The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Now, if you have a question for me, or for Craig, or for Aline, or Rawson, there is a microphone on this corner of the stage. And you can line up and we will hear your questions as you ask them and we will be so excited.
Aline Brosh McKenna: John, I’m writing a script with an assistant character in it and I’ve named him Stuart and call dibs on that.
Aline: Done. I got it.
Craig Mazin: I’ll take Ryan.
Aline: I claimed it.
John: Hello and welcome! What’s your name?
Eric: Hi, my name is Eric.
John: Hi Eric.
Eric: First off, thanks for being awesome. I had a quick question for you guys. Before you’re about to send a script out, do you have particular checklists that you go through that it has to pass muster? And what are those particular things?
John: Yeah, that’s a very good question. What are the last looks? Rawson, do you have a last look list on a script before you — ?
Rawson Thurber: Yeah, well, I do something a little different, obviously, than just… — I don’t really send them out anymore, so if I’m hired to write a script or rewrite a script, typically if it’s the first draft, and I sort of, I don’t know if I stole this from you or if I adapted it from you.
But I’ll finish the first draft, and obviously plenty of spell check and typos and I have my lovely fiancé go through it, and she finds a lot more than I do.
But if it’s a first draft, I actually hand deliver it. I go into the production office or the studio. I bring however many copies I need, usually two or three. I have the PDF on my iPhone, so I just call them up I say, “Look, I’m going to need ten minutes of your time. I’m just going to pop in, maybe right before lunch, between meetings, whatever.” Pop in, hand them the script. It gives me a chance to do two things. One is it gives me a chance to prep their read or frame their read, or I can talk about things that I really am excited about in the script, things that went really well.
I also get a chance to sort of maybe head off some negative notes at the pass where I say, “I think the villain in the second — it gets a little muddy, I’m still working on it. Don’t freak out.” So, it helps frame the read.
And then the second part of it, which I think really helps, is that it also puts it at the top of their stack. If you’re going to walk in and hand it to them, it really imprints with them. So, it’s not just another one on their stack, which doesn’t exist anymore.
When I leave I email it to them so they have a PDF and they can read it on their iPad.
The only thing I would say is just do that once. Like don’t go for every rewrite, just the first time, so they know you’re taking it seriously. And then after that it can all be email. That’s what I do.
John: I never heard of that. That’s very cool.
Aline: I’ve never heard that either I thought —
Craig: It’s pretty old school. Old school.
Aline: If you do that, bring a vibrating pen for everybody.
Rawson: I think you’re also apologetic. And I know it’s quaint and it won’t take much time. And you don’t really call it a meeting.
Aline: I think Craig and I share this. I kind of obsess a little bit over page breaks.
Craig: Yeah, that’s my big — that’s my flight check.
Aline: That’s what I will fiddle with. Because I don’t like the “CONT’D” and I like things to fall on —
Craig: Sometimes there’s a line that’s like that’s the conclusion of the thought and if it’s on the next page, even though — look, the truth is they all read it on their iPad. There are no page breaks anymore.
Aline: So I have this belief now that if it starts to fall right on the page it means the script is good.
Craig: Oh boy, that’s mentally ill.
Rawson: Ooh, that’s nice.
Craig: I’m with you, but, I mean, I have the same problem.
John: Thank you very much. Next up.
Hani: Hi, I’m Hani Vadi and thank you; this is really amazing. My question is to Craig but anybody can chip in. Regarding writing parody films and how much is too much, copyright laws, and how much you can push and not push.
Craig: Well, the basic thing that governs parody is fair use. The fair use doctrine accepts certain things for use by all of us that are copyright material, for instance if you were doing a review of the book you can publish a few quotes from the book without infringing on the author’s right to reproduce that book.
And parody is one of those things. It’s very well protected. Occasionally it gets challenged in court. The very famous case that’s part of the subject of The People vs. Larry Flynt where Hustler Magazine published a cartoon in which Jerry Falwell’s mother was something, something Hustler-y. And it was considered parody and it was protected.
