The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. How are you, Craig?
Craig: Doing all right today. I finished up a draft, so I actually have a little bit of a day off here. It’s quite nice.
John: That’s pretty amazing. You finished up — do you celebrate when you finish a draft? Is there a ritual for you or anything like that?
Craig: You know, there isn’t. And that probably speaks to my total lack of romanticism about what we do. [laughs] It’s just another day. I mean, it’s like, how many scripts have you finished at this point? How many drafts have you finished? We’ve gone through this, I think, what, like 50 or something a piece?
John: Oh, easily. A lot of times. I do remember when I was first starting out, when I finished a draft my big treat for myself was I would go to Panda Express at Century City, because I couldn’t really afford to go to Panda Express all that often. But, Panda Express was my big treat. And I would spend my $10 and get my three items and my Diet Pepsi, and that was a good afternoon.
Craig: I love that, (A), you couldn’t afford Panda Express normally. Panda Express is one of those restaurants that makes food for seemingly less than the cost of the ingredients of the food. Like, I never understood how Taco Bell got away with tacos. I think the idea is that they are loss leaders and then they make their money on the soda.
John: I don’t understand how the chow mein/rice ratio works. Because if you ask for white rice, they will get it for you special. But the white rice has to be much less expensive than their chow mein. The chow mein, I don’t know.
Craig: No, you’re right. It has to be.
John: Although anytime you have the noodle products, they are always surprisingly cheap. Top Ramen couldn’t possibly… — How could they sell it for 10 cents a pack? But they do.
Craig: My first apartment in Los Angeles was right after I graduated, and I shared a two-bedroom apartment on the corner of Laurel Canyon and Magnolia with my college buddy, Gene Yoon, who he had some relatives who lived in the area and they are Korean. And he would get these huge big boxes of this particular ramen that really only Korean people ate. So it wasn’t Top Ramen that was sort of watered down for whitey.
And I remember, it was called jajangmyeon. Jajangmyeon. And I think “jajang” was salt, or something like that. Anyway, the point, basically translated it was like “Oh My God, This is Salty.” And it was the best. And we would just eat it, and eat it, and eat it. It had to be super bad for you.
John: Would your ears start ringing after it from all the sodium?
Craig: No, but I think I would get very headachy and I would feel kind of ill. But it tasted really good. Jajangmyeon. So, hopefully we can find a link to some good jajangmyeon out there.
John: Absolutely, so everyone can purchase it up. Today I’m hoping that we can do some craft talk, but before we get to the get talk, I do want to talk one sort of businessy thing, which is I have been swimming in contracts all week. And contracts are one of these things, the necessary evils of the screenwriting profession.
And it came up originally because last Saturday I was on this panel at the WGA for new writers talking about contracts.
Craig: Oh, that sounds great. I wish I could have been there. [laughs]
John: I know. Next time maybe, Craig, you can come to one of these.
John: So I was just the token, just like the other writer who wasn’t the legal professional on this panel to talk about a writer’s perspective on it. And a few just bullet points I can hit just because screenwriters are going to have to think about these at some point.
Conversationally, you will hear talking about contracts and you have to separate the idea of the Big-C-contract, which is the minimum basic agreement that all screenwriters are employed under by the WGA auspices, and then your individual contract for a project.
And I remember being really confused by that at the start. As a member of the WGA there is a set of minimums: the least you are going to get paid for anything; certain things about how your employment has to work. And you can never negotiate for less than those terms.
But, on each individual project you will be signing a contract. And for TV writers it ends up being not especially important that the start, because like a staff writer deal is just really, really straightforward and kind of boilerplate. But anytime you are making a feature deal there is actually a 30-page contract this is going to be especially made for that project. And a lot of it is boilerplate, but you do actually have to look through that.
So, this workshop was talking through how to read that contract, what the writing periods, mean. We didn’t get into force majeure or anything crazy like that, but it was interesting.
So, the other reason why contracts have been so important for me this week is there is a project that may happen, may not happen, but that I need to figure out the underlying rights for. And the underlying rights are so complicated.
And so it is based on a preexisting thing, then it was a movie, then it was other things. And so I’m going through these old contracts from like 1954. And some of these things were only on microfilm, and so you are asking people in London to copy things.
John: It was so fascinating because like I’m looking at this and, like, thank god someone held onto this. And then I’m realizing, do I have all the old contracts for Barbarella that I worked on 12 years ago? I know my lawyer does, but would I actually be able to find those? I’m not sure I would be. So, it has really reinforced how important it is to hold onto all of those pieces of paper that you are like, “I don’t care about those.” You do need to hold onto them.
Craig: Underlying rights — that’s a real job in and of itself. There is a book that Lindsay Doran brought to me and Scott Frank, called Three Bags Full. A really cool book that a German author — yes, she’s German. It was a novel, a detective story. A shepherd is murdered and his sheep decide to figure out who did it. And it was sort of like Babe meets noir; it was really cool.
And so Scott was going to produce with Lindsay and I was going to write it. And all we had to do was just get the rights. No big deal, right? And then it was insane. Like the German company had the rights for a German movie, but not American movie. But we couldn’t make the American movie until they decided about the German movie. And was it in development or not? And plus the German movie might be animated and da-da-da.
