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.
Today, we are going to be talking about abortion, religion, politics and which way is the proper way to hang toilet paper on the roll. Is it over the top or against the wall like a heathen? Craig, where do you stand on the toilet paper issue?
Craig: Before we get into that, I have to express my doubt that anybody would want to pick up any of our opinions and put them on a blog somewhere or on Time.com. That’s the nice thing about our podcast — no one listens.
John: That’s the crucial thing about our podcast is that absolutely no one listens. So no one will hear us today as we talk about the origins of the three-act structure, the weird situation with Legends of Oz, and hear us answer some questions. But probably most tragically, no one will hear our special guest on the podcast this week. He is the writer and/or director of really great movies, including Role Models, Wanderlust, Wet Hot American Summer.
John: Mr. David Wain, welcome to the show.
David Wain: Hello, guys. I’m so happy to be here. It’s a real thrill.
John: Hooray. So you’re going to join us as we talk about these things, but kind of most crucially, we also want to hear about this new movie you have coming out that stars Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd which is kind of amazing.
David: It is amazing that I get to work with people like that, I will say that, and a movie I’m super happy with. It’s called They Came Together. It’s kind of a rom-com spoof of sorts, also in the weird particular voice of me and Michael Showalter who we did Wet Hot American Summer together before.
John: Oh, I want to talk to you about that. I want to talk to you about Wet Hot American Summer. I want to talk to you about Childrens Hospital.
John: I basically just want to talk to you constantly about all the things you do, if it’s okay.
David: Oh my god. I mean, let’s go. Let’s rock it.
John: Let’s go.
First we have a tiny bit of follow up from a previous episode, the episode before the Superhero Spectacular. I had mentioned that Big Fish was going to be playing at Liberty University or I thought it was Liberty University. It turns out it is Liberty University. And so somebody, one of our listeners wrote in. Marcus Jay wrote in with a link to an Atlantic piece about being gay at Liberty University, which is actually fascinating. So we’re going to put that in the show notes.
It made me actually kind of feel better about doing Big Fish at Liberty University because it’s a big diverse world and sometimes bringing in new opinions to a place that is otherwise a little bit cut off can be really good and useful.
Craig: That was a really good piece. And not that Big Fish is what you would call a gay musical, it’s just that it’s a musical, therefore —
Craig: To some extent, it is gay. But, oh god, I’m doing it again. There is another blog piece — I love musicals. But I thought it was a really interesting piece because he basically said really it wasn’t a big deal. That’s what it kind of came down to. I mean, the institution is fundamentally against homosexuality and here is a gay man at that place and he’s like, hmm, yeah, feels fine.
John: My husband went to Notre Dame and really the situation seemed kind of similar, maybe like 10 years offset but, you know, traditionally, the Catholic Church says like, well, we don’t think that gay people should be around. Yet, if you actually talk to individual people who are at that university, that’s not sort of what it feels like on the ground.
Craig: The Catholic Church may be aware that there are gay people around.
David: It seems like the winds are changing no matter what.
John: I would agree. The winds are changing and you can —
David: And it’s hard to resist the winds when they keep blowing in the same direction for a long time.
Craig: The most shocking thing to me, I don’t know if you guys saw this, the guy who was the long time head of the Westboro Baptist Church, apparently they excommunicated him because near the end he was like, “Ah, you know, maybe gay people aren’t that bad.” Even that guy. I feel like that — yeah, the winds.
John: Well, it’s also fanaticism. I mean, when you believe in something so incredibly intensely, anyone who — countless part of your group who doesn’t believe as intently as you do is a heathen, is — has to be thrown out.
Craig: Purity of thought.
John: Purity of thought. Weirdly, I was joking when I said we would talk about religion and politics and all this stuff, but we just did.
Craig: Yeah, you know, this is what we do now.
David: Can we do 20 minutes on abortion now?
John: Fantastic. Is there a way you can feed that into your discussion of They Came Together? So tell me about this movie because… — So I actually met you I think for the first time in person or I may have met you way back at Sundance when you were there with The Ten.
David: Yes, we did.
John: I had a movie called The Nines which is the same year as The Ten.
John: And that was not confusing at all.
John: But I think I first met you on the set of Childrens Hospital. I came to visit you and even then you had finished the movie and you were figuring out what you were going to do with the movie.
John: And now it’s coming out. So tell us about the origins of this movie and what people can look forward to.
David: It’s actually kind of an interesting story that might be of interest to screenwriters and people who are interested in screenwriting. It might be good for this podcast. But Michael Showalter and I made this movie, Wet Hot American Summer, that came out in 2001 and after it — we were living in New York. And after that, we came out to LA to kind of meet the studios and try to figure out something else to do.
And we met with Shady Acres, Tom Shadyac’s company at Universal, and pitched them this idea which was very simple, just, you know, doing a spoof movie of romantic comedies. No more or less than that. And they were like, yeah, let’s do it. And so we wrote this movie that was that but it wasn’t similar to the more successful ones that had come out around the time, all the Scary Movie and so on. It was just weirder. And it also, you know, it was kind of a mix between Wet Hot American Summer and those kind of movies.
So it didn’t go. The studio paid us to write it but then it never got made. But the Shady Acres group was interested in trying to get it done, so we tried to do it at a lower budget. We tried to do it independently. In fact, one company was down the road with us to make a $10 million version of it and at the last minute, like right before pre-production, the head of the company watched Wet Hot American Summer for the first time, said, “This is not funny…”
Craig: Oh, no.
David: “You guys have no idea how to do comedy.” And he was about to pull the plug and we said, please, this is funny. So he did the first and only test screening that ever existed for Wet Hot American Summer.
John: Oh my god.
Craig: How’d that go?
David: Which was two years after it had come out.
Craig: [laughs] Oh my god!
David: And it was a bunch of sort of older, you know, like 40s Latino and Asian women it looked like to me.
Craig: That’s your audience.
David: It really tanked, obviously.
Craig: Wait a second. I have to ask you. This sounds like Bob Weinstein to me. It just sounds so Bob Weinstein.
David: I’m not going to say who it was but it wasn’t Bob Weinstein.
Craig: Boy, it sounds like him.
David: It was an LA-based independent company that had recently come into a lot of money based on a couple of —
Craig: Hold on a sec. Just so to clarify how insane this is, we go… — For people that don’t know, when we make a movie, particularly comedy, before — while we’re in the editorial process, we show the movie to a test audience and they rate the movie excellent, very good, fair, poor, very good, whatever they want.
David: This is while we’re still making the movie.
Craig: While we’re making the movie. And the point is, the point is to see do they like it, can we make them like it more? And the studio uses it to decide should we really promote this or kind of promote this? Is this any good? That movie came out, it was, I mean, regardless of what it did at the box office, there was — there’s just a love for it. I mean, it kind of defines what it means to be a cult movie in that regard. I mean, people found it and they loved it. And even then, still this studio was saying let’s test it anyway. [laughs] That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
David: Well, in — just to contextualize, it did do horribly. You know, it basically tanked at the box office and then it was before kind —
Craig: Oh, I see.
David: It was years before… — And, you know, Wet Hot American Summer has more awareness today and more screenings and more people probably watching and talking about it than it ever did. It was just — it’s been a slow build and now it’s probably, you know, now it’s considered by many to be this touchstone classic comedy but it really wasn’t at the time.
That said, it was the same movie.
David: And I think it’s pretty damn funny. But —
John: So give us a timeframe here. So what years would this have been that you had —
David: This would be 2002. 2003 was around when we were pitching and trying —
David: And 2004 I think maybe was when we were doing this other version, this other, and was going to shoot in Canada even though it’s like defined as the ultra New York romantic comedy and we were going to make a joke out of that and —
John: You should have shot in Montreal and like not changed the French signs.
David: Well, that was the idea actually, is we were going to have Canada everywhere you look and then, you know, pretend it was New York.
Craig: We tried to do that. Around the same time we were shooting, unfortunately hurting your chances, with Scary Movie 3 and we were shooting it in Vancouver and we really wanted to open the movie with one of like the Welcome to Vancouver sign but put up a subtitle, you know, New York 1930.
Craig: They wouldn’t let, yeah, Bob Weinstein didn’t think that was funny either. [laughs]
David: Well, what happened was, I mean in fact, people — the reason the studio didn’t make it and the reason no one else made it was because everyone said the audience for romantic comedies and the audience for spoof movies are two separate audiences and they will never meet. And so we’re like, all right, whatever. And so, meanwhile, they then made Date Movie and they made Romantic Movie which were literally the same premise.
