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 160 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, you and I are both writing scripts. We’re both in our first drafts. I just crossed page 60. Where are you at?
Craig: Oh, well, see, you’re lapping me because this is really where the difference in our processes is driven home.
Craig: Because you like to go kind of get a fast draft out and then you go back, whereas I am painstakingly whistling this thing. So I am currently on page 41, I believe but feeling —
Craig: Feeling very good about it, feeling very good.
John: Yeah, it’s important to have a good 40 pages.
Craig: Yes, yes, I’m —
John: That’s nice.
Craig: Happy with the 40.
John: Today on the podcast, we are going to be talking about the end of the world, which is one of my favorite topics of all things to discuss. But before we get to that, we have some housekeeping to take care of.
First off, Craig and I were both on the nominating committee for the WGA board and we were the people who interviewed people who wanted to be on the WGA board and sort of asked them why they wanted to be on the board. And it was four nights of fun and hilarity.
Craig: [laughs] Yes, yes, high —
John: At the WGA headquarters.
Craig: High stakes fun and hilarity.
John: So on previous podcasts, you and I have endorsed candidates. We said like, well, these are some people who are running and these are people who we think are fantastic and you should vote for.
John: But this year we cannot do that.
John: Specifically because we are on a committee, we are not supposed to endorse anybody. So the only thing we can endorse is that you should absolutely vote for the candidates of your choice. If you are a WGA member, you have received a packet in the mail that has all the candidate statements along with statements from people who are endorsing those candidates. You will not see me or Craig’s name on any of those endorsements, but we definitely think you should vote for people because it’s an important election. It’s always kind of an important election. There’s always stuff to get done.
John: You should read those candidate statements and really think about who you want to be representing you. And you actually have an opportunity, if you’re listening to this podcast on Tuesday, tomorrow, Wednesday, there is a Candidates’ Night at the WGA, so you can go and listen to them speak and ask them questions.
Craig: Yes. You can listen to them and point your finger at them and boo and cheer. It’s like a zoo. It’s great.
John: Yeah. You know, weirdly, like a lot of people bring fruit to it. I don’t know that’s a good idea but —
Craig: Rotten vegetables, yeah. Why did people throw rotten vegetables? First of all, the forethought like, okay, we’re going to go out to the theater tonight in 1920 and we paid, you know, paid money for this but we’re expecting that at least one or two of the acts will be so bad we’ll want to hit them with stuff. So who’s going to bring, but we’re poor and vegetables are kind of hard to come by in the Lower East Side, so whose got just rotting cabbage?
John: Well, I think rotting cabbage isn’t that hard to find. If there is cabbage that doesn’t get consumed or cabbage that you could pull out of the ground and the maggots have already gotten to it —
John: That’s the kind of thing you bring to the theater.
Craig: Do maggots eat cabbage though?
John: No, they really don’t.
John: It’s some sort of like — there’s probably a cabbage worm.
Craig: Oh, like a fungus rot?
John: Yeah, that too, yeah.
Craig: So you just gather it up and then you’re like, “Oh yeah, where are you going? I’m going to the theater that’s why I have this bag of just stinking refuse.”
John: Yeah, because, you know, I’m broke and poor but I’m going to pay for a ticket to see —
Craig: Well, I still love the arts, yeah. [laughs]
John: I still love the arts.
Craig: But I —
John: I mean, you have to support the arts.
Craig: But I also hate the arts so much that if somebody just doesn’t make me happy, I’m going to [laughs] hit them with stuff.
Craig: It never really happened. I think that was just made up in the movies, right? I mean, nobody ever did that for real.
John: I’m sure people threw garbage at, like, candidates they didn’t like or like political figures they didn’t like.
Craig: So great.
John: But I don’t know. I mean, The Gong Show was an extrapolation of that idea but —
John: The Gong Show was just a unique cultural moment that never needs to be repeated.
Craig: Oh, I don’t know. I mean we’re trying, right, because America’s Got Talent, they have their little “Eh” and there’s an X or something like that which is really just a gong..
John: Yeah, that’s true.
Craig: But The Gong Show was great because there was an enormous amount of power in any particular judge. Anyone hitting the gong, that’s it, right, you’re done.
John: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Craig: So if Jaye P. Morgan’s not into you, it’s over.
John: Yeah. Yeah, the old game shows were different and in some ways better. I mean Kitty Carlisle could just postulate about sort of what someone’s profession was. I’m guessing it’s Kitty Carlisle. I’m sort of making that name up but, to tell the truth.
John: And that was kind of a fascinating show because like who are these people, the people on Password, like we don’t have kind of that level of celebrity anymore.
Craig: No, I know. There was all this wonderful sort of, where a celebrity became a professional game show person.
John: Yeah, Paul Lynde.
Craig: Paul Lynde or Charles Nelson Reilly, I mean they were just kind of… — Or who’s the woman on Match Game who really was just famous for being on Match Game. I don’t even know what she was famous for.
John: Is she the one that Kristen Wiig is sort of impersonating or like —
Craig: No, no, she’s, you know, I wish that [TS Fall] were here. He would know.
John: TS would know something.
Craig: TS would know. Yeah, you know, the old game shows were great. I don’t know, these new things, they’re. I don’t know. I really, oh, you know, it’s funny, The Gong Show, Rex Reed was on The Gong Show a lot. That was before he became an enormous asshole.
Craig: Yeah. An enormous drunken asshole.
John: Yeah, it was certainly good training.
Craig: In my opinion, in my opinion. [laughs]
Craig: I don’t really know if he is. That’s just my feeling.
John: Yes. It’s also possible that everything was just better back then because it was our youth and everything seemed better —
John: If we actually were to look and compare it on The Game Show Network, we’d say, oh you know what, it was actually kind of terrible. You know, another thing that was better in our youth was Scriptnotes t-shirts. And so we used to make Scriptnotes t-shirts and we sold them to people who liked them and it was nice. And so our first batch of Scriptnotes t-shirts were the Umbrage Orange and Rational Blue.
