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 78 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. How are you, Craig?
Craig: I’m doing fine, John. How are you out there in my hometown?
John: Very well. I’m in New York City, and we are working on rehearsals for Big Fish. Today was actually our dialect day — like, we had an hour of dialect practice this morning. And we had an amazing woman named Kate who came in and talked us through the Alabama dialect and specifically the Alabama dialect of just outside Montgomery — so Wetumpka, and Prattville, and very specific things. It was fascinating and great. And stuff we didn’t really honestly have for the movie. And because we all need to be in the same place for this, it was tremendously helpful.
But one of the things I found especially interesting was — “interesting…”
John: Aline Brosh McKenna always makes fun of me for swallowing the T. And swallowing the T in a word like “interesting” is a very southern thing that I just happen to do.
Craig: Is that right? Because it’s also a drunk thing to do.
John: Yeah. I’m pretty much constantly drunk. So, that explains how it works.
Craig: [fake slurring] It’s pretty interesting.
John: It’s also a secret for talking like you’re from Alabama — just get a little bit hammered.
John: So, here was actually a really helpful exercise for anybody who wants to learn to talk in an Alabama sense: Stick out your tongue, you hold your tongue, and you talk for like 30 seconds with your tongue being held between your fingers. And then when you let go of your tongue your tongue will have relaxed and especially will have relaxed in the back part of your mouth, it will sort of be more open.
Craig: I’m doing it right now. I’m holding my tongue and talking.
John: Yeah. So, you talk to me for a little while. Tell me about your life.
Craig: Oh, it’s very good. You know, everything is going fine. Identity Thief is going to be number one again this weekend.
John: Is it? It’s amazing that in its third weekend it’s the number one movie in America.
Craig: Stolen Identity keeps hanging in there. And now when I release it, I’m like, oh yeah, my tongue is pretty relaxed there. It’s pretty interesting.
John: That’s pretty interesting. So, it’s a good secret that we learned today. But, yeah, stuff is going really well. It’s nice. I’m here in my little corporate apartment. I tweeted today that one of the strange things is that in this little corporate apartment they’ve rented for me I have four plates and four bowls and four cups. And so it’s become this weird game of resource management — like, how long can I go without having to actually wash the dishes?
Craig: Yeah. And I don’t know if you saw — I sent you a very useful link for like a $39 set of dinnerware.
John: Oh, how nice. Well maybe that’s what I’ll do.
Craig: Yeah, on Amazon.
John: So, Craig, today I thought we would talk about two main topics. First off there’s this class action against Fox regarding unpaid interns which is really interesting because that’s — interesting again! Now I’m going to say that word constantly — because so many people’s first exposure to working in Hollywood is that internship, so let’s talk about that.
And then you actually suggested a top. Craig suggested a topic!
Craig: I know. Well, because you shamed me last time, let’s face it.
John: Yes. So, rather than talking about shame, we would talk about jealousy today, which will be great. So, I’m looking forward to you leading us in that conversation.
Craig: I will. And first I just wanted to follow up on one of our topics from last week which was my little monologue on critics, and feelings, and all the rest of it. And I just wanted to thank everybody who sent emails, and tweets, and so forth. You’re all very kind and I thought it was a good thing that people sort of noted that there was a bit of honesty there that we don’t often hear from people in our business.
And I understand why. It’s not that Hollywood people are particularly interested in lying anymore than — or hiding things than people in any other industry. It’s just that this industry is an illusion business. The whole point of this business is that we present fiction as real. And so it’s understandable, I think, in our business that people don’t want to kind of bare their souls because suddenly it feels like we’re giving away — I don’t know — something.
But, for those of us who write screenplays, we don’t have to worry so much about that. So, I was very pleased. And I was also surprised no one brought up something that I was sure somebody would bring up, so I’ll bring it up. And that was, “Hey, you feel bad about these critics attacking you, but then you and John, you get these Three Page Challenge scripts and you read them, and sometimes you’re pretty harsh. And how do you reconcile that?”
And I want to make a distinction for those of you out there, no matter what level you are, and that is when you’re writing, the beautiful thing about writing is no matter what someone says about the pages, whether it’s a friend, or somebody you don’t know, or a colleague, or an employer, or an actor, you can change the pages. And sometimes you will, and sometimes you won’t. Sometimes you make them better. It’s important for us to take that criticism in the context of criticism of something that is still malleable, that can — and will — change frequently.
The issue about movies is different. That’s the movie. [laughs] That’s it. It ain’t changing. So, it’s harder.
You know, I’ve taken, I’ve sat through some pretty tough notes meetings, but in the back of my head I always think, “Okay, well, let’s see, maybe we can make it better.” A little different when it’s a movie.
John: Well, I think you’re drawing a distinction between constructive criticism and sort of just destructive criticism. Like constructive criticism is hopefully what we’re giving on these Three Page Challenge samples, is that people are sending in and saying, “Hey, what do you think of this?” And we can offer them, like, “Well this is not what’s working, but this is what might work.”
When a movie has come out, there’s nothing that’s going to change. It’s like talking about a book that’s already been published. It’s going to hurt more because there’s nothing you can really do about that. And in the case of a movie, I think a lot of times people focus on things that aren’t working in the movie which may really honestly have nothing to do with the screenplay that was written. And that’s frustrating.
I saw a lot of criticism about this last Die Hard saying like, “Oh, the script was terrible.” It’s like, well, how do you actually know the script was terrible?
John: I’ve actually talked to quite a few people who were involved with that movie, and I suspect the script was really pretty darn good. There were a lot of actors going into that movie. And if there had been a documentary about the making of that movie it probably would have been really fascinating, because it was not an easy, happy time for the people involved.
