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 107 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, I think you’ll be excited by this, but I went to my first Rosh Hashanah service this last week.
Craig: Ooh! And how boring was that?
John: It was actually not boring at all…
John: …because it was conducted at the Neil Simon Theater…
John: …by Andrew Lippa who is now an ordained interfaith minister.
John: So, it was kind of awesome, but also really strange, because I realized as I’ve been around Jewish culture a lot since moving to Los Angeles but I’d never actually seen even on film a portrayal of what the Rosh Hashanah service was like. And it’s a little bit odd.
Craig: It’s a lot a bit odd. Did they blow the Shofar?
John: They did. The Shofar being the sort of curved horn thing, which you tweet, actually tweet is the wrong word for it. Really, it’s like you —
Craig: Oh John. “A curved horn thing that you tweet.” You are so Christian.
John: Oh, yes, [laughs]. So, what is the Shofar meant to represent? It’s not a horn. What would you call it?
Craig: It is. In fact it is a ram’s horn.
John: So therefore I’m correct and it is curved.
Craig: It’s just the way you said it. “It’s a curved horn.” It was just very goyisha.
John: All right. That’s fine. So, anyway, it’s a thing that you are meant to…
John: …blow. But tweet is actually sort of the right word. It implies it’s a high sound. It’s not a high sound at all. It’s sort of a horn blowing sound, kind of.
Craig: Fancy that. [laughs]
John: But it is a very specific rhythm for this part of the thing.
John: And then that part of the thing.
Craig: Tekiah. Teruah. Yeah. There are I think three different ones. There’s [imitates horn sounds].
John: And it’s supposed to be nine, but you really can’t count.
Craig: And then there’s one that goes [horn sound again]. Basically goes until the old men run out of breath. And it’s like a competition to see who can last the longest.
John: Yeah. I found the whole thing just absolutely fascinating.
Craig: Yeah, it’s silly.
John: But wonderful. And, of course, it was an abbreviated thing because we were literally doing this in the upstairs lobby at the Neil Simon Theater, just like an hour before they had to completely clear everything out so we could have our opening night. So, it was a really busy, jam-packed day. But it was a great way to start a jam-packed day.
Craig: Now, do you have people that are going to be observing Yom Kippur which is sort of the important part of the holiday?
John: Yes, we do. So, it’s going to be a… — We’re smack dab in the middle of the Jewish holidays for Big Fish, which is traditionally like not the time you would want to do this, but it actually worked out very well for us because we’re the only show trying to open now.
Craig: Oh, good. All right, competition.
John: Let’s talk about the show that we’re actually recording right now, which is Scriptnotes, which is mostly a conversation about screenwriting.
Craig: And things that are interesting to screenwriters.
John: And so maybe that’s a Broadway show. But, and you, Craig Mazin, you stepped up today because two of our three topics are Craig Mazin topics.
Craig: I can do it. I just need — I just need someone to believe in me. [laughs]
John: [laughs] And we all believe in you, Craig.
Craig: Thank you.
John: So, the topic that I would like to propose today is the difference between intention and motivation. And words that are often sort of combined but are actually probably more useful if we can keep them apart and really think of them as two separate things.
John: And the topics that you brought to us today are?
Craig: Today I want to talk about sort of a screenwriter’s guide to working with actors, because no matter what level you are working at you need to work with actors. And then just a sort of a techie thing, I thought it might be fun to talk about your “onset rig.” What you need as a screenwriter on set in terms of just stuff to be able to do your job effectively.
John: Those are good topics. I feel like we’re going to have a good, strong podcast today.
So, I wanted to do just a little bit of housekeeping first. You are coming to New York City yourself for the live Scriptnotes show.
John: And we’re very excited to have you there. I kind of thought it was sold out, but they actually released the very back rows of the theater, so now we actually have — as we’re recording this podcast — possibly 40 seats. So, if you are still interested in coming to the October, sorry, September 23 recording of Scriptnotes Live in New York City, you should try to come. And you should try to get a ticket.
Craig: I just think it’s amazing that you can sell this — you, I mean we, I suppose — sell these things out. How many people are in this — how many seats are available?
John: This will be significantly bigger than the LA version. So, this is 300?
Craig: Oh, boy! Well we better have something to talk about.
John: We will. So, we’ll have you and me and Craig Mazin, uh, you’re Craig Mazin.
Craig: That’s me. That’s also me.
John: It’s very late. It’s late recording. There will be you, and me, and Andrew Lippa.
John: And a piano.
And so we will be talking about writing with somebody and sort of that writing partner process, specifically writing musicals and that whole shared process, the nine-year journey of Big Fish. But there will also be some singing of songs. Andrew Lippa is actually — that’s what he does for a living. But I will do this because I made a bet that I would do this. And you will do this because you have a song you want to sing.
Craig: Is he going to be able to play my song?
John: Yeah, he can play anything, Craig.
John: That’s not going to be an issue.
Craig: Is he good at the piano? [laughs]
John: [laughs] Yeah. The guy who wrote the Broadway show, is he good at the piano?
Craig: Does he know how to work a piano?
John: Yeah. He’s competent at that.
Craig: He’s no Seth Rudetsky. That’s all I can tell you.
John: Oh, no. No one is Seth Rudetsky.
Craig: No one!
John: Second bit of housekeeping, there will be another opportunity to see me and Craig doing Scriptnotes Live at the Austin Film Festival.
Craig: That’s right.
John: The Austin Film Festival is at the end of October. We don’t know the exact dates of when our different events are going to be, but there’s two — at least two Scriptnotes things happening there. We are doing a live episode of the podcast. It will be you, and me, and Rian Johnson, which will be kind of great.
