The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is episode 155 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today, we will talk about getting started on that first draft. We will talk about whether two writers make a better movie. We’ll answer a bunch of listener questions. But first we have some follow ups, so should we get into this?
Craig: Why not?
John: So, last week on the podcast, I believe it was last week, it could have been two weeks ago, I think I sort of off-handily mentioned that you were more likely to be struck by lightning than to sell a spec script. And a listen, John Gary, tweeted it back to me saying that in the last three years between 20 and 30 people have died from lightning while about 150 spec scripts have sold each of those years. So on that level, maybe, you are actually more likely to sell a spec script. But I had some issues with his methodology.
John: Can you anticipate what those would be?
Craig: No, not off hand.
John: All right. So between 20 and 30 people were killed by lightning —
John: But that’s necessarily killed. I mean, struck by lightning is bad —
Craig: No, no, no, yeah. No.
John: Even if you’re not dead.
Craig: Yeah, that’s right. No, struck by lightning just means struck by lightning. People do survive.
John: Yeah. Also, but as I did a little more research like the Wikipedia article on lightning strike is actually fascinating and I’ll put that in the show notes. But lightning strikes in the rest of the world are actually kind of a big deal, like a lot of people die from lightning strikes. And it’s because the number of people who die in the US has fallen tremendously over the last, you know, 50 years and especially in the last couple of years, it’s because of the urbanization.
John: There’s fewer people living out in open areas where they are going to be hit by lightning.
John: But it still is a big deal in other places. So, he said, “People,” but really, he meant Americans.
Craig: Ah, I see. Well, I think that at the very least we can say that your chances of selling a spec screenplay are still slightly better than being hit by lightning.
John: Yeah, perhaps slightly better than being hit by lightning.
Craig: Yeah, perhaps slightly better. Boy.
John: Well, and here’s the other interesting thing is that being struck by lightning is a thing that just happens to you versus something that you’re aspiring to do.
John: And those are very different, one is an act of volition, one is just a thing that happens to you. So a second step that John Gary sent through, which I think is more applicable, he says, “You’re equally likely to play in the NFL last year as you are to work under a WGA contract in features.”
Craig: Wow. I mean, think about that. Not only —
Craig: That’s remarkable because we think of that as being, you know, playing in the NFL as being this incredibly elite thing to do and it is.
Craig: And he’s not only comparing it to writers. He’s saying anyone who worked under a WGA contract in features, anyone. But then the idea that you, of course, most people, they don’t want to work once —
Craig: Any more than a football player wants to play one game or one season. So, I guess, this is the title of this podcast is Sorry Suckers, There is no Hope, is that what we’re doing today?
John: Yeah, I don’t know, just submit for questions from the field about what should we call this podcast.
Craig: [laughs] I think Sorry Suckers, There is No Hope has got to be at least the second best possible.
John: Easily a second choice candidate there.
Craig: Yeah, yeah.
John: So, Craig, you and I both had similar weeks in some ways in that we both went off to start writing our first drafts which is so exciting.
Craig: It is exciting.
John: I hope it was exciting. Was it good for you?
Craig: [laughs] I’ve been waiting for you to ask that question for so long?
John: Yeah, 155 episodes.
Craig: Yes, at last. It was. It’s always hard to start and aside from the normal emotional stuff that goes along with starting, there is also an understanding that the first five pages are going to set in motion almost everything.
Craig: And so, there’s really no chance you’re going to nail them the first time around, you know.
Craig: The tone and the world and the rules and all that stuff is going to be there and the main characters and so on and so forth. So it’s okay to sort of say, hey, the job here is not to begin writing and furiously moving forward at a pace but rather to say beginning deserves to be honored to some extent.
Craig: And as a writer honoring the beginning, you must give yourself more time than you would to write the last ten pages.
John: I agree. So, as is often my habit, I went off and barricaded myself for a couple of days to start working. And so my tradition is I will go some place, often it’s Vegas but it can be anywhere applicable, and I will write by hand until I can no longer write by hand. And then I will come home and I will send those pages through to Stuart to type up but I won’t look at them until I’ve actually sort of cranked through as many pages as I can possibly generate. So in my two-day excursion in Vegas this last week I wrote 42 pages.
Craig: Good god.
John: Good god. But they were really good. And what was exciting about it for me was that I’d get up in the morning. Before I would order breakfast I’d have to write a scene. Before I would let myself go to the gym, I would have to write a scene. Before I would let myself, you know, do other things I would have to write a scene. And so by the time it was like 10 o’clock and I was working on my last scene of that night, I would go back and like, oh, yeah, I remember a couple of days ago I wrote that thing, like no, it wasn’t a couple of days ago, it was this morning I wrote that scene which was great.
John: I’m so excited to sort of crank through some stuff on a project that I really wanted to write.
Craig: I obviously, we’ve gone through this before, I have such a different process than you do. So I go quite a bit slower and more deliberately. But the one thing that I found very useful this time out is typically when I’m writing something, I will, you know, like, you know, Jack Leska who works for me, I’ll show her the pages and we’ll discuss, or I’ll show them to my wife. But this time around I have Lindsey Doran, so it was great to be able to show Lindsey the first four or five pages and get, you know, really great feedback. It was sort of a, okay, you’re on track, yup, yup.
Craig: This is what we wanted. Good.
Craig: And so, you know, it’s much easier for me to get ahead of steam and build from there as long as I know that I’m driving down the right road. Because the worst thing in the world is to put the pedal to the metal and realize you’re heading the wrong way.
John: Well, I think the road is actually a very good metaphor because I wanted to talk about this in the context of sort of the map is not the territory because in both of these projects you and I had long conversations about sort of what the — not between each other — but with our respective people about what the movie was and sort of what was going to happen. So we came into these things with pretty good ideas I believe as sort of what the movie was and how stuff was going to happen. I had my sort of scene outline of like these are the scenes. But inevitably in every project I’ve ever written, once you’re actually in the middle of the scenes you recognize like, oh, that was a great plan but that’s not exactly — I’m discovering things that are quite different than what I had anticipated being here.
