The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Hello and welcome. My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 119, the Positive Moviegoing episode of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
And we are so lucky because we have our very first guest, the sort of guest who set the template for a guest on Scriptnotes would be like. Aline Brosh McKenna is here in the studio.
Aline Brosh McKenna: Woot-woot-woot!
John: How are you, Aline?
Aline: I’m doing well. I’m doing very well. I’m happy to be here.
John: Now it’s almost Thanksgiving. Do you have big Thanksgiving plans for you and your family?
Aline: We don’t. I don’t cook. We go out to dinner.
John: How very nice.
Aline: It’s great. I really love it.
Craig: [Long Island accent] “I don’t cook.”
Aline: No, it’s too much for me to do.
Craig: “We go out to dinner.” Where can you even go?
Aline: [Long Island accent] You got to set up the order.
Craig: Where do you?
Aline: We go to a lovely place in the mountains near Malibu where they cook game and you eat game.
Craig: Oh, you don’t do the normal Jewish thing of just Chinese food? [laughs]
John: I thought that was only Christmas?
Aline: No, that’s Christmas. Christmas is Chinese food and a movie.
Aline: What are you doing, Craig?
Craig: We have some friends coming over and another lovely half-Jewish, half-super not Jewish family in La Cañada. And we are going to have an excellent Thanksgiving. We’re going to be making all of our own food. I’m cooking multiple desserts and side dishes. And the, actually, you should know this guy, John. I mean, you don’t know him, but you should meet him. He’s great. His name is Josh and he does lighting design for operas and musical theater. He’s worked down at La Jolla and up at Santa Barbara Opera House and Minnesota. And he’s a cool guy.
So, anyway, we’re having a combined Thanksgiving and —
Aline: I love that Craig, who lost a titanic amount of weight, is the expert pie and cake maker.
Craig: Ain’t that the way it goes?
John: I, too, am having a bunch of people over for Thanksgiving. I’ll be making pies. I’ll be making the turkey. It’s the one day a year that I sort of go back to the full Martha Stewart mode. My former assistant Dana Fox and I, she and I every day would watch Martha Stewart Living, back when it was the filmed show, not that horrible live before an audience thing. Back when it was the true Martha Stewart. We would watch it. And that’s the day that my inner Martha Stewart comes out and I cook hard.
Craig: Mmm. I know. I love cooking hard. [laughs]
John: [laughs] Today, on the podcast, we are going to be talking about a lot of topics. Aline brought two. I brought one. Craig brought one. But first we have to talk about the Live holiday show. We are recording this on the Wednesday that the tickets went on sale and I think we’re kind of sold out. We’re not fully sold out, but a lot of people are coming, which is great.
The live show is December 19. It is at the LA Film School. It is a benefit for the Writers Guild Foundation. There’s a few tickets that have been held back. So there’s a chance that even if we are completely sold out on paper we will be releasing some more tickets. So, do follow us on Twitter and we may announce that there’s still some more tickets left.
But out lineup for the show is incredible, including Aline Brosh McKenna.
John: Derek Haas.
John: Kelly Marcel.
John: Richard Kelly.
Craig: Richard Kelly!
John: Rawson Thurber.
John: Franklin Leonard and Lindsay Doran.
Craig: Leonard and Doran! Leonard and Doran, I think, was a great boxing match. Wasn’t that — ?
John: Yes, it’s a classic —
Craig: Was it Doran? Well, it was Durán, but anyway, I’d like to see the two of them fight. Money is on Doran.
John: I think the fight is going to be epic. So, that will be a fun show.
But, today on the show we’re going to talk about four topics. Aline suggested we talk about outline failure and why it’s important to befriend other writers.
I want to talk about this article about going broke in your 50s.
Aline: Oh, you sent it to me. I should have read it. I didn’t read it. You’ll tell me what it is.
Craig: We’ll summarize.
John: We’ll fill you in on the details.
Craig: “I don’t cook. I don’t read.”
Aline: [Long Island accent] I order. I order.
Craig: “I order.”
John: And Craig wanted to talk about positive moviegoing, which I’m not even sure what it means, so Craig start us out. What is positive moviegoing?
Craig: Well, it’s this thing I’ve been thinking about lately because this is the time of year when all the so-called “good” movies come out. And a lot of them are actually good movies. But I noticed that there’s — I think it’s just we live in a time of snarkiness and suspicion and nobody seems to want to like anything. People a lot of times go into theaters with their arms crossed, especially in Los Angeles. We’re all in the business. And I think people go to movies and they’re already — they’re demanding to hate them. And they’re prejudging them. And you could do it for — you name any movie and I could just sort of come up with some pretext for hating it.
And so what I really have been trying to do is when I go to movie to go wanting to love it. And accepting everything about it for at least 20 minutes. So, I don’t care what happens in the first twenty minutes. I am on board. I will accept it and I will attempt to enjoy it as best I can. I will give myself to the movie.
And then at some point, okay, you know, listen, sometimes you just don’t like movies. Sometimes they disappoint. Sometimes they anger you because you hate them so much. And that’s okay. I’m not denying that that can happen. But I’ve really been trying to just give myself over to movies.
So, I went and I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. And I went in, just gave myself to the movie. And I loved it. And I think I would have loved it anyway, but I think it helped that I wasn’t judging. I just decided nobody else goes to movies to judge. Why do we go to movies to judge? Can’t we just enjoy them?
Anyway, that’s my thing, positive moviegoing.
John: So, what you’re describing is almost like — I can picture the body language of it. It’s like you’re sitting down in your seat. You’re not crossing your arms in front of you saying like, “Okay, impress me.”
John: You’re saying, “I’m here. I’m eager to be entertained. I will follow you wherever you go. And take me on a journey.” That’s the message you’re trying to send to this movie.
Craig: That’s right. Sort of like meeting somebody at a party and they start to tell you a story. You’re standing there. So be nice. Listen to it. Give it a shot, you know. I just get so depressed when I see people ripping movies apart before they even see them.
Aline: Yeah, I agree. I think it’s easy to hate things and to bag on things. I think it’s just, it makes people feel fashionable and intellectual. And it’s harder — it takes more effort to go out there and say, “You know what? Even if it wasn’t perfect, even if things aren’t prefect, sometimes things that you love are the imperfect perfect thing.” But going in there with an attitude of like, “I’m going to enjoy this. I paid my money to enjoy this, not to find something that I can sit down with my friends later and pick to shreds?’
Craig: Yeah. And it will happen that we will encounter movies that infuriate us. And we will pick them to shreds. And we will pick them to shreds. And if you’ve earned that experience, so you’ve earned it. But there is something to be said for letting yourself be entertained and not attempt to make yourself feel better by pushing a movie away.
And frankly even the feeling that, okay, it’s not perfect. Yeah! [laughs] How often does that happen? You know?
Craig: I mean, movies win Oscars and people go, “Oh my god, that piece of crap won an Oscar.” Perfection is irrelevant, you know.
I almost think, okay, mistakes aren’t really mistakes. It’s just, you know, no more than I got from here to there on a road and it was a really enjoyable journey and there was a pothole. It’s just part of it.
Aline: And I also think it’s very Christmas-y.
John: It’s very Christmas-y.
Now, on some level are we talking about expectation? Because I find that a lot of times the movies that I enjoy most were the ones where my expectations were not set too high going into them. And that’s why I love to see a movie during its opening weekend before everyone has sort of told me what I’m supposed to think and feel about it.
Because when I come into a theater with a set of expectations, nothing can surprise me. And I’m sort of preconditioned to think this is how I’m supposed to feel about this particular entertainment.
Aline: Yeah. I miss the days of just going to see a movie and knowing nothing about it.
Aline: My parents would drive us to the Paramus Park, we used to call it the Millionplex. It had 14 theaters. And they would just drop us off there and we would see the 7:30, whatever it was, and just be happy. That’s how I saw Pee-wee’s Big Adventure which, you know, pleasantly surprised us. We laughed. Fell out of our chairs laughing.
