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 82, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Craig, you’re sick. I’m so sorry to hear that.

Craig: Yeah. I don’t think it’s terrible. You know, there’s two kinds of viruses you get. There’s the kind that starts with sore throat, and that’s always the worst one. And this one, I just am kind of stuffy and headachy and I want to sleep — just sleep — that’s all I want I do.

John: I’m sorry, Craig.

We’re shooting — not shooting — we’re making Big Fish, the Broadway musical, and we are in Downtown Chicago. I am in the Oriental Theater lobby as we speak. I’m upstairs near the balcony in this one little door that I thought no one would go in or out of, except that people keep walking in and out. So, we’ll have guests in this podcast as they walk past me.

Craig: Cool.

John: So, this part of the process, I think you might be interested in and some listeners might be interested, is completely different than anything you actually sort of do in movie land. This is called “tech.” And what it is is we’ve already rehearsed everything in a room, a rehearsal hall, with sort of like minimal props and stuff. This is putting it on the real stage and you do all the lights and you do all the sound effects, and the projections. And it’s incredibly tedious. It’s sort of all of the tedium of production in a movie, plus post-production at the same time, because you’re doing small color changes in lights.

It’s exhausting. It’s great. It’s wonderful. But it’s great.

And one of the things I was always curious about is, like, how do you work in a theater? Because theaters are designed for looking at things, for like people sitting in wheelchairs to be in the audience, but how do you actually work in the space? And I felt like, do they take out all the seats, or what do they do?

The answer is they take these giant boards and tabletops essentially and put them over the rows of seats that are angled in a certain way so it creates a flat surface. And because that’s at such a high height, they take these padded boards that go on the arm rests of the chairs, and that’s what you sit on. So, you use the same space, but just completely differently.

Craig: What are they doing there in that space?

John: So, it looks like NASA control, because you have these giant monitors at the different stations for the people who are doing the automation, sort of like how things move in and out, how the sets move. You have another station which is designed for all the sound effects. You have another station which is for the music department. I’m at this table with the swings who are all the people who can fill in all the individual spots, so they have to watch every footstep and be able to step in on any place.

Another person is doing the projections. And then upstairs in this balcony where I’m doing this stuff they are handling lighting things. So, it’s very complicated. And we sort of have this policy of not taking photos inside the theater so we don’t spoil any set stuff, but it really genuinely does look like NASA. Like you could launch some sort of craft from here.

Craig: Well, you should take pictures. I mean, you’re privileged.

John: I am sort of privileged, but at the same time I don’t want to set a bad example. Because I’m a good boy, Craig; I think we’ve established I’m a good boy.

Craig: I know. I would break that rule. Do it!

John: You would break that rule. I’ve taken some photos, I just haven’t tweeted them.

Craig: There you go.

John: So, maybe I’ll send you a photo if you promise not to send it out.

Craig: I promise not to send it out.

John: But, anyway, Chicago has been great. And so thank you Chicago for being so nice and wonderful. It’s really cold, but the people are warm.

Craig: That’s a lovely sentiment that has never been expressed more than 14 million times.

John: That’s the hope.

Today on the podcast we are going to focus on some Three Page Challenges. We have always a big giant stack of them, a folder of them, I don’t know how Stuart actually organizes them, but he gets a bunch of them every day. And he reads them all and he sorts them into special little piles. And so we asked Stuart to give us some samples of what he’s read.

So, for listeners who are new to the podcast, we do this thing called Three Page Challenge which we invite or listeners to send in the first three pages of their screenplay or their teleplay, but it’s usually a screenplay. And we will read them and offer some feedback on them. And our listeners can also read these samples if they’d like to. So, if you go to johnaugust.com/podcast you can download these PDFs that these people have bravely and generously agreed to share so we may all learn by their example.

So, we have four of them today. And I just read them. I actually had to run to the theater partly because I left my microphone here, but partly because I don’t have a printer in my room so I had to be here in the theater. So, I’ve just now read them. They’re all very fresh in my head. Craig, do you have any preference on which one you want to start with?

Craig: No, no. Do you want me to just start? I can just start and I can do a summary of this first one?

John: Oh my god, I would so love a summary.

Craig: Yeah, yeah. I’ll do all the summaries if you want.

John: Oh my god. It’s like living in the future. I love it. Thank you, Craig, please do.

Craig: All right. So, this first Three Page Challenge is from Justin Adams. And it begins with a couple of quotes, one about the person who green lighted the Aztek, that’s a General Motors VP quoting about the Aztec and how he would fire anybody willing to admit that they green lit it. And then a quick review quote from a Car Talk listener that runs down — that just insults the Aztek.

And then we fade in on — we’re in Michigan. We’re in a two-bedroom ranch. Bit of a monotonous suburb. And we find it is morning time: Coffee makers and clothes and so forth. And we find Matt Carver, he’s 46, he’s praying, and then he kisses his wife and heads off to the GM truck and bus plant.

He’s sitting in his truck with his friend, Wayne. And the two of them are drinking beer. And they’re talking about Matt’s son, who seems like a smart kid, unlike Matt, I guess, is the joke. And then a whistle blows basically. They all get out in the rain. All these guys are getting out in the rain heading towards the factory and they start talking a little bit about sports. And then we’re done.

John: Yes. So, a lot of things to talk about here. First off, I would say let’s talk about starting with quotes. Because quotes are a nice way to sort of set up the idea of what your script is about, or sort of what the themes in your script is going to be about. So, most scripts shouldn’t have them, but I kind of like these quotes.

And it was interesting that it took longer for you to summarize what the quotes were, more than the actual quotes.

Craig: Yeah. I should have just read them.

John: Here are the quotes:

“We’d fire the guy who green lighted the Aztek if we could find anyone willing to admit it.” That’s Bob Lutz, Global VP for Product Development at General Motors

The second super is, “It looks the way Montezuma’s revenge feels,” a Car Talk Listener, 2005.

