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 Scriptnotes, Episode 120, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, are you high right now?
Craig: No, I’m not at all high right now. Not right now.
John: And that’s something we’ll be talking about on today’s episode is writers who get high a lot, or somehow use some other substance in order to allow themselves to write.
John: And the pros and cons of doing that.
John: Today we will also talk about the upcoming WGA negotiations. There may have been a template set by the DGA negotiations, so we will talk about that. But first, we wanted to talk about this infographic that probably everyone on Twitter sent to us this last week.
Craig: I mean, there’s got to be some service, someone would make millions, if they could create a service that let people know don’t send this to someone because the rest of the world has already sent it to them.
John: Well, let’s think about that. because it wouldn’t be that hard for Twitter to actually build that in. So, essentially if you were trying to @-message somebody this link, when you send it to them Twitter could come back saying they already got that. Are you sure you want to pester them again?
Craig: That is a great idea. Twitter, please! Just because you and I have a very specific kind of podcast. Probably more specific than 99% of the podcasts out there. And what that means is when something hits our specific topic, everyone sends it. Everyone.
John: I like that Craig knows that our podcast is more specific than every other podcast…
John: Considering he listens to exactly one podcast, this podcast.
Craig: I’m using the process of — I’m using induction.
John: [laughs] Induction.
Craig: Induction. I’m inducing this. Because how could you be more specific than what we talk about?
John: Oh, there are whole podcasts about grandfather clocks.
Craig: What?! That’s crazy. [laughs]
John: Well, if you think back to the prototype for our show, something like Car Talk, where they’re just two brothers talking about cars. And that’s a very — seems like a very specific topic. Granted, it’s more general than screenwriting, although we’re talking about screenwriting in movies overall, so movies are not more specific than cars, are they?
Craig: Well, screenwriting is. But you’re right. I’ll notch it back. We’re not more specific than 99% of podcasts. We’re more specific than 9% of podcasts.
John: We are fairly specific. And so the bigger point being that people do send us things like this infographic a lot. Probably because they like the show. They think this graphic is interesting. And we would probably want to talk about it on the show. And you know what? Let’s do it right now.
Craig: Let’s do it.
John: So, this was an infographic that was put up on Reddit but a guy named profound_whatever. I think that’s his handle. If his actual name was profound_whatever…
Craig: Coolest guy.
John: He’d be kind of cool. Also, you wonder about his parents. It just tells you a lot about who the parents could be if they named their child profound_whatever. This person wrote, “I’ve covered 300 spec scripts for five different companies and assembled findings into a snazzy infographic,” which is linked. And it’s a huge infographic.
So, before we get into this I thought we could talk about what coverage is, because for people who are new to our podcast or to screenwriting, they may not be familiar with coverage.
So, Craig, describe coverage for us.
Craig: Great question. In fact, there was somebody on Twitter recently who was asking this very question and they seemed a little, they just seemed a little at sea about the notion of it.
Coverage is simply the process by which people who are interested in whether or not they should pursue a script ask somebody else to do the work for them. And the work meaning reading the script, summarizing the plot of the script, offering opinion about the quality of the script — relative quality of the script — and then giving it some sort of grade.
Craig: It sounds a bit awful to say that people whose job is to evaluate screenplays don’t do the reading, they essentially farm out the reading of these scripts. But they have to. They just don’t have a choice. There are so many more screenplays than decision makers. And so the decision makers need some sort of filtering system. And that’s how Hollywood has evolved. There have been readers forever. And they get paid, you know, sometimes they get paid okay. Sometimes they don’t get paid much at all. It’s a classic job for somebody that’s starting out.
You yourself did it.
John: I did.
Craig: And you kind of — you just hope that you get good coverage. And everyone has it. Agencies have readers, and studios have readers, and producers have readers. They’re everywhere.
John: Great. So, let’s define some terms. A reader is somebody who works for a producer, a studio, an agency, and someone plops a script down in front of this person and says, “Please read this and write coverage on it.” Coverage is both the process of covering a script, basically like to write out this report on a script, and it’s also the report itself. So, it’s the object and it’s the process.
John: So, coverage can best be thought of as sort of like a book report about a script. And so it has a summary page and it sort of lists the very basic things about it like who wrote it, how many pages long it is, so the quantifiable data. Some grades in different categories, like characterization, or setting, or different things.
John: Plot. Which would be scaled from like poor to excellent. And then usually three possibilities: “consider” or “recommend” are sort of interchangeable terms; “pass with reservations” or “consider with reservations,” sort of like that maybe grade; and then “pass,” which would just be no — you should not consider making this as a film or pursuing this any further.
Craig: Right. Recommend, consider, and pass are like green light, yellow light, red light.
John: Exactly. So, this person wrote coverage on 300 different scripts. When I was reading at TriStar, by the time I left TriStar, I had read 110 scripts and books and written coverage on them. And it’s very common to sort of keep at least your title pages of this in like some sort of database. And so it’s actually easy-ish to generate some kind of report and that’s what this guy apparently did.
John: So, out of 300 total scripts, he recommended eight.
John: 89 scripts received a consider. And 203 scripts received a pass. I found the 89 considers really, really high. Did that strike you as high, too?
Craig: No, because consider is — you have to put yourself in the shoes of the reader. I’m not sure who he was reading for, but you usually know for whom you’re reading. You will find screenplays sometimes that either have a high quality to them, but you don’t think are something that your employer, the person asking you for coverage, is looking to make.
And sometimes you have the opposite problem where, okay, well this is exactly the kind of move they want to make, it’s just not very well written. So, you kind of have to give it to them and let them know, at least, because it may be something that they want to be rewritten, or maybe a writer that they love that they want to put on something else.
So, that didn’t shock me.
John: That’s actually — those are very good points. And consider may also be, depending on the studio or what the venue is that you’re reading for, consider might be consider this is a writing sample. Basically like I don’t think this movie is something you’re going to want to make, but this writer is good, so therefore you should take a look at it.
Craig: Yeah. But the number that should give everybody a little pause is eight scripts out of 300. So, we’re talking about roughly, what, 2.5% success rate there.
John: I will tell you that when I was a reader for TriStar, I recommended — by the time I was done with 110 scripts I had recommended four.
John: And I can tell you on each of the four scripts I recommended I got called to the mat for recommending them. They’d say like, “Why are you wasting our time recommending this script?” And so it’s one of those things where as a reader a lot of times you’re more rewarded for not recommending something, which is a sad thing but a true thing that people should keep in mind.
Craig: Yeah. Because the thing is when you recommend something you’re saying, “You are going to spend three hours on your weekend reading this.”
Craig: And if they hate it, you wasted their precious time.
John: Exactly. You took time away from them and their families and their second wife.
Craig: [laughs] Second wives!
John: Let’s take a look at page count, because I thought you would be very excited by this page count graph. Basically he’s charted from the very shortest script to the very longest script.
Craig: I was excited, yeah.
John: The average script length was 107 pages. But Craig recognized a very familiar pattern from his psychology days.
Craig: The pattern of like the double hump.
John: The double hump. At first glance it is a bell curve, but then as you dig in a little deeper, there’s sort of two places where it also pumps up.
