The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Now, Craig, something feels different today. Is it an earlier time?
Craig: It’s definitely early. I’m feeling it. But I also feel like we’re not alone.
John: Oh, there’s an audience. [Applause] Hello! This is our first ever live Scriptnotes…
Craig: That was great.
John: …and people who are listening to this at home, they think like, “Wow, that is a huge crowd.” And they are exactly right. I cannot believe how big this crowd is.
Craig: I can’t believe how much noise 12 people can make.
John: Yeah. People were waiting in line. People have been camping out since 5 in the morning. So, thank you guys all so much for coming today.
Craig: Welcome, lucky ticket holders!
John: Yeah. Because, you know, it’s one thing when you see the download numbers, and it’s like, “Oh, that seems like a lot of people.” But when you actually see all of these people in front of us.
Craig: Oh, yeah. All 800,000 of them. It is a…
John: It’s crazy.
John: So, this is our first ever live episode. But we’re also going to treat it like a normal episode, too; we’re going to do the kind of stuff we would normally do. So, we’re going to talk about some news. We’re going to talk about the craft a little bit, and answer some questions. The different thing is that we’re going to have some questions live here in the room, which is exciting.
So, in the news this week, one thing that came up a lot on Twitter, people have asked: What is the deal with the Black List? The Black List made some changes and it’s now a very different kind of thing. And so we’re going to talk about that. We’re going to welcome our first ever special live screenwriter guest.
Craig: I’m so excited.
John: And she’ll be up here on stage with us. Her name is Aline Brosh McKenna, and she’s kind of great. And we’re going to do these questions. Let’s get to it. Craig —
John: The Black List. Have you heard of this thing called the Black List?
Craig: Sure. So, I’ll tell you what I know about the Black List…
Craig: …and then you tell me if I’m wrong. The Black List is basically the product of, well, Franklin Leonard started it, who’s an executive producer guy in Hollywood. And the idea was that assistants, and I guess some development people, read everything in Hollywood. They read all the scripts, and he basically decided that each year they should vote on the scripts they liked the most. Not necessarily the best scripts, or the ones that would sell, or the ones that didn’t sell, just the ones they liked the most, some of which I think haven’t even been bought, some of which have, some of which even were heading into development.
I think the deal is just that they couldn’t have been produced I guess in that year. And Hollywood loves lists. They love it. They’re obsessed with ranking things. And this really caught on. And I guess normally I’m — I don’t know, lists and rankings I go, “Ew,” but the great thing about it is that it helps scripts that otherwise would not have found homes, because Hollywood is obsessed with lists.
If you are one person in Hollywood and you read a script and you think, “Well this is very good, but no one else seems to have heard about it,” or “I’m just not going to talk about. It’s not on the list.” But suddenly it was on a list. And then a lot of scripts, and more importantly the screenwriters of those scripts, gained access inside of Hollywood. Malcolm Spellman and Tim Talbott who are here sort of famously got work because a script of theirs, which was completely unproduceable, was on the Black List.
John: That was the Robotard 8000 script.
Craig: The Robotard 8000 script. Exactly.
John: So, a crucial thing to understand about the Black List and its original incarnation is that executives are reading these scripts anyway. And so they had informal ways that they were always talking with each other about the things they were reading, and this was a way to sort of formalize it, but also anonymously sort of come to aggregate that information into sort of one master list of what the people who are actually reading those scripts and making those decisions thought were the most interesting things of the year.
And so it was very helpful to people to show up on the Black List, because that was a real mark of a possibility for them. So, this last week the change that happened is Franklin Leonard announced — and he actually tipped us off first he was going to be doing this — is changing the access, expanding sort of the mission of the Black List so that writers who wanted to submit their scripts to the Black List — to a site, a website for the Black List — could have their scripts read by executives who wanted to see it. People could read scripts on the Black List, rank them, rate them, contact those writers. It was a way for writers to be discovered through that process.
The issues that sort of immediately came up and sort of why people wanted us to talk about it is there was a fee to be listed on the site.
Craig: And you know how I feel about fees.
John: You love fees. You’re a fee-based person.
Craig: I’m going to get angry. It’s early.
John: I sense there could be some umbrage coming. That’s why everybody wanted us to talk about it.
John: And there’s also, you could have a professional reader associated with the Black List read your script and provide ratings for it to tell you sort of what they thought of the script.
Craig: I wish that this guy were here so we could ask him exactly…
John: Yeah, ask exactly those questions.
Craig: Yeah, just so we could grill him and make him uncomfortable.
John: That would be good.
Craig: Is he here?
John: He is in fact here.
Craig: He’s right over there?
John: So, let’s welcome up Franklin Leonard to talk about it.
So, this is again the luxury of being live in a place, and right now we’re in Austin; we can actually ask these questions of a person. So, Franklin, tell us sort of what the impetus was to create this new site/service that changes things.
Franklin Leonard: Well, I think the biggest one was probably the fact that everywhere I went — whether it was the Austin Film Festival, anywhere in Los Angeles, when I was on a plane and told someone what I did in Hollywood — the first question that I got was, “So, I wrote this screenplay. What do I do with it now?” And I never really had a good answer.
You know, there was “send query letters,” there was “enter the Nicholl, and the Austin Film Festival Screenplay competition.” And as I thought about it, those really seemed like inefficient ways to sort of get your script to the people who would actually read it. And in the cases where even that was successful, it created a situation I think for writers that was sort of less than ideal, or less than what could be ideal for the writer’s position.
And so I began to think that, “Hey, the Black List sort of aggregated this conversation around writers that people were liking — wouldn’t it be great if you could do the same thing for writers that weren’t necessary part of the system yet, and put them in a position of power where all of a sudden if their script was really strong they had one, five, a dozen people pursuing them, and then they could chose multiple options?”
Craig: And to be clear, what you’re offering now is separate the Black List, which still continues on and has nothing to do with who sent a script in or anything?
Franklin: That’s absolutely right. And that distinction I think is critical because a lot of people are like, “Oh, the Black List has lost its way.”
Craig: “They sold the Black List. Argh!”
Franklin: Exactly. No. We have not at all. The annual Black List remains a separate and distinct thing that will be voted on using the exact same process that was used for the last seven years. It has born a lot of really positive results. And it will still exist as the annual Black List. And I don’t think that there will be, at least in Hollywood at least, much confusion about the difference between this annual list that goes out and this new sort of website ecosystem community that will allow people access that they might heretofore not have had.
Craig: Right. Got it.
John: So, my kneejerk reaction — I think a lot of people’s kneejerk reactions — was that it felt weird that the business model was based around charging fees for people with dreams. Essentially there’s that mentality of making money off the backs of people who are trying to get into the system versus, you know… — And also the question of who is really the user of this thing: is it aspiring writers or is it producers and development executives who are looking for talent? Tell us about that.
Franklin: Right. I have the same level of discomfort with it, I suspect, as you do. And we designed it that way for a few reasons. The first of which is if the goal is to aggregate as many possible eyeballs from the film community as possible on the possible screenplays of aspiring writers, the best way to do that at least initially would be to have an incredibly low price point for the industry members that were coming on to join.
Anecdotally when we were in beta and developing the site we actually did charge industry members a very small fee which was in part designed to prevent us from taking sort of third party financing of venture capital, which would have prevented us from actually sort of staying very close to this goal that we have of creating opportunity.
And when we made the transition from charging industry folks to going free we quadrupled our membership in 48 hours. And so by being free it means that we can have the most possible sort of eyeballs on your possible scripts and that they’re good.
