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. This is a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. How are you, Craig?
Craig: Feeling good, buddy, how about you?
John: Good. What did you write today?
Craig: Nothing. [laughs]
John: [laughs] I wrote a lot today.
Craig: Oh, well, screw you.
John: Well good for me. There are many days I don’t get stuff written, so I’m happy today. But I was writing action, and action is just so not fun most times. I actually tweeted about it last night because I tweeted something like, “I think about writing action sequences the same way a tailor must approach doing button holes.”
Craig: I saw that. Yup.
John: Because, you know, you absolutely need them, and it’s such fine detailed work, and no one is ever going to notice it.
Craig: Yeah, because the action itself on the screen is obviously so much more impactful than what you see on the page. And when you write it on the page it really does feel like technical writing, like writing an instruction manual or something.
I remember talking about this with Richard LaGravenese who is a spectacular screenwriter, and he and I both bonded over our shared hatred and boredom of writing out action.
John: Yeah. And you can’t really skip it. I mean, it’s crucial to provide a sense of what the reader is going to see if this were a movie. I mean, I always treat writing a screenplay as I’m sitting in the theater watching a movie up on the big screen, so I’m writing what I’m seeing, or writing what the experience is of watching the movie. And that includes action, so you have to get that in there; the challenge is to make that interesting for the reader in a way that they just don’t want to kill themselves, or that they’re going to skip over it, because that’s the temptation that they are going to be like, “Okay, this paragraph is too long, I’m going to skip over it and just read the next bit of dialogue; this makes my eyes feel happy.”
Craig: Yeah. It’s a chore.
John: And there are times where you can summarize a bit, where you can just give a taste of… — Sometimes if there’s like a football game you can get a sense of after a few plays we’re up by three, and you are getting sort of a lyrical sense of what is happening there, and it’s going to be left to the filmmakers to sort of show what that is. But there are also times where you need to be fairly specific because there’s comedy that’s happening because of what’s going on there. There are distinct moments in that action and you really do have to script them and choreograph them.
And that’s what I had to do for this. This was a sports thing, but there was comedy that needed to happen during it. And so it needed to be specific enough, and that’s where it just gets to be tough.
Craig: Yeah. And then eventually if the movie goes into production you will have to sit there… — And I remember sitting with Todd Phillips and the second unit director for The Hangover Part II. And sort of laying out exactly how the car chase would work. Every single bullet fired, because everybody has to know. Everybody needs to know, “Okay, where does the bullet hit, because we’re going to need a car that has a bullet hole, and da-da-da.”
And then you’re sitting after that meeting literally doing technical writing. I like to say this to screenwriters when they complain about how we have no power: Everybody is staring at it like it’s the Bible at that point. Every single word becomes incredibly informative.
John: What you were saying about that moment in The Hangover, I know exactly the sequence you’re describing. It becomes so important because there’s a change in state of the set that you’re in, which I guess is a car, so that joke can only happen at a certain time because you can’t take a moment from earlier in the scene later because you’ve changed the nature of the car. So you can’t move stuff around once you’re in there.
Versus a lot of times, if it’s just two people in a normal car that’s driving, you can change any of the lines around. Characters can adlib and do a whole bunch of different stuff because the car is staying exactly the same the whole time. If something is changing physically in the scene so that you can’t go back and forward in time, you’re locked in. And that can be really tough.
Craig: Right. And you have to choreograph it. And you are choreographing it just for the point of view of the production. Any kind of action becomes a very highly choreographed thing, to avoid accidents, and to avoid — and sadly there was an accident on that movie. That had nothing to do with our writing or anything. But, you are trying to make sure that everything is choreographed down to the slightest little movement.
And, so, yeah, when you’re talking about something that in a movie when you watch you think is a little nothing, like they shoot out the rear windshield — that’s a big deal. Because you’re right; every shot after that needs a missing windshield. So it just becomes, it’s a grind. I find writing action to be a grind for sure.
John: I was describing to somebody else that is working on a musical right now: Musicals are a lot like action movies in that every few minutes there’s a song being song rather than a big action set piece happening. And, working on several movie musicals, yes, everything has to be sort of carefully planned, but you have some flexibility, you can move stuff around.
Working on the stage show, it’s been really interesting that every day the script would change because we literally had moved one lyric in front of one line, or some character’s entrance was just a little bit later. And you had to accommodate all that stuff because it wasn’t just the script or the dancing, or the speaking; it was also the music department. Everything had to fit together in a way that was very, very tough.
And so you wanted to create as much room for the moment, for the acting, and for the possibility. But you’re on rails; you basically had to stay on this track or it wasn’t going to work.
Craig: In production, I honestly feel production of all kinds is so awful. I’ve never been on a movie where I didn’t look around at least once and think, “There’s got to be a better way.”
And I understand why directors, particularly very successful directors who reach a certain age and have done a certain amount of movies suddenly say, “You know what? Let’s just do this mo-cap then, you know. Let’s make Tintin on a green stage.” Because, it just takes away so much of the misery of production. It’s a very arduous task.
John: We should tell everybody that you’re on set for — our friends Derek Haas and Michael Brandt just had their show picked up, Chicago Fire.