When we were making parody movies the big rule of thumb was “never ask permission.” If you ask, people will say no, and then they’re on record as saying no, and you’re on record as asking, which is sort of like implying that you think it’s infringement.
In general, bigger minds than yours will be concerned with this. Law professors are hired to work this stuff out. Your job is to just be funny. So you be funny, and then whoever is going to produce the movie, they’ll figure it out.
Hani: Just make the cat drunk.
Craig: Pardon me?
Hani: Just make the cat drunk. Save the Cat!
Rawson: We haven’t read it.
Craig: Yes sir.
PiPS97: How you doing. Person in plaid shirt number 97. I was just wondering, John, what podcasts were you listening to before you approached Craig here?
John: I was listening to John Gruber’s podcast which was The Talk Show with Dan Benjamin. I was listening to some of the Slate podcasts. Like One Cool Thing is sort of a rip-off of the Slate Political Gabfest has Cocktail Chatter as their last little thing. My husband, Mike, was the one who talked me into listening to Slate Political Gabfest, and it was great.
So those were the two. And then I think the fact that our show is about an hour, the fact that we do three topics is really modeled on those.
PiPS97: And have you been on any other podcasts other than Jay Mohr’s?
John: I have. I’ve been on John Gruber’s new podcast, I’ve gone on Brett Terpstra’s podcast and at least one or two more, Moisés Chiullan’s podcast. So, they’re fun. And I really enjoy guesting on other people’s podcasts because I can just be the Craig who shows up unprepared.
Craig: It’s the best.
John: Yeah. Thanks.
PiPS97: Thank you.
Craig: It’s the best.
Kevin: Hello there. My name is Kevin and I just want to say I hope you guys are not hungry; you’ll never shop in Ralphs again. No, I’m just kidding. I was going to ask you, do you think — It seems to me like the structure of films now, because they write in three acts, I think it was better in the earlier days of Hollywood because they wrote in reels and sequences. And what you were saying about Slate and blaming Blake Snyder, a lot of people did that with Syd Field because they felt like he gave you a couple plot points and nobody knew what was happening in between.
Craig: Yeah, you know, we still talk about reels. I mean, movies are shot digitally and they’re edited digitally and they’re projected digitally. And in the editing room we divide them up into reels. And we even spend time balancing the reels sort of pointlessly because we just don’t want too much in one reel or the other.
We still think in terms of sequences. Certainly in animation, they’re constantly talking about sequences. The truth is I really don’t think much about acts. I don’t think much about sequences. I think about my main character and theme, and their relationship with the theme, and their progression from one kind of philosophy of life to another.
We all have different ways of approaching it, but once you get into production, I actually feel like things probably haven’t changed much in terms of the way we conceive of it.
Kevin: Thank you. I don’t use a G2, but I prefer writing in reels. Thank you very much.
John: Thank you very much.
Craig: There you go.
Jeremy Hi, my name is Jeremy. This is for writing comedy films. Do you hammer — what is your process for getting funny onto the screen? Do you start out by hammering out the plot and characters, look to see where to insert the funny, or do you have funny concepts and ideas and go from there?
John: I’ll say the comedy stuff I’ve done is making sure that you have a character who is funny and interesting in the world, and you’re creating situations in which that character can show, can be funny, and let the world be funny around them.
Go is a situation of like the world itself is not particularly hilarious, but you create predicaments in which these characters and their specific wants become funny. And hopefully you are able to write funny stuff for them to say and do. And that’s the trick. You can structure a perfect comedy, but if you’re not funny it’s not funny. Aline?
Craig: Or Rawson was about to say something.
Aline: Rawson has to answer this because Rawson wrote one of my favorite comedies ever.
Rawson: Thank you. That’s very kind. So, I think there are two things, because one is writing funny for a script and then the second thing is how you end up with funny in the movie. And they’re different, because a lot of times what you write in the script gets changed either from the performance or from the editing as you put the movie up.
I know in the last movie I made, We’re the Millers —
John: August 7th.
Rawson: August 7th, yes, August 7th.
