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 Episode 52 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig: A year of podcasts.
John: I was going to say it’s hard to believe, but it’s actually not hard to believe. It feels like 52 episodes to me. Does it feel like it to you?
Craig: I don’t think so. To me I would have… — If you had said we were over 40 I would have still been a little skeptical. I don’t know. They just go by kind of quickly.
John: They do. But I’m happy that we made it this far. I’m happy that people seem to be liking our show, so this is a good thing. And last week you treated us with a song.
Craig: A song.
John: That was very nice, Craig. Because we actually just let you play it out I didn’t get to sort of clap or applaud afterwards or hold up my little virtual lighter, but I thought you did a terrific job, so thank you very much for doing that.
Craig: Thank you. How nice of you to say. There were a lot of lovely comments from people on Twitter.
Craig: I now get to say stuff like, “Yeah, it’s blowing up on twitter, y’all.”
Craig: Although it’s not really blowing up. But it was fun to do and I think maybe I’ll do it again if we can get to…150?
John: We’ll see.
Craig: We’ll pick an appropriate benchmark, because we can either do it more regularly or you could really go nuts and just say we’ve got to hit 500.
John: Yeah. That would be a lot. Another option might be a benchmark of like where we rank on iTunes, because that might be a little bit more indicative of people who are listening to it now or subscribing now versus just people who are catching up on previous episodes, because downloads can be people who are just going back through the whole catalog. We need those new, fresh listeners for some imaginary metric that doesn’t really mean anything because we’re not selling any advertising. So it’s just ego gratification, really.
Craig: Yeah. Well, that’s what this is all about.
John: And on the topic of ego gratification, last week I… — we were doing the Three Page Challenges — and while reading one of the Three Page Challenges, I speculated that one of the people who wrote in was not a native English speaker. And you took a little umbrage at that. You took umbrage on his behalf that I did not believe that he was a native English speaker.
Craig: Yeah. Yup.
John: And I was right. So, Mario DiPesa wrote in to say, “I am from Montreal, Quebec and my native language is French. Although as most Montrealers I’ve been exposed to English at a pretty early age through TV, comic books, and movies, I’ve only been in the US for about five years and I just started using English as my main language.”
So some of his odd word choices that I noticed, that was because English is not his native language.
Craig: You were absolutely right. I was completely wrong. And I’m embarrassed, because this is the kind of thing I feel like I should be good at. It’s language. You picked up on something. I’m mortified. And the only way I can think of to rectify this error is to kill you. [laughs]
Craig: If I kill you, I feel like I set it right.
John: Yeah. There are times I’m very happy that we’re not recording this in the same space, that you are far off in Pasadena while I’m safely here in Hancock Park at an address you’ve never been to.
Ah, that’s not true; you’ve been to my house once.
Craig: I have. I’ve been there. I know exactly where to go. And I know exactly how I’m going to kill you. [laughs] So enjoy this victory.
John: Yes. By the time this podcast airs it will be past.
Craig: You’re dead.
John: But I wanted to talk a little bit about sort of what I noticed in Mario DiPesa’s writing and the sense… — Because it wasn’t ungrammatical in the sense of “these are the rules of English and he broke the rules of English.” It wasn’t that at all. Like everything in it was by the rules grammatical. But grammar is really how we speak; it’s how a native person speaks. And it didn’t sound like how a native person would use the language.
And that’s something I want to start talking about. We’ll get into some questions later on, but I want to start talking about this and get your feedback on it.
A lot of times when we talk about English and we talk about sort of people coming in from other languages, we always assume there’s a one-to-one correlation between the things we do in English and the things that people do in other languages. But that’s not really true, and you start to notice those things as you meet people who are writing in something that’s not their native language.
One example that often occurs to me is the sense of time. Because when you think of time as being, well there’s the past, the present, and the future, but if you actually listen to how we speak, our sense of time in spoken language and written language is actually quite a bit more complicated.
We have actions that were started in the past and completed in the past. We have actions that were started in the past but are still ongoing. We have things that we think are going to happen. Things that we know are going to happen. It’s much more complicated and a lot of languages treat it very differently.
One thing I notice from time to time is our nanny who is native Spanish speaking, her English is fantastic but she — if you ask her like what did she have for dinner tonight, she says, “Oh, she eats green beans and broccoli and chicken,” which would actually be a really good meal for my kid because my kid is a terrible eater. But she says, “She eats,” or like I’ll ask did she have a bath, it’s like, “She does.” And so she’s answering back in our present tense verb for something that we would use a past tense verb. And that’s just the way that Spanish works versus how English works.
Their sense of what you use the present tense for is wider than what we use the present tense for. In Spanish they put a wider umbrella over the present tense than we do in English. And so those things don’t match up perfectly.
Craig: No, that’s true. And the language where you’ll see huge differences like that, where it’s not even subtle, is Chinese. The Chinese language has a bunch of quirks. We would call them quirks. I assume that they would look at our language and call our language quirks. Here’s a sentence that — you can’t ask the following question in Chinese: You can’t say, “You’re not really thinking of doing that, are you?” They don’t recognize negatively phrased questions.
John: Yeah. And in Spanish that would kick into the subjunctive probably. And it’s more complicated. And I think people want to reduce things to simple rules that like could be machine translated between things, and it’s more complicated than that. It’s more subtle.
Craig: Yeah. There are a lot of strange things, just the way that — and I think we’ve had a Chomsky festival before on this podcast — but the grammar that we use reflects our consciousness and the way we think about things. But there are gaps. And you obviously picked up on a very subtle one in Mario’s language that I did not. I’m still going to kill you over this.
