The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. So today’s episode of Scriptnotes was recorded live at the Austin Film Festival. There are enough bad words, you probably don’t want to listen to it in the car with your kids or at work if you work at some place that doesn’t like to have occasional swearing.
Our thanks to the Austin Film Festival for having us there. It was tremendously fun. And we look forward to seeing you next year.
Craig Mazin: Hello and welcome. Thank you, everyone. Thank you. This is a real church crowd. Yeah. All right.
John: My name is John August.
Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and —
Audience: Things that are interesting to screenwriters.
John: Really well done. So a few of you may have listened to the podcast before. Can I see a show of hands of who’s actually heard of the Scriptnotes podcast? Oh, that’s a lot of you.
Craig: That’s a softball to use. You’re just —
Craig: Looking for praise now.
John: Yeah, we are. Basically, we’re looking for t-shirts out there in the crowd. Some of you might not know what the podcast is like. So Craig, what do we do on a weekly basis?
Craig: John carefully prepares a bunch of topics. He talks to his staff about how to produce the show. He lets me know what time the show will happen. I am five minutes late. I don’t know what we’re doing.
Craig: And I talk too much.
John: Oh, no. You talk just the right amount, Craig. So what are we doing today? I’m going to put you on the spot.
Craig: Today, I know what we’re doing.
John: All right. Tell us what we’re going to do today.
Craig: Because it’s special.
John: All right.
Craig: Well, we have two great guests today. We have Nicole Perlman who wrote Guardians of the Galaxy. Little movie. And we also have Steve Zissis, star of HBO’s Togetherness and writer and creator thereof. And those of you who are looking in the book, the guest list has changed a bit because of flights and whatever. I think, frankly, it has improved.
John: Tornadoes, yeah.
Craig: We’re also going to be —
John: Acts of God in a church.
Craig: Acts of — we should be safe here.
Craig: Well, not me.
John: Listeners at home — and I realize that we’re actually in a historic sanctuary at St. David’s Episcopal Church. And so we are looking over a crowd that’s like maybe, I don’t know, 2,000 people.
John: And they’re all in pews.
Craig: It’s a mega church.
John: We have this little, you know, satellite room, too.
Craig: Yeah, it’s a mega church.
John: Thank you for being here in this church with us.
Craig: Yeah. And we’re also, today, going to be doing this little feature that we started kind of recently where we take three different stories from the news — current stories from the news and ask, and we’ll have our guests who are in, how would we make a movie out of this. So we’ll be doing that with you guys today.
John: So this will be really fun. So this is probably my seventh Austin Film Festival. You’ve been here a bunch of times, Craig.
Craig: I think this is my fourth or fifth.
John: Yeah. So we love the Austin Film Festival. And yesterday as I arrived, I had maybe not the best start. So I wanted to talk through sort of what happened going from the plane — actually, going from the escalator to the baggage claim. I managed to make a series of faux pas that I feel if I would share them it will make me seem human and relatable.
Craig: Let me just point out, he’s not human.
Craig: But he will seem human and relatable.
John: Yeah. So I want you to sympathize with my plight here. So I get down off the escalator and there’s a guy there waiting — maybe you’re out here in the crowd right now — with a big blank sheet of paper and said, “Mr. August, would you draw us a sketch from like, from one of your movies?” I’m like, “I didn’t illustrate any of these movies.” And so like, you know, “Sketch us something from like Frankenweenie or something from Corpse Bride.”
I’m eager to please people. I’m a teacher pleaser. And so I was like, “You know what, I’ll try something. I’ll give it a shot. Like, I’ve never drawn anything from these movies, but sure.” Tim Burton won’t mind if I draw one of his creations.
Craig: And did that guy’s face just go, “Uhh?”
John: No, no. He was really pushing me. And so I was trying to decide whether I was being punked or like to see like how badly I could draw Sparky from Frankenweenie. So I ended up drawing the female dog from Frankenweenie. And like the ball being pushed underneath the fence, and it was like a charming little scene, but completely the wrong thing to draw.
So I’m drawing this thing and I signed it, whatever, and I signed another autograph. And then people started to think like, “Oh, that must be a famous person.” So random people started to like try take photos with me as if I was a famous person. And they have no idea who I am in their photos.
That’s by far the better part of what happened.
Craig: This is what he thought would make him sound human and relatable.
John: No. No, no, no. No, wait. Because the whole thing is about to flip.
John: So as I’m waiting for my bag in baggage claim, there’s a guy who I recognized who was on the flight. I was like, “Is that an actor? I can’t picture him.” But he seems familiar, and he’s wearing sunglasses. And there was a limousine driver who was meeting him there. And so I was like, “He’s somebody famous. Who is that person?”
And then I could see the driver’s little card that he would hold up. And it was flipped over and it said “Raimi.” I’m like, “That’s Sam Raimi.” And so I’m like, “Oh, I should say something to Sam Raimi because we have mutual friends. I mean, like Laura Ziskin and other folks.
And so I finally, like, sort of screw up my courage and say, like, “Hey, Sam. Sam, it’s John. It’s John August.” And he just completely stone faces me. Like does not acknowledge me whatsoever, like I’m just a crazy stalker person. So I became that stalkery person who sort of wanted to, like, get his attention.
So this other nice guy who might be in the audience here today said, “That’s not Sam Raimi.” It wasn’t Sam Raimi. It was Sam Raimi’s brother apparently. And so —
Craig: You met Ted Raimi?
John: Ted Raimi is here.
Craig: Ted Raimi I would have thought would have been like, “No. But let’s talk.”
Craig: You know —
John: Ted Raimi shut down.
John: And so this is no slam on Ted Raimi. This is no slam on Sam Raimi who wasn’t even here to defend himself. It’s just this is a situation at trying to get my bag, I managed to humiliate myself kind of twice. So the tornadoes in Austin have been, like, really a highlight after that point.
Craig: I’m really sorry that that happened.
John: Oh, thank you, Craig.
Craig: I care about you.
John: Thanks. That’s nice to hear.
We’re going to try something very new and very different that we’ve never done before. So back on our 100th episode of the show, we did this thing where underneath the people’s seats, there was a golden ticket hidden. And if you have that golden —
Craig: Don’t go looking.
John: Or, maybe go looking but you won’t find anything.
John: Underneath one seat, there was a golden ticket and that person won a very special prize. So today, we’re going to try doing a raffle of a very special prize. So as you guys came in, each of you should have gotten a little raffle ticket, hopefully most of you. And —
Craig: Did you throw your raffle ticket out? You ate it? What did you do?
John: You ate it? Yeah. It wasn’t edible, no. I guess it technically is edible, just not really good.
Craig: Not tasty.
John: Not tasty.
So this is Annie Hayes, everyone. Annie Hayes is our Austin Stuart. Say hi to Annie Hayes. So Annie Hayes is helping us out.
Craig Mazin, will you pick one ticket from there?
Craig: Yes. Oh, so many. Okay, I got it.
John: All right.
Craig: I have it.
John: So let’s read the number and see if it matches up to anybody here.
Craig: Six. Good. So far so good. Two. One. I think everybody started with 621. Zero. One. Zero.
Amanda Murad: Oh, that’s me.
John: Come on up.
Craig: Let’s see. I’m going to hold on, I’m going to figure out what your name is. It’s Amanda.
Craig: Amanda Murad.
Craig: I thought it was Norad for a second.
John: That would be cool.
John: But Murad’s great too.
Craig: No, no. It’s not that cool.
John: So are you a screenwriter?
Amanda: I am a screenwriter.
John: And do you live in the Austin area or are you just here for this conference?
Amanda: Just here for the conference. I live in LA.
John: Oh, holy cow.
John: Is this your first time in the Austin Film Festival?
Amanda: It is.
John: And how is it so far?
