The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 67 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Craig, how are you?
Craig: Oh man, I’m good. We’ve got one more week of shooting to go so I’m hanging on. I’m kind of hoping that I don’t get that weird body let down thing when you — it seems inevitable after you shoot you get a week or two off and you get sick.
John: Yeah. It’s like your body was so tensed up, it’s like it couldn’t possibly get sick, so it sort of sequestered all the germs. And then once you possibly can get sick you just get super sick all at once.
Craig: Yeah. So, I’m hoping that doesn’t happen because I get basically a week to relax and then, you know, vacation stuff and traveling.
John: I always found in college I would get sick right when I came home for Christmas. It was like I was able to get through the semester, make it to my finals, and then I would get sick.
Craig: Yeah. But it’s a great way then to avoid your family at Christmastime.
John: Perfect. And I love it. Now, what is your family’s tradition around the holidays? Do you do Christmas? Do you do Hanukkah? Do you do other stuff? I don’t even know.
Craig: I’m so glad you asked that question because it allows me to go on a mini rant.
John: I love it.
Craig: So, I’m Jewish. I’m not religious at all, but I’m ethnically Jewish, and I was raised in the Jewish tradition.
John: Ethnically Jewish or culturally Jewish? Is there a distinction between those for you?
Craig: Well there is, yeah, because Jews are both a people and a religion/culture. So, there is a genetic component to being Jewish. That obviously is affixed to me, and happily so. But culturally speaking, even though I grew up in a culturally Jewish home and in a vaguely religious home, sort of moderately religious — I suppose we were religious the way that most Christians are religious. Sort of Christmas/Easter type Christians. You know, we were Hanukkah/Passover type Jews. Or, I should say Rosh Hashanah/Passover type Jews.
But now I’m not religious at all. It’s just not part… — I never felt connected to religiosity in any way. When people talk about being spiritual I literally feel like an autistic person who doesn’t understand something like emotion. I don’t even know — I know what the word means technically. I have no actual connection to it.
I am the least spiritual person in the world. I don’t believe in such a thing. So, I’m not religious at all. [laughs] My wife is also not religious, but she comes from an Episcopalian background and we celebrate Christmas in our house because Christmas is an awesome holiday.
And frankly also from a storytelling point of view, the story of Jesus is an awesome story. It’s a great, great story with wonderful…
John: It has good Star Wars elements to it. It feels, you know, desert, and someone comes out who is chosen. It’s nice.
Craig: And then the idea of enduring terrible things as part of sacrifice to save others who had condemned you. That’s all good, rich stuff. Whereas Old Testament stories tend to be far more simple and odd, like, “You all lied. I’m killing you.” [laughs] “You’re all drowning now because I don’t like you.” Stuff like that.
John: Well, also the Old Testament stories are so sort of transparently interpretations of very classic myths. Like all those things existed for a long time, they were just sort of woven together to become the Old Testament, but you find the exact same kinds of stories in other cultures at the same time, too.
Whereas the Jesus story at least has a lot of new elements to it even though there were other outside savior figures. And you can find the roots of the Jesus story in other cultures as well. It is newish.
Craig: It’s newish. I mean, if you read the story of Krishna it will shock you how Jesus-y it is. I mean, the idea of a virgin birth, someone who dies for your sins. Someone is convicted unfairly and who is perfectly sweet and good, that did pre-date Jesus.
But, that said, the story feels like a more modern story in part because it is.
John: But also it has three acts. It has an arc to it which is unique and different. I mean, there’s a saga to it that doesn’t exist in sort of the other Old Testament stores which is nice.
Craig: It’s true. I mean, there’s a saga to Exodus. That is, I think, the most interesting Old Testament story because it has the plagues, it has an adopted child who grows up in the family that he then rebels against. And then there’s plagues. And finally the Pharoah relents. But then there’s a reversal because he decides, “No, you can’t leave, I’m going to chase you down and kill you.”
But then God comes with a pillar of fire. But then fascinatingly and anti-dramatically then they just wander around for 40 years.
John: Yeah. That’s not so dramatic.
Craig: It’s a really bad third act. [laughs]
John: So, like you, my family is — we celebrate Christmas and we do all that stuff. We’re not sort of actively religious. And so I always sort of never kind of wanted the Christian label on me, but then when I was in Africa years ago working with this charity group, everyone was like, “Oh, are you Christian?” And it’s like you’re just sort of Christian — if you’re not anything else you’re Christian. So, I’m fine sort of being culturally Christian. That’s why I asked the difference between ethnically and culturally, because I’m ethnically nothing. But culturally, yeah, I come from a Christian culture. So, even though I don’t actively practice any of those religious tenets on a weekly basis, eh, culturally I’m Christian.
Craig: Yeah. I think all Americans to some regard are culturally Christian because, for instance, I consider myself in a weird way culturally Christian as well, because I really love Christmas, and I like Easter. It’s fun, I like those things. But I’m not at all a spiritual or religious person in any regard toward any religion.
I will say that Hanukkah is dopey. Hanukkah is a lame-o holiday. It was an event that is of almost no religious or historic importance to actual Jewish people. When I say “actual Jewish people” I mean like actual students of Judaism. Hanukkah is incredibly minor. It’s on par with Jewish Arbor Day.
John: But it got elevated just because it was so close to Christmas and it felt weird that they didn’t have an equivalent holiday around that time of year.
Craig: It is totally manufactured in the way that Christians manufactured Easter out of pagan holidays. And so the bunny is a part of Easter because it was the Spring Fertility holiday and they kind of just glommed in. It’s the same deal.
And Hanukkah is just dopey. I mean, the whole thing is that there was a minor miracle involving a couple people who they got lights on for a little bit longer than they should have.
John: Yeah. It’s like your iPhone battery lasting a really long time.
Craig: Yeah, “Uh, let’s have a holiday.” It’s ridiculous. The whole eight-presents-over-eight-nights is ridiculous, because really you only get one good present and then a bunch of dinky ones. So, basically, really all they’re doing is spreading out the stocking stuffers over seven nights.
You know, it just — I mean, I understand why it was important for us as kids to have something, but you know, frankly, Christmas is so much more religiously significant to Christianity than Hanukkah is to Judaism that even as a Jew I’m like, “I don’t even like the idea of putting up the Menorah next to the Christmas tree in the mall.” You know, I just feel like, no, just do the Christmas tree.
