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.
So, Craig, my working theory is that most of our listeners are not actual screenwriters, or they’re people who are interested in screenwriting but they’re actively pursuing a career in screenwriting. Is that consistent with your perspective?
Craig: Given the numbers that you’ve been reporting, it has to be true.
John: Because there are no 65,000 aspiring screenwriters I would assume.
John: So just people who are interested in screenwriting. And so I really thought this was great news that came out this week is that — it was a study released by the WGA. They released the earnings and clearly there’s never been a better time to not be a screenwriter.
Craig: [laughs] That’s exactly right. If that’s your interest, if you are actively pursuing not being a screenwriter the trends are definitely in your favor.
John: Definitely. Really pretty much any other career you might want to pick other than screenwriting, it’s looking great. Or if you were thinking, “Maybe screenwriting? Or maybe dog grooming?” Well, the numbers are pretty clear that dog grooming is really your future.
Craig: It couldn’t be worse than the screenwriting numbers. [laughs]
John: [laughs] So the numbers we’re talking about, and it’s really hard to talk about numbers and charts on a podcast so I’ll include links to them at johnaugust.com. The Writers Guild every year, I think, has to report earnings for its members.
Craig: That’s right.
John: And so essentially everyone who works as a screenwriter or TV writer in Hollywood is a member of the WGA, the Writers Guild, and the WGA has access to all their payment information, so they know how much these people are bringing in. And so what’s helpful is you can look historically to see how much did people make last year, or the year before, or ten years ago and see whether the trends are positive or negative.
John: And the trends are not positive if you are a person who wishes to be employed in the Hollywood system.
Craig: Certainly not for theatrical. For television maybe it’s a little bit better. But for screenwriting right now it’s horrendous.
John: Yes. So the number that you actually, the chart you sent me which is Earnings and Employment in Screen, was that for features or was that for TV and…
Craig: That’s just for features.
John: That’s just for features.
Craig: Yeah. The Screen is what they call movie screens.
John: So, for this last year, for 2011, which is the last year that they have numbers, there are 1,562 writers reporting earnings for Screen, for the big screen.
John: Which was down 8.1%.
Craig: From the year before.
John: From the year before. And down significantly more from prior years. And the total amount of earnings of all those writers writing for feature films was down 12.6%, which is a lot.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a lot. And at some point you can’t quite…you have to get off of the thing of blaming just the economy. If you look at the sort of year-on-year trends you realize that even though we sort of hit rock bottom with the economy in 2008, somehow there are still so many fewer of us who are reporting any earnings. Reporting earnings means that you made a dollar. There are so many fewer of us reporting earnings now than in 2008. And we are making much less as an aggregate because so many fewer of us are reporting earnings.
And if you go back to the last number that the Guild reports historically, in 2006, to give you perspective on it, 1,993 writers earned money in screenwriting for movies. That’s down to 1,562. So that’s 431 jobs, or 431 writers that earn money, gone.
John: Yeah. So someone might be thinking, “Well, there’s less competition, so that’s a good thing.” But that’s not really the case at all. It’s probably the same number of writers pursuing fewer jobs, and in pursuing fewer jobs fewer of them actually end up landing jobs.
The other sort of dangerous statistic which is a temptation but I would urge you to really step back away from the precipice there is to take the total amount of earnings and divide it by the number of writers employed. Because that would give you a number that is like $200,000 which makes it sound like, “Wow, everyone’s making $200,000,” which is not a very useful metric by anything because you’re making up an imaginary average writer who doesn’t actually exist.
Craig: That’s right. There is a distribution of income across writers. And this is a… — I’ve actually asked one of our Guild board members to see if they can’t put a chart like this together for us because this is what I’m most interested in.
Typically you will see bell curves for income distribution in any field. So, the fewest people earn sort of the bottom end of the thing. Another small amount of people are in the top end, but most people working in the business tend to earn the sort of middle average salary for that business.
For us, I suspect we’re looking at something like an inverted bell curve, a U-curve where the bulk of people are either earning at the lower end or at the very high end. And it’s the middle class of writing that has been decimated as the amount of jobs that are available go down, and as the amount of writers who are employed go down, and as the amount of writers who are employed go down, and as the total earnings go down.
John: And that’s what we’ve talked about many times on the podcast is that screenwriting is essentially the research and development of the film industry. You are designing the movies that may or may not get made, but that’s what they’re bringing you in to do.
And it feels to me like the biggest crisis in the film industry right now, especially as it affects screenwriters, is the decision not to even do the research and development. We’re basically just deciding, “We’re going to make this movie and we’ll spend however much money we have to make this movie, but we’re not going to try to figure out other stuff. We’re not going to experiment along the way. And so we’re only writing big checks and we’re not writing any small checks.”
Craig: Yeah. And unfortunately what’s happening, I think, is sort of akin to what the New York Yankees went through under Steinbrenner in the last ’70s. And I know you know what I’m going to say, John.
John: Absolutely. 100%. A sports reference, a sports metaphor, I’ll totally be with you.
