The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name, Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. How are you, Craig?
Craig: I’m doing fine, John. Enjoying a nice day of not writing. It’s my favorite kind of day.
John: Those can be very good days. This last week my Tuesday, for whatever reason, was spectacular and I really considered maybe just calling it a week. And it’s like — I’m just not even going to try to work the rest of the week. I’m not going to try to do anything. I’ll just say that was a really good week and it was only Tuesday. Everything was coming up roses on Tuesday.
Craig: I’ve done it. I’ve done it. I’ve started on a Monday morning and thought, “You know what? Don’t feel it.” And that feeling stayed with me all the way through Friday. [laughs]
You know, I sometimes feel a little weird because when I do write I’m very intense and I can write a whole lot all at one time. I can kind of sprint. And then there are times where I just do nothing. And I always feel guilty because sometimes people say, “How do you do all the stuff you do? You have a podcast. And you write…and you…”
And I go, “Well yeah, that’s true. But I must tell you I actually spend enormous quantities of time doing nothing at all.” But I don’t say that because I think that would make them feel even worse. Like not only am I lapping you but I’m sleeping for most of the race.
John: Yeah. What was so marvelous about my Tuesday, it wasn’t really a writing Tuesday, but it was all the other parts of screenwriting, which is like the taking the meeting and the doing the stuff and making the phone calls. And so I was over at the Fox lot for some of this, and I always forget that like when you have lunch on the lot you see all the other people there.
And so like I met Seth Grahame-Smith, who weirdly we’d worked together and we talked on the phone but I’d never met him in person, so I met him. I saw my friend Josh. I saw my friend Dana who has a TV show. I got to see her wonderful offices. It was great. So, a very fun, good afternoon spent at the Fox lot.
Craig: You know what? I had that experience over at Warner Bros. I was over there the other day, and normally I’ll sit in the office with Todd Phillips and we’ll eat there while we’re working, but on this particular day we decided to go out and we sat on their little dining area and Chris Nolan came by. I met Chris Nolan — how cool is that?
Craig: Let’s see…Chris Nolan. Jay Roach. Baz Luhrmann came by.
Craig: I mean, it was so much fun for me. And, you know, they all know Todd. They don’t know me. I’m just sort of sitting there. Then at the very end I’m like, “Hi, how are you?” I get so awestruck.
I was standing in front of Todd’s office and Paul Thomas Anderson came by, which was crazy. I just love meeting people like that. If I ever don’t get star struck by these people, I’m done, as far as I’m concerned.
John: Yeah, it’s a different kind of thing. It’s like I’m not star struck in the way of like I want somebody’s autograph. But when you meet somebody in a social situation where they know the other person, it is a little bit unusual. Like Seth Rogan for the first time I met in a cafeteria situation. And it was like, “Oh, that’s Seth Rogan.” And he’s like, “Oh hey. I’m a big fan.”
I’m like, “Wow, you know who I am.” That’s incredibly exciting to me. So that is nice when it happens.
Craig: I never believe it when anybody says they even know who I am. I never believe it. I just don’t believe it. I don’t think it’s true. Jay Roach was like, “Oh hey.” He did that. And I’m like, “Nah, I don’t believe it; I don’t think you know who I am.”
But I guess the star struck part of it for me is when I meet people who are operating…who do the craft of filmmaking at a level that is just astounding to me. I’m particularly enamored of people who do things that I don’t even understand. I don’t understand how Paul Thomas Anderson does what he does. I don’t understand how Baz Luhrmann does what he does. I could never do it in a million years. It’s so much fun for me to watch. Chris Nolan.
So when I meet them I feel like I’m meeting wizards. It’s great. I just love it. I love it.
John: That’s nice.
So this week I thought we would talk about a couple of listener questions, just random stuff that came into the mailbag. And also talk about really an evergreen question that I often get after I’m on a panel for something, which is somebody comes up to me and asks, “Hey, I’m thinking about these two different things. I’m trying to decide which one to write.” And so I thought we would talk about which movie you should write.
Craig: Good idea.
John: So, for follow up, I have a couple things to go through. First off, last week was our first Three Page Challenge. And, Craig, how did you feel about the Three Page Challenge?
Craig: I enjoyed doing it. I felt a little guilty afterwards.
John: How so?
Craig: I don’t know. I just feel like, god, we were a little hard on the Beaver, but that’s kind of what people need, I think. So, I mean, I love the exercise. I was a little nervous that maybe I in particular was too harsh.
John: I can hear that. I temper that with the realization that everybody sent in those scripts anticipating criticism, so not just like a, “Hey — that was great.” It was, like, we were talking about what could make it better. And hopefully we had some suggestions for making it better. And most people who wrote in with responses, a lot of them on Twitter, and some on the actual blog post itself, seemed to dig the exercise, so I think we should do it again.
Craig: Yeah. I agree.
John: Not this week, but maybe every couple weeks we’ll do a few more of those. Because it is constructive and it’s very much about the words on the page which is hard to do in a podcast otherwise.
Craig: I also think it’s one of the only opportunities people can have to sample what’s coming. You know, if you’re not in the business you have no idea the kind of scrutiny and criticism you’re going to be in for. I’d like to think that you and are particularly good at it as opposed to what they might get at a lower level in Hollywood where ding-a-lings are reading it and giving notes. But this is what’s coming.
So, it’s probably a good thing. And I was very pleased with the feedback. I think it was sort of unanimously positive, so that’s great.
John: A few things to clarify. Craig and I — actually it was Stuart who picked which of the three scripts we were going to read. So, Stuart has read everything and Stuart picked three really good ones. And so that was actually a criteria going into it. Like these were three of the best ones that came in, not necessarily the very, very best, but of the sample that we had at that time those were three of the best ones.
I did write to each of the people who wrote in, each of those three guys who submitted their scripts, to let them know that they were going to be on the podcast, so it wasn’t a shock and a surprise. And two of the people wrote back after listening to the podcast and said, “Hey, that was actually really great. And it was scary but it was good.” And they thanked us for doing it.
John: So good. I’m glad it was helpful for them.
