The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: [sings] My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 104 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, how are you?
Craig: I’m feeling pretty good. I got into golf.
John: Uh-oh. Oh no! It’s the end of you, isn’t it?
Craig: Or the beginning?
John: Well maybe. You and Derek Haas are going to be doing nothing but play golf all weekend.
Craig: Derek Haas, Alec Berg, Jeff Lowell. I have so many friends. So, Chris Morgan, the screenwriter of Fast & Furious 3 through infinity —
John: Yes. He’s essentially written the good Star Wars of the Fast & Furious movies. Like, if you want to take a look at 3 through 6 being the good part of that series.
Craig: Well, you may not realize, but you just took a shot at Derek Haas who wrote Fast & Furious 2, otherwise known as 2 Fast 2 Furious. But that one, you know the problem with that movie?
John: Once again my ignorance has come at the expense of Derek Haas.
Craig: And the problem with that movie? Too fast! Too furious! [laughs] There is a limit to how fast and furious you should be.
John: Yes. They took it back a notch and saved the franchise.
Craig: That’s right. Chris Morgan is responsible for the Appropriately Fast & Appropriately Furious movies. Chris Morgan and I made a pact to start learning how to play golf, so we are taking joint lesson. And so after the podcast I’m going to be a middle aged man, go to the golf course, and practice. How about that?
John: That sounds wonderful for you, Craig. I will never golf. And in all the time that I’m not golfing I will do other things. For instance, I should probably watch Orange is the New Black, because if one more person tells me I need to watch Orange is the New Black —
Craig: I mean, honestly. And the thing is I really like Jenji. She is a cool — do you know her?
John: I don’t know her at all.
Craig: So cool. She’s the coolest person. And it’s funny, like when I met her I thought, “Uh, you know, if I,”… — just very quickly, we all are susceptible to prejudice, right?
John: Yeah, based on her name.
Craig: Jenji. Already I’m like, oh god, what is this all about. And, you know, she did Weeds and it’s sort of like, okay, so it’s like Jenji and she’s doing a pot show and I don’t know…
The coolest person. I mean, really funny, down to earth, smart, not pompous. Very much — you know, sometimes you meet writers and you can just tell right away they’re kindred spirits, they’re craftspeople, they care. They have all of the same insecurities and fears and all the rest of it.
And it’s funny, I meet people sometimes who are just much, much better than me, but they’re jerks. Sometimes I meet people that are much, much better than me and they’re awesome. Those are my favorite people. So, Jenji Kohan, very cool person.
So, yeah, I have to watch Orange is the New Black. But I haven’t yet.
John: Yeah. At some point we will.
Craig: I haven’t watched Breaking Bad yet either, so there you go. Boom!
John: There you go!
John: I always feel like people can spoil whatever they want from Breaking Bad because it will make no sense to me whatsoever. But what would make sense would be to actually talk about the topics we’re talking about today which is we want to talk about Orson Scott Card and the whole situation with Ender’s Game.
John: We want to talk about the strong possibility that we are going to do a live show in New York in September, which is a new development.
Craig: Very exciting.
John: We want to talk about ensemble comedies. We want to talk about tone and audience. I want to talk about alternate jokes and how those come about when you’re showing things to an audience. It’s sort of like that whole process of showing to an audience and what you take and what you don’t take. So, it’s sort of a smorgasbord episode today.
Craig: I like that. Anytime we can provide — I always learned it as smorgasbord [pronounced shmorgasbord].
John: Yeah, I think they’re both. It’s a natural thing to put the “sh” in there.
Craig: I think it’s more Jewy to say shmorgasbord.
John: Yeah. It’s probably actually correct though.
Craig: It might also be correct. I don’t know. But before we do that I have a bit of business.
John: Go for it, Craig. Take control.
Craig: [laughs] I just so love saying that. So, here’s my bit of business — it’s not really business, it’s just umbrage. Let’s just start the show with a little bit of umbrage. For those of you out there in Twitterville who send me lists — these lists, these internet lists — top 50 movies of the summer; 50 most surprising films of the summer; the summer’s winners and losers; this year’s underrated movies; this year’s overrated movies…
I hate those lists. I hate all of them. I hate them when I have movies on them, when I don’t have movies on them. I hate them when my movies are in the good part of it or the bad part of it. I can’t stand it. There is some factory somewhere that churns out these lists.
John: It’s called BuzzFeed.
Craig: Oh god. It seems like every day a new outlet is created so that somebody can make $100 writing a list. And the lists sound the same. They are absurd. And the reason that it finally hit me… — So, my kids both are involved in musical theater. And last night they had their cast party. They did Les Mis this year. And they had their cast party. And all these kids there, ranging in age from 7 to 17, were at a house. And I’m watching them and it’s drama kids, you know; they are so excited to be with people and they’re so happy.
And they were so innocent and pure and they had done something and tried really hard. And I thought, you know, sometimes we forget — those of us who are in our forties now — that we’re part of that, too. We’re drama people. You know, we’re show people. And show people are special people.
And no matter how it turns out, we put ourselves into these things. We try so hard. And then just reading these lists — it’s like somebody out there has turned it into this awful, endless competition. The lists, I think, are great if you are an agent, or you sit on the board of directors of a studio, but for us, no. It’s gross.
I actually don’t like reading about someone’s failure. It doesn’t make me feel good. I don’t like it. I immediately feel empathy.
So, if you guys out there like reading those lists, fine, I’m not judging you. I’m simply saying don’t send them to me anymore; they kind of make me pukey.
John: I would actually differentiate between two different kinds of lists, and I think we should send neither of these kinds of lists to Craig Mazin, but there are two different things you can look at with these lists.
There are lists that are actually based on some sort of quantifiable information. So, you can say like the most expensive movies of the year, or the highest grossing movies of the year, or the best reviewed movies of the year, which to some degree you can do. You can take that sort of rating information and put it into a numerical form.
John: But a lot of these lists are just basically like one random person made a list of a couple movies. And it seems to have value only because it’s a list.
