The original post for this episode can be found here.
Previously on Scriptnotes
Craig Mazin: Zero.
Amanda Morad: Oh, that’s me.
John August: So, what this card says is John and Craig will read your script. If you would like to–
Amanda: Um, yes.
Craig: And we’ll talk about it on the show and you will come on the show.
Craig: Great. Or, you could have a tee-shirt.
Amanda: I’m going to pick C.
John: All right. Well done.
John: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig: My name is Craig Mazin?
John: And this is Episode 250 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the program we will be talking with the winner from our live show in Austin. And looking at the script she sent in. We’ll also be answering a bunch of listener questions from the overflowing virtual mailbag.
But first we have some follow up. Craig, start us off.
Craig: Right. So I did another Escape Room LA. This was my last one of that company’s rooms. They have four rooms. The Alchemist. The Detective. The Cavern. And The Theater. And so I went and I did The Theater and we did escape. Felt good about that. And there were only six of us, so that was a big deal.
But, while I was with Melissa in the little waiting room area there was this big group of people all going to do The Alchemist. And they were just, you know, talking. And then one of them said, “Oh, you know what? There’s going to be something that involves smelling different scents in this one because I heard Craig talking about it on Scriptnotes.”
And then someone is like, “Oh yeah, I heard that.” And they start talking about me. But I’m just sitting right there. And Melissa turns to me and goes, “You have to say something.” And I said, “Nah, I don’t want to.” [laughs] She said, “No, you have to. It’s crazy.”
And then somebody said my name again and finally I just said, “That’s me.” And then they turned and looked and they’re like, “It is you.” And so we had a very nice conversation. It was very strange because, you know, that is fairly rare to happen, but exciting in the moment. And I did promise them that I would mention them on the show.
And they did in fact escape The Alchemist. So, good for them.
John: Congratulations to everybody who survived.
John: So back in Episode 248, we talked about the controversy over white actors being cast in Asian roles. And Kirk Shimano wrote in to say — Craig, would you read what Kirk wrote for us?
Craig: Sure. He said, “Thanks so much for your thoughtful discussion about the casting of Asian American actors. I also agree that star-washing should totally be thing and will use it in social media as frequently as possible.”
John: That’s Craig’s term. Craig made up that term.
Craig: I made up that term. And I want money. Kirk continues, “I wanted to add one other thought about the character of the Ancient One in Doctor Strange. I think another complicating factor in this is that original character fits into a common racist trope. That of a wise Asian master. I know for my part, whenever I see an actor of Asian descent in this kind of role, my first reaction is always, really, this kind of role? Again? So, from my part, I’m actually pleased to see this character go a different way.
“That all being said, I find the lack of Asian American actors in the Marvel universe hugely disappointing. I just wish the conversation was more about the lead characters rather than having yet another wise Asian master who helps the white people achieve their full potential.”
John: Yep. So thank you, Kirk, for writing in about that. And that was an aspect we didn’t really get into when we discussed it is that if you’re just casting a person of a certain race in a very stereotypical role, that’s not a great mark of progress.”
Craig: It’s true. I mean, I’m not sure you can claim it’s a great mark of progress to keep the racist trope role and also then deny employment to a poor Asian actor who now can’t even get the part of the racist trope.
I mean, I suppose you could say that we’ve come a long way. Because it used to be that we cast white men like Joel Grey to play the wise Asian master. No, I guess we’re still doing it. We’re still — although she’s not meant to be — at least she’s not meant to be Asian. So, that’s a minor improvement. But I think Kirk is absolutely right that that character is beyond shopworn and needs to be retired.
And the Marvel universe I think has done a very good job of being true to things that deeply meaningful and being a little more flexible with stuff that isn’t. I don’t think, for instance, Nick Fury was originally African American. So, they had no problem with that. So, I’m not really sure why this needed to be that way. But it’s a tough one.
It’s interesting. Marvel makes movies in 2016, but so many of the characters that they’re pulling up were created in the ’60s and ’70s.
John: Yeah. And so the way you reinvent those or sort of re-explore those can be challenging. And finding a good way through it.
It reminds me of our conversation with Alan Yang at the Christmas live show where he’s talking about Master of None, and the issues came up of like you have an actor who is going in for roles, and he’s refusing to go in for those very stereotypically South Asian roles. And like he doesn’t want to be the cab driver or the call center worker. He doesn’t want to put on the fake voice anymore. And that’s a real issue and that’s a decision every actor has to make about what kinds of things you’re willing to go in for, or not go in for.
Craig: Yeah. Whereas on the writing side of things, we get to do anything. I mean, acting is really hard. It’s always you out there. I feel for actors. Because I can sense how frightened they are of being embarrassed.
John: Yeah. It’s tough. All right, same episode we also talked about pitching open writing assignments. And Philip from Durham, North Carolina wrote in to ask, “What are your thoughts on using visuals of any kind to help convey the story you want to pitch during this open writing assignment process? Is it a good idea or bad idea to bring in visuals?”
Craig: I don’t think it’s either a good or bad idea. It really depends on what you’re doing. If you’re pitching something where one picture would be worth a thousand words, bring that picture. For sure. Generally speaking, I’m not pitching movies like that by the nature of the movies I do pitch. Although, on the sheep movie, I did make — I mean, this was after we already had set it up, but when I turned the script in I also included a book. I made a photo book.
So, I went on the Internet and found as many high res images of sheep that I could find that were evocative, I think, and would have made them feel something. And then I made a little Apple book out of it, and I sent it in.
John: Nice. Yeah, for the thing I’m writing right now, I did come in with some visuals. I had little small artboards. And it was really to sort of show what the world would look like, because it was hard to describe my specific take on what this world would be without some artboards. But, the thing that people were pitching to me, I had three different sets of writers who were pitching this project, and none of them brought in visuals and it was fine. We just focused on what they were saying. So, it can be useful. I think what can be especially useful about the visual boards is it gives you something to point at later on in the process.
