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 176 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show we will be talking about advice to a first-time director. We’ll be talking about the perfect director, part of our Perfect Series. And, finally, we will be looking at the Logic Police and why the Logic Police are our friends or our foes as it comes time to get our stories in their best shape.
But, we could not go into this week without talking about the big story which is Sony pulling The Interview and all of that madness.
John: So I should say that we are recording this on Friday. And by the time this episode comes out on Tuesday who knows what will have happened. As fast as the story has moved, it’s very likely that some of what we’ll be talking about is out of date. So, I think we can only talk in sort of our general fears and frustrations and wonderings as we’re recording this on Friday.
Craig: Right. So, let’s sum up what we know. What we know is that Sony was hacked. We now know from at least according to the United States government that the hack was perpetrated by individuals backed by the State of North Korea. We know that it was done in retribution for Sony’s production and imminent release of the movie, The Interview, in which the North Korean dictator is assassinated. And we know that the movie is not coming out.
John: Yes. I want to stipulate that we don’t know some of these things. We know that the US government is claiming that North Korea is behind it, but we also know that in previous instances where the government has said this is what is actually happening was real, later on we find that not to be true. So, we know that as of today the US government is saying it was North Korea. So, we do know that to be true.
John: I would also say that an event that happened this last week that changed it from a story about embarrassing leaked emails to the movie being pulled was that there were direct threats about like if the movie comes out there will be violence in theaters.
John: It shifted from a like, oh, here’s embarrassing information to there is now danger. And it was the theaters who said we’re not going to show your movie.
Craig: Correct. That is all true. And what has been manufactured by the Internet outrage machine is some form of the following out of conventional wisdom. Sony is a bunch of cowards, they just capitulated to terrorism. This is the death of creative expression.
Craig: Now, permit me if you will, John, to fashion my own umbrage which is not outrage but rather umbrage about the situation and what I think should happen and what I think did happen. First of all, I do think it’s North Korea. I’m just going off of a gut feeling here, plus the federal government telling me it was North Korea. You know, I tend to believe them on stuff like that. Color me naïve.
I do think this was state-sponsored terrorism. I think that Sony was in a nearly impossible situation and currently they’re being blamed for something that really we should be putting at the doorstep of the exhibitors. So, the hackers threatened violence in theaters that show The Interview. There are only four or five major theater chains in the United States. If they drop out, you essentially have no real movie release, or certainly not one you can support with a marketing campaign and expect to ever make money back and so forth.
Those big exhibitors said we’re not showing this movie. Well, let me step back. Sony said, hey look, if you don’t want to show it, we won’t hold you to your commitment to show it. And they all said, gee thanks, we’re gone.
So, the primary act of cowardice if you want to call it that came from them. But, of course, from their point of view also understandable because, hey, we live in a society where if you get a warning that there is going to be violence in your theater and you run the movie and there’s violence in your theater, count the lawsuits that will emerge. Whether they’re justifiable or not, whether they’re winnable or not, this is the world we live in, at least here in the west. Lawsuit phobia.
And it’s Christmastime. A lot of these things are in a mall. It’s just a mess, right? So, they all say we’re out of here. Sony then looks at the situation and says well we can’t release the movie because it doesn’t make any sense. How are we supposed to release a movie when there aren’t theaters to put it in?
And furthermore we don’t want to release a movie and then, again, some theater blows up somewhere and now we look like, I mean, write the headlines, right? So, either you’re a coward or you’re callous profiteers who think that the ticket sales are more important that human lives. You can’t win, right?
Craig: So, I want to say this, and I think this is important. What just happened here in Hollywood with this hack is the most significant thing that has happened in our business since I’ve been in it, by far, as far as I’m concerned. This is a huge disaster. And it’s a disaster in part because information was leaked. It’s a disaster in part because people were embarrassed. But primarily it’s a disaster of the community of the Hollywood studio business.
The real cowards, if you ask me, are the other studios. Because if I were one of these other studios, I would get everybody together as a consortium and say, look, this is not Sony’s problem. This is all of our problem. We’re all scared, okay, and we all have problems here and we’re all desperately afraid that we’re going to be exposed like poor Amy Pascal who, oh my god, if you saw my email — Amy Pascal is a saint compared to what’s in — by the way, compared to what’s in anyone’s email inbox.
Craig: She’s a saint! Anyone, all these people out there that are pointing fingers at her or even Scott Rudin — Scott Rudin who by the way basically talks in email the way he does to your face as far as I understand it. I think almost everyone complaining about this has far, far worse in their private correspondence with people. So, what a joke that is, okay.
But that aside, the studios — and I still believe there is time for this — should come together and say, look, what does this movie cost, $40 million? Everybody chip in. We all own this movie now. Everybody kick in $5 million which we won’t miss. Now we all own the movie. And then put it out on the Internet for free for the world. This is not something where we can pretend that it’s our responsibility to hide the movie. It is our responsibility to do the opposite.
And George Clooney wrote something about this recently which I largely agreed with, except for the part where he called it a “dumb comedy,” which I thought was just egregious and pointless considering that many comedies that have been called dumb are far more culturally important than a number of George Clooney films.
