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 Scriptnotes, Episode 80, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Episode 80! That’s just a lot of episodes.
Craig: A lot of talking. I don’t know about you; I was sure that by episode 5 it would just be awkward silences punctuated by an occasional cough.
John: I would say actually the early episodes had the biggest number of awkward silences because it took awhile — I think, honestly, especially for me — to find a rhythm for us talking. But, we’ve made it to 80, so if we made it 80, I think there’s a very good chance that we’ll make it to 100. And we need to start thinking about what we’re going to do for our hundredth episode.
Craig: So funny that you bring that up. Because I was in the car the other day, pondering this very topic. And you and I had talked about maybe doing a live podcast here in Los Angeles. Hopefully you’ll be back by then. It’s 20 weeks from now.
John: Yes. It is this summer. So, actually in our staff meeting — I have staff meetings now.
John: Yeah, I know. I don’t want to blow your mind, but with Stuart and Ryan, there’s actually enough stuff that we actually have a weekly staff meeting. And even while I’ve been here in New York we do staff meetings via iChat or Skype or whatever.
And we were talking about it in the staff meeting, and so I asked Siri, “Siri, what is 20 weeks from today?” And she told me it was this summer, like July 23 or something, which is a time that I’m going to be in Los Angeles. So, yes, I think we should do a hundredth episode live. I’m going to say it right here on the air: I think we need to do a live episode.
Craig: I think so, too. And it’s going to be a celebration. We finally get to look upon all of the dorky faces of the people that listen to us. They can look upon our dorky faces. It will be a massive dork out.
John: Listeners should know that we are starting to talk with venues and finding a good place for us to do this, preferably a place where people could actually drink alcohol if they chose to drink alcohol and make a little party out of it.
Craig: Yeah! It will be the best podcast ever.
John: Best podcast, by far.
Now, Craig, I am still in New York, but tomorrow I’m so excited because I get to fly home for just a long weekend, which is so blessed. Because, I don’t know if you know this about me, but I get really, really homesick. It’s just one of my things — I get really homesick.
And I was describing to a friend that I think homesickness is actually not something that you accumulate. It’s like you have a reservoir of non-homesickness, and it depletes. And eventually it just runs dry and then you’re just insanely homesick.
Craig: When you say homesick, homesick for Los Angeles or homesick for your family?
John: Homesick for my family. I miss Los Angeles, but I really miss my family. And seeing them on the computer is just not the same.
Craig: It’s not. I am with you 100%. And we’ll sort of actually talk about a related topic shortly in this whole — you know, we moved to Los Angeles to be in the movie business, and then they keep sending us places. And, of course, you’ve made a choice to do this other business that is naturally somewhere else. But, it’s very hard for me to be away from my family.
Two weeks, I start to go a little crazy. I don’t know what your threshold is.
John: Yeah. Two weeks is where it really kicked in for me.
Craig: Plus, also, I mean, I don’t know if you get these calls. There’s the, “You have to talk to your son,” call. And so then you’re doing this parenting and you can already detect the resentment that you’re not there from your spouse. “Why did you leave me to deal with this?” [laughs] No good comes of it. None.
John: So, hopefully the only good thing that will come of this long protracted period is Big Fish, which is actually about a father’s issues with his child, and all of those sorts of family issues. So, hopefully that will be the good thing that does come out of this protracted time. And today we were actually staging through the end of the show which is one of the weepiest things I’ve ever encountered in my life.
And so I’ve spent the last two days crying, which is not helping to stop up that homesickness thing.
John: I get to get on a plane and go home tomorrow and I’m so excited.
Craig: Well, I’m very glad. One of the cruel ironies of our business is that — any storytelling business — is that the theme of the father who does not spend enough time with his wife, husband, or children crops up constantly. And all of those stories are put together and produced by people who are not spending time with their spouses or their children while they do it.
John: Indeed. And one of the things that I mentioned on Twitter this week is I get to show this Big Fish finally to people in Chicago. And I asked people like, “Hey, do you want to come see this thing I’ve been working on?” And people said yes. And I asked, again, like, “If I could get you a special discount promo code so that you could come to those first early performances, would you come?” And people said yes enthusiastically.
So, I have good news. People can actually come see this show of fathers on the road, and sons, and dysfunction, and come see me in Chicago because I would love to see you. And I would feel less homesick if I knew that my listeners were out there in the audience.
John: So, here’s the actual deal. There will be a link at the show notes at johnaugust.com. But, it’s honesty simpler if I just tell you to Google “Ticketmaster Big Fish.” The first thing that’s going to come up is tickets for Big Fish in Chicago.
So, here’s the deal I made with producers. The first four previews, which is a Tuesday through Friday, April 2 through April 5 at 7pm, if you use the promo code “Script” as you’re checking out, you can get tickets for $30 rather than $100.
Craig: Whoa! Nice.
John: It’s $70 off. So, that’s pretty great just for being a Scriptnotes listener. So, if you would like to come join me in Chicago to see Big Fish, I would love to see you. I genuinely honestly would love to see you. I’m going to be there at least through opening. If you do come, whether you’re coming on those first four days and you’re using special promo codes, or if you’re just coming some other time, or group tickets, or whatever, if you know you’re coming to the show and you want to tell me that you’re coming to the show, just send me a tweet @johnaugust and let me know what show you’re coming to, what seat you’re in.
And if the world isn’t crashing down and I’m not needed to do something to fix something, I’ll come say hi because I’m just going to be in Chicago and I’ll just come say hi.
Craig: And that is priceless.
John: That’s the kind of personal service you’re not going to get from, I don’t know, the Nerdist Writers Podcast.
Craig: Or any podcast, let’s face it.
John: Let’s face it. So, anyway, if you want to come join me in Chicago, it’s an open invitation to listeners. And to you, Craig, if you find yourself in Chicago. Derek Haas is going to be there. Derek has to come see Big Fish.
Craig: I know. He’s shooting his wonderful show Chicago Fire there. You know, I ran into your producer, Dan Jinks — your wonderful producer Dan Jinks — at a party a couple weeks ago. And he also extended a lovely invitation to me. And I would love to go. I just don’t know how I’m going to get away to Chicago at that time. But, I will try.
I know that in the back of my mind what I know is that it’s going to be successful, it’s going to be on Broadway no matter what. So, I’m going to see it.
It’s interesting — it’s a challenge — I mean, I actually can see you running into it. We’re in the movie business, we’re in the television business. We never have to worry about people seeing it. You know, it’s like just go down the street, you’ll see it. Or, walk into the room and you’ll see it. But this is tough. It’s like a destination entertainment thing. And so I have to plan it.
John: One of the things I’ve noticed this week is I was trying to describe the process to people who come from the movie business. And it’s like we’re in preproduction, production, and post all simultaneously on the same thing. And so we’re in preproduction in the sense that we’re using temporary props and we’re sort of blocking things and getting things to work, but we’re also in production because we really are finishing up numbers and literally getting every foot stepped down to exactly where it is.
