The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Susannah Grant: I’m Susannah Grant.
John: And this is Episode 168 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
We are live at the Austin Film Festival and, Susannah, I cannot believe you and I have done 168 episodes.
Susannah: 168. It’s been such a long road together.
John: It’s been kind of amazing. Like, what were your favorite episodes that we did?
Susannah: [laughs] You know, there was one guy who came once, I think his name was Craig, he was really kind of nice. I liked having him —
John: Yeah, he was belligerent.
Susannah: Unpleasant, but in a nice way.
John: I mean, I think my favorite episode was Episode 34 with Aaron Sorkin where he went on that long rant about robots.
Susannah: Right. That was great.
John: It was so odd, but he really had a passionate defense for why robots should be ruling society. Then the last year we had a live show and it was Callie Khouri and Vince Gilligan. They got into that rap battle.
John: I had never heard —
Susannah: That was a good one, too.
John: I’ve never heard such profanity from Callie Khouri.
John: Yeah, well, yeah.
Susannah: You need to talk to her a little more.
John: All right. She can throw down. She can throw down and she can drop a beat. And that was the crucial thing I learned. This episode of Scriptnotes, this live show, probably won’t have as much profanity because we are in a church.
Susannah: Yeah. So watch yourself.
John: Yeah. It’s odd. We’ll paint the scene for people who are listening at home. There’s literally stained glass all around us.
Susannah: Beautiful stained glass.
John: It’s really, really pretty. It feels kind of inappropriate for our podcast, but I think we’re going to make this one PG-13. There will be no F-bombs dropped in this sanctuary, I hope.
Susannah: Really? Okay. I can do that.
John: All right. Now, usually Craig Mazin would be here. And the official reason for why Craig is not here is that he is at a friend’s wedding, and so therefore could not come to the Austin Film Festival. The official reason is not necessarily the most interesting reason. So, I thought one thing we might do is let’s draw a card and pick a different reason for why he’s gone.
So, this is a thing we’re experimenting, we call it Writer Emergency. And it’s when you sort of get stuck on an idea.
Susannah: You’ve come up with a bad solution like he’s not there because he’s at a wedding. And you know that’s way too boring, so you have to come up with instead he’s the victim of a zombie attack.
Susannah: Much better.
John: It’s a much better thing. So, someone who eats Craig Mazin, and eats Craig Mazin’s brain, is that a more powerful zombie? It’s an angrier zombie.
Susannah: [laughs] Angrier zombie for sure. I think the zombie army is stronger with Craig Mazin’s brain.
John: I’m going to pick on. I just want to say Craig Mazin is not here because…stop talking is the one I got. So, that would be a good lesson for us, and also perhaps why he couldn’t be here is because he’s been struck mute by some strange reason.
We are going to bring up our first guest who is Richard Kelly who has been a frequent guest on the podcast. Richard Kelly, come up here. Richard Kelly, writer and director of films such as Donnie Darko, The Box, Southland Tales. Today on the show I really want to talk about the experience of being a writer and a director. When do you stop writing and when do you sort of put on your director hat as you’re approaching a project?
Richard Kelly: I’ve found that the writing process never stops. That it’s endless. Literally it’s in your head forever. I’m still rewriting movies that I directed years and years ago. I’m still editing them in my mind, you know. So, there’s what’s happening in your mind, and then there’s the limitations of the real world and as you get older and as you mature as an artist, hopefully you’re good at setting parameters for when you need to be finished with something and when you need to transition into the next phase and move on.
So, what I’ve found, in the past I would not have enough discipline, I think, in terms of editing the screenplay and getting it to a point where it’s more or less locked. And the actors can do a little improvisation. There are going to be some surprises on set that are going to be wonderful surprises, we hope, but in the past I would just keep adding stuff.
I would be caught up in the moment on set and you’re only there for a limited number of hours. And you have all of these wonderful tools at your disposal. And sometimes I would get caught up in the moment and I would just keep adding more material and adding new scenes. And, you know, that’s fine, but then it becomes a real headache in the editing room because you end up with just way too much material.
And then maybe that time might have been better spent really focusing on what’s essential. So, as you get older as an artist you hope to become more efficient and be able to compartmentalize things, I guess. So, compartmentalizing the writing and then compartmentalizing the directing.
John: Susannah, you’ve written and directed. Is that your experience that you keep trying to write even though you’re in your directing mode, or do you break off?
Susannah: I think there’s an interesting tension in what you’re talking about because that spontaneity can sometimes yield the best piece of work in the whole piece. I don’t know, I find that kind of exciting. Like it could be a colossal waste of time, and it could be the thing that puts it over the edge, which is kind of interesting, you know. You feel like you’ve gotten better at knowing which it is?
Richard: Yeah. And I also, having ended up with like a three-hour rough cut that I want to open up a vein thinking about how to cut an hour out. It’s so hard. And sometimes my movies end up, they’re like algebra theorems sometimes in terms of like a science fiction logic and they’re really hard to sometimes deconstruct because without one component the whole thing doesn’t make sense. So, I don’t know. It’s trying to make room for those surprises, and make room for improvisation, but at the same time just try to always improve my level of discipline in terms of making sure that I’m focused on keeping everything in the correct timeframe. And that I’m not going to just end up with a lot of superfluous material.
But at the same time, you do want those surprises. You do want them, but this is also — excited to hear Cary talk, because when you’re dealing with something like television, boy is there time to play in television. Boy, is there just an extended canvas where you can have the shoe leather and you can have the quiet moments or the deleted scenes in movies end up becoming some of the best scenes in television, you know, because you have the time, the breathing room I guess.
John: Susannah, you’re just out of the editing room from shooting this TV pilot. So, are you able to sort of look at the stuff as a writer, or are you looking at this as the producer has to make the show going forward? What is that like for you?
Susannah: Because you go into it knowing you’re going to be shepherding it, you know, you’re going to be the authority on it all the way through. It felt like all of a piece, the work all felt like it was feeding into each other. But I ended up with exactly what you’re talking about. I ended up with a feature-length pilot initially and it took a lot to get it down into shape.
I think it’s partly because you’re looking ahead at what could be a pilot and it could be seven years. So, you’re thinking I’m going to have the time to play this stuff out. And that’s a real luxury. So, you’ve got the long view from the get go with television, you know.
John: In the moment as you’re shooting a scene, whether you’re the director or you’re the writer who is on the set, you’re watching the thing, I find the thing I have to keep reminding myself is what is the scene actually about. Because it’s so easy to get caught up in the mechanics of how you’re filming something. There’s that one little thing that’s annoying you that’s so easy to forget this is why this scene is in the story at all. And sometimes it’s a function of a writer, whether you’re the writer-director, or just the writer who happens to be on set, is the person who can remind everyone that this scene is important because of the thing that happened before and the thing that happens after.
