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. How are you, Craig?
Craig: I’m not too bad. Hanging in there. How about yourself, sir?
John: I’m doing really well. It’s a beautiful afternoon.
Craig: Yeah, we’re finally — it looks like we’re starting to peak out of the 100 degree misery.
John: This weekend — this last weekend was super hot. I guess by the time you’re hearing this podcast it was two weekends ago, but it was super, super hot. We were down at the San Diego Zoo, and the San Diego Zoo is amazing, but when it’s 102 degrees no zoo is amazing enough to make you really want to stay there.
Craig: One day, and maybe it’s today, I’ll talk about how I hate zoos. [laughs]
Craig: Hate. Hate zoos. I’ve hated them since I was a child. We would go to the Bronx Zoo, which is one of the world’s great zoos. Hated it.
John: It’s a great zoo. I’ve been there.
Craig: Hated it. Hate the LA zoo. Hated the San Diego Zoo. Hate zoos. Don’t get ’em. Mystery to me.
John: I like zoos for kids. And, you know, we go to the LA Zoo fairly frequently. And the LA Zoo gets a lot of flack because it’s the hilliest place on earth. Like somehow topographically they managed to put extra hills in places where you wouldn’t think they could actually put a hill.
John: But once you learn how to manage the LA Zoo and you sort of go deep and then work your way back, it can be a very good zoo. I mean, it gets very hot.
Craig: Except for the part where it’s a zoo.
John: It is a zoo.
Craig: You’re just staring at animals that are staring at you.
John: It’s true. You are.
Craig: It’s just a zoo.
John: The second day in our San Diego trip we got to go to SeaWorld, which was much less educational than I would have gathered — like, it’s not really about the oceans or anything like that. There was no educational outcome. But you get to ride some rides, and my daughter got to feed some dolphins. So, it was a good time.
Craig: See, SeaWorld entertains you. They’ve taught dolphins to do things, not just look at you. [laughs] That’s why I don’t like zoos; they’re just looking at you.
John: I understand your frustration.
Craig: You get it?
John: I get it. I totally get it.
Craig, I have actual news. I sold a TV show.
Craig: I saw that. Congratulations.
John: Thank you. So, after talking about television and the wonderland that is television on this podcast endlessly it’s like, you know what, I’ll just do it.
And so I wasn’t going to do it at all this season, but then I had lunch with Josh Friedman, who is a friend and a neighbor, and he said, “You know, if you ever want to do a show that you would write the show and I could take over the show, that could be great.” And I was like, “Well, you know what? That actually could be great.”
And so by the end of the lunch I sort of knew what that show was, and we went and pitched it. And so I thought I would take just a little second to describe what television is like for that process, because it’s a lot different than what happens in features.
So, for a TV show, Josh and I talked and figured out what the show would be. Josh already had an overall deal with 20th Century Fox Television. And that is considered the studio for a show. And so his deal was there, so if I wanted Josh to be able to take over the show I obviously had to do it with Fox, which was fine because I’d already done a show with Fox once before. They’re good people. They’re smart.
Craig: Oh, sorry, I sneezed. I’m not…
John: You just totally sneezed in my story.
Craig: Well, because I’m allergic to it. [laughs] Something about it. I think because you said Fox and suddenly I went into anaphylactic shock.
John: Oh, yeah, I get it. That’s a common reaction among a lot of writers. Although I would say 20th Television, that part of Fox, is kind of generally well liked.
John: It’s the movie-studio-Fox people have big aversions to. And that’s changing, too — who knows.
Craig: And perhaps fewer issues with ongoing. There was a little news there. But I don’t mean to hijack your story.
John: That’s fine. So, we had to go in to talk to Fox. The only place I could do the show with Josh was at Fox. And Fox was the right choice for it anyway. So, we went in, you describe it to one of the executives, who likes it a lot. The other executive was out of town, so we had to go back in two weeks later and describe it to her.
And that pitch is very much like the movie pitch, except that where in a movie pitch you’re just describing, “Well, this is what happens during the course of this arc of this movie,” that starts the conversation. And then there’s like, “That sounds great.” And there’s a little pause. And then you have to describe where the show goes from there.
And that’s the huge difference between TV and movies is that you’re looking at sort of, what is the ongoing week-to-week? What is the engine of the show going to be? Where is it taking us over the course of a season, or five seasons? And that was fantastic and fun. I actually really enjoyed it.
So, once you have a good meeting at a studio, the studio makes a deal and they say, “We would love for you to write this show. And if we can get a network to sign onto the show, hooray, great, and we’ll make the show.” And so they then set up meetings with the networks that they feel are appropriate. So, I went out and we pitched it to Fox, the television network, ABC, and NBC. And so you go in, you sit in those rooms, and you’re going into those rooms not just as you — me and Josh — but also with somebody from 20th, or several people from 20th there to describe their interest in the show and what they see. And so the rooms are just a lot bigger than they usually tend to be in features, because it’s not just you-the-writer talking to the studio executive, or you talking to a director. There are a lot of people involved.
And what’s weird is, everyone — there’s a season for it. And so this is the time of year where you pitch one-hour dramas. And so every place we went for a meeting there were other writers there waiting to have their meetings. And so you’re all sort of — it’s like you’re going in to audition. I mean, you’re very much, like you are lining up. They’re waiting. “Okay, you’ve got the 2:20. Someone else has the 2:40.”
And so you see the same people again and again. So, I saw Liz Brixius at NBC right before she sold her show. There was this group of 10 writers who were doing this — they weren’t all writers — but there was this big giant posse of 10 people who were going in for a meeting for this Bruckheimer military comedy that they ended up selling, so good for them. But it was just so weird to see how much bigger the rooms are when you’re pitching a TV show.
Craig: It’s also interesting, I think people don’t get this, and I almost don’t get it in a weird way. So, there’s a big company, a big Fox company that Rupert Murdoch owns. And there’s a part of it that produces television shows. And then there’s a part of it that airs television shows. And you’d think, well, if the 20th Century Fox Television wants to spend the money to produce the television, wouldn’t they just then have Fox Broadcasting air the show?
