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 114, the Blockbuster episode of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
John: Craig, the most important question of all is how far are you into Grand Theft Auto V?
Craig: I finished the solo story and then I started doing a bunch of little sidey things that we’re left over, like for instance there’s this thing where you can go and find all of these little scattered pieces of a letter that lead you to solve a murder mystery.
Craig: And I ended up somewhere around 80%, so the other 20% are things that I, I mean, some of them I can do. Some of them just never, ever, ever are going to happen. And then I was like, eh, I think I’m going to start over. And so I’ve started over playing the solo thing again.
John: Nice. Great.
Craig: How about you? Where are you?
John: I’ve just barely started. So, I’m still with Franklin. I have a dog now that I can take —
Craig: Chop. You’ve got Chop.
John: So I can take the dog for some walks. But I don’t feel like I’ve really started any serious missions because the truth is it’s hard to say whether I’m worse at shooting or worse at driving. But those are two crucial skills that I have yet to really master in this game.
Craig: You’ll get there. You’ll get there. I believe in you.
John: Yeah. I’ve never actually finished Grand Theft Auto 4. And I liked it a lot, but I actually just got done with it. And I don’t know that I’ll ever finish this game, but I really am impressed by the version of Los Angeles that it creates.
Craig: Well, when we get to One Cool Thing, my One Cool Thing today is Grand Theft Auto V related. And when you watch that you will be even more impressed.
John: Well, Grand Theft Auto V is a blockbuster by any definition of the term blockbuster. It made $800 million since opening salvo. Today we’re going to be talking about blockbusters in general and the topics specifically are this new book that came out that talks about Hollywood’s obsession with blockbusters and how it may actually be a reasonable choice for Hollywood.
John: We’re going to talk about big name actors who don’t like to be directed.
Craig: [laughs] I can’t wait!
John: And finally we’re going to answer a reader question about following up after a general meeting which is, I thought, very timely and important for people to talk about.
John: Lovely. First off some housekeeping. This is our last Skype episode for awhile because next week you and I are both in Austin for the Austin Film Festival.
John: Now, you and I are on various panels there, most of which will not be recorded and will not be part of Scriptnotes. So, people have asked, “Hey, that Alien panel you’re going to be on, John, are you going to put that on a podcast?” Nope, that’s an Austin Film Festival thing.
John: So, I think it will be a great session, but you’ll actually have to be there to see the session.
Craig: Yeah. I’m getting the same thing. I’m doing a seminar on structure and character and theme and a lot of people have been asking is it going to be recorded, is there going to be a transcript. Even if we could — I think they actually record everything at Austin, but the whole point is you got to actually support the festival by showing up.
Craig: You know, this is for people who paid for their badge. So, no, you get nothing.
John: Yeah, that badge. You get nothing.
John: But what you will get is a live episode of Scriptnotes.
John: That will be Saturday — we’re recording it live Saturday at 12:45pm at the Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin Ballroom.
Now, Craig, when we first talked to Austin about going back and doing another live Scriptnotes, because that was our first live Scriptnotes last year with Aline Brosh McKenna, it was a very fun time. We said, “Hey, you know what? Last time you stuck us at a really early timeslot. It was hard for people to like wake up and be there.” So, we said, let’s get a really great timeslot.
So, we’re now at 12:45 in the afternoon. But have you actually looked at the schedule, Craig, to see what we’re up against?
Craig: No, god. What are we — who is our competition?
John: So, our competition is Rob Thomas talking about making the Veronica Mars movie.
Craig: All right. Okay.
John: And our friend Franklin Leonard talking to Jenji Kohan about Orange is the New Black.
Craig: Well, look, those are steep, but it’s not like they put us up against Vince Gilligan.
John: Yes, Vince Gilligan is early in the day. So, you can come for Vince Gilligan and then come to see us. I just feel like, you know, when we had these initial conversations we talked in a very general sense like how about we do an early evening so people could maybe drink a little, that kind of thing. That didn’t end up happening. So, I feel like we may need to step up our game a little bit for the live show is really what I’m saying.
So, I would urge people to come to our show because while we will be recording it, I’m going to plan some things that you kind of have to be there in person to experience. I’m not quite entirely sure what those are going to be yet. We’ll discuss them probably on the flight to Austin.
John: But there will be some special live things there.
Craig: Are we on the same flight?
John: I don’t know. I think I’m flying in on Thursday.
Craig: So am I. Are you flying Thursday on American?
John: No, I’m flying on Southwest.
Craig: Well, we’re not on the same plane. So, we’ve got real problems.
John: You got an upgrade on that whole flight thing. So, that is one of the things we will be doing in Austin. The second thing we’ll be doing is the Three Page Challenge. And like the Writers Guild Foundation Three Page Challenge we did, the people who wrote those three pages will be in the room with us. And so we will be talking with them about their three pages, which is usually great and fun. So, we’ll record that.
People write in saying, “Hey, do my pages.” We’ve actually already picked all the people who we’re going to do in that session. They already know they’re the people that are picked, so you don’t need to send in special things for Austin. It’s awesome you’re going to be in Austin and have three pages, but we will not be covering them there in Austin unless you’ve already heard from us.
Craig: Exactly. And I do want to add that there is a consistent thing happening now that makes me super happy. And that is that we do the Three Page Challenges and the people who are featured on it tweet us and are really appreciative, even if we were critical of the pages and kind of got into a deep analysis of some things that maybe we’ve both thought weren’t right. Everybody has been really appreciative and really — it’s a good sign that they’re taking this stuff the right way because the truth is that you and I in our daily lives as writers are getting this kind of feedback constantly. So, it’s a good sign. Very good sign.
John: I would agree. And we should stress that the whole Three Page Challenge, the initial step of that is Stuart reading everything, so Stuart really does read everything. And he makes decisions about what things to send on to us based on what he thinks are really good things that he’s read and liked that would be useful for our listeners.