John: Which is fine.
A reader a couple of months ago sent in through — he had gone to one of those paid coverage services and he sent through the coverage. And it was too long to really talk about either on the website or on the podcast, but looking through it, I was a little bit frustrated by what this reader wrote in terms of his comments, like things to change in his script.
And it was something like he was criticizing him for using the passive voice. And the example the guy cited was something like, “Mary is cooking dinner.” And the reader said, “No, it should be, ‘Mary cooks dinner,’” which is wrong sort of on two levels. First off, that’s not passive voice.
Craig: Right. “The dinner was cooked by Mary” is passive.
John: Exactly. So passive is any construction in which the subject of the sentence is receiving the action of the verb. So, “The casket is lowered into the ground by the men.” That’s a passive voice.
And, first off, there is nothing wrong with a passive voice. There are a lot of reasons why you might want to use an active voice and there are a lot of reasons why in screenwriting you should be thinking about, like, “Wait — does the active voice make more sense for this?” Rather than “The blindfold is removed,” it’s like, you know, “The bandit removes the blindfold.” There may be reasons why the active voice works better for you. That’s not to say that passive voice is wrong.
But with, “Mary is cooking dinner,” that’s actually the present progressive, and that’s like a remarkably good thing that English has that not every language has. The present progressive is that “ing” form, so the “to be” plus an “ing.” So, “Mary is cooking. Bob is running.” And what’s great about the present progressive for screenwriting is that you can interrupt it. And so if a scene starts with, “Todd is running down the street.” You can — “Todd is running down the street when…” something happens. You can stop that action.
If it’s, “Todd runs down the street,” well, does he finish running down the street? It implies that something has been completed when it may be something that you want to stop midway.
Craig: This is one of those “rules” that you hear tossed around by halfwits on the internet who don’t know anything about what it means to write a screenplay effectively. They’ll say things like, “Go through your script and remove all ‘ing’ verbs.” No. No. Swallow poison, idiot, because that’s the… — These reductive nonsense rules that people use for screenplays make me crazier than anything.
Of course there are times when you want to say “is running’ or “is doing,” especially in a screenplay which is attempting to invite the reader into an immediate present. Something is happening RIGHT NOW. Isn’t that more dramatic than a thing happened?
So, not to highjack this and turn it into a celebration of my hatred for so many people, but you definitely hit upon something that invokes great umbrage-taking from me.
John: Oh, it wouldn’t be a year anniversary podcast without some umbrage.
John: And really most of these so-called “rules” are people trying to implement Latin and English, or they’re trying to sort of pull rules from a perfect language, which they believe to be Latin, into English. So they say, “Well, Latin doesn’t do this so therefore we shouldn’t do this.” Like Latin doesn’t break up infinitives, so like, “To slowly roast…” they won’t put a word in between the “to” and the infinitive form of the verb. And so therefore we shouldn’t do it.
Well, Latin is different. And in English it tends to make a lot more sense to split up that infinitive in a lot of cases. And if it sounds better to the ear, well that’s the point.
Craig: I’m with you on that. Like I don’t understand the whole rule against split infinitive. Who cares? Sometimes it’s much better and much more expressive to do it that way. I’m not one of these people that fetishizes avoiding prepositions at the end of a sentence. It’s all silly.
And certainly when we talk about writing, the nice thing about screenwriting is you can write anything you want because it’s not going to be read.
John: Yeah. A weird thing happened in a script that I just finished, and Stuart and I went back and forth a couple times on this one line of dialogue. And the line is, “Ethics is easy when you’re winning.”
And so is it “ethics is easy” or “ethics are easy when you’re winning?” And so when you actually look it up it turns out ethic and ethics are two different words and they actually mean two different things.
John: So it became a very subtle, like, “Well what is the definition of this?” “What is the definition of this?” “What is the real sense in which the character is using this?” But it also became, “Which sounds better coming out of someone’s mouth?” “Which would you actually say?”
Craig: You could do it either. I think you could do it either way presuming that you’re not talking about the study of ethics but rather individual ethics, like having ethics. You could say, “Ethics is easy,” meaning the concept of having ethics which is silently implied. Or, ethics — plural — having them “are easy.” I think you could do either one.
But if you were talking about “ethics is easy when you’re winning,” meaning the class where they teach ethics, that would be “ethics is.”
John: The class Ethics — Ethics 101 is easy in winning.
Craig: Or the study of ethics or the field of ethics.
John: But ultimately it came down to which is going to sound better coming out of this character’s mouth, because this character isn’t going to know the distinction between these two things. I mean, maybe if he were a linguist he would… — If he were a linguist he would use the right one.
But he wasn’t a linguist. He was a sports coach, so it didn’t make sense he would actually say the grammatically correct one or the definitely correct one. So it’s which one sounds better.
Craig: There you go.
John: I thought this would be a good transition into some things that will always sound terrible. And this was a list that a listener sent in, which I thought is just terrific. It’s from Go Into The Story, and it’s a list of bits of dialogue that you should probably always avoid.
And so it’s a lengthy list and we’re going to do our best to sort of sell you on how they sound and why you should never hear them. They will all be familiar to you. And if you were going to use any of the lines we’re about to state, you can, but you’re going to have to spin them somehow to take the curse off them, because they are all kind of cursed lines.
Craig: Hmm. Or just don’t use them.
