The original post for this episode can be found here.
Craig Mazin: Hello and welcome. My name is Craig Mazin.
John August: My name is John August.
Craig: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
John: Craig, you did a great job with that.
Craig: Well, I’ve heard it 198 times.
John: Yes. So it’s big episode 199. It’s near the bicentennial, I guess we’d call it?
John: You can call it centennial for things that aren’t years, so sure.
Craig: Yeah, no, it’s exciting. It would have been really embarrassing had I — I didn’t practice, I swear. I gave a talk about some general creative topics at this very interesting place called Bricksburg. Are you familiar with Bricksburg?
John: I’m not at all. Tell me what this is.
Craig: It’s the LEGO Movie headquarters.
John: Oh my gosh, that sounds amazing.
Craig: So they have all these artists and everybody and the woman who introduced me mentioned that I did the podcast with you and she said, “And this podcast about screenwriting,” and then there was this artist sitting there sort of to my left who just mouthed, “And things that are interesting to screenwriters.”
So, if she could get it, I’m pretty sure I could get it.
Craig: Nailed it.
John: You did a fantastic job. Yeah, I wanted to mix things up for this next to the 200th episode show. And so I threw this at you and you just caught that ball and you ran with it. So, well done, Craig Mazin.
Craig: Yeah, you know, my whole thing is I’m not a big planner, but I like saying yes to stuff.
John: Fantastic. Today on the show we are going to talk about ageism in Hollywood. We’re going to talk about unsung heroes. And finding your way out of the woods on a draft of your script.
But first we need to talk about the 200th episode which is coming up next week, which seems impossible.
Craig: I know. So, 200 episodes is a lot. And when I put it into years, that’s where I start to actually feel kind of shocked. Because I don’t —
John: We’ve been doing this a long time.
Craig: We’ve been doing it for over four years.
Craig: It doesn’t feel like that to me.
John: It doesn’t to me either.
Craig: But yet we have been. We’re going to hit like, what do you think we’re going to hit, like 10,000? [laughs] When do we stop?
John: I don’t know. The technologies will change. Things will move on. It was weird cutting last week’s episode, we did the centennial episode, and so I was recutting the 100th episode just popping in every once and awhile to offer some perspective. And it felt really recent, but it was 100 episodes ago, which is just crazy.
Craig: I know. I know. It’s just nuts. Well, it will be fun. So, where did end up on that? Are you going to do a Google Hangout kind of thing?
John: So, we’ll do something like a Google Hangout. So it will either be a Google Hangout officially, or it will be something through Mixlr, which is the live streaming thing we’ve done before. Regardless, whatever it is, we will announce a few days ahead of time, so follow us on Twitter and the website and we’ll tell you what we are doing for the live show. In fact, I might even cut it into this episode if we know what the details are. But it will be you and me and hopefully Aline. We’ll be hanging out. We’ll be here at our offices. And we will just do our show, but we’ll do it live for everyone to hear.
We’ll do it in the evening so it can be sort of after you’ve come home from work. You can listen to us and we’ll have Stuart or somebody else on hand so you can tweet in your questions and we can answer and be with you live in the room as we do it.
Craig: Maybe we can have a segment like maybe Stuart do stuff, and then people just send in things and he has to do them.
John: Yeah. That’s pretty much what daily life is like for Stuart. So, it would be good.
Craig: Excellent. Well, I’m looking forward to that.
John: I’m looking forward to it as well. So, let’s get onto today’s work. A bit of follow up here. This is just as we were about to start recording, Deadline had a story about Mr. Holmes. Did you see this?
Craig: I did see it. Not only did I see it. I even read the filing.
John: I read the filing, too. In a previous episode we talked about the Gravity lawsuit and this is Tess Gerritsen’s claim that the movie Gravity was really based on her book. This is similar, but different. This is a filing from the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle saying that the new Sherlock Holmes movie, Mr. Holmes, infringes upon the copyright in some of the later works of Arthur Conan Doyle.
And we’ll see what happens. Craig, what was your initial assessment based on reading through the filing?
Craig: Well, first of all, it’s sort of a fascinating thing. The idea here is that this new movie is based on a novel. The novel uses the character of Sherlock Holmes. It’s about Sherlock Holmes. But, I like most people, was under the impression that Sherlock Holmes at this point was entirely in the public domain.
It may actually be entirely in the public domain in England. So, what happens is copyright length is different from country to country. The United States has actually amended copyright length a number of times and always in favor of intellectual property rights holders.
So, I’m not sure what the situation is. But the deal is that the last ten Holmes works by Arthur Conan Doyle are not yet in public domain. The copyright has not lapsed. The copyright is controlled by the estate. It is intellectual property. What they’re alleging is that the screenwriter of the movie, who was the writer of the novel that the movie is based on, essentially infringed on the copyright of that protected stuff.
And so I looked through the complaint and I took a look at their areas of comparison and I must say I found their complaint formidable.
John: Interesting. I read it much more briefly than you did, so I sort of skimmed through those little sections where they talked about those things. It reminded me a bit of an arbitration claim. I don’t know if you felt the same way, too. It felt to me like an overwritten arbitration claim where they’re trying to say like, “Well, in this book, in this Arthur Conan Doyle short story he says this, and in the book he writes this.” And the movie is apparently similar, because they don’t officially have access to the movie yet, I don’t believe. So I think they’re claiming that it’s similar enough, that the same things infringe across this boundary between what the book was and what the movie was. Interesting that they didn’t go after the book when the book was published, because theoretically if the book infringed, they could have gone after the book.
John: They did not. The thing that gives me pause and makes me wonder if they’re going to have any success in this is that apparently they’ve tried to do the same sorts of things to other Sherlock Holmes works and have not succeeded. And they’ve had those cases thrown out.
So, I’ll be interested to see whether the fact that this is apparently focusing on a portion of the fictional character’s life that was written about in those last ten stories, who knows.
As a writer, I find it incredibly frustrating and challenging that really esoteric details about like, well, in the early Sherlock Holmes stories he doesn’t like dogs, and in the later Sherlock Holmes stories he likes dogs, so therefore this movie infringes upon our intellectual property. Well, you’re being impossible, people.
