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 391 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the program we welcome back Aline Brosh McKenna to talk about what she learned producing four seasons of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. We’ll also talk about Emma Thompson, agency-affiliated producers, and more.
But most importantly welcome back, Aline.
Aline Brosh McKenna: Yay. Let’s do the happy dance. We’re dancing. We’re up. We’re dancing. We’re flipping.
John: I just saw a happy dance, because Aline on her laptop showed me a musical number that no one else in the world has scene, well except for everyone at CBS and everyone on her show. But I got to see a musical number from one of these upcoming episodes.
Aline: Yeah. Exciting.
John: It was a happy, upbeat number.
Aline: It was a beat, yes, indeed.
John: Yes. How are you feeling? Are you feeling happy and upbeat?
Aline: You know, we just literally – I’m coming from my last post. We delivered the episode to the network. We’ll probably have a few things. They don’t tend to have a ton. But we’ll probably have a few things to hammer out. And I’ve been struggling to like, you know, one of the things as a writer is learned to try and write not from my head but from my body. And it took me a long time because I was such a head/grades/homework person. And so now I’m trying to experience these things without like chewing them over in my brain too much and just sort of like feeling it in my body.
And I’ve slept a ton since we wrapped. The last bit of it was just chugging through Count of Monte Cristo like drawing Xs through days because it had gotten so physically taxing towards the end of shooting. Because what happens is we finish writing the season and then the next day we start prepping the finale, which I direct. And so the amount of focus that you have to have as a director, even though it’s a different kind of focus from writing, but switching from the kind of brain focus of writing into the physical discipline of directing–
John: The stamina.
Aline: Yeah. There’s a lot of physical elements to directing and just sort of keeping your energy up. And then you’re responsible for everybody else’s energy. And so that kind of buoyed me through that. And then we wrapped about three weeks ago and I’ve been – you know, we’ve still been in post. And it’s funny, this year – so our post facilities are on the same lot where we shoot. And every year it’s a very peaceful little time, a little during that hiatus. But this year we were wrapping – literally wrapping the lot. And so any sadness I had not processed really welled up because literally they were running the sets through a wood chipper and carting things off.
Craig: [laughs] Oh my god, that’s awesome.
Aline: Yeah. And so you’d see parts of our experience were literally being dumped in the garbage.
Aline: And there was a day where we started sort of madly scavenging things because we wanted to save them and give them to people and there was no systematic way of doing that, because we’d been so focused on making the thing. I mean, our script coordinator, he posted a thing about, you know, in the last four seasons it’s 2,900 pages. You know, the amount of output is just staggering and I have to say 90% of what I was experiencing towards the end was like excitement about finishing my homework.
And I think I’m still in there, but I think it hasn’t – you know, the thing you take for granted as a screenwriter, which I like I’m just going to get up and go get one of those croissants with cream in it, and like try that before I start writing. When you’re doing a show you just – you know, one of the first things I did after we wrapped was I went to Rite Aid. And I walked through Rite Aid and I went like do I want this lip balm, or this lip balm. And it felt very human.
So, I’m entering the human realm again.
Craig: Yeah. You’re reentering.
John: You went through a whole campaign. Like a political campaign where your person got elected, which is fantastic, but now the next thing happens. Or college graduation.
Aline: Yeah. It’s an intense – it’s just that it’s a cycle of four years. And I think as screenwriters you’re accustomed to, you know, many years of development and then the shooting period is maybe an intense – with prep and everything – four or five months or something. But to have had, you know, on and off for five years been working on pretty much the one thing, I don’t think I’ve quite processed it.
John: Today let’s do some of that processing live on the air.
Aline: OK, great. I haven’t seen my therapist yet, so let’s do it.
Craig: I’ve got a beard. I’ve got the processing group beard, so I should be fine.
John: Should be good. Before we get to that let’s talk some stuff in the news. So, it was about a week and a half ago now Emma Thompson sent a letter to the folks at Skydance Animation. They had recently hired former Pixar chief John Lasseter to run their animation division. And Emma Thompson said basically I’m out. She was supposed to be doing this movie called Luck and she said, nope, not going to do it. And it’s because you hired John Lasseter.
There’s one paragraph in here which I thought was really sort of telling. She writes, “Much has been said about giving John Lasseter a ‘second chance.’ But he is presumably being paid millions of dollars to receive that second chance. How much money are the employees at Skydance being paid to GIVE him that second chance? If John Lasseter started his own company, then every employee would have been given the opportunity to choose whether or not to give him a second chance. But any Skydance employees who don’t want to give him a second chance have to stay and be uncomfortable or lose their jobs.” Which is really a great way of framing it to me that I don’t think I’ve seen in sort of any of this discussion of the #MeToo movement. It’s that he has a chance to sort of come into a company, but they don’t have a chance to sort of necessarily leave.
It’s that sense of like you have a choice of where you work but only to a limited degree. What was your first take on this letter as you read it, Aline?
Aline: Well, you know, what really strikes me is that we just as a society we have a completely different way of communicating in every way. There was a time when she could have written that letter and we never would have heard about it unless she had decided to give it to a newspaper or publish it in the trades or something. And what’s really struck me is in addition to the sort of social movement it’s inextricable from the social media that has allowed people to put their voice out there directly. And so all of the conversations that we’re having about what as a society we believe to be the norms and how people are supposed to respond to things are just not anymore mitigated by layers and layers and layers of slow-moving newspapers and magazines. Everything happens very instantly.
It just really struck me that, you know, somebody says something, she gives her opinion, you know, she speaks her truth, she says what’s important to her. It’s immediately disseminated to all of these people and we’re having conversations that we’ve never had before. And it’s really interesting that the voices are being heard as there’s these different means of communication. And that’s what I have been struck by is that, you know, anybody who has something that they want to say there’s just such an immediacy to these conversations in the culture right now.
John: Well it doesn’t seem like there’s a distinction between a private letter and a public letter.
John: This was written with the understanding that it probably would be out there in the world.
Aline: Yeah. I mean, the analogous somewhat similar thing was, you know, our show is at CBS and there were a couple of things, you know, the Les Moonves investigation started. And then there were a couple moments where articles came out that were really disturbing. And I felt comfortable saying to the folks at CBS like this is – we’re uncomfortable. They knew the people who worked for them were uncomfortable. And I don’t know that in my career I ever would have felt comfortable saying to the corporation that I worked for like oh this is uncomfortable.
And, you know, we have all seen – we’ve talked about this on the show before – but we’ve all seen bad behavior, people that we knew were behaving badly. I did a movie at the Weinstein Company. But I never thought, I mean, truth be told I didn’t see the Harvey stuff that came out, but you know even though I did see Harvey be abusive I never felt like I’m going to call anybody there and say, “Hey, this guy is a raging rageaholic, treats people horribly.” You just kind of went, shrug.
And now when that Les thing came out I felt comfortable saying to the folks that I work with at CBS, you know, as women doing a feminist show this feels uncomfortable and they understood. I mean, the people that we were talking to understood. But I just – the whole conversation has changed dramatically everywhere, not just in our business, to this point where people feel really, really, really comfortable speaking out publicly.
Craig: Yeah, well, it’s like the great tradition of the open letter. You could write, I mean, look, she put this in the Los Angeles Times, so that’s kind of old school, but the difference is where you would write an open letter to blah-blah-blah and have it printed in something like the Los Angeles Times, the people who would know about it would be the people who read the Los Angeles Times. And if they wanted to share it with somebody they would have to show them their copy of the Los Angeles Times.
Aline: Or like clip it. Remember when you used to get clips from your parents?
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. Send you in the mail, like, look you were in the paper. So no question that social media amplifies voices. But I want to give Emma Thompson a certain kind of – maybe it’s a credit that other people wouldn’t give her – but we’re a show about writers. It was beautifully written. She’s such a good writer.
Aline: She really is.
Craig: People forget that Emma Thompson is such a good writer. Really, really great. Maybe – I don’t know, I hope people don’t forget how good she is at writing.
So it was gorgeously written and I personally appreciated that a lot of what she was talking about didn’t shy away from the topic of money. I think that we sometimes get a little squeamish about money. Sometimes people look at something like this and say, “You’re diminishing the principled argument by talking about the notion that people should be paid.” And the fact of the matter is that’s what people who don’t want to pay you want you to think.
Right? Because quietly John Lasseter is getting paid. And her point is, you know what, the people who are here they’re not getting some sort of John Lasseter hazard pay. Nor are they having a chance to say, “Listen, I don’t want to work with John Lasseter, so I’m going to leave, but you should still keep paying me because I didn’t hire this guy.”
Aline: Do you think it would have been different if John Lasseter had started his own company and therefore every employee there would have had a choice?
Craig: Of course.
Aline: As to whether – it would have been different.
Craig: Of course.
John: It would have been different.
Craig: No question.
Craig: That’s the point that Emma Thompson makes in the letter is that like if he had started his own – I think she even says in other places in the letter that she believes that a person can turn a new leaf and you can give people chances, but it has to be on the terms where you’re voluntarily going towards them rather than them being hired on as your boss.
And, you know, I remember during this last presidential campaign someone asked like, well, Trump how would you feel if Ivanka was being sexually harassed. And like, “Well, I’m sure she’d leave. I’m sure she’d quit.” That as being a solution to the problem of sexual harassment is absurd.
John: And is incredibly privileged.
Craig: Well, there you go. I think that Emma Thompson is an example of somebody that has that privilege and is using it on behalf of people who don’t. This is very admirable. And because of course she’s wealthy. She doesn’t need to do this job. She can walk without suffering these tremendous consequences.
And also you can’t quietly blacklist Emma Thompson. But if you are dealing with – and remember, animation is not union. So, there’s already a kind of inherent potential for abuse. And I would argue that that potential is realized frequently if not all the time. So you have people who can absolutely be put in situations where simply by speaking out and saying I don’t want to do this their reputation can be quietly tarnished to the point where it’s hard for them to get work somewhere else.
So she’s using her privilege here in a wonderful way. And she did it kind of super smartly I thought. I don’t know, I just thought this was a really well done – it was a well-written and also well-argued point.
Aline: I wanted to ask you guys a question. I’ve noticed that the letters of protest and the letters of accusation and the letters of pain that people have written have been gorgeously written. And all of the apologies have been terrible.
Aline: Terrible. I mean, we have yet to see – I’m still waiting for an apology that is an apology.
John: Well, we talked about the Dan Harmon one which wasn’t written but was a spoken apology and that was–
Craig: That wasn’t bad.
John: The distinction between is it was an apology that was actually accepted and it had an intention and it was accepted as an apology and people could sort of move on past it. And I agree with you though. I think the folks who are putting their thoughts together about what happened and why it was wrong do so very articulately and the folks trying to defend themselves, maybe because there is no great defense for it, do not come up with really coherent explanations. Because they try to explain it away rather than trying to take it in and understand it and address it. And that’s the frustration.
Craig: It’s hard to apologize. Because the best apology is the one that is personal. It is face to face with the person you’ve heart. These kind of ritualized public apologies are already very difficult to pull off because they feel so calculated. They are calculated. And so–
Aline: Just none of them have followed any of the principles of apology.
Craig: Correct. [laughs] Because I think that partly they are doing it reluctantly. You get the sense that they’re being dragged in there to say in front of the principal I’m sorry that I wrote on the desk with the Sharpie. They just, you can tell. And then some of them just aren’t apologetic in any way, shape, or form. Bill Cosby and Harvey, yeah, unrepentant.
John: Yeah. The last point I will say we talked about Emma Thompson has the privilege to be able to turn down this job. I do wonder how many writers and artists and actors are being approached to do stuff at this company and are passing and they can’t say why they’re passing, but they’re finding excuses to not do it. Because this is a thing we see in TV and movies all the time where like you get that pass, like oh they’re busy, they’re finding another excuse for why they’re not doing it. But I do wonder if ultimately Skydance Animation is very much hurt by Lasseter’s being there because talent may silently choose not to go there, even if they’re not writing the letter that Emma Thompson is they may be making their own choice like I don’t want to be associated with it.
Aline: Well there’s a meta conversation happening in the entire culture now. There’s sort of this thread of conversation about events that are happening but also about pieces of culture, you know, television shows and movies and books are all surrounded by this little buzzing orb of conversation about them as well. And so it’s interesting when you see the reaction to certain movies like Green Book where people feel like the context was insufficient.
It’s hard for things to exist on their own, for business deals to exist on their own. Everything is now again webbed together because of the instantaneity of our culture.
John: Yeah. So let’s segue here. You made it through four seasons of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend without – I can’t think of any sort of major horrific things happening.
Craig: Give her time. Give her time. There’s still some time left.
John: There was a scary thing that happened quite early on about where the show was going to end up, but at any moment you could have had some – an actor or some crew member or some writer do something that attracted negative attention and have a whole spotlight on it, but you managed to dodge that. So congratulations. I don’t want to jinx it because your final episodes are still left to air, but congratulations.