And then in terms of why we charge writers, I mean, first of all we do need a business model in order to function, in order to allow this thing to exist. But I also wanted to provide a slight disincentive for sort of throwing everything up against the wall and hoping it sticks. It’s really important that you believe in your script enough to pay some small amount of money. And we’ve kept the price point far lower than I know we could have charged for it because the price and elasticity of demand of something like this is actually very, very low.
And so as much as I would like to have the business model be different, I think this is the one that is sort of optimal in terms of making sure there are as many industry people as possible looking at these scripts. And making sure that we get a higher quality of material that we’re then going to wade through and have readers read.
Craig: I mean, look, you know how my thing is: screenwriting is the last free thing to do. I don’t hate this. I really don’t. I like a lot of it actually. And the part that — here’s what I hate most of all about, not about your thing, but about…
Franklin: It’s that you hate me, right?
Craig: Well, I don’t like you.
Franklin: There you go.
Craig: I love you.
Franklin: I love you, too.
Craig: Thank you. There is a world of charlatans who prey on you folks out there. And they prey upon you in the worst way by promising you access and insight that they simply don’t have. They don’t have access; that’s pretty much easy to see. They certainly don’t have insight. It’s a simple rule of thumb: If they had insight they would probably be doing what John does or Franklin does. They don’t. They’re doing what they do which is buying business cards for $14 and then convincing you that they have insight.
And even worse, they charge you a lot. They charge you $500. They charge you $1,000. And then they charge you by time, or by read, and then they promise you improvement. And so you just give them a little bit more, and a little bit more. And suddenly it’s like a therapist that keeps telling you, “If you just keep paying me, one day you will be better.”
But, also as is in the case with therapists, that’s not true. You’re not going to be better necessarily from them, because they don’t really know what they’re talking about. Here’s what I like about this — two things: One, it’s a flat fee per script. And that fee is?
Franklin: $25 per month.
Craig: $25 per month. So, $25 per month and your script will be read by industry readers who actually have access, because the people who go to the site for free, who aren’t charged, are basically people in the actual business, in your business, who are looking for scripts.
Franklin: Absolutely. And there are a lot of them. I mean, we have at present 1,150 industry members ranging from agency assistants to studio presidents in production.
Craig: And the way the system works is you submit a script for $25, it’s read by the industry readers, and then it is ranked.
Franklin: Well, not exactly. So, the way it works is you upload a script for $25 a month. That makes it available to our entire membership, and it is indexed along a number of different metrics that you provide. And then for $50 you can pay for one of our readers that we’ve hired to read it…
Craig: Oh, now it’s $50. Okay.
Franklin: No, no, let me explain.
Craig: All right.
Franklin: And that reader will evaluate the script. I think that’s another thing that differs between us and a lot of coverage services for example. We’re not offering you — we’ll give you an evaluation and you can take with that evaluation maybe insight into how to improve your script, but this is not something that you should be using to identify the things wrong with your script so that you can then improve it and sort of keep coming back to us for that.
Craig: It’s just a tool for the other people who are on the site to see what someone thought?
Franklin: Right. And the data that is generated by those evaluations we can use to create sort of a Black List of non-professional scripts, sort of a real time, that is sortable by genre, subgenre, words that feature in the log line. And then we also built a recommendations algorithm similar to what exists on Netflix and Amazon so that based on all of our 1,150 members’ individual taste, in the event that a script is particularly suited to one of those members’ taste we can send them an email and say, “Hey, our algorithm thinks that you’re going to love this script. You individually are going to love this script and you should check it out.”
And the reality is, and you guys know this, there are not a lot of great screenplays out there. The vast majority of the screenplays that are submitted to our site are not going to get discovered and create screenwriting careers that last a lifetime. But, for the people who have written great scripts, this is a fast track to getting it to the people that love it. And it is a far more efficient way I think than anything that currently exists to match those great scripts with people who can make them.
And hopefully put the writers in a situation where people are competing for their services and that people aren’t just taking the first option and the first phone call they get.
John: So, a question about the evaluation. You have professional readers who are reading these scripts. $50 seems like a really low amount of money, not to write a check for $50, but $50 isn’t a lot of money to get paid to read a script, and they’re not making all that $50. So, what is that book report like? It’s not really coverage…
Franklin: It’s not coverage. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re able to pay far lower than what would be expected to pay for coverage. Because the vast majority — look, the reading of the script is not really what you’re paying for when you’re paying for coverage. You’re paying for the hour or two of sitting down and writing three, four pages of notes that require not only writing well but sort of giving intelligent, critical assessments of someone’s work.
Our evaluation includes an overall rating of 1 to 10. A rating of 1 of 10 along five different metrics, including dialogue, structure, setting, premise. And then three short answers to questions about the script’s greatest strengths, weaknesses, and commercial viability. And that’s I think why we’re able to do that is because ultimately for our readers we’re asking them for an hour and a half, at most two hours of their time instead of the five and six hours.
And I actually think we’re probably paying more per hour to our readers than a lot of coverage services are.
John: Okay. A question about sort of… — I can see how it makes sense for an aspiring writer. I can see how it makes sense for a development executive. Does it make sense for a writer who is actually working to have their scripts anywhere near this site?
Franklin: I think it can. I’ll admit that it remains to be seen exactly how it does. And one of the things I’m very excited about is being able to make available a lot of the quantitative data around how people are using the site, once the gears begin turning and sort of moving smoothly.
I think that there does exist that potential. I think there is a sort of site that exists alongside this and is part of it that basically the script titles and authors of professional scripts are also rated by these development executives and sort of moved through a real time Black List and recommendation engine as well. And I’ve already spoken with a number of development executives who sort of return to it daily to find out if there is a script that they didn’t know about that they need to know about.
It functions essentially exactly the same way as the annual Black List does, except instead of once a year in December everybody being able to find out the scripts that may not have known about, they’re able to say in the middle of May, “What are the most liked comedies that don’t have a director but do have a producer attached?” and that list is auto-generated. Or, “Which comedies without a director am I likely to like based on my tastes?” And then they can call the agent and get a copy of it.
And our industry professional membership is limited to those people who basically would have access to make those phone calls to those representatives or producers so they can get a copy of the script. We’ve had over 5,000 people apply for membership and have accepted less than 1,200.
Craig: I mean, look, we don’t endorse anything; that’s not our gig. But I do spend a lot of time attacking things.
Franklin: So, the not-attack I’m very proud of.
Craig: I’m going to give this a not-attack, which is pretty great. It’s my highest award.
Franklin: And it is immensely appreciated.
Craig: No, no. I think that what I like is that ultimately for — that you are providing access, true access. The thing that drives me the craziest about these services is that they fake access. Like when you go to the LA Convention Center and you meet people. None of those people can do anything for you except take your money. So, this is legitimate access. And, also, you guys don’t make a dime in their success.
Franklin: No, not at all.
Craig: You make money, you make your $25 a month. You make your $50 per evaluation.
Franklin: That’s right.
Craig: If they sell the script for $1 million you get zero of that $1 million. And that’s a really important firewall, because all of these pitch festivals and things that are actually — they’ve got their hand in one pocket, they’re reaching into that other pocket if you should actually do something. So, I think — I give this my highest rating of I-don’t-attack-it.
Franklin: But we do ask one thing in return is that if they find that success that they email us and let us know so we can join in that celebration.
Craig: I think they can do that.
