The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. Today’s Scriptnotes was recorded live at the Writers Guild West where Craig and I led a panel explaining how contracts work when you’re hired to write a movie.
During the presentation we had slides that showed the legal language we were discussing. You can probably get the gist without the slides, but to really get the most out of this you should download the PDF and read along. To do that follow the link to the show notes, or just go to johnaugust.com and look for this episode. I’ll be back at the end for some housekeeping. Enjoy.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: We host a podcast called Scriptnotes, which is about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
I can’t promise you that this is a thing that is interesting to screenwriters but it’s a thing that’s very important to screenwriters, which is your contract.
Craig: I’ll make it interesting.
John: Craig is going to try to make it interesting.
Craig: We’ll give it a little zhoosh.
John: So some folks are going to listen to this at home and so I want to give them a sense of the place that we’re in. And we’re in the multipurpose room of the Writers Guild of America West building. And often, this space was offered to us to record a show. And Craig said he wouldn’t come here because this is where dreams come to die.
Craig: Yeah. This is a brutal room. It’s a perfect rectangle of doom. The carpet is just pediatrician brown and it just always felt oppressive. It was always three degrees too hot. No air. And I walked in tonight and oh my god it’s so much nicer.
John: Yeah. Let’s give applause for this new look. This room has improved greatly. So we have an audience of writers, obviously, a bunch of them are feature writers. And tonight we are going to talk about what to look for in your contract. Because I remember getting my very first writing contract. It was for How to Eat Fried Worms which was an adaptation. And I was so excited to get my contract and I read through it and I could not understand it for the life of me. I was just kind of blindly signing. I had to get it notarized. But that got me paid. And so I loved it for that.
What was the first contract that you signed for writing?
Craig: It was for Rocket Man. Not the current movie. Not the good one.
Craig: But 1997, Walt Disney. And like you I was – you know, well, I’m a student and I was kind of interested so I flipped through and I read through everything. And I tried to understand it as best I could. It did seem to me that there are a lot of things in here, I mean, we concentrate on how much we get paid, but there are a lot of things in here that actually do impact how we do our job, what happens to us in success, how we’re taken care of, how we’re not taken care of. So, it’s actually good to understand how this all works.
John: All right. So over the years we’ve picked up some experience but not nearly as much experience as the actual real lawyers on this panel.
John: Firstly welcome up Laurie Espinosa. Laurie Espinosa is the Senior Director of Contracts for the Writers Guild of America West and has nearly 17 years of experience with the WGA. Laurie has extensive experience interpreting and enforcing all aspects of the WGA theatrical and television basic agreement with a particular focus on separated rights issues. Separated rights are important.
John: Laurie obtained her JD from the USC School of Law and her undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Laurie, thank you for being with us.
Laurie Espinosa: Thank you.
John: Next and final up we have Ken Richman. Ken Richman coming up. Ken Richman is a Managing Partner at Hanson, Jacobson and a whole bunch of other people’s names where he reps a ton of writers including me. I just found out that he got his degree from Harvard so congratulations Ken Richman. Ken Richman!
Thank you both for being here. I thought the best way for us to actually go through this would be to actually look at a real contract. And so then I was daunted by like this is a 60-page document that we’re going to be copying for 170 people in a room. That wasn’t going to work. So in this room we’re going to be looking at some slides. And so the slides are behind us. We have in front of us a thing that will be a PDF down the road that people can download.
What we did is with Ken’s help tried to find the very basic things you’re going to see in a contract. So, this isn’t one specific contract. It’s sort of an amalgam of different things. But it gives us a jumping off place for talking about the kinds of stuff you will see in your contract. So we’re going to kind of go from page one through it, but just talk about the sections and see what’s there and what are the important things to look out for if you’re a writer.
Craig: But before we actually dig into the contract we should probably talk about the things that happen right before the contract, because before you – so this is the long form, the dreaded long form. But before that ever happens there’s usually some sort of agreement and a deal memo. And right off the bat you’re probably, no OK, well how much am I getting paid? How many steps am I guaranteed? How many optional steps are there? What is the price per step? Is there a credit bonus? What’s that going to be? How much time do I have to work on this?
All those basic things are there in that kind of initial.
John: And so that initial round or discussion that’s where you’re talking with your reps about like they’re going back and forth and they’re figuring out how to do stuff. And they say like, OK, we’ve got a deal, it’s these points. And, great, and so that’s the thing that I’m scribbling down on my little notebook. And then weeks or months later I see the final contract and it’s Ken Richman who is negotiating those important stuff in the contract.
So when I see the contract I recognize those things that I had written down, but there’s so much more and it’s Ken’s pencil notes over everything. Ken, just in a general sense when there are deal points settled are they done or does stuff vary after that point?
Ken Richman: Sure. What Craig summarized is pretty accurate in that we will have negotiated what are the writing steps, how many steps are there. And we’ll see in a contract how it’s reflected. But how many guaranteed steps? Is there one guaranteed step? Are there two guaranteed steps? That’s for sure negotiated. How many optional steps are there?
And then what is the money attributable to each of those steps? Furthermore we absolutely will have negotiated what kind of credit bonus there is. And those are the key points that will have been negotiated.
Craig: And they stay essentially firm?
Ken: Those are very unlikely to change. You know, in this business for the most even though this contract is going to need to be signed for sure in order for you to get paid, those points really will not have changed. And I will just point out in the entertainment business not all contracts do get signed. Often depending on what studio you’re dealing with–
Craig: Can I tell you something? I never signed my contract for Chernobyl. It’s unsigned.
Ken: I believe you. And what I was going to say is depending on what studio you’re working at, depending on whether it’s an actor deal or a director deal or a writer deal it may never get signed, depending on whether it’s film or TV. But I will say as a general matter a feature writing contract is going to get signed or you’re not going to get paid. And so it is going to get signed.
John: And Laurie at what point are you tending to see feature contracts? Is it usually when there’s a problem, when something has gone wrong? Is that when you’re seeing these contracts?
Laurie: We usually see them after they’re signed and sometimes not until credits are done, in which case our credits department will ask people for the contracts so they can confirm that the writing was done under our jurisdiction. Sometimes it helps with determining the order of writing services.
John: Great. Well let’s going to get into a contract. And we’re going to have a bunch of stuff to talk through as we hit different slides.
Craig: This is going to be so much fun.
John: Oh my god. It’s like [crossover] but in audio form.
Craig: Here we go. Deep breaths.
John: Your contract will start with something called a Memorandum of Agreement. This is the thing. And the stuff that I have redacted here is actually helpful. These are the variables that are going to get plugged in. So the date, who the studio is. In this case it’s Wet Dog Pictures. The writer’s loan-out corporation. The writer’s name. And the project entitled Movie, so the name of what they’re anticipating this being.
Let’s start with the loan-out company. So my first deal was for Go. And it was just me. I signed it as me. I had no loan-out company. What is the common perception of when a writer needs to have a loan-out company today in 2019? When does that happen, Ken? What is the recommendation? Because it was because of you that I got a loan-out company. So what is the advice now?
Ken: Yeah, I think different accountants, different business managers might give different advice, but I think generally speaking once people are steadily working, feel confident they’re going to have a steady income it tends to be recommended to form a loan-out. You get better tax treatment. You can take better advantage of deductions. And so I would say that the vast majority of clients with whom I work have formed a loan-out by then.
If it’s your first deal, you’re not sure when the next one is going to come, it may not be time yet. But we would talk about it and we’d have a discussion of what do you think the next year looks like, what do the next few years look like, what’s going on.
Craig: The thing about these loan-out companies in terms of these contracts is you will see sometimes if you’re signing a certificate of authorship, I assume you guys have seen those things, which can get your paid prior to the whole thing. A lot of times what they’re asking you to attest to is the essential falsity of the corporation. The corporation is hiring you and the corporation is saying we promise he’s going to do this or she’s going to do this and they’re responsible. So it’s just connecting the company to the person.
John: Nice. Next we’re going to see Conditions Precedent. Ken Richman, tell me what’s actually happening on this thing.
Ken: OK, so what’s happening here is this provision is basically saying here’s some things that need to happen before you can actually get paid. So generally speaking the first of those is signing your contract. And so that’s there. The next thing that it says here is that the studio approves the chain of title for the picture. So this basically means if there’s any underlying material, if they needed to acquire a book or an article or life rights they’re going to need to have gotten an agreement for that before they will pay you.
And I should point out that’s really important because you know let’s say you’re writing a movie and it’s based on a book, if they’re still arguing with the author of the book or that person’s representatives as to the terms of their contract and that contract is not done yet they’re not going to pay you. And I’ve absolutely seen situations where writers sometimes get impatient, they have a window of opportunity to start working so they want to start working, and then I’ve seen situations where the underlying rights deals never close because the deal between the author and the studio blew up and now the writer has spent a bunch of time working when they shouldn’t have yet and they never get paid. And that’s really problematic.
Craig: This is kind of our paragraph one red flag. Right off the bat this is something that you should look really, really carefully at. This is a kind of clause here, 1.2, that you may sometimes say no. I mean, come back when you have the stuff. Or just say you have it now.
Ken: And the other thing I would just point out is sometimes also in this conditions provision you would have other people’s agreements. So for example if there are producers on the film, if there’s already a director on the movie, if somehow having you write was conditioned on an actor becoming attached to the project, those will be listed here as well. And so you definitely want to have a discussion with your representatives in terms of what’s the status of those, what’s going on to make sure–
John: Because you cannot start writing. You cannot be paid for the writing you’re doing until it’s clear. Next up, Engagement, Assigned Materials, Separate Projects. 2.1 says Loan-Out. So we were talking about loan-outs before. So loan-out they’re not hiring me directly they’re hiring Quote-Unquote Films. Quote-Unquote Films is – they’re cutting a check to that company. But that company is just me.
Craig: And if you’re company says something it’s like you saying it. And if you say something it’s like your company is saying it.
John: Mostly Quote-Unquote Films is a way for me to shield profits from Craig Mazin on t-shirt sales.
Craig: I’ve gotten nothing.
John: That’s really what it is. Any red flags with loan-outs, it’s just there because it’s there.
Ken: I’m not super worried about that provision.
John: Assigned Material. This is a red flag for us. For assigned material a “lender and artist acknowledge and agree that television results of artist’s writing services shall be based and derived from the assignment material including, without limitation, the following.” And there will be a list. Craig, you’ve encountered this.
Craig: Well sure. So sometimes you know what the assigned material is. You’re coming in and somebody is saying to you we need you to rewrite something. Well right off the bat one piece of assigned material is all of the scripts prior to your employment. If it is an adaptation, if there’s a novel or it’s a remake of a movie or a song or something that would all be there.
But this is incredibly important because sometimes writers think they’re writing something original and they’re not. Because the studio will occasionally assign material that they didn’t know they were being assigned. And this becomes a huge issue when it’s time for credits because the way the Writers Guild evaluates credits there’s what they call an original project or a non-original project. That has nothing to do with the quality of your writing. It is entirely about this.
If anything is assigned material and it is of a story nature they’re going to move it over into the non-original bucket. It’s a whole different set of rules. You are not entitled to a guaranteed shared story credit. And you will be behind this in line chronologically when it comes time to determine credit.