John: Or just don’t use them. But I would say in a comedy there is probably a way you could use them, but you’d have to do something very smart to spin it in a new direction. Or not.
Craig: Yes. I agree. Some of these unfortunately are already attempts to spin something. They are jokes that have been beaten to death, so I don’t know how you spin something that’s already poorly spun and over spun.
John: Yeah. Jane Espenson defines these as “clams.” And so they were funny once but through repetition they become really not funny and smell horrible.
Craig: Yes. [laughs] Correct. Clams.
John: So shall we do this? “Are you ready?”
Craig: “I was born ready.”
John: “Are you sitting down?”
Craig: “Let’s get out of here!”
John: “_____ is my middle name.”
Craig: “Is that all you got?” “I’m just getting started.”
John: “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Craig: “Don’t you die on me!”
John: “Tell my wife and kids I love them.”
Craig: “Breathe, dammit!”
John: “Cover me. I’m going in.”
Craig: “He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?”
John: “No, no, no, no, no, no, I’m not going.” Cut to them going.
Craig: “No, come in. _____ was just leaving.”
John: “You better come in.”
Craig: “So, we meet again.”
John: “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
Craig: “Well, if it isn’t _____.”
John: “I’m just doing my job.”
Craig: “You give ______ a bad name.” / “Calling you a ______ is an insult to ______.”
John: “You’ll never get away with this.” “Watch me.”
Craig: “Lookin’ good,” said into a mirror.
John: “Now, where were we?”
Craig: “What the…?”
John: “How hard can it be?”
Craig: “Time to die.”
John: “Follow that car!”
Craig: “Let’s do this thing!”
John: “You go girl!”
Craig: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
John: “Yeah, a little too quiet.”
Craig: “If I’m not back in five minutes get out of here,” or, “blow the whole thing up,” or, “call the cops.”
John: “What part of _____ don’t you understand?”
Craig: “I’m not leaving you!” “You have to go on without me.”
John: “Don’t even go there.”
Craig: “I’ve always wanted to say that.”
John: “Ready when you are.”
Craig: “Is this some kind of sick joke?”
John: “Oh, ha, ha, very funny.”
Craig: “Did I just say that out loud?”
John: “Wait. Do you hear something?”
Craig: “It’s…just a scratch.”
John: “How is he?” “He’ll live.”
John: “Is that clear?” “Crystal.”
Craig: “What if…nah, it would never work.”
John: “And there’s nothing you or anyone else can do to stop me.”
Craig: “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
John: “Note to self.”
Craig: “Honey, is that you?”
John: “What’s the meaning of this?”
Craig: “What seems to be the problem officer?”
John: “What’s the worst that could happen?” / “What have we got to lose?”
Craig: “I have a bad feeling about this.”
John: “Leave it. They’re already dead.”
Craig: “Don’t you think I know that?”
John: “Whatever you do, don’t look down.”
Craig: “Why won’t you die!”
John: “I eat guys like you for breakfast.”
Craig: “Oh, now you’re really starting to piss me off.”
John: “We’ve got company.”
Craig: “Hang on. If you’re here, then that means…uh-oh.”
John: “Oh, that’s not good.”
John: “What just happened?”
Craig: “We’ll never make it in time!”
John: “Stay here.” “No way, I’m coming with you.”
Craig: “This isn’t over.”
John: “Jesus H. Christ!”
Craig: “It’s no use!”
John: “It’s a trap!”
Craig: “She’s gonna blow!”
John: “Okay. Here’s what we do…” And cut to a different scene.
Craig: “Wait a minute. Are you saying…?”
John: “You’ll never take me alive.”
Craig: “Okay. Let’s call that Plan B.”
John: “I always knew you’d come crawling back.”
Craig: “Try to get some sleep.”
John: “I just threw up in my mouth a little.”
Craig: “Leave this to me. I’ve got a plan.”
John: “No. That’s what they want us to think.”
Craig: “Why are you doing this to me?!”
John: “When I’m through with you…”
John: “Wait! I can explain. This isn’t what it looks like.”
John: “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Craig: “If we make this out alive…”
John: “That’s it! You’re off the case.”
Craig: “How long have we known each other?” “We go back a long way.”
John: “Well. Well. Well.”
Craig: “Ah-ha! I knew it!”
John: “Done and done!”
Craig: “Leave it. He’s not worth it.”
John: “In English please?”
Craig: “As many of you know…” and then a bunch of exposition.
John: “Too much information!”
Craig: “Yeah, you better run!”
John: “Unless…” “Unless what?”
Craig: “What are you doing here?” “I was about to ask you the same thing.”
John: “So, who died? Oh…”
Craig: “You’re either brave or very stupid. “
John: “Oh, yeah? You and whose army?”
Craig: “Now that’s what I’m talking about.”
John: “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”
Craig: “It’s not you. It’s me.”
John: “This just gets better and better.”
Craig: “This is not happening. This is not happening!”
John: “Make it stop!”
Craig: “Shut up and kiss me.”
John: “I’ll see you in hell.”
Craig: “Lock and load!”
John: “Oh, hell no!”
Craig: That was too white. [laughs]
John: [trying again] “Oh hell no!”
Craig: Yes. I love that one.
“Not on my watch!”
John: “You just don’t get it, do you?”
Craig: “I have got to get me one of these.”
John: “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”
Craig: “It’s called _____. You should try it sometime.”
John: “That went well.”
Craig: That did go well.
John: And scene.
