The original post for this episode can be found here.

John August: Hello. My name is John August.

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: This is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. How are you, Craig?

Craig: A little tired. A little overworked right now.

John: I’m sorry to hear that.

Craig: Well, worse than underworked.

— I’m sorry, I said it’s worse than underworked. It’s better than underworked.

John: Yes. You wouldn’t want to be unemployed.

Craig: No, no. No.

John: No, no. At the worst of our jobs we’re not digging ditches.

Craig: Right, precisely.

John: We’re indoors most of the day. We have comfortable chairs. — If we’re smart we have comfortable chairs.

Craig: Yes. I’ve got the Aeron.

John: I’ve got the thing that’s not the Aeron. I’m going to stand up and look at the back of my chair so I can tell you what it is. Hold on one sec.

Craig: Exciting.

John: Exciting. I will post a link to whatever it is in the show notes. It’s the one that’s not the Aeron but it’s like the Aeron. It’s supposed to be they can rip it apart and recycle it better. It’s the next thing. Do you remember what that was called?

Craig: I think my wife has one of those. I’m one of the many beneficiaries of the dot com bust. Hundreds of start-ups bought thousands of Aeron chairs in a display of remarkable optimism and they all went belly up, so they sell these things on eBay or whatever.

John: A good chair is very crucial. I found that Aeron didn’t give me quite enough support and that’s why I was happy to switch to this one which has worked better for me.

Craig: I have a little guy here who pushes up on the bottom of the chair for me.

John: That’s crucial, having that small person in your employment who can provide lumbar support like that.

Craig: He’s actually not small. He’s six foot two but he takes pride in his work.

John: Pride in your work is really the crucial thing.

Craig: It’s key.

John: Hey, Craig, I have a question for you. As you’re working with a director — let’s just say you’re working with Todd Philips — and Todd Phillips says, “€œHey, you really need to see this one Orson Wells movie that you hadn’t seen before.”€ As you know, Orson Wells is a master of comedy and you really can’t make Hangover 3 without Orson Wells€ knowledge.

Todd said, “€œHey, you need to check out this Orson Wells movie.”€ What would you do?

Craig: I would watch the movie.

John: How would you watch the movie?

Craig: I guess I would try and iTunes it or Netflix it. Barring that, I guess I would go to a brick and mortar and rent it.

John: Isn’t it remarkable that you can find pretty much any Orson Wells movie that has probably ever been made? You can be able to find that movie.

Craig: Pretty much.

John: I bring this up because, as I’ve talked about before on the show, I’m working on €œBig Fish€ the Broadway Musical, so I’ve needed to see a ton of Broadway musicals so I’m up to speed and so I can talk somewhat intelligently about other Broadway musicals, and I’m finding it’s a very different situation.

If I want to see any movie that’s ever been made, I can go and find it either on Netflix or digitally or somehow I can find that movie. With a Broadway show, it’s much more difficult. You can find a cast album for a lot of things. You can sometimes find a recording. Lincoln Center has recordings of some Broadway shows that were staged in the last 10 years or before that.

Sometimes there’s a movie version of it so sometimes you can see — like — the movie version of West Side Story,€ which is great, but a lot of shows you can’t actually see because they’re not staged that often.

Craig: So you have to actually go and see shows?

John: Yeah. It’s like being a filmmaker or screenwriter in the 1970s, for example, where you actually had to see a print of the show, and if there wasn’t a print handy you couldn’t see it, but even more difficult because you actually have to physically be in a space where people have come together to put on a show.

I guess my point is it’s harder to get caught up with all of the history in musical theater than it is to get caught up to cinema.

Craig: Yeah. I’m a musical theater fan but almost all of my fandom is based on the music. I listen to music and I listen to albums. I’ve seen almost no shows, so that’s something I guess I’ll have to rectify somewhere down the line.

John: In some ways you’re familiar with these musicals the same way if someone had only seen the action sequences in €œRaiders of the Lost Ark.€ You’re only getting the big highlights, but you’re not seeing how it all fits together in the bigger structure.

Craig: That’s right. On the other hand, though, I don’t have to sit through those really boring, bad songs.

