The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 172 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show we’re going to be talking about Franz Kafka, Jonathan Nolan, and finishing a script, and other things.
Craig: Yeah. All of which are interesting to screenwriters or people that are interested in screenwriting, is that — or things that are interesting to screenwriters? I’ve only heard it 172 times.
John: Well, actually Craig insists on actually never being present for this opening intro thing. So, he just sort of leans in to say his little bit, but he doesn’t listen to the rest of the show.
Craig: Yeah. I’m in the green room.
John: Which is crucial.
Craig: Yeah. Getting makeup.
John: Mm-hmm. Craig, we have so much to get through that I think we should just start into our follow up, because otherwise we’ll never finish this episode.
Craig: Let’s do it.
John: All right. You wanted to say something about the Black List.
Craig: Yes. So, Franklin Leonard sent us an email and he was — I believe his comment regarding our take on the fivethirtyeight article was, “Nailed it.” And so I was happy about that. And he also mentioned that, in fact, they do do the thing that I was hoping they would do, which is provide score distributions. So, when you get your average score they do show you here’s how it breaks out for how many 1s you got, how many 2s, and so on and so on through 10s, which is helpful because then the distribution will show spikes at the higher and lower boundaries.
John: So, when we looked at that fivethirtyeight article it was all based on data that they’d gotten from the Black List and Franklin’s concern, which was also your concern, is that the data itself doesn’t necessarily reflect the real experience of what that is. And a distribution is a crucial guide to showing what the actual trends are.
Craig: Well, it’s not like fivethirtyeight is a website specifically about statistics and statistical analysis, so they wouldn’t know that perhaps a distribution and sigma and various things like deviation from the mean would be useful to data analysis. They’re just a statistical analysis website.
John: They want the data to tell a story. And the story they were telling was not necessarily, we felt, the most accurate story.
John: I have an update about the Scriptnotes app. So, if you are one of our subscribers who listens to episodes through the Scriptnotes app, or actually you can listen to recent episodes even without being a premium subscriber, the app just went through a bunch of updates on iOS and some of the updates were terrific and some of the updates were not terrific.
John: We believe the current app that you have out there in your hand right now is stable, but if it’s not, let us know. Because this is a rare case where we don’t actually make the app. It’s Libsyn who makes the app. But if people have problems with it, let us know so we can yell at Libsyn to try to get the app fixed. The app that you’re using for Scriptnotes is actually the same app that a lot of other podcasts use. And so it’s the same app that Jay Mohr uses and Marc Maron uses. But it should work properly for you. So, if it doesn’t work properly for us, please tell us and write in to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will yell at the Libsyn people.
Craig: And feel free to use poor language, get angry, obviously rant in your email about this app, because that’s what motivates John and his staff.
John: That’s not actually true at all.
John: But if, no, but if you are using the app and you are a premium subscriber, you will find that there are two brand new episodes that just posted this week. We have Simon Kinberg’s interview for the Writers Guild Foundation. That was me and Simon sitting down, talking about Days of Future Past and his whole writing career. And we also have the Three Page Challenge that we did in Austin, which was me and Franklin Leonard from the Black List, and Ilyse McKimmie. So, if you’re a premium subscriber you get those episodes, too.
Craig: Fantastic. That’s a hell of a deal.
John: That’s a hell of a deal. And maybe you’re off for a few days around Thanksgiving. Maybe you have family in town. Maybe you’re trying to hide from them. Or maybe you have to be present in the room, but you can have your earphones on and then not really be present. That’s a good —
Craig: Yeah. Let us help you isolate yourself from your useless family.
John: We’ve actually had to sort of make a rule in the house where sometimes — both of us like to listen to podcasts a lot, but if we’re in the same room together and we’re listening to different podcasts it can be a little bit frustrating. So, not always a great choice to do that. But sometimes through the holidays you need to check out a little bit.
Craig: Not surprisingly that doesn’t come up in my house.
John: Because you don’t listen to podcasts.
John: Nope. You had an update about Cowboy Ninja Viking.
Craig: Yeah. So, that was something that we had talked about way back when you and I did the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast crossover thingy. And somebody had asked what we were working on so I mentioned that I was writing this thing called Cowboy Ninja Viking which someone actually knew about because we were at, what is it, Nerdmelt? Melt Comics? Melt Nerd? Meltdown?
John: We were at Meltdown Comics. We were at the Nerd Melt stage at the back of Meltdown Comics.
Craig: Got it. And so somebody actually knew about the graphic novel. Regardless, Chris Pratt is going to be in the movie.
John: Which is fantastic.
John: Chris Pratt is a great actor and a gentleman and seems like a perfect choice for movies about cowboys, ninjas, and/or Vikings.
Craig: Well, he kind of is a perfect choice because the character, I mean the idea of Cowboy Ninja Viking is that it’s a guy who has these three personalities in his head and they are really spectacular at what they do. He doesn’t feel like he does anything. So, you need an actor who is physically a match for an action hero, but who at least in his face and in his persona can also be meek and humble and not at all and scared.
John: There’s a softness to Chris that’s great.
Craig: Exactly. And there are not too many people that could actually do that. So, and he’s a big movie star now and he’s the husband of one of my good friends, Anna Faris.
John: Which is lovely. Craig, is someone directing your movie? I don’t even know.
Craig: No. Right now, well, somebody will be directing the movie. Right now that’s the big thing is they’re talking to multiple folks about possibly directing it. And so I get lists and things and then we all talk about it. But I think before the end I believe we should have our answer for that.
John: It’s always an interesting case about whether you attach an actor or star like him without having a director on board. Because in some ways it can hamstring the director a little bit because the power relationship between sort of who is driving the ship can be a little bit off. But sometimes it can work really well. So, Drew Barrymore was attached to Charlie’s Angels along with Cameron Diaz before McG came on board. And so we were able to sort of set the tone as the wheels were turning. And then we would find like, oh, who is the right director to make this version of the movie. And so that can work really, really well.
