The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. Before we start the show today, I want to let you know about the live show happening on December 11th in Hollywood. It’s Scriptnotes with me and Craig and Aline and special guests Jane Espenson, Derek Haas and B.J. Novak. So we did this last year. It was a tremendously fun time. You should come.
Tickets go on sale tomorrow, November 12th. So if you would like to come, please go buy a ticket. There’s a link in the show notes but you can also go to the Writers Guild Foundation site. That’s wgfoundation.org. As always, it benefits the Writers Guild Foundation which is an awesome charity. And we had a fun time last year. We’re going to have a fun time this year. So come join us if you’d like and we’ll get on with the show. Thanks.
Hello and Welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 170 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
So Craig, last Sunday I had a really strange experience.
Craig: Tell me all about it.
John: I went to Long Beach where I saw the West Coast premiere of Big Fish: The Musical.
Craig: Oh, that must have been both disorienting and pleasing at the same time.
John: It was. It was surreal in the best possible ways. So this is the production that actually bought all of our stuff when we closed on Broadway. So they bought our sets, our props, our costumes, our wigs. And so it’s that weird experience of seeing something that is incredibly familiar yet incredibly different at the same time. So it’s the same production in terms of the script and the music but it’s just different because it’s different people doing it. It’s a different stage. It’s at this really quite big house, the Carpenter Theatre in Long Beach. And I kind of loved it, at the same time it was sort of an out-of-body experience.
Craig: I know that it’s hard for a lot of people to have seen the Broadway show because it’s in New York only but it was my pleasure to see it. And one of the big show-stopping elements were these big elephant butts, which sounds kind of crazy when I say it like that, but they were. It was very impressive production design. Did they have the elephant butts?
John: They have the elephant butts.
Craig: Wow, that’s awesome.
John: Yeah. So here’s what was so fascinating is because this production is original theatre, it didn’t have automation of the stage. So they had a lot of our set pieces but they didn’t have all the magic under the stage things to make stuff move around. So they have to like push things around. And they did a remarkable job sort of accommodating what they needed to do for that. And they were able to do a lot of the choreography with the Broadway production but not all of the choreography.
So it was actually just genuinely fascinating. It’s an experience that, as a screenwriter, you and I would never have.
John: To see the same text but with completely different people and being done without any of your sort of direct involvement. And so in many cases, people are making similar choices to the Broadway production because it’s just that’s the text. I mean like you’re going to play things a certain way because that just is what makes sense. But then sometimes a person will do something that is just different than intention. And sometimes that was kind of fascinating.
So Amos Calloway who, in the movie, is Danny DeVito, in the Broadway stage production it was Brad Oscar who was fantastic. The Amos that I saw in this version was sort of like I would say like a drunken cowardly lion, which is just a very different choice but it kind of worked. And so it was cool to see something very different.
So I would recommend anyone who makes a Broadway musical [laughs] to go visit a regional production of their own show because you’ll find it fascinating and surreal.
Craig: That’s spectacular. I’m glad it’s enjoying a second life and hopefully many more lives to come. I can see the show being done in schools.
John: We will be doing it in schools. So we have 60 productions this year of Big Fish across the country. Abilene Christian University did it in Texas. There’s a lot of university productions. Eventually there will be a Big Fish junior version like a school version —
John: Which will probably be different because I think a fifth grade musical about death is probably not the most ideal subject matter. So I will do some book changes to accommodate those needs.
Craig: There is actually some very interesting junior versions out there. My son was Jean Valjean in the Junior Les Mis in which some people actually were allowed to die.
Craig: So Éponine was allowed to die but Fantine was sent to a hospital [laughs] but then returns later as a ghost. So you just sort of understood that maybe the hospital wasn’t that great. But various changes were made. No one ever referred to prostitution or things like that. But your show, I think, wouldn’t require much.
John: No. I mean, our show is incredibly wholesome and family-friendly. The challenge is just how do you , you know, the idea of a father dying is quite a bit to put on the backs of a grade school cast. And also the split between the past and the present, that’s kind of sophisticated. And then to be able to show that and really act that when you have maybe a 12-year-old doing that could be challenging.
So I think we will find a way to simplify aspects of the storytelling so that it can best be the story of a son wanting to learn the truth about his father’s tales within the framework of what Big Fish should be.
Craig: Yeah. And I think you’ll find also that a huge part of the job of juniorizing the musical is making it much, much shorter and taking out — choosing which songs should just go because they can’t sing all of them.
John: Absolutely. And which songs can move from being a solo number to a group number because —
John: You have so many kids.
Craig: Right. That’s right.
John: So today on the program, let us answer some questions from listeners. We have a whole bunch that have been stacking up, so we’ll dig into that mail bag. We’re also going to talk about The Five Types of Twist Endings, this great blog post by Alec Worley. And I want to talk about lightning strikes and lotteries and sort of that sense of whether something becomes popular or successful because of its inherent awesomeness or just because magic happens.
John: So let’s get to it, but first a tiny bit of follow- up. Last week I announced Writer Emergency, this pack of ideas and prompts that we’re starting on Kickstarter. And Craig, you had to venture to the Kickstarter site.
Craig: Here’s the sick part is that I gave you money —
Craig: Because you’re my friend.
Craig: And then today, I gave our editor, Matthew Chilelli, some money because he does a really good job.
Craig: But it’s killing me.
John: It’s killing you. I really just want to dig into what it felt like to press that green Back This Project button. How did it feel when you clicked that and knew that you were supporting the Kickstarter economy?
Craig: It felt like I was betraying everything that I believe in. [laughs]
Craig: That’s basically I felt like I had turned my back on my values and had contributed to the weakening of civilization.
John: Craig, I want to thank you for that because you’ve helped and I want to thank, we’ve had so many backers. We had more than 2,000 backers and we —
Craig: Yeah, you guys did great out there.
John: We did great out there. So we were trying to raise $9,000. As we’re recording this, we’ve crossed $57,000 which is just nuts. So that’s fantastic. So now it’s pushing through the rest of the Kickstarter and putting these out in the world and then getting them to the hands of kids in creative writing programs across the country and around the world who could hopefully benefit from these. So I want to thank you, Craig, personally —
John: Because I know this was not an easy thing for you. But you broke through that seal, that barrier just for this one and then you supported Matthew Chilelli and now you’re just not going to be able to stop supporting Kickstarter projects.
Craig: No, no, no, it’s very easy for me to stop. In fact, what I really want is for Stuart to have a Kickstarter that I don’t support [laughs] just as a matter of principle. I don’t care what it is. He’s getting nothing. By the way, do you think you’re going to make money on these things? Do you think you’ll profit at all?
John: We might profit a little bit. So here’s the deal. It’s like as I described on the first podcast when we talked about this, is printing playing cards scales pretty well. So they’re really expensive to make those first batch of decks, but the more you can make, the cheaper per unit it is. The challenge is we’re actually doubling that because we have to, we’re sending them out to kids. And then there’s some things that don’t scale like postage and like sending stuff out to backers around the world.
John: So we’re not going to make a lot out of it but I think we’re going to sort of do what I wanted to do out of the project which is sort of bend the universe in a slightly better direction. So it’s been exciting to do that and sort of engage with that community which has its own sort of esoteric rules and customs and try to both be a part of that world of Kickstarter and also introduce that Kickstarter kind of world to people who are backing their very first projects like Craig Mazin.