John: And sometimes that can be fantastic. There was a scene that I was certain that I needed until I had sort of skipped over it because I just didn’t feel like writing it and after skipping over it I realized like, oh, you know what, I did not need that scene at all because everything that was going to be accomplished in that scene I just took care of in one line of dialogue.
Craig: Exactly. Exactly. That’s the fun of this part, you know. So I had a very similar thing. I’m about to write this next bit where I knew that my main character was going to be taking care of some business and then at least conceptually in the story he was going to pick up the phone and call somebody to complain about something.
Craig: Then I realized, oh, I don’t actually need him to do that at all. He’s going to see that person two scenes later. He should complain to his face in front of other people.
John: Always better.
Craig: It’s more fun, you know. So it’s all this, that’s the normal thing, you know. Certainly, it’s a reasonable criticism people make that outlining can confine you and that’s only true if you let it.
Craig: You know.
John: 100% true.
John: The other thing I’ve definitely found is that there is rhymes that occur between scenes that you cannot anticipate until you’ve actually written the scenes. And so, that bit of dialogue that is repeated from that scene to this next scene and everything has sort of changed because of, you know, in the intervening scenes, but it means something very different and you couldn’t have known that because you hadn’t written that line of dialogue in the first scene that is then paid off in the second scene.
John: Same with visual imagery, there is — I had a basic sense of this house that most of the story was going to be taking place in, but once I actually had to put people in that house and move them around that house I recognized that the layout of the house was quite a bit different than I had expected. And that literally by moving this bathroom as being adjacent to the bedroom to being across the hall, I was having a lot of new opportunities for sort of geographical suspense.
John: Just like that literally, that extra three feet of hallway was going to make things much more exciting for us. Down to the details of like how the doorknobs worked and that it was an old Victorian house.
Craig: As well it should. You’re doing it right. That means you’re doing it right —
Craig: As far as I’m concerned, you should be able to tell — I’ve always felt — years and years ago when I was doing my blog I wrote a blog article called You Can’t Just Walk into a Building.
Craig: It’s never a building. What building? I want to be able, for everyone who reads the script, even if it’s not there, if they were to ask me I could tell them, no, no, here’s what it should be and here’s why.
Craig: You’re doing it right. The great thing about outlining is that your outline is a bit like your mom or your dad. Good mom and good dad, not the terrible ones we all had. And so you get to play within the moments as you just described but if you then think, okay, well, the play, that was very creative and very interesting, but what am I supposed to, where do I go, what do we do? Oh, mom and dad are here to help ride my bike and get it straight again because that’s the outline.
That’s right. I’m now accountable. That’s right, I’m accountable to a structure. So there —
Craig: You have the structure and you have freedom, that’s when it all gets good.
John: Yeah, because definitely if I didn’t have the outline, if I didn’t know sort of what needed to happen next, I could very easily have these characters have conversations that would spiral on for another 40 pages.
John: And that is not what the story is. The story is about that next thing. Screenwriting is about what happens next. And so, I needed to know what that next was to get there. But the little detours along the way have been fascinating.
Again, like the map, you may be planning a cross country road trip and you will know sort of like these are the cities I need to hit because I promise I’m going to meet Aunt Katherine in Denver and then I’m going to talk to my cousin Phil in Boise. But you may discover interesting things along the way that you didn’t know were going to be there.
And the actual roads you’re taking to get from place to place may be different than what you had anticipated when you were looking at it in a very macro sense. That macro is sort of like the big map of America and that’s your sort of whiteboard, these are the big plot points.
John: But when you’re actually in the details and sort of what it feels like on the road, it can be quite a different experience and that’s exciting.
Craig: Yeah, I always feel like good screenwriters are constantly shifting the zoom on their story.
Craig: They’re constantly going in to from macro to micro, macro to micro, back and forth, back and forth. It’s a little bit, have you ever seen the way that they used to do hand-drawn animation which they don’t do anymore but, you know, so they have their three pages and they have a character sketch, and in the second page they do it but moving slightly in the third page, it’s moved a little bit more. And they flip with one hand through those three pages to make sure the movement is occurring.
Craig: It’s like that, you know. So you have to draw your little thing but then you have to back out. Is this all moving together?
Craig: Oh, no wonder it’s harder to get into than the NFL. The NFL, if you’re enormous and you’re fast, it should work.
John: You’re set. Yeah.
Craig: It should work.
John: Yeah. If you’re enormous and you’re fast, you just focus on not getting hurt too quickly.
John: And then you’ll be okay.
Craig: You should theoretically be okay.
John: You should theoretically be okay.
John: So, a listener had written in with a tweet about this Hollywood Reporter article which I thought was really fascinating and sort of, in many ways, kind of related to what we’re talking about, because, it’s about, oh, we’re going to, you know, here is the writer who’s going to write this project. But it’s that trend of hiring two writers to write the same movie.
John: And so, this is an article by Borys Kit in the most recent Hollywood Reporter magazine. And so the movies that they site are Tarzan and The Mummy which they decided to just hire two separate screenwriters, and in some cases teams of screenwriters, and set off and individually develop the two tracks of this project and then they’d figure out which one worked out best.
John: Pros and cons, Craig Mazin?
Craig: Well, there is one big pro which probably would get overlooked by most and that is that this theoretically will add to the roster of writers being hired and paid to write on movies.
Craig: Which I always take very seriously. You know, I don’t want to just scoff at that, it’s a big deal. I mean, you could argue that if all they do is take the writers that used to work in sequence and have that same number working in parallel it won’t, but I suspect that that’s not what’s going to happen.
Craig: That, in fact, there will still be the same amount of sequential writing but maybe individually along the way some of the sequences will be doubled up. So that’s a good thing.
Craig: Cons, well, obviously, the big con is the fact that this is a big con. [laughs]
Craig: They’re fooling themselves and I think they’re fooling everybody if they think that what’s going to happen here is two writers are going to write two drafts and one of them is going to just, you know, chip away at this marbled block and create a wonderful torso, head and arms and the other one is going to make this beautiful butt and legs and it’s going to be a great statue. Simply not how it works.
