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 103 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Craig, three things I want to talk about today.

Craig: Very good.

John: First off something you suggested which was this interview that Damon Lindelof did about big movie stakes and story gravity which I thought was great.

Craig: Right.

John: I want to talk about this idea of spelling things out in dialogue, which is a thing that you sort of face at every stage in your career. And so let’s talk about what that actually means when someone tells you that they want to spell stuff out.

Craig: Yup.

John: And, finally, I want to talk about — as we talk about movies, why do we never read stories about what went right? We sort of only read stories about what went wrong. And sort of what that is and maybe how would fix it.

Craig: In my bones I believe this is going to be an excellent podcast.

John: I hope so, too. I’m a little better prepared for this podcast than I am for some, so I’m eager to get into this.

Craig: I am equally as unprepared for this as I am for all.

John: Yes, but sometimes you just wing it, and winging it is sort of the Craig Mazin way.

Craig: I’m more of a jazz podcast kind of guy. Yeah, absolutely.

John: [laughs] Your variations on a basic theme.

Craig: Yeah.

John: First, sticking with our basic themes, there is always some housekeeping and sometimes some follow up. Some housekeeping: we’ve sold quite a few of those 100 episode Scriptnotes USB flash drive thingies. So, basically if you have an interest in previous episodes of the show and you like maybe caught up with us in the eighties and would like all those first episodes, you can now buy them all on one little USB drive that you can stick in your computer and listen to — 100 hours of me and Craig talking through the things that I’ve carefully thought through and Craig has improvised.

Craig: [laughs] That’s a lot of haphazard, off-the-cuff theories and opinions.

John: We are taking orders for these little drives. They cost $20 apiece. We’re taking orders through this Friday. And then we’ll ship them two weeks later. So, if you would like one of these buy one now because I’m not sure we’re going to make any extra ones, so it’s good for you to buy them if you would like to buy them.

Craig: You’re like when Disney puts out the animated movie and says, “And this is it. For the last time ever…”

John: Yes. It’s your only chance to buy Pocahontas…

Craig: Ever!

John: …on DVD. That would maybe be okay. Or Song of the South which they never even actually release.

Craig: Song of the South, just as a side note, is watchable on YouTube.

John: How nice.

Craig: Yeah, the entire thing. And, you know, just as a side note again, I watched it because, you know, it’s a big part of Disney history.

John: Yeah, Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.

Craig: Yeah. And I was sort of curious to see if Disney was being a little fuss budgety about just pretending it didn’t exist anymore. And the answer is, no, it’s incredibly racist. [laughs] It’s so much worse than I could have imagined.

John: Okay, while we’re side-barring here, speaking about incredibly racist, have you seen Pinocchio, not Pinocchio, blah, Peter Pan? Have you seen Disney’s Peter Pan recently?

Craig: Recently, no, but I have yes.

John: “And it makes the red man red.”

Craig: Yeah, I know, it’s bad.

John: It’s bad.

Craig: It’s bad.

John: And that movie is out there in the world.

Craig: It is. Yeah, but the thing is it’s animated and there are humans in this movie, [laughs], that are being forced to portray… — It’s just bad.

John: It’s the Aunt Jemima problem.

Craig: It’s super bad. It’s no good.

John: So, let us return from our sidebar. Do you think our sidebar was on the left hand column or the right column?

Craig: I instinctively imagine sidebars on the right, but I’m Jewish and we tend to do right to left.

John: Okay. Let’s slide back left then and a common question about these little USB flash drives were selling — are the Three Page Challenge PDFs on them? Yes, they are.

Craig: Absolutely.

John: So, again, if a nuclear apocalypse happens and we’re all wiped out, or maybe zombies — it could be anything that actually wipes out all of humanity and our ability to access the internet, if you had one of these little drives and some sort of computer that was capable of reading them, like a laptop that you’re powering through some sort of pedal bicycle in a kind of Gilligan’s Island scenario, you would still be able to listen to all of them and be able to follow along on the Three Page Challenge which is I think really important as we’re rebuilding civilization that you have access to not just our words of advice but the words on the page that you can see why we were giving the notes we were giving about these Three Page Challenges.

Craig: I don’t know where it would fall on the hierarchy of goals, but certainly it would be probably between procuring food and medicine.

John: Yeah, I mean the shelter — the hierarchy needs is shelter, shelter and safety, right?

Craig: Yeah. Actually, I think food and water first.

John: Yeah, okay.

Craig: Then shelter. Then podcast. And then belonging.

John: Yeah. A sense of community. A sense of place.

Craig: Yeah, Maslow put our podcast somewhere in the hierarchy. I just can’t remember specifically where.

John: Yeah, it’s tough. We’ll ask her onto the show at some point to talk about it.

Craig: Yup.

John: Maslow is a she, isn’t it?

Craig: I believe it’s a he.

John: I could be wrong. Oh, I’m thinking of stages of grief. That’s a she.

Craig: That is a she. That’s what’s her face? That’s Kübler-Ross.

John: Absolutely. So, if we could only introduce Kübler-Ross to Maslow and have them combine things, put them together in a merger scenario would be fantastic.

Craig: They could discuss their hierarchies and steps all day long.

John: Very good. Another bit of follow up. At the same time we are selling these little USB drives, we’re selling off the very few remaining Scriptnotes t-shirts we have left. They’re almost all gone. Almost all of the normal sizes are gone. But if you are small person you’re going to find yourself in luck because as we’re recording this podcast the smaller sizes are what we have a lot of. And like one or two stray extra large extra-larges, or extra extra-larges.

That’s confusing. I’m not saying extra-extra-large. We have one or two extra —

Craig: Additional, you mean? You have one or two additional extra-larges.

John: Additional would have been the right word to choose for that because otherwise it was confusing. Thank you.

Craig: You’re welcome.

John: Thank you. A very good writer there.

Craig: There. [laughs]

John: [laughs] That one example, Craig. You have been tremendous help on this podcast.

Craig: At last.

John: Several people have written in saying you should sell other stuff, you should sell mouse pads, you should sell hats. Uh, no we shouldn’t.

Craig: Slow down folks.

John: I have learned a tremendous amount about the shipping of physical goods through this exercise, and I like to learn new things. And so I feel if at any point we decide to sell more t-shirts, or now we’re selling these USB drives, we’re better at it than we were four weeks ago. But it’s certainly not our goal. Our goal is to make movies and to some degree apps. It is not to sell t-shirts. T-shirts are just a fun little side thing.