John: Laurie, you must have encountered this.
Laurie: Yes, and it can also impact your entitlement to something called Separated Rights which we’ll probably talk about a little bit later. Essentially is a benefit of the guild agreement that goes to the writers of something original. So if there is something of a story nature assigned in the contract it can definitely impact that and it changes the rules for the writer even being able to get separated rights.
Ken: Yeah. And I should also just point out sometimes even when you know technically there have been prior writers, the creative executive or someone may have said to you I want you to throw that out. I don’t want you to pay any attention to it. I just want you to start from scratch.
Craig: Don’t read it. Yeah.
Ken: The reality is it still counts as assigned material. So as the guys were just saying when it comes time to determining credit it’s still considered a rewrite so all of that material that was done prior to you will absolutely come in for the credit determination, even if you never looked at it. And so this is really important even if you think you’re starting from scratch if there have been prior writers.
John: One thing to bring up also, Craig and I were talking about this backstage, is the Romeo and Juliet problem. And so let’s say under this, you’re doing a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, if they list Romeo and Juliet here in this place then it’s an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. It is not an original thing. And that’s frustrating.
Craig: Yeah. When you’re dealing with stuff that is in the public domain they cannot possess it, but they can assign it, which is weird. And so you might want to take a look at that especially if you’re the first writer coming in to say if you don’t have to assign me this don’t.
John: Don’t. Yeah.
Craig: Because just like that it’s now an original project.
John: Yep. Let’s move on to the money. We like the money parts. Writing services and compensation. So we have a couple of slides here. We’re starting with First Draft Screenplay. And so you see here in this first paragraph that this writer is being paid $200,000, which is being split into two steps. $100,000 once–
Ken: That’s actually for one step right there.
John: I’m sorry. It’s one step.
John: Commencement and delivery.
Craig: Commencement and delivery.
John: So it’s one step, two checks. $100,000 to start and $100,000 when you’ve completed that and turned it in.
Ken: Correct. So in this agreement and we’ll see between this slide and the next slide in this deal this writer is guaranteed one writing step. OK, so the deal that was made here was $200,000 guaranteed for a first draft. As John was just saying it’s very normal for the compensation for any step to be paid half on commencement, half on delivery. So that’s what you see here.
As you can see in this provision it basically says the conditions had to have been satisfied in order for you to get paid. And then they will pay you half on commencement, half on delivery. If you flip to the next slide what you’re see then is an optional set of revisions, also sometimes referred to as an optional rewrite. So here it was just one step guaranteed and then there were some optional steps. There’s this one, and then on the next slide it will show another optional step. And so that right off the bat is just something that is very important for you to understand when you’re deal is done which is how many steps are guaranteed, how many optional steps are there.
And I will just say that over the many years that I’ve been doing this it’s definitely been more than a trend of moving away from two-step guaranteed deals to one-step guaranteed deals. So a bunch of years ago most feature deals that we did were if you were the first writer you’d be guaranteed a first draft and a rewrite. And there might be two optional steps, an optional rewrite and an optional polish.
Increasingly now almost all studios try to have it be one guaranteed step and then either two or three optional steps thereafter. Once again, when you get to these optional steps like the first step, half the money would be paid on commencement, and half on delivery.
Craig: There’s a few other things you want to look out for in these sections. First of all, nomenclature, if you’re being hired to do a rewrite it will say first rewrite. It’s not going to say first draft. I mean, think of in steps they’ll call them rewrites.
The other thing that’s really important on these options is there’s a window. The option doesn’t last forever. So inside all of those things they’re going to tell you exactly how long they have to trigger that option and there’s a couple of things you’re going to need to know. One is how much time do they have before that option goes away. And the other thing is are there any conditions to that time window. For instance pending availability, or not pending availability. In other words, we have the exclusive right within four weeks to decide if we’re going to pay you again or not for another step. So those windows matter because on the very first thing I did they missed the window and because they decided to make the movie we ended up making more on the optional, you know, non-optional rewrite than we did on the original.
Ken: The other thing that comes up here too Craig is that it’ll set forth whether these optional steps need to be done in order or whether they can do it in whatever order they choose.
Craig: Right. You want in order.
Ken: In order is generally considered preferable, more protective of the writer, because in order means hey we’re going to go from a first draft to a rewrite to a polish. Usually that’s in ascending order of how big the step is and also how much money you’re getting paid for them. And so you don’t want to be in a situation where you do the first draft and they say, “We kind of want to save some money here. Let’s go immediately to the polish even though the step is a pretty big step and they’re going to really want you to do rewrite type work, but let’s just call it the polish.” And so it’s something to be wary of. So hopefully these steps would have to be in order. But even if they’re not and even if they are allowed to jump to the polish you do want to make sure that when you’re getting those notes for what they’re calling the polish steps that it really is a polish. And you’ll see the time periods in a couple slides from now, but is it really a three or four week step, or this a six or eight week step, in which case this isn’t a polish and it’s something to pay attention to.
Laurie: Right. It becomes even more important if you’re at minimum and these figures are not. But there’s a big difference between the rewrite minimum and a polish minimum. So if you’re asked to do work that rises to the level of a rewrite it’s definitely important to bring that to us so we can enforce the rewrite minimum for that. Basically a rewrite is changes in story, structure, and dialogue.
John: So on the issue of one step deals, so this is a one-step deal we’re looking at. This is the thing we’re trying to push back against and fight against. In this case it’s not in the long form agreement that you’re pushing back against that. It’s in the initial deal-making. This is a guaranteed one-step guarantee, two-step optional. That’s being figured out before any of this is drafted. So in the initial conversation what I would scribble down, I would star the ones that are guaranteed and the ones that aren’t. So it’s not in this stage that you get out of the one-step deal problem.
I recorded this video to illustrate the different ways screenwriters can indicate dialogue is being interrupted. It’s a situation that happens quite often in most screenplays. The choice of how you show it can impact the read.
There aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but there are definitely conventions, and in this video I cover most of them.
John and Craig are joined by attorney Ken Richman and Laurie Espinosa of the WGA West for a detailed discussion of screenwriting contracts. They look at what to expect, where you can negotiate, and what to watch out for.
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. Today’s episode includes a frank discussion of sex, including some words that may not be appropriate for some ears, so head’s up.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, my name is Sexy Craig.
John: And this is Episode 406 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we’re joined by our longtime friend, Rachel Bloom. In addition to being the co-creator and star of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend she has written and spoken and sung extensively about how sex and sexuality are portrayed on screen. I’m so excited to have her on the show so we can identify and fix all of these issues in less than one hour.
Welcome back, Rachel Bloom.
Rachel Bloom: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here.
John: I’m excited to see you. Our first conversation about this was while you were still shooting the show, but you had an article that was in Marie Claire that you tweeted out about. And it was like, yes, I just so fully agree with the things that you’re saying here. And so hopefully we can talk through some of those issues here and we’ve got a lot of people listening to this show who write for film and for television. Maybe we can make some changes.
Rachel: Yeah. Yeah! God, I don’t even know where to begin. I guess I’ll tell you how I come in great detail. Just like graphic detail because you had that warning at the top so like people know.
No, I mean, what it started was, and Scriptnotes unofficial Co-co host, Aline Brosh McKenna, and I talk about this frequently, but it started in season three of Crazy Ex where it’s generally a character-based show but occasionally we would use the episodic format to tackle issues. And sometimes those kind of issue-based storylines would be with side characters. And really where it was coming from was where the show idea came from which are what are stories that we’ve seen that may or may not just be female centric that we just haven’t seen especially done on network television, because we had this cool way for it to reach not a large audience but a broader audience because we were technically TV-14 as opposed to a really, really dirty show where we could talk about sex and I heard about mothers and their teenage daughters watching our show together which is one of the biggest compliments, or parents and their kids watching the show together.
And so when we were talking about, OK, what’s something that we haven’t seen tackled on television or network television that maybe we could tackle episodically this season. And we were like, oh, the ways women orgasm. It had been inspired by just the barrage of sex scenes throughout the history of film, and to a lesser extent theater, of the kind of male-gaze-y heteronormative sex idea which is sex is man on top of woman, man thrusts, both come simultaneously.
And we wanted to tackle this and we did it in the form of this side character, this recurring character Tim played by Michael McMillian who realizes that he’s been having sex with his wife and that he hears a buzzing coming from the bathroom and assumes it’s her electric toothbrush. And someone goes, no, she’s masturbating with a vibrator.
John: Let’s pause for one second and listen to a short clip of this.
Rachel: Oh yeah.
Tim: Such profound humiliation. Such all-consuming shame. The buzzing from the bathroom has finally been explained. That was no electric toothbrush. No facial scrub device. And now I finally know the meaning of the words, “Tim, that was nice.” We use two different positions, every other Sunday night. All her writhing, moaning, sighing, I thought I was doing it right. But as I drifted off to slumber thinking I had brought her joy, she would slink off to that bathroom with that blasted plastic toy. Oh the buzzing cursed buzzing. That damn incessant hum. I used to think I was a hero. Can’t believe she didn’t come to tell me that she needed so much more than I could give. Now the buzzing from the bathroom tells a lie that we both live.
John: So, there’s an example of this is a character who is having a realization which is a classic thing people do in musicals that his wife has actually not been brushing her teeth with an electric toothbrush but has been using a vibrator.
Rachel: Yes. And this song was co-written with two men who, this is kind of their worst nightmare in a way. So that kind of horror that Tim feels is very much from the perspective of Jack Dolgen and Adam Schlesinger. And then some of the specifics about her masturbating came from me.
And what was really important in this episode is we wanted just at some point to clearly state on network television the way most women come is from direct stimulation of the clitoris. That is scientifically correct. That is not a graphic sexual detail. That is literally how a woman’s body works.
Craig: And can I thank you for it? I mean, not to cut you, but it’s so great. Because here’s the thing. You know, there are generations of men that had no clue, right. And essentially were relying on or reliant on a very kind woman explaining to them how it worked. Because everything that we were told through porn or movies or television or sex scenes was that women have orgasms through some kind of expertise penetration. You know, in other words you have to penetrate the woman correctly and you have to do it for a long time and your dick has to be a certain size. And then she will come.
But if you don’t have those things then you’re a piece of shit and she won’t. And none of that is correct. And I’m so happy that you were able to just put this out there and let everyone off the hook, including young people who need to know.
Rachel: Thank you. And I think that one of the most interesting things was, well, first of all my own father said he learned – my dad went to all boys school until high school and he said no one ever told him about this or talked about it. And he was born in 1945. And so he was just amazed that we could say this on network television and that we did say this. And the irony is we barely got to say the word clitoris. I mean, we really had to–
Craig: Ugh, well.
Rachel: Well, because the FCC prohibits graphic descriptions of sex. Right? And saying like a woman needs stimulation of the clitoris that produces a – that is frank. That is not network TV cutesy innuendo. That’s not Friends’ episode where they’re going OK here are the erogenous zones, 1, 3, 6, 7. We’re just saying, no, you have to touch the clitoris and in order to do that we made the scene scientific. Maya is showing him a book and she’s saying this science book, science says, science, science, science, clitoris. Because we tried to say the word clitoris in later episodes and they wouldn’t let us. And they said that was a special exception.
