The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, you’re at home, your son was using up all the bandwidth. We’ve had some challenges but I think we’re doing better now.
Craig: Yeah, basically I just yelled at him and now everything is fine.
John: That’s great, great parenting.
John: Last weekend I had a parenting challenge and we actually did something new where I asked five questions on a piece of paper and had her sort of fill out like what she thought was like the right amount of screen time, what she thought would be the right consequences of these kind of actions, and drew up a little agreement. And so far so good. Better.
Craig: Well, I don’t know if it’s a gender thing or if it’s just an individual thing. With my son, I find that what seems to work best is a kind of a military precision with him. So generally speaking to help guide him we don’t discuss the why he’s doing things or why it’s wrong or what it’s supposed to be. Instead it’s just very like, here’s the rules, this and this and this. And he says, got it. [laughs] Then he just does it.
But we do have this interesting thing we do where sometimes at night he’ll write up a little something where he expresses his feelings. It’s easier for him to just write it.
Craig: And then he gives it to me and he goes to bed because he doesn’t want to talk about it. And then I read it and then I write back a response. It’s very parental and nice. And then I slip it under his door and when he wakes up in the morning he reads it. And in a very kind of father-son way that works really well for us. We are allowed to be kind of vulnerable and sweet with each other that way.
John: Yeah. I do the exact same thing with my daughter, so it’s a good idea.
Craig: Oh, good.
John: So our parenting advice for the episode would be to do that.
John: But we have a show chock full of other stuff today, so let’s get to it.
We’re going to talk about the Writers Guild and producers who have reached a new agreement. And so we will have Chris Keyser on to talk about that.
We are going to talk about screenplay formats and not just our sort of new format but sort of how we got to the current screenplay format and some of the alternatives that have already been out there and sort of what they look like and their pros and cons of that.
And then I also want to talk about the process of assembling a first draft, because I just today shipped in a brand new first draft of something and it was a completely different way than I had ever written before. So I want to talk about that process.
John: But before we get to Chris Keyser I have a little bit of follow up. James in London emailed us two episodes ago about Courier Prime and how the underlining wasn’t right. Do you remember that?
Craig: Yeah, I do, yeah.
John: And I was like, well, you’re wrong because I underline things in script a lot. And I think the underlining in Courier Prime is really good. The underlining does actually, like the Gs carve out in the underlining, which I think is a good thing.
He emailed us back to say, “I have since looked further into the matter and I feel I owe you an apology. The difference in underlining is due to changes in Final Draft 9 and not the fonts. I have attached a couple of screenshots showing the difference.”
Craig: Oh! Ha, that’s weird because they did spend three years on that.
John: So I will describe for our listeners sort of what the difference is. Like the underline is weirdly, bizarrely thin in the Final Draft 9 version. I don’t have an answer for why it is that way. But actually it’s a Final Draft 9 thing and he was not being crazy, we were not being crazy. It was a Final Draft thing.
Craig: How many times they —
John: Final Draft.
Craig: Do we say, oh it’s just a Final Draft thing?
John: So on Wednesday this past week the Writers Guild and the studios reached a tentative agreement for another three years of contract, which is great news. Press releases don’t work very well on radio, so we’re so excited to have Chris Keyser, the President of the Writers Guild of America, on the show today to talk us through what is new in the deal.
Chris, welcome to the Scriptnotes podcast.
Chris Keyser: Thanks, guys. Thanks, John. Thanks, Craig.
I haven’t seen you in over a day, John.
John: It’s been a very long day without you.
So I was on the negotiating committee, so I got to see Chris in action sitting at the table right next to me as we were negotiating this deal and this contract. And you went off and shot a whole pilot in the meantime too, so.
Chris: I did. And now I’m editing it. So I’ve stepped out of the editing room and — but I’m glad to talk to you guys.
John: Good, fantastic. So what should writers know about this deal and sort of what has happened over the course of this negotiation?
Chris: There are actually a lot of things that I think this negotiation accomplished. Most people I think will look at it in that it’s two separate things. One is a whole bunch of stuff that we got that came off of what people will think of as the DGA pattern, a pattern that in fact we had a lot to do with because there were conversations that went on for a long time between the WGA and the DGA about all the stuff that had been negotiated. And then separately the new provisions on options and exclusivity which are the first time for those issues to be discussed in the MBA. And actually I think potentially a big step forward.
So we should probably talk about one and then the other. And I’m happy to do whichever thing you want to do first.
John: Let’s do the basics, because a lot of stuff going into this negotiation was about talk of really rollbacks.
So I think far in the distance as this negotiation was approaching, there’s a sense like, okay, it’s just going to be a very standard negotiation. We’re going to end up doing a lot of the same things the DGA deal did. It should not be complicated.
And then the first proposals we got from the studios were actually not what we expected.
Chris: No, they actually contained about $60 million in rollbacks which seemed outrageous during the time of unprecedented profitability for the companies. Nevertheless, that’s where we began. And so that’s coming off of an initial list of rollbacks and then a decision on the part of the studios, the companies not to come in for any early conversations but just to arrive on the first day with those rollbacks on the table.
We began on our end with a letter, as you probably all remember from the co-chairs of our committee, from Chip Johannessen and Billy Ray, essentially informing our members of what those rollbacks were. And I think that was a really important moment in the course of the negotiations. It put the companies on notice that we were not taking this lightly. I think it energized the membership in a way.
And we went into the room with interestingly I think a little bit of momentum. I don’t know whether it was a strategic mistake on the part of the companies. You’d have to ask them how they felt about it in the long run. But I think though it looked like it was a potentially dangerous moment and it could have been. There were many days sitting in the negotiation room when we were still at risk of some of those rollbacks actually trying — being imposed on us if we could not get out of them. But instead, what it turned out to do was to kind of invigorate us on our side and put us on the offensive almost from day one.
So first off, all of those rollbacks were off the table and those rollbacks included some major — would have — major concessions first of all in pension and health — mostly in health. Also some rollbacks on the screen side of the business that would have decreased the salary of screenwriters by raising the low budget minimum. So that was actually a very dangerous moment for us at the very beginning.
But all of that stuff actually went away. And by the way, those were the highlighted rollbacks. But the truth was as we got into the deal there were also a bunch of hidden potential rollbacks that we actually were able to avoid as we went and negotiated a number of the different specifics.
John: One of the things I found most interesting as I was sitting there learning about this stuff is that when we say the DGA deal, I sort of assumed that all the unions had kind of agreed on what the levels were for things. Like on the future side, what we describe as being a low budget or medium budget or high budget, I assumed those would be common across all of the guilds. And they’re not at all.
And so when the studios try to say like, oh we want to have the low budget and the medium budget things be similar to the DGA things, that can be really, really bad for our side because we may have much better definitions for what those terms mean than the DGA does.
Chris: Yeah, I think it — and you’re talking specifically about the rates for basic cable where the budget breaks for basic cable are different between the WGA and the DGA deal. So what ended up happening was we were looking at getting what’s called an outsized increase in the script minimums for hour-long dramatic basic cable series. And the question was, were we going to do it on our old budget breaks or would we be asked to adopt the DGA budget breaks. If we did that, we would have lost much of the gains that came with those minimums because the shows would not actually fit over those budget breaks.
But we held firm. So what ended up happening is it doesn’t look like a remarkable gain because in fact what we got — I mean, in terms of the budget breaks because the budget breaks are exactly the same as they’ve always been in the WGA deal. We do have, in fact, one of the gains we made was a 5, 5 and 5% bump in script minimums for basic cable dramatic series without a change in the budget breaks.
So that’s a good result of the negotiation that will not be clear in the materials that were put out for the negotiation.
So the DGA made a deal off of its contract and we made a deal off of our contract. And our point of view was you can’t change our minimums. That’s a rollback. And they didn’t get a rollback. We shouldn’t get a rollback either. So we didn’t. We both ended up with gains over what was existing in our current contract.
