The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: And my name is A Very Christmas Craig Mazin.
John: This is our Christmas episode of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Now, Craig, we’re recording this a few days early so we’re not literally just sitting by the tree. There’s probably no eggnog in our hands. Maybe you have eggnog, I don’t know.
Craig: No. I think eggnog is gross.
John: I love eggnog…
John: We might have to have a big fight about this. Eggnog is amazing. It’s essentially just melted ice cream that you get to drink out of a cup. And it’s just the best.
Craig: It’s melted ice cream with weird spice in it.
John: What is weird about nutmeg? Nutmeg is one of the most wonderful spices if used in moderation.
Craig: You know what it is? It’s the word “egg” and the word “nog” are so gross. Plus you have those two Gs, eggnog. It sounds like something that Orcs would say, and I don’t like it.
John: Yeah. It has a very Germanic quality to it, but I have always loved eggnog to the degree that I remember once I came back from, like, a summer scouts meeting and it was, like, a hot day in August –
Craig: Oh god!
John: — And I was like, “Mom, I really want some eggnog.” And my mother, who is so generous, was just like, “Okay, I’ll make you some eggnog.” So, she literally made — like the skim milk in the fridge, and some eggs, and some sugar, and some vanilla, and some nutmeg, and she made in a blender some eggnog. And that’s why I love my mom.
Craig: You know, my grandmother used to tell the story about how when she was a child on a really, really hot day back in Russia she would drink iced cold buttermilk. [laughs] And, you know, that sounds pretty good because it’s butter, and it’s milk, and everybody loves butter, and everybody loves milk. But buttermilk is just rotten milk.
John: I would disagree. I would say buttermilk is soured milk. And it has a certain quality to it that makes it fantastic for biscuits, or for ice cream. Buttermilk ice cream.
Craig: You mean rotten quality? [laughs]
John: I think it’s delicious. But everyone has their own tastes. For example, do you like crème fraîche? Is that a taste you like?
Craig: It’s funny that you mention that because I was explaining to our video playback guy last week that I actually have a weird thing about white food in general. And crème fraîche is a great example of white food I do not eat. There’s something about white sauce type food — mayonnaise, crème fraîche, tartar sauce, there’s more I’m sure. Tahini. Even that’s something — I just can’t do it. I can’t go near it.
John: Yeah. There’s a puss-like quality to it that might turn some people off. Cottage cheese, I’m sure, falls into that.
Craig: No. I can do cottage cheese if I mix it with fruit.
John: That makes no sense at all, Craig.
Craig: If I mix it with fruit. That one is an exception. And I can do like certain yogurts and stuff like that. But there’s a lot of white food that just horrifies me. Mayonnaise is my number one, but crème fraîche, sour cream, because that’s what crème fraîche is, right? Isn’t it sour cream? Which is a lie…
John: It’s a special kind of sour cream, yeah. You’re just a food racist and we should probably move onto another topic.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t like white food.
John: So, you’re making a list at Christmastime. There is a famous person who makes a list around Christmastime, well, Santa, but even more important than Santa, Franklin Leonard makes a list around Christmastime.
Craig: Yes. Dreadlock Santa makes a list.
John: And Dreadlock Santa this year made a list called the Black List, as he does every year, in which he surveys the development executives to ask them what their most liked scripts are. He always wants to make it clear that this isn’t the “best of” list; it’s like the most liked screenplays that people have read this year.
And so that came out this last week, or actually two weeks ago for people who are listening on Christmas day. And there were a lot of great titles there. Some people that we know, mutual friends. Eric Heisserer, Story of Your Life, was one of the highly liked scripts.
Craig: Great to see.
John: Jonathan Stokes, who is one of my WGA advisees, his script Border Country was listed there.
Craig: Oh! Awesome. Yeah, good for him.
John: And a person who wrote into our site for the Three Page Challenge, Austin Reynolds, his script, From New York to Florida, was also on the Black List.
Craig: What script did he send in for us?
John: So, the three pages I think we read was something that you liked much more than I liked in the first three pages, where there’s a kid in class who is scribbling…
Craig: Oh, I remember that guy, yeah.
John: So, you apparently have great taste.
Craig: Well, see that? God, I know what I’m doing.
John: Yeah. So, maybe we’ll go back through and re-edit that so we sound really knowledgeable and that we should single that out as being highly praise-worthy. But congratulations to Austin Reynolds; that’s fantastic. I’m happy that these people had good outcomes.
John: As I was looking through the list, one of the things I was trying to look for — patterns — in addition to, like, names I recognize was: what are people writing about, and what are these spec scripts that people are working on? And one that really stuck out was by a writer named Young Il Kim called Rodham. And it’s the story of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s rise as a young lawyer, sort of rising in politics, and she falls in love with this guy Bill Clinton.
And I was like, that was a great idea for a spec. I have no idea — obviously the spec is pretty good because people like it, but people want to know like, “Oh, what kind of spec should I write?” That seems like a great idea for a spec. That’s public domain. It’s interesting. People are going to want to read that. Good choice. Good subject material.
Craig: Yeah. It is a good choice. And it’s accessible. And people can actually compare what you’ve written to their understanding of reality and see in evidence the drama that you have created. It’s a very smart way of approaching it.
John: So, today I thought we’d talk through some of our mail bag questions, but one of them was actually really relevant to what we’re doing right now which is an email we got from Brantley Aufill. And so it’s kind of long but I’ll read it because it’s nice. It’s happy. And so it’s a good thing for this time of year.
John: Brantley writes, “In September of 2011, I sent you an email about something you said on the podcast. Well, it’s like, ‘I mostly want to write period detective stories with monsters.'” I kind of remember saying that. So, talking about, like, what genre is your genre.