Craig: Yes. This is not a clean bell curve by any stretch. And the average script length here, I think, is less interesting probably — he’s using the mean. I’m kind of more interested in mode or median perhaps. But, yes, there’s this cluster of, I mean, it’s really small on my screen on this particular — oh, there we go.
So, there’s this cluster that occurs kind of around 95 to 100 pages. There’s a cluster that occur around 106 to 112. Then there’s a cluster that’s 117 to 122. A weird little spike, like in the mid 120s. But I was interested, and I was actually pleased to see this, there’s kind of no real average here. When you look at it you realize that there’s pretty remarkable diversity of page length in the range of 95 to 126 pages.
John: Yeah. The highest number of scripts he read had 106 pages rather than 107 pages. Also, I recognize now on the very right end of the chart, it goes up to 147, but it doesn’t fill in all the little steps in between. So, it’s misleading out there on the edges of the chart.
Craig: Yeah, he didn’t do the little squiggle to show that the graph was breaking numerically, which makes sense, because the 147 would have just skewed the graph and made it look stupid.
I mean, let’s give — what’s his name, proper_whatever?
Craig: profound_whatever has done a quite beautiful job graphically here. I just wanted to give him or her credit for their visual sense. I like the color choices and the fonts and everything.
John: Here’s what I would say, a useful thing to take from this. Anywhere between, you know, I’d say 98 pages and 120 pages, you’re going to be in a pretty safe zone. Most of the scripts you’re going to read are going to be in that zone. And so if you’re outside of that zone, you should really think twice.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, you still see, I mean one of the more popular page counts in his infographic is 95 pages, which surprised me that there were that many. You know, I’ve never turned in a script that was fewer than 100 pages. I don’t think I’ve ever turned in a script that was more than 120. I’ve always landed somewhere in that 20 page zone depending on what the story called for.
But, I could see, okay, if it was a great 95 pages, no one is going to throw tantrum. If it’s a great 128 pages, no one is going to throw a tantrum. But, you will start to stress people out as you drift away from. I mean, however many standard deviations away from whatever they say — I would just say 110 is a nice number to call middle zone.
John: Let’s take a look at heroes and villains. Here he’s charting whether the hero and the villain were male, female, and how it all works. So, by far the bulk of scripts were a male hero and a male villain. That’s not surprising to me at all.
John: Male hero/indistinct villain is the second highest number. An indistinct villain is a forest fire, zombies, himself/herself, a haunted house, the Nazis, society, etc.
John: So that man versus something that’s not another man.
Female villain, there’s only 16 scripts. Male versus female villain, 16 scripts. Female villains altogether only accounted for 33 of the —
Craig: That’s right.
John: That’s a not very high number.
John: Female heroes were 33 out of these scripts. Sorry, total of 50 if you count the male and female villains. Not that huge a number.
Craig: No, this may be a function of the fact that more men are writing these screenplays than women. It may be a function of society or god knows what. You know, I always hesitate to draw conclusions from these things. But one thing is clear. This is a very statistically significant finding.
Craig: And the 300 scripts is actually a pretty decent population upon which to draw statistical analysis. That stories about men opposing men are wildly more popular than any other kind of story.
John: Nearly half of the scripts that he covered was a man versus a man.
John: Let’s take a look at the writers. So, of these 300 scripts —
Craig: Oh, well there you go. [laughs]
John: 270 were male writers.
Craig: There we go! That probably has is a big part of it. Yeah.
John: 22 were female writers. Eight were a male/female duo. Solo writers accounted for more than two-thirds, 223. Writer duos or trios accounted for the rest of them. Only four trios.
John: I know very few writing trios. So, if you have three names on a script, that’s usually someone has come in to rewrite it. It’s not that you were a writing team of three people. Do you know any writing teams of three people?
Craig: I do. The most famous and longest lasting writing trio probably in Hollywood is Berg, Schaffer, Mandel.
John: You’re absolutely right.
Craig: But they are an anomaly. No question.
John: Let’s take a look at the miscellaneous section. Heroes/villains with macho action movie names, 25.
Craig: “Stacker Pentecost.”
John: Scripts based on a true story. 18 of those.
John: Yeah. Oh, he didn’t count how many were like a bad word in a title, because that’s always like one of those icebreaker things where you have filthy words in the title.
Craig: Where is that?
John: It’s not there.
Craig: Oh, he didn’t count that.
John: It feels like there would be more of those than pun titles.
John: Because that’s a thing that people do. They throw some word you could never actually use in the movie title —
Craig: But so many pun titles. I mean, Last Vegas is out in theaters right now. People love pun titles. I don’t know why.
John: They do. Found footage scripts, 11. Zombie scripts, 10. Attempts at the next Sherlock Holmes, like historical revision.
John: Manic pixie dream girls, only four.
Craig: Oh, that’s nice to see.
John: But three uses of the scorpion and the frog analogy.
Craig: Well, it’s everyone’s favorite analogy.
John: It’s the best little analogy.
Craig: And look, I like that he puts here, “We get it, some people are born bad.” I know, but you know, like what if it’s in a good script?
John: I would take exception to that. I don’t think you can use that anymore. I think it can be a fantastic script, it would only hurt a fantastic script to actually call it out. Even Drive, with his scorpion jacket, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I get it.”
Craig: Well, what if it’s in the script in action and it’s not meant to be seen or heard? Like what if somebody says something like, “Jim shoots Dan. Dan looks at him. Of course, the scorpion and the frog,” but not like dialogue. Is that okay?
John: Yeah. It wouldn’t bug me nearly as much. I think it’s still absolutely a valid idea that a character cannot change his basic nature. That’s an absolutely valid idea, thematically resonate now, for the next 100 years.
Craig: But you can’t say it.
John: You can’t say it aloud.
Craig: I totally agree with that. That would be ridiculous at this point.
John: So, of the 300 scripts that he covered, he or she, I’m just assuming it’s a he, but that’s not necessarily true, 49 were horror/slasher.
Craig: That’s so crazy to me that there’s that many.
John: So many.
Craig: And you know, interestingly, so that was the most popular genre. And perhaps specs lend themselves to horror/slasher genre. Or perhaps a sort of cottage industry of amateurs love horror. But, horror movies are actually not that — they don’t get made a lot actually.
John: See, I think people will see that those scripts are selling. And we’re making at least ten of those a year. So, I think if you’re a first-time writer who is trying to sell a script, it might be the thing you write though.
Craig: Sure. But, I mean, look at this —
John: It’s not a bad —
Craig: There’s comedy, I mean, every month there’s two comedies, no matter what, without fail. And there are only 31 out of 300. 10% of the scripts were comedies.
John: That seems crazy to me.
Craig: It just seems crazy, right? Whereas almost 50 were horror movies. That was very, I mean, listen, great. Less competition. Please, more horror movies.
John: But here’s a thing I’ll say. If you are a funny person why are you not writing a comedy script? Well, maybe you’re writing a comedy TV half-hour. Maybe that’s where they’re actually spending their time. But if you’re a funny person, you have so much less competition on the spec level for those reads.
