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. So, Craig, has anyone called to offer you the Disney job yet?
Craig: Ah, no, they haven’t called. I’m a little surprised.
John: Disney Studios is lacking a studio chief right now.
John: And based on our previous podcast conversations, I think, Craig, you might be the right person for the job.
Craig: I think so. I started at Disney. I know the culture there. I live in La Cañada like former Disney legendary employee Dick Cook. So I feel like that is a nice little bit of continuity.
John: But can you find your way around the lot? That is really the key. Because I was on the Disney lot just last week, I got completely lost.
Craig: Oh, no, that lot is burned in my brain. I even have my secret little spots where I got to think. I know that lot backwards and forwards.
John: This last time they had me park in the Zorro lot, which I was not even aware existed, and so the Riverside — and I remember when I was doing a TV show with ABC parking at the Riverside gate, but I think the lot is new from when I was really last there, because I got just completely confused.
Craig: Yeah. That structure by the Riverside Gate entrance, which they like to shove people down there now. When I started at Disney there were no parking structures at all; it was just a flat parking lot, which was brutal. But then they put this big parking structure over by the Alameda Gate side, and then that filled up with employees. So now the primary guest lot is the Zorro lot which is by the Riverside Gate, and now everyone is asleep.
John: This is a podcast about parking, evidently.
Craig: This is podcast about parking, and things that are interesting to parkers.
John: So, my meeting was in the… — The reason why I parked there, I guess I parked there because they told me to park there, but they said the animation building, so I’m thinking, oh, it’s the animation building, the one that looks like the little wizard hat. But of course it is really the old animation building.
Craig: Old animation building, yes.
John: And so it is so funny that the old animation building, I don’t know, it’s probably 50 years old, but the new animation building is still like 15 years old or something, but it is still the new animation building.
Craig: And the new animation building, frankly, I find to be god awful. I think it is an atrocity. Whereas the old animation building is this beautiful great old art deco classic Hollywood structure. I love it.
John: It’s nice. If you guys are ever at meeting over at Disney, you are probably going to be in the Dwarf building, the one that has the dwarfs are holding up the roof. But the nice building that is next to it is the animation building. And wander around it. It’s very nice.
John: But I was thinking about sort of as I was having my meeting at Disney that it is lacking a studio chief right now. Disney is sort of in a weird place, and I have seen some articles about it since they lost their studio chief; they have so many deals with other people now that they not going to be making a lot of movies themselves necessarily. So, they have a deal with Marvel. And Marvel is going to make two or three movies a year.
John: DreamWorks is maybe five, maybe?
Craig: And then Pixar.
John: And Pixar. Pixar and all the other animation, because last year sort of took over all the other animation responsibilities. So, Frankenweenie is a Disney movie, and I think it is sort of more under his auspices than sort of main Disney, I don’t know.
So, there are not a lot of movies, of live action movies, for Disney to necessarily be making. So, who do you bring in who only wants to make five movies a year?
Craig: Well that is the interesting thing. They are not just missing a studio chief; they are missing a studio. Disney used to have Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, Hollywood Pictures, Miramax, and all of that seems to have dwindled to almost nothing. I mean, they have gotten rid of obviously the Touchstone, Hollywood, and Miramax labels are no longer theirs. And the Walt Disney Pictures…
John: But they are still using the Touchstone label though, aren’t they? Didn’t they use that for The Proposal?
Craig: Yeah. I think that trot it out every now and again. But it’s not like it was. You know, it was a real viable distributor. Disney seems to be out of the movie business, quite frankly. They just aren’t… — They are in the distribution business, they are in the marketing business. Obviously they are in the theme park, merchandising and cruise business, and network business with ABC. But, when it comes to making live action movies they have really shrunk down.
In fact, you could actually argue that in addition to the suppliers you mentioned, Marvel, DreamWorks, Pixar, I would include Bruckheimer, because Jerry operates almost like a little mini studio there.
John: He is going to make one or two movies a year.
John: And he’s going to soak up a tremendous amount of your capital making expensive tent pole movies.
Craig: Right, which I think they want. I mean, they want those tent pole movies. But he operates so independently that it is almost like he is another little mini studio there. So, it’s a very strange thing. It’s one of those jobs where you kind of would be running a studio, but kind of not.
John: If they were going to call me for a job interview, which they are not, I would steal some of what you said when we did the podcast about running a studio. I would reach out and try to make some deals with some writers and directors, especially some directors. Because I feel if they could make three live action movies a year, they didn’t have to be tremendously expensive, but if they could make those three movies that really fit the Disney brand, they would be in great shape.
Here’s my pitch. You figure out which directors you want, you figure out which writers you want. You bring them in and you say, “Okay, we are making essentially blind deals with you. Over the course of this next year pitch us three movies. Pitch us one at a time, however you want to do it; figure out what movies that both of you want to make, you director, you writer.
“Yow will come in and you will say, ‘This is a movie that we want to make.’ We’ll say, ‘Sure,’ and we will have you write it, and if we decide to green light it then you are making that movie.”
Because that is the thing that directors aren’t getting right now, is they are not getting the opportunity to say “This is a movie I want to go make.” Instead they are having to sort of chase after jobs.
John: If they could come in and say, “This is a movie I feel confident making. This is the writer I want to work with. We know how to make this movie.” And it feels like a Disney movie… — That’s a great place to be at.
Craig: Yeah. And that is the key. It’s got to feel like a Disney movie because Disney is unique. They are the only studio whose name implies a brand and a contract with the audience. And they don’t really, with rare exception — you mentioned one of them — they don’t really make…
Touchstone was created to make non-Disney Disney movies, essentially. But here is a great example. John Lee Hancock is going to be making a movie there called Saving Mr. Banks about which I am extraordinarily excited. And it is essentially a movie about the creation of the movie Mary Poppins, and the tremendous tension between the author of the books and Walt Disney himself. So that is going to be great.
But that is [laughs], it’s an interesting thing. It’s like Disney movies now are almost down to movies that must be made at Disney because they couldn’t be made anywhere else. It’s a very strange situation over there. And I know that in talking with producers and directors and agents, and I think agents is the one that Disney should be most worried about: no one really knows what to do with them. And no one even looks at them anymore like a real supplier or buyer of property. It’s a really weird thing.
