The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August and this is Episode 377 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig is out sick today, but luckily we have two remarkable screenwriters to take his place. And today on the show we’re going to be talking about the second draft, and hopefully offering some practical tips for your first big rewrite on a project. Then we’ll be digging into questions from the mail bag.
To help us out we are welcoming back the writers of The Invitation, Ride Along, and the upcoming Destroyer, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi.
Matt Manfredi: Hello.
Phil Hay: Hey John.
John: You joined us on Episode 244. My first question for you is what did we talk about in Episode 244?
Phil: We talked about our motion picture The Invitation.
John: You did.
Phil: We talked about reboots and preboots.
Matt: Oh yeah.
John: Very nice you remember. And do you remember the specific term that we were trying to suss out?
Phil: It wasn’t preboot?
John: It wasn’t preboot, but preboot is really close to it.
Phil: It was pre-imagining?
John: Was the word of the day.
Matt: It didn’t catch on.
Phil: Clearly it’s dead.
Matt: Preboot really still has a chance.
John: Preboot has a good chance. I think we’re all pulling for preboot. I think I’m working on a preboot right now.
Phil: Is that right?
Phil: You’re keeping it alive. There’s hope.
John: Before we get started today, some news on Scriptnotes land. We have our holiday show December 12th in Hollywood and Zoanna Clack of Grey’s Anatomy is a guest. Pamela Ribon of Ralph Breaks the Internet. And Cherry Chevapravatdumrong of Family Guy and The Orville will be joining us. Plus, Phil Lord and Chris Miller of Lego Movie, Lego Movie 2, Last Man on Earth, Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It’s a remarkable lineup of guests.
Phil: Great lineup, John.
John: Great lineup.
Matt: Murderer’s Row.
John: Murderer’s Row. Come join us in Hollywood December 12th. It’s a benefit for The Writers Guild Foundation. You can find tickets. Just click on the link in the show notes or go to wgafoundation.org.
Phil and Matt, we have some follow up on previous episode stuff. I’m hoping you can help us out here because Craig is gone so we’re going to pretend that you guys are all the way caught up on all your back episodes of Scriptnotes. I asked in a previous episode whether other industries had a way of dealing with endless pitches. And sort of like when you go in to pitch on a thing like 19 times. Have you ever encountered that situation?
Phil: We have tried to really limit that recently, but I think everybody has encountered that. You know, where the goal posts sort of keep moving and the existence of the job itself starts to become in question.
Matt: And early, I mean, like especially starting out you pitch to the lowest person on the totem pole and you work your way up, and you work your way up. Or sometimes even worse, they pitch it all the way up and it just gets bastardized and bastardized.
John: Yeah. It’s bad. So specifically we’re trying to get to the situations where like you’ve gone in like 10 times to pitch on a project and it’s just not clear whether they’re ever going to do anything on this.
So I asked on the podcast whether people had suggestions from other industries about how they deal with these situations. So two people wrote in. Chris wrote in to say that she works as a production manager on commercials and she says, “Whenever we audition actors they need to fill out an initial Exhibit E, an audition time card. Depending on how long they are kept for an audition or how many auditions they are called in for, they are entitled to some payment.”
So we’ll send a link to the SAG form for Exhibit E. So there’s some record of how many times they’re going in on a project and if they are held for longer than a certain period of time they have to be paid for that audition.
Would you want to be paid for a pitch?
Phil: I think that regardless of me personally it actually sounds like a pretty feasible idea to – wasn’t there a concept way back in the old day, something called approach money or something like that? I feel like I’ve heard a term where it’s just saying we are officially asking you to come and basically “do a prototype for us,” which is your pitch, and we’ll pay you a very modest amount of money to do it, but we are paying you.
And so, you know, if we call you in for a second time we’re going to pay you again. I mean, I’m sure there’s a million reasons that people don’t want to do that, but the amount of labor that goes in to trying to get a job is so significant that, you know, I’m not writing those checks but I think it would be extremely helpful and useful because it would also make sure – I mean, it would increase the odds that there was something at the end of that process. That they’re going to invest even a small amount of money means that they think it’s headed somewhere.
Matt: I wonder if it’s past a certain point. You know what I mean? As a freelancer, essentially, I feel like the initial pitch is part of my job. I want to get the job. I’m essentially auditioning for the job. But once I’ve gone in, we’ve discussed our take, this is what I would do with the project. Once we get past a certain level, I don’t know what that level is, it does seem like some kind of thing would be–
John: Yeah. I mean, as we talked about in No Work Left Behind, this idea of making sure you’re not leaving written material behind after a pitch, so often we hear that writers lose the job to no one. Basically they just decided that there’s no – like that idea wasn’t a very good idea and so we’ve wasted everyone’s time trying to do this.
Phil: Thank you for proving to us that we shouldn’t ever spend any money hiring anyone to do it.
John: And so if there were some cost to actually having done that search process, you know, I think you could rein that in a little bit. We look at these mini rooms where they bring in a bunch of writers to crack an idea. They have like a piece of IP and they’re bringing in five writers to work for a month to try to crack that stuff. Those writers are at least getting paid. There’s a thing there. Intellectual labor is being rewarded. So, it feels like there’s some way to be thinking about that.
Phil: Well, and there’s a structure in place, right, so that there then can be rules. And there can be – maybe this is what complicates it – the ownership of the material. What are you selling when you take that money? So maybe that’s maybe the rub. But, yeah, I think that increasingly we’ve been talking – we talked about this a lot that just the job of the screenwriter now – the job of your typical screenwriter includes so much unpaid time that is very – it’s intense work.
Matt: I think it’s expanded. I think it’s a lot worse than it used to be.
Phil: Yeah. I agree.
John: I think even the nature of what a screenwriter is supposed to be doing has changed so much even in the 20 years I’ve been doing this is that screenplays have evolved into this thing which is not just a plan for making a movie but is really like a kind of marketing – it’s a vision document for what this is. It’s like a director’s reel but in a printed form.
Phil: It’s interesting. Yeah. Because we all came up with an edict that someone taught us, which is saying every draft is a sales piece. You’re selling to someone. You’re selling to first the studio or first a producer, then you’re selling to an actor, you’re selling to a director. But it does seem like you started selling now constantly. The organization, the principles by which this thing is going to be in the public you’re starting to sell within the screenplay itself.
John: A way you might get there, so Philip in Hamburg, Germany wrote to say that he works in advertising in Germany where pitches have gotten very competitive and big. Sometimes it’s two to four weeks fulltime to meet the deadline for the pitch, costs up to $100,000 in man hours, all of it for free. “So we managed to improve the situation. Companies are now starting to increasingly pay a pitch fee which often doesn’t cover all the costs but it’s something.” So he says, “The way it changed was for three things.” First, they made the clients aware of the situation and asked for the money. Because sometimes the clients really didn’t know how long it was taking or sort of how much they were spending on it. They got stronger together. So there’s an association for creative agencies. We have the WGA. And they started lobbying on behalf of the topic.
And finally they just started saying no. They would actually decide not to go in on a pitch because they didn’t feel like – if they weren’t going to get paid for pitching they would just politely say no. And so as writers, I mean, sometimes we’re spending 10 hours, 20 hours, more getting a pitch ready or going to talk about a movie, but it’s the directors who actually weirdly have it worse. Sometimes those directors who are trying to land those jobs because they’re the ones who have written in to say like, you know, I’m spending two months developing this reel to sort of promote myself as a director for this and I’m not getting those jobs. So maybe that’s the case where if they really are curious about that director, they need to be sending some money that director’s way to build that reel or to build up that proof of concept.
Matt: Yeah. And Phil gets at a point earlier, like if they do pay you for a pitch, a writer for a pitch, where does that come in terms of work for hire, in terms of chain of title? What is then owned? You know what I mean? Like it gets into a–
John: Yeah. But if they’re not actually taking a written document then maybe it’s not so bad. Basically if they’re paying for your time and they’re paying you for your time to meet you to talk about stuff, maybe that’s–
Phil Hay: Also there’s such a cultural–
Matt: It’s like a roundtable. You know?
Phil: There’s a cultural issue at hand which is the – and I think it’s always been weirdly baked in – but it seems increasing where there’s a sort of resentment toward paying people to do something creative. You know that there is a baked in societal kind of like wanting to get away with just kind of taking that work. Or just saying, I mean, in the world of kind of freelancers out there in the world that classic thing of like well what is the payment? “Well exposure.”
John: Of course.
Phil: For exposure. And so there’s that component, too, where I think in a way it’s not hard to imagine a slightly different society which says, yeah, of course, you should be – if you are attempting to create something or you are using your labor at their request to come in and potentially then be hired to create something complete that would make sense.
But I think we do have this cultural idea that there’s kind of a resentment toward that work.
