The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 91 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
How are you, Craig?
Craig: Pretty good. You know, the last time critics kicked my balls in, I was in pretty bad shape. This time I didn’t even…I didn’t feel it. [laughs] It’s pretty good actually, yeah. I learned some good lessons from the last time, one of which was that critics hate what I do, for sure, consistently.
John: Did you learn the lesson to not read reviews?
Craig: I did. I did not read the reviews.
John: Oh, good.
Craig: So, whatever they wrote was wasted on me. I mean, it’s always been wasted on me apparently, but even wasted emotionally on me.
So, the movie, by the time this comes out the movie will have sort of had its big opening weekend. It’s doing well. It’s not doing great, you know. It’s doing well enough for it to be considered a hit movie, I guess. But, it’s doing okay.
John: So, it’s not blowing the ceiling off the movie business?
Craig: Well, you know the thing is Hangover II was nuts, you know. I mean, it made, I don’t know whatever it made, $120 million in its first weekend or something crazy and set all sorts of crazy box office records. And, you know, so it’s just sort come back to earth here for the last one. And I think probably, I don’t know, maybe like $50 million by the time the weekend is done, which, I mean, for any other movie I’d be like, “Holy!”
Craig: Yeah, but you know, it’s The Hangover, so I guess it’s like a big thing. The point is, but people seem to like it. It got a B CinemaScore, which again, it’s okay. I would have liked to have seen… — The funny thing is The Hangover Part II got an A- , I guess, and though the narrative that developed between then and now was that everybody hated it. I don’t know how that happened exactly, but that’s what developed. For this one, B. You know, that’s okay.
I think actually Identity Thief got a B, too, and that found — but it was like a strong B. It was sort of like, okay, well there are a bunch of people that went opening weekend and so I don’t know what a B means. 80% of them thought it was very good and maybe 20% didn’t. But then that 80% really loved it and they kept coming back week, after week, after week.
John: Can we stop for a second and talk about CinemaScore because I think I understand it, but it’s possible that I’m actually misunderstanding what it is. My belief is that CinemaScore is a corporation that goes and they actually ask people who bought a ticket for the movie what they thought of the movie as they’re leaving the theater. Is that correct?
Craig: Yeah. It’s essentially an exit poll.
John: So, a thing to keep in mind with that is you’re asking people what they thought of the movie right after they saw it. And if they loved the movie right after they saw it, if it ended really well, they’re going to probably say they really liked it. And as you’re testing movies that would be like sort of the top two boxes, like how they felt right after they saw it in the theater. But if you were to ask them again in a week, their opinion could have changed on the movie and you won’t have a good way of measuring that.
Craig: That’s exactly right. There are a bunch of things that are sort of built into it that are a little confounding, one of which is that you’re asking people who wanted to go see the movie what they thought of it. So, you are both getting the benefit of people who are naturally inclined towards that movie, but you’re also getting the downside of whatever dissatisfaction of disappointment factor there might be. It’s a bit different than when you just test a movie people go, “Oh, okay, well it’s free. I didn’t pay for it. I had no expectations. Yeah, I liked it. I didn’t like it. Whatever.” So, both of those things are going on.
And then, you’re right, there is just the general bias of, okay, it’s five minutes after you saw a movie. What will you think about it a week later, two weeks later? Who knows?
But, the nice thing is that for this movie I’ve gotten probably the best feedback I’ve ever gotten from my professional friends.
Craig: They liked this movie the most for sure. I got really nice emails. And I haven’t gotten that — I didn’t get those on that level for Identity Thief. I had some nice ones, but not like this. But people, I don’t know, for whatever reason my writer friends really seem to like this movie. Critics, of course, [laughs] remain consistent.
But The Hangover is done. It’s over. I move on.
John: Yeah, so you can take the cures for that, which is a lot of money, and some good fatty food, and some aspirin.
Craig: I’m going to try and avoid fatty food. Actually, no cure is required. I’m very happy and proud of it all. And this weekend, so just before everybody listens to this podcast, I will have spent the great bulk of Memorial Day opening weekend with my son in Irvine at a baseball tournament.
Craig: Yeah, so plenty to focus on that has nothing to do with Hollywood. But for now we should focus on — we have three topics today.
John: We do. First thing I want to talk about is something you and I started talking about on Twitter which is the Bechdel Test.
John: Second we’re going to take a look at a lesson that someone pointed out about superheroes and some traits that superheroes tend to share.
And finally we’ll take a look at Justin Marks’s article about the life of an unknown screenwriter.
Craig: And while we’re doing this, you may — I’m sorry to apologize to everybody in advance. So, I don’t know if you can hear that. Can you hear that?
John: Yeah, are you like drawing something?
Craig: No, it’s a mouse. Why would I be using a mouse? Huh? A mouse?
…Because I spilled Diet Coke on my laptop earlier today.
John: Oh my.
Craig: And the track pad on my MacBook Pro is totally — it’s gone insane. It does work, the problem is it works, but now it just moves on its own.
John: You don’t want that at all. So, you’re going to try to get the moisture out of there. What everyone will actually write in and recommend that you do…
Craig: Rice. A bag of rice.
John: Yeah. A bag of rice.
Craig: I will try the bag of rice. But in the meantime the problem is not only — basically the same software that drives the track pad also drives the external Bluetooth track pad I had. So, that was like, okay, that will work. No, that doesn’t work either.
I’ve had to disable my track pad and use a wired mouse. And by the way for those of you who are on Mac OS 10, if you ever do need to disable your track pad while having a mouse plugged in, you can do that, but you have to check a box that’s in your Accessibility Panel in System Preferences.