Craig: Yeah. That was not compelling. A couple of things. One, they don’t really need to see the movie. If the movie is based on the book, then the movie is part of an extension of rights from the book. So, there’s sort of an original sin they’re alleging there. And then all derivative works from that theoretically tainted work are now part of the whole tainted property.
I want to read very briefly two sections that they cite here. This is where I stopped and went, oh, that’s not good. So, first I’m going to read this very short paragraph from Arthur Conan Doyle’s story Blanched Soldier, which is one of the copyrighted stories.
“Perhaps I’ve invited this persecution since I have often had occasion to point out to him,” meaning Watson, “how superficial are his own accounts and to accuse him of pandering to popular taste instead of confining himself rigidly to facts and figures. Try it yourself, Holmes, he has retorted, and I am compelled to admit that having taken my pen in my hand, I do begin to realize that the matter must be presented in a way as may interest the reader.”
Okay, that was Conan Doyle. Now, this is what Cohen, I can’t remember his first name here, but Mr. Cohen, the author of the novel, this is what he wrote in the novel.
“During the years in which John was inclined to write about our many experiences together, I regarded his skillful if somewhat limited depictions as exceedingly overwrought. At times, I decried his pandering to popular tastes and asked that he be more mindful of facts and figures. In turn, my old friend and biographer urged me to write an account of my own. If you imagine I’ve done an injustice to our cases, I recall him saying on at least one occasion, I suggest you try it yourself, Sherlock. The results showed me that even a truthful account must be presented in a manner which should entertain the reader.”
That’s pretty close.
John: I agree. They’re talking about the same kind of thing. It’s not close enough that it feels like plagiarism to me, because he’s not using the same words. He’s expressing this overall same idea and the fact that it’s about the same underlying character could make that troubling.
The only way that it could be legally troubling is if you believe that this character and his work are still fully under copyright and that is a murky situation in the US and overseas and every other market.
Further complicating this is the claim in this lawsuit over the Sherlock Holmes trademark. And trademark is a completely separate legal creation where they’re trying to basically trademark the name Sherlock Holmes. I don’t know the degree to which they’re going to be successful in using the trademark defense of Sherlock Holmes as a thing.
But I can tell you that it is a real challenge that you run into sometimes as a person adapting things. Tarzan is a trademark. And it is really frustrating that the underlying works of Tarzan are public domain and yet you can’t say the word Tarzan.
Craig: Yeah. Trademark is a very murky area. I mean, to be honest, even this notion — I mean, you mentioned plagiarism. Plagiarism is a term of art. Obviously every court hopes for those slam dunk cases where it’s a simple case of cut and paste. But that’s rarely what goes on.
When, for instance, journalists uncover plagiarism, usually it is in the form of a slight rephrasing and really an intentional rephrasing of somebody else’s work. So, for here, for instance, the last line is, “I do begin to realize that the matter must be presented in such a way as my interest the reader.”
And Cohen writes, “The results showed me that even a truthful account must be presented in a manner which should entertain the reader.” He’s copying there, I believe. I’m not a judge; but I believe he’s copying the work here. The entire paragraph is about the same thing. It’s about Sherlock Holmes saying to his chronicler, “Won’t you please stop embellishing and stick to the facts.” And then the chronicler says, “Well, you try it sometime. It’s hard.” And then he says, “I did try it, and yeah, I realized that sometimes you got to glam it up.”
So, here was an area where what happens now is essentially a judge or jury, I don’t know how these things work.
John: A judge in New Mexico, of all places.
Craig: Oh, a judge in New Mexico is going to have to make a decision. And it’s a decision that will be informed by dramaturgical experts, I’m sure. And there’s going to be some brouhaha here. But this complaint, I will say, at the very least provides some concrete evidence, whereas the Gravity one was just — felt like it was throwing spaghetti against the wall and hoping bits of it stuck.
John: Yeah. So, we will follow this as it shakes its way through. I think the interesting take home for screenwriters is a character you might assume is in the public domain like Sherlock Holmes, because lord knows there’ve been a zillion versions of Sherlock Holmes, is not entirely in the public domain and that can come back to haunt you.
And in the case of this one paragraph that Craig is citing, this one paragraph might be enough to hang this whole weird lawsuit on.
Craig: It could. And I must say in conclusion here that I feel so bad for Bill Condon who is a very nice guy and a fantastic filmmaker and couldn’t have possibly known. I mean, you know, he was making a movie based on a book. And obviously then there’s this whole other process to make a movie. I can’t imagine that he knew that there was this landmine buried in there somewhere, or at least a potential landmine. But what happens in legal cases is that people get enjoined, which is one of the nastiest words in the English language.
Well, I’m suing this guy, but you were vaguely involved. I’m enjoining you. Now you’re getting sued, too. That sucks.
John: It does suck. I would also say beyond the legal decision that will come out of this, I think the greater/broader picture is looking at sort of what it is that’s happening with copyright in these days. So the fact that Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate can sue over this really honestly esoteric bit from this tiny slice of the Sherlock Holmes character that exists in still copyright-protected work is really troubling. And that this character who is 99% public domain can still stay 1% protected and that 1% can be something that can be financially beneficial to people who had nothing to do with the actual creation of the work.
John: That’s not the intention of copyright. And it is a very frustrating time to live in. And I think it could lead to some of the kinds of trollery we’ve seen in intellectual property in the computer sphere as well.
Craig: Yeah. I’m a pretty staunch supporter of intellectual property rights. And I’m not much of a copy-fighter at all. In this case, I agree, this feels cheap. It just feels cheap. I don’t like it. And they may win. Or win, you know, there will be a settlement. But, I don’t like it so much.
Here’s what I do like, though.
John: Tell me.
Craig: A little second bit of follow up for us, sort of follow up. I received a letter from a doctor, Dr. Ryan Dadasovich, M.D., who works at Yale New Haven Health, something or another. [laughs] Northeast Medical Group. And that’s in Connecticut. And he sent me this letter and said, “Craig, I know you’ve been taking umbrage for years. But I’m worried you were obtaining it illegally. Internet umbrage can be, quite frankly, dangerous. I’ve included a prescription you could fill at your local pharmacy, a safe and FDA-approved source. If questioned by the police or authorities for any reason you can show them your legal prescription. I think the XR formula will be most effective to sustain you. Good luck.”
