The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. So today’s episode has the F word in it like four times because we read this letter aloud. So if you have your kids in the car, maybe don’t listen to this episode with the kids in the car because it’s kind of not safe for kids or for work. But it’s safe for almost everywhere else. Thanks.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is episode 166 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, this was a really busy week. I saw you a lot.
Craig: You did. We first delved into a cavern together that contained a Nothic.
John: Indeed. We did some virtual spelunking and did some D&D. It was fun.
Craig: Yeah, it was fun.
John: We kind of made a mistake with the Nothic.
Craig: We made a huge mistake.
John: I’m not sure we —
Craig: We made a huge mistake.
Craig: We have a tendency as a group. Not my character. My character is [laughs] to a fault wants to love everyone.
Craig: But as a group we seem to want to just kill everything we see. And I don’t think we should have attacked that thing.
John: Perhaps we shouldn’t have. I mean, it looked gruesome and so therefore we killed it. But that may not have been the best choice.
Craig: Yeah, it was kind of racist.
John: Yeah, it could have been a little bit racist.
Craig: Yeah, it was racist because he had one eye.
John: Speciesist, yeah.
Craig: Speciesist, yeah. So we did that but then we also saw each other at the Live Slate Culture Gabfest event —
John: In downtown Los Angeles.
Craig: In downtown Los Angeles. And that podcast has already aired. They turned it around right quick.
John: They did. So that was a tremendously fun evening. It was at The Belasco Theatre. We had a good crowd. It was us. It was Jenny Slate. It was Natasha Lyonne.
John: There were the hosts. So thank you, Slate, for having us there. Thank you, Andy Bowers and Julia Turner and Dana Stevens, Stephen Metcalf. It was fun to be a guest on someone else’s show.
Craig: It was fun. They ask good questions and we had a lively discussion.
John: Mm-hmm. It was fun for me not to have to segue all the time so that somebody else could be the person responsible for “And now let’s move on to the next topic.”
Craig: Yeah, he wasn’t necessarily better at segues than you.
John: Well, I think it’s one of my true callings is the ability to get from this place to that place.
Craig: The Segue-ist?
John: I am The Transitioner.
John: But that transition is a good way for me to get into talking about today’s show which will feature our little package from the Slate Culture —
Craig: [laughs] You just did it, you did it.
John: I can’t stop transitioning.
Craig: The Transitioner.
Craig: That’s like Marvel’s worst movie in 40 years and they’re really just out of everything. They’re like, um, The Transitioner.
John: He’s really good at the cocktail conversation.
John: Or it can also be like, you know, it’s the next thing after Transparent which is apparently a really good Amazon show. It’s like they could make The Transitioner who’s like constantly moving from one thing to the next thing.
Craig: Oh, I like that.
John: So today, we are going to have the audio from our section. So in case you didn’t hear it in Slate, you can listen to it on our thing and then we’ll talk a little about what we talked about after that. But we have some new topics as well including something you and I talked about after our segment on the show which was that I was writing something this week and I realized that the problem I was having is I had sort of one character too many.
It’s a recurring theme that I’ve seen again and again, it’s like sometimes you have too many characters and rarely too few characters and figuring out what that problem is can be a real solution for many screen emergencies.
John: And then we’re going to talk about business affairs.
John: And that’s going to be a happy conversation.
John: But first, some follow-up. Tonight, October 14th, if you’re listening to this the day the podcast comes out, Tuesday, October 14th at 7:30 PM, I’m going to be talking with Simon Kinberg at the WGA as a benefit for the Writers Guild Foundation.
John: And we’re going to be talking about X-Men: Days of Future Past, Sherlock Holmes, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the upcoming Fantastic Four movie, Star Wars Rebels and producing movies and writing things and it will be a great conversation. So join us if you’d want to join us. There’s still like maybe 10 tickets left?
Craig: Well, you should grab those tickets. Simon Kinberg is a rarity, I believe, in our business in that he is a very good writer, he’s a very good producer, he’s extraordinarily successful, and he’s really nice.
John: He’s a really nice guy.
Craig: How about that? Just a good egg. I really like Simon a lot. You know he’s English?
John: I do know that he’s English.
Craig: Yeah, but you wouldn’t know it because he has no English accent.
Craig: I’m very —
John: Just like you, you had a New York accent growing up —
John: But you completely lost it.
Craig: Just completely lost it.
John: He shed his —
Craig: He shed it.
Craig: He shed it, but that’s an extreme shedding.
John: It’s an extreme shedding. Well, you can’t talk about British accents without bringing up the Nolan Brothers because one of them is British and one of them is not British and it’s so odd.
Craig: I know. It’s weird. And I always think to myself, well, if somebody’s lost a truly foreign accent, that’s verging on sociopathic behavior. [laughs] They have the potential to be a villain.
John: They do or they are a Canadian actress because we actually had a Canadian babysitter this last week and I detected something like — something is — you’re really, really nice in a way that you’re probably not American. And she was in fact Canadian. But she was an actress and so she had very — I asked her like, you deliberately got rid of your accent? She’s like, yes, I worked really hard for a year to get rid of all my Canadianisms so that people can’t tell I’m Canadian.
Craig: Losing a Canadian accent is a bit like losing a New York accent. In fact, a strong New York accent is probably more violently different than standard American English than a Canadian accent.
John: A strong New York accent is pretty much an assault.
Craig: It’s an assault and I had one and then I lost it. So I guess I’m one of those sociopaths, too [laughs].But I’m fascinated by people… — We were talking about this, people who can and can’t lose accents. You know, there are people who have lived in, like Dr. Ruth Westheimer is a good example. Brilliant woman, speaks many languages, has lived in New York for decades, has the strongest German accent.
John: Another great example is Arianna Huffington.
John: Who, you know, incredibly successful in the US and yet, she’s thoroughly Greek in sort of how she talks and presents herself. And it’s become sort of her signature. You can’t imagine her without that accent.
Craig: Right. And then you have Madonna who spends four days in England and suddenly she’s like, [British accent] hello mate.
John: Yeah, there’s that middle of the Atlantic situation that happens sometimes when Americans cross over and it doesn’t all together work.
John: So last bit of follow-up is if you ordered one of the Scriptnotes t-shirts, they’re in and they’re actually out. Stuart and Ryan are packaging them up as we speak and so they’re going to be leaving the Quote-Unquote offices because that’s where — they really are offices but our company is called Quote-Unquote Films.
They’ll be leaving the offices today, so you should be getting them this week, the week that you’re hearing this podcast if you’re in the US, maybe a little bit longer if you’re overseas, but thank you so much for all the people who bought those because those help keep the podcast going.
Craig: And, of course, reduce the amount of money that we lose but not to zero [laughs].
John: Never to zero.
Craig: Never to zero.
John: All right, first segment. Let’s talk about the Slate Culture Gabfest. So let’s just set it up for listeners so they know what it is they’re going to listen to. Craig, could you set the scene for us, like let us know where it is that this event is taking place and what it feels like?
Craig: Sure. So The Belasco Theater is downtown, it’s a small theater but it’s very typical for Los Angeles downtown. You don’t know it’s there until you arrive. You walk inside and you think, oh my god, what a great space. It’s old, it’s obviously been around since I would guess the ’20s, gorgeous space, very dark and cavernous. There was a green room downstairs which, in fact, was illuminated entirely with red light bulbs, so it was a bit like, I don’t know, what I imagined No Exit to look like or something.