John: Holy cow.
Craig: I know.
John: Because basically you have to like climb back into 1999 to use a wired mouse.
Craig: Yup. Yup. Yup. That’s where I am. So, you may hear some drawing/scratching noises as I access the various things that we’re talking about today.
John: It will go really well with my dry cough.
Craig: Yeah, it’s a little barky.
John: Yeah. That’s where we’re at today.
Craig: Do you have Bordetella? [laughs]
John: It sort of sounds like it. I will actually buy cough syrup after this, because last night both my husband and I had that sort of dry non-productive cough, which is just the worst.
Craig: That’s the worst. That usually turns into something terrible, actually.
John: Actually, I looked it up and usually it’s actually the remnants of a cold rather than something, not something else.
Craig: Oh, is that what it is?
John: Yeah, so I had a cold, now it’s gone. People don’t care about our health. They care about things like the Bechdel Test. So, let’s get into that.
Craig: Right. Fine.
John: So, this is something that actually came up on Twitter and it was in reference to Star Trek into Darkness. And someone pointed out like, “Oh hey, did you notice that Star Trek into Darkness does not pass the Bechdel Test?”
And this is something I was familiar with and you were probably familiar with it before. This is something that goes back — I first blogged about it in 2010, but it actually dates back to 2005. And it’s based on the work of a cartoonist named Alison Bechdel.
John: It was amended and sort of clarified by others over the years. But this is basically the three traits of the Bechdel Test. Are there two or more female characters with names? First criteria. Second criteria: Do they talk to each other? Third criteria: If they talk to each other, do they talk about something other than a man?
And so this would seem to be an incredibly low bar to climb over…
Craig: And yet!
John: …and yet many, many, many movies, probably — well, not most movies, but maybe most movies, don’t get over it. And a surprising amount of movies don’t get over it. And so you can find lists online that will chart all these movies that pass the test or don’t pass the test. The question I want to discuss with you: Is it a meaningful thing to be looking at in terms of movies, or not? And how is it helpful/how is it harmful to be looking at movies with these kind of criteria?
Craig: Right. So, yeah, I think that it actually is fascinating. I think it’s fascinating in its elegance. It’s very rare for somebody to come up with something so simple and so simple that is also so remarkably robust across movies.
And I think when I first read about the Bechdel Test I was kind of blown away, because we live in a time when people are constantly attempting to hold mirrors up to us and say, “Look at yourself. Look at your privilege. Look at your this-ism, look at your that-ism.” It’s become an industry.
And so much of it is just crap. And this wasn’t — it was actually really good. And it made an amazing insightful point.
And it’s funny, I was just looking here and I see Identity Thief was on there. We get two out of three kind of. We have two named women, they do talk to each other. The official Bechdel Test determination is that they only talk about another man, that’s Jason Bateman, but then a commenter points out that in fact, no, that Diana, Melissa McCarthy’s character does also talk to Frannie and Jessie, the two little girls about things that aren’t a man.
So, I believe that I did pass the test there.
John: I believe you did pass the test as well.
Craig: I guess my big thing is is it useful to be considering when you’re writing? And I guess I don’t think so. Maybe after you’ve written, but I hate sort of imposing anything artificial. Because what if you have a woman that doesn’t — you know, it’s not that you’re being sexist. The movie is, in fact, about men and a woman. Or, the movie is about women about men, you know? That is part of life, so I guess I’m a little ambivalent about whether or not it’s useful a priori.
John: Yeah. I agree with you that it’s very nice that it’s so simple and clear and largely objective. I mean there are times when you quibble about, you know, did they actually talk about that? Or with Frankenweenie there is this argument whether Weird Girl is actually a named character, because she clearly talks to other women in the story but does she have a name? She basically has a name. She has a name to the degree that any character in that movie has a name.
What I do like is it is largely objective. And so rather than talking about, you know, feminist ideals or sort of gender politics, it literally is check-box marking.
Now, our mutual friend Beth might argue that it’s actually just sort of meaningless checkbox marking and that you could check all those boxes and still make a movie that is terrible, or a movie that is actually antithetical to women’s progress.
John: But it doesn’t necessarily have to achieve any goal other than just measuring whether this movie falls into this category or doesn’t fall into this category. And that can be useful in itself.
Where I might disagree with you, I think it is a useful test in the planning process for screenwriters to think about the Bechdel Test. Because when I’ve stopped in the early development process on a script and thought like, oh, will this actually pass, and realize it didn’t, I can start to think like, well, what would need to change for it to pass? And is that change a useful change regardless? And so that’s, I think, a useful way for screenwriters to be thinking about the Bechdel Test.
So, a specific example is my movie Monsterpocalypse which will never get made because it’s way too much like Pacific Rim, but the principal characters in that were two brothers and a sister. And they were all very competent, like a three-hero kind of lead story. So, the sister is largely talking to her two brothers, but there were times where she was off by herself in her own sort of story, her own adventure. And I realized that, crap, because the mother is killed off early on she is not going to have a chance to talk to any other women. And this movie is going to fail the Bechdel Test which seems crazy, but that’s what was going to happen.
So, I knew I needed her to meet this other scientist character way out in the badlands of South Dakota. Well, what if that scientist character was a woman? So, it at least got me thinking of that. And so that character who I just very blatantly called Bechdel became an important character, became a woman in ways that was actually interesting. And the whole like little museum that they’re held up into, or they were using as sort of their base, was actually kind of fascinatingly informed by this idea of like women in science.
So, that was a useful thing for me to be thinking about in the development process.