You know, I guess one thing I really learned on that was nobody, not only does nobody know anything, but nobody really knows what’s funny. The people who really know funny will confess that they’re not 100%. They’re like, “I think this is going to be funny, but you don’t know.” And you don’t really know until you put it up in front of real people and they either laugh or they don’t. And then the process of editing kind of brings — takes the stuff out that isn’t working and brings in things that are closer. But that’s a process of making a film.
In terms of, when I was writing Dodgeball and when I was rewriting We’re the Millers, it’s a lot of what John said is figuring out situations that are funny or awkward, or hard, or weird, and then hoping you have characters in there that will say funny stuff.
Aline: The other thing I would say is characters can’t be funny if the scene is broken.
Rawson: That’s true.
Aline: And I have found that often, like if there’s something wrong and no one is saying funny things in a script, in a scene, something is wrong with the scene.
Craig: And, lastly, there are scenes that are funny because the characters are odd. And the way they’re interacting with something that is mundane is specific and particular. So, you can go through — like a very famous example is if you look at Rain Man. It’s not a funny movie. I mean, there are a couple of jokes in it, but it’s a drama.
It’s the same movie as Midnight Run. It’s a guy and a weirdo on the road and the weirdo refuses to fly and they’ve got to get from here to here together. And along the way they kind of have this… — And that’s on purpose, because the men who made Midnight Run wanted to do Rain Man. [laughs] So, they’re like, “Well, I guess we can’t do Rain Man, so let’s just do this one.”
So, sometimes that’s all it is, is just a weird character and their weird take in a mundane situation, like a restaurant.
Jeremy: Thank you.
Natural comedian: This is kind of a strange problem. A couple years ago I had a lot of success with like a dark thriller sort of movie that got me repped and everything. The problem is I’m a comedy writer and of the first five scripts that I’ve ever written, four were comedies, and the other one was successful.
So, I go into these meetings and like I have to try not to tell jokes and I have to try to be like eye liner guy who is like, “This movie is about pain,” and it’s not really me because I’m always trying to make people laugh. So, how would you know what your genre is, and should you just shut up and try and take the money if you’re out of genre?
John: Awesome to get paid. But, you should write the movie that you want to see exist in the world. And if those movies are comedies then you should write the comedies.
Natural comedian: What if no one else seems to want to see them in the world?
John: Well, I think, you need to make them in some way. Because you have these things on the page and if for some reason people aren’t finding it —
Craig: Well, hold on. We don’t know how unfunny he is.
John: Well, maybe —
Natural comedian: I’m pretty funny to me.
John: Yeah. So I think you need to find some way to make that, either as, make something that’s either a short or something that can show people like, oh, this is actually funny, because they’re not getting it, or they just only have one preconceived notion of who you are.
Before I wrote Go I was only the guy who wrote kids movies. And so I was only getting sent things about gnomes, elves, dwarves, and Christmas. And it was driving me crazy. And so then with Go, I wrote Go as sort of like, “You know, I can write other things.” And it was so useful because if people wanted to see it as a comedy, it’s a comedy. You want to see it as thriller, it’s a thriller. It’s an action movie. It got me other things.
So, either make something that’s specifically a comedy that can be that comedy sample for you, or write something that’s broader that people can see like, “Oh, he can do these different things.”
Natural comedian: So, would you write a sample — I’m sorry, I know I’m taking more time than I deserve. Would you write a sample that, you know, just to be a sample, or does it have to be something that can sell? Because I have those ideas but they’re things that aren’t going to be made. And if they’re just going to be awesome, you know.
Craig: If you’re so sure that they’re not going to get made —
Natural comedian: I’m pretty sure.
Craig: Then why are you? I mean, they must stink.
Natural comedian: No, because they’re awesome.
Rawson: Can I just —
Craig: You don’t understand how this works, see.
John: Rawson has the answer.
Craig: Awesome things get made. Right?