And we sold a whole bunch of them and people really liked them. And we also did a batch of black. But that was about eight months ago. And so my open question to you, Craig, but really to the audience is, should we make more t-shirts? And so if you would like to have more t-shirts, on johnaugust.com, the same place where you may be listening to this podcast, there’s just going to be a poll saying like, hey, should we make more t-shirts. And if we should make t-shirts, what color should they be because we’re happy to do them if people actually want them.
But we won’t do them if people don’t want them. So that is a question I am positing to the readers. You can also chime in on Twitter if you would like but we are considering making t-shirts in time for, possibly Austin, but more likely for the holiday season. So if you would like a t-shirt, that is something you can weigh in on.
Craig: Is Jaye P. Morgan still alive, do you think?
John: I think of JP Morgan being the banker. Is that a different person we’re talking about?
Craig: Well, it’s Jaye, J-A-Y-E P. Morgan.
Craig: So she was a —
John: It’s a she?
Craig: Oh yeah, Jaye P. Morgan. Oh my god.
John: Well, I’m Googling this right now because this is —
Craig: Jaye P. Morgan.
John: Fascinating information.
Craig: Yeah. No, see, Jaye P. Morgan is still alive. She’s 82 years old. She lives apparently, oh no, she was born in your home state of Colorado.
Craig: And she was like a singer and an entertainer. You know, back in the day, you could be an entertainer. That was your job.
John: Well, looking at the Google Images, she’s having a conversation with Kermit the Frog which seems like exactly the kind of thing an entertainer would do.
Craig: Absolutely. So Jaye P. Morgan is still alive. If you guys out there say, yeah, we should go ahead and make some t-shirts, we’re sending a free t-shirt to Jaye P. Morgan.
John: Well, that was never even a question.
Craig: She made me so happy.
Craig: She did.
John: Yeah, anybody who makes Craig happy rather than angry —
John: Deserves a t-shirt.
Craig: Deserves a t-shirt.
John: A place where people could wear their t-shirts if they wanted to is the Slate Culture Gabfest. We can actually announce what this thing is now. So on October 8th at 7:30 PM in Downtown Los Angeles, we are going to be joining our friends Julia Turner, Stephen Metcalf and Dana Stevens from Slate for the Slate Culture Gabfest.
And so it’s a fantastic podcast. It should be a fantastic night. Tickets are on sale now. So it’s actually their event. We are just going to be guests, which I’m so excited not to have to host something.
Craig: Yeah, we just show up and we’re brilliant, huh? Is that the idea?
John: Yeah, that’s the goal. So we’ve back and forthed about what our topics are going to be. I think it’s going to be fun. A chance to talk about what it’s like to be creators of content versus critics of content and consumers of content. So I’m excited to have this chance to be on stage with them.
Craig: Yeah. For those of you who might be thinking, ah, I’m on the fence, should I go or not, let me just underline for you: I’m going to be on stage with a film critic.
John: That’s true. Fireworks are promised. And the whole thing is sponsored by Acura, which is just kind of great and odd but wonderful.
Craig: Acura. Oh, that’s right —
John: Yeah, we never have sponsors on our show, [laughs] so it sort of feels — it feels fun to sort of say like, brought to you by Acura.
Craig: [laughs] We’re such namby pambies.
Craig: That the only time we’re ever sponsored by anybody, it’s a charity. We never make any money for any, like we’re so… — It’s funny because it’s not like you and I are particularly anti-corporate or anything like that.
Craig: We’ve just kept this whole thing very, very pure. And it’s so odd, yeah, that Slate, liberal Slate, will be sponsored by Acura this evening. The Japanese Daibutsu.
John: Julia actually emailed like she’s like, “I know you guys don’t like to take sponsorships, is it going to be a problem?” Like, eh, like it’s no problem.
Craig: It’s your show, so.
John: It’s your show. We’re happy to be there.
Craig: Oh, I said Japanese Daibutsu, I didn’t mean that. A Daibutsu apparently is a giant Buddha, [laughs] so I mean the other thing, like what’s the word for the Japanese business, word for corporation?
John: I have no idea.
Craig: I’m looking it up right now.
Craig: It’s like Zen — it’s zaibatsu.
Craig: Okay, that’s a totally, totally reasonable mistake. So I said Daibutsu and I meant zaibatsu.
John: Yes, but in Tokyo, that could get you shunned or killed.
Craig: I mean, no one’s going to kill — I think the whole point of Buddhism —
John: I guess, no, if you call the corporation a Buddha, they’re probably not going to kill you.
Craig: And Buddhists just don’t kill you. That’s why they’re the best.
John: Yeah, but the thing is that they’re not Buddhas. They’re zaibatsus, not Daibutsus, so.
Craig: Well, the zaibatsu people may also worship a Daibutsu. This is the best episode we’ve ever done. And I have to assure people, neither one of us is high right now.
John: No, god, no.
John: We’re recording this at 1:24 in the afternoon.
Craig: On a Friday.
John: Yes. So let’s go to our main topic because this is a thing that I’ve definitely noticed for a long time and you and I have gone through this topic before. And I would posit that there’s actually a thing I would call, a variable I’d call the Armageddon delay which is how long it takes a group of screenwriters gathered together to not talk about the end of the world.
Craig: Yup. I have witnessed
John: It’s this thing that just inevitably comes up.
Craig: It does.
John: And so we’ve had long online conversations about, specifically the longest one I remember is what do you do in the event of a zombie apocalypse. And I blogged about this. Basically, what is your plan when the zombies attack. And you are way out there in La Cañada, so you have a completely different game plan than I do here in the center of Los Angeles.
Craig: Yeah, for sure. So last week or a couple of weeks ago, I joined a writer named Will Staples.
Craig: He wrote a few of the Call of Duty games. And —
John: Yeah. And he has the best name ever.
Craig: Will Staples.
John: Yeah. He’s heir to the Staples fortune, right?
Craig: I don’t think so.
Craig: I don’t think so, yeah, or the Staples Center which is also the Staples fortune, nor the Staples Sisters. I think —
John: I just think it’s bizarre that there’s an office supply place called Staples that’s named for staples.
Craig: Well, it’s also just seems like a dumb name because I mean the whole point is like Amazon, look, we’re as big as the Amazon.