John: Well, as the book writer who has to write all that really boring stuff I’ve needed to see a lot of those things. Luckily in a big city like LA we have Reprise!, which puts on a lot of the lesser staged Broadway shows. I think it’s Jason Alexander who is one of the big people behind Reprise!.

Several times a year over at UCLA they’ll put on a show that isn’t staged very often. I got to see €œHow to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying a couple years ago before this most recent incarnation, and I could see, “Oh, that’s what that show is really about and that song that I recognized needs to be in that show and that’s a good thing.”

This is all a very lengthy introduction to the point of I finally saw Follies for the first time two weeks ago in New York. It was really strange to see Follies. I’m guessing you’ve not seen €œFollies?

Craig: I haven’t seen Follies. I’ve heard quite a bit of the music of it, in consistent with my report from a few seconds ago, but €œFollies,€ by all accounts, was viewed as a very strange show from the start so you’re not alone in thinking that.

John: One of my frustrations, I should also add, when you’re trying to catch up on the history of musical theater is people inevitably say, “You should have seen the original.” That’s helpful because the original was in 1971 so unless you provide a time machine for me I really can’t go back and see the original staging of €œFollies.

The best I can do is a see a current staging of €œFollies, which is playing right now at the Marquee Theater in Broadway with Bernadette Peters and a lot of other talented people. Follies is this weird one, because I knew going into it that it has this weird place in the pantheon of Broadway musicals because it’s like a shibboleth.

You can’t say anything bad about €œFollies in a way because then you’re a godless heathen, but if you talk about it without acknowledging it’s generally perceived flaws you’re an idiot. It’s one of those things in describing it here and knowing that whatever I’m saying is going to be recorded for future people to listen to I have to be careful about talking about Follies.

Craig: But you’ve already blown it by saying that you have to be careful about talking about it. [laughs]

John: It’s like €œFight Club.€ You have to be careful about Fight Club. It’s such a strange, strange show. Do you know what it’s about? You’ve listened to the cast album.

Craig: It’s about these women who used to be burlesque-y stars and they all gather together for a reunion? Is that right?

John: That’s correct mostly. It’s not just women, it’s women and men. More women than men. It’s based on the €œZigfield Follies. This generation of it was between the two big wars so it’s the late ‘€œ40s, early ’50s I’m guessing. The show is staged with these older performers coming back to this theater that’s about to be destroyed for one last reunion.

A reunion setup is a very natural way of starting a story. What’s unusual about Follies is not only do you have all the older versions of these people, you have their younger versions as well, so the cast is huge because basically you have a younger version for each older person in the show so the cast gets giant.

The younger versions don’t interact directly with the older versions, but a lot of times they’re echoing what they’re doing or you’re seeing an earlier moment that they’re talking about in the present back in the past.

Also troubling, not troubling but problematic, is that the present day of it is the 1970s so you’re watching this in 2011 watching a show set in the 1970s and in the 1940s and your frames of references are off.

The younger incarnations of these people I take it in the original staging were much more explicitly handled in ghosts. In this most recent one I wouldn’t really necessarily call them ghosts. They’re more like a CBS show, like a Cold Case. It’s like they’re half flashing back to earlier times.

The show, the soundtrack album that you’ve listened to, the only reason that people still talk about it as much as they do is there’s amazing songs in that show. €œI’m Still Here,€ €œBroadway Baby.

Craig: Broadway Baby is a classic. Elaine Stritch has an awesome version of Broadway Baby.€ It’s funny because I don’t know quite where. It’s a live version. It must have been a tribute concert. The thing about Sondheim is every — I would say — 14 hours there’s a tribute concert to Steven Sondheim where everybody gets together and sings his songs.

There’s a great Elaine Stritch that is really funny and then there’s this heartbreaking version of I’m Still Here€ by Dorothy Loudon that is my particular favorite.

John: Those two songs are classics. Too Many Mornings Could I Leave You. Losing My Mind which is a great, great song. They’re all written by Steven Sondheim, who’s, again, considered a deity. The book was written by James Goldman, who is a screenwriter who did a lot of different things, is the brother of William Goldman. There’s a tradition of screenwriters working in the theater.

The other song that I’d heard from it that I didn’t know was from the show was œWaiting for the Girls Upstairs.

Craig: Yes, that is from that show.

