The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey this is John. Today’s episode contains some strong language, so listener warning in case you’re listening to this in a place with kids in the car, or somewhere where four letter words are not appropriate. Enjoy the show.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Ooh, my name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 185 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show we are going to talk about directors being credited for a wordless economy. We will talk about trailers. We will talk about writing under a pseudonym. And the TV show Empire. That last one we are not at all qualified to talk about, but fortunately we have a guest who is. We would like to friend of the show, Malcolm Spellman.
Malcolm Spellman: Hello. Malcolm Spellman.
Craig: That was a perfect introduction for you. I have known Malcolm for, what are we going on now?
Malcolm: A decade?
Craig: A decade. A decade of Malcolm, of sweet baby.
Malcolm: A four course meal.
John: Malcolm Spellman is a screenwriter. His credits include Our Family Wedding, but most recently he has been writing on Empire. So, we brought him in here to talk about that and what it’s like to be a feature writer writing on pretty much the hottest TV show on the air at this moment.
Craig: And like for a long time.
Craig: It’s a phenomenon.
John: The rocket that is just hitting the stratosphere.
John: The other reason why Malcolm Spellman is great to have on the show is that Craig’s One Cool Thing last week was Fantastic Negrito. Malcolm Spellman is quite involved with the career of Fantastic Negrito, who as we are recording this just today charted on Billboard.
Malcolm: Yeah, that’s the most exciting thing in my life right now. It’s pretty amazing because — and I was telling John earlier, this whole process has been — it’s sort of like how I broke into screenwriting. It’s been completely fly by the seat of your pants. I mean, I got no idea what I’m doing. He doesn’t. And my other partner does. So, it’s to wake up in the morning. Billboard calls you and says, hey dude, you’re on Billboard.
Craig: So, Billboard — so like what is that call? Like Bill? Who calls you exactly?
Malcolm: I don’t remember the dude’s name.
Craig: But he calls — ?
Malcolm: And he’s just like, hey, you’re charting.
Craig: And Billboard is still a thing.
John: It’s still a thing.
Craig: It’s kind of crazy because back in the day DJs would spin records, Billboard would rank all that stuff. Casey Kasem would do the countdown. I feel like, but my son has no concept of countdowns or charts because everything is just like they just pick it up off of the Internet. But Billboard is still out there and still matters.
Malcolm: No one else wants to be the person that says, yeah.
Craig: Yeah. So there’s still a number one. And he’s on the chart, too. What was he, like number four?
Malcolm: He’s seven now.
Craig: Seven, with a bullet.
Malcolm: Yeah, exactly. Our shit hasn’t even really started. Like we got a big show for NPR coming up at the end of this month.
Craig: As a result of him winning the Tiny Desk.
Malcolm: And that’s when it’s really going to — it’s already on fire, but it’s really going to —
Craig: He deserves it. He deserves it. Frankly, it would have happened faster without you. That’s my theory. [laughs]
Malcolm: It only took him 15 years.
Craig: I know, exactly. Exactly. If he had had me, think about where he’d be right now. He’d be sick.
John: Now, he’s had a long career rise, but you’ve had a long career rise, too, because you’ve been at this for quite a long time. The first credit I found for you in IMDb was like a videogame version of The Sopranos from 2006. So, can you give us the history of Malcolm Spellman, screenwriter.
Malcolm: There were the years before I made it, right, I think that was like seven years of trying to learn to write screenplays on a professional level. I broke in in 2002 with a spec sale. That’s still the highlight of my Hollywood career in that I didn’t know anybody in this business. You know what I’m saying? Like there is — I’m a type of dude. You know what I’m saying? I’m the type of dude that doesn’t know people in Hollywood. And I did a blind submission to ICM I think it was at the time. I was still drinking. You know what I’m saying?
And I woke up hung over with like 40 messages on my phone on Monday from Nichelle who is my current wife, then ex-girlfriend.
Craig: That’s a show, by the way.
Malcolm: And ICM saying, dude, we want to rep you or whatever. And the agent literally came straight to — as soon as I called her back she’s like, you could tell, she was like I don’t want no one else to find out about you. I’m coming right now to sign you.
John: That’s crazy Entourage stuff. So, what is this script and how did it come to be? It hasn’t been yet?
Malcolm: No, it’s never — none of my shit ever gets made. That’s my specialty. [laughs]
John: Tell us about this. It’s 2002. It’s a spec script. Your first script?
John: And what is the script? What’s the title?
Malcolm: The easiest way to describe it is it’s called Core. And it’s basically Blind Side, but about a skateboarder. It’s a skateboarder from the hood, who I saw a real life version of, meets a burnt out Tony Hawk type, and X Games ensue.
Craig: Right. X Games ensue.
John: So, ICM signs you. You reconnect with the woman who is now your life. What happens next? After they sign you, are they sending you out on meetings? Are they trying to get directors attached to this thing? Like what happens from 2002 until this more recent renaissance?
Malcolm: It’s a cautionary tale.
Craig: Of all the things you did wrong.
Malcolm: Yup. And that I see other screenwriters doing versions of. You know what I’m saying? So, because I’m black and at that time —
Craig: Wait, what?! [laughs]
Malcolm: At that time, I know, I don’t look black. By the way, no one on your Scriptnotes knows what I look like, but I’m black as fuck.
Craig: Well, you don’t look white.
Craig: Well, you’re half white.
Craig: You have blue eyes. I don’t.
Malcolm: Yeah. But I also got history. [laughs]
Craig: Exactly. You got history. You got the Bay Area, you got the ‘fro.
Malcolm: So, I break in and because I’m black there aren’t many people like me on — and there still isn’t. In feature writing there were, I think, where’d I hear the stat last night, something like 40 something movies about predominately black people, three black screenwriters. It was worse back then.
My shit was ringing off the hook. I’m literally getting calls from people like, you know, this guy is — but I’m not going to name names — but this big director — people were taking me to premieres. Execs at Fox, because they were fighting over me.
Craig: They were excited that you were black. They were excited that they had a black feature writer.
Malcolm: Well, what is this guy? Yeah. Like there’s a black dude who no one has ever heard of who in one week is now at ICM and has a script sold at Fox. And so I did the rounds in Hollywood and this the tail end. So Hollywood had just died. The spec system had just died or whatever, but no one knew it yet. Like this was still a time when my agent was giving me advice at the — . She’s a great agent. “You want to be the only writer on a movie if you can.” You know what I’m saying? Like the people still said shit like that.