Amanda: It is really fun.
Craig: It just got awesome.
Amanda: It just got way more awesome.
John: What are you writing right now?
Amanda: I am working on my second pilot.
John: And have you only done TV stuff so far? Have you written a feature? What else have you written?
Amanda: I’ve written one feature. But I have two pilots and a play.
John: Cool. That’s awesome. In these envelopes, they’re marked A, B, and C, there are three different items. And I want you to pick which envelope you would like to open.
Amanda: Whose fate am I deciding in this decision?
John: Your own fate.
Craig: I like her sense of nervousness and caution though, I have to say.
John: Yes. She’s not just blindly rushing in.
Craig: Yeah. She’s not like, “Okay.” No. She’s like, “Okay.” So A, B, or C?
Amanda: Okay. The letter A is usually pretty good to me.
John: All right. Great.
John: A. So take this envelope but don’t open it yet.
John: And we are going to open up one other envelope. So I want a vote from the crowd. Which of these other two envelopes should I open up?
John: Everybody who wants me to open up envelope C, raise your hand.
John: Yeah. All right. We’re going to open up envelope C. Open up envelope C, Craig.
Craig: Okay. All right.
John: Let’s see what’s inside.
Craig: See, he gives me stuff to do and everything, keeps me involved. Okay. Oh, this was the good one.
John: Yeah, this was the good one.
Craig: This was the best one.
John: All right. Yeah, it’s a really good one.
Craig: Just let her have it. [laughs]
John: Maybe we should.
Craig: No, because she’s so normal. I mean we had like a chance of getting a total freak. Not that — I mean, there’s at least one of you in here who’s —
John: Yeah. So there’s a thing which I was going to do with all this but apparently, you chose so well or the audience chose for you. Maybe it’s the audience who chose for you.
Craig: You know what? The audience chose this for you.
John: That’s really the audience choice.
Amanda: Thank you, guys, so much.
John: So what this card says is, “John and Craig will read your script.” If you would like to.
Craig: And we’ll talk about it on the show. And you can come on the show.
Amanda: Yes. Yes.
Craig: Great. Or you can have a t-shirt.
Amanda: I’m going to pick C.
John: All right. Well done.
Amanda: The letter A has failed me.
John: Yeah. Amanda, at whatever point you feel like you have a script that you want to send in, just send it in to Stuart at ask@johnaugust. I’ll remind him that you were the one who won this competition and the audience won it for you, really.
Amanda: I will be sure to thank you all in my email.
John: And we look forward to receiving it.
Amanda: All right. Thank you, guys.
John: Amanda, thanks so much.
Craig: Envelope B was money, by the way.
John: Yeah, exactly.
So the idea behind that was the Monty Hall problem which is essentially we were going to open up one thing and then she would decide whether she wanted to keep or switch and it involved math and statistics and probability.
Craig: These guys messed it up.
John: No. You guys did a nice thing. You did this all for her.
Craig: They did. Yeah, they did.
John: They did.
Let us get to our very first guest of the podcast.
John: Nicole Perlman is the writer of Guardians of the Galaxy. And she’s writing a bunch of other stuff right now and we cannot wait to talk with her. She was a guest way back when, right when that movie came out. And let’s welcome Nicole Perlman up to talk to us again.
Craig: Nicole Perlman.
Nicole Perlman: Thank you.
John: Nicole Perlman, you were on the show before. You had just written Guardians of the Galaxy which was a giant, giant hit. What has changed in your life since we’ve talked to you last, in writing?
Nicole: I’ve descended into heroin use and I’ve lost all my friends and family. [laughs]
Craig: God, I know how that goes.
Nicole: Yeah. Totally. No, it’s been good. It’s been really crazy. It’s been so crazy that I sort of fled to San Francisco. I was like, “Oh, too much stuff. Too much good. Must run north.” So no, it’s been very good. Lots of projects. I’m doing Captain Marvel —
Nicole: With Meg LeFauve. So that has been cool. We’re really in the early stages but we’re having a lot of fun. And I’m doing a project for Fox, an adaptation of Hugh Howey’s Wool Trilogy, and that has been very cool.
That guy, by the way, really knows how to live. He wrote a best-selling novel and he’s like, “I’m going to go build a boat and sail around the world. See you.” And he like checked out. So that’s what he’s doing which is really cool.
John: I mean you’re checking out to some degree.
John: Like you’re keeping out of the rat race.
John: And so what really prompted the decision? Was it just you had enough stuff on your plate that you actually could leave and —
Nicole: Yes. That was it.
John: That’s the response?
Nicole: And also, people just kept asking me to be on their podcasts and it was just —
John: Yeah, it was such a huge drag.
Nicole: It was a huge drag.
Craig: It’s the worst.
John: Yeah, I mean, Craig, I tell you, you got to back off a little bit.
Craig: I mean, I don’t know what those podcasts are because I don’t listen to podcasts. But I know what it’s like.
Nicole: No, it’s good. It’s probably just for like a year. I’m in LA every week for work but I felt like I could just do it. I spend less time commuting by flying in and out than I did when I was in LA in my car, which is kind of crazy.
John: That’s actually scary, yeah.
Nicole: It’s true though, yeah.
John: So talk to us about — obviously, you can’t give us any character details or really plot details about Captain Marvel.
John: But what is it like writing with another writer? Is this the first time you’ve had a writing partner on something?
Nicole: It’s not the first time. I’m working with another writing partner on a spec, my first spec in a long time. So that is another experience. It’s been really good.
Meg and I are really, really just starting out. And she comes from a Pixar background so she’s really used to collaborating. So I think we’re still feeling it out a little bit. The being on the phone part, I’m very meek on the phone when other people are talking. I’m very respectful. I’m just, like, “No, no. You go ahead. No, no. You go ahead.” You know, and —
Craig: You got to lean in, girl.
Nicole: You got to be like, [roars], “Listen to me.” So I think that is — because that goes over really well, too.
John: Yeah, it does.
Craig: I don’t think that’s a good idea, actually. I don’t want you to do that.
John: But you need to get a Groot voice is really what you have to do.
Nicole: A Groot voice for sure. For sure.
John: Simple things.
Nicole: But Meg is wonderful and so she’s really good about character. And I think she comes from a non-genre background and so there’s a little bit of me being like, “Oh, you know, so there’s this history of this type of character, you know, we don’t want to do that because it’s been done that way.” And she’s like, “But we want to have this with character and integrity.” I’m like, “What? Integrity? What? What’s that?” So she’s great. And I think that we balance each other out in a good way. But again, it’s early days yet.
John: So one of the challenges would seem to be that you have to come to a consensus between the two of you about what it is you want to do and how you want this movie to work and how you want the character the work. But also then you have to be able to pitch in a unified sense to Marvel. And Craig sort of loves Kevin Feige or sort of really admires Kevin Feige.
Craig: I do.
John: And so that must be a challenge of like how you want to do your work and also fit into this greater picture. Do you have to be mindful of everything else that’s happening in the Marvel Universe to do your one story?
Nicole: Well, you know, without giving away anything that would get me, you know, excommunicated, basically Kevin and his group of brain trust people go and figure out where we fit in and then have let us know where we fit in. And so Meg and I gave them a list of questions, very long and epic questions and then potential answers to those questions. And they, you know, returned from their mountain top retreat which they [laughs] went to and then returned from and said they —
Craig: Handed you tablets.
Nicole: Pretty much. Pretty much. And so that’s what we’re working with now. And we’re also really in the phase of reading through massive packets of information, you know, which is always fun.
Craig: I love that you’re writing a spec at the same time you’re doing all this other stuff.
Craig: In the wake of the success that you’ve had and all of the stuff that they’re now asking you to do, how do you manage to carve these spaces out and keep these things separate? Because you’re working on, you said, Captain Marvel and a spec and —
Nicole: The Hugh Howey Wool.
