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 174 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, first most important question — what are you going to wear to the live show on Thursday?
Craig: Oh, right, yeah, wardrobe. I was thinking I would maybe deviate from my normal outfit and wear pants and a shirt again.
John: All right. Shirt but now sweater? Because I don’t want to be twinsies. That’s the thing I worry about most in life is being twinsies.
Craig: Twinsies. Yeah, no chance we will twins up with you in a sweater. I don’t wear sweaters. I never grew past the sweater is itchy phase.
John: All right. That makes sense. So, I know the best dressed person will be Aline Brosh McKenna.
John: Because she’s Aline. Rachel Bloom, who is the guest that she’s bringing, I also suspect cares about what she wears because she’s an actress, but I think she probably wears clothes that suit the character she’s playing.
Craig: Frankly, I hope she’s a slob, because I need help. I need comparative people to look — I hope she looks like a disheveled wreck.
John: Well let’s go through all of our guests on the live show and figure out whether we think they care about what they wear. So, Jane Espenson, I bet she dresses for comfort most of the time, but if there’s a reason to dress up, like a costume kind of thing, I bet she is the one who is so in to the costume thing.
Craig: Yeah. So I think that we’ve got some geek chic going on there with Jane. I would say that she will be just perfectly casual and classy looking, but nothing over the top. And she won’t be as carefully crafted as Aline.
John: Yes. There won’t be brands necessarily, but there will be an idea behind it. There will be a theme behind it.
John: That’s the important thing.
Craig: Because Aline is half French. People don’t know that.
John: Yes. That’s a crucial thing.
Craig: Yes, so she has the French person’s sense of style.
John: Aline is actually coming over to my house on Wednesday to speak French, just to speak French.
Craig: Oh, really?
John: That just happens. She has a French conversation group.
Craig: Why not?
John: So, B.J. Novak, does B.J. Novak care about how he looks?
John: I think he does.
Craig: 100 percent.
John: So, we’ll see what he looks like dressing live. Now, Derek Haas, people might think that Derek Haas dresses down, but they don’t know that Derek Haas is a major polo player and he really does dress up in that sort of Ralph Lauren look a lot. So, I’m fascinated to see what he wears.
Craig: I think what you mean is that Derek’s wife dresses him up in that look.
John: Well, exactly, well the same way that you dress up little children to look adorable. She does that.
Craig: Yeah. Kristi just sort of looks at him as a paper doll. Plus, he’s bald so you can put on wigs, hats.
John: The fun never stops.
Craig: It never stops. Never starts.
John: If you attend the show live on Thursday, and there might be some tickets left. Who knows? They may have released some. You would see what we wear. But if you’re just going to listen to the audio podcast you’ll miss out on that sort of visual experience of the show.
John: So, next week’s episode will be the audio from our live show cut down with all the terrible and slanderous things taken out.
Craig: Yeah. This time we’re going to take the terrible things out. [laughs]
John: It’s a lesson we learned from last time, Craig.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t know what we were thinking.
John: We weren’t thinking very well.
Craig: No, you know what? We forgot that people pay attention.
John: That’s a dangerous thing.
Craig: Well, look, the good news is that the internet tends to take things in stride, carefully consider them, and them, and then make reasoned, thoughtful commentary about them.
John: Yes. I think really what the comment button, when they put that timer on it that says 15 minutes, basically like you click the little link and then it gives you 15 minutes to think about it. And then it asks you like, hey, did you really want to post that? And then you can decide, yeah, maybe, yes, no. And that 15-minute pause that they put in on all comments on all sites, I think that’s really helped the conversation.
Craig: I actually have been kind of quietly excited by the slow disappearance of comments. You know, the major publications are just getting rid of them now. They’ve given up. I mean, they just know what’s coming.
John: I was ahead of the curve on that one, because I used to have comments on the blog.
Craig: You were.
John: And it’s just exhausting. And you used to have comments on your blog. You used to have a blog and now I saw that it actually has fallen away. It has disappeared.
Craig: Yes. I had a blog way back when called The Artful Writer. And it was most active I would say around 2005 to 2010, those five years, which were I think peak blog years anyway. And it might have gone longer but during the strike it was under enormous scrutiny to the point where the Wall Street Journal did an article about it. And I was not prepared for that, frankly, nor was I prepared for the amount of attention I would need to give to it. And, also, the strike was a big newsworthy event and when it was over it just seemed like I kind of lost so much vim and vigor for the whole enterprise.
That said, the worst part of it were the comments because, I mean, frankly I was writing about a lot of controversial things during a controversial time and, you know, we had crazy people. A lot of them. A lot of crazies.
John: Crazies are crazy.
John: And so it was abandoning your blog which sort of led me to think about, hey, Craig might still have opinions and might share them in an audio format, and so that became this podcast.
Craig: It did. And I was so glad when you called me because I thought, oh, thank god, I can stop writing.
John: Mm, it’s a nice thing.
Craig: You still do it though. You still write. Although not the way you used to.
John: I blog a lot less than I used to, but I still do blog sometimes.
Craig: I mean, god, if there’s more to say after this hour every week after 100 — this is our 174th!
John: It’s madness. But let’s get to the topics for today. Today we’re going to talk about this big Sony hack and what it means —
Craig: Oh boy.
John: And what it doesn’t mean. And how frustrating and infuriating it is for everybody involved. We’re going to ask the question how far back do I go, how far back do you need to go into your characters’ back stories in order to understand them well enough to be writing them in your movie. And we’re going to talk about transference and what it means on a psychological level and what it means for writers and their process.
But, first, we have some news that the good folks at Sundance, so I’ve been helping out at the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab for many years. And Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab is a fantastic program where they take filmmakers and we sit down with them and we talk about the scripts and it helps them get their scripts into great shape before they shoot.
This last year was the first year they did an episodic storytelling lab. So, episodic meaning television or things that are kind of like television. And they’ve asked us to open the floodgates so they can get new material in there for the next episodic story lab which will be in the fall of 2015.