Craig: And I do agree. I guess the way I approach it is I like thinking about it in general, not about a specific story, just in general about screenwriting. I generally think about trying to write women in places where another screenwriter might write a man, when I can.
And, again, you and I both know better than anybody, we don’t control the casting of our films, even when we write a character’s gender. That can get changed.
The only thing I… — It’s funny, the condition that kind of bugs me about it a little bit is the “talk to each other” one. So, yes, fewer than two women in this movie that have names, totally — that makes total sense to me. Women only talking to each other about men. Yeah, I get that, too. That is annoying. Women have rich lives beyond simply their interest in men. It’s that they’re talking to each other that’s somehow really important. Why?
Why is that — I’m not understanding. I don’t understand. Because if I have a movie with ten women and one man, and the women are acting on their own in interesting powerful ways, and when they talk to someone they’re talking to a man and they’re talking about things that have nothing to do with men, why is that somehow failing this test of, I guess, gender progression?
John: I would argue that the reason why that criteria of talking to each other, it’s a very simple test. You can say like, “Did they talk to each other or did they not talk to each other?” It’s a binary condition — did that happen or did that not happen? Whereas it otherwise becomes a little bit amorphous.
The other thing, which is worth pointing, is when you look at the reverse Bechdel Test, basically this would be are there two or more male characters with names; do the two men talk to each other; do they talk about something other than a woman. Almost no movies fail that test. And so it is worthwhile to think about the fact that are you just creating movies in which there’s one girl in it and she’s just “the girl” and doesn’t have any chance to interact with other women.
John: And in a certain way are you creating — are you perpetuating a system in which women are only as good as the men they are interacting with? And that women interacting with women is not a useful thing to be seen?
Craig: Yeah. I’m with you on that. I mean, I get that. I guess for me there are ways for women to be in charge and actually be more powerful than the men in the movie and for there to be multiple named important women in the movie who talk about things that have nothing to do with men but maybe are, just because of the way the movie lines up, aren’t talking to each other. I’m not sure, like that part.
And I sort of flowed to this on Twitter, Reverse Bechdel. There’s no value to it because there isn’t an issue with the way men are portrayed in movies. But I could imagine a test that many movies would fail where the topic is we can’t — do men talk about things other than women, crime, partying, or a job?
Now, granted, I’ve just expanded the topics, but you know, I don’t talk about job, partying — in fact, take out job. The test is do men talk about something other than women, partying, or crime? And I think a lot of movies would fail when in fact typically on a given day most men aren’t talking about partying or crime at all.
John: Yeah. In a more general sense I would say that I tend to find movies fascinating where a woman has to make an ethical choice, because so rarely do we see that. And an example for me is Michael Clayton, where Tilda Swinton’s character is sort of this corporate monster and you see her doing these terrible things and you just never see — you so rarely see a woman sort of in that position, doing those terrible things. And where we’ve seen like the “white guy” do that a thousand times.
Craig: That’s exactly right. And the reason I think for that, we’ve talked about it before, is that there’s a natural bias that I think everyone has, men and women, towards women being more moral than men. And the reason we have that bias is because it’s true. It’s true — women are more moral than men. Just look at violent crime statistics. And just right off the bat, just murder statistics alone, we can say that men are just…
John: Much more likely to murder somebody than a woman.
Craig: Vastly more likely to murder. Vastly more likely to maim, to rape, to steal. Men are just morally worse than women. So, naturally we push these things in drama.
I should point out that I got my ass handed to me by critics because I dared to make a female character unlikeable and then ask you to like her. And there was a level of sexism to it, I felt. That there was just frankly a level of sexism because I’ve seen so many comedies where men are behaving boorishly but yet it’s charming.
Wedding Crashers somehow critics had no problem falling in love with two guys who literally lie and cheat their way into weddings to have sex with women and then abandon them. But, you know, when you have a woman make weird ethical choices like Melissa McCarthy’s character did in Identity Thief, she’s just an awful person and how could we ever like her. It’s gross to me.
And that part is sexist. The part where people criticize me is sexist. [laughs]
John: Still going back to Star Trek into Darkness, the women in the movie are Uhura and Carol Marcus are sort of the only — I’m trying to think if there are any other women who are…
Craig: Boy, they kind of stepped it in on that one, didn’t they?
John: Yeah. So, Carol Marcus, the issue with that which they did, sort of both Damon and JJ went on press to talk about the scene where she’s changing clothes. It feels gratuitous in the movie just because of how it was put into the movie. And I get that. I think it’s a weird complaint to level against that movie compared to like 90% of other movies, but I understand people’s concern. There’s an opportunity to — to me, if you were to want to address the Bechdel of it all, a good opportunity would be to do essentially the Tilda Swinton thing and take Carol Marcus’s father, who is the — this is a mild spoiler, this is not going to ruin this movie for anybody — take the Peter Weller character who is Carol Marcus’s father and make that her mother. And to me that would be a really fascinating character to have the woman who is the war mongerer, she is going to do whatever it takes to get rid of those Klingons and make this thing happen.
That would have been an interesting choice, for me, if I were making Star Trek into Darkness.
Craig: Yeah. Star Trek is kind of in a funky little trap because it’s based on a television show that was remarkably progressive for the 1960s, but remarkable progressive for the 1960s meant that there was one woman on the bridge of the ship, and she was black, which was a crazy huge thing. Well, okay, they’ve carried that through. Their captain isn’t a woman, and Spock isn’t a woman.
I don’t know. I mean, it’s possible just for interest sake, given that they have a whole sideways timeline thing going on, I don’t know, if Bones were a woman or something, but Star Trek is one of those things to me that’s like progressive politics but really it’s just Flash Gordon. I mean, space warriors will always be space warriors.