John: And that’s just not actually anything we need to be wasting our time with.
Craig: And a lot of these lists have strange judgment calls. For instance, when they do the lists of like Winners, the Summer’s Winners and Losers. So, some of the “winners” aren’t really winners, and some of the “losers” aren’t really losers. It’s just the person — it’s just gross.
John: It’s opinion disguised as fact. Because it’s on a list then therefore it’s not just this one guy’s opinion.
Craig: I know. I just don’t like… — I remember years and years ago I met this guy and he was Canadian and he said, “Americans are obsessed with lists.” And it’s true; we are constantly — I mean, the internet has become a list engine. It’s so weird.
Anyway, so that’s my bit of business. It’s really more opprobrium. I may start using opprobrium instead of umbrage. I may switch.
John: [laughs] Yeah, and when they do history of Scriptnotes they’ll say, like, “Well sometime in the hundreds he switched from — “
Craig: “The great schism occurred.” Yeah. Opprobrium.
John: So, my bit of outrage this week: On Friday I sent through — this is a bad thing to do; never do this. But I’m angry, so I sent like three tweets and then I went off to ten hours of rehearsal and didn’t check Twitter the whole time. And then like a bunch of people responded and I hadn’t responded, so I was just like one of those dicks who starts a little argument on Twitter and then goes away.
Craig: Nice. I like that move.
John: I’m not usually the throw the grenade in and run away kind of guy, but this is what I said — these are my three tweets, in this order.
One: Feel bad for the hundreds of people who work their asses off on Ender’s Game just to have all the attention go to one whack job.
Second tweet: I don’t know if the movie is any good, but it deserves to be judged on its own merits, not just the writer of the source material.
Third tweet: I guarantee studios are going to start taking a closer look at novelists, worried about potential shit-stirrers.
Craig: Yeah. I think all those things are correct, except I kind of quibble with number two.
John: Okay, so let’s get into it. Let’s go into the background on where we’re at right now with this move, Ender’s Game, which is based on a famous science fiction book by Orson Scott Card. He was probably best known for this work and his work as a science fiction author until he not just revealed but sort of very publicly had some really strongly anti-marriage equality views and sort of anti-gay rights views that rankled many people.
And then this last week, you know, I didn’t follow it closely, but either he said something new or somebody dug up something that he said about Obama that was like really, really inflammatory towards like gangs, like Obama gangs of youth being armed and such.
John: They weren’t kind, well, whatever he said you could tell that the people actually making the movie wanted him to just fall in a hole and never be seen again.
Craig: Yeah. Orson Scott Card, if we’re going to say anything to his credit in a weird way is that he is — this isn’t like Paula Deen where comments that were made privately were then exposed publicly. This dude makes public comments intended for public consumption. It’s just that the comments are, to me at least, awful.
Craig: He seems to believe some things that I think are awful. [laughs] And, yeah, so on the one hand, of course, studios are — no matter what Oscar Wilde says — there is such a thing as bad press and this is bad press.
John: Let’s talk about it from a couple of angles. Let’s talk about it from the perspective of like, “Oh, crap, we made this movie and now we can’t promote this movie because all the headlines are going to this other guy who has nothing — “
John: So, there’s that angle.
Second, I want to talk about the idea of the boycott, like actively boycotting this movie and what are the ramifications of that and sort of what the choices are within that.
And the third topic, the third section of this, is as screenwriters can you adapt something that comes from a person who is considered toxic. And I would put him in the toxic category at this point.
John: So, should we start with the first part which is you’ve made this movie and now this has happened. What do you do?
Craig: There is no way out. There is no answer to this. You can’t shelve it and pretend it’s going to go away; it will actually get worse with this guy. He seems to be — he either resents the movie’s existence in a passive-aggressive way after taking the money for it, and so is actively trying to undermine it. Or, he simply has no sense of self-preservation when it comes to the movie. He doesn’t really care about the movie at all. He cares far more about his deeply held awful views.
So, if you hold the movie to make the problem go away, it won’t go away. And, of course, the internet has this amazing memory. The other issue for the studios that makes this intractable is that it’s science fiction and it’s Orson Scott Card, precisely the kind of author that the internet has its huge eye on all the time, because a lot of the people who write about this stuff are geeks. I don’t use the term pejoratively.
So, they’re well aware. And he can’t hide. [laughs] You can’t hide him. The truth is all they can do is what they’re doing. Put the movie out, and it’s over, and you move on.
John: Yeah. I’ll be curious to see how many reviews get through the whole review without ever mentioning the controversy. Because in some ways you should review the movie without talking about the controversy surrounding it, but to not acknowledge the controversy around is to like be ignoring culture.
Craig: Not one review. There will not be a single review that doesn’t mention it.
John: And so people who wrote back to me on Twitter saying like, “Well, I don’t want to spend any money that’s…” Well, let’s not get into the boycott part. But like, my first tweet was like I feel so bad for everybody involved making the movie. Because let’s say you are the screenwriter of the movie, or the producer of the movie, the director of the movie, the star of the movie, that credit — you know, if the movie does really well, somehow does really well, it’s still going to be associated as like, “Oh, that was the movie that was controversial because of what that underlying novelist said.”
If the movie tanks, which is a strong possibility, too, it’s like this anchor sort of on your thing. No one is going to remember like, “Oh, you were really good in that movie that was — “
Maybe they will remember. “You were really good in that movie that was a disastrous bomb.” It helps you not a bit.
Craig: No. And, look, any movie that gets made in Hollywood you can be assured that quite a few people employed by the movie are gay, very liberal, and they cared about their jobs and they worked very, very hard, and they have pride. It’s the Bridge over the River Kwai. You’re proud of this thing that suddenly you also feel should be blown up but not blown up.
And I do feel bad for them, because I’m sure that on the one hand they go to see the film and they’re very proud of the work they did. And on the other hand they’re like, “Ugh.”
John: Yeah. I mean, if you’re the guy finishing up the visual effects on this movie now, are you like, “Oh, god, I’m working on this movie that I know has this toxic cloud around it which is very, very dangerous.