But, we can all think of horror stories where a big actor was attached to something without a director and then the director came on board and had to sort of wrestle with these decisions that had been made in his absence.
Craig: Yes. That is absolutely true. The benefit I think to having the star in place before you get a director is that you know that you’re getting a director that wants this version of the movie.
John: 100 percent.
Craig: So, the director is not going to sign on if they love the actor, don’t like the script, or like the script, don’t love the actor, whatever it is. This is somebody coming on and saying, yeah, I like this package and I think I can work with this and I want to do it.
Obviously there is a certain amount of ease to getting a director for a project when you have a big movie star in place.
Craig: Because now they realize it’s a real movie and it’s happening and it’s going to have, you know, an ability to connect with an audience and a fan base. But the nice thing here is that Chris really seems to love the script. I mean, that’s the other thing. Sometimes you don’t know. You get a big actor and the big actor says, “I love the idea, you know. Let’s rewrite everything.” You know, that can happen, too. But happily, at least so far, it doesn’t seem to be the case here at all. So, anyway, I’m very excited. I just thought it was the best possible outcome and I’m really happy that he responded and that he’s going to do it.
John: Fantastic. Congratulations.
Craig: Thank you.
John: So, this was a big week for us. We closed the Kickstarter campaign for Writer Emergency. That was on Thursday at noon. And so inevitably at 12:01 I got a bunch of tweets and emails saying like, oh no, I missed the deadline. And I feel like I’ve done nothing but talk about this for far too long. And people would say like, oh, I was three weeks behind on the podcast. And I was like, well, you were three weeks behind on the podcast.
John: I can’t bend laws of time and physics.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, that crap didn’t work on your history teacher in junior year. I don’t know why you think it would work on us.
John: But the good news is that if you missed out on the Kickstarter campaign there is a site now called writeremergency.com. If you want to know about when the packs will become available for the rest of the world, just put in your email address there and we will send you an email when they’re available to purchase.
We’re not quite sure how they’re going to be purchased. And we kind of can’t even think about that now. So, the campaign did really, really well. So, we are printing 16,000 decks.
John: That we have to get out. So, it’s about 8,000 to backers and 8,000 to the youth writing programs that we’re supporting. So, that’s going to be everything we can possibly do through the end of the year.
But sometime in January we should be able to make more of these and get them out to other people who would want one. And that’s where I’m actually going to ask people who are listening to this who might actually know about retail or dealing with Amazon, because we’re trying to figure out the best way to get these out into the universe. Because when we’ve done t-shirts for Scriptnotes and stuff, that’s like maybe 1,000 t-shirts we’re making and sending out. This is going to be such an order of magnitude beyond that that we just cannot do it ourselves. And so if you are a person who sells through Amazon or a person who deals with like sending stuff to retail stores and have good experience, just write me and tell me about your experience, because I genuinely want to know. And I’ve found it really frustrating to try to find out that information.
Craig: You should go on Shark Tank.
John: I should totally go on Shark Tank. And just have them just cut me down.
Craig: No, they wouldn’t cut you down. I think they’d be respectful. I mean, you’ve got a high profile. You go on there and you’re like, look, they always want to know how many have you sold already. What’s your margin, blah, blah, blah. And now you’re margin is terrible, obviously, because you’re giving half of them away, but they won’t let you do that.
But then you have a lot of sales. You did really well. And then you get like Mark Cuban to help you out or something. Or the QVC lady. That would be a good one.
John: That’s the one you want, the QVC lady.
Craig: Or Damon. You know, Damon is really good because, you know —
John: I have no idea who Damon is.
Craig: He’s the clothing magnate.
John: I love that you don’t watch any TV, but you know Shark Tank really well.
Craig: Well, here’s the deal. If you want to understand what I watch, I choose to watch Game of Thrones.
John: Well, who could not watch Game of Thrones?
Craig: Right? I choose to watch Game of Thrones. And that’s pretty much it at this point.
John: Everything else is just the TV is on and you’re in its presence.
Craig: Everything else is what Melissa watches on TV. And my kids. So I’ll actually see more Disney sitcoms than any normal programming.
John: Than anyone should ever see.
Craig: Right. But Melissa and Jessie love Shark Tank. So, and you know, when they’re watching it you get sucked in. It’s actually —
John: Oh totally.
Craig: It’s fun. It’s so obvious that each one of them is playing a character. But, I don’t know, they do a good job.
John: Whenever you watch a show about judging, it’s always like, well what would I say in that situation? And then you’re trying to predict what each person would say based on what this thing was. That’s really the fun of it. I think somebody out there should make a parody of a judging show that there’s actually no content sort of being judged. It’s just sort of the judges performing their shtick to whatever. So, basically like a stick of gum is put there and then you have each of the judges performing their shtick to that stick of gum.
Craig: The whole judging dynamic is fascinating. I know this is a tangent, but so the other show that Jessie and Melissa love to watch is The Voice. And so, you know, I’ll drop in on The Voice with them and all of the judges are super positive on that show. I never hear any of them say a single bad thing. And, you know, for me Simon Cowell, he’s the greatest because he was the only man to ever tell the truth on TV. And I just find it fascinating that somewhere along the line, I mean, you know those things aren’t — that’s not haphazard. That is a carefully planned decision that came out of months of committees and meetings that they’re not going to do that.
Like everything on TV is carefully, carefully planned. So, I’m just so fascinated by that that they decided no one is going to be the heel or the villain on that show, whereas on Shark Tank, Kevin O’Reilly is clearly the villain, which I love. He was like make Mr. Burns.
John: So, Kevin O’Reilly, not Kevin Reilly?
Craig: Oh, is it Kevin Reilly?
John: Well, no, Kevin Reilly was the Fox president.
Craig: No, no, I think it’s Kevin O’Reilly. Maybe I’m getting his name wrong, but he’s one of the sharks on Shark Tank and he’s some sort of investment guy, which that tells you everything you need to know about what I know about money. “Investment guy.” But, he likes to put his fingers together and make a little tent with his hands like Mr. Burns.
