The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: I am Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 132 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
So, Craig, as we’re recording this on a Friday afternoon there are still tickets left for the great Nerdist Writers Panel/Scriptnotes crossover episode, which is taping live on April 13. And I don’t know how I feel about this.
Craig: Mm. I mean, I’m a little shocked.
John: Yeah. Because usually we sell out incredibly quickly. So, I don’t want to put all the blame on Ben Blacker and the Nerdist Writers Panel people, because it’s possibly that they’re just slower on the uptake. Or maybe because April is actually a ways away — there’s not the urgency.
Craig: But, I mean, we are the Jon Bon Jovi of the podcast world. And when Jon Bon Jovi doesn’t immediately sell out he throws a tantrum. I will throw a tantrum.
John: You don’t want to see Craig hulk out.
Craig: I will go crazy. I will go nuts.
John: Yeah. It’s a cross between Bruce Banner and Jon Bon Jovi…
Craig: And Patti Lupone.
John: Throwing a tantrum. And it’s just —
Craig: It’s Patti Lupone.
John: It’s Patti Lupone.
Craig: When she — have you ever heard that audio of Patti Lupone singing and then she’s interrupted by the sound of a cell phone ringing in the audience? And she goes bonkers?
John: Yeah. There’s another Patti Lupone story where she believes that someone is taking her photo and it’s actually the photographer who is supposed to be taking the photo.
John: There’s basically a lot of Patti Lupone stories it comes down to it.
Craig: This one is great. I guess it’s the second podcast in a row where I’m talking about celebrities going nuts on audio. And she just goes, “How dare you! Who do you think you are?” And what’s so great about Patti Lupone, among other things, is that even when she’s yelling who do you think you are, it’s in great voice. It’s just a wonderful belted full-chested wonderful tone. “Who do you think you are?”
John: I love it.
Craig: Yeah. So, anyway, that’s what I’m going to do. If people don’t buy these tickets I’m going to go full Lupone. Boy!
John: Yeah, but see, Craig, people are going to be wanting you to go full Lupone because it just seems so incredibly amusing that they may actually delay just so they can read the stories of Craig going full Lupone.
Craig: Can I just say again —
John: Well, actually maybe we’ll find some way to antagonize you there at the actual event.
Craig: I hope so!
John: Therefore everyone will get to see it. Oh, I think we should invite back some of our favorite guests, favorite recent guests, like people who have come from a company to visit.
Craig: Oh right! [laughs], so I can go full Lupone.
John: That could be great. A live version of that.
Craig: John. If people didn’t know and you just said, “Listen to a bunch of our podcasts and then tell us which one of us is gay,” [laughs], how many votes — I think I actually — I think I would win. I would get 70% gay.
John: You might.
Craig: I mean, just Patti Lupone. The Patti Lupone reference alone. Wow. I got to rethink stuff.
John: Yeah. It’s a lot.
Craig: I’m this close to going…
John: I think you’re perfectly happy in your life and your wife and all that stuff is good.
Craig: [laughs] Oh wow!
John: Today on the show —
Craig: Wow. That’s mean. [laughs]
John: The contract formed between writers and audiences. Basically sort of what is the deal you are making with the reader as the person sits down to read the script and ultimately when the audience is going to sit down to watch the film.
And we’re going to talk about three Three Page Challenges. Brand new Three Page Challenges, which I’m very excited about.
John: And we’re going to start off with a question. So, should we just start?
Craig: Yeah, why don’t we just roll right in.
John: First question. Sleepless in Los Angeles writes, “So, I’m a fairly new writer who was hired to do a studio rewrite, which I recently delivered on. It was the usual route. Producers first, then to the studio. My reps have seemed beyond gobsmacked the producers didn’t have any notes for me to do at the producer’s pass before it went to the studio. It’s now been with the studio for almost two months. I haven’t been paid for delivery. And when I inquire about this the general thinking is that the studio is going to want to have a meeting, give notes, and since I didn’t do a producer’s pass they’ll more than likely want me to do some extra (free) work before the delivery check.
“Sorry for the preamble. Here’s the question. Is this how it works? And if not, what can I do about it? The whole don’t rock the boat, this is how it is thing that my reps are laying on me seems absolutely crazy as well as unhelpful.
“I know free work and late payments are in issue with the WGA, so I’d like to be part of the solution, not part of the problem here. But what is the solution? Dig my heels in? Play the diva? Start burning bridges? Hardly seems like a good option at this stage in my career.
“I’m assuming more established writers like you guys aren’t put through this process, but I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that you’ll have some advice. Any and all bits of advice are welcome. I’m feeling pretty powerless.”
Craig: Yeah. I’m a bit puzzled by your agents. I’m as puzzled by your agents as you are, I suppose, question-asker.
John: I’m angry at a lot of people in this situation actually.
John: I’m angry at almost everybody other than Sleepless, and I’m actually a little bit angry with angry with him or her as well.
Craig: Well, I understand. This is a mess. But it’s a mess that doesn’t even need to happen. We work in a business where messes occur every day. So, you try and avoid the ones that don’t have to happen. This one just makes no sense. It’s really simple. The script was turned into the person that’s listen in your contract. That’s it. Invoice. Period. The end. No discussion. Just invoice.
Craig: There’s really no explanation — asking to be paid for the work you’ve done is not rocking the boat. What agency is this? I mean, that’s embarrassing.
John: It’s really embarrassing. This is late payment. This is what we talk about when we’re talking about late payment which is essentially you’ve turned in the work and they have not cut you a check.
Now, you haven’t asked for the check. Or, maybe your agency hasn’t actually invoiced, but they should have invoiced because you turned in the work. You did the work. The agency also wants to get paid as well. So, there’s no reason why this hasn’t been invoiced. So, I think your first step is to talk to your agency and say like, “Have you invoiced for this work?”
If the answer is no, I think you need to have a serious conversation with your agency about why not. Why have you not sort of asked for the money that I’m owed for this thing? And really listen to their answer. And if their answer is sort of Namby Pamby, “we don’t want to rock the boat,” well, it’s sort of their job to rock the boat. It’s their job to get you paid, for starters.
Second off, if there’s any problem with — any more heel-dragging about getting paid, the WGA has a late payments desk. You can call them and say, “I’m delivered this thing. I’m supposed to be paid.” And they can start harassing on your behalf. You’re not, ugh, this is maddening.
And also the setup for this in the preamble, this is a studio rewrite. So, this wasn’t like, you know, a pitch that they sort of barely bought and things were still sort of getting sorted out, or there were contracts. This was a project that you probably had to compete with other people on to get. You got it. You delivered it. Be done with this.
Craig: Yeah. To give people context, there are legal hoops that we have to jump through to get paid. It didn’t used to be that way, but then there was this big WGA arbitration about free rewriting and all the rest of it. And what came back to us was this: in our contracts there is a person called the delivery agent. They oftentimes are somebody that’s very highly placed at the studio and it’s always a studio executive.
Until you deliver the script to them, you haven’t delivered it. So, you could write five drafts for the producer and everybody assumes — what you’re really doing is just working on your first draft. And that creates plenty of opportunity for abuse. In this case, you’ve actually jumped through all the hurdles, the people that needed to get the script for you to be paid got it. That’s it.
Now, we’re living in, what, some new lunatic era where jumping through all the hoops doesn’t qualify as jumping through all the hoops anymore? I mean, it’s ridiculous. They have to pay you. They’re legally obligated to pay you. It’s done. It’s done.
John: I have a hunch that Sleepless’ producers delivered the script to the junior executive who was not actually the person listed on the contract. And so therefore the technical person you’re supposed to deliver to hasn’t gotten the script or there’s been some sort of delay. Or, we’ll pretend that they have not gotten the script. Whatever.
You can deliver it to the executive directly yourself. Your agency can make sure that the executive got the script. This is not your fault. It’s only Sleepless’ fault to the degree that like two months is a long time. And for them to like not be even acknowledging they owe you money is crazy. Because essentially here’s what’s happened is whatever studio this is, they have taken a loan from you as the writer. They’re taking it as basically a zero interest loan, even though they’re supposed to be paying interest. They’re taking a zero interest loan from a broke writer when they’re making $60 billion. That’s crazy.
