The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Uh….my name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 169 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, it’s been far too long.
Craig: Been far too long.
John: You were not around last week. You were doing something else, so I had to do a podcast without you. I survived, but it’s good to have you back.
Craig: Well, thank you. I was at the wedding of excellent screenwriter Ted Griffin and remarkable Broadway performer and film and television performer, Sutton Foster. It was a beautiful wedding. Had a great time. But I did miss you. I missed Austin. I mean, I haven’t missed Austin in years. So, that was a bummer.
And then I wasn’t there to do the show. And that was a bummer. But I did listen to it. The first podcast I’ve ever listened to in my life. And it was good. Everybody did a really good job.
John: Yeah. We had Susannah Grant stepped in and was the co-host in your absence. One thing that may not be completely clear to people who are listening to that episode is so we’re in this church, but the actual layout of where we were was incredibly awkward. So, a church has pews, which is lovely, and then there’s like two steps up and it gets to where actual services happen. And the steps are very important because that’s why you can actually see what’s happening.
But they had us set up in front of those steps, down at the same level as the pews, so sight lines were actually awful. In many ways listening to the podcast would be a lot like attending the podcast because it was very hard to see anything while you were there.
Craig: I did notice on the schedule that they had you in that church. And I confess that I thought to myself, oh, John is going to throw a fit. [laughs]
Craig: Because why did they put you in a church? Why weren’t you in the regular room?
John: Because it was one of the biggest available rooms. The biggest room at the Driskill was actually bigger than this would have been, but this was what was big and available at the time. So, once again, I want to thank the Austin Film Festival for having us there at all. It was a great experience. We had great guests. It was super fun.
We also did a Three Page Challenge with people who were in the second round of scripts for the Austin Film Festival.
Craig: Oh, terrific.
John: And that was really cool, too.. So, a few weeks from now we’ll have the audio up for that. We had Franklin Leonard and Ilyse McKimmie as the guests for that. And they were so insightful, because these are people who read scripts all the time. They’re sort of gatekeepers. And their perspective on stuff was just terrific. And to be able to have the actual writers of those three pages in the room to explain sort of this is what the actual full movie is like is so useful, because we could talk about — that movie you’re describing sounds great, here’s the movie I thought I was reading based on these three pages. Let’s try to get these things a little closer together.
Craig: And that right there is the core of what a good relationship between a writer and a development person should be.
John: Absolutely. So, today we’re going to be doing a new batch of Three Page Challenges. We have three new scripts to look at, so that will be cool. And they’re actually really interesting scripts, so I’m eager to get into them.
But we have so much follow up. We could do a whole episode with just the follow up stuff. So, let’s burn through this stuff first.
John: I’ve set it up in two previous podcasts, there’s this thing we’re working on called Writer Emergency, and it is a deck of cards for when you are writing something and your story just gets stuck. And it’s the kind of thing where — Aline mentioned this on an earlier episode — where sometimes just someone needs to give you a nudge, an idea, saying like what if this. And sometimes everything just breaks open, like oh, I suddenly get how to do that.
You don’t always have that person to give you that idea. And these cards are just full of those ideas. So, you saw these. I sent you a deck of these cards.
Craig: Yes. I saw an early version and they’re adorable.
John: Thank you.
Craig: And they’re full of very cool little exercises and exercises are good things. I mean, they get you — it’s kind of like the text version of writing in a different place. It just jostles you out of your normal which is always a good thing.
It’s funny. On Twitter when you had mentioned that you were going to be bringing something like this but you were being intentionally vague, a whole bunch of people thought that you were about to launch some sort of pay me for notes service. And I just thought that was hysterical.
John: That will never happen.
Craig: Ever! No, but this is a great little deck of cards. And it seems like if I made a list of gifts you could get for your writer friend, it would be — I don’t know, what do you get writers?
John: Yeah. It’s hard to get things for a writer. So you get them like pens or backpacks.
Craig: Or Advil. I mean, we don’t need anything. But this is a fun stocking stuffer. I think you’ve timed it well for Christmas.
John: Yes. So, we cannot actually guarantee Christmas delivery. It’s something we would love to be able to do, but we are working with suppliers who have to print these things, and we have to ship these things, so that could be complicated. But it could be possible.
The most fascinating thing I’ve learned over the past six weeks as we’ve been trying to put this thing together is that shipping physical goods is really challenging. I always make apps and things, podcasts, things you can ship out digitally. When you have to ship physical things to far away countries, it gets to be challenging.
And so we’re dealing with these suppliers that are sort of all over the world. But it’s turned out really cool.
One of the most interesting things about this whole process, and the thing that made me most nervous about my conversation with you, is how we’re actually launching these into the world. We’re using Craig’s favorite thing in the entire world. Craig, what is your favorite thing in the entire world?
Craig: Uh, well, my number one favorite thing is death by anthrax. And then my second favorite thing is Kickstarter.
John: Yes. And we had a whole episode about your love of Kickstarter.
Craig: Love it!
John: You love it to death. And so I was really nervous when I sent these to you and said, and Craig, we actually went through a lot of different ways, and the best way for us to make these is actually to do a Kickstarter campaign. And you said…?
Craig: What was the lie I told you? [laughs]
Craig: That it was okay? Did I say it was okay? It’s okay.
John: I think you said it was okay.
Craig: It’s okay because you are essentially using them like a store. You’re saying, look, you buy this and we’ll give it to you. You’re making them. It’s not like you’re saying we might one day make these.
John: It’s not like you’re investing in something that we are getting all the profits from. The goal behind this is, so, every deck of these cards that we give away through Kickstarter, we’re also giving a deck to a kid’s writing program. Because these things are actually really great for learning about story and how you would talk about story. And so we’ve been doing exercises with kids to figure out what actually works and these cards work really well.
But Kickstarter is a good way for us to be able to make a bunch of these at once. And when you make physical goods, the more you can print at once, the cheaper each unit becomes. That whole like curve of economics thing, it actually kind of works when you’re dealing with physical goods. So, we have to make enough so we can actually print enough so that it’s actually worthwhile to do. So, that’s the goal behind doing the Kickstarter of it all.
Craig: Look, I make an exception for you. What can I say?
John: Ah, thank you. It means a lot that Craig is not angry at this Kickstarter.
Craig: Can I just say as an aside…?
Craig: [laughs] It is kind of sad that my podcast character, I mean, Mike Birbiglia called me the antagonist of Scriptnotes and it made me laugh. But, you know, Lindsay Doran, she’s been doing this independent producers thing lately where she goes and talks to independent producers about, I don’t know, producing stuff. I guess it’s like Sundance Labs for independent film producers.
And somebody brought up that she was working with me and they had heard this on the podcast. And they’re like, is he okay? Is he mean? [laughs] Do I yell? And she just started laughing because I’m actually — I’m very nice.
John: You’re actually very, very nice.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t yell. I’m not a jerk.
John: No. Maybe three times in our entire relationship have you been sort of really, really angry. And they’ve never been directed at me, because I would never want to be the focus of that rage. But I was actually genuinely concerned, because I know you have deeply held feelings about Kickstarter, and so I actually approached this Kickstarter thinking like how would I build something that Craig wouldn’t hate.
John: That’s really how I go through my life is how do I do things that Craig can possible stand. So, we designed the pledge tiers at levels where like no matter what you’re doing, you’re getting the thing.
Craig: That’s the thing. I mean, look, you’re delivering the product, so you’re not asking people to give you a bunch of money so you can go buy a bunch of lunches for yourself for a year and then not deliver. And, also, you’re donating these to charity. I mean, it’s just — it’s the best possible version of this. So, how could I — by the way, it’s the same thing that Franklin Leonard said when he called me about the Black List.
Craig: He was like, I really was just thinking how can I get you to not hate this. [laughs]
John: I was asking myself what would Franklin do, and how can I get Craig not to hate this?
Craig: There you go.
John: You were the two standard bearers for me. Aline factors in there, too, so I actually showed these to Aline right away. And significant changes were made based on Aline’s feedback.
Craig: She’s tough. She’s tough.
John: She’s tough. So, if you are interested in seeing these decks of cards and perhaps getting one, the Kickstarter campaign will probably be up the morning that this podcast comes out. If I don’t have the URL tweeted, you can just go to writeremergency.com and there will be a link to the Kickstarter campaign. It’s a super short campaign. It’s like two weeks or so. So, you don’t have a lot of time to dilly and dally, but the people who listen to this podcast, they’re on it, they’re buying t-shirts during limited windows.
Craig: Yeah. They’re good.
John: It’ll be fine.