John: Oh, yeah, Mr. Burns, yeah.
Craig: And if he makes someone an offer and they don’t take it, then he says, “You’re dead to me.” That’s his catchphrase. He’s like me.
John: [laughs] He’s like you.
Craig: He’s like me.
John: So, the thing I’ve had to figure out is basically the supply chain and sort of like how you make things and physically deliver them to a place where they could be delivered again. And that is just so new to me. And it’s really genuinely fascinating. But I’ve found it very hard to investigate because if you look up sort of like selling stuff on Amazon, you get a bunch of like Amazon links to here’s how you do your stuff, but it’s hard to find the real information about that kind of thing.
So, our friend Quinn Emmett, Dana Fox’s husband, who is a great writer in his own right, his brothers actually run a health food thing that sells through Amazon. So that’s one resource. But they’re giant and they’re health foods. If people have experience with games and books through Amazon that would be incredibly valuable if you want to drop me a note.
Craig: Well, all right. So, help John.
John: Help me is what I’m saying.
Craig: Help him.
John: This is going to be an interesting segment because I think this is going to be one of those rare cases on the show where I have tremendous umbrage and you can maybe talk me down off the ledge a little bit.
Craig: Oh. My. God.
John: It’s a very special episode.
Craig: Oh, I’m so happy.
John: This is something that was actually tweeted around last week. And it was this vulture piece which is also New York Magazine, and I don’t quite understand where the boundary is between New York Magazine and Vulture, but it was an article by Nate Jones. And Nate Jones may not have written this headline, but Nate Jones wrote the article. Here is the headline: Christopher Nolan’s Brother to Adapt Isaac Asimov’s Foundation for HBO.
John: This is the actual article. “After spending years on the screenplay to his brother’s Interstellar, Jonathan Nolan is going back into space: The Wrap reports that the younger Nolan is working with HBO on an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. It’s Nolan’s second project with the network after J.J. Abrams’s planned Westworld adaptation and his third TV show overall. (He previously created Person of Interest.)
“If the Foundation show takes off, Jonathan Nolan will finally be ‘Christopher Nolan’s brother’ no more. At least in the career sense. In the fraternal sense, they will likely remain bonded.”
Craig: Oh boy. [laughs] Wow, that’s really good writing.
John: Ugh. So, I did slice out a little bit of sort of unimportant stuff, but that’s the gist of the article. Okay, so from the headline forward, Jonathan Nolan has written like three or four giant movies. And he’s written on a lot of stuff that’s not Christopher Nolan things. So, to set up in your headline the idea like, oh, we’re not going to say his name. We’re going to say like Christopher Nolan’s brother. That’s ridiculous. Then, to continue on and say, you know, this wrap up at the end, “Oh, if this succeeds then he’s no longer Christopher Nolan’s brother.”
He never was just Christopher Nolan’s brother. His show Person of Interest has been on for like three or four seasons, has 80 episodes. So, just, grr. I wanted to say a bad word, but I want this to be a clean show.
Craig: [laughs] I have to say, look, I completely agree with you. I’m only laughing because that was adorable. I mean, you tried so hard to be angry and you couldn’t because you’re just a nice person. And you’re such a good guy.
John: I kind of always have some beta blockers in me that don’t let get to full umbrage.
Craig: I know. You have natural beta blockers. [laughs] That actually made me love you more.
John: Oh, thank you. So, let me continue my rant, my attempted rant, because I was reminded of the Jonah Nolan story. You can say Jonathan or Jonah Nolan interchangeably. They’re the same person.
This past week on the episode of Scriptnotes I said, oh, I’m going to be adapting Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
John: And so that was announced in the world. So, here are some of the stories written about that. This is Time Magazine. Headline: Frequent Tim Burton Collaborator to Pen Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Movie.
John: An article by Nolan Feeney. And the article includes, “Screenwriter John August, who has written multiple screenplays for director Tim Burton, will write CBS Films’ upcoming Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Deadline reports.”
Craig: Yeah. It’s like we’re not enough on our own. We only exist within the context of a director.
John: That’s really the thesis I want to get to is that journalists only want to talk about the director even if there’s no director. So, with this Jonah Nolan story, they’re talking about Christopher Nolan even though he’s not involved with the project at all. They’re talking about Tim Burton, even though he’s not involved with the project at all. I swear to God he’s not involved with the project at all.
John: And they want to stick him on because a writer by himself is not worth talking about.
Craig: Yeah. They will always gravitate towards things that they think their audience will know. And so rather than educate people on who someone is, they just make it easy. Oh, you know, here’s a name you know. Well, this guy worked with that name. It’s just lazy and dumb.
John: It’s lazy and dumb, but here’s the danger. And so I’m going to skip ahead to Meredith Woerner writing at iO9. And so the headline is, “Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark Movie Writer Could Change Everything.”
John: So, I’ll read some select paragraphs from here. “But now this befuddling movie adaptation has a whole new screenwriter, John August. Yeah, Tim Burton’s John August.”
John: Tim Burton’s John August.
Craig: Now you’re possessed.
John: I am possessed. “Deadline is reporting that John August (Big Fish, Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie, Titan A.E.) will be writing the script for CBS Films. If you noticed, August likes to work with Tim Burton, a lot.”
First off, Titan A.E., there’s like five credited writers on Titan A.E., so please put Charlie’s Angels Full Throttle if you want to stick a credit on me, but don’t do that. And also Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a much bigger movie than the other ones listed there.
Craig: Well, particularly since the point is that you like working with Tim Burton. It just seems so dumb.
John: Yeah, also, Go, maybe my first movie. People like that movie a lot.
“Then there’s the matter of Tim Burton.” So, continuing on with her story. “Then there’s the matter of Tim Burton. This project has Burton written all over it,” except not on the title page, “but that might not be a necessarily good move. When was the last time Burton was legit scary? Beetlejuice? Sleepy Hollow? HOWEVER the classic Burton ‘nightmare face’ would really feel at home in this world.”
So, there will be lots of pros and cons to having Burton helm this work.