Yeah. It would be cool if they did a little bit more there, but look, I wrote The Hangover movies. What the hell?
John: In the Academy panel I did I actually talked with Damon a little bit about this, because one of the challenges of making a Star Trek movie is that you’re dealing with a vision of the future that was actually a 1960s vision of what the future is supposed to be, so how do you both honor the future that we see from here and the future that they saw from there? And I think largely they’ve done a very smart job of it. And there are things you can sort of like poke at, but are also sort of like understandable choices. Things like, you know, the communicators are flip open, which is like, well, nothing does that anymore. But that’s the way it does in the original canon. That’s what it is.
And they’ve found other ways to sort of update the uniforms so they’re both the old idea but also something that a person could conceivably wear in this future time. This was an opportunity where I thought they could have done something different and yet I can see why they did what they did.
Craig: Yeah. I think that — and this is where Bechdel kind of starts to become annoying a little bit, because the one thing I don’t think anybody would want this test to be, including the people who initially popularized it, is kind of a scolding nanny over the shoulders of filmmakers. We don’t want to put women in movies because we’re being told we ought to, otherwise we’re jerks.
What we should be trying to do is what I guess I would call a kind of general positive acceptance of a world where there are more interesting female characters in movies who are behaving in ways that aren’t contextualized entirely by men or their relationships with men.
And if that works for your story, great. Because you’ve decided if it could work for my story it should work for story. But that doesn’t mean like, okay, the nun is going to slap you on the knuckles with her ruler if you fail.
John: Agreed. I think the last thing we want to have happen is sort of the black judge syndrome.
Craig: Oh god! That’s the worst.
John: So, people who don’t know this trope, essentially you want to have a black character somewhere in your courtroom drama, so you make the judge a black man, or a black woman often, so you sort of get the twofer of that.
Craig: It’s almost always a black woman, [laughs], because, yeah, there’s a built in nobility to it all because, you know, every black woman is Maya Angelou, you see, and so it all makes — it’s like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. It’s pandering.
John: It’s pandering. And that’s the issue. You want to make sure that you’re not just — don’t just put more powerful women into your stories. Make sure you put more flawed women into your stories and more women who are responsible for the story and to the story and not just the person who’s there to be the woman in the story. And then if their function in your plot is to be the woman, then their function is not being especially — then you need to rethink their function.
Craig: 100 percent.
John: Unless you’re making a movie that is specifically the romantic comedy of it all, and I think many romantic comedies probably would fail the Bechdel Test because the women in the movies are probably talking about the men in the movies.
Craig: Yeah. Their about romance, so I guess it makes sense.
John: So, on our discussion of tropes and movies and plots and story, let’s go on to the next article by David Wong. And he took a look at sort of lessons from superhero movies. The article was actually called The 5 Ugly Lessons Hiding in Every Superhero Movie.
So, you sent this to me. What intrigued you about this?
Craig: I did. Well, David does a very good job of pulling out some implications in superhero movies that are really worth examining. But there was a kind of a level underneath it that I think he missed and so I wanted to kind of toss it back out there and see what you guys thought and if David listens to us what he thought.
So, he’s got five myths here and I’ll just run through — sorry, five lessons inside every superhero movie and I’ll run them through for you.
Number five: Common folk are all helpless and incompetent. And that does seem true. When you look at these movies, basically regular people, like for instance policemen and National Guard are absolutely helpless in the face of disasters. The one example that he gives is in The Avengers aliens are attacking New York. And simply no one is there to stop them. No one.
The National Guard isn’t available. And the police are just stumped. [laughs] They don’t know what to do until Captain America shows up and says, “You need men in these buildings, go here, do this.” And as David points out, “See, because without Captain America to tell them, these professional law enforcement officers would have had no concept of evacuating civilians away from where violence is occurring. These people have had no training at all for what to do in the case of, say, a terrorist attack. Why would they? They’re just cops working in post-9/11 New York, while Captain America is an unfrozen science experiment from 1942.”
So, great point. Great point.
Number four: Only raw talent and wealth makes someone fit to be in charge. So, he points out these dichotomies. Hero vs. Villain. Superman or Lex Luthor. Batman/Joker. Batman/Bane. Tony Stark/Obadiah Stane. Tony Stark/Whiplash. And in each case the hero is somebody who has inherited his wealth or abilities and the villain is a self-made man who came up from nothing. And, as David points out, “Each time we’re rooting for the rich guy born on third who thinks he hit a triple.”
John: But I want to point out Spiderman. Spiderman came from nothing versus Green Goblin who came from great privilege and wealth. So, there are obviously some counter examples.
Craig: Yes. There are some exceptions. Although…
John: I would say Spiderman is exceptional in many ways in terms of his ordinary man-ness.
Craig: He is. Although Spiderman does get, Peter Parker gets bit by a spider that gives him all these powers, just grants them to him, whereas you got the feeling the Green Goblin actually probably did start as a self-made man and built his business up and used his intellect.
John: Yeah. I was thinking sort of his son.
Craig: Well, yeah, his son is a jerk.
John: That’s true.
Craig: Okay. Next one. The only thing preventing justice is this due process bullshit. So, this is absolutely true. We know this to be true. Batman, you know, in 1989 Batman, we’ve seen this repeated a 100 times in superhero movies. An innocent woman is walking down an alley at night with her child. A pair of thugs jump out, demand money at gunpoint. They steal the money. Batman is watching. And then he sneaks up as they’re trying to get away, beats them all up, and wins the day.