Craig: Staples. It’s pretty much what you would think. We got Staples.
John: Another Los Angeles chain, a food place, a food service place is called Smart & Final. And it’s like, that’s weird. It’s like it just feels sort of like two adjectives. No, it was named after a man named Smart and a man named Final.
Craig: Are you kidding me?
John: No, it’s real. There’s a Smart and a Final. And they were grocery stores and they became this sort of warehousey thing over time.
Craig: And, you know, Ralphs is not Ralph’s.
Craig: The man’s name is Ralphs with an S. And then keeping with the whole Smart & Final thing, the Outerbridge Crossing, which is a bridge connecting Staten Island to New Jersey, it’s named after a man named Outerbridge.
John: Yeah. It just happens to be a bridge —
John: That’s named after Outerbridge.
Craig: How about that? Anywho —
John: Wouldn’t the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis say that, you know, that the word itself sort of creates the reality? You know, essentially having your name be Outerbridge means that you were destined to —
Craig: Design bridges?
John: Design bridges perhaps?
Craig: Perhaps. I mean it certainly doesn’t explain you or I, although our names are nonsense.
John: My name’s made up. My name’s made up, so.
Craig: Well, your name’s made up but your real name and my name are very similar actually.
John: Yeah, yeah.
Craig: And they’re just nonsense. They mean nothing.
John: No, mine does mean something. My original name is a kind of bird in German.
Craig: Yeah, but that’s German. We —
John: Yeah, we live in America.
Craig: We’re in America, man. We won the war, bro. Anyway —
John: Back to Will Staples.
Craig: So Will Staples puts together this group of writers. I was there, Alec Berg of Silicon Valley —
Craig: And Nicole Perlman.
John: Oh yeah, Guardians of the Galaxy.
Craig: Guardians of the Galaxy and we’ll be having her on the show soon. And we all went out to the Angeles gun range —
Craig: Which is out in like by the Hansen Dam. You don’t know where that is.
Craig: But anyway, we were joined by some military folks. I cannot say of what type. And they’re active duty military folks. And we just —
John: They were not Nazis, they were —
Craig: No, they’re American military folks —
Craig: Of a certain stripe. And we were instructed on shooting all sorts of gun, sniper rifles and .50 caliber Barretts and Israeli machine guns. It was amazing. It was just an incredible day. But it struck home how my strategy, my surmised strategy, is absolutely the correct strategy for where I live. Get up into the Angeles Crest Forest, it’s just full of gun nuts. [laughs] Get around some gun nuts, hunker down, it’s mountainous territory.
Craig: You can see a lot. So, you know, in warfare, you want the high ground. So we get up high, load up on guns and ammo, look down and theoretically I think we should be okay.
John: Yeah. That’s a very reasonable — you know, you’re picking a defensive location. You are, you know, barricading but you’re barricading smartly. In the middle of the city, it’s tougher to say what is the right choice to do because certainly for an earthquake we’re well set up for, like we have our supplies and we can get out and —
John: And lord knows we have solar panels, we can sort of do a lot of stuff here at our house for a good long time. But it’s not ideal for a zombie apocalypse because I live like in the heart of the city, so.
Craig: That’s right, John.
John: I think we’re going to have to just bail and just get out of the city.
Craig: And my feeling is always that if you live like where you live, your primary strategy should be an efficient painless suicide.
Craig: Because you’re not going anywhere. I mean, you’re just not.
John: Yeah, our emergency kit definitely has the cyanide in it. So I want to talk about sort of why — I’ll just give a quick rundown of sort of what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the end of the world because it’s just such a dominant theme in all of our recent literature really, movie literature, TV literature, written literature.
John: So 28 Days Later which is very much the scenario we’re describing, World War Z, The Road, Revolution which is just like all the power goes away, The Walking Dead, End of the World, Shaun of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Terminator which is basically the rise of evil robots.
John: Planet of the Apes which in this most recent version, is essentially —
Craig: Dead dirty apes.
John: An outbreak that kills everybody.
John: Did you see the most recent Planet of the Apes?
Craig: What do you think, John?
John: You see nothing. You just see nothing. The Hunger Games in terms of, you know, in the movies, it’s not especially clear what has happened to the world that’s put in this place. I guess in the book it’s more clear sort of what happened but like there was I think an environmental catastrophe that sort of led to the world falling apart in that specific way. Outbreak, again, is an outbreak of a disease. The Day After Tomorrow, climate change again. Terra Nova by our friend Kelly Marcel —
John: Which is basically not… — Well, the world is ending but therefore we’re going back to a primitive time.
Craig: With the dinosaur she did not want.
John: Yes, yes, lots of quality dinosaurs.
John: Mad Max, you can’t get sort of more end of the world than Mad Max.
Craig: Yes, very, very end of the world.
John: And then there’s the things that are sort of in between. So like The Leftovers, which I’m enjoying the series, it’s not the end of the world but it’s just the world is bent in a way that is so irrevocable that it feels like everything has changed.
John: And then to some degree you can also even look at like the space epics like Battlestar Galactica which is about the end of the world and the migration to a new place. So we do this a lot and I sort of want to talk about why we do it so much.
Craig: Well, there’s something I think inherent to the human condition. We are fascinated by our own mortality for obvious reasons. We also contain a certain amount of inherent self-loathing.
Craig: And I think that’s part of the human drive to improve the world around it and to improve itself, right? Humanity is constantly trying to make humanity better, trying to make the world better. We occasionally screw up as we do it but we have that instinct. And that instinct I think is driven in part by the opposition of our self-loathing. I hate the way humans are now. Let’s fix things.
Craig: So we will dwell sometimes on the parts of our nature that is awful and come up with ways in which humanity has destroyed the world. Very frequently in the movies you’ve cited, humans have caused this.
Craig: Even when the machines rise up to beat us, it’s because humans made Skynet and got lazy. And you can see this over and over that really it’s our fault. We did it.
Craig: And then, of course, when it comes to the idea of zombies, we are externalizing time.
Craig: And particularly when the traditional zombies are slow-moving zombies, they’re just time. They’re just sands in the hourglass. We are all of us running from this very slow zombie called death and it starts shambling after us once we are born and it eventually catches up to us and bites us.