And he did, in fact, give me a proper prescription. I get Umbrage XR 500mg. Take one a day. I get two refills, which is nice. I now have a piece of his — I don’t think I could do anything with this, but thank you Dr. Dadasovich. That’s super nice. Can you snort this? Is this snortable?
John: I’m sure you could. I think it would be incredibly dangerous. I think the thing I would question is whether in taking umbrage, Craig may have too much umbrage. And so really do you need to provide more supplements for Craig who takes umbrage relatively frequently on the show, or me who sometimes doesn’t take enough umbrage. So, it’s a question of like what is the proper amount of umbrage you need to have in your daily life, or in your daily diet.
Craig: Yeah, you know, obviously that’s different for people and I’ve built up quite a tolerance. I feel like Dr. Ryan is sort of like, hey man, whatever you need to get up on your feet and do your show. I’m like Judy Garland now. People are just shoving pills in my mouth. Go to bed, wake up, sing. Go to sleep. This is great.
John: It’s a good life.
Craig: Anyway, thank you Dr. Dadasovich.
John: That’s very, very nice of him to send that through. So, previously on the show, back when we did our dirty episode, which is sort of two-part episode, we had Rebel Wilson come on and she was just amazing. And she continues to be just amazing. And she was in this little movie that did some business called Pitch Perfect 2.
Craig: Just a touch of business.
John: Just a touch of business. Just, you know, a huge blockbuster. A sequel to blow off all sequels. So, congratulations to Rebel Wilson. But then you put in the show notes here about something I wasn’t even aware of, another article had come out. So, talk us through it.
Craig: So, apparently what happened is over in Australia there was a bit of brouhaha where the press figured out through their pressy ways that Rebel Wilson, who was according to IMDb is 29 years old, is not 29 years old. In fact, she’s 35 years old. And Rebel Wilson isn’t her name. Her actual name is Melanie Elizabeth Bownds. And that Rebel Wilson was not brought up by Bogan parents, meaning sort of Australian white trash parents, but in fact perfectly fine middle class parents that were not Bogans. And that it was all just sort of a made up thing.
And, you know, over here in America I think we all looked at each other and went, what, who cares. Like that’s what everyone does. We all know that Tom Cruise is Tom Mapother. Nobody cares. It doesn’t matter.
And lie about your age, I mean. So, women in Hollywood, particularly actors, are damned if they don’t lie about their age, and now apparently they’re damned if they do lie about their age. You know who lied about her age? Mae West. This is not new.
But what I found so interesting was Rebel’s response. So, she said, in response to the investigative journalism she wrote, “OMG, I’m actually a 100-year-old mermaid formally known as CC Chalice. Thanks shady Australian press for your tall poppy syndrome.” And tall poppy syndrome was something she discussed with us when she did our show. And sure enough, here’s the proof.
John: Yeah. I think what outrages me the most about the whole situation is that we’re calling it investigatory journalism, like there was some great secret being kept and hidden. There really wasn’t. And so I think it’s well known throughout town that Rebel, we knew her real age, and we knew sort of what that was. Entertainment Weekly had published her real age back I think when the first movie came out.
So, it’s not like there was some great secret. So, to portray it as like this big revelation about who this person is just crazy. I think it also speaks to this weird thing we’re insisting upon our celebrities these days is that they have to be 100% authentic, but also 100% untouchable gods that are completely incapable of being wrong in any way. So, it’s this weird bundle of expectations we put on our celebrities that I don’t think is at all justified. And certainly it’s not borne by history in terms of like what we do to create our movie star actors.
Craig: Yeah. It’s really stupid. I mean, this is — investigative journalism? It was neither investigative nor journalism. This is, I mean, truly file under who cares.
Maggie Gyllenhaal had a sort of an interesting parallel moment to this this week when she mentioned in an interview that she’s 37 years old and she was told recently that she was too old to play the lover of a man who was 55 years old. And when I read that, I’ll tell you, I had two reactions. My first reaction was, yup, I believe that. And my second reaction was, man, that’s awful.
And I just thought it was interesting that “yup I believe that” came so quickly, because it seemed, yup, I totally believe that that happened. I can hear it happening. It fits everything I see about casting in movies where aging male stars are constantly paired with women who frankly are their daughter’s ages. And now these people are going after Rebel Wilson.
Hey, here’s something to report. Want to report something? How about this. Rebel Wilson is a woman in her 30s who is completely convincing as a college student.
Craig: How about that?
John: So, this whole discussion made me think back to Riley Weston. I don’t know if you really remember Riley Weston.
Craig: Oh yeah. I do. I do.
John: That was back in 1998. She was a staff writer and an actress on the TV show Felicity. And I remember it very distinctly because I was doing my own TV show the same time this was all coming out.
So, Riley Weston, she was sort of hailed as this wunderkind for like being this great writer who could really speak with the voice of an 18-year-old because she was so young. And then it came out that she wasn’t that young at all. And she was actually in her 30s. And she just seemed really, really young.
So, in the show notes I’m going to link to two things that talk about it, her Wikipedia entry, but also this Entertainment Weekly article from ’98, and the URL for it is funny. It was Riley Weston Fooled Us All About Her Age. And they’re essentially taking umbrage for like how dare you make us think that you are younger than you were.
You know, in the case of someone who is a politician, someone who is running for office, someone who we have to rely on them telling the absolute god’s honest truth for us to trust them to do their job, I can see sort of how this could be a big deal. But I find myself going back in time to this 1998 Riley Weston thing and saying, “What were we doing? Why we running her out of town for allowing us to misbelieve her age?” And that is incredibly frustrating to me.
Craig: I mean, the one thing about Riley Weston that I recall is that she was kind of promoting herself via publicity. And, okay, when you sort of make a publicity point, a self-promotional point about something that turns out to be not true, I think there’s a fair reaction there to say, hey, you were using us, you know.
But in general, Hollywood is an illusion business. Our job, our industry, is to create entertaining and interesting lies. Charlie Sheen is Emilio Estevez’s brother. They are both Estevez. Nobody cares that he’s Charlie Sheen. Nobody cares that Martin Sheen is not Martin Estevez. It just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care what anyone’s real name is. I know what Elton John’s real name is, because I’m a dork, so I know it’s Reginald Dwight. But I don’t care.
