The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello, and happy new year. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Now, despite the fact that you just heard Craig’s voice, he is actually not here with us today. So I cut him in on GarageBand, and I feel a little bit guilty about that, but he says it’s okay. So, truly he’s alive; nothing bad has happened.
What did happen is that he and I both took trips with our families over the holidays, and kept trying to find a time where we could record a new podcast, and we just couldn’t make the times work. So, we will be back next week with a brand new episode.
This week, though, I thought we would take a listen back to some things from the very first episodes of Scriptnotes. This is about a year and a half ago. Our first ten episodes or so don’t show up on iTunes for whatever reason, so if you started listening to the podcast over the last year, you may not be aware of these early episodes, and so I took sort of a best-of from these early episodes.
First up, from episode 3, we look at outlining, white boards, and sort of how you plan out a script. Second, from episode 2, we go back and we look at how do we get an agent or a manager, which is that evergreen question we tried to address at the very start of the podcast; it’s still probably the most common question we get asked every time I open up the mailbox. Finally, from episode 8, we talk about the good boy syndrome, which is that way that screenwriters tend to want to please people, and that can be a very good quality but it can also be a very limiting quality. We also talk about surgery and gynecological issues — we used to talk about gynecological issues a lot on the show for whatever reason.
And that is our episode for today. So I hope you enjoy it. This is sort of a clips show, but as I rationalize it, this is my rationalization: screenwriting and television writing, the career of those things really relies on residuals, and residuals are for the re-use of preexisting material, so this is being very WGA in the sense that we are reusing preexisting material to entertain and educate you.
I hope you’re having a great New Years Day, and we look forward to seeing you next week. Bye.
John: How do you start? Are you a whiteboard person, are you an index card person? How do you start beating out a story?
Craig: Yeah, I’m kind of an index card person. And I say kind of an index card person, because I feel like there’s actually a step before the index card person. I mean really, I’m a shower person. In thinking about it, all the fundamental breakthroughs that occur usually happen because I’m standing in the shower for 20 minutes thinking. And I don’t know why. That’s just where it happens, mostly.
John: That’s exactly where it happens for me, too.
Craig: Yeah. Shower. I don’t know, there’s something about that. And it’s sort of my little sacred place where no one can come in, and I’m alone, and I can just let my mind wander. And ideally I like to try to figure out the biggest things.
Beyond the idea of the movie, what does this main character want? What is the dramatic argument of the movie, the theme, whatever you want to call it, and what would be the most interesting story to kind of get this person from where they are to where they need to be? And I just start thinking there. But yeah, eventually I’d go to note cards.
John: The main ways I see screenwriters breaking stories is either index cards where each index card has one or two, or maybe it’s up to 10 words, that describe an important beat of the story. So, it’s not necessarily a scene, but it’s a thing that happened. So, if you write an action movie, it would be an action set piece. If it were a thriller, it might be a major reversal. So, some way of breaking down the important moments of your screenplay.
And those could be, you might have 30 cards for a movie, you might have 10 cards for a movie, you might have 100 cards for a movie. If you have 100 cards for a movie, you’re probably making too many index cards.
Craig: Too many cards.
John: Too many cards. But cards, here’s what I’ll say that’s good about cards is that it’s very easy to take up a beat and move it someplace else, and sort of lay them all out on a table and figure out how stuff works. A lot of people like to tape them up on the wall, or use Post-It Notes. When I do index cards — and I don’t always do index cards — I really like to have a big, flat table that it’s just much easier to sort of move them around. And, if you’re having to write with somebody, the table is good, because you can both stand there and take a look at this map that you’ve laid out. It’s like, this is how we would go through it. So, that’s index cards.
You can also do different colors for different kinds of beats. So, if you have action beats that are always on red cards…
Craig: Yeah, some people — and they color code them for the characters, so you can see, I haven’t been with this character in a long time.
Lately, what I’ve been doing is kind of short-circuiting the card thing entirely, and actually just recording my voice. I’ll sit with my assistant, and I just start talking through what I want to do. And I record it, and in talking, just as in the act, the physical act of writing, you can start writing.
There’s something about talking it through, where you can arrive at things, it unlocks you a little bit. The enemy of writing is silence, and inactivity. So, talking it out loud seems to be a big help. Now, I’ll take that, she’ll sort of take everything that I’ve recorded, summarize out the crap where you know, I’ll say, “You know what, not that — this,” and then she puts it into Microsoft Word and now I have an actual outline outline.
John: And then 20 years from now it’ll be like The Raiders of Lost Ark sessions, and someone will unearth the original audio and the original transcripts, and say, like, “Wow, that is how the Hangover III got figured out.”
Craig: Right. Except the opposite of that, in terms of its interest to people. Like, “Wow, this is the least interesting recording of notes ever.”
John: And that’s one thing I was using more when I was doing TV shows is the whiteboard. And the whiteboard is sort of ubiquitous in television-land as you’re figuring out your episode. You might be figuring out your season arcs, and you’re really figuring out this given episode, what’s happening in your episode. Generally, if you’re writing as a room, or all the writers in the room are trying to figure out how to do stuff, they’re all staring at one whiteboard, and they have everything marked down in terms of this is what’s happening.
Usually one or two people are empowered with the ability to write stuff on the whiteboard, but others…actual, just simple screenwriters use it too. I know Joss Whedon is a big whiteboard fan. You feel free to sort of erase and make a mess on a whiteboard in ways that you might not if you were doing note cards. Like oh, I have to rip up this note card and do it again. On a whiteboard, everything is sort of possible. And you can sort of scribble and draw arrows, and move stuff around.
Craig: It just seems like it would get so messy. Constantly erasing and doing and erasing and doing. Because I like to — with note cards, I use a bulletin board and thumbtacks, and obviously this is all academic, people should do whatever they want, but I like that I can, with my thing lately, is that I can make two columns. Because actually, I’m like, I don’t know why, I’m one of the few people in the world that makes the columns go columnar instead of rows. I don’t go across, I go up and down. So, as the Act One proceeds, it starts at the top of the board and slowly goes down.