This is what I think the studio should do. I think Hollywood needs to band together now and do this together because if any of these studios think that they’re not next, they’re wrong. All that happens if they let this continue this way is that they are individually asking for someone to do this to them. They’re begging. So, that’s my position.
John: I’m in thorough agreement that the studios need to band together. And it’s tough for the studios to work together because they perceive themselves as being at odds with each other. But they’re 100% in the same camp on this. They cannot allow this to happen. And it was foolish for them to stand back when the emails were getting released, but now that it’s come to this they need to stand together.
The releasing on the Internet is actually complicated because they could just put it out as a torrent, which they could basically put it out in the same way that all movies have been pirated and that would be probably in many ways the cleanest way to do it. Because if they try to go to Amazon or Netflix or anybody else, one of those companies can say like, “You know what? The hackers come after us next and our entire business is digital.” So, you don’t want to be Amazon or Netflix and be the next target of that.
And this is what I think is the most dangerous thing about this whole thing that’s happened is that I don’t know whether six months from now I’m going to be looking at this event as being sort of the next 9/11, where basically the entire world changed because of this incident that happened. And how we do business had to completely change because of how this happened. Where everybody is running scared of a perceived attack from, you know, some foreign power, some international cabal and so the movies we make and how it gets released, television shows we make, and how everything works could fundamentally change because of this event. That’s what frustrates me the most is that I just don’t know.
And I don’t know whether I am overreacting or under-reacting to what has actually happened.
Craig: I think you are reacting appropriately.
John: So, the one thing that hasn’t been as acknowledged is that Sony, when you think of Sony as being like, oh, that studio in Culver City, but they’re also a Japanese corporation. And so it’s very easy for us to say here in Los Angeles like, oh, come on, North Korea could really not do anything, but North Korea could do something to Japan which is right next door. And so I think there is a national/international response that probably looks a lot different if you are Sony in Japan versus Sony here.
And it’s just a mess. And I’m so frustrated for everybody. I’m frustrated for our guest on Scriptnotes, Dan Sterling, who wrote it. He was at our Austin show. And so I’ve been thinking about him through this whole experience of like, oh congratulations, your movie is coming out. Oh wait, your movie just no longer exists.
Craig: I know.
John: And it no longer exists because of some person probably in North Korea who decided, you know what, we’re going to do everything in our power to keep this movie from coming out.
Craig: Well, look, I think that your 9/11 analogy is apt. And that’s saying something because I’m the person that thinks all 9/11 analogies are inapt. But this time it’s apt, because everyone is absolutely taking this deadly serious — every company is taking this deadly seriously. And by way, it’s untenable for Netflix or Amazon or Apple to take the position that they can’t put this on their service because then they’ll be hacked next, because if that’s true they’re getting hacked next anyway.
Craig: So, I think that, you know, in 1993 Islamic terrorists attempted to blow up the World Trade Center. And they failed. And everyone went, huh.
Craig: What a bunch of idiots. Couldn’t even blow up the World Trade Center. Ha-ha-ha. And lo and behold eight years later they did it. That is a very governmental kind of reaction. Governments tend to be that way, but not business. Business is focused autistically focused on making money, on protecting its shareholder value. And I think the response from every major corporation that is reliant on information services, and that means every major corporation, right now is in crisis mode. Every major organization is going through their cyber security with a fine tooth comb. If they’re not, they are organizationally mentally ill.
So, I do think that there is going to be a point where we are protected against this. It doesn’t seem like this was unavoidable. It seems like this was a collision of aggressive action and lax security. But you can put it on the Internet. You can create a — buy a host somewhere, you know, in freaking Sweden where all the piracy is hosted, [laughs], and just create a website that’s nothing but The Interview streamed online.
John: Yeah. Maybe you could. Maybe you could essentially put it out on just the normal kind of torrents and stick like a tip jar for people to put in their money for it and sort of buy their virtual tickets. Maybe that’s possible. Here is where I’m worried about sort of for the future is that in this case this was this movie that specifically made fun of North Korea and that’s what the focus of the outrage is. But like what happens when it’s George Clooney says something inflammatory and so therefore they say like, oh, Warner Bros, you are not going to release that George Clooney movie or else. I mean, it just becomes this cycle —
John: Where it becomes impossible to get things made. And it also becomes impossible to get those movies insured, because one of the things we don’t know quite yet as we’re recording this on Friday is Sony has said like, oh, we’re not releasing the movie at all. That’s what they’re saying right now. But it is entirely possible the reason why they’re doing that is they’re declaring a forced measure on it and they’re basically going to make a big insurance claim for $40 million or whatever that they cannot release the movie.
Craig: I don’t think that’s going to work. I’ve read that, but I don’t understand how you can make an insurance claim based on a decision you make. You know, if the movie had been literally obliterated from existence by a cyber attack, that’s one thing. But if you say, you know what, I could release the movie but I’m scared to. I don’t see how that’s an insurance claim at all. I think that’s a red herring honestly.
John: Maybe so. But I think insurance will be more difficult now than ever and more expensive than ever to get insured on a movie, even because if they’re stopping a movie from being released they can also stop a movie during production.