So far we had 204 entries. Of those, 12% were written by women.
Craig: 12% were written by women?
John: And I don’t know quite how to process that. Is it that there are not more women writers? Is it that women don’t feel like writing into the thing?
Craig: No, there’s not…
John: I think there’s just not more women writers.
Craig: There’s just not more women writers. And this is, you know, I’ll go ahead and just jump on the third rail because I hate tiptoeing up to third rails; I like to hug them and let all the voltage course through my body.
You know, the Writers Guild every year does a study that tell us what we already know, which is that women are underrepresented as professional screen and television writers. Racial minorities are underrepresented. Gay people are underrepresented.
John: Are gay people actually underrepresented?
Craig: Well, nobody really knows because no one knows how many gay people there are.
John: Because there’s not a form to mark on the boxes.
Craig: Correct, that’s true. But, I’ll withdraw that. Transgendered people are underrepresented. But the argument has always been: Is this because of racism? Is it because of sexism? Is it because simply fewer of those underrepresented groups are actually going for these jobs?
The truth is, I don’t know the answer when it comes to race at all. I suspect that there’s got to be some element of racism going on. It’s just too stark. And also because I know too many black writers who tell me stories and I go, “God. Yup, that’s blatant.”
But when it comes to gender, and I’ve always said, look, women in very high positions at all these studios. There was a time when the majority of studios were being run by women, or if not run by women, women at very high levels. Women are heavily represented, I would assume equitably represented in the ranks of development executives. It seems to me that they are.
So what’s going on with screenwriters? And then we run this little…it’s not scientific, but here’s just the thing, open to anyone. And I know that we have women who listen to us and men, and only 12% of women send scripts in. — I’m sorry, 12% of scripts are sent in by women. I have to presume it’s because women just are less interested.
Am I wrong?
John: I don’t know that you’re wrong. And what’s interesting is I think this contest, this challenge, is really targeted at sort of new, incoming screenwriters. So this isn’t something that’s targeted towards people who may have left the industry for whatever reason. Like, is there a reason why women are coming into the industry and then leaving the industry because there aren’t opportunities there?
I would suspect most of the people who are writing into this challenge are new, young, aspiring screenwriters. And so, if there are fewer women who are new, young aspiring screenwriters that’s going to ripple up through the whole way. If there’s fewer women trying to enter the pool there’s going to be fewer women down the road.
Craig: No question. And, look, that’s not to say that there isn’t also sexism going on. I’m sure there is, which only makes it harder once you’re there. But, some of the numbers that you see when we say, “Why aren’t there more female screenwriters?” The kneejerk conclusion is because Hollywood is evil and hates women. And, in fact, part of the issue is women just aren’t as interested. And I don’t know why.
Are they more interested in other kinds of writing? Are they smarter because this is a really stupid thing to do?
John: [laughs] Because they recognize it’s a dying field that they should stay away from?
Craig: [laughs] Right. Exactly.
John: I think it’s worth studying. And I think what you’re pointing out is that we’ve always looked at the demand aspect of it as that women can’t get jobs as screenwriters, and maybe that’s true, but we should also look at is there a limitation somehow on supply of women screenwriters. And is that something that needs to be addressed as well?
Craig: Well, if you are one of our many female listeners, and we run this Three Page thing again, you know, come on.
John: And when we do this next time we’ll make sure to pick some women writers just to make sure that they are heard as well.
John: So after the last podcast we had a bit of bad news. Dick Zanuck died. Dick Zanuck, who is a legendary producer, who produced Jaws, Cocoon, Driving Miss Daisy. He produced Big Fish of mine and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He passed away, which was a surprise.
Dick Zanuck was 77 years old. And often when you have an older person who’s in your life, somewhere there’s like a little mental tick box on the record you keep for that person, like, “could die.”
John: That sounds horrible and morbid, but I think there’s a reason why it’s shocking when a…
Craig: It’s not horrible and morbid; it’s just so you. I just love that you have, like there’s a MySQL column. There’s a thing called “Might Die.”
Craig: And it’s checked “yes” or “no.” Am I still in the “no” column though?
John: There’s some faculty we have in us that sort of when a person is a certain age we recognize the fact that, okay, we should be ready for the fact that this person might not be around forever. And the reason why it is so shocking and surprising when a child dies, or when a younger person dies, and it’s less surprising and shocking when an older person dies. I think that’s a natural instinct.
Zanuck was sort of a weird special case because while he was 77 years old, he was like nowhere near retirement. He was one of the most fit and active people you’re ever going to meet. And a very active producer. He produced all of Tim’s movies.
And on an earlier podcast you and I talked about the different kinds of producers and the different roles that producers play. And Dick Zanuck was a protector. He was the bodyguard. He would protect Tim Burton from the studio, or whichever director of the movie from the studio, but he’d also protect the studio. The studio felt comfortable with him because he would help protect the movie to make sure it didn’t get knocked off track. He was really good that that.
And what was so fascinating about his funeral which was yesterday — we’re recording this on Friday, the funeral was Thursday — was to hear people from all parts of his life reflect on not just what his skills as a producer but sort of his skills as a person. And it was a very Big Fishy kind of funeral in the sense that you had your laughter and your tears. And you had the recognition that this is a man who lived a very, very full life and had the love of his life and the love of his life up the very last moment of his life, Lili Zanuck.
And it, I don’t know, weirdly I hadn’t gotten emotional until I’d gotten to the funeral and suddenly I’m like, “Oh my god, I won’t stop crying.” It was the recognition that, I don’t know — I don’t ever want to die, but if I were to die that would be the way to die is to, like, you have breakfast in the morning, you have lunch with friends, you talk to your kids twice a day — he talks to his kids every day — he has everything just right, and then suddenly gone. There’s not that long dragged out thing. It was like — to go out happy and on top.
Craig: I want to die covered in snakes, like most people.
Craig: You know, Zanuck was — you don’t want to use the phrase dying breed when somebody just died, but it’s true, it’s a dying breed of producer. The people who understood how to do what he did and when you described protecting both the director from the studio, and protecting the studio from the studio, and protecting the movie from the director and the studio, that to me is what producing really is. It’s protecting. And it’s just gone. You don’t see it anymore. It’s so hard to find guys who really know how to do that, you know.
