Lessons from God

Over the weekend, I revamped my YouTube channel and uploaded a bunch of videos, including my 1998 short film God, starring a young Melissa McCarthy:

Melissa’s amazing, and always was. I’ve loved watching someone so talented and so deserving become a star.

We shot this film after Go, but it was actually finished first.

I wrote the part for Melissa, who absolutely killed her single scene in Go. Over the next few years, I’d cast her in anything I could. She played a recurring character in my WB series D.C., and had cameos in both Charlie’s Angels. I wrote a part for her in Big Fish, but her role on Gilmore Girls kept her in Los Angeles.

Nine years later, Melissa would play her character from God again in The Nines opposite Ryan Reynolds.1 Her husband Ben Falcone has a small part in the movie as well, and starred in another pilot I did called The Remnants.

God was shot on leftover 35mm from Go, using a lot of the same crew. That’s my old apartment, my old couch, my old answering machine.

I had no particular career goal in making it; it just seemed like fun. We never submitted it to festivals. Rather, it got passed around a lot on VHS, and would often be brought up in meetings. (Casting directors in particular loved it.)

Although I had already directed second unit on Go, this was my first real directing experience beyond crappy Super-8 films in school. I learned a lot, including:

  • Using metaphors to explain what you want. I told my DP that I wanted the light to feel like a breath mint. I told the hair stylist that I wanted Hot-Topic Wiccan.
  • The challenges of late-90s opticals. That “god” title in the opening shot, which would be three seconds of work today, took about a week of back-and-forth approvals at a lab.
  • How expensive music is. The rights to “Walking on Sunshine” cost more than the rest of the budget combined.
  • How much of a homebody I am. God started a trend of my writing movies that take place in my house.

Some of the best things that came from this short were relationships with people I keep working with: Melissa, producer Dan Etheridge, composer Alex Wurman, cinematographer Giovanni Lampassi, and editor Doug Crise. They’re all still part of my life and career, which is a remarkable gift.

  1. The short is a bonus feature on the US DVD.

Why I like writing in Fountain

For the past 18 months, I’ve been doing all my new writing in Fountain rather than a heavyweight screenwriting app like Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter.

I love working in Fountain so much that I made a screencast to explain why it’s better:

For geek types, it’s easy to say that Fountain is like Markdown for screenplays. But that doesn’t explain why it’s better for day-to-day writing, so in this screencast I tried to show why a screenwriter might use a Fountain-based app instead of Final Draft or one of the other apps from the 1990s.

In the video, you’ll see that I’m including several comparatively new applications in this category of old-style apps. They may be recent, but programs like Fade In and Adobe Story work largely same way word processors did back when Will Smith was the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. They’re essentially Microsoft Word with custom style sheets. They don’t take advantage of how much faster computers have gotten, or the special things you can do when you’re handling structured text like screenplays.

The old apps were built for printing scripts from stand-alone computers. The new apps are built for the web, for phones and tablets, for everything that’s coming. It’s the flexibility and extensibility of Fountain that helps make new things possible.

As always, you can find out more info about Fountain at Fountain.io, including full explanation of the syntax and apps that have particularly good support for it.

You can get Highland, the app I used for this demo, from the Mac App Store.

Over this Thanksgiving break, why not give Fountain a try?

Positive Moviegoing

Scriptnotes: Ep. 119

Aline Brosh McKenna joins John and Craig to discuss watching movies with an open mind and why it’s important to befriend other writers.

Also this week: what to do when your outline collapses and a look at going broke in your 50s.

The Scriptnotes Live Holiday Show on December 19th is technically sold out, but there’s a chance seats will open up, so keep an eye on Twitter.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 12-1-13: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

Screenwriting.io moves out of beta

When we launched Screenwriting.io two years ago, we called it a beta, because it was just barely useful.

But in the past 24 months, it has grown a lot. The site now features more than 100 short articles answering basic questions about screenwriting. Each week, we get thousands of visitors.

So today we’re shedding the beta label.

Screenwriting.io is aimed at simple questions like:

What is the difference between a script, a screenplay, and a teleplay?

Why is the last “w” of WGAw lowercase?

What is scale?

How do you format a montage in a screenplay?

Can scene headers be bold?

These are questions so basic they would feel awkward on johnaugust.com. But they deserve answers.

My mandate to Ryan and Stuart was straightforward: each page should be The Answer. If answering one question raises new questions, new pages should answer those questions.

Stuart handles most of the questions that come into Screenwriting.io. If he doesn’t know the answer, he asks me. Either way, he provides links to information on johnaugust.com and other sites for further details.

So if you have a simple question about screenwriting, Screenwriting.io might be a good first stop. It’s also a handy place to refer newcomers to the craft.

The Scriptnotes Holiday Live Show

As we discussed on the last podcast, Craig and I are doing a live episode benefiting the Writers Guild Foundation.

Thursday, December 19th
The Los Angeles Film School (new venue!)
6363 Sunset Blvd
Hollywood, CA 90028

In the spirit of A Christmas Carol, we will be visited by previous Scriptnotes guests, including Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wear Prada), Derek Haas (Chicago Fire, 3:10 to Yuma), Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko), Rawson Thurber (We’re the Millers), Blacklist creator Franklin Leonard, and producer Lindsay Doran. Plus we’ll have brand-new guests on hand to discuss features, television, and the business of slinging words.

There will also be surprise give-aways and way too much eggnog. Will Craig play Scrooge to my Cratchit? Join us and find out.

Tickets are normally $25 — but only $10 if you use the special promo code UMBRAGE at checkout.

Note that we’ve moved to a bigger venue. We’re now going to be using the main auditorium of the LA Film School, across from the ArcLight in Hollywood. We’ll likely sell out, and likely quickly, so don’t dally.

Tickets should be available at exactly 10am today (Wednesday) at the WGF website.


In an earlier post, I listed three ways to import a PDF into Final Draft:

  1. Retype it.
  2. Copy and Paste and Reformat every line.
  3. Use Highland.

On a Mac, Highland was by far the best choice. It was much faster and much more accurate.

Joel Levin at Final Draft emailed me to recommend an alternate workflow that’s listed on the Final Draft site:

If you have a recent version of the Adobe Acrobat Reader you can go to File > Save As > Text and save the document as a text file.

Import this text file into Final Draft (File > Open) as a script but you may need to do some reformatting.

I just tried it, and will update my earlier post. Here’s a screencast:

The short version is that for the file I tested, this method was better than copy-and-paste — but only slightly. Elements were more likely to be recognized correctly, but line breaks and spacing glitches were daunting. The script also swelled from 114 to 343 pages.

I wondered if it was just something strange about that one file, so I tried the same method on a bunch of the PDFs in the Library. Some of them turned out better than others, but all of them were significantly messed up.

So while it’s generally an improvement over copy-and-paste, you’d still need to spend quite a bit of time getting a useful script out of this workflow.

This actually isn’t Final Draft’s fault — their app is doing a commendable job on the fairly janky text file Adobe Reader is creating.

Nor is it Adobe’s fault — they built a general-purpose PDF app that doesn’t know anything about screenplays. It’s like complaining that a hammer is a terrible screwdriver.

Highland is a specialized tool for doing exactly this kind of conversion, which is why it works so much better. My previous recommendation still stands: if you need to convert a PDF to Final Draft, your best bet is to use Highland on a Mac.

If you can’t use Highland (e.g. you’re on a PC, and can’t bribe someone with a Mac), this Final Draft workflow is better than copy-and-paste. My thanks to Joel for pointing this out.