We also saw Yor, The Hunter From the Future that way.
Craig: Yeah. Good one.
Aline: And just you don’t have that surprise anymore. You’ve been so inundated with media before you go to see a movie now, that I miss the days of just thinking like, “I just want to see a movie. Let’s see what’s out there.” I miss that.
John: Yeah, I remember seeing 9 to 5 that way. So, I was a kid dropped off at the theater and the theater we were supposed to go to — they dropped us off at the wrong movie, essentially. So, we saw 9 to 5. I was far too young to see 9 to 5, which is the best way to see 9 to 5, because they’re smoking pot, and having sex, and all these things.
Aline: Stringing people up.
John: I also remember in college going to see, we ended up seeing The Handmaid’s Tale because the other movie we wanted to see was completely sold out. We had no idea what the movie was. And that’s so incredibly rewarding when you sit in, the only information you have is what the filmmakers are giving you frame-by-frame as the story unfolds.
You had that experience of positive moviegoing because you weren’t preconceived with what we were supposed to feel. There was no expectation about what to —
Aline: And you haven’t checked a review aggregator that’s giving you 60 opinions before you even set foot there.
Craig: Yeah, or your Twitter feed, or comedians teeing up. Or whatever, anything. Or even articles that are insisting that it’s the most important thing of all time.
It’s funny. 9 to 5 was the first movie I think I saw, I was dropped off to see on my own. I remember it was like a weird triple date, like a weird triple fifth-grade date. What were our parents thinking? But, you know, I really make an effort now when I sit in the movie theater before the movie starts to blank my mind completely. I just say, go ahead movie, ride all over me and let’s see where this goes.
John: Some of my favorite experiences are actually like when you see the three trailers, or the four trailers, and then like the real movie starts and you’ve forgotten what the movie was that you’re supposed to — you have to check the ticket to see what movie is this. Oh right, it’s the Muppets! But it is very exciting.
Now, let’s talk for a second as filmmakers, as screenwriters, is there anything we can do in those opening pages or in the opening minutes of a movie to get people in the positive moviegoing experience. What is that like from our side as writers to hopefully foster that good spirit?
Craig: Well, I do have one thing that lately I’ve been tending to do, and that is write a credit sequence. It became out of fashion. All movies — well, originally movies used to have these opening credit sequences that includes even the credits that we now call end credits, you know, where there are logos and rosters of people. But then the standard opening credit sequences, that became out of fashion. And for a long time all the credits went in the back of the movie. So, you just started the movie.
I really like credit sequences. I like opening credit sequences. The opening credits for Mitty are beautiful. And I think that that helps kind of get everybody situated and in the mood. So, I’ve been doing that lately.
John: I will also write credit sequences in movies where I feel it’s appropriate. More than anything I try to make sure that the reader and therefore the viewer feels confident. Like, trust me, this is going to be a ride that you will enjoy taking with me. You’re going to feel rewarded and smart on this journey. We know what we’re doing. Everything is going to be okay.
And I mean that shows up in sort of your word selection on those first pages, but also just making sure no one is confused in a bad way in those first pages. Making sure that there is — if it’s a funny movie, you need to have something funny happen really quickly, so everyone sort of gets what the world of your movie is.
Aline: My husband has a thing where we’ll go to see a movie, and sometimes movies take forever just to get going, and he’ll turn to me at some point and say, “When does the movie start,” 20 minutes into the movie. Because sometimes it just seems like, especially because we do know what movies we’re going to see, it does seem like if you’re taking 15 minutes to get us acquainted with what we’ve seen on the poster, that makes me a little itchy.
And I think our attention span for that has probably changed a bunch, too. But I think it’s great to see if you can get to the heart of the matter so the audience knows what movie they are seeing.
John: I think that’s a great segue to a talk that you proposed, which is outline failure, because what we’re really talking is the structure of the story and when things are happening. And structure is really when stuff happens. So, talk to me about outline failure and what you mean by outlines failing.
Aline: Well, you guys I know have talked about outlining a lot on the show, and it’s always very interesting, and it’s something that people will always ask on panels and such is about outlining. And I think we all outline in different ways. But I think — I don’t really know any writers who don’t outline at all, or few.
And some outline after the fact. Some write a draft and then outline. But what I think is interesting is I do do outlines. I try not to do written outlines, submit written outlines, because I find that people get bogged down in the details of a written outline. But I do spoken — I will pitch an outline and I will pitch an outline to everybody. And before I start writing I tend to try and pitch an outline to as many people as I can, the producer, the studio, anybody who will listen to the outline so that I can tell it like I’m telling a story.
And often when you’re telling it you realize, oh, that’s not good, or that’s boring, or this patch needs to go here or there, or that doesn’t make sense.
But what never ceases to amaze me is, you know, it’s one of those phenomena when you’re writing which is you want to try and break it down into math. And you want to break it down into cards. And we all want to feel like we have control over it. And it never ceases to amaze me that you’ll outline something, you’ll go see six people and pitch to them, you’ll put it on cards, you’ll sit down and start writing, and it’s usually page 65 is where it happens, where you start looking at your outline and you’re thinking, “This is crazy. Like why did everyone let me do this? Why didn’t everyone know that this is riddled with flaws and the character has just changed on a dime for no reason.”
I’ve always contended that 70 to 90 are the rocky shoals, the rapids, where your movie either comes together and moves out into the next plane, or you start to realize that you’ve got some inherent flaws. But what is really fascinating is you can’t really tell until you write it. And as long as I’ve been doing this, I have found some outlines I’m going through, congratulating myself, and just thinking, “Wow, I really planned this out.” And some I’m thinking like, “Oh, I don’t know.”
But, at some point you always get to a point of thinking like, “Who are these people who I work with who allowed me to think that these were good ideas?” You actually get angry. And I don’t really know, I don’t know what the cure for this is besides writing through there. And I think it’s funny, because I just moved, and it’s kind of a similar process. You think, you know, we’re going to put the couch there. We’re going to put this ottoman here, we’re going to put this here. And then you show up and you put it there and you’re like, “This is hideous. This is ten times too large. Why did anyone think this was going to fit here?”
And I guess it just shows planning is — it’s just plans. And so you really do feel like you go into a war, you top off your canteen, you take as many weapons as you can, and then you get there and the enemy has gone on the run and gone into the bush. They had flying robots you didn’t know about. And all of a sudden you have to change your game plan. That’s one of those things that kind of separates the way I write now from the way I did in the beginning which was in the beginning I would really get very disheartened and think, “Why has this happened? What is the critical flaw in my process?”
And now I just accept, you know, okay, we’re experiencing some problem with the hydraulics in the outline. And need to make adjustments on the fly. And sometimes that process of trying to figure out why your outline has crumbled beneath you, often those are the critical — that’s the critical passage where you find out what your movie is really about, because 70 to 90 is where you’re sort of on the upslope to figuring out what problem is this person really solving. What problem is this character really solving? And you may have the wrong problem. And you may have the wrong thematic. And sort of that’s where you figure it out.
So, I’ve learned somewhat to try not to beat myself up about it, but for those out there who are staring out their outline, ripping their hair out, it happens.
John: I’m outlining something right now, and I do find that as I go through previous episodes of trying to outline these movies I will have so many beats figured out so precisely in that sort of first half of the movie, and then there’s a stage in which I’m just sort of like waving my hands and saying, “And then we get to this last thing.” And it’s that hand-waving section that you’re like, there’s really no connective tissue that’s getting me from that point to that point. And if characters are having to make these big jump transitions that don’t really make sense — you find characters who are doing things because I need them to do that, not because it’s the natural thing for them to do.