Craig: The Wool.
Nicole: Yeah. And I just sold a sequel to a movie that was my favorite movie from childhood but I can’t talk about it yet, so that’s going on. And then I’m also doing a virtual reality project with Steven Spielberg.
Craig: That’s five.
Nicole: And then I’m also doing a comic book —
Craig: I’m sorry, with who?
Nicole: Nobody. Nobody. Just a real, you know, up and coming —
Craig: So that’s five things.
Nicole: Yeah. And then a comic book series, too.
Craig: Six things.
Craig: So I’ll ask my question again. I mean, how do you keep it all — I mean, do you just push a few things off?
Nicole: Well, honestly, it’s just because — and I’m sure you guys have experienced this — that things go into holding patterns. And especially with Marvel, the movie doesn’t come out for three-and-a-half years, so it’s got a lot of long pauses in between submissions of stuff. So with that and with the other projects, too, there’s a long waiting period.
The people who’ve made me wait the longest are the Marvel publishing people. And that’s like a 20-page thing. You send them and like months go by and then they’re like, “Good work.” “Okay.”
Craig: So in a situation like yours, you’re almost kind of hoping that they’ll take time.
Nicole: Right, exactly. So it’s okay. I think the more projects you have to fill the empty spaces, the less fear, that existential dread of like, “What’s happened to my projects?” You know, they just take a while and so that helps.
Craig: Yeah, because all of your eggs aren’t in that basket. But then there is that sense of being overwhelmed.
Craig: Do you have that?
Nicole: All the time. All the time.
Craig: Right now?
Nicole: I’m just veering between sheer panic and like different kinds of panic. Like panic of like “I have nothing going on. My career is going to crash.” And “Oh my, god. I’m going to be overwhelmed and die and never get anything done.” So, yes.
Craig: Sounds just like me.
Nicole: I’m really happy all the time.
Craig: Right. Of course. So what do you do to deal with that?
Nicole: I moved to San Francisco.
Craig: Of course, yes. Yes, of course.
John: So I want to get back to the idea of writing a spec. And so what was it? It was an idea that was just burning that demanded to be written? What was the —
Nicole: What it was, was that I’m doing a lot of big, fantastical, world-building projects and I wanted to do something that was contained, low-budget, very character-driven, just a cast of three or four people, and possibly something that would be able to, you know, produce or direct.
My writing partner is a writer/director and so we wanted to do something that was manageable. Which of course my representatives were like, “You realize you’re not going to get paid anything for that.” And I’m like, “Yeah. But get excited about it. Like, you know, get so excited about this guys.” And they’re like, “Yeah. Mm-hmm. That’s great.” So it’s basically what we’re doing in spare time to remind me that I am a writer [laughs] and not a cog in the machine.
John: Yeah, it’s the Joss Whedon do a smaller thing in between the two giant projects.
Nicole: Exactly. Exactly, yeah.
John: Cool. So Scott Neustadter was supposed to be joining us here up on the panel. And Scott Neustadter couldn’t be here because the airport is completely shut down. So like one of many panels who’s not going to be here today. Luckily, Steve Zissis has agreed to fill in. This is Steve Zissis —
John: Who is the co-creator of Togetherness. Steve Zissis, come up here.
Steve Zissis: So what’s the processional hymn?
Craig: I’m Jewish. And this is not Greek Orthodox at all. At all. Like the two of us — actually, three of us. And he —
John: I’m good. I’m good. The android faith alone —
Craig: Fucking white privileged man.
John: Yeah. It’s so good.
Craig: I’m good.
John: I’m good.
Steve: What are you?
John: I’m sort of, like, random protestant.
Steve: Oh, random protestant.
Nicole: Random protestant.
Craig: Yes. Yes.
John: Culturally. Steve, thank you so much for filling in.
Steve: Of course.
John: But thank you also for you great TV show, Togetherness.
Steve: Thank you.
John: Tell us how that came to be because this is an HBO show. It was an idea that you sparked with a Duplass brother and is now going into its second season.
Steve: It started, I guess, with Jay Duplass and I fooling around in his backhouse trying to do something creative together. And —
John: It sounds terrible.
Steve: Yeah. We just wanted to do something creative. And at first we started recreating ’80s soap opera scenes from like YouTube clips. And then Jay and I would act them out and we would record them. We didn’t really have a goal in mind.
Craig: How high were you guys? [laughs]
Steve: We just stole someone’s lithium. But then that just started snowballing into something, like, “Okay, we need to do something more structured.” And then we really borrowed upon our own lives and created a relationship show that was very autobiographical.
I was waiting tables at the time. And I would get off of work and stay on the phone with Jay because he was on the graveyard shift with his newborn child. So we would work out the story and the season arc for the first season during the graveyard shift, basically, on the phone.
Steve: And that’s how it started.
John: So by that point, you were thinking about this as probably a half-hour for cable and it’s going to revolve around these central characters, this family, this guy who’s moving in. You had all those dynamics sort of figured out early on.
Steve: Actually, initially, it was just going to center around the Alex character who was my character. But then when we went to HBO, they were like, “We love it. We really want to work with you. But we’re looking for relationship shows that could be a four-hander.” And we were like, “Yeah. Yeah. We could do that.”
We went back to the drawing board and — I mean, it was tough because we had built something centered around one character. So we were panicked for a little bit. But ultimately, HBO was right.
Craig: Well, I love moments like this because you never — we just did this show last week about William Goldman’s Nobody Knows Anything, which is not nobody knows anything but nobody knows anything. You never know.
So these people hand down these edicts sometimes and our first reaction is, “You know, goddamn. I mean, sure go ahead and turn it into whatever you want. It’s not something that we bled over the graveyard shift while he’s up with his kid and I’m slaving away waiting tables. No, no. Your whim is my command.”
But then sometimes they’re right. And I love that you guys did it. Because the truth is, what was the worst that happened? You tried and it didn’t work, right? But it does work. It’s amazing.
Steve: And HBO in general is really — they’re pretty hands off with notes. I mean, once they sort of, you know, tap you, they want you to do your thing. And they’ve been pretty hands off since then, actually.
John: So when did you actually start writing? So had you written anything before you went in to meet with HBO?
Steve: So we wrote the initial pilot called Alexander the Great which was centered around my character. And then they said, “Let’s go back to the drawing board.” And then it took us about four months to come up with the pilot for Togetherness. We went in and shot that. And then, you know, I was still waiting tables and rubbing rabbits’ feet. And we got the green light for this first season.
John: Great. So you turned in this pilot script. They said yes. They blessed you to go shoot a pilot. But then there’s that long waiting process, you know, whether it’s a show that they’re going to actually want to put on the air.
Steve: Yeah. And we had had the first season sort of arced out. We didn’t write the first season until after we got the green light.
Craig: And then the panic of success set in and you realized, “Oh my, god.” I mean, were you overwhelmed by the thought that you had to do the thing that took you four months again and again and again and again?
Steve: All I remember is calling my mom and crying. And I remember the last day at the restaurant, my last shift, I was so happy. There was such a weight lifted off of me. But I was trying to contain my joy because I didn’t want my fellow friends that I’ve been like slaving with in hell to look at me.
Craig: You’re nice.
Craig: You’re nice.
Steve: You know, I didn’t want to —
Steve: So then I got home and, you know, exploded.
Craig: Oh. It’s such —
Craig: And then — [laughs]
Steve: I exploded.
Craig: I exploded.
Steve: Like the blimp that was released from — .
Craig: Well, we’ll be getting to that.
Nicole: Yes, they will.
Craig: I see you’ve done your homework. You were mostly following the career path of an actor. Is that correct?
