The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: I am Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes. This is a podcast about screenwriting, and things that are interesting to screenwriters. How are you, Craig?
Craig: I’m good. How are you doing, John?
John: I’m doing really well. It’s a beautiful spring day in Los Angeles.
Craig: It’s a beautiful spring day here. Wherever Joe Eszterhas is it’s probably not such a great spot to be. [laughs]
John: Oh, okay, so we’ve got to link to this. This is crazy.
John: So the back story on this, Joe Eszterhas is/was, really kind of put him in the past tense, he was a very prominent screenwriter for a period of time. He wrote things like Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction. Movies I quite enjoy actually, Fatal Attraction especially. And was known for selling big spec scripts and being like a big oversized personality and a sort of a blowhard. Is that fair to say?
Craig: Yeah. He was, when you and I broke into the business, Joe Eszterhas was the superstar screenwriter. He was kind of the most famous screenwriter I would say.
John: He’s the only screenwriter that a person of popular culture might have heard of who was not famous for being a director, or famous for being an actor as well.
John: He also wrote Showgirls, which is just a monumental achievement.
John: Showgirls, which was so great that even as a spec script, a friend of mine got it and we held a staged reading of Showgirls — like before it was even in production, because it was just so amazing.
Craig: It’s pretty spectacular. But at the top, I mean, he did write some…Jagged Edge, I think, was Joe Eszterhas.
John: Oh, Jagged Edge, come on. Jagged Edge is great.
Craig: Yeah. There was a time when Joe Eszterhas was writing really good, interesting thrillers. And then they started sort of diving more towards like Sliver, and then suddenly… — Well, he very famously wrote a movie called, I think it was Burn Hollywood Burn, about a director who takes his name off a movie that then became called An Alan Smithee Film. And then the actual director took his name off the movie, so it was An Alan Smithee Film actually directed by Alan Smithee.
Craig: It was kind of a crazy story. And sort of dropped off the face of the planet, and left town, and left the business.
John: I think he moved up north, and then he moved out of the state, and he did other stuff. And that’s fine. People’s careers go through ups and downs and flows, and whatever.
So, the interesting new development was that a year ago, or more than a year ago, he signed on to write a movie for Mel Gibson about a famous historical event, the Maccabees. Am I pronouncing it right?
Craig: You are. The Maccabees. Yes.
John: Which was a famous Jewish event of the — I’m going to completely mess up what it actually was about, because I don’t really know what it’s about.
Craig: The Maccabees were, it is sort of connected to the Hanukkah story which is a fairly minor story in the Jewish tradition, but the reason Jewish people like to talk about the Maccabees is because they were warriors, and we don’t have many of those. So, it’s like famous Jewish sports legends and famous Jewish soldiers, but the Maccabees were tough guys and were Jewish warriors. It was sort of like a Jewish Braveheart king of story. So it would make sense that Mel Gibson would take that on.
And, obviously, Mel has had some issues [laughs] where he had said some anti-Semitic things, and some racist things, and some homophobic things, and, you know, pick ’em.
John: So it was an interesting combination of…
John: …screenwriter and director-actor. And you could sort of anticipate that things would not go well. Either it was going to be brilliant, and it was going to be the coming back of both of these talents, or it was going to end in tears.
And it ended in tears. It ended in like angry accusations…
Craig: Super angry.
John: And long letters. And so we will link to the letters that, I think, The Wrap published yesterday…
John: …about what actually transpired. And so Joe Eszterhas wrote this long letter to Mel Gibson or his production company saying, “These are all the ways you did me wrong. And these were all the crazy incidents that happened while I was writing this script for you.”
And Mel Gibson replied back in a shorter way, in a calmer way, saying, “Well, you fabricated most of these. And the script was terrible. And we would never make that movie.”
Craig: Here’s my question. I mean, people will read this and see for themselves, but just from a screenwriter point of view, what’s the upside for Joe Eszterhas? I don’t get it. I mean, here are it seems like the facts that both Joe Eszterhas and Mel Gibson agree on: Joe Eszterhas went off, wrote a script, turned it in, and no one liked it at all.
So, what’s the upside? I mean, he writes this letter, and it is fascinating that it includes things that you would expect from a first-time writer, not from somebody of Joe Eszterhas’ stature or former stature. Things like, “Well I should it to my friends and they loved it.” What?! [laughs] Really dude?! I mean, come on.
John: “They all told me it was a movie that had to be made.”
Craig: Right. I mean, are you really that delusional? You have now put yourself in the same category as the weirdo who is rejected on American Idol and insists that their friends and their moms say that they sing beautifully. I mean, come one. Listen, there’s no shame in whiffing.
I mean, and also, in addition to the alleged whiff, and we don’t know; maybe it’s a great script. Who knows? But in addition to the alleged whiff, he apparently turned in the script like two years later, something like that, which is obviously a no-no. I mean, I like at these guys where it says things like, “Well you went away for 15 months,” according to Mel Gibson, “you went away for 15 months, you came back, and you didn’t have a script written.”
And I think, 15 months? For my entire career, it’s always been an argument to get to ten weeks. They want it in six weeks, I end up doing it in eight weeks. Where are these people that get 15 months? Have you ever gotten 15 months to write a script?
John: No. I have taken 15 months, but that was a weird situation, sort of like the same studio put other work in front of it. Like Big Fish took me two years, but they kept putting stuff in front of it, so I couldn’t really get started on it.
Craig: Then Big Fish didn’t take you two years.
Craig: It took you the time it took you, and then they made you work on other things. And that’s different. But each of those things took an appropriate amount of time and, listen, people work at different paces. I get that. And I don’t think of myself as fast or slow. I’m probably very average. But, 15 months is kind of astonishing.
