The long and short of it

Scriptnotes: Ep. 196
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John and Craig dig into the listener mailbag and take questions on TV producer credits, jealousy over other writers’ success, writing tight vs writing long and plenty of other follow up.

It’s a jam packed episode worthy of a long commute.

We also have information on the card game we playtested in LA a few weeks back. It’s called One Hit Kill, and you can see some of the artwork and play our mini-game at onehitkillgame.com now.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.


Check out the game we’re making

Back in March, I put out a call for playtesters. They answered, and together we took over a game store on Wilshire for one night, working through the new card game we’re developing.

We had temp cards with no artwork — even the title of the game was omitted. Didn’t matter. The players dug it.

“Fun + fast. Catan meets Magic meets Uno.”

“Old-fashioned and modern at the same time.”

“If a mad scientist created a card game, this would be it.”

There’s still plenty more to do, but it’s time to start telling people about the game — including the name.logo

It’s called One Hit Kill. It’s a game full of ridiculously overpowered weapons, drawn from science fiction, myth and popular culture.

It has Krakens and Portals to Nowhere. There are Time Machines, Elven Bows and Railguns. Even Cthulhu’s Granddad makes an appearance.

You can check out some of the weapons and other cards at our prelaunch website: onehitkillgame.com

Sign in, and you’ll get a special URL to share with friends to unlock additional cards. (Yes, even the prelaunch is sort of a game. We can’t stop ourselves.)

The first person to unlock all the artwork will receive one of the numbered decks from the playtest.1

We anticipate launching One Hit Kill sometime next week. Follow us on our brand-new Twitter account for details: @onehitkillgame

Thanks again to our 30 brave playtesters. Excited to show the rest of the world what you helped shape.

  1. Yes, the system logs IPs, so spamming a bunch of fake email addresses isn’t going to win you anything.

Writing for Hollywood without living there

Scriptnotes: Ep. 195
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Canadian screenwriter Ryan Knighton joins John and Craig to discuss how you sustain a career writing for Hollywood studios while living a flight away. Knighton’s first screenplay was the adaptation of his memoir about going blind. He’s since written for several studios, including a new project for Ridley Scott.

We also talk about general meetings, pitching, adapting true stories, and the Sundance screenwriting lab.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 5-4-15: The transcript of this episode can be found here.


Spalding Gray, depression, and the Big Fish connection

Writing for The New Yorker, Oliver Sacks recounts his interactions with monologist Spalding Gray:

Spalding had had occasional depressions, he said, for more than twenty years, and some of his physicians thought that he had a bipolar disorder. But these depressions, though severe, had yielded to talk therapy, or, sometimes, to treatment with lithium. His current state, he felt, was different. It had unprecedented depth and tenacity. He had to make a supreme effort of will to do things like ride his bicycle, which he had previously done spontaneously and with pleasure. He tried to converse with others, especially his children, but found it difficult. His ten-year-old son and his sixteen-year-old stepdaughter were distressed, feeling that their father had been “transformed” and was “no longer himself.”

Sacks traces Gray’s mental state to both a recent brain injury and a family history of depression. Gray described himself as a “failed suicide,” and was hospitalized several times.

He said that his mind was filled with fantasies of his mother, and of water, always water. All his suicidal fantasies, he said, related to drowning.

Why water, why drowning? I asked.

“Returning to the sea, our mother,” he said.

Anesthesia from surgery would lift his symptoms temporarily, but the darkness always returned. He would ultimately take his life.

On January 10, 2004, Spalding took his children to a movie. It was Tim Burton’s “Big Fish,” in which a dying father passes his fantastical stories on to his son before returning to the river, where he dies—and perhaps is reincarnated as his true self, a fish, making one of his tall tales come true.

That evening, Spalding left home, saying he was going to meet a friend. He did not leave a suicide note, as he had so often before. When inquiries were made, one man said he had seen him board the Staten Island Ferry.

I learned about Spalding Gray’s connection to Big Fish the day after his death. Daniel Wallace, who wrote the novel Big Fish, emailed me a link to an article about Gray’s disappearance and presumed suicide, which included the detail that Gray had just seen the movie.

At the time, Big Fish was in theaters, and we were in the middle of the awards season campaign. At press events and roundtables, journalists would occasionally inquire about Spalding Gray and his relationship to Big Fish.

What was I supposed to say? I had no insight on Spalding Gray’s mental state, so I stumbled around saying nothing, or as little as I could before getting back to safer questions.

But privately, I wondered: Was it all just a morbid coincidence? Was there a thematic correlation? Or could one reasonably claim that Big Fish killed Spalding Gray, as some web sites suggested?

Eleven years later, Sacks’s article finally offers the missing context. Gray’s suicidal thoughts had arisen years earlier, and despite the efforts of Gray, his family and his doctors, the impulse to drown himself ultimately won out.

It’s tempting to imagine Gray seeing himself in Edward Bloom; both are storytellers facing their own mortality.

It’s also a mistake.

Real people aren’t fictional characters. They don’t follow a plot. None of us wakes up in the morning with the aim of advancing our narrative or reinforcing our core themes. Instead, we simply live, pursuing our interests while adapting to the changing circumstances around us. It’s messy. It’s unwritten.