Because when you’re just on the day shooting a scene it’s so easy to forget why that scene matters and why it exists. What the storytelling purpose is in that moment.
Susannah: I have a friend who is a writer-director and before she shoots anything she takes every scene, puts it on a little note card, punches a hole in it, and she puts them all on a little ring and attaches it to her hip. And on it she writes “the point of this scene is,” because as soon as you’re in it there are so many other factors and something can really excite you and she always has that and then she just rips it off when she’s done with the scene.
And I think it’s a really smart thing to do.
Richard: Well it’s also good to always remember what comes before and what comes after. I actually, I usually do a big diagram of the movie. I’m all about drawing diagrams. And a lot of it is the timeline of the movie and the characters and the sort of tension flow. It’s good to show the actors that and to have this diagram for the actors because you often have to shoot things out of chronology.
And so this is what happened to your character yesterday. This is what’s going to happen to your character tomorrow. So that you can keep them anchored in the timeline. And if you can have actually a visual reference, whether it’s something like she described — note cards on a belt, or a diagram of some kind — even if the actors can have some sort of visual access to the macro world of the movie and where they exist within that timeline. It can be really helpful. I mean, even going back. I remember working with Jake on Darko. That character goes through a really intense journey. And we had to shoot a lot of it out of sequence and do block shooting for the dinner table stuff, because we just had no time.
And so it was really important that I could just remind him. It’s like, you just saw the bunny rabbit, or you’re about to meet Grandma Death, you know. You’re about to have a schizoid attack. It was a lot to balance, but chronology and I have a friend who is always reminding me, and I do this in my scripts, to remind your audience what the chronology of your story is.
If your story takes place over a month, a week, a day, make sure that your audience understands the timeframe of when the story is taking place. That’s important.
John: I think one of the challenges we all face as we are going into production on our projects is the experience of reading a script is like the experience of watching a movie. Things move forward in time and it’s all very natural. You start here, you end up there. The experience of production classically is not that at all. And so you’re shooting things completely out of sequence. And so what you’re describing in terms of being able to talk with an actor about like this is what just happened, this is where you’re going to, you’re trying to give them a map for sort of this is what the journey is. Here is where we’re at on this journey, even though we’re sort of skipping around how we’re actually filming it.
And it’s a hard thing to appreciate until you’re there on the set and it’s two in the morning and they don’t understand sort of why this moment needs to be this moment. It’s a challenging thing.
You brought up TV. And we actually have two directors here who are fantastic TV directors. So, I want to ask those kind of questions. Let’s get them up here and send you back.
John: I want to invite up Cary Fukunaga from True Detective. Director of True Detective. Writer and director of Sin Nombre. Jane Eyre, which I just loved. So, thank you very much. This is such a weird space, because I know when we sit down we’re sort of hard to see, and so we’ll just stand. I also want to welcome up Peter Gould from Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul. Peter Gould.
All right. Bigger canvases. Longer stories. Things that don’t have to fit into small boxes. And yet they’re shorter, they’re episodes, and there are constraints on how long a thing can be. As you’re approaching a Breaking Bad episode, you know what’s happened in the series before then, but you haven’t necessarily even seen that thing being shot. So, you have a sense of where things are going, but you have to prepare this thing that isn’t quite a moment yet. Can you talk us through prepping an episode of Breaking Bad and sort of when you come on board, whether it’s something you write, or something you’re just directing. What is the process for getting an episode together.
Peter Gould: Well, for me the process centers on the writer’s room. And it centers on a group of writers, some producers, writer-producers sitting around a table and asking that question: what just happened? What will be the result of that? And we often will have things that we want to have happen. We have goals. We have brainstorms. We have crazy ideas of things that we’d like to do, but ultimately we have to earn them. And so we want to be true to what’s just happened as much as we can.
So, in some ways, having the previous episodes or having the pilot is a lot like you’re little deck of cards. It’s like you have writing prompts that are embedded in the work you’ve already done. And you have writing prompts embedded in the things you know about your cast. And then when you start watching dailies you see things that work or don’t work. And those also become kind of writing prompts in their own weird way.
So, for us, and just the approach that we used, it’s very much about figuring out the story. It’s what Richard was talking about, too, is trying to figure out, trying to pre-visualize the episode as much as we can. And so sometimes we’ll ask ourselves, if we get stuck, it’s like what’s the first shot in this scene? What’s the transition between these two? Is this a new costume?
We try to think — and John, you and I met at USC and I was your teacher at USC. And it was all about making movies that weren’t necessarily dialogue centered, which a lot of people had a hard time getting their heads around. And for us, and the approach I like, is to really think about the story and to think about how little you can do.
As Susannah was talking about pilots, and I think the challenge with a pilot in a weird way for the audience, it only has one goal in my mind which is to get them to watch the next episode.
Susannah: Right. Come back.
Peter: Come back to the next episode. But on the other hand, there are a lot of impulses that people have. Let’s do everything. Let’s show the entire scope of what we’re intending to do, all in one 47-minute episode.
Susannah: Let’s take every character on a journey.
Susannah: And get them to an endpoint.
Peter: Yes, go big moment, big moment. I’ve heard the phrase, thank god we never hear it with the folks that we’re working with, but I’ve heard the phrase “keep turning cards over.” Keep turning cards over. Keep making. Keep switching it up. And I think that’s actually antithetical to good storytelling to my mind. And that didn’t answer your question at all.
John: No, but it was a very good start to it.
Peter: It works out.
John: I want to switch over to Cary because you had the pilot-less experience. And so talk to us about True Detective and sort of your coming into the project and this wasn’t going to be made in a normal way.
Cary Fukunaga: Yeah. I was listening to Peter’s experience and I couldn’t even imagine what that would be like actually to have to — I would feel insecure just talking to the actors about how they accomplished some scene in a previous episode because there’s that communication, the one-on-one dialogue between a director and an actor. And, of course, in a longer running series the actors essentially know their parts. But there is a director there still for a reason.
So, like what if you’re saying something completely of, you know.
John: But it happens.
Peter: You wouldn’t do that. You would never say something off!
Cary: Never. No.
Peter: But also you have to have the freedom to, well, obviously this is my belief: you have to have the freedom to make an idiot of yourself at all times. So, but you had the experience of directing, was it 10 hours, eight-hour movie?
Cary: Eight hours.
Peter: How did you even — I just have to ask — I just came off of shooting one episode of television which kicked my ass by the way. I can’t even imagine how you would even prep. Is it just because you have enormous prep while you’re shooting? How did it work?
Cary: Basically what happened is the last three episodes weren’t quite ready yet to prep. And even if they were, you could really only prep about five hours ahead of time before people lose their capacity to retain all that information. And whether that be index cards with the intention of the scene written on it, or graphs, everyone sort of had their personal system to try to order the information. And since we’re dealing with a crime story, clues and character clues as well are essential, I mean, in terms of logically adding up.
