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.
Craig, how was your Father’s Day?
Craig: It was actually great. It didn’t start so great, [laughs] ’cause my son plays baseball — I think I’ve mentioned this before on the podcast — and he’s 10. And we’re on this tournament league; we’re in a tournament league. And what happens is on these weekends they’ll put together these ad hoc tournaments and six or seven or eight teams will get together and play at one place, usually some town that has good parks like, in this case it was Thousand Oaks.
So, I had to drag my butt to Thousand Oaks for Father’s Day weekend. But on the upside, he pitched really, really well. He was very proud. I was very proud of him. It was a good finish to the tournament season. So, all in all good Father’s Day for me. How about you?
John: You know, my Father’s Day also involved pitching because Derek Haas brought his kids over, his two young boys, and after there was some swimming and there were some cookies being eaten. Derek Haas, whose new TV show on NBC is called Chicago Fire, he’s in the process of breaking all the stories for the season.
And so he had his boys and now my daughter pitch stories, pitch storylines for Chicago Fire.
Craig: [laughs] That is such a Derek thing to do.
John: And it was honestly kind of amazing because you realize that these kids have never seen an hour-long drama, but the premise of Chicago Fire is essentially ER with fires. And so I would say give me a story about firefighters and some of the stories were actually kind of okay.
There were a lot of things about basements or barbeques or things like that. Very much like kids were glomming onto the idea that kind of worked in a previous pitch and were sort of massaging it. But it pretty much felt like most TV writer rooms. So, anyway, it was a good fun time. We got some good spec work out of our kids which is crucial.
John: Also my daughter started the morning by giving us the little Father’s Day things that she made at school, like little special projects that sort of look like a jacket and then inside there’s a little note. And of course she had like two dads she had to do this for. And so she had to do twice the work of all the other kids in her class.
Craig: So annoying.
John: Yeah. And so I was thinking, like, oh, well she got out of it for Mother’s Day. But for Mother’s Day she had to do one and she sent it to one of her grandmothers. Just one of her grandmothers, so…
Craig: But now, I don’t know if you noticed my… — I tweet once every 79 hours. But my tweet for Father’s Day was that essentially it is inherent to being a father to just not give a crap about Father’s Day. I mean, do you really care about Father’s Day?
John: Not one iota.
Craig: No. No. And I’ve never met a dad who gave a damn. In fact, frankly it’s annoying because it’s almost like we have to remember it. But, man, mothers care about Mother’s Day. Oh-hoo, do not forget it.
John: There’s no flowers for Father’s Day. Here’s what I got as a special bonus for being a father on Father’s Day. At the Counter, we went to the Counter for lunch, and the waitress told me like the special code for getting my kid’s meal free on Father’s Day. That’s basically it.
Craig: Oh, that’s nice.
John: Yeah. But, I mean, it was like a $5 mini turkey burger.
Craig: Listen, man. I know what I like for Father’s Day. I got it. [laughs] That was all I cared about. End of discussion.
John: So let’s talk about what we’re going to talk about today. I thought today we would answer three of our listener questions and then talk a little bit about my very favorite part of speech, which is verbs.
Craig: Well okay. It beats adverbs, which are everyone’s least favorite part.
John: Yes. True.
We’ll start with two things of follow up. Last week we talked about — there was a script that I was asked to read over the weekend and they sent it to me on a locked iPad. Do you remember that?
Craig: I do remember that, yes.
John: I felt it was kind of a cool thing. You know, it’s sort of a pain in the ass to send an iPad around, but I can understand why it was; because they had it locked down so much it really wasn’t possible for me to try to copy it or do anything strange with it.
So, one of our listeners wrote in to say, he was like, “Well why couldn’t you just distribute the script as an app?” So that basically is a third-party app so that a person couldn’t copy the stuff out of it because apps are actually kind of locked down on an iPad, which I think was kind of a smart idea.
For people who have developed applications for the iPhone or for the iPad, yes, ultimately applications go through the App Store, but there’s another way to put apps onto an iPad through… — TestFlight is one of the services that does it. So, I could imagine that someone might just develop a service that’s sort of like TestFlight, but it’s just for distributing locked down scripts that you couldn’t possibly copy. So, it was a clever idea. So someone, maybe Jimmy, he might implement that as a business idea.
Craig: Yeah, you know, I still feel like the world of “locking a script” or protecting a script from other people seeing it is, you know… — If people really want to get their hands on a script they’re gonna do it, you know?
John: And you’re of course talking to the person who makes Bronson Watermarker which is the foremost watermarking application for the Macintosh.
Craig: That’s right.
John: But I do agree with you on a fundamental level. Any kind of protection you’re putting on something is making it more difficult to do something. You’re never going to make it impossible to do something.
Craig: Yeah. That’s right.
John: The second point of follow up. Last week we talked about the Flight trailer; that was your One Cool Thing, which is for the John Gatins-scripted/Robert Zemeckis-directed movie with Denzel Washington, which looks great, and the trailer was great. And you asked who did the trailer.
John: And we have a name now. It’s Bill Neil at Buddha Jones is who we believe cut that trailer.