And I was being offered, well, I was up for a ton of shit of just a variety of stuff because people were excited like, you know, I don’t believe in false humility or whatever, right. Dudes like me weren’t walking into rooms. You know, I had cornrows back then. You know what I’m saying? Like this was before every athlete had them. You know what I’m saying?
Malcolm: So I was an exciting thing and a ton of jobs I was up for, but more importantly a few places were like, dude, we’ll go to you exclusively. We just want you. You know what I’m saying? And —
Craig: How’d you fuck that up?
Malcolm: Here it comes. You know how we — there are guys who will remain nameless who right now are having a good run and they’re not aware of the various plateaus in Hollywood? Right?
Craig: They think this is lasting forever.
Malcolm: I’m thinking there’s me, and then I was telling John before you came, and then there’s Scott Frank. And that’s where I’ll be in a minute.
Craig: I got it.
Malcolm: I don’t know if there’s anything in between.
Malcolm: And I don’t like any of the stuff I’m up for. But I don’t know shit. Dude, I’m literally coming straight off the straights, straight from sobriety or whatever. I don’t know what — I don’t know what the process is. I don’t know you turn it into shit you like. And so I’m literally getting offers like he has the job if he wants it, we’ll develop it, we’ll figure that out later. And my response was — I can tell the truth because everyone is gone from there.
So MTV Films has a movie that they’re doing a remake on. They wanted to buy my spec and went to Fox. And they had a movie they were doing a remake on. It’s active, so I won’t name it. And they’re like, Malcolm has the gig. And my response was is it rated R. And they’re like, no. I’m not doing it. Shit like that. Right?
And I told my agent, that’s it, no more — I’m not doing no more meetings. These jobs suck. I should be writing Oscar movies. If I’m not going to be doing that, then I’ll just write my own thing.
And then I took two years to write that project. And when I came out of that hole —
Craig: Who are you?
Malcolm: Three years of no work. Maybe four.
Craig: Okay, so, I mean, I have a question then. That is — we’ve seen this happen before. That’s not a unique story, sadly. This happens a lot. I guess my question is there’s no way to avoid it in a way. I mean, in a weird way I always feel like there are some people who need a certain amount of ego strength and insularity to get that first big explosion.
And unfortunately that’s who they are. Like I think sometimes these things are unavoidable. You have to kind of fall apart to be put back together as the guy that you are now.
Malcolm: I agree. Go ahead, John.
John: Well, I was wondering, in the cautionary tale of it all, it sounds like you had heat and you didn’t know how to use that heat in order to sustain a career. You didn’t know how to sort of play the game in terms of like taking the meetings even on projects you don’t really want to build relationships. And you were so focused on writing your own next thing that you didn’t sort of keep up all of the stuff about like how to be an employable writer.
Malcolm: But, you know what? Here’s the real cautionary tale. You believe — we all think we’re special. Every screenwriter I know thinks they’re better than all the screenwriters. And it doesn’t mean shit. And your heat doesn’t mean shit. And you aren’t special. I wonder if I should name my boy. Because I have a dude who was literally driving — he was Nichelle’s assistant and part time assistant. I work as a mentor with a bunch of writers. They’re all doing — and the same with Negrito, right? They’re all doing better than me. I take great pride in that.
And so my boy is the hot dude in town. And he’s genuinely talented. He listens to Scriptnotes, so he knows —
Craig: Oh, he’s a smart guy.
Malcolm: Who I’m talking about, right? And because you know there aren’t many — I consider myself a “real writer,” meaning I do something interesting and unique on the page and people seem to respond to it. Still that doesn’t mean shit. And that’s the cautionary tale is like you have to somehow understand that in a weird way, as special as you are, you aren’t special.
And that’s the thing — it’s really hard to grasp. I literally like my lawyer at that time was like I’m going to put you in contact with this great writer. He should be a mentor to you. Name is John Lee Hancock. Nice guy or whatever, right.
And I was like, fuck that, I don’t need a mentor. Because I’m starting to rail, man, you know what I’m saying? Because —
Craig: That would have been useful.
Malcolm: I don’t get that I’m not special and I don’t get that dude. There’s a whole fucking system in place that all you are is a part of that system, ultimately. Like meaning, I know that’s unromantic, right.
Craig: No, but it’s right. I mean, isn’t it like sports? I mean, everybody that plays Major League Baseball was not only the best, they were the best of the best. They were the best player not only at their high school, but in their high school’s history. Then they get to the Major Leagues and they’re just a guy. And sometimes they’re not even that good there.
Or they realize, oh, I actually don’t know how to hit a Major League curveball. I used to crush curveballs. I don’t — this is a new thing. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know where I belong. I have to start over again in a weird way. I’ve got to figure out who I am.
John: Well, the other thing is like you had learned how to write a screenplay and you had learned how to write, but that wasn’t about how to make a movie. And so you didn’t have any training on sort of like how do you do those next ten steps in order to make this thing into an actual movie. And for me that was Go. If I didn’t have a chance — if Go hadn’t happened, I would never have really learned that. And so I was lucky that that wasn’t my first swing at the bat.
And yours, you know, you had this great burst of heat on that first thing —
Malcolm: You can say it. [laughs]
John: Yeah. But you didn’t know how to do the next thing. And so like I was very lucky I think that my first two things were just assignments and there was no great spotlight on me. And so by the time I had that spec that was that sort of spotlight moment, I was ready for it.
Malcolm: I agree. And that goes with what Craig was just saying which is this: ultimately because of how awful I would have become as a person, I did need to be torn down. But I do think there are writers who listen to your podcast who might not become awful people.
Craig: We’re trying.
Malcolm: And what they have to understand is that there is a whole thing going on and you are having a moment and if you do things right, your moment will parlay into more moments, but this thing is so much bigger than you. If you can just check your ego you will understand if it’s not you, it will be someone else. And that’s what happened to me.
Craig: Hollywood has, just by nature of what it is, and what it produces, it’s always been excited by something that’s new. It gets incredibly excited by new things. But just as quickly, becomes unexcited with them. Hollywood is a bored 11-year-old boy flipping through channels, stopping at one thing going, “Oh, awesome. Eh, no, keep moving. I’ve seen that. Oh, okay, I watched four seconds of it. I got it. Next.”