Craig: Yeah. And it’s the vision of somebody that detests me.
Craig: That part is weird, you know.
John: So, let’s talk about this boycott reaction. There’s this movement to, like, “Well I’m going to boycott this movie.” And I’ve seen mainstream articles about it, mainstream journalists saying, columnists saying, “Oh, just boycott the movie.”
And boycotts to me are always a very frustrating attempt to solve a problem that cannot actually be solved. And this I feel is a similar kind of case. So, as a gay person I’m incensed by what he says. I think he’s a — I strongly disagree with what he’s doing. Yet, as a person who makes movies I know that my boycott of this movie has almost zero impact on his actual pocketbook. It is not hurting him at all.
Craig: That’s fair.
John: So, the perception that like he is the person who benefits from the success of the movie is not accurate. The only thing I could say is that if the movie were to do spectacularly well the people who believe the same things he believes would say, “Oh, it’s because of those things.” There would always be like this false causality there.
Craig: Yeah, I don’t think that that would really —
John: So, here’s my sort of thought experiment that I want to sort of propose. So, let’s say there’s this guy, Randy Fakename. And Randy Fakename is an associate producer. He’s the kind of guy who puts a movie together but doesn’t really know how to produce. Anyway, he takes two dogs that were barking a lot and throws them off the balcony of a building and kills them.
Craig: [laughs] Cool guy.
John: He’s just an awesome individual.
Craig: [laughs] I like this guy. He’s a problem solver as far as I’m concerned.
John: He’s a winner. And, you know what? He’ll go to the press and he’ll say like, “You know what? I don’t regret it all. Give me another dog and I’ll throw it off the top of a building.”
Craig: That’s right. That’s right.
John: So, let’s say he has now just made a new Harrison Ford movie. Would you go to his movie?
Craig: Well, I don’t think so. I’m different than you, I think.
John: The thought experiment is basically how closely involved to the core of a movie does a person have to be for their evil, or your perception of their evil, to keep you from seeing that movie?
Craig: It’s not a utilitarian thing to me. I don’t look at it in terms of cost-benefit and who’s hurt and who’s not hurt. I just look at it in terms of this: If I go to see a movie I’m essentially paying for an experience that is at least in some part an emotional experience. And I’m not going to enjoy the emotional experience if it’s already emotionally tainted for me. It’s just a personal thing.
If I do not like — I can’t bring myself to watch Roman Polanski movies. The old ones, yes, pre-forced sodomy on a teenage girl, yeah. Sure. But after that, I can’t do it. It’s weird. It’s just like an emotional thing. I detest what he did and I detest him for it. And so it’s ruined for me.
John: Okay. So, let’s say this guy wasn’t just an associate producer. This guy was the second visual effects designer on the movie. Would that keep you from seeing it?
Craig: I’m sure I wouldn’t know about it, but no, it wouldn’t because I don’t feel like he made any artistic decisions that steered the authorship or the vision of the movie.
John: And I would argue that that is the same situation you really find yourself with Ender’s Game at this point. This is a guy who wrote this thing, 30 years ago? Quite a long time ago. Had, I believe, essentially no involvement with the actual movie that has gotten made.
John: So, to boycott this movie because of something this guy did in the meantime after writing the source material is like, you know, it feels really strange to me.
Craig: What you’re saying is absolutely reasonable. And I guess what I would say in return is it really comes down to how you feel emotionally about it on your way into the movie. And emotions are not rational. And if you are comfortable being able to divide your opinions about this man and bifurcate that and see the movie and see the movie as something separate from him, then great.
The interesting parallel to this is what’s happening with the Olympics in Russia right now.
Craig: And I’m kind of curious what you think about that. I have my own strongly-held opinion on it, but I’m kind of curious what you think.
John: I don’t know what should be done about the Olympics themselves. I think it’s incredibly problematic that you have a country that is inviting the world to it and yet denying the fundamental rights who are going to be attending the Olympics. That is incredibly troubling.
This response of like “let’s boycott Russian vodka” is absurd.
Craig: Yeah, that’s silly. [laughs]
John: That I find is ridiculous because it’s like, you know, if a tree falls and kills somebody and for that reason now you’re going to stop using paper.
Craig: Boycott trees —
John: Exactly. It actually doesn’t hurt the people you want to hurt and it actually hurts a lot of other people.
Craig: Yeah, boycotting vodka is a bizarre move.
John: It’s a largely symbolic move that doesn’t actually affect anything.
Craig: But I do think that — maybe I’m, I know that a lot of athletes, a lot of gay athletes are like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, don’t take my Olympics from me, dude. I need my medal.” And I get that. I honestly believe that every western country that believes in the equality of people based on sexual orientation or gender shouldn’t go. I do believe that. I think that if 20 western nations said, “We’re not going,” that it would force Russia to examine itself.
And it is gross to me that you have people…I mean, I just read something the other day. So, you can’t have rainbow colored finger nails at the Olympics. The IOC is the most cowardly organization.
But, I actually think we shouldn’t go. That’s my opinion.
John: Yeah. I’m not all the way to not going, but I haven’t sort of deeply thought through the ramifications. To me we’ve had Olympics in places that are troubling many times before. We’ve had them in Beijing. And it’s not like Beijing is a bastion of tolerance and wonder.
Craig: I agree. I don’t think we should have had those either. [laughs] No, really, to me the Olympics goes back to Greece and the cradle of democracy and what we call western civilization. And I find that this thing where we now, yeah, so Beijing? What? And the thought still that the western world thought it was fine to go have the Olympic games in Germany with Hitler, it’s just insane! It’s insane. And everybody was like, “Eh, well, it’s the Olympics.”
John: Yeah, we’re not going to be able to change that.