Craig: I want to take a step back for a second, Chris, because we’re going to go through all the points of what this deal means for us. But for the sake of context for people listening, there’s kind of a meta victory baked in to all of this. And that is a victory of prudence. I don’t know how else to put it.
The companies came to us with this jerky first offer. And there are so many ways to take the bait there. And quite expertly you and David Young and the negotiating committee and Billy Ray and Chip, you all chose the path of no bait. We’re not taking the bait at all. We’re not going to antagonize. We’re not going to throw a tantrum. We’re going to very calmly tell our membership. But basically, we’re not going to take the bait.
And they blinked. And I think it’s important for people to understand that there’s no fun victory in any of this. You never get to punch this guy in the nose and see him go down and then just dance around him. It’s always some quiet unseen victory. Those are the only victories worth having in these things.
Craig: So you guys did a really good job right off the bat of not taking the bait. And I think that the prudence paid off in a huge way. There is this saying that some used to promulgate years ago that the guild never won anything good without a strike. I would submit this negotiation as the perfect rebuttal to that. We got a lot here.
Chris: When the companies put out those rollbacks on the table and we came in with that firm undeniable response, I think they rightly believed that we could go back to our membership and take a strike vote. And that we would get a strike vote. That’s what the truth in the room that we were not going to put up with, in a period of unprecedented economic success for those companies, rollbacks in our P&H or for our most vulnerable members at this point, our screenwriters. That continued into the conversation about options and exclusivity throughout all of which I think they rightly assumed that they were sitting on a tinderbox.
Chris: We didn’t explode anything but we made it very clear what was at risk if we didn’t get some deal on this.
Craig: It’s a great example of walking softly and carrying a big stick because, yeah sure, I’m sure they were probing with the theory that we were all just battle-weary still from 2007. And why not see if we can get away with something crazy. And so they do what they do and you guys had the perfect response.
I was really happy to see the term — we used to traditionally always get these 3% bumps in minimums. And for people that write in features, minimums are sort of irrelevant because it’s sort of an overscale business and most of us — most people who work in screenplays get more than scale. But even if you do get scale, 3% isn’t going to change your life.
But in television it’s the basis for residuals. It’s a really important term. And we would always get 3% and then suddenly it became 2%. And now I’m happy to see that it’s coming back for 2.5% and now 3% — back to 3% again.
Chris: Yeah. David Young calls it breaking the 2s and it was a very high priority for us. I’ll just quote him again, something — a quote that the negotiating committee heard over and over again. I think anyone who went to any of the outreach meetings, I think he quotes Einstein — whether it’s actually an accurate quote or not, who cares: that the most powerful force in the universe is compound interest.
Chris: So 3% every single year, year after year actually makes an enormous difference in income for writers both from their minimums they get paid but also in residuals. But in addition to that, I think that we believe that it drives eventually overscale income that as those minimums rise and at some point double over the course of a decade because of it, so too does above scale income rising. We all know that one of the pressures right now is on downward pressure on above scale income, not just for screenwriters but also for television writers.
And it’s a tough thing for us to take on because it’s not actually within WGA’s purview. But we do effect it indirectly by guarding our 3% bumps in minimums. And I —
Chris: And I agree with you. It was an important gain in this year’s negotiation.
Craig: Yeah, for sure.
John: An unusual thing about this negotiation is generally the parties sit down, they negotiate for a long period of time and hopefully by the end of this negotiation they reach a conclusion, a deal. And this time, it didn’t happen. So we got through a bunch of it and then we announced to the members that we were taking a break and that we were coming back to focus on one specific issue which was options and exclusivity.
So can you talk us through what options and exclusivity really mean, who is affected by it, and sort of why it became an issue this round?
Chris: Yes. It’s a little bit of a long story and that would actually happen in the negotiations as well.
Options and exclusivity became an issue because of traditional television schedule, the 22-episode television schedule or more — 22 episodes or more television schedule which had writers writing on the same schedule essentially from the beginning of June until sometime in March or April. And then taking something around a two-month break before they were either hired again when their show came back or not or had the chance to go after a different job the exact time as everyone else.
It has begun to be replaced by a new system of short orders which meant that increasingly television writers were finding themselves working for eight or 10 or 12 episodes on a series much less time and for much less pay. And then waiting under both either exclusivity or an exclusivity and an option deal with their studios, and I’ll describe what that means for a moment, unable to get work sometimes for six, nine, 10 months in a row because you — as people know who write cable programs, you may be in a room, write all the episodes. It may be some time before all the shooting is done and then some even more months until that series airs. And then who knows how long until the studio and the network decide they’re going to pick up the show again and put you back to work.
So what ended up happening was writers had small amount of pay over a small period of time attached to which they had a very long period where they were effectively unable to get other work.
Why were they unable to get other work? One of two reasons. One, because some people had exclusivity agreements which meant that they were actually not permitted even when they were not writing to go write for anyone else. The studio that had them under contract essentially had a lock on them.
But even if they didn’t have an exclusivity deal, they had an option on them in first position for when the series came back which meant that anyone who wanted — and it’s not that they weren’t free to go look for other employment in television — could only look for employment in television in second position. So I’d go to another show and say, “Hey, I’ve got some number of months off. I’d love to be on staff on your show.” And that other show would say, “Yeah, but we don’t know when your first show is going to come back on the air and they’re going to take you out of our writers’ room potentially somewhere in the middle. And we can’t afford that. At the very least, why would we hire you as opposed to somebody else who’s free and clear?”
So effectively, what was going on is that people were working for short periods of time and being held under an option to that same studio for long periods of time without pay. At some point, that becomes an untenable financial situation for people. They can’t actually make ends meet. And what’s more and the argument that we made is it’s fundamentally unfair.
John: So I have friends who were in exactly that situation where they were sort of in limbo because the TV show they’d been writing on had shot. It was waiting to find out whether they were going to get another season of the TV show. And during that time, they were stuck. They couldn’t write on any other shows. They weren’t even supposed to go out and do feature work during that time, which seemed crazy. And you don’t know how long that’s going to be.
So to literally be taken out of the market for such a long period of time is so damaging to writers, especially young writers, people who are just first-time staff writers. They suddenly can’t work anywhere else.
And so these are the kind of writers who end up having to go get other jobs because like literally like Starbucks kind of jobs because they cannot work in the actual industry for which they’re supposed to be employed. It was incredibly frustrating to me. But I think it’s also frustrating for television. I think it’s bad for television.
Chris: That’s right. I mean, it’s difficult in a couple of ways. First of all, I think you were alluding to this: Imagine somebody who beforehand was writing 22 episodes a year, that kind of experience. And now, they’re — maybe they get eight episodes in a full year and maybe the next year they don’t get that because their show doesn’t get picked up. And so you end up with people instead of who have hundreds of episodes under their belt by the time they want to run a show or move up the ladder and become co-APs or whatever it is, they now have episodes that measure in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s because that’s all they can add up to if you’re only doing a short order every season at best.
And so it’s very bad for that reason. The other reason why it’s bad is because — and we actually felt that the studios would respond to this and maybe they did even if they didn’t say so out loud — is that a marketplace where all the writers are tied up not working is bad for every television show that doesn’t have the dibs on that writer.
So if you, John, have a new show and you want to staff, you may well find out that there are five or six writers who are not currently writing but they’re not available to you.
The second argument really is that for every show, every studio that isn’t holding a given writer under contract, they’re at a huge disadvantage by this tight labor market because, for example, I said like say you, John, you have a new show that gets on the air and you’re looking to hire a writing staff. And in fact, there are many writers who are not currently working but they’re not available because they’re all sitting doing nothing because they’re under option to people who aren’t using them currently. How much better it would be if the labor market were freed up and that people who had shows and needed writing were able to hire those people? And those people would then be able to choose which show to work on.