They’re out there. I have been lucky to work with a few of them recently. But so many fewer than used to be. And it’s a bummer. It’s a sad thing.
But you’re right. I mean, there is something to be said to kind of go out like that. Personally, I’m going to retire long before I die. That’s my whole thing.
John: No. I’m never going to retire. He was actually one of the people who I thought about when I recognized like, oh, do I want to retire at some point? I’m like, no. I’m not going to retire. I don’t want to golf. I don’t want to do that. I want to keep making new stuff. And he kept making new stuff until the very end.
One of the things I tweeted about right when I found out that he passed away, I got an email from my agent saying we’ve heard that Dick Zanuck died but it’s not confirmed yet. And so I was sort of sitting on it for 20 minutes, like do I say anything about that, do I acknowledge it? Or do I wait for some confirmation?
Craig: [laughs] Oh my god. You’re News Rooming.
John: I was totally News Rooming it.
Craig: You were News Rooming.
John: And then I was like, “Oh, but I hope it’s not Deadline Hollywood Daily that prints it first.” But then they did say it first. And so like it was confirmation so I could say what I wanted to say, but then it felt like I was responding to her post.
Craig: Yeah, god.
John: But what I needed to say, and what I appreciated so much about Zanuck was that he recognized the long game of it all. And he recognized that relationships were more important than any one movie. And so when we would have to call me with bad news, he would pick up the phone and call me with bad news. And he would call me to tell me that I was fired, or that they weren’t making a movie, or that stuff had fallen apart, and he was brilliant at being able to that and not making it feel like the world was going to end. And so many people are so afraid to share negative news, and you have to. And he was terrific at that.
So I will very much miss him. But I will also miss the qualities that I thought he brought to that part of the industry.
Craig: That was so beautiful that I can’t help but fondly imagine what it’s going to be like when I die and you do that first podcast after I’m gone.
John: [laughs] Yeah. The eulogy podcast will be the new trend by that point.
Craig: I think actually that podcast will just be like, “Hi, this is John August. This Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. I’m John August. And, anyway, today we’re gonna go on. We have some news. There’s nothing really to follow up on.”
John: That was the moment of silence was when you should have spoken.
Craig: [laughs] It’s like a weird little pause.
John: Let’s answer some questions, Craig.
Craig: Let’s do it, while I’m still alive.
John: Paul from Onalaska, Wisconsin — come on, Onalaska, Wisconsin? That’s a great name.
John: Onalaska. “In a previous podcast you told the story about how Hayden Christensen and his brother were pitching a show to a USA studio exec. That exec turned around and developed a similar show, seemingly based on Christensen’s idea.” Emphasis on seemingly, allegedly. The court case that happened said that they did actually have to proceed and investigate further, so.
“With that in mind, what are your thoughts on pitch festivals or websites like logline.com? It seems very risky putting your ideas out there, especially at pitch festivals for aspiring screenwriters looking for a foot in the door. To me it seems like a bunch of production companies and producer wannabes are getting together to find good ideas without having to hire the creator of the ideas. Will they likely take it, put their own people on it, and develop it as their own? Is it worth it, or do we stay away from these things?”
Craig: And, you know, this is one thing where I think everybody involved is silly. They’re not going to steal… — Let me just say this, because I know you and I [laughs] have said this.
John: We’ve said it so many times. But say it again.
Craig: I’m gonna say it again.
John: Or put it on a tee-shirt.
Craig: Now the umbrage is coming.
No one wants to steal you idea.
This is, for our podcast, this is the “You don’t have Lupus.” It’s not Lupus, okay? Nobody wants to steal your idea people. This fantasy you have that you’ve come up with the flux capacitor and they’re going to take it from you and stick it into the DeLorean and rip you off…
John: Or how about the windshield wiper…
Craig: Is not valid. The pitch festivals — listen to me carefully — the pitch festivals are not there to steal your ideas. You know what they are there to steal? Your money. Okay? That’s what it’s about. Yes, it’s a scam and stupid — don’t do it because no movies come out of pitch festivals. The point is, they’re gathering $50 to $100 from each one of you people. That’s the thing.
Get it? It’s like Die Hard. They’re not terrorists. It’s just a bank robbery. Okay? So that’s the deal. John?
Craig: John? I feel good. [laughs]
John: Yeah, your instincts were right but wrong.
Craig: I feel really good about that.
John: Yeah, you got the umbrage out? You hulked out there?
Craig: [yarr] I feel good. I’m calm. I’m calm.
John: So, to summarize: pitch festivals — probably a bad idea because they’re a scam that wants to take your money, not because they want to take your idea.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, this whole concern that — first of all, I’m sure they make you sign a billion waivers anyway. Yeah, of course they’re making you sign away your rights. But they’re not there for your ideas.
I mean, if John and I ran a pitch fest, we could make a lot of money, just to listen to you, right?
Craig: And these things are enormous, right? Have you ever — I’ve never gone to like whatever that one is downtown.
John: At one point, I think in Austin, I was on a pitch panel festival thing, and I found it painful because people were trying to pitch their ideas and there was a special format they were supposed to do and it was awkward and some of the things were terrible.
So, no, but I’ve never been paid to do this. Blech. No.
Craig: Yeah, no. So, anyway, the point is no they’re not trying to rip you off. No, you shouldn’t be doing them anyway. No one is trying to steal your idea. They’re just trying to make money off of you. You do not have Lupus.
John: Question number two. Oh, I think I should respond to this one first because you’re just going to go into full umbrage mode.
Craig: Oh good.
John: Sharice asks, “Me and a couple friends are very interested in shooting a pilot for TV show on any network about our lives and daily activities. Who should we contact? Sent from my iPad.”
John: So, Sharice, so here is why I’m going to treat your question seriously and sort of not mock you for it, because I think it is great that you are probably a younger person who wrote in with a question and you said, like, “I want to make a TV show and I’m going to go online and figure out who makes TV shows and ask my question.” So, I don’t want to mock you for doing that, because maybe you’re like 16, and baby, that’s awesome.