Craig: No, you know what? You know why? The problem is that the Olympics have become such a huge business. Really you should be able to put the Olympics on somewhere; it should be like, yeah, ad hoc, we’re doing it over here. And it’s the winter Olympics. There are plenty of places with snow. And we’re doing it over here. And, okay, I’m sorry, there won’t be a huge freaking show in the beginning. And we’re not going to have all the…blah. But you’ll still be able to ski and luge and stuff.
That’s my feeling. And ice skate.
John: All right. Getting back to Orson Scott Card.
Craig: Oh, yes, of course.
John: I don’t know how he feels about ice skating at all.
Craig: I know how he feels about it. “Too gay!”
John: Let’s talk about the way forward, because my third tweet was I genuinely do think that studios are going to be taking a closer look at who the authors are of the books that they’re buying, because you don’t want crazy town.
John: I can see like Stephanie Meyer was kind of terrific. I mean, Mormon but, you know, good fans, and sort of all that stuff. So, her Twilight books, wow, she’s exactly the kind of writer you want. JK Rowling with Harry Potter. Wow. Exactly the right kind of writer you want. But you could just as easily find that sort of crazy nagging awful person. Anne Rice was sort of a difficult author to have.
Craig: Very. Very.
John: But Anne Rice is just like paradise compared to Orson Scott Card.
Craig: Which is saying something.
John: [laughs] Yes. When Anne Rice is like a bastion of sanity and reasonability. That is going to be a source of wonder. And so I really do think we are going to start seeing studies taking, “We like this book. We like this book in galleys. And let’s get on the phone with a writer and let’s do a background check on this person to make sure that there’s not something terrifying there.”
Craig: I think so. I mean, the truth is — and this is why I have no problem with people who say, “You know what? I’m not seeing this movie.” The studio knew. Everybody knew. This is not new to Orson Scott Card. He didn’t just suddenly sit up and start saying this stuff. He’s been saying this stuff for years. For a long, long time. And I remember when the book was optioned I remember talking to Dan Weiss about it. I think he wrote an early draft at some point. Everybody knew.
And they’re like, “Eh, you know what? Money.”
John: Well, were they also maybe hoping he would die before they actually made the movie?
Craig: Yeah, I don’t think that that was high up on their list of expectations. You know, it could happen, but the truth is it wasn’t going to change anything. I mean —
John: By the way, that’s probably an episode of Castle that’s coming up soon, where the author was killed for his unpopular views so that the movie version could succeed.
Craig: If I had ever seen an episode of Castle I would be so on top of that.
John: You have two friends who work on Castle and you’ve never seen an episode?
Craig: No. [laughs] No. No. I’ve seen every Game of Thrones.
John: Yeah, well, come on. Who hasn’t seen Game of Thrones?
Craig: Yeah, that’s about it for me.
John: I mean, let’s think about the background check. Because if they’re doing the background check on the novelist which seems to be a reasonable case, well why wouldn’t they do a background check on Craig Mazin to make sure that you aren’t a crazy person that they’re bringing in to work on this movie? Because even if like someone else came and rewrote the movie, the fact that your pen went though it —
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: Your crazy views.
Craig: But they do. And that background check is a foreground check. I mean, we who work in this business, everybody knows. I mean, this podcast is listened to. I meet executives all the time who bring it up. If either one of us were using this podcast to espouse views that large quantities of people found deeply objectionable, we would — yeah, absolutely. We wouldn’t have to do a background check. We’d be gone.
Because it is — look, they’re making a movie. They’re spending millions of dollars. And the last thing you want is something that’s basically getting in between the audience and the movie.
Craig: And something else that’s changing the narrative. And, look, I know a lot of people look at this PR from corporations and properly are cynical about it, that they’re trying to control a narrative and force product down your throat and all the rest of it. And that is their agenda, I’m sure. But my agenda as a screenwriter is to provide the emotional experience I intend for the audience. That’s it.
And if something else is in the way, including what people think about me and my politics? That’s no good.
John: My probably biggest experience with the inability to control the narrative was on the second Charlie’s Angels. And so Demi Moore we cast as the returning Angel who had gone bad. And like she’s perfect casting and I loved her. And I remember sitting in her hotel room on my birthday and watching her drink like so much coffee but still kind of loving it because it’s Demi Moore and she actually sounds like that in real life.
John: So, I was so excited to have Demi Moore be in the movie. And then she and Bruce Willis split up and she started up with Ashton Kutcher and it so it was right as the movie was coming out. All the media attention was on Demi and Ashton and Bruce Willis.
And it was like, “No! Focus on our movie!” And literally every — even from the premiere, like there were barely photos of like the Angels. It was only about Demi and the fact that both Ashton and Bruce came to the premiere. It was like that was the story. It was maddening.
Craig: It is maddening.
John: Also the movie wasn’t good, so that was a problem, too. But, controlling the narrative was a huge frustration. And it wasn’t an Orson Scott Card situation, but it was, you know…
Craig: No, it’s the same thing though. It becomes, you know, when the story isn’t the story. I’ve seen Gigli, it’s not a good movie. But it doesn’t deserve what it got. It got that because people loathed that coupling. For whatever reason that coupling drove them crazy. And I can’t understand it. I find it all gross. But, you know, it’s the way the world works. And in this case I think Orson Scott Card has made his bed, happily. He seems totally content to have made his bed, by the way.
So, tip of the hat. If you’re going to be kind of a hateful whack job, at least be a —
John: Own it.
Craig: Yeah. Be accountable to your own hateful whack-jobbery.
John: I find it sad that his movie which could be good is going to get dragged down by it.
Craig: Oh, that is absolutely the case. It is sad and like you I feel terrible for all the people who worked so hard on it. I don’t feel, you know, the company knew what they were doing. But the people who were hired to work on it, I feel sad for them.
John: Yeah. All right, to happier topics.
John: We are talking very seriously about doing a live show in New York, because you are going to come out here to see Big Fish.
Craig: I am coming out there to see Big Fish.
John: So, it’s the week of September 20th is when you’re coming out here. So, a day during that time, and we’ve discussed the Monday quite strongly but nothing is sort of locked in stone, but if you are in the New York area and would like to come see us, keep listening to the podcast and watch us on Twitter because we will announce times and dates and venues once we figure out what that is.
