The original post for this episode can be found here.
Disclaimer: Hey, this is John. Today’s audio was recorded in two separate sessions and Craig’s microphone was terrible during part of it, so just apologies for that. We got it fixed. If you hear the follow up section, Craig sounds much better, and healthier, and fuller of life, and that’s because we got his microphone all fixed up. So, sorry about that. And enjoy today’s episode.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 151 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
So, Craig, completely different environment for me here. I am sitting atop a mountain here at the Sundance Resort. I’m here for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. And so it’s very much like how we normally talk over Skype, but just I’m in a very different place geographically.
Craig: Mentally, emotionally. Well, you sound great. You know, I was invited once to go do the Sundance Lab and then I had to cancel it because I was stuck in production. And then they never asked me back. [laughs]
John: Oh, that’s sad.
Craig: I’m thinking that maybe they just got… — I mean, it wasn’t like I canceled at the last minute. I canceled months in advance, but yeah, I think that that probably was it. That sealed my fate.
John: Yeah, you get the one shot.
I’ve been an advisor here since 2000 was my first year up here as an advisor. So, in ’99 I had, my movie Go was playing at the Sundance Film Festival and the next year they asked me up to be an advisor. What I didn’t tell them is that I’d actually applied to come to the labs before with a previous script and they had not even considered. I’d been rejected. So, I was never a fellow. I was only an advisor.
But, this process is great and I’ve talked about this on the show before, but they bring up a bunch of filmmakers who are working on their first or second features and in the summer session they are shooting some scenes just on video to sort of practice what it feels like to shoot scenes out of their movie. But they also have these five days where they’re talking with other screenwriters. And we’re reading their scripts and offering suggestions, but more importantly just an extra set of brains to help figure out how they’re going to tell their story. And it’s a great process.
Craig: I saw the picture online. Is that Howard Rodman lurking there in the background?
John: Howard Rodman is a fixture at the labs. He came up here the first year that I came up here. And this year he’s actually — he oversees all the advisors for this process.
Craig: He’s terrific. I’ve gone and spoken to his graduate class at USC a number of times.
John: He’s salt of the earth. A great guy.
John: Today on the podcast, you suggested some topics, and I suggested some topics, and I think we’ve got a good show here for you. So, we’re going to talk about secrets and lies. We’re going to talk about the things that characters are concealing from each other, sometimes concealing from the reader. We’re going to talk about subjectivity and sort of the experience of how a character within a scene perceives information.
Based on all my reading up here, I have seven suggestions for how to pick character names so that people can understand which character is which. And then a reader had sent in a scene and then also the three pages that became that scene, which we thought were fascinating, so we’re going to talk about his three pages and the scene that he actually shot and what we can learn from seeing those two things. We’ll answer a question about following up after a meeting, so it’s going to be a busy show.
So, on the topic of follow up we have some follow up — on an earlier podcast we talked about Aereo, which was a service in New York City and a few other places that led people record live broadcast TV on these little tiny antennas and then stream that video that they recorded to their devices, their iPhones, their computers, wherever else they were. And this was a Supreme Court case, so the networks were suing Aereo saying that what they were doing was a violation of the Copyright Act. And the Supreme Court decided this week. And come down with a 6-3 decision in favor of the networks, saying that this was, in fact, a copyright violation.
Craig: Right. Yeah, so it’s an interesting thing. Aereo’s argument was essentially this: that they’re not really doing anything. This is all about broadcast network. So, broadcast networks send their content out over the public airwaves. And anyone in the public can receive it through an antenna, if they so choose, and then watch it in the privacy of their home.
Of course, now almost everybody is on, you know, uses cable to receive broadcast networks which in and of itself is relevant to this case. But, what Aereo essentially said was our service, all our service is really just a whole big bunch of antennas. They had like 10,000 tiny little dime-sized antennas. And the way the product worked is you would pay them a subscription fee and then if you wanted to watch, say, Big Bang Theory you would just say, “I want to watch Big Bang Theory,” you would send that to their servers, their servers would tune one of those individual antennas to Big Bang Theory —
John: And specifically your antenna, because essentially you’re renting one specific antenna.
Craig: That’s right. That’s just yours. Exactly. So, that one specific antenna would pick up the free broadcast signal of Big Bang Theory and then it would take that signal, put it onto a hard drive. It would essentially make a copy. And it would make a specific copy for each person that requested it. And then it would start streaming that copy with a slight lag behind the actual air time of a few seconds.
You could either watch it streaming at that point where you’d be essentially watching the broadcast signal a few seconds behind the actual broadcast signal. Or, you could time shift it and just watch it later as if it were a DVR. So, their argument was essentially we’re not doing anything other than simply allowing people to use one of our fancy antennas and nothing more.
John: But, they didn’t win. That argument did not go over. And six of the justices said, well, you know what you’re doing actually feels more like cable TV.
John: I thought the decision was interesting because they kind of just said that. It’s like it’s sort of irrelevant how you’re doing it. The net result is sort of like cable TV and congress has previously decided that cable companies if they want to carry broadcast channels have to pay the networks and probably I think local people, too, in order to carry those signals.
Craig: This is an interesting area where I think a lot of powerful people’s desires intersect.
John: And also I think consumer’s desires. Consumer’s desire not just for cheaper access to broadcast television, or sort of better access to broadcast television, but just convenience. And Aereo was genuinely convenient and it was a useful thing for people. And so when you take that away there’s going to be some pushback on that as well.
It doesn’t necessarily by the way mean that Aereo has to go away. Aereo went into this saying that there was no Plan B, but of course their Plan B could essentially just do what cable companies do and negotiate terms for coverage on what they’re doing.
Craig: I don’t see what the Plan B is. Their entire business model was essentially built around a gimmick, a trick. And I do think frankly at its heart what they were doing was wrong. And I do think it was more than just ethically wrong. I agree with the court here. I think they were flouting the law. The law may, you know, I don’t know if every specific word was there to cover it. I mean, the law was written in ’76 I believe. Basically they were — I think they were breaking that law.
John: A second bit of follow up. We had a great shout-out from the people at the Slate Culture Gabfest, Julia Turner and Dana Stevens endorsed us as one of their cool things, that’s their equivalent of a One Cool Thing on their podcast this week. So, I just want to return the favor and say how much I enjoy the Slate Culture Gabfest which I listen to every week.
Craig, how did you even find out about it because you don’t listen to any podcasts at all?
Craig: Yeah, I didn’t realize there were other podcasts other than this one. I thought we were it. But somebody sent me a tweet about it and so I clicked on it because I so very often read anything positive about me in Slate. [laughs] And so I listened to that section of the podcast and they were both very complimentary and it was nice to hear that.
I mean, my favorite thing was when they were both done talking about it, the third person with them, a gentleman, there was like a pause and then he kind of John August-ed them, you know, where sometimes I’ll say something and then there’s a pause and you’re like, “So anyway…” [laughs]
John: He segued right out of it.
Craig: Yeah. He was like I’m bored with your Scriptnotes talk. So, I’m not going to talk about that guy. I like the people that like the podcast.
John: I love the people who love the podcast.
Craig: So we were talking on Twitter about maybe doing a crossover.
John: Which would be so much fun. The Nerdist crossover was fun.
Craig: It was.
John: It’s good. We’ll make it happen.
John: All right. On to today’s topics, so Craig what motivated this talk of liars and liars in scripts?
Craig: Well, I’m working on a movie right now that is essentially it’s a whodunit. And when you start to investigate the world of whodunits you — I’ve been reading a ton of Agatha Christie. I mean, I’ve always been a Doyle fan. And I’ve always been a Poe fan. Poe is really the kind of inventor of the modern whodunit detective story.
