The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: This is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screen writers.
How are you, Craig?
Craig: I’m doing fine today. How are you, sir?
John: Very well. We are recording this on Halloween, so I should ask you, how has your Halloween been so far?
Craig: Nothing Halloweenie has happened yet, although my wife did say this morning something that I never thought I would hear her say. “I’m going out to get the dog a costume.”
John: You’ve hit that phase, haven’t you?
Craig: We have a new dog. She’s a Labradoodle puppy. She’s 15 weeks old. And it was kind of a fight to get my wife to even agree to have a dog, just as it was a fight to get her to agree to have a child and then a second child. So this is why it’s so improbable, but here she is getting her a costume.
John: What’s interesting is because Halloween is falling on a Monday this year, for people with kids, Halloween is still the actual Halloween day. It’s like that’s when we’re doing the actual trick or treating and that kind of stuff. But for people like Stuart, my assistant, who’s in his mid twenties, this whole last weekend has been Halloween. It’s been like a long blur from Friday, to Saturday, to Sunday of Halloween activities. It’s a generational observation, I would say.
Craig: Halloween is certainly an enormous amount of fun when you’re in your twenties. It’s another great excuse to get drunk, plus girls… Somewhere along the line, everybody sort of made the observation that every costume became sexy blank. So whatever it is, sexy.
It’s basically, “Let’s see your boobs.” So it’s a pretty good holiday actually for straight guys. But once you have your kids, it really is flashlights and traffic safety. [laughs] Totally different experience!
John: In Los Angeles, we do our trick or treating on that actual holiday. My husband grew up in Columbus, Ohio where they actually moved the day of trick or treating, so they will decide as a city or as a village what day they’re going to do trick or treating. I guess it’s because of football. They don’t want to compete with the local high school football game. But they would do their trick or treating on like say, the 26th.
Craig: That’s not cool.
John: It’s bizarre. I could imagine there being good reasons for doing it. It just seems like creating more problems for yourself.
Craig: There was an article about a guy who owns those — I don’t know what you call these, like — popup stores that just appear about a month and a half before Halloween, sell costumes and then disappear on November 1st. And he’s a billionaire.
One of the things he’s been trying to get the country to do is establish the last Saturday in October as Halloween for safety reasons more than anything else, I guess. I don’t know why. It was cuckoo. — It was to make money. I’m sorry. I forgot, it was so he could make more money. But it had something to do with safety.
John: For a holiday that was created by Pagans to celebrate some sort of God, or Samhain or killing of things, it is strange it has become the thing it has become.
Craig: I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before. I’m really fascinated with Jack Chick who writes Chick Tracts, the super fundamentalist Christian tracts. He really hates Halloween, so I always check on his site to see whatever his latest tract is about how basically Halloween is Satan crawling inside kids and sending them to Hell. It’s awesome.
John: He’s probably right.
John: On the topic of things evolving beyond what they originally were created to do, just today we announced Screenwriting.io which is a new spin-off site we’re doing for johnaugust.com. And it actually got me looking back through what I’ve been doing on the site since the beginning.
So johnaugust.com, it really started that I was answering these questions for IMDb. They had this Ask a Filmmaker column and they asked me to be one of the guest columnists for that. I ended up being a guest columnist for three years. But it started back in 2000 and it was hard for me to believe that it was all the way back in 2000 that I started doing this.
People would write in questions to IMDb and I would answer their questions. They would write into IMDb and then an editor there would go through the questions and pick out the best of them, email me and I would email back answers. I was publishing through a third party. It was all very basic and very HTML-y. It was an interesting thing for me to do at the time.
I became frustrated that I would answer the same kinds of questions again and again. For a site that was setup to be about searching and finding information, it was really hard to find the prettiest questions. So I did johnaugust.com as sort of a way answering those questions more definitively on my own timetable with the hope that once I answered a question, it could actually kind of stay answered for awhile.