Large stage, very nice audience with a bar in back to keep people liquored up. And so we sat up there on stage with the hosts of the show. It was a little hard for me to hear. They didn’t have monitors. So when you’re on stage, usually you want a couple of speakers that are facing back towards the people talking so they could hear themselves.
All I could really hear was the echoey sound that was traveling above my head and out. So in a way it kept you on your toes and you had to really pay attention. But it was terrific. Jenny Slate was very, very funny and we did our thing and Natasha Lyonne was very, very interesting. So we had a nice chat and you can hear the audience, you know, fairly, they were —
John: Yeah, Craig got laughs and it was good that you got laughs. I liked that.
Craig: I got laughs, yeah [laughs]. Well, I was trying to, well look, I was trying to be on my best behavior. And I really did think I was on my best behavior. I got a couple of little shots in but they weren’t really shots as much as just —
John: Yeah, they were playful taps.
Craig: They were playful jabs. Playful jabs.
John: And so the other thing I should set up for our listeners so they understand is that each guest was up sort of in their own segment but not the other segments, so you’re going to hear me and Craig but you’ll also hear Stephen Metcalf, Julia Turner and Dana Stevens. So let’s go to that and then when we come back we’ll have a little recap and wrap up.
Julia Turner: I’m such a fan of your podcast.
John: Thank you.
Julia: It’s so fun to have you guys on the same stage. I’m sorry Stephen.
Stephen Metcalf: Please, dig right in. Actually, I want to start by saying I had my very — this is actually a true story. I had my very first Hollywood pitch yesterday.
John: So how did it go?
Stephen: Do you know the phrase, “Bought it in the room?” That didn’t happen. [laughs] You know what, I’ll give you, and I had another one today. I’ll give you a very honest response was, there was — I kind of loved it for the reason that it was like nothing I’ve ever seen depicted in all the silly movies that depict Hollywood. And in fact, they were just professionals who knew their business and it was no drama Obama.
Craig: No Weimaraners, no crack, no OxyContin.
Stephen: Exactly right. And no Jaws meets this or whatever. It was like very, very, very intricately smart people who understand the relationship between narratives that work and people who will pay money to go see them. I mean, right —
Craig: And so they rejected you? [laughs]
Stephen: Mazin. I just want to say, Craig, I love the movie Go.
Craig: Oh yes, I heard that.
Stephen: That movie is —
Craig: I heard, yes.
Stephen: Perfect, it’s like Swiss watch work.
Craig: It’s the most adorable thing you’ve seen ever.
Stephen: It’s Swiss clockwork lubricated by butter.
Stephen: Just gorgeous.
Craig: John’s films are gorgeously lubricated.
Stephen: It went by like that.
Craig: No question.
Stephen: Anyway, we want to get into the subject of who authors the film which is a rabbit hole we can kind of go down, half down, or ignore completely but it’s an interesting one to me. But I want you to just, if it’s okay, really quickly to describe your careers and how you got where you are. You’re having a dream career. How did that come about? John, why don’t we start with you?
John: I was a journalism major. I went to journalism school at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. I realized halfway through that I didn’t really want that major but I loved the writing I was doing. I loved that sort of structured writing that journalism is. And I found out there was such a thing as a screenplay, that there was such a thing as film school and I applied and got into USC, moved out here with my rusted Honda and started, you know, reading scripts for people and I started writing. And I started writing Go, the screenplay that first got made, while I was still in film school. And so it was very much that experience of being 26 years old and seemingly immortal. And that became my first movie.
Stephen: That is fantastic. And the Weimaraner was suddenly seated next to you in the car.
Stephen: Craig, what about you?
Craig: I was a pre-med student in college and around my senior year, it became very clear that I just did not want to spend — I was going to be a neurologist and I just… — I still am fascinated by the brain and by neurology but not by people with neurological disorders.
It’s a bummer, I don’t know how else to put it. They do die on you a lot. And I was fascinated by the entertainment business. I was fascinated by entertaining people. I loved movies and I loved television shows. And so, and you had a rusted Honda, I had a rusted Toyota. I drove out here, I didn’t know anybody and I got a job because I could type and sort of worked my way into a position where I could pitch movies and write movies. And I’ve been doing it since 1996, now, 1995/1996.
Stephen: That’s amazing.
Stephen: Okay, so you’ve just watched a movie, let’s say the credits come at the end, you admire it, you think it was, you know, in some ways, narratively elegant, the characters were very alive, you got lost in the world, no fat to be trimmed, and the name comes up and it says, Screenplay by, you know, and it’s a single credit, a credit to a single person. How confident are you that what you just saw was authored by that person?
John: You don’t necessarily know whether that screenplay credit reflects what actually made it on to the screen or not. Credits for films are determined by the Writers Guild and there’s a whole process you go through. It’s as good as we can make that process but it’s still not perfect. That you’re competing, there’s two competing forces. You want the credits to accurately reflect who wrote the movie but you also want to not dilute the credit by sharing it among a bunch of people who, if 12 writers did little bits on it, you don’t want to sort of necessarily make it seem like 12 people did little bits on it.
So what I will say is different is when we see that credit going by, we already know. We sort of, actually everybody really does know who did the work on the movie. And so there’s lots of movies that will not have a certain writer’s credit on them but everyone in town knows they’ve worked on it and that’s very helpful for their career.
Craig: Yeah, I think it’s actually gotten better. We have changed. I’m one of three co-chairs of the credits committee that reviews the rules and then puts rules changes to the membership. And we’ve had about two or three rounds of rules changes that have been successful. And they’ve been good changes and I think that they have made the credits more accurate. It’s a difficult situation. There have been miscarriages, no question. But John’s point is absolutely true. We know who wrote the movie. We, who are in the business, we know.
Stephen: And what do you — I’m curious what you especially admire about a screenplay, what makes you wish you had written one when you get to the end of the film or you read it on the page? What elements of story or character or shape or —
Craig: Well, you know, when I think of movies where I’ve really zeroed in on what I thought was fundamental to the screenplay, it was a question of harmony of elements. That there were scenes that internally were using plot to reveal character, character revealing plot, plot and character revealing theme, conflict revealing potential resolution. And then taken as a sum, those scenes all work together to create some sort of thematic whole out of that. That often is what I admire, but sometimes I just am entertained.
And more than anything when I go to the movies it’s to be entertained.
John: When you read a screenplay, you recognize that it’s a form of incredible efficiency. You have to be able to convey with just a few words in 12-point Courier what this whole world feels like and what these characters are like and so every word counts in ways that doesn’t necessarily in a novel. A novel can spend three pages talking about how soft the sheets were. The movie doesn’t actually have those senses, you can’t describe things you touch or feel. It’s only what you can see and what you can hear. So you’re finding ways to describe and set up this whole world with just these very limited windows into it.
And so, the best screenplays I’ve read, they have these characters that take these amazing journeys through amazing worlds and you can’t believe that they did it all just on the page there.
Stephen: Give me a couple of names of movies that you wish you had written or that you especially admire?
