The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Hi! My name is Craig Mazin.
Aline Brosh McKenna: And my name is Aline Brosh McKenna.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Aline Brosh McKenna is here with us!
Craig: The Joan Rivers of Scriptnotes podcasting.
John: See, I debate that. I think she’s actually now the Steve Martin or the Alec Baldwin or the Tom Hanks, the returning guest host on Saturday Night Live.
Aline: Do you know which woman hosted the most?
Craig: Wait, wait, hold on. Let me think about this.
Aline: I’m almost about 62% sure this is right.
Craig: The woman that hosted — it’s a great question.
John: Melissa has only hosted twice, right?
Craig: I’m going to go with Candice Bergen.
Aline: That is correct!
John: Nicely done.
Aline: That is correct, may man.
Craig: Thank you. Thank you.
John: So, you’re really the Candice Bergen of the podcast.
Aline: Oh, I would be thrilled to be the Candice Bergen of anything.
John: And so your father was a famous ventriloquist we’re going to learn later. That’s the third act reveal is that maybe you were actually his puppet who came to life.
Craig: Why do I know that?
Aline: I don’t know why you know that.
Craig: It’s kind of weird, right?
John: I think it’s because I have seen old clips of Saturday Night Live where Candace Bergen was the host.
Aline: They did that skit when Justin Timberlake, I think it was, joined the Five Hosts. And she was in it.
Craig: Right. The Five-Timers Club.
Aline: And I think she might have been the only woman in the Five Hosting, yeah.
Craig: I wouldn’t be surprised if she would be. Paul Simon is also a member of that club.
Aline: John Goodman.
John: Oh, yes, John Goodman.
Craig: Nice. Well, you’re the Candace Bergen of the… — I like keeping the gender appropriate.
Aline: Yes. I like it. I would rather —
John: I think it’s good stuff.
Craig: You’d rather be a lady.
Aline: Yeah, I’d rather be a lady.
Craig: So would I.
John: Aline is here today because she wrote in with two topics that she really wanted to talk about. So, we’re so happy to have you here. The topics that you proposed to us, actually maybe kind of three topics really, the Rocky Shoals, page 70 to 90, that end of your second act going into the third act and the challenge that is for a writer.
We’re also going to talk about tone and sort of how important tone is in your script and how to create tone, how to keep tone.
We’re going to talk about mentors. And we’re also going to talk about procrastination. So, it’s going to be a busy podcast.
Craig: So much to do.
Aline: So much.
John: Four topics. Three hosts.
Craig: Plus we have Aline, which is already adds another 40 minutes of bizarre analogies.
Aline: Analogies. I’ve got my Dan Rather going on.
John: So, we’re here recording this live and in person. Usually we’re on Skype, but we’re all actually looking at each other. And I think the last time I was in this space was with you when we did the Frozen podcast which was a great episode. And last time you were here, Craig, was the Final Draft episode.
Craig: [laughs] Last time I was here —
Aline: Which is a classic.
Craig: Was one of my favorite days.
Aline: That’s a classic. It’s a classic.
Craig: It is in fact a classic.
Aline: It is a classic.
Craig: It’s hard to say that about something you’ve done, but that episode should go in the podcasting hall of fame as far as I’m concerned.
John: So, we’ve set a very high bar. But let’s get started. Let’s get started with those rocky shoals. So, talk to us about what you mean by this topic.
Aline: Well, this is something that I’ve always found to be true and in talking to other writers I have found it also true for them. Which is the first act tends to be the funnest and easiest to write. You often overwrite the first act. You often write the 38 pages when it needs to be 29, but it’s usually because it’s the thing that you spent the most time on which is the setup and the idea and you have the most information about it.
And what I’ve found is that after the first part of act two, where you’re sort of setting up the pins to knock them down — analogy — in the second part what you’re really doing is sort of building that on ramp to the third act. And I know Craig has talked many times about how you need to know that third act to write the movie, and it’s best if you know the third act, and I agree with that. And I find third acts not, I would say, on a par with first acts in terms of difficulty to write.
But if I’m going to have an existential crisis, if there is going to be a moment where I drive home from work and say to my husband, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how I’ve ever written one of these before, I don’t understand how these work,” it will always be around 71 where I start to feel like, you know, it should start to spit out material, and it’s probably the stuff you have the least of in the outline. But it should start to spit out steps to this thing that you know you’re going to.
So, often I know exactly what the third act is and I can see it. And it’s just over the crest, but I need those steps, and 70 to 90 are those steps. And if something is wrong, if you’ve conceived a character incorrectly, if the action in the third act is in fact wrong, if your thematic are wrong, that’s where it’s all going to fall down. It almost never falls apart in act one. For me it almost never falls apart in act three. It’s always 70 to 90 is the moment where I think, oh boy.
John: In act one you’re setting things up. And that’s the part of the movie where you had the best idea of what it really was. That was probably what got you to start writing the movie. You had this idea, and that was probably act one.
Act three, you’re closing stuff down. You’re cutting off those threads, you’re tying stuff up. Final confrontations. But there is not a defined thing that’s sort of supposed to happen in that stretch that you’re talking about. There’s probably been some big thing that happened in the middle of your second act, but now you’re kind of waiting for this third act thing to happen. You’re waiting for either the worst of the worst, or this big twist, this big reveal, and you don’t want to do anything before its time. But, yeah, it’s a tough moment.
Craig: Well, it is. Although I kind of feel like that’s the point. You know, your character is going through this process and that’s the part of the movie where they’re lost, right? Your plot is building in a certain way and that’s the part of the movie where the plot and the simplicity of what’s supposed to happen doesn’t work anymore. It’s natural for us to get to that place and start to feel overwhelmed. Oddly, we give ourselves a break from page 30 — well, the ending is far away, I’m relaxed.
When you get to page 70 you think, well the ending is supposed to be coming up soon but it also still feels far away. It feels further away now that I’m at 71 then it did when I was at 30. But I feel like that’s the purpose of that section. In a weird way pages 71 and 90 in every movie is a horror movie, in every genre. That’s where the horror is. It’s where everything is supposed to basically fall apart, otherwise your ending is kind of a “who cares?”
So, if you start to embrace the fact that you’re supposed to feel that way, particularly if you’re connected to your main character and the movie is supposed to fall apart. You have to break it to fix it. Then maybe, you’ll still be scared, but at least you’ll understand why.
Aline: You know how Ted Elliott talks about that stuff where you make those first couple decisions about a movie and then you’re sort of — you have the consequences of those you can’t ever get back. I feel like to use one of my tortured analogies that to get — you’re going to have a lot of stuff and you’re winnowing. The process of a movie really is winnowing down thematically and plot wise.
And I always feel like it’s like you’re at the edge of a river. You’re Tarzan. You’re trying to get to this place across and there’s ten vines. And you can only pick a couple to swing across on. And I just have had a couple times where I’ve gotten there and thought which one is taking me, is the right path to act three. And I think that’s probably the section that I rewrite the most because often I have an act three I really like, but it might not land if the onramp is not — if I have not picked the right thing to swing across on.
John: One of the things I think you’re describing may be part of the problem. If you’re describing it as an onramp then you’re not describing what the actual — what’s the joy of that part of the movie? If it’s only doing work, then there’s not a joy to that part of the movie.
John: One of the scripts that I was working with at Sundance this last year, as I was talking with the writer we were trying to figure out how to move some scenes around, or sort of what could go where. And I had him really rethink the whole thing in terms of sequences. And so basically like imagine this is the sequence that goes from here to here, the sequence that goes from here to here. And within that sequence, those are the edges of your sequence — what is the movie? Like imagine that little sequence as its own movie.
And maybe that’s the key to what the 70 to 90 is, is think about, well, given where we’re at what is the movie of 70 to 90 and how can we make the most interesting movie in that place?
Craig: That movie also is… — One thing, it’s funny, I actually have a weirdly opposite point of view that it is true, as we make choices, the breadth of choices that are available to us begin to narrow. But that section to me is actually the one place where you get to not worry about that because, for instance, that’s the point in movies a lot of times when somebody gets really drunk, or gets high, or has a vision, or a dream. That part of the movie you’re allowed to almost become non-linear. And then arrive at something kind of —
Aline: But you need propulsion. It’s too late in the movie to not be propulsive. And I often find I’m in that section cutting stuff because it feels early act two-y.
Craig: Maybe so. I mean, to me if you’ve gotten your character to a place where they are disconnected from the life they had, but they are no longer at the life they need to live, then you’re allowed to get arty horror, I guess. I don’t know how else to put it. You’re allowed to break the rules of your movie and actually plunge them into a moment where out of it they can have an epiphany or something.
I was just telling John before the show began that I’m plotting out the story of the script that I’m about to write and I got to this point. And I understood that my character needed to have an epiphany, but well how do you have — it’s hard to create an epiphany. If you can create it that simply then it’s probably not that satisfying.
So, part of what I did was just relax. I don’t know how else to put it. Like you can start to beat yourself up when you get to that section because you feel like, oh my god, ugh. And then it has to make this half propulse and make the ending happen and all the rest. I just weirdly just relaxed.
