The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 106 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, I lived your fantasy last week. I got to go in and be on the air on SiriusXM On Broadway.
Craig: You’ve beaten me to the punch. My turn is going to be in a month, but I’m very excited. And you were interviewed by Julie James.
John: By Julie James who is a super fan of Broadway.
John: So, sometimes you have those people who are like remarkable interviewers and you have deep insights on things, but it’s also great to have people who are just like ridiculous fans of a thing. And she’s a ridiculous fan of Broadway, so it was very fun to be interviewed with her and Andrew Lippa for a good 45 minutes. So perhaps as you are driving around this long Labor Day Weekend you had a chance to hear us.
We’re recording this before the Labor Day Weekend, so of course you didn’t hear it, but —
Craig: I haven’t heard it yet.
John: But if you can travel through time and imagine you may hear us talking about Big Fish.
Craig: Right. Julie James is the sort of person that could probably interview, I don’t know, the guy who mugged her and still seem pretty supportive.
John: She would be very up about it all.
Craig: Yeah. She’s great.
John: You and I record our podcast ourselves separately with our own computers and our own little microphones and it’s a very stripped down operation. So, it was fascinating to actually go into a place that does this for a living and has a whole machine to do this stuff. Because I’ve done the NPR interviews and NPR is in the basement of a college and it’s professional but it’s also sort of downscale.
This is like in the fancy McGraw-Hill building There are these glass booths and basically there’s a window and then there’s a foot of air and then there’s another giant piece of glass, so like everything is just deeply soundproof. You could easily be murdered in one of these things and no one would ever hear you.
John: But it was just so fascinating to see. It’s essentially the same thing that we’re doing, just ramped to a much higher scale.
Craig: Yeah. And really what it comes down to is that the amount of money and effort that is required to take something from say 85% good to 100% good is a lot.
John: It is.
Craig: That’s where all the, you know, in our little things of like my air conditioning coming on, or the bus outside, or we were just talking about little mic bumps and things, all that goes away. But, yeah, it’s very expensive to do it truly properly.
John: Yeah, but lovely. One thing I did notice is the same sort of across the board is they have the same headphones that I believe you and I both do have which is the — I’m going to look up the name of it — the Sony MDR-7506.
Craig: Yes. That’s what I’m wearing right now.
John: For the professional cans. I have to say, I mean, it could be a One Cool Thing, I guess, but if you want a good pair of headphones, just get these. They’re really good. And they’ll always sound really good.
Today on the podcast we are going to talk about a wide range of topics. We’re going to talk about these comments that Kevin Spacey made at the Edinburgh Television Festival. Because really when I think of television I think of Edinburgh, Scotland.
John: He made comments about the present and future of television, which I think are worth discussing.
LA’s Mayor, Eric Garcetti, had comments about runaway production and what that means to Los Angeles and how it can be fought. So we’ll talk about that.
We need to talk about the upcoming WGA election.
John: It’s not even upcoming, it’s the currently upon us WGA election.
Craig: Yes, the imminent election.
John: Yes. And we’ve talked about this on every incarnation of the podcast, but this time you will really lead the conversation because I know nothing.
John: But first we have some follow-up. So, last week on the podcast, it was Three Page Challenges we did. And so one of them was by this guy Keith Eiler. This was the one that was set in space and had something with Oblivion in the title. And so he tweeted us to say like, “Hey guys, thank you so much for looking at my script on the show,” but he gave us references for what the title meant and for also what this one dialogue reference meant.
So, this is how his title came to be. It’s this Marcel Proust quote. And I’m going to start to read it and then we’re going to have a little discussion. This is a quote from Marcel Proust:
“What best remind us of a person is precisely what we had forgotten (because it was of no importance, and we therefore left it in full possession of its strength). That is why the better part of our memories exist outside us, in a blatter of rain, in the smell of an unaired room or of the first crackling brushwood fire in a cold grate: wherever, in short, we happen upon what our mind, having no use for it, had rejected, the last treasure that the past has in store, the richest, that which, when all our flow of tears seems to have dried at the source, can make us weep again.”
Wow. So, a couple things about that. First off, the underlying idea behind this longer quote — I just sort of gave you half of it — is that it’s those things you don’t kind of remember remembering are what are sort of most significant, and sort of like really capture that emotional memory of things, and that’s a really nice idea. And I think it’s a nice idea to have in a script. I think it’s a nice idea for someone to in easier ways say in a script. And it’s a nice thematic idea. I really like that as a thematic idea.
John: I found that quote to be impenetrable though.
Craig: Well, it’s difficult. You know, you’re translating it from French. And when we look at writers who wrote in English at Proust’s time, they tended to be impenetrable, too. There was a very purple prosy thing that was going on for awhile there. I’m glad it’s sort of gone. [laughs] It was almost like your quote needed to be really complicated in order to be any good. That’s one of the reasons why I was always I guess attracted to Nietzsche’s writing because even translated from German by the great Walter Kaufmann, there’s just a clarity to it.
John: Yeah. I think it’s honestly why all high school students love reading Hemingway because they’re, “Oh, short sentences.”
John: It’s the same semester you always have to read Hemingway and Faulkner and you’re like, “Oh my god, please just let me read two Hemingway’s and not have to go through a Faulkner.” Because Faulkner does that same thing which we just saw in Proust’s quote which is it’s a bunch of clauses strung together by commas. And by the time you’re in the fourth or fifth deep one of these it’s like, wait, what was the subject of this sentence? I can’t actually follow the thread because we’re just not used to having to dig that deep into sentences.