Craig: Well, now that I hear that you are going to make some money on this, I’m full of regret because I would have just given you the $9,000.
Craig: I would just have bought you out, given you the $9,000.
Craig: This is like Shark Tank for —
John: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Craig: For 100 percent equity in your company, it’s just, but now I’ve given money and —
John: But you’re going to be getting a deck of cards. And you said you actually wanted to donate —
John: The extra cards. So I think you did like the 12-pack.
Craig: Yeah. I want all the cards to go to the less fortunate budding screenwriters out there.
John: Great. And that’s a thing that backers can always do. So when you get your survey at the end of this asking for your mailing address, there’s this little field saying Special Instructions. You’re can just say I’m Craig Mazin and I want to give all my cards to the kids.
Craig: Yeah, that’s right. You can just say I want to Mazin this.
John: I want to Mazin this.
John: That’s really the term that we’re going to use for this. And so when Stuart sees that on the instruction sheet, he’ll know, okay, this is the Craig Mazin special.
Craig: That’s right.
John: Awesome. Let’s get to our things today.
John: So first up is this Five Types of Twist Endings, which is a blog post by Alec Worley, and whoever sent this to me, thank you because it was great. It’s been sitting in our show notes for a while. But it was really cool.
So this blog post talks through twist endings and it defines twist endings as “the moment of revelation within a story that throws into question all that’s gone before.”
John: And it’s not hard for us to think about twist endings in movies because some of my favorite movies have twist endings.
Craig: Yeah, and I thought that this was a pretty good summary of how these things work. We can go through them one by one. I’ll take the first one, reversal —
Craig: Reversal of Identity in which someone turns out to be someone else. So your parent is actually not your parent but your grandparent. Your best friend is actually a shape-shifting monster so —
John: Yeah. The Crying Game where the woman you love is not —
Craig: Is not a woman.
Craig: Ta-da. Or in Fight Club, Brad Pitt is not actually a person. He is your alter ego.
John: That would also maybe play into the third version which is the Reversal of Perception. And Reversal of Perception is the way you thought the universe was built is not the way the universe is actually built. And so there’s a fundamental thing that is not the way you thought it was. My movie, The Nines, has that aspect where quite early on in the film you realize something bigger is going on. And so it’s not a twist in the sense of like, oh my gosh, I didn’t expect that at all. But you know that there is a revelation coming, that the universe is bent in a way that you were not expecting.
Craig: Yeah, the universe is a bent in a way or time is being bent in a way. So Alec cites An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge which is an amazing short story by the great Ambrose Bierce and was clearly the inspiration for Jacob’s Ladder in which it turns out the entire movie is the fantasy of someone as they are dying.
John: Yeah. And short stories are actually a perfect place for twist endings to happen because in some ways, a novel, a twist at the end of a novel could feel like a bit of a betrayal. But a short story, you have just the right amount of investment in the reality of the short story that the twist ending feels great and rewarding. Where I would wonder in a novel sometimes you spent eight hours on this thing and like then to say like, oh, I’m going to pull the rug out from under you, it might feel like a betrayal.
Craig: No question. Twist endings have always been the stock and trade of science fiction and fantasy short story authors. In part, it works so well for short stories because a good twist makes sense of some confusing facts. And we can only bear to be confused for so long before we just give up. So short stories work beautifully for that.
One of the other twist endings he identifies is the Reversal of Motive.
Craig: I thought he was after this but he’s really after that. So he cites Seven where we realize in the end the serial killer isn’t actually helping them. He’s setting up Brad Pitt to become, Brad Pitt and Brad Pitt’s wife to become his final two victims.
John: Obviously reversal of motive is often found in comedies also where you have a misunderstanding of what a character is trying to do and that’s sort of driving things. So in Go, in the third section of Go, Burke and his wife, they seemed to be trying to seduce Adam and Zack like some weird kinky sex thing is about to happen and it’s revealed that they’re actually trying to sell them confederated products.
So their motive was very different and that was the surprise. That’s the jolt that you weren’t expecting. And part of what was fun about that is it was a good misdirect. So like, oh, that’s the twist and then the next scene, you’re going to see that they’re actually, Adam and Zack were a gay couple this whole time and they’ve been fighting.
John: So sometimes you can misdirect twice or like you can lead the audience into one misdirection and then surprise them with a second misdirection.
Craig: Yeah, for sure. And some of these things overlap. You know what just popped into my mind is that great character from Monsters, Inc. I can’t remember her name but she’s the one who talks —
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: And she is both the reversal of identity and the reversal of motive. It turns out that she’s actually there under cover and she’s not a file clerk. “You forgot to file your paperwork.” But she’s the head of some sort of internal investigation and that was her motive. So those things always, you’re right, they work well in comedies.
And here he also has Reversal of Fortune in which, this one was a little, I guess it’s kind of a twist ending. It’s really more of the kind of Monkey’s Paw theory — what you thought you were going to get you’re not quite getting.
John: Exactly. So it’s pulling defeat out of victory or that thing that at the very end you realize like, oh, you actually didn’t get what you wanted. He cites someone we talked about before on the podcast, Emma Coats from Pixar who writes, “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating”. And so this is basically there’s a coincidence often at the end that ends up pulling the rug out from underneath that character. And that can be rewarding in the right kind of movie. I think of noir movies sometimes having this or certainly like that Twilight Zone kind of fiction —
John: May have that like suddenly at the end the great and short version where he finally has time to read and then he breaks his glasses.
Craig: Yeah. This is the hallmark of the ironic ending.
Craig: One of my favorite Simpsons jokes was a Halloween episode. Homer eats the forbidden donut. He sells his soul for a donut, doesn’t finish it. [laughs] So he doesn’t have to go to hell but then he does finish it and he ends up in hell and he’s sent to the Department of Ironic Punishment —
Craig: Where he’s put on a conveyor belt and —
John: And force fed doughnuts.
Craig: Force fed doughnuts except that he never stops eating the doughnuts. He’s perfectly happy to eat as many doughnuts as they give him. And the demon says, “I don’t understand. James Coco broke in 15 minutes!”
Craig: Anyway, this would be the Department of Ironic Punishment.
Craig: And then we have Reversal of Fulfillment.
John: Which I found the most challenging of the ones he describes and how you differentiate that from reversal of fortune.
Craig: Yeah. And so what he’s saying is, somebody is going to achieve is kind of subverted by what somebody else achieves. And I think the best example he gives is the gifts, O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi where two people individually sell their most beloved possession to sacrifice for the other and then find out that they’ve done this.
John: Well, it’s not only that they’ve done this, but like one of them has bought a comb, but she’s sold all her hair.
Craig: The gifts are now useless for each other. So that was, yeah, that works. Again, it’s a little bit of an ironic. That sort of kind of is also —
John: It’s ironic too.
Craig: It’s a reversal of fortune in a sense too.
John: Yeah. What I think is important about all these discussions about the twist ending is it’s really looking at what does the reader know? What does the reader know at every moment in the course of the story? Because in order to create one of these twist endings to make sense, the entire narrative has to make sense without the twist. And so that the journey you’re going on seems to make sense. And then when you provide the twist ending the reader needs to be able to go back and say, “Oh, it still completely makes sense with this new information.”