Craig: We have the best listeners.
John: Well, we do have the best listeners. And I met so many of them at Austin. It was really nice.
Craig: What a lovely thing.
John: At Austin I always see Scriptnotes t-shirts, which is great. And now that there’s multiple generations of Scriptnotes t-shirts, I see the different eras, the different colors, the different everything. But I saw one of the very few shirts we ended up selling that was sort of Frankenweenie inspired. It was a quote from my Frankenweenie script. And they want what science gives them, but not the questions science asks.
And someone was wearing that shirt. And it was just so nice to see, like, aw. That one shirt.
Craig: I didn’t even know. Is that a Scriptnotes shirt?
John: We sold it through the same store. We sold it through the same johnaugust.com.
Craig: Well, I will, for all of our listeners who do attend Austin and those who are thinking about attending, I will absolutely be back next year for sure. No one else is getting married that I care about.
John: Absolutely. And you will be at our next live show. And on the next podcast we will be able to announce the dates and possibly even the guests for that. And that’s going to be great.
Craig: Good one. It’s going to be a big one.
John: Cool. Further follow up. Last episode that you and I were talking, I got a new computer and it’s so nice.
John: It’s the 5K Retina iMac.
John: I would encourage — if people are on the fence like, oh, will it really make a difference, it’s so nice.
Craig: Yeah. I’ve been reading some reviews. People are just tripping all over how awesome it looks. I’m waiting now for the Retina Cinema display, because it doesn’t exist yet, but I have to assume it’s on the way, right?
John: We talked about this last week. It’s actually incredibly hard to build that because there’s not a cable fast enough to get the —
Craig: Oh that’s right. We did.
John: So you may be waiting awhile.
Craig: I’m like your grandpa that just now he’s repeating stuff. [laughs] That’s just sad.
John: It’s okay.
Craig: It’s just sad. Someone tuck me in. Tuck me in and give me soup.
John: The podcast, we’ll forgive you.
Craig: Yeah, I’m old.
John: Last podcast we also talked about the Marvel superheroes. We talked about all the superheroes and that there were 31 superhero movies coming out.
Craig: And now we know who they all are, right?
John: We do. So, the published the list with actual names for those dates. Because I had kind of mocked Marvel for like saying, oh, these are Untitled Marvel movie in this slot. And it’s like well that’s cheating. But they decided to stop — because of me — they decided they had to actually decide what movies they were going to make.
Craig: You are at the hub of our industry. You are the beating heart.
John: The same way that I look to you and Franklin Leonard, Kevin Feige says, “What does John August think?”
John: He probably wakes up in the middle of the night going, oh my god, what does John August think?
Craig: They call you the Eye. The Great Eye.
John: We’ve talked about Kevin Feige a lot and I realized that I actually met him a zillion years ago because on the very first Iron Man I came in and did just this tiny, tiny bit of work on it. And even back then I predicted success.
Craig: I also met him many, many years ago. He was super nice. I remember he was super duper nice. It was a general meeting and I remember he gave me his card. It was like a Marvel card.
Craig: Yeah. Now look at him. Now look, our boy is all grown up. Yeah.
John: Exactly. So, the movies are Captain America: Civil War, which was predicted. Doctor Strange, which was sort of predicted, but it had been un-slated. Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Thor: Ragnarok. Black Panther. Okay, sure. Captain Marvel, which just makes things incredibly complicated.
John: Idea wise, because Captain Marvel is the original name of Shazam and they’re also making a Shazam movie, but Shazam is DC and it’s confusing. But Captain Marvel is a female superhero with sort of — she does superhero-y things. So, that could be good.
Craig: You struggled through that a little bit, I think. You were like, “Who does…” You wanted to say female superhero-y things, didn’t you?
John: No, no, I was trying to say that she did Superman kind of things, but I perceive her as having flight and strength and stuff, but I don’t actually know the details and limits of her powers. I will confess my ignorance to that.
Craig: I’m right there with you. Honestly. Like for instance, I know that Black Panther is black. I don’t actually know what his — I’m kind of reaching the edge of my comics knowledge. So, I don’t know actually what his powers are, or Captain Marvel. I mean, I know Doctor Strange. Who else? Oh, yeah, Thor.
Craig: I know Thor. He’s got a hammer.
John: He’s got a hammer. And we know that his evil brother is —
Craig: Loki. And his dad is Odin.
John: Yeah. But his dad is dead.
Craig: Right. Oh, yeah, forgot.
John: Yeah. The Avengers is a two-part thing, which of course, why wouldn’t it be a two-part thing?
John: That’s the Infinity War. And so that deals with a lot of stuff that’s been set up in the universe so far. All those infinity stones and it’s been through all the different —
Craig: I don’t know, the infinity stones, I don’t know about those. I’ve never followed that story. I know that they’re there and they have something to do from Guardians of the Galaxy, but I feel like I’m totally — like obviously I didn’t know anybody from Guardians of the Galaxy. I honestly didn’t know about Hawkeye. [laughs] I just didn’t. There’s so many of them. I just don’t know.
John: But I think your life was pretty fulfilling even not knowing that. So, when you do know it, it’ll just be an extra plus.
Craig: I think there should be a team, like Guardians of the Galaxy was a team of people that theoretically most people didn’t know. But I think Marvel should make a movie of characters that most people do know, I just don’t. So, it would have Hawkeye and Captain Marvel. Like Ant Man? I don’t’ know.
John: No idea.
Craig: Does he get small? I assume he gets small?
John: Yeah. Yeah. We’re going to say small.
John: And, finally, Inhumans, which is November 2, 2018, and almost nobody knows the Inhumans since they’re a completely different thing.
Craig: Yeah, I don’t know them. [laughs]
John: The best description I heard of what they will represent likely in the Marvel universe is because the Marvel universe for Disney does not have X-Men, and they actually apparently can’t even say the word “mutant.” Inhumans apparently do — may serve a similar function in that universe.
Craig: I see. Okay. Well, they can be in the movie of characters that other people know that I don’t know. Which, as we can see, is going to be an enormous movie because I’m grandpa. This is a Craig as grandpa day.
John: Yeah. We divide the universe into two things —
Craig: What I know.
John: Things Craig knows. Things Craig doesn’t know.
Craig: It could be a great movie. Everybody knows who we are, except for Craig.
John: Final bit of follow up, last podcast I was talking about — the podcast we did together — I was talking about how I had had this phone pitch and then I had to go in and do the real pitch and sort of what the difference was between that first impression, everything happening on the phone, and having to really dig in and figure out story.
And so that digging in and figuring out story, that went really, really well. But, I listened to a podcast that actually had a guy having to give a pitch that was so smart. It’s such a good version of this that I want to share it with people. It’s a podcast called the StartUp. And it’s Alex Bloomberg, who was a reporter from This American Life and Planet Money, and he’s attempting to start his own podcasting company. And so he’s trying to raise money for it.
And so he’s going to investors and pitching his podcast company. And pitching a company, a startup, and pitching a movie, they’re different skills. They have different terms of art and sort of ways you do things, but what was so insightful in this first episode he’s trying to pitch Chris Sacca, who is a big investor guy, on his company. And to hear it go horribly, and then hear Chris Sacca pitch that same idea back to him in ways that actually mean something to him.
And it was just a great episode to listen to. The differences between how you perceive your own idea and how someone on the other end perceives your idea and what that idea could be. It was just a fascinating version and that happens all the time in Hollywood, which is where you are describing the story you think you see, and they will sometimes describe back the story that is actually meaningful to them. And you have to decide is that even a movie I would want to write.
Craig: Do you watch Shark Tank at all?
John: I don’t. But I know what that is. That’s the thing where people have these inventions and things?
Craig: Yeah. They have ideas for businesses, basically. Sometimes it’s an invention. Sometimes it’s a service. And they come in and there are five people there who have a lot of money, like Mark Cuban, who is a billionaire. And the individual investors make decisions about how much they are willing to invest, if anything at all, and how much of the company they want in exchange for their investment.
And it’s based on, there was an English show that my wife and I used to watch years ago called Dragon’s Den. And it looks like they just ported it over and called it Shark Tank for the United States. Same idea. And we’ve always loved it because it is people pitching and it is them telling a story. Everything comes down to some sort of narrative.
But there is that remarkable thing that happens where somebody comes in and they are inherently likeable. They are — it’s a single mom who has fought really hard. Sometimes they’re kids. It’s a 16-year-old who’s got this brilliant idea. It’s a man who has been downsized and he’s getting back on his feet with his own thing. And there are these very likeable stories, but there’s always that moment where they hear the story, they really appreciate the story, and they show this guy some empathy and love, or this woman some empathy and love, and then the wall just drops. And it becomes business.