There is no real heat. Heat is — it’s all false heat.
Malcolm: Yes. That’s the thing. And it is — you can’t imagine when you’re the new thing that, dude, literally my agent told me I couldn’t fucking — she was like, dude, you are the new piece of meat in town. And I couldn’t imagine, no, this is different. You know what I’m saying?
And one last thing. I really regard, I hope this somehow gets back to him. I had a meeting early when I was in my downward spiral and I didn’t know it was happening, with Jon Jashni.
Malcolm: And he was coming up. And you know he’s got this mellow vibe or whatever, right?
John: Very mellow.
Malcolm: And he, I know he won’t remember this, but he saw the arrogance, right, and knew it was misplaced. And he pulled me to the side and said, Malcolm, this is what I want to tell you. There is no real satisfaction in this business. And you need to look to things outside of this business to satisfy you or whatever, because basically what you’re chasing here isn’t real.
And you know what I thought?
Malcolm: There’s no satisfaction for you.
Malcolm: I’m special. You know what I’m saying?
Craig: [laughs] Right. Right.
Malcolm: And then four years, no work.
Craig: Right. So it turns out that Jashni was completely correct.
Malcolm: Yeah, it was a great, but I was —
Craig: He is totally correct. I mean, I’ve never, I’ll say this much: I don’t know why. I have never once believed in any heat. I’ve always thought it was false heat, maybe because I just generally don’t trust people. But I never had the problem with, I don’t know, thinking that Hollywood was going to be the answer to my problems.
Hollywood is another problem to me. It’s just another problem to be solved. And I hope that the young writers who are listening or the writers who are just getting started in their career, really listen carefully to this because Malcolm isn’t — he’s not — you know, you’re not a monster. You’re an awesome guy. And you figured out how to put it back together.
Actually you’re right. There is something very common about this egocentric “I’m special, I’m the one.”
Malcolm: John, before you jump in. Real quick stat. The average career for a screenwriter, I believe, is five years. Which means the average screen — but you know what that five years is?
Craig: Oh yeah.
Malcolm: It’s you sell a spec. You get hot. You flame out. And you’re done.
Craig: That’s right. Even that number is a lie.
Malcolm: Right. Right.
John: So, let’s talk about how you sustained and how you came back. And what were the next steps. So, you wrote this second thing, it took too long, the heat — whatever heat there was had evaporated. What did you do next and how did you get to this next place?
Malcolm: I got angry for awhile, which doesn’t help or whatever, right. But one thing is because of how I made it into this business, same thing we’re doing with Negrito right now. Because of how I had to learn to make money before I ever got to Hollywood, and because bless my mom’s heart I was always told that life isn’t fair, my reaction eventually became fuck that shit, I’m going to keep writing, and I ended up having to reinvent myself and —
Craig: What did you reinvent yourself as?
Malcolm: Well, black died.
Craig: Now, when you say black died, you mean black movies, black TV —
Malcolm: Black everything.
Malcolm: Black everything was done.
Craig: Like everything died. What years are we talking about when the black death occurred? [laughs]
Malcolm: It was, so I sold in — 2002 is when I really broke in. Had a couple years. So, let’s say the early to mid 2000s.
Craig: Black died.
Malcolm: Right. Black died. And it’s been dead up until a couple years ago. Tyler had his run, but that’s —
Craig: He was his own brand.
Malcolm: Right. And so —
John: And when you say black died, it was just impossible to get a black movie made, a predominately African American movie made at a studio system?
Malcolm: Think about this. They’re making them now, and out of 42, three have black writers. They weren’t making them back then. That’s what I was getting at.
Craig: Right. So even when they are making them, they’re still not hiring black writers.
Malcolm: Yeah. And that’s in features. You know what I’m saying?
Craig: Features. Right.
John: So, you see this landscape, so what do you do? What’s your next choice?
Malcolm: It was I turned towards basically I had to get out of urban crime, which is where I was at, right, and I got into white comedy. And even then it was really difficult. What I discovered was a unique niche. Because I was telling Mazin this, John, is there aren’t really any writers — not any — there aren’t many writers out there like I had been before Empire which is this: there isn’t any reason to hire me. Right? I have no hit. I’m not new like the kid who is listening. He knows who he is, right? That’s a reason to hire you.
Craig: That’s a reason, yup.
Malcolm: A good screenwriter is not really a reason to hire you, right?
Craig: It’s not a compelling reason. Malcolm: So, because you’ve got to get on the phone and say who are we hiring. Malcolm. Who the fuck is he? He’s good.
Malcolm: Okay, what about the other guy you think is good and he’s hot?
Craig: Right. He’s not new. And he’s not a hall of famer, so you are that middle class writer. When we say middle class we don’t mean economically middle class. We mean that middle, big thick middle of writers in Hollywood.
John: Middle tier, yeah.
Craig: That are like, okay, I’m not the new rookie. I’m not the — whatever, the top of the heap. I’m that guy in the middle that’s punching my way towards jobs.
John: What’s an example of white comedy? So what did you write that was a white comedy?
Malcolm: The shit — well, none of it gets made, right?
Craig: That’s your specialty. [laughs]
Malcolm: Yeah, that’s my specialty.
Craig: That’s your genre.
Malcolm: So, I wrote a couple of like ensemble comedies, similar to like what Craig does with The Hangover, right. During this time period, let’s just include it all, because I had a couple of dry spells. And we can rewind it. I did write that script in 2009 which is — I had come out of the dry spell and was going dry again, Balls Out with Tim that that got on the Black List or whatever.
Craig: Let’s talk about that first, because that was actually kind of a big deal. So, you guys did — I remember when you showed me the script and I read it and I thought this is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.
Malcolm: I was surprised how good your notes were, too. Because I didn’t —
Craig: I know. Everyone is always surprised.
Malcolm: I didn’t get your whole thing yet.
John: So let’s back up.
Craig: I’m slow to warm up to. [laughs]
John: Let’s back up. The script we’re talking about is Balls Out and it’s written under a pseudonym, it’s you and Tim Talbott as the Robotard 8000. And did you write this movie with the intention of getting made, or just to make the most outrageous sample you could possibly write? What was the thought as you went into it?