So you’re withholding a crucial piece of information and then at the end providing it and that changes the perception of everything that came before it. And that could be a rewarding experience for the reader. It can also be a very frustrating experience for a reader. And if that’s kind of the only thing you’re story has going for it, it’s unlikely I think to be completely satisfying.
Craig: That’s right. You don’t want to start and I think you can see the problem in the progression of the career of M. Night Shyamalan. You don’t want to start with this edict that the twist rules all.
Craig: It does not. The script that I’m writing now is essentially a neo-Agatha Christie Who Dun It? All Agatha Christie stories had a twist ending, all of them, because the person that you thought did it wasn’t the one who did it and you never could figure out who did it and then you find out. And she used these reversals of identity and motive all the time.
Interestingly, never a reversal of perception, a reversal of fortune or fulfillment. It was always the motive and the identity were the things that were constantly shifting with her. And what’s so interesting about her success as a writer was that she understood that her audience knew it was coming. And that’s quite a high wire act to do when you, it’s not like — we all went and saw The Sixth Sense. I did not- I wasn’t sitting there thinking I wonder what the twist is. I just watched the movie and enjoyed the twist. But no one sits down to an Agatha Christie book and thinks, well… [laughs]
John: Well, this is going to be straightforward. I am going to know who did it.
Craig: Just like, yeah, it’s like a true crime story or something.
John: And so it’s sort of there’s a meta level of expectation is that she has to write the story knowing that everybody is expecting there to be a twist ending.
John: So therefore, everyone is going to be reading everything she writes into it with the expectation of like, oh, but that’s not really true. And so she has to both honor that expectation and then surpass it in ways that continue to be rewarding and surprising. And so that’s a challenging thing.
What the frustration would be is if Agatha Christie ever tried to write just like a straight story, something that didn’t have that at all, everyone would be a little bit weirded out by it. I could imagine her writing under pen names because anything with the Agatha Christie brand on it is going to feel like, well, that has to be that situation. M. Night Shyamalan has a similar kind of jinx to him because three times is certainly a pattern.
Craig: Mm-hmm. No, for sure. I mean, and frankly it started to feel a little desperate. I mean we don’t want to feel like our filmmakers are sweating to cook us the meal that they think we want. We want them to be expressing something competently and then we can enjoy it along with them.
By the way, Agatha Christie’s first big hit novel was called The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I think it was called The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. And at that time, she was a new member of this Mystery Writers of England organization. That’s not the real name, but it was essentially that. And this caused a huge uproar with the mystery writers organization because they felt she had violated the rules of the craft.
Because the twist in the, and so The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a first person account. A guy is living in this little town and Hercule Poirot is renting the house next to him and he describes how a man is murdered and Poirot goes about attempting to solve the crime. And at the end, spoiler alert, it turns out the murderer is the narrator.
Craig: And everyone just lost their crap over this. But boy, it really works in the novel. It’s great.
John: Yeah, we like that.
John: In many ways, I think that kind of reversal of expectation, that’s a reversal of the form in a certain way. Like you thought this was going to play by the rules and it’s not playing by the rules at all. And I certainly love that when that happens.
Craig: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
John: It reminds me of Too Many Cooks. I don’t know if you’ve seen Too Many Cooks yet.
Craig: Well, it’s my One Cool Thing.
John: Oh my god. And so Too Many Cooks is fantastic. And so I will let it remain your One Cool Thing. But I think that also reverses the form. You have an expectation of like, oh, I know what this is, I know what it’s parodying.
Craig: Repeatedly. [laughs]
John: Repeatedly. And then it just through its length and its form and just how nuts it goes, it becomes something really transcendent.
John: All right. I want to talk about two other little Internet things that came up this week. First is Alex from Target. Do you know this whole meme, this thing that happened?
Craig: I do. And I have to say, this is where the Internet just occasionally pukes something out. It just randomly decides you — I’m going to make you a star.
John: So Alex from Target for people who weren’t aware of it or who are listening to this six months later and wonder what the hell was that? So this is what happened with Alex from Target. There was a teenage checkout boy at Target, someone took a picture of him bagging groceries and another girl on Twitter wrote, “Yo, like so hot.” And that became like a viral meme sensation and then it got remixed and it just became this whole big blowup of a thing.
But then another company, a marketing company, claimed credit for having started it, but it looks like they really didn’t, which is juts nuts also.
John: If someone can try to jump on and claim credit for something they didn’t do at all. But it’s just so obvious we check that they didn’t really do it. So it was just a fascinating moment of kind of these Internet lightning strikes where this is not a person who, this Alex from Target, he didn’t do anything.
Craig: He did nothing.
John: He was just, he did nothing. He was just suddenly in a place and his photo went crazy and by all accounts, at the time that we’re taping this, he seems to be handling it remarkably well in the way that I think young people now who’ve always grown up with the Internet are sort of just kind of ready to be famous in a way that we never were. [laughs]
There’s that expectation like you could be famous tomorrow.
Craig: Well, also, I mean Alex understands inherently that he didn’t do anything. [laughs]
John: Yeah, exactly.
Craig: I mean, there are people that want to be famous and start doing things to be famous and then they become famous either because what they do is legitimately good or it’s legitimately terrible.
John: Or it’s ambiguous in a way that’s, yeah.
Craig: Yeah. Or it’s just bizarre or amusing, whatever it is. Alex literally did nothing. [laughs] He did absolutely nothing. This is one of those, this is like when there’s a glitch in the matrix and this happens.
And I think for him I can only assume that he’s like, yeah, this is just the Internet being Internet. I don’t have anything to do with this. It could have been me, it could have been anybody.
John: Basically, all he did was reflect light. And that was the extent of it.
Craig: Literally, all he did, it’s not even a well-framed photo.
John: No, I think that’s partly what makes it so incredibly great and charming. So I wanted to just take a minute or two to talk through what the Alex from Target movie would be, because I guarantee you that at least a thousand screenwriters go like, oh, that’s an idea for a movie. Like what if you suddenly became famous and like for no good reason. And I wanted to think about sort of what that movie would be because we’ve made other movies, good movies, about sort of the rise of Internet culture. I mean, Social Network, one of the best of them.
And I guess in Social Network of course, he’s creating Facebook, he’s actually doing something. But that sense of being plucked from obscurity and put up on this great stage and suddenly weirdly having a platform when you kind of shouldn’t have a platform is fascinating. And there’s potential there’s something to be made there but there’s also so many pitfalls in a character who has and wants nothing and suddenly gets everything.
Craig: Well, one of my favorite movies of all time is the old school version of this and it’s Being There.
John: Oh, certainly.
Craig: Yeah, and I think that I could easily see an Alex from Target’s version of Being There. If you were to make Being There now, that’s probably how it would go. Somebody is bagging, I mean, I don’t mean to suggest that Alex from Target is mentally challenged in any way [laughs] the way that Chauncey Gardiner was.
But somebody who’s unremarkable and perhaps even sub-remarkable becomes famous because the Internet has a weird burp and they end up being the president.
John: Yeah, it could totally happen.
Craig: It could happen.