John: All right. So before we get to the exceptions, let’s talk about the general situation. Sort of how we find ourselves right now in 2019 dealing with sex in film and television. And sort of what the overall problem is. So before we can solve it let’s define what we’re facing. So, I would say as kids and as adults we learn about sex from film and from television. We just always have. Like I learned about it from film and TV. It’s just the natural way to see it. Or from online porn increasingly.
We internalize, we normalize the things we see. We have a baseline expectation like well that’s how it should be. That’s the normal situation. So what I’m seeing there is what’s normal. There’s a lot of stuff we don’t see. We don’t hear the word clitoris. We don’t talk about a lot of other things. The misinformation, the lack of information has an impact on our relationships and our experiences ourselves. And even our health.
And so a song I want to point out from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is I gave you a UTI. So let me play a little snippet.
Male Voice: What’s the burning feeling every time you pee? Well that’s how it goes after you have so much awesome sex with me. I gave you a UTI. Yeah, I gave you, a UTI. My sweet love injection caused a urinary tract infection. I’m just that good I didn’t even try, try, try. I gave you a UTI.
Female Voice: OK, so it’s not really a comment on the quality of the sex as much as a lot of sex has been happening and there’s just a very natural transfer of bacteria—
Male Voice: Don’t ruin this for me. That bladder inflammation is my little gift to you. Yeah sometimes chicks need medication after what I’ve put them through. Come on, sing with me.
Female Voice: No, I’m not going to do that.
Male Voice: I gave you, I gave you, a UTI, a UTI. Yeah, I gave you, I gave you, a UTI. A UTI. I’m so good at sex—
John: So I was a man in my 40s, I did not know specifically that a UTI – I knew they came from sex but I didn’t know sort of the actual transfer. I didn’t know what the actual issue was. And so you taught me something Rachel Bloom with your song “I Gave You a UTI,” because I’ve never given a woman a UTI.
Rachel: Of course. And a lot of times it’s not given by someone. Miss Brosh McKenna was more of the expertise in this particular area. But, yeah, it can come from – I mean, to get graphic, if you don’t wash your sex toys correctly. Because that’s what it is. It’s transfer of bacteria to your urethra. A big thing is that if you have any contact with your butthole and then it goes in your vagina hole it can transfer bacteria. So, if you’re having sex with someone and they put their penis or something in your butt and then they put that directly back into your vagina that can give you a UTI.
Craig: I’m guilty. I’m a UTI giver. I’ve done it, it’s pretty rare, but I’ve done it. [laughs] I’ve done it. I don’t know, what would you call that crime, UTI giving?
Rachel: I mean, I don’t know. I think it depends what the crime is. But, I mean, chances are you’ve also probably given people HPV, because I think it’s something like an overwhelming amount of people who are sexually active have had HPV at some point in their lives.
I had HPV in college, so someone gave that to me.
Craig: Yes. Definitely. You know, I’ve been with my wife now since college. So the two of us have been kind of off the grid sexually for so long, disconnected from the rest of the sexual world, that we’re kind of weirdly a fairly pristine ecosystem. But, you know, over time it just – sex is messy. It’s inevitable, you know, a UTI is going to show up sooner or later. It’s inevitable.
Rachel: Genitals are disgusting. And that’s what sexual urge does is it gets us to get over how disgusting genitals are because really it’s a horror show for all genders and all sexes.
John: Well, I want to push back a little bit on like genitals being disgusting–
Craig: Yeah, me too.
Craig: This may be a gender thing.
John: Here’s what I’ll say is that I don’t necessarily need to see genitals portrayed onscreen to understand that they’re there, but a thing I liked about your show is I felt like the characters had genitals. And so often they don’t seem to have genitals.
John: You know, I could play a clip from “First Penis I Saw,” but our friend John Gatins is the actor who plays the crush in this situation.
Rachel: The first penis.
John: And it’s talking about he actually has a penis. And that is a thing which characters are just acknowledged to have in most – certainly most broadcast shows. And that was a groundbreaking thing. So, thank you for that.
Rachel: Thank you. And when I say disgusting I mean just on a – we talk about things that we normally see in society and we’re talking about things that are under the clothes and sometimes a little bit stinky and like they’re weird and fleshy and moist.
Rachel: It’s like things, you know, aren’t necessarily considered conventionally aesthetically or odor-ifically beautiful.
Craig: Yeah. I would say that I’m a huge fan of the female genitalia post-shower. I mean, I’m in. I’m in 100%. I love it. That’s a beautiful thing. And we do, well, the attraction there to, right, to whatever your orientation is, your attraction to that set of part is – it’s not even like attraction or appreciation from the point of view of like look at that beautiful statue. It’s way more primal. You don’t even understand why you like it, but you do.
I mean, sex is a chance for otherwise civilized people to roll around the mud a little bit like animals. And I don’t apologize for that. I don’t care. That’s how I feel.
Rachel: That’s great.
John: On a character level, you can look at it as a way to talk about a character’s kind of lizard brain. Their basic hard-wiring and sort of why they’re driven to do these things, which may not be their overall goals as intelligent, rational people, too. And so that crossover between the two things is a fascinating thing. And I don’t think we’re seeing it enough in our film and television because we’re not willing to talk about that first part.
Rachel: You’re right. It’s a primal drive. And I think that you see love as a primal drive and when sex is wrapped up in that conventionally, and I’m also thinking about even musicals which the show drew a lot from, it’s carnal or not true or shallow and the fact is, no, no, no, this is one in the same. And when you get to the lizard brain it is one of our main drives that also when you’re in love or in lust, often which the two are one in the same, it is a drive. It’s not a want. It takes over everything. And it is often counter to what is going to make you happy in the long run. It does not have to do with career ambition. I mean, sometimes they can coincide.
But when you are consumed by this, yes, it’s primal. And you cannot control that. It’s chemicals taking over your body. It’s neurons firing. I mean, they’ve done brain scans on people who are in the throes of love and it’s–
Craig: It’s a drug.
Rachel: It’s similar to cocaine or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Craig: Yeah. Without question. And then there’s this other aspect of sexuality that’s very casual and pointless. If we were to be accurate about sexuality in every single movie and in every single episode of every single television show at the very least the men would have to jerk off once. Because time would have gone by where they would have just stopped and been like, hold on, got to jerk off. I’ll be right back. Then they would come back.
It doesn’t matter what’s going on. It doesn’t matter what’s going on. It’s off-story in a weird way. Like I get it. Sometimes sex is just off-story. But where we get into trouble is when it’s on-story and we show it and we just lie. There’s like this crazy conspiracy about how sex works.
I mean, first of all, men just stick it in. They just stick it in. Sometimes they’re with a woman and they’re talking and then suddenly it’s like are we doing this, yes, and they stick it in. And I’m like it’s dry. What are you doing?
John: There’s no preparation.
Rachel: And that gets into like a little bit of standards. I mean, on network television as far as sex you can show pre-sex. You can show a man on top. You can show a woman on top. But you can’t imply that penetration is currently happening. So there is only so much you can do with the general discussions of how sex works for either. It’s not like on network TV you can show thrusting but you can’t show a woman touching her own clit. You can’t really show any of it.
But what that does is it does limit talking about the nuances of sexuality, which is so many storylines on television. Every romantic storyline, it centers essentially around sex.
Craig: Which you can’t show.
Rachel: The fundamentals of which you can’t show. Exactly.
John: But I don’t want to give us all a pass just because of standards. I mean, obviously HBO and streamers, they don’t have the same standards. So they could do a lot more.
John: And so we do see some things on Game of Thrones which we couldn’t see on broadcast television. But I don’t see a lot of examples of really interesting portrayals of reality that’s going beyond what we could see on normal television. Or even just discussion of it. Like the discussion we’re having right now, I’m not even seeing that happening at a lot of the places that could have those discussions.
Rachel: I went on a Twitter rant, partially prompted I think the article you’re talking about was – I’m slowly catching up on the television that I’ve missed over the past four years of doing Crazy Ex. And I’ve been watching a show, and I don’t want to throw it under the bus, so I won’t say what show it is. But I was watching a show that actually is created and written by women, so I don’t – look, there are some women who can come vaginally and it’s easy and that’s great for them. That’s just not – statistics show that’s not the majority of us.
Anyway, it was a show where a woman was having bad sex, bad weird sex, and came. Just from the sex. And it’s a show where you could show graphic sex but at no point was she reaching down to touch herself. At no point was he touching her. And you could have actually shown that. And she just came. And it’s just disappointing because I was so frustrated from having a network show for many years that I couldn’t show that. And we couldn’t show sex in a realistic way. And not just realistic sex, but also all of the awkward moments that come with sex.
I mean, god, the sex scene in Booksmart that just came out is so good. That bad teenage sex scene where it’s her first encounter with a woman. What a great representation of, yeah, this is a side of sex. It starts out and it’s awkward and weird and bad. And it is hot, but you have – communication is really key and really essential. So I was frustrated I couldn’t do that.
And so seeing shows that can do that and don’t really bum me out.
Craig: Yeah. I’m with you. I think even if you can’t show it, the idea of substituting in something that’s false is not helpful to anybody. It’s as unhelpful as people waking up in the morning and starting to French each other. Which as I always say would lead to vomiting. Would just lead to instant vomiting. You wake up with your morning breath and you immediately start Frenching each other – I want to gag. It’s disgusting.
So, you know, there are things like, OK, when I’m watching sex onscreen, whether it’s limited by the network or it’s even kind of the Full Monty as it were on cable, I’m taught that my job as a man is to make a woman come with my dick only. And then when I’m done whatever I’ve shot up inside her apparently has disintegrated because it doesn’t come back out. No one is saying go get a towel, which every sex scene should end with go get a towel. Every sex scene. I don’t care what combination it is, at some point someone is going to ask for a towel.
Rachel: Or she should go pee because that also cleans out your urethra and prevents UTIs.
Craig: And you got to pee. Exactly.
Rachel: She should go, “Excuse me, this is great.”
Craig: “I’ve got to pee.”
Rachel: “I’m going to pee.” Or even just like, “Excuse me, I have to go to the powder room.” I’m trying to think of a way you could do it on network television that would be – “I’m going to go relieve myself, sir.” I don’t know.
Craig: “So that I can stay fresh.”
Rachel: I think any good writer is – it’s almost like an entrepreneur on Shark Tank. Where is there a need? Where is there a gap? What’s something I know to be true that has not been shown yet?
Because at the end of the day that’s what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to show the truth of humanity. We’re trying to show things that are reflective of maybe not real life but what could be, or our wants, or our needs. That’s what good writing should do. And so the fact that there are so many gaps in the truth about how everyone’s sexuality is shown.
And you make a good point. It’s as much a problem for men. And I’ve talked to my husband about this. I told him what I wanted and in some ways I was maybe the first woman to say and do that, because it’s scary and it’s vulnerable. It’s much easier to fake an orgasm from penetrative sex. And it’s much sexier. It’s way – you have to trust someone and you kind of have to stop sex, or stop the idea of what you think sex is to be like, “Hey, no, no, slow down. Or this is how you do it. Or this is how my body works.”