John: What you’re talking about really is branding. And so both Elton John and Rebel Wilson and Charlie Sheen have chosen like this is what my — this is the person I want to present myself to the world is this person with this name. And that is a choice a person should be able to make. And so Rebel Wilson changing her name to Rebel Wilson, well that name fits the woman who came to talk on the show much better than whatever her born name was.
Just like John August fits me much better than my born name, which is German.
Craig: That’s right. Your name isn’t John — oh my god. Someone get the Australian press.
John: Ha-ha. They’ll correct everybody. But this last week I also encountered this actor. So we were both waiting for a meeting over at Sony and I knew him through a friend. And so we were talking and he was saying that he was going in for casting on something, I think Marc Cherry show, and Marc Cherry said like, “Wait, I didn’t know that was you.” And it’s because his agents had sent him in under like his — so he has a normal Anglo name, but his mother was Latina, and so they started using his mother’s Latina name to send him in for casting so he could get roles that were going to Latino actors. And he’s like, that’s crazy, that’s not my name. Nobody knows me when you send me in as this name.
But they’re trying to create an expectation. And they’re trying to essentially rebrand him so that he could get cast in those Latino roles. And that’s, again, it’s the illusion that we’re creating. It used to be back in the time of Rita Hayworth they were trying to de-Latinize somebody, and now we’re trying to Latinize them.
Craig: Right. Exactly. And this is what people do. Actors in particular, their stock and trade is to pretend to be somebody else. So, oh my god — I mean, this is the dumbest thing. I think it is tall poppy syndrome. I think this is absolutely just a general resentment of somebody that’s doing well. So, boo Australians, hooray Rebel Wilson. That’s what I say.
John: Two other examples that sort of came up that I wanted to talk through with you and to get your perspective on, sort of where you stand with them right now. First off, James Frey, and A Million Little Pieces. So, James Frey if you remember wrote this book which is supposedly a memoir of drug addiction that was a huge bestseller. It was supposed to become a movie and then it came out that some of the details in the book did not actually pan out. He had not been arrested for the things he said he’d been arrested for.
The book was ultimately pulled. It was moved from nonfiction to fiction. Lots of stuff happened. Craig, where do you land on a James Frey situation as a memoir theoretically?
Craig: Very scornful of James Frey. I think that the difference is this. When you create a piece and you present under the auspices of trust, and you say that this is a true story of my life, and I want you to learn from it and feel things about me because of it. And it turns out that you have invented it, that is just flat out manipulative lying.
That is different than changing your name because you like a different name. That’s different than changing your age because you want to try and get some parts. You’re not asking for public trust there, at all. You’re just doing something because it might help you get some jobs and you’re not hurting anyone.
When James Frey writes an account of his drug addiction and is trying to use it to inspire other people and then it turns out that he made it up, yeah, that’s hurting people and it’s violating public trust.
John: So, let us imagine a situation in which Rebel Wilson wrote a bestseller comedy thing, the same way that Lena Dunham would, same way that Tina Fey or Amy Poehler did, and she were claiming her Bogan parents and all that stuff. Would that push you through to the level of Rebel you betrayed us?
Craig: Yeah. If Rebel Wilson wrote a book and talked about — and it wasn’t about pure comedy — but rather talking about the hardships of growing up in poverty or with parents who didn’t fit into society and how that affected her as a child, absolutely, that would be a violation of trust. I can’t imagine she would ever do it.
John: Absolutely. And I think that what you’re talking to is sort of the social contract we make with celebrities, that it’s a different than the social contract we make with writers. And the social contract we make with writers where like we’re reading their books and they’re telling us their own personal story is that you’re going to tell us the truth. And that I’m going to invest in you to tell you the truth.
The social contract we make with celebrities is basically you are going to be great in this movie and you are going to perform this weird Kabuki thing we do at press junkets. And we are going to pretend like everything is happy and good because that’s sort of what we do. And that’s a reasonable deal we’ve made with celebrities that some celebrities are delighted to do, and some celebrities hate.
Some of the folks who do the Marvel movies hate doing that dance. I don’t know if you saw that really uncomfortable interview with Robert Downey, Jr.
Craig: I did.
John: Where he walked out. And like god bless you Robert Downey, Jr. I totally understand why you’re upset because that guy was breaking the contract of like what movie publicity is supposed to be doing. You don’t sit down to talk to Robert Downey, Jr. about Iron Man and then like let’s drag up terrible things from your past. That’s not the performance that’s happening there.
Craig: Yeah. You know, the press junket people I think 98% of them understand their function, which is to help sell a movie. So, they’re helping Robert Downey, Jr. sell a movie, and Robert Downey, Jr. is helping them sell clicks.
Craig: Occasionally 2% of them start to get this thought that maybe they’re Woodward or Bernstein, which they’re not. [laughs] Because they wouldn’t be at a press junket if they were. And then they go a little wonky and in a sense it’s very self-serving because suddenly they’re the story. But it never works for them.
Here’s the interesting thing. Robert Downey, Jr. is still famous. That guy has been forgotten already.
John: Yes. The last hypothetical I want to throw out to you to get your opinion on. So, there’s a friend who I went to college with and he is also a screenwriter, but he came to Hollywood later than I did, and so had another career and then he came to Hollywood. He looks younger than me. And he sort of comes off as younger as me, I think partly because he has a writing partner who is younger. And so they’re perceived as being a team and everyone thinks of him as being quite a lot younger.
And so when we talk to people, it’s never actually sort of officially said, but it’s sort of like implied like, hey, maybe don’t say we went to college together because that ages me up. And that was never said, but that was sort of kind of implied. So, I find myself saying like, “Oh, we went to the same college rather than we went to college together,” because that would automatically put him in his 40s and people don’t think he’s in his 40s at all.
Is that fair to allow people to misassume your age?
Craig: Yeah. I think so. If you — I mean, I’ve never had any perceived value attached to my age at any point. I’ve never thought that anybody would give a damn. And I still don’t think so. But, for people who do, if they prefer to be thought of as a certain age and people are thinking of them as that age, I don’t care.
I know there’s a very big time writer-director out there who lies about his age. And I know he lies about his age, for sure. I wouldn’t say anything. I don’t care. I don’t know why he does it. It’s kind of stupid. So, you know, I don’t necessarily respect non-actors who lie about their age, because I think that’s kind of ridiculous and narcissistic because they’re not trying to get parts. You know what I mean?