Rawson: I couldn’t agree more. I’ve never heard anybody say, “I’m working really hard on my writing sample.” Like that doesn’t make any sense to me. Either write something you love or don’t. But don’t write something that you think no one will buy, or write something that you think someone will buy. Write what you love. Don’t work on a writing sample, work on a script, work on a movie.
Craig: You are prime candidate for Brian Koppelman’s best advice. Brian Koppelman who writes with Koppelman/Levien. They did Rounders and stuff like that. Very smart guy. Two word advice: calculate less. Just calculate less.
Aline: Biederman also says, “Write with no attachment to the outcome.”
Natural comedian: Write better.
Craig: You got it.
John: Hello and welcome.
Alex: Hello. I’m the first woman in the line.
John: Have at it. There will be another woman in the line.
Alex: We’re outnumbered.
John: Hooray! What is your name?
Alex: I’m Alex Angelis.
John: Are you here from Los Angeles?
Alex: Yes, I live here.
John: We have some people who are from Canada.
Aline: She looked so scared from that question. Her eyes went wide. Did you see that?
Craig: You leave her alone!
John: Who here is from Canada? See!
Craig: Oh my god.
Rawson: That’s awesome.
Alex: Okay, I was just hoping to get some advice about a problem which I think is probably common, where you have a lot of scripts in your mind at one time. And when I sit down to try to write one I’m supposed to focus on, I just have all these other ideas for the other ones. And is there anything, like hypnosis. Like what do you do?
John: That never happens to any of us.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah.
John: We’re all perfect.
Craig: Yeah, we just focus. There’s nothing wrong with having multiple things going on in your mind.
Alex: No, of course.
Craig: I think it’s important to at least give yourself an opportunity to take one of those ideas and make a little outline of it. You know, I don’t know if you like index cards, or maybe you like to type up a little outline or something like that. Outline it. And what I find is sometimes by putting a little bit of flesh on this skeleton, now I think, “Oh, that could be a person and I’ll leave these other ones here for awhile. This one I have to commit to.”
Nothing is sexier than a new person, right? It’s the same thing with ideas, but you’ve got to marry one of them. You got to have the kid. You got to pay tuition. Wife leaves you. And then you move on.
No, my wife is lovely. She would never leave me. But you do have to commit at some point.
John: I would say if you’re picking between projects, my first simple bit of advice, pick the one with the best ending, which I know sounds really weird.
Aline: It’s great advice.
Rawson: Great advice.
John: Everything is going to have a great start because first acts are easy. But think of the one that you’re excited to write the ending for, because that’s the one you’ll actually finish.
Aline: That’s the answer to the question.
Rawson: Wow. We can all stop.
Alex: Nailed it.
John: Thank you.
Craig: Nailed it!
John: Hello sir. You have a fantastic orange shirt.
Orange shirt: I went with umbrage.
Craig: Great shirt. Umbrage orange! Also blue is umbrage.
Orange shirt: First of all I’m so glad to hear that some of you guys are obsessed with page breaks. That makes me feel so much better. I thought I might have been going crazy.
Craig: You are, but…
Orange shirt: My question is, Craig, you warned against not chasing trends. And I have to ask, because at least three of my most recent favorite films released failed miserably at the box office. Is there any value in not avoiding failures?
Aline: Name one.
Orange shirt: The Lone Ranger. Pacific Rim. Cloud Atlas. These things, like should I not write a giant monster movie? Should I not write a western movie if I’m writing one?
Aline: I thought you were going to say like a tiny movie —
Craig: No, I think you should write what you want to write, what you care the most about writing. The truth is you may run into something where you’re off trend. And they may say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, you’re a big huge robot monster movie. Dude, Pacific Rim, we’re not going to make this.” But if you’ve written something well and it’s impressive, they’re going to say, “But, what about this, what about this, are you interested in this? We bought this…”
And here’s another thing, just so you know about off trends, there really is no off trend, because what happens is you’ll hear that something is off trend. There are 50 producers out there desperate to get a movie made who own properties that are on trend. And trends just do this, right?
Nothing could have been more off trend than a pirate movie, until Pirates of the Caribbean. I mean, not just one, two spectacular pirate failures had happened. And then, look right? So, ignore all of that. You just do your thing.