Craig: So that was a pretty great list of awful, awful lines to not write. And there are so many more. I mean, people can write in. It’s a fun game of coming up with the cliché awful lines. I think in comedy it’s particularly embarrassing when you trot one of these things out as if you haven’t already seen it a hundred times on a sitcom. And for dramas, these kind of overwrought lines are actually indicative usually of stories and character issues.
I mean, in comedy, okay, you’re just going for an easy laugh with a joke. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there is wrought. But if you’re writing a drama and you have a scene where someone has tripped and fallen and the other person is trying to drag them away and they say, “No. Leave me. You go on.” You just…you blew it. There’s a big problem there.
John: Some of these are transitional phrases that they are trying to, like — the scene was going in this direction and then it has to go in a different direction. Like someone has to start some exposition or someone has to do something different. The energy of the scene has to change. And they are just space killers; you have to find a way to not do them, because in real world situations you wouldn’t say that, they wouldn’t be there. You would just actually start the next thing.
Craig: Yeah. This kind of stuff actually came in very handy when I was writing spoof movies, because the spoof characters almost only speak in these things. I used to talk about it with Anna Faris, because we were trying to figure out how it was that these sort of lines worked in spoof but not in anything else; in anything else they were horrible. And we both realized that in spoof, characters have no subtext whatsoever; they simply say what’s on their mind. [laughs] They’re just very, very stupid people.
Craig: And this is the way very, very stupid people talk. So don’t make your characters very, very stupid.
John: All of these lines sort of sound like a Tracy Jordan movie, from 30 Rock. So when they do the cutaways to one of the movies that Tracy has made, these are all lines that he would have said in one of his movies.
Craig: Exactly, like, “I’ve gotta get me one of these.” It’s just so…You’re just not trying at that point. And I don’t like using the word “lazy” for writing, because I feel like writing is super hard and there’s nothing lazy about it, but in that case it’s actually not hard to write that line. It was written for you, chewed up, and spat out 100 times. So now you’re just sort of retyping something. It’s not very inventive.
John: One of these lines, the first time I heard it was in Rawson Thurber’s script and his movie for Dodgeball, which was, “I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.” And maybe it was originally Rawson, or maybe it had been there for a long time and I just happened to never hear it, but Christine Taylor says it to Ben Stiller, and it actually works really well in the scene. But that was the first time I heard it. I don’t know if that that was the origin of it.
Craig: It long predates Dodgeball. When it showed up in Dodgeball it was kind of just sort of… — He was still in the safe zone, but it was already tilting into clamage. And the thing about those kinds of lines is that once they appear in something big and prominent and they use that in the ads, it’s done. Like, nobody else should go near it. So, you might say, “Oh man, you know, I came up with that line, I put it in a show and no one saw the show and then three years later I see it pop up in an ad for a movie, and now everyone thinks the movie came up with it.”
Well, you know, suck it up. That’s part of comedy and we’re all in this together. But, once it does show up in something like that, one cannot go near it again. It is done.
Craig: And yet I will still see it. You know, my daughter watches the Disney Channel sitcoms and they’re just clam festivals.
John: Yeah. It’s a clambake.
Craig: It’s a clambake like you have no idea. Yeah.
John: So here’s how I would use the “I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.” In a situation where that could be a line, why don’t you just have the character kind of throw up in their mouth and literally have to spit out the vomit? It’s funny again.
Craig: Right. Like I actually threw up in mouth.
John: So they don’t even have to say anything because we sort of know what it is. And so just, like, have them upchuck a little bit and have to put it in a little towel and it would be great.
John: Or in their hand, because bodily fluids in hands is funny.
Craig: Or like a man kisses a woman in a bar and she says, “I think I threw up in your mouth a little.” [laughs]
John: [laughs] That’s funnier.
Craig: However you need to put something on it.
John: Yeah. I think if he says, “I think you just threw up in my mouth a little.”
Craig: “Did you just throw up in my mouth a little?” [laughs] It could be a question.
John: [laughs] Yeah.
Craig: “I think I might have thrown up in your mouth a little.” Yeah. Hmm.
John: Hmm. It’s good. See, we’re writing here.
We have some questions, so let’s get to some questions, which is I think one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about doing this podcast over the last two years, answering some questions and getting some multiple opinions here.
So the question is from Jared in Weston, Connecticut. He asks, “What is the process of selling a spec script as a completely new writer? Maybe you could use Go as an example. Do you have to have representation in order to sell a spec? Who buys a spec — producers or studios? I totally understand if this is one of those cringe-worthy ‘how do I get an agent’ questions, but I’d really love to hear your insight into the process.”
So, yeah, I think some 101 questions are valid every once and awhile.
Craig: It’s a good question.
John: Good question. A spec is a script — just so we’ll define terms here from the start — a spec is a script that you wrote yourself that is not based on anything. It’s just you sat down at your computer and you wrote a spec script. This was 100 percent your idea and something you did. And you own it, completely, so no one owns any other part of it.
Generally, if it’s not a movie you’re going to make yourself but you’re trying to sell it to someone else to make it, that would go out into the world with an agent or a manager or someone else who is representing you and the script to buyers. Those buyers could be producers. Those buyers could be big studios. They could be some sort of in between production entity. But generally it’s pretty rare, I think, for a production company to find your script and directly buy it without some other intermediary force. Craig, you can correct me if you disagree.
Craig: No. I think that that’s absolutely correct and it’s going to be the studio that buys it, not a producer. Producers attach themselves to specs. Producers aren’t really employers. This is a hard concept for people to wrap their minds around when they haven’t been exposed to the very strange business of studios versus producers.