John: I think you’re hitting on some of the key themes that are going to be, you know, endemic to any discussion of the end of the world which is mortality, which is the sense of we all know that we’re innately going to die but we want to apply it to everyone at once. And so it’s mortality, but it’s also scale in the way that movies and TV shows and books, they take — generally, they take ordinary experiences and then they heighten them. They push them beyond sort of normal expectations. And so an individual person dies, well, that’s sad and tragic but what happens when everybody dies.
John: Well, at a certain point, it stops becoming just, you know, exponentially more tragic and just becomes, wow, it’s completely new framework for how you have to think about sort of what’s there and what’s next.
I think you also hit on that sense of it’s self-loathing but we also have this inner question about like, well, what would I do if I didn’t have all these things.
John: In sort of a stoicism that kicks in where I don’t need all these trappings around me. If I can get back to a primitive, more simpler time, I could be great. I could be a king in an earlier time.
John: And that I think is a fascination as well. It’s that question of, what would it be like if I were in a time back before we had all these things.
John: Even back to Twain’s like, you know, a Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, that sense of like what it would be like to be transported back to a place that was simpler.
Craig: And this is particularly seductive for writers.
Craig: Writers typically don’t grow up as the head of the cheerleading squad or the quarterback. When writers sit down to imagine starting with a blank slate, they very often drift into a classic conflict between might makes right, and rationality and what we would call enlightened wisdom.
Craig: And of course, the screenwriter, the novelist, they [laughs] tend to represent the power of the mind and goodness as opposed to I’m going to hit you over the head and drag you away. If you want to look at the cleanest, simplest version of that, screenwriters are Piggy in Lord of the Flies and the people that used to beat up screenwriters are Jack [laughs] from Lord of the Flies.
John: Yeah. Even if you take a look at Lost, which is not the end of the world but it functions the same way where people are stripped away of all of their normal things, it’s a chance to take a look at those archetypes in very clean circumstances because in normal daily life, none of us are like a hero or a villain and we’re all like in line together at Starbucks. But when you take away all the trappings of society, you’re able to look at those stereotypes as archetypes and those drives much more cleanly because there’s not everything else surrounding them. So, you know, by stripping away everything else, you can sort of see what is there.
Craig: Yes. Yeah, you know, it’s a truism that so much of what we do during the day is an expression of how we survive. Our survival instinct. Almost never in a day are we making a decision that actually impacts our very survival, but the survival instinct is always there. Is your survival instinct to create a consensus and an alliance based on mutual respect? Is your survival instinct to lash out and defeat? [laughs] Is your survival instinct to lie and cheat? Is your survival instinct to be noble and heroic? That will come out so much more clearly when in fact every choice you make impacts your actual survival.
John: I think the key point is that in daily life, your decisions kind of don’t matter that much. Really they don’t. Like, you know, are you going to invest in this or in this? Are we going to have takeout or are we going to cook food at home? It just doesn’t matter, whereas in the scenarios that we’re describing, every little decision matters tremendously because your survival depends on it.
And so you look at, you know, Rick, Lee and the group in The Walking Dead, you know, literally the decision to do we go into town to try to get some more food or do we wait until, you know, some later point, all the decisions are life or death all the time. And in our daily life, we don’t really experience that. And I think there’s an attraction to feeling that danger. That’s the reason why we go to movies and to watch TV shows is that sense to escape our daily life and to imagine ourselves if those decisions we made were actually important, mattered.
Craig: Which, by the way, that’s why I’m not a huge fan of the zombie genre, the survive the apocalypse genre. When the genre creates a situation in which every decision is a matter of life and death, I get fatigued by it.
John: I do too.
Craig: You know. I like the stories where, I mean, like even a Mad Max, I mean he’s driving around, he’s pretty happy and then he runs into some trouble, you know.
I like situations where there’s some sort of stasis. I mean, a typical zombie movie just gives us the world, everything is fine, you fools you don’t know what’s coming, you fools. It’s very anti-human. Zombie movies hate humans by the way. That’s the point of zombie movies is that humans are stupid. But oh, these two or three are noble and so they will continue the humanity forth. It’s very confused. But everything’s fine and then everything goes to hell and then a few people make it out. But it’s all fatiguing to me. And I recognize other people love it but —
John: Well, I think part of the fatigue is the futility of it all is that in most zombie stories there is no perceived end to it, like it’s going to suck forever.
Craig: Right. [laughs]
John: And therefore like, you know, you were joking about sort of like the suicide pills, but like in many ways, like that probably would be the most reasonable course of action because there’s no destination to get to that is actually going to be safe.
John: And that becomes an exhausting aspect of two characters who are living in it but also the people who are, by proxy, living in it through watching your story.
Craig: Yeah, there’s nowhere safe and there’s also nowhere interesting.
Craig: I mean the world now, the best you can do is find some terrible, uninhabited island that zombies can’t get to where you’ll just sit there for a while. And then, by the way, you’ll die anyway one day. So it’s such a direct metaphor for mortality that it’s just kind of vaguely depressing. And I’ve already accepted that I’m going to die one day anyway, so, you know, meh.
John: So another kind of end of the world scenario tends to be climate change like some, the cataclysmic event has happened to the world, so either an asteroid has smashed into us, there has been an extinction level event that killed everybody but like they’re not walking around as the dead. And that I find more interesting in some ways because you’re adapting to a new reality but that new reality is not trying to kill you at every moment.
Craig: That’s right. I’m totally with you. I’m fascinated by people’s responses to things. It’s interesting to watch characters respond in various ways to a disruption of stasis that can be overcome.
Craig: One of my favorite books from childhood was — did you go through your Heinlein phase?
John: I didn’t really read the Heinleins. I read like short bits of things but I didn’t go through a big binge.
Craig: Well, so you didn’t soak in adolescent space fascism the way that I did. But he wrote this great book called Tunnel in the Sky. I loved this book. And I can’t believe no one’s done this yet. So producers listening to this, somebody go and get this book. Get the rights to this thing and make a series out of it. It would be an awesome series.