Craig: Right. Yeah. This is also a circumstance where we’ll tell you all that really matters under this is the quality of the script.
Craig: If you’ve written a script that nobody likes, none of this matters. They’re going to eventually pay you, but there’s no amount of good boy behavior that’s going to mitigate that. Similarly, if you’ve written a good script that everybody likes, then demanding to be paid now isn’t going to ding you at all.
Craig: If anything, they’re going t be happy to pay you and frightened and upset that they’ve upset you because they want to keep you on the project.
So, with that in mind, you’re not powerless. You are powerful. You’re just behaving in a powerless way out of fear, which I understand, and a desire to try and control the outcome. The only thing that’s going to control the outcome is the quality of the script.
Today, pick up the phone, call your agent, and say — and your lawyer, if the agent won’t do it, and say, “Submit this script to the executive. It’s been two months. Get me paid. And that’s that. And if they like it, I’m excited to keep working. And if they don’t, well I guess we’re all moving on.
John: So, let’s talk about the buried subject here as well which is the free pass. So, essentially “my reps were gobsmacked that I wasn’t asked to do a producer’s pass.” The producer’s pass means —
John: You have finished the script, you gave it to your producers, the producers read the script, loved some things, had questions about some things, and therefore went back to you and told you to do more, asked you to do more work.
That is troubling but actually fairly common. And it’s up to you as a writer to decide to what degree are you going to take some of these producer’s notes and incorporate them. That’s great. But, the studio doesn’t get that free work. It shouldn’t be getting that free work.
John: The deal is that when it gets to the studio that is you delivering the draft. Now, you may choose to do little tiny things, that could be your choice, but you shouldn’t be waiting around writing draft after draft in hopes that at some point they’ll just say, “Oh, this is the real draft and now we will pay you.” That’s crazy time. And that’s, unfortunately, all too common. And by putting up with it for this period of time, or honestly like just sitting around waiting for them to ask you for free work is incredibly self-defeating.
Craig: It’s bizarre. Yeah, that the agents are gobsmacked that their client wasn’t abused. “Huh? That’s weird. Well, what can we do to get you abused? I know, let’s do nothing.” It’s so strange. I would be very angry at my agents right now.
Craig: Very, very, very angry. And, you know, my big advice about agents.
John: To fire your agent.
Craig: Fire your agent. Yeah. Fire your agent. [laughs]
John: Here’s the good news. Sleepless got this assignment. And probably did an okay job.
John: I mean, likely there’s nothing wrong with the script itself. It’s likely the reason why the next step hasn’t happened has nothing to do with the actual script you turned in. It’s because it became a much lower priority at the studio. And everything else became a higher priority and they just haven’t focused on it. Well, that’s not your fault.
John: It’s just the nature of what’s actually happened. If it’s two months ago then it’s entirely possible that the holidays came and then there was new stuff after the holidays and they’ve kind of forgotten about you. But they shouldn’t forget to pay you. And maybe asking to get paid will remind somebody like, “Oh, that’s right, this thing exists and we need to do something with it.”
Craig: This is something that I’ve been talking a lot about. When I go as part of the WGA Screenwriter Rights Committee group and I go with Billy Ray and Damon Lindelof and we visit the heads of studios. What I try and impart to them is, look, if you’re paying a writer a million dollars, let’s all agree that this is a very lovely affair in which people are being well taken care of. And there’s no need to stand on ceremony.
But if you’re paying somebody anywhere near scale or, you know, $100,000 or $200,000 for what will amount to a year’s work, here’s the reality of the money they actually get in their pocket. Here’s the reality of how that money comes to them. Here’s the reality of how much work they’re having to do for that. Please don’t treat them like this.
And this sounds like this may be, that our question-asker is early on in his or her career, so I’m going to guess this isn’t a million dollar situation.
John: Exactly. And by delaying this payment two months now, they’re making it much more difficult for this person to actually make a living as a screenwriter.
John: So, this person probably I’m assuming this person got scale or somewhere near scale for what this assignment is. It’s actually not a lot of money.
John: And I worry that we’re overall by trying to sort of nickel and dime these moments and stretch out this process, we are going to make it essentially impossible for a person to have a living wage as the entry level screenwriter. It’s going to have to be sort of your part time job. And like this person is going to have to have a job somewhere else that actually has regular paychecks because he or she can’t count on getting paid by the studio when they actually deliver their work.
Craig: That’s right. And then the studios will get what they paid for, which are temps. And the other thing I’ve said to a number of studio heads is why would anyone that is very, very smart and has the potential to earn a lot of money many different ways opt for this very difficult career if they’re going to be mistreated in this way, in a way that is profound and much worse than when you and I started. They just won’t do it. They’ll just do something else. They’ll become lawyers. I don’t know.
John: Yeah. They’ll become lawyers or they’ll write for television which is, I think, part of the reason why you see a generation of writers who at first I think were sort of splitting their time between features and television, but ultimately like television at least pays regularly.
There’s a lot of problems in television. There are problems of exclusivity and options and there’s structural problems in television, too. But, you’re more likely to get paid. This writer wouldn’t be waiting for a long time to get a check from ABC Studios.
Craig: That’s right. They’ll have a job. They can plan their lives. I mean, we’re talking about young writers who are generally in their twenties. These are people starting their lives and trying to create a career path. And we’re starving the farm system. We’re beating up the rookies. It’s just really bad management. Bad management and bizarrely bad management because, frankly, if you’re paying somebody $100,000 for a rewrite and you’ve given them $50,000 of that for commencement, the $50,000 for the delivery is cushion change at a major studio. It’s irrelevant. Just give it. Pay it.
John: Pay it.
Craig: Yeah. So, look, first call — agents. And draw a picture of balls for them, scan it, and email it. And then just say, “Remember what these look like?” Jerks.
John: Yes. Jerks. If you don’t have a scanner you can just take a photo with your iPhone and just send them that. Just text them a photo of balls and then they’ll have some balls.
Craig: [laughs] You should make an app for that.
John: Ha-ha. That would be very good.
So, Craig, I should have actually had a discussion with you, but I’ve turned down employment on our behalf.
John: So, in these last two weeks I was hosting the Film Independent Director’s Close-Up Series. And so I got to do a Q&A with Alfonso Cuarón, and I got to do a Q&A with Julie Delpy, Bob Nelson, and Scott Neustadter talking about their movies.
John: And I love doing Q&As. I love moderating things. And so before the second one a guy from a TV network said like, “Hey, have you ever considered just doing this on a TV show, a sit down TV show. Like maybe you and Craig could do like a Scriptnotes thing with like cameras.” And I said, no. I was really flattered for the offer, but I didn’t really see myself doing that. I didn’t see myself doing a television show.
I enjoy doing our podcast, which we have control over. So, I hope I didn’t speak out of turn and I didn’t ruin your dreams of hosting a show on a minor cable channel.
Craig: No, no, you preserved my dream of keeping my face away from people.
Look the one thing I’m super comfortable with and happy about is that neither you or I, neither you nor I are doing this for fame. [laughs]
John: Neither — neither… — Oh yeah, you are right. I was going to say neither you nor me, but you actually were using it as the subject of the sentence.
Craig: Yes, correct.
John: I almost corrected you and now I feel embarrassed.
Craig: Good. This is the sort of — boy, this would be great TV.
John: Yeah. This is [laughs].
Craig: Neither you nor I are in this for fame. And neither you nor I need this to be anything more than it is. I think that’s part of the charm of our little podcast is that we get to have a conversation once a week and it’s simple, and it’s easy, except for Stuart. And, yeah, you know, because here’s what happens: television just, you know, then television is about, inevitably, oh, it’s that thing where they make the end of year lists of the best screenwriters and most of them are actors because that’s what people are interested in. And suddenly, you know, nobody wants a guest that’s not famous or something. I don’t know.
John: And as I was doing some introspection on sort of why I was saying no, I realized that as much as I enjoy sort of moderating these panels, I don’t kind of want to be a panel moderator. I want to be the guy who is like being asked the questions on the panels. I sort of want to be the filmmaker who gets asked questions sometimes, too. And I don’t want to be just the guy who asks questions.