So, Craig, you’re going to come see the show. You’re going to hopefully have an awesome guest. What else should we do at a live show?
Craig: Well, you know, if we’re lucky enough to do the live show at the theater…
John: Which is a hope.
Craig: …then maybe, well, I don’t know. I don’t know if the theater affords us any opportunities that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to have. Perhaps, perhaps, I’m just saying if one of your actors wanted to come and sing a song?
John: It could be kind of fantastic.
Craig: It would be awesome!
John: We have numerous incredibly talented people involved with the show, from Andrew Lippa to our great cast, and director. And even little Zachary Unger, I just sent you the link to him singing the National Anthem at the Jets game last night.
Craig: Yes. Yes.
John: Talent top to bottom. So, anyway, if you are in the New York area and want to come see a show, sometime the week of September 20 would be a week that you might be able to see us. So, just like an early shot across the bow warning that this is a thing that could happen.
Now, something that happened at our last live show, our big 100th episode was that we hid, actually you picked the chair and I stuck the little note underneath, we hid underneath one seat a Golden Ticket and promised on that Golden Ticket that we would read the script of the person who was sitting in that chair.
And the person whose chair that was was a guy named Matt Smith.
Craig: Matt Smith. And he’s real; that’s not a pseudonym.
John: He’s an actual genuine person. And this week you and I had the pleasure of having a good half hour Skype conversation with him about his script.
Craig: We did.
John: So, when we talked about it with Matt we decided it wasn’t a think we wanted to sort of get into on the show because it’s a full on script and it really wasn’t ready for everyone else to see it. But I think we talked about some good things. So, in a very general sense I want to talk about the kinds of things we noticed and challenges you deal with when you deal with certain situations in his script and many others we read.
So, he wrote a one-hour drama/comedy ensemble show.
Craig: Television show.
John: Television show. And I think we actually had some interesting conversations about sort of the nature of an ensemble show. And one of those being that you have to very clearly differentiate each of our character’s voices, because a challenge we had was remembering who each individual person was because it sounded like other people could have the exact same lines of dialogue.
Craig: That’s right. So, when you start an ensemble you almost necessarily need to sit down and give yourself an organizational chart of the characters you’re tracking. If you’ve got ten or 12 characters that you’re supposed to care about in a soap operatic kind of way, or god forbid you’re in a Game of Thrones situation where you’re juggling 40 or 50 characters, and throwing characters in at a faster rate than you’re decapitating them, you really need to organize them by purpose I guess is how I would put it.
Because there are characters whose purpose are to be heroic. There are characters whose purpose is to be villainous. There are characters whose purpose is to be mysterious, manipulative, funny, but generally speaking even though there are characters who can change back and forth depending, roughly they need to have their own kind of space so that when you move between the stories you don’t feel like you’re watching three of the same movie with different characters. You’re watching three different kinds of things within a larger environment.
John: Absolutely. One of the things we recommended to Matt — which I would recommend to anybody who is trying to write a pilot, like an original pilot for a show — is really take a step back and write up the character bios for those people. Pretend that you are pitching this show to a network and have to be able to provide all the sort of supporting documentation.
So, on the site, on johnaugust.com site in the library I have these sort of pitch documents for the shows I’ve done. So, for D.C., for Ops, for, and I think I have The Chosen stuff up there, maybe not quite yet. But you end up writing these things that describe who the character is, and not just who the character is at the very start of the show but what the arc is they’re going through over the course of the first season. And it gives you a much better sense of like the function this character serves in the show overall and the function they can serve within your episode.
John: And once you know sort of what this character is capable of doing, you’ll start to realize in an ensemble show you’re not going to have probably three different love storylines happening in an episode. One might be the through line of a love story. One might be like the little caper plotline. One might be something suspenseful. There’s different stuff happening with the different characters through it.
Because if we see three love stories we’re going to just get confused; we won’t know what the actual —
Craig: Get confused — we’re diluting the impact. I mean, love stories follow a particular path. And they either end up with the people in love or not in love and they have their ups and downs. But that means that if you’re running three at the same time you’re going to be essentially duplicating your drama.
Craig: If you watch a show — like Dexter is a very traditional ensemble cast show. Maybe it’s not about a traditional subject, but the way that they structure it and execute it is extraordinarily traditional. Masuka is comedy. And then you’ve got buddies arguing about their job and you’ve got family squabbles. And you’ve got the main mystery and you’ve got personal drama. And it’s all divided up essentially.
John: Yeah. I haven’t seen Dexter, but the sense I get of it is while there is a main titular character, everybody else in that show has a very clear function about what they’re supposed to do. And that’s what I would argue for any, especially one hour. You need to know what the functions of the people are so that you can actually get through an episode and sort of have a follow through line.
Craig: And for the soap operatic series and ensembles tend to be that way, a villain is just as important if not more important than the hero because oftentimes it’s the villains that drive the story by creating the circumstances that challenge the hero. The hero must be active and must make their way through and perhaps that’s who we identify with, but it’s the villain that builds the problems.
John: Yes. The obstacles that need to be overcome. Desperate Housewives is a great thing to take a look at in terms of how they’ll pick somebody to be sort of the nemesis for a time and she’ll often then shift into being a heroic supporting character for a time, but they’ll very cleverly sort of build how they’re going to let the characters function within their world.
John: And important thing to do. The other thing you note about Desperate Housewives is it has a very clear and very specific tone. And I think any time you are writing an original show, or any original movie, but particularly if you’re writing a show that would hopefully end up on a network, you need to figure out what that network is. And it needs to actually be able to fit on that network.
John: And so if you’re writing something that is designed for Nickelodeon, it has to fall into the nice little boxes of what Nickelodeon is. If you’re writing something that’s going to be going on FX it probably can’t have anything to do with a Nickelodeon show. And if it did have anything to do with that Nickelodeon show it wouldn’t work.
John: It has to be completely different rules for how those things function.