And then — oh, you do that too? Oh, okay. So, that’s … so, I have one column that’s whatever the scenes are, and then to the left of that, I do a column and next to each scene, I have a card that sort of explaining why that scene matters. What is the purpose of the scene, what is the character intention. How is the story actually advanced in a way that has nothing to do with the plot, but the relationship between the characters, or the internal life of the character, and I found that that’s really useful, because it forces me to always think, “What is the point?”
You know, it’s one thing to sort of say, “I have to get from here to here, let’s have a big chase.” Okay. Well now, how could that chase actually be purposeful for advancing the character ball. And I don’t know how you’d fit all that crap onto a whiteboard.
John: It sounds like you’re writing a lot more information on each of those beats right from the very start. Let’s say, you were working on something that’s happening at the end of the first act. So, you have an idea for what the action of that is, and you’re sort of — the idea of the location: there’s going to be a big event at a carnival. So does your card say carnival, and then you have a second card that has all the detailed information about what’s happening there?
Craig: Yeah, no, I would do one card that says “Carnival — Maxwell realizes that the bottle toss game is rigged.” And then next to that I would put a card that says “Maxwell realizes that he should never have trusted So-And-So. He should have been listening to So-And-So all along; she was right.” So this way, I understand, it’s sort of like one column is what, and one column is why.
John: That does make sense. It’s a lot more detail than I ever got, and I would ever get into with cards. I’m always the person with a Sharpie, and I write three words on a card.
Craig: Oh, Okay. I see.
John: So, it’s a very different way of going about it. And I’ve seen whiteboards where they really do kind of get into that kind of detailed information, and so there will be a headline in blue marker, and then detailed stuff below it and you have to really squint to see sort of what’s in there.
John: And it’ll be one of the assistant’s jobs — like the writers’ assistant’s job — is to take iPhone snapshots of all the boards at the end of the day, and transcribe those as notes.
Craig: What I’ve been doing lately is having my assistant actually write the content of the note card on a little Word template with some sort of Sharpie-ish font. And then we can print them. And then if we want to change something, you know, I can just scribble on the card, or I can just ask her to change it, and then she can change it and print it again. Because, you know, we’ve sort of all caught up.
But, the truth is, whatever — I mean, this is my whole thing about outlining: for everybody who is sort of wondering, “Should I do it?” Listen: however you want to outline, outline. If you want to outline in great detail or less detail, it doesn’t matter. But I do think it’s really important to at least approach writing with more than just, “Okay, I have an image of a woman walking through a forest. Fade in: Forest — Morning.” These are how bad screenplays are written.
John: I will agree with you that many bad screenplays are written with just like, I have this one kind of idea, and no idea how to extrapolate from it. What I will say is that a lot of the screenplays where I’ve had the most detailed outlines, I’ve been most frustrated by the final results, and that I kind of got sandwiched in by the outline. And so some of my very, very favorite stuff I’ve written never had that level of detail or thought. So, some of them feel very organic because literally, it was like, it’s what the movie wanted to do next, versus what I as the author said should happen next.
Craig: Right. And I do agree that, I guess the way I would put it is this: You should always feel free to ignore your outline. But if all you get from your outline process is the beginning, the middle and the end, then I think you’ve already done your job.
Craig: All right. Here’s the big question as we hit the midpoint of our podcast and everybody’s been really patient. They’ve listened to us talk about uteruses and the law. John, how do these people get a manager or an agent? [laughs] We ripped the Band-Aid off that 15 minutes ago. We’re still dancing around it aren’t we?
John: I think you get an agent or manager through…I can think of three ways. The first is recommendation. So someone has read your work, has met you, and said, “This guy is awesome. This guy should be writing movies for Hollywood and I’m going to take this script and I’m going to take you, introduce you to this agent or manager, and say you should represent this person because this person is great.”
If that person has the ear of the right agent or manager and there’s already trust and taste being established between them that agent or manager will read your material, say yes or no, and be interested and excited about possibly representing you. That’s how I got an agent, is a friend took the script I had written to his boss.
He was interning at a small production company. The boss liked it, wanted to take it to the studio. I said, “I really need an agent, can you help me get an agent?” He said yes and he took it to an agent he had a relationship with. The agent read it because this guy who he trusted said that it was worth his time reading. He took it, read it, met with me, and he signed it.
That’s a very, very common story for how writers get represented. Second way, I would say, is agents read material that they found through some sort of pre-filtering mechanism. A pre-filtering mechanism could be a really good graduate school program. If you graduated from a top film school and you were the star screenwriter of a USC graduate film school program, some junior agent at an agency is likely reading those scripts and saying, “Oh this is actually a really good writer. This is a person we should consider.”
Even without that writer hunting down that agent the agent was looking for who are the best writers coming out of these programs or the best writers coming out of a competition. These are the Nicholls finalists. Those scripts get read and those people will be having meetings with the people they think are potentially really good clients.
Craig: Makes sense. What’s the third one?
John: Just scouring the world to find interesting voices. I don’t know how much of this story is really accurate, but the apocryphal story of Diablo Cody is here’s a young woman who’s writing a funny blog. An agent reads the blog and says, “This woman can really, really write. She’s funny, she has a voice. I bet she could become a screenwriter.”
I don’t think all those details are quite accurate, but there’s always those writers who they were doing standup and they’re clearly very funny and someone sees their act and says, “I think that person is a performer but I also think that person is a writer and there’s something there that’s worth pursuing.”
Craig: I like those. Of course, all of them are predicated on you being a good writer and writing a good script, as is always the case, but those all make sense. I actually asked an agent at CAA named Bill Zotti, I gave him a call earlier today and I asked him the question. Of course, he groaned because it was that question, but he had a couple of pieces of really good advice that I figured I should pass along.
One is to make sure that, if you are specifically pursuing an agent, to really know who they represent and ask, “Is this agent appropriate for my material?” He said one of the most frustrating things is when he’ll get query letters or log lines for the kind of movies that his clients just don’t write.
Right now there are a lot of resources out there that are relatively inexpensive, like IMDb Pro for instance, where you can actually see, “OK, let’s say I write movies like Judd Apatow. Who represents Judd Apatow? Let me see. I write movies like John August. Who represents John August? Let me see.”