Craig: Prior to Togetherness? Had you done a lot of writing before that? This was kind of the first stab at it.
Steve: The only real writing I had been doing is the countless improvisational —
Craig: He’s an improvisational master, by the way.
Steve: Which I know isn’t really writing.
Craig: Master of improvisation.
Steve: But Jay, Mark, and I had been doing really highly improvised independent films since, like, the early 2000s, even in 1999. And then it just sort of evolved out of that style.
Craig: For your show, I get the sense that it’s not quite like the Curb Your Enthusiasm model where you’re scripting it but you’re almost scripting your own improv. That’s kind of the sense I get from it.
Steve: Well, like Curb and I think, like, the show like The League, they go in with just an outline.
Steve: But our show is completely scripted, really tight, really structured. But we just find that, like, the golden nuggets in the scenes and oftentimes the funniest jokes are the ones that are found in the moment. Even the emotional scenes, not just the comedic scenes. Like we talk about it like, sort of like setting up like lightning rods, and then just creating the perfect conditions for lighting to strike.
Steve: You don’t always get gold and there’s a lot of trial and error. But if you’re patient, you will.
John: Now, on a show like Togetherness, do you have — obviously you don’t have act breaks, but do you have a template in your head of like over the course of an episode these are the kinds of things that need to happen. We need to be able to take a character from this place to this place. We need to like hit certain milestones. Did you and Jay figure out sort of what the show is like, you know, structurally?
Steve: Yeah. We had a good sense of where the first two seasons were going to be in terms of a story arc and character arc. And then now, we’re preparing to write season three. And for the first time, we’re having to really — we sort of have an open map. We can create our own map at this point. So we’re finding new things now with season three, because the first two seasons were sort of already mapped out in our heads. So now, we’re writing a new map.
Craig: It’s such a great cast, too. I mean, everybody —
Steve: Thank you.
Craig: Everybody is spectacular. You know, the first time I saw the show — I tuned because you know I don’t watch anything. You guys know that. But I watched the show because I’m friends with Amanda Peet and she was in a movie I did and her husband and everything. And so I wanted to see it and there was something about it.
I was one of your first Twitter followers. Because you just — well, there was something, like, you know, I don’t know why I’m attracted to sort of schlumpy side stacks. Yes. Something about you. Something about ethnic, sad men — [laughs]
Like that face right there. It’s like, it’s all I want, like that. Like, look at me moving towards it. [laughs]
No, I mean, honestly, you’re the best. I mean it’s a great show. I’m just so glad that you — I love stories like yours but we don’t hear them a lot. Now, what we do, in a way we celebrate them, I think, sometimes more than we should because a lot of people who are waitering, they’re like, “Fuck it, man. Steve did it. I’m next.” Probably not. Probably not. It’s incredibly rare. So it’s so exciting that it happened, that the incredibly rare thing happened to you.
Steve: And I grew up with Mark and Jay back in New Orleans. We’re all from New Orleans. We all went to the same high school. And we all sort of came across this method of filmmaking sort of by accident. Out of necessity, really, because, you know, we were all broke. [laughs] So, you know, this whole John Cassavetes style, we could say that it was our intention from the beginning but it actually wasn’t. Like Jay and Mark’s first attempt to make a feature film was a complete disaster. It was a failure.
Craig: Because they were trying to make a real —
Steve: They were trying to make something big. They were trying to emulate the Coen Brothers. They failed miserably. They borrowed $100,000 from their father who was like a very successful lawyer in New Orleans. And they squandered — like it was a complete failure. [laughs]
Craig: Was he angry?
Steve: No, not at all. Because he’s —
Craig: Cool dad.
Steve: Yeah. He’s a great guy and so supportive.
Craig: I would be pissed off. My kid blows $100,000, I’m pissed.
Steve: But then after those failures and those failed attempts that they started to find their own voice and style just sort of out of necessity, which is cool.
Craig: And you were part of that from the start.
Steve: Yeah. I did their first experimental films. I did shorts with them. And I loved sort of the improv style of their way.
Steve: It just fits with me well.
Craig: Yeah, excellent.
Steve: Thank you.
John: So because we have two of you up here, we want to talk through this feature we usually do called, “How would this be a movie?” And I asked on Twitter for people for suggestions. I’m like, “What should we talk about for how to make into a movie?” And the three best suggestions we got were Zola. People who’ve done their homework, Zola is sort of amazing. So I want to talk through sort of what that is.
We’re going to talk about Zola, we’re going to talk about the rogue blimp, and we’re going to talk about George Bell, The Lonely Death of George Bell. And try to figure out how to make these into a movie or a TV series. Or if someone approaches you with this idea, how do you run with it?
So let’s get some back story on Zola. Actually, I took notes because I’m the preparer. So Zola, if you don’t know is —
Craig: I don’t need notes. I could do this just fine.
John: Just —
Craig: No, no.
John: No, it’s fine. I’ll —
Craig: No, no. I’m done.
John: Just for everybody else, Craig. They might need it.
Steve: We’ll just ‘prov it.
John: What was the white boyfriend’s name?
John: Oh, he’s got it. All right, so for people who —
Craig: I don’t drop mics because it’s not good for the microphone.
John: Yeah. So for people who’ve missed out on the story so far, Zola is a Twitter account. And basically, she had like this epic tweet of like 174 tweets that detailed this wild experience she had in March. And you read this and it is amazing and sort of tweet by tweet sort of going through this long saga of what happened.
Her name is Zola. She meets this girl named Jess at a Hooters. They strike up a friendship. They talk about hoeing. And they exchanged phone numbers. And Zola agrees to go on this trip.
Craig: Just to dance.
John: Just to dance.
Craig: She’s not a hoe.
John: She’s not a hoe. She’s a dancer.
Craig: And she doesn’t know that the other girl is a hoe either.
Craig: She knows she’s a dancer. That’s it.
John: Yeah, but —
Craig: She’s not out there trapping —
Nicole: She didn’t seem that surprised though. She’s like, “Oh, yeah.”
John: She doesn’t seem that surprised because even early on they were talking about hoeing. So like —
Craig: There was some hoe talk.
John: Yeah. Even not if profession, it’s — they’re sex worker adjacent, if nothing else.
Craig: I ain’t touching that one.
John: All right.
Craig: I’ve gotten in trouble before.
John: So the characters we have are Zola. We have Jess. We have the black pimp whose name is eventually revealed to be Z something.
John: Z something. We have Jarrett and Jarrett’s fiancée who shows up every once in a while and is a complete character of mystery. But you guys looked through these tweets and someone approaches you with this, you know, Nicole Perlman, what is a movie you spin out of there? What’s interesting to you as a movie out of the Zola story?
Nicole: Nobody would ever give me [laughs] this project to adapt. I was impressed at her excitement and her enthusiasm about this and she was like, “And then, and then, oh no but wait, oh no, but wait,” you know. And that part was great but I actually kind of lost the thread a little bit, I was just like ah — so I’m going to be lame about it. But I kind of loved the idea of them talking about hoeing like they were farmers, you know. They’re just hoeing and —
John: Yeah. [laughs]
Nicole: That was the twist like —
Craig: I think we’re going to pass on you.
Craig: I don’t think that that’s —
Nicole: All right, that wasn’t mine —
Craig: But thanks for coming in.
Nicole: That’s okay, that’s okay.
John: Craig, if someone approached you with that story, do you tell the story as just that? Because it felt like a Magic Mike kind of like road trip sort of, like Magic Mike XXL which is —
John: Just following a series of events and perspective.
Craig: Well, it’s so crazy that if you try and tell it, it’s just going to seem like you told it again because the story that she lays out is in bananas. The one way to think about it is, like I was thinking about how sad it was. I mean, the woman that is the actual hoe and she’s getting beaten up and snatched and a man gets shot in the face. This is terrible.