So, here is what I will say about you wanting to make a TV show with your friends: I think there’s probably never been a better time for you just to make a TV show with your friends. And that’s what YouTube is for, honestly. You should be shooting whatever you want to shoot on whatever cameras you sort of feel like shooting. Write as much as you feel like writing beforehand. And just try to make it together.
Because, if you are this 16-year-old girl who has interesting friends, maybe someone will see it and want to do something more with it. So I don’t want to sort of squash your dreams of that.
Sometimes there are really talented people who get together and it’s like, “Oh, we’re just gonna shoot something,” and it becomes something useful. Like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Those guys were smart and they wrote a show, and they shot their show, and people liked it.
What I would say, and what Craig would throw a chair at you for, is the idea that, “Oh, I have an idea. And if I have an idea then someone’s going to want to pay me to write and make this show.” That’s not going to happen because you’ve not shown that you actually have the ability to write something, to do something, to make something. So, you’re going to have to do that, and there’s probably never been a better time to do that than now.
Craig: Yeah, you know, everybody’s experience with their friends is colored by the fact that it’s their friends. It’s, you know, “you had to be there” — you ever hear of that expression?
Craig: My guess is that your friends, like 99.9999% of everybody’s friends, are not interesting enough to anyone else to actually pay money to watch. I mean, if you go to a restaurant and people literally all stop eating and just gather around you and listen and applaud as you and your friends do your stuff, then you’re on to something. But other than that, it’s just funny to you guys, you know.
You can be inspired by it to create characters that are universal that people might relate to, but generally speaking you don’t want to start from a position of narcissism. Very, very difficult to make a show out of yourself and your buddies.
John: Yeah. So Go, my first produced script, is very much influenced by people I knew and grew up with. And that said, I wasn’t trying to make a movie about them. I was just taking the very, very most interesting things I could find about them and their lives, and in most cases asking permission to say like, “Can I borrow that thing where you set the hotel room on fire?” And I put those together as a package, but it wasn’t literally about them.
You may find that you actually have a life that’s interesting enough that it’s worth becoming a TV show. You might be Lena Dunham and you just wrote kind of a lame email. Who knows?
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. And even in Go you took characters that were influenced by people that you knew in real life but you put them in a situation that was very compressed and very dramatic.
Craig: You weren’t just sitting around Diner style. I mean, I think movies like Diner have ruined more people than anyone else. I mean, because they seem easy. They’re not. [laughs]. And it kind of helps to be really, really smart and really, really funny when you write them. But ultimately they’re about bigger things. You watch Diner, there’s quite a bit of drama in there as well, so, there you go.
John: There you go. Question three is actually related to this. “If someone writes a screenplay that includes characters taking part in illegal activity that’s a comedy, but part of the comedy is that the screenplay is based on true events and the writer is totally open about that, then when the film is released can the writer or their characters,” basically, the writer’s real friends, “get arrested for that illegal activity?”
Craig: Oh, wait, hold on. [laughs] First of all, no one’s getting arrested. But can you explain what this guy is talking about?
John: “Does the law look at films and can investigations get underway based simply on speculation? I may just a neurotic plagued to paranoia, but it’s a concern for me.”
Well, he answered his own question. You are a neurotic plagued with paranoia. Basically this guy is saying, “I want to write a script about some crazy stuff that happened. It’s kind of based on my friends,” and he’s worried that because everyone will know, or it will be promoted as like sort of based on some real stuff that happened, that the police could come after him for…
Craig: Hey listen, listen. Here they come. [police sirens] Here they come, buddy. They’re coming for your script. “Uh, we have a report of a possibly too-true-real-life scene in route.”
Yeah, listen: You can’t use someone’s life freely. They actually own their life. You have to get the rights to their life if you’re going to use their life. However, if you’re picking little incidents, things that would… — At the end of movies they say, “Any resemblance to persons living or dead are intentional,” I think is the language. You should ask for permission if there’s something specific. If you have a friend, however, that exhibits some behavior that you find interesting that other people also exhibit, it’s fair game.
If there’s something real specific though that you’re taking, then you should ask them and get permission. Either way, you’re not arrested; it’s not a crime. It’s a tort.
John: His concern isn’t for himself and being sued for having taken somebody’s life rights. His concern is that the people who he is fictionalizing in his story, that would become the basis for them getting in trouble.
So, the examples he brings up…
Craig: Oh, I see, like the law will say, “You wrote a character that did a crime; we’re going to come after this guy because of your script?”
John: Yeah, examples he has, like being of a foreign nationality and working under the table in the US. Collecting disability checks but working part-time as an independent limo driver.
Craig: No. No, it’s fiction. You’re creating fiction. Your script is evidence of nothing in a court of law.
John: I agree. So don’t be paranoid.
Craig: I mean, neither one of us are lawyers, so if somebody ends up in jail, whoops. But I just don’t see how a lawyer could possibly say, “Look, he wrote a script…”
The only instance where I could see that — now I understand the question, I’m so sorry — but the only way I could possibly see a screenplay being evidentiary is if, for instance, you killed Mike. And a week before you killed Mike you sent a spec out about how this guy kills his husband. And it was the same exact method, and motive, and all the rest. Then they would go, “Um, this is admissible.”
But if somebody reads a script and says, “Well this character reminds me a lot of his friend. And in the movie this character is doing something illegal.” No.
John: Don’t worry about.
So, let’s get onto our big topic this week which is what script should you write, which is kind of an evergreen question because when I was first starting to work as a screenwriter I was writing spec scripts. And so I could write anything. I could write a comedy. I could write a drama. I could write an alien western. I could do anything I wanted to do. And that freedom was great, but it was also a little terrifying because I wasn’t sure if I was spending my time writing the right thing.
That question continues throughout your whole career, because you’re always choosing, well what is it that I’m going to spend my time working on? It gets more complicated as you become a writer for hire because there could be money involved. There could be personalities involved. There could be reasons why you want to take one project or another project, or why you don’t want to take any of the projects you’re being offered and go off and write that spec script for the thing you want to do.