Malcolm: What makes the Robotard great is Tim writes with no intention to get made and wants to be outrageous. And I’m like, you know, and I write from a different place. And that goes on all the way, even into the creative DNA of this thing.
I knew this: I knew about labels. I knew — I was starting to learn — I was very resistant when I was coming up to being pigeon holed. Again, I wanted to be Scott Frank who I was told works in all genres, right.
Craig: Which is true.
Malcolm: But I didn’t know, I was just saying this to John, is you need a platform from which to jump off, whether it’s an Oscar, or a hit, or whatever, you’ve got — meaning — or it could be Craig Mazin writes spoof comedies and from there can jump off of that into other shit. But if you don’t have nothing, if you’re just writing scripts in different genres, you know what I’m saying?
Craig: You have to start somewhere.
Malcolm: So, I’ve been over the last — if 2009 was Balls Out, I was starting to become clear that I need to give people, fuck my writing, whether I think it’s great or not, people need to get on the phone and have something to say. And so we did the Robotard thing because it was like I had to brainwash my reps into understanding this is going to be a different entity and a different — you are going to sell the Robotard as if Malcolm doesn’t exist.
Craig: And you can imagine —
John: Oh, they seem delighted.
Craig: I’m sorry. You and some fucking guy are writing a script that will never get and made and is disgusting.
Malcolm: Fuck you. It’s going to get made.
Craig: Under the name Robotard 8000. But, you know, I thought that — first of all it was evident to me, what you just described in that script was clear that it was absolutely chaotic and tasteless in the best way, the way that John Waters was tasteless. But there was also a formulism to it. There was structure. There was an actual story. So, you could see you and Tim and all that stuff going on in there. And you asked me like, what do you — and I was like no one is ever going to make this. But what did I tell you to do? Do you remember?
Malcolm: I remember one of the notes was really good —
Craig: No, what did I tell you to do with the script?
Malcolm: Oh yes, that’s right. So, Craig has us put it — which is funny because this kind of shit is the kind of shit people do now. But in 2009 — Craig was like, dude, throw it up on the fucking Internet. Have some people read it. And see what the fuck happens because that’s — you’ve done something.
Craig: And the key — I mean, there’s a big risk in that, right? If you put your entire script on the Internet what you’re saying is we’re pretty sure no one is going to make this movie, but we also think you’re going to love us.
Malcolm: That’s right.
Craig: And it worked out because early Black List, right, I mean how many years had the Black List been going at that point?
Malcolm: It was mid Black List. But I’m very proud to say look at the shit we were up against. Social Network. And off the Internet, like —
Craig: Still, like those are the movies they love.
Malcolm: I don’t want to bad mouth no one, but all the reps who got fired, let’s just say that. Right?
John: They loved you.
Malcolm: Refused to get behind it. Our shit got on on its own. But, by the way, again, another cautionary thing — this has to do with like people who are going to Sundance or whatever, or whatever kind of heat you’re getting, me and Tim didn’t really have a clear follow up to it.
Malcolm: So everyone in town wanted to meet us, 100%, at high levels.
Craig: And you just didn’t have anything to say?
Malcolm: Yeah. We were like give us a job.
John: So, give yourself advice now. Step in the time machine and give yourself advice about what you should have done at that moment.
Malcolm: The key is the second you understand that there is heat going on, you have to create a reason for that to turn into something. Right? Part of it might be building a narrative. That’s another thing that I’m still learning, like what is the Malcolm narrative. Like I know who you guys are. And I bet you whether consciously or not that has to do with some of ya’ll. Like it’s not just your reps building it, you guys are putting yourselves out as certain —
Craig: My agent doesn’t talk about me ever. I won’t let him talk about me.
John: He’s not allowed to mention your name.
Craig: I was just going to say, you’re not allowed to talk about me.
Malcolm: But, so there’s that, but also it is understanding you have something like Balls Out, right, who are the kind of people that would make a movie in this genre? What are you telling them when you get into the room that is a reason? You know what I’m saying?
It should have been a script. It at least had to have been a pitch. Otherwise, there is this idea that Hollywood will give you a job.
Malcolm: I was acting, well maybe when I was hot off my first spec, people were trying to give me jobs.
Craig: Oh yeah, sure.
Malcolm: That shit don’t happen no more.
Craig: No, not like that. And when you’re new and you cost scale, maybe then they say we have something we want you to rewrite. But see the interesting thing is when you guys did Robotard what you were essentially putting out in the world was we are this new team that’s wild and irrepressible and unique and original. No one goes to that with a job. They say what do you have that we can get behind, that we can actually make, unlike this thing.
Malcolm: But you know what that also is? So, that is — everything is a failure on yourself. If anyone is working harder for your career than you, like again, this goes to reps. Right? What I’m about to bad mouth, and those reps are gone.
Craig: Do it.
Malcolm: But there is this sense new writers have. All our friends, right, are jaded and don’t expect much from their reps. And, you know, their reps are awesome people who are not being regarded by, because we’re bitter motherfuckers right. But in general this idea that your rep should go out and do shit for you is a monumental failure in how you — right?
Craig: It’s not what they’re good at. I’ve always said what agents in particular what they’re really good at is getting you the most money for the job you got yourself.
Craig: Every now and then they will put you in a room with someone. Like, I give Todd Feldman a ton of credit, like —
Malcolm: You do give him credit.
Craig: I mean, look, he didn’t put me in a room with Todd Phillips for the first time. That was Bob Weinstein. But he was the one that kind of brought me back around to Todd, which was — I mean, you have to get your own jobs, but they really — they get you the most money once you’ve gotten the job. So, leaning on them and thinking that they’re going to go up — it’s a romanticized view of what agents do.
Craig: And then writers will say things like I don’t understand, like I have an agent — every job I’ve ever gotten I’ve gotten myself. And I’m like, yeah, every writer every job they’ve gotten themselves. Why would anyone give you a job because your agent is yelling at them to give you a job? It doesn’t work that way.
Malcolm: It doesn’t. Go ahead.
John: So you wrote this thing with Tim Talbott as the Robotard. Did you write other stuff with him, or has everything else been your own stuff after that?
Malcolm: I wrote a second thing that I’m proud of that Craig killed us on, but I’m very, very confident in my work.
Craig: I like Balls Out.