Brantley writes, “I remarked that I had just done exactly that having written a spec called The Hooverville Dead which found me my manager just a few months prior. Over the following months, I listen to Scriptnotes every week, and so many times it seems to be recorded just for me, as I was writing and rewriting, as the script started going out, as I began to get generals, as I began to do pitches, as I signed with my agents, as I tried to think over what to write next.
“The topics you and Craig were covering often coincided exactly with where I was navigating this crazy world as a new screenwriter. Flash forward to today. The Hooverville Dead has become my calling card and just made this year’s Black List.”
John: “I’m still doing generals. I have yet to make that first writer’s paycheck, but I have quite a few projects in ‘this might be the one’ column. I’m taking my next spec to a major studio with a producer already attached. I developed a TV show with a producer that we’re talking to networks about next month. I have different pitches at different studios, four of which I set up over a 26-hour period later this week.
“So, I’m reading book after book, writing up treatments, and pitching my take, and I’m on people’s minds as they think of a writer they want to work with. And I’ve been loving just about every minute of it. So, thanks to you and Craig for Scriptnotes; the last few months have been a bit of a whirlwind but I like to think the advice you two have been providing has helped me keep up just a little bit ahead of it. Thanks, Brantley Aufill.”
Craig: Wow. You know what? Thank you man. That’s really nice of you. I’m glad that you are obviously doing well, you know. I mean, the fact that you haven’t gotten that first writer’s paycheck is a quirk of the timeline. It sounds like you will be soon enough. And, you know, as we’ve been doing this and you and I interact more and more with people who are aspiring, and particularly people who are right on that bubble where it seems like all the pieces are in place, and people are noticing their writing and they actually have the facility to do this, they just haven’t quite gotten that first purchase yet.
What’s been salient to me more than anything is attitude. And it’s the people with the great attitude who strike me as the most likely to succeed. And that’s a terrific attitude to have. The attitude of the student, and it’s one that I think you and I both maintain to this very day.
So, good for you. I’m glad that we’ve been of help to you.
John: Yeah. I would also say in terms of attitude: acknowledging good fortune, and success, and people who have helped you along the way. Because so much of this business, and sort of getting started in any business, are going to be the frustrations and all the things that go wrong. But when things do go right, when someone helps you out with something, it’s great to acknowledge that. And the people who help you out along the way, just take a moment to thank them for that.
So, thank you for writing in.
Craig: It’s certainly no sign of weakness. We all need help desperately. I remember Scott Frank years ago saying to me, “I need more help than any writer I’ve ever met. When I’m figuring out who I should work with on something — producer, studio executive, agent, whomever — it’s entirely about who will satisfy my deep need for help.”
So, you’re dead on with that.
John: Cool. Let’s continue that thread with some other questions that people have written in with and maybe we can answer a few more things for other people and get them started on their way.
John: So, this first one comes — a writer who had written into the site and it was in the backlog of questions, and then he reached out to you on Twitter. And so you flagged it and so now we’re following up.
It’s a guy named Christopher in London who writes, “Having written my first feature screenplay a year after moving to London I began to get as many people to read it as possible. By your normal chain of events — basically, through my girlfriend — the script found its way to a producer who had made one other feature, and a few shorts.
“He loved the script and wanted to make it, so we began a second draft with the promise that after typing the script he would send it to potential ‘financiers, directors, and cast.’ Fast forward two and a half years, after draft number 13 he still hasn’t shown the script to another soul. In the meantime, I’ve shopped the script out myself, and now that I’ve secured an actual production company interested in making the movie I want to move on from this producer.
“Now, after asking him to sign an agreement to state that the rights to this script reside with me, he has said he won’t sign it and is suggesting he has some claim to my script. What do I do?”
Craig: Okay. Well, he does not have a claim to your script. Legally speaking, in terms of copyright, you are the author of your script. You have written every word. He has not created any unique expression in fixed form. What he’s done is act as an editor, and just as editors in the book world don’t have copyright claims on Stephen King’s novels, nor does this person have a copyright claim on your screenplay.
What this person may have a claim for is the right to be associated as a producer with this film. That claim is not something that’s adjudicated against you. That is something that they would have to deal with with a new producer that comes onboard. And, frankly, it’s kind of not your problem to the extent that it’s not specifically your problem.
However, when you’re talking to these new people you have to say, “Look, here’s this person. I don’t want them to be involved. They didn’t write anything. They’ve been acting as a ‘producer.’ They’ve been nothing but a hindrance, frankly. You should be aware that they’re there and so that’s something you guys have to work out.” And most likely the actual producers, the new financing entity would reach out to this “producer” and say, “We want to settle you out.” Or, “We want to exchange this guarantee of an onscreen producing credit for your release of the material and disappearing.”
There are all sorts of ways to make people go away. But, the two prominent ways are money and credit.
Craig: That said, it’s hard for these people to actually claim anything, because when push comes to shove they don’t have a contract with you beyond a verbal and implied contract. And so it’s one of those deals where that would have to be hashed out if it actually got to a lawsuit. You want to avoid lawsuits.
So, my recommendation here is that you, in conjunction with your attorney and the new producer, go instruct them to handle this person and make them go away as need be.
John: I agree. I would also say just take a step back and imagine that the other person was writing this question. And he would probably phrase his question to us this way: “So, I’ve spent the last two and half years working with this writer, reading every draft, giving notes on every step. Today he shows up at my door saying that he wants me to sign this release that I have no involvement with the project whatsoever. What do I do? I feel like this kid is being incredibly ungracious for all the hours, and hours, and hours of work I’ve put in on this script. What do I do?”