So, the decision about what you’re going to spend your time doing is going to be a factor in every screenwriter’s life, at every stage of the career. So I thought we’d spend a few minutes talking about that.
Craig: Yeah. I see this online a lot, too, where people are juggling three or four different things. I mean, I like the notion of thinking, “Which one of these ideas would actually seem most like a movie? Would people want to see one of these?” Although I still think the primary question should be, “Which one of these do I feel the most interested in writing? Which one of these ideas inspires the most passion?” Ultimately that will lead to the better script.
And I’m confused by people that are like, “I don’t’ know. I like them both the same.” And I feel like, eh, you’re not really a writer.
John: So here’s some criteria that I thought of and maybe we can add to this list as we go through in that sort of decision matrix of how to figure out which of these projects you want to write.
First off, people always say “write what you know,” which I think is terrible advice.
John: From people who don’t know anything.
Craig: I know.
John: To me, the criteria should be write the movie you wish you could see. And by wish you could see, I’m literally talking like write the movie you would pay money to see opening weekend. Don’t waste your time writing a movie that you’re like, “Oh, I’d catch it on cable.” Why are you writing that movie?
If it’s not a movie that you were dying to see you shouldn’t be spending your time writing the movie.
Craig: Right. That’s good advice.
John: If you’re writing something because you think it will sell, it’s probably the wrong movie to write. And that is just personal experience. The movie that I wrote, I was like, “Oh, I’m going to do this because I think I can totally sell it and I see other movies that are like it that are selling, and I read on Deadline Hollywood that this thing sold.” Don’t. Because it’s unlikely that it’s going to be the movie you really want to make. You’re going to be thinking about the dollar signs every time you sit down at the computer. And trends change. And so by the time you finish that script six months from now, that may not be the kind of movie that’s big or selling right now.
Craig: Yeah, you know, the process of writing a movie, selling it, getting it into production, having it made, edited, released, marketed, that entire process after you type The End is a very cynical process. It cynicizes everything — that’s not a verb but I’m going to make it up. So if you start that cynical it’s just going to get even worse. Start pure. Let everybody else smear mud all over it because they will.
John: Yeah. Another question from me. If you think there’s any chance at all you might be a director or that you might want to direct a movie, or might want to direct the movie that you’re writing, write the smaller thing that you could actually direct yourself. Write the one that was in your wheel house and range ability to direct.
So, if you’re thinking about writing a giant Fast-and-the-Furious-but-with-robots movie, or Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and you want to direct, probably Sex, Lies, and Videotape would be your way to go — you know, characters in a contained setting.
I say this just because while there are rare exceptions, there’s the Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, where some guy just writes a script and somehow makes it, most cases you’re going to need to write something that’s actually of a scale that you could do it yourself if it’s really going to be your first movie.
Craig: Yeah, for sure. And in that case I think production experience helps, if you’ve actually spent time on movie sets you can see the dramatic difference between a day of shooting where two people are talking over a table, and a day of shooting where there is a car chase. The amount of screen minutes you can generate in a day is dramatically different. And so if, you know, “What I’d like to do is make a little movie and I have $100,000 cobbled together from various sources to spend,” write with that budget in mind. No question.
John: Yeah. Or do Buried. Buried was very much written as a script that the writer could direct. The writer ended up letting another director do it, but it’s a guy in a coffin. I mean, it’s obviously a huge challenge to write that movie, but it’s a very specific — it’s a script that was written to be shot, and there’s a lot to be said for that, if that’s your goal. If your goal is to direct. Or, I think in his case, he was actually an actor as well, so like in his head he might have been acting in that movie. That’s smart.
Craig: I have another one to add on. I don’t know if it’s on your list, but the sort of the better version of “write what you know” is “write what you’re supposed to write.” I know the kinds of movies I’m supposed to write, and I write those. And that’s not — it’s not narrow. There’s actually a pretty decent range of kinds of comedies I can do. Like for instance, Identity Theft is, I think, the closest to the sort of movie I ought to be writing more of, and I’d like to be writing more of, but I can also do this kind or that kind. But what I don’t do is I don’t write horror movies. And I don’t write romantic comedies because I don’t understand them.
There was a romantic comedy that very good directors were talking to me about, and it was a really good idea, and they had really good casting ideas, and we had lots of interesting conversations. But in the end I realized I’m actually not capable of writing a romantic comedy. It’s not what I ought to be writing. I don’t have that gear.
You have to accept the kind of writer you are. Forget writing fancier or writing less fancy, just write what you ought to be writing.
John: My agent has a list beside his phone, or he did at some point earlier on in my career, of like “These are the genres that John just won’t write.” And because these things would keep coming up and it’s like, no, because that’s not my kind of movie.
And so, prison movies. I like prison movies but I’m just not going to write a prison movie. That’s just not my thing. Futuristic prison movies, which is like a subcategory that was really big for a while, and so I had to keep passing on futuristic prison movies. Jewel heist movies. I don’t care. I don’t like them. I don’t like caper movies. That’s not my thing at all. And kind of war movies. There’s people who are great at writing movies, and so you should go to one of the war movie people to write the war movies because I’m just never going to be that guy.
Craig: Yeah. And you can try if you want. it will just come out dead. It’s just not a good idea.
John: So write something that intrigues you. And so often I will pick something that is like I’m a little bit nervous about writing it because it’s not exactly what I’m sort of known for, and I think I have a wider range of genres than many other screenwriters do, and so sometimes I’ll pick something that I’m a little bit scared of, but I’m not going to pick something that’s just completely out of left field.
And it’s not for fear of being pigeon-holed. It’s for fear of like I’m not going to care about that.
Craig: Yeah. And you want to be… — Look, the nice thing is you want to be able to have some sort of… You want to be in touch with your own voice so you know if you are straying a little bit outside of your wheel house that you’re still bringing your voice to whatever it is.
Craig: If you can’t — I can’t bring my voice. I mean, I suppose I could. Well, I think about for instance horror movies. You know, I could take a stab at one of those, but I’d rather watch Kevin Williamson do it. He’s better at being funny horror writer than I ever could be, so what’s the point? Just let him do it. He’s really good at it.
