The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, I have kind of a big agenda for us today.
John: I thought we might answer four questions and do three samples of the Three Page Challenge.
John: Are you up for it?
Craig: I’m always up for it.
John: Great. Let’s get right to it. This is a question from Bianca in Ann Arbor. She writes, “I’m moving to Los Angeles in a few months and I’ve already got a final interview lined up for an assistant position at a top 4 agency. I’ve already had the first interview. I want to be a writer and I have a short film I’d like to direct. A friend of mine says I should skip the assistant job and get a steady 9 to 5 non-industry job so I can have more time and money to work on my writing and directing. I wanted your honest opinion: Am I better off pursuing an entry level industry job with long hours and low wages so I can make contacts and learn how the business works, or should I get a steady 9 to 5 job outside the industry that leaves more time for writing and directing? I’m not sure which way to go.”
Craig: I am. [laughs]
John: What’s your opinion?
Craig: I’m super sure which way to go. You should go work at the agency. Of course. Of course. Look, yeah, it’ll be long hours. But, did she say how old she was?
John: She did not. My guess is she is kind of immediately post-college.
Craig: Okay great. So, guess what? You’re bulletproof and immortal and you can work a lot longer hours than I can. You don’t have a family, you don’t have children. You’re going to work. Yeah, of course. But the point is by working at an agency you are going to have people to give your script to. You’re going to have access to people who represent the best writers, actors, directors in the world. You will not get any of that working at TJ Maxx. I’m sorry. I don’t understand your friend’s advice at all. It makes no sense to me.
I’m sorry you might be a little tired. Yeah, tough. That’s called breaking into the business. Your friend could not be wrongerer.
John: Here’s where I think the friend has the right instinct but isn’t sort of putting all the pieces together: Bianca is moving from Ann Arbor. She probably doesn’t know a lot about how the film industry works. She probably doesn’t have a lot of contacts. She would get both those things working at an agency.
She would also have a tremendous amount of stress and long hours and she probably wouldn’t get as much creative work done for the first year that she’s in Los Angeles. Maybe that’s okay, because the tradeoffs, the things she would get out of it, are pretty great.
Should she stay in a very busy industry job she despises after a year or so of experience? Maybe not. And I think there does come a point in time where if you really are going to be a writer-director, if you’re really going to be trying to do that stuff, you can’t have an agent-assistant job and still be working on being a writer-director. There could be a place in your early career where you have to sort of pull the rip cord, get a boring job, and just buckle down and write. But that’s not when you’re first moving to Los Angeles.
Craig: Yeah. 100 percent. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. And I want to add another thing: Right now you think you want to be a writer-director. No, no, right now — I take it back. You do want to be a writer-director, but the point is you don’t really know what writing and directing professionally means exactly.
One of the interesting things that happens when people move to Los Angeles and get involved in the entertainment business is they suddenly find that there are 50 different things to do. And their skill set, their passion level, may change. What we see in front of us affects what we’re going to do.
I didn’t come out here to be a screenwriter. I just kind of found it and it was exciting. But really I came out with a very open mind. Some people do come out to be screenwriters and that’s exactly what they become. Some people want to be producers that become screenwriters. Some people want to be screenwriters that become directors.
But the point is access, friends, people that you can show your work to, people who can help you find financing — frankly, these are the things that set apart most people from the hundreds or thousands behind them who just have a script. So, I strongly urge you to take the agency job.
John: Yeah. Is there a chance you could become trapped in an agency job and not fulfill your dreams of writing and directing? Yes. But you would have trapped yourself. And you can’t be voluntarily trapped, so you can always leave the job if it’s not what you need it to be.
I moved out to Los Angeles to come to film school at USC. I got into a producers’ program, so I was learning sort of the nuts and bolts of the business, everything from contract negotiation to scheduling and budgeting. And development was part of it, but my whole life plan wasn’t to be a writer-director. I kind of knew I would write, but I didn’t know what it was. And that’s the place that you’re at right now. You don’t know what it is that you’re really going to end up doing. So why not go someplace where you can see as much as you possibly can, read a ton of scripts, and figure out what you want to do?
Craig: Yeah. For sure.
John: Next question. Mike writes, “I work on a TV writing staff where one of the junior writers rather brazenly bragged about writing during the WGA strike.” So, the great WGA strike of a couple of years ago. “She thought it was highly amusing that she wrote for studios at night while picketing during the day. Needless to say, no one else found this amusing. I’m very curious what you or Craig would do in the situation, which unfortunately probably happens more than anyone would like. Should I call the WGA? Should I talk to her one-on-one about how her selfish, self-centered actions affect others? Just forget she ever said it and move on?”
Craig: Boy. I mean, look, I have no, not one ounce of sympathy for somebody who was scabbing during the strike. I mean, if they’re a WGA member and they’re writing for signatories during a strike, I loathe them. I loathe them.
Yes, I think there is an excellent case to be made that you should pick up a phone and call the Guild and tell them what you heard. I don’t like — we all have a kind of “don’t be a tattle tale, don’t be a rat” built into us. I don’t think talking to her directly is going to do a damn thing. She’s already made herself and her position clear. I’m not sure what talking to her is going to do other than maybe she’ll think twice when the next strike rolls around?
No, I think that frankly there is a case to be made that, yeah, you pick up the phone and call the guild. I don’t like it any more than you do, but if we’re going to strike and people are going to do this, I mean, what’s the point? How do I turn around and tell somebody who’s barely hanging on, “Yeah, don’t write,” because we’re all in this together except for that person.
John: I think my overall concern… — I have two concerns. One is that this writer evidently did scab and write during the strike. Sort of my bigger, more immediate concern is that she’s bragging about it, and which to me sets a very dangerous culture of expectations so that, “Oh, it’s fine.” If you sort of let that go unchallenged like, “Oh, it’s fine that you did that.” If you don’t say anything, it’s sort of tacit approval. So I think having the conversation with the staff, “That’s not cool,” is make sure that everyone who has heard this conversation understands why that’s really not cool.