As Sacks makes clear, Gray killed himself after seeing Big Fish, but it wasn’t his first attempt, and the film wasn’t the cause in any meaningful sense.

Still, our story brains want the movie to be the cause. We want A to lead to B, post hoc ergo propter hoc, especially when there seems to be such thematic similarity between the two events. As a writer, it’s an instinct Gray no doubt understood.

Even Sacks, the famous neurologist, concludes his article with the detail of Big Fish. For all his discussion of the “delicate mutuality” between the frontal lobes and the subcortex, Sacks still looks for a narrative reason to answer the question, “why now?”

And maybe that’s the right choice.

One of the key points in Big Fish is that there’s often a middle ground between the facts and the fiction, an emotional truth that is more universal and ultimately more useful. Science tells us how things work, but stories tell us how things feel.

The truth of Spalding Gray’s connection to Big Fish exists in both the realms of fact and feeling. It’s important to understand the clinical realities of depression, and also to empathize with those affected. Eleven years later, this new account of Gray’s struggle has helped me do both.


Ghost and Jacob’s Ladder at the WGA

As hoped, the WGA screening series has opened up my Q&A with screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin to everyone. It’s free for everyone. Seating is first-come, but the theater is pretty large, so don’t feel like you have to get there an hour early.

This Saturday, April 25
5pm GHOST (followed by the Q&A)
8:30pm JACOB’S LADDER

Writers Guild Theater
135 S Doheny Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90211
(map)

WGA members should still RSVP to guarantee a seat.

Back in Episode 163, Craig and I did a beat-by-beat breakdown of Ghost. I’m really looking forward to the chance to talk about the movie with its screenwriter.


Podcaster as cult leader

In a post that has since been taken down, Danny Manus warned that screenwriters are unwittingly being drawn into cults:

To be honest, I’m not even sure the professionals themselves are aware of their Jim Jonesy behavior and what type of insulated, self-aggrandizing, arrogant dome of cynicism and power they are creating. So, in hopes that there is still time to save others from drinking the Kool-Aid, and as a public service to inform those unknowingly responsible, here are some ways to know if you’re leading a cult.

- You cast aspersions on outside computer programs or software your followers may use (…and then launch your own and charge for it).

- You advise your followers that they need to move closer to you, and can only truly be part of your world if they are living nearby in the same town.

- You create your own terminology for words and concepts that don’t require new terminology (or perhaps your own FONT because the font others use aren’t good enough for you?).

While the first bullet point could apply to Marco Arment, I have a strong hunch that Manus is mostly referring to me and Craig Mazin, and our Scriptnotes podcast.

If he’s calling me a cult leader, he’s not altogether wrong.

By these standards, most popular podcasters are cult leaders.

Sound of My Voice

Here’s the thing: I’m fascinated by cults. I read books about Jonestown. I watch movies like Martha Marcy May Marlene. I wrote a pilot for Fox about an apocalyptic cult in the Santa Ynez Valley.

I know cults, and podcasts are inherently kind of culty.

Week after week, you’re hearing the same voices talking in your head about the same topics. You begin to learn the hosts’ quirks, opinions and predilections. They feel like friends even though they’re strangers.1

Podcasts never abandon you. They are with you when you’re alone in the car, or riding the train, or washing dishes. They take you out of the tedium of the moment and engage you in something more interesting.

Podcasts offer secret knowledge. Anyone can watch The Daily Show, but to listen to a podcast you have to know it exists. You have to seek it out. You have a source of information almost no one else in the world does.

Some podcasts even provide a special wardrobe, say, a t-shirt.

Yet there are some significant barriers to podcasts becoming full-on cults.

For starters, listening to a podcast is a solo experience, while cults are inherently group activities. Social media can get you part of the way — but you’d want to do some live shows so your fans can interact with each other.

Second, the opt-out is way too easy. True cults have ways to punish apostasy. With podcasts, you can simply stop listening, or delete the show from your podcasting app. No one is going to know that you bailed.2

Cult-like isn’t the same as cult

I don’t believe podcasters are cult leaders in the sense of Jim Jones. Manus is comparing the murder of 913 men, women and children to a few mean Facebook comments.

A podcast like Scriptnotes — or The Talk Show, or Serial, or the Slate Political Gabfest — does share some characteristics with a cult. It has charismatic leaders voicing an opinion. It singles out heroes and villains. Just like Apple and Android, a podcast can attract fans and fanatics.

Should podcasters be aware of the dangers of cult-like behavior? Absolutely. So should bloggers, tweeters, Viners and YouTubers. Any time you have a crowd, you have to consider responsible crowd management.

Manus writes:

Those who spout off about how THERE ARE NO RULES – but then continue to tell you exactly what to believe and think and how to act and who to do business with – are either wildly hypocritical, or completely oblivious.

I don’t think Craig and I are hypocritical or oblivious. We’re mindful of our responsibility to both our audience and the industry, and always aim to be inclusive rather than isolationist. If we’re cult leaders, we suck at it.

But I guess that’s what a modern cult leader would say.

  1. Meeting people in person, I’ve experienced both sides of this asymmetric familiarity. It’s weird both ways.
  2. I’ve stopped listening to several of my friends’ podcasts. No, not yours. Another friend’s.