The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, episode 61, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
John: Yeah. So, Aline Brosh McKenna will not let me live down the fact that I kind of swallow the T in “interesting.”
John: Aline Brosh McKenna, who was our fantastic guest, who we need to thank again for last week at Austin Film Festival.
Craig: She was excellent. And I like it when we have other people on because I feel like they can notice things about you and me that we probably notice but never say to each other, you know, because we’re such good roommates. So things like “interesting.”
John: “Interesting,” yes. No spoiler, but we will have some more guests in the future, and we’ve actually reached out to some people, so I think it’s going to be a fun new addition to the new year of the podcast.
Craig: For sure. I thought the stuff that we did in Austin that is still in the pipeline is some of our best podcasting work.
John: I agree. Now, Craig, people may notice that you sound a little different, and that’s partly because you just woke up. We’re recording this at 7pm, but you just woke up because you are off on location making this movie.
Craig: Yeah. So, I’m off on location with Hangover 3 in an indeterminate place. We — boy — we had a hell of a night. So, you know, I think at one point we talked about shooting splits, which is what they generally think of as the worst possible production thing when you’re on a crew, because you’re not shooting all night, you’re not shooting all day; you’re shooting sort of half night/half day, and it messes everybody up.
But, yesterday we did a deal where we shot dusk, so we shot sundown, dusk, night, dawn, sun up, morning. [laughs] That will mess you up.
John: That will definitely mess you up. Sorry about that. Sometimes that’s the only way it works. There’s no other good way to get those shots that you need. And when you need that sort of in between light that is going to happen, those sunrises and those sunsets. — Curse the screenwriter who put that into the script.
Craig: Well, you know, there was much discussion of that. And it turns out it wasn’t me, on this at least. I think that the director and the DP had a plan to… — You know, I tend to write things like morning, although I have to say, until I had this discussion with Larry Sher, our DP, last night — and I didn’t know this — I always thought that dusk and sort of evening and sundown were the same thing. And dawn and sunrise were the same thing. But they’re not.
Did you know that?
John: No. Tell me the distinction.
Craig: Okay, see, and he made me feel so dumb about it. So, Dawn is the time right before the sun comes up, so it’s when the sky starts lightening but the sun hasn’t peeked out over the horizon. And dusk is the opposite. It’s the time right after the sun goes down but there is still light in the sky.
John: So, there is residual light but there is no direct light?
John: Okay. Makes sense.
Craig: Learned something.
John: You do learn something new every day.
John: My day was going really pretty well today. I had a good notes call. The thing about writing for television is you have these notes calls where they read these documents and they call you. And there are like ten people on the phone call and you hope that everything goes okay. And this time it went really well, so it was great.
But then I was rushing to get sort of other stuff during the day so we could make this podcast scheduling work. And so I’m giving my 7 year old daughter her shower before we could record this, and like mid-shower she goes, “Papa, did you know that people flew planes into building?”
John: Literally, you’re going to do September 11th on me like when I have five minutes? And so we had the five-minute September 11th conversation.
Craig: Wow, I mean, I love it. I sort of feel like I want to play Name that Tune with you and see if I could do a September 11th conversation in four minutes.
John: [laughs] Oh, yeah. It’s tough. It’s important to have factual information, because she’s asking very specific questions about like, you know, “Well how did they get knives on the planes? Where would they hide the knives? Why weren’t the scanners better?” And all these things.
And so it’s a really strange thing, like, “Oh — that was 11 years ago.”
Craig: I know. I remember my son was just a baby. He was about five months old. No, that’s not right. I’m the worst dad.
Craig: He was two months old. He was two months old, and I remember I was sleeping in a different room because, you know, Melissa would wake up and feed him and I just wanted to sleep that day. And I remember, and my sister woke me up, called me because she was in New York.
Craig: Ugh, now, see now we’re turning into a September 11th podcast.
John: It’s a September 11th podcast. I will say that Rawson Thurber, who was my assistant at that time, called me and said, “Man, we’ve got to wake up. Some people just flew planes into the Sears Tower in Chicago.” And I’m like, “Really? That’s so odd.” It’s so odd that he thought of the wrong tower.
Craig: And the wrong city.
Craig: And so you fired him that day…
John: I did.
Craig: …so, for him September 11th has a totally different —
John: And then he went off and made Dodgeball, so it was all good.
I thought we could actually do a little speculative reminiscing on today’s podcast, because while Austin was really fun, we could only participate in a limited number of panels there. There were like 60 different panels there, and we were only part of very few of them.
So, I didn’t even look honestly at the catalog for Austin Film Festival until I was on the plane flying back from Austin. And I was looking through it and I was like, “Oh, those sound like really interesting panels. I would love to have been on those panels.” But we couldn’t have been.
So, I thought today maybe we’d read the description of some of these panels and we could talk about what we would have talked about had we been on those panels. But it will actually be a much faster, more condensed version, because we don’t have to wait for moderators to ask questions or to go down the row of what people would say. Does that sound fun?
Craig: I like it; a very good, compressed way for us to embarrass all the other panelists there by just outshining them now.
John: I think it’s a nice choice. So, first panel we’ll talk about is Setiquette. “In addition to being able to write quickly and well, the successful television writer, or film writer, must also be versed in how to navigate the complex and often stressful social climate of the show. This requires a skill that empowers the writer to make quick and intelligent adjustments while being able to master the art of communication with actors, directors, and producers. Understanding and respecting the laws of social etiquette on the set, Setiquette, is essential for those who aspire to break into and stay in the writer’s room.”
The other panelists who would have been on this fantasy panel with us: Christine Boylan, who’s lovely; Matthew Gross, a producer; Kyle Killen; and Meta Valentic, who I don’t know who that is.
So, Craig, talk to me about Setiquette, because you’re making a film right now.
Craig: Yeah, so I deal with it every day. I can’t speak at all to television Setiquette, but I can talk certainly at length about film Setiquette. It’s quite rigid actually. Making a movie is very military. Everybody has their jobs. All the jobs have a rank. And everybody is busy and respects each other’s space.