If you want to be properly-Jewish, then at Passover and Easter — which are connected because, of course, the Last Supper was a Passover Seder — do something there. That’s important.
John: I hear you.
Craig: So, anyway, that’s my religious rant for today.
Today I thought we would talk about perspective within scenes and sort of perspective overall in a story and sort of how screenwriters work on shifting perspective and telling a story with a clear perspective. And then get into three more examples — actually four more examples of our Three Page Challenge, because we’ve had so many good ones come through and Stuart picked out four new ones for us to look at.
So, that will be our agenda today.
Craig: That’s our day.
John: That’s our day.
So, a small update on the last podcast, I talked about how for this ABC pilot I’m writing I wrote it all in Fountain for the first time. And I used this beta of a new software program that’s coming out which is really good and I liked it a lot. And so just an update on that: So I finished, and so stuff is handed in.
And so I ultimately ended up using Highland to convert the Fountain to Final Draft so I could go through Final Draft, because I needed to do starred changes. And that’s one of the things that’s still problematic to try to do in Fountain or any of the sort of non — any sort of plain text thing — is when you need to mark what’s changed from one draft to the next draft, so if I’m sending pages through to Josh I can say like, “Hey, just look for the starred changes.”
That’s a thing that Final Draft is really good for. And so while I think these writing tools are really great and really helpful, I’m still very much acknowledging that there’s things that big professional applications like Final Draft are really good at. And starred changes is one of the things that it does really well. Screenwriter does it well, too.
Craig: Yeah. Did you see that Fade In actually has built in Fountain exporting and importing I think?
John: Yeah, which is terrific. And where I find stuff missing, and I’m not talking about Fade In specifically, but as I was working with this draft in Final Draft I was making small changes, and so like literally just adding a few lines of dialogue, and I found it really maddening suddenly to have to use Final Draft Syntax for adding characters and stuff. Because I found myself typing I was like, “Well, that’s in parenthesis so of course that’s a parenthetical. Why are you making me go through and select it and tell you that it’s a parenthetical? It’s a parenthetical.”
John: And that’s one of the things that in my fantasy Final Draft would just have a little mode, a little tick box you could set that’s like, “In the Fountain mode,” and it would just be able to interpret. It’s actually very hard to.
Craig: That’s a really interesting one because it’s the one thing about Movie Magic I love the most. When you’re in dialogue and you hit parenthesis, or if you are — before you type, if you have parenthesis it puts it in parenthetical.
Craig: Because their point is, and they’re right — how often do you have to type a parenthesis that isn’t a parenthetical?
John: Yeah. Or, how often is the parenthesis going to be in the very start of the line of dialogue?
Craig: Right. Just know open parenthesis means go command-4 into Parenthesis Mode.
John: Yup. Should be. So, anyway, it’s been interesting to sort of see that process sorting itself out.
And for people who are curious about Fountain we actually have a new Glassboard setup to talk over Fountain issues. Glassboard is a sort of semi-private message board system. So, if you have issues that come up in Fountain or questions about Fountain, myself and the other developers of Fountain are there to answer questions or talk about new stuff that can come up.
So, there will be a link to that new Glassboard for Fountain on the links for Scriptnotes at the bottom of this podcast. So, always just johnaugust.com/podcast and you’ll see a link for that.
John: So, let’s talk about perspective because this actually came from you. You were talking about how with what you’re working on right now with The Hangover 3, there’s issues that come up sometimes about really conveying what the perspective is within a scene.
Craig: Well, it occurred to me because I’ve been — now that we’re getting close to the end I’ve been sneaking away from the set and spending time with the editors, just trying to kind of help get a few of the scenes together in shape for when Todd comes in and really starts working on his assembly. Because I’m there and I do it with him I know, “Okay, this is what he intended for this,” or “This is what he intended for that,” sort of like hopefully we can hand over an assembly-plus as opposed to just an assembly.
And one thing that I noticed is that a lot of times when editors are assembling all the footage, what they’re doing is following the lines. So, let’s say you have a scene where three people walk into a room to talk to one person. They will sort of follow the dialogue. But, of course, when you’re editing you have a choice. You don’t necessarily need to show who is talking. You could show somebody else.
And sometimes what ends up being missed is where the perspective of the scene is away from the dialogue. Sometime you’re writing a scene where people are talking but one person is staring at the person that’s being talked to. And that person is not saying anything. That person is falling in love; that person is growing angry; that person sees something in their hands; that person realized they’re lying. That’s what I mean by perspective.
And it started to occur to me that it’s something that we bake into our scenes a lot, but if you’re not you should be. And the notion that the scene, no matter what’s going on in a scene, ultimately the reader must be emotionally connected to a specific singular relationship — a person to another person; a person to an object; a person to an event.
And things should be going on around that. But there has to be a focal point of concentration for the reader and then ultimately for the audience. And it doesn’t have to be with who’s talking. Sometimes it’s not at all with who’s talking. And it’s important for us to think about where that perspective is and then come up with interesting ways to draw us out of it and switch it if need be.
John: So, the exact case that you’re bringing up is very classically what you want to do. The center of the scene, the most important person in the scene, the base of a scene, is not necessarily the person who has the most lines in the scene. And in many movies that will be kind of obvious, because if your hero is in a scene — if Indiana Jones is in a scene with other people who are doing more talking, well obviously it’s Indiana Jones’s movie, so we’re going to spend most of our time with him, so it’s really natural that we’re going to favor him in the cutting and in our head as we’re sort of shooting the movie in our heads. We always know that Indy is the most important person in that room.
With your movie, because you have multiple protagonists and you have a lot of stuff going on, it might not necessarily be clear who the important person is to follow in this thing and who should be at the center point of the scene. So, how would you bake that in on the page? What would you do to convey that? Are you just saying, like, hold on this person and throw the other dialogue in OS? How would you convey that on the page?
Craig: Well, you shouldn’t. I mean, in a sense you want to be able to shoot everything because you don’t know what you’re going to want to play off camera and what you’re not going to want to play off camera. But in action description you should do what you normally do, that is to say emphasize what matters. So, while one person is talking you could say, “While Jim rambles on, Sandra can’t help but keep staring at the man’s withered hand.” Okay?