John: That is from that show. That is very literally the suitors waiting for the girl performers that are getting changed upstairs and taking too long to change upstairs. I’d heard that song many different times but I really had no context for it. I always assumed it was like the girls upstairs were in an apartment upstairs.

I kept envisioning the cast of €œFriends€ for that song and it’s not even remotely that way.

Craig: That’s my struggle with all these songs. I don’t know what €œI’m Still Here is about other than a woman who used to be a popular singer or performer of some kind now well on in her years and she struggled through tough times and lost of fame. I don’t know what the context is beyond that.

John: Hearing that song wouldn’t you assume that it’s one of the main characters who sings that song?

Craig: I would, although I happen to know it’s not.

John: No, it’s a really side character. The same with that and Broadway Baby. Naturally as screenwriters you can’t turn off that screenwriter brain of, “Okay, this isn’t really all working right and so how do you fix this?” The only reason the fix it instinct kicks in is that you recognize that the parts are working much better than the whole.

The parts being these really, really great numbers, these great songs, but the framework around them isn’t maybe all you would hope it could be. Those two songs, they’re not your lead characters singing them. They do help set up this whole sense of this generation has passed and some of the people are still performers and most of the people have gone on to other kinds of lives so it works on that level.

The real meat of the show are these two married couples and essentially the one girl really wanted the other guy and both of them are in unhappy marriages because of choices made decades ago. €œCould I Leave You is could the one wife leave the husband, and it’s a really good, funny song, but it plays strangely in what’s meant to be a deserted theater.

It feels like you want to see her in her house singing this song rather than in some theater. Losing My Mind,€ which is a great song, but you hear that song and it feels like a more recent love. It feels more like I’ve been in love with you for a year and you told me once that you loved me and were you just being kind?

It feels more like a recent romantic obsession rather than something that dates back 30 years.

Craig: Yeah. Well, maybe I’m kind of the beneficiary, then, of sort of hearing these songs out of context. For instance, Broadway Baby€ is hysterical when Elaine Stritch sings it. It’s a very funny performance. Maybe it’s really tragic and sad in the musical but I sort of enjoy it on its own.

Actually, it’s funny, with Sondheim. Maybe because I’m just not quite… I am not a musical theatre nut. I’m just a casual fan.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So I’ve never seen, for instance, €œSunday in the Park. I’ve never seen it. But I do love It’s Hot in Here and I do love €œPutting it Together. I feel like that’s okay. I enjoy those songs for what they are. I can figure out that It’s Hot in Here is… or It’s Hot up Here?

John: Yeah.

Craig: I can’t remember which one. But it’s the people in his famous painting that are singing about being stuck there. And that’s all I need to know. I’m good.

John: Yeah. Yeah.

Craig: By the way, a little trivia question. Who’s the actress who originated the role that sings I’m Still Here€ in The Follies?

John: I don’t know.

Craig: Yvonne De Carlo who was famous for playing…

John: Ah-hah. Batwoman.

Craig: No.

John: Catgirl.

Craig: No. Was she Catgirl?

John: Wasn’t she?

Craig: No. Well, maybe she was but I know her, most famously, as Lilly Munster.

John: Aaah.

Craig: Lilly Munster.

John: I’m looking at Yvonne De Carlo right now.

Craig: Yvonne De Carlo.

John: Just because that’s a crucial thing.

Craig: Yeah, it’s crucial.

John: Yeah, I’m not seeing it here but she was in €œThe Girl from U.N.C.L.E.€ So that’s important.

Craig: Yes.

John: Yeah.

Craig: All right. Trivia time… Done.

John: So, my other screenwriter brain. And this is, again, dangerous to criticize a show that is beloved by many people. But this is also useful for people, screenwriters, who are listening to this podcast.

In the clever idea of like, “Oh, you have the old version and the young version,”€ you end up dividing the audiences loyalties because it’s like, “€œWait. Am I supposed to be caring more about the older version or the younger version?”

Craig: Yeah.

John: Which is, certainly, a challenge we had in the movie version of Big Fish, too. It’s that you’re splitting the roles between the young Edward Bloom and the older Edward Bloom. So, which one is the real Edward Bloom?

Craig: That’s a great way of putting it because in every movie where an individual is split, through time travel or just the framing of the movie, you never really believe they’re the same person. In your mind you can’t track it that way.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, you’re always… I mean, you try.

