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 58 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
So, Craig, you may be familiar with the sort of classic technique in dramatic writing where you create tension by letting the audience know something that the characters on screen don’t know.
So, an example: you’d have like a spy who places a bomb underneath the table, and then when the hero is eating dinner at that table, some of that dinner is filled with tension, because you as the audience know there’s a bomb under the table and the hero does not know there’s a bomb under the table.
Craig: That’s right.
John: A good, classic technique. And that’s sort of what I’m feeling right now, because the audience, our listeners, have information that I don’t have.
Craig: Right. About Halloweenie.
John: Yes. It’s called Frankenweenie, but thank you so much.
Craig: I know. [laughs] I’ve been calling it Halloweenie lately. I just like that; I don’t know why.
John: I like it, too. So, we’re recording this on a Friday, a Friday afternoon, which is the day that Frankenweenie comes out. But most of our audience will be listening to this on Tuesday at the earliest.
– Maybe we should have, like, people could pay money to hear it early. That would be crazy, wouldn’t it?
Craig: Yeah, like a Scriptnotes Premium?
John: Premium. Yeah, like — we would charge extra money rather than nothing.
Craig: Double nothing.
John: Double nothing. Yes, exactly. You could pay zero dollars rather than free.
John: So, anyway, our audience is hearing this on Tuesday. So, they are knowing how well the movie did. So, we got great reviews, and that’s all great, but in terms of how we did at the box office, they have information that I don’t have.
They are living in one of three possible futures: the future where we did outstandingly well, the future where we did fine, and the future in which we didn’t do as well as we might have hoped.
And I would love to know which future our audience is living in, but I really have no good sense of that, because the tracking on the movie has been just bizarre. And so, like, the people who you usually go to ask, “How much do you think the movie will make?” they have said like, “Oh, it will make between $10 million and $30 million this weekend.”
Craig: Yeah. It’s very, very difficult to track children’s movies. I mean, first of all congratulations; the reviews were outstanding, so it’s always good to see.
John: Thank you.
Craig: The way tracking works is they call people up at home and they say, “What race are you? What gender are you? How old are you? Here are a bunch of movies. First of all, what are movies you’ve heard of — we’re not going to say any names.” That’s called unaided awareness. “Now, here’s a bunch of movies, have you heard of those?” That’s called aided awareness.
Then, “Which of these movies would you definitely recommend to friends,” or, I’m sorry, “which of these movies are you definitely interested in seeing?” And then, “Can you tell us which of these movies would be your first choice to see?” And then, “Which of the movies that are actually available for you to see — which one of these would be your first choice to see?”
The problem with kids’ movies is that kids’ movie-viewing is driven by moms, mostly, and kids. And a lot of times moms aren’t aware of what their kids want to see until it’s Saturday at noon, so very difficult to get a sense ahead of time what kids’ movies are going to do. They often surprise people. Typically they surprise you in a good way. Sometimes they Oogielove all over you, and then you’re just crying.
John: I don’t think anyone was surprised by Oogielove. That was not a surprise to anyone. But, like, the surprise last weekend was the Hotel Transylvania which did much better than people were expecting. And so the second weekend of whatever that movie will be, even if it drops a tremendous amount of money, will be a lot of money. So, people will go see that movie because it’s out there in theaters as well.
Anyway, it shouldn’t really matter that much. I’m delighted the movie did so well. It’s not going to help me or hurt sort of how much it does, but you want people to come see the movie. You want it to be successful.
So, I’ve been trying not to… — I know that the reviews are good because I sort of the scan the page of Rotten Tomatoes. This time I’m trying not to actually read the reviews because I find I can just sort of get sucked into a K-hole of reading all the reviews, which is just not helpful or productive to anyone.
But, my new time suck has been going on Twitter and just doing a Twitter search for Frankenweenie.
John: And so you see all the people who are just seeing the movie right then. And so at midnight on the east coast, or two in the morning on the east coast before I went to bed, I could see all the people who were just coming out of Frankenweenie and crying and talking about how much they liked it, which was really nice.
Craig: That is terrific. I totally know where you’re coming from. I used to be obsessed with reviews, and obsessed with this, and obsessed with that. But Twitter has not only supplanted the importance of all that in my mind, I think frankly it’s just eliminating the actual practical value of critics. I’m not talking about their theoretical value, or their intellectual value, or cultural value, just their practical value of “Should I go see a movie or not? Let me check a particular critic. Let me check Metacritic. Let me check Rotten Tomatoes.”
It seems entirely driven by Twitter. So, even when the Identity Thief teaser hit, I went and searched and was getting — just kind of rolling through the reactions. And people are super honest, which is great. And it was a good reaction, so it’s always good to see.
But, you should be — eyes glued to Twitter, all weekend. But, you also know — I don’t know if people know this — but I mean, I guess most people by now know by Saturday morning or even frankly by tonight you’ll have a pretty decent idea of what the movie is going to do.
John: Absolutely. By tonight we’ll know whether sort of grownups, how many grownups went to see it. And based off of that they can do their little metrics and figure out with this kind of movie what they could expect for a Saturday, which would be a much bigger day for families, and Sunday, which is also a big day for a family movie.
Craig: Yes. Yes, exactly. So, they just sort of compare it to a similar film and use the same multiplier and you should… — But, I would be shocked if it were on the low end of that. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were on the high end. So, good luck.