John: Yeah. So I think there will likely be competing Alex from Target movies in development. And I suspect none of them will happen. But I suspect we will see this idea in general explored not because of Alex from Target but just because it’s an idea that sort of needs to be talked about in the universe is this sense of suddenly out of nowhere you can just have this giant spotlight on you and you have no way of anticipating it, controlling it, making it start, making it stop.
John: And that’s a weird time that we’re living in.
Craig: Yeah, and somebody out there is pitching Jimmy from Taco Hut.
Craig: And probably selling it.
John: Yeah, probably.
Craig: Yeah. Probably.
John: Low six figures, yeah.
Craig: Low six.
John: Low six. The management company is involved as a producer, they shopped it around.
Craig: Right. The studio is, even though they haven’t gotten the script yet, they’re already thinking about who’s going to come and rewrite it.
John: Yeah, they are. And they’re probably going after like some of the Teen Wolf cast like Dylan O’Brien or somebody like kind of person for that role.
John: Totally. So in a related thing, this was already on my show notes to talk about, is this great talk that Darius Kazemi did at XOXO, this sort of, I’ll summarize and say it’s a sort of TED Talk like, but his speech was actually really fascinating because it was like the most brilliant parody of a TED Talk speech. And so I’ll link to it in the show notes, but essentially he talks about how he made it. And we’ve heard a lot of speeches about how people made it and sort of how they became successful and how they built a community.
So what he did was he played the lottery. And he would, every day he would play the lottery and really think about what numbers and he started a community and he started like a blog where like he talked about his favorite numbers and like he’d mix it up and like played numbers in different combinations or sometimes like on his mom’s birthday he’d actually play his dad’s birthday to really throw things off. And eventually like he hit it and he became like super rich.
John: And so it’s this brilliant parody of like how I made it but what’s so great about his speech is he actually segues into this idea of lotteries and this idea of lighting striking. And he’s a person who, this guy in real life, he makes sort of little Internet memes. And so he makes this little Twitter bots that combine random things. And so he gave a demonstration of like 50 of these different things that he’s made and combined.
And some of them are incredibly successful and some of them aren’t incredibly successful. And he can’t predict what goes viral. And his suspicion is that there is no reason. That it genuinely is just random, like Alex from Target, and that you cannot funnily predict it and shouldn’t therefore beat yourself up if something doesn’t work and you shouldn’t praise yourself when something does work because it kind of is random.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, look, there are way, there is good work and bad work. There are ways to do better and there are ways to do worse. But the magic that occurs when something takes off is unpredictable and does incorporate an enormous amount of random factors.
Craig: And that fascinates me. I talked a while ago, one of my Cool Things was Gödel, Escher, Bach, which is a great book, which I think is —
John: Which I bought, which I —
Craig: Wait, I sent it to you.
John: No, you sent it to me.
Craig: I sent it you.
John: You sent it to me. You sent me the physical thing. It’s like 1,000 pages.
Craig: Yeah, it’s a massively long book. But Gödel was a mathematician and his — and I always worry that I’m not quite getting his theorem correct, but I believe this is essentially what he said was for any system of math with rules, there will always be things that are true that cannot be proven. There must be things that you can’t — that are true regardless of the fact that you can’t prove that they’re true which is fascinating to me. And I feel like entertainment is the same way. There will always be things that are good and there’s no way to prove why. And you could have never gotten to them intentionally. They just happen.
John: Yeah. I think that absolutely is true. What is interesting about this idea of lightning strikes or lottery tickets is that in a weird way you’re more likely to win the more things you do. And so I would say for people who are looking at a writing career or like trying to get into the movie business, the more times you’re at bat, the more likely you are to hit a home run.
And so you’re much less likely to sell a spec script if you’ve written exactly one script and you’ve shown it to one person. So that exposure to many opportunities and taking many chances is much more likely to get you into a situation where you can suddenly find yourself lucky.
Craig: Yeah, you have to strike the balance of course because there are people that shotgun a lot of things out there. One of them happens to click, but that’s the end of them because really their success was a product of nothing more than the shot-gunning.
When they talk about animal behavior, they talk about two reproductive strategies. I can’t remember, they’re defined by letters. But regardless, one of them essentially is a low quantity, high quality reproductive strategy which is a very human way of approaching it. Elephants do it this way.
Craig: It takes a lot to have a child, so therefore you’re going to have fewer of them, but really put a lot of resources into protecting them and raising them. And then there’s the other way which is, screw it, I’m going to have as many kids as possible and then a bunch of them are going to die but maybe a bunch won’t. [laughs]
Craig: And what you find, actually, even in humans, is that when humans are in situations where there is plenty, they will go for the low-quantity, high-quality reproductive strategy.
Craig: And vice versa.
John: The other thing which I think the lightning strikes theorem kind of misses is, especially in creative work, is iteration, in that sense of like, you know what, that first thing may not be the right idea, but by going back and tweaking it and tweaking it and tweaking it and tweaking it, that’s sort of how you find what is the thing that takes hold. And, you know, with all the sort of Twitterbots this guy did, that’s not really iteration, it’s a bunch of like things moving in parallel versus sort of serially going back through and seeing like, what, how can I make this thing better? How can I take the system and tweak it and make it better, and how can I make that experience better.
John: And so, in rewriting a script, that’s iteration. That’s taking feedback and looking at the script again and saying like, okay, this is the better version of this. And you’re honestly iterating on your own ability to write because I’m certainly a better writer than I was 10 years ago because I’ve had the experience of looking at my work and saying, okay, these are strengths, these are things that are not strengths, and I can actually do things better through all that iteration process.
Craig: And for those of us who are making movies, our goal is to make something that is permanent. We don’t always succeed, but we try. Whereas when you’re doing pursuits like the kind that Darius is doing, there is no expectation of permanency.
Craig: What you’re hoping for really is a combustion, you know.
John: That’s true.
Craig: But everybody knows that when the combustion consumes the fuel it’s gone. I mean, there’s no chance that a meme will last forever. You know, Grumpy Cat will not be popular 10 years from now.
John: Yes. And so, we can love Grumpy Cat now, we can celebrate its impermanence.
John: But we can’t try to emulate its impermanence. We can’t try to like, to make the next Grumpy Cat. That’s probably not the right idea. We should try to make the next amazing thing. And the next amazing thing could end up blowing up like Grumpy Cat or could be a long slow burn that is remembered 10 years from now.
Craig: Yes, yes. But when you’re trying to make things that are permanent the high-quantity approach often will bite you in the butt.
John: I would agree. Let’s take a look at some questions.
John: So the first one I have here is Jason from White Rock, British Columbia who has a location question. “How specific can you place action in the real world? Can you really place a scene on a specific street in a specific town with perhaps even a specific address? I’m a suburban Vancouver-based filmmaker, and we Vancouverites don’t have a lot of experience watching movies that are actually set in Vancouver. Mostly our city serves as a stand-in for other American towns. I probably know as much about the way addresses work in New York as I do about Vancouver itself. So when addresses are needed in your script, how specific can you make them?”
Craig: Well, yes, you can make the address as specific as you want. Generally speaking, it should be as specific as it needs to be.