For this kind of movie I felt that Agatha Christie’s genre was the most appropriate, and so I’ve been just reading a lot of Agatha Christie. And one thing that I’ve noticed is all of the characters, with the exception of the detective, are liars. Part of the fun of a good mystery is that when you ask the question whodunit the answer is any one of these people could have done it.
And we think that they could have done it in part because perhaps they all had motive, they all have opportunity, but more importantly they are all lying. And it’s lying that makes us suspect them.
But as I started to think about this, I realized in fact everyone is a liar to some extent or another. All humans are liars. Lying is part of the human condition. But there are different kinds of liars. And there’s different kinds of lying. And when we talk sometimes about new writers who are writing and the characters — we’ll say, “Oh, everything seems on the nose or there’s not enough subtext,” in a weird way I think sometimes the mistake people are making is that they’re writing people and those people aren’t lying.
They’re writing truth-tellers.
Craig: And it’s just less interesting. So I wanted to talk about how useful it is to think of your characters as liars, but also the different grades or categories of lying and lying characters that you’ll find.
John: I think it also feeds into our concept of motivation, why a person is saying the things that they want other people to believe is key to understanding who they are in a scene and overall in the film itself.
Craig: That’s right. The idea of drama and of experiencing a narrative where humans move through it and transform is that they are not at the end who they were in the beginning. And if they were just truth-tellers in the beginning, naturally they’re simply going to say, “Well, here’s the situation. I’m very scared of this. I’m scared of growing up, and I’m scared of telling you that I love you, but I do love you. And I’m hoping that by behaving better I will in fact grow up and whether I get you or not I will be a better person.”
[Yawns] Movie over. You know? Everyone has to be concealing something in some way. But then there are characters who are lying for other reasons. Maybe not such understandable or empathetic or sympathetic reasons.
So, let’s talk about some of the different kinds of lying there is. The most useful kind to me is self-deception. I think every protagonist to some level or another is engaging in self-deception. We’ll say the character has an arc. It is a bad character, a dramatically unsatisfying character who has complete access to his or her emotional states, weakness, flaws, and can pinpoint them perfectly and then throughout the course of the movie go about and achieve them.
One of my favorite examples of this, because it was done so cannily, is Jerry Maguire. I honestly think that Cameron Crowe pulled off one of the most brilliant self-delusional movies of all time. You know, we’ll see sometimes in comedies shine a — hang a lantern on it. If you have something that seems a little wonky in your story just go for it and embrace it and people feel like it’s intentional.
John: Yeah. Call it out to the audience so the audience knows that you recognize that it’s there.
Craig: That’s right. So, what does he do with this character of Jerry Maguire, and the movie begins with a man who in a moment of frustration writes a manifesto about the kind of person that is a good person. But he is still engaged in a very high level of self-delusion. He is in fact not that person. Even the writing of that manifesto is a manifestation of his self-delusion. He’s actually a bad person. The manifesto itself is really more of a temper tantrum, and nothing he actually thinks he should or could do.
As a result of writing that manifesto he loses his job and all of his clients except for two. And actually really what it comes down to is one. And then must struggle over the course of the movie, clinging all the while to his self-delusions, to finally get to the place where he realizes, oh my god, I’m supposed to be the person I wrote about in that manifesto.
That’s how strong self-delusion is, even when you can write down the truth of yourself, you do not believe it.
John: Self-delusion is commonly the starting place for a movie where the journey is for the character to come upon emotional honesty, emotional authenticity. And so when we talk about sort of how useful it is for a character to lie, that’s not that the movie should be lying. It’s that the character needs to have progress from this inauthentic state to an authentic state at the end, and Jerry Maguire is a great example of that.
Craig: Yeah. And I think all protagonists to some level or another have a self-delusion. If they have an arc it means they have a self-delusion.
Going into the world of animation, the character of Marlin in Finding Nemo, he is honest to himself to a point. He honestly believes that he must take care of Nemo at all costs. But he’s deluding himself because somewhere down there is access to a truth, an inherent truth, that this can’t last. The boy will grow up. He must let him go.
John: Even in movies that are more action-based or sort of have more classically sort of like here’s the hero protagonist you often see that the hero at the start of the movie is really kind of a series of poses, it’s acting the part of the hero but it doesn’t actually have the stuff inside him because he hasn’t been tested in ways to really show what it is that matters to him.
Craig: That’s right.
John: What it is that is sort of unique to his own journey.
Craig: Yeah, in fact that can start to give you a clue as to what — everybody is afraid of the second act, but this gives you a clue to your second act. What situations should this person go through so that their own delusion can be laid bare to them.
John: But they’re normal way of doing things and the normal person they’re presenting out into the world is called out in a way or is ineffective in a way and they’re forced to find a new identity.
Craig: Right. And this works in part because it is the function of drama to — why we are attracted to drama is because it illuminates our lives. All of us are delusional.
Craig: Everyone on the planet is delusional. We are all walking around either ignoring something in ourselves, willfully or subconsciously, or simply misunderstanding ourselves. No matter how much therapy you go through, there will always be a glitch in the system because we’re made of meat. We are rational to a point, but the part of us that is irrational is not accessible by the rational, so therefore it’s happening out of our control.
John: Well, I would also question whether if you got rid of all your self-delusions, if you got rid of all of the lies, would you even have — would there even be a person left underneath there? I think of so many cases are personalities and sort of who we perceive ourselves to be is a narrative that is carefully constructed based on experiences, based on our hopes, based on our dreams. And you are sort of a story. And a story is made up of some fabrications.
Craig: That’s right. Just as you can’t step into the same river twice, every new realization you have changes your mind. It changes who you are and gives birth to a new level of potential self-delusion. One hopes that you, you know, you can improve your life and know thyself is a great goal. But you’re right, it’s actually an impossibility. To truly 100% know yourself, I mean, let’s get really heavy for a second. Are you familiar with Gödel’s theorem?
John: I don’t know Gödel’s theorem. Tell me.
Craig: Well, first of all, a great book. This is my One Cool Thing for everyday. Gödel, Escher, Bach. It’s an incredible book. Douglas, I want to say it’s Douglas Hofstadter I believe is the — and he wrote this I believe in the ’80s. This brilliant kind of mindboggling book that goes into mathematics, artificial intelligence, logic in ranges from Alice in Wonderland to the music of Bach, to the drawings of Escher, and then interestingly in to the work of Gödel.
And Gödel had this very famous mathematical theorem. And essentially what it said is for any given system of mathematics, you know, in math I don’t know if you remember, you can prove things.
John: Yes. Absolutely. That’s crucial.
Craig: Do you remember that? Right. So you have a system of rules and then somebody gives you an assertion. And then you can create a proof of that assertion using the rules and you can proof that it is true and that’s important.
Craig: What his theorem said was there are — for any system of mathematics, there will always be things that are true that cannot be proven. And that’s kind of mindboggling in and of itself. And it gets to this whole idea of recursion, all the rest.
But what it really comes down to is our brains are closed systems. There will always be things that are true that are brain in its current state simply can’t prove. You’re right; self-deception is inherent to the human condition. So, wonderful thing to think about as you’re creating your character.
John: And if you go in further, if you actually were to strip away sort of everything you think about yourself, your entire narrative, I’ll put a link in, too, Datura, I may be pronouncing it wrong.
Craig: Oh god.
John: But you know that drug?
Craig: The worst.