But this last week we started doing the orchestrations. And so it was very much like the experience of like film spotting, where you’re trying to figure out where the music is going to go, or like color timing. You’re doing these really technical things.
And when we get to Chicago, it gets even more technical because there’s like lighting and tech and all that stuff. And, so, it’s a whole new world for me, but it’s also all these things happen simultaneously.
What’s most honestly genuinely terrifying to me is all of the variables that I can’t control, which is literally like that tech thing that doesn’t work right. Or, the audience is live there in the theater. And so what happens when that guy has the heart attack, or just weird stuff happens?
John: That’s exciting, but it’s also just terrifying to me. Because the worst thing that can happen when we have a movie released is like, oh well, a print can break. But then they fix the print and they just keep going. It’s not, you know… — Things are finished in a way that they can just never be finished in theater. And it’s lovely but also frightening to me.
Craig: There’s also this other thing that I think about with live theater and that is film, when it’s finished, that is the film that every single person who sees the movie will experience. But every night is a different performance. Every night, sometimes the performers will have a great night. Sometimes one of them will be off. One of them is sick. That whole thing is just fascinating to me.
You know, every time you invite somebody to see a show you must be wondering in the back of your head, “I hope tonight will be a good version of the show.” Crazy.
John: Yeah. So, for every role in Big Fish we have understudies and we also have the swings. And their responsibility is to be able to fill in for these certain tracks of roles. And so if that person is out, this person can slide in, and there’s this whole logic math problem about, like, how you can cover every role in the show so that the curtain can go up?
So, as I’m watching the show with the people who I’m expecting to be there, also in the wings — and sometimes swapping-in in front of me — are swings who are going to take over for that part. Or, we’re also teaching the understudies every line so that they can do the show. It’s just a completely different thing that doesn’t exist in the movie business.
Craig: Wow. I love it.
John: Great. So, let’s get to our real business today which is I wanted to talk first off about the challenges of the visual effects industry. And Rhythm & Hues, which is going bankrupt, so we’re going to talk through that. I also want to talk about some reader questions because we’ve gotten a whole bunch and it’s been a long time since we’ve gone through the viewer mailbag. So, this time we’re going to actually share it a little bit and you’ll read some questions so it’s not just me…
Craig: I feel like you have an illness and you’re not telling me. And so you’re like a dad that runs a store and you keep giving your son more and more responsibility. And he’s so excited, but other people are sort of nodding sadly at him, like, “Yeah, it’s good that you know how to do the cash register now.”
And I think, “Well, it is good, of course. I’m a big boy.” And then I hear you coughing and I don’t get it.
John: I cough a little bit, and there’s a little blood in my handkerchief?
Craig: Yeah. The little blood in your handkerchief and you pat me on the shoulder and say, “You’re going to do fine.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I will do fine.” And the old lady that does the books is crying and everything is so confusing to me. But, I feel like a big boy.
John: Yeah. I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof last night, and Big Daddy, that’s the state he’s sort of in. It’s sort of the opposite — everyone knows that Big Daddy is dying, and big daddy doesn’t know that he’s dying, so everyone is treating him strangely and he catches wind of, “That’s right, I’m dying.”
But, let’s get started. Let’s start with visual effects, because I sort of saw during the Oscars there was controversy over Life of Pi and the guy accepting the award for the visual effects of Life of Pi got cut off during that time. And it started this sort of firestorm. And I’ve noticed people’s twitter badges were green suddenly. And I’m like, “Wait, is it Iran again?” I didn’t know sort of what was going on.
And I saw the YouTube video, it went kind of viral, of what big movies that you have seen would look like without visual effects, and of course they look terrible.
John: But I want to talk through that because the issues are actually really complicated. And it’s not a thing you can sort of boil down to one thing, but it’s difficult to make a living as a visual effects artist for certain reasons. It’s difficult for an American company to stay in business. And all the stuff that’s happening in visual effects could happen in other parts of the industry, including what writers do.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a tough situation. Let’s just wind back to the Oscars. The gentleman who was part of the team that won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, his speech was too long, and they — I thought it was very funny that the play-off music this time was the theme from Jaws. I thought that was hysterical. But, he got cut off just as he was about to talk about the loss — or potential loss — of this company Rhythm and Hues which has been around forever. Well, at least as long as I’ve been in the business.
And they recently filed for bankruptcy and they’re in real trouble. And this is one of the A-list top visual effects houses. First, I just want to say any controversy about the fact that the guy got cut off is ridiculous. Everybody who goes to the Oscars is told you have this much time. So, if it’s really important for you to make a statement about Rhythm and Hues, you know, plan and time your speech — just a thought — because frankly it’s kind of obnoxious to go over time. I really do think so.
Okay, that aside, here’s what’s going on: Rhythm and Hues is a visual effects house. So, movies and television shows, when they do visual effects shooting the production itself doesn’t complete the work. 9 times out of 10 what we’re talking about is green screen stuff. Green screen has become the most common visual effect, maybe I guess second only to like wire removal and stuff like that. These are somewhat simple things, except that they’re not simple. And the take time to do right.
And so outside companies like Rhythm and Hues do all of that work. Some of it is rote and some of it is not at all rote. When you talk about creating visual effects, for instance the Tiger in Life of Pi, that’s a big deal. Now you’re talking about true artistry; you’re not talking about rote work.
What’s happened to the visual effects industry, just as it has happened to general production, is that movie studios and other visual effects supervisors have basically been outsourcing it to overseas because it’s cheaper. And when we say overseas I think people immediately jump to the notion of a sweatshop full of kids in China that are painting out wires.
But it’s actually — Canada is a huge problem for us here in the United States in that regard. And the way it works is pretty simple. There are two ways that we get outbid by international companies. Their labor tends to be cheaper. And they offer tax incentives. And the tax incentives come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but it’s always some version of this: If you hire people here in Canada they get a salary here in Canada. Part of their salary, of course, goes to tax here in Canada. We will collect that tax and we will not keep that tax. We will send it back to you in the form of a rebate. So, you get to write that part off of your overall bill.
And even though we’re not as a state profiting off of the work through taxes, the fact that these people are being employed, they’ll spend money and it will help improve the economy. That’s the whole theory.
John: Let me pause right there. Because what you’re generally saying about tax incentives also applies to actual feature production or to television production. That’s one of the draws. That’s one of the reasons why you shoot shows in certain parts of Canada, or you shoot in certain states is because either that state or the country provides tax incentives that makes it really attractive to shoot in New Mexico, or Michigan, or…
John: …whatever the state is that has that kind of thing.
Craig: Yeah, Georgia is a big one now.