John: Yeah, or “Sandra burns a hole through him with her eyes.”
Craig: Yes. Now, when it comes time, of course, you know, again, editors may make a mistake, but that’s okay. Everybody gets their first and second drafts, and the point is that the filmmaker, the director, should understand what the perspective of the scene is as well. But their understanding of it is going to come from the script and from their discussion with you, which is why it’s so important to emphasize perspective.
In fact, as I often do, I got angry [laughs] on DoneDealPro because somebody was saying, “How do I — I want to sort of describe how the camera is moving here.” And really it was about emphasizing perspective. And people were like, “Don’t put in camera directions. Don’t direct with script.”
No. No, no, no, no, no. Go ahead and put in camera directions if it’s important if that’s what’s going to convey the intention of where the perspective of the scene is. It’s important to know where the camera is going if it’s not doing what would be expected.
Craig: Okay? So, if we’re watching two people and it’s a spy thriller, and they’re having this discussion, and the intention is that we slowly pull back and away from them to reveal the back of a man’s head at another table listening, and he has a little thing in his ear and he can hear what they’re saying, it’s important for you to put that direction in.
Because it’s about figuring out what the perspective is and who we’re supposed to be with. I mean, think about the scene in The Godfather where Michael goes to have dinner with Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey. I think it’s McCluskey.
And his mission is he’s going to kill both of them. And he’s nervous because he’s never killed somebody up close like that before. He’s never committed murder like that before, even though he’s a war hero. And he’s sitting here in this restaurant, and the two of them begin talking — not him, the other two are talking — and while they’re rambling on we just stay with him and he’s just staring quietly. He even starts nodding in answer to what they’re saying, but we don’t even see them anymore because it’s all about that feeling you get in your head when you begin to swim in your own thoughts and you start to panic internally.
Well, you have to describe that on the page. You have to. And if you don’t, I think you’re missing the point of what it means to bake in the perspective of the scene.
John: I agree.
Now, as we’re talking about perspective, we’re talking about perspective within a scene. Also, a whole movie has perspective, and in the movie which characters are telling the story and which characters have storytelling ability.
One of the things I’m working on for the ABC pilot is we limit perspective very strictly to the four members of the family. So, every scene has to be driven by one of the four members of the family which is a huge opportunity and obstacle that we present for ourselves, is that we only have information that the four people in the family can see.
And when you setup those kind of limitations, you have to really think about like, “Well, how are we going to get this information across to the audience and which of our four people can have that information?” But, by limiting yourself to that perspective and letting it be clear that we’re never going to go off with the villains and see what the villains are doing, it changes the nature of it.
And the times when we sort of bend the rules and we can sort of follow this little bit of a conversation with people who weren’t originally in the scene, that’s nice; it gives you tension.
Craig: Yeah. It’s good to — just the fact that it is part of how you’re approaching the show conceptually forces you to think about it. And I see sometimes when we read bad pages, a lot of times it seems like whoever is talking, that’s where the camera is supposed to be. And we just follow line to line, like a play.
John: And because we have limited perspective to these four people, obviously if there’s only one of our four family members in the scene, they are the most important person in the scene. There would be no question that someone else is going to be dominating that scene. It has to be our person. Even if our person is not doing the main talking, we know what it is. And it draws you in closer as an audience to those people because you’re seeing them all the time. You’re not going off and hanging out with other people.
Craig: Right. Good.
John: Cool. Great. Well, thank you for talking about perspective. Let’s get into perspectives on these four Three Page Challenges that we got in this week.
John: Awesome. What do we want to start with? Do you want to start with Hunter?
Craig: Hunter? Did you say Hunter?
John: Hunter. Hunter Altman.
Craig: Hunter did…is that the one with the swamplands of Florida?
John: Yeah. Why don’t you start with Hunter in the swamplands of Florida.
Craig: Okay. So, in these pages here, I don’t believe we have a title for this, we begin in the swamplands of Florida and we realize we’re in, it almost seems like the Everglades or something. An alligator surfaces and we move past the swamp to find an old, small old minor league baseball stadium. This is the home of the Swamp Gators and it’s pretty run down and pretty small-time. It’s at night. Everyone has left. Nothing there but the sound of the sprinklers over the fields.
And then we find groundskeeper Tony, who is 50s, and he’s cleaning up and he’s alone. He switches off the lights, hears a noise, turns back to investigate with his tiny little flashlight, and then sees something inhuman staring at him from the bullpen. The thing pounces on him and kills Tony.
John: And that’s three pages.
Craig: That’s our three pages. So, you want to start?
John: I’ll start. I like it. I thought Hunter has a very good ability to describe things. He uses that ability a little too much. I thought he had really good specific details about this place. I felt like I could sort of see it, and smell it, and live it, and breathe it. And for a horror movie, like, it’s kind of accepted that we’re going to be sort of a slow start. And you’re just going to be, like, painting the world. There was just a little too much painting for me. I could have just gone through and edited a little bit of this out.
But, he really has skills at sort of describing things, so good on him for that. My biggest issue with it was Tony, our guy. Because we’ve seen that trope of the groundskeeper who is there alone at night and hears a noise and goes out to investigate. It’s just so stock that I feel like you need to push back against that and give us something else more specific or more interesting to be doing here.
Because if you’re sticking with the idea that he’s a groundskeeper, okay, but give me something else. Is he hitting a few balls of his own at night because that’s the only time he gets to do it? Is he dying of emphysema? Is he cooking meth in the back room? Is he super Christian? Does he collect one kind of thing that he finds in the stands?
Just give me something more specific than just, like, he’s the guy who cleans up and then he finds some monster out in the fields.
Craig: Yeah, I agree with everything. I mean, to continue your theme, the initial theme of praise, good writing here. In particular the beginning, I really liked, “Around it, insects buzz, frogs croak, birds call. You can feel the sticky humidity just by looking at it.”
Well, what’s nice about that is I can feel the sticky humidity now just by reading that. So, that’s good. I felt there — I felt I was there. I liked the touch of how rundown the scoreboard was. But then I would say, okay, there’s only so many times you can make me read stuff. So, you have me read, “THE SWAMP GATRS THAK YOU FOR COMING. DRIVE HOME SAF,” which is bulbs burnt out — it was a nice touch.
