The original post for this episode can be found here.
Announcer: Live from Hollywood, California, it’s the 100th Episode of Scriptnotes.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, it’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are inTEResting to screenwriters.
Thank you so much for being here. We’re live here in Hollywood at the Academy Lab Space Theatre. Thank you to the Academy for having us here. It’s kind of amazing.
Craig: Thank you. I’d like to thank the Academy. I will never say that again. Never have a chance, ever to ever say, I’d like to… — God, I’d like to thank the Academy. Let’s just do it a bunch of times. I — I — I’d like to thank the Academy.
John: I feel like we need to have Dennis Palumbo here to help talk you through the emotions you’re feeling right now.
Craig: It would be good.
John: Yeah. Specifically, I need to thank Greg Beal and Bettina Fisher for putting this together and their tremendous stuff.
Craig: Thank you.
John: Thank you so much — because Craig and I talked in a very general sense like, “Oh, you know we’re going to hit 100 episodes at some point.” And so then we actually looked at the calendar, it’s like, “Oh, it’s going to be some time in the end of July. We’ll both be in town and we could theoretically do a live event.” We sort of put it out in the universe in sort of a The Secret kind of way like maybe somebody will want us to do a live event. And it was the Academy. So this is amazing and thank you very much for having us here tonight.
Craig: It’s pretty awesome and that Nicholls Fellowship and Nicholls, you know that wonderful screenwriting, the one screenwriting contest that matters frankly.
Craig: Is sponsoring all the food and the wine and the beer. So…
John: Yeah. I think in some ways like we’re a fundraiser for them but they’re kind of fundraising for us and it’s kind of amazing. It’s an educational outreach. So thank you very much for this existing.
John: Craig, this is our hundredth episode.
Craig: One Hundred.
John: And it’s kind of remarkable. Do you have a favorite episode of the episodes we’ve recorded?
Craig: Well, I’m kind of partial to the one where I opened my heart up and bled all over the keyboard there…
John: The dark night of your soul.
Craig: The dark midnight of my soul.
John: After the terrible reviews.
Craig: Yeah. After the terrible…
John: Which of the two movies?
Craig: All of them.
John: Yeah. Right.
Craig: All of them. That was good. That felt good, actually.
John: It felt good. Yeah.
Craig: I actually got something out of the podcast for once which was nice.
Craig: And I really liked, even though it was the one that we just did so it feels a little bit like a cheap, and I don’t know if you guys have heard podcast 99, but that’s the one we did with Dr. Dennis Palumbo and that was great.
John: That was great. And so that was our sort of psychotherapy for screenwriters and that was a… — It’s recent to you but we actually recorded it like three weeks ago and we knew, it was like, “God, that’s really good.” It was one of those situations where we’re actually live in a room like, “Wow, that’s going to be a good episode.”
John: So I’m happy that turned out really well.
Craig: Favorite podcast out of the one hundred?
John: The Raiders episode was probably my favorite too because it was the first time we were doing something just completely brand new. We were just focusing on one episode. And what I liked so much about Raiders is we could talk about the movie that we were watching but we could also look back at the transcript and see like, “This is the process they went through to make that movie that we loved so much.” And I thought tonight we could actually go back and do the transcripts of how this podcast came to be.
Craig: Because it’s as important as Raiders.
John: Yes. Maybe as seminal an event in film history. And so this afternoon I went through email archives and found the four emails between me and Craig Mazin about this podcast. So this is the entirety of the planning for the original Scriptnotes. So this is actually what happened.
So this is June 27, 2011, 1:17 pm, I wrote to Craig, “Subject: Podcasts. Do you listen to any? I had dismissed them as a fad but now I find myself listening to several, wondering if you would have any interest in doing a joint podcast on screenwriting?”
Craig: “I don’t. But then again, I didn’t read any blogs either and then I wrote one for five years. A podcast would solve my ‘I want to talk about screenwriting but I’m tired of writing about screenwriting’ problem, so, yes, count me in. What sort of thing were you thinking?”
John: This is at 3:04 pm, “I was thinking a weekly thing in which we would talk about the Issues of the Day for screenwriters and the film industry, loose, not edited. The first couple would probably be a cluster-fuck but we’d get better at it. Then we would go in with a mutually agreed list of things we want to discuss. Most of these podcasts seem to be done remotely on Google Talk or some such. I’ll have my guy Ryan,” — Ryan Nelson! — “look into them to see what would be involved. My guess is that at most you’d need headphones with attached mic to plug into your computer. Some of the best podcasts are the ones Dan Benjamin does on 5by5 [url]. This is the one he does with the John Gruber of Daring Fireball [url].”
Craig: I should mention I did not listen to any of them but 16 minutes later I wrote back, “Perfect. Sounds like it is easy and fun! And easy! And fun! At this age, that’s all I care about. I’ll check out the podcasts you cite below for inspiration.”
John: Yeah. It’s a lie. The first of many lies in our relationship over the course of making the show.
Craig: And you can see a theme emerging here at the beginning. He had the idea and then had all the details and I said, “Sure!”
John: Yeah. “Just tell me when to sign on.”
John: So that was the initial sort of a spark of the show and now we’re a hundred episodes later.
John: And tonight we get to talk about the same stuff that we’ve been talking about for hundred episodes which is screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig: To screenwriters.
John: Tonight we’re going to talk about…
Craig: Wait, wait, hold on.
Craig: I have to say it’s really cool that you guys showed up. I really do. I mean, I have to say…
Craig: It’s just cool. I’m a little verklempt because people really do enjoy the podcast and it’s great and I often tell people, “It’s just John and I. I always look at it as like we’re having a phone conversation for an hour each week.” But it’s great to see a little love reflected back and I really appreciate all the people, you guys bought tickets. I mean, granted, it was five dollars and so I’m not going to give you that much praise for it but still, you know, you parked, right?
John: Yeah. You drove to Hollywood.
Craig: You drove to Hollywood and you parked. Nice.
John: Ah! Nice.
Craig: And that’s the kind of ethic that we support.
Craig: So thank you guys. That’s great.
John: Craig, this is an honest conversation here. Did you ever consider bailing on the podcast?