Craig: [laughs] George Steinbrenner in his zeal to win World Series would routinely trade away all his young farm system players, all of his prospects, for middle aged or aging superstars who could give you that one great season and push you over the line. And in doing so kind of mortgaging the future.
And I think right now studios are kidding themselves if they think they’re not hurting the movies ten years from now, because if they can’t figure out a way to make screenwriting an attractive occupation for smart people, smart people won’t do it. They just won’t do it. It’s too hard of a job. It’s too unpredictable of a job to throw your lot in and hope that maybe you can make $100,000 a year when you could go into finance, or law, or medicine or something that frankly is more satisfying on some kind of a human level. Whether your interests are financial or just quality of life, it’s too easy to go do something else.
So, who’s going to be writing these movies ten years from now if they can’t figure out how to make this a reasonable occupation? I don’t know the answer to that question.
John: No. But let’s not dwell on the glumness of that. It’s not something we’re going to solve here today. And sometimes our podcast does get a little negative, so I want to make sure that we’re not driving people to the bridge that they want to jump off.
Craig: I know. And we do do this and I apologize. The truth is it would be… — It is unfair, in a sense, to go on and on about this stuff in a discouraging way to the person out there who is going to end up making $1 million because they going to make $1 million, no matter what we say, no matter how bad things are. But it would be equally unfair, I think, to hide the truth for people which is that it’s looking not good.
The only thing I will say… Here, I will end on an optimistic note. So if you are driving to the bridge, pull over. This business is remarkably cyclical. Almost fetishistically cyclical. I think Hollywood is built on the notion that new is good. And that permeates everything, even business, I think. So, it seems like what’s going to happen is in a year or two, I’m hoping, they just get sick of the current way of doing it and try something new.
John: Great. And I want to believe, Craig. You know I want to believe. What I worry about is that the next stage isn’t going to be actually a better stage. It’s going to be a riskier stage that’s not going to actually be helpful to people.
Craig: Well, you know, I was trying to be helpful. [laughs]
John: Where I do think your thesis is correct is that this is a business that is built on the new, and so if you’re a person who is now entering the film and television industry, there may be opportunities that weren’t there before, and there’s new stuff that will come up and new opportunities and new ways to do things. That doesn’t necessarily help the person who reached the middle of the career and it’s just sort of going away now.
Craig: I was really struggling to say something hopeful and you killed it.
John: I did. I’m so sorry. We won’t try to spin gold out of this anymore. We’ll just go on to something new and happy.
Let’s talk about craft. Let’s talk about a question from Kyle, a reader who says, “It would be great to hear from you and Craig to discuss setting and its impact on character, conflict, and story. I’ve been reading a lot of scripts lately and the kitchen, the car, and the sidewalk are due for an upgrade.”
John: That’s a good observation. A lot of times you will see just sort of generic settings used in movies. And movies don’t have to take place in normal areas and necessarily probably shouldn’t. So settings should be one of those early things you’re thinking about in the conception of your movie. And, you know, think about it… — Remember, you’re not just writing a script, you’re writing a movie, so where will be the interesting place to stage those scenes of your movie that have the visual and emotional impact that they could have?
Craig: Yeah, for sure. It’s, to me, eventually somebody is gonna have to go scout, and how do you scout “Park?” How do you scout “Parking Lot?” How do you scout “Super Market?” There has to be something, I think, when you sit down and write a scene that connects the setting to what’s going on. And even if the nature of what’s going on is sort of setting independent, find a way to at least place it so it feels real. Interact with the world around you. Who is moving in and out of the space? What can the space tell us about the people who are employed there or the people who are visiting there, the people who are robbing from it?
Whatever it is, figure out how to make it integral. Otherwise, frankly, you’re just doing a sitcom, you know. It’s boring. Sets are boring.
John: The reason why you see the same settings again, and again, and again on TV is because TV is trying to shoot on a 7 or 8 day schedule. And so if you see parking garages a lot in TV that’s because they could get to the parking garage and it’s a location they can control. They don’t need to worry about day or night. Parking garages are common in TV because they’re easy to shoot. They’re sort of terrible for sound but they’re easy to shoot.
But if you’re writing a feature, well, I would say no matter what you’re writing, don’t be limited by what you tend to see on one-hour dramas. Think bigger. Classically a sort of like at this point clichéd-ly — is that the right way to say it? “Clichéd-ly?”
Craig: I’ll take it. Yeah.
John: Almost every Bruckheimer movie will have some scene that takes place in a boxing ring. And it will usually be some sort of exposition scene where somebody has to go to talk to somebody about something, and for whatever reason they’re going to be in a boxing ring. They just do that. Because it’s more visual.
And that’s a choice, but find your own boxing ring to stage that scene where two characters are talking.
Craig: By the way, the boxing ring is what happens when the screenwriter doesn’t come up with something better.
Craig: Because the director is like, “Look, I’m not having two people talk about this over a sandwich. So, oh, here’s a great space. And here’s light shining through. And here’s something with aesthetic value that’s gonna look cinematic.”