And it’s easy to see his perspective on this, too. I would say he hasn’t done a terrific job of all the other things of producing. Maybe he actually gave you good notes? Maybe he really did help you get the script into good shape, but he hasn’t been able to sort of move the project forward. So, I don’t blame you for wanting to move forward on your own. But, you are going to need to figure out some way to have him taken care of in this process because it does sound like he was involved for quite a long time.
Where it gets really frustrating for me is when, like, literally something kind of passed over a person’s desk and they’re claiming producer credit on it.
John: And that happens far too often and it’s really maddening. And especially newer writers can find themselves in frustrating situations with that. And I wish I had a magic wand to sort of make that all go away and be better, but it does happen.
And there’s people whose names are on lots of movies who are just really stubborn and they get their names on movies, even if they weren’t involved in the actual making of the film.
Craig: This is certainly not something that’s unique to our business, although you see it all the time. Very annoying people often are rewarded for being annoying. And this may be one of those cases. I would point out — he’s in London and I’m not quite sure what the differences are because, you know, here in the United States we have work for hire. Frequently what you’ll see is an option agreement between a producer and a writer which does contractually codify the relationship and grant the producer certain exclusive rights to represent the screenplay as the producer.
That may not be the case in England, but if it is the absence of that agreement speaks volumes.
Craig: So, this is really where you would need to speak to a lawyer, or a barrister, as the case may be.
John: Find somebody with a nice white wig who seems to know something about the law.
Craig: Yes. Yes. Go speak to Rumpole of the Bailey.
But, I think the fact that you’re dealing already with the financing entity — they have their own attorneys. They should be able to handle this. This is one of those areas — I look for these all the time. This is something to always keep your eyes open for: Moments where your goals and your needs align with those of other people. And then use them, [laughs], so basically draft behind them. It is in their best interest to get rid of this guy, therefore you should line up with them and allow them to do it for you.
John: And it may only be a series of phone calls between these people that it just gets taken care of. And if this guy doesn’t have a lot of other credits then that may be the case.
Our next question comes from Will in Seattle who writes, “On your most recent podcast you and Craig were expressing disdain at the lack of description in some of the Three Page Challenge scripts, specifically the use of ‘INT. OFFICE — DAY.’
“Your criticism came from not knowing what kind of office we’re in. However, in some of the most professionals scripts I’ve read, like Sideways or Up in the Air, the respective writers had a very minimalist style and often do little to describe in more detail the settings. Is it simply your assumption that we’re not Alexander Payne or Jason Reitman? Does the fact that they’re already industry professionals give them license to leave out the little things?”
Craig: I think in those cases the fact that they’re directing the movie gives them the license to leave out those little things. And this is something that I brought up on the DoneDealPro board.
There’s a backwards thinking among a lot of new screenwriters that only if you are directing the movie are you allowed to be specific about camera motion, camera action, and be very specific about things that would theoretically fall under the purview of the director, like, you know, perfecting the location and so forth.
And in my mind it’s the opposite. When Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor write a movie together, they can write “INT. OFFICE” because they’ve already discussed what the office looks like. No one is coming in to rewrite them. And Alexander is going to go out and scout for the office he wants and he’s going to tell people the office he wants, so he can save some space and time on the page. He’s quite likely not writing the script to do anything other than service him as he makes the movie. Similarly for Jason Reitman.
But if you are a writing the screenplay to attract a director, and to attract financing, it is critical to me that you use your one and often only chance to express the entirety of your dramatic intention for what this film should be, look like, sound like, and ultimately how this film will impact the audience.
John: Yeah. I don’t want to tell Alexander Payne and Jason Reitman how to write, and they can use their minimalist INT. OFFICE — DAY; if that works for them, that’s awesome, great.
But I’ll say that even if you’re the director, throwing just the tiniest bit of description to that — sort of like, is it a strip mall office, is it a corporate glass monstrosity office — it does help. And it helps everybody else who needs to read the script to get a sense of what kind of world that you’re pitching this story for. So, everyone else who needs to read the script to sort of do their jobs would be a little bit serviced by having a little more description there.
Again, totally your choice and what you want to do.
Craig: Yeah. That’s how — Todd and I, I mean, no one is coming in to rewrite us. We’re writing a screenplay for him to direct, we still do that stuff. I mean, for that very reason: we want the army of people that are going to be working on the movie to have that many fewer questions.
John: When you’re first sitting down with the location manager, he or she is pulling out a bunch of folders, and he’s showing you things that are probably closer to what your vision is of the thing so they don’t have to first ask you, “Describe this office to me; what should I be looking for?” I think in that first meeting they’ll have some sense of what you might be looking for and what might be appropriate. That’s why you give that kind of stuff.
John: Chris from San Francisco Bay Area writes, “I’m trying to find a musical script writer. What is this person even called? A book writer? Scriptwriter? Probably not a screenwriter. Are there resources, networks, or hangouts where these people exist? I’m looking for both options of partnering or hiring somebody to write the book or reviewing books that people have already written.”
So, sort of in my wheel house here. “Book writer” is usually what you call the person who is writing all the stuff that happens in a musical, a stage musical, the stuff that isn’t sung. So, the book is all that stuff. So, for Big Fish I’m the book writer.
Stuff that happens for Broadway tends to be centered around New York. Dramatists Guild is the organization that sort of loosely represents the interests of people who write for the stage. It’s not a guild the way that the Writers Guild is a guild. It’s a looser sort of association. Doesn’t have like collective bargaining power.