But before we get into your exit interview where we talk about what you did and what you learned, I thought we’d go back to 2014 when you came on the show. This is December 2014, Episode 175. It was the 12 Days of Scriptnotes. And you came on along with Rachel and you described this new show you were going to do. And so let’s take a listen to what you said about the show well before it aired.
John: So you did what we’re all told we should be doing is you actually went off and you made a TV show.
Aline: Yes. Well, that was not intentional at all. And I think we’ve maybe talked about this before. I had done TV at the beginning of my career and I was not looking to go back at all. And every once and awhile somebody would ask me, but this idea of just going in to TV to do TV, which a lot of features do, feature writers do. They just kind of wander over there because it’s there and people say it’s groovy, I wasn’t interested in.
And then in my procrastination I was on Jezebel and I saw a — yup, which I know you guys are all on.
Craig: Totally. Yeah.
Aline: And I clicked on the animated video of a satiric take on Disney princesses with this amazing singer. And I went to see who had done this thing and you obviously can’t see who — I didn’t realize that the person who wrote it was also singing. And then I got bumped to her other videos and it was written and sung by Rachel Bloom. So, I went to — she has a YouTube Channel.
Craig: If only she were here!
Aline: And I went to Rachel’s YouTube Channel and I watched all the videos and I got really excited. And I called my best friend, who is my actual best friend, not my showbiz best friend, but my actual best friend Kate who works in showbiz, who works for a television studio and I said you’re going to love this, I know you’re going to love these. This girl is amazing. You should meet with her. So, we had a meeting with her and she’s, in the videos Rachel is very like sexy and super-hot.
Craig: But in reality —
John: Yeah, there was a conjunction coming that was not going to be your friend.
Aline: I was expecting, well, I was expecting like someone from the planet Glamazon, like I was expecting a very actressy thing to show up. And she showed up and in my mind she was wearing cargo pants, which she does not own, so she claims she wasn’t wearing them. But she was wearing sort of like jeans and a t-shirt.
Craig: Is that bad?
Aline: And she was wearing like what Craig wears.
Craig: Well, that sounds pretty great.
Aline: [laughs] So, she came in and I could see right away that she was like a writer girl, you know, and she’s also an amazing actor, and singer, and all of these things. But in her heart of hearts she’s really a writer girl.
John: 2014. So, now, Aline, we’re now in 2019. If you could travel back five years and give yourself some advice to the woman who was sitting there planning this show what could you tell her? What were the things that would have helped if you had known?
Aline: Well, it’s interesting. I remember that I thought the show was dead because we had given it to Showtime. We had our first notes call and, you know, the three of us have been in the business a long time. I knew two sentences into it that we were screwed and she did not because she thought they just had some notes and we would fix it. And I just knew they weren’t going to pick it up.
And so I remember thinking when we were on the show I got to make sure as many people as possible know who Rachel Bloom is. And the thing I was happy about was that we had made a $4.5 million audition tape for Rachel. And so I knew that even if it never got picked up that people would see her and see how extraordinary she is.
You know, there are a lot of things that I wish I had known, but I couldn’t have known them before I did them. And before I experienced them. And so neither of us had run a show before. And, you know, the smartest thing that we did was surround ourselves with people who could help us and give us advice and listen to them. And in our writers’ room we had two other executive producers when we started. One was Erin Ehrlich and the other one is Michael Hitchcock.
And they had both done a lot of television and they just were so helpful to me in particular about running a room and doing all the other stuff and how that could all be done. And frankly also they just put their bodies on the line. Any moment from season one that I wasn’t on set, and I couldn’t be on set for most of it because I was running the room, Erin and Michael alternated every single episode. So, producers go on set, but the rest of our writing-producing staff was sort of inexperienced. And so in subsequent seasons they would cover their episodes on their own. And now they’re all like super experienced and they’re all sailing off into the world. But Michael and Erin covered every bit of the first season on set for me.
John: So just imagining the advice you’re giving to your younger self, it’s to hire really carefully. And so you were looking for the people you want to be around all the time who actually know what they’re doing.
Aline: Well, this is where being judgmental came in handy.
John and Craig welcome back Aline Brosh McKenna to talk about what she learned producing four seasons of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Aline shares the importance of trusting your gut, building school spirit, and empowering the voices around you.
We’ll also talk about Emma Thompson, agency-affiliated producers, and more.
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 390 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the program we welcome back former Scriptnotes producer Megan McDonnell. Welcome back, Megan.
Megan McDonnell: Thank you.
Craig: As you can see, she was such a valuable employee for her strong voice.
John: Well today you’re not producing because you are in fact our guest. We want to talk to you all about how you got staffed on your very first show. Then it’s a new round of the Three Page Challenge where we take a look at the pages sent in by our listeners and discuss what’s working and what could use some work.
But first off, Megan, how does it feel to be back here doing – you did so many Three Page Challenges. You probably read – how many Three Page Challenges do you think you’ve read over the years?
John: Hundreds. Yeah.
Megan: Not a thousand.
John: Not a thousand. But hundreds.
Megan: Hundreds. Certainly.
John: So you were the culling mechanism to find the very best of them. Now Megana Rao has that job, so she got to go through a whole bunch of them yesterday to try to find the three that we’re going to do today.
Megan: Yeah, I mean, it was so fun to read through all the Three Page Challenges. It’s the making the decision of like, OK, which ones are John and Craig going to like and that was the hard part.
John: I used to be a reader at TriStar and at another company before that and in some cases reading things that don’t work is really helpful because it gives you a sense of like, OK, I’m never going to do that because I just see that never works. Do you think reading all the Three Page Challenges helped you as a writer or hurt you as a writer?
Megan: It definitely didn’t hurt me as a writer, I hope. I think it’s extremely helpful to see what people are doing, not only to see like what works so well and what’s so good, but also just what the trends are out there and like what I see a lot. OK, that’s a thing that’s probably being seen a lot, so avoid that thing.
John: Avoid that thing. Megan is going to be back after we do some quick follow up.
John: Last week we had Chris Keyser on the show to talk about agency negotiations and the problems of conflict of interest, all that stuff is still happening. But on Wednesday we got word of a major payout in another conflict of interest situation. Craig, do you want to talk us through this.
Craig: Oh boy, what a mess this thing is. And this is not something that hasn’t happened before. This is kind of a pretty dramatic outcome though in terms of how it unfolded. So this is about the show Bones. This is a show that was airing on Fox. And it aired more than 10 years. And basically what it came down to was the people that were the profit participants in the show Bones essentially said that Fox had kind of self-dealt. I guess what do you say like–
Craig: Underestimated? Undervalued. Perfect word. They had undervalued the value of Bones when it was kind of self-dealing the reruns to itself and the programming to itself. So, what happens is you’re making a show. Very typical way this would work is in the old days a studio, let’s say Paramount, would make a television show like Star Trek. So they produced that show. They then sell that show, meaning they license it, to a network. I think Star Trek was on – oh boy, I’m not going to say it because they’ll get angry at me, the Star Trek people. They license it to a network. The network pays them a fee. And then over time if the show does well then it goes into syndication and all that rerun money kicks back to Paramount, the studio that made the show. But they weren’t airing it.
What happens if you have Fox Television creating a show and then licensing it to Fox Network? Ah-ha. Now you have all sorts of opportunity for skullduggery because Fox doesn’t necessarily want to have to pay out profit participation to the people that are participating in the profits. And so the lower they say – the worse the show is doing, the better it is for them, because they’re actually keeping all the money. They’re just reporting on paper it’s just not doing that well.
But it is. So, the people that felt cheated by this took Fox to arbitration and they didn’t just lose this arbitration, they lost in the most spectacular manner. The arbiter essentially awarded them $180 million, most of which was him saying Fox is a bunch of liars. They have a culture of lying. This is egregious. So, first you’re getting essentially what you were asking for as kind of the money that they had ripped you off essentially. They were saying look they ripped us off about $52 million. He said great. Here’s your $52 million and here’s another $128 million in punitive damages because of the egregious manner in which they approached their accounting.
This is not a new story. This is Hollywood everywhere all the time. And I wonder if something like this will actually change the business or if this is just going to be another one of those, well, every now and then we have to pay $170 million but we’ll make more if we keep lying.
John: Yeah. So, it’s important to note that this is going to go up for appeal so we don’t know what the final decision is going to be. But what I found so interesting about this story is that we’ve had this situation before where for reruns they were undervaluing the thing, so X-Files the reruns were about that situation, syndication, that situation. But here it was the initial broadcast of the show. So the show aired – it was made by Fox. It showed up on Fox Broadcasting. Also Hulu and Fox’s foreign affiliates. And they were pricing it below market value is the argument that they should have been charging more for the show in all those situations. And they’d actually gone to the executive producers and the stars insisting that they not challenge the license fee issues over this time.
John: It’s really fascinating because you don’t – it’s one thing to say like, oh, it’s creative accounting. But it felt like there was actual deliberate manipulation and talk about we’re not going to pick up the show for the next two seasons because the show is not successful and it really was quite successful.
Craig: Exactly. They’re saying, look, you have to go along with this and take these reduced things because otherwise we’re not going to bring the show back. Meanwhile they had already made a deal with the showrunner to continue making the show. They were lying flat out. You can’t threaten to cancel a show when you’ve just made a deal with somebody else to keep making the show.
And then there’s the Peter Liguori thing. Did you read about this?
John: You know, I got a little bit lost in all the weeds of it, because I read – we’ll put a link to the actual decision, but there’s so many different articles. Tell me about the Peter Liguori of it all.
Craig: So Peter Liguori was the president of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting Company which is the network. And he was the president until 2009. So, 2009 he leaves Fox and he happened to be around when a lot of these initial things were happening. He was apparently meant to testify in these proceedings. And seven months before he is brought in to testify Fox makes a new deal with him, an outstandingly good deal with him to produce shows at FX.
And this did not pass muster with the arbiter. It says, “Liguori’s deal came with fixed episodic fees and contingent compensation far exceeding that of top executive producers in Hollywood despite the fact that the executive Peter Liguori had ‘virtually no experience whatsoever as a producer.’” That feels like a buyout, right? That’s essentially what the arbiter is implying here is that Fox basically paid off Peter Liguori to not testify against them.
Now, that’s obviously what this guy is saying. I’m just reading along with it. But the arbitrator, Peter Lichtman, apparently is a very well-respected arbitrator. They’re going to try and I guess appeal this in court. Good luck, I think? I don’t think that’s going to work.
So this is a fascinating one. I’m interested to see if it sticks. If I had to bet I would bet it would stick.
John: Yeah. I think some version of this will stick. But I think it’s also worth looking at it in the larger context of conflicts of interest. And so this is Fox for Fox, but as we talked about last week we have these agencies that are also becoming producers and that’s going to be really awkward. You can imagine a ton of these lawsuits over like, oh, did you really find the best deal for this project or did you just take the best deal that you could make internally?
John: So it’s a real challenge.
John: And follow up is over. Megan McDonnell, you’ve been the Scriptnotes producer for a year and a half, 14 months?
Megan: A year and some change.
John: Year and some change. You were also the producer of Launch, the podcast we did about the book. But you’re only a name at the end of the show, so people don’t really know you. I guess they could have seen you at the live show, or in Austin. But talk us through your background. Did you always want to be a screenwriter? How did you come to this?
Megan: I’ve always loved to write and it kind of never occurred to me that I could be a screenwriter until I went to grad school. So I went into grad school thinking oh I’ll be a producer, I’ll be a network executive, and then once I was there and doing internships and taking writing classes I was like, oh gosh, I’ve really got to give this a try. And I’m so glad I did because now I’m writing.
John: So where did you grow up?
Megan: I grew up in Long Beach, California, so a Southern California person.
John: All right. And school here? School in Boston, right?
Megan: I did undergrad at Harvard, studying English and Chinese.
Craig: As one does.
John: As one does. And then did you know you were going to move to Los Angeles directly afterwards?
Megan: Yeah. Because I knew I wanted to be in the industry.
John: Great. So you end up going to the Stark program at USC.
John: But did you have a job or an internship before Stark?
Megan: So I went straight from college, but while I was in college I had some internships over the summers.
John: So talk us through the Peter Stark program. For people who don’t know it’s a two-year graduate producing program. Why pick that rather than a screenwriting program?
Megan: Because at that point also I was like oh I’ll be a producer. This is my track. But also, I mean, all the programs at USC are wonderful, but also I think that for what I want to be doing ultimately anyway I’m very thankful that I went with the Stark program because it does teach you skills that you’ll need as a showrunner in addition to just being able to write and all of that.
John: So Craig is usually down on film programs overall, film school overall.
John: Sell Craig on film school. What were the things you took out of film school that you think you wouldn’t have gotten if you hadn’t gone through them?
Megan: A huge part of it, of course, is the friends you make there. Being able to make a short film, like using your friends as crew, and actually making stuff I think it’s helpful to go to film school. And I do think it’s like a big decision that isn’t for everyone.