John: It apparently just lays you completely bare and you sort of see yourself and your wholeness and all of your flaws. And very few people can withstand that sort of spotlight of scrutiny. When you lose yourself, you lose all of your lies.
Craig: Precisely. And that’s why the journey for a character that is struggling with their self-deception is difficult. When we talk about — see, bad screenwriting teachers will always talk in terms of bloodless structure, because that’s all they understand. So, they’ll say things like it’s important that your hero face obstacles. Why? Why? Let’s just start with these really fundamental questions.
Like I remember I took a philosophy class in college and the professor asked a question. it’s good to know that things are true, but why? Why is truth better than not truth? [laughs] Then you go, huh, I guess I should probably think about that. Well, why obstacles? Because if there are no obstacles — the obstacles aren’t the point. The obstacles are the symptom of the difficulty of undoing your self-deception. It’s hard.
John: All right. So, self-deception is a key thing. What other types of lies do you think are fundamental for storytellers?
Craig: So, that’s the first and that’s the most common class. Then there’s this second class that doesn’t apply to every character. And I call this the manipulators. These are people who lie for a purpose. They’re lying for an external purpose. And we can break them out into two subgroups. There is the protective manipulators and there are the manipulators who are lying for game. So, protective liars are people that lie in order to avoid pain or hurt or to maintain some lifestyle that is their best option.
John: So, they’re not trying to deceive themselves. They’re trying to deceive other people to either protect what they have or protect the things they love.
Craig: Right. And you and I have both written movies that have this. Big Fish, Edward Bloom. He’s a protective liar. He is lying because it’s helpful to him. He’s certainly lying more than the average person. He’s not lying to get rich.
Craig: And he’s not self-delusional. He’s lying purposely, but in order to protect himself on some level.
John: Yeah. I would push a little bit back on protect himself, is that he’s attempting to — the only thing he can pass on is his vision of how the world should be, so he’s attempting to use these fabrications in order to create an idealized world, a vision for what he wants for his son.
Craig: Yeah. And I actually think that that’s consistent with protecting yourself in the sense that if you don’t do it then you feel inept as a father. You know, that you’ve somehow failed. That this is something he needs to do for his son.
In Identity Thief, the character of Diana lies because she is lonely and unloved and the only way she can survive is by constantly lying. Constantly. It’s become a crutch. And these characters can be very sympathetic actually. They’re frustrating. They’re frustrating, and that’s fun. They create conflict, which we love of course. And they also keep the audience guess, which we love. And then, of course, they have the audience begin to connect with that person. The audience naturally tries to make sense of things. It’s part of what we do as human things.
So, don’t try and make sense of why this person is doing it, and now they’re doing your work for you. They are engaged. And your job when you finally explain why is to explain why in a way that is satisfying to them, that does make sense.
John: Absolutely. So, you’re describing the character’s secrets and lies, which is really the same thing. There is something that they’re not showing. There are cards they are holding back. And that’s a way of engaging the audience’s curiosity.
John: And anything that makes your audience lean in to the story rather than sit back is a very good thing.
Craig: That’s right. Now, the second sub-heading under manipulators are the people who lie for game. And these are typically villains. Sometimes, however, they’re heroes. For instance, Danny Ocean lies constantly for game. He’s a thief. But, you’ll take a look at a villain like Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Wonderful liar. Wonderful, brilliant liar, and lying for game. He also, too, is a thief.
These people who lie for game are oftentimes much better liars than the people who lie to protect themselves or conceal a personal secret. And they’re definitely better liars than people who are simply self-delusional. They’re professional liars. So, you get to write somebody who is not only screwing with the people around them, but screwing with the audience, and this is important.
John: When you say they’re lying for game, it’s not just necessarily monetary gain. If you look at Jeff Bridge’s character in Jagged Edge, that’s a character who is lying with a very specific agenda. He’s trying to protect himself, but he’s also — he gets so much more by establishing and maintaining this lie. It’s his natural way of going through the world is that lie.
Craig: Absolutely. And sometimes the reason, the gain is actually quite noble. Flick, the ant, goes and gets these guys to help save the village, but they’re just circus performers. And this lie has to be maintained until finally it’s laid bare.
There are all sorts of ways that people can lie for gain, but when they do so they have to do so with some skill. And therefore as a writer you have to actually think like a manipulative liar here who is trying to get something. The truth is no longer important. What’s far more important is what you have to say. And the audience shouldn’t always know. I mean, one of the great things about Ocean’s Eleven is that they lie to each other. They lie to Matt Damon. Not everybody knows what’s going on. And then the movie lies to us through their perspective, because we think we’re seeing something we’re not, and then they reveal how they’ve lied. So, that gives you so many opportunities.
John: I think the challenge for a screenwriter is recognizing when it is good to let the audience in and see the liar doing his work, because that can be really rewarding to see somebody be really good at the thing they’re doing. And when you’re better off holding back and keeping the audience in the same point of view as all the other characters where they’re being manipulated as well.
Craig: Yes. And the revelation of their lies should have the punch of some kind of climactic feel, because if you reveal it too soon you’ll simply lose interest. I mean, we understand the basic lie of Hans Gruber fairly early on, but there’s this other lie that he’s hiding from his own guys of what’s going to happen with that last bit of security lock. He hasn’t told them, which is actually kind of great. I mean, because look, realistically if you were leading a gang of henchmen into a building to rob it and you knew that there were seven things you had to get and the last one was an impossible-to-break electromagnetic seal on the vault, you would say, “Don’t worry. What we’re going to do is we’re going to stage a terrorist attack. Eventually they’ll follow the handbook, turn off all the power, and that will open the thing for us. You ask for a miracle, I give you the FBI.”
But he doesn’t tell them.
John: You like at Keyser Söze at the end of The Usual Suspects and you know that he is manipulative, you know that you can’t trust him, but you didn’t know that everything you’re experiencing was a lie. And it was the right choice to save that reveal to the very, very end so it is the punch line to the joke is the revelation of this last lie.
John: I’m sure there decisions and he probably went back and forth about like, well, if we revealed a little bit earlier then we could see, we would have the tension about will he get caught. And this was the decision like, nope, the whole movie has to be set up to this point.
Craig: Yes. Exactly. And that’s a great segue to our next category, because Keyser Söze is a perfect example of somebody that manipulates and lies for gain. He’s also a very bad person. But his badness isn’t his lying. His badness is that he’s a murderer. The lying is done to get him gain for his other badness, which is murdering.
But then there’s the last category of liar, and this is the worst liar, and these are always villains. And these are some of the scariest characters you can create. They are bad, bad people. These are the chaotic, pathological liars.
Craig: These are the people that lie because they love trouble. And they lie to create strife and drama. They can’t control their lying. I don’t think they’re alive unless they’re lying. I don’t think they even know what the truth is.
So, the character that often comes to mind in this case is the latest incarnation of the Joker, the Heath Ledger Joker. One thing that I thought was just remarkable, I think everybody thought it was pretty amazing in Dark Knight was when the character the Joker explains how he got his facial scars. And it was kind of very scary, very revealing confession of a trauma.
John: It made you almost sympathetic for a moment.
Craig: It did. And then there is another scene later where he explains to somebody else how he got his scars and it is just as compelling, and just as terrifying, and just as true feeling, but it’s a completely different story.
Craig: And that’s when you realize this man is just a liar.
John: Yeah, he’s truly a sociopath. A psychopath. I mean, all he can sort of do is lie. It’s the air he breathes. If he says hello, that’s a lie.
Craig: That’s right. And these characters are very difficult to write because for the most part we aren’t them. I mean, occasionally — god help us — we will run into these people.