So, in getting to host this last session with Julie Delpy, and Scott, and Bob Nelson, one of the things I wanted to talk about was the nature of the contract you make between you as the writer, the filmmaker, and the reader/audience about what kind of film this is. Because I thought all three of those films were incredibly smart about saying this is what our movie is and this is how our movie is going to work.
And right from the start they felt very confident in what the edges of the movie could be and sort of what journey you were going to take.
So, you look at Nebraska, right from the very start you see this is the nature of the world. It’s essentially funny but it’s not like hilariously funny. And you know that it’s essentially going to be the story about a father and a son.
You look at The Spectacular Now and you see that this is going to be a love story of a boy and a girl. It’s going to do high school movie type things but not do them in a high school movie kind of way.
John: Or you look at Before Midnight, Julie Delpy’s film, and it’s going to be a lengthy exploration of — or long conversations about the future of a relationship.
And so in all of these movies quite early on you establish the kinds of things that can happen in the world and the kinds of things that can’t. You’re not going to have aliens or terrorists invade. Someone is not going to suddenly die. Someone is not going to pull out a gun. It’s not those kinds of movies.
And so I want to talk about the contract you form with a reader, with an audience, and sort of how we establish that on the page.
Craig: Well, when we talk about, this is why I’m glad that when we do our Three Page Challenges, even though we’ve never requested or insisted that they be the first three pages, those often are the best three pages to send because those are the pages that are establishing the contract. And when we talk about that we mean the rules of the movie and we mean the tone of the movie I think more than anything. Those two things. Rules and tone.
Craig: And it’s why people tend to go along with the first ten minutes of any movie. I don’t care what it is. Every — I’ve been in god knows how many test screenings of comedies that I’ve worked on and when the movies get to the place where they’re working all the way through, people laugh all the way through.
But early on, typically your first test screening, what you’ll see is the first five to ten minutes just absolutely kill, people are laughing all the way through it. And then trouble. Because the audience psychologically comes in, sits down, and says I’m going to roughly give you five to ten minutes to teach me what this movie, how this movie works. And I’m with you on it. But then, if anything should stray from what you’ve taught me, I’m going to start to get annoyed. I’m going to get confused. Because there’s an inconsistency — I want you to take me by the hand and lead me out of your world and into yours.
So, like the first day of school, everything is new, I assume any discomfort of disorientation is my fault. But by the second day or the fifth day or the 20th day, if it changes again at school, this school is weird.
Craig: So, that to me is so much a part of that contract is understanding that you have a limited amount of time to scramble the audience’s mind as you wish, but then that time ends and you have to stick with what you’ve done.
John: I would sort of phrase the contract this way. As the writer I’m asking you, the reader, to give me an hour and a half of your time. And I’m asking for all of your attention reading this script. And I will take you on a journey. And you will be rewarded for your careful attention to this script that you’re about to read and I’ll get you to a good place.
That doesn’t mean I’m going to get you to a happy ending, but I will establish questions in your mind and those questions that I establish in your mine I will address and answer down the road. I may surprise you sometimes, but they’ll be surprises that you’ll be delighted about because they fit and they feel correct within the universe of our movie.
The same thing happens as you go from the page to the actual film. And sometimes when films falter, when you read a great script and you watch the movie it’s like, “Ah! That didn’t quite work,” is something changed in the nature of filming it that that same contract was not established. There was a lack of — the audience lost faith. The audience lost confidence in how the story was going to be told.
Sometimes it’s like those initial images. That’s why as we go through cuts of films and as we even work on our first couple pages, we’ll change those a lot because you’re trying to establish what the expectation is for the audience. And example I have is Charlie’s Angels, the first Charlie’s Angels, which was notoriously a really challenging shoot. Other writers came in. Every day was sort of a scramble. There were really good moments, but as we you put the first cut together and we’re seeing what it was, it didn’t feel — it didn’t land.
And so one of the things I was able to do was go in with McG and with the editors and we built an opening title sequence that sort of showed this is the nature of the world. This is how we’re going to move from place to place. This is who the girls are. This is what it feels like. This is what Charlie’s Angels feels like.
And as long as we were consistent there everything stuck together. But if that opening title sequence hadn’t worked we wouldn’t be in the right place.
Craig: It’s interesting that you mention title sequence because I got into a little bit of a debate over at Done Deal Pro, which I occasionally stop into. It’s like my three times a year stop in.
And somebody was asking a question about writing, it was a simple formatting question really. When you write a credit sequence at the beginning of your movie, how do de-notate it. And for me it’s as simple as begin credits and then when you’re done with that part, end credits.
Somewhat predictably a few less than fully informed individuals said, “That’s not your job. Your job isn’t to talk about credit sequences. Your job is just to write the movie. That’s the director’s job. That’s somebody else’s job. Nobody cares what you think about the credits.” And I totally disagreed.
Because to me while it is not — certainly a valid choice to not write a credit sequence and perhaps more often than not I don’t — it’s just as valid a choice to do it. And, in fact, for this very reason that a good credit sequence, which must be written as a credit sequence — it’s hard to covert a non-credit sequence into a credit sequence — a good credit sequence does precisely what you’re talking about: teaching the audience how this movie works. And by credit sequence I don’t mean just the titles. I mean to say action and movie occurring while titles are going across it.
That’s one way. It’s far from the only way, but one important tool that we have in our bag to help instruct the audience.
John: Some of the best title sequences are just showing you imagery that indicates what the universe of the movie is. And so a long time ago I wrote an adaptation of Tarzan. And the adaptation I did for Warner Bros. was modern day Africa. And so there’s some old sort of mythic Africa in it, but there’s also sort of modern day Africa. And the juxtaposition of those two was really important.
So, the title sequence I wrote for it made it really clear that we’re in present day but there’s all this sort of relic Africanized is still an important part of it. And it was teaching you how to watch the movie. It was teaching you what the movie was going to feel like and foreshadowing some of the things that were going to happen ahead. Even the Spider-Man movies, which are just imagery and noise and rock-n-roll, that’s also telling you what the movie is going to feel like.
John: The David Fincher sequences for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, none of the stuff that you see there is specifically referenced later on in the movie, but it feels dirty sex in a way that is important for you to understand as you start to watch the movie.
Craig: Yeah. James Bond sequences also do this. There’s the prologue, which won’t have credits, the cold open as it were. And then when they go to their very famous traditional credit sequence, you will start to get glimpses of things. And I call these overtures. Just as in old Broadway you would get a good overture at length where you’d get little snippets of all the songs and all the melodies and then the show would begin. Sometimes a credit sequence can do that as well.
But this contract and the negotiation where the audience gives you this grace period where you’re allowed to basically build a world for them does require enormous attention. And it’s why I said a number of times I will spend twice as long on the first ten pages as I do on the last ten pages. The first ten are enormously important because they are teaching you so much.
I mean, the script that I just finished up for Universal is a very — it’s got a very high concept that is adapted from a graphic novel. And it involves a hero who has a certain mental illness. And how his mental illness manifests is cinematically disorienting.
And so much of the first pages is about how to reveal this and then once you reveal it how to do so in a way that lets the audience feel comfortable with it as it plays out over the course of the rest of the script. You’re building that contract so that they don’t feel that you switched the rules around.
See, why — constantly, you’ll hear this all the time, very common studio note: what are the rules, what are the rules? Well, why is it so important that we stick to the rules? What’s that about? In some movies it’s not that important. Some movies you’re not dealing with a traditional narrative and violating rules is part of the fun. But, for a traditional narrative the reason that we get so worried about breaking the rules is because when you do the audience, whether consciously or subconsciously, calculates that you’ve done so because it was convenient for you.
And if it’s convenient for you then it’s no longer that impressive, is it? It’s a little bit like you want a guy to fall into a vat of whipped cream. Well, you can get him up the ladder in an interesting way, or you can just have him say, “Huh, this ladder doesn’t look that study. I think I should test it out.” Well, you’re just cheating. You know? And that’s what you’ve got to watch out for.
John: Yes. There’s a longer talk I do sometimes on expectation. And it’s really that same idea which is that an audience approaches a film with expectation. So, if you have a western, the audience comes in with e expectations of a western. And that’s largely very helpful, because you get a lot of things for free. You don’t have to explain how horses work or how gunfights work or how a lot of that kind of stuff works.