John: You know, it’s one thing to see a movie on the screen because that’s the finished product and you have to remember that a screenplay is really the blueprint for this building that’s not built yet. And so one of luxuries, we sometimes get to read screenplays well before they’re filmed, or things that never got filmed. And so I remember in film school reading Quentin Tarantino’s original script for Natural Born Killers. And it’s just brilliant. And I got to the end and I flipped back to page one and started reading it all over again. It was incredibly important.
People, you know, these guys might not recognize that like Aliens is an incredibly important script for people in our business. We read that script and it actually transforms sort of like how you describe action on the page.
Stephen: And this is the second in that —
John: This was James Cameron’s Aliens.
Stephen: And James Cameron did the screenplay as well as directed it?
John: Yeah and so the way he described action was incredibly important and so all action movies from that point forward probably owe some debt to sort of what he was doing on the page.
Female Voice: Wait, so what was the innovation? What did he do differently?
John: There was innovation, there’s a way of talking about the camera, talking about like how we’re moving through things. Cameron wrote both a scriptment which is like a 70-page document of the movie without the dialogue, sort of. And then he wrote the full version of the script and sort of everyone of my and Craig’s generation who read movies at that time, read action movies, that was the one we sort of kept going back to.
Craig: Yeah. And, you know, John is making a really interesting point that the question that you’re asking is a little impossible because the truth is I never see a movie and think I wish I could have written that movie. You can’t write that movie. That movie is not just written, it was written and it was then rewritten and it was performed and captured and edited and scored, so it’s not possible.
Craig: But what we can do is we read screenplays. Jerry Maguire is one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read. Absolutely just perfect for me. Not objectively perfect, but for me, it was perfect. I saw Ocean’s Eleven, I saw Out of Sight, and I thought I would love to meet the guys that wrote this movie, you know, and I did, that was great. But I understand that it’s not possible to say, well, I wish I could have written that experiences.
Stephen: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Dana Stevens: That brings me to something that’s seems like, it’s key to your podcast which is really great for somebody on the critical end to read which is, I mean, to hear on your podcast, which is that, you’re sort of anti-auteurist, right? I mean, you are really not so focused on a movie as the production of one director and you really know from the inside out that it’s a collaboration and that vast numbers of people have to be on the same page in order to make a good movie.
John: There was a podcast that you guys did about two weeks ago with Jeff Koons, the artist and the visual artist, and you guys saw Balloon Dog and all that stuff. And it was amazing as you’re walking through with this curator and he was talking about sort of the intention and sort of how things came to be. It was a great episode. But it struck me that you can talk about a virtual artist that way because even though he has a team of people doing stuff, it’s really all his vision, like that thing is one person’s thing. And I think there’s this instinct sometimes for press and for critics to think about works as having a single creator. You guys are almost creationists sometimes.
And really the process of getting movies made is almost like this Darwinian survival thing. There’s all these movies competing to get made, and you’re only seeing the ones that sort of got made. And it doesn’t mean they were the best ones. It doesn’t mean it was like clean or pretty how they happened, but they are the ones that made it to the theater.
Craig: And even the product itself is the function of an internal evolution among a lot of people fighting. I mean, for instance, you guys just had a discussion about Gone Girl and you disagreed about some things. You really thought one passage was cool, you thought that was weak. You liked the parents, you thought they were not so great. These fights happen constantly on every movie except that one of you is the boss.
Craig: Okay. This is a problem obviously but some decision has to be made. The movie is — anybody who thinks that movies are authored by one person is higher than the highest crack can take —
Stephen: Has never gone anywhere near the moving-making process.
Craig: Yeah, they’re just so divorced from the process of what it means to make a movie.
Stephen: Okay, but I have a question for you. Sorry, I’m stepping on you, boss, lady.
Julia: Go for it.
Stephen: Because I’ll forget it if I don’t ask it right now. Okay, so we are all post-modernist Darwinian evolutionists, anti-authorship, you know, post-auteur, cognoscenti.
Stephen: And yet, it begins with a room of one’s own. It begins with you doing the paradigmatic writer thing. You’re alone with the blinking cursor and your own conscience and the Internet and email and on and on and on. I mean, you have all the, you know, classic struggles of self-battling that a writer has. How is it to then also be in a medium that’s utterly collaborative and evolutionary and your darlings are going to get killed, but not even by you?
Craig: Well, it’s an endless struggle. And this is why screenwriters are stereotypically whiny. I mean, watch Adaptation, you know. It’s very difficult and it’s incredibly difficult because it’s emotionally painful. We are required to create something that we believe in that is entirely within our control and is in fact authored.
And then we are required by the nature of film making to cede control of it and to see it re-authored because unlike any other form of writing, screenwriting is not meant to be read, it is not meant to be consumed by anyone, it is meant to in fact be transformed into something else entirely. So we are always on the razor’s edge of this emotional pain. And then of course somewhere down the line after we’ve survived the many, many —
Stephen: You get paid $900,000.
Craig: I get to Dana’s review. That’s my reward.
John: [laughs] That’s the reward, yes.
Stephen: You made me laugh so hard that my gap flashed the whole room. That was good. Okay, well let’s end it on a positive note. I could talk to you guys all night but unfortunately we’ve got to move on. But Craig Mazin and John August, thank you very much for coming.
John: Thank you very much.
Craig: Thank you for having us. Thanks guys.
John: Great. So that was lovely and there were applause which is always a fun thing. I really enjoyed being a guest. It’s so nice to be able to have the chance to like make my own points and not have to elicit points from other people.
Craig: Yeah, for sure. I thought it was very valuable. It was a good conversation to have. I think frankly the more that critics can personally interface with the people writing and directing movies, the better they will be at their jobs.
Craig: I agree with you.
John: I don’t think it’s going to make our jobs any better or worse but it’s going to make their jobs better. Frankly, one thing that kind of surprised me was the discussion was predicated on this question, what is it that we critics don’t know but should know about the way movies are made? And I found the question fascinating because, mostly because I thought why are you asking this now? I mean wouldn’t you have thought to ask it a decade ago or 20 years ago or whenever you started doing this?
There is such a gulf, I mean, even in the beginning of the show before we came on, Stephen and Julia Dana were talking about their, what they called LA alter egos and it was essentially their spin on what they thought Los Angeles is all about. And it was very cartoony, but you could tell really that they are quite proud of the fact that they’re out there and we’re out here and the gulf is cultural.
There is a cultural gulf. It’s interesting. It’s very interesting and worth studying.
John: I think it comes back to the question of intentionality is that you’re looking at this work as it’s finished and then you’re trying to ascribe intentionality for like this is what they meant, this is what they were doing, this is what the artist was attempting to voice or achieve. And ultimately I think that’s sometimes unknowable, or if it’s knowable, the only way you’re going to actually find that out is by asking the person who made the thing.
So instead what you’re really doing is you’re looking at your own reaction and saying, well, this is my reaction to this thing and that’s completely a valid experience but it doesn’t necessarily give you any insight into what the intention was behind something. It goes back to what we talked about before, the difference between journalistic writing and academic writing. In academic writing, you often find yourself trying to ascribe intention and motivation to things that are not really part of the text because you’re just desperately searching for something.
And so you find reasons to believe that the plot of this book is really about this other thing that you wouldn’t necessarily notice. And it’s like you’re trying to ascribe, trying to create logic after the fact.