And so for a long time, I was answering all of those questions and eventually, I got tired of answering those questions and the site sort of progressed beyond just those questions. So today, we’re introducing a new site that’s just back to that spirit of answering those really simple questions about things like, “What is a slug line?” or, “Do I have to format screenplays in a certain way?” It will be interesting to see.
Craig: That’s great. And out of curiosity, .io, where is that?
John: .io, I think is technically the Indian Ocean. So .io has become a newly popular domain extension because it’s short and it’s kind of feels like it could be part of a word. It’s the same way .us became something folded into Delicious and other sort of things. .io is sort of a new thing.
So it’s exciting. It’s actually been in beta for awhile, that we’ve been figuring out how to do this. And now, we’re launching it upon the unsuspecting public to see how they like it.
Craig: Another excellent service from the John August empire!
John: I think the empire is what we’re going for. But on the topic of questions people write in seeking answers, I thought we might just do some viewer mail today.
Craig: Yeah, viewer mail!
John: Now you were just at the Austin Film Festival and you got to talk to some people who listen to the podcast.
Craig: So many more, than I thought would be. Dozens of people came up to me, all very, very pleased with the podcast. They listen to it. I did write down — because there were a lot of parties and mostly you just get drunk and talk to people — I was very drunk when I sent an email to myself saying, “Remember to mention Stacy Ashworth on the podcast.” She was there. She really wanted us to say her name. I can’t remember the rest of the context. But Stacy, I followed through.
John: That is your Casey Kasem dedication for Stacy Ashworth.
Craig: That’s my long distance dedication, I guess.
John: I love it.
Here are some questions that came into the site and I thought we would just take a few minutes to answer them. First is from Mike from Twitter. Who knows where Mike actually lives, because on Twitter, you could live anywhere. Mike asks, “I know bad actors can ruin a great script, but can great actors improve a terrible script?”
Craig: They can improve a terrible scene, but I don’t think they can improve a terrible script. I mean, I would watch two terrific actors read any bad scene from any movie and I would be fascinated by the two and a half minutes it took. But a movie is a collection of scenes taken as a whole to create a narrative. I just don’t think great acting can save bad narrative over the course of an hour and a half.
John: I would say that in terms of a comedy — because sometimes a film comedy can actually just be a collection of very, very funny moments that somehow all holds together in a way that is rewarding. It’s hard for me to say that some of my favorite comedies…
Like Stripes isn’t a very good movie, but I enjoy the movie because I enjoy the performances. I enjoy what happens in it. Sometimes comedies, yes, a great performance, great actors can make something happen that couldn’t otherwise work.
Craig: The criticism that you usually hear about Stripes is that third act just kind of falls apart, and that’s sort of true.
John: Once the RV shows up, it’s a very different movie.
Craig: They kind of give up. But I have to say, that could have been fixed and it could have been even better. It’s why Stripes, for instance, isn’t as good as Groundhog Day, or I don’t know. It was an interesting time. Caddyshack is actually a better movie to me than Stripes.
But there was some pretty great screenwriting in the first act. I loved the way they set those characters up, so it wasn’t a bad screenplay.
John: No. I was sort of picking Stripes as a random example, but I can actually think of a more recent example of something I love that performances are really the reason why I’m loving it. It’s American Horror Story. Are you watching this show?
Craig: As you know if you ask me the question, “Are you watching this show?” the answer I’m going to give you for every show is, “No.” [laughs] I’m the worst, but tell me about this.
John: Let me tell you about American Horror Story. It comes from the very talented people who do Glee and who did Nip/Tuck before that. It has many of the best and many of the most frustrating qualities of Glee and Nip/Tuck in that it feels like it’s running full speed towards a cliff. And it’s not afraid of the cliff. It’s just going to run as fast as it possibly can towards this cliff.
You’re watching this show and it’s about a family that moves into a house that is obviously haunted in Los Angeles. And it’s not that it’s a slow build to anything, like things happen really, really quick in the show. By episode three, they’re trying to sell the house and move out of the house because they recognize that something really horrible is going on with this house.
There are many aspect of the show that I enjoy, but by far the aspect I enjoy most is Connie Britton, who plays the wife and mother and is just amazing. She’s the glue holding this whole thing together.