Malcolm: You know what I’m saying? I’m very, very confident. Like I don’t — I read everybody’s shit. And I don’t think I lack for anything, so it’s weird. I have zero self-esteem in so many crucial areas in how to navigate this business. I don’t even need people to read my shit if they’re not giving me a job. I don’t crave that shit, because I feel like —
And so we wrote something else that went down in flames. But I actually believe is really, really strong. The problem was there was fatigue for what was out there. We wrote it, again, fucking Tim man will tell you compromised. Like I don’t write from that place, right? I wrote what I thought we should be writing and what we like. Tim feels like we compromised, whatever.
What is true is whether or not the script was good, everybody was doing Hangover type of movies.
Craig: It was yet another Hangover.
Malcolm: It was even in Vegas. And we wasn’t doing it for that reason.
Craig: I mean, even at The Hangover we were getting yelled at for being too much like The Hangover.
Malcolm: But you do remember at the end of Balls Out we talked about the whale, right?
Craig: Oh, yeah, no, there was intertextuality.
Malcolm: It did not come from cynicism.
Craig: No, no, you guys weren’t purposely copying anything. It was bad timing. Which I think, you know when I read it, that was largely what I was concerned about.
Malcolm: It was. You know what Craig’s note was, John?
Malcolm: Good structure, someone will buy this. We give him our script, he says, “Good structure. Someone will…” I’m like fuck you, dude.
Craig: I was actually not even right.
John: All right. Let’s talk about good timing.
Craig: Nobody bought it.
John: So this is from an article in Variety this last month and it’s talking about the staffing on the TV show Empire. “Malcolm Spellman, who had long resisted staffing a TV series, was ultimately lured by the show’s premise. ‘I’m bananas for hip-hop,’ he says.”
Malcolm: I get killed on that.
Craig: How did you — you must get killed for that.
Malcolm: I make that shit sound cool though when I say it. It doesn’t look good in print.
John: No it doesn’t.
Malcolm: But if you hear me say that —
John: Say exactly that line. I’m bananas for hip hop.
Craig: In print it looks terrible.
Malcolm: I’m bananas about hip hop.
John: [laughs] It’s still not a great line.
Malcolm: Fuck you guys.
John: “Now, he says, he’d join again in a heartbeat. ‘The show feels historic, onscreen down to the room,’ he says. ‘To have a show that’s this black, from the stars to the writers, it’s going to be like a nuclear bomb. It’s a watershed moment.'”
That before the show debuted.
Craig: I mean, talk about like now. There is one theory. One theory is that Malcolm talks that way about everything he does. This time coincidentally he was right.
Craig: But I think that actually he was calling the home run. He called the home run.
Malcolm: I’m not in general a clear thinker. But when I am clear, I’m really, really fucking clear. And that was one of the things I wanted to talk about in general was sort of race and what’s happening in Hollywood right now.
So, there is — for Empire, I didn’t have no idea it would be this big, but one of the things I was saying to the people in Variety is this: now you have to cut through the noise. We do it with Negrito, right? We know this. When Negrito is on point, no one else is doing his shit like that. You know what I’m saying? People will imitate him.
When you’re looking at the TV landscape where everyone — I heard Overstock is about to start doing original content. I’m not lying.
Craig: You’re kidding me.
Malcolm: They’re like, fuck it, Amazon did it. We’re doing it.
Craig: Oh my god.
Malcolm: When you’re looking at a landscape that’s this saturated, how do you cut through the noise? I think — is it appropriate for me to talk about a show I think is going to do good that hasn’t come out?
John: Oh, absolutely.
Craig: Of course.
Malcolm: I think NBC is making a smart move with this DiGilio project called Warrior which is basically going to be — you should check it out. I don’t know how far — I think it’s public. It’s been in Deadline. I don’t want no one to get mad at me.
Craig: No one is going to.
John: If it’s in Deadline it’s fine.
Malcolm: All right. So, it’s Crouching Tiger and what they’re focusing on from what I heard from the execs is the right shit, which is that feeling of magic in Crouching Tiger. Whether or not it works, you know why that show deserves to live and why it could hit.
With Empire, you couldn’t at the time turn on the TV and see shit that looked like that or sounded like that. And the equivalent is if you were going to do a sci-fi show, this would be the sci-fi show that has $100 million worth of effects on it, because when you turn on that screen you’re like that’s a soap and that’s all black folk up there.
Craig: No one has ever done, I mean, there have been a ton of primetime soap operas. No one has ever done an all black or mostly black primetime soap opera in the history of TV. Is that correct?
Malcolm: I bet so. And this shit is —
John: Yeah, I mean —
Malcolm: This is a type of black. This is black like hip hop was black when it came out, and white folks were like, fuck, that’s hot. You know what I’m saying? That’s what’s happening right now.
Craig: It feels authentic.
John: It feels like, I mean, you could step back and say like, oh, you know, hindsight being 20/20, like you look at the Shonda Rhimes shows that are doing awesome. You look at Nashville, which is working. There is probably a version of that’s an African American driven show that is about music. This show could exist. But the show could also — you could make that show and it could be awful and it could not be a hit.
So, at what point did you encounter Empire? Had they already shot the pilot? How did you get involved?
Malcolm: They shot the pilot already. And for sure it was like, okay, this isn’t just black folk, right? This shit sounds black. If you know Lee Daniels, and I’m not dissing Danny or Ilene, who I love. They are equal — they are all equal voices. Those are all our EPs or whatever, right. But Lee will do little shit, you know what I’m saying? Like he’ll give you that shit.
Craig: That guy is amazing to me. So, I’m kind of curious how, because you know I’m a huge Precious — I think Precious is one of the best movies ever made. I love Precious. I’m obsessed with Precious.
Malcolm: It’s a great, great, great movie.
Craig: I actually think one of the things about Precious that people don’t understand is how fucking funny it is. It’s one of the — that weird thing where Precious imagines herself in like an Italian neo-realism movie with her mom. There’s just amazingly funny stuff, but it’s also that scene — like I’m still, like sometimes I’ll just if I’m bored I’ll just go on YouTube and I’ll just watch that scene near the end where Mo’Nique is sitting there with Mariah Carey.
It’s one of the best scenes ever put on film. It’s astonishing. Mo’Nique is astonishing in that film.
Malcolm: She scorches it.
John: She’s amazing.
Craig: Like I’m just kind of obsessed with Lee Daniels. And I feel like, so Lee Daniels, is he kind of like the tonal godfather of this thing?