In the middle of all of it there was one guy who was going to make it all happen. And he died. [laughs] And at some point after two or three years of this stuff, all three of us just went, “Eh, screw it.”
John: Yeah. Too complicated. And maybe this is reached on this project. You never know that you are going to be able to actually untangle all these things. It’s detective work.
Craig: It is.
John: It’s easier than writing. And that’s sort of our topic for today is we want to talk about writer’s block…
Craig: [laughs] Writer’s block.
John: …which is one of those — I kind of hate to say the words “writer’s block” because it’s such a cliché. And I think it is used in ways… — It’s used to describe very different things as a sort of blanket catch-all.
Craig: John, you don’t think of yourself as this bottle full of wonderful creative energy and then there is this weird cork on top that is blocking it all in? You don’t think of yourself that way? [laughs]
John: Yeah. And what frustrates me is that most of our perceptions of writer’s block are media portrayals that came out of movies that someone had to write. But no one actually experiences what you see in movies as writer’s block, that thing where is like I am ripping the pages out the typewriter and crumpling them out. Or, like, “I don’t know what to write; I’m just going to sit here and stare at this typewriter.” That doesn’t actually happen.
Craig: Yeah. And neither does the opposite, which is when they finally kiss the girl do they sit down and write this brilliant thing all in a day. Neither of those. Again, romanticization of writing.
John: And I think it’s dangerous because aspiring writers who are listening to this podcast think, “Well that’s what a writer’s life should be,” and it’s like, well, that’s actually not what a writer’s life generally is, ever. Writing is difficult. Writing is frustrating. It is hard and you have a whole big bundle of fears to approach. But there is also procrastination which gets tied into there.
So, I would like to sort of separate out the threads of what we kind of mean by writer’s block. There’s the “I don’t really want to write today, or this minute, or this week.”
John: Which is a kind of writer’s block. And there’s the “I don’t know how to do this scene; I don’t know how to finish this thing up and I’m stuck on this moment.” And they can sometimes be the same issue, but often they aren’t the same issue at all. And it’s weird that we ascribe a certain kind of laziness as this big romantic idea.
We don’t romanticize the, “I don’t want to make this uncomfortable phone call to somebody.” But it’s often the same kind of dilemma.
Craig: We have to make a discrimination between the writing and the writer. Writing is special. The act is special. I think it’s a wonderful thing. And I think the result is special.
Writers are just people. We are just meat sacks like everybody else with the same issues. Yes, there are going to be days where you just don’t feel like writing because you’re tired or because frankly your brain might still be processing it on some other level. There are going to be days when you are afraid to write, and fear is obviously a huge part, because you have loaded up your mind with stuff that has nothing to do with what you are writing. Am I good enough? Is this as good as another thing I just read? Is this what they want? Will this pay the bills? Will it sell? Will they like it? Da-da da-da-da, and on, and on, and on. None of which has anything to do with the words on the page.
There’s another kind of thing that happens. I guess I would call it just fastidiousness, where suddenly we become obsessive and OCD about every single word, where we are crafting it as if it is being chiseled in stone. And that is a dangerous one, and that’s a very tough one to navigate for writers because we must exercise care. We must be intentional about the words we use.
On the other hand, if you become so over-intentional and so paralyzed by perfection, you are not going to make it past the first sentence. And, when you finally do, that sentence is going to be crap. It’s just going to be overworked crap.
John: I think we have identified three pillars, and maybe we will find a fourth pillar. So, here are the three pillars of writer’s block that I think we have identified. You were just talking about perfectionism which I think is very true. It’s that thing where like everything has to be exactly one way, and if it’s not exactly one way I can’t do anything. There is perfectionism of the words on the page. I also find there is perfectionism of habit. So, like, “Well, I can only write if I have this kind of pencil and the sun is coming through the window at exactly this angle.” That ritualization — that drives me crazy. So, perfectionism.
There’s laziness, which is just pure old like procrastination… — A normal person would say, “Well you are being a bum and you are just not doing anything.” Well, we sort of romanticize it, like, “Well I’m a writer, so I’m thinking, I’m mediating.” No you’re not. You are playing XBox.
John: And then there’s fear. There’s a unique kind of fear that kicks in with writing. It’s like, “Is this thing I’m writing right now going to be good enough? Am I good enough overall? Is this what they want? Will people love me if I write this? Am I writing the wrong thing?”
Half the time when I feel myself sort of stalling on a project it’s because I’m not sure it’s even the right thing I should be spending my time on.
Craig: Yeah. All of these choices will sabotage your moment. I look at writing as a moment. I don’t look at it as a 9 to 5 job. And it doesn’t matter to me; 9 to 5 is as arbitrary as anything. To me, writing is a moment. There is a moment in the day where writing happens. And I don’t care what time of day it is. Personally, I know other people really like to kind of dial it into a certain time of day.
But in that moment you are going to write. And the writing will happen, and then it’s done. And everything that can disrupt that moment needs to be examined for what it is. It is not a mystical barrier that is keeping you from your work. It’s just good old fashioned fear stuff. You have to face it head on. Have to.
John: Oh, one of the things, you are talking about writing being difficult — it’s about the choices you have to make. And anytime you have to make a choice, your brain has to do work. And your brain has to literally spend some calories and burn some glucose in order to make that choice. And so if you are choosing like, “Am I going to walk to that meeting, or am I going to drive my car to the meeting?” Well that’s a little choice. If you are choosing it, like, What do I want to order off this menu?” Well that’s a choice. And sometimes that choice can be taxing.