And you could see them trying, like in the article, “Well, this person had great characters but this one a good story.” Uh, okay. Yeah, well, maybe —
John: As we talked about in the podcast, it’s impossible to separate those aspects apart. You can say that you enjoy the characters in this person’s script more than the characters in the other person’s script, but you can’t say like one person is good at a certain aspect of it.
Craig: No, especially if you’re going to, well, you enjoyed the characters from this draft, we’ll put them in the story in that draft. Well, I don’t like this mushed together. Yeah, because they’re not the same characters. They’re doing different things. They’re in a different situation.
We understand on some level, we know that we need a vision for a movie, a holistic vision of a movie, and you’re not going to get there by slamming two things together in that kind of hodge-podge way. People may ask — well, then why is it better that writers work in sequence? Frankly because usually what happens is somebody comes along and says, regardless of the sequence before me, “This is the vision. Yes, I may be borrowing from the prior scripts but I’m integrating it into one consistent vision.”
And if you don’t have that, if you think that really all you need to do is patchwork this stuff together and kick everybody out and then go shoot it, then you have discovered some new mushroom crack/heroine sauce and I urge you to market it.
John: Yeah. I think the fundamental challenge I have with the idea of like, oh, we’re going to patchwork these together is that you’re ultimately relying on, well, who’s going to do the patchwork work?
John: And so in the case of some successful movies, that has been a producer, where it’s literally Laura Ziskin sitting with scissors in Richard Gere’s trailer getting the drafts of Pretty Woman to actually make sense.
John: There are of course going to be legends of that. And so sometimes you may have a brilliant producer who’s going to be able to see like, okay, this is how we can do that. But essentially is a writing job that you’re doing there is to put those two things together. Where I do think there’s a possibility for a not-terrible outcome is when you step back and don’t look at this as the goal of we’re going to patchwork these two things together, but just actually say like we don’t know what is the better movie to make.
Craig: That’s correct. Right.
John: And so in that case I think that’s actually perhaps a laudable goal because what’s happened is they’ve had several writers come in to pitch their take on what this property should be. It’s almost always an existing property, a book you’re adapting or, you know, a big title like The Mummy. And you’re like, I don’t know what’s going to work out best. And rather than assume that I know the best, I am going to say yes to both and then we’ll see which one of them comes out as the more promising movie. You can’t say that everybody wins because obviously one writer is not going to get his movie made, but in some cases, you know, those two writers got employment and they still had a shot in making a movie and actually got paid for that shot at making a movie.
Craig: Yeah, and to be fair the writer who doesn’t get her movie made was never going to get her movie made.
Craig: Because if she had worked on her own and they didn’t want to make it they would have just gotten somebody else to start again. You know, I get, look, they have backed themselves into situations on some of these large movies or even small movies that are relying on an actor with limited availability where they have to hit a date. They have to hit a date. They need a time. It’s got to start here. They simply don’t have time to give somebody three months to be wrong.
Craig: So then, you know, I get it. Might as well just start shooting at multiple targets. Like I said, it’s going to generate more employment for feature writers. And in this environment, anything that generates more employment for feature writers is a good thing by me. I’m for it and as long as they don’t try and sit there and think, fool themselves into believing that they can Chinese menu column A and column B and make a movie out of that. As long as they can avoid that temptation, it’s probably not the end of the world.
John: It’s not the end of the world. So Stuart, who produces the podcast, he used to work in children’s television and not like little kids television but like sort of the Disney and Nickelodeon scale of sort of like Tween television.
John: And he was saying that back in the day they would have a general story area that they wanted, so they’re like we want a show about a karate school. And so what they do is they would commission a bunch of karate school things. They would shoot a bunch of pilots and they just like pick the one they liked the best. And in some ways, that’s not a terrible business model. If you’re pretty sure that a karate school show is the right kind of show to make, it was inexpensive enough for them to actually just like go all the way through the pilot and then look at the four pilots and pick the one that is like, turned out the best.
And this is a smaller version of that because obviously you’re not shooting two different movies and releasing only one of them.
John: The same idea.
Craig: That’s right. And I wonder if technologically it will become feasible one day to essentially get rid of the screenplay as the decision tool. Right now the screenplay is the decision tool of whether or not to make a motion picture film. Will we make it technologically to the place one day where the decision tool is the, I don’t how to call it, like the animatic version of the screenplay.
John: Yeah, I think that way down that path lies madness as well. Joseph Kahn had a tweet this last week about his frustration that people are treating previs as, basically directors are farming out the direction of the movie to previs.
John: And that’s a real worry where you’re essentially, in some ways it’s the same way we talked about having the outline for the movie versus the real, what the actual experience of writing the movie and writing those actual scenes, that previs kind of feels like the outline for the movie. It is that animatic form of it but with real people you may make different decisions, you want to make sure you’re not straight-jacketed into the bad version of things.
Craig: Yeah, well, I would imagine that in our new template that we were contemplating.
John: Yeah, do you have sequences rather than scenes?
Craig: Right, sequences rather than scenes but also a screenplay format that allowed for multimedia. That it would be actually quite useful if you had a moment or something. You know , sometimes you write something and you think, oh, this is hard to get across with text. My intention is hard to get across with text. I wonder if we’ll eventually get to a place where we could just sort of do it and just show people like this is what I mean by this shot and embed it right in the script so that decision making becomes easier and easier and your intention becomes clearer and clearer. But —
John: But I really question whether the decision making will become easier and easier or if the bar towards, if how high you have to go in order to get the green light becomes just this impossible thing where essentially like, “Oh, yeah, we like the script but now we need to see all the previs. Oh, okay, we like,” or actually they’re going to say first thing casting. “Now we need to cast. Now we need the previs.”
John: “Now we need to do.. — Basically make the whole movie for us.”
John: “Okay, now we’ll let you make the movie.” I worry that you are going to sort of cut the — in trying to make the smartest decisions, you’re going to just be pushing back decisions for as long as possible.
Craig: Well, you know, I don’t like it any more than you do, but I, something tells me that’s the general trend of things.
John: I think that is the general trend of things.