John: Yeah. Fingers crossed. But, I thought we might escape from this stress by reverting to a simpler time in the podcast today and really think back to what it was like when we were writing our very first scripts. Because before you have a movie that you have to worry about NRG tracking, you have this first screenplay that you’re trying to write. And so I thought today would be a walk down the hallways of history back to the time when we were not screenwriters yet, and we had not finished a script, and we were just getting started.
And so I don’t think I know — what was the first screenplay you ever read?
Craig: Screenplay I ever read? It was probably, oh, that’s a really good question.
John: As a related question, when were you aware that there was such a thing as screenwriting?
Craig: Pretty early on.
John: You grew up in a neighborhood with writers.
Craig: I knew in high school that there were screenwriters. I don’t know if I knew in middle school.
John: So, what do you think was the first time you started thinking about the script behind a movie? Because to me, I’ll give you my example first, is my brother and I had rented War of the Roses on VHS. And so we watched it and I was like, “I love this movie.” And then we rewound it and my brother went upstairs and I, like, I started just playing the movie again and started writing down everything people said.
And, I realized, “Oh, you know what? Someone must have written the things they’re saying. Like, there’s a whole plan for this.” Which sounds incredibly naïve, but I guess I just didn’t really realize that movies were sort of like plays. I’d read plays, but I didn’t realize that movies must have worked the same way. And so, just on a sheet of legal paper I was like trying to figure out what scenes were and what — I was trying to reverse engineer War of the Roses.
Craig: Huh. I actually remember before ever reading anything, I actually remember writing a script in — I wrote a script in eighth grade. So, I must have been aware of it. I didn’t write a script with proper FADE IN, and INT./EXT., or anything like that, but we were supposed to do a skit in our drama class and I wrote the whole thing.
John: Yeah, but that was a play, though. Because you’d experienced plays before. So was it more like a play, or was it really meant to be a script for filming something?
Craig: No, it was definitely more like a play, because we could not film anything.
– Hold on, I have to pee. If I don’t pee now it’s going to be a disaster.
John: Okay, go pee.
Craig: I can feel it. I’ll be right back.
John: So, Craig thinks we’re going to cut this part out of the podcast, but no; I’m actually going to just leave it in. So, this is a chance for us to talk about Craig while he’s not around.
Craig: Uh! So much better.
John: Good. I talked a lot while you were gone. So, Stuart may leave that in, or may cut it out.
Craig: I think it’s great.
John: Yeah. Honesty in the podcast at this point.
Craig: I had to pee.
John: Yeah. We’re at episode 58. We’re not going to hide anything here.
Craig: No. Because if I try to pee in a bottle or something like that — I mean, if they can hear an electronic cigarette, they’re going to hear pee.
John: Yeah, that’s true. You shouldn’t try to pee in a bottle.
So, you were saying that you wrote this little skit, or sketchy kind of thing. So you had a sense of what a play was like. But to me it was a weird change, because I had a read a lot of plays. I’d read Shakespeare and I read sort of The Importance of Being Earnest, but I just hadn’t associated that movies were written the same way.
So, the first script I was able to find — this is Boulder, Colorado; this is early ’90s — the only script I could find was Steven Soderbergh’s script for Sex, Lies, and Videotape, because that was published in a book. It was his production diary and his script. And so I bought that, I read it, and then I read it like while the movie was playing. And I was like, “Oh my god, everything they’re saying is in there, and this is what a scene is. And this EXT must be exterior and INT must be interior,” which sounds so hopelessly naïve now, but this was a time before the internet was everywhere, and before you could sort of find that information.
I had maybe, like, Premiere Magazine as my only source of film information. And that was just a revelation. So, first off, thank you Steven Soderbergh for making that movie and publishing your script. But it actually was one of the reasons why on my own website I do publish as many of the scripts as I can, because I feel like I want people to be able to see what the scripts were like behind the movies.
Craig: I think probably the first screenplay-type material I ever read — I guess it was more teleplay material — was in 1991, the summer of 1991, I had gotten an internship through the Television Academy. And I came out to LA that summer between my junior and senior year, and I worked in the current programming department. And that was the first time I was exposed to teleplays. So, I was reading scripts for The Simpsons.
John: How lucky are you?
Craig: — And I was reading scripts for their other sitcoms and their not-sitcoms. And I distinctly remember being surprised at how dead it all seemed on the page. That was interesting to me. Learning how to fill that in, just from text to images in your mind. It’s weird; you almost have to learn how to read before you can learn how to write, because screenplays are such a strange animal. That was probably the beginning, yeah.
John: It was also a strange situation reading Simpsons scripts because the scripts for an established TV series tend to be much less detailed in terms of scene description, because you don’t have to introduce who Homer Simpson is. And so you were reading a very dry version of what a script would be.
What was the first script you tried to write?
Craig: Well, I started — the very first things I tried to write were television scripts. I thought I would break into sitcoms. So, the very first script I ever wrote was a spec script for Frasier I believe. And I did that with my partner at the time.
John: The very first thing I tried to write was, well, I sort of transcribed an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. So, literally, I recorded it and then I wrote it all down. And then I tried to sort of reverse engineer what the script was like. And, so, all the dialogue I used from the dialogue that I saw in the show, but I tried to make the scene description feel like what the actual scene description probably was for it. It was a good exercise. I would recommend it to any high school student who’s listening who wants to sort of figure it out.