If you’re going to change some things about how the Old West is, that’s awesome, but you have to do that pretty early on so we understand that, okay, it’s everything we know about western but change these variables in this movie.
If you were to try to change those variables quite late in the movie, we would be flustered, the same way like a vampire movie. In a vampire movie we have expectations about what happens in vampire movies. We know enough about vampires so you don’t have to explain everything to us. But if you are Twilight and the vampires can be out in the daylight and they’re radiant and beautiful, you have to establish that quite early on because if you were to save that for three-quarters of the way through the movie we’d be going, “What? That’s not vampires. You’re just making stuff up.”
Craig: You’re just making stuff up. [Crosstalk] Yup.
John: Exactly. You would have lost confidence in the filmmaker. You’ve lost confidence in the screenwriter whose script you’re hopefully going to finish.
Craig: Yeah. Because the natural psychological consequence of that feeling that they’re making stuff up is that, well, I guess what I see next is just something that they’re going to make up. I don’t feel — because in my world things aren’t just made up. There are actions and consequences and they’re knitted together logically.
So, again, you are allowed to bring somebody to a completely different planet that they don’t understand, but once you’ve given them enough time to understand — and you don’t get that much — you can’t violate their natural human sense that the universe is ordered to some extent.
John: So, what I should stress is this does not preclude surprise. And surprise is still wonderful and amazing. And if your movie is firing on all cylinders, some surprises are great, and good, and you should look for them.
A mild spoiler here for Spectacular Now, so if you haven’t seen Spectacular Now, close your ears for about 30 seconds while I talk about this one little moment. So, in Spectacular Now the hero of the story is a drinker, he’s a drunk, and he is driving all the time. So, we have this expectation like he is going to crash. He’s going to crash and the girl is going to get hurt and it’s going to be terrible.
What actually happens in the film is he pulls off to the side of the road, they have a fight, she gets out of the car and gets hit by another car. Something that was not his fault — he wasn’t sitting at the wheel. And so we, as an audience, are taken by tremendous surprise like, oh my god, I didn’t see that happening. I can’t believe that just happened. But it’s in the universe of possibility for a movie. It’s a genuine surprise but it’s not breaking the rules of our world.
And they could do it only because we had invested so much in the reality of these characters. If they had tried to do that quite early in the story it wouldn’t have had an impact.
Craig: That’s right. This is not only do you not want to shy away from surprise and subversion. You want to move towards it. You’re constantly looking for those things.
And what you’ve just described there is the difference between improbably and illogical. Improbable is okay. Illogical, not so much. And improbable is okay, particularly if the audience understood that they got fooled. Because they will understand that they were in your control. They want to know that the person telling the movie is in control of the story and not just lashing out at stuff to happen because it would be convenient for it to happen, that that was a careful choice.
Similarly, there are movies with twists that recontextualize the entire world of the movie and turn all the rules that you thought you understood upside down. That’s also great. As long as when you do it the movie retroactively makes sense in the re-contextualization.
John: Yeah. I would also stress the movies that are going to pull the rug out from under you and re-contextualize everything, it only works if you are along for the ride in the first version of it. So, if you’re watching The Sixth Sense and you are with it from all the way through and you’re completely accepting it on its own surface level, then the twist and surprise is meaningful and helpful. But, if you bailed on the journey before then you’re just going to be annoyed by the twist.
Craig: Well, it’s interesting. One of my favorite films is Fight Club. And the first time I saw Fight Club I was a little annoyed. I was annoyed. Fight Club is an example of a movie where it’s, for me, it was difficult to enjoy it the first time through because I did not understand the twist. And then the second time I watched it it was awesome. But I couldn’t get to that second time without experiencing the first time.
But, now we’re talking about a high degree of difficulty here. [laughs]
Craig: And, look, you know, like The Sixth Sense is a movie that I actually did enjoy all the way through and the twist was great and it was extra, you know. But it’s always a risk. When you do a big twist movie there’s always a risk that people are going to be just too confused and too detached from what’s going on to connect with it that first time through.
John: Yup. Well, let’s talk about how movies start right now, because we’re going to look at some Three Page Challenges.
Craig: Oh yeah!
John: I thought we would start with Blake Armstrong if we could.
Craig: We can.
John: So, Blake Armstrong, by the way, so Stuart picked this script randomly, but Blake Armstrong is actually a person who works on Chicago Fire/Chicago PD. He works on the Chicago shows that Derek Haas does.
Craig: He works on —
John: He’s a gaffer.
Craig: I think he’s a gaffer or grip. He’s a crew person who works for the Chicago Empire. And what that means is he spends a lot of nights freezing in sub-zero temperatures while actors are being warmed in their tents.
John: Before we get into the script, we should really talk about Derek Haas’s Chicago Empire. Because I know the next spinoff is, I think, Chicago Municipal Services, which is basically the people who like fix traffic lights and stuff like that. There really seems to be no limit to what they’re able to do in Chicago.
Craig: Chicago Board of Ed. Yeah, Chicago Sanitation.
Craig: Chicago DMV.
John: Yeah. They were going to go for Chicago Parks & Rec, but they thought that would be too confusing with the NBC show called Parks & Rec.
Craig: Eh, you know what? I think they’ll do it anyway. [laughs]
John: They’ll do it. They we’re going to do a hospital show called Chicago Hope, but it turns out there already was a Chicago hospital show called Chicago Hope.
John: At some point they’ll reach a barrier, but it’s sort of like, you know, the limits of what they’re going to — the limit is pretty high, so there’s only a certain number of hours in the day, but people will watch whatever shows they want to set in Chicago apparently.
Craig: The one show, Chicago Chicago, which is going to be —
John: Perfect. It’s about the Chicago production — the city of Chicago putting on a show of Chicago, the musical. And it’s sort of a behind the scenes thing. It’s going to be great. It’s like Smash, but in Chicago.
Craig: Yup. They also have Chicago Smash.
John: That’s going to get confusing. I think they just crossed the line there.
John: Let me recap Blake’s script here. So, these are three pages by Blake Armstrong. We don’t know the title of this script, so we’ll just say Blake’s script.
We open on a glossy white spaceship leaving a planet. There’s chunks of busted ships and debris surrounding it. In the captain’s quarters we meet Specialist Kat Powell. She’s in her late 20s. She’s naked under the sheets.
The captain is Ben Drake, mid-30s. We see him in the bathroom with a ring box. He’s going back and forth about — back and forth dialogue about should they quit, should they get out of this game.
Ben is trying to work up the nerve to ask her to marry him, that’s what seems to be happening. Kat gets paged by the doctor, Rachel Galvin, to go the med bay. She’s gone before Ben has a chance to ask her.
In the bridge, Drake gets an urgent message from mission command where Director Ayers tells him that the mission is over. Ceres can be tera-formed faster than they thought, so they need him there now to lay claim. He’s got 20 days. And that’s what’s happened at the end of our three pages.
Craig: Yeah. You know, I like the opening here. I thought we had a good opening. I like this contrast. We begin with an image we’ve seen a number of times in movies, a spaceship in space, but I did like that the spaceship was moving past a lot of junk. So, there was a nice view — a little more realistic view of what space looks like, which is full of all this junk. Obviously we’re in the future because there’s lots of ships out there, including this one.
And obviously I always get excited, Patti Lupone aside, about seeing a naked woman lying on a bed. That was great. Quick — we’ve got some typos in here. For instance, “Glimpses of her skin peak out.” You want P-E-E-K, not P-E-A-K. But, I enjoyed the contrast of —
John: If it was a boob, maybe one of the boobs is sort of — I just talked over you. If it was a boob I would say the boob could be like a peak, a mountain peak, peak out.
Craig: I don’t know how to say this without sounding weird. Boobs don’t really work, [laughs], they tend to not go upwards. You know, when you’re lying on your back…
John: Well, if they’re fake boobs. And maybe that’s really what he’s going for her.
Craig: Really fake. Like those hard —
John: Really fake.
Craig: Like bolted on. Yeah.
John: Nice hard Pamela Anderson boobs.