The Dramatists Guild is where you probably first want to check out because their house magazine is actually really good and has good interviews with book writers, and musical writers, and playwrights who are working on all this stuff, and will get you started there.
In terms of reading books, you can find published versions of some of the musicals you would want to see. And that’s going to get you started. There’s not the same kind of script libraries that you’ll find for screenplays. But you’ll figure it out. And I figured it out. I didn’t have great firsthand examples to look at, but you sort of figure out like what gets said and sort of how it fits in with everything else.
Craig: Can you tell me what is the difference between a book writer and a dramaturge? Or is it dramaturgue?
John: I think you can probably say either one of those. And, again, I may be slightly wrong here, so if I speak incorrectly someone will write in and correct me. A dramaturge is a person who is responsible for working with the playwright, and eventually the director, on the dramatic engineering of a piece. And so if it’s an existing work it can be working with the director to figure out how to mine all of the goodness out of it. If it’s a new play, it’s someone who is working with the playwright to facilitate things.
So, it’s not a writer per se, but it’s in some ways like a creative producer I would say.
Craig: I see. Got it.
John: A person who’s helping out that way.
Craig: Got it. Okay, great.
John: Cool. Our next question comes from Hamish who writes, “In podcast 67 you and Craig talked about how hacky it is to establish a character’s backstory via magazine covers. The same day I read the shooting script of Frankenweenie and spotted the following…”
Craig: [laughs] I love it already.
John: “Burgemeister unfolds the newspaper to read the front page. INSERT NEWSPAPER: The headline reads MAYOR BURGERMEISTER TO KICK OFF DUTCH DAYS. A photo shows Mayor Burgemeister complete with sash and hat.”
Craig: That’s totally different.
John: “Burgemeister is pleased with the photo.”
Craig: That’s totally — how do you not see that that’s totally different?
John: I think it’s similar enough that it’s a valid criticism.
Craig: I don’t think so. Here’s the deal. The difference is expositing — am I allowed to say “expositing,” by the way?
John: Absolutely. Totally. It’s your podcast.
Craig: Yeah. I’m going to invent it if it’s not actually a word.
It is creating the exposition for an event or fact as opposed to creating exposition for a character’s essence or quality. That’s the difference to me. I don’t want — and I would presume this isn’t the opening of the movie of Halloweenie. [laughs] I’m going to call it that forever.
You know, when you’re meeting a character in the beginning of a movie it is super hacky to give us key bits of information on a magazine cover about them. It is all too common to use every day news delivery sources in a film to deliver actual news. That’s fine.
John: Yeah. So, I think sliding back towards the hacky column, it is in his first reveal. So, you’ve revealed that you actually haven’t seen Frankenweenie, but I’ll tell you that the paper arrives, you see that he’s meticulous with his lawn, he picks up the newspaper and we see his face in the photo and it’s also revealed that that is his face as well. So, it’s meant to be the joke that it’s exactly the same shot as we’re seeing is the photo that’s on there. But, it is hacky backstory in the sense of, like, that’s how we are establishing that he is the mayor.
Craig: Well, you know what I like though is that you took something that has the potential for hackiness and you put some spin on it so that there was more than just the information. You made a joke out of it.
John: Yeah. So, there’s a little bit of a spin. But I don’t want to run away from the criticism that it is a little bit hacky to do it. And I feel that in Frankenweenie the nature of our world and sort of how it all works, it’s less awful than it could be in other situations.
The truth behind why I did it in Frankenweenie is that there’s so few frames and minutes and seconds in that movie to get crucial information out, it was the only time that we were going to be able to establish that he was the mayor of the town.
Craig: Well, I’m going to stand in stronger defense of your work than you have here.
John: Thank you very much.
Craig: You’re welcome.
John: Mike in Los Angeles writes, “Let’s say hypothetically I have 12 weeks to write a script from idea to finished first draft, like my thesis script for example. How do you or Craig break down your work into daily goals to make sure you hit that deadline? I understand once I get into the writing that I can divide it out in a daily page count, but I’m more interested in how you do it prior to the writing. How are you breaking story, working with characters? How do you do it?”
Craig: Well, for me I am, because I outline very thoroughly, I am less concerned about how much time I’m taking during that process. I sort of feel like if I get that right then I look at what I’ve got left. Presumably it will be at least half of the remaining time. And the process of then dividing pages by 5 days a week to give myself a couple days off isn’t going to leave me with some crushing burden.
Sometimes I will sort of work backwards. I’ll say, “Okay, I have 12 weeks. I know I don’t like writing more than four pages a day. I feel like that hurts. That’s 20 pages a week. Presume that the screenplay is 120 pages and then I’ll narrow it down a bit, so we’re talking about six weeks. So, I have six weeks to break this outline out.”
And then I take a nice breath and I feel like I have lots of time, but I don’t do that so I’ll waste it — don’t waste any time. I start right away. And I begin — we talked about this before — everybody has different ways in. I like to begin with some big basics, the premise of the movie, a protagonist who is appropriate for that premise, a theme that is appropriate for that character and that premise, and instigating a beginning that is appropriate for that person, that matches to the end that is appropriate for that person.
And then sort of laying out the second act as a proven ground for that individual to go from where they are in the beginning to that very different character place at the end. And then what happens in between is writing. Even if you’re not actually writing, if you’re just doing cards or scene ideas or thoughts, that is truly where half of — 70%, 80% of what matters goes.
So, that’s my method.
John: In the question he’s saying, “from idea to finished draft,” but I honestly feel like the ideas phase can be a very long, amorphous period. So like for the ABC thing I just wrote, the idea phase was, you know, there was the idea, and then it was talking to Josh about it, and going to pitch it. And so by the time I was actually writing an outline everything was really, really fleshed out. So, at a certain point we had it up on the board and I had act breakouts and then I had to write up this outline. So, it’s really hard to say sort of when the clock started ticking on it.
