craig: So the endeavor to give out awards and parse out, well, this movie is the best directed, this movie is the best written, this movie is the best edited, and this movie is just the best, is just dumb.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But, you know — it’s dumb, it doesn’t reflect what’s real, but I get why they do it because it makes a longer show.

John: I think awards are useful to the degree that they can celebrate quality. And to the degree that they pit quality against quality is not necessarily a perfect world. But they are a chance to showcase and celebrate some of the best films of the year. And that’s why I think — that’s why I’m glad we have Oscars, despite my misgivings about sort of all of the other crap that comes with it.

Craig: Yeah, I’ve always liked that AFI model, which is you know what, here is the whatever, I don’t what their number is, but at the end of the year –

John: The thousand best movies of the year.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, it’s like, here’s 15. We love these 15 movies. Come celebrate these 15 movies. Talk about who wrote them, talk about who directed them, talk about who starred in them, da-da-da. That’s great. That makes sense to me. And then you’re not sitting there going, well, let’s see, you know, like I’m just fascinated by this notion that you could have a best picture but not the best director.

John: Yeah.

Craig: You can have the best screenplay, but it’s not the best picture.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Uh, what? Okay.

John: Yeah, that happens.

Craig: Yeah, it just doesn’t make any sense.

John: All right, it has come time to introduce our two guests. So our two guests, we recorded separately. So they don’t actually talk with each other. But first off, we have some snippets from our sit down chat with Rebel Wilson.

So she came into the office sitting, the three of us sat down face to face and talked. And some of the things we wanted to talk about with her in this episode is how Australian TV works. Tall Poppy Syndrome which is a term I’ve heard applied to people from New Zealand, but it’s also apparently something you talk about with Australians, which is sort of like small town boy makes good, but maybe being used against you, and just general writing.

So Rebel Wilson, she was just awesome and it was a pleasure to have her on the show.

Craig: In Australia, so you’ve done television in Australia, you’ve done television here.

Rebel Wilson: Yeah.

Craig: What’s the difference in the — you know, we have Standards and Practices.

Rebel: Yeah.

Craig: So that’s the people that — they’re basically the TV censors. Are they easier here, there?

Rebel: Okay, we don’t even have that in Australia.

Craig: So it would be easier there.

Rebel: Which is why I got thrown for a huge loop, I guess you could say. In Australia, I mean there was one show that I came up on called Pizza. And it was very, very rude, you know, very, very [laughs] crass and rude, but a crowd favorite, cult classic in Australia. Won like the Australian version of the Emmy’s one year, but really, full on, people running around with chainsaws, chopping people and Muslims like running around doing terrorist jokes, and like all sorts of things.

But Australians love it. Nobody would even watch that show from a network or anything. It would just go on air. So there’s no such thing –

Craig: Is there even anybody working in the network or you just drop off the tape and –

Rebel: Yeah, there’s people but what would happen in Australia is that your show get commissioned and congratulations, like, only like two people in Australia per year get their own show. Your show gets commissioned by a lady and then they’re like go away and make the show.

Craig: Right.

Rebel: And then you give it in, and then it goes on air, like you wouldn’t get notes.

Craig: Do they even watch it, you think?

Rebel: [laughs] I think they’ve started to now. They’re starting to get more American now. But they never used to watch it because like these extreme vile things [laughs] would go on air. And they wouldn’t really care.

Yeah: Yeah.

Craig: And then from here –

John: And it is just a wonderland, right?

Rebel: Yeah. Then I came here and learned the hard way what the American system is. Believing when they told me, “Oh Rebel, you can have your own show and you can do whatever you want. We just want you to be free to do whatever you want.”

Craig: Good accent.

Rebel: And then I realized, oh okay, I was like excited. But then I quickly realized that is not at all what they mean. Because they have somebody called Broadcast Standards and Practices, well, a whole department actually called that that refused to allow you to do anything really on network TV.

Craig: Right.

Rebel: Unless you’re a hit and then weirdly the standards –

John: I’m sure.

Rebel: Are easier.

Craig: Yeah, but they still have their — I mean the guys that do The Simpsons, I mean what is it, they’re coming up in their 27th season.

John: Yeah.

Craig: They still slug it out with.

Rebel: It gave me a huge respect for people who do network TV in America because how they get anything on air I do not know.

John: Have you heard of this thing called Tall Poppy Syndrome?

Rebel: Yes.

John: Is that a real thing? Is that something that –

Rebel: That is a very, very real thing, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to come live and work in America. So what it is, it’s a cultural phenomenon. It’s where if you get too good or too successful in Australia, so if you’re a poppy and you grow too tall, essentially, people want to cut you down. [laughs]

Craig: Really?

Rebel: Like yes, that’s what happened to me in Australia. So I was on all these different television shows and people like, she’s had a go, let someone else. And I’m like, what do you mean? I’m now like experienced. I’m now like really experienced. I’m now ready to go the next step and have my own movies, or maybe. And the Australian system is like, no, you think you’re so good now, why don’t you go and be unemployed. And I’m like, no. It’s a really –

Craig: That’s amazing.

Rebel: It’s a thing which I hope like younger Australians stop doing because I like the American culture more where you can’t be successful enough. Like people love the successful people and people like love the celebrities and people who are good at things and talented. Because in Australia, there’s this bizarre culture of like, oh, they celebrate the mediocre people and they’re like the ones who are too good, they’re like –

Craig: Wow.

Rebel: Get over yourselves. [laughs]

Craig: Wow.

Rebel: And I mean I’m being very general in my explanation on what it is, but it’s a real thing and it’s kind of like –

Craig: That’s not good.

Rebel: No, because they don’t want people to have big heads, do you have that expression like –

Craig: Yeah, we do. Sure.

Rebel: You know, too much of an ego.

John: Cut them down to size.

Rebel: But then they do terrible — like, so the guy, Chris Lilley, who you’re just saying, like –

Craig: Right, Summer Heights High.

Rebel: Who created Summer Heights High and so many shows. And then his latest show, like, people didn’t watch because they’re, like, “Yeah, I’ve seen it before, whatever.” And he’s like one of our best comedic talents.

Craig: He’s brilliant.

Rebel: He’s a brilliant guy.

Craig: So it’s the opposite of encouragement of people that you enjoy, you –

Rebel: Yeah.

Craig: So like what’s the attitude towards Baz Luhrmann there?

Rebel: Yeah, that’s the same.

Craig: Same, like, oh look at you.

Rebel: Yeah, make someone look good, wow.

Craig: Wow. Crazy.

Rebel: Yeah.

John: I was on a panel during Big Fish and there was — there were people on the panel were the — The Lord of the Rings movie was out that time. And I think it was Fran Walsh who was saying — she was trying to explain Tall Poppy Syndrome and she summed it up as this, is that she called her dad saying, like, “Hey, dad, guess what? I got nominated for an Oscar.” And he’s, like, “Oh, you won’t win.”

Rebel: Yeah. [laughs]

John: [laughs] And she was like, you know, basically she’s like — don’t let that go to your head. You won’t win.

Rebel: It’s like my family never believed I was an actress until I was in American movies. And they came to, like, the premiere of Bridesmaids and they’re like, “Oh, you are actually, like, good. Oh, yeah, oh, yeah.” [laughs]

Craig: Do they still kind of wonder about that or have they gotten used to the idea that you’re –

Rebel: I’m trying to change it. Like, I’m trying to say to people and the young people in Australia like, if you work hard and have a dream and you should go for it. You shouldn’t just try to be like the average Joe. If you have a talent for something, whether that’s sports or the arts or –

Craig: Yeah.

Rebel: You know, something scientific. Like I can’t give a science reference.

Craig: Just like you.

Rebel: Yeah. You should try hard and try to, like, be the best whereas it’s really frowned upon in Australia to be like exceptional in your field. Yeah.

Craig: We do have a little bit of the opposite problem here which is the Special Snowflake Syndrome where –

Rebel: Oh, yeah.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Everyone thinks their kid is the one, you know.

Rebel: Yeah.

Craig: That finally humanity has reached its apex with my child, you know, Francine or –

John: Yeah.

Craig: Caden or –

John: Well, some of the Tall Poppy Thing may just be, like, it’s almost like it’s a big small town. And so like because everyone’s from this little small town, if anyone gets to be too big in that small town, you’re like, wait, wait, hold it a second and then they cut you down.

Rebel: But weirdly, though, when you do make it in America, the tide does turn and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, they were good.”

John: Yeah, you’re now an ambassador for –

Rebel: Yeah, and then you –

Craig: There’s a lot of, like, national self-esteem issues going on there.

Rebel: Yeah, I know. I don’t know. It’s weird. Maybe because we’re all criminals or kind of like descendants.

Craig: No, that’s the best part of you guys. It is the best part.

And that was our discussion with Rebel Wilson. Well, that was our clean discussion with Rebel Wilson. As you could tell, we had a great time with her. She’s fantastic and I think, honestly, the day that we spoke with her, some news came out about this other move. She’s working constantly and that’s terrific. And obviously, she has Pitch Perfect 2 coming out and she was just great.

And, you know, it’s funny. Actors who are also writers, there’s just something about them. I’ve always found it easier to connect with them on some level. There’s something about, you know, a fellow writer. There’s that weird hundredth monkey connection that you have with them. So it was a great time. You know, she’s an actual fan of the show, so I hope we get her back one day.

John: That would be nice

Craig: Yeah.

John: And then our second guest was Dan Savage. And so he was sort of a fantasy guest and I wasn’t quite sure how we were going to track him down. And so I followed him on Twitter hoping that he would get back to me. Then finally it’s like, you know what, I’ll just shoot him an email at his Savage Love thing. And within half an hour, I got an answer back saying he’d love to be on the show.

So it was great to have him come in and talk with us. So a lot of what we talked about is really dirty and involves anal sex, but the stuff that doesn’t involve anal sex is actually really fascinating as well. So I asked him what he’d like to see movies and TV do more to portray sex in a positive way but also in a realistic way. So he had some great ideas about that. So I asked Dan what kinds of things he would like to see film and television portray in terms of sex.

Are there things that you as a sex advice columnist would love to see our movies and television shows doing more of to communicate the sexuality of the human race?

Dan Savage: Fewer simultaneous orgasms would be nice. A little bit more awkwardness around the edges, like you catch a groove but somehow, you know, it takes a moment, particularly for two people who’ve never had sex before, to find that groove, less explosive/impulsive sex.

Craig: Right.

Dan: That often gets held up and elevated as the most legitimate and hottest kind of sex is, or, you know, when it’s natural. It wasn’t planned for. It wasn’t specifically negotiated. It just kind of broke out like some sort of sudden thunderstorm, which is not the way most sex happens. Sex is negotiated and talked about and eased into.

And I guess you can’t really show that on television but it would be helpful to see more of that.

Craig: I mean, part of the problem that we face — this is my big question for you, and not only as a sex columnist but also now somebody who’s dipping your toes into the creation of content on television and let’s include movies here, too. Part of the problem that we face as content creators is that movies and television are typically depicting extraordinary circumstances. That’s why they’re on television or movies.

So, look, I’ve been married for — I’m coming up on my 19th year. So I have married sex. I know what that’s like. I also know that it’s — while there are some circumstances like, for instance, the show Togetherness on HBO now, sort of revels in that and revels in a little bit of the awkwardness or the idea of getting a little bored. Movies about extraordinary events like murder, explosions [laughs], car chases and all the other stuff, I guess what I’m getting at is do movies have a responsibility to at least acknowledge that this kind of sex is not normal and that if it’s not this kind of sex, that’s okay too?

Dan: I don’t think it’s their responsibility to acknowledge. It’s just there’s so much humor and pathos that goes unexplored and unmined if that kind of sudden explosive, passionate sex is the only kind that’s ever represented.

Craig: Right.

Dan: It’s not that you have a duty to instruct your audience in the way sex works most of the time. Most audiences are smart enough to know that reality doesn’t bear much relationship, doesn’t, you know, resemble an action film because they have the daily-lived reality. And, you know, most people have a sex life of their own. They know that the sex they see in the movies isn’t necessarily the sex that you have.

It’s almost like filmmakers and storytellers are selling themselves short, are cheating themselves out of potential interesting storylines or moments or beats or comedy or laughs.

Craig: Right.

Dan: They revert to this kind of kabuki sex, these rituals, the stylized performance of sex as opposed to, you know, sex people actually have.

Craig: I’m with you on that one.

John: Well, the sex that people have, they have their own personal experience but they also get experience from watching mainstream movies and television shows and from watching porn. And they both set these really strange expectations about what it’s supposed to be like. I just feel like if I were a teenager growing up today, I would have the access to so much porn online and then if I would look at sort of the movies in theaters, there’s almost no sex at all.

I remember one of the very important moments for me sexually growing up was the sex scene in Terminator which is the first R-rated movie I got — my brother snuck me into. And to see like the Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton sex scene was incredibly impactful for me. And I wonder if today’s kids are going to get that kind of, I don’t know, romantic big screen movie version of sex in their films.

Dan: I want someone to make the Terminator movie, you know, or maybe slash fiction with Michael Biehn and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Craig: I think that’s probably actually what would have happened. [laughs]I think that does sound realer to me frankly.

Dan: Yeah, you know, we debate like the representations of romance and sex in film. And maybe we attach too importance to it because so many kids are getting their sex educations, tragically, from porn. And it does, for many, set their expectations around what sex is going to be and look like or what may be expected of them sexually which can create a lot of anxiety, and not just in girls but also boys.

You know, we need porn to be more realistic. We also need, you know, education about porn that gets out in front of porn because we’re not going to be able to stem the tide or put that genie back in the bottle. The Internet is here forever, so we need to talk to kids about porn is really kabuki sex, like I was just calling movie porn kabuki sex.

Porn is totally kabuki sex. It’s highly stylized, ritualized. And kids need to be told that. And that’s very freeing once you hear that because then you don’t watch porn thinking holy crap, is that my future.

Craig: [laughs] Right, right.

John: Because our podcast is largely aimed at screenwriters and people who are interested in screenwriting, I want to look at sort of our heroes and the way that I feel like our modern heroes, especially on the big screen, have stopped becoming sexual creatures. And maybe it’s the PG-13-ification of our movies and I worry that our heroes that we’re sort of building now sort of don’t get to do that anymore.

Instead, they’re sort of why heroes — it’s Harry Potter who’s lovely but he’s sort of pre-sexual. Even the characters in The Hunger Games, they’re beautiful but they’re not actually sexual. And I wonder if we’re creating a generation that doesn’t have a sense of — that it’s okay to be sexual and still be the hero, be the good person.

Dan: Oh, my god. Yeah. Well, think of all the, you know, James Bond movies where there were always interludes for Bond just, you know, to bang the Bond girl. Does that still happen? I haven’t seen a James Bond movie –

Craig: It does.

John: It’s the exception, sort of.

Craig: Yeah. But, I mean, I know what John’s saying that there is, in a weird way — it’s funny like popular music has become hypersexualized for teen, s but movies have hyposexualized in part because I think that there’s this panic. I mean, remember, Hollywood once made — what was the movie with Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol where — movies about 12-year-old, 13-year-old girls having sex.

Hollywood used to do this, you know, Louis Malle made a movie where Brooke Shields was nude and she was, like, 11. And then obviously that doesn’t fit the mores of our time now but there does seem to be kind of almost a panic over –

Dan: And let’s throw out Christopher Atkins in the Blue Lagoon, you know, the boy in there, too.

John: Oh, lovely.

Craig: We couldn’t do that today, not in a million years.

Dan: Yeah. Well, we’re paranoid about young people’s sexuality. You know, I haven’t really thought about this but off the top of my head, maybe it’s a reaction to the AIDS epidemic that’s still sort of broiling through the culture. This attitude that sexual expression outside of the context to committed relationship is not okay.

And so when I think about like — I’m still thinking about the sex I’ve seen in movies, it’s kind of limited to romcoms or relationships that are established which aren’t, you know, very sexy. Sex in an established relationship is considered routine and not remarkable, not an extraordinary event.

Craig: Correct.

Dan: Film-worthy. And so we get these heroes who don’t have time for sex or aren’t interested in sex.

John: I just think there are small exceptions like the Tony Stark character in Iron Man. You feel like he has sex with Gwyneth Paltrow. That’s a thing that happens and they set up other girls in his life. But he’s sort of a bad boy for having sex.

Craig: Right.

John: And if you look at the other characters in the Marvel universe, they don’t have sex basically.

Dan: I don’t go see those movies. Does Thor have sex?

Craig: I don’t think so because Thor is technically a Norse god and I think they make lightning — they make weather.

John: And Captain America is a boy scout.

Craig: Right.

John: Even Black Widow, I mean it’s Scarlett Johansson, so she’s inherently a sexual creature but they don’t actually use any of that as part of the story because it’s the PG -13 universe. It has to be able to sell toys and you don’t want to sexualize toys, I guess.

Dan: Spider-Man would be like the world’s greatest bondage top. Does he not have sex? I haven’t seen a Spider-Man movie either. I’m a terrible guest for your show. I don’t get to see a lot of –

Craig: No, it’s great. Spider-Man actually is a great example of what John’s talking about. He is a high school senior. He’s got this super hot girlfriend that’s totally in love with him. I think at one point they actually move in or live together, maybe even get married. I can’t — because there’s been a lot of them. But you get the feeling that all they do is kiss and then go to bed like Ricky and Lucy in separate beds.

I mean, there’s just no balls to that character. It’s all like Jesus-based heroism, like I am a pure person. I mean that’s part of the problem. A lot of these heroes that we put out there in movies are just retelling of the Jesus story. I am a pure person who will absorb the sin of the world around me, suffer for your sins, and then save the world through my resurrection.

Dan: It’s not compromised by desire.

Craig: Bingo. Bingo. And this is part of what goes on, I think, these days at least, in a lot of the narrative that we put out to kids.

Dan: Mm-hmm.

Craig: Oh, you just August’d me. [laughs] You August’d me. Mm-hmm. Yup.

Dan: Okay.

Craig: [laughs] Exactly.

Dan: I can see the point. I see that. I see that.

Craig: Okay, period. [laughs]

John: And that was Dan Savage. So you can hear more from the Dan Savage and the Rebel Wilson parts in the Dirty Episode. That’s in the premium feed. So you can go to see and sign up for that or you can also get to it through the app. Craig, it is time for our One Cool Things, our clean One Cool Thing.

Craig: Yes, clean One Cool Things. So I have a One Cool Thing that’s, at least in theory, it’s a One Cool Thing although I haven’t actually gotten to use it yet. It’s called Be My Eyes. Have you heard of this app?

John: I have. And it is designed for people with vision impairment that people can help them out.

Craig: Yeah. So essentially, blind folks are really good at navigating their environment particularly people who have been blind their whole lives. I mean this is the world they know and they have, you know — obviously, there are challenges along the way but they’ve really adapted brilliantly. But then there are these weird little mundane things that would not occur to you and I as sighted people but they struggle with.

For instance, they’re at home, they go to their refrigerator, they take out a thing of milk, they can’t remember when they bought it, they cannot see the expiration date. It’s not in Braille on the carton. So this Be My Eyes thing is basically they can — they access it and somebody who’s sighted is on the other end of the app who goes, “Oh, yeah. Here, I’m here to help you.” And they go great. And they hold their phone up at the camera.

And they’re like, “Can you tell me when this milk expired?” And you — “Move your camera left, up. You’re good.” So it’s actually kind of amazing. Here’s [laughs] the problem. The problem is there are lot more sighted people than blind people. So currently on the Be My Eyes network, I’m looking at it right now, there are 9,000 blind people who are registered to use this service. And there are 107,000 sighted people who are, like, “Can I help, can I help?”

So I actually haven’t gotten any calls yet. You obviously can tune it to your language so the more languages you know, theoretically, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to help somebody. But there’ve been 24,500 instances of helpings. So –

John: Oh, that’s great.

Craig: I think it’s terrific. It’s such a smart idea. So anyway, if you are blind, just know I’m on the other end of this, like, super excited to tell you if your milk is okay.

John: [laughs] That’s great. My One Cool Thing this week is an interview with Alex Blumberg. And Alex Blumberg is the guy who runs StartUp Podcast and Reply All. He has this whole little podcast network. And I referred to them as a One Cool Thing a previous time.

But in this episode, he talks about how they are actually recording and how they’re actually putting together their shows. Because I had this perception that podcasts are sort of podcasts and there’s obviously a couple different kinds. There’s the podcast where it’s just somebody talking at you. There’s the podcast like Craig and I do which is two people talking at each other.

But the ones that they’re doing at Reply All and at StartUp are much more elaborate. They’re much more like a Serial in the sense that they’re put together and there’s bits of audio and there’s narration and I wondered how they did that. Well, it turns out they do it kind of the way we would do it is they script it. And so they have all their audio bits and then they write the script and they do a table read where they read from the script and then they play the audio — and they read from script and they play the audio and the people listen.

And then they give notes and they have to go back and do it again and again. And so it was just fascinating to see the process of how that kind of quality show is put together. So I recommend this interview where he talks about it but also listen to his shows because I think they’re just fantastic.

Craig: It’s kind of awesome that you and I don’t have to do that.

John: We don’t have to do any of that.

Craig: Yeah, we just roll.

John: Yeah. We fly by the seat of our pants.

Craig: That’s right. And you in particular are remarkably mellifluous. [laughs] And smooth of speech.

John: At least I sound smooth of speech once Matthew Chilelli has edited out all my stumblings which there were many of this episode.

Craig: If we have the sirens supercut, we need a supercut of you going [stumbles] I’ve lost the ability to speak. [laughs]

John: We’ll also put a link in the show next to this. There’s an episode of the Slate’s Culture Gabfest. We were guests on the Slate’s Culture Gabfest. They did one which is just their live raw feed before they edit themselves out. And so you hear Julie and Dana and Stephen talking. And when they mess up, they go — they’ll say like, “So I was down at the store and I — three, two, one, so I was down at the store and –” so when they screw up, they do a three, two, one to get into it.

And we don’t do that at all for Matthew. We just expect that he’ll somehow figure out how to make our sentences sound good.

Craig: If you put a little air in there, I mean you don’t need three, two, one.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Zach Galifianakis would do this thing that was remarkable. And it’s why literally when I watch Birdman, I’m, like, where was that Zach when we were shooting Hangover. He’s able to rattle off all this stuff brilliantly in perfect timing and these long takes. So we were shooting and, you know, if the line was something like “Well, I don’t know what you’re even talking about.” He would say it, “Why don’t — well, I don’t even know — well, I don’t even know–” and he would do like nine of those in a row. [laughs]. And you just sit there, like, what.

John: You realize, like, you know we can’t — we have to slip scissors in there somewhere.

Craig: Well, I mean he would restart every time, so it was okay. But it was just the way that he would progress — when you were a kid, did you read the comics?

John: I loved the comics.

Craig: I love the comics too. Annie was always the most frustrating comic because Annie would have this serialized story and it was three panels. So the first panel, something happens. Second panel, something happens. Third panel, oh, my gosh. Then the next day, they would essentially start with the second panel [laughs], you know, and do the third panel from yesterday.

And then you’d only really get one new bit of story information a day. And he would kind of progress that way through these lines. [laughs] He would only get one word further but he would just — and he would — it was — but then, you know, when he got it out, it was awesome.

John: Yeah. Did they ever figure out what happened to Annie’s eyes?

Craig: Oh, I think if you are an orphan, that’s –

John: Oh, that’s right. Orphans don’t get eyes.

Craig: Orphans don’t get pupils.