So, like as you’re having the discussion, you can sort of like go back to the boards, or the producer can look through the boards and say like, “Oh, so back in this moment…” It helps anchor the thing you said to a visual, which can be useful post pitch.
Craig: Yeah, you know, Ted Elliott used to say that he and Terry were so bad at talking, and so uncomfortable in those rooms, that they would bring visual stuff along just to distract people from them. Because they didn’t want their awkwardness to somehow make their odds worse.
Sometimes the visuals that they brought were literally just index cards, like here, look at our story points as we talk so you’re not concentrating on our stammering faces, which I thought was great.
John: But if you’re a highly charismatic writer, sort of performer. Like if you’re Mike Birbiglia, you probably would not bring in visuals like that because you want them focusing on your face, because that’s where the performance is.
Craig: You got it.
John: Yep. All right, last bit of housekeeping here. A few months ago we asked you to do a quick survey about the show and what we should do with back episodes and the bonus shows. And we decided that we’re going to make more 250 drive episodes. And this is episode 250, so in about two weeks we’ll have all 250 episodes of Scriptnotes, along with the bonus episodes, on a little USB drive that you can purchase in the store. So, if that’s something you would like, they will be available soon.
Craig, I think these USB drives are going to be black.
Craig: Oh. Sleek.
John: Sleek and black. Shiny.
Craig: Like little dolphins? Little black dolphins?
John: Maybe like little black dolphins.
Craig: Or, no, orcas.
John: Yeah. I was worried you were going to go to a Sexy Craig, like Scriptnotes After Dark thing. But I think orcas is maybe a better, safer thing. Because everyone likes whales.
Craig: You know, John, Sexy Craig doesn’t care about that computer stuff.
John: Yeah, it’s going to be good. The other thing we are experimenting with is people had asked — so all of the premium episodes and all the back episodes are available through the premium feed at Scriptnotes.net. You can also use it through the Scriptnotes app.
Some people had problems with the app, or if you’re overseas it can be a challenge with your bank accounts. It didn’t PayPal. There were some real frustrations that some people had. And people asked can you buy individual tracks for like those bonus episodes. So, we’re experimenting with just two of those tracks. And so the Justin Marks Jungle Book episode and the Q&A from the session with Aline and Rachel Bloom where we talk about introducing a character in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Those two tracks are available for $0.99 each in the John August store. So, just store.johnaugust.com. And we’ll see if people like to download those individual tracks.
Craig: I feel like I’m like a year away from having to hire somebody to audit you.
John: Yeah. You would not believe the dollars and cents coming into this operation.
Craig: I mean, if you buy a couple of houses and a few cars, just know I’m coming for you.
John: Okay. I want to point out that Craig Mazin drives a Tesla, which he talks about nonstop. I drive a seven-year-old Prius and a Nissan Leaf. I don’t even get to drive the Leaf, because my husband drives the Leaf. So I get a really beat up Prius.
Craig: You know, you could get a new car with the massive amounts of cash coming in on this show.
John: I probably could.
John: A sensible car.
Craig: A sensible car. [laughs]
John: The tiny last bit of follow up here is I asked Matthew to record his screen while he edited episode 248, so it’s about 2.5 hours’ worth of video that I’ve shrunk down to nine minutes. So you can see sort of his process of what he goes through as he edits our show down.
Because we record basically in real time. So, one of our recordings of our show will take about an hour, but it takes about 2.5 hours for Matthew to go through and sort of get rid of all the uhs and ums and get everything synchronized right and get the music in.
So, if you’re curious what that process is like, it’s posted on YouTube and there will be a link in the show notes for that.
Craig: I might even watch that.
John: You might watch that. And my perception is that I mess up on the show a lot more than you do. And so that he has to do more work. But as you actually look through it, it’s about 50-50. You have a few ums and stuff there that go away through the magical process of editing.
Craig: I wouldn’t call that messing up, John. I think what you’ve done is you’ve tried to equate complete failure with innocuous pauses.
John: Perhaps I have. Perhaps I have.
Craig: This is already shaping up to be a great episode. I feel like this is an episode that we’re not drinking, but I feel a little bit like I might have had a glass of wine.
John: That sounds great. And our guest has been so patient, because she’s been like literally right across the table from me this entire time.
John: So I think we should probably introduce the winner of our sort of special Golden Tickets. We’ll set up this whole detail.
At the live show in Austin, we had put up these raffle tickets and Craig called out the number and she had the right number. She came up and we told her she could give us her script and we would read her script and talk about it on the air. She is here. We want to welcome Amanda Morad. Welcome to our show.
Amanda: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
John: So, Amanda, you were at the live show in Austin, but you’re actually a Los Angeles person. Is that correct?
Amanda: Yes, that was my first time at Austin Film Festival. And it turned out pretty well for me.
John: Cool. So, what made you want to go to Austin?
Amanda: It’s a great event. And it’s a great competition. Matt D. and everybody there is just amazing. And I learned so much and got to meet a ton of people. In fact, I made friends that I will likely have for the rest of my life. And it’s definitely an event that I would do again.
John: Cool. So, you show up in Austin and did you know people before you go there, or was it all strangers?
Amanda: I had one connection from my alma mater. He was a former professor, now technically colleague, who met me there. Shawn Gaffney. And he introduced me to some people and from there things just went great.
John: Great. So tell us about yourself. What is your background? Did you study writing? What are you goals? Do you do anything else other than write?
Amanda: Uh, yes. [laughs] I’m originally from the East Coast and moved out to LA in 2014 to pursue television writing. I would love to get into scripted drama. And right now I am working in digital development with you know Murray Productions. And on the desk of two development executives there. And working on original short form content in that capacity.