John: They can do that.
Franklin, thank you so much for doing this.
Franklin: Thank you so much for having me.
Craig: Thank you, Franklin.
John: Thank you for coming here.
Just like all of our other podcasts, there will be show notes for this one at johnaugust.com/podcast. So, we’ll have a link to Franklin’s site. We’ll have a link to some good follow up questions that Franklin answered after the thing was announced. I did really respect that he took the time to sort of figure out, “These are the things people keep asking and I’m going to answer them in detail.” So, thank you very much for doing that.
And we have our first screenwriter guest. I’m so excited.
Craig: You don’t seem excited. [laughs]
John: I’m excited. I’m excited.
Craig: Did you just simulate excitement?
John: I’m excited because I know who she is. It’s a neighbor. These are good things.
So, we’d always talked about having guests. Like even from the very first episodes we were like, “Oh, we could have a guest on,” because we thought we wouldn’t have enough to talk about.
Craig: Well, but the truth is the two of us are so weird and we’re very… — You know, I was making fun of John for being so consistent about the way he starts every podcast, but I’m the same way. I think we’re both very happy just doing it the way we do it. And then I think somewhere around Episode 20 the thought of change started to freak me out. [laughs]
So, but this is great, because we’re in a different place. So, it doesn’t matter. It’s a road game.
John: New rules.
Craig: We can do anything, man.
John: Quite early on when the idea of coming to the Austin Film Festival and maybe doing the first live Scriptnotes, we were like, “Well who would be a great guest to have up on stage with us?” and we both though of…
Craig: Derek Haas.
John: Derek Haas.
Craig: But he was not available. So then…
John: [laughs] So, our second choice was this writer who worked on — who wrote The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses, Morning Glory, a movie that I really dug which not a lot of people saw, but I really liked it a lot. And I Don’t Know How She Does it. And We Bought a Zoo. She wrote all these movies, and she’s kind of awesome, and she’s a neighbor. And she’s the only woman who I think really intimidates Craig consistently.
Craig: Dude, like you have no idea. Scares me to death.
John: So, if you could all welcome Aline Brosh McKenna.
Aline Brosh McKenna: Hi guys!
John: Hello! And welcome.
Aline: How are you?
Craig: See? Scary.
Aline: Lovely to see you. Terrifying.
John: A terrifying person.
John: How is Austin so far for you?
Aline: Oh, it’s been great. I’ve really been having a good time.
John: Is this your first?
Aline: I came here five years ago. And this is the first time I’ve been back since then. And it has been fun; I love being here. It’s great.
Craig: Oh, I feel like you’re going to hit me. I really do.
Aline: Except that Craig’s here!
Craig: [laughs] Yeah. See?
John: All good except for that. This is my fourth time at the Austin Film Festival and I really enjoy it. The weird thing is I’m much more recognized now and that is — it’s lovely. And everyone is super, super nice, and so thank you; you can please feel free to say hello. But, it’s a little exhausting.
John: I hosted a party the first night and first off I had to say, I was supposed to welcome everybody to it, but it was so loud that I was like standing at the bar and I had a microphone, and everybody could see that I was up there and had a microphone but couldn’t hear me.
Craig: Were you there? It was awesome.
Aline: It was.
Craig: This is what it sounded like at first, because, so you stood up there, because I was in the back, so I had a great view of this. And you had a microphone. And you were going — and then you realized nobody could hear you, so then you went [muffled indecipherable speaking]. And then nobody could hear that, either. So, then you realized, okay, well that’s not going to work, so I’m going to pull back a little bit. And then you just went back to — [audience laughs]. And you seemed happy with that actually.
Aline: John, the reason people are coming over to you is not the writing fame, it’s just sheer sex appeal. That’s it.
John: There’s that, too. Yeah.
Craig: We’re you talking to me?
John: Craig, do people recognize you here that much?
Craig: Yeah, people do. You know, they talk this year more about the podcast than anything else, which is very cool. You know, if I do a panel in the morning then they’ll come and they’ll say, “Hey, bad job,” or whatever.
Craig: But, no, people are listening to the podcast and so they say that a lot. They come up to me and say, “Cool podcast, man,” which is nice. I like that.
John: And, Aline, part of the reason why we wanted you on the show is because you actually listen to the podcast.
Aline: I really wanted to come on and talk about things that are [pause] interesting to screenwriters.
Craig: You’ve noticed that, right?
Craig: Yeah. Interesting.
Aline: What is that? What regional diction is giving you interesting?
John: Interesting. The way I leave out the T? Yeah, interesting.
Aline: No, I love it. I love the podcast. I love the Cool Thing. That’s what I listen to when I work out. Hmm, embarrassing.
John: Nice. So, today I thought we might talk a little bit about — a little crafty in the sense of I think I have noticed starting this summer I described some movies that I saw that I really liked, but I didn’t love, and I described them as “a stack of scenes.” And as I was thinking back to these movies, I liked a lot of stuff that happened in them, and I liked the things that I could sort of tell you, the things that happened, but I didn’t really feel like they held together as movies. And I want to talk about the difference between good stuff in a movie and a movie that holds together well.
And I thought you were a good choice for this because I look at the movies you do, and I was describing them yesterday as “want-coms.” People want to say they’re romantic comedies, but they’re not really romantic comedies. It’s usually a character who is very proficient who wants — is aiming for something. In Morning Glory, she wants to run this show, and there is romantic stuff that happens, but it’s really about her journey there. Same with Devil Wears Prada.
So, I want to talk a little bit about what it is that makes a movie story hold together.
Aline: Am I allowed to use profanity on this show?
John: Uh, yeah, you can use some profanity.
John: We’re going to lose our little Clean rating in iTunes, but that’s okay.
Aline: Here it goes…
Craig: Just remember that Jesus is listening to you.
Aline: [laughs] I’ll give you the profane and then I’ll give you the airline version.
Aline: My term for movies like that is Shit Happens movies. But for airplane purposes you could call them Crap Happens movies.
You want all your scenes to have a “Because” between them and not an “And Then” between them. And it’s something that you learn and get better at which is having everything cause everything, and everything build on everything. But I have noticed, particularly in the action genre, it seems like things have gotten very episodic. And there’s been episodic movies — have been around for a long time.
I don’t do it primarily because I can’t do it well. I can’t keep myself… — When you’re writing a script you don’t want to feel like these things could be in any order. And if you can, then that’s a problem. Another way to think about it is what you’re constructing is a story which should be as entertaining a story as you would tell to someone at drinks. It should be, “And then this happened, and then this, and then this,” and it has distinct causality, and if you told it in a different way it wouldn’t be entertaining. And that’s something to remind yourself of: Can you put the script down, can you look away from Final Draft and turn to someone and say, “This is the story of the movie.” And it’s particularly challenging in the second act.
And that’s what I find is a lot of movies have a ramp up, and they have some sense of where they want to go, and then in the middle you get scene salad.
John: Yes. And so I don’t want to slam on any particular movies, but I want to offer some concrete examples. So, this is not to slam on these movies or these screenwriters, but these are the movies I said a stack of scenes about.
The Master, which is really well made, but a few days later as I was thinking back to The Master I couldn’t tell you what order most of those scenes happened. And I felt like you could have rearranged a lot of that stuff in that movie and it would have been largely the same movie. There’s a sequence where Joaquin Phoenix is walking from the wall to the window, from the wall to the window. And it’s a really interesting sequence but it didn’t actually end up changing — you could have moved it to other places in the movie; it wouldn’t have changed the nature of the movie.