Craig: Right. And then people sometimes claim a certain merit in understanding these hard to untangle paragraphs. But, I’m not really sure that that’s meritorious. I mean, the sentiments though are great. And Proust, I guess, is most famous for his notion of sense memory, his Madeleine cookie and all that.
John: What I would also say in general, if this quote is an important part of the idea of your movie — Keith, awesome that you did not try to put that in the first page. Because I’ve seen so many terrible scripts where the first page would be that impenetrable quote, and when I get to that first impenetrable quote I’m like, “Oh my god, I don’t want to read another word, because it’s going to be all like this. It’s all going to be about that thing.”
So, let’s say if you have this idea of the things you don’t remember are the memories that actually carry emotional weight, and I may be butchering what the actual intent of that paragraph was, but that’s what we got out of it, is you’re going to need to find ways to thread that through your script in ways that characters can state them, that characters can, you know, once they come to realize. But a character can express that idea, embody that idea. You need to be able to find moments that can make that actually come to life. And space would seem to be a really difficult place to do that. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but that would be an extra challenge I would see if that is thematically the idea you want to get to.
Space is going to probably make it more challenging than less challenging.
Craig: It could, yeah. And I think also you just have to give yourself up to a certain amount of let’s call it non-linearity and irrationality. Because the purpose of the quote is essentially that our conscious rational, logical mind isn’t really processing the memories that matter. That this is going on in the zany or uncoordinated part of our minds.
So, it seems that the movie would probably have to end up being a bit more lyrical and a bit more poetic and non-linear than a traditional narrative. But, you know, just because you don’t want to sort of — it’s difficult to relay a sense of subconscious thought through a very conscious, ordered, intentional plot.
John: Exactly. I would agree with you. And since movies are about images and sounds, it’s not going to be as rewarding just to have a character say the modern English version of that. In a play, however, I bet you could have a character give a monologues that is essentially that point, or gets you to that point, which is incredibly powerful and moving, but that’s a play.
Craig: And you’re there with the person in the room.
John: Absolutely. And you’re watching them experience that thing at the same time.
John: So, let’s get to today’s work and today’s discussions. First off, let’s start with this Kevin Spacey video. You can see the video. You can see the transcript of it.
Essentially Kevin Spacey was speaking at the Edinburgh Television Festival and he is known for House of Cards, his most recent season, which is one of the acclaimed Netflix shows that sort of broke the model of how a television show is supposed to work in that the Netflix shows, including House of Cards, including Orange is the New Black — which I finally started watching — do not work under the normal pilot season. They’re not shot with pilots and then they go to series. They are just fully formed things that exist all at once and that you don’t have to watch them week by week. They simply exist in their entire 13 episode wholeness the moment they debut.
So, his arguments summarized is that this is how — this isn’t just the future of television but this is actually the current present of television and that if television does not adapt to it, if broadcast networks don’t adapt to it they will quickly be extinct. And I liked it because it was similar to points that you and I have made on the show before is that stuff is changing. If you don’t acknowledge that it’s changing you’re the dinosaurs who are going to become completely extinct.
Craig: Yeah. He makes, I think, a bunch of great points and then takes it one step too far.
John: Oh, Kevin Spacey!
Craig: Oh Kevin Spacey! So, the points that I think everybody makes in general that the notion of having an entire season on demand instantly for people who are subscribing to the service makes complete sense. We know that for sure. Even though —
John: Although we didn’t know that when it first happened though.
Craig: No. We didn’t know, but we now know it for sure.
John: The Arrested Development model.
Craig: Right. And that’s not particularly news because we know it. I mean, he’s involved in one of the shows that sort of proved it. But, we know it to an extent. In other words we know that people will do it, but they’re not doing it, and this will tie back to my bridge too far, they’re not doing it anywhere near the way that they watch the models of programming that Kevin Spacey sort of is saying are already outmoded. They’re not. [laughs] Not even close.
But we know, okay, it can work, at least on some level that can work. The best point he made, the most important point he made was the one about the stupidity of pilots and pilot season. And the argument is that the necessity of a pilot causes certain creative decisions to be made which are not ideal. They demand that the writers pack a whole bunch of stuff into one hour, or if you’re a sitcom, 22 minutes, including who the characters are, what their deals are, what their problems are, what the situation is, da-dada-dada. Right?
Everything is all there in the pilot. That’s why pilots suck more than anything. They are an unnatural demand on the writers. And his point was we didn’t want to write a pilot because we actually wanted the luxury of being able to reveal things as we chose, as we decided. And I thought that was a great point. And he connects it back to the insane inefficiency of the pilot system, which is remarkable.
John: So, two points. I would agree with you that his best point is that the existence of pilots forces creative decisions that are not good for television series. And that having written several pilots and having been through that development process, you are forced to wedge in so much that you would choose not to put in there.
John: This last thing I did for ABC, Chosen, I definitely felt that where essentially like, “Okay, that stuff you have for episode two, let’s cram that into episode one.” It’s like, oh my god, there’s no room to breathe in this show anymore because they keep trying to pack in more plot and more “this is what the show is, this is what the show is,” because the pilot has become this marketing document for the network essentially saying like please pick up our show because this is how exciting it’s going to be. The pilot is completely atypical of what the actual series might be week to week, which is a huge problem.