John: So, this is an open call for submissions. It’s a February 11 deadline, so don’t dilly or dally. But essentially what they’re looking for are emerging writers and writer directors from all different mediums, including probably people who are listening to this podcast. These can people who have written a pilot script for a show but they have not had anything produced yet for television.
The goal is to get these people into the program, and then the same way that in the Screenwriter’s Lab they’re sitting down with professional screenwriters. You’re going to be sitting down with people who are big showrunners and they’re going to be talking you through how you would make this show. How you would work your pilot into the best possible shape, but how you actually run a show, which is such a crucial and very different thing than making a movie.
John: So, there will be a link in the show notes for where you can find out information about applying, but it’s really a great program and I’m so happy that Sundance has broadened its mandate beyond just making great indie films, to start making great television as well.
Craig: The Writers Guild has a fantastic program that was started many years ago by Jeff Melvoin I believe primarily called the Showrunner Training Program. And it’s actually supported in part by the companies, because they have a vested interest in making sure that they’re people out there who can actually run these shows. And hopefully the folks that go through the Sundance episodic story lab do appreciate that they’re getting this fantastic insight into one of the strangest jobs in Hollywood, which is writer/showrunner.
You’re an artist and you’re an executive. And it’s a fascinating combination of things to have to think about all of the stuff that we think about as writers — theme, and character, and episodes, and all the rest of it — and also salaries, staffs, scheduling, budgets. It’s such a strange thing.
For those of us in features, it’s foreign to us. But in television, it’s everything.
John: The other big challenge in addition to the management function is to be able to think about story, not just in the context of this one two-hour block, but think about how story will feel over the course of many, many episodes. And what the experience for an audience will be encountering these same characters week after week, or episode after episode depending on how it’s structured. It’s a very different kind of thing. And I think the Sundance folks were very smart to be looking at who are the television equivalents of these advisers that they’ve been bringing in for the film lab.
So, I think it should be a great program.
Craig: Awesome. Good for them.
John: Less good for anybody was what happened at Sony this last week.
Craig: Good god.
John: So, basically essentially all of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computers got hacked in a very massive way. As we’re recording this on Sunday, it’s not entirely clear who did this. It’s not entirely clear what the endgame of it will be, but if you work for Sony Pictures your last week has just been horrible.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a really bad situation. I mean, the rumor is that it was the North Korean government in response to the upcoming Sony/Columbia film The Interview, which is a parody I guess of the North Korean government. And that may be true. I mean, the one thing that it does seem is that this was far more of an aggressive planned attack than your average script kiddy going bonkers, or even a more impressive like Anonymous targeting something.
This was really big. And it didn’t help that Sony did seem a little unprepared. I read a — I mean, they rushed out a letter from the firm they’ve hired now. They’ve hired a cyber security firm and the cyber security firm says, “Gee golly, no one could have ever seen this coming,” which is a fairly decent job of covering your butt except, yeah, you can see it coming.
Everybody should just presume it’s coming. That’s part of the problem. So, they made the hacker’s job a little easier. Apparently they were keeping passwords in unencrypted Word files. I mean, that’s a disaster. That’s not something that you need a North Korean cyber terrorist to untwine. So, it seems like this was a combination of a very bad malicious effort with, frankly some, or let’s just say less-than-best security practices.
But, unfortunately it’s one of those things that reveals people’s true natures. So, they put this information out there, much in the way that the phone hacks had released nude photos of celebrities, now we have apparently salary information out there of executives and so forth.
And I was just shocked that Deadline decided it would be appropriate to publish that stuff. Shocked. Did you see that?
John: I did. And so essentially this last week Deadline Hollywood, the website, published the salaries of essentially the top Sony executives, which was information that had been linked through this hack. And so of course everyone was like, oh, well how much does each of these people make. And, of course it’s not showing their bonuses, but it’s showing how much these people make and the way that salaries can sometimes essentially reflect rank, or sort of who is overpaid, who is underpaid.
And immediately you think like, well, why is she making this salary when this is what’s been happening at the studio. Why is this person’s name on this list? So is she making less than a million dollars? All those kind of issues came up.
What was fascinating about the Sony hack to me is that there are so many different things happening sort of simultaneously. We’ve had movies leak early. That’s a thing that’s just always been happening and it usually comes from a post-production lab or something else, but Star Trek, the movie, will leak early. And so when this first happened I was like, oh no, Annie got out, like that sounds terrible.
But it really was much more than that, because we have the second tier which is all of these sort of inside business information getting out, so it’s people’s salaries, but it’s also like the whole Adam Sandler thing. Was all these internal emails complaining about like why are we making all these Adam Sandler movies.
This third thing we have, which is I think a little less reported but is actually much more paralyzing is that their computers as we’re recording this are still deeply, deeply messed up. So, you have an entire company who cannot use their computers to do the things they need to do. So, if you’re a studio that’s trying to be in business making movies and releasing movies, it’s incredibly difficult if you don’t have access to your fundamental computers. You cannot talk to anybody else in your company.
Craig: Yeah. Well, for starters you can be sure that much in the way — we had mentioned awhile back when The Avengers came out that every studio was going to immediately look to try and Avengerize some part of their own library. And lo and behold that has happened. Similarly, as this happens at Sony, every single studio now is going bananas with cyber security experts trying to lock everything down.
Because this is going to impact Sony actually in a very serious way for a very long time. This isn’t one of these deals where it’s like a week of my email is messed up. Beyond heads rolling, and they will, not the aforementioned executives but the people in charge of actually maintaining the computer network structure at Sony, this is just tarnished. It’s a tarnish. It’s an ugly affair. And that’s why, frankly, not to get back to Deadline again, because you know me, I love to harp on entertainment journalism, but I thought it was, and this is just a general thing — I think it’s irresponsible of any news outlet to publish images like that, images of either stolen photos that are not about busting some political scandal, or hacked salaries of people. This is stolen information. And I just wish that everyone had been a little more restrained.
Because, you know, these are human beings and they’re human beings working for the human beings. And whether or not you think people should be making that much money or any of that stuff, it’s not really ours to talk about. I just found it so — I found the whole thing so depressing.