So, it’s not just a question of etiquette; it’s even a question of union rules. You know, if you’re not a grip, don’t pick up stands. If you’re not an electrician, don’t plug stuff in. There are real simple things to do like that. But the most important thing is to have something to do on the set. If you do not, then you are a visitor and you’re in the way.
I try to not be on sets where I don’t have things to do. If I am there with something to do as the writer, then I think it’s just important for me to know the basic protocol. The biggest rule of Setiquette is: Do not direct actors unless you’re the director. Don’t even talk to them about the work. You know, if you want to sit in a chair during a turnaround and chit-chat about the weather or whatever, feel free. But simple rule of thumb: Actors need to be directed by one voice, and that’s the director’s voice.
So, if I have any thoughts or notes or suggestions, I relay them quietly and privately to the director. And another big Setiquette note is don’t talk to the director about directing things in front of other people. Pull them aside and talk to them quietly. So much of directing a movie is about maintaining authority and control of the set, because if you don’t, it just all starts to fall apart. It’s for the best of the movie. It’s not about fulfilling some sort of Emily Post definition of what good behavior is. It really is pragmatic.
Be respectful. Be kind. Don’t get in people’s way. And do not interrupt.
Craig: Those are some of the big highlights of Setiquette for me.
John: I would definitely underline that sense of, “if you don’t have a job on the set, your job is to stay out of everybody’s way.” And that honestly means kind of stay back; either you stay back, or you stay into a little place they’ve assigned you to stay, which is probably kind of near the producers who are watching at a video village. Don’t sort of wander around, because you’re just going to get in people’s way.
If you don’t have an assigned place to stand or be, somewhere near the makeup people is often a pretty helpful place, because they’re going to be close enough to set that they can actually watch what’s happening, but they’re smart enough to never be in anybody’s way. So, that’s a usually good bet, because they’re not going to be in the way of the grips, or the gaffers, or anyone else who is like hauling stuff to and from the set.
Craig: That’s right.
John: A little bit I can talk about in television, having shot some TV pilots. If it is your TV show, it’s your pilot that’s shooting or your episode that’s shooting as the writer, many of the same rules apply, but you are going to have a little bit more active hand in saying, like, “That’s not what I think we need for this moment. We need to do that again.” You shouldn’t be directing the actors, but you’re going to probably be directing the director in the sense of like, “This is what I need for this because this isn’t going to make sense with that.”
And you are also going to be responsible for getting this to make sense in the editing room, so you’re going to have a little bit stronger sense there.
One of the things I think you brought up when we were just chatting in Austin is that you kind of have to be careful about things you ask for on a set. Because if you’re an important person on a set — the writer, the producer, the director — you say like, “Wow. I wish we still had more of those Red Vines,” and they’re out of Red Vines at craft service, they will get on the walkie talkie and it will be someone’s job to run out and get those Red Vines for you.
So, don’t casually wish for things unless you really want them.
Craig: Yeah, you know, and by the way, one of the tricky things about being a screenwriter on a set is that we — it depends. Your job depends. It’s one of the only jobs I can think of on a set that varies depending on who the writer is and what the project is and who the director is. Because every other job is very rigid and very clear. Some writers are on set because they are asked to be there, and they need to be there, and they have a job there.
And some writers are there visiting. Some writers are there and think they have a job there, but are actually just visiting. And it’s important to know which one you are. And if you’re just visiting, you just sit like a visitor and be happy. If you’re there working, it’s a different deal, and you get to know people.
I will say that a great person to get to know if you’re a writer and you’re going to be spending a lot of time on a set, a great person to get to know is the video assist guy. Because generally speaking you’re going to be in what they call Producer’s Video Village; there’s a video village for the director where he watches the monitor, for playback, and then typically there’s a second video village for the producers, because the director doesn’t want people breathing over his shoulder while he’s working.
But, on the other hand, he wants the benefit of his trusted people to be watching the footage as well, to be able to confer with him after take five or take six to say, “Hey, did I get it?” And the video assist guy is the one who sets up your video village, and he can take care of you and let you know what’s going on. And it’s a good person to be friends with, I think.
John: I agree. I would also say make some eye contact, make some friends with whoever the sound recordist is, because you’re going to be asking that person for context — the little ear pieces that let you actually hear the dialogue that’s being recorded.
John: And invariably your batteries will run low. There will be something — you’re going to have to talk to him several times a day, so you might as well get to know his name.
John: And if you notice something strange in sound, often the director really won’t notice that, so you may be a second set of ears there that are helpful.
Craig: In fact, come to think of it, I’m going to make a little noise for a second. I’m sorry, because I’m doing this on my laptop. But our video record guy, John Trunk, who is the greatest — and what a great name, by the way, John Trunk. I’m sorry as I make noise here because I had to search his email. So, John told me that he has a friend who listens to us in Ireland — and here he is — and apparently is the biggest fan of our podcast.
John: That’s so great.
Craig: And he wanted me to mention his friend’s name. So, so now this is Setiquette. Here’s the way sets work. People take care of you, you take care of them. So, John Trunk, this is a shout out to your Irish friend, Darren Finnegan, Darren Finnegan. Hey, Darren, thanks for listening to us out there in Ireland.
John: Oh, so good. Now, another panel we could have gone to, it’s not even really a panel, but it’s here in the catalog so I thought I’d bring it up, would be a conversation with Marti Noxon.
Craig: Hmm. I’ve had those.
John: I’ve had those, too. And so “Take part in a conversation with Marti Noxon, a prolific television and film writer whose credits include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men, Glee, and the recent films, I am Number Four and Fright Night.” That was moderated by Barry Josephson.
And so I actually had a conversation with Marti Noxon there because I got to go out to dinner with her and Kyle Killen and some other people who I sort of knew, or didn’t know that well, and got to sort of talk with them some. She’s great. And so, by the way, if you have a chance to have a conversation with her you should have a conversation with her.