And then, listen, I don’t know your position on the staff, I don’t know her position on the staff. I don’t know sort of how it all works there. But I would say, “You know what, that’s not cool.” If nothing else it will probably shut her up from saying that again and again and setting this expectation that what she did was okay.
Craig: Yeah. It’s important to make sure that she actually was scabbing. Because she’s an assistant, there’s a chance here in my mind that she actually wasn’t a Writers Guild member. If she wasn’t a Writers Guild member, she was not — I mean, she was essentially hurting the strike, but she wasn’t breaking any rules.
John: Well it says here, it doesn’t say that she was an assistant during that time. It says, “One of the junior writers rather brazenly…”
Craig: Oh, junior writer. Oh, I’m sorry. I heard wrong. Well then I’m going to presume that she was a member of the Writers Guild. So I do agree that, yes, everybody else in that room needs to know that’s not cool. Frankly, I would think about firing her for sure because that’s disgusting to me. And then on top of that I would call the Guild. I hate to say it, but yeah.
John: Next question from Sean. “When writing slug lines for scenes that take place in a high school, is it acceptable to write, for instance, ‘INT. HIGH SCHOOL — STAIRWAY — DAY?’ Or it preferable just to write ‘INT. HIGH SCHOOL STAIRWELL — DAY?’ The majority of the film takes place in a school, so it seemed to make sense to specify the exact area of the school in the slug line. I’m just not sure which or either is the correct approach.”
Craig: How would you go about that? I mean, I know what I would do.
John: If most of the movie is taking place at the high school, to me I would cut the “high school” out of it at a certain point.
John: Because it would just become an extra sort of cruft on the page. There are times where I will do the specifiers where you talk about the general location — dash — the specifying location inside that. But that’s usually if it’s going to be… — You’re always thinking about the reader. What’s going to make most sense for the reader? Is the reader going to get confused if I don’t do it this way?
Craig: You’re absolutely right. If most of the movie is set in this high school, or a long sequence is set in the high school moving around within different locations inside the high school, once you’ve established that you’re definitely in the high school it’s okay to just lose that part and just say INT. STAIRWAY, INT. HALLWAY, INT. PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE, INT. CLASSROOM.
The second you leave the high school when you come back you’ve got to do high school again. The whole point of the slug line stuff, at least initially, is to make sure the reader knows where the hell they are. There is no slavish need to follow some kind of orthodoxy. Eventually when the movie goes into production, if there’s any question or concern from the first AD they will come and ask you, “Is this is the high school or…?”
But, I mean, everybody should be able to get it. So, clarity should be the rule of the day.
John: Absolutely. So, clarity for the reader. Simplicity for the reader. Ultimately you’re trying to avoid ambiguity for production so that if it says INT. HALLWAY, “Wait, is it the hallway of the high school or is it the hallway of the house?” You have to sort that stuff out. But at this stage, generally the shorter slug line is going to be the better choice.
John: Next question is not really a question. It’s one of those things that it’s sort of phrased like a question, but at the end it’s just, “So what do you think?” So it’s really more of a statement.
Craig: [laughs] It’s a little essay?
John: It’s a small essay with a question mark at the end.
Craig: [laughs] Oh, okay.
John: But I thought I would bring it up because it’s a guy who wrote in before and I thought it made interesting points that we can talk about. Tucker writes, “From where I sit the business looks like it’s in real trouble. The business model itself seems broken, especially on the creative side. Making big, dumb, loud movies to build international franchises is fine if people buy tickets and like the product. The problem is they don’t and they aren’t. This has been a bad year at theaters; attendance is in a major downturn.”
So I’m going to pause here for one second because I want to challenge the thesis of that second part which I think it’s reported a lot really without backup. So the idea that the business is down a lot isn’t really… — It’s harder to defend that. If you actually look at the year to date, this year versus previous years, going up through — we’re recording this on August 15th. I pulled it up on Box Office Mojo.
Year to date we’re at $7.1 billion for 2012 versus $6.8 billion in 2011. So we’re actually $300 million ahead of where we were this time last year, so you can’t say that the business is down. You can say that attendance is probably down. I don’t have it broken down by the months, but overall ticket purchases have dropped since the high in 2002, so that is true to say that it’s down. But I get frustrated by the articles that sort of preface themselves saying, “Everybody knows the movie industry is falling apart,” when in fact by the actual dollar figures it isn’t down.
So, that’s my pause.
Craig: I agree with your pause. I have more to say, but go ahead, keep reading.
John: Tucker continues, “And I feel there is a perfect storm going on. The studios need to make big bets on big franchises that makes big committees come together to manage the creative, and there are all these Hollywood pros and execs in a grip of fear from the bleeding the business is going through, and that fear makes us play either safe or stupid, so the product lacks innovation and freshness and passion. And the public notices and stays away.”
So, let’s go back to the pause.
Craig: Wait. Wait. Where was the question?
John: Oh, I had cut out the part of the question which was the, “What do you guys think?”
Craig: [laughs] Ah, if that was the question I would give him a… — Look, I think that he’s half right. There’s no question that the business has become obsessed with big, loud franchise event movies. They are convincing themselves that event movies are the business of movies and that that’s where all the money is going to be. Event movies lend themselves to 3D and IMAX, which allows everyone to greedily pull down higher ticket prices.
And they are doing that in part to supplant the disappearance or the continuing disappearance of the DVD market. Where he’s wrong is that people are absolutely still showing up. No question. You can’t look at The Avengers — which I think would be a prime example of what he would call big and loud, because it is big and loud, it’s an enormous, big, loud movie, although I liked it –
John: It’s not dumb. It’s very popcorn, but it’s not dumb.
Craig: It’s not dumb. I mean, look: when he says “dumb,” I don’t know what he thinks dumb is. I don’t know if he thinks dumb is anything that’s big. I don’t know what he thinks dumb is. All I can say is you can’t look at what The Avengers did and go, “Oh yeah, the movie business doesn’t work anymore and people don’t want to go see this stuff.”