What I would say though, an observation about the inefficiency of the pilot system, it’s probably hugely beneficial to the employment of writers. I think because we overshoot the number of pilots we make, I think a lot more people end up being employed writing pilots and getting the chance to make pilots than otherwise would be if we actually went to a full, okay, we’re just going to make series.
Craig: Yes. And no. Yes, in the sense that you’re right, strictly they are employed. No, in the sense that whatever you make to write that one pilot isn’t that much, and worse, by creating a system that is particularly inefficient for scripted narrative programming the networks find it much, much easier, I think, to punt and just put in stuff that’s much easier to develop, like reality, which you can make a pilot for cheaply and remake, and remake, and remake.
And it’s unfortunate because the real money for writers is when the show is a hit and on. And we’ve lost ground to non-scripted stuff I think in part because the pilot system is just so absurd.
John: I agree that the pilot system is absurd but I would still push back on some of these points. The inefficiencies is essentially research and development. Television does research and development the way that movies never do is that we say like, “Well, what if we made this show?” And so you get to see, well, what would that show be like?
The pilots are a very imperfect version of what that show would be like, but I think it gives us a lot of new and medium writers a chance to actually make their own thing, that would be much less likely if we went to a full “we’re just going to make 13 episodes of a series” situations. Because the people who get to make 13 episodes of a series of their own creation are the Jenji Kohans, are the people who have the power, and history, and clout to do that.
So, it’s going to be harder and harder for me, when I was doing my first TV show, to be doing my first TV show because it’s a bigger gamble to say we’re going to do 13 episodes of a show versus a pilot.
Craig: I agree with that. I think the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Maybe not demanding that pilots do the work beyond what a good first episode of a series ought to be doing. Where I think that Kevin Spacey takes the unnecessary leap, and you see this sometimes — people get really excited when something new comes along. They get so excited that they over swing.
Here’s the truth: House of Cards, while a success for Netflix, is a success question mark. No one really knows, I don’t think, how many people actually watch the show. More importantly, we do know this — a tiny fraction of say — A House of Cards audience is a tiny fraction of say Modern Family’s audience.
Craig: The truth is that the network model that Kevin Spacey seems to think his show has already made obsolete is so vastly more profitable and more watched than the Netflix model. We don’t need to engage in these things where it has to be this or that. The truth is the network model still works in a fascinatingly successful way.
Similarly, people — while he points out is it still a film if you watch it on TV at home? Yeah, sure, it’s a movie, but people still go to the theater. So, while we open ourselves to change, and open ourselves to adapt to the technology that’s available to us and what the audience is telling us, we shouldn’t over-correct and just decide that everything that exists and is incredibly successful is now obsolete.
John: I would argue about whether you can blanket statement say that broadcast television is more profitable than Netflix or those situations because they’re actually very difficult to compare. The Netflix model is really very much like what HBO does. And when you talk to HBO and they talk about sort of how they make their money, they will tell you quite honestly, “Our research has found that if there’s one show that people want to watch on HBO they will keep subscribing to HBO.”
So, they don’t necessarily need to have a bunch of eyeballs as long as they have one show that each of their current subscribers or each of their hopeful subscribers really wants to watch and will therefore pay for HBO to watch.
John: And so it’s a remarkable luxury to be able to say, “We don’t have to appeal to a broad cross-section of Americans as long as we can get this number of people to be watching HBO because this show exists.”
Craig: That’s right. It is apples to oranges. But, just as it’s apples and oranges to compare the amount of money that, I don’t know, the paperclip industry makes to the computer industry, I think it’s fair to say the computer industry probably makes more money.
When you talk about big hit network shows that are rerun and go into syndication and are purchased on DVD and are watched by, I don’t know, 15 million people on a given night, and the ads that are sold, the amount of money is astonishing. Granted, it’s not what it used to be, but it’s astonishing. Netflix was a company that was nearly out of business two years ago. So, hard to say — it’s hard to say. All I think I can say for sure is that stories of network television’s demise are — how does the phrase go?
John: Greatly exaggerated?
Craig: Thank you.
John: Yes. I would thoroughly agree with you on that point.
So, let’s go to a topic that you can lead the discussion on because I’m just ignorant — the WGA elections are happening right now.
Craig: Right now.
John: And so people should have a packet in their mailbox of candidate statements and ballots and things that they should be looking at. So, if you’re a WGA member, what kinds of things would you encourage them to be looking at?
Craig: Well, it’s an interesting year. This is, every two years there is an officer election. So, there is a board of 16 members and then there are three officers. On I guess even years it’s just eight members of the board are up for reelection. On odd years it’s the other eight members of the board, plus the three officers. The WGA West has an interesting constitutional clause that says that we can’t do what’s called white ballot voting. And white ballot voting is one candidate to vote for. The framers of the union felt strongly that there should always be some sort of competition. And there always has been, until this year.
So, this year we have Christopher Keyser, our incumbent president, running unopposed. And we have Howard Rodman, our incumbent vice president, also running unopposed. How is this possible? It’s possible because basically the people that were nominated to run against them declined. Essentially they turned it down. And at that point the Guild felt it had done its duty.
And so it goes. It’s a little strange. I mean, look, the truth is Chris and Howard were going to win anyway.