I suspect that in the Driskill Ballroom she couldn’t have been quite as revealing about some of the shows that she’s worked on as she was with me. But she has really good stories. And it was fun to sort of hear when things go really well and things don’t go really well. Because when things go badly in television it’s such a uniquely, bad, wonderful crashing down of things, so it’s fun.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I get the sense in television sometimes things go bad but you have to still keep showing up. At least in movies when they crash and burn it’s over. [laughs] You don’t go back to the ruins.
John: [laughs] Absolutely. I mean, television is just a war, like it just keeps going on. Film may be a battle, but this is you’re going back, you’re going back, you’re going back. So, yeah, I’d recommend a conversation. But, at the same dinner that I had a conversation with her, I had a conversation with Kyle Killen who did the pilots for Awake and Lone Star, a very talented writer, who told me stories of when he was doing his shows for Fox, he lives in Austin but he was working on the Fox lot. And so he decided — originally he was staying with a friend who lived in Silver Lake which is a long drive from Fox. And ultimately he decided, “Well, screw it; I’m just going to stay in my office?”
And so he just set up air mattress. And so he lived in his office at Fox for several months while making those shows.
John: So, the other secret he told me is apparently there is one shower on the lot in like this grips’ area, and so that’s where he would shower.
Craig: I don’t like that. [laughs] I don’t like going…
John: You don’t like showering below the line.
Craig: I don’t like going to Silver Lake, but then showering there is just outright ridiculous.
John: That just feels kind of crazy. The other helpful thing that sort of made me feel warm and fuzzy is he was saying when he was writing his TV pilots, people kept asking him for these documents, like his outlines, his pitch documents. And they said, “Well, where do I find them?” He’s like, “Oh, go to John August and he has the things he wrote for the show D.C.” And so he said that he used those as the templates.
Craig: Oh, see you have been sowing the seeds of greatest in so many for so long.
John: I’ve been trying.
Craig: You’re the Johnny Appleseed of screenwriters.
John: Aw. That’s so sweet. Thank you. It does feel good that people find helpful things.
Another panel we could have gone to, but we didn’t go to, was Writing for Video Games.
Craig: Oh, I would have liked to have done that one.
John: Yeah, so we’d meet some of the people on this. “With the success of crossover writers behind such game-changing titles as Call of Duty, Modern Warfare 3, FEAR: Extraction Point, FEAR: Perseus Mandate,” I’ve never heard of these.
Craig: Me neither.
John: “…and Fracture, it has become increasingly clear that video games area popular and lucrative new area for screenwriters. Learn to understand the industry and skills involved in writing non-liner stories for an interactive medium.” And on this panel we would have known Dalan. Is it Day-lan or Da-lan?
John: Dalan Musson.
Craig: Day-lan Musson.
John: Musson? Wow. I just completely butchered his name. He is a very nice but very intimidating looking writer who we got to hang out with a little bit at Austin.
And writing for video games is fascinating, because it’s one of those things that I’m not going to end up doing a lot of in my life or my career, because I just feel like that’s not likely to come up for me often. But it’s, I think, where many of the next generation of screenwriters are going to be spending some of their time.
And writing for these huge projects where the script can be 700 pages because there are all these different possibilities of things that can happen. And you have to figure out a narrative flow that’s really a web, it’s not a straight line. It is so complicated. And some of them are going to do it really well and some of them are going to do it really poorly.
Craig: Yeah. I tend to play narrative video games, so I see a lot of video game writing from a consumer point of view, and a lot of it’s pretty good. The area where I feel they need to improve, frankly, is in direction, because for whatever reason the guys who direct these actors don’t understand pace at all, and oftentimes don’t understand emotion.
They tend to write very reportorially, so everyone is sort of laying out something calmly, usually because a lot of the dialogue takes place in gaps in the action. So, you’ll complete a chapter of action and now you’ll do a cut scene where people will come and talk to you to describe what happens next. And those scenes tend to then be very languid, and we’re all sitting here and chatting.
Rockstar is a grand exception to this rule. Not only do they write massive amounts of dialogue, but they actually understand how to write dialogue for action, or even when people are sitting around, how to make it intense. They’re very good at directing their actors.
John: I agree. I really loved StarCraft which I thought had some — granted a lot of it did happen in cut scenes, but the cut scenes were really well done, and then the way that tied into the missions that you would go onto felt really well done. The same Blizzard folks who did that also did the new Diablo, and I criticized that because it felt like you were just standing around and watching other people talk about the plot a lot. It was frustrating. They were like cut scenes.
Craig: That’s exactly what’s going on in Dishonored.
John: Yeah, I’m sorry about that.
Craig: Well, no, the thing is the actual game play of Dishonored is really well done. I like it a lot. I love the world that they’ve built. And they have very good actors doing the performances. It’s just that they put all of them in stand-and-talk situations and frankly they all talk at roughly the same pace with roughly the same intention and immediacy.
So, it just gets sort of kind of dronish. I think they need to think how to goose that a bit.
John: Now, another panel we could have attended but we were doing live Scriptnotes at that point was The First 10 Pages, a panel with Lindsay Doran. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we sat down for a conversation with Lindsay Doran? That would be great if we ever talked with her.
John: “Join Academy Award-nominated producer Lindsay Doran (Sense and Sensibility) as she explains — using the first ten pages each from pre-selected Second Round feature screenplays — what producers and moviegoers look for in those crucial first 10 pages that either hook audiences or send them running for the hills.”
Craig: Mm-hmm. How true. And I can actually report back from her seminar last year, some of her tips, one of which is so obvious and yet is eschewed by so many: don’t make the first page a big block of text. Because — and her point was actually very simple — Lindsay has a way of portraying things that we might otherwise find offensive in very humane ways, and suddenly we get it. Because it’s a little offensive as a writer to hear, “Look, if you wrote a fantastic script and the first page had no dialogue but was kind of heavy on important, necessary description that was actually well written, still it would be tossed aside.”
It seems vulgar. But her point is: Listen, we’re people. We have a stack of scripts we have to read tonight. We have eight of them. We also have a husband, or a wife, we have children, we have lives. And so we pick up that first script and the first page looks daunting and we put it down, and we pick up the next one and there’s lots of white space and we start reading.