John: They have no parents and no pupils.

Craig: No parents, no pupils.

John: It’s a hard knocked life. That’s our show for this week. Our show is produced, as always, by Stuart Friedel. It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli who probably did the outro this week. I don’t know whose outro we’re going to use for this episode.

But if you have an outro you’d like us to use, you can send that to That’s also a great place to send questions or insights about Oscar-nominated movies, like this producer did this time. You can follow us on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust, only @johnaugust, I have no other accounts.

So don’t follow anything else. No fake accounts. Craig is only @clmazin, no other accounts. I’m on Instagram too but it’s not really relevant to most of this, but I’m also @johnaugust on Instagram. You should subscribe to us on iTunes if you haven’t already. And while you’re there, you can download the Scriptnotes app which is now much, much better. This week, you should also listen for the Dirty Show which will only go up in the premium feed, so it won’t be in the normal feed. And it’s just filthy. It’ll just melt your ears off. So don’t listen to it in the car with your kids because it’s just really bad and I swear.

Craig: Unless your kids already know a lot of this stuff.

John: Yeah, probably so. If your kids know a lot of this stuff, it’s probably fine.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But, Craig, you know, we talk about just a lot of stuff and –

Craig: We get into it, people. We get in.

John: We go deep into Rebel Wilson’s fish basket, so.

Craig: [laughs] See, that’s the sort of thing that actually you can get away with on this show.

John: Yeah, totally.

Craig: We don’t have standards and practices. [laughs]

John: [laughs] We have a lot of practices but very few standards.

Craig: We do Rebel Wilson’s fish basket, A, great band name, B, probably should be the title of the episode.

John: Yeah, it’s so good.

Craig: Yeah.

John: All right. Craig, thank you very much. Have a wonderful week.

Craig: You too, John.


The Dirty Show

Thu, 02/05/2015 - 17:27

We try to keep the Scriptnotes podcast relatively PG, something you could safely listen to in the car with your kids. But some topics and some guests need a wider range of vocabulary to suit the subject, which is why Craig and I have long talked about doing a dirty episode.

That time has come.

In this very-NSFW bonus episode, we sit down with writer-actress Rebel Wilson and author-columnist Dan Savage to talk sex, television, swearing, and poop.

Rebel and Dan were on our normal show this week as well, but the contents of the dirty show are all new and all filthy. It’s 68 minutes of stuff you won’t hear anywhere else.

This special episode is available only on the premium feed, which you can find at The premium feed is $1.99 per month, and includes access to the entire back catalog and occasional bonus episodes like this one.1 It’s how we pay for editing, hosting, and transcripts of every episode.

Huge thanks to our 1,000+ premium subscribers, and to Dan and Rebel for joining us.

  1. If you’re using the newly-redesigned Scriptnotes app, you can listen to any episode in the app.

The One with Rebel Wilson and Dan Savage

Tue, 02/03/2015 - 08:03

John and Craig discuss exploding scripts and stock scenes. Then in the second half of the show, we welcome two very special guests.

Actress, writer and comedian Rebel Wilson joins us to talk about writing for television and Tall Poppy Syndrome.

Author and sex advice columnist Dan Savage tells us what he’d like to see Hollywood do better when in comes to sex on screen.

Both segments are out-takes from the much longer and much filthier Dirty Show available only on the premium feed. Our thanks to the 1,000 subscribers who made it possible, and to Rebel and Dan for joining us to talk about fish baskets, berets, anal sex and The Blue Lagoon.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Scriptnotes, Ep 181: INT. THE WOODS – NIGHT — Transcript

Thu, 01/29/2015 - 14:46

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: My name, uh, uh, is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 181 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Craig, it’s been a short week but a very busy week for both of us.

Craig: Yeah. I guess — I’ve been running around for sure. What have you been doing?

John: We’ve had just a lot of little things to take care of. And then I’m deep in writing this project. And so it’s sort of that crunch time where you’re trying to — you’re pushing through to the end. And so I’ve written the beginning, I’ve written the end, I’m writing towards the middle, which is how I love to write. But it’s just a lot of work.

Craig: It’s a lot of work. I was in the mode of writing, you know, I like the luxury of writing as I wish. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. Sometimes something emerges and suddenly you’re thrown into a cauldron and you’re given 2.5 weeks to do what you can on a different thing. And so that’s where I am right now.

There is a certain adrenaline to it, I guess.

John: There is. It’s also that thrill of knowing that you’re not just doing pie-in-the-sky what-ifs. It’s like this needs to happen. And so that urgency can force other people to make decisions and sometimes indecision is the death of quality.

Craig: It’s so true. And there is a certain thing that happens when you’re writing on something that’s actually happening while you’re writing it. You start talking to the line producer and suddenly the decisions you make have these ripples. So, there is this communication. It’s not quite as solitary as the typical writing process. I like that.

John: I like that, too. I was listening to another podcast, because there are other podcasts in the world besides our podcast.

Craig: What?

John: And on the most recent episode of StartUp they were talking about burnout. And the burnout they were talking about wasn’t that sort of long-term burnout. It was that you are sprinting as fast as you can and then you realize that you’re actually in the middle of a marathon. And sometimes writing can feel like that and that is a bad place when you hit that because, you know, what are you going to do?

And I feel like people who have meltdowns in television, that’s because they are sprinting and they realize like, oh my god, there is 22 episodes of this sprinting.

Craig: Yeah. It’s hard for us to believe it because it doesn’t seem as objective as say getting a muscle cramp and just failing to continue to run. I mean, we all know what that feels like and it seems very mechanical and therefore acceptable to us.

Harder for us to understand that our brains have the same kind of thing going on, and we need to be aware of it, and we need to accept that we have certain limitations.

John: Yeah. So, on this episode we’re actually going to do a little of that clean up of stuff that could otherwise fall at the wayside. So, we have a lot of follow up and we have some questions that have been sitting in the inbox for awhile. So, I thought we would just plow through as much of this as we can. We’re going to knock out those — if this is a getting things done, you’d be knocking out those next actions and those sort of projects that have been unfulfilled for too long.

So, it’s going to be a smorgasbord of miscellaneous screenwriting topics this week.

Craig: Smorgasbord.

John: So, one of the things that’s been dangling for awhile on this podcast has been this dirty episode. So, we have long promised that if we hit a thousand paid subscribers on our premium feed at we would do a dirty episode which is just filthy and would be not-safe-for-work or for the kids or for in the car when the kids are in the car.

Craig: Yeah. Or for anyone really at any point.

John: It’s something that will melt your ears. And we’re so excited that next week we’re going to record that episode. So, hooray.

Craig: Yes. And are we allowed to say who are special guests will be?

John: I don’t think we should say who are special guests are just in case something goes horribly wrong.

Craig: Something goes horribly wrong. Well, once we record it, will there be some time between the recoding of it and the release so that we can tell people who is going to be on it and maybe then they might be motivated, you see, to become premium subscribers.

John: You are a clever man. Craig, you really do have a business acumen to this thing which you deny, but you do have a business acumen. I think what we should probably do is we’re going to have a normal episode in that week that we release the episode, but we’ll have little snippets from the big thing there.

Craig: Ooh.

John: So, we’ll have some safe-for-work snippets in that episode, but for the full dirty thing you’re going to have to tune in.

Craig: I mean, I know, look, I know who we’re going to have on the show.

John: I’m so excited. So, last week on the show we had Aline Brosh McKenna on and one of the things we talked about was what it means when you call somebody a friend in Hollywood. Like, we refer to someone as like, “Oh yeah, he’s a friend.” But is he really a friend?

And so we had some follow up form Junk Mail 8720. I may have gotten the numbers wrong. 8230, I apologize.

Craig: Yeah, don’t confuse him with Junk Mail 8720.

John: 8720 is just a jerk. “What you guys described on the most recent Scriptnotes is exactly what the term fond acquaintances was invented for.”

Craig: Is it?

John: I don’t know hear anyone saying fond acquaintances. But that’s really what we kind of mean. It’s a person I know and I really like, but I can’t necessarily call them a friend.

Craig: Yeah. Fond acquaintance, even that sounds too…

John: Yeah. It sounds like something Oscar Wilde would say.

Craig: Yeah. And he would be intimating something. [laughs]

John: [laughs] Well he’s a fond acquaintance.

Craig: Yes. Yes.

John: But part of the reason I included Junk Mail’s tweet is that he spells Scriptnotes capital S capital N. ScriptNotes, which was named by Craig Mazin. We never talked about the origin of the show, but you picked the name.

Craig: I did. It’s true.

John: And Scriptnotes is — it’s all one word. And it’s capitalized S. Nothing else is capitalized.

Craig: I get why people would want to make it that way. And, you know, I don’t get too upset about it. But I can see that you would definitely get upset about it. [laughs]

John: I get a little upset about it because I think proper capitalization is really, really important. And to do this sort of camel case thing which is what you call that when you’re coding, there’s a good argument for doing camel case when you’re joining two words together to make it clear what’s actually happening there. But like Scriptnotes as one word, it makes a lot of sense.

Craig: Listen, I back you, as you know, 100 percent. So, if this is something that you feel strongly about, then I feel strongly about it.

John: Thank you very much.

Craig: You’re welcome.

John: Now, the episode before that episode was the conflict episode. And that was the one where we talked all about conflict and we had our little staged scene that made people really uncomfortable, including one of our guests.

Craig: Yeah, a lot of people bought it. They actually bought our acting.

John: So, Steve in Los Angeles wrote, “So, in the conflict episode, one of you mentioned that in the first improv class you learn yes-and. But a screenwriter should think in terms of yes-but so the scene can build conflict. This is true, but in your 20th improv class you learn that the heart of yes-and is agreeing on what the actual conflict is and then running with it together so you can just as well say no while agreeing to say yes to the situation you’ve both agreed upon.

“If someone has a gun and they say they’re going to shoot you, you can say, ‘No, don’t shoot me. I promise I’ll stop sleeping with your wife.’ You have said no, but you have both agreed on what the situation is and what the conflict is: husband dude sleeping with wife. In essence, most really good improv is actually yes-but. Yes, you have a gun, but no, I don’t want you to shoot me. Or even, no-and.”

Craig: Yeah. Sure.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: I’m okay with that. I mean, yes-and, yes-but, no-but, no-and. All of that is fine to me, honestly. The only thing that I think is the death of conflict is okay. I mean, in other words agreeing is –

John: Yeah. A tacit agreement without any sort of further pushing on. And actually another listener wrote in with sort of a follow up to that. “Conflict is a prerequisite for comedy. In all comedy there is conflict between a grounded point of view, often the straight man or straight woman, and a comedic one which is say the one that is unexpected. The conflict can exist between two characters or between a character and the world around here.

“Yes-and applies to all screenwriting though in the sense that you cannot just blindly throw ideas at a scene and expect it to be coherent and successful. Just as in improvisation, you are striving for unity, not just crafting a vessel to hold all the funny lines and experiences.”

Craig: Why is Seth lecturing us? [laughs] I mean, I like what he’s saying, but, hey, Seth is taking a little bit of a tone here.

John: Well, perhaps he is. But I think he wanted to sort of clarify, because I cut out the earlier paragraphs which were basically the same as the previous one. Basically saying that, yes, improv does teach you yes-and, but implicit in that yes-and is the sense that there should be some conflict to sort of push you to the next thing.

And all comedy is really structured on the sense of like two people want different things or disagreeing about sort of the nature of the situation they’re in, while accepting the basic premise of a situation.

Craig: Which is what I just did to Seth.

John: You really did.

Craig: Yeah. I just started –

John: You created conflict.

Craig: Well, because it’s funner. It’s more fun. It’s funnerer.

John: Yeah, pot-stirring.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, on the blog this past week I did a post about reading scripts on the Kindle and which had actually been a follow up to a much earlier post which when I got the very first Kindle, I got the original Kindle, people had naturally asked me like, oh, is it good for reading scripts. And the answer is, no, it’s terrible for reading scripts because it doesn’t really want to be a script reader.

The blog post I will link to and you can see what I said about the follow up which is basically like a Kindle is still a terrible thing to read a script on. And so people wrote back with some suggestions, other topics, and ways to sort of do things. But, Craig, when I say Kindle, what do you think about?

Craig: I think about the Amazon device that is gray.

John: Yeah. So, there are really two kinds of Kindles and I only think about Kindle as being the e-ink reader, the one that’s sort of like the original Kindle, the modern version, the original one. But, of course, there is also the tablet, the Kindle Fire. So, if you have that Kindle Fire thing, it’s probably fine. It’s probably fine for reading scripts because you can get a PDF on there and it’s going to be okay. It’s going to be a small screen, but it’s going to be okay.

I was really talking about as an e-ink reader, which is sort of the best way to read a book, the Kindle still is not a very good way to read a script. There are ways to do it. You can turn it sideways and sort of read half a page, kind of.

Craig: Nah.

John: You can send things through Fade In, but it’s just not so good.

Craig: I mean, I read scripts on my iPad and on my computer, but I don’t — you know, actually sometimes if I get a script in PDF I will open it in iBooks, which is a perfectly fine PDF reader on the iPad. Yeah.

John: Yeah. And so starting today you can actually read it on Weekend Read on your iPad.

Craig: I know. I got to download that.

John: Because we have the beta version of Weekend Read.

Craig: Finally.

John: Now for your iPad. So, Weekend Read is the app that we make for the iPhone for reading scripts, and it’s really good for the iPhone, but it didn’t work on the iPad well. The new version, which is in beta right now, works on the iPad and has iCloud sync and stuff. So, there will be a link in the show notes if you want to sign up for the beta on that. We’re probably weeks or months away from putting it in the App Store, but it’s good.

And, Craig, you get a preview.

Craig: Well, I mean, this is what I’ve been waiting for. This is the thing for me.

John: Yeah. Hopefully you’ll love it.

Craig: I feel like you made it for me. [laughs]

John: We made it just for Craig. So, Craig Mazin, Weekend Read.

Craig: Aw, thanks.

John: But Aline uses it. Rian Johnson uses it. Kelly Marcel uses it. You’re basically the only screenwriter I know who doesn’t use Weekend Read.

Craig: Well, I don’t like reading scripts on my phone, but I do love reading scripts on my iPad. And, you know, I still feel that I’m somewhat representative of a community, a community of what we would call quasi-luddites.

John: Okay.

Craig: Yeah. We’re technologically advanced. We just don’t like some technology.

John: Exactly. So, you drive your Tesla to poke fun at other people’s technology.

Craig: Yeah, man. Sounds like a great day.

John: Continuing follow up, James writes, “In episode 178, there was an excellent Three Page Challenge called Going Om.” I remember that.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And so that was the one that started with the guy whose wife died. He wakes up in the morning and the guy’s wife is dead.

Craig: Right.

John: And so James goes on to write, “However, as a former EMT I must point out that ambulances do not transport the dead. If a person is found to be deceased, then the police and the coroner, etc, take responsibility for the body. The reason is so that we don’t divert our emergency personnel away from people who could potentially be saved.

“I know the body bag in the ambulance makes for a cool visual, but it just isn’t done. And don’t me started on the whole ‘he’s gone, flat-line, shock him thing.’ You never ever defibrillate flat line. That is called asystole.”

Craig: Asystole.

John: Asystole? Thank you, Dr. Craig Mazin.

Craig: You’re welcome.

John: “It means absence of cardiac electrical activity. You can shock disorganized rhythms, such as ventricular defibrillation, or ventricular tachycardia, because defibrillation is meant to reset the chaotic electrical activity in the heart in an organized rhythm, just generalizing a coordinated heartbeat to pump blood.

“If no electrical activity is present to begin with, then you can shock all you want, but nothing will happen.”

Craig: [laughs]

John: So here is why I stumbled through all those words is that I think it actually matters. I think I’ve seen both of those things so often in film and television and apparently they are not actually accurate.

Craig: No, they’re not. And doctors and lawyers have long since given up caring. I mean, I love that James still cares. I think that’s terrific. However, if you continue to care about this, James, you’re going to lose your mind. Because movies and television are full of medical and legal dramas that consistently trample on what is real all the time.

You know, it’s one of those things where it’s drama. I mean, listen, it’s a bad scene to have an ambulance show up, walk into a room, find a dead body and go, “Right. Well we’re going now. But in about 25 minutes somebody from the coroner’s office will show up.” We don’t have time for that.

John: See, here is where I disagree. And part of why I disagree is I think there is something really potentially rewarding about looking at sort of what is the standard procedures in those situations. Because once you know what the real standard procedure is, you can find something dramatic.

In the thing you just described, that’s a cool moment I’ve never seen before. And so if you were one of the first movies that sort of shows that I’m like, oh, wow, that’s so weird. If you were that guy, that husband who lost his wife, and the people show up and are like, “Oh no, that’s not us. We got to go.” And then suddenly you’re just alone again with the body. That’s really cool.

Craig: If it fits the tone of the movie, I totally agree. If it fits the tone of the show, I totally agree. In fact, that would fit into the three pages of Going Om that we read. I think it would be really cool.

John: I think it would be really cool.

Craig: Yeah, but in a lot of things it’s like, eh…

John: So I’m just pushing towards, as a screenwriter, always investigate what the real situation is. You’re not bound to that real situation, but look for situations where there is something that is sort of often glossed over in other films and in other television things where you can actually really zoom in.

So, both of these things I’m talking about, sort of standard procedures and magnified, those are actually both cards in Writer Emergency Pack which we sent out 8,000 of those packs. And I think they’re actually really rewarding. Because when you get sort of stuck on something, sometimes it can be really good to just sort of just like focus in on some little detail that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Craig: And, frankly, if there is one service that James is doing to everyone out there, it’s to eliminate defibrillation from movies and television because I can’t think of anything more cliché. It may be the most cliché thing possible. Someone yelling clear, and then going ka-tunk.

John: Ka-tunk. You know, I have a thing in what I’m writing right now, like literally the scene that I’m working on right now where a person comes across someone who has recently died and has no sense of sort of what has actually happened. But his training is as a lifeguard, so he just kicks into sort of lifeguard mode and starts doing CPR. Is that realistic?

I think it’s realistic for that character to want to try to do something, and so it makes for a good scene. And thinking about it from his point of view, it seems to fit well with the story.

Craig: I mean, CPR is totally fine. I mean, hopefully your character doesn’t go, “Come on, breath dammit.”

John: Oh lord.

Craig: [laughs] And then someone else goes, “Let it go. She’s gone.”

John: So, one of the things I need to investigate this week is when do you, if you’re a police detective, when do you swab a person’s hands for bloodstains, DNA evidence? At what point do you say like, “Oh, you know what? This might be a murder,” and do you start swabbing the guy’s hands? And that’s a thing I’ll be researching this next week.

Craig: You know, it’s funny. I’ve been doing a little bit of research on that myself just because I’m writing a murder mystery.

John: Or you’re planning to kill somebody.

Craig: And also planning to kill a number of people. But I had the benefit of a — I mean, the fun of a very small town police officer who is mostly just giving out traffic tickets, now suddenly in charge of a murder investigation. So, he just gets things wrong, which is kind of fun.

John: Always the best.

Craig: I get the benefit of having him not actually follow protocol. He makes a number of mistakes. In fact, he finds a guy dead. He presumes it’s a heart attack. He talks to the person who actually discovered the body. He doesn’t ask them any questions. Then a reporter shows up and the reporter says, “Well, you should probably just take a look around. Like for instance there’s his trailer that he lives in.” So the police offer goes, “Eh, you know, you’re probably right. I should probably look in there.” And he is about to open the door and the reporter says, “Eh, fingerprints.”

“Well, yeah, okay.” He’s just terrible at this. So, I get to actually break the rules constantly.

John: That’s fun.

Craig: But the other part then that’s nice is that he starts to do a little research, because he starts to feel embarrassed, and he actually grows into the role of being, and he figures it out. He does.

John: Great. And this is your main character?

Craig: Well, my main character is a sheep. [laughs] But he’s –

John: It’s always more challenging that way.

Craig: But this is a human. The sheep is brilliant.

John: That’s good. Nice. On the topic of figuring out specifically how things are supposed to be done and how they would be done in the real world, we had a question from Tao who writes in, this is in reference to Craig’s earlier post about the Hollywood Science Exchange. “Over the last few years I’ve gotten very involved in the world of crypto currency, such as bitcoin. This has happened because I solve unusual problems for clients, often by recruiting highly specialized talent or implementing creative out-of-the-box solutions.

“My question is how would somebody like me go on to become a resource for a specialized field in the Hollywood creative community?”

So, he’s asking basically I’m a guy who knows how this thing works, how do I let people know that I know how this thing works?

Craig: I actually don’t know. I remember that the Writers Guild used to publish a list of available research resources to screenwriters on the back page of Written By magazine, which is the union publication. Admittedly, I don’t read Written By very carefully. So, I don’t know if they still do that or not. But if you wanted to become a go-to resource for the Hollywood creative community, you might start by calling the Writers Guild, and offering your name as a reference.

There is probably a place on the website where that would go. You have to be willing to do it for free.

John: Yeah. You should be.

Craig: Yeah. That’s what I would do.

John: So, I think that’s a good suggestion. I would also say I don’t know the outer limits of what the Hollywood Science Exchange talks about, but what you’re doing is sort of science, so it might be applicable.

I would also say if I was looking for information about crypto bitcoin stuff, I would do a Google search. So, if you set up a website for yourself that says like this is me, this is what I do, I’m happy to consult on story issues for people who want to do that kind of stuff, that might show up in search engines and help you there.

I would also consider doing like a Reddit thread on that. I am a crypto currency expert. Ask me anything. All that kind of stuff would just get you some exposure. And it’s that kind of exposure online that will probably lead some screenwriters to your door.

Craig: Exactly.

John: Cool. Craig, we now have to discuss the Peter Bart article.

Craig: Oh. My. God.

John: Okay, you’ve got to set it up.

Craig: Okay. So, in all honesty a lot of people, I saw this on my own. And then a lot of people sent it to me and I think people now look at me as some sort of bear that they can poke and make dance for them, a dance of rage.

Actually, I couldn’t even get angry at this because it’s too stupid to arouse anger. It is phenomenally dumb. So, Peter Bart, you know, is a Hollywood institution of a sort. I believe he used to run Paramount back in the day. Am I right about that?

John: That sounds right. But I mostly know him as running Variety. Back when I first started here, he was the editor of Variety I believe.

Craig: That’s right. So, he at some point transitioned to journalism and in the heyday of Variety when people actually paid hundreds of dollars a year for a subscription because there wasn’t the internet, so powerful guy.

He wrote this editorial called Are Screenwriters Becoming Obsolete in Hollywood? And if he had thought it through, the editorial would have been one word. No. And then he would have gone about his day. But he didn’t think it through. Instead, he engaged in the strangest argument. He started to talk about how screenwriters are rarely if ever mentioned by other people in acceptance speeches for awards. What in god’s name does that have to do with screenwriters being obsolete in Hollywood? I mean, who cares if they mentioned your name?

I mean, I know, look, it would be nice if everybody gave us the public credit we deserve, but that hardly indicates the obsolescence of the job. It was just — he opened with one of the dumbest arguments I can fathom.

John: Yeah. It was an incredibly frustrating article/editorial. And it’s sort of like paragraphs that were basically strung together at random, I think. There was like the little machine that just spits them out as it occurred to him.

So, it started with the headline. Obviously he doesn’t necessarily write the headlines, but Betteridge’s law of headlines applies, which is basically any headline that ends with a question mark can always be answered no.

Craig: Right.