And from what I’ve heard from men who are with women, or anyone who is with a woman, every woman’s body is really different. And so what works with one woman might not even work with the next woman. And so the things that not only women in not being communicative are doing to themselves, but also doing to their partners. Especially a man who is with a woman – men don’t know. They don’t have our plumbing.
Most of them I find are willing and eager to understand and be taught. But it’s not their fault if they can’t – just like in our show we say in the end Tim couldn’t make his wife come and finally Paula says, “If she didn’t tell you that after 15 or so years of marriage you two have major communication issues.” And that’s a really good point. Some of that is on her.
John: Yeah. So, let’s talk about how we start to fix this. And so obviously some bravery and some creativity of people going and saying like these are things I actually want to tackle. It’s a person writing a thing by themselves, a screenwriter writing a movie, you have the freedom to do all of this. But how do you bring up these issues in a writers’ room and make it comfortable for everybody in that writers’ room to talk about these things because we’re also in a time when writers’ rooms can become perilous places for conversations about sex and sexuality.
Rachel: That is true. I mean, I think the Friends ruling was quite interesting because it did allow for creative freedom in the writers’ room. And, you know, I think that this is where we get into social EQ. I think that a lot of the problems we’ve had with harassment are from people who either don’t care to develop proper social EQ or haven’t been properly taught it. Because I think if you’re talking about sexuality in a writers’ room there’s a way to talk about it.
I mean, for instance you can say there’s a statistic I read, or even if you talk about yourself, to tell those personal stories is not harassment to someone else. It’s much different to say, well, you know, I’m one of those women who needs direct stimulation of my clitoris to..
John and Craig welcome back longtime friend of the podcast Rachel Bloom (co-creator and star of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) to discuss how sex and sexuality are portrayed on both the big and small screen. They cover ways to approach sensitive topics in a writers room and the moments we still haven’t seen on screen.
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. So today’s episode of Scriptnotes has a few bad words. So if you’re driving in the car with your kids this is the warning.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 405 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
We are recording this live at the beautiful Ace Hotel Theater in Downtown Los Angeles. We have a huge crowd that I cannot see at all because there are bright lights shining at us. But I hear them.
Craig: And I love this theater. I was here – the last time I was here they were showing The Battle of the Bastards, the big Game of Thrones episode. It was a great place to watch it. Not as much excitement tonight, I don’t think, but we’ll do our best. We’ve got some pretty great guests first of all.
John: So I think hopefully a funnier night than the Battle of the Bastards. We have amazing guests. So I just want to give you a teaser of who is on our show tonight. We have Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone. Rob McElhenney. Kourtney Kang and Alec Berg. Craig, we have titans of comedy.
Craig: Yeah. I’m out of comedy. I don’t do it anymore. So it’s good that we’re bringing these people on.
John: Now, we have our Los Angeles listeners, of course, because this is an industry town so it’s natural that you guys are here. But I’ve really been impressed over the years at our international fan base. And they reach out to us. And so we read questions from people in, you know, different countries in Africa, all throughout Europe. A lot of email recently from Russia coming in to the ask@johnaugust account. And it feels like they’re phishing for some answer Craig.
John: I just want to thank you for that.
Craig: Sure. I assume many of their names are a name and then six or seven random digits after that?
John: Funny how that works.
Craig: That’s my fan base.
John: So, Craig, I just want to congratulate you on Chernobyl.
Craig: Thank you.
John: Just to keep things interesting can you please next write about North Korea? Because I feel like we could get more North Korean interest in the show. It would really help.
Craig: We have evidence that writing about North Korea is perfectly easy to do. Nothing will go wrong.
John: Nothing bad will ever happen. Seth Rogan loves to talk about that.
John: We are here as a benefit for an amazing charity called Hollywood Heart. I want to bring John Gatins back out for a second to ask him some question about this amazing charity. John Gatins, could you please step back out on stage so we can ask you a few little questions here?
So, we have done – this is the fourth or fifth – we have done a bunch of shows for Hollywood Heart. It’s an amazing charity that supports kids living with HIV and AIDS. They provide summer camp experiences which is amazing. The camp that you guys have been using is–
John Gatins: Oh, I left this out. Thank you John.
John August: Yes, it’s pretty amazing.
John Gatins: Thank you, John.
John August: Tell us about what happened this past year.
John Gatins: Well, the Hill fire and the Woolsey fire burned the camp that we’ve been using for 24 years. So, we’ve had to rent a camp in San Juan Capistrano. So it added further financial stress on our small charity.
John August: Yes. So, part of the reason we’re here tonight is to raise additional funds because an organization that needs support all the time but especially now with the fires that devastated your camp.
John Gatins: Absolutely.
John August: So this is the 25th anniversary of this camp.
John Gatins: Correct.
John August: It’s amazing. John Gatins, thank you for doing this.
Craig: Thanks John.
John Gatins: Buy t-shirts. Did anybody buy t-shirts? Buy t-shirts.
John August: By the way, buy some awesome t-shirts. In the lobby we have amazing t-shirts. They are genuinely limited edition. If we don’t sell out of them tonight we’ll have them at the store at johnaugust.com. They are great. And you will love them.
Craig: You know, for once I’m OK with not getting any of the money from those.
John August: Fantastic, Craig.
Craig: This one time.
John August: This one time.
Craig: I’m OK with it.
John August: It only took a fire and kids who needed help.
Craig: And I got to say, it was close. It was sort of marginal for me. But this one time. And thank all of you honestly for coming out tonight. I know that these – we’ve done these events before. We do live podcasts, live shows. And the ticket prices here were a little bit higher because, you know, obviously we’re raising money or this great charity, which is a legal charity. I want to be really clear about this. It’s not like John Gatins just says it and we do it. We’re not dumb. We looked into it. They have a website. But we really appreciate you guys coming out and filling this enormous theater. It means a lot to us and it will definitely mean a lot to those kids.
John August: Hooray. We have so many people we should actually get started with our guests.
John: Our first guests are writers, actors, directors, and producers who have been nominated for nearly every award that exists. As a team they have made four movies and two children. Please welcome our friends Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone.
Craig: Yay. Thank you fine people. Have a seat.
Melissa McCarthy: Oh, hi. Hello everyone.
Craig: As part of getting them to come tonight they did ask that they not speak and we not ask them questions. So we’re going to bring out–
John: Yeah. It’s going to be a mime performance which works really well—
Melissa I’ll just mouth breathe into the mic.
Craig: I’ve done it. I’ve done it.
John: Melissa, I was saying backstage that of all the people who we have wanted to have on Scriptnotes you’re actually the person who we’ve mentioned the most on Scriptnotes. We went back and counted today. You’ve been mentioned 61 times in 400 episodes. Because Craig and I have both made movies with you.
Melissa: In a negative way? In a negative way, probably.
Craig: Usually I just yell the word out. Melissa McCarthy. No reason whatsoever.
Melissa: That’s so weird.
Craig: Yeah, we’re weird.
John: But understandable because you are a person who we have both made movies with you, you’re doing a ton, you’re writing a ton.
Melissa: My first movie, Go.
John: First movie, Go. First time on screen.
Craig: How about that? How about that?
John: But what I was so curious to have both of you guys out here to talk about is I first knew you from Groundlings. So the first time I experienced you was from working in the sketch comedy group Groundlings and we talk so much about writing but we don’t talk about writing and performance and how they inform each other. It’s how you’re building a character from the ground up.
So, how did you first get started with the Groundlings?
Melissa: For I was moving out from New York and I was really just doing theater and plays, mostly dramatic stuff. And my sister sent me a little thing ripped out of a magazine. And I also had said, oh, there’s going to be tons of theater in LA.
Melissa: Because I didn’t know. I’d never been here. And I went to see a Groundlings show and I couldn’t get my head around how it wasn’t scripted. And it was like Mike McDonald, Kathy Griffin, Patrick Bristow. It was like really incredible people doing it. And everything made sense. The lines were incredible. It wrapped up at the end. And I kept thinking but it’s written, what part is improvised. And, I don’t know, I was so taken with it that I started taking classes there.
John: Ben, what was your experience with the Groundlings? How did you get started?
Ben Falcone: I looked in LA Weekly. I don’t know if that’s still a thing, but it was a thing then.
Craig: It is not.
Ben: It is not. Great.
Craig: You killed it.
Ben: I killed it.
Craig: Yep. Just by looking at it.
Ben: And so it said it was a place to go and see a show. So I went and saw one and a guy named Jim Wise, I’m musical, I’m throwing that out there. I can be musical from time to time. And a guy named Jim Wise sang a song improv in the style of like a Led Zeppelin song. And it just blew my mind because I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t all rigged and staged.
And I thought I have to learn how to do it and maybe I could do it like Jim Wise, which was never the case. I never could do it.
Craig: Never got there.
Ben: Never got there.
Craig: Never got there.
Ben: But that’s how I started there. And then we met there.
Craig: It’s interesting that you both were drawn to this notion that there was writing going on but it was through performance. It seemed like a magic trick to you both. And then you start doing it. Talk a little bit – I’m kind of fascinated by the fact that improv is this strange intersection between acting and writing. It’s like you’re doing both at the same time, kind of. How does it impact the way you write when you’re say not improv but you’re just writing-writing?
Melissa: I think, at least for me, when I first – we were in a class together. When we first had to like start writing, Ben was the first one that called me out and he’s like – because we’d get ten minutes, go out, write a character, come back, and do the monologue. And I thought, well, I can’t write. I’m not a writer. So I would really lock up and I would just go up with an empty piece of paper. And he was the only one that was like I know your paper is empty.
Ben: I wasn’t being creepy about it though. Let me just throw that out there.
Melissa: A little creepy. A little creepy. But I could say it all, but I was like well that’s not writing. You have to write it first. So I would say it all and then I would go back and try to remember it and write it down. And it wasn’t until I kept doing that to be like it is still the ideas of how does this character feel, how does she think about things, and how do you make a story out of that. And then finally I was like, oh wait, but it took me a long time to be like oh that is writing and then structure and all the bones of it came later. But it really did start with what would she say and why is it worth anyone’s time to watch this moment in her life.
Craig: Which is basically what we’re doing when we’re writing things. Was it a similar thing for you? You’re writing a scene. You just happen to be doing it in front of people staring at you which is terrifying.
Ben: I mean, it is. I remember I took more of a – when I was learning to do it I thought well I had better write. And you get these assignments, like what does the color blue mean to you. And I’m like, I don’t know, holy shit. Someone else has got a good color blue thing. And then it wasn’t until I started working with people like Melissa or like Dax Shepard and just these different people who were in the Groundlings at that time and they were just like, no, I just start doing a thing that seems funny to me and it’s based from the character perspective. Which I think so much good writing is. It’s based on what characters are doing and why they’re doing it and what circumstance they’re in. So, it took me a hot second to figure that out. And I’m still probably trying to.