John: Although, you know, I will say that you look at some of the bolder choices that are happening in television where they are just like, okay, we’re going to shoot eight episodes. We’re not going to try to figure out everything ahead of time.
John: That’s a way. Granted, in many cases those eight episodes were scripted before they went to series but they were going to series which is a good thing.
Craig: Well, they, I mean, the cable model, the pay cable model is such that it doesn’t matter. I think that where they — they have the luxury of making decisions based on what would, what do they think from a marketing point of view will bring their network prestige and make it attractive to subscribers.
Craig: They don’t have to worry about how many people show up and watch it.
Craig: You know, as we pointed out, True Detective, not a ratings smash.
Craig: But, you know, earned them, at least, either retained subscriptions or earned them additional subscriptions from the people that did love it. So they’re in a great decision space, you know. It’s funny to imagine what movies would be like if the deal were, hey, you don’t buy movie tickets anymore. You buy a pass for Universal Pictures.
Craig: So $100, you get to see as many Universal movies a year as you wanted, you know.
Craig: Then, what kind of movies would they make? It would be fascinating, wouldn’t it?
John: It would be fascinating. I don’t think that model applies well to the theatrical experience, but it is still fascinating. I know that some theater chains have tried with that sort of like frequent moviegoer plans that were actually basically, all-you-can-eat movies, and this, you know, distributors, of course, were not enthusiastic about that.
Craig: No, it would have to be something that they would generate, and it would also have to be exclusive. In other words, it’s not like, well, you could buy a ticket to go see Harry Potter or you could be part of the Warner Bros. movie club.
It would be, no, do you want to see Harry Potter in the theater? You got to be a member of the movie club. [laughs] That’s it. It would be fascinating to see what would happen if the movie business left the pay-per-movie model and really went on move of a “you give us an amount of money a year, you get to see all the movies.”
Craig: Big ones, the little ones, and we then are free to actually kind of be a little more brave.
John: I wonder if with the consent decree that prohibits studios from owning movie theaters, if studios could essentially cut a deal with an AMC or whatever else to basically four-wall, to sort of take over a screen and do it that way. It would be an interesting situation.
Craig: Well, the exhibitors wouldn’t… — It’s funny, either the exhibitors won’t do it or the distributors won’t do it, depending on who gets the money.
Craig: You know, if studios could actually own their own movie theatres, I actually think that we’d have better movies. I swear to you, I do. I think that, you know, like if there were Universal Theater and Warner Bros. Theater and Fox Theater, I think that they would work stuff out like that and it would actually end up being more like the HBO or Netflix model.
John: Yeah, I agree.
Craig: But instead —
John: Oh, instead.
Craig: Instead $30 popcorn.
John: Instead we have essentially a version of really the broadcast model where —
Craig: That’s right.
John: Even though there’s now tighter integration between the studios and the networks, theoretically there’s supposed to be separation between the two. And you’re programming to a mass audience and you’re competing over every little thing.
John: Maybe not ideal. So, wrapping up this idea of multiple writers on a feature film, on a given project. You and I know other situations, these situations, but other situations where ultimately there’s another writer who’s sort of fundamentally a daddy in charge.
John: And the person who’s essentially who’s going to do the show-running aspect as if this were a TV show. This is the person who’s going to make the fundamental decisions about how this is going to work. And in some ways, I wonder if that is where we’re headed towards where some of the A-list screenwriters who are also good managers will be those folks who are shepherding those projects into existence even if other writers are doing some of the work on them. The same way Damon Lindelof came in and helped out on World War Z, or Drew Goddard I think also did writing on that. The same way J.J. Abrams will put writers together to work on projects. I wonder if that’s the model we’re headed towards.
Craig: Well, you see it happening a lot and there are certainly producers that straddle both worlds. Simon Kinberg is a writer and a producer —
Craig: And he does both and it’s sometimes, I’m sure for him, the lines become blurred to the point of indistinguishability. There will always be a place for that. It would be, why it happens more and more in part, I think, is because there is a real lack of people that aren’t writers who understand how to help writers. There are very few people on the development side or the production side, producing, who believe anymore either through lip service or truly, you know, at their core that their job is to help the writer write a good movie.
Craig: So many of them really feel like their job is to play a game, a rigged game, so as to force the unlikely outcome of production.
Craig: And that’s unfortunate. And that’s why so many of us are left there looking at a bunch of notes going, “What? How does this make any sense to what’s good?”
John: Yeah, I was talking with another writer about a set of notes she got and when they include the things they like, you know, we know that some of these notes are contradictory but we wanted to include them all so you know sort of where our heads were at. It was like how are you supposed to process that? So you have already admitted that your notes contradict themselves and yet I’m somehow supposed to implement these. So t hat’s going to great. This is going to make everyone happy.
Craig: You should just write, “We know some of these notes are contradictory but some of us are dicks and insisted that they go in there and you’ll just have to guess who is who.” [laughs]
Craig: Because that’s the truth. I mean, you know that’s the truth.
John: Yeah. And not only do you have to guess who is who, in guessing who and who you have to rank us in importance to figure out which ones are actually necessary to implement and which ones can be ignored. And also which ones of us will get fired before they’ll turn in their next draft and therefore it’ll all be irrelevant.
Craig: It’s such a mess, you know. It’s such a mess. It’s so, I guess, you know, I’m not a big fan of beating these people up but I would say if I could, if I could address them all. I would say, listen, you guys have inefficiencies built into your process the way that we have inefficiencies built into our process, but it sure would be nice if you would at least acknowledge the following. Regardless of whether you think we are wonderful artists or truly just human widgets, if you don’t help us do better, you’re going to end up also not doing better. It’s just from a sense a self-preservation, can’t you get your shit together?
John: A fundamental question that no one can ever answer.
Craig: Yeah, that’s why I don’t get invited to the big summit.
John: Wouldn’t it be great if there were a summit?
Craig: It would be great.
John: If there were a summit where everyone got, oh, I guess they probably couldn’t because of anti-trust. But a summit where like, hey, let’s just figure out what we’re doing here. Let’s not make a bunch of the same movies and try to release them on the same weekend. But they can’t do that.
Craig: No, yeah.