And yet, we’re all reading and everyone’s like, “Oh, my god, you got to read what Zola wrote.” Like that’s an interesting movie to me is that somebody types up something like that and it becomes viral. Meanwhile, the people that are in that have no idea and they’re out there somewhere —
Craig: And going through something real. That could be kind of interesting because the nature of these viral things, there’s something really creepy about how it separates us from the real. Someone died. That guy murdered someone.
John: Yes, shot them in the face.
Craig: And they beat that woman up.
Craig: Plus the hoeing.
Steve: Is the Twitter account verified?
John: Yeah, the Twitter account is not verified, so let’s talk about that possibility.
Steve: Okay. I’m not sure about the movie, you guys would be better for that. But I think at the end, there should be voice over throughout, we should see the little emoticons on the screen, the tweets, and at the end of the film, there should be a 72-year-old grandmother in Ohio —
Craig: [laughs] Right. Catfishing everyone.
Steve: That has catfished the whole thing.
Nicole: That would be amazing. That would be so great.
Craig: That’s pretty great. That’s pretty great. And like her grandson is there in the background playing “Grandma, almost done.”
John: So we’ve talked about this on the podcast before, who was the writer who pretended to be much younger than she was and was Felicity. Was that Riley Weston?
Craig: Riley Weston.
John: Riley Weston. So it would be fascinating if it were a Riley Weston situation where somebody is basically spitting a giant yarn for what all this is. It has such a feeling of truth though. I also had the question about whether all those tweets were written in advance or was she writing them one by one.
Nicole: I think she was writing them all in one stream of consciousness.
Craig: I think so too, yeah.
John: But it’s so hard to, I mean I have such a hard time fitting everything I want to say into one tweet. So to be able to stretch that out over —
Craig: She just got to that character limit, hit return and kept going, you know, I can hear the clacking of her nails on the laptop. And she’s like “Bam, ding ding ding ding.”
John: Yeah. And yet it had a structure to it. She just kind of knew where to start and she knew — she was very good about reminding you, this person you saw before, like I didn’t know his name, but now, I know his name was Z, and it was brilliantly done to me.
Steve: Yes. And just when the energy started to wane, she said, “Only four more tweets till the end.”
Craig: I know like she actually knew.
Craig: You think that there’s — you think grandma —
Steve: It’s a 72-year-old grandmother. That just graduated from the Iowa writing program.
Craig: Nothing good comes out of that.
John: Nothing good possibly can.
Craig: All right, all right. That’s pretty solid.
John: Right. Let’s talk about rogue blimp. So for people who are listening to this, way after the fact, there was a giant blimp, actually particularly an aerostat that was designed for East Coast defense. Basically it wasn’t a camera, but it had a like long range radar for detecting incoming missiles that could hit the East Coast. It broke free of its mooring and all hell sort of broke loose. And so it ended up dragging a cable behind it that did not have power and did other things. This is the sort of a little more in your wheelhouse.
John: And a producer comes to you and is like, Nicole —
Craig: [laughs] She’s written a ton of blimp movies.
John: Yeah, indeed.
Nicole: A whole sub-genre.
Craig: Like another one. I can do more than blimps. [laughs]
Nicole: Dammit, I’m so pigeon-holed.
John: What kind of movie is the blimp movie to you?
Nicole: It seemed like a wacky sort of like two guys think they’re going to get in the Goodyear blimp but they choose the wrong blimp and then they cut it free. And then because of that they end up almost starting World War III because they keep — I don’t know, but I could see it with the whole cruise missiles with blimps, by the way. I was like that’s how we detect incoming cruise missiles, is with a blimp? You know, that just seems really shoddy. [laughs] I was really disappointed in the Department of Defense. I was like, guys, seriously.
And also the whole Google blimps. Somebody has to get something mixed up with the Google blimp. And I thought it would be fun if they — If they took off on the sort of the like cross country trip in this NSA blimp not realizing it wasn’t the Goodyear blimp and causing a whole bunch of problems with the DOD thinking there was some sort of terrorist attack.
John: Steve, what kind of movie do you make out of the blimp?
Steve: Well when I saw NORAD, it made me think of the 80s movie WarGames.
Nicole: Yes, totally.
Steve: So like tonally I think WarGames would be a [laughs] good match. But I think it should be about the guy that was holding on to the blimp, you know, by the line there. And what happened to him the day before.
John: Yeah, so it’s sort of like Up but bigger.
Steve: Why did he — yeah, like Up. Exactly. Why did his grip — why did he lose his grip?
John: I see the campaign for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and she’s — who’s carrying in the balloons and like it’s sort of like that, but it looks — you need to never let go.
Craig: Never let — that’s the tagline.
John: Never let go. Craig Mazin, what movie would you make out of the blimp?
Craig: You know what, I think you could make a really good Pixar kind of movie about a blimp. Because I love the fact that it seems so anachronistic. And I like the idea that this blimp has been there for so long and he’s just blimping along protecting America and we don’t know. And he just follows orders and he just never doesn’t do his job. And then they come in they’re like, “Oh, you know, we’re replacing blimps, we’re replacing it all, you’re done.” And he’s so depressed. And he basically pulls himself away to just go. And then he kind of goes on this journey that may — helps him find his purpose again and he meets other things that float.
I mean there’s, you know, like dandelions and —
John: There’s a cloud.
Craig: A cloud, you know. But the blimp finds his, you know — it’s basically, he’s committing suicide is what he’s doing but, you know — so it’s — I think he could — I don’t know —
Nicole: It’s really heartwarming.
Steve: I think for sure, at the end credits, there should be a Led Zeppelin song.
Craig: Nah. No, no. Yay. [laughs]
John: It’s improv. Only good ideas — yes and…
Craig: Yes and.
John: The other —
Craig: Yes and no.
John: Yes and. Another possibility is a — the Michael Bay version is essentially it’s stealth because essentially like the death blimp sort of goes out there and you cannot possibly stop it. And so like if it has a sentience, if it has a thing it’s trying to do. There’s something also kind of like slow motion zombie about it because it’s not fast, it just like — it’s a path of destruction, it’s like the tornadoes this morning. It’s just that it’s going to move through in a straight line.
Craig: So even more blimps start coming and they just keep coming.
John: Yeah. Absolutely.
Nicole: It’s kind of like that — what is it, Rubber with the one about the tire?
John: Oh yeah the tire, yeah.
Nicole: It’s just like this rabid tire that’s running over people. It’s just like that. It’s like the cable very slowly dragging and causing devastation. It would be like, “No,” and it just keeps coming.
Craig: [laughs] It’s a little low stakes. It just — shoot the — just takes the —
Nicole: You just step to the side —
Craig: Just shoot the blimp — yeah.
Nicole: One foot.
Craig: It’s a blimp.
John: Yeah. But the fact that it just keeps coming. And they had to shoot it down. That’s actually the funniest thing. It’s like —
Craig: They do. Use a shotgun.
John: They use a shotgun to shoot a blimp.
Craig: But by the way — I’m sorry but if that’s Pixar and they shoot him at the end and he deflates. You’re going to feel, like that will kill you.
John: It’s Old Yeller. It totally is.
Craig: It’s freaking Old Yeller, but then somebody finds him and inflates him again. You see what I’m saying? It’s like, let’s go make that, guys. Somebody just steal it. I mean, it’s gold.
John: All right. Another option, you have the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, one of those gets loose and you have to go after that thing and shoot that thing down and that’s pretty good. So Underdog gets loose, and you have to shoot down Underdog.
John: Yeah. That’s how I would do it. Or Snoopy. One of them would do it.
Let’s get to our third possibility which is, well maybe there’s a comedy but it’s The Lonely Death of George Bell. This is a New York Times story.