Craig: Not once. No.
John: I did.
John: Right around in the 50s.
Craig: Was it because of me? [laughs]
John: No. I just had sort of, getting tired of it.
Craig: I mean, here’s the truth. You know I’ll never bail on it because you make it so, so easy for us. So it it’s like I just show up and there is food in front of me and I eat it. I mean, you and Stuart. — Stuart is real. The guy here tonight who is playing Stuart, we have a different guy.
Craig: Where’s our Stuart?
John: No, it is a real Stuart?
Craig: Where’s the Stuart tonight that we have?
John: Stuart who’s here tonight. Can you raise your hand. There is he, here’s tonight’s Stuart.
Craig: Oh, that’s tonight’s Stuart.
Craig: It’s not, I mean, basically we’re like, okay, we just go, they have books of like we need a curly-haired ginger and then we get one.
Stuart does so much.
John: We hired Stuart from the Disney Channel. He’s actually one of the… — He was a kid actor who aged out and then that’s who we got.
Craig: He aged out. Exactly and so we caught him before he went full Amanda Bynes and… [Audience: “Ohhhhh.”] — Oh, okay, well she’s crazy. It’s not my fault. Anyway, no, I’ve never thought about it, but please don’t leave me.
John: All right. I won’t. I won’t.
Craig: I can’t quit you.
John: We’re good. Actually, as I was putting together the music for tonight I put together a lot of sort of like the break up songs just to try to set up that idea that maybe this was going to be the end.
John: It was actually the last episode of Scriptnotes, but it’s not now. So we’re good. Fine.
Tonight, we’re actually going to talk about some things that are interesting to screenwriters including something that Craig calls Screenwriter-Plus.
John: We’ll get into that.
John: We’ll talk about that Slate article that literally everyone in the audience tweeted me saying like, “Hey, you should talk about this” Yeah. We know. We will talk about this.
John: So it’s Slate article about how…
Craig: It’s fun. There is like you get that tweet of, “I’m sure everyone’s mentioned this to you,” and that is the one you get 15,000 times.
Craig: “I’m sure everyone has mentioned.” Well then, if you’re sure…
John: Yeah. Well, so we will talk about that thing because that would be useful to talk about. Before we get into that though there is a little bit of housekeeping, because there’s always housekeeping on our show.
Craig: Always housekeeping.
John: There is always a little housekeeping.
We switched our server that the podcast is on. So if for some reason episode 99 did not show up properly in your feed or your device or your app or wherever you expect it to be, that’s probably because your system logged in at just exactly the wrong moment when Ryan was switching stuff over and so if that happens delete the thing that you have there and re-add it in iTunes or however you add it into your thing. It’ll be there; it will be magic.
The reason why we switched stuff up over is because there is some cool new stuff that’s coming next week that you’ll see that we had to go to a newer server to support. So, enjoy that.
Secondly, Craig, I have here something that you’re going to be so excited to see. This is the Golden Ticket. So, when we sent out the t-shirts we said, “Oh, you know what? There should be a Golden Ticket that’s provided with one t-shirt.” This was your idea, Craig.
Craig: I had one.
Craig: I had an idea.
John: It didn’t work out so well.
Craig: Here’s why…
John: All right.
Craig: So the idea was somebody would open up their t-shirt package and there would be this Thank You card that everybody got and then they would turn it over and it would have the special message just for them, there was one of them.
John: Yeah. It was handwritten.
Craig: Yeah. And Stuart and Ryan — it’s fair to say Stuart and Ryan, or not that guy, but the real Stuart and Ryan — they never sent it out.
John: Yeah. Okay. But let’s talk about why it never got sent out. So, Craig, there is this big box of the postcards that went in with t-shirts and so Craig is like, “Well, let’s do this” and so, “Okay. That’s a good idea.” It seemed like a good idea. This is when we were recording the Dennis Palumbo episode. And so we’d sign all these cards, it’s a lot of cards to sign. And so we did this one special card and Craig put it back in the box, so like, ah, I have no idea where it is in the box.
Craig: Right. That’s the point.
John: It should be the point. It’s magical and like you don’t know where it’s going to be.
John: But then finally like no one was writing in. So like I said, “Guys, look through the rest of the box,” and there it was.
John: Yeah. It’s kind of a bummer. What was the idea behind the golden ticket?
Craig: Well, the idea was you would get the golden ticket and on the back, well, here, I’ll read it.
John: Yeah. Well, it didn’t really quite say, but…
Craig: Oh, you’re right. Oh, yeah. “This is the golden ticket, email ‘Prairie’…”
John: Prairie was the magic word.
Craig: “…’Prairie’ to firstname.lastname@example.org to tell us that you got it.” And then what we would tell you is, “John and I will read your script and we’ll talk to you about your script.” And we’ll, I mean, we’re not going to help you really. But we’ll give you feedback and stuff. You know.
John: Yeah. That would be nice.
Craig: Yeah. But it’s too bad. There is no…
John: I mean, would that have been a good thing? I mean, who would have been excited to get that? Yeah? Craig, I wish there was a way we could do that. I mean, we got to find another way to do that. I mean, whenever life sets challenges for me I usually think, “What would Oprah do?”
John: And it’s got me through so much.
Craig: What would Oprah do?
John: Well, you know what she would do? She would tell people to look underneath their chair; there might be something under one person’s chair.
John: In the audience tonight.
Craig: So maybe they should look under their chairs.
John: Maybe everyone should look underneath their chairs.
Craig: Take a look under your chair.
John: Take a look under your chair. Take a feel under your chair.
Craig: Because one of you might have it. Look under your chairs.
John: Someone in this audience might have something that’s different than everyone else’s.
Craig: Someone has it. Anyone? Anyone? No?
John: Oh my god! Come on up here and the audience can meet you.
John: What’s your name?
Matt Smith: My name is Matt Smith.
John: Matt Smith, I’m John August.
Matt: Hi, I met you in Chicago.
John: Oh, yeah! So, great.
Craig: What happened in Chicago?
John: We made a musical called Big Fish. You don’t really keep up with this…
Craig: Hey, hopefully you don’t have a script or anything like that. Do you?