But whatever. I mean, there’s worse things to do. It doesn’t bother me.
John: I’ll close with one little example that happened at a lunch. This is many years ago. And I was talking to a producer and she described a project. And I was like, oh, that sounds really interesting. And she’s like, “Oh yeah, we’re looking for a younger writer for that.” I was 30 at the time. [laughs]
John: And really what she meant was she meant newer. She meant less expensive.
John: Cheaper. Cheaper is really what she meant. She meant like a baby writer. But the word she said was younger. And there was some degree to which that was true. And there is a degree to which being the young person in the room can be really helpful. It was very helpful for me when I was going out for meetings after Go because I was like, oh, I was the guy who could be hired to write these teenage things, or these younger things. I was a guy who could get a show set up at the WB at the time. So, my comparative youth was an advantage.
I’m always mindful of the fact that youth is one of the qualities that you can be bringing into any discussion that can be useful. Because when you don’t have experience, youth might be another useful thing to offer.
Craig: I’ve been in a race to get old my whole life. I like getting old.
John: Basically you want to get to the appropriate age for your level of crankiness and umbrage.
Craig: That’s right. I want to get to an appropriate age where I don’t have to wear pants. Yeah. I’m just running. I’m running towards a future where all food is soft and pants are loose.
John: It sounds like a wonderful future.
Craig: Yeah, I’m going to have a scooter.
John: Good stuff.
Craig: Ooh, I can’t wait.
John: You put the next topic on the list and it deals with a screenwriter who has been working for quite a long time, and so a good transition between ageism and a guy who’s flourishing and quite late into his career.
Craig: So, I thought we could have a new feature. I don’t know how frequently we can do it, but unsung screenwriting heroes of Hollywood. So, what if I told you that there was a director. And the director directed the following movies. Karate Kid. A Walk in the Clouds. Fifth Element. Transporter. And Taken. One director did all those movies. I’m thinking you would know that director. That would be kind of a big name.
John: Yes. And because I recognize those last three credits I would say like, wow, Luc Besson directed Karate Kid?
John: But I would say, yes, that is a very notable list of credits.
Craig: It’s Luc Besson-like. Well, one writer wrote all of those movies. Robert Kamen has been doing what we do since 1981. He wrote the movie Taps. Did you ever see Taps?
John: I saw Taps.
Craig: Yeah. So, he wrote the movie. That was his first credit in 1981. And then came The Karate Kid, which obviously was a seminal work. And then A Walk in the Clouds, Fifth Element, Transporter, Taken. And what is so remarkable about him, and I’ve never met him. I don’t know him. But I’m fascinated by his career because first of all the — his ability to be relevant is just remarkable.
It’s not only that he wrote Karate Kid back when you and I were teenagers and captured that time perfectly. But Taken is culturally relevant. So, this is somebody who has remained culturally relevant for decades. That is harder than it sounds.
John: I agree.
Craig: And he’s done it across genres. And I just find his career fascinating. And always, by the way, here’s another thing I love about this guy. He never drifted off into let’s call it kind of indie la-la ville. He’s still writing good genre popcorn theater-filling movies. I love that.
John: How did he come into your radar, Craig?
Craig: Well, you know, the truth is I — sometimes I go on a little click hole expedition. And for some reason I found myself fiddling about with The Fifth Element. I happen to love The Fifth Element. I’m just a big Fifth Element nut.
And when I was looking at the screenwriter’s name, I felt like, wait, wait, wait, wait, I feel like — that’s not the guy that wrote Karate Kid? That can’t be, because they’re totally different movies. And they were from different times. So then I went, and yup, it’s him. And then I looked at his list of credits and my jaw dropped. Just dropped. I couldn’t believe.
Robert Kamen is a name that everyone should know. They should know that name like they know Luc Besson or they know Steven Spielberg for that matter. He’s an incredibly influential filmmaker. And I do think of screenwriters as filmmakers. And so Robert Kamen, you are the inaugural unsung screenwriting hero of Hollywood.
John: I think it’s a great first choice because I kind of half recognized it. I recognize like, oh, I’ve seen that name, but I couldn’t tell you what the credits where. But I was trying to figure out like why don’t know his name better. And some theories, which I’d love to talk through with you.
First off, he doesn’t seem to work — he doesn’t seem to live and work in Hollywood. So, looking up the stuff I could find online, it seems like he lives in New York and in Sonoma where he owns a winery. So, he’s not in our circle, so we’re not seeing him sort of at the usual watering holes. So that might be part of it?
Craig: I think so. Sure. And I guess that when you write movies like he has, and god knows how many moves he’s written on that he doesn’t have credit on, that plus all the residuals from these things. Yeah, you own a winery. That sounds about right.
John: A second thing I was thinking about is because so many of his more recent credits have been with one director, you tend to sort of forget that he — you forget about him as an individual. So, you just lump him in with his director. And you don’t think about him as being an individual person.
The same way that a writer who might work with Ang Lee consistently, you don’t think about them as the individual writer. You think of them as being Ang Lee’s person. Is that possible?
Craig: Well, it is possible. And that’s something that for instance Ruth —
John: Ruth Jhabvala.
Craig: Exactly. Ruth Jhabvala kind of struggled in the shadow a little bit of Merchant Ivory. And maybe she liked being in the shadow. You know, not every writer particularly wants the spotlight or notoriety. And perhaps Mr. Kamen is that way. But I think it’s incumbent upon people who care about movies and filmmakers for them to know who is actually doing the work here. And so he deserves plenty of attention from those of us who care.
John: Very good. Next time we are over at your house playing D&D, I think we should get a bottle of his wine and drink it.
John: Done. Next topic is also your topic. And you have this listed on the outline as finding your new home, but it seems to me based on the things we have in here that it’s really talking about what happens when you kind of get lost with a script. Is that what I’m feeling?
Craig: Yeah. Well, it’s a little bit like when you’re homeless in your own project. So, there’s this thing that happens where you create a movie on paper. You write your screenplay. And that’s a home. You don’t hand it to somebody until you feel like, okay, this is whole and done, at least for now, and I’m safe with it.