Aline: That’s a really good point. And I think Craig has talked about this, too. When you pitch a movie, let’s say you pitch for 15 minutes, you probably spend nine minutes on the first 35 pages. And one of the other rookie mistakes I would make is you end up, the first part of your script is like a finely scrimshawed piece of bone that you have added all these details to. And then when you get to 50 it’s like, “Yeah, and then some stuff happens, and then some other stuff happens.” And that’s endemic to the storytelling most of the time is spent on the setup.
Craig: Well, this is why I outline actually. I don’t outline for the beginning of the movie, or the first half of the movie, because you’re right — I think we have an innate sense of the world we want to build and the person we want to put in it. And what the problem is. And that big wrecking ball that comes through the wall that changes everything.
I outline specifically to avoid the hand-waving section. Really, I will spend most of my outlining energy on page 60 to page 90 because I won’t start if I don’t know how the movie ends. I can’t start if I don’t know how the movie begins. But, that are right in there, that’s where you’re absolutely right, Aline. That is where all the gunk, the sub-textual character gunk starts to burble out. And the character as we understood them is breaking down dramatically and violently and then being put back together again by themselves.
It’s a scary area in every movie. And if you do it well it’s the best part of every movie. So, that’s why I outline.
Now, that said, of course — you know, we write a screenplay and then somebody has to go make it a movie. Well, that experience of turning a screenplay into a movie is a bit like the experience of turning an outline into a screenplay. And somewhere along the way the experience of doing it starts to change how you feel about it and what you understand about it. You have to remain flexible. And you can’t afford to let your outline become your boss.
The fact that other people don’t see these pitfalls and can’t warn you about them is not shocking is it? I mean, if you didn’t see it, what were the odds they were going to see it?
Aline: So, let me ask you a question — oh, sorry.
John: What Aline describes though in that process of pitching things, that is the natural way you pitch things. And you pitch very much like the setups of everything, and then you sort of rush through the other things. And that’s just the natural way you pitch things. So, that’s what you’ve been doing as you’ve been describing these projects to people is that stuff. And it’s natural to sort of rush over to the other things. But the mistake we often make for ourselves is not realizing like, “Oh, you know, I did rush over all those things. I really haven’t figured out what some of those moments are.”
And so while there’s technically an outline for what those beats are that happen here, they’re not nearly as fleshed out and nearly as focused as the rest of it is.
Also, I think what you said at the start that’s really key is that sometimes the only way to know how to write something is to write something is to write it. And it’s like you’re trying to write the screenplay before you’ve written it, and it can only be a rough approximation of the journey you’re going to take. It’s like you have this map that’s showing you how to get from point A to point B, but you really don’t know where all the mountains and all the hills are and where the rivers are that you’re going to have to get yourself around.
John: So, you have to allow yourself the luxury of saying, “This is not what I thought it was. Given where I am at, what is the most interesting way to get to the places that I need to get to next?”
Craig: Yeah. And, you know, to me an outline is really good for a couple of things. It helps you organize your work, which matters, because you’re not going to get done otherwise. And the other thing that it does is keep you from being absurdly self-indulgent. We all have a tendency to be absurdly self-indulgent. We’ll just wander on. And when people say, “Well, I don’t really write my scripts. My characters write them for me.” Shut up! You write them. Don’t blame it on your characters when you’ve just spent 40 pages blithering.
That’s you blithering. And outlines help keep us —
Aline: Well, one thing, sorry.
Craig: Go ahead.
Aline: You guys don’t interrupt each other. I’ve noticed that.
John: We’ve gotten much better about being able to do that not interrupting thing. But, no, go.
Aline: Now you have two-thirds Jew, so.
Craig: So much Jew. We’re at peak Jew.
Aline: One thing that I’ve learned to do to avoid the scrimshaw, the first act scrimshaw, and I know Craig doesn’t do this, but after I have the outline I will write the whole script very quickly. And I will write like an 85, 90-page draft as quickly as I humanly can, to test. And what I’ll do is hop into scenes and I’ll see how I feel hopping into those scenes. And that’s the best way for me to test the outline is to hop into scenes and think, “Oh, there’s nothing happening here. No one is speaking in here. Oh, I’ve walked into a room and everyone is silent.”
So, I go really fast and I test the whole outline by building a very kind of provisional popsicle version of the script. And then I go back and I add my sheet rock and my paint and my ottomans. I do it that way. I build it in layers. And I know some people don’t do that. Some people build it good all the way through. But for me, to test the outline, I have to get all the way through the story.
John: Yeah. I’ve always wanted to do what James Cameron would do with the scriptments, which essentially is a very long outline that’s basically all the scenes but without the dialogue. I’ve always wanted to be able to be the person who did that. But the dialogue is by far the most fun thing to write, so therefore I always want to write that. I feel like I don’t really know the characters until I hear them talking to each other.
Aline: I don’t know if the story is going to work until I know if the characters will talk. And that’s what I think, for me, is the difference between an outline and a screenplay. You know, you think this is going to be a good scene, and then you get into the scene and you realize, like this has happened to me where I had an outline where there were two characters who were in opposition to each other for a good amount of the story. And that stuff was easy to write because they had a lot of conflict and countervailing points of view. And then there got to a point where I had them align their interest, and man, every time that happened that was like stabbing the inflatable.
I would just get to those scenes where they were supposed to both be pursuing something, and you know, the air, you just audibly hear the air go out of the movie because these characters didn’t have any interpersonal conflict. So, I ended up reconfiguring the outlines so that their interest continued to be at odds until 105 or something, so that I would maintain that conflict. But in the outline phase it seemed like, “Why not? They team up, they become a team here. That makes sense.” And I really didn’t know until I got into those scenes and they could not speak to each other. They had nothing to say. They were saying like, “This looks good. Yeah. This looks good.”
Craig: That sounds like great work.
Aline: Great scene.
John: There’s nothing less dramatic than agreement.
John: Just like, “Sure. That’s great.” They might as well be sitting back, reading the paper together.
Aline: “We should get the bad guy.”
Craig: “We should. Let’s do it.”
Aline: “Good. Let’s do it.” [laughs]
Craig: “Let’s do it. You want lunch?” Yeah, I want lunch” “Let’s have lunch first and then we’ll do…”
By the way, I do these —
Craig: I am the scriptment guy. I write scriptments. Because I love writing dialogue, so again, I feel like if I know exactly what the circumstance is, and I feel comfortable in it, then I get to have the fun of writing dialogue towards something that I think is correct. You know —
Aline: That’s the other great thing when you’re writing comedy, about comedy, is the test of your outline is whether people start saying funny things. If they’re not saying funny things, something is wrong with your scene.
Craig: Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong!
Craig: Flying robots. I’ve been counting all of your metaphors. We’ve got furniture, flying robots, hydraulics.
Aline: That’s a big one.
Craig: Bone. Layers of construction.
Craig: Inflatable. But my favorite is flying robot.
John: So, this project I’m working on right now, because I’m working on a spec, and Aline, you just finished a spec. I’m actually at the stage where I’ve written some scenes and I’ve paused for a second because I’ve realized like, oh no, there’s going to be trouble ahead.
Where I fundamentally — I have some mission creep happening, where the story was getting bigger than it should sort of — than it wants to get. When Richard Kelly was on the show last week, he talked about that with his movies, Donnie Darko, and you could definitely see mission creep happening in those things.
I’m trying to make something lean and it just keeps getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger. So, I’m trying to sort of whittle back at the outline stage right now.
So, for the thing that you wrote for a spec, did you pitch to a bunch of people first and describe it, or was this an entirely internally-generated process? Did you outline on paper first?
Aline: Well, what I’ve done is I’ve written something that I want to direct. And it’s pretty specific to me. And so it was something that I mulled for a really long time. And there was a lot of freedom in not, you know, because I don’t often write just for myself. So, there was a lot of freedom in not having to be accountable to — making the process whatever I wanted the process to be.