David: Ours being, though, a totally different take on it I think.
Craig: We’re going to get the whole timeline from you. But just jumping in on this particular point, because I’ve spent some time in the spoof camp and —
David: Yes, I know.
Craig: See, I feel like that form of spoof is just dead, you know, like the kind that I was doing with David Zucker, it’s dead. And we could go into a whole discussion about why it’s dead and how I may have contributed to its death, but it’s dead. And I’ve been sitting around kind of waiting for a new model to come along and, you know, when I see the trailer for this, I think this might be it because it is… — Clearly, there are some classic elements of spoof in it, but there also seems to be a different kind of self-awareness and a different method of kind of satirizing a genre.
Can you talk a little bit about why your approach is different than what you’d call traditional spoof or even the current crop? Yeah.
David: Well, yeah, and I’m curious for you to see it. You know, having been in those trenches, I’m curious to see how you feel the differences are once you see it. But essentially for us, and this is not — wasn’t so much exactly by design as much as just following our own taste, it doesn’t make nearly as many or almost any specific references to specific movies or specific scenes. It’s much more about the genre and much more poking fun at really storytelling conventions as much as specific genre conventions.
And doing it in different ways that are sometimes weirder, more subtler, or more — and a lot of times, it’s just doing those kinds of pieces of banal dialogue that go into these things very sincerely and without even a particular twist on them. Just the notion of doing it in this context is the joke.
David: You know, it’s not for everyone. And it’s, it was, you know, we did a lot of the similar kind of humor in Wet Hot American Summer which came out to some incredibly hostile reviews at first where people were like, this is so unfunny I don’t even know what to do, like I can’t believe… — I think reviewers were upset that they didn’t get it or somebody was getting something that they didn’t.
Meanwhile, what’s kind of amazing about this one is I think times have changed and Wet Hot American Summer is known by a lot of people. And we’ve been — I’ve gotten — the pre-release reviews of this movie has been far more positive than anything I’ve ever been involved in.
Craig: But you can’t possibly be shocked by that. You understand how these people work, right? I mean, you get the deal with reviewers and comedy. They’ve been told now, they have been informed that you’re cool and you’re good. You know what I mean? They follow, they follow. I mean, it drives me nuts.
David: I think you’re right. I know there’s an element of that. I also think that we did some things in this movie to make sure that people liked it more, which I can tell you about which are interesting.
John: Just go back for one second, just the nature of what this kind of spoof is versus another kind of spoof. It sounds like in order to appreciate the movie you have to understand not a reference from another movie but a reference to a trope. And so you have to see like they are doing this trope and they are commenting on this trope but not commenting on exactly that scene from When Harry Met Sally.
David: Exactly. But I don’t think you have to be super film literate in any conscious way to appreciate it. And I think that’s what we tried to pull off here is it’s not like a thinking man’s movie exactly. It’s much more just we’re doing this but we’re helping you understand the jokes just by the context, which I’ll explain how we did that. But I, and I think if this movie works for audiences, that’s why. And it seems to work so far.
Craig: That’s great. I mean, my favorite, you know, because there is even in what I would call traditional spoof there was always room for absurdist moments. And we tried, you know, we tried to do that. You know, again, we, not to keep saying the name Bob Weinstein, but we kept getting steered to a different direction. But —
David: One thing I’ll say about any kind of original comedy is it cannot be done by committee.
David: Like you can’t have studio layers overseeing it. That will absolutely generally kill it unless somehow they’re all on the same comedic wavelength which would be incredible.
Craig: It’s…yeah. It’s a rough thing, but my favorite joke from the trailer is when they’re having the leaf fight which is a trope of just a goofy fight with leaves which we’ve seen before. And then they walk off happily and there’s a dead body under the leaves. And there’s that — that’s wonderful because that’s actually not even a commentary on the genre. That’s just a joke about, well, but there’s also — I’ve always felt that great spoof characters were absolutely idiotic. That they were almost bordering on sociopathic, that they would not even stop to notice a dead body because they’re just happy. I love that.
David: We definitely have, you know, especially the Paul Rudd main character in this film is, you know, as is kind of the deal with these bland everyman rom-com leading men, he’s borderline retarded. I mean he’s —
David: Yeah. [laughs]
Craig: Yes, that’s right. That’s exactly right. I would constantly have to explain this that these people are —
David: Innocent to the point of being like brain dead.
Craig: Well, they’re like soap opera characters in that regard. They’re designed to be thin and I actually, and not to wander off again from the narrative of how this came to be, but I’ll do it. I’m also interested in — you can get to this when you want — the challenge that there is when you say you do a movie like Role Models which is about actual human beings. I mean, it’s a comedy and it has set pieces and all the rest, but it’s about humans. And when you do a movie like this where you’re actually not writing human beings, I want you to get into a little bit of the challenge of that.
David: Well, it’s, for what it’s worth, my comfort level over my career has been the latter because I started out in sketch comedy and I’ve done so many things that are considered meta or whatever. You know, Childrens Hospital and these are utterly absurd and often purposely cookie cutter characters. And so for me, leaving my comfort zone was doing something like Role Models where I had to constantly curtail my instinct to like blow out the fourth wall or to, you know, make an overt comment about the scene structure or something within the scene.
And we actually did layer some of that stuff into Role Models in much more subtle ways knowing that we had to keep it real. But I think that little, tiny layer that we did was part of what made a lot of people like Role Models. Here, of course, you know, everything was absurd.
This movie, everything is a joke. And it’s, you know, I do think it wasn’t so deliberate in the making of it, but now stepping back from it, the model really is ultimately Airplane.
David: And I think what I find interesting about the spoof genre which I have now thought a lot about over the past couple of years making this movie is Airplane, for how iconic and classic and loved it is, hasn’t really been duplicated that much, you know.
David: The successors have gone in different directions.
Craig: Yeah, no, it’s true. Well, Airplane is also fascinating because it is in fact a spoof of one single movie. It’s just a movie that nobody saw called Zero Hour.
David: There is something amazing about that actually.
David: And our movie is sort of in that vein too, like we’re really — some of the spoof targets we have we think of as these widespread, universal spoof targets, but then when we go to like talk about them with our collaborators and our crew, we realize it’s only like one movie that had this thing that we’re making fun of that nobody saw and we don’t care.
Craig: Right. Yeah, no. Very cool.
John: So talk us through the movie got stuck and then how did you get it unstuck? How did it become a real movie that you shot?
David: What happened was, so after that went away, then we still kept it in mind over the years, but it never came together and I moved on to other things. And then I know that my wife, Zandy, was working on a web series with Michael Showalter, and they were just talking about this script that was something that kept gnawing at us. It’s something, you know, you write a lot of things, and they don’t get made, fine.
For some reason, we knew this should or we always thought it was funny. And so I pulled it out in bed one night with her and we started laughing so hard. The next thing you know, we decided to do a reading of it at the San Francisco Sketch Fest with a bunch of friends on a Sunday morning with an audience just to hear it out loud.
That went so well. Everyone went berserk. Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler were part of that reading. And they came up afterwards and said let’s do this. And that was in January. They had only four weeks free overlapping in the entire year which was June. And so we scrambled and basically found financing for a very low budget through Lionsgate and got the movie to be shot in 23 days in June.
Craig: Oh, wow. 23 days.
David: No, it was, and you know, my first film, Wet Hot American Summer which to me seems like the lowest budget kind of imaginable was 29 days.
Craig: Yeah, well, because it was all in one spot, so it’s cheaper.
David: And all in one spot.
Craig: This one you’re moving around and wow, that’s tough.
David: This is like a big — this has the look and feel of a big, big budget New York romantic comedy. 23 days. So I had to call on 25 years of experience of how to get this done in the most clever, effective, outside-the-box way to achieve this feel. Because we couldn’t do the normal shortcuts when you have a low budget, are to shoot it all handheld, shoot it all with a certain look —
Craig: You can’t do that because you’re modeling movies that cost $50 million.
Craig: I mean that’s really challenging. Plus also, you know, people think of action movies as being more expensive or time consuming to produce. But anytime you’re introducing physical comedy into a scene, that’s like doing an action sequence. It’s complicated.