Craig: Yeah, no mugs. No mugs for you.

John: No mugs for us. We have a bit of follow up. Last episode we talked about Daniel Loeb, the hedge fund investor who is telling Sony you have to split off Sony Entertainment and Sony Entertainment is going underwater because of these two big tanked movies. And George Clooney yelled at him and there was all that brouhaha.

A bit of follow up, a listener in Japan name Stevie — Stevie in Japan wrote: “Although George Clooney brings up valid points, Loeb’s actual aim of suggesting spinning off Sony Entertainment from the parent is to maximize the advantages of Sony Entertainment. It’s not that Sony Entertainment is unsuccessful, it’s that the parent company is unsuccessful. He describes Sony Entertainment as a hidden gem and that the Sony parent is relying on it for much of its profit. The other very successful arm is Sony Financial, I think. He suggests a breakup because the parent company is limiting the scope of what Sony Entertainment can do and has made it impossible for Sony Entertainment to be an alternative to the iStores or iTunes, and Netflix.”

Craig: Uh…no. [laughs] That’s not what he said.

John: Well, basically this is sort of the Japanese perspective. Let me get to the second paragraph. “Of course, Loeb could be playing Gordon Gekko and everyone. He supposes that Sony is undervalued and its breakup values much higher than the listed value. But his comments about the fundamental differences in the business culture between the parent and Sony Entertainment have gotten a lot of press here in Japan.”

Craig: Oh, okay.

John: So, Stevie is telling us how it is being portrayed in Japan where Sony is, of course, a very big and important company.

Craig: Yeah, it’s been a big subject in Japan ever since Sony bought Columbia and wrote of $3-point-something billion as part of its overinvestment.

John: My recollection is Sony bought it from Coca-Cola. Didn’t they own Columbia at that point?

Craig: No, I think…I read that book Hit and Run. I don’t remember who… — I think they were just their own company, I think.

John: Maybe. Anyway. Since we recorded the previous podcast the Sony board unanimously rejected Loeb’s idea of doing the spinoff and sort of wrote a very detailed letter to Mr. Loeb saying, “Thank you but no thank you for your suggestion.”

Craig: Yeah.

John: And then Loeb gave this interview with Variety, which coincidentally he owns a piece of.

Craig: Eh!

John: And so this is what Loeb wrote. “‘Notwithstanding the fact that the media likes to create a stir, I admire Mr. Clooney’s passion for Sony and his loyalty to Sony and his friends there,’ said Loeb, suggesting that he and Clooney share ‘a common goal’ and that ‘a more disciplined company with better allocation of capital means less mess money spent on bureaucracy and more investment in motion picture.'”

“We are all aligned for intelligent investment and creative content. I believe our interests are aligned in a way he probably doesn’t realize.”

Eh.

Craig: Yeah. Congrats on spinning your stupid statement that was either stupid or transparently manipulative. Either way, yeah, you know, we’re not necessarily financial geniuses here in Hollywood but we’re really good at words. And, no, you need a rewrite.

John: So, I think it fundamentally comes down to the question of is he really looking to improve Sony Pictures or is he doing what financial people do which is look at, “Can I make money by breaking this thing apart? Can I make money by gluing it back together?”

And there’s a long tradition of that in all corporations, but especially I think Hollywood corporations. You look at what’s happened with MGM and the travails of MGM over the years, essentially it’s been bought and sold, sometimes by the same people, multiple times within a decade. And so they’ll split off the library because it’s worth more separately. “Oh, no, let’s glue it back together because it’s worth more together.”

That’s just what they do.

Craig: Yeah, they will do that with companies that are vulnerable to that sort of thing. But you don’t see it at the big, long-standing stable companies that seem very allergic to the idea of fragmenting any part. If anything they want to consolidate everything. So, when you and I entered the business studios didn’t own networks. And now every network is owned by a studio. The consolidation is the name of the day.

This guy, I think what it really comes down to is he doesn’t really care about movies. He cares about whatever is going to lead his stock to be worth more and so he’s attempting to insert himself into a creative discussion about what movies will make more money because he thinks he knows the answer. And Clooney’s response, which was correct, is you don’t know the answer. And if you just shut up and let us do the movies that we do, you’ll be fine. You’ll be better off than if we listen to you. But unfortunately the people that make decisions have to listen to you, so would you please shut up?

John: Yes. I think that is a good summary of what Mr. Clooney said.

Speaking of Sony specifically, Sony is a hardware manufacturer that also owns a content business. And there would seem to be natural synergies there, but I don’t know that we’ve actually seen evidence of tremendously great synergies there. Not in music, not in movies. It’s one of those things like, well, this should work better together, and so far it really hasn’t worked better together.

Craig: Yeah. The only company that seems to truly capitalize on synergy — a terrible word that was invented a decade ago — is Disney. And Disney capitalizes on it because they’re the only entertainment company that actually has a brand, a significant meaningful brand to the consumer.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, I understand when they take a property that they have at a theme park and they convert it into a motion picture and then convert it back into a television show and merchandise and a cruise experience, this all makes sense because Disney means something to the consumer. But Universal doesn’t mean anything to the consumer, and certainly Sony doesn’t.

John: And hardware has not been a Disney strength, either. People don’t remember that Disney actually tried to make phones and they also made like an ESPN phone. And those did not work well.

Craig: Right. Precisely. Yeah, because it’s not really — the Disney brand is connected to an experience. A family experience where parents and children can share an experience together in a safe way that doesn’t totally bore the parents to death and delights children.

John: Yes. And Sony is not that yet.

Craig: No, and never will be, because Sony — even when the marketplace was such that content needed to be played on devices, you know, in a way that they don’t, because even your laptop now can play this content. You don’t need a device. But everybody had Walkman and remember the Watchman. But the problem is that those devices rely on content, not Sony content, all content.

So, for device manufacturers, in fact, the broadness of application is the key, not synergy. Anti-synergy. Standards basically.

John: Standards help. All right, let’s go to today’s new business. First off was this article that you had said, “Ooh, we should talk about,” and I agree that we should talk about. So, there’s an article by Scott Brown, which was in both Vulture and in New York Magazine, the article headline was “Star Script Doctor Damon Lindelof Explains the New Rules of Blockbuster Screenwriting.”