Craig: That’s right.
John: They can do things to derail a studio trying to make a certain kind of movie.
Craig: That’s right.
John: And so if you are a person who has to make the decision which movie to green light and you’re like, oh god, I don’t know if I can even get insurance for this movie. I think it’s going to be just not worth my time and my hassle, then you’re just going to only make the really, really safe movies and that’s a recipe for everything getting worse and worse.
Craig: As if that weren’t already the tendency.
Craig: In fact, we’ve seen it happen already. Steve Conrad has written a movie called Pyongyang and that has been — that was green lit with Steve Carell to star at Fox, I think New Regency. That has been un-green lit because of this. And this is precisely why the response has to be so defiant, because if it’s not — I mean, everybody knows this from the playground. Either you fight back or you’re the one that gets bullied every day. There is no reason for them to not do this again. There is every reason for them to do it again. How obvious is that? So, the Hollywood community, the business community, which by the way comes together very effectively to fight their prior terrorists of concern — the Writers Guild, the Directors Guild, the Actors Guild — they have no problem joining together to do that.
They must join together right now and be incredibly defiant about this, over defiant. They need to go beyond. That’s why I think honestly they need to have this movie out to the world for free, including ways for it to get in to North Korea, because if they don’t, they are asking someone else to do this again. They’re begging for it. This is why you don’t negotiate with terrorists, right? Everybody knows that. You negotiate with terrorists, you’re just asking for more terrorism.
This is not rocket science, or brain surgery, or rocket surgery.
John: All these surgeries which are so difficult because you keep adding variables.
Craig: Because I keep adding variables! Anyway, I do honestly think that everybody — that the studios need to gather around Sony as a brother or sister, however the studios relate to each other. They need to own this together. They must. This was not an attack on Sony. This was an attack on Hollywood. And if they’re smart —
John: Yeah. And I think don’t stop at the studios. It has to be the studios coming together. Theater owners have to come together and recognize that, you know what, if you stop this then you’re going to eventually stop all movies and they have nothing to show in their movie theaters, and the guilds need to come together with them, too.
Craig: Well, you know, listen, the theater owners, they’re also terrorists by the way. They are. Anybody that works in Hollywood knows that theater owners are the problem. And I think you go to the theater owners and say, hey guess what you guys, you pull this again and you’re just going to see a whole lot more day and date. You’re going to see a lot more, because you know what, everybody thinks you’re dying anyway. Either we’re in this together or we’re not.
And it just has to be that way. This is war. This is war. We don’t mess around in war. I take this incredibly seriously. And if we don’t — if we can’t figure out as a community and particularly the business community, how to achieve solidarity on this and not turn this into a — oh god, I hope I’m not next, then we’re doomed. Then we’re doomed.
And, honestly, I don’t care. Here’s the god honest truth: I don’t care what any of these people write in their emails. If there were a thousand emails about me and they were brutal, I still wouldn’t care. Because I don’t care what people think. I don’t care what people say to each other in private. I only care about what people do, what they say to me and what they do.
Unfortunately, the press — this miserable excuse of a press that we have in this country — delights in this baloney. Delights in it. So, you know there is no way to avoid this. If it happens again it’s not like The New York Times is going to change their bizarre and stupid policy of we won’t do it until somebody else does it and then we’ll publish it because, blah, blah. Pathetic. So it’s inevitable. I’m saying to Paramount and Disney and Universal and Warner Bros and Fox: it is inevitable that they will come for you unless you guys band together and put The Interview out for free to the world.
John: All right. Done.
To our real topics. Our first is a question that comes from Matthew Chilelli who is the person who edits this podcast. So, he wrote this question and I said, you know what, we’ll answer your question on the air and you’ll get to hear it first because you’ll edit the episode that has the answer to your question.
So, Matthew Chilelli and his writing partner are directing a movie that they raised money for on Kickstarter. And his question was what advice would you give to a first-time director of his own script. And I’m like that’s a great question. And so I had some thoughts and I’m sure Craig will have some thoughts, too, because we both directed and we both learned a lot.
My quick bullet points of advice are to remember that you’re not there to throw a party. And one of my sort of first real worries about directing a movie is I wanted everyone to be happy. And I wanted to make sure that the set was comfortable and that everyone was having a good time. And then I realized, you know what, this isn’t a party. It’s not my job to make sure everyone is having a good time. It’s my job to make sure that everyone has the information they need so they can do their jobs really, really well.
And so once I stopped thinking about myself as host and started thinking of myself as the person who is directing the movie things got much happier and better and everyone was happier.
You will be facing a thousand questions. And I was terrified of the thousand questions. Should it be a green shirt or a red shirt? Like this? Like this? Do you want a wider lens, a tighter lens? Here are some things: you will usually have an answer. And just pick an answer. And answers are great. Although you can also say, “I don’t know.” And you can solicit their opinions. You can figure out sort of what the choices really mean.
You can also say, “None of the above.” And if the none of the choices that are presented to you are the correct choices, say none of the above and let them come back to you with more choices.