John: Yeah. And potentially a controversial note, but I think one you might agree with. All things being equal, write a comedy. So, if you’re choosing between the drama and the comedy, and all the other criteria has sort of balanced themselves out, if you’re a funny person write the comedy.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: Because you will get more enjoyment out of writing the comedy. They’re generally more fun to write. They’re generally more fun to read. It’s easier to keep the ball up in the air in a comedy than it is in a drama. And there’s a lot to kind of be said for that.
This thing I just, a friend of mine just read this last week, which is one of the first originals I’ve written in quite a long time, it’s a comedy. And he said, and he didn’t mean to say it in a bad way, he’s like, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were funny.” And I was like, “Oh, well, thanks.” But I’m not sort of known for doing comedies recently. And so it was new for him to see me writing a comedy and it made him want to write comedy more because I said, like, yeah, you know, it’s actually kind of great. And it’s like stuff is easier. It’s…
Craig: If you’re funny.
John: If you’re funny. And that’s the thing. And you may not be funny. And, you know, maybe you won’t know until you write something, until you write the first 30 pages.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, if you’re not funny it’s harder. You know, David Zucker has a great saying. “Kids, don’t try this at home.” Comedy looks easier from the outside, and in some ways there are a lot of things that work in your favor as a writer, but it’s very specialized and either you’re going to be able to do it or you’re not going to be able to do it. Your premise is well-put. All things being equal, yeah, of course.
Writing comedy in Hollywood is a little bit like being a left-handed pitcher in the major leagues. There’s fewer of you. And you’re needed more. So it’s a great thing to be. if you’re a left-handed pitcher nobody tries to make you a right-handed pitcher. Ever. It’s just a good skill. It’s a rare skill in Hollywood. So, yeah, jeez, all things being equal, if you love writing comedy and you’re good at it, absolutely.
John: And let’s see if we have more bullet points to add as we try to wrap these up. And the reason why this topic is on here at all is I was speaking at the Writers Guild a couple weeks ago and these two guys came up. They were writing partners. And they said — I think they may have been brothers even — “We’re considering these two things.” So I had them describe like the one sentence version of what the two projects were. And I said, “You need to write that one.”
And I could do it because I could tell there’s one they actually cared about and there’s one they were just going to write because they thought it could sell. And if you’re writing something just because you think it can sell it’s not going to be the interesting one.
And here’s the other thing: Just because you’re picking this one to write, that doesn’t mean you never get to write the other one. Write the one that is sort of most appealing to you to write, get it done, and then quickly write the next one.
John: So, the summary would be: Write the movie you wish you could see. And write the movie you would actually pay money, your own dollars to see in the movie theater on Friday. So, if you can’t say that you’d really see that movie, you’re probably writing the wrong movie. It’s probably not the movie for you to be writing.
And I think that’s a good criteria because if the movie you desperately want to see is the four-hour version of Pride and Prejudice done with puppets, then that’s the movie you should probably write because it’s going to be different than every other movie that’s out there right now. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy to make, but I can respect the person who writes that movie because they really want to see that movie.
John: Write comedy if you’re funny. And write small if it’s something you want to direct yourself. Don’t write super small if it’s something you want someone else to direct.
Craig: I agree with all of that.
John: Craig, do you have a Cool Thing this week?
Craig: I have a Relatively Cool Thing.
Craig: I say “relatively cool” because in fact it’s not cool. But it’s cooler than the alternative. I was sort of hesitating to even talk about it, but I think it’s probably a good thing to talk about.
So, I am a cigar smoker. I love cigars.
John: Oh no.
Craig: No, oh yes.
John: Craig, I want you to be alive for the podcast in 57 years.
Craig: I know. Now here’s the thing: Cigars…
John: Oh, they’re healthy.
Craig: They’re not healthy. [laughs] But on the other hand, as far as I can tell from the various research, if you smoke a cigar without inhaling any of the smoke, which is the way I smoke, and most cigar smokers do, the incidence of cancer and so forth is actually fairly low. It’s pretty close to the baseline. But that said, not a great idea anyway. There’s still carcinogens in the smoke and there’s a slightly elevated risk for lip, tongue, and so-forth cancer.
Again, if you don’t inhale at all. If you inhale even a little bit you’re in big trouble. But, given that, I wanted to sort of wean myself off. But the truth is I love nicotine. Nicotine does wonderful things to my brain. I smoked cigarettes for seven years, many years ago. I quit the week before I got married actually because I thought, can’t do that to my wife, you know. And so I haven’t smoked a cigarette in over 15 years. But what do you do if you like nicotine, which is a spectacular drug — it’s sort of like caffeine but much, much better.
What do you do? So, here’s my sort of Cool Thing for the week to help wean myself off cigars and reduce the number down to maybe one a week. They now have electronic cigarettes. Have you seen these, John?
John: I’ve heard of them. I’ve never seen them so I want a full description.
Craig: It’s actually a pretty amazing invention. And I’m talking about it mostly because I know there are people out there that smoke regular cigarettes and I want them to stop because that in fact is absolutely 100% for sure super duper bad, as we all know.
So, the idea of the electronic cigarette is: what if we could make a device that would allow you to inhale vapor that had nicotine in it and then just a bunch of inert stuff that doesn’t do anything? And typically the stuff is propylene glycol which is the inert substance that they use in fog machines or in asthma inhalers. Or, vegetable glycerin which is, again, just an inert substance. It does nothing to you.
So, we create this little device. And the only chemical that’s in it is just nicotine, which in and of itself is not carcinogenic at all. So the way it works is there is a battery and there are two kinds of batteries that they use. One is manual and one is automatic — the automatic one is the one that is sort of amazing to me. There’s a little membrane inside of it, and as you inhale the membrane moves forward and closes a circuit that then sends electricity into the next part of this thing which is what they call a cartomizer which…is bowdlerization the word when you combine words together to make a word?