Now the truth is those things seem ridiculous because they seem superimposed onto the drama of what matters. But to me that goes back to, okay, at least… — If that happens to you it’s because they just didn’t like your idea, but at least have an idea. Have a better, more interesting setting.
Your point about television is a great one. Remember: hour-long dramas are on budgets. They are shot for a small screen. And they are confined by time. The show must be certain length. Movies don’t have to be a certain length at all and they’re very, very big. So that means when somebody drives to a spot the camera can linger on it. It can rise up. It can reveal. It can really make a meal out of it if it’s interesting, you know.
So, if you are effectively seeing the scene in your head before you write it, that doesn’t mean just the people and their mouths. It means the world around the them, for sure. And think about…I always like to think about the things that you can’t see immediately but then you can see on people, like heat, wind, dust, smells. Really work with the world.
And, you know, you will find sometimes that you get comedy or interesting surprises out of characters who are desperately focused on the thing that is the story and yet distracted by the world around them. And that creates a verisimilitude that I think is very satisfying.
John: Definitely. If that scene is now walking through a meat packing plant it’s going to have a very different feel and texture and you’re giving the actor something to respond to as they’re going through things.
And I’ve kind of forked this answer into two parts. There’s the setting that come to, “This is the world in which this movie takes place.” And so quite early on in the process you’re figuring out, “What is the setting of this movie?” “What part of the world does this take place in?” “What kind of things are in this movie?”
There are two projects I’m working on right now where setting, those big setting questions are really key and crucial. One of them, the initial version of the project was taking place in sort of Park Slope, Brooklyn. And I like Park Slope, Brooklyn, but I have weird sort of sympathy issues with Park Slope, Brooklyn and our expectations that come bundled with people who live in that neighborhood. So, is that the right place to tell this story next, or should we tell it in a different neighborhood? So we’re looking at sort of what are the alternatives that gives a lot of what Park Slope has but doesn’t have all the pressures of what Park Slope would give you.
Another thing I’m thinking about, it’s a dark movie, but could we take this dark movie and do it in San Diego? And you don’t think about San Diego being dark, but if we were going to do it in San Diego, what are the dark parts of San Diego? And that could be really interesting.
Craig: Yeah, for sure. I mean, that is how directors approach the stuff and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do that as well. For a lot of the complaining that we do as screenwriters about directors “screwing up” our screenplays, sometimes they do. Sometimes they’re filling in gaps we just didn’t get across.
Craig: And the more you can put into a script that conveys your intentions as an author, the more the director will tend to absorb that and use it directly or be influenced by it.
John: Look at The Hangover II. You had to make a choice very early on where you were going to set that movie. And picking, was it Thailand? Bangkok?
John: Once you picked that place that was a fundamental decision about everything else that was going to radiate out from there. And so if for whatever reason you couldn’t have shot there, you could have moved the movie somewhere else but it would have been a very different movie and you would have had to go through probably every scene and look at sort of, “What is this? If we’re now in Tokyo rather than Bangkok, what is different about our movie?” And kind of everything is different about your movie.
Craig: Yeah. I think it would have just been a complete rewrite.
Craig: You can’t, particularly in a movie in which the location is such an enormous part of the plot itself, it needs to be tied in integrally, which means if you pull it out that’s not a simple stitch up. And frankly with that movie, Todd and I did a scout in Bangkok and in Malaysia and wrote — I probably rewrote 20% of the script just based on the locations that were there to be the locations we had wanted. So it was even, “Okay, we want to do something in a marketplace.” And we looked online and we studied and researched and found pictures.
So we wrote the scene crafted towards a marketplace. But then you get there and you walk around and you go back and you rewrite it again because you have to use what’s around you. It’s sort of fundamental to the gig. Which, by the way, another reason I feel like directors who sort of as a rule of thumb don’t like to have writers around during preproduction are hurting themselves.
John: Because they may have found an amazing location, but they’re going to try to shoehorn that location onto a scene that already exists. And if they’d actually brought the writer to that location and talked with them about like these are the opportunities at this place, “What do you think? What can we do? How could this affect the scene?” The writer might have great ideas for how it actually impacts things.
Craig: Absolutely. And, frankly, I’m okay with the director saying, “I want to shoot the scene here. I love the way this looks. I think it’s going to be exciting. And it’s going to put the audience in the mood I want. Please help me fit the scene as well for this space as you fit it for your theoretical space.”
John: Exactly. So, this is really staking to the other fork of the conversation is you’ve made the big setting choice in terms of this is the location, this is the world this is taking place in, and now it’s getting very specific. And so as you’re just the screenwriter working by yourself, you are approaching the scene and you’re sort of doing that looping in your head. You’re figuring out what’s in the scene. One of the first questions you should ask is, “Am I really setting this scene in the right place? Is this moment taking place in the most interesting place?”
A director I’m working with, one of her cardinal rules is she never wants to see the same set twice, which seems really, really hardcore but it’s actually a wonderful challenge. So you look at if you saw that character’s house before, she never wants to see that house again. She never wants to see that living room again. And so you’re constantly having to move on.