Malcolm: What happens is you’re dealing with creative people, right? So, if you start doing shit, it gets absorbed by everybody. And other people can somehow put themselves in that place. You know what I’m saying? Where the tone becomes universal for us in the writing room. You know what I’m saying? Like everyone starts to understand what this show is.
An important point though, for Empire to exist, I do believe — so this is a watershed moment. Empire is a watershed moment. Like all watershed moments, on the heels of some other watershed moments. Everything in Hollywood I think is about to change, particularly because they’re finally let black folk in the game again. And in a different way than they did before.
Craig: As creators.
Malcolm: And they’re not letting. Black folks are putting themselves in the game.
Craig: And they seem to want it now, too.
Malcolm: That’s the fucking win. It’s all we do. And Shonda is the spearhead of that shit, meaning two years ago on the heels, when there was only Scandal, right, I’m out pitching and literally being told like the conversation wasn’t this blunt. It’s much more elegant. But here is my conversation in the room.
Can’t do the show. Has a black lead. Won’t sell international.
My response: What about Scandal.
Their response, and this builds into our thing we were emailing about earlier: That’s the exception to the rule.
Craig: Right. It’s always the exception to the rule when it’s black people right?
Malcolm: Now, Shonda has already populated Grey’s with a diverse thing, and it’s crushing, right? And it’s crushing in the demo. Then she fires off Scandal and they’re still hating. And then she comes with How to Get Away with Murder and at that point you know how Hollywood is. They’re like, fuck, we need black chicks to lead our shows.
Craig: Right. Because if there’s three exceptions to the rule in a row, maybe the rule is wrong. [laughs]
Malcolm: It is. And so there’s a certain amount of rage I feel. Craig gets these emails, John. Because what’s about to happen — there’s been this myth in Hollywood that’s going to — and it takes fucking logical contortions to support that overseas in particular black folks diminish your appeal. And what’s about to happen is so many things with black leads are about to do well, particularly coming out of the TV camp, but they can’t lie no more.
Like if Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Blackish, and Empire — got to shout out to Blackish.
John: Absolutely Blackish. Yeah.
Malcolm: Which is cutting edge stuff. Like I saw Kenya last night. I didn’t get to talk to him. I don’t know him well, but that’s high level on top of having black folks.
John: When he pulls out his African American Express Card, like that was just a great moment.
Malcolm: If all that shit does well overseas —
John: Well, here’s a question. What if it doesn’t do —
Malcolm: It is though. Too late. It’s already happening.
John: But I would postulate that even if Empire was not a giant hit overseas, it’s such a massive hit here that it kind of doesn’t matter. Things don’t always have to transfer.
Malcolm: There are two levels to my rage. Empire, I don’t know what it’s doing overseas, but I know those other shows are doing well overseas. And so the general thesis is what I feel like as a — and I don’t even just write black shit, but here’s an example of what happens to me, or used to.
I walk into a meeting at a studio. I can’t even name the specifics because everyone will know who I’m talking about. And there is the exec who breaks new writers. And he sits down, he’s not white, he’s not black, but he’s not white. And he starts off our conversation, because he read a project I wrote for Warner called Soul Train, and he says, “I just want you to know, we don’t do black projects here.”
Craig: Right. That’s it. Like, oh so —
Malcolm: Oh, I’m done. I’m done.
Craig: Yeah, because what else could you possibly do?
Malcolm: And I want to say, motherfucker, do they do your race’s project here? No. So, let’s fucking do some white shit, right? [laughs]
John: For a time there was UPN. For a time there was a whole broadcast network that was predominately, like all the black shows were there. And then it went away. But in some ways —
Craig: But were those black shows, or were those white shows with black actors? Like there’s a big difference. I feel like part of the —
John: Well, Girlfriends, though, was a black show. Wasn’t it? Wouldn’t you call that a black show?
Malcolm: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. There is a black sensibility there. Like we’ll kill the whole timeslot if we get into definitions of when something becomes black or not, but what I do think is important for us to talk about is do people overseas not want to spend money —
Craig: Okay, so here’s what we were talking about, and this is my theory about this whole thing, because we get into this with movies all the time. All the time they talk about this with movies. And what they’ll say is black movies don’t travel overseas. And my whole thing is, no, there are certain movies that are culturally very American that don’t travel overseas. A lot of black movies are very culturally American. Because when we say black, what we mean is African American. We don’t mean, like for instance in France, France we were talking about — what was the movie where in the UK it did great, but in France it didn’t do well? I think it was Ride Along.
So, Ride Along it made like $6 million in Britain and it made like $25,000 in France, because it’s just a different kind of black person there. Like our thing here, African American is a certain cultural niche. But the same is true for fucking NASCAR, right? So Talladega Nights does not travel. Talladega Nights makes $120 million here. And then makes $2 million overseas and nobody says white movies don’t travel.
Malcolm: And let me jump in here, because this fucking important. African Americans are the pillar of global pop culture.
Malcolm: We travel and the whole thesis has been — and look at the Sony hacks. This isn’t paranoia. Right? I don’t know if that’s appropriate to say, but —
Craig: Go for it.
Malcolm: But this shit is stated by studio heads, right? The general thesis is that first they didn’t want us in sports, right? And there is the same arguments where if too many black people play baseball, people will stop coming out to the park. So, sports, music, we are dominant. We sell overseas. And they are saying that racist people are making the distinction that though we will buy their music, and watch — and buy their tennis shoes and all that shit —
Craig: We won’t watch them.
Malcolm: We won’t watch them. And all these motherfuckers are saying this. And the problem is it’s because they’re comparing Tyler Perry movies to fucking a Tom Cruise movie, as opposed to as the stuff we were saying back —
Craig: You should compare like, Tyler Perry movies, they don’t even release them overseas anymore. They used to try. They gave up. Because it’s an American cultural experience.
Malcolm: That’s right.
Craig: It’s about the Bible belt, for god’s sakes. They probably shouldn’t even release Tyler Perry movies in New York.
Craig: But, The Equalizer, right, has — we heard for years, we heard for years, “Well black actors, they don’t travel.” Denzel is traveling just fine.
Malcolm: Let me tell you how sick this business is though, dude. Amy Pascal doesn’t think that.
Craig: Well, she’s wrong.