And the answer is, no. [laughs] They actually sort of look at all the networks equally because they want the network that’s going to give them the best time slot and theoretically pay the highest licensing fee per episode so that they recoup their money faster and then go into profit faster.
John: Yeah. I think in the best of all possible worlds, if you had a show that you felt was the right show for you to make and the right show for that network to air, that’s lovely and great and everyone can be sort of in synch on things. But oftentimes that’s not the case. And so a really great new show this next season is The Mindy Project, which is Mindy Kaling from The Office. And so that was an NBC/Universal show, but NBC decided it wasn’t the right kind of show for them, so they took it to Fox. So, it’s NBC making a show for Fox. Fox is making a show for ABC. That’s okay and it’s good.
And I think there have been times where it has contracted a little bit and where studios would only develop for themselves, for like their sister network. But also all those executives end up moving around from network to network and place to place. And so the people that you’re pitching to at one of these networks may have already worked for one of these studios. So, everyone has these relationships anyway. So, it’s less — it’s not that it’s not competitive, but it’s less insular than you think.
Craig: Yeah. It used to be we had these rules called the Fin-Syn Rules, or Financial Syndication Rules. And they basically said that if you produced television shows you couldn’t be part of the same company that aired them over the public airways. And they got rid of those rules; people were concerned that they were going to essentially be anti-competitive so that suddenly if you were developing something for Fox Television, that Fox Television really wouldn’t make much of an effort to sell it anywhere else. They would just make a sweetheart deal with the Fox Network.
It turns out that’s not really the case. However, where writers have run into trouble with this arrangement is in syndication, where the company — if the show is a hit — the producing company, there have been a number of cases where it appears that they have made sweetheart deals with their own networks, or their own outlets to put the shows out there. So, a show on 20th Century Fox suddenly sells itself the syndication rights to run on FX.
John: The case you’re citing is really X-Files, which was Fox sold the rights to reruns of The X-Files to FX. And there was a question of whether they were selling it for the right price.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. And I remember that I think Bochco sort of engaged in the first major lawsuit. I’m not sure which of his series he was litigating on, but basically he was arguing, “Look, you didn’t really take this out and find the proper market price for it. You made a sweetheart deal with another division of this large company. And since my profits are tied directly to what you guys make in syndication, you’ve reduced the amount of money I will be getting off the show.”
And all those things always get settled, but that has been where the elimination of Fin-Syn seems to have hurt the most.
John: Now, these are all luxury problems, because this isn’t going to happen unless you have 80 or 100 episodes of your show that you get to sell into syndication. So, where I’m at in the process right now is there is a deal for a pilot script. And if they like the pilot script they will shoot a pilot. And if they like the pilot they can shoot a series. But the number of projects that are at my stage versus the number of projects that become actually series, well, there is a tremendous drop off.
So, I approach this with full optimism, but I’m not counting on my syndication deal kicking in quite yet.
Craig: Not yet.
John: Not yet.
Craig: But you’re partnered with a good guy. Josh definitely knows television, no question. So, I’m looking forward to it.
John: Josh did The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which I loved. So, he’s been great. Cool.
Craig, I don’t know if you’ve been checking on iTunes, but people keep leaving nice reviews for us on iTunes.
Craig: Oh, good. I don’t check it. But are there any bad ones? [laughs]
John: Honestly they’ve all been really good. And so one of them I wanted to flag because it was more detailed than some of the reviews.
I should say: Please do leave reviews on iTunes, because it actually does help a lot, because we’d love to move a little bit higher in the iTunes ranking. We’re in the 50s right now, and we could go higher than that.
But here’s one that someone wrote recently — it says: “At first, I found the podcast to be a little annoying. While John tried to make the podcast informative, Craig seemed to be using it as pulpit to express his personal pet peeves.”
John: “I’ve since grown to like Craig. And while sometimes his judgment is too quick, he is mostly good-hearted and has a lot to offer. Even his opinions I disagree with I still find educational. So, my suggestion is if you feel put off at first, stick with it, Craig will grow on you. He’s a good-hearted guy, even though he may not seem it at first.”
Craig: That’s absolutely right. My wife can confirm that. Everybody in my life can confirm that. So, I know I’m an acquired taste. And I know that sometimes I come off abrasive, grumpy, cranky pants, because I am. I am actually an abrasive, grump, cranky pants guy. That’s who I am. Can’t help it. But it is really from a good, decent place. I do very much want to help.
More than anything I get frustrated watching people make mistakes I’ve made when, you know, it’s like you walk into a restaurant and you slip on a wet, soapy floor and you land on your ass. And you sit down at your table in pain and you see somebody else walking in and you just want to say, “Oh, watch out for the wet, soapy floor there, buddy.” And Hollywood is a big, wet, soapy floor.
John: You’re basically that plastic triangle sign that they stick down there when they mop the floors.
Craig: That’s right. That’s right. I am Cuidado Piso Mojado.
John: What I love most about those triangle signs is the way they use them to fan the floor afterwards. Have you ever seen that where they mop it up and they use that as a fan to air dry it faster.
John: Probably actually works. God bless it.
This segues really nicely into our first question today which comes from Dan in Calgary. He writes: “I’ve been a regular listener and fan of your podcast since its inception and am curious about how you and Craig met and how you came to agreement on the podcast. To the best of my knowledge the two of you haven’t collaborated on any projects prior to the podcast. But, really, what do I know?”
So, going back to our history, I think I first met you in reference to really the website, clearly. You were going to launch your website. But we didn’t really work together on anything until the Fox writers deal. Is that correct?
Craig: Yeah. We had the same agent at the time. And I called you up just for website advice. That was 11 years ago, roughly. And, oh no, 7 years ago, sorry; because it was my daughter was about to be born, that’s what it was. It was about 7 years ago.
And we just sort of — we’re screenwriters. We run vaguely in the same circles. And then when John Wells did his Warner Bros. deal I got the idea that maybe we could do the same thing and you were my first call.