I am also a big board gamer. So, I followed along with several of the episodes that you guys mentioned. Ticket to Ride and Pandemic and everything. So, that would be like the secondary hobby outside of the writing, because the writing is certainly central and the reason I came out here. So, that’s the main focus.
John: Let me ask. Have you applied to fellowships? Have you gone after other things?
Amanda: Yeah, I’ve definitely applied to a lot of contests and all the network fellowships in the past. In 2014, I got to the semifinal round with CBS, so I got to go in and meet with their diversity, Carole Kirschner and Jeanne Mayo and all of them there. And it was a wonderful meeting and they said they really enjoyed the material but I was just really green at the time. I think I’d been in LA three weeks. And so their advice to me was go get some industry experience and try again.
So, now that I’ve been working in the industry for a little while I applied again, and so we’ll see where it goes.
John: Cool. And when you say diversity hiring, so you’re Latina and was that your focus?
Amanda: Yes. Yes. For that one.
John: What were they reading when they brought you in that first time?
Amanda: The first time was an early draft of Betty Bureau, many, many drafts ago. And a spec of Homeland. Because they require both a pilot and a spec script.
Craig: I got to tell you that I feel like we won the raffle. Because the odds of randomly picking somebody that was a good writer were very low. And I apologize to all of the people that come to Austin. I assure you I’m not talking about you, dear listener, you are great. But, of course, how many great people can there be? But I thought your script was terrific. And I’m going to I think bum your current employers out by saying that you should absolutely — you’re ready to be on a staff right now as far as I’m concerned.
Amanda: Craig, you’re making my day. And you’re making me blush. [laughs] Thank you.
Craig: Well, you’ve earned it. I mean, we read a lot here. I mean, I can’t speak for John, but I thought it was really well done. It was professional. And it showed an ability to craft a scene, to pull a story through, to surprise me. Characters were distinct. I can imagine that this is already better than the work that’s being churned out by quite a few veterans of TV staffs. And I think somebody should put you on their staff right away. I really do.
Amanda: Thank you, Craig. That might be the best compliment of my life.
Craig: You’re welcome. I mean, and you know, 250 episodes of legitimacy behind that, because nobody can question the fact that I have no problem saying to somebody’s face, “I don’t like that.” So, you can take this to the bank. I thought it was terrific.
Amanda: Thank you.
John: So I have staffed TV shows, and I’ve staffed one-hours, and so I have a little bit more experience being on the other side of the table, and I agree with Craig. I think why I’m so, so happy that it was you who got that number and showed up is that you delivered a script that is professional in the sense of like there’s no — there’s no mistakes. Nothing about it feels amateur whatsoever. You have a really good sense of being able to draw small details out. I like some of your descriptions of characters. I singled out like there’s a minor police officer who is like a well-fed husband.
Craig: Yeah. I like that. And then the little boy in his father’s suit.
John: Daddy’s suit. Yeah. Those are great sort of like small little signifiers that show like, oh, she really does kind of know what she’s doing here. I thought you made a good choice about picking a distinctive subject for this script.
So, before we even get into some of the praise here, you wrote this script — this is a one-hour drama pilot. It’s a writing sample fundamentally. It’s written in a five-act structure. Was it teaser plus five, or just true five?
Amanda: Teaser plus five.
John: Teaser plus five, which is common in sort of like ABC land for this. Which I thought was very smart, because you could have easily done this as a cable pilot or something else that didn’t have breaks, but good to sort of show that you understand that there do have to be act breaks. All really good.
Also smart choice to make this be a period show. A friend is just staffing from one show to another show, and he had to write a new pilot, and his agency told him do the period one because it won’t get outdated so quickly.
Amanda: It’s true.
John: And so you could send it out season after season and it won’t become outdated, so these are all smart reasons. And I always like the — I’m a big fan of some of the period shows. You look at like Homefront. I don’t know if you ever saw that which was a great WWII drama.
John: Mad Men, of course. So, there’s a lot of stuff there that’s great. They’re not reading a ton of period things and they’ll remember yours, where they won’t remember like five other sort of Sopranos shows. So, those are great things.
I was less enthusiastic about sort of the overall experience of the script. I got a little bit bored, and so some of my notes for you are going to be about places where I kind of fell off the ride. But I want my underlying message is that I’m so happy it’s you, because everyone can download your script, read along with us, and see like, oh, she does know what she’s doing, and it’s so refreshing to see somebody who is not making just dumb mistakes, so we can focus on making it better, rather than bringing it up to a baseline quality.
Craig: Isn’t that nice for once? I mean…
Amanda: That’s nice.
Craig: Yeah, anyone reading anything will always have some places to say, “Well what about this, or what about this?”
Amanda: Of course.
Craig: And I have some of those for you that I hope are instructive and constructive. But we’re in a different kind of note-giving here. This is sort of the note-giving that I would give to a colleague of mine. You know, I’d say, okay, what were you going for there? Didn’t quite work.
So, I will talk to you like you’re already working on a TV show and I don’t know about you, John. I don’t feel quite qualified to ever say whether or not something like this is something they would actually produce and air. All I can really talk about is the writing itself, I guess.
John: And I would also say that I’m not sure that should even be your goal here.
John: Talk to us — we’re talking too much. Talk to us about why you wrote this specific script? And actually tell us the name, tell us the premise, because people listening to this in the car won’t know what we’re even talking about. Tell us your script.
Amanda: The script is called Betty Bureau. And it is an FBI procedural drama that takes place in 1950 when the first Top Ten Most Wanted List is first published by J. Edgar Hoover. And it follows Caty Pelayo, a new secretary to the bureau, as she is covertly helping the agents solve crimes. Of course, this is not at all sanctioned by Hoover or anyone. There were no female agents in 1950. And so this is her kind of journey to independence, but also to helping catch all the crooks.