And maybe it helped having one director in that sense that we didn’t have to educate four to eight other directors on exactly what was going on. It was just sort of one chain of communication. But then you had an overload of responsibility. And what ended up happening by the last half of the shoot is that we were scouting for locations for the last episodes before and after shooting, having production meetings at lunch. I would go home to the edit after those location scouts, after shooting, and then edit for a couple hours because we had to turn in episodes before we were done shooting. So, I was getting like four to five hours sleep a night, and then moving on to the same thing next day.
Susannah: So you had no break in production?
Cary: We had our “hiatus days.” Weren’t breaks. They were just getting caught up on —
Susannah: But you weren’t shooting for a couple days?
Cary: We only had about I’d say three or four hiatus days the whole time.
Susannah: Good lord.
Peter: Can I ask a geeky question? Did you cross-board? Did you shoot each episode complete? And then move onto the next one? Or were you at the same location shooting several different episodes?
Cary: We pitched the series to the networks as we’re going to shoot this like a feature. We’re going to shoot this like a long form story, so we’re going to cross-board locations. What that means, you know, producers like to hear that because that means they can shoot out an actor within a week or two, or shoot out a location and then you’re not kind of holding these places over the course of five/six months of shooting.
And I think everyone quickly realized that’s really impossible. So, I think this next season is not going to be shot that way. They’ll probably do it in blocks, like one or two episode blocks. Stop. Regroup. Go again. Which is the normal sort of humane way of doing it for all involved.
John: Well, it’s an opportunity for course correction, though, too. Because I feel like that must be one of the real challenges. When you’re making a show in a more traditional schedule, like Breaking Bad, if something is not working, you can see like well that’s not working, so we need to — could you? I mean, if you sense that like, wow, this character is not doing the thing we wanted to do, how quickly could you fix that? Or is that naÔve of me to think?
Peter: I’m trying to think of a situation where we had that.
John: Well, everything was perfect the first time. That’s the luxury.
Cary: Tell us about what didn’t work in Breaking Bad.
Peter: You know, it was a comet, lightning bolts. We were very lucky. But, you know, you do — sometimes you do. I mean, sometimes there’s an actor who is not available. Or somebody is not, or a location changes, or something. And then you have to do some frantic rethinking. But that’s the worst. Fortunately the producers, the physical producers, really protected us from having to do that an awful lot.
Susannah: Did you guys have the entire season mapped out before anyone went off to script?
Peter: No. I wish.
Susannah: No, right.
Peter: I wish. No, no, we were always — it’s television. The treadmill of — and on Better Call Saul, which is in some ways is more like True Detective in one sense is that we didn’t have a pilot. We shot the pilot and literally the day we wrapped the pilot we were shooting episode two. And Vince and I would talk and say, you know, if we had really thought about it, maybe we would have taken a little break there and cut the first episode so at least the other directors would have had something to look at.
And as it was they mostly had just us wind-bagging at them in a long meeting. Then they would go and make something wonderful.
John: I had friends who did a show for Netflix and the model for it was kind of clever in that they got a 13-episode order. But they shot the first episode and then they had three weeks off deliberately so they could cut it and if something wasn’t working right they could course correct.
Peter: Do this.
John: Do this. It’s a good idea.
Cary: Does that just mean firing people, or?
John: Yes. They would recast some people. If things weren’t working- and in some ways it allowed them to be bolder, because they didn’t have to make safe choices. They could make a bold choice and if a bold choice didn’t work there was a chance to fix it.
Another option I’ve seen is another 13-episdoe order, they shot the fourth episode first. And then they went back and shot the first episode figuring that they would understand the show better by the time it came back to shoot the first episode.
Susannah: What show was that?
John: It was one of David Goyer’s things. Da Vinci’s Demons I think did it.
Susannah: That’s interesting.
John: Which was an interesting choice, again, where that fourth episode, maybe some things aren’t going to work quite perfectly, but you’re going to know your show better by the time you’re actually shooting your pilot, or shooting the first episode that’s going to air theoretically. So, choices.
Cary: I would say if I were an actor or even from the director perspective, I would much rather start chronologically somewhere from the beginning, if the fourth episode was jumping back to some prior moment. Because I do think for the actors, even for like Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective, I was really pushing to have the interrogations as far back as possible. We were going to shoot them last, but we sort of needed them to start constructing episodes and make sure they were working.
But, there were so many things they were going to go through over five or six months of shooting that in the bubble that is production, which sometimes time moves at a completely different rate, and one month can seem like an entire year. The experiences you have do affect your performance on all parts. And I was still learning about how I wanted to shoot the show by the fourth week of shooting. So, I’d much rather start at the beginning, I guess. But I see, it’s an interesting experiment.
John: So, talk to us about writing these episodes, you were deeply involved in the creation of things. What is your conversations and with crew about intention. I find it fascinating to listen to how directors talk to people about what a scene is about. What kinds of words do you use to describe — after cut, what do you say to an actor? What’s your extinct for getting the thing to the next level? You, first, Cary.
Peter: You go.
Cary: Me first. I mean, it’s pretty intimidating the first time you’re working with like a Fassbender or a Judi Dench, you know, like what do I say to someone who has worked with the best directors in the last 50 to 60 years. Incredibly, you still find something to say. If you know what you want out of the scene, usually these great actors are delivering it. But there’s minor adjustments you can give them. Or even they want to hear something. They might prompt you for a question.
But typically I think with some of these sort of high caliber talent it’s all kind of conversations that took place ahead of time. And it’s even conversations that are worked out while we were blocking and rehearsing. So, once we’re shooting, I just kind of give them the space to recorrect themselves. They know what they want to get to and they know when they’re not quite getting there. So, we’ll just go again until I’ve got everything I want and they’ve got everything they need, unless obviously it’s not always that ideal obviously. But, you’re being pressed for time, but as much as we can get in that period of time.
Peter: I sometimes make them go first. How do you feel about that? And then sometimes, I’m not an experienced director, but as a writer-producer on the set, sometimes you end with a little huddle with the director and with the actor, and especially when I’m not the director I try to say the least possible directly to the actor. It’s just more respectful and it’s more useful, I think, for the director to do the directing.
But, you know, I’ll say to the director, isn’t there a little — usually, it’s interesting, because people, especially in television are so used to a headlong rush. They want to get through the moment so quickly. They’re used to scenes. And you’re working with feature folks, and maybe it’s a different deal. But in television, there seems to be this drum beat of going faster and faster. Oh, we don’t want to bore the audience.
So, frequently the work for me is saying isn’t there another moment there? Have we gotten everything out of that? And the actors will sometimes be — actually I had Robert Forster tell me, “You’re the only director I’ve ever had who told me to go slower.”