Craig: Yeah, well, maybe there just aren’t that many funny people.
John: Now, it could be a reporting bias. Like maybe this guy is known as like not having a sense of humor whatsoever, so he doesn’t get sent those scripts. That’s possible. When I was at TriStar I got sent certain scripts and not other kinds of scripts and I will never know why, but that’s possible.
Craig: Oh, all right.
John: The other genres are less represented. Drama, only 23. Drama that’s not a thriller or crime and gangster. So, that is sort of an eccentric way of breaking that up. Coming of age is broken out separately, so you never quite know what that —
Craig: Right. I mean, 13 science fiction post-apocalyptic. 12 mysteries. I liked “extraordinary romance,” 12 scripts. I’m not sure what that means. I guess, does that mean like — ?
John: I think it’s Twilight.
Craig: Oh, that means almost like supernatural romance?
John: Supernatural romance.
Craig: Oh, okay, I thought extraordinary romance meant like, wow, they really love each other. As opposed to those other movies where they kind of love each other.
John: I will point out that later on in this chart which I didn’t recognize, action-adventure comedy is listed separately as a category as six scripts, so there’s some of your comedy people.
John: Black comedy is listed as four. But black comedy is really it’s own thing. Like black comedy is not joke-joke funny-funny usually.
Craig: Yeah, black comedy is truly its own thing.
John: And there’s seven scripts listed as family, and family is a little bit more likely to be comedy.
Craig: You never know. It could be, or it could be sort of mopey.
John: Time period, story set in the past, 55 scripts. Story set in the future, 12 scripts. The vast majority of stories were set in the present. That makes sense. As it should be, unless there’s a reason to be somewhere else.
John: The endings. Good triumphed over evil in 229 of the scripts. Evil triumphed over good in 32 of the scripts. And there were a lot of horror/slasher movies —
Craig: Right, setting up the sequel.
John: Yes. Open-ended or even-handed. A little of both but not enough of either. 39 scripts.
John: So, I was thinking of my own movies applying to this and it’s like, well, good triumphs over evil. Well, like Go didn’t really have evil to some degree. I guess it’s a happy ending because no one that you cared about died, so —
Craig: Yeah, maybe yours would have been “even-handed.”
John: Yes. All right. Settings. How many scripts were set in each of these different locations. Totals will not add up due to scripts with multiple locations.
So, he has a very nice little map here that shows the locations where a lot of things are set. Obviously things tended to be set more on the edges of the country. So, west coast, east coast, some Texas, some New Orleans, very little in — well, there were four scripts in Denver, Colorado, which has been a weird thing I’ve noticed recently. Because both of your last two movies had a Denver connection, didn’t they? Or, no, your movie and Rawson’s movie? Identity Thief did, but also Rawson’s movie had.
Craig: The reason why is because studios, particularly when you’re dealing with the, we’ll call it mid-budget studio comedy that’s around $30 million or so, which is where We’re the Millers and Identity Thief both landed, they almost inevitably shoot in Atlanta. And you can’t make every movie actually set in Atlanta. Denver, as it turns out, is a kind of — for the rest of America, it’s considered a generic city. Nobody really knows what it looks like. You can kind of get away with it.
And so I have a — that’s why they did Denver, at least for us, and I suspect it was the same for Rawson because he was shooting in Atlanta, also.
John: So, considering that so many movies are shooting in Atlanta right now, not one script was set in Atlanta.
Craig: I know. Which is really interesting.
John: I would say the south overall is hugely underrepresented in this sample. So, Houston, there’s only two. New Orleans, there’s five. Miami, you really can’t count Miami as the south. Nowhere else in the south.
Craig: Yeah. It is odd. When I look at, for instance the original setting for Identity Thief was a road trip from Boston to Portland. So, in this case I would have been in Cambridge, Massachusetts, three scripts, which I assume were Harvard stories, and Portland, Oregon, two scripts. But, when you look at the way people basically write, New York — 43 New York. 32 in LA. 12 in Chicago. And then everybody else is just running behind.
Craig: People love writing movies in New York and LA.
John: They do.
This next category, the undisclosed locations, some of our south is made up here. So, there were 11 scripts set in the deep American south. But, not specifically one southern place or another southern place, which as someone who has made Big Fish, I will tell you that you’re going to find great differences between Alabama, and Kentucky, and Tennessee.
John: So, it strikes me it might be a lack of specificity to use our commonly used term here.
Craig: Or to be fair to these writers, he may have not — when it says “Undisclosed — the deep American South,” there may have been some indication that it was in a state or something like that. But he’s done these by city, so.
John: Yeah. We also don’t know — he presumably didn’t go into this planning to do exactly this infographic chart. And so usually in coverage you would not necessarily list every little detail that could help build this kind of chart.
Craig: Right. I didn’t like seeing though that 46 scripts were in some anonymous small town and then 40 were in some anonymous big city. That’s unacceptable. And I have read many, many scripts where you are in “a town.” What town? How town? [laughs] Please, give me more than “town.”
John: A town in Montana and a town in Arizona are going to be very different towns.
Craig: I mean, this is not a stage play. You know what I mean?
Craig: You can get away with Our Town on stage, but not on film.
John: So, this next section is recurring problems. And this is where it’s really his judgment, and so you should take it with a grain of salt. Like this is his opinion. But, the reader is basically giving his opinion in writing this coverage report anyway.
Usually coverage will have a title page which will list all the sort of quantifiable facts. And also give you the pass/recommend/consider. The second page or couple pages of the coverage will be a synopsis which will basically — just like a book report, like summarizing what actually happens in the plot. The last page of coverage is usually comments, which his basically this is what I actually genuinely think of the script. And this is really the meat of it. And this is where you’re pulling these recurring problems. So, these are the problems that he found in scripts and we’ll go from the most common to the least common problem.
The story begins too late in the script.
John: Yeah. You see that a lot.
Craig: Yeah, you know, I don’t know what to — this is a little hard for me because I’m not sure how to evaluate this exactly. Maybe I disagree with him, and you and I have talked about how —
John: Because you like long first acts.
Craig: Yeah, and you — we both like long first acts. This guy may just be like, “Start,” you know.
John: Well, here’s what I will say based on what he’s putting in his little sub heading here. If it’s not even clear what kind of movie it is until like midway through the script, then you really have a problem.
John: So, even in these long first acts we’re talking about, they’re setting you up for, like, this is what the world of the movie is. This is what we’re going to follow and see. So, even if the fuse hasn’t been lit so quickly, we know that there’s a bomb.
John: We know sort of what the world is.
Craig: Yeah. I have a feeling that if we were to talk to the person that did this, he or she would be able to look us in the eye and say, “No, no, no, trust me. This story began way too late.” And so I’m going to say, okay, yeah, I get that.
John: Scenes are void of meaningful conflict.
John: Yeah. We know this. So, far too often you have scenes where characters are either doing the next thing the story needs them to do, and they’re just doing it, or they’re telling another character something that happened that we already saw happen. Like, you have to look at like what is the conflict within every scene. And if there’s more than one character in the scene, there’s probably some conflict. Hell, if there’s one character in the scene, there’s got to be something that she needs to do that is a source of why there’s an engine in this scene.