Craig: There are gradations that are achievable in tone based on the nature of your characters. For instance, Freaks and Geeks comes to mind. There were kids who were older and kids who were younger. High school, I mean, Matt Smith’s case, his show was about a summer camp where kids ranged in age. Freaks and Geeks is about high school where kids ranged in age. It’s acceptable to have different kinds of storylines for the 17 years olds and different kinds of storylines for the 13 year olds.
But, even within those gradations, while the 13 year olds may be less interested in sex, and more interested in fitting in, it still has to happen within the same general tone. You can’t go into really broad comedy if the rest of it is not broad. It has to kind of all feel like… — Because the truth is these people meet each other. They all have to be able to share a scene together and believably so, even if they rarely do.
John: If you look at a show like Modern Family, Modern Family has some slightly racy things, but they’re slightly racy. And they’re racy in a way that it’s going to go over a kid’s head and so you don’t feel awkward watching it with a young person in the room. That’s a show that very smartly sort of splits that line. So, it’s possible to do but it has to fit in the same universe.
No one is going to watch only half the scenes. It all has to sort of fit together. And Modern Family, I think what is so genius is those kids can actually have scenes with adults and things don’t fall apart.
Craig: That’s right. All the characters, I mean, Eric Stonestreet is broad on that show but he’s not unacceptably broad. He’s broad in a way that makes sense. And when he’s with the other characters who maybe aren’t as broad, it also makes sense. That’s the key. You just have to be able to imagine all of your characters together having conversations. You should be able to draw a line between every character and believe that a conversation could occur, that they’re all in the same world.
John: Yeah. So, then when it comes time to actually write your one hour pilot spec, I would strongly suggest, and this is very classic TV advice but I will give it here, is that you write your act breaks first, which is that you figure out, you know, a lot of shows are going to have five act breaks, sometimes there are six act shows, but those are the moments you’re writing up to that would lead to classically a commercial break.
And those are the moments of suspense, or a question that is going to get answered on the other side of the break. And that seems really artificial the first time you do it, because like well why am I writing up to this out, this thing, but you will come to cherish it because it provides a really nice structure for one hour of television. You get to know this is how much I can do in each of these little chunks. This is what the — it’s like you have this one little movie of like there is this ten-minute movie that has all this information in it. And then you get to move onto your next thing.
John: It’s like being able to open a scene again. It’s incredibly helpful. So, I would say you figure out your characters, get that on paper, figure out your characters on paper. In your pilot episode, figure out your act breaks, and then really dig down and figure out what the scenes are within each of those acts and start writing them.
And too often you get sort of captivated by like, “Oh, here’s an idea. Here are some characters. Here’s what they can be talking about,” without actually knowing how it’s going to work as a show.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, with television everything sort of screams for cliffhangers because people show up to movies, they’ve paid their ticket, they sit down. Walking out of a movie is kind of a big deal. So, but then again, the commitment is short, relatively short. Television, you can turn it off anytime, or just change the channel, or hit pause and maybe never come back to it. The game is not only keep watching within an episode but then show up next week for the next episode.
It’s a game of cliffhangers. And even when it’s not a cliffhanger-y show, you can see that they — watch Modern Family. It’s a sitcom. It’s not a thriller. It’s not Game of Thrones. No one is getting killed. But there are little mini-cliffhangers throughout.
John: Yeah. It ends with a “how will this turnout” moment.
John: And that’s what’s getting you back to the next bit.
Craig: Yeah. It’s designed to tease your curiosity. And when you’re doing an ensemble show with lots of characters, it’s inevitable that certain storylines will appeal to certain people more than others. And I’ve had that experience before where I kind of, even in Game of Thrones sometimes I’m like, eh, I’m tempted to just fast-forward through this conversation because really I don’t care that much. But, then I’m happy that I stayed with it.
It’s okay that some stories appeal to people more than others because everybody is different about that. As long as there is something that is pulling them through.
John: Agreed. So, anyway, I want to thank Matt Smith for sending us the script because it was actually a good conversation. I hope it was helpful to Matt. It seemed like it was.
Craig: And I’ve got to give him credit. He was really, you know, I love it when we talk to people and they have a really good professional attitude where it’s not all, “Oh gods,” and emotions, and huffing, and it’s very much about being open-minded. I love that.
John: Yeah, listening, hearing, responding in ways that helps both sides get more communicative. It was great.
John: So, thank you Matt for sending your thing through.
Craig: Good job, Matt.
John: And who knows, maybe we’ll do a Golden Ticket at our next live show.
Craig: Let’s not over-promise.
John: That’s not a promise. [laughs] Yeah, it was your idea last time, so maybe we’ll under-promise this time.
Craig: [laughs] Yeah, there you go.
John: I can pretty much guarantee that we will not be providing food and alcohol at this next one.
Craig: Not to them, but to me. I at least need a glass of wine and some crackers.
So, Craig, one of the things I’m working on now for Big Fish, because we are sort of up — like, you know, we did our five weeks in Chicago and we sort of really know the show. And over the summer we did a tremendous amount of work and stuff is really good and it’s exciting, but one of the things I’m now spending a lot of time doing is for the jokes of the show I want to make sure we have alternate jokes for the show for the things that just don’t work.
So, in Chicago I rewrote a lot of jokes. And every night you could see what things worked and what things didn’t work. But now there’s new things that I need to write new jokes for. So, I wanted to talk to you about that process because I don’t know for like the Hangover movies or the other movies you’ve worked on, do you come in with a list of alternate jokes? Or do you do stuff on the set?
Craig: Usually we don’t write alternate jokes. Usually what we do is on the day we find them because it’s frankly just much easier to writer alternates once you see the scene with the actors in the place. Little things happen. Obviously the actors, when you’re dealing with people like Zach they come up with stuff, or Melissa, or Jason, they come up with things. An then you sort of try and work with those. But, I know then you have those moments that I think people think happen all the time that don’t happen that often.