And her point wasn’t that that’s fair. Her point was that’s reality. So part of designing those first ten pages isn’t to punch somebody in the face with a big, huge fist full of Courier right off the bat.
John: Yeah. You want to make sure that, especially in those first ten pages, the reader feels like you just can’t put it down. They’re fascinated to see what happens on the next page, and the next page. And so planning for that is crucial. And you want to make sure that you are…yes, you have to do all the work of setting up your world and introducing your characters, but it has to be a great, compelling read in those first ten pages or you’re not going to get them to read to page 11, or to page 33.
Craig: Yeah. And she talked a lot about sort of grabbing somebody with something that is interesting, surprising them, be unexpected, make a really sharp character, make that first line of dialogue a challenge — anything really to sort of say, “This script unlike the other 2,000 you read this week might be good.”
John: Because here’s the thing: The first thing that a reader comes across that feels like, “eh,” is a reason for them to put it down. So, if the very first line of dialogue is like, “eh, whatever,” then they can stop. They get permission to stop reading. Maybe they get three things, like the third thing that feels like, “eh,” they’re going to set it down and they’re not going to care.
Craig: Yeah. I think writers need to understand, and it took me a long time to wrap my mind around this: People who read scripts, buy scripts, and hire writers are looking for interesting, unique voices that are breaking the mold of what they normally read, who are pulling them in and exciting them with something that feels fresh.
On the other hand, they don’t make fresh, interesting, unique voicey movies. Now, you may say, “Well then, explain the discrepancy,” and all I can tell you is they want people with fresh, unique, strong, interesting voices to make the movies that they think people will want to go see.
Craig: So, don’t be fooled by the product into thinking that’s what you ought to be writing. It’s so important for you to understand that. And I’m not making a judgment on this. I’m not saying, “And that’s a great way of approaching the movie business.” I’m just telling you that’s the way it is.
John: Yeah. The other thing to always remember is that whatever script you’re writing, yes, you want to see that become a movie, but at the same time if it’s not a movie it’s going to be a writing sample. And so you want anything that has your name on it to be the best possible thing you could write. And the most interesting thing, and the thing that people are talking about, and the thing that will end up on the Black List.
Craig: Now more than ever.
John: Now more than ever.
Now, a panel that I did not get to attend but I heard many legends about this panel after the fact was the Popcorn Fiction panel. So, Craig, can you give me a recap of the Popcorn Fiction panel, because it sounded like it was not one of the calmer panels.
Craig: Well, [laughs], you know, part of the fun of Austin is that I’m there with my friends. And we spend all year torturing each other, and then we go to Austin and we get to torture each other in front of people.
All right, the Popcorn Fiction, let me just — it was the last panel of the weekend. We were all a little giddy, a little goofy. The panel itself was ridiculous. There’s no reason to have a Popcorn Fiction panel at the Austin Screenwriting Conference. It’s not about screenwriting. It’s about writing fiction. And, frankly, anybody that wants to submit a story to it can, because Mulholland Publishing has that, so you just submit it, submit a story if you want.
And there’s really nothing to say. But when you add a very volatile combination of myself, Derek Haas, and Jeff Lowell, who we basically spar 365 days out of the year with each other. And then poor Eric Heisserer and Christine Boylan, who was great, and her husband, poor Eric Heisserer, who just did not have the ability to control us. We were — we really lost it.
John: Really, who was going to be able to control you?
Craig: We attacked each other, attacked people in the audience. We had the best time. We laughed. It was great. It was just a free-for-all. It was madness. It was madness.
John: Could Aline Brosh McKenna have controlled you?
Craig: Well, Aline would have gotten angry and, yeah, probably control. You know, I am scared of her.
John: You don’t want to disappoint her, too.
Craig: I don’t want to disappoint her because I’m afraid of her.
John: Now a panel that we also did not attend but we actually got a good report back from, well not a good report, but a thorough report back from — Amazon Studios had a panel about Amazon Studios, and sort of what it means for writers and what it means for the industry.
So, neither Craig nor I attended, but a reader was generous enough to write up his notes from the panel, and that’s on the blog right now, so there will be a link to that in the show notes. Essentially — we talked about Amazon Studios on the podcast many times — their business model is that any screenwriter in the US, or the world probably, can submit their script to Amazon. They have this process by which they get a free option that can be extended into a very low cost option.
If they like a project, they can do iterations of it. It’s changed somewhat; they’re not having like any random stranger rewrite it, but it’s a very test-driven kind of process for it. And we have questioned whether it makes a lot of sense for most screenwriters to do it, and whether it’s a good thing for writers overall, and if it’s a good thing for the industry.
And it didn’t sound like much of what got said at this conversation at Austin would have changed my perspective on that.
Craig: Same here. The big change that happened for you and for me many months ago, or I guess about a year ago, was that they finally dialed into being a union production company. So, people who are in the Writers Guild could continue down a guild path with them, and that’s important.
What’s unfortunate is that frankly they just don’t make much sense for a real screenwriter or — you know, I always look at these things as if you’re good enough to win that, if you’re good enough to make it through that, you’re good enough to make it through Warner Bros., or Fox, or Universal, and you don’t need them.
The philosophical issue that the Amazon rep mentioned that I want to bring out is his notion of testing. He says, accurately, that when movies are completed they’re put in front of test audiences who not only score the movie but sit in focus groups and talk about the movie. And then the filmmakers go and try and fix it then based on the feedback, or maybe don’t get a chance to fix it at all. And his point of view is: Why don’t we do that at the script stage and then we won’t have to do it at the movie stage? And all I can say is: Dude, you’ve got to go make some movies because you don’t know what you’re talking about.
John: Yeah. That’s not how it works.
Craig: All we do during screenwriting is that. Constantly. It’s shown to so many people. It’s given to readers, it’s given to agents, it’s given to every executive, all the production, their assistants, then the actors. It is read by so many. There are endless comments. Endless feedback from it.