David: Exactly. And we had plenty of, you know, in a way a lot of what we counted on was we had more visual effects than you’d imagine because we didn’t have time to or ability to build or go to sets and locations. And so it was — we did a lot of little tricks to get it done.
But what the biggest one was just to move really fast, not get a lot of takes, not have time for a lot of improv, have the very best actors and know that they were going to deliver it and work hard on the script to make sure that it was all on the page and know that we didn’t have time to dick around on set.
Craig: Well, that’s actually a question, you know, people think of improv and comedy in the same thought and that makes sense. But for spoof I’ve always found that improv is kind of deadly because spoof is so structured and so formalist.
David: Exactly right. And we realized that this movie was not a good candidate for that more rambling improvised loose style that so many comedies today have. It just wouldn’t have made as much sense. And so the kind of written quality was part of it.
Craig: Right, exactly.
David: Now, there was plenty of improv too, like when people had ideas or just when stuff came up, of course, we follow whatever is funny. But probably a lot less so than you might think.
Craig: Well yeah, because like for instance in Judd Apatow’s films, part of the fun is watching somebody like Paul Rudd express themselves spontaneously. But in a spoof movie, Paul Rudd’s character can’t be that fluent, he can’t be that articulate. It’s really rigid. You know, he’s dumb. I mean they’re all really profoundly stupid.
I mean when she, his mother — I love the physical bit where she throws the drink in his face, but there’s only a tiny little drop and he reacts.
Craig: That’s only something you can do if you are in fact a fictional character. I don’t know how else to put it.
David: Exactly. I mean every — another way we put it is the entire movie is in quotes.
Craig: That’s right, exactly.
David: But, you know, also, Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler are two of the greatest improvers alive, so we used that to the degree we could. But yes, and so what was interesting, here’s the interesting thing. So we shot this movie very quickly as I said. We cut it together over the rest of that summer and we had a two-hour cut which I thought was pretty tight where we, you know, cutting out everything that didn’t work and, you know, getting it down at the bone and I consider myself very brutal with the material and throw things out and whatever.
And we start screening it into the fall and it’s working okay, you know, particularly among people who are our friends and fans, they like it.
David: Nobody’s going nuts for it. Then we do our, you know, we get to our official preview for a much more random audience in LA in a mall —
David: And it tanks.
Craig: They usually do. Spoof movies’ first screenings, worst things ever.
David: Yeah. Crickets. So at this point the studio kind of moves their attention onto other things. I actually moved my attention onto other things to some degree because I had to. I was going into another season of Childrens Hospital. This is when you came to our set.
John: That’s right.
David: And we were sitting there around for a while thinking about what do we do, how do we do this movie? They’re not going to give us another dime. So we have no money to spend. And I took on the editing myself essentially on a laptop and just started looking at it and thinking about it and working with Michael and talking about what to do.
And we realized that, you know, studying the tests and just studying the movie that too many people whether subconsciously or not, were actually taking it at face value. They did not realize it was in quotes enough to like it.
And so we carefully devised this storytelling device which is Paul and Amy sitting with another couple, Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper, at a table at a restaurant telling the story of their relationship, which is its own trope.
David: But within that setup, we also blatantly and overtly spoon feed to the audience what this movie is.
Craig: Right, she almost looks at the camera and says, “It sounds like a bad romantic comedy.”
David: Exactly. And so the whole setup is in almost these words saying to the audience, “This movie is a joke, don’t take it as not-a-joke. Just relax and laugh.”
Craig: Right, you’re basically teaching them, “We didn’t make a bad romantic comedy.”
David: Yes, exactly.
Craig: We made a comedy that makes fun of bad romantic comedies.
David: Or another way to put is we did it on purpose.
Craig: We did it on purpose.
Craig: Yes, this is intentional.
David: This intentionally bad romantic comedy. And so I’m telling you, better than I ever expected, it worked.
David: The audience completely shifted and now in screenings you can’t hear the movie because they’re laughing from the very beginning to the very end, which is so gratifying. And also what this device did, which by the way we shot for almost nothing in one day, one three-camera setup, 34 different drops into the movie, it also allowed me to cut out every single thing that didn’t get a laugh.
John: Yeah, that’s a beautiful thing.
David: This device allowed us to skip over any part of the story — it didn’t matter — and then like I did this, and we realized how little the story matters in a movie like this. And whatever you did need to tell that wasn’t done in a funny scene, you can just say, and then I did this and I did this, and now here’s the next funny big thing that really does work.
So it allowed us to cut characters. It allowed us to — it really worked better than I ever imagined. And it didn’t cost us anything.
Craig: I love that story. You know, because these movies are designed to be stupid on some level, smart stupid, I don’t think people understand how much science goes into it. It’s just an enormous amount of science.
David: Well, I agree. And I think that the care and thought that goes into it over the course of years to then make something that looks thrown off and silly and fun is the key. And I think the ones that work really well, they’re not thrown off. There’s so much thought put into every frame.
Craig: Yeah, they’re obsessed over it. I actually was talking to David Zucker the other day. And he, we’ve had this war for years about Top Secret because I love Top Secret. I think Top Secret is amazing. And he would always say, “You know, no.” He would say, “Top Secret is deeply flawed, we messed up, we’ve made a lot of mistakes, we should, the story, it’s too many stories jammed in and the ending is no good.” He just went on. But over the years he slowly started to let in the notion that maybe Top Secret is good.
And he said he went up, there was a screening in fact in San Francisco, and he went there and the audience loved it. And he said, “But, you know, I know how to fix it now.” And he said, “I want to reshoot. I think I could get the — I could fix the ending. And I’d just do it with body doubles and I can fix…” And he was deadly serious.
David: That’s so funny.
Craig: Deadly serious.
David: For some reason, I’m glad to say, I have this thing with the movies I’ve done. Well, so far I’ve made five movies and they’ve all got many, many flaws and many mistakes, but somehow I feel like when they’re done, they’re done and they are what they are, and I wouldn’t want to change them, you know.
Craig: Well, yeah, you don’t have the same level of autism that David Zucker has. I can already tell. You’re much more acclimated to humans.
David: But until it’s done, I’m going crazy and obsessing on every little thing. And I can’t —
David: And I keep having to open up and open up and open up. I guess once it’s like released in theaters and I just have — a switch turns and I’m like that is the thing and now it’s not mine anymore. It’s out in the world.
John: Because we’re a podcast that’s mostly about writers, some of what you’re saying seems kind of dispiriting, because like you went into this with a script that you loved and you shot a script that you loved and you were really happy with how it worked on the page.
John: So to go through and basically restructure the entire story by this whole new device feels like, I don’t know, it could feel like a failure, but it’s honestly the way most movies work. Is that you’ve made these choices which were absolutely right for the page, but somehow how it all came together on the screen, it doesn’t work the way you anticipated.
With Go, I loved the way that Go opened in the script, but then when we shot it, it just didn’t make sense the same way. And people — it was exactly the same kind of problem where people weren’t quite sure what movie they were in. And so we shot a new intro and it really got people onboard.
David: I think moviemaking is far too complicated to know any — you can’t possibly know it all on the page. On the other hand, I do think that they should do more testing of some kind with a script before they start wasting film. But, you know, we did — we tried to know everything we could know before we got, but to me it’s not dispiriting. I think it’s an inspiring writing story because some of my screenwriting that I’m most proud of was figuring out how to fix this movie at the late stages and writing those, that framing device while editing it at the same time and having the benefit of knowing exactly the actual cut footage that I’m working around was a fascinating process.
And I’m so relieved to say that the movie that we now have, I am so proud of and so happy with. And I really had a lot of reservations about it until we figured that out.
Craig: Well, there’s no prize for getting it “right at the beginning.” That’s not the point of a screenplay.
Craig: You know, and especially with this kind of comedy, which I really do feel is written in practically every genre there is at this point. And writing spoof was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s incredibly hard because you’re doing a normal comedy, you know, I don’t know, there’s a joke every page maybe or something. There’s like three jokes a page, mandatory. The characters, there’s never a point where a character can just be quiet or thoughtful. There’s no break. There’s no breath. The audience is well aware that you’re doing this.
It’s like you’re a pitcher and you’re saying, “Okay, here comes another fastball.”
David: You’re sitting there literally as an audience waiting for the next —
Craig: Waiting for the next joke.
David: Make me laugh again.
Craig: That’s right.
David: Make me laugh again.