In the long run, that benefits everybody. The companies certainly never expressed the feeling like this would in the long run be down to their benefit. But I actually feel like it’ll be beneficial to everyone to have a labor market in which people can work whenever they’re available.
John: I strongly agree.
Chris, can you talk us through what is new and different in this options and exclusivity agreement, because I think there’s some confusion as if, you know, we didn’t actually give up anything that was already in the contract. None of this was ever covered by WGA contract. This is sort of brand new territory for the MBA.
Chris: That’s right. This is the first time ever that options and exclusivity have been covered in the MBA. And like everything in the MBA, these are minimums which is to say that they only set a floor from which we can negotiate even better deals for ourselves and our individual contracts. There is nothing in the MBA that gives the companies the right to have an option over you or to exclusivity. They need to negotiate for that. The options and exclusivity provisions that are in the new MBA restrict the company’s ability to negotiate for options and exclusivity in the following way.
If you are a writer who earns after January 1st 2015 under $200,000 a year or after January 2016 under $210,000 a year, the companies are not permitted to negotiate options and exclusivity clauses with you. Instead, your treatment is governed by the MBA. And this is what it says. First of all, there’s no exclusivity anymore for any of those writers. So when you are not actually working, you are free to work for any other company. You want to go out and write — you get a chance to do a rewrite on a movie during your hiatus, you are free to do that and they cannot say to you, “No, we get a first look at your services.”
Second thing is about options. So the companies have a 90-day period after when payment is due for your writing services during which they still have a hold on you. This is roughly the same as the kind of hold that they might have had at the end of the 22 episodes, 22-episode order.
But beginning on the 91st day, you have the right to go out and look for any job you want. The requirement is that when you get a bona fide offer, you bring it back to the studio and they have two choices. Within three days, if your show has already been picked up, only if your show has been picked up, they may exercise your option and put you on that show and you need to begin being paid to write within 14 days. Or if your show has not been picked up, they leave you free to go. And you are then permitted to go and get another job in first position. And the company with which, the studio with which you originally work then retains second position.
So in other words, once your job is over, once that second job is over, if your original show gets picked up, they can come back to you and say, “Okay, we want to put you on that show under the terms of the deal that you negotiated.” Effectively, you are free to go get work in essentially any situation after those 90 days are done.
Craig: Unless they pay you a holding fee.
Chris: That’s right. So that’s the other thing. The other thing they can do is they can, after that 90 days, they can pay you to extend your option. And that holding fee is one-third of WGA minimum for either Article 13 or Article 14 writers plus pension and health. That’s fundamental for us because what we said was the right, which is not just the right of writers but of all human beings, is to actually be able to apply their trade, to go out and make money for the thing that they do. We don’t work for free nor do we forgo employment for free.
So beyond the reasonable period at the end of a season, of a show, there’s no reason why a writer should say you may hold me without either compensating me or, like I said, I wouldn’t put it that way, you can’t hold me without compensating me. And if you do not compensate me, you must let me go. The argument we made in the room over and over again, it was made very powerfully by a lot of members of the committee, was that anything less than that is a form of servitude. And that we would not live as indentured servants of the companies.
Craig: Well, one thing that I think is revolutionary about this — beyond the fact that it’s addressing an area that had not yet been addressed by the Collective Bargaining Agreement — is the idea, is the philosophy behind the idea that this applies to people who earn less than X. And in this case, X is $200,000 per contract year. Unless I’m incorrect, my memory of the MBA is that the only other place that there was anything like this was in relation to pseudonyms that we have a right guaranteed by the MBA to use a pseudonym unless we make more than I think it’s $200,000 or $250,000 on a project.
But what’s so brilliant about this is that one thing that we’ve always struggled with and what the companies throw in our face all the time is that this is a mature contract. And it is a mature contract. It’s — I mean, this is the product of — we’re coming up on 70 years now of negotiated settlements and it is a mature contract where we are literally arguing over whether we should get raises of 2.5% or 3% and so on and so forth. And we all know that certain residual formulae are set in stone. But this is shining a light. And I think this is the future of our guild and our negotiations with the companies.
And that is to say let us agree that certain areas here are mature, but let us now carve out exceptions and protections for new writers who are being paid what I call close to scale because those are the writers who are suffering the most from these kinds of practices. It’s harder to argue as some did.
When I was on the board people were still fighting the DVD battle and they were saying, “Well, we’re losing millions of dollars.” And I was listening to millionaires telling me that they were losing millions of dollars. And it was true.
But what was also true is that they were millionaires. And I really like the idea that we’re forgoing this need for a universal benefit for all union members and saying we’re okay to settle for getting the goods for the people who need it the most. To me, that’s what a union is for. And I think this is a big deal. I just think philosophically from an approach point of view, there’s a lot more to be mined from this tactic than there is from saying everybody deserves it or nobody gets it.
John: Well, I think it’s also — it’s looking structurally what are the biggest problems facing actual working writers. And you can’t be a working writer if you’re not allowed to work. And that’s I think a great place for the guild to come in and take a look at it.
But I would stress, though, it’s not necessarily just the people who are making below $200,000 or $210,000 in the second year of this that are going to be affected because I think the people who are above that level, their agents, their representatives are going to go back and say, “Hey, I know we’re above this cap but we want those same protections that the people below the cap have.” And some of those people will get it and some of those people won’t get it. But I think it sets a standard or a pattern for how you talk about options and exclusivity for even people who are making —
John: Significantly above that level.
Craig: Sure. I agree. Yeah.
Chris: I think one of the problems that we’ve had is, look, it’s obvious, is that individual agents negotiating for individual clients have been unable to exert the leverage to avoid onerous options and exclusivity clauses in contracts. The philosophy of this is that there are some writers who are beginning, who make less for whom the job of negotiating this individually through their agents is an impossibility. Much like negotiating a minimum salary for those people would be an impossibility. They’d be under pressure to — downward pressure to accept less and less and less.
But having set a floor below which the companies cannot go, we hope to provide an opportunity for the agents of better paid writers to make an argument that said, “If you’re paying my staff writer and my story editor and not holding them under option, you’re not going to tell my co-producer and my producer that he or she needs to be under an onerous option.” We put the power back in the hands of the agents where that also belongs.
Craig: Chris, you and I have had a discussion about the free rewrite problem, whatever name we want to give it, that’s really what it is. And one thing that I’ve expressed to you before and I’m kind of hoping that maybe this is a little bit of an illuminated path to it is the idea of carving out a protection in the MBA for writers that are earning close to scale, particularly when it comes to one step deals.
I’d love to see a term where we were okay with going in there and saying, “We’re negotiating for a two-step deal guarantee. But not for everybody, just if you’re making this or under.” And I think there’s nice precedent now for that kind of work to be done.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s where we have to go after we hang up. It’s high on the list.
Craig: Great, good.
John: So Chris, talk to us about when the things in this deal go into effect because it’s not all at once.
Chris: No. In general, the terms of the deal go into effect May 2nd of this year. That’s when the new three-year term begins. Options and exclusivity are effective January 1st 2015. That’s because it actually is a very large change in the way business affairs has to do business. So it gives them, the companies, a bunch of months to actually get their houses in order. And actually for us to begin to educate writers and agents about how this is going to work.
Craig: It makes sense too because the term is based on a contractual year income and that hasn’t happened yet. It’s a little strange to look back at income that was accrued under a contract that didn’t have that provision.
Chris: That’s right, that’s right.
John: So before any of this goes into effect though we have to ratify this contract. So what is the process for that? What do writers need to do or WGA members need to do?
Chris: Well, they can either vote online or in the old-fashioned ways. And all of the packet of materials will be going out — I apologize, I don’t know exactly what day but in the next day or two. The contract has been recommended by both the guild — the Board of Directors of the West and the Council of the East and by the negotiating committee. So all that’s left is for the members to vote and I hope to ratify the contract.