Aline: But I do think it’s the point where the audience starts to get shifty. It’s just the part in the movie after the first hour and it’s the thing that I always refer to in meetings as you really don’t want people to be sitting there going, “Did I park on P2 or P3? Honey, was it P2 or P3?” And they’re thinking that. And that’s where if it’s going to go south it’s going to be there.
I mean, you have such tremendous goodwill in act one. You really do. And I always find, I have a friend who watches movies going, “I’m at an A. I’m at an A+. I’m at a B. I’m at a B-. I’m at a C.” Like that’s how he experiences a movie. And so often you watch a movie and you’re like, I’m at an A. I don’t know why people didn’t like this. I’m at an A. I’m at an A. But getting back to you’re like at a B. And then it’s always an hour in where you’re like, oh, we just wandered into D- here. Like we’ve lost our way.
That’s always the — that really is. That’s why I say, “Rocky shoals, men from the boys, you know?”
Craig: Yeah. Because you can get into a treading water syndrome where you kind of think, oh, I’m not allowed to have my ending yet. I need to do some work. You actually don’t. Like for instance one solution to your 71 to 90 problem is that it’s really 71 to 80.
John: Yeah, you’re cutting it short.
Aline: And you know what I will say? I worked with Alex Kurtzman and he said something to me that I really think about all the time. He’s like, “You always need less stuff than you think you need.”
Craig: It’s so true.
Aline: It is so true. You pack up for your screenplay and you’ve got like giant suitcases and a duffle and a carryon slung across you. And you always get through and go, “Why did I bring all this stuff? I didn’t need all this stuff.”
Craig: But you don’t know what you need until you get to the resort.
Aline: You don’t know what you need until you get there!
Craig: Yeah, but you should just be willing to not wear everything at once. Right.
John: Well, let’s talk about like that heading into that last section. If we talk about a movie as being a character’s transformation and hopefully you’re going to have this arc of transformation. They start at one place and they end up in a different place. And that transition to act three is really the lowest of the lowest, that moment of great transformation. Everything seems lost. All hope is gone.
There may be an opportunity in that 70 to 90 phase for the character to try a new thing, to try a new persona, to try a new approach that may not end up succeeding, but you can see it’s a step on their way to this next thing. So, they wouldn’t get to the character they’re going to be at the end if they hadn’t tried this new thing. And that could lead you into the new thing.
It may also be a moment for — I’m a big believer in burning down the house. Like literally I will burn down the house as much as I possibly can. And sometimes you’re burning down the house at the start and that’s instigating the whole story. But sometimes you’re burning down the house at the act two moment, that’s like that was the worst of the worst and their house got burned down. But it can be a fascinating time to literally burn down their house or destroy everything they have at that moment before the real end of act two. And so this is a section where they’re forced to sort of be on their own. They’re force to sort not be able to go back.
Aline: I’ll give you a somewhat, it’s not super specific, but in the script I’m writing midway through this character has had a relationship with — a woman has had a relationship with a man. And halfway through she realizes he’s not who she thought she was. And the third act is her realizing, oh, he’s a good guy. I’m going to go help him and save him.
But in between, oh, he’s not the person I thought he was, in that 70 to 90, she’s trying to decide or figure out is he the good guy or bad guy of this story. That’s really what’s she’s doing is she’s going back and forth between trying to figure out was I right to be drawn to this person or not. And at the end she’s, yes, and she goes — so, she is in a treading water kind of a thing where she’s investigating and it is a little bit like a horror movie because she’s sort of going down halls and trying doors.
And my challenge has been to pick the things that allow her to be in a little bit of a suspended state, which you often are in that section, right?
Craig: Without feeling like —
Aline: Without feel like —
Craig: The movie is just flat-lining across. I know what you mean.
Aline: Yes. Exactly.
Craig: Well, sometimes also the way to approach those sections is to think of them as false endings. So, okay, in her mind this movie needs to end on page 90. So, perhaps then she just decides I’m going to make a decision. I don’t know if it’s the right decision or not, but I’m making a decision and I’m going to confront this person and I’m going to blow this thing up. And that’s going to be the end of this movie. And she does it. But then it’s not, you know?
Aline: Right. Right.
Craig: Or sometimes if it is a heist movie, this is where we’re going to do the thing, oh my god, it just —
Aline: Well that’s exactly, really smart, because that’s the part in the heist movie where everybody is moving in and getting the thing and the acrobat is in the box and all that stuff is happening. And I think one of the reasons really truly that I find it challenging is not often because I don’t know what to do, but because the execution of that, if it’s elegant and wonderful like it is in Ocean’s, if it’s an elegant, wonderful, surprising thing, it elevates the movie and if it’s the kind of thing where the audience goes, yeah, yeah, okay, so that’s the part where blah, blah — I think the onus on the level of execution in that particular thing is quite high. I just think they’re not in a — an audience is not in as forgiving a mood.
Craig: Yeah, no, you have to write it well.
Aline: The solution to all your writing problems is write things well.
Craig: Yeah, you have to do that part good.
Aline: But I do find, I always think of it as like going down a rapids thing and then you get there and you’re like, oh, you know, here it is. Rocky shoals.
John: Part of the challenge may be with your project, but all projects in that 70 to 90 phase is that you want to sort of keep your hero active. So, right now in your case like she’s opening doors and she’s investigating, but that character doesn’t necessarily know where the end is. She doesn’t know what she’s looking for.
Aline: Exactly. That’s right.
John: And I think part of the reason why movies often feel aimless in this part is you’re not communicating to the reader and to the audience what the character is trying to do and where the character thinks they’re headed. And so sometimes you just literally need to put a place or you need to put — explicitly state a goal, like I need proof that he is this person. I need proof that he really did this thing, so we know what they’re really trying to do.
Aline: I’ve noticed this a lot in action movies where they wrap their movie up on page 85 and they start a new movie.
John: Yup. Absolutely.
Aline: Every action, I mean, I actually really admired in X-Men it did not feel that way, the latest X-Men. I felt like it was a true continuation. But a bunch of the super hero movies I’ve seen and the action movies I’ve seen recently, it seems like you all just stop at the end of act two and then there’s new creatures, and new stakes. And then they go to a… — And that’s a note. In the third act you often go to a new setting, a new environment.
Craig: I actually don’t love that syndrome. And I think that’s part of the new creature of movie as theme ride theme room.
Aline: That’s exactly how it feels. It’s like that thing where you’re in that strap in a ride and you get around the corner and you see that last thing.
Craig: Right, you’re like, oh, I thought I was done, but there’s one more thing. You know, and that’s fine. But for an integrated story that you’re telling, I think, John’s got the exact right advice. There’s a — even if the character doesn’t have clarity, that’s good. But the audience needs clarity.
Aline: That’s right.
Craig: And you need clarity to know what the hell you need to do.
Aline: She doesn’t need to know what’s going on, but you don’t want the audience to be like, “What is she doing?”
Craig: Right. Even if she sets an artificial thing up, okay, I’m giving myself 48 hours. I’m like a jury now. I’m going to collect evidence over 48 hours and then I’m going to render a verdict. Verdict: you’re not good; I’m dumping you.
John: Another possibility would be to shift POV. So, if your story has really locked POV to one character —
Aline: That’s when you can switch.
John: That might be the right moment to switch and actually see things from the other point of view.
Aline: Listen, you guys are very expensive, so if we do a lot more of this on the air I’m going to be owing you guys a lot of dough.
Craig: Uh, you already do.
Aline: That’s a great idea because you know what’s funny —
Craig: As John Gatins says, “The meter is running.”
Aline: It’s funny when you have a single perspective movie, it does get exhausting. And that’s a great kind of technical tip just to try, even if you don’t end up keeping it, which is go to the other lead, go to the other main relationship and write what they’re doing for awhile and see if that is — because that creates a nice intriguing mystery for the audience, which is you want to get back to your lead. That’s an excellent tip.
John: One of the other exercises I do with people when I’m sitting down and talking about their scripts is I’ll ask them like, okay, you have written a thriller here, but let’s imagine this as a crazy comedy. Let’s imagine this as a western. This imagine this in a completely different genre.
John: And sometimes you’ll figure out what the beats would be in that other kind of genre and that you won’t necessarily be able to apply those directly, but it will get you thinking in different ways.
So, in your case, if your movie is predominately not a thriller, but these are thriller moments, like let’s talk about the real thriller of this, and then you can sometimes bend those elements back into your —
Aline: Well, I don’t think it’s funny because this is sort of what Lindsay Doran’s thing is, but every movie I’ve written in any genre, you always start going — someone always says, or you say to yourself, “This is really a love story about these two people.”
Craig: All movies are.
Aline: Always. All movies are.
Craig: If they’re done right.
Aline: They’re always a love story between two people.
John: 21 Jump Street is a love story.
Aline: Sometimes you have the wrong people. I mean, name any movie we love, ET, even movies that are — every Hitchcock movie. I mean, they’re love stories.