Craig: Arms crossed, you know. And I’m sure you’ve had this experience too where you show them the movie and you think, well, I know that this joke is killer. This one, oh boy, let’s see what happens there. And the joke you knew was a killer is deadly. And then they just go crazy, it’s something that is barely even a joke to you at all.
David: My five favorite jokes from the screenplay that were the things that made me excited to make the movie are all cut.
Craig: There you go.
John: There you go.
David: I mean that’s just “there you go.”
Craig: There you go. You have to be — you have to have an ego strength to do spoof that is just unparalleled.
David: And one of my things that I’m most proud of is the ability to recognize those things and say, “You know what, I loved it all the way until now, and now let’s cut, you know.”
Craig: Absolutely. Oh no, the audience is your boss in spoof in a way that is just disturbing. But necessary.
David: But I will say and having been through this on many movies, you’ve got to be very, very careful about audiences as well because an audience might be crickets on one screening and the same exact cut might have a huge uproarious response at that same joke. And so it’s just you’ve got to be also careful. And sometimes, I’ve left in things just because I know they’re funny to me and I will never my change my mind about it. And, you know, it’s just —
John: Or that funny joke is actually cueing up a laugh, a bigger laugh later on.
John: So if you take that out —
Craig: That’s right.
David: The organism is so complicated, it’s hard to — you can’t just blindly follow how loud the laugh is.
Craig: There are some jokes that aren’t meant for an audience to laugh at together. They’re meant for people to love five years later.
David: Exactly. And I’ll tell you when we did Wanderlust, it was, you know, a big studio situation and a very different kind of process where we did so many screenings. Sometimes we did — we did a couple times where we screened two versions of the movie side by side at the same time to two different audiences and then run numbers on that. And it got bewildering and confusing. So many different versions floating around, it was very hard to keep track of what the spine is of what we were doing.
John: One of the great things about doing Big Fish night after night after night on Broadway is we would have the audience there. And so we’re really doing exactly the same show. At a certain point the show was frozen. It was exactly the same show. And things would get laughs one night and not laughs the next night.
You start to realize there are certain key people in the house who if they started laughing would sort of make it safe for other people to laugh.
John: And if you didn’t have those crucial key people in there it was tough. And you kind of wish you could seed the audience with designated laughers, just to sort of get stuff started.
David: It’s such a mysterious thing. And if you think about it, ultimately, what makes you have this involuntary physical response to something? You know?
John: Yeah. Let’s keep talking about this, but I also want to get to some of our real topics on the show today.
John: The first of which is a listener sent in a link that was really kind of fascinating about not only film history but really the origin of the three-act structure. Basically this guy, David Bordwell, did a study looking at when did people first start talking about three-act structure. Basically looking through old memos, looking through old Hollywood stuff saying like is the idea of a three-act structure something that’s a pretty recent invention, like sort of a Syd Field thing, or has it always been there.
Did you guys get a chance to look at this blog post?
David: I did. I remember he wrote the textbook that I had my first film class at NYU.
Craig: Oh really?
John: Very nice. Talk to us about your film education. So, you went to NYU as a film major?
John: What’s weird is I remember watching The State and like in my head I was like in high school watching The State but that’s actually possible because we’re about the same age. You must have started incredibly young. Is that correct?
David: Well, yes. I went to film school at NYU from 1987 and I graduated in 1991. In ’88 when I was a sophomore is when The State was formed as a comedy troupe at the college. And when everyone was out of school in 1992, by that time we were already starting the process of getting our show on MTV.
David: It was a very lucky set of events.
John: So, when you were at NYU you were studying filmmaking, you studied screenwriting, and you learned about a three-act structure, right?
David: I did. I took several dramatic writing classes as part of film school, but I don’t remember ever getting the kind of straight up Syd Field or Robert McKee like really here’s the formula kind of thing in film school. I also, frankly, was spending most of my time in film school doing The State.
John: So, not learning but doing?
John: The State was so great. And it’s so amazing that all of you guys have done so incredibly well since that time.
Craig: Yeah, it’s been fascinating. It’s funny, John, I was sort of — I feel like I was watching The State in my old house in New Jersey, but I wasn’t. I was watching it here in Los Angeles. I don’t know why that is. What hypnosis have you — ?
David: It exists in a weird time period. I don’t know.
Craig: Yeah. But everybody from it, I mean, it is true. They’re all out there. They’re all — talk about an all-star cast.
David: They did one little sketch show at NYU my sophomore year. Most of them were freshman and I wasn’t in the group. And I saw it and I was like, holy mother of shit, these guys are incredible. And I tried to hook in and get into the group right then which I did, thank god. And, yeah, it’s just somehow these people came together and every single one has gone on to be fairly successful in the business.
John: Now, how did you move from doing sketch writing into a full on screenplay. So, was Wet Hot American Summer the first full-length thing you wrote?
David: It was the first full-length thing we basically finished. When The State started to fizzle in activity, Michael Showalter and I started writing a high school screenplay that was going to be a big high school epic. And that was around 1997. And we got a draft or two done, but we knew we had a lot more work to do. And we wanted to shoot something that summer, because we were anxious to do it. So, we decided to just write an outline and just get our friends together and go to some summer camp in Westchester and just shoot a summer camp movie because we knew it would be easy and we could shoot it all with the same clothes and it would be outside.
And just as we started writing it, it turned into just, well, A, no one — we couldn’t even get the financing for a hundred grand or whatever we wanted for that. And then it took us three years really to get the money. And during that time we kept developing it more and more and more into a real screenplay, so to speak.
John: And you cast some like terrible people who never did other stuff like Bradley Cooper.
David: Right. Well, yeah, both Bradley Cooper and Elizabeth Banks and many others just kind of walked in and auditioned for it. This was their first movie.
John: It’s a good time. So, as you’re writing this for a screenplay, sort of going back to this topic of like three-act structure and sort of how that gets sort of drilled into you, did you have a sense of this is the end of our first act and this is where things are changing? Because my recollection of Wet Hot American Summer is it’s just the arc of a summer and it’s not trying to do sort of big worst of the worst scenarios, but maybe it does.
David: Oh, it does. At least we definitely did have that in mind by then. It was — the way we wrote that was every character pretty much had their own storyline. And so it was an ensemble piece and there was, I think, ultimately maybe 10 to 12 storylines. And then each of those we did think of in a three-act structure. And I think we might have specifically been following the Robert McKee version of it at the time. I can’t remember exactly. But I do know that we thought about in those ways.
And like, okay, we made charts and we made graphs and we’re like here’s how this starts, here’s the inciting incident of this, here’s how this develops, here’s the climax. And then we meshed them all together into one day and then tried to come up with a climatic sequence at the end that climaxed each character’s story at around the same time.
Craig: Well, you guys in a weird way you were doing the Robert Altman model, which then you saw again in Magnolia. And it’s the disparate stories that interweave throughout, they kind of come together, separate again. And then there’s some kind of disaster, like an earthquake, or a plague of raining frogs, or Skylab falling that forces everybody to kind of experience the ending of their stories together.
David: It was totally deliberate because the movie that kind of changed my life that I saw when I was in college was Nashville.
Craig: Right. There you go.
David: And that was for sure a very conscious model. All those stories in Nashville are somewhat separate but they’re tied together by place and by time and then they all come together literally in this climatic time when this woman gets shot and kind of turns everything around.
And then also Dazed and Confused was such a favorite. And so those were kind of the structural tent poles that we looked at.
Craig: But tonally one thing that I thought was really interesting about Wet Hot American Summer was that you weren’t in the zone of say Meatballs which was more of a standard comedy where there was some serious stories and serious human beings or actual human beings, and then some broad characters. And you weren’t really doing what I would call a spoof in the traditional like Mel Brooks or Zucker and Zucker sense.
Every character was kind of nuts. You were already in that zone where you were kind of making your own thing where, you know, for David Zucker he always says, “There’s one person in the scene who’s crazy or stupid and one person who is sane and normal and they might switch during the scene or in a different scene.” But for you guys it was like everybody at once could be nuts, which I thought was great.
David: Thanks. For us it was a lot of just instinctual we’re doing this kind of a camp movie thing and we tried to source it as much in our own actual memories. It wasn’t really a spoof of camp movies because we didn’t think of that so much as a genre that we were so interested in getting. It was more of a spoof of what camp was like for us.