So the idea is that in the future, people have to go leave earth and colonize other places because earth is really crowded and that’s the way it goes. And there are special groups of people that go to new planets and kind of are the frontiers people to see like, okay, can we actually live here and if we can, then other people can show up. And so our young hero, he’s a senior basically in high school. All these kids are like really hardened teenagers and they’ve taken this super awesome survival class, right?
And what’s the final exam? They open a tunnel in the sky, a space portal, and they send you somewhere to a planet that no one has been to before or maybe they’ve scouted briefly and you have to survive.
Craig: If you come back alive, you pass.
Craig: If you die on the planet, you fail. And so they go there and of course something goes wrong. The tunnel doesn’t open back up in time and they’re marooned there and they must truly survive there. And what was so fascinating to me about the book was that they had to form some kind of society. And, you know, Heinlein was so like, you know, he was such a nut about that stuff.
Craig: So it was really interesting to watch these people like create a constitution and it was very cool. Anyway, I like that sort of thing.
John: Well, I think, part of the reason why I like that type of fiction is that the villain is not this faceless thing that’s always going to be there. The villain or the antagonist is going to be someone else who’s in that same situation who wants different things, which is true in real life is that, you know, your antagonist just wants, it has cross purposes to you. And it could be the other group leader who is trying to get your stuff.
And you see that on The Walking Dead. We see like, you know, the real villains become like the mayor of that town or the sheriff or whatever his name was who is much more dangerous honestly than most of the zombies in the world. And yet, ultimately, you feel the fatigue of like, but there’s always going to be more zombies out there.
John: And so in the scenarios in which like everyone has died and you’re starting to create a new society, Stephen King’s The Stand is an example of that.
John: You’re trying to create a new society and so you don’t have to worry about the dead people. You only have to worry about sort of what happens next. And so as I read The Stand, or reading the sort of unabridged The Stand, I was so excited to see these groups coming back together and trying to figure out how to build society from scratch, which is a good segue to this book I’m reading right now, which I’m loving, which is The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch. It’s by Lewis Dartnell. And it’s talking about exactly that topic which is if everything did go away, how would you start everything over again?
Craig: Well, you’d use Sugru.
John: The Sugru would be, obviously, the first thing you would go to because you need to have good grippy handles on all the tools, the hoes that you’re now using for agriculture.
Craig: You’ve got to have hoes in a new world.
John: You’ve got to have hoes in probably two — two dimensions of hoes.
Craig: When things go bad, the first thing I go looking for, hoes.
Craig: And the guy with the most hoes obviously is the most powerful.
John: Because his agriculture would be unstoppable.
Craig: [laughs] Because his soil will be so well tilled.
John: [laughs] Yes. He will have fertility.
Craig: Yeah. [laughs] Oh god, this is the worst.
Craig: This is either the best or the worst that I can remember.
John: Terrible metaphors stacked upon each other. So Craig —
John: I think, before reading this book, I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I always had this sort of vision in my head where I did get like transported back to year 0.
I’d be like, wow, you know, I would know so much and I would be able to therefore rocket, you know, science ahead, like people would benefit so much from everything I could tell them.
Craig: What year have you gone back to?
John: Let’s say I’d go back to year 0 or year 1.
Craig: Oh, they would stone you to death almost instantly.
John: Oh, they would stone me to death. But let’s say I’d go back to some place that likes me and —
Craig: No, you want to be somewhere in the, I would say, the 1600s, 1500s would be nice. Anything before that, if you start talking about atoms —
John: No, I don’t think even talking about atoms. I think you can talk about some sort of fundamental things. First off, you and I know, we know that there’s a new world. We know that there’s a —
John: We do know some fundamental things that could be very, very useful to people. But what’s challenging is we don’t know some fundamental things, like you and I don’t know fundamental things that are super crucial like, how to make steel?
John: How to sort of make furnaces. I kind of know how to make electricity. But I don’t know how to make the wire and the magnets that we’re going to need to forge the electricity.
Craig: No, what you’re describing is the difference between creators and consumers. We’re consumers of technology.
Craig: We’re not creators of technology. So it’s literally of no use. It would be like if you went back in time and you were a very well-read person, you’re not going to be able to cheat Mark Twain by writing Huck Finn instead of him. You won’t be able to do it, you know. We will be, look, if I go back in time, I don’t care where I’m going. I’m just going to keep my head down, [laughs], try not to get burned at the stake, you know, I’m Jewish which is already an issue.
Craig: You know, I’m just going to like keep my head down. Certainly, if I were going , like if you sent me back to a time when I thought I could do some good, I would try to do good. I would.
John: Right. So just so we’re clear, zombies, you head for the hills.
John: To the past, you keep your head down low.
Craig: Keep head down low. Keep your head down. Remember, those people are not like us at all. Speak of the dumbest mob on the planet currently. Go to whatever country you feel has the dumbest, most ignorant people. Find them at their worst. That’s everybody back in the day. That is the entire world in the year 500.
John: The other challenge, I think, and I haven’t gotten so far in the book to know whether he actually addresses this, is clearly you need a critical mass of people in order to do any of the kinds of bigger projects that he’s talking about. So you can’t build a dam with just, you know, five people. You can’t make steel with five people.
But so much of what we’ve done historically has been on the backs of slaves. And so could you go back in time and, or yes, even go forward in time like let’s say everything falls apart. Could you rebuild civilization without slavery? And I would hope so.
Craig: Yeah, I think so.
John: But certainly it would be challenging.
Craig: I think so. But how awkward for us if the answer is, no, you can’t. Like, oh man.
John: Yeah, that slavery is just like a key, crucial component at certain point.
Craig: You know, we’re really progressive people, but ooh.
John: Ooh, but, [laughs] I’m going to have to make you my slave. Sorry.
Craig: I’ve got to own humans now. Oh well, sigh.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah, you know, I think we could do it without slaves. I feel pretty good about that.
John: Yeah, so a zombie situation or any situation in the future without medicine. So what do you do without, not just even without the technical knowledge but without the actual medicines and what do you do without the technology to be able to look inside a person? And so this book goes through like how to create x-ray machines, but that’s —
Craig: Oh no.