Craig: That’s right. There’s sort of a famous story that Pauline Kael at the height of her power as a critic left criticism and came out to Los Angeles to be a producer, I think. And she lasted about four months. And upon leaving said something like, “If this is how movies are made, I can’t do this.”
Well, yeah, this is how it’s made. This is how they’re made. And I always do chuckle whenever someone watches a movie and then says, “Well, the problem is the script.” Mm…you can’t say that, sorry. You didn’t read the script. You didn’t read the first script. You didn’t see what they told the writer before they even wrote the first draft. You just can’t say it. You just don’t know.
Craig: You know, but that aside, sometimes even when we get notes and we’re writing, sometimes the notes are destructive in the sense of “I hate this and I can’t tell you why I hate it.” Okay, but it can change. And maybe I’ll come back to you with something that works, for you.
But, yeah, a little different when it’s a movie. And somebody actually sent me a tweet — and I’ll send you the link — to a blog entry that he had written. And he’s one of many people who have a film criticism blog. And he doesn’t write for a periodical, but he just does his own film criticism.
And in his blog he pointed out something fascinating which was that he had seen quite a few movies, and had liked quite a few movies, but the ones that kind of got him ginned up to write were the ones he hated. And he had to stop and take stock of the fact that sometimes it’s just easier and more fun, and there’s more — frankly more libido — behind writing about things that you don’t like. That writing from a place of negativity and rejection is simply — it’s like running with the wind at your back. But, is it right?
Or, putting that aside, is it right that you should maybe put more time into that and invest more in that than you do writing about the movies you do like, and writing about why you like them. And it is harder to do that. So, I thought that was very interesting as well, and I’ll put a link up to that. I thought he did a good job of talking about that.
John: Nice. So, today I want to talk about this class action suit that was brought up against Fox. Originally it was brought up against Black Swan. And so it was called the Black Swan Suit. But I guess it’s been expanded to really talk about Fox overall, not just about Searchlight who made Black Swan, but overall Fox Corporation about the use of unpaid interns.
And this is a topic that is sort of evergreen in Hollywood because it’s very common for people to come to Hollywood, young people, people in college often — but not always young people — to work on a movie, or work on a TV show, or work with a studio. And they are doing so under the auspices that they are learning something. It’s an education opportunity, and therefore they are benefiting from the experience.
I know my very first internship was an unpaid internship. I was reading scripts for a company.
And this Fox suit is claiming that these people who were working for Black Swan, they were doing the work of paid people. They were not being paid and that is a problem. And that is a labor problem.
John: Which I think is fascinating because it brings up a whole bunch of issues on how movies are made, how the industry actually works, what is a paid job, what is educational, what should an inspiring writer who’s coming to Los Angeles to work in the film industry, what should he or she expect? What should he or she aim for? And so I thought we could talk… — We’re not lawyers. We’re not going to be able to talk about what the case law is going to come down to.
We can talk about what the reality is on the ground.
Craig: Well, and so right away the lawsuit runs into this little Hollywood quirk that, as you pointed out, it starts as the Black Swan lawsuit, and then it becomes a lawsuit against Fox. Well, why don’t you know who to even sue in the first place? Because, the way the business works is studios don’t make movies. They create companies that make movies.
So, no studio ever makes a movie. At the end of every movie you see, if you wait all the way to the end, you’ll see that this movie is copyright, and then some goofy name of a company that either includes the title of the movie. Like for instance Big Fish was maybe like Big Fish Productions, you know.
Craig: And they do this specifically to shield themselves from trouble. And you see this a lot. I mean, a lot of businesses do this. And the notion that you’re going to go past some fake company to get to the real company, the legal term is “Piercing the Veil.” So, they’re attempting to do that now because the point is there really aren’t any assets and there were limited assets at this little fake company that’s set up to do all of this work.
And, look, it’s not — when they make these little companies it’s not all just to pull the wool over someone’s eyes. It is a lot easier to manage the hiring of the hundreds of people that you need for a movie if you’re doing it all under the rubric of one film, one company. Otherwise Fox has thousands of people working for them at once, sometimes on two different things at once, and the accounting becomes a nightmare. So, I understand why they do it.
But that’s the first little bit of Hollywood weirdness. And then there’s this question of whether or not interns who are unpaid are actually being educated or are simply being slave labor. A good question! [laughs]
And, look, we weren’t there. However, I can tell you that in my time in this business, and I’m sure you can say the same, I have seen people doing things and then been told that they’re interns and are unpaid and thought to myself, “How did they get away with that?!”
Craig: Because this person is not learning anything. They’re just doing work.
John: And really the question becomes are they really doing — are we being hurt two ways in the fact that that kid isn’t getting paid, and the fact that a person who should be paid to do a job isn’t getting that paid job to do it? And so there are really two people who are sort of being hurt by this situation.
It comes down to the idea of a trainee. And is a trainee somebody who is working on a specific project with an educational goal? And a training program should have certain steps that you’re going through. There’s a way. There’s a hierarchy there. There should be achievable outcomes. You should be able to measure sort of where you’re at in the process of this. Versus if you are running around and doing work that a normal paid person could be doing, but you’re not getting paid for it, that’s going to tend to be a problem.
A lot of times in internships I’ve been involved with, they’d say, “We will only hire a college student.” So, you have to be in a film program, be it undergraduate or graduate. You can only work a certain number of hours. And it can only be for a certain number of weeks. They try to build things into it that sort of make it clear that this is a specific small time — small term, short term thing with an end date. Or you have to be getting academic credit for what you’re doing.
John: Those are ways to try to address it, but it doesn’t necessarily address like is that really the right kind of work for this person to be doing.