John: Georgia is a big one. And so that happens in movies and television overall, but there’s also some special things that are kind of unique about the visual effects situation, which is that because it’s not right during the middle of production, it’s this thing that goes on afterwards, different companies are bidding against each other to try to do the visual effects for this project. And some companies have the advantage of the tax rebates. Some of them have other advantages of being overseas. And it’s a crazy situation of a race for the bottom to see who can submit the lowest price to do that work.
Craig: Everybody is racing to the bottom. The companies are racing to the bottom. And curiously the people who are providing these tax benefits and lower labor costs are also racing to the bottom.
And this is the trick: Nobody seems to really be sure if these tax rebates are actually beneficial to the people that offer them. It does seem that certain states try them and then go, “Whoa, we lost money.” And then they stop them. And, of course, you always have an issue with the quality of the labor you’re getting.
Let’s pick a state. North Dakota could suddenly decide we’re going to have the best rebates in the business. But, are there crews there? Because that’s part of the deal; you’ve got to hire local crews, otherwise it makes no sense for North Dakota.
So, we’re dealing with the stuff. Here’s where it gets rough — really rough — with visual effects. When we’re talking about the artistry that we think of, the creation of that tiger, the movement of the tiger, the installation of emotion into the eyes, these things that truly are amazing — we think of highly talented visual artists who combine technology and craft to create something wonderful on screen.
But then there are times when the visual effects are a man in a car parked in front of a green screen, and somebody goes and shoots plates, and then they comp the plates behind that man. But the man has long hair, and so fifty people in South Korea spend a week going frame by frame roto’ing individual hairs against the plates.
And, frankly, that’s not artistry. That is labor. I mean, there’s some craft to it, but it’s the kind of thing where suddenly companies are like, “I could do that for $8,000 in a week, or I could spend $30,000 here. I think I should probably spend the $8,000, because the work ultimately will be similar enough.
Those are the choices that are being made. And it’s tough because, you know, I want all movies to be made in Southern California, frankly, and I want all production to be here. I don’t want to go anywhere. I’m frustrated from a writing point of view that when I write movies half the time they tell me, “And it will be shot in Georgia.” Then everything looks like it’s in Georgia all of a sudden. It’s a bummer.
Identity Thief is a road trip that takes place entirely in the state of Georgia. It makes me nuts. You know? I had this whole nice road trip planned out state by state with a map that went from Boston to Portland. That was the first thing that got torn up. I had to argue so that it wouldn’t be just Miami to Atlanta which is a four-hour drive.
John: Yeah. A four-hour drive that has to take the entire movie.
John: I share your frustration here. So, let’s talk about this situation in visual effects and how it applies to things that are listeners may be doing, which is screenwriting.
We talked about the difference between artistry and craft. And one of the lucky things about screenwriters, at least as its perceived right now, is it is still falling in the artistry camp, and that it’s a — what I can write is going to be different than what you can write, which is what that third person is going to be able to write.
So, there’s some unique special benefit to hiring this person versus hiring that person, which is not applicable to this wire removal technician versus that wire removal technician. That’s very much you are doing one specific kind of job. The same way like I think back to the old Disney, they’re painting in the cells. There was a person who had to draw everything. That was remarkable artistry. The person who was painting in the in-between cells, that took real talent, but it wasn’t the artistry in the same way that the other jobs were.
John: So, right now we cannot be replaced by international labor. We can’t — they could hire Canadian writers to do things, but they’re not finding the quality of Canadian writers that can do what we can do. So, for now that’s really good.
What can happen even in the absence of that though is a race to the bottom. And what keeps us from hitting all the way to the bottom is scale, is that we are organized as a labor union, and because of that no writer is able to say, “Well, I’ll do it for less than that amount of money.” That’s one of the lucky things we have for feature films in the US right now.
Craig: Yeah. And that is why the things that worry me the most from a writing standpoint are any of the cultural shifts that threaten that. For instance, we talk a lot about the toxic combination of one-step drafts and producer-steps and free drafts. Because, what happens is — and I’ve said this directly to the heads of two studios now — if you’re paying somebody $1 million for a single draft, and you’re not happy and you want four more weeks of work, eh, what am I going to do, stamp my feet here? Okay.
If you’re paying somebody scale for one step, or close to scale for one step, and then you ask them for another four weeks of work, you’ve obliterated scale. Now it’s half scale. And the more that that becomes entrenched, the more that ground beneath us loosens. If we lose scale, everybody suffers and it truly is a race to the bottom. The one thing I know about screenwriting is there are, I’m going to guess, 500,000 people in the United States alone that would like to be professional screenwriters. And if you said, “Warner Bros. will hire you to write a screenplay for $5,000,” 490,000 of them would say, “Great!” Possibly all of them would say great.
And that’s super bad. Super bad for the professional status of screenwriters and it injures the value of what we do. Not super bad that people want to do it, but the potential for that is super bad, that the economics would shift on us like that.
So, the Writers Guild, for all the stuff that they panic over, that’s really the only thing they should be panicking over in features as far as I’m concerned. So much more than over residual formulas or anything like that. It is protecting our scale.
John: The other way in which our scale can be threatened is by reclassifying the job that we normally would do in features, or in television, as a different kind of job that doesn’t need to be covered. And that’s one of the things were always eternally vigilant that writing sort of a proposal or a treatment, that they’re not going to ask you to do other kind of work that’s actually really functionally a screenwriter’s work and not pay you screenwriter money for that.
So, not just extra drafts, but like saying, “Oh, you’re writing this for our digital division. It is a promo thing for this,” and trying to find a way to create things that don’t have to fall under the WGA auspices.
Craig: Yeah. And something funny — television and screenwriting developed along two different tracks. And it’s kind of fascinating to see how they divided.
In television, what they did with writers was they said basically, “Look, we’re going to pay all of you roughly scale for things. We’ll even base your residuals on minimums. But what we’ll also do for those of you who are the primary writers of shows, the creators, the showrunners, we’ll make you producers. We’ll pay you all the money that you would expect to be paid as a producer. You won’t pay dues on that,” which is great for them, “and also we will give you access to the big prize which is sharing in the true profits, not the fake profits, but the true profits of the work.”
So, somebody like Chuck Lorre who creates hit television shows is worth more than any screenwriter will ever be. Period. The end. He makes more in a month than any screenwriter probably makes in 10 years.
Now, on the other side you have screenwriters who at the highest levels get paid so much more for a script than any television writer does, but don’t have any access to that big profit number. And, frankly, that’s why success in television has always been so much brighter and sparklier, but success in screenwriting seems to be a little bit more accessible in some way.
Now, if they successfully erode scale for screenwriters, the way that they have successfully eroded scale for visual effects, we lose the only good part of being screenwriters. [laughs] And then we got nothing. And that’s scary.
John: The other danger is to look at — and so far Netflix seems to be a largely good thing in terms of creating more opportunities for more people, but if a Netflix-like model of you’re doing a show for Netflix, or you’re doing a show for Amazon that is not sort of a networky kind of show, it’s not even a cable show, when you’re in that Wild West territory you could theoretically be writing something that sort of feels like a television show but they don’t have to pay you any of the money that they would normally have to pay you for a television show.