So, I was obsessed with, like, “Oh, I’m going to write a spec episode of Star Trek and…” you know, because sometimes Star Trek at that era would take a spec episode and actually produce it. That was my first obsession. And then I decided I was going to adapt Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Craig: Oh, that’s not at all ambitious.
John: No, not at all. And so I got through about two and a half pages of that, because it’s a simple little story of the American south when told with multiple narrators and many flashbacks. Easy.
Craig: Yeah. No problem.
John: No problems. But, when I finally came out to Los Angeles I had the opportunity to read a ton of screenplays and realize sort of all the things I didn’t know. And one of the great luxuries of the Stark Program that I was in is that we had at USC a great film library. So, you could check out all these scripts, you know, James Cameron’s Aliens, but like everything you could possibly ever want.
And Laura Ziskin, who taught our very first development class, she had her own library, so everybody could check out two scripts from her. I learned how to write up coverage. You could even go and compare two different drafts. So, you could see, like, an early draft of Hero and the shooting draft. You’d see sort of all the changes that happened along the way. And that was fascinating. And that got me over some of my fear of it. Because when you first encounter the screenplay form, it’s just alien. It’s not like any other kind of writing you’re going to experience.
John: So in addition to these great scripts we had to read at USC, I also started interning. And so I wan interning at a little production company called Prelude Pictures that was based at Paramount. So I would read scripts for them and write up coverage. And at first it was free, and then I got a different job where I got paid for it. But I was reading a bunch of honestly terrible screenplays. And that was really useful to me, too, because I was reading these great screenplays in class of these like produced movies, and I was reading these bad screenplays. And to be able to compare and contrast the two of those was fantastic.
And at the same time, I was starting to write my own screenplays. And it taught me a lot of what I didn’t want to do.
Craig: Yeah. Certainly. You know, the thing about comedy — and I remember at the time, this is when I started thinking about writing comedy screenplays. It was 1994/1995, in that zone, and PG comedy was sort of ruling the day. Family comedy was ruling the day at the time; at least it seemed that way to me.
And I just sort of thought, “Well, you know, I’ll try my hand at that.” And so many of those scripts were bad. And, so, in a weird way I had the kind of opposite instruction. I was reading scripts that I thought were goofy but they were successful. And I kind of [laughs] wandered down a weird path there for awhile because I thought, “You know, in that kind middle class-ish, sort of 24-year old way I should probably just write what they’re buying, shouldn’t I?” I didn’t know any better.
John: Yeah. Very much the high concept PG comedy was the sweet spot at that time, wasn’t it?
Craig: For sure.
John: So, I want to talk about some of the common characteristics I’ve noticed in people’s first screenplays. Over the years I’ve read a lot of people’s first scripts. And they’re often like, you know, friends of colleagues. Classically sort of like your gardener’s sister wrote a script and would you read it? And I try not to read those, but I do sometimes need to read them. Or, just other people who I think are smart overall, but they’re just new to the format.
So, some characteristics I’ve noticed of first screenplays, and in listing these hopefully people will recognize them and try to move past them. And you can add to these as you hear.
If I see a scene that’s three pages long, it’s probably a first script, or a very early script. Produced screenplays tend to have short scenes. They don’t tend to go on for a very long time. Three pages of, you know, a speech. If a speech goes on for more than a page, that’s unusual.
Craig: Yeah. We have a general rhythm where scenes should — the typical scene, not big ones, but typical scenes should fit in a day of work. And a day of work on a major motion picture film is 2.5 pages. And any time I get past 2.5 pages I start getting a little itchy.
John: Well, and the experience of watching a movie, if you actually were to pull out your stop watch and as you were clocking a movie, you would recognize that very few scenes are more than three minutes long. There will occasionally be some scenes that are more than three minutes long, but three minutes in one place and one time with two people talking feels like an eternity in most movies.
Craig: For sure. And I just want to point out that there’s a distinction between scenes and sequences. So, when you’re thinking about the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s one big sequence that begins with a shot of a mountain and ends with Indy flying away on a plane. But there are a lot of little scenes within it.
Another characteristic of first screenplays: shot-gunning characters. So, if I see, if you introduce eight characters in the first page or two pages, that’s not going to be a happy outcome most likely. If you’re trying to overload us with a bunch of people all at once and tell us everything about them we’re not going to be able to keep them straight. More sophisticated screenplays tend to sort of understand the readers and recognize, “I’m going to highlight these people who are important and save other people for later on in the story.”
Craig: I agree with that.
John: Same token: when you over-describe a minor character. So, that doesn’t mean everybody needs to be Security Guard #2, but if you’re giving a lot of description to a minor character who’s never going to appear again, that’s not a good idea. Because we as the audience and the reader are going to think, “Well, this person must be really important so I’m going to ascribe a lot of mental energy to remembering this person,” when they’re never going to come back again.
Craig: Another good one.
John: Weird formatting is always a standout for me, because people tend to freak out about formatting, but if it is wrong it feels wrong.
When did you feel like you understood the formatting of scripts?
Craig: Well, I think I started basically by just mimicking the formatting that I saw in actual screenplays. I picked up a copy of Syd Field’s…it wasn’t the Syd Field book that people normally read. It was a book called Syd Field’s Workbook, or something like that. And it was very technical and really just about where-do-you-put-the-margins and interior and exterior. And so I just sort of copied that faithfully. So, I don’t think I ever went down a weird formatting hole.