And then to show up, and to also.. — If I were on month nine and I didn’t have anything yet, I would probably call someone and say, “I’m going to need a little extra time.” I’m not going to show up after a year and a half or whatever and go, “Uh, sorry, I don’t have it…”
John: And also to look at it, like Joe Eszterhas, he clearly is fairly prolific because he was able to write this, I don’t know, it was a 12-page letter.
John: And by the way, the 12 most entertaining pages I have read in a very long time. I want to option the letter and make the movie of the events that supposedly transpired. I don’t necessarily believe these events actually happened, but if they did happen, it’s crazy.
Craig: I’m with you, by the way. Look, you and I are both members of groups, identity groups, that Mel Gibson has publicly besmirched. And yet I read this and I think: There is no, absolutely no way that Mel Gibson called Jews “Oven Dodgers.” I don’t buy it for a second. I just don’t believe it. Why would he do…I mean, I understand why somebody would do that initially, but if you have already been caught and humiliated publicly in this huge horrifying way, would you really keep doing that?
Something doesn’t add up.
John: Yeah. What also doesn’t add up is that basically every paragraph… — The two paragraphs will describe some horrible incident that took place. And then the next paragraph starts with like, “But then I came to visit you in Malibu and we stayed the night there.
Craig: Right! [laughs]
John: And so like, what, you are the abused wife that keeps coming back to the husband?
Craig: And that was Mel Gibson’s point. “If I really were the person that you purport me to be, why were you on this project for two years? Why didn’t you just immediately leave?” I mean, and that is a great point. I wouldn’t sit in a room with somebody who called Jews “Oven Dodgers.” [laughs]
By the way, “Oven Dodger,” I have to say as a collector of racist slurs, that’s a new one on me. It doesn’t even really make sense.
John: It doesn’t make sense.
Craig: Yeah. “Oven Magnets” is what I would call Jews.
Craig: I mean, “Oven Dodgers?” Which oven did we dodge? I think we hit them all.
John: Didn’t Eszterhas… — Well he’s not old enough to have gone through the Holocaust. Or maybe his family did.
Craig: Well, he himself is Christian. I think the deal is maybe that his wife is Jewish and he got really into Judaism or something, which is nice, but…
John: Fair and lovely.
Craig: Yeah, but… — And listen, everyone has a right to be offended by hateful speech. You don’t have to be a member of the particular group that is being slurred, but “Oven Dodgers,” I’m just questioning the logic of the slur, [laughs] because as far as I could tell, Jews didn’t miss many ovens from 1941 to 1945.
John: The other thing which I adored about this letter is that it is actually clearly typed in like Word and then just printed on a normal printer. And, like, who prints letters anymore? So he actually had to write this thing, print it, fold it up, put it in an envelope, and send it to somebody. Because what was published wasn’t a fax; it was a scan of an actual real thing.
Craig: I think you have uncovered yet one more piece of evidence that Joe Eszterhas is stuck in the ’90s. But, I mean…
John: I was reading this last night and thinking, “When was the last time I physically wrote a letter, like typed up a letter in word, and printed it and mailed it?” You just don’t do that anymore.
Craig: Only if a governmental agency requires it.
Craig: It is bizarre. But I guess underneath all of the drama and stupidity of it all, I’m just sort of questioning the screenwriter sense of it. I just don’t get…What were you hoping to achieve with this letter? That he would read it and go, “Oh, your friends love it? Hmm, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Warner Brothers is wrong. Maybe this is a great script and I just didn’t realize. And I’m going to shoot it.”
What’s the strategy? I don’t get it.
John: I don’t get it either.
John: It does also point out what we frequently talk about on the program, that screenwriting is the craft of pushing words around on the papers, and that is a crucial part of it. But a lot of career screenwriting is the ability to get along with other people. And this seems like a classic example of two people who could not possibly get along with each other. Trying and failing to get along with each other. And that is the doom. That’s where it goes awry; it’s the combination of ingredients.
Craig: Well, they have worked together before, I think, right?
John: Did they? I don’t remember.
Craig: In the back of my head I seem to think that they had worked together on something. In fact, in a weird way I thought, okay, I understand if Mel Gibson feels like, “Alright. I’m kind of a persona non grata right now in Hollywood because of the things I said, and maybe what I should do is find somebody I had a relationship with that preexisted all of this brouhaha, because it is a little weird for me to sit in a room with a new person who brings the baggage of all these events, and doesn’t have any pretext. So maybe I will go find Joe Eszterhas.”
I mean, in theory it’s an interesting idea, but it’s kind of… — The whole thing is ugly.
Craig: Yeah. And makes me sympathetic to Mel Gibson.
John: Yeah. And it is a weird upshot of it all is that by releasing a short statement saying, “That’s crazy, Joe,” he actually seems like the more sane person.
Craig: He is the more sane person. [laughs] There’s no question.
John: So, you should work with people who are visibly more crazy than you are, and therefore you will seem like, “Oh, he’s reasonable at least.” It’s actually very much a Survivor strategy; you keep around the people who are like so off the wall nuts that no one is ever going to vote for them, and therefore you look better by comparison.
Craig: So, it’s sort of the “stand next to the bigger girl to look thin.” It’s the mean girls’ strategy.
John: Absolutely. So, let’s follow up a little bit on Amazon because on our last podcast we spoke about the new Amazon deal which is essentially they have revamped how Amazon Studios is going to be working for their screenwriting — it’s much less of a competition than it used to be before. But basically Amazon Studios is going to try to make movies, and they are now going to be — they cut a deal with the WGA so that WGA writers can be employed by Amazon.
John: And in talking with other screenwriters in follow up after we had our podcast, some people have come back and said, “Well, I think you are overstating what a success this is, or even if it is a success,” because other studios have done similar kinds of things, where like Dimension, for example, which is a division of Miramax, or whoever owns Dimension now.
Craig: Weinstein Company.
John: Yeah, bought and sold many times. They classically have a non-WGA signatory branch.