So, if you send something through and Stuart hasn’t picked it, it’s either because Stuart has a bunch of stuff that’s kind of like it, that makes him think that maybe it’s not the right thing for us to talk about right now.
So never feel bad if we don’t talk about your thing. If we do talk about your thing, know we’re talking about it because it was one of the most interesting things that crossed our virtual transom.
Craig: Correct. And as always, blame Stuart.
John: Yes. Blame Stuart.
John: Craig, a couple episodes ago we talked about what’s next, because basically I had finished up Big Fish, I was trying to figure out what the next thing is I was going to write. And so that’s somewhat coalesced over this past week. And this afternoon I was at lunch with the producer of — I can’t remember if it is the first thing or the second thing I described, but the thing that was based on some preexisting IP that was going to be really complicated and you’d talked me out of it to some degree, like this sounds like it’s going to be a mess.
And so we had a really good lunch and we talked through sort of how it could be kind of a mess and I think it’s a good segue into our conversation of blockbusters because this is going to be an expensive movie to make. And so easily half of our conversation was not about the story itself, but about the process of how we would get from this idea to a finished movie and how we would get this idea to this studio that owns the IP through the studio and how you conceive it as a big movie.
John: And that’s one of the things we don’t — I don’t think we’ve necessarily talked enough about on the show is what does it mean to be a big movie and at what point do you start talking about story and what point do you start talking about the movie. And so this conversation was largely about the movie.
Craig: Yeah, and it’s changed, hasn’t it, because when we started it seemed like basically development was really — they were okay with shots in the dark. “All right, well, we like that idea, we like that thought. Go ahead. Write the script. Here’s some money and let’s read the script and then we’ll see.”
Craig: And now I think everybody feels that they kind of have to build the ship while they’re on the ship.
John: Yes. Or even before you’re kind of deciding to board the ship, because a lot of my decision process right now is is this actually a movie that the studio will make.
John: An so are we going to invest a tremendous amount of time coming up with the perfect pitch for this movie if it’s ultimately not a movie that this studio can make.
Craig: Correct. So true. Great.
John: And so part of this is prefaced on a conversation I had with another producer about another project and said, “Oh, it’s great news. The studio actually already owns the rights to this book. They bought it five years ago. And I don’t think they even know that they have the rights to this book. It’s going to be perfect.” And so I read it and I’m like, “I don’t think they’re going to make this movie.”
John: “But they already own the book!” It’s like I don’t think it was this regime that bought the book. I’m happy to talk about doing this movie, but I first want you to go to President of Production/Studio Head, whoever you want to talk to and ask candidly are they ever going to make this project.
And so they did — came back a week later and said, “Nope, we’re not.”
John: And that was a lot of time saved.
Craig: It was. And typically if they have a book that they haven’t done anything with and someone says, “They don’t even know they have the rights,” there’s a reason for that. It’s because they don’t care. [laughs]
Craig: Yeah. If they wanted to make a movie out of it, they would have made a movie out of it.
John: Yeah. So, studios largely want to make blockbusters. And that’s a thing that we’ve talked about on the podcast before. And you had sent me this article by Derek Thompson from The Atlantic. And it was an interview with him and Anita Elberse, who is the author of this new book called Blockbusters. She’s a professor at the Harvard Business School.
And it was an interesting article and I haven’t read the full book, so again we’re doing that thing where we’re basing a discussion on an article about a book rather than the book itself. But some of the points I thought were interesting.
And so the basic theory of blockbusters and sort of spending money on blockbusters is that — it’s a question of is it better to spend more money on fewer titles. And is dollar spent a blockbuster worth more or worth less than a dollar spent on a non- blockbuster.
Craig: And what the author, Anita Elberse, has found — and in an academic way, so she’s not a stakeholder in the business. She’s not somebody that’s trying to promote a certain kind of movie or promote writers, or actors, or directors, or anything like that. She’s not a movie critic. She’s I guess an economist or, yeah, something like that, or just a business — yeah, she is actually an economist.
Craig: What she seems to have found is in general from a business strategy what she says is, “A blockbuster strategy means making fewer investments that are larger investments, but that strategy turns out to be economically safer than making more smaller bets.”
John: Yes. Now, some of that seems nonsensical at first, because we look at big giant movies that tanked that cost a tremendous amount of money and cost a tremendous amount of money to advertise and we say, “Okay, well that’s an example of why it was foolish to spend that much money on that particular movie.”
What she’s arguing is that there’s essentially silent evidence that we’re ignoring all the smaller movies that didn’t make back their money, and their marketing money, and if you added up all those they would actually cost more than the big movies that are tanking.
Craig: Yeah. So, there is a cost, there is a risk involved in everything. And so you have to account for the risk involved in making any movie, including the smaller movies, but she also found that there are these side benefits to the success of large movies that go beyond just the success of that large movie. For instance, the notion is that if you make the large movies, for your next movies you will attract better people. You’ll attract bigger actors, bigger authors, bigger IP, bigger writers and directors.
If you stop doing that, if you sort of go for a Men’s Warehouse model where you’re trying to go lower priced/higher volume, people that make quality entertainment start to stop thinking about you.
John: And I see there’s some logic there, but I also see some faults in that logic. So, let’s talk through this point. The idea that creators are attracted to places that are making big things is to some degree true. If you’re a person who wants to make giant movies and you have two places you can go with this giant movie, you’re going to feel more comfortable with a place that actually has experience making and marketing big movies. Likely. That seems reasonable.
But quality and bigness are not necessarily the same thing. And so you look at the HBO model or even A&E to some degree, like the places that are making really quality television shows, they’re not spending more money than other places. They’re just making better stuff. And so to some degree this halo effect that she’s describing, that people want to come there because of the reputation of the brand, it may have more to do with the kinds of movies you’re making, the kinds of movies you’re releasing.