Prometheus is another movie where a bunch of stuff happens, but it could have happened in a lot different order. And I really like your “because” versus “and then.” It was a lot of “and thens,” “and thens,” and it was like every moment I was like, “Well, what is an interesting thing that could happen now?” It’s like, “That is an interesting thing that could happen but it didn’t change the nature of the movie. There wasn’t a ‘because’ stuck in there.”
Craig: You know, my thing about this, because if you just look at a plot it is “and then, and then, and then,” and hopefully there is a causality between those two that creates the “because” or “and so.” But, let’s say you’re writing a road trip or any kind of movie where it seems like the flow of the plot requires episodes. Then really the thing that connects these things together and makes them a story is theme and the characters.
Aline: And character.
Craig: Exactly. So, theme and characters. So, you can have, “and then, and then” episodes, but if the theme and the characters are evolving through those then I feel like there is some glue. How do you approach that when you’re dealing with that?
Aline: That’s a really good way to put it, because a lot of the stuff I’ve written, the plots are not exactly highly propulsive. And so you have to find propulsion, and it’s almost always in, “Okay, this character starts here and what don’t they know? What do they think they want but they don’t know they want this other thing? What is the trajectory of the goal they think they’re heading towards but the actual goal they should be heading towards — what is the tension between those two things?” And that is really what’s providing you your arc.
You know, the story stuff needs to be… — And in some ways what’s interesting is you can take the same plot elements, and it might be a good exercise, you can take the same plot elements of story and rearrange them, as long as you’re repurposing them character or theme wise. Do you know what I’m saying?
Aline: Like you could say, “Craig and I had breakfast, and played Scrabble.” But if it’s like, “And that’s when I realized he was a serial killer,” where you place those revelations…
Craig: It’s a weird place to finally say it.
Aline: [laughs] Where you place those revelations, where you place the character on their journey in the events. And what I’ve noticed — And I can’t speak to it for The Master, because I feel like The Master is doing something else, and I feel like part of what The Master was doing was addressing this issue of do people change? do they progress? So, I feel like it’s slightly different. But — I have noticed that there are movies where they have now decided that it’s cool to dispense with setting up a character at all.
Aline: So, things just start and you’re in motion, which I appreciate. You know, I like a movie where you get into the story pretty quickly. But sometimes I don’t know anything about the character. I don’t care. I’m not invested. I don’t understand where they’re starting psychologically. And so it is hard for me — I just feel like I didn’t get on the train. So, I’m not on the train; I’m just watching the train go by.
John: Yeah. The most recent Bourne movie is another movie I described as a stack of scenes in that each set piece is really lovely, but I felt like I was watching a video game that sort of like moves to the next section. And all the stuff that happens within that little section is like, “Oh, that’s all smartly done and really good. But I didn’t know who those characters were beforehand.” I couldn’t track that anything had progressed or anything had changed because I didn’t know where we really started.
Aline: Do you think video games have a lot to do with that?
John: I think there’s an aspect of it.
Craig: I don’t know. I mean, the truth is, because I do play a lot of video games, and frankly it seems like they are more invested in narrative and setup now than some of the movies. The really good ones at least are getting very cinematic and very narrative and they seem actually really obsessed with character.
I mean, obviously they play out in very different ways. The one thing that video games do that I don’t like, and I will see in movies, is they create segments that are entirely about the cleverness of the action, which I understand because it’s a video game and you need to play the game. But it does seem to me like sometimes screenwriters forget that clever is not good.
You may have a really cool idea for a scene in the flow of your plot, but frankly the only value of any scene, for me at least, even in action movies, is: What does it mean for the character? And what does it mean for the theme? I think one of the reasons we love Die Hard is because we’re watching a guy suffer. And each time he suffers he seems to be enlightened from the suffering. And we don’t like Commando as much because Arnold Schwarzenegger just seems to just get on a plane, shoot, get on a plane, shoot, get on a chopper, shoot.
So, I like to think about these things, like what the episode should be really should be the test for what the character needs at that moment to then move forward.
Aline: Right. I want to bring up something else which is a little slightly off-topic but I think interesting is: I think television is a huge part of this. And I think we consume way more television at this point than movies; I think that’s correct. But, anyway, we’re all consuming tons of television. And one thing I think is interesting is there is a trend now, a lot of feature writers are going into television, and a lot of people do both. But I have this belief that they’re fundamentally different types of storytelling.
I think TV and film are completely different. There are many people who have equal mastery. But I feel like I have spent so much of my career training myself to write something that could only have happened this one time. It has to be — it’s a cumulative thing. This is a singular thing that happened to this character and the stakes are as high as possible.
So, I have not trained myself to tell stories that can generate themselves over at the end. And some people do that extremely well, and a great television series often is something that can kick out iterations of itself. Now, some TV series it seems to me, like Mad Men seems to me to be a 100-minute long movie. And that’s an amazing skill to do, because he doesn’t repeat, he progresses. But I think that a traditional, in particular a procedural or a sitcom, is something that needs to be able to be repeated. And I think that’s a huge part of how people process stories now.
John: You’re really talking about: what is the engine? And so in television there is an engine for the self-contained one hour. There’s an engine for the 30-minute sitcom. And there’s also this sort of new engine for this sort of mega novel series, like the way that Lost is: every episode has its closure but there’s a bigger ongoing cycle.
And I feel like my frustration with some of these movies recently is I felt like they haven’t had good movie engines to them. And in the movie engine, like natural consequence, characters trying to go through things. Even simple things like, “Tell me where the characters think they’re trying to get to,” which I think is — your movies point to — your characters clearly state their goals in terms of what they’re trying to do. And they may not reach those goals, the goals may change, but you know what the character is trying to do over the course of this movie. And you are invested in them because you want to see them — are they going to make that thing?
You talk about, it’s a race; it’s like we’re a very specific kind of runner. We’re not a sprinter. We’re not a season-long marathoner, but we run like a 10K. And some of these movies aren’t running their 10Ks the way you kind of hope that they could.
Craig: Well, the other thing, and this is something for you guys to keep in mind when you’re writing, is that all the pressure to reduce will be on the first act. I love first acts. I’m obsessed with them. I love setting characters. My favorite pages are the first ten pages. I care about them more than anything. And not in the script stage — I think in the script stage I think they all really appreciate it. It’s when they’re making the movie, or when they’re cutting the movie and they’re like, “Can we just get into this faster?” That’s their thing.
Once they’ve read it once — Sorry Franklin, I keep saying “they,” but it’s “they” — once they’ve read it once they forgot that they read it and so when they read it a second time they’re like, “Eh, oh yeah,” so they just skip past it because they’ve read it. They don’t realize that no one else has read it. The audience hasn’t read it yet. They’re only going to read it when they see the movie. But all the pressure then becomes like, “Well, I’m bored; I’m sitting here. I just watching you guys set up. It’s boring, it’s boring, it’s boring. Let’s just go, let’s just go, let’s just go.”
So, when you’re writing, because setup is everything, be tight. Be compact. Those first ten are precious. And when we read the first three pages, sometimes the first three pages seem so, I don’t know, just…
Craig: And really just spendy. They’re spending their pages.
Aline: Right. And it’s such precious real estate.