And so you’ll get the material in the next few days. And I believe the voting deadline is the end of — it’s like the 29th of April. Don’t hold me to that. It could be just a day or — it can’t be a day or two later because it needs to be ratified or we need to turn it down by the date on which the contract expires which is May 1st. So voting needs to happen.
And I — look, it’s the same argument that we make all the time. I think a good turnout and I hope a good turnout that votes in favor of this contract continues what I think the negotiation began to suggest to the companies which is that we are, after all these years, and an argument I think that I’ve made and you’ve made, John and Craig, we’re actually much more unified than the companies might have perceived that we were or the world continues to claim that we are.
Chris: And one — another piece of evidence of that and that means people voting.
Craig: I think for me, by far the most important factor and the most beneficial thing for us when dealing with them is our leadership and how they view our leadership. And again, I have to say they took our leadership this time around, which includes the two of you, seriously because our leadership behaved in a serious manner. Not in a loud manner but in a very serious manner. And if they feel they’re dealing with serious people, in their minds they know if serious people turn to the membership and say, “Hey, everyone, this is bad,” everyone will believe them and become instantly energized.
Craig: We don’t need to be marching around with pitchforks until such time as a reasonable man asks us to.
Chris: Yeah, I think —
John: That’s a very good point.
Chris: I think that — yes. Look, I mean it’s self-serving for me but I will agree with — one of the things that we are susceptible to and I think a fallacious argument is that ignoring the fact that science gives consent in fact and that the assumption that when our members are not active, they are inactive because they don’t care, I think many of them are inactive from time to time because they have many other things going on.
Chris: They have their lives that are complicated both in a work sense and every way else. And if they feel as if things are going in the right direction, then they’re less likely to actually feel the need to actively engage. I don’t take that always as being a negative. Sometimes I think that’s a quiet sign of competence.
John: Chris Keyser, I would like to thank you personally for your quiet confidence during this whole negotiation. It was great to see this. And I really thought the team was terrific, including David Young who I had not really encountered before but just did a terrific job negotiating that contract. So my personal thanks to you for a really great negotiation.
Craig: Yeah. I mean I’ll back that up. I would say, Chris, and this is self-serving for me because I’ve supported you strongly from the start but I think you’re going to go down as one of our great presidents. I really do. I think that you have accomplished not only an extraordinary amount of good during your time, which is of course not yet over, but you have set an example and kind of put forth proof of an argument of a way to do this that is better than the way it has been done. And that is extraordinarily valuable for us as a union going forward.
John: Well, Chris, we’ll let you get back to you cutting your pilot and thank you so much for joining us on here to talk about the deal and congratulations. And everybody, remember to vote.
Chris: Okay, thanks guys.
Craig: Thanks, Chris. Thank you.
John: So Craig, we we’ve talking a lot about our potential new screenplay format and I thought today we could spend a few minutes talking about sort of how the screenplay format came to be and sort of what some of the other alternatives that have existed out there are. And it’s a little bit of a history lesson but also alternate history lesson of the way things could have gone.
John: So I’m going to start with — actually, a guy wrote in — emailed us. His name is Stokely Dallison and he wrote, “I suspect you may have forgotten what it’s like to be a new screenwriter. In my view, it’s a wonderful comfort to adopt the same format as thousands of scripts that have come before. Every script the same font, the same spacing, the same three holes with two brass brads. It feels good to be part of something relatively old. It feels good to know that my script, however inadequate it might be, looks the same as all the great scripts that have come before.”
And I thought that was actually a really charming thought —
John: Because I remember writing that first script and it’s like it just seems so weirdly magic that I — oh everything — it’s got to look just like a real script and the esoterica of the screenplay format is both something that sort of keeps people away, but once you sort of get inside it’s like, oh, I know how to do this. There’s something about that format and it does feel sort of special. And so whatever we do, we have to acknowledge that there is something special about it.
What’s interesting though is what we take as being the screenplay format is actually fairly recent. And there are other ways it could have gone and there are other ways — you’ve seen movies that were written in completely different ways.
John: And so there’s not one magic way for it to work.
Craig: No. Well, I have to say that, first I hear — I can’t tell you how many times I will hear somebody say, “Well, you’ve probably forgotten what it’s like to be a new screenwriter.” No, I haven’t. No. [laughs] I don’t think there is a screenwriter alive who still doesn’t feel like a new screenwriter on some level. And certainly we don’t forget what it’s like. I do want to just put that out there. Never think that we’ve forgotten magically the pain of becoming a screenwriter or starting out.
There is something that’s comforting about being able to write in a format that makes your screenplay look professional. But unfortunately that’s not really important. And I would argue that a lot of new screenwriters will obsess over those things in order to avoid the other things that are unique to their screenplay like, you know, the content.
John: So let’s take a little history trip and figure out how the screenplay came to be. Because when the first movies were made, the first screenplays were really just a list of shots. And if you think about it, these are silent films. So literally you are just making a shot list and just like a train comes, close on a man’s face. And that’s sort of what the original screenplays were like, were just a list of these shots.
And it was almost — it was basically a set of instructions for like what the order of the shots were going to be. And if there was going to be a title card, there wasn’t really dialogue, so it could just be a title card or like one of those intercut cards that show like some line that someone is supposedly saying. But that’s as much as there would be.
It’s Thomas Ince who is often credited with sort of being the father of the modern screenplay because he’s also the father of the modern studio. He was the one who said — he bought a bunch of land in California and he’s like we’re going to make a bunch of movies. And in order to make a bunch of movies, he wanted to make sure that he could basically hand a blueprint to anyone, any of his directors, and say like this is what it’s supposed to be. Shoot exactly what I’m giving you.
And so our idea of a screenplay being the blueprint for a movie is really credited to him. And so a bit of trivia, if you actually are down in Culver City, there’s a street of Ince. There’s the Ince Gate —
Craig: Ince, yeah.
John: To the Culver Studios or one of the studios down there. You will actually see the word Ince down there.
Craig: Wasn’t he the guy that got murdered on a boat or something?
John: I’m sure there’s a fascinating story. Like all of old Hollywood is great and wonderful. And so —
Craig: Right. Everybody was constantly being murdered.
John: Well, this was the frontier. This is like a brand new town. It was all —
John: It was all made up from scratch. So he’s the guy who sort of I think is generally credited with being the guy who said this is a plan for making the movie. It’s typed out this way. It’s basically those shots.
Now I still, remember, he was essentially making silent films. And as we started adding dialogue in, that’s where the scripts became a little bit more like a play because you actually have to have people talking to each other.
So scripts going back to even like Casablanca, they written in what’s called a continuity style, which is sort of like a shooting script. It’s basically a sequence of shots. And even when there’s dialogue, it’s really about the shots. And it’s as if you’re sort of directing on the page. It’s like — it feels like a director’s plan for what it is that you’re shooting.
This evolved over time to what is called the master scene format. And I don’t even — I mean, I’ve been writing scripts for a long time but I didn’t know that the way we were writing our scripts is called the master scene. Have you seen that terminology?
Craig: Yeah. I’ve never heard it before, but I did see it in the example that they used for an early master scene format screenplay. It’s The Apartment by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. And they wrote that in 1959. And that does look very much like the screenplay format we use, if not exactly like the screenplay format we use today, which by the way I have to say, so on like one hand you’re right that it’s not like the movie business was founded on this format that we currently use. On the other hand, we have been using it for at least 55, 60 years, which implies that maybe it’s time for, you know, a change.
John: Or that we got it exactly right and nothing needs to change at all.
John: [laughs] Well, let’s talk about The Apartment, because actually I was really struck by it. And there’s going to be links in the show notes to sort of all the scripts we’re talking about. So The Apartment, it really looks like a modern screenplay. Like if someone dropped it on your desk, it’s like, well, this is a screenplay.