But that was a case where TV — a lovely thing about TV is because there are act breaks I can say, like, “I’m going to write an act today,” and then it’s just done. And that was really simple and it’s very quick to write a TV script for those reasons. And actually the last acts are really short, so it goes even faster than that.
For a feature project I try to give myself daily page counts. Once the clock is really ticking and there are 12 weeks to turn this thing in, I will give myself daily page counts. And if I do set myself to five pages a day you get done really early. And so some days you won’t actually hit that, but other days you will hit that and it will all get finished.
What I will tend to do is a little carrot and a stick. And so I’ll make some deal with myself at the start of the week saying that if I write five pages every day then I get to buy myself something that I really want. And if I don’t actually hit those five pages a day then I don’t get that thing.
Other times I’ve had to sort of punish myself where if I don’t hit — any day that I don’t hit my pages I will have to make an anonymous donation to an organization that I despise.
John: So, I try to sort of get the work done and feeling good, and feeling great, but sometimes it is just a matter of like cranking through the pages so you can get something finished.
John: Yeah. So, our last question is from Adam Pineless. Pineless, like a treeless mountain. He writes, “I’ve heard some films have 10 to 15 other writers come in and punch up a script. What’s up with that? What actually happens?”
So, punching up is a thing that happens largely on comedy scripts, before they go into production. Craig and I have both been part of comedy punch-ups. Are they a good thing, Craig?
Craig: I do think they’re good things. But it depends on what kind of punch up session you’re describing or punch up employment you’re describing. Very often on true comedies that are very joke driven, there will be one day where eight or nine comedy guys will be invited to sit in a room with the screenwriter, and the director, and the producer, and typically a studio representative, and you’ll go through the script.
Sometimes you go through the script and just talk about the script itself and kind of get the collective wisdom of people who have written comedy scripts before who can give you advice on character, plot, theme, things that don’t work, things that do work. And sometimes it’s literally just a page-by-page, “Any ideas for some jokes here?”
And we do this for each other. Typically the pay is somewhere between — it used to be $5,000. It has dwindled as low as $1,000 at times. Sometimes it’s $2,500. And we tend to do this for each other. I go to a lot of these things. And I have a little roster of people that I rely on when I want to do one for something I’ve written.
So, that’s fine. And I should point out that those writers are never eligible for credit. It is accepted from the credit process as not considered writing; it’s just “stuff” really. It’s just thinking, group thinking.
John: Yeah, because none of the writers in the room are actually writing anything down on paper. There is no literary material being created. There is just a discussion happening.
Craig: That’s exactly right. Sometimes I’m hired to punch up a script where I’m given a screenplay. It’s almost always very close to production. And I’m asked to go through and fix some dramatic things, fix some character things, and add some comedy here and there. And they usually give you a cheat sheet of where they believe the hot spots are and what they feel needs help. And this is typically done on a weekly basis, one week, or two weeks, sometimes three.
That is where movies can be greatly helped by the right person, but if the studio is chasing subsequent writers and there is a succession of people coming in and doing these things the script becomes a sort of flavorless mush. This is all separate and apart from a general parade of rewriting which can occur in development where people simply don’t know what the movie is supposed to be. It hasn’t been green lit yet and they just keep hiring writers to try different versions of the same idea.
And it’s quite rare that films like that work out well. There is one movie in particular I was asked to write, and I chose not to, and it had been around — this was a couple years ago — and it had been around and in development for so long that the friend of mine who had actually done work on it at one point, the draft that he did work on had the World Trade Center as a major plot point. [laughs]
So, it had been well over ten years in endless rewrite hell. And the movie that resulted was not a particularly good film. It’s just one of those things. At some point studios can’t stop chasing something and they should just stop. But, you know, these punch up groups, these occasional roundtables are actually quite useful, I think, and I always say if you get two really good jokes out of five hours of nine writers pitching jokes, it’s a victory. You got two great jokes.
John: I agree. So, the sessions that we’re describing, I hear them called “punch-ups,” I hear them called “roundtables.” Sometimes they’ll be preceded with a reading, so they’ll either bring in the real cast or just funny actors to read through things so everyone can hear it together and see sort of what’s working and also hear what’s not really working.
They mostly happen in comedy because that’s where a day’s work can actually achieve something. It’s finding some jokes. Because if you get two great jokes, and one of them makes it to the trailer, that was money really well spent and time really well spent.
John: So, that can be really gratifying. And just sometimes it’s not even like a brand new joke, but just like a slightly better version of a joke can help. A character saying a funny thing can be really useful.
So, I think they’re useful for comedies. You don’t see them very much in dramas. Craig’s point about a long parade of writers over the course of time, I worked on Tarzan which is at Warner Bros. So, recently they announced a new version that they’re trying to do at Warner Bros. And god bless them, you know, maybe there are 15 writers who’ve tried to do Tarzan there.
So, if that movie were to get made at a certain point I’m probably still on the chain of title for that, that long history going back, but I don’t know if a single thing I’ve written resembles what’s in Tarzan right now. And that’s an example of like, well, of course you’re going to keep trying to make that because that’s a great property, that’s a great brand. It’s just a really hard movie to make.
Craig: Yeah. And, you know, studios experience internal turnover as well. People who control the development of properties are fired, they’re hired. Producers lose their deals. They come and go. Things go in and out of style. There are movies that are written of a certain kind that are seen as outdated or out of step with what people want, and then suddenly another movie comes along that makes it instep and in line with what people want.