While you’re directing, always remember what the intention is of the scene and what the intention is of the moment. Because when you’re in the middle of directing a scene and things are going crazy and you’re turning around shooting from one side to the other side and things are just nuts, it’s so easy to forget what the scene is actually about. And so making notes to yourself before the day starts, like the scene is about this is incredibly useful. Like the minimum viable scene will be about this, rely on that.
If you are directing actors, directing actors I find works best with verbs. So, it’s very hard for an actor to be happy, be sad, be angrier. Give an actor a verb to play. So you can say don’t let him walk through that door. Or, you can sort of give them a simile. Can we try that same moment but as if he’s just said the most horrifying thing imaginable to you? That’s something an actor can do. An actor can’t be an adjective. So, those are my quick run throughs of advice.
Craig: All spectacular suggestions. I agree with every single one of them.
Craig: I’ll only add the following.
Craig: When you’re directing a movie that it’s your first time and you’ve written the script, you will have a natural tendency to want to be the person that is defending the guy that came before you, the screenwriter. So, in other situations where we’ve written a script and somebody else directs it we go, oh my god, what are you doing to my screenplay, and it’s bad. And you think, well, when I get in there I can defend this.
However, that’s not the person you should be worrying about. When you direct, the person that you should be solely concerned with is the you in the future who is in the editing room. That’s the person you’re taking care of. That is the person who needs you right now to figure this out.
So, give that person options. When you’re a first-time director, you may think I’ve figured out, I know exactly what I want to do with this. And you may think that’s the name of the game. But sometimes the name of the game is collect options. And then you’re going to find this movie and write this movie in editorial. And Matthew is an editor, so he understands this better than most. To that end, I believe in shot-listing, particularly for a first-time director, and especially if you’re dealing with limited time which typically a first-time director is.
You don’t have a lot of days where you can go, “Yeah, we didn’t figure it out today, I’ll figure it out tomorrow.” It doesn’t go that way for you. You’ve got to get the day’s work done. So, shot-list.
As a writer we are obviously absorbed with all writerly things: character, dialogue, theme, scenario. As a director, take a moment to just think about aesthetics. Think about your color palette. Think about movies that look the way you want this movie to look. Think about how you want to move the camera. Do you want long lenses, wide lenses? By the way, if you’re not sure what those things are, pick up a book. There are all sorts of instructional things online now so you can learn.
But really think about how you want it to look, how you want the camera to move and feel, because that is essentially the directorial equivalent of theme for the screenwriter. And without theme as a screenwriter we tend to just wander without some sort of unifying visual concept as a director. You’re just collecting footage and making a big TV show.
So, work on all of those things, but most importantly really, really care for your future self who will be in editorial because that future self is the one who is going to — every director, first-time, 20th time, at some point in editorial will curse themselves for what they didn’t do. So, you want to try and limit the amount of cursing of yourself you end up doing.
John: I think that’s fantastic advice. Let’s talk about what shot-list is, because I think sometimes people get confused about that term. So, there is storyboarding, and storyboarding is when you are sort of sketching out what you think the shots are going to be like to build a sequence. A shot-list is a much more practical thing. It’s literally a thing you’re probably holding in your hand, which is like a bullet point list of these are the shots I need to make this scene.
John: And that’s something you probably would do in preproduction. You’d figure out like what the shot-list would be for a scene. But honestly it’s a thing you might do in the morning before you’ve started that day’s work and you’re going to hopefully have people you can trust and talk through that shot-list with.
The people who are so crucial are your first AD. And your director of photography. And I found it to be so useful to like walk through with Nancy Schreiber, my DP, and my line producer, like these are the shots I need in this scene. And she could tell me like, “Okay, well let’s prioritize this and prioritize this because of light.” That was so useful.
Also, when you’re making your shot-list, prioritize within that. Because there are going to be some shots you’re just not going to get. And so you need to be able to tell the scenes, even if you never got that second close-up that you really wanted, okay, but that’s why you put that at the bottom of your list. So, no matter if you’re making a tiny movie or a giant movie, there is going to be stuff that you just don’t get. And protecting that future editor self, you want to make sure you get as much of the stuff you do need and this extra stuff is just gravy.
Craig: That’s absolutely right. That is a perfect description of a shot-list. And what you find as a first-time director is that directing — whatever you thought about directing is wrong. And that a huge amount of what directing is is breaking moments down geometrically. It is literally figuring out how to capture a moment through angles. And the angles could be moving and they could be different sizes, but ultimately you’re fracturing a moment into various geometric angles that will be repeated so that you can edit them together.
And understanding the geometry of your scene is really important before you shot-list, because sometimes if you think about it you’ll say I don’t want to break this down. I actually think this is a one-er. I think that’s how this works. I don’t want coverage here. I want this to be about these two people playing something in the moment together. And if it’s a one-er and you know it’s a one-er, no problem. Everything is a tradeoff, right? You’ll probably do nine takes of that, but there’s no more coverage, so you’re done with it, right.
If you’re doing traditional coverage with two people talking, you’ve got yourself a master, and overs, and closes. Okay. So, you don’t have to do as many takes of each one, but there’s a lot more setups.