Like, for instance in the Hangover III when Alan returns to his house and finds that there’s an intervention going on, when he walks in the door he’s yelling at his mother for lunch and I wrote probably 30 different things that he could yell. And then we would try different ones. So we have, once we get into the editing room, we know we have choices. And then we run them for test audiences
What’s tricky about alternate jokes is that — and this is particularly tricky for you I would imagine — is that not every audience reacts the same to the same joke. I’ve seen individual jokes kill in one room, get okay in another, and so the problem is it’s very hard to actually get any kind of sense of a controlled experiment.
John: Yeah. That’s definitely the experience I’ve had with this. And I was struck by the idea of alternate jokes because I was looking at, I’ll try to find a link to it, but one of the writers on Happy Endings, which was a show I enjoyed on ABC, was posting some pages from a script. And if you look at how they actually write their scripts there’s like a character has a line of dialogue but then slash, and then a whole different line, slash a whole different line.
And basically they’re going to bang through it and they’re going to shoot all those different things that that character could say.
John: And that’s a show that tends to get into a lot of lists of things, so it’s sort of natural for that, but it’s also a very common thing to see in sitcom land — all those slash jokes stacked up in there.
Craig: And it’s easy to understand why. Because you have a staff of writers and there are times when you go, “Okay, we have a great setup here. Let’s play who-has-got-the-best-punch-line.” And you’ll get two or three jokes that really work great in the room. And so you should try all of them because you can’t really, you’re not going back and reshooting a sitcom, you know. You’re not adding stuff in.
So, in the moment if you have three or four, why not? But, you know, for you it’s a tough one. You probably have lines that are very consistent and then you have lines that aren’t. And that’s the thing that’s so fascinating to me. I just don’t understand how it happens, but it’s that weird crowd psychology that just sometimes everybody together laughs at something and then sometimes everybody together doesn’t. It’s so weird.
John: Yeah. And so the goal with a show, you said a controlled experiment. And in some ways a Broadway show should be incredibly controlled because literally the entire thing is on an eight-count. There is not a lot of room and maneuvering ability. So, there is a reason why sometimes a joke will be ten words rather than 12 words. So, it’s like, that is going to fit the vamp in the music.
But why sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work is a fascinating thing.
Craig: Fascinating. You can almost feel it before it happens.
Craig: But then also I have to say, you know, so for the movies that I do with Todd Phillips, the two of us will stand there on the side of the theater watching it when we test it. And so many times we’ve looked at each other like, “They’re laughing at that? We thought that was going to die.” We liked it, but we thought it was going to die. And then there are other times where we’re like it’s a joke that we love and it gets nothing. We’re like, “What?!”
So, there are surprises. But more often than not you can almost feel it just like you have a relationship with every specific audience. Isn’t it weird? I can’t explain it.
John: Yeah. You also notice that sometimes audiences are just primed to laugh. So they’re laughing now because that last thing was funny, but if they haven’t laughed for awhile it’s going to take a bigger thing to cross over that threshold and get them to start laughing.
Craig: Yes. Well, now that is a time tested truism. And we know when, look, I’ve been writing movies that are like “ha-ha” comedies for a long, long time, so I know the first test screening is always going to be difficult. And every writer who works in this space I’ve ever talked to, we all have the same experience. You know going in that the first one is tough because you’re going to lose them, necessarily, because you know you’re trying things. And when you lose them every time you have diminished their confidence in you.
John: That’s right.
Craig: So, so much of the editing process is pulling out the underbrush and the stuff that’s hurting the confidence, the contract between you and them to the point where if you can get seven or eight really good jokes in a row, that ninth joke, they’re going to give it to you because it’s like, well, these are funny people.
Craig: You can really feel that, by the way, more than anything in movies like, okay, the Scary Movies I did, which are nothing but jokes. That’s just a vaudeville show. Boy, it makes all the difference.
John: Yeah, getting rid of the bum joke is a crucial thing. With Big Fish it’s an interesting case because the movie that I wrote 15 years ago, it’s not really funny ha-ha. There are some jokes-jokes in there, and there are things that you could laugh out but it’s not structured like a funny ha-ha comedy.
And so it’s interesting going to a theater situation in which by necessity — by expectation there is going to be more of that. There is going to more of an expectation that like something shouldn’t be kind of amusing funny, it should actually be funny-funny and that it needs to actually get a laugh. And so I’ve enjoyed it mostly.
But it has been a really interesting experience to sort of continuously workshop this. I called it Iteration on the blog when I wrote about it this week is that, you know, with a movie, well, you get two iterations — you keep revising and refining, revising and refining the script. And then you shoot it and then in post you get to revise and refine, revise and refine. But you’re limited to really what you shot. I mean, you could go out and shoot some new stuff, but most cases you aren’t really going to do that. So, you can make the best version of the movie you shot.
And in a television show you can shoot a new episode, but you’re never going to go back and reshoot the pilot. Very, very rarely do you go back and reshoot the pilot.
With this, it’s like every night we’re reshooting the pilot. And that’s a wonderful opportunity but it’s also just like, oh my god, I’ve seen this show so many times and it’s a gift to be able to keep going back in, tweaking it, and perfecting and refining, but at a certain point, god, you’d just love to write the next thing.
Craig: Well, for sure. I mean, the nature of what you’re doing seems tortuous on that level. You know, I guess the closest experience that I have is just sitting in an editing room and reworking a scene over, and over, and over. I mean, in film, obviously editorially there is an enormous amount you can do to save something. And just by changing the perspective, or in the case of jokes, a lot of times the problem is too much or too little setup.
And so you can change things that way. It’s just a different changing process. But, for a live performance, I mean, I guess the nice thing is when it’s working you know.
John: Yeah. When it’s working it’s great. And I really do miss post-production. I miss being able to sit down at — I won’t call it an Avid, I’ll call it a non-linear editor — but I miss being able to sit down and just perfect things that way because that’s my nature is I want to be able to tweak and do those things. You can’t with like live people in front of a live audience.
But, you get the next night, so that’s been nice.