Craig: There’s no point in saying that the building is 35 West 56th Street if you can say, well, it’s a building, you know, Midtown, you could say, or corner of 56th and 5th. But, you know, if you’re telling the story where the address becomes a matter of importance, for instance it’s a crime story and someone has lied about where they live, sure. Well then, that makes sense, yeah.
Craig: Put the specific address in.
John: Yeah, I think Craig and I are generally always pushing for specificity. And specificity doesn’t necessarily mean the street address, but it’s describing things in the kind of detail that makes it this house versus that house and lets us know the kinds of people who live in this house versus the kinds of people who live in that house. And so really think about what information will help your reader understand what is unique and special about these characters and their world.
And if that means really nailing down to what that street is like, great, tell us the street, but also make sure you’re giving us words that describe what that street feels like so, because we’re not going to know this. Don’t just put in a link to Google Street View, like really describe the street.
Craig: Yeah. What we want to know really is about people more than anything. So places exist for people to be in and we need to know what that place says about the people that are there. So, yeah, be specific, but don’t be over-specific. If the detail adds nothing for the reader it’s probably dispensable.
John: It is. So anything that provides feelings, sentiment, emotional detail, that’s what you want.
Craig: Right. Okay, well, next question is Matt from LA. And he asks, “After a long time toiling in the entertainment industry, I’ve been lucky enough to make the leap into fulltime writing and directing. As a freelancer I’ve been very busy and I’ve taken every single job that’s been offered. Now, they may not be the best projects but I’ve learned a ton and I’ve always felt good about the decision to take the job. But I foresee a near future where the various companies that have been offering me jobs will present something I don’t think is worth my time or the paycheck. As two very successful writers — “
Craig: “Very successful writers, I’m sure you’re offered projects that you feel compelled to turn down by reputable studios.” I think he means I’m sure you’re offered projects by reputable studios that you feel compelled to turn down. “How do you turn down opportunities without souring relationships? Any tips would be greatly appreciated.”
John: That’s a really good question.
John: And that happens a fair amount, I’m sure, I mean, to both of us. And so someone will send us something and say like, hey, we’d love you to do this thing. And I will read it, and I’ll say I don’t want to do this. And so how do you answer back in a way that doesn’t make you sound like a jerk saying like that’s a stupid movie, I don’t want to make it, but also doesn’t leave you on the hook for trying to write this movie for these people?
Craig: Yeah. There are a couple of reasons why you’re not going to want to do something. You either think it’s dumb or just not your thing, or you think this isn’t, it’s just not something that I want to do or that I think I could add something great to or that I could succeed with. What you want to do is always turn down things with that second reason, [laughs] even if they’re not always that second reason.
John: [laughs] Exactly.
Craig: Nobody minds if you say, listen, this is very cool, it’s not quite — I’m not quite sure what I could bring to it or it’s not quite what I’m looking for right now. John Lee Hancock has a great phrase, “This isn’t a pitch I can hit.”
John: Ah, nice.
Craig: You know, like so I’m putting it on me. I will often say, you know, it’s probably not something that I think I could succeed with, but I look forward to being embarrassed when this thing wins an Oscar for somebody else.
Craig: So, you know, I try and be humble about it. I mean, people are offering you things, you should be polite. But, you know, they’re not unaccustomed to this.
Craig: Just as we are not unaccustomed to hearing no.
John: And that’s absolutely true. And so, often what I will say is truthfully I am too busy, so like, maybe I’m just not actually available to do it, and that could be a completely valid way to get out of something. The danger is sometimes they can come back to you with that same thing when it becomes clear that you are more available. Or they’ll say, we’ll wait. I’m like oh god, now I actually have to explain why I really don’t want to do it.
The other thing that I will say, which is often true, is that someone will come to me with a project and I’ll say, you know what, this is actually kind of like something I already planned to do myself. And so I sort of have my own version of what this kind of thing is, and yours is going to be great, but I sort of want to do mine at a certain point.
John: That’s another way to approach it. So from you, as a writer-director, Matt, I would say, always say thank you. Make it clear that you really did really look at it, that you’re not just dismissing it out of hand, that you don’t want to work for those people. Just say like I didn’t spark to it. It didn’t feel like it was my thing, but I’m excited to work with you in the future. And if you mean that, then they will come back to you with more stuff.
Craig: Yeah. By the way, something that I will often do is I’ll say, after I’ve said no, I’ll say by the way, I really like this. For this part, think about this. I’m just saying like here’s just some thoughts in general. It doesn’t cost me anything and it shows that I wasn’t just being a jerk.
John: Exactly. And you may actually have a suggestion of like a person who is the right person for it. And so that’s always a good thing, too, if you can get someone else who would be fantastic for it involved.
Craig: Great point, great point.
John: Jay writes, “Can you go over the correct format for writing different scenes in the same room? For example, a bar where protagonists split up and do battle separately but in the same room. Do I still separate each scene with slug lines? If so, how should it look since they’re in the same master scene location? If not, can you give an example to how you would phrase this?”
Craig: Okay. Well, I personally wouldn’t do separate slug lines here. The slug line ultimately is a tool for the production to know where they’re shooting this thing. And if it’s all in one room, they’re shooting it all in one room.
Craig: What you can do is, say something like OVER BY THE BAR, you know, in all caps, and then write some of that and then say OVER BY THE ENTRANCE and then some of that, you know, so that people will understand that the camera is picking off two different areas of the same room.
John: Yeah. So what Craig is describing is often called the intermediary slug line. So it’s not an EXT/INT. And you’re not changing going from a new, it’s not a new scene, it’s just like a new part of where you are at in a scene.
And you’ll see that a lot. And as you read more scripts, especially action things, you’ll see that happens a lot, when you’re in sort of the same general space but there’s sort of scene-lets happening. There’s moments happening over here, and there’s moments happening over here, and sometimes characters — you need to make it clear that characters are not in the same space and can’t interact, because they’re in different parts of an environment. That’s totally fine.
I would say, in general, as I read scripts from newer screenwriters, they tend to throw in too many slug lines and make things seem like there’s too many scenes. And a lot of like “same, continuous” they get so freaked out by the format, and sort of like moving through a house takes like three pages because there’s so many slug line.
John: That’s not how it really works in the real world. If you’re in a house and the character is moving through space, let them move through space and don’t worry about each little new location.
Craig: Well, it’s just in part it’s the toxic impact of all these know nothing scripted advisers and so forth who fetishize the rules and put the fear of god into these poor people that their script is going to be thrown out if a slug line is misused. It’s absolute nonsense. The screenplay is there to inspire a movie in the reader’s mind and that’s what you should be aiming for. Don’t panic over things like “this is the way the slug line has to be!”
John: Yeah. Or that it should say “same” rather than “continuous.” It’s like no, it doesn’t need to be either of that. You probably don’t even need the slug line.
Craig: It’s just crazy.
John: In general I’d say like save those scene headers. Let’s really call them scene headers because it’s a header for a scene. The movie has moved to a new place and time in general and if you really haven’t moved to a new place and time but you’ve just like moved to a slightly different part of the room, just keep going and just let us be in that place.
Craig: I mean, there are times when you need a different slug because it’s the same time but you have two people in the bar and then at the same time behind the bar outside two guys are climbing in through the rear window.