Craig: You will also see this a lot in screenplays written by people who are attempting to dramatize their own lives, or things that have happened to them that they think are interesting or funny, but they’re not. All they read like is lunch with three people jabbering.
The script has a by-the-numbers execution, 53 scripts. Yeah, so if you can predict exactly what’s going happen the next ten scenes from now, that’s a problem.
John: The story is too thin. That’s a little bit generic. But he says 20 pages of story spread over 100 script, stuffed with tone but light on plot. Well, yeah, with bad execution, certainly.
Craig: Right. Exactly.
John: There’s lots of movies I love that are actually kind of light on story, but that’s part of their charm that there’s not that much that happens. The French film with the old couple and she has the stroke.
John: Amour. Great. That has 20 pages of plot over a two-hour movie. But you would not want more in there.
Craig: Right. I mean, there are movies where the joy is the journey. And I have a feeling, again, that perfidious_whatever…
Craig: profound_whatever would say to us, “Uh-huh, no, totally. Trust me. None of these were Amour. None of these came close to that. I, in fact, wanted to kill myself with a pillow after reading a number of them.”
John: The villains are cartoonish/evil for the sake of evil. Yeah, that’s really tough. We talked about villains in a previous episode. You have to have — every villain is a hero. You have to look at the whole story from the villain’s point of view. And it has to actually really make sense.
John: They can’t just be doing it “just because.”
Craig: That’s right. Now, there are times when you write a villain and part of their charm is that they are kind of — they’re kind of monologue-y and a little pretentious because that’s who they are. I mean, he writes, “The best villains are those who think they’re the hero of their own story, i.e.,” I think he means e.g., “the Joker, Hans Landa, Anton Chigurh.” Well, the Joker and Hans Landa, in particular, are incredibly snarky, and smirking, and sinister, and have affected dialogue, and pretentious monologues.
Craig: So, you can’t have it both ways, Whatever. You got to pick one. So, I think the answer is if you’re going to go for a villain like that, make them interesting. And make them actual human beings who are understandable.
John: Also, let’s look at, you know, so many of the things he covered were horror/slasher things, which is going to be much more likely to have this as a problem.
John: We’ve come to accept in certain kinds of genre, slasher movies, that the villain is just a psychopathic villain. And there’s something really terrifying about that, but that is sort of evil for the sake of evil.
Craig: And he’s calling out hit men, serial killers, and gangsters. And those three areas are rife with awfulness. No question. The too-cool-for-school hit man. The Hannibal Lector rip-off serial killer. And then gangsters. There’s just, you know, we’ve been doing gangsters since they figured out how to shine light through celluloid.
John: Yeah. Character logic is muddy. Yeah. Often lack of character consistency or a logically unsound villain plot.
John: Every character actually needs a reason. Why is he doing this?
Craig: Yes. Your characters don’t behave like human beings.
John: That’s where I describe where we should be able to freeze the movie and point at every character in the scene and say, “What are they trying to do? What is their goal? What’s happening here?’
John: And if you can’t answer that question you need to stop and actually rewrite your scene.
Craig: And do they pass the human test. Would a human react this way to this?
The female part is underwritten.
John: A common complaint.
The narrative falls into a repetitive pattern.
John: Yup. The conflict is inconsequential/flash in the pan.
Craig: Right, low stakes.
John: And sometimes it’s really just that you can feel the conflict is just being spread on. it’s not inherent to the actual situation. It’s just like people are shouting at each other just because you need them shouting at each other.
Craig: Yeah. And then there’s a problem and it just gets done. There are no obstacles. It’s not interesting. You don’t feel like anybody had to struggle or sweat. There is no significance to what the heroes are tasked to do.
John: The protagonist is a standard issue hero. So, basically based on the genre or the kind of movie it is, it’s exactly the kind of hero you have in this kind of movie.
John: That’s a fair criticism. If it feel generic because it just sort of comes with the territory, that’s not going to be a helpful thing for you.
Craig: No question.
John: The script favors style over substance. Well, yeah. I don’t know, there’s scripts I really enjoy reading that are written very stylishly and have a lot of flourish to them. That can be great. But if it’s not great, it’s not going to be great.
Craig: Yeah, I’m not quite sure I understood the little sub-header here. “The rule of cool for action movies. The rule of funny for comedies. The rule of scary for horror. No depth, just breath and flash.” What are these rules? That they should be those things?
John: Yeah. The rule of cool I kind of get, which I think is going back to that sort of Shane Black action style is what I think they’re trying to get to.
Craig: Hmm, okay.
John: But I don’t know what the rule of funny is. What’s the rule of funny?
Craig: That it’s supposed to be funny? I don’t know what this meant. [laughs] I got confused by that one.
John: The ending is completely anticlimactic.
Craig: Ooh, that’s bad.
John: That’s a problem.
John: Think of your ending before you start writing, folks.
John: Characters are all stereotypes. Sure, that’s not going to work well.
Arbitrary complexity. “Cluttered and complex aren’t synonyms.” Well —
Craig: I know what that means. Sometimes I read scripts and I think the person who wrote this, you know, like Richard Kelly was talking about scope creep. And sometimes you read a script and you think this script has all the invention that only an autistic writer could have put in there, but then also a level of complexity that is bordering on autistic as well. I’m being asked to work too hard to enjoy it.
And now that obviously changes depending on who’s reading it and who’s watching it. And, listen, people went to go see Primer and were like, a lot of people thought it was amazing and some people were like, “Oh, my head.”
Craig: But, most of these rules I think all have to fall under the biggest rule of all which is unless it’s good. [laughs]
John: Unless it’s good, yeah.
Craig: And then it’s Primer and it’s cool.
John: The script goes off the rail in the third act. Yes. That happens probably most of the time where you start to read it and it’s like, wow, that’s not just where I wanted to end up with this story.
Craig: Yeah. Sometimes writers who have not planned their story in such a way that the ending has relevance for the beginning and vice versa, they just replace — they substitute noise.
Craig: So, everyone is going to run around, stuff is going to blow up, I’m going to flash lasers in your eyes, and then roll credits.
John: I honestly believe that most of the problems with scripts’ third acts is because it’s the last thing you wrote. You were just desperate to get it done. And you just didn’t write it with the care that you could have. So, yes, some of it may be plotting. You may not have actually had good ideas for how you were going to wrap stuff up. But, honestly, just the words on the page are much worse than they were in the first 15 pages because you haven’t rewritten it as much as you’ve rewritten those first 15 pages.
Craig: Yeah. It was sort of the last in, last out. And you kind of were rushing and you were tired.
Script’s questions were left unanswered. Sure.
The story is a string of unrelated vignettes. Well, that’s a problem.
Craig: Yeah, that’s bad.
John: The plot unravels through convenience or contrivance.
Craig: Yes. You get one coincidence per movie.
John: Agreed. And so Peter Parker can be bitten by a radioactive spider, but that needs to be it. You can’t have a lot more coincidences there. You can have the one that’s sort of without this coincidence the plot wouldn’t have happened. That’s great. That’s starting you off. That’s like why you’re watching this movie, with this character today. But it can’t be happening again and again throughout the course of your story.