John: Yeah. So, Craig and I partnered together. We Shanghaied a bunch of other screenwriters into this little pack and we went around and pitched this concept of this batch of 10 screenwriters writing spec scripts for a studio, and Fox was the one who bit. And after much, much detailed hand-wringing and negotiation we made that Fox deal happen.
And maybe one of those movies will get made some day.
Craig: Maybe one of them will get made someday. I have no problem looking at it as a marathon. Hopefully they don’t have a problem looking at it as a marathon. But that’s how we got to know each other. And then I kind of let my blog drift off because I had essentially run out of things to type. And you just called me up one day and said, “Hey, do you want to do a podcast?” [laughs] That was pretty much it. And I said, “Sure.”
Craig: And that was a year ago.
John: A year ago.
Craig: A year of podcasting.
John: Good stuff. Our second question of the day, before we get to the meat of our show, is from Kevin in New York City. He writes: “You mentioned a lot last podcast a ‘weekly rate’ for writing work. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about what a writer is expected to do or not do if coming in only for a week or two.”
Craig: Good question.
John: So, this is a definition of “what is a weekly.” And a weekly is when you are brought into a screenwriting job, it’s a thing that I think only really happens in feature screenwriting, to do a specific bit of work, usually for a movie that’s going to go into production really soon or is already in production.
Weeklies only really happen for screenwriters who, I think, are produced, who a studio or producers and directors have some faith in that they can do the work that needs to be done and won’t break anything. And will make things better and make life happier and smoother for everyone else involved.
So, my first weekly was — God, I don’t know. It was many, many years ago, and I’m trying to think what it even was on. When did you start doing weeklies, or start doing that kind of work?
Craig: I can’t remember. I can’t remember the first one. All I know is they pop up occasionally, you know, a couple times a year, maybe three times a year. And typically — I mean, when we talk about weeklies, typically what we are talking about are production weeklies. Usually the movie has been green lit and so there’s quite a bit of pressure to suddenly fix some things.
And the studio will call you and say, “Listen, we need some work. We need some character help here. We need the first act to make a little bit more sense. Or we need to fix this ending. Take a look. Would you be willing to come on for a week or two and handle this?”
And generally you are paid quite well for those one or two weeks because it is high pressure writing. The movie is getting made. There is a lot of money that’s on the line. And you are asked to write very efficiently, very quickly, and very surgically. Again, these are, sort of the typical weeklies I think of, you’re talking not just to the studio or to an executive, you’re talking with the producer of the movie and you’re talking to the director.
And you are not only kind of cutting in between the things that are good to just get the stuff out that’s bad and put new things in that are good, but you’re also serving as a clearinghouse, frankly, half the time for disputes between the various parties, and sort of saying as a neutral third party observer, “Here, I think this is the way to go,” or “That’s the way to go.”
And you don’t have a tremendous amount of emotion invested. It actually can be a very good thing for a movie to have somebody come in and do a couple of weeks like that. They used to be far more common because they used to make far more movies.
Craig: But they still happen. I do them every now and again.
John: Yeah. I always say the job of a screenwriter in a weekly is you’re carrying the football for awhile and you are making sure that everything is sort of safely moving on to where it needs to go to next. And so an example is I worked on the movie Hancock, back when it was called Tonight, He Comes. And at that point you had Will Smith attached. You had Sony eager to make the movie. You had Pete Berg attached to direct it. You had Michael Mann producing it. Akiva Goldsman. You had — there were tremendous number of smart and powerful people involved in the movie.
And so I was going to come in to do just a very surgical bit of work on the third act. And one of the first things I had to go in and tell them is, like, “I think the script is fantastic. I think it’s great. I think there’s this little tiny thing that’s not working right, but please don’t think that the rest of the movie isn’t working because you’ve read it 1,000 times. But I’ve just read it once and I love it. And I really want you to make this movie. And this is how I think you can make this one section that I know is bumbling for you make sense in the way the rest of the movie works.”
Part of the reason they would give me that job versus another writer who might be able to write as well as me but didn’t have the experience is I had to go in and meet at Will Smith’s house with Michael Mann, and Pete Berg, and Akiva Goldsman. And usually there is one 800-pound gorilla, but this was just Gorilla City. And so they needed somebody who could sort of survive Gorilla City. And that’s a large part of your job in weekly is doing that. So that was a job where…
Craig: Well, you see, again, I hate zoos.
John: Oh, so that’s why you…
Craig: Yeah, you know, this is part — like I said — part of it is you have to figure out how to navigate between very important people, each of whom seems to have a vote or a veto. And it can be difficult at times. And sometimes they send you to the movie. And you know also in the back of your head that you are not to be seen afterwards, that this is very much hit man work. There’s no credit involved. It’s extremely rare that you would get credit for the work you do on a weekly.
You don’t go into it thinking about credit. You just go into it thinking, “I go in, I take care what I need to take care of, and I’m out.”
John: And I take these jobs — when I take them — because it’s great to get paid, but it’s also great to be able to work with filmmakers you want to work with, even if just for a short time, and also that sense of, like, make things a little bit better. Like, you recognize that this is a problem, I know how to solve this problem. I can solve this problem for you. And that movie, I think, will be a little bit better for my having been involved with it.
So, I just want nice things in the world. And so if I can help this movie get over its hurdle, that’s great.
Craig: Yeah, it’s funny. Weekly work is often where you get the most gratitude back. And it shouldn’t be that way, but I understand why it’s that way. To me gratitude should be basically commensurate with effort and quality. And the hardest thing to do is to write a screenplay from scratch. A page one rewrite is also very, very hard. And sometimes you come in on a weekly and it is pretty clear to you what to do. And it is not writing an entire script. It’s fixing this, this, this, and this. And you can do it rather quickly.
And it’s like a magic trick. [laughs] Everybody gives you a lot of love over it. I like that part.