Craig: That’s exactly right and what was driven home for me more than anything by interacting with them is how academic they are. And I imagine that for many film critics, I’m not even talking about reviewers but people who are doing film analysis, that their background is academic. And in academics, you’re precisely correct that the whole name of the game is to take some arena and find some angle on it that you can make your thesis and support it. So it’s rhetorical.
However, it’s a very poor instrument in my opinion, academic analysis. It’s a very poor instrument for something like movies which defy the meaning of which is really not in that kind of literary analysis or academic analysis, for me at least. And certainly the process of it makes many of the literary analyses absurd. And even, you know, I mean, you could see they’re trying, like… — By the way, it’s partly our fault in the business because when there’s a success, somebody will attempt to take credit for it and say, me, me, me, I am the author of this, it all comes down to me. But that’s not ever true.
John: The other thing I definitely noticed is you’re talking about cultural criticism, but culture is a thing that is constantly moving. So I sometimes get frustrated when I read a film review and they’re talking about current events in relation to this movie and seemingly unaware that this movie was green lit two years before those events came to be.
So there’s, you know, if there’s a school shooting and this movie comes out, it’s in reference to this school shooting or, you know, Gone Girl in the reference of like this domestic violence case. I understand that it’s cultural criticism because you’re looking at sort of how does this movie fit in to the current cultural conversation. But you can’t therefore take a time machine back and say like, well, that is the reason why this movie exists. The movie is coming out at a certain place and time but it doesn’t mean that this movie is reacting to those events or this place and time.
Craig: Yeah, I’ve, because I’m going to see Gone Girl this weekend and they have a big discussion about Gone Girl and I’ve been seeing essentially headlines of gobs of critical essays about Gone Girl and what it means about, or what its implications are for marriage, for misogyny, for the relationship between men and women, domestic violence. And all I keep thinking is these people are talking to each other. I don’t know who else cares.
The people that got to see, the people that read the book, appreciated the book for what it did for them, it’s a personal experience, it is not an academic experience. No one goes to a movie in order to contextualize the world around them. They go to a movie for the opposite, I believe, which is to contextualize something within them. It is a personal experience.
This is why movies are made the way they are. You can go see Argo and what you are taking away is something about what’s inside of you. It is a personal story set against the backdrop of the world. But a lot of times I think critics and film analysts ignore all that to talk really about what they’ve been trained to talk about. In the end, I think they are talking to each other. I think they are engaging in a kind of a cross debate.
John: Well, oftentimes, I think they’re talking about the conversation rather than the thing itself. And so in the case of Gone Girl, you’re talking about misogyny or what it means, or the feminist meanings or anti-meetings in the film. The degree to which it’s worthy to talk about in a culture context isn’t necessarily the film itself, but why we are talking about it.
So, the degree that Gone Girl being the incredibly successful popular movie out there in the world right now is sparking a cultural conversation, yes, sometimes by just the people who are writing these articles. But I also think just actual audiences are coming out of the movie thinking like, wow, I’m not sure how I feel about the characters I just saw and particularly that movie which has, you know, again no spoilers, but an unsettling ending and sort of a resolution that is unexpected does provoke things. And so the degree to which a movie can provoke a conversation, well, that’s a thing that’s happening in culture, so if your job is to write about culture, then it’s great to write about that movie. But you have to be mindful: are you really writing about the movie or are you’re writing about people talking about the movie which are sort of different things.
Craig: And the movie exists specifically to inspire people to examine their relationship with it. Individual relationship, how did that movie make me feel? Did I feel anything and if I did, what did I feel? Do I agree with it? Do I not agree with it? A good movie isn’t supposed to be like a good historical explanation of why things happen.
Craig: It’s not supposed to be, whatever, a Doris Kearns Goodwin book explaining how Lincoln’s cabinet worked. It’s entirely about individuals.
Craig: And I don’t think that’s the way they approach it sometimes. And they can’t because what does that come down to? It’s sort of exposes the fatal flaw here which is, well, so you have your opinion? Good. I do too, you know.
John: I guess, it’s a chance for people to listen in on what someone else’s opinion is and sometimes a very well-articulated opinion can get somebody thinking about what their own opinion is. So that is, I would say, as a defense of the kind of work that they’re doing both in writing and in the podcast is they’re having a conversation about their reactions to things and sometimes that may trigger a person to have their own reactions or give new thought to something else. And if that happens, then that’s a good thing.
Craig: I agree. It’s fun listening to smart people talk about stuff.
Craig: I tend to like to listen to smart people talking about things that are not cultural because I do experience culture in a very personal individual way. I like listening to smart people talk about politics, economics. But, and I was very struck by how their conversation between the three of them was no different than any other kind of conversation people have about movies.
I mean, essentially, regardless of the level of their vocabulary, they talked about the movie and then one person said, I really like this and then another person said, really? That was the part I didn’t like at all. Well, these are exactly the kinds of conversations we all have.
Craig: And ultimately, that’s all there is. There is nothing more to it. It’s supposed to be individual and personal, which, again, I think is the fatal flaw sometimes of the — it’s not of criticism, but rather it’s the fatal flaw of the critical style which is to say, this, let me illuminate you as to what is happening here. That is a fatal flaw because in fact, you can’t. Because what at least on our side, what we are intending to happen is for an individual to have an individual relationship with the movie. We know some of those are going to be bad and we know some of those are going to be good. But we also know there is not one illuminated correct response.
John: Absolutely. So, again, I want to thank Slate for having us on. It was just tremendously fun to be there and it was a really great event. And thank you for people who showed up for it because it was really neat to have some of our fans in our t-shirts out there in the audience.
Craig: For sure. Always good to see. And, boy, a very lovely woman came up to us afterwards and she — I won’t go into her story, but she said some very nice things. So she’s gone through some hardships and happily she’s better now. But it was very, very sweet. It’s nice to hear, and look, honestly, endlessly surprising to me that anyone listens to the show at all [laughs] but that for a lot of people who do, they really get something out of it. It’s very, very uplifting for me and I’m sure it is for you.
John: It is. Now just to cut into that tender emotion, I thought this might be a great opportunity for us to read a letter we got from one of our listeners.
Craig: [laughs] It’s the best letter ever.
John: It really is the best letter ever. So people sometimes will write in, sometimes on Twitter — I’m @johnaugust, Craig is @clmazin. Or they’ll write longer emails that they’ll send to email@example.com. And this is one that we got this week which I thought was great. So I shared it with you and you said in all caps MUST READ ON AIR IN TOTALITY.
Craig: [laughs] I know. So it’s a little long, so bear with us. The subject essentially is we talked a couple of weeks ago on the podcast about a video that somebody put on the Internet. It’s very funny. All they did was they stripped out John Williams’ score from the final scene of Star Wars: A New Hope where Luke, Han and Chewie are getting their medals.
And it’s a very long scene and there’s no dialogue. And so when you take away the score, it actually becomes this beautiful opera of awkwardness. [laughs] It’s fantastic. It’s very funny. And I thought frankly the spirit, I mean, we had a whole discussion about why it was interesting. And my whole takeaway was, hey, directors don’t panic when you see your footage that’s intended for score because it’s going to really look weird. But then look how great it will look when it’s done.
John: Yes. And so perhaps we didn’t stipulate as clearly that we thought the scene as it shows up in the movie is fantastic. And I would not change a thing. But Patrick from London, England did not take it that way.
John: And in fact, well, why don’t you start, Craig?