John: Cast Away.
Craig: All movies have a central relationship. All of them. And knowing your central relationship and playing that through. And she has this great thing. She talks about how some movies it’s do a thing, and then you get the relationship. And some movies the relationship is the thing.
Aline: That’s right.
Craig: Which I love. I love both kinds.
Aline: That’s great.
Craig: But I think it’s not — the Rocky Shoals aren’t so rocky. You know, we know this because we get through them. Once you’re done with it, and you’ve fixed it, and you know what you’re doing and you’ve solved that problem, when you look back you go, “There’s no rocks. There’s no shoals.”
Aline: Yeah, well, of course. Any writing problem once you fix it it’s like why was that a problem, yeah.
Craig: So, I guess my point is that over time, we’ve been doing this long enough to know, when you get to that place, see if you can’t subtract the fear of it from the equation. The answer may come, I don’t know if it will be a better answer, but it will probably come quicker. I do believe that. I believe that relaxing and not tensing up will probably make it go faster. I love speed.
John: Yeah, speed is good.
John: Speed is also a solution to our next issue.
Craig: Segue Johnny.
John: Segue Johnny.
Craig: This is my new character, Segue Johnny.
John: So, on episode 131 we talked about procrastination. And there was this great article by Megan McArdle that we talked through. And her thesis was essentially —
Craig: She was great in Annie.
John: Megan McArdle was the best.
Aline: She was amazing. Amazing.
Craig: She was amazing.
John: And now look at her. She’s writing for The Atlantic.
Craig: Unbelievable. Oh, wait a second.
John: It’s really just incredible. No, possibly a different person. McArdle’s thesis was essentially procrastination especially for writers stems out of the fact that we were probably raised being the best writers in our class. Everyone was like, “Oh, you’re so good,” and it was really easy for us. And then we actually sit down to really do writing and it’s hard. And then we start to wonder, wait, am I even good at this. And that was the sort of thesis in her piece which I thought was terrific.
This last week I went sort of down a click hole and I came across this great article, this two-part post by Tim Urban on this site Wait But Why, where he looks at procrastination less through psychology and more as a process. What does it actually feel like to procrastinate? And when you go into deep procrastination, what is that really all about.
And I thought it was great. So, I sent links to you guys.
Aline: Well, here’s the thing. I was supposed to read it.
Craig: And you didn’t read it?
Aline: I procrastinated for too long. And I also know that John will always summarize things.
John: Oh, I’m going to summarize the hell out of this.
Aline: So well.
Craig: John always summarizes things.
Aline: So, I kind of felt like —
Craig: You didn’t have to do it?
Craig: Well, that’s not procrastination. That’s just laziness.
Aline: It is. That’s right, they’re close, but they’re not the same.
John: Well let me talk through it, because I thought it was a great article, and we’ll have links to both of these posts, but talking through his thesis is a good way to sort of get into it. He sort of rails against fake procrastinators, and a fake procrastinator is the people who are like, “Oh, I look at Facebook two or three times a day.” It’s like, well that’s amateur. That’s not real procrastination.
He defines real procrastination as when the instant gratification monkey shows up and basically sends you through a stack of small little tasks and he calls it the dark playground, which is all things which would be perfectly well and good if you were in your real leisure time, but you’re not in your leisure time. You are in work time. And instant gratification monkey wants you to look at this thing, and look at that thing, and look at this thing, and that thing. Or, if you’re making plans, they’re like these really kind of vague plans, these sort of dreamy plans that don’t actually take you anywhere.
And eventually instant gratification monkey takes up so much time that like, oh, it’s too late to really get started tonight, so I’m going to have to get started tomorrow. And everything gets pushed back. The challenge with this kind of procrastination is eventually a panic monster will show up and scare the monkey away and you will get those things done that you have to get done. But all the things you kind of want to get done will never get done.
You’ll never actually do those things you kind of would love to get done because it’s only the most emergent situations happen. So, I thought it was a great article, a great sort of description of sort of what it feels like when you’re in that deep procrastination hole. And —
Aline: I could have been learning Spanish.
John: There’s so many things you could have been doing if you hadn’t been feeding that stupid little monkey.
Craig: Well, I love the dark playground metaphor. It was great, because he nailed the bittersweet pleasure of goofing off when you know you shouldn’t be goofing off. You are doing it because it does provide some instant gratification, but it’s bitter. You know you’re not doing the right thing.
John: It’s not actually as much fun as it would be.
Craig: You can’t really enjoy it and you start to feel — and all this comes from self-loathing. Look, all of the procrastination that keeps you from what he calls flow, which is the point where you finally just start doing the thing. And he says, “Look, everybody has got to go through,” I think what does he call it, the tunnel, the crisis tunnel?
John: Yeah. There’s like dark woods that lead you to the tunnel.
Craig: The hardest part when the monkey is the most angry is when you’re about to start. But when you finally do it and you get through and you get into the flow of it, then it is the happy playground, because you’re doing something that’s positive and good and you’re free. And you lose track of time and it’s wonderful.
But all this procrastination, all the tip-toeing, and the dipping your foot in the pool and then backing away, or reading email all at once, and so on and so forth is about your fear of what it means for you to be doing this thing that you on the one hand want to do, and on the other hand are terrified of doing, either because you’re afraid that you’ll fail, or you don’t think you’re very good, or you think — or all you can remember is the hard parts of it, but not the fun easy parts.
And, you know, I liked everything. I mean, I thought he laid it out beautifully. I will say in defense of procrastination that sometimes when I read stuff like this I think, well, you’ve absolutely described the process that we can generally look at as negative. And you’ve given us a prescription to avoid it, but we can’t really avoid it. I mean, we are human, and it’s going to happen no matter what.
And to some extent I’ve given myself a pass.
Aline: I have, too. After many years I have, too.
Craig: A loose rigid thing, like okay, I know I’ve got to be here, but I can wander to get there.
Aline: I’ve come to believe that it’s so widespread that I’ve just come to believe it goes with the territory. Nick Hornby has a hilarious thing about his day and how he starts writing at four or five o’clock and all the things he’s done before. It’s just so widespread that I feel like it must be part of it. And one of the things, you know, writers are so protective of their whole day. Like I don’t like to have to relocate.
Like if I have a writing day and it’s going to start at nine or ten, and I’m going to write till five or six, I don’t want a lunch.
Aline: I don’t want to go anywhere. And it’s not totally rational because within that, but I know, the reason for that is I want to get all my procrastinating done once. I want to just bang out as much baloney that doesn’t need to get done one time. And if I go away and come back, I’m going to have to have another session of —
Craig: Started up again.
Aline: Airbnb, whatever. And I don’t want to do that again.
John: [laughs] That’s your click hole? Finding vacation destinations for trips you may never take.
Aline: That’s a new one. Get on there, because there is some really good stuff.
Craig: Airbnb, huh?
Aline: Oh my god, any place you want to in the world. Anywhere you want to go in the world. Some fabulous places to stay.
Craig: Really? So that’s better than hotels?
Aline: Yeah, because it’s someone’s fabulous house.
John: Oh, it’s much better.
Craig: That’s what I should do.
John: That’s what we did in France last year.
Aline: It’s less expensive. It’s great.
Craig: I was thinking of maybe going to London with Melissa. I should Airbnb it?
Aline: Oh, must talk to Ling.
Craig: Must talk to Ling? All right.
Aline: Yeah, it’s a great click hole. But I’ve learned that that’s why I don’t like to write at my house and then go write at the office, because then I know… — And the funniest thing is when you get into the productive work part, every time you’re like, what was hard? This is great. I enjoy this.
John: This is fine.
Aline: I enjoy doing this. Why don’t I just sit down and do this?
Craig: It takes effort to start.
Aline: Have either one of you ever once when you were not in production, because in production its different. Have you ever once when you were writing a first draft ever sat down, opened your computer, opened the document, and started?
Aline: Never. Have you?
John: I don’t think so.
Craig: Never. Why? I mean —
Aline: I have stuff to do.
Craig: Yeah, and you know, Dennis Palumbo has often said that procrastination for writers, I mean, procrastination is basically like masturbation, which of course is its own procrastination.
Aline: Yes. Yes.
Craig: When you’re not looking Airbnb.
John: Let’s talk about an instant gratification monkey.
Aline: And I actually think one of the reasons it feels sort of tawdry is because it has this onanistic quality.
Craig: Right. But, you know, if you masturbate too much, like I remember when I was a kid I would listen to Dr. Ruth and she’s like, “It’s okay. Masturbation is fine unless it’s destroying your day.” And I thought, listen, that’s good. Because it’s not destroying my day. I’m getting stuff done. So, I’m cool with this. So, assume that it’s not destroying your day. It’s okay.
His whole theory is that procrastination in part is allowing the subconscious writing mind to kind of just do some stuff. And we can’t access it, so it doesn’t even seem like anything is happening. But then when you sit down and write like, okay, things were kind of — we weren’t ready. It’s just you weren’t ready to write.