And it is depressing for me because, like I said, I stared my career there as a screenwriter. And, you know, I just would love to see them be back in that business. It just seems like they don’t want to make movies.
John: You brought up John Lee Hancock who I think is exactly the kind of person they should be trying to make movies with, because The Blind Side could have completely been a Disney movie. The Blind Side could be a Disney movie. The Help could have been… — The Help was a DreamWorks movie, but if you had the Touchstone label, The Help could have totally been that kind of movie.
So, here’s some people I would try to make deals with.
— Also, a DreamWorks movie, but Real Steel would have been a great Disney movie. It would have made $20 million more if it had a Disney logo on it, I think.
John: So you make a deal with Shawn Levy, John Gatins, John Lee Hancock, Anne Fletcher, who did The Proposal.
John: Bill Condon. Susannah Grant.
Craig: Yeah. People who do good family… — And Aline was working on a movie there for awhile, a Cinderella movie, I think.
John: Oh, she was working on Cinderella, that’s right. Or Lennon and Garant, because they made Night at the Museum.
Craig: Night at the Museum. See, that is the thing, and you are exactly right.
John: That could have been a Disney movie.
Craig: And obviously it did extraordinarily well at Fox, but you are right, it would have done better at Disney. There is something about Disney that makes things seem classic and that name means something to parents. It certainly means something to me when I am looking for something to show my kids.
John: And they would have had a ride out of that for.. — They just could have cross-collateralized it. They could have transmediated it in a way that was meaningful there.
I would also add like Justin Lin, John Chu. These sort of interesting directors who are coming from action movies or coming from dance, or whatever, and who could make a Disney movie.
Craig: I think anyone. Yeah. If a director is interested in making family entertainment, and that doesn’t mean stupid entertainment. It must means movies for the whole family, then they could make a movie there. But the truth is the company doesn’t seem really that motivated. It’s not they are trying and failing. They are not trying [laughs] and succeeding at their goal which is to not make movies.
Now, it might be that Rich Ross, the recently deposed head of the studio, was the problem. But somehow I don’t think so. I just don’t believe that two or three months in, if he hadn’t been able to find material or had not been looking stridently for material that he wouldn’t have gotten a call, “Hey, step it up.”
I think that the company is just — they look around and go, “Look, we are paying this enormous amount of money for Marvel,” which is working out great for them. It’s about to work out hugely for them with The Avengers. “We are paying a lot of money to DreamWorks, we’ll see how that goes, and then Pixar.” I mean, let’s face it — people talk about Disney buying Pixar, but Pixar really bought Disney. That’s the big thing; that’s the big story to me.
John: Yeah. They have movies that are in the can and I will be curious how they work out. The Odd Life of Timothy Green, which is a small little movie my friend Jim Whitaker produced — it feels like it is a classic Disney live action movie, and it could work. And it sort of feel Christian-adjacent, which feels right for Disney as well.
Craig: Yeah. I’m Christian-adjacent.
John: We’re all kind of Christian-adjacent. America is basically Christian-adjacent.
Craig: Christian-adjacent, exactly. I mean, I believe in not stealing. I guess that makes me, right? [laughs] I mean I follow quite a few of The Commandments.
John: That’s good.
Craig: Quite a few of them.
John: Also how the Golden Rule is considered like a Christian tradition when like every culture has the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule gets you though like 90% of morality.
Craig: I recall, now I have got to really dial way, way back to Hebrew School and my youth, but I recall that the Jewish version of the Golden Rule which obviously pre-dates the Christian version which was an interesting contrapositive — is contrapositive the right word? So, the Golden Rule in Christianity is do onto others as you would have them do onto you. And the Jewish version was do not do onto others as you would have them not do onto you. [laughs]
And I can’t decide which is better. I think that they are both probably pretty good. Like don’t hurt people or they are going to hurt you back makes sense. Whereas like “bring someone a cake and then you will get a cake” is nice, I just don’t think the world works that way. It’s not quite as practical. More admirable though.
John: More admirable. But there are so many statements, “You reap what you sow,” I mean it’s a question of has it become an active command, like this is what you should do, or just an observation that good things come to those who do well to others?
Craig: Yeah. I tend to think that the Jewish tradition is very legal and sort of practical and like, “Look, here’s a general good guide. This is best business practices.” And the Christian is more —
John: It fits very well with the no shellfish kind of structure.
Craig: Exactly. ‘Cause you could get sick. And Christianity is far more aspirational and it is about living an idealized life. Christ represents an idealized way of living; it’s the best possible way to live, at least according to Jesus.
John: So now we are a religious podcast. We are not just about vaginal issues and family and parenting, but we are also a religious podcast.
Craig: I wish we were just about vaginal issues. That would just… — It would be a shorter and more interesting podcast.
John: It would be terrific. Everything John and Craig know about women’s reproductive health.
Craig: [laughs] It’s a lot actually.
John: You have kids, you learn a lot about how —
Craig: You learn so much. You watch two babies come out, you learn all sorts of cool stuff.
John: You do.
So you had sent me earlier this week an article that Greg Poirier wrote for the WGA, I don’t know if it is the WGA Magazine. I’m not really quite sure what site I linked it to, but it was this nicely written essay by Greg…Gregory — I’m calling him Greg, but I’m not sure if we are friendly or familiar enough I can do that. But he writes about his frustrations of being a feature writer now and sort of how the industry has changed and how it is better in TV.
And you had sent in through as grist for the mill and I ended up blogging about it. But tell me what was in there that sort of set you off.
Craig: Well, he is talking about things that you and I have talked about before on this podcast, but I really hope now that our listenership is expanding, and hopefully it is expanding here inside of our business, I kind of feel like there is a chance for us to reach some people who make some decisions.
What he is talking about is the shortsighted view of employing writers during development, specifically the mania over limiting development deals to one step. The mania of not developing anything if you are not absolutely sure you are going to make it, at which point it is not really development. And also the nonsense about requiring writers to pitch out the entire movie before they get the job.
All of this stuff makes absolute sense from a paper-pushing, number-crunching point of view. However, it is hurting the movies. That to me is absolutely clear. I don’t see how anybody could see it in any other way. It is hurting the movies. And one hit movie, or one extra hit movie easily washes away any of these meager savings you might be getting cutting these deals down.