Cary: There’s like certain rules they say, like when you’re in film school you’re not supposed to say, you’re not supposed to give a line reading to an actor. You’re not supposed to say like faster or slower. But incredibly quite often that’s all you need to say. Like can you just do that a little bit slower, or faster often, because you’re like stuck in the edit with someone taking an incredibly long time to walk around a corner.
Susannah: I heard an interview with Paul Newman at one point talking about that faster direction and he said whenever somebody says to me faster, I translate that in my head to fill the moment. If he’s asking me to go faster I’m not filling the moment. So he would then do a take in which he would fill every moment and find ones he hadn’t been filling. And he said inevitably somebody says cut, print. And you ask the script supervisor how long it was and it was longer.
So, you know —
Peter: That’s beautiful.
Susannah: Yes. It’s a really great story to hold on to.
Peter: And it’s something you notice when you’re cutting. When you’re cutting, the performance that is more specific is easier to cut. And you can watch with a wonderful, like a Bryan Cranston, or a Bob Odenkirk, there are just these natural places to cut. You can get the scissors in, you can see when things are resolved. You can see when the ideas cross their faces. And we’re so reliant on these guys.
John: Peter, you were talking about that you made television and he was making movies. And you’re both making shows that are broadcast on boxes, and yet do you perceive Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul as television?
Peter: No. I see them as movies. I mean, we talk about it as being one thing, but it’s not — it’s interesting because there’s the sense that people have that if you didn’t work it out at the beginning, if you didn’t have the whole thing worked out from soup to nuts, the moment you started, that somehow it’s less legitimate.
And the truth is that I think all writing to some extent is an active improvisation. I mean, no matter what you’re improvising. So, it’s a question of when are you improvising. Does that make any sense? I’m not answering your question. I’m just going around it.
Cary: You were asking earlier about the writing hat and the directing hat and that’s all about preparation really. And Richard had said that you never quite take it off which is true, but then you also start feeling at a certain point like you’re neglecting other responsibilities. You’re noodling with the screenplay. And I found, I just did a film, we spoke about outside, Beasts of No Nation in Africa, and we had all kinds of complications heading in to production and then within production.
And I was having to write because actors were in jail or something. And I had to rewrite their roles, or parts in the script, and hoping that it all added up and not really sure till we got to editing that it did. So, the fluidity between the directing hat, the writing hat, and then having to make executive decisions was all happening at once. Ideally though you’re able to prep as much as you can ahead of time and then you can just focus on the creative aspect. But I guess that’s what makes film exciting, too, is all the problems.
Peter: Is it okay if I ask a question?
John: Ask a question.
Peter: Could you talk about your directing, specifically what kind preparation you do as a director? When you have a script and you’re working by yourself, what is your approach? What kinds of things are you doing with the script? What kinds of preparation do you do?
Cary: Gosh. I always start off with an outline, first off. It’s sort on the hero’s journey. And that’s my index card in a way because then I know my steps that are there and the scenes that are sometimes combos of things and sometimes individual scenes that mean something, or getting the character to a place.
Then once I’ve written the screenplay to switch into directing aspect, mainly I actually it’s in casting. And that’s not only casting the actors, it’s casting the heads of department who are going to help me bring this to screen. And that’s, you know, when you talk about reordering stuff, and stopping to reconfigure, it’s essential when you find weak links to get rid of them. Because you’re working as hard you can to get it done. And when you know there’s always one person or a couple people that are slowing down the process, and it’s an unfortunate thing.
It’s not always their fault. Sometimes it’s chemistry. Sometimes they’re just not right for the material. But, getting rid of those people so that everyone is sort of in line is one of the most brutal lessons you have to learn, I think, being a director. Otherwise, you know, the creative aspect of it, that inspiration, that spark, we’ve all had it since we’re children. Every human has. So, I guess it’s kind of learning to be discerning and harder.
John: Peter, can you talk about your preparation for an episode? So, whether it’s an episode you wrote yourself or someone else’s episode that you now need to go off and shoot, what is it like when you get the script and you have to figure out — what is your prep for that? So, obviously you’re going to meet with, there will be a first AD and you’re going to scout locations, but what is your actual work with the script to figure out how you’re going to do it?
Peter: Well, you know, we had the advantage that we have spent on any episode at least two weeks, sometimes as long as a couple of months breaking the episode in the writer’s room. and so we’ve talked through every single scene in great detail, annoying detail, navel-gazing detail.
John: Can you just describe the writer’s room? So is this all up on a whiteboard? Or how does Breaking Bad work?
Peter: Breaking worked and Better Call Saul works, really it’s based on a system I think that Vince Gilligan learned from Chris Carter on X-Files, which is it’s a very rigid, apparently rigid system where we end up with 3×5 cards on a corkboard. And I think it’s insane.
John: Is there a color code?
Peter: There’s no color code. They’re very neatly written. They’re somewhat comic booky descriptions of each scene and sometimes even a scrap of dialogue. Sometimes there will be little pencil notes in there. And there’s a certain amount of space you have for each act. We work, we think about acts and teasers. And because —
John: Because you actually had —
Peter: We shot the show for commercials. The show had commercials, which was very intimidating to me before I started because I had never, I think only once had I ever worked on a project that had commercial breaks, because most of my work before that had been cable movies.
But what I learned was that almost any well structured story, there are moments where you just wonder what the hell is going to happen next. Hey, that’s a good act break. So, it’s not as insane — it’s not as difficult or as ridiculous as it sounds. Although I will say I think once you get — is your show on ABC, Susannah?
Peter: And how many act breaks do you have?
Susannah: Oh, it’s five acts. No teaser though.
Peter: No teaser. Oh, so we have a teaser and four acts. So, it’s —
John: Let’s talk through what that means, because I think some people might not know sort of what the terminology is.
Susannah: It means you break four times for commercials.
Cary: What’s the teaser mean? Like what are the wants of a teaser?
Susannah: Well, Breaking Bad a really great, like that little piece in the beginning that’s just intriguing enough to make you go, what?
Cary: Like a cold start?
Susannah: Yeah, yeah.
Peter: And then there would be the titles.
Susannah: Right. It’s the pre-title thing.
Peter: In the first couple of seasons there would be no commercial, and then hey, there was a commercial there. So, we had to pay the rent.
We had the advantage of talking it through in detail. And also, you know, there’s also the familiarity of knowing the DP, production designer, costume designer, because we’re working with those folks constantly, even when we’re in Burbank or Toluca Lake as we are now, there’s a constant interaction. We’re looking at every costume. We’re looking at props. We’ll look at ten different frying pans for every scene.
And the directors will be also. There’s a familiarity with the people you’re working with which is great. But, personally, my preparation, I just sweat over the script a lot. I keep wondering if it’s right. I keep going over it and finding little things that I want to change. And then I’m fascinated by trying to keep things as visual as possible. And I’ll do thumbnail sketches. There are sequences that I’ve actually worked with storyboard artists on which I love to do. If I had more time I’d do even more of that.
