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 57 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, the one thing that’s interesting to me as a screenwriter is I just saw your trailer for Identify Thief.
Craig: Teaser trailer.
John: Teaser trailer is the short version. But it felt like a satisfying appetizer to a big meal.
Craig: That’s the idea, yeah. It was interesting. There’s a lot about it that’s very cool that I like. I mean, sort of selling the scope and the action of the movie. My suspicion is that the official trailer when it finally comes will have more character and interaction between Jason and Melissa, which is for me the fun part. So, I’m kind of excited to see where it evolves.
But I love the posters. I think they’re really funny and cool.
John: Oh, what I liked about this teaser trailer is it setup what the basic idea of the movie is. So, Jason Bateman is a person whose identity gets stolen. He has a name that could be mistaken as a woman’s name, and in fact Melissa McCarthy is the woman who has assumed his identity. And she is insane, which is crucial.
Craig: Yeah. She’s pretty out there. But one thing I like about the movie is that she’s out there, but not maybe as out there as you might initially think. So, there some cool surprises and some cool twists.
And this wasn’t my original idea. A guy named Jerry Eaton wrote a spec script many years ago and I essentially did a page one rewrite. I mean, I sort of just started fresh, but I used… — It’s a great idea. And I think it’s one of those ideas that’s great because it’s relevant.
And it’s also one of those ideas where you hear it and you go, “I can’t believe no one else thought of that. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that. Why didn’t I think of that?” So, kudos to Jerry for a spectacular idea. And I have high hopes. I think people will like it.
John: Great. And it occurs to me now that this will be the last podcast before Frankenweenie comes out.
Craig: That’s right.
John: Frankenweenie will be in theaters this Friday, for people who are listening to this on Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Thursday. And Frankenweenie turned out really, really well. It’s nice to have a movie that I can sort of talk freely about, because it’s been screened enough that I don’t have to keep any secrets back or away. We screened at Fantastic Fest in Austin. And we’re screening at the London Film Festival, and lots of places where people can see this movie.
And it turned out really nicely. So, I thought today we would talk about three different things, one of them being this process of putting out a movie. Topics I proposed for today:
First is, what is a movie idea? And so what is the difference between an idea that might be great for a book, or great for a play, but what is a movie idea.
Second, I want to talk about press junkets, something that I just went through, and you’ve been through a bunch of times. And it’s sort of how the sausage is made.
And, finally, David Denby has a long article in the New York — actually, I think the New Republic…
John: …on sort of the perceived death of not the film industry overall, but of a certain kind of movie. And I thought we might talk about that a little bit, too.
John: Cool. So, let’s start on, this actually came from a question that a reader wrote in. I will read you this question. John from Austin asks, “On the podcast you and Craig both say that one of the first questions a screenwriter should ask him or herself is, ‘Why should this be a movie?’ I was wondering how you guys answer that question when you set out to write your scripts. For instance, why do you think Go needed to be a movie? Or why Big Fish needed to be adapted into a movie and now a play? Is it because the material is highly visual, or action-packed? When writing myself I usually answer the ‘why should this be a movie?’ question with, ‘because I want it to be.'”
And so I want to sort of pull that apart into two threads here and really talk about one of them. When you say something “wants to be a movie,” you’re really talking about two different things. One is does the universe want this story to sort of exist? Does it feel like the kind of thing where there’s an audience for some version of this story about your blind pickle maker who inherits a rat factory? Does this want to be told in some capacity?
And if the answer to that is yes, this is really the more crucial piece that we’ll talk about right now, is that idea a movie idea or is it some other kind of idea? Is it really a better idea for a TV series, or a short film, or a short story, or a play? Does it want to be a movie? Is that the best incarnation of that idea? So, I thought we’d talk about what makes a good movie idea.
Craig: Yeah. You know, we’ve talked in the past about the idea of why the sort of heart and soul of whatever the movie is. And so, I just like to ask what would an audience relate to through this story that is not specific to the plot of the story, which is a weird kind of thing to say, but we tell stories because there are universal truths. There is some kind of enlightenment inside of them that is applicable for everyone sitting in the theater. Everyone.
So few of us have been in a car chase, and yet there is something about a car chase. So few of us have had a spouse kidnapped, but there’s something about that that allows us to put ourselves in the position. And ideally there is a takeaway from the movie that isn’t about the specifics, but rather is about a larger dramatic question. “Is it better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all?” That can be put into any number of scenarios that have nothing to do plot-wise with each other.
So, that’s the first question when I ask does this need to be a movie, or should this be a movie. I want to know that there is something at the heart of it that is relevant beyond the details of the movie itself.
John: But when you talk about that central dramatic question, I agree that’s a crucial element to a movie. I really feel like that’s a crucial element to most kinds of literature we’re talking about though. That’s a crucial question for a novel, that’s a crucial question for many things.
Craig: You’re right.
John: So I want to sort of drill it down on sort of what makes something a movie idea. And I had a couple criteria, and maybe you can add some criteria or push back on anything you don’t agree with.
I think a movie idea tends to have, no, it needs to have a beginning, and a middle, and an end. Which is that a movie idea has to have an idea that is expressed well in, “This is how the story starts, this is the middle of the story, and this is the end of the story.”
And, if you think about a TV series, a TV series doesn’t necessarily have an end. A TV series is the kind of story, the kind of idea, that should be able to sort of keep propagating itself, and keep rolling along. So, a TV series can go on for seven seasons. Or, some British TV series may only last for eight episodes, but eight episodes is a very different feeling than a two-hour movie.
So, is the best form of this story going to be told with a beginning, a middle, and an end that’s going to fall in about a two-hour window?
Craig: I agree.
John: And some ideas lend themselves to that; some don’t. Second thing I would point out with movies is: movies are about characters. An essay could be about an idea. A choreographed number could have people in it, but they’re actually representing the waves, or — like — a wall. The movies are about characters. And specifically they’re about characters who have some sort of identifiable objective or goal.
It may not be classically the Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Quest, but there is something — you can point at a character in any movie that you watch on the big screen and you know what that character is trying to do, both in that moment and hopefully overall within the course of the story. Fair?
Craig: Yeah. That is fair, well, to an extent, because television is also about characters.
