The Angeles Crest Fiasco

Scriptnotes: Ep. 142

Screenwriter Kelly Marcel joins John and Craig to play Fiasco, resulting in a tale of art, murder and sexual blackmail in the Hollywood Hills.

This extended, unlike-all-before-it episode will probably be polarizing, but it was a chance to explore story in ways that you can’t do in abstract. In Fiasco, plot really does come out of character choices.

This episode is filthy. If this were a cable drama, it would be TV-MA DSLV. If that makes you more or less likely to listen, trust your gut. (There’s no nudity. It’s radio.)

Our thanks to Kelly Marcel for hosting. Next week, we’ll return with a more conventional episode.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Because of the length of this episode and the cost involved, there will not be a transcript of episode 142.

Me on Mac Power Users

I’m the guest on the new episode of the Mac Power Users podcast.

I talk with David Sparks and Katie Floyd about my writing workflow, the Scriptnotes podcast, and the apps my company makes. Along the way, we discuss Bates numbering, CodeRunner, David Wain and MacWEEK.

It’s interesting being a guest on someone else’s podcast, particularly a show that’s not about writing per se. David uses Bronson Watermarker a lot, one of our apps that appeals to users who will never open a screenplay. It’s easy to forget that I live in a bubble of 12-pt Courier Prime.

Full Whedoncé

Back in Scriptnotes episode 125, I wondered if a filmmaker could pull a beyoncé and release a film without any advance notice. I speculated that someone like JJ Abrams or Joss Whedon probably could pull it off.

Then a few weeks ago, Whedon seemed to do just that with In Your Eyes.

But was that really a beyoncé, or just the new version of direct-to-video? Was it more or less of a beyoncé than Much Ado About Nothing, which predated Beyoncé’s beyoncé. (Preyoncé’d?)

Popjustice wants to make sure we don’t forget what it really means to pull a beyoncé:

We all think we know what a beyoncé is, but it’s vital that we do not assign beyoncé status to every album release that breaks with established release patterns. If we do misuse the term, we risk devaluing the purity of Beyoncé’s original ‘BEYONCÉ’ beyoncé.

Popjustice is looking at albums, but many of the criteria apply equally well to films:

A Full Beyoncé must contain ALL these elements.

This must be a full album, ideally but not necessarily containing a larger than average number of tracks.

In Your Eyes is a feature. That counts.

The artist must be a global superstar, a multi-platinum act in at least one major territory, or an artist with a huge/deranged online fanbase.

Fanbase, check.

Trickily, it must be common knowledge that the artist has been working on new material – but the release must still also, somehow, be a surprise.

There must have been no legitimate leaked information about the nature of the release in advance of the release. A beyoncéd album that has been trailed by an interview regarding its release could potentially be regarded as little more than a conventional album release with a shorter promotional window.

Everyone knows Whedon is doing the Avengers sequel. But this, a script he wrote and produced but didn’t direct, was nowhere on the radar.

There must be no conventionally promoted single leading into the album’s release.

There wasn’t a trailer. In fact, the online trailer is the first few minutes of the film.1

It must be a standalone album release – it can’t just be an addition to a previous album campaign, a deluxe edition or any sort of repackage.


By its nature this album will almost certainly be released digitally first – it’s impossible to send CDs into production then get them to retail without news leaking. (If an album does indeed make it to stores with literally no warning before, say, shops open at 9am, it will be permitted as a full beyoncé.)

In the podcast, I speculated that a filmmaker like James Cameron could conceivably create a release date for a fake film and use that to book theaters. But realistically, digital is how this would work, and that’s what happened with In Your Eyes.

The nature of the release must be convincingly presented as an artistic statement or creative choice, rather than being a transparent attempt to drum up interest in an album campaign that hasn’t been working out properly.

It’s fair to ask whether the surprise-here’s-a-movie tactic was mostly because it didn’t make financial sense to do a more conventional release. The movie has no marketable stars other than Whedon.

Total beyoncégeddon must be achieved across all social networks for at least 24 hours.

While I got a lot of tweets about it, I didn’t sense the universe going apeshit over this movie. Part of the problem is that movies require significant time to watch. You can watch a music video in three minutes and tweet while you’re doing it. With a feature, you’re asking people to stop doing everything else for 90 minutes or more.

In the end, I don’t think In Your Eyes pulled a beyoncé. But I think it’s rightly classified as a Whedon anyway. As a release strategy, it fits much more in the tradition of Dr. Horrible and Much Ado. He’s been doing this for years, and doing it well.

But I hold out hope that we will get our surprise film one day. It will have stars you recognize, and production values that leave you wondering how the hell they kept this under wraps.

  1. The trailerless-ness may ultimately work against In Your Eyes. The promo only shows kids; the film is mostly about adults.

Writing in another writer’s style

Dara Resnick Creasey has some advice for TV staff writers on a new gig:

[Your] first script should as closely mimic the showrunner’s writing style as possible. Of course every script you write will have some of you in it. That’s why you were hired, after all. For your thoughts. Your voice. But your job in these first precious 55 pages is to show the people reading it that you understand the show – that you can write in the voices of its characters, and grasp its unique vernacular.