And then you hand it to people, and they read it, and then there’s a collaboration that ensues. And you get notes and thoughts and things and you write a new draft. But in the writing of the new draft, you end up at a place and you’re not sure it’s right. The problem is though that you’ve drifted far enough away from your first script that you don’t feel like you could go back to that at all. You start to think that’s not right either.
So, suddenly I’m like a person that’s sold my house and bought a new one, but the new one is not built yet. I’m outside and it’s raining. And that’s a very scary feeling because essentially you begin to be lost in your own project and disconnected from your own movie. Have you ever felt that?
John: Oh my god, yes. And so I think maybe the reason you brought this up because you and I might both be at those kind of moments, or recently experienced that, where you turn in a draft and then you do the revisions. And most of the things you’re happy with, but it’s not your initial vision of what it was. And you’re not sure that some stuff is working, that some stuff is not working. You’re trying to make sure all the pieces fit together and they fit together in a real and meaningful way. And you don’t know how to feel about something.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a weird feeling to look at your own script and think, “I don’t know this. Who are you?” You know, it’s like waking up next to your wife or your husband and not recognizing their face. It’s distressing.
And so you’re right. It’s certainly — I feel it every time, by the way, I’m in a second draft. Every single time. Without fail.
And so I wanted to talk through some possible strategies for dealing with this feeling when it happens because it can be debilitating. So, first, the simplest of all things is take a break. And we have kind of an unparalleled ability as writers to take breaks without anyone knowing. You don’t have to call people and say I’m taking a week off. Take a week off. Just don’t think about it for an entire week. Don’t do anything related to it for an entire week. If you don’t want to write anything else, don’t write anything else for a week. Take a week off.
And then when you come back, hopefully some of the panic and concern has been flushed out and you can get a cleaner look at what you actually have.
The second thing that might help is to read it out loud, which we talk about all the time, but reading things out loud will start to snap things into view a little bit. Reading out loud reminds you that you will one day be on a set. And it will one day be a movie. And you may find that it’s actually working better than you think.
I also recommend at this point sharing it with a friend. And the friend is hopefully somebody that you think understands how to read your work and help you, which isn’t everybody. So, you have to kind of figure out who that friend is.
John: And you need to actually set up the expectation with that friend properly. I have a friend who sometimes reads my stuff and she will quite candidly ask, “Do you want me to tell you that it’s great, or do you want me to find the mistakes?” And those are equally valid things. And I think at this point you’re asking for the please tell me it’s great, and problems too, but mostly I need you to tell me that I’m not crazy and this is worth my time.
Craig: Well, and that brings me to this fourth strategy which is to actively seek praise. Praise, in general, is underrated. I think everybody that grows up in our business and the business of developing screenplays is trained by their higher ups to avoid praise and to instead drill down into what’s not working, because frankly in a bloodless sort of way that probably is the most efficient way to get towards fixes.
But, praise is really important because what praise does is it helps you, the writer, understand what is working. And what is working, frankly, is more likely to get to you to more is working stuff, than hearing about what isn’t working.
Craig: So, you want to seek praise. And there is nothing wrong with saying to somebody, listen, I want you to read the script and feel free to be honest with things that aren’t working, but I need you also to be vehement about the things that are working. That will help me. And when you give people permission to do that, they do it.
Craig: It’s very encouraging.
John: I was just on a phone call with a friend right before we started recording this and I was talking through this pilot that he wrote. And there were things that were great about it and things that weren’t great about it. And luckily, thank god, there were things that were great about it. And so I could say in a really very true, real way, “I love where this gets to. I love the tone you’re able to find. You were able to create this really unique special thing. I think you can find ways to do that throughout the whole rest of the script. And if you’re up for it, let’s talk through ways we can get more of what’s working so well there to be working throughout the rest of this.”
It ends up being a much better conversation when you can tell somebody you’re awesome. This part is great. And I think you can do this same kind of stuff for the whole script.
Craig: Right. Right. Exactly. When you get a series of “I don’t like this” you begin to feel stupid. You begin to feel like nothing you do is any good. And you also begin to extrapolate to say, oh, and they’re leaving out a bunch — they basically hate everything.
When people zero in on something and say this was wonderful, let me tell you why it was wonderful, let me tell you how it made me feel, that will embolden you to think about those moments and think about why those moments are working as opposed to other moments. It’s very important. Not many people do this instinctively.
And I would urge those of you who listen to us who are development executives, studio executive and producers, to really make this part of your deal. Not because you’re there to make writers feel good. But because you’re there to actually make the script better. Believe it or not, that will make the script better.
Craig: And in general, when you’re lost, you have to remind yourself that when you can’t see things, you can’t see them. And then you do see them. There is an impatience there. You think, well, if I really strain, I’ll see it. No. You’ll see it when you see it. Things are never as good as you think. And things are never as bad as you think. So, take heart in that. And remember that you’ve been out in the rain before. And then the new house is finished and you go inside.
John: I do encounter this experience on almost every second draft. And sort of a second draft ennui where there’s this real gap between what it was I initially set out to create and what I’m looking at on the page right now. And I’m trying to figure out what the movie wants to be next. And so the suggestions you’re offering I think are all really valid ways of getting you to think about the movie that it’s becoming, rather than the movie that it was.
And praise from smart people is part of it. Hearing it out loud is part of it. And it’s also reminding yourself what’s no longer there, but what is also new about this new draft and what is going to be exciting about this new pass.
And also you won’t know this until you’ve done a couple of these, but reminding yourself that this is the process. That feeling this way about your second draft is the same way you’re going to like want to kill yourself after you see the first cut of a movie.
It’s the same way that the first day of production will be overwhelming. Those are all just real things that are just part of the nature of the process. And to allow yourself to feel them.
In recent things I’ve been though, I’ve gotten a couple of those emails where just sort of I point out the problems, things like let’s fix these things. And I have to remind myself that they’re singling out these things because they’re small things they think they can address rather than spending 45 minutes to tell me all the stuff that they loved. But if, I don’t know, I just feel like great producers and great studio executives find the time to tell you what is terrific so that you can be inspired to do more stuff for them.
I know when I’m giving notes to somebody, I always try to look for those highlights of this is why this is worthwhile. This is why you should pay attention to the rest of my notes, because I really did read it, and I really did understand what you were going for in this moment. And this one really succeeded.