So, there’s a reason why you may want to have this Fox Searchlight be releasing your film rather than MGM because Fox Searchlight has a brand to it.
Craig: Absolutely true. And, in fact, when I read this article, it seemed to me that this book and her research seems less valuable in service of an argument that you should make more blockbusters and maybe not make as many medium priced films. It’s more valuable in starting to at least defend and understand why this blockbuster mania happens at all.
Craig: Because the truth is the movie studios will continue to make medium-priced movies and smaller-priced movies. They’ll do it, I mean, every comedy essentially is that.
Craig: They won’t stop. But it was — sometimes when I talk to people I feel like it becomes this lazy intellectual crutch that studios are stupid and that they’re run by kind of Adderall/cracked-out dips who are 40-something 12 year olds. And they don’t care about a damn thing and they just want explosions and noise. And that’s not quite right. There is real success here in a lot of these things. We tend to look at… — It’s funny, this is sort of selection bias. When a movie like The Avengers comes out and a lot of people like it and it’s a huge blockbuster, we’ll say, “Great job, Joss Whedon.”
When a movie like The Lone Ranger comes out and a lot of people don’t like it and it costs a huge amount of money and is a big flop, people will say, “Oh, Hollywood, you’re stupid.”
Well, Hollywood is also The Avengers. [laughs] You know?
John: It is.
Craig: I mean, it gets credit and it gets punished for all things. So, a lot of these blockbusters — I mean, she points out something that’s so obvious it’s odd that it needs to be pointed out, and yet it does. Blockbusters are blockbusters because they bust blocks. People are showing up. What are we supposed to do? And then you start to run into this weird question of, well, so who should we be angry at? And the interviewer asked the question directly. So, consumers are to blame?
And her response is characteristically blunt. “As consumers we are at fault. These are the choices that we’re making.” [laughs] I thought that was a fair point.
John: Yeah. Of course the corollary argument with that is if you essentially have no choice because you’ve stopped making the other kinds of movies, there may be an audience who wants to see that other film and didn’t have a chance to see that other film because it didn’t exist. So, that becomes the supply and demand question is a reasonable question to ask, but audiences are ultimately responsible for I think the kinds of movies we make.
Craig: We are.
John: I think she didn’t understand some aspects of the film industry that were a little bit frustrating to me. Her point about trailers is like, “Well, if you have a big movie then you get to put five trailers on that and that’s how it works.” Well, that’s not how trailers work at all.
And in a general way, if Warner Bros. has The Hangover III coming out, Warner Bros. can attach one trailer to that. They know they can lock on one trailer to that.
John: Everything else is horse trading. And it’s trying to get your film’s trailer attached to this next thing that’s going.
Craig: That’s correct.
John: And you’re negotiating both with the other studios. You’re negotiating with exhibitors. It’s an incredibly complicated thing. So, just having a big hit film doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be able to market your next film more easily because of that.
Craig: I agree. That’s something that’s far more functional in television where you’re using big event television to platform promotions for new shows. However, what she didn’t mention that she ought to have, and maybe she does in her book, one great benefit of blockbusters is that they increase our exhibition power. As a studio, if you know you’ve got, all right, so Warner Bros. announced that they have more Harry Potter universe films coming out. Very big deal for them.
Well, when they have a smaller movie that they are pushing, it’s very easy for them to lean on exhibitors and say, “Run this movie or you’re not getting Harry Potter.”
Craig: And that’s a big deal. That’s a huge deal.
John: I think we’ve talked about on the podcast before is international results and a larger portion of studio’s take. And having more movies coming down the pipeline is very helpful in terms of getting money to come out of those countries. And so you’re able to sort of go to Kraplachia and say like, “Hey, you still owe us for this movie that came out six months ago. You’re not getting this next movie until you pay us that money.” And that is a useful thing, too.
And so any movie is helpful for that coming down the pipe, but a giant blockbuster, like the next Avengers, they really want that. And that will become an important tool for getting that money back out of exhibitors, especially overseas.
Craig: Yeah. My take away from this is not to say big, stupid, awful blockbusters are worth defending. They’re not. No big, stupid, awful movie is worth defending, or are small, awful, stupid movies worth defending. I’ve been involved in a couple myself. [laughs]
It’s more that it’s not just willy-nilly stupidity. It is actually a strategy that is economically working, even — we discussed this already — even in a summer where the media narrative seemed to be, “Hollywood is falling apart,” Hollywood made a ton. In fact, I believe this summer is bigger than last summer.
John: It is in fact bigger than last summer. Because we’re conveniently forgetting things like Iron Man 3, which made a gazillion dollars.
John: And the movies that weren’t tiny but were not giant that also did really, really well. You have The Heat. You have We’re the Millers, the things that did great.
John: And you can say, like those two are original films, but Hangover III, it still brought in a ton of money.
Craig: 300-and-some-odd million bucks. I mean, there were plenty of movies that worked really well. I mean, Gravity right now is obviously killing it. And that will continue to happen. It’s more that the chattering class hates sequel-itis, and I understand why.
And they resent the audience for ignoring movies that they love. And I understand. It’s dispiriting to see some movie that’s a beautiful piece of work come out and be totally ignored while a big, huge, crap fest rakes money in, except it’s not a crap fest to a lot of the people going to it. It’s like, so you just have to let that go.
Look, we’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it: I want movie studios to make more medium-sized and smaller movies. I want it. I want them to make more movies in general. And we’ve often said you can’t get to sequels if you haven’t had the first one.
But, it would be just as much of a mistake to pretend that blockbusters were some kind of weird blink or failure strategy. It’s not.