Her point, which I think is an interesting point, is that visually if we’ve been in a place before and we come back to that space it’s going to feel like, “Well, we’re just back to where we began.” Like we haven’t really moved forward.
So, you can go back to a space but only if you basically fundamentally destroyed something or completely changed what’s happened when you’ve gotten there.
Craig: It’s a good rule of thumb. It really is. In fact, I remember you were telling me about this and I looked back and it’s something that I naturally do anyway. I don’t adhere to it slavishly. There are a couple of times where you might see the same set twice for good reason. And certainly movies that are about journeys always require a return. But in general, yeah, that’s right.
John: You’ve got to burn the bridges behind the characters. And sometimes that literally means burning their house down. Always a good choice.
John: So as you’re looking at that individual scene that you’re writing, and you’re looping it in your head, “Where is the best place for that to happen?” And your first instinct will probably be something kind of pedestrian. And it’s like, “Oh, it’s a normal real world kind of thing, but it doesn’t have to be that at all.” And so look for what it is.
And that’s not an invitation to go nuts on your scene description and sort of do that, again, that D&D description where you’re talking about the tapestries on the walls, but just give us someplace interesting that’s going to have not just hopefully something visually interesting to see but will create interesting opportunities with the people or the characters who would be in that spot.
Craig: Absolutely. There’s no reason to over-describe the space if the slug line does all the work for you. Like you said, “Meatpacking Plant. Two people are having a discussion. He walks in.” “It’s an interior Meatpacking Plant. Day. It is a fully-functioning meatpacking plant full of cows, and blood, and workers wearing chain mail, wielding knives. Chunks of meat hit the floor. So and so moves to…”
That’s it. And by the way, here’s the thing, and think about this as a reader, anybody reading a script is going to remember that. It’s instantly specific. And people complain sometimes about writers skimming, we’ll naturally skim over the generic every time. It’s just sort of a neurological glitch.
John: Yeah. So, specific, interesting. Try to sort of pick the least boring place possible to set that individual scene. And, as you’re approaching the big idea of your movie, where’s the best place for it to happen? Where’s going to be the most visually interesting and create the most challenges for your character as you’re going through it?
Craig: Yeah. And when you’re sitting around sort of thinking, “Okay, now how do I make this interesting because they’re going to have a fight and they’re going to have a chase?” Well how will it be interesting? Stop and go, space. The space will make it interesting. But then think about how the space makes it interesting. It’s your friend.
John: Next topic I want to switch to is something that came up with something that you and I both interacted with this last week, but also a project that I’m trying to set up. There’s a book that may be made into a movie that I’m sort of taking around town and pitching. And as people read the book they like the book a lot, but the book is complicated in that it has multiple narrators and there’s overlapping narrations, and the story is told from different points of view, and some of those points of view overlap so you see the same events from multiple places.
So, the first question that people ask me when they read the book and want to know how I’m going to do this movie is like, “Well, so who’s story are we telling? How are we seeing it?” And they assume that because I was the guy who wrote Go and The Nines that I had this really complicated plan for how I’m going to do it. And I say, “No, no, I’m actually doing it very simple and very straightforward and I’m telling it with a camera and we’re moving forward in time,” and people feel much more confident when I sort of talk them off that edge.
But that idea of point of view and perspective is something I want to talk into right now. Because every movie is going to be told from some character’s point of view. And as I read screenplays from newer writers, sometimes that point of view is really murky and unclear. And so I want to talk about some of the deliberate choices you make as a screenwriter for who’s point of view you’re telling a story from.
I thought I might start with Bridesmaids.
John: So at the very start of Bridesmaids we’re seeing Kristen Wiig, we’re seeing Jon Hamm, and other important characters come through. There’s the other Bridesmaids. There’s Chris O’Dowd. Let’s just talk about Chris O’Dowd who plays the policeman, the unrealistically Irishman Irish police policeman. But he’s one of the main characters.
So, what if early on in the story we cut to a scene with Chris O’Dowd before we had met him with Kristen Wiig and we saw him going about his daily life, or we saw him like making an arrest? And a screenwriter might put that scene in saying like, “Oh, well this is going to be an important character. I want to know who he is. I want to know a little bit about him before we he and Kristen Wiig’s characters meet.”
That would change the script fundamentally if we had a scene with him that did not involve her. That’s my thesis.
Craig: Yes. Yes. Certainly, because it would start to feel much more like a romantic comedy centered around the two of them and less about the story of a woman growing up. Yeah, for sure. There are certain conventions that we use in the first act to cue the audience about what sort of story they are to expect and what kind of weight to apply to characters. And you’ll get this note constantly from studios to, “We need to see this person on their own. We need to get who they are, and where they live, and all the rest.” And that makes sense for some kinds of movies.
But like you say, for other kinds, no. No it does not.
John: So I would argue that in most movies your protagonist is going to be driving scenes, and by driving scenes I mean they are going to be the main engine behind a scene. And it would be very unusual to have a scene that does not involve your protagonist or some other characters providing some crucial service to your protagonist which could by your villain.