So, one thing to do as the first-time director of your own screenplay is to go through your screenplay and start asking yourself this question: how would this moment be best broken down geometrically? What do I want to see and how? It will help you make your shot-list. And then as you said your DP and your first AD will have all sorts of great ideas to add to it and to make it more efficient.
John: One last thing, thinking about that future person you’re going to be when you’re in the editing room, a lot of times as you’re watching a shot happen before you you say like, oh, that was good, but this thing wasn’t good, that thing — like it was almost right, but this wasn’t quite right. If you know you’re going to be cutting it, it doesn’t have to be flawless all the way through. It would be great if it were flawless, where you had that one take that’s fantastic, but pushing for that eighth take to try to get one perfect take through on one person’s coverage is almost never worth it.
John: If you know you have the moments, if you know that I can see and feel what this is like, then you’re wasting a lot of your day to try to get to that perfect eighth take when you have the stuff you need in those earlier takes.
Craig: It’s why you need — before you direct anything you must have experience editing something. You must. You need to know where the scissors come in and where the scissors can’t come in. You need to know when something is married to something else so if one half of it is no good and one half of it is good, it’s no good.
But Matthew happily has that experience, so that’s a huge part of it. It’s how you figure out how to break a moment down very often.
John: Yup. So, a great segue to our next topic which is our Perfect Series. And this time it’s the Perfect Director. So, I want to take a look at the perfect director from the writer’s point of view since we’re a mostly a writer’s podcast. But also from what a perfect director looks like from an actor’s point of view, from different department heads’ point of view. Because how does a director do her job the best and what are the tools and techniques she’s using to make the best movie. So, obviously a very wide topic, but Craig how should we start?
Craig: Well, let’s start with what we’re most comfortable with, I suppose, which is how — what we want from a screenwriting point of view when we work with a director what do we want. And I’m going to dispense with the obvious ones. We want them to be good. [laughs] We want them to know how to shoot. We want them to be visually interesting. We want them to know how to work with great actors. We want them to be really specific, make terrific choices. But, of course, what a lot of screenwriters will say is we want them to shoot the script.
Well, I don’t want the director to shoot the script. I want the director to shoot the movie of the script. But here is what I want most of all: I want the director to presume respectfully that if something is in the script it’s there for a reason. I think the biggest mistake directors make vis-‡-vis screenwriters is when they read a screenplay they presume that some of it is just whatever. There’s moments that have to happen, but then there are moments inside of the moments that are like, eh, you know what, I actually would love to do this, or I’d love to do that or it would be more fun if the camera was here, more fun if the camera is there. This just feels like a waste of time.
And, not always, depending on the quality of the screenwriter, but I would argue if it’s a good screenwriter 99% of the time that is a huge mistake.
Craig: It is not a mistake to ask the screenwriter how can we do this differently. It is a mistake to say quite arrogantly, “Some of this isn’t important.” It is as much of a mistake as it would be to open up a human body during surgery, grab a hold of some little gibbet and go, “Eh, this probably doesn’t mean anything,” and just pull it out.
Because we put things in on purpose. And then, of course, what happens is three or four weeks later you might get a call like, “Uh, this doesn’t make sense.” Yeah, well, because you took that thing out and you didn’t realize because you hadn’t lived in it the way I did.
So, when you want to change things in a screenplay, and it’s perfectly fine to say, look, we’re changing it. We must change it for the following reasons, even if one of the reasons is my directorial taste. Tell me. How can I change this so that I don’t hurt anything? First do no harm.
That’s what I want from a director more than anything else in terms of how they interact with me and that involves obviously a certain amount of respect and acknowledgment that the screenplay isn’t just a “suggestion” or even a “blueprint,” which I’ve never understood, but rather is a conceptualized movie.
John: Yeah. So, what I’m looking for in a director is someone who can come in and channel this vision of a movie onto the screen. And it’s really like a person who can experience the movie internally and then has the skills to be able to put that up on a screen. And that is such a unique skill set. And there are people who are just amazingly good at it. You can do things that I would just never think of to do. And that’s what gets me so excited is when you see a director who can just do these amazing things.
So, I cannot underscore enough is that I don’t want this person to make my script. I want this person to make my movie. And make her version of my movie. And I want that movie to be fantastic.
So, when there are suggestions, or changes, or concerns, or things they don’t like, that’s awesome. Let’s talk those through. But don’t try to change them on the set without getting some feedback because, yes, everything that’s in the script was there for a reason and there was a reason why this whole carefully constructed puzzle fits together one way. And there are other ways it can be assembled, but there was one way it was supposed to work. And if you can talk with me about that beforehand, that’s awesome.
In those first conversations, a lot of those first conversations with the director is basically just kind of talking through the whole movie so I get a sense of what the movie looks like in the director’s head. And sometimes that really does mean as a screenwriter I’m kind of explaining scenes and like, well, I wrote it and now I’m actually talking through the whole explanation of it, but it’s so important that we be on the page. Literally the same page written, but also the same idea about what the intentions are of those scenes. And the times where things have gone not especially well have been cases where the director really thought the scene was about something completely different than what I thought the scene was about.
John: And it’s fine for us to have a difference of opinion, but we didn’t have a difference of opinion. Like, he just shot a different scene than what I kind of meant that scene to be. And then that scene no longer shows up in the movie and there are problems.