But it’s considerably different from the continuity style of script. It’s literary. It’s kind of designed to be read. It’s not designed just as for a director to know what shots there are. It’s designed for a person to be able to see what a scene feels like just on the page. There’s a lot description about sort of — there is screen description. It’s really talking through what the characters are doing, what things feel like, what things looks like. And in a weird way, I think this is a good point that this site that we’re going to send you to makes, is that it actually gives the director more leeway.
Craig: That’s exactly right.
John: And so rather than calling out every shot, it’s describing sort of what the scene is like, and sometimes the suggestions were sort of like how it’s shot. But really, it’s going to be a director to figure out what those shots are in there to tell the story. So even though the writer gets to have a more free rein and more words to describe the scene, the director actually gets a little bit more leeway for figuring out how to shoot that scene. It’s a significant evolution.
Craig: Yeah, you can see in the Master Screen format — that’s what they’re calling it Master Screen format?
John: Master Scene format.
Craig: Master Scene format that everybody is starting to approach filmmaking in a more artistically free way. It is being unyoked from the factory. Early Hollywood was a factory. They would just burn film and lights and people would stand in spots and they would make movies in a matter of days. I mean, it was just — they would just churn them out.
And so it was really an ADs’ business if you think about it, you know. I mean, that what we currently think of as a first AD, they are the people on the set who are scheduling, figuring out how many pages you’re shooting in the day, marshaling the crew, making sure that the props people and the this and the that and everything is in place.
ADs were kind of the early directors, in some regards were like that.
John: They were.
Craig: And then as you see the influence of European cinema and also the increasing freedom, the artistic freedom of Hollywood, which I think was just naturally building on itself, getting bored with the kinds of stories they were telling and trying to find new ways to tell them, started to — and also probably because of the influx of playwrights into the process because of the demand. You can see now that the format is allowing both the writer and the director the freedom to tell a story in a creative way.
John: Yes. So if you look at the Master Scene format, which is really what we think about the modern screenplay format, it’s very tempting to read the dialogue and skip over everything else because the dialogue tends to be the meat of what is happening in modern screenplays.
You can get the gist of what’s going on by reading the dialogue. And so the dialogue is centered. And your eye kind of goes — falls to the center of the page. And all the scene description and the transitions and the scene headers stay towards the edges. But that’s not the only way that it can happen. And one of our listeners, Matt Markwalder, sent through a bunch of examples of Kubrick scripts which are wildly different and actually sort of do the opposite.
John: And I think and probably in direct response to how people read scripts, he decided to do a completely different thing. So in Clockwork Orange, first off, everything is double spaced. And dialogue has wider margins and action is sort of put over to the right. And so the action is deliberately sort of minimized and sort of put over to the side, but in a way that you tend to sort of read it. It’s like the line length is really, really short and your eye goes to it. Whereas dialogue tends to be bigger, wider blocks of things.
John: So an example, I’m skipping to page 28 of A Clockwork Orange. Scene 22. INT. CAT LADY HOUSE. That feels kind of normal. “The cat lady enters and dials a number.” That sentence is centered in two lines in the middle of the page. So it’s like it looks in sort of the area where you would normally expect to see dialogue, that’s where that line is. And the cat lady has this long speech that’s double spaced and goes all the way to the margins of the page. Is just a really interesting way to do it.
Craig: Yeah, well, and then he changes it up because then when you get to Full Metal Jacket, it reads like a novel. He’s just in — he’s burying dialogue and action description into flowing paragraphs, not really breaking them out or formatting them any differently than each other.
It’s almost as if Kubrick decided I’m just going to format my screenplay the way I feel the movie is. I’m going to let the formatting reflect the tone and the vibe of what I’m going for which is awesome. And I suspect that when the entrepreneurial screenplay market really took off, the need for screenplays to be uniformly formatted became really important because now it was a commodity. And you had to formalize it. But I regret that. And I would love to see people have the freedom to write their screenplays however they choose to get across the vibe of the story they want to tell. I think that’s very powerful. And I think you and I are going to do it.
John: [laughs] So in Full Metal Jacket, for those who aren’t looking at this on the screen right now, the dialogue is actually in quotation marks. It just looks like a page of normal text really. It’s a very —
Craig: It’s like a book.
John: A completely different way of doing things.
John: So I also want to take a look at some of the other types of scripts that are out there that aren’t screenplay formats or at least normal screenplay formats. The most obvious one which is similar but different is the three-camera comedy, or the multi-cam comedy. So everything you see there has a laugh track to it on television tends to be that. So I’m looking at the page from The Millers.
Craig: The Millers, the show, the TV show, yeah.
John: So in multi-cam, action is basically on the same lines, has the same margins as we sort of expect in a screenplay format, but it’s all upper case. And it’s usually minimized. They don’t try to write as much in there as you would otherwise. Everything is double spaced. The whole page is double spaced. Character names, where they expect to be. But the dialogue blocks are a little bit wider. Parentheticals fall within the dialogue block themselves.
John: It’s really different. One of the things I do sort of enjoy about multi-cam and you can see sort of why they do it is partly because you’re scheduling things sort of on the fly so quickly. Skipping to page 37 of the script I’m reading at. INT. NATHAN’S HOUSE. KITCHEN LATER, D3, D3, indicating day three. And this is a thing you’ll commonly see in TV shows indicating what day or what night it is. But underneath that line, in a parenthesis is, “(Nathan, Debbie, the Sarge),” and what it’s showing is like who is in this scene.
Craig: Who’s in the scene, yeah.
John: And that’s a really useful bit of really kind of metadata that is useful to have especially as you’re trying to schedule this thing. Who needs to be there, what characters even if they’re not speaking in the scene need to be there in the background.
Craig: Yeah, it is useful information. And obviously a sitcom’s script is formatted in part to serve the need of a churning production that is weekly and involves live theater essentially for most of them. But I have to say just aesthetically I find it ugly.
John: I find it ugly, too, but that’s what I’m used to. It’s what your — it’s what you grew up with. And I’m sure to people who are used to multi-cam, they don’t find it ugly at all.
Craig: I guess I would say that what I find ugly about it is that it is the most formalized, that even screenplays allow you a little more leeway about how you approach things. But it’s so rigid in that sitcom format. And, you know, my instinct now is to see how we can allow screenwriters to express a movie on the page in a way that is more idiosyncratic to the story they’re telling and how they want to tell it and their dramatic intention.
So I’m probably just reacting to that because it’s very rigid.
John: It’s very rigid. So actually it’s interesting because in stage plays there actually is a wide range of sort of how those stage plays look. And so something I found in Big Fish is that I was looking at other books for musicals and it’s like, oh, there isn’t really — there’s much less consensus about how those things are supposed to look.
Typically, in plays you will find action will always be put entirely in giant parentheticals, which I find maddening and really not attractive to look at. But it’s a common way to do it in stage plays. Dialogue can be sort of where we expect it now, but blocks tend to be a little bit wider. Are lyrics all the way to left, are they inset differently? Are they all upper case? That all changes.
But of course there’s another way you can do plays, which is just to have — which is more like sort of the reading plays that you and I are used to where a character name is, you know, upper case, bolded maybe even with a colon after it. And their dialogue just goes after it. Since plays are mostly people talking, that could be an efficient way to show that on the page. And it may make more sense to really let the page be dominated by the dialogue because the action is going to tend to be much more minimal than it would be under the screenplay.
Craig: Yeah. Well, you know, the key thing — the thing that’s going to unleash us all is this getting away from pagination. The more I think about it, I just know we’re right. I just know it.
John: So let’s talk about what those fundamental units are, because the fundamental unit could be a scene. It can be a sequence. It could some sort of other unit. But there needs to be some area of story by which you can say like, these are the outer perimeters of what this moment is because if you look at the Kubrick scripts, it’s very difficult to tell sort of where we are at in those things. And sometimes I wouldn’t even know like are we in the same location? Have we moved to a different place in time? That’s challenging to figure out in some of these Kubrick scripts.