And as David says, “Did you spot his secret superpower there? The power is certainty. Specifically, it’s the magical ability to know with 100 percent certainty” that a is going to occur right there and that Batman did no misinterpret what he saw and heard from his advantage point, 100 feet in the air at night. That the guys he tracked down were in fact the same guys he saw that commit the crime and that there would be no negative repercussions from beating and humiliating two violent armed men. All true.
So, superhero movies are entirely about vigilante justice. The notion of due process, deliberation, all the rest of it just gets in the way of what we want.
John: I would say in general superhero movies there is this talk about “I am going to bring justice,” but the justice is basically, “I am going to beat you down.” And then the result is, well, maybe the police will take you off at the end, but more likely I will just defeat you and that’s the end of scene.
Craig: Exactly. Exactly. There’s no the thought of you being arrested is ridiculous.
John: I would like to point out Manhunter, which is one of my favorite books that never sort of progressed past this, the reinvention of that — Kate Spencer was a lawyer who sort of took all this gear and became a vigilante sort of superhero herself. So, she was the person who was responsible for prosecuting the crimes that these super villains did. And that was actually tremendously fun.
Craig: I like that.
John: It was a courtroom drama, but she also kicked ass.
Craig: Yeah. As a side note, someone sent me a comic book they were trying to adapt called, I think it was called Damage Control. And it was about a company that basically cleaned up after. It was like the superheroes had pulled their money together for an insurance company and these guys would come clean up the mess afterwards.
John: That sounds good.
Craig: Number two: Violence has no possible negative consequences as long as the right people do it. So, the notion is that when the right guys are doing this sort of thing, we’re killing these people, the heroes are killing the bad guys, when bad guys try and hurt the hero they get these tiny little impacts, basically bruises, minor cuts. The point being, I mean, they even point out here the Iron Man movies make it clear that when made to fight without a suit Tony Stark still absolutely kicks ass. Essentially the superheroes are able to deal out violence perfectly and violence never slingshots back to hurt them at all.
Craig: And last but not least: Screw the underdog. Root for the rich kid. Which is kind of — I mean, he sort of covered that in the earlier one, but basically from a storytelling point of view the idea of these superhero movies is that we are meant to root for the over — the person with overwhelming power, like Hulk.
Okay, so what’s this all about? And really what David is asking is, I guess his point at the end ultimately is shouldn’t we ask ourselves if our enjoyment of this is an indication of something kind of gross inside of us.
Well, I kind of think it is. I think he’s right. But there’s something else I think hiding behind under all this, and here’s where I’m going to get in trouble. You ready?
John: I’m ready.
Craig: I want to talk about another superhero who inherited all of his power, like many of these of sort-of quasi orphan. This superhero is able to do amazing things with his power and ultimately delivers this insanely wrathful justice on the average villains around him.
And that’s Jesus Christ.
So, superheroes are Jesus stories. And Jesus, you can’t kill Jesus, he rises again. Jesus obviously inherits his power just as Superman inherits his power from this amazing dude somewhere out there. The people that attempt to take Jesus Christ down are average people with no powers. They are incompetent on many levels. They try and torture him and he ultimately cannot be hurt, rises again, and sends them to their doom to burn in a lake of fire forever. Forever.
To me, what’s hiding behind all these superhero movies is just that. It’s the same thing that draws us, I think, to the story of Jesus Christ. And that is that those of us — that there is a reward for being good inside and having the spirit of justice inside. And that those of us who are meek and weak, we get to look to somebody who is just like us on the inside, but on the outside is a massive ass-kicker.
John: Okay. I think that’s fair. Some people will flip out about that, but I think it’s fair. But, I would generalize that actually out past Jesus. I would say that Jesus as a mythological character, because Jesus, or Hercules, or sort of any of these sort of — I’m going to call them a demigod, I guess — but whereas they were touched by something beyond this world and beyond this universe so that they seem like they’re normal people, but they’re more than normal people, so it’s Hercules and his quests and his adventures, and his ability to do things.
We’ve told these stories. The bigger point is that we’ve told some version of these superhero stories way book to Homer.
John: And that these are the modern versions of those things. And if you look for the same patterns that David Wong points out here, you’re going to find them all the way back through the Ancient Greeks.
John: And so I think Jesus being an example of that same kind of story in the same way that all of the bible stories have that mythological basis, sure, I will buy that.
Craig: Back to the Bhagavad Gita.
John: Exactly. So, Arjuna being how to accept that he’s not like the others and find that truth in him. So, yes, and so the new Superman movie will be a version of the Jesus story regardless. Jor-El will send Kal-El to this new world that will not be ready for him.
Craig: Right. And he will suffer for our sins and then rise again.
John: Yes. So, that is a completely valid and sort of an overarching theme. But I would say there’s another reason why I think we may find some of these lessons in his story, which I think is also the American experience. We want to take a look at raw talent and wealth makes somebody fit to be in charge. Like we’re the wealthiest country, so therefore we should be in charge.
The only thing we’re going to adjust is this due process bullshit; that is also kind of — you know, we believe in a fair trial and all that stuff, but it’s also that American sort of: “We will get our enemies and we will get them. And is the UN or whoever else is standing in our way from doing that.”
John: Violence has no possible consequences, so violence has no consequences when we do it overseas. It’s only when someone does something to us, that’s a horrible affront. And screw the underdog/root for the rich kid. That sense of like the overwhelming power. And so it’s like, “Yeah, we went in and we kicked their ass.” Well, yeah, we kicked their ass. We’re like fifty times the size and we have a military that’s so mighty.
So, as a parallel to American militarism, I think our superhero movies also correlate well.