Craig: Sure. “Subject: Star Wars Umbrage.
“Dear John and Craig, I have to take extreme umbrage at your mocking the final scene in Star Wars in your last podcast. I get that it’s mildly amusing someone took the music off the final scene and it seems strange because it’s so iconic. You could do that with any number of famous films and achieve the same effect.
“What is distressing is your assertion the final scene in Star Wars is somehow strange/weird/bad because it has no dialogue. That scene is one of the things that makes the film iconic for fuck’s sake!” Exclamation point. “Sometimes when I think about that scene it baffles the brain. What major blockbuster film would end on a scene driven entirely by visuals and score? None.
“We’re always told film is a visual medium, show don’t tell, blah, blah, blah, yet when a film achieves a satisfying conclusion through moving images and music alone like a silent movie, you mock it as strange/weird/bad. What more did the film need to do? They blew up the Death Star. Obi-Wan said the force will be with you always. Han came back and displayed some honor and loyalty. I emphasize displayed. He didn’t say it. The end. What more did you want?
“Did you want a speech like the end of Independence Day? We will not lie down. Today’s our independence day against the empire. God bless America, blah, blah, blah. Would that have approved the ending of Star Wars?” [laughs] You want to read the second half?
John: “I think the problem is you work in Hollywood where everything is decided by committee. So anything idiosyncratic or unusual is viewed with suspicion or derided as strange/weird/bad. I noticed on your Raiders podcast when you pointed out that today the opening five-minute exposition scene wouldn’t fly and would be watered down by committee. And that this was perfectly acceptable.”
John: I don’t think we said that at all.
Craig: No, I think the point was that it was not… it was unacceptable. [laughs] Oh man, this is great. Keep going. It’s awesome.
John: “When the final scene in Star Wars was produced, maybe someone said, err, is it strange/weird/bad?”I love the strange/weird/bad.
Craig: I know. So he —
John: I’m omitting the slashes —
Craig: I know. It’s this thing that he does when he goes strange/weird/bad all as one thing. And it’s like his mantra.
John: “That there’s no big speech at the end. And maybe George Lucas said, ‘It’s my film and that’s how I want to end it. So fuck you.’ Or George and Spielberg said, ‘We want there to be a really long exposition scene at the beginning of Raiders and if you don’t like it, money men, you can go fuck yourselves.'”
Well, so now we have to have this — I have to record a little warning at the start of the podcast —
Craig: I know.
John: Because he said fuck three times.
Craig: I know.
John: “Depressingly on your podcast, you seem to advocate conformity — “
John: “And do not encourage idiosyncrasies’ originality. It’s kind of like don’t rock the boat. This is what is expected of you by the committee, so this is what you should do? The final scene in Star Wars should be something you celebrate, not mock. Star Wars is one of the most exciting and amazing films ever made and definitely the top 10 most influential. So it doesn’t need my or anyone’s sympathy or support. But it’s sad that one of its fun quirks is derided on your podcast because it doesn’t fit the present day studio formula you bow to.”
Craig: We bow to.
John: We bow to. “However, the controversy over why Chewie didn’t also receive a medal has not gone away and is a troubling aspect to the film’s conclusion up for debate.” Well, good. I’m glad we got to the Chewie of it all because that’s really what I’ve been focusing on.
Craig: [laughs] I like that this guy’s like, well, let me let you off the hook on the Chewie thing, great point.
John: “Anyway, end umbrage. I’d like to echo your other listener who praised the podcast for informing and inspiring people. It’s a great thing you do and an essential resource for anyone who’s interested in writing films. Cheers.”
Craig: Cheers. [laughs]. Okay. Well, Patrick —
John: Patrick is great. So, I genuinely thank you for writing this letter.
John: We’re really kind of not mocking you but just one of those things we’re like, oh, I can’t believe you thought we were —
John: You know, slamming on that scene because we weren’t at all.
Craig: No, I think, Patrick, the reason I wanted to read this entire thing is because I think unwittingly you managed to satire an unhinged Star Wars fan. [laughs] Look, to be clear and I think it was clear because, frankly, out of all the people that listened to the show, you were the only person that had this issue or at least spoke about it.
No, we love the ending of the movie. All we were saying was that it was funny to watch it without the music because it is funny. And I remember specifically saying, in fact, I said — I sent that video to Rian Johnson. And I said, Rian, when you see your first dailies, don’t freak out, right?
Because a lot of times, science fiction, epics, when they don’t have all of the post-production trappings laid over it, can look ridiculous. I mean, for instance, there’s footage of Darth Vader when he first enters the diplomatic ship and he interrogates Princess Leia. And it’s the actual dailies. And so I think it was David Prowse I guess is the guy who was in the actual, so it’s his voice.
And it just sounds like a bunch of English guys and it seems ridiculous. And the point is, but okay, as filmmakers, we deserve to have faith that the full process will make it come to light. That was our point. I don’t think it’s weird/strange/bad. I don’t want everything to be decided by committee. [laughs] I don’t want there to be a speech at the end about God bless America. I do love —
John: I think it would be kind of great if there were a speech about God bless America —
Craig: God bless America.
John: At the end of Star Wars.
Craig: It actually would be cool.
John: I think Star Wars is not American enough.
John: I want to start a whole campaign about that.
Craig: Like there should have been —
John: No one is wearing a flag pin.
Craig: Like if they had unfurled a big American flag behind them as they got their medals, it would have been awesome.
John: Visual effects, we can do it.
Craig: Visual effects, we can — he can get back in there, you know, if Greedo shot second then we could do that. No, I love the, I wouldn’t change a frame of Raiders and I wish modern movies would take more time in their opening exposition. No, I don’t believe that John and I advocate conformity or discourage idiosyncrasies’ originality. Quite the opposite.
We don’t really like the committee. We do celebrate the [laughs] last scene of Star Wars. It’s amazing how wrong you are, Patrick. I mean you really are, I got to give you credit. You’re batting a thousand so far. [laughs] But really, why I wanted to read it out loud was this bit about Chewbacca because that was just — you’re like, okay, you got through your umbrage but then you’re like, well, now, granted there is a serious [laughs] debate about why Chewie didn’t get a medal. Dude, no one cares why Chewie didn’t get a medal, whatever.
John: Once again, racism.
Craig: Yeah, nobody cares. No one cares.
John: Chewie is the Nothic of the whole Star Wars saga.
Craig: You know why Chewie didn’t get a medal? Chewie don’t need no medals.
Craig: Chewie doesn’t care about medals. Maybe that’s why he’s yelling. Anyway, fantastic. Thank you for the kind words at the very end. Patrick, I’m sorry, you just got it all wrong here. But we love you anyway and we thank you for listening and please come on back and just know that the people that you want us to be, we already are.
John: Awww. So our next topic, so after we did our segment at the Slate Gabfest, we found this little outdoor terracey patio thing which is really nice at the theatre.
John: And so you and I were just sitting and chatting for a bit. And I brought up that the thing I’m writing right now — we’re both in our first drafts. And the thing I was writing, I was sort of stuck because I was trying to — I realized it was because I was trying to service a bunch of characters and things just weren’t fitting right.
And so there’s an exercise I do every once in a while which I’d recommend to anybody is basically, what happens if I killed the hero? Like right now, what if the hero died? And I would go through it like, I thought through like what would actually happen if the hero were to die right now. And that didn’t help the situation so I just go sort of one by one and I kill off all the characters and sort of mentally run through what would happen.