So, I like those as framing devices. I would generally not put them on the first page of the script. I would put them on a page between the cover page and the first page of your script, which is just kind of like a dedication kind of page; sort of sets the stage for things. But, for the Three Page Challenge I think it’s great and fine that they’re here because it helps set the stage.

It made me — it put me in a “Made for HBO” movie kind of world.

Craig: Right.

John: And that’s not a bad thing. Or, something that Steven Soderbergh would direct. That kind of thing is how I was feeling about it.

I liked some of the writing. I liked sort of — yes, it’s kind of cliché to start with, like, “now we start in the morning, and the light is dawn and we’re at a place and things get started.” But, some of the writing was nice. Things like, you know, “More jeans, more undershirts, more underwear, all stacked up in columns, separated by painter’s tape.” That was specific. I liked the use of short repetitive phrases to sort of establish regularity. Kind of a nice thing.

“A coffee maker pops and sputters on a faded linoleum countertop.” Yeah, I get that.

“A Stanley thermos and two quarters sit nearby. The shower stops. The coffee maker beeps.” So, these are small little images that give you a sense of what this daily life is. Now, is it a daily life that is probably kind of familiar? Sure, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing to start your story in a familiar way so you can have some sort of surprise later on.

Craig, what were you thinking as you started reading this?

Craig: You know, the painting of the pre-wake up section was fine. It’s the sort of thing people will scan past. I forced myself to read it. But, you know, there was a little over-description here. For instance, “We pan left and look down the endless asphalt street. It is lined with hundreds of identical brick ranches and an occasional functioning streetlight.”

I’m not sure how we’re going to know that some of the streetlights are not functioning and how far are we looking that we could see that many street lights and so forth? I mean, I guess I see what he means is that he meant some of them are on, some of them are off.

It’s fine. I don’t necessarily need to know that. Just because, you know, these pages are precious, these early pages. They’re just so precious. This time is required to do a lot.

So, you know, it’s fine to have a little bit of that, but then we also have two sections where we’re looking at folded clothes. I’m not sure we need two folded clothes sections. The shower, and the coffee, and then the shower stops, and the coffee maker beeps. There was just a lot there to read. It was all well written, but maybe thin it out just a touch to get to what we care about, what the reader is going to care about, which is our hero.

John: Back at page one: “EXT. TWO BEDROOM RANCH – 4:30AM.” So, that 4:30AM is written in sort of where we usually see day or night. And that’s fine. You can do that. It’s absolutely valid to stick a time in there if it’s useful.

I would like to make the argument for if you kept that as “DAY” or “DAWN” or “PRE-DAWN” and we can lose that whole “PAN LEFT and look down the endless asphalt street,” and if you actually used that as a super, if you said like, “4:30AM,” that puts us in a frame of mind like this is something that’s… — There’s a reason why you’re watching this day.

And hopefully there is a reason why. Even though the setup is so generic and we sort of are used to it, there’s a reason why we’re watching this day. And so the 4:30AM puts us in that frame of mind, like, okay, here we are right now in this moment.

Because of the layout of this page, because we had those two super quotes, it feels read to have an extra super. But if those two super quotes were on a previous page, then like that’s the first thing we’re sticking on the screen with specific information; that would have a little bit more weight.

Craig: Mm-hmm. Yeah, also 4:30AM tells us that this person wakes up very, very early. If we don’t see an indication of time, for instance even if it’s just the clock in a kitchen, or on the coffee maker, we don’t know if it’s 8:30AM on a wintery day, or it’s just the low light. Knowing that this person wakes up that early is information we probably, I think, our author — Justin — wants us to know. So, that’s a good point.

There’s a moment where he stands up, and this is one of those things that I don’t personally like in scripts. “He stands up. His joints CRACK. He’s an attractive man who, at 46, still doesn’t know it.” That’s impossible for anyone to portray. It’s impossible to convey through film. The fact that he’s attractive but still doesn’t know it is not anything we could ever possibly know. So, why say it?

John: Yeah. I think people put that descriptor in because they sort of want an attractive actor to think that, “Oh, this is a part for me.” It feels appealing to an actor’s vanity and their sort of false humility. But, it’s actually not a very useful thing. So, if you’re going to use half of a sentence for something, pick a better half sentence.

Craig: And it’s not even that it’s taking up space. Things like that tend to annoy me because it’s cheating. You’re attempting to put a little spin there that will not be available to any actor or director. And I know also that part of it is like, “Well, everybody writes attractive person, or good looking, or beautiful because all actors are,” generally, unless you’re casting against that. And so you want to be clever, put a spin on it. But, you could just as easily say, “He’s an attractive man. He was once a gorgeous man but time and sun have taken their toll.” Just things that we can see.

You know, he kisses his wife on the back of her head. “‘I got you babe.’ Walks away. The camera lingers.” That’s okay. You know, that line may not even be necessary. It may be later, but that’s fine.

And then we get to this scene in the parking lot. Now, what did you think about this?

John: It went on for a long time about sort of minimal chitchat. And so here’s the thing is that you’re establishing the normalcy of the day or sort of what happens. If it’s just sort of walla walla, let’s get out of the walla walla a little bit faster, because it just felt like we were sitting for a long time and I just can’t believe that this is actually going to be important information because they’re talking about uniforms, and schmucks on the field. Well, they’re talking about sports. And so you might as well just put up — it’s like the lorem ipsum kind of dialogue of let’s talk about sports. It felt like filler to me.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, there’s two interesting things that come out of this. One is — well, first of all, I guess he’s picked up Wayne, his buddy, so he’s driven him there and that’s fine. There are two interesting things that come out of this. One is that these guys are drinking before working.

John: Yes.

Craig: Which is a great little touch. I wasn’t quite sure how he opened his window and tossed the empty back into the cab, because I was trying to do the geography of that. He’s in a truck. And if you open your window, how do you toss it into the back? You’ve got to kind of like curveball it into the back. I didn’t quite understand. I mean, maybe there’s a window in between?

