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 75 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Now, Craig, originally we were supposed to be airing a different episode this week, one that we’d already recorded with our dear friend, Aline Brosh McKenna.
John: And I saw her this last week and I said, “Oh, we’re going to air you episode this week.” And she’s like, “That’s so great and so exciting.” And now I feel like she’s become the Matt Damon to our Jimmy Kimmel Show.
Craig: Yeah. We’re so sorry. Apologies to Aline Brosh McKenna; we ran out of time.
John: So, we do have an amazing episode saved and banked, and that’s partly why I can sleep well at night is knowing that we have this great episode to share in the future. But this week a lot of stuff happened suddenly and we realized like, wow, if we didn’t talk about it this week then it’s going to be two weeks until we talk about it, and it’s going to be far too long to talk about it.
So, we’re doing a new one. We’re recording this actually on Sunday night, after the Super Bowl, but I haven’t even seen the game, so I have no idea what happened.
Craig: It was amazing.
John: Oh good.
Craig: Yeah. Stuff happened in it.
John: That’s awesome.
John: With that kind of precise description we could have just recording this on Saturday.
Craig: I know. I really want to talk about it, but I can’t spoil the game for you because you have it TiVod so, alas.
John: Cool. I’ll watch it and I’ll skip through that part where they throw the ball until I see the commercials and that will be great.
Craig: [laughs] I know. Kevin Williamson had a pretty funny tweet. It was something like, “I don’t understand all this stuff that’s surrounding the Beyoncé.” [laughs]
John: Oh, Kevin.
Craig: Oh, Kevin.
John: So, this is a busy week for a lot of reasons. First and by far most importantly, your movie opens this week. Your movie opens this Friday.
Craig: That’s right. This Friday, in theaters near you.
Craig: Please, all of you loyal listeners, we don’t charge you for this, and you all are so nice to give us nice reviews, and you send us tweets and emails. But, nothing says love like a little bit of money. So, would you consider this wonderful weekend, beginning on February 8, Friday, seeing Identity Thief, of course if you are 17 or older, or if you’re not, accompanied by a somebody who is 17 or older.
John: That would be very nice.
Craig: Yeah. But I’m proud of the movie. And I’d love for you all to see it. And we will, probably a couple of weeks after the movie comes out, maybe I’ll wait for three or four weeks just so it sort of has it’s run in theaters, I will put the script up on your site so people can check it out.
John: Oh, that’s very nice of you. Very generous. Now, tell us a little bit more about Identity Thief and what we should be looking for as we’re watching this movie. Is there anything that people who are fans of the podcast should really keep an eye out for?
Craig: Well, you know, in general I think people should just watch the movie and enjoy it and not think about it in any other way. But, I will say that of the movies that I’ve done, this one is probably the closest to being… — Well, I guess it’s probably the purest expression of what I’ve wanted to do in movies for a long time. And as it turns out, you often just don’t get the chance. Sometimes you are either writing movies that, because you can, and people have asked you to do it, and you’re happy to do it, and you want to do it, but it’s not necessarily your thing.
Sometimes you write screenplays that are your thing and they don’t get made. And so I’ve been doing this for a long time; I have a decent number of credits. This is the first one we’re looking at and I go, “Okay, well, it’s mine.” You know, even Hangover II, it’s not mine. Those characters were there. I came along, and I love that movie, and I loved working on III as well. But this one is mine, in a sense.
And, so, I’m very pleased with it. It’s very funny, I think, but it’s also very sweet. And there’s some nice emotion to it. So, I’ll be happy to talk about it more. I mean, obviously, when we do our next podcast we will have the verdict.
John: Yes. Both critically and…
Craig: Exactly. [laughs]
Craig: Critically I’ve given up. [laughs] I just have to say I’ve given up. I mean, I don’t think this is the kind of movie, I don’t expect that critics will beat this up. My expectation is that they will like it, but I’ve had that expectation before and been, you know, bathed in icy cold water of rejection.
More than anything, I just want the audience to enjoy it, and I want people to go see it. Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy are spectacular in it. And so go out and check it out. And then we can talk sort of about the differences between — and there aren’t many, you know — of what I wanted to do and what happened. I mean, there’s not too many of those. But, you know, we’ll go through it.
John: Cool. Also on today’s podcast I wanted to talk about some other bits of news. Big Fish tickets are on sale.
John: I want to do some follow-up on Courier Prime. The TV show that Josh Friedman and I set up at ABC, Chosen, did not get chosen, and so it’s not going to pilot.
John: But, I want to talk through what that process was like, because it was actually really interesting to see what TV was like this season versus like five seasons ago was the last time I tried to do a TV show.
John: I want to talk about villains, because both in trying to do Chosen and this other project I’m trying to set up, and actually a lot of listener questions this last week were about villains. And I want to sort of dig in on villains. And then get to some One Cool Things.
So, let’s start.
John: Big Fish. Tickets for the Broadway Musical version of Big Fish in Chicago, which is where we’re doing our out-of-town tryout, they’re on sale right now. And you’re going to hear this on Tuesday, and so they went on sale yesterday, which was Monday.