John: Yeah.

Craig: As writers, we try and do the best we can. But, inevitably, the brain won’t allow it.

John: Yeah. The other issue I found… and it’s not unique to this musical but when you have people in unhappy marriages, the idea that their marriage is going to fall apart on this one night… or, actually, more specifically, that their marriage would have lasted up until this one night… can be a real challenge. It’s like, if you hate each other so much then how did you possibly get in the car to come here tonight?

Craig: [laughs] Right.

John: That’s a challenge.

Craig: It’s like the dilemma of drama. When marriages break up they usually break up slowly and miserably. It’s like dying. No-one ever dies by grabbing someone’s hand and whispering those last great words and then eyes roll back. It’s like two months in the hospital, bedpans, and machines that go “ping.”

John: Ping. Oh, I’m going to steal a line from Andrew Lippa, who is the composer on €œBig Fish.€ His father gave him an amazing deathbed line. His father was coherent enough so Andrew said, “€œDad, are you comfortable?”€ and his father opened his eyes and said, “€œI make a living.”

Craig: [laughs] Was he consciously joking, right there at the end? Or was he just confused?

John: Oh, he was consciously joking.

Craig: That guy is awesome.

John: That’s pretty amazing. Isn’t it?

Craig: That’s pretty awesome to be Vaudeville at the very end.

John: Yeah, Vaudeville to the end.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, by bigger framing around this whole Follies end, having to physically see musicals and see them staged, and having to really track down like… There are many musicals that I would rush out to see. Even a version that I know isn’t supposed to be the best possible version because otherwise I just couldn’t see it.

Another big difference with movies is movies have a fixed, finished form. €œRaiders of the Lost Arc€ is basically always going to be the same €œRaiders of the Lost Arc.

Craig: Yes.

John: Which is why, when there are new releases where they change things, I think people get so pissed off. There’s this assumption with movies that once you’re done, you’re done. And you’re not going to change the movie anymore.

Craig: Right. In fact, this goes to the heart of a question that every screenwriter asks sooner or later. Typically, when they’re starting out and they’re dealing with a lot of the humiliations, the everyday humiliations of being a professional screenwriter.

They say, “Why? Why are playwrights treated so much differently? Why does everybody respect the playwright and never change a word? Not the directors. Not the actors. But, screenwriters are treated completely differently.”

The answer is very simple. Playwrights write a play and that’s done and then the play is performed. Performances are not intellectual property. They’re performances. They are not even works of art, in the legal sense. They’re performances of a work of art whereas screenplays are not.

Screenplays are intended to be transformed into a movie which is fixed, as you put it, and done and is, in fact, a work of art and intellectual property that is never changed.

The fact that the playwright writes something that is performed over and over and over in a million different ways requires consistency in the words. It must have it. Otherwise, what play are you seeing? Are you seeing Fiddler on the Roof or somebody else’s €œFiddler on the Roof?

That is why we are in a jam, as screenwriters.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Our work isn’t performed.

John: Our work is transformed into something else that is the finished thing.

Craig: Correct.

John: It’s a little sorbet, before we get to our next big topic. Are you reading a lot these days? Are you getting a chance to read for fun?

Craig: Not for fun. No.

John: No.

Craig: I mean, I got the Jobs autobiography. I have not even cracked it open. Mostly, I’ve just been reading stuff for jobs. I mean, for writing.

John: I’m sorry.

Craig: Yeah, I know. Bummer. What are you reading?

John: I’ve read two things this last week. So, first off, I got the new Kindle. Not the Kindle Fire but the really cheap $79 Kindle, which is great, by the way.

I got the one with ads and the ads are a little bit annoying. They don’t interrupt your reading experience but if it’s just sitting there then suddenly it will turn into a hair care product ad. It’s like I don’t really want to see that.

Craig: Totally inapplicable to you.

John: Yeah. Not useful for me.

Craig: No.

John: But it’s great and it’s small and it fits perfectly in my coat pocket, for when I’m in New York. I can be on the subway, I can pull out my Kindle and read for a bit on the subway and it’s great. So I find myself reading a lot more.

Or, and hopefully, if I’m in a restaurant and it’s too dark for me to use my real Kindle then I can just pull out my phone and read the same book on my phone.