You’re watching this show and the experience of watching this show — it’s not even that’s it good or bad. I can’t say that the writing is fantastic or that the writing is the problem. But the feeling of watching this show is, you know when you’re kind of sick and you have Vicks VapoRub on your chest and your mom puts too many blankets on you and you start to smother? That’s the feeling of watching this show.
It’s kind of great and awful at the same time. But she is an example of one actor who can pull something off. I feel like they could give her the absolute worst script possible and I would watch it just because she’s amazing.
Craig: Well, there are some actors that definitely cut through anything and they seem to make everything better. Philip Seymour Hoffman, it doesn’t matter what he’s in, and he’s been in some kind of bad movies and he’s been in some amazing movies. But in all movies, I always feel like I’ll just stop and watch him. I can watch an entire movie of him doing nothing — and I think he made that movie with Charlie Kaufman. [laughs]
But, yes. There are actors that sort of strike us in a certain way. But of course, that’s just one actor and what about the rest of them?
A movie that comes to my mind, I saw The Help. The story of The Help is a fairly traditional one and I presume it’s the story that’s in the novel. But Viola Davis is another actor who is so good. I would watch her do anything. She’s amazing.
John: I think we’re going to answer this question, “Can great actors improve a terrible script?” Yes. I don’t think they can necessarily pull off the whole movie, but they can certainly improve a scene or a sequence. There are definitely movies that you love where you recognize that the movie itself isn’t really cooking on all burners, but that one actor is sort of making it worth your time watching.
Craig: When you say “terrible,” I don’t think you can say “terrible.” But good actors can make mediocre movies very watchable.
John: The next question comes from Dan in Los Angeles. “Two writers co-write a feature script. The partnership breaks up. Writer A unilaterally takes the script and with a manager wants to option it at a production company. Writer A asks Writer B to take her name off the script since she is no longer interested in working on it, and the manager thinks it’s a simpler sale if her name is removed. They’re only offering a verbal guarantee that she’ll be compensated.”
John: Dan goes on to say that, “It sounds ridiculous to me and I would like to tell her to get something in writing, but it seems like anything in writing would freak out the manager since it creates a paper trail that there was an uncredited writer.”
Craig: [laughs] This is stupid. First of all, great lesson here. When managers are talking, it means you are being lied to. “It will be an easier sale with one name.” No. If it’s a really good script, it would be a perfectly easy sale with four billion names. It could have been written by the country of Pakistan and it would be a perfectly easy sale. People like to buy scripts. They don’t care how many names are on the page.
Now here’s the deal. Writer A and Writer B wrote something together. They are the authors of that script. If somebody wants to develop that script further down the line and Writer B has lost interest, no problem. The script can then be written by Writer A who is now writing separately and as an individual who’s employed.
But under no circumstances for any reason should you ever, ever agree to have your name taken off of a script that you have co-written. That is insane and pointless.
John: I agree with you. If you are actually leaving the film industry completely and never have an intention of coming back to it, there might be some circumstances which would kind of make sense. Or if there was such a huge disparity between your name and reputation and their name and reputation, I could see there being some cause for that.
Like one of you is Scott Frank and the other person is someone you have never ever heard of, then I can sort of imagine some scenarios in which this could make sense. But that doesn’t sound like this case at all.
This just sounds like there is a partnership that isn’t working out and one of the writers wants to take the script. And this happens a lot. Writers do get divorced. They break apart and it’s horrible to figure out who gets ownership of what different thing. You have to figure that out and you have to put it in writing. But you’re not going to change history to pretend that one person wrote something and the other person didn’t write something.
Craig: No. I mean, actually when it comes to the divorce, the divorce is difficult prospectively for what comes after you split up. It is not a problem at all to figure out who divides up these scripts. The answer is you don’t. It’s like: okay, husband and wife gets divorced. The kids still have a mom and a dad. It doesn’t change.
So that’s it. You don’t take you name off of a script. I don’t think any circumstance really matters unless they were literally shoving bucketfuls of money down your pants. And in this case, they’re not.