John: And so you’re doing a little production rewrite there for them, helping them out, getting a few jokes in there.
Craig: Yeah. Chicago Fire is going to be the funniest show on TV. [laughs]
John: [laughs] It’s an NBC show.
Change in topics, this is a very exciting week because this is the week of Upfronts. So this is where all of the…
Craig: Exciting for you. [laughs]
John: Exciting for people who care about TV. Not exciting at all for Craig Mazin. This is where all the networks decide which shows are going to be on the fall season, and which shows are not coming back, and which ones they’re most excited about, which ones they’re nervous about, which ones they’re gonna stick in mid-season and cross their fingers and pray.
So we have several friends who have shows being picked up which is fantastic.
Craig: Yeah. A lot of them.
John: And we have friends whose shows didn’t get picked up and we’re sad for them. But what I’ve said before on the podcast is the amazing, wonderful thing about TV is that not getting your show picked up isn’t really considered a failure because most shows aren’t supposed to get picked up. Most pilots aren’t supposed to get picked up. So it’s not a big mark against you.
Craig: Right. If you got to pilot you have succeeded in some big way.
John: Yeah. I think I told you about this off-air last week, but I cheated on you. You know that?
John: I went and did another podcast. I recorded an episode of Jay Mohr’s podcast, Jay Mohr who I knew from Go, who I hadn’t seen for like 20 years or something so it was great to catch up. And so as I was driving over to Jay Mohr’s house to do his podcast, and he does one of those old school podcasts where they people actually look at each other…
John: …unlike our podcast where I haven’t seen you in months.
John: Which is a blessing.
Craig: Yeah. It’s beautiful. [laughs]
John: [laughs] So one of the things in our mutual contract was that we couldn’t see each other.
Craig: Never see each other. Yeah. It was one of my demands.
John: So, as I was driving over to Jay’s house I listened to an episode of his show because I figured, you know that’s probably good preparation to listen to one episode of the guy’s show before you’re on his show. And so his guest that week was Ralph Garman who is a very, very funny radio personality on KROQ. He’s on the Kevin and Bean show. You don’t listen to the radio either, do you?
Craig: Actually I used to listen to whatever those — Kevin and Bean in the morning. And Ralph does the Hollywood…
John: He does the Hollywood Showbiz.
Craig: Yeah, I know. He’s a funny guy.
John: He’s a very funny guy. So, both he and Jay are impressionists; they do a lot of impersonations. So they got talking about that and it was really fascinating to hear people talk about their craft, and especially when they can do things that I can’t do at all.
And so Ralph Garman was talking about this one other guy he had met who could do a dead-on Jason Lee impression.
John: And so Jason Lee, who’s the guy on My Name is Earl, he was in the Chipmunks movies, and Ralph was saying like he had no idea how to even begin a Jason Lee impression. His quote, I think, was, “I wouldn’t even know where to hang my hat on that,” which is that when you are doing an impersonation there has to be something that you can start and you can build out from.
So, if you are doing a Christopher Walken thing you have this weird phrasing and sort of how he falls back into it. With an Al Pacino you sort of have his physicality that becomes sort of his voice. And like how do you do a Jason Lee impersonation?
And it is amazing when you see somebody doing an impression or impersonation that you’ve never even considered before. Like I remember when Jay Pharoah joined Saturday Night Live, Jay Pharoah does this brilliant Denzel Washington.
John: He also does Will Smith and Jay-Z. But particularly the Denzel Washington, it’s like you never even thought there could be a Denzel Washington impression, and he just nails it. And there’s not always comedy to back it up, but it’s just uncanny that he’s able to do this Denzel Washington.
Craig: Yeah. I think his thing is like he went in on the “my man,” like that’s his thing, you know?
John: Mm-hmm. He found something very specific and he sort of built out from that thing. And there is a difference between sort of voice acting; there’s people who can double and what we think about impressions or impersonations is really kind of a caricature. It’s like they are taking that one thing and blowing it out to this crazy distortion.
I mean, Ralph Garman describes it as like when you go to visit the Santa Monica pier and there’s those guys who will draw cartoon caricatures of you. And so they will pick like one thing on your face and make your head huge, and then give you a skateboard for some reason. That’s what a lot of that comedy is. But you have to find that one little thing.
And their conversation about finding a character’s voice, finding an actor’s voice for an impression got me thinking about what a character’s voice is. And so I thought we might start talking about that.
John: Because to me, the mark of good writing is never really about structure, or where the beats are falling. I can tell if it’s a good writer or a bad writer mostly by whether they can handle a character’s voice. If they can convince me that the characters I’m reading on the page are distinct, and alive, and unique. I would happily read many scripts that are kind of a mess story wise, but you can tell someone’s a good writer because their characters have a voice.
Craig: Right. You can suggest ways to improve story structure. And you can always come up with ideas for interesting scenes. But what you can’t do is tell somebody to write characters convincingly. Either they can do it or they can’t.