Anyway…

John: Yeah, I think he’s talking about the back window in the cab of the pickup truck. That slides.

Craig: Oh, it slides?

John: It can slide.

Craig: Okay, so he slides it and tosses it into the back. It’s just a little weird, but that’s fine.

John: The fact that it stopped you is a problem.

Craig: But it clanged against dozens of empties, so hopefully these guys haven’t drank dozens of beers this very morning and these are old ones. And I think that that was a good touch.

Frankly, I would save that for the last thing. A couple of guys drinking a beer a piece in the car before they go into work is interesting. Then I think you actually get a laugh and an “Oh!” if you end the scene with them tossing it into the back and realizing, “My god, there’s dozens of empties back there. This is what they do every morning.” That’s a great little button for the scene.

The other piece of information that comes out is that Matt’s son has gotten a job, and it’s a real job programming ECMs. I don’t know what an ECM is. But, he’s programming it and apparently that’s impressive, so the son is sort of doing better than the dad.

I don’t generally like things like this:

“My boy starts today.” “Luke?” “Yeah. Up at the country club.”

I would never say that to you. If you said to me, “Oh, my daughter is going to pre-school today,” I wouldn’t just immediately say her name. [laughs] And, also, it’s such a strange first line. “My boy starts today.” You know?

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, that was a little clumsy. But, they have a little joke. I do agree that we could cut the entire discussion of what I assume is a discussion of the Detroit Lions. It’s three-quarters of a page that you just don’t need. I would end with the reveal of the beer cans and then a great image of all these guys emerging from their trucks in unison, in the rain, covering their heads with the Free Press, heading towards this factory that’s about to make the world’s ugliest car.

John: Yeah. I did like that image a lot. The newspapers over their heads, I think, will be a nice thing.

So, I would say I’m optimistic about the idea. I think that Justin can write. I think there are some things that can be tweaked and improved. Just make sure your spending your words the best you possibly can. But, I was excited to see it. Well done, Justin.

Craig: Yeah. Really. This is good. I think this could be a really cool script. And everything we’re saying here I think is the sort of — I see things like this in scripts I write and then change. And I see things like this in scripts that friends of mine write and change. These are not “Oh my god, was it this?” errors. They’re very common.

One little tiny formatting thing: Your page numbers are not in Courier. They’re in a different font, which it’s not the end of the world or anything, it’s just jarring because the numbers seem like they belong in a different script.

John: I would also say the numbers are also at the bottom of the page which is bizarre.

Craig: Yes. They’re supposed to be at the top right. That’s where they belong on screenplays. Bottom middle is for term papers.

John: Yeah.

Craig: All right, so…

John: Next up, what do you have?

Craig: I’ve got The Answerer, written by Ben W. And that’s such a great — I love the title, The Answerer. And I also love that it was written by Ben W. Everything is mysterious about this title page.

John: It reminds me a little bit of The Rural Juror, which if you watch 30 Rock you would know is a recurring joke that Jenna Maroney, the Jane Krakowski character on 30 Rock, was in a John Grisham knock-off called The Rural Juror.

Craig: [laughs]

John: [laughs] And eventually she sings a song about it which is just the best.

Craig: The Rural Juror. That’s perfect. So, this is The Answerer, written by Ben W.

We begin, “INT. FUNTIME TOYS BUILDING – ELEVENTH FLOOR… efficiently-sized offices, all polished mahogany and frosted glass.” And we land on the Product Assessment Division. And this is a very kind of almost robotic sort of office. Lots of buzzing, and rattling, and dinging. And we land in Nicholas Snellard’s office. Snellard is 40 and balding. And he sits at his tidy desk.

And he looks at a toy assessment form, one of those exploded-view diagrams with technical detail, but he seems to understand it perfectly. And all of this is related to a little tin toy, a monkey in a clown suit on a unicycle. And Snellard has this sort of review quality checklist. And he checks everything, winds the toy up.

The toy remarkably — is amazing — it juggles. The monkey can kind of ride on a unicycle and juggle two little balls. And when it ends the monkey stops, but one of the little balls dingles away onto the floor.

– That’s my word, “Dingle.”

John: I was going to say, dingles is an impressive word.

Craig: Yes. It dingles away on the floor. He is considering whether or not to reject or allow this. When he gets a new thing that comes through his pneumatic tube, or his dumbwaiter, and it’s The Answerer, Executive Desktop Edition. And it’s basically just a Y, and you have a little ball that says yes or no. You write a question down, you put it in the ball, and you drop it in and it ends as yes or no.

So, the first question he writes is, “Does this thing work?” And it comes down yes. So, then he changes it to, “Does this thing not work?” And it lands on no. Huh, very good.

And he’s about to approve it when he realized that his ink has no pad. — I’m sorry, his pad has no ink. And the last shot is he sees “a framed wedding photo sitting in the drawer of his desk, a young Snellard with a pretty bride, both in horn rimmed glasses.”

So, John, what did you think of The Answerer?

John: This read to me like a short film. It read to me like a clever little snapshot. People may not appreciate if they’re not actually reading the page, there’s no dialogue in any of this. This is all just a series of images, and I thought honestly kind of nicely done images. It was very, very full. I mean, it was kind of a slog to read through some of it, although I will say breaking it, Ben W., you did a nice job of breaking it down into little snippets so that I was never too intimidated to read the next bit of the script.

So, it either felt like the start of a short film, or it felt like the start of Up, where it’s just like one sort of montage that was going to initiate a bigger, different kind of movie, that there’s some sort of bigger adventure that’s going to happen, but this was just the setup for something else.

But I enjoyed it. I sort of enjoy that sort of like clockwork Coen brothers setup of things. I mean, it’s a heavily stylized world. And even without seeing the outside of this office you got a sense of what this would be.