Craig: I would actually say that Peter Parker getting bitten by the spider isn’t a coincidence. That’s a random act. The coincidence that they got in that movie was that Peter Parker’s best friend is the son of a guy who is going to become a super villain. That’s convenient. That is a coincidence. And I think you get one of those kinds of things.
Then, you know, if it happens again and again, like I just happen to be here, and I happen to be going through here, then people start getting really angry because our feeling as an audience is you’re not doing the work that’s required to entertain us. You’re just cheating.
John: Well, we start to disbelieve the world.
John: Because we know that the real world is not that coincidental. Things don’t happen that way so often.
I would say you can sometimes get an extra coincidence if it’s something that helps the villain. And so if it’s the kind of thing where it’s like out of the blue the villain gets something that actually sort of really helps his side, that’s kind of great, too.
Craig: Right. Agreed.
John: Luck. Yeah, if it feels like just luck that helps them get there.
Craig: If luck hurts your character I think it’s okay. [laughs] It just can’t help them.
John: How are you making things worse for your characters? One of those fundamental questions you should be asking with every scene.
John: The script is tonally confused. Okay.
Craig: Sure. See it all the time.
John: The script is stoic to a fault. Let’s see what he says by that. “Nothing rattles the characters or the script. Characters don’t react to moments of drama. The script can’t deliver emotional/dramatic beats successfully. Dramatic beats fall flat, even when characters are dying.”
Craig: See this all the time. That’s a great one.
John: That’s actually a really good observation. It’s not something I’ve ever singled out, but I think it is a real problem where it’s another way of saying the character is not responding in a way to these events as real human beings would.
Craig: That’s why when I say to somebody, “How would a human being respond?” We had that Three Page Challenge a few weeks ago, the really good well written three pages, but there was a moment where somebody after murdering somebody kind of quips. And that was a stoic moment that shouldn’t have been there. It was too stoic for what had just occurred.
John: That was the western.
Craig: Yes. Exactly.
John: The protagonist is not as strong as need to be. Ooh, that’s a bad sentence.
Craig: The protagonist is not as strong as need be.
John: As need be, oh yeah, sorry.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, it’s still not a good sentence. The protagonist is not strong enough is the proper way to write that. We’re now doing coverage of the coverage of the coverage.
John: [laughs] It got very meta here for a second.
The premise is a transparent excuse for action. Well, yes, but that’s not all together bad. There’s a whole genre of movies that are a transparent cause for action. And it’s really the same way we have musicals which are just an excuse for musical production numbers. There can be something lovely and delightful about that in the right kind of movie.
John: So, yes.
Character back stories are irrelevant or useless.
Craig: Well, irrelevant and useless is bad in all circumstances. [laughs]
John: So, a thing is where it’s just like the obligatory “here’s my character backstory” but it doesn’t actually matter at all, don’t do that.
Craig: Yes. That would be bad.
John: Supernatural element is too undefined.
Craig: Uh….well. I don’t know. I mean, sometimes I kind of like it when the supernatural element is appropriately undefined because it’s supernatural, you know. Like when it’s like a very clear, well drawn ghost that explains what his problem is. That’s the one way of doing things. But the idea of some cloud, some evil, some presence, some thing actually matches a child’s understanding of what the dark is, so I kind of like that.
John: I do like that, too. I go back to The Ring, and it’s never really quite clear what’s going on with The Ring, but you are freaked out. And I love that.
Craig: Yeah. Totally.
John: The plot is dragged down by disruptive lulls.
John: Breaks in story where nothing happens. Momentum is lost. Well, momentum is lost is really the key thing here. How are you going from one scene to the next scene and really propelling your story forward? And if you have this little chunk where nothing is happening, that’s going to hurt you.
Craig: That’s got to go.
John: The ending is a case of deus ex machina. Oh, am I pronouncing that right?
John: Machina. It’s a hard “Ch.”
Craig: Deus ex machina. Yes. People have been complaining about this since Aristotle. No question.
John: The gods come in an rescue you.
John: Or something like the gods.
Craig: And, by the way, they’re not even right about — Lord of the Flies doesn’t have a deus ex machina because there is no rescuing. They are lost and broken permanently. Forever. [laughs] But, so I don’t even think of that — to me a deus ex machina is, well, we’ve seen them. We know. We know it when we see it.
John: Characters are indistinguishable from each other. We’ve talked about this a lot.
Craig: Yes we have.
John: Simple things, like your character’s names, will help you out a lot, but every character needs to be more than a name. They need to have defining characteristics so that one character’s dialogue couldn’t be said by another character.
Craig: Correct. If you give somebody an accent, nobody else gets that accent. If you give somebody a clipped way of speaking, nobody else speaks that way. Everybody must speak very, very differently.
John: Yeah. The story is one big shrug.
Craig: Well that would be bad.
John: That would be bad. I think that’s actually a fair comment. When you get to the end and you’re just like, “Yeah, okay.”
Craig: Right like, “Well, that was perfectly well done. I wouldn’t watch it. I don’t feel anything from it. It ticked off all the boxes. It just doesn’t ultimately deserve to be seen.”
Let’s power through the rest of these. Cheesy dialogue. Potboiler script. I don’t even know what potboiler means.
Craig: Me neither.
John: Oh, the airport novel of scripts. Yeah, okay, that’s fair. I guess, but it also just means not well done.
Craig: Sometimes those are cool, yeah.
John: Drama conflict is told but not shown. Yes, show don’t tell. Great setting isn’t utilized. Well, that’s an interesting complaint. Yes. A great setting is worth making the most out of. Emotional element is exaggerated. Well, okay, but maybe sometimes that’s great.
John: Dialogue is stilted and unnecessarily verbose. Sure.
Craig: Hurts the flow. Okay. [laughs] I don’t know, unless you’re watching a Tarantino movie, and then it’s amazing. I don’t know.
John: Then it’s fantastic. Emotional element is neglected. Well, so, this reader has some perfect little zone of emotion where it’s not too much, not too little. The Goldilocks zone is not achieved.
Craig: [laughs] Yeah, and we’re getting angry at this guy. Screw you, man! [laughs]
John: The script is a writer ego trip —
Craig: Well, this one actually did piss me off: includes excessive camera directions, soundtrack choices, actor suggestions, credit sequences. How dare you writer that has invented an entire world, and narrative, and characters, and place, and theme, and purpose, how dare you have an idea of where the camera should be looking, or what music should be playing, or who should be playing the person. Or what could even go in the credits. How dare you! That’s the job of the director.
No, dude, that’s old school. Listen, when you say excessive, all I hear is “too much for me” and I don’t know what that is. Now, finally, at this point in the podcast I’m getting a bit shirty. All right, listen, here’s the situation. I don’t believe there are any scripts that have excessive camera direction or any of this other stuff, unless it’s so excessive that it’s stopping you from reading the script. But in and of itself, this notion that writers aren’t allowed to touch this stuff needs to die.