If you live in Chicago, or if you’re planning to head to Chicago this spring, you should come check out Big Fish. Our first performance is April 2 at the Oriental Theater. We run for five weeks and five weeks only, because another show comes in and takes over for us. So, if you’re a fan who wants to see what Big Fish is like as a musical, with singing, and dancing, and lights, and hopefully some tears, go visit broadwayinchicago.com and get some tickets.
John: Next topic. Courier Prime. So, last week on the podcast we talked about Courier Prime, which is this better version of Courier that we made. Alan Dague-Greene designed it and did a fantastic job. And people seem to really like it. And nice people wrote up nice things about us in Boing Boing and the New Yorker blog and Paris Review.
And that’s fantastic. And thank you so much for sharing it and it’s been weirdly the most popular, successful downloaded thing we’ve made.
A couple people have written with questions. I wanted to talk about a few common pitfalls and see if I can talk people through before they become pitfalls.
So, Craig, if you are going to be delivering a PDF to somebody, how do you create that PDF? What is the method you go through?
Craig: Well, you’re going to tell me I’m doing it wrong.
John: Okay. Usually, probably. That’s how I function.
Craig: Usually because I use a Mac, and so I find the simplest thing to do, typically, is to print the document and then select “Print to PDF” or “Save as PDF” and then I save a PDF. Although I think in Final Draft sometimes I run into trouble with that method. So, they have an actual menu option to print to PDF.
John: Yeah. You should always do your first choice there. Going to the print dialog box is almost always your best bet on a Macintosh. The reason why is that when you go through print the system really treats it like, “Okay, you were sending it to a printer and we will send all the information that we need to send to a printer to this document that we are making.” And that’s really helpful, especially when you’re using a different font because it sends that font information along with the file.
So, when you go through the print dialog box and print that way and do the “Save to PDF” as part of the print process, you’re much more likely to have a great outcome. And if you send that file to somebody else who doesn’t have your fonts installed, who’s on a different system, who’s on something else, there’s a very good chance it’s going to look and print perfectly.
If you go to Movie Magic Screenwriter’s “Export as a PDF” or “Save as PDF” in Final Draft, a lot of time it will work, but a lot of times it won’t work because it won’t have quite set all the information right. So, I would encourage everyone who is experimenting with Courier Prime, do that. If you’re going to send somebody a PDF that you’ve made with Courier Prime and you want them to actually see Courier Prime, do the print method of that.
Here’s a question for you, again. If you are in Final Draft and you want to change from another Courier to Courier Prime, how do you do that?
Craig: I think that there’s a set font command in there. You can change everything globally, I think.
John: There is. And it’s a little bit buried. Here is what you typically do in other programs. You might do a select-all, and then just choose a new font. That’s unlikely to have a very good outcome in Final Draft. And so the best way to change your fonts in Final Draft is you go into the “Elements” dialog box, and Elements being like scene headers and character names and dialog.
Go into that dialog box, pick General, or pick of the things, change that to Courier Prime or whichever face you want to use, and then there’s a button that says, “Apply font size to all.” And that will tend to do it globally.
Where people often run into problems and run into page count problems or other weird, spazzy things where suddenly like scene headers are in mixed case or they’re not all uppercase/lower case, is that they just try to globally apply, if they try to do a “Select All” and change the font.
So, especially in Final Draft, do that. I would recommend — you will have a good outcome that way.
John: Cool. So, Craig, what are you writing right now?
Craig: Good question. I’m actually, I’m in that fun place. This is the most fun time for a screenwriter when I’ve finished my writing assignments. So, I finished Identity Thief which you think, well yeah, because it’s coming out on Friday. But, the truth is that movie was supposed to come out in May and then they moved the date up because Melissa McCarthy’s other movie, I think it’s called The Heat, tried to jump in front of us into April.
John: How dare they!
Craig: So, of course, Universal properly said, “Well, wait, we want to be the first Melissa McCarthy movie. We don’t want to be the leftover.” So, they pulled the date up all the way up to February. And then Fox went, “Well, okay, if you’re going to be in February we might as well go to July.” I think they moved the other direction. [laughs]
But, suddenly, this movie that was supposed to be released in May had to be released in February. So, actually, I didn’t really stop working on that movie in terms of just all the stuff that happens even during production and post-production until, I don’t know, maybe a month ago.
So, I’d been working on that. And, of course, I’ve been working on The Hangover, and I’m working with Todd right now in post, just helping out in the editing room. But, I’m starting to look at what the next thing is. And it’s fun because now the way the agencies work is there’s sort of a red light/green light system. Either the writer is available, or they’re not available. And when they switch to green light, then you sort of feel like a, [laughs] like a newly single woman walking into a bar, and everybody is saying, “Well, would you like to write this? Would you like to write that?” And so I get to look at all these things.
It’s fun. So, I don’t know. I’ll probably figure it out in the next week or so what I’m going to do.
John: That’s nice.
John: I’m in a sort of similar situation. There was a book that I was going to adapt and the deal took an incredibly long time to get to happen, and ultimately it just didn’t happen, which sometimes is the best situation where, “You know what, this just doesn’t feel quite right.” And so something didn’t feel quite right, and so the deal did not make, and so suddenly I had a free spot on the dance card.