John: Let’s personalize this for a bit. I’ve written for Sony a lot. You’ve written for Sony. At some point, somewhere in this big data dump are all of our contracts, all of our salaries, our Social Security numbers.
Craig: Yeah, yours. [laughs] I actually, I think I —
John: Oh, you’ve never written for Sony?
Craig: I think I did one thing for them once in 2002 or something like that. Just luck of the draw, I’ve always been a Warner Bros/Universal kind of guy. And Disney. So, I think I’m okay, but I hope that — yeah, I don’t want my friends to have their stuff leaked out there. That would be disaster.
John: Yeah. And I don’t know the degree to react or overreact or under-react. And it’s not entirely clear like, you know, people freaking out about their Social Security number, but like, well, there’s other ways people could get my Social Security number. But there is sort of fundamental information about how much I got paid on these things, sort of how it all worked and fit together. And that is — that would be frustrating for some of that stuff to get out.
I mean, obviously there are scripts I’ve written that were produced or were not produced, and those could also get out. And whatever happens, that feels more like just a movie leaking out there in the world. But it’s the information about sort of like, you know, what I was writing when would not be ideal to be out there.
And in all honesty, the emails between back and forth with executives would not be ideal as well. It’s made me much more aware of exactly what I put in an email to somebody because you never know where that email is going to end up.
Craig: That’s true. And I think for Hollywood and I suspect that Hollywood is behind a lot of other industries in this regard, well I hope that they view this in the way that security changed after 9-11, but didn’t at all change after 1993 I believe it was when terrorists initially attempted to blow up the World Trade Center. That was just like, oh geez, wow.
Craig: Well, that could’ve been bad.
John: Good thing that didn’t happen.
Craig: Yeah, boy. I hope that everyone takes this as seriously as possible, because Hollywood for better or worse will always be a target because unlike most businesses people are inherently interested in our business. It doesn’t matter, frankly, if you hack a car company’s and you pull a terabyte out of Chrysler. The vast majority of it would absolutely put you to sleep.
But these companies, emails back and forth with big movie stars and all the rest of it, it’s just — I hope that they’re being much, much more careful, because this will happen again.
John: It’ll happen again.
Craig: Or at least somebody will attempt to do it again.
John: All right, second topic, this is something you suggested which is how far back do we go when we start to figure out the history of our characters.
Craig: Well, yes, it’s not just the history, but I was also thinking, because I was talking to a young woman last week. She has a baby, she’s a mom, about 18, and she was talking to me about her script. And one of the questions that she had, which I thought was really interesting, was where do I start. I know what the meat of the story, but should I show the character before this part of the story? Should I show them even before that?
But really the question is where do you start with your character because we all know that there is this length of story. And I thought it was a really interesting question. So, I wanted to throw out a few possibilities of just general places we can choose to start with our characters in the movie itself. That is what we’re presenting to people in the film.
And so here are just four possibilities, there’s likely more, but these are four common ones. The first is childhood. Even if you are telling the story of an adult, very frequently a movie will begin with that character as a child because it gives us an insight into something that is either tragic or determinative, or shows us how they haven’t changed at all since they were a kid. Sometimes it’s two children who are bonded together by an incident and we understand the nature of their relationship later much more easily.
The second is what I would call a new beginning. The movie begins with someone getting married, someone getting divorced, somebody graduating. There’s a party. There’s an affair. There’s somebody crying. And then they go, okay, now what do I do? And from that, by starting with the new beginning we understand that they are about to go on some sort of adventure of growth so to speak.
The third is what I would call in a rut. This is where we don’t actually wind the clock back before a story. We, in fact, show that somebody in the moment now is living as they have been living for quite some time. And that’s the point. They are stuck. Either they’re in a rut of things being great and then suddenly tragedy strikes, or in the rut of things being bad and tragedy strikes again and makes them worse so that they can get better. But the point is this is the way it’s been. You could have started the movie a week earlier or two years earlier and you would have seen the same thing.
And the fourth possibility is mid-crisis, where we don’t — we dispense with all of this run up and we open with somebody in the middle of a war. So, Saving Private Ryan. We don’t get scenes of Tom Hanks becoming an officer. We don’t see scenes of him getting on the boat. We don’t see scenes of anything except him getting off a boat and starting to shoot people and getting an assignment, because the events of the movie dwarf everything that comes before it. And, frankly, the idea of the movie is that we will be revealed, the character will be revealed through the action itself, rather than through a sort of chronological explanation.
John: I think those are four really good ways of looking at sort of how we start telling a story. And what you’re really talking about when you’re talking about these kind of stories is in a movie there’s a two-hour journey that’s about to happen. And are we starting our journey literally on the road to this place, or are we starting before the character has decided to go someplace. And that’s — each story is going to have a different way they’re going to want to tell themselves at the very beginning.
I want to go back to the Saving Private Ryan, or you also cited like Raiders or The Sixth Sense, which start right in the middle of something. Even those stories, a lot of times they’ll start with this big action set piece, or this big sort of important thing that happens, but then a normalcy will return.
And so even if it starts with a big shocking moment, you do get a sense of what the normal situation is after that. So, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, we’re going to go back to the Raiders episode, of course it starts with that great set piece. But then we go back to the university and we see like this is what his normal life is like before he’s chosen to take this new adventure.
John: So, as you’re figuring out the right way to start your story, I guess it’s also important to figure out what is the nature of your journey, and is the place that you’re going to take this character, do you need to set up all that stuff about who they were as a child, what the normal day was like in order for that journey to be meaningful. Or, is the journey itself enough of a change that you don’t have to go all the way back to those early days?
Craig: Yeah. This is one of those things you have to kind of feel out. And it’s also something that I think you should think about when you’re looking at movies and stories that you like, because it is only natural for us as victims of the illusion of intention to believe that this was really the way the story — this is the only way the story could be told.