Craig: Right. I totally agree with everything you said. And then the real question is: Are these ugly lessons — I guess this is really what David is saying — these ugly lessons hiding in every superhero movie are the ugly lessons hiding in our politics and our religion.
They are the ugly lessons of resentment and superiority fantasies. That the reason we are drawn to superheroes is because we have fantasies of overwhelming power to get back at all the people that hurt us. And we create — the only drama in these movies — the only drama is the drama of delay. They are going to put the crown of thorns on Jesus and nail his to a cross, and torture him, and scourge him, and mock him. But it’s just the drama of delay, because that rock is going to be rolled away and he’s going to be gone, and then oh my god, all those people, lake of fire.
John: Yeah. I do feel like you’re stretching a little bit on the Jesus as vengeance kind of person, because that doesn’t really happen in the biblical stories. It’s sort of an after thing that we’ve put on to him.
Craig: Well, we didn’t put on it. It’s there. It’s there. It’s part of the New Testament.
John: Well, the lake of fire is Revelations, you’re talking, that kind of vengeance?
Craig: Yeah. No, there are mentions of hell throughout the New Testament. I’m not saying Jesus himself, let’s presume that Jesus was there and he said — he’s a super nice guy, he was a great guy. I don’t believe personally that Jesus did rise again. I don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah. You know, I don’t believe in God.
But, the things that he said were lovely. I’m just talking about the religion and the religion is kind of a — I think all religion to some extent has that thread of retribution against people that are screwing with us right here and now. We’ll get them later in the end.
John: Yeah. That is true. And I would say I would agree with you on the sense of like the Jesus stuff, sort of the story, he’s actually a really fascinating character even if you’re not a religious person. Go read the Sermon on the Mount, which I hadn’t read since I was in junior high, but I just randomly read it a couple months ago. It’s actually great. It’s terrific. And it’s like a nice thing to read sort of independent of everything else around it.
Craig: The story of Jesus and his life and death, I guess the passion, is the best story ever written, as far as I’m concerned. Narratively it’s the best.
So, what lessons should we as screenwriters take from David Wong’s lessons from these superhero movies? I guess to be aware of the tropes. I would say that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to avoid all the tropes, or play into all the tropes, but sort of like the Bechdel Test you have to be aware that this is a system of thought out there. And so if you are coming into work on a superhero movie, or create a new superhero, be aware of these patterns and recognize to what degree you’re matching these patterns and what degree you are subverting these patterns.
And I think Spiderman largely subverts these patterns in ways that are interesting. Even as a hero he’s the outsider hero who is looked down upon by the city who doesn’t have the money to do anything useful, which is — I think — fascinating.
Craig: I am currently writing a screenplay that is kind of a — I guess it’s a new take on what it means to be a superhero. And it defies all of these things. And it’s funny, what I took away from this was: I’m dead.
Craig: That this is what people want and I’m doing the opposite of that. But, eh, let’s see what happens. I mean, it will be interesting to say the least.
John: Cool. Our last topic today: Justin Marks wrote a piece in the May 24th issue of the Hollywood Reporter which I thought was a terrific. I linked to it on the blog. And I put a little quote there on the blog. I want to read a different quote from his article because I thought it was really useful to us.
It starts: “It was 5 p.m., and I was playing Call of Duty. Why? Because I wanted to. The phone rang; it was a producer with whom I’d just spent the past two years laboring over a cable pilot, a time-travelly science fiction thing. We’d delivered the final cut to the network, and we were awaiting The Call — the one where you hear that your show, which tested well, is being picked up, that your life is about to change.
“But the producer had That Voice. Any experienced writer knows That Voice. Because That Voice means one thing: The network passed. ‘Hey,’ the producer said, ‘we fought for it till the end. We’ll find something else.’ I agreed. And that was that.
“Probably not three minutes had elapsed in my game of Call of Duty. Two more minutes to go upstairs and erase my now-dead pilot’s name off the list of projects on my dry-erase board. Two years of effort gone in five minutes.”
Skipping ahead a little bit. “We learn to numb ourselves to the ups and downs. Especially the downs. No one likes to linger on failure in Hollywood — not execs, not agents, not us. We erase the failure in our minds. We move on to the next great hope.”
Which I thought was a very nice encapsulation of what that feels like.
Craig: Yeah. Justin is a great guy. I’ve known him for some time. And he does a great service here. I think any time screenwriters talk about what’s happening internally they are doing a great service to their fellow writer. Whether other writers even agree or don’t agree, there’s something about sharing the experience of doing this job which is so strange, and so stressful, and so emotionally difficult at times that just the notion that you’re not alone, that you’re not alone out there.
So, I mean, first of all there’s just the life of that. It’s the middle class screenwriting life, which is tough. It is, you know, there is no certainty and you are… — You know, there’s that famous experiment of the mice in the cage that would get shocked with the little light, you know about that experiment?
John: Yeah, yeah. But talk us through it so we’re talking about the same thing.
Craig: So, they would put some mice in a cage and they would flash a green light and then shock the floor of the cage. And obviously mice don’t like that. They don’t like getting shocked. And another cage where they would flash the green light and then sometimes shock the cage, sometimes not. Sometimes they would just shock the cage and not flash the green light.
The mice in the cage where the shock always followed the green light did just fine. The mice in the cage where the shock was random died of stress because they had nothing to sort of prepare them for the shock ever. And that’s kind of what it’s like to be a screenwriter. You’re in a cage where the light is constantly going on and off, but shocks have seemingly come out of nowhere.
And it’s tough. And it’s good to kind of talk about that, I think, for anyone who’s getting into it or is in it.