Craig: Yeah. I really liked it. I mean, before I talk about the way that the writing was done here, let me just talk about the idea. Because this is something — I have to confess — I suspect that this movie is one in which this person realizes that The Answerer actually works. That any question he writes that’s a yes or no question, he’s going to get a true answer to, including, you know, “Does this woman love me?” “Does she not love me?” And so it’s this kind of high concept supernatural comedy idea. I actually had — I was going to write a short story to for Derek’s site that was very similar, but it wasn’t a device. It was that somebody would call in the middle of the night and basically say, “I’ll answer any question you have.” And the answer always turned out to be right. And what do you do with certainty?

It’s a really good theme. I like the idea, obviously, because I’ve been thinking about something similar. I know at this point Ben W. is like, oh god, “Oh god, he’s stealing my…!” I’m not going to steal your idea.

So, I’m kind of curious to see how this would turn out given that both the concept is very high and the world is also quite a bit pushed. But that’s okay. I mean, that’s the choice here.

I actually thought this was very well written. The little drama of the tin toy monkey was fascinating to me, actually, that it worked. And I really like that Ben W. has a sense of where the drama is in this little thing. That the monkey surprises us with how complicated it is. Even when it stops a little kickstand comes out. So, my god, this thing is almost perfect. And then it’s just slightly imperfect. And that, I suspect, is going to be a nice little metaphor for Mr. Snellard’s life. Mr. Snellard is the monkey who is almost perfect.

All of that stuff is great. That’s very intentional writing. Good stuff here. The movie already feels incredibly antiseptic, which could be wonderful, could be oppressive, I don’t know.

The only thing I wish were different were the framed wedding photo sitting in the drawer, which is a very kind of stock way of introducing the notion of a loved one who is no longer there.

But that aside, I thought this was fascinating. This is the kind of writing that is so consistent to itself and so very much a product of control that I don’t want to nitpick at any of it. I would rather Ben just keep going. I’m sure he has an entire script. But this was very good. This was one of my favorite Three pages.

And in particular I also liked the way that Ben is not afraid to play around with formatting in a way that you don’t even notice. So, he’s going to center things like “THE ANSWERER – Executive Desktop Edition” is centered. The questions that he’s filling out he tabs in, as well as step one.

When he says, “Does this thing not work,” he’s going to add “not” in with a carrot. and Ben even did that. And stuff like that is just so — it’s so nice to read when it’s done right and when it’s part of the intention. So, this may be my favorite Three Page yet.

John: I think one of the reasons why you really liked this is because it’s actually set in Courier Prime.

Craig: Oh, really?

John: As far as I know it’s the first of the Three Page samples I’ve seen that is set in Courier Prime. And what gave it away is on page two, the “but he is essentially juggling. While riding a unicycle.” And see how it goes into italics?

Craig: I do.

John: Those are true Courier Prime italics. And one of the giveaways that that is really our italics is they look better, but also the lower case A in Courier Prime has no ascender on it. It’s round.

Craig: Should I ask what an ascender is?

John: You know how a printed A often has a little sort of hat on it? So it’s a bowl and it has a hat on it? It has no hat.

Craig: It has no hat. Now, why shouldn’t it have a hat? Because the other ones have a hat.

John: It doesn’t have to have a hat. I mean, if you wrote an A you wouldn’t write a hat on it.

Craig: Yeah, but if the A that’s not italicized has a hat, shouldn’t it be consistent?

John: Italics are often either a more casual or a sort of script version of the type face. And that’s what we’re really doing with Courier Prime is that we modeled it after italic faces on typewriters, which there were italic typewriters for a period of time. And they were designed for writing correspondence, like writing to your loved ones. So, they were sort of more gentle and that’s sort of how we…where we pulled the forms.

Craig: Well, this is a cool script. I would want to read the rest of this script.

John: I would want to read it, too. Yet, again, a weird situation where, again, the page numbers are not in Courier Prime, they’re not in a Courier typeface, for some reason I can’t parse. And I like having a period after the page number. It’s just kind of conventional.

Craig: Yes. As do I as well. But, yeah, this would be fun for me to read.

Hey, Ben, send me the script. I want to read it. Can we do that?

John: Oh my god! Yeah, you can totally do that. So, Ben, if you’re listening, send it in.

Craig: Just don’t sue me or anything dumb.

John: Yeah, don’t do that.

Craig: Come on, Ben. But I really think is very cool. I want to read the script. Good job, Ben. You’re the first person who made me want to read a script.

John: My god.

Craig: My god. All right. Next up. We’re flying through this.

John: Two choices. Who is it going to be?

Craig: I’m going to go with Abigail Blackmore.

John: I was going to say so, too.

Craig: Abigail Blackmore. I assume that that is our author and not the title of the script.

John: Yeah.

Craig: So, we begin at the First Baptist Church in Allen, Texas, and services have just completed. The congregation is streaming out. Marvin and Patty Feeney, middle-aged couple, are shaking hands with the pastor. He asks after their son, Dex. Patty says, “He’s studying for college entries.”

Well, we cut to Tracy’s basement. At the same time Dex is actually having sex with Tracy. The two of them actually have rough sex. He’s choking her during it. And then when it’s done she crosses off the words Rough Play on a page and next up is Anal Sex. So, they’re making their way through a list.

We then go to the Feeney house in the morning, next morning. Marvin is saying grace. Patty is asking Dexter, her son, about the college applications. She’s found a bunch of college rejections in his room and he has an argument with her about basically the fact that he was waiting to get an acceptance and then he would surprise her with it.

So, that’s Abigail Blackmore’s Three pages. John, take it away.

John: So, it’s a classic sort of — almost kind of like a record scratch. You have one setup and then you go to exactly the opposite of it. So, it’s like, “Boy is it cold in here,” and then you cut to something blazingly hot. It’s that kind of joke where we start in sort of a religious context. And he’s studying for college entries and then he’s having passionate love with this woman.