They absolutely want to see it. And frankly international audiences want to see it just as much if not more so than domestic audiences. So, really part of what’s going on in Hollywood is that they’ve decided that there’s a certain kind of movie that they should make. And it’s not that the audiences are rewarding them. It’s just that the audiences are failing to punish them for it. I don’t recognize that the movie business is floundering. They still pack ‘em in, all over the world.
I absolutely recognize that the movie business is under-serving a certain market. And they seem to have forgotten that you can still make a lot of money making a certain kind of movie that isn’t the big, huge, loud spectacle.
John: Yeah. A lot of what we talk about on the podcast comes from the perspective of screenwriters who are trying to write the movies that will three years down the road become the big movies. And as the studios have pursued these big giant tent poles, my frustration which I think you share is that a lot of times the decision is basically, “We’re going to make this movie come hell or high water. We will throw a director at it. We’ll throw an actor on it. And somehow we’ll make it happen.” And they are not actually developing movies to shoot anymore. They’re just trying to… — They’re writing a one sheet and figuring out what a trailer is and then trying to make the movies to match that.
That is absolutely true, and that’s a frustration of content creation and the process early on. But as far as what is actually hitting in theaters right now, I don’t think that’s really entirely fair to be slamming the movies that are coming out right now. Often when people talk about like, “Oh, the movie business is doomed,” they try to bring up John Carter from earlier this year. And there’s nothing at all cynical about John Carter. I saw John Carter. I mean, John Carter is a big, goofy, delightful film.
I wish it had made a lot more money, but it’s not indicative of some sort of, like, Hollywood falling apart. Yes, it was really expensive. You can talk about it being really probably too expensive. But you can’t say that it was trying to be this big, dumb movie when it was kind of a swing for the fences. And so I kind of wish we would reward the chance that it took, or acknowledge the risk that was taken on John Carter, and not be slamming it for its simplicity.
Craig: John Carter is the worst example for people to use. The fact is when people think about risk they are completely upside down on the reality. They think that small independent movies take on this enormous financial risk and studio films aren’t risky at all. It’s the opposite.
The little independent movies, people have to understand this: They don’t get made unless… — not unless — often unless the financiers can pre-sell that movie overseas. So if the movie is going to cost $5 million and it’s this little beautiful, not loud, not noisy, not dumb art film, they’re not making it for $5 million unless they know ahead of time, “I’ve actually already sold this movie overseas based on who’s in it, or who the director is, for $5 million.”
“When we start to make this movie, I’m even. There’s no risk there.” That’s that model. And then it really is just about, “Okay, can we make a little bit of money, or a decent amount of money, or a lot of money for the effort?” And that’s that model.
When you look at John Carter, that’s a company that decides, “We’re going to spend $300 million just on the production alone. We’re going to make a movie that is based on a book no one has read, and almost no one has heard of, Edgar Rice Burroughs. We’re going to hire a director that is brilliant but has no live action track record whatsoever. And we’re going to let him make his movie.”
I’m sorry. Yeah, it didn’t work out. Okay? They don’t always work out. But to me, John Carter is an example of studio bravery.
Craig: And so when people bring up John Carter I go, no, no, no, that’s not the problem. The problem is Battleship. That’s the problem.
Craig: And I say that as somebody who is friends with a number of people who were involved. But the issue with Battleship is when you take something and you make it for too much money because you think the audience wants it, because they know the name or the word but there’s really nothing there.
I mean, look, John Carter is a novel. It was literature. I mean, I can’t say it’s great literature, but Burroughs is no slouch. Whereas Battleship was just pegs. It was pieces of plastic that were sold to us as children. And there is no narrative inherent to it. So, let’s not blame John Carter. But let’s also not engage in this pointless sort of… — I always smell resentment underneath these essays, like, “Good, the fat cats are dying. And now it will be time for the YouTubers to take over the world.”
No. Sorry. People still go to movies. I wish it were easier for $30 million comedies that are interesting to get made. I do. And it’s hard. But, you know, the same producer that made Battleship made Identity Thief. He’s a good guy. He sees that there are plays on both ends of the spectrum.
And so I would love to see Hollywood kind of be a little less pie-eyed about these big huge movies, especially when they can get you in trouble like this, you know, the World War Z movie that’s…
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: …you know, they’re going to have to do a lot of reshoots and a lot of money because they have so much into it. But, no, I don’t think we should be dancing on… — If you want to dance on the corpse of Hollywood, don’t dance with glee. Because I’ll tell you what, buddy: when this thing goes down, nothing will take its place, not like this.
John: I think the only time… I’m trying to think of examples of where you can really fault Hollywood cynicism. And Battleship does feel like one of those cases because Battleship was made kind of for the wrong reasons. To me they were clearly chasing Transformers. It felt like Transformers on water. And I wasn’t rooting against the movie, but I was concerned on those levels.
I see DC Comics/Warner Brothers trying to emulate the success of The Avengers and trying to put together the whole super group of their heroes, and that feels.. — I can’t help but feel that that seems a little cynical. “Well that worked for them, so we should do it with our group.”
It’s like, well, but there was something really inherently right about doing it the way Marvel did it, and it was tremendously risky and, god bless them, they took the risk and they made it. But I’m concerned that they’re going to spend $600 million, $800 million trying to assemble these heroes to make this movie that I’m not sure that we definitely need to make.
Craig: Yeah, it’s possible. Certainly Hollywood, this is nothing new. They’ve always chased success. There’s a movie coming out about 21 year olds who have a hangover night. There is also a movie about 70 year olds who have a hangover night. [laughs] And there’s the DC one, Justice League, I think.
They have done this throughout history. A big movie comes out and then people make movies like that movie. They’ve been doing that since I got into the business. There’s no trend here. That’s standard operating procedure. Mind you, not only in this business, in every business.
Look around at smartphones and find me one that isn’t a rip-off of the iPhone. Everyone in every business does this. Absolutely normal. But, of course, it’s the people that innovate successfully and first, I guess that’s sort of inherent in the word innovate who really reap the benefits and the rewards.