Aline: So, I probably outlined it a little bit more loosely. But I did find a producer to work with after I had sort of an idea of what it was and what the basic structure was. Because I worked with a director once who said, we were having a meeting and he said, “You know, I think with my mouth open,” meaning he knows what he thinks as he’s saying it. And I’m very much like that. And so for me I needed and I like to have collaborators that I can talk to.
So, I found a producer who would work with me on spec, because I need to do that process of telling a story. But that said, it was really great to be able to just make adjustments, attack, and move however I wanted to without feeling like I was accountable to — as accountable to an outline. It’s good.
John: Let’s segue to our next topic, which you brought up also, which is why it’s important to be friends with writers. Because my recollection, and my early days in Hollywood, I was friends with a bunch of people who were starting out in Hollywood but they weren’t necessarily writers. I went through a graduate film program, so everyone was trying to become a producer, a film executive. Some people became writers, but I didn’t necessarily seek out other writers. What is your history going —
Aline: Well, I feel really strongly about that. I mean, and I think that people sometimes misunderstand what the idea is. The idea is not to be friends with writers who are going to network for you, or who are cool, or who are writing, or who are employed. That’s not really the critical thing. The critical thing is to have friends who do what you do and are engaged in the same kind of work that you are.
And I have, you know, a couple of my writer friends are from the very, very, very beginning of our career before we had any success or barely any work, and we don’t have work places in the way that, you know, my husband works at a mutual fund. He has a workplace. He has coworkers. We just, we don’t have that. Even when we do for a specific project, they’re just for that specific project.
My ongoing workplace, my Cheers, my group of people that I check in with are my other writer friends that I talk to on the phone periodically, or have lunch with. And we’re kind of —
John: Aline, you talk on the phone?
Aline: I talk on the phone.
Craig: Who talks on the phone?
Aline: I do.
Aline: And so we can check in on what we’re doing and say, “Hey, I was working on that. What do you think of this? Is this a good idea? What do you think of this person?” That network is invaluable. And you will grow with these people.
So, it’s less important to seek out people who you think are going to connect you with a job and more important to seek out people whose process you find productive. And Gatins refers to it as lab partners, you know, finding a lab partner who does their homework and has a neat notebook is important. And then —
John: I don’t think Gatins has a neat notebook. I think Gatins’ notebook is one of those folders that he’s like sort of half colored in as he fell asleep.
Aline: But it’s so —
Craig: Gatins’ notebook is like — it’s like a folder that you open up and it looks like it’s full of stuff, and you open it up and there’s nothing in there.
Aline: But it’s brilliant. It’s so brilliant.
Craig: It’s all in his head.
Aline: And it’s like a workbook where he didn’t do any of the math, but around the margins are those amazing drawings and thoughts. He’s a good example. He’s a great lab partner.
And also something another friend of mine said, which is easier said than done, we were talking about having your friends read stuff. And I said, “Who do you go to for that?” And he said, “It’s very simple. Send it to someone who roots for you.”
Craig: Perfect. He’s exactly right.
Aline: And I don’t know. It was like something I hadn’t really thought of in quite that way, because I think we all have friends that we love, but maybe we have other friends who we think root a little harder.
Craig: You mean to say, “Maybe some of them are rooting against us.” That’s what you mean to say. Which I think is real, by the way.
Listen, it’s human. It bums me out, but I sometimes sense it. Same thing about the positive moviegoing, you know.
Aline: I have the opposite of that which is I really like everyone around me to be really successful because I think it makes me look better.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly.
Aline: And it gives me more names to drop. But, sometimes it’s even on a specific project. Sometimes you can have a friend who is really supportive but they don’t like an idea that you have. Like I remember when I was — there was a friend that I had that I pitched him a few things I was working on, and one of them he just thought was a terrible idea. And so that’s not somebody who I would ever go to and say, “Do you want to read this?”
So, it’s just find somebody who really wants to see you do well, or find someone who really roots for that specific project, because that’s positive moviegoing. You want to share your work and share your career with people who are going in with the best possible intentions.
Aline: And we generate enough of our own schadenfreude towards ourselves in this process. You don’t really need it from other people. But finding people who can be your — and I have lots of friends who are producers, and executives, and agents, but your writer friends — and actors too — but your writer friends understand your struggles and your travails and they can really be there for you. And, you know, I think if you look around you can find people to kind of link arms with. And you will all come up together.
John: My friend, Andrew Lippa, who did the music for Big Fish, he has this group of composers, lyricist and composers, and they get together once a month and they have to show the work that they’ve been working on. So, as a group they have to perform the thing and like they talk about it, which just seems amazing. And there are obviously screenwriter groups that can do the same kind of thing, but it’s different to show your written pages versus actually performing something. And there’s a trust element that kicks in.
You were talking about you might have directors, or producers, or other people who can read your stuff, agents, but all of them have some vested interest in maybe how they’re going to associate with this project. The great thing about another writer is the writer is just the writer. Like they’re not trying to take your project. They’re not trying to do anything.
While there’s still sometimes that, it’s not even schadenfreude, but that realization of there’s only so many musical chairs and that sometimes you’re competing for the same spots, in general we can be very supportive of each other because we’re not trying to do the same thing. We’re all working on our own projects.
Aline: Yeah, and it’s interesting, because I know you guys have talked about this too, but the three of us all met at different phases in our careers and —
John: We should talk about how you and I met, because that’s a strange version of how you and I met. So, let me try my recollection of it, because I’m really kind of curious to hear your version of it.
So, Aline and I met on the phone because I was coming in to rewrite a project that she had written as a spec, correct?
Aline: No, I wrote it on assignment for New Line. And then John rewrote it and he cold called me and said, “I want to make sure it’s okay with you that I’m rewriting this.” And I said, sure. And then John did a draft of it, never to be heard from again that thing.
Craig: John, you killed her movie.
John: I probably killed her movie. So, the backstory —
Aline: But that was definitely, John was like, you know, they were bringing in the big guns and I got pushed down the stairs. And John was the first person — I think might have been the first person ever to call me and do the gracious thing.
And I remember, I was outside on my deck and I remember he said, “Is it okay with you if I do this?”
John: And I remember you also saying like, “Well, somebody is going to do it, and I’d rather you do it than somebody else,” which is honestly the reality of most of the situations. The answer is not going to that they’re going to go back to you, the original writer.
John: If they’re looking for another writer, they’re going to hire another writer, so you want the writer who actually has the ability to make the movie be good and not ruin the movie.
John: So, those are the situations you want to have. That was a strange project because the reason why I was able to get a hold of you is because we both had John Gatins as a friend. And so I called Gatins to get your number and said like, “Is it going to be cool if I call?”
Aline: Oh, that’s nice.
John: And so it was this movie that you wrote that I really liked. It was just a really good idea. And suddenly Dustin Hoffman was attached, and so I went to this lunch — this crazy lunch — with Dustin Hoffman. And suddenly like, well, this is a movie, and then it just…disappeared.
Aline: Yeah, it got complicated in that way. Those things do. But, we — you meet at different. Wait, so we already knew each other, and I knew Craig already when the strike happened. But the strike was really the thing where writers really connected in a different way. And I think it was sort of the convergence of the strike plus the internet. And all of a sudden people really got to know each other in a way that I had not experienced previously in my career where, you know, people really know each other now in a different way than they ever had before.
And I really think it’s for the good. And I always find it funny when you’re talking to an agent, or an executive, or a producer and you say, “Oh yeah, I talked to so-and-so about that project. Oh, yeah, she did a draft on that. So-and-so is directing it.” And they’re like, “How do you know that?” And it’s because, I think, we know each other more now than we did.
Craig: We know more than they know sometimes. We know so much more than they think we know. We talk to each other… — You know, I have a lot of writer friends. I like writers and it’s been a wonderful thing for me for the last, I don’t know, six or seven years to get this coterie of writers around me that I admire and that I trust and that I can learn from.