Craig: All studios do.
John: All studios do. So basically it is a way for them to buy things outside of WGA auspices when they have the opportunity to.
Craig: Well, kind of. The deal is that when studios, when entities sign these agreements they are essentially saying, “We acknowledge that if somebody is going to do the work — if we are going to employ somebody to do the work of a screenwriter, if they are a professional screenwriter then we have to it through the WGA.”
There is this weird thing about being a professional. And how you define professional — it’s in the MBA. There is some actual definition. So, Warner Brothers can hire somebody non-union to write a script if they are not a “professional” screenwriter. Now, in practice, that rarely happens. For instance, when I wrote my first screenplay, I had to join the Guild. It’s actually a fuzzy thing. I should really ask them and figure out how this all works, like what the deal is with that.
John: What I think the Amazon deal, and sort of the blowback about what the deal actually encompasses, and who gets covered and who doesn’t get covered, it comes down to from my point of view the difference between literary material and professional screenwriting. And Amazon Studios, as it was classically set up was really designed to just filter and find literary material. So, it wasn’t so much set up for, like, “We are going to employ these writers to do this work.” It was, “If someone wrote a great screenplay, we could find that great screenplay. And we are going to bypass the whole system by finding these great screenplays that no one else has found.”
That didn’t really work out very well for them. So now they may have some scripts that are kind of good ideas, or kind of interesting, but they actually need to do the work of giving those scripts to a place where they could shoot them. And that is going to involve professional writing. And that professional writing is now going to be largely covered by the WGA.
Craig: It seems like it, yeah. But I think that there is a reasonable question to ask; for people who are new, who are not professional screenwriters, who have written a screenplay in their home in Wichita, if they send it to Amazon, my understanding is that if Amazon buys it, it would be a WGA deal?
John: Yeah. I haven’t seen confirmation on that. So, I think it is going to be interesting to figure out how that is actually going to work in practice. If it is a spec script that somebody wrote who is not WGA covered, Amazon buys it, is that the kind of thing that is going to kick that person into the Guild?
It doesn’t necessarily have to be, because Amazon could theoretically be buying it through their non-signatory arm, but at the moment that they try to employ a WGA writer on it, that script becomes a WGA property. A WGA-covered property.
John: That is not necessarily going to pull that original writer in.
Craig: Right. That is the deal. It’s like, okay, the first screenplay I ever wrote, I wasn’t a professional screenwriter. I was a guy. But the studio that bought it, in that case Disney, understood that at some point they might want a WGA writer writing on it, therefore they had to buy it under the WGA deal. Therefore, I had to join the Guild.
And I suppose that that is sort of the idea at Amazon. It’s like, you can hire a guy to write the script, but if you ever want to hire a WGA writer to rewrite it, you need to do the whole thing under the Guild. I think.
John: We’ll see how it works out.
Craig: We’ll dig into this and report back.
John: So, our first question of the day actually is a follow up on this. “Craig’s comment during the discussion on the new Amazon Studio deal was just utterly stupid.”
John: And this is from Jock. Jock can say you are utterly stupid.
Craig: I agree.
John: Should I cut that part out?
John: We’ll just leave that there.
Craig: John, I’m so used to it. [laughs] By the way, utterly stupid is one of the most mild things anyone on the Internet has said about me. So, I haven’t even been touched…
John: That’s fair. Stupid? Fine.
Craig: What’s his name?
John: I think that’s his real name. This really is his first name.
Craig: Not a chance. Jock? His parents didn’t name him Jock.
John: Yeah, but maybe he goes by Jock. I think your name is whatever you choose to call yourself.
Craig: That’s utterly stupid. [laughs]
John: Thank you for pointing that out, my belief in self-naming rights. [laughs] I’m like a stadium and I choose to name myself.
Craig: That’s right.
John: “Of course there is something between being a full-on professional and nothing.” So he is criticizing your point about either you are professional screenwriter or you are not.
Craig: Oh, okay.
John: “In the same way that lots of people have one novel in them and no more, either because they are out of ideas, or because the process no longer interests them after all that, lots of people have one screenplay in them. The number one should not be taken literally. Maybe it’s two, maybe it’s four. Regardless, it is a smallish number. Maybe they have exactly no interest in dealing with the insane Byzantine world of the Hollywood system? You two live…” “you two” being you and me.
John: “…live inside a world in which the studio system makes sense, where people are either screenwriters, or they aren’t. But the simple truth is, that isn’t how the world really works. It’s just how your world works.”
Craig: Oh! It’s not? [laughs] Oh my god. My mind is blown. Keep going.
John: That’s the end of the edited question.
Craig: Oh, that’s it? That’s not how the world works. Dot. Dot. Dot. It’s like a Flash Gordon episode. Will he survive?
John: [laughs] Craig just made a TV reference, so I think people have to finish their drink.
Craig: Well, but it’s a TV reference from 1952.
John: I thought you were referring to the new TV Flash Gordon.
Craig: No. No, no, no. God no. I didn’t even know there was one. [laughs]. Is there really one?
John: Yeah, Flash Gordon. David Goyer.
Craig: No, not Flash Forward. Flash Gordon.
John: Oh, Flash Gordon. Yeah.
Craig: See, Flash Gordon, my dad would go to the movies in the ’50s, and in front of movies — we will get to Jock’s moronic comment in a second. I promise. But he would go to movies, and before the movie they would show a serial, and it was usually a Flash Gordon. And it always ended in a cliffhanger. So it was like a 10-minute short and he was kid, and he believed everything he saw, of course, he was really into it. And he said they would always do this thing where like two guards would lead Flash Gordon down this cave/tunnel/hallway into this big room with a lava pit. And they would take him and throw him. And he would be mid-air, falling into the lava, and then they would freeze.