If I send that person a query letter and say, “Listen, I’m a huge fan of John August, I’m aspiring to write like John August, here’s my log line,” you might actually have a shot. Whereas, if you send it to a guy that represents writers who write rated R broad comedies, that person’s going to go, “Well what do I care? It’s not for me.”
Do your homework. If you’re going to go through the effort of trying to break the rocks to get a rep, do your homework about the rep. The other advice that he gave that I thought was pretty smart was to get a job in the business, which seems so blindingly obvious, but yet so many people resist it. I know why because it’s hard and it involves a commitment that you may not be willing to make.
He said listen, 80 percent of the people in the mailroom at one of the big talent agencies are not really interested in being agents. They’re there to learn the business because they want to do other things. They want to produce. They want to write. They want to direct. When you work in that business and you work in that place you get to know the other people there.
You work next to a guy who suddenly is now an assistant to an agent. You say to him, “Listen, I’ve written a script and I’m going to tell you what the idea is.” If he loves it he’s got a chance now to impress his boss with a great piece of material so he’s going to read it. These personal connections are invaluable.
It’s nearly impossible to do that kind of thing from Rhode Island.
John: Yeah. I would also say what your example stresses is the horizontal networking. Everyone always thinks, “Oh to become successful you have to meet more powerful people and get more powerful people to love you.” It’s really not that case at all. It’s been my experience, but it’s also been the experience of all my assistants, the way they got to their next step was by helping out everyone else at their same level.
They were reading other people’s scripts and giving them notes. Those same friends were reading their scripts. Eventually they wrote that thing that was, “You know what? This is the script I’ve been waiting for you to write and I think I know the right person to take this to.” It’s always been those people who were doing exactly the same stuff you were doing who were the next step.
Craig: That’s right. That’s exactly right. I think people should think, as they are horizontally networking, about how they should market themselves. The funny thing is Hollywood, with one hand is saying, “Get out, stay out,” and with the other hand, is saying, “Please, somebody show up,” because they’re hungry for new talent, they’re desperate for new talent.
Nothing makes them happier than a writer who’s better than a guy who makes a million dollars that they don’t have to pay a million dollars to.
They’re actually looking, believe it or not. If you can market yourself properly; for instance we have a couple of friends who wrote a pretty crazy script and just put it out on the Internet and marketed it as this insane thing. It caught on.
John: You’re talking about the Robotard 8000?
Craig: I’m talking about the Robotard 8000. You may say, “Why would you put your screenplay on the Internet, and why would say it was authored by the Robotard 8000?” Well, why, because they have agents at CAA and they’re working. It really got them a lot of attention.
Also, it didn’t hurt that other writers that people trusted were saying, “We read this script. This was really funny.”
Similarly, I’ll tell you, if I were 22 again and I were in a writer’s group, I would say…You and I didn’t have this in the 90s. Let’s get a web page for our writer’s group, and let’s just start blogging about the experience of our writers group. Let’s track the progress of our scripts and the log lines and the rest of it. If one of us catches somebody’s attention, suddenly our writer’s group has a little bit of buzz to it. “What will this writer’s group come up with next?” That’s why that Fempire thing was so cool, with Diablo…
John: Dana and Lorena.
Craig: Dana and Lorena. It was like, Okay. There’s a group. Now, it’s not really a group; they all have to write their own scripts. But something about it, there’s a little bit of sparkly dust to it. It’s interesting.
How do you make yourself interesting? Maybe then somebody will be attracted to your script.
John: We talked about marketing, but it’s really almost positioning. People need to know how to consider you, or what to consider you as. Here’s a terrible way to go into your first meeting: You wrote a really good comedy script that people liked, so they brought you in, a manager and agent sat down to meet with you. They say, “I really liked your script; it was really funny. What do you want to write?”
It’s like, “Well, I mostly want to write period detective stories with monsters.” The manager is going to hem and haw and make conversation for about another 10 minutes, but they’re not going to want to sign you because they were thinking about you as a comedy person. Let them pigeon hole you for five minutes until you actually get something going. They need to know how are they going to make the next phone call to somebody else, saying, “This guy has a really funny comedy script, but he’s exactly the right person to hire for your period action movie.” That just doesn’t make sense.
Craig: It doesn’t. Listen, these guys, what is their training in? Managers and agents are not there to tell you what to be. Their expertise is watching trends and patterns and pulling people out that fit what they believe is going to generate cash. They can’t tell you who to be. What they can do is see who you are and say, “That looks like money.”
So know who you are. Go in there and be who you are.
It doesn’t mean that you have to go in there as Michael Bay. Not everybody has to make $200 million movies; not everybody has to sell $3 million scripts. To be successful in this business, you just have to work. If I could walk into an agent’s office and say, “I will never make more than $200,000 a year, but I will make $200,000 every year for the next 20 years and I won’t bother you a lot,” that’s an instant signing. Why not? That’s great.
It’s not about how much you’re going to do, but just will you do. If you walk into an office and you say, “Look. I wrote this script and this is how I want to come off. These are the movies I love; this is the niche I want to fill.” If they feel like that’s a real niche and that niche needs filling, that’s a big deal. But they can’t tell you who to be.
John: I thought I’d start today with a quote because someone on another message board had left a quote about writing, which was really good, that referenced a Winston Churchill quote. So then I looked up the Winston Churchill quote, and it was great. This is the original Winston Churchill quote, which someone will probably actually find was not really something he said, the same way that all great quotes are always ascribed to Martin Luther King but he didn’t really say them at all.
But this is a good quote. “Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement, then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.” Winston Churchill writing a book.
Craig: It reminds me of… I think it was Antonioni. Somebody said, talking about making a movie, when you start making a movie your goal is to make a great movie, then as you proceed you just want to make a good movie, then at some point you just want to make a movie, and the last stage is you simply want to survive. [laughs] Very similar sentiment.
John: Definitely. I find any of the sort of project that takes months to do, I end up always going through that stage. I always think, “Oh, this movie that I write will be different.” I’m on my 40th thing right now. I just printed, about 20 minutes ago, I printed for the first time because I realized, “Oh, I actually have enough pages that I could print, and it won’t be embarrassingly small.” There’s actually enough that I could actually spend a good hour going through pages. I definitely find that manic depression, peak-and-valley thing happening.