And we share and talk about everything. And I think we do so in a way that is informed by our experience of being safe with each other. That over time we haven’t screwed each other over. That the narrative that we just kind of feed off of each other and compete with each other and undercut each other is essentially bullshit. And that, in fact, we are supportive of each other because the pain that we feel is the most salient thing about the job we do.
So, when we see somebody else feeling it, naturally we just want to help them. I have found — there have been a couple people here and there, but for the most part I have found screenwriters to be incredibly generous and incredibly empathetic, and sweet and encouraging, to me at least.
Aline: I’ll tell you a good story. I had, on this spec that I was working on, I wanted to give it to somebody who didn’t know me and didn’t know the situation and didn’t know anything about it that I could give to, who I really respected. So, I gave it to a writer who I really, really respect but don’t know super well. I mean, I maybe hung out with him a dozen, no, half a dozen times. And I sent him the script and then I didn’t hear from him for awhile which is always the thing where you’re like, “Oh god, he hates it and he can’t figure out how to tell me.”
And then I get an email from him that says, “Look, my dad was sick, he was in the hospital. And so I’m just about to read the script.” And I was like, oh no. And then a couple days go by and I get a set of notes, seven pages of notes —
Aline: That are the most amazing thoughtful, heartfelt —
Craig: You’re welcome. You’re welcome.
Aline: [laughs] Well thought out. Just, you know, including like, “Page 26, you could be doing this. Page 43, you could be doing this.” And written in this way that was like, you know, sometimes you get notes from people and it’s like they’re fighting what the movie is. And this was just a writer understanding like, “Oh, this is what she’s trying to do. You are trying to do this. Let me help you. You’re trying to get to such and such a place in five hours. Let me give you the best directions on how to get there.”
And I was so moved when I got that notes document that I was in my office that I like — tears sprang to my eyes. I know how hard it is as a writer to turn your attention from your own imagination and delve into another person’s script. And that he would do seven pages of these incredible notes really blew me away. And it’s professional camaraderie. And, man, the more of that you can find the better. And it doesn’t have to be somebody famous or — it can be, you now, if you’re 23 years old, it can be somebody else that you know who wants to do this, who will read your stuff and put their heart into it.
John: Well, it’s also back to the issue of as writers we want movies to be better. And so when I’m advising on projects at Sundance or other places, everyone’s like, “Oh, that’s a tremendous amount of your time that you’re spending.” It’s like, yes, but it’s a chance to make kind of movies better. It’s a way to sort of see what a person is attempting to try to do and help them get to that place that they’re trying to get to.
And so seven pages of notes is above and beyond the call. That’s terrific. But really only a writer could do that. Because only a writer could understand what you were trying to do and provide specific ways that you could sort of get to that place.
Craig: You know, I would also say that only a writer can convince you that you’re any good.
Aline: Right. That’s interesting.
Craig: I had a very nice experience. You know, I started writing a novel a couple of years ago. And, honestly, I wrote two chapters and then stopped, mostly just out of fear that it wasn’t going to be any good and that I wasn’t any good. And I’m no good. And, blah, blah, bah, rotten tomatoes.
John: Dennis Palumbo?
Craig: No, it’s not Dennis Palumbo. It’s actually, I gave it to Kelly Marcel because she asked to see it. And she’s a really good writer. And she loved it. And, you know, I have to believe that. I can’t — it’s not the same thing…
When we give screenplays, or we give our work to people that are employing us, they’re just as overly optimistic as we are. Everybody is rooting, rooting, rooting. But you always wonder.
Or you give it to somebody, you know, some producer, or agents, or coverage. Well, who’s doing coverage? I don’t know who they are. But if a writer reads something of yours and says, “This is good,” then you need to believe it. And we can’t get that from anybody else.
John: Yeah. You want that response of, “I’m so happy for you and also a little bit jealous.” That’s the best feeling you can get as a writer is when another writer says, “This is great and I wish I had written it.”
Craig: You know what’s so funny? That’s exactly what she said?
Craig: She said, I actually think she used the words, “I’m a bit jealous.” And then, see, but now I have this other task master that’s making me write this book, which is terrific, you know, terrific, because we also need that. We need somebody, we need a lab partner.
Craig: We need a lab partner.
John: And as we wrap up this segment on the importance of writers being friends, we also need to credit Aline because during the strike, I agree that the 2008 strike was a big game-changer in terms of especially feature writers knowing who each other are. You organized these events that would happen during the strike, or like these drink events where we would all get together and sort of mingle. And it was my first chance of actually getting to know faces with names of some of these people.
During the strike you were assigned to different studios where you were supposed to be doing picketing. And because I am the palest person on earth, I would picket at Paramount Studios from 5:30am till 8:30am. So, it would be dark and I wouldn’t get sunburned. And I loved that group of people I was hanging out with. But everyone else was at different studios.
And so the events that you organized, and there were three or four of them, were terrifically helpful because just suddenly all these names that I’d seen in the trades are suddenly in front of you and you’re talking about and a lot of what we were talking about was the strike, but you’re also talking about the work, and you’re talking about how to make things better.
Aline: But it came at a critical point. People were really, you know, if you try to do those mixers sometimes it’s hard to get people to go. But people were really wanting to be with other writers then and talk about what’s going on, and what are we going to do, and nobody was working.
And so that really, and you were able to organize them over the internet really quickly, send out an e-vite to hundreds of people. And so there were a lot of people who I knew their names but had never met them. And we all kind of really got to know each other during that experience. And it was a really tough… — And people had really varying opinions was the other thing. And a thing that always amazed me was people were really all over the map about what they believed about this, but by and large people were able to, the camaraderie of being screenwriters kind of overcame people’s different point of views.
John: I would say there were different point of views on the strike and sort of what we should be doing on the strike and how long it should go and what we should be fighting for. But a common point of focus in terms of like what our profession is, and sort of what our job is and what our craft is, and so by focusing on the feature writers who are usually completely in isolation, bring thing together, it was a way for us to identify ourselves as a group. Because usually we’re not a group the way that TV writers are often in rooms together and sort of know each other.
John: It was a way for us to actually know who these people were.
Craig: We also, there’s a certain kind of way that screenwriters interact with each other that is unique. And I love it. And it is a very talky, chatty, low tech, low fancy environment, almost always. We don’t do it the way other people do it. There are few screenwriters I know that sort of love to glam it up and throw parties at nightclubs and stuff like that, but for the most part it seems to me we’re at our happiest when we’re talking somewhere where we can hear each other. And that’s fun.
It’s a nice, real way to be in Los Angeles, a town where just around the corner there’s some place that has convinced you is important and you have to go inside. And if you can’t get inside, and who do you know inside, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You know, and there we are with our jeans and our sweaters and our cigars and our wine and we just — we’re able to be real with each other.
Aline: And I will tackle people. I mean, it’s funny, because I won’t do this with any other, you know, I won’t do this with actors, or directors really, but if I see a writer whose work I admire, I mean, I did a panel with Peter Morgan in 2006 and I was so excited he was going to be there. And the video of me is like, you know, a running back approaching, of me literally taking guys and grabbing them by the nape of the neck and chucking them out of the way to get to Pete. I was so excited to meet him.
And I got to him and I was like, “Oh my god, I just came to this thing so I could meet you.” And that moment someone said, “Let me take your picture.” And there’s a picture like 30 seconds after Pete and I meet, and I look like I’m standing next to Santa Claus. I’m so excited to be meeting Peter.
Craig: Well that’s, I mean, John, who was my Peter Morgan in Austin?
John: Oh, it was Breaking Bad, it was Vince Gilligan.
Craig: Vince Gilligan. I mean —
Aline: That thing, when you meet somebody whose work you so admire.
Craig: It’s everything. It’s everything.