John: Yeah. So this isn’t going to be a how-to-give-your-characters-a-voice thing, because I think it is one of those inherent skills; like you sort of have it or you don’t. You can work on it, and you can sort of notice when things are missing and apply yourself again. And, there are sometimes where… — There is a project that has been sitting on a shelf for awhile that a friend and I are going to take another look at. And looking through it again I realized that the biggest problem here is that our hero could sort of be anybody. We made him such an everyman that he kind of is every man. And because of that you don’t really care about him.
And so I thought of four questions, sort of four tests, to see whether character’s voices are working. So here are my four tests and maybe you can think of some more.
John: First test — could you take the dialogue from one character in the script and have another character say it?
Craig: Yeah. That’s a common complaint that you’ll hear from producers or executives that the character voice is not unique, that the characters all sound the same. And that’s a common error — I don’t even say a common rookie error. I think people misuse the term rookie error. It’s really a common stinky writer error, because rookies who are good writers I think automatically know to not do this. And that they write the characters as them, so they’re speaking through cardboard cutouts. They’re speaking through policeman. They’re speaking through Lady on Street.
John: Or worse, they’re just talking as “cop.” They’re talking like a cop. And they’re not talking like a specific human being; they’re talking like, “this is what a cop would say.”
John: Well, that’s actually not especially helpful for your movie because this is not supposed to be any cop; it’s supposed to be a specific cop with a back story, and a name, and a role in your specific movie. And so if you’re making someone the generic version of that, that’s going to be a problem.
You already hit on my next thing which is is a character speaking for himself or is he speaking for the writer.
Craig: A-ha, I read your mind.
John: You did read my mind. And so that is the thing. Are you speaking really through your own voice? And some screenwriters are very, very funny. And so they have very funny voices themselves. But if every character in the movie has their same funny voice, that’s not going to be an especially successful outcome.
It may be an amusing read, but I doubt that the final product is going to be the best it could be.
Craig: Some people will say that there’re highly stylized writers who do a little bit of that, and I actually disagree. Like some people say, “Well in Mamet everybody sounds so hype literate and in Tarantino everybody sounds so deliberate, and quirky, and fascinated with pop culture, and thoughtful.” But the truth is, if you watch those movies you realize that he actually is crafting — yes, he has a style; yes, both of those brilliant writers have unique styles, but they do shade them for the different characters.
Sorkin is another one who… — It’s interesting. There’s a group of writers who have a very distinct style that exists through the movie. And yet the characters are distinct. That’s pretty advanced stuff to me.
John: Yeah. Diablo Cody often gets that knock. And she gets that knock off of her first movie, but then if you see Young Adult, those characters aren’t talking the same way.
Craig: I agree.
John: Those characters are very specific and very unique.
Craig: That’s a good example.
John: Sort of a corollary to that, maybe I should break it out to its own point — is the character saying what he wants to say, or what the movie needs him to say? And that is is the character expressing his or her own feeling in the moment, or is he expressing what needs to happen next so that we can get on to the next thing? And that’s the subtle line that the screenwriter works is that screenwriting is always about what’s next. And you as a screenwriter have to be in control of the scene and make sure that this scene is existing so that we can get to the next story point.
At the same time, you can really feel it when a character is just giving exposition or setting up the ball so another character can spike it. And those are not good things to have happen.
Craig: No. You don’t want to set up straw dummies. And you don’t’ want to put things in their mouth because the screenwriter needed people to hear it. And frankly, I think of all those things as great opportunities. We all run into moments where we need the audience to learn information, or we need another character to learn information. So then it’s a great opportunity to sort of sit there and think, “Well how can I do this in a crafty way? How can I do this in a surprising way?”
Sometimes the answer is to be completely contradictory and to have people say the opposite of what they think and then be clear through the writing that you’re using subtext or you’re relying on performance.
I mean, the other thing is bad characters, and maybe I’m cheating ahead again, bad characters tend to speak like they’re on radio. And their dialogue ignores the fact that their faces will speak louder than any words coming out of their mouth. Was that number four?
John: No, no. That’s good. Not radio. So I’m going to add Not Radio Voices.
Craig: No radio plays.
John: In situations, I don’t want to get too off track talking about exposition, but in situations where you need to have the audience understand something, or you need to make it clear that a character has been caught up with another character, like the characters split up and now they’re back together and you need to make sure the audience understands that they all have the same information. Characters in real life cut each other off a lot, and they are often ahead of each other. So there may be opportunities to literally have one character stop the other and tell what they already know so that we don’t have to sort of walk through all of those conversations again.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, there’s all sorts of ways to kind of recap. Simple rule of thumb is if the audience hears it once, don’t make them hear it twice. So, if you need to catch somebody up on what that bank robbery was like, and it was a crazy bank robbery, then the scene begins with the person who has been listening staring at the other person. They’re both silent. And then the person who was listening says, “Wow. That was insane.” “I know. You don’t have to tell me.”
The only important matter is that they they’re reacting to what they just heard, but certainly you don’t want to repeat anything ever.
John: Wherever possible, characters should speak in order to communicate their inner emotion and not to communicate just information.
John: This is what I would throw out. What would a joke sound like from that character? And this is actually from… — Jane Espenson was on a recent edition of the Nerdist Writers Panel; Jane Espenson, who is a TV writer who has done a lot of stuff and had a blog.