Craig: Very cool.
John: And it’s great. And I thought we might talk just for a second about that knowledge that somebody at a trailer house cut that, because that’s a thing that listeners who are not actively in the industry might not know is that the trailers for most of the movies, it’s not the filmmakers who are usually cutting those trailers. Sometimes they cut a trailer, but most cases trailers are done at trailer houses and they are these competing — you can think of them like agencies but they are basically like little creative labs that will compete to cut trailers for movies, cut trailers for TV projects. And they’re really… — They’re basically a bunch of smart editors at Avids and they take all the movie footage and cut a trailer.
And based on the footage they have, they usually have the script, their just sort of trying to sell the idea of the movie. And it’s a very different thing than I think what people would expect to have happening in trailer land.
Craig: That’s right. Basically the business of marketing is there are marketing departments at studios who are executives. The executives know that they have to market a movie. The first thing they do is they figure out which of the vendors, that’s our parlance for it here, which vendors would be appropriate. They have those vendors pitch on it and then they select one.
There’s a lot of money in this. The places charge a lot of money to create these campaigns for these movies. And they have editors and they have copy writers who are writing all that VO, you know, “In a world…” all that stuff. And they also, the bigger places do both AV work, audio/visual and also the prints. So they will handle the bus sides, the one sheets — that’s our term for posters — and all that good stuff.
So, it’s all done out of house, out of studio by vendors that then come in and then everybody looks at it. And the funny thing is that having started in marketing I can tell you, and everyone, that marketing departments tend to look at the filmmakers with suspicion, and reasonably so. Filmmakers often are wrapped up in what their movie is and are less concerned with what the job of the marketer is. So they either have goofy ideas about what the campaign should be — either they are up their own butts about it or they are really precious about not giving anything anyway — or they just think the movie is about something that it’s not. Or what it is about to them isn’t what would appeal to people.
So, the marketing department a lot of times keeps the filmmakers at arm’s length. And there are big wars that go on between filmmakers and marketing departments.
It used to be, a long time ago, that the marketing department was sort of, you know, a little bit of a red-headed stepchild and the filmmakers had more power. But, as we’ve mentioned before, that’s changed, that’s essentially flipped, because now for many movies it costs more to market than to make. And he who costs the most money wins. So marketing is a big deal now.
John: Yeah. In the development process, before you actually get a green light on a movie, the head of marketing will always weigh in and will have a big vote on whether the movie proceeds. Because you’re going to ask this man or this woman, “Do you know how to market this movie? Is this a movie that you can market? Is it a movie that we can make our money back and be able to sell to the world?” And that’s the marketing department head’s job is to figure out like, “Yes, I think I know how to sell this movie.”
Craig: That’s right. And if they say, “I don’t know how to sell it,” it’s not getting made.
Craig: Bottom line.
John: And this last week I was in New York working on the musical project that I don’t ever name, and it turns out there’s the exact same sort of parallel industry there. So, there’s two major vendors, two or three major vendors who do all the same kinds of things that we have in Hollywood to do all of our trailers and stuff. So, all the outdoor campaigns, there’s just a few companies that do all of the Broadway musical campaigns. And they have the very specific mandate and it’s the same kind of thing where they’re coming up with 50 concepts and those get narrowed down to five concepts. And they show you those five concepts and then you end up working off of those to find your next set of revisions. So, same thing.
Craig: Well, congrats to the… — Is it Bill you said?
Craig: At Buddha Jones. Yeah, Buddha Jones is a huge place. And you can tell these trailer houses are kind of cool because they have names like Buddha Jones. But Bill cut a hell of a trailer there. Got to give him a lot of credit.
And, you know, usually the editor will have a creative director working with him. There will be a marketing executive who’s assigned to the project that monitors them. I’m sure everybody pitched in. They did a great job.
John: Yeah. So, let’s start with three questions.
John: First we’ll start with the question that was emailed, that you’d emailed me, so I think it was something you got off of DoneDealPro. Chris writes, “Recently I had my hand slapped by my rep for talking to some industry folk without his involvement. It got me thinking: as a new writer with his first rep I’m finding it difficult to gauge what I can and can’t do on my own. I understand there are certain places and people you’re rep is responsible for communicating with or soliciting your ideas to. However, a screenwriter can’t simply wait around for his or her rep to harvest Hollywood for them. I want to reach out, but not reach around. What’s a young screenwriter to do?”
Craig: That’s such a good question, isn’t it?
John: Yeah. That’s why I’m glad you emailed it to me.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I sympathize with you. I remember kind of struggling with this, too, in the beginning. The reason that your representatives slap your wrist typically isn’t because of ego or that they are standing on formality. It’s because you can get yourself in trouble.
I always use the bar analogy. The screenwriters are the really pretty 19-year-old girl in the bar. And all these other guys are the 28-year-old dudes with a pocket full of Rohypnol. And if you start talking to the wrong person without your representative and you start getting seduced by them or making promises or assurances it can really come back to hurt you. And they know that. They love to separate writers from their representatives. And then, when the rep calls, they’re like, “Whoa, hold on a second. You’re guy already said he was willing to kind of do this just on the fly, on spec, da-da-da. You can’t get in the way now. You’re client already told me.”