And so there is this possibility that the TV show that Josh Friedman and I did, Chosen, was going to get picked for pilot, and it did not. And so I am kind of free right now, which has actually been kind of remarkable and nice.
So, there are these looming things like, “Oh, I would work on this, but then I have to do this other thing first.” And so actually this last week I got to do some stuff that I really wanted to do that had been pushed back for quite a long time.
I do want to talk a little bit about Chosen going away because that’s one of the weird thing about television is sometimes things just stop and they really are done. And I really kind of like that. One of the things about being a feature writer is that you work on these projects, and you work, and you work, and you draft after draft, and you’re just never quite sure if it’s going to happen.
You get a green light, sure, but there’s a large sort of like yellow light period where it’s just like, maybe, maybe, maybe you get an element attached, maybe something happens. Because TV has a season, and they have to decide like, “We’ve got to start shooting some pilots,” if they don’t decide to shoot your pilot, well, then you’re done. And it’s actually a lovely, nice thing.
Craig: There is a lot of built-in certainty. And there is a conclusion in television. I mean, well, if they do pick up your pilot then you’re right back into the yellow light zone because they won’t necessarily say that your pilot is going to get a series order. And then if you do get a series order then you don’t necessarily know if it will be back for another season, or is it going to get a full season, or a half a season.
But, you never get this in movies. Never once has anyone ever said to me, “We read your script. We don’t want to make it now, and actually we’re never going to make it.” [laughs] It just doesn’t work that way.
They’ll keep… — I was talking to a producer just this week about a script I wrote five years ago that he’s trying to get started again. It never ends. But in television, I mean, if we’re going to find a silver lining I guess is that there is a finality. You get to actually take a breath and say, “Well, that chapter is done. Let’s move on.”
John: Exactly. So, the TV show that Josh and I did, and I didn’t talk a lot about it on the podcast before, and we really never released the log line and we still are not going to quite release the log line, but it is a family drama with a supernatural element. And the sort of space it occupies is kind of like My So Called Life with Rosemary’s Baby quality to it.
Like, there’s something very, very wrong in the world and yet you’re following this family that’s entering into the situation. And it was a good experience. I wrote it. Josh executive produced it. Josh did an amazing job with the notes and getting everything to make sense and sort of helping me get the best version of the script together.
What was different this time than previous times, for this project I was writing it for 20th. And in television you call the part of Fox that makes TV shows, you call that 20th. And you call Fox the part that actually airs the shows. And so this was 20th, but instead of being for Fox it was 20th for ABC.
And so the studio was 20th and the network was ABC. And so every draft you turn in, I turned in a draft to Josh. Josh reads it quickly, gives me good notes and feedback. Both, sort of these are my notes and these are the notes that I would anticipate getting down the road. And he was always spot-on accurate with the notes that were down the road.
I would do some work there, turn it into the studio. The studio would call with notes. And in feature land when studios call with notes, it’s like, “Oh, give us a week or two and we’ll give you notes.” It would be like later that afternoon. Like you turned it in the morning and, like, whoop, here’s the notes call.
You might do some work on that. Once again, they’ll give you their notes and they also give you what they’re anticipating the network’s notes are going to be. Then you go into the network. They read it over the weekend. They call back with notes.
And, so, there’s a really fast churn through these things, but it’s also kind of exciting. And partly because the form of a one-hour drama, it’s only 60 pages, so you really can do some major changes on things if you want to.
We ended up collapsing two acts down into one act, building a new fifth act. And it was a good, rewarding experience. And it was all very, very fast, up until the point where it just became this waiting game where everyone had turned in all their pilots. And so the studio gets to look through all their pilots. And then it just became this game of listening and hearing people talk about what the network was looking for.
And so you’d hear these words like, “Oh, they’re looking for these four qualities of things,” or like, “they only want one-word titles.” And it was sort of amusing, but it was also sort of pointless to sort of pay that much attention.
So, once I stopped hearing a lot about our show, I was like, “Uh, you know, I don’t think we’re going to happen.” Also, we started to see what other shows they were picking up. You’re like, “I don’t know where we fit into this world. I don’t know how they would put us with these other shows.”
So, it wasn’t a big surprise when we got the final call that it wasn’t happening. But I just like that there was a call. I have so many movies that I’ve written over time where like eventually you just stop getting calls back from the producers and you just know that the project is probably not going to happen. Here there was actually some closure and everybody who I worked with could call and say, “Hey, great job. This didn’t go.” From the studio’s level, at some point they go to cable and they go to other places, but like this part is done. And that was nice.
I did enjoy that part of the process this year.
Craig: It’s good that you can. There is an art to dealing with bad news.
Craig: And we have it all the time. And it’s very easy to internalize and to take it personally. And that’s simply no help at all.
John: One of the things that came up in Chosen, and it’s also come up in this other project that I’ve been working on this last week, is the idea of who the villains are and what the villain’s goal is. And so I thought would be something we could dig into this week. Because many properties are going to have some villain. There’s going to be somebody else who has a different agenda than our hero, and our hero and that villain are going to come to terms with each other over the course of the story.
What happened in the discussion on this other project, they kept coming back to me with questions about the villain, what the villain’s story was, and what the villain’s motivation was. And it became clear that eventually they were really seeing this as a villain-driven story rather than a hero-driven story. So, I want to talk through those dynamics as well.