And they couldn’t care about that at all. It’s amazing to watch it happen. Like you see it literally flick, like a switch. And I think the same thing happens in Hollywood. We come in and we have these great opening moments and I love you, and you love me, and everything is wonderful, wouldn’t this be wonderful. And then you pitch. And then they just flip a switch. And now it’s business.
John: So, what’s so interesting about that situation and what happens in the room when you’re pitching a movie is you start by talking why the story is meaningful to you, but at the same time you have to be able to describe it in terms that are going to be meaningful for them in terms of what their actual decision-making process is. And so you have to be able to talk about how it’s resonating with you, your personal connection to it, who you are, why they should trust you. But at the same time you have to be able to then flip it and say like this is why this is going to be a thing that needs to happen in the world. This is why this is going to be a movie you’re going to want to make and green light and spend all your money and all your time doing.
And it’s easy to figure out why something is meaningful to you. It’s hard to figure out sometimes why it’s meaningful to them. And it’s practice is what does it. You start to hear these investors talking about sort of what’s meaningful. You start to hear the words they use. Things like what’s your unfair advantage, which I’d never actually heard before until Chris Sacca said it. And then I was an investor pitch earlier this week and a guy slipped that in. I’m like, oh my god, that felt kind douche-baggy, but also wonderful.
The same way that we would use “end of the second act.”
John: Or at the midpoint. The way we would use those kind of terms or tent pole, they use these kind of terms and you have to be able to understand why they’re looking for those things because those are meaningful parts of their decision process.
Craig: Yeah. When you are pitching something, it’s great to start with that question you raised. Why should this movie exist? And you need to have a good reason for it. Not a good intellectual reason, but a good passionate reason. You have to actually believe your answer, because that’s what’s going to power you through writing the script. Only through believing your answer and having faith in your answer do you have a prayer of having them agree with you.
John: And one of the toughest matches though is sometimes you can pitch a movie that you actually have no interest in writing. And I’ve encountered this a couple times where I’ve gone in on a project and I can sort of see like, oh, there’s a movie there. I can see what that is. I can see what they’re going for. Or, sometimes I’ll be sent some adaptation and I’ll be like I see why there is a movie there, I just know I don’t want to write it. And I know that it’s the process of trying to write this thing is going to be terrible. And that same kind of thing happens in this StartUp podcast, where there’s a version of what an investor is looking for that is not at all what Alex Bloomberg is trying to create.
John: And he has to question himself, like, I see why they want this thing, I’m just not interested in doing that thing. I don’t think I’d be good at doing that thing. I think everyone is going to be miserable if I try to make that thing.
Craig: And then you have a choice.
John: You do.
Craig: Because, it’s funny, when Lindsay and I went around pitching the thing that I’m writing now, we had terrific success. A lot of people said, yes, we would like this. After about three, I think our first three meetings were big successes. And then the fourth one was just terrible. Terrible meeting. Not because they were being mean, it just was awkward from the start. It was a rough one. And we knew it wasn’t going to be a yes. It was going to be a no.
And in thinking about it later, I was just so grateful that that hadn’t happened to have been the first one.
Craig: Because you just don’t, sometimes it’s just that’s the one person, or even if it’s the two people, and you have to ask yourself, okay, is it me or is them? And, of course, when you’re looking for a big investor, or in our case, when you’re looking for that one investor, all it takes is one.
Craig: You just need one person to love it. You don’t need everybody to kind of like it.
John: Exactly. And sometimes that decision process of who do you go to first can be so important because, you know, sometimes it’s good to go to sort of the softer place that you’re not that invested in them saying yes or saying no, just so you can practice what it feels like to you telling it to somebody else.
And so in times where I’ve done TV pitches, I’ve noticed that I often do schedule the most unlikely place first, or the least exciting place first, because that way you sort of get all the butterflies out.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a little bit like you’re scheduling your movie, you always try and pick something that’s kind of a layup for day one. You know, oh yeah, we’re just going to shoot two people talking in a restaurant. That’s easy. Easy first day.
John: I was out a dinner with Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber who wrote 500 Days of Summer.
Craig: Great guys.
John: Great guys. Love them to death. And I had met Scott before, but this was the first time meeting Michael.
Craig: He’s the best, isn’t he?
John: They’re wonderful.
Craig: And he’s like, and Michael is like, he’s 12 as far as I’m concerned.
Craig: So young. Yeah.
John: So young. So, one of them lives in Los Angeles. One of them lives in New York. And so they often have to do pitches or meetings on the phone with people. And they talked about how difficult it was to plan for it. And they had to actually sort of be really meticulous about who is going to say what, because otherwise they’re just talking over each other. And they need to make sure that all the points get made. It’s really, really difficult to do in person and then to try to it on the phone, too, it’s a challenging world we live in.
Craig: Yeah. I had lunch with — or coffee or something with Michael in New York and I was fascinated by this, how they managed to do it that way. But they do. I’ve spent time with both of them now, but never in the same room.
John: Yeah. So, this was my first time ever — they’re rarely together, so it was nice to have them both there at Austin.
Craig: I mean, but then again, look at us.
John: Look at us. We’re never in the same room. It works out fine.
Craig: Yeah, we’re the Elton John and Bernie Taupin of podcasts.
John: Oh my god. I think that’s a much better comparison that the Van Halen of podcasts.
Craig: Let me ask you a question. Which one of us is Elton John and which one is Bernie Taupin?
John: I’m Bernie Taupin —
Craig: No question.
John: You’re the flamboyant showman.
Craig: I’m the one in the boa and duck glasses. Yeah.
John: I’m Bernie Taupin because I have no idea what he looks like, but I sense he’s really the power behind the whole relationship.
Craig: He’s certainly the serious one. Yeah. He’s the one who’s like, okay —
John: He’s like, “Elton, no, got to get this done. We’ve got to finish this.” That’s completely my function. In Big Fish with Andrew Lippa, and I adore Andrew Lippa, but I always the one who had to say like, okay no, we’re going to sit down and we’re going to finish this song. We’ve got to get this thing happening because we promised these people. I’m always — that’s my job.
Craig: Yup. And I’m the guy in the Mozart wig and sailor outfit.
John: Yes. You put something on the show notes which I think is potentially fascinating, because it’s something that you’re writing right now. On the show notes you write, “Descending into darkness. When you have to write terrible, tragic moments.”
Craig: Yeah, I actually did it this morning. And I’m just going to be incredibly honest because this is the place where I’ve learned how to be honest, I think, on the podcast. I wrote this sequence this morning, and then I — honestly, I bawled. I bawled. I cried my little eyes out, because it was so sad. And it just made me so, so sad.
And if that sounds like something that you find laughable, maybe this isn’t for you. Because I do feel like this is part of what we have to do. It’s not something that’s come up frequently for me, because most of the movies that I’ve written over my career have been lighter fare. And while there are sweet moments or dramatic moments in lighter fare, it’s never quite so gut-wrenching. I mean, you just don’t want to kill — you don’t want to deflate the soufflé of lighter movies.
But when you’re writing a movie that has room for tragedy, sooner or later you’re going to come to that point where you have to go to a bad place, because you have to write something that is terrible. The sort of thing that if it happened to a friend, you’d feel it in the pit of your stomach and you would be horrified.
And it’s not easy. And I’m not sure, I sort of wanted to ask you if there’s anything you do particularly to prepare for those moments and how you go into those moments because for me it seemed like the only way to prepare was to not prepare and to just let myself experience bad things.
John: So, yes, I’ve had to do this actually quite a lot. And so Big Fish was sort of the most notable example, where that last sequence where you’re sort of taking Edward Bloom to the river and he passes away, that’s opening a bunch of veins. And writing that sequence, I’ve talked about this before and sort of not secret knowledge, what I would do is in my bathroom at my old house there was this big mirror and I would sit in front of the mirror and I’d bring myself to tears. And then I would start writing the scene. I would write it all by hand.
And it sounds very, very method, but in a weird way your brain switches to a different place when you’re in that kind of heightened emotion. And you can sort of capture that emotion when you are writing, sometimes when you’re feeling that same way.
And so I didn’t have to necessarily bring up horrible memories of my past. I didn’t have to do any of that stuff. But I let that moment be really real in my head to the point where it would bring me to tears, and then I would write through it.
The danger and difficulty of doing that is that same sense memory will come back every time you see or reencounter that scene. And so as I had to sort of go through the script again, and again, and again, I couldn’t get through that stuff, reading it sometimes, without evoking that same memory and those same tears.