John: Are you a writer?
Craig: Oh geez.
John: All right. So, do you have a script that you think would be appropriate for us to read?
John: All right.
Matt: It’s like a pilot.
John: Oh pilots are great. We love.
Craig: It’s shorter than a screenplay!
John: [laughs] There’s a reason!
Matt: I could give you a short film if you want a short one.
Craig: What’s the shortest thing you got?
Matt: 130 pages.
John: So it’s a pilot?
John: I love a pilot.
Craig: Great! Awesome! Can we read it?
John: So the guy who is playing Stuart is going to track you down later on. He’s going to give you a magic email address that you’ll email to and…
John: We’ll talk about it.
Matt: Thanks guys.
Craig: You just got Oprahed! Awesome.
John: All right. Thank you so much.
Craig: I’m glad that worked out.
John: I was terrified that was not going to work out. Yeah.
Craig: Some guy is going to be like, “Nah! It’s never me. I’m not looking. I won’t look under my seat.”
John: No. No. No.
— I’m really not just checking Twitter. This is where all my notes are here.
It’s time to get onto the real meat of our show. And our first guest, and when I say first guest she really is our first guest. She was our first guest at our live show —
Craig: She was.
John: — in Austin, Texas. This is the writer of Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses, the upcoming Cinderella. She is a friend of the show, a fan of the show. She’s kind of…
Craig: She’s our Joan Rivers.
John: She’s our Joan Rivers. This is Aline Brosh McKenna. Come on up.
Craig: Come on, Aline. Steps. You get yellow microphone.
Aline Brosh McKenna: You don’t have your wine.
Craig: Oh god.
John: We talked about this before we started, because the ideal amount of wine to have before recording a podcast is…
Craig: Between one and two glasses.
Aline: Craig said between one and two glasses. So this is the half.
Craig: Oh, that’s your, you’re onto your half
Aline: That’s my half. I’m on my half. I did it.
Craig: I did a full. I did one. That’s technically.
Aline: You did? Okay.
John: I did a little less than one. It’s a lot, so…
Aline: So I’m going to be way more entertaining.
Aline: Than both of you.
John: Let’s get to our first topic which is…
John: Craig suggested this topic which is what is called Screenwriter-Plus. So what is a Screenwriter-Plus? What are you talking about here?
Craig: Well, I’ve been thinking about this lately because as we talk to people about the way our business is changing it occurred to me that there’s been this kind of huge change and I’m not sure anyone is really specifically talking about it in nature and that is what I call screenwriter, the job of Screenwriter-Plus.
When I started in the business, and we all pretty much started at the same time, it was fairly common for feature film writers to write a screenplay and then turn it into the studio and the studio and the producer would talk to you about your screenplay and then one day they’d say, “Okay, we’re interested in making this. We’re going to go find a director and a movie star.” And then they found those people and those people would talk to you maybe briefly or not. Maybe they would have somebody else come in and do a little thing or not. And then they go make the movie.
And you would show up at the premiere. That was kind of a routine sort of thing, not always, but often. It is so different now and there is this new position, there is just like a new way of thinking about a screenwriter and that is a screenwriter who — and forget titles — don’t worry about producer, producer-director, screenwriter. Just screenwriter. A screenwriter who writes a screenplay works with the studio and the producer, works with the director, works with the actors, is there during prep, is there during shooting, is there during editing, is in meetings talking about marketing, essentially as involved as the director is and maybe even more so because they pre-date the director often.
And so I wanted to talk a little bit about what you guys think about, is that real? Is that something that’s definitely happening and if it is, is it something that you need to be doing as a screenwriter and if so how do you get into that sort of thing, particularly if you’re trying to break into the business?
Aline: Well, I think partly the reason that’s happened is because of television and because there is such an ascendancy of television, so people are used to writer-producers. So they’re used to writers performing those functions. And I also think it’s because there are just fewer jobs, they’re less likely to bring in multiple writers on movies now. They kind of want to get their money’s worth and towards the end your steps towards the end you’re getting paid less money and they’re like, “Oh, we have this guy and he’s around. We’ve already paid for him and he’ll do this and maybe he’ll come look at this and look at some footage and …”
So, I’ve definitely notice that. And also as we were talking about earlier, there are a lot more writers who have become producers, who really have become officially producers and produce their own stuff and produce other people’s stuff. So I’ve definitely noticed that, but I think it’s any time you’re in a position to really protect your own work and to have input, it’s a great thing whether you get the title or not.
John: When you said showrunners I immediately was thinking about the guys who are doing these jobs right now and Damon Lindelof comes in on a movie, he was a showrunner, he comes in like Kurtzman/Orci, they come from that TV background where the writer is responsible for the script but also for this is the whole package, this is the everything, this is the marketing, this is the running of the show. Simon Kinberg, who you worked with, is the same kind of guy who does just features but very much is that guy. You think of him as much as being the guy who sort of delivers the movie as much as the guy who is putting the words on the page.
Craig: Yeah. And there are guys like Chris McQuarrie who have really done almost only features but they do this kind of thing. There has also been an interesting change in the way writers and directors work with each other because there was a kind of a weird antipathy between the two camps when I first started in movies. It was, I mean, sometimes you had directors that were really imperious, sometimes you had directors that were really cool but they almost felt like it was part of their job to exclude the writer. It was like their peer group essentially pressured them to sort of say, “Well, if you have a writer on the set you’re a loser, you’re not a real director” That seems to have changed almost to the point of being obliterated and gone the other way where they want you there, which is great I think.
John: A writer can be the director’s best ally, because the writer is there remembering what the intention was behind things and can be someone to back you up. So if you have a great relationship with the director that’s an incredibly useful thing.
I was thinking back through sort of my own movies and there have been movies which I’ve been in that function, sort of that writer plus. My very first movie Go, I was there before we hired Doug, I was there for every frame shot in second unit, I was in the editing room the whole time through; that was very much that function.
And Charlie’s Angels was that, too. I was there before McG was there and I sort of came back in. And even though a zillion other writers worked on that movie I was the guy who sort of captured the vision of things around because I had a relationship with Drew to sort of steer through.