Well, writing is about a thousand choices per page, probably more than 1,000. You are looking at “What’s the next word?” “What’s the next sentence?” “How do I get from this moment to that moment?” Writing is a lot of hard mental work. And it’s harder mental work when you are starting out, and it’s a little bit easier mental work once you develop some skills.
But, there’s a reason why the days where I have had to kick out seven pages, I’m exhausted, just because it is literally…
John: …calories being spent.
Craig: Yeah. And it’s really important for people to contextualize that properly. It doesn’t mean you’re blocked if you’ve gotten four pages and you suddenly feel empty. It just means you wrote. That’s all. That’s supposed to happen. There’s no such thing as runner’s block when you finally fall down at mile 30 and poop yourself. That’s just your body [laughs] stopping, you know.
It’s the same thing with writing. You will exhaust yourself. Although, I will say that there’s an interesting thing about…you know you mention all these choices that we have to make. And so there are these micro choices within the moment. There are the macro choices that help fit into the larger story. So, your brain is working on multiple levels. It’s playing Star Trek chess, and yet there is this phenomenon where starting makes the all ensuing decisions come a little easier.
It’s a little bit, like, you learn in physics there’s a certain amount of energy you have to put into water to raise it one degree. And you keep putting that amount of energy into water, it will go up a degree, it will go up a degree, it will go up a degree. Until it hits 212 Fahrenheit or 100 degrees Celsius, at which point suddenly it has put in a lot of energy and the temperature doesn’t move at all. It doesn’t move, it doesn’t move, it doesn’t move, it doesn’t move. And then kaboom, it’s boiling, and now it goes back degree, degree, degree, degree, degree.
And I think the same thing happens with writing. You will just — I think starting is like moving through a boiling point. And you just have to put an enormous amount of energy just to start. Sometimes putting my fingers on the keyboard is the hardest thing I do in the day. And then you just start. And then, I don’t know, there’s something about writing itself that makes the rest of the writing easier. Do you find that?
John: I do find that. In terms of the overall project, that’s why I tend to go away someplace and barricade myself in a hotel room for three or four days and just hand crank through pages, because I just have to get some speed, I have to get some momentum, and sort of break the back of it.
And once I have gotten, you know, if I have gotten 40 pages written by hand, I know I’m going to finish the script because I have some steam behind me. But I won’t get anything done until literally I arrive at the hotel room and then I start writing.
But in terms of the daily work, I do definitely find that I will do whatever I can to sort of avoid opening up the file. But once I finally open up the file I’m like, oh, yeah, it’s actually not so bad. There’s always stuff to do. And let’s talk about some techniques for just attacking sort of those three pillars — that perfectionism, that getting started, and the fear.
John: So let’s talk about just the getting started, literally making yourself do some work. To me, it’s helpful if I have a time a day or I have blocked off some time saying this is the time I am going to write, but what helps me more than anything else is just like literally setting a kitchen timer saying, “Okay, these next 20 minutes I’m going to write. It will be up on my screen and I will be doing some work on there.” And when the timer goes off I’m allowed to stop.
I don’t have to stop. I know there’s some writers who have this rule where they will work for 50 minutes, and then they will take a break for 10 minutes. And if you try to engage them, this is more like a TV writer kind of in a room thing, if you try to engage them about the story during the 10 minute break they will say, “No, no, respect the 10.”
Craig: That’s dumb.
John: I think it’s kind of amazing.
Craig: [laughs] That’s just stupid. “Respect the 10?” Shut up. Come on, really?
John: Well here’s what I like about “Respect the 10” is that you are giving yourself permission to stop thinking about it for 10 minutes, and you really are going to think about other things so that when you go back onto it, you really will go back onto it.
Craig: I get that.
John: Same thing with a diet and having a cheat day. The cheat day is tremendously helpful.
Craig: Yeah, but then don’t sit with other people who are trying to do work. Go to the bathroom, take a walk.
John: Well the idea is that everybody should get up and walk around and do other things and come back.
Craig: Oh, I don’t like anything where your work process is enforced by some sort of Soviet work clock. I really do feel like everybody has their own rhythm. I, personally, I’m a sprinter. My whole thing is, I don’t work and I just think and grind my teeth and worry and imagine the scene, and take a long shower, and think about the scene, and talk the scene through my head, and take a walk. And then when it’s time to write, I know exactly what I want to write. And then I write it. And I write in a straight blast. This is why I can’t be in a room full of other writers.
John: You are writing on a straight blast though on that scene. You are not trying to write past that section that you have already figured out.
Craig: No, I’ve decided, and this is where in terms of the strategies, this is why I think having a terrific outline is such a huge help. It’s not only something that helps you from a craft point of view of understanding the Gestalt of your story as you are writing inside of things, but it also helps you break your work down in manageable chunks.
So, it’s not an open-ended question. There is no — you know what the sequence is. You know what comes next. And you can make a decision about what portion of work you’re going to feel accountable to today. And in doing so, when you sit down to write you are not burdened by the notion that there’s this huge script that needs to be written. All you are burdened by is the notion that there’s three to five pages that need to be written. And that’s very helpful to me.