Then, of course, I went off and did the Broadway version and to write that sequence with Andrew Lippa I had to bring us both to tears, and then we had to write the song, and then figure out the scene that goes around it and stage it and perform it ourselves like 100 times. So, that whole moment is deeply, deeply wired in to sort of how I experience the show, how I experience the movie.
And that’s not a bad thing, it’s just the reality. You have to remember that you are the first performer of this moment that you are creating. And so if it doesn’t have an emotional impact for you as you’re writing it, it’s not going to have an emotional impact for someone who is watching it.
Craig: That’s right. And in many ways while it is uncomfortable to feel these emotions as you’re writing these things and to cry over what you’re writing, it is the reward of a lot of good work that you’ve done before that. A lot of logical non-emotional work you’ve done. Because the only way you’re going to get to that place — tragedy ultimately while felt irrationally is constructed of rational things. Circumstances make things tragic. Not emotions.
And when the circumstances align in such a way, then they allow the emotion to occur. So, this is your reward. You’ve done your job. If you are crying when this happens, it means you have carefully constructed the proper recipe for tragedy. But then going through it, it’s interesting — I didn’t start crying before I did it. I just started doing it and then started feeling those moments where I would begin. And that’s how you know it’s true.
I mean, this is where I have to say drama is easier than comedy. Because when you write something funny, I don’t know anybody that sits there writing — any comic writer who sits there writing and then suddenly starts laughing as they type. I’ve never seen such a thing. It’s because it is so, I don’t know how to, I want to say intellectual.
John: But comedy is ultimately a function of surprise. Comedy relies on that sense of like something that you didn’t see happening happens, or someone says something that you didn’t expect, and it takes you by surprise.
Craig: And you know the surprise.
John: And once you know the surprise, it’s not going to be funny the same way. Same reason why you watch any movie that you love as a comedy, you may still love it, but it’s not going to be as funny the second time.
Craig: That’s right. And so you have to — the only way to write a funny moment is to know the surprise at the end and then it build it backwards like a magician designing a trick. But that’s dangerous work because there is no instinctive moment where you say my lizard brain has just informed me that this is impactful.
You know, when you cry, that’s not you. You’re not crying. The sense of who we are as people is all about our consciousness and our frontal lobe. This is the animal underneath. So, not only are you the first person performing this part, but then your limbic system is the first audience member listening to it, in a true sense different than you. And so you have to listen to that and you have to be on top of that.
And if you get to a place where you’re descending into the darkness, and none of this is happening, then you have to ask yourself if you’ve constructed all the circumstances necessary to make this moment tragic, or if you were just leaning on the moment itself. It’s not enough to watch somebody die. We have seen people die in movies 14 billion times. Why are they dying? What did they do to die? Who is watching them die? What does that person mean to them?
All of those questions are what makes something tragic as opposed to just henchman number four falling to his death.
John: It is your emotional investment in those characters that it makes those moments have stakes, have meaning. And so it’s not necessarily your emotional investment in a character who is dying, but it could your emotional investment in the characters who are witnessing that death who are affected by that death. That is what’s meaningful.
You’re absolutely right in that if in a movie you see a character die in a car crash, that’s not necessarily going to bring tears. It’s not necessarily going to have an emotional impact. Only to the degree that we love that character or relate to that character or see ourselves in that character, or someone else who we can identify with who we can feel that connection to the character. Then we can feel it. Otherwise, we don’t feel it.
And your point about construction of a joke is absolutely true with drama as well. And I often describe Big Fish as one very long joke and the punch line is tears. In that it really is very carefully constructed to set up this expectation of we know from the start that Edward Bloom is not going to live at the end. The question of the film and the question of the musical is what is going to happen with this relationship between Edward and his son, Will. And we are paying that off right at the very end and the surprise of the movie — I’m going to spoil everything for you — but the surprise of the movie is that Will actually finally does get there and is able to deliver that last moment.
And so it’s that happy tears thing can happen because you’ve spent so much time and so much energy making it possible to have meaning in that moment.
Craig: Right. Now, there is a danger hidden behind all of this. And the danger is this. You will write this and you will care deeply about it. It will be emotional for you. And sometimes it’s emotional for you because it has a resonance to you personally, separate from the story. However, you must remember that the audience, either the people in the theater or someone reading your screenplay owes you nothing.
Craig: Nothing. And it is absolutely within their right to say this didn’t move me, or I think it would be better if this, or I think it would better — you don’t have to agree with them, but what you can’t do is hold them responsible for your emotions. Either you have managed to welcome them in to your limbic theater, or you haven’t. And so just be careful not to force people to be accountable for what you feel, just because you felt it.
John: Absolutely. And so sometimes you will encounter a script where there’s clearly supposed to be this emotional payoff and we’re not feeling it. We’re not feeling those moments. And something along the way did not click fully. And someone got off the ride. And if someone got off the ride, they’re going to see this moment and say like I should feel something, but I don’t feel something, and therefore I don’t like it.
John: And that is really going to happen. And obviously the same thing happens in comedy, too. When you feel joke-oids or things that should be funny but aren’t funny, there’s something that’s just fundamentally not working there. And it’s your job to put aside your experience of that moment to really be the scientist to figure out why is this not working the way I thought it was going to be working.
John: So, let’s take a look at these Three Page Challenges and see if we can get them working the way they want to be working. So, as always, if you want to read along with us, we have the PDFs for this Three Page Challenge are attached to the show notes at johnaugust.com. So, go to johnaugust.com and click on this episode and you’ll see the PDFs for these things so you can read along with us.
So, Craig, which of these Three Page Challenges should we look at first?
Craig: Well, the first on my pile, because I like to print these out, is —
John: Oh that’s right, old school.
Craig: Old school. It’s the signal by Cody Pearce.
John: Let’s go for it. Do you want to do it or should I do the summary?
Craig: I’m happy to do it.
Craig: Okay. So, opens with a pair of gloved hands. One of them is holding on to a leather satchel. The other is grabbing a large knife and hiding it within the folds of an animal skin coat.
We see the hermit, this is our hero that we’re following, moving out of a rustic cabin in the pines and then wearing a pair of earplugs. They put the earplugs in the ears. We don’t see a face.
The hermit moves through the woods, moving past some hidden bear traps. And then eventually arrives in a town, a small town called Pine Brush. And it looks like it’s been abandoned for decades, kind of post-apocalyptic.
As the hermit walks down a street we see a family coming. They avoid the hermit. Interesting. And then the hermit enters a general store which is run by Bob. Just this average guy. And he offers to help the hermit with something. And then the phone rings and a high pitched noise comes out of the phone and Bob suddenly stops being Bob and becomes controlled by something. He’s channeling some other voice and he attacks the hermit who is now revealed to be Michelle, a 30-year-old woman.
And the voice says, “Oh, Michelle,” through Bob says, “oh Michelle, you look terrible.” They have a fight. Bob is trying to pull out her earplugs and saying please let me help you. And eventually the fight ends when Michelle rams the knife in between Bob’s ribs. And that is our three pages from Cody Pearce. John, take it away.
John: So, I was intrigued by this overall. I was excited to read pages four through ten at least and see what this whole situation was going to be. Clearly The Signal is this thing that can take over people and the hermit, this character Michelle, has good reason to be isolating herself in the woods to do something.
I liked a lot of this. I was a little ahead of Cody. For whatever reason I tipped that the hermit is probably a woman dressed up under all this other stuff. But on the whole I dug it.
It was interesting to hear your summary where you say, so this is the bottom of page one. “The buildings of Pine Brush haven’t been updated in decades. Most are abandoned, businesses closed and boarded up. A few old, beaten-up cars scattered about.” Now, you read that and said post-apocalyptic. I don’t think that’s the intention. I think the intention is it’s just like a rundown town.
But, it was ambiguous, and that ambiguity hurts because those are two different universes. And I think a little bit more — I’m going to say that word — specificity could help us here. Because I need to know what kind of universe we’re in. Because I think I’m probably more right because Bob’s general store is running.
John: And so it wouldn’t be running otherwise. But it was a reasonable choice and I read it both ways the first time.
Craig: I agree. Many, many promising things here. I always like to say, hey, you can do this to somebody. I think, hey Cody, you can do this.