Matt: There’s also something that my wife experiences. She designs book jackets. And if you’re designing a book jacket and it just doesn’t work out for various reasons you get a kill fee, which is like half of your fee. Do you know what I mean? There is something past a certain point where if you don’t get the job there’s essentially a kill fee as opposed to on the front end.
John: Obviously as writers we’re paid for our words, but we’re also valued for our time, and so making sure that we get the value out of that time is crucial.
Phil: And you also have to really peer through the language to figure it out, because so often we hear like – now we’re fortunate to be in a position where we say, OK, if it’s going to be multiple people then we’ll just back out. You can hire one of those other people, but we’re not going to spend the time to go in and do all this work.
John: So you’ll ask?
Phil: Yeah. We will ask. And we’ll kind of make sure we ask and then make sure our agents ask and make sure everybody is asking because there’s also all these way around. You hear so many times, I’m sure John you’ve heard it many times, “Well we really want you. Believe me, we really want you for this. We just need the – just give me something. And then I can just force it through. But we just have to as a formality.” There’s always something behind that.
John: Yeah. There was a project recently where I assumed I was the only person going in. And it wasn’t until I actually had landed the job where I talked to other folks like, “Oh yeah, I was up for that. I pitched a couple times on that.” I had no idea. So I felt really great that I got it, but also it was like, wow, I just assumed that I was the only person you were talking to.
Phil: We once ran into in the lobby of a studio we ran into Craig. And we were like wait a minute. And Craig was like, “Wait a minute.” And then it turned out to be for different things, so it was OK. But for a second we were like hold on.
John: Hold on. So, these are jobs that you’re going in to pitch on, things that already exist and you’re trying to land. But increasingly you guys have been making your own stuff. And so you were here last time to talk about The Invitation. Your new movie is Destroyer. And let’s listen to a clip. Phil, can you set up this clip we’re about to listen to?
Phil: This is an encounter between Erin Bell, who is the lead character, played by Nicole Kidman, and her teenage daughter Shelby who she has a very fraught relationship with. And this is sort of a scene of honesty between them.
John: Great. So that is a really quiet moment, because I was trying to find some big shouty moment, and there clearly is a tremendous amount of action, but that action has no words that would actually make sense on a podcast.
Phil: We’d like to try.
John: So, the reviews are fantastic. Raves. And so most of them talk about how great Nicole Kidman is and Karyn Kusama who directs it. But I had to dig pretty deep to find one review that really emphasized the script. But I did. I found it. So it says, “[John speaks in Spanish.]”
So guys, that’s pretty amazing.
Phil: That is amazing.
John: So what Maria Fernandez is saying is that beyond Nicole Kidman’s remarkable performance and a very solid cast, the most impressive thing about Destroyer is the sophistication of its scripting and its mise en scène.
Phil: Right on.
Matt: All right.
Phil: Well I think what’s interesting that we’ve encountered, you know, Nicole has made this point many times, and Karyn makes this point many times is to us there definitely is a natural tendency to – what Nicole does is truly astounding to me. I mean, it’s a performance that I am so blown away by just as a person watching it.
Matt: And she’s in every scene of the movie.
Phil: She really is.
John: It’s entirely on her back.
Phil: And so I understand and love that that attention is there for her. But if you ask Nicole and you ask Karyn, I think to all of us the character is the story, is the direction, is the performance, is the story, is the direction, is the performance. That they are all completely unified. And this character is, you know, for us the whole movie also for us flows through this one character and she is the focus of everything. And so to me it’s one of the most unified movies that we’ve ever been involved in because of what I just said. It is this story of this person who we tried very hard to give every dimension we could as a human being.
John: So, let’s talk about sort of how you conceptualize, pitch, write, set up a movie like this movie. Because this isn’t a thing where you’re going in. There wasn’t a book. There wasn’t an anything. This was an idea. And so where does the idea for this character and for this world become a thing that you guys do? At one point does Karyn become involved? And how do you say like this is the next thing we’re going to do? What is the process of saying, OK, we have this character and this world, this is the movie we’re going to make? What is that process?
Matt: We had just finished up The Invitation. And we were thinking of what the next thing we were going to do is. And we had this idea that had been kind of marinating for like 10 years. And it was this structure for a cop movie. We had all these scenes that kind of supported the structure and we were just kind of like – it’s kind of a complicated structure so we would pick it up and put it down.
John: Now you said you had these scenes and these ideas, so how much had been written versus just like kind of note carded or sketched?
Matt: Notes, like little notes documents.
Phil: And really like conversations more than anything else.
Matt: Conversations. We had spent so much time discussing it. And then finally, so we kind of knew the general direction of it, but we kept running into a wall until we discovered – and maybe it seems obvious – but until we discovered the character of Erin Bell who was going to populate this world and her relationship with her daughter. And when we actually outlined it and put all the cards up on the wall, I mean we knew it was going to be for Karyn, and so we brought her in, took her through the outline. Kind of like half-pitched it to her. And she gave some ideas. And then we were just off to write it. And that was kind of – from there Karyn started making her look book and stuff and she was kind of off to the races. And so on a kind of parallel track while we wrote the script.
Phil: There’s a lot of simultaneity to how we do these movies, you know, the ones that we do together where while we’re writing the script Karyn is doing all that, and our composer Teddy Shapiro is already writing music based on the script. And Plummy Tucker, the editor, is one of the first people to read the script, so she already kind of has it in her head.
And it’s kind of a unique and kind of amazing way to work because then we also get to the point – and another wonderful thing about Nicole is that, and Karyn, is that the script is the script when we get to shooting the movie. And they both are real believers in the screenplay. And that the answers are in the screenplay for whatever questions come up. And then we’re there as writer-producers. We’re there to provide context, to write new things if necessary, but it’s kind of a very organic and simultaneous process with these movies which have been so gratifying for us to be able to do that.
John: Stepping back, you said the idea, the Erin Bell character was what made these collections of things really pop. And so the 10 years where this was just bits and pieces, was it the character that wasn’t holding the thing together? What was it that changed? What was it that putting that character into the situation? Because was it always written for a woman that was kind of like Erin Bell but not specifically Erin Bell? Or was it a story that was missing a central character? What was different about it 10 years ago?
Matt: I think it was a story that was missing a central character. And we knew the beats of the story and the structure is kind of tricky. And so we would kind of puzzle over that without having the central character.
Phil: So it was really more like we had–
Matt: A puzzle.
Phil: Yeah. We had pieces of a puzzle and we had things and feelings and certain interactions that we could kind of see from one side in a way. And then we had a feel, this kind of feeling that was driving it, the kind of restlessness of a ‘70s noir in a way. And then it was like – when it kind of occurred to us it was kind of in conversation. Then we brought it to Karyn and we started talking and realizing who Erin was and how specifically she couldn’t be to us a woman “filling a man’s role or wearing a man’s clothes” basically. The story had to be about this woman who had this relationship with her daughter, had a very specific relationship with the world that was a relationship as a woman. And that’s kind of what made it necessary for us or essential for us. You know that thing when you’re writing where you know there’s something you like about it but it’s not ready yet. And something has to make you just light up. And that character and the opportunity to write someone and knowing that – the other thing that’s so great about getting to work with Karyn is we know where it’s headed. So we know that we can write this character and that Karyn is going to receive that in its fullness and so we can try and go for it and take swings and do all of that.
John: You didn’t feel like you had to make any safe choices.
John: Or round any corners or over-explain something just to make sure, to protect yourself and to protect the script. You didn’t have to have those extra lines that were in there just so in case–
Phil: Exactly. And that becomes so crucial because for Nicole she said a few times that she really responded to the mystery of this character and that there’s one line that basically tells you everything you need to know about what she suffered as a kid, a line about that she was burned with cigarettes by her mom and that she had these brothers who were just this kind of feral pack living by themselves basically. And to Nicole, she said like that was everything I needed and that’s what inspired me and more detail, more exhaustive archeology of her psyche would have not – that doesn’t inspire me. So it’s interesting. And that’s always – everything you write you’re looking for that balance. And it’s so great to not have to do anything because you’re worried someone is not going to get it, or you’re worried that they’re going to kind of – it’s going to go off the rails because some critical thing is not obvious enough. You know?
John: Right now, I’ll ask the question separately, how many projects are in your head that are sort of where this was over the last 10 years which are sort of like bits and pieces? How many different movies or other things do you think you have? Phil, I’ll ask you first.
Phil: OK. I can think of three off the top of my head that are in the sort of like, yeah, an idea. Sometimes there’s just a title on a notecard in the far corner of our corkboard that I don’t even know if Matt..
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. So today’s episode is the live Three Page Challenge we recorded at the Austin Film Festival a few weeks ago. There is some swearing, so keep that in mind if you’re listening in the car with your kids. If you’d like to see another live show with me and Craig and a bunch of other great guests we just started selling tickets to the December live show, December 12th at 8pm in Hollywood. So if you want a ticket for that you can go to the link in the show notes or to wgafoundation.org. Enjoy the show.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is the Three Page Challenge of Scriptnotes. And so what we do on a Three Page Challenge is we invite folks to send in the first three pages of their script. It can be a feature, it can be a TV pilot. It’s not always the first three pages, but it’s usually the first three pages. It’s confusing if it’s not the first three pages. And we talk about what we’ve read.