John: I’m going to stand up and argue for the last ten pages of a script, too, which is another challenge. You get to the end of some of these movies and it’s like, “Well, we got there? Was that a rewarding place for us to get? I trusted you with two hours of my time and I thought we would get to a more interesting, better place than that.” And the movies that I love tend to have great beginnings, but they tend to have great endings, like you really got to someplace really meaningful.
Aline: One screenplay I would recommend, and I think it’s pretty easily available online, is the True Grit screenplay, which is a clinic on both of those things. I mean, they set up the tone, the story, they get you into the magic of that movie instantly, and then they have this beautiful epilogue/coda ending. And it’s also for people to read, it’s just as a reading experience. They don’t use — have you ever read it?
Aline: There are no slug lines.
Craig: Yeah, I like that.
Aline: It’s beautiful.
Craig: Don’t do that, by the way. But I do like it.
Aline: Yeah. [laughs]
John: The Coen brothers can do that. The other ones don’t do that.
Craig: When you’ve made like 20 films, and you’re a genius, and you’re writing for your brother, then you can do it.
Aline: But in terms of getting into, there are some scripts that are — it’s very deft if you can do that, get in, and have it feel purposeful because there’s a lot of hitting an alarm clock in the beginning of scripts. You know, there’s a lot of, “They start their day, they take a shower.” You know, generally there are a lot of tropes in the beginning. And you want to find some way to start that the audience thinks, “Oh, this is — wow, what’s happening here?”
Craig: Right. Exactly. I mean, you know, it’s interesting, because it is the first ten and the last ten that I always think about. When you start screenplays — I don’t know if you’re like me — I need to know the beginning, and I need to know the end. I need to know the theme. I need to know why this story for that character is interesting. Do you always know the beginning, and the end, and the middle?
Aline: I always know the end. I always know the end. Because the end, I mean, the end is why you’re there in a lot of ways. The end is what you’re doing.
I love writing first acts. And they usually come very quickly because this is sort of the — they’re really fun, I think, to write. And if you’re set up properly the third, though it might not be fun, should be pretty quick.
Aline: I think second acts are the bear. And I think second acts, you know, separate the men from the boys. And I feel like it was Ted Elliott…
Aline: Yes. The boys from the men, or the Boyz II Men.
Aline: I think it was Ted Elliott who said the second act is the movie you wanted to write. It’s the thing that people came to see. It’s what is on the poster. You know, if you’re going to see ET it’s the part where there is an ET and they’re interacting. But it is that thing of it is hard in the second act not to stack scenes in exactly that way you’re talking about.
And I think what happens is in a pitching, in a development process you will find when you pitch a movie, if you’re pitching for 12 minutes you pitch the first act for six minutes. And you pitch the setup, and you know the setup, and you really worked on it. And so you sit down and write the script, and you bust out the first act, and you feel awesome, and you feel like a regular person. And then you get to the second act and there are parts where you go, “We never talked about this!”
John: The vast wasteland in the middle of the movie.
Aline: It’s a lot of real estate. And you have to construct it. And so I actually try and blow through the first act quickly so that I can focus on that stuff. But I always know, and sometimes it shifts, but I have to know where I want the character to end up at the end and what sort of ending I have in mind, even if you end up joojing the particles.
John: I will write the last ten pages really early on in the process. I will tend to write the first act, then write the last ten pages, and then sort of paint in towards the middle. Partly it’s just a work process. Those last bits of things you’re going to write you’re always going to have to sort of rush to get done I find. I’m always sort of behind on a deadline. And I’d rather be painting towards the middle of the room rather than sort of painting towards the edge. I don’t want those ten pages to feel rushed.
If I’m going to rush I want to rush that —
Craig: Can you do that? I can’t do that.
Aline: No, I can’t do that. I think of it more like you’re weaving something, and you weave, weave, weave, and you know kind of roughly where you’re heading in the second act, but you don’t really know what you need for — I mean, in the third act — but you don’t really know what you need. And if you’ve constructed the carpet properly you’ll have a lot of cool threads. And what I enjoy about the third act is, like, “Oh, you can pay off this, and pay off that.” And it only works if you’ve woven everything into the second act.
Craig: It’s a devastating critique of your entire career.
John: Yes, thank you very much.
Aline: I do a weird thing which is I sketch the whole story in a very, very rough, unreadable…
Craig: I do that, too.
Aline: I sketch the whole thing.
Craig: I do that on a piece of paper. And I make a line, and I sketch it.
Aline: No, I mean, oh, I mean I go through…
John: Craig, you’re wrong.
Craig: I sketch it.
Aline: [laughs] No, I go through and barf out a whole pass that’s legible.
Craig: Oh, you do that thing?
Aline: I am that thing. I build a skeleton. Because what I have found, early on in my career I would write that first act and then I would polish it, and perfect it, and hang little Christmas ornaments on it. And then it would be like, “Oh! I’ve got all this other stuff I got to do.” And you wouldn’t know, “Hey, the first act needs to be 10 pages shorter!” until you’ve done all this other stuff.
So, for me, I do a skeleton of the entire screenplay and then I go back and I put in the mosaics.
John: I will tend to do my last ten pages. I know that I’ll have to change some stuff in the last ten pages because I’ll discover other things along the way, but I tend to do that, filling in the skeleton sort of as part of my process. If I’m writing a scene and I’m basically done for the day, I’ll slug line the next seven things that happen so I can work on those things next, so I actually have —
Aline: That’s super smart. Because you want to have something to open up the next day.
Craig: I really note card it out. I always know what I’m doing the next day, you know. And my day — we work so differently, so my thing is I go, whatever I wrote for that day, the next day I start by going backwards and rewriting it. Because I just feel like sleeping has helped me. And also it just gives me a running start into the work of today.
Aline: But don’t you sometimes end up spending 80% of your time on the rewriting part?
Craig: You know, here’s the deal: I don’t work that much. There’s like jobs where people are on the highway working for ten hours. If I write for three hours it’s a pretty good day. So, if I spend two hours polishing and then one hour in a kind of burst of inspiration that that got me running into, you know, it’s hard to beat myself up for it. “Oh my god, I might have to work a fourth hour today!”
So I can’t — I’m okay with that. And my whole thing about the second act is really just to look at the character and their relation to the central arc or the theme. And I have a basic sketch out. And then I really sit — I just feel like even though I deviate from the note cards as I go, I never feel lost. I never hit a moment of despair. I get anxious, you know, I get worried. I stop and I go, “Okay, I’ve got a note card problem here.” But I’m never full of despair.
Aline: But for me the outline/note card brain is different from the writing brain. So, the outline/note — that’s why I don’t really love doing extensive, extensive outlines with people, particularly before. I will do a verbal outline of the whole thing that last about 15 minutes where I can pitch you through the whole story. But I find that they’re not very good guides of what it feels like to be in the movie.
And so I feel like it’s very theoretical information and often I’ll have in an outline or a note card, and then I’ll be in the scene and be like, “Oh, nobody wants to do — none of the characters want to do this thing that’s on this card.”
Craig: That, you know what I do, because you’re right — and so I have actually two rows of notes. More note cards is the solution. So, I have my this is what happens note card, but next to that note card, in a different colored note card…
Aline: Wow. See, serial killer. I said that.
Craig: Okay. What I do — well, first I tell the people in my basement to shut up.
Craig: I’m working! And then — and then — next to the what happens note card is a why, a why it happens note card. Because I feel like that is important. If I know why things are happening, how their relationship is changing, what it means, what they notice, then frankly the what can change to 100 different things. But really what I’m outlining is my intention as opposed to plot.