John: Craig, who are the villains you think of when you think of movie villains? Who are the big ones?
Craig: Well, you know, immediately one’s mind goes to the broadest, most obvious back hat villains, like Darth Vader, and Buffalo Bill, you know, people like that.
John: Well, it’s interesting you say Buffalo Bill. It’s like Buffalo Bill versus Hannibal Lecter.
Craig: Hannibal Lecter is not a villain.
John: And I think that’s an important distinction. I want to get into that as well.
When you think about villains, you need to really talk about what kinds of genres can support a villain that is actually a driving force villain. Because Identity Thief has bad guys, clearly; I’ve seen them in the trailer. But, do they have their own agenda that could be thwarted by our heroes?
Craig: No, they don’t. I mean, that’s the part of the movie that I think least reflects what my initial intention was. And to me those villains really are obstacles. To me, the villain in the movie is Melissa McCarthy. But, she’s an interesting villain that you sort of overcome and find your way to love. But she’s the villain.
John: Yeah, she’s the villain. She’s the antagonist.
Craig: Right. Right. Dramatically she’s the villain.
John: Yeah, so I think I want to make that distinction that almost all movies are going to have a protagonist and antagonist structure. So, you’re going to have a protagonist who is generally your hero. It’s the person who changes over the course of the movie. You’re going to have an antagonist who’s the person who is standing in opposition to the protagonist and is causing the change to happen.
So, sometimes, just based on the trailer, you can see, “Well, there’s two people in the movie.” They are going to be those two people generally.
A villain is a sort of different situation. A villain is somebody who wants to do something specific that is generally bad for the world, or bad for other people in the world. So, we could talk about sort of general categories of what villains could be. There’s the villains who want to control things, who want to run things. So, your Voldemorts, your Darth Vaders, your General Zods. I would say Hal from 2001 is sort of that kind of controlling villain where he has this order that he wants to impose on things. And if you don’t obey you’re going to suffer for it.
John: You have your revenge villains. You have Khan. You have. You have De Niro in Cape Fear.
John: I would argue the witch in The Wizard of Oz is really a revenge villain. If you think about it, this outsider killed her sister and stole her shoes and she wants revenge.
Craig: She wants revenge. She also sort of falls into the power-hungry model also.
Craig: Dual villain motivation.
John: She does. But I think the power hungriness is something we sort of put on the movie after the fact. If you actually at what she’s trying to do in the course of it, like she doesn’t have this big plan for Oz that we see over the course of this movie.
Craig: You’re right. Basically, “You killed my sister and I’m going to get you. And your little dog, too.”
John: “And your little dog, too.” And, speaking of animals suffering, we have Glenn Close who is sort of the great villain in Fatal Attraction.
John: Who wants revenge. I mean, basically, “How dare you jilt me, and this is what I’m going to do to show you.”
John: Then there’s the simpler, you know, this villain wants something and is trying to take something. So, you have Hans Gruber in Die Hard.
John: What I love about Hans Gruber is Hans Gruber probably sees himself as he’s Ocean’s 11. He probably sees himself as like, “We’re pulling off this amazing heist. And it would have been an amazing heist if not for John McClane getting in the way.”
John: You have Salieri in Amadeus. And Salieri is like he’s envy — he wants that thing that Mozart has. You have Gollum who wants the ring. Like those are really sort of simple motivations.
John: The last kind of villain I would classify is sort of the insatiability. And these are the really scary ones who like they’re just going to keep going no matter what. The Terminator. You can’t — unstoppable. Anton Chigurh, from No Country for Old Men, he scares me more than probably anybody else I’ve seen on screen.
Craig: Well, yeah, and they embody the same sort of thing that attracts us to zombies as a kind of personality-less villain, and that is inevitability. They basically represent time.
John: They represent time and death.
Craig: Mortality. Exactly.
John: You will not be able to escape them. So, Freddy Krueger is that, too. Michael Myers, he’s the zombie-slasher kind of person.
Craig: Freddy Krueger actually, I think, is really revenge.
John: Oh yeah, that’s a very good point. His underlying motivation for why he hates — why he wants to kill all the people he kills is a revenge by proxy kind of.
Craig: Yeah, because they burned him, because all he did was rape some kids.
John: Yeah. Come on. Can’t a guy have some fun?
So, one of the challenges with screenwriting I’ve found is that you’re trying to balance these two conflicting things. You want your hero to be driving the story. And yet you also want to create a great villain and that villain wants to control the story as well. And finding that sweet spot between the two is often really, really hard. And this project that I was out pitching this last week, I pitched it as very much a quest movie, and here’s our group of heroes and here’s what they’re trying to do, and these are the obstacles along the way. And this is the villain. And so all the questions sort of came back to the villain.
And the questions are sort of natural, fair questions to ask, which I hadn’t done a good enough job explaining and describing was: What is the villain’s overall motivation? What is the villain trying to do? And because we had just done the Raiders podcast I kept coming back to like, “Well, in Raiders what is the villain trying to do?”
Craig: Well, he’s trying to do the exact same thing that the hero is trying to do, which is kind of interesting. He just has far less moral compunction. And I guess really the point there is that what the hero was trying to do initially wasn’t what he should be doing. And you can see that that chance occurs.