And I have to say, year after year, while things get creaky and maybe things get really, really top heavy, there are always good movies that come out. There are always movies that take us by surprise and that we really like. And I just feel like if you’re going to take a look at the business, look at it objectively and leave the resentment out f it. Because I don’t hate Hollywood. I love it. I love it enough to say, “Stop doing dumb stuff like A, B, and C, and do more smart stuff like D, E, and F.”
But I do love it. I love movies and I love Hollywood.
John: Yeah. Schadenfreude helps nobody. And it’s sort of a cliché, but a rising tide lifts all boats. And you want the box office to be really good because then they’re going to be spending more money to make more movies. It does actually help everybody if my movies succeed.
John: All right. I’m ready for our Three Page Challenges if you are ready to start?
Craig: Heck yeah. Gosh yes.
John: Let’s start with Terrance Mulloy’s one. It’s the one that starts in New York City. It doesn’t have a title.
Craig: You’re going to hear pages rustling around because I printed it out again, John.
John: You did? That’s fine. You’re allowed to print.
Craig: I know you hate that.
John: So while you’re rustling through your pages, I will give a quick summary of what Terrance’s script is about. I should say that if you are interested in reading any of these Three Page Challenges that people sent in, they are all linked to on johnaugust.com. You can go to the podcast section and read the screenplays along with us. So, we can pause here for a moment so you can do that.
John: Pausing. This is Terrance Mulloy’s script. And I want to thank our three people who wrote in and volunteered to have us be talking about their things on air. That was very generous of you.
So, here’s Terrance:
So we have establishing shots of New York City. We then descend through the concrete and into a subway tunnel where two MTA maintenance workers are walking and talking. They talk about chili and try to figure out where they are on this map. They get off the tracks and the train goes passed, or sort of rushes, blasts passed. And one of them sees a human shape hop down into a hole. After the train passes, they investigate, thinking it’s maybe a homeless person, but it’s not.
And one guy gets his throat ripped out as we get to the end of page three. So it’s some sort of monstrous creature is in the subway tunnel.
Craig: Underneath Manhattan.
Craig: These pages were… — Nothing wrong with the way they were written. Everything seemed okay. The dialogue was sort of fine in its craft. Everything here was fine except that I’ve seen this a billion times.
Craig: There’s no invention here really. I mean, if you were to say to anybody, “Can you write a scene like the one you’ve seen a million times in the horror/monster movies where two guys are just innocently walking along in the darkness, doing their job, chitchatting about nothing, and then suddenly a monster kills one of them and the other one goes, ‘Oh my god!’” It would be this. It’s incredibly generic. So, I’m not sure what else to say.
You can’t ignore the 14,000 movies that have come before you. You have to really surprise us.
John: Yeah. I feel like with this, the conventions, it’s following the conventions so closely that I wanted to see some pushback, because by the bottom of page one I kind of knew what was going to happen. Like, if we are descended down into the subway and two people are just walking and talking and doing normal stuff, the minute I see, like, a shadowy creature move by it’s like, “Well, I know exactly what movie this is.”
And so if you’re going to give us that shadowy creature walking by, surprise us somehow. Let us know that there’s something — there’s a reason that something different is going to be happening, that you’re aware of the conventions. I mean, it doesn’t have to be Scream where it’s meta conventions, but you need to surprise us a little bit more than I felt like we were getting in these three pages.
I would say overall I was more curious about the story than I was about the writing. And sometimes you can write something that’s kind of conventional, but if it was really, really well-written that could serve you very well. Here the writing, it was only okay. It was doing what it needed to do. There were some significant typos that I wanted to point out.
John: We had an “it’s” and “its” problem.
Craig: That kills me.
John: Yeah. So the possessive “its” is just I-T-S. There’s no apostrophe. And it doesn’t make sense, but it’s just how English works. “Chili” has one L. And then I want to talk about these two MTA workers who throughout the three pages are MTA Worker #1 and MTA Worker #2.
Craig: I got so confused. I didn’t even know who was dead at one point.
John: Yeah. So here’s the thing: It’s fine to say MTA Worker, but if you’re going to have two of them and they’re going to be talking for more than two lines, just give them actual names. I think they should probably have last names, so one is Ramirez and one is Jones. It doesn’t kind of really matter. You don’t have to get into great detail and you don’t have to write up whole backstories on them. But just so we can keep them straight, because there’s a lot of times in the scene description where like, “MTA Worker #1 stops to survey through his surroundings.” But it’s like, “Wait, which one is that? Is it the guy who said this, the guy who said that?”
John: Give us some actual names so that we can focus on that a little bit more.
Craig: Yeah. You get trapped in the garden of “he”s and “she”s where you’re not sure to whom the pronoun is referring. And also, I’ve got to tell you: if you write the script well enough and somebody wants to make this, sooner or later some casting lady is going to be calling going, “Um, MTA Worker #1, white, back, tall, short?”
John: That’s where Ramirez saves your ass. It’s like, boom, helps you figure it out.
Craig: Yeah. Give us something. I mean, but in general I can’t… — You’re right, if for instance, there are ways where you can sort of say, “You know what? The pot of this movie is going to be incredibly generic. What’s going to be interesting is the speech of the people in it. I’m going to go Tarantino on this,” if you want. And sometimes that works. But this sort of had generic… — It just felt like kind of one of those movies, you’re flipping around late at night, and then suddenly there’s this sort of generic never-was-released monster movie starring somebody that might have been on TV once. There’s nothing to it to make me go, “Ah, cool.”
John: Yeah. Syfy Channel does originals of those now.
Craig: Yeah, even the monster. I’m like, “Okay, so it’s a pale Gollumy dude. It’s C.H.U.D.” You know what I mean?
John: I’m actually fine with it if it’s unapologetically that. But maybe it needs to acknowledge what it is a little. I don’t know, it felt like it wasn’t quite acknowledging what it was yet. Granted, it was only three pages so maybe there was a remarkable twist on page 6 that we see that actually there is a bigger thing happening. But I don’t necessarily have faith…
Craig: Yeah. There wasn’t even a sense of campiness to it, like, “Okay, that’s where the fun is going to come in. This thing is going to be just over the top and sicko,” or something. It just felt very down the middle.