And so a crucial thing we should all note is that these are not necessarily the best things we’ve read. They’re the things that have the most interesting stuff to talk about. So, people were brave enough to send them in, so we always commend the folks who are brave to send their work out so we can all discuss it in this room and on the air. So let’s applaud for all these folks.
Craig: And we should thank our producer, Megan, who is the one that makes these selections. In a sense, the people here are slightly less brave than the usual people because we’re nicer in person. It’s just sort of a–
John: Well, except that they’re also brave because they’re going to come up. That’s the difference between the live thing. They’re actually going to come up and talk to us about the things they wrote which–
Craig: It’s a wash. They’re about as brave as everybody else.
John: They’re just about as brave as any normal people. And they’re braving a hot day, a very cold air-conditioned room for us to talk about this.
Craig: It’s freezing up here. But we do have another thing going for us on this kind of Three Page Challenge which is we have help.
John: We do have help. So with help in the form of guest analyzers of scripts. First off let’s welcome up Lindsay Doran. The legendary Lindsay Doran. Lindsay is a producer whose credits include Stranger than Fiction, Sense and Sensibility, Nanny McPhee, Dead Again. Executive producer on The Firm, Sabrina. She’s the former President and CEO of United Artists. She is right now the script whisperer. She is the person that people go to help solve script problems. So we are very lucky to have her with us today.
Do you have a microphone Lindsay Doran?
Lindsay Doran: Got it.
John: We are so excited to have you.
Lindsay: Thank you.
John: Our other guest is Jewerl Ross. Jewerl Ross is a manager and the founder of Silent R Management. His clients include such names as Barry Jenkins, Matthew Aldrich, Jack Stanley, Our Lady J, Evan Endicott, and Hannah Schneider.
Craig: That’s where the real bravery is. A manager shows up at the Austin Screenwriting Film Festival. That’s impressive.
Jewerl Ross: Glad to be here.
Craig: All right.
John: Before we get started talking about these three page samples, I want to talk about reading scripts overall because the two of you must read an enormous quantity of scripts and you’re probably reading them for different reasons. So I’m guessing Lindsay you’re often reading scripts for things that are in development and things that are going hopefully into production. And you have an eye for what are the challenges, what are the problems, how can we make this script better. But you’re not doing the basic filtering at this point. Like you’re not reading terrible things. You’re reading maybe pretty good things that need to become great. Is that fair for what you’re doing right now?
John: Microphones are so helpful for a recorded podcast.
Lindsay: Here I thought you and I were just talking.
John: Oh yeah.
Lindsay: So when I nod it doesn’t really do you any good? Yeah. So that’s true.
John: That’s true. And are most of your conversations these days with the writers, or with studios and producers who are coming to you for guidance on scripts?
Lindsay: Both. Both absolutely. I mean, I’m usually hired by studios but then I end up in the rooms with the writers. Once and a while things are in such bad shape that it’s about how do we get this in the kind of shape that we could even give it to a writer to do something with. Craig knows what I’m talking about there.
Craig: I didn’t write that one.
Lindsay: [laughs] But, no, a lot of the time I’m working directly with the writers.
John: And Jewerl, are you still filtering, because I feel like early on in your career you probably were just reading a ton of stuff and having to just triage like is this even a person I should consider as a client.
John: Are you still doing that now, or you have so many people that you–
Jewerl: No. I’m lucky that I have enough people to filter things and so hopefully the things – I’m only reading client stuff, current clients, and things that my people think are great. And occasionally, you know, if something comes well recommended. Like if Lindsay sends me a script but I give it to my people and my people are like Jewerl don’t read it, I will occasionally say, “Well, I like Lindsay a lot. She has great taste.” So I’ll dip into their pile every so often.
John: So, how far into a script do you need to read before you see that this is a person who has a talent, has a voice, has an interesting thing. How long does it take you to get into a script before you get that sense?
Jewerl: You know, I can get that in two pages.
John: We gave you a third.
Jewerl: I mean, you can certainly see a bad script on page one. You know, but there was a script that was on the Black List that one of my clients was attached to direct at one point. I’ll remember the name in a minute. That the writing was so magical. The world was so interesting. I mean, it was like – I think about that script often because that’s what I want to feel right away. Like I’m in the hands of someone special.
You know, like craft is interesting and figuring out how to – act breaks is interesting. But what’s more interesting is someone who is doing something so differently. That has a perspective on the world that’s so different. And I did get that this year. I signed this 23-year-old kid out of Penn. His professor called me and said, “This guy is a genius and I’ve heard about you.” And so she sent me the script and it was the weirdest thing. It broke every screenwriting rule.
Craig: Thank god.
Jewerl: It took me five hours to read it.
Craig: Oh, cool.
Jewerl: And I think he’s a genius.
Craig: It broke every screenwriting rule. It broke every screenwriting rule. Remember that. Love it.
Lindsay: It started at the end.
Craig: We’ve already seen that. That was already a movie.
John: It was white letters on black paper.
Craig: Ooh. I would read that.
John: Lindsay, how quickly – he says he can do it in two pages. When do you get a sense of when a writer has a voice?
Lindsay: I try to be more generous than that, even though I do completely understand why the first page tells you an awful lot. The second page tells you an awful lot. I do a thing that I did yesterday morning called The First Ten Pages based on the situation I had with Dead Again where I found out later on that Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson were reading a ton of scripts at the same time. He had just made Henry V and he was getting sent a million things and he was touring the world with King Lear and Midsummer Night’s Dream and they were carrying around dozens, and dozens, and dozens of scripts.
So they just said we’re just going to read the first ten pages of everything and if we don’t like it we’re going to throw it away. And they had a huge trash can in their dressing room at the theaters. And when they read the first ten pages of Dead Again they missed their cue. Because they were so excited and they couldn’t wait to get off stage so they could keep reading.
So that is in my mind. And I do remember the first time I ever read Scott Frank. The first time I read Little Man Tate I called the agent on page 11 and said I don’t have to read anymore. I just want to meet this guy. And I know when Emma Thompson was reading Stranger than Fiction she called me on page 11 and said I don’t have to read anymore. So, I do know that it can make an impression on you that quickly.
Craig: Yeah. It would seem it’s a lot harder to determine how far to read to decide that somebody is great. But it should be fairly easy to determine that somebody is absolutely never, ever, ever, ever, ever going to qualify as a screenwriter. That you can sometimes see in four words.
John: Craig, I want to push back a little on that.
Craig: Go for it. You think you can get it down to two words?
John: Some of what we’re talking about is voice and vision. But some of what we’re talking about is purely craft. And sometimes you read stuff where the writer clearly has not read a lot of screenplays and doesn’t have a sense of what the form is. So they’re really struggling with the form and having a hard time understanding–
Craig: I would never turn something aside because the form was incorrect. It’s just sometimes you can read a few things and you realize just the mind is not a particularly strong mind. I mean, you guys have read things, right, where you’re like–
Jewerl: You guys are harsher than I am. Geez.
Craig: Oh, you have no idea.
Jewerl: Geez, I’m going to like you.
John: I mean, some of the things that knock it out quickly for me is when it’s halfway through the first page and I’m already on a cliché. And there’s no spin on the cliché. You’re just in this really rote moment. And it’s like, OK, if you’re doing that so early I don’t have good faith that it’s going to be worth my time to do it. And really what we’re talking about, reading a screenplay is an act of faith. If I’m going to give you an hour, two hours, five hours of my time, and the writer says I’m going to make it worth your while to do that. And there’s trust and faith. And if you break that trust, that sort of social contract between the writer and the reader, that’s a problem. And that contract starts on page one.
Lindsay: When I was doing my First Ten Pages workshop yesterday morning two of the scripts, the worst writing in the scripts were in the first page and a half. They were both things where they were putting the bomb under the table. You know, they were setting up the thriller underneath the other stuff. And once I got to the other stuff the writing was really sound and really good. They just didn’t know how to do that whole other thing.
So, and yet I was trying to convey that a lot of people will just put it down after a page and a half. If you’re not on the top of your game on page one. At that workshop I talk a lot about how everybody who reads your script has too much to read. Would rather be doing something else. They’re exhausted and distracted. So that’s what you’re up against. And that’s what we’re up against with the audience really. They may have paid the ticket, but they’re still thinking about a lot of other things before the lights go down.
So we have to grab people who would rather be thinking about something else or doing something else. That’s the job.
Jewerl: You know, I never stop reading at page two. I always give someone ten, 20, 30 pages. You know, I’ve been developing a TV pilot with Howard Gordon who produced 24 and some other big television shows.