Craig: Incorrect. [laughs] Incorrect. And this is one of the first big decisions you make actually when you figure out your story. Where do I start with my character? At what point do I want to see them in the beginning? What would help me the most? And this is where you could play this game with lots of movies and suddenly you can see, yes, there actually is a plausible version of Saving Private Ryan that begins in the United States with someone getting the assignment that they have to go and they’re not really sure why. But this is going to be a big invasion and they’re learning about it.
It could start with the three brothers being shipped off. It could start with Matt Damon. You know, there’s a hundred ways to start it. And you have to decide in a brave way which is the one that you think is going to actually help your story the most.
John: Like most things in screenwriting, you’re trying to do two things at once. You’re trying to create the best moment to start your story, so basically from the audience’s perspective that they are clicked in and enjoying your story immediately and that they are on this ride with you. But you are also trying to setup things that are going to be useful for later on. And when you pick the right one, hopefully both of those things are working simultaneously.
We’ve all sat through movies that feel like, okay, come on, start the story already. There’s all this backstory being setup and you’re going please start the plot of your actual movie. And sometimes those movies, it’s worth all that long lead up, because you got to this great moment. But you also start thinking, well, what if you just start it. What if Dorothy wasn’t in Kansas all that time, but just showed up in Oz? And it would be a very different movie.
And the movie where Dorothy starts in Oz works fundamentally differently than the movie that starts in Kansas.
Craig: That’s right. And you have to understand, therefore, you can’t make the choice of why you’re doing it the way you’re doing it, unless you understand how the way you’re doing it affects the movie. It should be intentional. You know, you make these decisions.
If you’re going to start the movie with someone as a child and then jump ahead to them as an adult, that must be necessary. You must understand not only that them as a child is a huge informer for us of who they are as an adult, but frankly that needs to be paid off later. It can’t be the last time we understand that their childhood was relevant.
Similarly, if you’re going to start with what I would call the new beginning move, you need to be aware that it’s been done so many times that you are already in danger. So, you need to find a much more compelling reason for it. If you sense that what you’re doing is kind of just saying, oh you know, like all the other movies that do this, well I’m doing it so you’ll get that feeling that you got from all those other movies. Maybe you don’t need it.
Maybe it’s built in, you know?
John: Maybe you don’t need the character waking up and hitting their alarm clock.
John: We know exactly what that moment is. And we don’t need to see that moment again. So, and one bit of advice just for all writers is never start with a character waking up and pressing their alarm clock. It’s such a horrible cliché moment. So, unless you have like the most brilliant way of subverting that trope, please don’t start with an alarm clock and a character waking up.
Craig: Yes. So, the alarm clock and the character waking up is a time-honored way of presenting in a rut. Oh, I’m hitting the alarm clock, I’m getting in the shower, I’m bummed out. I’m getting dressed, brushing my teeth, going to work. Sitting there huffing and moaning. That’s all very typical ways for a movie to tell us this person is in a rut.
But if you understand why people, why that has become a cliché, which is to say this person is in a rut, well now you’re free to come up with other more interesting ways to show that they’re in a rut. And there are. And people will get it and they will appreciate you trying to show them the same thing but in a different way because after all that’s all movies are: the same things in different ways.
John: Yes. So, if you have a character who is in a rut, find a way to visualize that, that is comedic or dramatic, and interesting and new. Doug Liman has this theory about showing a party. And if you show a party and people are having a bad time at a party, you’re trying to film a boring party, it just won’t work because it just looks like a bunch of people are just standing around. So, you have to show people’s reaction to this party being a terrible party. And it’s a subtle difference, but it’s really all about sort of what the character is doing in the moment rather than just like aiming the camera at a boring party, because if you aim a camera at a boring party it’s just nothing.
Same thing with a rut. If you’re just aiming a camera at a rut, like, well I don’t see what that is. It’s all about what the character’s reactions are and the character’s actions within those moments.
Craig: Exactly. It’s incumbent upon us to understand why it’s there. If we don’t, we’ll never be able to do a new version of it or an interesting version of it. Same goes for new beginning. There’s probably other ways to show this beyond just a graduation. Even if the point is I’ve just graduated and I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life, which is a very common topic for 20-year-olds writing screenplays, there are other ways to show it.
Think about the other interesting things that happen to you after you graduated. After I graduated college I spent one week working at — I went back to the convenience store that I had been working at in summers to basically get enough money for gas to drive across the country. And that was a terrible week. Terrible. Because a part of me thought, I’ve graduated college and I’m working at a convenience store, and I could just stay. And they asked me. By the way, they asked me to stay, you know.
So there are all these — I guess the point being if you understand why these things are there, then you can figure out how to give them a new twist. But this question, I have a feeling that a lot of people don’t even ask the question. They just say, oh, it starts with this. Why? Because it could start later. And it could start earlier. So, why?
John: And this is fundamental whiteboard stuff. This is the time when you’re thinking about your story in a big macro sense. Because usually when you start to write a story, you get excited about this first thing, this first act stuff that you want to start writing. And those may be the right moments, but you may not be starting your story in a way that’s going to get you to where you want to be in the second act and in the third act.
And so this is why we urge people to really think about their whole movie before they start writing it, because otherwise you could be spending a lot of time — you might write this brilliant first act that sets up this kid’s childhood and all this stuff, and then you realize like, oh wow, I’m never going to need to go back to his childhood for the rest of the movie. That’s not going to work well, at all. You’ve burned a lot of time writing this thing that is not serving your movie.
Craig: And unfortunately when people burn a lot of time writing things that don’t serve the movie, they become very attached to them. It’s hard to just throw out a bunch of work. It has a lot of ramifications for us and our sense of self worth. And so you try as best you can to cut things out. Like on set you’re like maybe we should cut this before we shoot it. And when you’re writing, maybe we should cut this before we write it. It’s a good plan.
John: One more option for where do I start, which is a pretty common one, is you start at the end, or you start at some crucial moment later on in the story and then you jump back. And so that’s a thing where, again, you’re showing the audience this is where the story is going to go. This is the moment it’s going to happen later on. And now I’m going to show you how we got there.