And he goes through why, and all of the reasons are things we have discussed. Development is the R&D of our business. Any business requires R&D. The first classic mistake of a dying business is to cut down on R&D. You are basically just lying down to sleep and die.
So, if you under develop and if you are unwilling to develop things that don’t actually come to fruition, you won’t be able to get those things that do. You are way too tight and you are running way too close to the bone.
John: In my blog post I sort of expanded on his idea that television works differently. And in television the research and development cycle is very clear and apparent because it is pilot season. So, it is a time where everyone hears the pitches for pilot shows, the buy a lot of pilots, they shoot a lesser number of pilots, and they pick up a subset of those.
And when you go through that process, it is kind of grueling and exhausting for a writer, but it is also exciting. It’s a chance, like, “Here is my idea. Do you want my idea? Great.” You are not going though endless notes on what your idea is because the clock is ticking so fast.
John: You are going in. Some of those pilots get shot. It costs a tremendous amount of money to shoot pilots – $5 million, more. They are spending a lot of money to figure out which shows they may not even make. Because they know they are not going to put every pilot they shoot on the air. That has never been their business in TV. They know that less than half of the pilots they shoot are going to be a series, but they see this as a good investment; a good way to figure out which ones are going to work. And then they put some of them on the air.
And the ones they put on the air have been through a vetting process and they feel have the best chance of breaking out. And so they are taking risks, but they are also taking calculated risks because along the way they are figuring out how they are going to spend their money.
Compare that to features right now where you go in, you pitch an idea. It’s like, “Well, I don’t know what that is; I don’t know what the poster is for that, so therefore we are not even going to try.”
John: And that’s why —
Craig: We are not even going to try. Right. We will never know if your script would have gotten Brad Pitt. We will never know if it would have attracted Christopher Nolan. We’ll never know.
“We just won’t know because right now here in this room I am not sure how I can justify to my boss that that actually will be in theaters in 2.5 years.” That’s ridiculous.
John: Also, when you consider — look at how much money it costs to market a movie. So, they are saying, “Well, movies are becoming so expensive and it costs so much to market them.” Well, yes it does, but really that $1 million you spent for that one Super Bowl commercial, that would have bought a whole new script, a whole new project that could have gone through multiple drafts and you might have had something brand new that you could have made.
So, spending some money upfront is giving you better choices for which movies you can make which can potentially break out. I don’t know, if you are only taking a few swings, you are much less likely to have hits.
Craig: And tragically when they do decide to take a swing, it’s a check swing. Because making these one-step deals, and I feel like I keep saying this over and over, and it seems so obvious to me. And I just don’t understand why they don’t see this. And maybe it is because they don’t write, so they don’t get it.
When you make a one-step deal, not only are you giving this writer one bite at the apple, and writing is a process. It requires a back and forth. That’s why they have executives there to give notes; they are acknowledging it requires a back and forth, and a review, and a development.
So, not only are you chopping that guy off — or that woman off — at the knees in terms of like, “It better be right the first time,” but you are also sending that writer off to get other jobs while they are writing for you. That’s the stupidest part of it all. It used to be that you would get a job, you have two guaranteed steps. Basically you could stop and go, “Okay, I can write this first draft and not go out on meetings, and not pitch other stuff, and not pitch other takes. I’m just going to write this material. And then we will see how it goes and then I will write the second part. And if it feels like it is kind of swirling the drain, I will start looking for work then.”
Now, everybody is always looking for work, which is ridiculous, so they are not completely focused on you. And to make matters worse on top of that, looking for work has become far more arduous because now they demand more work to get work.
So, they are shooting themselves in the foot. And this is one of those areas where I kind of sound like a traditional old bitter screenwriter going, “Those stupid idiots in the studios.” But in this case they are being stupid idiots. They really are. And they need to stop and think about what they are doing here.
There was an interview with Adam Goodman. He was talking about how proud he is of Paramount that they have been cutting costs. And he cited a bunch of things like, “We are cutting all of the frills like flowers, and producing offices, and rich producer deals. And we have cut down all of those two-step deals to one-step.” And I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, that’s not flowers in an office. [laughs] That’s not a frill. That’s everything.”
You got to do that stuff. If you don’t do it, you are killing the process that makes movies. I just don’t get it. I don’t get it.
John: So, and it is not just us sort of ranting about this. Actually a guy wrote in under the pseudonym of Biff. It’s a very long thing, but I thought I would read it because it is a different perspective and also a very useful one. So, I apologize in advance. This is going to be like a minute of me reading, but it’s good.
Craig: Oh god.
John: Oh, god. Right.
Craig: Whatever. [laughs]
John: So Biff writes, “I went for a walk the other day. I loaded up a bunch of Scriptnotes. I said to myself, ‘Maybe one day I will check these guys out. What could you possible know?’ So I listened to you and Craig go on for awhile. The walk was 14 miles long; I never got bored. You do an amazing job analyzing this mad world we live in.”
Craig: Wow, I’ll say. I mean, I’ve got to interrupt and say —
John: This is the part that I left in there where he just praises us.
Craig: And also but nice job on 14 miles. That’s like a three-quarter marathon or something?
John: That’s good. I love long walks.
Craig: Half-marathon. Nice work.
John: Yes. “So I’m breaking into the screenwriting business. Actually, I have been breaking in for 109 qualified quarters, or so it says on my WGA pension statement.” 109 qualifying quarters, that is 25 years? It’s more than 25 years.
Craig: He has been at this for a long time.
John: He’s been at this for a long time.
Craig: And qualifying quarter means that he qualified for health insurance.
John: So he got paid to write.
Craig: This guy has been working. He’s a real pro.
John: “I’ve written TV, features, and a novel. Done rewrites, weeklies, preproduction, and polishes during shooting.” I don’t know why I suddenly got southern there. “I’ve had a bunch of my stuff made. I have defended my deal; I’m still getting two steps. Hell, I recently got five: the two guaranteed, two optional, and a non-applicable when they moved the goal posts so much even they had to admit it was new work. We scouted that movie, movie stars were calling in to be in it. It just didn’t get made.”
So this is a real guy. I mean, he’s actually talking the way a real produced screenwriter would talk.
John: “I just finished a pet project for another movie star; it didn’t get made either. That doesn’t bug me — I actually like doing what I do.” So, he is not being cranky old man here. “I have no debt. I own my house. I could stop doing this tomorrow and never worry about it again.”