Aline: That’s exactly what I think.
John: Yeah, I think that’s an excuse a lot of times.
Craig: Ah, here comes the German. [laughs]
John: But truly, and this is as a person who has done some professional procrastination. I can say like, oh, I was really kind of thinking about stuff, but I really wasn’t thinking about stuff. I was just sort of clicking through headlines or doing other stuff. I generally have the experience, like Aline says, is once I actually finally sat down and actually started writing I was like, once I was 20 minutes into it I was like, oh, this is fine, this is good, this wasn’t nearly as bad as I figured.
Aline: And the funny thing is then if I need to take a break to go check an email or whatever, I can get back into the work. Once I’ve really started I can take little tiny breaks and get back in.
Craig: Sure. Because you’re in a groove.
Aline: But if I walk away for the day, or I go have lunch with somebody, and that’s the thing, it’s —
John: You’re never going to get back into it.
Aline: It’s an engine. And what’s frustrating is we don’t really know how to start it or keep it running.
Craig: Well, you know, the thing that I think is so frustrating about starting and scary about starting is what if you start and nothing happens. Right?
There’s that thing of the first, when you just start typing you’re like [gibberish] because it’s like you’re waking up and you’re supposed to running. What if I can’t? What if I can’t? But then it starts to be, okay, you essentially defeat the fear that you’re not going to be able to do anything, because of course if you start, what if there’s the day that you start writing and nothing happens? That’s it. You’re done.
Aline: Well, also we all know that sometimes you have days where you write great stuff. And some days you have days where you write terrible stuff. And you don’t know which one of those days is coming.
Craig: That’s true.
John: Absolutely true.
Craig: That is true.
Aline: And I think that’s a huge part of it is putting off like the verdict.
Craig: I will say that’s why I am a big believer in preparation, because I don’t mind having a bad story day. I have a bad story day, screw it. I’ll come back tomorrow. I’ll redo the index cards.
John: A bad writing day you really feel like that’s —
Craig: A bad writing day is like a punch to the guts. So, when you know that you’ve got your story laid out and it is the summation of only good story days, and all bad story days have been subtracted out of it, it’s hard to have a bad writing day.
John: One thing I will say in my defense: I write out of sequence, and so part of the joy of writing out of sequence, if I kind of sense that I’m not going to have a great day, I can do the less important scenes. Because there are always going to be some moments in a script that are kind of people walking through doors. And it’s really more about sort of the connecting A to B rather than like the best, most brilliant dialogue.
Aline: What I think is hard for people who don’t write to understand is it’s not like there’s a house there and you need to go paint it and you’re standing there with paints and you’re not going over to paint it.
What’s happening is —
Craig: Another one —
Aline: You’re standing there with paints. And there may not be a house there at all. There may be nothing there. And sometimes you get over there with your paints to go paint the house and you’re like, this thing has one wall, no roof.
Craig: I just can’t wait to see the animated version of all these, again.
Aline: That is the true fear is that, because I love to write dialogue. Scene work is my favorite thing. But that’s not the fear. The fear is that you’re going to get there and it’s not going to make sense, it’s not going to be purposeful. And anybody whose written everything knows what it feels like to delete 40 pages.
John: Yeah, it’s brutal. So, if you’d read the articles you would see that —
Craig: But you’re lazy.
John: They use that metaphor of a house often. And basically the idea that nobody builds a house. You sort of put down brick and you put down a brick, but you can’t really build a whole house. And really a screenplay is the same way. You can’t write a screenplay. You can only write a scene. And you can’t really write a scene. You can only write this little part of a scene.
Craig: You can only write a word at a time and a letter at a time. I mean, there is a comfort to sort of saying, oh, I don’t have to write a script. I just have to write some words today.
Aline: But what if you do all those bricks and then you realize like this whole chunk over here needs to go?
John: It’s incredibly frustrating. Yeah.
Craig: But no matter what, even if you get all the way to the end and you didn’t have to do that, you’re going to then have to do it. That never stops. But the point is then, okay, remove the burden of saying I’m writing something that we’re shooting. You’re not. You’re writing something that’s going to begin a conversation about whether or not we should shoot this and what should we shoot.
Aline: And it’s so much easier to write when you’re in production, because you have to. You just do it.
Craig: Well, it’s also you know you have the cast. You have the locations. You have the places.
John: Well, you also have the panic monster, though. That panic monster showed up, because if you don’t deliver, there’s nothing to shoot. And everyone is relying on you. So, the panic monster shows up. The little monkey is terrified. It goes running for the woods. And suddenly you’re just there like, oh, I guess I’m going to have to write this thing.
Craig: Well, the other thing is in production I have to say that’s when our self-esteem generally at its highest. We’ve gotten a script made. We are the writer. Everybody is waiting. We actually feel like we’re a big boy or a big girl.
Aline: Doing something purposeful.
Craig: You have like a job, like a real job that you have to show up to.
Aline: That’s right.
Craig: Suddenly we feel quite good about ourselves. It’s when we’re at home, either masturbating, or looking at Airbnb that we’re kind of like, is this…?
Aline: What is this?
Craig: If I went into a coma for a week, no one would know and it probably wouldn’t even change the process that much.
Aline: No, nothing feels better than when someone says, “Can you write this scene where we get from here to there,” like a really specific, purposeful scene that you know is going to be in the movie and you can just make it awesome with some paint.
Craig: Yeah. Somebody actually gives you a path to accomplishment, which we never have. And that’s why I often think when I’m in Ralph’s, I would like to work the night shift here because I know I could, if given the task to put these boxes on that shelf, that at the end of the night I would feel good.
John: Well, the thing I loved most about school was like it was really clear that I could finish.
Aline: That’s just what I was going to say.
John: Yeah, so like I loved being graded, I loved getting tests, I loved turning —
Aline: And that’s why it’s not smart people… — I mean, a lot of screenwriters are smart people. But a lot of people who are really book smart/school mart who try to be writers are very frustrated because you can’t just do your calculus homework and write your history paper and hand it in.
Craig: No extra credit.
Aline: And there’s none of that. And the completion can often be fake completion. And —
Craig: And effort is simply not enough. You could triple your effort and things get worse. It’s brutal.
John: Yeah, even like —
Craig: Why would anyone do this?
Aline: I have no idea.
John: Even like coding, like you’re building an app or a game, either it runs or it doesn’t run. Fundamentally there is a bullion sort of outcome. Like, yes, it worked or it didn’t work, versus this sort of mishmash where you just don’t know what actually ended up happening.
So, let’s wrap this up —
Craig: Worst job ever.
John: Worst job ever. Don’t do it.
Some of the standard advice for avoiding procrastination or to actually getting started can be looked at sort of through this lens. And so we often talk about Freedom, that little utility that you can put on your computer that shuts down your internet connection. It’s just a way of taking away your monkey’s toys. That basically the monkey has nothing to do because you’re not letting him. So, either turning off your internet connection, getting a computer that doesn’t have internet, or in my case I often will just go someplace and barricade myself in a hotel room without computers and without anything else for a couple days and break the back of a script.
Because I find I just can’t get started if I don’t sort of have a certain critical mass of material.
Craig: Yeah. I find that if I turn my email off, that sometimes is enough. It’s okay for me, like once I’m going, to just jump over, check Twitter for two seconds, or check the Yankee game or whatever.
But it’s the email is the killer. That’s the one where somebody will write something and now I have to write to respond to them and now I’m writing, like I shouldn’t be writing anything other than what I’m writing.
Aline: It’s so funny how when you’re procrastinating you’re grateful for every email because you’re like, ooh, I have to take care of this. And then when you’re writing it’s like why are you people bothering me?
Craig: If my phone, if people are texting, sometimes I’ll get into like a group text with some of my friends. And the texts are coming in. I’ll just turn the phone off, like completely. I don’t even hear the [vibrate noise]. I don’t want to hear any of it. I get so angry that anyone is infiltrating my little world.
John: How dare they?
Craig: How dare they?
John: Aline Brosh McKenna, you suggested the topic of tone. What shall we talk about with tone?
Aline: Tone. Well, it’s funny, it’s something that I feel like I have thought a lot about more over the years. And one of the things I’ve noticed is when someone gives me a script that I think is unsuccessful, often I think because information about screenwriting has proliferated, people are able to do sort of the basic building blocks of a story, but often it doesn’t feel like anything. It’s toneless. It feels like you don’t know how to feel.
And I’ve noticed that in scripts of people who are starting out, that writing tone and establishing a tone is actually very difficult and something that we don’t talk about a ton. And it’s a real intangible. And I have also found that when you’re developing a screenplay you can outline it, you can talk about it, you can talk about the characters, you can really talk and talk and talk, but the tone is the thing that you can’t really describe to people until it’s on a piece of paper.
Craig: You can use another movie as an example. I mean, I always think of tone, people talk about all the time about the rules of the world of the movie. Okay, so this is what physics is like in the movie. If it’s science-fiction, these things can happen. If it’s a certain kind of movie, people can get hit and not get hurt. Those are the rules of the world.