Craig: X-Files. I think he was on X-Files.
Jewerl: Yeah, all these big television shows. And I stopped feeling bad because he has this thing where if there’s a logic problem on page 12 he can’t go to page 13. He’s like we have to fix the logic problem here before I can get to the – it’s an OCD thing with him. And I’ve appreciated that because it’s like when there are too many logic problems for me they’ve lost me. I can’t – I’m not longer in fantasy. I’m in why do you suck.
Lindsay: You think he’s meaner than you. Wow.
John: Yeah. Let’s hope he doesn’t repeat those words.
Craig: I can outdo that. I can absolutely go – that was positively Amadeusian. That was the greatest laugh I’ve ever heard. That was amazing.
Jewerl: I still want to figure out the name of that script. The three pages. I’ve been looking at my phone and I can’t figure it out.
Craig: The one that you loved, loved, loved?
Craig: Well we should probably deal with these three pages.
John: We should. So I’m going to look at my phone and I’m going to read the summary for this first script. So as a reminder if you are in this audience and want to read along the pages with us, or if you’re at home listening to this podcast you can go to johnaugust.com/aff2018. Or if you’re listening to the podcast you can just click the links there. This is Night Trauma by Athena Frost.
We open in a boy’s bedroom in Chicago where 50-year-old Raimond Fanon is performing a ritual with incense. The young boy clings to his mother. Aimee Fanon, a woman in her mid-20s says the boy needs to stay in order to draw it out.
Raimond says that Connor Leidenfrost should remain outside, but Connor says my monster, my fight. Raimond begins chanting. The room begins to shake violently. Something bursts out of the closet, moving so fast we can’t finally see it until it ends up atop Connor. The monster is six-feet tall and thin as a broomstick, with sharp claws that cut down to Connor’s body armor. Raimond magically holds the creature and shouts to cut off its head.
Aimee dispatches it with Connor’s knife.
We cut to a hospital in Seattle where an Asian man in his 20s pushes his way into a critical care room. There, doctors Foster and Goralczyk are working on a gunshot victim. And that’s where we’re at on the bottom of the first three pages.
Lindsay, do you want to start us off? Talk about your first impressions going through these three pages.
Lindsay: Well, Craig knows that I have this thing about where is everybody standing. It drives him crazy. He thinks it drives other writers I work with crazy.
Craig: Only because they told me so.
Lindsay: Oh well, OK. If you’re going to go with that. So, I have to say my first impression was I couldn’t tell where anybody was standing. You start in the room. It’s boy’s room. But then the character comes into the room. I couldn’t tell whether those other people were in the room. So I was just confused and there’s – I work a lot with Phil Lord and Chris Miller on their movies and they always refer to me as Captain Clarity because if I can’t get past the clarity of the situation I have a really hard time getting engaged.
So, for example, I thought Connor was the father for a while because he talked about my monster, and so I thought that’s why he was there. But then he seemed to already know those other people and he was the one with the knife. So I guess he must work with them, but they don’t seem to like him. I was having such a hard time. Because I love the situation. I love being in a situation where it’s so scary and you need the boy to draw it out. Aye-aye-aye. What the heck? All of that seemed really, really good to me, but I was so troubled by the clarity of the situation that it was getting in the way of the suspense of the situation for me.
Jewerl: I totally agree. The geography of the room–
Jewerl: Is impossible to know. Like for example, paragraph three, “He pulls out a small gray puck,” and I highlight the word puck. I don’t know what a puck is. “From his bag and lights it on top of an incense burner.”
OK, so he has a bag. He can light something while holding the bag and put it on an incense burner. I’m trying to imagine him doing that and I can’t imagine him doing it because I would need a third arm to do all of those things and hold those things.
And then you say he edges slowly into the room. Well, you’ve already told me that I’m in the interior of the room. And so how can he come into the room that he’s already in? And then when you introduce, mother has dialogue next, and mother says, “What is he doing?” Well, you’ve only described Raimond and you’ve described Raimond already in the room. You never told me that mother even existed. And so now I’m thinking she’s off-screen. She’s like – she’s saying something and you just didn’t write OS or something.
Like I don’t know – and so then I read more and there are more characters there and I’m like I was scared. I thought we were doing something where people were magically maybe appearing. Maybe he’s having a fantasy sequence. That they’re not really alive. I didn’t know if there were real characters in the room at that moment.
John: So geography was the first thing I underlined on the page because I got confused where we were. But I felt like if you’re introducing characters in the middle of the scene that totally works, but you need to tell us that we’re not supposed to see that they’re there until they start speaking. So like the word reveal is useful. So like we reveal a young boy clinging to the mother’s waist. Then it’s that sense of like OK now we’re seeing this kid for the first time.
If you set up the mother but we hadn’t seen the boy, and then you used reveal to show that the boy was clinging to his mother, that’s great. Then you’re adding to the scene versus just piling more stuff on.
The challenge with so many characters in a scene, I got really confused who was driving the scene. Who was in charge of the scene?
John: Because my assumption would be that it would be Raimond because he’s the first character who spoke. He’s the first character we meet. He’s not the first character who speaks. So I assumed that he was going to be driving the scene. But it seems like Connor is. And ultimately Aimee is. And we don’t know enough about any of them to sort of really have a sense of who has the storytelling power in the scene and through whose eyes were supposed to be watching this thing unfurl.
Craig: These people are terribly mean. Let me be very, very nice to you for a second.
Lindsay: Living up to his reputation.
Craig: Exactly. No, everything they’ve said is true and we’ll get around to it, and then I’ll be worse. But what I like a lot is that there is a situation. I’m not – it’s sort of reminded me a little bit of Constantine. It had a little bit of a Constantine kind of vibe to it, but it was different. I loved the description of the monster and so I’ll just do a quick little thing here.
I loved the way you did this. This monster appears through sound, which was wonderful. And then we couldn’t find him. It says, “The sound is continuously getting louder. It is in the room somewhere but we can’t see it directly. A flash here. In the corner of the eye there.” I can imagine that and I’m feeling it which is great. “Raimond motions for everyone to stop moving. No one can hear anything anymore.” That’s cool. I can see that. I can feel that. “He stands calmly in the middle of the room and pushes the incense away from him, talking quietly.” Then it says, “All sound stops,” which means that you’ve done that twice, right? You know that because nobody could hear anything else. But that’s a side.
What I loved was I’m learning about him and how he responds to things around him. I’m learning about his character through this action and his choices, which is great. And then the description of the monster is wonderful. “Over six feet tall but as thin as a broomstick, it glares at the three of them through shiny black eyes. Tufts of lint hang on to its glistening body. Its skin looks like it’s wet with syrupy tar. It spews out its previous meal of skin and hair and cloth.” I mean, I don’t know exactly what it looks like but that’s so cool. And so I kind of imagine this creepy, gross, like oily laundry monster. So amazing.
There’s all this really cool shit going on. But now here’s what’s going on. Why they’re confused I think in part is you’ve left them too much room to fill in. The human mind is expert at filling in gaps. That’s how we move through the world because we don’t see everything happening. We fill in gaps. So he starts to fill in gaps. I didn’t see her in the room. I’m hearing her voice. She must be outside of the room. Two or three of those mistakes in a row and everyone is completely lost.
So, I will absolutely be Captain Clarity with you as well. You can’t go into a room if you’re already in the room. There’s a point here where the mom says to her son, “Don’t worry. I won’t let it past this door.” What door? They’re already in the room. So are they just outside of the room? Are they in the hallway? Are they looking through the room? This is where I’m totally like you because what I think you need to do is set your stage. Just think about how to set this stage. John is absolutely right that there’s no real strong perspective in the scene.
So, when we talk about perspective we mean to say, for instance, “RAIMOND FANON (50s) looks a bit Rastafarian at first glance with his dreads and dark skin, but he carries himself…” Great description there. Black Dumbledore. Amazing. And then mother. I would do that off screen. What is he doing? Raimond turns to see an old woman standing there with a younger woman and a son. She’s scared. The young – you know? Put it in his perspective. Let that motivation. See what I mean?
When we’re shooting scenes that’s how we break down how to do it. Someone’s head turns to see something. And it’s his perspective because I think you’re right. It feels like it’s his scene.
The only other thing I would mention to you is the – I don’t know who Connor Leidenfrost is. I don’t know how he fits into this. Here’s what my mind did. My mind saw that Connor Leidenfrost – just from his name I went sounds white. Then nods to Aimee as he follows Raimond into the room. Nods to Aimee. Friend? Husband? Boyfriend? Not sure.
“He’s a handsome, corn-fed Midwesterner,” nailed the white, and then it says, “Accent and all the backward..
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 376 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show we’ll be looking at how you know when it’s okay to start writing on that project you’ve been hired to write, and how that ties into the new Start Button the WGA is unveiling this week. We’ll also be answering a three-part listener question about television and some other listener questions as well.
