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: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. This is Episode 18, by the way. And Happy New Year, Craig.
Craig: Happy New Year 2012.
John: What are your plans for 2012? Do you have a big, master… is this a significant milestone for you? Is there anything you want to do differently in 2012? I mean, what does the new year bring for you?
Craig: Good question. Well, it is a little bit of a milestone. My 20th college reunion is coming up.
John: As is mine.
Craig: Ah, yes, we’re Class of ’92. So, that’ll be fun, that’ll come along. And I went to Princeton, and Princeton reunions are this enormous thing. And they sort of famously are the, I think, second only to the Indy 500 for beer consumption in a single event.
John: That’s impressive.
Craig: It’s pretty nuts. And I’m actually a little scared, because I’m not, I don’t really drink that much. Bringing my kids, so they can see old, drunk men stumbling around, it’ll be exciting.
John: That’s a great idea. So, is your college reunion a fall event, a spring event? When will it happen?
Craig: Spring. It’s right after graduation. So, I believe it’s some point in May, I’m heading back there. It’ll be fun, because my wife also went to Princeton; we met there. So we can show our kids where Mommy and Daddy fell in love.
Craig: Isn’t that nice?
John: How sweet. That’s so nice.
John: Yeah, our 20th anniversary, our 20th reunion will be at Drake University, which is during the Drake Relays. So, the Drake Relays are the big spring event, it’s sort of the closest we have to a homecoming. It’s this big track meet. And so the reunion always falls during Drake Relays, which is the big thing that everyone always celebrates at Drake.
So, I’m looking forward to it.
Do you have new year’s resolutions? Are there any things that you want to do new or different or make changes this next year?
Craig: Well, I never do new year’s resolutions per se, because I always feel like every day I come up with twenty things that I want to do, and new years isn’t any different.
But yeah, I think this year I just want to continue a process that’s been going on for a few years. And I think we’re going to talk a little bit about some of the issues today regarding this Charlie Kaufman thing that was on the Internet.
But just trying to be a better writer and trying to do better work and trying to grow. Trying to grow. That’s my big thing.
John: Yeah, growth is nice. But that’s not very specific. I mean, are there specific things that say, like, over the course of this next 12 months, I want to do this thing different? Are there any milestones you could set? How would you know that you are a better writer on December 31st?
Craig: Well, I won’t know. And even if I am, it won’t matter, because I’ll want to be a better writer still again. So, it’s kind of a process thing. I guess I’m a little zen in that regard. But if I had to say, “Okay, well, here’s a concrete goal,” something I can accomplish that I would like to accomplish in 2012, it would be to finally commit murder.
John: Oh, yeah, that’d be good.
John: Yeah, I like that.
Craig: Well. What about you?
John: I don’t have good resolutions either. Like, I’ve always found that when I’ve tried to make resolutions, it’s basically like committing to something that I’m going to give up — like — the third week of January, which is classically what people do on resolutions. They go into it with a lot of energy, and they just don’t end up fulfilling that goal or that promise.
Craig: That’s right.
John: So, what I’ve started doing is declaring areas of interest. So, I would say, “Okay, for 2009, my area of interest will be archery and Austrian white wines.”
John: Because an area of interest is less than a resolution. It doesn’t mean, like, “I’m going to go to the gym five times a week.” It’s more, “I’m going to try more Austrian white wines.”
Craig: Now, I’ve got to stop you there for a second, because, I mean, granted, now I’m starting to see why you were so put off by the generality of my goals, because your goals are so absurdly specific. Why Austrian white wine? Tell me.
John: Okay. You cannot master all wines. It’s actually impossible to master all wines. Like, you can — people spend their entire life doing that, and I don’t think it’s actually fulfilling to do that. But if you pick an incredibly narrow range in that field, you can actually have a pretty good knowledge of what those wines are, what’s interesting about them.
You know, if you’re trying to compare all the white wines, you’re not going to have taste notes to be really be able to distinguish them. But if you’re going for Austrian white wines, it’s like, “Oh, there’s a Gruner Veltliner.” So if I just order that wine whenever it’s on a list at a restaurant, then I’ll always have something that’s the interesting thing that I’m doing this year.
Craig: But what happens if you have… There has to be some sort of pretext for this. You already liked Austrian white wines. You didn’t just pick this out of a list.
John: No, no. I’d had Austrian white wines, and thought, “Oh, these are pretty good.” And so, part of my decision was, “Oh, well, why don’t I pick something that I kind of like and I will learn more about it?”