Craig: You know, people need to know, okay, it’s a cheat to not kind of call out that you’ve made a big location change, because again, it’s really, it’s for the production. I mean, that’s what it’s there for. Frankly, readers tend to glide through these scene headers. It’s not the stuff that our eyeballs snag on, so.
John: I think, honestly, I doubt, most times as a reader I’m not really reading those, I’m just aware that there was and INT and EXT and it was all upper case and so therefore, okay, I’m in a new scene.
John: So it’s a sort of piece of visual punctuation that lets me know that, okay, I’m in someplace new, and I’m going to figure it out once I start reading it.
Craig: Precisely. All right. Well, we’ve got a question here from Jim from Durham, North Carolina. And he writes, “My question concerns use of paragraph breaks in a block of dialogue.” All right, we’re in the format session of our Q&A?
John: We are.
Craig: “Admittedly, in most scenes, there’s a lot of back and forth, so it’s not common that a character goes on for half a page, but it can happen. My natural instinct when writing a long speech like that is to use normal paragraph breaks, a blank line. However, I was chastised for doing this. In fact, I was told by a person who seems to know all the rules that I had to put, in parentheses, beat, between each paragraph. I didn’t really intend for a pause any longer than the normal speaking pace, I was just trying to make it more readable and less run-on. “
Well, there wasn’t a specific question there but I think that the implied question is who’s right? [laughs]
John: Who’s right? Can you put that blank line in a long speech?
Craig: Yeah. What do you say?
John: I think you can. But I would agree with whoever said that it’s not standard and that it does sort of throw you because we’re not used to seeing it. And if I were to encounter that in a script I might wonder is this a mistake, did something get dropped out, is there something wrong, because I’m used to seeing a continuous block of dialogue being a continuous block. And if it’s broken up by anything, it’s broken up by beat or something else.
Craig: I agree. I mean, the problem isn’t that you’re putting the break in there, the problem is that the reader might presume that something went wrong and obviously that’s not what you intend. Beat is a perfectly good way to break these things up. Most people don’t read beat as long pause. If I want a long pause I’ll write in “long pause.”
However, I have to also say, if you don’t intend for any pauses or anything and it’s a half a page of a speech, try it without the pauses. I mean, just write the half a page. I’ll tell you this much, if it’s a half a page speech, better be a damn good speech. But if it’s a damn good speech, I’ll read it.
John: And you have other options rather than just beat and for that parenthetical. And there may be some good reason why there’s sort of a special moment of action or emphasis that it makes sense, like sort of like in the parenthetical, you might say like, you know, (to Jim) or like (straight down the barrel), or like some kind of a color line that you’re putting in that parenthetical that actually helps make the speech make more sense, and it’s also visually breaking it up. I think Jim’s overall instincts, like oh my god, this is going to be a very long block of dialogue if I don’t break it up, that’s the right instinct.
Craig: It is.
John: I would just that overall a use of a parenthetical or honestly just breaking out in speech to put it in a line of scene description and then going back into the dialogue is generally a better approach.
Craig: I agree, I agree. It’s a good instinct to break it up unless you’ve got something that really works best as a kind of spat-out run-on deal.
John: Yeah. So Clarence, from Canada, asks a marathon question.
Craig: [laughs] This needed to be broken up by beats.
John: Yes. So it’s in little bullet points in WorkFlowy here. So I’m going to read this and it’s going to be kind of long, but I think it’s interesting, so I’m going to get into this here.
“Two years ago, I wrote, directed, produced my second feature film with a meager budget of $7,000. It was solely financed by me and my own production company. I had screened it at a film festival in Los Angeles and was fortunate enough to be able to attend. Before arriving in Los Angeles, I got in touch with a handful of sales agents that the festival announced would be in attendance.
“I met with those three who were interested in representing the movie for international and domestic distribution. Two wanted to make changes to the cut, so I went with the one that didn’t.”
Craig: Act one.
John: “The deal was this. The company would own the distribution rights for my movie forever and ever. And they would work hard to sell the movie to territories worldwide because otherwise they wouldn’t make any money either. They had a number of other movies under their belt that range in size from no budget like mine, to about the $1 million range.”
John: “Since its initial release on VOD and DVD in North America last year, it has also been released in 30 countries. But here’s the thing, I haven’t made that much money. It’s not necessarily the number that bothers me, it’s still a huge return on a $7,000 investment. What bothers me is that my sales agent has made much more than I have, about a 60/40 split. They take a 22% commission right off the top of each sale, and they recoup $20,000 they invested into marketing, like poster design, travel to film markets, et cetera. What’s left is mine. Unless the film reaches $100,000 in sales, then they recoup $15,000 additional marketing expenses. The movie has pushed past the $100,000 mark, and most markets have now been sold, giving a little room for much more income to trickle my way.”
John: “So finally, my question, is it normal for a sales agent or potentially distributor to make more money than the production company that actually made the movie? Not to mention put up the cash in the first place? Is this just the cost of doing business?”
Craig: Okay, so let’s summarize this Cecil B. DeMille production of a question. So he’s made a micro budget movie for $7,000. He has some sales agents that have sold it on VOD and DVD, and basically he’s not getting as much money back from the sales as they are.
The movie has grossed, I think is what he means, pushed past gross $100,000. There’s not much more that he thinks is coming towards him. So while he’s made some money here, it’s not what he was hoping.
Yes, this is normal. And here’s the problem. When you’re in this micro budget business, and you’re having an independent sales agent going out there and slinging this thing around, you are essentially, it’s like the pink sheets in the stock market. You’re penny-stocking it, you know?
Craig: And so there’s this enormous built-in risk to these things. Some of these deals, the fact that the movie cost you $7,000 doesn’t mean anything to them. What they’re worried about is that they have to spend in this case, $20,000 to actually market and distribute this thing.
That $20,000 is at enormous risk. So the only way for them to make money is to build in the failures into the successes. And unfortunately, you’re not just paying them for what they did for your movie, you’re paying them for what they did for other movies that lost everything.
John: Yes. They’re sort of building a slate after the fact. They’re gathering up a bunch of movies. And in some ways it reminds me of sort of like the housing crisis where they packaged up a bunch of mortgages, and like put them into different bins and sort of like, you know, marketed them as one thing.
They probably were able to cut deals with VOD places and other stuff for like a whole big bundle of things. And yours was one of those bundle of things. And I think it’s unlikely that you’re going to see a huge windfall from that sort of situation.
John: Here’s the good news for Clarence though, like he made a $7,000 movie which got released on VOD and DVD. That is full of win.
John: And I think you have to take that as a victory. And the fact that your movie exists in the universe, is a really good thing especially if you like your movie. That’s a really good thing. Many, many filmmakers, Lena Dunham’s first films never had that kind of release, so you’re ahead of her from that perspective.
I wouldn’t stress out about this. I would kind of forget about this movie, this distributor. Work on your next thing, and then if you have a thing that has multiple people who want to distribute it, take a stronger look at sort of what those terms are and if there’s a possibility for better terms with a better person, maybe that will be the case.
Craig: Yes. Michael Eisner once famously said of negotiating for deals, “You can get what you can get.” And this is what you’re able to get.