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: It’s a bowdlerization of cartridge and atomizer. And all that really is is a cylinder, and inside the cylinder is cotton wadding of some kind, some fibrous wadding, and a wire. So, the battery, so you inhale, the membrane in the battery closes circuit. Electricity goes through the battery, hits the atomizer wire. Wire heats up, heats up the liquid that’s soaked up in the cotton wadding. That essentially vaporizes. You inhale the vapor. You breathe it out. It’s water vapor when you breathe it out.
John: So there’s no second-hand smoke?
Craig: No second-hand smoke. No smell. No odor. No ash. And also none of the carcinogenic byproducts of combustion, and there’s a whole big bunch of them, because as it turns out the things that kill you in tobacco are not nicotine at all.
John: Yeah. The tars, the resins, and everything else.
Craig: All of that stuff. Exactly. So then the question is: what about nicotine in and of itself? Is that bad for you? And you know, it’s kind of interesting. Some people sort of say, well, it’s a little bit bad for you the way caffeine is a little bit bad for you. And some people say, in moderation, frankly no, it’s not that bad for you. So certainly if you smoke cigarettes there’s no question that you should stop and smoke one of these things instead. No question.
John: Thank you for your description of the actual cigarette, because I didn’t understand how they actually worked. So, do you throw away that thing when you’re done with it?
Craig: Well, there’s a couple different kinds. The kind that you might see, gas stations are starting to sell these things now, these sort of disposable ones, and yes, you would throw one of those away.
For people that do this regularly you would actually buy some batteries and some cartridges that you could refill on your own.
John: I was thinking about throwing away the battery, it feels horrible. So that’s not a great thing for the world.
Craig: True. You don’t want to just chuck batteries. The batteries that you can buy for these things are rechargeable batteries, and you can use them over, and over, and over, and over, and the cartridges. And then you can even buy, there’s like a whole cottage industry — it’s one of the dumbest words I’ve ever heard: vaping. So that’s what they call it, vaping, instead of smoking, which is really annoying.
But, regardless, there’s a whole cottage industry of people that make what they call E-Juice or Electronic Cigarette Juice which comes in various flavors, some of which are to mimic tobacco flavors. Some of which are kooky flavors like chocolate, and cherry, and all this nonsense, which I don’t go near.
But, it’s so much better for you than smoking a real cigarette and I think it’s better for you than smoking a cigar. And, also, you can do it indoors because there’s no smell. You can smoke it anywhere.
John: Yeah. I grew up in a smoking household. And so smoking has appalled me my entire life. So, this does sound vastly better. What I wonder, and you know, there’s obviously the possibility that it becomes a gateway to like somebody trying this and then going to real cigarettes. I also wonder if there’s a happy gateway where like someone who smokes goes to this and says, “This just feels really stupid and plasticy now. I’m just going to stop doing it all together,” which could also be great.
Craig: That would be great. And they do have various levels of nicotine. I mean, I only use the kind that is the literally the lowest possible amount of nicotine. And there are some indications that very little bit of nicotine actually even makes it into your bloodstream by the time you heat the wire up and do all this stuff. But it is, to me, it should be viewed as a way to get yourself off of this other stuff. Because the truth is we can say to people quit smoking or smoke less, and they don’t. This is sort of like the smoking equivalent of a needle exchange.
John: [laughs] Yeah. A reasonable solution to a problem that is going to be there whether you like it or not.
Craig: Right. Exactly. I mean, we can say that people with free needles are going to go heroin crazy, but the truth is, no, they’re already kind of crazy with the heroin so you might as well keep them from getting AIDS. I mean, bottom line.
So I think that this thing is actually a spectacular invention and I urge anybody that is struggling with cigarettes to give it a shot. The version I use, a very popular one, it’s the Joyetech 510. The 510 model.
John: When Apple comes out with theirs it will be so much better than all the other ones.
Craig: Oh my god, it will be the best. It will be the best. But until that time I use the 510 with a Boge cartomizer. And I use E-Juice from Johnson. So there you go.
John: Good. My One Cool Thing is similar in a way in that it’s nothing I can actually fully recommend to people to use, but maybe to borrow a friend’s to see sort of what it’s like because it’s an intriguing vision of the future.
I bought one of the Nexus 7s, which is the little small Android-powered tablets that Google sells directly from their website. And I bought it because I really wanted to see what that form factor was like, because it’s a 7-inch which is sort of in-between what an iPhone size is and what a full iPad size is. And I wanted to see what that was like. I wanted to see what the most up-to-date version of Android was like, and what it felt like on the tablets. And consistent with a lot of the reviews — I didn’t read the reviews ahead of time, but now that I’ve gone back and read the reviews, I think a lot of them are largely right, is that it’s a pretty good little tablet.
And for $200 there’s actually a very valid case to be made for buying this if you can’t buy an iPad. Like if you were a kid who was using his own money to buy something, and you have $200 and you want a tablet, you can get this tablet and it would actually be pretty good.
I’m not in love with the Android of it all. And there’s stuff that gets to be very frustratingly… — I try to differentiate between stuff that’s just different from how I’m used to it on Apple stuff and stuff that it’s just like, well, that didn’t seem like a very smart decision.
John: And there’s some things which are interface stuff which is just really kind of random. You can’t figure out where you are at in the applications. But the size of it is actually kind of appealing. And for an e-reader, for a book, it’s actually really good. It’s a nice size. I find the iPad is really heavy to read a book on.
Craig: It is.
John: This is a much more reasonable size. So, it was interesting. Part of the reason why I bought it is I wanted to see whether we should be converting some of our apps that are on iOS over to Android and whether this is going to become a really viable tablet. I don’t feel the pressing need to be working on a Reader app, a Screenplay Reader app for this now, quite yet, because it doesn’t feel…
Craig: What is the app store situation for that? Because I don’t have any Android stuff. Is the app store full?
John: The Android app store is — here’s a difference, is that on Android platforms you can install things from multiple places, and so you’re not locked to just the one official app store. There’s Google Play which is the main app store. And installing the apps from there or from Amazon’s app stores are the most places you’d find them.