And this is how I tend to think of really good villains. What they want… — It’s a good topic, because I think there’s a very common screenwriting mistake, and it’s understandable. You have a character, your protagonist, and you have perhaps his flaw, and you have the way he’s going to change. And then you think, “Well, we need a villain.”
And you come up with an interesting villain. The problem is the villain’s motivation, and the villain’s villainy has to exist specifically to fit into the space of your main character of your protagonist. They are the villain because they represent the thing that the main character is most afraid of, or is most alike and needs to destroy within himself.
And if you don’t match these things together dramatically, then you just have kind of a kooky villain in a story with your character.
John: Yes. One of the challenges to also keep in mind is that you want a villain who fits in the right scale for what the rest of your story is. You want somebody who feels like the things that they’re after are reasonable for what the nature of your story is.
Let’s go back to Raiders. And so you could say Belloq is the villain. And Belloq wants the same thing that Indy wants. He wants the Ark of the Covenant. But Belloq is actually an employee. He’s really working for the Nazis. And I felt like this pitch that I was going out with this last week, people kept asking for like, you know, it was also a quest movie, so you could sort of think of like Raiders in the sense that it’s a quest — you’re after this one thing.
Well, they kept pushing me for more information, like, well basically who are the Nazis and what is their agenda? And you can’t really stick that onto Raiders of the Lost Ark. I mean, I guess with Raiders of the Lost Ark, we sort of know what the Nazis are and you can sort of shorthand them for evil. But you can’t literally stick Hitler there at the opening of the Ark of the Covenant. It just wouldn’t make sense. It’s the wrong kind of thing.
Craig: It would be bizarre. Absolutely. You need to, and in that movie, they very smartly said, “Okay, we’re going to have a character who is obsessed objects and needs to become more interested in humanity, so let’s make our villain just like him, except that guy won’t change at all.” And so we watch our hero begin to diverge from the villain, and that’s exciting. And that’s smart.
And I have to say that there’s a trend toward this. You can find villains like this throughout film history, however, even in broader genres, like for instance superhero films, or even James Bond movies, there was a time when you could just put a kooky villain in because they were interesting. There is nothing thematically relevant about Jaws for instance from The Spy Who Loved Me.
There is nothing particularly relevant even about Blofeld. You know, they’re just mustache-twirling villains. Sometimes people will get this note, “This villain is too much of a mustache-twirler,” meaning he’s just evil because he’s evil. “Ha, ha, ha.”
And if you look at Batman, the Batman villains were very typically just kooky. They were nuts. The Riddler is a villain because he’s insane.
Craig: He’s so insane that he spends all of his time crafting bizarro riddles just because he’s criminally insane.
But, what’s happened is, for instance, take Skyfall. And whatever people’s beefs are with Skyfall, I think honestly one of the reasons the movie has done better than any Bond movie before it, in terms of reaching an audience, is because the villain was matched thematically to the hero. The hero is aging and he is concerned that he is no longer capable to do his job.
And along comes a villain who is aging, who used to do his job and was thrown away. And so all of the internal conflict and sense of divided loyalty that our hero has is brought to bear by the villain. And so suddenly things begin to suggest themselves. Maybe the opening sequence should be one in which the hero’s life is tossed aside by the person he trusts. And then he meets a villain whose life was tossed aside by the same person.
And they just take different paths to resolution. Look at, the Nolan movies I think very notably have taken Batman villain out of the realm of broad and silly and thematically matched them specifically to Batman. The first one, you have Scarecrow, who is right on target. Batman is a hero born out of fear, and your villain is a master of fear.
John: Yeah. Fear personified.
Craig: Yeah. So, it’s a trend. It’s a trend to do it more and more. And I don’t think it’s going away any time soon. And, frankly, I think it makes for better stories.
John: What I would point out is the challenge is you can go too far. And so I look at the second Batman movie, in which we have the Joker who is phenomenal, and we love it, and we love every moment of it. In the third Batman movie I became frustrated by sort of villain soup. And I didn’t feel like there was great opportunity for a Batman story because we’re just basically following the villains through a lot of our time on screen.
It’s also dangerous because it raises the expectation, like, “Well, the villain has to be this big, giant, magnetic character.” And any time your villain is driving your story, then your hero is going to have a harder time driving the story.
What it comes down to is, like, movies can only start once. A movie can start because the hero does something that starts the engine of the film. Or, it can start because the villain does something that starts the engine of the movie.
In many movies with a villain the villain is really starting things. And so even Jaws, like you know, the shark attacks. The shark is the problem. The shark happens first. It’s not that you can envision a scenario in which a scientist found the shark and tracked it down and became the whole start of things. But, no, the shark happens first.
Where I ran into this, both with the TV show and with this other project we’re pitching, is this fascination of who the villain is and what the villain’s motivation is, it’s good to ask those questions, but in trying to dramatize those questions on screen you’re probably going to be taking time away from your hero. And your hero should be the most interesting person on screen.
Craig: Yeah. You know, I just don’t know enough about TV to… — I mean, I watch TV, but I don’t watch it the way that I watch movies. I don’t think about it the way I think about movies.