And when I outline my intention then I feel like the second act isn’t so scary anymore.
Aline: I like that.
Craig: Well thank you. You’re free to go.
John: [laughs] No, you’re actually free to stay. We are going to open up for some questions. And so if you have a question that you wanted to ask us…
Aline: Wow. The crowd has like doubled since we got here.
Craig: I know. It’s like The Birds.
Aline: There’s at 17 or 18 people here now.
John: Let us take, the jacket right here. Question?
Male Audience Member: What about openings? Can you talk about character introductions and really crafting the first time the audience meets our protagonist?
John: So, I’m going to repeat this just in case it didn’t get recorded well. The question is about introducing characters and how to handle that the first time we meet somebody.
Craig: Didn’t we do a podcast on that?
John: We did talk about it, but we could talk about how Aline does it.
John: The first time you meet a character in one of your scripts, how many words do you give them?
Aline: I don’t do a lot, I don’t do a ton, because I feel like you’re going to want to learn from behavior. And you want to have them behaving right off the bat in some way that tells — you want them to do something that tells the audience everything you need to know about the character. But I really do, I was very influenced by the William Goldman book. And so I really do do that thing where picking out a detail about a character the way you would say to someone, sort of like if you met someone at a party and you were going to describe them to your friend, you would say, “Oh, he’s the guy who… He’s the type of person who… She’s the kind of person who would say this/wear this/be friends with this/live here.”
You’re looking for the salient detail. What I would avoid is things which are — the character descriptions should be as purposeful as your story. So, I would not include a lot of extraneous stuff, descriptions about clothing, or hair, or whatever unless it really is…
Craig: No hair.
Aline: Unless it is germane to the story.
Craig: Yeah, I’m not a big fan of these character introductions where you tell me stuff that I haven’t seen in the movie yet. I hate that. Yeah, I’m getting there. You know, “When Jim walks in the room he’s had a life of woe, but he’s about to meet…”
Aline: “He thinks of his mother.”
Craig: All I really try and do in a character introduction really is convey immediately non-verbally or sub-textually, “What is this character’s strength and what is their problem, the problem that they’re not aware of yet?” I just want to know what that is. I want to know what they’re good at and I want to know what they’re bad at.
And by “bad at” I mean just that they’re maybe misaligned, maybe priority out of whack, something tiny. But I think that’s ultimately what we hook into on characters is their strengths and their weaknesses, what they want will emerge naturally from the circumstances of the plot, but I want to know why they’re going to have a problem getting it. I want to know why they don’t already have it. But I want to see what is good and unique about them, because I’m with them, you know.
John: I agree very much with what they’ve said. The only thing I’ll add is use character introductions, use the extra sentence you might give to a significant character’s introduction as a way of distinguishing between the important characters and the less important characters. So, if it’s your hero, feel free giving an extra sentence or two to sort of setup, “This is your hero — yes, reader, pay attention — this really is your main person.”
Don’t do that for the person who is only going to be in the one scene, or the unimportant person, because it will throw the reader off and make them think this character is much more important than they really are. And so that’s why I don’t tend to give really minor characters individual names. They might be Agitated Guy versus giving him a name. Because the minute we see a name we think, “Oh, that’s an important person I need to keep track of.” And it sort of goes in your little mental checklist, like, “What happened to that guy who had the name?” So do that.
Another question from the audience. Here.
Male Audience Member: How do you guys feel about interactive storytelling, like the YouTube videos that allow the audience to make decisions that impact story. Have you seen it done well?
John: So, the question is about interactive storytelling that YouTube videos have, the ones where you can click and sort of fork through different paths. Have you guys done those at all?
Craig: No, I hate it. I mean, to me, that’s a game. I mean, I remember reading those books when I was a kid, Choose Your Own Adventure, and they’re a goof. But the point is, that’s not why people watch things. That’s not why people read things. They don’t want to play Choose Your Own Adventure beyond just a party game. They want a voice to carry them through a story. We love narrative.
That’s why the Bible continues to — it’s not Choose Your Own Bible. People actually want a narrative. And I’m not a big Bible fan, but the Bible does have impressive sales numbers.
No, I mean, I just don’t think — people will occasionally say, “Well, it’s the new thing, that’s where it’s going because people want to be involved.” They don’t. Going to the movies, watching TV, the engagement that we have is one in which we are accepting an artist’s intention or rejecting it, but not participating in it.
Aline: But it’s also telling you about, how a story turns out is your education about the world. It’s how we get information about what could happen, should happen, does happen. So, if you’re saying, you know, “this could happen, or that could happen,” to me it undermines the fundamental — I was never interested in those books, and it always seemed like a giant copout for me that you’re not giving anyone any information about your narrative. So, taste wise it’s not for me.
Craig: And it could only be about plot. Because what are you suggesting, that this character from the beginning somehow should live or should die, or should get married, or should have the kid, or shouldn’t? Oh, I guess it could be anything, so it doesn’t matter.
John: So, a little counter argument here. I would say…
John: I’m saying in the video game world — and Craig, you play Skyrim.
Craig: I do, yes.
John: So, I would say there’s a kind of cinematic storytelling that’s happening mostly in video games that is very much: You’re choosing your path, but you really are the character. And that’s the thing that is happening in video games where the lead character is the person who’s playing it.
And so my friend Jordan Mechner often talks about, “You have to make sure that the story moments are playable,” that it’s not like you’re watching a cut scene where that cool thing happened, where you made that cool thing happen. And that’s an incredibly complicated, different, new kind of world to move into, that’s not sort of what we do. But the sense that you have changed the world in this way and because of what you did everything is now different is challenging.
Aline: One of the things that’s really interesting about writing a screenplay is you’re balancing, it has to feel completely ineluctable, but surprising.
Craig: That’s a great word.
John: First time it’s ever been used on this podcast.
Aline: That is what you’re doing. It has to be like it was destined to be this way and yet I was surprised that it happened that way. That is your job number one. Because a lot scripts you read that are not successful, that are proficient, tell you a story in a way that just seems like it could have been ordered in any way, or they tell you something where it does seem relatively organic but it doesn’t happen in a surprising way. Those are the two — a really satisfying movie satisfies those two things.
So, I think we’re the wrong people to ask because we’ve sort of dedicated our lives to making a story seem ineluctable, and that the characters don’t have choices.
Craig: Good stories can only be that way. Even video games… — Look, I played Skyrim a lot. The truth is, those moments are playable, but those are the moments you get. You don’t get other moments. You need to follow their story. It must end a certain way or you keep dying and you have to restart. You know what I mean? They won’t let you off those rails.
What video games do, and I actually hate it, is they will build in these silly choices like, “Well, if you were chaotic then you’ll get this cut scene ending, and if you were cool you’ll get this one.” It’s dumb. There’s really one ending. You can tell which one the ending is. Even then you can tell, “Well this was the ending they wanted. This is — ” Like I’m play Dishonored right now, and you have choice: As you go through you can be stealthy and just choke people out and let them sleep, or you can kill them. And if you kill them…
John: I think Craig kills people.
Craig: Because I’m escaping from my normal life of killing. So, in the video game I just choke them out. Because I can tell the game wants me to. I can tell that that is the narrative, that’s the right one. This is the whole point — intention and purpose, they are the bedrock foundation of good storytelling and narrative. Without it, shh. I just made that up. It’s my version of ineluctable.
John: Another question please. Over here.
Male Audience Member: If we have a lot of ideas about sound design… [Inaudible].