Malcolm: But, that’s what you’re dealing with if you’re black. This is where the rage comes from.
Malcolm: So, for the people out there who don’t know, me, John, and Craig, Craig built this community of writers. It’s giant. And it’s very, very social. And we all interact and email each other. And so I’m having this argument with two of the writers that we know. You know what I’m saying?
Craig: Should I get rid of them?
Malcolm: No, they’re great guys. And there’s this pathological insistence that race is the reason. And so Denzel becomes the talking point. “Look at Denzel. He doesn’t do well overseas.”
Craig: But he does.
Malcolm: But that’s the fucking problem with racism.
Craig: Will Smith does great overseas.
Malcolm: Let me, without naming names, a lot of black people have bought into this belief, by the way.
Malcolm: I believe you were one of the people, proponents of it at a point. You know what I’m saying?
Craig: Well, I’ve been a proponent of everything at some point. I take every side of every argument at some point or another.
Malcolm: That’s right. But my point being there’s nothing you can do, like the statistics that undermine the idea that black folks don’t matter overseas are wealthy, but they’ll always make, “Well, Will Smith is an exception. Well Denzel…”
Do I have time to go through the etymology? No, we should actually just —
John: Well, let’s talk through — you were trying to decide when did this show become black. Is it a percentage of the cast that we see. Is it the percentage of creators? Is it the specific culture that the show is portraying?
Malcolm: So, again, this has been discussed ad nauseam. I don’t know — it’s an amorphous thing. You kind of know it, or sometimes you don’t know it. It’s hard to tell. And the fucked up thing is there’s like if Empire does well overseas, that show is black, meaning it has a black sensibility.
Craig: It’s undeniably black.
Malcolm: It’s black folks up in that room. It’s white folks, too, but white folks who are getting down with black folks. And I have a feeling it’s going to travel, and then it just becomes stop fucking talking about race.
Craig: Well at that point it’s undeniable.
Malcolm: And by the way —
Craig: It’s a shame that it has to be undeniable, though, right?
Malcolm: That’s the fucking rage which is in the wake of what’s happening in Hollywood, right, I believe that there’s a chance — by the way, they don’t push movies with black leads. They start to believe, like they forget Bad Boys starred two people that were not — they’ll tell you every reason, “But Will Smith…”
Craig: Everything is a but, but but.
Malcolm: Exactly. And I have a feeling Ride Along might get a push overseas, and I think it’s going to do pretty well.
Craig: For the sequel, yeah.
Malcolm: Yeah, the sequel. You look at my career, 13 years in the game, right. All these doors are opening up for me now. Motherfuckers want to deal with me. They’re letting me in. I’m stacked up, right? And —
Craig: Don’t get crazy with the false heat.
Malcolm: I’m not. I’m not. That’s over with.
Craig: [laughs] You’re scaring me.
Malcolm: I’ve got — Negrito is on fire now. I don’t give a fuck. I’m like what can we capitalize on. What can we do well? And Negrito ain’t like that either.
Craig: That’s my guy. You know. That’s the start of this thing.
Malcolm: For me and a ton of black actors and directors, and dude, there’s a big time black director who if you look at his list it’s like, dude, you got almost all wins in studio movies and you can’t get hot. Right? And for me who is a brilliant fucking writer, right, you guys have been killing me for ten years and you don’t even know you’re doing it, but look at the Sony hacks and what’s being said. You guys really do believe that. And that applies to me when I walk in the room.
Now, by force of us — by Kenya, Shonda, Lee, and Danny. Danny is honorary black fucker. You know what I’m saying with that, right? By just us being determined because we know our shit is hot, to make it happen — oh Malc, here’s more jobs than you can fucking handle. And you do feel like, fuck you.
Craig: I know.
Malcolm: I’ve been here the whole time and now you all are about to — here’s my metaphor, before we move on. It feels like — do not give me fucking hate mail. It’s not the same. This is a fucking metaphor what I’m about to say.
Craig: Here we go.
Malcolm: Because I got boys doing time or whatever, so I know the difference between what I’m about to say. But these brothers who get out of the pen after 36 years for a rape or murder they didn’t commit, thank you for letting me out the fucking penitentiary for those 36 — after doing 36. I am grateful. I am also fucking furious.
Craig: Right, of course. Of course. I mean, look, the problem is that it doesn’t — the system is unfair across the board. It is particularly unfair to black writers. I think it’s particularly unfair to female writers. But I think, I don’t know, like I’m not into ranking unfairnesses, but definitely — it’s undeniably unfair to black writers. The whole system is undeniably unfair to black writers, to black culture in general. The problem is that in success you kind of have to let that go.
Craig: Otherwise it’s going to ruin in. Then they win in a weird way. You know what I mean?
John: Let’s wrap this up, because —
Malcolm: I don’t want to seem angry.
John: No, no, but let’s wrap this up with just sort of you’ve been able to shoot more than any feature writer can ever shoot. And actually be able to get your words on screen in ways that no one else has ever been able to do and really learn how to do that. And you’ll come out of this with the opportunity to make your own show, make your own movie, demonstrate that you’re the person who can run this next — you can carry the ball yourself next time.
Malcolm: My inclinations will always be bad. You know what I’m saying?
Craig: “My inclinations will always be bad.” [laughs]
Malcolm: They just are. You know what I’m saying?
Craig: At least you’re aware of it.
Malcolm: Yeah, that’s how the fuck I got sober and got out of the streets.
Craig: That’s the double edge sword of you. I always feel like that stuff is like — it’s whatever fuels that bravado, you are fun to hang around. You’re confident as hell. Like, I know that you are, I mean, look now you’re a professional for whatever how long it’s been, a decade right?
Craig: You walk in that room, you haven’t written on a network TV show before and I guarantee you without me being there, without me knowing a thing, when you walked in that room you were the most confident person in that room.
Malcolm: It’s true. It is. And I know am aware of the cost of that. And I do value like — particularly like Ilene who is in charge of, she’s the grand collector of all the stuff that’s happened there, is really out of like I’m in the showrunner training program and it is textbook of all the right ways to nurture.
Craig: She knows it.
John: So I didn’t know that you’re in the showrunner training program, the WGA Showrunner Training Program?
John: Oh, that’s great. That’s amazing.