So the sort of simple rule of thumb is: be polite, talk to everybody, field interest always, and just use a simple disclaimer. Just say, “Listen, you know, I always let Jim handle the business end of things. Please give him a call. But I’m certainly interested in hearing what you have to say. It sounds great.” And just be really non-committal but interested.
It’s that school, that sort of vanilla school of sports interview skills that you just kind of have to master.
John: We always say that a representative wants a client who works and a client who will be able to get work, and really you want the client who you will have to do the least amount of work for this client in order to keep them continuously employed. And so hopefully you will develop relationships with people that are kind of independent of the agent needing to get involved all the time.
Like for a long time I was working on a ton of projects over at Sony, and my agent was involved in sort of making the deal but like I was dealing directly with them and if stuff would come up people felt free to call me and that’s okay. The thing you have to always remember is that when that executive calls you about a project or a producer calls you about something, you do need to lob in a call to your agent to let them know that this is happening and let them know what else is going on.
Another example of why Chris may have had a situation with his representative there is that representative may have other clients who are working with that producer or with that industry person at the same time; there may be complications there. For all you know they may be going after the same job. And so if you’re doing this and run around, stuff could get very complicated very quickly.
Craig: Yeah. But I do think you’re right to not to suggest that Chris or any writer shouldn’t be afraid to talk to people. Don’t clam up and don’t get tight over this sort of thing. The easiest slapping you can get in this business is from your own representative. Just say, “Got it, I understand.” And you learn each time and that’s fine. But any working writer will tell you agents don’t get you jobs, you get you jobs. Agents negotiate you the deal and help sort of spread the word of who you are. But, you are going to need to talk to people.
John: No agent is every going to complain, like, “My client works too hard to find himself work.”
John: “My client talks to people too much.” That’s not a problem so much.
Craig: Yeah. “I wish my client were less friendly to decision makers.” I mean, that’s a good problem to have. It’s just, you know, and he didn’t indicate what the content was that got him the spanking, but just be careful to not — when you start saying things that you think an agent would be better off saying, let them say it.
John: And I would also, be careful about committing to, “Yes, I want to do that next; I’m happy to write this up for you.”
John: Yeah. Don’t talk about the actual work you’re going to do. And try not to be too specific about your schedule, too, if you’re actually juggling multiple projects and you’re making it sound like this is the next thing you’re going to work on that can become complicated as well.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, go ahead and ask me if I’m available, John
John: Are you available, Craig?
Craig: Um, you know technology, yes. I’m going to say mostly, sure.
Now what the hell does that mean? [laughs] It means, “God, if it’s great, yes. Otherwise, no.” Which means nothing. And so I did my job.
John: You did your job. You sound like an agent.
John: “Yeah, he could be available for the right thing. He’s working on some stuff but, you know, things could change around and dates shift.”
Craig: I mean, yeah, because as writers we have to, remember, we have to be — a lot of these people are our friends and we have to be friendly. Agents, it’s a more formalized business relationship. When they call up your agent they say, “Is John August available?” It’s perfectly fine for them to say, “Depends. What is it? I can make him available for the right thing.” He can do that; you can’t do that. You sound like a jerk if you do that. So, good question.
John: Stacy Ashworth writes, “I was curious about yours and Craig’s opinion on business cards, or for that matter, personal websites. Do you think they’re necessary/helpful for screenwriters in Los Angeles?”
I’m going to start by saying yes. I think they’re both helpful. Here’s why: If you’re an executive and you’re curious about a writer, like you just sort of read their script that was sitting on a sample, you’re probably going to Google their name. It would be very helpful if the very first thing you got when you Googled their name was something about them, like a site from them, that looked professional enough and made them seem like they’re not a crazy person. So, that’s my argument for a personal website.
Craig: Absolutely. I absolutely agree. What made me giggle was the business card thing because I feel like if I were getting started now the first thing I would do is make a website, only if to control the message better than Google does, or what some knucklehead might be saying about you somewhere.
But business cards, to me, have the opposite effect. They feel — and people hand them to me all the time, and they always say, “Do you have a business card?” And I always say no, because I don’t. And I don’t really know what the value of the thing is. If I want to give you my email address I’ll just tell it to you and you’ll type it in your phone and we’re done. But business cards seem so kind of…
John: Mad Men?
Craig: Dunder Mifflin kind of. They just do. They just seem very, I don’t know, clunky. Clunky and old and a little amateurish.
John: I was once like you, Craig, where people would say like, “Hey, do you have a business card?” and I’m like, no, I don’t have a business card. And most of the time I still will say no. But I actually do have business cards now which just have my site address which is johnaugust.com, which is so simple that I feel like people don’t need that.
John: But I decided I would just do business cards for the people who I actually do have that longer conversation with. Like I was at this Sundance Theatre workshop thing in New York and I’m talking to this Brooklyn-based photographer. And it was actually really interesting. And so he gave me his card and I wanted to have a reciprocal card. And we actually have sort of kind of kept up in touch since then. So it was useful enough that I actually have like five business cards that keep going into my wallet and maybe once a month I will use one.