John: And that’s actually accurate. Like screenwriters are not obsolete, but he’s making this weird case and he basically ends up — I think he kind of wants to celebrate screenwriters and throw them under the bus at the same time. It’s just a bizarre thing.

I want to read just a little snippet from here because it’s just annoying and offensive.

So, he’s talking about how omission of names of screenwriters. “Such omissions have become increasingly apparent lately, since more and more films have either been written by the director or perhaps not written at all.”

Craig: Wow.

John: “I’m convinced that no director named Anderson has ever hired a writer.” So, we’re going to pause here. So, director’s named Anderson, so he must be talking about Wes Anderson.

Craig: Right.

John: And Paul Thomas Anderson.

Craig: Sure.

John: But they’re both writers and their both really good writers.

Craig: Yeah. They don’t need to hire a writer. They are writers.

John: Plus, Wes Anderson writes with somebody else, so that’s just crazy talk.

Craig: Right. Exactly.

John: “Further, Birdman, with all its frenetic energy, plays like it was created scene-by-scene by its hyper-caffeinated cast.”

Craig: Wow.

John: “The director…” Okay. Blah. Blah. I want to say blah. First off, there’s a bunch of screenwriters credited for Birdman, like more than you would normally get for a WGA credit. But, that thing was like choreographed within precise half breaths.

Craig: Was he drunk when he saw the movie? I mean, the whole thing about Birdman is that it’s designed to be as if it’s one long take. Obviously it’s not one long take, but the chunks that are knitted together are much longer in camera than we are accustomed to. There’s maybe, I don’t know, 20 edits in the film total. So, of course, the last thing in the world it could be is created scene-by-scene by its cast. That’s a mentally ill statement. I don’t know how he could have arrived at it.

And, frankly, what follows in the parenthetical is even weirder. He says, “(the director, Alejandro G. Inarritu, takes screenplay credit along with three other scribes, including two friends).” First of all, what does mean take screenplay credit like, oh, I’ll just have this. No, screenplay credit is granted. And what is it like, “along with three other scribes, including two friends.” Oh, they’re not really writes. La, la. This is the worst.

John: Yeah.

Craig: It’s the worst. You know, and then he takes swipes at Interstellar. “It would have been a far more satisfying film,” he says, “had a talented writer worked on its dialogue and plot,” because Chris Nolan and his brother I guess are not talented writers. Either way, what in god’s name does this have to do with the obsolescence or the putative obsolescence of screenwriters?

Now, he’s just complaining about scripts he doesn’t like.

John: Yeah. And so when you say like oh now he’s going to talk about back in the old days of the studio system…

Craig: Here we go.

John: Yeah, he goes and talks about the old days of the studio system.

Craig: There we go.

John: And then like the unproduced scripts written for mistresses, I’m just like, that was better?

Craig: Maddening. So, what he yearns for, the days of Nunnally Johnson and Dalton Trumbo “who labored in the old studio writers buildings.” Yes, where they were underpaid, and abused, and occasionally put on a black list. “I even read unproduced scripts written by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Yeah, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a lot of screenplays. He was drunk half the time. A bunch of those are terrible. He actually — the best work that he did about screenwriting are his Pat Hobby books, where F. Scott Fitzgerald invents a down on his luck screenwriter. That stuff is great.

He says, “It was clear why they were never made, but they deserved to be published.” What?

John: What are you talking about? What editorial are we in now?

Craig: Exactly. Now we’re in an editorial where we’re trying to fix the crimes of the ’40s? And then, of course, this editorial, this bizarre romp through disconnected and incorrect utterings burps forth a reference to his late friend Roddy McDowell.

John: Which is nice, too. The other recent thing he steps all over, which I think is shameful, is Guardians of the Galaxy, which was terrific. And so he’s claiming its plotlessness, it’s like, yeah, you know what, the plot was a little bit hard to follow. But you look at sort of what the characters do in that story, and it was terrific. And so it’s just grump old man not happy with things.

Craig: I know.

John: Get off my lawn.

Craig: Yeah. It’s such an old man yelling at clouds. I mean, he says, “It’s apparent in the trend toward what some critics call the ‘post-plot’ movie. Guardians of the Galaxy is a prime example of a movie that offered great shtick and a wisecracking raccoon.” Because, you know, there are lot of movies that offer that, but this one is a prime example of it. “But no true narrative.”

No, there’s clearly a narrative in Guardians of the Galaxy. The fact that Kenneth Turan couldn’t follow it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Because you know what? My son could follow it. All it means is that Kenneth Turan couldn’t follow it. And maybe Peter Bart can’t follow it. And that’s fine. But this is maddening. The thing about this editorial that’s so strange is not that it’s making an argument that screenwriters are becoming obsolete in Hollywood, because it doesn’t. it literally makes no arguments.

It’s embarrassing because it’s so poorly written. It’s an editorial about writing that in and of itself is in desperate need of a rewrite.

John: Yeah. I’d also point out that the WGA awards which are actually nomination by the screenwriters themselves include three of the films that he’s singling out as being exemplary of the end of screenwriters. So, Boyhood is a nominee. Grand Budapest Hotel is a nominee. And Guardians of the Galaxy is a nominee.

Craig: Right. He swipes at all of them. He says, “I admired Boyhood, but again, it plays as if the actors year after year inventing scenes as they slowly age.” You know, I have to say if the screenwriter and the director do their job really, really well, it should seem like the actors are actually just doing this for real. That’s what we do. That’s our job. If it seems like it’s written, then we haven’t done our job well, Peter.

John: Peter.

Craig: Peter.

John: Grumble. All right, let’s move on to new stuff.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, we got some questions in the mailbag and some of them were stacking up and some of them are new, but let’s get through as many as we can.

Craig: Great.

John: So, Evan in Philadelphia writes, “The script I’m working on focuses on a female team of characters.” Oh, no, he’s writing Ghostbusters. “Four of them on a team. What I’m getting hung up on is now that we’re in act two and the team has coalesced is I don’t know how to refer to them in action. Do I use the team? All of them? Do I name them individually every time? Bea, Betty, Rue, and Estelle charge down the stairs. Do I assume that they all move from one scene to the next if it’s continuous action? It’s an action-thriller, so I’m trying to make sure these characters are all responding and interesting in separate ways to the story, pressures on them, but also work as a unit.”

So, what he’s talking about is such a good thing, because it’s something that actually genuinely happens a lot which is you’ve moved from one scene to another scene and you have to kind of remind everybody who is in the scene. And what do you use as the collective noun for the heroes, the group, the gang?

Like the scene I’m writing this evening, I had to refer to the guys, it’s like, ah…

Craig: I know, it’s rough. Well, he’s got a little bit of a gift here because he’s writing an action-thriller, so yeah, they should have — you can give them a name. And it doesn’t have to be a name that’s actually announced in the movie itself. But if you want to call them, you know, when they come together, now you can say something like Bea, Betty, Rue and Estelle, The Squad. You know, you can say that The Squad charge down the stairs. At some point call out what you’re going to referring to them as.

Like the way in legal documents there will be a long name and then they’ll put the short name in parenthesis. And then you can call them The Squad from there on out and we’ll get it, you know, the reader will get it.

John: I find myself leaning on trio a lot. If there are three characters, I fall back to trio. Maybe every three paragraphs you’re allowed to say trio and then it becomes annoying. But if it’s clear that all three of them are doing the same thing and then other times maybe that’s a reason to look for individual actions that individual people can take. Because if they’re doing things as a group the whole time through, that can be annoying.

And then I would also just say let your pronouns do some of the work for you. So, if it’s clear who we’re talking about, they can be they. And them can be them. And let that be a useful shorthand for what we have to do.

But, I feel you. This is a real thing that’s kind of annoying.

Craig: It is. I have to say though that I think when Todd and I were writing The Hangover sequels, we didn’t ever refer to the guys as The Guys. It was always their names. And we would say Phil, Alan, and Stu cross the street. It helped actually that their names were short.

John: For sure.

Craig: But, you know, people didn’t really seem to get name fatigue. And when I would read through it I didn’t get name fatigue. And in a way it kept the faces in my head more than say something like The Team, or The Unit, or The Squad, which starts to feel a little impersonal as if there is no separation there, you know?

John: Yeah. And sometimes you can start a sentence with one of the characters who is doing the primary action and the other two are following behind. If you’re coming into a scene and somebody hands off something to somebody, there are ways you can sort of use their names that aren’t just a list. And that can be useful, too.

Craig: Yeah, like if Betty catches the signal and then Betty says, “Let’s go.” She starts moving towards the signal. The others follow.

John: Others is a good collective.

Craig: The others is very useful.

John: Yeah. All right. Tim in Liverpool, England has the simplest question we will ever answer on this show. Are you ready?

Craig: I’m so ready.

John: Okay. “In my screenplay, I am writing a scene which takes place in a woodland area. I originally thought this would be EXT. WOODS — NIGHT. But as the scene takes place in the woods, would this be INT. WOODS — NIGHT?”

Craig: One, two, three. No!

John: Absolutely not. It’s EXT.

Craig: Yes.

John: You’re outside. If you’re outside it’s exterior.

Craig: The reason that we write exterior and interior is not to help people imagine where we are, although we are, but it’s really for the people who are making/producing the movie to understand that we’re supposed to be outside or inside. There will be times when exteriors will actually be shot indoors. You will create a little set, like a park.

John: For example, Into the Woods.

Craig: Into the Woods. A lot of the woods were in fact interior stage, but they needed to be called exterior so people understood they were designed to look as if you were outside.

Yes, you are in the woods , but you are not interior of the woods.

John: So, there are some cases where you’ll be using INT/EXT. Like driving seems to happen a lot where you’re in the car, but what’s happening outside is also a factor. And so if things are happening inside and around the car, especially if the car is moving, INT/EXT can be your friend. Or if characters are just really sort of moving into and out of a house a lot, sometimes you’ll use that nomenclature.

Craig: Yeah, you know, I’ve actually — I used to do INT/EXT when I had somebody in a car talking to somebody out of a car. I’ve actually stopped doing it and now I just write EXT. ROAD. Jim drives. Leans out the window. Because you’re outside.

John: You’re outside. At that point you’re outside.

Craig: You’re outside. Even if you’re shooting inside the car, you’re outside.

John: Yeah. Lisa writes, “I am 49 years old and it’s been my dream to move to Hollywood after my son graduates high school in 2016. I’ll be 50 then. I’m also deaf, which is the heart of my challenge to this point. Many agencies don’t want to train me as a personal assistant because of my deafness, which I find rather silly as I can type, speak — not perfectly, but I can get my point across, and I have office skills. I really want to be trained and have no idea who else to contact. Any suggestions? And please don’t refer to me GLAD, Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness, as I’ve already contacted them.

“It seems like that’s the default answer for a lot of the hearing people is to send me to deaf-related agencies. I wonder if they send black people to black people agencies? It’s just annoying. I just want advice on how to break into the entertainment industry without being an actor or a studio worker.”

Craig: I’m a big believer, and you know, I have hearing-impaired people in my family. And I’m a big believer that hearing-impaired people can do far more than hearing people think they can do. No question. But I do think that you’re going to have to be realistic about the jobs that are going to be right for you. Now, if you don’t want to go to the Greater LA Agency on Deafness, which I know nothing about frankly, then my suggestion would be maybe to interview at some of the big temp agencies here in town.

So, there are a few that specialize in entertainment placement. The Friedman Agency, for instance. And if you sit down with them and say, “Listen, here is the deal. I can do the following things, as well as anybody who hears. Obviously there are some things that I’m challenged with. What would be right for me?” And then see if they can’t find you something.

John: I think your advice to look for agencies, and sometimes even studio HR departments, just to try to do an informational interview to see if there is a way that they can figure out a place for you to be able to work there. Because it’s going to be challenging in certain circumstances. And you may not really know what the job is. And going in for that informational interview, you’ll find out what that job is. And so maybe together you can figure out what are some things you can do that could make it all work out.

Yeah, a lot of stuff does happen sort of on email and that kind of stuff and there’s probably some spot like that that could be great, but it may not be on a classic desk.

The other thing I would say is you’re going to be 50 years old. And 50 years old is older than most sort of new personal assistants are going to be. So, that’s going to be something also to be mindful of is that most of the people who are doing the kind of job you’re talking about, the kind of job we talk about being your first job in Hollywood, that’s kind of the like, hey, you just graduated from college. Here’s this job. And where you’re making no money and eating ramen out of the sink.

That’s not probably what your best first step is going to be. So, some sort of informational interview would probably be a good start.

Craig: Personally, I don’t think your age matters. And I also think that with some exceptions, being hearing impaired shouldn’t matter either. But I want you to know that I suspect I have a rare perspective on this. And that you are going to face very serious barriers whether they’re fair or not, and you need to go into that with your eyes open because they’re going to be there.

And I want you to approach this with I guess a clear of a picture of what you’re going to be facing as possible, because let me tell you, if you can hear, and you’re 23 years old, these jobs are hard to get. If you can’t and you’re 50, it’s going to be very hard to get. And that’s not always fair, that’s not always just, but it’s the world we’re in.

John: I agree with you. And I should say that I think Lisa found out about our show because we are one of the rare podcasts that has transcripts for all of our episodes, going back to the first episode. So, if you are a person who is catching up on the show and want to read the transcripts, that is a way you can partake in our show as well.

And it’s people who get the premium subscriptions, that’s what pays for the guy who does all the transcripts. So, thank you listeners for chipping in on that.

Craig: Always.

John: Amy writes, “In terms of dialogue, do you use dot-dot-dot when someone is pausing or dash-dash when someone is breaking off what they’re saying?” Craig, what is your style. Are you a dot-dot-dotter, or a dash-dasher?

Craig: When someone is pausing, I usually will do a dash-dash. If, for instance, I’m not going to break out the pause in a parenthetical like beat, you know. But if someone is going to say, “I just — I just don’t know.” I would say, “I just — I just don’t know.” I tend to use the ellipses for a trailing off as in, “I don’t know man…”

John: I think within a block of dialogue I am largely the same. I’m pretty sure if you look through my old scripts I’m completely inconsistent. But I think I do it this way where if somebody is trailing off, that’s ellipses for me. And if someone is stopping a sentence and then starting kind of a new thought, that’s a dash-dash for me, where they’re sort of talking over themselves.

Where I’m a little less consistent is when someone is being interrupted. I will sometimes do the dot-dot-dot, or sometimes I’ll do the dash-dash. If I’m carrying dialogue across a cut, that more likely is a dot-dot-dot for me. But I don’t know that I have a consistent answer for you.

Craig: Yeah, you know, frankly it’s not that big of a deal. Whatever feels right to you. There’s never been a great script that was unproduced because of this.

John: I would completely agree. The only thing I will say is make sure you match. And so if something stops on a dash-dash, start it up on a dash-dash. Don’t go like dash-dash, then dot-dot-dot. That’s just weird.

Craig: That is weird, yes. Stick to one. By the way, John, when you have somebody — let’s say somebody is talking and then they notice something and then in the middle of it, so it’ll say, “John, excuse me, would you mind if — “

And then action. “The person turns around. It’s his dad.” And then John, ” — Oh, never mind.” Do you do the dash-dash leading into that second line?

John: I do.

Craig: Yeah, me too.

John: I do, too. But that’s the case where like I can’t tell you 100 percent if I would always dash-dash or if I would dot-dot-dot it. And I think it’s just the way the mood strikes me when I’m writing it.

Craig: Nothing wrong with that. Oh my god, I got into such a — dude, I got into such an argument. I don’t know why. This is the one thing that I will argue about with anyone at any time anywhere. I did the ask me anything on Reddit screenwriting a long time ago. So, every now and then I’ll just pop over and take a look at what people are talking about. And generally speaking they’re talking about the same things they always talk about. This one guy is saying, “Hey, is it okay to put descriptions of camera angles or moves in your screenplay?” And this one guy just says, “Nope, it’s never okay. It’s absolutely not okay. If people see that in your script they will presume that you’re an amateur and you’re no good.”

And I just — I can’t take it. Where did this come from?

John: From one of the books. From one of the How to Write a Screenplay books, or some screenwriting teacher who drilled it in at some class at some Florida college.

Craig: [laughs] That’s a perfect detail. We have to find patient zero and kill that person.

John: Yes. And here’s what is so maddening about that kind of absolute rule is that someone will then tweet at us. I think someone just today tweeted at us saying like, “But I looked at Goodfellas’ script and it says we see all the time and there are camera motions, or like James Cameron uses camera movements, but can he get away with that and no one else can?”

It’s like, no, anyone can do it. It’s a question of is your script great? Is it really clear what’s happening? Is the camera motion or referring to we as the audience, is that useful in helping tell your story? Then do it. If it’s not, then you shouldn’t do it. And anything can be perfect, or anything can be annoying, it’s just how you’re doing it.

Craig: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, my big problem with this, so what people will say is directors will tell you they don’t like that because you’re telling them how to direct. Here’s the thing: if I say push in on, wide angle, close, am I telling them how to direct? No. I don’t think so. What I think I’m telling them is this is how I envision this movie.

But here is what else I will — what everybody puts in a screenplay that apparently is okay. Cast. Setting. Action. Motivation. Performance. Dialogue. Costume. Props. Every other aspect that the director controls on a movie set, we have put into the screenplay if we have done our jobs right.

They don’t need to do it the way we said it, but it is incumbent upon us to do all of that to help the reader see a movie. That’s also “directing on the page.” It’s infantile. This whole thing is infantile. I want to kill it as best as I can. And I’m enlisting all of you out there. You will go out like our heralds and spread this word. Spread this gospel to your film teachers and your friends.

John: Two points I want to follow up there. You were talking about we describe performance, we describe costumes, we describe settings, and yes we do that, and we do that only to the degree that we need to do that in order to make it clear what the movie is.

Craig: Right.

John: And so that’s why you don’t choke your script full of camera directions because most of the time you don’t need to.

Craig: Right.

John: But if you need to, do it. If it helps to tell your story, you do it. Just like we never refer to every costume. We never refer to sort of every setting in intricate detail. We do as much as we need to do to get the idea across for what it is. And screenwriting is always about that balance of detail and economy. And that’s what you’re always trying to juggle.

Craig: Absolutely. It’s the job. And if anyone tells you — if anyone tells you that there is some sort of blanket rule against we see, or camera stuff, or any of that, you just look them in the eye and say, “No. No. No.”

John: [laughs] And I want to come back to something that we’ve often talked about in the Three Page Challenges which is that trying to keep action lines short. And Craig really likes to keep action lines to like no more than three lines in a row.

Craig: Right.

John: But that’s not an absolute rule. And there are many great screenplays you will read that are quite a bit longer and have dense paragraphs full of stuff, and that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong or they’re bad. And they can work really, really well. And in Whiplash, which we both really liked a lot, has huge blocks of action and it works great for Whiplash.

And so it may work great for your screenplay, too. But just know that if you’re doing that kind of density, you’re making some other tradeoffs and people may start skimming. And that’s a danger, but maybe that’s going to be fine for you. Or maybe you’re going to write things so well that people are not going to skim, and that’s going to be great, too.

So, there are no absolute rules other than just know that absolutely there are no rules.

Craig: Totally. Yeah, listen, you know, a great screenplay that has big long action blocks, people will read through the action blocks because they love your script. We all have our preferences. We all think, well you know, the way I do it is easy on the eyes, but that doesn’t mean anything.

I mean, listen, there are screenwriters out there that mix up capital letters and stuff. And all sorts of crazy stuff. Hey, guess what, we’re artists. Holy crap. And we don’t have to follow this weird — I don’t know, this orthodoxy as if we’re all working for the typist pool at Warner Bros in 1962.

John: And they’re still working there. It’s so maddening.

This last week, so I’m writing a scary movie, and I’ve had to break out the underlines more than I’ve ever had to in a script. And it’s because there are things that I recognize in horror movies that have to be made clear in ways that are just very different than in comedies or normal dramas. Where like you have to make it clear what it’s actually going to feel like. And sometimes the best way to do that is to underline it.

I’m generally a person who is very, very spare on the uppercase and the bolds and the underlines, but I find myself doing it more on this script than I’ve ever done before because there are both those shock scares, those little jump moments, but there is also that you have to see that this is something really unusual. That classic like we can’t see into that room but this thing is right there.

And it’s interesting to me, you know. working on my, god, 50th screenplay maybe, and to have to be doing some things differently just because of the nature of the story.

Craig: Isn’t that great? I mean, I just love that. It’s funny. Rather than being the exception to the rule, I don’t know any other professional screenwriters that don’t do this stuff. I can’t remember the last time I read a screenplay by a professional that didn’t have some occasional camera direction and some occasional we see and some occasional underlining and some occasional fiddling of things in interesting ways.

It’s part of what we do. I mean, god, grow up. It’s amazing out there.

John: Yeah. You’re trying to create the experience of seeing a movie with just the words on the page. And sometimes you need to goose those words in order to get the effect across.

Craig: Ah, I feel much better.

John: I feel much better, too. Craig, it’s time for One Cool Things.

Craig: I have one.

John: Start us off.

Craig: So, someone on Twitter recommended this to me because I’m a big fan of The Room and the Room 2 for iPad.

John: I love them both.

Craig: Wonderful, wonderful games. So, this is a new game. It’s not for iOS. In fact, it’s for Mac OS. I think Mac OS only. I’m not sure. But I’m Mac OS, so what the hell. So, you download it through the App Store and it’s called Lumino City as in luminosity. On one hand it’s a simple point and click puzzle adventure where you play this little girl who is looking for her grandfather in this funny little town. And you have to figure out where to go and how to solve some puzzles to make things move around and so forth. The game play in and of itself is not revolutionary.

What is revolutionary is the animation and what it looks like. I believe what the game creators did was actually build their environments. They built these environments out of paper and wood and material and then shot them photographically and now are using that as the environment, the 3D environment that you’re moving through.

It’s just stunning. I mean –

John: Ah, I’m looking forward to it.

Craig: It’s gorgeous. And the way they built the game is that you enter an environment, for instance, a house or a plaza with a couple of rooms that you can go in. And in that area there is a puzzle or a series of puzzles to be solved to exit that area and move on. When you do and you move onto the next area, there’s this moment where you arrive in the new place and every time I’ve done it I go, oh, because it’s just so well done. It’s so pretty. And I love it. I just love the way this game looks. It’s so beautiful. And it’s like, I don’t know, $12 or something.

John: It’s a bargain. We need to start paying for things.

Craig: I agree.

John: Good stuff. My One Cool Thing is a book and, god, it’s a long title but I will try to give the whole title to you. Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension: A Mathematician’s Journey Through Narcissistic Numbers, Optimal Dating Algorithms, at Least Two Kinds of Infinity, and More by Matt Parker.

And so I’m reading it right now, I’m about halfway through, I really like it a lot. And so it’s a mathematician who is sort of talking you through the kinds of thing mathematicians talk about. And so it’s not numbers and formulas, it’s about sort of like higher dimension stuff and weird four dimensional things that happen and sort of like how rules apply and sort of weird puzzle algorithms.

So, Craig, I think it’s a book that you and David Kwong would like because it’s very much about sort of the weird patterns that show up in nature when you start sort of applying rules to things.

Craig: It sounds great. Did you ever read, I mean, this probably isn’t quite like that, but I’m wondering if you ever read Flatland when you were a kid?

John: Oh, yes, it’s very, very much Flatland.

Craig: Oh, it is Flatland.

John: That sense of like what it would be like to be in, you know, Flatland is about a two-dimensional creature. This is like what it is like to be able to manipulate things through four dimensions.