And, if that model were to really take off then that could sort of explode what we are counting on for getting paid in television. So, that’s the other thing to always be truly vigilant about. I’m genuinely optimistic about Netflix or Amazon or the other people who are trying to do television-like things. I’m just worried that their business model isn’t going to include paying writers.
Craig: I am genuinely pessimistic. I think that the instinct of any new business arriving into the content creation industry is to not get hung on the hook that the studios are “hung on,” which is to pay this kind of scale and residuals and all the rest of it.
When the Writers Guild…uh…umbrage…umbrage is coming. It’s been awhile. It’s been awhile, John, so let me just uncork for a second here: One thing that makes me nuts about the Writers Guild is that in its anti-corporate zeal, and I get it, I get it that the Writers Guild does not like these companies. The companies negotiate with them every three years and they stick it to them. And the companies do stuff that’s just wrong.
And so the Writers Guild gets angry, angry, angry. And then you combine that with the fact that the constituency of the Writers Guild tends to be very liberal and progressive and very anti-corporatistic, and I understand that, too. What that creates unfortunately is this knee jerk reaction that anybody who is going to hurt the companies is our friend. No!
This is ridiculous. That is such a mistake. To look at these guys out there like Google and say, “Well, we should help Google compete with these companies because then we’ll have another buyer. And that will stick it to the man and make more money for us.” No! No. No, no, no.
It will be a race to the bottom. When these companies come in, they will dig out that floor. They will try and go below it. I guarantee it. I guarantee it. Look at the way they run their business. Look how they pay their coders. Open your eyes. I love saying stuff like “open your eyes,” because now I sound like a lunatic, but that’s okay.
I’m a pretty sober person, normally, but now I’m saying, “Open your eyes.” And once they do that, these competitors that we are cheerleading, “Come on in, come on in,” well, then the studios will go, “Well, now we’ve got to compete with these guys.” Generally speaking, I would say 7 times out of 10 the Writers Guild ends up shooting itself in the foot. I’m just going to ballpark it at 70%. Whatever the name is for the rule of unintended consequences — I don’t know if there’s a Moore’s Law type of name for it — they should chisel into the concrete facade of that building so that everyone who works there and sets the policy at that place has to read it every day when they arrive.
John: In no way trying to diminish your umbrage or actually re-stoke the fires of umbrage, but what I will say is that the ground is changing regardless. So, no matter what the Writers Guild were to try to do, that kind of stuff is going to change. And Netflixy business models will kick in. And so while I agree that we don’t want to sort of burn the house down just to burn the house down, we have to recognize that this stuff is going to happen and try to be as smart as we can about shifting our strategies to deal with how this is going to be.
Because our current business model probably can’t be directly applied to it. It’s just a different thing. And we need to figure out how to do that.
Craig: You’re right. And I guess my point is that we should, as much as it pains us, just to look at the person that keeps poking us in the eye and say, “You may be the best friend I have. Maybe we should consider it.” Because, the people that keep poking us in our eye aren’t slapping us in the face, and there are a bunch of face-slappers out there waiting.
And I would encourage as best as we can as an organization — I would encourage the health of these five companies because they pay us the most.
John: Yeah. I would also say the other people, we can’t even go on strike against them.
John: We can’t go on strike against YouTube.
Craig: Oh, they would love that.
John: They would love that.
Craig: Oh, please, “Good, go on strike.” Yeah, what do they care? Do you know how many unions there are at Google? Zero. They don’t have unions. They don’t believe in it.
Have you noticed that Pixar is non-union? That’s the culture up there. They don’t believe in it. Period. The end. Umbrage.
John: Done. Let’s get to some listener questions.
John: So, we have a bunch, and it’s been awhile since we’ve done this, so let me start with the first one. This is from Alexander in Los Angeles. And I’m going to start and stop because there’s a few things along the way.
“Way back in 2008 I wrote into the blog at johnaugust.com to ask for some advice on taking phone meetings, back when I was a fledgling writer living outside of Los Angeles. Since then I landed a manager from my Nicholl placement and relocated to LA, writing, shooting, and networking as much as possible.”
Well, congratulations Alexander. Good for you.
“Over the past few months a spec script of mine started getting some traction. I had a shop around agreement with a pair of well respected producers.”
And I’m going to pause here and define a shop around agreement. What does that mean to you?
Craig: You know, I think it means basically that you’re giving the producers the exclusive right to take it to places. It’s kind of an option, isn’t it the same thing?
John: Yeah. It’s kind of like a handshake option. It’s like, “Yeah, you control it, at least for these places.” And it’s pretty common with specs where if you were officially sort of going out on the town you might say like, “Okay, Producer X, you can have it for Paramount, and you have it for these certain places where I know you have relationships and that’s great.”
And so when Go went out as a spec we assigned it to certain places and Paul Rosenberg who ended up taking it to Banner, that was one of the few places that we sort of gave it to him, but he had a shopping agreement that he could take it there.
A shop around agreement could also mean like for a certain period of time it’s okay to expose it to certain places, just sort of negotiate it on the fly as it came out.
So, he had a shop around agreement with a pair of well respected producers. “And we were going after directors. One director in particular really connected with the material and he flew in from Europe to discuss his vision for the story and necessary rewrites to shoot in his home country. And now, after meeting with the producers and the director, a studio exec is interested in the project, which is awesome. But, there’s a downside.
“The studio exec doesn’t feel the script is quite in the right place. The director is flying back to LA for a week so we can all sit down and discuss what needs to happen to the script for the studio to take the next step. In short, I’m kind of freaking out. Basically I’ve been told to come into the room and just ‘be brilliant.’ And this particular exec I’m pitching to is notorious for having a huge slate of projects in development, with his attention constantly divided between all of them. So, there’s that. No big deal.
“Any advice you guys would like to share with me and your other listeners in this situation?”
Craig: Well, yeah, I have a bit of advice. When people tell you in advance of a meeting that you have to achieve a certain thing specifically like that, “be brilliant,” “impress this person,” “make them feel this,” “do this,” please tell yourself that they don’t know what they’re talking about, because they don’t know what they’re talking about. Because the truth is nobody — there is no magic formula. There’s no “be brilliant.” There’s none of that.
Half the time they are trying to control something they have no control over. And the currency of people who don’t create things is to appear in control. That’s their currency, to appear as if they have some sort of knowledge or inside track on the future, which of course, they do not.
Agencies are famous for this. “Nobody’s buying this kind of thing,” until they do and, okay. “Be brilliant in the room.” They don’t even know what that means. I don’t know what it means. Go into the room and be confident and present yourself and be a grownup and listen and see if you have a connection with the person.