That’s not why the movies go wrong. Movies go wrong because a movie is different than a script. It’s kind of an ignorant statement from somebody that’s running a “production company.”
John: I’ve been thinking about where the Amazon Studios business model might make sense, and it occurs to me that, like, children’s animation — there’s probably something good to be done in that space.
Craig: I lost you.
John: Where you could do, like, a low cost partial pilot for something and see, “Do people like this? Is this the right kind of style for us? Are these the right characters?” Where you can do that sort of like it’s just sort of silly putty that you’re modeling, and you need to have like actual little kids watching something, because little kids can’t read scripts, or you can’t describe things to them.
There are probably models, probably for television, probably for young audiences, where I could see it working out for them. But feature films of the size and scale that we’re talking about, I just don’t see it panning out.
Craig: No, because the point isn’t that 100 people out of 100 like the screenplay. We don’t go to movies to read. It’s an entirely different thing. They just — so many people don’t understand that the screenplay is meant to disappear into the movie. The art of judging whether it will translate in the disappearance and consumption process into a great movie is a skill that so few people have.
And I’ll tell you, because it’s so specific, and it’s such a difficult skill, the notion that everybody is sort of walking around born with it is insane. We do walk around being born with an ability to like or dislike a movie. That’s the point. We’re the audience of the movie. But we’re not the audience of the screenplay. I would no rather be interested in most people’s opinions of blueprints as opposed to a building than I would most people’s group think on a screenplay in anticipation that that would somehow forestall problems in production. It will not.
John: And the argument that, “Well, we’re going to shoot scenes from it and that’s going to help us know whether people are going to like it” — no, that’s not going to work at all, because you’re going to shoot scenes with like different actors and with scenes out of context. And people are going to give their feedback on stuff. No. That’s not going to help them.
Craig: Of course not. And it’s just a scene. We don’t go to movies for scenes. Every bad movie has a great scene in it. Every one of them. It doesn’t matter.
John: So, television networks go through phases where they will shoot presentations rather than shooting a pilot. And so a presentation for people who don’t know — a pilot is a theoretical first episode of a series. So this is what we think the series is. This is going to be the first episode. This launches the show.
A presentation is like a pilot but cut down, so it’s a shorter version. So, if a pilot is a 45-minute, 50-minute piece of film, this is a 20 to 25-minute piece of the show. And they’ll do the shorter versions to save money. And so the idea is that, “Okay, it gives us a sense of what the whole thing is going to feel like without spending all the money for the whole thing.”
The problem is it hasn’t worked out very well for most shows. And I shot a pilot presentation for D.C. and we learned some things, absolutely, but what we mostly learned is that maybe we shouldn’t be making this show, and then when we tried to make the show it was frustrating. And then we had to go back through and like piece in the missing scenes from the pilot to shoot the rest of it. It’s kind of a frustrating mess.
And this feels like trying to shoot presentations.
Craig: Sometimes in our desire to save us, save ourselves from pain and woe we create pain and woe. There is — there are too many examples of things that initially seemed glum and turned around to be wonderful. You can’t evaluate something by dipping your foot in the pool. You make it or you don’t.
John: Yup. It’s also interesting that you don’t hear many stories of the movies that were disasters that turned out to be great big hits. You keep track of — obviously the ones that become the world class blockbusters, you hear of those, and you hear about the disasters. But the ones where you’re like, “Oh, that first cut was actually dreadful and they just worked, and worked, and worked, and then it turned out really well.” Rarely do you hear about those.
Craig: I’ve heard about them. [laughs] And it’s very common, frankly, in comedy because comedy is so reliant on a sense of trust in the filmmakers that they’re funny. So, when you run a first cut of a movie and half the jokes aren’t funny, the whole thing collapses. Airplane, the first preview of Airplane was a disaster. The first preview of Naked Gun was a disaster.
I remember talking to David, and Jerry, and Jim about it. They were just aghast. And they thought their careers were over and they didn’t know what they were doing. And then you just edit and take out the stuff that doesn’t work and suddenly they become two of the funniest movies of all time.
John: Yeah. When I say that you don’t hear about them, I think in popular culture you don’t hear about them. We hear about them because we are involved with the same filmmakers.
So, the first cut of Go I did want to kill myself. It was just absolutely — I was just praying that maybe they can never release this movie. Because at that point I was starting to get hired for things based on my script, and I thought if people see this movie I’m done. I’m dead for it. And it’s never going to work.
And then we just went back and we cut. We recut, we did some reshooting, and suddenly all of the stuff that wasn’t working fell out and the stuff that was working was better. And it was good.
$3,000, which was the movie that became Pretty Woman, is another situation with an incredibly difficult production and then sort of the opposite situation. I think they had an incredibly good test screening and people were like, “Oh, this movie is really funny.” And they’re like, “Oh, that’s right. We made a comedy.” And then it becomes this thing where now everybody is like, “Well of course, it was Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, how could it go wrong?” But she was nobody. He was a risk.
Craig: Yeah. For sure. I mean, the one that always comes to mind in terms of an audience hearing bad things is Titanic. There had been just enormous amount of buzz that Titanic was becoming the world’s most expensive movie, and it was difficult production.
Craig: Well, Ishtar, and that didn’t happen.
John: I know. But they called it Fishtar.
Craig: Exactly. I’m sorry. Yes, you’re right. They called Titanic “Fishtar.” So, I mean, that tells you a lot. And you know what’s funny? I was talking about Waterworld today with somebody because we all think of Waterworld negatively because there had been so much bad publicity leading up to its release about how expensive it was and how the star and the director were at war, which is true.
The movie actually made money.
Craig: But, you know, every now and then we — every now and then it happens, but you’re right. It’s fairly rare. Usually bad process leads to bad movie, and vice versa.
John: So, the last panel we’ll talk about today which we did not attend is called The Throw. “Terry Rossio will lead a presentation on the Throw, otherwise known as the transition between scenes. He will discuss very practical, actual writing techniques, and show film clips to demonstrate good and bad throws. When shooting scenes and working with a director a lot of thought goes into the transition between from one scene to another, generally ending the scene is harder than starting one. And it is ideal for transitions to be seamless and logical. Take part in this journey exploring numerous types of throws and how to implement them in your own script.”