John: No. Challenging.
Craig: No, no. Yeah. The way to kind of handcraft an x-ray machine probably involves the cancerous death of the crafter. I don’t know. [laughs] I mean if the zombies come and I’m up in the hills, you’re going to want some basics, you know. There are medical basics which should keep you alive for awhile. But there’s simply no way to avoid the fact that even if no zombie ever breaches your perimeter —
Craig: Life expectancy is going to plummet.
John: It is because mortality is not just, you know, that zombie biting you. Mortality is all the things that could kill you, but wouldn’t kill in normal society because there is disinfectant and there is a doctor and there is simple surgeries. So that impacted tooth could kill you.
John: Childbirth, incredibly dangerous.
John: Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend it.
Craig: No, there’s [laughs].
Craig: I’ve personally, I’ve watched it and I caused it to happen. But I —
John: Yes, and I’ve cut cords.
John: But I wouldn’t want to do it in a non-medical setting.
Craig: No. No, I’m just befuddled. Again, I really do believe this. The same instinct that makes people want to write stories about how humans have destroyed the world, it’s the same thing that leads them to say, I think a home birth is better for my baby than a hospital birth. I don’t think the baby cares.
Craig: There’s like a weird thing where people want to turn away from the modern because they suspect it. They feel that it’s all tainted by something quote- unquote, “unnatural”. But there’s nothing unnatural about humans doing stuff. We’d been doing it forever.
John: So I think that keys in to sort of my final point here, which is that, all these dystopian scenarios that we’re laying out, I think underlying most of them is this utopian ideal that’s there. And what you describe in terms of like, oh, it would be so much better without modern medicine or if, you know, we’ll be able to have natural things, the people would just chew willow bark instead of taking drugs.
John: There’s a utopian idea there. And I kind of applaud that utopian idea. But at the same, we need to recognize that that’s, you know, that’s not realistic. And you can’t get some of those few utopian ideals without all the stuff that feeds into making those possible. You can’t have perfect representational democracy and still get those power lines lit. Ideals are wonderful things, but the reality on the ground can be quite a different thing.
Craig: I completely agree. I think that one of the interesting things we see from culture and from stories about the end of the world and the recreation of a new world is that we tend to give more credence to dystopian visions. Because we feel like a self-critique is more valid, whereas utopian ideals seem sugary and silly and corny. But the truth is they’re both dumb. There will never be a perfect world nor is there going to be some horrendous awful world.
The world we have will continue to get better. I think things are better now than they’ve ever been before, as bad as they are. And I think things will get better. But there’s no utopia.
John: No. And there are dystopias in the modern world. But luckily, they’re pockets of dystopia that hopefully can be eradicated and they will show up somewhere else. So like, Somalia seems like a dystopia at times.
John: Liberia, yeah absolutely. And, you know —
Craig: If you go Liberia and Syria.
John: You look at some of the things that are happening in Iraq right now, there is huge pockets of terribleness, but that’s not the general state.
John: But let’s talk about it from a writer’s point of view in terms of you are creating a story that is taking place in one of these worlds. And what of the crucial things because the world building you’re doing here is very important and there are useful short-hands and then there are some really dangerous short-hands. And, you know, we talked about expectation. And so if you’re doing a zombie story, you get a lot of zombie stuff for free. We sort of know basically how zombies work.
John: And you have to be clear about the things you’re changing. So it’s no longer a spoiler, but in The Walking Dead series you don’t have to be bit, you know this right, you don’t have to bit in The Walking Dead series to become a zombie. You just will become a zombie when you die. And so that’s an important rule change they had to make. But kind of everything else with zombies they got for free.
Craig: Yeah, yeah.
John: Or 28 Days Later, like they are fast zombies. They have to make that clear. But that’s an easy thing to make clear.
Craig: We can see it, they’re fast, yeah. Those basic monster rules, sure.
John: Basic monster rules. But yeah, I think you have to extend beyond those, then take a look at like what is the overall world in which your story is taking place. And that could eat a lot of pages as you’re trying to describe it. And so you have to be very, very smart about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
John: The initial images you’re showing will lead us to believe whether this is a Mad Max world or a Hunger Games world. And those aren’t the same thing.
Craig: Yeah. Or a world of your own making that’s just fresh and interesting. I mean, Snowpiercer, the entire world is a train.
Craig: Yeah, you know, there are movies, I mean Blade Runner obviously was a huge influence on anybody that was trying to write some sort of dystopian future. I thought that Rian Johnson did a great job in Looper of just casually setting up a world that wasn’t, I don’t think of it as dystopian.
John: It’s not dystopian, no.
Craig: It’s just it’s kind of just the world. It’s just —
John: Yeah, it’s messed up in a way that would be realistic for the world to get messed up in.
Craig: That’s right, exactly, but not a dystopia per se. Yeah, you want to make sure if you’re going to write a world, a dystopian world, that you have some sort of point. And here is where I think a lot of dystopian movies go awry. They’re just too on the nose.
Craig: You know, humanity must work together and stop killing the planet. I mean we get it. We know. Yes. Absolutely. [laughs] But surely, there’s something else to say.
John: So you have to look for what is the, you know, your movie can’t just be about this world you created. This world you created has to support the story you’re trying to tell. And so I think an example of a movie that does it really well is The Matrix.
John: And so The Matrix is this, obviously, it’s sort of two levels of dystopia. Like Neo is in this sort of messed up world to start with. But then you realize like, oh it’s actually much more worse than you think. And it’s Neo’s story. And so that’s the backdrop for this journey that he’s going on throughout the course of the story. And it’s exciting because it works. But if it had just been that cool world, who cares?
Craig: Exactly. And part of what I see sometimes is that the dystopia is a straw dummy set up for the screenwriter to knock down. Elysium, the concept of Elysium was that very rich people lived on this space station floating above the planet. And then all the have-nots lived on the planet where they suffered. Well, that’s just, it’s too simple. You know, so you want to get —
John: It’s way too simple.
Craig: Yeah, if you want to get angry at the 1%, it could have been like space 1%. It’s just too obvious. And the whole movie feels like a rigged job for people to basically tell rich folks, you stink, which often times they do.