Craig: Yeah. If you tell people that this is something I like, then the writer is going to think to themselves, okay, there is — this person does get me. This isn’t a situation where there’s nothing I could write that would make them happy. There is something I write that makes them happy. What is that thing?
And a lot of times, I think everybody, writers and note-givers will sort of say let’s skip past the formalities of I like this, and I like this. I don’t need anyone to say, oh, I really like this, or I really like this. What I need them is to stop and go, no, this right here I loved. I loved this. I don’t need — hopefully there’s more than one, you know, but if you love something, you tell me because I need to know. Because that’s going to help me.
John: Craig, do you think that some of the reasons why they might be reluctant to tell you those things is because they know from experience that those things might get cut, those things might change, or their opinion might shift on those? Are they protecting themselves by not telling you that they love something?
Craig: Maybe. If there is a psychological resistance to it, I suspect it may be connected more to a fear that they will be demotivating you. They think, well, if I tell you that I loved something, you’ll just start to think that you’re great. And you don’t need my help and you don’t have to change anything. The writer that development executives and producers fear the most is the “I’m okay/you’re not okay” writer. The one who thinks that I wrote it, therefore it’s great. Screw you. So, they’re hesitant to tell you they loved something because they’re afraid that then you’ll say to them, well, the same person that wrote that thing you loved wrote this thing, and so you should just defer to me.
In fact, that’s just not how we work. And I think if they really put their minds to this, they’ll understand we’re not looking for empty praise. If you say, “I love this,” that means nothing to me. If you say, “I love this, now let me tell you why,” then it does, because now we are talking about the script. We’re talking about how the machine is working. And it’s very crucial for us to understand what is working. More crucial I think than not.
John: And the process of understanding what is working sometimes really is a process of interrogation, of really figuring out like what it is that’s not happening in the other person’s head that is happening in your head.
So, last Sunday before we were playing D&D, I was talking to Chris Morgan about this note that I got that I just fundamentally didn’t understand. And I started to sort of rehearse my sort of defense of the way things currently were in the script. And Chris, who has been through this rodeo so many times, said, “You know what? Just call the guy and just ask him what it really means and see if there’s something that’s sort of in the middle that could work out right.”
And so I had that conversation and it ended up being so much better than I had anticipated because it was literally just what I had on the page, partly because of trims I’d made to try to tighten stuff up, the intention had gotten lost in his read. And so it was a matter of restoring some things that could make the scene be about what I really mean the scene to be about, rather than what he was reading the scene to be about. And that can be useful.
Craig: Not only is it useful, but I think that is the stuff in which positive development relationships grow. They give us notes and then we leave and they go back to their office and think, “They’re not going to do any of that. And I’m still responsible for what they turn in.”
When you call and you say, “I don’t understand this. Let’s talk about this,” they think, oh good, you were listening. I’m happy to explain this.
John: That’s part of the reason why I think the screenwriter’s job is so unique and weird and different. Because I was trying to think about what the equivalent would be for a novelist. And so a novelist would have an editor and the two of them would have a discussion about this moment, this scene, this line. Sort of what’s going on in this section of the book. And they would have a relationship and a discussion, but ultimately the novelist is not bound to do whatever the editor says. It’s just, you know, this would be my suggestion, but take it or leave it.
It’s not a take it or leave it with screenwriting. That executive, that producer, that director ultimately can say yes or no and can make some changes that may not be the changes you want to make, or the thing can proceed to the next stage or not proceed to the next stage, or proceed with you or without you in ways that’s so different from other forms of fiction writing.
And that’s part of the reason why a person could be a terrific novelist but just not actually have the social skills to manage that relationship.
Craig: Social skills and psychic strength. You know, novelists are creating the end product and we’re not. And so part of what happens is you become incredibly aware that you have shifted your job description from creator to protector. Now, you have to figure out how to safeguard the stuff that matters the most through this gauntlet of other people’s opinions and other people’s authority.
And it is doable, but it is not doable perfectly. It’s simply not. And that’s even if you are the director and writer. Even if you’re the director, the budget will get you. Or the studio will get you. Or an actor will get you. Something — it will rain on the wrong day. Something is going to get you.
So, you can put aside your visions of purity and instead engage in that notion of how do I protect all the way through here. How do I keep as many of these eggs, you know, to carry them to full term? That’s kind of what’s going on.
John: Yeah. And the wisdom role that you have to make here is that in trying to protect my script, am I actually protecting the movie, or am I really just protecting my self-esteem? Am I protecting my ability to believe myself as being the guy who wrote this script which is so, so good, or am I really looking out for what the final product is and what’s going to make it to the screen?
And every one of those decisions is going to be tough. And so part of my discussion with Chris was I don’t know whether maybe the note is right and I’m just being stubborn and not seeing that the note is right. What do I do? And the answer was to have the conversation and in this one case it was the right choice to make.
Craig: Great. Well, I’m glad that that worked out.
John: Cool. Let’s get to our One Cool Things. Craig, talk us through it.
Craig: All right. I’m sort of continuing a theme here of One Cool Thing that will happen one day. I saw this trailer for a new game that I don’t know if it’s going to be a mobile app or desktop only. I’m not sure yet. My guess is mobile, as well as desktop. It’s called Oxenfree and it’s from a company called Night School Studio.
And it appears to be on the one hand kind of a straight up adventure puzzle kind of deal where some characters that it looks like they’re high school students are hanging out on some island as part of like a high school getaway bit and then crazy stuff happens. And from the trailer I kind of get the feeling that it’s going to be a little bit like sort of that standard puzzle thing of, okay, I’ve got to get my guy from here to there. What do I do? What do I press? And what do I move? But what’s so interesting about it is the dialogue is really good. I mean, it’s written in a way where you could tell they cared, that the characters are vibrant and the dialogue is on point. It’s well acted.
There’s also appears from the trailer to be an interesting dynamic to interactions where most of the characters are answering per a script, but occasionally you have choices where you can select what your answer is. And I assume that would influence how the people respond to you. Maybe not go so far as to influence how the game goes. I mean, this is the way video games are. They are trying to disguise the fact that you are on rails, but I really loved this trailer. I can’t wait to play this game.
So, hopefully it’s a cool thing.