I mean, with something like Bridesmaids, though, let’s take for example what would happen if we did catch Chris O’Dowd. Our audience’s expectation would be this is going to be a two-hander. This is going to be a movie about how the two of these people meet and fall in love. And the only thing that would change is just that one extra scene with Chris O’Dowd would set that expectation.
If you have a movie that’s like a thriller and we’re following our hero and then suddenly this minor character who we’re cutting away to who is doing something, our expectation is going to be that that person is going to be very, very important. And so we’re going to watch and be waiting for that person. If that person doesn’t’ come back and do something interesting in the next 20 minutes we’re going to be frustrated.
Craig: Yeah, it’s a difficult thing to instruct. This is kind of one of those things you have to have a sense for. You have to have an ear for it. Because there are times where you could sort of feel like you might be able to go either way, or does this person deserve a little bit extra? You just kind of have to feel it. Yeah.
It’s funny that you mention because there is I know in Identity Thief, the first 10, 15 pages is kind of split perspective between Jason Bateman’s character and Melissa McCarthy’s character even though their nowhere near each other geographically, nor do they know each other. But that sets up the expectation that in fact the movie is about their relationship, which it is.
John: Yeah, exactly. So, it has a romantic comedy setup even though it’s not a classic romantic comedy.
Craig: Right. Exactly.
John: But if you did have that split setup and they were not going to overlap you have an audience revolt. If those two characters did not meet pretty quickly into the second act, your audience would get very, very impatient with you.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, you’re essentially… — The only people you introduce in the beginning, and from their perspective, are the key players of the key relationship. In an action movie you would obviously know your hero and you could split perspective to the villain, which they do all the time, because that’s the key relationship of the movie.
Craig: But beyond that, if it’s a story about one person growing up, the story about one person, I mean, because what is the central relationship in Bridesmaids? Well, you could argue it’s between her and the cop, you could argue it’s between her and Maya Rudolf, you could argue it’s between her and her friends, her and her mom, her and the world. It’s her. It’s her and herself. [laughs]
John: Yeah. The primary relationship is Kristen Wiig and herself.
Craig: Yeah, exactly. It’s the same thing with 40-Year-Old Virgin. We don’t spend time meeting other people on their own because everything is through the lens of the person who has to grow up. So, it is an important thing to figure out. Are you telling a story about one person kind of blossoming, or are you telling the story of one person locked in battle with one other person? Or are you telling the story of one person falling in love with one other person? And that should help you figure this out.
John: So, an alternative if you are faced with a situation where you do need to introduce this character but you’re having a hard time finding out about this person without, you know, basically your instinct is to give the cutaway scene where you can figure everything out about the Chris O’Dowd character or whoever, and you don’t know quite how to do it. You probably need to find a way that your protagonist can come to wherever that other character is and see them there in their setting.
If you need to find that character in a setting, somehow you’re going to need to take your protagonist and bring them there to see that, because otherwise we’re under the expectation that we can cut to that character at all times and that person is going to have equal weight in the story.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, you can’t leave the character. The character doesn’t get their own introduction. You can’t leave them flat and sort of uninteresting without a life, but one of the things that brings us and the audience closer to the protagonist which is precisely what you want.
It is for the protagonist to ask the questions we’re asking. So we’re going, “Well what’s the deal, why is that guy Irish? And what is the deal with him being a cop? And why does he live here?” And then she asks him, and that’s comforting to me because I think, “Oh, she’s like me.” And we want that. We want that.
John: She is your window into the movie. And so you’re seeing things from her point of view and you have the same questions that she would have in the scenes.
Now, a related issue which often comes up is voiceover. And voiceover is like POV but sort of like a super power POV. And that’s the ability of a character to talk directly to the audience. There’s probably two or three different flavors of voiceover. There’s the voiceover that’s not attached to anything, so that’s literally just the character is talking to you directly as the audience. And you see that in some movies that sort of set up the “once upon a time”, or the…
Craig: American Beauty.
John: Exactly. And so the person is talking directly to you. There’s the attached voiceover which is a character starts talking and then it transitions into something else and that character is talking kind of continuous over that. So, Forrest Gump does that where Forrest will start talking to somebody on a bench and then we’ll transition into that. At a certain point they kind of blur together because if it’s been so long since we went back to the attached scene we’re going to sort of forget that it’s attached to anything.
But Big Fish actually has examples of both kind of voiceover, where most of the voiceover in the story is something that Albert Finney or Ewan McGregor started talking about a story and then we transition to what that was. But Billy Crudup’s character does have sort of direct voiceover power to the audience. And that was a choice we had to make along the way: “How are we going to get inside their perspective on what this story is about to them?”
Craig: Voiceover is sort of unfairly maligned because so many bad screenwriters use it as a crutch. They pour it like ketchup all over something because they don’t know how else to convey the information in an interesting way. But that’s unfortunate because in the hands of masters voiceover is amazing. And it can also evoke a certain tone, a wonderful tone.