Craig: I always remember, there was this little — so, Flatland, if you guys haven’t read it, is very short, terrific, little story that helps instruct on geometry. You’re a character that lives in a two-dimensional land. He describes what that’s like to see things only in two dimensional. You’re flat on a plain.

And then one day this character is visited by a sphere from the third dimension. And as this sphere moves through his world, he appears to be a line that goes wider and shorter, you see, because the sphere is moving up and down through this plain, like cross sections.

So, I read that, I’m like, oh, that’s cool, I can see how a three-dimensional person like me would absolutely freak out a two-dimensional person.

But what’s so cool about that is that the sphere describes how he was visited by a fourth-dimensional shape. And the fourth-dimensional shape, if I recall correctly, was like a chain link, but it could unlink itself without breaking. And then link, yeah, because something is happening in that fourth dimension that we can’t see. Oh, I love it. I thought that was so great.

John: Yeah, it’s nice stuff. So, it does some little simple projects you can figure out yourself. And like things that roll in ways that seem kind of impossible. And it’s like solids that aren’t spheres but can roll like spheres, which seems impossible, but are actually real. So, it’s neat, so I would recommend that book if you’re into math nerdery and sort of extra dimensional stuff.

Craig: Sounds good to me.

John: Cool. That is our show this week. So, our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth. Thank you, Rajesh. He sent us some really good ones, so thank you again for another great melody here.

If you have a Scriptnotes outro you would like to have us play, you can send it into That’s also where you can send listener questions like the ones we answered on the show today. If you have a question for Craig Mazin, you should tweet at him. He is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.

If you are on iTunes for whatever reason, you should subscribe to the podcast. While you’re there, leave us a comment or a rating. People did that last time Craig told them to do it, so thank you very much for that.

Craig: Thanks.

John: We also have a premium feed which you can find at That is where you will listen to the dirty episode when it’s up, which is probably about a week away.

Craig: So dirty.

John: So dirty. It’s going to be fun. So, that’s where you can find that also all the back episodes, back to episode one.

Scriptnotes is edited by Matthew Chilelli. It is produced by Stuart Friedel. Hey Stuart. And that is our show for this week.

So, next week we will have a normal episode, but there will also be a dirty episode, so you’re going to get a twofer if you’re on the premium feed.

Craig: Sweet.

John: Cool. Thanks Craig. Have a great night.

Craig: Thanks John. Bye.



Tue, 01/27/2015 - 08:03

John and Craig pick up loose ends, with follow-up on previous episodes about “friends,” conflict, improv, Kindles, and defibrillation.

Then it’s that Peter Bart episode, which is enough to cause a heart attack.

Finally, we get to some listener questions about referring to collective characters, INT/EXT, deaf assistants and ellipses.

Next week, we hope to have two episodes: a normal one and the NSFW dirty show for the premium feed.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

How color timing works

Mon, 01/26/2015 - 12:09

Daryn Okada offers a great look at how a cinematographer approaches color-timing a feature in this latest video from The Academy:

It’s important to remember that when you see the dull, flat “before” footage, it’s not a mistake. These films aren’t saved in color timing, the way fashion models are transformed by Photoshop. Rather, modern DPs plan for color timing from the start, making choices both in prep and shot-by-shot to get the best possible image.

Scriptnotes, Ep 180: Bad Teachers, Good Advice and the Default Male — Transcript

Fri, 01/23/2015 - 17:33

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

Now, Craig, last week’s episode was full of conflict so I think it’s really good that we have someone here to help balance this out, try to make sure everything is smooth and calm today. We have none other than our own Aline Brosh McKenna. Yay, wild applause.

Craig: Yay.

Aline Brosh McKenna: AKA, The Ref.

John: You are the ref. You are the one who’s going to achieve sort of a calmness of flow to all these things. But we actually were thinking about you last week because several things came up and we thought, well, Aline is the perfect person to talk about this because our topics today are the default male problem, which is sort of why characters are male unless they’re otherwise described. And you’ve talked about this on previous shows.

Aline: Hm-mmm, I sure have.

John: And we’re also going to talk about — so our second conversation is about Whiplash and really that’s about sort of that difficult teacher/student relationship which reminds me a lot of Devil Wears Prada, which is your movie. You wrote that movie.

Aline: I did indeed.

John: So we’re going to do those two topics and you’re also going to help me with some ethical issues that I’m having. So I think it’s going to be a fun show.

Craig: Great.

John: So let’s get into this. So, Aline, we’re so happy to have you here because this is how this default male topic came up this week. And so there was an interview with Raphael Bob-Waksberg from BoJack Horseman. And I think it was actually like a sort of online Q&A. But they were asking about sort of how in comedy, it seems like characters are male unless they’re not otherwise male.

This is what he writes back. “The thinking comes from a place that the cleanest version of a joke has as few pieces as possible. For the dog joke, you have the thing where the tongue slobbers all over the business person. But if you also have a thing where both of them are ladies, it’s like this additional thing muddles up the joke. The audience thinks, why are those characters female? Is that part of the joke?

“The underlying assumption is that the default mode for any character is male. So to make the characters female, there’s an additional detail on top of that. In case I’m not being 100% clear, this thinking is stupid and wrong and self-perpetuating unless you actively work against it.”

That was the creator of BoJack Horseman talking about — in his case, it was like we have these two animated characters and the illustrator said, like, well, why aren’t they both women? And he’s, like, well, that feels weird. Aline, help us out here.

Aline: I don’t actually totally disagree with that in so far as I think that, you know, our job is to depict the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. That being said, we do a terrible job of depicting the world as it is, which is that women are more populous than men. I think that, you know, as he mentioned in a scene, you want to weed out extraneous elements. And, in fact, one of the signs of a rookie writer is having just too much stuff in there. They’re trying to set up too many things and say too many things.

If you have a female character in something which is anomalous, which is going to cause you and stop and think about it, it may bump your scene a little bit. But that would be in a case where it’s a female Sumo wrestler, something that we just don’t ever see women doing. I think there are a lot of instances where you can just have it be a female character and not have it interfere — create radio interference with a scene. I have been more of an advocate for taking stock characters that were male, and by making them female finding something more interesting or more dimensional in them because they’re not as expected.

But, you know, one thing I would say is that if you really want to populate your scripts with different kinds of people, you have to stipulate because if you don’t stipulate then people do make assumptions. For instance, in the pilot that Rachel and I did, there was a character who was Asian. We gave him an Asian last name and we stipulated that he was Asian and then that’s who the casting department — that’s what they have on the sheet of paper. And if you don’t stipulate, then the casting department doesn’t know who to look for.

I just think there are a lot of opportunities where, you know, if it’s a cop, if it’s a lawyer, if it’s a, you know, a passerby, you can just mention it unless it’s something that will actually do what he’s suggesting, which is detract from the logic or the flow of the scene. I think that’s actually less of a concern than people think. But I wouldn’t make a huge point of sticking in ladies where they’re wildly anomalous and you’re not doing it for any particular reason.

John: Craig, talk us through from the comedy perspective because this point of you’re looking for the cleanest possible joke, is that something you think about as you’re writing?

Craig: Well, sure. That’s where the expression a joke on a joke comes from. You don’t want a joke on a joke. So, you know, in Aline’s example, if you’re doing a bit where a Sumo wrestler is being — this is a terrible joke, but a Sumo wrestler is distracted from his opponent by a sandwich. If the Sumo wrestler is also a woman, which is anomalous, then you’re not sure where’s the absurdity in it, right? You only want one absurdity.

If there are multiple absurdities, then the world is absurd and the joke starts to fall apart. That said, I don’t really understand what he’s talking about here. I agree that we shouldn’t default to males but I don’t understand his point. Like, he seems to be saying that if a dog slobbered on a lady, we would be thinking, why is that character female. Is that part of the joke? No, we wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. I don’t get that.

I actually think — I mean, this is not humble-bragging. If this is a problem, I don’t have it. I’ve never defaulted to a male or a female for any particular character. And I don’t think that being a woman is an element of a joke unless, as Aline says, it’s anomalous. Similarly, I don’t think of men as an element in a joke unless it’s anomalous.

If I’m writing a scene in a kindergarten and the kindergarten teacher is a 70-year-old man, that’s anomalous. That’s an element, right? That’s a choice.

Aline: Let me interrupt for one second. So in, let’s just take Identity Thief because I’ve seen it a couple of times. Melissa is a woman. Amanda is a woman. One of the bad guys is a lady.

Craig: Yeah.

Aline: And then a lot of the default characters like cops and — are there other, like — the hotel clerk, was that a man or a woman? Can’t remember.

John: And there were other business people as they’re sort of going into the corporation. So –

Aline: Like if I looked at your character breakdown for that script, do you think it comes out — what percentage do you think it comes out?

Craig: I’m not sure what the percentage is but I know that, for instance, in the hotel there was a male clerk and a female clerk. So in two different scenes, there was a character in — when they break into an office building, there’s a character that’s male but that’s a specific choice because I wanted that to be the mirror image, like basically another Jason Bateman. I wanted him to meet himself in another place. The office was very male. I wanted it to feel really male because I wanted it to feel very old-school and kind of repressive.

But yeah, one of the bad guys is a woman. She’s, yeah, seems like the most dangerous one of them. I just remembered that I made a very specific choice for Jason Bateman and Amanda Peet to have two daughters. I don’t think I defaulted at all. You know, when I’m writing a screenplay, I don’t know, maybe this is different in TV. I think gender is something that you have to be specific and really intentional about every single time.

Aline: Once in a while, you’ll say the hotdog vendor, you know, you’ll say the hotdog vendor, the cab driver, the policeman, and if you don’t stipulate that it’s a woman, casting will come to you with men.

John: And I want to go back to something you said earlier. If you don’t stipulate that a person is a certain — is not white –

Aline: Yes.

John: That person will be white. And that’s the thing I sort of found again and again as you sort of go through the casting. So I do that thing what you talk about where I will deliberately give a person, you know, a Chinese last name so that they will look at Chinese actors for that part, because if you don’t do that, the default just tends to become white. And that’s no slam on casting directors –

Aline: Well, we had a funny thing once where we put in — I put into the script any ethnicity and every person that they brought in was a person of color because –

John: Yeah. Maybe that’s good.

Aline: They assumed that any ethnicity meant I was looking for something that was — and I just wanted them to hire — I mean, you’d like to be in a circumstance where they’re just hiring whoever is the best person. But if it is important to you and it won’t distract from the scene, it’s not a bad idea to stipulate there’s two clerks at the hotel desk, one’s a man and one’s a woman. I mean, or just name them, just the act of naming, as you said. Just naming one of them Trish, just naming one of the cops Betty is — then people get it.

So you can do things which are — I think what he’s pointing to is you don’t want to — if you stipulate it strongly, then people wonder why you’re doing that.

John: Yeah. And so there’s always that fine line between do you give a character who’s only going to appear in one scene a name and if they’re only going to — if they’re going to have, like, one throw-away line, I often won’t give that person a name because then it signals to the reader this person’s really important and they’ll show up again. But a person who’s going to be, like, really helping to drive a scene, scripts are full of like Dr. Gutierrez because it makes that person a little bit more specific and, of course, the advantage to, you know, a name with some ethnic heritage to it is it can stick in your head a little bit longer so you can remember that person was — you remember that character. That character shows up 50 pages later, like, oh, yeah, there was a Gutierrez. That’s helpful.

Amine: Right. I mean, one of the reasons I thought of Identity Thief is because the bad guy — those two bad guys, and often, in a movie like that, it just would be two generic male thugs and there was this lady in there.

Craig: Well, yeah, there was a lady in there and she was Latina and there was also — for instance, the character that John Cho plays was not singled out to be Asian-American. So I didn’t single out race there. I do think that default race being white is a problem and that’s something that we do watch out for a lot. But what this guy’s talking about, a lot of, like, for instance, the issue of the hotdog vendor, the cop, the cab driver is an issue for writers to be careful about in television because oftentimes they’re the ones doing the casting.

In features, I don’t want to call out any specifics about the hotdog vendor or the cab driver because if I do, as John says, I’m putting story weight on it for the reader that I don’t want to put there. Sometimes you do want the most bland thing. You want the thing to say meter — you know, a parking enforcer. And then it is up to the producer and the director and the casting director to get out of this mindset of automatically white, automatically male.

You know, when Aline says any ethnicity, the truth is they see the word ethnicity and they go, well, white’s not ethnic. So what she means is anything that’s not white. All of this stuff, this kind of what you would call default thinking, I think is far more serious when it comes to race at least in features, at least for me. Like, I know. I’ll be honest. Like, I am affirmative in my mind about not defaulting to white, meaning I easily default to white.

And so I work to not default to white. But I don’t feel any gear-grinding to work to default to female. If anything these days, that’s kind of where I start with a lot of characters. I prefer it. But I definitely did not understand his example. I don’t understand how in his example the — maybe he just gave a bad example.

John: Well, I can understand his example especially coming from an animation point of view where you’re literally having to draw every person. So it’s not like you’re going through and casting. It’s, like, oh, let’s put out a wide net. How are you going to draw those two characters? I think in his specific example, it was that a strong wind was blowing the slobber from a dog onto a business person. And so I can see where in his example are we thinking that there’s a different context because it’s spit going onto a woman versus spit going onto a man?

There are always specifics to these situations. But I want us to go back down to the default male situation because there’s two anecdotes I heard this last week from other writers as this was being discussed. The first was from a writer who said that she literally — all she had changed for this one character was the character’s name from like a Bob to a Barbara. And the note she got back from the studio was like, oh, the character’s so much more complex now.

Aline: Yeah.

John: Like literally nothing had changed other than the character’s gender and name and suddenly every — all those same lines seemed so much different because we apply a complexity to that character in that role if it’s a woman.

Aline: And that’s what I was saying if you just go through and look at stuff, especially stuff that you’re feeling like is just functional and not interesting and you start thinking about other genders or races or just doing something that makes that character more interesting. But to be honest with you, I have trouble getting too exercised about this because we just need more female leads. We need more female big roles.

And, you know, with women and minorities, there’s a lot of cops and judges and DAs going on. And I wish that instead of — it’s a much bigger problem than the default thing, I wish that, you know, if you’re doing a buddy movie that you think of a woman and a man, you know, if you’re going to do Ride Along and you could do it with a woman just as easily, that’s the kind of thinking that’s, I think, ultimately going to be more impactful.

And that’s why somebody like Melissa McCarthy, she takes movies that could’ve been two men easily and you just put her right into it and you don’t miss a beat.

John: I think Tilda Swinton is the same situation.

Aline: Yeah.

John: Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton. And that’s a role that didn’t need to be a woman. There’s nothing — her gender doesn’t actually factor into any aspect of Michael Clayton. But her being a woman changes that role in sort of a strangely fundamental way in that you rarely see women making those kind of ethical, horrible moral judgments. And that’s what’s fascinating to watch.

Aline: Made it more interesting. I mean, once –

John: The same in Snowpiercer. I mean, she doesn’t have to be a woman in Snowpiercer and it’s great.

Aline: One just small thing. I sense a segue coming. But one small thing is that in Devil Wears Prada, the character that’s played by Stanley Tucci, it’s never said that he’s gay. We never make reference to it. It’s not in anything to do with the story. Stanley played the character a certain way. And it’s funny people assume that he is and it comes up frequently. And it wasn’t ever — it’s not in — it’s not written anywhere. And I don’t know that he is or isn’t.

John: Yeah. Yeah, that’s great. All right, I have questions for you guys because you both have strong opinions and –

Aline: [laughs] No!

John: And you’re willing to share your opinions and you’re also — you’re very confident in your opinions. And so I look to you for some confident opinions on a couple of ethical questions that have sort of come up for me.

Let me raise these. So as we’re recording this, this is the day the Oscar nominations came out. And one of my stipulations is that I will only vote in a category if I’ve seen all the nominees because that only seems fair. But is that really the right idea or am I sort of doing a disservice to all the nominees if I haven’t — if I don’t vote in a category I haven’t seen?

Aline: You voted to nominate having not seen every single movie in the category.

John: Absolutely true, because it’s impossible. It’s an infinite set essentially.

Aline: Okay.

John: But when it comes down to the actual Oscar voting or the WGA voting, I’m only going to vote in categories where I’ve seen all the possibilities. Craig Mazin, I come to you first. What is your feeling about that as an approach?

Craig: I mean, of course, you want to say, look, if you have to choose between five movies and you’re picking who the best director of those five movies are, you — naturally, it is ideal for you to have seen all five. But really, underlying all this is the silliness of the voting itself. You’re voting on five that other people have agreed you should vote on. All those people agreed that these are the five based on some movies they saw, not all.

Look, you know my whole feeling about the Oscars is that it should be more like AFI where it’s like it’s a celebration of the five best directed movies of the year. [laughs] I just don’t understand this pick one thing. But yeah, I mean, ideally, you would, sure. I mean, it seems weird to say well, I didn’t see — I saw one of them or two of them and I didn’t see the other three, but I like this one. I’m voting for that one. That’s a bummer to the people that did the other stuff, right?

John: It is. Aline, I want your opinion.

Aline: I mean, it’s definitely the ideal. You know, I usually have seen all the movies in my category basically. Yeah, I mean, I think it’s better to focus on ones where you feel like you’ve really surveyed the landscape. I think it’s an ideal — I think people do the best they can. And then I think, you know, sometimes people just feel really strongly about one movie and they feel like it’s the best movie they’ve seen among the movies they’ve seen and they’ll just vote for that one.

Craig: Yeah.

Aline: So –

John: All right. That’s actually a more ambiguous answer. I was expecting a sort of a strong firm one. So now, I want you to tell me if I’m a hypocrite or not a hypocrite based on this exception I’m willing to make. The Transformers movies. I don’t like the Transformers movies. I can’t watch a Transformers movie. They’re too loud. They’re too noisy. They’re too chaotic. I don’t care to watch a Transformers movie. And yet they’re always up for sound mixing or sound editing. And so am I a hypocrite if I vote in that category not having seen those? If I make an exception for Transformers movies, is that a hypocrite?

Craig: I would say yes. I get the you don’t have to watch the whole movie. You can watch a sequence. You’ll know which one is the one that the sound guys would hope you’d be listening to and just watch that sequence with an ear on the sound and ignore the other stuff because that’s the point of that category. You and I both know the sound guys, they’re — it’s done. They get the pictures locked. Someone wrote the script. They shot it, da, da, da, da, da, da. They’re just doing sound. So you can’t punish them for the content of the movie. You can only reward them or not reward them based on what you hear.

John: All right.

Aline: I mean, I feel bad for these guys because their work is being watched not the way it’s meant to be viewed. A lot of it is not being viewed in theaters anymore. So it’s not really what they do in those categories.

John: All right, so a more specific question that’s aimed at us, at screenwriters. So we have the nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay both for the Writers Guild and for the Academy Awards. But are you reading all the actual screenplays? Are you basing that vote on what you assumed the screenplay was underneath this movie you saw? Aline?

Aline: I don’t read the screenplays.

John: Craig?

Aline: But I probably should.

Craig: I mean, I’m not in the Academy. They’re never going to let me in. [laughs]

Aline: [laughs] You’re in the Writers Guild.

Craig: Yeah, that’s true. I don’t believe that you should be giving awards for documents. Our job is not to write a document. Our job is to write a movie. And so I watch the movie and I discern from that movie the narrative, the dialogue, the structure, the sequencing, all the characters’ characterizations, all the things that go in that we provide a movie. And I experience it through the movie. That’s our job.

John: All right. Next ethical question. There have been times when people, producers or studio executives have come to me with a project to work on or to adapt. And I’ve passed based on saying, like, I’m unavailable or, like, that just doesn’t really spark for me when the truth is I just know I will never work for that person. And so I’m unavailable. Is that an acceptable lie to tell in that situation? Aline Brosh McKenna?

Aline: Well, you know, Hollywood is really a triumph of Mandarin communication. You have to, like, get a dictionary when you start to figure out what people are actually saying to you. And my favorite story was I had written this script that the main character was in the IRS. And somebody passed on it and they said to me we already have an IRS movie in development. And I walked around repeating that as if that was really the reason they passed on it for like a good year until I was talking to someone else and they said oh, yeah, they were interested in my basketball script.

And then I realized — then they told me they had another basketball script in development. And it hit me like a bolt of lightning [laughs] that that was a lie.

John: That’s a thing you say.

Aline: Yeah. And so there are things that people in Hollywood say that are code for other things. And there’s a lot of screenwriting ones like “lot of good work here.” You know, there’s a lot of things that people say that are not exactly what they mean. And I think in terms of passing on things, you know, this is something that I have talked about with people which is I will often pass on things by saying I’m not going to be able to do a good job on this.

And that’s usually what I feel. You know, if I’m really excited about it, it’s palpable to me. And if it’s not, then I won’t do a good job on it. I don’t think you ever really need to tell people why you’re not taking on their project. It’s sort of like if you don’t want to go out with somebody, you don’t have to say I don’t like the way you look in pants. You can just decline.

Craig: I agree. I mean, this is just basic human stuff. We’re allowed to do it. You know, white lies have value. If you’re not going to be completely honest, then I think all bets are off. You’re never going to say to somebody, “Oh no, no, I wouldn’t do this because I don’t like you. I think that this is stupid. I think you’re stupid. It’s insulting that you would even think I’d want to do this.”

Well, that’s honest but you’re not going to say any of that so you might as well just, you know, go the extra mile and say, “Oh my god, I can’t. I’m so busy.” But, you know, like Aline, I’ll also say to people, particularly people that I have worked with before, people that I do like, then I will. If I don’t want to do something, I’ll just be super honest and say I just don’t get it. It’s probably me, you know.

And God knows that there’s a decent chance that three years from now I’ll be sitting at home kicking myself. And I really do feel that way. And I can’t do it because I just don’t feel it, you know. Everybody respects that.

John: So my last two questions are about friendship. This is a situation that happened to me and I suspect it’s happened to both of you as well. A friend is so excited because they just started working on a new project with this person, and a person who I know to be a terrible person or that I had a terrible back history with. Do I say what happened or do I just keep my mouth shut? And at what circumstances do you say something and what circumstances do you not say something?

Again, it feels like that relationship question. It’s like where, you know, if your friend is dating a monster, do you tell your friend that they’re dating a monster?

Craig: Well, the thing is, one man’s monster is another man’s savior. I have been in this situation on both sides. And I remember I was doing something with someone. And somebody that I like a lot and respect and whose opinion I value said that person is the worst. On a scale of one to ten, they’re an eleven of terribleness.

And I got along great with the person. Great. And it went fine which just goes to show you some puzzle pieces fit together and some don’t. So with that in mind, unless I know that somebody is criminal, they cheat, they steal, they are abusive, you know, stuff that’s really dangerous that I think they need to know, I’ll tell that. But if it’s just I really did not like them, I didn’t like their taste, I didn’t like their work process, I didn’t like their face, whatever it is, I just keep that to myself because they might love them.

Aline: I’ve had something which was strange, which was somebody really heartily recommending someone to me and saying this person is my muse and my angel and everything they say is a pearl of wisdom. And I just had a terrible time understanding what they were saying, getting anything on the boards. And so it’s so personal. Again, I hate to be the chick who keeps bringing up dating stuff but it’s also like that. Like you can have chemistry with someone.