A mutual friend of ours, who probably doesn’t want to be mentioned in the podcast, so I won’t mention her name, described when she was first starting on a project that she was sort of like a grandmother going in the ocean in that she would dip her toes in and splash some water on her ankles and then get back on the shore. Then she’d go in a little bit deeper and a little bit deeper, and eventually she’s in the ocean and she’s swimming, like, “Oh, I’m in the ocean. I’m swimming.”
That very much is what it is when I’m starting almost any project, is I’m always reluctant to start and then I finally get in and get going and recognize, “Oh, you’re more than halfway through.” Suddenly all the stuff that was keeping you away from the script starts sucking you into it. It sort of occupies every available brain cycle. I’m hitting that point in this project right now.
Craig: That’s a great time. There’s something magical that happens around page 70 for whatever reason, the notion that you’re leaving the forest and no longer wandering in. It just lifts you up. Page 50, for some reason, seems like the worst page to me.
John: Yeah, that’s a bleak time. Weirdly, on two recent projects I’ve had to turn in pages early because we could have theoretically lost a director. Both on Preacher and on Monsterpocalypse — I wouldn’t have lost Tim, but we needed to get timing and schedules and stuff figured out — I had to turn in like 45 or 50 pages.
Fortunately, they were a really good, strong 45 or 50 pages. And I felt really good about them, and people liked them, which is hooray, fantastic, that’s exactly what you want. But then to get the mojo back, like, oh my god, I felt like I was done to finish those 45 pages, and then you have everything else ahead of you. That can be a daunting period.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t think the people that employ us have any sense of how emotionally fragile we are when we’re doing this stuff. Minor interruptions, anything sometimes, can cause three days of downtime and fetal position. The truth is there’s nothing we can do about it. They have to do what they’re doing. We all live in the real world. We’re writing movies that require many moving parts and the participation of a lot of people. You don’t always have the luxury of being able to just go through the way you want to but, god, anything that stops momentum is the worst.
John: It’s rough. The challenge I always have if I get notes too early on in a project is I’ll start to question fundamental decisions I’ve made about a story. Thank god in the case of both of those two movies people liked it and said, “Go, write, full speed ahead.” But if they had said, “Oh, we’re reconsidering this aspect of it,” I would have been doomed. That’s the risk.
Craig: We should remember this. There’s a good topic to be had, I know it’s not today’s topic, but the notion of the Good Boy Syndrome, of how you balance being a responsible professional who’s open to criticism because oftentimes criticism makes us write better work, how to balance that with the demands of your own voice and your own instincts so that you’re not bargaining away what matters the most. That is an internal war. Sometimes you have to be a bad guy for everyone’s sake because you’re right. Topic for another day.
John: I don’t know. I would actually propose that we talk about that today. The topic we were going to talk about today was film school and I can sort of talk about film school any time, I have my notes here and I can get back to that. I love this idea of the Good Boy Syndrome is that most of us as screenwriters tended to be decent students.
If we weren’t teacher’s pets, we were at least responsible enough to get stuff done. A lot of times my early writing was getting my mom to read it and say, “Oh, this was really great.” She was proofreading it, but mostly it was, “Hey, mom knows how smart I am.” So we don’t want to be the villains, and sometimes we have to be the villains.
When I was first directing for The Nines, where I decided, “Oh, I should direct this movie,” one of the things I had to get out of my head was this sense of having to feel like a host, having to feel like the person who was putting on the event, putting on the party, and having to make sure everyone’s happy and comfortable.
That’s not my job to make sure everyone’s happy and comfortable. My job is to get this movie made, and I can be nice and polite and friendly while getting this movie made, but it’s not my job to make sure the gaffer’s having a great day. It’s my job to make sure the gaffer know what it is I need to have done or the DP knows what I need to have done, so that everyone can do their job properly.
As the screenwriter on projects, a lot of times so much of our work is theoretical and mushy and you could go 1,000 different ways and there’s not a huge time pressure usually. You want to be the good guy, you want to be the hero, and it’s not always the right choice.
Craig: Yeah, it’s not always the right choice. Think about two diametrically opposed extreme kinds of screenwriters, and they exist. On the one end you have a guy that is the classic resistant, defensive, “I’m not listening to you. I know what I’m doing. Don’t change anything. Don’t tell me what to write. You’re all idiots.”
When we look at that guy, we see someone who’s put his ego or his own fear or emotional needs ahead of what ultimately could be better for the movie. Because even if 90-percent of the people with whom you’re collaborating are idiots, 10-percent of them aren’t. Maybe even only one of them isn’t. Or maybe they’re all idiots, but the truth is one of them is going to be performing. You simply cannot do this job in creative isolation. Let’s call that the bad boy.
On the other end of the spectrum, though, you can have screenwriters who are so eager to please and over collaborate and who are steeped in enough self-loathing that anybody telling them, “I don’t like this,” triggers that impulse of, “Oh no, oh no,” that they agree to everything. Suddenly they find themselves under enormous, anxious stress because they are now writing toward pleasing people as opposed to making a good movie.
Both writers, in the end, will end up with a bad movie and negotiating within yourself, you need both sides of this or else you’re going to get crushed.
John: Yeah. That’s maybe a reason why some writing teams are successful is that one of them is that good cop people pleaser and the other one is the asshole who says, “No, we’re not doing that,” and you do need both functions a lot of times.
Craig: Yeah. I’m sure the roles change, one guy can be the placater, the other one can be the defiant one and then for the producers and the director, whoever else is on the other side of the script, they can see, “Okay. Well, at least some sort of truce is being brokered. There’s a negotiation happening.” But if it’s just you, you have to be both of those things at once. Very difficult.
John: In projects that have come in to do rewrite work on, especially in the weekly rewrite work, part of my attraction for that is I do get to be the hero. I get to be the good guy. I get to be the person who arrives and fixes this problem and makes everyone feel better about the situation and then I get to leave. That’s the remarkable thing.
You recognize that a lot of the stuff that you’re finding in the script, a lot of the cruft and stacked up bad decisions weren’t because the previous writer or writers were bad writers. It’s that they were trying to address concerns that other people had, often not the same person’s concerns. So the director needed this and the producer said this and the star said, “I really want a scene where I’m eating hamburgers,” and all those things got put into the script that weren’t necessarily the right choice for the script at all.