Craig: Yeah, yeah. No, I’m not an anarchist about this sort of thing. I do think that, you know, if you are — granted if you’re directing your own material, the only person that truly needs to understand it is you and you’ll explain it to everybody else around you. But for those who are writing screenplays for other people to read, I think sequences — sequences. I think letting the dramatic action delineate where the pieces begin and end is the way to do it, not location.
John: So the Coen brothers’ scripts, I don’t know if you’ve actually read any of them on the page. They tend to get rid of scene headers altogether. They tend to be, you can see that we’re in the new place or new time. But they’re not using the classic sort of nomenclature for sort of what those are. That may ultimately be the way to look at this is that as you’re moving from place to place you’re showing us where we’re at, but it’s not formalized in those scene header ways. So we don’t think of those scene headers as being — we don’t give them more importance than they deserve. And right now, I think they get way too —
Craig: They’re so important. Yeah.
John: I think they get elevated too high.
Craig: I mean, honestly, you pick up a screenplay, if you were from another planet and you came here and you picked up a screenplay you would think that the most important part of storytelling is whether you’re inside or outside.
Craig: It’s the dumbest thing. And half the time now the way we shoot movies, it doesn’t — you’ll say, you know, EXT. OUTSIDE OF INTERGALACTIC FEDERATION BUILDING. That means you’re inside on a stage. There’s no inside or outside. I mean half that stuff doesn’t even matter anymore. How do you write exterior/interior on a script for Avatar? Explain that. I mean what’s the point?
Craig: So I totally agree. I think the slug line thing is the weirdest thing. It forces us into categories of time. A lot of time I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say morning, afternoon, dusk, noon, or just day. What does day mean? I don’t even know what day is. What’s day?
John: Yeah, and how specific are you allowed to be about what time of day you’re at? Do you need to clarify if you move to a different day. Like I just like The Millers script indicated it was day three, like that is a useful bit of information yet does that need to be reflected on the page right at that moment? Perhaps not. And maybe there’s a different way that you can indicate that, so that it’s part of the metadata for that sequence, but doesn’t have to be written down the road.
Craig: Right. Exactly. Because I’ve had this conversation with a number of ADs on a number of movies where they will sit down with me and say, “Walk me through the days of the week or the month on this? Let’s actually…” And in fact, I remember on Identify Thief, Seth and Jason and I sat down one day and really dialed in the days of the week, so we knew that this thing actually made sense and that it wasn’t taking either two days or 12 days. Because we didn’t, you know, if you have four nights in a row and then say you had a three-day road trip, it just doesn’t quite work.
So at some point, you do that. And if you want to — if we have a format that uses technology and allows us to flexibly include a file that they can pull up as they wish, that just shows a day, night, time passage summary.
Craig: That would be really cool. But I don’t need to look at it while I’m reading the script.
John: Exactly. So that’s a useful bit, just like costume changes. It’s one of the first things when you have a costume designer comes on to a movie is really doing that day/night breakdown to make sure like, are they still in the same outfit as they would be in the previous scene? And sometimes I will get involved with that because I need to sort of clarify like no, no, this is a different day. Like they could have changed clothes, they would have changed clothes between this time. Or no, they have to be wearing the same thing because they literary came right from there to there and it’s going to bizarre if they’re suddenly wearing new clothes.
Craig: Absolutely. Absolutely. In fact you’re zeroing in on something that’s really interesting about the current screenplay format, is that it overemphasizes some things, and ignores other things entirely. And what ends up happening is we go — right before you shoot a movie, right before you begin principal photography, the entire production gathers together all the heads of the department and most of their keys under them, and the director and the producers and hopefully the screenwriter is there as well. They should be. And everybody goes page by page and they ask questions.
And a lot of those questions will shock the hell out of the screenwriter because they’ll think, oh, I thought that would be obvious, but it’s technically not in the script, so yes, they don’t realize that they’re coming home in the same outfit that they went to work in, you know. But if we could help guide those things because the format allowed us to flexibly do so, that would be really cool.
John: Yeah. So I think that it becomes a matter of you write your script, you write what is going to be a thing. Let’s not focus on sort of what it looks like. But you’re going to write your thing and you’re going to figure, you’ll write your script, Hollywood script/screenplay. Don’t worry — we won’t worry about margins or sort of other stuff.
John: But then you figure out what are the sequences? What are the units of story that are important? And within those units of story then we can sort of have those, you know, if this were the web, each of those units of story would be essentially a page and there could be extra metadata associated with that page. So you could have all the information that is about who is in the scene, day or night, where this falls in the timeline of the actual story.
John: And the situations where we’re in multiple locations, you can address those facts that you’re in multiple locations over the course of the sequence. So those intercut phone calls which are always a challenge, that can all be part of that because it’s — there’s a fundamental story unit that’s together.
Craig: What a waste of space when you have two people talking. You have interiors and exteriors, blah, blah, blah, intercut, nonsense words you don’t — it’s like, duh. You just write, you know, he calls her up. She’s sitting in her apartment. They have a discussion, on the phone. Everybody knows how phone discussions work, but somehow screenplay formats are like slogging like Frankenstein through the mud. It’s like we all know how to write our name, but if you need to program in Basic, you go 10, print name, 20, go to 10. You know, it’s just it’s so clumsy and unnecessary and we need to be free of it, John, free, free.
John: So the other thing I will say is, you’ve written some animation and I’ve done a lot of animation, is you recognize that they ultimately number things as sequences. And it will be a bunch of what we would consider scenes. They will consider one whole sequence. Almost more like what we think was as reel, they will think of as a sequence. And it’s a much, ultimately a much smarter way to address it because they’re not worried about sort of like this location, that location, whatever. It’s about this unit of story. And that’s probably a smarter way for us to format.
Craig: Yes, for sure. I mean, you start writing. Let’s say you’re writing in our new format. And when you reach the end of your first sequence, you indicate it’s time for a new sequence to begin. You might naturally say, well, how will I know when that sequence is over? You’ll know. You’ll know. [laughs] Because you’ll just know. It’s so obvious. And it will just be similarly obvious when the next — it’s like, oh god, we got to do it, John.
John: We got to do it. So this is actually a great segue for our last topic of the day, which is I just delivered like literary two hours ago delivered the script that I owed and so I turned it in.
John: But this is the first time I went hardcore on a way that I’ve kind of been working, but I went much more hardcore on it this time, which is that I wrote each bit separately. So I didn’t sit down with one file and write from the beginning to the end. I only wrote separate scenes or sequences, whatever you want to call it. And I just wrote the pieces.
John: And I skipped all over the, you know, the story of this episode and wrote the pieces I wanted to write, I had a really good outline and I assembled it all at the end. And so I want to talk through sort of how I did it this way. And, you know, I think it’s actually useful for what we’re doing in terms of like what a format could do that could help us down the road.
John: So for this time, I used WorkFlowy which was a One Cool Thing from before which is an outline or it’s an online outliner that I really just love. And so even right now, I’m looking at WorkFlowy because I keep show notes for the podcast in it. But I just made a pilot and I wrote the, you know, these scenes that were in it. Basically these are the events that happened. And I rearranged them and so it was equivalent of my index cards. But I would sort of have a list of basically these are the scenes, these are the things that are happening over the course of it.
And then as I had more details I could fill in underneath those scenes. I sometimes would start writing dialogue. I’d write the important stuff that needed to happen in those things. And when I chose to write one of the scenes, I would just open up a brand new file in Highland and just type it. And I’d write it and when I was done, I would save it, I would scratch that off the list and keep moving on to the next one.
What’s so good about this is, well, once I start on a first draft I’ll go someplace and barricade myself and write drafts by hand. And I’ll do that so that I can’t go back and edit. This was sort of the same idea, is that I would write something and then I would not go back to it and futz with it. I would go on and write the next thing. And I would write the next thing. And I wouldn’t go back through and sort of start at page one and keep building forward. I actually got a lot more done I think because I wasn’t going back and tweaking all those things I’d written before.