John: Well, that sense of where every character is kind of crazy in their own special way is something that really bled through to Childrens Hospital, because that’s my same sense of Childrens Hospital is like there’s not one normal person who’s like the voice of reason in that show. Everybody is nuts and everyone can sort of do whatever they need to do. It’s probably more heightened in Childrens Hospital than it was in Wet Hot American Summer.
David: We discovered that phenomenon in Wet Hot first which then has carried over into Childrens Hospital which is to say any given character can be malleable to serve the plot or comedic point to the point in a way that would just be absolute no-no in regular screenwriting.
Craig: Right. Yeah. There’s a chaotic nature to the whole thing. I mean, that is informed by the way the cast did come out of sketch comedy. There is a chaos to it. There’s an anarchy.
And I can understand why critics or even theatrical audiences at first just couldn’t handle it.
David: And it’s fair. I mean, if you’re going to see certain kind of rules followed then you’re not going to like it. And I don’t even mean that flippantly. It’s definitely not for everyone.
Craig: Well, I’m not surprised that the movie kind of found this second life because I do feel like some comedies are designed for big rooms of people together and some comedies are simply, they’re too offbeat for that. And because the theatrical experience of comedy is one where it’s about commonality… — Everybody, or at least we would always say if 40% of them think this is funny that’s good enough. Then the people that aren’t laughing are forced to say, “Well, I guess other people think it’s funny.”
But when it’s challenging like this and kind of trying to redefine how the rules of it work, sometimes the best way for it to succeed is in the privacy of somebody’s home where they feel safe enough to kind of, you know, enjoy it for what it is and explore it.
David: And with a movie like ours, which I think that was the middle period for Wet Hot American Summer over the years where people discovered it, show it to a friend, pass it around. And now it’s come into this thing where there’s 7,000 people at Brooklyn Park watching it, all big fans, and that’s — everyone is having this communal experience now.
John: I watched your movie, I watched Wet Hot American Summer I remember out in Santa Monica at the Laemmle Santa Monica that doesn’t exist anymore. And I remember seeing it like opening weekend out there and loving it.
But I have a thought experiment though. You talked about what you did when they came together and you shot those new blocks, changed the setup of the movie, sort of what your expectation was. Was there a way that you could have setup Wet Hot American Summer that could have made it more accessible from the very beginning?
If you had a time machine and could go back and shoot something, do you think there’s a way to do that?
David: You know, probably there might have been, although part of what made Wet Hot, what I love about it is that it starts off in kind of a normal place and it just sort of slowly starts moving to the left. And not surprising that was not a formula for success. Many, many people have said to me over the years, “I saw your movie. I really didn’t like it. And then I saw it again and it became my favorite movie.”
John: Yeah. So, once you know what the movie is you like it, but while you’re watching it the first time —
David: It’s like a fine wine, I guess. You need to taste it and get the sense of it and then you can relax and like it.
John: So, David Wain, can you comment on this. So, I see stories that there is discussion of making a Wet Hot American TV show or something for Netflix.
Craig: Yeah, the Netflix.
John: Is that something that’s interesting to you?
David: I can’t comment on it.
John: You can’t comment on that.
Craig: So, the answer to that is, no, that’s not interesting to me at all. I wish they wouldn’t do it. [laughs]
David: I can’t comment on it.
John: All right. That is fantastic. Let’s go to our next —
Craig: By the way, I will now speak for David for the rest of this. David, you just make little Morse code blinks at me. Yeah, you Morse code blink to me and I will tell them what you’re thinking.
John: Yeah, Morse code blinking is really effective on a Skype podcast I have found.
The next topic on our agenda is the Legends of Oz. And so I sent through this blog post about this which was so Legends of Oz was this sequel to the Oz movies, or sort of an extension of the Oz movies, an animated feature starring Lea Michele and a bunch of other people. And I knew about it before it came out only because a friend of ours was doing the posters for it. She didn’t work on the movie but she did work on the marketing of it. And so I knew that this movie existed.
The movie did not fare well at all and it was not a box office success. So, there’s this blog post which is going through and talking about the investors in the film. And I had assumed that this was, when she was first describing it it sort of felt like it was a made for video thing that turned out well enough that they were talking a gamble and releasing it theatrically. Turns out it was actually always meant to be theatrical. And they had raised this money with investors putting in $100,000, but individual people putting in $100,000 to make this potentially $100 million budget to make this film.
And the individual investors are really upset that this movie didn’t do better. They’re blaming Hollywood. They’re blaming some of the people involved in producing the film. So, I don’t know very much more about the actual Legends of Oz itself, but I think it was a good way to talk about the weird way we have to raise money to make movies.
And, David Wain, you’ve had to raise money a lot of times to make movies.
David: Well, I have to say that you sent me that story and I was fascinated by it just because it is such a weird story of that particular kind of — to me it was a complete Hollywood outsider guy who raised $70 million somehow $100,000 at a time thinking he could kind of hone in on the big budget animated movie market that is the Disney/Pixar world.
And I actually think it’s really interesting. And then there’s all this postulation, I was reading all the message boards, really why did it tank? And they were saying, “Oh, it’s a conspiracy. The critics were paid by the studios to trash it.” But to me that seems utterly ridiculous. However, it seems like it really was a marking thing because from what I can tell the movie is not good but many movies are not good. And many kids’ movies, particularly, are not good. It feels like it was fine. It was serviceable, or whatever.
And so it feels like what they didn’t do is put enough money or smarts into marketing it, or they could have been successful. I just think it’s interesting.
Craig: I mean, I read this stuff and the whole thing smells like a weird scam to me and not a scam that Hollywood perpetrated on small time investors but the people who were raising the money perpetrated on these small time investors. I mean, there’s a bit, so one of the investors referred to he put something on Facebook about the movie coming out on May 9th. “To all my friends that invested in this blockbuster, congrats. For those that had the $100K minimum handy but were too busy to take a look, you’re going to be so sorry.”
That’s the kind of stuff you read on like Penny Stock forums on the internet. It’s this — like, okay, we’re all in this together and we’re going to all get rich off of this thing. And so people who raise money for high risk investments will start to inspire this kind of religious fervor among all the people investing because either they’re all going to win together or they’re all going to fail together.
I mean, you almost see a little bit of that rhetoric, for instance when we all went on strike it was like everybody hold together, completely, or it’ll all fall apart. So, you’ve just got to be religious about it. And, you know, then when it doesn’t work, who are they going to blame?
And this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard: the idea that Hollywood doesn’t want serious new competition from individual investors so they’re going to pay critics to not like stuff. God, I wish that were true. I wish —
John: Hollywood loves money. Hollywood loves people coming with money.
Craig: It LOVES money. They’ll take money from anybody. Anyone.
John: The thing I would stress is the three of us on this podcast, but really anyone we know who works in the industry would never have invested in —
John: $100,000 of their own money in this project, because they would talk through what their plans were and we would have said like, “Uh-oh, that’s not going to work.” Or, the odds of that working are incredibly remote for this kind of system.
David: And no one who personally invests in movies ever invests in a single project.
David: Especially if it’s a big budget like this, unless they’re just — the only ones who do are the ones who are saying I’m going to give somebody I know X amount of money just knowing that I’m tossing it in the toilet, just for fun or to do a favor for a friend or something, you know.
Craig: Look, here’s the biggest warning sign of all: someone is going to make a movie using the intellectual property behind The Wizard of Oz and the Frank Baum world and they’re asking you, an orthodontist, for $100,000. Something is really bad there. And in fact I don’t know if looking at a — I was just poking around doing a little research on all this, but apparently now some people are in fact talking about that there were deceptive practices in the raising of this money.
It just feels so scammy to me. I am just bummed out that people did that.
David: I read one thing by an animator who was like there’s no chance they spent even a quarter of this money on the movie. And so maybe it’s a Producers thing where you knew it was going to tank and now he’s keeping all the money.
John: Yeah. We don’t know what the actual reality is behind the situation. But what I kind of want to stress is that raising money for any movie is difficult regardless. I mean, if you’re going to a studio that’s actually fully funding something, that’s one situation. But when you’re trying to raise money for an independent film, this is a very big independent film, there’s always that weird boundary between being ambitious and being scammy. And trying to convince people like, “Well, this is the way we can make money back,” but at the same time having to be honest of like you’re probably never going to get your money back, because very few of these movies are really going to be so profitable that like the people who put in $100,000 are going to see a return on that, or even get their money out of it.