Craig: And a lovely woman.
John: And a lovely woman. During the strike our three blogs came together and we all picketed at Warner Bros. Lovely woman. And so smart about comedy, and especially TV. She was on the Nerdist Writers Panel talking about Once Upon A Time, which is what she’s writing on right now. And she’s talking about having the Snow White character tell a joke, and that it was tough because it’s not a very particularly funny character, but you needed to find specific moments that she could be funny. And in finding what kind of joke can she tell is where you really get a sense of like, “Okay, I know who this person is.”
And so even if you’re not writing a comedy, I think it’s worthwhile thinking about how can that character be funny. Because almost everybody is funny in some way, or at least tries to be funny in some way, so what is the nature of their humor? What is the nature of their comedy? And when you know that, then you will also have a sense of how they are going to respond in stressful situations. How they’re going to respond in sad situations. It gives you an insight into them.
Craig: Yeah. And I also like to think about power. I always think in terms of the power dynamic between any two or three characters or four, whatever you have in your scene. Who holds the gun? And how does that change the way they talk to the other person? Obviously the gun in this instance could be anything. It could be anything from information, to an actual gun, to “you’re in love with me, and I’m not in love with you.”
And then is there a way to change who holds the gun in the middle of the scene? And allow the character’s voice to adapt to what we would normally adapt to. I mean, think of how many times in life we have had conversations where we thought we were unassailable at the beginning and by the end we were getting our lunches handed to us? No, our lunches eaten, and our hats handed to us. [laughs]
Craig: And so use that. Scenes are all to me, they are all about variation, and they’re all about growth. So, allow the voices to respond to the dynamics of the moment.
John: Agreed. My last test, and we’ll think of some more after this — can you picture a given actor in the role? Or at least preclude certain actors from the role because it doesn’t feel like they would say those things?
And so my example here is Angelina Jolie. So let’s say you’re writing a woman’s role and she’s funny. It’s not going to be Angelina Jolie.
Craig: Yeah. Probably not.
John: Probably not. Angelina Jolie has done at least comedy I know, but you don’t think of Angelina Jolie as being funny.
Craig: Well, I mean, it depends. I guess, like Mr. & Mrs. Smith, I thought she was very funny, but it was…
John: But it’s not telling a joke funny.
Craig: No, it was sort of clipped and wry which is…
Craig: She has a great arched brow, so to me like, it’s funny — when you think about doing impressions, I guess in my head I’m always doing impressions of actors as I’m writing for them. And so I think, okay, what’s that thing where I would go, okay, I can see her sort of arching her brow. And I always think of Angelina Jolie as somebody that has power. So, she can be confident and cut you down with one or two words.
I mean, in writing ID Theft for Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy, I kept thinking about how Melissa was sort of, you know, she’s somebody who would ramble and Jason is somebody who would be very short. And it was an interesting thing because it goes counter to the normal thing which is the rambler is the weak one and the short talking person, the terse person is the strong one.
But in this case it’s the opposite. You have the terse person who is weak, interestingly, and the rambler is strong. And that was actually fun; that was a fun dynamic to play around with because it felt, it just made those scenes more interesting to me. And if you’re not thinking in those terms of how language, the quantity, the quality, the size of the words, how many pauses, the speed; I mean, language is music and you should be musical about it, I think.
John: The project I’m writing right now, one of the reasons I had struggled with it a bit is I was writing it with one very specific actor in mind, who is great and funny, but is a tough fit for what this story kind of needs. And so once I got past that that it has to be this, and I started thinking of the broader picture, I landed on the other actors — oh, that’s inherently funny; him in that premise is inherently funny.
Now, ultimately, will we cast either of these actors? Who knows? But it helped me figure out the voice because I could hear what it would sound like if this actor were saying it, and I could shape the lines so that it would be very, very funny coming from that person.
It doesn’t mean that that’s the only actor who can ever play it. Famously, Will Smith was not the original choice for Men in Black. And it’s hard to imagine that it was supposed to be Matthew Perry, but it was supposed to be Matthew Perry. So don’t think you have to be locked into a specific cast. But if you can’t think of someone who should play the role, that’s also probably a problem.
Craig: Yeah. Those things are sort of proof of concept, you know. If it’s funny with two particular actors, then at least you know it can be funny. If you can’t think of any two actors that it could be funny in combination, then screw it. It ain’t gonna work, for sure.
John: Any more on voice? We have a couple questions here.
Craig: Eh, let’s go to questions.
John: Let’s go to questions. James from Oregon. His question, I think, is about recycling, which, recycling is good. “My question regards ownership of your work during development. If I understand it correctly, once you sell a script to the studio they own it. Now say you have written a unique character or a specific funny gag and it is not used in the final film. Are you free to use that same gag or character in a new script? Or, does the studio own every word of every draft, and could they prevent you from incorporating that unused idea is another script?”
Craig: Yes and yes, kind of. I mean, for sure they own it. They are the copyright authors of that. You cannot use it in other scripts legally. In practice, however, we all will occasionally do this sort of thing where it’s like, “Look, you didn’t use it, you’re never gonna use it, I’m gonna steal it and stick it in this other thing because I wrote it really. And it has value to you.”