And I think we all have people that we like that other people don’t as much or people that everyone else likes but us. It’s human nature. I mean, in terms of telling someone, I think you can always say, “I had this experience. You may not have this but I just…” It depends on how close they are to you. If it’s a super close friend, I would say, “Listen, just have your eyes open. This is where I think their defect is. And so if you see this red flag come up, there might be more of that where you think there might be more.”

John: In the real life cases where this has come up, I’ve tried to frame it — the conversation saying — in both cases, I think I did say, like, there was a problem. This is what the actual experience was. This is where I think I probably was at fault. Let me explain sort of what the whole scenario was and why this person was under pressure.

And I sometimes describe it as like this is a storm we all endure together. That said, I will never ever work with that person again. And it segues back to the earlier question of why are you passing on this because you’re unavailable. It’s, like, because I had just an absolutely horrible time with that person and I will not forget that.

All right. My final ethical question is at what point is it okay to say in a conversation to refer to somebody as your friend when you’re not sure that the other person would refer to you as a friend? And so there’ve been cases where I’ve heard myself saying, like, oh, yeah, he’s a friend. And then I’ve said that in a way to sort of try to be inclusive, to sort of explain like how I know this person, blah, blah, blah.

And then I realize, oh, wait, would that person actually refer to me as a friend? And it often comes with relative levels of fame. So if I refer to somebody who’s like much more famous than me as a friend, am I being a douchebag? It’s a weird situation. And we all know really famous people so it’s –

Aline: Well, that’s so interesting. You know, there are a lot of writers that I know so slightly. Like I was on half a panel with them or I, you know, met them in some really oblique way and I will refer to them as my friend. I had this with Chris Morgan who I’ve met once. And Chris Morgan — I’m always like, oh, we’re friends, we’re friends. He comes up and I’m like, we’re friends. [laughs]

And now it’s like a thing when I see him. I’m like, hey friend. And that’s so interesting because with actors, I think, I would probably have to have, like, had a solo social engagement with them before I would say that’s one of my friends. That’s kind of interesting. I think maybe I just consider writers default –

John: Yeah we’re all –

Aline: Friends.

John: In the same boat.

Aline: But same with moms, like moms at my school. I might say that I’m friends with her even though we just sort of like stood next to each other in the classroom for two seconds.

John: Craig, what do you think?

Aline: I think I’m rather whorish with this. I think I’m rather slutty and –

John: You’re a promiscuous friendster?

Aline: I am a promiscuous user of the word friend.

John: Craig, where are you at with this?

Craig: I’m the other way. I’m a little stingy you with the word. I’ll say if somebody asks me about somebody I’ll say, oh yes, I know them. You know, we’ve hung out. I might say I know them. But to me, when you say someone’s a friend, you are implying that you have a relationship with them. They’re a part of your life. You’re a part of theirs.

I mean, look, I spent months and months with Bradley Cooper in multiple countries. And I can email him and if I see him we will talk. He’s not my friend. I know that. I’m not his friend. I know that. So I would never say, oh yeah, Bradley’s a friend.

Aline: What about Chris Morgan?

Craig: Well, Chris Morgan is my friend [laughs] because I –

John: Chris Morgan’s a friend to the world.

Aline: Not a good test.

Craig: No. Yeah, because Chris Morgan lives in my town and I know him, his wife, his kids, and we hang out. But I feel like if I were to say, oh Bradley Cooper’s a friend, I am being a douchebag. I’m boasting. It’s boasty. Even when I am actually friends with somebody — like, I’m actually friends with Amanda Peet or Jason Bateman, I’ll say oh yes, you know, we’re actually — we’re close. Our families are close or something like that.

Because to me, if I’m really like friends with you, then you know my wife. You probably have met my kids. Anyway, it’s that kind of thing. So I do think it’s a little douchewaddy. If I’m familiar with somebody, if I know somebody, I’ll just say oh, yeah, I know them, you know, we’ve spent time together. I’ll say something like that.

John: It is interesting with actors because like Ryan Reynolds is genuinely a friend. I’ve been to both of his weddings. He was at my wedding. So that kind of stuff is really there. But there’ve been other actors who I’ve just helped out on a thing or they’ve been in a workshop and so I know them.

Like Hugh Jackman I know really well. I know his wife. But like I’ve never been to their apartment and we’ve never hung out. Same with Will Smith. Like you’ve hung out, you’ve dealt with Will Smith. And so I like him. I mean, he’s an acquaintance. I think he would probably recognize me but he has no idea about my life.

Maybe the test is that he would never — like, Will Smith is never going to text and say like, “hey, what’s up? How’s your day going?” And a friend maybe would more likely do that.

Craig: Yeah. You know, in a weird way, if you play Words with Friends with someone, they’re your friend. [laughs]

John: [laughs]

Aline: Well, it’s funny. I just saw somebody that I play this game, Wordbase, which I’m obsessed with. And I just saw this woman who’s a friend of mine and she said — we were catching up with some other people and she said, oh, I don’t need to talk to you, I see you all the time, which is not true. We just play Wordbase every day. [laughs]

John: [laughs]

Aline: So it seems like we see each other every day. So it’s slightly another one of those Hollywood Mandarin things about who you say is your friend. And actually, as you’re talking, I think that when actors come up that I know, I think I say something like we’re pals or something. I think I use another word. [laughs]

John: [laughs]

Aline: Just to — that captures like we’ve spent time together and they probably know me by sight and –

John: Yeah. I was in a conversation where there’s a director who I haven’t made a movie with him but we worked together on a project. And so he was on the list. And it’s, like, oh, yeah, I really like him. And I didn’t say friend because, like, that would be completely inaccurate. Like, I’m not sure — I have his correct email address now, but I know that if we were in the same room together, we’d get along great.

And so there is that weird middle ground with people you know but they’re not — I mean, they’re acquaintances but it’s a different thing.

Craig: Even somebody that I’m legitimately friends with, if I think it’s going to make me sound douchey — like I’m really friends with Melissa McCarthy and I feel douchey about it. If somebody says, oh, you know, what’s Melissa McCarthy like? Oh, well yeah, she — we’re friends. I’m sort of saying, look what she — she’s my — she likes me. I don’t, like — so what I’ll always say is I love her. I wish I put the arrow the other way, you know. I just like, I love her, she’s the greatest.

Aline: I’m going to use this opportunity to point out that you guys have both name-dropped a bunch of actors that you’re friends with.

Craig: Well, we have to, that’s the topic.

John: That is the topic. What actors are you friends with? Oh, Rachel Bloom.

Aline: Yeah, well, you know, I’m going to be discreet.

John: All right.

Craig: I will tell you that I know that’s, you know, I love these guys. But Zach Galifianakis would never call me his friend. Ed Helms isn’t going to call me his friend. Now, Mr. Chow, yes. But, Bradley — it would be so cool if I could walk around be like, “Well, yeah, Bradley Cooper is my friend. We’re friends.” But we’re not. I love the dude, he’s awesome. But I know that he doesn’t think about me ever. [laughs]

Aline: But it’s partly the actor thing because it really — I’ve done roundtables with writers. And then, you know, after that, I consider them friends of mine.

John: Yeah, you aloud a script together and you pitch jokes. That’s really –

Aline: Yeah, and we have professional camaraderie. So I think I am very loose about it with definitely with writers because I consider them all sort of my friends.

Craig: You are looser than I am because –

Aline: Hooray.

Craig: For instance, I’ve spent time with Simon Kinberg. I love it when we bump into each other at something. But we’re not friends because, you know, he doesn’t call me, I don’t call him. I’ve never been to his house, he’s never been to mine. So it’s weird to say that you’re not friends with somebody because it sounds like you’re in a fight with them. I mean, I think the guy’s awesome.

It would be fun to be his friend. But I know I’m not, it’s not enough for me. I have to, like, actually have a relationship with somebody. What is the value? Why are we talking about this? [laughs]

John: [laughs] Well, if you want to know more about Simon Kinberg, you can go back to the episode in the premium feed where I talked to Simon Kinberg for an hour about writing and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Aline: This is just going to be a long podcast where we go through everyone we know and say friend/not friend, friend/not friend.

John: Weirdly, Simon Kinberg like runs the gamut for us because like sort of not friend to Craig Mazin. Not enemy but not friend. I’ve been to both of his houses, his house in LA and house in New York because our kids were in preschool together. But you are genuinely friends because you’ve like written movies with him.

Aline: Yeah, he’s one of my besties.

John: It’s the range of Simon Kinberg. Let us segue to our third topic for today which is — we started talking about Whiplash and sort of that dynamic of teachers and students which I think is so compelling.

I think maybe for writers, especially because, I think, I know I had writing teachers who were — they didn’t throw symbols at me but they were difficult and demanding and that became part of the process of doing stuff. And Aline Brosh McKenna wrote The Devil Wears Prada which has in some ways a similar dynamic of this person who’s such a perfectionist who’s driving the ship. And you’re trying to please her and there may not be any pleasing to her. So, you saw Whiplash. Did you feel that connection to your movie in seeing in it?

Aline: I did feel some of that but only in so far as I think that Whiplash is basically a horror movie. And I think The Devil Wears Prada is also a horror movie. They’re monster movies. And so, you know, he’s playing a much more — that character is a much more overt monstrous character.

I think that also Prada is a Faust story. So in Prada, she gets pulled towards the monster and becomes a little bit the monster. And that’s not really the case in Whiplash. He doesn’t really start to compromise his values towards — he keeps trying to live up to this guy and then he repudiates him.

So, yeah.

John: But I would argue whether he does fully repudiate him. Because I think what’s actually fascinating about the movie of Whiplash is that he is like the Andy character in Devil Wears Prada is like attracted moth-like to this bright burning flame even though that he keeps getting burned by this bright burning flame.

But there’s a vindictiveness to the teacher character in Whiplash that does not exist in your story. I remember having a conversation with you about The Devil Wears Prada where you were so insistent on trying to find who is the human being underneath the Miranda character. And why was she doing what she was doing? What is the beauty underneath there? And I guess Whiplash does that to some degree as well. But it ultimately leaves the question ambiguous. It’s sort of like why is this person doing this.

Aline: Well, I think one of the fantasies that in mentor-protégé movies, one of the fantasies is that this person is ever going to notice you. And I think in Prada we made a big point of the fact that even after that, you know, through that whole movie, I don’t even think she is totally registering who this other person is completely. She doesn’t really remember her name.

And then, so that scene towards the end where she actually — you see, that she has thought about her. She has noticed that they have similarities. And at the very, very end when she smiles after seeing her, I think what’s enjoyable about that is thinking that this person who is so, so outranks you is noticing you at all.

And I think Whiplash has a great moment — spoiler alert — Whiplash has a great moment where you come to understand that he doesn’t really know — the Miles Teller character doesn’t really know whether J.K. Simmons has really registered his existence. And at the very end of the movie you’ve come to realize that he’s really been thinking about this kid.

And I think that’s what’s part of the perverse pleasure of it is being around this monster who so outranks you. They’re not paying you any attention. And then all of the sudden they focus their gaze on you. I think there’s something. And it has to do with the parents, I think. It has to do with this sort of allure and fear of a small child in front of its parents.

The movie that we really — I did not think about all weirdly when I was writing. But then of course realized very much afterwards was very similar to ours was Wall Street.

John: Oh yeah. Well, let’s talk about movies that sort of fall into this general category. And we could talk about movies that have good teachers and movies that have bad teachers or sort of bad mentors. And so some of the ones we’ve listed as we were making up this list before we started — good teachers: To Sir, with Love, Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Mr. Holland’s Opus, School of Rock, The Miracle Worker. In each of these cases, you have a teacher who recognizes there’s something special about this kid.

Aline: Dead Poets.

John: Dead Poets Society. Oh my god, a great one. There’s something special about this kid. I will single out this kid and make sure that the sun shines on this kid. And I may push the kid but I am pushing the kid to a place of safety. And oftentimes, the good teacher is sort of working in opposition to a bad parent. And essentially like things aren’t perfect at home but I’m the person who’s going to elevate you and be that father figure.

Aline: Right. And Whiplash has the opposite.

John: Yes.

Craig: I actually think that one of the hallmarks of the good teacher movies is that they don’t zero in on any single kid, but they actually zero in on a bunch of kids. The formula is I’ve got a bunch of kids, none of whom are reaching their potential, each for different reasons. And I’m going to figure out why and inspire all of them. School of Rock, Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, they’re not elitist teachers. They’re actually egalitarian teachers. It’s the bad mentors, I think, that are very elitist and zero in on one person because they see something in them and then attempt to essentially make them blossom by trying to destroy them.

John: Another thing I noticed about the teacher movies, the good teacher movies we singled out here, good meaning like the teacher is good, not that the movies are good because these are all really great movies, is in most of these cases the teacher is the outsider who’s come in to a situation. So it’s an outside teacher who’s come in to a classroom and therefore transformed the classroom and brought to it.

But as we look at these bad mentors, these bad teachers, it’s usually the opposite. Let’s list some of these movies: Amadeus, Black Swan, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Wall Street, The Devil’s Advocate, Whiplash, Devil Wears Prada. In these situations, the mentor was already in that world and we’re looking at a new person who’s come in to this situation and is — come in optimistic, hopefully, and with dreams and visions, and this teacher character is crushing those dreams.

Aline: God I love Amadeus because the agony of realizing that this guy, this flibbertigibbet is more talented that he is, that he’s witnessing this incredible talent. And that the child is not worthy — the kid is not worthy. It’s so great. It’s such a good one.

John: So you referenced Faust, so talk us through the Faust of it all. So what was the dynamic in there that you saw with Devil Wears Prada?

Aline: Yeah, I mean we don’t have her. She doesn’t ever instruct her for the point of instructing her. When she tells her, the speech about the blue sweater, she’s insulting her. She’s saying, you’re stupid. She’s not doing it to edify her. She just wants her to stop saying stupid things in her presence.

And then, you know, she’s putting up with a lot of stuff. Anne’s character is putting up with a lot of stuff. Until the end when she realizes that she’s becoming this person that she thinks is not a good person; that she did something to her friend which is similar to what Miranda does to her friend. And it’s the mirroring. It’s the scene where she says, I see myself in you that causes her to quit.

And it was interesting because in the book it was much more a repudiation. It was much more of like you’re terrible and I’m going away from the terrible thing. And what we wanted to do was more of a story about somebody who says I see the kernel of this callous disregard for others. I see it in myself and I don’t wish to nurture it. I want to turn my back on it. And that’s why she throws the phone in the fountain. So we we’re hoping for something a little bit more nuanced. Whereas in a monster movie, you just need to kill the monster.

John: The Beauty and the Beast is sort of the example of like you need to find the wonderful character underneath the monstrous feature. Or King Kong is sort of you’re coming to love the thing underneath the monstrous facade. But in the case of Whiplash, the case of I’d say Black Swan as well, like there’s not a good thing underneath there.

Aline: Right. I mean, one of the things about writing these movies is that they’re really a swampland of clichés. They’re really difficult. They’re very tried and true. And so I think we really appreciate movies that have a spin on them. And I thought Whiplash was sort of transfixing from the very beginning because the drive of the junior character was so powerful. And what he was up against with was so intense.

So I really have to hand it to him for making that really, you know, refreshing that. Because I think it is a tough genre. Sometimes when you — particularly the good teacher. Sometimes when you see the good teacher come in you feel like you can map out the beats of that, don’t you?

John: Hm-mmm, absolutely.

Craig: The thing about Whiplash that I think sets it apart is that it had — that Damien Chazelle clearly made a decision to not have the devil be the devil. It’s no coincidence that two of our bad mentor movies have the word Devil in the title. And in Platoon, you can see clearly that Tom Berenger is the devil. And in Wall Street, you feel that Michael Douglas is the devil. And in Black Swan, the devil seems like — the devil’s emerging, and so on and so forth.

In Whiplash, what he chose to do is say, look, I’m going to actually have you — I’m going to make you hate him and also agree with him. And then I’m going to force this question on you which is is it worth it? Is it worth this toxic relationship if you get better at a thing? And particularly better at an art. And then underneath that is is great art worth the suffering that goes into it, is the suffering necessary? Could this have happened without this relationship? Was this man doing this in order to inspire greatness or was he doing it simply because he’s a sadist who’s out of control and he happens to inspire greatness?

All these wonderful questions are there for you to decide for yourself. But I think what sets Whiplash apart at least in terms of its characterization is that it did not answer the question in any way.

John: And what’s also I think smart about I think both Whiplash and Devil Wears Prada is it puts those thematic ideas in the mouths of the characters who were best able to speak them. So in the case of Whiplash, you know, the Miles Teller character asking where is that line? Like, where do you go — you know, when do you push somebody so far that they actually run away from the thing that they’re great at? In the case of Devil Wears Prada, you were able to have Meryl Streep’s character really express what it was that she was trying to do and then really be able to speak those things.

And so often, you get very nervous about sort of putting thematic lines in a character’s mouth but you sort of have to. It’s that elegant way of sort of stating it without making it clear that you are really stating it. Or getting to that sort of emotional punch line so that you’re ready to hear it. It’s like, oh, yeah, I get that. And everything else frames around that question.

Craig: I think that that’s one of the great things about this genre is that you can have characters pose those thematic positions because they don’t necessarily resolve easily. It’s easy for the character Fletcher in Whiplash to say, listen, Jones throws the symbol at Parker’s head. Parker becomes The Bird, right? He becomes Bird. Sorry, not The Bird, Bird. The Bird was Mark Fidrych, pitcher for the Detroit Tigers as you both know.

So there’s this kind of thing that then is unspoken. It’s for the audience to then ask. Okay, he stated a theme that is an argument. But did he need the symbol thrown at him or would he have been great anyway? And also, hey, Charlie Parker died young of an addiction. He was tormented. And so the movie casually introduces in an interesting way and then kind of twists the details of it. Another suicide, right? The movie is reminding you of this.

So these characters make these statements. But we understand that the movie is saying don’t necessarily buy this. You know, question even what this character is saying because this character is not giving you the truth. They’re only giving you their truth.

John: Another thing I’ve noticed about these bad mentor movies is we think of them as being two-handers. I think in my recollection, I think of Devil Wears Prada as being Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep. But of course it’s really not just those two characters. You have to have ancillary characters out there who can provide other viewpoints. And so it’s not just the same fight over and over again.

So in the case of Devil Wears Prada, you have Emily Blunt’s character who’s a version of what Anne Hathaway could become. You have Stanley Tucci’s character who is sort of the fairy godmother, sort of showing you like, helping you make that transition.

In the case of Whiplash, you have Paul Reiser’s character who’s asking those questions like this isn’t worth it. I’m here to protect you, let me protect you. And it was interesting reading through the actual screenplay for Whiplash. There was a lot more there and a lot of that got cut out. I think they recognized in the edit that it’s, you know, ultimately they want it to be more than two-hander. So there was a lot more that Paul Reiser’s character was trying to be the voice of, you know –

Aline: Man, I love that scene where he goes home and — are those his cousins?

John: Yes.

Aline: Yeah.

John: The scene with the cousins. And to be able to make your lead character really kind of a dick and not even kind of a dick, saying truly dickish things. But it really got you into his perspective on things.

Aline: But it’s smart because it also shows how the monster is kind of rubbing off on him and how this pursuit of greatness that is sort of a religion, how it’s distorting his interactions with everyone.

John: Yeah. And, you know, Amadeus has that aspect as well where the desire to prove yourself, to achieve something is what ultimately pushes Salieri to these points. It’s that weird case where Salieri is the protagonist/villain sort of your story. I love those things where you feel like there are just those two people but there’s actually a whole world around them.

And I think it’s also interesting that in each of these cases with these bad mentors, they’re very specific, unusual worlds. If you look at Amadeus, like we know nothing about classical music, but we’re being taught this whole world.

In Wall Street, we’re being taught the world of Wall Street. We’re being taught the world of fashion in The Devil Wears Prada. I don’t care at all about jazz or drumming, and yet I was introduced to this world and found it fascinating and believable within Whiplash.

Craig: Also, I would say that the movie would not have worked if nothing had changed other than the instrument. There is something about drumming that we understand to be physical and inscrutable. We don’t know why reaching a certain tempo is so important.

And by the way, I have to say, a lot of the technicals of the movie about jazz, for instance, like the bleeding hands and the tempo and the speed isn’t really true. I mean, it’s not true to life. If your hands are bleeding and you’re holding your sticks wrong, and speed is not the be-all-end-all.

But even the pieces they’re playing aren’t really what you would call like the kind of true crucible pieces for advanced jazz musicians. But if it’s a trumpet, we’re going to listen to it and go, “That sounds pretty good. Right?” Or, okay, I mean either it’s you can play the trumpet or can’t play the trumpet. We can kind of hear that.

But in drumming, there is this like weird spiritual magic to it. It’s the only instrument in the band where you can sweat and bleed on your kit. And it’s physical, and it moves at a speed that seems impossible. I’ve got to give Damon Chazelle an enormous amount of credit for shooting Miles Teller playing that kit and making me believe he was playing that kit. I mean, obviously he was playing it to some extent but not all of it.

Aline: I just also want to talk about two things which are not really on this topic. But one thing I — because I’ve been watching so many movies recently, there’s two things that I know we’ve talked a lot about on the show. I really noticed that your movie’s just got to be about something. It has just got to be about something. And one of the reasons Whiplash is so successful is because it’s just — it’s about that idea of what will you sacrifice to be successful. You know, how much will you bleed, what’s it worth, where you’re going with it. You know, what’s the ultimate for that. It’s just about one thing.

And then the other thing is the thing Lindsay Doran talks about a lot which is what is the relationship here? And it doesn’t mean that that relationship needs to be in every scene or all scenes but, what is the relationship outcome that I’m rooting for?

And I find that when movies don’t work for me, it’s one of those two things. It’s like who did I care about? What relationship did I care about? And also, why did I watch this? More than anything, I think I’m willing to forgive so much narrative shagginess, but if I don’t know what the movie’s about and if the filmmaker doesn’t know what the movie’s about –

John: You feel it.

Aline: And it devolves into what I call a “stuff happens.”

John: Hm-mmm.

Aline: We’re trying to keep it G, a “stuff happens movie”. And I think that the movies that have really been — we have an enormously good crop of movies this year, and I think if you go through them, you could pretty easily, even a non-pro, could tell you pretty easily what they were grappling with thematically.

I think Imitation Game is a really good example of that. It’s really about do we need outsiders, what’s the value of an outsider, how it’s difficult to be an outsider, who’s an outsider, and what their value is, and how we treat them. I think all the movies that have really worked are about something clean thematically, and I know we’ve talked about that so much on the show but, can’t be stressed enough. Know why you’re telling this story.

John: Great. All right, it is time for our One Cool Things.

Craig: You know what, John, I don’t have a One Cool Thing, as always. So, Aline, you’re taking my One Cool Thing.

John: So my One Cool Thing is a thing called Scannable by Evernote. And it’s so, so slick. And so Aline is here in person so I can actually show it to her on my phone. But what you do is if you have a document that you want to scan, so like it could be a receipt, it could be something you hand-wrote, it could be a letter. You just open the app, you aim the camera on your phone at it, and it scans it, it senses that it’s a page of paper, and it scans it and saves it to Evernote, or you can send it to somebody.

So, so often, I’ve had like just something I just don’t want to lose, and so it’s like written down on a piece of paper. I can just aim this app and record it and save it to my Evernote. It’s a really sick, smart system.

Aline: I don’t use Evernote.

John: You can also save it, send it in an email, you can send it –

Aline: So it turns it into type?

John: No. It turns it into a picture, essentially.

Aline: Oh, okay, okay. Because I have this thing that scans documents and turns them into what looks like pieces of paper.