This is not the time to take a risk, to deviate from the story you collectively broke in the writers’ room because you suddenly think you have a better act-out.

I’ve never written on someone else’s TV show, but I have done feature work where I was only rewriting a small part of the script and needed to match the previous writer’s style and voice. To me, that’s a blast. Just like calculus is higher-level math, this is higher-level writing. How would this writer write this character in this kind of scene?

It can be strangely satisfying to surrender your ego and imagine yourself as a wholly different writer.

Each writer has her own way of arranging words on the page. If you need to match someone else’s style, I’d start by looking at:

  • Unfinished end-of-line punctuation. Two dashes? Ellipsis?
  • How much uppercase she uses within scene description.
  • Parentheticals. Are they for timing (beat), clarity (joking), or how-to-play (“please die in a fire”)?
  • Sensible commas, or the Oxford variety?
  • How characters see events within a scene. Do they clock them, spot them, notice them, spy them?
  • Transitions. Is it CUT TO every new scene, or do they mostly go away.
  • Paragraph length. What’s the upper limit in terms of number of lines?
  • Does an interrupted character get a CONT’D?
  • Simultaneous dialogue: Side-by-side or (overlapping)?

In each of these cases, there’s no right or wrong answer. Except that in TV, the showrunner reading the script knows what she likes, and it’s how she writes. So as a staff writer, it’s absolutely in your best interest to write exactly like she would.

For a feature rewrite, it ultimately comes down to how much work you’re going to be doing on the script. If it’s nearly a page one rewrite, you’re doing no one any favors by aping the previous writer’s style. Yes, it’s more work to go through otherwise intact scenes and change the punctuation, but you’re trying to create the best experience for the reader. Consistency matters.

Consistency is also why you adapt to the previous writer’s choices when doing surgical work on a script. You’re a craftsman making a repair. Done properly, no one should see the work.

Try to open this PDF, cont’d

Yesterday, I asked readers whether PDF encryption was actually effective, and offered up two sample PDFs as a test.

Two readers quickly cracked the easier of the files:

The first file only took about 30 seconds. Right now the second one is running and it’s hit 5 digits so far running at an average rate of 1,005,000 words/second. I’m on an i7 CPU, similar to what you could buy in a nice Macbook Pro laptop.

The vulnerability is the password. The password for the first PDF was a four-digit number. The password for the second PDF was a random 32-character string, which made brute force much less effective.

I ran multiple instances of the same app starting at different password lengths (6, 8, 10, 11, 12) so was getting upwards of 5M words/second. I let it run for 12+ hours or so but the possible combinations are staggering.

How staggering? Well, if you use a mix of upper and lower case letters and numbers, you get total of 62 possible characters:


Then, depending on your password length, math makes it awesome.

Length Combinations Laptop Dedicated Distributed
2 3,844 Instant Instant Instant
3 238,328 Instant Instant Instant
4 15 Million < 2 Secs Instant Instant
5 916 Million 1½ Mins 9 Secs Instant
6 57 Billion 1½ Hours 9½ Mins 56 Secs
7 3.5 Trillion 4 Days 10 Hours 58 Mins
8 218 Trillion 253 Days 25¼ Days 60½ Hours

I’ve adapted this chart from these numbers courtesy Ivan Lucas, which date back to 2009. I’ve arbitrarily labeled the three columns as “laptop,” “dedicated” and “distributed” to illustrate what kind of system might be used in 2014 to achieve these results. The point is that each additional character in the password really does make it much more difficult to solve.

In fact, even at the fastest rate on this chart, solving the 32-character combination on the second PDF would take longer than the age of the universe.1

One of the people who cracked the first PDF actually works in IT security. He warns against getting smug:

There are far more advance methods that utilize GPU hardware and elegantly-crafted combinations of known hash values, dictionary attacks, and brute force to get results much faster.

Hackers have refined their tools using a pool of hundreds of millions of real-world passwords stolen from servers. They don’t have to use brute force if they know that 80% of people follow certain patterns.

For PDF encryption, the consensus seems to be that the latest version of Adobe is pretty effective if you’re using the 128 or 256 bit option and have 8+ random characters. Random, as in not a word in a dictionary.

No standalone file is safe from someone with enough time and the right tools. But for something like a screenplay, encryption is quite a bit better than I expected.

Far from being useless, PDF encryption is potentially worth it. I may start using it more often.

  1. I’m almost sure I’ve done my math wrong, but I love a provocative statement.

Superhero music

You can’t have a superhero movie without epic theme music. Likewise, we can’t have a Scriptnotes live show about superheroes without a suitably giant arrangement of our piddly five-note jingle.

Luckily, Matthew Chilelli has it covered:

The pre-show cocktails are sold out, but there are still a few tickets available for our May 15th live show featuring Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, David Goyer, Andrea Berloff and Susannah Grant.