Craig: Right. And there are — this is one of those deals where you kind of have to judge based on the circumstances whether or not somebody is meeting the test for this or not. And from this article, so the Department of Labor governs are you actually being trained, and thus receiving some benefit which offsets the fact that you’re not being paid, or is this basically slavery?
And the factors that they list in this particular article, “Is the internship similar to training given in an educational environment? Is the work that the intern is doing to the intern’s benefit or to the company’s benefit?”
Craig: And also, lastly, and most importantly, “Is this intern displacing a regular employee?”
So, the idea of the unpaid intern is you learn something. And the learning of it is clearly accruing to your benefit just as much as — at least as much if not more so than it’s accruing to the company’s benefit. And more importantly, you exist in addition to all the employees. If you were to be hit by a bus the next day, work would not be disrupted in any way, because people that need to be there are there and being paid. You are on top of that.
And so the argument from the plaintiffs here is actually none of those things happened. We weren’t in a program that would be similar to the kind you’d receive in an educational environment. None of this stuff was really accruing to our benefit at all. And, yeah, they would need to pay people to do this stuff if we weren’t there.
And if they can prove that that’s true then I think Fox or whoever is on the hook for this, whether it’s the production company or the studio, is going to have a problem.
John: So, this is the devil’s advocate perception from Fox. It’s from the same article. For example, says Fox, “Did Black Swan’s intern’s semester-end project give him unique insight into some aspect of movie production? Did the 500 Days of Summer internship who worked with the director’s assistant get something of value from that experience? What was the quality of the speakers at the corporate intern’s weekly lunches? Did the internships at Black Swan suffer from a lack of formal training program, or was their experience worthwhile regardless?”
And that comes back to sort of what my experience has been is that I was probably lucky, but the only unpaid internship I had was a reader position at Prelude Pictures, which I don’t think exists anymore. It was on the Paramount lot. And my responsibility was to read two scripts a week. I would write up coverage and take them in.
Now, I was doing grunt work, and that is sort of classically sort of grunt work, but because it was my very first crack at this I actually did really learn something by writing those up, handing those in. They would read it in front of me and they would give me a critique on my critique. They’d talk about sort of, “This is what you wrote. This is really good and helpful. This language isn’t clear. This isn’t the kind of stuff I need to hear on your analysis page.” And that was really good. It was actually very functionally similar to what I was doing in my script development class, but it was for a different sort of judge. And that was actually very helpful.
But I only stayed in that internship for about three months. And that was plenty. And that was enough time. And it was good and it was done.
Now, if I had already had that experience, you know, reading stuff before I was coming in, would that have been a good opportunity for me? Probably not really. I mean, all I would have gotten was a few more samples of coverage for applying for a paid job, which is what I ultimately got at TriStar as a reader.
But, it was useful for me at that time. And so one could argue that, well, is that intern who’s running to grab lunch for people, is he really learning something? Well, sometimes you are because sometimes you’re in that room when they’re talking about important stuff that’s about how movies are made. And you really are picking up stuff.
Craig: Yeah. And so it sort of comes down to the intention of the employer, because I do feel, frankly, that there are places where they just go, “Whoa, look at this goldmine of people that are desperate to be in Hollywood, so much so that they’re willing to come here and do the work of a PA. And where I would have to pay $600 a week, now I have to pay $0 a week and I can just put somebody in a Xerox room.”
Well, obviously you’re not going to learn anything Xeroxing unless you’re training to be a Xerox technician.
John: Although I would say once upon a time being in the Xeroxing or the mail room, it gave you access to physical scripts that were actually hard to come by other ways. And so it was the classic thing where like you print some extra scripts that you can actually read when you’d go home. And in the days before the internet that was actually kind of useful and meaningful. Like, you were actually seeing stuff.
That’s not now.
Craig: Yeah, the test isn’t that there’s a presence of meaningful benefit but rather a predominance, I guess, of meaningful benefit.
I mean, for instance, you can’t become — if you want to start from the ground up at a talent agency, you start in the mailroom, but you’re paid. I mean, they pay them. I assume they get minimum wage. I had an internship between my junior and senior year that was sponsored through the Television Academy. And their deal was, because they knew that people were applying from all over the United States, so if you got one of these internships they would give you a $600 a month stipend for the summer, which would cover basically the barest minimum rent and that’s about it.
So, it kind of worked out to being a free internship. But that very much was an educational program. It was — I mean, yes, I did some Xeroxing. Yes, I did some phone answering. But I also got access to things that frankly people who were working there didn’t have access to. You know, they let me go to the big network meetings where Barry Diller and Peter Chernin would get into fights. It was exciting. [laughs]
And I learned an enormous amount. And it was absolutely structured as an educational program. So, for sure, that passes the test. And I guess what this comes down to is, you know, I think a lot of people are going to look at the plaintiffs here and say, “You guys are never going to make it in Hollywood.” Everybody has to eat, eat, eat…a crow is the wrong word…a crow sandwich, but we’re trying to keep this one clean. Everyone has got to eat a bad sandwich to get ahead. And we all did this. “And I washed cars for five years,” blah, blah, blah.
But, you know, on a larger level, it would not be a bad thing for abuse to be eliminated here. I don’t like the idea that people are learning nothing for their free labor. It is exploitative.
John: Another of fairness that does come up here, and this isn’t part of the actual class action lawsuit, but it’s a problem with unpaid internships overall — honestly, even like legitimate ones that are sort of through an educational organization — is that you have to have means in order to be able to essentially work for free for a while.
And so if you come from a rich family you’re going to have the opportunity to not work that summer, and take an internship, versus flipping burgers at McDonalds. Or, you’ll be able to pay that college the one credit hour that it takes so that this company can hire you legitimately or use you legitimately as an intern.