John: I’m going to stick up for this guy halfway. So, I think “writer ego trip” is a terrible headline for what he’s talking about here. But things like actor suggestions is — actor suggestions don’t belong in a script. That’s breaking the script to say like, “It’s a Will Smith character.” No, don’t do that.
Craig: Not in the script.
John: But everything else, not in the script. So, he’s talking about a script. So, if that’s in the script, that’s crazy.
Craig: Okay, that one, fine.
John: And too many music choices. I think you can get away with like one music choice in your thing. More than that and it’s like you’re reading liner notes. Stop doing that.
But camera direction we’ve talked about on the show. When you do camera direction correctly it feels like you are helping — you’re creating the experience of being an audience member watching it. And that can be fantastic.
Credit sequences are fine. They’re good. I think they’re a useful thing to script if they help tell your story.
John: So, don’t stop.
Craig: And let me just stick up for soundtrack choices for a second. No, you don’t put in soundtrack choices if it’s just background music while a car is driving. But, if you’re building a sequence that is married to music, and there’s a song that you feel will impart what your intention is for this section, then yes, I’m okay with it. And if you need to do it four times, do it four times.
If the music specifically important to what your trying to say, if in fact you’re using the music to say something you would otherwise have to say with words, then it’s okay.
Craig: Anyway, I got a bit shirty. Okay.
John: The script makes a reference but not a joke. A pop culture reference still needs a punch line.
John: Uh…I don’t really quite get that. I mean, I’m sure that he was noting situations where that was annoying, but as a general rule I can’t say that I agree with that general rule.
Craig: It’s about the characters. I mean, there are characters that speak that way. If the idea is that you’re trying to make people laugh just by citing it, then no, I agree, that’s annoying.
John: But I could imagine things where you’re making like a cosmopolitan joke, sort of like very Sex and the City, and so like if someone now orders a cosmo thinking that it’s really cool, I can see you having them do that and that be a pop culture reference, but making the joke about it would just be a hat on a hat. So, in some ways I think there’s times where you make the reference and you don’t try to make a joke out of it.
John: Or you don’t acknowledge the joke.
Craig: Exactly. The point is it’s just a reference which gets made.
John: Last one is the message overshadows the story. Well, yeah. I can think of movies that are…yeah, earnest, where you are left with a message but you don’t really care about the plot.
Craig: Yeah. Some people like those. I mean, if you’re making a message movie and there’s, I don’t know, I don’t write movies like that so I can’t judge.
I did want to say, have you ever seen that thing from Essanay Studios?
John: I don’t know what that is.
Craig: So Essanay was an old movie studio. I think it was an old movie studio from the silent film days. And someone found this thing on the internet that has been passed around. It is authentic. And it is a rejection slip from Essanay studios for your screenplay. And so we’ve just gone through all of these things written by some man or woman in 2013. Now let me read you, very quickly, this.
So, they list 17 things and they put a check mark next to the ones that apply.
John: That’s so wonderful.
Craig: So, Essanay: Your manuscript is returned for the reason checked below. 1. Overstocked 2. No strong dramatic situations. 3. Weak plot. 4. Not our style of story. 5. Idea has been done before. 6. Would not pass the censor board. 7. Too difficult to produce. 8. Too conventional. 9. Not interesting. 10. Not humorous. 11. Not original. 12. Not enough action. 13. No adaptations desired. 14. Improbable. 15. No costume plays or story with foreign settings desired. Illegible.
And last but not least:
- Robbery, kidnapping, murder, suicide, harrowing death-bed, and all scenes of an unpleasant nature should be eliminated.
Yours very truly, Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, Chicago, Illinois.
John: That’s pretty fantastic. So, Craig, when I was in grade school, maybe early junior high I, well, it probably was junior high, I wrote a short story which I hoped to have published in Dragon Magazine.
John: Dragon Magazine being the official monthly magazine of Dungeons & Dragons.
Craig: I remember it well.
John: And so they published some short fiction. Not every month, but every couple months they published some short fiction. So, I wrote this short story which was sort of hopefully, appropriately sort of sorcery-ish. And so I sent it in and I was so hopeful. And I got back that kind of letter. It was a one-page thing with like a checkmark.
John: If I remember properly, though, I think it was just like, “Does not meet our needs at this time.”
John: So, it was at least a useful thing on that since it was like, well, they liked it, it just didn’t meet their needs at this time.
Craig: [laughs] I like that you thought that. You were like, “Hey, dad, great news. They loved it. It doesn’t meet their needs at this time, but that’s sort of like saying it will meet their needs at another time.”
John: And what’s amazing is I think they actually did send it back to me, because that was a time where I was sending them a physical object and they sent me the physical object back because they did that at that time. Just the idea of somebody mailing something back to you at this point is crazy.
Craig: I know. I know. Well, just the idea of departments of people that are getting these things. Although, you know, it still happens. You ask anybody that works somewhere where things are submitted and packages still show up. There are people out there sending cassette tapes out.
Craig: It’s a wild world.
John: Even at the Austin Film Festival, some young musician was like, “I want you to hear my demo thing,” so gave me like a CD. I’m like I have nothing to play this in. A CD? I haven’t touched a CD in a long time.
Craig: Did you make a cool CD-shaped USB drive? Is that was this is? [laughs]
John: [laughs] Because that would be really useful. Ooh, you say you actually printed a URL on a business card. That would be vastly more useful to me.
Craig: Oh, yeah. I’m not going to listen to this.
John: Or like this is my Sound Cloud account. Oh, I know what that is.
Craig: Somebody should go make CD-shaped of things that aren’t CDs. I like it.
John: [laughs] Done.
John: Our next topic is this WGA negotiation that’s coming up. So, essentially this past week the DGA make their deal, or they — so, I don’t want to overstate what they did. The DGA goes into negotiations with the AMPTP which were the people who run all the major studios. And generally the DGA goes in and is the first group to talk with them about the things they would like for the next three-year contract.
John: And they came back with some decisions and now the membership will vote on the deal that they have reached.
Craig: Yeah. Actually historically they haven’t been the first ones to go in. Historically they’ve gone in very early, but the way that the union contracts were staggered the Writers Guild often went first. Sometimes the actors went first. One of the biggest losses that came out of our strike with the companies in 2007/2008 was that we fell out of cycle and the DGA officially did become the first to negotiate.
Technically we are still — we still expire before they do, but it’s so close that, you know, the DGA will literally go in eight or nine months early. So, they are now in the driver’s seat firmly which is where they’ve always wanted to be and that’s where the companies want them to be. The companies know that the DGA is the most likely union to make a deal. They don’t strike.
John: So, next up will be the Writers Guild and the actors will have to go in and negotiate their deals. And the whole idea of being on one of these committees that negotiates these deals is horrifying to me, because why would any sane person ever want to be involved in these negotiations. But, of course, this year I actually am on the negotiating committee, so I was asked to be on this.
It’s weird. I can’t talk in any official capacity about these negotiations, but what I can do is listen to Craig Mazin describe what happened in this last deal and what the things are that we in the negotiating committee might be having our ears open to as we go into this next round of negotiations.