Craig: You know what? That’s the way I used to be with albums. I remember when I was a kid, I would get an album, and I would just say, “You know, just for completionist sake, I’m going to listen to every song on this album. I don’t care if this is the bad song, I’m going to force myself to listen, in order, to every song until I feel like I really, I know every song back to front, top to bottom.”
Craig: And it hurt sometimes, because, really, I just wanted the three or four Yes songs I liked, and instead, I’m sitting there, going, “God, this thing will never end.”
John: So, in your study of these albums, and completing these albums, did you get the perception that the artist knew that some of the tracks weren’t as rewarding as the other tracks? Or did it make you appreciate anything different about the artist themselves? Like, reticular tracks? I mean, that’s really the question.
Craig: I think, sometimes, they’re filler; sometimes it’s just the band goofing around. I mean, I don’t know why I forced myself to listen to The Crunge by Led Zeppelin as many times as I did. It’s just not very good. But you know, they were fooling around.
And listen, my feeling was at the time — and I guess it still is — you can’t enjoy the fun stuff if you don’t do the homework part. So it was discipline.
John: It was discipline. I mean, to me, archery — which was from that same year as the Austrian whites — archery is like, it’s kind of cool. And so, one of the things you did as a kid, like I did up at Scout camp, was like, well, archery is kind of great. What if I’m good at it, and I’ve never tried it as an adult?
And so, my friend, John Petrelli, is a trainer, but he’s also a bow hunter. So, we went out to the archery range and he taught me how to shoot.
The thing is, he’s a personal trainer, so he’s incredibly strong. So a composite bow, that first inch is fine and easy. The second six inches are incredibly hard to pull, and so none of his bows were actually light enough that I could reasonably pull them back.
So I ended up getting three shots in, one of which, the string, like, skinned right along the inside of my arm, and made a bruise that lasted for about six weeks. But that same shot that I bruised myself on, I came very close to a bull’s eye.
John: Nice. By a complete fluke.
Craig: Oh, of course.
John: I think I may have been aiming at the other target, but still, it came close to a bull’s eye.
Craig: It came close to something. I assume you’ve read Zen and the Art of Archery?
John: No, I’ve read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Craig: Well, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is this massively dense fruitcake of a book about the metaphysics quality, and that’s also an excellent topic that one week we should discuss. But Zen and the Art of Archery is practically a pamphlet compared to Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And it really is about zen, whereas Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance really isn’t.
And it’s a classic of the genre. It was written, I believe, in the ’50s by Eugene, I want to say Hergel? Or Herrgel? I think he’s German. But there’s translations. And it really is about his… Like you, he just said, you know what? He was living in Japan at the time, and he said, “I just want to take up archery.” And he learned the concepts of zen through archery.
And it’s a great read, it’s very short book. I highly recommend it to everybody.
John: We will put a link to it in the show links, which you can always find at johnaugust.com.
Craig: Thank you.
John: The other zen book I did read, which I remember loving in high school, was Zen Driving. It’s a book about driving, but just like, how to be more zen as you’re driving. And the thing I took away from it is, when you put on your seat belt, don’t strap yourself into the car, strap the car onto yourself.
John: Yeah, I just blew your mind, right there.
Craig: I’m sorry, what? You strap the car onto yourself?
John: Yeah. So, think about putting on, like, clothes, that the car is an external manifestation of your body. And so, you’re sort of putting on the car, rather than putting yourself into the car.
Craig: So that you don’t — you’re not pushing this machinery through something, you’re actually, you yourself are gliding through space.
John: Exactly. So, you can imagine, like, the four corners of the car are really the four corners of your body. And it was actually really transformative, because I read it at a time where I started to have to take really long cross country trips by myself to get to college or to drive out to Stanford from Boulder, and it was great. It actually made that a much more pleasant and possible experience.
Craig: Sounds like it would rob me of my right as an American to throw my car through traffic like a bullet.
John: Yeah, it might do that.
John: So this past year, my goal was to get better at piano, because I had had piano lessons growing up up until fourth grade and then I stopped. And so I’ve always been able to… I can read music on the piano, and I can sort of get my way through a song on the right hand — the treble clef — but I just couldn’t do the left hand at all.
So, this was really my year of the left hand. And trying to get… being able to play both sides simultaneously. So, I’ve been playing piano about half an hour to 45 minutes every day.
John: And it really does —
Craig: I’m sorry, you said trombone or piano?