Tone is almost the rules of the way humans interact and express themselves. Is it the kind of movie where people can say and do outrageous things and it just kind of goes by? Is it the kind of movie that’s very hewing towards our natural understanding of the way the world is? Is it a tone where everyone is super buff and action hero and if you get punched you don’t really feel it? And if somebody dies you can quip?
All that stuff is about the rules of human expression and interaction.
Aline: And often when you’re reading something that’s not successful you’re like all those things are happening, competing things are happening. But, you know how when a movie starts and in the first ten seconds you feel like you’re in good hands or you’re not? And I always think of the beginning of True Grit. There’s that voiceover and then there’s the shot of the guy goes flying out of the bar and is on the ground and then the snow falls and there’s voiceover.
You just feel like, oh, I know how I’m supposed to feel. And that’s not theme. That’s a feeling. And because as screenwriters we don’t have actors, and we don’t have costumes, and we don’t have photography, we just have words. And establishing it through word choice and how the characters behave, your diction, all these things which I think are very hard — I think you can only learn them by doing them and by understanding that if you are writing a fast-paced action thing and you’re writing in staccato phrases and underlining things, it just will feel a different way.
Or if you’re writing a comedy and you’re putting jokes and asides, and I was writing with this young woman, we’re doing this Showtime pilot, and she was really surprised at how florid my scene descriptions are. And they have gotten over time, like I’ll put — instead of a line of dialogue, so it will say how are you today. And then in the scene description it’ll say, “I’m fine, thanks.” But there’s no line.
And that’s because over time it’s like the actor may not need a line. If it’s just a shot of them —
Craig: Making an expression. Without words.
Aline: Exactly. And I often will put in jokes and asides and comments, not in a distracting way, but in a way that says this is the tone of this piece. And in the piece we were writing it actually was important to establish the tone outside of just the dialogue and the description because just a flat description of what you’re seeing is continuity, it’s not a screenplay.
And it has been one of those things that it’s your voice, it’s the voice of the script, but we spend a lot of time talking about the mechanics and I understand why because they’re very difficult, but one of the things that Craig talks a lot about, which is theme, I feel like people don’t talk about theme enough. But I also feel like people don’t talk about tone enough and how to make it feel on that first page, you should feel like I’m in this movie and I know what movie I’m in. And then when you are developing a script it’s often that’s the thing that people either connect to the tone, knowing that you can always move the building blocks of a story around. And you’re going to be doing that.
You’re going to be shuffling those things around. If the tone is not successful, that’s a very difficult — that’s such a pervasive thing. So, it’s something to think about before you start writing. And as Craig said, you can point to other movies, or look at other screenplays. If you read that True Grit script, the script has just all that tone in it. You want people to feel, to understand the — not just what you’re trying to say, but how you’re trying to make them feel.
John: When hear tone I often think about the soundtrack for the movie. And honestly when a script has a very successful tone to it, I can sort of hear what that soundtrack is going to be just by looking at the page. It’s sort of suggesting what this world feels like, what kind of music I would be hearing underneath those things.
And what you’re talking about with word choices, that’s the same kind of thing. Those staccato sentences for the action sequence, that’s giving you the sense of what it kind of feels like to be in that moment, both how it’s cut, but also what the soundtrack sounds like, what the sound effects sound like. What those quick little moments feel like.
When you have those long florid sentences it gives you the sense of like this feels like a camera moving slowly through and panning across these things.
John: But also I love what Craig said in terms of it’s about what the characters are doing that often sort of really speaks to the tone. Like how the characters would interact with each other. How a character responds to something is really very key to the tone. And when you hear that in those first couple pages and really get a sense of like, oh, I get what this movie feels like.
Chris Terrio was up at Sundance and we were talking about Argo. And Argo has two vastly different tones if you remember the movie. There’s the FBI, really three tones — there’s the FBI people, and they are sort of walking quickly down hallways and talking at a little bit of a hyperactive kind of pace. You have the Hollywood people who are sort of doing their Hollywood thing. It’s basically a comedy when we’re there with them.
But then when we get to Iran —
Aline: Hostage drama.
John: Hostage drama, it can’t be either of those things. It has to slow down. It has to be very real. It has to be like real sort of moments of fear and uncertainty and anxiety. So, the challenge of that movie is how do you balance these three very different tones and make them all feel like they’re part of the same movie.
Aline: And the other thing that I realize more and more is that it’s so much about getting inside character’s heads. And tone is just so important for the interiority. And if you feel like you don’t have enough tone, write those scenes from the perspective of the character, how they would react to stuff.
That’s why I put comments, things that the character thinks in their mind or would say but doesn’t say. I put them in the scene description so that we know what they’re thinking and what they want to say and don’t. The interiority really, when I am reading a script and it seems blank, it just seems like it’s not being told from anyone’s point of view, or even an authorial point of view.
Craig: I know what you mean. Sometimes the way that you can establish tone is by establishing it almost in opposition to a different tone. I often think about how until Unforgiven came along, westerns had people constantly getting shot. And western heroes were constantly shooting people and then going, you know, quip, right? Or I don’t care —
Aline: That is a masterpiece of tone, that movie.
Craig: In that movie they make this choice, I mean, from the start he has trouble getting on his horse. Right off the bat, you know, so westerns, typically the tone is I jump on a horse, I ride. It’s a little bit like superhero stuff, you know. Here it’s like an old man who is struggling to get on a horse.
When the Schofield Kid shoots somebody for the first time, you can see his terror and his horror, because he’s never done it before, and it’s disgusting to him. These are tonal choices.
But then again, there are good and successful westerns that I love that are in the mold of the classic kind of — they’re great action —
Aline: But this is saying to you this is the kind of story we’re telling here.
Craig: That’s right. Sometimes you see an action movie and you’re like that was just fun. That was fun. The Matrix was, I mean it was cool, but it was fun.
Aline: But that had an amazing, cool, specific tone.
Craig: Wonderful specific tone.
Aline: That buoyed you over, even if you didn’t understand what was going on.
Craig: Correct. So that tone was like mysterious, S&M, leather, awesome superhero-y Whoa, and all that was really like cyber punky/awesome/cool, and it was fun. But I can also see a movie where somebody gets punched in the face and they are in terrible pain and they can’t get up and the person who hit them is petrified that they might have killed them. That’s a totally different tone. It’s all about that —
Aline: That’s right. And it was interesting, I watched Mud with my kids when we were on vacation and they’re accustomed to watching superhero movies where people just get killed, just all willy-nilly. And there was a scene in Mud where just the little boy was in peril for a minute and my son got really upset. And it was because the tone of that made you feel that pain.
Craig: That it mattered.
Aline: Exactly. And so the great thing as a writer, you’re in charge of that. That’s what makes you god is your ability to choose the tone. And one of my favorite movies is Tootsie, partly because I think it’s just a — that movie could have been so goofy, and silly, and corny.
Craig: 99 times out of 100.
Aline: 99 times it would have been.
Craig: Cross-dressing comedy, it’s Bosom Buddies.
Aline: And the masterful tone of that movie and keeping you in, you feel real at every step. So, I think it’s a little bit of a lost art and I think and I think it’s partly because it’s such an intangible. We don’t teach it. We don’t talk about it as much as we do.
I know you get exhausted by this, which is the endless act one break, act two low point, blah, blah, blah.
Craig: Structure, structure, structure.
Aline: Yeah, structure, structure.
Craig: Well, because the people that teach these things, that’s what they know. They don’t know tone because they don’t have a voice.
John: Well, the challenge is you can sort of teach structure because you can put it up on a whiteboard, or you can have slides to sort of go through it. But tone is all about the very specific words on the page.
John: One of the first projects I got paid to write was this —
Aline: By the way, Go is an amazing — the tone of the screenplay of Go is really bracing.
John: Thank you. Yeah, what characters would say in Go and do in Go is very, very specific to the world. And you can’t break that world. And an example of breaking it was I was over at Paramount and I was writing this thing for them. And it was sort of a cross between, it was like Clueless in an apocalypse context. And so it was these two school girls that have to save New York from the apocalypse.
So it had a very specific tone. But there was like one line, one of my favorite lines, that I was really trying to wedge in there. But it was too much of like a Heathers line. It did not quite fit the world. And I was so proud of that line and finally Maggie Molina who was my executive said like, “I know you love this line. It does not fit in your movie.”
And really what she’s talking about is it’s not the tone of the movie. It breaks the expectations of what this movie can be.
Craig: And then the line will never work the way you want it to, which is the most frustrating thing.
Craig: It’s interesting, when you talked about that concept, a lot of times the key to tone is in the concept. Certain concepts want certain tones. So, when I hear, okay, two privileged schoolgirls in Manhattan have to save the world from Armageddon, it can’t be too real. It can’t be too serious, because the concept —
John: The concept is absurd.
Craig: The concept is demanding that it be funny. I think the concept allows that the two girls can have a relationship that is meaningful to each other and dramatic for each other, but that the actual adventure of the world, they need to be able to see some crazy things happen.