Craig: So, a lot of times what happens is they just put a straw dummy candidate up just to fulfill the constitutional. So, obviously you’re voting for Chris Keyser. You have no choice. I would urge you to anyway. And you’re voting for Howard Rodman, you have no choice. I would urge you to anyway.
Where things have gotten a little interesting is in the Secretary-Treasurer race between Dan Wilcox and Carl Gottlieb. Carl Gottlieb is a legend. He wrote — talk about two wildly different movies — Carl Gottlieb wrote Jaws…
John: I’ve heard of Jaws.
Craig: Carl Gottlieb wrote The Jerk. [laughs] Now, how is this possible that you could somehow figure out a way to write two of the most amazing movies of the ’70s in two wildly different genres? Well, Carl did it. And I am very proud to say that I served with Carl and that he is not only a gentleman and a brilliant writer and a legend, but Carl has probably the most institutional wisdom of any of the people that currently serve the Guild. He’s been involved forever.
He’s running against Dan Wilcox who I don’t think wrote Jaws or The Jerk. Dan has sort of lobbed this bizarre, I don’t know what is going on here, so Dan Wilcox wrote this statement basically saying the Guild doesn’t have enough meetings and the meetings don’t go long enough. Well, let me tell you something. Having served on the Guild, the best news of all would be that maybe they got rid of a few meetings, that the meetings weren’t 12 hours long.
These meetings were atrocious. When you get, you know, you’re talking about 19 people in a room, plus staff, slowly belaboring nonsense. It’s the worst. I think the fact that meetings are running more efficiently is wonderful.
He was also complaining apparently that some people weren’t showing up, but then he goes ahead and he supports Thania St. John who is running for reelection who has missed more meetings than anyone. I have no idea what Dan is talking about. I’ll be honest with you: he’s a nice man but I found him to be an unimpressive board member when I was on the board. He doesn’t particularly propose anything or change anything or do anything. He’s just kind of — he reminds me of the way I think Guild politics used to be but isn’t any longer.
I strongly support Carl. And, by the way, so do Chris Keyser and so does Howard Rodman. And Chris and Howard, by the way, are from either side of the Guild political spectrum and they get along great and they both support Carl. I think that that one is a slam dunk.
John: Now, let’s talk about what this elected board will be facing and addressing, because how close are we getting to contract negotiations, other issues that are going to be pressing on us in this next term?
Craig: One of the favorite rhetorical tricks that candidates will use is to say things like, “Don’t think that when you’re voting here you’re voting to say what the negotiations are going to be, the contract, because the negotiations are on this date and the contract is this date,” and blah, blah, blah.
You’re always voting for that. Because the truth is once you elect somebody chances are the incumbents will be reelected. Beyond that, while a particular board member may not be around for a particular negotiation, they’re there when the negotiating committee is appointed. There’s an enormous influence that you have. You’re always voting for negotiations. Never let anybody tell you you’re not. You always are. I hate that. It’s the worst lie. That’s the one that drives me the craziest.
So, yeah, this is entirely about negotiations. And, of course, given that we’re going to have the same president and vice president combo, I think we can expect a certain amount of continuity. There are certain candidates that I think would be terrific to continue or be new to the board considering that we are heading towards negotiations.
So, Billy Ray has been, I think he’s chaired the negotiating committee now twice. He’s essential. We have to reelect Billy. Billy is important. And, by the way, not every — there are 16 directors on the board and about three of them usually matter and the rest of them are just sort of voting along with the other three. Billy Ray is one of the important ones. Have to, have to reelect him.
I’m a big fan of this kid Ari Rubin. He’s a kid. I mean, I say kid because now I’m getting older and he’s probably thirty-something. He’s famed screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin’s son. And he’s just very enthusiastic and very much wants to kind of present a positive, I guess, energy from the Guild to the membership. You know, a lot of these people just get grumpy after awhile. He’s not yet grumpy. And I think he’s very reasonable. He looks at both sides of the issue, so I like Ari Rubin.
And Lee Aronsohn, I think, is well worth electing. Lee Aronsohn was Chuck Lorre’s right hand guy. I think he is sort of retired now, but he really understands the boots on the ground in TV today. And it’s just so important that we have people — and we have a lot of people on the board that frankly just aren’t really connected on a day-to-day basis to the way the business really works. Lee certainly would be.
And then I recommend strongly the reelection of David Goyer, again, who understands both screenwriter issues, and we have precious few screenwriters on the board, and television issues, and the business as it is currently.
And how could I not mention that Patric Verrone is running again.
John: There’s some institutional knowledge of a different kind…
Craig: Yes. [laughs]
John: …of Patric Verrone, who was the president of the WGA through — president or chairman of the board? I guess president.
Craig: He was president.
John: President, during the most recent strike.
Craig: Yes. Patric just apparently can’t get enough.
John: Yeah. A person I know personally who is running is Jonathan Fernandez who was actually in my picketing group.
Craig: Oh yeah, I like Jonathan.
John: My picketing group at Paramount. And he’s fantastic, and smart, and considerate. And walks that sort of smart middle ground in that he was very involved during the strike but also very interested in having the strike be over. I know he came to you for counsel as well about…
John: …sort of the issues that would be facing the board during these next two years.
Craig: Yeah. I think Jonathan Fernandez is terrific. Yes. So, I’m going to say my personal I’m voting for them: Chris Keyser, Howard Rodman, Carl Gottlieb, Ari Rubin, Jonathan Fernandez, Billy Ray, Lee Aronsohn, David Goyer. I am fans of all them.