John: It’s a gorgeous trailer. I clicked through the link when you put it in the show notes and it really is just terrific looking. And I agree that the dynamic, you know, Dragon Age and lots of other games have done that thing where you get to choose what your answer is back to things, but very cleverly like just having the little thought bubbles and you get to pick which little speech bubble you want to pick for your answer seems like a really clever dynamic.
So, I’m curious to see what this will become as well.
Craig: Excellent. And what about you?
John: My One Cool Thing is the TV show Silicon Valley, which I may have already harped about how much I love the show, but this last week’s episode, which by the time this airs will be two weeks ago, was particularly spectacular over this one moment that was so incredibly well crafted. And it was well set up throughout the run of the episode, but just so brilliantly done.
So, it’s two of the character, Dinesh and Gilfoyle are trying to figure out whether to tell this really annoying douchebag character that his son is actually going to kill him. And they make this SWOT board which is Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats for this very Silicon Valley way of trying to make a decision. And the cards they put up on there for Let Blaine Die are so hilarious. And the degree to which you have to pause the show to read them, I’m going to put a link in the show notes that shows you all the cards that are up on that board.
But it was such an incredibly well structured episode, but also that scene and that moment and every card that’s up on that board, and then within that scene, the structure of the scene, of like they could just let the guy walk out and that would be hilarious, but at just the right moment they reveal to this character that these guys are considering letting him, basically plotting murder, which was just geniusly handled.
Craig: Yeah. I love the show. Alec Berg, who is the head writer, kind of Mike Judge’s right hand man on that show is one of my best friends in the world. And so I’ve been kind of following along his Silicon Valley trials and tribulations. I mean, it’s a tough show to make. But, you know, that show — so the whole thing with the Let Blaine Die, and it kind of reminded me a little bit of the way last season’s finale was structured with the —
John: End to middle out.
Craig: Tip to tip. It’s very Alec. Alec with his former writing partner, I guess they still collaborate on some things, Berg, Schaffer, Mandel, they ran Seinfeld sort of in the latter series of its run. And Seinfeld was always — the episodes were kind of masterclasses in recursive plotting. You know, that in the end every episode was a callback to itself. That’s the kind of way they worked. And that the end would kind of go, oh look, the thing from the beginning is paying off. It’s a Rube Goldberg plot.
Craig: And then Alec and Jeff and Dave did Curb Your Enthusiasm and it’s the same deal. And now, Silicon Valley doesn’t always work that way, but in this case it did, and it was very Alec. It was just a very Alec thing. I loved it.
I particularly loved Dinesh and Gilfoyle, god, they’re just great. Those characters are awesome. So, Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr are just spectacular in those parts. I would honestly watch those two characters talking about anything for 12 hours. It would make me so happy. But my favorite character on the show has to be Jared.
John: He’s so good.
Craig: Zach Woods.
John: So, I mean, it’s a variation on a kind of character that we saw him do in the American version of The Office, and yet he is so needy and yet so sweet, and so trying to be the den mother to this group and yet keeps getting batted down in a way that’s just fantastic.
Craig: Yeah, like the character, so Zach Woods, this character that he’s playing, first of all, Jared isn’t even his name. The character’s actual name is Donald, but somebody called him Jared once and it stuck because he just felt like he didn’t want to disturb them.
So, Jared is the answer to this question. How nice can a person be? Jared is in fact I think what Jesus Christ would be like if he were alive and working in Silicon Valley. [laughs] That’s basically what he is. He’s Jesus. He’s awesome.
And when he’s — oh my god, his face. Ah, his face. I just want to hug him.
John: He does crushed so well.
Craig: Crushed and sort of hopeful also.
John: Absolutely. He’s a puppy who just got scolded but really thinks that maybe you’ll let him hop up on the lap.
Craig: Yeah. Silicon Valley is the best. If you’re not watching it, you’re stupid. Honestly, you’re just dumb.
John: That is our show this week. Our show, as always, is produced by Stuart Friedel. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. I’m not sure who did the outro this week, but if you have an outro that you would like to send in for us, you can send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us a link to the SoundCloud. It would be fantastic way to do it.
email@example.com is also a great place to send questions, those longer questions. Little short things we can answer on Twitter. I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
We are on iTunes. So, if you’re listening to this show on the John August Blog, that’s fantastic, but it would also be great if you can subscribe to us on iTunes, because that helps people find the show.
John: Leave us a comment while you’re there. We got some really nice comments this last week, so thank you for those people who did that.
Craig: Oh good. Thanks.
John: We have an app. And that app is also found through the App Store. You can find it both in the Apple iOS App Store and on the Google Play Store. That lets you get to all of the back episodes as well. Back to episode one.
Next week we will back with a 200th episode. We will record it live in some capacity. It might be audio. It might be video. We might have Aline. We might not have Aline. But we will figure out how we’re going to do it. And you should follow us on Twitter and we will give you ample warning that we are going to be doing the show. It will be sometime in the evening, so it will be post-work. And you can hear us do the show live and read some questions. It should be fun.
The police in the background are coming to arrest Craig Mazin, so we should probably wrap it up.
Craig: You know, I did it again.
John: And we have promised at some point that we will do a bonus episode that is nothing but all the sirens that have come after Craig. Because at least I would say five minutes of every week’s episode has to be trimmed for sirens.
Craig: Trimmed for Sirens, title of my biography.
John: It’s going to be good. It fits really well with the umbrage theme.
Craig: Yeah. Absolutely.
John: Craig, thank you so much. Have a great week.
Craig: Thanks, John, you too. Bye.
- Follow @johnaugust and @clmazin for details on the 200th episode live stream
- Deadline on the Mr. Holmes lawsuit, and the filing itself
- How Hollywood Taught Rebel Wilson To Lie About Her Age
- Scriptnotes, 182: The One with Rebel Wilson and Dan Savage
- Maggie Gyllenhaal Was Told She Was ‘Too Old’ to Play 55-Year Old’s Lover
- Riley Weston on Wikipedia and Entertainment Weekly
- James Frey on Wikipedia
- Robert Mark Kamen on IMDb, and in Script Mag and Wine Searcher
- Oxenfree from Night School Studio
- Silicon Valley: Read every card on the Let Blaine Die SWOT board
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Travis Newton (send us yours!)