I mean, you know, Blade Runner is the great — the great debate over the voiceover in Blade Runner. I kind of love it. I just feel like, okay, it’s film noir, that’s the point. And that’s what film noir has. It has voiceover. I love it. And the voiceover is good.
Craig: So I enjoy it.
One of the most fascinating uses of voiceover, perhaps misuses, is in Dune, the David Lynch film.
John: Absolutely. I love David Lynch, too.
Craig: I mean, I’m obsessed with this movie. I’ve watched it a billion times. It’s not a good movie, but it’s a wonderful movie anyway. It’s amazing. Parts of it are just stunningly incredibly great. Overall, I could see why, really the problem with the movie is I think you do have to watch it 12 times before you start to like it. [laughs] So that’s not really what you want out of a movie, but I love it.
But it has one of the.. — I don’t think any other movie has ever done this, where multiple characters will do voiceover of what they’re thinking. Sometimes in the same scene. One person will say something and then will hear what they are thinking.
Then you will cut to the other person they are talking to who will answer back and then will hear what they’re thinking. It’s bizarre. I just love that he did it.
John: Yeah. It feels very Lynchian, so there you go.
Craig: It does. It’s wild, man. But, you know, be careful with VO. A little goes a long way. And if you’re going to use it, just understand it has a big impact on the way the story is unfolding.
John: And the other related sort of super power tool that some characters are allowed to drive and some characters aren’t is flashbacks. And flashbacks are one of those controversial things because it’s like, “Oh, I need to find out more information about that character. I need to understand why they are saying this thing they are doing in the present.”
And that can be fine. There’s lots of movies that do flashbacks extraordinarily well, or that are built in a way that works them in really well. The big point of caution I would have with any sort of flashback situation is whenever you’re in a flashback that means that nothing bad can happen to your protagonist in the present. So, any time you are cutting away from the present tense storyline, you’re basically letting your character off the hook.
We know that nothing terrible is going to happen to them in the present which could be a bad thing if you’re in a thriller or some sort of action movie. But it’s also bad in a comedy because we were supposed to be caring about what was happening in the present tense of the comedy, and if you’re cutting away from the present tense of the comedy for a long period of time we have no idea what’s going on.
Craig: Yeah, comedies will sometimes use flashbacks just as goofs, you know, almost to make fun of the trope of flashbacks. The thing about flashbacks is that they are cheesy. So, if you’re going to do them, figure out how to do them in an un-cheesy way. Make them shocking, or confusing, or surprising. But, uh, you know…
John: I would also argue that anytime you’re going to a flashback, our having seen that flashback has to fundamentally change our experience of watching the present right at that moment. So you can’t just like — a character can’t just be sitting there on the lawn and then have a flashback to think about their life when they were a child, and then come back to them on the lawn and not have anything changed. It needs to be a crucial bit of revelation for us as an audience that changes what this character is doing next for us.
Craig: The only exception I can think of to that is if part of what is going on is that it’s not so much a flashback as a memory that is unconstructed or not completely realized. So a person is trying to remember something and they can remember all the way up to a point and then it collapses. And then that’s creating a mystery. But that’s really more about a memory and not a flashback.
I always feel like a flashback is the movie sending you somewhere, which I don’t like.
John: Yeah, it can be tough. Again, any of these techniques done masterfully are great, and they’re wonderful, and they’re awesome. And there are movies that do strange things with point of view and perspective that kind of shouldn’t work but because they do work they are kind of extra brilliant.
I love a movie that in the third act suddenly a character who shouldn’t really be able to drive a scene by him or herself does and it’s surprising and exciting. And that feels… — You notice that because it’s almost always a mistake. But then when it’s not a mistake it’s great.
Craig: Yeah. And can sort of recontextualize everything that came before it. And there are movies that sort of make a meal of being split perspective, and that’s a stylistic thing. The key is, of course, if you’re going to go for something, go for it and do it. So, Pulp Fiction fragments its perspective across a number of characters and just goes for it completely. It commits.
You know, there’s a fine line between mistake and on purpose, but it’s a line. So, if you’re going to do it, do it.
John: Quite early on in Go, I had to make the deliberate choice of every scene is from — as the movie starts — is from Ronna’s perspective. But then we’re able to cut back to Claire and Gaines at the apartment by themselves, and that was an important choice because that let the audience know that we were going to be jumping around between people and it’s going to be okay. And suddenly as the second act starts we’re going to be jumping to a whole new group of people who you kind of barely know and they’re going to have storytelling power for the next thirty minutes.
Craig: It’s funny, one of the most common words used in criticisms of big Hollywood movies is “Lazy.” They’ll say, “Well, it’s just a lazy movie.” But, frankly, I think there’s nothing lazier than a movie that doesn’t feel any obligation to make sense. I mean, god, give me two hours I write one of those.
John: Yeah, easy.
John: Yeah, basically just write a bunch of scenes and then scramble them up and done.
Craig: Exactly. [laughs] Exactly. It’s why… — I don’t know if you’re familiar with The Shaggs.
John: I don’t know what The Shaggs are.