But the Tim Burton movies, not at all. The Tim Burton movies I’ve been the writer and I show up to give them the script and help in pre-production but I’m not there…
Craig: Well, that’s interesting because that’s almost a generational thing because that Tim Burton does sort of — he became powerful in the 90s when that was still going on but, you know, like so I worked with Todd Phillips. He’s not like that at all. Seth Gordon is not like that at all. Marc Forster is not like that at all. So it just…
Aline: I mean, it’s always been confusing to me because I don’t understand why everyone isn’t clamoring for a writer on the set. I always feel like don’t you want the guy who’s just going to sit in his trailer and then things happen, you’re on location or something is not working out with an actor, you have a costume change, whatever, don’t you want to be able to run to that guy and have them fix it and change it? Because there are situations where the director who has so much to do is trying to figure out how to figure out a new piece of dialogue to cover something. And I think it’s strange that it’s not the other way — that they’re not begging us to be on set.
Craig: Well, I feel like they are now in a weird way. I never understood it. A lot of screenwriters would sit around and talk about this. I remember Phil Robinson said once. He said something to me and I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s a great point.” Like, okay, we can grouch about how we’re not there but I guess the director, they have their thing, whatever. He’s like, “There is a standby painter, there’s a guy who literally just stands there and if something has to be painted…”
Aline: In case there needs some painting. Yeah.
Craig: In case something needs to be painted. But there is not somebody to be there in case a line needs to be written? It’s kind of crazy. And it never made sense and I kept waiting around for somebody to make sense of it for me and it seemed like instead the business went, “Oh, yeah, oh, no, it doesn’t actually make sense.”
John: But we talked about sort of who the directors are and some of the generational shift that they may be more inclusive of the writer and I think to J.J. Abrams who is having those guys around all the time because he came up in the television world.
Aline: Well, he came up in both. I mean, I would say that the guys who do that come out of two things. One is TV and the other one is production rewrites. So the production rewrite guys, which is Simon, and J.J. was that guy too, and McQuarrie, you know, the kind of high end guys, they’re accustomed to being on a set, solving problems, really being there in the same way as a TV writer-producer. So those guys are really accustomed to solving problems in a production situation.
Not all writers know how to do that, really, and it’s something that I know you’ve talked about and worked on, you have to kind of be there and get that experience and if you’ve been in television or you’ve done production rewrites you’ve been on production, some of the other — if you — before you’ve done that — we’ve had this conversation before where writers don’t always know how to comport themselves.
Aline: And then there is this other kind of fascinating thing that I always think about which is there is this tremendous blind date that happens in the middle of your movie getting made which is you write a script and then it goes out to directors and it’s always like, “Well, I hope this goes okay.” Like you bring in a guy, you have a meeting, they say something. It’s like, “It sounds good. I don’t know. It seems okay.”
John: But it’s not even really a blind date though; it’s really an arranged marriage. Like, “This is good, this is going to work out. Right? This is going to work.”
Aline: Right. That’s true. A blind date implies choice.
Craig: You’re not going to throw acid on my face, right?
Craig: Something stupid like that.
Aline: Yeah. But it is this incredible thing where like it’s not just creatively what they want but it’s also how they like to work and do they want writers around? Is that something that they want? Every guy is different, guy or gal.
Craig: Well, that’s true. And I think also that if you’re writing comedy you will likely end up in a situation where you get some of that experience because there is a certain immediacy with comedy and a lot of comedy writers end up on set trying to make things work if things are going a little sideways.
But I guess that brings up the question for all these guys. Okay, you’re starting out and the old narrative is, write a screenplay and then someone gets attached and someone gets attached and then it goes into the black box and a movie comes out. But that’s probably not going to really — that’s not necessarily what you want to aspire to anymore. What you want to aspire to is be part of the filmmaking process. To that end, it doesn’t make sense to say to budding screenwriters and aspiring screenwriters, “Don’t be — don’t settle just for I’m writing a great script. Learn how movies are made because if you don’t you’ll never know the other half of the job.” It’s like you’re a plumber that works on stuff until they turn the water on, but…
Aline: Well, we’ve seen that a lot of times. We know people who just — they just don’t know what to do when they get on the set. They don’t know how to behave, they don’t know where to get the food, they don’t know where to sit, they don’t know how to act… And the other thing is, younger —
Craig: Food is…
Aline: — Yeah. It’s important to know where it is and not to put your hand in the cereal box.
John: No. Dump out.
Aline: Yeah. So…
Craig: That happens?
Aline: Oh, I’ve seen that.
Aline: But the other thing is younger people have access to production in a way that we did not.
Aline: I mean, those guys are all making movies. Everybody has made a movie; everybody is making a movie, everybody’s shooting a video. I mean, I’m working with a young woman now who shoots and produces and directs and does her own shorts; and so they have a lot more experience with production then I think we did when we were coming up and that’s great. You really have to understand how it’s made and also how to contribute, how to really make a contribution in a positive way to being part of the crew.
John: The general advice I would say for the aspiring writers who wonder sort of, “How do I become the Screenwriter Plus?” First you have to be a screenwriter, you have to be able to write generally to start, but you also have to really think of yourself as a filmmaker and so your function of filmmaking is to create that initial screenplay but to also be able to change and roll with it as things happen and so a lot of times the problem-solving you’re doing on the set isn’t because of a difficult actor, although a lot of times it’s the difficult actor. It’s because you lost a location or like suddenly we can’t make this thing work. So if we have this location versus this location, how do we make this scene work in this space?
Aline: I think it’s helpful to say, “It’s perfect. Just do it.”
John: Yeah. Don’t change the line.
Aline: I’m kidding.
Craig: Sometimes that actually works.
John: Sometimes you do. Sometimes that is the right answer but sometimes you need to be able to explain back and so I think I often credit you with saying this but I think you may not have been the first person that…
Craig: He is wrongly crediting you for a thing.
Aline: What did I say was brilliant?
John: The screenwriter is the only person who’s already seen the movie.
Aline: I don’t think I said that but I’ll pretend I did.