Craig: But let’s be honest here. Your business card is your name with dot-com.
John: Yeah, largely it is.
Craig: I mean, you could just tell him, “Just go to johnaugust.com and contact me through that.”
John: But if he forgets my name. Because this is a case where I wasn’t a comparatively famous person. So like if I’m going at a screenwriter kind of event, a lot of people there are going to know, like, “Oh, that’s John August.” And so, “Oh, johnaugust.com.” But this, there was no context for anything. So he was going to forget my name by 8:30pm. It was useful…
Craig: Hmm. How drunk was this guy?
John: Ah, well we were all drinking.
Craig: All right. Nice.
John: Because the food was slow coming, so there was a lot of wine being consumed first.
Craig: I guess I can see your argument that business cards are useful in situations where everyone’s getting completely loaded. But otherwise, here’s the deal: like — I don’t want to talk to anybody anyway. [laughs] So that’s why for me, the business card thing? No.
But, I mean, for this, was it Stacy?
John: Yeah, for Stacy.
John: Sure. I would say: Don’t push your business cards on people. But if it comes to a situation where they ask for a business card, yeah, give them a business card.
Craig: And also like no goofy business cards. I remember I did a talk once on screenwriting for a group, a local screenwriting group in Los Angeles. And they were huge; it was like 200 people. I was actually quite surprised how many people were at this thing. And then afterwards they do that thing where they sort of line up to ask you their individual questions.
John: Oh god.
Craig: And really 10% of them have questions and then 90% of them are just telling you about their lives or pitching you stuff. And I would say half of them — just to continue my fraction theme here — had these horrendously ugly business cards, like multicolored, and like sun bursting through clouds behind their name and in 3D. I was just shocked at the aesthetic depravity of it all. Just what’s wrong with a normal business card?
John: Nothing. Yeah. Oh, and I also do have business cards for Bronson Watermarker because sometimes I will be talking to somebody who is will ask me what I do and I actually make this app and they say, “That sounds really fascinating.” And so then I can just give them this card that actually has that link on there.
Craig: That makes sense. I understand that.
John: Next question, Dave, who I’m thinking is from England because of his verbiage here.
Craig: [British Accent] Dave.
John: [British Accent] Dave.
Craig: [British Accent] Dave.
John: “My question, you know when you pull a loose thread out of a jumper and before you know it an entire sleeve has disappeared?”
Craig: What’s a jumper now? [laughs] What’s that?
John: A sweater.
Craig: Oh, is that what that is?
John: Yeah, that’s why I think it’s from England or some place across the pond.
Craig: [British Accent] You know how you pull a loose thread out of jumper?
Craig: [British Accent] Right. I’m not big on riddles. What am I? Please, sir, can I have some more?
John: Okay, I forget the name for the term, I’ll Google it after we’re off the air, but the British, the fairly new British habit of the TH sound becoming an F…
John: Yeah, oh, my.
Craig: [British Accent] Happy Birfday.
John: [British Accent] Birfday.
Craig: [British Accent] Birfday.
John: Yeah. So he says, “I’m rewriting a spec of mine and I’m getting that same feeling. If I change this, then I’ll have to change this, and this character can no longer, and that one will have to. You can picture. I’d love to her your thoughts on this problem of rewriting.”
Craig: It’s not a problem. That’s called rewriting. [laughs] It’s a good thing. I think it’s a good thing. It means that you actually did a pretty decent job of writing in the first place. If you can just start lifting chunks out without causing ripples in the rest of the script, something is terribly wrong. The joy of rewriting is not panicking over that and, in fact, seeing how the changes you make in a small place must end and should change things throughout with rare exception.
So, it’s a good thing. You should be excited by that. It means you’re actually thinking about the screenplay in the right way. You’re thinking about it in its totality. Don’t panic. And you may say, “Well, but I like that thing.” Well, I must say then, do you really like it? If it’s built on a foundation of something you don’t like, do you really like it? And is it possible that there might be something better?
John: Here is my counter-argument against that, which I’ll call the Will Smith problem: There are certain people who will see a possible loose thread, or something maybe that actually isn’t a loose thread. Maybe that thread is actually supposed to be there. But they see that little thread and they say, “I’m just gonna start pulling on that thread. I’m gonna pull, and pull, and pull, and pull.” And they will unravel everything before your eyes.
And, that can be really dangerous, because you are seeing like, well, rather than the simple solution to maybe tuck that thread back in there, they will insist on pulling the entire thing apart.
Craig: Well you’re saying “they.”
John: They or you. Yes.
Craig: You mean to say that the writer themselves will do this to themselves?
John: Yeah. Rarely does a writer do it to himself.
Craig: So you’re talking about somebody else coming in?