John: Because of anti-trust.
Craig: Yeah, you have officially just committed a federal crime.
John: Yeah, nice.
John: We have a bunch of questions. And the first question comes from Mathew Chilelli who edits our podcast.
John: So I figured he gets first question because he’s Mathew Chilelli.
John: He says, “Two of my favorite books about the creative process are Stephen King’s On Writing and Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, both are instructive but they also leave me excited about getting my hands dirty making something. Do either of you have books you turn to about writing or filmmaking that you would recommend? Books that are written by people you respect?”
And I came up short but I had two suggestions. Craig, do you have any books that you would go back to. I’ve read On Writing. I have not read Making Movies. Do you have any books?
Craig: I do but I’m going to save it for my One Cool Thing because it really is one of my favorite cool things.
John: All right. So the two I will recommend, one of which I have read all of and one of which I have only skimmed through but people love. So first off, Syd Field’s Screenplay. It’s that thing that we endlessly mock but if you have not read any other books on screenwriting, it’s the one you should read just because people talk about stuff that’s in Syd Field’s Screenplay, so you’ll at least know what the hell they’re saying when they talk about those plot points and things. You should read it, kind of understand it, and then like throw the book away and never refer back to it. But you should probably read it at least once.
Craig: Yeah, I think that’s reasonable.
John: The second is The War of Art which a zillion people have recommended and I’ve looked through parts of it. I haven’t read all of it. But it’s by Steven Pressfield. It’s a good look at sort of the creative process and why the creative process is hard and why it’s hard to make things and the struggle to do things. So those are maybe my two suggestions. Craig is saving his.
Craig: I’m saving mine. Because, listen, you know the way I’m with these One Cool Things. I’m scraping the barrel all the time.
John: What I will say in general for inspiration on like “I want to make a movie,” the things I found most useful, the very first book I read or read about screenwriting was the Steven Soderbergh’s guide, his diaries and script for Sex, Lies and Videotape. So it’s his production diary for that and you realize like, oh, you know what, it’s actually just really hard work. And you don’t know what you’re doing all the time but you’re aiming for something and you’re iterating until you’ve got to that thing that you want to make.
John: And so when I’ve read production diaries about work, that’s been the same thing. For writers, there’s two books I’ll put in the show notes. I’m interviewed in one of them but it’s — one is called The First Time I Got Paid For It, which is about sort of screenwriters’ first times getting stuff, actually getting their work produced.
John: And there’s another book which is also done in cooperation with the Writer’s Guild Foundation which I thought was great. So I will have links to those two in the show notes as well.
John: Great. Second question comes from Nathan Windley. “I’m in Berkeley California, currently studying political economics and planning to apply to The Peter Stark Program.” So, The Peter Stark Program is the film producing program, film and television producing program that I graduated from at USC and Stuart went there, and Matt Byrne before him and Chad and Dara. So lots of folks in our world on there.
Craig: Peter Stark is Tony Stark’s brother. So Tony Stark took the family money and created a, you know, obviously went into military technology and industrials, but Peter was more of the artistic one who started that school.
John: Yeah, so the complex is not quite as nice as Stark Tower.
John: But it has a similar kind of vibe to it. George Lucas helped out a little bit.
John: “Although producing films and seeing a script come to life is extremely enjoyable, I do have a warm spot for cinematography. When I read that you also went to the Peter Stark program, I was curious to see how the skills you acquired as a producer could be translated to screenwriting. Essentially what I’m asking is why didn’t you enroll in the screenwriting program?”
Craig: Yeah, why John? Why?
John: Why didn’t I do it?
John: So just the back story on me. So I grew up in Boulder, Colorado. The only experience I had with movies was watching movies and reading Premiere Magazine. Do you remember Premiere Magazine?
Craig: Of course. It was quite glossy and showed up every month.
John: It was a great magazine just about movies and there was some moviemaking stuff in it but it really wasn’t for filmmakers. I didn’t know there was such a thing kind of as filmmaking in a meaningful way. And I only had a vague sense that there were screenwriters. And so, Premiere Magazine was one of the few places that’s sort would talk about Joe Eszterhas and like screenwriters, like legendary things.
I went to school in Des Moines, Iowa. I studied journalism. It was good. I got an advertising degree. It was good. I knew I didn’t want to actually do it. I applied to a summer program at Stanford doing documentary stuff. I learned how to shoot film. That was great. I found out there was a Peter Stark program. This is pre-Internet so I actually looked through a catalog. I applied to it and I got in.
The reason I went for Stark rather than a screenwriting program is I kind of didn’t know anything. And so, coming in blank, I didn’t want to assume that I was a good enough writer that I could become a screenwriter. But I knew enough about business and other things that I felt like if nothing else I’d be able to get some kind of job in the business doing stuff.
Stark ended up being a really great sort of across the board, you know, everything from shooting with a camera to labor negotiations to marketing. It’s a very good smorgasbord of movie information. So it ended up being exactly the right thing for me. Would do I Stark again versus a screenwriting program? Probably. And it’s just because I think there sometimes are limits to how much they can actually teach you about writing and knowing how the whole business as a whole works ended up being incredibly useful to me getting started in the business.
Craig: So I mean, it’s one of the few programs that exists in the world where you actually make legitimate connections. I laugh at how many times people will talk about networking.
“Oh, well, you know, Hollywood, you really have to network.” Well, here’s the problem; you can’t. I really believe that you can’t. There’s no networking. If you’re somebody who needs to network, the only people with whom you can network are other people who need to network, hence your network.
Craig: Not exactly what you were hoping for, was it? But the Stark program actually does have a legitimate network. There’s so many graduates of the program that obviously keep their eyes, I mean, you keep bringing people into work at your desk, then go on to run Hollywood as we can see.
So for that reason I think that the Stark program is very valuable. Has he gotten in? Oh, he’s planning to apply to it. Well, listen, you know.
John: Yeah. So Stark takes about 25 people a year.
John: And so, it’s —
Craig: It’s like a lightning strike.
John: Incredibly… — It is a lightning strike. It’s actually, that is actually probably genuinely a lightning strike.