But I feel very grateful that I went. One for all the people I met. Two for all the internships I had and the friends I was able to make through that. But also you just learn a lot. And it’s certainly stuff that you can pick up while you’re working, while you’re at an agency or any of that, but just like learning how things fit together in a very straightforward way I think is extremely helpful. And it’s stuff that comes up while you’re an assistant even where you just have answers to things. And it helps add value to what you’re doing.
John: Yeah. I will say a good film program, and Stark I think is a very structured film program, it gives you a sense of the entire process. And so a screenwriting program can teach you this is how screenplays work, let’s write our screenplays, but doesn’t give you a sense of how movies are made and sort of from the idea to release date to home video. That sense of it is useful and you can learn that in an academic setting.
Craig: I mean, listen, no question that there’s advantages certainly to a program like this. So we’ve spoken about how if you are going to film school in a graduate program, or an undergraduate program at NYU or at USC, I get it. I do. I can see just the value of the people you meet alone probably – I mean, I have to weigh it against what it costs. Like for instance, my friends, you know, I got my friends to work on my movie. I’m like you could have also paid a crew of people and that would have been half the year’s tuition maybe for one year of film school.
But I get that part. I do. I wish that there were fewer programs. I don’t know how else to put it. I honestly wish there was some kind of cap on how many programs there can be because sometimes we’ll get emails from people saying, “Listen, my professor of screenwriting at East Tuscaloosa Bible College says that,” and we’re like do they need a screenwriting program there? I don’t know if they warrant one. Do you know what I mean? Just fewer. I’m all for fewer programs.
John: Now, Megan, an interesting thing which is different than any previous assistant is that in addition to school you also were participating in writer’s groups. And so you had regular writing sessions with other folks. So talk us through that. How did you find those people and what did you actually do in your writer’s groups?
Megan: I think the biggest thing for me getting stuff written has been writer’s groups. It’s such a game changer. And I was lucky, the first writer group I really participated in was organized through my alumni program for undergrad. And so they put us with a group and it was a semester-long thing where at the beginning you have an idea, at the end you have a script. And just the value of deadlines is huge. But in addition to that just being around people that have smart ideas about your script and bring different things to the table and can help you out.
And just like you learn things from people when you get to meet with them every week and talk about writing.
John: So that continued after school. I know that you would have every week, every two weeks – how often were you meeting up with these writer’s groups?
Megan: I’m in two writer’s groups. One is weekly, the other is every other week.
John: And what are the expectations of what you’re going to do in a weekly group?
Megan: For the weekly one, we would just create assignments that we would have to turn by the next week with room to read them. But it would be like, OK, figure out your log line and then your structure, or have a beat sheet by the next week, or write ten pages. And then by the end, stacked in such a way that by the end you had a canvas script that you’re proud of. And then for the other one it’s just like whatever anyone is working on bring it in and we’ll see.
Craig: How many people were in these writing groups?
Megan: Six or seven.
Craig: OK, that’s not too big. Sometimes I think if it gets – if there’s a group rather large it always seems to turn into some weird political mess, you know, because writers not always great in groups.
John: So you said the advantages are deadlines. I guess there’s a sense of like social pressure. If you don’t do this thing everyone is going to notice that you didn’t do this thing. And you won’t just feel bad personally, you’ll feel like you’re letting them down. Is that it?
Megan: Social pressure, yes, definitely that. But also just the energy of being around people that are excited about it, about what you’re writing but also about what they’re writing. I think that energy especially when you’re an assistant during the day and you are kind of creatively burned out by the evening then to be around people that are very excited to be doing this, I think is a helpful thing.
John: Well let’s talk about your day jobs. So, during Stark, it’s a two-year program, but the second year all your classes are at night so you could in theory have a normal job. When did you have internships? When did you start working full-time for a place?
Megan: So, during Stark I think I always had full-time internships. Not full-time internships, but I’d stack internships in such a way that I was using all my time, which actually I’m really grateful for that system just because working all day and then heading straight to class and getting home at 11, now that’s just what I have as a baseline. OK, the workday is that many hours long and I think it’s helpful as far as then being trained to do the assistant job and then at night do the writing part of it.
John: So when you say stacked internships, so you might have two, or three, or four internships over the course of a week? So on Mondays you’re this, Tuesdays you’re that?
Megan: Yeah. Usually two at a time.
John: Two at a time. Great. And talk about internships. Classically it was making copies, but no one makes copies anymore. So what does an intern do these days?
Megan: It’s a lot of script reading, which of course is very helpful for a writer. And also just understanding like mandates, what people are looking for, what belongs on kind of what network. But for me it was always development internships or programming internships.
John: Great. So you’re reading scripts. Are you writing up coverage? What do they have you do?
Megan: Yeah. Writing up coverage.
John: Were you paid for these internships or were they credit?
Megan: 50/50 I think.
John: All right. And were you paid enough that they were actually survivable, or was it just sort of token pay?
Megan: Whenever I did get a paid internship it felt like holy moly, like this is so exciting.
John: One of the classic knocks against internships is you have to be able to afford to take an internship.
Megan: I think it’s a huge problem. Yeah.
Craig: The whole system stinks. We were talking about this on Twitter, I think Aline McKenna mentioned that the standard – and I was talking to Bo Shim who is my new assistant, and she came out of CAA. And she said early on they just say, “OK, are you OK with the industry standard of,” and I think it was $13.50 an hour or something like that. That’s just unconscionable. I really – in the middle of our argument with the agencies about package fees and all the rest of it, you know, I’d also like to start arguing with them about what they pay assistants. That’s stupid. And it’s mean. It’s cruel. It’s a bit like that old system – which is still in place – where medical students fresh off getting their MD are sent to hospitals to work 19-hour shifts. It’s dumb. It’s hazing.
John: It’s dumb and it’s dangerous.
Craig: Yes. It’s literally down to hazing. Except in this case it’s hazing plus cheapness. It’s really gross.
John: But also it creates a system where the only people who can afford to work for that little money are the people who can sort of afford to not have a job. And so people who actually really need to pay rent, good luck.
Craig: Yeah. And not only have these things not kept up with inflation, but housing costs have far outstripped that. So, it’s a mess. And I’m angry thinking about–It’s upsetting to me. And so you know let’s put that on our list of things to yell at the agencies about.
John: [laughs] All right. We’ve got a long list here.
Megan: Yeah. It’s also across the board, too, right? Agency assistants certainly don’t get paid a lot, but also assistants on shows and PAs and stuff also don’t get paid a lot.
John: When was your first real job-job that wasn’t an internship? What was that?
Megan: It came from an internship where over a summer I had a job at Fox in comedy, the network, current and development–
John: We should clarify that for folks. So current means the shows that are on the air right now. Development is shows they’re trying to figure out how to get on the air, or they’re going to make pilots and they’re going to figure out which ones go. That handoff is always really weird. So you start in development and then if your show keeps going then you’re handed off to current. Is there more prestige in current or development?
Megan: So I don’t know because I felt very lucky to be at Fox Network because it was the same person, like when you start with a project in development you get to keep it through current. So, the executives did both, which I think is relatively rare. Most places it’s split up. But I think it’s also just very different skillsets, too.
Craig: That was my first internship, too, was current programming at Fox. And I remember that – you know, they had I don’t know three, four, five current programming executives, so they would assign everybody a few shows. And their job was to go to the table readings and to give network notes and so on and so forth. And the least seasoned of them, he was a fairly new hire, I think this was his first executive job, he was given The Simpsons. And I asked my boss who was the head of current programming, I was like just out of curiosity why would you give that guy The Simpsons? And he goes, “Because it’s The Simpsons. We don’t need him to do a good job.”
John: It’ll be fine.
Craig: It’s gonna be fine. They don’t give a damn what we say anyway. The sort of prestige portion of current programming is when you’re kind of put in charge of a rescue mission I think.
John: Yeah. Now, Megan, this is a question I never thought to ask you but when did you start listening to Scriptnotes?
Megan: I think I started listening during Stark. I don’t have a sense of what episode I came in on or anything, but as soon as I started listening I..
John and Craig proudly welcome back former Scriptnotes producer Megan McDonnell to tell her journey from film student to getting staffed on her first television show.
We then review a batch of Three Page Challenge submissions, covering how to keep your audience engaged, build tension, and earn interesting characters. Plus, follow up on the WGA and recent Bones ruling.
Thank you to our Three Page Challenge participants, and special thanks to Megan McDonnell for all of your work on Scriptnotes!
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 389 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we will be discussing nothing less than the future of the film and television industry.
John: With special guests to talk about the ongoing agency negotiations and a new initiative to bring the special magic of Sundance to more filmmakers around the globe. But first, Craig, I have to ask why have you destroyed my Twitter timeline?
Craig: It’s fun? Oh no, I know the answer to this. Because it’s there.
John: Argh. So here is what happened this last week is somebody asked like a screenwriting formatting question, or basically like was it a “we see” kind of question, or directing from the page, and tagged both me and Craig into this question. And then for the next week my entire mentions is nothing but this question and people responding to this question.
Craig: Well, I mean, we were joined by other writers like Rian Johnson and Chris McQuarrie and James Mangold and Beth Schacter and so everybody brought all of their people along. So there was a lot of interest in it. But you know, John, you can just say ignore conversation.
John: I can ignore the conversation. I should just ignore the conversation. I was curious at some points what people would say, but mostly I felt like we had talked about it so much on the air. That’s my frustration. I wanted to point people to the podcast and say like, no, no, we really have gone through this.
John: But for people who haven’t been listening to the podcast, and we could just sort of dispense with this in a little five-minute chunk, let’s talk through some of what came up in that thread and why it’s nonsense and how to move on past it.
So I think the initial question was the sense that are rules about what a screenwriter can or can’t put on the page and that it crosses some sort of line at which it is directing from the page. So classically things like, oh, you shouldn’t put camera angles there. You shouldn’t say “we see.” We shouldn’t do any of that stuff that is a director’s job rather than a writer’s job.
John: And the answer to that Craig is what?
Craig: That that’s the stupidest thing in history. Because for whatever reason, and I don’t know why they do this, a lot of these screenwriting gurus or sometimes sadly screenwriting professors will push this narrative that screenwriting follows the same sort of union divisions as like work on a set where an electrician can’t move equipment and a grip can’t plug something in. That’s not at all the case. There’s this feeling that somehow if we “direct” on the page we will be offending a director. No we’re not. And if they are offended, screw them.
Our job is to create a movie in your mind. That means of course we’re directing on the page. In fact, I would argue that’s what screenwriting is. It’s literally directing a movie or a television show on the page. So, this comes up all the time. Now, of course, of course, two things we’ll get back all the time. One is that a lot of amateurs will overuse things like stage directions, camera directions, and so on. Of course. You can do anything poorly. They also write dialogue very poorly, but we’re not saying you shouldn’t write dialogue.
Secondly, people will say, “Well OK, that’s true for you guys because you’re established.” Let me ask you something, John. Before you were established did you ever write “we see” or “close on?”
John: I 100% did. It does not matter sort of where you are at in the industry. You don’t cross a threshold in which like suddenly you can do anything on the page, where there’s a certain set of rules for what’s on the page before a certain point. And as I was scrolling through these things and not trying to engage with the conversation, I would see people saying like, “But you don’t understand, it’s harder for a young writer.”
John: “Or for a writer of color or for other people.” That can all be true. That can all be true that it’s hard for people in different circumstances to do stuff, but that does not change the words on the page or sort of the rules for the words on the page and the over-insistence on a set of rules that someone made up at some point. So that thing your screenwriting professor taught you about you can’t do that thing, always question it.
Craig: Always. Always. And whatever makes your circumstances uniquely difficult, the one thing I can assure you is that it’s not that you’re not able to write “we see” or “push down” or “tilt up” or “pan right.” None of that is a problem for you. We did hear quite a few people say that their professor at – or professors at Chapman, I guess it’s the dodge school, just sort of laid out this orthodox you cannot write any of these things and if you do you will fail.
So, I want to go there. [laughs] And I just want to say like, what, you can’t tell them – that’s malpractice.
John: It’s silly. So, here’s the best counter example I can offer to folks is that one of the best things that’s happened in the last 10 years is that all of the Academy nominated scripts are available online. You can find a PDF of every screenplay for pretty much every movie that’s been nominated for an award.
Craig: That’s amazing.
John: So read these scripts. Read these scripts and you will see that they are full of things that professors might call directing from the page. And then the next person will rush up and say like, “Oh, but it was a writer-director so it’s OK for that writer-director.” It’s not any different. There is not one standard set of rules for how it all has to work. You can do stuff in the scene description that creates the experience of watching the movie. That’s all you’re trying to do. And if to do that you end up saying “we see/we hear,” if you end up invoking a sense of angles or like shots, that’s fine. That’s good.
There’s clunky ways to do things and so we are totally not arguing for clunkiness. We are arguing for the best way you have to express what it is that would feel like to be in that theater experiencing this movie.
Craig: I wonder why film schools that are so invested in pushing the auteur theory are also apparently invested in convincing us that directors should be feared even when we’re writing on the page. Huh? Huh? Hmm. Pfft.