Let’s talk about what works. The style here is right for the material. There’s a lot of whitespace on the page. Very short descriptions. I’m not hearing these overdone elaborations of what the pine trees look like and how the footsteps sound in my ear, all this stuff. It’s nice and punchy and good. I was completely with you that I was ahead that something was up with the hermit. Either it was going to be a child or a woman. And the reason why is because when you write something like, “Out steps…THE HERMIT, age unknown, wearing the animal skin overcoat, his face hidden beneath a large hood.” And then, again, “We do not see his face.”
Well, then it’s not a him. You’re kind of cheating on your misdirect. If it’s a big deal that this is a woman and that we can’t see her face and that we’re supposed to be misled, I would just underplay it here in your description. Finally we see this person’s face. And not make a big deal of holy gosh it’s a lady.
Craig: At first I was a little surprised by “Howdy. Can I help you with anything?” because that seemed so corny. You know, nobody really talks like that anymore. But then I thought, okay, once the little squeal-y sound happens, maybe that’s sort of Bob, that’s all that’s left of Bob’s personality. I don’t know.
John: See, I took this as Bob really was Bob from the start. And that was genuinely him. And then that Signal took over and he became a different person. So, I would want to take this as, and I don’t know Cody’s intention, but everything actually is fine and normal until The Signal takes over.
So, The Signal is specifically looking for her.
Craig: I see. Well, in that case “Howdy. Can I help you with anything?” is —
John: Howdy is a dangerous word.
Craig: Just bad dialogue. The action I thought was very well written. I understood what was going on. Personally, so okay, Cody has an issue here. There is a cinematic concept whereby characters that we see onscreen are occasionally going to be possessed by some unseen intelligence that will speak through those characters.
And what Cody says, what he writes for us is in brackets: “[NOTE: from here on out, whenever a character is under the control of the Signal his dialogue will be show ” — instead of shown, that’s a typo — “(tapped)]” And then in parenthesis tapped. And so as a parenthetical every time Bob speaks with the Signal voice it says, “(tapped) Oh Michele, You look terrible.” Again, another typo Y is capitalized. And then again, “(tapped) Please…Let me help you.”
I’m not sure that’s going to work here. We’ve got, I assume, at least 90 pages of this. A lot of people are going to be talking this way. Tapped is a very strange word for this. I understand that it may make sense later, but to see it over and over and over. Plus, you’re stealing your ability as a screenwriter to put a different parenthetical in if you need to. What if the Signal voice is sarcastic or angry? Or whispering? How are you supposed to do that?
So, my argument would be that instead maybe everything that is a Signal should be in italics.
John: That’s exactly my suggestion.
Craig: Yeah, it would just make more —
John: Yeah, I think it makes more sense. So, keep the same note, just say that when under the control of the Signal, everything will be in italics. We’ll get it. It’ll be fine. And I agree with you. Tapped, I think, is a weird choice of that word anyway because tapped implies a physical reaction, like something is actually physically happening and that’s not what’s happening.
Craig: Right. My last comment for Cody is this. As screenwriters, sometimes we get trapped by convention. One of the conventions of screenplays is that when we meet characters for the first time we present their name in capital letters, we give you the age, and then we give you some brief description. Devastatingly handsome. Plan girl next door with a light in her eyes.
Well, that’s what he’s done here. “MICHELLE, 30, cute but very tired. Bangs cover her forehead.” Here’s the problem: when we see her it’s because Bob, under the influence of the evil Signal, has ripped her hood off revealing her face. That’s the last point in a movie where you want your character to be described as tired. [laughs]
John: Well, it’s also the last point when you want to have her described as cute.
John: Cute is not very helpful.
John: So, find some words that will tell us, might give us a sense of her size, but also her tenacity, whatever. Give us a little bit that’s going to cue us into the action sequence that’s about to happen.
Craig: I mean, and plus, it’s perfectly fine to say Michelle, 30 frightened, you know, blurry-eyed, scared, whatever. Something that’s appropriate for the moment. Unless her forehead is marked with some fascinating information, I definitely don’t need to know about her bangs at this point.
And even if it is a tattoo on her forehead of something brilliant, I still don’t need to know about the bangs right now.
John: Exactly. You can save some of these character descriptions till a moment after this bite has happened. And make it a story point. There’s a reason why she brushes back her bangs to reveal that thing if that’s an important story — because if something about her forehead is important, put a light on it. And you can do that after this.
John: So, she’s still going to have bangs in both places, even if you don’t say it.
Craig: Yup. But all around, I would say very good stuff.
John: Yeah. So, a couple things on the page that I want to talk about. Page one, middle of the page, “The hermit moves swift and silent through the dense forest.” So, classically that’s swiftly and silently because it’s an adverb, but this swift and silent works for this. Grammatically those should be adverbs, but we tend to sort of use swift and silent. I was fine with it. But I wanted to point out that it’s the kind of thing that you can do it right or you can do what sort of works on the page. And I felt it worked on the page really well.
Craig: I actually prefer this incorrect method.
John: Yeah. And then, top of page three, first line of real action, “Michelle hits Bob’s arm, causing him to let go of her coat. She pulls out the KNIFE she had hidden in her coat.” So, awkwardness here. Causing him to let go of her coat. That is really weak. Michelle hit’s Bob’s arm, breaking free of his grasp. Causing him to let go of her coat is just really weak and passive and it’s not indicative of sort of the action that you’re describing.
Craig: Right. He pulls away in pain. Something other than a very clinical description.
John: Exactly. And both sentences are ending with her coat which is just not ideal
Craig: Yeah, you don’t want to do that.
John: So, always look for repetitions between two sentences and there’s going to be reasons while you’ll want those repetitions, but most of the times you don’t want those repetitions. And this is a case where that was getting in his way.
Craig: 100 percent.
Craig: All right. What’s next, John?
John: Next let’s do Eric Webb’s script and I will attempt to summarize this. Immortal Coil.
We’re starting in Seattle, Washington, sunset. Winter scenes of the scene transition into night, intercut with the sun setting behind the Olympic mountains. We’re seeing sort of details of the city, Pike Place market, college students, the sun dips, we hear a jingle, jingle, jingle off-screen. In the central district of town, we’re at dusk, there’s a pockmarked street with shabby apartment buildings.
Inside the bedroom of one of these apartments a form is shifting under heavy covers. The only other light in the room is a temperature controller for an electric blanket. So, there’s somebody in here asleep. Moments later, the person gets out of the bed, opens the drapes.
We’re going to meet Kaleb and Kaleb is covered in blood. Let’s see what the actual description is. “He is half undressed, his crumpled clothes twisted at awkward angles around his frame from having been slept in. He is covered from head to toe in SPLATTERS OF BLOOD, but no wounds are apparent.”
He’s going to be taking a shower in the bathroom and we notice after the shower there’s a faint glimmer of reflectivity can be seen in the pupils of his eyes.
More details of his apartment. Getting dressed. He tells himself you forgot something. He puts on a charming smile and drops the smile and say a word that we’re not going to say on this podcast because it’s PG-13. And then he goes out into the street. It’s night. And as he’s walking through the snow he seems to be enjoying and sort of soaking up the energy of the people around him.
He seems like he’s potentially a dangerous person. And that is the bottom of our three pages.
Craig: So, I can’t say that I was in love with these. Most of the issues have to do with the content as opposed to the style, but there are some style issues as well that we need to discuss. So, I guess I’ll start in with those.
We’ve got the first half of page one, for all intents and purposes reads like the introduction to a Christmas movie. We’ve got a sun setting behind the Olympic mountains. Businesses in Pike Place Market being shuttered. College students building snowmen.
And then a cell phone alarm that says Jingle Jangle Jingle, which in my mind means Christmas. [laughs] It’s just Jingle Bells. Jingle Jangle Jingle. I just think like, oh, we’re on our way to a Christmas party or something. And now we’re into this — then he reestablishes, he goes from sunset to dusk which is — I know that DPs know the difference, but the average reader doesn’t.
And actually we went from sunset to dusk to dusk. I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter.
Obviously the sun setting is the important part because we’re dealing with a vampire. And I know this because Jingle Jangle Jingle, which I know realize, okay, yeah, for sure, this is not a Christmas movie anymore, there’s a guy who’s hiding from the sun under this bed.
Now, at the bottom of page one we have a five line action block which in my mind becomes mush.
John: It’s five lines, but actually almost nothing happens.
John: I think that’s really the tragedy of the five lines. It’s not describing this amazing moment from a war. It’s basically like there’s somebody under the blanket for five lines.
Craig: Right. He’s under the blanket and he’s turning his alarm off, which we’ve seen a billion times. So, now he wakes up and, I’m just going to read this because it just doesn’t work. “From behind, we see the occupant of the bed throw open a set of black-out drapes revealing make out a man’s silhouette against the battered blinds that cover the windows.”