Craig: Hehe. Hahahahaha.
John: Hahahaha. Written by N. R. Kleinfield. And it talks through the death of this man, George Bell, who was found in his apartment, he’d been dead for about a week. He was a giant, obese, he was a hoarder, everything was sort of awful and he had no —
Craig: Otherwise, good.
John: All of it was great —
Craig: Yeah, yeah. Otherwise, good.
John: He had no next of kin and so he talks through this, how does the city and the state have to deal with people who have no next of kin and sort of what that whole process was. It was a fascinating look at sort of the different layers of bureaucracy that sort of happen to settle out the estate and deal with the body.
Craig: And a lot of people do die alone and disconnected and they don’t even — like they were having trouble even just identifying him even though he was — everyone was like, “Oh yeah, that’s George Bell.” They had to find some — it took them forever to even match up an x-ray to know that it was really him.
John: Yeah. And it wasn’t a remarkable case —
Craig: No, just a guy.
John: The journalist picked this one situation, but like it’s a very common situation. So what kind of movie? You do sad well. So what kind of movie do you make out of George Bell?
Steve: I was — It was a great article. I was really — I immediately thought of It’s a Wonderful Life when I was reading this, for a bunch of reasons. The main character’s name was George Bell instead of Bailey. And then also, if you’re reading the article where unclaimed bodies go, is a place called Potter’s Field which is where the evil Mr. Potter, you know, his area became — but I was thinking, you know, It’s a Wonderful Life is about George Bailey learning about the lives he touched while he was alive. But in this article, you could study the lives that this man touched by his death, which I find it really interesting like the workers who were sifting through his apartment and his other relatives that were getting like — they weren’t hardly relatives, but they were getting some of his money through his death. It’d be interesting to examine how the death of someone can bring people’s lives together and unify people in a way that is unexpected.
John: Nicole, what kind of a movie do you make out of Bell?
Nicole: I mean it’s going to be a sad movie no matter what I think, but if it’s one of those movies that makes you feel better about your own life [laughs] or rather it gives you a more insightful look into what makes a life worth living. I thought that the heartbreaking thing was the lost relationship, the woman that he loved, and he left in his will, and she still cared for him and how he had withdrawn it. And I think that there’s something really interesting about how objects reflect choices that we make in our lives sometimes. And the whole investigation into who this man was, trying to piece together who he was based on objects left behind. And that was really interesting because it, you know, was definitely a memento mori, but it was also a — it was like a case study of every object represented — I almost saw it more as like a mini-series, almost like a Serial kind of thing. But, you know, each object represented a choice that he made to either connect or disconnect and leading to the final disconnection with the one person who still loved him, you know. And what else do you have to live for, you know.
Craig: I love that part. So in the story, he’s left money to people and they have to find these people. Some of those people are dead, one of them is this woman who we find out he was engaged to. The woman’s mother told her daughter, you have to get a prenup, and the guy said, “I’m not signing any prenup,” and he left. And they never spoke again except for occasional cards. And the woman always felt like that was the path she should have gone. And then by the time they find her, she’s also dead, and she kind of ended up in a bad way. And you know what I was thinking was, just because — my whole thing about these stories is, at some point, obviously we need to find the uplift and the redemption or else it’s kind of brutal.
And I love the characters of these people that go into your apartment and start investigating from your stuff. And I thought what if a man dies alone in an apartment in New York, and a woman dies alone in an apartment in Florida. And you have a guy in New York — or probably a woman in New York looking through the stuff and a guy in that apartment in Florida looking through the stuff. And they find things that are related to each other, and they have to call each other to help, and they fall in love.
John: Oh, Softie Craig.
Craig: Well, I mean because they’re — it’s like The Notebook except with different people, you know, and just like —
They’re both like — well, the point — I mean — because I love — there was one guy they talked to who was like, “Yeah, I’m probably going to end up like George, like his buddy.” He’s like, “Yeah, I’ll probably die alone, too.” And here are two people that are like, this could be me, you know, and almost have given up, and then through this they — and so their love happen, you know. It was like there was some George and whatever her name was, you know. I’ll give her a name, Evelyn.
John: As I was reading through this, I looked at it more as a world in which you could set a story, rather than looking at George Bell because it felt like the people who were the investigators, that was a fascinating job and that fascinating job could take you into lots of really interesting places. So you could have the comedy version where — or the romantic comedy where people meet this — sort of meet-cute over death. But you also have lots of good thriller options. So you discover like — it looks like it was just a guy who died, there actually is a much more complicated situation. And once you start digging around, you yourself get in danger. So that’s the thriller way to take it.
With all these three scenarios, this one has characters and has a world which is great, but doesn’t really have a story. It doesn’t have a story driver. It doesn’t have like present day story drive, so we have to find a way to make the story drive take place. The blimp one has a lot of sort of like present day stakes, but there’s no characters, whatsoever, so we have to create a whole new characters.
Craig: Except for the blimp.
John: Except for the blimp. If the blimp is anthropomorphic and can talk. If the blimp can sing, well…
Craig: “Well, I guess they don’t want me no more.”
Nicole: Plush toy potential.
Craig: Actually, you know who’d be a great voice for the blimp?
John: Josh Gad. Oh Steve Zissis.
Craig: A great voice for the blimp. He would, because he can bring sadness but then he can bring joy.
John: I like it — I like it so much.
Nicole: He can lift your hearts.
John: How do you feel about — ?
Craig: Look, look, that’s blimp. That’s it. That’s the blimp face. We should totally do this.
John: Zemeckis. Motion Capture. Steve Zissis. Done.
Craig: Wait, hold on.
Steve: Or it could be Andy Serkis being the blimp.
Craig: Yes, yes. Andy Serkis. He does the voice and he does the blimp.
John: That’s nice. I think Andy Serkis would be delighted to have someone else do the voice because it’s going to work out really, really well.
John: And then the first one has characters and plot and there’s so much but it feels like it’s so already made. I mean it’s Spring Breaker 2 or like my first movie, Go. It has that same aspect of like all this stuff just happening.
Craig: It also has that thing that a lot of real life stories have which is that they’re incredibly episodic and then and then and then and then and then and then and you know what happens at the end? This.
Craig: And you’re like, okay, but that actually is a great example of a story that if you just took and tried to narrativize without re-contextualizing anything, people would go, “Why did I watch that?”
John: Although I would push back on that. Zola herself has a lot of agency in the story so Zola is the one who’s like taking photos of the girl and putting it on the back page.
Craig: I know. So who are we rooting for?
John: Yeah. It’s a real question.
Craig: There — I mean Zola literally starts — Zola starts out great like, “I’m not — I’m just a dancer and that’s fine.” And then she’s like, “Oh no, this guy is trying to hoe us. That’s no good.” And this girl is scared and says, “Please, you know, we just got to do this.” And Zola is like, “Well, okay, if we’re going to do this, we might as well do it right. I’m now going to make a whole bunch of money. I’m going to pimp you.” Who are we — ?
John: Yeah, it’s Risky Business though. I think what’s fascinating is that —
Craig: Well —
John: If you would — well, if you take — I think Zola is part of the reason why she’s so fascinating is because she is a woman in that situation. She is taking control and ownership of —
Craig: Another human being.
Craig: Not good.
John: [Crosstalk] another human being.
Craig: Like she’s sex trafficking a person.
John: I also love that she will just run at the first sign of danger.
John: Anything goes, she’s out of there.
Craig: That was the other thing. Yeah. So this poor woman gets snatched up. What does Zola do? Runs. Does she call the police?
Craig: No, just runs.
John: Yeah. So people who listened to the show before know that we’ve had a really good track record of the things we discuss on what would — would this be a movie. They always get kind of picked up. At least one of the three things gets picked up and so maybe an audience poll, of these three movies, which one do you think Matt and Ben are going to try to make into a movie first?