John: And it can work well in some movies. Go does it. Certainly some Tarantino movies do it. It can also work horribly. It can be incredibly frustrating where you feel like, well, I now know that he’s going to make it to that point, so nothing bad could happen to him up until that point.
Craig: We like to call this Stuart’s favorite, from when he continually picked Three Page Challenges that did this.
John: That’s true.
Craig: I find that this is — it seems like it’s wearing out its welcome. Very frequently when it happens I think you’ve done this because you didn’t have an interesting opening. You didn’t intend to do this. Your movie started with something that you felt was a little bland, so you decided to zest it up by opening with somebody — have you seen John Wick by the way?
John: I haven’t seen John Wick.
Craig: I really liked it. I liked it a lot.
Craig: It did this, and it didn’t need to. It was one thing that I just thought — I wish they hadn’t. But I understood why they did it because I think their actual first scene just felt a little too ho-hum, but that’s just a reason for you to really think about what that first image is. You know, Spielberg has done a talk about his first image is he tries to put a metaphor for the entire movie in his first image. You’ve got to make that opening thing really sizzle, because, look, if you have a twisty movie with all sorts of crazy stuff going on and reversals all over the place, then yeah, I think starting with a “look, this is what happens,” and then go backwards is great because really what you’re doing is telling people, oh, you’re going to try and see how we get there and you’re going to be wrong.
But when you don’t have that, when it’s like “you’re going to see how we try and get there,” and you’ll be right because that’s how we get there. That’s not good. Yeah, that’s bad.
John: Absolutely. It is a very, very bad thing.
Craig: It’s bad.
John: I like that on our podcast we are generally about positive moviegoing and not venting about movies, but there was a trend that — you know, you were talking about some things that annoy you a little bit, one of these being the sort of Stuart’s Favorite, like let’s jump forward to the end.
A trend I’ve noticed, just because two movies I saw back to back did this. So I’m going to call it Special British Snowflake movies. And it’s this weird thing that usually it’s like Weinstein Company movies that I perceive it. The King’s Speech is one of the first ones I could sort of point to. It’s like, oh, this terrible thing has happened to this one lovely British man, and therefore the story we are telling because he’s so special, and so it’s Colin Firth in The King’s Speech.
But then I saw The Theory of Everything, which is the Stephen Hawking movie. It’s also a very special British man and he’s a special British snowflake and we should celebrate him for being special British snowflake. And then I saw The Imitation Game which has Benedict Cumberbatch as a special snowflake as Alan Turing. And in all these cases, many of the tropes that we’re talking about rear up.
So, there’s this boy as a child and we’re going back to these moments of his childhood. Or we are jumping forward and seeing an interview or a speech that they are giving and sort of setting up these whole things.
There’s something about these movies has just started rubbing me so wrong. And I’m trying to figure out what it is that bugs me so much about it.
Craig: Well, biopics are the most formulaic movies. They are more formulaic than the dumbest comedies. I like biopics, but they live or die on the strength of the events of that person’s life.
I was actually talking about this with John Lee Hancock the other day because he’s got some biopic cred.
Craig: I mean, he did The Blind Side which was kind of a biopic, and Saving Mr. Banks, which was kind of a biopic. And he was saying how, because he gets sent as you would imagine a lot of these things, that the trick is to find somebody whose life is both interesting circumstantially but then also personally interesting in a way that your neighbor’s life could be interesting.
And so — and that’s correct. But then what happens is, of course, that’s what you get every time. So, you’ll get a story of somebody doing something that is impactful to the world and it is contrasted against a personal drama such as stuttering, or ALS, or secret gay, and therefore they will always start to take on this shape. They’re very, very formulaic.
That said, a lot of times they’re very well crafted and they can be really fascinating.
John: And all three of these movies that we’re citing, there’s tremendous craft and there’s tremendous performances behind them. So, I don’t want to sound like I’m just slamming on these movies, because that’s not really my intention. I get frustrated by the movies that a character does something and then there’s five title slides at the end that tells you what happened the rest of their life, or in the case of Alan Turing, and then he killed himself.
Craig: [laugh] Yeah. Spoiler alert: he kills himself.
John: So, I think that is my frustration. And as I look at the movies like The Blind Side, or Saving Mr. Banks, or Erin Brockovich, you want to talk a great biopic.
John: Those are stories in which there was a clear arc for what they were trying to do in the course of the time of this movie and it wasn’t trying to tell their whole life. And I think my frustration with some of these Special British Snowflake movies is that it’s supposed to be this journey that this person took, but it’s basically like a bunch of stuff happens and then there are some slides, and you’re supposed to feel good about it.
Craig: Yeah. I actually liked The King’s Speech perhaps more than you did. I liked it quite a bit. Mostly because I thought that it focused in on a fairly narrow band of time and down really to one moment.
John: I do agree with you that it did focus on — his objective was really clear. And sometimes these movies, their objectives are not clear.
Craig: That’s right. And sometimes the idea is look how fascinating this person is, now sit with them for awhile. So, for me a less successful version of this was Ray. The movie Ray definitely does the thing. Here’s somebody that made an impact on the world circumstantially. Privately there was all this pain, heroin abuse, the dead brother. He’s blind. And so we get the shape, the normal shape of things, but we’re just getting episodes of his life, one after another, after another, until he’s old and we’re supposed to go, “Awesome, you made it.”
Yeah, or — or —
John: Or, choices.
Craig: I could sit at home and just listen to some incredible music and be just happy enough listening to Ray play the piano, you know what I mean? I don’t actually need the other stuff.
John: Well, it’s a question of like there are people who are tremendously talented who are deservedly famous who did great things in the world. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to see the long movie about them.
Craig: Right. Like there’s a James Brown biopic out right now. And I love James Brown. But I love James Brown music, and I’m not sure I — I hate to say it — I don’t really care about James Brown’s life so much. I mean, I love The Beatles. I don’t care about their lives so much.
John: Yeah. I don’t want to see another Beatles movie.