And, by the way, when it comes to voting for the board, you can vote for eight people. You don’t have to vote for eight people.
John: It’s that classic thing where voting for fewer people in a weird way makes your votes count a little bit more because you’re not diluting your vote.
John: I would say my general criteria as looking for people to vote is trying to find people who sort of proxy my views on how things should be, but who also bring a diversity of experience and opinion to how to do things. And so as you say institutional knowledge for Carl Gottlieb is fantastic. Enthusiasm and new perspective is great for some of these younger members.
But, the WGA is also a collection of film people and television people. And we need to have both in there. And classically screenwriters have been underrepresented in board affairs.
Craig: That’s right.
John: So that’s why I’m excited to have screenwriters as candidates.
Craig: Not many of them, but yes.
John: But Goyer and Fernandez both count as that, which is fantastic.
Craig: Goyer, Fernandez, and Billy Ray for sure.
John: Yeah, yeah. Let us go to a small intermezzo, a small — what do you call those little palate cleanser…?
Craig: A sorbet?
John: Sort of a midway sorbet. We got a question from Hillary Dixon Rust who is a gentleman. He asks, “Ever taken the Myers-Briggs test? If so, would you share your types?”
Craig: Yeah, I have. Have you?
John: Of course. I knew you had. Of course I have, too. So, the most recent time I took it I am an ENTJ. What are you?
Craig: [laughs] ENTJ.
John: Yeah. That doesn’t surprise me at all.
Craig: Look at us. Shouldn’t we be fighting or, I don’t know what it even means. Sometimes I’m an ENTP.
John: Yeah. I think I occasionally turn out to be a P.
John: But I would say when I first took the test in college I was definitely an I. And that is one of the things, extroversion, really any of these scales, you can slide a bit on them and it’s going to be fungible. But it was a very deliberate choice to sort of force myself to be more extroverted.
John: And so the person I am now is not the person I was in college.
Craig: You know what’s so interesting about what you just said? I could have said and can say the exact same thing. It’s so weird to me. I was also, and I remember doing it in college and I was an I. And just so people understand the I/E thing, so Introvert/Extrovert, the specific way they’re talking about it is what energizes you, being around people or being on your own? And it did change for me. It really changed for me.
I am in the exact same boat. We’re the same thing and we’ve followed the same progression. How weird.
John: Yeah. And so things like when we hosted the live 100th episode of Scriptnotes or when we did the big thing at the Academy, that would have just absolutely terrified me and it would have caused panic. And instead it gets me really amped up and adrenalized and I love it. So, it’s a very different thing.
Craig: My introversion manifested itself differently. I just would have been angry and dismissive. [laughs]
John: You were surly, you’re saying?
Craig: Incredibly! But I’ve become so much more happy. Out of curiosity, do you know what Mike is?
John: Mike, I don’t know what his full thing is but he’s definitely on the introvert side — my husband Mike. And your wife, Melissa?
Craig: Melissa is, I think, an opposite of me in every — no, no, she’s an E also, but I think she’s like ESFP. I mean, she’s just completely opposite.
John: Completely opposite, yeah. She’s the other side of your Velcro?
Craig: Totally. Totally.
John: Yeah, it’s interesting. And so it’s great to have some balance in your relationship and the ability to do different things. And it’s also important I think for people to realize that those aren’t like, it’s not fate. It’s not destiny that because you’ve scored a certain way on this little test you took that this is how you must behave in life. It just sort of shows your general patterns on how you’re going to behave in situations.
Craig: And god forbid that you should take this test and then decide you have to act like the way the test tells you to act. That would be the worst possible outcome.
John: Yeah, please don’t do that.
Craig: Don’t do that.
John: So, back in college you were introverted but you also had a famous roommate. I don’t know if you want to get into your famous roommate now. It’s probably too long of a topic.
Craig: [laughs] No, I can do a very short version. My freshman year roommate, so the roommate that was assigned to me by Princeton University was Ted Cruz who is currently a United States Senator from Texas and putative presidential candidate. And I hated him. And I talked about it —
John: But now he’s one of your best friends on earth, right?
Craig: [laughs] No, I still hate him. And I talked about it with a reporter and it was awesome. I was called… — There are some corners of the internet where people just get wild. And politically I’m very much in the middle. I pick and choose from right and left depending on the topic. I’m not a — far from a leftish, far from a rightist. But I was accused of being a leftist, a Marxist, gay, bisexual. I like that it was both gay and bisexual.
John: That’s perfect. Well, they see your wife and your kid and say, “Okay, maybe once.” [laughs]
Craig: [laughs] They didn’t really know about that.
John: Oh, you have two kids, I’m sorry. Twice.
Craig: Yes, twice. I was a Marxist and a whole bunch of other stuff. It was pretty wild. People are nuts! Anyway, I thought it was fun in a weird way because I have been inoculated to a certain extent from the pain of public criticism, but these people are just cuckoo. I mean, it was actually funny.
But, Ted Cruz was my roommate. I did not like him at all in college. I actually asked that they give me a different roommate. I made it as far as November and I couldn’t take it anymore. And the university declined my offer, my request. So, I was stuck with him for an entire year. And then I haven’t said a word to him since.
Craig: Bad guy. Don’t like him.