Craig: Wow. [laughs] So, now even Tim Burton is getting attacked for something that he is not involved with at all. You’re basically being belittled as some sort of pinkie on his hand. You know, I have to say, you want, let me give you some umbrage. Let me help you.
John: All right.
Craig: Let me help you because —
John: Can you spare a little umbrage?
Craig: Yeah. I can.
John: All right. Craig, teach me how to be angry.
Craig: First you start way back. And it’s like you’re going to slowly run and then you’re eventually going to hurl yourself off a building. Journalism as a whole has always been a disaster of a business. You can go all the way back to Remember the Maine and yellow journalism pushing us into the Spanish-American War if you want.
It’s always been a mess. And it continues to be a mess to this day. But entertainment ‘journalism’ is a cesspool of stupidity unlike anything else. Everyone in it, everyone in it is doing it wrong. I don’t know, there’s no one that does it right. And what they will do is this nonsense where they literally go on to IMDb for — I honestly believe there’s a rule, if you’re going to write an entertainment journalism article you can only use IMDb as your source and you are only allowed to look at the page for four seconds. That’s it.
Four seconds. Scroll. Okay. Done. Now, start writing.
John: Blink twice, then begin writing.
Craig: It is the most insane. And first of all, think of what you just read. That article really sounds like someone who heard something from someone who heard it from someone who is now telling a friend over some coffee.
Craig: And just rambling about it.
John: Yeah. Bobby Moynihan has a character on Saturday Night Live —
Craig: Drunk Uncle.
John: No, different than Drunk Uncle. He has a guy who overheard some news, some second hand news.
Craig: That guy. Right. [laughs]
John: And it does feel a little bit like that. So, my frustration though is that from now on because people write these stories, from now on whenever we do announce a director for this movie this article is going to come. I guarantee you it’s going to come. “While Tim Burton was rumored to beó”
Craig: Oh, of course.
John: “…directing this movie.” It’s like, he was never rumored to be directing this movie. You know, Tim could direct the movie, but I swear to God there is no director on this movie. There is nobody.
Craig: You haven’t even written a script yet.
John: There’s been no script.
Craig: There’s nothing.
John: There’s been no script. No one has been talked to.
Craig: There is a book and there is a contract for you to write a screenplay. That’s it. And these people are already now critiquing the work of a man that isn’t involved and deciding if he should be — like anyone gives a damn what they think. It’s so dumb. It’s so dumb. Everything —
John: Oh, it’s dumb, but it’s so much fun though, isn’t it, because the fun is just to take any random director and apply them to this project and think about how much that could go wrong.
My favorite example would be, “I think we should go to Nancy Meyers,” because can you imagine the Nancy Meyers version of this movie?
Craig: It would be great.
John: So, I think Something Wicked This Way Has Got to Come.
Craig: Yeah, it’s got to come.
John: It’s got to come.
Craig: And then there’s like a kid is confronted by a ghost. And then they dance.
John: Yeah. But you know that the house in the movie is would be so well decorated.
Craig: Is going to be gorgeous.
John: And the kitchen would be great.
Craig: Gorgeous. With a lot of depth and really just glinty lighting. It would be gorgeous.
So, years and years and years ago, when I was hired to write Scary Movie 3, and it was this crazy rush job. And Bob Weinstein said, “All right, I’m going to hire you to write, and David Zucker is going to direct it. And maybe, I called Kevin Smith, maybe he’ll get involved.” And I was like, okay, and then Bob put a thing in the trades about it and said, you know, and possibly talking to Kevin Smith. That’s what he said. It was something like possibly talking to Kevin Smith.
Kevin Smith never worked on the movie. He was never hired on the movie. He didn’t have anything to do with the movie as far as I know. And I was there from the first day.
The Kevin Smith thing persisted not only throughout but even in reviews of the movie.
John: Oh god.
Craig: People would talk about the screenplay by me and Kevin Smith. [laughs] That’s how dumb these people — they literally just go back to IMDb, they look at the first, like the news article in IMDb. It’s amazing. It’s amazing. Let me tell you something. If there was one person out there who is really smart and really driven and ambitious and believes in quality and wants to own an entire an entire marketplace, wants to corner the market on quality, go into entertainment journalism. Go into it. Because there are so few people out there doing it right.
John: I agree with you.
Craig: Which is going to endear me to all these people once again. I’ve just ensured myself another 20 years of great reviews.
John: Well, the thing is I actually know some entertainment journalists who I really like and I can personally really like them and in some cases like their work and still have just tremendous frustrations at what the net result ends up being most of the time.
Craig: Yeah. I’m with you on that. You know my other — can I just say my other pet peeve about a lot of these guys, some of these people work on websites and they’ll do, like they’ll play good cop/bad cop. So, the good guy will call you up and do this really lovely interview with you and it’s full of respect and admiration. And then that will run on the website with a link to the website’s review of the movie that trashes it by the bad cop. What? Why? I know. Anyway.
John: Never good.
Craig: So, anyway, congratulations Tim Burton. Good job.
John: Yeah. Thanks. So, let’s segue to a writer whose life was actually just delightful and full of cheer. And someone who I think embodies sort of this like laissez-faire, whatever may happen, happen, spirit that I think all screenwriters should aim for, and that’s Franz Kafka.
Craig: Yeah. Happiest fellow in the 20th Century. Franz Kafka, great, great — I guess you would call him, well, he’s a modern European author, possibly existentialist, absurdist.
Craig: Kafkaesque. The amazing thing about him is really he is a self-defining guy. He is his own style.
John: In some ways the same way like Tim Burton is Burtonesque. Like there’s a definable style to Kafka’s writing, the same way there is to Tim’s world.
Craig: Yeah. Tarantino. I mean, some of these people sort of self-define. And Kafka self-defined. And what’s interesting about Franz Kafka, well, among other things, one thing is that he was not at all famous when he was alive. He was posthumously appreciated and tremendously so.