And, Craig, why don’t you give me the highlights of this because this was your impetus.

Craig: Sure. Well, this is, I guess, one in a series of 14 billion articles that have come out in the last three weeks about Hollywood falling apart, even though it’s not. But it was unique because Damon who actually writes a lot of these movies is pointing out something that for a change is true and relevant.

What he’s saying is the problem with the bigness of movies isn’t what people think. What everyone else has been saying is the problem is financial, that the movies cost too much, and so if they if they don’t succeed they crater the studio and then the studio can’t make little movies, or they can’t make this kind of movie, or they’re going to drive the audience away.

And his point is none of that is in fact relevant or even true. His point is that the problem with the bigness factor is that it’s necessarily infecting, irrevocably infecting the way the stories for those movies must be written.

John: Here’s a quote from what he says in the article. “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world. And when you start there, and basically say, I have to construct a MacGuffin based on if they shut off this, or they close this portal, or they deactivate this bomb, or they come up with this cure, it will save the world — you are very limited in terms of how you execute that. And in many ways, you can become a slave to it and, again, I make no excuses, I’m just saying you kind of have to start there.”

Craig: Yeah, that’s right.

John: So, basically by saying like we are going to make a big giant tent pole movie, by its nature we’ve come to expect that the stakes in a big giant tent pole movie have to be sort of save the world stakes. And so to try to do anything that is not that gets met with huge resistance and fear quite early on in the development process. And through successive iteration will scale bigger, and bigger, and bigger until sometimes these movies are kind of absurd.

Craig: And when we say that the audience is feeling fatigued because they’ve seen a succession of movies this summer that have destroyed cities or chunks of the planet. The problem isn’t that “Hollywood has run out of ideas,” which you often hear. The problem is that the concepts of the movie require it. And I don’t think people understand this. When you’re a screenwriter you have to write within certain parameters.

Forget budget. I’m talking about creative parameters. If you had me a concept and say, “The concept is five of the world’s most powerful superheroes ban together and form a team to fight a threat,” creatively that threat must be enormous. One of the people on my little team is literally a god, and the other one is so strong that he can throw tanks. So, obviously the threat needs to be formidable or there’s no drama.

Well, what’s formidable? Somebody that’s even more powerful than they. And, well, what would that person do, rob a bank? No. The threat therefore must be concomitant with the hero’s and the heroism. And that’s what’s going on here. So, you know, for me when I read this I just though, first of all, I thought it was important that Damon did it. I was really glad that he did it because he is part of the machine of these kinds of movies in a very important way. But also in a smart way I think Damon kind of issued his own memo to Hollywood on behalf of all of us who are writing movies saying, “How about we become aware that this is a thing creatively so that we don’t just keep doing it blindly? At least if you’re going to make me do it, you acknowledge that you’re doing it.”

John: Yeah. Well, what’s happened is that there’s an escalation which is sort of natural where, you know, you were talking about the assemblage of super heroes. And Damon actually calls this out and says, “The Avengers aren’t going to save Guam. They’re going to have to save the world.” And so they can’t have a small challenge. They have to have a huge challenge because you’ve made these things so bad.

It’s also a challenge of sequels in that you feel this pressure to have to top yourself over what you did last time. So, whatever the big set piece was in this last movie, it has to be bigger than that.

Craig: Right.

John: You know, in the most recent Star Trek movie, the first Star Trek movie actually had more planets being blown up than the current one, but he says, “Did we have to have a gigantic Starship crash into San Francisco? I’ll never know. But it felt like it did.” And that was the issue of audiences approach these kind of big tent pole movies with a set of expectations. And one of those expectations for better or worse has been that big stuff needs to blow up. Big things have to be destroyed.

Craig: And that is leading us to an almost pornographic celebration of big stuff from a creative point of view, because the movies begin to stack up against each other. And there is a fear that you’re simply going to disappoint people if you blow up a smaller city than a big city. If I had just watched New York explode, it just seems like a little bit of a dramatic letdown to watch Portland explode. But, the truth is, I think, that we are collectively as an audience quite a long way from that day when we sat down in a theater, saw Jurassic Park, and went, “Oh my god!”

John: Yeah.

Craig: “Look, there are dinosaurs!” Right? We don’t have that anymore because we’ve seen it a lot now. We have become comfortable with the spectacle of impossibility. So, admittedly when I saw Pacific Rim on one level I thought, “Wow,” and on the level I thought, “Eh.”

You know? Okay, so, I get it. Yup, that is quite an accomplishment to show huge robots fighting enormous monsters, but on the other level, not enough.

John: I want to step back and look at some of our earlier blockbusters and figure out sort of if we can track where this pattern came from. I’ll start with Star Wars because Star Wars I think about as this classic hero story, this boy rises up and sort of has to learn who he really is and that destiny and he would restore balance in the force. But it does end up with blowing up the Death Star. And it does have that expectation of like that really big thing has to blow up and our hero has to do it. And if we don’t see the destruction of something giant at the end of that movie it wouldn’t be as rewarding.

Craig: That’s true.

John: I go to Indiana Jones and the end of Indiana Jones you have Indy and Marion, they’re tied there. So, he wants to save the girl, but it’s also you’ve got the Nazis and you know if the Nazis get this thing it’s going to be really, really bad.

Craig: But you don’t see anything other than about 14 Nazis dying.

John: Yeah, on a soundstage.

Craig: Right. On a soundstage. And even with the Death Star exploding, what you didn’t see, I mean, the sort of shocking moment of Star Wars is when they blow up Alderaan, you know, when they blow up a planet. But even that in a way what you didn’t get was what you get now where you’re on the ground and you see people vaporized and the buildings flittering —

To me, the moment I always think of is Terminator 2. To me Terminator 2 is the movie that sort of said, “Hey everyone, I’m so far beyond you. Look what I’m doing. And I’m going to blow up Los Angeles with a nuclear bomb. And I’m going to have this guy be liquid metal. And I’m going to do all this stuff. And I’m going to visually blow your minds.”

John: Yeah. But you also brought up Jurassic Park. And what I think is interesting about Jurassic Park is the dinosaurs don’t leave the island. And the goal of the heroes in Jurassic Park is not to stop the dinosaurs from taking over the world. It’s to survive.