Craig: Well that I agree with. I mean, that’s bad. When other people do it it’s bad
John: But I guess then I would agree with you if the writer himself feels like, okay, I’m going to do this thought experiment of like, “I’m going to pull this through and see what it is.” You as the writer, you’re the only person who has actually seen the movie, so you do have the opportunity to say, “Okay, if I’ve made all those changes, what would happen, and what would the new thing be pulling that all apart? “
The only danger I would say is that sometimes you can end up just rewriting that one script 1,000 times and never doing the next thing. So, you have to remember, like, “What was the movie that I actually set out to write?” and making sure that the intrigue of the excitement about doing this next thing isn’t going to keep you from working on other new stuff.
Craig: Yeah. The analogy for when you’re directing you’re always trapped as you sort of, you get take three under your belt, you’re always trapped between a desire to make sure you don’t move on without getting it right. You don’t want to be that guy that just does three takes and says, “Good enough.” But you also don’t want to be that guy that just starts chasing things and unraveling and undoing pointlessly.
Craig: So you’re constantly working between two fears, and that’s your Scylla and your Charybdis. And for rewriting this is our Scylla and your Charybdis: Don’t want to change to much, don’t want to not change enough. That, unfortunately, is something you’re going to have to feel over time.
I will tell you, nothing like yanking on a thread, watching the whole thing fall into yarn in front of you, and then realizing you should have never pulled on it in the first place to teach you an important lesson, but similarly there have been times very early on when I handed something to somebody thinking in the back of my head there’s something not right here, but, eh, no one will notice it. Everybody notices. They notice much faster than you notice.
So, you have to kind of give yourself license to be brave enough to pull on the thread but confident enough to leave it be when you think it’s okay.
John: Yeah, here’s the danger, just to wrap this up. The danger is that in pulling on this thread and just seeing like the loose pile of stuff that’s in front of you, you’re going to be building a new script with all these new things. And the new script you’re imagining is going to be much better than the script that was there because you haven’t written it yet. And so you’re comparing this fantasy script that you could write out of all these new things versus what you did write which you have now recognized the problems.
And, so, just be aware that there may be the temptation of pursuing something that will be great, and new, and fun versus the hard work of what’s in front of you.
Craig: Right. [British Accent] Don’t touch my jumper.
John: [British Accent] My jumper.
Craig: [British Accent] Leave my jumper.
John: So, one of the things you may be doing as you’re rewriting a script is looking at the words you choose to use in your script. And so I wanted to close up today by talking about verbs, because I’m sort of — my weekly obsession this week is verbs.
So, here are three sample sentences I read in bad scripts all the time.
John: “There are four men in the room.”
“A large suitcase is by the door.”
“The fire is intense.”
So, those sentences, there’s nothing actually grammatically wrong with those sentences. They’re fine sentences. But they’re incredibly boring sentences. And the reason why they’re boring sentences is you are using to “to be” just to sort of state the existence of something rather than having the thing you’re causing to exist actually do something.
They sort of read like Dungeons and Dragons descriptions. Like when you walk into a new room in Dungeons and Dragons and this little bubble text of this is what’s in the room.
Craig: Right. “There is a phantom by the door. There is a puddle on the floor.”
John: Exactly. And so these aren’t — this isn’t Dungeons and Dragons. This is supposed to be a movie. Things are supposed to be happening.
Craig: Unless it’s a Dungeons and Dragons movie. Then I think it would be okay to do what you’re saying.
John: Yeah. [laughs] That would be great. I think it should actually just be a scroll that comes across the screen with like, you know, description and stuff and then they show it to you.
Craig: [laughs] Exactly. Or don’t show it and just after it say, “There was a dragon.”
John: “There was a dragon.”
Craig: “There was.”
John: And every time the character swings a sword you see the little hit points go down. That’s pretty good.
Craig: I have to tell you. It never crystallized for me why that was so annoying because I’ve read that very kind of clumsy, robotic sort of description before. And by the way, I’m not a huge fan of florid description or a lot of purple prose. But was it — the suitcase is what?
John: “A large suitcase is by the floor.”
Craig: Yeah, I mean shouldn’t the suitcase be leaning against the door? [laughs] Should the suitcase, “A large suitcase has been left by the door.”
John: Or better yet, rather than having the thing already be there, why don’t you have somebody put it there? Or why don’t you have your hero clock it or have your hero do something to it?
Craig: Yeah, that’s like, because if the suitcase was left behind by somebody, let’s say, and you’re a detective and you walk in the room, somebody should say, “Take a look,” you know, “he looks over a suitcase toppled in place by the door as if somebody had left in a hurry.”
John: A big problem with “A large suitcase is by the door” is like well what is the shot here? Are we cutting away from our characters to show that suitcase by the door?
Craig: Right. Do you know what the shot is? It’s a 20mm lens way, way back like a stage. [laughs] And the room is empty. And it’s just a suitcase. And a door.
John: Yeah. So, my pointing out this frustration of scene description in screenplays is that I sometimes get the sense — this is an ongoing pet peeve. I hate screenwriters who say, “I could write a screenplay but I could never write a novel,” as if like writing is something that novelists and sentences and worrying about the words, that’s for novelists, but like, eh, screenwriting, whatever.