John: Yeah, I just said trombone. No, no, piano. Craig is referencing, of course, a controversial post I had on my site about why people shouldn’t play band instruments, which we can get back to.
But I do want to stress that just literally going to the piano for half an hour everyday throughout this last year has been really remarkable and transformative. There’s actually little scraps of time where I would normally just pull out the iPad and check headlines and stuff. I would just sit down to the piano and play through something. And that’s been great.
Craig: It’s excellent for your brain. I took drum lessons for many years, and it is, obviously, for the drums — I guess, really, for every instrument — you have to develop your weak hand. And it’s when you start to confront the natural imbalance between your two sides…it’s shocking, actually.
And I remember having my drum teacher say, “Okay, for the next two weeks, you’re going to brush your teeth with your left hand, you’re going to use a fork with your left hand.” It was brutal.
Craig: It was really hard.
John: Yeah. Some of it is, literally, just strength. It’s literally just getting the wires hooked up right. But a lot of it is, when you’re really playing an instrument, especially when you’re playing piano, there’s not time for your eyes to see the notes on the page and for your brain to process it consciously and for your fingers to go in the right place. It has to sort of happen by itself.
John: And so I could do that with the right hand, I couldn’t do that with the left hand. I can now do that with the left hand. My fingers will find the right place, and I don’t even always fully remember the names of all those notes in the bass clef, but my fingers are finding the right places.
Craig: Very zen. Very zen.
John: Very zen. So, it’s been a year of that.
John: We should also review a little bit what’s happened this last year. You had a very big year this year
Craig: Yeah. I had a pretty big movie come out, that was exciting. And that was The Hangover 2. And it did very well, and I was very proud of it. I was very proud of it, I really liked the movie a lot, and really liked the people I did it with.
And also I got sued for the first time because of it, which was very exciting.
John: That’s awesome. Congratulations on that.
Craig: Yes. I had never actually been served. I got served. Just like they say in the movies, “You got served.” And then, not surprisingly, the gentleman who served us opted to withdraw his lawsuit.
John: Oh, yeah. That does happen.
Craig: Probably because it was a bunch of crap.
John: Yeah. Were you served at your home or at your office?
Craig: Actually, my lawyer got it. So I was a little bummed out, because I thought, “Oh, this will be exciting, it’ll be like the movies where somebody just walks up to you out of nowhere and goes, ‘Are you Craig Mazin? You’ve been served.'” But no.
John: The one time I’ve been served, the crummy detective who was trying to figure out where to serve papers called my mom in Colorado and started asking her all these harassing questions. Saying, like, “You have to get your son to call me, because there’s a legal concern.” And it was over something I was not involved with at all. And I really kind of let him have it.
Craig: Yeah, I’m sure your mom freaked out.
John: Yeah, my mom, of course, was delighted that random lawyers were calling the house and threatening her. So, that was not good at all.
Craig: And how about your year in review? What’s the big headline?
John: This year’s mostly been Big Fish, which was a secret project that we could finally announce and say that it was really happening. So, we had two big readings of the musical this last year. Which is great, because for six years it’s been Andrew Lippa and I at a piano singing for people.
And this has been the first time where we’ve have other actors come in and actually do it. And we have a director, and we get to sort of see the show independent of our singing the show. It’s such a strange thing when you’ve always been the performer, to sit back and be the audience watching something.
Craig: Right, that was interesting.
John: And a lot of this next year will be that, too. So, it’s been a good process.
It’s also been nice to sort of…I feel like, as a screenwriter, I’ve been able to do most of the kinds of things that I wanted to do. And a lot of the stuff I get approached with is, “Hey, do you want to adapt this book?” “Do you want to work on this project?” “Do you want to work with this director who wants to do something?” And I’ve said yes probably too often.
And this has been sort of, the last six months has been a nice bit of saying no. And I have good reasons to say no, but it’s also because I kind of just don’t want to do it. And that’s been a nice change.
Craig: That, the whole yes/no thing is, I’m sure I’ll be tortured by that until I finally get kicked out or quit.
John: Yeah. The other thing I would say has been good about the musical is it’s given me a chance to be a newcomer, be a newbie, and like, not to not know things and just ask questions and discover what things are like.
And really, developing my first application for the iPhone and the iPad, and we have a Mac application about to come out, has been that process, too. So, that chance to just explore new frontiers.
And while it’s nice to sort of know things about screenwriting, I can answer people’s questions about screenwriting, it’s not new and fresh and exciting for me in the same way that new, fresh, exciting things are exciting for me.