Producers basically are just hired guns by the studio to shepherd projects, but they don’t actually pay you. They don’t buy stuff. They may option things. I mean, occasionally they buy things if they have a discretionary fund, which is a pool of development money that the producer has access to and can use freely.
Still, even in those cases the money is from the studio. But you were right on.
John: So, the advantage of writing a spec script is that obviously you can just write it and it’s free and clear and it’s yours and you can do whatever you want with it. Maybe you will sell that script to somebody, and that script will not become a movie. Most cases, no one will buy that script. That doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly valuable.
So the first script I wrote was this romantic tragedy set in Boulder, Colorado. It never sold. God bless it, it should never have sold because it really is not a movie, but people read it because they could read it. And they liked it enough that it got me my first jobs, my first assignments.
Go was the first spec script that I sold, and that sold to a tiny little production company. But it was sent around all over town, so at that point I had an agent who sent it to all the studios who said, “We love the writing. We can’t make this movie.” And a little tiny company said yes and that was the start of that.
Craig: And that’s the case now more than ever. There once was a burgeoning spec market, not so much anymore. Occasionally still people sell specs. But more often than not the specs today are calling cards for people to advertise their talent and their abilities.
John: And so there are weird exceptions. Like Amazon Studios will buy things that has no agent or manager or sort of anybody representing it. But Amazon Studios is a weird, sort of special case that I wouldn’t strongly recommend to anybody.
John: A question from Armin in Tehran, Iran. We have a listener in Tehran.
John: How great is the world?
Craig: The world is pretty great. Iran is not so great. I just read that they are now banning women from various classes in their universities. Not cool.
John: Not cool at all.
Craig: But, you know, the other fascinating thing about Iran, and we’ll get to his question in a second, is that did you know that there are no gay people in Iran?
John: That’s fascinating.
Craig: Yeah. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assures us that there are no gay people in Iran. [laughs] It’s the one place in the world where they just don’t grow.
John: Yeah. Wow. They figured something out!
Craig: Cool guy. So, what’s the question? [laughs]
John: [laughs] “I’m a screenwriter and I wrote some screenplays that I think have a chance to sell. Would you please help me know about ways to save my rights? As you know, unfortunately Iran isn’t under copyright law or a WTO copyright registration. So if I register my works at the WGA, how can I present them? I have a trustful friend in the USA, so is it possible to ship to him? If yes, what are the legal stages? Thanks for your attention.”
Craig: Oh boy. Wow.
John: So, way outside of our realm of experience. First off, I don’t know this to be true, so I’m taking him at his word that Iran actually doesn’t abide by copyright law. But that just kind of throws a wrench in everything.
Craig: It does. I mean, it may be true. There is copyright law which is country to country. And then there is essentially the Berne Convention, which is a kind of overarching regulator of copyright throughout the world, but even for instance the United States doesn’t subscribe to all the parts of the Berne Convention.
For instance, droit moral and so forth, we have work-for-hire, Europe doesn’t. Our copyright here in the United States is actually enshrined in the Constitution itself. Most people don’t know that. There’s part of the constitution that just talks about copyright. I have no idea what the situation is in Iran. I’m going to take his word for it that they don’t have any copyright protection, which seems odd to me.
And if that is the case and this person was trying to sell screenplays not in Iran, which I would imagine is the case given the situation there, then what I would do is probably send the script to, I guess, to the United States Copyright Office. Because the truth is anybody anywhere can register something with the Copyright Office in the United States. I don’t think you need to be a citizen, per se. And you would get the protections of that copyright where it applies, mainly the United States. But other people would respect it as well.
John: Yeah. My first line of investigation would be to figure out — there are Iranian filmmakers, and so obviously they are doing something. But, look at Iranian novelists or sort of anyone who is publishing outside of Iran and try to figure out how they’re doing what they’re doing, because they must have some copyright protection in places outside of Iran. So that would probably the first and best way to pursue — whatever they’re doing is probably the right thing to do.
US Copyright Office, certainly if a non-citizen can do that, that’s a great idea, too. Worse comes to worst, I think there might also be a way that if he has this trusted American friend — and again, this is just speculation, because it could be a work-for-hire in which the copyright vests in the employer — you could do something where potentially the person is buying it here for a nominal fee and registering that as being the owner — registering himself as being the owner of this copyrighted material.
Craig: You don’t actually need to do work-for-hire for that. You can transfer copyrights. The other thing is, the simplest thing if you wanted to go that route would simply be to send the script to your friend and have them register it as their own copyrighted work.
However, the purpose of copyright and all of this ultimately is to properly credit authorship. And the person who is writing the question is the author, not his friend. I have to believe somewhat that that can be protected. But, you know, this is one we’ll have to do a little research on and come back to, because that’s tricky. And I feel like I need more facts before I can answer properly.
John: Yeah. But I’m just excited that somebody in Iran is listening to our podcast.
Craig: That is fantastic, by the way. And we have here in Los Angeles we have a very large, very significant Persian community. I have a lot of Persian friends. And I am a fan of the people of Iran. Not so much the government, but the people.
John: We all hope for a very positive outcome in the decade to come for Iran.
John: A question about following up after a meeting. So, Bin Lee writes in to ask, “By dumb luck I ran into an established Hollywood writer at an airport in Cleveland this weekend. He was very nice and gave me his email since we ran out of business cards.” We had an earlier conversation about business cards.