John: I do too. And rarely, but sometimes, you’ll break down a weekly down to just a daily, where like I did three days of work on The Rundown. And it was just to take care of some very specific little beats. But I took that job because it was a chance to write dialogue for Christopher Walken. And, like, who does not secretly fanaticize about writing dialogue for Christopher Walken in his sort of strange inflection patterns. And it was great, and it was fun.
And because that was for Pete Berg, and Pete Berg liked what I did, I was on his short list for coming in to do this work on Hancock.
Craig: That’s actually a good question. When I do weeklies — I’m just kind of curious what your business practice is. The fee you get for weeklies is quite high. If you were to take eight weeks — like say you typically write a script in eight weeks — you get a fee for that script. If you were to write on a weekly rate for eight weeks, it would be much, much more than that.
John: Much, much more than that.
Craig: So, you’re getting paid a lot per week. My business practice is to write for seven days per week. I give them seven days per week. And if I don’t use all the week, I prorate it.
Craig: Is that what you do?
John: Usually it’s more that at the start of each week I’ll tell them, like, “This is what I can do in these days. And these are the days I can hand you these things.” And so I just sort of promise them delivery of this material in this amount of time. So, I’m not sort of not billing them for the days I didn’t work. I’m just saying this is what I can do in this week.
John: And if that’s enough work for you for this week, let’s go ahead and do that. So, you bring up a really good point is that sometimes you are delivering stuff much more quickly than you would in a normal situation. So, like on Iron Man, I was helping out on that. And I was delivering pages every day, because everything was very much in flux and they needed to know that stuff was going to be able to add back up. So, I would happily turn in pages every day in a way that I wouldn’t have been delighted to be doing that if I’d been the principal writer on the movie from the start.
Craig: Yeah. I just feel like if you’re on a weekly and you are an A-list writer getting paid an A-list weekly quote, I just feel like you should be respectful. Because I do hear stories sometimes. I always get uncomfortable when I hear a story about a screenwriter that misbehaved because, you know, naturally I just think you’re making us look bad.
Craig: 99% of the time the studio is misbehaving. I don’t want to engage in moral equivalence, but there are screenwriters that blow it. I mean, they miss their deadlines. They take a weekly rate and they turn in what would probably be two days of work.
John: Like they only touch the first ten pages.
Craig: Yeah. And I get so uncomfortable when I hear that stuff.
John: That’s not good at all. It doesn’t help anybody. This last year was the first year I ever did, like, it broke down to essentially an hourly, because it was just rewriting the introductory voice over for this one movie. And I knew, like, this is not going to — this is going to take me two hours to do. And so I was like, “Oh, let’s figure that out.”
And, again, at that point it’s essentially just a favor, because I want the movie to be better. I want the movie to have a little bit better shot. And so I did it.
Craig: Yeah. I’ve never done that. I guess a day is my minimum, but I guess if it picked up. I mean, well, you know, we do things like roundtables.
Craig: I mean, frankly, like you and I did a roundtable together. And you spend what amounts to a day of work on something like that. But you get paid, whatever, $2,500 or something. And that’s really just a friend-of-the-court kind of gesture.
Craig: Gesture. Not a “friend of the court jester.”
John: Craig, let’s move into our main topic this time, which is Three Page Challenges. So, last week we announced that officially we are going to open it up to people writing in with new entries. And so far 70 new people wrote in with Three Page Challenge entries.
John: So, you’re welcome to, if you feel like sending in your three pages for us to look at on the air, you can go to the show notes for this episode at johnaugust.com/podcast. And so we’re going to be going back to this, not every episode, but a couple times a month we’ll be looking at some of these new entries. And, let’s get right to it. So, we have four that we’re going to take a look at today.
John: Four! And I thought we would start with the Untitled Art Heist Movie by Henry Fosdike & Lloyd Morgan.
Craig: Yes, got it.
John: All right. So, here’s the synopsis on this movie. We start on black with a voice over by a character named Montana who says, “People still ask how I never get caught. The answer’s simple. Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
Then were in the Met, the museum. A ceiling panel falls, glow sticks drop. A lissome woman named Gem drops in. She’s our thief. In a control van nearby we meet a nerd named Fuse. Then a man named Santos parachutes onto the roof of the Met. Gem uses an aerosol can to reveal infrared beams. Santos cuts the alarm. Gem sprints to make it across the room. And that’s the end of our page three.
Craig: Shall I start?
John: You shall start.
Craig: Okay. Well, I got excited when I read the first line because I thought it was very good. There is this interesting voice over that you just cited there. But then I started to get unexcited.
Craig: The first problem I had was that the voice over continued. And I’m not a voice over Nazi. I’m okay with voice over — I have no problem with it. However, the voice over is disconnected. The first thing she says is sort of a thesis statement. “Art is not what you see but what you make others see.” That’s very interesting. The next line is, “There have always been rules. We live by rules. We play by rules.” Well that would be a different essay. And I feel like if you’re going to start off with sort of a declarative theme, stick with it, explain it, transition from it, do something. But there is a real grinding of the gears there.
Craig: We have an art heist of the kind we have seen many, many, many times before. There is almost nothing unique to this one. You have — first of all, you have a nerd named Fuse. I really have a problem with this. I just don’t understand. I was watching The Italian Job, the remake the other night, and when you meet the mechanic his name is Wrench.
Craig: And I just feel like, why do that? Why? What’s the point? Give them names that aren’t what their job is, like an index card thing. So, I’m not a big fan of things like Fuse as the guy that deals with wires and such. I like that Santos is parachuting down to land on a rooftop, except of course it doesn’t make any sense. If you’re trying to steal from the Met, and you’re parachuting down over Manhattan, I think someone might notice. [laughs] Just guessing.
So, there’s a huge logic problem there. then we go inside where Gem is dealing with the standard trope of the invisible laser beams, although they’re not laser beams. They’re actually infrared beams, which will not illuminate from aerosol cans. They are invisible to the human eye. So, it’s a little bit of a technological glitch there. But, regardless, we get the point. But the real point is we’ve seen that.