Craig: You know me, I’m a big go-backer, tweaker, you know, but that’s just my flow. I like that feeling. It just makes me — I’m happy, you know, and whatever makes you happy and whatever gets you through the process. What I very much am addicted to, I don’t know, it’s probably the wrong phrase, but I’m committed to is the notion of thoroughly outlining the movie before I start because I feel like if you do it and I do think in terms of sequences when I’m outlining as supposed to locations which is an indication that we should be writing in terms of sequences and not locations.
It helps you place all of these things within the context of character and theme and all the rest of that stuff as opposed to just, there’s a car chase. Yeah, but what happens in the car chase that makes it relevant to the character beyond, you know, chase man and get him, you know, that sort of thing.
So I like outlining a lot. But there — look, there are writers who don’t and still get there on their own and do it well. I just think that when you’re putting a first draft together, you are entitled to do whatever you need to do to get there. That’s basically my feeling. You get to use anything that supports you through the very difficult process of making something out of absolutely nothing.
And just as long as you can accept that this is — there is no end to your first draft. There is simply ceasing and then returning to it. Do what you need to do.
John: So in this case, I ended up with a folder full of essentially 40 — 30 to 40 scenes. And classically what I would then have to do is I’d have to open up a new document and open up each one of those individually and sort of copy and paste them into one big thing and sort of get them all arranged properly.
So being the person that I am, I asked Nima to write me a new little app called Assembler.
Craig: Of course you did.
John: And because that’s what I do.
Craig: It’s what you do.
John: So Assembler is a thing which we might end up releasing or we might not. It looks ugly right now, but it did the job. Essentially, what Assembler does is it takes a folder full of little files, little text files because that’s all Fountain is little text files. And you choose a folder, it pops up, and you can just drag the order that you want the files to be assembled in. You hit a button and it assembles them and opens up in Highland. And so I had simply an assembly.
And I think that assembly is a really good way to think about that sort of pre first draft. It’s like it’s all the basic scenes, but they’re not necessarily nipped and tucked in the right way. So it’s — it wasn’t my first draft certainly, but it resembled what the script was going to be. All the scenes were there. And then I can sort of go through and then really do that detail work of making sure that this scene is really leaning into the next scene and tumbling into the next scene in ways that was useful and meaningful. Even as I was writing, I knew what had come before, I knew what was coming after. But I want to make sure I was making great word choices that were going to send me into the first line of the next scene. All that stuff.
John: And so that was a great way. So I went from that first assembly to this first draft in, you know, four days and felt good about it because I knew all the bits were there and so I could really focus on making everything that’s best and not sort of like struggling to get those last little bits done.
Craig: Yeah. It’s interesting. I think what I’m doing is an analog version of what you’re doing. I’m just doing it with index cards.
Craig: That I’m basically breaking down my pieces into index cards. And the index cards typically are sequences. And that’s how I’m sort or organizing things. And what I’m doing — when I’m doing those index cards, is there’s a depth sort of textually there’s a depth because there’s a little summary on the card. And then what I like to do it is I like to have another card next to it that’s the what does this mean? Why is this in the movie? Why did this deserve to be in the movie card?
And then underneath that, the woman that sits with me and helps me, you know, takes all the notes and puts this all together for me, she’s also then writing down a whole bunch of notes related or thoughts, bits of dialogue, concepts, purposes, points, characters, et cetera that are related to those index cards.
So by the time I’m writing my draft I have this interesting assembly of headers and what’s and why’s and then details for these sequences in a non-digital, semi-digital format. And then I just start to write. It’s funny, even though we have — they look so different, there’s something very similar about the process.
John: I would agree. As she’s assembling this stuff, or as you’re sort of putting these things together, is that ever one file or it is just still a bunch of cards?
Craig: Well, we have one file that she kind of master, she sort of has this master file. And then a lot of times as I’m heading into a section, I’ll say, well, all right, let’s — now, we are on page 60. And I know that I’m about to head into this sequence where, I don’t know, the soldier is going to fly into the temple with his parachute and do a thing.
So let’s talk about it again. Let’s just run through what was there before, but now let’s rediscuss it in light of what has led up to it now through the writing. And so she’ll take that portion out of the master document and build a new thing that’s just like, okay, here’s what you’re doing for the next few days.
Craig: And then I’ll add more detail and layers into that. That keeps in mind what’s come before it recently. And then I’ll use that. Like it will sort of sit next to me.
Sometimes I don’t even look at it because just the fact that I’ve talked it through, now I know it. And I know what to write, you know?
John: There’s a story that John Gatins told before, so I apologize to listeners if I’ve told this story on the podcast before, but I think it’s such a great illustration of the trap you can fall into when you just kind of start writing, is that there was a guy who was hired to paint the stripe down the middle of a road. And so the first day he had his little bucket and his paint and he painted a mile and he came back and his boss was like, “That was really good, you painted like a whole mile. That was terrific.”
And the next day, the boss comes back to see his work, he’s like, “Oh, you painted another half mile. Okay, well, that’s great. Still pretty good. That’s better than most people.” And the next day, he came back and he’d only painted a quarter of a mile. And so the supervisor said like, “What’s going on? Like why did you slow down so much?” And he’s like, “Well, I have to keep walking back to get to the paint.”
John: And that can actually be what the situation you find yourself with a script, is that if you’re starting at page one every time and just like, write, sort of rewriting it to get up to the next page, and then rewriting it to get up to the next page, every day you sit back you’re going to have spent a lot of your creative energy rewriting those first couple of pages and you’re going to probably make less and less progress through your script. So yes, I bet those first pages are going to be incredibly tight because you went through them a bunch of times. But you’re not actually moving the ball forward.
So, you know, what I’m describing in terms of not letting myself, but just doing separate sequences and not letting myself assemble the whole thing is to keep myself from doing that, because it’s just a bad habit I’ve noticed.
So before I would write pages by hand and fax them through to my assistant who would type up the pages and stick them in the folder. And I would do that until I got to where I felt like I was probably halfway through the script and then start assembling and then start doing it. This was just the most hardcore version of that where I wouldn’t let myself assemble it at all until I knew I actually had all the scenes written that I thought I needed and could put them together.
Craig: Yeah, I do see it differently than you.
Craig: My feeling is that, I guess I stick to my loose, rigid, you know, I have loose, rigid scheduling and I have loose, rigid rewriting. And that is to say there’s this much time to write it and I’m going to use that time. How I use it? That’s my prerogative.
Craig: I allow myself the — I’m okay with spending 40% of my time on the first 30 pages if I feel that that’s what’s going to help me efficiently write the last 70 pages. As long as I am productive I feel like I’m allowed to be productive in any direction I want to be.
Where I agree with you is the idea that you’re going to fastidiously whittle every word. Well, you can do that but just be aware that it would be really helpful if you were an awesome genius. And it would really helpful if you didn’t need money or to kind of work a lot.
Craig: So if you wanted to just write one astonishing script every five years, I’m okay with that, you know. I mean, look, Rian Johnson is not prolific.
John: No, he’s not.
Craig: But, you know, but when the script comes out and he makes the movie, it’s really good. So that’s cool, too. As long as you are, I guess the way I would — I would just hand it to the writer and say you know if you’re being productive or not.
Craig: Listen to yourself. And if you’re just rewriting to avoid writing then stop.
John: I agree. As we close this out I will say this is the first time I ever used Highland from start to finish on something. It was the first time working on a long script on Highland. And it was really good and illuminating in the sense that I recognized the pros and cons of Highland. So the new build that’s going to be coming out probably by the time or shortly after this episode airs actually reflects a lot of the stuff that were sort of happening while I was writing this much longer script because as something would break or something would annoy me, I could yell down to Nima and have him fix things.