So, have you heard of this called a “throw” before, or is that something he made up?
Craig: I have never heard that called “the throw” before, I just call it “transition.”
John: “Transition.” I like it as an idea. Terry is a smart guy and he clearly has an interest in sort of sharing what he knows, which I’ve always respected that about him.
John: But I thought, you know, without knowing anything about what he actually talked about, I want to sort of speculate and sort of reverse engineer what he might have talked about.
John: So, I would agree with the thesis that how scenes end is in many ways as important as how scenes begin. And a problem that I notice in many new writers’ scripts is they have a hard time conserving energy across a cut.
Really and honestly, when screenwriting is working well every time you cut you should be gaining some energy from the cut. You’re taking the energy that you had going into the scene, and the fact that there is a cut is giving you a little extra momentum going into the next scene that sort of keeps building your energy.
When I read newer screenwriter’s scripts, too often I feel like I’m reading a play where characters are entering and exiting. And there is sort of like there is a ramp up to action and then there is action, there’s conversation, and then there is a ramp down, a sort of decrescendo as it goes in. You sort of feel like the lights would fade and the lights would come back up on the next thing. That’s not how movies work. And movies have the ability to have blunt cuts from one thing to another.
And figuring out where the right place to jump out of scene into the scene is crucial. So, some things that came to mind for me in terms of how I tend to look at getting out of a scene is trying to answer a question across a cut. So, the horrible example you shouldn’t try to do is, “Well then, who could have murdered him?” And then you cut to the guy with the knife standing there.
Or, “But who is Mrs. Dalloway?” And you cut to Mrs. Dalloway. But, more often it’s that you are asking a question that can sort of be answered in a very general sense by the next thing you’re cutting to. So, “How long will it take us to get to Vegas?” And then we’re on the road to Vegas. The fact that you’re cutting to the next thing is telling you that you’re looking for the answer to that question.
Craig: Yeah. I’m very specific about my transitions. And I was glad to see that Terry did this, because I think frankly the reason most transitional moments in early screenplays are bad is because they are not transitional moments at all. That the screenwriters don’t even think in terms of transition. But ideally when you’re sitting in a movie theater you don’t notice that you’ve even transitioned per se; the idea that it’s the next scene isn’t something I want you to think about any more than I want you to think about the reel change mark.
I just want you to be in the story. And moving through the time that I’m creating with my intention and purpose, not thinking, “Oh, okay, that’s over. This begins.”
Obviously music across scenes helps a lot in that way. We’re always using music to pre-lap, and drift into the next scene to kind of create a sense of narrative continuity. But I like transitions to be alive in the scene. I like to use noise. I like to use the environment.
Sometimes two scenes have nothing to do with each other and so part of what you do is accentuate how jarring they are with each other by having a train go [TRAIN NOISE], just to startle you into the fact that you’ve shifted. You’re always looking to just feel like you’re not boring. You know, a boring transition is one in which one scene ends and another one politely begins.
John: The terms you’re using and sort of what you’re describing, it feels like you’re talking about things you would do at the Avid, and that it’s sort of the sound and shots and things like that. But it honestly does translate back down to how you’re writing on the page, which is if you’re ending on a quiet moment and then you cut into a train barrels down the tracks, that’s energy.
Craig: Right. And I do like those things. I write them all in. And, oh, here John, do you feel umbrage coming? Because it’s about to come.
John: Go. Umbrage up.
Craig: Are you ready? There’s this thing that some screenwriter guru baloney types talk about that makes me crazy. And it’s this deal that screenwriters shouldn’t be directing the movie. We shouldn’t write “we see,” or talk about where the camera is, or create noise. That is insane.
Our job is to make a document that reads in such a way that the reader sees a movie and hears a movie in their head. We’re not directing the movie through the script. We are directing our intention through the script. Frankly, movies would be better if directors — a lot of whom do this, but some just don’t — actually looked for the clues that the screenwriter had put in to manage those transitions.
But we must write that way. Anybody who tells you, “Dear podcast listener at home, don’t direct your script.” Of course, don’t be obnoxious about it, but if you have a moment that means something to you, put it in. Put it in and make those moments interesting.
The worst thing you can do is be boring. That should be the most fearful outcome for you.
John: Yes. It is a screenwriter’s goal to evoke the experience of watching and sitting in a theater which just 12-point Courier on the page. That’s a very difficult thing to do. But, that’s why you’re a writer. And it’s writing the same way that a novelist is writing in some cases where you’re creating a universe with just your words. And part of that universe is what it feels like and what it sounds like.
And even though you don’t have the ability to describe tastes and textures and things like that, you should almost kind of feel like you’re in that world. The most flattering thing I’ve ever heard someone say about my work, I think it was like, “Oh, I really loved watching that. Oh, no, I guess I just read it, but it felt like I’d seen it.” And that’s what you want.
You want the experience of, like, “Did I read that or did I watch it?” And it should be equally vivid because I’ve created those images in your head and I’ve made this character seem alive to you in those moments.
John: So other sort of simple techniques to look for is — I don’t want to say exit line too loudly because that’s sort of hacky, but look for what is the last line somebody says before the cut. And there can be cases where that’s going to be a joke, and that joke will help propel you to the next scene. And if it’s done right, that’s fantastic. There will be cases where it won’t be the joke line, it will be the line that comes after the joke that helps get you to the thing. Or you’ll put an extra little layer on it.
But looking for what is the last thing that said that’s going to get you to that next moment. Now, someone is going to say, “Well, I sat down at the Avid and you always end up cutting — you never end up doing sort of what you had on the page there anyway. You end up cutting out of scenes early or you do other stuff.”
Well, fine, you do other stuff, but you have to have a plan for how you think you’re going to get out of this scene and in this moment.