And then the announcer would say, “How will Flash get out of this? Come back to the movie theater next week to find out.” Such a great cliffhanger. And then he would go back the next week excited to see how could Flash Gordon possibly escape from this. He is literally falling into lava.
And they would start up, except in starting up with him hovering over the lava, he would be walking down the hallway again, and this time they wouldn’t throw him in; he would beat them up and escape. [laughs] It was such a rip-off!
John: Such wonderful cheating. It’s sort of also like comic book covers where they show some scene that is supposedly from the story but has nothing really to do with the story.
Craig: Exactly. It’s just a total lie. But it’s a false cliffhanger. And in this case, I think Jock has provided us with a false cliffhanger.
“That’s not the way the world works.” But he is not going to tell us how the world works, presumably because he doesn’t know either. I don’t know what he is talking about. Look, you can have one script and you can have 1,000 scripts in you. I’m not talking about how many scripts you have. I’m talking about this simple question. Are you a professional screenwriter or not?
The word professional means it is your job, it’s your profession. It’s what you do to make a living. Either you is or you isn’t. It’s not that hard. I mean, I don’t get it. It’s like, if you write a screenplay, one screenplay, and you sell it, then yes, you are a professional screenwriter. If you never write a screenplay again, you have ceased to be a professional screenwriter.
It’s not like there is this magical thing that happens. It’s a little bit like Schrodinger’s cat. I mean, at some point you are kind of both, I guess, in a weird way. But there is no such thing as a half a screenwriter, or a hobbyist screenwriter. You are or you are not. That’s that.
John: I would say Jock is arguing that there is such a thing as a hobbyist screenwriter, as a person who loves to write screenplays, and wants to sell screenplays but doesn’t want to become a professional screenwriter.
Craig: That’s nonsense. [laughs]. That’s crazy.
John: That can be nonsense, but it doesn’t mean that Jock isn’t that person who is doing that.
Craig: But Jock is wasting his time, because why would you write screenplays to not sell or be employed as a screenwriter? I mean, if you are literally writing… — Screenplays are designed to be turned into movies. We are not talking about novels. You can write novels as a “hobbyist” because the point is that a novel should be read. And novels aren’t defined by any other process. You read them.
Same thing with short stories. I’m a short story hobbyist. I get that. I don’t sell my short stories. I would never try to sell my short stories. But I put one on the Internet because I thought it would be interesting for people to read. And then some of them did.
But screenplays are not to be read. They are to be turned into movies. They can’t be turned into movies if they are not bought and sold. [laughs] It’s a simple thing. I mean, is this guy for real?
John: I wonder if there is such a thing as like a hobbyist architect who like…
Craig: Right?! Exactly.
John: You draw…you build these amazing blueprints for things that you will never actually build. I’m sure there are those people.
Craig: But they are not architects. They are not.
John: They are not. They are pretend designers.
Craig: The building is the evidence of architecture. The plans are not the evidence of architecture. It’s…I am beside myself. And I’m not beside myself because he said I was “utterly stupid,” or my comment was “utterly stupid,” because I have been utterly stupid at times. I’m upset because when people say things like this, I think we are wasting our time. [laughs] That’s what I think.
How do we…that is an impossibly thick amount of granite to push through. I don’t know what to do.
John: And see I have been the nice guy who has agreed to speak sometimes to like a small town screenwriting society, and so you go in and you visit these people. And they are so nice. And they just love movies and they are working on their scripts. But it’s clear that many of them have no intention of every actually trying to sell the things, or how they would sell the things. They just love to write screenplays.
And I guess it’s fine. I guess if you are enjoying it, it’s like, if it is their form of poetry I don’t want to judge them in a negative way. But, it’s not…I don’t know. It’s not really screenwriting.
Craig: Well, we can say this for sure. If you truly want to just write screenplays for yourself for personal fulfillment for a sense of expression or achievement, I have no problem with that whatsoever. And I don’t judge you. However, you are not a professional screenwriter.
So, the whole point of his premise is that there is something in between professional and non-professional. And he is wrong. He is just a non-professional screenwriter. [laughs]
I think that there is this other thing of like, “Well you guys are from the studio system and we’re not; we have these other things that we are doing, like I’m writing screenplays for YouTube or something like that.” And then my feeling is, okay, well then if you are writing screenplays and making them into movies on YouTube, I guess in a sense you are a professional screenwriter. You are kind of, I guess. I mean, you are…are you? I don’t know. What the hell? Yeah.
John: Here’s what I…I think professional versus non-professional, that’s a fairly clear binary thing. Are you getting paid for it or not getting paid for it?
Craig: John, that’s utterly stupid. [laughs]
John: That’s one of the delimiting factors. And I have a whole other rant about professionalism and I feel like professionalism kind of really isn’t about being paid for it. Professionalism is about doing your best work as if you were getting paid for it; as if people are — people are going to judge you on your professionalism regardless of whether you are getting paid for it. So, professional is sort of a weird, loaded term that way.
And, yes, there are all sorts of new kinds of writing-based filmed entertainment things you could be doing. But if what we are talking about is you write 120-page screenplays and you do not attempt to sell them, or that is not your goal or aim at writing a 120-page screenplay, that’s just kind of weird, and that’s not really what we are talking about.
And so, the longer parts of what I edited out of Jock’s questions was he had been defending the original Amazon Studios deal saying it was a way in for us people who are outside of the system. And it’s like, well, I think it was a really horrible way for people outside of the system, and this is a slightly better way for people outside of the system. But, you shouldn’t be submitting it to this thing if you have no desire to ever be in the system, because it is meant to be another way into the process of making actual feature films.
Craig: It’s basically, and I don’t mean to get personal here, but it is a loser attitude to say, “I can’t get into the system, therefore I am going to celebrate this other thing that is a way in that has nothing to do with the system.” I wasn’t in the system. You weren’t in the system. Neither of us were born in Hollywood. Our parents didn’t do this. We wrote and then we got in the “system.”