And this story actually originated at my grandmother’s funeral. My great aunt used to be a secretary for the FBI and she was regaling the family with all kinds of stories from that time period. And she told us the story about accidentally helping catch somebody on the Top Ten Most Wanted list at a department store one day. And from there, I thought, you know, this is an idea that I can run with and I can write passionately about because it is based on two very strong independent Mexican women in my life that I have loved and respected forever.
And so that’s where the script kind of originated. And it’s been through many, many, many drafts since then. And, yeah, I do hope that it is a good, solid writing sample. Hopefully for representation. Maybe for just getting my name and myself out there as a writer, because I am fairly new to town, and with the experience that I am getting at a production company now, I’m hoping that that will kind of start segueing into actual writing–
Craig: I mean, look, I think your days of not having an agent are over. Because I’ll send this to my agent. [laughs]
Amanda: Wow. Thank you.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, it’s stupid. Of course you should have an agent. This is a strong sample. And you should have an agent. It won’t be my agent, but it will be somebody. And I’m sure John has people that he knows as well, because that’s just crazy. Of course you should have an agent. This is good enough for that, in my opinion.
John: All right, and in my opinion I don’t know that you will get an agent right off the bat. And this is just me sort of talking reality is that having read a ton of these, I think it’s good and shows competence. I don’t think it was breathtaking to me. And I got kind of bored.
And I remember back to when we had Riki Lindhome on the show and she was like reading through for staffing. And if she stopped reading after page three, she stopped reading. And I worry that people are going to stop reading. And so what you described and what you pitched was more intriguing than the first sort of ten pages were for me. And as I was reading it, I felt like I was getting ahead of you at times. And some of that is the nature of what you’re trying to do. You’re doing a procedural, but it’s also a premise procedural. And those can be kind of like the two most boring kinds scripts to read.
Because in a premise show, you’re having to set up this whole world, and you’re having to introduce your character to this whole world, so the plot always ends up taking sort of a back burner. And in a procedure, well, people are just going through and doing their jobs. And so it was a lot of people walking through FBI kinds of stuff doing this.
I think you do a nice job setting up the world of things, but I — there were very few scenes where I’m like, oh holy cow, that’s amazing, like that’s going to be a really great moment. And I think as you look at doing more writing on this, and look at doing the next thing you want to write, focusing on the how do I keep it incredibly suspenseful, how do I make sure people are desperate to turn that page will be your challenge.
Amanda: That’s a good note.
Craig: I never got bored, but perhaps because the script was teaching me something different, you know. So it was teaching you one thing — and this can happen all the time. This is the great difference of opinion of the world, you know. People, they start reading something and they think, “I know what I want this to be.” And if it doesn’t become that, that’s disappointing.
Now, to be fair, John and I read scripts that are just objectively boring all the time. In this case, what this was telling me it wanted to be, and what I wanted it to be, was kind of more Mad Men-ish in a way than high capery, which is why actually in a weird way my biggest issue was the ending, which I thought was not congruent. It was sort of like the show suddenly remembered that it was supposed to have cops and robbers and Ka-boom-ies. And I didn’t want that in a way. I wanted an ending that was more about the character.
I was so much more into the soap opera of the characters than I was into the crime. I really was enjoying that. I loved the reveal that the newspaper man was this agent’s brother. And I liked their flirtation, and the fact that now she’s got two brothers kind of going after her. And I also liked the woman in a man’s world aspect which felt very Mad Men to me and really interesting.
So, that’s kind of where I — that’s where my eye was. So, I was never bored actually weirdly until the end, when it was just like, oh, now they’re just shooting. Shooting. Shooting. Shooting. Shooting. So, that was a different — it’s so funny how we have these different responses to things.
John: Yeah. I think, Craig, you read this as being like this is like a Mad Men. I read it like, oh, this is like an FBI procedural. And it’s trying to do both things at the same time. The issue is I would love the Mad Men show, but Mad Men is not fundamentally a procedure. It’s a character-driven show where characters are going through journeys and sort of coming at each other in strange moments.
And I didn’t feel the friction, the tension, the spark in those moments in this. And I don’t feel like there quite were the scenes there that could have had those sparks. And so as we look at — as we go through pages, we may find some moments that can actually break out a little bit more.
The last thing I want to say is sort of urgency. And in any of these things, you want a sense that there’s an urgency for like why this scene is happening right now. And there were a couple moments where I felt like that was just a random other scene to go to. And there wasn’t a pressing need for like that had to be the next scene. It could have sort of arbitrary. So, that’s sort of the one the page urgency.
There’s also sort of a “why am I reading this script right now, why is this script relevant in 2016?” So, when I previously said it’s great because you could write a period thing because it doesn’t have to have a timeliness, but there’s still an underlying quality of like what is this show saying about today. And has that resonated for you at all? Is there a reason why you think this is a show about today?
Amanda: Yeah. Absolutely. With Caty’s position as a secretary in a man’s world, and coming into — as a writer coming into Hollywood as a woman with very little Hollywood connection, I’ve encountered it on a few occasions where my strength and independence and ability has been mitigated by what people expect of me as a woman. And I know we don’t really like to talk about the overtness of it still happening, but I think it is still relevant. And I think a lot of what Caty feels about being relegated to certain tasks and relegated to certain roles, I’ve certainly felt that through the various jobs I’ve had.
Yes, I’m still early in my career, and it’s possible it will continue to happen. But I think her emotion and her response to it and the resistance that she’s feeling toward this relegation to memos and lunch orders is something that I identify with. And I think a lot of female professionals, particularly in this city that I know, definitely feel that.