John: Okay, the useful thing to remember as a screenwriter is that you as a screenwriter have already seen the movie and the director and everybody else has not seen the movie because they didn’t write it, and they didn’t have that in their head and so sometimes they’ll make a choice that is not the right choice because they’re just still not quite getting the movie that’s in your head. And so if you could be there to help explain that in a very tactful way about what the intention was…
Aline: And also just you have custody of the story. It’s like Craig said, you know, there is all these like department heads and they have custody of certain parts of it and you have custody of the story.
I once had a director call me and he said, “I’m standing here on the set and there is a character in the scene. I don’t think he’s supposed to be here…”
Aline: “I think he’s supposed to have already gone home but I’m really tired.”
Aline: “And I can’t remember if this guy is supposed to be here or not.”
And I was like, “No. He’s drunk. He was walked home before that scene.”
He was like, “Thank you.” Just to have somebody around who actually knows, that’s all you have thought of.
John: It’s a call sheet mistake. Like his little number got put on the call sheet.
Aline: Right. But that’s why when I feel like a confident filmmaker is happy to have a writer there in charge of the story department to ask questions, but part of that is I think we need to acclimate directors and producers that we are going to behave in a helpful productive manner.
Craig: That’s right. And then ultimately the director is responsible for what’s going on to the film or the flash drive and because they’re responsible they have to have authority. You can’t have responsibility without authority. If you can figure out how to have a respectful relationship with that person and acknowledge that they have authority and accountability for what they’re doing you’ll be the greatest help to them.
One exercise that I would suggest is if you have some material, little something short that you want to shoot yourself, even if it’s just with your phone and you have somebody that you know who is also trying this, swap and see what it’s like to interpret somebody else’s work, and watch how many choices you make and watch how off you can be from what they thought it was supposed to be. Not necessarily bad, right, but start to understand what it’s like to be in those shoes.
And the more you can understand the nature of production, the psychological nature of production and also the procedural nature of production the more useful you will be to it and the more useful you’re to it the better chance you have to actually protect what matters.
Aline: Yeah. I also want to say those guys like J.J. and Alex, Bob and Simon, those guys are really as they produce stuff, even producing stuff that they didn’t write, they’re just invaluable on set because they’ve done the other job, too. So they understand how to communicate with writers. I mean, that’s why I’ve really enjoyed working with those guys who are producers but were writers first because I feel like they speak writer and I have such a good shorthand with them and they understand how to solve problems in a way that I understand. So I really love that. I think those guys are uniquely equipped to deal with the writing part of it is as producers.
John: Well, let’s get to next topic which is talking about the writing itself. And to join us on this topic I want to invite a gentleman who was one of my first assistants. He is a frequent suggester of material for our podcasts. He is the one who suggested 15 is the new 30 and which was a whole topic that we talked about. He’s also made some movies. He wrote and directed this movie called Dodgeball, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. He has this movie called We’re the Millers which comes out really soon. So, maybe you should go see that movie.
Craig: Couple of weeks.
John: Couple of weeks. August 7th I believe. So maybe we can hype that. This is Rawson Marshall Thurber. Rawson get up here.
Craig: Rawson! There he is. And Rawson for those of you who don’t know is the best-looking male screenwriter.
Aline: Yeah. There is a competition ongoing. There’s a calendar…
Craig: Well, we had a little chit-chat about it. There is a calendar. One question about the calendar, that we didn’t know, and you guys just mull this over, in sexy calendars is it supposed to get sexier as you go through the year? Is December better?
Aline: Well, there is this thing where there are lot of screenwriters who were…
[Audience member: Yes!]
Craig: Yes. She says yes.
Aline: Are there? Is it really…?
Craig: She says December is the hot one.
Aline: Is December hotter, is better than January? I don’t think so. But a lot of the good-looking screenwriters were actors.
Craig: Right, but he’s not.
Aline: And that disqualifies them. So that rockets Rawson right up there.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Thank you. That’s so kind.
Craig: We don’t count, like, so he’s made a movie with Jennifer Aniston, she’s married to Justin Theroux. He’s a screenwriter…
Aline: Does not count.
John: Does not count.
Craig: But he’s an actor. Doesn’t count. That’s it. It’s not fair to us to include actors.
John: We have to be judged against your own cohort.
Craig: Right. And against his own cohort…
John: Also pretty good. What’s weird is that I think of Rawson as like this young child who came in to interview for an assistant job and you were working at the William Morris mailroom. You came in dressed in like a suit that did not fit you very well.
John: This is at Dick Wolf’s company and like you were on like a lunch break from William Morris and you kept being so insistent about like, “What my salary is going to be…?”
Rawson: Yeah. Yeah.
John: I think your dad had sort of drilled that into you, too, didn’t he?
Rawson: And gave me the suit. It was both of those things.
Craig: “Son, two bits of advice: wear my lucky suit and demand a salary over and over.”
Rawson: Yeah. I think I was just being paid so little at William Morris that I was like, “Look, if I’m going to leave I just, I want be able to it eat…”
John: Like that was it.
Rawson: It was really hunger. The hunger and shame. I think both of those things. The beats of a screenwriter.
John: There is no hunger but there is certainly some shame in the article that we’re going to be talking about from Slate. This is an article by Peter Suderman in which he argues that — I’m kind of reading of my phone here because that’s how I can read things — he argues that the reason movies feel formulaic these days is because there is a formula, a template, described by Blake Snyder in his 2005 book, Save the Cat.
This is a quote of what he said, “When Snyder published his book in 2005, it was as if an explosion ripped through Hollywood. The book offered something previous screenplay guru tomes didn’t. Instead of a broad overview of how a screen story fits together, his book broke down the three-act structure into a detailed beat sheet: 15 key story ‘beats’ — pivotal events that have to happen – and gave each of those beats a name and a screenplay page number. Given that each page of a screenplay is expected to equal a minute of film, this makes Snyder’s guide essentially a minute-to-minute movie formula.”
So before we start our discussion I want a show of hands of this audience, how many people have read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat? It was a lot, I mean, this is common for aspiring screenwriters. Did any of you read it?
Rawson: Never read it.