John: It’s not. So, the topic of conversation I suspect happening at every movie studio this week, the past couple weeks, has to be Gravity. And it’s a movie that Craig has not seen yet, which is —
Craig: My kids won’t…my kids…it’s my kids.
John: Kids! I know, oh, those kids! So, two threads I want to talk about here. Generally as a screenwriter it is important to see the movies that everyone else is talking about so you can have a point of conversation about those.
Craig: Oh, yes.
John: And so obviously, Craig, it’s on your short list of things you need to see really quickly.
Craig: Next movie I see.
John: The reason why I think, you know, obviously the year is not finished yet, but I think Gravity will become the most important movie for Hollywood this year for a couple of reasons. It was expensive, but it wasn’t crazy expensive. It wasn’t a sequel. It was a director who everyone knew was incredibly talented and had made some other sort of big hits but hadn’t made the one that was sort of all his. It was risky, even though it had giant stars, it was risky.
But most importantly to me, it’s a movie that’s just entirely a movie. It’s a movie that’s 90 minutes long. It is focused on one person’s survival story. You have a character who doesn’t need to save the world. She needs to save herself. And it’s a thing that exists, that wants to be made for a big screen.
So, I see this movie and I look at some of the other big movies we’re making that are just huge, and sprawling, and 2.5 hours, and involve myriad subplots. I think what was refreshing, I think the conversation a lot of people are going to be having is how to make a movie that’s more like Gravity.
John: There’s terrible lessons you can learn from it, like we should make more movies in space. No. That’s not the lesson.
Craig: They will! [laughs]
John: They will. There will be lot more movies set in space.
Craig: No question.
John: But the lesson, and what got me excited about it, which I think is going to get other people excited about it, too, is that it was a reminder that you don’t need to save the world. And this is a thing that we talked about before in the Damon Lindelof conversation is do you need to — how big do the stakes need to be?
Well the stakes, it turns out, can be about one person if the story is tightly constructed around that one person’s journey. And that, I think, is the biggest game changer of all.
So, whether it’s in space, or whether it’s taking place on the ocean or anywhere else, the small straightforward story can be a winner.
Craig: And it’s putting the lie to these things that we’re constantly hearing that the only movies that are hits are movies with presold audiences, or movies with recognizable IP or titles, and movies that aren’t about adults and adult situations. That’s’ all just not true.
And as many times as it’s happened this year, I would think it has to be sinking in. People have to be looking and going, well, wait a second, what were the profit margins on the Melissa McCarthy movies that came out this year? What was the profit margin on Gravity?
And let’s also remember that in these really big blockbusters, you know, the Titanics, the $200+ million movies, the expense is greater than what it appears because almost inevitably in order to support a structure that large you need the kind of talent that demands first dollar gross, big portions of the profits. That doesn’t necessarily happen when you’re making these smaller movies. The hits are much hittier.
I think that Hollywood certainly, certainly, has had an interesting positive wakeup call. The failure of a couple of blockbusters this summer, there’s no lesson to take from that because we’ve had just as many blockbusters do great. It’s actually a positive lesson this time around, that the success of some of the smaller movies has been really eye opening.
And I hope that that sets a trend.
John: A thing we talked about quite early on in the podcast is if we could run Hollywood what would we do differently. And one of the things we both came back to is like look for filmmakers who genuinely have a voice and a vision and make their movies. And Alfonso Cuarón is a great example of a filmmaker who has that. I think Rian Johnson, who’s going to be our guest in Austin, is a filmmaker who has that. And it was very smart money to spend that on Alfonso Cuarón and on that movie.
You have two giant stars in the movie who help make it safe to make the movie, but if you actually look at the film, if you had actors as good as Clooney and Sandra Bullock in your film, they didn’t need to be stars at all.
John: You could have made it with anybody who was as good as they are.
Craig: Well, yeah, the stars basically get you to show up opening weekend. The movie keeps you in your seat and the movie is what gets you to come back over and over.
John: I honestly think you could have made that with somebody who wasn’t Sandra Bullock and it would have turned out just —
Craig: You think it would have opened just the same?
John: I think it would have because I think you have that vision that —
Craig: That trailer was pretty remarkable.
John: That trailer is great. I mean, it was incredibly smartly marketed.
Craig: And she’s in a mask anyway, right? [laughs]
John: Yeah, she is! She’s phenomenal in it, but I honestly think you could have put Noomi Rapace in it and it would have worked.
Craig: Look, he made Children of Men with — there were known actors like Clive Owen, but not necessarily what you’d call big movie stars. And people showed up for sure. He’s extraordinarily good at what he does.
Craig: He’s special. He really is.
John: I think he’s got a future there.
Craig: [laughs] You know, it would be nice if he made more movies. But you know what that’s like? I don’t want the guy making the Cronuts to speed up production. You know, go ahead, make one every five years. If that’s what makes… — It’s like John Lee Hancock. Go ahead, make one every five years. If that’s what keeps the quality up, I’m happy.
John: I’m happy, too. Now, two other big actors who were recently doing press for a film are Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline.
John: Do you have your copy handy that we can read this together?
Craig: You want to be Morgan or you want me to be — ?
John: I think I need to be Morgan Freeman.
Craig: All right. You be Morgan and I’ll be Kline.
John: So, this is an interview about Last Vegas which is a film that they are out promoting. I think this is from Entertainment Weekly. And they’re talking about directors and the challenge of working with directors. So, I am Morgan Freeman.
Craig: And I am Kevin Kline.
John: [affects an accent] “Too many of them get in the way. You get the title of ‘director’ and you start directing actors rather than directing the movie.”
Craig: I’m sorry, why — this is a minstrel show. [laughs]
John: [laughs] You think I’m trying to talk too Morgan Freeman?
Craig: Yeah. It’s like you’re getting black. Like “too many of them get in the way.”