John: So obviously I think if you get into the Stark program, hooray, congratulations.
John: Good for you.
Craig: Yeah. If anything takes 25 people a year and you get it, you should do it, even if you don’t want to, like, oh, we’re just doing 25 people that are going to go to Mars. You should just do it if they call you.
John: I agree.
John: Well, unless it’s like, you know, we’re giving 25 people poison. Then, no.
Craig: Well, no, that’s an execution. That’s just… — I’m saying something kind of that somebody would think is good.
John: I think that is overall good. In terms of networking, I will say that, and I’ve said this on previous podcasts, by far the most useful thing I got out of film school and particularly Stark program was I was in a group of a cohort of 25 people who were trying to do the same thing I was trying to do and we helped each other out a lot. We fought a lot. We threw chairs at each other, but we also helped each other out a lot.
And so, when I needed information about things, I could call these people because they were my friends. They weren’t my network. They were my friends.
John: I was helping, I was crewing on their short films, they were crewing on my short films and we could ask questions about is that person a good person or a bad person, is that person lying to me? We could ask those fundamental things because we were all going through it together. And any film program, any sort of program where you can be surrounded by people who really want to do the things you are wanting to do is going to be beneficial.
Craig: I concur.
John: All right. James writes, “After years of struggling, I’ve recently found a little success which has led the chance to do a few off the beaten path assignments, two for foreign production companies and one for a small non-guild US production company. In all three cases, I knew going in the scripts would not work.”
John: “The producers thought they had brilliant concepts but the ideas were not nearly as compelling as they thought and all their own sets of problems that I saw but they didn’t.”
John: “I took the jobs anyway because I needed the work and I did my best to fix them, but in all three cases they were unsatisfied with the scripts.”
John: “I’ve been offered another similar assignment to adapt a book that really shouldn’t be adapted or it has been changed so dramatically that it won’t be recognizable. My question is, should I take it anyway? I’m struggling financially and need the money but my worry is that I’m going to get a reputation as a bad writer because of all these bad scripts I’m turning in that I knew would be bad even before I started them. I assumed that when you get to a certain level of success you can turn these offers down but I’m not nearly there yet. “
Craig: Yeah. All right, very good question. This one —
John: Such a good question.
Craig: Excellent. And I think everybody, almost everybody confronts this on some level. So let’s break it down.
There’s a little bit of a silver lining here. When you talk about these people, you call them off the beaten path. So we have two foreign production companies.
Craig: And we have a small non-guild US production company. So they’re asking you to do stuff that you don’t think is very good and you’re doing it for a paycheck and then they say, “Oh, we don’t like this,” which makes sense assuming that you wrote something that is good and they don’t know what good is, it should work out that way. Great.
You’re worried that you’re going to get a reputation as a guy who writes bad things. Well no, what you’re getting a reputation for is as a guy who’s been working for terrible people who have dumb ideas. Now, if you were any other job in the business, I would warn you, I guess. I would warn you more than I’m about to warn you. But we are always able to write our way out of trouble.
Craig: James, you’re struggling financially. You need the money. I would urge you, if it’s not going to take up a massive amount of time, to make a simple deal with yourself. I will do this job that is not going to be good and won’t do me any favors to make money. But I must write my own thing that is my, that reflects what I actually can do and who I am as a writer. You must do that.
If all you do is this stuff, then you are the bad writer. You only are what we can read. But if you can write something great, nobody will care. Nobody cared that Charlie Kaufman was a staff writer on Alf, you know. When he wrote something great, it was great.
John: I agree. So what is different about being a writer versus being an actor is if an actor takes some of these really, really horrible things, it’s almost like they’re doing porn. Like these are horrible things that are going to haunt them the rest of their lives.
John: In your case, these terrible movies, they’re not going to get made. So they were just terrible things you wrote that are going to like disappear onto a shelf. So they’re not going to hurt you as much as I think you worry they’re going to hurt you.
Where they are hurting you is they are taking your time away from writing things that are actually good. And it’s the things that are actually good that are going to help you along in your career. So, in some ways you have luxury problem that people are willing to pay you to write. That’s great. The challenge is that they’re paying you to write things you don’t really want to write. Maybe you take this job, if it’s not going to kill you, but I agree with Craig that you need to find the time and use that money smartly so you can write the stuff that’s actually good that can move you forward in your life.
The fact that people are willing to pay to write though is in some ways going to help you get an agent, help you get a manager. Help you get sort of work down the road because that agent and the manager is going to see like “Oh, this is a guy who actually can work for people. Who like people, you know, will hire him to do things.” Not every writer who’s coming out of film school really can say the same thing.
Craig: That’s right. And the other thing that we have as writers available to us that actors don’t is pseudonyms. So when you make your deals with these people, you should — one of the nice things about, one of the few nice things about working non-union or working union but getting paid less than I think $225,000 or $250,000 is that you can contractually demand a pseudonym.
Craig: And I think that that’s — if they actually make the thing which probably they won’t. But yeah, you know, you got to pay your bills. Listen, we’re not going to tell you to starve but you must make this bargain with yourself. You have to say, “One for me, one for them.” You have to.
John: Yeah. I agree with you. And I will say, Craig and I both know many writers who were in your situation early in their careers and now they are the tip-top writers in Hollywood. And so the situation you find yourself in is not indicative of where you’re going to end up. And there’s many people who’ve written for those tiny little crappy production companies —
John: Who’ve ultimately gone and done great stuff.
Craig: Look where James Cameron started. Roger —
John: Yeah, absolutely.
Craig: Made Piranha II.
John: Yes. And Piranha II hurt him tremendously. No one wanted to give him the money to make Terminator but he learned what he needed to learn and he got it made, so.
Craig: Somehow, it turned out okay for him, probably be okay for you.
John: Yeah. Matt writes, “I’m a newly graduated nurse who wants to write movies and be a nurse. When I read the Wiki pages of all my favorite filmmakers, they seem to be wholly committed to filmmaking. Granted they do have other interests but in terms of working they only seem to focus on filmmaking.