Craig: So The Shaggs were a…I hesitate to say a musical group. It was the 1960s and this guy in New Hampshire, I think, was looking at all these bands and a lot of the bands were family bands. And they were making money. And so he had three daughters and he bought each of them an instrument — a guitar, a bass guitar, and a drum set. And basically sent them to the barn because he was a farmer and said, “Learn how to play this and then I’ll write songs and then I’ll take you into Boston and well record an album.”
And the problem is they had absolutely no musical talent whatsoever. Nor music songwriting talent. In fact, they’re aggressively untalented. And he didn’t quite get that. And he took them to Boston and they recorded an album. And it’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever heard. And it’s freely available online. And Frank Zappa sort of famously said, “If any musician had done this on purpose they would be the greatest musician of all time.”
Craig: [laughs] Because the time signatures were incredibly complicated. The patterns were… — You really have to hear it; it’s remarkable.
John: It’s like outsider art.
Craig: It really is. It was just remarkable. And sometimes I feel like when I see really, really bad things that are just jumbled together and make no sense in and of itself, I think I couldn’t have done this if I tried. And no musician could do what The Shaggs did if they tried.
John: So maybe they shouldn’t try it.
Craig: Yeah, don’t try.
John: Don’t try.
Craig: Don’t try it.
John: I’m ready for Cool Things. Do you have a Cool Thing this week?
Craig: I do. I do. I have a really cool thing this week. This is like the coolest thing to me. It’s so stupid but I love it. [laughs] So, I love peanut butter. And I’ve always loved peanut butter. And peanut butter is one of those foods that depending on who you talk to it’s either good for you or bad for you because it’s lots of protein, it’s a legume, and the kind of fat that is has is very good fat, but there’s also a lot of fat, there’s a lot of oil in it, and it’s very caloric. So, you get differing opinions on this.
But there is this new thing called PB2 and basically this company took peanut butter and smashed out all the oil and then dehydrated it basically into a powder. And then you just mix it with water and you get what is essentially peanut butter with almost no fat in it at all.
Craig: And so the caloric difference is like basically it goes from 200 calories to like 50 calories. It’s crazy. So I’ve been eating this stuff literally by the boatload. It’s spectacular. And so they have regular and they have chocolate flavored, so almost like a Nutella. And, okay, so the question is: Does it taste just like peanut butter? Almost! Yeah. And it’s not like “almost” like the way that Diet Coke “almost” tastes like Coke except it’s got that weird chemical thing going on. It’s totally natural. They haven’t put anything into it. They’ve just taken one thing out. And, oddly, you miss it less than you would think. So, you can get it on Amazon. I am not a paid endorser of this company, even though I sound like it. I just love it. I think it’s so cool.
John: We will put a link in the show notes.
Craig: Yeah, PB2.
John: I’m not a peanut butter eater. I’m an almond butter eater. I eat way too much almond butter. Like some days I think maybe 30% or 40% of my calories come from almonds in some form.
Craig: It’s good.
John: But, yeah, peanuts are good. Now, is the peanut butter fine enough that you could maybe distribute it in the ventilator system of a building and kill all the people with peanut allergies?
John: Ah, see, we made a plot right here.
Craig: No question. No question. If you wanted to kill somebody with a peanut allergy it’s done.
My Cool Thing is a simple little thing that you can buy at most office supply stores now. Now we talked in the podcast previously about how I tend to write by hand. So when I go off to do a first draft I will write by hand. I usually use sort of stiff-backed legal pad and white legal pad is my preferable legal pad. And it’s worked fine. The challenges of a legal pad is you’re always flipping the pages back over themselves and it gets to be a little bit unwieldy. So, I said, “Well maybe there might be a wirebound notebook that I would like.” And it turns out there’s one that’s amazing.
So, it’s the Cambridge Ivory Wirebound Notebook. And it looks just like kind of the notebook you remember from high school with like the little spiral wire thing, but it’s wider so that the pages are actually full size and have perfect perforations so you can rip out pages and they’re nice and neat and clean.
It’s slightly off-white which seems weird when you first look at it but it’s actually really comfortable for your eyes. It’s just the right heaviness and thickness.
So, I try not to be one of those people who’s obsessive about having to have one specific thing, or one specific pencil, or one specific anything, but I really love these notebooks. So, if you’re writing by hand I would urge you to pick up a three-pack of these because they’re really good.
Craig: I don’t understand. Because you said you don’t like flipping back and forth with the legal pad but don’t you have to flip back and forth with this, too.
John: No, here’s what I’m saying. As you’re writing on a legal pad you’re always bending those top pages back over.
Craig: Oh, I see.
John: Bending over the top of the sheet.
Craig: And then by the time you get to like the 80th page…
John: And it gets messy and those pages get sort of bent.
Craig: So this lays flat like a proper spiral.
John: It lays flat like a proper spiral. And it’s good. And it’s easier to sort of carry around because a lot times when I’m doing writing someplace, I’ll be in Vegas, or Boston, or whatever, I’m taking this pad around and it always sort of gets dinged up and this actually has a cover on it so you can do it properly.