John: I worked for a person — I worked for one of those people.
Craig: There you go. And part of the problem is they’re so good that you don’t really know for awhile what’s happening. And then eventually it becomes clear and then part of the struggle is it’s hard to wrap your mind around the fact that another person is actually doing… — You, like the audience, want to make sense of them. But you can’t, because they are operating in a way that, frankly, they don’t even care about their own destruction.
The Joker doesn’t care if he lives or dies. He has no interest in that. He loves chaos. He loves the chaos that lying can bring. And you’ll see these characters sometimes in noir, these characters will skew towards female, because when you put it in a man you immediately start to think, my god, he’s going to just start stabbing, shooting, killing, and all the rest, whereas women can maybe just scramble your brain and make you second guess your own name and all the rest of it. And then finally Bogart sends you up the river.
But, liars, pathological liars are very scary people. And if you’re going to write one, you just have to know that the movie will be deeply infected by them. That they are going to take over.
John: It’s a movie that hasn’t come out yet, but Kristen Wiig is terrific in a comedy I saw, I guess you’d call it a comedy, kind of a comedy, kind of a drama called Welcome to Me. It should be out later this year. And she’s not a psychopath, but it’s one of the rare cases where I’ve seen just a chaotic, manipulative person really at the center of a film, where she is supposed to be the protagonist, but she honestly kind of can’t protagonate in a meaningful way.
John: It’s a really challenging task for a writer and for an actress to put that person at the very center of a movie and not have that person be the villain.
Craig: Of course, because the protagonist at some basic level is trying to achieve something. We ask simple questions of our heroes. What do you want? What are you willing to do to get it? What scares you? This or that.
Well, what does the pathological, chaotic liar want? Trouble.
John: [laughs] Yes.
Craig: That’s what they want. They want trouble. So, the only person I’ve written like this, and I loved writing him, was Mr. Chow.
John: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Craig: Mr. Chow is a chaotic, pathological liar. He does not care if he lives or dies. In fact, he thinks it’s awesome. He just loves trouble. But, because he’s so comic, and also embodied in this kind of very small, physically frail man, it’s funny. I mean —
John: But if you tried to have the Mr. Chow movie, good luck. It’s very, very challenging to put that person in the center of a movie and have them do any of the kinds of things you want a person at the center of a movie to be able to do.
Craig: Absolutely. In fact, Todd and I talked for a bit about the idea of what a Mr. Chow movie would look like. And it was totally different because it was the darkest thing imaginable. And I remember we had this one idea for a scene that sort of sums it up. Mr. Chow comes home to see his elderly father. And he walks in and his old, old father looks up at him and says something like, “Leslie, you returned to us, you came back.” And Mr. Chow walks over to him, and then cuts his throat. [laughs]
And as his father is dying, his father looks up at him and says, “Good job.” [laughs] Because that’s the only — that’s how Mr. Chow is born. It’s just pure, awful chaos and darkness, willful self-destruction. The only goal there is is to blow up the world, you know?
John: Yeah. Those characters are almost un-human, because they don’t work in our normal ways. Crispin Glover and I had a few conversations about taking his Thin Man character from the Charlie’s Angels movie and just doing his own movie. And ultimately nothing will ever come of that probably. But it’s a fascinating character, but such an incredibly challenging character to put at the center of anything because he is chaos. He’s like chaos and death in ways that’s very hard to — he’s challenging. It’s very hard to have insight into that character, because deliberately they’re supposed to be opaque and you just can’t know them.
Scarlett Johansson’s character in Under the Skin is a similar situation, is where she’s just this lioness. There’s not a human — there literally is not a human underneath that. It makes it very challenging.
Craig: Right. It essentially doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. There needs to be somebody in opposition to it, or they need to not be human and that’s sort of the point, and then the purpose of the movie is to illuminate the difference between humans and non-humans. But, they will infect your movie and you have to write them carefully. They can kind of get in your head.
And by all means if you run into one of these people —
John: Run away.
Craig: Go the other way.
John: The classic advice, and I’m trying to remember who originally said this, but the advice to young psychiatrists was if in your first meeting your patient talks about how awful their previous therapist was and how all these things — run away, because that person is probably a psychopath. There are people who are just — you’re just going to fall into their deep well and you’re never going to figure a way out of it.
Craig: That’s interesting. You know, it’s funny, Dennis Palumbo told me that when he sits down with a client for the first time, the first question he asks is have you had therapy before and can you tell me about that experience. All we’ve done now is we’ve given the chaotic liars a way to wiggle out of that.
John: Absolutely. They’ll say about how incredibly helpful it was and the skills they used. And it was really life-changing. They just need a little tune up.
Craig: Yeah. And then they crawl inside you and devour you from the inside.
John: Oh, yes, that’s never a good thing. So, let’s recap what we talked about with liars, because I think it’s really, really useful. So, liars who are self-deception, which is probably true to every character in your script. There’s going to be some aspect of self-deception.
Manipulative liars — manipulative liars who are lying to protect something, or manipulative liars, what was your second case of manipulative liars?
Craig: Or trying to gain something.
John: Exactly. So, protection or gain. And then finally the, I mean, what did you call it, the sociopathic liar?
Craig: Chaotic, pathological.
John: Pathological, yeah, where they can’t stop lying and they will lie for any reason. It’s like kleptomania. They don’t need that pack of gum, but they have to take that pack of gum.
Craig: That’s right, lying even to mess themselves up.
John: So, I had a boss who, when he got bored, this is pre-internet, when he got bored in the afternoon he would just call someone at Variety or Hollywood Reporter and just make up a lie about another project or another person, just to stir shit up.
Craig: Wow! Blech.
John: Yuck. And you just don’t want to be around that for long.
Craig: No, that’s, Geez-Louise.
John: One of my favorite things to do at dinners here is to tell our terrible Hollywood stories about people who are just completely awful to us. And really you sort of collect them like little badges, like that was an awful thing but I’m so glad that happened because now I have a story about that.
Craig: It’s true. At some point the tragedy finally has enough time and then it becomes funny. But, oh gosh, in the middle of this stuff it can really just scramble you up. And that’s why we have to — writing is actually a way to maybe pop the balloon a little bit, because it’s fun. Look, it was fun for me to write Leslie Chow because he just didn’t care. He didn’t care about anything. He loved it. He was so excited to die, or for you to die, or for something to happen. Everything is funny. Everything.
John: Yeah. Hilarious.
Craig: Yeah, if a lion bit off his arm he would laugh and then he would tell the lion to choke on the arm and then he would laugh as the lion choked on the arm. He wouldn’t care.
John: Wouldn’t care.
Craig: Yeah. It’s nuts.
John: So, one of the writers I’ve gotten to meet up here at Sundance is Chris Terrio. Have you ever met him before?
Craig: No, I haven’t. But I enjoyed his movie.
John: Yeah, so he wrote Argo which is a great film. And so we screened it last night here and he did a Q&A afterwards. And one of the points he brought up which was really fascinating and I hadn’t really considered it in the way that he framed it. So, he was talking about a scene in which Ben Affleck’s character is driving and then it’s going to cut to news footage of talking about the Iranian hostages. And so it’s existing news footage. And in the edit Ben Affleck was driving and then it cuts to the news footage and he was pushing really hard for the way he had it in the script, which was a pre-lap, is that the Walter Cronkite or whoever is talking while Ben Affleck is driving and then we finally go to the news footage.