And I realized if I killed off this supporting character, life would be so much easier and happier because it would force the other characters in the rest of these sequences to do more of the work. So I didn’t end up killing her but I ended up just getting rid of her because she could do her function that she needed to do and we kind of just didn’t care anymore. She had recurred, she was done, she’s gone.
And it was incredibly helpful and useful. And I thought in a general sense it would be great to talk about sort of how many characters you need because — so I read scripts that aren’t working. A lot of times I find they’re trying to service characters, too many characters too long in the script and they just sort of get muddled.
John: Craig, have you found this to be the case?
Craig: I have. And this is another reason that I do like to outline beforehand because every character — I think that there’s times when we get a little, our appetites get a little big. You know, we have this idea of all these wonderful characters. And the problem is that every character has to be there very, very intentionally. They each need to serve some very important purpose.
Some characters are single-use K-Cup characters. They show up and then they’re gone. We talked about the Ghost —
John: I like, Craig, I have to single out the K-Cup metaphor.
John: One shot and they’re gone, throw them away.
Craig: One shot. Throw them away. So they show up, they do their thing and they’re gone. Movies are full of great characters that show up like that. But for the characters that you’re going to be traveling with, they need each of them to have their story. They need to fill a place. They need to provide you with a tool to tell your story.
There are all sorts of tricks. I mean, some people will tell you, well, every character is just an aspect of the protagonist, which is, you know, it’s interesting. Sometimes I suppose in some kinds of movies that might be true. But for the most part, it’s not. So the questions you have to ask yourself are this. What does, for every character, what do they want? What’s their problem? Who are they really into? Who do they have a big problem with? How are they going to end?
Craig: And then if I understand those things and on top of that I know what they do for the plot, they must do something for the plot, then, well, I’m not going to have a problem writing them am I?
John: No, you’re not. And in my case, you know, I had outlined up to a certain point. But I sort of knew who the characters were going to the last section, but I hadn’t thoroughly figured out sort of who was responsible for what things. And it was as I was trying to write the outline for this section that I realized like, argh, something’s not working right here.
And I wouldn’t have singled out that this character was the one who needed to go away because she served an important function and I thought I would need to bring her through to the end of the movie. What should have been my tipoff is that I didn’t really have any specific place I wanted her to end.
John: There was no sort of great way to send her out of this movie. And that was a good sign that maybe she didn’t need to make it to the end of the movie, that maybe she could leave. And the functions that she would have been doing in this last section of the film, someone else could do them. And probably someone more important could do them and would have more reason to be in those moments because it’s a challenge for her to be performing these actions.
So a lot of times I’ll avoid having too many characters in a scene, but a lot of times if a scene isn’t working it’s because you have too many people in them because you’re trying to service these characters who don’t have enough time to speak. This was a case where I had too many characters in this whole sequence and one of them had to go away.
Craig: And sometimes in a circumstance like that you can fold some characters together.
Craig: You can reassign a duty to another character which can help a lot. One of the danger signs that you’ve triggered here is the too many people within a scene because there’s too many people in general. But then there’s the other problem with too many people in one scene. And you can feel it when suddenly you realize a bunch of people aren’t saying anything.
Craig: And on set, I’ve seen this happen and it’s a very scary thing. When you’re writing a scene, you may say the five of them sit down, you know, at the table. The person that they’re talking to begins talking and then the leader of the group begins talking back to them. And it reads fine because what these two people are saying to each other is fascinating and moving the story forward and all the rest.
And everybody is like, cool, great. There is a, you know, a second AD who’s going through the script and going, okay, let’s see, who’s in each scene because I need to make sure they’re there that day. Okay, they’re in that scene, they’re there that day. And there they are. And then everybody looks and goes, why are all these people here? And why are these actors sitting around? How do I shoot the scene so it’s not the most awkward thing in the world while a bunch of people are sitting there quietly?
Naturally, as an audience, if we see you, we want you to do something.
Craig: It’s not like real life [laughs] where we sit around do nothing all the time. If the camera is on you, it needs to be on you.
John: Yeah. There has to be an intention.
Craig: Right. So that’s a warning sign that you’ve got too many people in your scene.
John: Yeah. And you’ll see that happen a lot. And there’s cases where you want all those people around that dinner table because that’s part of the stakes and the drama of that scene is people’s reactions to those things. Wedding Crashers has a great, really complicated dinner party scene where a bunch of people are around the table and each of those reactions is important.
And, by the way, if you’re trying to ever shoot one of those things, you will go insane because you’re having to shoot angles for everybody looking at each other and trying to match eye lines and you’ll go mental. But sometimes that’s really, really important.
Other times, it’s not and you need to look for ways to sort of get those people out of the room so you can have moments between two characters be between two characters or three characters. I think one of the reasons why we have this instinct to now add a lot of characters to things is we’re used to great TV dramas. We’re used to things like Game of Thrones where you have these giant casts.
John: Well, you couldn’t have that giant cast in the feature version of Game of Thrones. It wouldn’t make any sense at all. The feature version Game of Thrones would focus on like three guys and like Daenerys and John Snow and somebody else. It wouldn’t be all those people. It’s because you have 20 hours to explore all these characters that you can do that in a one-hour show. You can’t do it in a movie.
Craig: That’s absolutely correct. I mean, you’ve called out an interesting thing about the dining room scene because we’ve all done those. And for those of you, if you’re going to write one of those, obviously everybody needs to be there. And John’s right. Not everybody needs to say something, but everybody needs to have a reaction.
So if someone’s there and they say nothing, they’re there because they’re the person who’s going to deliver a key reaction and you should write those reactions. It’s a big thing with me. That’s how the actors even go, okay, I understand, I’m participating in this, I’m there for a reason, the camera will be on me and I have a job. Actors understand that their job goes beyond mouth moving, sound coming out. Reactions, I mean look, comedy-wise, people tend to laugh at the reactions to lines, not the lines themselves.
Craig: So write those. Then what you’re talking about with Game of Thrones is interesting to me because in television, since you have essentially endless episodes — they’re not endless, but as many as you want — you get to carve your space up and then drill down. So Game of Thrones does have a hundred characters, but really it has four characters. And the four characters are the characters within that segment.
Craig: So if there’s a story going on with Tyrion, that has to do with Jaime and his father and his sister. Those are the four characters.
Craig: So they’re only, they’re reducing down as well. In movies, when you have large casts, inevitably what happens, because there’s no other way to keep people’s attention, is you have a protagonist, like at the top of a pyramid, right? And they have the most focus, the most depth, the most richness. Then underneath them are two people that have a little less. And then underneath them are some other people that are little less. And eventually you get to people that are one note.
So eventually, like for instance if you think about Police Academy [laughs], you know.
Craig: You know, so at the top you’ve got Steve Guttenberg and he’s, you know, for a broad comedy, he’s a typical broad comedy protagonist, a man-child who doesn’t want to grow up. He wants to crap out of this thing, but he’s kind of into a girl and lo and behold, he starts to find that he is going to grow up and he is going to live up to the expectations of all the people that believe he’s something special and he’s going to win the day.