John: I’m trying to do my serious narration voice.
Craig: You’re trying to do the Tittie Sprinkles Morgan Freeman.
“I don’t like to be directed. The worst culprits are writers who direct their own material. Oh God.”
Craig: “When you arrive on set and the director goes, ‘Here’s my idea for this character,’ I go, ‘I’ll be right back!’ Or — and this was told to me by a really good director — he said, ‘Okay, here’s what I think your character is thinking at this moment.'”
Craig: “You tell me what I’m thinking? I’ll tell you what I’m thinking. You figure out where to put the camera and the light.”
John: “If you want me to go faster or to go slower, you can say that.”
John: Well, thank you Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline for making it super clear how you feel about the relationship between the writer and the director.
John: So I’m reading this and I’m thinking like, I quickly IMDb’d who directed Last Vegas.
Craig: I know! I know! Well, I mean —
John: It’s Jon Turteltaub. And like if you’re the director of this movie you’re going, “Oh my god!” Or if you’re a person who directed any movie with these people.
Craig: Well, let me give you a couple names of people whose jaws must have dropped. Morgan Freeman says, “The worst culprits are writers who direct their own material. Oh God.”
So, here are a couple of movies he’s been in where the writer directed the movie. The Batman movies, Chris Nolan.
John: Oh, that’s true.
Craig: And The Shawshank Redemption.
John: Oh yeah!
Craig: Frank Darabont.
Craig: I guess that was the worst.
John: That was clearly just the worst. It’s remarkable that that turned out okay considering that Frank Darabont…
Craig: It went okay. And then, of course, Kevin Kline makes a great point. “If a director says, ‘Here’s what I think your character is thinking at his moment,'” it is appropriate to just walk away because the director’s job is to figure out where to put the camera and the light. [laughs] What?!
John: Yes. How dare that director…
John: …focus on. Yes. On this.
Craig: It’s unbelievable!
John: It really is just remarkable. So, I have this tiny little sliver of sympathy is that there are some terrible directors who will try to micromanage actors in ways that is maddening.
John: But to generalize it out to this degree is absolute madness. And so I found this just bewildering.
Craig: Look, no question that there are bad directors. And I can understand that it must be very frustrating if you are an actor of exceptional talent with enormous amount of experience, far more than say the director directing you. It must be very frustrating to have them interfere with the process in a way that is counterproductive.
However, when Morgan Freeman says, “You get the title of ‘director’ and you start directing actors rather than directing the movie,” all I can say is that’s their job. They’re responsible —
John: It is their job.
Craig: They’re responsible for your performance. Directing a movie isn’t like directing a documentary. You are creating performances with the actors.
Craig: I mean, why can’t we — just like I’m… — You know, this reminds of those whiny writers, “The director, blah, blah, blah,” yeah, because he changed a thing? Because he had to. It happens sometimes. And it reminds me of those directors who are like, “Stupid writers. Making me shoot what’s on the page!” It’s just — this is clichéd goofy navel-gazing solipsism. I’m shocked by this.
John: Yeah. I’m surprised, too. And a little saddened, honestly.
John: Because I like both of them and I think they’ve both done really good work. They’ve also done stuff that’s not been so awesome, but now I wonder what that process was like to get to the stuff that wasn’t so awesome.
Craig: Well…oh, and by the way, here’s one writer-director that Kevin Kline has worked with a couple times: Lawrence Kasdan.
Craig: What a hack.
John: Lawrence Kasdan. God, that guy. Man. It’s remarkable that he’s…yeah.
Craig: You know, this is the kind of thing. Here’s my attempt to apologize for Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline, who are terrific actors, and I assume that aside from this blip are fine gentlemen. Doing press for movies is awful and my guess is they were tired.
And then they started doing this thing that, look, as writers I’ll have conversations in this tone privately with other writers. You know, when you’re bucking yourself up and bitching and moaning. But to do it publicly like this is just bizarre. And certainly this example of here’s what I… — Even Kevin Kline’s example of this egregious behavior sounds like a very polite thing. “Here’s what I think your character is thinking at this moment.”
Craig: This is what I think. I’m directing the movie. I’m cutting it! When you’re gone, [laughs] I’m cutting it! Right?
Craig: You’re here for the middle part of this process. I was here before you. And I’ll be here after you. So, isn’t it fair that I express what I think your character is thinking? And if you disagree, let’s have a conversation.
Craig: Geez, man. Bummer.
John: Yeah, but your job is to put the camera and the light in place.
Craig: The light. By the way, it’s not even the director’s job to put the light. It’s like how many movies has Kevin Kline been in? So, the DP puts the lights up. [laughs]
Craig: Oh boy.
Craig: Oh boy.
John: Yeah. So that was dispiriting. And what’s frustrating is that it’s in a mainstream publication, so here are well respected actors who are quite talented who are saying that this is the way it should be. And so a general population — or god help us — a young aspiring actor thinks like, “That’s how you should be.”
Craig: Uh-uh. No.
Craig: No, no, no. And you know what?
John: You want to take full responsibility for your performance, but you also need to understand that your performance is part of a greater thing. A greater whole.
Craig: Of course. And I actually would bet money that neither Morgan Freeman nor Kevin Kline actually behave that way on sets. I think this is just kind of locker room boasting. I really do. I don’t believe because why? Why would you not be interested in what the director… — Look, if the director thinks that your character is thinking something else, they’re going to edit it that way. I mean, wouldn’t you want to know? I don’t know. It was pretty wild. It was pretty wild.
John: Yeah. I’m going to assume also that these guys are probably also largely wonderful to have on the set. But the thing is even if you have a nightmare actor, in a film that nightmare actor is only there for while you’re shooting the film.
John: And they can be a pain in the ass, but eventually you’ll be done. Where I have the greatest sympathy of all is for TV showrunners who are faced with a nightmare actor.