We have dialogue like, “I’m in. Backup generator is live in 30 seconds. Move your ass, girl.” Uh…that’s sort of clammy.
John: Yeah. Clammy. We also have a countdown…10, 9, 8…5, 4….
Craig: Yeah, we’ve got a countdown, and guess what? She’s running towards the thing and sliding under the laser beams. So, you know, it’s not that it’s poorly written. Everything moved. There was good pace to it. It’s just that it was cliché.
John: Yeah. This is — actually, I need to preface this by saying I’m not a heist person. I will never write a heist movie. I don’t seek them out. So, it’s not my genre by nature. And part of the reason why I think it’s not my genre is that I always see this scene. I always see some variation of this scene.
To me, my test for like why these were maybe not the first three pages to start your movie is: if we started at the bottom of page 3, I would have filled in everything that happened beforehand. Just, we know what a heist movie is. And so we could start with her cutting the painting out, or whatever she’s going to do next, because I would fill all that stuff in.
You could have showed me the discarded aerosol can and I know everything that happened up to that moment. You could have shown me him cutting his parachute and I would have known that he parachuted onto the roof. Like all that stuff I felt like we were starting too early. And if we started in the middle of the action I might have been more with you.
The other problem I have is the voice over is from the point of view of a character named Montana. But we don’t meet Montana in the course of these pages. And so we don’t know if Montana is a man or a woman. We know nothing about her. I’m guessing it’s a woman, but I don’t know.
So, it felt really weird to have this disembodied, disconnected voice over that wasn’t helpful to me. And also this voice over is happening over black. And that’s one of — it feels kind of fine in a screenplay, but if you actually see that in a movie, that’s really not all that good or interesting just to have a black screen and have a person talking.
I would much rather see something interesting, even in a close up, and here that voice over than just a black screen.
Craig: I agree with all of that. I agree with all of that. I actually love heist movies. I think that the fun of heist movies, and this is why I like that first line so much, really is about the beautiful con artistry of it. Heist movies have a way of subverting our expectations. We are watching magicians do a trick. And it’s fun when I don’t know how they did the trick. Ocean’s 11, which is a fantastic screenplay by the great Ted Griffin, has a ton of surprises in it. I had no idea that the video those guys were watching was not the guys actually in the vault. I did not understand until he wanted me to understand that the video that the guards were watching was actually the thieves stealing from a fake vault that they had built on a stage and filmed hours and hours earlier. So smart.
And this has nothing like that. This is really just parachuting and, frankly, I feel like anybody with an aerosol can and a pretty good sprint time could have done what this person did.
John: Yeah. So not a huge success for us. I would also challenge, like, Untitled Art Heist Movie. Nothing makes me want to read a script less than something that’s called Untitled Art Heist Movie. Because you’re already setting it up for like, “Well, this is going to be a generic art heist movie,” and the first three pages feel like a generic art heist movie. So, giving us a title might have set our expectations a little bit differently.
Craig: I agree with that.
John: Because we’re talking about expectations let’s skip to the script by Jeffrey Stoltzfus, the one with Dennis Rudibaker in it.
Craig: I’m sorry. What was that name again?
John: I think?
Craig: I love it.
John: I’m just pronouncing it the way I see it. I’m like the Siri that way. I’ll just plow ahead and say it the way I see it.
John: Here’s a summary of the script. So we open on Denis Rudibaker; he’s brushing his teeth. He’s described as having Ken doll looks. He lives in a nice house. He drives a BMW. Wears a Canali suit. He’s really polite at the bakery. He goes to work at an ad agency called Ad Think where he hands out coffee to his co-workers who love him.
In his office he pulls out a 357 magnum from his desk drawer and jams it in his mouth. That starts a series of flashbacks to a therapist asking him questions about his parents who abandoned him as a child. As a boy he is sent to live with his uncle, a science teacher who didn’t even pull down 30 grand a year. And that’s the bottom of page three.
Craig: What did you think?
John: Here’s why I wanted to talk about this second is: where our first movie was “this is the standard cliché of what a heist movie is,” this one starts as the standard clichés of like what a Jim Carrey big concept comedy is going to be. It felt like a high concept Jim Carrey comedy. Like, “Well he he’s a really nice guy, but then something crazy happens.” And so I liked subverting all of that happy bounciness but suddenly he jams a gun in his mouth and is going to kill himself.
That I really dug. And it felt — there was a feeling of confidence to it. And there was also smart, I don’t know, there were smart choices about what the writer is revealing about who this guy is. The Ken doll looks. Specifics on the car. His house. His suit. I would love more specifics, but I felt like this guy knew what the world was he was describing and what he wanted to sort of show us.
Then when he gets into the flashbacks, they were pretty well-handled. And our Dennis guy has voice over power, but the writer held off on giving us voice over power until the gun is revealed. So, I kind of dug it.
Craig: Yeah, I did like the — obviously there’s a big buy in here when this guy shows up and puts the gun in his mouth, and then we sort of freeze on this moment of potential suicide. And I did like the juxtaposition of it. I have a couple of issues though that I want to point out. And they are these:
Once you put that gun in your mouth, you are asking the audience to recontextualize what came before that, and that’s the point. It’s hard, frankly, to understand what is going on with this guy before that point. So, you’re right, it is a subversion of a kind of thing, of an expectation we have. But in retrospect, once we get the new information, we have to also be able to make sense of what we just saw, and that’s tough.
I’m not quite sure why he’s so cheerfully holding open a door for an old lady other than that the writer is misdirecting us. Similarly, he brings all this coffee to everybody, which I kind of though, okay, yes, in retrospect bringing people gifts is the last thing he does before he kills himself. Sure. His cheery, “Love that tie. Looking good. Have you lost weight?” is the kind of smarmy insincere talk that frankly is incompatible with what he’s about to do.
So, I would just say take a look and make sure that everything plays backwards as well as it does forward.
John: I would agree. I do feel like pages 4, 5, 6 would likely help us here and that we might get more clues about sort of what that — the recontextualization of those first three pages might be coming pretty quickly thereafter, but I do share your concern. Because some of the stuff feels so deliberately generic that it may not really make sense with more information that we’re going to get.