More to the point, I don’t even like that terminology because it implies that there is some building we walked into that is bigger than us. We are the system. You and I are the screenwriting system. They go to us and say, “We need screenplays.” You know what I mean?
I feel like this guy has this kind of… — It’s this prevalent, “I can’t make it. I’m never going to make it. So how dare you people who have made it assail something that affords me a chance to make it.” It’s not making it. What they have afforded you isn’t making it. It’s a rip. Or it was a rip. And that is so important. There’s that great moment…
There’s this movie, The Late Shift, that was about the late night wars between Letterman and Leno. And there was this point where they had decided that Jay Leno would get The Tonight Show after Johnny Carson retired, and Letterman was just beside himself because he felt like it should have gone to him. And Leno is on the air, and it is not going well, and NBC comes back to Letterman quietly and says, “Hey, we screwed up. You want it?”
And he calls, I think it is Tom Lassally who was Johnny Carson’s guy.
Craig: And he says, “Should I do it?” And Tom Lassally says, “Don’t you get it? They are not offering you The Late Show? They are offering you The Late Show with Jay Leno. It’s not the same. It’s damaged goods.”
And that’s the point. They are not offering you a way in. A way into what?
John: This is a great segue to what I what to main topic for today which is that idea of breaking in. There is this idea out there that, and we use the term, like, “How did you break into Hollywood?” And the break-in, I think that is just completely the wrong term for what it really is.
John: Because it implies that there is some sort of like great heist movie that is going to be carried out. Like we have to break into the studio, and once you are on the inside then everything is different. And it’s not that way at all. And I wonder if the breaking in idea came from the fact that the actual studios sort of look like, they are little fortresses in the sense that they have walls all around them. And you are either inside of the studio or you are outside the studio.
But, in actual practice it is not like that at all. And as I have had other screenwriters write about on the blog about their first experiences, everyone is different, but the commonalities are no one ever talks about having made it. There is never that sense of like, “Now I’m inside. Now I’m really working.”
It’s like suddenly you are getting paid to write some stuff, but it is all blurry and nebulous. And there is not one moment that you are in and one moment that you are out. Joe Eszterhas didn’t realize he had fallen out of the system.
John: Just, he did. People stopped calling him.
John: So I think we may have already sort of talked about our first how we got started, but it may be worth recapping here just as a sense of how you get your first job, what your first job is like.
Craig: Well everybody’s story is different. I have never met any two screenwriters that had the same “how I got my first job story.” So, anytime people ask, “Well how did you break in?” I always say, “It’s kind of irrelevant to you. I will tell you if you are interested.” But the truth is everybody has a different way in. And, by the way, I totally agree with you that the language is a trap, because I will say this: You get your first job, and you start writing, if you aren’t immediately worrying about the next one, you’re nuts.
Craig: Because all that is really happening, there is no on/off switch for in or out, right? There is you are being paid to write for now, and hopefully you will be paid to write quickly again. And it is essentially like anything else; it is a business of relationships, and success and failure in intervals. And so there is no in or out. People have sold scripts for huge amounts of money and then disappear. There are people who have been nominated for Academy Awards and disappear.
There are people who kind of churn away under the radar for 30 years, making a check every month. Everybody is different. It’s a very diverse business, with a lot of different ways to do this, and frankly what shocks me so much about this kind of strange resentment that has occurred, almost like a weird 99%/1% sort of resentment thing going on lately… — There was an interesting thread on Deadline where there were allegations of trust fund screenwriters or something.
John: Oh, yeah, I forgot. You came from a very wealthy family and that is why you are so successful.
Craig: Yeah. I was lumped in. It was the strangest thing. They were like, “Look at all these writers who have trust funds whose parents were rich.” And then they listed me, and I’m like, “My parents were public school teachers!” I grew up in… — My hometown in New Jersey is where Bruce Springsteen grew up. That song, My Hometown, that’s my hometown. It’s Main Street, white-washed windows, and vacant stores. That’s where I grew up.
It’s very strange. So, no, I wasn’t a trust fund baby. But, what was I saying? I can’t even remember.
John: A couple points, I think, were all relevant, and I think we should get back to trust fund babies.
Craig: Trust fund babies. Yeah.
John: Everyone’s story about how they got started — I like to say get started rather than breaking in — everyone’s story about how they got started as a working screenwriter is different, but the commonality I found in every story is that they wrote something that someone read and said, “This is amazing. This is great. This is better than anything I have read this week, this year. I want to make this movie, or I want to see this happen.”
So, it all started with you wrote something amazing. It wasn’t that you had a good idea for a movie. No, you wrote something that people loved. And that thing that people loved often never got made, but it was so good that people said, “Hey,” not only did they pay attention but they said, “I want to work with you on this.”
And so in my case it was the script that should never see the light of day called Here and Now. And one of my professors read it, and classmates read it, and it got me to a producer. And the producer got me to an agent, and we got it sent out. And it never sold but it got me started. And everyone has some story of something that they wrote that someone said, “This is great. I want to see this happen.”
And it wasn’t that they wrote something that was like, “That’s pretty good. That’s about like an average screenplay I’ve read.” No. Someone said, “This is better than the other stuff.”
John: And so it all started with like, “You wrote something that was better than everything else there and ideally something that feels like we could make this into a movie, like I can see a way to make this into a movie.”
Craig: That’s key. I mean, I remember the phrase somebody used when I first started was “You can do this,” which is a big thing for them because they are constantly reading scripts where they think, “Well, there’s some interesting things here and there, but in the end I know what it’s like to write a screenplay from the outside, you know, as an employer, or producer, or studio executive. I know what my side of this is. I know the journey that the screenwriter is going to have to go through to some extent. And I don’t think they can do it. I don’t think this person can do this.”