John: I would say that “be brilliant” is a useful codeword sometimes to say, “This is a really flexible situation and we just kind of don’t know how this is going to go, so you need to be ready to go in a lot of different directions.” And it may be worth having some pre-meeting to talk about what are the range of flexibilities you’re willing to talk about for this movie or for this take or how you’re going to do it. And who’s going to be responsible for following the lead of the exec if the exec starts to go in a certain direction.
I can recall some of my earlier meetings where I went in and I pitched one executive on a project I really wanted. I’d already met with the producer. We went in there. And he was sort of notoriously sort of hard to please and hard to sort of peg down. But, I went into the room and he showed me like, “Oh here, I’ve got to show you this.” And he showed me this trailer for this movie that he had coming out. He’s like, “That’s coming out the same weekend as your movie Go. We’re going to crush you.”
And I’m like, “Well, that seems like a great movie, and this is getting off to a really terrific start.” That’s a brilliant way to start a meeting.
Craig: [laughs] Well, I mean…
John: When they say “be brilliant,” it’s basically like be ready to be quick on your feet and negotiate some difficult turns there, but since you already have a director on board, make sure that there’s a range of options that you’re all willing to go to or talk about. Or, have language that you’ve already figured out in terms of, “Yeah, we’ll think about that.”
Craig: Yeah, but here’s my problem: That’s always the case. You should always be brilliant. Sure, it’s like this advice is along the lines of “be good and achieve your goal.” It’s not advice. And all it really serves to do is freak you out, which mission accomplished, apparently.
And the worst possible outcome is that you cease to be your natural self and attempt to orchestrate this meeting towards some sort of synthetic brilliance. And I guess really I just want you to calm down. There’s a part of the script that you love that is worth protecting. And if the vibe in the room is we-would-all-like-to-bargain-that-away, and you don’t want to bargain it away, don’t.
Hard advice to swallow, but don’t. On the other hand, be open to the thought that perhaps there is another way that you could succeed at and also be pleased with. Always be on the lookout for somebody else’s suggestion that could turn into something that you would not only be able to do, but would do so well that that would be the new thing you want to protect.
But, just take a breath and relax. In the end these people are just people. This man who’s very, very powerful is meeting with you because he needs movies. So, you have a power, too. Be aware of it. Be humble. Be nice. Be charming. Be confident. Look him in the eye. Remember, nobody wants to hire somebody that seems sweaty, shaky, and scared. They want to hire somebody who seems confident, in control, and pleasant to work with. The rest is up to you.
John: So, one last bit of advice I can offer in terms of being brilliant is sometimes if you need to stall or think through something, because sometimes they’ll make a suggestion and you have to sort of ripple through your head all the stuff that it’s going to do to your script if they actually were to take this thing, and sometimes you just need some time.
Two options. First off is to ask sort of a clarifying question. A question that sort of seems like I really am listening to what you’re saying and here is a smart, clarifying question that will buy me another 30 seconds so I can think of a better answer for that.
The second thing to do is to talk about what’s important to you. And phrase what’s important to you in what’s obviously very important to them. And so I will do this in meetings where what’s important to me is that we can really track this character through from the start and what the character wants and walks into, and it sounds really obvious and sort of pedantic, but you’re making it clear to the person you’re talking with that your priorities are also their priorities.
And if you can be smart and specific about it, you can at least sort of get them on the same way. It’s like sort of mimicking somebody’s body language. You’re saying back to them the things that they are saying to you.
Craig: Yeah. And the last bit of advice I’ll impart to you — because that’s excellent advice — is to talk about the movie as much as possible as opposed to the script. They’re not thinking about a script. They can’t sell tickets to a script. So, talk about the movie. And when they talk about things, and when you talk about things, never get trapped in the position of defending a printed document. Always defend the movie. Talk about the audience.
It will put you in the same goal state as these people in the room.
John: Definitely. So, why don’t you take our next question?
Craig: Yeah, very good. Dad, are you okay? Are you okay, dad?
John: [laughs] I’m doing just fine. I just want to make sure that — I think you’re ready now. And so I think…
Craig: Gee, thanks Dad.
John: You’ve learned how to do a lot of things, and I’ve taught you how to load the gun, and we talked about some reasons why you might need to fire the gun, but many reasons not to fire the gun.
Craig: [laughs] Why is mama crying? Okay. Gosh, dad’s cough is getting worse. I hope he’ll be okay.
All right, this is from Nick from Long Island. [New York accent] Hey, Nick, how you doing?
“The script I’m writing deals with a kid hanging with rock bands backstage during a festival. He attaches himself to one band throughout. The kid also lingers around with three other bands who have lines but are few and far between. Currently I have the band members’ names such as Beating Hearts Number 1, Beating Hearts Number 2, etc, and the Uninspired Number 1, the Uninspired Number 2.” I assume those are the names of the different bands.
“I know it is best to not give true names to these characters, 12 of them in total, so there isn’t an overload of names to remember. I was considering writing each band name and a trait to go with it, for instance, Beating Hearts Number 1 (Mohawk); Beating Hearts Number 2 (Grumpy), and so on.
“I would like the band name to stick in order to group certain characters together, but I’d also like to differentiate them in some form rather than using a bland Number 1, Number 2 type setup up.” John, how would you address this conundrum?
John: Nick is definitely thinking along the right lines. If you can possibly avoid it — which really honestly you can always avoid it — don’t do Number 1 and Number 2, because it doesn’t help anything or anybody. Some sort of descriptor to go with these minor characters is really helpful, so some adjective that separates this person out from every other person in the script.
The parenthesis is going to get really tiring, to sort of like say like Band Name (Grumpy), but if the band were The Dwarves, for example, then like Grumpy Dwarf, Tall Dwarf. Then that would be a natural way to do it. I think two-word descriptor names for these kinds of characters are fantastic.
Most of my scripts have a couple characters who are just like Hot-Blooded Shotgun Toter. And that tells you everything you need to know about that character. And next time you see that person come back in the script, well it’s funny, because like, “Oh, I remember that from before.” And so it gives you a visual. You don’t have to do anymore work on it. So, that’s my suggestion for band members.
Craig: Yeah. That’s right in line with what I’m going to say. I will, however, caution you that when it comes time to make your movie, the first thing that the producer is going to do is come back to you and say, “Uh, is there any way we could not have 12 people say one line a piece?” Because every time someone opens their mouth on screen they cost more.
And if they are not key characters in the movie, then ideally you’d be able to get away with maybe, say there’s the Bleeding Hearts band, maybe it’s just the guitarist that does the talking and the other guys are just sitting around. Is that possible? So, really think about: is there a way for me to consolidate some of these things down, not only for looking at it to production, but just for the reader so that they’re not constantly trying to… — Every time you introduce a character, subconsciously or not, the reader will attempt to visualize that person in their head. And that’s actual mental exercise. And you’re just going to tire people out by the 12th person.