That’s the reality of this. And not even just shady Hollywood accounting. It’s just the nature of the business.
David: That’s just reality, yeah.
Craig: That’s just reality. It’s such a speculative, high risk business. I mean, the reason that studios have lasted as long as they have is because they have massive libraries that generate profit with no costs required to generate that profit, so there’s this huge featherbed that they’re constantly landing in every time they whiff. And they whiff all the time.
Craig: That’s it. They have to whiff. We’ve talked a lot about the theory behind the big, huge franchise bet is that if you get one hit and four flops you’ve actually gotten eight hits and four flops because that one hit is sequelized and then spun off into ancillary things. I mean, it doesn’t matter, if Lone Ranger doesn’t work it’s okay because Pirates did work. And there’s five Pirates movies, plus Pirates stuff, you know.
Craig: To invest $100,000 in a single movie is a little bit like saying, “I’m going to have a Major League baseball career, but I only get one at bat, and it has to be a home run, or I get sent down.”
Craig: It’s crazy.
John: It’s not a good track record.
John: There’s another headline that came out this last week which was our friend Eric Heisserer wrote a script that Amy Adams is attached to star in that got sold at Cannes. And it was a really confusing headline that came out because it’s a $20 million sale but the headline didn’t sort of say like what actually sold. And what happened was — I emailed with Eric — and it was a foreign financing deal, so essentially that $20 million is money to help make the movie.
And so I get frustrated when these headlines go up, like $20 million deal for something, and it makes it sound like it’s a spec sale. It’s just the way movies sometimes get financed. And they used to get financed that way all the time where you sell off the foreign rights and you sell off the domestic rights and by selling off those rights you have enough money to make the movie. It’s much more common than sort of this Legends of Oz or Kickstarter way to make a movie. It’s a natural way that these things sometimes happen.
John: Mm, Kickstarter.
Craig: Don’t get me started. Don’t get me started.
David: [laughs] I heard the head of Kickstarter at Sundance London giving a big speech and Q&A and I was thinking about you, Craig.
Craig: [laughs] Thank you.
John: Yeah. I had coffee with him. He’s great. And I like that they exist. So, I was happy that at least Veronica Mars, the one thing we talked about on the show, did as well as it did.
John: For that it made a lot of sense.
Craig: It did make sense for that, yes.
John: Yeah, but you’re not going to kick start Legends of Oz. Not $100 million.
Craig: Well, that’s what these people, I mean, the reason that Kickstarter annoys me is also the reason why it’s better than this. I mean, so there’s no chance of ever participating, truly participating, in the success of something as “investor” in Kickstarter because you’re not an investor in Kickstarter.
But on the other hand, the world of investment is full of people with bad intentions. And, look, I don’t know if — these are all allegations now about this guy and he may have done absolutely nothing wrong. This just may be a situation where a guy said, “Here’s something to invest in,” a lot of people just got their heads full of dreams. And really though, my god. I mean, I get it. It’s like, “They’re making a Wizard of Oz movie and it’s going to be like a Pixar movie? Sure.”
David: I mean, the fact is — the fact that the movie got made and came out makes it less of a scam than most.
Craig: You’re absolutely right about that.
John: I would agree. Yeah. It would be very easy just to sort of never have it come out and blame it on something.
John: Insurance loss.
We have some questions to answer, so maybe David Wain can help us out with our questions. The first one is from Hayward in North Carolina. He writes, “First, this is not a situation where I think someone stole my idea. There are no billion dollar lawsuits forthcoming.” Good.
“That said, what do you do if you’re halfway through a screenplay and you read an article on the internet discussing a movie coming out next year which sounds fairly similar to the one you’re working on? Not exactly the same, but the premise strikes you as being pretty close to the one you’re working on, especially when reduced to a log line where all the differences wouldn’t be as apparent.
“Do you scrap it and move onto something else? Or do you push yourself to finish it anyway with the hope of maybe using it as an example when seeking representation or writing assignment?”
So, David Wain, you had two other spoof dating movies, romantic comedies, come out in that time that you already had your thing written.
John: How, I mean, talk to us.
David: Well, that definitely did, in fact, a friend of mine made that other movie called Not Another Teen Movie soon after. And, yeah, it did damper our aspirations. Seeing that happen, you know, you feel like, okay, there’s not going to be two of these. But I do think if you love a movie, if you love something you’re doing in a specific way, I would keep going with it knowing that maybe you might have to sit on it for a little while. Everything has a chance to come back. If that movie gets made and it’s not a success or it is a success, that could potentially work to your advantage either way if you time it right when to bring the thing back.
But I definitely, I mean, you know, yeah, there is… — I remember a friend of mine worked on this movie for quite a long time that he was writing as a spec and he was an established screenwriter, and then he read in Variety that somebody else was making basically the exact same movie and he said, screw it, and he moved onto something else.
Craig: You know, I always, what’s that — John, you’re really good at this, figuring out the names of fallacies. What’s the deal where you buy a car and then you think suddenly there are more of that car on the road?
John: Yeah, it’s like a validation fallacy.
Craig: Yeah, I think we always are so much more attuned to what our idea is and the specificity of that idea. So, it’s natural for us to look at one thing or another and say, oh no, I’m done. But the truth is that’s not actually how the world works and, frankly, if Date Movie had come out last month and I were now seeing trailers for They Came Together I wouldn’t even really connect the too, because the way we judge stuff as we see it is so visual and so based on cast.
When we watch things, I think it’s the cast, and the look, and the vibe that jumps out at us much more rapidly and accessibly than maybe the log line or the idea, because we are trained, having watched movie after movie, to understand that ideas are repeated constantly. It’s the execution that attracts us to things. So, I would certainly counsel this questioner to stick with it and at worse, they’re right, they’ll end with a sample.
But, frankly, I suspect no one will care.
David: Also, the only caveat I would add is sometimes it depends, depending on the genre, how specifically is this other thing exactly yours. Is it in all ten plot points, or is it just the general idea? I’d be interested to hear that.
John: Yeah. I would also say that sometimes one other film is like a direct comparison, but if there’s like three other films kind of like it, well that’s a genre. So, suddenly, oh my god, there’s another vampire movie. Well, yeah, there’s lots of vampire movies. The fact that you’re writing a vampire movie doesn’t preclude that or a zombie movie.
Craig: Yeah. Even if you were writing, there was the zombie teen romance that came out a couple years ago. If you were doing that now I think it would be okay. Where it gets a little trickier if you were writing something that is very specific and really twist-based and another movie comes out with that same deal and that same twist. That can be an issue because —
John: That can be an issue.
Craig: Because people do feel like twists are, because they’re so surprised-based you really can’t get away with, “Oh, he was dead the whole time.” [laughs] It’s tough to pull that one off twice.
John: Yeah. We know there’s an upcoming Disney movie that actually had that twist problem. They had to sort of very carefully work around that situation. What I will say, personally from my own experience, you can’t get much closer to this problem than I was writing Monster Apocalypse and then Pacific Rim came out which was so remarkably similar to what I was writing. It was like we couldn’t make the movie.
What’s fascinating is now Godzilla has come out and also made a lot of money and I’m starting to wonder whether it’s suddenly now just a genre. They were — too easy to directly compare the two movies, Pacific Rim and Monster Apocalypse, but if we have more movies with giant monsters smashing down cities, well, that’s now a genre. And suddenly mine doesn’t look as similar to that movie that came out.
David: That’s so interesting, when something evolves from copying something to just a formula of a genre or a form of a genre.
John: Yeah, so we’ll see what happens.
Craig: I mean, we all know the word Kaiju now.
John: Yeah, which is awesome. Which is Japanese —
Craig: I guess. [laughs] I don’t know.
John: All right. Nate writes, “What is the difference between a green-lightable script that needs revision and a script that still needs revision and is not green-lightable yet?”
So, I’m going to rephrase this question: Why do some scripts get green lit even though they still say there’s work to be done on it, whereas other scripts that “need work” don’t get green lit. Do you have a sense of why that happens?
David: Because what’s written in the script is so not the factor that contributes to the green light most of the time.
Craig: Yeah. Green-lightable is a tautology. It’s green-lightable when someone green lights it. All that means is that the people who are paying for a movie have decided, yeah, we want to pay for this. There’s a thousand reasons why they make that decision, some of which are good reasons.