Craig: This guy is cool. I love this guy.
John: “However, in the last year or so the job of getting the job has become untenable.”
John: “Sweepstakes pitching, jobs that evaporate at the studio level, producers sending me material I find out they don’t even control.”
John: “And the latest duplicitous move it to bring in a number of known working professionals, have us all pitch, have us come back again after demanding more details, and then hire a new writer who has never had a job, fresh off the blacklist, at 10% of the quote of the guys they have been meeting with.”
Craig: Of course. Meanwhile everybody has been funneling them stuff that they can hand off to this guy.
John: They have been the research and development department for the movie.
Craig: Unreal. Ugh.
John: “So the first time happens you shrug it off. The second or third time this happens you begin to get suspicious. If he is the right guy, well hell, they should hire him; that’s how I got my first job. But I have quit believing that is what is going on. ‘The next time,’ as Sam Butera explained to Louis Prima, ‘there will be no next time.'”
Craig: [laughs] I love this guy. He’s the coolest.
John: Maybe really this was you writing in under a pseudonym.
Craig: I would like to think that it is me in ten years. [laughs]
John: I have a hunch we might actually know who this is.
Craig: Oh really?
John: I genuinely to my life don’t know who this is, but I feel like it is somebody who is in our world.
Craig: Alright. Well you tell me afterwards, because I love him. And first of all, I love the fact that he is obviously an older guy, or older than I am at least, and he is walking 14 miles. Hat’s off.
John: That’s good stuff.
Craig: But boy, yeah, he’s nailing it.
John: “I had a president of production ask for a free rewrite before he gave it to his chairman. Not a polish, he had notes. A true multi-week notes.”
Craig: [laughs] And a president of production asking for it. That’s unreal.
John: That strikes me as flat-out abusive.
John: “Has the landscaped changed that much? Has the douchiness pervaded every level of the business? Have I turned into Clint Eastwood shouting ‘Get off my lawn.’ Do I get shot in the end? I have thrown up my hands and just gone back to specking stuff I love. I’m optioning books myself.”
John: “So I throw it out to you guys: How are you facing this new world? Is it a new world? Are you experiencing burnout? It’s a first for me.”
Craig: Look, the best question he asked, and this I want to say to you writers out there who are either trying to break in, or you are in and you are early on in your career. I want you to listen to how smart his question was at the end. “Is it just me?” Am I being that bitter guy railing against the system the way so many writers just knee-jerk their way into doing, or, perspective check, am I actually right and these guys out there are nuts?
That’s an important question to constantly ask yourself because it is so easy to slip into this sort of “it’s not me, it’s you/everything I’m doing is right/the world is unfair and unjust.”
Craig: Self-pity. So I love that he asked that question. In this case the answer is no sir, you are not wrong, or crazy, or being Clint Eastwood on your lawn. The landscape has changed. It has changed dramatically and for the worst. No question.
No question has it changed for the worst. And this is the stuff we are talking about now that Poirier indicated. The notion that they are going to bring in all of these people and make them jump through all of these hoops is — there were always hoops, but now the hoops beyond the hoops, and the hoops within the hoops are just bizarre.
And then he said something else that really struck a chord with me. “Jobs that evaporate.” More often than not I hear from fellow screenwriters that they are not losing jobs to other writers. They are losing jobs to “we decided to not hire anyone.” They are losing jobs to “let’s just not spend money.” Which is amazing because you should really make that decision before you bring the writer in, don’t you think? [laughs] Don’t you think? That you wouldn’t bring writers in and have them come up with takes and ideas if you weren’t really sure you were going to make the movie, or god forbid didn’t control the property. It’s insane.
Insane. I’m taking umbrage. I’m taking umbrage.
John: He’s taking umbrage. And umbrage is important here.
He is asking do you experience burnout. And I have experienced burnout at several stages kind of along my screenwriting career, and sometimes it is just after a really bad experience where it is like I have to sort of not do this. I have to not get into the fray again after just having a really bad time on a given movie.
And I have had frustrations over the last couple years with a bunch of movies that sort of seemed like they were going to go, and then didn’t go for reasons — each of them sort of had their individual reasons, but that becomes frustrating, where you kill yourself to deliver a draft and it just doesn’t move forward.
But that is sort of the nature of being a screenwriter. That is not really unique or sort of special to the situation. Where I have become more frustrated is the kind of things that he is talking about, is the “Is that really even a job? Is this just a fishing trip? Are you really serious about making this movie?” And it is those times where I had to go in and found myself being asked to do a lot more sort of beat-by-beat-by-beat pitching out the movie. It’s like, “Well, look, this movie is sort of like Big Fish. And I wrote Big Fish. So I think I can probably write this movie.” And that gets to be frustrating.
And so some of the reason why I have gone off and done more stuff, developing apps, or why I went off to do the Broadway show, is because it is a different world. This is a different thing where it is new and exciting and fresh, and I am not charging to the same frustrating battles every day.
Craig: Yeah. I haven’t gotten burnt out. And it may be that because this gentleman is essentially nine years beyond where I am in terms of the longevity of his career, and how many meetings he has been through. I would imagine the grind eventually catches up to you. It has to.
But my strategy has been to try and be a producer. I’m not interested in being a producer-producer with a deal and a thing, but I approach everything like a producer. And I try and write screenplays now for a director or for an actor that means a lot. That is what I try and do. I have lost interest in random development. I just don’t want to do it anymore. Because I don’t believe in it. Because they don’t believe in it either.
So, in a weird way I have kind of shifted the way I work toward what they want. And the shame of it all is that the old way, the development way, was a good way. And made/produced a ton of good movies, and if you didn’t even like the movies, a ton of successful movies, how about that, if you are thinking about it just from the point of view of money.
But since that system is broken, I just don’t play the game anymore. I don’t like to play a game where the rules have been changed in such a way that it is pointless. I don’t pay Black Jack if they don’t give you a little extra when you get Black Jack. So, that’s been my move.
And I think, by the way, in a weird way he is already kind of going there. He innately understood, “Okay, that’s not doing it, so I am going to go make specs. I’m going to go option my own books.” Brilliant. Brilliant. I mean, obviously he has a great long-standing track record. He knows what he is doing. He has been doing it long enough that he is a pro, for sure.