Aline: It’s so amazing. And I will tackle people. And Kelly Marcel just moved to town —
Craig: Did you tackle Kelly Marcel?
Aline: I tackled her at the Mr. Banks thing. And she’s new to town so she doesn’t know a lot of writers. And I was like, oh, there’s people for you to meet.
John: There’s a mixer in your future.
Aline: Right. Yeah. And she went to Austin which is a really good way and, you know, one thing I would say is go to an event like Austin. If you’re somebody who is starting out, and again, we just did not have stuff like this when we were starting out and I would have been there tackling people. But, you know, go to these events where there is going to be other aspiring people and you will find people that you connect to, that you can pitch your movies to, that you can talk about what they’re working on.
You don’t have to be connecting to the fancy people. You can be connecting to people who are exactly in the same stage that you’re in.
John: Yes. Everyone grows up together. So there’s lateral things where you’re reading their script, and if you love their script, keep reading their scripts, and keep helping them out, and they will reciprocate. And you will find your people, but you have to sort of look for your people because it’s not you’re a professional football player where you’re just going to be around professional football players.
Aline: That’s right.
John: You are always going to be isolation unless you choose to make yourself not in isolation.
Craig: And don’t be judgy. Don’t be judgy. Don’t think that your friends have to be the fanciest writers in the world, or the most successful writers in the world. Don’t let that get in the way. You — when you fall in love with another writer, you’re falling in love with a kindred spirit and a fellow mind who understands you, who can help you and you can help you and you can help them.
There is no better feeling — the only better feeling than being helped is helping. How is that for Christmas?
John: So, our last thing I want to talk about today is an article that Nima had sent me, but I actually people linking to it, too.
Craig: Here comes the downer!
John: It’s a downer, but there’s a bright side at the end of it, too, kind of, or a brighter side.
Craig: Little bit.
John: Little bit. So, this is a site called priceonomics. It’s about David Raether who is a WGA writer who was a writer on Roseanne. And so he started Roseanne when he was already in his 40s or 50s, so he’d moved from the coast and got a job writing on Roseanne. And wrote on Roseanne for several years and was doing pretty well. He moved up through the ranks of Roseanne.
During the time he was writing for Roseanne he had a wife and eight kids. And eight kids is a lot of kids.
John: And at a certain point his marriage was starting to fall apart, so after Roseanne he took a two-year hiatus and sort of got his marriage back together and got his family situations settled. Moved to a more affordable school district so the kids could stay in that. And then started to go back to writing and to go back to try to find a television job and had a very difficult time finding a television job, which is a common thing you hear all the time which is that gap that happens between, you know, when you’re a writer in your 50s it’s harder and harder to be employed, especially if you weren’t the top showrunner person. It gets harder and harder for that middleclass person.
So, David Raether had, you know, a $500,000 nest egg, which sounds like a lot of money, but that very quickly disappeared. He ended up losing his home. In the article he talks about sort of the process by which the sheriffs come and sort of evict you from your home. And his marriage fell apart. His kids ended up moving in with other families. He ended up homeless in a van. And sort of like what it is to hit the bottom there.
And not bottom that we’re used to. We’re used to like drugs and alcohol, or some other sort of internal crazy that pushed you to the bottom. This was just like the floor just fell out from underneath him. And so the article continues on with sort of how he started working again and sort of getting jobs off Craigslist and ghostwriting things for people who couldn’t write stuff. And eventually sort of building his way up so he’s in a more stable place right now.
But it’s really, I think, a useful thing for us to talk about, especially going into the spirit of Thanksgiving, which is to be not only thankful for the things we have in front of us, but also to be mindful that when things get bad it’s maybe not quite as bad as it seems. That even this guy will say that as bad as things got, once you recognize that you can be homeless and you’ll be okay out of it, he’s like much less fearful about sort of the things that can happen.
So, a couple things I think we can talk about with this article is, first off, that gap year, what he describes as the gap years, that time when you’re no longer sort of employable, but your pension hasn’t kicked in. Because this is a guy who has a WGA pension. So, when he turns 65 he’s got that pension and he’ll be fine. But the problem is he’s not 65 yet.
Aline: Can’t you take it earlier?
Craig: Yeah, a little bit earlier, but at some point they start hitting you with a lot of penalties and things.
John: I think you essentially lose it if you start drawing down too early.
Craig: There’s a specific minimum age you need to hit, but it’s a really bad idea to dip into it.
Aline: Oh, I see. Got it.
John: In the beginning of your career, in the middle of your career, as you start to recognize that you’re sort of at the tail end of your career, what are sort of the financial decisions you make? Because I see a lot of people who sell a spec and think like, “I have a million dollars. I’m a millionaire. I’m going to start living like a millionaire.” And don’t seem to recognize, no, you’re not a millionaire. There’s no such thing as a millionaire, really, and you need to buy a more sensible car.
Craig: Yeah, you know, let me, [laughs], let me do what I do. Just for a moment. I promise I won’t be too mean. There’s a lesson that I drew from this that I have internalized anyway. Which is, you ain’t your job. You’re you. Your job doesn’t make you qualified. Your job doesn’t make you deserving or entitled of anything.
I want to point out something interesting about this guy, and I don’t mean this in the spirit of kicking somebody when they’re down. I’m very happy that he’s pulled himself out of this circumstance. But, he was not in the entertainment business. He was not a television writer. He was not a screenwriter. He had paid none of the dues that people pay for many years in this town to earn those jobs.
He was a casual friend of Tom Arnold’s. And he decided to write a spec script for Roseanne, once it was a hit, and send it to Tom Arnold. And Tom Arnold, who is apparently a very gracious man and likes his friends, said, “Awesome. I’m getting you a job and you’re going to work here.” And when I read that all I could think was, oh, how the people in the room at Roseanne must have felt about that. Like who is this? Are you kidding me?
My point is not to say that he doesn’t deserve to be in that room. He may very well have been the best writer in that room. My point is that just because you have a job as a writer doesn’t mean that you have now broken through some magical thing where you’re a professional writer for life. You’re not. You’re a professional writer right now. And it can go away for me, for you, for any of us, for any number of reasons.
So, you have to protect and save against that. You certainly can’t be so proud and so delusional to think that you can disappear from the one single job you’ve had as a writer, you can disappear for two years and then come back and everybody would just want to give you a job. Even if the market were great, nobody other than Tom Arnold has ever hired you to write before. It just seems so delusional to me.
Please, important lesson here. When you get your big break, it’s not a break. There’s no breaks. You’re going to have to re-break, and re-break, and re-break. It never ends. It never ends.
The other thing is I feel like the story is missing information. I really do.
John: It’s apparently a shortened version of like the book. So there’s actually a much more elaborate book that sort of talks through everything that happened. So, what information did you want to know, Craig?
Craig: Well, I feel like when you are a married person with a wife and eight kids and a job, and then your life is dismantled to the extent that you are separated from your wife, separated from your children, some of whom go to live in another country and you end up in a minivan, that there are additional circumstance beyond, “Huh, can’t find a gig.”
Whether it is substance abuse, or mental health issues, it seems to me like we’re missing some information here, because things just seemed to happen in this story and I’m not quite sure why. And there are also a lot of things that are available for people that he doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of. So, I don’t know. I was just a little suspicious about the whole thing. And a little concerned when I read it. there was a whiff of flimflam about it.
I may just be a terrible person.
Aline: “A whiff of flimflam.”
John: Oh, it’s a very good whiff, though. Well, let’s talk about sort of the, I don’t know, the safety net of it all, because one of the challenges of being a screenwriter is that your income is inherently unstable. And so you cannot predict how much money you’re going to earn the next year, which is a challenging thing.
Now, Aline, your husband has a normal job. And so is that comforting in any way, where like there’s a steady income regardless?