But certainly if you have a very oppositional kind of show, where it really is about one person versus another, they both ultimately will occupy a lot of screen time, I suppose. But, you know, that’s why I think it’s pretty smart what they do in Dexter, for instance. Every season there is one new arch villain who thematically tweaks at some part of Dexter.
But when that season is over, they’re gone because they’re dead.
John: Yeah. Did you watch Lost? You probably watched Lost.
Craig: I didn’t. My wife watched it and I should say on behalf of our friend, Damon Lindelof, my wife loved the final episode and cried copiously. I don’t know anything about it. [laughs] I know that there was an island, and a smoke monster, and in the end they were in a church.
John: Yeah, okay. The point I was going to make about Lost, which I could also make about Alias or many other shows that have elaborate villain mythologies, is that while it become incredibly rewarding that you did know what the villains were and why the villains were doing the things they were doing, if you had known that information from the start of the project — if you’d known what the villains whole deal was at the very start — it wouldn’t have been nearly so interesting.
Or, you would have spent so much time at the start explaining what the villain’s motivation was that you wouldn’t have been able to kick start the hero’s story. And so I guess I’m just making a pitch for there can be a good cause for understanding what the whole scope of the villain is, but you have to realize in the two hours or the one hour or the amount of time that you have allotted, how are you going to get the best version of the hero’s story to happen and service the villain that needs to be serviced.
Craig: Yeah. I tend to think about these things in a somewhat odd dichotomy. So, forgive me if this sounds bizarre, but villains — hero/villain relationships are either religious or atheistic in nature. Meaning this: The case where there is a villain who is doing an evil thing, and there is a hero who is trying to stop them is basically religious in nature. It’s a morality play. And good tends to win, obviously, in those morality plays. And, in fact, the satisfaction of the morality play is that good does triumph against seemingly impossible odds.
Craig: And we want to believe that about the world that we live in, that even though oftentimes it is the evil who are strong and the good who are weak, good still triumphs. So, there’s a religious nature to that struggle.
But, there are also atheistic type of stories. Or, actually they’re areligious types of stories, because they’re not making a point about the existence of god, but rather they are saying the drama that exists between the hero and the villain is one of absurd dread, the kind of existential nausea.
Craig: For instance, the classic PBS series, The Prisoner, where the nature of evil was Kafkaesque. It was uncaring. It was inexplicable. It would simply emerge out of the ocean like a bubble or oppress you by simply being a disembodied voice. It was essentially that kind of unquantifiable dread of mortality and death. And so that will color — if you’re trying to tell a story that is steeped in existential dread, don’t over-explain your villains, because the point is there is no explanation. It’s absurd, as absurd as existence is, which is scary in and of itself.
John: Yeah. I think the root of all slasher films which, you know, Terminator is sort of an extension, like a smarter extension of a slasher film, but it’s that wave is coming for you and you will not be able to get away from it. Zombie movies work in the same situation, too. It’s not one zombie that you’re afraid of. It’s the fact that all the zombies are always going to be out there and the world is always a very, very, dangerous place.
Craig: Yeah. Zombies aren’t even evil. They’re just — they’re like the shark basically.
John: Yeah. They’re like the shark.
Craig: They just eat. And you can’t stop them. That’s why, by the way, so many zombie movies end on a downer note. They don’t make it. Heroes just don’t make it. You can’t beat zombies.
John: So, what I would say though is if you look at, regardless of which kind/class of villain you’re facing, you’re going to have to make to make some decisions about perspective and point of view. And to what degree are we sticking with the hero’s point of view and that we’re learning about the villain through the hero? And to what degree do we as the audience get to see things the hero doesn’t know from the villain’s point of view, and from the villain’s perspective?
And making those decisions is a very early part of the process. How much are we going to stay in point of view of our hero and to what degree are we going to see other stuff?
In Die Hard we stay with John McClane through a lot of it, but eventually we do get to see stuff from Alan Rickman’s point of view, and we see like what he’s really trying to do. With slasher movies, we tend to stay with our hero’s point of view for most of the time because it’s just actually much more frightening to not know where the bad guy is and what the bad guy is trying to do.
John: If you have a villain who is smart, if you have a Joker, at some point you will want to see them explain themselves and have that moment at which they can talk about what it is they’re trying to do. And ideally you’d love for them to be able to communicate that mission and that goal to the protagonist. That’s often very challenging to do.
In Silence of the Lambs, to the degree that Hannibal Lecter is a villain. Hannibal Lecter is a person you fear in the movie. He’s in jail, so he can talk to her through the bars and we know that she’s safe and it’s reasonable for her to be in that situation and not be killed.
When we talked about Raiders, Belloq and Indy have that conversation at the bar. Indy’s able to get out of it, but Belloq is able to explain himself. If you can find those moments to allow those two sides to confront each other without killing each other before the end of the story, you’re often better off.
Craig: Yeah. You need some sense of rationality. It is discomfiting to watch a villain behave randomly. Random behavior is inherently undramatic. Even if your villain’s motivation is, in fact, just mindless chaos, they need to express that that is their motivation.
The Joker in the second Batman movie, they say, “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” and the Joker can express that. But, okay, that’s a choice, you made it. Your job now is to create chaos because you love chaos. But you’ve articulated a goal.