Craig: Terrific. And you’ve been working on this one for quite some time, so this is–
John: This has been a long term project.
Craig: I’m excited. It’s good though. This is why we elected you, John.
John: Aw, thank you.
Craig: Oh, and you know what? Well, I guess I’ll put it in follow up. I have follow up.
John: All right. We’ll put it in follow up. My little bit of news is I’m just now back from book tour. So I did a book tour of Europe. I did a book tour of Texas and Colorado. And I love it and I love signing people’s books and meeting people. But I can’t sign everyone’s books. So I’m doing what a lot of other authors do which is if you’d like me to sign a bookplate which is essentially a fancy sticker that you can put in your book that has my name on it and your name on it, I’m doing that now.
So, if you would like your Arlo Finch copy signed, maybe as a Christmas present, or a gift for some other young reader, you can do that now. So there’s a link in the show notes or just go to johnaugust.com. You’ll see the Arlo Finch little thing there. And I can send you a sticker that you can put in your book as a gift. So if you’d like that just go to johnaugust.com.
Craig: We don’t do any kind of Scriptnotes gift exchange at the end of the year.
John: We don’t. I mean, why don’t we do that, Craig?
Craig: Probably because I hate people and you aren’t really a person.
John: No, I would say that it’s because I don’t like giving gifts. I’ve just never been especially gifty. Stuart Friedel, our former producer of Scriptnotes, he was so good at gifts. He would pick the perfect gift for my daughter. He clearly had a brain that was just always on the hunt for the perfect gift for people.
John: You know, Craig, I think we should break tradition and actually exchange gifts and I think we should do it at our live Scriptnotes show.
John: So we’re doing a Scriptnotes show on December 12 in Hollywood. And maybe we should exchange gifts at that event.
Craig: We have to give ourselves some kind of limitation. Otherwise it could become absurd.
John: So less than $1,000?
Craig: Oh god. That’s an enormous number.
Craig: That’s crazy. I’ve lost interest.
John: All right, so we will exchange some sort of gift but it should be a meaningful gift that the other person will like and we should do it at the live show.
Craig: OK. We’ll figure it out. But we’ll have to put a reasonable financial limit on it so that one person doesn’t overwhelm the other with insanity.
John: Why don’t we say $20 because the tickets are $20?
Craig: I like that.
John: So that will be the baseline. We’re going to be announcing our special guest for the show really soon. We were talking about it right before we got on the air.
John: So we’re excited. We’re excited to be back in Hollywood doing our annual holiday live show. Tickets are on sale now. You can click on the link in the show notes or go to writersguildfoundation.org, or wgafoundation.org. It’s the usual place. And you can get a ticket for the show.
Craig: And we have not yet settled firmly on guests, but we have some excellent ideas that will blow your minds.
John: Blow our minds. So come see that. We have some follow up. So, Craig, why don’t you start with your follow up first?
Craig: My follow up is just some exciting news. We’ve been going on and on about these credit proposals and they passed.
John: They did pass.
Craig: Super excited by that. They passed by a very healthy margin, despite a little pushback from a prominent member of the legal community here in Los Angeles. But I think we as a committee we made a good strong case. And the nice thing is that all the changes that we made are really for the benefit of writers.
So, I’m really happy about that. It’s a great way for me to kind of ride into the sunset as I believe this incarnation of the credits committee is being sunsetted. I have been involved on a credits committee now in one form or another for like a decade. So, this is a nice retirement for me.
John: Very nice. So I will be joining the credits committee and I think the plan going forward is to listen to members about sort of the things they’re experiencing with credits. And as you and I have talked about there are some unique things happening with movies being written in really unusual ways that make determining credit a challenge and so we need to rise to figure out how to deal with those challenges.
Craig: We have actually done I think a very good job as a union to shift our perspective on how credits should interact with the world around us. When we joined the union we were still kind of living with the burden of the old philosophy which is we will write credits rules in such a way that will change the way the business does things.
No. Business doesn’t care. Go ahead and penalize rewriters all you want. They’ll keep hiring people to rewrite things. So, there was a nice philosophical pivot that happened over the last 10 years where the guild said, OK, this is how movies are actually written. How can we better serve our membership who are writing them? And that’s been a good change and there’s obviously lots of more room for improvement. These things have to be done carefully and incrementally and they’re subject to votes. And sometimes even subject to negotiation with the studios. So it’s a tricky, tricky business. But if anyone can do it, John, it’s you. And me. But not me this time. I’m not doing it anymore.
John: Not you this time. There will be many wise, smart people on both the East and the West figuring this out together, so I’m excited about that.
Craig: Yes. Yes.
John: So, a big piece of follow up, Craig many, many, many episodes ago you had made a spontaneous offer that if any studio wanted us to come in and talk about their notes process you and I would be willing to do that. And this last week we did.
Craig: We actually did it. So Disney invited us. They were the only studio brave enough to just listen to two writers talk for an hour. That’s all we ever suggested doing. At no cost to them. They were the only ones that even expressed interest in hearing what writers thought about the notes process, which on the one hand speaks glowingly of them, and on the other hand makes everybody else look a bit, well, tawdry to me.
We came and we did it. And I hope that they actually shared that experience with their other studio, their fellow studio people, because they seemed to really like it a lot. And what you and I did was speak about how notes feel on our side of the table and try and help them tailor the way they give notes to us and our responses so that they actually get better work out of us, better responses, better conversations, less strife, less drama, less trouble.
And it went really well. You know, tip of the hat to Disney for doing that. I was really pleased and just a roomful of executives who were willing to listen to writers talk about this. And, by the way, they seemed legitimately interested, which I really appreciated.
John: Absolutely. So it was a good conversation. We sort of laid out kind of just best practices, like some dos and don’ts, and really what it feels like to be on the receiving end of those notes and which notes are helpful to us and which notes are maddening because they don’t actually recognize the writing process or the filmmaking process.
And we actually got into a bit of back and forth because they say like, “Well sometimes we have to give that note because of X, Y, and Z.” And we said, great, so tell us why you’re giving us those notes if they are crazy notes. So it was a good conversation.
I know we’re going to be going in to talk with some other development executives down the road, but I guess we’re offering this to other folks as well?
Craig: Yeah. I mean, my feeling is there’s no reason that executives at Warner Bros, executives at Fox, executives at Sony, executives at Universal wouldn’t want to hear this. What does it cost beyond an hour? And just to be clear, we don’t walk in there and go, “You guys are stupid. Your notes are dumb.” That’s not at all what we do. What we do is really talk about the psychological experience of writing something and receiving notes and where the notes are helpful. We divided in half. This is helpful. This is not helpful. So, it’s very pro-note and it’s really designed to kind of help improve the relationship between note givers and note takers. Why wouldn’t they want? It makes no sense to me.
But, you know, hey, Disney, trailblazers.
John: Yep. So, another thing we’ve been talking about on the podcast and also in the guild is the sense of No Writing Left Behind. This idea that you should not be leaving your materials behind after a pitch, so that it doesn’t become free work you’re doing for folks. And today we have two new folks who have written in who aren’t screenwriters but are encountering the same kind of thing. Craig, do you want to take the first one here?
Craig: Yeah, sure. So this is what this person writes in. “In following the No Work Left Behind thread over the last number of episodes I wanted to relay a similar issue in the feature directing world, specifically the pitching process. For writers it sounds like “Show us exactly how you would write the script for free and then we’ll decide if we want to pay you.” For directors it sounds like “Show us exactly how you would direct the movie for free and then we’ll decide if we want to pay you.” In my experience, a typical feature film directing pitch from start to finish takes 250 hours or more over about two or three months. It’s free work. If you don’t get the job you don’t get paid.
“And often after going through the entire process the outcome is that the movie gets canceled or the studio hires a bigger name director. If one were to pitch for three or four projects you’re talking about more than 4.5 to six months of fulltime, unpaid speculative pitching work. This is reflective of my 2018. And no one seems surprised by this. In fact, it’s expected.
“I’m a WGA and DGA member, and while the WGA is brilliantly taking on the free work issue, I haven’t gotten a straight answer from the DGA, my reps, or anyone else about the free work required of directors. The only answer I’ve received is when you’re starting out you just have to do a lot of pitching. It’s pretty normal.
“One now well-known director’s rep told me that this director was consistently a runner-up on directing job hires for three years. I know Scriptnotes is a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters, but would you be willing to lend any insights or suggestions about the free work issues in directing? No one else seems to be willing to talk about this issue.”
John, I feel like we could help this person.
John: I think we could as well. So, talking with director friends, this is absolutely true. And so I want to distinguish between a little bit – you know, writers write words and so we focus on like don’t leave your words behind, but there’s obviously a lot of work that’s being done to go in and pitch. And so if we’re telling you like, OK, you may have to pitch this project 10 times but you’re not leaving that document behind that’s still a tremendous amount of your time. And you and I both know many feature writers who are spending a tremendous amount of time pitching and pitching and pitching on projects.