John: Yeah. So this is just a slick version of that.

Aline: Okay.

John: I’m going to show this to you right now. So we’re actually just going to scan a page of Whiplash. So I’m holding this up here.

Aline: All right, okay.

John: And it’s going to see –

Aline: Oh, so it’s like a credit card thing, where it’s looking to see –

John: Yeah. It’s looking for a piece of paper.

Aline: Right. Oh, there we go. Wow! Whoa! That’s much better than the thing I have. That’s amazing.

John: So the tagline for this is, “That’s much better than the thing I have,” by Aline Brosh McKenna. So it’s really slick, and so because I hand-write first drafts, usually what I’m doing is if I’m away some place, I write on paper and I do a scribbled pass first which is unreadable by anybody but me, then I write a cleaner version which Stuart types up.

And so that clean version, I’ve been taking photos on my iPhone and then sharing them with Stuart just by sending him the email that — this is much slicker. It will go right into –

Aline: Will we eventually have something that will take that document and put it in a screenplay format?

John: Probably. Yeah. It definitely — if it was a typed document, it could easily scan that. That’s really simple. My handwriting will never be perfectly scannable.

Aline: Right. Some day.

John: Some day. What are your two One Cool Things?

Aline: I have two Cool Things. I’ll do them really quickly. Are you watching The Comeback? Did you watch Season 2 of The Comeback?

John: And so I have two episodes left of The Comeback. So I did not love the start of it, and then it got so good.

Aline: My mind was blown. I agree the season took a little while to get rolling. And then once it gets rolling, it blows my mind. And I’m actually in that situation where I’m jealous of you because you haven’t seen those last two. The last episode is one of the best episodes of anything I’ve ever seen.

And someone was just telling me yesterday that they had read something about how Valerie Cherish is one of the most nuanced characters of the last ten years and I love that season so much, the end of that season particularly, so much, I went back and watched Season 1.

John: Wow.

Aline: And it is so prescient. That show blows my mind. So if you still have not seen it, I would recommend starting with Season 1. But if you watched Season 1 and you don’t quite remember it, finish Season 2 and go back to Season 1. It is sublime.

John: Yeah. Honestly, I was stalling because I did not love the first couple of episodes of this new batch. They were setting stuff up, but I also feel like they could have maybe made some cuts. But then suddenly it got to this moment where she finally just like unleashes on this one producer and like just really speaks to this thing like, you are awful, terrible people and, you know, you can’t keep doing this to me.

And it was just such an amazing monologue that was great. Because so often that show is sort of making fun of her and she’s sort of half-aware of the joke and she’s sort of not half-aware of the joke. But when she finally just like opens out, it was just great.

Aline: Part of what makes her so nuanced to me is that line where you’re not quite sure how much she understands. But the other thing is, it’s kind of one of the very few things, if not the only thing I’ve ever seen about Hollywood that is dead-on accurate. It’s how it’s done.

And when I went back and watched Season 1, it’s like obviously Lisa and Dan worked inside that world and they have it dead to right. I mean, it is just everything from the table read to the — it really sent chills as how accurate it is.

John: I love the script supervisor in the show is Winnie Holzman, the writer of Wicked.

Aline: Is that right?

John: She’s the script supervisor. And it’s like that can’t be. That’s Winnie Holzman!

Aline: It’s beyond. And then the other thing, my friend, just an exciting day today because Jason Hall, who got nominated for Best Adapted for American Sniper today, is an old, old friend of mine and an old friend of John Gatins. Actually, much closer, very close friend of John Gatins. And we picketed together in 2007. He was on our picket team and he was just kind of, he had been an actor and his writing career was just starting to take off then. He was making his first movie.

He was just about to get married. Now he has a bunch of kids and he’s got this Oscar nomination and he’s really one of just the good guys of the Guild. He’s just a really smart, really cool, really funny, really interesting guy. And the story of how he got this movie made and what he went through in terms of getting to know Chris and getting to know Chris’s family is riveting.

And so, he has spoken about it in a couple of places. He wrote an article about it for Written By. But just so happy for Jason Hall. It’s one of those things where I feel like it’s a big win for us all in a funny way. And you know what? Great, great noms this year. I thought everyone was great. He’s just an old buddy of mine and I’m very happy for him.

John: That’s awesome. So we’ll have a link to some articles about Jason Hall’s story getting into American Sniper and links to all things we talked about on the show notes today. So you can find the show notes at

If you have a question for Craig Mazin, you can tweet at him, he’s @clmazin. I am at @johnaugust. Longer questions, go to, that’s the place to send them. Aline is not on Twitter so you can find her on Instagram?

Aline: No.

John: No. Don’t even look for her on Instagram.

Aline: Nope. You can find me by going to Craig or John’s Twitter and asking them a question.

John: And we will hand-write it down and send it over on a passenger pigeon to Aline Brosh McKenna.

Aline: I’m thinking of going retweet only. Thoughts?

John: Oh, that would be fun. Yeah, that’s nice.

Aline: Do people do that?

John: Yeah. You can do that.

Aline: Are there people whose Twitter feed is just retweets?

John: Yeah. There are.

Aline: Is it irritating?

John: No. It’s actually just fine.

Aline: Yeah.

John: You can do it. Where you’re just endorsing something –

Aline: Yeah. Or like, something that really strikes me as funny.

John: So you actually probably read Twitter but you don’t actually have an account. Is that correct?

Aline: Yeah. Exactly. I read Twitter but I don’t ever tweet but occasionally you find something on there that’s such a gem that you want to retweet it.

John: My friend Ryan Reynolds, I can just say his name 15 times this episode, he’s finally on Twitter. So there have been all these fake Ryan Reynolds accounts. So he finally got on Twitter because he was sort of forced to. At a certain point they just like come to your door and say, “You are now on Twitter.”

And so I was trying to give him advice about sort of how to do it and I basically said do the least possible because basically anytime you say anything as a celebrity on Twitter, it just gets blown up beyond all proportion. You just have to lock that down.

Aline: It’s sort of the same rule as email, and then some, which is if you’re thinking, “Uh, should I?”

John: The answer’s no. Yeah. It’s always no. If you are on iTunes and you’re listening to this in iTunes or you happen to stumble by iTunes, please look for us on iTunes — Scriptnotes — just search for us, and leave us a rating because that helps other people to find the show.

While you’re on iTunes, you can download the Scriptnotes app, which is a way to get to all the back episodes in the premium feed. It’s $1.99 a month if you want to get to all the back episodes and bonus episodes, including our friend, Simon Kinberg.

The show is produced by Stuart Friedel. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli, who often does our outros. I’m not sure who the outro is this week but it’s going to be great. If you have an outro that you would like to put at the end of our show, you can write in to ask@johnaugust and just give us the link to where we can find that outro.

Craig, Aline, thank you so much for being on the show.

Craig: Thanks.

John: And Craig, bye, good luck with all.

Craig: Thank you.


Weekend Read 1.5 now in beta, adds iPad and iCloud support

Thu, 01/22/2015 - 13:18

Weekend Read, our app for reading screenplays on the iPhone, will be adding two much-requested features in the next major update:

  • iPad support, including the iPad mini
  • iCloud syncing between your devices

The new features in Weekend Read require iOS 8.

If you’d like to join the beta, you can sign up here:

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* indicates required Email Address * First Name Last Name

This truly is a beta; things will break. The good news is that the stable version of Weekend Read is always on the App Store, so it’s simple to delete the beta and reinstall something solid.

We’ll be adding a few new testers each week, so we likely won’t get to everyone. But we definitely need a variety of users who can test the new version out in the wild, because a lot has changed under the hood.

What’s new

Weekend Read 1.5 adds support for the iPad, both in portrait and landscape orientations. iPad support has been a long time coming, but was never urgent. Reading screenplay PDFs on the iPad isn’t bad even with current apps like GoodReader and PDFPro.

Weekend Read’s big advantage is that the app actually understands how screenplays work, so we can resize text, highlight characters, and offer Dark Mode. Even on the iPad, moving to a larger font size really helps reduce eye strain.

Weekend Read 1.5 is also much faster rendering screenplays, particularly on newer iPhones and iPads. You’ll rarely see the progress bar.

The bigger change — the one that’s been by far the most work for Nima Yousefi — is the addition of iCloud features.

Here’s what’s now possible:

  • If you add a screenplay on your iPhone, it automatically shows up on your iPad. (And vice-versa.)
  • You can organize scripts into folders.
  • You can import entire folders at once from the For Your Consideration lists. So it’s now one tap to install all of the 2014 Awards scripts, for example.
  • If you’re on a Mac with OS 10.10 Yosemite, you can drag screenplays into the iCloud Drive > Weekend Read folder. Super handy.

I should stress that all of the above bullet points are goals, not guarantees. Part of the reason we’re extending this beta beyond our friends and family is that there are a lot of edge cases in which things get wonky. If we can’t make a given feature work reliably, we’ll ship without it.

The work ahead

Weekend Read, and the beta, are free.

When we release the new version, we plan to have all the new features available for folks who’ve unlocked the app via in-app purchase. So to get more users ready, we’ve dropped the upgrade price for the next two weeks from $10 to $5. If you’ve been waiting for a sale, this is it.

If you haven’t tried Weekend Read, you can find it on the App Store. We have 27 of the 2014 award contender scripts available to read, including nine of the Academy Award-nominated screenplays. We also have Scriptnotes transcripts going all the way back to first episode.

Bad Teachers, Good Advice and the Default Male

Tue, 01/20/2015 - 08:03

Aline Brosh McKenna joins John and Craig to discuss the how movies featuring good mentors (Dead Poet’s Society, To Sir with Love) differ from films with bad mentors (Whiplash, The Devil Wears Prada). It’s not just that the teachers are bad guys; rather, the stories are structured completely differently.

John asks Craig and Aline about some ethical quandaries he’s been facing, ranging from awards voting to who is a “friend.”

We also discuss the “default male problem,” especially how it relates to comedy and the cleanest version of a joke.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Screenplays on the Kindle, 2015 edition

Fri, 01/16/2015 - 17:16

A screenwriter friend just emailed me to ask how she could get one of her scripts to look good on the Kindle. She had Googled and discovered I’d written about reading screenplays on the Kindle twice back in 2009. (I was an early Kindle adopter.)

Back in 2009, I found there to be a lot of potential for reading screenplays on the Kindle, but a lot of frustration.

Six years later, what’s changed?

Nothing. Kindles and screenplays are still a bad fit.

Attempting to get screenplays to look screenplay-like on Kindle is a fool’s errand, so let me actively dissuade you from trying. Down this path lies futility and despair.

It’s not the Kindle’s fault.

Kindles are designed for free-flowing text like books. They don’t know anything about how screenplays work, and they will fight you at every step. We know. We tried. That’s a large part of why we made Weekend Read.

If you’re starting with a PDF, the closest you can probably come on the Kindle is to run the script through Highland and save it as a Fountain file. That’s just plain text, so if you then import it into Kindle’s parser, you’ll get a rough approximation, with everything set on the left margin:

INT. HOUSE – DAY Mary and Tom carry in groceries. TOM
They oughta call it, “Whole Paychec— — THWACK! Tom is impaled by a spear. CUT TO:

I write in Fountain, so this looks fine to me. But that’s not what my friend was looking for. She wanted something like a printed screenplay, and you’re just not going to get that on the Kindle.

But you can get closer. If you dig into the text file and carefully set tags for character names and transitions, you can have them centered or moved to the right margin. Or you can bail on the screenplay formatting. Dave Trottier has instructions you can follow to make something that looks more like a published stage play. It’s incredibly tedious, but it’s possible.

With a lot of work, you can make something that looks okay — but only okay. That’s the best you’re going to get, and it’s not worth the effort. So in 2015, I use my Kindle for books and my iOS devices for screenplays. Each is the right tool for the job.

Scriptnotes, Ep 179: The Conflict Episode — Transcript

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 17:57

The original post for this episode can be found here.

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

Craig Mazin: Je suis Charlie.

John: And this is Episode 179 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Could you hear my audible sigh, Craig?

Craig: Yeah. I always hear your audible sigh.

John: Yeah. It was maybe a little louder this time, but we can cut it out, I guess.

Craig: Well, you control the edit, so you do what you want.

John: I just thought we had sort of talked about it, but it’s fine. It’s going to be fine.

Craig: If it’s fine, then it’s fine. If it’s not fine, you’ll just keep, you know, talk about it. Do it.

John: Yeah, okay, let’s talk about this. Because we had this little conversation before we started recording and suddenly we get into this whole, whatever, it’s fine.

Craig: You know what the funny thing is? When something is fine to me, it’s fine and I don’t have to keep saying it’s fine.

John: This is the Craig Mazin approach to things. It’s just basically steamroll pass things and then agree to do something or not do something and just do whatever you’re going to do anyway. So, it’s fine.

Craig: Works for me.

John: All right. Hello and welcome. This is the conflict episode of Scriptnotes.

Craig: That was fun.

John: That was our little scene.

Craig: The funny thing is I actually hate confrontation of that kind when it’s real.

John: It’s really uncomfortable. And I think our basic nature is to avoid conflict in life. And that’s probably a good strategy overall for modern life is to look for ways to diffuse conflict, to make things all happy and copacetic and make everyone feel like it’s all going to be okay.

The challenge is as screenwriters conflict is something you need to embrace. You need to look for conflict. And if you try to sort of take conflict out of situations you are going to end up with some really boring writing.

Craig: That’s right. I mean, the whole point of drama is to present the extraordinary to people so that they have something to kind of experience that puts their ordinary lives in better context because we all have conflict in our lives. As you point out, we either avoid it, or we express it in a muted way. We also can see around us that people that have trouble managing the conflict in their lives end up in prison. So, we have this natural social instinct to suppress this. And movies are a wonderful way to let us experience these eruptions of things safely.

So, we demand conflict from movies.

John: Yeah. So, today’s episode is going to be entirely about conflict, and that’s our one-theme topic for the whole episode. But we can actually start with a bit of news that will pertain to all of this because there was a bit of a conflict this last week because one of the movies that was up for Academy Award consideration and for other award considerations was Whiplash. And Whiplash suddenly showed up in the Adapted Screenplay category rather than the Original Screenplay category.

Craig: For the Oscars.

John: For the Oscars. And that’s the confusing thing is that for the Writers Guild Awards and for all the other things it counted as an original screenplay. And for the Oscars it counted as an adapted screenplay.

Craig: Yeah. So, what happened apparently is that the makers of Whiplash produced one of the scenes from the screenplay as a little short in order to get financing and kind of whet people’s appetite for the movie. And once they had financing they went and shot the movie. And for the Writers Guild, this didn’t violate the originality of the screenplay. It wasn’t like they had made a short film of one sort and then had gone and adapted that short film into a feature film. This was a piece of the feature film. That’s what it was always intended to be.

The Academy for some bizarre reason does not see it that way. I do not get their decision here at all.

John: Yeah. So, I was not part of the meeting where that was probably discussed, and I was honestly, I know there was a meeting where the whole thing was about what was eligible for what stuff happened and I’m on that committee and I was not at that committee meeting, so I do not know the information. I don’t know if I could even say if I did know what that information was.

But, I will say in general it’s an interesting question of like what is an adaptation and what is original. And so the idea of like let’s say you went off and made a short film and then four years later you went and you made a feature version of that movie. Frankenweenie is a great example. Frankenweenie was a short film that Disney made and then we went back and made the whole version of the movie. That’s clearly an adaptation. There was an existing thing, even though it was Tim Burton’s vision in both cases. It was an adaptation of that original work.

But the reality is, especially in indie films, you’re going to be doing this kind of thing a lot now where you’re taking a bit of the script and shooting this little scene to show that you can direct something. And that shouldn’t count against you when it comes time for determining whether something is an adaptation or an original.

Craig: No. There is a common sense argument to be made and all too often the Writers Guild or the Academy fails to make the common sense decision and defers instead to a legalistic decision. Many times they will defer to a decision based on precedent. They’re always concerned that, well, we did it for this movie but not for this movie.

But apparently there is one precedent that conflicts with this one. I can’t remember off the top of my head, but it was a very similar situation where they decided, no, okay, yeah, it’s original still. I don’t get it, but look, I also — I happen to believe that for Damien Chazelle, who wrote and directed Whiplash, this isn’t really — this can’t possibly be important.

John: I would have none.

Craig: I mean the truth is that he’s made a terrific film and the Oscars are after the fact things. They don’t turn you into a good filmmaker. They don’t turn you into a famous person. They simply recognize you’ve already done something terrific.

So, he’s done something terrific. I hope that he’s not too upset about it.

John: He shouldn’t be. So, we’ll get back to Whiplash at the end of the episode, but let’s get into this topic of conflict because you in our sort of pre-notes listed sort of seven forms of conflict which I thought were really, really smart. So, do you want to start talking us through them?

Craig: Sure. Yeah. Actually only six. So, we’re already in conflict. [laughs] This is — somebody brought this up on Twitter and we hear conflict all the time. Studio executives love to ask for more conflict, but they’re maybe sometimes not sure why. And sometimes I think people who aren’t writers miss the presence of conflict because they’re only looking for a certain kind.

But I think there are six kinds. This is what I came up with. There may be more. The first kind is the simplest, an argument. This is a physical fight or verbal argument. And we all know that conflict when we see it. That is not, however, the most common conflict. Nor is it often the most effective or impactful conflict in drama.

John: So, the little skit we were trying to do at the start of the episode, that’s an example of this kind of argument. Even if it’s like passive-aggressive, the sort of way I would naturally sort of be in my conflict, that is — you can tell that it’s happening there. It’s really clear. It’s in the moment. There is a disagreement and people are expressing their contrary opinions in that moment.

Craig: Yeah. They’re fighting. Right? We have one word for both punching each other in the face and yelling at each other. They’re fighting.

The second kind of conflict is struggle against circumstance. This could be as simple as I’ve locked my keys in the car, or I’m freezing and I need to get warm. Man versus nature. Man versus object. Man getting laid off by corporation.

John: Absolutely. So, in the scene version of that, what you talk about, like a man getting locked out of his car, locked out of his house, that’s a scene. But then, of course, we can scale this up to the entire movie. So, you have Castaway. You have these big things about a man against a nature. It scales both directions.

Craig: Correct. And you’ll see that in most movies, even if there is one dominating kind of conflict like struggle against circumstance in Castaway, they will find ways to then work in these other interesting sorts of conflicts, even to the point where you can see a conflict coming between Tom Hanks and a volleyball. It’s very smart.

John: Yes.

Craig: The third kind of conflict is an internal conflict. And I’ll call that unfulfilled desire. Essentially I want something that I do not have. How can I get it?

John: The scene version of this is the girl across the bar that he’s trying to get to and he cannot achieve that thing. But the inner conflict is usually driving more a movie level kind of issue. There is a goal in life that somebody has, hopefully is articulated clearly to us, the thing he or she wants. And that is a thing that he cannot achieve.

Craig: And that conflict will drive all sorts of stuff. I mean, Rocky, you know, is about wanting something, unfulfilled desire. Rudy. A lot of sports movies are about this unfulfilled desire, believing that there is more in you. We’ll see this, certainly a ton of this, in Whiplash. This is sort of the — Whiplash really is about two kinds of conflicts: argument and unfulfilled desire.

John: The last thing I want to say about this kind of unfulfilled desire is going back to the Chuck Palahniuk conversation from last week, if that unfulfilled desire is an internal motivation, it’s the writer’s job to find a way to externalize. To find ways to have our characters take action, but lets us understand what’s going on inside their head. It’s the writer’s job to find the words that the characters can say to articulate what is actually happening inside and to create situations that are little blocks along the way that lets them get closer to or further away from that goal.

Craig: A hundred percent. The worst thing you can do when you have an internal conflict is to have somebody explain it as if the audience is their therapist. Incredibly boring. But I always love that scene in King of Comedy where you see Rupert Pupkin in his basement and he’s set up a fake audience and he is performing as the host of his talk show. What an amazing way to get across this unfulfilled desire, you know.

And then in the middle of it he’s yelling at his mother because she’s calling down to him about eating dinner. But you get it. You get the depth of his need and his want. And he’s already at conflict with the world.

John: I’m a hundred percent in agreement with you that we need to avoid that sort of sitting on a therapist’s couch and expressing your inner thoughts and desires. It’s almost always death.

Where that can be really helpful though is, again, that writing that happens off the page. And it may be very useful for writers who if you’re struggling to figure out, like to get inside a character, write that scene that’s never going to be in your movie, but write that thing where they are actually articulating their inner desire, because that way at least you have sense — you have something that you can hold onto to know what it is that the character is going for.

Someone who is writing a musical, those are the moments that are going to become the songs.

Craig: The songs, right.

John: Characters sing their inner wants in ways that is incredibly useful in musicals. They don’t tend to express them the same ways in movies.

Craig: That’s right. And partly because we understand when a character is singing that we are — particularly when they’re singing solo, they’re alone on stage, that we are hearing their inner thoughts. They’re not talking out loud to nobody. That would make them schizophrenic. So, we’re hearing what’s in their mind. What’s interesting about conflict is that we often don’t understand the nature of our own inner conflict. So, early on in a movie what a character says they want may not really be what they ultimately want. They don’t yet have the bravery or insight to express what they truly want. So, at the end they may sing a different song about — or they may say a different thing about what they truly want.

And that makes sense because that’s when the conflict is resolved.

John: Yes. And the best of those songs, while the character is singing their inner thoughts, there’s a transformation and a change happening over the course of it. So, there is a realization that is happening while they’re singing their song. And expressing it to themselves, they actually have an insight and understanding.

A good recent example is Emily Blunt’s song at the very end of Into the Woods. She has the song Moments in the Woods where she actually has all these brilliant insights about sort of what it is that she wants and wanted to have the prince, and have the baker, and have it all. Or at least have the memory of what it was like to have it all. And that’s a great thing that musicals can do that’s actually very hard to do in a straight movie.

Craig: Absolutely true. Yeah, it’s fun to watch somebody start to sing about one thing and then watch it turn into an “I want” song. Or start to sing an “I want” song and it starts to turn into an “I already have” song. It is fascinating. That’s what you get from that internal rhythm that you don’t get really from movies.

John: Right.

Craig: Okay. That’s our third type of conflict. Here’s the fourth kind: avoiding a negative outcome. That is I need to figure out how to do something, but I have to do it in a way that doesn’t get me hurt. So, a very simple kind of example of this conflict is I have to break up with this person. I just don’t want to hurt his feelings. That’s conflict.

John: Yeah. It is absolutely. And this is the kind of conflict that you often see in comedies overall. If you think of any situation comedy, it’s generally one character is trying to do something without the other characters around them knowing that they’re trying to do that. And so it’s classically the I ended up on a date with two girls at once and I’m running between the two things. You’re trying to avoid something embarrassing happening to yourself and you are creating — you’re making the situation worse by trying to just — if you just ripped off the Band-Aid everything would be okay.

Craig: Right.

John: But instead you are dragging it out and you are causing pain by trying to avoid it.

Craig: That’s right. I mean, sitcoms are always very instructive because they are the most basic of these things. That’s where you get the line, “I should have just been honest. I should have been honest with you from the start, but I was just afraid that you would be so upset.”

What’s that great, there’s like a classic ’70s sitcom thing where someone leaves their pet with a neighbor and then the pet gets out immediately. That’s classic avoiding a negative outcome.

John: Yes. You’re next one was confusion.