And when you have 12 such individuals in a compact temporal space, the trick of Grumpy, Sneezy, Dopey, etc, is going to start to wear thin. It’s actually going to get annoying.
One thing you can do is just use the natural discrimination that exists here, and that is to just go by instrument. If it’s really just one line, Beating Hearts Guitarist, “Who is this kid?” would be fine. It depends on the context and if they really are so specific in their characterization then I think you definitely want to think about limiting how many of them are actually talking.
John: Yeah. We’ve talked before in a podcast about when you have groups of people. And there’s a certain number of people in a scene that just becomes too many to really handle. I think we do sort of like a mental tally of like who’s spoken, who hasn’t spoken. And you can do that a little bit on the page, but when you actually see it on the screen it’s like, oh my god, there’s just too many people who could potentially speak.
So, I think Nick’s instinct was right to try to keep the bands lumped together. But your instinct is probably more helpful in that if there are a couple of funny things to say, make sure it’s the same person in that band saying them each time so that’s the actual mouthpiece of that band and that that’s the only person we have to sort of put any mental energy into following and tracking through the scene and from scene to scene.
Craig: There you go. All right, next question.
John: Next up, Gabe. I’ll start with this because it’s my turn.
“The good news, I just got a short film accepted to play at the Aspen Film Festival.” Yay, Gabe. “The bad news: I have been asked to provide a short bio. I’ve had to write bios for myself before. I’ve always leaned towards being funny or absurd, not taking myself seriously. I can’t bring myself to do that again. But writing a straight bio about one’s self feels icky, like being a door-to-door salesman. What have you guys done in the past?”
Craig: That’s a really good question. I have to congratulate you, Gabe, on feeling icky about it. It’s a sign that you are a normal human who isn’t a sociopath. Sometimes I come across these Wikipedia entries or IMDb bio entries that are so clearly written by the person and they’re the most grandiose, epic, multi-paragraph pans to their amazingness, and that is icky to read.
Yeah, it does feel icky. I generally recommend however that you just bite the icky bullet and do it, because funny bios are never funny. I have never laughed at a funny bio. Frankly, they themselves feel a little icky because it’s like, “Look, I’m too cool to be just normal.” Just write a real short simple sweet bio and be done with it. That’s my advice.
John: So, I agree with you. And I actually just went through this again because I had to do my Playbill bio. For Playbill, which will come when you sit down with your seat for Big Fish, I had to write the little bio for that. So, this is what I wrote, and I decided not to go funny. So:
John August (book) received a 2004 BAFTA nomination for his screenplay for Big Fish. His other credits include Go, Titan A.E., Charlie’s Angels, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Corpse Bride, The Nines, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for which he received a 2006 Grammy nomination for lyrics. His most recent film is the Oscar-nominated Frankenweenie, for which he wrote the screenplay and lyrics. He is a graduate of Drake University and USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. On Twitter @johnaugust.
So, they gave me a certain number of words that I was allowed to use to fit in, and I had to decide, you know, am I going to thank god? Am I going to thank Mike? Who am I going to thank? Am I going to dedicate this to my father? And I decided to go sort of straight with it, but also it’s definitely a bio written for a theater listing rather than something else. And so I lead with BAFTA nomination for Big Fish because that’s what we’re sitting down to do.
Craig: Yeah, that’s the show.
John: I put the Grammy nomination, which I wouldn’t normally do, but just to tell people like I’m not kind of new to music and stuff like that. I put in Frankenweenie because it’s recent.
So, I would say, in general I’ve kept like a bio, a relatively well updated bio that’s always sort of sitting in Dropbox which I can sort of throw at places, but I kind of always have to keep redoing it.
The same way like if you had a resume, like if you were in a kind of job that has a resume, you don’t send the same resume out to different people. You should always kind of customize that resume for what the situation is.
Craig: Agreed. Yeah. I mean, I have a bio that the PR firm that I’ve used a couple times has put together for me. And then I tweak it depending on what’s happened. So, for instance, Identity Thief came out, it’s a big hit, that goes in the bio.
But, what I liked about your bio was that it was short, sweet, dispassionate. It’s just facts. “Just the facts, ma’am,” you know?
John: Yeah. A great bio, depending on what the audience is for, it can feel good that it sounds like it was written by somebody else rather than written by you.
John: I mean, if you’re doing a bio that’s going to be intended for like a workshop or for like, you know, into the Sundance Film Festival, like not the festival part but for like the labs where you’re going to be seeing these people, that’s a great time to be like a little funny or be a little more personal or get into that kind of stuff.
If it’s just sort of going out into the world in a general sense, you have to think about, like, this is a person who’s sitting down in a theater seat reading this — what do they want to see?
Craig: Right. Exactly.
All right, well, next question is from Gustavo in Jersey City. [Jersey accent] Yah, I got all my guys back home writing in. They got questions. No problem, Gustavo. I got ya.
[laughs] This is how we talk.
John: Evidently this is how you talk.
Craig: This is how you talk if you’re in…
John: If the podcast were this way every week, I would — there wouldn’t be a podcast.
Craig: You would end yourself?
John: Or I would find some sort of filter that would make your voice not be that.
Craig: [New Jersey accent] Hey, come on, John, it’s a good question here. Come on, I’m talking. [laughs] It’s the worst. This is how I grew up on Staten Island. Oh, hey, where you going? All right, Gustavo, here we go.
“I’m finally taking the leap and working on my first screenplay after years of working as a musician. My question is, would you be able to describe the key differences between the ‘inciting incident’ and the alleged,” I’m adding the word alleged, “plot point one. What considerations should you make for each? How dramatic should the inciting incident be versus PP1? I’m starting off with outlining but I’m finding conflicting definitions on line of what each should do for the story.”
John: So, this is — I included this question because it’s a very classic sort of like, “I’m just now for the first time approaching screenwriting, and I’m hitting this term and I don’t know what it means and I’m paralyzed by not knowing what this term means, these terms mean.”
I don’t know what “plot point one” means. I think it means different things in different people’s schemas. Inciting incident is a thing that you will hear talked about, a lot, and so it’s worth knowing what people are talking about when they say inciting incident.
Inciting incident is what’s beginning the plot of this movie. Like, without this inciting incident we would not be watching this movie happening here with these characters right now. So, the inciting incident is how we’re starting off our story, not just like how we’re meeting our characters, but what is the fuse that has been lit that is beginning our story.
But things like plot point one, or plot point two, or plot point 17, those are schemas that different people have different ways of doing it, so I wouldn’t freak out over that at all.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah, I mean inciting incident — the idea is the first few pages of your screenplay you’re presenting a character and she’s in her life, and here is what her life is like. And then something happens. And that something is going to change her life.