Then I have to see the banner that says “1987 is The Year Of The Gator!” Then I have to read “Hit one over the Gator and win a free seafood dinner!” There’s a lot of reading going on. So, by the time I got to the bottom of page one with the sprinkler — the sprinkler sound was great, but then there were three more paragraphs describing what the stadium looked like and it was not required.
Yeah, absolutely, everything that happens on page two and three we have seen a billion times. The old disposable character gets eaten by something. And, you know, I understand to some point there’s only so much character building you can do there because the dude is about to get eaten, but I think John is right; you want to try and maybe give us some twist on the same old thing.
I would say that, a couple of suggestions for you, Hunter. One is on the bottom of page two, “He’s not more than 20 yards from the glowing EXIT sign, when he hears — [/] — SOMETHING. He’s not sure what. He turns back.” Well, someone’s going to have to record that later, Hunter, [laughs], so can you give us a little more, buddy? It’s got to be more than “SOMETHING.” Is it a clank? Is it a cling? Is it a growl? Is it a shuffling noise? Is it a drip-drip-drip? But it can’t be “SOMETHING” in all caps. That’s just malpractice.
John: That’s cheating. I agree.
Craig: And then, finally, the death itself comes exactly as you would imagine it. There’s absolutely no question that he’s about to get killed by a thing that he’s investigating, but it comes from the front of him, it doesn’t come from above, or from behind, or from below. There’s no misdirect. There’s nothing. It just sort of happens as it should happen. But I like the touches that you did. “A smeared brown trail.” I like the way his page is laid out.
Like if you look at page three — for those of you who are new writers, take a look at page three of Hunter’s pages. It is divided up perfectly. It’s the perfect proportion of scene headers, description lines, dialogue. Short. Punchy. Lots of good caps where it needs to be. That’s the way you should write. That’s the way it should look.
John: Agreed. Some of the dialogue wasn’t spectacular but I liked the breakup of the page a lot.
John: So, here’s what I’ll say about this trope is we have the maintenance guy, the minute he sort of calls out to, “Hey kid, park’s closed,” I would love to see that guy not go out and investigate but actually get out of there and call the police or call security. Just not do exactly what we expect him to do in this kind of movie. And I think to the degree you can surprise us, that’s great.
Also, in the middle of page two, this is — again, you need to go back through and really proofread. It says:
EXT. STADIUM – BEYOND THE OUTFIELD FENCE -- NIGHT.
Tony stands by a standard electric POWER BOX, as well as a gas-powered backup generator.
On the wall is the rusty old POWER BOX for the stadium. He twists a small key in, opens it, and flicks a switch.
Well, we’ve just established this power box twice, I think. Or maybe there were meant to be two? It’s confusing and not necessary. And, honestly, think about the cut. And literally the cut would just be like you put in the key to unlock something, or you turn something off. You don’t have to sort of establish that there is something and then have someone do something to it. Just have them do something to something and that will establish that exists in the world.
Craig: Yeah. That’s great advice. Think about the cut. Because that’s exactly what I was thinking about when I started feeling like there were too many things to read. Because, you know, I don’t want to just keep looking at signs. So, you get to look at one sign briefly. And, you’re right. The notion — for instance, another possibility is he goes, you know, “You kids, park’s closed,” and have him walk towards the bullpen and there’s a kid there. And they’re playing. And he gets rid of them.
And then he hears another thing, [laughs], do you know what I mean?
Craig: We have choices here of how to kind of subvert people’s expectations. But in these particular pages we just did the most expected version.
John: Yeah. And I should have said as we started this whole thing off is for people who want to read along with us at home, links to all four of these PDF samples will be at johnaugust.com/podcast for this podcast. So, you can pull them up and read along with us as we look through them.
So, the next one we’re going to take a look at is by Kevin Wolfe & Adam DeKraker. And, again, we don’t have a title on this, but here’s what happens:
We open in an operating room with a screaming pregnant woman. There’s two doctors, Juliet Abbas and Jonas, and they’re working on a delivery and they’re arguing about a C-section. As they cut the woman open Jonas gives an “Oh my god” as his eyes go wild in excitement. The EKG flatlines.
Next, we’re on a rooftop garden in Brooklyn with Ronnie Van Dam, a 30-year-old Hitchcock blonde. We see her condo building, her unit, her amazing kitchen. We see a New York Magazine cover that calls her the “Queen of Green.”
Later, as she’s cooking, she’s watching a syndicated talk show with Paula Cruz, whose first guest is Dr. Abbas from the first scene, who is a fertility specialist.
And that’s our three pages. Craig?
Craig: Well, you want me to start?
John: You can start.
Craig: Oh, boy. Okay. Well, look, the dialogue here on page one is pretty bad.
Craig: First of all, the coming in mise-en-scene in this — in medias res, whatever the phrase is, in medias res.
John: As stuff is going on.
Craig: In the middle of it, sorry. It’s not mise-en-scene. It’s medias res. Coming in the middle of this woman, she’s screaming. This is the first line of the movie:
Stop! Please! Why are you doing this?
This would the first human being that ever said, “Stop! Please! Why are you doing this?” while people cut her. It’s just so wooden. I don’t understand what’s happening frankly in this operating room.
John: I know.
Craig: They’re doing what appears to be a C-section, however the woman is not anesthetized. I don’t know why. If that’s a point I think that needs to be called out. If it’s not a point then anesthetize her, for the love of god. “A steady drip of BLOOD trickles from the table and pools around their feet.” What hospital is this where that is allowed? [laughs] That doesn’t happen in hospitals, I mean, unless you’re in trauma surgery.
John: Yeah, but there’s nurses to pick that up. Is it just the two doctors and there’s no one else in the place?
Craig: Well, and also, blood doesn’t trickle from operating tables. You have suction. I mean, it just doesn’t work that way. I just doesn’t trickle like a horror movie and pools around their feet. I’ve never seen such a thing.
And then we have, you know, this dialogue. Dr. Abbas says, “Scalpel.” Dr. Jonas, who’s wearing wire-framed glasses, apparently that is super important in the middle of all this…
John: Yeah. I think he’s a Nazi.
Craig: Apparently. Pleads in a thick accent, “We need to slow the hemorrhaging.” Dr. Abbas says, “Focus on the delivery.” Dr. Jonas, “We can still save the mother.” Dr. Abbas, “Scalpel.”