Craig: Right.

John: And those stakes are very small and relatable and wonderful. And that’s a hugely successful movie.

Craig: Yes.

John: So, by creating a world in which there never was the expectation that they had to stop the dinosaurs from taking over the world, you’re able to keep those stakes really intense for the characters you actually know and care about and not have to destroy the pier. But then, of course, in Jurassic Park 2 you do destroy the pier.

Craig: Well, that’s the thing. I mean, look, what happens is as size escalates there is a certain antiseptic nature to the whole thing. Because on some level we understand none of it is real which is the death of drama.

I remember watching the Star Wars prequel, the first prequel, and the movie concludes with a fight between CGI creatures and CGI robots. And I just couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t possibly feel anything. But, I think sometimes of the ending of the first X-Men movie. And that was very smartly done because even though in a sense the world was at stake because there was one of those silly movie gatherings of luminaries, and there was a beam that was going to turn them all into mutants and therefore the world would sort of head towards mutant-ville, it was all focused through the pain of a little girl and this unloved man who had formed a bond with her.

So, the managed to be both big and small. And I think if you can be big and small it’s okay. But if it just is about size, you got a problem.

John: Damon is also an interesting person to be talking about this issue with because of course he and Drew Goddard and Chris McQuarrie came onboard World War Z. And the third act of World War Z was originally huge. It was this giant battle in Red Square.

Craig: Right.

John: And it was apparently not what the movie wanted to be. And Damon in the article says that had he come in to write the first draft of it and had been the writer who got it into production he would have written that version.

Craig: Of course.

John: He would have written the version that was big at the end because you write big things for the end. What they discovered is that you stopped caring about Brad Pitt’s character in it and that what you really wanted was to see Brad Pitt succeed in a small, and relatable, and human way. So, all of the stuff in the end of that movie from the plane flight on, all the stuff at the CDC lab is small. And it’s contained and it’s very thriller personal stakes. And that it movie ended up working for, god bless it.

Craig: Yeah. I really liked it. And I particularly enjoyed the ending because I felt that once I had gotten through the sequence in Israel which was enormous that the movie itself was a little microcosm of what’s gone on this summer. Well, we just had this insane scene in the middle of the movie, I guess we’ll have to end really insane. At that point it’s so insane you just lose connection with it.

So they went the opposite way when they reconceived the ending and it worked great. And Damon is right; if you, or I, or anybody had come in, our instinct of course is you’re making a movie called World War Z. The climax needs to be WORLD WAR Z, not Laboratory Z.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But it turns out Laboratory Z was a little more human and more relatable and there is a good lesson contained in there.

John: Yeah. You would never have set out to write the movie with that ending because a lot of the stuff should not work — I’m going to go back and say I don’t think the ending is fantastic. I think the ending is good for what the movie needs to do. But, the idea that you would end up in a lab with a bunch of people you’ve never seen before and that’s going to be the end of your movie is not the idea you would set out to write. You would never set out to write that script that way.

Craig: Yup.

John: You would have found some way to make it more relatable to characters we’ve actually seen longer. But, it was a good, salvaged shot.

Craig: Well, if somebody had come to you and said, “Listen, I’ve been to the future and I know that you can — the audience can only withstand one massive sequence in this move. Go ahead and write it now. You would save that for the ending probably.

John: You would.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Yeah. Let’s move onto our second topic today which is the idea of spelling things out. So, this was sort of generated by a question that came in through the mailbag, but also based on a meeting I had this week with a studio about this book property to adapt. And it was an interesting difference between this is a book and there are certain things that are on the page in the book that work really well and certain things that felt a little forced because you’re just reading the same words again and again. There are like terms given to certain groups that made me feel like, “Oh no, I’m reading a very obvious parable about something.”

And so in doing it for the movie version I wouldn’t have to be so literal about that, which was going to be really useful. But an issue that we as screenwriters face on every script throughout our careers is how much information do we have to have characters say.

Craig: Right.

John: Or speak aloud so the audience will be able to follow along with what’s going on in the story. So, a lot of times we call this exposition, or if we have a character who is doing it too much we call him a plot-bot. But it can also be more subtle. So, I want to give you some examples of some more subtle things that happen.

You need to get out a specific thing about a character’s background. So, if you need to know that a character is a nuclear physicist who specializes in quantum gravity. Sometimes you find yourself having to get that spoken so a character actually hears that. Sometimes you need world background — why there’s a giant wall of ice in the north. Or, sometimes you need to make it clear to the audience what the limit of the character’s knowledge is, like, “I never actually saw my father die,” so you know what the boundaries are of what this character really does know and what you as the audience know that the character doesn’t know.

So, I want to talk about spelling things out and, Craig, how we make decisions about what needs to come out of a character’s mouth and what we could just let the audience figure out for themselves.

Craig: Well, part of the game is to figure a way to give the audience all the clues they need to solve the mystery. And every little one of these expository moments can be viewed as a mystery. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. Sometime a guy a walks in and he flashes a badge and says, “Lieutenant Smithers, LAPD.” That’s fine.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But sometimes you want somebody to convey information naturally because the two people in the scene know each other and probably know this information already. It’s just that we in the audience don’t. That’s where we start to feel that weird tension. And that’s where we find the clumsy exposition where people start sentences with, “As you know…” And we hate that.

So, the game is let’s seed in little clues that the audience can kind of put together either sub-textually or even if it’s just a visual thing that’s happening and have fun with that so we can do it in a way that is satisfying for them. They feel engaged. However, as a producer said to me just a couple weeks ago, sometimes you have to spell it out more in the script because people are reading it. And if they miss it because they’re not watching the movie and experiencing the puzzle the way it’s intended then they’re not going to enjoy the script as much. Good point.

John: Yeah. An example being like do we understand that the character has registered that thing we just saw in the movie? And so sometimes, visually watching the thing, oh, we clocked that he saw that and knows what’s going on. Sometimes in a script you will actually have to have him say or acknowledge that he saw something so that we know that he saw it and that can be frustrating.

An earlier point you made though I think is worth sort of underlining is that we have conflicting goals. We don’t want the audience to miss something important, yet at the same time every scene needs to be about what the actual characters in the scene want to do and are trying to do. And so if you try to wedge something in there that isn’t what the characters would naturally be talking about, that’s going to feel forced. And so finding that balance is really tough.