John: So, there was a question that came in this week and I thought I would not actually raise the question because we could talk about it here just on these pages, which is the difference between ellipses and double dashes, because this is a script that uses a lot of ellipses. And so it uses them — it never really ends sentences. There’s just a lot of “…” and “…” and it’s a style. You see a lot of screenwriters that use it, and it’s absolutely fine.
It’s not a style I particularly care for, but it’s certainly a style. So, if you’re trailing off the end of a sentence that’s leading into a line of dialogue, often you’ll see, often I will use “…” so it sort of flows into the next line of dialogue. So this is going from scene description into dialogue. Dashes also work. The Wibberleys are big dash uses. And so there’s a script that they worked on, that I worked on, that they worked on, and every time it went back and forth one of the first things we would ever do is change all their dashes to ellipses, and all the ellipses to dashes.
John: Either one is fine. If you pick a style and you like it, that’s great. This guy is using “…” and it’s not a way I would do it, but it reads fine.
Craig: I didn’t mind it. I always say about these things: if the three pages had been really interesting and gripping, I wouldn’t have cared less. I will say that I tend to use “…” the way you do, to trail off things and then to break up things inside a paragraph if I’m sort of reporting. “He turns. Oh my god, a shot — ” Then I’ll do “–” because the “…”s somehow get a little…they look a little cluttery on the page. It makes my eyes hurt a little bit.
But it’s not really… — If somebody is writing a great script and they want to “…” the hell out of it, have fun.
John: Yeah. Either one is okay with us.
I’m trying to think of other last notes on this. The first bit of dialogue in a script is really crucial because that gives us a sense of the tone and sort of what kind of movie this is. Right now they’re having a discussion on chili con carne with garlic, and it just wasn’t great. And there’s probably a great version of this kind of conversation. Basically, if we’re laughing because what they’re saying is so funny then the horror stuff is great. But if it’s just so two people talking, it’s not going to really work for us.
Craig: Yeah. The only other suggestion I would make, just something to think about: I read once that Spielberg likes to find within the first image or the first few images something that’s thematically symbolic to the movie, to the guts of the movie.
I think the opening shot of Schindler’s List is a woman praying over a candle, and we just see the smoke kind of going up in the air and the whole thing, it’s like, “This is life, it burns and then it goes to smoke and it’s gone. It’s that fragile.” And I always thought that was a really interesting idea. And a lot of times I do try and think, “Well, what is that first thing I see?”
Now here it’s a trick, and it’s a trick we’ve seen, again, a billion times, where we do the macro to micro bit, where we fly down into Manhattan, and then we’re into people, and then we’re underground. But really all that’s done is say, “Look, there’s stuff underground Manhattan.” Yeah. We know. We know about the subway. [laughs]
So then the question is: what else could you do? I mean, is it two guys walking underneath and one of them sees like a bug and crushes it? Something where we get a sense that maybe there’s a bit of hubris that we think that we’re in charge here and actually there is this whole world underneath us that’s pissed off and ready to revolt?
Just find something that makes it visually significant. This to me was just, again, a very generic, technical trick. It was empty aesthetics.
John: It felt like the compulsory exercises in figure skating. It did its circle 8s, and it did a good job in circle 8s, but it wasn’t expressive in a way that could be awesome.
Craig: It was not a Triple Lutz.
John: No Triple Lutz there. There was no Lutz at all.
Next, let’s go to Trunk by Mario DiPesa. Here’s a synopsis of Trunk. So, we start at a tranquil lake and then suddenly a car plunges into it and sinks. Then we get a card that reads “Seconds Before.” We’re in a new scene. We see the car parked at the edge of a cliff. There’s a driver at the wheel. He looks at two bodies in the car. The police come up from behind, tell him to surrender. Then he drives the car off the cliff into the lake, so the thing we just saw before.
A new card that says “Minutes Earlier.” We see the car racing down a road pursued by the police. The men in the car are shooting at the cops who shoot back. And we have some dialogue among the men. And that’s the three pages.
Craig: Yeah. So you figure out pretty quickly that we’re doing a reverse narrative here. I presume that once we see that three scenes have now occurred moving backwards through time that we’re in Memento-ville.
And obviously that’s the first thing that people are going to read is, “Oh, okay, so we’re Memento-ing some kind of heist or criminal move that’s gone bad and we’re ending with a death and going backwards to see how it all starts.” And that’s, I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that.
John: I don’t know. I’m not convinced…
Craig: If it works, and it’s great. Memento is so good and it’s so good at that, and there’s also that great Gaspar Noé, I mean, it’s kind of a sick Gaspar Noé movie called…
Craig: …Irreversible, I believe. So, okay, you know, the reader will have to either be into that or not into that, and there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s your deal.
I like the way that this writer wrote. I thought the description was well done, because I didn’t get bored and I didn’t get lost in it. And I thought it was a nice mix of poetic but not purple. I was infuriated on page 2 when there was a type in dialogue.
John: That was terrible.
Craig: I mean, if you’re going to do the its/it’s thing in action, or you’re going to do something in action, I get it. But in dialogue, that’s just embarrassing.
John: You’re talking about, “Comes out now, this is your final warning.”
Craig: Yeah! I mean, guys, you’re only sending us three pages. We’re not asking you to proofread with a fine tooth comb 120 pages. At least read the three pages you’re sending. It’s embarrassing to you, because we’re going to make fun of you and embarrass you. [laughs] So don’t do that.
I also thought the dialogue, I liked the dialogue in the sense that it seemed very simple and realistic to the moment of what was going on. It was certainly not over-written. I’ll take under-written any day of the week when people are driving from cops, and wounded, and bleeding, and trying to get away.
Craig: So, a lot of good things here to say.
John: I liked it too. I don’t know that this time conceit is actually going to stay for the whole movie. I feel like this may be a setup kind of thing and once, at a certain point we may not be moving backwards in time. So I’m curious whether that’s going to happen. And my curiosity is partly what would keep me reading more of the script.