But what I find so interesting about him and what I wanted to talk about with you today and for all of our listeners out there is this interesting fact. Over the course of his life, Franz Kafka, we believe, burned 90 percent of the manuscripts he wrote. 90 percent of what Franz Kafka wrote is lost forever. As for the remaining 10 percent, when he died he asked his friend, Max Brod, to destroy everything. He said, I’m leaving this to you. Please destroy it. Max Brod opted to not destroy it, and that is why we have Metamorphosis and The Hunger Artist and all these —
Craig: Castle. And Penal Colony and all of these incredible stories that have fueled many, many a modern lit class. And I wanted to talk a little bit about, well, it came up in mind because over the summer I took a little class at my son’s school. The headmaster offered a class for adults on great books and we sort of moved through, from Socrates on forward. And at one point we got to a Kafka story, The Hunger Artist, which is one of my favorite stories. And it came up that Kafka had destroyed a lot of his work and wished that all of it could have been destroyed. And one of the people in the class said I cannot understand that for the life of me. Why?
And all I could think of was I completely understand that. I understand that 100 percent. And I don’t know if you’ve ever had that impulse.
John: I’ve never had that impulse.
Craig: I guess here is where I would come down on it. I’ve never actually destroyed my work, although I’m sure some people which that I had. But, what I do understand is that when it’s done, I have the instinct of wishing to god that no one would ever have to see it. That just that there could be a job where you get paid to write a screenplay and then when everybody agrees it’s good, you just put it away.
John: I’ve had the experience after watching a first cut of something, where watching the first cut of Go where I wanted to bargain with the lords of fate that the movie could just never be released because it was just — it was soul crushing. But I think that’s a different thing than what you’re describing, because I don’t think what you feel and necessarily what Kafka felt was that their work was horrible, but maybe just that you didn’t want to put it out there in the world and have a reaction to it. Is that correct?
Craig: That’s right. It’s not a question of being embarrassed. In fact, it’s the opposite. And this is particularly tempting I think for screenwriting because you get your script to a place where you feel this is it. This is good. And then you know that this is a snowy field that must be trod upon. And simply by people reading it, you lose it. It’s no longer yours. Now it’s ours. It belongs to everyone. And that’s a hard thing sometimes to get around. And I do feel that sometimes this protective feeling that I don’t want this to belong to everybody, it’s mine, is the thing that keeps some people from wanting to finish.
John: I can completely understand that. You’re describing sort of what is a creator’s responsibility to his creations — is it to protect them from all possible harm, or to send them out into the world. In some ways it’s a parent’s function as well. Is that you want to keep your child safe and yet you know that they must go out into the world and fend for themselves. And that’s so challenging.
So, finishing — delivering your script, you know, turning in your manuscript is very much like sort of sending your kid off to school and you’re not ready to have them be out of your care and control.
Craig: Well, yeah. And there is something paradoxical about the nature of creation of work and then what follows, the sharing of the work. The creation of the work is — it’s solipsistic. And not only do you have complete control, but complete control is required to do the work well. And so you do control it in a way that you can’t really control the raising of another human being.
And then you send it out and just by being read it is changed. And you can feel that — it’s most notable when you go to that first test screening after you’ve edited a film and you believe you know this film upside, downwards, and backwards, and then you sit in a theater with people. And as you watch it with them, you see a different movie because it’s almost like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The observation changes the object.
And so a lot of times I think, you know, we’ve talked about why people hold on to work too long. I think sometimes we have to acknowledge that we have a fear that the observation of the work will change it. And that’s a natural fear to have. Unfortunately, destroying 90 percent of your work is not a good idea.
John: Well, let’s play devil’s advocate. The other 90% of his work, the odds are there was tremendous work that was lost to time, to all the ages, because he destroyed it. But some of that work would not have been his best work. And so it’s part of the reason why we have Franz Kafka as such an amazing, great author is that everything that survives is the brilliant stuff. So, it’s silent evidence of all the stuff that wasn’t so good.
Craig: It’s possible. I mean, we do have authors who have written great things and then not such great things. And we tend to ignore the not such great ones. But considering that Kafka very strongly felt that the remaining 10 percent also needed to be destroyed makes me think that perhaps the 90 percent that was was probably quite good. I mean, he was, after all, Franz Kafka. [laughs] And it’s just — that to me is an extension, an extreme extension of what I’m talking about here. Frankly, I think if Franz Kafka could come back to life today he would be horrified that everyone has read it and that not only — it’s almost his worst nightmare. In a sense it is a Kafka story.
A man creates something for himself that no one is to see, because they will destroy it by looking at it. He begs that it be destroyed when he is too sick to do it himself. It is not. And not only does everybody look at it, but everybody then analyzes it and teaches classes on it and writes term papers on it. I mean, it’s a horror show. Poor guy.
Anyway, I guess all I’m saying is, hey, this is a natural thing if you’re a writer and if you feel this, just know that you feel it, but tough, you’ve got to put it out there.
John: So, the only reason we have Kafka’s work is because Max Brod saved that 10 percent. So, let’s talk about people who take 10 percent and let’s talk about the perfect agent.
Craig: Segue Man!
John: I am Segue Man. So, this is the second part of our Perfect Series. So, last week we talked about the perfect studio executive. This week let’s talk about the perfect agent and what makes the perfect agent. What that person should be doing for a screenwriter. What our expectations should be when we’re talking to an agent. Craig, get us started.
Craig: Well, I think that we do have quite a few agents and agent assistants who will soon be agents listening to us, so hey, lean in, listen carefully. I’m very simple about what I look for in an agent. Primarily, let’s talk about the real simple stuff. Call us back.
John: Always good.
Craig: Okay? Call us back. Don’t be impossible to reach. Call us back within a reasonable amount of time. That’s the big one.
John: Let’s define reasonable amount of time. A reasonable amount of time is 24 hours at the outlier and if it’s not 24 hours than it’s some communication that acknowledges got your message, I will get back to you ASAP.