Craig: Sure. Well, the deal is that when a union arrives at one of these agreements, what they’re basically arriving at is a memorandum of basic deal points. It’s a little bit like when you and I get hired to do something. There’s something called a deal memo. And the deal memo basically says this is how many drafts we’re hiring you to do guaranteed and this is what we’re paying you for each draft.
Then there’s this long form contract that the lawyers have to write up that goes into all the nitty gritty like how much do I get paid a week if I have to travel with the production to Paris and so forth. That will still happen. The DGA still has to do that long form. But the deal memo is the important part.
We’re still kind of picking out the details from this, but here are sort of the big ones. They got some wage increases for one-hour programs on basic cable, what they call “out of pattern.” Basic cable is a big, big issue for the writers because we know that the explosion of employment on basic cable dwarfs what is currently available on network, which is where our bread and butter was back in the day of three channels or four channels.
We have a ton of people that are working in cable. And, frankly, cable is a little bit of the wild west. Some of the cable shows aren’t even union at all, which I don’t understand. I don’t understand how we let WGA writers work on those shows. That’s another topic. But they got some sort of little increase. We’re not exactly sure what.
They are continuing to work on new media in small ways. They’re coming up with residuals for things like shows on Netflix, or shows that run on Amazon. So, they’re starting to get into that business.
John: We should clarify, this is original programming for Netflix or for Amazon.
John: So, things like House of Cards or any of those, or Betas, or any of those things.
Craig: Correct. And this is one of those areas where no one seems to know how much money there really is. And they’re trying to figure out how to create a formula that doesn’t turn around and bite you in the butt later. The Writers Guild has, in the past, vehemently argued for formulas that then turned around later were not great for us. So, we have to basically get the details on what’s been done there.
Similarly, they’re covering things in ad-supported streaming and cable video on-demand stuff. Set top box streaming. And these things were uncovered before.
John: Yeah, can you explain cable set top box streaming in a way that might make sense? Because I think that’s video on-demand. That’s what I think of as video on-demand. Isn’t it? Or is it a special case of video on-demand?
Craig: I think it may be that it is that, that it is basically, but it’s not pay-per-view, it’s different. It’s streaming through, you know what I mean?
John: Oh, yeah.
Craig: So if you’re streaming directly from maybe, I don’t know.
John: Here’s what, so once I get into this negation I’ll —
Craig: You’ll find out. You’ll tell us.
John: I’ll find out what these terms really mean. Here’s what I think it might mean. And there are some movies which are free to watch through cable. Like they’re basically video on-demand, but they’re free.
Craig: Oh, they’re ad-supported. That’s what it is.
John: Yeah, they’re either ad-supported or it’s part of a subscription. Basically you get that as part of a subscription. So, those things are free to watch because they’re buying a block of movies that you can watch when you want to watch. So, you’re not paying individually for each movie. My guess is that is the kind of thing which needs to be figured out.
Craig: Right. That we get some residuals based on the ad revenue. And they also, a lot of this stuff, the company is building these free windows where they’re allowed to show things without paying residuals for a little bit just to get people’s interest up and then — and apparently the window for free streaming there was reduced.
To me, the big, I guess this is the big one. The big one really is that traditionally there would be a 3% increase in our scale pay rate. Most screenwriters aren’t dealing with scale. And the 3% increase there isn’t that much anyway. The reason that was always important is because television residuals are in fact tied to minimums, to scale. So, when we would get a 3% increase over the life of the contract, that meant that residuals in perpetuity we’re going to paying out at a higher rate for television.
In the last negotiation the companies successfully worked that number back down to two. And it looks like the directors have gotten them to now over the course of three years work it back up to three again. It’s sort of like, okay, everybody recognized that the marketplace went crazy but that crisis is over and we need to get back to three again.
So, it looks like that happened. I’ll tell you that all this stuff is done. In other words, when the companies come to the Writers Guild, the terms that they negotiate with the directors will be the terms that you guys get and they will not be altered in any important way. There are some areas where things are unique and can be massaged. And for this next negotiation a lot of that has to do with the relative state of health of the pension and health funds at the different unions.
The actors have a whole bunch of issues over there. And we all have our own issues. The writers traditionally have had very strong health and pension funds. I don’t know how Obamacare is going to affect us. I have suspicion that it’s going to. And so I think part of the negotiation is going to be about protecting health and pension from perhaps an increase in taxation or penalties or something like that.
John: Yeah. I think not knowing any specifics about our pension plan and negotiations, the general discussion I’ve heard about Obamacare is that the Writers Guild health plan is considered like one of those luxury plans.
Craig: No question.
John: It covers a whole bunch of things. And because it covers a whole bunch of things it may have different tax ramifications.
Craig: There’s no question. And the thing is what you start to find when you go through a negotiation process is that the companies really look at these contracts bottom line as a number. And it all gets divided up in various different ways. But when they say, okay, well we gave the directors this amount. We’re going to give you this amount. And it’s going to come in terms of an increase in residuals and this and that. And also you can move things around for health and pension.
So, I think this is going to be a fairly boring negotiation. I think it’s basically been negotiated with little areas here and there that we can fiddle with. But this is life in the world of the directors going first and I think we are going to have to get used to it.
John: Let’s go to our third topic for our show this week which is something you suggested which is something you suggested which is, I think was a conversation you had with a fellow writer?
Craig: Yeah. So, I met with a writer, he was a younger writer and he just wanted to get some advice. And obviously no names here. Terrific, terrific person. But he mentioned to me that — he was describing the various struggles that he faced as he was learning his craft and practicing his craft. And a lot of them were very familiar: finding the right amount of time, and self doubt, maybe partnerships that didn’t work out.
And then he brought up this other thing which was getting high. And, you know, you and I, we’re the old guys now. People just get high a lot. [laughs] They get high a lot.
John: You’re saying the younger generation gets high a lot, or our generation gets high a lot?
Craig: I think twenty-somethings just get way higher than we ever did. They just —
John: That may be true.
Craig: They just get high all the time. Our generation obviously got high and still gets high. And drinks. And drank and still drinks. But weed in and of itself, when we were in our twenties you could get arrested, you know? [laughs] Like I had to hide it. You really can’t now. There’s not a — and I actually like that. I believe that marijuana should be legalized.
However, I also believe that if you want to be — and this is what I told this person — stop getting high. If you want to write a screenplay, stop it. You want to get high Friday night through Sunday afternoon? Go for it. But this is a job that to me at least requires an enormous amount of sobriety. Even the famous writers who were notoriously drunk —
There was an interesting article recently. A lot of them found that they were most productive when they were writing through hangovers. It was in the aftermath of the drinking and the abuse. But, it’s romantic to think that you can get high and write the best stuff of your life.
I don’t think it works at all.
John: Well, in a general sense let’s talk about writers and drugs, because I think it’s actually a fascinating topic. The writers who get high because getting high reduces their inhibitions and makes the words flow or whatever, that was never me, and it’s not the experience I’ve noticed from any of my writer colleagues who sort of of my cohort. So, it’s entirely possible that this next generation that’s rising up to replace us, they are tremendously successful at writing while high and I’m just completely missing it. That same way that like I kind of didn’t understand why anyone would have a manager, then Justin Marks explaining why writers have managers.