Doctors don’t do this.
John: [laughs] And the woman is apparently still conscious to be hearing this.
Craig: Conscious. Yeah. [laughs] Not saying anything. Now she’s interested, I guess, in what they have to say.
John: So, it’s possible, is she being bound down to the gurney?
Craig: I don’t know!
John: I don’t know what’s going on.
Craig: I don’t know! And then Dr. Jonas places a scalpel into Dr. Abbas’ hand. So, now you have a doctor handing tools to another doctor which, again, speaks of complete ignorance of how surgery is done. And Dr. Abbas lifts back a flap of skin to reveal the womb. Dr. Jonas, “Oh my god.” Dr. Abbas is wild with excitement. But she drops the scalpel which hits the floor with a clang. Well, you don’t do that when you’re excited. you do that when you’re shocked or horrified. The others step back in horror. The EKG flatlines.
John: But the others step back in horror. Well, what others are there?
Craig: What others? Yeah.
John: There aren’t any others in the room.
Craig: Well, no, there’s “Four figures in surgical scrubs and masks huddle over a pregnant woman.” But two of them are doctors and the other two are just huddlers.
John: [laughs] Those mysterious huddlers.
Craig: But it gets worse. It gets worse from here. [laughs]
John: Why don’t we talk about this first page just because I don’t know if we want to go back through and look at these things twice. Here’s an example of the Dr. Abbas and Dr. Jonas — the character names and the headers over dialogue, get rid of the “Dr.”s because it actually makes it more confusing because it’s harder to tell them apart with those. So, those should just be labeled as “Abbas” and “Jonas.”
Now, so Dr. Juliet Abbas, we get Juliet is a woman, so that’s okay, fine. But “DR. JONAS (late 30s), wearing WIRE FRAME GLASSES, pleads in a thick accent.” So, I assume like, oh, Dr. Jonas, I guess is a man. But then the next paragraph of scene description, “Dr. Jonas places a scalpel into Dr. Abbas’s hand. For a split second, the light catches a TINY JADE TURTLE CHARM on her wrist.”
And that made me think, “Well, is Dr. Jonas a woman?”
Craig: Right, does she have a turtle charm?
John: Yeah. The “her” isn’t connected to either one of them.
Craig: This is an example of a mess. And, guys, I’m sorry — or ladies — I don’t mean to be mean about this, but this page is a mess. It’s a mess. You wouldn’t want to watch this the way you’ve written it. I don’t how else to put it. It’s kind of a mess. And tonally speaking it’s playing as high camp, and I don’t think that’s what you want, because then on page two we suddenly enter into a Nancy Meyers movie.
So, now I’m really confused because now we have this woman at a rooftop garden in Brooklyn and she’s the queen — we know this because a magazine tells us — she’s the Queen of Green, meaning that I guess she grows stuff. And she really wants to be pregnant. And I know that because in the elevator she looks at a pregnant neighbor and then she watches a show about pregnancy and has a reaction to the doctor saying, you know, “We can get people pregnant when they’re not pregnant.”
But there’s better ways to show me that somebody wants to be pregnant than that. That’s about the goofiest way.
John: Yeah, I also want to maybe make a new challenge to all screenwriters in the world: Let’s stop doing the thing where we show a magazine cover to establish who somebody is. It’s just so hacky to do that. Because you always have this fake headline that would never actually be on the magazine. It’s always people who never would be on the magazine anyway.
It’s just a terrible way to do things. It’s the air duct of backstory.
Craig: [laughs] It is the air duct! It’s the air duct of backstory and exposition. And, also, it’s so weird that they have at their own — like if you were on the cover of a magazine, to casually leave it around your own house is so weird.
John: I was on the cover of Written By Magazine, but I don’t leave it around the house just sitting out there.
Craig: No, it’s weird.
John: It’s weird.
Craig: And it would be even weirder to read it. And what happens is you start — something like that, just so that people understand. She comes in from her rooftop garden with her basket of stuff, her beets. Her basket of beets. She plops the basket onto the kitchen counter. “A carrot tumbles out and lands on a copy of NEW YORK MAGAZINE. Ronnie is on the cover with the headline ‘THE QUEEN OF GREEN.'”
Nothing can take me out of a movie more than a magazine cover with our character’s name on it with the fact describing that she’s the queen of gardening while a carrot that she just gardened tumbled onto it. Everyone in the audience will be thinking, “Oh, look what the movie’s telling us.” They’re not in the story at this point. There’s got to be a better way to get that information across.
Craig: Must be. And then this talk show, you know, again, while we’re calling for moratoriums can we call for a moratorium on the introductory talk show that tells us who someone is?
John: Yeah. It’s not good.
Craig: So, we have a talk show now. And the talk show host, “Welcome back, doctor. We always love having you here and you know why? Because we love babies!” Ugh.
Craig: Eh, I don’t know what to say about all of this.
John: I would say it’s just not especially promising. So, this seems to be some sort of like mad pregnancy thriller, I think. That’s a valid genre, sort of. It feels a little bit Lifetime-y, but that’s a valid genre to do.
John: I just think this didn’t start off in a very promising way.
Craig: No, it’s just playing incredibly campy right now. And you don’t want to be campy, unless you want to be campy.
John: Unless you want to be campy, but this isn’t the right kind of campy. This doesn’t feel like it’s going…
Craig: No. This is feeling pretty goofy. I think you guys need to really take a step back and if you’re writing a movie that’s sort of like Rosemary’s Baby or Coma or something like that, find your tone. This stuff is really over-the-top right now.
John: That’s okay. We agree. I think they were brave to send it in.
Craig: Yes. [laughs]
John: Thank you for sending it.
Craig: It’s the attendance award of Scriptnotes. You were brave for sending it in. [laughs]
John: Next up let’s talk about The Transcendentalist by Scott Gorsuch.
Craig: All right. Are you summarizing or am I summarizing?
John: You’re summarizing this one.
Craig: I’m summarizing this one. Okay. So, this story opens with the image of a small boy slipping down through water in a lake, fully clothed, apparently drowning, blood gushing from his head while a voice over asks, “Ever think about past lives? What you might have been?” As the boy disappears into the depths the man’s voice, voice over, “I didn’t used to.”