John: And they’ve promised us a big space this year, not a small space.
Craig: And not at nine in the morning. [laughs]
John: Yeah. Last time was at nine in the morning. That’s too early for our listeners. So, it should be a great fun prime time. So, if you’re coming to Austin and you’re coming to the film festival, come see us there.
We’re also talking about doing a second panel workshop thing that would be focused on the Three Page Challenges. If you have a Three Page Challenge that you would like us to look at and you are going to be attending the Austin Film Festival it would be great for you to put that in the email to Stuart saying, “Here’s my Three Page Challenge and I will be at the Austin Film Festival,” because we would love to be able to bring those people up on stage with us and talk with them about the three pages they have submitted.
Craig: Yes. That sounds like a lot of stuff in our immediate future.
John: Yes. A lot of live speaking. So, the topic I want to talk about today is the difference between intention and motivation. And I sometimes hear them used as the same term, which is fine. I’m not going to be prescriptive. You don’t have to use exactly the words I like to use. But I think they’re actually somewhat different concepts and I want to talk about how you as a writer might use these words to best effect.
John: When you talk about a character’s motivation I tend to think of that as the big general who is this person in their world, in their life, and how is who they are in their world and their life and what their aims are reflected in your movie, or in your story.
So, a motivation might be attempting to make peace with his father. A motivation might be greed. It could be something like simple thematic kind of motivation, but it’s an overarching this is what they’re aiming for.
A lot of times in screenwriting we talk about what is the character’s want versus the character’s need. Motivation, you can think of it being the general umbrella category of what is the character going for. What is the character’s overall aim? Generally it is a character, but specifically in a story.
Do you use that term the same way?
Craig: I don’t at all.
John: Great. [Crosstalk]
Craig: I think of it as being a clear line. The way I like to think of that is motivation is why a character is doing something. Intention is what they want to achieve by doing something.
John: Oh, so we’re using these terms differently. I think it’s great that we’re having this conversation.
Craig: I think of characters, like for instance, I’m motivated by jealousy. My intention is to make you feel bad. Do you see what I mean? That’s sort of how I do it.
John: So, I use intention in a different way. And I use intention as a very granular what is a character attempting to achieve in this specific moment. So, intention to me is a thing that can happen in a scene or a sequence, but intention is a very specific “in this moment.”
John: And so what is this character’s intention as the scene is opening and how has the intention changed based on what has happened in the scene?
At any moment I think in a scene you should be able to freeze/pause, and look at each character in the scene and figure out what their intention is. And, if you can’t do that then maybe you need to rethink how the scene is working, because if a character is just there because they’re just there something is not ideal.
Craig: Yeah. I like to think about this weird line between why I’m doing something and what I want to achieve, because it’s a way to make characters interesting if you can — if the audience understands why they’re doing something and also can see how when it translates into “and therefore I want to achieve this,” something has gone wrong.
It’s interesting to watch characters be motivated by things and then have these strange intentions because of it.
John: Well, I would say another distinction I would try to make is motivations tend to be a little bit less concrete. They are bigger picture things and they’re not necessarily actionable. And intention should be more actionable.
John: And intention should be something you can see that they’re literally trying to achieve. And you can actually see did they achieve their intention or not achieve their intention.
Craig: That’s right.
John: There’s a test to it. Like are they doing what they’re trying to do? Even if their intention is like “I’m trying to relax and read my book on the couch,” that’s an intention. And if they’re being prevented in that intention they have reason to be upset.
John: So, even if it seems like a passive intention it’s a thing that they’re trying to do as the scene unfolds.
John: Do you use a different term for what I’m talking about for like what they’re doing in a scene?
Craig: No, because I tend to think that these things can be looked at in a macro way and in a micro way, so within a scene there’s a motivation and there’s an intention. And within a movie there’s a motivation and an intention.
If you look at a character in a very big global sense, you can see plenty of movies where the intention doesn’t change at all, or changes multiple times throughout the movie — what it is the character is trying to achieve changes.
But, it is a rare movie where the motivation never changes and it is a rare movie where the motivation changes more than once or twice, because what motivates somebody is fundamental. And because it’s fundamental, we like to see what’s motivating somebody change. That’s part of what’s built into the arc, the so-called arc of the character is the why they’re doing things changes. “I used to do this for money, but now I’m doing it for love,” in a very big, broad way, right?
But, because it’s such a big deal to fundamentally change your point of view, to change it two, or three, or four times starts to water the character down to mush.
Craig: So, I like to think of characters as their big internal motivations changing at least once but not more than once, so once, right? I think that’s what I mean. Changing once.
But intentions can change a lot or not at all. And sometimes it’s interesting to watch a character whose intention remains exactly the same throughout the movie but the motivation changes for it. That’s interesting.
John: Yes. I would also say that a lot of times you think about this with like sort of very classic hero’s journey kind of stories, but Erin Brockovich is a movie that somehow leapt to my mind as we were talking through this is that Erin Brockovich, you know, if you watch her general motivation in that film, as my recollection of it, is she wanted to achieve — so she wanted to achieve something. She wanted to sort of rebuild and restructure her life. She had these things — she wanted to be a different kind of person than she was and be perceived as a different kind of person than she really was.
John: But her intentions moment by moment are often very much about the case.