John: I would get more specific that you are not responsible for writing the movie today, you are responsible for writing this one scene. And it’s particularly times that you are responsible for writing how these characters are going to enter into this scene. And if you don’t get anything more than that done, well you at least got that done.
I will often, as we talked about before on the show, I write out of sequence a lot of times. And so I will have enough of an outline that if I just don’t want to write the next scene, or I don’t know how to write that next scene, I will skip ahead and do something else that I do feel like writing. Because there are days you want to write something funny. There’s days you want to write an action scene. And then there’s the days you want to write those people kind of walking through doors, those sort of necessary scenes that move the plot forward but aren’t really the most important moments in a script.
Work on those. And sometimes the reason why I am leaning towards those is because I’m afraid of some of the big moments. And so I will knock out some easy ones. And that’s okay.
Craig: And part of that is learning your own rhythm. For me, I can’t do that. I just can’t. I get so panicked at the thought that I’m writing something that is disconnected from the things that come before it. So, I always work in order. But I will allow myself a variable attention depending on what the scene is. If there is a car chase, I am pretty sure I can handle the car chase in five/six pages in a day.
If there is a moment of revelation, or if it is the first five pages of the script, I might take a week. I mean, I know my rhythms now. I know that I will take two weeks to write the first 25 pages, because I will write them, and rewrite them, and really love them and care about them. Because those will turn into the rest of the movie.
You know, the last 10 pages, sometimes you can sprint because things are sort of inexorable. They must happen.
John: Yeah. Here’s the danger though. I feel like people know that they can sort of sprint through those last 10 pages. And those last 10 pages of many people’s scripts are terrible.
Craig: Yeah, you can’t do that. You’ve got to really have a great ending.
John: So that’s why early in the process, like, I will try to get my first 20, 25 pages done quite early in the process, and then I will skip ahead and try to write the ending. Even though stuff may change in the ending, but if I can write those last 10 pages early in the process, first off I know that I am going to finish the finish the thing because I have already written how it ends. And I know that that last desperate sprinting will happen someplace in the middle of the script where it’s kind of not going to — not that it doesn’t matter, but if the beginning of the script is really good and the end of the script is really good, and the middle has a few places that could use some work, that’s okay.
Craig: Yeah. The reason I think the ending is sometimes easier is because, and again, I outline very thoroughly so I know what’s supposed to happen. I know the ending. I don’t start writing unless I really know the ending. But, by the time you get to the end, your decision path tree has been pruned down to a single trunk. You know everybody’s voice, what they sound like, what they have done, where they’ve gone. They have already had every random thing thrown at them, every conflict, every obstacle.
So now it really is about resolution. And that to me is easier to write because there’s just fewer choices to make. But see, you and I have come to understand ourselves and I want to say to people, if you are struggling, first of all accept the way you write. If you write the way John writes, that’s the way you write. If you write the way write, that’s the way you write.
Accept it. Love it. Don’t fight it. Don’t try other ways. Don’t feel like there’s somebody else’s shoes are going to fit better on your feet than your own. They are not.
And, either way, take our general advice which is to not feel that you are writing the movie that day, just love the scene that you are writing. Show it as much love as you can because that’s all you have to do on this day is that scene, or two scenes.
John: I have said this at conferences before, but I used to say that I have a lot of bad habits. And now I just say I have habits. I don’t label them. It’s just the way I write. And it’s not necessarily the most productive way that I could be writing, or some other writer would probably be more productive with better habits, different habits.
John: These are just my habits. And so I do tend to treat my life a little bit like midterms where I will kind of lounge around for a bit, and then I will have to really scramble to get stuff done in the last two weeks. And I may have some overnighters and stuff like that.
That still happens some, and it’s kind of okay. It’s just the way it’s going to work out.
Craig: Yeah. You just got to know yourself. I’m much more of a slow and steady kind of guy. I sort of look at the calendar and I think, okay, realistically I know I am going to do three to four pages a day. So, I’ve got 115 pages to write, and I’m writing 5 days a week, let’s plot it out. We start on Monday, we end in this week. And I usually get pretty close. Sometimes I beat it by a week, you know?
John: There are times where I will dangerously do that thing where like, “Well I was able to write 10 pages a day for that last project, for that last little sprint,” and that can be really dangerous where that starts to be like, “Well, I could do it in five days before, maybe I can do it in four days now.” And that does become dangerous.
Craig: My most hated writing feeling is not writer’s block, because I don’t get writer’s block, because I don’t believe it exists, the kind that we imagine. My worst feeling is knowing that I have a certain amount of writing to do and not enough time to do it the way I want.
Because I fear that more than anything, just literally my eyes are getting heavy and my brain isn’t working and I must write. Because I fear that more than anything, I don’t allow it to happen. That’s the thing I avoid.
John: Good. You should.
Craig: Thank you. [laughs]
John: No, I can’t defend situations where that has had to happen, but there have been times where I have had to write under less than ideal circumstances because I’m shooting a TV pilot, plus this other script is due. And so I will have to go from like the set back to my little trailer in Vancouver and write some new pages and go back.
And sometimes that has to happen. And sometimes it’s not going to be ideal. I would hope that my 80% is better than a lot of people’s 100%, and therefore it is going to move the project forward.