And that seems like a very small distinction. Like it’s sort of really when does the sound start. But his point was that by starting the sound while you’re with Ben Affleck’s character, you’re creating the experience of subjectivity. And what we’re about to see feels like it’s inside Ben Affleck’s mind. It feels like it’s that character thinking about it. It’s a way to sort of verbalize thoughts. It feels like it’s running around in his head. And then when we actually go to it we still feel like we’re with Ben Affleck’s experience.
Probably that music is also taking us through. It’s a way of letting that clip happen not just as a thing that happens. It’s inside Ben Affleck’s head. And that experience of subjectivity is really interesting and it makes me feel much better about how often I tend to use pre-lap in my scripts to explain that something is start — like a sound is starting, and dialogue is often starting before we get into that next scene. It’s anticipating the cut.
Craig: I love that. First of all, we’ve done a long discussion about transitions. I mean, it’s just generally a nicer, smoother transition. But I love that observation because, again, we want to try and have the audience do as much work for us as possible. They appreciate that. The bad feeling is when you feel like the spoon is entering your mouth and you already know what that food is and then, yup, it’s that food.
And so see the news report and then you show him in the car, well that was just a news report scene that feel like “and now a moment in the movie where we have to tell you stuff. And now here’s Ben Affleck driving.” But instead, simply by pre-lapping, showing him in the car and then completing the news report, by simply putting that sound and that image in parallel, the movie stops teaching us something and is now telling us that this is an experience that Ben Affleck has had. Either he heard this news report before. I mean, he’s not hearing it right now.
But the movie is essentially implying he knows this and that changes everything because then it’s about him and as Chris points out his subjectivity and his experience. This, by the way, is a great example of what I call the new screenwriter, who not only thinks like a filmmaker, but is involved.
Craig: So that he can help the director and the producer towards these things because we actually are pretty freaking good at this. And I love the way that the movie business has opened up to the new screenwriter because the new screenwriter provides moments like that, which are great.
John: Sure. What’s also I think crucial about the sense of the pre-lap and the overlap is that it’s taking these things that are two scenes and made them one scene. It’s joined them so that they are fused together as one element. So, you look at like, oh, that’s when he was thinking about this, rather than that was him driving in his car. This is information about the hostage crisis. So, as you look at your own scripts, I think it’s important to really figure out how much information that you’re giving us can you find a way that it’s meaningful to the character who is giving us the information, or that the movie is giving you information. How can you put that in the subjective experience of one of the characters so you’re not just telling us?
And there are many examples of doing that, but it’s really thinking about who is the interesting person to be seeing these events through and how do you experience the movie? How do you find a place holder for who the audience is in this movie?
Craig: Yeah. It’s a good example of how sometimes a problem can lead to a solution. You’re sometimes stuck with something that has to happen but it feel clunky. And oftentimes if you sit back and look at it you realize it’s actually not a problem at all. It’s a benefit.
Craig: It is clunky to simply show Walter Cronkite talking about stuff. And then it’s even more clunky to show the shoe leather of Ben Affleck driving in a car.
John: One thing, Argo is worth a rewatch. And one of the things you recognize they do really brilliantly is they insert the news footage clips in ways that are very smart. And oftentimes they’re playing on TVs in scenes in ways that are meaningful. Or one of the great examples is a cross-cut between the hostage woman talking about why they’ve taken the hostages and the table-reading of the Argo script. And so you have this really funny moment at this table read of this ridiculous cut intercut with this announcement of the hostages.
And by being able to do both things at once, that’s sort of the key to the tone of the movie is that it’s both a big Hollywood movie about big Hollywood movies and there’s real stakes in terms of these people’s lives.
Craig: Yeah. Anytime you can kind of take two things that maybe separately would be a little flat or a little empty or a little thin and layer them together. Yeah, there are times of course where you know that the dramatic focus is such that you don’t want to do that, you don’t want to get noisy, but one thing that I know about screenwriters is that those things are intentional and they’re purposeful. When he says, “No, it should be pre-lap and like this,” that’s not just a random… — I mean, look, for good screenwriters it’s not some random bit of technique. There’s a purpose.
And I like the fact that people are open to hearing what that purpose is, especially when they’re excellent filmmakers, which in this case Ben Affleck is a very, very good director.
John: Agreed. So, this last week I’ve had a chance to work with five different filmmakers and read five scripts. And I don’t read as many scripts as I used to. I used to read a ton of scripts, and now I tend to read what I’m writing, or read a few things that friends send through. So, when you look at five scripts over the course of a couple days you notice some patterns, and one of the patterns I noticed is that sometimes people are not making the best choices for naming characters.
And so while we were sitting in a meeting and people were talking about other stuff, I wrote up my seven suggestions for character names. So, I want to sort of share those with you.
My first suggestion we’ve talked about on the podcast before is pick different first letters for character’s names. So, if you have a character named John, you can’t have a Jim, or a James, or a Jackson. There should be one character named with a J. That’s a pretty good basic rule of thumb. Don’t double up. And you’re not likely to have 26 characters who really need names, so you’re going to be fine.
Helpful — pick a different number of characters in names. So, if you have a character named Tom and a character named Ben and they’re both talking a lot, people on the page they sort of skim down and scan and they notice different lengths of names. So, Tom and Ben, they’re going to get confused in people’s heads. So, you’re better off with a Tom and a Benjamin and keeping them straight than a Tom and a Ben.
John: Not only should names have different first letters, but they should also sound different. Because I think you actually do in some ways sound out those words you’re seeing in your head. So, if you have a character named Gene, G-E-N-E, and a character named John, you’re going to get those confused. They can sort of blur together. So, if you have a soft G sound and a J sound, those can blur together. So, if you can avoid that, that’s awesome.
John: Try to avoid names that are semantically similar. So, if you have a character named Rose, don’t have a character named Tulip, because we’re going to get them confused. Because we thought flower and that’s all we’ll remember. Oh, it’s the girl with the name of the flower. Oh shit, which one is it?
Craig: Yeah, and the world suddenly seems so weirdly small that there are two people with flower names.
John: Absolutely. As much as you can, try to avoid gender ambiguity in names. So, names like Robin, Carrie, Kim, depending on the language, can get really confusing, especially if that’s not a character we see very often. So, if it’s been 20 pages and Carrie shows up again, you’re like, wait, is that a man or a woman, and then you start searching for pronouns to figure out who it is. That’s not your friend.
Craig: Unless you need the guy to be named Sandy.
John: Sandy. Sandy is perfect.
Use diverse names. And so people are not likely to confuse Bill and Sangeet, but they will confuse Bill and John. So, not only does using diverse help the reader out, but it also makes your world a little bit bigger. And hopefully signals to the casting directors and everybody else involved in the movie, hey, let’s look beyond just the five white guys for this movie. Sangeet is your friend.
John: And last point, which I think we talked about on the podcast before, often it’s best to not name your day players. So, if a character only appears in one scene and that character’s function is clear, you might be much better off with Hotel Clerk than giving that person a name. Save names for people who actually need names.
Craig: That’s right. The only exception I would say to that is if you know that you want to actually get somebody really good in for the day. So, when we say day player we don’t just mean somebody that’s there for one day. We just mean basically a glorified extra and I’m sorry to insult people that are day players, but typically when I think of day player I think of the waitress who comes over and says, “What’ll it be?” As opposed to a cameo, because that’s somebody you do want to name.
John: Absolutely. A cameo is totally worth it, because the cameo is probably going to be a character who actually has some weight and substance and is really chancing the scene, is going to have a character — it’s meant to pull focus.
John: And if the character isn’t meant to take focus, don’t give them a name.