Guys, this needs to be like sewn onto a pillow as what to not do. Obviously there’s a mistake in there, but it’s a run-on sentence. You’re missing commas. We see the occupant of the — you never want to say something like we see the occupant of the bed throw open, because people just see bed throw. The words don’t go together. It just — what’s wrong with just saying the man throws open the set of drapes. We see a silhouette.
Craig: It’s just so over-written. And now he’s parting the flaps of the blinds close on his eye. You want to capitalize CLOSE for me, otherwise people are going to read it as close on his eye. As he peers out at the last embers of daylight in the west. This is just — you and I talk about purple. This is purple.
Okay. But the point being at this point I’m for sure I know we’re dealing with a vampire. And I’m already a little annoyed because his name is Kaleb with a K. And this is starting to just feel very YA and very well-trodden ground. He is described as “in his early twenties with pale skin, a slender build, and long jet-black hair.” AKA, every YA vampire ever.
And, this is really where — ugh — I started to get a little squirmy. “He is covered from head to toe in SPLATTERS OF BLOOD, but no wounds are apparent.”
First of all, don’t tell me no wounds are apparent. He has just woken up. If he’s covered in blood, he’s okay. It’s not his blood. He’s been sleeping all night. He’s not screaming. It’s not dripping. He looks at himself in a mirror and we see “there are channels cut into the crusted mask of blood that covers part of his face, carved by tears when the blood was fresh. New tears now trace those same paths.”
Forgive me, but at this point I’m starting to feel like I should be laughing. Because that’s so over-the-top, I’m not sure what to do. And then he takes a shower and we are told, all capital letters, “THE BLOOD WAS NOT HIS.” We know. We know. We get it. This is making so much more of something that frankly we’ve seen.
John: My biggest challenge overall with these pages is it is totally valid here is a vampire in Seattle, great. But this introduction — benefit of the doubt, maybe it’s not a vampire movie. There’s some special details about this that it’s a different kind of supernatural thing we’re going to go into, so it’s taking the vampire tropes and it’s going to push against them. But from these three pages it feels like a vampire wakes up. And that’s sort of all we got. A vampire wakes up and takes a shower.
And I wasn’t seeing special things that let me know what kind of movie I’m in. Well, I sort of knew what kind of movie I was in, and I was not excited to be in that movie because I’ve seen this movie before.
John: It felt like too familiar of a setup and everything to begin with. And the writing felt like book writing rather than screenwriting. It felt like the kind of sentences that are trying to very painterly, you kind of over-describe everything because you’re trying to paint these whole scenes that you don’t really need to do in screenwriting because screenwriting is about this happens, and this happens, and this happens. It was too much at all times.
Craig: Yeah. You have to remember that we, Eric, we control time as screenwriters. We can present things in a remarkably compressed manner, or we can drag them out so that they are painfully slow. And there are times when you want to do one or the other. And there are times when you want to just move at a general neutral speed.
What you’ve done here is you’ve dragged time out to the point now where you’re describing the color of the wallpaper and the color of the carpet and how the carpet smells, none of which is relevant here whatsoever.
The only information that I get from this is that there’s a vampire in Seattle and it makes him sad that he has to kill people to eat stuff. And that’s fine. It’s not new. And I’m certainly not — look, if it were me, god, I would much rather prefer this thing open in a bar and a woman is there and this guy comes along and starts talking to her and they’re actually getting along great. And he really likes her. And we can tell he really likes her. And then he kills her. And then he cries.
I mean, just get me into this somehow other than vampire wakes up looking just like a vampire doing vampire stuff like hiding from the sun. And then he’s got vampire blood on him. And, bummer.
John: Well, honestly, it’s the two kind of tropes that happen so often in these movies which is sort of like here’s the vampire and he’s being a vampire. And here’s a character waking up, here’s a character’s alarm clock going off the first thing in the morning and that’s how the movie starts. And so it’s weird that you’re sort of doing both things at once, but not weird in a fantastic way.
And Seattle is an interesting place to set, and maybe this can be some kind of artisanal vampire thing happening. That there can be something very specific about it that could be great. But Twilight is also set in the Seattle area, so that’s not even…
So, the only thing I want to say that I think is really useful for talking about craft is on page two, we’re in the bathroom, and there’s these stacked scenes where it’s like moments later, angle behind mirror, this type of thing. And it’s an example of making things much more difficult than they need to be.
And in real scripts that shoot, you’re going to find this stuff is simplified greatly. Each of these little moments, you could slug them individually, but you could also just sort of just talk through them in paragraphs. Because if it’s just a time cut within one little space and it’s just a montage of things that happen, you can call that a scene and everyone will figure out what’s supposed to happen in it.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, the good news is clearly you guys, you, Eric, sorry, saw this scene in your head. You saw all of it. You did what you’re supposed to do. You imagined every detail of the moment, down to the colors and smells and angles. But you can’t actually then just go and dictate all of that out. You have to decide where and what to let other people in on. It’s important for you to know everything. It’s not as important for the reader to know everything.
John: Much more important than sort of this geography stuff, and so the color of the walls is what it feel like. And I didn’t get a great sense of what it actually felt like and what this is supposed to feel like to a person. So, like, does this apartment feel like an old grandmother’s apartment that someone inherited? Does it feel like the most seedy rock club you’ve ever been in? What does it feel like? Just give me that one line of description. Would have done a lot more good for telling the story than all the stuff that I got there.
Craig: Yeah. Tweaker pad. Flop house. Unfurnished corporate apartment. There’s so many ways to just get this out there and I get it. By the way, hipster vampire is not a bad idea. Like if you just did a movie about just like bearded flannel-wearing, mutton chop, handle bar mustache vampires who sort of quibble over like who they drink blood from. Like are they on antibiotics. Like I don’t drink blood from anybody that’s been vaccinated. [laughs]
John: [laughs] Absolutely. The anti-vaccination vampire.
Craig: The anti-vaccination vampire is awesome.
John: The last thing I want to point out, so this script is called Immortal Coil, and it’s written by Eric Webb, story by Eric Webb with Casey Ligon. And the “with” is just a really weird thing. And it’s not an actual thing that exists in the world. And would be what that would look like.
John: With doesn’t exist as a credit in film land.
Craig: All right. Our last three pages is called Nexus and it’s written by Carlos Aldana. And I put the hard stop there because I really want to say Carlo Saldana. Carlos Saldanha is the director of the Rio movies. But this is Carlos Aldana. And it’s called Nexus.
I shall summarize thusly. SUPER: “November, 2014” We’re in darkness and then the sound of metal screeching. A big door opens up revealing Lucy. She’s 35 years old. And she’s telling some people to hurry and four people running after her, just silhouetted. She guides the group up an emergency stairwell in a building. They all carry guns. They’re all dirty and tired.
Ryan, who is 39, Ashley, 17, Earl, 44, and Eddie Jeong, 23. And they’re asking how much longer. And Earl is saying you better haul ass if you don’t want to get caught by one of those things.
John: We’ll come back to that line.
Craig: We’re going to come back to a lot of these lines. So, then we get in to the office. Something is growling. And it turns out, oh, it’s not a monster. It’s just a dog. This is an abandoned office. Lucy opens up a safe. Rather, she tells Jeong to open up a safe. And Ashley says mom. So, that turns out to be Lucy’s daughter, Ashley. And she’s looking at the Los Angeles skyline, except the buildings are destroyed and abandoned. I think I’m now safe to say this is post-apocalyptic.
John: Yeah. I think it’s fair. I think there’s been a recession. There are issues. But I think we’re now safely post-apocalyptic.
Craig: Right. So, Lucy is reminiscing about a Los Angeles that once was. And Jeong opens up a safe.
Now, here’s what’s in the safe. A disk the size of a quarter, a key card, and six high tech pucks called either DITs or D-I-Ts. It’s hard to tell. And they are futuristic objects that stick together and also do not stick together and also stick to concrete. And she throws them at a wall. There are some geography issues. The point being that they create a portal. That these things open a portal up. And the portal appears to reveal another place that’s just like the place they’re in. It’s like a mirror, but a mirror into another place.
You know, if I’m running out of juice on the summary, you know there’s some trouble. [laughs] I’m not really sure what happened. That’s the god’s honest truth, John. I’m not exactly sure what happened.
John: So, I thought the idea of you throw this thing at the wall and it opens up and forms a portal, yeah, I’ve played the game Portal. I like the game Portal. So, maybe there’s something really great to do there. So, I wasn’t nuts about the description of it, but I was intrigued enough to say like, well, what kind of movie is this.