John: So it sounds like you’re approaching these things not from thinking like, oh, this is the thing that’s going to be funny, but basically this is the character that’s going to be funny. This is a character that’s going to continue to let this happen for five minutes and actually be an enjoyable thing.
Melissa: To this day I still don’t think I could ever write a joke. Like I don’t understand how to do it. And people do it so incredibly well.
Craig: When you say joke you mean like three guys walk into a bar? Or a standup routine?
Melissa: I couldn’t write a scene based on something funny. But something like she’s ordering a sandwich, well she loves ham. She loves ham too much. Then you’re probably going to talk about I had ham for breakfast and then I have ham for dinner. And I can do it that way because I think well Carol loves ham.
Craig: Ham Lady 2022, from Universal Studios.
Melissa: I’m going to put that one in my back pocket. I’m not saying no.
Craig: Where did you get the idea for Ham Lady? Well…
John: Well you just said I’m not saying no. And the cliché we always hear about improv is that you’re just supposed to say yes. You’re supposed to be alive in the moment and saying yes and playing together. And that’s a very different thing than what writers are usually doing. Because usually we’re by ourselves and we’re just these little islands. And you have to actually hit the ball back over the net doing improv.
Melissa: Yeah. Or else the game is over. You’re late for work.
Ben: No you’re not.
Melissa: Good night! It does, and it makes you – you just have to play along. I mean, it’s kind of the fun of it, even if like it’s not where you want to go. You can’t control every moment of it when you’re improvising. You just have to go with it. And usually it’s kind of a gift because you end up out of your heard and just actually responding to people, as opposed to trying to come up with something funny.
Craig: I have a question for you guys. There is a very different kind of comedy for a movie, a comedy feature film, and then there’s the kind of ongoing comedy like Mike & Molly where it’s ongoing. You guys – and I think a lot of comedy has been moving towards the ongoing space, mostly because they make more shows than they do movies.
But you guys are making movies all the time. Is it just that you kind of have that vibe like the stories that you want to tell and the kind of comedy you do fits better in that closed narrative built around one character in kind of a short cycle? Or is it just kind of the way it’s worked out?
Ben: I mean, I can just say for me I love TV. I grew up watching Seinfeld, not to date myself, but Cheers and all these shows. And I had VHS tapes and I watched them all. But I just love movies. I just love them. I adore them. I don’t want them to go away. I don’t think they will, but it’s a narrative form that I find so interesting. Because you can make sequels if you ever wanted to. I just love the idea of digging into a story just a little bit longer, which I guess really now some of these shows are doing anyway, you know, the longer form ten-episode thing, 30 minutes a thing.
Craig: Right. Just a long movie. Yeah.
Melissa: Sometimes I kind of enjoy the heartbreak of a movie ending. It’s like if I love a book so much and when it ends you’re like, no, like I have a whole thing when a book ends if I love it that it’s this weird torture, but I love it. Then I read slower. Then I’m down to like a paragraph a day. I mean, it’s really weird. Something about a movie, because you do have to wrap it up and then you’re left to wonder what’s the next day. I think it kind of lets your imagination roll. I don’t know, there’s just something about that format of like it’s a story. I grew up with a dad that told really great stories around the table. And he’s so funny but he really could tell a story. And I think there’s something about – it’s a story. It’s a segment of someone’s life.
I mean, I love both. But there’s a magic to having to wrap it up.
Craig: You know, I never thought of it that way because we talk about this all the time, the difference between ongoing narrative, like an open-ended narrative like the kind our other guests write, and then there’s that closed-end narrative. And I never really thought of it this way, but for me – you know, you’re right. The part of me that loves it is the part that loves an ending. Like you start with an ending almost, right? And then you kind of craft to it.
Ben: Yeah. And so many reshoots in movies, you know, all throughout whether it’s a superhero movie or a comedy, so many times people are like did we get the ending right. And I think it’s such a tricky game to play and it’s really satisfying if you can execute it.
John: When you guys are making one of your movies how do you know something is funny? And at different stages? As you’re writing it obviously you’re both actors so you can probably play some stuff out and really get a sense like, OK, are you inhabiting this thing. But then as you shoot it and then as you’re going into the editing room how do you know that something is working or not working? And as you’ve done four of these, five of these now, has that evolved?
Ben: Melissa is just a really funny person. And so when we’re writing it probably makes me laugh. And then when we’re shooting it it probably makes me laugh. And then in the cutting room it makes me and the editors laugh. So it’s a pretty simple – I mean, the one thing I really like about comedy, and I’m concerned that there’s less comedies out there doing well right now and I certainly hope that they come back in a big way soon, comedy is really truthful.
You know, if you get a roomful of people and you test your movie and nobody laughs then guess what? It’s not funny. Even if you think it’s funny. So, there’s something about the democracy of comedy that I find really interesting and I believe in it. So even if it’s funny to me and I laugh like hell and then I show it to Craig who is really a funny person and he laughs and then we show it to a whole audience and it bombs we don’t go, “Well, that’s funny.”
Melissa: I stand behind it.
Craig: Yeah. I laughed, right? So we’re good. I don’t really care.
Ben: Yeah. We’re done. I don’t care what those 400 people think.
Craig: Look, I’ve been there. God, those test screenings are terrifying in that regard, but it is kind of a science experiment at some point. And it is why comedy is so difficult but so rewarding, right? I mean, even the best drama in the world it’s not like people are rolling in the aisles sobbing and puking up their guts. They’re crying silently in their seat. But when you’ve got them going in a movie theater in a comedy they’re rolling. It’s amazing.
But, I’m just kind of curious, both of you have – well, we know from a lot of the roles you play, but even through the writing that you guys do there are these moments. You know, Tammy really sticks out to me as the one where there’s drama that’s coming through that’s drama-drama. And I’m kind of curious do you guys ever see yourselves, I mean, definitely comedy is going to keep coming from you guys, no question. But do you ever see yourselves ever kind of going you know what let’s scoot over and try a drama. It’s going to be way easier. Way easier.
Ben: I mean, you know, because in a comedy when we’re shooting, like the thing that Melissa and her acting partners do, let’s say Maya Rudolph who is one of the funniest people in the universe. And they do something and it’s so funny. Well, now I’ve got it. But I have to get another one because it might not work. And I just think that’s insane. And sometimes I’m like Christ if this was a drama I could move the camera around and mess around and we’d all be like what technical things should we do.
Melissa: He always comes in and says now do the version that hurts my heart. Don’t do the whole thing that made us laugh. I’m like, what? And he’s like just come in and ask her this and say this. Sometimes we improvise and sometimes we go really like clean with it. But I mean I think there’s just such a weird thing that if you stay truthful in it, sometimes even when the whole audience, not when it’s out in the world, but those test audiences I do sometimes worry about are you in there to critique or are you in there to enjoy? And sometimes, I mean, I get really defensive for me characters. Not for me. I don’t care about me. But I’m like she does like ham! And I end up defending.
And what’s weird is I really do love ham. And I might be a little hungry so I keep bringing it up. But I don’t know, I don’t let it go until we’re still in ADR and I’m like if I turn my head away I’m going to throw in a ham joke. I just keep pushing it.
Craig: I like that.
Ben: But for sure I would consider doing drama.
Craig: I mean, take it from me – seriously – way easier.
John: Absolutely. People praise you for it.
Craig: They praise me for it. I’ve worked so hard in comedy for so long just being kicked in the fucking balls over and over and over. I mean, done really good work. I mean, work I’m really proud of. Not the one with you. But other ones that I thought were really good. And then you do one drama and everyone is like…
Melissa: What I think is weird is I think a comedy always needs drama. I think you have to let your characters fall down hard, because then you get to watch them get back up. And I think it’s necessary.
Craig: And the ending is never about the jokes in these comedies. When you get to the ending at some point you’re like the jokes are over. And that’s what I think is amazing about guys like – because you’re both writers and you’re both performers. And you two have this thing, and Maya Rudolph can do this too, where you’re funny, you’re funny, you’re funny, and then – and Kristen Wiig can do this – and then suddenly you’re breaking my heart. Find me the drama-drama people that can flip around and make me crack up. It’s not so common. It’s really not.
I mean, this is why again all the awards should go to comedies. All of them. All Oscars. All of them.
Melissa: But I do feel like there’s a strange shift where like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles to me is a perfect movie. I laugh so hard. I cry every single..
The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August. This is Episode 404 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig is off this week, but he will be back next week. Luckily I have somebody really remarkable to talk with about things. This is Charlie Brooker, the creator-writer-executive producer of the remarkable anthology series Black Mirror, the most recent installments of which dropped on Netflix this past week. Charlie Brooker, welcome to the show.
Craig Brooker: Hello. It’s a pleasure to be here.
John: I want to talk to you about so many things about the individual series, individual episodes, bigger questions such as what is television, what is reality. So…
Charlie: Yeah. I might not have answers to all of those things. I’ll try.
John: I’ll give you about 30 seconds. I’m going to plug the live show one last time.
John: So be thinking.
Charlie: 30 seconds. Right.
John: Our next live show is this Thursday, June 13, and the Ace Hotel. It’s a benefit for Hollywood Heart. Our guests include Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone, Alec Berg, the showrunner of Silicon Valley and Barry, Rob McElhenney, the showrunner of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and his new Apple show, Kourtney Kang of Fresh Off the Boat.
Oh my god, we have too many guests. I don’t know how we’ll fit all that in, but it’s going to be a remarkable show. So come see us this Thursday, June 13, at the Ace Hotel. They released some more tickets so you can still get a seat if you would like to see that live show.
If you’re there at the live show there are going to be some games, there’s going to be giveaways, there’s going to be cool stuff that you can only encounter at the show. So, please come out and support a great charity, Hollywood Heart. Craig and I will be together on stage. Craig’s head will be immense from the success of Chernobyl. But, you know, he has still graciously agreed to participate in this live show.
Charlie: He’s lowering himself. You see, he’s lowering himself to take part.
John: So someone on Twitter this last week asked, “Have you and Craig ever had successes at the same time?” Because Craig has Chernobyl and I have Aladdin. And I said, no, not that I’m aware of. And so I think we’re going to become insufferable.
Charlie: You can’t call each other out on it.
Charlie: Because you’d both be right.
John: So it’s going to be a really interesting live show. So there could be some fireworks.
Charlie: But you’re not going to listen to anyone. You’ll just be monsters. You’ll be like Godzilla.
John: Craig’s rider for just this live show has been crazy. It’s been months of negotiation. But I think we finally got through most of it. We’ll try.
Charlie Brooker, welcome to Los Angeles. People by your accident might guess that you do not live in America.
Charlie: No, I don’t.
John: I did not know anything about you or your show until I was on a live show for Slate Culture Gabfest with Craig. We did a little crossover episode. And Natasha Lyonne as her sort of endorsement, her One Cool Thing essentially, said you have to watch this series Black Mirror and I didn’t know what it was. I wrote it down and I started watching it immediately. It is a remarkable program. And I would have assumed that you had done nothing before that, but then I checked your credits and you’ve done a tremendous amount. You have credits all the way back to ’99.