John: So, a question about writing and sound design and sound in movies. And music.
Craig: Put it in. I mean, look, don’t get annoying. You don’t want to have a cue for every scene, because that can be annoying, unless your movie is about music and then in which case, okay.
You’re not stepping on anybody’s toes. By the time it gets to post-production your toes have been lopped off, chopped, fed back to you anyway. Everybody is going to have ideas. Music costs money; that’s obviously one of the factors. The director is going to…
Aline: I’m going to counter that just a little bit, which is I would only do it if it is something that your reader is going to recognize and understand the purpose of. Because I have a pet peeve about reading scripts where it’s like, you know, “This jangly song by obscure band,” and it means a lot to the writer and it means nothing to the audience. And I don’t want to go to iTunes.
So, if there’s a reason that you want to put in something, and it’s super specific. And I understand clearly it’s…it has to be what?
Craig: It’s got to be Free Bird.
Aline: If it’s so motivated by the story, and it’s so integrated in the story, and I’ve certainly seen it done well, but it starts to feel like non-sequiturs that are done to either demonstrate your groovy taste or because you’re insecure about your through line.
If you can take it out and it doesn’t make a difference in your story, then don’t do it. But if the audience is going to understand you’re using Brown Sugar here because you’re trying to evoke something specific and maybe you’re quoting a lyric, then by all means do it.
I think — if there’s one thing I could say that’s my recent, more recent, obsession is: Put less stuff in there. Just put less stuff in there. You probably have 20% too much stuff. And I notice when I first write, there’s just too much information. You want to be as — and I’m not saying write at a minimal style, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying you want as much information as is necessary to move your story where you need it to go. And sometimes stuff like your cool Snow Patrol song is just cluttering. That’s just my opinion.
Craig: I mean, he doesn’t seem like that kind of guy.
Aline: Snow Patrol?
John: The thing I’ll say is: Remember that a screenplay is only what you can see and what you can hear. And so most of what’s going on in a screenplay is the stuff you see, it’s the scene description, and it’s the dialogue, it’s the stuff that you’re going to hear.
If there is something really important that we need to hear that’s not dialogue, you can tell us, and that’s great. But I will very rarely use a specific song, but I might say, “Music swells as we transition to this.” It can also help make it clear to the reader like, “This is a sequence that is going to take us through…”
Aline: Oh, definitely. Didn’t you just write a script where there was a “Whomp” or something?
John: Yeah. “Woooooooom.” Yeah. Where, “There’s a reason why I’m calling this out, that there’s a song here is because these next couple scenes are one big sequence that all has to hold together.” So, think about these next things with a sound cue under it that’s uniting all those things.
Craig: That’s pretty much what I do, too.
John: Cool. Another questions. Right here.
Female Audience Member: I’m penning a novel version of one of my scripts. And over the last few days of the festival [inaudible]. How to attract interest in your screenplay by roundabout means, including a blog, or a website [inaudible]?
John: Cool. So, recapping the question: She is taking her screenplay and turning it into a novel, and what do we think about this sort of reverse engineering to create underlined material?
Craig: I mean, you know, look: If it’s a bad script you will successful reverse engineer it into a bad novel.
Female Audience Member: That’s not the case.
Craig: Oh! Then I have great news. Great news for you! You don’t have to turn it into a novel! It’s a great script! I mean, look, there are some people who — I think on some level there’s some specific material where you think, “Well, if they read it as a book they might like it more as a screenplay.” But, you know, the problem with access, and publishing has become a world of complete open access now where anyone can have a book on Amazon. You just self publish it and voila. Now anyone can have a book on Amazon, so that’s sort of gone away, too.
The agencies in Hollywood aren’t looking through Amazon to see who got the most hits on self-published. They do not care. Their feeling is…
Aline: Unless it’s a phenomenon. Unless it’s one of those phenomena.
Craig: Oh, but then that’s, yeah. If a sales number, Fifty Shades of Grey hits, but look at the numbers it had to hit — like mind-boggling — before they went, “Oh, okay, well this book that publishing houses didn’t want, people want.”
I personally think that you’d be better served either revising or improving your screenplay if you feel it’s necessary, or writing another screenplay, or being a novelist. But gaming the system by double writing your thing and seeing if they’d like a book and then, “Oh, look, here’s a screenplay!” seems an inefficient way to proceed through our short, brief, blink-like time on this planet.
John: What I will say is, there was for a time, people would do comic books or graphic novels. They’d write the script and then they’d actually make the comic book version of it, and then they’d sell the comic book version. And so some of those things sold. I don’t know of any ones that actually got made. And, so, yes, maybe there’s a chance that something could sell, but really your goal is to get a movie made. And I don’t know if that’s going get you much faster or closer to a movie being made.
Male Audience Member: Cowboys & Aliens.
John: Cowboys & Aliens, all right.
Craig: That’s why they don’t do it anymore. No, I mean, it’s true. Cowboys & Aliens was famously bought because of the title and the cover. And it was an amazing title and cover. Very cool. Man on cowboy and horseback, riding, looking back over an alien ship shooting at him. Cowboys & Aliens. And then, you know, you had to write it.
Craig: And it was like, “Oh god, there’s still Cowboys & Aliens. Uh…what do we do?”
I have a friend I know who’s a writer, and he had an idea, and this was about six or seven years ago when this was in vogue, and he and his friend just sort of wrote it up quickly as a thing for a graphic novel, and then they got it set up because — they didn’t even write the graphic novel. And this was sort of happening a lot six or seven years ago. Less now. I think everybody was sort of hip to it. They’re like, you know, “Just write a screenplay for us.” They make so many fewer movies now than they did six or seven years ago that their desire to churn through material, it’s been diminished and…
John: The only other counter example that just occurred to me is Derek Haas’s Popcorn Fiction. So, Derek Haas has this great site that he set up and other people are now running that does short stories written by screenwriters basically. And so Derek had a story that he wrote there that someone bought. It hasn’t gotten made, so it’s gotten made, so it’s not a good example.
Eric Heisserer did actually write a short story with the intention, but here’s the crucial distinction is he wrote the short story knowing he would love to make a movie out of it, but he wrote the short story first because that was the thing that he could sell, and then he wrote the script.
Craig: The short story essentially is a prose pitch, really. The thing is a novel, that’s a novel.
John: That’s a novel. A novel is a lot of work.
Craig: That’s a lot of work. It’s lot of work to do all of it and, you know what I mean, you might as well just write five pages of it and see if that. Or, you’re screenplay is already done.
John: Yeah, done.
Craig: You’re done.
John: A question from the audience. In back there, you.
Male Audience Member: [Inaudible]
Craig: Oh, d’oh! No.
Male Audience Member: [Inaudible]
Craig: Yeah, well don’t put babies in boxes.
Aline: Nobody puts baby in a box.
Craig: Nobody puts baby in a box.
John: Was that all of your question or was there more to it?
Craig: Was your question “Should I have done that?”
John: How do I get my baby out of a box?
Craig: How do you get your baby out of a box?
Male Audience Member: [Inaudible]
John: Oh, no, you’re basically asking Craig to take umbrage.
Craig: Did I pay you to do this?
John: …And you’re going to poke him with a stick.