John: And about like getting these people on this porch to trust her and to let her into their lives. And so it was a good example of writing that you can see the overall arc of what she was trying to do, and the actual detailed plot of what’s happening moment, by moment, by moment doesn’t feel like it’s actually hitting that thing, but it always is sort of hitting that thing. What she’s trying to do, literally getting into that door, or getting this next person to take her seriously is reflected in the bigger goal of hers, to be a different person.
Craig: Yeah. I totally agree with that. And that’s where I think you want intentions to constantly be changing in relation to the sort of micro intention should constantly be changing. Watching characters shift tactics is a change in intention. Okay, my intention is to intimidate you. Okay, now my intention is to appeal to your better nature. Okay, now my intention is to make a deal with you. So, these exchanges make human interactions interesting.
But my motivation in that scene probably doesn’t change at all. My motivation is because I need this.
John: Yes. Your motivation will change as a result of many scenes or many encounters that have nudged you in that way.
John: So, and again, it’s so tempting to think about, oh, intention is something that the hero has, or the main character has, but I really would stress that it’s something that you should be able to pause and look at everybody in that scene and understand what their intention is. Even like to some degree that guy who’s in the background past, sort of the extra who is going from this way to that way, well why is he doing that?
John: And sometimes you’re just really trying to — really you’re just trying to make the frame not be so empty, but when you can possibly have a reason for why that background pass is happening, the world feels more real.
Craig: Agreed. Everything should be motivated. And you can tell sometimes in movies things aren’t motivated for what we call organic reasons that are reasons that are true to the story and the world around it. They’re motivated by external reasons like wouldn’t it be cool if…
Craig: …car went kaboom. And sometimes it is cool. But, better to see if you can’t make it cool and also motivated.
John: Yes. I’ll also say intention is one of those terms you’ll hear actors say a lot, because if you look at what an actor needs to do it’s trying to create the reality, moment by moment, of what the character is trying to achieve in this specific moment.
It’s like an actor in a scene can’t be responsible for the overall arc of the character and all that other stuff. That’s the responsibility of the script. What the actor can be responsible for is, “Is the way I’m interacting with people around me believable for this character? And believable for what this character is trying to have happen right at this moment?”
Craig: Well, that’s a good segue I suppose into discussing actors because you do hear that famous, “What’s my motivation?” or “What’s my intention?” all the time. And I think that writers are either scared of talking to actors, particularly when they’re famous and well-established, or they’re just clueless about how to talk to actors. And they don’t understand what actors do.
And, so they blow it all the time. I’ve witnessed it over and over. So, I figured we could talk today about how you and I go about talking to actors and helping them do their jobs better and maybe also, hopefully, they’re helping us do our jobs better.
John: I think it’s a terrific conversation. So, do you want to frame this in the context of you are the writer but not the director on the project?
Craig: Yeah. I think so. And it’s not that directors don’t have to deal with this all the time, too. They do. But there’s something interesting — there’s an interesting thing between writers and actors just as there is between writers and directors. There is an awkwardness that is around the fact that the writer has seen the movie, has created the movie, has done a thing that has brought everybody together to make the movie, and everybody is a little concerned about it, because there’s a lot of power in that act. And everybody understands that they now have to go and perform it and capture it.
And in doing so, things are going to happen. Even if everybody really wants to stick very, very closely to the script, things are still going to happen. And everyone, I think, initially is wary of a writer who is going to stifle or attempt to quash what could be some happy accidents. And so much about performance in particular is about being in the moment and natural which requires the opposite of a screenplay. It’s a very difficult thing to do — take something that is static and fixed and present it as dynamic and of a moment and extemporaneous. Very hard to do.
So, the first bit of advice that I have for writers when they’re talking to actors is something to think about before they talk to actors, before they walk up to an actor or before they even consider it. And that is to appreciate what these people have. You may not like the way they talk about your script. You may think that they don’t understand the script at all. You might be right. That happens sometimes.
But you also have to acknowledge that if it were you, the movie would be awful, and not because you’re not a big star that people didn’t know, but because you’re not a good actor, and because your face doesn’t belong on film. There are faces that belong in movies and there are faces that don’t. It’s not even a question of beauty. There are some remarkably odd looking faces that have had amazing characters. But there is a magic that is both internal and external to being a movie star.
So, stop for a moment and say, “Let me give this person the respect they deserve for having something unique that I do not have. And let me then also ask myself is it possible that maybe there’s a little bit of magic there that is not just the result of a roll of the dice but some craft, because it is craft. So, start from a place of respect.
John: Yes. My general advice that I’ve been using the last couple of months is assume good intention. And so whenever someday says something that’s like kind of offensive to me, I stop for a second and think, “Well, you know what? They probably meant that not at all the way I heard that and they actually meant that in a positive way.”
John: And I find a lot of conversations with actors can be like that way because they’ll say like, “This doesn’t make sense, or my character would never do this.” And, they’re wrong, because the character — I know the character really well. I was all the characters before they were those characters.
But, they’re saying that because they are feeling that they cannot actually achieve this thing here, or they can’t get from point A to point B in a way that is going to make sense for them on film. And if it’s not going to make sense for them on film, it’s not going to make sense in the finished product.
Craig: That’s right.
John: So, they’re asking you for help. They’re just asking you for help in a frustrating way.
Craig: They are. And sometimes you may find yourself feeling like, “Well, why am I always the one that has to sort of not throw a tantrum?” You can throw a tantrum if you want. It’s not going to get you very far in the world.
Craig: And I don’t really think of these people as throwing tantrums. I think that when an actor says, “Well, my character wouldn’t do that,” they mean my character, meaning me playing this character wouldn’t do that. And they’re right. Their character wouldn’t do it. You wrote a character that wasn’t their character, it was your character, and now it’s their character. And it has to go through their brain, their mind, their memories, their abilities, their character wouldn’t do that.