David: And some of which might be that the executive is in a good mood that day.
David: Really. It could be anything.
Craig: An actor shows up and wants to do it and they want to make a movie with that actor, so now we’re green lighting it. And fix it. Fix it before you shoot, you know.
John: Yeah. For some reason the train has started moving. And they’re going to keep going and they’re going to try to make this movie. And they will do the work that they want to do on the movie, work they could have done six months ago, a year ago, but suddenly now they’re starting to make a movie. And it may have nothing to do with the script at all.
David: I’m sure that both of you have been in situations where they’re like, “We love this project, we want to do it. Now we’re going to throw the script out and start over on that.” As if the script is just this minor afterthought in making a movie.
Craig: You know, it’s funny — less now. It seems like in the last couple of years or three years there’s been this bizarre realization that maybe the screenplay counts and in a weird way I think it’s part of the result of the inflation of budgets and inflation of marketing costs. People say that the way that Hollywood makes movies everything costs too much and that’s bad. And on some levels it is bad. On another level they are way less cavalier about the screenplay than they used to be. When movies cost $20 million and video would make sure it was a profitable venture anyway, at that point they honestly would treat the screenplay like it didn’t matter.
John: I don’t know that that’s changed, Craig. I mean, you and I can both think of people working on movies where like they’re starting shooting soon and they are massively overhauling the script.
Craig: That is true. That is true. But, even then they’re massively overhauling the script because somebody whimsically decided to do it. They’re massively overhauling it because the script isn’t very good, or the script has a lot of problems.
I guess what I’m saying is there used to be a time when there would be a perfectly good script, everybody would be onboard with it. It was the product of years of development and careful consideration. And then a director would come along and say, “Eh, I want to do this and I want to do that.” And they’re like, “Fine. Do it. Because we don’t care.”
John: Okay. That’s maybe true. But, I mean, the frustrating thing for Nate’s question that we’re not really answering is that there’s really probably no difference in a script that’s green-lightable versus a script that’s not green-lightable.
Craig: That’s right.
John: The decision for green light is really rarely about the script itself. It’s really about sort of —
David: The elements around it. Yeah.
Craig: Yeah. And we know this scientifically be true because there are scripts that do not receive the green light at one studio, get put into turnaround, are bought by another studio, and then made.
David: All the time.
Craig: Yeah. All the time.
John: Our last question comes from a different Nate. And he was actually at the live show. He was one of the people who was lined up to ask a question but wasn’t able to ask a question so he wrote in with his question.
“My question has to do with character motivation and stakes. Specifically let’s mandate that the character is ambitions and driven by a desire to succeed. Maybe he wants to be a famous movie star or the next Steve Jobs. Is the possibility of failure sufficient stakes, or does it need to be a more acute stake?”
Basically, what are stakes and what is enough stakes for something to be? Does it have to be a very specific thing that he’s trying to achieve or just an overall ambition or goal?
Craig: Well, I’m excited to hear what David Wain has to say about this one.
David: To me it has nothing to do — I mean, any screenplay can be about any stakes. It can be about something as tiny as like trying to get a piece of gum off your shoe, or saving the world, and it’s irrelevant. The point is that the stakes are important to the character and that you care as an audience about what the character cares about.
I think of Swingers and him making that phone call and how you’re just like on the edge of your seat freaking out and going no, no, no, just as you are when you’re watching Indiana Jones in exactly the same level of energy from an audience. So, it’s just about how you build and present those stakes. Right?
Craig: Yeah. I agree. I think that it isn’t enough to simply say this person has some kind of external ambition, to build a business or to become a star, or change the world, and failure is the only relevant negative outcome.
Typically we’ll see in characters, when David says “what they care about,” the character does care about the external thing, but it’s also extensible to internal things. There’s something relatable for me in the audience to that person, where I can say, “Oh, I understand why that matters to you.” Because most people don’t want to build a business, that isn’t their ambition. So, what am I connecting to?
I’ve never done a day of karate in my life, but at the end of The Karate Kid when he says, “I have to go out there and win because I’ll never have balance otherwise, I’ll never have balance with myself, with my girlfriend, with the world,” then you go, “Okay, I understand. You’re trying to figure out a way to find your place in this world.” And that’s relatable.
That becomes so much more important than whether or not you punch the guy in the face. So, there does have to be some sort of common, human desire there so that if he fails we understand that he’s not just failing at a business. He’s failing himself in some big way.
John: Yeah. I think what Nate is confusing here a bit is goal, what is the character aiming for, and stakes being like what happens if he doesn’t achieve that goal. And really defining so for the audience what the consequences will be if he doesn’t achieve that goal. And so sometimes within a scene you might have a goal, like he’s got to disarm this thing or this bomb will blow up. That’s a very simple kind of stakes. But in the overall course of your movie the stakes might be if he doesn’t build this dam then his daughter will see that he’s a failure.
I mean, it could be something more, you know, like make it clear to the audience what will be the consequence of a failure so we can actually feel the potential loss or actually see the loss if he doesn’t succeed, because sometimes the stakes should be manifest and the character doesn’t win. That’s always a nice choice in movies as well.
John: And I’ll say that movies tend to have movie stakes in the sense of like this is a story that can happen once and the nature of why we’re watching this story is because of this goal and these stakes. In a TV series, the stakes are a lot different because you’re hopefully experiencing this character’s journey over many, many episodes and things will grow and change. And their goals will change and the stakes will change based on what’s happened to them.
Craig: That’s a great point. And it’s one of the things that people should consider when they’re asking themselves the question of what they ought to write. I mean, should I be writing movies, should I be writing TV shows? And one thing that is specific to movie storytelling is the idea that you are resolving somebody’s problem. That the stakes ultimately do come down to character and specifically what gets finished for this character, whereas in television you can’t finish. If you finish the character your show is done, so the stakes do tend to be far more external in TV, I think.
I mean, there are obviously shows, wonderful shows, where the characters grow and change. But they don’t resolve.
David: Unless it’s the new genre of TV that does seem to have more finite endings sometimes, which I love.
Craig: Well, when the series ends it’s over. But like in Breaking Bad you watch Walter White have a ton of moments where most of the stakes are external stakes, but obviously there’s a lot of internal stuff where he’s trying to maintain his family unit. He’s trying to balance these two lives. He’s making these very difficult decisions about the people he loves and about himself.
But there is no final resolution until the very end. And in movies we’re basically telling one long TV episode and it ends. And you do need that resolution. Even if it’s — I mean, sometimes my favorite moments of, I guess stakes, resolution are the ones that seem so out of whack with what we would expect. That’s why I love the end of Tin Cup. I just think it’s one of the greatest endings of all time because it seems like the stakes are standard to a sports movie — a once great golfer who is down on his luck goes in for a Rocky style comeback. And he’s doing it. And then he approaches this moment where he has to face a choice: should I play is smart or should I go for the perfect shot?
And he goes for the perfect shot. And he blows it. And he blows it. And he blows it. And he blows it. And then he makes it. And the stakes of win the golf tournament, nope. You do not win a golf tournament, but you do hit a perfect shot. And it’s sort of like this is what I’m about. I thought that was, you know, that’s the kind of thing. It’s not enough to say, “Oh, I win or lose a golf tournament.”
David: Well that’s what Rocky was like, too.
Craig: Exactly. He loses as everybody seems to forget. [laugh]
Craig: You know, he loses. But in losing he finds himself. He finds honor. And so that’s another great example of why external stakes are always less compelling for me in movies than the internal ones.
John: This is the time on the podcast where we talk about One Cool Things. David, we should have warned you about this. Do you have a One Cool Thing to talk about?
David: I do. I do.
John: All right.
David: Am I going first?
John: You go first.
David: I just forgot the name of it. It’s this amazing iOS app that I just started using. You know, one of the things that I have now that I’m in California is all this time in the car. And I’ve always been trying to find a way to read screenplays while I’m driving, or read scripts while I’m driving.
Craig: [laughs] Oh god. Get him off the road.
David: And this is my own thing. So, what I used to do was I would actually do a little tinkering in formatting. I would turn script into text and then I would turn the text into audio and then I would have to do a little text expander and find and replace to reformat it enough so that I can understand it well when it’s audio text. It was a pain in the ass.