And so these things happen in fits and starts. Personally, if I were running a studio, and I looked down at my development slate and saw a few of these things that had been kind of lumbering along, soaking up development dollars year, after year, after year, I’d kill them. Or, I would hire a writer-director, or a writer-director team to develop it because ultimately the conventional process is just simply not working for this project.
John: Yeah. One of the projects — we may have both worked on this. Did you ever work on Scared Guys over at Sony?
Craig: I remember reading it at one point. I don’t think I — no.
John: So, it’s a project that was at Sony for — it probably still is at Sony, probably someone is writing it right now. Probably it’s like literally on somebody’s screen right now.
It’s a pretty good premise, and when I was brought in to do a rewrite on it it was Kevin James and Ray Romano as two incredibly agoraphobic guys who have to go on this adventure. I don’t even really remember the premise that knocked them out of their agoraphobic little happy niche, but they had to go on a road trip. So, it was two agoraphobes on a road trip.
And it was fine and I enjoyed writing it. It was like a true comedy comedy, which I don’t do very often, but I was just writer 14 out of 29 on it at this point. And it will be fascinating to see if that movie ever gets made.
Craig: Did you ever work on Stretch Armstrong?
John: I did not. But that’s another legend, isn’t it?
Craig: I don’t know how you even have a WGA card if you haven’t worked on that movie. [laughs]
Craig: That movie has had… — I worked on that very early in my career. I think I was the four millionth writer. I believe they’ve hit a billion. I believe they are officially in the billions. And the movie moved from studio to studio to studio. I mean, at some point someone — either someone is going to blow everybody away by figuring it out, or everyone will suddenly realize you can’t make a movie out of Stretch Armstrong. It’s boring.
John: The thing is Stretch Armstrong is like two-thirds of a good idea, but it’s that missing third that’s going to be really hard to ever reach. Because it’s sort of a good trailer, but I don’t know that we’re going to want to see that as a movie.
Craig: Yeah. The version that I wrote back with my partner, and this was sort of I would say 1997-ish, was a Tim Allen comedy, so there you go, it’s 1997. [laughs]
Craig: And it was Tim Allen in basically a family comedy where he’s a single dad raising a couple of kids and he gets stretchy powers. And it was very broad and goofy, but it was really about family and stuff like that, you know. And it wasn’t at all — it was so minimally about being a hero because, you know, at least then… I would say now I don’t acknowledge that stretching is a heroic property. [laughs] It’s simply odd.
John: There’s a reason Mr. Fantastic isn’t really that fantastic.
Craig: No. No. Not at all. It’s such an inappropriately named character. He’s Mr. Vaguely Interesting.
John: Ha! Yeah.
Craig: So that was that one. And that still hasn’t been made.
John: The other example you gave which is where during production there is a series of writers that come through is usually a giant disaster. And the exception would be the first Charlie’s Angels famously had, like a bunch of people came in during production. I was off shooting DC, my doomed television show, and they went into production. And all sort of the A-list kind of people came in and did a week. And they were like, “What is this movie? It’s going to be a disaster. This is going to be the worst thing ever.”
But, god bless them, everyone, like, did the best they could. So Zak Penn was on, and I don’t know if Simon was on the first movie, but everyone — people you couldn’t believe helped out for a week and god bless them.
And the movie was a wreck, but it all kind of pulled together in a way. And it was the weird kind of movie that can actually support the like 15 different tones all happening at once. And then I came back in and sat in the editing room for a long time and we reshot and it worked. So, sometimes it does work, but it’s a brutal way to make a movie.
That’s why you shouldn’t go into production without feeling pretty darn good about how your script is, unless you want to kill yourself.
Craig: Yeah, no question. Charlie’s Angels is one of those movies that almost its charm is almost in its strange, funky nature. You know? That because the title implied a very kind of drudging remake of what was basically a very bad TV show — I’m sorry, you know, just a goofy ’70s era procedural, very cheese ball show. To kind of come at it from such a wild angle really made it fresh and was cool, you know. Charlie’s Angels was a cool movie. McG did an awesome job on it.
Craig: And you did, as well, of course. And I guess Zak. I’ve got to give Zak credit. You know I hate that.
John: Oh, god, the worst.
Craig: The worst! I love him.
John: Just the worst.
Craig: I mean, I love giving him crap. And I love him also.
John: Yeah. I think he listens to the show, so right now he’s…
Craig: Hey Zak!
John: …he’s enraged.
Craig: He’s enraged. How can you tell? [laughs]
John: [laughs] How can you tell when Zak Penn is enraged?
Craig: I know.
John: That’s a good sort of a Zen question.
So, that’s the end of our questions from listeners this week. There’s actually a ton more but this is all we have time for today. But you and both had like cool new things come out this last week.
John: I just saw your trailer for Identity Thief, like the longer trailer for Identity Thief, and I loved it.
Craig: Oh! Awesome! Great.
John: And so I love Melissa McCarthy. And I love Jason Bateman, so these are good things. And I can stand you. But I was just really, really happy with it. I’m so happy for Melissa and that you gave her good stuff to do. And a lot of physical violence takes place against Melissa McCarthy. She gets hit by cars, and things are thrown at her, and…
Craig: Yeah. We put her through the ringer. I mean, I didn’t love the first trailer that came out, only because as a teaser it really was just about, like, “Here’s a couple of kooky jokes and here’s a basic idea for a movie.” And this longer trailer gives you a better sense of the fact that there’s a cohesive story and that there’s something happening and a bit of a journey.