John: Let’s transition from a discussion of national politics to more local politics which is the LA Mayor Eric Garcetti made comments, Variety picked up the story but other people picked up the story as well saying that it is a priority of the city government to stop runaway production or to try to keep more production of Hollywood features and television shows shooting actually in Hollywood where the film industry began.
This is obviously an evergreen thing that comes up. It’s an evergreen problem. I think the only thing I saw which was a little bit more specific from his comments was that we’re going to focus on the things we can actually hopefully win which is things like one-hour drama pilots and trying to keep them in town.
John: I’m deeply torn and conflicted about this because whenever I see the political solutions being proffered for runaway productions it’s always like, “Well, we need more tax incentives.” Well, that’s just an arms race and it’s an arms race that everybody loses because if California creates these giant tax incentives well, okay, first off, why are we doing it for this industry rather than other industries. But, you can look at sort of the tax incentives that local governments offer for retailers saying like, “Hey Walmart, please build a new Walmart here.” And so they build this great Walmart here and they close the other Walmart which becomes this wasteland. And it’s not good for everybody.
Craig: This is intractable. It is. And this article bummed me out because I got excited at first. And then I kept reading going, okay, it was like a kid opening up a gift and it’s just nothing but tissue paper. And then finally you hit the bottom of the box and you’re like, “Oh, god, there’s nothing in here but tissue paper.” There is no answer in this article.
John: [laughs] Yeah. There’s like a receipt for something that is not actually in —
Craig: Yeah, gift receipts for a sweater that at this point you actually would want and you didn’t even get. So, the idea of these tax incentives is that a state basically says if you shoot a movie here then what we’ll do is we’ll collect a bunch of tax from all the people that work on the movie and then we’ll give it back to you, the production, so that employees work, essentially.
“We want our people working here in the state. And our feeling is if they work and they get paid, even if we give you back our state revenue from that stuff, that they will then go and buy stuff and that will just be better for our economy.” That’s the theory. And frankly I’m not sure that there is enough evidence one way or another to show that it works or doesn’t work. There are enough places doing it that makes me think it does work.
But, the problem is that there are so many places doing it that it becomes insolvable for California. First of all, California is the most poorly run state in the country. I really do believe that. Sacramento is horrible. I mean, I’m really involved in school funding issues and public school funding issues and California is ridiculous. It will continue to be ridiculous.
On this issue, I think this is a — stand in line, by the way, of how many things California bungles, including the fact that we’re saddled with this cuckoo nuts referendum system so now we have this multibillion dollar ridiculous high speed bullet train that nobody wants that is too expensive. I mean, it’s just we’re a dumb state and we’re getting dumber. And we’re also enormous and unwieldy. So, much like turning the Titanic, it takes us a really long time after we see the iceberg to figure out what to do.
You have all these other states that seem to be more nimble. And also, frankly, aren’t as worker friendly. So, when we say, “Oh look, let’s go shoot everything in Atlanta,” the way that so many movies are right now, it’s not just because Georgia is saying we’ll give you a bunch of money back. Georgia is saying we can give you a bunch of money back because frankly all these people that are working are working lower rates, not a lot of union stuff, right to work states where you don’t have to be in the union. It is a race to the bottom.
It’s a race to the bottom for the states and it’s a race to the bottom for the workers. The only people who are enjoying this and laughing about it are the studios. And they couldn’t give a damn.
John: I think you’re sadly kind of right. So, let’s talk about this from the writer’s perspective because in a weird way the writer seems to be the most insulated from this because, well, we can write anywhere. And a lot of us write in Los Angeles, or we write wherever, and it kind of doesn’t matter so much to us, except, it sometimes really matters for the project. So, I’m going to fictionalize certain aspects of this meeting so that people don’t figure out what I’m actually talking about.
But, a couple of weeks ago I went in to meet on this project, an adaptation that I really liked that I do hope to do at some point. And the original project is set in a specific location. And there are good creative reasons why the place where it is set should maybe not be the place where you would want to set the movie version of it. And in a general sense, there are reasons why you may want to move it just for good creative reasons.
One of the producers said, so we started to talk about good creative places to put, like rather than there you could set it on the east coast, it could be this, it could be a Bostony kind of thing. That could be really interesting. Yeah, that totally works. And one of the producers said, “Well, no, we should put it in Louisiana so it’s cheaper.”
And I nodded but didn’t sort of say yes or no. But that was a case where the suggestion came to make a fundamental creative choice, and really a terrible creative choice for this project based on where he perceived we could shoot the movie for less money. And that is exactly what you don’t want.
John: As a writer, or as a filmmaker, as anyone, a producer, anyone who cares about making the best movie, the best TV show, you should choose the location you shoot it in for what it actually makes sense to — for the project you’re trying to do. And so if you’re trying to do a New York set thing, great, shoot New York, and it’s lovely that there are tax credits here. But if you’re set in Los Angeles, or you’re set in California, or like it doesn’t matter where you’re set, don’t just go to Atlanta or Louisiana or that other place just for those tax reasons because it kind of hurts you on some levels.
Craig: They don’t care. I went through this on Identity Thief. It was —
John: So, Identity Thief was Georgia, correct?
Craig: Identity Thief was shot in Atlanta.
Craig: The movie was obviously always meant to be a road trip. And I sat and I remember talking about it at length with Jason and with Seth Gordon about the kind of road trip we wanted to do. And the one that we wanted to tell, because it’s important, I mean, everything is intentional. And we sort of wanted to show a cross country road trip that we hadn’t really seen.