John: What were you writing in originally?
Craig: Believe it or not, Final Draft.
John: Oh, you started on Final Draft?
Craig: I just couldn’t bear the thought of doing all the work of writing in Microsoft Word like that, and it was — I want to say it was 1993. And I was working at an ad agency and a guy who was working there was friends with this dude named Mark Madnick who had invented this really cool program called Final Draft. And it was on floppy disks. And I drove to Santa Monica and they had a little bungalow there. And I bought it right from them. I bought it from Mark Madnick. [laughs] I wrote him a check and he gave me two floppies for Final Draft 2.0.
John: That’s fantastic. How much was the check?
Craig: Oh boy.
John: Was it like $200?
Craig: I mean, my guess would be something like $40. I’m just guessing.
John: All right. Because it’s now up to like $199.
Craig: Yeah. It was nowhere near that. I couldn’t have afforded it.
John: I started in Microsoft Word. And so in preparation for this podcast I was looking at early script and it is in like an ancient version of Microsoft Word. It’s very easy to sort of slam on Final Draft for some of the things that have gotten frustrating over the years, but if you try to write a screenplay in just Microsoft Word and do all the formatting yourself it is really maddening. Like when you have to do a page break, that becomes just a brutal, brutal exercise. So, it was a good innovation.
But my first, up through Go, I never had Final Draft. And so that was all Microsoft Word.
John: Awful. Awful stuff
A common feature of many first scripts is what I call D&D descriptions: “There are,” “there is.” You’re talking about a room as if you were the dungeon master describing the room in which the player characters have come into. And so it’s very much like, you know, “15 feet to the left there is this,” as if characters need to figure out how to avoid traps on the floor. They’re not sort of painting the scene the way a screenwriter does.
Craig: Yeah. Another thing I sometimes see is a weird over-appreciation for one’s own dialogue. The characters get very florid and a little too over-literate as they speak. And you get these long — I think first time screenwriters love speeches. They all think that the movie is going to be chock full of those great monologue moments. And, if you have one monologue in a movie that’s a lot. Most movies have none.
John: I also notice first time screenwriters have a hard time getting a character into a scene. There is a lot of like walking through doors.
Craig: Yeah. Shoe leather.
John: Yeah, they’re shoe leather. Characters will say hello and goodbye and do all of this stuff that people do in the real world, but there’s ways you find how to do in screenplays where you don’t need those intros and outros and you can just, you know, get to the meat of the scene much quicker.
John: By the same token, a lot of times these movies will spend 20 pages setting stuff up, and you will have no sense of where this is going. And in most movies, quite early on you get a sense at least that you’re on a path to some place. You don’t need to know all the details, but if you’re just spinning your wheels, you have no idea what the next, what the characters are trying to do after 20 pages, there’s a real issue.
Craig: Yeah. It’s also a thing I’ll see a lot in first scripts or relatively early scripts in someone’s path is an abundance of plot and almost no character at all.
Craig: So, the movie becomes about exciting sequences, and I couldn’t care less about any of the people involved.
John: Sometimes you will often see the flip, where it’s just exceedingly low ambition for a script, where it’s just a bunch of characters hanging out, talking about marital problems…
John: …but not in a fascinating or interesting way. So it’s like: put a little more story in there, like actually have your characters do something rather than just sit around and kind of complain.
Craig: Yeah. And the whole idea is that the story should be matched to the character, and the character should be matched to the story in an interesting oppositional way. A lot of times you just get, like you said, people talking, or frankly what’s even worse to me, people acting but not actually being people.
John: Ideally you want to match the character to a story in a way that is answering both questions. Who is the most appropriate character for this story? And who is the sort of least appropriate character for this story? Who would this story impact the most? Who would this idea have the biggest impact on and thus, you know, that character would be a fascinating person to see in this world and in this universe. And too often they’re kind of matched too perfectly.
Like, “He’s a schlub who wants to impress his wife.” It’s like, eh, I don’t care.
Another, sort of like the walking through doors problem, is when one character tells another character something we as the audience already know.
Craig: Oh, yeah, I see that. “As you know, to review…” I was just going through these the other day with somebody. There’s “As you know, to review,” and then there’s one of my favorites: “Wait, wait, wait. Tell me that again?”
John: Oh my, yeah. So, those are all things, like, trying to summarize stuff. It’s easy to understand the instinct. The screenwriter needs the audience to know that the other characters are also aware of this fact or information, but the actual scene in which you’re doing it is terrible, and you will try to find a way to cut it out when you actually make the movie. So, don’t write this scene. And find some way that we’re running up and we’re getting ahead of that, because those things are deathly.
And weirdly I find I don’t encounter that nearly as much now as I used to. I think subconsciously I’m already avoiding those scenes way ahead of time. I’m doing the judo so that those scenes can never have to happen.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, to me it’s just a sign that your story is all wrong anyway. I mean, if you find yourself in a spot where suddenly one character has to explain a bunch of stuff to another one, something is just in your story. If it’s important for one character to know it’s important for me to watch it happen or see it. So, figure out a way to illustrate it dramatically to me, whether it’s a flashback… There are always creative ways to get this information across.