Craig: I don’t need a George Harrison biopic. And it was a really interesting life on so many terms. But, you know, I’m frankly biographically more interested in other people, which is why I think I liked The King’s Speech because I felt like I actually know nothing about this man. I only remembered that there had been someone who abdicated the thrown to marry a woman. I knew that fact. I didn’t realize that his brother ended up doing this. I had no idea about the stutter.
And what’s fascinating actually about that movie is that you can hear that speech, the actual speech, it’s on YouTube. And there it is. And you can hear, oh my god, yeah, he’s a stutterer. And it’s World War II, which I find fascinating, more fascinating than say whatever issues James Brown might have had. I don’t know. I’m going to get yelled at again by James Brown fans.
John: You won’t get yelled at.
John: So, getting back to sort of the how far back do I go, biopics are a special case of that because you have to figure out like, well, what is the story that I’m trying to tell. And with a biopic you have the choice of going from the day they were born till the day they die. And you have to decide, well, within this time period what are the most interesting moments.
The reason I’m singling out Erin Brockovich is like it picks a very specific interesting moment to focus on. And she has a clear objective. We meet her in an interesting way. And some of these other movies I just feel like, well, we’re meeting them at Cambridge because everybody goes to Cambridge apparently.
Craig: Well, that’s the thing. Again, you try and resist formula as much as you can I think in movies like this because they’re so formulaic. What I find fascinating is that comedies and action movies tend to be punished for being formulaic. These movies tend to be rewarded for being formulaic. One of the things that I thought really well about Saving Mr. Banks was that it was a parallel construction, so you weren’t trapped in that — I mean, you could have taken the movie and done the way that they have taken the Godfathers and made a chronological super cut out of them. You could do that with Saving Mr. Banks.
But I think the point was let’s actually run a parallel thing and show how someone was a child and now they’re an adult and they are playing out the same things that happened as a child. And until they figure that out, they’re kind of stuck.
Craig: So, at least it broke out of that rigid constraint that you see so frequently. And I hope that more movies do. They could be a little more adventuresome.
John: Well, the challenge of most biopics is that it becomes “and then” rather than “because.” And an event happens, and then an event happens, rather than you’re seeing the character make these choices that leads to these next events. And that’s the real frustration.
Craig: You know what’s a great biopic? A biopic I love?
John: Tell me.
Craig: Is What’s Love Got to Do with it.
John: Yeah, Tina Turner.
Craig: I love that biopic. And it runs a lot of years, but because it’s less about the biography of Tina Turner and Ike Turner and so much more about — it’s really Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s like watching two people battle each other physically and mentally. So, it’s really a psychological thriller dressed up as a biopic.
John: Yeah. I remember seeing What’s Love Got to Do with it in a theater and when she finally fights back you hear the men in the audience cheer.
Craig: I know.
John: It was a really empowering moment.
Craig: Yeah. Angela Bassett.
John: Yeah. All right, let’s get to transference which is the next topic you put on the little WorkFlowy sheet here, which I think is a great thing for us to talk about.
Craig: So transference, this was something that had kind of come up last week for me. And I did a talk and one of the things I noticed, I was suddenly aware of it that if you talk in front of a group of people, you’re holding the microphone, we do this when we do our live shows and stuff like that. That you become aware as the talker that people are investing an amount of authority in you that you may or may not deserve. And this is something that we all do. We also do it to other people. This notion of transference, this old psychotherapeutic idea I think coined by Freud originally. And the idea is that we’re only capable of a certain kind of relationship in our lives.
There are limited relationships. We can be partners with somebody. We can be children to them. We can be parents to them. So, when we’re working with people, we begin to transfer authority to them at times. We begin to essentially look to them like our parents and hope that we get something from them that is parental, but also perhaps take what they say and do and interpret in a way that we ought not to, because we have cast a kind of authority on the relationship that it frankly hasn’t earned.
So, I wanted to talk about this because I feel like a lot of times as screenwriters one of the reasons we get so hung up about the notes we get or the people that we’re working with is that whether we realize it or not, we have transferred an amount of authority to the producer, or the studio executive, or the director, and we’ve begun to think of them like mommy or daddy. And we’ve begun to seek their approval which would show us some kind of love. And we also then cast their criticism in a harsher light because we feel like we’re being let down by our mommy and daddy. But they’re not our mommy. They’re not our daddy. And if we are aware that we’re doing this, probably would mitigate some of the pain that we feel when it goes wrong.
John: It ties into something I often say that never put somebody else in charge of your self-esteem. And there are times where I’ve found myself most frustrated is when I recognize that I have let someone whose opinion I don’t really care about hugely influence how I feel about myself and my own work. And there are cases where it truly is transference where I have — I think so highly of some person that I am so worried about disappointing them. And that is, I think, probably more classically the transference.
Craig: Yeah. It is. And part of what’s — it’s unfair to you and it’s unfair to them, because ultimately they’re just people. And they’re not always right. When I think of my screenwriting heroes, I can come up with two or three movies that each of them have done that I just hated. It doesn’t mean anything. They’re still my heroes. That’s probably an exaggeration; maybe just one movie that I hated. But regardless, they’re not always right.
So, there’s a huge difference between saying I have enormous dispassionate reasoned respect for your talent. I am really interested to hear what you have to say about this because I suspect there’s a high probability that I will get some good insight from you. That’s healthy.
Here’s maybe troublesome. I look up to you. You’re my hero. I wish I were like you. Your approval would make me feel wonderful because I need it. So, when you tell me what you think of this, that’s going to basically make me feel the way I would when mommy or daddy told me that I was good or bad.
John: In last week’s episode we talked about the perfect reader, and I described how a friend when I was giving her a script to read she quite candidly asked, “Do you want me to tell you that it’s really good? Or do you want me to tell you what’s wrong with it?” And that was recognizing, I think, that transference aspect of I wanted affirmation. And I wanted affirmation in the same way that when I would write my little short stories when I was ten years old and I would have my mom proofread them. I didn’t really necessarily want them proofread. I wanted her to tell me that they were really good.
John: And that’s an important psychological function, but it’s not the same as necessarily getting notes.