Those words do matter. Those words do count. And so when you see people making bad or boring choices here… Here’s the thing: If I see that the screenwriter doesn’t really care, I’m going to stop reading the scene description.
Craig: I’ve got to be honest with you. I don’t think it’s that the screenwriter doesn’t care. You’re so much more kinder in that assessment than I’m about to be. It’s that they can’t write. They don’t have an ear.
If you’re writing lines like that as you just described, you’re really not very good at writing. And you’re not going to get much better at writing. I really do believe that we just need to start thinning the herd with this podcast. [laughs]
Craig: Let’s start whacking away. So, there, if you find yourself constantly wanting to express things in the most generic, bland way, do something else.
John: I will be optimistic only in the sense that I feel like some people, some new screenwriters, either they just read a bunch of bad scripts a lot, or they’ve read scripts by writer-directors who end up making really good movies but who write kind of boring scripts. They may come to believe, like, “Oh, well screenwriting is supposed to be this spare, Hemingway-esque kind of thing.” And it’s true…
Craig: It can be.
John: Screenwriting should be sort of efficient. And I’m never one for sentences that are longer than they need to be. But the style does matter.
Craig: Style matters, man. Make me feel something. You can walk in the room and, you know, “Olsen looks around. A suitcase closed. A gun. No one here.” Fine, good. Be staccato. Be something. Make me feel something with the way you’re presenting the room. But don’t just give me a laundry list. People overwrite nonsense.
I go on DoneDealPro sometimes, I read their first three pages, and typically the problem is the opposite of this, it’s just endless discussions of the quality of the vermillion on the grass, and the dew, and the light, and the shining, and all the rest of it. And you’re like, yes, but that shot was literally the establishing of a park and we’re off of it in a second and frankly we can’t sit there all day capturing vermillion.
People go crazy with that sort of thing. But then on the other hand sometimes there is this kind of very sort of Asperger’s-y, tin ear, no social skills. I don’t know how to describe it. Just a kind of clumsy… — You know when you talk to somebody at a party and they’re incredibly boring? Their voice is boring. Their monotonic. They don’t give you anything. They’re like really bad improve artists that just shut down every possible line of interest. I feel like some of them are writing screenplays. [laughs] And then they do this. And they shouldn’t be. They shouldn’t be.
You know, it’s one of the great sad and frustrating ironies about screenwriting is that it does take a certain amount of internal nerdiness to write a screenplay. It’s very hard to write a screenplay and not on some level be a huge dork that’s steeped in words and in inner life and solitude. On the other hand, if you just told a little more you are completely disconnected from what is human and matters.
So, it’s like you have to fit right in this narrow channel of dorkiness. And I believe that you and I are in that channel.
Craig: We’re there.
John: It’s worked.
Craig: Yeah. We are both nerds. Every writer I know is a nerd. Even the cool ones are nerds. John Gatins, coolest writer in the world, right?
John: Yeah, nerd.
Craig: Nerd. Just doesn’t want to admit it.
John: So, to amp our nerdiness on this verb discussion, probably what got me thinking about it was I’m reading Steven Pinker’s… — I wanted to say it was his new book, but it’s actually his old book, it’s like 2007 — called The Stuff of Thought. Which, Steven Pinker writes a lot about English and words and such, but not just sort of like how our words came to be, but sort of the underlying meanings behind them. So not just etymology but sort of what the underlying framework is that is causing our language to exist.
And, so this was a really cool example that he had in this last book. Our verbs — and not just English verbs, this is sort of verbs across all different languages — there is some underlying structure behind them that gets revealed in certain situations like sentences that will make sense or will not make sense for reasons that seem kind of strange. So, I’ll give you two examples.
“Tell the joke to Tom.” “Tell Tom the joke.”
Those are functionally basically the same. A little more emphasis on “to Tom” in the first one, but those work both ways. And “Tell” is a pretty generic word. And it turns out you can use it either way and that’s fine.
Craig: But, boy, they mean totally different things though, to me at least.
John: Yeah. But they both make sense.
John: Yeah. Tom is going to hear the joke.
John: So now I’ll give you another example.
“Whisper the joke to Tom.” “Whisper Tom the joke.”
You can’t really say “Whisper Tom the joke.”
Craig: No, you cannot do that.
John: Why can’t you do that? “Whisper” is not that different than “tell.”
Craig: Because whisper doesn’t take a direct object like that.
John: Why doesn’t whisper take a direct object like that?
Craig: Um, because, the…
John: It’s the indirect object is the problem. So, it’s the “to Tom.”
Craig: Yes, you’re right, it’s the indirect object. I don’t know why. Why? [laughs]
John: That’s the whole question. That’s what they are trying to figure out and study.
Craig: I actually want to go back to that other example because it’s fascinating to me how there are two… — Okay, what was, the first one was?
John: “Tell the joke to Tom.”
Craig: Okay, “Tell Tom the joke.”
Craig: Tell the joke to Tom. You know what’s funny is? Even though they mean the same one, the first one to me is a syntax you would use when you just heard a joke and you want that person to tell it immediately to Tom.