The thing that obviously intrigues me right from the start is it says November 2014. And it’s like, well, that’s now. That’s actually today. But it’s a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. So, something has changed. Either the timeline has changed, or Carlos actually wrote this a couple of years ago and made some bad predictions.
Craig: Well, but on his front page he writes May, 2014. And also copyright 2014, which by the way, Carlos, not necessary to write.
John: Not necessary. Also not necessary to have the comma after May, but that’s fine.
John: So, something has happened. I think it’s a deliberate choice to say this is an alternate timeline. There’s something else going on. And given that we’re able to bend the laws of physics in order to create these portals, maybe the time has moved, too.
Unfortunately, while it’s generally great to start in the middle of action, that’s usually a really good thing to try to do, I don’t think it’s helping us so much here because I don’t know who these characters are in a useful way. And I’m not particularly intrigued, just based on the little bits of dialogue that I’m getting.
And so, “How much longer? Almost there.” Okay. Fine. “You better haul ass if you don’t wanna get caught by one of those things.” I don’t know what this world is, but these people seem to know what they’re doing, and no one would say that if they’d been through this before.
Craig: Yeah. Why would you say that about the most important and dangerous thing. Like if you were working in the Ebola zone, and you saw somebody, like one of your fellow doctors without a surgical mask on, would you say, “You better put your surgical mask on, or you’ll catch Ebola.” That’s the equivalent. I mean, it’s just crazy.
John: It is truly the equivalent. And so that felt weird and it just took me out of the movie because it so made it clear we’re in a movie.
Craig: Well, if that didn’t make it clear that you’re in a movie, how about these descriptions. And talk about these descriptions for me, please, these character descriptions.
John: Okay. Let’s read through them. So, Lucy is 35, petite and brunette. That’s all we get.
Craig: Petite and brunette. I think you’ve got to just stop there. We cannot — I get that we have lived in a world where men have reduced women in movies frequently to the girl. We can’t do this anymore. You cannot define a human being by their physical height and then their hair color.
John: Well, to be fair, Lucy is 35, petite, and brunette, while Ashley is 17, petite but tough.
Craig: [laughs] Okay. She’s tough. Okay. Fair enough. She’s also petite, though.
John: So, women in this movie so far we’ve learned can be brunette and they can be tough.
Craig: You certainly can’t be both.
John: And it’s possible they can be both. So, what we’re really saying is that Lucy is the first person we’re introduced to. We need some description of her that tells us what she’s like, not what she looks like.
Craig: Correct. Unless Lucy dies on page four as a big shocker and Ashley has to become the hero of the movie, we need more from Lucy, because right now she feels like the hero. And it it’s true that Lucy dies suddenly and Ashley has to become the hero of the movie, then we need more about Ashley. Either way, nobody — the script has given us no information about who we’re supposed to be concentrating on.
John: So, two things about this. First off, is the misdirect is that Lucy’s going to die on page four, the misdirect has to happen on the page, too. So, give us a little bit of stuff about her so we have sense of who she is, because then it’s actually going to be rewarding for us that she got killed off. So, give us a description that sort of lands for us and anchors us.
But, the bigger issue here I think, in addition to the specific choices of the words we’re using to describe these characters is you’re shooting us, all four of them at once. There’s that shotgun approach. Here’s four characters and they’re running and doing things. That’s really hard to be great in any circumstance, because we don’t know what we’re supposed to pay attention to. And we’re desperately looking for things, but you have them running and doing all this other stuff. It makes it just very hard for us to relate to any one of your characters because you’re giving us four all at once.
Craig: I mean, this is what you’re suggesting. Screenplays are proposing to an unseen, unknown director, what to shoot. What you are proposing here that the director shoots is Lucy guiding people up stairs. And as they walk our camera just sees each one of them. And none of them say anything until the last one. So, we’re just literally watching this lineup of four people.
This is ultimately what we know. Lucy is petite and brunette. Ryan moves and carries his gun like a pro. Definitely military or police. Ah, okay. We won’t know that in any way, shape, or form. Ashley, petite, but tough, looks a bit old for her age. We won’t know her age, so none of that matters. And then, Earl, 44, big muscular black guy in mechanic overalls. Lastly, Eddie Jeong, pale and skinny Asian, clearly tired going up the stairs.
Not only does this read like the kind of group you see in B-level zombie videogames, but it’s a bad version. It’s kind of racist. It feels like — like what race is Ryan? What race is Lucy? What race is Ashley?
John: That’s a very good point.
Craig: I guess they’re white, because you don’t mention it.
John: The default is white.
Craig: The default is white and that’s just not cool. Like, especially if you’re going to end in big black guy and skinny Asian dude land. Eh…
John: Yeah. So, let’s talk about, let’s say that you needed to introduce these characters in the stairwell. A way you might want to do that is if Lucy’s in front, we meet Lucy, and she’s like, “Hold up.” And she’s looking for something. We’re on her for a moment and she’s talking to unseen people. And then she finally gives the go ahead for them to follow her up. And so then we have a moment with her. Okay. Here’s a spotlight on her. And then she’s going to move up. And then we can meet one or maybe two more people and see what their dynamic is. And then we’re finally going to meet those last two people.
But right now getting all of these people on screen at once, it helps nobody.
Craig: It’s impossible to do well. The truth is you kind of need somebody to say something before you give a damn about who they are. Or, they have to do something before you give a damn about who they are.
So, if it were me, I would probably have Lucy and Ashley together, talking quietly with each other. Nobody else. And then when they make sure the coast is clear, they open up another — like they’ve wriggled through a window and now they open up a door and there’s a guy saying, “What took you so long?” Some terrible movie line, but the point being, okay, and now we can see who that is.
John: Or, they split up in two groups. So, two of them are searching one place and two of them are searching another place. And then they’re going to cross paths again and they’re looking for something. Obviously they are looking for something, so separate them and then bring them together. And establish stakes that way. So, we don’t even know what the relationship is between these people. Are they on the same side or opposite sides? Just create some tension there by not giving us all these team together at once.
Craig: And you know you have a problem when already on the top of page two, just page two, you’ve now shorthanded the most important human beings in your movie to “our group.” That’s bad. That’s a bad sign.
John: So, I want to talk a little bit about some of the word choices on page one. “A gap opens and light shines at the camera.” Okay. So, we’re talking about the camera, but did we need to? A gap opened. A light shines through. Ah, I got rid of the camera. “The door finally gives in, the light floods in and we see the silhouette of LUCY.” I’m not opposed to we sees, but there’s a lot of we sees here. And we don’t need this we see. The door finally gives in, light floods in. The silhouette of Lucy. Better description for Lucy.
“They rush up a set of emergency stairs in an unnamed building.” [laughs] In an unnamed building? It’s unnamed because you haven’t given it a name.
John: You can’t say that you’re not telling us something because you’re not telling us something. Rush up a flight of stairs in an office building. In a something building. Give us something.
Next paragraph. “We can barely see them in the dark. But we can tell they’re tired and dirty.”
Craig: What? What? How?
Craig: How? If we can barely see them, how are we supposed to tell they’re tired.
Craig: And dirty.
John: But we don’t need those two we cans. There’s ways to write around that so you can save those we’s for when they’re actually really important.
John: So, that’s my stumping for — I hate the script rule say you can never talk about the camera and you can never say “we see” or “we hear.” You can do all those things, but you have to be really judicious about when you’re going to pull out those tools, because sometimes there’s no better way to do it. So, you use those things. But in all these cases there were ways to just describe things and not have to say we-s.
Craig: I agree. I mean, in general, if I’m going to use we see, it’s because we are seeing something shocking, or I want the screenplay to let the reader know that we in the audience are seeing something that the character on screen is not.
Craig: But you’re right, this is just sort of peppered in there. If the other stuff were working I wouldn’t mind that stuff so much. The building that has no name is described later as, again, as a generic office building. And, again, sunlight floods and blinds — we’ve got a sunlight flooding in at people. Not sure why. It’s kind of unmotivated sunlight.
The bigger issue is what the heck is going on on page three. I mean, let’s just jump ahead. [laughs] Because, you know, first of all, let’s talk about this description. You’re introducing new technology to us. We’re in a zombie movie, presumably, or something like a zombie movie. But, also, you have a twist which is portals. Okay. Fine.
So, what comes out of the safe is some mysterious disk which we’re not going to address at this point, a key card which is a key card and we won’t have to deal with it at this point, and “six high tech pucks called DITs.” What the hell am I supposed to think from that? Like, all right, I’m the prop guy. What’s a high tech puck? What is that? You’ve got to give me more.