Craig: Confusion. Right. So, this is an interesting kind of conflict that happens when it’s different than struggle against circumstance. This is a lack of information. Essentially you are at conflict with the world around you because you don’t understand anything. Where am I? What’s going on? It doesn’t last long, but you can see that in a movie like The Matrix for instance where the conflict that we’re experiencing between Mr. Anderson and the world is one of confusion.

John: Definitely. And also you can see it in movies like The Bourne Identity where he literally has no idea who he is. You can see it in movies where people are sort of dropped into foreign lands and they have just no sense of like understanding the rules of the world around them. So, the fish out of water movies are often cases where there’s just fundamental confusion and you don’t know which side is up.

Craig: And you will see this in comedies also quite a bit. Private Benjamin, she’s confused. You know, she’s clearly having arguments and she’s clearly struggling against circumstance, but there is also just that terrible feeling of confusion and being lost in the world around you.

And then lastly dilemma. Very simple kind of conflict we all know. You have to make a choice. The problem is all the choices are bad.

John: Mm-hmm.

Craig: And that’s a great conflict. Everybody likes that one.

John: Sophie’s Choice, of course, notoriously. But really, I mean, any situation between like this guy or that guy. Or Stanford or this? Or do I break up with this person so I can have the opportunity for this person. These are sort of fundamental dilemmas and they feel familiar because we all experience them in real life.

The challenge is a dilemma is hard to sustain over the course of a movie. Dilemma can be like a crisis point, but if you keep your character floating in that in between for two hours, that’s probably going to be a frustrating movie.

Craig: Yeah. We like it when Hamlet waffles for awhile. We don’t want just nothing but waffling. You’re absolutely right. Some of these are better suited to moments. Confusion, for instance, cannot last the whole movie. If it does, everyone will be also in conflict and be angry.

And there are filmmakers out there who seem to delight in placing the audience in positions of confusion. Perhaps confusion masquerading as art? But ultimately the movies that I like the most are the movies that are both brilliant and not permanently confusing.

John: Agreed.

Craig: But, yeah, dilemma and confusion are best used in small doses, for my taste at least.

John: So, for our next section, let’s talk about how conflict works within a scene. Because as we read through scripts, a lot of times I will find a scene that says like, well, there is interesting dialogue here, it’s either funny or smart words are being said, and yet the scene is fundamentally not working. And when the scene is fundamentally not working, one of the most obvious problems I can sort of point to is that there is no conflict.

And sometimes you’ll read a scene where literally all the characters in the scene agree on what’s going on. There’s no sort of threat to anything. It’s just a bunch of people talking. And when that happens that’s probably not going to be the most successful scene.

So, let’s talk about some ways you can sustain conflict within a scene. And so I had a bunch of bullet points here and we’ll see which ones work and which ones stick.

So, first I want to say is you have to understand what each character wants. Yes, you want to know what they want in the movie overall, but literally what is their purpose for being in that scene? What does the individual character hope to get out of this moment? And if you can’t articulate that, then maybe you need to stop and do some more thinking, or may need to look at are these the right characters for the scene. Is this the right scene for these characters?

Craig: No question. We all know that hackneyed phrase, what’s my motivation? And that’s a specifically tuned thing for actors. But for writers, what we have to constantly be asking about our characters is what do they want, because I’m telling a camera to be on them. And everybody in the audience understands inherently that the camera doesn’t need to be on them. The camera could be anywhere at any point. I’ve chosen it to be here. Why?

And it has to be because those people either want something or are about to become in conflict. One of the fun things about characters that don’t want something is when they’re sitting there and they’re perfectly happy and then you destroy their moment, you have the movie crash into it. And now they want something.

John: Absolutely. They want that tranquility back and they cannot get it.

Craig: Right. The opening of Sexy Beast is a perfect example of this. You know, Ray Winstone is just floating in his pool, happy as can be, and then crash, here comes a boulder. You want that, you know.

But sometimes you want to start with the scene where it opens up where somebody really, really wants something. And if you can’t have somebody want something at some point in your scene, that’s not a scene.

John: Yeah, that’s not a scene. The next thing I’ll point to is if you’ve ever taken improv class, one of the first things you learn, probably your first day, is yes and. You’re supposed to accept what’s been given to you and build on it and hand it back. And that next person, your scene partner, says yes and, and keeps going with it.

The real scenes are more likely going to be the opposite of that. They’re going to be but. The characters are going to come into — they’re going to challenge each other. And so hopefully in challenging each other the information that you want to get out will come out much more naturally.

So, sometimes you’ll read scenes that are just exposition factories where basically like we’re going to talk though all the details of this case or whatever. And sometimes in procedurals you just have to swallow your pride and that’s just the way it’s going to have to work. But more likely you’re going to be able to get that information out or get that sense of how we’re going to get to the next scene through conflict and through confrontation. So, someone says something and another character challenges, “But…blah, blah, blah, blah.” “Yes, however…blah, blah, blah, blah.”

The ability to sort of push back against the other characters in the scene is much more likely to get you to a good place than just agreeing all the time.

Craig: Absolutely. And you can use some of these conflict cue cards here if you’re struggling if you have a Harry the Explainer, if you need an info dump, and sometimes you do. Having the person listening, have them be confused. Have them be struggling against circumstance. Someone is talking and they’re trying to escape while the person is talking.

You know what I mean? There’s always ways to avoid just the people talking.

John: That’s a great example. And I like that you go back to these initial sort of six points about what is conflict, because in that explainer scene you could actually be explaining the dilemma. Basically the person, the explainer, could like lay out these are the two options and they’re both terrible. That is a way to sort of create conflict through the action of the scene. And that’s going to probably be awesome.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, look for that. Next thing I’ll point to is the struggle for the steering wheel and that usually one character is driving the scene, but sometimes they can be wrestling over who is sort of in control of the scene, this conversation, this moment, where they’re going to go to next. And that struggle for the steering wheel is real. That happens in real life. And it can happen in your scene.

Obviously, if you’re writing a movie with a central character, that central character should be driving most of the scenes, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have other strong characters come in there and sort of express their desire for control of that moment.

Craig: Yeah. And you’ll see this primarily in two-handers. It’s funny, I never really thought of it with that phrase struggle for the steering wheel, but that’s pretty much what’s going on in Identity Thief for the whole movie.

John: That’s literally steering wheel.

Craig: I mean, I don’t think there’s ever a technical struggle for the steering wheel, but the two of them are just in complete — it’s really a battle for control. And that’s what’s going on the whole time. Yes.

John: Sort of a corollary to the knowing what each character wants, but making sure that it’s clear to the characters and to the audience the if/then of the scene. So, if this circumstance happens, then the outcome is going to be this.

And so sometimes I’ve come into a scene where I don’t really know what’s at stake. I don’t know what the goal of the scene is. I don’t know what the goal of this conversation is. And so making it clear to the audience and clear to the characters in the scene what it is they’re trying to do and then what the outcome is that they’re hoping for.

Every time that you are in a conversation in real life, you have a sense of like these are the kinds of things that could be happening next. And you need to have the same sense for your own characters. And hopefully the characters in a scene don’t all have the same sense of where they’re going to go to, otherwise they could just skip forward all those steps and be at that place.

Craig: This very thing, this make clear the if/then is why a lot of first-time writers screw up. Because they get worried about — for whatever reason, I feel like they’re primarily worried about trying to write naturalistic dialogue. Everybody is in a panic about writing dialogue that sounds normal. But all of our normal dialogue throughout the day is not if/then. It’s just this. You know? We’re just going to talk about lunch.

And they don’t understand that movies are about those days or weeks in someone’s life that define their life. It’s the craziest days or weeks in a human being’s life. So, everything is far more important. This is all staked up, you know.

And so when you are in a situation where there are high stakes, then every moment should have an if/then. Every moment. Because you are constantly moving toward your goal and away from pain or mistakenly towards pain and away from your goal. There is no relaxy stuff, you know. People draw all the wrong lessons.

John: Very much related to that is to really be mindful of where you’re coming into a scene and where you’re exiting a scene. Because in real life, conflicts will rise up and then they will diminish. And so if you wait long enough, every conflict is going to taper off and everything is going to get back to normal. But your job as the writer is to figure out, well, how do I get out of that scene before all the conflict has resolved. How do I think about coming into a scene where the conflict is already there?

And so by figuring out where you can first turn on the camera in that scene and where you can exit the scene, that’s going to get you to the heart of your conflict. The part of the scene you really want is generally that hot spot, that flare right in the very middle of it.

Craig: Yeah, exactly. If you’re going to let a conflict peter out, it better be for comedy sake, because it’s a lie. It’s a misdirect. Otherwise, absolutely; nobody wants to watch people make up over and over and over throughout the course of a movie. We need conflict. We must have it.

John: Next point. If your characters are not in conflict, then the external conflict better be really apparent and sort of right in their face. And so if your characters are getting along fine, then the thing that they’re facing should be right there. And so like literally the lion should be right in front of them.

If there’s like a lion in the distance, or there’s a roar you hear in the distance, well, your characters in our present scene should still be bickering or fighting with each other. It’s only when that thing is right of you, then you can sort of drop the conflict right between those two characters that we’re looking at.

Craig: Yeah. And you might say, well, why? If there are two people and a lion is far away, why are they arguing about who is going to have to take care of the lion? Why can’t they just work it out like friends? And the answer is because they’re bad people. I hate to put it that way, but characters in movies should be bad people. I don’t mean bad like evil, I mean bad like they’re not finished.

John: Yeah. They shouldn’t be perfect.

Craig: Right. They’re not idealized. They are messes who are struggling with something that will be overcome by the end of the movie. But because it is by definition not the end of the movie at this point, they have these flaws. And the tragic flaw of any of these characters is going to manifest itself through conflict that should otherwise probably be avoided.

I mean, look, let’s go back to The Matrix because it’s such a basic fairy tale. The whole point of The Matrix is you’re the one, you have to believe. When you start believing you’re the one, you’ll be the one. Well, his tragic flaw is that he doesn’t believe. His tragic flaw is that he is incapable of faith in self.

Well, if he doesn’t have that tragic flaw, they come to him and the guy says you’re the one and he goes, “Great.” And then the next scene he does it. And we’re good.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And then they have a party on the ship. You know, the conflict is driven entirely by the fact that he’s not finished baking. So, that’s why your characters must be arguing with each other, even if you like them both about who is going to handle the tiger. I’ve changed it to a tiger.

John: Tigers and lions. They both work really well. You can mate them together, you get a liger. It’s all good.

Craig: The liger.

John: A liger. I thought we’d take a little exercise and just pick a really banal sort of normal scene and think about ways that you can actually create conflict within the scene.

Craig: Okay.

John: All right. The scenario I want to propose is a man and his wife are getting ready to go to a dinner party. And so let’s have them be in their Manhattan apartment and they are getting ready to go to this dinner party. And so what are some natures of the conflict that we could find between these two characters?

Craig: Well, you’ve got, let’s start with the obvious ones. They’re having marital problems and the woman that the wife suspects the man is cheating with is going to be at the party or hosting the party. The man wants to go to the party, the woman doesn’t, and he suspects she doesn’t want to go because she’s anorexic and she doesn’t want to have to eat. And it’s a dinner party.

They don’t want to go to the party because the people that are hosting it have four kids. They don’t have any kids and they’re trying to have kids and this is depressing. I mean, that’s the conflict of you want to give one of them that problem and the other one who also has the problem but is trying to get the other one out of the problem, they don’t want to go to the party because the husband has just quit drinking, but she knows that he hasn’t really quit drinking. And this party is a great way for him to kind of sneak a few.

They don’t want to go to the party because — I’m trying to think of something — I’m actually trying to think of something in the apartment now, like an avoidance of pain kind of thing. But, anyway, yeah, I can go on all day.

John: So, I think it’s their cat is sick and it’s a question of like do you leave the cat. Is the cat going to be okay? Or do you go to the party because it’s just a cat. The cat is going to be fine. We don’t trust the new doorman. The doorman has been really weird. We think there’s something shady going on.

But, again, if both of them have that opinion, then that’s not conflict. It needs to be one of the characters having that opinion in the other person saying like, no, no, you’re a crazy person.

Craig: Right.

John: And I think you’re a crazy person because you really don’t want to go to this party because you’re having an affair with the wife. There should be a second level to it, not just I disagree.

Craig: Yeah. You want one of them — I mean, a lot of arguments basically come down to you’re not being honest. So, if the deal is she’s saying I don’t want to go to this party, I don’t like those people. And he’s saying, um, I think you don’t want to go to the party because it’s a dinner party and you know you’re going to have to eat in front of people and you’re not eating.

John: Yes.

Craig: And she says, “That’s not true. That’s not true.” Now, we’re having a good argument. And it ain’t about the party.

John: It ain’t about the party at all. I’d like to stress, though, conflict isn’t always an argument. So, conflict can be little things about sort of like he’s trying to get her to wear a more tasteful dress, but doesn’t want to actually say anything about it. So, it can be a completely silent scene where he keeps trying to do other little things, or he’s talking about like, “Boy, it’s getting cold out,” and just trying to get her to dress a different way.

So, there are lots of ways you can have a conflict in a scene without needing to get to words spoken or punches thrown.

Craig: Absolutely. So, that would be a good example of avoiding a negative outcome. There is also unfulfilled desire. This guy is excited about going to this party because it’s a social group that he really wants to be involved in and he asks her to go with him and she says absolutely. So, he runs and he takes a shower and he comes out and she’s passed out asleep. What do you do now?

John: Dare you wake up your wife?

Craig: Right.

John: Or maybe she doesn’t want to go, and therefore she poisons him.

Craig: Well, then there’s also that!

John: Yeah, but I mean, it doesn’t have to be like fatal, fatal poisoning, but it could be some sort of minor poisoning. Sort of the Wedding Crashers eye drops thing. The Bradley Cooper, how he was taking in Wedding Crashers.

Craig: That’s exactly right. It could also be, you know, in comedy like your liger example, two people have the same goal, they’re just arguing over who is going to do what and how. These people — this may be the most exciting thing. They’re finally going to go to this party where the two of them are going to get in with this group that they want to be in. And they go to the door and they’re snowed in. And now they’re trying to climb out of windows and crawl through a doggie door and things aren’t working.

You know, that’s conflict. Struggle.

John: Yeah, exactly, a struggle. It’s man against nature.

Craig: Man against nature.

John: But ultimately it’s not just man against nature. It’s their unfulfilled desire. There’s an internal motivation and an external motivation which is what’s good about a scene.

Craig: Have you ever seen the Warwick Davis Show with Ricky Gervais?

John: Yeah. It’s like Small Thing or –

Craig: Yeah, it’s a bad pun title. But there’s an amazing scene where Liam Neeson comes in, because he’s working on a comedy. Have you ever seen this?

John: No. It sounds great.

Craig: Oh, you’re in for a treat. He comes in and he says to Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais, “I’m interested in doing comedy. I’m funny. Let’s do some improvisation.”

And so they do some improvisation and Warwick comes up with the ideas. He says to Liam, okay, you’re a green grocer and to Ricky Gervais and you’re a customer with a complaint. And so Ricky Gervais goes, “Uh, yes, hello. Uh, I’d like to lodge a complaint.”

[laughs] And Liam Neeson says, “We’re closed.”

John: [laughs]

Craig: It’s the best improv answer in history.

John: Shut it down.

Craig: We’re closed. Yeah, and he keeps insisting that his characters have full blown AIDS. And everyone gets super uncomfortable and they’re like it’s not that funny. Anyway, we’ll throw a link on. It’s one of my favorite things.

John: But I think it’s great that you bring up Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant shows because The Office is a great example of conflict that doesn’t go to argument. It’s making people really uncomfortable through the actions that they’re taking. And where you get uncomfortable, but yet you’re not able to articulate why you’re uncomfortable because that just makes the situation worse. And so they are great examples of conflict.

That’s why I find the British office kind of so hard to watch because I just cringe so much that I want to like crawl into the couch.

Craig: Yeah, definitely at times is tough, but I loved it because there are these moments, particularly when they didn’t seem constructed to make you squirm, which they would occasionally do with Ricky Gervais’ character, but there was a great moment where Tim has started this new dalliance with this office girl. He’s flirting with her. He’s obviously in love with Dawn, but she’s got a boyfriend. So, there’s this new office girl and he’s kind of chumming it up with her and the two of them are by his desk watching as the best character ever on the British office was the IT guy, god, so great.

And the IT guy is being such a jerk. And Tim says some classic Tim snotty comment about him. And the girl giggles. And the IT guy looks at the two of them and then looks at Tim and says, “So you’ve gone off Dawn then.”

John: Ugh.

Craig: And Tim is just — it’s like a slap to the face. And then he just says, “Shut up. Shut up.” And it’s so real. And that’s terrific conflict. Oh, I love that. You know, pulling someone’s scab off publicly like that out of nowhere, just like a — ooh, it was great.

John: It was great. So, I’m going to circle back to what you were talking about with The Matrix because I think that was a great example of if Neo had just accepted his fate from the start, like, oh, I’m the chosen one? Okay, great. Well, let me do this thing. And the movie would have been ten minutes long.

And I want to talk about that in context of like how do you sustain conflict over the whole course of a movie, because there have times where I’ve read scripts that I’ve really enjoyed the writing, but I felt like, okay, on page 50 we’re done. Everything that needed to happen sort of happened. So, okay…I guess we have another 50 pages to read through, but I don’t know why we’re reading through these things.

So, let’s talk about some ways that you sustain conflict over the length of your movie.

Craig: Sure.

John: First off is the question: are you resolving the central conflict too early? If there’s a thing that the character wants, are you giving them what they want too early? That’s sort of an obvious thing and you’re not going to find that all that often. Like usually people have a sense like, oh, you know, I need to actually wait until near the end of the movie for the person to win the championship boxing prize.

But as Lindsay Doran often points out is that the real nature of victory in these kind of movies usually is not winning the championship match, it’s resolving that conflict with your wife. It is the achieving this inner vision for who you need to be in your life. And if that happens too early, that’s not going to be a good experience to sit through the rest of the movie.

Craig: Yeah. And you can really see this with biopics because biopics are stuck with facts. And when you see a bad one, you’re watching somebody kind of go overcome their conflict and then now they’re famous and stuff. And then you can feel the movie trying to manufacture conflict and struggling to do so or manufacturing the same kind of conflict over and over.

That’s why one of my favorite biopics is What’s Love Got to Do with it because it’s got this incredible conflict going through it that changes and builds and crescendos and finally is resolved. And that’s what we want. You know, that’s why in biopics in particular you can see how the external successes are meaningless. That’s the whole point. Oh, all you thought it was just fun and games and fame, but look what was really going on. We like that sort of thing.

So, you definitely don’t want to make the mistake of the bad biopic. You don’t want to reward your character too soon. You want to hold back — there should be really one reward. And if that — that has to land essentially ten pages before the movie ends. I don’t know how else to do it.

John: That sounds so formulaic, but it’s absolutely so true. And the success of writing is finding ways to get to that place so when that moment comes it feels like a tremendous reward that you didn’t quite see coming that way. That it’s still a surprise to you.

Craig: Right.

John: And that you may not even as an audience quite recognize what it is that you wanted them to achieve, but then they achieve it and like that’s fantastic. Or, they don’t achieve it and that’s tragic. Yet, that is the point of how you’re constructing your movie.

Craig: Yeah. In Up, Carl wants to make good on his promise and take the house and land it on the place where his dead wife wanted to be. And in the end he’s changed that, as we knew he would, and he finally lets the house go. And when he lets the house go, we understand — maybe there’s five minutes left? I don’t know, maybe eight or nine. I don’t know how much we can bear.

But the point is if that in your creation is coming at the minute 30 mark, you have a short film. Just know you’ve got ten minutes after that thing. That’s it. And then stop.

John: It has to be done. Next thing I want to point out is sometimes you’re hitting the same note too many times. So, you’re trying so sustain the conflict, but if you’re just sustaining the conflict by having the same argument again, or having the same fight again, then you’ve lost us. Because we need to see each time we revisit that conflict, revisit that theme, it needs to be different. There needs to be a change that has happened.

So, if the same characters are having the same argument on page 80 as they did on page 20, that’s not going to be successful.

Craig: Agreed. And, again, What’s Love Got to Do with it is a good example of this because the actual nature of domestic violence is incredibly repetitive. A man beats up a woman. The police come. She doesn’t press charges. They go away. A man beats up the woman. And this happens over and over and over and over and over.

Well, tragic, but not movie tragic. The problem is, and it’s terrible to say that in narrative form what happens is we become numb to it. We become numb to narrative repetition. So, what that movie does so well is it changes the nature of the abuse subtly but almost every single time. Whether it’s I’m going to say something to you, I’m going to be cruel to you, or I’m going to control you. Now I hit you once. Now I’m on drugs and I’m out of control. Now I hit you a lot.

Now the problem is now you’re having an argument with somebody else about why you don’t want to leave him. Now you’re having an argument with him about him cheating. We’re starting to change the arrows, you know. You really can’t do the same fight over and over and over. You’ll start to feel very, very bored, unless you have a simple adventure movie where, like martial arts movies oftentimes really are just a video game of increasingly difficult battles until you face the boss, and that’s okay. I mean, that’s what people are going for.

But even in those there should be some sort of internal conflict.

John: Yeah. Generally in those cases those conflict, there will be like dance numbers that are like a different kind of dance number, so each of those fights is a little bit different, so it feels like you have made forward progress. There’s a video I’ll link to that takes a look at Snowcatcher, Snowpiercer, sorry, Snowpiercer. Foxcatcher/Snowpiercer.

Craig: I want to see Snowcatcher.

John: Yeah. It’s basically the guy who can just snowball. He does such a great job. But then his snowball catching coach is like really creepy.

Craig: Right.

John: It’s pretty great. And it’s post-apocalyptic, too.

Craig: Of course.

John: In Snowpiercer there’s a video that shows left or right, which is the fundamental dilemma of the movie. But essentially that movie is completely linear. It literally goes from the left side of the train to the right side of the train, from the back to the front. And so it could have that quality of just being a grind, like fight, after fight, after fight, and yet it’s able to make each of them different and actually change how Chris Evans’ character is facing each of these battles because he’s questioning his own choices along the way.

Craig: That’s right. Each successive conflict point should change the character. It doesn’t have to change them for better, it doesn’t have to change them necessarily for the worse. Sometimes it just changes them sideways. Sometimes they just learn information. But it’s always about character.

And you have to remember through all of these conflicts that the people watching the movie without knowing it are constantly doing this computation of connecting the character’s conflict and tragedy to their own. Constantly.

So, we’re coming up on our discussion of Whiplash. Very few people are jazz drummers. I don’t know how many there are left. But –

John: There are probably more screenwriters than there are jazz drummers.

Craig: There are probably more screenwriters than jazz drummers. But that’s okay. We can all do the computational math to connect it to the analogs in our life.

John: Yeah. So, going back to this idea of sustaining conflict across the nature of the movie, you pointed to this in your last discussion here is that you’re looking for ways that these conflicts are changing the characters and basically how do you make it worse for your hero.

And so there are certain tropes that I sort of fall back on, but they’re meaningful. And to me it’s burning down the house. How are you making it so it’s impossible for them to go back to the way they were before. How do you make it so it’s impossible for them to get back to a place of safety?

How can you have characters betray each other or betray their own visions? How can you pull characters away from the other characters that they love? You’re looking for ways to make things worse so that the conflict actually increases and doesn’t get resolved too early in your story.