So, I liked the technique and I thought it was sort of well-handled. I felt like if the driver is going to have a name he should have it by now. So right now the driver is just called Driver. And maybe that’s fine. I think he’s probably our main character. I think we’re going to follow him through the whole movie. If that’s the case, and he’s going to have a name at any point in the movie, he should have his name by now.
John: Maybe it’s Drive and he doesn’t have a name. And that’s fine. Maybe it’s actually a sequel to Drive.
My theory with the typo is I’m not convinced that Mario DiPesa is a native English speaker. While it’s well-written, there are some strange choices that to me indicated that English may not be his only language. On page 2 he says, “Shifts the car’s gear.” What is it, “He shifts the car’s gear.” That isn’t sort of the way we would actually say that.
Craig: I guess. But then so much of this other stuff feels, I mean, I agree that that’s a little awkward, but I mean a lot of this stuff feels like, the action stuff, it’s hard to imagine this isn’t somebody that speaks English.
John: I think he speaks English, but something feels a little wrong. Also on page 2, “Wheels SCREECH as dust fills the air behind the car.” Fills the air behind the car? That seems like it’s coming from a different language.
Craig: I’ve got to tell you, [laughs] if this guy isn’t foreign he’s putting a gun in his mouth right now.
John: He’s just mortified right now. Maybe he’s special.
Craig: I don’t know. But, “The car bobs like a cork for a brief moment, then slowly sinks.” That’s very colloquial.
John: But, and then in the next paragraph; this is a style thing which isn’t an English speaker or not, but first page: “Water explodes like a thousand broken mirrors. The car bobs like a cork for a brief moment, then slowly sinks.” The double simile isn’t the most graceful. They have two likes back to back. That’s not ideal.
So, we’re “like a thousand broken mirrors” and “like a cork” back to back. It feels a little less graceful
Craig: That I agree with. That’s the sort of thing you want to kind of comb through and not do, but that’s not indicative of not speaking English. That’s just indicative of…
John: Well I will say that if Mario DiPesa, if you do speak English natively I apologize for implying that you didn’t, but I think you’re a much better writer in English than many people are. Anyway, so…
Craig: [laughs] That’s terrible.
John: No! I’m saying…
Craig: Because I really do think he is. I think he’s American and I think he’s like so a better writer than people, than you are in French.
John: Oh my god. He’s so much better.
John: I’m just wondering whether maybe he’s spoken English for ten years, and so is therefore really good, but some stuff is always going to be a little bit off. I’m looking him up right now to just see if he has an international…
Craig: See, the “Comes out now” thing is definitely a typo. Because the captain says, “Come out of the car with your hands on your head.” And then two lines of dialogue later, “Comes out now. This is your final warning.” It has to be a typo.
Also, because S is right near E on the keyboard.
John: Oh my god. So I just checked through my email and I’m completely wrong. So, Mario, I believe reading an actual email from you.
John: For some reason I guessed that you are not a native speaker, but you are a native speaker.
Craig: Hey, Mario, listen, you don’t have to take this crap from him, okay? [laughs] I want you to do something. I want you to write in and really give him hell.
John: He actually wrote in about our last podcast and had, like, many paragraphs. And this does not feel at all like a person who does not speak English natively.
Craig: Shame. On. You.
John: Maybe he’s just poetic.
Craig: I think it was just a typo.
John: Well, no, “the car’s gear,” that read weird to me. Like I read that three times. Like, “Wait, that doesn’t actually make sense.”
Craig: It’s not good.
John: You don’t shift the car’s gear.
Craig: You’re right. That should have just been, you know, “Takes a deep breath. Puts the car in gear.” We put the car in gear. We don’t shift it into gear. But, meh.
Craig: It’s not enough to take the guy’s citizenship away.
John: No, it really wasn’t.
Our last Three Page Challenge entry is by, oh, here I am going to try it: Andrew Lauwasser. Lauwasser? It’s a good name. I just don’t know how to pronounce it.
Craig: I would say Lau-wasser.
Craig: Lau-wasser. Yeah.
John: Let me give you a summary here. So we meet Justin and Amy in their apartment. They’re both mid-20s. Amy tells Justin she’s breaking up with him. We cut to a new house where we meet Marshall who’s around 60, and Brooke, his wife, she’s mid-30s. She’s divorcing him. We cut back and forth between Justin and Amy and Marshall and Brooke while they have dialogue and start to break up and move stuff out.
And that’s the three pages.
Craig: You want to start?
John: I’ll go first. This felt very setup-y. And setup-y in a way that I could see some credits playing underneath this maybe? It was, you know, I’ll give it this: It gets going really quickly. You see like, okay, these are two guys who are being dumped by the women in their lives. And the script is called Wingmen. I suspect they’re going to buddy up and help each other out. See the guy in his 60s and a guy in his mid-20s and they’re going to help each other out. And so I get the conceit of the character.
The Amy character is so horrible; I want her to be eaten by sled dogs. She says just the meanest things. And not in sort of like a really funny way. I didn’t… — Weirdly I had… — This happens sometimes in movies: if you see somebody who is in a relationship with somebody who is just terrible you stop having sympathy for them at a certain point. It’s like, “Why are you with this person?” So I felt that with Amy.
Craig: Uh…yeah. Okay, well, and by the way, I kind of suspect that this is a father and son thing. I don’t know why.
John: Oh, maybe.
Craig: I think that’s what the payoff will be. But, look, Andrew, come here. Come here, buddy. Let’s sit down, okay, let’s have a drink. You and me.
So, you got your drink? Good. I’ve got mine, too. I have written stuff like this before. Okay? So don’t take this the wrong way. This does not mean that you stink. It just means these pages stink. Okay?
I’m glad you got these out of your system. They’re terrible, but I understand why you wrote them this way, because I’ve done it before. When I was starting out, I would do this a lot. What you’re doing is you’re supplanting clever and quippy for human. These are not human beings. They are little joke glands you’re squeezing to get out lines that you think are clever. Frankly, none of them are that clever anyway, and the worst thing about being clever is you never really get credit for it anyway.