I liked that it got really dirty really fast. I always enjoy that in a script.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And I just like that it got nice and filthy. It was broad in a way that wasn’t — I wasn’t encouraged by how broad it got so quickly though. And when we got back to the normal family and sort of the around the breakfast table, I was a little bit nervous about sort of how stuff was going to proceed. Because it went from the churchy speed, to let’s have hard core sex, back to churchy table scene, without a sense of sort of why it was fun to be placing those against each other, or why it was going to original to be placing those things next to each other.

Craig: Right. Right. Yeah. I agree with you.

The beginning of this has a little bit of the same problem we saw in our first three pages where, “My son started today.” “Luke?” You know, same thing here:

“Wonderful sermon, Pastor.”

“Patty, Marvin. How’s Dex? Not seen him in church lately.”

So, first of all, he’s a pastor. They just said something nice to him. I would imagine, “Thank you,” would be the normal thing a pastor would say. Not to simply announce their names to us and then immediately ask after the son. It’s just too jammed in. It just feel unnatural.

John: Also unnatural is, “He’s studying for college entries.” I don’t know what that sentence really means.

Craig: Yeah. What does that mean?

John: How do you study for college entries? “He’s getting ready for college,” maybe.

Craig: Well, “college entries,” even that is a weird phrase.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And also, he’s not, because he’s been applying, he’s got rejection letters, so what is there to study for? We’re already beyond that.

So, that was a bit clumsy. The sex scene I liked. I thought there was interesting touches. In the room the wall is covered with posters of dead movie stars. I thought that was really funny. And it’s the kind of thing that a lot of people wouldn’t even get, you know, but many people would in that quick moment.

The sex itself was very sort of, you know, you can see HBO’s Girls starting to infect things, not necessarily in a bad way, but apparently two people screwing isn’t enough anymore. You know, they have to go even further. And that’s fine. There’s something modern about it.

It was a little weird. I don’t’ know if I believe it necessarily. I don’t know if I believe this woman.

John: It reminded me a little bit more of Showtime’s Shameless.

Craig: Mm, I’ve never watched Shameless, but is that sort of the vibe?

John: That’s the vibe I sort of got out of that. I forget that you don’t watch any television at all.

Craig: I don’t, I know, and I should because our friend Nancy Pimental is the head writer on Shameless. But, I think that the — it’s pushed, you know, so tonally the notion that they’re going to work their way through sexual, I don’t know, like a hit list of sexual practices. It felt, I don’t know, I don’t believe it really happens. There is something funny about “Next up, ‘ANAL SEX’.” And then “Tracy, croaky, ‘Wednesday’s anal.’”That’s a very funny line. Plus, she’s croaky because he was choking her. I mean, I you know, it was funny. I thought it was really well done.

John: Yeah.

Craig: She’s cool, you know, I liked that.

The Marvin and Patty scene, this however, I got a little whiplash. So, there’s this very cool scene in Tracy’s basement. But then back at home with his mom and his dad, it felt a little like I was just watching a summer stock production of a parents and generation gap drama. Where, you know, I just — it was boring. I don’t know what else to say. I’ve seen it, you know.

John: Someone on Twitter this morning mentioned that like there should be some sort of drinking game every time we mention specificity, but I think specificity is the problem I’m having here is that the parents feel very generically, oh, they’re churchy Baptist people.

And if they’re going to be important characters, give them something specific that is not just template stock character churchy Baptist people. And you can say, like, “Oh, but we’re only on page two.” But we’re on page two, so give us some sense of what’s unique and special about this family versus any other sort of family, because you were very specific on the sex scene.

Craig: Right.

John: I mean, and it was pointed. So, make everyone else in the world at least as interesting if they’re going to be a crucial part of your script.

Craig: Yeah. It almost feels like the sex scene was written by a different person, because the sex scene was visual. It wasn’t overly dialogued. And then when we get back to the kitchen, it’s just people talking. I mean, she tries to touch his hair. He flinches at her reach. There’s the hair cutting thing. Look, all of the stuff where he’s a child, but they don’t get that he’s really grown up. But he’s lying to them.

I don’t know. It was sort of boring. I don’t feel like a kid that’s doing what he’s doing with Tracy really gives a damn about what his parents feel, you know. I don’t know. There’s just something so whiplashy tonally about this stuff. But, I really liked the Tracy’s Basement scene.

John: I did, too.

I want to talk about the Tracy’s Basement scene, though. Page two:

Dex is still catching his breath. He nods.

Tracy lights a cigarette.

TRACY (CONT’D)

Okay.

That’s his cue. He gets up, pulls on his clothes and climbs out the window.

So, that’s the button on a scene. That’s the, like, okay, the scene is over. It’s like he’s walking out the door. I feel like that scene is probably stronger without the button.

Craig: No question.

John: And so if you say that croaky for, so, “Wednesday’s Anal,” that’s…

Craig: That’s the end. There isn’t an editor in the world who would not cut the rest of the scene. I think, you know, if you really wanted to show the idea that he had to leave through the window, what I would do is:

TRACY

Wednesday’s Anal.

He nods.

EXT. HOUSE

Dex is climbing out the window. Cut to:

INT. FEENEY HOUSE

You know what I mean? Like it’s a new thing. But you wouldn’t have just him climbing out from interior.

John: And I just want to talk also on page two, Dex, and Patty, and Marvin are all capitalized again.

Craig: Right.

John: That’s not a common style in screenplays these days. And it went through a phase where probably it was more common. Don’t do that.

Craig: Also, if you have — personally I wouldn’t capitalize the word “Grace” for the prayer. But if you feel the need to out of some sort of religious deference, be aware that people are going to think it’s a name, especially when you have all these other names. It seemed a little odd to me.