Craig: Absolutely true. And the other thing that I think the perfect director exhibits is patience. Now, directing, I’ve said this before many times, directing a movie, a feature film, is the hardest job in show business. And so directors cannot be patient with everybody. In fact, most directors really have only a very tiny amount of patience that they reserve entirely for their actors. They must be patient with their actors because if they yell at their actors or are impatient with their actors they’re getting bad performances. And, of course, this all about what they’re getting on screen from their human beings, unless they’re all computer generated robots.
I would ask the perfect director to extend that patience to actors to writers. That we need actually the same amount of patience. And the reason I say that is not because we’re sensitive flowers, but rather because you will get a better movie if you’re patient with the screenwriter. Frankly, there are a lot of directors who are least patient with the screenwriter. They find the screenwriter and the screenplay to be this kind of offensive reminder that this world that they’re creating is not entirely their world. It’s disruptive of their confidence.
And I understand that. And there are screenwriters who get fussy about changes. The perfect director is patient with the screenwriter because they will get better work and they will make a better movie if they are. I always tell my fellow screenwriters to be patient in return to the director. They need us at our best in order to survive and we are all in the same boat of trying to make a good movie.
But a good director is patient with the screenwriter.
John: You talked about how incredibly hard the director’s job is and I completely agree. And it’s like you’re a general leading your troops into battle. And the crucial thing is that you have to have the trust of your troops. Your crew has to trust and believe that you have a vision for how you’re going to win this fight, how you’re going to succeed in doing this thing.
And that means that you had a lot of planning. You really knew what you were going to do ahead of time. You were able to read the lay of the land and see like, okay, on the day we’ve arrived at this location, this location is different than how I’d expected it to be and I’m flexible enough to roll with what needs to actually happen. Because the directors who are inflexible, who everything has to be exactly the way they had storyboarded it are not going to be able to roll with the changes and roll with the punches.
The great directors can also recognize and really remember the intention of the scene. And so if an improv’d moment comes up that’s actually better than what was there, they will be able to incorporate it and be able to both have the version of the scene as it existed, but also recognize like this new version is better, funnier, more dramatic. It does something unique and wonderful and I’m so glad I’m going to have that in the editing room as well.
Craig: Right. Yeah. And that reminds me of just another bit of advice going backwards for Matthew Chilelli as he approaches his first movie. A good director leads the crew, but also understands that the crew will not be able to tell her or him that they’re making a good movie. All the crew sees are dailies, right? That’s what they say. They see live dailies going on. And they may see funny moments. And they may see an actor do a hysterical thing or a beautiful thing. But as the old saying goes, there’s nothing better than your dailies, and there’s nothing worse than your first cut.
Craig: They don’t know what the movie is.
John: They don’t.
Craig: Don’t ask them what they think and don’t be encouraged or discouraged if they offer their opinions. No one except for you and your editor has any sense really of the movie that is going to result. You’re the only ones that have seen the completed jigsaw puzzle. You’re just making pieces now, right? So, don’t overreact to that whole thing. There’s the — in comedy we call it a dailies laugh, where the crew just goes, “Oh my god,” and they’ll come up to you at lunch. “That was so funny.” And in your heart you know, ah, it’s getting cut out of the movie.
There’s something about those moments, those moments that are so funny in the moment so often just do not live in the matrix of the put together film.
John: Yeah. So, any last bits of summary for our perfect director? I mean, I would say there’s not one perfect archetype for a director. And I’ve worked with directors who I love who are vastly different from each other. And that’s fine and that’s okay. And they all have different ways of communicating their vision to their department heads, and to me, and to everybody else who has to see what it is. And sometimes it’s not immediately clear to me. Like I have no idea what you’re doing, but it all works.
The directors who I sort of admire as a viewer I don’t necessarily know what they’re like on the set, but if people are working with them again and again there’s probably something that they’re doing that’s really, really good. And they’re probably treating their crews with respect, they’re probably able to communicate what it is that they’re trying to do so that people can do their very best jobs. They’re able to inspire the best work out of people. And that’s how you make great movies.
Craig: Yeah. I think that frankly the best directors, the directors that I love as I run down the list in my mind, they’re either writers, or they really respect writers. And the directors that I find ultimately are disposable, who disappear, or who just make stuff I don’t like are directors that are notorious for not giving a crap about the script. That the script is a ha-ha-ha, I’m a director.
John: So let’s go to our final topic which is from a director.
John: And his question is about the script itself. And so he is working on a studio feature and he writes: “I find that 70% of the notes I’m getting deal with ‘logic,’ that is a producer or exec is bumping me on something that doesn’t track for them, like why wouldn’t the daughter just call the donut shop? Why wouldn’t they go to the police? Why would she do that if…?
“Fair enough. Here’s my question. Where do you two professionals draw the line on the logic police notes? When does the tail start wagging the dog for you? I think we all know how much of the ‘logic and exposition” hits the cutting room floor, especially in comedies because nobody cares. When do you run the risk of answering a question the audience isn’t asking? When does [print the legend] apply?