Craig: Well, there’s something about production writing that I find so adrenalizing. So, if I get a call at 11pm, or if I’m sitting on the set and I’m told, “You have 20 minutes,” sometimes there’s just this total adrenaline rush and you get all wired up and it’s actually kind of fun, and frankly, a little romantic.
John: Yeah. My happiest writing times have been the ones where for whatever reasons the stars lined up right and, “Well, this is the movie that they have asked you to do, these are the weeks that you have to do it.” And it’s just like, “Oh, this fits exactly in this little spot.”
And, so, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was that situation. Frankenweenie was that situation where it was literally like, “Oh, I could do it right now. I could give it to you in a couple of weeks.” And there’s the movie going off to shoot.
A lot of the times it’s the projects that you have been waiting on for too long, that suddenly it’s like, “Oh, now I am actually free to write that.”
John: And like, “Oh my god, the enthusiasm for starting to write this has evaporated.” That can be the real danger. Scott Frank has talked about that on other projects.
Craig: It’s true, where suddenly you come to it and you are like, “Oh, it’s just a dead thing to me. I feel like I’m going back over ground that I’ve already kind of been over, but I haven’t really been over.” You must be enthusiastic. You have to have great passion. That’s why I’m always amused when producers will say, “Would you please write this?” And you will say, “Eh, no, that’s not for me. Thank you, but no thank you; I’m going to pass.” And they say, “No, you have to. You have to.”
Why would you even want me to at this point? I don’t want to. If I don’t want to, it’s just not going to be good. It’s going to be even worse than it normally is. [laughs] Because writing has to come from some sort of enthusiasm. It must, or else you are dead.
John: Yeah. One of my worst writing moments was I had another guaranteed step left on a deal for this project, and clearly the project wasn’t going to move forward, and so I talked to the executive and said, “Listen, you don’t want me to do this, I don’t want to do this, let’s just figure this out.” He was like, “No, you’re going to do your next step, and you are going to do our notes.” And, like, “You are seriously going to hold me to these notes on this project that you don’t want? And you are going to pay me these X dollars?” I’m basically telling him, like, “I am going to be willing to settle for less than that if you just don’t make me write this thing.” “No, I’m going to make you write this thing.”
So I was kind of happy with the draft I wrote, but also like I’m sitting down at the computer every day knowing they are never going to shoot this. They are never going to make this. He is doing this out of sort of a dick move pride to, “Oh, okay, I’m going to make you do this.”
Craig: Yeah, it’s…
John: I haven’t worked there again, since then, so people can maybe figure out what that was. But it was a very weird, not healthy situation.
Craig: Yeah. That’s pretty bad. And it happens. There are times when, you know, you are essentially a porn start and you are being told to get on in there and do it again, and you just did it. You don’t want to do it again, or you don’t like what you are about to do.
John: Yeah. And there are situations where a piece of talent has come onboard. Like the director comes onboard for a project that you have been working on for awhile, you may disagree about this one thing you have to do, where you have to go into the 17th meeting with this actor who has these notes on thing. You are like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe we are back here again.” But because it is your movie you will do that, and that’s the reality of the collaborative medium.
I can always do that when it’s a couple days, I can survive anything for a couple days. But when I have to go off and do a full rewrite of something, it’s like, ooh, that’s where it gets really brutal.
Craig: I will say that I don’t really write with — I guess I don’t write with a goal in mind beyond write the best script I can write.
Even if you tell me, “We are never going to make this, but we are paying you to write a script, just so we can read it and throw it out,” I would still sort of approach it the same way I approach everything which is I just get excited. Because it’s hard enough to get these movies made. So, you have to reconcile yourself early on to the notion that you are going to be writing futilely on some things, and if you are starting out and you are sort of sitting there blocked up because you are thinking, “Is it going to sell?” “Who’s going to like it?” And so forth. All I can say to you is: Who cares? It’s irrelevant.
All that matters today, all that matters right now for you at your desk is what is the scene. What are they wearing? What are they looking at? What’s the purpose? What’s the point? What’s their intention? How do we get into it? What happens in the middle? How do we get out? What’s changed? Just do the writing.
John: You are getting the opportunity to perform your craft for people. And hopefully getting paid for it. These are good things, so you shouldn’t minimize those.
Craig: Yeah. And somebody might like it down the line, you know?
John: Someone just might like it. Someone might love it. Let’s talk about that someone might love it, because I find when I have guaranteed to somebody that they are going to read something is really the only guarantee I can make to myself that I will finish it. And so sometimes it is truly a deadline where you have to hand this into the producer, the executive, the director, at a certain time.
But more often what is helpful for me is I have promised a friend, like, I will give you that draft on Friday. And I will give them that draft on Friday. I am very true to my word on those kinds of things. And that is hugely helpful in structuring my attention and focusing in on what really needs to get done so that I can hand that draft in. And it can also, you know, we are talking about sort of laziness, but also the perfectionism is that sometimes people will just not stop writing. They won’t let you take it out of their hands. And you have to show it to people.
They aren’t private diaries that you are going to hold to your chest for the rest of your life. You have to let people read them and respond to them. And they may not like them. Or they may not like parts of it. And that’s the reality of it, too.