So, what you say about like a character introducing his name and showing his badge, well I believe that actually could happen in the real world so that I would totally accept and buy that. But no character wants to suddenly reveal that he was fired from his job for gambling. That’s just not a natural thing that’s going to come out. Unless you very specifically construct a scene so that he has to get that information out, which may work fine. But if the whole purpose of that scene is to get that piece of information out, then that character probably isn’t moving the story ahead in the way that the character would want to move the story ahead.

Craig: Yeah. And these moments, even when you’re scripting them, you can turn them to your advantage by essentially crafting them as little pieces of surprise. So, I’m thinking of The Ring. There is a moment where you suddenly are surprised by the fact that this man we’ve been watching and this boy who have had these weird encounters that have been mute and silent are father and son.

John: Yes.

Craig: And if it’s a surprise you’re actually allowed to be kind of overt about it because you’re fooling the audience and then pleasing them with this sense of suspense followed by surprise. But even within a scene, a man and a woman are in an office, they’re talking, and you know that it’s important to your story that they’re married, but you certainly don’t want to have somebody walk in and say, “Hi sweetheart, how are you? You’re my wife. Now let’s discuss business.”

So, there’s two lawyers arguing over something and they finish arguing and then they get up and then she kisses him on the mouth and says, “Pick up dog food on the way home.”

John: Yeah.

Craig: Just find ways to do that, but, you know, there are moments. I will say that my tendency always is to provide as little as possible and I never get the note, “You’ve spelled it out too much.” I often get the note, “You should spell out it more.” And my response to that note is always, “But did you know?” Because a lot of times producers or just people reading a script will presume that they’re the only smart one. And that’s not in fact the case.

John: Some other techniques which I’m not going to say are good or bad for getting this information out, but you will see them used and used effectively can help you. Have a character who is a proxy for the audience who knows as little as the audience knows.

And so Jurassic Park is a good example of this. We have to explain how dinosaur cloning works. And so David Koepp writes this terrific sequence in which the characters are shown this little movie that explains how dinosaurs are cloned. It’s funny, it’s witty, and it’s good, and it tells us everything we need to know.

The only reason that works is because we have characters who are coming into the environment with the same amount of information that we have. And so the new person into the world is often a conduit for getting all this information out. You’ll see this in TV pilots where it’s someone’s first day on the job and they’re being shown around and this is how it all works.

It’s kind of a clichéd scene, so if you can find a new way to spin it, you’re going to be better off. But it is a way of letting us sort of in to what this environment is and what the situation is.

It doesn’t have to be like a person who is brand new into the world. It might be like the “Hey, how are you,” first time they’re ever meeting, but a person who is not normally part of that world. So, someone else who is, you know, the sister who has come into this thing. I’m thinking about like Homeland where Carrie’s sister is a way of getting out information about how the agency actually really works because she’s not actually part of the agency normally.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Finding those sort of proxy characters for the audience can be a useful tool for doing it. But it’s tough and, you know, as you’re constructing your scenes, as you’re looking at the big outline either on the whiteboard or on the cards, you have to always be mindful of what will the audience know at this point. What is the audience expecting to happen next? And is there a way that you can use the audience’s expectation to sort of fill in those gaps?

If the audience expects that like, “Oh, I think they might be married,” then you have to give them a little thing to sort of prove that they’re married. And you don’t have to have this whole long explanation.

Craig: That’s right. And similarly if you feel like the fact that they’re married is something that the audience is too easily onto, then go the other way and then surprise. Always be surprising. In a way your relationship with the audience is a little bit like a judo match. They bring a certain weight of expectation to the experience of watching a movie. And your job is to use that weight against them.

John: Yes.

Craig: They like being thrown to the mat, basically.

John: Well, what I would say about expectation is that audiences are always going to have an expectation. They’re going to have expectations about genre. They’re going to have expectations about characters. Expectation about the kind of movie this is that they’re watching. And most of the time you want to meet their expectations, or hopefully exceed their expectations. But make them feel smart. Make them feel like, “Oh, I got it. I’m with it, I got it. I think it’s going to happen. Oh, and it happened. Oh, and it happened, that’s great.”

And then if they’re with you that way then you can pull the rug out from under them every once and awhile and surprise them.

Craig: Right.

John: If you surprise them every scene they’re going to stop trusting you. So, you have to sort of balance those two things of making the audience feel really smart and also making the audience feel rewarded for closely watching.

Craig: Correctamundo.

John: So, how do we, I don’t know, how do we advise people to talk about exposition then? What kinds of things do you think you have to have a character say? Can you think of any examples of things that characters need to speak aloud?

Craig: You mean exposition that sort of requires that sort of thing?

John: Yeah.

Craig: No, I don’t think so. I think ultimately there’s a visual way to do anything, or a conversational way. Two other people can comment on another person. There are moments, though, where you want them to say it out loud.

John: Yes. And an example I think of is when they articulate what the plan is for how they’re going to do something. You love to actually hear what the plan is so that if everything goes right you know what to look for. So, they’re laying out the roadmap ahead. And usually that’s a reasonable thing to do because the characters would need to do that. They would actually need to articulate what the plan is supposed to be.

You have to find the right moment to do it, because if they’re in the middle of it and then they’re suddenly talking through all this stuff that they should have talked about five minutes ago, that’s frustrating. But if going into something you see what the plan is supposed to be, that’s generally helpful and I believe that when I see it in a movie.

Craig: Yeah. Even then, though, if you watch Ocean’s Eleven you’ll see that Ted Griffin gives you only pieces of the plan. So, he actually again is kind of judo-ing the audience. He’s spelling it out overtly to make you feel like you just heard what the plan is. But you haven’t.

John: Well, what he’s done is he’s giving you little markers to show these are components of the plan. And then when you, you know, “We’re going to need a very limber guy” It’s like, well why do you need a very limber guy? We’re not going to tell you now, but now we know like, okay, we should look for that really limber Asian guy.

Craig: Sure.

John: And then when we see him again, “Oh, okay, that was part of the plan.”

Craig: But he also leaves out huge chunks like — spoiler alert — we’re going to build a fake version of the vault and we’re going to film ourselves robbing the fake vault on a soundstage.