Craig: Yeah. When you come on specifically to help something they’re literally saying, “Look, we need things. Give them to us.” So your job is very clear and you are sort of rent-a-writer and you don’t have to get super visionary about it because you’re only there for a week or two. And sometimes that kind of detachment is precisely what the movie needs. It doesn’t always mean that you’re coming in to deliver hackwork. Your emotional distance may be very useful.
But when you’re writing a script from scratch or you’re doing a page one rewrite or something like that you do need a vision and you do need something that you must protect. I’m still dwelling on the fact that you used the word “cruft.” Is that what you said? Cruft?
Craig: What is that?
John: Cruft. My use of the word comes from coding, and cruft is extra stuff that’s in code that doesn’t actually do anything, it just junks it all up.
Craig: Like an inefficient…?
John: Yeah. Again, I’m probably using the term slightly incorrectly, but cruft to me is sort of like the breadcrumbs that are left from previous ways of doing things. So it’s the loops that don’t really need to be loops. It’s the extra stuff. So it’s not the comments. It’s not the actual explanatory stuff. It’s vestigial stuff that’s left.
Craig: It’s vestigial. I was going to say it’s like a little tail hanging off of a baby’s butt.
John: Baby tails.
Craig: Baby tails. By the way, that is not normal.
John: If you have a tail, you should probably see somebody because that could be a problem down the road.
Craig: It’s biological cruft.
John: I’ve had tail bone problems before and I think part of the reason why we have back problems is that our ancestors had tails and things just worked differently. From sitting in my chair for so much of my day I will develop aches in my hips and the sacrum, which is where your tail bone is. If I just had a tail I could crack something, but there’s nothing to crack.
Craig: The human back is the greatest refutation to intelligent design theorists. It’s the worst design ever.
John: We’re a series of compromises. Just like every movie is essentially a series of compromises. The human body is a huge series of compromises. We’re born at nine months not because we’re ready to be born, but because otherwise our giant heads would not fit through the pelvis.
Craig: Correct. That’s why the first two and a half months of an infant’s life are useless.
John: It’s the fourth trimester.
Craig: It’s the fourth trimester. Horses are born, they plop out, they stagger around for two minutes, and then they’re running around eating oats. We can’t even hold our heads up.
John: We’re sad and we’re pathetic.
Craig: Useless. We’re cruft. [laughs]
John: There’s a lot of cruft there. Because of this sort of biological problem, this engineering problem, the first two months of a child’s life for parents is just horrible.
Craig: Worst. The worst because your child gives you nothing.
John: Their brains can’t actually do any of the stuff that would cause you to have a parental attachment. They can’t smile at you, they can’t roll over. They can just poop and eat. We love them just because we have so much sunken cost into them during those two months. It’s tough. It’s not intelligent design.
Craig: I’m sure there is a biological, hormonal component to postnatal depression, but I do honestly believe at least half of it is the crash that comes from the expectation what it means to have a baby and then have no emotional connection to it. Babies, that first four, five, six weeks they don’t even recognize you. It’s awful.
John: My biggest frustration is couples, women mostly, pregnant women, who will go through this whole elaborate thing about exactly how they want the birth to be, because like with the birth is a big, bigger thing. And they haven’t planned for like two minutes after the birth. They know exactly how they want the room set up, and what they want the doula doing, but they haven’t figured out like, “Oh, what are we going to do in that first horrible month when no one is sleeping?”
Craig: That’s exactly right. And you know what? It’s people when they’re having babies — this is now, we’re once again back to gynecology, which I love — when people are going to have their first baby, they want to apply as much control as they can. But the only thing they can control is the birth, and they’ll get really, really finicky about it, but the baby upon birth dashes all of your plans to hell, because she’s screaming.
So that’s it. Plan’s gone. When I had my second kid, I didn’t care about any of that birth nonsense. All I cared about was lining up a night nurse. To me, that is like I would sell anything for a night nurse. I would rather have a night nurse for the first month of an infancy, for a new baby, than a car.
John: A night nurse, for people who don’t know, is a woman — generally — you hire and who comes and takes care of the baby overnight. Basically feeds and diapers the baby overnight, so that the parents can sleep. You don’t hire the night nurse for the baby. You hire the night nurse for yourself.
John: So you get a night of sleep.
Craig: And you cannot imagine the difference it makes in your experience with this child. The day is annoying anyway, because the child gives you nothing and screams and cries and poops, but at least you’re not exhausted to the point of tears. You’re functional. Again, nothing to do with screen… Although it is, you know what? If you’re a screenwriter and you’re having a baby, you can’t write without a night nurse. So that’s it. [laughter]
John: Actually, I have a better way to sort of bring it back to the actual process of screenwriting is that these couples — these women who are planning for the birth, and they’re focusing all of this energy on the birth — are very much like the producers and studio development people who are focusing on the screenplay.
So they’re trying to make this movie, and they’re focusing only on this script that’s in front of them. But they’re not focusing on, like, “Oh, you know what? There’s actually going to be a movie.” And that the minute you start production and the minute you get to that first test screening and all the stuff down the road, they’re not thinking about that final movie.
They get so obsessed with this little one moment on this page, and making sure that thing is exactly what they want it to be, that they sometimes stop thinking about the entire… the actual point of the work that they’re doing, which is to make this movie.
Craig: That is a genius analogy. It’s so true. The obsession over minutiae when you’re writing a screenplay is entirely about people who are afraid — and we all are, not just them; all of us, everyone’s afraid of this — exercising control over it, but it is endlessly amusing to me that all the things that we all have god knows how many hours of conference calls over tiny little things get dashed to pieces when the director shows up and says, “You know what? On the day, I think it should just be this.” And everybody’s like, “Okay,” because you’re the director.
That’s like, “I’m giving you the baby now. You raise the baby, but boy, we really sure put a whole lot of time into thinking about what it should wear on Wednesday morning.”
It’s a perfect analogy, and the more you recognize as a screenwriter that many of the notes are about exercising control out of fear, the more you can actually relax about them. Because we get bad notes sometimes. They’re not trying to hurt you. They’re just trying to protect their fear level, which is extraordinary.