Craig: Specifically when I think of sitcoms, they’re almost solely about characters, even though they’re called “situation comedies,” the whole point is the situations themselves, they’re farcical or they’re silly, but it really is just about watching these people navigate their daily lives.
The thing about movie characters is they are in need of completion. Movies are conclusive. So, if your story seems to want to be about someone who has a specific flaw that needs to be repaired, somebody who has an injury that needs to be healed, somebody who has a fear that needs to be overcome. And all those sentences involve conclusion, and completion, then it seems like a movie story.
If you have an idea that’s really about characters who are slowly evolving, changing, falling in love, falling out of love, encountering a new way of life and it’s more of a — and the value of your story seems to be more in the journey than in a sense of conclusivity, then it may be more of a TV idea.
John: Absolutely. There is a reason why Friends is a TV series. And that you’re watching these characters week after week, and you’re watching them slowly grow and change. And what you can point to, “This is Rachel’s objective in this episode.” That’s not her overall life objective that we’re seeing reach some sort of conclusion in this period of time.
Craig: Right. In fact, she doesn’t have an overall life objective.
John: Which is part of her character. Yeah.
Another thing I would say as you’re looking at movie ideas: movies are set in some kind of concrete space and time. So, you can say there is central dramatic question, but behind them and behind those characters and the things they are doing, they take place in an identifiable world or universe. Now, it could be a completely made up world. It could be the Matrix, or it could be Avatar, but there’s something we’re seeing on screen behind those characters. And you compare that to some surrealist fiction, or you compare that to songs, or essays, or dance pieces, those can be really abstract and do not have to be pinned down to any one place or time.
Movies are more literal. There’s going to be something that you’re seeing on screen. And if you’re not sure of what you would actually see on screen, then that maybe is not a movie idea yet. Or you haven’t found the expression that it is a movie idea.
Craig: Right. Yes. If your story seems to demand a limitation of space, if you want to tell — and I hesitate to say this because there are always exceptions, you know. But if you are telling the story of three friends who meet every Friday at a diner, it may be a TV show. Now it also turned out to be a movie. [laughs]
John: And now it’s a musical.
Craig: And there have been wonderful movies that seemed to be centered around a place. There’s that terrific movie Smoke, I really like that movie, and that really takes place in a shop mostly. But by and large if your story is confined by a single space it may be better suited for either a stage play or a television show, because stage plays and television shows are also confined by space. The economics of television, for sitcoms specifically, demands kind of a set place. They try and limit your locations.
Now, if you were getting at a comedy, if you’re talking about a story that seems to require serialization, you certainly want to obviously go towards television. You never, and I hear people say things like this, they’ll say, “Well, I’m writing a movie, and it’s really the first of five movies,” or “it’s the first of a trilogy.” Don’t do that, because nobody is really buying a trilogy, ever.
They’re going to need to make your movie. It’s going to need to stand up on its own, by itself, and then they’ll decide if they want another installment.
John: It’s great that you have an idea for what the trilogy would be…
Craig: But if you need that, then you should be dealing in television
John: Yeah. Last sort of criteria I would say is that movies need to make sense while you’re watching them. And that sounds crazy, but if you’re reading a book you have the opportunity to stop and go back and flip through pages, like, “Oh, I forgot who that character was; I can go back and see that.” Movies have to be able to make sense the first time through.
That doesn’t mean that a person couldn’t be watching it on DVD and go back and see something, or on the third time viewing it they catch something new. But on the whole they need to actually make sense the first time through. That’s not necessarily going to apply for a short story, or an essay, or a choreographed performance.
Something that’s a movie needs to actually make sense by the time the lights come up.
Craig: Yeah. Television has a rhythm that demands cliffhangers. Even if you’re, aside from commercial television, cable television demands cliffhangers because people will watch their episode and that last scene needs to tease them to watch the next one. And we don’t have that in movies. We have reversals, and we have mysteries, and we have moments, but our stories don’t demand cliffhangers. If you’re writing television, any serialized television, your story needs to be able to provide you cliffhangers.
I guess we could talk about the reverse question, “Well, is this really a TV idea or is this more of a movie idea?” If your serialized television idea doesn’t inherently provide you the opportunity for cliffhangers, you might want to think about maybe a movie.
John: Yeah. So let’s take a look at some actual properties. Let’s take a look at Game of Thrones. So, Game of Thrones, based on a wildly popular series of giant novels, was adapted as a television series. And so why does that want to be a television series as opposed to a movie? Or, what would be different if we were looking at that as a movie idea?
Craig: Well, first of all, you’re dealing with scope. So, the scope of the source material is such that a movie is impossible. There is some source material that could go either way. The Watchmen very famously was sort of viewed as unadaptable for many years because it was 12 comic books, each one of them was very dense with material and it just didn’t seem possible to tell the story coherently, even though once you had read — as a movie — even though once you had read all 12 you could see that there was an enormous amount of thematic unification in the whole thing. And it would be ideal if it were a movie.
I actually think that Zack Snyder did a pretty good job. But when you look at Game of Thrones, there’s no question. You simply could not contain that world and therefore you could not deliver what is satisfying about the books if you jammed it into even a three hour movie.
It’s the same reason that Peter Jackson famously turned down the opportunity to make Lord of the Rings as one movie with the Weinsteins and instead made it as three movies with New Line.
John: But what I would point out with Lord of the Rings, though, is Lord of the Rings at least has a clear beginning, middle, and end. You have a quest to do something. We have to bring this ring, you know, there’s one specific thing we’re trying to do. It’s incredibly complicated all the way around it, but there is a beginning, a middle, and end to that…
John: …which is there is not in Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones is an ongoing saga with no clear central protagonist, very long arcs, sudden reversals. To me it feels like a TV idea.
Craig: For sure. Yeah, and you’re right because in fact there was an animated movie of The Lord of the Rings that was made in the ’70s and it was one movie. I mean, that is a containable — you’re right: One protagonist; one main quest line. And quite the opposite for Game of Thrones.
Also, Game of Thrones is not yet resolved, [laughs] so you don’t even know if you even wanted to try and tell the story of Game of Thrones in one movie. You couldn’t because it hasn’t been written yet.