But you’ve got to be really careful about it, ’cause technically it is verboten.
John: Yeah. I had a couple thoughts here. First off, this is talking about the movie shot and they didn’t use it, and so that’s a very specific situation. So, like, that script that you wrote is never going to get made again because that already shot. Sometimes there’s things that just linger in development forever. Like I have this Shazam! project that, who knows if it’s ever going to happen over at Warner Bros. So, I would never feel safe taking anything out of that because, who knows, they could dust it off and shoot it.
John: But if something has already shot and you know that they didn’t use it, technically they own it. But are they going to come after you for doing something that was in there? Like for the first Charlie’s Angels there was a, I think I may have mentioned this on the podcast before; there was a sequence where the Angels had to, in the script, in there’s a sequence where the Angels had to rescue somebody, and it was on top of a mountain.
And they end up in a van going down a bobsled run. And it was actually a really fun sequence. And Amy Pascal came in on like a Friday at 5pm and says, “We’re cutting $5 million out of this movie. And we’re not leaving the room until we do it.” And so she picks up the script and she rips out those five pages. They’re gone.
And so that bobsled sequence I sort of felt like was fair game. And so if another alpine action movie came up in some case, I would feel pretty good using that same kind of beat again.
Craig: Maybe now, but… — The only thing to be aware of is sequels because they will occasionally go back and want to re-mine the stuff that was there from the first thing. if the movie comes out and it’s a bomb, which wasn’t the case in Charlie’s Angels, I think you’re pretty much on safe ground. But if it’s a hit, you’ve got to be careful.
John: But we were also talking about how dialogue is sort of musical, and I think a lesson that I’ve learned from people who write musicals is that you always think like, “Oh, we cut that song out of that show.” And so I asked, “Well the song is great, why don’t you use it in a different show?” And the truth is, songs are kind of written for certain shows. It’s kind of tough to sort of take all the ideas that were in there and really apply them to this new show.
John: And the same happens with most stuff that’s in your movie. We were talking about voices just a second ago. If a character has a very specific joke, and that joke works in his voice, it’s unlikely that it’s going to work as well in whatever thing you’re trying to shoehorn it into.
Craig: Yeah. That’s probably right.
John: There’s a script I wrote that actually I still own completely. And I considered going back through and like pulling out some of the action sequences I love in it for this other project, and the more I think about it the less likely I am to really do that, because it’s not… — Those worked really well in that movie because it was that movie. They’re not going to work at all in this one.
Craig: It was for that movie. Yeah. Look, you wrote one good scene, or one good line, or one good sequence before, you can do it again. Yeah. It’s better in general to be — I can’t think of any instances where I actually did lift something from an abandoned project.
John: Two things that came to mind, just as we were talking right now. When I was writing the novelization of Natural Born Killers a zillion years ago — it was one of the first paid things I ever did. I literally had three weeks to write an entire book. And I was also in the middle of finals in grad school, and I was working a full time job. It was a very crazy time.
And at a certain point I was like, “I just need more stuff.” And so I ended up going through my hard drive and going through like old short stories I’d written and other little things, and I found these moments that were interesting, and I did just sort of pull them in and use them. And it felt like — it was like I was making quilt out of all the little scraps I had.
And that’s okay. They’re yours. That’s fine. But you are not going to…
Craig: Not for something you care about.
John: Yeah. I did — it worked really well in the book because that book was so pastiche-y anyway. Here’s the other point I was going to make. Sometimes I will have something that I have always wanted to use, and I’ll be on a weekly. And this is nothing I used in any other project; it was something I had half developed for myself. I’ll totally use it in that weekly because I know, you know what, they are gonna probably shoot this. This idea I’ve had in my head can actually be shot and be used, and then I can stop thinking about it.
Craig: Yeah. That’s cool. I like that.
John: William asks, “When writing action where a group of characters are involved, do you need to list them all in each new scene? If not, how else could this be handled?”
That’s a reasonable question. A little rookie, but not too bad.
Craig: I’m not quite sure. What do you mean in each new scene?
John: So what he’s talking about, let’s talk about The Hangover. In the second Hangover you were cutting back and forth between two groups. And do you need to remind the reader who’s in which group when we cut back to them?
Craig: Yeah, but there’s sort of short hand ways to do it. You don’t want to keep saying, “Phil, Allen, and Stu are still in the car.” We assume — there are certain things we presume if we’re going back and forth. I do know that Todd and I are often, we often do sort of say, “Okay, we’ve started a new scene, the guys say, ‘All right, let’s get in the car. We’ve gotta go to this place.’ And then the next shot is them in the car. Do we need to say Phil, Stu, and Allen are in the car? We actually do. We just lay out who’s driving, who’s sitting in the front seat, who’s sitting in the back.”
But in a sequence, so a group of scenes that are connected by action as opposed to location, like a car chase, running through a casino, or moving through different rooms of a house, it’s okay to sort of elide over that, or shorthand things with “the guys” or “the policemen” or whatever kind of group name you can come up with.
It’s really all about just making sure that it’s clear for the reader without it being boring and repetitive.