Craig: Yeah. My feeling is if I call before lunch, I get a call before the end of the day. If I call after lunch, I should still get a call by the end of the day, but if not, first thing the next day and an acknowledgment that the call was received. So, that’s a real simple thing. I know that this is something that is talked about a lot in the agency hallways as a kind of nuts and bolts things. I cannot stress how important it is. Ultimately, the constancy of communication is the glue of the agent/client relationship. It’s as simple as that.
The other thing I look for in an agent is clarity. When a writer asks an agent what should I do, should I do this job, or this job, should I pass on this, should I accept it? Who should we give this to? Is this the right producer? What we want desperately is the same thing that the people that hire us want. Clarity and comfort. We want our agent to give us an answer.
If there is no answer, then explain why there’s no answer and then explain that either way will be okay.
Craig: But this wishy-washiness or asking questions back — we’re not looking for an Ericksonian therapist to just rephrase our questions. We want answers.
John: So, when you proposed this topic I went through and sort of made my list of archetypes of sort of the things I think about when I think of an agent. And not all agents are going to be all these people, but generally these are the kind of roles an agent fulfills in a writer’s life.
One is as adviser, which is just what you described, the person who has an informed opinion about what should be done on a project, in a situation, what is the overall shape of what this experience should be.
Secondly is an advocate. You want your agent to be someone who is like on your side. And so when people are pushing you around, they’re pushing back. And that’s a really crucial role because sometimes the agent has to be the bad guy. The agent has to say like, no, he delivered, pay him. And convince on the next step if you want the next step. That’s a critical function of an agent and sometimes one that they are reluctant to perform because they’re trying to maintain all these other relationships.
But, from the writer’s perspective, we just need you to like stick up for us.
John: Third archetype is sort of the connector. And really good agents are smart at being able to put people together who they think can work well together. So, that’s putting writers in rooms with studio executives who actually know what they’re doing. Setting up a lunch between a writer and a director because there’s probably something they could work on together. Bringing the right material to the writer because this is a book we have and we think you would probably like it. That’s a crucial function of a good agent.
Craig: Let’s stop there on that one because a lot of these things are sort of constitutionally required for agents. Some of them are things that agents have to earn their way towards. The truth is that we want from our agents a certain amount of connectivity. And there are all sorts of words for this, juice, or whatever you want to call it. We want our agent to be able to get the people we need to get on the phone on the phone.
Craig: And if you can’t get those people on the phone, then you need to have a relationship with a senior agent who can.
John: That’s a crucial point. Because a lot of times as newer writers you’re going to be working with a junior agent, someone who doesn’t have all the history and all of the contacts and all the access that the top people have. But in some cases, those younger agents have tremendous numbers of contacts, they’re just at a lower level. And those can be incredibly valuable and they can actually be faster than some of the very top tier people can actually get that information. So, that can be really useful.
So, obviously if you’re agent is plugged in at CAA and they have this vast knowledge network of how everything is set up, that’s awesome. But even if your agent is at a smaller sort of boutique agency that deals with like just TV writers, that can be exactly perfect if that’s what you’re trying to do.
My first agent was just a terrific agent but his client list was mostly very esoteric indie writer-directors. And he was really good at dealing with sort of specialty film arms of things, but that wasn’t who I ultimately was. And it got to be very frustrating because he didn’t know the people who I needed to be in rooms with. And that’s why it didn’t last.
Craig: Exactly right. There’s another thing that I think the perfect agent is capable of doing, and that is switching their tone from every kind of communication they have, except for their communication with their writer clients, and the communication with the writer clients. We know when we’re being agented. So, what is being agented? It’s being handled, cajoled. There’s that agent talk that’s smooth and fast and all facts have suddenly become fogged by war. And everything gets twisted around. That’s what they do. And they need to be able to do that.
When they’re dealing with other agents, when they’re dealing with producers, when they’re dealing with studios, when they’re dealing with business affairs they need to agent people. That’s their job. But when you’re talking to us, before you get on the phone with us, take a breath and say this, “This person I don’t agent. This is my client. This person I can just calm down, relax, and be honest with.” I know. Sounds crazy. But we actually appreciate honesty more than anything. Don’t hide bad news from us. Don’t sugar coat bad news.
Don’t flimflam us. And if we challenge you on something and we’re right, don’t think that by saying, “You know what, that’s a really good point, you’re right,” that it makes you weak. It doesn’t. It makes us like you more.
So, save a certain tiny nugget of honest, normal you for us. And agent everybody else.
John: So, part of that honesty is being honest about why a project is coming to you, or why a project is not coming to you. And that’s a very difficult conversation to have.
Craig, you will be able to better articulate what the legal definitions and differences are between an agent and a manager. But my perception is that any time somebody comes to my agent with here’s work, here is work we would like John to do, I think he’s legally obligated to tell me about it. Is that correct?
Craig: It is. Yeah. I mean, a lot of times they will glide over that because they know that you’re busy and unavailable and wouldn’t want to do that. So, I don’t need my agent to call me up and say, “Hey, listen, we got an offer. You just started writing a script. We got an offer for you to do an episode of an animated program in Albania.” I don’t need to hear about it, you know.
John: Yet, I think one of the crucial things is, and this is the conversation I have quite often, is in one of those sort of check-in calls there will be like four things we’ll talk about. And the last thing will be, oh, and I got this thing for you. Here’s the project. Here’s the producer. Here’s why I think it’s a pass. And that is just a godsend when you sort of hear what that is.
Agents are fairly describing what it actually is and why it’s probably not interesting. And sometimes I’ll say like, you know, actually that does sound really interesting, or like I’ve always liked that person, so I do want to take a look at it. But a good agent is able to say, this is why it’s probably not going to be right. In some cases, especially for a newer writer, they might say, okay, there’s this project over at this studio and they’re meeting with writers. They asked about you. I think it’s a fishing trip. I think they’re just basically bringing a bunch of people into the room and seeing what might stick. And you could be wasting a tremendous amount of your time.
I so appreciate that. And as a young writer, I might be panicked like, wait, I’m not going to go in for this job? A smart agent might say, you know what? I don’t think anyone is ever going to get that job. I think it’s basically just a let’s see what sticks kind of situation.