Craig: Right.

John: So, a useful advantage of living in 2011.

Craig: Yes.

John: So, I’m reading two things. I read Mindy Kaling’s book.

Craig: Oh yeah. I heard that was great.

John: Yeah. Mindy Kaling is the producer and actress and director on The Office. It’s good. People want to compare it directly to the Tina Fey book and the Tina Fey book is meteor. There’s just more to it.

But what I found really interesting in Mindy Kaling’s book was her back story, in terms of how she got started. I’d know she’d written this play called Matt and Ben which is about Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

But her whole back story about how that got set up and started was really fascinating and very much proves the thing that we say here a lot, “You don’t know what is going to be the one thing that is going to push you over the edge and get you noticed and get you started.”

This was just something that she found funny and fascinating and she pursued with full vigor. And people liked it. That’s the thing that sort of got her put in a spotlight and she used that spotlight very well.

Craig: Yeah. Mary notes how funny talent plus unique perspective tends to stand out.

John: Yes.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Yeah. So, she’s great. I’m reading Thinking, Fast and Slow. I forget the author’s name, but I will put it in the show notes. It is a really good brain book. I have to read a good brain book, every year or two, about the mental processes. His basic argument is that you have two systems that process thought for you.

You have system one which does things automatically and subconsciously and can do most of the functions of making the simple decisions about things and noticing when something is wrong and that you have to pay attention to it. And system two which does your more difficult… What we really think of as thinking.

It does your complicated math and stuff like that. A lot of our decisions that we assume we’re consciously aware of are really being made in system one before we’re thinking about it.

Craig: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a really interesting book I recommend. Actually, I took a class with this guy when I was in college. His name is Julian Jaynes.

John: Oh, I know Julian Jaynes.

Craig: Yes.

John: Bicameral or the breakdown of the…

Craig: Yes, €œThe Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.€ I said that really fast but you’ll put up a note, I’m sure. It’s a really interesting book. He essentially argues that the root of consciousness is language and it’s why we are conscious, in the way we understand it to be, and animals are not. At least that’s his theory.

One of the things he talks about first is what consciousness isn’t. A knee-jerk response to the question, “€œWhat is consciousness?” is awareness. But he points out… We’ve all had that experience of driving in a car and then suddenly realizing, “I haven’t really actually been paying attention. How did I even get this far? I’ve been thinking about something else while I’m driving.”

But while you were thinking about something else you were staying in your lane, slowing down when cars in front of you slowed down, making right turns and left turns, and taking exits.

It’s remarkable how much your brain can do without you actually paying attention.

John: Yeah. It raises the question of what is the you. It’s like, without you paying attention… well, part of you is paying attention. It’s just not that part that we think about as being consciousness.

Craig: Right.

John: It’s not that part that sort of self reports and carries your awareness of your inner monologue. So, Jaynes’s book is fascinating. I’ve seen it a lot. I read it ten years ago, maybe. I’ve seen a lot of criticism about it since then.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But I think it’s fascinating in terms of its ideas.

Craig: It’s essentially groundless but, as a groundless theory, it’s fun to read. His essential argument is that once we developed a capacity for language and came up with the word “I” and with metaphors, to be able to describe ourselves through language, that’s how we essentially began to become conscious.

There was one thing that I remember after I read the book. I went to bed and I had a dream. It was a normal dream…. I remember in the dream someone said something that surprised me. That happens all the time in dreams. People say things and you go, “€œOh, okay,” and then you respond. Just like a regular conversation.

When I woke up, it occurred to me those aren’t other people. They’re just me. I mean, obviously, my brain is writing and playing all the roles in a dream. But you don’t know what they’re going to say. So, somehow your brain is capable of splitting off and creating multiple consciousnesses that can interact with each other in a dream.

Well, that happens most efficiently when we’re dreaming. Certainly, that’s a big part of what we do when we’re screenwriting. We do it with awareness, but part of the tool of the screenwriter is to somehow become schizophrenic and have people inside of your head think differently than you and surprise you.

John: I don’t remember if this is Jaynes’s book specifically, but I recall one of these books was talking about when we read the really classic Greek literature and there’s all the talk about the gods talking to people, that may have actually been the experience of what it was like to be alive at that time.