John: Okay. But I mean, is that a new thing that’s happened in — is that a 2016 thing? Or would the same thing happen in 2006? I’m just wondering if there’s a special thing about why this is happening now, or why this conversation is happening now.
I think her Latina heritage might be an interesting thing to bring up a little bit more, because I missed it until her mother is speaking Spanish, sort of midway through. And that might be a thing that is extra interesting. Or the degree to which Hoover and sort of like that whole movement reflects sort of modern times could be a way in. I just — I want to be intrigued about what you’re trying to say about today in this period show.
Amanda: Right. Yeah, absolutely. I think her heritage and the politics of that era are certainly reflected in a lot of things going on in our world today. There’s lots of talk about — even what you guys were talking about in the follow up, with whitewashing of actors in roles that belong to ethnically diverse actors. And I think that that carries over into plenty of industries. And in 1950 at that time, it was very rare to have a Latina secretary in the nation’s capital in a professional job.
You know, at the time a lot of it was southern labor for Latinas. And so I think showing that Latina heritage, I think things like Jane the Virgin have exceptionally well because Latinas are seeing themselves on TV in ways that they haven’t before. And even though this takes place 65 years ago, I think that this would serve the same way.
Craig: I’m with you on that one. We never ask the period pieces with a majority white casts who sort of carry the burden of the difference between then and now, or if we do, it’s because that’s that what it’s about. I think that if this were a movie, I would be much more concerned, because a movie begins, middles, and ends. And it must have some immediate relevance for you when you walk out of the theater. That is beyond just whatever you saw.
For a show, I always feels like sooner or later, no matter how hard the show is trying to be relevant, the show becomes about the show. It ultimately becomes about its own soap opera. And in this case, I think you have an interesting opportunity to combine soap opera with procedural, which has been done before. And doing it in just a different background. I love the setting. I love the setting. I think the ’50s is terrific.
And certainly the imposition on her as a woman is — I think it’s always interesting. There were spots here and there where I thought either — she almost seemed like she had arrived in a time machine. This is an interesting thing. When you’re talking about characters who live in a world that is oppressive, sometimes when they arrive on the show they seem as aware as we that this is all off. But that’s the world in which they are. It’s a very tricky thing — do you know what I — I don’t know if I’m explaining myself quite right.
Amanda: No, that makes sense.
Craig: Yeah. So occasionally she seemed almost sardonic about it, like oh well, in 50 years you’ll realize how stupid that sounds. You know what I mean? Which is a little different than being in the moment I guess.
Amanda: I see.
John: Cool. Let’s get to your actual script. And so if people want to read along with us, there will be a link in the show notes for this PDF, so you can download it and take a read through it with us. Let’s start with the teaser. It’s a two-page teaser. It’s a teaser without dialogue. It felt a little strange and forced that it had no dialogue. I felt like I was missing some little bits of dialogue, or something to help ground me in a place. I felt like some of these characters talking, basically people are not reading this. It feels kind of like a tracking shot where we’re following this young hostess/server through this club. And she’s ultimately going to end up dead at the end of this teaser.
It felt like I wanted some snippets of dialogue, or something to help anchor us in a place and a time. Because as it is, they are two well-written pages of action, but you’re making a very big ask of the reader to like, okay, read through these two pages of action and I’m not going to give you any sort of break there.
Amanda: Got it.
Craig: I have a suggestion for that, because I agree with John. Sometimes in things like this, what could work in lieu of dialogue, because I like the mystery of not knowing what people are saying, and whispers in ears and all that. Sometimes a good song does miracles. And especially when you’re in DC in 1950, you’re period, and you’re in a — you have a band right there. A really great period song. And then just pull the lyrics out. And let the lyrics — find some great lyrics that kind of feel ironic and creepy and cool. And just pepper them in. Just layer them in. And then, you know, back engineer it, reverse engineer it, so your last lyric lines are really evocative over the image of this dead woman.
Amanda: Yeah, that’s a great fix, because I think one of my concerns with adding dialogue was that you do lose some of that mystery of the conversation in the booth and what this guy is giving her the note for, and all of that. So, yeah, I think I’d prefer something like that over kind of, you know, peeling back and letting the audience in on some of those conversations that are happening.
John: That sounds great. So, our out is on the dead body. And so by starting on a dead body, you’ve announced yourself this is a procedural.
John: [Makes Law & Order sound] We’re in a procedural land. And so that’s fine, but we’re in a procedural land now. And so if at any point you say like, you know what, maybe this really wants to be more of a character study/character-driven thing, then you’re going to have to start with her. And that’s sort of your balancing act. It can’t be sort of — you sort of can’t have both in a way.
Amanda: Right. Okay.
John: I’m going to focus on little things I noticed in the writing along the way. There’s some moments you choose not to uppercase that I think could be sort of useful uppercase and can help sort of break up some of the action lines. We follow the girl’s “skirt” — like that follow feels like it’s a movement and that helps draw our eye across that.
Another place where I felt like I wanted some capitalization, page four. You do: SUPER: MARCH, 1950 Agents, analysts and secretaries buzz. Capitalize those people so we know that they are groups of folks.
Amanda: Got it.
John: Caty’s first line of dialogue is in reference to a guy, “Why are you following me?” “Slack sent me.” “ID?” “Left pocket.” It announces her as a badass in a way that is — made me feel like I was watching Agent Carter in a way. And I know if that’s actually applicable to the character we’re about to meet down the road. It made me feel like — I kept waiting for a reveal that she actually was a — she was actually special forces, or she was already well ahead of where she actually was.
And so it put me sort of on my heels about who she really was, or sort of maybe not trust my own instincts about the world she was entering into. I thought she was like a double agent going into it. It put me in a really weird place. Craig, did you feel that?