John: Agreed. Although you say flashback; unnecessary flashbacks are also pretty much the pinnacle of first screenplay-ness. It’s just like, you know, “Here’s a big flashback to tell you about how bad my dad was.” It’s like, that’s not important.
Craig: Well, unnecessary flashback, unnecessary narration.
Craig: These are the crutches we use when we’re not quite sure how to tell the story that we have, because maybe it’s not the right story to be telling.
So, Craig, are you ready for this now?
Craig: Dude, I was born ready!
John: Ah! So the reason why we’re talking about this: it’s been so nice that so many of our listeners, more than 200 of our listeners have written in with their three page samples. And so Craig and I are actually going to give you three page samples from our very first screenplays.
Craig: Very, very first. And so, you know, I had such a… — When you suggested this I thought, “That’s a great idea/that’s a terrible idea.” [laughs] Because it’s so embarrassing and it’s so awful.
John: [laughs] Yes. It is. It is so awful. So, it was my idea, so I’ll start first just to rip the Band-Aid off.
Craig: All right.
John: So, my sample is from my very first script. I wrote it while I was in grad school. And I’ll give some back story on when I wrote this. Between my first and second years of grad school I was interning at Universal. And I had a job for the head of physical production. And I was the intern below three assistants. Like, there was nothing that they actually needed me to do. It was very nice of them to give me a little job, but there was nothing for me to do. So, I would file a couple of papers a day.
So, I would come home from work and I had not used any brain cells, and so I would just write at night. And so I hand wrote at night, and then during my lunch break I would type up the pages. And actually wrote most of the screenplay during that summer at Universal.
The script I wrote is called Here and Now. It was originally called Now and Then, but then there was a movie with Demi Moore that was called Now and Then while I was writing this, so I had to change it to Here and Now. So, these are the three pages from Here and Now which you will find on the website, along with all the other three page samples.
A summary of what happens in these three pages: We open in a crowded parking lot of a shopping mall. It’s snowy, Christmastime. Two passing women talk about someone’s sudden death. We meat Karen Miller, a young woman. She’s in her car. She’s trying to back out. Another car slams into her. Her airbag blows. She’s not badly hurt, but as she looks into the window’s reflection she sees someone behind her, someone who is not actually there.
We cut to one year earlier, and we’re at the University of Colorado. We see some background action describing the student body. And that’s the end of our three pages.
Craig: Well, it’s a pretty good summary, and if you had written that summary I think you’d be in good shape. [laughs]
John: Ha-ha-ha. So…
Craig: Do you want me to go after you because you get to… — I mean, I want to go after myself, too. So, maybe you want to go after yourself first?
John: Yeah, I’ll go after myself first. So, a lot of the stuff I talked about in the criteria of like first scripts, you see some of that here. There’s a lot of over-description of things. And our protagonist, our Karen Miller, first off we say her name but we don’t’ actually give her any description whatsoever. So, there’s nothing to sort of signal that she’s actually who she is as a person. She’s just a young woman in a car. And so we don’t know anything special about her. She’s not driving this introductory scene. She’s not doing anything interesting. She’s just a passenger in the scene.
And she’s a passenger who gets hit in the scene. And that’s not a terrible opening, but it’s not a great opening. It’s setting up that there’s some mystery there. And it may be a bit of a misdirect in terms of sort of what the tone of this is going to be. It feels just sort of wintery and snowy. And then by the end we get to the University of Colorado a year earlier and it’s just, you know, a picture postcard. It’s just painting, “this is what a campus looks like.” And it’s like, “Oh, but that is probably what a campus looks like.” But we haven’t really gotten any story started and we’re three pages in.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, look: the truth is I like your pages better, your first pages better, than I like my first pages. That’s the awful thing about comedy is when they’re not funny, that’s just — that’s the headline…
John: I wasn’t aiming for funny.
Craig: You don’t have that sort of objecting, “ugh.” However, there’s just nothing really happening here. I mean, she gets hit by another woman, and there’s a lot of description of what’s happening with the cars and the geography of the space and how she actually gets hit, although it’s really just a fender bender so the car crash itself isn’t that interesting.
There is one interesting thing buried in there, which is that she sees somebody that isn’t there. So, you sort of like made a real meal out of all these mundane things that frankly just aren’t that interesting and then kind of, like, da-da-da, passed the one thing that really is interesting. And so the scene has this lack of focus. And I always like to say — and this is a classic new writer thing: You are not directing my attention to where it’s supposed to be. You’re directing my attention to where it’s not.
So, there is a paragraph, or descriptions of what the engine sounds like as the car stops. [laughs] But, then, you know, very little thing — I mean, you underline “Someone is standing directly behind her.” There’s no one there. But then we’re back and then there’s just more discussion of the woman. And then, yeah, some of the description is awesome. I mean, I got to hand it you. “Brown mutant icicles hunched behind the wheels,” is spectacular.
John: But it’s novelistic. I mean, I think you can get away with some of it. And I think “brown mutant icicles” could last if there wasn’t so much other stuff around it.
I don’t like these five sentence blocks of scene description. They’re intimidating to read, and so people skip them.
Craig: Thank god I didn’t do that. [laughs]
John: Yeah. Thank god you didn’t do that.
Craig: That’s the worst. But we’re getting there.
John: On page two, midway, actually near the bottom of page two, I actually finally do give a description of Karen. So, “She’s really very pretty, a page torn from a J. Crew catalog, fresh-faced and a little delicate.” That’s actually not bad description. But that should have come when we first met Karen Miller, and not, you know, two pages in.