“The next day I sent him an email reminding him who I was and it was nice to meet him. I also asked if he was free to meet up for lunch so I could pick his brain on some topics. Was it too forward of me to ask him to meet for lunch? I know there’s a fine line between friendly and too aggressive. I’m sure he’s super busy and I’m a small fish, but let’s say he doesn’t reply to my email. How long should I wait before I try to email him again? Two weeks? One month?”
Craig: Well, there’s nothing wrong with asking somebody to lunch. There’s nothing particularly too forward about that. It’s only forward to presume that they must have lunch with you. And he doesn’t have to have lunch with you and he may not want to, because like you said he’s busy. I think you could always shoot him another one in a month I think is fair and just say, “Hey, doesn’t have to be lunch, by the way, maybe just coffee. Or maybe we just get on the phone for 20 minutes. I just have some questions.”
I think you should err on the side of making it as easy as possible for this person to help you.
John: I would agree. I would also… — The huge advantage to me for coffee is that coffee has a much more limited time commitment implicit. And so I will tend to do coffee with people who are sort of in the situation where he’s a friend of a friend who, you know, I don’t know whether this is going to be a good time or a not so good time. Coffee could be 15 minutes. It could be an hour. But it’s much less of a commitment, so that’s a helpful thing for me.
In terms of following up, I think it’s a great use of the email, that’s good initiative. If after a week you heard nothing, maybe lob another, but after two contacts and you hear nothing, let it be done, because it’s not something that’s going to… — More follow up isn’t going to make that better.
Craig: I totally agree. Two emails is plenty. The lack of response should be presumed to be a “no,” and while it may seem rude, and it technically is rude, the truth is I get a lot of emails from people. I don’t even know how some of them get my email. And what happens is I find myself suddenly spending an hour helping people with stuff. And I don’t have an hour sometimes.
Sometimes I have the hour, I just don’t want to do it. I just want to lie down.
John: Yeah, that’s fair.
Brendan writes, “My writing partner and I have recently collaborated with a director on an idea he had for a movie. It was made clear at the beginning that the director wanted a shared ‘Story by’ credit and some form of compensation since the pitch was based on his original idea. We agreed in principle to this — no contracts yet — and used the WGA residual formula to determine the percentage of any initial sale. Therefore, one-half of a ‘Story by’ credit is 12.5 percent. We then sold the pitch to a studio, and between our lawyers and studio business affairs no one can seem to come up with a clean way to execute what seems to be a standard type of situation. How does this not happen all the time? WGA says their jurisdiction begins at the written story treatment level and do not cover pitches. Any suggestions on how to proceed?”
Craig: Oh, boy. This sort of stuff happens all the time. The Writers Guild is correct. The problem is: What writers sell is written material; what producers sell are ideas. So, what I would suggest, since the director appears to have not written anything but rather tossed ideas around with you, gave you an idea which you then took and started to write, what I would suggest is that you take the amount of money that the studio is willing to pay you — let’s just say, we’ll call it $100,000. You take 87.5 percent of that. So you say to the studio reduce the amount you would give me for the writing by 12.5 percent. You are the only writer employed. Take that remaining money, whatever I just said, $12,500, give that to the director and pay him under a producing deal.
John: But here’s the problem: Ultimately if the movie gets made there’s nothing guaranteeing that director a ‘Story by’ credit when it comes to determining credits.
Craig: He shouldn’t have a “Story by” credit. Here’s the deal: He didn’t write it. And sometimes people get really cranky about this because they feel like, “Well but it was my idea and I talked it out and I told them what to do.” Yeah, but you didn’t write it. Trust me, pal, and I’m being mean to this guy, it’s not fair — I’ll be nice to him. Trust me, friend, [laughs], the reason that you told that thing to him and then had him write it is because writing is annoying and/or hard.
There is actually value in the writing itself. And that’s what screen credit is for. Writing credit is for written words on a page, not for ideas or thoughts. If you want to open up the notion that credit be for ideas and thoughts, everybody gets credit. You’re not the only one who is going to be asking for story credit. Why won’t the producer, the executives, the actors, everybody — the writing credit is a really specific thing. Words fixed on a page literary material.
John: So, I basically agree. I think Craig’s solution is probably the best solution for the situation as it exists right now. Let’s play time machine, though. If you decided at the start that this director wanted “Story by” credit, shared “Story by” credit, what you should have probably done is worked up the pitch in a written form with him involved in writing up the pitch so that he was one of the people who helped write the pitch for it. And therefore there was some literary material that you could register and say this was the underlying material behind this so that it was natural that he was going to be getting his percentage down the road, that this “Story by” credit was going to be shared between the three of you.
Craig: And if my solution doesn’t fly for any number of reasons, I guess the only remaining thing to do would be to resubmit the original treatment as written-by the two of you. And then the problem is solved.
Craig: It may not be true, though; in fact, it isn’t true. So the Writers Guild at that point may do something called a participating writer investigation or a pre-arbitration to make sure that you weren’t strong-armed into this sort of thing.
John: And it doesn’t sound like he was strong-armed. It sounds like from the very start this was the intention. And we don’t know all the facts on what this collaboration was. And maybe there were zillions of emails back and forth, and so there is writing happening on what this project was way back when. So, we’ll see.
John: A question from Josh. Josh writes, “Scriptnotes has introduced me to podcasts and now I’m hungry for more. John has mentioned a few times listening to podcasts while doing dishes, so I’m wondering what other podcasts do you recommend for your listeners, either screenwriting related if there are others, or otherwise?”
So, Craig, if I recall correctly you don’t listen to any podcasts at all?