John: Yeah. “Tell the joke to Tom.”
Craig: “Tell the joke to Tom” is almost like, “I heard a joke that is not funny and I don’t like it [laughs] and now you tell it to him because I don’t know why.” Like, “Tell the joke to Tom because he’s going to agree with me that it was stupid.”
The first one is a joke you like and the second one is a dumb joke.
John: Yeah. But both sentences make sense.
John: Both sentences are good English.
Craig: But you’re right, “Whisper Tom the joke.” You cannot whisper Tom anything.
John: And so they studied why can’t you do that, and it turns out there’s a whole bunch of micro classes that are sort of behind the scenes and stuff. So, specificity is one of those micro classes. And so the generic case of tell, like tell and give…
Craig: Oh, I have a… — Oh, I’m sorry to interrupt. But there is one thing is that “whisper” does take direct objects and tell doesn’t. That’s why it’s confusing.
John: No, “tell” does take a direct object. “Tell the joke.”
Craig: Yeah, “tell, joke.” “Tell the joke.” You’re right.
John: And apparently when you get to like the higher language discussion you don’t really say “direct object” and “indirect object.” You say “object one” and “object two.” But, anyway, so they studied these micro classes behind it and they figured out that it’s not just English that this is a situation. It actually travels across all different languages.
So, the underlying behind our language, what’s actually happening in your brain, the thought process, you are making distinctions between kinds of verbs. Even things that seem really closely related. So, “tell” is a very generic sense, it doesn’t specify the manner. But the minute you specify the manner it doesn’t let you do that thing where we move the indirect object up.
Craig: That makes sense.
John: So just the same way you can’t “Yell Tom the joke,” you can’t, “Shout Tom the joke.”
John: But sometimes the new nouns that we’ve coined into being verbs, you can do that. So, “Send Tom the joke.” Fine. “Fax Tom the joke” we decided is okay. And so you can use the nouns that we’ve made into verbs.
Craig: Yes. You can “email Tom something.”
John: Exactly. But some nouns haven’t yet crossed over there yet. So you can’t “Facebook Tom the joke.”
Craig: You can. I believe you can. You know why? Because I hear people saying, “Facebook me that.”
John: Okay, so then it’s something that is starting to happen. But we’ve decided that Twitter, the verb is tweet. So, like, “Tweet me the joke,” but you don’t Twitter somebody something. And everyone says like, “Oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about if you use Twitter as a verb.”
Craig: They’re right. Yes. You tweet something to somebody, but I wouldn’t say tweet me that because that sounds dumb. Maybe because also tweeting is rarely “to me.” You should just tweet the joke. The point is, that’s the way Twitter is used, it’s generic.
John: You’re right. Absolutely. The idea of the, we’ll call it indirect object, is not a part of the concept of Twitter. You can say, “DM me your phone number.” Or, you will say, like, “DM me your email address so I can tell you more about this.”
John: Yeah. “Direct message.”
John: So, verbs, specificity. Specificity usually a good thing. Some complications.
Craig: I agree. I agree.
John: And your obsession about the “Tell a joke to Tom” and “Tell Tom the joke” is exactly the kind of thing an actual screenwriter should obsess about.
Craig: Always. Always. I cannot tell you. Especially in comedy. Phillips and I will sit sometimes for 20 minutes and just move the “to” and the “the” around because one way is funny and one way is wrong. And it’s not because there’s a rule, it’s just “Tell Tom the joke” and “Tell the joke to Tom,” they mean two different things.
Craig: They mean two different… — “Tell Tom the joke” almost sounds like you’re in trouble.
John: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
John: I’m ready for One Cool Thing if you’re ready for One Cool Thing.
John: So my One Cool Thing this week is: I was in New York this whole last week. And used a new app, or actually an app that I had on my phone for awhile but I made better use of it this last time, called Embark. And Embark is a really good transit app. They have it for New York City. They have it for other cities, too. What’s great about it is if you use the normal built-in maps function on the iPhone it will show you the subway stuff, but it’s not terrific at it.
With Embark you can say, like, “Start me here, I want to go there, and go.” And it will build options for routes to get you there. But it also knows when the trains are coming and sort of walks you through it. So, each step along the way it will show you a walking map of how to get to that subway stop. This is the train you take. You get off at this stop. From there you’re going to walk to this place. And each step along the way you can pull up the map for how you do that.
It’s really, really smart. And, it works offline when you are down in the tunnel and you have no internet connectivity.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t know if that was the one I used the last time I was in the city with the kids. But I remember thinking, “Oh my god, this is the greatest.” Like the subway is now my preferred… — I want to go everywhere on the subway because I know where to go.
I mean, the subway system when I was a kid was the most frightening thing for 100 reasons. Marauding gangs of criminals. Crack. Bernie Goetz. Graffiti. No air-conditioning. And, of course, 14,000 different lines with screaming trains and electricity. And you could not figure out where you were going. And now it’s like, “Beep-boop-boop, take me there.” It’s great.