John: The thing I’m working on right now, the action sequence that I was talking about, it’s a sports thing. And so I do need to be clear about which players are actually playing at that time, because there are some characters who are back on the bench. Bu there’s also times where I can just refer to “the team” and it’s helpful just to refer to the team. And if a character needs to do something that’s distinct, I see them talking, so I know that they’re there at the moment.
But that will come up sometimes as a conversation during preproduction is they will check to make sure that who exactly is in this scene. And as the writer, that’s part of your job is to make sure that they really do have everybody in that scene who needs to be in that scene.
Craig: Yeah. And I think it’s okay to leave out certain bits of information like that for the reader of the script, as long as you know. Because eventually somebody is going to ask you, and I do feel like it’s a wonderful thing to be able to immediately say to that person, “Here’s who’s playing, here’s who’s on the bench.”
Years ago I wrote a blog piece called You Can’t Just Walk Into a Building, which Josh Olson disagreed with — imagine that.
Craig: Dope. Anyway. In that piece I basically said, “Look, you can say your characters walk into a building in a script, and that’s fine, but down the line somebody may very well ask you what kind of building exactly are you talking about here? Are we talking skyscraper, this, that, whatever?” You should know. You should know your settings. You should have a sense of all of these things in your mind at the very least, because they will ask you.
On every movie I’ve ever done, I have sat down and been asked these questions by either the AD, the director, the costume people. Everybody. It’s amazing how many people actually do directly ask the screenwriter these questions. So know the answers.
John: Know the answers.
Luke from Poland asks, “I follow Derek Haas’s Popcorn Fiction site,” which is great, so we’ll provide a link for that, “which is all kinds of awesome. And I know that both of you wrote short stories for Derek’s site. Therefore writing prose is not completely alien to you. So I was wondering, have you ever considered writing a novel?”
John: “Is there a John August or Craig Mazin novel on the horizon?”
Craig: Those are two different questions. [laughs] Yes, and no. Yes I have. I have an idea for a novel. It’s really sad, and dark, and depressing, which I love. And I even have a couple of chapters of it. But I’m so fastidious about it. It’s funny, when we were talking last week about writer’s block and how you just have to keep moving. I don’t have writer’s block, but I am overly fastidious because I feel like, look, this is it. You write these sentences and they exist forever in that state, never to be amended.
So, I’m rather fastidious about it, and it’s very slow going. But I do kind of love it. I don’t know, maybe one day I’ll finish it and publish it. I don’t beat myself up over it.
John: How much is written?
Craig: I have two chapters, and they’re sizable chapters. But, I mean it’s probably one-fifteenth of what it should be, if that.
John: I have considered writing a novel. And it’s one of those things that loosely on the horizon, so I will talk to my agent or my lawyer about it once a year or so. And the thing I would want to write, it’s very much sort of in my wheelhouse. You could say, “Oh, what would John August write well?” John August — I adapt a lot of kid and young adult things and it would be one of those kind of projects.
So I’ve definitely considered it. I just know the amount of time it would take would pull me away from other things, and so it’s not my highest priority right now.
Craig: Yeah. That’s where I’m at.
John: But, I would love to do it. And I love books, and I love writing, and I love the sense of completion and finality that you have in a book that’s wonderful. And world building, is that so much of the time I am writing these screenplays and I’m creating the world, and creating the characters in the world, but it’s only for a very specific small purpose. And I like that when you write a novel or write a series of novels you can really expand and expound and create stuff beyond the borders of just a two-hour movie. And that’s an amazing thing.
Craig: Yeah. And also there’s an ability to express an inner world in a novel, to really go into the kind of hard to articulate consciousness that we all think we understand, which you cannot do in movies. Movies are entirely about what you see in here.
John: Yeah. The toolbox is much bigger in novels. And you can spend five pages on the feeling of the sheets, and you maybe shouldn’t do that, but you can. And there are amazing opportunities in novels that are great.
Craig: Yeah. I’m a big Conrad fan. I’ve always been a big fan of his. And I always loved how impressionistic his style was, that he would sort of describe things to you in a way where almost he as the author didn’t quite see them clearly until maybe a scene later when it suddenly became clear what had happened. And that’s something, again, that you can do as a novelist. You can be impressionistic. You can have people misunderstand what they see, but in movies it’s very difficult. If someone gets stabbed…
There’s a wonderful moment in Heart of Darkness where they’re on the boat, and one of the natives who are, I guess, part of the crew of the boat. I think in the novel it’s something like, “He grasps in his hands what appears to be a cane, and then falls down.” And then only afterwards do you realize, no, a spear was thrown from the banks of the river, and pierced him through the chest and killed him. But in that moment it was like Conrad was as confused as all of us about what was going on. Can’t do that in a movie. Spear through the chest is a spear through the chest.
John: Yeah. In a movie you would have to pay that off within about 10 seconds, or else we would have forgotten what happened there.
Craig: It’s also hard to even just pretend that it’s anything other than what it is. Because we can’t — the lens is objective. It is not clouded by anxiety, or tension, or squinting.