And, so, you just have to ask: where is all the joy? Where is all the good stuff in this? And the good stuff in Game of Thrones is in the details. And if you read those books you will see even how Martin will end chapters with cliffhangers. And you realize, “Oh, well that’s where the episode should end.” You know, David Benioff and Dan Weiss do a spectacular job of corralling that material into discrete episodes, each one of which feels like it deserves to exist, and none of them feel like a filler episode just to pad out a season. I suspect that that is 50% of the agony of making that show is trying to figure out how to compress that which needs to be compressed and how to expand that which feels like it should be expanded.
But, yeah, you could never do that as a… — You could do it as a movie, it would just stink. So why?
John: Yeah. You’d be leaving out so much stuff that it wouldn’t be the same idea. So, let’s talk about another example. This is the Charlie’s Angels movie, the first movie, which is based on a TV series. And so I want to talk about the changes you make in taking a property that was a TV series and worked as a TV series and how we had to look at it as a movie.
Obviously the plot of the movie has to be… — We have to introduce, a TV series you don’t have to introduce the Angels each time. You introduce them in the pilot episode and then it’s just a given that these are the three Angels who work for Charlie, and they go on these cases, and there is going to be resolution with the cases every week. In a movie we have to introduce who these young women are. We have to introduce what these women want. And the characters themselves have to motivate much more of the plot and the story than they would in any given episode of Charlie’s Angels.
Charlie’s Angels as a TV series, the plot is beamed in. The plot is given to them and they work on the plot and they solve the plot. In a movie version of Charlie’s Angels, the Angels have to create a lot more of the plot, and that means in many cases it’s really the subplots, the individual things they’re trying to do. But they’re responsible themselves for much more of the plot. And it needs to be a story that can have the builds and changes over the course of a two-hour movie that a one-hour episode would never have to do.
So, you couldn’t just take, “Oh, that was a really good episode of the show,” and sort of expand it into a movie. It had to have its own engine. And the Angels themselves had to be at the wheel for the story.
Craig: Yeah. For sure. When you adapt for the screen you also have to account for just the size. Just the size of the screen. Television is small. They’re getting bigger, but traditionally small, certainly in the time of Charlie’s Angels they were small.
And so it’s a bit of a waste to create large cinematic set pieces because they just wouldn’t fit very well on the screen. They’d look dumb. When you’re making a movie on a big screen you want to excite the audience and you want to use the physical space you have in front of them.
When I adapted Harvey, I was adapting Mary Chase’s play. And so it was set up for stage. And I think there were two sets basically, two places. Three, sorry. There was a bar, a house, and basically a mental institution.
John: But I would point out that in the actual play you never go to that bar. They talk about the bar, but you never actually go to that bar.
Craig: Oh, yeah, you’re right. You know what? The bar was actually in the movie in the first adaptation. But even the movie — when they made movies of plays they oftentimes just shot them like the play because it was cheap, and it was easy, and people were used to movies on sets.
The old movies, a lot of old movies look like filmed stage plays. Not all of them, of course. We’ll be talking about Stagecoach and The Searchers later. But, when I did my adaptation I really tried to avoid what I called “claustrophobia,” for lack of a better word. I wanted to get outside. I wanted to see New York. I wanted to put them in the park. I wanted to put them on the street. I wanted to have them get out of the city for a day and make that meaningful and make the change of space meaningful.
These are the things you have to think about, because ultimately someone’s going to have to sit down and shoot this thing. And after the twelfth day of shooting in the same room, everyone is going to look at each other and say, “Why are we still here shooting?”
John: Yeah. That’s not to say you can’t make My Dinner with Andre. It’s just that’s going to be challenging in ways that you’re probably not anticipating sustaining the audience’s interest, because you are not using most of the tools that you’ve been given for making a movie.
John: I want to also talk, one last thing occurs to me that could kind of go both ways, which is Preacher, which I adapted as a movie, and before had been adapted as a TV series, neither of which has shot. And when I got the assignment to write Preacher as a movie, there was a tremendous amount of fan boy comments, like, “Oh, that’s a terrible idea; it should be an HBO series. It should be a series for cable.”
And I think the instinct behind that was that people were looking at the comic book series and seeing like there are all of these stories and there’s all this stuff that happens. And if it’s too much for one movie, and so therefore it needs to be a series. And people were sort of figuring out, “Oh, these things together could be one season.” They basically had everything mapped out for me, so that was great — so just go ahead and do that.
And someone actually had tried to do it as a series for HBO and it hadn’t happened and it hadn’t worked. So, when I took Preacher as a movie, what I argued is that — I had sort of this road trip analogy in that the heart of Preacher to me is a road trip with these three characters. And it’s a cross-country road trip to discover what’s really going on here. And that the journey of Preacher is really about being in the car with these three people.
And so if in the comic book series they took a 50 day road trip across America and this winding path all across the 48 states, the movie version of this would be a quicker route through some different places, but the same kinds of things would happen because you have the same three people in the car, and that the same character stories could very easily happen in a movie version, and it would be a rewarding experience.
So, some things can go different ways.
Craig: Well, people who love material tend to want to see all of it.
Craig: If you’re going to shoot something I love and I know every single panel of, or every single word of, I want you to shoot all of it, and I want it to be just like I saw it in my head. And I don’t want you to cut corners. And I don’t want you to leave things out. And for the love of God, I certainly don’t want you to change the story just to make it fit.
But, you have to look at what the material is. And there are times when frankly not everybody loves it quite as dearly as some of the people who are devoted to it. Now, one interesting example of this is Sandman, the absolutely mind-blowing graphic novel series by Neil Gaiman. One of my favorite things — I won’t even say one of my favorite pieces of art or literature; just one of my favorite things.
And Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott were hired many years ago by Warner Brothers to try and make one movie out of it, which on its face seems just as impossible as making a movie of Game of Thrones. I mean, there were — I’m not sure how many specific volumes of Sandman there are, but it covered many years and it is — in scope it is mind-boggling, absolutely mind-boggling. You’re going across thousands of years, multiple dimensions, probably 50, 60, 70 characters. Sequences that completely remove you from the narrative and put you into side narratives.
All of which amazingly reconnect, like, two years later into the series. I mean, I don’t know how he did it. Truly, I can’t imagine how he did it. But, so Terry and Ted have this seemingly impossible task, and they made a choice, which was to pull one story out, a good one, a significant one, and tell the Sandman story just limited through the lens of that story.