The prayer itself, too. I just want to say this feels very clumsy to me. “Thank you, Lord Jesus, for this good food and for our continued good health.” So, there’s two goods, but fine, it’s grace. “And please spare a thought for the Winchester family at 1216.” What?! You know, god doesn’t need addresses. That just felt like either you were trying to be cute and it just didn’t work, or it’s just stilted, you know. I wonder if the Winchester family is Tracy.

Oh, no, she’s Tracy Keach, so it’s not. I don’t know. So, Tracy Keach, huh? It’s like Stacy Keach, the actor.

Regardless, anyway, it’s weird. I just feel like two different people are writing this script. And I like the writer that wrote Tracy’s Basement.

John: I would also say that if you’re going to keep that prayer, a good time to introduce that prayer would be over Craig Mazin’s climbing out the window. Because that’s a great pre-lap.

Craig: Mm-hmm.

John: Because we know what a prayer sounds like. If we start hearing that before we actually see the people doing it, it’s a great way to save yourself some time. You can establish the neighborhood a little bit if you wanted to.

Craig: Right.

John: That can be a useful thing to do.

Craig: Yes. Yes. Okay, so, a mixed bag there, but, nice to see some good.

And last we have something from Ed Stahr. S-T-A-H-R. Star! And it’s The New Normal, “Pilot.” So, this would be a pilot for a show called The New Normal that’s not the actual show The New Normal that’s on TV.

John: Yeah. So, let’s have a little sidebar conversation before we even start.

Craig: Yeah. Because I was like, “Wait, whoa! Someone’s giving us a pilot for a show that’s on TV.” [laughs]

John: So, it sucks when someone takes your title, but it happens all the time. And if you’re sending something out to somebody and it has the same title as something that’s on the air, or is a movie that currently exists, that’s going to be really confusing.

So, the fact that their thing already exists and yours is a script, sorry, you’re going to need to pick a new title for your show or for your movie. That’s just the breaks.

Also, at the bottom of this page Ed has his WGA registration number. You don’t need it. No one cares. He also has Copyright 2011. Well, you know what? It’s already copyrighted because you wrote it. And Copyright 2011 tells me that this has been sitting on a shelf or in a drawer for awhile.

So, these are not useful things to be putting on your script.

It is accepted practice to — something that’s old that you’re sending out again, and you do want to put a date on it, put it on the bottom right hand side, and fake it. Just change two things in the script so that it’s a new script and put a newer date on it. That’s my advice.

Craig: Right. That’s great advice. This sort of bric-a-brac, yeah, first of all you’ve got to change the title. No question. I guess in TV it’s okay to call a pilot, “Pilot?”

John: It’s actually common practice.

Craig: Okay.

John: The joke in one of the TV pilots that I did that we actually produced was the pilot was actually about the death of a pilot, so it was just kind of fun that the pilot was about a dead pilot.

Craig: [laughs] I like that. And did it become a dead pilot? No, it didn’t become a dead pilot.

John: Everything dies eventually.

Craig: Everything dies.

John: You know Lost? Lost died. Hugely successful, and then it died.

Craig: This is why drama is interesting. Death.

And, yeah, we don’t need this WGA bric-a-brac. We don’t need Copyright 2011. It just makes you sound like somebody that’s going to sue somebody.

So, let’s do a quick summary here of The New Normal Pilot. Stan Dobbs, a 37 year old man, is sipping coffee from a travel mug in his kitchen. Steps out of his wife’s way. She’s Jen Dobbs, 35. And she’s bringing a skillet of scrambled eggs to the breakfast table.

We meet the kids, Chelsea, 4, cute, and Peyton, 14, a little too much makeup. Pierced ears. And the kids are asking daddy Stan to stay with them, but he has to go to work. And Peyton is annoyed by this. And she thinks it’s because it’s more important than they are. And she, in a teenage way, takes her plate of eggs to her room. “I’m going to eat in my room.”

Stan tells his wife he has to go to work. She says don’t work too hard. But then we reveal that he’s in his car. He’s got a laptop, and documents, and notebook, and he’s leaving a message with someone about trying to get a job. And clearly he’s been out of work for a bit and he’s been lying.

He’s now in a playground, alone, eating a hot dog. Back in the car, he’s talking to a credit card rep about the fact that his payment is late. And while he’s talking to her about the fact that he owes money, his wife calls in and asks if he could pick up dinner on the way home. He hopes that maybe there could be something in the freezer but she says no. She’s been going all day. Obviously she has no idea that they are in financial bad straits.

So, John, let’s discuss The New Normal Pilot.

John: Let us. I think we have to start with the first paragraph. So, I’m going to read the first paragraph but it may not give you the sort of full impression as to why it’s a challenging paragraph.

Craig: Yeah.

John: STAN DOBBS (37, with greying well groomed hair, a hint of a gut and business clothes) takes a sip of coffee from a travel mug, then steps of out JEN DOBBS’s way…

Craig: No.

John: Sorry, I already messed up.

Craig: You’re already making it better than it is.

John: …steps of out JEN DOBBS’s (35, attractive, with a pony-tail and sweat pants) way as she carries a steaming skillet of scrambled eggs to the breakfast table.

So, that was five lines, and there are so many dependent clauses in here that you can so easily get confused.

Craig: It’s a jungle. It’s a jungle.

John: It’s a jungle.

So, here’s the actual action that’s happening? Stan Dobbs get out of his wife’s way while she has a skillet of eggs. That’s what happens in the actual thing. But, here’s all the information that’s being crammed into this paragraph: He’s 37, he has well-groomed gray hair, a bit of a gut, and business clothes.

What are business clothes? Is it a suit? I don’t know.

Craig: I guess?

John: Jen Dobbs is…

Craig: Wait, wait, you forgot. He is sipping coffee from a travel mug.

John: Oh, I forgot. I was just going to talk about the descriptors, but sure. The actual action is he is sipping coffee, getting out of her way while she has a skillet full of scrambled eggs. Those are the actual actions.

Craig: Yes.