Craig: Of course, the people making the movie are all super rich. And the movie was made by a mega corporation. All of which just seemed very odd to me.
John: Yeah. But you compare that movie, it’s the same director to District 9, which actually had fascinating things to say.
Craig: Ah-ha. Yes, exactly.
John: And so District 9 could talk about immigration and squalor and —
John: And racism. And it focused on a character who could move from one world into that other world and actually become a part of that world which Matt Damon’s character never did in Elysium.
Craig: Well yeah, and so part of what made District…9?
John: District 9, yeah.
Craig: District 9. I always want to say District 7, I don’t know why. But District 9, part of what made it so good was that it was getting into this really greasy stuff about what it means to be a policeman.
Craig: And to be a policeman in a bad neighborhood. And to feel like you are both a part of and at war with the community around you. You have this sympathy and then this repulsion and disgust. Some of those people, you’re there to help. Some of those people are there to hurt you. You start to hurt them. That stuff is good, greasy stuff to get into.
John: Yeah, because they’re deep human themes but also completely relatable to modern experience.
Craig: And there’s conflict to it, you know.
Craig: You can see how a human being becomes torn by the dilemmas of all this. But, you know, if you just get too on the nose with your conceit, then it’s just like, no! It’s a little bit, you know, I mean it goes back to The Time Machine, Eloi and the Ewoks, or whatever the other ones were. [laughs]
John: [laughs] Well, I want to step back for a second, when you say like you see the dilemma. Dilemma is another word for a choice. And the dilemma is you’re forcing your protagonist to make a choice between this way of doing things and a new way to doing things. And the choice that you want them to make is generally the one that’s going to cause them the most pain but is the one that’s going to lead to an outcome that’s rewarding.
Now I would also state that like the dystopia doesn’t have to be the thing itself. In some ways it can function like a MacGuffin. And so if you go back to Terminator, you know, Terminator is coming to kill Sarah Connor. So while we see these moments of dystopia before John Connor , wait, no.
John: John Connor comes back, we see these moments of dystopia where like, you know, tanks are crushing human skulls. Most of the story is not that. Most of the story is this chase movie set in the real present day things against this incredibly dangerous killer robot.
So that dystopia is an incredibly important piece of set up and is a thing to avoid, but in order for the movie to resolve successfully she has to win and defeat this one thing. She doesn’t have to stop the apocalypse. That’s a part of what she’s doing. That’s the overall goal is just, you know, she learns to, she’s going to be carrying a baby who’s going to be this important leader. But she herself doesn’t have to stop Skynet within the course of this one thing. And it lets it be much more contained and let’s it be a story about human beings rather than this grand Skynet.
Craig: Yeah. And The Terminator is I think the best version of the zombie story anyway. You know, he can’t be reasoned with, he can’t be defeated. He will never stop no matter what. Very zombie-like, right? It just keeps on coming. You chop him in half, he keeps on coming. But he is defeatable.
And ultimately you can defeat it. And that’s why Terminator is I think a more interesting story ultimately than the general zombie story because we like stories where we triumph over death. At least, if I’m going to do a fantasy story, and all science fiction is fantasy. Terminator is fantasy and zombie movies are fantasy. If I’m going to do a fantasy story, I might as well — I’m an optimist, so I like fantasy stories about triumphing over death, even of course, in the end, though, everyone dies.
John: Mm-hmm. Yeah, everyone does die.
Craig: You die, she dies, they all die.
John: To wrap this up, I would say that, you know, you and I are both fans of life with a purpose. And therefore, hopefully death with a purpose as well. And so if in crafting these stories, you’re able to make that character’s existence meaningful in the course of the movie’s world, that’s success.
Craig: A good purposeful death is a wonderful thing.
John: I agree. Craig, I think that’s the end of the world for us here in the end of our show. Do you have a One Cool Thing?
John: Yeah? [laughs]
Craig: Yeah. I’m trying to decide between two. I think I’m going to go with this one. Have I talked about this, I don’t know, I always feel like I’m app heavy. So I was thinking like, you choose, do you want a One Cool Thing that’s an app or One Cool Thing that’s something you can hold in your hand and put in your mouth?
John: I’m going to pick an app for myself, so why don’t you do the thing you put in your mouth?
Craig: Okay. So I was over at Chicago Fire/PDs creator’s home, Derek Haas.
Craig: His wife put out all this —
John: His wife is the best.
Craig: She’s the best.
John: I love Kristi. She’s the best.
Craig: She is the best. So Kristi put out all these things because we had all the kids together and she put out these things. And it was boxed water. Have you seen this?
John: Yeah, I’ve seen boxed water.
Craig: Yeah, boxed water. Okay, well you live in fancy town. I live, you know, in Mormonville where we don’t have boxed water. And so I thought it was pretty genius. I hate bottled water. I hate the concept of bottled water. I hate the bottles. I don’t understand why we don’t just drink water out of the tap. I’m the one guy left in LA that drinks water out of his tap.
John: I only drink water out of the tap. Out of the tap or out of like the filtered pitcher.
Craig: Okay, exactly. So I don’t understand, I mean, understand occasionally if you’re serving people or things and you don’t want keep filling stuff up, maybe then. Or if you’re going somewhere I guess. But people, it makes me nuts. Anyway, at least with boxed water, you’re not just filling the trash with all these bottles. It’s much easier to recycle. And you can squish it down. And it’s not a petroleum product. I just don’t … — What is the story with bottled water? Why did that happen? Why?
John: I think bottled water serves a crucial need when you cannot count on the safety of your water supply. And so for those purposes, I think bottled water is a great thing. And I guess if your choice is between drinking a soda and drinking a bottled water, the bottle water is healthier for you to be consuming. But in general, I completely agree with you. And that’s why we don’t have any bottled water in the house. And I either drink directly out of the faucet, well, I drink it in a glass.
Craig: Right. I will do it out of the faucet.
John: Every once in a while, I will do the, you know, the two-hand scooping thing.
Craig: Oh really? No, I just do the sideways head, like [lapping noise], like a dog.
John: Like the dog lapping.