John: Because you and I both know people who are in those situations and that is a completely different beast.
Craig: Both, by the way, we know the other way, too, where a wonderful actor is jammed with a showrunner that is absolutely nuts. Bad marriages are bad.
John: It’s a conversation worth having the next time we have a guest on who does both TV and film, because it’s a completely different relationship when you are making one film versus a potentially five-year marriage on a TV show.
John: It’s a very different dynamic and different way of thinking about things. Because you are stuck with these people.
John: And sometimes that’s great and sometimes it’s just really, really not great.
Craig: One thing that stuff like this brings to mind is that when you see a movie and you see things in it that are puzzling to you, it is natural to succumb to the illusion of intentionality, that everything is on screen because it was specifically intended to be that way and not, say, because the actor just had a completely different point of view and kind of just did something crazy. Or not because, say, the director blew it that day or there was a storm, or a set fell down, or they ran out of money, or a hundred things that can go wrong.
And, by the way, the opposite is true. Sometimes there are these wonderful moments in movies that were totally unplanned. They just happened.
John: Yes. And it’s lovely when those happen. Maybe a movie will get one of those and everything else will be fighting against the thing that happened that was not so awesome.
And you and I both, you know, not telling tales out of school, like Blade III was a classic example.
Craig: Oh boy.
John: Wesley Snipes just refused to actually do what was in the script and a lawsuit —
Craig: He wouldn’t even talked to Goyer. He would not talk to him.
John: Yes. So, that is basically a nightmare situation.
John: But there have been other big recent movies where you look at the movies like, whoa, how did that happen? And you talk to the people behind the scenes and they’re like, “He refused to say any words.”
Craig: [laughs] Right.
John: Not just like he wouldn’t say the words on the page. He didn’t want to talk.
John: And, well, that makes it completely challenging to cut together a coherent story when that guy won’t talk.
Craig: Years ago I was on a set and the actor who was essentially the focus point of the scene, and was just there for a day, a cameo essentially, was drunk.
Craig: Not a little drunk. DRUNK.
Craig: And there was nothing you could do. You just sort of did what you could, you know?
John: I was at the Sundance Filmmaker’s Lab two years ago. I usually go there for the screenwriter’s portion of it in the summer, but I went for the director’s lab portion of it, which was great, and so much easier because basically as a director’s lab advisor you just show up on these little sets and you sort of see what they’re doing and if you have a good suggestion you say something. If you don’t, you just stand back and watch. As opposed to the screenwriter’s section where you actually had to read the scripts and talk through all the stuff. It’s exhausting.
So, the director’s section, I was up there and it was this little campfire scene. And the director clearly had a good plan for how he was going to shoot it. And there was this conversation. And I got there and I realized, I watched a take and I’m like, huh, that doesn’t really probably seem like what is supposed to be on the page. And then I realized that the older actor was completely drunk. And this was like eleven in the morning. Completely drunk.
And so as the advisor I had to pull the director fellow aside and say, “Look, I know you’re trying to cover this in a one-shot, and all this stuff. It’s just not going to happen. So, you’re going to have to really be smart about what you’re going to do and plan for what it is it going to be like when I’m in the editing room and I have to make sense of this thing and deal with the cards that you’re given.”
Craig: [pretending to slur] “You tell me what I’m thinking, I’ll tell you what I’m thinking! You figure out where to put the camera and the light. Action!” [laughs]
John: Uh-huh. Action!
Craig: Oy, thanks for calling their own action. The best part is at the very end Morgan Freeman says, “If you want me to go faster or to go slower, you can say that.” Thank you!
John: Thank you! That’s really nice. Yeah. Mm-hmm.
John: So, basically whatever Morgan Freeman’s first instinct is is exactly the right instinct.
Craig: It’s just the speed.
John: It could be just be go a little faster, or a little slower.
Craig: Right. Just the speed.
John: So, basically he’s a knob and you’re allowed to turn Morgan Freeman’s knob a little bit. Not a lot.
Craig: Turning Morgan Freeman up. There’s a story — I assume it’s true — that George Lucas when he was directing the first Star Wars movie, the only direction he would ever give to any of them was either louder or faster. And Harrison Ford, who was a carpenter, made a board, a wooden board, and he put two lights and switch. And one thing said louder and one thing said faster. And so he said, “Here, you can just turn it.” And apparently Lucas didn’t laugh.
John: Yeah. And then in the prequels, he just decided to hold up a board and that was the acting style.
Craig: Right! The board was bored.
John: Oh god.
Craig: Geez Louise.
John: Geez. Yeah, I felt bad. I know Ewan. Ewan is fantastic. But that, ugh.
Craig: Argh. What are you gonna do?
John: What are you gonna do? We’re not going to talk about the prequels anymore.
Craig: Natalie Portman is a great actor.
John: She is.
Craig: I mean, I’ve seen Natalie Portman literally blow me away and then it’s like, um, boy, boy, nobody was helping her out.
John: No one is fantastic in those.
Craig: You can’t be.
John: No one is.
Craig: Because I got the feeling that they were in empty green rooms and there was no connection to anything. They didn’t understand what they were saying. The dialogue wasn’t particularly good. So, they were just sort of like, “What about this?”
And by the way, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline, you know, that’s when you get when the director is not helping you at all. [laughs] They’re like, “Go ahead. Yeah, no, you’re right. Just do it.”
John: “Just do that.”
Craig: “Nope, you know what? You tell me when you’re done.”
John: I think George Lucas —
Craig: “Yeah. And then we’ll move on.”
John: George Lucas knew where to put the lights. He put the camera. And look: success.
Craig: “Yeah, I’m done. I’m going to go have lunch. And somebody just send a PA to my trailer when you guys have decided that you got it.”