Orange shirt: Will do. Thank you.
Craig: You got it.
John: Hello and welcome.
Makers fan: Hi, sorry, I’m short. Firstly, lady business. Makers is awesome. I cried like for three hours.
Aline: Amazing, right? I cried so hard at the beginning, with the lady, the runner.
Makers fan: Yes! Oh my god, sorry, okay. I just want to say your episode on why you should continue writing was like, whoa, I needed to hear that, so thank you.
John: Great. Thank you.
Makers fan: Also, so, you guys were going over the WGA report a couple weeks ago and you were talking about how screenwriting for film is like kind of doing this, and TV writing is doing this.
John: For people who are listening at home, one hand was going down and one hand was going up.
Makers fan: Down, up. Increasing, decreasing. So, do you think that there’s any merit in trying to bring back the miniseries or the made for TV movie?
John: Yes. And I think that the stuff that we’re talking about, like that off trend, that’s going to come back on trend. And so if you look at Under the Dome, that’s really kind of a miniseries. It’s like its own special thing. You look at Orange is the New Black, it’s kind of a miniseries because it’s all put together as one thing.
Aline: I loved those growing up, like the Shogun and what was —
Craig: Shogun was awesome!
Aline: What was the World War II one?
John: Winds of War?
Aline: Winds of War.
John: Oh my god.
Craig: Thorn Birds.
Aline: Yeah. I mean, those were great.
Craig: Richard Chamberlain, basically. Richard Chamberlain’s entire career.
John: So, yes, I think that’s the kind of thing that’s going to come back. Now, as an aspiring writer, is that the kind of thing you should do out of the gate? It’s sort of hard. It’s neither fish nor fowl, so it’s weird for you to do that. But for the TV execs who are listening, yeah, make some miniseries, because they’re kind of cool.
Aline: Yeah, but you know what? If somebody called you and said, “This woman wrote this thing. It’s weird. It’s three two-hour episodes of a story,” you’d be like, “That’s great, I want to read that, because I haven’t seen that.” I would think that would make it more interesting. If you could write a miniseries, I mean, that would be —
Craig: If you have something in that shape, why not?
Aline: Yeah, people would, yeah.
Craig: Look, when miniseries ruled the earth there were three networks, right? So, the world stopped and watched Roots. That was the deal, right? But now with Netflix and everything you’re starting to see there are just more avenues for television content because there are more delivery systems for it. Which means there are more delivery systems for shorter series. All a miniseries is is basically what they call a regular series in England, you know?
Aline: You know what would be cool would be to option a piece of material that was a miniseries and write the first part of it.
Aline: And then be like, “Boom, I have the rest of it. I own the rights to the rest of it.”
John: Aline, do you want to do Winds of War for ABC?
Aline: I love Winds of War.
John: We could totally do that. We could totally —
Aline: Who was in it? Who was the woman who was in it, the blonde who was in it? Victoria something.
John: I don’t know.
Craig: Herman Wouk wrote the novel.
Aline: Ooh, it was so good.
John: So good. So, thank you for a great idea.
Makers fan: You’re welcome.
John: Cool. You’re awesome. We’ll name a character for you. It’s going to be great.
Craig: Good question.
John: Hello and welcome.
Doppelgänger problems: Hi guys. There are a bunch of us so I’ll try to be quick. I have a question, a very hands-on question. I’m writing a script with an alternate universe in it, so there are two versions of the main character. And there’s one scene where I want us to think that it’s the main character but it’s really the doppelgänger.
So, how do I write that? Because if I write it as the original, it’s kind of —
John: It’s rough. And so many people have faced exactly what you’re facing where what information should the person watching the film have versus what information should the person reading the script have, and it’s a bitch. And you’re going to have to make a choice between is the reader going to be ahead of where the viewer is at?
Doppelgänger problems: Right. That’s what I’m doing right now.