Craig: I did. Mostly because it didn’t quite payoff the way I was hoping. The character I probably have the biggest issue with is Slack, so we’ll talk about him later. But, yes, it did put me in a position where I was a little confused, particularly confused when she showed up and she was a secretary. This may have been sort of the time machine theorem that, you know, a woman comes in from 2016, lands in 1950. Some guy is following here. I could see her totally Krav Maga-ing the dude, right.
But this is 1950. Men follow women and catcall them. That’s the world that this woman lives in. one suggestion, something to consider perhaps, is that she’s aware that this guy is following her, and she stops, and he comes up to her maybe and lights her cigarette, and starts asking her some questions. And she’s sort of flirtatious and kind of innocent and feminine in the way he expects, you know, a little dizzy.
And then when no one is looking, then she grabs him and she says, “Why are you following me?” Like, I can see that she knows how to play a game, because there’s a little bit of a logic problem. When you’re in a busy train station and you physically assault someone, you’re probably going to get arrested, you know. So, there’s — you just have to figure out the logic of that, and figure out maybe if there’s a slightly twistier way of telling me more about her in this. Because I love the fact that she did it to this guy. I thought that was really cool and shocking. I think that he would be shocked, right, because that just doesn’t happen, so I’m shocked, too.
And I guess I wanted a little bit more of a misdirect before the shock happened.
John: I would also like to ask aloud the question of what if we lost this beat here and started with her doing her training at the job as a secretary. Basically like your first day as a secretary. And that way we can sort of assume that she is this person that she’s presenting herself, and then save this beat where she’s going after the guy who is following her. That can be a surprise later on.
Because it’s a challenge when you show her starting so strong, and then you have to show her being weak. We’re not quite sure what to believe. And so it’s intriguing if we see her really act out. And I think we’re more scared for her, because we’ve seen her being a milder character before this moment, and then suddenly, boom.
Amanda: I see.
John: Worth thinking about flipping those.
Amanda: I think my concern with having her first line, having her come in and say, “Hi, I’m Caty Pelayo,” was that it was a very weak introduction. That there was no POW to her first entrance and our first introduction to her.
Craig: I can see that. I mean, you do want something exciting and something very revealing about her. The issue is the way that you have it now, the POW is diminished by the fact that it’s nothing but POW.
Amanda: Got it. Okay.
Craig: It’s just an immediate Kaboosh, and you’re like, oh, okay, I guess — you know, again, we’re teaching people how to read this, right? So John is right. The teaser teaches you it’s a procedural. And this teaches you that it’s kind of action. And turns out that it’s–
John: It’s really not.
Craig: It’s more than that.
John: On her side, it’s not an action story. And so it sets an expectation that she’s going to be kicking ass a lot in the show, and that’s not the focus, and so–
Craig: Yeah. I mean, so much of the show is about how smart she is. The big POW for me is smart. I want to see her smart, and then physical. That’s fine. I like that she’s both. But I need the smart.
John: If we could see a moment where you can watch her reading a room and figuring out something that another person would not be able to figure out, even if like she’s waiting for someone to actually come over and talk with her, and she actually is able to figure out a lot of stuff before anyone has actually come to her and then she can introduce herself in a really smart way, that could be a great moment. Another thing I think overall through the script, I was missing the other women. And so the degree to which secretaries aren’t supposed to do this, I didn’t feel the threat or sort of the group of other secretaries who were doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and the degree to which she is a threat to them for stepping outside of these lines.
And I think they’re going to be an important force. And even if they didn’t have a big role in this pilot, I think establishing them here would make it clear like in the series they’re going to be a major–
John: Obstacle here, too.
Amanda: I see. Okay.
John: Craig, let’s do a few more minutes here and look through some other things that stood out to you.
Craig: Sure. Well, one thing is I liked George’s move on her, where he poses as Slack and she kind of goes along. I think it pays off really nice when Slack comes in and she’s looking at this guy. And there’s some really clever writing there. Some good back and forth.
You have to help us a little bit when he first walks up to her, because I got super confused. I thought you had actually made a mistake with last names. Because you did too good of a job. You faked me out, too. It’s like in football, sometimes the play action, the camera is following a guy who is running with the ball and he doesn’t have it.
So, something just to make clear that, you know, when he walks over to her, she volunteers “I didn’t mean to interrupt Agent Slack,” a coy smile and a glimmer in George’s eyes says he’s happy to play along. It wasn’t quite enough.
And I also was a little confused why she just presumed this was Agent Slack.
Amanda: Okay. My thought in that was that he was the first authority figure to come up to her and give her some kind of order, some kind of task.
Craig: But does he want — when he does that, what’s his plan?
Amanda: His plan is to get her to take notes for him and pretty much — I don’t think he’s taking the bet that his coworker put out to get her number. I think he really is utilizing her and trying to get an in with her to figure out who she is, and what role she’s going to play here. I think it’s more of a curiosity thing than a game-playing thing. But, when she presented the opportunity by saying Agent Slack, he took it.
Craig: Got it. It’s a little bit hard for me, and I think for any reader, to read all of that into what he’s doing, because she’s a secretary. She showed up. He’s seen secretaries before. I can’t imagine why he would have a natural instinct to get to know her better already if it’s not about physical attraction.
Craig: And I think, frankly, that physical attraction is a great thing to be undermined almost immediately. And if he went over there and was trying to win the bet, and he was doing it by presenting himself as her new boss, because he knows that’s who it is, then he’s, you know, a charming cad. And she’s going to give it to him, you know. And I think that’s just clearer to me. I got a little confused in that zone.
John: Cool. Last thing I want to talk about is act outs. So, you chose to have this be a sort of broadcast spec that has act outs. Basically before you go to commercial breaks, there’s the moment of rising tension. Then we stop, and then we start again with a new act.