And ultimately Warner Brothers didn’t make the movie. I would love to see Benioff and Weiss take a crack at that one when Game of Thrones runs its course. I think they would be — to turn that into an HBO series would just be unbelievable. Unbelievable.
John: Yeah. So we look at however many issues of Sandman there were, it is a drop in the bucket to how many episodes and issues there were of Batman.
John: And so you say like, “Oh, you’ve changed something in Batman.” Well, which Batman are you talking about? Are you talking about the original Bob Kane Batman? That would be really fascinating to see that as a movie, or a series, or anything else. But that’s not sort of Batman anymore.
And so in the process of time and other adaptations, Batman becomes a generalized enough character that we’ve accepted the fact that there can be multiple incarnations of it. And so we can do a Batman movie and it makes sense.
And now it seems weird to think of a Batman series, but of course you could do a Batman series.
Craig: And they did.
John: Yeah. And we have the Spiderman Musical.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, look, Batman is the work of collective authorship, even though Bob Kane sort of — it begins with him. There have been many people who have written for Batman. You can’t look at Batman and say this is the work of singular authorship. Frank Miller reinvented Batman. There are multiple people involved.
Sandman is Neil Gaiman. Just like Watchmen was Alan Moore. And they were contained. Nobody — I mean, they’re trying to do a new Watchmen, and I think they are doing a new Watchmen. I’m not going to look at it, I just can’t. But there shouldn’t be any other Sandman, just that one, you know. So, when it’s a standalone work of single authorship it’s harder to sort of just do another thing. Whereas Batman, Spiderman, Superman, they feel accessible and retellable. And I think that is function of the multiple author nature of that storyline.
John: Great. So I want to take a quick pass at two ideas and let’s talk about them as movie ideas versus other kinds of ideas. So, just random ideas.
So, an alien artifact is discovered in the Himalayas. What’s the movie version of that? Or what’s a movie version of that?
Craig: And actual existing movie you mean?
John: No. If that was the idea, like there’s this alien artifact and it’s discovered in the Himalayas. So, how does that want to tell itself as a movie.
Craig: I mean, my immediate instinct is that you’ve got an expedition trying to climb Everest. And probably a character that needs to climb Everest. And then they encounter this thing and the climb becomes — which was already a difficult test — becomes one of much larger survival. Man versus alien in the snowy cliffs of the Himalayas.
John: Exactly. So, there are characters who are doing something whose trajectory is changed by the discovery of this thing and they have to resolve what this thing has unleashed in the course of that two-hour movie.
Craig: It’s a pretty cool idea for a movie.
John: As opposed to, that could also be the inciting incident for the pilot of a TV series. But then it would be sort of like: What has this artifact changed about the world so that the nature of our world is different on a week, to week, to week basis?
Craig: Yeah. It can’t be a TV show because you’re stuck in the Himalayas.
John: You’re not necessarily stuck in the Himalayas. Maybe you’re discovering this thing in the Himalayas but you’re transporting it someplace else.
Craig: Yeah. Maybe then.
John: Another simpler topic. So, the idea is a family in which everyone has that disease the kids have in The Others where they can’t be in sunlight, so the whole family has that disease. So, as a TV series, you can sort of see that. That they are sort of like the night family. Their world is upside down because they’re at night.
In a movie, though… — So you could accept that as a preexisting situation in a TV series.
John: In a movie there would be a new thing that happened in the movie, or something big has to happen at the start of that movie that creates a specific situation for this family that changes their situation.
Craig: Yeah. If you were doing a movie version, I could see that you would start with say a girl who moves to town and is normal and meets this guy at night. And then discovers he can’t be outside during the day. And there is some kind of romance and test. But, it seems…
John: It’s like a Nicholas Sparks. It’s like a really dark Nicholas Sparks movie.
Craig: Yeah. And a little bit of kind of vampire romance, even though they’re not vampires. But it’s not resolvable. And, frankly, it seems so odd; it seems like when the movie ends you think, “Yeah, but they’re still stuck in their house.” There’s something — the premise that you just laid out there implies continuation.
John: I agree with you. And so I think that family is only half of a movie idea. I think it’s a good underlying TV idea. It’s only really half a movie idea because that’s not actually telling you plot. Whereas that alien artifacts sort of implied a plot. We need to know what the resolvable plot is within the course of this two hours for this to be a successful movie.
Craig: Right. Yeah. Because they can’t go outside. So, if they can’t go outside there’s no completion there. It just seems a little odd.
All right. Next topic. I want to talk about junkets, usually press junkets, because I just went through this this last weekend for Frankenweenie. And they’re bizarre. And the only, I think, onscreen portrayal I’ve ever seen of them was in this movie America’s Sweethearts with Julia Roberts and John Cusack. And I didn’t love the movie, but it sort of felt like what a press junket feels like.
So, here’s the idea behind a press junket, is there are so many newspapers, magazines, and particularly blogs that you want to put your filmmakers in front of and your cast in front of. And if you were to try to do this individually it would take forever. And so, “Well, what if we just got all of our cast and all of our filmmakers together and we got all of these journalists together and we stuck them in rooms? And just over the course of one or two days just banged it all out?” And that was the instinct behind a press junket.
And so I just went through this this last weekend for Frankenweenie. And this was at the Grand California, the big hotel that’s next to California Adventure/Disneyland.
John: And, it was kind of fun. It was kind of exhausting. And you’ve been through this on many movies probably, right?
Craig: Oh yeah, for sure.
John: Yeah. So I’ll talk through what happened with this, but it’s pretty typical and we can talk sort of pros and cons and what you learn from them.
So, in the morning they gather everybody together, they feed them with coffee, and they give them lots of sort of swag from the movie, little dolls and things. And then they break the journalists up into different rooms. And so in this case there were seven rooms. And so there were maybe 10 or 12 journalists in each room.
At the front of the room is a table, and there were two microphones, because they broke us into teams of two. So, Tim was talking to journalists I think by himself. But all the rest of us were in teams of two. So, I was partnered with Don Hahn, Executive Producer of the movie and sort of animation legend. And the cast were partnered in twos.
And so they sit you down at the front of this table and the journalists ask questions. And it goes on for about ten minutes and then a publicist says, “Time’s up.” They grab you and they pull you to the next room. And so essentially there are seven teams that are sort of rotating through all the rooms. The journalists stay put and they move the cast and talent around between the rooms.