But you’re really racing the clock in television because you essentially have seven days, as a director you have essentially seven days of prep with the script and then eight days of shooting. And where the weekends fall become very, very important to you. You really hope that you get an episode where you shoot Friday and then you have the weekend.
Susannah: Two weekends.
Peter: You have the weekend to recover and kind of plan out some more. So, that’s — and casting, of course. But in a television series you have this stable of regulars and usually in some episodes you’ll have one or two roles that are very, very important. In fact, I just finished an episode where we — and I don’t want to give anything away — but the casting of this one character became so — who was not in that much of the series became so pivotal that that was my great anxiety. I was bugging — every time I was on the phone with our casting people and I said we need to see more people for this. When are we going to start seeing this guy?
And then, of course, we saw the guy and he was incredible.
John: On your shows, did you have the chance to do table reads where you could read the whole script with your actors? Cary, did you get that?
Cary: Yeah, we didn’t always have the whole cast there because we were doing it in New Orleans and some of the cast were having to travel. So, we had the local actors come in and read multiple parts. But for everyone that was sort of around and can be featured, we brought them in and we did a table reading of the first four scripts, right at the beginning, and then we did a reading — I can’t remember if we did the last four, or broke it up two more times.
Susannah: You did all four together?
Susannah: Oh, nice.
Cary: It was a long morning.
John: Talk to us, did things change based on that reading? Because especially when you have these two powerful actors and —
Cary: I can say yes. One particular role definitely changed after that reading.
Susannah: Because the casting was wrong or — ?
Cary: Yeah. The casting was wrong and HBO felt out of that reading that they’d seen enough to make a change.
John: So HBO is watching this, so it’s both for your benefit, but also so they can see what the show, a preview of what the show is, right?
Cary: Yeah. Script readings are funny.
Susannah: Everyone is auditioning all over again.
Cary: It’s auditioning, but sometimes tone is strange in a script reading. And it tends to lean towards the comedic and that could be really misleading. I’m always in favor of people seeing as little as possible until we’ve got a cut of something. I wasn’t even in favor of the casting choice. This isn’t a change, but it was okay. It worked out in the end.
John: So, for Better Call Saul, you had a table reading before the pilot? Do you do it for every episode? What happens on that show?
Peter: It’s just not logistically possible for us to do a table read for every episode because everybody’s shooting and they’re exhausted. And the guest cast often flies in like moments before their costume fitting. It’s just in time manufacturing. We will do the table read at the beginning, and you know, it’s interesting because I don’t feel — I hate to say it — I think it’s always fun and it’s a great crystallizing moment for everybody to get together and say, hey, yeah, there’s a show here and this is an interesting story.
But I have to say I don’t think I’ve ever learned — this is a terrible thing to say — I don’t think I’ve ever learned an awful lot from it.
Susannah: Really? I feel very differently. I feel like I, you know, I’ll hear a table read of something I’ve written and think how could I not have seen how false that rings. It’s a real bullshit detector for me because, you know, I know that I can do that. It shows me my flaws before you’re having to stand up, stop the whole crew for 15 minutes while you figure out to make it real, as opposed to fake.
So, I find them really helpful as a writer.
John: I find the most helpful thing about a table read is it’s evidence that the actors have read the whole script at least once, because otherwise they will honestly just read their part.
Susannah: No, but you know what, if they’re only living that part of it, sometimes that’s fine. If as the character you’re now aware of all that other stuff going on?
John: But there are some actors who will make sort of selfish choices because they don’t understand the world in which they’re living in.
Susannah: Oh, right, the tone and the demands of the piece.
John: So it gives them one chance for them to be able to see sort of what the whole thing is.
Susannah: It’s not all about them.
John: But your point about something being — there’s times where I’ve been forcing a lot, I’ve been faking something. It just isn’t there. And it’s so much better to have that realization or that conversation with the actor around a table than like with the whole crew watching.
Susannah: It’s a much cheaper place to fix it.
Cary: It’s too bad they don’t have like better voices for the Final Draft talk feature.
Susannah: Right. That would be really good.
Cary: Ways as like Terry Crews, you know, [unintelligible] turn left or right. And be like, Terry Crews like, “Interior Bus Station.”
Susannah: That’s actually a great idea for Final Draft.
John: I think there’s an app to be made with just Terry Crews doing that.
Susannah: They should cast that, man. You should be able to cast your Final Draft read, you know.
Cary: The Final Draft guys are around here somewhere. I’m going to pull them aside.
Peter: I think maybe Highland needs that feature.
John: Yeah, we’ll do it in Highland and Weekend Read. It will have a little read aloud feature. It will be good. It’ll be fun.
We actually, our next guests are here because they’re going to do a reading. So, maybe we should wrap this up and bring them up. But, guys, thank you so much for this and we’re going to have questions at the end, so stick around because we’re going to answer some more questions at the end, okay?
Cary: Okay. Thank you very much.
John: Thank you very much. Our next guests are here because they’re doing a reading tomorrow afternoon, I believe. So I want to welcome up Dan Sterling and Mike Birbiglia. Come on up. So, Dan Sterling here is a writer-producer-director. He did projects including the Sarah Silverman Program. I’ll make things up and tell us which ones are lies, okay? You did, let’s see, The Office?
Dan Sterling: True.
John: You did Breaking Bad.
Dan: That is a — that’s true.
John: You did Breaking Bad?
Dan: No, no. I just wanted to see if I could get a reaction. No, no.
John: But you’re here because you have a feature that you actually wrote that he is going to be reading it. Is that correct?
Dan: Yeah, that is true. And this is Susannah Grant.
John: Susannah Grant.
Dan: This is very exciting.
John: And this is Mike Birbiglia who has actually been on the show before. Yeah, we’ll introduce you anyway. So, Mike Birbiglia is a writer-producer-director-comedian-actor. Actor, that’s true. Can I say that you’re in that next season of that show?
Mike Birbiglia: Yeah. Orange is the New Black.
John: He’s in Orange is the New Black, next season. Fault in our Stars. Lots of things. But also —
Mike: I’m an avid listener to the show.
John: Yeah, he’s an avid listener.
Mike: And I wanted to say, and of course we won’t keep this in the final cut of it, but the show without Craig is phenomenal. I mean —
John: He’s essentially been —
Susannah: You’re advocating a permanent change?
John: The anchor that’s been dragging the show down this whole time.
Mike: And I just feel like today’s episode really lacks an antagonist.
Susannah: That’s rarely a good dramatic choice.
John: It’s all happy smiley.
Mike: And also I wanted to ask the gentleman who wrote and directed True Detective whether he enjoys the True Detective Season Two memes. They’re all over the internet all the time, or speculation about who is the cast of season two. Also, I want to urge Scriptnotes listeners to create a John and Craig True Detective Season Two.