John: Yeah. You’re describing in general that pattern matching that the mice are going through. Like they’re trying to look for a pattern, they can’t find the pattern. And I will say that as I’ve gone through my career I’ve been able to sort of recognize the patterns more.
So, just like Justin described, he recognized that voice. I recognize like there are ways that things fall apart. And if it looks like this is a thing that is going to fall apart that way, I could try to keep it together, or I could recognize like this is going to fall apart. And maybe I will let this fall apart and now use this as sort of the snow day that lets me go and work on this other thing that I want to work on.
Because most things will fall apart. And that’s the reason why we talk about like your life is not one script. It’s about a writing career. It’s working on a bunch of things because you never know what the thing is going to be. Or, why we talk about like there’s not –it’s kind of useless to talk about how people broke into the industry because no two people are going to break in the same way. You don’t know what it’s going to be. It’s just a serious of events and conversations at certain times become something bigger and sometimes don’t.
Craig: Yeah. He also has this great line here, which is this why screenwriting — this is why I hate screenwriting. “I had the fantasies of what this life would be like — a life that, for most, never will be a reality.”
And I stopped there because I thought, well, of course you did because you’re a screenwriter. And that’s what we do. We’re constantly imagining and fantasizing and dreaming and thinking of things. And it’s only natural then that we would do it for ourselves. And life is never like that, ever. Even when you get the things you fantasized about they’re not like that. You know, he says, “I wanted trips to backlots, premieres, moments of seeing my movie on the shelf at the video store. That’s what we sign up for.”
Maybe so. And then I thought when I was reading that, except that when I see the word “trips to backlots, premieres, moments of seeing my movie on the shelf at the video store,” I feel anxious all of the sudden. Because those things are associated with anxiety for me. [laughs] So, there’s no winning. There’s just no winning. All there is is the work.
And then as he describes there is the other 90 percent, “Waking up, walking the dogs, grinding away at my computer in the clothes I slept in. Occasional fits of creative euphoria interrupted by phone calls…or arguments…or the dogs barking.”
And that’s exactly right.
John: Yeah. If you think you’re going to be happy because you got to the premiere, then you’re in the wrong thing. Because that premiere is like, maybe 20 minutes of fun over three hours. And then it’s done. And then you have — it just goes away. And that’s not going to be a lingering great feeling.
You have to be happy about the stuff you’re working on day after day. And it’s hard to say like, you know, “Oh, you need to enjoy every day bit of work,” because that’s not true either, because that sets a false expectation. Like I’m not happy to be writing most times I’m writing. It’s actually I have to force myself to do it. And then if it’s going well I really like it, but it’s hard for me to start. Every time I sit down it’s hard for me to start. If it’s going really well, I’m in a flow, then I’m just delighted, and then sometimes then I’m really happy, and those are some of my best days.
Same with production. It’s like production is awful, except when it’s actually kind of really great, and stuff is going really well, and you’re excited about the stuff you’re seeing.
John: Post is the same way. Like you’ll get through a cut, you’re like, “Oh my god, that was amazing.” And you’ll get a great reaction. And then there will be one thing you need to work on and you’ll have to rip everything apart and then you’re back at it again.
And that’s the reality. I had a five-hour Big Fish meeting today. And it’s that same situation where you’re constantly doing it.
So, some general lessons: Because you’re going to be going through these bad things, try to go through them with better people, if you can; people you don’t mind being with because you’re going to be spending so much time with them. Make your environment the best and most conducive it can be. It doesn’t mean you have to have the best chair and the best computer, or whatever, but don’t make yourself more miserable than you have to.
Craig: Yeah. It’s unfortunate, though, because when we start out in this business or as we proceed through that kind of second act of our careers, we often are stuck working in bad situations, with bad people, with bad tools, and in bad, toxic environments. And surviving those, wanting to even survive them, is hard.
You know, he also says here — and I like this, you know — he says what carries him into the next day, those moments where he’s been privileged to walk through his own imagination. That is to say there on a set and seeing somebody in a wedding dress because he wrote a scene where somebody gets married. And those things are the things that carry us through. He says, “Everything else is just stuff we try to forget.”
And I thought it was really great that he said, “We try to forget,” because it’s hard to forget it sometimes when you are seizing on these moments and purity and happiness while you’re being beaten up by your employers, or whomever. It’s hard. And you question why.
I question it all the time. Why? Why do I want to do this? [laughs]
John: Well, people will ask me, I’ll describe sort of like the thing I went through, it’s like, “God, why would anybody want to be a screenwriter in Los Angeles.” And, well, it is actually — it’s rough. It’s not the most pleasant thing to be, but I also look at the other categories of wannabe people here — like to be a wannabe actor, at least like I’m not walking in a room and being rejected for how I look.
Craig: [laughs] Exactly.
John: That just kills you.
Craig: That is the worst. Believe me. And then, of course, there’s the actual world beyond Hollywood, where you know what’s really the worst is…
Craig: …just cleaning out sewers, and breaking your leg, and drowning in sewage.
John: Oh yeah. But, I mean, in terms of aspirational careers, I mean I think that people come to Los Angeles to become screenwriters, actors, musicians to some degree.
John: Musicians is its own dicey thing. I used to live right by the guitar schools. And, yeah, maybe some of you will kind of make it, but I don’t know how you’re going to make it. Are you going to write a hit song? Are you going to be in a band?
Craig: And even if you make it, what’s making it?
John: Yeah, what is making it? You have no idea what that is. And so like you’re going to play crappy gigs where you don’t get to keep the money from the door? How do you make a sustainable life there?