So, people are asking similar questions, but you quickly figure out what the theme is of that room. And so like, “Oh, you are all Japanese journalists, okay. You’re going to ask me the normal questions but you’re also going to ask me about sort of Kaiju monster movies and those kind of things.”
This one room was clearly like mommy bloggers. [laughs] Another room was like, “Oh, these are the dog people.” And I remember from Big Fish one room was like — “What is this room?” And I was trying to figure out. And I was like, “Oh, it’s all the Christian press.” And there was a Christian press room for Big Fish.
So, that’s the morning. And then you break for lunch and Martin Landau tells you stories of how it was back in the day that are fascinating. And then in the afternoon what they had us do is they would put each of us in a separate room and then they would send in certain journalists who got to have one-on-one interviews with us for like ten minutes, or sometimes up to 30 minutes, and they can ask you more detailed questions about things.
So, in both cases there are a bunch of recorders sitting on the table, and I meant to take a picture of like all the different iPhones recording the conversations throughout the time. But, you do this, and then all of these interviews that happen during this time are basically banked for a day or two before the movie opens. So, the movie opens October 5, so October 3 you’ll suddenly see all this stuff as if on that day I did it.
Craig: Right. Yeah, it’s a bit of a surreal experience. The other movie I would point people to is Notting Hill. There’s a — I don’t know if you ever saw it.
John: Oh, absolutely, yeah.
Craig: There’s a great sequence where Hugh Grant arrives at a hotel to talk to Julia Roberts, who is this big movie star, and he kind of gets mistaken as press, and he invents a magazine. I think it’s like Horse Fancy or something like that, unique, and he starts acting like a press person at one of these things. They’re very odd. I find, having gone through a few junkets, a couple of things stand out.
As the screenwriter you need to understand that you are not anyone’s first pick for an interview. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just that people like movie stars — that’s who they want to talk to. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I find sometimes that the best interviews for screenwriters at these things are with people that are slightly off the beaten path of mainstream press because they are specifically interested in the screenwriter and what the screenwriter does.
So, I tend to enjoy those more. I don’t get caught up in, “Well, why am I not on camera with ABC. Why am I here with…” you know. And then you realize, well, actually I’m doing a phone interview with Cole Abaius, who has an awesome podcast, you know, and who cares, and actually asks great questions.
So, you shouldn’t get hung up on stuff like that. It does give me an appreciation for why actors get tired of press. It’s easy to sort of say, you know, “You made millions of dollars on a movie and you’re complaining about press? Come on, man.” And yet when you’ve been asked the same question for the four millionth time something happens in your bones and violence starts to rise up. You start to feel like you’re in a dream world where you’re just answering the same question over, and over, and over, and over. And you slip into the zone.
Phil Hay, who is a friend of ours, a screenwriter, said at some point in the middle things you stop really answering questions and you start trying to just not make a mistake because you don’t want to say anything dumb, or insulting, or something that’s going to hurt the movie.
But in general they are fun to do. They are more fun to do for movies you like. They’re more fun to do for big movies. When you have a little movie that’s struggling or isn’t that great, and I’ve been there, no one wants to be there. You don’t want to be there and they don’t want to be there. [laughs] That’s awful. But, you know, for the one or two times a year that screenwriters do these things, they’re pretty fun.
John: I think the role a screenwriter can play in these junkets sometimes is the provider of logic or the provider of like helping people fit things together. Because in most cases they will have just seen the movie and they’re trying to formulate their opinions or how to actually talk about the disparate facts they’re getting.
And so sometimes you can be the person who is providing framework, or at least talking about one aspect of the move that no one else up there is going to be able to talk about because it’s not really their — it’s not what they did. And so Frankenweenie has a large sort of pro-science bias, which is sort of unusual for a monster movie because most monster movies are about the dangers of science and ours is about the dangers of ignorance and sort of ignoring a science. And so that sort of became part of my function to talk through that.
And a weird thing happens in a lot of these junkets and stuff that like by two-thirds of the way through the day someone will ask a question that — either the question, in this case the question — sometimes I just formulate it but never answer. And I realized like, “Oh wow, I wish I could like go back and redo all those other interviews because I now have a much better thing to say.”
John: So, one of the interviewers, and I can’t remember which one it was, said, “In the movie the teacher, Rzykruski, says that perhaps the difference between why your first science experiment turned out well is because you did it with love and your second science experiment turned out poorly because you didn’t care about it. Is that really a metaphor for the artistic process and sort of movies you care about and movies you don’t care about?” And I was like, wow, that completely is a metaphor for that, and it was not an intentional thing, but I would have completely claimed credit for that.
Because it’s true. There are the movies that you deeply love and that turn out really, really well because you were deeply 100 percent emotionally connected and invested in them. And then there are some moves that you know aren’t right and aren’t working that way, and so you do disconnect to some degree and the movie suffers for that. So, it was a really great insight that was not mine at all, but I’m gladly going to keep repeating it as if it were my insight.
So, that part of it is cool. And I like talking, but after awhile it’s not just that you’re sick of giving the same answers. You can’t remember if you just said that same thing to the same person. And that gets to be challenging.
Craig: It does. It gets exhausting, but you’re right that for a screenwriter press junkets are an opportunity to convey your intention. And people will often miss these things. Sometimes they’ll misconstrue them. And sometimes they’ll believe that something was done for a reason and it’s just not true. And so it’s an opportunity to get into it and talk about the whys of things and to sort of give your opinion on things. We are generally unseen and unheard. And I’m not so militant as to demand that screenwriters be on the cover of Us [Weekly], but we do have a very interesting perspective on these things, because we were there with the intention before the execution.
And, so we actually can provide a pre-context of things that no one else can. Literally no one else can. And for that reason alone these things are good for screenwriters to do.
In the past, when I first started in the ’90s, it was rare that screenwriters would even be invited to these things. And I understood why. There were so few outlets. Frankly, the people doing the interviews didn’t care about the screenwriters. And nobody bothered.
That’s really changed. The way that entertainment news is reported now, there’s 1,000 outlets. And there are people that really are interested solely in the screenwriter. So, it’s a much more interesting thing for screenwriters to do now. And I would encourage all screenwriters to be active. Frankly, if you have a big movie coming out I think it’s a good idea to get yourself a publicity person and help kind of generate opportunities for you. Not because you need to get your name out there for ego purposes, but frankly just to provide some interesting context for the movie.