So, unpaid internships, even when done with the best of intentions, would tend to favor richer people, or kids who come from the means that they can actually afford to not work other ways.
Craig: Great, great point.
John: So, in situations where possible you need to find, at least that Academy internship that you were talking about, or TV internship you were talking about — was there an opportunity for a kid who didn’t have the means to otherwise be able to support himself in Los Angeles for a summer could be here reasonably to do it?
Craig: Great point. Certainly when I got my internship I had no money and my parents had no money. I couldn’t afford a plane ticket. I drove. That was back in the days of $0.90 a gallon gas. And if they hadn’t offered me the $600 a month to be able to cover my minimum living expenses, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
And so you look at a comparable person who is maybe living in Los Angeles, where there is no $600 a month, they need to, well, okay, they can live at home and maybe eat out of their mom’s fridge. But you’re absolutely correct. It is unfair to people who don’t have means. And I, as somebody who didn’t have them, that’s part of this that’s quite ugly. So, great point.
John: Let’s talk about sort of practical advice for aspiring writers who are maybe coming out here considering what they should do.
I can’t give a blanket statement saying one should never take a non-paid internship, because the reality is those are sometimes cases where you will learn something, where you’ll meet other people, who could employ you or give you recommendations, or I think just as importantly, you might meet other interns who are doing the same kind of stuff you’re trying to do, and you guys can work together. You can help each other out. That sort of lateral networking is really, really important.
But I think you have to be mindful of what are you really getting out of this? What are they getting out of it? The sort of cui bono, it’s always a good question to ask.
John: Opportunities where you can shadow somebody are probably much more useful than opportunities for you to make copies or answer phones, or walk dogs. I mean, opportunities where you get to be around somebody who’s making decisions, you see what that life is actually like, are going to be more worthwhile for you.
Opportunities where you’re going to be able to take something that you did and come out of there with it are going to be more helpful. So, at least my coverage internship, that was a lot of hard work, but I had coverage samples I could show at the end of the day that this was my thing. And I also had persons who I could show the stuff I’d written to, and that was helpful, too. You don’t want to sort of shove written material and stuff to people too early, but once you build a relationship it’s fair to ask after a while, “Hey, could you read this little thing I wrote?” A lot of times they’ll say yes.
Craig: Yeah. And it’s also a great idea if you do take an unpaid internship to make it a requirement, and you actually do have a little leverage here because you’re not getting paid, that you receive a recommendation — good or bad — at the end of your time. Because, if it’s bad, fine, throw it out. But if it’s good, it’s valuable.
You certainly don’t want to leave having done a year of work that didn’t benefit you, AND you have nothing to show for it, AND no one is going to give you a recommendation. So what happened for a year? Nothing.
John: Yeah. The only time I’ve ever been an employer of interns, I’ve never had one as a writer, but in my last paid job as an assistant I brought in some interns from USC. And so I had three assistants who were reading for me, including one woman who ended up becoming — basically I got fired and I had two hours to train this intern to do my job and then never enter the building again.
Craig: That’s awesome.
John: It’s a very classically Hollywood story. I was indispensable and they needed to dispense of me, so they saidm “Train this intern to do your job.”
John: And she became one of my best friends because she had to keep calling, constantly, to sort of figure out “what do I do” and “these people are crazy.”
Craig: Always great to call the guy that just got fired to find out what to do.
John: Yes. But as people might guess, I’m a pretty nice guy, so I’m going to help you out.
Craig: So nice! So nice!
John: But, looking back, I would not have done the same things I did in terms of bringing in those interns. I don’t really think they got a lot out of it. I mean, they were reading some scripts for us, and so I guess, yes, they got some coverage samples. And I’m pretty nice guy, but I’m not sure it was worth their time to be driving out to Santa Monica to be doing this grunt work that I was having them do, and reading these honestly pretty terrible scripts that just needed to be covered for functional reasons, so that somebody would read these scripts.
Craig: Yeah, I guess our advice in the final analysis is don’t avoid internships but keep your wits about you. This town has a way of chewing up the weak. And if you walk in there pure as the undriven snow, you could be taken advantage of.
And, frankly, because I don’t know the details of this case all I can say is if the plaintiffs are correct, and if their allegations are shown to be true, I hope they do receive remuneration. And more importantly, hope that there is systematic change.
Craig: And if it’s not true, well then good for Fox, and so it goes.
John: Either way I think it does shine a spotlight on sort of what our practices are and probably is already having some impact in how interns are brought into movies, at least movies of a certain size that are being done for a studio environment. Studios have to be thinking about, like, we don’t want to keep building up ammunition for this kind of situation.
Craig: Yeah. It’s one of those hard things about being a large employer. I mean, you know, I know it’s easy to go after the big, faceless multinational corporations, but sometimes you do get the feeling that they start with good intentions. Let’s do something nice for people. Let’s create a training program and then we can have good employees. And then five years later they get turned around and sued and they’re like, “Why did we even bother doing that? Let’s not do that anymore.”
I hope that’s not the result that they just say no more interns.
John: The one thing I do want to stand up for is most of the diversity training programs I’ve seen have been smart and excellent. So, if you get into one of those, go. Pack your bags and go. Because those tend to be really well-structured programs that have focus and have people coming in who are talking with you and you’re writing stuff that’s actually meaningful and people are reading it because they want to increase the diversity in the writing pool.
So, if you get into one of those, take it.
Craig: For sure. And there are a terrific number of examples of people who have not simply gone through it in an exercise of guilt-shucking by the corporations where they just move people in and out. People go through those programs and they work. And they have careers. And they succeed. And that’s the best test of all. So, good.
John: Cool. Let’s move on from this happiness and good feelings and thoughts to sometimes negative feelings and thoughts.