Craig: Precisely. And you’re going to have a hard time getting a good actor to do your cameo when their role is Cop. A name would be helpful. The one area — I love these. These are all correct. And I follow these all the time and I think about names all the time. The one thing I would say though is there are occasionally points where you can play around with names and break these rules if there’s a point.
And the example I always think of is Unforgiven. Clint Eastwood is a man named William Money. And the Sherriff that he goes up against played by Gene Hackman is Little Bill. So, there’s a William, and a Bill, and a Little Bill at that, and there’s a point to that.
John: But I’m trying to remember the Unforgiven script, because it’s been a long time since I read it, but when characters have dialogue, isn’t William Money called Money in his —
Craig: No, he’s called Will all the time by Morgan Freeman.
John: So, Will all the time. Okay. Is Hackman’s character called Bill?
Craig: Yeah. He’s called Little Bill or Bill. Yeah, Will and Bill. They are meant to be two sides of a coin. It’s clearly a thing going on there.
John: All right. Part of the reason why I think this actually matters is to remember that when people are seeing the movie, they don’t see character’s names, they don’t see how things are spelled. So, there are things which watching movie people aren’t going to get confused. It’s just that on the page we don’t have faces, and so all we have are those names. Let’s try to keep those names clear.
When you’re casting the movie, you’re going to try not to cast people who look too much like each other so people don’t get confused. So, don’t cast names in a script that are too confusing, too similar.
Craig: That’s exactly right.
John: All right. Our next thing, a reader wrote in and it’s actually a writer who I think comes from the videogame world and it turns out actually is represented by, has an agent who is a friend of mine, so he’s actually a working legit writer. But he sent through these three pages and said like, “Oh, and I actually shot this as a scene.” And I was like that’s really cool.
So, I thought it was a good example of so often we take a look at these three pages and we always think about what the movie could be like. Here this guy shot the scene and I think it’s really interesting. So, the guy’s name is Rob Yescombe. I hope I pronounced that right, Rob. The scene is called A Gun, so if you want to read along with us there will be a PDF attached in the show notes.
So, our scene starts in the marshlands of rural England. It’s 1352 AD in Birmingham, England. Marshy wet grass. There’s three people riding. There’s Tilton, who is 35 in a Friar’s robe, Roland who is stocky and drunk, and Durwin, who is unkempt and slack-jawed. They’re all in their thirties. Durwin says like, “There it is. It’s just what I said it was,” and it’s this tree that’s been burnt in the middle of this marshland and it’s sort of unusual for a tree, what caught on fire, and the Friar says, “Did you light it on fire? Tell me, honestly if you set it on fire.”
“No, no, God did it.” And as they’re investigating the tree, the drunk guy falls down in the water. He comes up and he’s found something and it is a 2013 Colt M45 Close Quarters Combat Pistol, with a silencer screwed tight onto the barrel. And that’s the end of our three pages.
Craig: Yeah, so I actually watched — I did it wrong, I did it backwards.
John: That’s fine. We’ll forgive you this once.
Craig: I watched the video, then I read the pages. But the thing, it’s funny, basically the things that I liked about the little movie were exactly the things I liked about these pages. And the one thing that bothered me about half the movie was exactly what bothers me on the page. So, in that sense everything went according to plan.
Craig: And but in terms of the pages I think these are very well written. And there’s the one interesting difference that I would say between the pages and the movie other than like they’re not riding on horses because it’s hard to get horses, is that on page three when there’s the reveal of the gun, it’s a half page of careful sort of drawn out reveal of the gun, which is appropriate I think. When you’re reading you want to make a big deal of something and he made a big deal of it here.
Obviously in the movie it happens, but that’s the difference between audio visual and text. So, it’s okay to play a little bit of a trick with the text here to get that and then not go super — like for instance, here’s a mistake that gets made all the time in a screenplay and it’s made here. He pulls a large brown lump, something caked in soggy grass roots and soaking clay. And then I’ll just skip ahead. Tilton watches. Something shimmers.
They’re not going to shimmer. It can’t shimmer. It’s all covered in mud and it’s a gray day. But that’s okay. Because it’s happening ping — we’re getting the vibe of it, you know. We don’t care that when we actually see it it’s not shimmering. What we like right is that it’s a gun.
So, I thought it was very —
John: I thought that they were good pages. And it very much to me felt like in a weird way like the setup for — like the teaser for like an X-Files, like a medieval X-Files.
John: And there’s a possible thing and then you cut to opening credits and then you get back into the investigation and what’s actually really happened here. I like almost everything on the page. His use of semi-colons drove me a little bit crazy. Semi-colons are really useful in the rare cases where you really need them. And in the first case, in none of these cases where he was really using them in a way that semi-colons are best for which is where you have to join two independent — two thoughts that could be their own sentence but they’re much better joined together.
And in these cases they weren’t independent clauses. They were just things. Commas would have done the job.
Craig: Commas or dashes.
John: Yeah. Or periods.
Craig: Or periods.
John: But I really enjoyed it. So, the joy and the sort of special bonus we have is that there’s actually — he’s filmed this. And I suspect this was a filmed version just to show as a demo, to sort of show what it might feel like. And so there’s a link in the show notes also for his YouTube clip on it.
And so some of the changes you will notice is here in the script there are horses, in the movie they’re just walking. Walking is honestly kind of great.
He picked a really great location. It’s really just marshy, and muddy, and gross, and terrible.
Craig: And that one great tree, I mean, the focus of this thing is this tree that supposedly was burning impossibly. And there’s just one tree in the middle nowhere. It’s kind of great.
John: Which is great. Some of the challenges, I found — the tree is really great in wide shots. And then when we’re getting close I had a harder time understanding that it was burned. Some of the stuff about that the tree was on fire didn’t play as well in the video as I got it on the script. I think some of it was just shooting. Like we spent too long talking about the tree before we saw the burnt tree, to me.
John: Another thing which was a challenge is no one says anything about the footprint. And when I first watched the video I didn’t see the footprint at all.
Craig: Oh, I saw it. I saw the footprint.
John: You saw it clear?
Craig: Oh, yeah, yeah.
John: All right. I didn’t see it. But on the whole I thought it was just really a terrifically well done thing. And it’s the kind of thing we talk about our listeners doing is don’t just write pages. Try shooting some things. And you learn a lot by trying to film something.
Craig: Well, yeah, I mean, you learn a lot and you also impress people. I mean, I watched it and I thought well this guy can do this.
John: He can do this.
Craig: Which is great. He had a sense of composition.
John: He had a good sense of music. He had a good sense of tone.
Craig: Yeah, a good sense of music and tone. The three pages already told me he could do it because he understood how to create a mystery with dialogue. We don’t need to know what they’re talking about until we know what they’re talking about. And even then we don’t need to know what the hell is going on. The point is that they’re confused.
We get that Tilton, who is the —
Craig: I’ll call him Friar. He already has knowledge these other two don’t. Clearly he knows — he may not know exactly what this means, but he knows something, because he’s just looking at it differently than they are. And that’s something that you can pull out of this and then pull out of the movie, which is great.
The one thing that I think the movie didn’t do as well as the pages was pacing. The pages moved at a certain pace. And the short film I think was a bit too languid. I think it could be paced up just a little bit. It got a little draggedy.
John: The one thing I was missing was, so Durwin is the person who apparently saw this tree burning, but if this is really the first introduction to any of this I wanted Durwin to say what he saw. And so if he describes like, you know, I was coming back from this and I saw it, bright as day, burning. That would actually paint in my mind what this looked like before it went out.