There are two great fears that I remind myself I think all actors have all the time. One is that they don’t understand how they’re supposed to play something, which is terrifying the way that it’s terrifying for us when we don’t know how to write something. And the other great fear they have is of being embarrassed. And the embarrassment that you suffer as an actor is so much more profound, public, and visible than the embarrassment we suffer as writers.
So, when an actor, this is great — I’m glad you brought that up. Because when an actor says, “My character wouldn’t do this,” take it seriously. And then explain as best you can what you were going for without shackling them to what’s there. And just say, “Well, forget what’s there. Here’s what I was going for and here’s what my reasoning was. And let’s just have a discussion.”
A lot of times just by talking it through it comes around to the smallest thing. The smallest thing. And you walk away thinking, “That was all about that?!” Yeah, okay. So it was, but they needed that. And god knows we have enough of our own foibles that we can’t really afford to point fingers at others.
John: The other thing I would stress is remember that you’re talking to — you’re usually talking to them about specific moments and specific scenes. And your answer as the writer can never be, “Because we need this to happen here or to do this.” You can never talk in terms of the story, because the story is not interesting to the actor. The actor is trying to focus on what they do in this moment.
So, generally, you’re going to be focusing on what is the journey of this character in this moment, to the next moment, to the next moment, and it has to seem like the character is in control of all these things and that the character is not doing something because the movie needs him to do it.
Craig: And that’s bad writing anyway if that’s what you — you know, that’s embarrassing for you to say, “Well, I know it doesn’t make any — really, it’s not necessarily connected to character. We just need to because we need that thing/explosion to happen, or we just need you to say that so we can be able to walk through the door there. It’s bad writing.
John: Well, yeah, but no, it’s not necessarily bad writing. Because, to be fair, there are times where we are cutting out of scene on a specific moment because that cut was going to give us power to get to the next thing, but the actor doesn’t feel that because the actor sees like, “But I would say this, and I would say this, and I would say this.” And you’re like, yes, you would, but the scene has already cut by that point.
Craig: Oh, I’ve never really had an experience where that was going on. Sometimes when actors ask to go a little longer in the scene, I think it’s perfectly fine to say great, do it.
Craig: If you know you’re getting the scissors in earlier, go nuts. [laughs] You know, to me, also, being a good editor and being able to edit in your mind will save you some battles that you don’t need to fight.
John: Yeah. But that’s honestly, that’s the luxury of being the empowered writer who is allowed to sort of say that, “Oh, you can keep going on.” So, if you’re saying like, oh, you’re going to keep improving after this point, but if the writer is now being expected to make a scene go longer than it would ever possibly be, and to have to defend that longer scene to the director, to the producers, to everybody else.
Craig: Oh, no, no, no. That’s where you go to the director and you’re just like, “Look, they want to just keep talking. You want me to just write this to make them feel good and we’ll just shoot a little bit of it?” Which, you can do.
I mean, I have to say, I’ve actually never had this come up. That’s never come up. I mean, usually because a responsible actor has read the script, knows what’s coming next, understands things. And that’s really also the director at that point should be stepping in to sort of defend his cut, because ultimately that’s what we’re talking about is transitions and cuts.
John: In general I found one of the most helpful processes to this part of getting the movie ready to with you have the script, you have the actors, is to get everyone in a room and read the script aloud at least once.
Craig: For sure.
John: Because that way you know that every actor at that table has at least heard the whole movie once. Because otherwise actors will focus on the scenes that they’re in and really won’t have a good sense of what the rest of the movie is. And so not only will that make them understand why those scenes are those scenes, but they’ll also know like who everybody else in the movie actually is in a way that’s very, very helpful
Craig: Right. I do agree with that. I think every movie should have that read through, even if you just do — I think on Identity Thief we just did a read through really with Melissa and Jason. And that was fine.
John: That’s fine.
Craig: We didn’t need to do like all the side parts. As long as those two understood everything and that I was able to hear it and then go, by the way, the other thing is you have to, when you start to hear your actors, they’re now the cast. They will be those characters forever. Forever.
So, you have to listen now and you have to go back and you have to adjust to fit the way they are doing it.
Craig: And don’t be tight about that. Be okay with that. The intentions, the motivations as we discussed, don’t have to change. Your structure, all of the dramatic import is there. It’s just the expression of it, because ultimately — you know, there’s this really funny audio clip on the internet of William Shatner berating some poor director that he’s recording some voiceover for.
And so he’s doing this voiceover. It sounds like it’s for a museum or something about exploring the galaxy or something. And the guy says, “Well, I was kind of hoping you’d do it a little more like this, more like that.” And William Shatner goes, “Well, how would you like me to do it? How do you hear it?” And the guy makes the terrible mistake of doing it.
John: Oh, no, never a good idea.
Craig: And Shatner is, “Oh, is that what you want? Okay.” And then Shatner does an amazing impression of that guy doing it and it’s awful. And while Shatner is a terrible person for doing that, [laughs], he does have a point which is, “Hey, I get that it’s not the way you heard it in your head. I’m not in your head. I’m not you. I’m me. I’m the movie star. Maybe there might be value in the way I’m doing it. So, perhaps you can help adjust the way I’m doing it, but still make it the way I do it, because I’m me.” And I think there’s wisdom in that.