Craig: Yeah. And they do play. I wanted to talk about it because it’s Oscar weekend…
John: Oh, yeah.
Craig: Where the town is gripped by even more competitiveness and pettiness than it normally is, as Hollywood’s finest are ushered into an auditorium and pitted against each other. And there’s just metric tons of Schadenfreude and resentment and a few happy winners. And all of our efforts as artists and as entertainers are viewed through the lens of competition.
And this is, you know, I love talking about things that you and I have in common with the person who just sat down and bought Final Draft yesterday. Because there are certain commonalities among us all, and jealousy — professional jealousy — seems to be everywhere. As long as I’ve been in the business I’ve seen it around me.
I have my weaknesses. We certainly got an earful of it last week. I have never been a professionally jealous person. I don’t know why. [laughs] It just doesn’t, you know, I don’t — I’ve never been bothered — maybe because so many of my friends don’t do the writing that I do. They don’t work in comedy, so I’ve never felt like I was in direct competition.
But, I have met so many writers who I respect and have great admiration for who descend into discussions that I can only describe — and I’m trying to be charitable — as incredibly petty, and catty, and snipey. And who’s better than who…”I’m better than this one”…”this one stinks”…”that one makes too much money”…”this one is that.” “Fraud.” “Hack.” “Da-da-da-da-da…”
And you can find this sort of impulse even in a new writers group. A bunch of kids are taking a class at UCLA. They form a little writers group and they read their scripts and they read them to each other. And suddenly everyone’s eye is on the other person. And then, oh my god, god forbid that one guy sold his script, and everybody just goes into paroxysms of jealousy. And “how”…and “they shouldn’t have”…and “what did they do”…and “that’s what Hollywood is looking for”…and “that’s crap.” And so on and so forth.
What do you think?
John: When you suggested this topic I was trying to figure out what the difference was between envy and jealousy and so I had to actually look it up. And it turns out that jealousy is really about a fear of loss. Jealousy classically used to mean that it was a fear that you would lose something because somebody else gained something. It’s not just that you wanted something. It’s that you were worried that somebody was going to take something from you.
So, like the jealous husband is worried that that other man is going to steal his wife. That is a kind of jealousy.
John: Versus envy which is clearly like, “I want what that person has.” And so a lot of what I was ascribing to jealousy is really probably more classically envy. Is that I remember arriving to this town and I would flip through Entertainment Weekly and I would see all the things that Kevin Williamson was doing and I would just feel this envy.
And Kevin is a friend now, so I feel fine to confess that. I just felt envy. But in some ways that envy was constructive envy because I could sort of model like, “Well, if he can do it then I can do it.” And like he’s not magic. I’ve met him. He’s not magic. He’s very talented and he works really hard, but he’s not magic. And so that kind of envy was propellant in a way that was good. It helped to sort of outline a goal and a vision for sort of where I wanted to get to. That was the road that I saw myself walking.
Jealousy is the more poisonous of the two versions because jealousy is, “That because that person has succeeded I’m going to do — I will fail.” And that does definitely happen. And there’s less terrible versions of it. I said like I feel some jealousy that you got to make Identity Thief with Melissa, who is a friend of mine, so I thought you were taking this friend from me, you were taking this opportunity.
Craig: Well, because I did. I took her.
John: You did. You took her.
Craig: I took her. [laughs]
John: And so sometimes, I was flipping through the trades, and that’s why I don’t actually even read the trades anymore, but you will see somebody you know, or somebody you don’t really know but you recognize the name, got a project. And you’re like, “Ugh,” I feel this jealousy. And it’s not that I even would have time to have written that movie, but I see something and I’m like, “Oh, oh, that frustrates me that they got to do that and I didn’t get to do that.”
John: You don’t feel that at all? You don’t feel that professional jealousy?
Craig: Oddly no. And I think it’s in part because I just — I’ve never believed that Hollywood was a zero sum game. And it is true that sometimes I’ll see somebody get this wonderful gig and I’ll just think, “Oh wow, I wonder what it would be like for me to work on something like that.”
And certainly when I see my friends work on movies that get critical acclaim, which I never do, sometimes I think, “Oh, wow, I wonder — wouldn’t it be great if I had a moment like that?” I mean, I’m so happily cheerleading for John Gatins who is heading into the Oscars this weekend, because I’m kind of getting a vicarious thrill.
And I suppose that’s the happy sweet flipside of jealousy is vicarious joy. But, I’ve never thought, “Argh, it should have been me.” I almost feel like if it should have been me it would have been me, I guess. Maybe I’m just a Pollyanna about it all, but you know, it just never occurred to me that you getting something would make…
Or, like for instance, I remember when I saw The Hangover. And I’ve known Todd for years. And I had worked with him just for a couple of weeks when he did School for Scoundrels which, you know, just didn’t work out very well. It’s the one movie he has, I think, that just didn’t work out that well when all was said and done.
And I always feel a little bad about that one, you know, I was involved in the one that didn’t work out that well. And he was going on and he was making other movies. And then he made The Hangover and I went to go see it and just thought it was awesome. And it was doing so well and it’s exactly the kind of movie that I love, and I like writing.
And I called him up and was like, “That was awesome,” and I was so happy about it. And, I don’t know, I just didn’t think to go, “Argh! Dammit!” You know? Like because why? Why not just enjoy, I guess, enjoy good things.
I feel like, for instance, I always root for comedy. I root for it because I feel like if Ted makes $250 million, it just makes it easier for me to do the stuff I want to do. Not for one second do I look at the guys who wrote Ted and think, “Argh, why can’t I write Ted?” You know?
I just think, “Good, this is helping us all,” I guess.