We do love and care about these things — usually — so, why not help others see what we were trying to do? And then they can decide if they liked it or not.
John: One of the points of context I think that was really helpful in terms of the mommy bloggers of this was I was talking about I wanted to make sure that the rules of the world were clearly a little bit magical. So, even though he’s bringing it back with science, there’s something unusual about this town, about the windmill.
Very early on we set up the fact that there is something strange going on in this town, which is why kids are able to bring their dogs back and their animals back to life. That was born out of just as a parental concern that I didn’t want kids trying to plug their hamster into the wall. And so that gets a laugh, but it’s also true; I was genuinely concerned about sort of the contract we were making with parents, like, “We’re not going to encourage your kids to do dangerous things that are going to get them electrocuted.”
And so that’s a helpful thing that as a screenwriter I could do.
Craig: Yeah. You saved a hamster.
John: I hopefully save a hamster, or maybe even a small child.
Our last topic today is this very long article by David Denby, a prominent critic, who wrote this for The New Republic. And I thought it was really interesting. And he wrote a critique of how Hollywood is making its movies and really focusing mostly on our action movies, although it sort of talks about all aspects of movies, and where it’s missing the boat.
And what I liked about it is that sometimes it picked on some really easy targets, and sometimes it picked on some — like it picked on The Avengers, which is a movie that I really loved, and he was able to make points though about it that I was like, “Well, I will acknowledge that point. It doesn’t mean I necessarily agree, but I see the point you’re trying to make there.”
And I also respected that he seemed to be able to anticipate exactly the criticism that he would face with the article and was sort of ready for it. So, Craig, what did you think of this thing, because I just sent it to you this morning.
Craig: Yeah. I’m not sure he’s going to anticipate my criticism. Maybe he has. It wasn’t evident in this article in which he spared no words. It’s funny, I think that David Denby has a very good point; he’s just made a terrible argument in support of his point.
And I want to talk first a little bit, and people are going to have to read this thing. You’re just going to have to slog through it. It is quite long and —
John: Craig, I thought I might hit a few little high points in it first, so if people haven’t read it. So, one of his central theses is that, “It has come to this: A movie studio can no longer risk making good movies.” And those are his words. And the elaboration on that is, essentially: in trying to only pursue these giant tent-pole movies, they can’t worry about something that’s — they can’t even try to make something that’s execution dependent, because that’s too big a risk. So, they’re only going to try to make the safest, biggest movies they can make.
Craig: But in support of that he comes up with a bunch of bad reasoning. I think he misses what’s really going on here. And I’m not surprised he missed what’s going on because he is a film critic, and he is an educator, a professor of film. I don’t believe he’s spent any time doing what we do. He is examining the sausage and saying, “This is not very good sausage; it used to be much better sausage. They don’t like to make good sausage anymore because they want to see more sausage.”
They’ve always wanted to do that. Anyone who thinks that the business people running Hollywood have ever cared about anything other than money needs to get their head examined. That has been the way since celluloid was invented, since Laemmle and Edison put sprocket holes in film. That’s why the people running studios have made movies.
And he doesn’t have the benefit of seeing the killing floor the way you and I do. He makes a couple of mistakes. He makes a few mistakes, I think, of logic. One is he cherry picks. He tends to say things like, “Well, movies in the ’30s were better because look at Stagecoach and now look at the 2000s.” Well, yeah, but there were also about — I don’t know — 80 or 90 miles of film of crap in the ’30s, just as there is today. It’s a little unfair to sort of cherry pick and say “Okay, well that was going on there.”
He has certain opinions that he confounds with fact. For instance, he holds up Inception as an example of studio failure of risk when in fact I think Inception may be the riskiest movie ever made. Incredibly expensive. I loved Inception. I think he’s wrong about it. Interestingly, he’s also offbeat critically. So, he takes a movie that frankly disproves his central thesis and argues that it proves it because he just doesn’t like it, and I don’t think that that is quite logically compelling.
Similarly, The Avengers, you know, I wasn’t a huge fan of The Avengers, but again he seems out of step with critics; at some point you do have to say, “Well, if the great majority of the audience and the great majority of the critics all together like this movie, I’m not sure I can hold it up as an example that I’m right when I say it’s not very good.
He tends to do a little bit of apologizing. For instance, the deconstruction of cinema was okay in movies he liked, like Annie Hall. It’s not okay in movies he doesn’t like, like the Michael Bay films.
And, lastly, he makes a couple of factual errors. For instance, he cites The Hangover obliquely, by referring to “hangover debauchery,” I think, as an example of movies that studios make because they can’t miss, when in fact The Hangover was considered such a risk the director had to forgo his entire salary in order to get it made for $33 million. So, he’s just wrong about that.
What he’s right about is that Hollywood has changed to the extent that they are very scared of a certain kind of movie they made all the time, and that was profitable for them a lot. The one thing he doesn’t point out, and to me it’s the only reason that this is happening: It’s not that Hollywood has gotten more venal or vulgar. It has always been venal or vulgar. It is not that Hollywood has suddenly become greedy. It has always been greedy. And it is not that people have become more or less stupid or interested in nonsense. Children have always loved nonsense and always will, just as they will always love candy and always will.
The problem is one of attention. The problem with Hollywood today is that in order to get people’s attention in a world where there are more ways to divide their attention, they have to spend more, often, than they spend on the movie just to let you know the movie exists. And that is what has corrupted the process. Not stupidity. Not venality. Not giving up on quality. None of that.
He’s wrong about why things have gone wrong. But he is right that they’ve gone wrong. Unfortunately for him, and me, and people who like lots of different kinds of movies, his argument provides a way out. Mine doesn’t. [laughs] That’s the really depressing thing. If I take David Denby’s argument to heart, I can think, “Well, different people running the studio with different values and different approaches could revive a certain kind of film.”
But, given the way attention is these days to get people to see a film, I don’t know how we get there again. I don’t. And it does depress me, because I don’t just like, you know, I don’t just like big, huge, incredibly marketable spectacles. I like all sorts of movies.