And when I first started writing television, I hated act outs because they were just torture and they felt really forced and artificial. And then once you sort of accept them, they actually can be kind of freeing, because you can sort of hang your story on those act outs.
And so generally in a writer’s room, as they’re breaking an episode they’ll sort of lean towards those act outs as sort of structural points which they’re going to hang the episode. I didn’t love your act outs. And I think a showrunner reading through this would probably send this back to you with notes about like, hey, we need better, stronger act outs.
And so an example would be at the top of page 18, the end of Act One, it’s an insert on a phonebook entry. There’s a lot to read. Caty find the block on the map and circles it. Three circles overlap. Off her disbelief. End of Act One.
One character alone looking at something doesn’t tend to be a great act out, unless it’s a huge revelation that’s really going to make sense for us. And at this point, I felt like I was ahead of her. The minute I see her start making circles I’m like the circles are going to overlap, and then we’re out.
And if this were episode 17, great. But this is your pilot, and so this has to be the one that is sort of like a showstopper. And so finding that moment where I can’t wait to see what happens next, and there’s nothing about three circles on a map that’s going to make me feel like I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Craig: I agree. The one that I loved was the one on page 40 when George reveals about Jack, “He’s my brother.” She stops walking, he keeps going. That felt good. I liked that.
John: Which is great. And that kind of moment is about a character and is about a change for a character and you’ve changed the dynamic of the story and the plot. That’s why that works for Craig as an act out. This just plot circling isn’t going to be sort of as fulfilling of an act out.
So, my question for you, Amanda, is if we send this to some folks who do TV staffing, would it be okay for us to do a follow up episode where we actually talk with them about sort of what they thought. Because we’re just two guys. I’d be really curious to see what other people think about this script and whether — where you would fall on the piles with this script. Is that okay?
Amanda: Absolutely. I think that would be incredibly helpful and way more generous than I was expecting. Thank you.
John: We have time for a couple questions. So why don’t you stick around, because you may answer some of these questions better than we can. Our first one is Steve from London who writes, “If you write a spec ‘inspired by’ a play or film from the ’60s that isn’t a blatant rip-off, but has echoes of the original ‘inspired by’ then what do you put on the front page?”
Craig: You wouldn’t put anything on the front page. I mean, if it’s an homage to other movies, it’s an homage to other movies. But unless you are, in fact, taking some of their intellectual property, you know, copyrighted material, then no. I mean, Austin Powers was referring heavily to Our Man Flynn and he didn’t have to put that on the front page at all.
Okay, so second question from RJ. He writes, “I found a true story for which I want to write a screenplay. The events took place in 1888. The subject of the story has many living descendants. Question: Is the story of his life in the public domain, or do his descendants own the rights? He died in 1963 and the last time I can find any record of his family preserving and maintaining his name was a museum that went defunct in 2003 when his grandson died.”
John, do you have any thoughts about this one?
John: So RJ wants to know if he needs to get anybody’s rights. No, the people are dead. And so dead people don’t have rights generally. You can use people’s lives or dead people, you’re kind of in the clear. With Amanda here, she used stories from her grandmother and she didn’t have to — I’m sorry, is your grandmother still alive?
Amanda: No, that was my grandmother’s funeral that we were sharing these stories.
John: And so you’re pretty clear. Here’s where RJ might run into a problem is that if he’s basing this story off of one specific account that he read, that is sort of only in that account, then he needs the rights to that account. There could be a book written about that thing that he’s really basing this around. That, he’s going to need the rights to that thing.
But if it’s a well-known event or just something he’s researched himself, he’s fine.
Craig: Indeed. I agree.
John: All right. Mauro writes, “I’m planning on shooting a feature this year, uber low budget, and I want to show two main characters playing Monopoly. Do I have to clear this with Hasbro? Or is a board game so utilitarian/mundane that showing it onscreen doesn’t need a clearance?”
Amanda, question for you. Do you think he needs the clearance for them playing this board game? You love board games.
Amanda: I do love board games. And I’m going to go with yes.
John: You are absolutely correct.
Craig: Tell her what she wins, John. [laughs]
John: She wins another script… — I used to work in clearances at Universal. I spent a summer doing clearances. And so clearances are anything you see onscreen in a movie that someone owns copyright to, you have to get that legally cleared. Which basically means I was calling up a bunch of people, getting them to sign these forms, saying it’s okay to put this up in the movie.
Monopoly is the kind of thing you have to clear every time, because the people who own Monopoly, they own Monopoly. And if you want to portray it onscreen, you have to get their permission to do so.
Craig: Yeah. The only exceptions to this are if you’re parodying something. So, if characters are playing a Monopoly-like game and the point is that it’s a parody of Monopoly, you are somewhat broadly protected there. But otherwise, yeah, you’re clearing it.
John: I had an interesting experience this last week. I was flying back from London and on the flight I was watching The 5th Wave, which was a movie that came out this last year. And about halfway through the movie I look and there’s a Big Fish poster on the wall behind one of the main characters.
And so I paused it, I took a screenshot, and then I put it on Twitter saying like does anyone know why there’s a Big Fish poster in The 5th Wave? And through the wonder of Twitter I found out that the director was on Twitter. He tweeted back to say there were three reasons why Big Fish was in that shot.
First reason is they were shooting in Georgia, and a lot of the crew had actually worked on Big Fish, and so it was kind of a nice thing for them. Second and probably the biggest reason is Big Fish and 5th Wave are both Sony movies, and it’s really easy to get clearance for a movie at the same studio.
John: But the final reason is the director is a big fan of Scriptnotes. And so he wanted to do a shout-out. So that’s why we are in, the Big Fish poster is in The 5th Wave.
Craig: Fantastic. Well, thank you very much for that inclusion.