And if we don’t have that, then we’re just watching somebody blow stuff up willy nilly and we start wondering why. And you never want anyone to stop their engagement with the narrative.
One of the great things about all of those wonderful scenes between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter is that while they are doing this fascinating dance with each other, and falling in love in a matter of speaking, what Hannibal Lecter is promising her, and in fact the entire context of those meetings, the plot context of those meetings, is he is explaining to her why the villain of the movie is doing what he’s doing.
He is grounding that villain in some kind of rational context.
John: Yeah, which is spooky.
What I would recommend all writers do is if you have a story that has a villain, especially like a bigger villain, like someone who is doing some pretty serious stuff, take a second before you begin and write the whole story from the villain’s point of view. Because, remember, every villain really does see himself as the hero of the story. So, if you’re making Michael Clayton, Tilda Swinton sees herself as a savior trying to protect this company, and protect herself. But she sees herself as the good person here. And if she’s being forced into doing murder or whatever to protect herself, she will.
Even, god, the Queen Mother in Aliens, she is protecting her brood. From her perspective, these outsiders came in and started killing everything. She’s going to protect. And when you see things from their perspective you can often find some really great moments.
Figure out where the story is from their point of view. But, remember, you’re probably not going to tell it from their point of view. You’re going to tell it from our hero’s point of view, and make sure that you’re going to find those moments in which our hero is going to keep making things worse for the villain, and therefore the villain is going to be able to keep making things worse for the hero. And there is going to be a natural confrontation, but that the final confrontation won’t come until the climax that you want to have happen.
Craig: Yeah. There is a nice way of approaching certain villain stories where the movie is in many ways about figuring out the rational context for the villain. You’re trying to unearth a mystery, and that in fact if you figure out why the villain is doing what they’re doing you can stop them.
Mama, which is out in theaters right now, I don’t know if you saw it. It’s a good horror movie. It’s very thoughtful and is very thematic. It’s about something. I thought they did a good job. And that movie is sort of a good case-in-point of if you can figure out why Mama is so violent and evil, then you might have a shot at getting rid of Mama. So, you build the mystery in. And the mystery is, why is this bad person doing these bad things?
Se7en sort of worked like that, you know, with a kind of nice nihilistic ending.
John: Great. Well, fun to talk about villains. And our villain talk fits very well into what I want to bring up for my One Cool Thing, which is a book, a bestseller, so it feels really weird for me to be hyping a bestseller because people are buying this book anyway. But it’s Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
And I read it just because I wanted to read a fun book that I didn’t have to think about adapting, because so much of what I read for fiction is something that has been sent to me, like, “Oh, would you consider working on this?” And this one was just a fun book that I just bought on the Kindle. I was like, oh, I’ll read it on the plane. And I loved it.
And, of course, I couldn’t turn off that adaptation part of my brain. Because I loved it so much and was thinking, oh, this is a clearly a movie. And I later found out that Reese Witherspoon had the rights and now David Fincher is probably going to direct it.
But, the reason why I’m recommending it on this podcast for people who are interesting in screenwriting is it’s a great book, but it’s also a really fascinating exercise in figuring out how you would adapt this book. Because, the book is structured as alternating chapters about a woman’s disappearance. So, you have Amy who is the wife. And her chapters go forward in time from when they first met, when she first met her husband, Nick.
And so it’s how they fell in love and how they moved to a small town and everything that happened, up to the point of the day that she disappeared. The husband’s chapters start at the day that she disappeared and move forward. And so you’re alternating between the two of these chapters.
And so, when you first start reading the book you’re like, oh, well this will work really nicely. I can see this working as a movie because you would probably start the mystery, of her disappearance, and go forward in time, and you could intercut it with this backstory stuff. And you find out more stuff about the real nature of their relationship as you’re intercutting it.
But then Flynn, to her credit, does something really, really difficult and smart at sort of the midpoint of the book and you realize that, wow, this thing that you thought you could do so straight-forwardly is just not possible. So, I highly recommend it. It’s really nicely done. It’s a good, fun, quick read. So, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
Craig: Yeah. My wife read it and loved it, too. I guess I will put it on my iPad Mini.
John: Do it.
Craig: Sounds like a good one.
John: Great. And, Craig, you have a One Cool Thing, too, which is sports-related.
Craig: It is. It is Super Bowl Sunday when we record this. And I don’t know how much you follow football, or football-related news stories, but for the past, really the past few years, but accelerating there has been a rash of serious medical concerns and studies surrounding football.
And it basically goes like this: Large men smashing into each other at high speed is not good for their brains. They used to think that concussions were sort of the worst of it, and if you got a concussion in the old days they would have you sit down for two or three minutes, make sure you didn’t throw up, and then send you back into the game.
Eventually they figured out that was a really bad idea, that concussion and concussion related illness is very serious and the brain is even more susceptible to permanent injury if you get hit again while you’re in a state of concussion.
So, they treated that more seriously. But what they failed to consider was that head injuries that don’t result in concussion are still actually quite bad for you. And even worse, they are cumulative. One study suggested that even in a high school football game the average kid on the line who’s either a defensive linesman or offensive linesman smashing into each other, that it’s like being in four, or five, or six car crashes in an hour. It’s just not good for you.