Craig: You’ve got to keep it changing, I think. I think you have to keep things ever in flux. Sort of the same principle of why bench pressing with dumbells is better than with one bar across, because keeping things in balance alone when things are changing and moving is good for you. It’s good for your brain.
And I’m excited. I’m looking forward to your show, and as a dedicated listener to Sirius XM on Broadway, I suspect that you will end up on Seth Rudetsky’s show.
John: That would be great.
Craig: You tell him I’m a big fan.
John: I will.
John: For all we know, he’s listening. That’s one of the other things that was new this last year, of course, was that we have a podcast.
Craig: That’s right. Oh my god, how did we forget that?
John: We did forget that. We have about 28,000 listeners on a given week.
Craig: Gee, man.
John: Which is really crazy. And growing.
Craig: That’s a lot.
John: So, thank you, people who are listening.
Craig: I mean, frankly, with that many listeners, it seems like you and I soon will be able to leverage it into some kind of military action.
John: I like it, yeah.
Craig: Yeah, a big mob that just suddenly goes and does something.
John: Yeah, I don’t know what they’ll do, exactly.
Craig: I know. I’ve got to think about it.
John: They’ll demand change. They’ll have, like, really ambiguous goals and maybe they’ll wear masks, but it’ll be awesome.
Craig: That sounds crazy. Why would anyone do that?
John: Because it’s wonderful.
And also, this is a difference for me: I had no movies come out this last year. And this year, I have two. So I have Dark Shadows, which is May 11th, which is not really my movie, but it’s a movie that has my name on it. So, that’s different.
Craig: It’s partly your movie, at the very least.
John: It’s partly my movie, at the very least.
And Frankenweenie, which is October 5th. So, I’ll actually have movies.
Craig: That’s, you’re going have —
John: I won’t be just that theoretical screenwriter, I’ll be a screenwriter with actual movies in theaters.
Craig: A big boy screenwriter with your big boy pants. And you’re going to be, you’ll be everywhere. If you’ve got May, is a big month, as I came to learn. And then, October, you can just keep the PR ball rolling the entire second half of the year.
John: We’ll see what happens with Dark Shadows. I don’t know that I’ll be doing any press for it. I have story by credit, which is applicable. The movie that was made is a different movie than what I had originally set out to write. Not that it’s a bad movie, it’s just a very different movie. And so, I don’t know whether it’s going to be appropriate for me to do a lot of press for it.
Craig: That’s a good point. I agree with you. I feel like, if you don’t have the screenplay credit, maybe, it just seems odd to do the whole PR push.
Craig: Yeah, I agree with you on that one.
John: Yeah, so. That’s the year ahead.
Craig: Sounds good.
John: Now, one of the things you want to talk about, which I think is a good thing for us to talk about, is Charlie Kaufman, who gave a speech to the BAFTA, the British American Film and Television Association.
Craig: Is that right? I thought it was just British. I thought it was the British Association of.
John: British, yeah, it’s not British American, it’s just British.
Craig: Something, something. Yeah. British Alliance of Film and Television a something?
John: Yeah, yeah. That sounds right.
I should know more about it, because I actually went to the BAFTA awards for Big Fish. But everyone just calls them the BAFTAs. And so it’s just one of those bunches of initials that we don’t really need to know about.
But Charlie Kaufman was a speaker at one of their recent events. And gave a presentation. So, I thought we’d start off by talking about Charlie Kaufman’s need to have people like him, which is — I think what we talked about before — which is sort of the good boy syndrome, is that we so much want to make people be happy with us.
Charlie Kaufman: I also struggle with wanting you to like me. And you know, in my fantasy, I leave here and people are saying, “Great speech,” you know, and “Not only is he a great writer but boy, you know, I really learned something tonight. He really brought it, you know?”
And, so, as much as I know that this neediness of mine exists, I also have a difficult time extricating myself from it or even fully recognizing it when it’s happening, because it’s a tricky thing, it’s, I mean, no one wants to come up here and bomb. It’s really, literally, the stuff of nightmares, you know. I’ve had that nightmare a lot of times. And then, and I know you want to be entertained, and so, for me to calculatedly not entertain you in order to be true, seems sort of selfish.
John: So, that was part of his introduction to the speech, where he’s talking to this audience, and explaining that he’s been commissioned to give his speech to them and feels that he is going to be, and worries that he’s going to be a disappointment if he doesn’t entertain them.
So, Craig, why don’t you do the set up and tell us what it was about Charlie Kaufman’s speech that got you thinking, or made you want to talk about it on the show today?