John: There is. One of the things that has been most interesting about Big Fish is that unlike movies or a TV show where obviously you’re going to film it once and that actor is that character, it’s all the same, ideally in a Broadway show the Broadway show should be the same Broadway show no matter who is actually playing those parts. And that’s been a fascinating thing is that we’ve had moments where an understudy has to go in, or someone else has to go in, or we just have to fill in for whatever reason. So, it’s that balance between tailoring it for one specific person’s voice and making it something that can be played by a range of people.
Craig: Well, it’s funny, my son and I have been listening to Fiddler on the Roof lately a lot. And so, you know, I started with the original Broadway recording, which for me is the superior recording with Zero Mostel. And then we started listening to the Topol version, which was the London cast, which I hate. But I know a lot of people like Topol. I do not.
And it is remarkable how you can see that the part was very difficult for somebody who wasn’t a — for lack of a better word — a New York Yiddish theater troupe kind of actor to do. The jokes are very kind of old school Yiddish jokes. And Topol is Israeli and just doesn’t get them. He doesn’t get the jokes, you know? It is interesting to see how that translates so oddly.
I mean, the other thing is I was watching — I finally got around to watching the movie version of Les Miserables. And there are just so many choices where I went, whoa, that was weird.
Craig: I mean, forget the directorial choices, just the actors the way they performed it, the way they chose to inflect things and approach things. It was just like, “That was weird.” But, you know, when you sort of think about it, do you think, well, the idea here is this is my A cast, and eventually they will go away one day, if the show is a hit, and it goes on and on. Eventually they will go away and a second refreshed cast will come in like they have for instance for Mormon.
And the idea is that that second cast coming in should be essentially copying the first cast?
John: That is a very interesting question and sometimes you would love to have copying, where essentially one person sets the template and the next cast, person cast in that role, does the same thing and sort of hits the same beats and inflects things the same way and it’s just like you’ve slotted in the clone for somebody.
But other times that’s not the right choice and a different energy is a fascinating great energy.
John: So, two recent things I can say about this is I saw Wicked when it first opened ten years ago, it was still in previews ten years ago. And then we took our daughter to see it last week and I loved it both times. The first time I saw it with Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, and this last time it was with new actors, and the Elphaba was a very different characterization than I remember from when I first saw it, when I first saw Idina Menzel do it. But I really dug what she did. She made some really strange sort of nerdy choices that were kind of great for it.
And the woman playing Glinda, she was terrific also, but I could not see that without seeing Kristin Chenoweth. I felt like Kristin Chenoweth and that Glinda role were fused in a way that is very hard to separate. And I’m sure you could do a Glinda that didn’t do any of Kristin Chenoweth’s stuff, but it feels like it would be really hard to.
Craig: Well, I wonder if maybe for musicals it’s a question of time as well. You know, like Mormon, this is the second cast. They’re still in their kind of — it feels like the first run of it, still. So, it’s kind of like, here, we’re letting those guys off the hook but we still have a few people that are in it like Nikki, oh geez, I’m blanking on her last name. I apologize. But she’s still there from the original cast, so it’s still kind of like the original show. So it just copied those guys.
But if it comes back, or if it keeps going, if it’s eight years down the road let’s just change it up because it’s going to get stale. And, of course, if you revive something, change it up just to be interesting.
Craig: Well, anyway, that will be a good problem for you to worry about.
John: These would be luxury problems that we have to think about how we’re going to — what we’re going to do as we recast.
Craig: Luxury problems.
John: And, honestly, it is a thing that comes up because right now we have Norbert Leo Butz playing the lead, and he’s phenomenal. And he’s a terrific actor, and a terrific dancer, and a terrific singer, and to find somebody who could do all those things as well as he does is going to be terrifically challenging. But that’s, again, luxury problems.
Craig: Doogie Howser. That’s my vote.
John: So, let’s segue to our third topic here which is sort of on the set writing and sort of what that kit is because that’s all I’ve been doing the last two months is making those changes day by day and creating those pages for what’s actually happening. So, I’m curious when you’re doing the Hangover movies, what is your setup — ?
Craig: I got it so I got a real system there, because the Hangover movies take us to some strange places obviously, whether it’s hot and muggy and traffic-y Bangkok, or I’m in the middle of the desert somewhere. And the truth is the writing never stops, so there’s a couple of things that I think about. One is, what’s my equipment that I need, and two, what’s my process, so that I can be as efficient as all the people around me.
So, first, let’s just talk about stuff, because — this is probably less important for theater because you’re inside and it’s theoretically air-conditioning, but for movies you could be on rocks, you could be on water, you could be anywhere.
You want to have a very rugged laptop case, something that can take a little bit of a beating. You don’t need one of those Alienware moon laptops. A regular laptop is fine. But you do need some stuff. You probably want an internet connection. It would behoove you to have one. A lot of movie productions now have WiFi bases that they broadcast from the generator truck and elsewhere so you can hook into that. The signal is iffy a lot.
Craig: So, the other option is to get one of those little Verizon USB thingies that pick up a cell signal. And hopefully you can have one or the other. You definitely want a couple of USB thumb drives. Those become super important when you can’t necessarily email stuff back and forth. You want a good portable printer. There are a bunch out there that are lightweight. You want to be able to print either wirelessly or back it up to print via a USB cable. And you’ll need some paper, of course. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy there, just some paper.
The printer should be small and it doesn’t need to be super fast because you’re never going to be printing out lots of pages. The most pages that will be printing out at a time? Probably three, because that’s about how many pages you’re shooting on a day, unless you’re shooting in India and then it’s seven, so it’s not that big of a deal. Right? It’s portable better than huge.