Craig: God, that’s such a great — I would love to have been there and your mom says, “Well, I’ve gone through it. This should have been a comma here. And this was miss capitalized.”
Craig: And then you say, “Is there anything else?”
“Nothing else to say about it?”
“No, those were the only two errors.” [laughs]
John: Indeed. Everything else was formatted properly.
Craig: Everything else was formatted properly. So nothing else to say? No.
Craig: And then just a weird German silence.
John: Now, Craig, you’re the one with the psychology degree, so tell me what transference really means in the classic therapeutic sense?
Craig: Well, in the classic therapeutic sense when they talk about transference they talk about basically people falling into parent/child relationships in ways that can be damaging, but also they acknowledge that they’re important and necessary at times. Classically, it’s the therapist/patient relationship that gets the most examination through the lens of transference. So, the patient begins to transfer a lot of authority and emotional weight to what the therapist says.
The therapist —
John: So it’s not necessarily that you fall in love with your therapist? That’s what I always think of it as.
Craig: It’s not. However, at times what will happen is a patient will believe that they are falling in love with their therapist. And the therapists are trained to understand that that is transference and that they need to be able to explain to the patient that this is why this is happening and that it’s okay and necessary because if you’ve never been loved by a parent before, perhaps you’re allowing me to step in and be that. But we’re going to get — this is a merely crutch for now. Eventually we’ll get to a healthy place where you love yourself.
But, similarly, the therapist needs to be aware of their own transference issues with their patients. Suddenly they become attracted or in love with their own patient because they feel like they need to rescue them, or save them, and that’s all about the therapist’s issues of needing to be a parent to a child. But, you know, look, Freud, who was wrong and right. It’s just amazing how right he was and how wrong he was.
So, Freud expanded the notion of transference to be far too wide reaching. His initial theory of male homosexuality was transference, that men were trans — [laughs] I just don’t understand how he ever got there. It just doesn’t work that way. So, I mean, there have been many crazy theories about where homosexuality comes from: the frigid mother; male transference —
John: The absent father.
Craig: The absent father. And it just turns out it comes from the same place heterosexuality comes from. [laughs]
John: Or left-handedness comes from.
Craig: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, duh. But to this day, however, I think, and I understand why it makes sense, that psychotherapists are trained to recognize transference as it happens and try and encourage it in good ways.
And, by the way, I think that’s true for any of us. When you’re speaking in front of a group of people and you hold the microphone, you should be aware that people are investing authority in you. You know who is really aware of it? Con artists.
John: Oh yes.
Craig: They, believe me, they are plugged in. The preachers that are asking you for money are engaging in the most blatant form of transference. They are essentially becoming god for you. They are practically saying it. And so you’re transferring all of your childlike need for the almighty onto this individual. And then they’re taking advantage of it.
So, it’s normal and at times it can be healthy, but we have to be aware of it because there are times, for instance when you feel like you’ve put your self-esteem in control of someone else’s you put it. That’s where maybe the transference has become, well, there’s over-transference, or you’re just not aware of it enough and you’ve got to really take a look at it.
John: A thing I also find happening and I think it’s increasingly happening is you’re transferring upon something that’s not even one person, but is actually a horde, a mass. And so Twitter can be that. And where Twitter has turned against you, or you are looking to Twitter for validation about this thing you did being good or being bad.
I noticed it somewhat to a degree during this whole Kickstarter. It was like, you know, as the numbers kept ratcheting up, more and more of my time and my focus and my personal energy was on this Kickstarter and making sure that everybody sort of felt heard and rewarded, because it was like having comments back on on the blog. But fortunately it was for a limited period of time and then I could step back from it and not be involved with it.
You’ve not read Lena Dunham’s book yet, have you?
Craig: Only the three pages that everybody read. [laughs]
John: That everyone talks about. So, there’s a great chapter that I would really recommend you read. It’s when she, I don’t know, she’s 10 or 11 and she started seeing a therapist. And sort of figuring out who was the right therapist for 10-year-old Lena Dunham. And that whole issue of how much do you know your therapist and how much space should there be between a patient and a therapist. Was exactly in Craig’s wheelhouse because it’s that sense of that person is not your parent, and is performing some of the functions of a parent in terms of offering structure and guidance for sort of how you’re going to figure out your life.
Craig: No question.
John: I think you’d really enjoy that.
Craig: You actually can’t. I don’t think you can have a successful therapeutic experience if you don’t transfer a certain amount of authority to this person. That’s kind of why they’re there. Ultimately, 99% why we go to therapy is because of issues with how we were raised and children. Sadly, there are things that happen afterwards that are traumatic, but if those haven’t happened to you, then a lot of it is how you’re raised as a child, which means the therapist kind of has to model to you what a good parent would be like.
And so transference naturally occurs and, you know, but you just want to be careful because — Dennis Palumbo famously says people come to Hollywood seeking the approval that they did not receive as a child. And ironically Hollywood is the worst place to seek approval if you didn’t receive it as a child.
We are all here looking for applause for a reason. And the people who are in charge of us either are aware of it and are exploiting it, or they’re not aware of it and they don’t understand how they’re being viewed by us in some ways as surrogate mommies and daddies and how our feelings can get hurt that way.
Even when we talk to each other, I don’t think we realize how quickly writers and actors and directors fall into this trap of being a child or a parent.
John: Yes. And anyone who has listened to the podcast for the last couple months is probably identifying sort of you and Lindsay Doran as like, well, there’s an aspect of that to your relationship on the script that you’re writing, because this is a producer who you trust who is involved, who is seeing every bit of what you’re writing and you’re having these long conversations about these things.
Are you aware of that? Is that an accurate reflection?
Craig: Well, I don’t know. I’ll tell you this, and you tell me if you think I’m aware of it. I call her Script Mommy. [laughs]
Craig: Which she does not like, because she feels it sounds too old. And she would prefer Script Friend, or script something. But she is Script Mommy. And I’ve happily transferred because she is really — she is an excellent person in which to invest that kind of emotional need. And what’s great is once you’re aware that you’re doing it, then you can say, look, should I be doing this with this person? Are they safe? Can I trust them in this regard? And if you can, then what happens is you’re able to learn how to take the good and the bad in much better ways, you know.