Craig: Right. Like, yeah, god, poor Pam. Anyway, but I enjoyed —
John: I think that’s really what Blake was going for.
Craig: Yeah, probably. But I enjoyed the contrast of junkie space to this presumably beautiful woman lying naked in a bed. It was an interesting contrast. And I also like the way that we got into this conversation with her and her lover who is off-screen. It’s sort of a mid-conversation thing. “Let’s quit.” We’re not really sure what they’re trying to quit. But that’s always good. I always like little bits of mystery here.
When we catch up with this guy who’s in this connected bathroom, he’s looking at this ring in this box that clearly is an engagement ring. Couple of things. One, I’m just going to put aside the fact that even in the future people are still spending two month’s salary on rings at some intergalactic Robins Brothers. But more importantly, this just goes on too long.
This is one of those things where the audience gets it immediately. You see a man privately looking at a ring and not quite sure what to do. We know everything. So, we don’t necessarily want to have him open it, close it, open it, close it. We’re just going to get annoyed, I think.
And, frankly, what’s easily — perhaps more interesting way to go about this is to have him talking back with her. He seems occupied, preoccupied, or nervous. And then at the very end reveal that there is this ring on the counter. And then he’s about to pick it up when she’s called away. It’s just one of those things you want to hold back, I think.
She gets called away by — it’s, by the way, I-T-‘-S, it’s the crew doctor, Rachel Galvin who is on a filter saying, “Paging Specialist Kat Powell. I need you at the med bay, now.”
Eh, we don’t want to talk like that. Nobody talks like that.
Craig: It doesn’t seem — unless Rachel is also a robot, that’s not — I think if we just heard, you know, “Kat, I need you at Med Bay now,” that would enough.
John: It’s always dangerous when someone calls out with like their job title. I never kind of believe it.
Craig: Exactly. It felt very forced. Similarly, I didn’t — I don’t think it’s satisfying when you have a man with a ring and he’s considering whether or not to propose and make a commitment to this woman, and it’s interrupted because she has to get up, put her pants on, and leave. I would much rather see him make that choice. I think it’s just more powerful. I don’t want to take my choices away from these guys.
Let’s talk about what we’re teaching people about our movies. So, what did I learn from this moment that she walks out and as it says here on the pages, “Like a whirlwind, she’s gone and he’s missed his chance.” Well, the movie has taught me that this is the kind of movie where somebody can be stopped from proposing to somebody because somebody else is putting their pants on and walking out a door.
John: She didn’t go that far, I don’t think. They’re on a ship.
Craig: They’re on a ship. And you could just as easily say, “Wait, hold on.” [laughs] So, I don’t want to lose the choice.
We now go into the bridge and we have some syntax errors here. “Two walls displays instruments, meters, data, etc. taper into a V…” There’s typos and missing words here. Similarly, “The screens fade to black and white text blinks across them.” Something is missing there as well.
These pages have, for me, I have a very low threshold for this kind of character cheating where you describe a character, we meet them for the first time, and you tell us about how their personality works even though there’s no evidence for it. I know that you have a little bit more of a tolerance for it, but there’s a lot of it in here. Everybody is getting it at this point.
Drake, for instance, I presume our hero: “He’s really easy going for a guy in charge. He can’t help it that he sees the crew as friends, not subordinates.” I mean, I’d love to see that instead of having you announce it. And then he gets a message, “Urgent message from corporate mission command.” No, that’s pretty cheesy I think. It doesn’t feel like this movie is lived in. It feels like that is just a — that feels very contrived to me. He says, “Answer call,” and then we have his boss who very brusquely begins, “Mission’s over, Drake.”
And Drake says, “But — ,” when I think probably the appropriate response to that would be, “What?” Or nothing. And then he says a bunch of stuff here and then he says a bunch of stuff that’s science fiction-y stuff.
So, I think there was good contrast in the beginning. I’m intrigued by the promise of the mystery of this romance between these two. I generally advice people to clean their pages up before they send them to us so there’s not a lot of errors. A little concerned about some of the on-the-nose stuff. What did you think?
John: I share almost all of your concerns and your praises. So, a few things right from the start. In terms of the typos, obviously, the pages that blank sent through had a blank title page on them with like “Name of Project, Name of First Writer,” like basically the Final Draft title page thing but not filled in.
Again, that’s just like open the PDF before you send anything to somebody and make sure it’s actually what you want to send. Because basically he forgot to take the tick box off for include title page. And so it’s just one of those things where it made me from the very start realize like he never actually opened this PDF or else he would have gotten rid of that first page.
Getting into it, I agree with you. I like the contrast between space and then we’re in a sexual situation. But that space shot, I was missing, I had no — by the end of these three pages I didn’t have a sense of, am I on the Starship Enterprise or am I on the Millennium Falcon? I have no sense of the scale of the ship that I’m on. We’re talking about a crew but I’m not seeing anybody else. I’m just seeing these two people. And then when we get to the bridge, I didn’t know if he was alone on the bridge or if there were other people on the bridge, too.
When he described the V of screens it sort of focused on his chair. It’s like, oh, maybe it’s like a one-person command thing. Maybe it’s more like Serenity, like the Joss Whedon show. All of these are good, I just don’t know what universe I’m in in terms of the ship. And clearly the ship is very, very important.
I, too, really like the idea of going from space to a bed. Can be good, but like a girl in bed and talking to a guy who is out of the room, if you’re going to get to a sexual situation I would love to have them be in bed and just let that be the moment. Because if it’s about the relationship, I’d love to see them together. Not just like talking in different rooms.
The wedding ring to me just feels like the tropiest, tropiest, trope.
Craig: It’s pretty tropey.
John: Yeah. And it’s like, so a guy looking at a wedding ring, trying to decide whether to propose, it just feels — we just know what that is too much and too well. And it doesn’t feel interesting.
I actually like Blake’s description of sort of who these people are. I think they are going to be interesting characters. I just wasn’t seeing them do anything that would tell me that. So, like, facts not in evidence. It’s there on the page, but they’re not actually doing anything that would let me know that this is who these people are. Their dialogue isn’t telling me that. They’re not taking actions that let me see sort of who they are. I just see them being kind of annoyed to being called out to do their jobs. And that’s not giving me a lot of confidence.
Craig: Yeah, it’s interesting that this is following our discussion about the contract. Because your point about the nature of the ship is dead on. Typically when you do enter a new environment, one that’s not natural to our world, you want to give the audience, you want to give them a tour. The opening of Serenity, in fact, does this brilliantly. You know, a good tracking shot where one guy is moving through the ship and doing stuff. You start to learn — you see faces of people. You learn the scale of the ship. It is junkie, is it smooth, is it high tech, is it low tech? Size? And also the way that these people interact with each other. All that stuff comes out. You want to build, I think, for a science fiction movie, these pages feel a little bit more like maybe they would happen on page five and that pages one through four would be a little more of an exciting — we’re inside a freaking spaceship and here’s what it’s like.
John: So, I point us back to the start of Alien. If you look at how Alien begins, it doesn’t start with an alien. It starts with a bunch of people waking up and just establishing normal life on the ship. And these characters believe that they’re in a movie called Space Truckers. They have no sense that they’re in a movie called Aliens. And they’re just going through their normal life. They’re going through the normal stuff that sort of happens.
And we get little snippets of conversation. But we get a sense of who the people are in the world, what’s going on, and that it’s a very working class ship. And I’d love to see better evidence of sort of what kind of ship we’re on right from the start here. Because right now I don’t have a sense of like are there three people on the ship? Are there 300 people on the ship?
John: I don’t really have a good sense. And when we get to the later section, like the mission is over, like they were on a mission? I don’t know what their mission was. So, that mission is over — I’m confused not in a good way. So, I was excited to see that there’s a place that they’re going to be going to and by the end of page three a good thing I will say here is I did have a sense of what to expect next.
As we talk about a contract between the writer and the reader, the bottom of page three, like you’re going to go to this planet and start tera-forming, or get there and stake your claim. Ah, okay, so that is a thing to look for. And so I should be looking for them going to this planet and I will be basing my expectations around this journey to this planet or being at that planet.