When you — if you are going to be an onset writer, then what you want to do is find your First AD pretty early on before the movie starts and say, look, we’re going to be doing some writing day by day. I don’t need much. All I need is this. I need a cart that I can put my laptop on. Obviously I need a chair from props. They make those little foldy chairs. I need in the morning just as a matter of routine I need the electricians to hook up power to the cart and I need a power strip duct-taped to the cart. So, it’s just a cart, a seat, and a functioning power strip. That’s all I need. I’ll take care of the rest. [laughs]
And they can do that. They can do that anywhere you go. Once you have your cart, your power strip, you can do whatever you need to do.
John: So, do you leave your portable printer on the cart?
Craig: I do. You can leave stuff on the cart and they’ll just pack it up on the truck and then bring it back the next day and they will appreciate the fact that it’s not this massive laser printer, but an eight pound piece of plastic that fits on the bottom of the cart.
All of your charging cables and all the rest of that you put back in your laptop bag. Your laptop you take with you. All that stuff you take with you. I usually leave — on the cart I leave the printer and the paper, the ream of paper. That’s it. Everything else goes.
The cart is usually the domain of the video playback guy, so be very nice to him and be good friends with him. Usually the cart is part and parcel with the producer area or a secondary thing. If you’re not going to be part and parcel with the producer area then you just need a secondary cart. That’s it. And you get one.
John: That’s awesome. Craig, I’ve actually learned a lot from that because I’ve never had to do that kind of stuff. And so the times that I’ve been writing on set I’ve generally been back in the trailer, because I’ve not been on the kind of things where I’m going to be generating a new page literally five feet away from where that thing is filming.
I’ve always been able to go back to my trailer to do stuff.
Craig: Yeah, I find that when you go away, just be going away you open the door to other people solving problems, and some of them aren’t people you want solving problems.
John: I hear you.
Craig: The fact that you’re there, present, typing — everybody lets you do it. [laughs] Then you print it out. Now, the other thing that I find very useful for film production is, and I would do this on the Hangover movies, before each day, when I would get in in the morning, you know, somebody hands you sides which is just your little miniature page printed up version of that day’s work. So, let’s say you’re doing scene 120 today and it’s three pages, so here’s three little mini pages.
And I watch as the director and the actors talk about blocking and all the rest and if there are any questions for me, I’m there if that should happen. Once that’s over, there’s usually at least an hour where they’re in hair and makeup and the crew is lighting the set, or the location. That’s when I go back to my cart, open up my laptop, and then I go into my document and I pull out the day’s work. And I make a new document that’s just Day This for that day, and that thing.
Because, I don’t have these little sides-y things in my computer. And I don’t necessarily want to be making constant changes in the master script, because a lot of this stuff you’re not issuing as official, “official pages.” So, I’ll do it just as a side document. And then at the end of the day I take the side document that was finalized and I paste it back into the master. And eventually I get to a point where I’m like, okay, if you want we can issue a whole bunch of changed pages or not. It depends on how that production works.
John: So, on scenarios like this when you are making some changes to this little document, is it mostly in consultation with the director before the actors come back to set, or is it once they’ve come back and they’ve started kind of playing around in the scene and you figure out who’s actually going to say what, when, and how you’re going to move stuff around?
Craig: Kind of a crapshoot depending on the day’s work. So, on some days they would come back in and it wouldn’t feel right and we’d take a break and Todd and I would sit and work on something. Some days Todd and I would work on things while they were in that hair and makeup session and get it dialed in. Sometimes we would just come up with some alt lines when we were doing coverage and so we would work on those.
So, you just stay flexible within the day’s work. And you’re always there to do what you need to do. And just be flexible. So, the last thing you want is to have anything getting in the way of you being able to deliver work to wherever you are, whether it’s on a boat, or on the top of a building. I’ve been on both of those, or, you know, in a field, or in a desert. I’ve been in those. You want your rig so you can do your work.
John: Now, I want to make sure that listeners understand that what Craig is describing isn’t actually typical for a lot of screenwriters in that I’ve never had to do that and I’ve had a lot of movies made. And I’ve been the writer on set on those movies to the degree that there was a set to be a writer on. But at most I would sort of like answer a question or talk about the next day’s shooting work. But was very rarely involved in any rewrites on what was actually happening that day.
Craig: You’re hearing of it more and more. I’ve been doing it like this for a long time. I don’t know why, it’s just for whatever reason this is how my life and my career has gone. But, for instance, I know that Chris McQuarrie did it on World War Z. And, I’m trying to think of somebody else who I know was in the trenches on a movie. I know Chris Morgan does it on the Fast & Furious movies.
Craig: So, people are doing it more and more. And I wasn’t able to do it on Identity Thief. I would have liked to have been able to do it. But for that what happened is I would usually get calls about, okay, tomorrow’s work, or next week’s work. And so then I would send those so there would be kind of a — all right, well, when you wake up in the morning the elves will have made you pages. That kind of thing.
John: That’s usually the case of what I’m facing is that as something comes up in the schedule that’s about to shoot and there are issues about it, then I’ll have those conversations and do whatever needs to get done. But, for a movie like Go I was there for every frame shot, but it was literally like, “You’re going to shoot what I wrote.” And that sometimes works out very nicely, too.
Craig: For sure. I mean, the thing about the Hangover movies is they weren’t my movies. I was a Johnny Come Lately in the trilogy anyway. And I wrote them with Todd. So, really, it was about being a co-writer and a partner to him. And since he’s the director, he can rewrite anything he wants. [laughs] And he’s a writer. So, then it was just about sometimes the two of us.