At the bottom of the pyramid, you have somebody whose entire character is making funny noises. That’s it. Because that’s all you can bear after, you know, you’ve placed your 15 people in the script.
John: The story could not have withstood that guy having a whole plot line and whole thing.
John: If it were a TV series, yes, give them business, give them ongoing things that, you know, let us know who he is as a person. But for the feature version, he’s the guy who makes funny noises and that’s all you kind of need to know.
Craig: Like in the TV version, he goes home —
Craig: We actually see that he’s got this like really tough life. He’s got a girlfriend, but she’s been, like she’s actually been sick and he’s taking care of her.
John: And she’s deaf.
Craig: Right, so —
John: So she has no sense of what noises he makes.
Craig: Which is really troubling. He tells her that he’s doing great there and everybody really is impressed with his intelligence, but he knows that’s not true. And then he sits there at night alone and learns new sounds because that’s what the guys kind of like.
Craig: But he’s so sad and morose because he really doesn’t feel like he’s good at anything except that.
Craig: That would be, that’s a cool, that’s the —
Craig: Let’s watch it.
John: The saddest Police Academy movie ever.
Craig: I like sad Police Academy, so I should make that movie. [laughs]
John: And just to circle around again to the movie you haven’t seen, in Gone Girl, I’d read the book and I saw the movie, I like them both very, very much. Gone Girl, the author, Gillian Flynn, she removes one character, Ben Affleck’s best friend, from the movie entirely. And I didn’t even know he was missing until someone pointed it out. And that’s a great example of like that character was important for the book because it gave Ben Affleck’s character some grounding and lets you know sort of what was going on there. But he would have gotten in the way in the movie. He would have just been standing around for too much of the movie. So getting rid of him made a lot more sense.
Craig: Yeah, exactly. And so you can see there is a case of an author. It’s her book.
John: It’s her book. And she’s smart enough to know.
Craig: Yeah. She meant that character to exist, but she also understands that a movie is different. Now, there’s the opposite syndrome which is the not enough character syndrome.
John: We talked about that with Ghost.
John: Ghost feels a little light.
Craig: Well, yeah. So what happens is the movie begins to feel a little small. You’ll hear this from executives sometimes. And they’ll say, the movie feels small. They sometimes say this if the movie is, it’s very located in interiors. They’ll start to say it’s smaller, claustrophobic or if there aren’t enough characters, the movie feels small. And what happens is, if you’re telling the story of a movie and you’re shooting in the great wide world of planet Earth and you only have three characters that are really noticeable as human beings at all —
Craig: It starts to feel a little bit more like a play.
John: Mm-hmm, it does.
Craig: And that’s a little rough. I mean look, Ghost wasn’t off by much. I think it was really off by one, you know, one other character to make that red herring work and all that stuff. It would have been great. But if you start to feel like your movie is just three people and no one else feels real or fleshed out or purposeful to the story, you know, you have to sort of stop and ask yourself, are there enough obstacles here? Is this is world well-fleshed out? Who am I one-noting that really should have some life in this because a movie can bear more than that?
John: Yeah. These are challenges I think you find when you have too few characters in your story is that the audience just gets away too far ahead of you because we start to be able to figure out everything that those characters could do. And so then when they do them, it’s like, well, well yeah, we sort of knew that was going to happen. It becomes harder to surprise your audience because we kind of know who all these people are and what they’re capable of doing.
Craig: John, that is a genius point. That’s a genius point.
John: Thank you.
Craig: You’re absolutely right, because when we only have three people to look at, we are studying them so carefully, yeah, of course we’re not going to miss anything. Part of misdirection is shifting our focus, just like magicians are constantly misdirecting you, they’re waving their hand around or yapping while they’re stuffing a bird in a vegetable or something. [laughs] I don’t know whatever they’re doing, cutting up cards behind their backs. Your ability to misdirect people is vastly reduced. Excellent point.
John: Thank you. So our last topic of the podcast of this episode is business affairs. And this is something that you and I both talked about. So let me explain what business affairs is. If you are hired to write a movie for somebody, so it could be a first draft, it could be rewrite, it could be sort of anytime that you are employed as a writer for a studio, business affairs is the lawyers who make your deal.
So your agent and your lawyers are talking to business affairs at Sony or Fox or some place and trying to come to a deal for your writing services. And that may just be scale. You may not be getting sort of above the normal rates. But you have to get that all figured out, basically how long you have to write, what they’re going to pay for each step along the way, other sort of deal points. There’s boilerplate, but it’s not all one standard deal.
So these business affairs people are important. And they are vanishing. I’ve become increasingly frustrated. I think over the last few years, that it feels like takes longer and longer and longer to make deals. And it’s not because we’re being difficult or they’re being difficult. They’re just not there. They’re overworked. And it feels like there’s not enough business affairs people.
Craig: Yeah, this is the general squeeze down on the business. We know that there are fewer and fewer movies made, fewer and fewer executives. And yes, I’ve felt it too. I don’t have numbers obviously. We’re not privy to the payroll of the companies. But it does seem that business affairs has been narrowed through fewer and fewer attorneys. And it is frustrating. Look, it’s a frustrating thing to deal with business. The phrase business affairs is unique in our business because other than the fact that it sounds almost sexy and yet so it’s the opposite of sexy.
John: Ooh affairs.
Craig: Ooh, business affairs. It’s a great title for like a Skinemax movie, but in fact it’s not sexy at all.
Craig: But it has this incredible binary emotional impact. When you are trying to get a job or trying to sell something, when you finally hear okay, business affairs will be calling, you go hooray.
Craig: It’s happening. I’m getting paid. I’m being hired. I got a job. And then business affairs makes you hate them. [laughs] Because, you know, you have, and this is by design. Just as we separate creative from business by hiring agents, the studios separate creative in business. So the creative people say, we love you, we love your idea, love, love, love. Artists come here and let us kiss you all over your face. And the business affairs people are like, uh-huh, according to my spreadsheet you get half of what you think you deserve or so on and so forth.
Craig: And then you start to grind your teeth.
John: But that’s how it, I would say that’s how it’s supposed to work in a weird way.
Craig: Yeah, yeah.
John: And it’s supposed to be that horrible, uncomfortable, like it’s negotiation. And no negotiations are fun. That’s just the nature of it. What is frustrating is that I feel like the negotiation it just doesn’t even start because there’s just no one to actually even begin the negotiation or you end up waiting a really long time because those poor guys are just overworked.
Now why does this matter? Well, it matters because as a writer, you’re not getting paid. Well, that’s obviously a huge headline concern because you can’t get paid until the contract is figured out. They’re not going to cut you a check until there’s a contract to sign.
But more importantly, I think this is actually the bigger crisis in the industry right now is, you know, projects will just stagnate for a long time while these deals get done. And so you could go in and just like kill them with a pitch and it’s just fantastic and everyone is so excited to have you start writing this thing. And then it’s six months before they actually get these contracts figured out.
And in that six months, you haven’t been able to start because you’re not sure the deal is going to be possible to make. And that is awful because by the time you actually get to start writing the thing, it’s done, like your motivation has —
John: Has left.
Craig: I haven’t experienced that kind of lag, but I certainly have experienced more of a lag than has been there before. There are some tricks you can do. If all the major deal points have been agreed on then you can sign a certificate of authorship, get paid and then everybody works out all the inky-dinky details in the long form contract. But the wheel does seem to turn much slower than it used to.