And, here’s the really scary part is that as they’ve been doing studies, bad things have been happening. Specifically, former NFL stars have been killing themselves. And suicide and severe clinical depression is one of the side effects of what they call cerebral encephalopathy, which is just basically brain damage.
And very popular, I mean, Junior Seau — who was an amazing player, and also, you know, for a league that’s full of surly types, just a smiley happy guy, sort of famous for being smiley and happy — killed himself. And he’s not the only one. And these guys that are killing themselves are, now there’s this weird thing where they’re shooting themselves in the chest or stabbing themselves in the chest because they want somebody to study their brain. That’s how involved they are in their own illness.
There are also a lot of cases of just elevated, what you’d call other neuropathies, Parkinson’s and ALS, and it’s a bad deal. In fact, we have a friend, I’ll tell you once the podcast is over, whose father-in-law played in the NFL. And he had fairly early onset Alzheimer’s. So, everybody is looking at football and they’re wondering what are we going to do. And this is why I don’t let my son play football. But he does play baseball.
And in baseball no one is running into each other, but one thing that’s been coming up is that pitchers are getting injured by hit balls. So, basically they make a pitch, the hitter sends a line drive right back to the mound, it strikes the pitcher in the head. There have a been a couple of big cases recently in the MLB where pitchers have been severely injured, nearly blinded, shattered jaws.
Bu there’s at least one case I know of where a little league player got killed. And part of the problem is that really up until the major leagues, or their farm systems, even all the way through college, players can use aluminum bats. And they love aluminum bats because not only are they cheaper, and they don’t break, they send the ball back much, much quicker.
There’s just more energy. They impart more kinetic energy to the ball. And so the speed of the ball off the bat can be over 100 miles an hour. It’s scary. There is a product now that they’re starting to look into. So, this is sort of a One Cool Thing for hopefully this season, that’s basically a pitcher’s helmet.
And pitchers don’t want to wear helmets because they’re goofy and it’s hard to pitch, frankly, with this big, chunky piece of metal, or rather plastic, on your head. But it almost looks like the top of a bike helmet, you know, that sort of foamy part.
Craig: And it can go underneath your cap and basically protect you from the worst of it, should you get hit in the head. And I know Easton, which is a very big sports supply company — sports equipment company, I should say — is developing one of these. I think Wilson is developing one of these. And so I kind of keep track of it and I’m hoping that they do bring it to market and that it is available for my son to wear, because I do get worried about that.
So, for those of you out there whose children play football, please be careful and monitor them carefully. And for those of you out there whose kids are pitching, look into this because I think it’s, frankly, I think Major League is going to have to adopt something. It’s just getting too dangerous out there. Protect your brains, people. It’s all you got.
John: Absolutely. What is the center of a person? It’s their brain. And so any trauma that is hitting you there is not going to be a — you’re going to be in trouble. You look at the boxers. You look at the boxers who got hit a thousand times, and there’s a reason why they’re not able to put a sentence together.
Craig: Yeah, for sure. Boxing is essentially the worst thing you could do for your brain, but it is odd to me that in Major League Baseball for the last, I think, 30 years, you know, if you walk into the batter’s box you must wear a helmet so that if you got hit by a 90-mile-an-hour baseball you wouldn’t get brain injured. But, the pitchers…
John: The ball is flying in the other direction, they’re not worrying about that.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, they’re sending the ball back just as fast at their heads, and they’re not wearing anything but a wool cap. Scary.
John: All right.
Craig: There. Sleep on that.
John: There we go. Very good.
So, we’ve talked villains, and so the inevitability of death. This is a way to possibly avoid the inevitability of death.
John: We’ve talked about affairs and murderous husbands, possibly in Gone Girl. Big Fish.
Craig: Big Fish. Tickets on sale.
John: Identity Thiefy.
Craig: Tickets on sale.
John: People can go see that. And Courier Prime, which is available for downloads. It’s at quoteunquoteapps.com, if you want the Courier font.
Links to everything we talked about on the podcast today are going to be at johnaugust.com/podcast. And, Craig, thank you for another fun episode.
Craig: This was a good one. And it was our 75th.
John: 75th. So, what is that, Diamond Jubilee?
Craig: You know, we are now that old married couple that’s the last one on the dance floor at a wedding when the DJ does that, “All right, everybody who’s been married for 50 years.” You know, we’ve got to do something for 100.
John: Oh we will. It’s going to be a blow out for 100.
John: So, I should be back from New York by then, and we’ll do something great for that.
Craig: Maybe a big live one here in town.
John: I think a big live one here in town. People seem to like that idea. So, if you are a listener with a suggestion for something we should do for the 100th episode, please let us know. And thank you all for listening.
Craig: Awesome. See you next time.
- Identity Thief trailer on Apple
- Big Fish tickets on sale in Chicago
- Every Villain is a Hero
- Writing Better Bad Guys
- Screenwriting and the Problem of Evil
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
- Researchers Discover 28 New Cases of Brain Damage in Deceased Football Players
- Easton-Bell Sports unveils pitcher’s helmet
- OUTRO: Last Dance by Ariana Grande