What the trailer — and I love it, actually, too. I mean, I’m really happy with the trailer. And I don’t mean that in a braggy way because I didn’t make the trailer. Trailers are different things; they live apart from movies. And so I think the marketing guys did a really great job with it. And they are — as they should — they are selling the comedy because it is a comedy and there’s a lot of really funny stuff.
What the trailer won’t impart at all, and I don’t think any TV commercials will, so I’ll just sort of impart it, is that the movie actually has a lot of really touching stuff in it. And Melissa McCarthy, she makes you cry. I mean, there’s a couple of spots where she gets you.
And so I like sort of selling big comedy, which we have, and then kind of surprising people with something that’s quite human. So, I’m looking forward to it, but I’m glad you liked it. I liked the trailer, too, and naturally you will include a link.
John: Oh my god, of course.
Craig: And the movie is coming out February 8. You’ll be hearing about it consistently until then.
John: I didn’t realize it was coming out that soon.
John: Wow, that is really quick. So, that’s why you’ve been so busy getting that picture all finished up.
Craig: Oh, yeah, yeah, scrambling. Sitting with Seth Gordon, our terrific director today, and Scott Stuber, our awesome producer, and it’s been a real family on this movie. Everyone has gotten along and just… — It’s a funny thing, when people like a movie then your romantic notion of how everyone should work together is real. Everybody starts to feel like a family that’s raising a kid together, and everybody is looking out for the kid, and everybody is watching each other’s backs, and respecting each other and what they bring.
And, you know, when it’s not that way, that’s when things can sometimes go completely awry. But in this case everybody’s been just dedicated to it. Melissa and Jason have been just dedicated to it. And on the one hand I’m a little sad that I stole Melissa from you. On the other hand I’m full of glee.
John: Yeah. I can always get her back.
Craig: Try! You try. [laughs]
John: It’s not like she’s not busy at all. She doesn’t have a TV show…
Craig: I’m like — I’ve got a death grip on that lady.
John: Yeah. She’s just great.
So, people have to wait till February 8 to see the movie though, right?
Craig: They will have to wait until February 8 to see the movie.
John: Now, what they could do right now is my new thing, which by the time people are listening to this podcast is available on the App Store, which is — finally — Karateka, which I just sent you the download code so you can get an early sneak peek of Karateka.
Craig: Yes I did. And even though I know the name is Karateka I will always call it what I called it when I when I was a kid which is “Kerotica,” as in erotica.
John: That’s how I called it when I was a kid, too.
Craig: That’s what I used to say.
John: When Jordan Mechner and I first started talking about making it, one of the first questions I had for him was like, “So, how am I actually supposed to say it?” Because I just remember the box that I got when we bought it, you know, it was a summer gift for ourselves, and I said “Kerotica,” because I didn’t even know what erotica was, but that’s just how you would pronounce.
John: But Jordan says Karateka. His official word is that you can actually pronounce it however you’d like to pronounce it. He will gladly take any pronunciations.
John: So, we’ve been out on Xbox, and Steam, and PS3, but now the iOS version is out and done and I’m so happy because this is the one I’ve spent the most time myself doing, because while I play Xbox and PS3 they’re not my sort of native things. And I’m very much iPad. And so this is the one I sort of got to sink my teeth into and figure out how we’re going to translate all of the stuff that would happen with controllers, how we could do it in a touch way, and sort of how we could figure out how to make this game feel right and playable when you’re just on an iPad.
So, if you have unwrapped your iPad that you got for Christmas, your iPad mini, and you’re sitting by your tree and you’re listening to this podcast, and you feel like downloading it, go to the App Store right now. Because it’s only $2.99, which is a bargain. And we don’t have sponsors on the show per se, but if you felt like, “Wow, I wish I could give John and Craig a little bit of money to help pay for the costs of the show,” that’s one way you could.
Craig: Yeah. And it’s a good game. The things I like about it: One, I mean, just the nostalgia factor; being able to say I’m playing Kerotica again is really cool. And I don’t play Karateka but I do play Kerotica.
Craig: The iOS games that are not puzzle-oriented sometimes suffer from clumsy controls. I don’t like playing shooters on iOS. I just find it really annoying. But the controls here are elegant, and simple, and transparent to you while you play, which is great.
John: Cool. One of the things we had to figure out is the interface for — it is sound-based, so as you’re playing the game you can sort of hear the rhythm of like sort of how they’re going to attack. You can figure out your blocks based on the music that’s playing. The problem with the iPhone, or the iPad, too, is like, what if you’re on the subway and you’re playing and you don’t have your headphones on? You don’t want to be annoying around other people.
So, we had to figure out an interface for how to show you, give you symbols that would show you what’s coming up, even if you have the sound turned off. And so that was the stuff that took like the extra months. People kept asking, “Hey, when is it coming out on iOS?” It was figuring out that stuff.
Craig: Well, time well spent. And the other thing I like is the — and you talked about this before — a rather unique approach to handling death in a video game, because usually you get unlimited lives and death comes with either no penalty or kind of a setback penalty where you have to go back to a checkpoint.
And here your lives change who you are and your character and the possibility of success. There are levels of success, and if you can manage to play through the whole game without dying you achieve the true success of the game. But if you don’t, your character actually becomes sort of different. And in that way you have also kind of created a very novel approach to difficulty management because the typical scheme is that you start a game with a setting — easy, medium, hard.
In this game there is a setting and as you fail the game gets easier, but in doing so rewards you less should you succeed in the end.
John: Exactly. The reward of the game is completing the story with your true love, and that’s the ultimate mission. So, you’re going to be able to keep fighting and keep going, but as a slightly more powerful but slightly less desirable guy. And it was Jordan’s idea, god bless him. And the next thing about a screenwriter, like Jordan, figuring out how to tell game stories is like he really thought about like, “Well, what is the story consequence of dying?” Well, the story consequence is that she doesn’t get to marry her true love. She gets to marry the next guy who comes along who’s not… — but it’s not love.