John: What is fascinating is that the director is in some ways the person who is the least — you could make it without the director to some certain degree. Like the AD could sort of like look at a shot list and tell everyone what to do. And someone could call action. That’s fine. And the actors could do their stuff. And you could do it all without that.
But without the director actually saying like, “Yes, this is what I want, no, this is not what I want, we’re going again, change this thing,” you don’t get anything done. And there’s no progress.
Craig: Well, of course. And let me also point out. You wouldn’t even be there at that point without a director anyway, because who has decided what everyone’s wearing, who’s decided what the sets look like, who’s decided that that’s what you’re even shooting that day? Everything is about the vision, the combined vision of the screenwriter and the director, who is oftentimes the same individual, much to Morgan Freeman’s chagrin, working with the actors to create a performance and a moment.
Craig: Anyway. So, you know what? They’re great actors. I’m sure they’re great people. Hopefully this was just a weird moment for them. Maybe not. [laughs] We’ll find out.
John: [laughs] All right. We had a reader write in with a question that I thought was interesting. So, he says, “I am a semi-finalist in this year’s Nicholl Fellowship.”
John: “And because of that my name is being circulated around town with other semi-finalists.” Congratulations. “Several managers and production companies have contacted me requesting the Nicholl script,” which is natural.
“One manager read the script right away. Loved it. Requested more scripts. Loved them. And set up a meeting. We met in his office and he did most of the talking, telling me his background, how he works, what he does.
“Of my scripts he liked a TV pilot, but they can’t do anything with it until TV season,” TV pilot season. “He also liked the semi-finalist feature but said it stood a better chance if I cut 15 pages. Both made sense to me. I pitched him the script I’m currently working on as well as log lines for two others on my writing to do list. He offered some feedback like he did for the pilot and the Nicholl feature, feedback about how I can best shave the project to increase its chances with the connections he has.
“At the end of the meeting, which lasted two hours, he asked if any other managers had contacted me. I said yes, but didn’t go into detail. He said, ‘Let’s keep in touch,’ and then we parted ways.”
John: “This is the first manager I’ve ever met. So my questions are: What happened? Was this a good meeting or bad? He’s a young guy and seems like a good guy, but I don’t have anyone to compare him to. What’s the next step?”
Craig: Hmm. That is a good question. Well, you’re approaching this from a natural point of view of the young ingénue in the bar who’s just been hit on by a man. And you’re wondering, well geez, what does all that mean, and so on and so forth. I would argue to you that you flip the situation in your head and think of yourself as in charge and think of what you want as the thing that’s going to drive what happens next.
So, what happens next ideally is what you want to have happen next. If you like this manager and you think that he — is it a he or she?
John: I think it’s a he.
Craig: If you like this guy and you think that he is a good fit for you and that his position in the industry will help you, then you call up and say, “I want you to be my manager. Let’s sit down and talk about it. Let’s talk about what the arrangement will be and how it works, but I’m interested in you being my manager instead of these other people that want to be my manager.”
Craig: Real simple.
John: I agree with you. So, hopefully by the time we’re actually giving him this advice he’s met with some other people so he has a better sense of like who other personalities are and stuff. But it sounded like a good meeting to me.
John: Two hours is a long meeting. And if you like what his comments were about your scripts and the things you were talking about for log lines, that’s a good thing.
So, yes, generally that manager guy would follow up more, but if he hasn’t followed up more you can totally take the reins and call him back and say, “Yes.”
The true story is I hired my attorney, Ken Richman, and my agent, Kramer, had sent me out to meet a bunch of attorneys, but Richman was the first person I met. It was like, well, you’re perfect. So done. And I just said yes right there in the room and that was the guy and he’s been my attorney ever since.
So, sometimes it just clicks and it’s just right and that can be good and proper.
John: Now, I would say this guy is young and that’s not a bad thing. And I think sometimes you get nervous about like, “Well, this person is really young and doesn’t know what they’re doing.” Well, but you’re also young and you don’t really know what you’re doing. So, sometimes it’s good to get somebody who is at that same place in life as you are and hopefully you’ll grow up together.
John: And if you like his taste, because he obviously has good taste if he likes your script, if you like his notes, if you like his general style, if you don’t think you’re going to dread getting phone calls and emails from him, it might be the right fit.
Craig: Absolutely true. And I also kind of like the deal where he said, “Yeah, we had a meeting and I really enjoyed meeting with you,” and he’s not chasing you. He’s not being desperate. Nobody meets with anybody for two hours if it’s a bad meeting.
Craig: No such thing. If you’re in a room with somebody and you’re, “Oh, god, this guy is just a zero, he’s a dud. I can’t sell him, I can’t sell his work. He doesn’t have anything else, he’s strange,” they just end it. And they give you some sort of shine on and off you go. But, no, two hours, obviously he’s interested. But he also knows that you’re out there meeting other managers and he’s sort of properly saying, “Great. All right. Well, let’s keep in touch meaning you tell me if you want to work with me. I’m not going to beg you. But I’m aware that you have to go do your due diligence.”
So, there you go.
John: I think that’s simple advice.
Craig, it’s come time for One Cool Things. So, my One Cool Thing is actually in the blockbuster theme. I started wondering like well what happened to all the old Blockbuster stores. Have they all been rebuilt as other things? The truth is, no. And so I found this website that had a great collection of photos of abandoned video stores which I think is such a terrific time capsule of sort of where we are right now.
Because it was a specifically built kind of place to hold a specific thing that we don’t need any more. And so Blockbusters themselves were pretty big and they had all those shelves. And they had a thing — it’s not all that straight forward to convert them to something else. It’s not like those giant Walmarts which are sort of a nightmare to convert to something else, but they’re just this sort of sad thing that exists.
And so I’ll put a link in the show notes for abandoned video stores.