Aline: But if you think about it, a lot of our filmmakers that we revere the most, contemporary filmmakers are people like Wes Anderson, and Quentin who have just very distinct tones, that have a very distinct, and their movies vary, but they have a certain feel to them.
John: I would single out Rian Johnson. Because Rian Johnson’s movies don’t all feel alike, but each of them has such an incredibly specific tone.
Aline: Right. Writers don’t just have one tone. I mean, the Coen Brothers are a good example. The tone of True Grit and the tone of —
Craig: And Raising Arizona.
Aline: Yeah. I mean, they couldn’t be more different. They just — what I love about them.
Craig: But they’re true to their own tones.
Aline: Love the movie or not the movie, whatever they’re doing it is total commitment to the tone of this. We are going full on to Hudsucker Proxy. We’re going full on to Big Lebowski. We’re going to embrace that tone.
And I think if you make a mistake, it’s better to do that as an aspiring screenwriter, because I would rather read something that had tons of tone and was like a little bit of a mess as a story than something where it sort of checked all the boxes.
Aline: But it just felt like —
Craig: You can fix the story.
Aline: But it just felt like an unpainted wood. When somebody made those stores that are like unfinished wood furniture.
Craig: You’re like so into the paint and the wood today.
Aline: Yeah, I really am. Paint and wood.
John: You’re saying tons of tone, and I just worry that somebody could look like, “Oh, I should add some more tone to this.” That’s the last thing. It has to be really inherent to sort of everything. So, when you read a script that tonally is so unique and consistent, that’s when I start to think like, oh, this person has a voice, this person has perspective, this person has a point of view.
Aline: Is anything worse than going to see a movie and going, “What is this? What is it?”
Craig: I mean, it’s rare that you go to a movie where you think the tone is all over the place.
John: There are some.
Craig: I know.
Aline: I can think of some.
John: Indie films, you’ll see a lot more of that.
Craig: Well, yeah, that is true. I get that. That is true. I do agree though that when I read something that somebody has written and they are an aspiring screenwriter, that’s all I’m really looking for. I’m looking for — I would say specificity and tone and a general understanding of the music of speech. And if the script, if nothing happens in the movie but, boy, all the things along the way were really well done, well just write about something that’s interesting. But you can, which is so much better than being a bland writer.
Aline: And how many of the movies we love either the story is rickety or it doesn’t do any of the things it’s supposed to do. And you love it anyway because it has this great feel to it and these great characters and these great moments?
Craig: We’ll forgive.
Aline: We’ll forgive a lot.
Craig: We’ll forgive bad narrative for great character. And characters and tone go hand in hand.
John: Let’s talk about mentors. So, that was a suggestion of yours.
Craig: Where did Segue Johnny go? [laughs] Segue Johnny has left the building.
Aline: That was called a Hard Segue.
Craig: Topic over. New Topic. That was the McLaughlin. Next topic!
John: Next topic! Did you have a mentor when you started writing?
Aline: I did. I had many mentors. I had amazing mentors. I mean, right from the beginning I took a six-week screenwriting class. I talk about him a lot, this teacher named Dick Beebe. And we had to write a class —
Craig: I’m sorry, what?
Aline: Amazing name. And we had to write a script in that class. And he was the one who said you should be a screenwriter. And then he read that script three more times, which I now look back and think how did I have the balls to ask him to keep reading it.
Craig: Well, if he liked it I can see why he would keep reading it. I do that sometimes if I like it.
Aline: But the reason I wanted to talk about this today, and we can talk about mentors in general, but the reason I want to talk about this is you guys have spent a good amount of time on this podcast talking about why there are not more female screenwriters and directors. And we’ve talked about it also. And one of the things that studies have shown in the business world is that women are not as good at attracting and maintaining mentors.
And if you’re in a male-dominated field, you’re going to have to attract male and female mentors. And so one thing I want young women to think about is if you’re starting out as a screenwriter either right after college or right after film school, right after undergraduate, or even after film school, you’re going to go into a business which is dominated by men. And I think a lot of times we talk about mentors we think about giving women female mentors and that’s sort of how our brain works. She’s a woman, she needs a woman to help her and guide her.
For whatever reason, most of my mentors ended up being men. And it is a tricky dance when you’re a young woman to pursue men heavily for work without it seeming…
Craig: Sexy time.
Aline: Sexy times. They’re often way older than you and if you’re single, particularly if you’re single and they’re single, but if you’re single and they’re married, and I just think saying to women you can only have female mentors or pursue female mentors is not great advice in a business where 83% of the writers are male. So, I learned very early on that you had to find a way and to get a mentor you have to pursue them. And I had a funny experience where I went to something where there were a bunch of students and they wanted to talk to me. And a lot of them handed me their card.
And I was like, okay, thank you. I’m not going to take your card and call you. And then there was one kid who talked to me for a long time and then went to the organizer of the program and asked for permission to get my email. And then emailed me and said, “I hope it’s okay that I emailed. I enjoyed speaking with you. Ten minutes of your time. If I could have aó”
I mean, all the things you want to say. You have to pursue if you want a mentor. You can’t go up to someone and say, “Here’s my card. Please call me and mentor me.” In fact, if you are a young woman and you went to a man and said, “Here’s my card, will you mentor me,” and he called you, that’s bad.
Craig: That’s a problem.
Aline: You have to go to them and say, “I’m a writer. This is what I’ve written. Let me show it to you or let me talk to you about it.” You have to make a case for yourself. And it can be intimidating and it can be tricky, but what’s interesting and I think what we should say to women is for whatever reason that first teacher I had, that was a guy, then the first producer that I worked with consistently, who really, really championed me was a gentleman named Bobby Newmyer, just loved the movies that I wrote.
You know, that was his tone. He loved those kinds of movies. And then I had an agent for many years who is a woman and she was an incredible mentor and guide. So, I had both.
But, I really think to break into the business, male or female, you have to learn how to make people want to help you. And the best way to do that is to be awesome.
Craig: [laughs] Is to be the kind of person that needs help less than all the other people.
Aline: Well, no, I don’t mean to be an awesome writer. It means to have awesome deportment.
Craig: Be a good person.
Aline: To be friendly. And helpful. And when you make that coffee date, show up on time. Express interest in… — Like I have this kid that I’m mentoring. Every time I see him he’s looked up online what things I’m working on and he says, “Oh, so tell me how this is going, how this is going.” And last time I saw him I said, “God, I don’t have a lot of time. I don’t really need to talk to you about my stuff. I just want to hear about your stuff, you know, trying to break in.”
And anytime I’ve interacted with younger people that I’ve wanted to help, I’ve just noticed if you have — it’s not a mystery. Be awesome. Be polite. Be respectful. Be educated about the person that you’re going to.
I’m having drinks today with someone that I met at the live podcast, the cocktail, it was an interesting woman and I wanted to help her. And it took me a long time to find a time that was convenient. But she was patiently saying I’m here whenever you —
You’ve got to have a certain deportment. But I would say for women, absolutely look for female mentors, but be prepared to find a way to seek out, to attract and seek out male mentors. And what I would say to you is just make sure your messaging is very clear about what you want and that you want help with your work and that there isn’t sexy times afoot. I mean, if there is, god bless you.
But if you are trying to just attract a mentor for mentor’s sake, particularly before I got engaged and married I would just sort of over correct a little bit. Don’t meet for drinks. Meet at 9am for coffee. And if you have a number of interactions where you’re making it clear to this person you have a boyfriend, whatever it is, you’re not interested, and you’re very educated, have great questions about work. You’ve listen to these podcasts. You know, you have the right questions to ask.
People want to help. They want to be helpful. John has dedicated his life to helping young writers.
Aline: It’s true.
Craig: St. John.
Aline: It is true. You?
Craig: Not so much.
Aline: A little bit.
Craig: This is what I do. Tough.
Aline: Yeah. But people want to help. I mean, I remember during the strike John would say if you’re a young writer come and walk with me.
Craig: [laughs] Like St. Francis of Assisi. Or Jesus. Come walk with me.
John: But also during the strike one of the great things about like if you’re a young writer, even if you’re not WGA represented, just come out and join us in the picket lines because we have nothing else to do, so we’ll talk to you.
Craig: Right. We’re super bored.
John: And we’ll give you some advice.
Aline: Yeah. And when I’m helping somebody and I say can you stop by my office at nine o’clock, the people that I have helped and befriended who became successful writers were in the lobby at 8:15 and had brought a paper.
Aline: And the people who came flying in at the last minute and wanted to tell a long story about why they relate and how they couldn’t find a parking spot, you know, that’s not — you have very few opportunities to demonstrate to people that you deserve to be mentored. And I would say, you know, try and avail yourselves of them. Don’t be creepy. Be polite. Understand boundaries.
But for young women, don’t be afraid to go up to male writers in your field who you think might be interested and say, “Help me out,” and in general across the board to be successful, even as successful writers you have to attract and maintain the sponsorship of people who are more successful than you.