John: It does seem strange that you are more Pollyannaish about this than I am. Or at least I’m feeling like I’m confessing sort of professional jealousy. There have been specific cases where I feel like I have a genuine universally acceptable reason for feeling some frustration.
Like, I’ve deliberately not watched the trailers for Pacific Rim, but then I went to see Mama last night, and it was the trailer that was in front of it, so like I had to sort of watch it giant on the big screen. And for people don’t know, I wrote this movie called Monsterpocalypse which is based on Monsterpocalypse, this great series of toys and games.
And it’s almost exactly the same movie. And my movie got stopped — Tim was supposed to direct it — my movie got stopped because Guillermo del Toro moved ahead with his. And it was, like, it’s exactly the same. I mean, literally, there’s invaders from another dimension or another world. They are these giant sort of insectoidy kind of things. You’re in these giant robot mech warrior things, and so I was trying not to pay attention to the details, but then I see like how they’re actually controlling the robots and it’s exactly the same.
Nobody copied anybody. But it’s the same thing. And because that movie exists, my movie can’t exist. And it is frustration.
Craig: Well, that’s not…that’s frustration and it’s regret, but I don’t think it’s jealousy per se. I don’t think it’s envy. I mean, I always think of this — this to me — here’s where jealousy and envy, and we’ll just use them interchangeably for a moment, this is where it goes wrong for you as a writer, for anyone I think. Is that you stop thinking about you and your writing and you start thinking about someone else and their writing.
Craig: You are not in a race with anybody else. You are on a track with no one. Get this, okay, they’re going to fire off a gun and you start running. And there are people in the stands and there’s no one to your left, and there’s no one to your right. That’s it. And your job is to run around the track and break through the tape in a certain amount of time.
Craig: And you, on other days, other people will be running. And you may hear that somebody else at some time, first of all, no one will ever be the best there is. I don’t know who the best writer is. I know there are ton, maybe most, who are better than I am. And I’m happy and thrilled to know them, because I always feel like that’s how I can get better is just watching and learning.
But, we’re not actually in competition with anyone. And it’s a weird thing to say because sometimes circumstantially we are, to get a job for instance. There are times when we go in and we’re pitching our version and they’re pitching their version. And we’re trying to convince somebody to hire us.
Or, for instance, I remember when I was writing Identity Thief, Melissa McCarthy was entertaining a number of movies to do. And she got my script and a bunch of other scripts. And it felt like a competition. But had she not chosen our script and she had done a different one, I think I wouldn’t have felt jealous or envious about that other person. I just would have asked myself, “Okay, did I do my best? Did I try my hardest? Is this the one I wanted to write? Is that how I wanted to write it?” Yes, yes, yes. “Okay. She didn’t want to do it.”
And I guess that’s, more than anything, I think the lesson for writers at every level is you’re in a race by yourself. Sometimes you can’t win the race, because there is no way to win, you know.
John: But what you’re talking though, it’s getting back to sort of that fear of loss and that loss of version is you have built — I had built a version in my head of a universe in which I got to make my movie.
John: And that version — and the recognition that that version of the universe does not exist, and so again, it cannot exist. And so that is the frustration you feel. Underlining all of this, a point that you made, if you’re not focusing on your own work and what you’re actually doing, and if you’re paralyzed by thoughts about other people and the stuff that you can’t control at all, that’s a recipe for misery and disaster.
But I did have to take a little bit of a mourning period for, like, “Okay, this thing that I killed myself for, that I had a vision for what it’s going to be just isn’t going to be it.” And we talked about how Chosen didn’t happen at ABC, but that was a situation where I had gone in with a clear understanding of this is probably not going to happen in that most TV shows don’t happen.
So, I didn’t have that sense of — the floor didn’t fall out from underneath me when that didn’t get picked up because that’s just the way it’s naturally going to be.
John: And I’d built, you know, we’ve talked before about eggs in baskets, but I had built that eggs in basket for that vision of that movie, and that’s why it was painful to lose it.
It’s not like a preoccupying thought. It’s backed away. But at the time it was incredibly frustrating. And so seeing this trailer in front of me, that feeling of jealousy did kick back in. And I would say jealousy rather than envy because it was specifically like, “Why did you get this life that I wanted? That you took this thing away from me, this opportunity I really liked.”
Craig: Mm-hmm. It happens.
John: But I haven’t been unproductive at all. It’s just the honest feeling.
Craig: Well, sure, but that pain, I think, in that moment is a good thing. I mean, again, it’s something that you loved and you poured yourself into. And somebody else in that jealous way, as opposed to envious way, took it.
Craig: And I think that’s totally fair. The envy is more of, “Why is that person doing well?” Or, and let’s face it, for guys like you and me who work in this business, so once you get to a certain place you’ve slipped the surly bonds of scale. And now you’re negotiating a fee.
“Well, that guy, what does that guy get? What does that get? What does he get for a draft? What does he get per week? Well, why am I not getting what he gets?”
All that stuff, blech, it’s like that’s such poisonous stuff and I see it all the time, you know. I talk to my agent, whenever we’re talking about deals and money and stuff, I’m actually very chill about all of it. I don’t really get worked up about what I’m getting paid. I let him get worked up about what I’m getting paid. That’s why I have an agent. I would be a very bad advocate for myself in a sense because I just get excited about what I get excited about.
But I do, sometimes I say, “Mike, do you have clients who are just really on you about the money thing, and about who gets what, and why don’t they get this, and why don’t they get that?” And he’s like, “You have no idea.”
And I think it’s probably, this is one area where I actually feel a little blessed, frankly, but my kind of goofy childish way of looking at it. Do you know writers who get really hung up on the whole money thing?