Craig: Yeah. For sure. There’s another nice benefit to letting your clients know when you’re passing on things for them in that it makes them feel good, that people want you to work for them. I mean, look, if you say don’t do something, we’re not doing it. We’re very simple that way. You know, I mean, we want to do everything. We want you guys to be able to help us say no to things. It’s obviously a very valuable part of this. And, you know, sometimes as agents you will smell some blood in the water and we won’t smell the same blood.
I’ll get a call, “Something came up at the agency, our biggest movie star is excited about doing this thing. It’s a book. And everybody is running around like crazy. But, you know, I put your name in and they really responded to that. I mean, this could be huge.” Well, look, again, we’re being agented there a little bit.
John: Yeah. But at least he’s being candid about what’s actually happening there.
Craig: Right. Exactly. And it’s good to know. And then if we don’t smell the same blood and we go, you know what, I get why they would love that. I just don’t think it’s for me. Then, you know, you let it go. That’s okay. Just don’t jam us in because we know, I mean, we’re not dumb. We know how the agent business works. You guys make 10 percent of what we make. So, the person who makes the most amount of money, that’s the most important person.
We know that. And it’s okay to shepherd us all together. That’s part of your job. But then if we don’t get it and we don’t want to do it, just be respectful and let us not like it. That’s okay.
John: That shepherd function is really crucial, too. When Aline was on the show last she talked about how her agent of many, many years, they were on a phone call and Aline was venting her frustration about this project and these people and the people being impossible. And the agent basically pulled her aside and said like, “Get over yourself. Call me back tomorrow. And figure out how you’re going to actually do this project, because you’re being crazy.”
And that’s a crucial thing. That shepherding role of saying like, you know what, you’re not actually being reasonable here. This is, you know, it’s almost like a parent. Like, you know, reminding you like, you know what, this is your job. Your job is to write this movie. Write this movie. Get it over with. Get it done. And move on. And that’s a crucial thing to have happen, too. Sometimes you as the writer are the problem and a very good agent can find the right way to tell you this is a you thing. Get through it. And let’s get onto your next project.
Craig: No question. Yeah, Aline and I actually have the same agent and I can hear him saying all that. And, frankly, we want that specificity. It goes back that we want to be spoken to honestly and we want clarity. If the clarity is you’re being insane, I mean, if my agent ever said to me, “You’re being insane,” I would think I’m being insane.
Craig: A good agent should not be afraid of his client, or her client, right. So, if you’re an agent and you’re worried that your client is not going to respond well to the truth, so your job is to somehow figure out how to hide the truth in a thing, like the way that I feed medicine to my dog by putting it in pudding. We’re going to know. Don’t be afraid of your clients.
If your client can’t handle what’s true, then they’re not going to be able to handle it with their next agent, or their agent after that. Truth is a great defense.
John: I absolutely agree. The last thing I would say about the great agent is like the analogy I think I’ve often made is that if you’re having heart surgery, you don’t want to go to the woman who only performs heart surgery three times a year. You want to go to the surgeon and she performs it seven times a week. You want the person who is sort of the pro at doing this thing. And sometimes as a writer you have to step back and realize like, oh, you know what? You actually do this job. You’re actually the person who makes this deal. So, I’m not going to sort of worry about every little step of this process.
I’m going to let you — and maybe my lawyer — go off, make this deal, figuring out all that stuff, and then report back to me what the results are. And I can say yes or no. But I see sometimes, especially newer writers, freak out about each little bit of a deal and that’s not generally a helpful thing.
Craig: It isn’t. I totally agree. There are times when we have a disagreement. And what I end up saying is, listen, let me tell you why I don’t want what they’ve offered, even though you think it’s good, because of this and this. It’s important to me. It’s important enough that I’m willing to say, no, I don’t want to do this.
And a good agent hears that and goes, “Fantastic news.” As long as you’re in sync with your client, and they’re saying, “I don’t want to do it. I would rather not do it than this,” that’s empowering, and don’t fight anymore. Now just go with that. Unless you feel that they’re being insane and then tell them they’re insane.
Craig: There needs to be that just honest communication. The most important advice I can give to you on your path to becoming a perfect agent is to not agent your client.
John: I think that’s great advice. Cool. It’s time for some One Cool Things. So, mine is a web series that I just started watching, but it’s actually in its third season. It’s called High Maintenance and right now this new season is on Vimeo. And so it’s $1.99 an episode. And the episodes range in length from, the one I watched was 18 minutes, but they get longer and shorter. There’s two prior seasons you can also find.
The show is set in New York. The show is created by Katja Blichfeld and actor Ben Sinclair. And it follows this guy called The Guy who is this pot dealer who has a whole bunch of clients. And the show is kind of like an anthology. So, it just follows — he’s delivering weed to different places and then you’re just staying with mostly those characters he’s delivering weed to.
The episode I watched was called Ruth. I thought it was fantastic. And it’s dramatic and comedic at the same time. The episode I saw involved chili peppers and testicles and milk. And it was really just terrific. So, I highly recommend it. It’s on Vimeo. I think you can probably get it everywhere in the world, but I know you can at least get it in the US. And so High Maintenance.
Craig: High Maintenance. Well, my One Cool Thing of this week is maybe an uncool thing, but I love it. On YouTube, you can find it under the Worst Line in Scriptwriting History. And I like that they called it Scriptwriting History as opposed to screenwriting history. The Worst Line in Scriptwriting History. And I don’t know who wrote it. And I don’t mean to pile on here. It’s actually quite beautiful.
Have you ever listened to — do you know the story of The Shags?
John: They’re the ones that their father ran the band?
John: And they had no idea how to make music?
Craig: I think I’ve mentioned it on the podcast before. Three daughters. I think they were from Vermont and their dad was like I’m getting you guys into the kind of teeny band craze of the ’60s. And he bought them a guitar and drums and a bass guitar. And they practiced and then recorded an album and they wrote their own music and it’s impossibly bad. It’s impossibly bad in a way that you could not do intentionally. And this line is a little bit like that. It’s beautifully terrible. It’s wrong in a way that you could have never done intentionally.