You know, for instance Due Date had just done a really good one from Atlanta to LA and they kind of cut through that southern swath and through the Grand Canyon. It was such a great look. And they got near the Mexican border. But what I hadn’t seen was a trip that I had actually done when I was younger, which is kind of a Boston to Portland kind of feel, that cutting across the top of the country, through the rust belt, and through dairy country, and then out through kind of big sky and all the rest of it.
Craig: And ending up in the Pacific Northwest. And so much of what the characters look like and dress like and how they live, plus Boston is such a great town in terms of look.
John: Oh, it’s great.
Craig: And Portland is really interesting. And Portland is also interesting because of the communities that are just off it that are actually kind of trashy and depressed.
Craig: And I was screamed at. [laughs] I’m not joking. I’m not going to tell you who screamed at me. Screamed at. And when I tell you screamed at, I mean over the phone I was screamed at and I was told the movie has to be shot in Atlanta or it’s not happening. And the road trip, given that the whole thing had to be shot in Atlanta, the physical production people were quite convinced that we could fool the audiences by making a road trip from Miami to Atlanta. [laughs]
And I was like, that’s a day. First of all, everything looks the same. That’s the whole point. So, how will you know you got anywhere? Forget what it does to the characters and all the rest of it. And it was an enormous fight and in the end the best I could do was get to, okay, it’s a drive from Miami to Denver, but not really Denver, Atlanta. And then pay for a second unit to sort of fake our way through St. Louis.
It was depressing, because frankly what ended up happening was the Denver scenes were just generic because frankly Denver and Atlanta are kind of generic looking cities.
John: They really are.
Craig: So, that stuff was just sort of generic. The Florida stuff was generic. And the road trip was boring. You know, you didn’t get a sense of scope or feel or the bigness of what it means to be out on the road in the middle of nowhere, just big, big…it just killed me.
John: The only sort of big wide moments you had were some of those giant tree-lined highways. And you used those for like the times when they’re walking around a bit.
John: But that’s as much sort of scale —
Craig: It’s generic, you know?
John: So, I was pretty sure that Identity Thief went to Denver. And what was so weird is that We’re the Millers also goes to Denver. And it’s like why are there two R-rated comedies that are about road trips to Denver?
Craig: Because they shot We’re the Miller in Atlanta and they knew that Identity Thief had successfully confused enough Americans to think that Denver was Atlanta. Because most people don’t know what Denver looks like and most people don’t know what Atlanta looks like.
John: Oh, poor Denver.
Craig: I know! But, look, it’s ridiculous.
John: So, We’re the Millers at least did shoot some in New Mexico because there is a little bit of scenery at some places in We’re the Millers.
Craig: Right, because the story actually takes them into Mexico and you can’t fake that in Atlanta. But this is the thing, it just bums me out. It bums me out. And it’s not like we were saying we have to shoot the movie in Los Angeles. And it’s not like we’re saying we can’t shoot a big chunk of it somewhere where there are tax breaks. Nor are we saying, “Okay, the movie that costs $32 million, if we do it the way we want to would cost $52 million.” It wouldn’t. It would have probably cost $37 million.
John: It would have been just fine.
Craig: It would have been just fine. But they just…they kill…anyway, they screamed at me. [laughs] And I screamed back. It was fun.
John: So, one of the interesting things that comes up is that the half-hours never get that pressure to shoot — or almost never get that pressure to shoot somewhere else. So, Ugly Betty famously did move from Los Angeles to New York, but it was also set in New York, so I was willing to cut it some slack there. But New Girl, no one is telling New Girl, “Oh, you need to shoot in Atlanta.” That’s because comedies rely on having their writers right there. Because comedy is about sort of all that stuff you do on the set to try different things, to get things to be funny.
It’s a much more live process than the one-hours are. And so I guess we could make a whole bunch more half-hours and then suddenly we would have more production happening in town. It wouldn’t be the worst thing.
Craig: Also, those half-hours are set based, so they’re stage based. And there is an economics behind the stage rentals, too. I mean, companies don’t want to give away the stage space that they own for free, nor do they want them sitting empty. So…
John: So they want to lease it to their own productions and so they’re paying themselves.
Craig: They lease it to their own. They lease it to other. I mean, it’s kind of crazy how some of these shows end up where they end up. But, yeah.
John: They end up in a certain studio, on certain stages because that’s what was available when they shot the pilot. And suddenly like 12 years later they’re at this weird place.
Craig: Yeah. Like I remember Seinfeld was shot at CBS Radford.
John: But you look at Shonda Rhimes’s shows, and they could — most of them could shoot anywhere, but they’re better for shooting in Los Angeles because she and the creative team have the ability to impact the show because they’re locally —
Craig: Well, the other thing is when you’re talking about a long-term television show there are costs that begin to accrue when you’re dealing with an out of town production: putting everybody up and feeding everybody and flying everybody back and forth, and every guest start and every actor and all the rest of it. At some point it outweighs the benefits. But a movie, a one-shot deal, oh my god, they just can’t help it.
And the way they jam you on these locations — you want to know why comedies all look like crap, it’s not the directors or the DPs. It’s the locations. And Atlanta is a beautiful place the first time, or the fifth time, but not the 50th time.
I remember I was standing with — I went out to Atlanta. I’m standing where they were shooting the car chase for Identity Thief. And it was literally the same intersection where they had done a car accident scene in Due Date just a year earlier.