Aline: The explosion that ripped through Hollywood, I missed it when I was online shopping and eating pizza. I missed it.
Craig: Yeah. “Oh, did you hear there was an explosion that ripped through Hollywood the other day? Yeah, apparently now it’s a minute by minute break down.”
Aline: I totally missed it. I totally missed it.
John: Yeah. And so this article was on Slate. And a general rule I do follow is I never read the comments on articles but I figured like well, people are going to be responding. I’m curious how they’re going to be responding to this. And so the very first comment on this was from a guy name Shagbark and this is what Shagbark says. He says, “Also, other screenwriters including John August and Thomas Lennon, now quote Snyder’s numbers re. which page of the script each thing should happen on, without mentioning Snyder, as if they were universal truths instead of made-up numbers.”
Okay, first of all, fuck you Shagbark. To throw me in with this article saying like, “Oh John August got that thing from Blake Snyder…”
Aline: Anybody who’s a careful listener of this podcast knows that John August, who is the nicest person in the world, is secretly very angry.
Craig: It’s not really a secret. I’m famous for letting it out.
Aline: There is so much niceness over it that when it comes out, it’s a delight.
Craig: By the way, I’m Shagbark. You know that.
John: Oh yeah. You totally are Shagbark. Craig has been trolling me for the whole hundred episodes. So to say like, “Oh, John August said and took it from Blake Snyder.” I did not take it from Blake Snyder, I took it from like the fact that certain things tend to kind of happen at certain places.
Craig: Wait, wait are you saying maybe Blake Snyder took from something? Like the history of movies?
John: Maybe. Perhaps. Perhaps.
Craig: Or the history of storytelling, that either started 3000 years ago or in 2005?
John: I want to let our guests speak. [laughs]
John: This is Rawson Thurber. So you’ve not read Blake Snyder’s book?
Rawson: I’ve not. No.
John: Are familiar with the book? Have you heard of this book?
Rawson: Only by title, until you sent me the article and I read the article, of course, and all the supplementary material, but I have not read the book.
John: Okay. And so what is your impression? Do you think there is a formula? Question: Are movies more formulaic than they have been or than they should be, is question A and if so, is there a formula?
Rawson: Well, I guess, I mean, I would say, are movies formulaic? I mean, yes and no. There are certain moves that need to happen in a three-act structure but, I mean, I feel like the article that — is it Peter, is that right? — that he wrote, I thought it was largely horse shit, frankly.
I think that it’s easy to kind of put all those touchstones and those beats retroactively back in and say like, “Look at Olympus Has Fallen, look at The Lone Ranger, look at all these things.” It’s really easy to do that and whether that’s right or wrong is one part of the article. The other piece that I thought was absolutely not true in my experience is that that is something that professionals in Hollywood are actively doing, which is fallacy and, I mean, I guess it makes a good article but it makes no sense. I’ve never ever in a meeting had anybody talk to me about any of these terms in any way like that.
Rawson: Ever. Not even close.
Craig: Ever. Where do they make this? Is there some building where these people get together and say, “Let’s all agree that we don’t know shit and now let’s start assigning each other topics?”
John: Yes. It’s the new journalism. So really it’s a question of like whether it’s — if it’s journalism then you would actually interview a screenwriter to see if there was any basis of reality but it’s essentially an opinion piece based on sort of like one idea which is like a blog post…
Aline: Here is the thing. Here is the thing. There are tropes. There are tropes and there are things that reappear and there are people, you know, there are modes of storytelling that become fashionable and people adopt it but the idea that, I mean, when I looked at that I thought, I went to the 15 beats and I thought, “Oh maybe this will be helpful.”
Rawson: Yeah. I did the same thing.
Aline: Yeah. I was like, “Oh, maybe there is something good in here.” And you go and it’s like, it’s the same crap that everybody always says. And my feeling about those things is buy one book, buy Adventures in Screenwriting, buy Syd Field, buy this, buy one, take one class. There are sort of some basic principles and — look at Craig, he looks so horrified. There are some basic principles of storytelling that are good to sort of have run past you but the idea that anyone has — if it worked, people would do it.
Rawson: Of course.
Aline: If you could slavishly follow those things and they would work, they don’t. But I don’t think his contention that people are following it more and then it works, particularly he said it works better for male characters and then he said J.J’s whole canon is that and I really take exception to that because J.J. did Felicity and Alias and it has really nothing to do with that. No one consciously retrofits it. There are certain tropes of storytelling in the culture that will filter in; no one has ever consciously…
Craig: Yeah, there always have been. Narrative has, I mean, read Poetics. Aristotle talks about this stuff in Poetics. We might as well say that Poetics exploded through Hollywood in minus-2005, right.
Aline: “Oh, this protagonist.”
Craig: Right and apparently there needs to be a catharsis. Yes.
Craig: Yes. Storytelling — oh, we have a spider hanging out!
Sorry, I was distracted for a second.
Storytelling has a purpose and anything that has a purpose therefore will have a form to fit its function. This isn’t new and movies will vacillate in and around various different kinds of form to match their function, but I just want to be really clear for both the writer of this nonsense and anybody else that might have been susceptible to it. Nobody professionally in Hollywood, to echo what Rawson said, nobody talks about this book. I’ve never, no one has ever mentioned it to me and I mean anywhere, on any level, at any place. That’s how thorough that is. And anything inside of it that may be of some use to you is only of use to you in that regard. That it’s of use to you however it may do, but don’t think…
Aline: Good God, don’t mention it in a meeting.
Craig: Yeah. Oh, please because by the way that is literally like you might as well just stamp “rookie” on your head like, “Well, I read in Save the Cat…”
Rawson: I had one experience with Save the Cat, actually. There was an actor on a movie that I was directing who kept coming up to me, like about a week in he would come up and have these very strange ideas and questions about what we’re doing and where it was going. And I didn’t, you know, I would answer them and walk away sort of scratching my head. I didn’t quite understand like where this is all coming from. And he had an assistant named Jim, no Jimmy, and he would come up to me, the actor would come up to me and say, “You know, Jim was talking to me about” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah and it all sounded super suspicious to me and I’m like, “Okay, okay.”