John: But Jen, she doesn’t just have this, because she has to be something, and so in the parenthesis she is 35, attractive, with a pony-tail and sweatpants. That’s just…it’s just too much.

Here’s the information you could stick in here: Stan Dobbs, 37. You can give us the rest of him in the next paragraph. You can give more information about in the next paragraph if you want to. Jen Dobbs, 35, fine. And then you can actually maybe follow the action that’s happening in that paragraph. The action isn’t interesting at all. It’s not a great first way to start your story.

Craig: No, no. Let’s really talk…

Okay, first of all, the first paragraph as John described is tortured writing. It’s nearly impossible to read. It required three passes through for me to understand what the hell was going on.

That aside, here’s the real crime of this first paragraph: It’s static for the actors. We’re opening on people standing and then a woman moves across another person to bring eggs to a table. In and of itself it just feels like it opens on people standing and a woman walking.

So, if Stan enters and he walks through, grabs coffee, she’s dishing out eggs, the kids are doing whatever it is, but somehow we’re just opening on a man standing, sipping coffee from a travel mug. And then getting out of somebody’s way as she carries a steaming skillet of scramble eggs to the breakfast table. How tiny is the set that he needs to move out of the way, that she can’t take the eggs to the table?

So, we start off really clumsily.

John: Let’s play with this and say like well what if that was really the intent, is that he is a man who is frozen, like deer in the headlights kind of frozen, and she has to say, “Stan, move.” That’s a completely different thing.

Craig: Oh, great.

John: But then you’re starting on in the image of one person and you’re giving his description, and he’s just zoned out in his own space. And then she has to sort of get his attention to get around him.

Craig: Right.

John: That’s meaningful. That’s the purpose to why you’re doing that.

Craig: And, I would push that a little bit so that he moves to maybe get out — she tells him to move, he tries to move, and now he’s in his daughter’s way, and now he’s in the other daughter’s way, and he doesn’t know where to put anything. And he’s about to put his coffee down and somebody else puts something down in its place.

If you want to create the intention of somebody who’s out of place or in the way, that would be great. If you want to create the intention that this is somebody who is stuck and can’t move, that’s fine, too. But this is just — I think you’re just trying to set a domestic scene and there’s no value here. Sweatpants is one word. Not “sweat pants.” Yeah.

And these parenthesis is no way to do this. Break this paragraph up. This is not a good opening.

John: It’s not a good opening. The next real paragraph: “CHELSEY (4, cute, with a pony-tail and wearing pajamas)…”

“Pajama-wearing CHELSEY” would be a way to sort of establish that she’s in pajamas and she’s four. Don’t stick those giant parenthetical things in there because we lose track of what the actual purpose of the sentence was.

Craig: Yeah…

John: It’s just trapped in this parenthetical clause.

Craig: Yeah, look, “Chelsea, 4, pajamas.” That’s what I would do. I mean, you’re telling me a four-year-old little girl on TV is cute. Really? Oh, okay, because that’s a change of pace from all the ugly four-year-olds they put in television shows.

John: [laughs] I really want someone to write that. “The ugliest four-year-old you’ve ever seen.”

Craig: I would. I know.

John: And then I want to go to the casting call for that one. Which parents are bringing their kids in for like the ugly role?

Craig: Can I tell you, it’s so funny you bring that up. You know, there are oftentimes when you have to write characters — the point is that they’re ugly. And I always do think about these casting calls where people are like, “Oh, finally. Finally! This is perfect.” Or their agent calls, “Have I got something for you! I’ve got it. They need an ugly person. They need somebody who’s atrocious.”

You know, you’ve seen Cry-Baby, right, the John Waters’ movie?

John: Oh, yeah.

Craig: I love Cry-Baby. I just think it’s such an underrated film. And Hatchet-Face. I just love that the woman’s name is Hatchet-Face because she’s so ugly. And they found a spectacularly, I mean, obviously they made her uglier in the movie than she really is in real life. But she’s got an odd face. And I love how she’s like, “Yeah, that’s right.”

Oh, it’s so cool. I just love that. Anyway…

John: Let’s continue. Let’s flip the pages because I think there’s a useful thing on the next one. Well, first off, in Stan’s car: “…documents line the dashboard and envelopes ret in his lap.”

Okay, this script has been around since 2011 and on page two you didn’t catch a typo. That’s not showing a lot of attention to detail. And I also want to talk about — this could be kind of useful — phone conversations. Because this script tries to have it both ways. General rule: Either we hear both sides of phone calls or we hear one side of phone calls. Both are okay. We can do it. But originally the first call that we’re on with Stan, we only hear his side.

Craig: I think he’s leaving a message in that first one.

John: Well, I didn’t read it clearly. So, I apologize.

Craig: But there’s no way to know that he’s leaving a message exactly, which is an issue. If the intention is that you want him leaving a message, we should hear the beep so that we aren’t confused.

John: But I will apologize, because I should have — once you get to the end of the thing you realize that it is that, but general rule, I would say, either we hear both sides or we hear one side. Don’t cheat.

Or, a phone can be put on speaker so we deliberately know that you’re hearing both sides because it’s actually happening in the space, but if we have both the character’s point of view of sound and the scene’s point of view of the sound, you have to be consistent throughout your movie with that.

Craig: Yeah. Before I get to Mr. Streebig here, I just want to say that this initial conversation around the eggs is not good. He is heading out to work. The four-year-old cute girl is saying, “Stay daddy.” Well, that makes sense. My daughter still says that to me and she’s eight.

“Daddy has to go to work Chelsey.” “Why?” And then Peyton, the 14-year-old says, “Because it’s more important than you are.” This is faux teen outrage. Teenagers are going to get angry about all sorts of stuff. They can’t get angry about their dad going to work. That’s just bizarre. They have to go to school anyway. I don’t…it just doesn’t…I mean, even if it’s a Saturday or whatever, I mean, if the point is that it’s Saturday, then say that. But, I just — that just is fake, you know?