John: Because it’s usually them. Sometimes it’s DiCaprio, but usually it’s Matt and Ben.
Craig: Usually it’s Matt and Ben.
John: All right. So can I get by applause, who thinks the Zola movie will happen? Okay, by applause, who thinks the blimp movie will happen? And who thinks the George Bell movie will happen?
Craig: People love death. They love death.
John: They love death and uplifts. Yeah.
Craig: And there’s tragedy and it’s good. It’s Greek tragedy.
John: It’s good Greek tragedy. This is the time in the podcast where we open it up to questions which we can’t normally do because we’re usually recording this on Skype and there’s no one else in the room. But at this point, we would love to hear your questions.
So there’s not a microphone out there, so you’re going to just raise your hand to ask your question. I will repeat back the question and then we’ll answer it. So if anyone has a question, raise your hand. You have a question right there in the first row.
Craig: So the question is that, so this woman knew about the George Bell story, wanted to write the George Bell story. I assume you contacted the author of the story to try and get the rights, and the author said, “No,” and then sold the rights to somebody bigger.
So John Lee Hancock is here. He’s an excellent, excellent director and filmmaker. And John Lee and I tried to get the rights to a story and we failed, we got beaten out by Brad Pitt. It’s hard. The truth is that the people who write these things, they kind of go where they want to go. It’s tough, you know.
John: So let’s talk about what her options are. So I would say if there are things that are so appealing about that movie for you, you might be able to find different real life details or basically a fictional version that can get you to those places because the stuff we talked about with the George Bell movie, it doesn’t necessarily need to be George Bell.
There were things that were interesting about his specific case, but there were also just things that are interesting about that world and that world is —
Craig: I’d even go a step further. There’s actually nothing specific to his story that — I mean, well, the thing about the woman is great, you know. But you can invent a lot using — no, you can’t? Okay.
You know, and the other thing to remember is that the rights are granted on cycles. They are not in perpetuity usually. So they give people 18 months and if nothing happens in 18 months, a lot of times there’s an option to renew and sometimes they don’t and the rights become available, so stay on top of it. You know, that’s the best you can do, but it happens to everyone. And it’s not just, “I’m a little girl and I’m nobody.” Everybody has to deal with this. It’s one of those things.
John: John Lee should direct that movie. Wouldn’t he do a great job?
Craig: He does a great job all the time with all movies. Yeah. Thank you.
John: Thank you, John Lee. Another question from the audience. Anything you want to ask us. Such a quiet group. Right here. So I’m going to repeat the question. Question is, is anything happening with Challenger that someone might see down the line?
Nicole: Yes, this is the project, this is the zombie project that will not die and I’m glad because it’s my favorite but it keeps coming back from the dead and every time I’m sure it’s dead, it keeps coming back.
So yes, it’s been re-optioned, we have financing from E 1 but again this whole, it all really depends on casting. There’s like four people who could play the part and so if we get one of those four people, hooray. If not, it will die again until somebody else wants to option it.
John: I don’t even know what the project is so this is a script that you wrote?
Nicole: This is a script I wrote a million years — I wrote this script in college actually and it was a love letter to Richard Fineman because he was my childhood crush when I was in high school which is why I had no dates until college. But I really, really loved Richard Fineman. And so I wrote a screenplay about his investigation into the Challenger shuttle disaster and it was my golden ticket kind of, you know, my Willy Wonka ticket in a sense that that was what got me meetings and I won a bunch of contests and got my first job off of that as a sample.
And so it was this project that had, one day it’s like a hair raising story of lots of crazy experiences with directors and actors and it hit financing like five times. So it’s funny every time I get a new financier, I’m like, “Great, awesome, yay. We’ll see. That would be so great if it happens.”
But yes, I love that project. I’ve rewritten it a million times. We’ll see what happens.
John: I remember it now because you talked about it on the podcast the very first time.
John: Great. Another question from the audience. Right here.
Craig: It’s a big question.
John: I’ll try to recap it. So what is the intellectual property at the heart of a movie and related, sort of what do we really mean when we’re talking about sort of what a movie is or what the fundamental idea of a movie is?
Craig: Well, I guess we’ll limit it first to screenplay, you know.
Craig: Because once the movie is made, that’s the intellectual property. So intellectual property is unique expression in fixed form movie, fixed form done so that works, right?
Screenplay, that’s the intellectual property. It’s the unique expression in fixed form. Courts interpret this. That’s why judges sometimes go, yeah, no. We know that ideas aren’t intellectual property so the blimp idea is just an idea, right, plus it’s not written down. It’s not in fixed form.
If you write a screenplay, that contains dialogue but it also contains scenes that you’ve written, characters that you’ve described so everything that is evidenced by the text in your screenplay is in large part your intellectual property. It’s just the concept, the basic idea of it that isn’t.
So more is protectable than you think. In fact, that’s why so many of these cases fail because eventually somebody goes, “Well, show me what you have and let me see what you have.”
John: So arbitration which we talked about on the show is the WGA process for figuring out who deserves the writing credit on a script when there were multiple writers. And that’s not copyright. That’s literally looking at sort of the copyright is owned by whoever is making the movie.
The arbiter’s job is to figure out, of the things that constitute this screenplay, who did what and sort of whether that person did enough that it actually should count as being her movie or it should be shared credit. And that is a difficult thing. That’s why it’s a good thing overall that we are having screenwriters look at that stuff because it’s a hard thing to judge.
John: And when you see those weird copyright cases or those things where like, “Oh, this person stole my movie,” they’ll often be — those cases will often be brought in really weird venues because it won’t be sort of in Los Angeles, it will be in like some weird Texas court because they have a better track record of getting those things to happen there.
Craig: But they never —
John: But they don’t actually work. Yeah.
Craig: Yeah, but you’re protected. I mean — great example. Okay, so the question is, you write an in-depth outline for a movie and then somebody else takes that outline and writes a script. Have they infringed on your copyright? Essentially is what you’re asking. The answer is absolutely, no question.
One of the things that copyright gives you is the right to make derivative works which means other people do not have the right to make derivative works unless you license and grant them that permission. So the screenplay that is taken from an outline is a derivative work of that outline.
So this is why when we sell screenplays to the studios, they buy everything. They never leave anything out. They want to own everything. The last thing they want is for you to then go, “Oh, by the way, I’m writing another screenplay that you don’t own this derivative of my treatment that somehow you didn’t buy stupid, haha,” right? Okay.
So yes, that is a treatment and outline in fixed form is protectable copyright. That is intellectual property for sure.
John: Great. Question right back there. Nicole Perlman is a great person to answer that question.
Nicole: I don’t know if I could answer it particularly because I didn’t write samples of different genres. When I was starting out, I kind of got a lot of work from my Challenger sample, got me a lot of biopic, space, aviation, technology work and then randomly an Argentinean tango movie with Sandra Bullock. [laughs] Which did not get made. I can’t imagine why.
So yeah, I would say that it can help you having a brand. I think that if maybe it’s not your strength, definitely try other things and if you might find that you — and I personally — I’m writing Marvel movies and big fantastical science fiction and fantasy kind of things and I’m also interested in space, technology, aviation as well at the same time so — which drives my representatives crazy, but I think it’s a — I think you write what you want to write and what you love and don’t really — if you have a great idea for romantic comedy, write the romantic comedy and then maybe people who are looking for romantic comedy wouldn’t have thought of you because they thought you only did, you know, thrillers so I’d say whatever is your best idea that’s most on fire at this stage in your career, write that, and don’t worry about it.
Craig: Have you sold a screenplay yet or — ?
Audience Member: No.