People smile at clever things. Your job as a comedy writer is to be making them laugh. To make people laugh in a theater, it’s not easy. God knows I know it’s not easy. You’re trying to cause an involuntary physical response. It’s a tough deal, okay?
People laugh when they see human things happening. They can identify with the humanity in it. Even if it’s slapstick it is partly about connecting with the humanity of it. The issue with this stuff is none of these people are real. Nobody breaks up like this. Nobody talks like this.
Oh, ah, Marshall says — he’s the older man — “You’re leaving me?” Brooke, “I don’t like to think of it as leaving. More like escaping.” I mean, that line alone is brutal. I mean, escaping from — first of all, I’m like, “What? Was he beating her? What was going on that she needs to escape?” And it’s so cold. And by the way, that’s not the character that John is talking about, who’s even worse.
Then Marshall says, “Is there anything I should do?” Which is a weird thing to say. And he’s not upset oddly, and she says, “Ah! I almost forgot. I need you to sign the divorce papers.” How? Really? You almost forgot? And the divorce papers were shoved in your purse? And he didn’t know? And he just goes ahead and signs the? Without even reading them?
And then when he says, “How long have you been carrying these around?” “Since I started seeing Ian. Sign on the…” “I know where to sign. You’re cheating on me?” Really?
This just doesn’t feel like humans responding to human things. The Amy situation is much worse because Amy just seems sociopathic. You have to ask yourself: Why was this person with this other person in the first place? I mean, he says, “We’re going to sit here and we’re going to talk this out. You can’t just throw away nine years like that.” Nine years of what? Living with this psycho? It’s crazy.
Then let’s go back to Marshall. And listen, Andrew, I know this sucks, okay? But we have to do this because I want you to get this out of your system. Okay?
Your first scene with Marshall and Brooke. Marshall is oddly calm. “(Not upset),” in parentheses, “Is there anything I should do?” “Here. Sign the divorce papers.” “Okay. You’re cheating on me?”
Next scene. “You’re such a bitch.” What?!
Then he starts talking about her tits. And now he’s complaining about the tits and now doing a joke about gravity and Parkinson’s, like a boob joke. And now she’s doing a dick joke. None of this makes me understand a single thing about who these people are. Does this really hurt either one of them? Are they real? Is this the way people really do breakup?
No. Not even in comedies. Okay? So, I want you to say with me, Andrew, because I’m your friend. Because you’re a comedy writer and we’re all friends, okay? So say this with me: I’m going to let go of this clever stuff and I’m going to start writing people. And when I write people, unless I’m writing a spoof, and then you can be an absolute idiot, okay? It grants you full license. But if you’re writing a movie that’s a romantic comedy like this is going to be, then find the comedy in the real stuff. And you can push it a little bit, but you can’t do this.
A few craft things I want to talk about along the way, as he’s rewriting this, and as people are reading along with this. I kind of liked what he said about Justin, “27 years old and lean, with a mop of curls on his head and a face that only knows puppy dog sincerity.” Sure.
But he introduces both Justin and Amy in the same very, very long sentence. That sentence is five lines long. No. Don’t do that. Shorten. Each of them, they’re main characters, they deserve their own sentence. Break that into two sentences.
Both of these introductory scenes would be so much better if we cut out the first lines of them. So if the first line of the movie were actually Amy’s, “I’m keeping the apartment, so technically you’re the one who’s leaving.” That’s a much funnier start of a scene than, “You’re leaving me?”
Craig: That’s a great note.
John: Start with the answer rather than the question. And then you can cut out Marshall’s question, too. Start with Brooke like, “I don’t like to think of it as leaving, more like escaping.” That’s a good start, a funny line of a scene. Kind of everything that follows after it has to change. But it’s not a bad way to start a scene.
Craig: I just want to interrupt you for a second. This is why I love what you’re saying. Because by cutting out that lead-in line, my mind will fill in that there was a reasonable, rational, human exchange that led to that line. But with the lead-in line there isn’t, because it’s not. So that’s a great, great note.
Beyond that, my notes are your notes, but probably kinder and softer, but maybe some tough love was needed.
I get what he’s kind of going for here. I think he’s just so desperate to sort of start the comedy engine that he’s not taking the time to actually make these people real human beings. And he’s making the two women so unlikeable that we don’t know what kind of reality that we’re in.
Craig: Yeah. And there’s another danger here, too. I’ve read a million comedy scripts, so I’m going to tell you what happens in this one. These two guys are going to get together and they’re going to go looking for women. And they both feel beaten up by women and angry at women. And then they’re going to meet women and those women are going to change their minds. Naturally.
The problem is the script starts off extraordinarily misogynistically. [laughs] There’s nothing wrong with one mean woman. I loved, I loved Rachel Harris, right, in The Hangover. That’s her name, right? Rachel Harris, the actress?
John: Yeah, she’s awesome. Blonde.
Craig: Yeah. The blonde one. Exactly. Who’s married to Ed Helms. Are they married? No, they’re going to be married. They’re engaged to be married, I think.
John: Congratulations to them.
Craig: And she was hysterical because she was this over the top horror show, but I also understood that he was an absolute weenie. That was his character. He had no spine at all. That’s why their relationship was stable. He was the beaten wife and it was actually kind of funny. But, it came inside the context of a movie where another one of his friends is getting married to a really nice girl who’s a normal, healthy human being that isn’t mean or awful.
We are starting the movie with two mean, awful, cold women. And I’ve got to tell you, there isn’t a single woman in the audience who’s going to be interested in watching past that because, frankly, it’s insulting.
It’s also just not honest. I don’t think it’s honest. And if comedy is false it’s just not going to work.
John: Let’s think about those first two scenes where we’re meeting the guys, if they are going to be our protagonists for the course of the movie those scenes need to be about them. And it needs to give us a sense of what they need to accomplish over the course of the movie. So, your description about Ed Helms is apt. It’s like, you know, Rachel Harris’s character was there to let us see what was wrong with him and where he needed to grow. So, as he’s rewriting these scenes and figuring out how this movie starts, those scenes need to be about those guys and not about the relationship falling apart.