John: This is a director who is doing the same thing. But what the director is coming in with is not a document. It is usually a huge mood board and cut of videos and rip reels from other things to show what he or she is planning to do were they to get the job of directing this movie.
And I would share this director’s frustration that like you are basically giving the studio an option for like this is what the movie could look like and getting almost nothing out of it in return.
Craig: Yeah. So, this is one of those rare moments where in the feature business writers have it better than directors. And I say rare because once the jobs are handed out, way better to be the director in features than the writer. The director is treated with respect and has some creative authority and the writer has none of those things.
But prior to employment however the writers do have a certain advantage because as you point out our work product is words on a page. So, it’s really easy for us to withhold that because that’s the only thing we’re paid for. For a director, what they’re paid for is film in a can and, well, or on a small digital card, and there is no way to essentially withhold that because that’s not going to get made anyway. It seems to me that if you are spending that much time creating a kind of film directing pitch and it’s not converting into jobs then you I suppose must ask the question what is converting into jobs for people.
If you’re spending six months of fulltime, unpaid speculative pitching work I feel like maybe the answer is to spend six months shooting something that is kind of remarkable.
John: Yeah, I mean, one of the luxuries writers have is that it’s cheap for us to do our jobs. And so we can just – you and I can just go off and write a thing. No one can stop us and it’s free. For a director to make something costs money and takes time and to make a film requires a tremendous amount of money. Even to make a small film you’re spending a tremendous amount of time and money to do that.
So, just this past week we had a launch party for Start Button stuff. And I was talking with a feature writer who was saying that he was going in pitch after pitch after pitch on this project and at a certain point he wanted to say, “OK, I will go back in and pitch again but you need to start paying me some money.” And he’d be fine if that was money against what they were ultimately going to pay him. But if it costs $500 or $1,000 to take another meeting that would at least incentivize both sides to really ask is this worth it. Is this money well spent? Is this time well spent? Because it becomes crazy after a certain point.
Craig: It does. I mean, look, the problem is I think from the point of a studio that’s contemplating hiring a director and paying them some amount of money that’s significant and then also putting them creatively in charge of a project that’s worth millions and millions of dollars they might look at that as penny ante nonsense and slightly unprofessional or dinky. And it may hurt you.
And you’re right. It is really hard to, well, it’s much harder for directors to create speculative work, like a proper film, than it is for writers to create speculative work on paper. But it’s cheaper now than it’s ever been before.
Craig: And it seems to me that we’re collecting quite a list of writers who are saying I have work that no one seems to want to pay for and directors who are saying I’m doing work that no one seems to want to pay for. And maybe they should get together and in actual partnership start working together to create work together that will benefit them together. And I’m pretty sure there’s about four billion actors who are saying I’m not getting work.
Do you know what I mean? If I were an agent I would be saying, “OK, here are three really talented directors that are underemployed. Here are three really talented writers that are underemployed. Get in a room and start talking guys. I need you people to figure out how to work together and create something that lets me be able to sell you.”
So, you know what, I’m blaming the agents, again.
John: I would also ask our listeners if you know of a system, it could be a different industry, we have people writing in from ad industry as well, if you know of a system that is set up to sort of help deal with this, to help deal with the sort of pitch again, pitch again, pitching for free forever. I mean, actors go through this, again, with auditions. And if you know of a system that you think actually does help with this I’d love to hear what you think could be a solution.
So, whether it’s an existing system or your pitch for how you actually fix this issue. Because I do think it’s the next wave of stuff we have to take into account.
Craig: Yeah. It’s always been bad. It’s getting worse. And it will continue to get worse. And the thing that makes me really nervous, because look the part where employees like directors and writers, artist employees are being mistreated, that makes me feel bad. But what makes me nervous is that when you start to move large groups of people into states of scarcity, resource scarcity, they begin to turn on each other. It’s inevitable. And I think Hollywood, that is to say corporate Hollywood, has done a wonderful job pitting directors, actors, and writers against each other all the time in their system in such a way that the artists do not unite, regardless of the creation of a studio called United Artists. And they’re just really good at that. They’re smart. In general it makes sense that that’s what they’re good at. And we tend to bite each other’s backs, writers and directors in particular, really just go at it, fighting over the scraps that they toss down.
I know I sound a little bit like a Marxist nut job right now, and I’m not normally, but it’s not good what’s going on out there.
John: No. Well, I mean I think what tends to happen is there’s a race towards the bottom. And fortunately because of our unions we do have a bottom in terms of compensation which is scale. And so you cannot undercut each other on that financial level.
John: But creatively you can undercut each other and the one person who decides like, oh, I will turn in this 50-page treatment and sort of ruins it for everybody else. And that’s a real thing. And so we’ve got to make sure that we understand that it doesn’t get better until everyone sort of agrees on some terms.
Craig: Yeah. I completely agree with you. And one thing that I did once that worked out beautifully, and this is not for our director friend but for our writer friends, is that I made a deal for a project and they were a little bit like, hmm, we’re not sure if we want to do that. And I said I’ll tell you what. Let’s make a deal for it. And I will write a very extensive treatment. And the deal will have a cut off after the treatment. So just go ahead and pay me scale for the treatment. And if you read the treatment and you think, yeah, you know what, we don’t want to go ahead with this, you’re done. But if you do want to go ahead with it, then we have the deal and you go ahead and you trigger the first step and I start writing. And it worked out because they did like it and they did trigger the first step. But I got paid for that.
And I think any time you can say, listen, let’s just start dealing with scale. How about that? Because sometimes I think we’re so afraid to say, OK, just give me scale for something that we go ahead and accept nothing in its place. And nothing is in fact worse than scale.
John: It is in fact worse than scale.
Craig: And in that case doing the scale work got me my full fee and then some for the rest of it. I don’t mind being quasi speculative in that regard, but you got to pay me something. So, scale seems reasonable.
John: Yeah. So, this last week we got a tweet from Anïas with three questions and I thought they were all good questions, so let’s try to answer all three of these. Number one, what makes a good procedural TV show work, Craig?
Craig: Oh, OK. We’re going to go one by one. I like it. These were good questions. I am not the biggest procedural show fan. That said, I’ve certainly seen my share of procedural shows. To me, the most important thing for a procedural show is that the concept of the show is such that the actors involved have a job that is episodic. So, whatever they do for a living it changes on a daily basis or a weekly basis. They get something new that will have a beginning, middle, and end.
This is why most procedural shows are cops, lawyers, doctors, firefighters, because they get cases. But, you know, there are certain other kinds of procedural shows that are based around the nomadic lifestyle of the hero, for instance Highway to Heaven. Or, when we were children The Hulk, the Incredible Hulk was essentially a nomad show where a loner roams from town to town, arrives in a new place, deals with a new situation that has a beginning, middle, and end, and then can leave. But the important thing is that conceptually there is no continuing action beyond the kind of interplay between the characters who are doing the job, but the world/the plot always has hard ins and outs. And the concept needs to support the reality of that.
John: I would say a good procedural show is like one of Craig’s best crossword puzzles in that you sit down with it and you sort of know what you’re going to get. You’re not sure how it’s all going to fit together. But it delivers on what your expectations were for that period of time for that experience. You know sort of exactly what you’re going to get and that is I think why the good procedural shows keep going on forever and forever because they just deliver what you expect. It’s like McDonald’s hamburgers. They’re exactly what you think they’re going to be.
You know, when you talk with people who work on procedural shows, they will at the start of the season on a big white board figure out the giant arcs of characters over the course of the seasons, like what kinds of things we’re going to do. This character is going to buy a house. And these things will change. But episode to episode not a lot is going to change. And in many cases you could take episode 10 and episode four and swap them and nothing bad would happen. Serialized shows that wouldn’t work.
Craig: Right. Exactly. And interestingly there’s been an evolution in comedy, in televised comedy. Sitcoms were always procedurals. We don’t think of them necessarily as procedurals, but they always were. It’s just the procedural wasn’t saving a life or trying a case. It was my dog got free, or I agreed to date two people at the same time. So it’s the situation..
Craig and John spend the entire episode discussing and dissecting Raiders of the Lost Ark, looking at both its structure and scene work.
This amazing and iconic 1981 film established so much of what we expect of out movie heroes and set pieces — but a lot of what it does would have a hard time getting through modern studio development. Five-minute exposition scenes! Nazi monkeys! Helpless heroes at the climax!
And yet it works so well. There are great lessons to be learned for screenwriters in every genre.
This episode originally aired on January 22, 2013.
John and Craig discuss commencement, the official moment to start writing. It can be easy to get pressured into free producer rewrites, starting to write before a deal is done and other pitfalls of blurry boundaries, so the WGA is introducing the Start Button, designed to help writers define their timeline and let the Guild be the bad guy.