Craig: Yeah. And I also feel like we have this — we’re concentrating on what these two women that we will never see again — I presume, because they’re Woman 1 and Woman 2 — are saying, when really what I wanted desperately is a moment before Karen Miller gets in her car and starts to pull out and gets hit. I just want to be contextualized with my protagonist, not with weather and extras.
John: I agree.
Craig: But, here’s what’s good. I want to sort of say, “Okay, but here’s the sign that the guy who wrote this would one day write Halloweenie.”
Craig: [laughs] I just love saying Halloweenie.
John: Yeah, that’s fine.
Craig: There is a specificity to the way you’re writing this. And, more importantly, it is visual. It’s not always interesting in terms of what you’re visualizing, but you’re being visual. And you’re also being very sparse with the dialogue. The dialogue felt real to me.
And, you know, these are things like pitch that you can’t teach. Either you can or can’t sing. Either you can or can’t feel rhythm. And so I see that there is somebody writing this who has an ear, and somebody who has a rhythm. And, you know, this was — can I say what year this was?
John: Oh yeah. This is 1994.
Craig: Yeah. So this was February of 1994. And that’s 18 years ago, actually. And you can see there is something going on here. There is an intelligence behind this. And there is a voice. And also little things, like for instance, just to show that you understand the language of cinema — as the sequence ends, Karen looks up at the Donna Karan woman, gives a half a laugh, smiles a little to herself, which I like the sense of mystery. “In the distance, CARILLON BELLS ring, continuing as we cut to: TITLE OVER BLACK One year earlier.”
And there are the Carillon bells. That’s how I pronounce it, right? Carol-on?
John: Yeah. Carillon bells.
Craig: And so you got already that there was a language where sound could sort of play oppositional to time stream. And these are things that are precise.
John: It was my very first pre-lap. And lord knows I pre-lap the hell out of things these days.
John: So, I’m not embarrassed by these three pages. It’s just that they’re not the way I would have written them right now.
So, reading these three pages, what kind of story do you think this is?
Craig: I would suspect it’s some kind of supernatural — what I got was a supernatural love story.
John: It is a love story, but it’s actually not supernatural. It is a weepy. And it was my first weepy. So, it’s actually good that it’s on a Frankenweenie release date. Because it was the first time that I made people cry. And that was actually the thing about this script is I could kind of consistently make people cry. And that got me an agent. It got me sort of started, because people weren’t used to actually reading a script and crying.
So, it’s a tiny romantic tragedy set in Boulder, Colorado, which is my hometown. Again, a very sort of first script thing where it’s like you write things that you know so well that they might not be interesting to other people. And it suffered from another first script problem, which is that I tried to cram everything I knew about everything into it. Because, like, “Well maybe I’ll never write another script, so I should shove everything I know about everything into it.”
John: Yeah. A lot of speeches.
Well, great. Thank you for looking at that. I’m not horrifically embarrassed. Let’s take a look at Craig’s script. The Stunt Family.
Craig: Yes. The Stunt Family. Just a year later, February of 1995. And the background on this is I was working at Disney in the marketing department. And my boss was Oren Aviv, who would later go on to actually run Disney and now is the head of marketing at Fox.
And Oren took a shine to me and suggested that I try my hand at writing a movie and then he could produce it. And he had an idea for a movie. And his idea was called The Stunt Family. And it was going to be a big, broad, physical comedy for kids about a family of stunt men who live their lives as if every day and every moment were a stunt. And they would go on a grand adventure and kind of use their fearlessness. But one of the family members, of course, just didn’t really feel like he fit in.
And so I wrote it with my then partner, Greg Erb, and it was the first screenplay I’d ever written. These were the first screen pages I’d ever written. And so, I mean…God.
John: [laughs] Well, for people who are just listening who aren’t on the page in front of them, do you want to give the summary?
Craig: Sure. So the summary is: We are on a backlot of Maxwell Studios, which is essentially like Universal Studios if any of you have visited Universal Studios where you take the tour of the actual backlot of the studio in the little tram. And they’ve kind of combined the actual working backlot with attractions. Like at Universal there’s a fake earthquake and then Jaws comes out of the lake and stuff like that.
And so you’re sort of on a tour with a tour guide who apparently is on his first day and isn’t very well prepared. And they pass by the stunt house and we start meeting members of the Stunt Family who are waking up to their morning routine. And their morning routine is sort of a very Addams Family combination of living in the middle of a working attraction. And it seems like they are living in a rather dangerous life, and yet they seem kind of curiously okay with it.
John: Yeah. And we get to the bottom of page three, we’ve met — have we met all the family by that point?
Craig: No. You meet sort of the [laughs], this is probably not a great idea. But you meet the protagonist on page 4 who is the one who doesn’t feel like he fits in.
John: Okay, cool. So, Craig, do you want to pull the Band-Aid first? I mean, how are you feeling?
Craig: Well, I feel pretty bad.
Craig: And this is when I talk to some of the people who send pages in who are writing comedy, and I say, “Listen, I’ve been there. I’ve done these mistakes.” I really have. And you can see it here, even though this was 17 years ago, it hurts to read. First of all, you have these huge chunks of description. And even though they’re not particularly prosy, it’s just a ton of unimportant detail.