“Now making movies is astoundingly hard and time consuming. If I were given the chance to be a part of production in any way then I would obviously take the time off. But for now, my plan is to work three 12-hour shifts a week and have four days off just to focus on writing and movies and stuff. Do you know people who do stuff like that, like another job that they’re really passionate about and do filmmaking? Is that a thing? And how involved are screenwriters in the actual filmmaking part of it all?”
We’ll scratch out the last question, because that last part is — there’s a whole range of how involved people are.
Craig: That’s a whole other question. Let’s just talk about the other silly question.
Craig: So my favorite part of this is “when I read the Wiki pages of all my favorite filmmakers, they seem to be wholly committed to filmmaking.” They seem that way, like, it —
John: Maybe it feels that way.
Craig: It seems like Quentin Tarantino only really does movies and doesn’t also hold down a job preparing tax returns. You know, of course, of course they’re wholly committed to it because that’s their job. That’s what they do. I mean, do the surgeons at the hospital where you work also, I don’t know, spend three days out of the week doing stand-up or something. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. No.
John: Oh, they might though. You could totally envisioned that.
Craig: Really? You mean like —
John: Yeah, like —
Craig: No, stand-up, I’m don’t mean like open mic night. I mean, like you got to tour around. You got to drive around like Mike Birbiglia, you know, and show up to the Chuckle Hut in Topeka.
Craig: I mean, no this is a career. This is not — it is a vocation. It’s a career, it’s a life. There is no way for you to calculate dividing your week into, what was it? Three 12-hour shifts. First of all, I don’t want a nurse on at hour 11 anyway, you know. I mean, come on, be —
John: Now, Craig, I have to stick up for Matt for here. What’s he’s describing is actually incredibly common though where you are working — you’re working 36 hours sort of all in a bunch and then you have four days off.
Craig: They make nurses work 12-hour shifts?
John: Yes. That’s entirely common. I have friends who are emergency room doctors who are the same —
Craig: Well, doctors, doctors I know that they do that. But nurses I didn’t know that they did 12-hour shifts. I mean, first of all, the whole thing about doctors and the way that residents get work like that is horrendous and it should change. It’s actually dangerous. I feel like medical professionals, by the way, I feel the same way about movies. Like I understand why they do it because they’re cheap but you know, you got people working 20 hours a day. That’s insane. It makes me nuts.
John: It’s dangerous.
Craig: It’s dangerous. Anyway, look, no. The answer that I’m going to give you is no. People don’t do that. You can’t do it. It’s not the way it works. You will be a so-so nurse and a really bad filmmaker. And I would much rather that you be a terrific filmmaker or, best of all, an awesome nurse. But this is not, you can’t…no.
John: I thoroughly disagree with Craig. Always fun like every tenth podcast to do that. .
John: So I will say, like, I think as an aspiring screenwriter, what you’re describing with like 36 hours on intensely and then you’re spending the rest of your time writing, that’s good. And so, basically, you have a day job, which is these 36 hours as a nurse and then you are writing. And it’s okay to love your day job. I think it’s actually fine to love your day job.
But to then pretend that like, “And then I’m going to make a whole bunch of movies but I’m still going to keep my day job.” Yeah, we’ll see. We’ll see. We’ll see what happens when you become tremendously successful if you want to keep your day job. But there are novelists I know who do, who write really good books who also have another job because they love having another job where they’re around other people and they’re not these hermits who are in caves writing their books.
John: So that’s entirely possible. But I’ll say, why don’t you focus on writing really good stuff and getting stuff into production and then we’ll see how much you want to keep up your nursing career and how much you want to be writing full time.
Craig: Well, maybe I’m getting thrown off by the word filmmaking. Because you’re right. You can absolutely write in the evening after any job. You can write on the weekend with any job, you know. I believe that every screenwriter likely starts off working some sort of day job making money and then writing where their luxury time or free time is. But this guy is talking about filmmaking.
Craig: You know, I actually, I met the novelist Robin Cook last night. Robin Cook, you know, wrote Coma and many, many like 35 novels. And the whole time he’s been doing all that he’s also been an ophthalmologist, a practicing physician. And so I can see that. You know, so you go to your office. You do your thing and then you go home and you write.
But to make movies? I mean, you can’t make movie like, I guess, he says, if I were ever given the chance to be part of a production in any way then I’ll obviously take time off. I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe I just don’t understand the question.
John: Yeah. I think he is — here’s what I think he’s responding to. I think you and I on the podcast have often talked about as a screenwriter you can’t focus on like I’m going to write screenplays. You focus on I’m going to make movies. And so I think he’s trying to use the term filmmaking as a sense of like I want to not just have scripts. I want to make sure that these become good movies and that I’m really writing towards the movies and not just to stick 120 pages of screenplay in front of himself.
So, I get that. But I think it’s also, he doesn’t understand how all consuming it is to actually make a movie and that’s the reality.
Craig: I was talking to Scott Frank about, you know, when he started he was at UC Santa Barbara. And he was pre-med. But he really wanted to, he was fascinated by movies and he wanted to be a screenwriter and so he enrolled in a screenwriting class and he was talking to his professor. And the guy said, “Why are you pre-med? Why don’t you just do the screenwriting thing?”
And he said, “Well, you know, pre-med is kind of, it’s my fallback.” And the guy said, “If you’re in your 20s and you have a fallback, you’ll fall back.”
Craig: You know, and I think there is some truth to that, you know, the safety net is a much safer net than no net.
Craig: All right. Well —
John: No, I agree. So I wish him luck with his nursing and with his writing but I think you’re going to end up being, you’re going to do one of those things.
Craig: By the way, nursing is a noble and wonderful profession, so I hope —
John: I agree.
Craig: I hope he sticks with it.
John: All right. It’s time for One Cool Things and let’s let you start because you had a book suggestion for me.
Craig: Or something.
John: Or something.
Craig: So it is a book suggestion. It’s exactly a book suggestion and it was inspired by this question from Matthew, what would you recommend as a book. And, you know, most of them just make me nuts.