It doesn’t mean that it’s now Act 2; it just means suddenly a thing happens. This whole “plot point one,” “pinch point,” blah, blah, blah, you’ve been suckered like so many before you into thinking that there is a calculator through which you can run ideas and out comes a screenplay and you just simply calculate your way to success. There is no faster, easier, simpler way to arrive at failure then attempting to calculate the process of screenwriting.
The books that have been written are being written by people who have failed at screenwriting, possibly because they were over calculating, and now they offer you the gift of the very process that failed them. I am not a fan of this nonsense.
There is nothing that these people can teach you that you can’t learn yourself by watching movies, reading screenplays of those movies, reading screenplays by professionals, and then writing, and writing, and writing. Simply, the rigidity that they prescribe is seductive. Of course it’s seductive.
What is more horrifying than the threat of a million choices? And which one should I choose? Well, that’s life, buddy. That’s screenwriting, Gustavo, unfortunately. So, put the books down. Chill out about the terminology. You’re not fitting your story into any box at all. You’re going to write from your heart and you’re going to learn from the structure that has been provided to you by the movies you love and the screenwriters and the scripts that you love, as simple as that.
John: Yeah. I’m wondering if we can boil it down to the minimum number of terms you actually need to know about structure, just in terms of what you will hear when you are working in the industry. So, inciting incident is one of those things that I think it’s worth knowing what people are talking about with that, because you’re going to hear that.
John: You’re going to hear first act, second act, third act. Here’s all it means is the beginning part, sort of the beginning 30 pages, the second act is all of the middle 60 pages kind of. The last act is the last 30 pages kind of, so, in a 120 page screenplay.
That’s worth knowing what people are talking about.
Craig: Yeah. And you know climax.
John: But the danger with something like a climax is you’re going to think like, “Oh, that has to happen on a certain page.” No. I mean, a climax, you’re talking about a sequence that goes up to and reaches its most biggest dramatic point, that’s important to know that that kind of thing happens, but it doesn’t happen on a specific page.
Craig: Watch movies, Gustavo. I’m telling you, it’s all there. They are flimflamming you, buddy. They’re flimflamming you.
John: Next question comes from Kate in Los Angeles.
“My writing partner and I are writing a script centering around a brother and sister duo. Do we need to make one of them the clear protagonist, or is it all right for both of them to be the hero?”
So, heroes and protagonists. It’s a classic conversation. Craig, what’s your opinion here?
Craig: One of them is the protagonist. The idea of the protagonist, traditionally, is that our capacity for drama as humans and such that we prefer — we prefer — that once character is the focus of internal change. One character is going to have an epiphany and a catharsis and a transformation.
But, another character with them can be instrumental to that. Another character with them can change, also. Another character can change in such a way that changes the protagonist.
I mean, there are a lot of movies where we think the hero is one person, but it’s another. It seems like the hero of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies is Johnny Depp, is Captain Jack Sparrow. He’s the one we come to watch. He occupies space in the movie. But, the protagonist, for instance, in the first film is Keira Knightley’s character. She’s the one who changes.
The protagonist sometimes isn’t the biggest one, or the most heroic one, but they’re just the one that changes. So, think about it that way. And just remember, we will be trying to — we will be connecting with somebody’s change. And if two people are changing we want to know which one is primarily changing.
It’s just sort of ingrained in the way we experience story.
John: In the show notes I’ll put a link to an old post of mine about heroes and protagonists. And we always think of them as the same person, but they aren’t necessarily the same person. Sometimes the hero of the story, the guy where it’s like, “Oh, it’s about him,” isn’t really the protagonist. It’s not the person who changes in the course of the story.
Examples being, in my Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka is the protagonist. You actually see he has an arc that he goes through in the whole movie. And Charlie, who it seems like, oh, well he’s the guy it’s about. It’s the guy whose name is in the title. He is the antagonist. He is the one who is causing the change. He is the person who does that.
In terms of dual protagonist, it does happen. Big Fish is a dual protagonist story, but the protagonist structure is happening in sort of different spaces. You have Will, the son, is a protagonist who is going on this journey to figure out who his father was and understand this change. And so he’s a changed character over the course of it. We’re following Edward Bloom’s entire life, and he is a very classic sort of Joseph Campbell kind of hero mythology protagonist change, complete with like denial of the call to adventure. He does all that sort of great Joseph Campbell stuff.
John: So, that does happen. There are situations like that. But if it’s like a brother and a sister duo, if it’s a You Can Count on Me, which was a brother/sister duo, that’s not that.
John: And they both could change, but You Can Count on Me, she is the protagonist, he is the antagonist who has arrived to change her life.
Craig: Exactly. Exactly. I think some people might think that in Identity Thief Melissa McCarthy is the protagonist because she seems to change, and she does, but Jason Bateman’s character is the actual protagonist. That’s the one who has to actually learn a lesson about his life in a way that she learns a lesson, but our emotional connection is to his life.
It’s a very… — You just have to know this stuff when you’re doing it, and you have to figure it out, but you can’t divide your attention. You have to actually — you have to know.
The audience, by the way, doesn’t need to… — You ask most people on the street who’s the protagonist of Pirates and they’ll tell you it’s Captain Jack Sparrow. No problem. Didn’t seem to diminish their enjoyment of the film. You need to know, though.
John: You’re next.
Craig: Oh, god, this is so good. We’ve got Dave in Columbia, Maryland. I have no accent for you.
“Is it okay to give captions in titles explaining quick blubs for historical context so the audience isn’t lost? I know I should try and get those kinds of things in dialogue while trying to avoid being on the nose, but that can be really difficult sometimes.”
Captions and titles. Quick blurbs for historical context?
John: Rarely are they good and appropriate. Where I will say, like sometimes you need to place a certain year, or you need to say like, “Near Lexington,” or you need to establish where we are in the world. So, a caption can sometimes be useful. And like in the Bourne movies you’ll see like where we are in the world and sort of like 16 hours later. There’s a certain style of movie in which it can be completely appropriate.
But I’d be really careful because nobody goes to movies to read. You have to find ways to tell your story visually so that the audience doesn’t need to know that information.
Craig: Yeah. You can situate time and place, essentially slug line information anywhere you want in a movie, just as long as tonally it seems acceptable. The one place in a movie where you are allowed to put a pamphlet on screen is the very, very beginning. Star Wars seemed to get away with it just fine.
You can open up and people… — The first ten minutes of a movie-going experience I call “grace period” because the audience is completely open and accepting. They haven’t gotten grumpy yet. But, hopefully they don’t get grumpy at all during your movie, but they’re willing to sort of go along with your little adventure here for five or ten minutes on faith alone.
And so you can do it right off the top if you want — still a little risky — but at no point else in a movie would I ever try and pull that number on anyone.
John: Agreed. And if you’re going to do something with captions or titles or I would say you need to do that really close to the start. You can’t be like halfway through a movie and suddenly then be throwing up those little tag things, because that was not the contract you made with your audience. First, I agree, that grace period. You’re sort of establishing what the contract is between the movie and the audience. And like as long as you’re consistent with your audience, they are going to have faith in you. But if you start just wildly changing things, they may decide that you’re not honoring your contract and they will get up and leave the room.