And now we’re back now, and presumably that little boy has grown up, we think, and he’s woken up with a shock on a bus. He looks sad, a little bit out of place. He walks to his house. There’s some furniture missing and it turns out his girlfriend has left him. She’s moved out, left him a note. He calls up his friend Steve to say, “Hey, can we meet for a drink? Lydia has moved out.”
The two of them share a couple of beers in a pub. They talk about the fact that she moved out. And talk about why it may be that David had sort of failed here. That’s our character, David. And those are our three pages.
John: They were kind of a dreary three pages. And dreary, partly intentional. I mean, you’re opening with a good image of a boy drowning. That’s bleak. You’ve got a guy on a bus, like a sad George Bailey. That’s kind of dreary. But I just felt like I was slipping into a dark and not especially inviting place reading through these pages.
And there were a lot of specific sort of problems on the page that I want to talk about, because we don’t get a lot of sense of plot here yet, so there wasn’t a lot to sort of get me there in terms of talking about story, but just the words on the page could be better and could help me out a lot.
Right from the very start, the small boy slips down through the water — SMALL BOY should still be capitalized, even if that’s a character we’re going to meet later on. If it’s an actual person, give us some uppercase there.
Capitalizing “Winter” mid way through the page felt weird to me. I know, technically I guess we’re supposed to capitalize “Winter,” but it felt weird to me. It stuck out.
And we do this weird thing at the bottom of page one where we’re outside the house and then we’re inside the house. And then he’s like, “Lydia, are you home?” And he’s been wandering around the house. But we never really got inside the house and so I kept waiting for like, “What, are we looking through the door? Oh, no, I guess we really are walking through the house.” Give us a new scene header there. So, “EXT. DAVID’S HOUSE – FRONT PORCH.” He can do the “‘Lydia? You home?’ No one answers.” Next, new scene header, “INT. DAVID’S HOUSE.” Then you can walk around.
And once you’re inside the house it’s fine if the style you want to use is that you’re just doing little slug lines for the different rooms of the house. That’s cool, that’s a valid style. But if you’re going from EXT to INT, those really are different places. Give us a scene header for those.
It has a really unrealistic phone conversation on page two. So, I’ll read it aloud here for you:
He dials an old rotary phone on the counter.
I know, sorry about that, been really busy... Hey, can you meet me for a drink?... Really? Can’t you do that later?... No, listen Steve -- Lydia’s moved out.
So, it just started weird. Like on one just starts talking into a phone. And so there wasn’t a sense of, like, he called somebody and acknowledged who it was that he was talking to. That’s not how phone calls work. And so you could slip a jump cut in there and that would be valid. If you just gave me like, “JUMP CUT,” I’d believe that some time had passed. But it didn’t feel real in the moment.
Craig: Yeah. I really liked the opening. I didn’t mind the dark, sort of glum tone. Maybe this is going to be a cool mumblecore movie, who knows. I mean, I really enjoyed the opening visual. I thought it was well-written. And I liked him being on this bus and I liked how sad he was.
And I liked the way that he found out initially that Lydia had left him. “He scans the room. There’s an empty silhouette on the wall where a painting had been and impressions in the carpet from a missing chair.” Those are really nice details.
“He thinks maybe someone has broken in. He snatches an umbrella, creeps into the kitchen.” By the way, I agree with you about the slug lines. We have to be INT here, “INT. HOUSE.”
He comes around it, now there’s a note stuck to the fridge. And then on the note we hear the voice over of her reading the note and that I did not like. Frankly, I don’t think you need that at all. I don’t think you need the note at all. And I totally agree with you about the conversation. Really I would have loved to have picked that up in the middle. So, in other words, “He comes around the corner and he sees a note stuck to the fridge.”
We don’t have to read the note. The next thing we should see is him already on the phone. “I know, I’m sorry about that. Been really busy.” So, it’s a little bit of a mystery what’s going on. And then he says, “Listen, Lydia’s moved out.” And then we get the answer when he tells Steve. Don’t give us information twice.
You have information? Play the mystery of it. You gave away a gift you had built into the setup of the scene, if you think about it.
John: So, here’s an even more drastic cut that I serves you even better. So, “No intruder. A very conspicuous note is stuck to the fridge.” So, can either pull it down or you can just leave on the note. “Cut to: INT — PUB.”
John: He’s with Steve. And Steve is holding the note. Because right now the note happens about halfway through it and its this whole shoe leather to get the note out. Steve is holding the note and all he has to say is, “While you were at work? That’s harsh.” We know what happened then. And then you can have the conversation about Lydia. Like you don’t need to say her name before that point.
Craig: That’s exactly right. Or, or, let’s go even further. So, he sees this note. The next thing is he’s in a pub with his friend. And let’s go back to our discussion about perspective. His friend is rambling on about something we don’t care about while David just sits staring at his beer. Staring at his beer. Staring at his beer. Then he finally looks up and says, “Lydia walked out.”
Craig: See, I mean, there’s 100 different ways of doing this, but this isn’t an interesting way. This is a very boring way of doing it. So, even in these things think about drama and think about teasing the audience along.
It’s great to leave them confused for 30 seconds. 40 seconds. A minute. You don’t want them confused for five or ten minutes, because then they’re not watching what they’re supposed to be watching. But confusion for a short burst that you can then satisfy is good to do.
The discussion that he has with Steve is boring. I don’t know what else to say about that. it’s just boring.
John: So, back to your issue of confusion and satisfaction: that’s what I want people to take out of this is that it’s great to be confused for about ten seconds and be trying to figure it out. Like basically you want people, your audience and your readers, to be curious enough to want to figure out what’s happening. “Oh, I figured it out!” And they get that little burst of dopamine when they’re like, “I figured that out. I’m so excited. I’m so smart.”
And you’ve rewarded them for figuring that little thing out, for figuring out like, “Oh, his girlfriend left him!” That’s great. And the trick of writing is anticipating how you’re going to get those little bursts of insight in your reader and your audience as they put the puzzle pieces together.
Craig: Yeah, you know what? Part of the fun of screenwriting is to keep the audience wondering if you’re in control or not. Because if you just lay everything out for them and spoon-feed them it’s boring. But if you let them think for 30 seconds, or however long, that maybe you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, and then you go, “No, no, no, no, no. See, I had you the whole time.” They start to trust you. And it becomes comfortable. And it becomes fun to watch, you know, because you know the movie is not going to let you down.