Craig: And to use The Matrix as an example, this is what we’re talking about I think is the genesis of one of the smartest choices in that movie. They didn’t need the Oracle character. What they had was a screenwriting problem if you think about it. Laurence Fishburne, Morpheus, is saying I’ve been looking around. I’m really smart. I’m essentially the smartest person in the world based on what the movie is telling everyone. And I believe you are the one. I’ve been watching you. And I think you’re the one.

Now, we have no idea why. Right? And the answer to that question why is because they don’t know either. Nobody knows. It’s just let’s just take it as a given. He’s watched him. He’s smart. You’re the one.

The problem then is, well, Keanu Reeves doesn’t believe he’s the one but I know he’s the one, so I guess I’ve got to watch this jerk not believe what I already believe until he finally believes it. And that’s brutal. That’s just brutal. I’m way ahead of him.

Enter the Oracle character, a brilliant idea from the Wachowskis, who is going to confirm that this is the one. You know, Morpheus — it’s just a little check to make sure. And she says, “You’re not.” Well, she actually doesn’t say you’re not. She says, “But you know what I’m already going to say.”

And he says, “I’m not the one.”

And she says, “Sorry. It’s not all good news. Have a cookie.” Great character. And that was really important. Because what that did was start us all running other computational math. And then it made the revelation later, she told you exactly what you needed to hear impactful.

And, by the way, that comes up in Whiplash as well.

John: It does. Absolutely. Before we get to Whiplash, I want to talk through one of my favorite movies of all time and sort of how it does conflict and how it sustains conflict over the course of the whole nature of the movie, which is of course my dearest most favorite movie which is Aliens.

Craig: Game over, man.

John: Oh, my god, it’s just such an amazingly good movie.

Craig: Why’d you put her in charge?

John: So, if you look at within each and every scene there is terrific conflict. And Ripley is always in conflict with characters. Sometimes she’s arguing. Sometimes she’s disagreeing with what they’re doing. Sometimes she just doesn’t want to go on the mission at all.

Craig: Right.

John: And she’s sort of forced into going on this mission. So, in every moment within each scene she is — if she’s not driving the scene, she is your eyes on the scene and she is your way into the scene. And she is in conflict with everyone around her basically the entire movie.

But if you look at the movie macro overall, it does just a brilliant job of not ever letting her get out of conflict. And actually each point along the way she is getting herself more and more into more immediately dangerous physical conflict with either soldiers she’s sent on the mission with or with a group of aliens, or the Alien Queen. The movie is so smartly constructed to make sure that the conflict is continuously escalating up through the very, very, very end.

Craig: Yeah. He, Cameron had this really — I don’t know if this was, you know, quite this conscious, but he created this situation that was remarkably frustrating. Frustration is a great feeling to inspire –

John: Oh god.

Craig: She knows. She’s the one person who has experienced this thing, these things. She knows and everybody else is being either arrogant or duplicitous. And it’s incredibly frustrating to watch her continue to say this is bad and have nobody else really care, or think that it’s not that bad. And then it’s more frustrating when the truth emerges and all the arrogant people are now cowards, or at least one notably is a coward who is saying, “We got to go. We can’t win.”

And she’s saying, “No, actually you can. I’ve done that before, too, but…” And now she has a kid.

So, the conflict of frustration is wonderful. It makes us angry. And anger is a terrific thing to inspire an audience as long as you can eventually release it with some kind of final triumph.

John: What Cameron was so smart about recognizing is that the audience had the same information as Ripley. And so we and Ripley both knew that the aliens were incredibly dangerous and this was an incredibly stupid idea to go on this rescue mission to this planet.

And he was able to let her articulate exactly what we’re thinking. Like, no, no, don’t go there. And yet we all had to go there together. And it was a very smart setup and a very smart change along the way, because we would make the same choices Ripley made, or at least we hope we would make the same choices as Ripley made to go to try to save Newt, to save the other soldiers, to do what she could.

Craig: Yeah. And, you know, also kind of brilliantly he understood, and I think Cameron has always understood this: that beyond all the hoopla of the effects, and the light, and the noise, and the monsters, we will always care about the person more than anything. And so we don’t care about the monsters.

I bet so many directors saw Alien and thought, wow, it’s about the monsters, man. And it’s not. It’s never about the monsters. We’re the monsters. We’re the problem. Whoa, dude.

John: Whoa dude. Just to delay Whiplash one more moment, as we were preparing our outline of notes for this thing, I started thinking back to my own movies and I wanted to quickly go through my movies and figure out which ones had conflict that sort of basically drove it, and which ones didn’t so much.

And so my very first movie, Go, it’s a conflict factory. Everyone is in conflict at all times. Ronna wants to make this tiny drug deal happen. She sets off this series of events. Claire keeps trying to be the voice of reason and keeps getting ignored.

The second section, the four guys in Vegas, everyone of those guys is in conflict the entire time. And sometimes it’s just bantery conflict, but then it gets much, much worse throughout the thing.

And in the final chapter, Adam and Zack, they seem to be at each other’s throats. We’re not sure why. We find out that they’re a couple and that they’ve been sleeping with the same guy. So, that whole movie is a conflict thing.

But compare that to the Charlie’s Angels movies and one of the real frustrations of the Charlie’s Angels movies is the Angels kind of had to get along.

Craig: Right.

John: They’re supposed to be a team, they’re supposed to be sisters. They weren’t supposed to fight with each other. And so we had to create a lot of external conflict just so you wouldn’t kind of notice that they were getting along so well.

That’s one of the challenges of that kind of movie is if they’re supposed to be a team that gets along great together, well, it’s hard to have it introduced in a scene. Somebody else has to show up to like make there be a problem.

Craig: When they’re not in conflict with each other, sometimes it’s hard just to figure out who’s supposed to talk next.

John: Absolutely true. I was reminded by Max Temkin who created Cards Against Humanity, one of the guys behind that, he had this great blog post this last week about how to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation in 40 hours. And so he basically gives you a viewing list to sort of go through the whole series and understand what made that series so great.

But he points out that Roddenberry did not want there to be any conflict between the characters at all.

Craig: That’s right.

John: So those first few seasons, he didn’t want the characters to disagree with each other unless they were possessed by some other force or something else. And so it became really hard to write those characters in scenes because they had to get along. They had to follow orders.

Craig: It’s strange. I never really thought about it that way. I love that show. I watched every episode of that show. And it is true. You sort of began to see them all as vaguely people, but really more — you were waiting for them to fight someone.

John: Yeah. And so season three, like after Roddenberry was gone, it did change. And you started to see some conflicts between each other which were useful. It never sort of progressed as far as later science fiction shows would take it, but there was some real –

Craig: Yeah. Like Worf would get all grumpy.

John: Yeah. [laughs]

Big Fish. Big Fish, there’s not a lot of conflict in the Edward flashback scenes. It’s sort of his story. Because it is idealized. It is happy and wonderful. But the movie is structured around a central conflict between the father and the son. And my 15-year journey of making different versions of Big Fish, that’s always been the hardest thing is how to have that conflict feel real and meaningful, and yet not have the son become completely unlikeable and not make the father so overbearing that you kind of want him to be dead.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And that is a fundamental challenge of that movie.

Craig: And that was certainly something that we went around and around on with Melissa’s character on Identify Thief.

John: Oh, absolutely.

Craig: And, you know, Melissa and I and Jason all felt pretty strongly that the only way it was going to work was if we just took all of the safety belts off of her character and let her be awful. Just let her be awful. But, in the very first scene had to show, you know, it’s like the planting the seed of redemption. You know, there’s a difference — even Darth Vader, before we really get to see Darth Vader going bananas and being a jerk, Obi Wan says, “Darth Vader was a pupil of mine. He was great. But then he turned to the dark side.”

And we go, okay, well there’s a good guy in there somewhere.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So when he turns we think, yes, finally, he has returned. He’s not turned, he’s returned. When you have these awful characters, you need to set up the return fairly early on. Some sign that they were not just simply born psychopathic, otherwise we won’t expect — we won’t believe the return.

For me, all of my movies have conflict, because comedy is conflict. That’s all it is.

John: Absolutely. So, looking at The Hangover sequels, that is a great and a bad situation in that some of their conflicts would inherently be resolved from the end of the first movie. And so you need to find ways to have those characters have new things, new buttons they can push in each other so that there’s still a journey over the course of each second movies.

Craig: Yeah. In the second movie, part of the deal was that, you know, one of the first things that I said when I came on that movie to Todd was, because the original conception was that Stu was getting married and all the guys were going to go to his wedding and then something was going to go wrong.

And the first thing I said when I came on that movie is there is no way that Stu wants Alan at that wedding. In fact, he specifically does not want him at the wedding. We have to jam him with this guy. And that part of the problem is that this trauma that they survived in the first movie is the only thing Alan has. Alan wants to make it happen again. And that’s the problem they’re living with is that that character is stuck, whereas they theoretically have moved on. And so part of the fun of that question was, well, is there value. What’s the value of Alan doing this to you again? And the answer for us was Stu, who is running away from Alan as hard as he can at the start of the movie, needs to realize that there’s actually — Alan has uncovered something in him that is of value and is worthy of respect.

So, that was kind of the theory there. And in the third one, again, this time Alan was the protagonist and it was about him finally letting, stopping being stuck. You know, he begins the movie even more stuck than he’s ever been, and then his father does, and he has to grow up. And he has to stop doing the same damn thing over and over again. And he does.

John: Yeah. So, I mean, those were structural decisions you had to make before the first word was written, is understanding this is the nature of the journey. This is the nature of how the conflict plays throughout. And then as you approach each scene, you’re figuring out like what is each character trying to do in there and how do I keep these scenes crackling through conflict.

Craig: And the understanding the nature of the conflict helps you figure out what the scenes are supposed to be anyway. So, if I know that the problem — that Ed Helms character is essentially living in fear. He is traumatized and his priority now is security, and avoidance, you know, avoiding a negative outcome type conflict. I want then to put him in conflict with his father-in-law. I want his father-in-law to basically say, “You are mush. You’re not a man. I don’t understand you.”

And in a way like Fletcher and Andrew in Whiplash, he is inspiring Stu — he ultimately inspires Stu through ridicule to man up. Man up!

John: That’s a lesson we can always take from the creators of South Park.

Craig: Got to man up!

John: We’ve delayed long enough. Let’s talk about Whiplash. So, Whiplash is a movie made my Damien Chazelle, I quite enjoyed it. The script for it you can find in Weekend Read. Sony finally published it on their site, so we will have links to both the PDF version and the Weekend Read version of it.

It’s slightly different than the one they actually sent out to us, which is strange, but that’s just the way it happens sometimes. But I was actually fascinated by the way that Whiplash is essentially a two-hander and it’s just a conflict machine. It’s basically the story of Andrew and his drumming professor, his sort of jazz teacher/professor, and their conflict throughout the course of this movie.

Craig: Yeah, you know, there’s so much to talk about with this movie. I’m wondering, should we, because we’re running a little long here, and I’m wondering should we maybe move it to the next show? Because not only is it a great study of how to portray conflict and to escalate conflict and change conflict, but it’s also — it’s got this whole other discussion about art and being an artist.

John: I think we should move the art discussion to the next one, but let’s just talk a little bit about the conflict so we can wrap up this episode and be sort of super conflicty.

What I think is so smart, and I’m going to use one of our favorite words again, I apologize in advance that we use this every episode, is specificity. Is I completely understood what each of the characters was doing and why they were doing it, even though I don’t know a damn thing about jazz bands or drumming. I don’t care about jazz bands or drumming. And yet the specificity of it made me believe that the filmmakers understood it and ever character in this thing loved it and was obsessed with it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And so when you have characters who deeply believe in their worlds, and deeply believe in their world visions, who come into conflict, you’re going to have potential for great stuff. And I thought it really achieved that. I understood what Andrew wanted. I understand that he had this vision of himself as being one of the greatest drummers of all time.

I had this vision that Fletcher saw himself as a kingmaker of sorts. He saw himself as the gatekeeper between you’re just a jazz student and you are one of the greats. And yet the movie asked me to keep asking the question is this guy trying to inspire his students, or is this guy just a sociopath.

Craig: Right.

John: And that was just really, really well done.

Craig: Yeah. It’s funny, I made my list of conflicts, conflict types before I saw Whiplash. And as I look through this list I realize Whiplash has done all of them. It has physical arguments and verbal arguments. It even has struggle against circumstance. There’s a sequence where the bus that Andrew is on breaks down and he’s late and he has to figure out how to get to the auditorium on time.

It certainly has unfulfilled desire. The movie is soaking in it. He desperately wants to be great and he doesn’t know how to be great. It’s got avoiding a negative outcome. He’s trying to not be punished at times. There’s a scene where he breaks up with a girl and is trying to not hurt her feelings.

There is a wonderful scene that’s based entirely on a conflict of confusion where he is asked to play something in front of an audience that he doesn’t know.

John: There’s actually a couple of great moments of confusion along the way where like he’s not sure like what — did I get invited to the band, did I show up too late?

Craig: Yes.

John: What’s going to go on here? Wait, why am I not playing this? There are great moments of confusion throughout.

Craig: That’s right, yeah, he’s told to show up for practice at 6:00am sharp. He wakes up at 6:05 in a panic, runs, falls on his face, get up, keeps running, finally gets there at 6:10 and sees outside that actually practice starts at 9:00am.

John: Yeah. So, and then he has that weight of confusion, like wait, was I too late? Was I too early? And –

Craig: Why did he tell me 6:00am?

John: The whole experience.

Craig: Right.

John: But it was incredibly specific to his situation, his moment, and yet it is universal because we’ve all had that thing of like I don’t know if I just made a horrible mistake or what just happened.

Craig: Right. Is this my fault? Or is it his fault? And then lastly dilemma. And it’s got a huge dilemma in it. And that’s articulated between his relationship with him and his father and that is do I — is this worth dying for? Do I have to die to be great?

John: And there are small dilemmas along the way, too, which basically do I send a letter talking about what actually happened, or do I not? And that later becomes a confusion of like does Fletcher know what I did or does Fletcher not know? And the revelation of Fletcher’s actual motives comes on stage in a brilliant way.

And interestingly, if you look through the screenplay, it happens differently in the screenplay. Or, it’s tipped in the screenplay. And so I think we should come back to Whiplash next week and maybe more people will have read the script so we can get a little bit more specific about what is on the page, because the movie has a lot of action sequences without any dialogue, and it does a great job I think of doing that.

But also, you can look at — it’s a great example of what changes between a screenplay and what changes in a movie. And there are little small things, little razor blades that went in there and cut stuff out. And I think they made for a stronger movie.

That said, I’m not sure I would have changed anything in the script, because I think maybe you needed to have that stuff in the script so you would understand what was going on there. But you sometimes don’t need that in the final movie. And the change between what was on the printed page and what showed up on the screen is really fascinating.

Craig: Yeah. There are some big razor blades that came in, too. But, you know, it’s a very comforting thing. A lot of times we watch a movie and we think how am I supposed to write a script that’s as good as that? You’re not. The guy that wrote that movie also didn’t write a script as good as that. That’s the point.

You’re going to make mistakes. And it’s funny. As I read through the script of Whiplash I would occasionally get to a bit that wasn’t in the movie, it would like a mistake, and I would also think I know why he made that mistake. I make that mistake, too. It’s a totally normal mistake. Sometimes that’s the thing. Sometimes it’s not a mistake.

John: Some of the things that get taken out of the movie, you know, I can totally see why they would have worked, or maybe would have worked with different actors. Maybe you would have needed to have that moment to play this thing, but because it’s a movie on a visual stage we get the relationship between these characters. We don’t need any of the words that they just said.

Craig: Yeah. Exactly.

John: All right. Let’s get to our One Cool Things.

Craig: All right.

John: So, you start, because yours is a device for creating very low conflict –

Craig: [laugh] Low conflict cooking. So, there’s this style of cooking called sous-vide from the French “under-vacuum.” And whether you know it or not, it’s being used everywhere in kitchens all around the world, and whether it’s big commercial kitchens or small little fancy restaurants. And it works very simply. You take your food, and a lot of times it’s meat, and you put it in a Zip-Lock bag. You vacuum seal it. And you stick it in this immersion bath of hot water.

The hot water isn’t very hot at all. In fact, it’s something like 130 degrees. And this machine will keep it at exactly 130 degrees. And you will let it sit there for days sometimes. And it will slowly cook for days and when it’s done it’s perfect. It’s uniformly cooked throughout. It’s like you put a steak on a grill, you’re cooking the outside much faster than the inside. Everybody knows that.

Well this thing cooks the outside and inside at the exact same rate, so for instance steak places will sous-vide all of their steaks and then when the order is up they take it out and they slap it on the grill to kind of char it up.

John: Sear it.

Craig: Sear it up and maybe give it a little, like okay, well this guy wanted it medium well or whatever. These machines are kind of big and expensive, so there’s this new thing, this new trend of home sous-vide stuff. And my wife got me this for Christmas. It’s called the Sansaire. One thing I don’t like about it was that it was a Kickstarter. So basically a bunch of people, I think, probably should be rewarded for having invested in it, but oh well.

John: People got to pre-order something that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

Craig: Yeah. So, or, people didn’t get to reap the rewards of taking a good investment bet. Regardless.

John: This is the man who put down how much money on your new Tesla that hasn’t shipped yet?

Craig: It’s coming out. I think in a week. I get it in a week. Yeah, super excited.

John: Oh, I’m so excited.

Craig: Oh, I’m going to ride it so fast. Anyway, so this thing brilliantly clips on the side of a big stock pot. You put your meat in the bag, you stick it in the water, and then the thing will keep the water in the stock pot at this temperature for you, so it’s created your own little sous-vide. And so I’m going to start sous-viding everything.

John: I’m excited to see it.

Craig: And it’s $200, which I know it’s not cheap, but compared to what sous-vide was costing before, affordable.

John: Yes. So, I will offer also a link in the show notes to an actual free sort of starter way of trying some sous-vide things. You may have already done this, Craig, where you actually poach eggs in the shell.

Craig: Yes.

John: And so you maintain water at a very specific temperature for an extended period of time. And the eggs sort of softly poach inside their shell. And what’s great about it is then if you were to crack that and fry that egg, it is delicious in ways that you cannot believe. So, that’s a thing that you can just do on your normal stove, but if you had a fancy sous-vide you’d be even better –

Craig: Even better sounding.

John: Cool. My One Cool Thing is actually something that Craig had recommended but I’m not sure he’s read the whole book. You tweeted a link to Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And so there is a short story which Craig tweeted about.

Craig: So good.

John: It’s so good. Called Gifted. And that is the story of this family talking through their son was born and he’s clearly — he’s the antichrist. He’s a monster. And they talk about how special he is and how gifted and a special program at Dalton. And he’s just a monster.

The book that Simon Rich has is a series of these stories about sort of parents and children and their relationships and they’re all different. One is told from the point of view of this hamster and he talks about how like they buried his wife today in a matchbox and how basically the terror of being in a third grade classroom.

They’re really just terrific. And one of the things I think that struck me so clearly about these stories is they follow a sort of rule of high concept comedy where in high concept comedy you can change exactly one thing.

Craig: Right.

John: So, it can be from a hamster’s point of view, but there also can’t be like aliens invading. Or your child can be the antichrist, but everything else has to play in the real world around that. And all these stories do that very well. So, most of them are pretty short, but there’s one sort of big epic story at the center which is also fantastic.

Craig: He’s so good.

John: He’s so talented. He has a show coming out this week as well, so I’m looking forward to seeing that.

Craig: He’s kind of a master of POV. You know, like writing from the POV of the hamster in a third grade classroom. Aline McKenna introduced me to a story that he wrote — and he didn’t identify what the POV was. You just had to kind of figure it out. But the POV was of a condom. And it was –

John: A condom in a wallet.

Craig: A condom in a wallet. And it was actually kind of beautiful. He’s got that great combination. You know, you rarely find this of somebody who is insightful about humanity, funny, and writes really well. Really cleanly and really just well crafted. You know, he’s got all that going for him. Good for him.

John: Yeah. So, in another part of my life it would have made me jealous, but now I just applaud it.

Craig: Oh, no, you have to applaud it when you see it. That’s like, you know, it’s like the other Simon, Simon Kinberg. I’m so glad Simon Kinberg exists because it just gets me off the hook of having to feel like, oh, if you work really hard you can be number one. Nope. Simon. [laughs] There’s Simon Kinberg. I can’t beat that.

John: No. Why would you bother trying?

Craig: The guy is out of control.

John: Yeah. It’s good stuff.

Craig: Yeah. He’s a machine.

John: Yeah. That’s our show this week. So, if you would like to listen to more episodes of the show you can go to iTunes and find us on iTunes. And if you’re there, or if you’re there for any other purpose, maybe just like click through and give us a rating on iTunes because that helps boost us up the charts and it makes me and Craig feel really good.

Craig: Yeah, you move us up the charts.

John: It also gets more people exposed to the show. So, it’s always a lovely thing.

Craig: In fact, this time I’m jumping in. I’m commanding you. If you haven’t done this, go to iTunes and give us your stars.

John: It will really take about ten seconds. So we’ll just pause right here.

Craig: [hums]

John: And so while you’ve just finished doing that you could also download the Scriptnotes App which is in iTunes or if you’re on an Android device it is the Android App Store or Amazon has an app store also that has it.

On that app you can listen to all the back episodes, back to the very first episode. That’s part of, our premium service. So, you can go back and get all those old episodes.

Craig: How much does that service cost?

John: That is $1.99 a month.

Craig: Oh, get out of here.

John: There will be bonus episodes you can find there. We also have bonus episodes coming. We’re going to do a dirty show, I promise. That will be fun.

Craig: Yeah.

John: If you have a question for Craig Mazin, you should tweet at him @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. Longer questions go to

If you would like to read the scripts for Whiplash or a bunch of the other Oscar contender scripts, we have most of them now up in Weekend Read. So, you can just read them there on your phone. So, you can find Weekend Read in the app store.

Scriptnotes is produced by Stuart Friedel and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Jason Young. If you have an outro you’d like to send in to us you can write to and let us know where you have the file hosted. SoundCloud is great, but other things work, too.

Craig, we’ll talk again next week and we’ll get into the art of Whiplash as well.

Craig: Spectacular.

John: Thanks. Bye.

Craig: Thanks John. Bye.


Malawi is flooded, and needs your help

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 10:59

In 2007, Ryan Reynolds and I visited the southern African nation of Malawi. I’ve blogged about that trip and subsequent work on behalf of FOMO, a local charity that runs day centers for thousands of orphans in the region.

Here’s a video I shot on the way to church with the kids:

Over the last week, Malawi has been hit with flooding unseen in 40 years. At least 48 people have died, and 70,000 have lost their homes. Kids literally got swept away. According to weather reports, the flooding could last for weeks.

Floods are always costly, but in a country that relies so much on subsistence agriculture, floods can be ruinous.

After the rain stops, how much of the crop can be saved? Which infrastructure will survive? We won’t know the full effect of the flooding for months.

In the near term, FOMO is raising money for supplies to help children and vulnerable families already displaced by the flooding. I donated to their JustGiving campaign, and urge you to do the same.

I’ve worked with FOMO for seven years; I know they’ll get stuff done right. They’ll keep kids safe.

I hope and assume the big international aid agencies will come to Malawi as well. There will be huge challenges in the months ahead, including rebuilding roads and schools and hospitals.

More than anything, I’d urge you to remember that Malawi exists. Because it’s a small, peaceful, landlocked nation in Africa, it’s easy to overlook. But it needs the world’s attention to avoid greater tragedy.