John: When you write prose, we may have talked about this before, I’ve enjoyed writing stuff for Derek’s site, and it was one of the first times I have written prose in quite a few years was writing those two short stories, Snake People and The Variant which you can both find on Amazon. I found dialogue to be really frustrating. I got better at it as I would sort of go through it, but like the first day or two of trying to write those short stories, it killed me writing when characters had to speak.
Because I find that the form of dialogue in American novels incredibly frustrating the way we do the comma, open quotes, I speak a line, closed quotes, and the “he said”s. It’s really weird. Because when you read it, here’s what the difference is, I think: In screenwriting every word counts except for, of course, the character cues above dialogue. Those are ignored, you never say those. But everywhere it otherwise counts.
In books the “he said”s are supposed to be invisible, like they are supposed to not really exist. And I just find our way of writing really artificial.
Craig: Well, it is. And it definitely took a little bit of adjustment, but on the other hand when I would read it back I realized that they were invisible to me as well. And also I noticed that, well, a couple things. One, it definitely drives your interest in dialogue down which I think is kind of a good thing, because I don’t really like dialogue heavy books.
And it also, I noticed that if you had kind of established if there was sort of a back and forth conversation, it was legal to leave out the “he said”s/”she said”s if there was a run.
John: Exactly. As long as the rhythm was established, like your characters were all trading lines, then you can go through quite a bit without having to do that.
So, Craig, do you have One Cool Thing this week?
Craig: I do have One Cool Thing this week.
John: Why don’t you go first.
Craig: My One Cool Thing this week is 1Password. I don’t know if you use 1Password.
John: I use 1Password. I like 1Password.
Craig: It’s the greatest thing ever. So, 1Password, it’s software that you can freely purchase for money, so it’s not free, online. Available for both Mac and PC.
John: And iOS.
Craig: And iOS, that’s correct. And 1Password is kind of brilliant. So, we all have a thousand accounts for a thousand different things and we tend to use one password or maybe two passwords because we can only memorize a certain amount of passwords. And those passwords tend to be fairly low security. Go ahead — there’s sites where you can test the security of your own password, and most people fail pretty miserably.
And then of course there are some websites that demand that you use a capital, and lower case. Some ask for a number. I mean, as we said in Hangover 1, my password used to be just “bologna,” but now they make you add numbers. [laughs]
So, hundreds of these passwords, and many of them are duplicates and many of them are unsecure. So, what 1Password does brilliantly is it says “No, no. Come up with one really secure password that’s a bunch of numbers and uppercases/lowercases, whatever you want to do, and we’ll help you come up with it. That’s the one you memorize.
“Then, when you go to a website, we’ll come up with a password for you that will be a huge gobbledygook 14 string combination of nonsense that no one could possibly remember, including you — you won’t have to.
“Then, if you go to that website and you want to get in, you just click on the 1Password icon which there is an extension for Safari, Chrome, and Explorer. Type in your master password, it then plugs in the password for that site and you are unlocked.” And it is spectacular. And, you don’t even need — you might think, “Well, what if I’m not at home on my computer that has all that stuff?” No problem, because if you have a Dropbox account, a free Dropbox account, you can use a web-based version of 1Password through Dropbox.
It’s spectacular. You should all get it. It’s the greatest thing ever.
John: See, I’ve had less success with it than you have. And so I have had situations where, especially the plug-ins weren’t working quite right. The browser plug-ins weren’t working quite right.
John: So then it would fill in the wrong thing. I may need to sort of reinstall and redo some stuff. What I have found it very useful for though is overall control of passwords, especially the things you kind of forgot about from a long time ago. And so my general password philosophy is I have a schema for sort of how passwords work that every password for every site is different, but if I stare at a site I can probably figure out what my password for it is.
Now, that may not be the most secure, because somebody else could figure out what my schema is, but I think it’s going to be challenging for them to figure out what my schema is.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t even like to wait or even do that much thinking about it. I just like knowing that I’ve got one thing. I don’t know my email password, for instance. I have no idea what it is. But I know 1Password.
John: Ah, that’s faith. You have a lot of faith in that 1Password.
Craig: Well, yeah. But the point is I am no more faith in that than I am in any password. I mean, you’re hoping that the password…
John: No, but you’re putting a lot of faith in that 1Password, the application, is not going to completely self-destruct.
Craig: Well, you can if you’re really wigged out about it use the 1Password app to print out all of them and stick them in a safe somewhere.
John: That’s a good idea.
John: I do find myself using 1Password for credit card information. And so my American Express card, I used to have it memorized for a long time, and then of course someone stole it at a certain point, and we had to get a new number, and I don’t remember my new number. So I just go to 1Password and have that plug it in.
Craig: Exactly. And it works out o 80% of the time. There are some sites where just the way they set up their fields, 1Password can’t figure out what the hell they are talking about. But usually it will be able to fill in your number, your security code, your expiration date, etc.
John: On the topic of passwords, an application that you probably don’t have to use, and you should thank god you don’t have to use, I’m just gonna bitch for one second about iTunes Connect. So, if you’re selling apps in the app store, Apple has an app for iOS called iTunes Connect which will let you know how many copies you’ve sold. So like we have Bronson Watermarker there, and FDX Reader; those are the two apps that we’re selling today.