Now there’s finally this app. And the app is called Voice Dream. And I guess it’s been around maybe a little while, but I just found out about it. And it really works beautifully. The voices are great. And you can just pull down something from your Read It Leader account, from Pocket, or whatever, or from your Dropbox, or from any number of other sources. It then brings it into that app so that you don’t have to start from, you know, when you’re just doing normal speak it on your iPhone you have to select the whole thing and then it loses your place if you get a notification and if you want to start it over from — it’s impossible for reading screenplays.
So, this one turns it into kind of an audio book.
John: That’s great.
David: And you can also double click on where you want to go and you can read a little bit regular and then you can pick up again with voice. It’s really, really great.
John: And does it work well with Fountain?
David: Yeah. It works great with Fountain.
Craig: How about that.
John: Great. Cool. I should have — I don’t know why we didn’t talk about this at all on the podcast, but David Wain is one of the premier champions of using Fountain to write scripts.
David: I love it. I love it.
John: And so he’s been on the betas of all of our apps, and Highland, and Weekend Read. So, thank you very much again for all the stuff you’ve done to help us move that format forward.
David: Well, I think the more people that use it the more it will get developed for and the more it will help my work. So, spreading the word is a selfish thing.
John: Cool. Craig?
Craig: I’ve always said that David Wain is very, very selfish. That’s his thing.
I have Two Cool Things this week. One very quickly, One Cool Thing, Ian Helfer, who has worked with David Wain a number of times. I went to 7th and 8th grade with Ian Helfer and he’s such a great guy. Do you guys work on anything together or what’s the story?
David: Yeah. He’s a great screenwriter. He hasn’t worked with me in any official capacity since Role Models. He came in and worked for a little bit. But, very good friend of mine and he works all the time with John Hamburg who we’re all buddies from back in college days and afterwards in New York. And, yeah, he’s one of my very good friends.
Craig: I love that guy.
So, my other One Cool Thing is a live stage reading that the Black List folks are doing. And it is of a script that made the official Black List of the best unproduced screenplays. And this one is a script written by Stephany Folsom and it’s called 1969: A Space Odyssey, or How Kubrick Learned to Stop Worrying and Land on the Moon.
And that script is about a White House public affairs assistant who basically convinces Kubrick to fake the moon landing in case something goes wrong. You know, that whole story that we didn’t really land on the moon, which some people, [laughs], basically you know I’m a pretty tolerant person. But if you don’t think we landed on the moon, I can’t talk to you. [laughs] I just can’t. I have to remove you from my life.
Regardless, this script is supposed to be pretty great. I haven’t read it, but they are doing a live stage reading of it. It will be at the LA Film Festival on June 14th, so they’ll actually have an interesting cast doing it and ticket info. So, look for information about that at the LA Film Fest website.
John: Yeah. We’ll also have a link to that in the show notes.
My One Cool Thing is this app for iOS, for the iPad, called Hopscotch. And it is a little programming app designed for kids, but really adults can use it, too. It’s very, very clever. I think on a previous episode I talked about Scratch which is this sort of programming environment that MIT developed for kids. This is like that, but actually a little bit more stripped down and I think a little bit more accessible for kids to get started with. You can build these little monsters and have them run around and interact with each other in ways that’s really, really smart.
The women who created the app are really big on sort of getting girls to code and it feels like a great way to sort of get your daughter to start interacting with code in a great way. So, I highly recommend it.
Craig: I really do believe that coding should, I don’t know if it will, but it should become an actual piece of core curriculum in primary education. There’s no reason that we expect as a matter of course American Children to learn geometry but we don’t expect them to learn how to code. It just makes no sense.
David: I think it will eventually happen, although it might take awhile. But it’s inevitable. It’s like it probably took a long time before they said everyone should learn how to type.
Craig: Do they do that? I mean, is typing mandatory now?
John: They teach typing now.
Craig: Oh good. Good.
John: They do. And they sort of gave up on cursive and they teach typing, which I think is a good tradeoff. I think the way that you will stealthily get people coding is Minecraft. I think you build some more logic into Minecraft where there’s switches and do this and this thing becomes a chain of events. I think you sneak that into Minecraft which every young person already plays and you will get a new generation of coders. That’s my guess.
Craig: Well, I hope we do.
John: All right. That is our show this week. But before we wrap up, David Wain, we need you to plug hard your movie.
John: And tell us when it’s coming out.
David: It’s They Came Together.
John: They Came Together. What day?
David: It is June 27th on Friday. It is in selected theaters and it’s also at the same time on VOD. And if —
Craig: Oh, you mean, you guys are doing day and date?
John: Are you guys at the Arclight in Los Angeles? Where are you?
David: Yeah. It’s day and date. So, you’ve got to go to the theater if you’re in one of those handful of cities that weekend, please. In LA it’s going to be Los Feliz, AMC City Walk, and Laemmle Playhouse.
David: But also you can watch it on your TV that day if you choose. If you go to TheyCameTogether.com you’ll see a selection of some of the amazing reviews we’ve gotten, and a trailer, and clips, and poster. And Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, and a cast of incredible comedic talents including Jason Mantzoukas, Bill Hader, Christopher Meloni, Max Greenfield, Cobie Smulders, Michael Ian Black, Ellie Kemper, etc, etc.
Craig: Keep going. Keep going.
John: It’s pretty amazing.
Craig: It’s pretty awesome.
John: How about Childrens Hospital? Is there another Childrens Hospital coming?
David: Childrens Hospital is starting to shoot actually in two weeks, the sixth season, and also the other Adult Swim series that I do the lead voice on —
David: Well, there’s that. That’s also coming out in a few months, I believe. And then there’s also June 15th, just in three weeks, is Superjail! Is premiering on Adult Swim at 11:45pm.
Craig: You know, this is really our first podcast after all these shows where we actually did a late night talk show style guest with something to plug. It’s really..it’s fun.
John: I like that.
Craig: Yeah. I think we should honestly just do it. And I’m serious about this. I’m actually very serious.
Craig: We should never do this again except with David Wain. Like I honestly, like we should always have David on to plug his stuff.
John: Well, because you’re always kind of busy, so there’s always going to be something new to plug.
David: I can just come on at the end and plug.
John: Do it.
Craig: I just think we should always —
David: No matter who the guest is.
Craig: Like I don’t care if Tom Cruise wants to be on Scriptnotes. No. No. But David Wain can show up. He’s got — he’s just dropping by a block party. [laughs] And he just wants to mention that he’ll be there.
David: Come by. I’m baking cupcakes.
Craig: That’s right.
John: It’ll be good. And that’s our show. So, you can find links to most of the things we talked about on the show today at the show page, johnaugust.com/scriptnotes. That’s also where you can find transcripts for our episodes. You can also find the last 20 episodes on iTunes. If you’re there you can leave us a comment or a rating, that’s always lovely and nice.
If you want to go back to the old episodes, you can find them at Scriptnotes.net. You can go back to episode one and all the way up through to the present time. We offer subscriptions for $1.99 a month which gives you access to all those back episodes and occasional bonus episodes.
Scriptnotes is produced by Stuart Friedel. Is edited by Matthew Chilelli. And if you have a question for us on the show, like the ones we answered, short questions are really good on Twitter. So, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. David Wain, what are you?
John: Very nice. If you have a longer question, like the ones we answered today, you can write to firstname.lastname@example.org. And David Wain thank you so much for being an awesome guest.
David: I’m a big fan of this podcast and of both of you and I’m really happy to be here. Thanks.
Craig: Thank you.
John: All right. Have a great weekend.
Craig: Bye guys.
- David Wain, and on IMDb and Twitter
- Being Gay at Jerry Falwell’s University, from The Atlantic
- They Came Together is in theaters and On Demand June 27th
- Wet Hot American Summer on Amazon
- Caught in the acts, from David Bordwell’s website on cinema
- Legends of Oz Investors Believe Hollywood Conspiracy Destroyed Film, from Cartoon Brew
- THR on Amy Adams’ Story of Your Life selling to Paramount for $20 Million
- Voice Dream, a text to speech app for iOS
- Ian Helfer on IMDb
- Get tickets now for the Black List Live! read of Stephany Folsom’s 1969: A Space Odyssey, or How Kubrick Learned to Stop Worrying and Land on the Moon on June 14th, part of the LA Film Fest
- Hopscotch, a coding for kids app for iOS
- Childrens Hospital, Newsreaders, and Superjail! (which returns on June 14th) on adultswim.com
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Mike Timmerman (send us yours!)