And then one day at wrap, they were leaving and I said goodbye to the actor and Jim was driving home and I saw in the backseat of Jim’s Prius was Save the Cat. And I went — Oh, you’re fucking kidding me! Of course! So that’s my only experience with Save the Cat which…
Craig: It’s deeply frustrating.
John: And how was Nick Nolte other than that?
Rawson: [laughs] No. It wasn’t Nick.
Craig: I just want to say also, just one thing that makes me nuts about this.
Aline: Umbrage, umbrage, umbrage.
Craig: It’s happening.
John: You know we actually seeded the article in Slate this week specifically so that it would …
Craig: The sad thing is like I know that and it’s still working. The purpose of these articles really if you think about it is to go, “These screenwriters, these filmmakers are just, they’re just machinists. They’re building IKEA furniture, you guys. There’s nothing special about what they do.” It’s all like, “Let’s demystify their nonsense.”
You know, I’m not going to say that we’re all amazing Mozarts, we’re not. But go ahead, Peter whatever, pick up that book and you go just as a goof, as a goof, follow it and write a screenplay. I’d love to read it and see just how amazing this explosive affair is.
Aline: Well, when you do pick them up, like when you do pick up those books or when you look at that I always find it so inscrutable and difficult. It’s like, “Here the hero either transcends or does not transcend the gate which he does or does not pass at which point he does triumph or does not triumph with a sidekick or without one.” And I’m always like…
Craig: There. Done. Problem solved.
Rawson: Writes itself.
Craig: It writes itself.
Aline: I wish it gave me something to use. I always find it like, “Has he crossed the threshold of the mighty river?” I don’t know. She’s got a job at a magazine. I don’t know. Is that the mighty river? It might be. I’m not sure.
John: My frustration with it is really the false causation, it’s the sense that, “Here I’ve noticed a pattern and therefore because I’ve noticed a pattern everything — I’m magical.” So it’s like saying like, “Many pop songs have a structure of one, six, four, five and like therefore every pop song after that point is following my structure that I identified.” No, it’s not. That’s just how songs work.
Aline: That’s analysis.
Craig: Yeah. It’s the difference between reading and writing.
John: And so the reason why I’m willing to say three-acts for a movie is because like movies have beginnings, middles and ends. They just do. The projector turns on at a certain point, it turns off at a certain point. Like there are phases of a movie and it’s useful to be able to talk about those phases with terminology, but everything else is just inventions.
There was one thing I — because my function in the podcast is to play devil’s advocate — there is one thing I will say devil’s advocate. He calls out the, which is kind of just thrown in, but he calls out the villain who gets himself caught deliberately.
Guys, we need to stop doing that. We just need to stop doing that. It’s become the air duct.
Aline: And he’s in a glass room.
John: Yes. Right. Exactly. So, like, you know, we’ve caught the bad guy but no, no he meant to be caught. No, uh-uh. Stop. I want a ten-year moratorium on that.
Craig: It was cool when Heath Ledger did it.
John: Yeah. It was, it was great, remember when he did that?
Craig: I do remember that. That was awesome.
Aline: But that’s what I was talking about like there are these tropes that kind of filter through where there was a whole thing for a while when there were cop movies where it was like they were partners but they were shadow images, mirror images of the same person and their lives are really similar but wasn’t. That was a huge thing and culminated in Face/Off. There are kind of vogues in storytelling.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, that’s normal. That book won’t even help you chase. And you know my whole thing is: never chase. You write what you write, I’ve said this a hundred times. The only thing interesting about you is what’s specific to you. That’s it. If you’re writing something, if you’re just chasing the market, there are 50 people ahead of you in line who just better writers because they’ve been it longer. So don’t that, that’s crazy. But this book won’t even help you do that. It’s useless.
Rawson: I think what Aline is saying is right is that there are tropes at work and you’re saying there is always a beginning, middle and end and one of the ones in the list that made a lot of sense to me is the sort of Dark Night of the Soul at the end of the second act, right, where everything looks like it’s lost.
John: The worst of the worst.
Rawson: That’s right. So when John and I, we both went to USC and we had, I think, the same instructor and she talked a lot about the three-act structure and how it works typically and the big moves in it. And that’s been incredibly helpful to me in my career. And so I don’t think you shouldn’t pay attention to these things but it doesn’t mean that they’re gospel and they have to be followed lockstep. But I do think there is some value there but if you pin your hopes to it you’ll be working at Ralphs.
John: I was watching a movie on the plane…
Rawson: — Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
John: Good to be working at Ralphs.
Craig: Would have been great if like four people just stood up, “Fuck you. It’s a decent living.”
John: I will say there was a movie I watched on the plane as I was flying back from Europe this week and it was really well executed, like the performances were really great but like the movie just didn’t quite hold up right. And I did look at it and say like, “You know what, the problem here is that it’s kind of not doing the things that it needs to do. Like your hero, your protagonist, she’s just not actually changing that much; you’re not making things difficult enough for her. It’s never reaching a real crisis.”
And so those are the kind of things that this book would point out. And so if reading this book makes you think about story in that way that’s useful. But also a smart person reading your scripts who knows about movies would also say the same thing.
Craig: Yes. Agreed.
John: Let us go to One Cool Thing which has been a staple of the show I think since the beginning. I think we started…
Craig: For you it’s been a staple. For me it’s just a nightmare.
John: Yeah. Every once in a while Craig will remember and sometimes they’re good. But, Aline would you kick us off with a One Cool Thing?
Aline: I will. I found a thing that had been I believe on PBS and then I found it on iTunes and I read about it. I didn’t watch it when it was on PBS and I just watched it recently. It’s three one-hour episodes, it’s a documentary, and I gobbled it up and each episode seemed like five minutes to me and I was in tears through most of it. And it has a very bad title. It’s called Making: The Women who Made America, or Who Make America.
It’s not a good title but it’s called Making and it’s the documentary about the women’s movement and it is so well done. And the interviews are so good and it’s so well balanced. And they talked to Phyllis Schlafly and they talked to Gloria Steinem and it’s incredibly well done and if you have interest in that subject matter it just whizzes by and I loved it.