Craig: I actually think that goes too for male writers. Don’t be afraid to find female mentors. I actually —
Aline: That’s true. I mentor girls and dudes.
Craig: Because there’s not a lot of them, because there aren’t a lot of female screenwriters.
John: I had the equivalent of like a Lindsay Doran coming out of grad school and she was hugely helpful. So, it’s often that teacher role.
Craig: Well, yeah, I didn’t go to film school. And frankly all the people that kind of mentored me early on were men, but I’m not necessarily sure they were good mentors. I think they were more benefactors than mentors, which is a different deal.
And I think that’s a good thing, too, by the way. Finding somebody that both appreciates what you do and is going to pay you for it can be terrific because that’s how you really learn.
But, at this point now I actually prefer working with women. I do. I just — I’ve come to the place now where I realize I just need mommies. I do. I understand myself a little bit better now. I need moms.
But I also find that they, for whatever reason working with women calms me down a little bit. I feel a little bit better about myself.
Aline: But, you know, we often have this conversation and men say like, “I don’t know what to do. I can’t be on the Women in Film Committee and I can’t be on this panel. And I can’t do that.” And I always say to them find a young female — if you really want to help have there be more female writers in Hollywood, find a young… — By the way, feel free to only mentor talented people.
John: Oh, absolutely, you should. I mean, you’re doing nobody a service if you’re mentoring really horrible people.
Aline: That’s right. They’re going to look for you and the reason I wanted to talk about this is I want to encourage people to look for mentors in a respectful and once again uncreepy way. But I also want to encourage established people to look for people to mentor. It’s awesome. It is a great feeling when you’re helping someone and you see them start to succeed and you get those emails that say, you know, and one of the things I love about this podcast is you guys do that en masse. And you constantly get feedback from people who say —
Craig: But it is important, so for instance John and I both do the mentoring program at the WGA. And I did a mentoring program separately through the Writers Guild East I think last year. So, there’s a young woman who I thought was terrific and I kind of did this process with her for about a year.
I’m also doing one through the Universal — I don’t know what the name of the program is.
Aline: Oh, yes, I know. Andrea talked to me about that.
Craig: Yes, it’s essentially, what is it? It’s for racial minorities and —
John: Diverse writers?
Craig: It’s for diversity. It’s for racial minorities and it’s for women. I think but mostly racial minorities. And that frankly is — I love that we do this. And this is great. But this is not mentoring. It’s different.
Aline: No, I know. But it’s resources, it’s true. But I just want people to think about —
Craig: This is just replacing bad film school.
Aline: But I’m saying, like in this discussion of tone, which people don’t talk enough about, we don’t really talk a lot about mentoring. We don’t teach women in particular how to do it. And it’s, again, it’s one of those intangible things which is super important and no one teaches you how to do it. And some people have an instinct for it and some people don’t.
Write the thank you note after someone has sat down with you. I was shocked at the number of people who sit down with me and then I never hear from them again. They never send me an email or a card that says thank you for your time.
Craig: I’m not. People are terrible.
Aline: Yeah, but it doesn’t advance their cause.
Craig: They don’t know what their cause is. They don’t know how to advance their cause. Let me just get a little upset for a second.
Aline: Okay, here we go. I wound you up.
Craig: You did. There are people who simply don’t know how anything works. I don’t know if they were loved too much, not loved enough, they just are genetically broken. I don’t know what their problem is. But they just move through life like this.
And then one day they look around and say, “Why is everything going wrong? Why is my life no good?” Because they’ve made a terrible, a string of terrible decisions like that. They don’t realize that they’re terrible decisions. They just don’t see it. They don’t see it.
And part of being a mentor is identifying those people very quickly. By the way, we can within seconds. You — you don’t have what it takes to be a successful anything. So, why would I waste my time trying to help you be a successful thing that’s very hard to be successful at?
Aline: But so much of it is deportment.
Craig: I love that word. Deportment. She’s so French.
Aline. You know, people who come up to you and then want to talk obsessively about themselves or tell you some dramatic story or some sob story. Complaining is not attractive.
Craig: The waves of crazy coming off.
Aline: Yes, complaining is not a good. And so they’re critical. They’re critical for women to get ahead. They’re critical because every study has shown you need to be mentored to get to the next level. And you know what? If you’re worried that someone is going to gossip because such and such, you’re single, and such and such married man is helping you? So what? If you know what’s happening and not happening, and truth is the work speaks for itself. The work speaks for itself.
And if you do good work consistently, people will see that you are talented and they won’t look back and say, “Oh, that’s because she’só”
Craig: She slept with all those mentors.
Aline: Yeah, maybe that’s why it didn’t work out so great.
Craig: I slept with both Weinsteins. That was a mistake.
Aline: Oh my god.
Craig: Why did I do that?
John: Huge mistake.
Craig: I should have just slept with one of them.
John: Yeah, together.
Craig: No, John.
John: That’s gross.
Craig: No, bad. Bad John. Terrible.
John: So I have four mentors now assigned by the WGA.
John: Mentees, yes. It would be great if I had four mentors.
Craig: Yeah, that would be cool.
John: People would take pity on me. We’ve got to help John August with his career. But I have four mentees.
Aline: You could apply to the program.
John: I could. I totally could apply.
Aline: Who would you get? No, it would be great if you applied to get a mentor. Who would John get?
John: That would be fantastic.
Craig: Zak Penn.
Aline: Zak Penn.
Craig: That would be the best.
John: I want Zak Penn and David Koepp. And sort of all those —
Aline: J.J. would be good.
John: J.J. would be great.
Craig: I want Leslie Dixon to mentor me. That would actually be awesome.
Aline: That would be great.
Craig: That would be pretty great.
John: So, but mostly my function with them is stuff will just come up in their work life. Like I don’t know what to do here. And so to be on the other end of that email saying like you’re not crazy. That’s a weird situation. Here’s what I would do. That’s what I’m actually able to provide.
Because I can’t really provide — I’m not reading their writing. I can’t provide great writing advice, but I can just — how to get through that day advice.
Aline: My young people, I often say to them, because a lot of times they’re wondering is this a real guy. Somebody wants to option my script or meet with me, is this a real person, you know?
John: You have a radar for that. So, one of my mentees emailed to ask, “I turned in my script and now they’re asking me to send in the continuity. I don’t know what that is.” What do you think they meant by the continuity?
Craig: So, I’m sorry, they sent in their script and they’re also asking for continuity? I would imagine that that would be just a list of scenes. No?
John: They meant the FDX file. They meant the original file rather than the PDF.
Craig: That’s the stupidest —
John: It’s so stupid. So, I emailed back saying like I don’t know. That’s actually not really a thing. That’s not a thing we provide.
Craig: No, continuity like in post-production is the list of scenes.
John: Yes, the list of scenes.
Aline: Well, that’s a great, another thing —
Craig: Who are those people?
John: And so I said I think they probably don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, A.
Craig: So scary to me that —
Aline: Let’s not work with them.
Craig: By the way, that’s what I would have said. You’ve got to pull this project. They literally are dumb. I feel really bad for those people if they listen and love and they’re like, what, it’s just a vocabulary term.
Aline: When you’re coming up you don’t know whether you can say, “What is that?”
John: Exactly. And so I gave him permission to ask.
Aline: Right? The most freeing thing about having tons of experience is the number of times you get to say, “I’m sorry, what? What do you mean?”
Craig: Yeah. I don’t know is a great answer.
Aline: I don’t know is a wonderful thing. But when you’re young you don’t want to be walking around saying I don’t know. So, it’s great to have someone email and say, “Is this a thing?’
John: [laughs] It’s like the answer is no. It’s not a thing. It’s not a thing we provide, so ask them if they want the FDX file because it’s probably what they mean. Because probably they want to do a breakdown on the budget and so they really wanted that thing that they could feed into.
Craig: That is so weird.
John: They just wanted to use a fancy word for it. That’s crazy.
Aline: Are they from a foreign country?
John: They’re not from a foreign country. They’re from a big American country.
Craig: A big American country?
John: Yeah, one of two North American countries. They’re one of those two.
Craig: They’re from one of the two North American countries.
John: It’s time for One Cool Things.
Aline: Time has flown.
John: Craig, you start.
Craig: Yeah, you know what? I don’t have one. I mean, look, this has been a very long podcast. Nobody wants to hear my One Cool Thing this week. I do. I have five. I have 12 One Cool Things. I have 12 Cool Things, but I don’t feel like sharing any of them.
John: I have Two Cool Things. I have two movies that people can watch on iTunes or on-demand. First is David Wain’s They Came Together. David Wain was a guest on our podcast and his movie I saw on iTunes on Friday. It was delightful.
Craig: I’m going to iTunes that tonight.
John: You should. Absolutely. Because the things he talked about on our show —
Aline: iTunes the hell out of it. Don’t just iTunes it.
Craig: I’m going to iTunes it twice.
John: If you haven’t listened to the podcast, watch the movie then listen to the podcast, or reverse order. But he talked in the podcast about sort of the wraparound scenes they shot. And it’s so hard to imagine that movie without them. So, it was a great movie to watch.