So, aiming for perfectionism, which is like there’s no typos, the commas are in the right places, it all makes sense. You are not changing how you are spelling a character’s name. That’s not the kind of perfectionism I am talking about. It’s the endless tinkering, and tinkering, and tinkering; because you can spend your whole life writing one script, and that is doing no one any good.
Craig: That’s right. That’s exactly right. Perfectionism isn’t really perfectionism. You are not perfecting anything. Perfectionism is protectionism. You are protecting yourself, or you are attempting to protect yourself from any sling shot or arrow. Tough. They are coming anyway. They are coming in an unfair way. It’s not fair. Somebody may read it and hate it even though it’s great.
Or, what may happen is they might read it and say, “Great. This is a pretty typical first draft. Liked part of it, didn’t like part of it. There’s some big problems.” Meanwhile you have been in the shower practicing your Oscar speech. That’s okay. But just understand that you are not actually perfecting things when you fall into the trap of “perfectionism.”
You are just shielding your script. You think you are shielding your script from the trauma that’s coming. And you’re not, so stop.
John: A related thing that happens is someone says, “Oh, I just need you to do one more rewrite.” And those endless rewrites are really just kind of moving commas around. You are so frozen in what the idea of this thing is that you are just revisiting the same things again and again. And sometimes that happens even when you are writing your first draft is that your process of writing the first draft is essentially you go back to page one and you read through the entire script and you get to page 106 and then you start to work on page 106. And that’s not going to be an especially productive way to go through your career’s work.
I mean, it’s important that you know what’s happening in your entire script, that each new scene feels like it’s building off the one before it, but so much I find they are not so much writing as they are reading what they have written, again, and again, and again.
Craig: Right. In a kind of fetishistic sort of protectionist way. It sort of feeds also into trouble down the line when people do read the script and give notes. The care gap is enormous. The care that a writer has for the words on the page compared to the care any reader has for the words on the page is separated by this massive chasm.
And so, on the other side, on the reader’s side they will say, “I just didn’t — I got really bored with this whole scene. I just don’t think we need it.” And all the way across the chasm where you are standing, that scene is the function and result of 1,000 decisions that are incredibly important, and were painful and difficult for you. And then there is this emotional reaction.
But the funny thing is, if you say to a writer, “Here, read this screenplay,” writers will read screenplays just the way everybody else does. That’s one of the reasons why arbitration is so fascinating to me because we read our scripts and we think, “Well look, I read my script and then I read his script, and his script is just like a version of mine.”
No, no, no. [laughs] Your script, you are not really reading your script. You wrote your script. You lived your script. You’re just reading that one. That one is just reading to you.
John: Yeah. Your reading of your own script is basically you recapturing the experience of having written the script. And so that is why that one line that is so incredibly meaningful to you is not meaningful to the other person who is reading your script because they didn’t spend 8 hours perfecting it.
Craig: That’s right. And they also only see little bits, like the tips of the iceberg sticking out of the water. Whereas you imagine this whole florid, beautiful, color-filled world of sounds, sights, and so forth. And you just have to kind of let that stuff — it’s part of writing, you need to do it, it’s incredibly important. But, on the other hand, don’t sit there chiseling away at tiny little branches thinking that that is what is going to save you when the read comes.
John: Yeah. The bigger issues are always going to be bigger issues. It’s never going to be about that one sentence.
Craig: Correct. I mean, listen, if all there is is an argument about one sentence, man, you nailed it.
John: So, let’s see if we can think of anymore tactics for people avoid writer’s block, whether it is the romantic writer’s block or just not getting their work done. So we have talked about timers. To me it’s just the discipline to force myself to sit down and actually stare at the computer sometimes is really necessary.
I find changing my environment is helpful, so that’s why I go off and barricade myself to start things. If I have been doing most of my stuff at one computer, I will pick up the other computer and work on it there. I will handwrite things if I need to. I will go through, and we have both talked about how much printing is helpful for proofreading; I find printing is helpful sort of along the way, too. That way I can get some work done.
So even if I can’t stand to stare at the screen anymore, you can still look at the printed version and make some changes on the printed version and get some stuff done. And typing up those changes will often get me started again working through the new scenes.
Craig: And printing stuff out is proof to you that you actually did something. I mean, you can only see one page at a time typically on your computer screen, so you often feel like you have been working for weeks and all you have is a page. [laughs] But when you print it out you start to realize that this is accruing. And you are writing, you’re on your way.
I guess my bit of advice is to do something that isn’t writing, so a walk or a long shower, or just lie on your bed, whatever you want to do, and just start imagining the scene. So it’s not writing, it’s just daydreaming. And just daydream the scene. And once you have daydreamed an interesting scene, the writing is almost academic. At that point you are literally just transcribing what you day dreamt.
John: Yeah. I call that looping. And so that is the process of envisioning the scene. You have kind of rough blocking that happens, and the characters start talking to each other, and you figure out how the information in the scene happens and what kind of stuff happens in it. And it just loops, and loops, and loops. It’s like, oh, okay, I get what that is.
And then I will do a scribble version which is like the quickest version of what that is. And so sometimes that’s into the computer, but more often it is literally just scribbled on a piece of paper, just so I have it down so I can remember what it was. And from there it’s pretty simple to write the actual scene. Then it’s just words.