And, you know, sometimes it was really hard and sometimes it was great. Sometimes it was fun. I remember one scene, I just remember the two of us sitting on like a piece of scenery on a soundstage with a laptop and it was one of those moment where you’re like, look at us, we’re like movie guys. And there was another day where we were struggling with something and we got in the golf cart and drove around Warner Bros. until we figured it out. And that was another, look at us, this is like right out of a movie about how they make movies.
Most of the time it was just me at my cart, with a cup of bad craft service coffee, banging away.
John: Yup. To give a quick version of what the theater equivalent of that is, so we go through two stages. Obviously we are writing, just me and Andrew Lippa, doing all our stuff and performing for the producers for a long time, but once we’re sort of — our equivalent of being onset is in the rehearsal hall which is where we sort of go through and we stage the whole thing just with temporary props and rehearsal clothes and not the real anything, and in that, you’re trying to get what you wrote to actually make sense on the stage, but there’s constant adjustments based on what’s actually going to be possible or when you can get somebody on or off.
For that, I have my little MacBook Air. There’s a printer down at the edge where I can print to and I will generate new pages. Usually we’ll put out pages at the end of the day, and so we’ll reflect what we have done that changed today, and what we want to change — the stuff that’s going to effect tomorrow — and so I will print out those pages. Director Susan Stroman and I will go through and we’ll agree that these are the real pages and that changes the master script. And that’s a big difference from everything that we do really in film and in television where because that’s now the template for how we’re going to make the show from here on out…
John: …everything has to be reflected in the script or else it just doesn’t actually happen. And it’s not just like the actors need to know their lines. That script is also what all the cues are called off of. And so if one line has changed, that could affect the music department, the lighting department, projections, everybody else.
Craig: It’s so different, yeah. Because in movies and in TV when you finish your day it’s like you’ve eaten food. It’s gone. It’s eaten. It’s not coming back. You’re not doing that again. It’s onto the next. And when you make changes in a show like this that’s meant to be performed over and over, it’s never eaten. It’s always there. Like an embalmed body, it’s always there.
I have a question for you. Do you ever feel this inner pull? Sometimes I feel it and I always shut it down because I think it’s bad news. But this little voice that goes, “Don’t you just want to be done?”
John: Absolutely. It’s the inherent unfinishability of theater that is both terrific and really maddening. Is that there’s no post-production because you’re never actually finished. And so we will open the show on October 6, and that will be the end of probably writing for this version that’s on the stage right now.
But then there will be immediate conversations about all of the other versions we have to do. So, god-willing, we wanted to stage this somewhere else, we’d have to be able to figure out how we’re going to do that. And every department will have challenges about how we’re going to do that. Are we going to be able to have this large of a cast? Are we going to be able to have this kind of set? If we don’t have this kind of set, what would make sense?
We have a giant USO number in the show. And will that make sense in Europe? Probably not. So, there may be some real fundamental changes that I’ll be making on the show and I’ll probably be writing some version of it the rest of my life. And that’s maddening to some degree, not just because, oh, I love this project, but having to continue to rewrite this project keeps me from writing the next thing.
Craig: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And even just on a small basis, even on things that are finishable, there’s that feeling sometimes of let’s just do — let’s stop trying to do things to it. And, you know, there is such a thing as over-writing and there is such a thing as getting bored with your own work and hurting it by working on it too much. But more often than not the more willing you are to entertain even the craziest suggestion, the better off you are.
You just have to be willing to not look at that pain as pain.
John: Yes. I mean, the luxury we have is that we have a test screening every night. So, we get to know every night how is it working.
John: And so you can polish and refine it in ways that are very difficult to do in a movie. In a movie you can do your test screenings, and maybe you can do some reshooting, but like you’re not going to vastly change things.
We have vastly changed the first act from Chicago to here and it’s a much better show for it. And we could do that because we could do that, because we had the resources, we had the time, we had the stamina to actually like rip things apart and put them back together in a better way. So, that’s a great luxury.
So, I, too, am a fan of cheap printers. It’s really remarkable how cheap printers have become. The ink jet ones, the printer is essentially disposable because the ink cartridges cost more than the actual printer does.
Craig: I know, it’s sick.
John: But Nima Yousefi who now works for me found on Amazon this really amazing Brother HL printer that’s $70. It’s like a laser printer that’s actually surprisingly fast. So, I have that in my apartment here in New York and that’s the printer I use here as I’m generating stuff, so like we’re putting out new pages tomorrow so that’s been my test printer for that.
Craig: I can’t recommend the printer I was using on The Hangover because I hated it. I hated it. It was a Canon. It was crap.
Craig: I was angry at it all the time.
John: But there’s something lovely about putting something on paper once just to make sure it’s looking right. But most of what you’re going to end up doing is going to be emails and Dropbox. And that’s why an internet connection is so important.
Craig: Yeah, it’s a big help. I mean, if you, for instance, need to quickly — sometimes they’re waiting — sometimes what happens is you watch the scene, everybody works on the scene together, me, the director, the actors, we all come up with a version. And what I’m doing while we’re doing it is I’m writing it on the sides in pen. And then we get it, and we’re happy, and we’re good.
Now, okay, they’re all going to do five minute touch-ups, and then we’ve got to shoot. I’ve got to go type that so that they have it, so they can read it, because no one can read my scrawl and it’s only on one little thing.
So, now I type it up really quickly, I get it right. Now, how do I make, okay, it’s a scene with six people. It’s three pages. I’ve got to print out 18 pages. How quickly can I get that done, you know? So, sometimes it’s easier to just email it to the production trailer and have them run it over.