Craig: Cool. Eerie. It’s like those photo essays of Detroit. [laughs]
John: Yes. [laughs]
Craig: Sorry, Detroit listeners, but —
John: Blockbuster video is sort of like the city of Detroit.
Craig: It’s like Detroit.
So, my One Cool Thing today is, as promised, Grand Theft Auto based. So, lots of fan-made videos because Grand Theft Auto V is such an enormous world. And there’s lots of fun things to do and most of the videos are generally mayhem. There’s some cool videos that a guy has done of five-star police chases. So, in Grand Theft Auto V, if you commit a minor crime like say punching someone or running someone over with a car and killing them, you get one star.
But as you continue to evade the police, or shoot at police, or things like that, your stars escalate. And the more stars you have, the more police are coming after you in helicopters. Five star, to even get five stars you’ve just got to go nuts. It’s hard to even get to it. And then there’s a cop literally every 12 feet. And so people have done these crazy five-star chase videos and videos where they pile up a bunch of cars and blow them all up. It’s fun.
But there’s one series that I think is amazing because it shows just how detailed and brilliant the game is. And it’s called GTA V Mythbusters. And there’s, I think, five of them. And basically they collect these myths that people put out there like, for instance, if you light a car on fire in Grand Theft Auto V, which you can do by pouring gasoline on it and then lighting it on fire, and then drive it into water. The water will extinguish the fire and you can save the car. And then they test it and they say, “Oh, yup, that’s true.”
John: Nice. This engine actually does — yeah, that’s great.
Craig: It’s amazing. Or like if you lure police helicopters into the turbine wind farms in the Mohave Desert area, the wind turbines will destroy the helicopter. True. [laughs]
John: Oh my god.
Craig: But there are some amazing ones that like never would have even occurred to me. For instance, I didn’t even realize, okay, so if you take a car and you light it on fire with some gasoline. Pour some gasoline on it, light it on fire, stand back. Eventually it will explode. I did not know that if you shot a car in the hood, then you could see gasoline spurting out of it. And you can actually drive the car until you run out of gas.
I did not know that. Then the question was myth. A car without gas in it will not explode. [laughs] So, they do this. They drive the car. It runs out of gas. It stops. They get out. They pour gasoline on top of the car. Light the car on fire and sit back. It does not explode.
John: Now, Craig, the crucial question which every listener is asking right now is are there Teslas in the game?
Craig: There are!
John: And I’m so happy to hear that.
Craig: Okay, now the deal with the Grand Theft Auto universe is that they don’t license real auto manufacturer names. They just fake them. They come up with copies. And I was kind of bummed because I was really hoping for a Tesla in the game and I couldn’t find one.
And then the other day I just randomly yanked some woman out of her car, as I typically do to drive somewhere, [laughs], and I got in —
John: You’re going to go home so you can play the game.
Craig: Yes, exactly. I was here in Old Town. And what I true and do in the game is if I have to go somewhere and I don’t have a car, I wait until a really cool car comes and then I steal that one, because it’s faster and it’s more fun.
So, this sporty car comes up and it looks like one I’ve maybe been in before. I yank a lady out. I get in. I start driving. I’m going super fast and I realize it’s not making any noise. And I’m like, wait a second. And so I stop the car and adjusted the camera so I could see the back of the car and it was a Coil. That was the brand name. Coil.
Craig: And it was clearly a Tesla Roadster. So, when they were developing the game I assume they developed it before the Model S was a big deal, but the Tesla Roadster was still out there. So, the Tesla Roadster is in the game. It’s called a Coil. And it’s my favorite. And so I put it in a garage. It’s nice and safe.
John: Of course.
John: That’s good.
Craig: It’s such a good… — But anyway, GTA V Mythbusters, it’s so entertaining to watch it because some of that stuff is just — some of it, like, oh, there’s a strange glitch. Like if you land a helicopter on top of a jumbo jet you can get inside the jumbo jet and pilot it which is just ridiculous and glitchy. But some of it is just about the detail, the specificity of the details is just remarkable.
John: Yeah, it really is a remarkable universe. And so I deliberately — I don’t want my daughter to know that we actually have the game, so I keep it out there, but I do know parents who will like go out deep sea diving with their kids. Like the kid has no idea what the game actually is.
Craig: Oh cute.
John: You will drive carefully to the beach and then you will go deep sea diving. It’s like, oh, how nice.
Craig: Yeah, I won’t let my son anywhere near it. No way. Yeah.
John: Good parenting with Craig Mazin.
Craig: Yeah. Real easy, obvious parenting with Craig Mazin.
John: Great. So, standard boilerplate ending here. If you would like to send a message to me or Craig, Craig is @clmazin on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust on Twitter. Longer questions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like a USB drive with the first 100 episodes of the show, we have a few more of those left so you can go to store.johnaugust.com and we are selling those there.
Craig and I will both be at the Austin Film Festival next week, so the next episode you hear will be one of our live shows, which will be fun.
John: And if you’re listening to us in iTunes or if you’re connected to iTunes, leave us a comment there because that helps other people find us and enjoy our show.
Craig: Thanks everybody.
John: Thanks everybody. Have a great week, Craig. And I’ll see you in Austin.
Craig: See you in Texas. Bye.
- Come see Scriptnotes live at the 2013 Austin Film Festival
- The Atlantic on Anita Elberse’s new book, Blockbusters, and the book on Amazon
- Gravity is in theaters now
- The relevant Last Vegas interview excerpt
- KnowYourMeme on Morgan Freeman, Titty sprinkles
- IndieWire on the Blade: Trinity lawsuit
- Sundance Institute’s feature film programs
- Internet killed the Video Store: An Abandoned Industry is John’s One Cool Thing
- And GTA V Mythbusters is Craig’s One Cool Thing
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Ashley Kotzur