Craig: Well, it was a great talk, and it was, you just heard this clip, which is really one facet of it. But I guess, if there was a theme throughout all of it, it was this kind of self examination, and a look at the pitfalls that go along with being an author, an artist, an entertainer. For instance, in this case, he’s talking about this internal dialogue that I suspect we all have, in which we are obviously doing what we do to entertain or to provoke or inform or please or inspire.
But we cannot go down the path of simply putting “love me” first, because “love me” then leads you down the path of manipulation. And I’ve been there before. And one of the reasons that his talk affected me so much is because every sort of foible he outlined I have. Every mistake he said he’s made I’ve made, probably more frequently and more egregiously than he has. No doubt, I would say, actually, more egregiously than he has.
And so, it kind of hit me in my sensitive spots, because I do want to entertain an audience. Of course I want to entertain an audience. But, like so many who are in this business, maybe we start from a place of psychological neediness, but we have to grow past it.
As he then points out, conversely, what we can’t do then is start to get into conscientious navel gazing, where the point is to so studiously ignore the audience that they end up feeling alienated. And this dilemma is common, I think, to everybody that creates for a living.
I think Roger Waters started writing The Wall for precisely this reason, that he started to feel this weird alienation from himself and this audience, and didn’t understand if he was just there to kind of amuse them. Why did he hate them? Should he hate them? Is that what they deserved?
And like Charlie’s movies, his speech is full of all this, kind of, mind bending recursion. And I’m not sure that he arrives at a conclusion that is valuable or useful. I’m not even sure that was his purpose. I think, in a very zen way, ties back to what we were talking about earlier, the examination is kind of it’s own reward.
You do it, and you think about things, and by examining and questioning and testing yourself, you theoretically improve. And you improve in the absence of any notion of perfection, because I just don’t think that’s achievable.
John: I think I missed the part where he talked about the navel gazing.
Because if there’s a criticism I’ve often had about Kaufman’s movies — and many of which I’ve enjoyed, but some of which I’ve not enjoyed as much — it’s that they seem solipsistic, where it’s just one person figuring out his stuff throughout the course of the movie and seemingly not able to understand that there’s someone watching the story in front of him. And seemingly not, kind of, caring about the audience’s perspective on what they’re encountering.
I very much write movies as the person sitting in the theater watching the movie. And that doesn’t seem to be Charlie Kaufman’s perspective on the screenwriter’s job.
Craig: Well, I don’t know. I can’t tell. I mean, I grant you that he didn’t specifically call out navel gazing, but even in that clip, you can hear him say, “Well, okay, I don’t want to calculate, specifically, unentertaining, or being anti-entertaining.”
But I get your point, also, that yeah, it seems like the movies that he’s done that are the most enjoyable and the most interesting, and frankly, the most artistically successful are the ones where he does acknowledge that the audience has certain needs.
And you know, this is one of these things that happens where you have to constantly question, “Who am I writing the movie for? Is it for the casual moviegoer? Is it for the not casual moviegoer? Is it for the person who’s seen every movie and can’t stand the conventions anymore?”
And maybe he’s sort of gone to a place where he’s so sick of the conventions that part of what he does is sort of studiously avoid them. Maybe he’s gotten to the point where he’s so frightened by his own need to be loved that he starts doing things on purpose that make him not loved. I don’t know.
All I do know is that those questions are questions I have. And that I think that if there’s a spectrum, and on one end of the spectrum is kind of the solipsistic navel gazing, and the other end of the spectrum is, sort of, pandering, essentially, that I could afford to move slightly more towards navel gazing. Just incrementally so.
And because, look, I’m not, I am an eternal student. I try and I try and I try and I try to get better. And I just like the fact that he was so open about how frail and weak his own psyche was in regards to his own work. And here’s a writer that, frankly, is excellent.
And you’d think, “Oh, well, he just sits at home, just incredibly proud of himself.” Instead of, quite obviously, nowhere near the case.
John: Now, I approach Charlie Kaufman’s work as a screenwriter who, the work I’ve done, I’ve written very big commercial entertaining movies, you know. It’s hard to say that Charlie’s Angels is a deep evaluation of contemporary…well, maybe it’s contemporary culture, but it’s not, nothing in Charlie’s Angels is about why are we here on Earth.
But some of my movies are more of that. I mean, Big Fish is largely autobiographical. The Nines if very much autobiographical. And yet, I would…there’s something about…there’s something that feels like there’s a character Charlie Kaufman — this has been a frequent criticism of Charlie Kaufman, I think, but — that Charlie Kaufman is playing a character named Charlie Kaufman who is a tortured screenwriter and this is part of the act.