Craig: So when you roll with these kinds of guys that are doing these high risk investments, yes, this is the way it works. There’s just no way around it. But John is absolutely right, the victory here is that you made the movie, people saw it, now it’s time to trade up and see if you can get into business with some people that aren’t necessarily in the, what my grandmother would call the schmatta business. John, that’s Yiddish for low quality clothing.
John: Ah-ha, I learned something today.
Craig: You learned something. Patrick in good old Blighty writes, “If I’m a British writer, writing a US-based script, most likely targeting a US production company or agent, should I be taking measures to alter my language and spelling accordingly? Hopefully, the dialogue should read as authentic to the setting. But should I be writing mom and not mum even if it’s against my nature? Would this freak an American reader out? Or would be people be able to accept the British-isms if it’s not affecting the story?
“I want to be able to write the script the way I feel comfortable. And I would feel as if I’m being inauthentic or misrepresenting myself as a writer by trying to remove or hide part of my identity from it, but I’m also worried at the same time it will be jarring, or take people out of the script. So what do you think I should do?”
John: You should absolutely not write mum instead of mom particularly in dialogue. Anything a character says needs to be written in the way that the character would actually say it. I mean, not going crazy into sort of like regionalisms or colloquialisms or trying to describe specific dialects accurately, but you don’t say mum instead of mom if it’s an American kid. That’s just not going to be natural. I wouldn’t worry about sort of every last little spelling. That’s fine. If it’s spelling in scene description, that’s going to be fine, but the big words, the words that are actually going to be said, those have to be American words if this is going to be a US production.
Craig: 100%. This is a slam dunk answer here. It’s not you, you’re not saying these things. You’re writing a screenplay with American characters, they have to speak as American people would speak. I’m on my second script in a row that is primarily populated by British characters. They speak like British people. What I don’t do is, for instance, if it’s a word that has a different spelling but the same pronunciation, I don’t go that far.
John: So honor, color, valor.
Craig: Precisely. If someone is going to say color, I just write it C-O-L-O-R. But I certainly, I take very careful, pay very careful attention to not use words that they simply don’t use over there. I mean, specifically if it’s in dialogue. For instance, in Britain, dumpsters aren’t called dumpsters. So I’m not going to have a character say dumpster. I’m not going to have an English character say dumpster.
This is an easy one, Patrick. Go ahead and write them however you want when people aren’t talking, but when the characters are talking, they have to talk like the people that they are.
John: Yes. John in Orlando writes, “I’m an attorney and screenwriter who is in Florida. I have a good friend who happens to be childhood best friends with a major showrunner you both surely know.
Oh, now I have to think of who this could be.
“We have hung out in social situations, but I’ve never revealed that I write scripts. I really hate to be ‘that guy,'” in quotes, “lest it change the social dynamic between the three of us, but I would like to at least pick his brain about some things. My dream would be to have a project gain traction first, and then mention it, but I feel this guy probably knows a ton that could help me at this point. Any advice for broaching this subject? This must happen to you with friends of friends who want advice.”
Craig: Yeah, it does happen with friends of friends who want advice. I think what nobody wants to hear is read my script because they already have scripts they have to read. There’s legal issues with reading a script, and so on and so forth, and of course, what’s hanging over it more than anything, is that they don’t want to be in that terrible position of having to tell you that your script is atrocious.
Craig: However, I don’t think it’s a problem if you’ve hung out with this guy in social situations and you live near him to say, “Hey, can I just buy you a drink or a cup of coffee, an hour of your time, no more, no less? I just want to ask you some questions.”
That’s an easy one for somebody to say yes to. Frankly, it’s also an easy one for somebody to say no to. If they say no, then you just let them off the hook and that’s the end of that. But if they say yes, at least then you get them there. And if your concept comes up in the discussion and they get really excited by it, then they’ll ask you if they want to read it.
John: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. I think broaching it in a way that is sort of both direct but also not sort of confrontational, so like putting it in the context of like coffee or a drink is going to make things probably feel a little bit better. I’d be leery about having like someone else sort of broach the topic like having the wife call the wife or any of that stuff. That’s going to just be a mess. If there’s a friend of a friend and you are friends with this person, and it hasn’t come up yet, but it could come up, let that come up.
If it’s a situation which like you’re going to the Austin Film Festival and that comes up naturally in conversation, then clearly you are a screenwriter and they will know that you’re a screenwriter and that’s awesome.
Craig: Yeah, easy. All right. Here’s our last question, I think. Jawaad from Fort Lauderdale writes, “My question is about a recent fear I’ve been having about being trapped underground in a box.”
John: That’s not true.
Craig: No, I misread that, “About being trapped in one genre.” Sorry. I misread that word. [laughs]
“So my question is about a recent fear I’ve been having about being trapped in one genre. So far, I’ve been a comedy writer, I’m the head writer of my university’s sketch comedy show, done quite a bit of improv. However, lately I’m starting to realize that I may not love comedy as much as I initially thought. I realize with comedic features,” and he says here, “I just finished my first feature, a kids’ comedy and it’s definitely not as funny as it should be.”
All right. “There is a high expectation of laughs per minute and I’m not sure that’s the type of writing I ultimately want to be doing. Do you think there is an easy crossover for somebody who’s only done comedy to start writing dramas? I feel like sprinkling a little comedy into dramas would be an asset that would make my writing stand out.” John, what do you think?
John: So Jawaad is in college. He’s written one script and he’s worried about being pigeonholed.
Craig: Yeah, it’s pretty awesome.
John: That’s actually crazy. And so, I put this question on here because I love it because it’s that sense of like I worry I’m going to be trapped in a genre having written one thing and being in a comedy troupe in college. That’s not how it works. If you had like a hit sitcom that ran for five years, then yes, you might be pigeonholed as a comedy person.
But you are at the start of your life. You can literally do anything. And so you should go off and write the drama if you think you’re a drama person. You are not trapped at all. The sense of being trapped is completely an illusion.
Craig: Yes. If a tree is pigeonholed in the forest and no one’s there to read it. Yeah, no, Jawaad, you are pre-pigeonhole, my friend. Nobody knows what you’ve written here, and it doesn’t matter. Your gut is telling you something, however, that is important and that’s you don’t want to write a certain kind of movie. You don’t want to write broad comedy, and you may not want to write comedy at all.
The fact that you maybe identify as a funny person or that you like writing sketch comedy, so you like writing comedy in sketch format as opposed to feature format, that doesn’t mean that that’s all you can be or all you should be. You should write the kind of movie you want to write. That’s really the only sort of movie that you are ever going to have success with anyway.
Sprinkling a little comedy into dramas is a good thing if that’s what the movie wants to have. I would not think in terms of assets. There’s a lot of calculation inherent to this question that I would advise you abandon.
John: Exactly. It’s always like, it’s trying to figure out like, well, what if I build this mansion and I don’t like the bathroom in this mansion that I build. It’s like, well, you don’t have a mansion yet, so like, stop building your mansion and actually like, you know, go to work. It’s one of those sort of like, what if I don’t —
Craig: It’s a Steve Martin joke. You know, how to not pay taxes on $1 million, step one, get $1 million. You’re not there. This is not something you should be worrying about. You have all the ability and time to write precisely what you want in the manner you want to write it.
John: I agree. Craig, it is time for One Cool Things.