Craig: I totally — I do the same thing. I will sort of daydream out a scene, and I will imagine an exchange, and just run it through my mind until it feels like it’s pithy and purposeful. And then sometimes when I, let’s say I’m on a walk, when I come back home I write it in an email to myself and I just write the dialogue down because I know the stuff that is going around it. And then the fun part is when you sit down to write it, you are actually free now to concentrate on other things. You have already figured out the ins, the outs, who’s in it, the why, the what are they saying, all the rest of it.
So you actually get to craft all those other little things around it in layers — what’s going on? How can the actual setting feed into what’s going on? Is there music? Is there sound effects? Is there what? You get to jazz it up a little bit, and so suddenly a scene isn’t just flat talking, there’s more going on.
John: Well great. Well these were some helpful ways to talk about avoiding writer’s block, which we should probably think if there is another term for writer’s block, because it’s a serious of syndromes.
John: But we have two questions, so I thought we would maybe get to two last questions today.
Craig: Go for it.
John: Rick asks, “My partner and I just got an option deal at a company that wants to make our script. A director has been chosen. We got to attend the interview meeting, so we have met him and like him.”
Good, congratulations Rick.
John: “We’re having our first notes session with the producer and director at the company’s office. I’m wondering if it would be out of line for us to record the meeting? We don’t need to be secretive about it, but I wonder if it would turn them off even by asking. Is this considered unprofessional? I’m curious what you think.”
Craig: I mean, I know why you would want to do it. It’s not a good idea, I don’t think. I do feel like people need to feel free to talk in a way that isn’t going to come back and haunt them. They don’t want to have to have any disagreements or weird things preserved for posterity. I mean, can’t you just take notes like everybody else? That’s what I do.
John: I generally do take notes. I don’t pull out my iPhone and record it. But I will say that if it works for you, I don’t think it is necessarily a bad idea. I mean, the same way that our podcast has a transcript, you can send off that file and have it transcribed, and then you have all those notes and stuff.
And you look at the famous Lucas, and Spielberg, and what’s his face’s meeting about Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that’s amazing. And that exists because they recorded their meeting. So that’s what I would say.
Craig: Well then here is what I would suggest, because I agree with you on that regard — it is very useful to have a proper transcript of something. Suggest that maybe they do it. Because if they can control it I think they will be a little more at ease. I personally would feel uncomfortable about an employee recording my thoughts and then taking it with them. And ultimately that’s what we are and I think we have to just… — It’s not because I feel like we shouldn’t be allowed to. I’m just playing the psychological game of being the comfort giver. And I feel like that is our strongest move to protect our work.
And so maybe get them to do it. Make it their idea.
John: I would say if it is your own project, or this is an indie film and you are meeting with the director, and this is all under your control and your auspices, then sure. It’s whatever works for you. I think Craig makes a good point in terms of the studio of it all makes a lot of sense.
Philip from Pittsburg writes, “One of the scripts I’ve written seems to be dying by my own sensibleness. The script I wrote before this was a $200 million space-based fan fiction beast, so I designed a studio film with a limited budget.” So essentially he wrote a $200 million big expensive tent pole movie. And it was so big, everyone said, “This is so big,” and so he wrote something to be smaller. He says this is like a $30 million, limited special effects. It’s smaller. And now people are reading this one and saying it’s too small.
John: “So, my question is this: does it make sense to write a $200 million spec which will get attention, knowing the industry will scale it back, or to write a $30 million version and hope that people will understand how sensible you have been?”
Craig: What do you want to write, Philip? Write what you want to write, because that’s the only script that is going to be good. They are going to come back at you and say it’s too big, it’s too small, it’s too black, it’s too white, it’s not international, blah, blah, blah. They have a thousand reasons of why they are just saying no.
If you write something great, that’s what they’ll talk about. They will say, “This was a great script. I wish we could make it. I wish we had $200 million to make it. I wish this, I wish that, but it’s a great script.” Write what you want to write. That’s my advice.
John: I would also say that the Goldilocks problem of like that’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too big, it’s too small — it will happen no matter what. And if you are a new writer, you are going to hear it a little more often. If you are a more experienced writer, then they will tell it to your agents more often, but it’s always going to be a situation. They always want a much bigger movie for much less money.
And right now we are in this weird environment where Warner Bros., for example, sort of got a rap for like they will only make $200 million movies. They are not making anything smaller. Other places are trying to make smaller movies and they won’t do anything big, they won’t take a gamble. It’s not your job to suss that out.
John: By the time you try to chase whatever that trend is, it’s already going to be past. So if you are a person who wants to write the most expensive movies ever made, then the script you are writing should be one of those most expensive movies ever made. If you feel like doing the smaller thing, do the smaller thing.
Craig: Yeah. You can’t write a size. There’s no such thing as writing as size. You write a story. You write characters, a story, a plot, theme. It’s invested with some kind of passion, your voice, your point of view, your intention. Don’t write size.
Put it out of your head; write what you want to write.
John: Okay. I’m going to disagree with Craig on one point here. I think you do have to have an understanding of size for… — You are going to make some choices; and if you are facing two choices between, like, “Does my movie go to Mars or not go to Mars?” That’s a pretty fundamental choice. And how you are going to do that and sort of who is going to read it is going to be affected by how you make that choice and sort of how you are selling that choice.