Craig: Only in academia could something called the “auteur theory” not refer to the actual person authoring a movie. Oh my god. Don’t even get me going.
John: Yeah. Now, let’s talk about sort of what things are useful to learn as you’re reading through these screenplays. Because hopefully you are taking advantage of this wonderful time we live in that you can just read all these screenplays. It used to be so difficult when Craig and I were starting. You would trade scripts will people and you would actually have to physically copy scripts and stuff. Now it’s so easy. So you have all of these resources.
I would take a look at how are they conveying the information that they want the reader to get about what the movie will feel like. How are they describing how characters are interacting with their space? How are screenwriters describing what you will be seeing and what you will be hearing in that scene? Look for how they’re doing that and you’ll find there’s different techniques. And different writers will have different techniques. It’s OK to use multiple techniques. It’s OK to use whatever works best for you. A voice is partly deciding what the things are that you’re going to focus on.
Craig: Right. Right.
John: That’s great. So find what works for you. Experiment. But don’t just be beholden on someone’s rules that you cannot do X, Y, or Z. Quentin Tarantino, you know, labels the kinds of cameras and angles he’s using. He really wants that very specific classic cinematic feel on things. So he and James Cameron will both reference cameras and specific lenses at times. Great. If that works for them, if it gives you a sense of what it feels like more power to them. That doesn’t mean that you need to do that, that you have to do that, or you can’t do it. It just means that is a way of conveying what something is going to feel like.
Craig: Amen brother.
John: All right. So this is going to be an unusual episode for us because generally when Craig and I are recording an episode we are on Skype together and it’s all kind of happening largely in real time. This episode is going to be cut together from different conversations that we’ve had over a couple of different days. And so when we come back from this break we are going to be sitting and talking with Chris Keyser about the agency negotiations.
And we’re back. Chris Keyser is a writer and showrunner whose credits include Party of Five, Tyrant, and The Last Tycoon. He’s also a two-time former WGA president and frequently leads the MBA negotiating committee along with David Shore and Meredith Stiehm he’s leading the negotiating committee for the ongoing talks with the agencies. Welcome back, Chris.
Chris Keyser: Thanks John.
John: It’s nice to have you here. So I think last time you were sitting talking with us was about an MBA negotiation a couple years back.
Chris: I only show up for–
John: Ah, he’s here to talk through stuff. But let’s recap what’s happened so far with the agency stuff because it’s been a while. So the guild met with members about the issues regarding agencies as we came out of the last MBA negotiation. So you led the last MBA negotiation. What were those conversations? You were just sitting down talking with members about where they felt the industry was at?
Chris: Yeah. We talked about a bunch of different things and the pressures on writers and one of the conversations was about the way in which the relationship between writers and agents might be affecting the downward pressure on writer’s pay for example in television and features. Or the inability of feature writers to actually solve some of the pernicious problems.
John: So, every three years we have to negotiate with the studios and that’s called the MBA, but what I wasn’t aware of until I joined the board is that there’s also an agreement with the agencies called the AMBA. And we negotiate that once every–?
Chris: Well, it’s been 42 years I think.
Craig: That’s a normal cycle. Yeah.
Chris: I think it’s like six times, or seven times Brigadoon.
John: Yes. So it’s a crazy document. It comes in this yellow folder. And it is not – you try to read it and it doesn’t make much sense because it’s describing a time that is so different from what we’re in right now.
Chris: Right. By the way, can I back up for a second and just explain? You know, the guild is the legal representative of writers. The guild in fact is the only organization that has the legal authority to negotiate for writers. But because writing is not the same thing as some other professions because writer’s salaries vary based upon their experience and their success, the guild has allowed individual contracts to be negotiated by agents. In order so that we franchise those agencies. And that franchise agreement, the AMBA, which they have to sign on to, permits them to negotiate for individual members. Similar thing happens in the sports world and a few other places.
John: Yeah. The most analogous situation is if you’re a professional football player or professional NBA player you have a union, but you also have an agent who is negotiating for you above those minimums.
Chris: Right. So we negotiate for minimums. We negotiate for pension and health and certain working conditions. The things that unions usually do. And the agents are changed with negotiating over scale pay for our members.
John: So in your conversations with members you’re saying some of them felt like the agencies weren’t doing their jobs in negotiating those above scale things?
Chris: Exactly. Exactly.
John: So in order to change this agreement, this franchise agreement the AMBA, we had to give a one-year notice. Part of the actual existing agreement was that you had to give a one-year notice. And so we had these member meetings and then we gave notice to say that we would like to renegotiate this agreement. And then nothing publicly happened for a very long time. So–
Chris: Well there were member outreach meetings through last year. David Goodman, the president of the Guild.
John: But that was before we signed–
Chris: In and around.
John: Yeah. Around that time. And then we sort of went quiet because there was kind of nothing to do publicly because you didn’t want to have a protracted conversation when there was not actually a thing you could solve or fix at the moment.
Chris: Right. And we were spending that time, the guild was spending it’s time – you know because you were on the board – spending your time thinking about what the new AMBA should look like, what specific requests we would have at the agency to sign onto. I guess requests is the wrong word.
John: What we were looking for. What the actual outcome was that we wanted. And so then we started the member meetings and that’s been two or three months. We talked with the captains. We talked with screenwriters. We had this big meeting at the Sheraton Universal a couple of weeks ago with like a thousand people.
Chris: 1,500 writers have shown up. Maybe more at this point. It’s a fair percentage of the guild.
John: And the public goal was to really talk with every member about sort of what was going on.
John: And so then at those big meetings and smaller meetings we had – David Goodman would read his speech. That speech is probably out now for everyone to see or to read. And there’s more details specifically about what we’re asking the agencies to sign onto, sort of what we would like the agreement to look like. Plus there should be some FAQs out answering a lot of the questions that you and I get. So we end up getting emailed a lot of questions and so that’s been really useful because we can talk to members about sort of what their concerns were, but now there’s FAQs that can really answer a lot of that stuff.
Craig: And I think that’s good language that you’re saying what it is that we’re asking them to agree to, because in a very real way this is the opposite of how things go with our negotiations with the AMPTP. In those negotiations we’re asking a concern to give us stuff. And in this negotiation, whether they know it or not – and I’m not sure they have yet come around to absorb this – the agencies are asking us for something. We’re not asking them for anything. They’re asking us. They’re asking us to be allowed to represent writers. So, we’re kind of in charge. Well, in charge, I think anybody that’s in the giving side of a negotiation has a little bit of a built-in upper hand.
Chris: That’s right. I mean, in this case we get to say what’s in that AMBA. And if they don’t sign on to it, they are not permitted to represent members of the guild.
Chris: Whether we can’t – what we decide to ask them to sign onto depends upon what the membership votes to, you know.
John: So there can likely be a vote sometime at the end of March about stuff, but we’re not there yet.
Chris: We should get back into that. We should be clear about what that means, what the vote is going to be about. But that probably takes a little bit more conversation about how we get to the point of that vote.
John: So at some point there could be a vote from the membership asking whether we want to sort of impose this agreement. Basically–
Chris: Let me put it this way. So right now we’re in the middle of negotiating with the ATA, which is the organization that represents talent agencies. A number of those meetings have taken place already and they will continue to take place between now and the April 6 expiration of the AMBA.
In those negotiations we’re trying to hash out exactly what the terms of the AMBA will be. If those negotiations do not provide us with a fruitful resolution it’s within the guild’s right to impose a code of conduct, much like the code of conduct that professional sports unions have imposed on agents there. And David Goodman for example mentions that all CAA agents who are part of their sports management group they all sign on to the player’s association code of conduct.
The vote by the membership at the end of March will be to approve the code of conduct, say we should adopt this code of conduct onto which the agencies must attach their signatures.
John: So what is the single issue that is at the heart of this discussion/negotiation?
Chris: The heart of the conversation is about conflict of interest. The idea that the agency practices have ceased to align their economic interests clearly and solely with the economic self-interests of the writers whom they represent. And that’s a fundamental problem.
Craig: And so for people, I think a lot of people probably have a general sense of how this is supposed to work. Agents represent writers. Agents get writers work. They are allowed to do that by the very power that this AMBA grants them. And then whatever the writer earns, the gross, the agent takes 10% of it. Seems very simple. And in fact they used be known as ten-percenters.
And so the more the writer makes the more the agent makes. But as it turns out that simple reality isn’t really the reality at all.
Chris: No, in television in fact essentially the standard method of payment now for agencies is to take what they call a packaging fee. And that packaging fee is tied both to the license fee of the show and ultimately the profits the show produces. So the agency makes – and we talk about this and if you read or have seen David Goodman’s speech he’s pretty explicit about this – 3, 3, and 10 is the standard formula. They make approximately three percent of the upfront license fee for a show, although that’s negotiable, somewhere usually between $30,000 and $100,000 an episode. There’s three percent of the backend that’s differed that is not often collected by them. And then 10% of the adjusted gross.
Craig: And that’s great information, but again just to sort of simplify it for people what we’re talking about with these packaging fees is instead of the agents taking 10% of what we earn as writers what they do is they don’t take any commission from us. Which, ooh, great, we get to keep that 10%. Except, what they are getting in return is more than that from the studios that are producing the television shows.
Chris: That’s right. And in fact they make deals specifically with the studios and in our budgets we see the results of studios that are made independently between the agencies and the studios, often without the writer knowing about it, that identifies what the agency is going to get. And what they get is not tied to how well we do but how much money is spent on the show on the one hand and how much the show makes on the other.
Craig: Correct. Essentially in this arrangement rather than the agency being concerned, financially at least, with the amount of money their client is earning, what they are concerned with is the amount of money the show is earning, meaning the amount of money the studio is earning. So suddenly their interest is in aligned with the studio’s performance, not their own client’s.
John: Now, I want to separate out two terms that I think get conflated a lot and we really need to think about them as separate complete concepts. So there’s packaging which is a verb. And what packaging really means is that you have a writer or a script. You have a piece of talent like an actor. You have a director. And sometimes agencies or management companies will put these elements together and that will be a package. And through this packaging process they create value because they can get more for that client, they can get more for the writer, they can get more for the director because they have a full thing together. They have a script, they have a director, they have an actor. They can sort of sell that on the town and get good money for everybody.
That kind of packaging is good. That kind of packaging can help a writer get his or her script out there in the world. It’s attaching that piece of talent. It’s attaching that director. That kind of packaging we don’t really have a big issue with. The problem is the noun of packaging fees. Packaging fees is that 3-3-10, or is that other cut that the agent is taking that is not related to a person’s commission. It’s not that 10%. It’s a special fee that they’re getting for the work that they’ve done to put this thing together which in some cases is really kind of no work at all.
Chris: Yeah. Maybe no work at all. And even if it’s a good deal work, the argument you would make or certainly used to be made is every person you add to that package, every attachment you make of talent you get 10% of that individual salary. So you have a writer, and a director, and an actor, maybe a couple of actors on a show. You get 10% of all of their salaries and the total of that is how much you ought to make for a show.
Here’s a thing that gets complicated for us because one of the arguments that the agencies are making back to us and are almost certainly making to their clients individually which is this: you want to eliminate packaging, which means you want to eliminate our ability to make your shows more valuable in the presale moment by attaching talent to it. What they’re essentially saying is if you don’t pay us the outside fees we’re not going to do our job. It is essentially the same thing they’re saying to the studios which is – and here’s the reason – why do studios pay these packaging fees? They don’t need to pay the exorbitant packaging fees. They pay those packaging fees because in a sense the agencies have said we have all of our talent corralled behind a fence. If you want access to them in order to get access you need to pay a kind of ransom. You need to pay a packaging fee to us which is over and above what we would make from the show.
Now they’re saying to us if you don’t allow us to charge the studios that exorbitant, over scale compensation we won’t actually do the work of attaching your script to a writer or a director. Well, if they don’t do that what else are they doing?
John and Craig invite back Chris Keyser, co-chair of the WGA’s 2019 Agency Agreement negotiating committee, to discuss the issues. Specifically, they look at the difference between “packaging” and “packaging fees,” and the impact of agencies acting as writers’ employers.
John then welcomes Michelle Satter to introduce Co//ab, the new online community from Sundance. Michelle shares how they’ve made Sundance digitally accessible and what she looks for in applicants to its prestigious labs.
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August. And this is Episode 388 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig is off in London working on Chernobyl, but luckily I have Matt Selman here to fill in. Matt is the cohost of Duly Noted, the official Scriptnotes after show. He also serves as an executive producer of The Simpsons. Welcome back Matt.
Matt Selman: I took a break from my duties at Duly Noted, which are pretty extensive, but I was able to squeeze this in.
John: Yes. So our longtime listeners can find Duly Noted in the Scriptnotes bonus episodes.
Matt: We should do another one. We should get another together.
John: Absolutely. There’s actually meta news that you could talk about in an upcoming episode, so it would be good. Nothing bad happened to Craig. Nothing like that.