And I’m not saying that he’s false there, but there’s something that struck me oddly about his speech and it made me, I don’t know, it felt both a genuine and it felt like another layer of pretense piled upon itself.
Craig: Well, that’s part of the paradox of recursion. And yeah, obviously, that’s a topic that is fascinating to him, and of course, any speech is a contrivance.
I mean, one of my friends pointed out that, at one point, he says, “I think it was Thomas Mann, who said…” Well, you don’t think it was Thomas Mann; you wrote that down. You know it was Thomas Mann, because you looked it up, you put it down on paper. I mean, with any kind of calculated bit of artistry, there’s always artifice in artistry.
You know, for me, it’s not so much the examination of topics and of writing movies that are about deep things as much as it is your intentions and the purity of your intentions. And he talks about the purity of your intentions, and I think I’ve done my best work when my intentions were pure, and I’ve done my worst work when they were not. or when my pure intentions were overcome by a need to not be screamed at by a Weinstein, for instance.
So, that was valuable, to me. I just thought that was a valuable thing to contemplate.
Now, on the other hand, I think he concludes at one point by saying, if you be honest and true, people will like it. And that’s absolutely not the case.
John: Yeah, actually, there’s a clip here I want to play, which is where he talks about, sort of, audience reaction to things.
Charlie Kaufman: “That’s two hours I’ll never get back.” That’s a favorite thing for an angry person to say about a movie he hates. But the thing is, every two hours are two hours he’ll never get back. You cannot horde your two hours.
So, you are here and I am here, spending our time, as we must. It must be spent. I am trying not to spend this time as I spend most of my time, trying to get you to like me. Trying to control your thoughts to use my voodoo at the speed of light, the speed of sound, at the speed of thought, trying to convince you that your two hours with me are not going to be resented afterwards.
It is an ancient pattern of time usage for me. And I’m trying to move deeper, hoping to be helpful. This pattern of time usage paints over an ancient wound and paints it with bright colors. It’s a slight of hand, a distraction. So, to attempt to change the pattern, let me expose the wound.
I now step into this area blindly. I do not know what the wound is. I do know that it is old. I do know that it is a hole in my being. I do know it is tender. I do believe that it is unknowable, or at least, inarticulable. I do believe you have a wound, too. I do believe it is both specific to you and common to everyone.
I do believe it is the thing about you that must be hidden and protected. It is the thing that is tap danced over, five shows a day. It is the thing that won’t be interesting to other people if revealed. It is the thing that makes you weak and pathetic. It is the thing that truly, truly, truly makes loving you impossible. It is your secret, even from yourself.
But it is the thing that wants to live. It is the thing from which your art, your painting, your dance, your composition, your philosophical treatise, your screenplay, is born. If you don’t acknowledge this, you will come up here when it is your time, and you will give your speech, and you will talk about the business of screenwriting.
You will say that, as a screenwriter, you are a cog in the business machine. You will say it is not an art form. You will say, “Here. This is what a screenplay looks like.” You will talk about character arcs, how to make likable characters. You will talk about box office. This is what you will do. This is who you will be. And after you’re done, I will feel lonely and empty and hopeless.
John: Okay, so what is he talking about with the wound?
Craig: Well, there’s so much going on there and I agree with so much of it. But there was, first of all, I will start by saying that he does make one mistake, I think, and that is suggesting in the beginning that he’s trying to not manipulate the audience and there is some kind of artistic nobility in avoiding manipulating the audience.
That’s baloney. The truth is, the purpose of art is to impact the audience. Impaction of the audience is necessarily an act of will in which you are trying to get people to feel something. And you can’t deny that agency. You can’t say that somehow you get to make you feel something without trying to make you feel something. Of course he’s trying.
Note his rhythm of saying, “It is the thing. It is the thing. It is the thing.” It’s a dramatic cadence.
John: He’s using craft.
John: He’s clearly aware that he’s a craftsman using his tools to create a message.
Craig: That’s right. And it’s really interesting that he’s using his craft in service of a section of this speech that’s about how you shouldn’t be crafting it.
But that aside, so I thought, “Okay, I got you on that one, Charlie.”
But, here’s the part about it that is real and it mattered to me. He is right that the need to impact other people through any kind of creativity or art does come from a need. It is not something we do casually. Is it a wound, per se? I don’t know if it’s a wound. As he points out, it’s unknowable. It is a need. Like a hunger, a desire. And I don’t necessarily think that phrasing it as wound is fair to him or to anybody else that does it. It’s pejorative.