John: How are you going to pull that off? I think it’s one of those rare cases where bold is your friend. And so at a certain point when something has to be revealed, break out that bold text to really say, “Pay attention. This is a thing that happened.” Otherwise people are going to be confused. They’re going to be confused anyway.
Craig: By the way, that’s also a moment to step out of the script and just say, “That’s right. The person you thought was blank was really blank.” It’s okay to do that.
Aline: Just in case you missed it.
Craig: It’s okay to do that if it’s a big deal.
ADoppelgänger problems: Okay. And on the names and everything I use like —
Craig: Use the name that you want the audience to think is the person, otherwise it’s going to be super boring to be like, “Secretly blank but looks like blanks.” Right?
Doppelgänger problems: Right.
Craig: Then they’ll be like, “Okay?” Go ahead, fool the reader the reader you want to fool the audience.
Doppelgänger problems: Great. Thank you.
John: Thanks. We have people in line. The gentlemen in the red shirt is who, in my head, you, is the last question, but anyone else can grab us afterwards and we’ll answer your question. Hello sir at the microphone.
Hunter: Hi, Hunter, first time, long time. So, you guys were talking and I’ve seen on the blog and the podcast discussions of how to dress for meetings and what to do. But can you guys give us some tips or examples of what the most ridiculous, rubbish thing that you have ever done or heard of somebody doing in a meeting?
Aline: That’s good.
Rawson: I’ve got one.
John: You go first.
Craig: Let’s hear it.
Rawson: Well, this was recent. I met Jennifer Aniston for the first time. And I was a little nervous.
John: Did you drink her Vitamin Water?
Rawson: I did not. I did not. But I walk in and all I’m thinking is like, “Be cool. Be cool. Be cool.” And the door opens and she’s like, “Hi, I’m Jen,” and she’s like the nicest person, reaches out. And I go, “Hi, I’m Rawson,” and go like, bang, right into a glass coffee table and eat shit. And I’m like, “Hey! Hi! — “
So, don’t bang into things. And if there’s a glass coffee table, just take a beat before you try to shake somebody’s hand. That would be my advice on the glass coffee table movie star thing.
Craig: Wow. That’s bad.
Rawson: It was awful. And it got better. It got better.
Aline: I have a good one that’s not rubbish but was funny. I made a movie with Rachel McAdams, who I just adored, and I was saying goodbye to her on the last day that I was on set. And I was wearing this pink scarf. And I was talking to her and I was saying she was so amazing and thank you so much and she’s been so great. And I become aware that she’s looking at a thing right here and she’s like, “Oh, honey, Aline, it’s so great. I had such a good time working with you.” And then she reaches down and picks out a piece of donut frosting that was wedged in the middle of my scarf.
So the entire time I was telling her about amazing, how much I love working with her, all she was thinking was like, “Really? Donut frosting?”
Aline: “Pig.” On the scarf.
John: I can’t beat that, so next question.
John: Hello and welcome.
Jeff: My name is Jeff and I always think of you, John, whenever I tell people hello now, so thank you. So, my question is actually about reading scripts and if you guys have any tips about giving feedback or like how you get through maybe a bad script or stop at a certain point.
Craig: There’s an art to it, isn’t there? Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, Rawson, you, as a director, you —
Aline: How often do people give you scripts to read and they really want an opinion?
Rawson: Well, what do you mean? When they want you to tell them, “This is great!” When they want that opinion?
Aline: Most of the time people really just want to hear, “This was awesome.”
Rawson: I have a screenwriting friend who will say, “Yeah, I’ll read your script.” And then all he says is, “I love it. I think it’s going to be the best movie that’s ever been made.” And that’s it. And they love that. He goes, “It’s incredible.” I don’t even know if he reads it. But no matter what his thought is, that’s his response ever time.
Craig: So, that’s awful, right? I will tell you that as I’ve gone on, and this is going to sound Pollyannaish, okay, I read scripts all the time and a lot of times I read them and I think, “This is not very good. Maybe this person is just not professional. They’re never going to be a professional. This is never going to be good.”