“I’ve never left a movie and said, boy, that was a real stinker but so logically sound. Good for them. To me so often these logic notes are easy ways for an executive to ‘score points’ in a story meeting. See all these logic holes I’ve helped out and I’ve fixed? But seldom if ever do they actually make the movie better.”
He goes on to citing an example of Sleepless in Seattle where Tom Hanks comes back to his Seattle home to find that his son has left a few hours ago. What does he do? He buys a plane ticket to New York City, rushes off to find his son on the Empire State Building and finally meets Meg Ryan when there’s a thousand other things he could do that would make a lot more sense.
Craig: Yeah. So, it’s a great question and everybody has a different tolerance for this kind of, well, is that logical, does that make sense, why wouldn’t they do this, or isn’t there an easier thing. And really what these questions all come down to is either is this rational or is this something that an average person will think is a sensible course of action for a human to take.
I generally err on the side of being a logic Nazi. I believe in logic. I think it’s particularly important for comedy because comedy is so much about contrasting the absurd against what we understand to be the proper rules of the world.
And generally speaking the more we get away from something that’s logical the less likely we’re willing to laugh because we start to feel like the filmmakers essentially rigged the game. It’s a cheat. It’s not as funny to see a joke that you know they had to alter certain facts to achieve. It’s far more funny to see something that existed completely within the constraints of the world and behaviors. We understand it. So, when I think of a movie like for instance All of Me.
In All of Me Steve Martin is possessed by the spirit of Lily Tomlin. The two of them are in the same body. And that is obviously an enormously broad high concept. It’s illogical, but that’s point, it’s magical, right? So, we accept that. You get one. But then what’s great about the movie is that things happen the way they would happen. So, the first thing that happens is he goes, “I’ve got to get rid of you. And first of all I’m crazy, and I’ve got to get rid of you.”
They go through all the expected things. Similarly in Groundhog Day, you watch him react in a way that somebody would logically react.
So, I’m a huge believer in logic. There are times when you must cut some corners here and there or else your movie falls apart. And you try as best you can to avoid those. There are also times when you find after screening the movie that there is a little bit too much, or the audience doesn’t need all that explanation here. I will tell you though that there have been times where we’ve got some of that extra logical explanation out and they didn’t miss it but they were the beneficiaries of us having thought about it, because it felt okay. It was interesting. Like it felt real around it because we had done the homework of putting all that in.
So, I got to say I’m a big believer in this.
John: Well, here’s what you’re describing, both in your All of Me example and Groundhog Day is you’re talking about what is the internal logic given the rules of the world you’re setting up. And so the logic rules for Men in Black is going to be different than the logic rules for The Bourne Identity, because there’s different levels of reality of the world. And so once you’ve created that world and you created sort of the universe of rules within that world, as long as you’re consistent with the rules of that world, you’re golden. It’s when we don’t understand what the rules of that world are that so many of these logic notes come up and people start to question things. I am sympathetic to this director on the sense of sometimes people are trying to score easy points. And so they’ll ask these questions like well why doesn’t she do this, why doesn’t she do this.
And, like, well, if you let characters do the things they could automatically easily do they would just call the police all the time and wait for the police to show up and help them. There are times where characters in movies are going to do things that are dramatic and that’s because they’re going to be doing dramatic things. So, hopefully you’ve built a story in which characters are not allowed to make easy safe choices, that they have to make bigger choices because that’s the nature of the world you set up and the nature of the stakes you’ve set up.
But sometimes there are other logical things that a normal person could do, but they’re not in a normal situation anymore. And so that’s my frustration. And I’ve definitely been in this director’s position where I get some just asinine notes that they are theoretically about logic but they’re also just about talking and sort of bullet points on a piece of paper.
Craig: Yeah. That is true. When I get stuff like that I tend to be patient with it because I don’t actually care why they’re saying the note. I mean, they may be saying the note because they need to talk more in meetings to get rehired again when their contract is up. But, ultimately I don’t care. My job is to listen to the note and go, “No, actually, it’s logical what they’re doing.” Or, “Okay, I see your point, we should shore that logic up.”
I mean, ultimately if a human being is asking the question, it’s likely that an audience member could ask the question. Audience members will rarely tell you your movie made no sense. They just won’t like it as much.
John: And you say there’s one gimme, and I think there’s in general sometimes you will have to sort of lean in to that one gimme that the audience will give you. And so if you’re in a high concept comedy, it’s like they’re sharing a body. If you’re in the movie Gone Girl, there is a thing that I was always worried about in Gone Girl when I read the book is like well how are they going to handle this transition that happens in the midpoint. Basically the voiceover completely shifts at the midpoint. And the truth is, and I’m sure they had these discussions or disagreements, and someone must have said, either Gillian Flynn or David Fincher said, “You know what? I think we’ll have enough audience goodwill that they won’t even notice that we completely changed the rules on how the whole thing works.” And they were right.
And so sometimes you just have to answer that logic question with, well, this is what we’re going to do.
Craig: Yes. And sometimes I will say, listen, we are always the beneficiaries of what I call the law of intentionality. The audience presumes that everything on screen is there because that’s exactly the way you wanted it to be there. So, they will automatically give you a certain amount of leeway because they’re presuming you meant to do it that way.