Aline: Yeah, well he doesn’t just have a normal job. He works for a mutual fund, so he’s very conservative. So, we plan very conservatively. But, you know, there are two things that when I can see them in a writer I get a little uncomfortable. One is writers who really love to write. When you run into people who just love to write, and just I love it, I look forward to it, it’s so enjoyable. That always sends up red flags for me.
My people are the ones who are like, “Ugh, it was hard.” You know, of course you have moments where it’s wonderful, but it’s work. It’s really hard work. And I think people who don’t complain about writing concern me. And then also people who just if you have that attitude of like, “I got one gig. I’m set,” it’s not that, man. It’s getting — everybody has to go out and get a job —
Craig: Look at the Jews fighting the Christmas spirit. We just can’t deal with it.
Aline: You’ve got to go get a job. A couple times a year, you’ve got to go back out there. No one is set. So, sometimes you do meet people who get some kind of foot hold, some kind of toe hold, and they seem to feel like they’ve made it through some sort of pearly gates, and it’s just not like that. It’s a hustle.
And I really look at it in a lot of ways as being an entrepreneur. And when you’re an entrepreneur, you know you’re going to have good times and not so good times. And you better take — here’s another metaphor for your — you better take your acorns and put them in your tree trunk.
Craig: And your flying robot.
Aline: And your flying robot. You better take that flying robot and get it some acorns, because this —
Craig: When did you become Dan Rather? I don’t understand what happened?
Aline: It’s a very cyclical business. And I just think you’ve got to keep your head down and do your work, but you’re not owed anything. There’s so many people who want to do this. So, I say all of this having not read the article because I did not do my homework.
John: When I first got paid, my first scale assignment, which was for How to Eat Fried Worms, and then the second thing was A Wrinkle in Time, I would have a spreadsheet. And on that spreadsheet I would track how much money I had and then I would month by month figure out this is what my rent costs. This is what I pay for these different things. And I would sort of watch the money trickle down. So, I could plan ahead, I could see ahead eight months to see like how much money I would actually have.
And that’s a very sobering exercise that’s so useful, because I could see like I cannot be buying anything beyond the bare essentials I need to live, because otherwise I could just run out of money.
Aline: I’m just picturing John in his 20s, which everybody else like lying around on dirty sofas, and John somewhere looking at his spreadsheet.
Craig: With like that little visor? [laughs]
Aline: [laughs] Yeah. And the armband.
Craig: With glasses. Right, the armband. And that adding machine that you have to go Ka-chunk to.
Aline: Sleeves rolled up. His friends are all like, “John will buy us the beer guys, seriously.”
John: I did not buy a bed the first two years I lived in Los Angeles.
Craig: Two? I think my first bed was my fifth year.
John: Yeah, so that’s the thing. We’re basically saying don’t buy a bed. And don’t put your money underneath.
Craig: Don’t buy anything. Don’t buy anything!
Aline: My friend, Jeff, always had this thing which is your evolution as an adult is how far your bed gets off the floor.
Craig: [laughs] That’s absolutely true. It’s true.
Aline: You basically start off sleeping on the floor. And then you get a futon, which is like five inches from the floor. And then you get a futon frame.
John: A frame. Nice. Classy.
Craig: Yes. Yes.
Aline: Which is 11 inches off the ground. And then at some point you buy a bed frame, but it’s not upholstered or anything. It’s just one of those —
Craig: It’s that metal thing.
Aline: It’s that metal thing with the feet.
Craig: That they give away. Yeah.
Aline: And the next thing is you actually get a mattress into a bed. But you’ve got to be — really think like an entrepreneur. And just to go on a side topic for a second, I know you guys have talked with bewilderment many times about why there aren’t more women who do this. And it is easier to understand with directing because the raising of children is not very compatible with being on movie sets. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why there aren’t more female screenwriters and I think it’s this aspect of being an entrepreneur.
You are really running a small business which is you. And you have to put yourself out there every day and wear your sandwich board of like, “I’m interesting. You’re going to listen to me.” And I think that women are attracted to things where they can demonstrate excellence in a somewhat prescribed fashion. That’s why women are killing men in colleges and graduate schools.
But screenwriting is not like that. Screenwriting is a lot like you’re starting a business of making flavored pistachios.
Craig: Here we go. Ice cream. Here we go.
Aline: [laughs] Flavored pistachios, I don’t even know where that came from.
Craig: Flavored pistachios.
John: Well, I can see the movements. I thought you were going to go for some Etsy kind of thing. I thought you were going for some crochet —
Aline: Or like, yeah, macrame, squirrel hats. I went back to squirrels.
Craig: Macrame squirrel hats. And you girls with your flavored pistachios.
Aline: [laughs] But you got to go out there and like be an entrepreneur and save your money and really put yourself out there. And I think that it’s not a thing that we encourage women to do from childhood is to really say like, “I’m interesting…”
John: Well, I wonder if culturally we have a different expectation about men in their 20s, it’s expected that you are broke, and you are sleeping on couches, and that your life is a disaster, but you’re doing all that stuff and so eventually you’re going to break through. And we perceive a woman who is doing that as being a failure. Because that’s not a viable way for her to proceed.
We are more worried for that woman than we are worried for the equivalent man in the 20s who is living that sort of marginal lifestyle. Is that true?
Aline: I don’t know if it’s that. I really think it’s about when you’re coming up as a writer, like I remember I ran into a friend from high school and I had just started being a writer, and I had maybe sold one thing.
And we were at a party and somebody said to me, “What do you do?” And I said, “I’m a writer.” And he looked at me and he said, “Do you really tell people that?”
Craig: [laughs] Cool guy.
Aline: And I thought, you know, I really — it takes a leap of faith and a confidence in yourself to say, yeah, I’m a writer, I have something to say. Because essentially what you do as a writer is you say, “Listen to me. That’s the very first thing you do.”
Craig: Well, that’s, and I wonder if this is something in terms of the gender thing that women are trained by the world around them, if not by their parents, to not aggressively go after what they want because they themselves have an inherent desirability. That they are instructed to essentially play hard to get and to let things come to them.
Aline: I don’t know. Maybe in a — I really think it’s an adjustment on that which is to go out there and say what you have to do at the beginning of your career which is I have nothing to prove to you that what I have to say is valuable except this: what I believe, my voice, my sensibility, my humor, my intelligence. And it’s just as good as anyone else’s. Probably better than someone else’s. You’re going to listen to me. I’m going to sit in a rom. I’m going to command your attention for 20 minutes.
Aline: I’m going to go outside the box. There’s no format for this. You know, it’s a very unscripted kind of unplanned thing.
And what I want to say to women who are listening, and I was talking at a thing at UCSB and what I didn’t know, what I didn’t understand, when I started I thought you had to know people and you had to network, and you had to do all these things which I was really — how was I going to do that? My parents were first generation immigrants. They don’t know anybody. There was no uncle I could call. There was none of that.
Craig: “Aline. I don’t know anybody who can help you.”
Aline: Right So, I had to really take that. And what I didn’t know is you’ve got to have the goods, be good at what you do, serve that apprenticeship of becoming good at what you do, but you also have to say, “My point of view is valuable. Listen to me. I have something to say.”
And I do find young women, younger women, they just do it. They just, you know, I’m working with this young comedian. She makes these YouTube videos on her own. She pays for them on her own. She’s a great DP and she writes songs and she just does it.
And I think that it really is changing and that young women have now unmitigated access to media. They don’t have to audition for anyone. They can just write their blog, or do their video, or put it out there.
Craig: Sisters are doing it for themselves.
Aline: They really are. But what I would say is if you’re trying to get into Hollywood screenwriting, which is a more Mandarin, closed system, you have to bet on yourself. And part of betting on yourself is saving money.
Aline: It is. Because every penny you save is money you can spend giving yourself time to write that great script. And that’s why I was really cheap when I started was just, you know, I know that if I get paid, if I can hold onto this check, if I can stretch this check as long as I can, that’s more time that I can spend working.