John: Next question comes from Matt in Boston.
“I recently received coverage upon submitting a feature script to a screenwriting contest. The script contains three fairly explicit sex scenes.”
Craig: Oh yeah!
John: Oh yeah!
“It was mostly favorable feedback, but one critique the reader had was that the explicit nature of the descriptions of the sex scenes may be a turnoff to actors, investors, agents, and producers. He said that if I could tone down the sex the script would be more readily accepted by readers. Though the sex scenes are admittedly rather explicit in nature, they are not gratuitous and they are important to the story and in developing the characters involved.
“How can a writer go about portraying a heavily erotic sexual encounter without scaring off potential investors or talent? Would including a note at the beginning of the scene help?”
Craig: Well, obviously we don’t have the pages so I don’t know quite how explicit this is. I would caution any writer to overreact to one reader’s comment. The fact of the matter is that the only person whose scruples matter here is the person who will potentially purchase this script and produce the movie, not this one reader.
In general, I tend to believe that it’s the scripts that do stick out and make themselves known unapologetically that attract attention. You say here, kind of nicely for us, because this would be what I would say — this is what I would ask — that they are not gratuitous and they are important to the story and in developing the characters involved.
That’s it. You’re done. You don’t need to do anything now. No notes. No apologies. That’s the script you wrote. And if somebody out there is squeamish about the sex then it’s not for them. But it’s sort of a strange thing. the stereotype is the producer that wants more boobs, so I think that you can just go ahead and just in your mind silently and politely thank this reader for their opinion, but you believe in what you wrote.
John: I agree with you. There’s two things I would say.
First off, sex scenes are like fight scenes in that you don’t want to describe blow-by-blow [sighs] what’s happening.
John: But, you want to give a sense of what’s important about the scene and what’s different about sort of other scenes like it we might have seen.
One of my favorite sex scenes in any movie is in the first Terminator, which is just a great movie for so many reasons. But I remember seeing that sex scene and thinking like, “Man, I want to have sex. That looks great!” And so if you look at the actual description of it, it’s there, but it’s not like gratuitous, but it’s clearly what needs to happen in that scene. And if that’s what you’re doing on the page, that’s fantastic.
Second off I would say about sexual content in movies overall is if it’s honest, and if it’s interesting, keep it. I mean, don’t run away from it just because R movies right now tend to be less sexy. Well, maybe yours will stand out because it actually has some sex in it. It can be a good thing.
Craig: Yeah, that’s right. In general keep this in mind: Things that are noticeable in scripts, that are not run-of-the-mill, that are maybe towards the edges, the boundaries of extreme, there are certain types of people who just react to that stuff by saying, “Oh, well, I noticed it therefore maybe tone it down.” Their instinct is to tone everything down.
I will tell you that the audience’s instinct is for everything to be toned up. They don’t want the soft-edged movie. They want something that is interesting to them. Quentin Tarantino’s entire career is a testament to this. He continues to defy our own expectations of what we will laugh at, what we will be entertained by.
And more importantly, the people who say yes are attracted to things that are out of the ordinary. The people who say no, yeah, of course, they’re like, “Why don’t you put it more in a box so it’s safe for me to say yes to?” That’s why they don’t run studios. That’s why they don’t direct movies. That’s why they don’t write movies.
So, don’t be afraid to break a few dishes while you’re writing a script.
John: I agree with you fully.
Let’s let that be the end of our questions and let’s do our One Cool Things, okay?
John: My One Cool Thing is really simple. And it’s this great little Tumblr called Unfinished Scripts. — Wow, that’s a hard thing for me to say. — It’s this great little Tumblr called Unfinished Scripts, which is basically screenshots of somebody who is writing these scenes that inevitably go horribly, horribly awry.
And what I like about it is, first off, it’s very screenwriter-oriented. But I love that Tumblr and Twitter to some degree — eh, both Twitter and Tumblr — have created this thing where there is sort of like an imaginary user. And so by seeing a collection of tweets or posts you’re sort of like getting the idea of who this person is, this imaginary character who would actually write all of these things.
So, I love that that exists in our culture. And I really liked Unfinished Scripts as an example of that.
Craig: Sounds cool. I will check that out for sure.
I have for all of you today a pretty cool thing that’s a little bit of a game. It’s a lot a bit of a game, but it is also connected to my favorite little thing which is the brain.
So, at MIT there is a specific department called the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department. And they’re dealing with this problem of trying to map the connections between all of the neurons in the retina, and I actually spent an entire year in college just learning how vision works from literally photon all the way to our sort of conscious understanding of sight.
So, I’m fascinated by all of this. They have this — this is an area where one technology has outstripped another. They have the technology now to map, I think they’re using rat retinas actually for now, they can map all of this stuff. But it still requires computational power to figure out what’s connected to what, because it’s all in slices and it’s basically a game to figure out, okay, is this thing connected to that, or connected to this? And once they essentially color in all the connections so that this chunk over here is the same color as this chunk, and is continuous, then they’ll actually have a complete map of all of the connections of the retina, which is pretty amazing.
How do you do this? Well, the geniuses over there at MIT, and this is sponsored by the National Institute of Health, have created a game. And they had this brilliant idea that we’ll just put this game online and people can play it. And it’s basically a coloring game. And the way it’s set up is that the game is smart enough to tell you if what you’ve colored in does make sense as a connection or doesn’t. So, you’re basically doing the hard work of just filling in these connections. And the more you play, the higher your points or whatever, but you’re also helping the medical community map the retina!
It’s fascinating. And so I played the game for awhile. It’s incredibly calming. It’s super Zen. And if you want to play, obviously it’s free, it’s web-based. It works particularly well with the Chrome browser on either PC or Mac. And it’s called EyeWire. And so you can sign up for a free account and play the game yourself at eyewire.org.
And know that for once in your miserable little lives you are not wasting time playing a game, you’re actually helping advance the cause of neuroscience.
John: Great. So, Craig, thank you again for a fun podcast. I never actually talk about our outro music, and I usually just pick outro music after the episode is done and I just pick something that seems relevant to what we talked about. But this week I actually know what the outro music is. It is Andrew Lippa’s overture to Big Fish, which you can actually hear in person in Chicago if you choose to come.
And, again, if you want to come see me and the show in Chicago, starting April 2, we will be there. And Ticketmaster, Big Fish.
And, Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: See you next time. Bye.
- Big Fish in Chicago at Ticketmaster
- Green Scream: The Decay of the Hollywood Special Effects Industry
- How to handle a phone meeting
- Unfinished Scripts
- What’s the difference between Hero, Main Character and Protagonist? on johnaugust.com
- Play EyeWire and help map the brain
- OUTRO: Big Fish prologue by Andrew Lippa