So, that’s good. He is essentially avoiding the unfair game.
John: Yeah. But, still, frustrating.
Craig: Very. Very.
John: Let’s touch a craft question. Frank from Philadelphia writes, “Can you offer any before and after examples of characters who in one draft lack depth and in a subsequent draft have become more robust? I’m hoping to see side by side examples of how the action or dialogue changed to deepen a character.”
So, this is audio, so side by side is hard in audio. But I included his question because I think it is a useful thing to talk about is that sometimes you read a script and it is just flat. And the characters read flat. And you are trying to figure out what it is that is making you not care about these characters.
And, to me, it is generally that when I first meet the character, if I can see him as a stock person in this kind of movie, I won’t care. And so if this is a comedy and he is like the stock guy who hits his alarm clock in the morning and that is like the first shot of the movie, and we see him go to work in the morning. I’m unlikely to care. If I don’t know sort of what it is that is unique about this guy, and why this is a different movie because this character is in it, I’m not going to care.
So, it may be an interaction that happens very early in the story that lets me know something special about this guy. I can tell you, it’s almost never going to be a flashback. People try to add depth to characters by creating a flashback where they see how their father was killed. No.
But it is an action that the character takes very early in the story that is surprising, that tells me something unique and special about this character. It makes me curious to find out more about the character.
Craig: Yeah. I’m sort of a little puzzled. I don’t really — I don’t write a character that isn’t interesting to me. I mean, I may have to improve the character as I go and maybe increase the specificity. Simply the act of getting though the first draft makes me realize that there is more of an interesting role or more subtlety to add to a character.
But if I don’t actually know what is interesting or unique about the character, I don’t even know what to write anyway. You know, it’s interesting — there are writers who do these things called “vomit drafts,” where they just get it out, “I just get it out on paper, and it’s terrible, and I don’t care, because then I can go back…” And I’m not one of them. I need to know what the hell is going on.
John: I’ve never been a vomit draft person either. Every scene, once it’s typed in there I feel like it could shoot. It’s never just sort of the random —
John: So I should say, I kind of reframed Frank’s question as I was answering it, so I wasn’t sort of talking about in my own script where like, “Oh, that character was flat in that draft, and now in the second draft it pops more.” I’m really more talking about something was sent to me, I’m scrolling through it on the screen as I need to rewrite it. And the things I am looking at to change are often those setup details and really those first moments of interaction that sort of set who are expectation is for that character.
And so as I am sent something to rewrite, I will look for sort of how does it begin. And what do I know about this character at the start? What am I curious to know more about? And how can I move this guy from being exactly the stock character that I am expecting to be in this movie?
Craig: Mm-hmm. That’s a good answer.
John: Thank you.
Next question. A reader writes, “I’ve recently graduated from college in Colorado.” Colorado is awesome, so congratulations. “During that time I wrote three feature screenplays with the intent of producing and directing them myself. However, I would like to see if I can sell them.”
Okay, well fine. You want to do everything because you just graduated from college. [laughs]
John: Exactly. I’m not going to chastise him for the optimism of a new college graduate.
Craig: Mean John August is the best.
John: Alright. “What would be the next step? Do I try to get an agent? Can I do that while I’m still in Colorado? What is the process of finding representation as a writer?”
Well, an early step you might take is to go back through our old podcasts and find our second podcast, I think, which is about how do I find an agent. So that would be useful. But I kept this question in for the larger sake of you are a new college graduate, “Can I do this living in Colorado?”
No. You should move to Los Angeles if you want to make Hollywood movies. Because you are in the best position of your life because you are just now graduating from college. You have no expectations of quality or standard of living. You can move out to Los Angeles and be broke and work for minuscule money interning at places and making copies and running stuff around, and doing all the stuff you should be doing as a 21 or 22-year-old recent college graduate who wants to be breaking into screenwriting.
So, you should take advantage of your youth and your poverty and move out to Los Angeles.
Craig: I think this is a tougher thing for this generation to wrap their heads around than our generation, because the kind of telemetrics of social activity have expanded dramatically. You don’t feel a great need to be in a room with anyone anymore. But, in this business so much happens just in the gaze between two people sitting across a table.
And we have talked before about how being a professional screenwriter is built on a base of writing talent, but what escalates the base towards a pyramidal point is your ability to sit in a room and make scared people feel comfortable that their very scary proposition of giving you a lot of money for a screenplay is going to work out. And that requires eye contact and a physical presence, and that requires you being here.
So, get a ticket, or get in your car and come on out.
John: One of the other crucial advantages of being in Los Angeles is a lot of people in Los Angeles are trying to do what you are trying to do. And while that might seem like, oh, well that’s competition, it is also going to help you. Because that guy in the next apartment over, he is trying to work on this, too. Or maybe he is going off to direct a short film and you can help out on his short film and you strike up a friendship.
There is going to be a bunch of people who you can — networking is really gross. I hate the word networking, but there are people who can help you, and you can help. And you can all sort of rise up as a generation together. And that is not going to happen online.
Craig: That’s right.
John: It’s going to happen if you are around actual real people. The random person you meet at the supermarket is going to be more helpful than the people you are going to meet in Boulder, or Colorado, wherever you are.
Craig: That’s right. And I get it, it’s scary. I mean, I remember when I first came out and started in the business, I was overwhelmed by the culture of it all, just how many people had so many strong opinions about so much stuff.
You were surrounded by people who hated things and loved things with a passion, people who were dismissive of other people. Everyone was hyper critical, and everything seemed to move at this fast pace. It’s all a con game, right? And confidence. It was so many people with so much confidence. And I remember thinking, “I really feel like 10% of this is valid, and 90% of it is nonsense.” But that 10% was useful.
So, by the way, was my ability to discern the 90%. And I feel like if you are a smart, self-assured individual who can keep your own center, who doesn’t feel the need to absorb the flavors around you like a brick of tofu, you will be able to parse out what is valuable and interesting and productive. And, then of course, just as importantly, parse out the stuff that is pointless.
Because, I’m sure you had the same experience: so many of those people we started with are gone. And boy they thought they knew what they were doing.
John: And then they vanished.
John: And so if you are driving up from Colorado, you also get to go through St. George, Utah, which is an experience that no one should ever miss.