Well, our assumption that, “Oh, people back then were exactly the way that people are now,” that may not be entirely true and that people may have actually heard voices the way we consider a schizophrenic hears voices much more commonly because of just the way the brain was organized and the way that language had shaped how we’re thinking about things.

So people in the classic times or the pre-classic times may have literally been hearing voices a lot, and so their experience of who they were and who the outside world was could have been very different.

Craig: Yeah, that was Jaynes. He was arguing that the two hemispheres of the brain are connected by this big huge bundle of fibers called the corpus callosum, which is much larger in women by the way than men. Men are more split brain on the average than women, which by the way accounts for some of these very persistent cognitive differences so they think that we see over and over in men and women.

But his suggestion was that in the old days there was even less of a connection between the two hemispheres, and what we tend to think of as our own mind talking to us, people then either literally heard as an auditory hallucination or just interpreted it as somebody else speaking to us. It accounts in some small part for why people back then were so much more religious.

People are religious now, but not in the way they were then. I mean people then truly did hear gods telling them what to do, and it was quite commonplace. Interestingly, no one ever said, “€œOh, that guy who says God is talking to him, he’s crazy.”€ Quite the opposite. Those people were prophets. Now, of course, if you say that God is talking to you, it’s time for some chlorpromazine.

John: Yeah, I don’t want gods talking to me. I’m happy to have a sense of the universe being sane and rational and ordered and me being a player within it.

Craig: I beg to differ. I want to be in charge. Yeah. I prefer the solipsistic vision where you’re all here for my benefit. It’s just a big play, and…


Craig: …When I close my eyes you all die. When I open my eyes, you wake up again. [laughs]

John: Having made The Nines,€ which was essentially that whole premise, it’s not really quite how I view the universe. But it is fascinating and telling.

Craig: Tempting, isn’t it?

John: Tempting, yes.

Craig: [laughs]

John: One other thing I want to talk about is what I described in our setup email is second act malaise. I should say second act, not in the sense of theatre second act because theatre has two acts. It has a first act and then an intermission and a second act. Second act malaise in terms of screenwriting, which is you have your first act which sets everything up. You have your last act which wraps everything up.

The second act is this vast stretch in the middle of writing, which can both be challenging narratively but also challenging really hard just in work because I find that when I’m deep in the second act like I am on this one project, you’re excited about all the stuff you’ve written. You’re excited about the stuff that’s coming up, but where you’re at right there in the middle can just be a slog.

Craig: It can. In fact, I am right there right now on a script, right in the middle, and because I knew we were going to be talking about this, I started thinking about why. Because look, the first act is actually the hardest thing to write I think. You have to invent all the voices, the characters, the appearances, the situations, the premises, and so forth.

The third act is a little easier because theoretically it is what must occur. The second act shouldn’t be so much harder than the first. So I started asking myself is this psychological? Is it just, “Okay, the excitement of the new is gone?” The excitement of “I’m almost finished” is gone?€ So is that the cause of the fatigue? But I came upon a possible different solution, so I’m curious to see what you think.

I think that when we write, we naturally identify with our protagonist. Even if they’re very different than us, their experience is something that we have to feel emotionally or we don’t write them very well.

In the middle of the movie our characters tend to be lost. [laughs] They tend to be unmoored from their comforting surroundings. They’re in the middle of their journey. It is the hard part of their journey.

There is no resolution around the corner. In fact, sometimes they don’t even know what they’re supposed to do next. I actually feel like when we’re writing, it’s not surprising that we get tired and a little overwhelmed and fatigued in the middle because that’s how our characters are.

John: Yeah, that’s a nice way of thinking about it. I like that.

Craig: Thank you.

John: I would push back and say I find the first act to be the easiest part to write.

Craig: Interesting.

John: I find starting a script to be very difficult. Much like our friend, who describes her of having to climb into the water very gently and splash water on her toes, I have a hard time literally starting the work.

But the first act is fascinating and exciting for me because I am setting up the rules of the world. So anything is possible in the first act because what could happen in this movie? Well, whatever I want to have happen in this movie. I’m setting up the rules and the boundaries of what this movie is.