John: But in terms of scripts you’ve written, I agree that you’re not changing the past and who wrote the things. But moving forward, if you’re not a writing team anymore and one of you is going to be handling it independently, you have to figure that out. So that’s going to happen.
Craig: Yeah, sure.
John: There’re also those things that aren’t quite script, but they’re the ideas you were going to work on.
Craig: Those are the perspective issues, the things that are not quite yet written. That’s where it gets tricky. The nice thing about this question is it has a clear answer and the answer is, “Good God, no!”
John: Next question. “Hello and Shalom from Ruth in Israel. Flashbacks: I understand they’re often a fallback, reverse the pace, and other commonly cited ills. However, in Slumdog Millionaire and Forrest Gump they work.”
John: Let me confess that this was an incredibly long question, like paragraphs and paragraphs and paragraphs. I just excerpted it to two sentences I found most interesting and then the third sentence was, “How do you feel about this?”
Craig: I’m glad you said that because it sounded to me it was a question where somebody said, “What do you think about flashbacks? In these two movies it works. Should you never do this?” Obviously in those two movies it worked. So the answer to that question is: no, you shouldn’t never do it. Flashbacks are a perfectly good instrument to use as long as they’re interesting.
I like to think of flashbacks as having certain requirements that other things don’t have. They either have to be very short and very funny or they have to add a revelation that re-contextualizes the character for you in an exciting way. So you don’t use them for boring purposes like figuring out what that guy had for breakfast that morning. A good flashback can be awesome.
John: I think it’s worth asking why flashbacks get such a bad rep, and it’s because they’re used so horribly in so many screenplays. You so often see a flashback that is setting up some piece of, “this is what it was like when he was a boy” and the flashback was over and it’s like, “I didn’t care about that. I really didn’t need to know what it was like when he was a boy. I didn’t need to know why he put on the blue jumper at that moment.”
Flashbacks work in the kinds of movies that need flashbacks to move forward. Either your story is the kind of story that supports flashbacks or it’s not going to support flashbacks, but if your script has one flashback, it’s probably an indication that you should have no flashbacks in your script at all. It’s a kind of screenwriting device that you’re either going to use a fair amount in your screenplay or not at all.
John: Another reason why flashbacks get a bad rep is because screenwriters use them to paper over their mistakes. Typically example is, you’re doing a thriller, just the audience doesn’t understand the logic of how this character knew that a woman was going to be there at a certain time and he says, “Well,” and then you flash back and see that he was following her. Well, that’s just dumb.
You’re literally using a flashback to plug a hole in your story and it’s unsatisfying. It’s dramatically boring. We had a flashback in Hangover 2 which I thought was interesting. Because we learn something about the character of Zack and the way he sees the world — or rather Alan — and the way he sees the world around him. Everybody is a 12-year-old boy to him that he likes. So it’s fun.
John: By the way, that flashback in Hangover 2, I don’t know if we talked about it on the podcast itself, that was ridiculously difficult to do. That was one of the most impressive sequences in the movie because clearly you had to bring in those 12-year-old boys to re-shoot half of what you were shooting in the movie, which was great.
Craig: It was. I remember Todd was saying, “I can’t believe we’re doing this because I have to shoot the movie twice,” and some of those scenes were big scenes like a riot in the middle of Bangkok. It’s like you finally finished it, “All right, now bring in the kids and let’s do it again.” It was an enormously big thing to do and, frankly, we didn’t know if it was going to work.
The first time we ran the movie for an audience that flashback came and went and it wasn’t quite rolling laughs and we thought, “Oh no, that was a big waste of time.” It was the only time in my career that reading the cards helped. What happens is you test a movie and everyone gives you the score and usually you can tell from the score and the response what the deal is and you don’t read the cards which is everybody’s comment.
Famously they’re really crudely rendered opinions.
John: — Written on a pencil on somebody’s knee, so they’re really hard to read anyway.