Then you read a script and you meet the person and you think, “I do think the person can do this, and that is a big deal.” And it’s this weird kind of blink style judgment that they make that is based on the person, on the material itself. There is just kind of a vibe, like this guy gets it and this person doesn’t.
But what I was going to say before is, and it goes to your point about the material. Really, we don’t break in; we get noticed. And contrary to the current griping climate, there are more ways to get noticed now than ever before. That is why I am so astonished. It’s like, Amazon?!
The notion that you need Amazon to get you noticed is absurd. You can put a screenplay right now on the Internet. If somebody picks up… — Look at the guy who is on Reddit. The guy on Reddit who just started writing a story about marines who fell through time and landed in the Roman era — he was noticed in a way that would have never happened 20 years ago. Ever. And he is a screenwriter, and he is a professional screenwriter right now.
So, the notion that the walls are… — They are lower than they have ever been. So I don’t know what all the complaining is about.
John: Some people just need to complain.
John: And let’s talk about the trust fund baby or the nepotism, because I was aware of this when we were doing rehearsals. I brought my daughter to see rehearsals for just like a half an hour two different days. And in the back of my head I’m thinking, “Oh, wait, is this some sort of like weird, special advantage for her? Does this make her more likely to be able to have a career in the arts because she saw it?”
And, like, well yeah, kind of.
John: Because she got to see not the finished product, but she got to see the hard work. And I feel like a lot of times when you see people who are successful, and they come from either parents who are wealthy or parents or parents who were artists… — Like Lena Dunham whose show Girls I have to plug every podcast, her parents are both artists. And so I look at her, who at 25 is writing, directing, and starting in her own TV show, and working her butt off, I’ve got to think that is partly because she saw her parents working their butts off every day and achieving success by having worked really, really hard.
John: I remember when I first met Steven Spielberg and I was really intimidated by him, and he was considering directing Big Fish. And so I guess I visited him on set. And I thought, “Well, he must just be magic, because he makes these amazing movies, and so he must have some sort of magic power.” And then I saw him and realized, “Oh, no, he is actually just working really hard.” Well, I can work really hard. Oh, it’s not magic.
And, I don’t know, that’s…
Craig: Well, I think that for kids of… — If your parents are in the business, and I know some people who are in the business whose parents were in the business, then I can see, well, you did have the benefit of a great private tutor. My parents don’t know anything about screenwriting and certainly could not have encouraged me or helped me as I was beginning.
John: The Gyllenhaals, their mother is an award-winning screenwriter. Their father is a director.
Craig: Yeah, that makes sense. Sure. But in the end, of course, they also, they’re Gyllenhaals, they have to be really good-looking to be onscreen, and they have to actually deliver the goods, which they have.
And so the point is, it’s not enough to… — I mean, sure, you could maybe get one or two, but the notion that, and now let’s turn to screenwriters and this absurd nonsense that there is this rash of trust fund screenwriters who have the luxury of writing all day the way that no one else does, because they are sitting on mounds of family money, is insane.
I came out here, I came to Los Angeles with my Toyota Corolla SR5 Red, you can link to that. It’s a gorgeous little car, [laughs] and $1,400 that I had saved up from working. That’s it. By the time I had rented my apartment and put first, last, and security down, I was basically down to about three or four weeks of money to sort of eat and live or whatever. And I immediately started calling up temp agencies and got work as a temp employee. And then got work — my first actual salary was $20,000. And there was no cushion. There was no anything. But I was writing.
Writing is free. It’s the freest thing in the world, assuming you have… — You know what? Forget the assumption. You don’t have a computer. You don’t even have electricity. You have a pad and a pen. [laughs]
John: I write a first draft by hand, with a pad and a pen.
Craig: It’s the freest thing in the world. It’s the last thing you need luxury for. This absurd notion that writing is so tragically difficult for the fragile human state that you must spend all day, you know, I don’t know, like Byron, languishing in your tuberculosis and scrawling on a pad for minutes at a time, and then taking breaks. It’s like, what?! No! No. It’s the last job you need a trust fund for.
John: You know, things you need trust funds for. I think we could probably make a list. Polo. I think Polo is a kind of sport that requires some trust funds.
John: It’s hard to become a professional polo player if you have no access to horses.
Craig: Yeah. That’s right.
John: Or like somebody to clean your little white chaps.
Craig: I think yachting probably.
John: Yachting. Yeah. That’s pretty much that. There are very few other things.
Craig: I mean, no, I don’t want to come off like a guy that doesn’t acknowledge that some people are born on third base and think they hit a triple. Because, that’s true; some people are like that. They are out there. But, there is a tendency for those who are on the bench to take swipes at everyone who is at the plate. Everyone is there for the wrong reason because, obviously, if there is no unjust reason for people’s success, then there is no unjust reason for their failure.
And they need an unjust reason for their failure.
John: To you point about being born on third base. I would argue that every American is born on third base.
John: And so the difference between like me being born in middle class Boulder, Colorado versus someone being born in Alabama is pretty much meaningless in terms of a screenwriting career.
John: Yeah. High class problems.
Craig: High class problems. Look, we can look at the various inequalities that exist in the screenwriting community and debate why they are there.
John: And there are inequalities.
Craig: There are. There are inequalities.
John: Under-representation of women. Minority representation isn’t where it needs to be. TV has made inroads, but features — hasn’t made the same kind of inroads. Those are all meaningful things that should be looked at and should be addressed.
But to say that it is because of what people’s families were before this I don’t think is accurate.
Craig: Well, and then it is also unfair to start listing off writers who are white men and succeeding and accuse them of being the beneficiaries of some trust fund. That’s bizarre to me. It’s not fair. I mean, I personally don’t — if you want to take a shot at me, it’s just patently absurd because obviously I’m not from a trust fund. Everybody knows what public school teachers make.