John: We would be pretty amazing.
Mike: Does that already exist?
John: I’ve seen one of them.
John: Where they pasted us together. Yeah. Because really good cop/bad cop. You know, there’s a lot of stuff going on between us. It would be fantastic.
Mike: Does he think it’s funny? Do you think those are funny?
Mike: All right, he doesn’t think they’re funny, even though he’s saying he does. I can see it in his face. But it’s all loving.
John: It’s all loving and it’s all good. So, you are a writer-director yourself, and you often have to direct yourself in a movie.
Mike: True. Yeah.
John: Is that good or bad? Are you a good director to yourself?
Mike: I’d like to think so. So much of what I believe in as an actor has to do with relaxation and just existing and living in a moment. And not doing acty-acting. And so I feel like if I were doing something in an extreme genre, or something that required a lot of acting heavy lifting, I don’t know how I would do that. But like I directed Sleepwalk With Me. And some other shorts and things. It’s not that hard because the type of acting I enjoy is sort of like just throw it away.
Susannah: Do you watch your takes on playback? Between?
Mike: I do, but only when I’m about to move on.
Susannah: Just to make sure?
Mike: Yeah. After five or six takes. Just like let’s just make sure we have one that looks good enough and then we’ll move on.
Susannah: How often do you go back after watching playback?
Mike: I’d say like one in three. Yeah.
John: So, something like Sleepwalk With Me, or even My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, those are based on things you’ve done a lot. So, you have the rare case of being able to — you performed these ideas before. You’ve been able to practice them in ways that writers normally don’t get a chance to practice their ideas.
Mike: Yeah. And also, and this speaks to sort of why I’m here with Dan this weekend, we’re doing a reading of his script called Flarsky, which is such a funny script. And one of the reasons I was interested in coming to do the reading, I love the process of work-shopping stuff through readings. And I feel the way that you were saying earlier. So, I’ve been having readings at my house all summer of a screenplay that I’m working on to direct my next film. And I always find I just — I’m hitting myself during the whole thing. Just going, oh my god, that rings so untrue. I can’t believe I even wrote that on paper.
And then I fix it. So, I was glad to be sort of an instrument for Dan’s reading.
Susannah: You can also hear the other thing, which is how did I not open that next door? You know, how did I not walk in that next room? There’s an obvious next step for this. And how didn’t I see it? I find them incredibly useful.
Dan: Although writers that are here today are so mature and disciplined, because I just dread table readings because I don’t want to have to change anything. I’m quite satisfied with all the things that I wrote and they’re all so precious. And I’ve always resented table readings. They were always super important, but I dreaded them.
Susannah: Do you love them after you hear them, too? Do you stay in love during the whole process? Or do you turn on yourself?
Dan: Well, I go through a process of denial where I assume that it was the performance that the actors are reading it cold and that they didn’t… — But, you know, basically whatever happens, every piece of criticism and notes from an executive or whoever that I’ve ever gotten just always makes me go and do what I think turns out to be something better. I just don’t want to. I’m lazy.
Mike: I also want to say because I know like I’m a listener to this podcast and I know a lot of the listeners are people who write and want to create things or do create things. And I think having readings like with your friends is one of the most cost-effective things you can do because they’re super fun. You order pizza. You hang out. You read a thing. And then you socialize afterwards and you learn. And it’s free.
And one thing about making movies is it’s so expensive. It’s like bleeding money. It’s literally like you got shot with a machine gun and you’re just bleeding thousands of dollars a minute. And you can’t even believe how much money it costs to make a movie.
And so having readings I think is a phenomenal thing.
John: So, you don’t like readings, and yet you came to Austin, Texas to have a reading of this script. So, tell us what this script is. That might be a useful setup.
Dan: I mean, I could not actually be more excited about this reading. It’s a hugely flattering thing to have a bunch of people come and read your thing for no money and probably at their own expense getting here.
Yeah, I wrote this, I’ve been a television writer and showrunner for a bunch of years, and then a few years ago I wrote this spec script, because I wanted to start to transition into movies. And so I wrote this script, and then Seth Rogan sort of picked it up and that began our relationship and we’ve since made another movie together that’s coming out in Christmas.
John: That’s The Interview, correct?
Dan: That’s The Interview with Seth Rogan and James Franco. It’s crazy. They go to North Korea and try to kill Kim Jong Un. I won’t tell you how it ends. But, yes, so —
John: Does it end in North Korea going to war with us? That’s the meme.
Susannah: I think it ends in some diplomatic challenges. [laughs]
Dan: Yeah, too much. I guess I hope not, though. I always just want my work to make an impact of some kind. Nuclear war seems like it would be very memorable. I would go down in the canon, which is super important.
John: That’s true. I mean, who’s going to remember anything else we do, but they’ll remember a war because millions of people will die.
Dan: In theory, yes.
John: If nothing else, you killed millions of people. That’s really the accomplishment.
Mike: You will be so remembered if that happens. People will be like what idiot thought it was a good idea —
John: Poking the bear.
Dan: I hope so. It’s possible that, you know, the screenwriter, how many people remember. Maybe they’ll just credit Seth to that.
John: [laughs] That’s true.
Dan: I’ve been saying that if death threats really start coming in and they only go to Seth and not to me, I’m going to feel very left out.
John: Yeah. It’s a danger. Tell us about Flarsky. So, what is the inspiration behind Flarsky? What is this movie that you’re trying to get going?
Dan: Well, so I just wanted to write something that was sort of partly personal and partly political, because that’s sort of what I’m attracted to. And it’s a screenplay about this very down and out newspaper opinion columnist who’s writing for like the equivalent of the LA Weekly or something and has maybe got some drinking and pill habits and stuff.
And he is encouraged by his insanely optimistic friend to pursue the most powerful and glamorous woman on the planet, the married Secretary of State, who would be a youngish, beautiful woman, and who is married to a senator. And when I was starting to write I was just trying to — for some reason I was thinking about, this is going to sound very pretentious, but I was thinking about Candide. Because I just always love this idea of like there’s this guy who grew up with a philosopher who told him every day these very positive things and all this for the best and the best of all possible worlds.
And then the rest of the book is nothing but rape. And they go out into the world and see that, no, everybody is being raped and enslaved and chopped into pieces. And so I wanted to have this sort of conversation between two best friends, one how is very pessimistic and one who is optimistic. And then in the movie the friend encourages the pessimistic friend to go and pursue the most glamorous, powerful woman on earth.
John: So, Mike, to get ready for this role you had to start drinking and pill-popping and really inhabit the character, right?
Mike: Yeah. I grew out my beard. That was it. And then I’ve just been drinking quite a bit, yeah.
Susannah: Austin is good for that, right?