John: Well, let’s look at this from Lindsay Doran’s point of view, too, because you and I are both sort of Lindsay’s with other people in our lives, and it’s recognizing that someone has transferred upon you. And that you have to be careful with them because they may be fragile or they may take things too personally. And so it’s recognizing that the kinds of things you’re saying to them may have more weight than you think.
So, it’s going all the way back to what you said about being in front of the audience with a microphone is that you may not realize how much that microphone is wired in to their souls.
Craig: That’s right. And I think that for people who do it well, and Lindsay is one of them for sure, it’s a combination of just an inherent gentle nature and experience. I mean, Lindsay was partners with Sydney Pollack for many years. And Sydney, who was just a flat-out genius, was —
John: And a gentleman.
Craig: And a gentleman, was as creatively quirky and difficult as the rest of us. He wasn’t a bad person, but he had his quirks. We all do, you know. And so you learn over time as a facilitator of creative people to accept a lot of the way they are and to either love it or don’t. You know, I mean, the thing is she — Lindsay loves writers and directors. She loves them more than she loves memos and synergy. And so it comes through.
John: All right. It is time for our One Cool Things. Craig, why don’t you start?
Craig: Right, my One Cool Thing this week is, god I hope that this spreads. Google has taken a look at the most annoying thing on the Internet which is CAPTCHA. For those of you who don’t know the name of it, you’ll know what the thing is. A CAPTCHA is when you’re asked to sign up for something on the web and they say to verify that you’re not a robot could you please type in the following impossible to decipher numbers and letters.
They’re usually smeared, [laughs], they look like numbers and letters that have been smeared and then perhaps a line is drawn through them. It’s ridiculous. And, more to the point, it appears that it’s not that effective because in the arms race between bots and spammers and the people that are trying to weed them out, I guess they’ve been coming up with ways to actually sell these CAPTCHAs, including just hiring thousands of people in third world countries to sit and decipher CAPTCHAs.
So, Google has come up with this new thing called reCAPTCHA and this is how they verify you as a human being. You sign in your information and then it says, “Click here if you’re not a robot.” And you click and you’re done.
Now, how does it work? They’re not exactly saying. But it seems like what it’s doing is picking up on how your mouse moves to click the thing, how much time you take, because the name of the game for the spammers is to have bots basically blowing through these CAPTCHAs really quickly, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense. You might as well use actual human beings.
So, I’m hoping that Google reCAPTCHA works. There’s an article on it at Wired. If you want to check that out we’ll include the link in the show notes.
John: Great. My One Cool Thing is a game for kids for the iPad and for the iPhone called Endless Alphabet. And it’s really smartly done. So, I saw it this week because Dustin Box who works for me has a two-year-old and Dustin was showing it to me on his phone. And I taught my daughter how to read and we did this — I’ll put a link in the show notes for this thing as well. We did a Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read which was a really well, smartly setup system. Phonics are sort of how you should get kids introduced to the sounds of the letters so they can figure out how to decipher words.
This app called Endless Alphabet does that but in a really, really fun way. So, if the word is like fluffy, those letters will be distributed around on the screen and kids will drag them in to the space. But when you touch on the F, it goes Fafafafafa. You touch on the U it goes Uh-Uh-Uh and it wiggles in a really fun way.
Craig: Can you do the F again for me?
Craig: Well, that’s Lecterian. That’s Hannibal Lecterian.
John: Ha-ha. It’s delightful.
Craig: It’s the scariest thing ever. That is Babadook scary.
John: That’s great. So, it’s Sexy Craig and Fafafafa. It’s going to be the best.
Craig: Oh god. Ooh. Blah.
John: So, anyway, the app seems really, really smart. It does all the right things in terms of engaging kids and they get to touch the letter. They hear the sounds. It’s so important that kids hear the sounds of the letters. Much more important than actual name the letter is to know the sound it makes. And so it’s really good for helping kids decipher all the words around them. So, I would strongly recommend you check it out. It’s $6.99 on the App Store.
Craig: All right.
John: So that is our show this week. Our show is produced by Stuart Friedel and it’s edited by Matthew Chilelli. If you would like to know more about the things we talked about on the show, join us in the show notes. Those are at johnaugust.com/scriptnotes.
On iTunes you can find us. Just search for Scriptnotes. Also on the iTunes store you can find the app for Scriptnotes that lets you listen to all the back episodes. There’s an equivalent Android app as well. For $1.99 a month you’re a premium subscriber. You get the bonus episodes. You get all the way back to the very first episode of the show.
John: Yeah. If you have a question for Craig Mazin, you should write to him @clmazin. For me, I’m @johnaugust.
Longer questions go to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will see so many of you at our live show on Thursday.
Craig: Very exciting.
John: That will be next week’s episode.
Craig: Yes. No eggnog, right?
John: No eggnog. It’s an eggnog-free event.
Craig: Oh yeah. Wait, wait, say that again. Say it’s an eggnog-free event.
John: It’s an eggnog fafafafafa-free event.
Craig: Ah! I knew it. I knew I could count on you. Chilling.
John: Yeah. I’m reliable sometimes. Yeah.
Craig: Chilling. It’s terrible.
John: With a nice ch-chianti.
Craig: Oh god.
John: Oh, it’s good stuff. And I think that is it. Craig, have a wonderful two days and I will see you on Thursday.
Craig: Uh, this is where your mom would say, “John?”
Craig: “You made almost no mistakes during this podcast.”
John: That’s good. I love you, mommy.
Craig: “Yes.” [laughs] I’ll see you next time.
John: See ya. Bye.
- Get your tickets now for the Scriptnotes Holiday Show
- The application period for the 2015 Sundance Episodic Story Lab starts tomorrow
- re/code on the “Unprecedented” Sony hack
- Transference on Wikipedia
- Google ReCAPTCHA from Wired
- Endless Alphabet on the iTunes Store
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Kris Gotthelf (send us yours!)