And so one of the things, a situation which happens in all apps, but was particularly frustrating to me in Highland this time is you’re deep into the script, you’re on page 40 into the script or something and you need to refer back to something that happened earlier on. So how do you go back there and then find your place, find your way back to where you were at?
So assuming you’re in the middle sort of page 40, but you need to find something earlier on, how do you get back to where you were on page 40?
Craig: Well, I’m the worst because I’m a scroller.
Craig: [laughs] So, I, you know, I have — most major programs have some sort of outliner available to you, but I just scroll, scroll, scroll, scroll because I can kind of like see as the pages are flying by roughly. I know where to land. So it’s not efficient, but I’m a scroller.
John: So the thing which we put in this next build which I really love and found myself using a lot was called Markers. And so it’s really something I took from Final Cut Pro which is the video editing software. And a marker is something you can just drop and then you can find it again. And so you hit Control M and it puts a marker wherever you are. And then you can go wherever else you want to go in the document and the Control option then will take you back there.
So you can drop as many markers as you need. It’s like a little shortcut to get back to that place you’re at.
John: So if you end up scrolling back and like did a little something, you know, on page 20, but you need to get back to where that thing is, Control option M it will take you back to where you were before.
Craig: Yeah. That’s cool. And I would love to sort of see the ability, you know, we talk about our new format and obviously we’re not talking about an application to read that format, but rather we would hope that applications like Highland and others would take advantage of what the format would offer.
And I would love to see sort of tabbed sequences. That would be great. You know, so when I’m working, I could just go up and go, okay, I’m going to go back to the car chase. I’m going to go back to the beginning, I’m going to back to the middle, wherever it is.
John: So Final Draft 9 has an aspect of that. It’s not great. But you can add sort of the information that gets you there. Slugline already does have a really good version of that. So in Slugline you drop little hashtags and those become your sections. And so you can do things for individual scenes. And it shows you an outline view that you can hop to anything in the script at any point. So it may be worth taking another look at that because it’s really — that is really good. It’s a kind of thing that they did great.
Craig: Is it — yeah, I mean, like you know, for instance Fade In has the outline that’s sort of running along the right side of the screen. So I can just jump, you know, from that. But there’s something about — I like what you’re saying about Slugline where it’s I can basically say, they’re chapter headings and they’re like little — it’s almost like a little Rolodex-y kind of thing along the top of the screen —
John: That’s exactly what it is.
Craig: Oh, that’s smart. I like that.
John: It’s on the left side of the screen, but it’s the same idea.
Craig: Oh, I like it on the top
John: So you can either have it show all your section headings or if you have notes, it will show you the notes and you can jump to wherever those notes are.
Craig: All right. Good.
John: I have a One Cool Thing this week. Mine is a book. It is called The Way to Go by Kate Ascher. And it’s a book that I think you will love, Craig. I think, you know, most screenwriters will love because screenwriters are curious.
And so what Kate Ascher did in this book and she’s done two other books that are sort of similar to it, is she looked at how planes and trains and cars work. And it’s like a big illustrated book, almost like kind of like one of those kids books where they talk through like, you know, how engines work. But this is like really sophisticated details. So it gets into like lots of details about like the modern air transportation system and sort of like how cargo containers are constructed and how things fit together, how locks work, how the Panama Canal works. And so it’s this great, incredibly well-illustrated book that sort of shows how stuff works for transportation. So I think it’s something you will enjoy.
Craig: There were those — I think it was David McCullough was the guy that did the books where he broke out the buildings for you.
John: It’s very much in that style.
Craig: Yeah, I love that stuff. All right, and it’s called The Way to Go?
John: The Way to Go.
Craig: All right. Well, my One Cool Thing this week is a character. It’s a little random, but I watched Pitch Perfect last night. I hadn’t seen it before. I really, really liked it a lot. But my favorite character in the movie is the character of Lilly. Have you seen Pitch Perfect?
John: I saw Pitch Perfect. And I love Pitch Perfect.
Craig: Do you remember, Lilly?
John: Is Lilly Rebel Wilson?
Craig: No. Although Rebel Wilson was hysterical.
John: Oh, is Lilly the one who wouldn’t sing and then finally sings at the very end?
Craig: Lilly is the one that’s super-duper quiet and really, really weird.
Craig: And I’m just obsessed with this character. So her name is Lilly. And the actress is Hana Mae Lee. And Kay Cannon is a very nice lady and a very good writer. I just love her name because it’s Cake And really. It’s like Kofi Annan is like Cake and On.
Anyway, so Hana Mae Lee portrays Lilly. And she is just the strangest thing. She barely speaks. She has this tiny little whisper. That’s why I did my little name that way. And in the movie does one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen any character do in any film including Lynch films. I mean it was the weirdest.
So Aubrey, this character Aubrey is the very controlling head of the group. And she’s so tightly wound that she has this problem where when she gets really upset and really emotional, she pukes, which is funny. And at one point in the movie, she gets super-duper angry at everybody and she just pukes like a ton. And it’s gross. And you’re like, okay, it’s just like one of those scenes in a comedy where somebody pukes and it’s like, ahh.
[laughs] And then at some point, they start fighting and Lilly trips and falls and lands in the puke.
Craig: And then lies back in the puke and calmly begins making like a snow angel.
Craig: And it was so shocking to me. [laughs]
Craig: I just — I just stared at it. And I watched it like three times because I couldn’t believe they did it, and I’m not even sure why they did it. And nobody in the movie really comments on the fact that she did that. But she did it.
And so anyway, I love her. And I just want to read a few lines because she doesn’t say much. She just says these individual tiny little lines. One of which is, “I ate my twin in the womb.”
John: I love it.
Craig: And one of which is, “Hi, my name is Lilly Onakuramara. I was born with gills like fish.” And then she says — they’re discussing the fact that Aubrey had puked the year prior, and they’re like, “Oh, we don’t want to have what happened last year happen again.” And Lilly says, “What happened last year and do you guys want to see a dead body?” [laughs]
It’s so weird. She’s such a strange subversive character in the middle of this very mainstream comedy. So my One Cool Thing this week is Lilly.
John: That is awesome.
John: Great. And that’s our show. So you can find links to the things we talked about at johnaugust.com/scriptnotes. There you can also find transcripts to all the back episodes. You can also find the actual audio for episodes online both through the app, we have an app for Android and for iOS devices so you can listen to them there. And you can also subscribe and get to all the back episodes, back to episode one where we barely knew what we were doing.
Craig: Barely. Now we slightly more than barely know what we’re doing.
John: Yeah, we still have Skype issue sometimes. You can also buy the first 100 episodes on a few of our last remaining USB drives. That’s at store.johnaugust.com.
Scriptnotes is produced by Stuart Friedel and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Blake Kuehn. It’s great. It’s sort of this ’80s awesome kind of tribute thing. So thank you, Blake, for that. If you’d like to write us an outro, there’s a link in the show notes for how you can do that.
If you have a question for me, you can write to @johnaugust on Twitter. Craig is @clmazin. Longer questions go to email@example.com. That’s our show.
Craig: That was a big, huge, long, great show.
John: It’s a huge episode.
Craig: Yeah, huge.
John: And cutting back and forth in time and so it’s —
Craig: Oh my god.
John: This has been almost 90 minutes of —
Craig: Oh my god.
John: No, it’s been 100 minutes of our taping this show.
Craig: Okay. Well, we need to charge people for this one. That’s it.
John: That’s it.
Craig: Yeah, see you next time.
John: Thanks, Craig. Bye.
- Courier Prime
- WGA President Chris Keyser on IMDb and Wikipedia
- Deadline’s January article on Chip Johannessen and Billy Ray’s letter to WGA members
- Thomas Ince on Wikipedia
- Sample pages from alternatively formatted screenplays
- Screenwriting.io on multicamera script formatting
- The Way to Go by Kate Ascher
- Lilly Onakuramara on the Pitch Perfect wiki, and a YouTube compilation of some of her best moments
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Blake Kuehn (send us yours!)