John: I’ll step in as sort of like partial defender to Denby just because he’s not here. He has his own essay to defend himself a little bit. I would say he — I felt that he recognized that he was cherry picking to some degree and that in talking about the, citing that the movies of the ’30s were better, I felt like I actually saw him sort of acknowledging the fact that critics of this essay are going to say that “I have selective memory, too. I’m forgetting all the bad things that happened back in those days.” So, he does do a little bit of that. Maybe not enough.
And my recollection of his concern with Inception wasn’t the cowardice of the studio, that it was a safe choice. It was really a criticism of the film itself, and sort of what the film was attempting to do. His criticism of like sort of where we’ve come to in movies I thought was interesting. Not always apt, but interesting.
A couple things I highlighted from what he said: “The problem is that too many ordinary scenes in big movies are cut like car chases.” Maybe? I think it’s a valid idea to look at sort of, why has everything become so fast cutting? Maybe that’s just the style.
Craig: I don’t know that that’s true. Over time we have become better at processing audio visual information. Children today are better at processing audio visual information than I am. And I’m better at it than my parents are.
Naturally, the language of cinema will change to that end. I don’t know if that’s bad. I mean, if I’m moved by a movie, I’m moved by a movie.
John: But he would argue “that you leave the theater vibrating, but a day later you don’t feel a thing.”
Craig: But that’s not true, because I still think about Inception. And I’ll go back to Inception, because there were scenes that I thought were paced quite deliberately in that movie. And really what it comes down to is he’s saying, “Inception is an example of what I’m talking about because I don’t like it.” He says specifically it portrays dream states and they don’t feel like dreams at all. Well, I completely disagree. I mean, the last thing I wanted to see was a very lazy, “Ooh, we’re a surreal dreamy world,” because I’ve seen that already. And I thought it was actually a very smart choice by Nolan to not do that.
So, what I didn’t like about his citation of Inception was that he seemed to be saying, “I’m going to actively discount a movie that obviously rebuts what I’m saying.” And, frankly, the fact that he is anticipating criticism does not qualify as rebutting the criticism. It’s just simply saying that he anticipate it.
John: Absolutely. I was trying to use some of his anticipation as an in-the-moment rebuttal. Then let’s talk about the Michael Bay aspect of it all, because he does harp on Pearl Harbor a bit, which I think some people can say is an easy target. He would say that Annie Hall is deliberately knowing that it’s breaking these conventions in order for it to achieve a certain effect. Pearl Harbor many times I feel is just cutting to cut. And it’s just basically, “How many shots can we cram into a 30-second reel?” And there’s not intention behind it.
Craig: He’s right. I don’t like Michael Bay movies. I think Michael Bay — when Michael Bay shoots action sequences, often they’re spectacular. I think the car chase scene in The Island is one of the greatest car chases ever put on film; I just thought it was spectacular. I don’t like the movie. And I don’t like Michael Bay movies in general.
But, Michael Bay becomes a convenient exemplifier for what when wrong with Hollywood. There have always been movies made by people who have an aesthetic that is very fast food and very, I guess, freebase cocaine style. “I’m just going to strip away subtly and nuance and just pound you in the face.” There have always been those. Maybe they’re not quite like Michael Bay movies, but Michael Bay isn’t ruining Hollywood. He’s not.
All Michael Bay is doing is making movies for people that like Michael Bay movies.
John: I would take away from Denby’s argument that he wants to be able to see filmmakers get budgets to make bigger movies that are not big blockbuster action movies. And I think that’s something that I would like to see, too.
Craig: Yeah. I guess. Where he’s right is that it is criminal that guys like Paul Thomas Anderson have to try and scrounge for financing. On the other hand, Paul Thomas Anderson made Boogie Nights on a shoestring and it’s sublime. It’s just perfection.
Woody Allen’s movies in the ’70s, and ’80s, and ’90s, and 2000s, and 2010s are not high budget movies, nor do they need to be high budget movies. Not everything needs to have money.
The one guy that he points out that I do think, when I go, “Oh, boy, great point, David Denby,” is the guy who did Children of Men.
John: Oh, yeah, Alfonso Cuarón. Alfonso Cuarón is maybe what’s like a Kubrick. Like, you wish he just always had the money to make whatever he wants to make.
Craig: Alfonso Cuarón is really, really, really good at what he does. And, the kinds of movies he makes actually do require a budget. And I don’t know why it is that Alfonso Cuarón hasn’t had a movie in theaters since Children of Men, which I think is amazing.
It may be that he can’t find the budgets for the movies he wants to do. It may be, frankly, that he just hasn’t found the right thing or that he hasn’t perfected it. I don’t know. But it does give me pause. I hesitate to think that Alfonso Cuarón isn’t making movies because they’re shifting that money to do a 7-day reshoot on a big popcorn spectacle that frankly could have just as easily done without that money.
You know, they’re remaking half of the zombie movie at Paramount at tremendous expense. And, sure, it would be great to see that that money go to something for $30 million or $40 million that could actually be amazing. But, again, I’ll just say: at no point in Hollywood’s history have movie studios just thrown money at artists because they wanted to see a good movie. They don’t do it. They want to make money with everything.
So, the attention thing — to me the attention thing has driven marketing budgets up and it’s reduced the amount of movies they make. That’s the problem. That’s what I think is limiting opportunities for guys like Alfonso Cuarón.
I still think that people like Paul Thomas Anderson can get their movies made for reasonable budgets. I don’t think Paul Thomas Anderson needs $40 million or $50 million. The actors often work for scale and participation at the end.
John: Although, if you see The Master, The Master looks really, really expensive. There’s a reason why that movie cost a lot of money.
Craig: I haven’t seen it yet.
John: It’s really — I loved it.
Craig: I’m looking forward to it. It’s certainly not a new problem. The issue of money and art goes back to pre-Renaissance. It’s always been a problem. Art costs money and some art makes its money and some art makes less money. And this has been an age-old problem.
But, again, I’ll point to a movie like The Hangover — which he seems to think is an example of an easy give — and say: With due respect sir, absolutely not.
John: The second Hangover was an easy give.
Craig: Yeah, of course. You don’t get to the second Hangover if you don’t take the risk on the first one. If Todd Phillips doesn’t say, “I’ll work for nothing; I’ll just work for backend and a gamble here because I want to make this kind of movie. I want to make a rated-R comedy when they’re not hot. I want to make a rated-R comedy with three guys that aren’t big movie stars. I want to make a rated-R comedy that at times gets pretty out there. And I’m willing to work for nothing to do it if you’ll let me do it.” And that’s what it took.