Simply, it’s an exchange between a woman and her mother. And the woman says, “Mother. You’re alive.” And the woman says, “Too bad, you will die.” That’s perfect.
John: Let’s pause here so Matthew Chilelli can insert the actual audio so we can actually hear how great this line is.
Craig: So there it is. That’s the worst line in scriptwriting history. It’s from the movie Mortal Combat: Annihilation. And it’s gorgeous because, I mean, the first line is normal enough. She’s surprised that her mother is alive. She’s stunned. Her mother was supposed to be dead. We’ve seen that in movies before.
It’s the mother’s response that is so syntactically disruptive. I don’t know how else to put it. She’s saying something to someone else.
John: Yeah. The “too bad you’ll die,” let’s try to think of a setup line that could actually make that second line make sense. I’m not sure there is one.
Craig: I think the setup line would be, “Thank god you’re going to live.”
John: Oh yeah, okay.
John: Going to live. Too bad you’ll die.
Craig: Too bad you will die. So, thank god you will live. Too bad you will die. But that’s, see, even that would be so crazy, because nobody would ever say thank god you will live to somebody who would then say, “Too bad you will die,” with glee. But what she just says is, “Mother, you’re alive.” “Too bad you will die.” So, you are, you will, the too bad is fascinating.
Anyway, it’s just gorgeous. I love it. I love it so much. It’s beautiful.
John: It is beautiful. What’s also beautiful, and the reason why we’re talking about this at all, is I had mentioned before we started recording that when I finished the Kickstarter for Writer Emergency Pack, Nima Yousefi who works with us, he bought us all copies of the Mortal Combat novelization. So, it’s the novelization of the movie of Mortal Combat. And it’s an actual book. It is in my hand. It is 216 pages, which is just kind of amazing that this thing exists in the world.
Craig: Who is this for? I mean —
John: It’s for people who are giant fans of the movie Mortal Combat.
Craig: See, I think it’s for people who love Mortal Combat, but also love reading.
John: Absolutely true. Or, love Mortal Combat but hate movies.
Craig: Exactly. [laughs] It’s just the weirdest — that’s a very small Venn diagram overlap. Regardless, I don’t know if you ever saw any of the Mortal Combat movies.
John: I did see the very first one.
Craig: First one is not bad.
John: So, I remember seeing, I’m pretty sure it was the first one I saw. I remember going to the Beverly Center and we went on like a Saturday morning, like the first show. It was me and my friend, Jen. And we sat down and watched it. And this is the experience of watching Mortal Combat: trailers, trailers, trailers, screen fades up, MORTAL COMBAT. [hums] And it’s literally the first seven minutes are just kind of that.
Craig: Yeah, that’s why I wanted to go see it.
John: Then we left.
Craig: Oh, you mean you didn’t even stay longer than?
John: It’s one of the very few movies of my life I’ve walked out of.
Craig: Oh, no, I stayed with the whole thing. And by the way, I’ve got to tell you, that’s it.
John: That’s it?
Craig: It stays on that flat line through the end. Anyway, too bad you will die.
John: And that is our show this week. So, some reminders for you. Tickets are available for the December 11 live show here in Hollywood. Scriptnotes Live. It’s with me, and Aline, and B.J. Novak, and, oh, we get to announce our special musical guest finally. That is actress-singer-funny person Rachel Bloom.
Craig: Yeah. Very cool. She’s got this show coming on to I think it’s Showtime that she and Aline Brosh McKenna have created. She’s very funny. Very, very, very funny. And she’s going to be doing an original song for us?
John: I think she’s doing an original song for us.
John: But in the show notes I will put a link to a song that she wrote about Ray Bradbury. I can’t tell you the real title because that would make this a not safe podcast.
Craig: That is correct. But it’s an excellent song. She’s very, very good.
John: So, our other guests include Jane Espenson and Derek Haas. It’s going to be a great time.
Craig: I’ll be there.
John: Craig will be there. So, as we’re recording this on Friday, I think there are still tickets available. So, anyway, don’t dally. Go to get those tickets.
Craig: I think we’re down to the dregs here. You better speed this up.
John: It’s Writers Guild Foundation, so it’s wgafoundation.org. But, of course, there are always links in the show notes. And you can find the show notes for this podcast at johnaugust.com/scriptnotes. And there are links to the things we talked about on this episode, including many articles about how Tim Burton will be not maybe making this movie. And news of Craig’s Cowboy Ninja Viking.
Craig: Cowboy Ninja Viking.
John: If you would like to subscribe to this podcast, do so in iTunes. Search for Scriptnotes and click Subscribe. That’s also where you’ll find the Scriptnotes app, both in the iTunes and in the Android store.
If you would like to become a premium subscriber and listen to those bonus episodes and the dirty episode we will be recording, go to scriptnotes.net and that’s where you sign up to be a premium subscriber. And then you can listen to episodes all the way back to the beginning of the show, both in the web and in the apps.
Our show is edited by Matthew Chilelli. It’s produced by Stuart Friedel. Our outro this week is also by Matthew Chilelli and I think it may be the best outro we’ve ever had.
John: Did you listen to it? I will send you a link to it if you haven’t listened to it yet.
Craig: Send me a link to it.
John: It’s really good. So, we are going to stop talking so you can hear this in its entirety. But, Craig, thank you very much. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.
Craig: You too, John.
John: All right. Bye.
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- Christopher Nolan’s Brother to Adapt Isaac Asimov’s Foundation for HBO, on Vulture
- Frequent Tim Burton Collaborator to Pen Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Movie, from Time
- Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark Movie Writer Could Change Everything, on io9
- Franz Kafka and Max Brod on Wikipedia
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- The Worst Line in Scriptwriting History from Mortal Kombat: Annihilation
- Mortal Kombat: A Novel on Amazon
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- Rachel Bloom’s NSFW song about Ray Bradbury
- Outro by Scriptnotes editor Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)