Craig: Yeah. Absolutely. And in the discussion between our woman and our man, whether you have them separated or together, that is also an opportunity, I think, to get a little bit more character and conflict out of it. It was a little — there are times in movies where you can have a kind of a lazier conversation. But this wouldn’t be one of them. I think in the beginning you want to really try and pack a lot of dramatic information in. I don’t mean spell out a bunch of exposition. I mean, even if it’s looks, or somebody is slightly thrown off by something the other person says, you just want to get a sense of — a little bit more of an emotional sense rather than a circumstantial sense of the conflict between these people.
John: Yeah. Remember, you’ve got to hook us. And so I just feel like you have a beautiful woman in bed. I think you can do a better job hooking us in there and making us really invest in the nature of these two people.
John: Mm-hmm. What shall we do we next? Do you want to do Hearts and Minds or Brood?
Craig: Well, Brood is kind of fun. Can I summarize Brood?
John: Summarize Brood for us.
Craig: Brood is by Sandra Lee Slotboom.
John: What a great name, by the way. I’m not sure I believe it, but it’s a great name.
Craig: I absolutely believe it. You don’t fake that. You don’t fake Slotboom.
John: All right.
Craig: Slotboom. Fantastic name. Brood by Sandra Lee Slotboom.
Okay, so, we open in the woods at night. There’s a primitive log cabin hidden sort of in the forest and inside we hear a grunting and then a slap and then the wail of an infant, obviously newly born. A man, a bearded middle aged man, emerges. He’s dressed in 19th Century garb, so we’re at some point in the 1800s. And he walks out with a candle lantern. He has blood up to his elbows and he’s carrying a swaddled baby.
Inside a young woman is screaming, “No, Papa, come back. Not our baby.” He carries this newborn into the woods. He digs a hole. He puts the baby in the hole. Shovels dirt on the baby until the crying stops. Oof. And then he lifts the lantern above his head and we see that, in fact, he is in a vast cemetery littered with hundreds of unmarked graves.
Okay, so that’s our cold open. Now, we’re in the Ozark forest. It’s modern times. And a young couple, Lisa and Aaron, are hiking together with their dog. She has to go pee. She wanders off behind a shrub. A twig snaps somewhere behind her. Her dog growls.
We now cut to the inside of an upscale kitchen and a woman named Sloane Robertson is bathing her infant, Christopher, in the sink. And she’s cooing to him, but then she opens up the hot water tap and this scalding water comes out and she drowns her baby. And then the baby — apparently not dead — reaches up with arms, grabs her around the throat. She wakes up. It was a nightmare. She’s there with her husband, Michael, in the middle of the night and there is an infant, in fact, very alive in another room crying. Michael says he’ll take care of it.
And before he goes to leave the room he says to her, “You can do anything, Sloane. You always have. It’s who you are.” She cries. And she cries.
Sandra Lee Slotboom! Baby killer.
John: So, I loved the opening image.
Craig: [whispers] Baby killer.
Baby Killer is not a better title, by the way. Brood is a good title.
John: Brood is a good title. So, I loved this opening image. I loved the opening little moment. The guy burying a baby. Horrifying. That’s great.
I liked the second opening. Not quite as much, but that’s fine. Hikers in the woods. A twig snaps. By the time I got to the third opening of the movie, which was this fake out — it was a nightmare. I drowned my baby — I lost some faith in this movie. And so as an example of, I thought actually the writing line by line was pretty good. But we had three openings in three pages. And I started to get a little bit unsure of the journey that I was going to be going on.
Because am I going on — I could take a cold open that takes place in the past. Great. I’m totally down and good for it. But when we get to the Ozarks and we’re hiking, okay, great. So, we’re in this world now. Oh, a twig snaps, the dog growls, oh, it’s that kind of thing. It’s that kind of movie? Great. I’m totally good.
But when we cut to the upscale kitchen I’m like I cannot make that leap to make those two pieces connect. And I started to — I didn’t have enough time with those hikers to know what degree I’m supposed to be investing in them. And then that jump to another present day thing was just bizarre to me. And to be jumping to a present day thing that’s actually in a dream felt really strange to me.
How about you, Craig?
Craig: Yeah. Look, the first — the prologue — is awesome. That’s the kind of scene that people will read it, put the script down, and say, “Come in here. You’ve got to read this.” Great opening. Terrifying. Ballsy. And it also had — not only did it have this terrible image of a man burying his incest baby alive. I presume it’s his incest baby.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: But then there’s a kicker on top of it that this has happened hundreds of times, which is just like what’s going on here. It’s really dramatic. It’s really well described. The only mistake I think that occurs, frankly, in that prologue is the young woman inside her dialogue is too on-the-nose. I would have just preferred, “Papa, no!” I think we can actually start to let our gears move on our own to figure that stuff out. People screaming and in pain are never quite this expository.
But, wonderful opening. And like you, I’m now great with, okay, I’m in the Ozark forest. I presume this is — we’ve jumped ahead in time, but maybe the same place. Wasn’t thrilled with this dialogue between Lisa and Aaron. It was very cutesy. It felt fakey to me.
And then —
John: Oh, she said — the dialogue here, for people who don’t have these pages in front of them, Lisa is like, “Mr. Kovachavich?”
And he says, “Yes, Mrs. Kovachavich?”
“I have to pee.”
“God, I love it when you talk dirty.”
And, it’s only okay. And it’s the first things these people are going to say. They could say anything. They should say something better than that.
Craig: Yeah. It doesn’t work. They don’t seem like actual people. This isn’t a conversation that two people have. She goes to pee and he for some reason says to her, as she’s wandering off, “Lisa, stay close.” I don’t know why. They’re just hiking and it’s not like — they’re in a trail. It seemed like a… — If we’re in a horror movie, you know, people are supposed to be a little less cautious than the average person.
There’s an uncomfortable expository moment here. Once again, we have the trope diamond, from trope jewelers. As she’s peeing she holds out her left hand to admire her diamond wedding band glinting off her finger, which I just felt was — we just had the two of them tell each other that they’re married. And now she’s looking at how they’re married. I get it. They’re married. And, frankly, I’m not sure how any of that matters now.
Her dog growls. Something is in the tree behind her. Okay. Fine. Then we cut. This cut is unacceptable. It is absolutely unacceptable. And you will rarely hear either John or I be this firm about something. You cannot cut away now into this dream sequence. We will not know where the hell we are. We won’t know why you’ve cut away from that scene at that moment. It makes no sense. You’ve drawn our attention to something and now you’ve pulled it away bizarrely.
That said, terrifying dream. Gorgeously written. It’s like I feel like there’s two different people writing this. Because the horror moments are really well put together. And this, again, you have this terrible baby and I was really shocked. I thought, by the way, I didn’t realize it was a dream until the very end. I actually thought she was killing her baby. And then this baby has eyes like black marbles.
Ooh, good, it’s creepy, creepy, creepy. Okay, it was a nightmare. Fine. We see this frequently. That’s okay.
Then, we have this moment now with her and her husband. It’s the middle of the night, so now I’m really confused. Now we jumped ahead to night from day. And he says the following. “Sloane?” She’s listening to the baby. The baby is crying. “I’ll take care of it, darling. Go back to sleep.” No. I’ve been there a number of times with both of my kids. We don’t call each other darling at that moment.
And then, before he leave he says, “You can do anything, Sloane. You always have. It’s who you are.” What?
John: Yeah. I have no idea. I assume that was something to do with like maybe she has postpartum depression or something. He’s basically saying it’s going to be okay, we’re going to work through this, it’ll be okay. But, that’s not what he said. He said this thing about you can do anything. You always have.
And it’s like, what?
Craig: No one ever says that. Ever. Ever, ever, ever. You would say that maybe on page 100 if you’re Mr. Miyagi and it’s the big moment before the fight. But certainly not now. If you’re portraying a woman with postpartum depression I would think that just a helpless look from her husband and maybe he just gives her a squeeze, but she turns away, and he kind of gives up we would understand. But this was a fascinating — these were among the most fascinating pages I’ve read in all the time we’ve been doing this because it was such a Tale of Two Cities. Two really, really frightening, well written scenes. And then two clunky scenes. And the order was just kooky. Kooky McCuckoo.