The second act for me partly is challenging because I already have established those boundaries, so I know that I can only go this far to this far, this far, this far. You’re on a path, and you have to stay on that path. You’ve decided we’re going to drive to Wichita, so you have to find a way to make that drive to Wichita as interesting as possible.

You’re not allowed to introduce a lot of new characters. You’re not supposed to be introducing brand new ideas in terms of what characters should want.

Sometimes you are revisiting things from earlier on in the story, so they’re not new. One of the projects I’m working on right now, the director has an interesting mandate, which has been challenging to carry out but also fascinating to carry out is that she doesn’t want to see the same set twice, which is…

Craig: Really?

John: Really. Which is really a great goal. I don’t know necessarily that it was achievable. But her point worth discussing is anytime you come back to a set, you have a sense that the story is not moving forward because you’ve literally returned to someplace that you’ve been to before.

So even if some other things have changed or the characters in a different place now, you are going back someplace and you want to always go forward.

Craig: Well, there goes €œCasablanca€ and quite a few other movies. [laughs]

John: Absolutely.

Craig: Go on.

John: But some of my favorite movies, that is actually I think really true. €œRaiders of the Lost Ark€ is never going back to the same set twice.

Craig: That’s a really good question. Does it ever go back to the same set twice?

John: And Star Wars might but only in things like the Millennium Falcon or in the vehicles that are physically going someplace new.

Craig: Yeah. Well, he goes back home and sees the skeletons of his aunt and uncle.

John: Aha! So that’s why I would add an addendum. It’s like you can go back to a place but only if it is destroyed…

Craig: Right.

John: Or significantly transformed.

Craig: I think that that’s true actually. In thinking about the script I’m writing right now, I don’t think there are any returns. It’s a weird thing. I never thought of it that way, but yeah. It’s a good point.

John: Maybe part of the reason why I also am fascinated about second act malaise or maybe because I experience second act malaise so deeply and it frustrates me so much, a lot of my movies don’t have second acts in a classic sense. Like €œGo€ just restarts itself twice. The Nines restarts itself twice, and so The Nines is essentially three first acts. There’s something really exciting about that that you’re burning everything behind you.

Craig: Well, I’m a fan of a good, well-crafted traditional second act, but a lot of what I think about when I’m in the middle of it is making sure that…

I always like to think of these things in terms of the relationship between the character or the protagonist and the theme of the story, and making sure that as we go through the second act that they are encountering glimpses of this new way of living and this new truth and resisting it and fighting it.

So I feel like I never fear second acts. I don’t know — maybe all it really boils down to is the second act is that also the part of the process where you realize, “I’ve been doing this for a while.” And when you do anything for a while, it gets a little boring. It’s exciting to finish — god, it’s exciting to finish — and it’s exciting to start. But what’s exciting about page 40 through 80?

John: No, not that much.

Craig: Not that much.

John: This last weekend in New York I was lucky to be able to see my friend Quinn run the New York Marathon, and writing a script is very much a marathon. I suspect it’s a similar experience to a marathon runner. Those first four miles, that’s going to feel great. “Hey, you’re running a marathon!”€ Those last couple miles, like, “€œGreat, I’m almost done with my marathon!”

If I were running the marathon I would suspect miles 8 through 20 would get annoying because there’s nothing new about them. It’s just more fatigue and keeping it interesting for yourself.

John: Well, that’s what sets marathon runners apart from we mortals, and I would suggest that that’s what sets we professional screenwriters apart from the people who start 12 scripts and never finish them. If you can’t find the joy in that middle slog, some sick perverted joy, maybe this isn’t for you.


Craig: Bummer.

John: Gunshot.


John: That feels like the perfect note to end our podcast here.

One thing I should say and I meant to bring this up earlier is we talk about the show notes or the links. If you’re listening to this podcast or through iTunes or through wherever else, the links for every show are always on So just, Scriptnotes, and all the shows are there.

Links that we’re talking about for anything that we bring up in the show will always be there.

Anything more, Craig?

Craig: No, I’m tapped.

John: Yeah, I’m tapped, too.

Craig: I’m exhausted.

John: But thank you, sir.

Craig: Thank you. That was good. That was fun. I really enjoyed the Musical Theatre Monday. That was fun.


John: Very good. All right. We’ll talk soon

Craig: Thanks.

John: Bye.

Craig: Bye.