Writing an album in two weeks

In an interview with Billboard, producer Patrick Leonard talks about writing “Like a Prayer” with Madonna.

I like to start really early in the day. She would come in about 11 and I would have the musical idea on whatever piece of gear I was using. I think it was just a Yamaha sequencer or something at the time. [...]

I would just put the track, the chord changes, some kind of drum beat, bass line — something simple — and say, “here’s the idea, here’s what I have for the day.” She would listen, then we would talk a little bit. Oftentimes I’d say, “here’s the verse, and here’s the chorus,” and she’d say, “no, it’s the other way around, switch ‘em.” So I’d switch ‘em. This thing is an hour old, it’s not etched in stone.

Then she would just start writing. She’d start writing lyrics and oftentimes there was an implied melody. She would start with that and deviate from it. Or if there was nothing but a chord change, she’d make up a melody. But, a lot of the time in my writing there’s a melody implied or I even have something in mind. But she certainly doesn’t need that.

She would write the lyrics in an hour, the same amount of time it took me to write the music (laughs). And then she’d sing it. We’d do some harmonies, she’d sing some harmony parts, and usually by three or four in the afternoon, she was gone.

That’s how “Like a Prayer” was written, and then the next day we wrote “Cherish,” and then the next day we wrote “Dear Jessie.” And that’s how it was. We wrote the album in less than two weeks.

This recap demonstrates something I’ve often found to be true: a large part of making art is showing up to work.

As a writer, yes, sometimes you get flashes of inspiration and genius, but if you sit around waiting for them, you’re unlikely to get much accomplished. Most screenplays are written a scene at a time.

One of the great things about writing with a partner is the ability to hold each other accountable. When working with Andrew Lippa on Big Fish, we had limited days — sometimes hours — to get stuff accomplished. So we buckled down and tackled items one-at-a-time. This song. This moment. This transition.

That’s how you finish things.

Assembling the billing block

Ben Schott answers all your questions about those uppercase names at the bottom of movie posters.

While it might look like a bar code of haphazardly packed type, it is in fact the product of detailed legal agreements and intense contract negotiation.

Note that the billing block is distinct from on-screen credits, whether opening titles or an end-crawl. And certain types of posters and ads may not require a billing block at all.

Old Projects

Maybe I’m hyper-aware because yesterday was the 15th anniversary of Go, but I’m encountering all sorts of references to past projects this week.

In THR’s interview with Susanne Daniels, she cites my first series:

There was this very good pilot that Dick Wolf did for me when I was at WB, which was called D.C. I distinctly remember he called me after he had sent me the pilot and asked me what I thought of it. The very first thing I said was, “Why didn’t you shoot this one particular scene that was in the script that I loved?”

Fourteen years later, my heart still flutters to learn she thought it was very good!

People and projects circle back into your life. I’m not crazy about the idea of power rankings, but The Wire’s recap on the cast of Go illustrates just how special that group continues to be. I keep up with a surprising number of those actors, and write them into everything I possibly can.

Yesterday in the halls at Disney, I bumped into Ricky Strauss, who was integral to getting both Go and Big Fish happening at Columbia. He told a colleague, “John wrote Fantasy Island for us.”

Wait, of everything I wrote, you single out Fantasy Island?

In every screenwriter’s career, there are so many scripts that never become part of your filmography. But they still matter. People remember them.

And some projects never die. A few weeks ago, I got a call about a rewrite on a project. As I spoke with the executive, I dug through my hard drive to find my notes from the last time I pitched on the movie.

My notes were dated October 6, 1996.

They are still trying to make the movie.

The Deal with the Deal

Scriptnotes: Ep. 138

John and Craig talk with WGA President Chris Keyser about the tentative deal reached between writers and the studios, and why it’s more groundbreaking than it might appear at first glance.

We continue our discussion of a new screenwriting format by looking at how we got here, both the history of “modern” screenplay layout and the alternatives.

Finally, John just delivered a new script, the first one he wrote entirely in Highland. We discuss the difference between drafts and assemblies, and how much we like to know before digging in on a sequence.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 4-11-14: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

Michael Arndt on setting a story in motion

In this animated lesson, Michael Arndt explains some of the things he learned while working on the screenplay for Toy Story 3.

When I saw this video, I immediately wondered what it was from. It’s clearly professionally made, so why is it on some random guy’s YouTube account?

I emailed Michael Arndt, who wrote back that it was originally a bonus feature on the Blu-ray for Toy Story 3. He gave me his blessing to link to it.

I’m aware the model I set up here applies imperfectly to TS3 itself. (It applies much more cleanly [for example] to TOOTSIE, which I consider one of the best comedy first acts of all time.) The broader point is that the emotional fuel for your first act break is largely set up in your inciting incident — and that is something that does apply to TS3.

Disney and/or Pixar own the copyright on the video, so they could pull it down. But I hope they won’t. This kind of lesson celebrates what’s made their films so successful, and deserves wider exposure.

Creative Hours

Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work tracks how some of history’s most notable writers, composers and thinkers spent their waking hours:

I wanted to show how grand creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one’s working habits influence the work itself, and vice versa.

RJ Andrews turned Currey’s data into infographics, because that’s what we do in 2014. How he did it:

Representing each day as a continuous 24 hour cycle invokes the ever spinning wheel of time, and more simply the face of a clock with midnight placed in the “12 o’clock” position and noon at ”6 o’clock.” Colors mark major categories of activity – work, sleep, exercise, etc.


Compare Beethoven to Mozart:

beethoven and mozart

More than anything, Currey’s book and Andrews’s graphics demonstrate there’s no one “right” way to do creative work. Fetishizing one writer’s routine is pointless. What matters is getting the work done.