We also answer listener questions about procedural television, binge-watching, and crossing the line in dark comedy.
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 374 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show it’s a new round of How Would This Be a Movie? where we take a look at stories in the news and discuss how they could be turned into big screen entertainment, or realistically small screen entertainment because that’s where all the action is.
Plus, we’ll be answering a listener question about ensemble movies.
But we’re only going to do this if people vote, because this episode is coming out on Election Day. So if you are a US citizen who is of age to vote you need to stop what you’re doing right now and go vote and come back and listen to this episode after you’ve voted. Is that fair?
Craig: I think it’s more than fair. And if you’re still here and you haven’t voted and you’re still listening, I’m angry. So now you’ll enjoy the gift of my anger. What are you doing? Stop it. Do you enjoy this? Do you like podcasts and people saying what they want to say and freedom and, I don’t know, a planet that isn’t sweltering hot? Just go and vote. Just go vote, dumb-dumb, and then come back.
John: Yeah. We’re recording this on a Friday. I have no idea what I’m actually going to do on Tuesday other than sort of, you know, panic a little bit.
Craig: Well, at this point I’m preparing to curl up into the fetal position, but anything – anything better than that will be a joy.
John: It will be a joy. What is also a joy is the Random Advice episode that is now out for people to listen to. So if you are a premium subscriber, which you can subscribe to at Scriptnotes.net, you have for you to listen to the Random Advice episode that Craig and I recorded.
Craig: So good.
John: So good. It’s actually a delightful episode. It has almost nothing to do with screenwriting. It’s just other stuff that listeners wrote in with their questions and we answered it.
Craig: But we’re so good at everything.
John: Yeah. We’ve got opinions on most everything and we answered most of those opinions.
Craig: But just really good. I mean, we’re really good at this. And, I mean, for $1.99, geez-Louise. I mean, you’re not voting. You’re not giving us two dollars a month. What good are you? I’m talking to you, listener. What good are you?
Craig: This is how I like to drum up listenership. This is direct abuse.
John: Yeah. It’s a strategy.
Craig: It’s fun.
John: Several people have written to us about FilmStruck shutting down. I was not a subscriber to FilmStruck, which is probably part of the reason why. It was me. It was my fault.
Craig: You did it.
John: I was the person. I did it. But it ties in very well to this conversation we had earlier about missing movies and sort of the research I’d done on movies that are no longer available. So FilmStruck was one of the ways that some people could see some of those movies that were missing. But of course the answer is that you can’t have one service that you rely on to solve all of the problem of missing movies and it has to be a systemic situation where the people who own copyright on these movies actively put them out there in ways that people can see them. And FilmStruck by itself couldn’t do that.
Craig: I feel like I’m the reason it shut down because I did subscribe to FilmStruck and I enjoyed it. Melissa enjoyed it. And so, of course, that was it. They found out that we were enjoying it and they took it away.
For years I’ve paid for Cinemax. I don’t think I’ve ever watched anything on Cinemax.
John: No, no.
Craig: And Cinemax is still going strong.
John: I think I have CBS All Access. Haven’t used it.
Craig: There you go. But you will once you turn 90. [laughs] Was a cheap shot. You know what that was? A cheap shot.
John: Yeah, it’s fine. Luke in San Diego wrote to us and said, “Thank you for single handedly bringing back the rom-com,” which we did. So that was in the repeat episode, the Tess Morris on rom-coms.
Craig: Oh yes, we did.
John: “So I wonder if you can work your magic to bring back my all-time favorite film genre, the terrible live action family Christmas comedy, a la Christmas with the Cranks, Deck the Halls, and Four Christmases. It seems like all of the bad Christmas movies coming out of Hollywood these days are either animated features or R-rated comedies. Will you please help return the true spirit of Christmas to our cinema screens?”
Craig: There is a genre of those sort of corny Christmas comedies. Jingle All the Way is one of my favorites. It’s corny. And the reason that they’re corny is because Christmas is corny. I mean, the whole thing. Let me see, what will the theme of this Christmas movie be? It is better to give than to receive. Done. It’s always the same thing. It’s always family and faith and spirit and giving. That’s what Christmas is about. It’s always the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over.
So, I don’t know, do we need more? Or can we just sort of live off the stored up fat of this particular genre?
John: I don’t know. Maybe we do need more. I mean, maybe we need, I mean, I’m sure we have the African American family version of this.
Craig: Oh yes, there is.
John: But there’s certainly always new opportunities to do new versions of this. I also just really kind of want to be on the set when it’s like July and everybody has to wear their parkas and they’re just miserable. And there’s fake snow everywhere. That’s just the movie magic of Hollywood.
Craig: Yeah, that is never fun. Never fun for anybody. There’s a scene where someone in our show had to be in a snowy park, wearing a parka, bundled up because it’s Ukrainian winter, and pregnant, so wearing like pregnant padding. And I think it was probably 94 degrees that day. Unpleasant. Or as they would say over there 31.
John: Yeah. Celsius. I tried to really master my Celsius while I was living in France. I just never really did it. It makes so much more sense and yet I love the granularity that we can sort of distinguish between like, oh, it’s 72 versus 73.
Craig: Exactly. Normally I’m with them on this. I get it. Metric system base 10, the whole thing. Yep. Yep. Totally. But the extra gradations of temperature are actually quite valuable. So, yeah, a little bit of a tradeoff. For some reason our water freezes at 32 instead of a rational zero.
John: Oh, and water boils at 212.
Craig: Instead of a rational 100. But we do have – you know what – like I like my office at 74. What is it, 21? Whatever.
John: My husband is listening right now and just–
Craig: So grumpy. [laughs]
John: He loves the metric system.
Craig: Good. Of course he does.
John: Prefers Celsius. Do you want to take this thing about No Writing Left Behind?
Craig: Yeah, sure. So we got a little bit of a communicado in from a Matt with a Day Job. And he writes, “Last summer I was approached by a production company via my agent to adapt a comic book series into a feature film. They sent me the comic and even put me in touch with its creator. I went in for the pitch and it was just as Craig said, it was a fantastic conversation about what made both myself and the executives passionate about that story. They then asked me to write a brief outline of what I saw the movie to be before any formal deal was signed.
“Being the new writer on the block, and not really knowing any better, I agreed. Thus began a,” are you sitting, dear listener, “a six-month process of writing and rewriting an outline that varied from 11 pages to 28 pages long. I was otherwise unemployed at the time, so as you can imagine this process was incredibly frustrating. After several drafts totally somewhere around 80 pages across various drafts like Craig I lost the job to ‘we decided not to make this movie.’ During this time my agent encouraged me to do the same with two other projects with another production company, so for seven months I worked on multiple drafts of multiple outlines for multiple projects. Needless to say I felt completely duped and foolish.
“Oh, and I will never, ever do that again.”
I wish John that this were a rare story, but it is not.
John: It is not. And even in this last week talking to some working screenwriters you and I both know this kind of thing still happens. Where they’re just like, “Oh, could you just write up this thing because it’s between you and this other person and this could help put you over the top.” Argh.
So, what Matt does bring up here is that in this case the agent said to do it. We’ve also heard from people who said like, oh, my manager told me to do it. My manager told me it’s totally normal. That’s bad. That’s not good. Because the agent and the manager, they’re not getting paid for that free work either. So it should be in their interest to make sure that their clients are being paid to write and yet they seem to have forgotten that key part of their job.
Craig: Yeah. Your agent or your manager who tells you you should do this is literally saying the following to you, whether you realize it or not. “I, your representative, do not feel that I can get you employment unless you debase yourself in this manner. I just don’t think I can do it. I’m not good enough. I’m not good enough to call this production company and say, ‘You like my client? You think they’re amazing? Hire them. Otherwise, I’m too smart to let my client work for six months and generate free labor for you in violation of a number of laws, by the way, because you’re not allowed to do that.’ And then not get the job. So I’m not good enough to handle that for you, dear client. Therefore you should just go do that.”
That’s what they’re saying to you. They’re useless. They’re worse than useless. In this situation you’re better off without an agent or a manager giving you this terrible advice. And to the people that do this to writers, all I can tell you is your time has come. We’re not going to stop talking about this. We are not going to stop. You are going to stop. Because we’re going to keep telling these stories and sharing these stories. The thing that ruins your little plan is when we all talk to each other and realize how often it doesn’t turn into anything except misery.
So listen at home friends. When you say, “Well, you know, John and Craig are just trying to keep us from doing this, keep us out of the business,” no. What we’re trying to do is save you from the misery that Matt had to deal with. And I’m going to repeat again: six months, 80 pages, no employment.
John: Yep. I’m trying to think of other industries that have agents and managers and people trying to be hired to do things and where this would be possible. So, I think about professional athletes. You know, the agent for a professional athlete, the manager for a professional athlete, is not going to let them go and play for six months for free hoping that they’ll get signed on the team. That just doesn’t happen.