John: Wound definitely implies that something has been done to you, something has been ripped from you. It’s cut through you.
Craig: Yeah, it implies an injury.
John: What was that, by the way, Craig?
Craig: That was a motorcycle.
John: That’s awesome.
Craig: Yeah. It was my wound.
John: It was your wound.
Craig: It implies an injury and I think it feeds into an unnecessary character of an artist as a psychological mess using art to heal themselves or, as he puts it, I think, paint over their pain in bright colors.
I don’t think that has to be the case. But I do feel there is something very basic and engaged in a libidinous way in service of creating something.
And what he is right about is that if all you bring to the table is craft without that thing, without that passionate, libidinous drive, then you will be an empty person who is sitting there obsessed with nonsense books about page counts, plot points, act breaks and character arcs.
Absolutely, no question, that is true.
John: One of the things that struck me most as I was listening to this section of his speech was that my instinct was, “Well, write a novel.”
Because so much of what he’s talking about when you’re writing your screenplay, screenwriting is inherently not going to be your artistic voice alone. You are writing something that you’re hoping someone else will help convert into a movie. Actually, a lot of someone elses are going to convert into a movie. It seems like screenwriting is a strange craft to pick for your artistic expression if you’re goal in artistic expression is to truthfully explore this wound in yourself.
Craig: I agree, and I also think it’s…frankly, screenwriting is a pursuit that attracts people who are attracted to glamor and excitement and audiences. We can’t pretend that that’s not the case. Movies are exciting and glamorous. They exist on a level that is far more bright-y and paint-y over your wound-y then novels.
And I think, I would suspect that even Charlie Kaufman would agree with this that the reason he likes movies is because…
Well, he goes into a rationale of why he likes movies as opposed to other art forms. I don’t, frankly, think that his explanation made sense.
John: Yeah. His explanation was that movies are much more like dreams and that in dreams you can explore things that you can’t explore in normal text.
Craig: It’s funny. I have the opposite feeling. I feel like movies are the most literal form of art because they fill in almost every blank for you. To me, novels are able to, poetry approaches dream. Novel approaches dream.
I have to fill in everything. When I read a novel, I do have to enter… I think my brain probably enters a REM-like state. Movies chew your food for you in so many ways. All of them. Even the ones that are obtuse. Even the ones you don’t understand are still showing you step by step in real time what people look like. There’s voices, color. I know what they’re wearing, where they’re sitting.
So, I don’t think that that’s right. But, and I feel like I’m criticizing his talk when really, the truth is that it inspired me. Because, even if at times it didn’t hold up to the scrutiny of consistency, it was admirable. I thought it was very admirable how serious he took both screenwriting and the psychological pitfalls therein of the screenwriter. And there are many.
And I do agree with him very strongly that it is art and that we deserve to treat our own work with more respect then the business around us treats it. That’s for sure.
John: I would certainly agree with you there.
It is frustrating often to create an original screenplay that is viewed as less original, less it’s own work compared to a novel which has been adapted into the screenplay. One of those is considered art and one of those is considered a transitional document for making a movie. That is a frustration.
And, as we were talking about earlier, one of my last six month’s goals was passing on a lot more things. And it was recognizing that I have however many thousands of pages in me before I retire. I don’t necessarily want to spend them writing other people’s stories. I want to write things that are important to me.
Craig: Yeah. And part of what I’m trying to do is…I don’t even think about — it’s funny — I never think about other people’s stories as important to me. I just want to try and be truer to what I think is good. That’s my big thing.
And I think that’s that, if I drew a lesson or encouragement out of this, it is that I am less concerned, more than ever — that’s kind of a weird sentence construction — I am less concerned then ever before with what other people think, and I am far more concerned with what I think.
That said, I am making a transitional document that will become a movie that will be shown to an audience. And in the end, the audience will have an opinion, and it’s the only opinion I care about.
And it’s a tough thing because I’m not really sure what I would do if I loved something that the audience hated. By and large, the things that they’ve hated, I’ve hated and the things they’ve really liked, I’ve really liked.
John: That was somewhat the experience I had on The Nines, except a lot of people really didn’t like the The Nines and… But I was surprisingly okay with it because it was very much my brain shoved up on the screen.
I didn’t have, the Charlie Kaufman of it all would say, I didn’t have to compromise anything about what I wanted to tell the story to be in order to make that movie. And that’s the luxury of making a tiny movie is that sometimes you actually have that kind control.