Craig: Yeah. And the only other issue on the flashbacks is that there’s a glib tone to them that is clashing, frankly, with the fact that he has a gun in his mouth. Either I’m meant to take that seriously or not. So, I like the content of what he’s saying which is, “I was the children of inattentive salespeople who abandoned me.” That is interesting content — “and who I ended up with” is interesting content. The glib tone is confusing me. I don’t know if this guy is really killing himself now. Am I supposed to care that he’s killing himself? Because he seems to be making time to be clever.
So, I wasn’t quite sure about that. And, lastly, he writes when his parents abandoned him, “One day they never came home. Didn’t even leave the door unlocked. I spent two days on that porch before somebody noticed.” I don’t believe that.
John: Yeah. It feels very, very arch. But I think this may be the kind of movie where that actually does happen. Where it is that sort of, you know, Coen brothers comedy of a possibility.
Craig: It’s possible. And if that’s the case then this tone bears out and is rewarding. So, I’m only flagging these things if it doesn’t quite feel right, because those were the things that hiccupped for me as I read this. But I did want to call out something I really did like, which was the way the writer was defining Dennis as, well, he wasn’t really defining Dennis this way, but the writer himself was saying, “Here is what his house is worth. Here is what his car is worth. Here is what his suit is worth.” So the writer is doing that.
And then at the end Dennis remarks of his Uncle Bert, who he’s sent to live with. “He didn’t even pull down thirty grand a year,” implying that Dennis has been infected with this kind of world view even if he doesn’t realize it.
John: Agreed. A few small things to point out, or just one small thing here. Bottom of page 2 is when Dennis starts, so he put the gun in his mouth, cocks the hammer, closes his eyes. Dennis, voice over, “Monday started like any other day. The gun garbles Dennis’s screaming.”
John: and then it starts going. Like, that — “The gun garbles Dennis’s screaming” I had to reread a couple times. Is he screaming this aloud? Basically like, “Closes his eyes. He makes a primal scream of pain,” or whatever. That description of the screaming didn’t work the way it was placed there.
Craig: I agree. It stopped me in the exact same way. And then once I figured out what was going on, I didn’t want it to be happening anyway. I wanted him to put that gun in his mouth and then freeze frame and start hearing voice over. Because the longer he has the gun in his mouth in live action and isn’t pulling the trigger, the less I believe that this is a real suicide. I want the tension of thinking, “Is he going to pull this trigger or not?”
John: I would also say, we don’t need the line, “Monday started like any other day.” I’d love to lose it because that feels clammy.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a tip. You don’t need it. I totally agree.
John: So, if the first line of voice over is, “I know what you’re thinking, but I’ve already tried the best shrinks and the best pharmaceuticals money can buy,” then we cut to the shrink, then I think we’re in a better place.
Craig: Yeah. I agree.
From here let’s move onto The Toad Princess by Virginia Lee.
Craig: I’m glad you picked that one next.
John: Aw. Yeah. So let me give you a quick description of the Toad Princess. So, we open in the courtyard of the Toad Kingdom which is paved with butterscotch discs and peppermint candies; lollipop trees and candy-bar benches line the path to the Queen’s candy-covered throne. It’s a kingdom full of anthropomorphic toads.
We meet a plump wingless fairy named Memory Lane. On her shoulder is the Toad Prince Mortimer. The Queen arrives, announces it is a special night for the presenting The Chosen One. By the light of a magical snow globe they await the arrival of Princess Makenzie, but she never comes. And that’s the bottom of page 3.
Craig: So, this was — I presume this is meant to be animated. I think?
John: It might be? I don’t know. I could see a couple things — it could be like Alice in Wonderland where it’s sort of half and half.
Craig: Sort of a hybrid. It was written by Virginia Lee, who I presume is a woman. I will now just go ahead and stomp on third rail. [laughs] This was adorable. It was cute and adorable. And it’s not because Virginia is a woman. It’s because it’s cute and adorable. It’s full of candies, and peppermints, and talking toads, and little 8-year old fairies. Although I didn’t quite understand — she’s 8-years old but she sounds like an adult?
John: Yeah. I had issues with the fairy.
Craig: Yeah. I’m not quite sure what that’s about. You know, it was — I love the world that was setup. I was really intrigued by the world. A little bit overwritten in the description. You know, “Servant Toads stand at attention, golden eyes twitching with nervous anticipation.” I think you could get away with “golden eyes twitching.” There’s a lot of stuff like that where “her honey colored skin shimmers in the moonlight.” A lot of moonlight and a lot of shimmering.
John: Yeah, a little too much poetry.
Craig: But you could tell that there’s an interesting and somewhat economical setup here, that we’re dealing with some version of the princess/frog and the princess story. And they need a princess to come and kiss the frog for something important to happen. So, I was interested in that. And I liked the idea that the fairy that they all rely on as their guardian is of questionable ability.
So, you know, and there were good visual things. She holds up a globe to the moonlight and let the kissing begin. It was all nice. I didn’t have any major issues here.
John: Yeah. I thought the visual ideas were really nice.
Craig: I just want to point out that this actually is cute. And I don’t want to get blamed for it.
John: Yeah. Quentin Tarantino could have written these pages and we would still have said they were cute.
Craig: Thank you.
John: So to the degree I understand the concept, I’m intrigued, I like it. It feels like, okay, it’s a retelling of the Princess and the Frog from a new perspective and that feels interesting.
I got really confused with the fairy. Is she a human-looking fairy and not a toad? If she’s the one thing who’s not a toad, then you really need to single that out. You have her listed as being 8-years-old, which is fine if she’s actually 8-years-old, but she’s not acting like she’s 8-years-old, so there’s a mismatch there. It’s just not as clear as it could be.