Craig: No. I do not listen to podcasts. I’m not a very auditory — auditorily inclined learner. I’m much more visual. So, I tend to read everything and listen to very little, except for music.
John: So I listen to a lot of podcasts. So, the four or five that I picked out, which I think are fantastic, which won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I recommend them so you should try them in iTunes. First is a comedy podcast called Throwing Shade with Erin Gibson and Bryan Safi. It’s absolutely filthy and it’s great fun.
Build & Analyze is a Mac iOS development centered — really iOS development centered podcast with Marco Arment that is fantastic, and Dave Benjamin.
John Gruber’s podcast I was on a couple months ago. He’s great. And so he’s been doing a podcast for quite a long time. He describes it as being the director’s commentary for Daring Fireball, his website, which is very popular and is good.
And then for all my political stuff I really love the Slate Political Gabfest, which is a weekly podcast which has three very smart people from Slate talking about three issues that are on the national stage. And so listening through the Republican primaries and sort of getting into the actual campaign season, it’s been a great source of both information and commentary about that.
For screenwriting, the only other one that I listen to with some regularity is the Nerdist Writer’s Podcast, which is actually fantastic. And so it’s a TV-focused podcast that talks to showrunners and other television writers about the craft, and it tends to be more of a roundtable setting, and it’s really great. And so we’ve talked about doing some sort of shared podcast with them at some point which hopefully in this next year will get to happen.
Craig: Oh, that sounds kind of cool.
John: Yeah. Our last question of the day is about finishing, so I thought this appropriate. Josh in LA writes, “I have a problem. And that problem is finishing a script. It may sound pathetic, but for me it’s very real and very worrisome. I have what I think are great ideas. I understand mechanics of writing and all that, but I find that during the process I either begin to dislike the idea or I’ll come up with some reason why it’s not the right script to be writing, and once that happens I’m zapped of all motivation.
“I produce a lot of material. I think it’s good material, but I seem to struggle with crossing the finish line. I have attention deficit disorder and I don’t take medication for it, which may have something to do with impatience or lack of focus, but outside of that I’m curious if this is a common problem and would be grateful to hear you or Craig give advice.”
Craig: I’m sorry. I just love “I have attention deficit disorder but I don’t take medication for it.” You know, maybe you do have attention deficit disorder; I don’t know. That has nothing to do with why you can’t finish your screenplay.
John: Not a bit.
Craig: If you enough attention to write 70 pages, you have enough attention to write 110 pages. The problem that you’re experiencing is very common and I would argue almost always is the result of poor planning before you start it. There is no reason that you shouldn’t know precisely what the ending of your movie is before you start writing it.
The beginning and the ending are married to each other. And the fun of writing the movie is moving from one to the other in an interesting way, taking a character from one to the other in an interesting way. So, if you don’t know how the movie ends or you lose sight of what the movie’s ending should be, it’s because you just didn’t start right. So I would suggest if you are not already doing this, you — specifically you — should outline your movie completely.
You should be able to describe the movie to somebody as if you just saw it scene by scene before you write “Fade In.”
John: A lot of what he’s facing I think is also the-grass-is-always-greener problem. When you are in the middle of a script, you see all the problems with your script because you’re facing them every day. And so every time you sit down to work on it, you’re bombarded by everything that’s not working right in your script.
And so there’s always going to be that shiny other idea that’s like, “Oh, well that would be a better thing for me to write because that’s all new.” It’s the pretty girl sitting over there that doesn’t have all the baggage of the girl who’s sitting in front of you.
So you are fascinated by that other thing because you are not aware of its problems. And so of course that other idea is going to look better. And you want to go off and write that one instead of the one you’re in right now.
You’ve got to finish. And what I think a lot of people don’t understand about screenwriting when they first start to work in the form is 120 pages is really long. I mean, it’s the longest thing that most people ever have to write. And it can be a challenge to get through it all. And so with good planning you’ll hopefully be able to know what the next thing is. When you encounter that second act malaise, which really I think encounter that moment of like, “Oh, I’m stuck in the middle of this and it doesn’t seem like it will ever end,” jump forward and write something else that is exciting for you to write. Write those things at the end. Write those things that got you excited about it.
And I always forget which writer first told me about this idea, but it’s a really good idea that I’ve never actually implemented but I sort of should. Right when you first get excited to write a project, when you first set out, this woman, she writes a letter to herself about how much she loves this project and why she’s writing it. She writes it. She seals it in an envelope. And then when she hits that moment where she can’t do anymore with it, she rips open the envelope and reads that letter and that helps her get through the draft.
Craig: Aw. She gives herself a hug.
John: She gives herself a big hug.
John: Which is nice. So, I say, Josh, give yourself a big hug. Know that really every script sort of feels like it’s never going to be finished. I mean, this thing I just turned, it wasn’t that I was even struggling with the work — I wasn’t struggling with any scene or any one moment of it. I was just like, “I can never get this thing finished.” But then I got it finished and it’s mostly just sitting down, or in my case standing up, and doing the work.
Craig: Yeah. You certainly can’t let despair stop you. If you let despair stop you — if everyone who wrote screenplays let despair stop them, your multiplex would be empty.
John: Yup. And with that, I want to talk about One Cool Things. Do you have a One Cool Thing this week?
Craig: I do have a Cool Thing this week.
John: I hope ours isn’t the same thing. I worry that it might be the same thing.
Craig: There’s not a chance.
John: Okay, good.
Craig: You go first.