John: And generally, as you’re getting notes and you’re job as a screenwriter is to figure out who’s notes are really coming at you, and which are the important notes.
And the best analogy I can actually think of is something that happens every time you go into a creative meeting. You’re in somebody’s office, and an actual okay question to ask is, “Where should I sit?” because there’s one chair that the person who’s the most important person in the room wants to sit in, so you make sure that person gets the chair they want to sit in.
And you should be sitting someplace where you can look directly at that person, and you can turn your head and look at everybody else, but really you’re talking to that one person. And when you go into those meetings and you figure out who is the actual most important person in the room — that’s the same experience of these notes. It’s that you could try to address everybody’s notes and make sure everyone gets heard, but then you’re just being a good boy, and you’re not necessarily being a good writer.
Craig: That’s right. And the instinct or ability to determine who needs to be listened to primarily — that is unfortunately one of those things that requires some experience. I mean, I’m sure some people are better at it than others right out of the box, but for new screenwriters, you are going to have some dramatic, clumsy meetings where you blow it. And you just blow it because you’re learning how all this stuff works. In the end, everybody figures it out.
John: One of the very smart things my first agent, who in the last podcast I talked about how I let him go —
Craig: Oh, your first agent in quotes, the one that doesn’t exist?
John: Yes, who apparently doesn’t exist — my imaginary first agent. One of the smart things that he did or I did myself somehow, was he sent me out on fifteen meetings, like right away. And they were really unimportant meetings. They were sort of the junior executives at various production companies. And so they’d read my script and we’d talk, but it was mostly, I think, just to burn me through my first fifteen terrible meetings, so I got better at it.
Craig: Yeah, I like this. Yeah, that’s smart. Good… It’s sort of like spring training for meetings. I like it.
John: So we have a little time here, so I think I may jump ahead, and I do want to talk about film school, but I think we can tie a lot of this back in here. So we’ll see how this goes.
John: This last week I got to talk at UCLA. So it was a group of students who had just watched The Nines, and had watched God, the short I did with Melissa McCarthy before that, and so it was great to be sitting in a room with people who had just very recently seen the two movies I had done and could talk about them in a smart way. This was mostly a graduate group, some cinematographers, some directors, and I got to see what the UCLA Film School looks like, which is pretty nice. It’s not as nice as the new USC building, but it’s pretty nice.
And then over the last month I’d been up to USC three times to talk to students, both in the screenwriting program and some of the incoming freshmen, and it’s got me thinking a lot about film school, and college and graduate school overall.
So I made a list of eight reasons why you go to college or grad school at all, whether it’s film school or any sort of college program, some reasons why you’d want to go. As I’m talking, keep note of those and see which ones you think are actually important and which ones I’m just talking out of my ass.
Craig: I’m getting a pen. I’ve got an index card. I’m taking notes.
John: All right. Reasons to go to college or a grad school program. The information, literally so you learn this thing that you’re supposed to be learning.
Two, a degree or some sort of certificate that proves that you know how to do this thing. And in some professions, that’s incredibly important, like engineering — you have to be certified to be able to do certain things. Medical school, obviously.
Number three, access to special equipment.
Craig: Wait, wait. You need a degree to do medicine?
John: In the U.S., you do.
Craig: Oh, boy.
John: Yeah. Sorry.
Craig: Oh, boy.
John: Is this going to be problematic for you there, Craig?
Craig: Ooh, no. I, I… Send him out. I can’t do it. Not today. Okay, go on. Number three?
John: Number three, access to special equipment. For some things, that’s really obvious. If you’re doing nuclear engineering, you probably need some kind of special stuff, but even, like, a law library is sort of special equipment. It’d be hard to do law school without access to some sort of law library.
Number four, structure. That’s the sense that’s like, “That’s me learning calculus.” I never had a real calculus class. And so I kept thinking, like, “Oh, I could teach myself calculus.” But I’ve never taught myself calculus, because I would need the structure of having to actually work my way through the book.
The last four reasons are sort of people-related.
Number five, professors. Professors are experts, like the learned people in that field who are the teachers who will teach you.
Number six, peers, people who are there to do the same thing that you’re trying to do.
Number seven, alumni, people who are going to be helpful for your learning process, but ultimately to get a job and to sort of thrive in your career.
And the last reason, so these are kind of out of order, but the last reason is because you enjoy it, because you want to have a good time, and it’s a good way to spend a couple years.
Craig: None of these reasons are sex.
John: Well, sex is enjoyment.
Craig: Oh, I see. Okay, fine. Now I understand number eight. I didn’t understand until you said that. Okay.
John: I would argue that a lot of our traditional liberal arts education or our four year college education is really about the four years aspect. It’s like you’re taking kids when they are 18 years old and letting them grow up to be 22 years old without killing themselves, and they’re going to have sex in a safe environment — a safer environment — and drinking a lot, but they have a safe place to land.
Craig: All right, all right. That’s a pretty good list.
John: Of those eight, let’s think about film school, and which of those do you think are important for film school or not relevant anymore.
Craig: Let me go down the list. Info — of questionable importance for film, to me at least, and I’ll preface this by saying I didn’t go to film school. But I think that much of the information that we need to write good stories is available elsewhere. It may not be available to the extent or in the concentrated form, but that’s covered by some of these other things. So I’ll give it sort of a…
Craig: …a partial. Degree — totally irrelevant.
John: Completely irrelevant. I have no idea where my MFA is. I have an MFA in film. I have no idea where it is. I assume I still have it someplace. No one will ever ask me for my film degree. No one cares.
Craig: No, no one cares. Special equipment — used to be the case. No longer.
John: Very true.
Craig: Used to need the moviolas and all the rest of it. Now, you just need a laptop.
John: It’s interesting looking at USC, because USC just built an amazing new complex for the cinema school, and at the same time, with their freshmen who are showing up there have 5D or 7D cameras of their own, and they have Final Cut Pro 7 on their laptops, so they’re able to make… Smartly, USC is having them make a lot of stuff right away, so they’re shooting stuff constantly and they’re doing it all on their own stuff.