Craig: No, I mean, the equivalent would be a tryout. So you’re not signed, go to a tryout. Great. Go to a tryout camp. That’s a week or two, but you’re not going to let them go on for six months. All they’re going to do is get injured. Are we playing for you or not? You have enough information to decide. Yes or no. Do it. Because what they can’t do, what any team can’t do, is see enough to guarantee this guy is going to help us win a championship. Nobody knows anything. You’ve got to let it just happen. Just let it happen. Trust it. Have faith.
John: Yeah. So if you were a model would the manager say like, “Oh, no, no, just go and let them take a ton of photos. No, no, let them take a ton more photos. Let them use your photos. No. Definitely go. Spend six months.”
No. That person would say like you want to take this person’s picture that is a job. You’re taking up their time. That’s the thing. It’s like it is ultimately their time is what they are billing. And they should bill for that time.
Craig: Their time is being abused and also their – I honestly just think that they are being abused. Their personhood is being abused by this behavior. And the people who did this, this production company, or if you are in a production company right now and you work for one, you’re listening to this, I want to tell you take this seriously. We’re not just mouthing off on a podcast. It’s stopping. We’re coming for you and we’re going to share names. We do that. We know. And you know what, I’ll start saying names on this show. I don’t care. I’ll blow my career up. I’m basically good.
You know what I mean? Like I don’t care anymore. I really don’t. It’s enough already.
John: Yeah. He’s been pushed too far.
Craig: I’ve been pushed too far.
John: Nothing left to lose.
Craig: I’ve got nothing left to lose. I have one day to retirement. [laughs]
John: How many more clichés can we stack on top of this guy as he goes into this journey?
Craig: I’m getting too old for this poop.
John: Katie wrote in. She said, “I’ve been catching up on about two years of Scriptnotes episodes and just today reached Episode 346, the episode with Christina Hodson. The question of how to indicate to casting that a character is ‘open’ gave me an idea. Why not work to implement and popularize a shorthand abbreviation that means open race or non-specified race? It could be as simple as Teddy Johnson, early 30s, OR, or NSR, removes his jet pack and glowers at the gathered crowd.
“Even if many writers choose not to use it, it could become a recognizable and accepted term that could help writers, executives, and casting departments move towards a more diverse range of actors.”
Craig, what do you think of OR or NSR?
Craig: This is not a bad idea at all. Things like abbreviations like OR or NSR may seem a little unwieldy, but then again we have lots of abbreviations that we use in screenwriting all the time that are a little odd like OS and VO and blah-blah-blah. However, what I think is if something like this is going to have a prayer of succeeding it needs to be employer-driven, because ultimately it’s the studios that set the standards for screenplays. If all the studios said, “Listen, this is a thing, part of our screenplay deal, it’s in your contract, is that this is part of the format we use,” then we would use it. But if you’re just going to ask screenwriters in general to do it, it’s just going to be incredibly difficult to reach critical mass, especially because most screenwriters and most screenplay material is for television where the cast is already in place.
John: Although every television show is always bringing in new actors to play new little parts. And so there’s always casting that’s happening on a weekly basis in television. I think television may actually be the opportunity. I can see if a network or a studio or even just a show decided like, oh you know what, we’re going to always just mark it in a thing that it’s NSR and it’s going to be – just to make it clear to our own internal team that like we are looking for a broad range of, you know, different possibilities for this role.
Craig: Just my impression of television writing, I could be wrong, just from what I’ve seen is that they don’t really call the stuff out in their scripts. Because they’re in production all the time, it’s a casting breakdown kind of thing.
John: Yeah, but I suspect race is still indicated in scripts where it’s important, even in television, even in like episode 11 of a show.
Craig: Right. Where it’s important, for sure, I guess so. But here where it’s not, I don’t know. I think if studios and large production companies made it part of the format than yes. But, hard to get people to just kind of piecemeal adapt it. That’s my gut.
John: That’s my gut, too. But if this already existed, I would be delighted for it to already exist.
Craig: Yeah. It seems like it would be helpful.
John: I agree. All right, a bigger topic was suggested by Aaron Sauerland. He tweeted at me. He said, “Hey John August, have you and CL Mazin ever done an episode on writing scripts with an ensemble cast. My writing partner and I are writing one right now and would love any insight on balancing characters for a story like that.”
Craig, you and I have both written ensemble movies.
John: So let’s talk through some general advice for Aaron and his writing partner as they are getting started on theirs.
Craig: Sure. Well, no matter what the ensemble is, there’s going to be one main character, meaning one protagonist. There will be, typically in ensemble films A stories, B stories, C stories. There are some true ensemble films which are more in the kind of Love Actually mode where you are actually dividing a movie into really three movies that you’re running simultaneously or something like that. And that’s not this. But for a proper ensemble I think you have your main story with your main character and then there’s a sub story with sub characters. John Hughes would do this quite a bit.
You have to make sure who is who. And then you have to make sure that all the characters have a purpose. There is a thing that happens sometimes, and I will see it actually interestingly on sitcoms, where three people, four people, six people are confronted by somebody and one of the group has a back and forth with that person. And everyone else is just standing there. That can be awkward. Even after a minute or two you start to wonder why people are just standing.
John: As you were describing the kinds of movies that are ensembles, I think maybe we should break them down a little bit more because I have one idea for what an ensemble movie is, but there clearly are kind of many different ensemble movies. So, something like The Hangover is what you’re describing where, yes, there are multiple characters but there is one character who is sort of going to protagonate over the course of it and the other characters are going to have a function in that.
But I look at a movie like Go which truly has different protagonists in each of its sections. And so in each of those chapters a different character really is the central character and the one who has to go through the biggest change.
And then you look at Robert Altman movies which just have a bunch of people who are just doing stuff and it’s hard to say that that one character is the central character of the film. In fact, in an Altman movie generally you could take out one entire character from the whole movie and the movie would still work. And so they’re kaleidoscopic in that way.
John: What Aaron should maybe keep in mind as he and his writing partner are getting started is that within a scene, like what you’re describing in the sitcom thing where like one character is driving and other characters are just sitting there, it’s something we talked about two episodes ago on the show, you’re often going to have one character who is the central character in that scene and he’s sort of the hero of that scene. And if you think of every scene as being its own little movie, there’s probably going to be one person who is the central character in that moment. And you’re going to have to figure out how to use the other characters to support that main character’s idea in that sequence.
Continue that through the whole movie and even if you’re doing an Altman-esque movie, or a movie like Go that has truly sort of multiple protagonists – Big Fish also has multiple protagonists – you’re still looking for a thread that follows a single character, even though there’s multiple characters around you.
Craig: Yeah. And again I tend to think of ensemble movies as more a unified story with a lot of actors sort of rotating around it as opposed to more of the kind of fragmented storytelling which is more of the Tarantino kind of action in Pulp Fiction. I think Go as well. There’s intersections, right, but it seems like there’s sort of somewhat independent stories going on.
John: Yeah. There are chapters.
Craig: Chapters. Whereas like when I think of a classic ensemble film I think of something like Bridesmaids where there are a lot of characters and you do get to follow these mini stories. And what’s very important for you, Aaron, as you’re balancing these things out and you understand what your A story is and you understand what your B story is and you know that, OK, the A story needs to have the most stuff in it and the most emotionally complicated stuff. And it sort of needs the biggest beginning, middle, and end.
As you go down the list of B, C, D, the stories need to get simpler and shorter. Simpler and shorter. Simpler and shorter. To the point where on a D story it may just be somebody wanted something in the very beginning of the movie and they get it at the very end. It literally could be that. But it’s really important to also keep in mind that when you have characters that feel really peripheral to the movie at some point they need to become incredibly important. It is just satisfying when for instance in Bridesmaids we see Melissa McCarthy’s character and we think she’s just a goof, and for a while she is just a goof. She isn’t really super friendly with our main character and she steals puppies. She’s kind of crazy. But at a crucial point in the film it’s Melissa McCarthy’s character who finally shakes Kristen Wiig’s character out of her funk and says stop it, go be the better you. She becomes incredibly crucial to the story. And that’s really important. That’s what you want to see in a movie where you’re layering people. Make that somebody that you didn’t think was that important become super important suddenly.
We like that.
John: Yeah. So a movie of my own that I can’t believe wasn’t the first thing that came to mind is Charlie’s Angels. So in the Charlie’s Angels movies there is no one protagonist. The three angels are all heroes and protagonists and not any one of them is the main character. They’re all three the main character. And so one of the great challenges of that movie is trying build arcs for all three of them so they each have their own journey, so that they each affect each other’s journey, that we still have a villain plot, and you still have overall surprises and twists. That makes it really challenging because every scene has to do a bunch of different work to service the movie plot but also to service really the character moments, the story moments that the characters are going..