John: Because I don’t know. I saw pucks and I didn’t think about the high tech of it all. I bet they’re glowing LED pucks.
Craig: Are they? Are they?
John: I don’t know.
Craig: Are they glowing? Do they have buttons? They have grooves? Are they metallic? Are they intricate? I mean, these things are central to the movie. You’ve got to describe.
John: Yeah. Do they look like human technology or some sort of alien artifact thing? Yeah. I agree with you there, Craig. And it’s obviously going to be central to our story, so it’s worth a little bit of time right here to do. This just wasn’t the best way to do it.
The only other thing I was to point out on, halfway through page three. “The 4 pieces spread until the light rectangle is about the size of a door.” He used the number four rather than the spelled out four. Just follow general kind of AP rules. Numbers that are less than ten, spell out. Numbers that are in dialogue, kind of always spell out. Because that’s the only way you’re going to get people to pronounce things properly, the way you expect them to be pronounced. But there was no reason to use the numeral here. It slows you down.
Craig: Yeah. No reason at all. Take some time to make us love the DIT. I think you’ve got to — help me out here. Is it a DIT or is it a D-I-T? Also, don’t tell me what it’s called if these people aren’t going to say anything. If someone is going to talk about it later, that’s when I find out what it’s called. I don’t need this information now because it’s not being used by me or the people in the scene, the name of it. See?
John: Yeah. And it would be a simple thing that I would actually buy if the character opens the safe and is like, “Got ’em. Six DITs.” And it’s like I see there are six things. They must be called DITs. I know what to call those things now.
John: So, it’s very doable. This is always a fun process because people send in these pages and they are being incredibly brave to show the work that they’ve done and let us talk about. In the case of two of these scripts, we dug in and we didn’t like sort of what we were seeing on the page, but it’s still incredibly useful I hope for other writers to look at their own work and see, oh, these are the kinds of things I’m doing that work or don’t work. And maybe I can make some different choices.
Craig: That’s right. And for those of you today, the two of you who kind of got a little bit of a beating, and even our other guy who got a little bit of a beating, just take comfort in this: these are the beatings that we give each other. And these are the beatings we get ourselves.
Lindsay Doran and I spent, I don’t know, an hour the other day talking about two paragraphs, two small paragraph descriptions. And if it were clear, or how to make it clear where somebody was standing. This is the kind of OCD level of detail that you need. And you need to love it. And this is part of the game.
John: Well, it’s that crucial ability to see this is what my intention was and this is how it’s coming out on the other side. So, for these people who sent in these pages, they clearly had an intention. There was a reason they wrote these pages. And they didn’t land with us the way I think they thought they would land. And so that is hopefully a valuable experience. So, that’s why we do Three Page Challenges. That’s why we did it in Austin and why we’re doing this one.
But I need to thank these writers for sending them in and all the writers who send in Three Page Challenges. We have like a 250 script backlog of these samples. And, honestly, Stuart picks the ones that are pretty good. So, that’s a sign that people are, you know —
Craig: Yeah. They’re struggling out there.
John: They’re struggling and they’re also making choices that can hopefully be improved by just having someone take a look at them and really look at them critically.
Craig: Yeah. And if you are playing the home game, take a look at your first three pages and ask yourself how would this go with John and Craig? [laughs] You know? Because, honestly, we are not particularly hard on this stuff. I really do believe that. I know it feels that way, but this is the name of the game out here. It’s the way it goes.
John: So, if you have three pages of your own script that you want to send in to have us take a look at, the proper URL to send them to is johnaugust.com/threepage, all spelled out. And there’s a form you fill out and you check some boxes and you attach your file and you send them through.
We still call it the Three Page Challenge, it’s really meant to be like the first sequence of a movie. But three pages ends up being about the mountain we can actually talk about usefully in a show. So, for now we’ll stick with Three Page Challenge.
John: Mm-hmm. So, Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing?
Craig: Yeah. We’ve got a big long show, so I’ll be quick about my One Cool Thing this week. Yosemite, the new operating system for Macintosh, has an excellent new feature that works in concert with their new version of iOS and it’s called Family Sharing. And I find this incredibly useful because I used to give my kids an allowance of, I think I gave them $10 a month to spend on apps. And then they would do that, but I didn’t really know exactly what they were getting.
And then, inevitably, if they wanted something that was more expensive or two things, and they were worth it, they’d have to come to be, and it was annoying. So, Family Sharing is great because now every time they want to buy anything, if it’s an app, or a song, or anything, they request it. And the request comes to me on both my MacBook and also on my phone and on my iPad and on Melissa’s phone, and on her iPad, and her computer.
So, either one of us can hit approve or deny. And therefore we’re in charge of all of it which I find very satisfying.
John: That is a really good thing. Mine is also short. It’s this collection of Aesop’s Fables that have been rendered as web pages using Google Fonts collection. So, Google Font’s, like Typekit, has all these amazing typefaces. And so these designers took the Google Fonts and told the stories using these amazing typefaces. And it’s a great example of sort of how expressive type can be on the internet now. And this is all real type. This is isn’t just picture graphics. This is actually — you can select every word there and it’s just done programmatically with fonts. It looks great.
And so it’s a good inspiration for anybody who is designing something on the web in 2014/2015, to really look at the expressive power of typefaces.
Craig: Mm, good show.
John: Good show. Good long show.
Craig: Good to be back. Feels good to be back.
John: Back at my place.
Craig: You know, I can smell all these people, John. They’re aiming for my job. They’re gunning for me. I know Birbiglia wants this gig.
John: Oh, he absolutely wants this gig. And Susannah Grant was great. She put in a great audition.
Craig: Yeah, Susannah, actually, I think would be better than I am.
John: Susannah is pretty great.
Craig: She’s awesome. But Birbiglia. Huh.
John: He’s got that comedian thing. It’s dangerous.
Craig: It’s Steal-giglia.
John: Yeah. I confessed to Mike that I actually wrote him in as a part in this one thing I’m hoping to do. And so I’ll get to work with him regularly if that were to happen.
Craig: That’s very clever.
John: See? You should do that, Craig.
Craig: No, I’m not going to do it. He deserves nothing. [laughs] Nothing.
John: He deserves nothing. He’s a job poacher.
John: As always, you can find some links to things we talked about in today’s show at johnaugust.com/scriptnotes. If you go to scriptnotes.net, that’s where you can subscribe to all the back episodes and all the bonus episodes. We’ll have two bonus episodes coming up really soon. We have an interview I did with Simon Kinberg for the Writers Guild Foundation.
John: And we’ll have the Three Page Challenge we did at Austin. So, both of those will be going up as bonus episodes, so if you want to listen to those. We are so super close to having a thousand subscribers at scriptnotes.net.
Craig: Dirty show.
John: For the premium feed. And, Craig, off recording I will tell you the best inspiration I had for a guest for the dirty show. So, people, sign up.
If you want to subscribe to our normal feed, that’s in iTunes. While you’re there, leave us a comment. It’s because people left so many great comments that iTunes featured us as one of the best podcasts, which was just so nice of them to do.
I am @johnaugust on Twitter. Craig is @clmazin. Longer questions you can send to email@example.com.
If you are interested in Writer Emergency, those decks of cards we are starting to do in Kickstarter, go to writeremergency.com and there will be a link to our Kickstarter campaign for that.
John: That’s a lot.
Craig: So much.
John: Stuart Friedel produced the podcast. Matthew Chilelli edited it. Thank you, Matthew. And he has a Kickstarter campaign, too. So, there will be a link up in the show notes for Matthew’s Kickstarter campaign for —
Craig: Ugh, god.
John: A movie he’s doing. Craig, you’re going to be the last person with a Kickstarter campaign.
Craig: Uh, yeah.
John: You are going to start a Kickstarter campaign to shut down Kickstarter.
Craig: [laughs] I might. I just might.
John: Yeah, it’s going to be good.
Craig: That’s dividing by zero.
John: [laughs] Good stuff. Thank you. Have a great week.
Craig: You too. Bye.
- Writer Emergency is live on Kickstarter
- Marvel announces its superhero slate
- StartUp, Episode 1: How Not to Pitch a Billionaire
- Three Pages by Cody Pearce
- Three Pages by Eric Webb
- Three Pages by Carlos Aldana
- Submit your Three Pages here
- Family Sharing on iOS 8
- Aesop’s Fables in Google Fonts
- Support Matthew’s film Escape the Dark on Kickstarter
- Outro by Scriptnotes editor Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)