Craig: One Cool Things.
John: My One Cool Thing is so short. It’s Tim and Susan Have Matching Handguns. It’s a documentary by Joe Callander. It is 1 minute and 47 seconds long. So I shouldn’t say too much about it because I could actually talk longer than the actual documentary is. But it’s just a perfect little gem that I just love. And it reminds me of like an Errol Morris film, but it’s 1:47. I loved it.
Craig: You had me at 1:47. I’ll be watching it as soon as we’re done recording. My One Cool Thing is the aforementioned too many Too Many Cooks by Chris “Casper” Kelly. So Chris Kelly, who goes by Casper Kelly because there are four billion Chris Kellys out there, he’s done a lot of shows on Adult Swim which is the Cartoon Network, I believe. And he did this thing that may be the greatest thing actually that anyone has ever done in an Internety way. This is the best of the Internet. If Alex from Target is the sort of most pointless of the Internet, this is the greatest.
Adult Swim has this thing where they do these infomercials which aren’t infomercials at all, but they fill in an 11 minute gap at 4am.
And so he floated this thing out there and lo and behold, a few days later, it is a sensation. And it truly is a sensation. We talked about subversion. The concept is a simple comic concept. We’re watching the opening credit sequence of what is sort of like a Full House sitcom. And the gag is that the song is super cheesy and everybody in it turns and looks at the camera and smiles when their name appears underneath them.
And you think, okay. And then the joke becomes, oh, there’s actually way more characters than there should be on the show like there’s like way too many characters and you think, okay, that’s a joke. But every 40 seconds, Chris Kelly says, “No, that’s not the joke. This is the joke.” And then, about seven minutes in, it’s not a joke anymore at all.
It’s actually something brilliant, and subversive and kind of existentially gorgeous. And where it ends is quite beautiful actually. Smarf, that’s all I say is Smarf.
John: Smarf. I’m going to watch it again because I’m not sure I got to the moment of existential beauty. I got to a moment of just tremendous appreciation for sort of just the ongoing genius of it. And to me, where it crossed over is there’s a moment where a young woman is hiding in the closet, and it’s one of the most sort of bizarrely brilliant little ideas. So I just loved it.
Craig: I think my mind went into a Nirvana space when the names rearranged themselves as people, and the people appeared as the names. That’s when I just thought Chris “Casper” Kelly, and really, I’ll just say this, why I love it so much is that this is truly a marriage of chaos and discipline.
Craig: We typically just get chaos on the Internet. It’s easy to be weird on the Internet. Super easy, and there’s lots of it. But this was absolute madness within a structure that was so good. So anyway, it’s out there, by the time this airs it’ll probably be, everybody will be like, oh, we all know about Too Many Cooks, but if you don’t, my god, Too Many Cooks.
John: Check it out. So we will have a link to that in the show notes, and also there’s a piece I read in Entertainment Weekly this morning about an interview with him talking about sort of why he did what he did and how he did it. It was just remarkable.
You’ll find links to that in the show notes in addition to other things we talked about. You can find those at johnaugust.com/scriptnotes. If you want to subscribe to Scriptnotes, you can join us on iTunes, and click subscribe there, you can also leave us a comment which is always lovely and helps us out.
If you want to listen to the back episodes, and also the special bonus episodes, we’ll have special things with the Three Page Challenge from Austin. We’ll have Simon Kinberg. Those are found at scriptnotes.net and you could subscribe there. It’s $1.99 a month, it gives you access to the whole back catalogue.
John: $1.99. Craig, we are super, super close to the 1,000 full-time premium subscribers, so we’re going to have to do that dirty episode and I’m so excited to do it.
Craig: You said you had a great idea. Do you want to say what it is?
John: I don’t because I’ve not reached out to that person yet.
John: Yes, but it’s a great idea.
Craig: Okay. Well, I trust you.
John: Well, I told you who the person was, right?
John: I did. Craig, your memory is failing. It’s a person who, I’ll tell you again after the show. But you said, I told you after the last show, you said oh my god, that’s a great idea.
Craig: Oh, really?
John: Yes. Wow, Craig. I’m sorry, maybe you should like have a medical professional because last week you asked about the whole Retina iMac and the display —
John: You said like you wanted to get the Retina display but without the iMac and I explained why. And I explained that I’d done it before.
Craig: Let me put your mind at ease. I have a 13-year old son. He’s destroying my mind. [laughs] It’s just him. It’s not medical. It’s just my son.
John: It’s not medical.
Craig: No, he’s just consuming me. He’s consuming my mind because I have to remember all of my stuff and all of his stuff.
John: Yes, it’s a burden.
Craig: Yes, huge burden.
John: If you would like to jog Craig’s memory, you can reach him @clmazin on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. If you have a long question like the ones we answered today, you can write it to email@example.com.
If you want to get a Writer Emergency Pack, you can just go to writeremergency.com, that’s a link to the Kickstarter. There will also be a link in the show notes. Our show is edited by Matthew Chilelli who also did our outro this week, who also has a Kickstarter project, so back that.
Stuart Friedel is out sick today. He will be back next week.
Craig: Good, good. [laughs]
John: How do you dare say that?
Craig: I hope it’s fatal. [laughs]
John: Craig gets very mean late in the episode. This is the one where everyone turns again Craig Mazin.
Craig: Exactly, I don’t know why. I think this is my new theme is that Stuart is bad.
John: Stuart is all things good.
Craig: I’m sorry, Stuart. But it’s, what if he’s dying?
John: Well, it could be Ebola.
Craig: Oh, sweet.
John: All my staff went and got their flu shots because the flu sucks and it’s much more likely that you’re going to have the flu than to get Ebola.
Craig: Slightly more likely, yes.
John: Just a little —
Craig: Just a touch.
John: Just a tiny bit, but I learned that everyone who works for me is afraid of needles.
Craig: Oh, what a bunch of babies.
John: I know. [laughs] Like it’s very rare that I run around with a needle and stab them.
Craig: Like what a bunch of, first of all, the flu shot, you don’t even feel that needle. It’s the tiniest, skinniest needle.
John: I know. And it’s so rare that I stab them. And for them to have this sort of, you know, instinctive reaction just because I’m running around with a needle is weird. [laughs]
Craig: Honestly, it’s so bizarre. Wait, you gave them flu shots?
John: Well yes. It kind of saves them money.
Craig: I like that you sit them down and just start injecting. No wonder Stuart is sick. It’s your latest concoction over there at Quote-Unquote.
John: I told them it was the flu serum.
Craig: Yes, it’s not Stuart.
John: You’ll never know.
John: It’s not.
John: Craig, thank you for another fun episode.
Craig: Thank you, John.
- Tickets to the Scriptnotes Holiday show are on sale tomorrow at the Writers Guild Foundation website
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- The Five Types of Twist Endings by Alec Worley
- Alex from Target
- Darius Kazemi’s XOXO talk
- Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter
- Screenwriting.io on intermediary slugs
- Tim and Susan Have Matching Handguns by Joe Callander
- Too Many Cooks by Casper Kelly, and his interview in Entertainment Weekly
- Get premium Scriptnotes access at scriptnotes.net and hear our 1,000th subscriber special
- Outro by Scriptnotes editor Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)