We have a run, a page and a half run of back and forth dialogue between the tour guide and some people on the tour that is really broad, poorly written, not at all funny, illogical. Just bad. Really forced and awful.
John: And I would assume, just as the movie starts, that Zeke is actually our hero because he’s the guy who’s given a name and give, you know, he seems to be the center of the story but he’s not.
Craig: No. You sure would think that. And he’s not. And nothing is grounded. Not even the name of the studio and their mascot is grounded. It’s Zeke’s first day and yet apparently they don’t train people there, so he’s overly stupid and doesn’t know what anything is and makes ridiculous mistakes in order to set up bad punch lines.
So, the first page and a half is an unmitigated disaster. It gets a little bit more interesting when we actually get inside the stunt house, because you do have this kind, I guess I would describe, as sort of Addams Family setting. And even though, again, way too much description, there’s some interesting things happening.
This old man wakes up, and as the clock goes from 7:59 to 8:00 his eyes open up and this huge rot iron spiky chandelier plummets from the ceiling, puncturing the bed, and he rolls out the way and looks at his wristwatch and says, “I’m getting slower.” So, that’s kind of interesting, like, okay, they’ve rigged the house like Cato and Inspector Clouseau. A kind of constant test for them.
And on the third page you can see that their house is actually — and this is of course unfilmable; I mean, this comedy would have cost $400 million to do — the house literally is besieged by a fake flash flood. The people inside kind of amusingly know how to work with it. They’re using the flood waters to clean dishes. More terrible lines. It’s terrible.
John: Yeah. I do like, at the start of page three, the idea of the bus tram tour and the inept tour guide is funny. And there’s reason why, like, Kenneth the page works on 30 Rock. There’s a way that can work; where things go a little bit wrong, he’s saying the wrong stuff.
So, I did like at the top of page three it’s like, “‘Rumor has it that Wilford and his family still live in the old house, but I sure hope not, because I smell SMOKE!’
A simulated FLASH FLOOD is unleashed.
That’s a good joke. The scene description line didn’t really help us there. But it is a nice idea. You set the wrong expectation and suddenly a flood comes by. You get a joke for that, the unexpected.
Craig: Yeah. I wouldn’t call that a joke. [laughs] I just think it’s awful. I mean, I hate it. And I think it’s really just juvenile and even more juvenile than for me. It’s really juvenile.
I mean, I don’t know. The only thing I look at this, I mean, I would have said had I read these pages, “This guy is never going to make it,” personally.
John: I see competence in there. I see, you know, I see you setting up sort of — trying to setup a world, trying to get into something. I see the instinct behind t”his is how we would set up a studio by giving a studio tour.” So, you had a sense of what the Universal thing would be. And once you get to Wilford’s room, and since you said Addams Family, I get that more now. I just didn’t get it on the page. But I can see where that would be.
But partly why I want to talk about first scripts is you kind of have to get one out of your system. You kind of have to get through it, just so you can get familiar with the format and just finish a document that’s 120 pages long, which is going to be the longest thing that most human beings will ever write. So, it’s just that process is an important part of getting started.
Craig: You’re absolutely right. I think doing this script, one of the things it drove home for me, if I can remember that accurately that far back, is that there was a lot — it was really important to take care of the fundamentals that weren’t related to comedy. To make sure that the story was well told and the characters were real and relatable and that the plot moved in an interesting way.
And even though the next script I wrote with Greg was also very ridiculous, and broad, and family-oriented, it was a movie. And they made it. And that was the second thing I ever wrote. So, I surely needed to do this.
John: Yeah. And I couldn’t have written Go as my first script. Go was too complicated. I needed to be confident with the format. Although I will say I wrote the first section of Go at about the same time I wrote Here and Now. The first section of Go was X, which was a short film which became the whole movie, but it’s really just that first act of Go. And if people are thinking about trying the format, writing something short might be a really good idea, because at least it will get you familiar with the format and you’re not juggling all of the complexities of how-do-you-tell-a-story-over-two-hours. You’re just trying to tell a story over a shorter period of time.
That’s a small bit of advice. But, eventually you do have to write a full lengthy script and there are going to be all of the challenges that come with writing a full length script. And it won’t be perfect, so don’t expect it to be perfect.
Craig: No. It will likely be absolute garbage.
John: Yeah. But people don’t remember the first time they wrote a school report. People don’t remember the first time they wrote a paragraph. This is such a bigger step that it’s hard to expect that it’s going to be great the first time.
John: I think I want to actually wrap it up today because this was actually sort of meaningful and touching. And we’ll save other Three Page Challenges for a future time.
Craig: [laughs] Yeah. I’m glad you find it meaningful and touching. I just find it awful and depressing.
John: Well, see, we’ve come full circle then. Because I started the podcast sort of stressed out because of Halloweenie, and now I feel actually kind of better about myself, because in a slightly Schadenfreude way my pages were better than yours. So…
Craig: Well, I mean, honestly, you could have wiped your butt with three pages and roughly assembled the fecal smears into Courier shape and they would have been better than that. I mean, that’s just the worst. When I look at that stuff and I just think, “Good lord, what was I thinking?”
John: Yeah. Clearly your co-writer is the problem.
Craig: No. I can’t really blame him at all. [laughs] I can’t.