However, it’s worth it for me, an exercise for me, to talk about some things in the script from a craft perspective and say, “So, I want to talk to you about, let’s just look at this one scene and let’s talk about some of the things that I thought maybe could make it better.” And just in a craft way, it forces you to start thinking about things.
I find that looking at mistakes helps me crystallize how to avoid mistakes. There is a value to it.
Aline: The other thing is when you’re reading like a terrible script it takes like 11 hours and every page weighs like forty pounds.
Rawson: That’s the worst.
Aline: So, you’re like, “Ooh [feigns turning page].” I’m too dumb and lazy. Like I can’t even focus on what’s happening in the thing. I don’t know what’s… — Somebody once said at a meeting, an executive was talking about this script that needed to be rewritten. And she said, “This script is so bad that I can’t remember what happened on the page before.”
Rawson: Yeah, I think every time someone hands me a script to read, I mean, I think this is probably the same for all of you, is that you want it to be great because you read it so much faster.
Aline: So much faster.
Craig: And also you’re going to avoid that terrible moment.
Rawson: Of course. And the way I’ve tried to kind of avoid the terrible moment is like you get a bad script, sometimes it’s a friend, sometimes it’s not, and you’re going to talk to that person. A lot of times what I’ve found very helpful is two things. One is to start by asking some questions about what they want from this script that they’ve written. Like, what is your goal? Is your goal to get an agent?
Aline: Did you want this to be boring?
Rawson: But that’s exactly the point. I don’t talk about the script. I talk about the intent. So, what do you want from this? You want an agent? You want a spec script? You want to direct it? And that takes up the first ten minutes of the conversation?.
Aline: “You wanted to euthanize me?”
Rawson: And then the other part is like then I saw, “Okay, so tell me the story.” And invariably they’ll start telling the story and sometimes it’s better than the script and then you can focus on what they’re talking to you about. You can say, “That sounds great. I didn’t get that here. Maybe do that, what you’re saying, because here it didn’t come through.” And then you’re off the hook.
Aline: You’re so nice. Give your scripts to him.
John: Yeah, he’s nice.
Rawson: No, no.
Aline: First him, then him. I would say then me. And then him last.
John: If you’re reading a script for a friend, who is a genuine friend, and it’s not working, there’s probably something that is working — I would hope there’s something that’s working. I always start with like, “These are the moments I loved.” And talk about this and why it was working really well. And hopefully that is what they actually want the movie to be. And then you can start having a conversation about like how to make the rest of the movie that movie.
Aline: Okay, I have a good story about this.
John: All right, tell me.
Aline: I read Gatins’s script for Flight, you know, John Gatins who is a very good friend of mine. And I read that script a bunch. And I was like, “Dude, you need to take out the scene with the cancer patient in the stairwell. This just does not contribute to the forward momentum of the script at all. This has nothing to do with anything. This character does not…”
Craig: Violates Save the Cat!
Aline: The famous Save the Cat! clause. “There’s this character who does not reappear. He’s like a combination of exposition-man and the theme-god. Like this needs to go.” And it’s one of the reasons that Robert Zemeckis directed the movie, and it’s everyone’s favorite scene. And it’s a tour de force. And it’s brilliant. And it’s one of the things that makes that script so special.
Craig: Don’t listen to Aline.
John: Don’t’ let Aline read your script.
Craig: She’s an idiot.
Jeff: Thanks guys.
John: Great. Thanks. Hello, our final question tonight.
Final question: Hello. So, quick question, probably rough answer. So, you finish your draft and you’re unhappy with how one of your characters turned out. How do you approach that on the redraft?
Craig: You mean how they turned out like, “Oh my god, this guy is a dick at the end?” Or just you don’t like the way they’re reading in general?
Final question: So, yeah, those.
Rawson: Is it a main character or are you talking about — ?
Final question: Main character.
Rawson: Main character. Yikes.
Craig: Oh boy. Now, normally, you want to know how they’re going to turn out before you start writing. So, did you do that thing where you’re like, “I’ll just start writing and we’ll see what happens?”