Craig: That makes sense. That makes sense.
You know, I wrote a short story for Derek’s website Popcorn Fiction called Lightning in a Bottle. Check it out.
John: There’s a link in the show notes.
Craig: There you go. Link in the show notes.
And that is I think maybe the only thing I’ve ever done, because it’s a short story, that wasn’t… I don’t know what word to use here. Impacted in any way by anyone else. It’s entirely me, top to bottom.
And it is true that, because it is entirely me and no one else and nothing else, I am oddly at peace with somebody coming up to me and saying, “That was crap.” Although no one has, happily. But that is… And it’s funny. It is the only pure expression of what I do. Period.
John: Yeah. And I wonder whether….
I have two short stories that I’ve had a similar experience with and that I’m really, really proud of. And they’re tough to write, but I love that they’re entirely mine and they are finished. I love that they’re done and I don’t have to go back and ever touch them again.
I wonder if you can ever really get that in a movie. I explained The Nines, I felt different about criticism than I ever had before. But there is a difference because that movie had a thousand people working on it. And there’s things about the movie, certainly about the marketing of the movie, that I had no control over.
And the marketing is part of the movie, ultimately. It’s part of the experience of how you encounter a movie, down to the cover art and which one sheet got approved and that kind of stuff.
And it’s the boundaries of what you consider your function as the writer, the screenwriter, the filmmaker, the artist behind the thing. Where that stops.
Craig: It’s true. Our experience of our own movies are so warped by the way they are reflected back to us. If all we did was write a movie and then watch it in the theater, I suppose we would have to just absorb what the director brought and what the cast brought and whatever changes were made by the studio, the producer. And those sometimes can be very considerable and sometimes they’re great and sometimes they’re traumatic.
But that’s not it. That’s just the beginning. Then there’s the publicity and the film critics and people on TV and Internet commenters. Even just things like reading… Just your bitterness about being excluded from something or being overlooked. Or it starts to…
John: Or if you have an award movie. Like with Big Fish, we were going through the whole awards process, and when we got some nominations but didn’t get other nominations, you’d ride the highs and lows on that, and you’d realize, “Wow. I’m doing as much work to try to get an award for this movie as I did actually making the movie.”
And that’s a weird part, too. So, was the release of the movie part of the art of the movie? That’s a whole… You don’t control it.
Craig: I don’t know if it’s part of the art, but it’s certainly part of how you experience your own work. Whereas for the short story I wrote. That’s it. It’s a short story. There’s nothing else. I couldn’t care less about anything else.
John: So as we’re wrapping up today’s topic, I think we’re telling people that they should write short stories.
Craig: It’s not bad.
John: Short stories are good. They’re entirely your own.
Even though I’m picking a lot of the Charlie Kaufman lecture, I would definitely say it’s worth seeing. That’s why there’s going to be a link in the show notes for it. Because he’s asking about what kinds of movies we’re making, what kinds of movies we’re setting out to write. And, if you have the ability to craft screenplays, is there a responsibility to try to use those tools in certain ways?
And that’s a good point.
Craig: Yeah. I think there’s something there for everybody. It doesn’t matter what kind of movies you write. I think he’s…
I just love the fact that he was examining himself and his own method and his own purposes and intentions.
John: Because he’s never done that before.
Craig: Fair enough.
I probably could afford to do it more than I have. But I think that there is a great lesson in there, you should need to do this and I will always… I cite this advice all the time to new screenwriters who have a billion questions that I find to be irrelevant or stupid. Brian Koppelman, screenwriter, has a very simple, two-word bit of advice that I think is absolutely fantastic. “Calculate less.”
John: Oh yes.
Craig: Simple as that. Stop asking about font sizes and margins and act breaks and how many words.
Oh, gosh, I get these questions. “How many words should be in a log line?” As many as required? I don’t know. Calculate less.
John: Make movies that need to be made. I don’t know. It would be interesting to have someone like Charlie Kaufman on answering some of the questions that come into the podcast because I feel like his answers would be vastly different. Or it would be very much about him.
Craig: I have no idea. I’ve never met him, but he seems… He’s obviously a very smart and talented guy.
John: Yeah. Indeed. Great. Thank you so much and thank you for our first podcast of the new year.
Craig: Thank you, John. Looking forward to a year where we
Grow our audience to a true, world class army size.
John: I love it. All right. Thanks.
Craig: You got it. Bye.