John: Where I had some issues is how we first get into it. And let me read you the first paragraph and I’ll explain sort of what I’m facing. So:
“EXT. TOAD KINGDOM – COURTYARD – NIGHT The desert moon shimmers across a beautiful courtyard paved with butterscotch discs and peppermint candies. Lollipop trees and candy-bar benches line the path to The Queen’s candy-covered throne. The courtyard is abuzz with activity. As we swoop down, we notice that we are in a kingdom of TOADS. A grand feast is in the works, and there is not an idle flipper in the place.”
I felt like we were having some camera problems in that — are we going really wide? Where is the helicopter shot here? Is the helicopter shot really wide and then we’re pushing in and getting into the details? It just felt like we were wide, we were close, we were wide, we were close. Give us the bigger picture first and then maybe setup the world a little bit. Are we at a castle? Because right now it’s just “EXT. TOAD KINGDOM – COURTYARD .” It’s like, what is that? Are we at a — there’s a throne, so it’s probably some sort of castle. I want a little bit more world, and then I want those details, and then I want to meet our Memory Lane, our fairy.
John: I thought just a little bit more finesse could have sort of landed me as the viewer a little more securely in our world.
Craig: That’s a good point. And also I was a little confused by “desert moon,” because it doesn’t seem like it’s a desert. It seems like you don’t build castles in the middle of the desert. It seems actually quite lush. So, I was confused by that. And also I was confused by the fact that there is not an “idle flipper” in the place, since toads don’t have flippers; they have legs.
John: Yeah. So, I think it’s worth being specific enough, like how anthropomorphic are these frogs? And do they stand on their back legs? Do they hop around? He’s evidently small enough that he can sit on the fairy’s shoulder. So, I just had some scale and size problems.
You can’t answer all these questions, but I just need to have a sense that there’s a consistent visual idea for how this stuff is going to fit together.
Craig: Yeah. I’m with you on that one.
John: Cool. Great job, Virginia. I was excited to see that. I would want to see that movie.
Last one is a script by Sandy McDougall. And here is our description:
So, we open in a dressing room where Jimmy Alexander, a man in his mid 50s is trying to take a dump into a woman’s purse.
Craig: [laughs] God!
John: This is Burbank, California, 1983. This is all part of a television studio where we meet Diane Dorronin, in her 20s, who is presumably his assistant. We also meet Brant Collier, 58, who is some sort of executive.
We then move to the soundstage, which is actually for a game show, and Jimmy is the host. Sunset Sutherland is the special celebrity guest. She is a cerebral palsy comedian. Jimmy makes lecherous remarks as the curtain opens, and that’s the bottom of page 3.
Craig: Okay. [laughs] Uh…
John: I dug it. Obviously my first thought very quickly went to Anchorman in that it felt like we had that sort of ’80s setting. It was heightened. People were behaving really terribly towards each other. I kind of dug a lot of it.
I had issues on some stuff on the page, but I was intrigued and I would definitely be reading the next ten pages.
Craig: I unfortunately am on the other side of this one.
John: That’s great. I love debate.
Craig: I just didn’t think it was funny.
John: All right.
Craig: I thought it was in the shape of a funny thing, but the things inside of the shape of the funny thing just actually weren’t funny. Pooping in a handbag could be funny, I suppose, but to be the first thing I see from somebody, I’m so disoriented, so deeply disoriented. I feel like in broad comedy when people do insane things it has to be in juxtaposition to our expectation, you know. And this was not. So, I don’t understand — I’m lost in the tone from the very start.
I get further confused when it appears that, based on the discussion between Diane and Brant, this has happened before and they actually know what’s going on. So, now the world around the crazy guy is crazy, because that is insane.
Jimmy’s line when he finally poops in the bag and walks out is, “The missile codes were good, Mr. President. Target destroyed.” So, now he’s making sort of a clunky poop joke about the poop, which I guess is supposed to be a bad joke, but now it’s just a bad — I just didn’t get it.
And then they’re all waiting for him, but for some reason they haven’t done anything until he shows up on stage. So, when he shows up that’s when they start moving props into place, which was weird to me. And now as if this guy weren’t weird enough, his special guest start is kind of a movie version of Geri Jewell. I don’t know if you guys remember her, who was a standup comedian who had cerebral palsy.
And he’s into her. And I feel like, again, that’s a little bit of a tonal problem. If he’s the wacky one, I kind of want to see him juxtaposed against a normal person who would be on the show. And then you could bring in, once you’ve established his juxtaposition to the world, then go ahead and go for the Geri Jewell bit later or in a different context. Maybe Geri Jewell is hot for him.
But right now I just had nothing, there was no ground beneath my feet. And when they say “try and ground comedy,” in a weird way it’s the most important thing to ground comedy when the comedy is super broad like this is. And I like super broad comedy. But then I really need to know where the ground is beneath my feet or else I just can’t go on the ride.
So, that’s kind of where I was.
John: All right. I totally understand your concerns. I just disagree. I felt like I understood where the ground was on this and I was sort of with him, even though we don’t know a lot of information about him, I was with him. And I liked that as an opening first beat.
And I took the conversation in the hallway where they’re hearing him do this as like him trying to take a dump in general, not that he’s trying to take a dump into a woman’s purse. So, they were assuming that he was making bathroom noises because he was using the toilet. But I understand your confusion there.
And I like the Sunset Sutherland stuff. Where I did have some concerns about setup and sort of first page stuff, the title for “Burbank, California, 1983.” Let’s put that bold; let’s put that middle of the page. Let’s center that a little bit. It’s so easy to skip past that, and it so helps to sort of set the heightened nature of the story.
And the first time I read it I skipped over that. And I’m like, “Wait, where are we, when are we?” And then, “Oh, I saw it there.” So make that a little more clear and obvious. Also, right from the second paragraph here — “The walls hold decades worth of memories. Photos, posters, blown up covers of TV Guide.” Of whom? Of what? Like, whose dressing room is this?
And so if you’re going to tell us that these props exist, tell us what these props actually are, because otherwise, why are we staring at them? So, they need to be the posters and the photos of our hero, of Jimmy Alexander, if we’re in his dressing room. It might be more interesting that we’re not in his dressing room, that we’re in someone else’s dressing room. I needed specifics there.