Also, another movie, Mutual Friends, by Matthew Watts and Amy Higgins is also on iTunes starting this week. Matt and Amy had this idea where they were living in New York and they had a bunch of sort of screenwriter friends, like film school friends, and they said what if each of us wrote a little short film and the only rule is that everyone has to be headed towards one birthday party of this guy. So, they gave that guy a name. And basically it’s a whole bunch of little short stories that all lead up to one place.
And so everyone wrote their pieces and then they sort of stitched it all together in an Altman-esque way that ends up at one birthday party.
Aline: Oh cool.
John: So, it’s a great example of I think sort of a good film school idea, a great kind of first film way of doing it. And it turned out nicely. And it’s on iTunes now for you to watch.
Aline: Well I’m about to change some lives with my One Cool Thing.
John: Go for it.
Craig: Oh, boy, here we go.
Aline: What am I holding here?
Craig: That’s an iPhone purse?
John: Purse kind of thing.
Craig: What the hell is that?
Aline: This has changed my life. And every time I wear this people sprint across the room to find out where I got it and how they can get it.
Craig: Notice that neither John nor I even noticed you had it.
Aline: No, this is a lady thing primarily.
John: Can you describe it?
Aline: Please describe it.
John: So, I see her iPhone and it is sort of a gold case. And at the bottom of the case where it would plug in at the bottom there are in fact two hooks that go to a gold strap.
Craig: Like a purse strap.
John: Like a purse strap. And so now she’s stringing it over her body like a Bandolier.
Craig: So it’s like the iPhone becomes the purse body.
Aline: Yes so here’s the thing. You’re always clutching your phone in your hand, especially as a mom. You’re always clutching your phone in your hand. This is a very slim case that goes right around the phone, so there’s not a lot of case-y-ness to it. And you don’t have to pull the phone in and out of a little big. It’s basically a sling for the phone. Goes over one arm. It’s called Bandolier. It’s called a Bandolier and the website is Bandolier Style.
Craig: By the way, the Bandoliers, those were the things that held the bullets. Weren’t those the things that held the bullets?
Aline: You don’t have to take this in and out of your purse. You just wear this all the time. In fact, I was in a production meeting yesterday and the woman said I was trying to figure out why you were wearing your purse the whole time. And then she saw it and then she said where can I get that. I have given this to so many people. It’s mostly a lady thing.
It’s basically an iPhone sling. And I have the gold and I have the snakeskin. There are ones with studs on them. There are many colors. Bandolier Style.
Craig: Oh, there’s ones with studs on them? Oh, then now I am going to get one.
John: Yeah, John Gatins would get the one.
Aline: He would get the most bling’d one out.
Craig: He would get the rhinestone number.
Aline: It’s life-changing. I’ve changed lives. Lives.
John: And so I see in the back that there’s actually a slot for credit cards, too. So, you could use that in lieu of —
Aline: And you know what this is particularly good for?
Craig: What’s that?
Aline: Room key.
Craig: But doesn’t have your room key against your phone erase the room key?
Aline: Ah-ha, yeah, that can be an issue. But it didn’t, we just went on vacation and it didn’t do it.
Craig: It didn’t do it? I feel like the room key science has gotten better. That they know now to not —
Aline: Ugh, the room key used to be such a crapshoot.
Craig: The worst. Like you’d put it anywhere near anything.
Aline: Yeah. True. But this is really good for — you know, this is also for the ladies who want to go to the night club. Put a couple bills, your ID, and your credit card, and have your iPhone, and then you’re not schlepping a big purse. This is also great when you’re in production because your phone is on you at all times. If someone emails you it’s not stuck in your purse.
Craig: And you don’t have a pocket for instance?
Aline: Women don’t put their phones in their pockets.
Craig: Now what is that?
Aline: Because it messes up the line of your pants.
John: Yeah. Makes sense.
Craig: Messes up the line for pants?
Aline: Women don’t put wallets, keys, coins, or phones in their pockets.
John: Their pants are slimmer, and so it creates this weird bulge. And it’s like well what’s wrong with your body?
Aline: You don’t want bulges.
Craig: You don’t want bulges?
Aline: No, you want no bulges.
Craig: Because you think that men don’t want bulges?
Aline: No, you don’t want lines or bulges. It messes up your line.
Craig: But why? I don’t care about bulges.
Aline: Because of your aesthetics. Aesthetics. Aesthetics. Aesthetics.
Craig: I’m just trying to tell you as a straight man the aesthetics that we’re looking for don’t really get disrupted by —
Aline: You don’t want a girl with like weird bulgy things in her pants.
Craig: You’d be correct. You don’t understand what I’m looking for.
John: Craig’s eyes never go below the navel.
Aline: Here is what I’m going to say to you. Next time you see a hot girl, check for bulges.
Craig: No, but my point is I wouldn’t. You see, the next time you see a hot girl, you could have just ended it period.
Aline: She won’t have budges.
Craig: You could have just ended it.
Aline: She won’t have bulges. The Venn Diagram of people who have bulges and hot girls do not overlap. Although I do have friends who can pull off the — you know, there’s a certain Tom Boy thing that certain girls can do. And that allows them to do. But I can guarantee you I have never put my wallet in my pocket.
Craig: Sexy Craig doesn’t mind a girl with a bulge. Sexy Craig is adventurous. Hey.
Aline: A girl with a bulge.
Craig: I’ve noticed you’ve got something bulging there. Take it out. [laughs] Take it out. Sexy Craig wants to see it.
John: And that’s our show this week. If you’d like to leave us a comment on iTunes, we love those comments. You can find us just by searching for Scriptnotes on iTunes. While you’re there you can also look for the iPhone app so you can listen to all the back episodes through there. We also have an Android app if you’re on an Android device.
We also have a new batch of our little USB drives that have all the back episodes on them. So, the first batch only had the first 100 episodes, but now we have 150 episodes.
Aline: I want to listen to them, but you know what happens?
John: What happens?
Aline: I procrastinate.
John: Ah, it happens. You have to listen to podcasts while you’re doing household chores. That’s the best time by far to do it.
Aline: This is really the only podcast I listen to. I tried.
John: You tried other ones?
Aline: I tried. I’m like Craig. I tried like Craig.
Craig: I don’t understand podcasts.
Aline: I’m rather monogamous. I’ve tried.
Craig: I’m somebody that provides things for people that I don’t understand.
John: Slate mentioned us again today.
Craig: Oh, they did?
John: The Slate Gabfest. They were talking about the David Wain episode.
Craig: Oh great.
John: Yeah. That was lovely.
Craig: I wonder if we can get Sexy Craig on their show.
Aline: Sexy Craig also sings.
Craig: No, that’s Singing Craig.
Aline: Oh, singing Craig.
Craig: That’s totally different. And then there’s Segue Johnny. You’ve got to keep these characters straight. There’s a lot of different ones.
John: On the topic of segues —
Aline: I like Hard Cut Johnny, by the way. Hard Cut Johnny I like.
Craig: Oh, Hard Cut Johnny shows up all the time.
Aline: And Hard Cut Johnny has a huge bulge.
Craig: Oh, okay.
John: Hard Cut Johnny will smash his beer bottle and shove it in your face. [laughs]
Craig: Yeah, Hard Cut Johnny doesn’t respect life. He’s got no time.
John: If you have a question for me or for Craig, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Aline Brosh McKenna is not on Twitter.
Aline: I’m not a tweeter.
John: You’re not on Instagram either? You’re just not?
Aline: Not really.
Craig: Can we visit your Pinterest?
Aline: [laughs] You cannot. I did not sign up for that one.
John: Oh, it’s fine.
Aline: I know it’s a real girlie thing but I don’t have one.
Craig: What is your MySpace page?
Aline: You can leave it in chalk on my cave wall.
John: If you have a longer question or a question that you have to get to Aline Brosh McKenna, I guess, you could write to firstname.lastname@example.org which is a great place where those longer questions would be. And, let’s see, we talked about subscriptions.
Oh, also we should say if people wanted to listen all the back episodes you can go to scriptnotes.net. That’s where we have all the back catalog for $1.99 a month. You can get access to all those things.
Our podcast is produced by Stuart Friedel and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Thank you for all your hard work on that. And that’s our show this week. Bye.
- Aline Brosh McKenna on episodes 60, 76, 100, 101 119, 123 and 124
- Justin Timberlake joins the Five-Timers Club
- Scriptnotes, Episode 131: Procrastination and Pageorexia
- Why Procrastinators Procrastinate and How to Beat Procrastination by Tim Urban
- Scriptnotes, Episode 99: Psychotherapy for screenwriters
- Freedom blocks digital distractions
- Deadline on Aline’s Showtime pilot pickup
- They Came Together and Mutual Friends are available now on iTunes
- Bandolier hands free crossbody iPhone accessory
- Slate Culture Gabfest “Grief Sandwich” Edition
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener JT Butler (send us yours!)