John: Cool. Rawson Thurber.
Rawson: Yeah. This is, you might not like this one, but my One Cool Thing is actually this podcast which I love dearly.
Aline: Oh my god. Oh, he’s not your boss anymore! You don’t have to suck up anymore.
Rawson: I know. I know. But sincerely, it’s the truth. Like what you guys do every week for the screenwriting community is amazing. I listen to it all the time; I know a lot of friends do. And it’s really, really cool.
Craig: Thank you.
Aline: Also you guys are really good-looking.
John: We’re built for audio podcasts.
Craig: Yeah. Faces for radio.
John: My One Cool Thing: So my go-to pen — I’m not actually like a person who like tries to have, like obsess about sort of things like, you know, light coming through a window at certain thing, but I hate a terrible pen. And so I like a good, cheap pen that I don’t care if I lose. So my go-to, cheap pen has been the Pilot G2.
[The crowd cheers]
John: It’s a good pen.
Craig: Are you serious?
Rawson: Holy shit.
Craig: Oh my god.
Rawson: That was amazing.
Craig: I also…
John: Spontaneous love for the Pilot G2. It’s a really solid good pen and I love that pen. So wherever Stuart will like hand me a pen that’s not that I’m like, “Stuart, no.”
Rawson: Is it .05 or .07?
John: I like the .05 or the .07. Really the .05 is fine…
Rawson: That’s how I roll, too. The .05. I think I might have gotten that from you, the G2 .05.
John: It’s good. Well, this week…
Craig: They came out with the G3?
John: No. But Pilot has a new pen and it’s actually kind of an amazing pen. So it’s the Pilot Frixion.
Aline: It’s not a vibrator?
John: It’s not. Doesn’t it sound like it could be?
Craig: Aline has lost interest.
John: Although it has, Aline, it has a rubber component. So, here is the thing about the Pilot Frixion.
Aline: The Pilot Frottage.
John: Up until now you can only get them in Japan. You can now get them in the US on Amazon.
Craig: Or vibrating.
John: Yeah. You can get it on Amazon. They’re fairly cheap. If you lose one you’re not going to feel sad about it. They are erasable and like you would think like well an erasable pen would suck. All erasable pens have always sucked, right?
Craig: Yeah, like the kind in fourth grade.
Rawson: They were terrible.
Craig: Paper Mate or whatever.
Rawson: They were terrible.
John: They were terrible. So the way this pen works is it writes just like a normal gel pen and it’s not quite as awesome as the G2 but it’s really solid and good. It’s a good solid pen and it can erase. And so when you erase it, it’s actually, the little rubber tip — I know this sounds really pornographic — the rubber tip creates heat and the heat actually makes it go invisible.
Aline: This is like a John August bit. This is like somebody wrote a John August bit.
Craig: I could not write that perfect. That was really — that was good.
Aline: It heats up, it gets a little bigger.
John: It gets a little bigger. And so my daughter has become obsessed with it, too, now because…
Rawson: Oh Jesus. Good night folks. Good night.
John: Here is the thing, because it can erase and if you’re a kid you make mistakes and you erase. Although, if you stick it in the freezer the hidden text comes back!
Craig: I mean, you’re just, you’re doing this on purpose now. “Although, if you put it up your ass…”
Aline: “And on the surface of the moon it’s amazing.”
John: Yeah. It’s kind of great!
John: You got something better than that, Craig Mazin?
Craig: I have something so different than that.
Aline: I hope you have a vibrator.
Craig: I have Two Cool Things.
John: Oh, yeah, he’s breaking the rules again.
Craig: Breaking the rules again, as always. So I don’t if you guys, on one of the podcasts we talked about our origin stories, like how we got started in the business because people often ask that question.
So tonight there are two people here, my first job, they gave me my first job in Los Angeles. It was 1992. I had just turned 21. Well, technically, my first job was temping at William Morris, typing their employee manual. And because some secretary had typed it, literally on a typewriter in the ’50s, and so I put it into Word Perfect.
But the next job I got was at this little ad agency and these two took a chance on this kid and, you know, I say all the time like luck — people overemphasize luck, chance favors the prepared and all that. And that’s true. But this was legitimately lucky that these were the people I met instead of total assholes because you there’s a lot of those, too.
And you can’t really replace what it means to be supported and valued by good human beings. So Nancy Fletcher and Julia Wayne could you please stand up?
Craig: 21 years later. And also they would buy me lunch a lot which was really nice because I had no money. It’s great. So, you are my two. Oh, and also Julia and I, I’m not going to say what it was but she did something in front of me that is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, ever. Nothing will ever be funnier. Sometimes when I’m sad I think about it and I still laugh again. So thank you for that.
John: Aw. I have a couple of special thank yous, too. Stuart Friedel, or the man playing Stuart Friedel, please stand up. This is the man who edits our podcasts and makes us sound coherent when we’re drunk. I also need to thank Ryan Nelson who I think is in the very back of the room.
John: Ryan Nelson. Oh Ryan is up here now. He is the actual Ryan Nelson who designs all our apps. Along with Nima Yousefi who is also up here.
John: Where’s Nima? Nima, the magical elf, who is just this week a full-time employee at Quote-Unquote Films. So hooray!
I need to thank everyone here for coming to this thing. We really, really wondered whether anyone would show up.
Aline: Awesome. So awesome.
John: And you did and that was so cool and it really means a lot. I’ll get sort of verklempt and weepy. But since that won’t happen, because I won’t let myself get verklempt…
Craig: I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry.
John: I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry. I’m just going to thank you and we’re going to applaud and then we’re going to do some questions. So hooray!
- The Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting
- Aline Brosh McKenna on IMDb, and her first and second appearances on Scriptnotes
- Rawson Thurber on IMDb
- Go see We’re the Millers on August 7th!
- Slate’s article on Save the Cat! (and Stuart’s review of the series)
- Makers: Women Who Make America on PBS
- Scriptnotes: A podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters
- The classic Pilot G2 and the brand new erasable Pilot Frixion on Amazon
- Stuart, Ryan and Nima
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Mike Timmerman