Craig: You know. So, I don’t think that — sometimes what happens is people reverse engineer from the results.
John: Totally. All the James Cameron successes. “Well, of course that was a success.” Then if you actually look at sort of the actual process of making it, it was anything but obvious.
Craig: And that was also another thing that kind of surprised me is that he had this kind of interesting love for Avatar, which I didn’t like at all, and yet was beating up Inception.
And I’m not a James Cameron basher. I think the guy is a genius on a different level. And I will defend Titanic and the screenplay for Titanic with my dying breath, even though many people malign it. But I just thought, you know, at some point it just seemed like basically he looked, saw a problem, and decided the reason for the problem was that that the movies that he didn’t like were being made. And the movies that he did like weren’t being made enough.
And, frankly, that’s simply not correct.
John: Cool. So, anyway, we’ll have links to that and everything else we talked about in the show notes at johnaugust.com/podcast.
Craig, let’s do our One Cool Things. I know you have a One Cool Thing which is actually a repeat of an earlier thing that is still going on. So, do you want to tell us about the Heart Walk?
Craig: Yes. So this is your last opportunity, folks. So here is the deal. For all of you out there, I mentioned this in a prior podcast. For all of you out there who wail, “Why will no one read my script?” Somebody will read your script. In fact, Daniel Vang at Benderspink, which is a real actual legitimate production company, and he’s an actual legitimate real manager, he will read your script. He will read it!
And here’s what you have to do: You have to donate to a charity. Not put money in the pocket of some baloney screen guru who has never done anything and has absolutely no relation to Hollywood whatsoever.
If you donate $25 to the American Heart Association’s South Sound Heart Walk, then Daniel Vang of Benderspink will read the first ten pages of your screenplay. And if he really, really likes the first ten, he might even go further on his own. If you donate $50, he’s read the first 50 pages. Again, if he really, really likes it he might just keep reading.
If you donate $100 he will read your entire script. There are guys out there charging $1,000 to put in their pockets — who couldn’t help you no matter what — to read your screenplay. And here’s a guy saying, “You give $100 to the American Heart Association, I’m actually in the business, I manage screenwriters, I produce movies, I work at a real company. I’ll read your entire script.” I don’t understand why everybody isn’t take advantage of this.
You have a limited time here. Donations will be accepted up until October 6, which is, by the time the podcast airs, imminent.
John: Imminent. Yes. It will be the day after Frankenweenie opens.
Craig: It is what we like to call post-Frankenweenie.
John: Yes. The post-Frankenweenie era.
Craig: Correct. In the post-Frankenweenie era. So, this is day one of PFW. And you want to know how to do this, very simple. Go to John’s website, and he will have a link for you.
John: Yeah. And you’ll click it.
Craig: Oh, and this was all organized by Joe Nienalt, a screenwriter. So, a ton of credit to Joe for doing this. And a ton of credit to Daniel for doing this. And please, please, even if you don’t think your screenplay is any good, donate.
My One Cool Thing this week is called The Last Express. And it is a great game from way back in time from the ’80s and ’90s that Jordan Mechner created. And he created it for the normal computers, the computers we had at the era. Well, the computers we have of this era are iPads and iPhones, and so there is a brilliant new port he’s just done of The Last Express.
So, this isn’t a remake of the game. This isn’t a reimagining of the game. This is actually the game which was, in its time, very sort of groundbreaking in the sense of it was animated and takes place on a train and is sort of for grownups. And there is adventure, and mystery, and intrigue.
So, what I love about it is it is both kind of fresh because it is this really unusual sort of cell frame animation, but it’s also vintage in a way that’s really, really fun. So, you may remember the game from its original incarnation.
Craig: I don’t. I don’t remember this.
John: You may have never seen the game before, but it’s really worth checking out. It’s $4.99 for iPad or for iPhone. It’s on the App Store. I think you will dig it. So, that is my One Cool Thing this week. And there will be a link to that in the show notes as well.
Craig: Is it action? What is it?
John: It’s an adventure game. So it’s not like, “pick up knife, poke knife in hole.” It’s not Zork like.
Craig: But it’s Zork-ish?
John: It’s an adventure game taking place on the Orient Express.
Craig: Got it.
John: And very much has that Murder on the Orient Express kind of feel, that period-vintage feel done with sort of story animation, done with sort of beautifully drawn things which at the time were ground-breaking to be able to happen in a computer game, and now feel kind of ground-breaking to happen on an iPad.
And it weirdly feels like it should always be on this.
Craig: Well, you know what, I’m downloading it right now.
John: Craig, you should probably wait to download it until we’re actually off the podcast so it doesn’t interfere with the Skype.
Craig: Well, I’m doing it. It’s too late. [laughs]
John: Craig, you ruin everything.
John: Craig, but thank you so much for a fun podcast.
Craig: Thank you, too. And thank you, David Denby, for writing a very thought-provoking essay, even if I didn’t agree with all of it. I think you have identified a very real problem, sir.
John: Yes. So, we got some Denby, we got some junkets, we got some movie stories. It was a good week for us.
Craig: I think it was a pretty good week. And we are closing in on Austin. Let’s not forget. Do people know?
John: I think people know. So, as we’ve talked about before, we are doing our first ever live Scriptnotes. It will be at the Austin Film Festival on Saturday, October 20, I want to say.
Craig: Yeah, sounds right.
John: If I had the notes in front of me, that would be like an organized podcast. But, anyway, the Saturday of the Austin Film Festival in the morning we will be doing the first ever live Scriptnotes. It will be me and Craig and the show, and our special guest which we can announce now, Aline Brosh McKenna, who is fantastic.
Craig: Aline. Yes. And, frankly, having been to Austin a few times, I can tell you this will be the greatest thing that ever happened at that screenwriting conference. Period. The end.
John: It may be the best thing to ever happen in Austin. But I don’t want to oversell it.
Craig: It might be the best thing that ever happened in history.
John: It could be fantastic. We will be doing live questions and answers in the audience. It’s going to be longer than our usual show, so it should be fun.
If you are able to come to Austin to come to this event you should come to this event. If you’re not able to come to this event we will have audio for our week’s podcast shortly after the event.
John: Cool. Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, John.