So, it’s been fun to see that play out and people really respond to that.
Craig: Very cool.
John: Cool. Craig, it’s time for One Cool Thing.
Craig: One Cool Thing!
John: Me first or you first?
Craig: I don’t know. I actually have one, so that’s already a shocking thing. But you decide who goes first.
John: Let me go first. So, my One Cool Thing is a book that everyone can buy. And so, again, if you have your iPad in your hand, the first thing you should do is download Karateka for $2.99 on the App Store. Second thing you might want to do is go over to Amazon, or your bookseller of choice, iBooks, whatever. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, which is really great and fun and a great Christmas time read.
It’s sort of big nerd adventure story, so adventure story in the sense of like it’s Da Vinci Code or like a Raiders of the Lost Ark, but very, very nerdy in the best possible way. And it involves fonts, and fantasy novels, and Google Books scanners, and it’s just really terrifically well done. And so I think people who are interested in things that screenwriters are interested in, who are listening to this podcast, would probably dig it.
Craig: Very cool. I still, in the back of my mind, you’ve told me that I haven’t done this before, and in the back of my mind I feel like I have. But I’m sure one of our intrepid listeners will call me out if I’m duplicating.
But, you and I both attended a party thrown in John Gatins’ honor last night. John Gatins is the screenwriter of Flight, which is getting a lot of attention this awards season, as well it should. John is a terrific guy. And at that party I met a gentleman who used to sing on Broadway. In fact, he played Marius in Les Mis on Broadway.
And I’m a big musical fan. Obviously you are, you’re making a musical. And for awhile now I’ve been listening to SiriusXM on Broadway in my car with satellite radio. And SiriusXM on Broadway has this fantastic — it’s not fair to call him a DJ because he — I don’t know how you would describe him.
John: Host. He’s a host.
Craig: He’s kind of a host. I guess he’s sort of a host of huge, long, four-hour blocks of programming. And his name is Seth Rudetsky. And Seth is an accomplished musician and he works on Broadway, typically as an accompanist and a musical guy. And he’s been around for a really long time in the Broadway world and he’s amazing. He’s just a really smart, smart guy.
And what I love about Seth Rudetsky is that he combines these things that mean something to me only in combination. He has an excellent grasp of music theory, dramatic theory, and the theory of musicals if we can posit that such a thing exists, so a very good sort of intellectual theoretical understanding of that stuff. He also has amazing practical experience. He’s actually done it. He knows what it means to start a show from start to finish, succeed — he knows what it means to succeed, he knows what it means to fail. He knows how the sausage is made.
And lastly he is incredibly good at actually conveying those insights that he has to the average listener and the lay person. So, when you combine all three of those things you learn so much from him, sometimes in these little short bursts. And it got me thinking that that’s really, I think, what you and I aspire to when we talk about screenwriting are those three things in combination. And Seth Rudetsky is the Scriptnotes of Broadway.
And I am a big fan of his. I’ve never met him. You have met him?
John: I feel like I met him. In the travels I’ve encountered him in someplace, and so I think I shook his hand. But I listen to his show as well and I think he’s terrific. And, again, I would aspire that our show could do a little bit more of that. And as we start doing more interviews in 2013, I think that’s a good place for us to be in is to have people talking about the craft in an enjoyable way.
And we can interview people as they talk about their experiences the way he interviews them talking about how they made their shows.
Craig: Yeah. And you know what he does that I love? Sometimes before he plays a song he’ll talk about a tiny little moment in the song that you would never notice. But he’ll talk about why it’s good. And he has such a passion for it. And so he’ll say, “Just listen for that moment and here’s why it’s important because of this.”
And then you hear it and you go, “Oooh!” Like, for instance, there’s a song You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun. And it was written for a belter. And he was talking about how when you write songs for belters like Ethel Merman who originated the performance of that song, that you want to find those moments in a song that allow the belter to belt.
And he says, listen, you know, in the chorus, [sings] “You can’t get a man with a gun. With a g-uUN.” And that whole like “g-uUN.”
That whole thing is really designed to let Ethel Merman just be Ethel Merman.
Craig: And I’d never really thought about that before. And then he plays the song and you’re like, “Whoa, he’s right.” [laughs] “There it is! Brilliant.”
John: I second your recommendation. He’s terrific. And that’s on XM. And XM is actually kind of wonderful.
I never had XM until we got this new car and it came with three free months of XM and you quickly become addicted. And so, of course, then you start paying the monthly subscription.
Craig: Well worth it, for Seth Rudetsky alone.
John: Great. So, those are our Christmas presents for you. We have Mr. Penumbra. We have Seth Rudetsky. We have Karateka. We have Identity Thief. Hopefully some answers to questions people had. If you want more information or links to any of these things you can look at johnaugust.com/podcast where we’ll have the show notes for each and every episode of the show.
And, Craig, Merry Christmas. Happy Early New Year.
Craig: Yeah. And I guess we’ll see everybody in 2013.
John: That’s awesome.
Craig: Unless those Mayans get us.
John: By the time this podcast airs won’t the Mayan Apocalypse have already happened?
Craig: So this podcast won’t air?
John: Yeah, oh my god. We just wasted a lot of time didn’t we?
Craig: A lot of our last remaining minutes. Brutal!
John: I should have spent it with my family but instead I spent it with you.
Craig: Yeah. I like that. Feels right.
John: Thanks Craig. Take care.