But there’s a funny little book that has been out of print forever. And in fact, it’s been out of print for so long that now, and it used to be that you — I found out about it about 10 years ago. My friend Peter Carlin handed me this old edition that he had of it. And they have gone and put the whole thing up on Cinephilia and Beyond, which is a website. It’s at cinearchive.org and we’ll put a link.
And they seem to be basically saying, “Hey, look, it’s been out of print forever. It was printed in ’71. It’s not coming back into print, so we’re putting it here and probably, it’s not technically public domain but we doubt anybody is going to challenge this.” And I think they’re right.
The book is called The Total Film-Maker. And it is written by this guy who directed some movies named Jerry Lewis.
John: Oh my gosh.
Craig: Jerry Lewis.
John: That Jerry Lewis?
Craig: Yes. Now, here’s the crazy thing about this. So Jerry, the book The Total Film-Maker, it was compiled from a course that Jerry Lewis taught at USC in ’71. And it was printed once in ’71 and then it’s been out of print ever since. And having read this 10 years ago, I can tell you, it is spectacular.
At times, there is only two kinds of advice in this book: the worst advice ever or the best advice ever.
Craig: And you can tell, like you can tell the difference. But Jerry Lewis was an incredibly nuts and bolts filmmaker. You probably are familiar with the essential invention that Jerry Lewis provided the film industry, are you not?
John: I don’t know what it was, tell me?
Craig: The video tap.
John: Oh, that’s right.
Craig: Jerry Lewis invented the video tap. So for those of you who don’t know, when you’re shooting film, obviously, you can’t see, you know, what’s happening inside the film camera. Jerry Lewis came up with a way to essentially pull some of the light source off to a separate thing that converted that into video so that you can have monitor and see what the film camera could see.
Craig: Which is revolutionary. So he was an incredibly nuts and bolts filmmaker and the book is full of just an enormous amount of practical stuff, really practical stuff. And while it may not necessarily be the most writing-oriented book, I can’t think of a better book to prepare you for what production is all about and what you’re writing toward.
There’s one bit of advice he had that I’ll never forget and I think about it every time I step onto a set. He said, “Actors will always presume that your mood is a result of them.”
Craig: And if you’re upset, frustrated, tense, all the things that can happen to you because of things that have nothing to do with them, the budget, the schedule or whatever. If you come to them and that’s in your face, they will assume that you are angry at them. And then they will react in a way. [laughs].
And I thought that was brilliant. Just brilliant. Even if it’s not true, I mean, maybe it’s just true about Jerry Lewis. I don’t know. But this book is like awesome and it’s now, I mean, this book which — and funny, Mike Birbiglia is mentioned in the article that links to the actual book because he himself has — has a copy of this. And apparently, if you wanted to try and buy one they’re about $500 a piece. But now that it’s free on this website, everyone should read this book. Everyone.
John: My One Cool Thing is actually something that BJ Novak, had tweeted earlier this week. It’s a New York Times piece by Aimee Bender called What Writers Can Learn from Goodnight Moon.
John: And so when I saw it, I thought, like oh, that’s going to be like a parody article because like it’s Goodnight Moon. It’s like it’s a kid’s book and I remember reading the kid’s book. But you actually look through Aimee Bender’s essay and it’s very, very smart because my husband hated reading Goodnight Moon. And I actually really loved reading it aloud because it’s one of those things where like it actually has like a fascinating rhythm to it. It’s like a really surprising rhythm to it.
And like the page turns are really built in to sort of how you say it aloud. And she talks about the structure of the book and how like there’s things that shouldn’t work like “Goodnight, moon. Goodnight, cow jumping over the moon.” It’s like what —
John: The same word. There’s a page of “Goodnight, nobody.”
John: Which is like so, so strange. So it’s a really, really odd book and yet it’s incredibly comforting. And it was clearly written with the intention that like you’re going to read this a bunch and we’re going to make it rewarding to read a bunch.
So it’s a very great essay on sort of not only why that book is so successful but sort of what you can take from that in terms of understanding expectation and structure and then pushing against it to create surprise.
Craig: I loved it, too. And it’s, by the way, no surprise that Berkeley Breathed ended his most recent run of Opus with essentially an ode to Goodnight Moon. I loved reading the story to my kids. And part of what I think is so brilliant about it is that the prose essentially mimics what the brain does as it falls asleep.
Craig: It’s detailed and then it starts to kind of come apart. It gets a little absurd, a little strange. The word count reduces down. Things that were there in the beginning very specifically are now recalled in weird dreamy bits and bobs. And then at last, it just lands like a feather.
Craig: Just a gorgeous way of simulating an experience with text. Isn’t that something?
Craig: Yeah, that’s why, I think that’s why that book will be read forever. Forever.
John: Great. Craig, another fun podcast.
John: If you have a question for me or for Craig on Twitter, he’s @clmazin, I’m @johnaugust. Longer questions like the ones we answered today, you can write to firstname.lastname@example.org. We have links in the show notes for most of the things we talked about. So you can find those at johnaugust.com/scriptnotes.
If you want any of back episodes of the show, you can get them through scriptnotes.net, so that’s all the way back to episode one you can find those. It’s a subscription. It’s $1.99 a month to go back through all those things. You can also get to those episodes through the Scripnotes app. So either for Android or for iOS.
If you’re on iTunes, click Subscribe so we know that you’re subscribing and leave us a comment because we love those.
That’s about — oh, we also have a few more of the USB drives. So we now have all 150 of the first episodes are on those USB drives. We’ve actually been selling a lot of them, so people are catching up on back episodes.
Craig: Great. Awesome.
John: So that’s great. And Craig, I will talk to you again next week.
Craig: You’re darn right you will.
John: All right. See you.
- John Gary on spec sales, lightning strikes, and making the NFL
- Hot Hollywood Trend: Two Scripts, One Movie
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King and Making Movies, by Sidney Lumet
- Screenplay, by Syd Field, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield, Sex, Lies and Videotape, by Steven Soderbergh, and The First Time I Got Paid For It
- The Peter Stark Program
- The Total Film-Maker, by Jerry Lewis on cinearchive.org
- What Writers Can Learn From Goodnight Moon by Aimee Bender
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Sir Funkytown (send us yours!)