Matt: OK good.
John: That’s not that. But Craig is gone but I have you here because we are going to talk about The Simpsons. In particular, I want to talk about–
Matt: Unlike Craig I listen to the podcast and I’m a fan of it. So I hopefully will be able to provide good information for you.
John: Fantastic. Well, I want to talk to you about Simpsons, but I want to talk about specifically the episode that just aired on Sunday. So hopefully I tweeted loud enough that people actually watched the episode. We’ll do a synopsis of sort of what happens. But I mostly want to talk about the whole process of making an episode because we’ve talked about the process of making a movie, but The Simpsons is a specific kind of thing. So, it’s not just any other half hour comedy. It’s a very long process. And I’ve been surprised talking with you about how much changes even up to the last minute. So we’re going to get through the whole look at how you make an episode of The Simpsons, particularly this episode which is so weirdly meta and felt like it was – not that Scriptnotes itself informed it, but there was a conversation about a podcast about making–
Matt: It didn’t not inform it.
John: All right. Because you were the host of Duly Noted, so therefore you had a special insight into how this would all work. Let’s go through a quick summary. So if you watched the episode or you didn’t watch the episode this will get you a baseline understanding of what happens in the episode. The show opens, we’ve got Bart and Lisa on the school bus. They’re delayed because there’s a truck accident up ahead. There’s a petting zoo. There’s chaos. There’s a question about what a selfie actually entails.
Bart ends up taking Lisa’s phone and listening to an episode of Marc Maron’s podcast, where Marc Maron is interviewing Krusty the Clown about the Sands of Space. He gets Krusty to finally talk about this thing called the Sands of Space. Krusty explains that at the time he had starred in a high concept comedy called Dog Cop. And let’s take a listen to Dog Cop.
Krusty the Clown: Dog Cop. Where I played a murdered police officer who is reincarnated as his partner’s pet Saint Bernard.
Male Voice: Five smashed squad cars. 100 exploding helicopters. And the mayor’s wife has fleas. Turn in your badge and your collar. You’re suspended for a month.
Krusty the Clown: For me that’s like seven months.
Male Voice: Dog Cop!
Krusty the Clown: Suddenly everyone in town was dying to be in the Krusty business and I was dipping shrimp with all the big talents I once longed to see fail. And, of course, what the studio wanted most was a sequel.
Male Voice: OK, Krusty, we’ve got Good Cop, Dog Cop 2: Golden Revolver, all lined up. Who did the – the two Terrys. They just turned in a great script. Savage Sam Bogberg is all set to direct. So when do we start?
Krusty the Clown: I get it. You think I’m just some hack out to churn out lazy sequels for a quick buck.
Male Voice: Yes.
Krusty the Clown: This is my next movie.
Male Voice: The Sands of Space? Krusty are you kidding me? This is the most famously unfilmable book in history. It made Kubrick a recluse. It drove Coppola to wine. The four Jeffs tried to write a script but even they couldn’t crack it.
Krusty the Clown: When I bought this at an adult bookstore by mistake it changed my life. There’s a light that shines from star to star, from soul to soul, connecting everyone in the universe. Wow.
Female Voice: It’s not landing for me that the hero doesn’t refuse the quest before he accepts the quest. Is that landing for you?
Krusty the Clown: Look, I’m not drinking out of one more toilet until you green light this movie. And I’m not playing a dog either.
Male Voice: All right. We’ve got a comic who wants to make a hippie-dippy science fiction vanity project. Here’s what we do. We humor him and we make it. Dirt cheap.
Female Voice: We could shoot it in Mexico for nothing.
Male Voice: We hire a has-been to direct it and never-was-s to do everything else.
Male Voice: After it bombs that clown will come scooting his butt back here to make all the Dog Cop movies we want. Two more.
Matt: I’m laughing at my own work.
John: Well, from there we see the making of the movie. Krusty takes a bunch of folks from Springfield to Mexico, including Homer and Marge before they had kids. Krusty fires the director, decides to do it himself. He becomes paralyzed by indecision, so Marge becomes his personal assistant and helps him decide what to do. Krusty ultimately becomes frustrated/jealous that Marge is spending more time with Homer and tries to get him killed. Ultimately the film is traded to Mexican kidnappers and never comes out in the United States.
So that’s the history of like why this–
Matt: But somehow the Mexican kidnappers do edit it and put in all the effects and music somehow.
John: Yes. Which is impressive.
Matt: They did it. I don’t know. They pulled it off.
John: Yeah, I mean, the Mexican film industry is a force to be reckoned with. So, this episode, let’s start from the very, very beginning. What was the initial idea for this episode and how long ago did that happen?
Matt: Well, the process that I use at The Simpsons is one of like vast creative luxury, but it is so comfortable to me at this point that I don’t know any other way to do it. So this began – and I hope this is a useful tidbit for writers and creators and thinkers out there. It began as a goofy room-run of silliness that wasn’t related to what we were working on at the time. It was just like the idea if Krusty had been in some terrible movie in the ‘80s, like Three Amigos that had kind of been disavowed. But what was the back – the making of that movie Three Amigos had insane making of back story. And so we were just riffing on kind of a crazy cocaine-fueled adventure that he would have had making a bad movie in Mexico. And I believe there was a climax in which all of the cocaine was poured into a river and the fish got so whacked-out on drugs that you could run across the fish and escape the bad guys.
And also the movie was an excuse – there wasn’t even a real reason to make the movie. They were smuggling drugs in the film reel canisters. So this was just like a pure flight of fancy. But having been at The Simpsons for literally over two decades I just – we have great assistants who are very thorough and was just, “Well just write that down. Put it in a document.” And, you know, maybe it’ll turn into something, maybe it won’t. And we’d forget about it.
John: So this room-run, this was a 20-minute conversation? Or long did the room go on this?
Matt: Yeah. Just a goofy 20-minute conversation. And I’m like just write it down. What’s the harm in writing it down?
John: How long ago would this have been?
Matt: I mean, three years, four years ago.
John: So was it something like Jodorowsky’s Dune? Was that a thing? What do you think was informing this idea?
Matt: It was the movie Three Amigos.
John: So it was Three Amigos.
Matt: At the time.
John: So it was the idea of these incredibly high concept comedies that were just goofy stuff, the stuff that was selling at the time.
Matt: Right. And that movie, like Three Amigos I guess at the time was – how could this movie fail? It’s the three funniest guys in the world with this big concept and yet it was a total dud. But I bet the making of that movie is a pretty great story.
So, it kind of sat there on a hard drive for a while and then I was looking through the old ideas and I kind of dug it out and I started saying, you know what, there’s something here but what we have is too silly. It’s far too silly. But the idea of Krusty making a movie and the real story of a movie is interesting. And I’ve always loved behind the scenes of how movies are made. And good Simpsons movies will dive into a subculture and dig deep and dig up the dirt and really explore. That’s exciting to me to reinterpret the world in our wacky animation style.
But then I thought, and I know from past experience, if there isn’t something that our super executive producer James L. Brooks isn’t going to hook into you’re in big trouble. So it’s like what’s the emotion? What’s the character move? What’s the human broken-ness that you can tap into? Because if you don’t have that all the cocaine jokes in the world aren’t going to save you.
John: Now, so the idea of a film production is not new to The Simpsons. So there was Radioactive Man. There’s Mr. Burns’ great movie he’s making about himself. So the idea of film people coming to Springfield isn’t new, but the idea of the behind the scenes history of how this movie happened was an idea you hadn’t explored.
Matt: Right. And that felt fun. So what’s cool about our show is that you have other things that you think are neat that you can plug into ideas and they fit together nicely in the Matt Groening animation style. So like, you know, like I broke into showbiz in the early ‘90s. You guys broke in around the same time. And it was a different era then. Big spec scripts were being written. You know, high concept movies with goofy premises. Wasn’t Craig’s first movie like Space Squirrels or something?
John: Yep. Rocket Man.
Matt: And no shame in that, Craig. Have fun with those virtual effects in England. So, that felt like this is a distinct era that we are no longer living in – there was a line in the script that I cut. It was Krusty’s voiceover nostalgia saying, “This was back in an era when movies weren’t made by giant corporations. They were made by medium-sized corporations.” Which I like that line but I changed it at the last minute because it was in the voiceover of the section where you’re seeing all the goofy high concept movies and I thought you needed an explanatory VO about what is high concept. It was cleaner to have one idea happening at one time.
John: So we do a golf cart tour past a bunch of one sheets of the kinds of movies that are being made. And that really was a thing that was happening. This was a time where Disney was trying to make 40 movies a year. It was a really different time.
Matt: Right. The kind of joke we’ve done before, but it’s Pope and a Half, and Nerd Mom, and Nunjas, like that’s nun ninjas. But that was an exciting time. And Premiere Magazine. Like that’s–
John: Oh yeah. Premiere Magazine was a big moment for me.
Matt: John was in Premiere Magazine.
John: I was. But I would say that Premiere Magazine was how I first found out that there was a job screenwriting.
John: Because it’s hard to remember a time when there wasn’t popular culture attention to the making of movies, just like movies would come out. Oh, that movie exists? But it was the first time I think I saw the word screenwriter. That was the monthly magazine that actually talked about how movies were made.
Matt: It was a good magazine. There was real reporting in it. There was gossip.
John: And Libby Gelman-Waxner with a Paul Rudnick character.
John: Talking about movies.
Matt: So I think young guys in college in the early ‘90s would see Premiere Magazine and think this is like a fun, cool, dynamic industry that’s – and I’m getting a peek. And it doesn’t really exist anymore now that journalism has evolved into whatever it is.
John: So just a pit in this. So one of the things that The Simpsons has chosen to do is that time just slides forward. Decades just slide forward. So now the past, Homer’s past could be in that ‘90s because the show has been on the air so long. It’s just like it’s always that many years ago is whenever that past was. And so even more explicitly now. He was in the grunge era. He was in the ‘80s.
Matt: I wrote that and that enraged everybody. But it wasn’t supposed to say the other episodes didn’t happen. It wasn’t a retcon. It was just playful, my friends. It was playful.
John: Yeah. But I mean essentially it says the past is however old Bart and Lisa is. Basically that’s how far back it goes.
Matt: And like honestly at this point sometimes Marge and Homer were kids in the ‘70s, sometimes they were kids in the ‘90s. There’s no rules. We’re in unchartered territory of a 30-year-old show where the characters don’t age.
John: But in this episode clearly this moment that happened happened at the height of sort of peak high concept comedies and Krusty the Clown was apparently a big enough star to star in one these things as the dog in Good Dog–
Matt: Good Cop, Dog Cop.
John: Good Cop, Dog Cop.
Matt: Good Cop, Dog Cop. And his partner is Charlie Sheen, but we don’t say it.
John: All right. Very nice. So he’s in this comedy. There’s the natural desire to make two sequels to this comedy.
John: And he’s doing that thing that actors do which is now they have their passion project and they’re going to go off and make their passion project.
John: At one point did you get to the idea of like, OK, it’s definitely Krusty who is in this moment and it’s Krusty trying to make this big artistic movie and not Three Amigos?
Matt: You know, when you’re pitching out a story on a TV show like ours there are certain ideas I sort of refer to as being sticky. And the idea that like Krusty as a pretentious – so once we got excited about the idea of a flashback, you know, movie-movie, behind-the-scenes making of a movie story with Krusty as kind of the star-director, him being an out of control maniac who wanted to do a pretentious movie seemed like the funniest thing. I mean, it might have been a cleaner idea if he just wanted to do like the Razor’s Edge, or like an art house movie or a character drama, but sci-fi Dune pretentious stuff.
John: It gives you all the comedy of trying to make way too ambitious of a movie.
Matt: Yes. So then we said that’s important.
John: So you’ve dusted off this idea. Do you bring that back into the room to talk about it?
Matt: All in the room. I love the room. I’m a creature of the room.
John: So, does this mean that one day as everyone is gathering in the room you say, “OK, today we’re dusting off this idea and we’re going to talk through how we would do an episode that is a flashback story of Krusty trying to make this movie and go.” And that’s just the discussion of the day?
Matt: Mm-hmm. It’s very casual. Because…it’s always good when you can trick writers into thinking that digressing is actually easier than the work they’re supposed to be doing. So we probably were supposed to be working on a specific task, like get this rewrite done today. But, hey, let’s just screw around and talk about this pie-in-the-sky insane idea that I’ve always had a fancy for. And I probably at this point had remembered, oh, I love Marc Maron, I love podcasts. That as a wrap-around device–
John: The framing device that gets you in and out of the story.
Matt: Would be good. And everyone, of course, said that was a good idea. Of course. Maybe they thought it was bad and they just didn’t tell me.
John: But it feels like the why now hook and how you get into it. You wouldn’t have done that as – if you’d had this idea ten years ago that wouldn’t have been the way that you got into it. It would have been some sort of like AMC cable presents ways of getting into and out of those moments.