Craig: You know, I do sympathize. Business affairs people are in a tough spot. They know that they have to be the heavy. They also know that sometimes they’re being used. So creative people will give everybody a big hug and tell them that they love and then turn around, call business affairs and say, we do love them but we can’t really, we don’t want to pay more than this. So can you please just be the heavy?
Craig: Because the deal is, if we do end up making a deal, I have to work with these people and I don’t want them to be angry at me the whole time. I just want them to angry at you. [laughs] So —
Craig: A little of that goes on. But yeah, it’s gotten slow.
John: Absolutely. I completely sympathize with business affairs people. I know they have to be heavies. I kind of in a way just want there are going to be more heavies. And I wish studios would hire more people to do that job because I think they’d be able to move faster and more nimbly if they actually could make deals for the things they want more quickly and get their scripts back faster.
John: So often, studios will say like, oh takes us forever to get this, we’ll make a deal and it takes, you know, eight months for us to get the script from the writer. It’s like, well you know what, it took six months for you to make a deal. So maybe you could speed up a little on your side.
Craig: And to give folks out there context who are maybe attorneys, these are not complicated deals.
John: They really aren’t.
Craig: They are nearly boilerplate contracts by the time you’ve been — either you’re a new writer and it’s fairly boilerplate or you’ve been around for a while and your deals have a ton of precedents and they’re fairly boilerplate. And what it really comes down to is how much are we paying you? The rest is baloney, you know, like how many tickets you get to the premiere and do you fly first class or business? I mean whatever.
Craig: It’s not hard.
John: And ultimately, you and I both had the experience where deals are dragging on for a long time then finally in one afternoon, there’ll be a bunch of phone calls back and forth and it will be done. And that afternoon of phone calls could have happened several weeks ahead of time. And it didn’t.
Craig: Yeah, which also makes me feel bad for business affairs because then I feel like they’re living their lives in a constant state of crisis because they’re understaffed. So the deal that they’re doing today is the one that’s about to literally blow up because they couldn’t get to it.
Craig: So every day is a crisis. It’s no way, but this is what these companies have done. They’ve just cut, cut, cut everywhere. And, you know, the other thing that’s rough is like, it’s hard when you’re negotiating deals because, you know, if you’re like a new business affairs lawyer, you know, I don’t know what you’re getting paid. I don’t know what the starting rate is for a brand new business affairs attorney, but my guess is it’s, you know, I don’t know, a couple 100 grand or something? And, you know, some writer is like, “What, $300,000, screw you, you’re a jerk.” And they’re like, “Ugh, am I, am I the jerk?”
You know, it’s a tough gig. And I feel bad for them.
John: And do too.
John: All right. We won’t solve this problem, but I just wanted to bring it up and shine a spotlight on it. Craig, and it’s time for One Cool Things, do you have a One Cool Thing this week.
Craig: No. [laughs]
John: Oh you forgot about it.
Craig: I totally forgot.
John: Yeah. I’ll stall for you and I’ll tell you what my One Cool Thing is.
John: Mine is this movie that I’ve meant to watch for a long time that I finally watched on the plane. I’m in Montreal as we’re recording this. I’m asked to give a speech at Çingleton which is a great conference. But on the plane, I watched Indie Game: The Movie which everyone had recommended and they were right. It’s a really good documentary about these guys making indie games, indie games for, in this case, Xbox.
And it follows the ups and downs and the travails. And even if you’re not a gamer or a person who would make video games, it’s a great look at sort of that part of the creative process where, you know, you’re living that delusion of like, okay, there’ s a game out there that I can make, that I can deliver and it’s going to happen and then you have a launch day and then you just see.
And that’s what the experience is of making movies and the experience of making Broadway shows and all sorts of creative endeavors is that you are so internally focused for so long and you’re killing yourself to make this thing and you’re exhausted and then finally that day comes and you can’t believe it’s finally here. But you have sort of both excitement and post partum depression and it’s all out of your hands. And the variables are unforeseen.
So it’s a really well-made documentary. If you watch it, then you can look up about the people involved. You’ll see there’s other controversy about sort of the nature of the documentary, but I thought it was just a terrifically a well-made thing. It’s on Netflix right now, so if you have Netflix streaming it is free for you to watch.
Craig: Awesome. Well, I guess my One Cool Thing, it’s, you know, we try to make One Cool Things accessible to people. This is not, but it is so so cool. So did you see that Tesla came out with the Tesla P85D model?
John: I have no idea what it is. So tell me all about it.
Craig: They took a Tesla. [laughs]
Craig: They took the model S. They added a second motor to it. So it’s now all wheel drive, two motors. They added a ton of driver assistance features that essentially make the car able to drive itself.
John: Great, love it.
Craig: It reads speed limit signs. It sees the lane markers. It keeps distance from the car — basically, I think Elon Musk said, “If you punch in your address and fall asleep in the car, it will get you there,” which is pretty amazing.
Craig: But more importantly, it goes from 0 to 60 in 3.1 seconds. It is as fast as a McLaren F1. It is in fact a supercar.
John: So Craig, how does it feel to have a shitty Tesla now?
Craig: Well, the thing is I just already, [laughs] begun the process of seeing how it might work on a trade-in because —
John: Oh, that’s good. Yeah.
John: So we’re a very accessible podcast here. I talked about free movies on Netflix. And you’re talking about supercars.
Craig: I’m so sorry.
John: It’s fine. If you would like to ask Craig more questions about his supercar, you can tweet at him.
Craig: I don’t have it yet. I don’t have it yet.
John: He’s @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust on Twitter. Longer questions like the one we got today, well it wasn’t really a question? It was just a venting of umbrage.
Craig: [laughs] It’s so great.
John: You can send those vents to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re on iTunes. So if you’re subscribing to us through iTunes, that’s awesome. If you’re not subscribing to us in iTunes, like maybe you’re just listening to us at the johnaugust.com site, go over to iTunes and click subscribe and leave us a comment while you’re there because those are lovely.
You can find show notes for the things we talked about on this episode and almost every episode at johnaugust.com/scriptnotes. We have a premium app on iTunes and for Android. There’s a premium site at scriptnotes.net. If you sign up for that, you’ll hear all the back episodes and little bonus things that we do every once in a while. That’s also where you’re going to hear the dirty episode when we hit 1,000 premium subscribers which we’re getting pretty close. We are going to do a dirty episode. So people sent some really good suggestions for who we should have as a guest on the dirty episode.
Craig: I thought the funniest one was Mike Birbiglia because he’s so not dirty.
John: He’s not. He’s the sweetest, nicest, not dirtiest man.
Craig: I know.
John: But we’ll find somebody. I have some hunches about some really great people we can have on the show.
Craig: All right, good.
John: All right. And I think that is our show for this week.
Craig: Awesome. Good show.
John: Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: All right. Bye.
- A few tickets remain for tonight’s Writers on Writing event with John interviewing Simon Kinberg
- The Belasco Theater is gorgeous
- John and Craig on the Slate Culture Gabfest
- Star Wars Minus Williams – The Throne Room by Auralnauts
- Indie Game: The Movie
- Jalopnik on the Tesla Model S P85D
- Get premium Scriptnotes access at scriptnotes.net and hear our 1,000th subscriber special
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Jonas Bech (send us yours!)