John: Yes.

Craig: And then we are going to play SWAT team guys who come in and he’s literally going to call us and we’re going to rob the bank after he thinks he’s been robbed when he hasn’t been robbed. That’s just simply not articulated in the plan.

John: Because if it were fully articulated all the suspense of–

Craig: Movie over. [laughs]

John: Movie over, yeah. Like, you know, will it go? According to that, the plan was too detailed.

Craig: And that’s why I think even when you’re spelling out a plan, don’t spell out everything. Just give us what we need to know but don’t be afraid to cheat a little bit. I mean, stylistically that’s the beauty of editing. You don’t know that the camera was there for the entire conversation. Obviously it wasn’t.

John: Let’s move onto our final topic of the day. This is about what went right. And so this actually is based on an email interview I did with Scott Brown who is the same guy who wrote the Damon Lindelof article. So, he was interviewing me to talk about sort of the summer’s movies and sort of what went wrong. And so I sort of challenged him back to say, yeah, okay, I get why you’re writing this article, sort of. But I also never see the articles about what went right.

And so it feels like it’s become the air duct of entertainment journalism is we just keep writing the same story. We keep writing the same story of like, you know, movies cost too much, ticket prices are too high, everything used to be better back when, and Hollywood is doomed. We keep writing that same story. And the story we always write though is what went wrong and we never actually write the stories about what went right.

And, honestly, a small exception to that is World War Z which is one of the few stories you’ll read in the popular entertainment press about like this presumed disaster sort of righted itself. But I think the only reason we’re reading about it is because it was supposed to be a disaster.

Craig: And we’re reading about it because they wrote about it and they were wrong. The amazing thing is they create this thing that simply is unrelated to the movie itself. They didn’t see the movie. They’re just creating this thing — oh, there’s trouble, we hear there’s trouble, there’s supposedly trouble, it’s a disaster because we believe it’s a disaster and now we’re saying it’s a disaster so it’s a disaster. And we just read other people saying it’s a disaster, so let’s repeat that it’s a disaster.

And then a news story comes along. Wow! How about that? It’s not a disaster. That’s an interesting story. No, it’s actually not. All you needed to do was not write the first story and then you wouldn’t have to write the second story. You’re now writing stories to answer your own stories. It’s gross.

And similarly this pattern of, well, what went wrong? Uh, I don’t know, the same thing that always goes wrong: some of the movies don’t work. I mean, hasn’t this happened every summer since the beginning of movies?

John: Well, I think we’re treating failure as an exception rater than failure as sort of like the normal state of things.

Craig: Yeah.

John: It’s the wild successes that are the exceptions. It’s the things didn’t go as well as we’d sort of hoped they would go is the norm actually. And when they go just a little bit wrong, they still make money. When they go really wrong, then they lose money. But failure is kind of the normal state for what this is. And we don’t ever want to acknowledge that.

So, I think back to the R-rated comedies of the summer. And the R-rated comedies of the summer did really well.

Craig: And continue to.

John: Hangover 3 did great. The Heat did great. We’re the Millers is doing really well. And I don’t think we’re going to see stories about how amazing these movies did because that’s not a doomsday scenario. There’s nothing —

Craig: It’s boring, yeah. It’s boring. People, you know, give them dirty laundry. So, let’s just refer to the book of Don Henley here. That’s what interests people. If it bleeds it leads. And in the entertainment journalism version of that is if it fails it sells. I had to do like a southern accent to make the run.

John: Or you can make sails like a sail boat.

Craig: Right. If it fails it sails. Exactly. So, you know, and of course underlying all of it is the fact that the chattering classes have a contempt for Hollywood and popular fare anyway. They have a contempt for movie studios. They love movie stars who speak their mind in concordance with the chattering class topics.

But, they hate Hollywood studios and they hate big Hollywood movies and they hate popcorn movies. And so this is fun for them. They delight in it. They get angry when a lot of these movies do well, frankly. They get confused. They’re still wondering why people showed up for the second Pirates movie, you know?

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, that’s what sort of fuels a lot of it is a general sense of resentment and bad faith combined with a delight in the thought that Hollywood would collapse under its own weight and return to what they believe the ’70s were, the worship of the ’70s, or as I like to put it, the worship of 2% of the movies that were made in the ’70s.

John: Yes, it’s that golden age fallacy of all the movies when I was young were amazing because I only remember the good movies when I was young. And you didn’t see the other 97% which were not.

Craig: Endless crap. Yeah.

John: Yeah. Specifically this summer there is a lot of talk about, oh, the sequels aren’t working or it’s all sequels and there’s this whole problem. And yet Fast & the Furious did tremendously well.

Craig: Huge.

John: And I don’t see anybody talking about that now.

Craig: Or Iron Man 3.

John: Or Iron Man 3. Another huge hit.

Craig: Huge.

John: You don’t see people talking about that now. They’re only talking about like these last couple of movies that didn’t work or like there are no movie stars left. Well, okay, fine, but maybe that’s because you’re sort of only talking about the movie stars.

Craig: Right.

John: Even if you go back to Damon Lindelof and World War Z or –there are a few writers whose names are actually sort of mentioned in relation to their movie, so Joss Whedon is, J.J. Abrams is, Sorkin, Lindelof. I think the only reason you see their names mentioned is because we already knew who they were. We already knew who Damon Lindelof was because of Lost. And that’s the reason why you see his name brought up so often in relation to World War Z and not Drew Goddard or Chris McQuarrie who are just not the profile of Damon Lindelof.

Craig: Well, and also Damon chose to talk to Vanity Fair when they did their big article and Chris and Drew didn’t. And so that was part of it, too. And also Damon is kind of an interesting public figure. He’s made a public figure of himself because he likes engaging the media on his movies, for better or for worse. And so they feel like now that’s somebody they can — they’re very simple. I mean, the media’s understanding of how Hollywood works is a child’s understanding of how it works.

John: Yeah. But here’s where I’m trying to get to with the point of these sort of star writers is that I really think that’s a carryover from television, is that I think ten years ago we started to notice who TV showrunners were. We started to notice who Aaron Sorkin was, who Shonda Rhimes was, you know, Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams — showrunners.