Aline: And if you get your first check and you blow it, you’re going to have to go and get that job which is going to be distracting and exhausting.
John: I hear you.
So, let us get to our final thing tonight which is our One Cool Things. So, who wants to start? Craig, do you want to start?
Craig: Yes. Because mine is incredibly short. Scroobius Pip. My One Cool Thing is Scroobius Pip. Look ’em up on YouTube. Awesome.
Aline: Okay. Wow.
Craig: Scroobius Pip.
Aline: Wow. Never heard of that.
Craig: Look ’em up.
John: Actually, I do know what this is because you had linked this on Twitter and Kelly Marcel had pointed it to you. And it is perhaps the angriest song I’ve ever seen.
Craig: Ever! It is this song called You Will See Me. It’s the angriest song I think that has ever been written.
John: So, what’s great about the song is the first half is so inspiring and it’s like, “Yeah, yeah!,” and then it just goes too far in that way that’s just wonderful.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah.
John: Most despotic people were probably like really great and driven and you wanted them to succeed until they went just way too far.
Aline: Oh, that sounds great.
Craig: Yeah, it’s sort of like, you know, I Will Survive turns into I Will Kill All of You. Everyone I see is going to die.
It’s remarkable. And it’s so smart. It’s so smart. It really does make You Oughta Know look like a love poem.
Aline: Oh, I can’t wait.
John: So, we’ll put a link to that in the show notes. My One Cool Thing is a book by Keith Houston called Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. I’m reading it right now. It’s great.
And so it talks about a lot of things like, you know, the paragraph symbol, like where did that come from? And like the crosshairs, and daggers, and asterisks, and all those little strange things. Well, who made that stuff up? And there’s actually a history behind all of those things.
Sometimes the word is made up, but an example is like we think about the paragraph symbol as like, oh, it’s like a P, it’s like a special P. But it’s actually not a P at all. It just sort of ended up looking kind of like that. And actually it’s a crossed C with another line beside it. it’s all different than sort of how you would think.
Aline: Between this and the spreadsheet, you’re really not James —
Aline: Yeah, I was going to say.
John: As a type nerd, I was very excited that this book —
Aline: Or just a nerd.
Craig: Actually, I did think of you. And I’ll try and find the link to this, because it was such a you thing. I can’t believe I didn’t send it to you. I read an article. For a long time people have been struggling to try to denote irony in text.
Craig: And, I don’t know, maybe you saw this article where there was a guy hundreds of years ago who invented an irony mark.
John: And that is covered in this book.
Craig: Oh, it is?
John: It is.
Craig: And it just never caught on. Nobody wanted it.
John: Nobody wanted it. There’s also a whole chapter on the interrobang, which is the question mark and exclamation point at the same time.
Craig: Oh, interrobang.
John: Which ultimately is just not that necessary? You put the two things together, we got it.
Aline: In emails.
John: Emails. Yeah.
Aline: Have you guys talked about treadmill desks?
John: No, so let’s talk about treadmill desks.
Aline: Oh, okay, well that would definitely be One Cool Thing. So, I had a GeekDesk, which I think I got the nod from you on, the GeekDesk, which is you can adjust the height. So, I was writing standing up for awhile. And that was sort of okay, but you get into a lot of slouchy, uncomfortable positions when you’re standing.
And so my friends, Susannah Grant, took the leap. She had also bought the GeekDesk at my recommendation, so we both had those. And then she took the leap and got the TreadDesk which goes under the GeekDesk. And then you’re walking and you’re writing.
And it’s really embarrassing and stupid to look at, but what I really like about it is that I’m a kind of gregarious, like to be busy person, and so a writing for me, a long day of writing, I will eventually feel like — ooh, analogy — I will eventually feel like a raccoon with its foot in the trap.
Craig: We got to have somebody, please somebody out there illustrate every single one of these that she’s done in this episode.
Aline: Oh, that’s good. So, I would feel so trapped by the end of the day. And there’s something about being on the treadmill where you feel like even if I’m — on those days where you feel like I’m not crushing it, at least you feel like I went for a walk today. I did something reasonably healthy. So, I’ve enjoyed it.
And then I emailed Susannah the other day and said, “I’ve taken it to a terrible place,” which is I’ve taken it to dancing.
John: You’re dancing on your treadmill desk?
Aline: A little bit. So, I think this is going to lead to traction.
John: Yeah. It’s could be dangerous. So, your treadmill desk, essentially you’re using your normal standing desk, but then there’s a very flat treadmill that goes underneath it.
Aline: Right. They make this thing now. And it’s TreadDesk. You can find it if you Google TreadDesk, you can find it. Because that was the thing. I couldn’t find one that didn’t have the big —
Craig: But you can’t write like that?
Aline: I do.
Aline: You go very slowly.
Craig: Oh, that’s a nightmare.
Aline: Yeah, you go slowly. And you know what it’s really particularly good for? It’s not great for fine point editing, proofing, where you want to really find, but what it’s really good for is after you’ve gone through a script and you’ve written a bunch of notes to yourself and you’ve written a lot of notes in the margin, that’s what it’s really great for, when you’re implementing stuff that you’ve written by hand. It’s really — like if I have something due, there was a week where I had something due on a Friday and I walked 18 miles that week.
Craig: Oh my god.
John: That’s a good week. I do the same thing with my iPad and the normal treadmill, iPad with the keyboard. And so I can do things like first passes on blog posts. Just doing triage on emails. It’s great for that kind of stuff.
Then when you actually sit down to really focus, then you’re really in writing mode, which is good, too. So, it’s a change in state.
Craig: I just like to walk around, outside, and enjoy God’s splendor.
John: Yeah, we don’t believe you at all, Craig Mazin. We know you far too well.
John: You have more to say?
Craig: Nah. [laughs]
John: All right. If you would like to send a question about vocabulary choices or analogies for Aline Brosh McKenna can make for us, you can write to email@example.com.
Craig: That Aline.
Aline: I covered a lot of animals today.
Craig: Yeah, Aline. Like two squirrels fighting over a flavored pistachio raccoon.
John: What I really want is a Christmas Tree. I know you’re Jewish, but I really want a Christmas Tree with all these ornaments of the metaphors you used.
Craig: And Aline Tree. That would be cool.
Aline: I love it.
John: Aline, are you on Twitter?
John: No. Aline is not on Twitter. But I’m on Twitter, @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
Our podcast that you’re listening to right now is available on iTunes. And so if you’re listening to this on iTunes and have not left a comment, it’s great if you do that because that helps people find the show. So, you can subscribe there.
We enjoyed having Aline Brosh McKenna on our show today.
Craig: As always.
John: Aline, thank you so much for coming by.
Aline: You’re most welcome.
John: And we will get to see you again on December 19th.
Aline: Woot-woot! Oh yeah!
Aline: And that’s when we’re going to have our drink and a half.
Craig: Yes! We will have a drink and a half. And, no, I’m not drinking that foul eggnog.
Aline: We’ll see.
John: So, I’m not really clear based on this new facility we went to, I’m not clear that there’s going to be a bar bar. But if nothing else we’ll have a flask.
Aline: I’ve got a purse.
John: All right.
Craig: And I’ve got a purse.
Aline: All right, guys. Thank you.
John: Thank you guys. Happy Thanksgiving.
Craig: Happy Thanksgiving.
- Aline Brosh McKenna on IMDb, and her first, second, third, and third-and-a-half appearances on Scriptnotes
- The Scriptnotes Holiday Show is sold out, but follow @johnaugust and @clmazin to be the first to know if more tickets are released
- John Gatins on IMDb
- What It’s Like to Fail on priceonomics
- Scroobius Pip and You Will See Me
- Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston
- Irony punctuation on Wikipedia
- The TreadDesk
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Kris Gotthelf