John: Oh my.
Craig: Yeah, it’s just like, ugh, god.
John: Well, we didn’t solve that problem.
Craig: No. And it’s not going to get solved.
John: It’s not going to get solved. I think my only bit of suggestion and hope is that maybe rather than focusing on tax incentives or sort of getting our A-list people to say, “We need more tax incentives,” is to get our A-list people to say, “No, screw it, I’m not going to shoot this thing over there. I’m going to shoot this here.” And maybe with more powerful TV showrunners and writer-directors, some of that will happen. It’s certainly not a guarantee.
Craig: It does happen for people who are powerful and for budgets that are larger. But, for so many it doesn’t happen.
John: It does not happen.
John: Let’s do our One Cool Things.
Craig, mine is actually a collection of One Cool Things. This was a listener suggestion as well. You and I have been doing One Cool Things since quite early on in the podcast. I think episode 10 or so we started doing them. And a listener wrote in and said, “Hey, why don’t you put together a page of all your One Cool Things in one place so we can see them all?”
John: I was like, that’s a really good idea. So, Stuart and Ryan did that. if you go to johnaugust.com there will be a link to a little sidebar page that shows all the One Cool Things from the beginning of the show up till now. And we will be continuously updating it so you’ll see what I recommended and what Craig recommended.
John: If there’s a link that works for something you can buy, we’ll try to do that. If it’s something you can buy on Amazon it will be to that. And those things you click through for Amazon we get like a small percentage so you’re helping pay for the show while you’re getting cool things. So, that’s this week’s One Cool Thing.
Craig: That is a cool thing. My Cool Thing this week is something that you might have seen already. It’s been sort of making its way around the internet. Have you heard of or scene Slow Ass Jolene?
John: I am obsessed with Slow Ass Jolene to the degree that I actually took two of the tracks from Big Fish and did the same technique on them.
Craig: So, Slow Ass Jolene, someone took Jolene by Dolly Parton and slowed it down I think 25%. And it’s amazing. And it’s amazing for so many reasons. First of all, let’s give Dolly Parton credit for being one of the greatest singer-songwriters ever.
John: No question.
Craig: And Jolene is a heartbreaking song. It’s just heartbreaking. It is about as tragic a song as I can imagine. Maybe more so because it’s so understated. It’s not like, you know, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is really trying to be tragic. This song is just a quiet, simple woman asking — no, begging — another woman not to take her man. And it’s so understated.
And the interesting thing about Dolly Parton if you were to say to me what is the weakest part of Dolly Parton, as a package, obviously not the songwriting, and not her pitch. Her pitch is outstanding. The quality of her voice, which is just the quality of her voice, is a little tinny. It’s a little shrilly/tinny, and it’s very country. And it’s very pleasant. But, for instance, it’s why Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You turned the world around whereas Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You didn’t. Not just tempo and tone, but it’s the timbre of her voice.
But when you take her performance of Jolene and you slow it down 25%, first of all the true tragedy of the song really starts to blossom, and because her voice has been knocked down to like a male tenor, what you hear is how good of a singer she is. How good she is! She’s so good. And, of course, it goes without saying long before the era of the noxious auto tune and all that. It’s a beautiful song and whoever did Slow Ass Jolene is kind of a genius because it’s sort of this wonderful serendipitous representation of something that was pretty terrific to begin with.
John: I agree. And so we will link to Slow Ass Jolene. I’ll also link to on Kottke they had a post that did the same technique to a bunch of other songs you’ve heard of, including like a Prince song that became an awesome slow jam. And Mazzy Star’s Fade Into You, which is sort of bizarrely hypnotic when you actually take it down a notch. And if I’m brave I may even put a link into Fight the Dragons which is one of the title songs, sort of main songs in Big Fish.
I happen to on my hard drive have a recording of Andrew Lippa, our composer, singing the song to the full track, full orchestral track, and you do that, it’s a 12.242 reduction. It pulls it down two semi-tones, and it’s kind of great.
And so I sent it to Andrew saying, “My friend Leon did a cover of our song,” and I sent it to Andrew so he could listen to it, and he’s like, “Who is Leon? I don’t get this?” And he was fascinated. I was like, “No, no, that’s you.”
Craig: [laughs] That’s you!
John: He did recognize his own voice.
Craig: No, you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t.
John: No. It’s great.
Craig: Yeah, so Slow Ass Jolene.
John: Hooray. So, if you would like to listen to Slow Ass Jolene or any of the things we talked about on the podcast this week, links are always at johnaugust.com/podcast.
If you are listening to this show on iTunes and you happen to want to leave us a comment, or review, that’s awesome, so why don’t you go do that. I am @johnaugust on Twitter. Craig is @clmazin. And we’re here every week. So, we will see you guys next week.
John: Bye, thanks.
- Listen to John and Andrew on SiriusXM On Broadway with Julie James
- Marcel Proust Within a Budding Grove, Part two
- The video and transcript of Kevin Spacey’s speech at the 2013 Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival
- WGAW Announces Candidates for 2013 Officers and Board of Directors Election
- Myers-Briggs personality types on Wikipedia
- L.A. Mayor Declares State of ‘Emergency’ As Movie, TV Production Flees Hollywood, from Variety
- One Cool Things from Scriptnotes
- The New Yorker on Slow Ass Jolene
- Kottke on How to make your own slow jams
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Latif Ullah