And so we can see how many did we sell today. It asks you for your password every single time you launch it. And you can’t actually change anything. It’s not like a thing where someone could grab your phone and steal your money or anything. No, it just tells you how many you have sold. And the fact that it asks you for your password every time is infuriating. And there’s no good way to get around it so you have to type it in.
And, of course, you don’t want to have an easy password for it, so you have to have a difficult password that you are trying to type in and the dots are hiding what you’re typing.
Craig: Well, if the point is that there’s really no secure information on it, why not just do 123412341234?
John: That’s the problem, is that the password to get into it is your real master password for iTunes Connect.
Craig: Oh, that’s super annoying.
John: So it has to be your real solid fear of god password because there’s tens of thousands of dollars at stake there.
Craig: That’s annoying, yeah. Annoying. Well, I guess that’s why they do it.
John: So, my one cool thing is a guaranteed time waster. So, probably the worst thing I should ever share with screenwriters. But it’s an amazing game that I’ve been playing the whole week. I’ve been playing far too much the whole week called Ski Safari, which is not a great title by any means.
So here’s the thing in Ski Safari. You are this little guy who’s skiing down a hill…
Craig: Well first tell us what platform it’s on.
John: Oh, it’s for iPad.
Craig: Got it.
John: And so the good thing about it being for iPad is that you can’t play it on your phone, so that you’re not wasting all your time on your phone with it. And also because it’s on iPad I don’t need to play it at my computer, which is good. So, it’s not one of those things.
I’ve also set myself a rule that I will only play it while standing up because as writers we sit down way too much. So I can stand at the counter and play this. And when I get tired of standing I should just sit down. So, it’s an incredibly simple game. It’s very much like Tiny Wings if you have played Tiny Wings, and it’s an Endless Runner. So, basically you’re leaping, you’re sliding, you’re leaping, you’re sliding. But the character design and sort of the world of it is really, really nicely done. It’s incredibly smartly thought out and it feels to me like a perfect pop song. Like you know Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone…
John: …is an amazing perfect pop song, this is sort of an amazing iOS game. It feels like it does exactly what it should be doing right at this moment and just knocks it out of the park.
Craig: I’m going to download it. Is it S-K-I Safari?
John: It is.
Craig: I’m gonna download it tonight.
John: Yeah. It’s cheap. And it’s one of those things where, I think it’s $0.99, everyone who plays it will love it and will become addicted to it, I suspect. And then at some point the game designers will probably make some little change, and everyone will be up in arms about how they ruined the game, and demand their money back, their $0.99, after they played it for probably 100 hours.
Craig: Or maybe Zynga jerks will just copy it.
John: The Zynga jerks — I’m sure the Zynga people already have their photocopiers ready.
Craig: Are the Zynga people just the worst?
John: Yeah. I don’t know. They might be.
Craig: I think they might be. I just feel like they really are bad.
John: I didn’t really begrudge them for Farmville, because like, oh, great, you found a new kind of crack. Okay. Or Mafia Wars. You and I played Mafia Wars way back in the day, didn’t we?
Craig: Yeah. They’ve stolen, I mean, I feel like there’s 100 lawsuits against these guys.
John: So here’s what pushed me over the edge, is that there’s this kind of cute little iPad game called Tiny Tower where you are running this little tower and you’re building new floors, and you’re running the elevator to get people to places.
And then I saw the Zynga knock-off, which was exactly the same. I mean, completely 100% the same thing. And that’s not cool.
Craig: I hate it. No, it’s not cool. I mean, everybody likes to go after EA because EA… — The big crime of Electronic Arts in the gaming community is that they tend to swallow up independent game publishers or raid independent game publishers of their staff, their key personnel. And so they have a general depressing effect on game innovation and the indie game scene.
And I get that. But on the other hand, everybody’s an adult. If you own an independent game company and you feel like selling it to EA, that’s your choice. And if you work at an independent game company and you feel like going to work for EA, that’s your choice, too.
But Zynga, it seems like they’re ripping these other people off, to me, as a lay person when I read these things. And that’s kind of gross.
John: Yeah. That shouldn’t happen.
Craig: That’s One Bad Thing.
John: One Bad Thing.
Craig: One Uncool Thing. Zynga.
John: Zynga. Craig!
John: Thank you for another fun podcast.
Craig: Oh, and John.
John: Oh, there’s more.
Craig: One last little addendum. I just wanted to say congratulations to you and all of my gay, lesbian, transgendered friends, because the President of the United States for the first time ever in our history has come out in support of same sex marriage, and I think that’s fantastic.
John: I think that is really fantastic.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a good deal.
John: Yeah. I was happy it happened.
Craig: Yeah, me too.
Craig: Me too.
John: All right, so I’ll pick appropriately triumphant end music.
Craig: Yeah, something good! But not, like no I Will Survive. No Gloria Gaynor.
John: No, it will be some good other anthem.
John: My thinking cap is already running. And, in fact, it’s already playing under our talking right now.
Craig: Is it It’s Raining Men? [laughs] ‘Cause no Weather Girls will do. I can’t take it.
John: Thank you, Craig. Have a great week.
Craig: Thank you, too, John. Bye-bye.