You’re not going to suddenly — because we’ve all had those moments in movies where we realize, “Oh no, I have no idea what the hell is going on, and neither do they.” Or, “They thought I would, and I still don’t.” That’s terrible. And it means that they’ve lost control.
John: Yeah. There’s a movie I was helping out on recently that really managed that problem where most of the movie was working really well, but there was this subplot which was just, like, from Mars and just didn’t fit in the rest of the movie. And so every time you cut to that subplot you’re, like, you lost a little bit of faith in the film because that does not make any sense. And if that thing that doesn’t make any sense is part of your movie, then your movie doesn’t really make any sense. And I don’t know if I trust this movie to get me to a solid place.
Craig: Right. Right.
John: So, our final script of the day is So We Had a Three-Way by Shawn Morrison, which is a great title. I just love that title.
Craig: Great title. Love it, too.
John: Let me give you a quick summary of this, and it’s going to be super quick because it’s almost all dialogue. We open at an Indian restaurant where 30-year-old married couple Daphne and Lucas Gilman are checking out the menus. We see that Lucas is a bit neurotic. He’s talking about should I have the Mango Lassi but he really wants a ginger ale. And he’s sort of talking himself into and out of things.
Daphne suggests they have sex in the bathroom. So, they go to the bathroom and they try to have sex. Lucas has a hard time getting aroused, partly because he’s nervous about touching the dirty walls. And there’s dialogue that’s happening as all this is going on. So, it’s really just a three-page dialogue scene.
Craig: Yeah. I liked it.
John: I liked it a lot, too.
Craig: And that’s nice for me because you know I tend to get hardest on comedies, and this is certainly a comedy. But, let me talk about why I liked it.
First of all, how convenient for me that so much of this initial scene over their Indian food is about perspective. So, this is what I’m talking about. Lucas is going on. He’s rambling on about what he should order. Should he order the chicken? Should he get the Mango Lassi? Should he get the ginger ale, because I can always get the ginger ale but I can never get the Mango Lassi. And she is lost. She is not in the moment at all. She’s somewhere else.
She’s staring at her bread and she’s looking at the bread. And she’s looking at the bread. And then suddenly her face lights up. And the way that Shawn wrote this, I get that the perspective is between her and her idea, and not at all about this guy yap-yap-yapping. It’s an interesting way for her to reveal what she’s about to say which is “Let’s do it.” And he doesn’t’ understand what she’s talking about until she makes it clear, and then he doesn’t understand when. And then she makes it clear and she convinces him to do it.
Inside the bathroom we get the comedy of — we get a very real kind of comedy. And that’s the collision between an exciting fantasy that you think would be fun and the unfortunate realistic circumstances you’re dealing with to actually do it. And there have been a zillion movies where two sexy people go into an airplane bathroom and have sex. But airplane bathrooms are not sexy. And I don’t even know how you have sex in an airplane bathroom. And I don’t know why you would want to have sex in an airplane bathroom. It’s hard to pee in an airplane bathroom.
And so this is really about that. It was about juxtaposing sort of fun, spark-of-the-moment with the reality of it. And then also playing off the comedic differences in their personality. She’s obviously just like, “Let’s go for it, let’s do it.” And he’s a germaphobe who’s freaking out about the walls. And then layered on top of that you have additional comedy of two waiters just listening to dialogue off-screen.
And this is — from somebody that has to sit and edit comedy — it’s a gift to structure scenes where you can hear things through the wall like that, because it gives you such wonderful options when you’re actually shooting and editing. You can do almost anything. The waiters could hear anything they want to hear there.
But what they heard was interesting. And there was great — the way that she kind of escalates her talk was really funny. He starts worrying about the curry smell. It’s the little details that seem so real. I know this guy. And I get what she’s doing.
But what’s the best part to me was at the end of page three when she says — I’ll read this:
How about I talk dirty to you.
Nah, that’s OK.
No, I’m good at it.
I used to do it all the time.
With other men?
Ride me you big strong jockey.
So, [laughs] she’s boasting about something, also giving him information that he didn’t know. Now he’s thinking about other guys she had sex with. And then when she finally delivers she’s terrible at it. This is all very good. I mean, this is really well-written. I thought they were great pages.
John: Let me back up to the first page. And I’ll read the scene description. “DAPHNE AND LUCAS GILMAN are the only people in the place. Daphne is 30, pretty, dressed like she’s from Vermont.” Which is great description. I don’t completely what that is, but it feels specific.
Craig: It’s like LL Bean, you know? I get it.
John: Exactly. “She idly pulls apart naan bread, mind adrift. Lucas studies the drink menu. He’s also 30 with a sensible beard and soft kind eyes.”
I get what that is. I can picture that guy. And then his first line of dialogue, “I hope their chicken is all white meat.” Tells you so much about Lucas.
Craig: [laughs] Right.
John: He’s just adventurous enough to go to the Indian restaurant, but he doesn’t actually really want to commit to the Indian restaurant. Now, the rest of the dialogue — you pointed this out, but I want to be really specific here — he gets all the first couple of lines but it’s broken up in a very smart way. And so:
I hope their chicken is all white meat.
Daphne stares at a piece of naan.
The question is do I get the Mango Lassi? Feels like the right thing to order but I think I really just want a ginger ale.
So, by putting in that line of scene description it shifts the perspective back to Daphne. It also lets Lucas’s Mango Lassi thing all be one block and feel like one idea.
Daphne’s face suddenly lights up.
But that seems like something I can get anytime, whereas the Mango Lassi--
Let’s do it.
It’s just such a smart way to break up that thing which you could do all a one block, but the jokes wouldn’t play right if you didn’t have the scene description breaking that up.
Craig: Right. Because we wouldn’t know that we’re not supposed to give a damn about his Mango Lassi discussion. Without the breakup, without keeping perspective on her, we might think that this author actually wants us to care about this guy’s drink dilemma.
Interestingly, by the way, my take on Lucas from that first line was this is actually a hipster guy who goes to Indian restaurants all the time because he’s hipster and he eats adventurous food. He’s just also very fussy in a hipster way because he doesn’t like bad Indian food. [laughs] Do you know what I mean? I got like a whole other level off of him. I don’t know if it’s true or not.