Craig: What’s there?
John: It’s sort of the very tip bottom of Nevada and Utah, and I just remember every time I have driven from LA to Colorado or back, you always drove through St. George. It’s an important milestone along the way. You are almost in California.
I’ve done the drive straight through by myself, which is not healthy. I wouldn’t recommend it.
Craig: You mean like in one shot?
John: One shot.
Craig: From Boulder to LA no stopping?
John: No stopping.
John: Well I stopped to get gas.
Craig: Yeah, yeah. I mean no sleeping. I drove across the country three times. One way east/west, west to east, and then east to west finally. And the longest stretch I did was New York to Chicago. That’s a good haul.
John: That’s a good haul.
Craig: Yeah. But I did get pulled over for speeding in Utah I remember. [laughs] And the cop said if you disagree with this ticket you can see the judge. And I said, “Okay, where’s the judge?” And he said, “The judge, she is available on Wednesdays and Fridays. And she is about 40 miles…” And he started, I was like, “You know what? I’m going to go ahead and pay the ticket. That’s cool.”
John: Yeah. Utah.
John: Meanwhile our international listeners are like, “What is this driving?” Like, “You can’t drive from one country to another country?” No, America is so huge that you can just spend days, and days, and days trying to drive across it.
Craig: Unless you live in Canada or Russia, in which case we are tiny.
John: Yeah. We are the third or fourth largest country?
Craig: I think we are the third. I think it is Russia…oh, maybe China is third.
John: We had this debate earlier this week. And so I think China is actually smaller than the US.
Craig: Oh, okay. Well you know why? Because of Alaska.
John: Alaska gives us so much.
Craig: It is such a cheat. I mean, it is such a cheat.
John: It was a bargain. It was a bargain just to put us in number three.
Craig: By the way, Alaska, one of the greatest purchases. Maybe the greatest bargain ever.
Craig: Yeah. Seward’s folly.
John: Brian asks, “I recently signed with a literary agent on the strength of my film school material. I’m a baby television writer looking to make good, so acquiring this agent was a great step forward. My question is this — how often can I expect to talk to my agent? I’m not sure how much I should expect her attention. As her newest and least profitable client, I know I am very low on the agency totem pole. I don’t want to appear needy or high maintenance.
“However, I have noticed that when I send my agent an email or place a call to the office, I won’t receive a reply for a couple of days. Is this normal? And if not, can you suggest any strategies?”
Craig: No it’s not normal.
John: It’s not normal.
John: So the rule used to be that you should make — in Hollywood you are supposed to call everybody back within 24 hours.
John: That may have slipped a little bit. To me, I feel like someone can email you back on the basis of a call, that’s fine. But people should get back to you faster than that.
Craig: No question. I mean, unless you are really annoying. And then I get it. But then that is a conversation your agent should have with you.
My rule of thumb is I don’t talk to anybody unless there is a context. I don’t call people up to chat. I don’t call people up to say, “How’s it going.” I don’t ask open-ended questions like, “Is there anything I should be doing differently or have you heard anything?” I don’t do any of that.
I call up with a problem or I call up with a need. “I have a script, I need this. I’m working and this guy is being a jerk, can you help me out. I’m calling you because you sent me on a meeting, and I am giving you a report on it.” So it is all business.
If they are not calling you back, then you send them an email saying, “Listen, if you can’t get back to me within a couple of days, then I have got to move on to somebody who can. Is there somebody else at the agency that you feel has more time for me?” Unless you are being an annoying nudge, and then you stop doing that.
John: The only slight bit of slack I am going to cut for this agent here is Brian does say he is in television. So, depending on what the season is, and sort of where things are at, there gets to be crazy season in television where I can see a call slipping a day.
Craig: Yeah. That’s true.
John: So I’ll give a little bit of slack for that, but if that has been the overall yearly pattern that they are taking three days or four days to get back to you on things, there is a problem and you need to call and figure out what the problem is. Or, figure out your reasons to call. There can be valid reasons to give you calls back.
John: Sorry, Brian, but no, it should happen more often than that.
Craig: It should.
John: Kyle asks, “Where do movie pitches actually come from? How are they created? For adaptations or sequels, they are created from previous material, obviously. But what about other movies that writers come in and pitch for? Were execs just sitting around a room ad started throwing out movie ideas against a wall?”
So, that seems like a very basic question, but we haven’t addressed such a basic question. Movie pitches: sometimes a screenwriter has a great idea. And you say, this is my idea for this movie, and I’m going to go in and pitch it to producers, or studio execs, or whatever.
But sometimes the studio has internally generated saying we really want a movie about women’s golf. And so they will say, “We need to find a writer to come in and do a women’s golf movie.” So all they have is women’s golf. And then they are bringing in writers to pitch them a women’s golf movie.
Craig: Yeah. And also sometimes they are sitting around and they just have a day where they sit in the office and they throw a ball around and say, “Let’s come up with ideas for movies.” They are not often very good ideas, but that is where a lot of those ideas come from.
So producers will literally sit like writers and come up with ideas for movies based on things that they believe they can sell, and sometimes they are inspired by newspaper articles or real life things, or something that happened in their own life. Sort of famously The Hangover was kind of inspired by an actual thing that happened to a producer in our business who lost the best man — or, I’m sorry, the best man lost him at a wedding in Vegas, or a bachelor party in Vegas.
These things sometimes emerge like that, and sometimes, like you said, they will emerge from more structured studio calls for a certain kind of thing. It’s funny, I don’t really think that there is that much success when that happened to you, but maybe that is just my bias. I have no stats to back it up.
John: Brian Grazer at Imagine is famous for he has like sort of an idea, just a very, very vague idea and they will spend years trying to figure out what the movie is that goes with that idea. So, I remember there being this idea of a guy who gets a paper clip shoved up his nose, and something — becomes a genius or something happens because of that. And so there was a pitch called Clipped, and a lot people went in on Clipped. I don’t know that there will ever be a movie about that, but you go in on that.
Or like I will get a call saying, I remember getting a call, “Brian really wants to do a movie about a bathroom attendant. So all you get is “bathroom attendant.” So what is a movie about a bathroom attendant?