Final question: Well, it wound up more passive. So the character isn’t as active as you would hope.
John: My quick suggestion would be think of a new character, who has a new name, and run that character through your story and see if it works better. And see how do you make things as interesting and as terrible for that character as possible. Because a passive character is only passive because you’re allowing him to be passive.
Aline: Are you asking can you do a whole character pass without messing up without your script? Like can you change a lead character without changing your script? Is that what you’re asking?
Final question: Well, I’m just wondering if you’ve encountered that problem and your approach.
Aline: I had — not a lead, but I had, I’ve told this story before, but on Devil Wears Prada the character that Stanley Tucci played was very difficult and I really struggled with it, because he was very nice, he was sort of like that character that Héctor Elizondo always plays. He was like that very nice kind of helpful character. And it was not working for the story at all.
But draft after draft he was still there. And then there came a point where we needed to cast it. So, we started thinking of specific actors and I was like, “This guy just doesn’t have a point of view. He has nothing to say.” And then I talked to somebody in the fashion business who said, “The problem with this character is he’s too nice, and no one in the fashion business is nice to each other.”
And I said, “No one ever?” And he said, “No, there’s no reason to be. And no one is.”
And so I went back and I wrote that character like an insult comic. And I’m a huge Rickles fan. And I just went in and wrote him as sort of un-mentor-ish as I could. And that was a situation where like his story didn’t change, but I just went in, and there are situations where somehow, sometimes, your character just doesn’t move the levers in the way that you want to.
It’s easier with a supporting character. It’s going to be harder with a lead character because they’re already — it would be very hard to do.
Craig: It’s impossible.
Aline: But sometimes with supporting characters you can kind of lift that out and plunk somebody back in there.
John: Melissa McCarthy in Identity Thief.
Craig: Yes, so the original Identity Thief, the spec script was two guys. But, that required a complete rewrite. You know, what you’re describing is a function of an error that happened very early on in the beginning, in your conception. Because your story allowed for a passive character.
Maybe ask yourself in going back to the beginning, what is this movie about? What am I trying to impart upon people? What is the argument that I’m making at the end? Take a character, make him believe the opposite of that. And then get him there.
Aline: Have you ever talked about this thing that Ted Elliott talks about which is like, I think he calls is “Phase Space” or something like that, which is this thing — isn’t it something like that?
John: Of course.
Craig: At length.
Aline: Where there are these decisions, it’s like there’s a whole pie of a reality when you start a script. And you make a decision. And all of a sudden it goes from being a circle to this shape. And then this. And then this. And you’re narrowing your narrative possibilities with every choice you make. It’s like, “Oh, it’s going to take place in Detroit and the lead character is going to be a cop and his partner is going to be a woman.”
And you start narrowing, and narrowing, and narrowing, and every time I’ve ever worked on or experienced a script that had problems, it was because someone you ended up in this tiny sliver and the solutions were over there. And you had made some choices that were so big in the beginning that it was like even if you saw the pill across the room that would make the problem go away, you can’t get there. And that’s why those first … — You know, I’m working with a friend and we’ve been outlining and now she has to write. She’s very intimidated by the writing process.
And I said, “You’ve outlined this movie. You have a 15-page outline. You’ve done most of the writing.” Those decisions are — those big, first decisions, are critical, and the lead has to embody your theme, and your momentum, and your narrative. So, if it’s not doing that there’s probably some other things that are not working.
Craig: But don’t get sad. No, I’m serious, don’t get sad. That’s our lives. What’s happening now, that’s it. It’s the constant redoing and redoing. And sometimes you do fall into a terrible trap.
Go ahead, you can cry one night if you want. Have a couple of drinks, wake up the next day, begin again. You’ll be fine.
John: Thank you!
- Scriptnotes, the 100th episode
- 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!
- Fair use on Wikipedia
- The Slate Political Gabfest
- John on Mohr Stories, The Talk Show with John Gruber, Brett Terpstra’s Systematic, and Moisés Chiullan’s Screen Time
- The Winds of War on Wikipedia
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Seth Podowitz