Matt: Right. But then you start to get excited because it’s like, OK, it would be fun to see Marc Maron. It’s going to be fun to do a flashback show. It’s going to be fun to show Krusty undergoing the stresses of being a director, which is a hard job. But then the thing that I would say would come out of that day of let’s say official work on it was the Marge helping him not be a monster relationship.
John: So that’s the emotional center of this.
John: And they are characters we’ve never seen really interact together in a meaningful way, so they’re an interesting dynamic. And, you know, directors become monsters. It’s just part of the job. They become insecure monsters. I think there’s a line, you know, the combination of narcissism and insecurity that feeds.
Matt: Or as Krusty says, “I’ve become what every director is: an amiable guy who makes everyone suffer through his hellish process.” And I can’t remember if Jim Brooks pitched us that line, or if we wrote that about him. But I think he wrote it. Also, so like that was maybe the next step in it was like, OK, Krusty is freaking out. He doesn’t know how to do it. And originally he was just much more of the monster from the get go. We actually wrote a funny scene that didn’t fit where he was hiring high-priced screenwriters and they were just throwing everything out and changing everything on the set. More kind of a generic bad director overcompensating by being a jerk because he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s afraid of looking weak.
And then Marge is like a calming influence who is able to help him straighten out. We’ve all seen these relationships in people and their assistants. In fact, even in the movie I’ll Do Anything by Jim Brooks, like Albert Brooks who is a monster producing and he has a straight-talking Julie Kavner, also Marge actually, who kind of can give him the truth and calm him down and help him be kind of a better person. Another Jim Brooks-y kind of theme.
So we knew Jim would like that relationship. And I thought it was nice and specific and not something you’d seen a thousand times.
John: So at the end of this day you have this relationship between Krusty and Marge and that’s going to be one of the emotional centerpieces of the story. Is there a document? What do you have at the end of that day’s work?
Matt: We just have a document with notes on it. The writer’s assistant taking notes of the stream of consciousness. And then I can read that over later and edit it down and sort of know what the things were that we were really into and what were just the things that were a dead end and weren’t really going anyway.
John: Now, at some point are you pitching this up to Jim? What is the process of saying like, OK, this is a story idea versus this is definitely an episode?
Matt: So, once we had that Marge and Krusty assistant-director kind of mother-helper-rabbi, you know, dysfunctional/functional relationship I felt like, OK, this is going to show now. Jim will like this. Because that’s the important thing. We don’t have network notes. We don’t have studio notes. We don’t have any notes, but if Jim doesn’t like it at the table read that’s not good. And, you know, if he doesn’t like it he’s also not wrong. So listen when he doesn’t like it, because he knows.
So, originally there was also another huge subplot about Homer and Marge then having an above-the-line/below-the-line romance and that drawing a wedge between them that like Marge got promoted to be hanging out with the director and Homer was a grunt. And that’s a very specific thing, above-the-line/below-the-line. And that’s something where I feel like, if I can jump ahead a little bit by accident, having a team of creative people you respect help you build these things who are honest with you and say, “Look, Matt, that’s too inside. That’s another idea. Don’t jam too many ideas into this. You don’t need to draw that distinction. The Marge/Krusty thing is interesting. The fact that Krusty is then jealous of Homer, not that he has lust for Marge but just can’t handle his assistant thinking about anyone but him in a super narcissistic way is an interesting enough wedge. You don’t need that above-the-line/below-the-line subplot.”
The episode is also a real love letter from guys who have mostly not worked on movie sets to physical production of movies and the crew energy of like the people that actually have to do the job rather than the thing that you actually see. And we tried to put in lots of specific references to that crew culture which is also deep and fun, like guys playing hacky-sack which before smartphones they used to do. And the importance of your kind of breakfast and just how the inane decisions of the people at the top wreak havoc on the people who actually have to physically do the thing.
And so I really hope that people in movies would watch this and think, oh yeah, this is an affectionate loving take on literally making something that might suck.
John: Yeah. And I’ll say that in this episode we see a lot of familiar Simpsons faces in their younger forms but they don’t tend to do a lot.
John: They’re slightly younger versions of their characters but it’s not entirely clear why they’re there in the first place and we just choose not to worry about it.
Matt: Right. They just hired the cheapest crew they could.
John: And people somehow from Springfield.
Matt: They needed jobs.
John: Yeah. Which is fine.
Matt: Which is a great thing about the show that like huge cheats even on great shows that are Simpsons-like, like Parks and Rec, you couldn’t just have everyone on Parks and Rec go to Mexico and make a movie. Well, you could. I don’t know. But that’s a..
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: And we’re done. Yes.
Craig Mazin: So great.
John: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
We are here in Seattle for our first ever Seattle live show.
Craig: Hear that, John? The sound of people that have been freshly enriched by a higher minimum wage.
Craig: They’re excited. They’re caffeinated. They’re full of their legal marijuana and they’re excited. Excited.
John: They are excited and why would they not be excited?
Craig: No, of course.
John: So, the Northwest Screenwriters Guild has been gently stalking us for several years to try to convince us to come up here and they finally succeeded, so a good lesson is to just stalk somebody for a very long time sometimes pays off. So Northwest Screenwriters and TheFilmSchool, all one word apparently, got us up here. I was here on my Arlo Finch book tour. You generously agreed to like hop on a plane and fly up here.
Craig: What happened was – thank you – John said come to Seattle and I said OK.
John: [laughs] Yes.
Craig: I don’t really do a lot of thinking or what I would say independent thinking or decision making.
John: No, it’s not planned.
Craig: Normally just John tells me what to do. Earlier I didn’t know where he was and I got scared. So, just so you guys understand, and you probably do, how this works. It’s that.
John: Yeah. I text Craig like meet me in the lobby in five minutes and he’s like OK-K.
Craig: OK. Yeah. And I was on time.
Craig: Do not show up late for John August.
John: So let’s just get a general sense of what’s happening in the industry overall because we’ve done a live show in New York and a live show in Austin, which are both big film towns, a lot of film happens here. But not a lot of film happens in Seattle. So I was curious why Seattle wanted us up here. And so we got a chance to talk to the Northwest Screenwriters Guild at dinner and a lot of the folks who are in this guild who are doing stuff they want to be writing movies. They want to be telling stories cinematically and it’s a group that got together to help them figure out how to do that. And some of their members have gone on to do big cinematic stuff.
You know, there’s cinematic storytelling that’s not just about making big movies. It can be about video games. It can be about animation. There’s lots of other things that involve some of those characteristics as qualities.
Craig: Everything is kind of smooshing together these days which is nice. You guys are also kind of on the backdoor of one of the largest production cities in the world. And it’s something to think about. I know you have to sneak across the border. Obviously it’s a little trickier these days with the wall.
Craig: [laughs] The wall between us and Canada. Ridiculous.
John: International listeners might not understand that Seattle and Vancouver are just next door neighbors.
Craig: Kissing cousins.
John: And they are so close together but so much production happens in Vancouver. So little production happens in Seattle because of tax breaks and exchange rates.
Craig: And also the general politeness of Canadians. I mean, we should give them a little bit of credit.
John: Give a little more credit to the Canadians because the Canadians deserve–
Craig: Yeah. I’m not saying you guys are rude. It’s not a “Hey!” See, it’s like “hello, how are you.” Oh, dual citizen? So you’ve learned to be rude?
John: So she’s a Canadian today but other days she’s an American.
Craig: Yes. Your alternate side of the street parking with your Canadians. Well, anyway, the point is you’re very close but I would imagine also that means there are probably a lot of training and educational resources here that you might not find in another city of Seattle’s size. I happen to be a huge fan of Seattle. I think it’s an amazing city.
Not every city has the spirit of art running through its veins. This one clearly does. So, I think–
John: It’s got a spirit of art and a lot of money. These are good combinations for a town.
Craig: Art and money.
John: Art and money.
Craig: Most of the people making art on the street do not appear to have the money. However, there are opportunities here. And so this is actually of all the places I think this is one of the – I don’t know, I think you guys are in a pretty great place. That said, you should probably move to LA.
John: At some point.
John: You should move to LA. So this was a Twitter thread that I actually got into today. And so I was retweeting some folks about when do you stop your day job which is a really good question. These were novelists who were talking about when you quit your day job, but as screenwriters it’s a tough question of like when do you stop working your day job.
For people who get staffed on a TV show, well, the choice is made for you. You’re now a full-time employee on a TV show so you’re not going to go to your day job anymore. But for screenwriters it’s a much tougher call. And so Shannon and Swift who are a writing team who do a lot of stuff they were saying like they were on the front page of Variety having sold their script and they still went to work that day because you just don’t know. You just don’t know when that next job is going to come, when you’re actually going to get paid. So, that idea of you made it, you didn’t make it, when do you stop working your day job is really tough.
Craig: I went through the same thing. The first thing I sold was in I think 1995 I want to say, possibly. And I don’t think I actually quit that job until late in 1996. So for a long time you’re just sort of waiting, which is smart. I mean, honestly a lot of people sell a script. Not to bum you guys out. You guys will sell many scripts. But some people only sell one. Boo those people.
And so I was kind of scared, but it was a weird thing to be – because you feel like you’ve made it. You know, you and I have talked on the show there’s no making it. There’s no breaking in. It’s not a thing. There’s just this strange progression. And then one day someone says to you, “I need you working on this now. You can’t go to your safe job anymore.” And that actually is a scary day.
John: It is a scary day. And if you get staffed on a TV show, well great, so you have 20 weeks of work, but then what happens – or hopefully 20 weeks, maybe it’s 10 weeks of work. But what happens after that? And a thing you guys should understand is that as television has gotten just shorter and shorter seasons, well that’s great for a viewer. I like a short season. I like being able to get through all of it. But as a writer that can be really tough because if you’re only working on those 10 weeks, those 20 weeks, well you’ve got to get on another show. You’ve got to find ways to fill a whole year.
And so I think we’re going to see writers having to do a lot more scrambling as they jump from show to show to show, or trying to find the next show down the road.
Craig: Yeah. So maybe just quit now.
John: Yeah. Maybe just stop. That’s really our message. Or our anti-message.
Craig: The crazy part is there’s more jobs than ever before. It’s pretty awesome actually. You guys are in a pretty great time. There are more jobs than ever before. Almost all of them are in television, but that’s OK because television is more movie-like than ever before. But it is true. There is a certain pressure now on the way you live. That said, people are living that life quite successfully and some people are living it incredibly successfully. And I would add that aside from money there are other parts of this job that are so fulfilling and so lovely that they’re worth almost as much as money.
Craig: Which you don’t hear very often, but they are.
John: So, so much of this conversation we could have every day in Los Angeles. We do sort of have it every day in Los Angeles. But when we decided to come up here to Seattle my first question to Craig is like, well, who should we have on the show? Who is a special Seattle person we could have on the show? And Craig was like, oh, oh, ooh, I know exactly who we should have on the show. So tell me what was your instinct behind having Emily.
Craig: So Emily Zulauf is somebody I’ve known for many, many years. I met her when she was working at Pixar. Pixar does this interesting thing where – so they’re Oakland. I was going to say up in Oakland, but it’s down in Oakland. And they are always looking for people to write. You’d think like, oh, they’re Pixar. But the way that animation is done, some of you may be familiar with this, there are so many people creating and so many people writing that a lot of times they’re looking in places for writers that you might not think. And a few years ago Emily came down with Mary Coleman, another development executive from Pixar, to meet some people who they had read some scripts and liked and I was one of those people. And I’m a huge Pixar fan. And we had this lovely lunch. And then I guess about a year later we ran into each other again at the Austin Film Festival which is a fun thing. I don’t know – has anybody gone to the Austin Film Festival?
John: There’s some hands up. Great.
Craig: Look at all you. Good for you. So we ran into each other there and we just decided – she was like we decided that we would be friends, but mostly I was like I don’t like anyone, so when I meet somebody that I like I’m like, OK, we’re friends now and they don’t have a choice because it’s hard for me to meet people that I like. Because I’m a bad person full of umbrage.
So, we became friends. And she’s got a remarkable story mind and she also came out of this place that is legendary and has created some of the most incredible stories of all time. And, in fact, is one of the few institutions in the world that I think is mostly just obsessed with pure storytelling. And she’s actually in a different endeavor now. She’ll tell you about that. But maybe we should welcome her down.
John: Emily Zulauf will you please come and join us here.
Emily Zulauf: Hey guys.
John: Emily, so at dinner I was trying to figure out how I should introduce you. Emily Zulauf is a blank – but you do so many things. Talk to us about what you’re doing now and how you would describe yourself on a resume.
Emily: Oh god. So right now I am running story for a new video game company that I can’t talk about.
John: She’s under so many NDAs.
Emily: I’m so scared.
John: There’s like a red dot aimed at her forehead right now.
Emily: I know. It was my honest reservation about doing the podcast was I can’t talk about any of this. So that’s what I’m doing right now in secret. And, yeah, prior to that I did some freelance writing. I was the executive director of a nonprofit for a hot second. And I was at Pixar for almost eight years. I was the script supervisor on Inside Out and I was in creative development for about 3.5 years.