Craig: Yeah, that’s what I mean. [laughs] I just feel like that seems like a big, huge waste of time. And it sort of goes to the remarkable asynchronous nature of this particular business where somebody who has access to a studio or funding for movies can come up with a really dumb idea like a paper clip up the nose, sorry Brian. And suddenly people are jumping and driving over there and thinking about it to pitch it.
A writer can come up with a really good idea and everyone is like, “Nah. We don’t even want to hear it.”
John: The only advice I would give to a newly working writer is it is worth going in on some of those because it’s a chance to get you in the room and talking with people and get them to see how smart you are.
Craig: That’s right.
John: You don’t want to pursue all of them, and you don’t want to pursue a lot of them with the same people again, and again. But if it is an excuse to get you in the room and make a new relationship, that can be time well spent.
John: So, Craig, we have come to the section of the podcast I would like to start labeling and trade-marking “One Cool Thing.”
John: And so I warned you about this. Did you come up with a cool thing you want to talk about at the end of this?
Craig: I totally did.
John: Do you want to go first? Or I can go first. Your choice.
Craig: You can go first, that’s fine. Because my thing is going to be cooler, so it’s cool.
John: Ah, so it’s a competition.
Craig: Yeah. [laughs]
John: So, Craig, do you play piano?
Craig: I did — as a kid I played.
John: But your wife plays piano now. I’ve heard your wife accompany you.
Craig: That’s right. That’s right.
John: So, one of my goals for this last year was to get better at piano, because I played piano at grade school, and I gave it up and I played clarinet, and that was useless. And so I’ve gotten back to playing piano better. And actually I can get my way through songs now, but I’m not great.
And so whenever I see the Broadway people, they are just ridiculously good. But I can sort of work my way through stuff. So, this last week I had this Christina Perri song stuck in my head, Jar of Hearts. Do you know it?
John: [hums Jar of Hearts].
Craig: All those “das” were the same note, by the way.
John: Okay, so I was humming to myself, and then I realized it is actually the same chord progression as the Radiohead song Creep. You know Creep?
Craig: Sure, I do.
John: And what is cool about it, as I’m thinking about it in my head, the two songs actually nest really well together in sort of a Glee kind of way, like kind of a Glee mash-up kind of way. So, the Christina Perri song goes, [sings] “You’re going to catch a cold, from the eyes inside your soul, so don’t come back from me. Who do you think you are? / I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo.”
So like they fit nicely together.
Craig: I see what you are saying. They flow. Got it.
John: They flow. They have good flow. And so I wanted to see, like I need to find sheet music for one of these songs to sort of try to figure this out. So, if you Google for sheet music, you can find a lot of illegal scans of sheet music, but I didn’t want to do that because it is really stealing. You are actually taking money from the songwriters who get publishing on those things.
And, I’m going to re-link to Jason Robert Brown had a really great blog post about vocal students who will write saying like, “It’s so mean that you won’t let us copy your songs for free.” And he has a very good point: “Well, that’s actually my job. You don’t Xerox Stephen King’s books.”
So, there is an online service called Musicnotes.com that I will link to, and what is great is that a lot of sheet music is just there. So I was able to find Jar of Hearts there. And so you pull it up, and it shows you just the first page. And you can see, oh, will this meet my needs? Is it something I could actually play? Does it look right? You can sort of play it on a piano and see if it makes sense.
But here is the amazing thing, and this is why it is good to live in the modern age. On the right hand side of the page they have a little menu, and you can transpose it to whatever key you need, and that is pretty amazing. And so I don’t know if it is actually doing it in real time, or if they just did different versions of it, but I mean computers can transpose things really easily, and good piano players can transpose things really easily. I just can’t.
So, this was very helpful for me. So I can get the song I wanted, in the key I wanted, and it is legal.
John: And so Jar of Hearts was in C-minor which is three flats. And so you click, click, click. You move into E-minor is one sharp.
John: And it’s easier for me to play. It’s in a range I can actually sing. So, it’s amazing. Anyway, my one cool thing for this week is Musicnotes, which feels sort of like iTunes for sheet music.
Craig: I have used them before. They are a little annoying because their DRM is kind of strict, and they only let you print it once as I recall.
John: Okay, so I don’t think I am violating anything super magic here. Rather than print it, just go to “Save as PDF.” So, in the print dialog box do a “Save as PDF” and you have a printed one, PDF. It is going to have your name watermarked on it, but that’s great.
Craig: That part’s dumb. I have used it. Mostly I play on guitar, and for guitar it is really chords is what matters. And there’s a hundred free databases where they just list the chords for things. And transposing on guitar is super easy. It’s really, really easy to do. I can either… — Either you are transposing strictly just for your voice, in which case you might use a capo which shortens the length of the guitar effectively.
Or, I can just do a quick transpo in my head and just go, okay, if it is in D-minor, and I prefer to play to E-minor because it is just an easier chord to finger, then I just bump everything up a step, and I can do that pretty easily.
John: It’s good that you can do that.
Craig: I can do that.
John: It’s interesting talking to the Broadway people because doing the workshop you end up transposing things a lot. They will move it up a step for somebody and figure out how to do that. And so I was talking to five great pianists there, and they all have different ways they do it. And some of them are actually sort of doing it mathematically. And others are really thing, they are doing what you just said with the guitar where this was at this key, now it is at this key. And they are not doing the math note by note, they are just changing the chord structure of the things.
Craig: Right. Exactly.
John: So that is my cool thing.
Craig: That is a cool thing. Well, my cool thing today comes with a little story, is vintage computers.
John: I love vintage computers.
Craig: Vintage computers. I would say right around when eBay started exploding, it posed an interesting question I thought to meet which was, “Okay, here’s all this stuff, what do I want?” And I am not a collector. I don’t really believe in collecting per se; I mean, I believe that it exists, I don’t really care for it. It just seems like obsessive hoarding. But the notion that you would buy something that matters to you that is a touchstone to you is interesting to me.
And the thing that popped into my head, really the only thing that I was interested in was to chase down my first computer. And my first computer was 1982, right around when the Apple II Plus came out, and the Plus was because I think they went to 16K. Franklin, a company that still makes, like, Speak and Spells and so forth, Franklin reverse engineered it, not realizing that this nascent Apple company would be incredibly litigious, and they made a copy all the Franklin Ace 1000 which was incrementally cheaper, not much.