John: I had a theory that I’m not sure is accurate or not accurate. But perhaps these were longer scenes and then she compressed them down so she could fit more into three pages. Because I feel like I could imagine the longer version of that Ozark thing actually making sense and actually building to something in a way that was useful or meaningful and that we’re ultimately going to find out that the hiker girl who dies or whatever is somehow related to these people. There’s something going on here that makes this all meaningful.
And maybe Sandra Lee Slotboom compressed these down to sort of try to get more in. But it wasn’t a compression that was helpful at all. It was just jarring. And I would read the next page, and maybe the page after, but I got — I have a lot of concerns because I don’t know whose movie I’m watching at all.
Craig: Yeah. I think that in a moment where a woman in a horror movie, putatively a horror movie, wanders off the trail to pee. And there’s a snapping twig behind her and her dog is growling. We need to see something happen. Even if it’s here turning, seeing something, and screaming, and then we cut, we need to know that something happens.
John: Yeah. Even if you were to do something crazy like recontextualize what that was, and then you realize like, oh, that’s actually a scene that’s happening on a monitor. This is actually a soundstage or something else, you could move to other stuff, but you have to address that thing that just happened or else we’re going to be going, “Huh? Did that happen? Did the reels get mixed up?” It doesn’t feel connected.
Craig: Exactly. What we’ve been presented is a scene that absolutely has no story purpose. None. It has given us no information. It’s given us information about characters, but no information about story whatsoever. And, yet, there’s story elements in it. So, it’s beyond confusing.
But, look, that said, those are fixable. What’s not fixable is an inability to write, and I think that Slotboom — BOOM — wrote a great cold open. Is onto a very chilling, very frightening topic that I’ve never really seen before. It’s risky as hell. And this is one of those areas where some people will just put the script down. They’ll make it halfway down page one and go, “Oh my god. I can’t watch a movie where babies are being buried alive.” But, I’ve been waiting my whole life for that.
So, I think that she can write. And she can do this. And she seems very comfortable writing in horror moments. Not so comfortable writing dialogue. Not so comfortable writing moments that aren’t horror. So, those are some areas to work on.
John: I think she has a great title. I think that title fits very well with that opening image.
John: Because what I got from that title and that opening image is like, okay, these undead babies are going to come back and seek vengeance. And they could be like an undead baby ghost movie. I love it.
Craig: No question. Yeah. And I’ve always wanted to see babies kick ass.
John: Yeah. Our third script is called Hearts and Mind by James Stubenrauch. And I’ll summarize this.
We start with a male voice asking, “So, you wanna go save the world?” And then what’s labeled as a flashback we are at an army recruiting office where Bree Foster, 19, is talking to a military recruiter. The recruiter changes tactics. Maybe she doesn’t want to go save the world but rather get a paid job. Seems more like it.
As they’re talking, Bree is watching this homeless man though the window. She ultimately grabs the recruiter’s cigarette’s and gives them to the homeless man who asks her if she’s joining the military to run away. She says, “It can’t be worse than here.”
We cut to the present time, or 2011, where a snow-like ash is falling. There’s explosions. We are in Kabul, Afghanistan. We move through streets and alleys to a blown up apartment building. We see Humvees, US soldiers, and Bree is among them. She’s in a medic’s uniform. She’s scared to death but hiding it. She’s very much a rookie in this world.
And that’s the end of our three pages.
Craig: Hey, James. James, guess what? You’re a pretty good writer. I think you did a really good job here. I have some comments and some thoughts for you. Most of them occur on page two.
But, let me tell you what I really liked. You built me a character. And you built me a character without cheating. Here’s what I see: “Bree Foster (19): a woman with nothing to lose.” Okay, that’s cheating. Except —
John: That’s cheating.
Craig: Except it’s not. It’s almost not cheating because she’s sitting in an Army recruitment office. And if you’re sitting in an Army recruiting office my guess is probably, you know, something interesting has happened to you, particularly if you are a 19 year old girl with “long dyed black hair. Black on black thrift store clothes, a homemade nose piercing… something both hard and innocent about her.”
You’re built an interesting — I can see her. And there’s no substitute for suddenly being able to see somebody. Not only can I see her. I’m starting to think of actresses. That’s a human being that you described and I love that.
And this guy is talking and she’s not paying attention. Instead she’s looking outside through the window and we see this Midwestern main street and this old homeless man reaching for a cigarette pack in the gutter. And she’s watching this guy, while this recruiter rambles on with all this nonsense about serving your country and being all you can be, we’re watching this homeless person finally, finally get the cigarette pack only to find out that it’s empty inside.
And I don’t think you can really teach stuff like this. People just have an understanding that you can create a small moment that is instructive in a metaphoric way and without being — slam you over the head. And I really liked it. I thought it was nice. It was calmly, quietly poetic.
My issues with what’s going on page one and two really have more to do with the cocky recruiter, because he goes off the rails pretty quickly. He’s just too broad. And, again, let’s talk about it as we’ve discussed — we’re world building here and we’re setting a tone and instructing the audience. He’s too “funny.” He is a recruiter. He may be cocky. He may have a patter. But at some point it gets off the rails.
He says to her, “Married? No? Awesome. What about babies?” Babies is a weird one. I would think children would be a better word there. She tightens up at this and he says, “Babies? Yes? No? It’s not a trick question. Yay or nay on rug-rats?” That’s quippy. It’s not real. That’s not how anybody in that position would talk. Not only is it not how anybody in that position would talk. It’s cutting against his job which is to get her to sign on the line that is dotted, right? It’s just bad salesmanship.
She says, “No.”
“Even better. You’re ready to be all you can be,” which is, again, it’s too — he’s getting too jokey. “Now the most important question.” He holds up two brochures — Soldier and Medic. “Wanna give shots, or get shot at.”
No. No, no, no military recruiter is going to tell you you’re getting shot at. [laughs] And give you a choice about it. It makes absolutely no sense.
So, that character I really think needs to be brought into the world that Bree’s character is in, and the homeless character is in. It’s fine to have him droning on. It’s fine to have him be canned and to be following the copy of a Department of Defense mandated script. It’s not okay to have him go that awry.
I love that she steals his cigarettes. And I love that she gives them to this homeless guy. And where I really got excited — although I wasn’t happy that he burns the cigarette down in one drag and tosses it into the gutter, because that’s not how smoking works, unless it’s a cartoon.
But where I was really happy was at the rest of page three, when we jumped ahead to present time. I thought, James, that you did a beautiful job of painting a picture here. Where a lot of people would have just said, “Chaos. We’re inside a building. It’s blown up. There are people…” You, you gave us a transition. You brought us in with sound. You brought us in with image of ash, which was quite beautiful. You had some terrific descriptions in here.
“We follow the ash toward its source — TRACKING through narrow, filthy ALLEYS. No signs of life. Only ghosts tonight.” I love that.
“A BLOWN-UP APARTMENT COMPLEX. Its insides disemboweled into a BLAST CRATER.” Great. So, I could see all of this. You are telling me a story. You are guiding me. I was watching a movie. And that is why I think you can write.
So, I would fix that cocky recruiter character, but very encouraged by this. What did you think, John?
John: I agree that once we get to Kabul, that scene setting, that painting of the world is really terrific. I had more problems with these first two pages than you did in that I didn’t get to see anything that Bree did. Basically all I got was a description of what she’s wearing and then this really annoying guy was talking the whole time. And I didn’t really get to see her. I got to see — the first two pages were basically being driven by a cocky recruiter we’ll hopefully never see again and a nameless homeless man. And that wasn’t a rewarding way for us to start.
Even if you have a character who is essentially passive, let’s see her be doing something even in her passivity. So, rather than being talked at by this recruiter, she’s like trying to fill out this form. Get us further into this process because I didn’t believe — like you, I didn’t believe that this guy was real. I didn’t believe that this was really her signing up.
It can be just about the paperwork. But let her speak something in here because she’s going to be our main character. So, let her try to explain herself at least to some degree to this guy. And if it’s even about a very small thing, like “When do I get my first paycheck? How does this all work?” We can understand her perspective on this more than what we’re getting from right here, which is basically canned spiel from a guy who I don’t want to see again.