For developers, it becomes much more complicated because with an iPhone or an iPad there’s only very few number of devices you have to be able to build for. With Android you really have no idea what screen size you’re going to end up on. You have to make so many more allowances for what the actual hardware is, then it becomes much more problematic. And because of that, sometimes the apps aren’t as sort of fit and finished as they are in the iOS thing. But there are official places where you can buy apps and people could theoretically — some developers make money selling apps there.
Craig: It used to be when we were young, if you recall, John, that the knock on Apple was that they were restricted by the fact that they controlled the software and hardware together at the same time. And it seems — and they were restricted in part because the PC clone industry was able to essentially outsource a billion little pieces form a billion different people and reduce the price on these things. And Microsoft was sort of the king in terms of the software.
But now you can see how controlling that pipeline completely from soup to nuts has given Apple a tremendous advantage.
John: Yes. If you read the articles on how Apple sort of buys the future, because in success they have so much money that they are able to go to factories and say, “Hey, you are working on this new display technology. We will give you $200 billion to build a new factory, but we’re going to ask for the first 18 months of your output. We get to buy all of it.” And that’s how they sort of get the new technology before anyone else can because they have enough money and leverage to be able to do that.
So, controlling that whole thing has been amazing for them.
Craig: Yeah. The guy that run that is now running the whole company. Obviously they take supply chain extremely seriously. They’re clearly the best at it. No one comes close.
John: So, my bottom line on the Nexus 7, because also my mother-in-law has the Kindle Fire, so I’ve also been able to try that. It’s a much better device than the Kindle Fire for just using, like maps on this thing is terrific. And a couple years ago on the maps application on this all by itself would have been worth the price of admission.
The Kindle Fire has a better catalog just because Amazon has so many more movies, and shows, and books you can get on it. The Google Play thing is okay. But you also have the Amazon Kindle store is an app just on the Nexus 7 and it’s really good.
Part of the reason I also bought this is because I was curious; there’s all this talk about there’s going to be an iPad Mini probably coming down the pike, and I thought that’s going to be a terrible idea. That’s going to be a really bad size for a screen for everything. And I was wrong. And I think it’s a good size for a lot of people, especially if it comes down to price where more people can buy it. I think it can be terrifically successful.
And I definitely recognize that the iOS apps that we’re building right now, we’re going to have to plan for screens that size and I think they’ll be successful.
Craig: And this is the Nexus 7?
John: The Nexus 7. So I would recommend, like listen: If you’re really curious about where the Android platform is and sort of what the best of it is, I think it’s a good way to spend $200 because you get like the actual most recent device. You don’t have to pay for a contract if you’re buying a phone. You get a chance to play around with it.
John: And if this device becomes popular or if the iPad version of this becomes popular, you can definitely see like loading up schools with these, because if it’s a $200 thing you can actually afford to buy them for the whole classroom and use them as books for things. Whereas at $400 or $500 the iPad becomes too expensive.
Craig: Right. And do they have a Kindle app?
John: They do. There’s a Kindle app on it just like there’s a Kindle app for the iPad. There’s a Kindle app for this and it’s pretty good.
Craig: Maybe I’ll buy one for my son. Because, you know, mostly I just want him to read books.
John: Yeah. And the frustration that there aren’t as many great games on it will mean that he’ll read books.
John: Although I will say my favorite book reader device is still by far the $79 Kindle from Amazon, which is the non-backlit E-ink screen. It has ads on it but it’s a really good reader and it’s so lightweight that I’ll actually stick it in a jacket pocket and carry it around with me.
Craig: What about that Barnes & Noble one? Is that dead? The Nook?
John: The Nook? This, I think, is going to make a little bit harder case for the Nook. There’s a version of the Nook now that has lighting on it that people like a lot, that has a touch screen that has lighting on it that some people like a lot. So, god bless them, they’re still making stuff.
But I think a lot of nerds were buying the Nook and then rooting it to sort of put it back to a real Android software and they’re using that to develop and stuff. And I feel like this Nexus 7 would replace that instinct.
Craig: One last question about the Nexus 7. Can I smoke it?
John: You could totally smoke. And you put little batteries in there and the wire hits the membrane, and just inhale. It’s really good.
Craig: Even your pretend smoking didn’t sound right.
John: Yeah, god, I’m not an actor, but my fantasy is at some point when I become quite old — when I become 80-years old and have lived a good long life — I want be like the Gore Vidal who sort of like enters in and becomes the wise old man in movies. But they can’t have me smoke because I just couldn’t do it. And you can always tell when an actor has no idea how to smoke.
John: They hold a cigarette wrong. Everything’s just wrong about it.
Craig: They hold it wrong. They inhale sort of like a cigar and puff it out. I will tell you this, I’m on record: Once I cross 85 I’m going out, buying a pack of Marlboro Reds and get going. [laughs] Because I don’t care anymore.
John: A better idea might be to buy a pack right now and stick it in a vault, because they won’t be selling them.
Craig: They won’t. And I actually do believe, in all seriousness, that the electronic cigarette will kill regular cigarettes. I do.
Craig: I think that — here’s the trick, not to bring it back around to that, but really it comes down to the government. If the government gets stupid in their anti-smoking zeal and bans these things, that will be a tragedy. Interestingly, there have been a number of major medical associations, I think the American Medical Association, perhaps, or the Heart and Lung — one of the larger medical associations came out and supported these things and said these should be legal for sure. This is way better than smoking for people who smoke. Way better.
John: Yeah, you convinced me.
Craig: So get smoking…
Craig: …and I may pick up that Nook…I mean, not the Nook, the Nexus 7 just to give it a swing and see what it’s like. And if I hate it I promise to take a video of myself smashing it with a baseball bat.
John: Yeah, $200, it’s not mad money. I mean, $200 is real money to be spending on something, so I don’t want people to wantonly say, “Oh, John August recommends it,” because it’s a half-hearted recommendation. But I did find it fascinating, and for people who are curious about it, I was curious and my curiosity was sated.
Craig: Excellent. Well that was a good Cool Thing.
John: Awesome. All right. Thank you so much, Craig.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: Talk to next week.