Craig: — By a guy that’s high. Card after card people singled that out. It wasn’t so much that they were laughing, but they were fascinated by that, so we kept it. You can certainly use flashbacks. Make them interesting and make the important dramatically. A great example of a movie that uses flashbacks brilliantly is Dead Again, which is almost all flashbacks. The whole movie’s flashbacks and it works great.
John: A similar kind of problem is with voice over. Voice over is used so terribly in so many movies that it’s become the, “Oh, you need to avoid voice over no matter what you do.” It’s because it’s used badly to pepper over problems and to get around situations that should be resolved in a completely different way.
Any time you see something advised that you should never do something in screenplays, you need to take a big step back and recognize there’s a reason why people try to avoid it, but there’s also probably a reason why it’s awesome when it’s done just right.
John: Fourth question. Connor from London writes, and I picked sort of an international sampling as you see. London, Connor. “I’m currently at a film school in London studying screenwriting. For someone living an ocean and a country away from Los Angeles, I was wondering what you would recommend. I want to work in the US, however I’m unsure about the best way to approach it. My tutors urge me to stay in Britain and work in the British film industry, yet the number of opportunities available to me over here are dwindling by the day. I’m 19. I write bigger, high concept comedies and I don’t have an agent. What do you recommend?”
Craig: Obviously this advice has to be given in the context presuming that Connor is talented. If Connor is not talented it doesn’t matter where he lives. [laughs] However, if we are to presume that Connor has what it takes to write big budget action movies —
John: — It says high concept comedies.
Craig: — High concept comedies, I’m sorry. Yes, I would probably recommend the move. I would say Los Angeles. I have some friends that live in the UK, a friend that lives in Ireland and works in the movie business there. It’s difficult. It gets more and more difficult. You are relying not only on the dwindling private sector but also a cash strapped government, because a lot of film is publicly financed there. It’s just on a different scale.
You will find that if you are making very specific, smart, smaller comedies you can probably get away with that in the UK a little more easily than you can here where things have to appeal to an international audience. From what he describes, I think I’d say: yeah, move. You’re 19, you don’t have kids, you don’t have a spouse.
John: I think you should move. If you want to write smart, little comedies he could do a good job there. Between the movies that get made and the television that gets made there, there’s a lot he could do in Britain, but if he’s trying to write bigger feature comedies he has to go to a place where they make bigger feature comedies and that’s Los Angeles.
I always say if you want to write country songs you should probably move to Nashville because that’s where they write country songs. Also, he’s 19-years-old. It’s much easier to pick up and move at 19-years-old than it will be at 30-years-old, so the fact that he has few burdens on him, he can come to the US on a student visa, take classes at USC or wherever he’s going to do it, and get started.
Craig: Yeah. Go for it man. If it doesn’t work out take a mulligan, fly back home. I spoke at BAFTA LA, which is a pretty good organization that connects people from England who out here trying to make their way in the business, so you can network with your fellow countryman and find your way.
John: Come. Los Angeles is nice.
John: It’s really nice this time of year. We don’t have the burdens of snow and rain. It can be a nice place to come.
Craig: Yeah, for sure. Do it.
John: Craig, it was fun answering some listener questions.
Craig: Yeah. Those were pretty good questions, I have to say. I like that we were hitting multiple continents this time. This is nice. I’d love to see the vast reach of the John August empire extend into deeper Asia perhaps.
John: It’s actually fun because looking at people who come to just the website I’m able to track who comes from different places, and you get these weird little pockets. Obviously the US, Australia, Great Britain are going to be the largest ones, but a lot of readers in Germany. I guess that’s partly because so many people in Germany speak English and it’s easy for them to fall onto the blog.
You get South Africa hits and stuff like that. There are also just weird little pockets in India you get people listening.
Craig: Welcome our Indian listeners. It would be nice, I think, for people to not only write in with questions but if there’s a topic you want us to talk about, we have an ability to blather for half an hour about almost anything.
John: It’s really a skill that we’ve honed over years and years.
Craig: Honed. Carefully honed.
John: Well, Craig. Happy Halloween. I hope the trick or treating goes really well. What costumes are your kids going for this year?