Craig: 100 percent. Because all I know about these guys is that they made really bad choices of women. I don’t know what’s wrong with them. They are the protagonists. It has to be about them. All the more reason, frankly, if these women are leaving that they should be right. The women should be correct to leave.
Craig: There you go.
John: Those are our pages.
Craig: But Andrew. Andrew, I’m serious dude, you can do this. Everybody that writes comedies makes this mistake at some point. You made yours. You can do this; I believe in you.
John: Yeah. Step away from the balcony.
John: Terrance, Andrew, and Mario, thank you so much for writing in with your three page samples. That was very brave of you and I hope it was helpful. I hope we gave you useful things to think about with this script and with the next thing. And thank you for sharing with everybody else who’s going to read these pages and get some sense of how they might want to start telling their stories.
I think the time has come for our One Cool Things. And you have a very cool thing this week in that you’re going to play us a song.
Craig: I’m going to play a song. That’s right. Do you have a cool — and by the way, because we have 100,000 people listening.
John: Yeah. We’ve consistently crossed over our 100,000 barrier. So we have a lot of good listeners out there. And 100,000 of them, at least, which is amazing.
Craig: It’s awesome.
John: And nuts. So, you will play us out this week so there won’t be a normal song, so I guess I should do my Cool Thing now, and then we can just be done.
John: So my Cool Thing, I recognize that a lot of times the Cool Things are like, “buy this product,” and that’s never the intention. I don’t want to have an Amazon link for everything that we talk about. So my One Cool Thing is absolutely free, which this week is the LA Public Library, and your local public library if you don’t live in Los Angeles.
Because the thing is I sort of stopped going to the library for many years until I had a kid, and then you go to the library because it saves you from having to buy a gazillion books. And so you just take them to the library and they pick a bunch of books off the shelf, and you return them after three weeks.
What’s weird is going back to the library as a grown up and recognizing that libraries are kind of amazing. It’s sort of like Netflix, but for books. And that you don’t have to like actually purchase things, you can just borrow them, and then when you’re done with them they go away and they don’t have to live in your house anymore. Because so much of what I read now I read on the Kindle or through iBooks or whatever. And that’s great for like the modern books, or the new book that you read about online and you really want to read the book.
What’s so good about the library is it’s not just… — The books that are on the shelves aren’t necessarily books that you would ever want to buy. They’re books that you wonder why they’re on the shelf at all, and that’s kind of amazing.
So these last couple weeks at the LA Public Library, I found The Anarchist Cookbook, which I can’t believe is actually…to me it always felt like the Necronomicon, like — one of those things that’s rumored but doesn’t actually exist.
John: But The Anarchist Cookbook, which was this sort of famous book of the late ’60s, which told you how to build bombs and stab police officers, is actually on the shelf there, which I thought was kind of amazing.
This last week I discovered that our local library actually has big books of sheet music. So there are piano songs I want to learn — they’re right there. So I would say go visit your local public library. It’s not just for homeless people who want to get out of the rain. It’s a useful resource that’s out there. And just take advantage of it. Go in there and wander.
Craig: Absolutely. Some of my favorite childhood memories are going with my dad to the New Dorp Library in Staten Island. New Dorp. [laughs] It’s one of the great names. New York was sort of founded and settled by the Dutch, so there are a lot of strange Dutch names. And the New Dorp Public Library was this wonderful old east coast institutional building. It was the kind that had the fallout shelter signs, you know. It was very midcentury-ish.
And I loved it. I loved going. And I would just go and just look through the stacks until I found a book that interested me. And I would always walk away with three, or four, or five of them because I loved reading. And I take my kids to the La Cañada Public Library, and it’s a great thing.
And for those of you who do live in Los Angeles, if you haven’t been to the big downtown library, just go and walk around to marvel at it. It’s gorgeous. It’s just a beautiful building. Absolutely beautiful. Even if you’re not there for a book, you just want to walk around. It’s spectacular.
John: Growing up, one of my favorite libraries in Boulder was this little small library they built into the Meadows Shopping Center. And it seemed so weird to stick a library in a shopping center, but it was actually kind of genius because it was around places where people already were. And so people could just, like, drop into the library. And it was close to the grocery store. I liked that it sort of took away the fanciness of like it’s its own building and has this great thing. Like, no, it’s part of the mall and you can go in there and get the books you want to get.
And libraries in all forms are great. And I think I had sort of forgotten about them until I had a kid and ended up going to the library more. They’re cool.
Craig: Yeah. Fantastic.
John: And also I should say: we’ve been trying to get rid of a lot of books. We’re sort of doing a house purge. And I have this sort of rule that if it’s a book that I haven’t touched in five years, I don’t think I’ll touch in the next five years, it’s better off on somebody else’s shelf. And so the library has been taking a lot of our old books and they sell them in book sales and they make some money. So libraries are also a great way to part with the books that you believe should be on someone else’s shelf.
Craig: For sure.
So, Craig, it’s come to that time. So, what setup do we need to do for your song? Tell us about this?
Craig: There’s no real setup. I initially tried to figure out how to run my acoustic — I have an acoustic electric, so it’s an acoustic guitar but there’s a little pickup inside. And I bought this little Behringer thing to connect in directly so I could record the guitar on one track and my voice on the other. That thing does not work at all. [laughs] Could not get it to work at all. So, I think I’m just going to play guitar and sing into one mic. So, it’s going to sound a little different because I’ve got to adjust the mic and whatever.
But the song is by John Prine and it’s called Killing the Blues. It was made slightly more popular by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.
John: Krauss, yeah.
Craig: Is that right?
John: Yeah. Alison Krauss.
Craig: Yeah. Alison Kraus. And it’s short, so it won’t bore you. And there you go.
John: Great. Craig, thank you very much. Have a great week and we’ll let you play us out. Thanks. Bye.
Craig: Here we go.
[Strums and sings]
Sorry about all the bus noise. But no sirens!