John: And most of them seem like comedy things that are related to cultural moments. Rewind your–
Charlie: That’s fair enough. I mean, I’ve had an odd kind of accidental career. I started out I was a cartoonist at one point when I was a teenager. Then I became a video games reviewer. Then I started doing a website that had sort of topical – it was extremely vicious satire of television on it. And that led me to get work. Simultaneously I started working for a topical comedy show in the UK. And I got a gig writing TV reviews for The Guardian.
So most of the stuff that I’d done until about 2008, in fact everything I’d done until 2008 was comedy. So all the TV stuff I’d done was comedy. And in the UK I sometimes present shows. So I do a show intermittently now that’s kind of Daily Show esque, I guess you’d call it, which was called Screen Wipe. It was about TV. Then we did News Wipe, which was about the news. Started doing annual 2016 Wipe or whatever you’d call it.
And then I sort of developed a parallel career I guess, 2008 we did a show called Dead Set which was like a zombie series. It’s kind of like a prototype Black Mirror in a way in that it’s an absurd premise that we then play straight. So a zombie apocalypse happens and the only people who survive are the participants in a series of Big Brother that’s going out in the UK. And they’re 10 people who have been chosen to not get on.
So, yeah, and then myself and Annabel Jones who is my sort of co-conspirator on all of this stuff, we were asked would you like to do something us. And we’d always been a fan of shows like The Twilight Zone, Tales of the Unexpected. I don’t know if you’ve got that over here.
Charlie: It’s like Roald Dahl short stories. Really creepy. And Hammer House of Horror was another show, don’t know if you ever saw. And the show we came up with was Black Mirror and we that was in 2011. At the same time as we were doing Black Mirror we were also doing a show called A Touch of Cloth, it’s like Naked Gun. So polar opposite stuff.
So in the UK I guess up until 2008, 2011, I was mainly known for doing comedy stuff.
John: So talk to me about that initial conversation about the idea of Black Mirror. Going in they say how about an anthology series. What is the discussion that leads to the specific idea for Black Mirror and what does it look like in those meetings? What are you describing to them?
Charlie: Well, initially it was slightly different in that it was – there wasn’t going to be a focus on technology so much. It’s become sort of shorthand for that in a way. It was very much just going to be an update on Twilight Zone style stories. I’d read a biography of Rod Sterling. I felt that at the time those kind of things were missing from television. And when I was growing up – I didn’t see The Twilight Zone until I was a teenager, but the BBC used to put on really strange one-off controversial, thought-provoking, high-concept plays that would always generate a lot of controversy and often be quite horrifying.
And I felt that that sort of thing at the time was slightly missing on television. And then when they rebooted Dr. Who, which was about 2006 or so, I thought well maybe – because that’s almost an anthology show.
John: It is. Yeah.
Charlie: I thought well maybe there’d be an appetite for this. So that was what we – originally the pitch was it was going to be eight half hours. I was only supposed to write like two of them or something. And it said, I think originally it definitely mentioned technology might be one of the themes, but the idea was just to look at shows like The Twilight Zone and where they would be doing an episode about McCarthyism or something like that we’d be doing terrorism say.
And then because we were only doing three we ended up – the technological stories seemed to be the most interesting ones. Although actually I’d written a whole completely different episode first which we were about to start shooting that, again, didn’t have any technological element to it at all. It was incredibly earnest. And then a new head of Channel 4, the Channel that put it out in the UK, a new head of Channel 4 came in and she did not like this script. I have to say probably in retrospect she was right. They were going to pull the plug on it and if this wasn’t going ahead basically the whole show wasn’t going ahead.
So, there was some panic going on on our part. So I had a meeting with her where my job was to try and persuade her that this was a good idea, that this very earnest episode we were doing about the Iraq War was well worth her time. And if she wasn’t going to go for it, in my back pocket I had the idea for the national anthem episode which is the one with the prime minister and the pig. And I thought well if she doesn’t go for this I might as well pitch that because what have I got to lose.
John: Absolutely. Something versus nothing.
Charlie: Exactly. So, I ended up pitching that and luckily for me she laughed. Her first question was does it have to be a pig.
John: That’s a classic development note question. Does it have to be a pig?
Charlie: [laughs] Well, and we went through all the different things it could be there in the meeting. At one point I think I suggested a wheel of cheese or a frozen chicken. And then we went, no, a pig is probably best.
John: It has to be a pig.
Charlie: Yeah. And I went off and wrote the first ten pages or so, just to try and persuade her. And it was a parody of 24 that I was basically writing. And luckily for us she went for it. So, I mean, that episode is obviously one of our most divisive ones and I think in the UK it’s received slightly differently than it is say here, because I was known for doing fairly unusual comedy stuff.
John: Absolutely. So people could see the joke of it played differently there than it does here.
John: But I want to get back to this idea of you talk about Twilight Zone, we had Tales from the Dark Side which sounds like a similar kind of thing, generally they’re self-contained stories that ask a question and there’s always a fantastical element or big sci-fi element that lets you focus on differently. In your case it’s technology and it’s a what-if on technology but a generally a very near technology. Things that are almost possible today. And how early in the process of these first three episodes of this first season – so the first three episodes are The National Anthem, which is the one with the pig, Fifteen Million Merits which is the prison-ish situation, and The Entire History of You. So those last two are much more clearly near future technology things. How soon did you know that that was the unifying theme?
Charlie: I guess it was, so Fifteen Million Merits had been written but so had this other earnest episode. As soon as that one was – the one that we were going to do was sort of scrapped, The National Anthem I realized there was a sort of drumbeat of social media going throughout it. And I thought, well hang on a minute, and we’d already been speaking to Jesse Armstrong who wrote The Entire History of You which was the third one. And so we realized well all three of these are about technology. And then we realized that, well, really we can use technology in the same way that The Twilight Zone would use the supernatural to tell a story. We can have fantastical things happening. And a lot of the technology we show is impossible, but because of the era we’re living in you kind of go along with it. As long as it looks grounded enough, and it looks like it functions the way you imagine it should, you kind of go with it. So, I think it was then. And then once we’d done that first – I think it must have been by the time we were finishing Entire History of You I thought well this is the way forward for the rest of the season.
It’s strange though, because then looking at the second season one of the episodes there is White Bear which – it looks like it’s a comment saying aren’t people on phones zombies. It’s a zombie movie with people filming things. So I think that was – sometimes we like to remind ourselves it’s not a sci-fi show basically. On the show itself we can lose sight of that.
John: Let’s talk about, as you’re figuring out an episode, because with an anthology show like this where each show is about a thing, are you starting with what the one-hour of entertainment is going to be about? Is it the idea or is it the character? Because ultimately the character has to drive that thing. But in this anthology that is so idea-driven you have to be able to sell that idea. So where was the push and pull between those two?
Charlie: Yeah. And that’s something that I think I got better at now. There’s certainly – when we’ve done weaker episodes it’s because the story is dictating what happens. It really depends. So sometimes – sometimes the story idea comes about from as you were saying a what-if, some crazy scenario that you imagined. You think, OK, that’s interesting. The different ways that could play out, I’m immediately interested in that. Other times it really depends – something like San Junipero which was – actually I’m going to rewind a bit. Actually Be Right Back was probably – Be Right Back was an interesting one.
So Be Right Back which is in season two, and I think it’s – I feel it’s one that’s slightly unjustly overlooked as an episode. It’s one of my favorites. And Owen Harris directed it who also did San Junipero. And that had stemmed from an experience I’d had that was in the ‘90s a former flat mate and friend of mine had died. And then it was one of the first times that somebody I knew had passed away. And then a couple of years after that, if you remember at the time when cell phones had limited memory and you could only store like a set number of phone numbers in there.
John: Oh, of course, yeah.
Charlie: And I was trying to make room for a new phone number in my phone which meant I had to delete old ones. And I scrolled through and I saw the name of this friend of mine and thought I can’t delete that. Even though it’s just a number I literally can’t ring that ever again. And there was something very strange – unexpected and strange about that moment. And so I knew I wanted to do a story that sort of spoke to that strange connection you can feel with – a very impersonal piece of technology can throw up something, an incredibly personal moment.
John: So I want to clarify that. So that leads to an idea that can be the premise of an episode, but it’s really an emotional spark. It’s like I have an emotional connection to this thing that I know is not the actual person. It’s just all of my memories is embodied in this slot in the phone.
Charlie: Yeah. It’s a little souvenir. It’s like one of the few reminders I had of this person. I didn’t have photos of this person. That was the one thing I had. And I was suddenly struck by it.
And then as is often the case, I think, with our episodes what happens is you’ve got an idea like that or really not an idea just a feeling, you’ve got that, and then I got really interested in the world of sort of psychics and mediums who purport to be putting people in place with their loved ones who’ve passed on. And these two ideas sort of glommed together and I was sitting up late one night. We’d just had our first baby. And I was doing the sort of night shift, which incidentally was weirdly a brilliant motivator because I knew I could only work in short bursts.
John: So many writers I’ve talked to say productivity actually soared because they knew they only had little windows of time.
Charlie: Yeah. It’s like Pomodoro technique or something that screams at you. And you can’t go outside. You can’t go anywhere. You’ve got nothing else to do. And I was on Twitter or something like that and I just saw updates from people scrolling past and I was just struck by what if I was the last person on earth, all these people were dead, and these messages were being generated by some kind of AI. And then you sort of remember these other ideas you had and you go, OK, I’m starting to see a story here.
Now, at that point I thought, so then you sort of end up creating the characters. I’m not sure the process by which I sort of thought who would find this the most upsetting possibly, if there was something that could generate text based on someone’s personality. Who would find that most upsetting? And the answer was a sort of recently bereaved widow who is expecting a baby, sort of my port of call, and so I think this is a very rambling answer I’m giving here.
John: I like it though.
Charlie: And that’s an odd one, because that episode I didn’t – at that stage in doing the show I hadn’t learned to plan things either. So I would write scripts as I went along.
John: You were just doing it by feel.
Charlie: Yeah. Just. Which meant that I ended up making all sorts of errors.
John: What’s an example of an error you would make by doing it that way?
Charlie: Ooh, in the original National Anthem there was a whole subplot involving the government picking up anyone who had ever been on some sort of terror watch list and trying to beat a confession out of them that tonally went – I was trying to play for comedy. It was like somebody gets beaten to death in an interrogation room and it–
John: Did it shoot?
Charlie: No. No it didn’t. So there was one scene in National Anthem as well that tonally, there’s a porn star he meets in National Anthem, there’s a guy they rope in to try and perform this act. There’s a moment when the two of them, the prime minister and the porn star meet in the corridor in the original script, and the porn star gives him the only good advice he gets all day long about how to deal with what’s about to happen. And we dropped it because just tonally it was very much at odds – but sometimes, White Bear I completely – White Bear is a good example of something where I totally messed it up. I wrote the whole – that was the next episode.
Now it’s one of my favorites because it’s got a really horrific twist and it’s a bit – I was trying to channel things like the Wicker Man and like there’s a short Spanish film called, I think it’s Spanish, called La Cabina. Have you ever seen that?
John: No, I don’t know La Cabina.