John: It’s a good town for that. So, in doing this reading here, is this for kicks and giggles? Is it for you to learn more about it? Is it to build momentum for making this into a movie? What are the outcomes of doing a reading like this?
Dan: Well, I’ll report back to you on the outcomes if anything does come out. But I’m doing it because they asked.
Mike: The Black List, right?
Dan: Yes. This script got on the Black List. The Black List invited me to do it. And I’ve just never done anything like this because this is a reading to some extent to entertain. I mean, I’ve done table reads for television and stuff like that where there’s just a few executives. But this is actually totally sort of new ground for me. I mean, we’re going into our first rehearsal in a couple of hours, so I don’t know what to expect. But I did see a Black List reading a couple of weeks ago and it was really fun. I mean, it was a comedy and it was really well paced. And also the Black List told me that doing this — a lot of people who have done these Black List readings — these scripts have gone on to be made.
So, that was appealing. In this case, the script, it has maybe some attached cast, so it’s got producers and stuff and we’re sort of trying to figure out a director. So, I don’t even know whether this reading, other than to help me see where it’s working or where it’s not, I don’t know what other outcomes beyond that except my ego.
Mike: I was promised that the film would be made and that I would be the star.
John: [laughs] That’s good. There’s also, pizza was promised to you. And that’s a crucial thing, too.
Mike: A lot of things were promised and now I’m learning that it’s meaningless.
Dan: There is a real pizza thing in Mike Birbiglia’s work I’m noticing. I mean, one of this great quotes, or at least I think is about falling in love is like eating pizza flavored ice cream. It’s too much joy to process.
John: Fantastic. Because we have an audience here, I want to open it up for some audience questions. And so it can be questions for the people who are up here, the people who were up here before. It can be about television. It can be anything.
The only thing I would ask is it actually be a question. And so let’s just —
Susannah: I’m going to demonstrate. This is a question. Mike, much of your work has been work that you’ve done in another form. Do you have a hard time breathing new life into it when you turn it into a movie? How does that happen?
Mike: That’s a good question.
Susannah: Like that.
Mike: Oh, it was a question. Yeah, it is hard. It’s challenging. I mean, Sleepwalk With Me, it was a book, and it was a one-person show that I developed over about seven or eight years. And so it had grooves to it, where it had things where I’m like I know this will work. I know this will work. I know this gets a laugh. I know this has some kind of pathos or relate-ability to it.
And then you move to cinema and cinema is an entirely visual medium. And so it was very, very challenging. Actually, it was so challenging that right now the script I’m writing that I was just saying I’m doing reading of it in my house is completely from scratch because I wanted to build it from pictures this time.
Susannah: Because I would imagine chasing, I mean, it’s always hard to chase a laugh you got the night before, right? So, to do that after seven years must be really hard?
Mike: Yeah. And I have to say like one of the reasons I started writing these one-man shows was because I was a screenwriting major in school and then I got out of school and realized that screenwriting is a profession you can apply for. Isn’t that a wild realization? Like you can study it and then you’re like, oh, I guess there isn’t a job.
Mike: And then I was doing standup comedy, I was pursuing that —
Susannah: Right, because that’s an easier —
Mike: That’s a job. And people do it. And I was working the door at a comedy club, and that’s a job too. And so then I moved to New York City. My writing professor actually said, from college, actually gave me advice. He goes you should just put on a one-man play because it doesn’t cost anything. It’s just you and two or more people in the audience.
John: Low thresholds.
Mike: Yeah. That’s the rule of theater is there has to be more people in the audience than on stage. And it’s a glass of water and a stool. And you know how to write a play and I taught you how to write a play. And so go do it.
And that’s how I started writing Sleepwalk With Me. And then from there I did My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. And from there I made Sleepwalk With Me, the movie.
But it’s funny because I listen to the podcast a lot. It’s very encouraging. But one thing that I feel like people, it’s hard to grasp sometimes is that for someone like me, I wanted to make a movie when I was 19 and I wanted to direct a feature when I was 19. I directed my first feature when I was 32. And I think that’s totally fine. I’m comfortable with that. But, yes, it’s good for people to know that that’s sort of marathon duration of how long things take.
John: All right. Some questions. I see a first hand was right there. Sir?
The question is how do you know that you’ve found a third act? How do you know you’ve found an ending to your story that is satisfying? Susannah, in writing your features, when do you feel like this is the ending? Do you know your ending before you’ve gotten there, or is it only the process that’s taken you to that point?
Susannah: I kind of know the destination. I hope I don’t know the specifics. I mean, I have kind of this rule of thumb with any scenes. I don’t think it’s done until I’ve written something other than what I went in to write, until I’ve surprised myself in it. And then like how do you know when it’s — I mean, it’s never really good enough, right? But then maybe it is. I don’t know.
You just kind of, it vibrates right or wrong within side you. I don’t think there’s a formula.
John: Peter, talk to us about it. You got to end the whole series. So, what is it like leading up to that thing and how early on in the process did you sense like this is where we’re going to end this show with these characters? This is how we’re going to get to that moment? Was there an ah-ha moment in the writer’s room where it all came together? Talk us through that, please.
Peter: Wow, I’ll try to remember it, because it’s all kind of a blur to be honest with you. It was a lot of pressure. You know what it is? I think the big thing is just to explore every freaking thing you can possibly think of. And that’s one thing — if there’s any method to doing this, it was just to try to think, okay, what if Walt is in… — Well, first of all, we have things that we’ve set on the show which we know that Walt’s got cancer. We know he’s going to have a giant machine gun. And we know he’s going to probably use the damn machine gun. And who is he going to use it on? That was a big question.
So, we really, I mean, it’s almost like just by talking the different possibilities through, eventually one just starts emerging and things start connecting to it. And you start seeing that that’s, okay, that character is, that’s going to help resolve that character’s storyline. And that’s going to — it all starts snapping together, but it doesn’t start snapping together until you’ve talked through everything you can possibly think of.
And so we had versions where Jessie was in prison and Walt came with a giant, the machine gun, and he blew away all these prison guards. And it went on and on and on. Just any bizarre idea you can think of was at least given serious — I think maybe that’s the trick is to give honest consideration to pretty much anything that occurs to you, no matter how freakish.
But then at a certain point it starts narrowing down and then you start feeling your way through it. But, you know, it’s also it’s easy for me to say because ultimately on Breaking Bad we were all talking through it, but it was ultimately Vince’s choice. And we knew that Vince was going to write and direct that last episode. And so we knew he was going to use the machine gun, so.
John: Chekhov’s gun.
John: Another question? Her question is how do you become confident, which is kind of a valid question. Because I’ve been incredibly non-confident, especially as I was starting. And maybe we could sort of talk through those early awkward meetings. Because I remember my first water bottle tour of Los Angeles where you go and you have the general meetings. And it’s so incredibly awkward. And you feel like the imposter syndrome, where you feel like I don’t belong in this room and people are going to figure out that I have no idea what I’m doing.