But then there are people, like poor Jamie Vanderbilt whose name is — he’s a Vanderbilt. He’s from the Vanderbilt family. And so it is easy to go, “Oh, well that guy…”
But here’s a couple of things to point out. One, Jamie is an excellent screenwriter. Excellent, regardless of what his last name is. And, two, there are like 1,000 Vanderbilts. I mean, I know Jamie. We have talked about this Vanderbilt thing. He is like, “Yeah, I was like to the big mansion in North Carolina once, but there are a lot of Vanderbilts. I don’t really have the Vanderbilt fortune. I’m not that kind of…”
It’s just not fair. It’s not fair to diminish what he’s accomplished. It is so hard to be a screenwriter. And it disgusts me, frankly, to see people tear down screenwriters on the basis of anything other than their work. And even then I wish they would stop tearing them down on the basis of work and just be nice.
It’s a hard job. Just be nice.
John: Just be nice.
Craig: Come on!
John: Three quick questions that we can wrap up with.
John: First question is from Tucker. “Could you talk about the quote system for getting paid for assignments? Is it negotiable? Is it written in stone? Is it different for pitches you have sold? I’m up for a job but my quote is low. I don’t know how much wiggle room I have.”
Craig: Hmm. That’s a good question.
John: So, a quote is something that gets asked, like, “Oh, so what’s his quote?” And it is generally like what is the last you got paid for a similar job.
Craig: Yeah. That’s right. I mean, the quote system is sort of pegged to what you are or would be paid for an original screenplay. That’s kind of how they back everything out. So you have a number. Like let’s say you sold an original screenplay for $300,000. Your agent will argue that that is your quote. Therefore your rewrite quote will be, I think, $200,000.
And it is a way of sort of benchmarking what your market value is for business affairs, because business affairs essentially goes by formulas. And their job… — These studios all understand that it is tragic when one of them increase someone’s salary, because that ripples across to all of them. And just as if I increase your salary at Fox, then Sony is going to have to pay that new number. If Sony does, it’s back to me, then I have to pay an even bigger number. They don’t like to do it.
John: We should say, though, it is not that Sony has to pay that big number. It is that Sony is going to feel pressure to pay that bigger number. They can choose not to pay that bigger number, and then they are just not going to hire you, or you can stand your ground. Your quote could drop because no one is willing to pay what you say you need to pay.
Craig: Yes. That’s true. Although when they start — when they get as far as, okay, let’s negotiate the deal, they understand already what your quote is. They don’t get into that, they don’t get to the “let’s negotiate a deal” phase in ignorance of your quote.
So, they are already aware of what they are going to roughly kind of pay. And they are dealing with fairly powerful agencies usually — CAA, UTA, WME — who leverage not only your quote and your worth as a client, but just the agency in general. So, that is roughly the quote system.
And then the deal is you get bumps, that’s the industry parlance for increases, when you get a movie green lit, if you get a movie mad, if the movie’s a hit. Stuff like that moves you up. Whiffing, not delivering the goods, that will move you down.
John: But we should say it is not like a D&D bonus where it is like, “Oh, your movie got this much, so your quote automatically bumps to a certain amount.”
John: It’s that since the last time you were paid something, the agency can say all of these things happened, so we think he is at this level now. And we think that is the bump? You can do it as a bump for this.
Craig: That’s right. And that’s the art of negotiating as an agent. You kind of are playing this sort of vaporous game about what these things are worth. And there are other factors that come into play. How in demand are you? Who wants you there? Does everybody want you, including the very important director and actor? Are you a studio that tends to pay what they call Full Freight?
Some studios are sort of notorious for being discount, where they say, “Look, we are not a big studio. We make smaller budgets, but then we try and compensate you additionally when the movie comes out and succeeds.” Other studios are full freight studios; they have tons of money and they are not catching a break.
So, it’s all… — This is why agents, theoretically, get 10%. [laughs]
John: A question from Mario. Mario says, “I am a Canadian currently working and living in California as a game developer.” But he’s also a screenwriter. “If a studio likes your work and wants to work with you, will they sponsor a work visa to allow you to live in the US? Otherwise it seems the only solution for me if I want to work in Hollywood would be to go back to Canada which seems a bit ridiculous considering I live so close to where the action is right now.”
So I actually know something about work visas. I know some international screenwriters. You can sometimes get sponsored by a work visa. More likely what is going to happen is once they start paying you enough money, like if you sell a spec script for a certain amount of money, or you are getting paid a certain amount of money for a job, you are going to find the Hollywood immigration attorney, like the guy in Los Angeles who does this. And he is going to figure it out for you.
John: It’s one of those things that money actually does sort of solve. And it will be some weird thing where as you form a loan out corporation, that loan out corporation is going to hire you. There is going to be some magic way to do it, because it is not uncommon at all.
Craig: It’s not. Although it has become a little more difficult since 9/11. Immigration got a little weirder. And bizarrely it is difficult for Canadians. I remember going through this with someone that we wanted to bring in from Vancouver to LA to work on a production for us. It’s difficult. And it’s annoying actually.
But, yeah, when there’s a will there’s a way.
John: Yeah. And money makes it easier.
Craig: Money seems to make things easier.
John: So, if you do sell that spec script, and you want to work here, then you get started on it, and it is going to take awhile, but you will make it all work out. And it has worked out for many people, many times before.
And the fact that you are a screenwriter, it’s different than if you are a costume designer. That feels like one of those jobs where you can fairly argue that there are many costume designers here; screenwriting is a specialty career.
Craig: That’s right. That’s a good point. I mean, the concept behind the immigration blocking is “There are fifty unemployed costumers that are here that are citizens; we would rather that they be up for this job and not an import.” And you have to sort of justify that the imported employee is special and unique. And that is much easier to do when you are talking about art.