Sometimes you will have to understand what’s going to be incredibly expensive and what’s not going to be incredibly expensive. Take a movie like Ted for example, which is the animated Mark Wahlberg movie with the talking stuffed bear. You are going to have to make some choices about how you are going to have that bear interacting with the world, because that is going to influence whether this is a $5 million indie movie, or a $50 million Fox movie.
And so you would make some choices there, I think.
Craig: Yeah, but my point is you are making those choices anyway. Rather than make them in order to satisfy some unseen buyer, make them for what you want. It’s different — when you are hired to write something, when they come to you and say, “Listen, we have a project or an idea; we are looking to make this movie for this much money,” then you have to have an understanding of how to write to a size.
But when you are a new writer and you are writing specs, just write your spec. Because if I’m a producer and I get a brilliant script, but it’s going to cost $20 million more than I have, I’m going to buy that script and then I am going to have you write $20 million out of it. Or I’m going to have somebody else write $20 million out of it. Because the money isn’t what is making that great, and that one $20 million scene isn’t what’s making it great.
What’s making it great is you and the writing, and the passion, and the idea. So, I say write.
John: I agree with most of what you just said, especially the distinction between if they are bringing you in to write something they have a sense of what size movie they want it to be for. And as you get more experienced and have made more movies you get a good sense of what really costs money and what doesn’t really cost money. And you understand that the studios don’t really understand what that is, and you probably have a better sense of where the money is actually falling.
But I will say if you want to write this character drama about a murder on a space station, understand that that could be very, very expensive. And if they zero gravity space station of it all is not integral to your idea, you may find it more useful to write something that could be done in a different way.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, obviously you want the bigness to matter. But I would say to you, if you got a great story, like if you got a script and it was spectacular, just loved it, and it was, as you described, the character piece in a space station, and you really loved it. But you were running a studio where you had just a budget cap, $75 million, couldn’t go over. And this thing was like a super mega Jerry Bruckheimer kind of deal. Wouldn’t you at least then talk to that guy about maybe rewriting some other stuff that you thought he would be right for?
John: Yeah. I might talk to that guy. I might think that guy is great. I do want to argue for having some sense of what size and scale is going to be, even in the inception stage. Because, you look at Solaris. Some people loved Solaris, but that was an incredibly expensive tiny movie, and that’s all sorts of frustration down the road.
Craig: Well, it was an incredibly expensive tiny movie when it was Soderbergh and George Clooney. But it wasn’t an incredibly expensive tiny movie when it was first made. It was just a cheap tiny movie. And so I guess my point is there will be time for you to figure out size and all the rest of it, Philip. But for now, the worst thing in the world you could do is say, “Well, I wrote a script and they said it was too big, and so now I’m going to write a small movie.” That’s just a bad motivation. Don’t do that.
John: I would agree with you there. Craig, do you have One Cool Thing you want to talk about this week?
Craig: No. [laughs]
John: No? I’ll share my mine with you because you would enjoy it, too. A lot of people are talking about it this week because a lot of people have linked to it. I first heard about it from Tara Rubin who is a casting director we worked with who loved the site and turned me onto it. It’s Old Jews Telling Jokes.
John: And so what they do is they interview old Jewish comedians and have them tell a joke. And it’s great. It’s great because it’s funny, but it’s also great because if you are a screenwriter you really see what the construction of the jokes is because these tend to be the longer, there’s a lot of setup, and then it gets to a funny punch line. And so much of what is comedy these days isn’t that. So much of what is comedy today is I’m saying a funny line, you’re saying a funny line, you’re saying a funny line, there’s some information that we don’t have that’s making the situation funnier. But it’s very rarely does someone stand there and tell a joke. And this is pretty much stand there — these people are old, so they are mostly sitting down. They are sitting there and they are telling you a joke.
One of the examples I will link to in the show notes is a man telling a joke about a bull enema and you recognize, okay first off, there’s very funny stuff that’s built into that setup of a joke — a bull and an enema by itself, that’s very, very funny. There’s good comic potential there as it is.
But the work of the joke is the long setup. And it’s making sure that each little step along the way, the setup is funny and enjoyable and that you are really curious what’s going to happen next, and that it can get to a good surprising resolution and revelation at the end. That it didn’t go quite where you were expecting, but it went over and beyond where you were expecting it to go.
Craig: You know, in our next podcast we should each try a joke.
John: We could definitely try that.
Craig: Yeah, but I don’t know any clean ones.
John: I highly recommend Old Jews Telling Jokes.
Craig: Old Jews Telling Jokes.
Oh, you know what, I will leave you with one little cool thing, because I’m about to go to my son’s little league game where I keep score, and for those of you out there who are baseball fanatics like I am, and perhaps your kids play, or you like to go to games and keep score, keeping score in baseball is a very monastic sort of thing.
They give you this very strange looking thing and you have to kind of know the secret code of how to score. And there are so many different things that can happen. And it’s all quite beautiful, actually. like a scorecard is a beautiful thing.
But there’s this wonderful app called iScore that does it for you on the iPad. I love iScore so much. I swear, it’s the greatest app ever. So if you love baseball and you like scoring baseball. iScore. That’s my cool thing.
John: Cool. Craig, thank you very much.
Craig: Thank you, John. See next week.
John: Next week. Bye.