John: That’s great. You are also a friend of Tess Morris.
John: Who is a very frequent Scriptnotes guest. And so I always think of you with Tess Morris, because I always see you at the Austin Film Festival right with Tess.
Emily: Yeah. That’s a great association. I totally appreciate that. I want to keep that going.
John: You know what? We’re happy to have you by yourself. So, when we have–
Emily: Yeah. No more Tess.
John: No more Tess. This is a Tess-less episode. So, there’s so many things about what you’ve worked on that I want to get into because they’re different than what we normally experience as screenwriters. First, I want to talk about process because Pixar is just a very different story and creative process than what we’re used to as screenwriters because Craig and I we just go off in our little rooms and we beat ourselves up and we write our stories. That’s not the Pixar way at all.
I remember going up to a meeting at Pixar where I gave a little talk, gave a little class, and then they were like, “Oh yeah, and then we’re going to do a two-day offsite to work on this one moment at the end of the second act.” I’m like I would kill myself. But it works for Pixar. So, how does it work and why does it work?
Emily: Like how do people not kill themselves?
John: How do people not kill themselves?
Craig: There’s actually quite a high suicide rate there.
Emily: It’s a very tall building.
Craig: They’re dropping like flies.
Emily: It’s a very tall building.
Craig: There isn’t. No there’s not.
Emily: It’s totally a joke.
John: People hanging themselves from a little lamp.
Craig: So touchy here.
Emily: Starting dark.
John: So what is – I mean, that two-day offsite was probably a real thing and you probably do that.
Emily: Yeah. We didn’t make that up.
John: That actually does happen. So, what is the process? So something like an Inside Out, is there a script at the start or is it just an idea that – tell me.
Emily: Yeah, so usually what it has been traditionally, and I guess I want to caveat this by saying I’m not there now. They’re obviously in a transitional period and so this might be changing a little bit. But sort of traditionally what it has been is that the director is identified first by some group of the executive team. And that director is responsible for coming up with three different pitches of stories that that person wants to do. And so part of what we do in creative development is sort of support them as they’re trying to figure out what that is that they’re interested in. And coming up with sort of a rough pitch for all of those. And then they pitch that to whoever is in charge.
John: Whoever is in charge. Let’s stop though for one second though. When you say a director is pitching three ideas, they’re really pitching sort of three story areas, or they’re pitching three like I want to do a story that’s about this, or about this idea, but it may not have the exact characters or sort of what’s going to happen.
Emily: For sure. Yeah, it’s definitely like the roughest outline. It would fit on probably a page or a half a page depending on how much they fleshed it out. And it’s usually trying to find three areas that feel distinct enough and different enough that the president of the company can say I like this direction. You’re certainly not – you know, when they buy off on an idea they’re certainly not buying off on something that looks like a full treatment or definitely not a full script.
Craig: And they’re basically saying go ahead and take some time to dig at this little vein in the mountain and see if there’s stuff there.
Emily: Exactly. Like run that direction. But certainly not at the point of like this makes perfect sense.
Craig: I heard a story that Finding Nemo just began as – was it Andrew Stanton?
Craig: Saying “fish.” Just started with fish. And everyone was like, yes, of course, fish.
John: We’re going to do fish.
Emily: There’s a pretty wide variety in how much people have prepared for those pitches. And some of it has to do with how comfortable you are. You know, we’re asking people to – I mean, with any director you have a lot of different skillsets that have to exist in one person. But certainly we’re asking somebody whose job is not pitching to figure out how to get up and pitch effectively.
John: To how big of a group would that person need to be able to pitch?
Emily: Well, ultimately – and this is where I’m going to fudge around on it again – historically that was just John Lasseter. I assume now that is mostly Pete Docter. But there certainly are other people who will show up in those meetings. But ultimately there’s sort of one decider at the studio. It’s just sort of how the hierarchy is structured. And depending on how comfortable you are makes a big difference in how you pitch.
Craig: I mean animation in and of itself has so much pitching from moment to moment that at some point I assume people just get over whatever kind of baseline of fear they had because story artists are constantly pitching.
Emily: Yeah. And the majority of our directors come out of story, too. So most of them do have a baseline of at least being comfortable enough to get up and talk about story. But there’s always a process that everybody goes through when you’re new at anything. And pitching to the head of your company is not the same as pitching to the rest of your story team.
Craig: Right. When you know like I have a job now, so the worst thing that happens is I have to just keep doing my job.
Emily: Right. Exactly. And then I think they’re doing I think a really wonderful job right now of starting to pull from other places more. So, if you’re coming and I’m totally making this up, I don’t know that this is true. But if you’re coming out of lighting for instance like that’s not necessarily going to be your area. So part of what we would do in creative development is just pitch prep, is just help people get comfortable to talk about their story and how to do it and what the beats are.
Craig: I had no idea. That’s so nice.
Emily: Isn’t that nice?
Craig: You’re a good person.
Emily: We’re very nice.
John: There’s a whole department that does not exist at a traditional studio at all because–
Craig: I feel like this is the opposite department where they teach you – they just remind you repeatedly before you go into a room that it’s quite likely you’ll fail.
John: That you’re all terrible and it will never get past here.
Craig: But good luck.
John: So because we’re in Seattle, Amazon headquarters, I know that Amazon has this policy of when they’re going to start on a new project one of the first things you have to do is write the press release announcing the finished version. And it feels so different from what you’re describing. So these directors who are pitching these story areas they don’t really know what the final movie is. They don’t even know what sort of happens in it. They’re just describing an area, a vision, so it’s not a specific kind of thing.
When Craig and I go in to pitch something, like we’ll get called to the mat on details about like well how do you get to the second act moment.
Craig: I just tell them, I’m like shut up.
John: Shut up.
Craig: It’s a pitch.
John: Shut up Sean. I can do it.
Craig: Just shut up, Sean. I’ve never said shut up to Sean. He’s a nice guy. Super nice.
Emily: In fairness I think they do usually have a story sketched out. I think the difference is that it will change–
John: They know it’s going to change.
Emily: So dramatically. So a lot of times even though you go in and you pitch a story you’re really pitching the world. And you’re really pitching like do you want to live in this space for a while.
Craig: And you’re pitching to a creative person. You know, most of the time for us – not that producers aren’t creative, but we’re pitching to people that don’t write. So a lot of their expectation is tell me a story. But when you’re pitching to people that do write, when a writer friend pitches something to me, sometimes it is just fish because a question that I will always ask somebody, like somebody says, “OK, can you read these first 20. I’m lost. What’s happening here?” Sometimes the question you just ask is what made you feel fascinated in the first place and maybe that’s kind of what happens in those meetings is someone just shows this little piece of spark because they want to tell, there’s like a little thing. Well let’s go back to that seed.
Emily: I think that’s totally true. And I think that’s also sort of what our job was in creative development too is to start poking at those questions and help you articulate why does this matter to me so that when you walk into a meeting that’s what you’re–
Craig: When they ask you why does this matter to you.
Emily: And you’re like I don’t know.
Craig: I need my healthcare. That’s not a great answer.
Emily: I really enjoy money.
Craig: Yeah. I bought a car I should not have bought and…
John: Well, Emily, here’s a crucial difference though is these folks who are coming in to do this, the people you’re working with, they’re already working for Pixar so they’re already getting a paycheck. So it’s not that like I’ve got to make this happen or else I’m dead. They’re already working there. So you can support them because they’re already part of your family.
My question though is how many people are pitching their kind of project at Pixar? Because you’re only making two or three movies a year. How many folks are trying to get one of their movies up and running? Is it 20? Is it 30?
Emily: No. You have to be invited to pitch a feature.
John: OK. And to be invited you probably were a super star on some previous project.
Craig: Or you get a Golden Ticket.
Emily: Right. Or there’s a line outside the studio and one person comes in a year.
John: One person gets the ticket.
Emily: But if you want to make a short it’s a much more open process. So that ends up being more of a training ground. And then there’s some people who made a short and did it successfully and then moved on to features. But, yes, if you’re getting to..
John welcomes Matt Selman, executive producer of The Simpsons, for a deep dive look at the three-year process of developing a single episode from initial idea to the finished product. We discuss the role of the writers room, the table read, producer notes, animatics, and the impact computer animation has had on The Simpsons workflow.
Set in the 90’s, “The Clown Stays in the Picture” spoofs high concept comedies, artist narcissism, creative insecurity, and the magic of movie-making.
The original post for this episode can be found here.
Craig Mazin: We didn’t make this movie. You know that right?
John August: We’ll start this officially. Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And we are here for a special discussion after watching The Princess Bride. So, on our show Scriptnotes every once and a while we’ll take a movie and sort of go through and do a deep dive on it and this was a unique opportunity to show the movie and do a deep dive on The Princess Bride.
All right, so this screening is part of a special month-long retrospective of the work of William Goldman, an acclaimed screenwriter. This is our last night doing this. But when we got the email about trying to do this we jumped on this movie because this was a movie that – we’ll talk about our priors here – you love this movie.
Craig: Yeah. It’s very meaningful to me. And I love it and I watched it a thousand times.
John: I’ve watched it four times.
Craig: That’s 996 fewer.
John: Yeah. It’s fewer. So I saw this movie for the first time in late high school/early college and I don’t love it as much as you do. So, I do really admire the movie. I don’t love it as much as you do. But I would say weirdly it’s had a much bigger – there’s many more parallels in the work I’ve done to The Princess Bride than the work you’ve done.
Craig: Yeah. Probably because I just didn’t think I could ever do anything quite that good. No, I mean, the work that you do isn’t necessarily always going to match up. But there are things about this that I have taken in my own stuff, specifically this movie – it wasn’t anything that I specifically thought about when I watched it. It was just something that seemed evident. It was the first movie I remember seeing that would make me laugh and then – and not take itself or movies or storytelling particularly seriously. And then the next scene ask that I do take the character seriously. And then in fact I feel – should feel quite deeply about them and I did.
So, this sense of a broad tone kind of going back and forth with a rather moving, emotional tone, mushy comedy. That is something that I took to heart. And I think this movie does it about as well as anybody.
John: So as I look at this movie there’s so many echoes I see in Big Fish. There’s a giant. There’s a swamp. There’s a lot of things that are similar to it. And this sort of storybook quality where you have a narrator who is talking through stuff and we’re moving back and forth in time.
But also Aladdin, which you guys haven’t seen it. But Corpse Bride. That sense of this romance has to happen. That you’re only there if this romance can be fulfilled.
Craig: Yes. And obviously it reminds me a lot of Chernobyl.
John: Yeah. So, let’s talk about the history of this movie. This movie came from a book first written by William Goldman in 1973. So at that point he had already done Masquerade, Papillion, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as a screenwriter. So 20th Century Fox bought the rights to the book and had Goldman do a script. That version never got made and then never happened. And so apparently Goldman bought the rights back from 20th Century Fox and his script. But then ultimately it was a Fox movie, so it went back there. But it went through a lot of directors. And we’ve both had projects that have gone through multiple directors.
At some point there was Francois Truffaut Redford, and Norman Jewison had all talked about directing this movie.
Craig: That would have been an interesting – the Redford version would have been interesting. I mean, I’m obviously very happy with the way it came out. There is a certain Borscht Belty thing going on throughout that Rob Reiner brought to it. And I always appreciate that. But what strikes me about the genesis of this is that William Goldman was just telling stories to his daughters, his young daughters, and these were kind of the stories he was telling them. He invented a princess named Buttercup. And this young farm lad that she was mean to, a farm boy named Westley. And he invented the ROUSes and the idea of a six-fingered man. A giant and a swordsman. These very broad Jungian archetypes. Very much a fairy tale thing.
And what I love about the way he talks about the creation of this is that when he decided to make it into a book he was really struggling, I imagine because he’s William Goldman and he’s sitting there thinking I know how a book should go. There’s all this stuff I have to do to make sense of this. And he said the thing that broke it open for him was coming up with the idea that he’s not writing it at all. That somebody named S. Morgenstern has written it. And that S. Morgenstern’s book is out of print and no one can find it. And so what’s he’s done is essentially put together an abridged version.
This story is only the best parts. And I love that because I think that ties in ultimately to what I love most about this movie which is that it is a movie about storytelling itself as an act of love.
John: And so part of the conceit is that he heard this story as a kid and that when he went back and found the actual book he realized it was like a big political tract and it was completely different than how he remembered. So he was using his childhood memory of the way he wished the story actually really went.
Craig: Which I actually had that real experience. When my kids were young I was like you know what I’m going to read you a book tonight. And they were like yay. And it’s one of my favorite books from childhood. You’re going to love this. It’s called A Wrinkle in Time. And then I started reading Wrinkle in Time and I’m like–
John: Yeah. So I worked on–
Craig: This is just a teen romance. When does the – like all the cool stuff is in the last 12 pages. I forgot.
John: Yeah. And you realize that many of the things that the missuses do so much of the work for the protagonist and it’s a frustrating adaptation. It was a hard movie to adapt. I tried it. It did not work.