When you see a tree that’s been burned, we don’t know the context of how this guy saw it, what it looked like. That would actually be really helpful to me.
Craig: That’s right. Yeah, I mean, he’s saying, “See? Just as I said.” But it’s not just as he said.
John: Yes. So, if that conversation happened beforehand, better to just put that in the scene here itself.
Craig: I think that’s right. The other thing that I want to point out is that the drunk is just too drunk. He’s goofy drunk. He was goofy drunk on the page. And he’s goofy drunk in the short. And I’m not criticizing the actor. I think the actor did what was here on the page. I think it’s a page problem.
I always have a problem with unrealistic drinking on screen. I just struggle with people that can just drink what appears to be the equivalent of six glasses of wine in the course of a minute and a half. Frankly, then their talking is either way too slurry to be useful or interesting, or far too articulate for their mental state. I’m not sure why they’re that drunk. I don’t know why they need to be. This didn’t seem to call for that much constant drinking.
Craig: You know, maybe one purposeful swig? But it’s funny, even when I brought up Unforgiven, there’s this wonderful scene in Unforgiven where William Money has returned with the Schofield Kid, from killing the guys that there was the bounty on. And he doesn’t know exactly where Ned is at this point because they’ve split up. And one of the prostitutes from the town is riding up slowly with their money. And while she’s riding this kid is talking about how it’s the first time he ever killed somebody. And he’s obviously just distraught.
And the whole time he’s drinking from this bottle of whiskey. [laughs] And he drinks what would probably kill you, I think, you know? I mean, it’s so much drinking. I’m just like, oh my god, slow down. How are you even talking?
John: Yes. It’s because he was drinking iced tea and not —
Craig: Well, yes. But then in my mind I think, well, maybe in the Old West they just watered that stuff down. I don’t know. You know, because it’s so corny and old fashioned. Like men in movies used to be able to drink, like even Raiders of the Lost Ark which is an homage to all those serials, I mean, that drinking contest with Marion and that guy, they each had like 14 shots or something. [laughs] They would be in the hospital.
I know, I’m Jewish, so I think any amount of drinking is like, “Oh my god, how did they drink that much?”
John: Yeah, somehow up here at Sundance, the second year that I was up here, Tiger Williams who is another advisor up here, wrote Menace II Society, he and I got into a drinking contest. And we drank so much tequila. And he says that we had like 27 shots, which is of course actually impossible.
John: Like we would be dead.
Craig: Dead. Yeah.
John: We would be dead. And yet he maintains this to be true. I just know it was far, far, far, far, far too much tequila. And it was both a wonderful evening and a tremendous mistake. So, it [crosstalk] heavy drinking.
Craig: How bad was the aftermath?
John: So I never threw up. I have not thrown up sixth grade. I don’t know that my body can actually physically throw up. I tried to throw up. It was like that bad that I was trying to get it out of my system.
So, I got back to my room after that and I packed up. So, it was like two in the morning and the vans were going to take us to the airport at like seven in the morning.
Craig: Oh no.
John: It’s like I cannot go to sleep because I might not wake up. And so I just had to stay up all night and just ride it through. It was bad.
Craig: Oh my god. That’s terrible. Listen, you’re German, so I think that there’s a certain ethnic capacity for drinking. I’m not saying all Germans can drink, but they’re more likely to be able to drink than a Jew. If I have, honestly, more than four drinks, I’m in a bad place. I do. I puke. And I have a terrible headache. And I’m just in bed the next day and I’m miserable. I just can’t do it.
Craig: It’s probably a good thing.
John: That’s probably a good thing. It keeps you from —
Craig: But, boy, I’ll tell you what, man. I could eat cake. Ah!
John: Mm, cake is good. So, maybe you have built in genetic Antabuse. So, like drinking past a certain point kicks you into your sick mode.
Craig: Yeah. Like I’m on that thing that they give you. Isn’t there a pill that they can give you?
John: That’s what I said. Antabuse.
Craig: That’s what it’s called? I didn’t know that’s what it was. Yeah. That’s the thing that killed Keith Moon.
John: I didn’t know that.
Craig: Yeah, he was on that, and then he decided to go crazy and drink anyway. Keith Moon.
John: Oh, it’s like the people who get their stomach stapled and then figure out ways to manipulate the gastric band and stuff so that they can still eat all the stuff they want to eat.
Craig: That’s kind of awesome. How do they do that? Just milkshakes?
John: No, what you do is, I was talking with a woman who did that. And she was like, “Yeah, so if I try to eat a bunch of potato chips I couldn’t. But if I just let them dissolve in my mouth, then I can swallow them.” It’s like, oh my god.
Craig: That’s not the point!
John: That’s not the point.
We have one question we wanted to get to. So, this is Jonathan who wrote in. He said, “I just graduated from film school at the AFI where at the end of the program we go through a pitch fest. I sent out some scripts to interested parties, a few of whom were interested but passed for a wide range of reasons. My question is this. After someone passed on your script, is there a good way to keep in touch with those managers and agents to submit future scripts without feeling like I’m nagging them to death? Keep in mind that some of the agents and managers I’ve had meetings with and some of them I have not.”
So, if someone has expressed interest but then passes, do you think there is a way to sort of keep that relationship alive?
John: I don’t know that there is either.
Craig: No. There is no relationship. Let’s just be honest about that. There is no relationship. There are many grades of no. So, there’s pass, or “I love it, it’s not right for us, but I’d love to see something else from you.”
John: Yeah, if they say that — let’s say that happens, because that’s actually the right case where you do need to figure out a way to follow up.
Craig: Right. They’re asking you to. They’ll let you know if they want to hear from you again.
John: So, what is a way that Jonathan could follow up with that person who said like, “But we’d love to see something else.” How often should he reach out? What should he do? What is your advice, Craig?
Craig: I mean, if somebody says I’d like to keep in touch with you and see what else you have. Send them what else you have. If you don’t have anything else say, “Great. I’m working on something like this. I will send it to you when I’m done.” And then just reference, make sure when you do, reference your prior conversation.
John: Yeah, so they remember.
Craig: So that they’ll remember, because they won’t. But if somebody says, “I’m sorry, I listened to your pitch or your material and it’s not for me,” there is no fire to rekindle.
Craig: This is the girl at the bar has said, “No thank you. I have a boyfriend.” Return to your seat, like a gentleman.
John: So, in those situations where follow up is invited, I would say that the threshold of time for me is probably eight weeks, or two months. If more time than that has passed, I may just kind of forget about you and may forget that I ever liked you.
So, if there’s not something immediate to show them right after that, at least lob in an email — thank god email exists, because we had to do some of this before there was email. Lob an email saying like, “Hey, it was fantastic meeting you. Like you said, I’ll certainly send you this next thing when I’m ready to show it to people. Thank you so much.” That email to sort of like put that pin in there is great. But that doesn’t buy you a year. That buys you kind of like two months.
Craig: Right. And just understand that any email that doesn’t include some sort of actionable content is garbage.
Craig: It’s just garbage emails. Nobody wants to get emails like, “Hey, just checking in. How are you doing? Just letting you know I’m still working on it.” Nobody cares.
John: No one cares.
Craig: Nobody cares. Send me a script, or shut up.
Craig: That’s basically the deal.
John: So, that first email though can be a thank you.
Craig: That’s right.
John: That’s the only thing I will say. A thank you email can just sort of like — it’s that one time you can put a pin in it.
Craig: And don’t vamp. You know, everybody out there vamps. You and I get emails from people where they’ve decided this email is their shot to prove to us how smart or clever or funny or what a wonderful grasp of vocabulary they have. Don’t vamp.