Craig: When you read these, did you laugh?
John: I didn’t laugh but I smiled.
Craig: Well, that’s a problem. And I’m not trying to invalidate your opinion. I’m just saying that for broad comedy like this that goes for big, big swings, I think getting some kind of laugh is huge, when you’re making big swings like this. If you’re going to do poop, I feel like you got to do it. You’ve got to get a big laugh from it. Smiles aren’t going to be enough to carry you through, I think.
I actually don’t think that — I mean, this is not a writer where I would say, “Oh, you’re not funny; don’t write comedy.” I just think that there’s some comedy science that just needs to be addressed. But I think a lot of the pieces were there. I think it’s very inventive. Like the Geri Jewell thing is really smart, I just think it’s in the wrong place. You know, stuff like that.
John: Cool. Craig, that was four of these. That was fun.
Craig: Yeah. I feel like we whipped through them. I love it.
John: We did. I think we’ve being much more efficient and speedy in our experience.
John: Craig, I should have asked you before we started the podcast. Do you have a One Cool Thing this week? Because sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t.
Craig: This week I actually do.
John: Oh great. Why don’t you do yours first.
Craig: Well, this week I did my first of what will be four sessions mentoring a new screenwriter. And the program, it’s a mentoring program that’s run by the Writers Guild of America East. And I was asked to participate in this by Richie LaGravenese, who is a spectacular screenwriter, those of you who’ve seen Fisher King or The Ref, one of my favorite movies, among others.
And it’s really great because they take students whose professors have sort of singled them out and said, “Okay, I have a class of a lot of kids. This one, I think, actually has a shot.” So, you read their script and then you do four 90-minute sessions via Skype, and you just get into it. And you just start to do the work of talking about the screenplay, and their intentions, and what they want to do.
And my, what’s the word? Mentee? Mentoree?
John: Yeah, mentee.
Craig: Mentee. My Mentee is really great. I think she’s got a spectacular attitude and she’s got a terrifically sharp and unique voice. And so I’m really — it was very good. It was a good thing. I felt good about it in a way I sometimes don’t feel when I’m talking to people, because I feel like I’m wasting my time sometimes with people.
But, she — I think she’s going places. So, it was a really good thing. And I have in the past given the Writers Guild of America East a lot of crap because as a union they’re a bit of a squib. But this program is a very smart thing that they’re doing and, frankly, I wish the Writers Guild of America West would do something similar.
John: And these are writers who are not necessarily members of the Writers Guild East, but they are good up-and-coming screenwriters who have been singled out by professors?
Craig: Yeah. They’re students. They’re all students. They’re in school. I think she’s probably — I’m just going to guess she’s 20. She seems young. So, they’re not yet professional. They’re not close to professional. That’s not where their mindset is. They’re just trying to learn the craft. And I also like the fact that the screenwriting professors are open to this sort of thing, because it’s an important partnership, I think, between the people who instruct and the people who do.
John: Definitely. That sounds great. And so if someone is interested in being part of this program, they would essentially — it’s not like you can apply to it, it’s just that you get nominated for it by East Coast writing professors?
Craig: It seems like that, yes. To be fair I don’t exactly know the details, but since this was — I mean, for instance, I had to talk to her professor before I spoke to her. So, yes, it would seem like that’s the way it goes.
My One Cool Thing all relates to I finally installed Mountain Lion on my main machine. Because people who have been following me on the blog know that I had issues with I couldn’t install Mountain Lion on my big Mac Tower because it was seven years old. And even though I really like the computer, it wasn’t able to be upgraded, so a lot of drama.
And so I ended up taking Ryan’s MacBook, and he got the Retina MacBook. And everything was working fine. I just wanted to make sure everything was working fine before I upgraded to Mountain Lion. But in the process of doing that I had to do another backup of my hard drive.
And I may have talked about this before on the podcast, but I just want to sing an extra bit of praise for sort of the bare hard drives you can buy now. Because people think of hard drives and they tend to think of, “Oh, you buy that hard drive that you plug into the back of your machine and then you have a stacked thing, and you use one and then you get rid of it.”
The best and most efficient way to use hard drives these days is just to buy the bare hard drive. And so this is the kind of hard drive that you would actually plug into a machine and never really see. They are just these metal boxes — metal and plastic boxes. What makes them so useful is that they’re super cheap and you can buy these external docks for them that you just pop the drive in. So, it sort of looks like a toaster.
So, I’m using one by NewerTech, which is like $79. But essentially you can just jam a hard drive in there, use it as a hard drive for backing up, for whatever else you need to do, and then you’ve not wasted money on all the other stuff that you would usually buy when you buy a hard drive, like the power supply, and the cables, and everything else. It’s just there and it’s handy.
So, with this backup, I can keep one backup here at the house. We have another backup that we store offsite. It makes it just super simple to create a backup and keep it there for when you need it. So, this is not my time machine backup, which is sort of the constantly churning thing which is always doing stuff. This is sort of all my files. This is an exact snapshot of my hard drive at a certain time and place.
And because I have been doing this for two years now, I can go back and I can reboot my machine in Snow Leopard or older operating systems, because I have a bootable backup on one of these drives.
So, my one cool thing is bare hard drives, which are incredibly cheap these days.
Craig: And welcome to Mountain Lion, sir.
John: Yeah. It’s pretty good. I had no huge issues. So, I wanted to wait a little bit to make sure that no one was going to have fundamental problems with apps I needed and, nope, everything has upgraded really nicely.
Craig: Whereas I upgraded my iPhone to iOS 6 yesterday because I could.
John: Yeah. And I upgraded my iPhone as well. And I mostly enjoy it. Maps is kind of a mess, but it will get better. It’s kind of a mess right now.
Craig: Yeah, it will be fine.
John: It will be fine. But yeah, I was happy and good.
John: Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you so much, John. We’ve done it again.
John: All right. Talk to you next week.