So, it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong. But I kind of don’t think I’m wrong. Because my experience of being around people who get high a lot is that either you can do two things. You can use it as a crutch. Basically like, well, I can’t write because I’m not high, and I’m always high when I write. That’s tremendously challenging when you’re in any situation where you can’t get high. Where you’re actually in a room working on something and that becomes your thing. It’s like having this weird thing where you can only write when the sun is streaming through the window one certain way and any other way it won’t work. That’s bad. That’s not going to be useful to you.
The other thing I would say is that most of the people I know who get high a lot, their ambition just sort of dissipates a bit. And without ambition, I don’t think you’re going to be able to generate the quantity and quality of work it’s going to take to really make a screenwriting career.
Craig: I agree. I think that it’s important for me to point out that my experience of my cohorts is exactly the same as yours. I don’t know one single successful writer who has maintained a career who continues to abuse drugs or alcohol. I know some that have, and gotten over it, but I don’t know any that continue to do it as a matter of practice and can still function through it. I also think that the problem with writing while you’re high is that you’re not writing. The whole point of getting high is to alter your consciousness, which is fun.
It’s totally fun. Drinking is fun. And getting high is fun. I get it. But it’s about expanding your consciousness, and letting go of who you are for awhile, and when you come back from it, perhaps you can come back with something that you’ve learned about yourself. But then you’re not writing. There’s a you and it’s the sober you. I don’t know how else to put it.
John: I would agree with you. Writing is really hard. And so I think some of the instinct behind using something like pot or people who are using Provigil or Ritalin or other sort of stimulant things, helps them sort of focus in on what they’re doing, it’s an attempt to make something that’s inherently hard feel easier. But in making it feel easier, it’s unlikely that you’re going to find great success in that solution.
If you’re on one of these, if you take Ritalin or whatever, you may pile through more pages. The odds that they’re going to be awesome pages are very, very small.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah.
John: And I would also say the same with pot. You may write a few good sentences, but it’s unlikely you’re going to get the work done that needs to get done.
Craig: No, screenwriting is rigorous. It requires enormous attention. To me, writing while altered is right up there with directing while altered. Or driving. And I’m taking away even the aspect of how dangerous that would be for other people, yourself physically. I mean to say your just not very good at it.
It’s something that requires focus, and attention, and intention, and thought. And the whole point of getting high is to make some of that stuff go away. You know, beyond caffeine and, you know, cigarette, you know, if you feel like hurting your lungs.
But, yeah, just no. Don’t. I think culturally speaking I was a little taken aback, not in a judgmental way, but more in a, huh, I think this is probably going on more than you and I realize.
John: I would agree.
Craig: So, advice here is stop. I don’t think it’s going to help you.
John: Yeah. And so I want to phrase it as this is not a moral judgment about sort of whatever substances you want to consume. Just in my experience looking at sort of historical record of people I know who have succeeded and got stuff done, none of the people I know who have succeeded and really gotten a lot of stuff done have been using stuff frequently to do it.
John: Beyond the exact examples that you list, which are caffeine, which is getting you up and getting your focused through that next bit. And some people do smoke. But not that many people smoke now. Even Craig Mazin doesn’t smoke now.
Craig: Yeah, it’s an occasional, you know. The guy that needs to smoke a cigar every day while you’re writing. Great. Worked for Mark Twain. And really caffeine and nicotine or sort of two peas in a pod. But, you know, totally agree with you. This is not judgmental. I believe all drugs should be legal. I’m very libertarian about that. And I don’t care what you do when you you’re not writing. But, I do want you to be writing, not high or drunk you.
John: Yeah. That’s very important. And I will also say that I’m not discounting the fact that some people have special challenges and their brains are not working right, and so this is really talking about an otherwise healthy person who is trying to write a screenplay.
If you are a person who is sort of not overall healthy in life and needs some other antidepressant or whatever else, go do that and take care of yourself first. So, that’s not like a blanket statement against all drugs or any medication that could help a person.
But specifically taking something in order to get yourself to start writing is not my advice to you.
John: Cool. Craig, I have a One Cool Thing. Do you have a One Cool Thing this week?
Craig: I do.
John: Great. You go first.
Craig: This flows out of this last discussion. When I was thinking about it I realized that it would probably be a good idea if people who were out there who maybe were struggling with this as writers, is there something for writers who are struggling with substance abuse. And I found this. I can’t necessarily vouch for it, because I don’t have a substance abuse problem. And so I don’t have any personal experience. But there is an organization called Writers in Treatment. And they even have scholarships and things. And they’re an independent California non-profit company that basically was started by writers, for writers, here in Los Angeles, to help people recover from alcohol, or drug, or substance abuse, or self-harming probably, or any of these other things that writers get stuck in.
So, I don’t know if you are somebody out there who is struggling and you feel like, well, I would like to recover but I’d like to do it with people that are doing the same thing I’m doing. Then there are some resources for you. This is one. But like I said, I can’t vouch for them. Look around.
I guess the point is they’re out there.
John: Agreed. So, we’ll have a link to that.
My One Cool Thing is called Screenflow. And this last week I’ve been recording some different screencasts on Fountain and Highland and why I like to write in Fountain mostly. And Screenflow is the app I use to record my screen for doing those screencasts. And it’s actually just a terrific application.
In the way that we’re all probably used to taking screenshots of things so we can show like what’s going on on our screen, this is recording the video of your screen and the app is very smart at being able to let you zoom in on parts of the screen. And it very much works like Final Cut Pro in the sense that you’re able to cut between different scenes to get your point across. But it’s a terrifically well designed app that has been a pleasure to use. I’ve probably spent 25 hours in it this last week. And it’s great. So, I highly recommend Screenflow. It’s on the Mac App Store.
John: So, Craig, if people wanted to tweet to you or to me, I am @johnaugust. You are @clmazin.
John: If you want to subscribe to us, go to iTunes and click subscribe for Scriptnotes. Just search for us and click subscribe. If you are there you can leave us a comment. We like those comments.
Next week we should really read those comments. We should go through those because it’s been awhile since we’ve responded. That’s great when people leave comments.
John: And I think that’s it. Oh, if you have questions about stuff that we talked about today at johnaugust.com/podcast you will see a list of all the episodes we’ve done and links to the things we talked about on the show.
Craig: This was a packed podcast. Dense. The dense fruitcake of a podcast.
John: It was a long episode. It started with that dense infographic and I think it really sort of took its tone from there.
Craig: We’re saving lives, John. We’re saving lives. [laughs]
Craig: I want to believe that we’re saving lives.
John: I do want to believe. Craig, thank you so much. Have a great week.
Craig: Thank you, John. Bye.
- profound_whatever’s post on r/screenwriting and its accompanying infographic
- Deus ex machina on Wikipedia
- Directors Guild of America Board OKs New Contract, Triggering Member Vote from Variety
- WGA Announces Contract Negotiating Committee from The Hollywood Reporter
- Writers in Treatment
- Screenflow for Mac, and John’s video and post on why he likes writing in Fountain
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Matthew Chilelli