John: All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things. So, I think both of our One Cool Things are actually Hollywood related, just like that last story. My One Cool Thing is a GIF. And it is a GIF of superheroes jumping. And it came out this last week. And it’s basically a bunch of the Marvel superheroes doing their jumping, where they’re jumping off of apple boxes that are later going to be visual effects things. And it’s just so absurd. And I love it because it just points out how ridiculous it is, this whole process is for making movies.
And so you see Chris Evans like just jumping down off a box. The best by far is Benedict Cumberbatch, as Doctor Strange, who has to like stand up and then jump like he’s about to fly. But it’s just like sort of this skip. And I love our actors, but just imagining being on the set where like all you have to do is jump up a foot a lot. And try to maintain your cool.
Craig: That is this running discussion on every set now a director saying to the visual effects supervisor, “How much do you need here exactly?” And he’ll say, “I just need the first second of his coming up off the box. Everything after that falls away. It falls apart after that. I just need that bit.”
And so you’re like, okay, don’t worry if you look stupid. It’s just for the first little thing. And there’s a whole negotiation of tell me how long this lasts so I know. And then, of course, what happens? The whole damn thing ends up on the Internet. Classic.
Amanda: Of course.
John: The best.
Craig: The best. Well, my One Cool Thing, this one doesn’t reflect well on actors. This is a real theme here. It’s called The Empty Cup awards. And I just love this.
So, this is a compilation video that was put together on Slate. The piece is done by Myles McNutt and Daniel Hubbard. And the idea here is all too frequently on television or less the case in movies, but on television characters are walking around with coffee cups. And there’s clearly nothing in the cup. And there’s all sorts of reasons for that. The least of which is water in the cup, it might spill, it might fall, whatever. But the problem is the actors simply don’t convey any weight whatsoever in the cup. So, you end up with actors effortlessly hoisting full tall lattes around or carrying two of them in one hand at one time.
In one case, one character has some kind of hot chocolate that’s got the whip cream on it. And the whip cream is definitely not whip cream either. And she’s just like wiggling that thing around. And it’s really funny actually. I think that a lot of actors are going to think twice the next time they’re handed a coffee cup.
John: It’s, again, a great compilation of absurd moments of acting. And I was frustrated and delighted about how many of those moments I actually had remembered seeing and they had annoyed me. And Supergirl for whatever reason, when I watched the first couple of episodes of that with my daughter, there’s a lot of coffee cups in that and I had never believed them.
Greg Berlanti, if you’re listening to this show, please spend some of the money to fix the coffee cup situation.
Craig: I mean, it does seem like it wouldn’t be that hard. You don’t have to put hot coffee in the cup. It’s got a lid on it. Just put water in it.
John: Not even water. Just put clear polymer. Just make it as heavy as the actual liquid would be.
Craig: Well, water is as heavy as actual coffee.
Amanda: But that spills.
John: But water could spill. Water could spill.
Craig: Okay, sure. I guess. Well, you know, yeah, put a weight in it.
John: So, while we’re ruining things for people watching stuff, I will tell you that if you ever see a paper bag in a TV show or a movie, it’s not actually a paper bag. So, because those make noise, because paper bags make noise, they use this brown cloth that they starch the hell out of it, so it looks like paper. But it doesn’t actually crinkle that way.
And they look really good, but they don’t look perfect. So now that I’ve told you that paper bags aren’t actually paper bags, you will see like, oh, that’s right, that’s not a paper bag.
Craig: Oh god. You know what? This is like the time the first person told me about reel change marks. And then there was the time somebody said, “By the way, you know that when people are driving in a car and you’re looking through the windshield at them, the rear view mirror isn’t there.”
Craig: I’m like, wait, what? Oh god. Yeah, ruined. Life ruined.
John: Amanda, do you have a One Cool Thing for us?
Amanda: I do have a One Cool Thing. I know the show has been mentioned on a couple episodes before, but I just got my copy of Hamilton: The Revolution, the book.
Amanda: And I am devouring it. I’m only like in the second chapter but I poured over every picture, every annotation, and it’s amazing.
John: Wow. So she came prepared with board games and Hamilton. She definitely knows her audience here.
Amanda: [laughs] But the great thing is this is not put on at all. Like I skipped board game night last night just to read my script again. And I got up this morning to read another chapter of Hamilton: The Revolution. Because I’m obsessed. So, it just works out. I love you guys.
John: Oh, fantastic.
Craig: We love you, too.
John: Thank you, again, for being so brave and for coming in and for showing up in Austin. We all lucked out having you be the person who got that ticket. So thank you very much.
Amanda: Thank you.
John: And that’s our show this week. So, our outro this week comes from Paul B. If you have an outro for the show, you can write into firstname.lastname@example.org and send us a link to that. That’s also where you can write questions like the ones we answered on the show today.
Our show is produced by Stuart Friedel. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. If you would like to talk to us on Twitter, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Amanda, are you on Twitter?
Amanda: I am. @amandamorad.
John: That’s fantastic. You will find links to a lot of the things we talked about on the show today, including Amanda’s script, and these wonderful One Cool Things, and other stuff we find that is useful. We will append those to the podcast that you’re listening to right now. So, thank you so much. Thank you, Amanda.
Amanda: Thank you.
John: And, Craig, I’ll talk to you next week.
Craig: Got it. Bye-bye.
- Escape Room LA
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- Individual bonus tracks are now available in the John August Store
- Watch Matthew edit an episode of Scriptnotes
- The Austin Film Festival
- Betty Bureau by Amanda Morad
- @amandamorad on Twitter
- screenwriting.io on referencing proper nouns in your screenplay
- Director J Blakeson answers John’s question about the background Big Fish poster in The 5th Wave
- Hollywood jumps without CGI
- The Empty Cup Awards
- Hamilton: The Revolution on Amazon
- Outro by Paul B (send us yours!)