Charlie: Look it up. I won’t tell you anything about it except it’s about a guy and a phone booth. That’s all I’m going to say. It’s about 15 minutes. I was trying to channel that sort of thing. And I originally wrote that script three times. We were about to shoot it. I had written this thing, I had this notion about if you’ve seen White Bear there’s a story they tell the main character in it about–
John: About what’s actually going on.
Charlie: About what’s going on. And they say there’s a symbol appeared on all the TVs and everyone is behaving like zombies effectively. In the original script that was–
John: The actual premise.
Charlie: That was the actual premise. There was just this mysterious symbol appeared that made 30% of the population act like psychopaths and 30% act like bystanders. And 30% were the quarry. And I wrote it – it was very confused. But we had to shoot it because we were running out of time. We were literally scouting locations we were trying to work out, because I’d written in all these complicated locations, and we were based on a sort of former maybe US Air Force base in the UK. And we were looking for places to shoot the locations that were mentioned in the script. And one of them, it said it was a shop, but we couldn’t find a shop, but we could find this gas station.
And the location guy, we were looking around, and he said well you’ll have to film this way because there’s a fence around this whole place. So we can’t ever see in that direction. And I thought well a fence around the whole, that’s actually – oh, hang on a minute. And suddenly had a much more interesting idea. And just went off and rewrote the whole thing. Like just threw it away and rewrote the whole thing in like two days or something.
We had a director on board already, so we had to say to him, Carl Tibbetts, I had to say to him, sorry, I’ve totally rewritten the entire script. And luckily he was – but that happened because, and I’m in two minds about that. That happened because I hadn’t been doing any planning, I’d just been trying to write this story from a slightly confused premise. And then because I was forced into a corner suddenly I was in a position where literally I saw this fence around the thing and suddenly I sort of had a eureka moment and realized I could sort of dig myself out of the hole. You can’t dig yourself out of a hole, can you?
John: Well, you can dig a different hole to–
Charlie: You could dig some stairs?
John: Yes, you could use your shovel to maybe dig your way up to something.
John: That’s probably. You dug yourself out of it in a way.
Charlie: I dug myself, I stood on the shovel.
John: What it sounds like though is you’re trying to both plan for what you’re going to need, but also be flexible for better ideas as they come up.
John: And so you were ready to be lucky. If you had felt confident about the episode that you’d written you probably would have ignored the fence and stuck with what you had.
Charlie: Yes. Definitely.
John: Because you allowed yourself to feel some insecurity you could say, oh, OK, there’s a better idea. There’s a way of containing this. Because I mean what you’re describing sounds like a completely different episode. Because I love White Bear. I think it is great. And it relies on that twist at the end about what’s really going on. And it sounds like if you hadn’t planned for the episode to be one way that twist never would have come.
Charlie: Absolutely. And that was why, I mean, I just knew it was – it was like sort of realizing at the altar you had married the wrong person or something. This was happening and I knew it wasn’t right. And everyone basically knew the script wasn’t right. And then so suddenly to have had this moment was such a relief, but it was also terrifying. And then on the next episode of that season, which was the Waldo Moment one, that’s where I really ran out of time. And I was kind of not happy with my finished script. I think there were lots of good ideas in it but I didn’t – weirdly it should have been a separate thing. It should have been like a separate miniseries or something like that. I should have had more time to develop.
John: Absolutely. It didn’t feel like it wanted to be in one hour of time.
John: And let’s talk about that though because the format of an anthology series is about an hour long for episodes, although you’ve gone past those boundaries now. You have to set up your premise very quickly, or at least your world-building premise. Like this is what is possible in this universe of this episode. And people have a general expectation about what kinds of..
John and Craig host comedy titans Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy), Ben Falcone (The Boss, Tammy), Kourtney Kang (Fresh Off the Boat), Rob McElhenney (Always Sunny in Philadelphia), and Alec Berg (Barry, Silicon Valley) onstage to discuss writing jokes, what they look for in a writing partner, and the heartbreak of movie endings.
We also record our first ever Scriptnotes commercial and introduce a new game called ‘Bot or Not.’
Recorded live from the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. Thanks to Hollywood Heart for organizing this event and to a great audience!
The original post for this episode can be found here.
Craig Mazin: Hello and welcome. My name is Craig Mazin and this is Episode 403 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
On today’s show, something we have never done before. It’s just me. No guest. No John. He’s off visiting family I believe in Colorado. So it’s just me today. And we’re going to do something that I’ve been looking forward to doing for a long time. I’m going to be talking to you today about structure and character. I’m kind of giving you my whole theory on how to write a movie.
I know it sounds like a lot. And it is a little bit of a lot. It’s a talk that I’ve done at the Austin Screenwriting Film Festival a number of times. I haven’t done it in a while. And I feel like their exclusive right to it has ended, so now I’m giving it to you. This is sort of my how-to write a movie.
But before we get into that we do have a little bit of business to go through. And it’s about our live show. Our next live show, we’ve talked about this before. It’s going to be on the evening of Thursday, June 13 here in Los Angeles at the Ace Hotel which is a beautiful venue. And it is benefiting Hollywood Heart. We do this every year. It’s a great charity.
We have probably the best guest lineup we’ve ever had. We have Alec Berg, the showrunner of Silicon Valley and Barry. We have Rob McElhenney, showrunner of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. We have Kourtney Kang, writer of Fresh Off the Boat. And we have Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone. And by the way that’s – Melissa McCarthy and Ben – I’m not talking about other Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcones that you don’t know. I mean the ones you know. Those.
It is just about the most comedy firepower I think we can ever assemble on one stage for this show. You’re not going to want to miss it. Tickets I believe are still available but we’re getting close to running out, so take a look at the link in the show notes and get your tickets.
All right. Let’s get into it. So when we talk about writing a script a lot of times we’re talking about structure. There are, I don’t know, four million books about structure. I went online and I looked for just images based on screenplay structure and what I saw was kind of mind-blowing. There are these long narrow lines with little ticks on them and then there’s a pie chart. And then there’s a swirly thing that kind of looks like a snail shell. There’s a triangle. There’s a diamond. I think there’s a parallelogram. And if there’s not a trapezoid maybe one of you can get on that.
All of this is designed to help you learn how to structure a screenplay. Here’s the problem. All of it is done from the wrong end. All of it. It’s all done from the point of view of analysis. They look at things, they take them apart, and then they say, look, all these pieces fit into this swirly shape, or this diamond. The issue is that’s not going to help you actually write anything because when you write you’re starting from scratch. You’re not breaking something apart. You’re building something out of nothing. And when you’re building something out of nothing you need a different set of instructions.
I can think of a doctor who takes bodies apart. That’s a medical examiner or a coroner. That’s not the doctor you want to go to to make a baby for instance. It’s just a very different thing, right? So we’re going to come at it from the point of view of making babies and your baby is your script. Don’t worry, we’re going to keep this safe for work.
So, structure. Structure, structure, structure. Screenplay is structure. You need to know how to do your structure. Structure I’m here to tell you is a total trap. Yes, screenplay is structure, but structure isn’t what you think it is. Structure doesn’t say this happens on this page, this happens on that page. Here’s a pinch point. Here’s a stretchy point. Here’s a midpoint. Structure doesn’t tell you what to do. If you follow strict structural guidelines in all likelihood you will write a very well structured bad script.
Structure isn’t the dog. It’s the tail. Structure is a symptom. It’s a symptom of a character’s relationship with a central dramatic argument. Take a moment. Think about that for a second. I’ll repeat it. Structure is a symptom of a character’s relationship with a central dramatic argument. Structure isn’t something you write well. It’s something that happens because you wrote well. Structure is not a tool, it is a symptom.
When we think of rigid structural forms I have to tell you there’s nothing honest about them. There’s nothing true about them. They’re synthetic. There’s never been one single great writer who created one single great screenplay following a structural template. Not one.
What real writers follow are their characters. And what great writers follow are their characters as they evolve around a central dramatic argument that is actually meaningful to other human beings. Let me stop for a second and tell you that we are going to get into real practicals but for a bit now we’re just going to talk a little bit of philosophy. First, let’s consider what we call basic structure. There’s a Syd Field point of view. You have your three acts, your inciting incident, act break escalation, magical midpoint character shift, third act low point, and kick off to climactic action.
We also have the Chris Vogler Hero’s Journey, ordinary world, call to action, refusal of call, acceptance of call, and blah, blah, blah. Save the Cat is a lot of stuff.
There’s a lot of what to do but where’s the why? Who came up with this stuff in the first place? Why is it there? Why are there three acts at all? Why is there a low point? Why do we like it when there’s an inciting incident? Why do we like it when there’s a low point? If we don’t know why those things are there how are we supposed to know how to write them? Because we process the world through our consciousness and our consciousness is sort of a natural storyteller, all of us are actually walking around doing this right all the time. We just don’t know it. We’re narrativizing our own lives better than most who try and do it on purpose on Fade In or WriterDuet, or Highland2. I don’t know any other software.
Right now you’re sitting there, you’re riding along in your car, you’re being passive. You are accepting this structure talk, wondering when I’m going to get to the practicals. And I will. But later if someone asks you about this experience you’re having you will naturally, without thinking, create a story. You won’t have to consult a graph or a chart or a swirly thing. You’ll just tell the story.
Here’s a story. I listened to a podcast. It was on the following topics. Reasonable people could agree or disagree. Anyway, I’m the same. That’s not a very good story, is it?
Here’s another story. I was listening to a podcast and it was OK, it was sort of a little boring, but then the person said this one thing and it reminded me of something else I’d heard once and that tied back to this moment in my life where something really interesting happened. And now I’m wondering maybe if I was wrong about that thing and I should be doing it this way instead. Huh. There you go. And that story has character, meaning you. That story is about you and maybe it’s about me. It’s about a relationship that we’re having right now through this podcast, for better or worse.
And if you were to relay this story, this experience, you might share some parts of this that you thought were interesting or some parts that you thought were stupid, but you will naturally contextualize it as such. This moment in time did or did not help you in your desire to change. We live our lives this way, but when we sit down to write we somehow forget. You know who never forgets? Actors. They have to get it because they are the characters and we are experiencing them as the characters.
So there’s that old cliché line: what’s my motivation? Well it’s not a joke. Believe it or not that is the key to structure. What is the purpose of all this storytelling that we engage in, all this narration? Well, narration helps us move through a changing world. And story is about a change of state. There are three basic ways your story changes. And this applies I think to every possible story.
The first way is internal. This is what is going on inside the character’s mind. This is the things they’re thinking, they’re feeling, their emotions. And this axis goes all over the place. It zigzags up and down. Then there’s interpersonal. That’s the main relationship of your story. It has a start, it has an end. It usually begins in a kind of neutral way. Then depending on how your story unfolds it can dip and then rise and then plummet and then spike. And finally you have the external axis. That’s the narrative, the plot, the things that are going on around you. And that generally is just a straight line. Start to end.