And so we started to see their names in popular entertainment press. And now that some of those people have moved into movies, if we see that they’re associated with a movie, we assume that they are the showrunner of that movie. And so therefore we want to talk to that person as if they are the showrunner of the movie. And as we talked about before with Screenwriters Plus, sometimes they kind of are a little bit more of a showrunner. They’re doing more than just writing the movie. They’re producing in a meaningful way.

But we associate them strongly with a movie because we actually already knew who they were. You look at Fast & the Furious 6, Chris Morgan wrote that. You never see anything written about Chris Morgan writing that. Look at The Heat, Katie Dippold, I’ve seen nothing about her and that was one of the biggest movies of the year. And that is singularly her movie.

We see writing about these writers because they were already famous. It’s the sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Because they already are famous, anything they touch that does really well or doesn’t do well, they’re going to get more press about it.

Craig: And ultimately the attention is irrelevant. The attention that we get and the attention that directors get is dwarfed by the attention the actors get. I don’t — I know the media is into it, but, you know, I mean, Brad Pitt and Melissa McCarthy are names on the tips of everyone’s tongue, not necessarily Damon Lindelof or, I don’t know.

John: Here’s where I disagree when you say it doesn’t matter. I think it does matter for the perception of what a screenwriter does and what a screenwriter’s responsibilities are. Because I’ve long maintained and even — I don’t think statistically I can prove this, but you will see that every great movie just happened and every bad movie had a bad script. And every bad movie had a bad writer kind of behind it.

And I think that’s become sort of the narrative. Like if a movie doesn’t do well, it’s because of the script. And if a movie does great, you never hear about the script. You only hear about how good that actor was in it, as if they sort of made up all their lines themselves.

Craig: Yeah, That’s true. And I don’t know — I guess all I can say is that for me it’s — there’s nothing wrong with, even toiling in obscurity and success and being called out in failure, if along with that the people that make decisions about how movies are made don’t care. That’s the big one. And I don’t know if they do. I don’t think studios really care that Damon gets — that they blame Prometheus on Damon Lindelof. They don’t appear to care at all.

John: They don’t care at all.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But I come back to that showrunner idea, and I think maybe the closest we really have in the feature world for showrunners has been the writer-director. And you look at the people who have been making interesting movies the last couple years, I look at Rian Johnson who is that guy. He’s the writer-director. You look at Chris Nolan, who even if he doesn’t write everything himself, is very intensely involved in the very genesis of the idea. That’s who — I feel like that’s who we need to spotlight if we’re going to get people to pay attention to the good contributions of writing to movies.

Craig: In the end I think that you have more faith in the media righting their ship and doing a good job of reporting on this stuff than I do. I just think they’re dopes. Of course, the feeling is mutual. [laughs] So, there you go.

John: There you go.

I think it’s time for some One Cool Things.

Craig: Woo-hoo!

John: Woo! I can go first or second. Your choice.

Craig: You know me, I remain passive.

John: All right. I will go first. So, my One Cool Thing this week is kind of self-serving but it’s also hopefully generous for our listeners.

So, I am in New York for 11 weeks to get Big Fish, the Broadway version of Big Fish up on the stage and out into the world, which is very exciting. It’s been a very long nine years to get to this point.

So, back in April we did our run in Chicago which was exhausting and fun, but one of the most things about it was I had a bunch of listeners come to see the show. So, I had a couple hundred people who came over the four week run, which was great.

And part of the reason we were able to get those people there is because I asked the producers to give me a promo code so they could get discounts.

Craig: Okay.

John: And so I went back to the producers and said like, hey, for Broadway can we do this? And they said, “Eh, maybe, maybe, sure, sure.”

So, I said for Chicago I could only get the discount on the balcony seats and that theater was huge and those balcony seats were a very long way from the stage. So, I asked could we get like for all the seats in the house and they said, “Okay, sure, we can do that.” And not only for Ticketmaster but actually at the box office.

So, now if you would like to come see Big Fish during its first month of previews, you can do so for quite a lot less. Big Fish starts previews on September 5, 9/5. And so for the orchestra seats and for the first part of the balcony, the mezzanine, it’s half-off basically.

Craig: Nice.

John: So, $74 versus $150.

Craig: Nice.

John: If you want a little bit further back in the balcony, it’s about a third off the price. So, it’s $52 for those seats.

Craig: That doesn’t make any sense. If you’re giving them good seats for $75, don’t save the $23 or whatever.

John: Yeah, I think you’re probably better off getting the 74. I think you kind of want to be on the floor. Although, so now having actually been in the Neil Simon Theater. It’s so much different than our Chicago theater. Our Chicago theater was huge.

Craig: Broadway theaters are small.

John: They are small. And so by seats the Neil Simon Theater is about a third smaller than the Oriental Theater is. But by actual volume it feels like half the size because it’s just crammed so much tighter together.

Craig: Yeah, everything — but I like being level with the show. It’s that looking down on the show that bugs me.

John: Yes. So, I will say that the first row of balcony in New York is probably better than the best seats were in Chicago, which is kind of amazing.

Craig: Wow.

John: So, you won’t get a bad seat in this house because it’s nice and small. If you want to come see the show, get tickets because they will at some point not be available. September 5 is first performance. You can go to Ticketmaster Big Fish Broadway if you want to do it online. If you want to come by the theater box office, that is at the Neil Simon Theater on 52nd. The promo code, I believe, is SCRIPT. I will correct this in the podcast if it is not SCRIPT. But that should be the one that gets you your discount.

So, we officially open October 5, or October 6, which is a month after our previews. At that point all the ticket prices go up like ten bucks, but for that first week you can still come and see us. So, please come.

Craig: I was spending some time yesterday with Aline and she and I — we’re figuring out how to get out there to see.

John: Very nice. I would love to have there.

Craig: The previews are — I mean, are you still tweaking, or is this really just about tech previews?

John: Previews are still tweaking. The luxury of having four weeks in Chicago is we could do a lot of tweaking. And so the show is I think honestly a lot better. And better in ways that I would never have been able to anticipate if we had gone straight to Broadway. Because there are things you recognize. It’s like as if someone said to you, Craig, like, “Hey, we just had a test screening for The Hangover. Do you want to go back and reshoot? Anything you want to reshoot? Anything you want to do, go for it.”

Craig: Yeah, ooh.