John: Don’t do it.
Craig: Just the facts, ma’am.
Craig: Be polite. Be a gentleman. Be a gentle woman. Be a professional. Professional-professional. Act like you’ve been there. All the usual.
John: All the usuals.
John: Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing this week?
John: What is yours?
Craig: I got this from someone on Twitter. Love this. I like, just about everybody, really, really hate the click-bait stuff out there. You know, this video shows something and what happens next will blow your mind. All this stuff.
Or even the things that are like, you know, news used to like — the headline used to tell you the story and then you would go further. Now like a particular — like for instance, here is a news headline at ABC, “Police: Burglars signed into victim’s Facebook. It’s what he forgot to do that got him caught.”
John: Oh man.
Craig: That’s a headline. Right? That’s a click-bait headline. You’re like, “What did he forget to do?” So, there’s a Twitter account called @SavedYouAClick. And all this guy or woman does is read this nonsense and then even their format is great. The answer to the click-bait question, and then what the headline is. So, for instance, the one I just read you, @SavedYouAClick writes, “Forgot to log out.” Retweet @ABC: Police: Burglar signed into victim’s Facebook. But it’s what he forgot to do that got him caught.
So, every single one of these things leads with the answer. He spoils every — and some of them are really funny. I like this one. And I’ll read the answer second just because it’s more fun that way over the air. Retweet @PostPolitics: What Google Trends tells you about who will win an election. And the answer is “Nothing.” [laughs]
John: [laughs] That’s awesome.
Craig: “Is America better at treating cancer than Europe? Statistically yes.” It’s the greatest thing. You never have to deal with stupid headlines again. So, I love this. I’m following @SavedYouAClick. I love @SavedYouAClick.
Oh, and you know, it says on their page that the tweets are by a gentleman named Jake Beckman.
John: Oh, now we know.
Craig: So, Jake Beckman, thank you for this most excellent service.
John: If you enjoy that Twitter feed then you should also probably The Onion’s new spinoff site called the Clickhole where they create stories for just those , really just parodies of those kinds of stories.
Craig: Is that a Twitter account or a website?
John: It’s a website. So, Clickhole, we’ll have a link to it in the show notes. It has those kind of hyperbolic headlines but also slide shows. And so it’s like, you know, “Reasons I’m glad I’m an American.”
Craig: I know! [laughs]
John: And so you’re clicking through, you’re clicking through, and then like slide number five is Gary Sinise. It keeps going. And like slide number 9 is Gary Sinise.
Craig: I mean, these are, it’s just — god, I hate the media so much. Like “Dr. Nancy, NBC News, on what makes the horrifying Ebola outbreak so deadline.” And @SavedYouAClick, “Very contagious.” [laughs] This guy is the best. I’m sorry, Jake Beckman, you’re the best. I love it.
John: So, my One Cool Thing is actually kind of related. It’s this book called How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, by Jordan Ellenberg. And it’s a great book on sort of popular mathematics and really a lot of what he talks about is these kind of stories where there’s these really misleading facts or sort of misleading charts or graphs or numbers that maybe not even deliberately but sort of play into our misassumptions about how math works and how the world works.
And so there’s not formulas in it. It’s really about what it’s like, the simple but fascinating things that happen in math and sort of how they affect us in our daily life.
A good example in the chapter I read last night, he talks about there was like this obesity study that was published that says like, you now, by 2048 all Americans will be obese. And it’s like, well, that’s very, very unlikely. But what makes it especially unlikely in the same report they talk about how African American men, their obesity is increasing at a slower rate, so they won’t all be obese until 2072.
John: Of course, the inherent flaw here is that African American men are also all Americans, so which is it? Are all —
John: If the African American men aren’t going to be fat by then, but all Americans are going to be fat by then, it’s actually an impossible thing. So, that was his example to talk about limits and sort of like how things approach boundaries. But it’s really just a terrific book and so I think many of our readers would — listeners would really enjoy reading it.
Craig: That sounds great.
John: So, if you’d like to have more information about the things we talked about on the show today, you can click through the show notes. They’re at either johnaugust.com where you may be listening to this, or at scriptnotes.net, which is where we have all the stuff. So, we have links to many of the things we talked about, including Craig’s Twitter feed, and Datura, and all these other —
Craig: Oh, god, Datura. Never, please — please understand this for anybody listening to this who is some sort of pharmacological adventurist.
John: Don’t do it.
Craig: Never do it. I mean, there’s a website where they basically collect first person accounts of taking drugs of all kinds, legal and illegal, and so on and so forth. And that section is one of the most horrifying things you’ll ever read. Never, ever, ever, ever do that. Ever. Please.
John: Ever. No, don’t. Don’t do it.
Craig: Never do it.
John: But what you should do is if you have something to say to Craig or me, you can send to us on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
We also love comments on iTunes. So, if you find Scriptnotes in iTunes and click and leave us a comment, that helps other people find our show as well. And we sometimes read those and it’s really nice. You could leave us a rating, too. That’s also great. And subscribe while you’re there, because you may be listening to this on the website or something, but also if you subscribe then that helps us go up the charts and more people find our show.
The last 20 episodes of Scriptnotes are always available on iTunes. The back catalog is available through scriptnotes.net and on our apps. We have an app for iOS and an app for Android. If you’d like to subscribe to those premium back episodes and some bonus content as well, that’s $1.99 a month. A bargain.
Craig: $1.99 a month!
John: A bargain!
Craig: Two dollars a month. It’s a bargain. And to reiterate to people, we do not profit from this show.
John: We are a money-losing venture.
Craig: We are a money-losing venture.
John: Through and through.
Craig: We are proud of being a money-losing venture. If you could help us lose a little less money, that would be awesome.
John: That would just be terrific.
Craig: Wouldn’t that be great?
John: It would be great.
Craig: But, hey, you know what, if you don’t, it’s also okay. [laughs]
John: It’s all good. If you have a longer question like the one that Jonathan asked today you can write email@example.com and we will try to read some of those on the air. And thanks. And thanks Robert Yescombe for sending through that clip and the pages. That was really cool.
Craig: You know what? I’m going to get you a gift. I’m going to send you Gödel, Escher, Bach. I think you’re going to love it.
John: I’m sure I’ll love it.
Craig: I would love for people to… — God, that’s a gift. If you haven’t read that book and if you’re a left-brainy kind of person and you love artificial intelligence, and math, and art, and recursion, and brain-scrambly stuff —
John: Oh, is the Escher in there like MC Escher?
Craig: It is.
John: Okay. So, it’s all fitting together. I thought it was one person named Gödel Escher Bach.
Craig: No, no, no. It’s Gödel, Escher, and Bach.
John: All right.
Craig: The Eternal Golden Braid. By the way, that’s what it’s called Gödel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid. And notice that that’s EGB, also for Escher, Gödel, Bach. It’s going to scramble your mind. Great book.
John: Love it. Craig, thank you so much. Talk to you next week. Bye.
Craig: Thank you, John. Bye.
- Sundance Screenwriters Lab
- Scriptnotes, Episode 131: Procrastination and Pageorexia
- The Aereo lawsuit on Upstart
- The Supreme Court’s Aereo decision
- Wikipedia on cable television
- Slate Culture Gabfest “Summer Strut 2014” Edition
- Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter
- Pre-lap on Screenwriting.io
- Three Pages by Rob Yescombe, and the scene on YouTube
- Datura on Wikipedia
- @SavedYouAClick on Twitter
- Clickhole by The Onion
- How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Regis Duffy (send us yours!)