John: I do. Oh, you know exactly who I’m thinking about in your head. And, yes, there are people who do get obsessed with sort of the ranking, and sort of what’s A-list and what’s B-list. And how much are they getting for a draft? What is the order in which they went out to writers?
And there’s always going to be that sense, for me, and I think, again, it’s because we write different kinds of movies. And you’re in a comedy space in which you’re one of the top writers in comedy. Like one of the people who they go after for a comedy.
And I’m in different kinds of bubbles for things that people are going to go after me for. And, here’s what it is, whenever you talk about envy or jealousy, really you’re talking about self-doubt. And you’re starting to wonder like, “How do I fit in versus everybody else? Am I considered as good as everybody else?”
John: And the probably most dangerous thing is sort of the Salieri in Amadeus kind of problem, is where it’s entirely internally generated. There’s nobody telling Salieri, like, “Oh, you’re not as good as Mozart.” Salieri knows he’s not as good as Mozart and that’s what’s feeding his jealousy is that sense of like, “I will never be able to write something as well as Mozart did.”
John: I don’t have that, god bless me. But, I do sometimes have that sense of where everybody else is in relationship to things. That’s…it’s kind of natural. And when I do feel that feeling I will say, whenever I feel kind of any really strong feeling, and I’m aware that I feel that strong feeling, I will activate that little record button, and the little blinding red light inside, so I’ll at least remember what that feels like. Because that’s a useful thing for writing other stuff.
John: And whenever I’m just being a horrible person, or I feel those awful moments, at least I can take those — at least that’s something I can put in my bag. I can use that. And that’s a useful thing for my writing for something else.
Craig: And I don’t know any writer that doesn’t love Amadeus specifically because it just hits us right in our softest spot. I don’t know any writer who doesn’t think on some level he’s Salieri. I’ve never met a single writer that thinks they’re Mozart.
Everybody has that knee-jerk envy of…if I have any envy of all it’s of a person that doesn’t exist. And that person is a writer who sits down at 8:30am sharp, is brilliant, writes brilliant material, has a wonderful lunch with her friends, comes back, writes some more wonderful material. Takes calls from Spielberg and so forth, and then goes to bed peacefully without a care because she’s brilliant. And in the morning she does it again. Frankly, she doesn’t know how she does it and it doesn’t matter, because it just comes out of her. It just pours out of her like the sun, like light pours out of the sun.
Craig: And here I am sweating away like a little Jewish curled up gnome, you know, trying to figure out why it’s not working. And my head hurts, and I’m tired, and am I any good?
But, the truth is those people don’t exist. Every time I meet somebody that I think is Amadeus, they’re Salieri. They think they’re Salieri. Callie Khouri, Scott Frank, John Lee Hancock. Any. They’re all this way. And that actually — that gives me some joy. It does.
John: When I first met Spielberg I was…he was the last person I was really intimidated to meet, because he’d made all these movies and I was so nervous. And he was thinking about directing Big Fish and so I was going in to meet him. And then I saw him on set and he was just working really hard. And I’m like, oh, that’s right, you’re just working really hard.
John: You’re not super human. You’re actually just working really hard and you have questions, and doubts and things you don’t get and things you don’t understand. And that humanizing was incredibly helpful to me because it let me know, like, well, if he has to work hard, I can work hard, and therefore I can do it. So, those are sometimes the good lessons you can take by sort of meeting your idols.
Craig: And he’s had bad days, too.
John: He has had some bad days, yes.
Craig: And he’s made mistakes. And we sometimes we create the enemy as a perfect opposition of our bar. So, we just run down an inventory of our shortcomings and our flaws as writers. And then we imagine that the people who are succeeding around us are just the opposite of all of that.
John: It’s because of the selection bias. We’re only seeing, if we’re reading news stories about them, we’re only seeing the hits. We’re only seeing the little blips of the successes.
John: Because no one sees like, you know, it’s never a news story when someone has to wait a week to get a phone call from somebody back. That’s never a story, so you’re only seeing those highlight moments and so you don’t get a sense of what their actual ordinary day/life is.
Or that they have a miserable home life and their dog hates them, so.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, we don’t see any of it. And, look, there are times when people just step out and do something amazing, and it seems effortless because it was effortless for them in that moment. And that’s amazing for them. And we don’t have it. And you can decide that that means you’re no good, or you can decide that those people just had one of those moments. And you might have one, too, or not ever. It just doesn’t matter, because you’re all you’ve got. So, don’t worry about the other people. Run your race. Be as happy as you can be in your shoes. They’re the only shoes you’ve got.
John: Yeah. My only bit of constructive criticism to take from this is I do think that envy to a limited degree can be helpful in the sense that it puts you in a direction. So, if you see somebody whose life you want, you can sort of figure out, “Well, what is that life? What are they doing?” And you’ll recognize how hard they’re working.
And that was hugely helpful for me with Kevin Williamson, who I had sort of read about in Entertainment Weekly, and then I finally met him — Go’s offices shared offices with him. And I saw how busy he was. And I was like, “Oh, okay, well I can do that life.” And so that’s incredibly helpful.
If you find yourself obsessing about people or their successes, then you need to stop. It’s when you are, rather than focusing on your own stuff you’re focusing on them, you have a problem. You need to not do that.
Craig: And don’t be the person who can’t feel good unless they tear down the people around them. Just don’t do it. You may not like — you may be a director who has what you believe are brilliant concepts for wonderful movies and you don’t want to be the guy who just goes on and on about how Michael Bay this and Shawn Levy that, or any director. Just don’t do it. It doesn’t matter; it’s not going to help you. Just be your own person.
John: Craig, do you remember, you probably saw the movie Sleep With Me a long time ago.
Craig: A long time ago, yeah.