Craig: Then think of it this way, you don’t even have a brand yet because the brand thing is really just, “Well, we bought something from him so now we’re going to put him on a list for things like that.” So at this point, you’re free, free, free, and by the way, you’ll be free later too.
I mean the nice thing about writing is you can write yourself in and out of trouble. So yeah, now write that great script. There’s no need to worry about pigeon-holing.
John: We have time for one more question. Which question will be — right here.
Craig: That’s a good Zissis question because I feel like your character is a bit of a reluctant hero in Togetherness. I mean it’s not a movie, it’s — but I look at that season, that first season.
Steve: Yeah, in terms of the first season, Amanda Peet’s character is kind of like the catalyst. She’s the kick in the pants of my character that gets him going on a trajectory. But after that, after she does do that, I am on a mission to, you know, transform and pursue my acting goals and et cetera.
Craig: So there’s this tension that happens with the reluctant protagonist where we’re actually waiting for them. You know, a lot of times reluctant protagonists will take on some job begrudgingly just to go back to what they had. It’s very common. Shrek I think just wants to get his swamp back. He’s a pretty reluctant protagonist, right? But then they are transformed.
I think that’s the key for the reluctant protagonist is that we’re waiting for somebody to light that spark. They don’t really — they’re reluctant because they’re afraid, it’s probably a better word, the fearful — and I think all protagonists are afraid, on some level.
I mean your character, definitely, you can feel it. He’s just scared, you know, and then Amanda comes along and she forces you but then — and I love the dramatic irony of what it also does between the two of you which is great, you know, but that’s — that would be my short answer.
John: So what we’re describing with Steve’s show is a show where you have, you know, multiple characters who are functioning as each other’s protagonist and antagonist. They’re causing each other to change. Classically what we are often talking about with movies is you have one character taking a trip that they’re only going to take once.
And so I can’t think of a lot of movies where I’ve been willing to watch a character just never engage and like finally at the end engaged. That doesn’t tend to be a really successful paradigm. So you as the writer have to find a reason to get them engaged with your story so whether that’s burning down their house, so they can’t go back to their original ways, or taking that one thing that actually means something to them which is what Shrek ultimately does.
You are forcing them into because you’re creating a situation where they have to change. Go back to sort of those Pixar story rules, like every day is the same except one day and that’s usually the day that your movie is taking place.
Steve: I think it happens a lot with the lovable loser archetype actually now that I’m thinking about it. If you think about a lot of Bill Murray type movies, he’s usually in that role like Stripes where he is that reluctant — reluctant guy.
Craig: Groundhog Day, he’s just refusing to change, refusing, refusing, refusing to the point where he just, he would prefer to kill himself than change which is the sort of ultimate reluctant hero but again, there’s Andie MacDowell transforming him.
And so I love that you said that that because that’s the answer to every reluctant hero is a relationship that changes them. That’s why we go to movies. It’s for that. I think all heroes in a weird way are reluctant. I mean I don’t like heroes that wake up in the morning and go, “Time to kick ass, let’s go.” Jerry Bruckheimer loves that.
I wrote a movie for Jerry once and the first note I got back was, “He doesn’t seem like a hero on page one.” I’m like, why would — who wants to beep, that’s the movie, beep, hero, hero, hero, hero, credits.
John: Things blow up.
Craig: Yeah. Boom. That is not me.
John: But think about George Bell. Like George Bell is like a reluctant hero who never actually sort of kicks out of gear but there’s a version of George Bell where like he’s in that situation.
John: And something kicks him out of that life.
Craig: Okay, so —
John: And he’s a Shrek.
Craig: So have you seen the movie Marty, classic Paddy Chayefsky screenplay, 1955? Ernest Borgnine won an Oscar for it, beautiful movie, and it’s one of those old movies that honestly is not old.
And it’s a very simple story of a butcher who’s not a particularly good-looking guy and he’s lonely and he lives with his mom who harangues him, and he’s resigned and then he meets this woman. And stuff happens and there’s a transformation but it’s a difficult transformation. There’s a price to pay for leaving your shell, you know. You should come to this, I’m doing this structure talk tomorrow, I don’t know if you’re available, this is all I talk about — okay, good. You’ll hear it again but like, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It will be a lot —
John: Okay, very quickly because we’re running out of time. I forgot to do One Cool Things. So One Cool Thing is a tradition in the show. My One Cool Thing is actually a little thing I used for filming this last week. It is called a Glif. It comes right here in Austin, Texas. It was a Kickstarter, so Craig’s favorite thing in the world.
It is a little device for holding your phone, being able to mount it on tripod which is tremendously useful when you want to shoot photos or video with your phone because the iPhone is a really great camera these days and so it’s a little mount for your phone so you can attach it to a tripod. That’s my One Cool Thing, the Glif.
Craig: Fantastic. Nicole, what is your One Cool Thing?
Nicole: I was in London last week and I went to the Cosmonauts Exhibit at the London Science Museum and it was amazing and the Russians had some great stories and I highly recommend you guys all look into Cosmonauts. They are fantastic.
John: Great. Steve, do you have One Cool Thing?
Steve: I was just going to recommend an animated film called The Man Who Planted Trees. That’s old but you can get it on Netflix. It’s one of the greatest pieces of animation ever.
Craig: Is it American, Japanese, or?
Steve: It’s, it was a Canadian animator and it’s narrated by Christopher Plummer.
Craig: Awesome. Well, my One Cool Thing is an update on an old One Cool Thing called Thync. I don’t know if you guys listened to the show. A while ago, I found this product that you stuck on your head and it sent electrical impulses into your head in an attempt to calm you down or perk you up and I thought, “You know, this sounds cool.”
And then every now and then on Twitter, someone will be like, “Have you done it? Have you done it?” I’m like, “No.” So I did it, kind of works. It kind of works. You definitely feel it and it allows you — you have an app that sort of is Bluetooth connected to this ridiculous thing and as you move the dial up and down, you can feel it. And if you move it too high, it hurts and you feel your scalp contracting, it’s bad.
So, but there’s this calm lady on your iPhone going, “Find your sweet spot,” and you’re like, “My head, my head, my head, my head, fuck” but then you get, and it actually did. I felt spacey. I don’t know if that’s calm, but I felt spacey.
Nicole: It’s like electroshock therapy.
Steve: I’m thinking of the last scene of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest right now. Craig, we might need to smother you with a pillow.
Craig: Pillow me. Yes, give me the L’amour treatment, I need it. Yeah, it’s time.
John: Excellent. So glad we actually got to shock you, Craig and actually — and attach you —
Craig: Shocking myself.
John: It’s so good.
Nicole: Can we get access to that? Can we just shock you whenever we want?
John: I think —
John: We’ll build an app for that and soon everyone will be able to zap Craig.
Craig: Shock Craig.
John: Yeah. Nicole and Steve, thank you so much for being our guests.
Craig: Thank you, guys.
Steve: Thank you.
Nicole: Thank you.
John: We need to thank the Austin Film Festival for having us. It’s a huge pleasure to do this every year. Thank you guys for being an incredibly good audience. We need to thank Annie Haze who’s our assistant this week. So thank you very much. Guys, thank you so very much.
Craig: Thanks, guys.
- The Austin Film Festival
- The Monty Hall problem on Wikipedia
- Nicole Perlman on IMDb and Twitter, and on Scriptnotes, 164
- Steve Zissis on IMDb and Twitter
- Togetherness on HBO and Wikipedia
- Papermag on The Harrowing Twitter Odyssey of @_zolarmoon
- The Baltimore Sun on the rogue JLENS blimp
- The Lonely Death of George Bell, from The New York Times
- Variety on Nicole Perlman and Challenger
- Marty on Wikipedia
- Glif tripod phone mount
- Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age at the London Science Museum
- The Man Who Planted Trees, on Wikipedia and Netflix DVD
- Intro/Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)