That never went away for me. I don’t know if other people have that same experience. Dan Sterling, are you confident?
Dan: Well, you know, Thursdays at 4pm I have this standing appointment with a woman with a degree in psychology and I sit and I talk to her. And, I mean, I’m getting closer. Only because I’m having some success, but you know, I mean, I had my first show-running job, and it was completely absurd. I was like, I tricked them. I don’t belong here at all. And there’s nothing to do but sort of rely on that very cliché but true thing of, god help me for saying it, fake it till you make it.
And I think faking confidence is super important in a lot of areas in life and I’m probably doing it as I speak, but —
Mike: Yeah. I totally agree with Dan. I recommend this. If you haven’t listened to it, this Charlie Kauffman speech, is it BFI? The British Film Institute? And he just says this thing that I think most writers relate to which is that all you have to give to writing is yourself. And that’s — I mean, I’m paraphrasing it in sort of a terrible way, but he very eloquently says it. And that he doesn’t call himself a writer. He calls himself a person who has written some things and is going to try to write some more things.
Susannah: Yeah. I have this moment when I finish every script. I always look at it and think, god, who cares? And then you realize, well, everybody cares. Everybody cares about each other, basically, so just put yourself there. Don’t worry about it. Ignore that question. I mean, everybody has that feeling of like who cares about me and what I think, you know?
John: So, my first experience with you, Cary, was at the Sundance Labs and you were talking about Sin Nombre and how you had gone and done all this research. You were riding on trains with people. And I remember thinking like, wow, that kid is really, really brave. But that sort of carries through in the other stuff you’ve done. You’ve made sort of brave choices. Back then when you were making your first movie, did you have confidence? Were you faking it? Talk us though — these people want to make their first movie. What did it feel like and when did you feel like I belong to be behind this camera making this movie?
Cary: I’m going to have to agree with everyone else here that ignore that question because no one ever 100 percent feels confident in what they’re doing. And fixed income they do, they’re definitely lying. Or if they say they do, they’re definitely lying. And if they are really confident in what they’re doing, they’re probably not doing anything that deserving of confidence.
So, I think with Sin Nombre what happened was it was a bit by bit process moving into that story. I started off with a short film based on a real event that happened in Victoria, Texas, where a trailer filled with immigrants was abandoned and many of them died. And in doing research for that story I learned about the trains.
So, when I went down ultimately to do research in Mexico on the trains and travel with immigrants, at a certain point you start to accumulate experience. And then with the people you meet you start to feel a sense of responsibility then to tell that story, so maybe you can replace that confidence with a need to tell a story now that you feel the most equipped to tell it.
And definitely when I was making it, you know, with my crew members and educating them on the aspects of the journey that I knew about and, you know, as my production designer started to fill his room with references and pictures of what the gang areas would look like, or immigrant areas would look like, I felt pretty confident that I knew most of the nitty gritty details.
And maybe it just comes with doing the work as well. You know, it’s confident enough.
John: One more question. Who has a hand — we’re going to take over here. Gentleman?
Male Voice: The question is for Peter. You said that Breaking Bad feels like one big movie, but was it, or felt more cinematic. Was it each season felt like a movie, or the whole thing?
Peter: What do you think?
Male Voice: Each season?
Peter: You know, I think that’s absolutely legitimate. I always hoped — I remember early on talking to Bryan and saying, it was season two, I didn’t know what I was talking about. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we have a story and there’s going to be a row of DVDs and it’s going to be a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And it’s going to come to a conclusion.”
And Bryan was absolutely convinced that that was going to happen. And he was right. So, to me, it’s one story, but what makes it that. To me, cinematic, it’s visual. That’s really — that’s the thing that makes it most cinematic to me is just that it’s visual. And I’m standing here next to some incredibly visual filmmakers. So, I’m a little intimidated by that. But that’s really — that was the thing that appealed to me about the approach that we used on Breaking Bad is that we tried to tell the story using pictures.
And if it feels cinematic, I think ultimately that would be why.
John: Great. I want to thank our amazing guests for coming up here. This has been great. Thank you very, very much. Susannah, thank you very much for co-hosting this with me.
Susannah: Thank you for having me. I’m sorry I wasn’t as cranky as Craig.
John: You were awesome. So, a thing that Craig and I would normally do at the end of the episode is a One Cool Thing. And so do you have a One Cool Thing ready for us.
Susannah: I have a One Cool Thing and I’m not alone in this. But if anyone here does not have Birdman on your list, put it on your list. I loved it.
John: So, what is it about Birdman that is so great? This is the Michael Keaton movie. IÒ·rritu.
Susannah: It is, well, first of all I love the idea of it which is what does it take to regain your authentic self once you’ve sold it away. And how close to death do you need to come to find it back. Which, to me, is a great question to play around with. And then it’s everybody working at so the top of their game. Everyone involved in the movie is just firing off at such a high level. And you go to it and think, yeah, there are a million things wrong with the movie business right now, but if I can pay $12 and see this, there are also some things working right.
John: That’s fantastic. My One Cool Thing is Serial podcast, which probably a bunch of people here are listening to. It’s really good. And so it’s that kind of thing where like everyone says it’s really good and you’re like, uh, but no, it’s really, really good.
And the best part about it is you’re not that far behind. And so you can actually just download all the episodes and stick them in your queue. And I listened to half of it on the flight here to Austin. So, I highly recommend it. I love it. And as a person who makes a podcast, it’s so fascinating to see what the art form can become, because it really does feel like its own new thing. The same way that Breaking Bad is telling a story over all these episodes and it’s cinematic, it’s sort of cinematic podcasts, which is such a n unusual thing.
And so the fact that it’s happening live in front of us is kind of exciting to see.
On the topic of live and in front of us, I’m The Transitioner, so I have to always transition from one thing to the next. This has been great to have you guys here with us. I want to thank the Austin Film Festival. Let’s give them some applause here. You can find us at johnaugust.com/scriptnotes. We’re also on iTunes, so you can click subscribe there and listen to this.
And, thank you guys so much for coming. Thanks.
- The Austin Film Festival
- Susannah Grant on IMDb, and Scriptnotes episodes 144 and 145
- John’s picture of St. David’s Episcopal Church
- Help is on the way at writeremergency.com
- Richard Kelly on IMDb, Twitter, and Scriptnotes 118, 123 and 124
- Cary Fukunaga on IMDb
- Peter Gould on IMDb and Twitter
- Dan Sterling on IMDb and Twitter
- Mike Birbiglia’s site, and on IMDb, Twitter and Scriptnotes episode 121
- Charlie Kaufman’s BAFTA speech, and Scriptnotes episode 18
- Birdman is in theaters now
- Serial is a new podcast from the creators of This American Life
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Peter Rinaldi (send us yours!)