Craig: Ah, yeah. If I ever use paper for anything I would probably get that.
John: Yeah. But you don’t use paper because you’re a digital boy.
Craig: I’m digital. But I will tell you what, I do use that PB2 for everything.
John: If you could write just on a sheet made of PB2. And then if you don’t like you could just eat your words.
Craig: Just eat it. I’d just eat it. Yeah. Yeah, it’s delicious.
John: What if you get sick of it? What if like three weeks from now you’re like, “God, I never want to see that stuff again?”
Craig: Well, you know, they send it to you in a regular peanut butter sized jar which I blow through really quickly. Like, you know, my wife was out of town. And I don’t know if it’s the same thing with you and Mike, but when my wife is out of town I don’t go to the grocery store.
Craig: So what happens is I just start going down layers of old food, [laughs] because at some point I’m like I haven’t eaten in eight hours, because I’m lazy, but I don’t want to leave the house. So now I’m going to eat graham crackers for dinner. Which is what I did last night.
So the PB2 has been a huge thing because Amazon shipped it over. But it doesn’t come in massive sizes. So you’ll get through it pretty quickly, and if you don’t like it just chuck it. Send it to me.
John: I’ll send it Craig. Craig will eat it.
Craig: And for those one or two of you who are thinking, “Oh, why isn’t he playing his guitar?” I was thinking about it and then I realized it’s a little dumb to pointlessly play guitar and sing on a podcast about screenwriting.
But then I thought, you know, what if we get to 100,000 people…
Craig: …Then I would do it.
John: Okay, so if people get their friends to listen to the podcast then…
Craig: Yeah. If we can get, I mean, 100,000 people, at that point I am playing for a venue that’s bigger than Dodger’s Stadium or the old Meadowlands. Then I’ll do it.
John: That feels like a lot of pressure, but it’s certainly a good opportunity.
Craig: No, I have…I’m fearless because I’m a sociopath.
John: Yeah. So that’s one challenge. And then we talked before we got on the air today, a second challenge that we’re going to do for next week. Basically we’ll be taking submissions this next week, and it may not be the next podcast we record, but a subsequent podcast. Let’s do a first Three Page Challenge. So this is a thing where you send us the first three pages of your screenplay and we’ll sort of randomly pick through and grab some of these screenplays that are sent to us.
Only send the first three pages. If you send more than three pages we will not open it. We will just delete the email. So, only three pages of your script. And we will read the screenplay and we will probably talk about it on air. And we will tell you what was awesome and what was not so awesome.
And we’ll also include links to…so that other people who are wanting to read those first three pages can read it, too. So, first three pages, it could be any genre, it could be any kind of thing.
Craig: Does it have to be the first three. What if they do like…
John: It could be a disaster, honestly, as I’m talking about it. It could be a horrible thing but it could be a lot of fun.
Craig: What if they do three pages from the middle of the script?
John: Oh, that’s an interesting choice.
Craig: Yeah. Why don’t we just say any three pages.
John: Any three pages.
Craig: As long as they’re consecutive.
John: First three pages make a lot of sense. But if the middle three pages are more appealing, that’s great, too. First three pages we would probably talk more about how you’re setting up your story. Middle three pages we might talk a little bit more about the words you’re choosing and sort of what you’re doing on the page. So, your choice. Please only submit once.
Other disclaimers: Don’t see us for stealing your idea or something because we’ll just mock you endlessly.
Craig: You should actually probably, if you’re going to do this online, make them sign a thing.
John: Yeah. Signing stuff online is really weird, though.
Craig: Oh it is?
John: I’m not sure that it actually holds up. Because how is somebody to say that it was really their script and not somebody else’s script? Yeah, when I first considered the idea I thought maybe we’ll do, like we’ll assign them a topic so that they would have to write on a certain topic so therefore they wouldn’t feel like there’s the…we’re stealing someone’s idea.
Craig: Yeah, well, we’re not going to steal your idea.
John: Maybe we should have talked all about this before we actually got on the air and started recording it.
Craig: [laughs] Maybe we should quickly go to law school.
John: I am willing to try the Three Page Challenge.
Craig: Yeah. I think it will be fun. The only other thing I would say to people is don’t send us your three pages if you’re not willing to get punched in the face super hard if we don’t like it.
John: Absolutely. So if you want to use a fake, a handle, a pen name, pseudonym, go for it. But, we might talk about your thing on the air and we might love it, or we might not love it. So, do be aware of that.
Craig: Yeah. But otherwise, let’s do it.
John: So final bits of business here. Anything we talked about on the show today, including Craig’s weird peanut butter, and my notebook obsession, and…
Craig: The Shaggs.
John: Bridesmaids, and The Shaggs, of course. Bridesmaids, if you’ve never heard of that incredibly successful movie. And, of course, the WGA earnings stuff, all those links will be at johnaugust.com which is a website that I run.
Craig: [laughs] They know. They better know what dot com means.
John: [laughs] Yes. On Twitter I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin?
John: And that’s it. Thank you, Craig.
Craig: See you next time.
John: Take care. Bye.