John: My one cool thing is a book trailer for a book by Derek Haas, who is a friend of both of ours.
Craig: Oh, yeah, I liked his book trailer.
John: It’s a good book trailer. So, Derek Haas is a very prolific screenwriter and now a TV writer, and he has a new show, Chicago Fire, on NBC which was advertised incessantly during the Olympics. I felt like the Olympics were on fire how often they were showing that commercial. He writes with a writing partner, Michael Brandt, but he also by himself writes books.
And I don’t know how he does it. It’s some sort of drug that lets him just create a tremendous amount of words. But he has a new book coming out this fall called The Right Hand. And there is a trailer for the book which is actually really good. They did a great job with it.
And I’m not sure I completely believe in trailers for books, but this kind of sells me on it, because it feels like this is a spy novel and I see sort of why a person might see this and think, “Wow, I’d see that movie. Since the movie doesn’t exist yet I’ll read this book.”
So, in the show notes you’ll see a link to The Right Hand, a book by Derek Haas.
Craig: Excellent. Yeah. It’s very cool. And Derek is a good guy. I just, in fact, came back from lunch with him.
Craig: He’s my friend. I have a Cool Thing this week that I don’t understand. And I think one of the great things about this podcast is that while ostensibly it’s about us helping people, I feel like we have this amazing cohort of listeners out there who are really smart. And I notice in the comments and tweets and things, sometimes they’re just a step ahead of us on some things. And I feel like somebody, one of our listeners, is going to be able to explain to me, because I’m so fascinated by it.
So there was this really cool article in Gizmodo, a website I love, and it was titled The Algorithm that Controls Your Life. Did you read this, John?
John: I did not.
Craig: It’s really cool. Okay. So an algorithm is basically a decision-making chart. It’s just a way of approaching how to make decisions and determine outcomes. And so, for instance, “A fund manager,” I’m reading from the article, “a fund manager might want to arrange a portfolio optimally to balance risk and expected return over a range of stocks. Or, a railway timetabler wants to decide how to best roster staff for trains. Or a factory manager tries to work out how to juggle finite machine resources. This is the job of the algorithm.”
There is one algorithm that emerged in the ’40s from the work of a mathematician here in the United States named George Dantzig. And his job back then was to increase the logistical efficiency of the US Air Force, a pretty mundane kind of problem. But what he came up with was an algorithm that is represented by something called a polytope; it’s basically a chart — a pathway decision chart. And it’s this kooky looking sort of — it looks like a weird gem almost. And his particular algorithm was called the simplex algorithm.
And it turns out that the simplex algorithm is the most useful algorithm of all. And it is used in everything — search engines, how food gets to the market, everything. One academic quoted in the article says, “Tens or hundreds of thousands of calls of the simplex method are made every minute.”
So, to you out there: What is this? [laughs] I need to know. I need you to explain the simplex algorithm and I need to understand how an algorithm is represented by a shape and why this one is so powerful.
John: That’s great. That’s a great call to action, because I think we have some very smart listeners who will be able to describe it in terms that are not necessarily layman, but smart-but-not-maybe-gear-heady people can understand. That would be great.
Craig: Yeah. I just love that there’s some dude in the ’40s who came up with a shape and the shape is controlling our lives. [laughs] It’s so cool. And I need to understand how. So thank you. Thank you, unnamed person.
John: I find all these kinds of optimization and sort of, you know, trying to look at how decisions are made fascinating. So, economics, I loved taking the classes but none of it really stuck. Like supply and demand stuck, but the bigger implications of it always sort of went over my head. And so I like that people understand it. I guess I trust that people understand it. Sometimes I have moments of doubt that where I think that people are sort of just making stuff up. But it’s neat.
Craig: The fun thing about economics — and I’m with you by the way, exactly with you; I understand basic concepts but then once they leap past those I’m gone — but economics is one of the few areas of academic study where no one seems to agree at all. It’s almost to the point where it’s useless. I mean, there’s a predominance of people who believe that something is true in terms of medicine or biology or physics.
I mean, most physicists believe that the Higgs boson was real. Some didn’t. But most did. Economics, it just seems like, well, you’ve got Vienna over here and you’ve got the other one over there. [laughs] Keynes. And they just don’t agree at all. And they argue all the time.
John: Well the trouble becomes is you’re trying to control — it all looks really pretty on a chart, but in the real world you are controlling for so many variables; you really can’t say whether that had this impact or had this impact. So, did raising that marginal tax rate make this change, or did it have all of these other manifestations in ways that you can’t have anticipated? So, that’s where I get confused.
And so it’s always fun to talk about, “oh, guns and butter,” but then when you actually really drill down and get into more specifics it’s not as simple or fun.
Craig: I feel like psychology is a bit like that, too. Psychology is so open-ended. It can almost account for any outcome. Any one theory can account for any outcome which makes all of it useless.
Craig: But not the simplex algorithm. That will someday tell us what to do. I think it already is, actually.
John: Yeah. Right now. It has told us that it is time to end this podcast.
John: Craig, thank you for a fun year of Scriptnotes.
Craig: And here’s to many more. We should have a little cake. We should make a little cake and give it to our microphones.
Craig: The microphone is one year old. So cute!
John: Which microphone are you using, by the way?
Craig: I use the same one you do, the AT2020.
John: It has a little glowing blue light.
Craig: The glowing blue light.
John: It makes me so happy.
Craig: Yeah. The glowing blue light is very comforting.
John: Craig, thank you again. Talk to you next week.
Craig: Thank you. You got it.