John: I love a good, fussy, hipster.
Craig: Yeah. A fussy hipster with this beard and his eye. I mean, it was just all — I thought it was really well done. Three really good pages. I would definitely read more. And I also thought that these two together, and obviously we get from the title where this is going, and I like it.
John: Yeah. I like it, too.
Craig: I want to see what happens. And this is… — Okay, larger point about comedy, and I kind of brought this up a little bit before when we were talking about the Margarita Moms script, or Margarita Night. People will roll their eyes sometimes and say, “Oh, god, they’re doing a movie and the concept is this.” Yes, concepts are concepts. Okay. They’re going to have a threesome. It’s going to go poorly. It’s not going to be what they thought. It’s going to hurt their marriage, and it’s going to help their marriage, and they’re going to end up together okay or not. Whatever.
We all get where this is going. The point is it’s not where you’re going and it’s not what you’re doing, it’s who you’re doing it with and where they end up. And it’s the characters, especially in comedy, it’s the characters. And I like these characters. I thought Shawn did a really good job. Nice work.
John: Yay Shawn!
Yes, I mean, obviously we don’t know sort of what’s going to happen 20 pages from now, 30 pages from now. We have some sense of it by the title, but I’m rooting for this. I think it can work.
Craig: Me too.
Now, Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing this week?
John: Ah! See, I know those reminder emails are doing their job.
Craig: They are doing their job. Maybe that will be my One Cool Thing one day is your reminder emails. I opened up my One Cool Thing to Twitter suggestions, and you guys can keep bombarding me with those because I’m going to need them as we move forward.
But this week I found my own Cool Thing. And it doesn’t exist quite yet. It’s not going to exist apparently for purchase until the end of next year. But, I love it so much because it combines two of my great loves. One is medicine and the other is gadgetry.
John, have you heard of Scanadu?
John: I don’t know what it is. Tell me everything.
Craig: Okay, Scanadu is basically a tricorder. It is, if you’re a Star Trek fan; I don’t know if you are.
John: Oh my…yes!
Craig: So, Dr. McCoy would have his tricorder. He’d wave it in front of you and go, “This man has a blockage in his left intestine and he’s going to die.”
So, Scanadu is intended to be a $150 palm-size device. And it will scan your vital signs in under a minute and give you a diagnosis on your phone. [laughs] Now, you might say, “Whaaaat?” Yeah. It’s pretty amazing. It is going to be combined — so it’s going to do very simple things like it’s going to measure things like heart rate; electrical heart activity which is basically a little EKG; pulse transit time; temperature; heart variability; and blood oxygenation. And then transmit all of that to an app on your phone which will then be able to essentially comb through it and say, “You’ve got nothing to worry about.” “You got a little something to worry about.” “Oh my god, get to a hospital.”
But, it’s then going to be combined with two additional tools. Once called ScanaFlu and the other one called ScanaFlo. So, ScanaFlo is basically a pee strip. And it’s going to give you a ton of variations to measure your pee and tell you what’s going on, particularly if you’re a woman there’s a bunch of things like pregnancy issues and preeclampsia, and gestational diabetes. But also can look for everybody — kidney failure, urinary tract infections, and stuff like that.
There’s also going to be ScanaFlu which will use your saliva and test for strep, flu, both A and B, Adenovirus and RSV, which is a particularly annoying respiratory illness that most children will eventually get.
What’s so cool about all of this is that it’s basically going to handle a lot of the nuisance stuff that puzzles parents. Your kids get sick and there’s really that, “I hope this isn’t a bad thing. It could either be a nothing or it could be something horrible. I don’t know. Is it strep or do you just have a cold?” Do you know what I mean?
And it’s so cool to be able to put these tools in people’s hands and have them be completely non-invasive. I just kind of love it. And I can’t wait to have one. I want it! I want Scanadu, ScanaFlo, and ScanaFlu. That is something I will pee on every day.
John: [laughs] Just pee on your iPhone. That’s really what you should just do.
Craig: [laughs] Eventually.
John: Because the iPhone already has a little dot inside the headphone jack to know if it’s been submerged in water. You know that? If iPhone is submerged…?
John: So, but you can just pee on your iPhone and it will tell you something.
Craig: That’s ultimately where we’re going. But I just love — and first of all, for $150, just to un-clutter pediatrician’s waiting rooms, you know, so that you can basically literally text your doctor and say, “Here are the ScanaFlu results. It’s strep.” And then they can write a prescription. You don’t even have to go in. It’s amazing.
So, my One Cool Thing actually exists. You can buy it today. I suggest you do buy it today. It’s an application for both the Mac and the iPad called Soulver. And so what Soulver does is somewhere between a calculator and a spreadsheet. And it’s really good for when you need to figure something out, or especially if you need to figure something out and sort of go back and change the variables later on.
So, it can do some natural language things where you can say like 15% of $60, or you can sort of build sentences they can sort of solve. I tend to use it on just different lines, just sort of setup where your variables are and then you sort of move things around.
I needed to use it this last month. We were figuring out stuff for Big Fish and box office stuff and number of seats. And there were a bunch of little variables we needed to sort of figure out. And you can stick those things in and then you just very easily change any of the variables in it. And I can save that and reopen it at any time. It’s great for those situations where you really don’t want to build a spreadsheet because it’s not like you have multiple columns of things. It’s just pretty simple equations, just there’s a lot of steps. It’s fantastic for that.
So, it’s available for both the iPad and the Mac. I really recommend it. I find myself using it at least two or three times a week. Soulver.
John: Yeah, it’s Solver, but just with a U in it.
John: Soulver. It’s soulves your soul.
Craig: Mm, nice. I’ll check that out. And, well, no, I’m not going to say anything about it. I’m going to try it and then it will be my next week’s One Cool Thing. There’s another app I’m hearing good stuff about.
John: I like it.
Craig: Yeah, from our Twitter brigade.
John: Cool. Craig, thank you for another fun podcast. People who want to read along with any of these samples, again, go to johnaugust.com/podcast and you will see links to these PDFs. You will also see links to the other stuff we talked about like the Scanadu.
John: And Soulver. And Fountain. And the Fountain Glassboard. And I will talk to you again next week, Craig.
Craig: See you at the next podcast.
John: Thanks. Bye.