Craig: And one more problem for your experiment is that the lines that you’re trying out are being performed. You know, when we’re working with lines in movies they’re done. They are imprinted. So, I have a choice of four lines and a choice of ways to edit them. But you write a new line and the actor delivers it and you’re like, “Okay, they didn’t laugh, but the thing is I didn’t like the way he said it. You know? Can we try it again but say it this way?”
John: If you could just get rid of actors and audiences, live theater would be fantastic.
Craig: The best possible world for artists is a world in which no one sees anything but we’re still rewarded for it.
John: You know, if you could just be the kind of artist who just writes words, and they print it on paper, and then people buy the paper. Like I want to be that kind of artist. [laughs]
Craig: [laughs] Yeah, no such luck.
John: We have no such luck. What is that, like a novelist? That would be fantastic.
Craig: We did it to ourselves, didn’t we?
John: We did it to ourselves.
Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing this week?
Craig: Oh god.
John: Did you forget?
Craig: Eh, yeah.
John: Mine was sort of half-assed, like right at the very end, too. Because I am in New York City and I thought I had a DVR in my room, but now I don’t have a DVR in my room for like this whole issue and I had to get angry on the phone, but I do have my Apple TV. And on my Apple TV I connected to Netflix and watched both seasons of Portlandia which is — if you haven’t seen Portlandia it’s kind of a must-see.
God, here I am bitching about Orange is the New Black and everyone needs to see that, but Portlandia really is great. And we’ve been talking about comedy, the way Portlandia gets to a joke is just fantastic and wonderful and it’s just a delightful half hour. So, if you are somewhere with Netflix access I highly recommend Portlandia which is on Adult Swim, no, not Adult Swim. I don’t even know what channel it’s on.
Craig: Isn’t it on IFC?
John: I think it’s on IFC. You’re right.
Craig: Well, I can steal a One Cool Thing from one of our Twitter followers, and it is a One Cool Thing, and I’m totally buying it. It is a Microsoft — and you will rarely hear me say, “One Cool Thing, Microsoft,” but I use an ergonomic keyboard.
So, in my office I have a laptop. I have my MacBook, but in my office I have the cinema display and an external keyboard and an external track pad. And I like using an ergonomic keyboard, a split keyboard basically. It’s just easier on my wrists. And Apple doesn’t really make one.
For years there was a company called Adesso that used to make one, and I think they just stopped or went out of business or something. And so I picked up the Microsoft — it’s their standard big huge chunky split keyboard, and it works fine with the Mac. You can map the keys and stuff and it works fine. But, it’s ugly and it’s clunky.
Enter a newly announced Microsoft Sculpt Keyboard which is beautiful looking. It really is cool looking. We’ll put a link up in Scriptnotes. So, I’m going to buy that. The one annoying thing about Microsoft, and it’s like I just wish they would — but they can’t — it’s not even a question of learning; they just have no — tone deaf, they’re just tone deaf.
So, Microsoft has an online store and their online store has like “Featured,” and it’s whatever featured article. Well, they’re not ready to sell this keyboard yet. They keep saying at the end of the week. It’s now Sunday. Maybe it’s available today. I don’t know, as we’re recording this. But, it’s not even listed under “Featured” or anything. It’s just people are reporting on it because they made a press release, but on their own site they don’t say, “Available this date,” or, “Look at this, coming soon.” Nothing.
It’s just — you can’t even find it on Microsoft’s store. Doesn’t exist on their store, until the day they decide it does. It’s just so dumb!
Craig: Why are they dumb?
John: I don’t know why they’re dumb. I think it’s really a fundamental question. If you actually had the answer and a time machine, the computer software industry would be very different.
Craig: Yeah, they’re just dumb. But, I’m going to buy this keyboard. It looks beautiful and so I guess congratulations and boo to Microsoft, as always.
John: [laughs] So, to wrap up the show, I would remind people that if you want to come see Big Fish on Broadway we start September 5 is our first performance of previews. We start real, our grand official opening is October 6. But, for all September and that first week of October there is a discount for our listeners which is almost half off if you use the magic code SCRIPT either at Ticketmaster or at the theater box office, or at the Neil Simon.
Craig is going to come sometime, but I will be here. So, if you’re coming to see the show, let me know. So, you can email email@example.com. Or, me at @johnaugust on Twitter. And let me know that you’re coming and what date and I will try to find you.
What worked out best in Chicago, ultimately, I tried to find people at their seats and it was a disaster. But, because I actually look like myself, I look exactly like the person you would see if you were to Google me, people would see me and they would wave, and I would come over and introduce myself. So, that worked out well. So, I look forward to seeing more people there.
Craig is @clmazin on Twitter. But let’s remember, do not send him lists.
Craig: Stop it with the lists.
John: You can send him things that are interesting. You can send him things that could be One Cool Things.
Craig: I love everything that people send me. I just can’t stand the lists.
John: We are on iTunes which is how a lot of people usually would find us. But, if you’re not subscribed to us in iTunes you probably should subscribe to us on iTunes. Just search for Scriptnotes in the iTunes store.
You can find information about everything we talked about in this episode and links to all the other episodes on johnaugust.com/podcast.
And I think that’s it.
Craig: Good. Good episode.
John: I thought it was a good episode for zero preparation.
Craig: And you stayed awake.
John: I stayed awake. I had coffee at hand the entire time.
Craig: Fantastic. We’ve done it again. We’ve done it again, Magoo.
John: Hooray. Craig, thank you so much. Have a great week.
Craig: See you next time.
- The Ender’s Game movie
- AV Club on Orson Scott Card’s recent comments
- Big Fish’s Zachary Unger sings the National Athem at this weekend’s Jets game
- Happy Endings script pages with alternate jokes
- Portlandia on IFC
- Microsoft Sculpt ergonomic keyboard (from @jeremycohen)
- If you’re coming to Big Fish on Broadway, email or tweet us to let us know!
- And feel free to Tweet Craig, too. But no lists.
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Olivia Neutron Bomb