Craig: Yeah. I think that what I would suggest — I get the idea that Bree is a little dead inside here. And I’m okay with that tone. If the more grounded, realer recruiter said, “Now, do you have questions? I’m sure you have questions about salary.”
And she said, “No.”
“All right, well, do you have any questions at all?”
Then I would know something about her. So, there are ways to show passivity in an active way. I did think that —
John: I would also say —
Craig: Yeah. I was going to say I thought that her thing with the cigarettes was — she was doing something during the scene. So, I give her a little more credit there than I think you are. But I agree that we need a little bit — I think fixing that guy is going to fix her.
John: Yeah. I think she has to drive the scene, though, ultimately. Even if there’s another guy who is asking the questions, we have to believe that she is essentially in charge of the scene. I would love to see her try to be giving an answer but really she’s paying more attention to the homeless guy up the street. And like that, I think, is an interesting dynamic where we see her start to talk or start to form an answer, but she’s really more paying attention to what that guy is doing.
I agree that the homeless man doing the pack of cigarettes stuff is interesting. It’s a good visual image that helps establish our world. And ultimately when she makes a choice to go out and see him, it’s great. But I didn’t really believe the moment of her grabbing the cigarettes and sort of walking out the door. I was like, well, did she leave the recruiter’s office not doing it, signing up? I more wanted to see her sign on the dotted line and then as he’s filing the paper, whatever, then she takes the pack of cigarettes. Some completion on an action, because right now I didn’t necessarily really believe that she had joined the military.
Craig: I agree with that. I think that’s right. The part of this that isn’t working is essentially the nuts and bolts part, which is her signing up for the military. But, the mood of somebody that’s a little dead inside, answering questions and doing something that is an enormously radical thing for somebody to do and a big life choice for somebody, and yet doing it in a way that seems distracted and sort of dead inside and misplaced focus. That’s all great. You just have to take care of the nuts and bolts end of it a little bit better.
But that said, I thought, again, that James understands how to write a movie. And that is a very encouraging thing to see from three pages.
John: I would agree.
Craig: Yeah. Great.
John: So, again, thank you to all of the people who submitted pages this week and every week to the Three Page Challenge. If you would like to follow along with these examples, or any of the other ones, for every podcast we do a Three Page Challenge in the show notes we’ll have links to the PDFs for those three pages, so you can follow along.
If you would like to submit your own three pages, it’s at johnaugust.com/threepage, all spelled out, and there’s little rules there about sort of how you send stuff in and what you should put in your email and what you should not put in your email.
And we’ve been getting a lot of them. So, Stuart goes through the pile and sorts them out and finds some really good ones for us to look at. And, again, thank you to Blake, and James, and Sandra Lee for sending them through to us this week.
John: Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing?
Craig: Yeah I do. Do you want to hear it?
John: Go for it. I want to hear it so much.
Craig: So, I feel like I only have three categories of One Cool Things and one of them is medical stuff. Very interesting invention that is currently being tested out and is on the verge of being manufactured. It’s called the XStat syringe. And it’s an example of how modern thinking is changing the way we approach problems. It just seems like such a modern solution to a thing.
Bullet wounds. Incredibly common wound to deal with, not only on the battlefield but also any municipal hospital in a city is dealing with bullet wounds all the time in trauma. And the immediate problem with bullet wounds is bleeding. And basically the way you’re taught when you’re dealing with first response to a bullet wound, and a bleeder as they often are, is to basically shove a bunch of gauze into it, which is what they were doing in the 1800s. Shove gauze in there. The gauze gets quickly soaked. The blood keeps coming out. And then you also have to pull all the gauze out, which can be very painful. Shoving the gauze in is very painful. It doesn’t really do what it’s supposed to do.
So, this is so brilliant, this company called RevMedx has come up with what looks like basically a syringe. It’s a plastic syringe shaped a bit like — it’s kind of like basically a tampon. It’s like a big tampon applicator. And it’s got a silicon tip at one end and a plunger at the other and it’s filled with tiny compressed cotton balls.
And they look like, you know like Smarties, the candy Smarties? Like little — did you get those in Colorado?
John: Yeah. I know — yeah, absolutely.
Craig: Yeah. Smarties. So, they look like little pills, like little aspirin pills, but they’re just compressed sponges. And so you stick this plunger into the open bullet wound and you push in these little tiny sponges which fill the space and then the blood essentially makes them expand and they seal the wound up, almost instantly, which is pretty remarkable.
There’s some issues with it. You’ve got to pull all those things out later. But by that point theoretically somebody will be stabilized and anesthetized and so forth.
But, it’s just one of those things where you look at it and you’re like, oh yeah, I guess —
John: Yeah. We could do that.
Craig: Yeah. Like I guess we just sort of gave up on bullet wounds for awhile, like for 300 years, and now we realize maybe it would be a good thing to kind of fix that. Because the other option is tourniqueting which causes all sorts of problems. It’s a last resort. You can damage a lot of healthy tissue with a tourniquet. And tourniquets are incredibly painful.
So, hopefully this ends up being cleared by the FDA. The syringes themselves are $100 each, which is a huge deal, because that means that they will be available not just for first world use but all world use. And hopefully they save some lives…of good people.
John: That would be great.
John: When you said syringe I assumed it was going to be something like an epoxy, like an epoxy polymer that you would squeeze in that would actually seal the thing. But, that’s maybe chemically not wise to stick epoxy into people’s open wounds.
Craig: Yeah. You don’t want that in the bloodstream. That’s probably a bad idea.
John: They do — they use super glue though for cuts and that does work.
Craig: Yeah. They have some surgical adhesives and things like that, but an open wound where you’re injecting it pretty deep in and sometimes even into an organ, epoxy also hardens and then it’s a — yeah, that would be a problem.
John: As always, we like to give a lot of medical advice in our podcast because we are experts on so many topics.
Craig: I am.
John: You are. Craig is.
John: My One Cool Thing is just a simple game that you will download on your iPhone and waste a lot of time with, because it’s great, called Threes! Have you played Threes! yet, Craig?
John: Threes! is really good. It’s really straightforward and simple. And it goes to your basic need to sort of neaten and straighten things.
Craig: Oh, no, I have that need.
John: So, essentially you’re given a grid of numbers and you are trying to add up — merge these numbers and you’ll have a tile with a three and a tile with a three. You merge them, they become a six. And you’re trying to build up to bigger and bigger numbers. But, of course, there’s limited space on the board, so you’d have to plan strategically for how you’re going to combine these numbers and therefore not fill the grid. And the game is over when you fill the grid.
It’s just a very well thought out game with terrific little mechanics. It’s just smart enough. It’s just cute enough. It’s a good game to play and a terrific time-waster for playing for 30 seconds or for six minutes, but a really good game.
Craig: I just bought it.
John: On the App Store right now.
Craig: I just bought it.
Craig: I bought it while you were talking.
John: That’s how good it is.
So, our show is now complete. If you would like to know more about the topics we talked about, Craig’s medical syringes, my game, any of the Three Page Challenges, you can find the Show Notes at johnaugust.com/podcast.
You can subscribe to us on iTunes. We are there. Look for Scriptnotes. And you can leave us a comment while you’re subscribing there.
If you’re on iTunes you can also find the Scriptnotes app which is for sale. Not for sale there — it’s free there. You can download the app to your phone or other iOS device. Through that app you can access all the back episodes, which is fun and good for you to do.
Weekend Read, the app I make for reading screenplays on your iPhone is also there, so you can download that for free.
We will be back next week with more things to talk about. And if you have questions for Craig, he’s @clmazin on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Longer questions like the one we got about late payments go to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And that’s our show.
John: Done. Thanks Craig.
Craig: Thank you, John.
- Get your tickets now for the Scriptnotes/Nerdist Live Crossover episode on April 13th at Nerdmelt, with proceeds benefiting 826LA
- Patti Lupone interrupted
- Film Independent’s Directors Close-Up series
- Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D.
- Three Pages by Blake Armstrong
- Three Pages by Sandra Lee Slotboom
- Three Pages by James Stubenrauch
- How to submit your Three Pages, and Stuart’s post on lessons learned from the early batches
- The XStat syringe by RevMedx
- Threes! on the App Store
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Betty Spinks