All of this is made up of scenes. And within scenes we’re doing something that follows the Hegelian dialectic. Calm down. You don’t need to look it up. I’ll help you out. The Hegelian Dialectic basically is a way of thinking about how we formulate ideas and thoughts and arguments. You take a thesis. That’s a statement. Something is true. And then you apply to that an antithesis. No, that’s not true and here’s why. Those things collide and in theory what results from that is a new thesis called the synthesis. And that starts the whole process over again. That synthesis becomes a thesis. There’s an antithesis. A new synthesis. That becomes a thesis. Constant changing. Every scene begins with a truth, something happens inside of that scene. There is a new truth at the end and you begin, and you begin, and you begin.
And who is the person firing these antitheses at these theses? You.
So, as we go through this talk never forget this one simple fact. At any given moment as you begin a scene you have a situation that is involving those three axes and you are going to fire something at at least one of them to make something new. That is all story is. But what is the glue that holds all those changes together? What’s the glue that you the creator can use to come up with your antitheses and get your new syntheses and do it over and over again?
And that brings us to theme. Theme is otherwise known as unity. Unity is a term that was first used by Aristotle in Poetics and this is one you actually should read. I know you’re like, Aristotle? Hegel? Hegelian guy. Calm down. It’s fine. In fact, Aristotle was really a contemporary writer in his own way. Poetics is an easy read. It will take you about 30 minutes. It’s a pretty good bathroom book. And in it you’ll find a lot of things that we hear today, like for instance the worst kind of plot is an episodic plot. Well, that’s pretty much true.
What did he think of unity or theme? Well basically theme is your central dramatic argument. Some of those arguments are interesting. Some of them are a little cliché. And the quality of the argument itself isn’t necessarily related to the quality of the script. For instance, you can have a really good screenplay built around you can’t judge a book by its cover. That’s OK. The theme itself doesn’t have to be mind-altering or, I don’t know, revolutionary. It’s your execution around it that’s going to be interesting.
But the important thing is that the argument has to be an argument. I think sometimes people misunderstand the use of theme in this context and they think a theme for a screenplay could be brotherhood. Well, no. Because there’s nothing to argue about there. There’s no way to answer that question one way or the other. It’s just a vague concept.
But, man and women can’t just be friends, well, that’s an argument. Better to be dead than a slave. Life is beautiful, even in the midst of horrors. If you believe you are great, you will be great. If you love someone set them free. Those are arguments.
Screenplays without arguments feel empty and pointless. You will probably get some version of the following note. What is this about? I mean, I know what it’s about, but what is it about? Why should this movie exist? What is the point of all this?
Now, it’s really important to note you probably don’t want to start with an argument. That’s a weird way to begin a script. Usually we think of an idea. And that’s fine. But when you think of the idea the very next question you should ask is what central dramatic argument would fit really well with this? And ideally you’re going to think ironically. For instance, let’s talk about this idea. A fish has to find another fish who is somewhere in the ocean. Got it. The animators will love it. Water. Fish. Cool.
OK, let’s think of a central dramatic argument. How about if you try hard enough you can do anything, even find a fish? That’s a bit boring, isn’t it? How about sometimes the things we’re searching for are the things that we need to be free from? Well, OK. That’s an interesting argument. I’m not sure how it necessarily is served or is being served by this idea of a fish in the ocean. How about you can’t find happiness out there, you have to find it within yourself? That could work. That’s sort of Wizard of Oz-ish.
But let’s go really ironically. How about this one? No matter how much you want to hold onto the person you love, sometimes you have to set them free. Well, that is pretty cliché but it is a great central dramatic argument to pair with a fish needs to find another fish. Because when you’re looking for somebody out there in the deep, deep ocean you the writer know that what you’re promising is they’re going to find them and then have to let them go anyway. And that is starting to get good.
All right. Let’s get into some practicals, shall we? Because this is thematic structure. This is going to help you write your script. In thematic structure the purpose of the story – and listen carefully now – the purpose of the story is to take a character from ignorance of the truth of the theme to embodiment of the theme through action. I shall repeat. The purpose of the story is to take your main character, your protagonist, from a place of ignorance of the truth or the true side of the argument you’re making and take them all the way to the point where they become the very embodiment of that argument and they do it through action.
So, let’s talk about how we introduce. We begin in the beginning with the introduction of a protagonist in an ordinary world. You’ve probably heard this a thousand times. But why? Sometimes movies don’t start ordinarily. You probably saw Mad Max: Fury Road. If you didn’t, do so. Well, there’s no ordinary beginning there. I mean, it’s crazy from the jump. Ordinary doesn’t mean mundane. Although sometimes it can.
What ordinary means here is that the protagonist’s life essentially exemplifies their ignorance of the theme, of the argument that you want them to believe eventually. In fact, they believe the opposite of that argument. That’s how they begin. Typically in the beginning of a story your main character believes in the opposite of the theme and they have also achieved some kind of stasis. There’s a balance in their life. In fact, their ignorance of that theme has probably gotten them to this nice place of stasis and balance. It doesn’t mean they’re happy. What it means is that without the divine nudge of the writer-god their life could go on like this forever. It’s not a perfect life. It’s not the best life they could live but it’s the life they’ve settled for. Their stasis is acceptable imperfection.
If we’re going to circle back around to my favorite fish movie, Marlin can live with a resentful son as long as he knows his son is safe. That’s acceptable imperfection. I get it. Nemo resents me. He’s angry at me. He feels stifled by me. That’s OK. He’s alive. I can keep going this way.
And then along comes you, the writer. Your job is to disrupt that stasis. So you invent some sort of incident. Ah-ha. Know we know the point of the inciting incident. The point of the inciting incident is not to go, “Oh god, a meteor!” The point of the inciting incident is to specifically disrupt a character’s stasis. It makes the continuation of balance and stasis and acceptable imperfection impossible. It destroys it. And it forces a choice on the character.
OK, but why? I’m just going to keep asking that question. But why? But why? But why? Why do you have to do this to this poor character? Because you are the parent and you have a lesson to teach this person, or animal, or fish. Your motivation is part of your relationship to your character. You don’t write an inciting incident. You don’t write push character out of safety. That gives you no real guidance to let something blossom. What you write is an ironic disruption of stasis. Ironic as in a situation that includes contradictions or sharp contrasts that is, and hear me out, genetically engineered to break your character’s soul.
You’re going to destroy them. You are god. And you are designing a moment that will begin a transformation for this specific character so you have to make it intentional. It can be an explosion, or it can be the tiniest little change. But it’s not something that would disrupt everyone’s life the way it’s disrupting this person’s life. You have tailored it perfectly and terribly for them.
So, what’s the first thing your character wants to do when this happens to them? Well, it they’re like you or me they’re going to immediately try and just get back to what they had. They have to leave their stasis behind because you’ve destroyed it, but everything they’re going to do following that is done in service of just trying to get it back. Shrek doesn’t have his swamp, so he has to go on a journey so he can get his swamp back. The point here is that the hero has absolutely no idea that there is a central dramatic argument. They’ve made up their mind about something and their mind has not changed.
Your heroes should be on some level cowards. I don’t mean coward like shaking in your boots. I mean coward like I don’t want to change. I’m happy with the way things are. Please just let me be. And underlining that is fear. And fear, especially in your character, is the heart of empathy. I feel for characters when I fear with them. It is vulnerability. It’s what makes me connect. Every protagonist fears something.
Imagine a man who fears no other man. He doesn’t fear death. He doesn’t fear pain. But, ah-ha, fill in that blank. But the point is it has to be filled in. You can feel it, right? Like he’s going to have to fear something. Because fear is our connection to a character. And a fearful hero should have lived their lives to avoid the thing they’re afraid of.
You, are taking their safety blanket away. So I want you to write your fearful hero honestly. What do they want? They want to return to what they had. They want to go backwards. And believe it or not that is the gift that is going to drive you through the second act. The second act.
Oh, the thing that’s so scary. No. No, you should be excited about it. Let me take a break for a second and say that everything I’m talking about here is mostly to serve the writing of what I would call a traditional Hollywood movie. That doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean cliché. It doesn’t even mean formulaic. It just means it’s a traditional narrative. So, I don’t know, if you’re looking to be a little more Lars von Trier about things, well, I don’t know how interesting or helpful this is going to be. But I’m presuming that most of you just want to write a general kind of movie that conforms to a general kind of movie shape.
So this is how we’re going to help you do it. And the second act is the part that I think freaks people out the most. They get scared. But I think you should be excited about pages 30 to 90 roughly. Please do not quote me on those numbers. But first, are you getting it? Have you stopped thinking about plot? Have you stopped thinking about plot as something to jam characters into? Because when you do that that’s why you run out of road in your second act. You ran out of plot because it wasn’t being generated by anything except you.
Ah-ha. But when you start thinking of your plot as not something that happens to your characters but what you are doing to your characters that’s when you can lead them from anti-theme to theme. How do we do it?
First, we reinforce the anti-theme. That might sound a little counterintuitive but hear me out. You’ve knocked your hero out of their acceptable stasis. They are now on the way to do whatever they need to do to get back to it. The hero is going to experience new things. And I want you to think about making those new things reinforce her belief in an anti-theme. Because this is going to make them want to get back to the beginning even more. Oh, it’s delicious. We’re creating a torture chamber basically. Keep thinking that way.
Imagine your hero is moving backwards against you and you push them forward and they push back. Ah-ha. Good. Design moments to do this. You’re going to keep forcing them forward, but you’re also going to put things in their path that make them want to go backwards. That’s tension. That’s exciting. And more importantly when they do get past those things it will be meaningful. You want to write your world to oppose your character’s desires.
So, you’re going to reinforce their need to get back. Ah-ha. So, let’s see, Marlin wanders out into the ocean. His theory is the ocean is really, really dangerous. What should the first thing be? Maybe let’s have him meet some sharks. And actually, oh, you know what, they’re not scary at all. Oh god, yes they are. The ocean is in fact way worse than he even imagined. That’s what you need to do. He needs to get his son back really, really soon so he can return to stasis. And then when you’ve done that you’re going to introduce an element of doubt.
Something or someone lives in a different way. Someone or something in your story is an example of the life of theme rather than the life of anti-theme. So remember, your hero believes in one side of the central dramatic argument. It’s the wrong side. You want them to believe the other one. OK, but they believe the wrong one. They need to run into someone or something that believes in the right side of it. This element of doubt creates a natural conflict for the protagonist because of course I believe this, you believe that. But it’s also attractive to them on some level because – and again, really important. Your hero is rational. This is a critical component of a good hero. You are dealing with somebody that probably lives irrationally, fine, but they have to have the capacity to see that maybe there is a better way.
You’re living things maybe the wrong way but you need the capacity to see things going the right way. It is fear that separates the irrational hero from their rational potential. And because they’re rational when they get a glimpse of this other way of being they’re going to realize there’s value to it through circumstance or accident or necessity or another character’s actions. These are all things you’re inventing, but here’s why – the hero is going to experience a moment of acting in harmony with the right side of the central dramatic argument.
This could involve their own action or it could be something that they watch someone else do or something they experience passively. But this is why the magical midpoint change occurs. See, now you know why. You’re not just doing it because a book said. These things generally happen in the middle of the movie because our hero’s belief system has been challenged. There is an element of doubt. There is not a willingness to go all the way and believe the other side of the argument yet. They may not even understand the other side of the argument.
There’s only a question that maybe for the first time..