So, you’re not alone in Los Angeles. There are a lot of people who are going to be going through exactly what you’re trying to go through. At least you’re not going to be rejected walking out the door. And at least you are allowed to practice some part of your craft just by yourself. And you can just write whatever you want to write. The difference if you were writing novels, at least you would have written a novel that could be done and be finished.
John: And Justin Marks, he hasn’t had a lot of movies made. He’s going to get a lot of these situations where he’ll get that call and that thing he thought was going to happen is not going to happen. And you and I have that happen all the time, too. That movie seemed to be on track to get made, and it’s just not going to get made. And at some point you have to move on into the next thing.
Craig: You have to move onto the next thing. And for a business that seems entirely about outcomes, outcomes are the least valuable things in this business. Personally. I mean, for everybody else that’s what matters. For the people that actually make money off of movies, and they’re not screenwriters, or directors, or actors, it’s the studios — that’s what matters.
But, in the end, we’re in an outcome business doing a non-outcome job. And so you have to find a way to enjoy the part of it that isn’t about outcome but about process because the outcome itself is…it’s not…it’s just…even when you love the way the movie comes out and people like it and it’s a hit, or whatever, it’s that feeling you got when you finish building a Lego thing. Well, I guess I’ll stare at this now, show it to my mom, be proud of it, and then smash it. [laughs]
Craig: Because what else is there to do?
John: Yeah. That’s been one of the most interesting things with Big Fish is that because we’re putting on the show every night, like literally I could spend the whole day working on stuff and go through all the stresses of that, but then I get to see the show with a crowd — and granted you’re terrified when you’re watching it that nothing is going to go wrong — but then like everyone applause. You actually get the applause every night, which is an unusual thing for a writer.
Craig: I know. That’s really cool.
John: That’s been good. I mean, terrifying, too, but mostly good.
John: I have a One Cool Thing this week. I don’t know if you are ready with One Cool Thing.
Craig: Somebody sent me one that I thought was really great. I’m digging it up while you…
John: Mine is actually a link that everyone can go to and burn a good hour/half hour of your day. Jason Kottke had linked to it early this week. It’s a Wikipedia list of common misconceptions. And it’s actually fascinating. Things you sort of think are like, “Oh, well that, yeah, that’s totally true.” It’s like, no, that’s actually not true at all. And just everyone thinks it’s true.
So, things like you have to wait 24 hours before reporting a missing person. No, you don’t. If you have reason to believe a person is missing and in trouble you’re supposed to actually call right away and get that done.
Many things about sort of animal misconceptions. Statistical misconceptions like lightning never strikes the same place twice. Actually, that happens quite a lot. Very understandable reasons.
John: So, I would send people to the Wikipedia list of common misconceptions.
Craig: I love all that stuff. I like anything that talks about how we are weak and the world is a lie, because that’s basically so much of my…
John: Well, because, just like stereotypes. Like they’re useful because they’re ways of sort of like not having to think so much. But in not having to think so much you’re actually missing the point often.
Craig: Yeah. The brain is an organ. Here’s another organ: The eyeball. What is the purpose of the eyeball? To perceive reality. The eyeball cannot perceive reality behind the eyeball. The brain is as limited as the eyeball. And yet we assume that because we’re seeing and thinking it, it must be true. Nope. No, no, no. No. We are terribly limited people.
My Cool Thing was sent to me by a follower on Twitter. His name is Ryan Conroy. And he said, In case you need One Cool Thing for next week…” and I thought, uh, I always need One Cool Thing for next week. Thank you, Ryan.
And this is fantastic and Ryan certainly knows what I like. An 18-year-old in the United States by the name of Esha Khare — and again I will say 18 years old — has developed a potentially revolutionary device that can charge a mobile phone in just 20 seconds. It is called a supercapacitor and in case you think, “Oh, this is just a bunch of baloney,” she won $50,000 for her invention at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix.
And she is a student of nanochemistry. She is going to Harvard. And you know who just called her? Google.
John: How nice.
Craig: Yeah. “Asked what inspired her to work on the technology, Khare said: ‘My cell phone battery always dies.'”
And I just think that’s amazing. And let me just say, I love you, America, and this is what I love about our country. I loathe the fact that our public schools are failing our kids in math and sciences as poorly as they are. So, I get very excited when I hear that students are doing well. She’s from Saratoga. Hopefully there is a public school there that was doing well by her. She’s pretty spectacular. Esha, awesome job. I can’t wait to charge my phone in 20 seconds.
John: Fantastic. Great, Craig, thank you again for another fun podcast.
Craig: Thank you.
John: And if you have questions about anything we talked about this week you can go to johnaugust.com/podcast and you will see a little link there for sending a question to us. You can also tweet us. I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
For this podcast, and for all our podcasts, we have a list of links of the things we talked about, so things like the articles we mentioned, or Justin Marks’s article. You can find them at, again, johnaugust.com/podcast for a list of all those.
And that is it.
Craig: Yeah, that’s it. No more.
John: Not one more.
Craig: Not one more thing.
John: And I will talk to you next week.
- The Hangover Part III is in theaters now!
- CinemaScore’s official site, and on Wikipedia
- The Bechdel Test
- John’s 2010 blog post on Women in film
- The 5 Ugly Lessons Hiding in Every Superhero Movie by David Wong
- My Life as a Screenwriter You’ve Never Heard Of by Justin Marks
- Wikipedia’s list of common misconceptions
- Esha Khare’s twenty-second phone charger (via Ryan Conroy)
- OUTRO: The Clique’s Superman covered by Rob Lamber