Craig: My daughter’s going to be a witch.
Craig: Yes, classic. She needs the green face paint. That’s what they’re hunting for today. And my son is for just
John: — [hesitates]
Craig: — Yes? Go ahead.
John: Granted, the green face paint is very classic and it’s very wicked witch sort of thing, but I feel with the rise of Hermione Granger and the Hogwarts of it all you could go for a non-verdant face.
Craig: No, no. Listen, she watches “The Wizards of Waverly Place. She’s entirely steeped in the world of the neo-witch and she’s basically said, “I’m a classic Margaret Hamilton witch girl. Green face.” I think mostly she wants the makeup, frankly. She’s firm on that. My son is going to be, like so many 10-year-old boys, a nondescript commando working for some unidentified military unit that allows you to carry Nerf guns.
John: Will there be some black camouflage or anything like that?
Craig: There’s going to be some camo, yeah. Going to be a little bit of camo. We’ll be walking around with those two. Then the dog, I’m as excited as you are.
John: By the way, there could not be a safer Halloween costume for trick or treating at night than camouflage.
Craig: Exactly. The only costume that’s more dangerous is dressing as pavement, which I will be doing.
John: We don’t know what the dog’s going to be dressed as.
Craig: It’s a big surprise.
What about you and the family?
John: We are trick or treating in a nearby neighborhood. Our neighborhood is actually surprisingly difficult for trick or treating because we’re on a hill. It’s 30 steps up to get to our front door from the street. No kid is going to walk up 30 steps. You’re going to burn up the fun sized Snicker Bar just getting up to our front door. We have very few trick-or-treaters in our neighborhood.
Just blocks away in the Zak Penn neighborhood wonderland of trick or treating. In fact, I’ve helped out Josh Friedman trick or treating sometimes at his house and they’ll get like 1,000 kids.
Craig: Wow. You should definitely knock on Zak’s door and report back on what he’s giving out.
John: It’ll be good stuff.
Craig: If it’s not good stuff we should have words with him for sure.
John: I think so, because he’s doing well. He’s got a TV show, he’s rewriting a zillion movies. He’s doing great.
Craig: He’s Zak freaking Penn.
John: He is Zak Penn.
My daughter’s going to be Wonder Woman for the fourth year in a row. She’s a girl that makes up her mind, sticks with her mind. Wonder Woman, by the way, has a fantastic both mission and genesis. First of all, she’s made out of sand. She’s made out of beach sand that’s been brought to life.
Craig: I did not know that. I thought she was just part of that tribe?
John: She is. She’s Amazonian, but her actual genesis, and I don’t know at what point this got retconned. Her mother wanted a daughter so she fashioned her out of sand on the beach and the gods brought her to life. That’s why of all the Amazonians, she’s the most powerful of all of them.
Craig: Her mom gave her that chest? She gave her huge sand boobs? Thank you. Thanks mom. You’re cool.
John: She’s pretty great. The other amazing thing about Wonder Woman is her missions in life, she also wants to beat up bad guys like all heroes do, but she’s also more about social justice and making the world a better place, whereas Batman, for instance, has more limited ways of seeing the world.
Craig: Batman doesn’t care about that stuff. Batman votes Ron Paul.
John: I think so. We’re going to save the Dark Knight, the Frank Millers and all that, for later in her education. I will say if you have a young daughter, I’ll put a link to it, there’s this amazing My First Reader Wonder Woman book that is incredibly girl positive and the illustrations in it she looks like a teenager girl and not a voluptuously slutty Amazonian warrior.
Craig: Losing interest. Losing interest. [laughs]
John: But for your daughter.
Craig: For my daughter, yes, of course…
John: Happy Halloween and Happy Halloween to our listeners who will be getting this the day after Halloween probably. Keep sending in your questions and you can also become friends with us or like us or whatever action you’d like to take on the Facebook page, which will be set up by the time this is posted, and follow us there.
Craig: Awesome man. Good podcast.
John: Thank you. Have a great weekend and we’ll talk to you soon.
Craig: Bye guys.