And so downstairs at the USC complex they have these amazing rooms and rooms and rooms of Avids and George Lucas kind of special equipment. And there’s some special things it would be very hard to get any place else, like they have motion capture equipment and 3D labs and stuff like that that would be hard to find other places. But equipment is not nearly as important as it used to be. When I went to film school, you were going to have hard time getting a 16 millimeter camera any place else, and getting your film processed — that was all a big deal.
John: And now it’s not.
Craig: It’s just all gone, so that’s…
John: And, Craig, with your 4S, you have a better camera than anyone in film school had up until…
Craig: Isn’t that amazing?
John: …the mid-’90s, probably.
Craig: Yeah. It’s nuts-o. So, I mean, special equipment — certainly doesn’t play anymore. Structure definitely, I think, is a huge benefit of film school. You are forced by the demands of your curriculum to write, produce, cut, edit, do whatever else is required. It forces you out of your normal state of procrastination, so that’s a helpful thing.
John: A helpful thing.
Craig: Professor mentors — obviously, you can’t get them unless you’re… I mean, you can’t get professorial mentors unless you’re there. I would argue, however, that you can get mentor mentors elsewhere. You don’t need film school to get a great mentor. And frankly, one of the hidden dangers of film school is that a lot of times, the professors are slightly more academic than you would want, I think.
John: I think it’s a really valid question to ask about any film program you’re looking at, is like what have these people actually done? Do they really know what they’re talking about as it relates to the film industry right now versus the film industry 20 years ago? If you’re going to film school for critical studies, that’s probably much less important, because you’re talking about the history of film. Well, you want somebody old, that’s great.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, if you are trying to be a director, a writer, a producer, and you’re not going to NYU or USC or UCLA, I’m not really sure why you’re going to film school at all. Because I don’t know if they are attracting the kind of people that really can steer you in a smart way. I mean, maybe there are other ones out there, but sometimes I meet people who are going to film school at a tiny, I don’t know, Arizona State Film Studies program, I just don’t know why they’re there.
John: I would say that number six might be a reason why — it’s the peers situation. I think of anything, I think peers is probably the most important reason now to consider film school. It’s that I look at these kids who are in the UCLA program and especially the freshmen, entering freshmen at USC’s program, is they are surrounded by 100 other people who want to do exactly what they want to do, and want to stay up all night doing what they want to do. And that’s a huge help.
They can make a lot of really amazing things. The people who were most helpful for me as I got started in the film world were not the people I knew who were more powerful. They were people who were doing exactly what I was doing. I showed up in Los Angeles knowing 25 people who were exactly the 25 people in my film program, and those are the only people I really knew for two years, and they became best friends and mortal enemies and everything in between, but they were incredibly important to me.
Craig: But that would still, I think, and when we get to alums, it argues for going to an excellent program, because the better the program, the better the peers, and certainly, in the case of USC, NYU, UCLA, the alums are… That’s the one I said wait okay yeah, I mean, man I wish that I had had USC alums helping me out when I showed up. I didn’t have anybody. That’s obviously a big one. And then sex — I feel like, ah, it’s an expensive way to get laid.
John: It is a very expensive way to get laid. I think, you know. We’ve intended to label our podcasts very conservatively, but “an expensive way to get laid” is really a good title for something. [laughter]
Craig: Yeah, tuition, also known as an expensive way to get laid.
John: I think going to undergrad with that as one of your stated goals is completely noble and good, but you shouldn’t be paying $35,000 trying to get into a top-tier film program for just that reason.
Craig: Yeah, super bad idea.
John: Plus the people who are going to applying to a film school program aren’t necessarily going to be the most attractive people you’re going to meet.
Craig: Exactly, for $35,000, this man or woman should be spectacular and do everything.
John: Instead, they’re going to be able to talk about the early films of Tarantino, but that’s not necessarily what you want out of that.
Craig: That’s correct.
John: Let’s recap this list. What is still important about film school in 2011? Partial credit on the information. When I went to film school, the Internet really wasn’t what the Internet is today, so I couldn’t find out about that stuff. I had Premiere Magazine. That was my source of film information, so I showed up not knowing what the studios were.
I’d not really read a script, the first script I read was the printed script in Soderbergh’s diary for Sex, Lies and Videotape. So I’d seen kind of a screenplay, but it wasn’t even formatted properly. Now the Internet is lousy with information about that.
Certificate? Useless, you don’t need a degree. I would say if you’re going to film school and an amazing opportunity happens halfway through, bail.
Craig: Totally, what’s the point of going? It’s a vocational school.
John: A mutual acquaintance of ours, Jon Glickman, was in my graduate school program and bailed, and now runs MGM Studios.
Craig: It’s not like he just became successful. Jon produced the first movie he ever wrote. He and I began at the same time, and you don’t need… If you get the job, go. That’s the whole point.
John: But it was a good thing he was in that graduate school program with me, because I remember being in the elevator with Jon Glickman. We were going to a class, and Joe Roth was going to speak in the class. Joe Roth, who was running at that time… I guess he’d left Disney, was running Revolution, or was right at that time.
Craig: It was Caravan, the forerunner.
John: Caravan before Revolution. I’m in the elevator. It’s me and Jon Glickman and Joe Roth. This is before the class, and Jon Glickman, to his credit, and his audacity, is like, “Hey, I’m Jon Glickman, I really want to work for you. After class, I’m going to give you my stuff and I really want you to hire me at your new company.” Joe Roth did.
Craig: It’s amazing is that he went to go work for Joe Roth. Joe Roth was partners with Roger Birnbaum, and then Joe Roth went off later to do Revolution. Jon has stayed with Roger the whole way through. Talk about a fateful elevator meeting. You’re right, I guess that falls under peers and alums.
John: Yeah, getting to meet people who will help you. Access to special equipment, not nearly as important. I think there’s still some amazing things you’re going to be able to do at USC Film School or UCLA Film School that are going to be hard to do on your own, but the special equipment is a much less important thing now.
Craig: You know what, it literally comes down to lights. That’s the only equipment I can think of. Lights and maybe a dolly.
John: I would say some of the 3D stuff, and some of the gaming, there’s some really special digital things that USC does now.