Aline: Before, no, but you know what? I’m going to say this in defense of books, which is this: I think you can read one and I think it doesn’t matter which one it is. I think you could also take a six-week writing class. I think if you don’t know anything, if you’re starting from scratch, you need something that familiarizes you with the basic, it’s a three act… —
I mean, honestly, it’s a three act structure. There’s about ten or fifteen, you know, I guess you could call them rules, but ten or fifteen sort of givens that people have when they’re talking about scripts. I think most of the books, and I would just go with what are the most famous ones, will familiarize you with that. That’s all you need. You do not need to follow them. You just need to be familiar with those concepts.
And, what I always say is the good thing about — the best thing about writing is it’s highly, highly, highly subjective practice. So, anything that you do over, and over, and over again you will get good at. And the more you write the better you will write. So, that’s why I like, in an instance with the screenplay/novel thing, I would just say keep writing screenplays. Keep practicing. You’re going to get better.
I think it is good to be familiar with the basic, right?
Craig: Yeah. But read screenplays and you’ll become familiar with them. I mean, look, here’s the deal: Very simple solution. Whatever you did to your script, did you like it before you read the stupid book? Okay. So, throw away the one that’s the stupid one now. Go back to the one you wrote and just think about it. And think about, and show it to people that you care about and who are willing to be honest with you. And ask them for feedback. You cannot get through it but for going through it.
And certainly what you can’t do is impose something artificial on top of it, like a fake structure that a million movies defy anyway. And I will point out, as I’ve pointed out a million times: none of those people — none of them — are as successful as her, or me, or John at doing this. None of them.
Don’t you think that if they knew really the secret they would just write movies?
Aline: Yeah. But I still think you can pick up Syd Field and just get the basics.
Aline: And there are certainly people who write about writing where writing is not the — he’s doing an analysis. I took a class at NYU with a great teacher who was a screenwriter, but one of the things that he said which has really stuck with me, on the first day he gave us a handout and he said, “You know how to tell stories.” You know, the average person by the time they’re 30 has watched something like 20,000 hours of narrative. I mean, it’s something absurd like that.
We have that in our bones. The problem is that what you know in your instinct and you gut is a great story, it gets confused when people start writing. And I’m not sure why that is, but it is sort of — even somebody who’s a great storyteller at the bar will sit down to write and all of a sudden they start violating everything that they instinctively know is a story.
Craig: Because it’s a long story. I mean, honestly, no one sits at a bar and tells a story for two hours.
Aline: Yeah. But people don’t sit down and write great 20 minute stories, either. I mean, it’s not like it’s easy to find a short film either.
Craig: I agree.
Aline: It’s just somehow the process of taking what we intuitively understand is a great yarn, and learning how to craft it…
John: Knowing the order in which it needs to go so that it actually makes the most sense, like the first time through it all makes sense, so you can’t sort of stop and restart.
Craig: There’s our lady.
John: Yeah, so we have five minutes, which is the perfect amount of time for some One Good Things.
Aline: Aren’t they One Cool Thing?
Craig: Yeah, I mean…
John: One Cool Thing/One Good Thing, we change it up.
Craig: No, we’ve never changed it until now.
John: So, Aline, if you have a One Cool Thing you can share it with us, or you can do what Craig does, when he does not have an idea, and then by the time I finish talking…
Aline: I want to hear what you guys do. I want to wrap it up.
John: Cool. My One Cool Thing is actually a website that I started and kind of forgot about, but then Stuart actually maintains. So, I have screenwriting.io. And so on johnaugust.com I started that site by answering a lot of questions. People would write in questions — actually, I originally did it as part of IMDb, so like people would write in questions about screenwriting, and I would answer the screenwriting questions, and Penelope Spears would answer the directing questions, and Oliver Stapleton would answer the cinematographer questions.
So, I started answering those questions. I started answering them on my site after awhile, and I just kind of sick of it because they were just kind of the same questions again and again. But people still have those questions, and I wanted people to be able to get those answers. So, I started screenwriting.io, and it’s just those answers. That’s all it is is just answers to common screenwriting questions. And like nothing is too basic to ask, sort of like, the old question used to be like, How many brads do you put in a script?” And people don’t really use brads anymore because they send PDFs. But answering really basic questions.
So, if you have a basic question about screenwriting, or somebody asks you a basic question and you’re like, “I don’t know,” you can send them there. So, it’s just screenwriting.io.
Craig: Well, I have a One Cool Thing, and it seems like it’s a little bit of a copout, and usually they are because like he says I think of them while he’s talking. But this is really is a Cool Thing. And my Cool Thing is this, is the Austin Screenwriting Conference, and I’ll tell you why.
Aline: Shameless pandering.
Craig: Yup. Absolutely. Because get so angry, box baby guy, because I get so angry about these books and stuff, and you know, Syd Field, like learning about three acts and all that is great, but the truth is for you guys you are beset upon by charlatans, and thieves, and frauds. It is amazing; the industry of lies that surround the aspiring screenwriter is just so disturbing. And the titles of the books alone, it’s almost like they betray — they are crafted to be the opposite of what they are. How to Make a Good Script Great. Or, How to Make Your Okay Script Shitty. I mean, that’s really what happens.
Everything about it is wrong. And the only way — I do feel like the only way I’ve ever gotten better over the course of my career is by being friends with and talking to writers who are better than I was, and who have been doing it longer than I had been doing it. And who could look at me and say, “Eh,” because they had authority. And the authority came from experience. That’s why I like this.
If you’re going to spend your money on screenwriting, this is where you should spend it, because you hear from people who actually do it. You will get the actual truth, then stop spending money. So, you go here, so this is your money-spending for screenwriting for the year. Do it, and then don’t spend anymore until next October.
But, I think it’s a great thing that they do here and I want to thank them for doing it. It’s terrific and I’m very happy that you guys come to this. This is worth it, so good for you.
Aline: Wow. That should have been the last one.
Craig: That’s how I roll.
John: He’s the closer.
Aline: Yeah, well you close.
Craig: “There’s an app I really like…”
Aline: Yup. It’s going to be like that. I’m done.
Craig: No, no, do it, do it, do it.
Craig: Do it. Do it. Do the app.
Aline: So, I was going to recommend a blog, which is one of the few blogs that I read. Because I wanted to bring some lady energy to the panel, and because I told Craig months ago that I would be wearing my YSL Tribute Platforms, and I wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to be wearing his as well.
Aline: Oh, I know, you like those weird shoes. There’s a blogger, and her blog is called The Man Repeller. Has anyone heard of Man Repeller? It’s been around for a couple of years. And her name is Leandra Medine. And the reason that I’m drawing attention to it, it’s a fashion blog, but the reason I’m drawing attention to it on the podcast is she’s a really good writer.
And what I think is interesting is that her basic premise is that to dress for men would be a simple thing. You would wear a tight black dress, and high heels, and men would be happy.
Craig: Sounds good. Tell me more.
Aline: But what she does is use fashion sort of as a means of expressing herself, and being innovative, and mixing classic things with funky things, and really showing what you can do as a woman, not always worrying about what’s going to showcase your butt.
And I think she does it in a way that’s so funny, and so witty, and she’s very young — I think she’ s in her early 20’s. And she’s very clever. And if you guys have an interest in fashion — she’s just a great female writer. I think she has a really unique voice. And so I know that once Craig and John read that, the next time they do the podcast they’re going to be wearing something super cool and man repelling.
John: Done. Guys, thank you so very much.
Craig: Thank you, everyone.
John: Thank you, Aline.
Craig: Thank you, Aline. Thank you, Franklin.
John: Thank you, Franklin Leonard.
Craig: Thank you, Austin.
John: Have a good afternoon.
Aline: Thanks everybody.