Craig: Yeah. And I tend avoid orchestrating elaborate transitions on the page for precisely that reason. Transitions that are elaborate really then become tricks that everybody needs to work on in production to perfect and make happen. And you’re doing it with the hope that it will be just a super awesome transition.
But, then again, you also know in the back of your head, having made a bunch of movies, a lot of times you find that shorter is better, and there is a quicker and easier transition. So, I tend to write transitions that are actually very low key in terms of producibility. Very simple things to do.
Sometimes I also think a transition that might indicate something, even if the scene starts dryly from the next scene. Let’s say you and I are in a car. We’re talking. And you’re saying, “We have to go see mom. She’s not doing great.” And I say, “Oh, okay. I’m sure she’s fine, you know. I’m sure she’s fine.” And then our car just wipes through frame, and then we see a coffee cup. You know? And then somebody, and there’s sugar going in the coffee cup. Sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar. And then we pull back and we see an old lady just pouring sugar into a coffee cup. Way too much sugar for her. And she’s big. She’s a big lady.
And then she puts the sugar down. And then we realize that she’s sitting in a food court now. And everybody is busy with their families and she’s alone at her table like kind of a weirdo bag lady. That’s a transition to me.
Craig: And it’s small, but I just think that if you can, in the moment of starting the scene you can actually do the work of the scene, you’re already halfway done.
John: Yeah. So much of how you’re coming out of scene is based on where you think you’re coming into the next scene. And so by setting up and establishing that shot with a coffee cup and all the sugars, you’re giving yourself a nice way into that.
The other thing you’re doing there is by mentioning the mother you are — you put that in our head that the mother is a character that we’re going to be looking for. And so when we see her, like, we’re excited to see her.
John: In Go, an example is Claire is sitting with Gaines in his apartment, and she keeps getting texts from Ronna. So, naturally the next thing we’re going to cut to is Ronna. And we’re ready to see her again because we’ve been reminded that she’s in this world and we’re curious about where she’s at and why she’s not back in the apartment.
Craig: Yeah. You see, one of the nice things about working on transitions — and again it’s why I was very happy when I saw that Terry was doing this, because it’s important; I think it’s important for screenwriters to see this — is that it also starts to remove bad options from you.
For instance, I know that I want to make a point about a character in this scene, so I guess they could be talking to somebody or somebody could be talking about them, or maybe they’re writing it — well, how about no more words. So, let’s just put the words away for a second and just describe in a moment, in a transitional moment what it is I want to get across. And then the scene really is about making me feel it with her.
Now, the scene isn’t about information. The scene is about emotion. Am I connecting with her? Is she making me angry? Is she making me sad? Much more interesting and fun to write that than “I live alone, don’t you understand sir? I live alone! I can’t afford this.” Ugh. Gun shot.
John: The last thing I’ll say on transitions is I’ve described it to other people and I didn’t have good words for it. And I think I was reaching for something kind of like a “throw,” but I always describe that the cut out of a scene sort of needs to slant forward. It needs to sort of fall into the next scene. And too often they just feel like blunt cuts, like it’s just like a stack of scenes. Like, “There’s that scene, and now there’s that scene.”
And it’s what we talked about in the Austin Film Festival podcast where scenes need to be connected with a “and because of that,” rather than an “and.” It’s like, you know, it’s the “so” that gets you to the next thing rather than an “and.”
Craig: Yeah. Very much so.
John: And it’s building.
Craig: If you end a scene in such a way that all the characters can sort of sigh and go, “Okay, that’s…well, I guess we said.” Why even — just go. Just leave the theater.
John: In grammatical terms, most scenes probably shouldn’t end with periods. They should end with some sort of punctuation mark that lets you continue the sentence into the next scene. So, some double dashes, some commas, some other stuff.
And even on the page, that’s why sometimes you don’t end up completing a sentence at the end of scene. You let it bleed into the next thing. You might bleed across the cut in a sentence. I’ll do that all the time.
Craig: And think about size. It’s a funny thing to say, but when I end a scene and when I begin, for the following scene on that transitional moment, I like to change the size of whatever it is I’m doing. If I’m looking at a face I want to look at park. If I’m looking at a park, I want to look at a small pin. I like changing sizes.
I think that’s another helpful way to kind of not make you feel like you’re just lost in a stack of scenes.
John: If you’re coming off a 1.5 page scene which is two characters talking sitting down, your next scene should not be two characters talking sitting down.
Craig: Thank you.
John: You want somebody running through the scene on fire if possible.
Craig: Exactly. Or you want a jet plane from the ground, you know. I mean, look at the movies you like and I guarantee you will see very few scenes that move from the same size to the same size.
John: And sometimes those are just those one-eighth of a page, like “Tires screech as a plane lands at JFK.” And it’s like, “Well why is that there?” Because you need to change the energy, because you just came from this thing — you need the jolt of that to get you into the next thing.
John: So, that was our Austin Film Festival that didn’t happen. But it was fun to sort of talk through some other extra panels.
Craig: Alt-universe Austin in which I didn’t get drunk and wasn’t hung-over for our live podcast.
John: You smoked a lot of cigars there, too, I noticed.
Craig: Yeah, yeah, for sure. I mean, it happens in Austin. You know, apparently what happens in Austin doesn’t stay in Austin. Apparently it ends up on a podcast.
John: [laughs] It gets out. I would say this was my most fun Austin podcast ever though, Austin Film Festival ever in that I talked with a lot more people than I ever talked with before in terms of sort of writing peers and hung out with more people. And it was just really fun. It was a good time.
Craig: It’s a great time. I try and balance my time there between friends I haven’t seen for awhile who are there with me and then just interacting with people. And I mentioned as much in the live podcast, the fact that we do this podcast now, people were walking up to me and saying thank you for this and we are very welcome. We love doing it.
And if you guys in Austin weren’t there appreciating it then it would be sad for us and we would just stop.
John: Yes. Craig, I know you’re really busy so do you have a One Cool Thing this week?
Craig: I do. No, I don’t; I take it back. [laughs] I don’t. I do, but I can’t talk about it. It’s in my head. Oh my god, it’s so cool.