John: By god, you would love that chance. And so that’s what we’ve had the chance to do. So, we did some tweaking while we were in Chicago, stuff we could do on stage during our limited afternoon rehearsals. But over the summer there were bigger things we wanted to change around and move. We have new songs. We have new ways that stuff works. And that’s great.

Craig: But I’m not going to see a greatly different show in previews than I would once it has its official — ?

John: No. It will be the same show. It’ll be nicely put together and worth every penny.

Craig: Great. Plus I get to sit next to the creator of the show, the author of the book.

John: Yes.

Craig: That’s pretty cool.

John: And next to Aline Brosh McKenna which is honestly sometimes more rewarding.

Craig: Always rewarding.

John: What I will say, whether you’re coming with the special promo code or jut some other time coming to see the show before opening, send an email to Stuart and let him know that you’re coming. Because if I have a chance to find I will find you. The lobby is so much smaller in this theater than the old one, but I will somehow track you down.

Craig: I love New York. It’s tiny. I mean, it’s a big city and it’s a tiny city. Great. I’m looking forward to it. I’m really excited for this. And I’ve just got a good feeling, you know? I’ve got a good feeling.

I don’t look at reviews, as you know. I just have a good feeling about the show. I feel like you’ve done it the right way. You have a great, great partner in Lippa. He’s so talented. And I like that you guys didn’t just like jump from a really tiny — sometimes shows go from — I saw a show recently that went from La Jolla to Broadway. It just seemed a little kooky.

I like that you were in Chicago. I mean, you’ve got a great cast. It just feels like everything is right.

John: I think everything is right. And one of the things I’m sort of trying to emotionally prepare myself for is like everything can be right and we could run for ten weeks, or ten years.

Craig: That’s right.

John: And some of that is just out of my hands.

What is strange — and this is my last sort of plug for the show — with a movie, like if you don’t see a movie, well you can catch it on DVD. If you don’t see this show while it’s on stage in Broadway, you may never sort of get the chance to see it, or at least not see it with the A-level team and cast because this is sort of the one chance. And we hope to be running for fifteen years like wicked. But realistically that’s probably not going to happen. So, come see the show as soon as you can.

Craig: Yeah. That’s right. Well, I’m very excited. And I’m hoping that I can time it so that I can see the show with Seth Rudetsky, my best friend Seth Rudetsky, but I suspect that Seth sees every show like in the first week.

John: Yeah, he probably sees opening week.

Craig: Well, I’ll make him go see it again with me. How about that?

John: Yeah, do it.

Craig: Okay. Terrific.

So, my One Cool Thing is a person. I had a really interesting day yesterday. The producer Lindsay Doran had this fascinating gathering of people at a home in Hermosa Beach. And the whole day was really just a discussion of creativity and it was led in part by this brilliant man named Marty Seligman who basically there are chapters about him in psych textbooks.

He famously coined the term “learned helplessness” to describe the nature of depression. And his new thing lately is creativity and questioning whether or not we can teach creativity, enhance creativity in people. It’s an interesting line of inquiry. And so we had this day where we all just talked. And there were very cool people there. Aline was there. Lord and Miller, the guys who did the terrific 21 Jump Street and also Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Really cool guys. Jen Celotta who is a former showrunner of The Office. Just neat people like that.

But the person that made me the happiest was a guy I didn’t even know. His name is David Kwong and he’s a very unassuming guy, just sort of sitting there. I didn’t know who he was. And he got up to talk about what he did. And he’s a magician. And I thought, okay, that’s cool. I like magicians. They’re impressive. And he was super impressive. I mean, his tricks were remarkable. He did a bunch of close-up magic for us, it was great.

That aside, I’ve seen awesome magicians before. It’s great, but it doesn’t change my world. No, what made me fall in love with this man was that he is a huge crossword puzzle guy. And in fact he has written a number of crossword puzzles for the New York Times. And I don’t know if you know this but I do the New York Times crossword puzzle every day.

John: I can believe that. It’s not surprising to me. I didn’t know it, but it’s not surprising.

Craig: Every day. I am a crossword puzzle connoisseur. I only do the New York Times crossword puzzles. And I love them. And, in fact, he mentioned — he started to describe a Sunday puzzle he did and I stopped him. I’m like, “I did it. I know exactly what you’re talking about. It was great.” It was an amazing Sunday —

So, the Sunday Times crossword puzzles have themes and a lot of times, there’s always some sort of gimmick. And sometimes they’re simple gimmicks like word play gimmicks. And sometimes they’re more involved. And he created one that was so brilliant. The theme was basically, it referred to Mad Magazine. And in the end you did a fold in.

John: Ah!

Craig: And I like the Mad Magazine fold-ins to create answers to certain starred clues. It was really smart. I was just very inventive and I love that. So, I got super excited. However, what’s so cool and we’re going to put a link to it is that he does a particular trick that isn’t even a trick. Well, it’s a trick, but god, it’s so amazing.

In part of his show what he does is first he does a deal where he fans the deck and he has somebody pick a card. He doesn’t see it. They show it to the audience. They put it back in the deck and he puts the deck away. He moves onto a bunch of other stuff.

Then, he does this bit where he creates a crossword puzzle right in front of you using words that the audience is suggesting, which is already remarkable. To create a crossword puzzle is a very complicated thing.

Well, he starts with this 15×15 grid and he follows the rules of American crosswords which is that all words must be three letters or more. It has to be rotationally symmetric in terms of where the black boxes go. There can’t be too many black boxes. They can’t be clumped together in any particular way. So, all these rules.

And the thought of just creating on the fly a crossword puzzle from random things people are shouting out is amazing. He does it and then when he’s done, as if that weren’t impressive enough, he has embedded the card —

John: The card, yeah.

Craig: Running diagonally through the puzzle. And it’s just mind-blowing. And the truth is, the only trick part is that he knows what card that person picked. The other stuff isn’t a trick. It’s just a fascinating Rain Man like ability to manipulate words in a way that is just awesome to me. Awesome.

So, his name is David Kwong. He does magic shows around… — I believe he does a standing once a month appointment at the Soho Club here in Los Angeles. Brilliant guy. Super nice guy. Check out this video of what he does. It’s astonishing.

John: That sounds great. Craig, thank you again for a fun podcast.

Craig: Thank you, John August. Thank you.

John: And I’ll talk to you again next week.

Craig: Awesome. Bye.

John: Bye.

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