John: A long time ago. But there’s a very nice moment in that movie where they’re throwing a party because somebody just sold a script, and it’s in that scene where Quentin Tarantino does this long monologue about Top Gun that’s sort of famous and you sort of see that excerpted on YouTube a lot.
But the context of that scene is really fascinating because it’s a party for somebody, but it’s also a lot of feeling of just jealousy and envy for, like, “This guy sold his script, and now he’s ahead of us.”
John: Don’t do that. No one is ahead.
Craig: Exactly. There is no ahead.
John: And so be happy for your friends. Be happy for your colleagues and your acquaintances because you, you know, you’ll get there in different time, but people get there in their own way. So, you feeling upset about that is not going to do anybody any good. Be happy for them.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a face some people make when they hear that you — I’ve seen it. I’ve watched it happen. I’ve watched somebody say to somebody, I’ll say congratulations, and there’s three of us, I say, “Congratulations,” and the person I’m saying it to says, “Oh, thank you.” And the third person says, “What? What happened?” And the person says, “Oh, I sold a script, and yeah, Spielberg is attached and they’re going to be making it. And it’s with Denzel Washington.”
And there’s a look on this other person’s face. They simply can’t hide their misery. And every time I see it I am surprised. And maybe I should stop being surprised, but I just think how — you’re so miserable about this person’s good fortune or success, however you want to character it, that you don’t even have the facility to hide it.
John: Yeah. I’m sure German has a word for it.
Craig: German has a word for it.
John: Well, Craig, that was a nice conversation about jealousy and envy. And I have a One Cool Thing, but do you have a One Cool Thing this week?
Craig: I’ve been literally on the drive over racking my brain. I mean, I tried John. I swear to god I tried.
John: All right, well, I’ll talk you through mine. Because I’m here in this corporate apartment and I’m away from my DVR so I don’t have all my normal shows. So, I was like, I’m going to watch Homeland. I’m going to watch all the stuff I keep meaning to watch. I have what I call my broken leg shows. I always have this theory that at some point I’ll break my leg and be laid up for a while.
John: And I’ll catch up on all the shows that I missed. But I decided, well, I kind of am on broken leg here because I don’t have my normal TV shows. And so I was like well how am I going to watch Homeland? And so I took the AppleTV that we had out in the gym and brought that with me. And the AppleTV is kind of great and I think it’s a little bit under sung because you can attach it to any TV, including a hotel TV like I have here, and all your shows are just there.
So, it was simple to buy a season of this. I can send videos from my iPad directly to it if I want to. It’s been just a great little friend. So, the AppleTV which is simple and cheap — and who knows if they’re ever going to come out with a giant flat screen, but the little box you can buy now and attach to your TV is great.
Craig: It is cool.
John: So, I’d recommend it.
Craig: There’s a very cool function on it that I use all the time when I’m writing with Todd and we’re in his office. You know, he’s got a flat screen TV in his office and he has an AppleTV connected to it. And you can do the AirPlay display mirroring. So, I’m on my computer, but what I’m typing is up on the TV. And it used to actually be a really annoying thing to do, like literally a year and a half ago that was annoying to do, with all the cables, or there was this product called McTiVia which I just didn’t think worked very well.
But the AppleTV makes it so easy. So, I love that part of it. So, if you write in collaboration with somebody, and you’re always like huddled around the screen while one person types, consider this as a very simple, simple solution.
And what is it, like $99 or something?
John: Yeah, super cheap. I suspect you probably see it in a lot of writer’s rooms now because it’s got to be a very easy way to get the writing assistant’s laptop shown for the whole crowd.
Craig: Oh, yeah. I mean, it’s so easy. Basically you have a WiFi router, you have your AppleTV. The AppleTV is connected to the same WiFi router that your computer is connected to an then, boop, it goes right on the TV, just like that.
Craig: It makes that noise, too. Boop.
John: So nice.
Craig: Yeah. That’s my cool thing. That’s my One Cool Thing for the week, AppleTV. And, John, do you have one? No?! Hmmm.
John: Yeah, I’ll work on it.
Craig: Disappointing. Disappointing.
John: So, Craig, so we’re recording this before the Oscars but I want to wish our friend John Gatins all the luck. I want to wish everybody all the luck. I’m not rooting against anybody which is a lovely thing to say. I’m not even rooting against the others in the Animated Film category, because at this point I’m going to guess that Frankenweenie didn’t win. So, that if Frankenweenie did win it will sound like John didn’t even know he was going to win, but I kind of honestly don’t think we’re going to win.
Craig: I’m rooting for everyone, but I give a little extra bit of rooting for Halloweenie and for Flight. But, look, as they say, “You’re all winners.”
John: Aw. Just by being nominated, it was very nice. Anybody who got a movie made should deserve some sort of acknowledgment.
Craig: Absolutely. And a little extra special mention to Looper, which didn’t receive an Oscar nomination but…
John: Looper is great.
Craig: It got I think a BAFTA nomination, it got a Writers Guildy — what do we call it, the Waggy? It got a Waggy nom. So, good on Ryan, and just good for everybody. Hooray for Hollywood. Root for movies. Stay positive.
John: I agree. Craig, and stay, I don’t know, warm/cold, whatever the weather is in Los Angeles.
Craig: It is…actually warm/cold is a perfect description. I think it’s like 61 today.
John: Excellent. And have a great weekend. And I will talk to you next time.
Craig: See you next time. Bye.
John: Thanks, bye.
- Alabama on the International Dialects of English Archive
- The Craig-referenced blog post, Critiquing Criticism: Personal Growth via The Hobbit
- Hollywood Interns: Fox Lawsuit Likely to Break Ground
- Hollywood interns aren’t essential
- AppleTV with AirPlay
- OUTRO: Hot N Cold cover by Los Colorados