John: So maybe by the time I’m done with mine you’ll have the words to express it.
So, my One Cool Thing this week is actually very appropriate for this sort of alternate universe Austin in that it’s called What If. And it’s this great website that is a physicist who goes through and answers questions about these hypothetical situations. And so he’ll actually do the math to tell you what would really happen if you were to do these things.
So, two example things I read recently. What if you exploded a nuclear bomb at the bottom of the Marianas Trench?
John: Yeah, it was like, “Oh, what would that do? Would it cause an earthquake? How bad would that be?”
Craig: Can I guess?
John: Tell me.
Craig: If you exploded a large nuclear device at the bottom of Marianas Trench I suspect nothing would happen.
John: Very little happens. Because as powerful as a nuclear bomb is, the Marianas Trench is very, very big. And so it would create a giant bubble, but it wouldn’t cause a tidal wave. Because the disturbance is right there.
Craig: It’s so deep that the force that — the sideways and upwards force would just be dissipated underneath the weight of the Pacific.
Another question. If every person on earth aimed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time would it change color?
Craig: I’m sorry, if every person on the earth aimed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time would it change color?
John: Yeah. Would it change color — the color of the laser pointer?
Craig: I’m going to say no, it would not.
John: It would not. And so he goes through sort of some of the challenges there. At any given time not that many people on earth can actually see the moon, so that becomes a challenge.
John: But the issue is like laser pointers, even the powerful ones, they’re pretty powerful, but they’re not powerful enough to overcome the moon’s brightness or darkness which is the sun shining on it.
So, then he sort of amps up in a very good screenwriter way, it’s like, “Well what if we had a — well, we need lasers big enough to actually aim at the moon and light up the dark side of the moon. So, if it is a crescent moon then you want to light up the dark side of the moon, the part that is not lit right now.”
And the laser that would be powerful enough to make that glow would also incinerate the earth. The atmosphere would catch fire.
Craig: Yeah. So, we shouldn’t do it.
John: No. We couldn’t also generate enough energy to —
Craig: It’s funny. I remember years ago I worked on a script at Dimension called The Spy Next Door. And I think eventually they made a movie called The Spy Next Door that was a different company and a different script. And it was sort of a James Bond sort of comedy James Bond thing. And I needed a villain. And I always believe that your villain has to be a real villain with a real plan.
And I love Bond movies and I was trying to think of a good Bond plan. And for a while I was toying with the idea of blowing up the moon.
John: I had a whole thing where I wanted to blow up the moon. Everyone wants to destroy the moon. The moon sucks.
Craig: Yeah. Everyone wants to blow up the moon. You know, here’s the thing. I found a book on this pre-internet days when you couldn’t do this sort of thing. And I had to find a book. And there was actually a book called What If You Blew Up the Moon? [laughs] I think that’s what it was called.
And the whole book was just chapters of, “Okay, well what if we made the moon smaller? What if we made it bigger, what would happen? What if we blew it up? What if it crashed on earth?” And basically the deal is this: If you change the moon at all, we all die. You make it bigger, smaller, blow it up, move it backwards — it’s like everything just goes kablooey. So, I couldn’t do that one, so I came up with another one which I thought was actually kind of interesting.
My idea was that the villain found evidence of a large fault running underneath the United States in a place where we weren’t familiar. It’s a little bit like the New Madrid Fault, which they say famously could lead to a huge earthquake. And that back in the ’60s, the Soviets discovering this put a large nuclear device in that fault with the idea that they were losing the Arms Race and if they were attacked that would be their Doomsday device in retaliation and America would split apart.
And then they sort of forgot it, you know. [laughs] And so now it’s 1998, or whenever I wrote this movie, and someone has figured out that it’s still there, and they have the codes and they need another code. And if they do then they can blow up — Blow Up America!
Craig: It was kind of fun.
John: Yeah. I like it. It’s tough to find — a villain plot for a comedy is tough because an apocalyptic villain comedy plot is challenging because it has to be absurd yet have stakes so that it actually means something.
Craig: Yeah, unless you’re doing a spoof, you know, like Dr. Evil’s plan was ridiculous because he was spoofing the ridiculousness of James Bond’s villains who already larger than life. So, you have these levels of villains. You have Dr. Evil which is the most ridiculous. Then you have Donald Pleasence from, I think, You Only Live Twice, which is also quite ridiculous, [laughs], because he lives in a volcano.
But, serious ridiculous, you know. And then underneath that you have your, I guess, your Bourne Identity style villains and so forth.
John: Yeah. But I’m trying to think of who the villain could be in a comedy. That can be challenging, too. An apocalyptic comedy villain is a sort of unique set of requirements.
Craig: Yeah. I always like the villain in Naked Gun. Ricardo Montalban’s deal was that he was basically going to charge people to use — he was a hit man broker. So, he figured out a way to hypnotize famous people who have access to kill other famous people and charge money for it.
It’s ridiculous but he was quite serious about it.
John: Yeah. That’s a good choice. It offers comedy potential. It’s threatening enough that there are actually enough stakes that you could go through.
So, Phineas and Ferb, Doofenshmirtz often has the most absurd kind of things where like he’s going to destroy all the banjos in the world.
John: And so it’s interesting when they sort of talk about like evil and it’s like, “Well, yeah it’s evil.” It’s actually sort of like you would be really annoying but you’re not actually evil.
Craig: Doofenshmirtz Annoying Incorporated.
John: I like it.
Craig, did you think of anything more or are we all done?
Craig: Are you kidding? I could go for hours.
John: You could go for hours. But you can’t go for hours because you have to work tonight.
Craig: No, tonight we’re off.
John: Oh, this is your night off.
Craig: We’re on a weird schedule. So, tonight I’m off, but now what do I do? And, okay, you know where I am, so there’s plenty to do. [laughs] The thing is I really don’t want to do anything. So, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m going to do a crossword puzzle.
John: Crossword puzzles are good. All right, Craig, thank you so much for another fun podcast.
Craig: Thank you, sir, and I’ll see you next time.
John: Thanks. Bye.