So let’s talk about the frame story because this is actually part of the conceit. William Goldman had been telling the story to his daughters and the conceit in the book is that his father had told it to him. In this movie version, and I don’t know if it was always this way in the scripts but we have the Peter Falk, the grandfather character, telling the story to his grandson who is sick. It’s a pretty simple setup but we come back to it a lot.
And so the frame story gets us a lot. Let’s talk about why you do it and what’s helpful about it.
Craig: Well they’re letting you know right off the bat that the story that you’re seeing is a story. Usually when we tell a story on screen we want people to forget that it’s a story pretty quickly. Here they never let you forget. And in doing so they immediately excuse a lot of things that I think had they not done you would have said this is very true love. It’s so over the top. It’s over the top for a reason. Everything if you think about it, every emotion is pushed beyond to the edge. So, the true love is the truest of love. And the villains are the most hateful villains. The kiss at the end, there is the top five kisses of all time, and this one puts it to shame. So everything is taken to its extreme because it’s meant to be a fairy tale. And the actual story is the story of a grandfather and his son. Even though there’s these little tiny bits with Peter Falk and Fred Savage, to me that’s the movie.
John: Yeah. So obviously the frame story lets you jump forward. It lets you contextualize things. It lets you sort of fill in details that you wouldn’t have otherwise known and sort of skip past the boring parts. But let’s talk about this frame story just really quickly in terms of the progression of the relationship between Peter Falk and the Fred Savage character because it’s very simple but it’s really well sketched. And every time we come back to those things there needs to be progress. If we just came back and it was exactly the same situation it wouldn’t feel like you were moving forward. It would just feel like you were just repeating an old scene.
Craig: Peter Falk. Right? The perfect casting because he’s literally Colombo-ing his own grandson. You know? “OK, you know what, you don’t want to hear this. Never mind. Now you’re taking this very personally.” “No I’m not. No I’m not.” Right? So Fred Savage does a fantastic job playing like a regular – I think he’s a very regular kid there. They didn’t push it at all. Kids do get annoyed with that. They don’t want to hear about, at least in this case, you know, 1987 lovely gender stereotype of a boy that doesn’t want to hear about kissing. But I remember my son didn’t want to hear kissing stories. So that all felt very true.
But Peter Falk is playing a long con with this kid, repeatedly. “I told you.” “Yes, very good, shut up.” Wonderful. “You’re very smart.”
John: So let’s go into the actual story as it is being told. And so we really rush through the setup very quickly.
John: And it’s surprising even just watching it tonight to recognize how little backstory we know about our central characters. Buttercup, I guess she has a family. We never see them.
John: She lives alone in a cabin I guess.
John: She makes fun of this farmer boy.
Craig: It’s just the best parts. Right? So actually no one in this entire movie has a real character. No one. It’s just nice farm boy, nice slightly noble girl, a very smart Italian, a very big Greenlander, a very skilled Spaniard. And then the prince is just a dick, right? That’s his character.
John: But a very, very proficient dick. You also watch, it’s like, oh, he’s somehow really good at all these tracking things.
Craig: He’s an amazing tracker.
John: And so you think there’s going to be some payoff like–
Craig: There was a great duel.
John: Yes. And somehow he can smell the iocaine powder that is unsmellable.
Craig: Of course. Isn’t that the best? I love that.
John: Yeah. [Unintelligible] but sure.
Craig: It’s so great.
John: But obviously the performances are fantastic and without great performances you’d feel the artist, these little paper dolls moving throughout the story, and yet we so quickly setup who Buttercup is, the nature of sort of what the stakes of the movie are, which is basically this is the couple and we want this couple to be back together.
John: That’s the whole storyline that you’re really going to get through. So no matter what happens it’s the two of them. But what’s also surprising and sort of frustrating if you’ve read a bunch of screenwriting books is your protagonist, your heroes, are not on screen a ton and they often don’t – they’re don’t have a lot of agency in their story.
Craig: Correct. Because they’re in a story. So you can see why Goldman felt so liberated by the technique of imagining that he’s only telling you parts of a story. Because he can literally just not do the stuff that is really annoying for us to do, to make people believe that what they’re watching is real. He doesn’t have to worry about that.
And so in a weird way the protagonist, I always think of the protagonist of this movie in the true sense of someone that has to make a choice is Fred Savage. Because those are the only two real people in the movie. And the mom.
John: Oh, the mom is a really crucial character there. Yeah, without that…
Also, you notice, you watch the movie, it starts with this long shot of a baseball game being played on a video screen.
Craig: Which thrills me.
John: Yeah, of course, yes. I mean, it does anchor it in a place in time, but it didn’t even need to be because it was contemporary. It’s just a really strange thing. It’s like you’re watching Stranger Things and they’re trying to say, oh no no we’re this–
Craig: Well they didn’t know. They thought that was the way it was always going to be.
John: That’s true.
Craig: I thought baseball games would always look like that. But I guess they were probably trying to say look kids don’t read.
John: It’s true. They don’t.
Craig: Which continues to apply.
John: It does apply. So, back to Buttercup and back to her story. So, let’s track the movie from what we know of Buttercup. So somehow she goes from the farmhouse. She believes that Westley has died. And then suddenly she’s getting married to the king. We don’t know why.
Craig: It’s been years.
John: It’s been years. She’s a princess now for some reason because–
Craig: He had the right to choose his own bride, so one imagines that he rode through the countryside and said, “You. I want you.”
John: Picked the prettiest.
Craig: And that was it. And then, boo.
Craig: God, that lady scared the hell out of me.
John: Absolutely. Her eyebrows alone.
Craig: Well, it’s the last shot. The last shot just is terrifying.
John: From her perspective, so the story from her perspective is I’m going to marry Humperdinck because – there’s just no alternatives.
Craig: She’s going to commit suicide. I mean, one of my favorite lines is, “Please consider me as an alternative to suicide.” It’s so great. So she’s never going to marry him. She doesn’t want to. Her heart was broken because she had true love, which is the ultimate magic here. So, no, she’s never going to marry him.
John: So let’s imagine the version of the story where we don’t have the framing device and we actually have to fill in these details.
Craig: Oh my god. Oh my god.
John: So then you have to create some stakes and reason for why she doesn’t do this then there’s some other thing that she’s going to lose–
Craig: How about this? Start with the fact that you have to see Westley the farm boy show up and be hired. She notices him. Or they’re both children and they grow up together. It’s like, blah, I already want to die.
John: All right.
Craig: I mean, because everything that’s joyous about this–
John: Is that you don’t know.
Craig: It’s the best parts-ism of it. It’s that you don’t know and it doesn’t matter. She has no other wants. He has no other wants. No one – Inigo Montoya, his entire life is one want. His I Want song is one line long.
John: Yeah. That’s true.
Craig: Brilliant. And Fezzik has no wants.
Craig: He just is happy.
John: He’s happy to be there.
Craig: He’s done. His character is complete.
John: Let us talk about the biggest character in the story who doesn’t actually appear on screen which is Dread Pirate Roberts. Which is actually a really fascinating running thing through it. It pays off nicely at the end. You know Montoya will be there. But it is a really interesting amount of screen time spent on Dread Pirate Roberts as a conceit, as a way through this. You feel like Dread Pirate Roberts is going to show up at some point as much time as we spend talking about it.
Craig: Somewhere among my many hundreds of viewings I lost that desire to see Dread, because in part once I understood that he was the Dread Pirate Roberts and he explains that the guy that took him wasn’t the Dread Pirate Roberts, it just becomes this very brilliant explanation. Again, you see Goldman just sort of waving his magic pen and saying you don’t have to worry about that. And you don’t have to worry about that. And you don’t have to worry about that. It’s just the way it is. It’s really simple.
And the Dread Pirate Roberts thing I have heard many times in my life used as an analogy for all sorts of things. It’s incredibly useful. The idea of something that isn’t a thing but creates its own mythology to be the thing. It’s quite lovely actually.
John: Absolutely. Well let’s talk about as screenwriters the ways that this is brought up, because I would say that one of the reasons I wanted to do this as our movie to talk about is it’s one of the most frequently mentioned movies that’s going to come up in a discussion, in an early pitch session, talking about how we are going to do something. And so the idea of a framing device, are we going to Princess Bride it? You’ll hear that as sort of like, OK, we’re going to wrap stuff around this to sort of show – to contextualize this as a story in it.
The Dread Pirate Roberts as an idea of like this thing that’s happening, this conceit about this is not really the person, or the person has actually died a long time ago, that gets brought up in meetings.
Craig: Absolutely. And then there’s this very classic structure that’s taken directly from Grimm and earlier, but it comes up a lot which is the notion of trials and tests. And it goes back to Greek mythology. But the idea of using this time in your first act, or whatever act, I hate acts anyway, but of encountering tests. And going through – one of my favorite things that happens in this entire movie is just the little exchange that Inigo Montoya has with the Man in Black when he’s hanging there on the edge of the Cliffs of Insanity. You know, “I’m waiting for you. I’m bored. Come on, I won’t kill you. I’m promise.” And he’s just bored. “I swear on the soul of my father that you will meet no harm. And throw me the rope right away.” And that’s such a great way to solve a little plot problem and a little story problem by also revealing something interesting about both characters at the same time.
This guy is not only a good guy and a good sport, but there’s something that matters a lot to him. And that guy is a sort of guy that knows when somebody is telling the truth about something that matters to them and can then invest trust in them. That’s brilliant. And that little bit of good sportsmanship and Fezzik’s bit of good sportsmanship at giving him a warning shot saves those two guys from the mindset we should have of them which is that they are hired murderers.
John: It’s true.
Craig: But that’s all. They’re good sports. We love them.
John: All right. But that idea that you have a person who is your opponent who ultimately becomes your friend, an ally, down the road after you go through a battle sequence we do see a lot. And I’m thinking Black Panther has that same sort of moment. The waterfall cliff moment. That’s an important moment that we need to see that both men are proficient, that they can do this thing, and then coming through this we’re going to get to a spot where they can be allies down the road. Because they have each other’s respect.
Craig: Correct. And it’s so wonderfully circular. You find out who these people are by the actions they take with the Man in Black. You find out how good he is. It’s so surprising that he’s better than both of them. Obviously Vizzini never has a moment of surprise because he gets the most surprises when he dies. Amazing. But through that we learn that this guy is great at everything, which again you cannot do. I mean, so Gary Sue, right, I mean, this is the classic character that’s just good at everything. And never loses. Even when he is murdered by a death machine he still doesn’t lose.
And what’s fascinating is that Goldman points to it through Fred Savage. Because when it seems like he’s lost Fred Savage gets upset, which I love. “You’re telling the story wrong.” Because he doesn’t get that he’s being misdirected. But the truth is that kid understands, even though he’s never heard this story, he understands how stories are supposed to go. And I love that.
John: So this movie hangs on a lantern on that sense of as a screenwriter you need to be aware of where your audience is at and what their expectations are. And so moments of Buttercup marrying Humperdinck. The dream of marrying Humperdinck, of Westley dying. Those are moments that as a screenwriter you have to be in the seat with the audience watching it and go like, oh no, no, that couldn’t possibly happen. Something is wrong or broken about this movie. And so in this movie we get to call that out. We actually have a character who can say like, uh-uh, that couldn’t possibly happen.
John: You would have to do these sequences very differently if you didn’t have that character.
Craig: Yeah. And you don’t have to be quite so misdirect-y about it. Because it’s a child that’s being misdirected. It’s a children’s story. Of course she doesn’t get married there. Of course something is going to happen. We don’t know what. Did she really get married? I mean, I remember because I wasn’t familiar with the specific rights of marriage as a 16-year-old, when he says, “Man and wife, say man and wife.” “Man and wife.” And she goes, “He didn’t come.” I’m like, how are they going to get out of this? Well apparently did you say I do, that works in Gilder I guess. Or Florin or wherever they are. I never remember which one. Thousands of screenings and I still can’t remember.
John: They’re in Florin.
Craig: They’re in Florin. Thank you. But I got fooled by that. And I find it – I mean, I also got – even when Christopher Guest throws the knife he looked like –
My dad used to tell me a story. When he was a kid he would go to the movies and before the movie would start there would be a Flash Gordon. And the Flash Gordon would always end in a cliffhanger. So he said, you know, you’d go there and then Flash Gordon would get captured by guys and they would lift him up and they would throw him into this big lava pool, right? And he would be in midair and they would freeze it. How will Flash – and he’s like I’ve got to get back next because how, that’s not possible.
And when you would get back next week they just started it again but a little earlier he beats the guys up and never gets thrown.
John: Oh that’s horrible.
Craig: it’s like a massive cheat. You could get away with that in the ‘50s apparently.
John: Because they couldn’t go back and find the old take.
Craig: Exactly. They couldn’t go back and find the old tape. But that kind of cheaty misdirect is kind of fascinating. And here he gets to do this cheaty misdirect all the time which I just thought was..