The Franklin Ace 1000 went on sale, I think it was $1,300, which at the time was a lot, certainly for my dad, even though of course I come from a massive trust fund. [laughs] A public school teacher trust fund.
And I went online and I found a Franklin Ace 1000, and somebody was selling it for one dollar. And this was 1998, I think. And I bought it.
Craig: And I was just going through my garage the other day and I found it. It had been in storage and it made its way from one house to another, and I brought it into my office today. I’ve just been looking at it, and I love it.
And I just opened it up and looked inside. And I showed it to my assistant who was marveling at it, and he was like, “Where’s the monitor?” He literally said, “Where’s the monitor,” which I just thought was so great. [laughs] And it is just amazing how far we have come.
But it also brought back a great memory for me of my dad took me into the city — we lived on Staten Island, and there is 42nd Street Photo, and 47th Street Photo, and Da-da-da Photo, there are all of these stores in Midtown Manhattan that sell electronic equipment, kind of shystery, but we are not shyster as lawyers, but sort of rip-offy a little bit.
But, they had good prices. And so my dad and I went into the city on a weekend and went to the store and bought this computer. I was super excited. And I remember we had parked, I think, east of Fifth Avenue, and had to cross over Fifth Avenue because the store was west of Fifth Avenue. By the times we came out we were stopped because it was the Gay Pride march.
And I had no idea, and I was 11. And when there is a parade in Manhattan, they don’t let you just willy-nilly cross Fifth Avenue. You have to wait. They will give you little points, like okay, 25 minutes have gone by, now you can cross.
So, I remember standing there with my dad, holding this computer, and just jaw-dropped looking around at like men in makeup and dudes kissing. And I’m like, “What is going…?!” It was so wild. And I remember my dad was so uncomfortable! And I remember he said, “You know, here’s the thing. I’m standing here on the street, I’m a 40-year-old guy. I’m standing here with a 10-year-old kid.” [laughs].
“I’m standing here with a 10-year-old boy and I just feel like we are going to be on the cover of Newsweek next week.” [laughs] He was so convinced that his picture was going to be taken. It was great. It was great.
But we took the computer home, and we turned it on, and that really was a life-changing day for me. Just falling in love with a computer. And now it is sitting right here. I’m looking at it in my office. And in its own way, as ugly and stupid as it is, it is beautiful. And I love the notion that we can have history with our devices, with our computers, and cheaply at that.
And I have an Apple II Plus also and some old floppy drives and things. And I just love them. I hope that kids sort of dig into the history of computing, because they really have changed the world.
John: Now your Franklin that you bought, was it originally a black computer or a white computer? What was the case?
John: Beige. And so it got that sort of vintage/nostalgia beige, the way that all plastic things from that era sort of changed colors.
John: And I find it fascinating. It’s as if they were in a smoky environment all the time because they have that weird patina that they get on them.
Craig: Yeah, there’s like a browning to them, you know. And the keys — just feeling those old spring-loaded, big chunky plastic keys.
John: They are very click-clacky.
Craig: Very click clacky. And when you pop the top of this thing off you realize how much empty space is in it, whereas now when you look at a laptop it has been engineered to the nth degree. There is no wasted space in a laptop. But in these things there was just huge open spaces because they ran so hot that they needed a ton of air just to circulate around. They hadn’t really perfected the heat-sinking yet.
And more importantly, they needed space for cards because every peripheral device, a monitor, a keyboard, your floppy drives, extra memory, a printer, all of them needed a card that would be slotted in and then a ribbon cable would go out the back. So you needed all this space, so when you pop it open you can see everything and you see little… — I mean, pop it off and there is like one little controller card that says 1978 on it. It’s so cool. It’s just cool.
John: And what was the storage for the Franklin when you got it? Was it a tape drive or was it a floppy at that point?
Craig: Floppies. Yeah, it was floppies. I had an Apple, I’m sorry, an Atari 800.
John: Yeah. Atari 800 was my first computer.
Craig: And that is long gone, but that thing had, I remember it had a tape storage drive. And I think it also had the ability for a floppy drive. And the tape storage, people don’t know this — cassette tapes, so the original, like the Atari 400 and 800 would use cassette tapes, audio cassette tapes as storage. And they would print the 1s and 0s on that magnetic tape and it was, as you would imagine, enormously slow to write and even more enormously slow to read because there was no random access. You would have to rewind the tape to get your data back. [laughs]
John: Obviously there was something digital, but you could hear it when it was loading it in, too. So, there would usually be three loud audio beeps to signify this is the start of a program. And then you could actually sort of hear it loading in. It was like Morse Code; it was a very manual process. But when we first got our Atari 800, I remember setting it up and they connect to TVs.
Like, Stuart had no idea that computers used to connect to TVs.
Craig: That’s right.
John: But you connected it to the TV, and we typed in a program from I think Analog Magazine, or something like that. And so it was full of like Peeks and Pokes. And then it would generate these colored lights that moved around the screen. It was like, wow, this is great. But we didn’t have the tape drive yet. And so when you turned off the computer, that program went away.
Craig: It was gone.
John: You would never see that program again. So, like, we left it on for a couple of hours, and then like we can’t just leave the TV on all night.
Craig: Right. It was gone. There was no storage at all. Yeah, it’s a funny thing how tactile computing used to be. Even the floppy disks, nerds like you and me, we knew, we were like in this little secret brotherhood that knew that you could buy dual-sided floppy disks for a certain amount of money, but single-sided were cheaper. But single-side disks, obviously they were two-dimensional. There was another side to them. So all you would have to do is take a hole punch and punch a little notch on the other side of the thing so that the disk drive knew that there was a readable disk there, and you just flip it over.
And so everything was very tactile. You were really holding and touching things. All the controlling, cards, and the floppies. And you would push down on the lever to make the head push down to the circle in the middle of the floppy disk. There was something great about it. I loved it.
John: It was very mechanical.
Craig: Yeah. Beautiful.
John: That’s one cool thing.
Craig: Yeah. It’s one cool thing.
John: Craig, thank you for this nostalgic trip.
Craig: Yeah, I hope that whoever this guy is, he gets up to a full marathon now with us.
John: Absolutely. This was a full hour so this will give him a fair amount of a workout.
Craig: It’s a good walk.
John: Thanks, Craig. I’ll talk to you next week.
Craig: You got it.