Craig: Like mo-cap and so forth?
John: They have a whole mo-cap stage.
Craig: By the way, in five years, watch.
John: Five years, it’ll totally happen. We’ll have mo-cap, easily. Did you watch the Trey Parker South Park documentary? It’s really good.
Craig: I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve got to watch it, I love it.
John: They talk about the six days to air, so they do South Park episodes in six days. What’s encouraging to hear is that they used to spend a ton of money on the technology to make it happen, and now they’re just buying Macs off the shelf, and that’s mostly what it’s done on. They’re able to do it in six days because technology has advanced, not because they necessarily want to do it in six days, it just became possible. Structure, still important?
Craig: Yeah, I think so.
John: I think it’s really important, and having to get stuff done at a certain time is really important. A smart thing that USC is doing with their incoming freshmen is in addition to their class structure, because incoming freshmen, they have a lot of general ed requirements, so they’re taking a lot of stuff that’s not film related. They have this amazing game that’s being played this first semester where students are shooting projects constantly on their own. It provides a structure even though it’s not classically your education.
John: I think they figured out that you’re not really a doctor, and they’re…
Craig: No, that was the ambulance I called for this guy. Just so you know, he was open, I was about to go in. We had him prepped, and then you dropped…
John: A crisis of faith.
Craig: No, you dropped this bomb on me all of a sudden that I can’t do unlicensed surgery in my office in Old Town Pasadena. Anyway, we wheeled him down over to the Cheesecake Factory, and left him there on the corner. He’ll be fine.
John: He’ll be fine. Cheesecake Factory is a pretty good restaurant, I think he’ll be fine.
Craig: He’ll be fine. Everyone’s such a baby about unlicensed surgery. God.
John: I know, come on. What is it, a manicurist can do your nails, but you can’t remove someone’s appendix?
Craig: This was a little more complicated than that, to be fair. I was doing a bypass, and I knew I was in over my head. I opened him up — sometimes I get excited about these things. I don’t think them through.
John: Again, women with childbirth. They have the doula, they have the whole water birth thing all set up.
Craig: That’s me.
John: Yeah, that’s you.
Craig: I got so excited about doing surgery, I really controlled everything up to the point where I was staring at a beating, exposed heart. Then I froze up.
John: Did you ever play the Macintosh game, the surgery game?
Craig: I totally did, I remember it exactly.
John: You had to draw with the mouse the little scalpel line. If you’d go too deep, he would start bleeding out.
Craig: I loved that game. They would also throw things at you, like, “Uh-oh, he’s going through bradycardia,” and you had to know, “Do I inject him with lidocaine or epinephrine?” And if you screwed up, the patient would die, and I killed thousands of Macintosh patients. Thousands, I don’t think I ever made anyone live. This is when I realized I shouldn’t be a doctor.
John: The thing about those early games is so many of them, you would just always lose, and then you just kept playing.
Craig: I think that’s why. It’s funny, they just released for the iOS platform this classic game called Out of this World, which was this gorgeous, rotoscoped game, revolutionary game from 1990. It’s impossible. I’d forgotten how impossible it was.
John: The nostalgic stuff being brought back to new platforms is a weird trend. There’s one video game I’m involved with that’s doing a bit of that. The fascination with pixel art I hope goes away.
Craig: It will. It was stupid to begin with, so we’re just remembering a stupid thing, and then we’ll stop, because it was stupid.
Craig: We’ve often talked about the value of production for the screenwriter. The experience of seeing your pages produced will always make you a better writer, always. It’s so much easier to do that now, with actual expertise, than it ever was before.
Like you said, you could run around with a chunky VHS camcorder when you were a kid, or eight millimeter film, but then you’ve got to cut it, and edit it, and put it in the soup and transitions, all the rest of it. What you can do now almost compels you to do it. There’s no excuse to not.
John: At UCLA, they screened God, my short film, and that was a thing I made with Melissa McCarthy, and I’d taken part of the reshoot crew for Go, and we just splintered off and we shot the short film in two days at my house. That was $30,000 to do, and that was using short ends of 35 millimeter film and borrowing time on an Avid, and all those processing kinds of costs.
The thing that I can’t believe now is there’s just a superimposed title that says “God” over this opening tracking shot, and that was three days of opticals and $4,000 to get that one word over a moving image. Everything that we had to do to shoot God back in ’99 would be simple to do on any camera right now. We’d do it all on a computer.
Craig: No question. By the way, good on you for seeing how brilliant Melissa McCarthy was so early on.
John: I have a good track record of spotting people who will do well. After she got cast in Go… She was fantastic in Go. I watched the cut, and I was like, “My god, she’s terrific.” I bumped into her at Starbucks, and I said in that sort of brief, awkward seeing her again, “You’re amazing. I’m going to write a short film for you, and we’re going to do it, and it’s going to be great.” Then two weeks later I had her licking a parking meter for my movie. She used that as her audition real for years and years after that.
Craig: Yeah, she’s awesome.
John: People say, “Do I have to move to Los Angeles?” That’s the reason you have to move to Los Angeles. Not just so you got your first movie made, but that you bump into her in Starbucks again, and you make short films with her, and make a series of movies with her after that.
Craig: 100 percent.
John: We talked about a lot of stuff today.
Craig: We did amazingly well. I want people to give us some credit. I want credit.
John: I hear some applause, but I’m traveling back through time for it.
I feel like we covered a lot today, and I’m really glad we got back to the gynecological issues that really were the genesis of this whole podcast.
Craig: Eventually we’re going to have a huge audience that just comes for that. Next week’s podcast is entirely about vaginosis.
John: I like it. Things I know, we’ve gotten some reader questions, and I’ve put that up on the blog. Before we go, I’ll say this. If you have a question that you want Craig and I to talk about, if you want Craig and me to talk about it — that was bad — email at email@example.com. There’s a big bucket of questions, and if you ask a question that would be interesting for Craig and I to talk about, we’ll talk about it. Other than that, thank you for listening.
Craig: Yeah, thanks. People keep coming up to me and saying they’re listening to this. They really are, that’s awesome.
John: Thank you, Craig, and have a great weekend. We’ll talk to you soon.
Craig: All right, bye bye.