Craig: No. I mean, the one thing when we talked about doing this, I did think, “Well, you know, it might not be fair because I did write it with somebody, and maybe the better way of approaching this would be for me to submit the first three pages of the first thing I wrote on my own.”
John: That’s not fair at all.
Craig: But that was kind of a cheat, because frankly that was a really good script. And, even though it didn’t get made, it’s probably why it didn’t get made because it was good. And I really love those first three pages of that thing. And I thought, “Well, this is just cheating. I’ve got to actually go back and just pull up The Stunt Family, for the love of god.”
But, I was 24 and foolish. You apparently were 24 and wise.
John: Yeah. Wise beyond my years. I decided to write, like while everyone was writing the high concept comedy I was writing the weepy, which didn’t get made either, but it got me started. So, god bless those first scripts.
Craig: I guess that’s the way you’ve got to look at it. This one got me going, too.
John: Every once and awhile a producer will ask for, or a development executive, will call my agent and say, “Hey, do we have any of John’s old scripts? Can we read some of his early things?” Or they will ask for the script specifically. And I had to say no. I don’t want that out anymore because it’s just not me anymore. There’s a reason why it’s not part of my active file.
Craig: That’s interesting. I would say that the one script I just brought up that was sort of the first one that I wrote on my own I would love to see made. I think it still is an interesting one that works. Scott Frank is prepping a movie right now to direct that he wrote called The Walk Among the Tombstones, which he adapted from a Larry Block novel. I think. And he actually wrote that in ’97, I think, or ’98. And sort of it’s always been there and he’s kind of dusted it off and polished it up and gotten it ready to go.
John: That can work. Often there are bad examples, but there are also good examples. Unforgiven was an old script that sat around for a long time and someone said, “Hey, let’s make that script.”
Craig: Well, actually, Clint Eastwood bought when — David Peoples wrote that script. Clint Eastwood bought it, I think it was in the late ’70s or early ’80s I want to say. And put it in a drawer on purpose because he knew he wasn’t old enough to play the part. So, he bought it and just aged it like wine until he was ready.
John: I’m sure David Peoples was delighted.
Craig: You know what? He should be, because it’s one of the greatest movies ever made.
John: Yeah. Agreed. Agreed. But at the time, I mean, do you think for those 30 years David Peoples was like, “I’m so lucky that Clint Eastwood hasn’t made my movie.”
Craig: It wasn’t 30. It was like 12.
John: Everything feels like more time.
Craig: I know.
John: So, Craig, our last piece of housekeeping. Scriptnotes Live in Austin, at the Austin Film Festival, is October 20 at 9am. So, people have written on Twitter to ask, “Hey, can I just get a ticket for that one event?” And I don’t think you can. I think it’s actually part of the Austin Film Festival.
Craig: Yeah. The Austin Film Festival would be silly if they started to do things like that. I mean, the whole point is that they break even. And I don’t think it’s a profit organization, so they do need people to buy their passes to actually put on these things and support these events. So, no, you can’t just go see it. You have to buy a pass to the event. They are still available online. And there are a lot of other wonderful things to go see there.
John: Great writers there.
Craig: I mean, we will be, spectacular, no question. But…
John: And we have Aline Brosh McKenna is really our secret weapon.
Craig: Yeah, I think I’m our secret weapon.
John: Well, yeah, you’re right. That too. And if you want to talk to our secret weapon, Craig Mazin, on Twitter, you are @clmazin?
John: I am @johnaugust. That’s a good way if you have like small questions for us. If you have bigger questions, or if things you need to send in or ask us about, you can write to firstname.lastname@example.org. There is a whole form on the website, johnaugust.com, about how to write stuff in.
And, thank you very much for listening to our podcast. Subscribe in iTunes if you don’t.
Craig: Wait! I have a Cool Thing, finally, and you’re just blowing right through it.
John: Oh, I blew right past it. Tell us your Cool Thing, Craig.
Craig: I’ll be really fast. It’s an App. It’s a game. It’s called The Room. The Room. It is for the iPad. It’s spectacular. I like these puzzle games. I like games that are sort of Myst-like if you remember that one.
John: I love Myst.
Craig: This one is gorgeously done. It’s beautiful. It’s in the perfect space of not too hard, not too easy. A really good hint system if you need it. Incredibly simple. You don’t know who you are. You’re in an attic and there is a box in front of you. And you proceed to examine the box, and open the box up, and then open the box inside the box, and a house inside the box, inside the house. It is spectacular. It’s so well-done. Download it.
John: Hooray. If you’re doing yours, I’m going to do mine. Mine rhymes with yours. Mine is called Moom. And it is an app for the Macintosh. And what Moom does is a very simple thing. It resizes windows in a very specific grid-like way. And so if you’re trying to have multiple windows open, like I am right now while we’re recording this podcast, that little green dot in the title bar of every window, which is mostly kind of useless, now when you hover over that with Moom it pops up a little gird and you can sort of draw how big you want that window to be.
And it just stacks your windows really nicely. So, it’s very helpful on a big monitor, but it’s also really helpful on smaller monitors as well, when you need to have two windows side by side. So, Moom for the Macintosh. It’s in the Mac App Store.
Craig: Room and Boom.
Craig: Boom. [laughs]
John: Done. Podcast.
Craig: Podcast. Boom. [laughs]
John: Mic drop. Now.
Craig: Good luck, John, with Halloweenie and I’ll talk to you next week.
John: Thanks, bye.