Now, we on our side know a lot of times we did not mean to do it that way at all.
John: No, we completely saved that in post and it’s a completely hacked job.
Craig: Or that it was kind of a cheat. Or our backs were against a story wall, whatever it is. But, yes, you just want to try and make that the last resort rather than, I mean, I remember I was in a meeting years ago. I was working on a screenplay at a studio that will remain unnamed. And one of the — and I was talking about the script I was about to write. It was a rewrite. And one of the people said, “Well, you know, what if we did this.” And I said, well you know, I’m not sure that would make sense, because if that happened then wouldn’t people just simply do this, or this, or this?
And the executive said, “Yeah, but you know, our last hit movie didn’t make any sense.”
Craig: And I said, you know, I suppose you can get to that place, but we should not start there.
Craig: That’s a bad place to start because it’s not like things get better, and better, and better. [laughs] I mean, the unfortunate effect of production is things tend to get worse, and worse, and worse. So, yeah, that was dispiriting to say the least.
John: One last point about your intentionality. Jane Espenson on our last podcast we talked about some terms used in the story room and Hang a Lantern on it is one of the terms she brought up. And that’s exactly what we’re talking about is sometimes there’s a thing that could happen or is happening that someone would say like, wait, does that make sense? And hanging a lantern on it is somebody in the script calling out saying like, yes, I know that this is a thing that maybe doesn’t make sense, but this is really what’s happening.
There’s sometimes elegant ways to sort of acknowledge to the audience, yes, I see this thing here. You’re not crazy. And it’s going to be okay. And those are the kinds of things, sometimes they’re throw away lines that you put in there and then you see if you actually need them in the final cut and they can magically easily disappear if no one is asking that question.
Craig: That’s right.
John: So, let’s get to our One Cool Things. So, my One Cool Thing this week is a little short film called Interesting Ball. It’s by Daniels, who are a directing team that I actually met up at Sundance who are incredibly clever. It is a wonderful story of a bouncing red ball and the people that it encounters. It reminds me a bit of the Red Balloon, but absurdist, and disturbing in ways that I think people will find delightful.
Craig: I’d like to think that I am also absurdist and disturbing in ways that people find occasionally delightful.
John: I would say 52% of people find it delightful.
Craig: At least. At least 50 to 52% of people. My One Cool Thing is a bit of technology that is currently in I guess alpha or beta, but it seems inevitable that it will be widespread sooner or later. And it comes to us from Skype and Microsoft I believe. Does Microsoft own Skype? Is that the — ?
John: I think they own it now. I think they bought it from eBay.
Craig: Yeah, so Microsoft/Skype. And it’s called Skype Translate and it’s quite brilliant. So, we know now that we have this ability to talk to our computers and they will transcribe what we’re saying, speech to text. And what Skype Translate does is essentially take that one step further. So, you are on a Skype call with someone say in Germany. You say something, Skype turns it into text and then translates the text into that person’s language and speaks it to them.
How freaking cool is that? Now, if they get this down we essentially have the Babble Fish from —
John: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?
Craig: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Thank you.
John: Nice. I have not even read Hitchhiker’s Guide and I knew what —
Craig: And I’ve read all of those and yet I’m old now and sometimes, god, isn’t that the worst feeling when you’re like —
John: It is the worst feeling and it happens all the time right now.
Craig: I know this, but those neurons apparently are on strike.
John: I both forget things I should know and I have started to have that thing where it’s really hard for me to read small print.
Craig: Oh, you know what? I got to tell you, I’ve been holding on. I don’t know why I can. My wife has to wear the glasses. All of my friends hold menus a foot away from their face. I still have total ability to read stuff close up.
John: That’s great. Congratulations.
Craig: Yeah, well, I know, but I mean, what are we a year away from it falling apart?
John: Yeah. It’ll all happen.
Craig: It’ll all happen. But I can still —
John: But that will be in 2015. 2014 will come to an end and you will sail out this year with your perfect detailed vision and your vision for a grand world in which the studios come together and push back against cyber terrorism.
Craig: They have to. They have to.
John: They have to.
Craig: They have to. I can’t — they must.
John: Craig, thank you for another fun podcast. If you would like to subscribe to this podcast, go to iTunes and click Subscribe. That’s all you have to do. We are also having a premium of our show which is available at Scriptnotes.net. The premium feed has a whole bunch of bonus episodes and it goes all the way back to the very beginning of time to early episodes.
Next week’s episode is actually going to be drawn from those early episodes. It’s going to be a clip show. It’s going to be great. We already recorded it so I can tell you that it turned out just fine.
If you would like to leave a comment for us, you can do so on iTunes, but you can also write directly to me or to Craig. Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
If you have a longer question you would like to ask us, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Johnaugust.com is also where you can find the show notes for today’s episode and all of our episodes. We also have transcripts going back to the very start of the show.
Our show is edited by Matthew Chilelli who asked that great question earlier. It is produced by Stuart Friedel. And, Craig, have a wonderful rest of 2014.
Craig: Have a Merry, Merry Christmas, John, a Happy New Year, and I will see you in ’15.