John: Yeah. And so I would say if your agent or whoever is getting you this deal, someone who works at that agency will know how to do this. And will know who the first person is that you need to call.
John: Last question is about animation. “Since you are both working on animated projects right now…” I forgot, are you working on something right now?
Craig: Yeah, I’m involved — I wrote a bit on this movie called Turkeys. And now I am involved sort of as a consulting producer.
John: Okay. And I’m working on Frankenweenie. So, this person is writing to ask, “I’m curious about how your deals for these projects were structured. Does the WGA have jurisdiction or is I.A.T.S.E. involved? When a WGA takes on an animation project, by whose rules are they playing? If a new writer breaks in with an animation project, can he negotiate a WGA deal?”
So, what was the deal on Turkeys? Is it I.A.T.S.E.?
Craig: Oh yeah. It’s I.A.T.S.E. Animation Guild 839. I don’t believe there has ever been a feature animated film that has been WGA, in part because I.A.T.S.E. Animation 839 has jurisdiction. The only WGA deals I’m aware of for animation are primetime Fox. That’s it. [laughs] I don’t know of any other ones.
John: The mocap, the Zemeckis mocap things are WGA-covered, and it is up in that weird gray area, are those animation or are those live action? And so far they have been counted as live action which s great.
Craig: Yes. And so that is the kind of gray area where the WGA has prevailed, and SAG and AFTRA and everybody has kind of tried to say, “Look, this is really, let’s call this live action, even if you are…”
It’s sort of like, “Okay, if I shoot you truly in live action, and then rotoscope you, it’s not like that is animation guild all of a sudden.” Animation is traditional. All images are drawn. Or, all images are entirely computer generated. So, if you are rolling film, or you are rolling video…
John: On Frankenweenie, they are shooting frames, but it’s one frame at a time.
Craig: Oh, they are doing stop motion?
John: Stop motion.
Craig: And is stop motion WGA or animation guild?
John: It ends up being moot because they have all been British productions. So I think, maybe I am covered by I.A.T.S.E., but I am pretty sure that it is just some bizarre British thing and I get a check every once and awhile.
Craig: I suspect that stop motion would be considered animation out here and not WGA.
John: I’m sure it’s considered animation.
Craig: Yeah. So, I mean, the real question when you sign a deal for animated work, let’s talk about feature animation because that is what I am most familiar with, it’s not a question of WGA or not. It’s a question of union or not. Because they have every option of saying, “We are doing this non-union.” And your great interest is in making sure that at the very least it is covered by Animation 839 because, and 839 is the – I.A.T.S.E. is this really big union, and then they have all of these locals which are divisions. And Animation Guild is Division 839.
Because, you will get at least pension and healthcare at a certain level. And you may not ever vest in the pension system; I doubt I will because I don’t work that frequently in animation, but there is healthcare for those of you who don’t have healthcare. And that alone — that and some minimum protections. There’s not much else, frankly, that that contract provides. There are no residuals. There’s no credit protection. Certainly no separated rights. But it’s better than nothing.
John: Better than a kick in the butt. So, the lack of residuals you definitely feel when you write an animated movie. Because, like Corpse Bride, that sold a lot of video copies and I don’t get a penny for video copies on that.
John: And that does really hurt.
Craig: Oh, yeah. The guys I always think of are Elliott and Rossio because Ted and Terry wrote Aladdin. Ted and Terry wrote Shrek. Not a penny in residuals from those movies. And we are talking about, god, billions in revenue.
John: Yeah. And it’s too bad about Pirates of the Caribbean being such a disaster and not making a cent for them. So…
Craig: [laughs] Oh, I can still feel a little bad.
John: You can feel a little bad for them.
Craig: Sure. You know me. Well, as a fellow trust fund baby, I feel bad for the ultra rich.
John: So this writer who’s writing in saying like, “If I broke in with an animation project, will I be able to join the WGA?” No.
John: Nope. So, on your next project, which is written for live action, yes, maybe so. And I don’t know of any examples, but I’m sure there are. Oh, wait, no, no, no. One of my first movies…this got complicated.
Titan A.E., at some point in its genesis, I think they talked about doing it live action, so there was one… — There was a window at which it became a WGA-covered project, and it wasn’t. That does happen sometimes where it is like it is not clear whether you are going to do this animation or live action.
John: So that can happen. I don’t know of other examples like that.
Craig: The one I can think of is Curious George which I think started as an animated project and then moved towards a hybrid. And they had to move it out of.. — They tried, I think they fought, as I recall; I think there was a fight to try and keep it non-union. But the Guild successfully argued no. No, the second you put somebody in there…
Interestingly, they put in, there is a little bit of live action in WALL-E. It’s the only incident of that in any Pixar movie. And it is Fred Willard as the president. He actually filmed. And I’m kind of curious…I guess if it is just for that small amount they just got around it.
John: Yeah. Happy Feet has a few moments that I’m pretty sure are real people as well.
Craig: Hmm. I didn’t see those films.
John: You are not missing much. If you like penguins dancing? If that’s your thing, penguins dancing…
Craig: I love penguins dancing!
John: Well then I don’t know why you have missed it so far.
Craig: What’s wrong with me?!
John: Well, there are a lot of things that are wrong with you, but unfortunately we are out of time and we can’t talk anymore.
Craig: I think it’s fortunate. [laughs]
John: [laughs] So thank you, Craig. So, this was a podcast about, let’s see, luck.
John: Trust funds.
Craig: Yup. The Holocaust.
John: The Holocaust. Joe Eszterhas. And that really…
Craig: It’s a classic. And being utterly stupid.
John: Yeah. All these things, and more in this episode.
Craig: And more. [laughs] This was a good one. I like this one.
Craig: Anytime I get angry I think it’s a good one.
John: Okay. We will call you stupid. I like it like…
Craig: Oh, it’s the best.
John: All right, thanks Craig.
Craig: Thank you.