John: Yeah.

Craig: It’s fake. And there’s no real reaction to it. And then Jen’s description, you know, “Daddy goes to work so that we can have money.” You know, the whole thing seems really weird like we’re explaining this weird notion of work. Yeah.

John: I want to stop sort of picking on the script because I didn’t think these pages really worked. But I want to sort of speculate on intention behind it. Because, in calling this The New Normal, and it sets up with this idea of this unemployed guy, I’m trying to figure out where I think it’s going as a pilot. What is the TV show here?

It’s a family drama. It starts out with an unemployed guy. Maybe he gets some sort of minimum wage job? Or the wife goes back to work? But that doesn’t particularly…

Craig: I was thinking that maybe it was just that he was going to admit to her that he’s been out of work and he’s having trouble finding work. And they’re going to have to deal with the fact that they’re going on welfare, or food stamps, or whatever is sort of changing their lifestyle to become financially-challenged people.

John: Because it’s a pilot, I’m trying to figure out what the arc of the show is. Where does the show go and what is the show week-to-week. And, yeah, it’s only three pages in. I get that. But, I was trying to visualize what that was going to be.

Craig: Well, I’m not sure. It is hard to tell obviously from three pages. We can’t really fault Ed for that. But, I guess the only other bit of advice I would have for you is it’s okay for people to use contractions when they speak.

John: Yes.

Craig: “This is Stan Dobbs. I am calling to follow up on the interview I had with you. It has been three weeks.”

John: American speakers will contract almost everything there.

Craig: Yeah. Everything. “I am asking you to waive the fee and move my bill date.” It’s all very strange.

Ed, I think that this needs a lot of work. I’m not quite sure what to say. I don’t mean to be super mean about it, but this level of writing, this quality of writing is not going to get you work. So, I’m hoping that since this was written in 2011 that your skills have developed since then. And I would urge you just to read some pilots of shows that you really love and take a look at how they’re doing things, because I don’t think you’re quite there yet.

And that was the last one of our group.

John: I want to thank all four of our Three Page Challenge submitters, because that was very cool and brave of you to share what you did and let us talk about it and tell you the things that we thought were fantastic and the things that could be even better.

Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing this week? I know you’re sick, so I don’t want to push you too hard.

Craig: [laughs] Well, you know, I often don’t have one when I’m feeling well, so I do. It’s so narrow and so I’ll be very fast about it.

But, for those people who have Teslas, there is this wonderful site called the Tesla Motors Forum where Tesla owners help each other figure things out. It’s the coolest site And I had like a little tiny issue with the charger for my car, and there’s a guy on there who is an amazing electrician. He goes by FlasherZ. I don’t know what his real name is. But he helped me and problem solved.

I like when there’s a little community dedicated to one tiny little thing, but everybody is really passionate and helps each other. So, thank you Telsa Motors Forum for existing. And thank you, FlasherZ.

John: Cool. My One Cool Thing is a book I’m reading right now on the Kindle. It’s called Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Victor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier.

What I like about it, a couple things. It talks about — I think you had even brought this up in an early podcast, like Google Flu that actually tracks sort of flu outbreaks based on like how people are searching for things. So, just like the CDC collects data on how the flu is spreading, Google collects data and they can often figure out faster than the CDC where the flu outbreak is happening and sort of what people are doing based on how people are searching for it.

The argument and the central premise behind Big Data, the book, is that simply by being able to look at huge quantities of data we’re able to find things that we wouldn’t otherwise find, because we’re always — classically we’ve always been sampling. We’re taking little slices of data and trying to generalize out based on that because all we could process was the small little things. Now you just take all the data and crunch it, and smush it up, and you don’t look for perfect data. You just look for the most data possible.

When you’re looking at little samples, you’re always looking for causes. Causation is sort of what the goal is. Here you can just look for correlations. So, Google doesn’t even necessarily know why these things tend to — these search patterns tend to — indicate that flu is happening there. They just know that it does. And so sometimes you don’t actually need to look for causation. You’re just looking for correlation. And that’s really fascinating.

So, I feel like many of our nerdier listeners will enjoy this book. It’s a good, simple, fun read. And then thing I appreciate kind of more than anything else is they use data as a singular and they don’t try to say “these data,” which “these data” just drives me crazy.

Craig: Yes. Or resort to “datum.”

John: So, you may feel free to disagree with me. It’s one of those where I take great umbrage at, is that people try to make English be Latin exactly, and it just isn’t. So, if you want to disagree with me you’re welcome to. I have a whole blog post about it.

Craig: We should link to — I’ll send Stuart the link — there’s this great Mitchell & Webb sketch that has a terrific ending that is specifically about this whole Latin/English thing. It’s one of my favorite sketches. I’ll send it to Stuart so he can link it up.

John: Fantastic. Well, Craig, I don’t know, but I feel like maybe you started feeling a little bit better over the course of the podcast. I felt some strength returning. So, I hope by next week you are at 100,000%.

Craig: Yeah, you know what? I think Ben W.’s script kind of gave me a little kick…

John: A shot in the arm?

Craig: …a little kick in my step. A little shot in the arm, yeah.

John: Well, you are a robot, so maybe it turned a little [crosstalk] in your heart.

Craig: I’m not the robot and you know it. [laughs] You know it. Somebody was talking on Twitter if Scriptnotes were a movie, here’s what the movie would be: A robot befriends a human boy with emotional problems. That’s what our movie is.

John: [laughs] It will be like that Frank Langella movie where he has like the robot assistant that people talked about for awhile and then it just went away.

Craig: I know! It was a great trailer. I never saw the movie. I feel bad. I should go see it.

John: Robot & Frank.

Craig: Robot & Frank. There you go.

John: I haven’t watched it. Craig, feel better, have a great week, and I will talk to you next week.

Craig: Talk to you next week, John. Bye.

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