John: My favorite trains, and I can’t remember which lines have them, which lines don’t, but my favorite trains are the ones that actually show you up on the wall on the side of the car, it shows you this is the stop you’re at and this is the next stop. I feel like all trains should have it, because it just takes away the questions. Like, “Am I headed in the right direction?” “Is this an express train?” “Is it going to stop at the places I expect it to stop?”
Craig: Right. The little dots. Yes, exactly.
John: The only sort of transit issues I’ve had in New York over the last few years have been those exceptions where I had to get out to this film school in the Bronx. And for some reason they would say, “This train is now an express and we’re going to skip these three stops.” And so they made that really awful announcement while you’re on the train. “What was that? Did I hear the right thing?” And then you’ve overshot you’re stop.
Craig: Yeah. That’s all gone. Those days are over.
John: Do you have something cool to share with us?
John: Aw, Craig, always forgetting to do his homework.
Craig: You know what I got today?
John: What’s this?
Craig: You know what came by Federal Express?
John: Tell me.
Craig: MacBook Pro with Retina Display.
John: Holy cow. That is probably the coolest thing you could get this week.
Craig: Let me tell you something. It’s awesome. It’s awesome.
First of all, so my former computer, the computer that used to be my Woody but now is staring at the Buzz Lightyear going, “What happened?” was a MacBook Pro. But it was standard hard drive. And this one has the solid state drive.
So, first of all, it’s a faster computer. It’s a much faster computer. And it’s got the solid state drive. So, I rebooted ’cause I had to install a few little software cells, a few little software things. And I turned around and I had looked back and it had rebooted already. It was actually kind of like The Birds. It was really creepy. I actually got scared.
And the display is nuts. It’s just so great. It makes me never want to look at the other one again. Sorry, Woody.
And I love it. A lot.
John: That’s great. Congratulations.
Craig: And I want to hug it. Yeah. It’s great. I can’t… — Oh, and in terms of, just for people, a point of comparison, if you do have the other MacBook Pro, because it’s hard to sort of tell from all their pictures and measurements, but basically the whole computer folded up is the thickness of the bottom part of the MacBook Pro, the old one.
John: Yeah, without the lid.
Craig: Exactly. Exactly. And it weighs like four pounds and it’s the coolest thing in the world.
John: So my travel computer is the MacBook Air. And I think I’ll stick with the MacBook Air because that’s good for me for traveling. My desktop is still my desktop. They didn’t announce cool new Mac Pros.
John: But it does seem like an amazing computer. We’re trying to figure out what we’re gonna do here in the office because Ryan, who does all the art stuff for us, ultimately needs that new monitor to figure out, like make the websites look right. So, at some point we’re going to have to invest in that so that we can have the modern technology, and all the pixels we need.
Craig: I think — there was some speculation that Apple was going to just give up on the whole Mac Pro line and just concede to the fact that everybody is using laptops. I mean, even I in my office power an external. I got a new Cinema Display and I have a keyboard. So I use the Cinema Display and an external keyboard when I’m typing in the office, just hooked up to the laptop.
But, I just read something yesterday where Tim Cook apparently said, “Oh, no, no, no.” So we know something awesome is coming.
John: Yeah. The reason why they need to keep the big towery kind of things, sometimes you actually need — I have four hard drives in mine, and I actually need to use the four hard drives in mine. If you’re editing video you actually need to have the ability to stick special cards in there.
Craig: Well, I know, but now with Thunderbolt you can daisy chain a bunch of drives together. Run them off your laptop.
John: Yeah. It’s not as slick or as awesome.
Craig: I will say, I get it. I mean, here, the good news for you is it sounds like basically they’re going to have a computer that comes out next year that can tear the fabric of space and time apart.
John: Which would be great.
John: I want full rending capability.
Craig: There is a wormhole. There is a rip in space time.
John: I want my new computer to be a verb.
Craig: [laughs] Rend.
John: Rend. I want the Render. Ah, see, that’s what that’s for, is for rendering.
Craig: Oh, we finished on a pun.
John: I like that.
Craig: I do not. [laughs] Thumbs down.
John: [laughs] Sorry. Thumbs down.
John: Vote us down.
So, Craig, thank you very much for a fun podcast. I should say anything we talked about on this podcast is very likely going to be in the show notes. And so if you’re listening to this on iTunes. And, by the way, thank you so many people who listen to us on iTunes. Our numbers are kind of crazy great, so thank you for that.
Craig: What are they, John? Tell us.
John: We have about 65,000 listeners every week.
Craig: Wow. Wow.
John: Yeah. That’s a lot of listeners.
Craig: That is a lot of people. That’s more people than can fit in Yankee Stadium. I feel like Robinson Canó right now.
John: That’s a good, big number.
Craig: You don’t know who that is.
John: I have no idea who that is.
Craig: I know.
John: That’s why I’m so productive. I don’t know anything about sports.
Craig: [laughs] Exactly. That’s why.
John: So anything you hear that we talk about on the show, the show notes are at johnaugust.com. So just look for this episode. And, Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, John. “This is a podcast.”
John: Yes. Take care.
Craig: See you next time. Bye.