John: Yeah. The thing I found very useful about theater is that index cards are heavily used. And so on an index card if I change a line I will write it in pen on an index card and hand it to the actor directly if it’s something where we’re literally changing the line in front of the actor, or I’ll hand it to Stroman, the director, for like this is what the new line is so that before there’s a new page there’s at least a card that reflects what that new line is.
John: Index cards are sort of one of the main forms of documentation in this part of the business.
John: So, Craig, I think it’s time for our One Cool Things.
John: And my One Cool Thing is, again, I feel like I’ve cheated on you a little bit because I did another broadcast. But I just did KCRW’s The Business, which is a great podcast. I know you don’t listen to other podcasts, but it’s a radio show and a podcast hosted by Kim Masters.
Craig: I’ve done that before.
John: Ah, in that case you’ve been in that little crazy basement at Santa Monica College?
Craig: No, I did it by phone. I phoned it in. Literally phoned it in.
John: You literally phoned it in. Dan Jinks and I went and did an interview with her about the business of making Big Fish and sort of like the whole process and how that all works. And I was reminded that I never actually I think hyped that podcast or that show on the air. And it really is a terrific look at sort of mostly how Hollywood functions. And she takes one or two topics each week and really sort of drills in with interviews.
She does this sort of news recap with John Horn of the LA Times. And then Darby Maloney who is the producer and editor of it just does a terrific job distilling stuff down.
You and I when we talk, it’s just this sort of raw, unfiltered, people blathering, but this is a much more carefully crafted thing. I would highly recommend it.
Craig: But our raw, unfiltered blathering is remarkably well organized. Do you ever read the transcripts of our podcasts?
John: Sometimes it really does seem like we were, you know, we planned it.
Craig: That we were reading off of sheets of paper. We’re really good at this, John. We’re really good at this.
John: Oh, we’re incredibly good.
Craig: So good.
John: Although, one listener did email in this last week pointing out that my elocution, my diction has taken a nosedive.
John: And it’s honestly true. And I hear it myself even as I’m doing this now. I am so tired, Craig. I am zombie tired. And today was supposed to be — we’re recording this on a Sunday — was supposed to be my day off, but then we had six hours of meetings.
John: So, it has not been a day off.
Craig: Well, I think it’s terrific that you are using the euphemism six hours of meetings to describe your obvious alcoholism.
John: [laughs] That’s really what it is. It’s all a desperate cry for help.
Craig: I had a six hour meeting with this bottle of rye. Uh, you’re a drunk. There’s no other possible explanation for “inneresting.”
John: Yeah, I’m drunk at —
Craig: All moment. Constantly drunk.
John: Either drunk or I’m from Colorado. Those are the two choices.
Craig: Is there a difference?
John: It’s attitude.
Craig: It’s altitude sickness. Well, I have a Cool Thing this week that was, as are so many of my Cool Things, recommend by a Twitter follower. But this one really has the potential to be awesome. It’s almost there. It’s not quite there yet, but they’re working on it. It’s called writerduet.com. It is free. And the idea of writerduet.com is to provide functionality that already exists in Final Draft and Movie Magic.
Well, what would be so cool about that, you ask. Well, the functionality in Final Draft and Movie Magic, that is to say the ability to write and collaborate with another writer via an online connection is offered but it doesn’t work in either software. It has never worked. It is insane. The way they’ve set it up and what they require is ridiculous. It will never work.
So, what one of those companies should have done but failed to do years ago was to setup a server and make it web-based and allow people to upload a script, an existing script, to that, or to begin to write an existing script in that service. And to do it collaboratively a la Google Docs.
And that’s what writerduet.com has done. They do accept PDF and FDX imports. I’m not sure how they’re converting the PDF to text. Perhaps they’re using some form of your Highland. I don’t know.
Craig: Ripping you off. I’m sure you’re immediately hitting —
John: No, it’s absolutely fair. I think, I kind of believe they may actually be using Fountain as their underlying, because I have heard of the service. I will Google them after.
Craig: And it works. So, I tested it with my assistant and the two of us worked and it worked. And it was good. It’s a little slow, a little kludgy here and there. There’s some things that they’ve got to work out. And when I uploaded a full Final Draft script, a full 115 page script, my browser got really slow, to the point of just not being usable.
So, I mentioned that to the developer and he said, “Okay, got it. I’m going to work on that.” And I find that these guys do work on these things and they do make them better.
So, I think if you’re interested in something like this and you at least want to poke around at it, it’s the future, I think. I think this is where things are going to go. Writerduet.com.
John: Fantastic. I will point out that several writers I know do use Google Docs for exactly this purpose. And they just use Fountain. They use the plain text markup language in Fountain to do it. And that works great for them, too. So, it’s nice that there are multiple places trying to do the same things and try to do them a bit more smartly than the big behemoth apps.
Craig: Yeah. Agreed.
John: Cool. Craig, thank you for getting me through another podcast.
Craig: You did it. You did it, buddy. Hang in there. I’ll be there soon. And, [sirens in background], oh, and look, the sirens are here. That means it’s time to sign off and say goodnight.
John: All right, Craig, thank you.
Craig: Thank you, John. Bye.
- Shofars on Wikipedia
- Submit your Three Pages now and let us know you’ll be at the 2013 Austin Film Festival
- The William Shatner recording session
- Brother HL2230 Laser Printer on Amazon
- John and Dan Jinks on KCRW’s The Business
- Writerduet.com lets you collaborate in real-time
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Kurt Kuenne