Craig: Where you’re mostly just drinking air, but it feels good. I mean when I was a kid, we used to just drink water out of the hose.
John: Yeah. Yeah, you shouldn’t do that honestly because the plastics in a hose are not —
Craig: Oh, get out of here. Look at me, I’m as healthy as an ox.
John: [laughs] Yes. They actually make hoses, though, that are designed for drinking water that are safe.
Craig: I’ve just had it with this. You know what, now I want the world to end. Now I hate the world. Oh, your hose, we’ve got a special hose for your special body. I used to drink out of some nasty hose that was —
John: I used to drink out of puddles. [laughs]
Craig: [laughs] Yeah. And like our garden hose was smelted in the basement of some weird prison. And it was all coils and nasty chemicals and stuff and it was hot.
John: And we liked it.
Craig: It was delicious. And the end was like a rusty nozzle.
John: That’s good stuff.
Craig: Yeah. And look at me, strong.
Craig: Strong like an ox.
John: You could not be stronger.
Craig: Strong like ox.
John: My One Cool Thing, I don’t think I’ve talked about it in the show before. And I’m curious whether you use it. It’s Waze. Do you know Waze?
Craig: I use Inrix.
John: Okay, so same —
Craig: Inrix was one of my Cool Things many —
John: That was your One Cool Thing a while back.
John: So I finally got converted to Waze because I kind of didn’t understand the point of it and then I took a meeting at Amazon which is on the West Side in Santa Monica in the afternoon. I’m like, oh, why did I do this? I’ll never be able to get home. So people who don’t live in Los Angeles, you should understand the east/west divide in Los Angeles isn’t a we hate them and they hate us. It’s that it’s actually physically impossible to move from the West LA to East LA at certain times of the day or vice versa.
John: It takes forever.
Craig: It’s also impossible to move North and South in various spots. It’s just impossible to move.
John: Yeah. It can be very, very challenging to move. So in my life, after about 4 PM, so like 4 PM to 8 PM, I will not try to sort of go out to Santa Monica or something like that. It’s just madness. But I took this meeting, I’m like, oh, crap. So it was only an hour, so I get out and it’s like, you know what, I’m going to try Waze.
And so the idea behind Waze is it’s like Google Maps or Maps on the iPhone where it’s telling you which way how to go expect that in real time it’s updating it based on how fast and slow these streets are moving, partially based on other people who are using Waze and calculating their speeds.
And so Waze will send you in these crazy ways, literally ways, to get you to your destination. But it actually works. And so I got home in like 35 minutes which is just impossible.
John: But I took like the weirdest streets imaginable. So you just have to trust it, but it works.
Craig: Oh yeah. No, that’s the same thing with Inrix. I’ve been using it forever. And particularly for me because I live a bit a further afield than you do, it’s absolutely essential.
Craig: There’s nothing that feels better than getting into my car, putting in, you know, and I’ve saved all the various locations that I want, but I can always put new ones in, and I go, “Okay, what’s the fastest way to get home?” And they show me the way I would have gone home which is a disaster and their way which is like 20 minutes faster. Oh, it’s the nicest feeling.
John: Blessed be.
Craig: Yes, yeah.
John: Alright. Well, that’s our show this week. So if you would like to talk to me or Craig about the end of the world or our plans for it, you can reach Craig, @clmazin on Twitter, I’m @johnaugust. Longer questions and statements can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. We are on iTunes and so you should subscribe to us there. And while you’re there, you can leave us a comment and let us know about the show and what you think. You can also subscribe to Slate’s podcast there if you feel like it because that would be a nice thing to do.
The show is produced by Stuart Friedel who’s out sick right now. So I’m hoping he’s feeling better. Oh, Stuart.
Craig: Oh no!
John: Yeah, basically everyone in the office is sick except for me. So I’m just, yeah, yeah. So if they all, if it becomes an extinction-level event, it’s just going to be me doing the podcast, I guess.
John: I’ll have to do it myself.
John: Matthew Chilelli edits the podcast. Thank you, Matthew for that. I think our outro this week is going to be the one from, it’s actually the jingle from Stride gum which is exactly the same melody as the Scriptnotes melody.
Craig: Stride gum?
John: Wait, no, it’s actually Orbit gum. But anyway, I’ll put that on as the outro. But we would love more outros from our listeners. So if you would like to do a riff on our [hums], you can send it to email@example.com or put it up on SoundCloud with a #scriptnotes and we will do it.
Craig: I was listening to a bunch of those. They’re really good.
John: They’re really good.
John: So Matthew Chilelli who cuts our show has done a lot of the really great ones. But there is some competition there. There’s some really good people out there who’ve done amazing things.
Craig: Yeah, no, I liked a lot of them. I’m always impressed that people even do it all but they can do it.
Craig: It’s amazing. Can we do a, find like, I don’t know, Stuart is out. Maybe Matthew can dig up a little clip of Jaye P. Morgan for the very end there.
John: We’ll try to find a little clip of Jaye P. Morgan being her Morganist.
Craig: So pretty.
John: Pretty in that old way. The way that people used to —
Craig: That glamorous old way. Yeah.
Craig: The way people used to be pretty. They’re not anymore, it’s true.
John: So our last reminders. People should vote for the WGA board. If you would like a t-shirt, you should let us know that you would like a t-shirt. And just go to johnaugust.com. There’s still a few leftover t-shirts from way back when in the store but this is really a question for what t-shirt should we make next if we want to make t-shirts. And you should buy tickets for the Slate Culture Gabfest because it will sell out and then you will not get to see us. So there’s a link to all these things we talked about on the show at johnaugust.com/scriptnotes.
If you would like to listen to all the back episodes of Scriptnotes, those are available at scriptnotes.net and you can also get them through the app which is for Android and for iOS.
John: Craig, have a great week.
Craig: You too, John.
- 2014’s WGA Candidate Night is September 3rd
- Jaye P. Morgan is still alive
- Get tickets now for October 8th’s live Slate Culture Gabfest with guests John and Craig
- The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch by Lewis Dartnell
- Boxed Water is better
- Waze gets you there with real-time help
- Outro by Orbit (send us yours!)