Craig: So, for people that don’t know, this is this incredible program that Jeff Melvoin spearheaded at the WGA and John Wells. And the idea was that there are all these great writers that are high level television staff writers and at some point they’re asked to run a show. But running a show is not writing. It’s writing, but then it’s also management. It’s managing staff, personnel, budget, the studio, production schedules. All this stuff that nobody teaches you at UCLA Extension. You just have to know how to do it from people that have done it before.
So, they have this incredible program. It’s for basically you can’t get in unless you are certain — you’re a pretty high up TV writer.
Malcolm: Yeah. People got shows. Like there are people in the program whose pilot has been picked up and it’s going to go.
Craig: Right. Like they’re either going to be show-running something, or they’re going to be asked to. And so you have guys like Glen Mazzara who runs Walking Dead, or ran Walking Dead.
Malcolm: Yeah. He’s great. Matt Nix.
Craig: Matt Nix. Guys who have just been doing it for years who essentially say here is what the real job is. It’s an amazing thing. There is nothing like that for screenwriters coming up.
Malcolm: And it’s real. It’s not bullshit. Like it’s the real —
Craig: It’s vocational.
Malcolm: All this stuff is the real winners are coming in who are still winning and talking about how they win and how they lose. Like it’s happening now.
Craig: It’s not like the retirees saying, “You know, back when I was running…”
John: Right. It’s the guys who are coaching the teams are coming in to tell you how to coach your team.
Malcolm: This is happening now.
Craig: Player coaches.
John: We have a bit more stuff on the agenda. Let’s power through this. So, you put something on about directors.
Craig: Oh, this is just a real short thing. Somebody sent me this review that was in The Guardian I think. Oh, sorry, in The Independent. Sorry, Guardian, it was in The Independent. And it was a review of Casual Vacancy which was a BBC adaptation of this J.K. Rowling novel that I think she originally wrote under a pseudonym.
John: Robert Galbraith.
Craig: Oh, was that her pseudonym? And it was a positive review and the reviewer is named Ellen E. Jones. And Ellen E. Jones had the following to say: “The Casual Vacancy does better than either Broadchurch or Fortitude at wrangling a large ensemble into a coherent story. The structure was already there in Rowling’s book, but director Jonny Campbell deserves credit for scenes that cleverly established character with a wordless economy.”
The director deserves credit for scenes that establish character with a wordless economy. And I presume that Ellen doesn’t know that what the director did was shoot the screenplay. It’s just unbelievable.
John: Is the screenwriter actually mentioned?
Craig: No! The screenwriter is not even mentioned and the director deserves credit for this wordless economy. What do these idiots think we do?
Malcolm: Well, what I’ve seen from all the people on Twitter now with these — the people who write about movies and TV really don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.
Craig: None of them is truly —
Malcolm: Like they made fun of Hass and Brandt once for being on a movie — props to being on a movie with so many writers and it’s just two writing teams who pretty much worked together. Yeah, you got them, you know what I’m saying.
Craig: Isn’t that amazing?
John: All right. So, my little bit is this Nathan Rabin article for The Dissolve and he’s talking about trailers and how so much of fan culture is based on the anticipation of movies coming and that the focus point of that anticipation is usually the trailer. And yet if we actually look at trailers, they’re not generally representative of the movie at all.
Like we remember trailers from the ’90s where like every trailer would have like a Smash Mouth song, or Two Princes. [laughs] And it’s like it became a thing. And it was a call for us to all remember that the trailer is there to try to convince us to see the movie, but the trailer may not actually represent the movie at all. And so it’s how frustrating it is that we spend so much time talking about this trailer, which is the only evidence we have of the movie, as if it represents the movie, when many times it doesn’t represent the movie at all.
So, I’ll link to his blog post. He actually has a good example of this Frank Whaley movie. There’s two different trailers, and one of them is cut like a comedy, and one of them is cut like the actual downbeat movie it actually is. And —
Craig: Well, you know, they have these great ones where people re-cut Mary Poppins as a horror movie.
John: Or The Shining as a comedy.
Craig: Yeah. That’s the point of a trailer. It’s designed to fool you.
Malcolm: But didn’t they used to be more accurate? They did, right?
Craig: Trailers used to be terrible.
Malcolm: No, I’m not saying whether they were better or worse. You knew what the fuck the movie was.
Craig: Sometimes. Sometimes not. Trailer science is like — I think of it a little bit like fast food science. Like you know how the fast food companies have figured out exactly what proportion of chemicals, fat and sugar, to make your brain high? The trailers are really good at making your brains super high. Like I watched the trailer for the new Age of Ultron.
Malcolm: I know. It’s fucked.
Craig: It’s just calculated perfectly.
John: It’s amazing.
Craig: And, frankly, they will come to you know with marketing the way they are. They will come to you and they will say, hey, I just went through this on a movie I was just writing where they said, “We need a line like this for this person for the trailer.” Done.
Malcolm: Yeah, it is. I do think though there is a really — in the end, as soon as you accept that, then you are accepting that somebody knows and they actually don’t. And that’s a dangerous fucking thing. Like we forget that there’s a great movie that a major studio put out that marketing killed.
Craig: Oh, marketing screws — yeah, bad marketing —
Malcolm: But if they knew then —
Craig: Well, good marketers, I think, know. Bad marketers don’t.
Malcolm: You don’t think that that’s the same marketing team that did a great job on a movie right before it?
Craig: All I can say is this: nobody is perfect. Nobody bats a thousand. There are some marketing teams, and by the way, here is the other dirty secret. The marketing teams aren’t cutting the trailers either. They’re hiring companies to cut the trailers. So, and then you have the directors and the studio heads involved, everybody is, you know —
Malcolm: Short trailer story. My boy worked at the trailer house that decided upon watching Snow Dogs, fuck it, let’s just say the dogs talk.
Craig: Absolutely. [laughs]
Malcolm: They don’t talk in the movie.
Craig: [laughs] No they don’t. That’s right.
Malcolm: But that would be good.
Craig: That would be good.
John: That’s amazing.
Craig: That would be good. That would be good. By the way, I had to look it up because Ellen E. Jones failed to mention her — Sarah Phelps was the writer of The Casual Vacancy miniseries on the BBC. Ellen E. Jones, you win my umbrage award of the week for frankly being stupid and not knowing how to do your job.
Craig: I mean, you got to call it like you see it.
Craig: If you don’t mention the screenwriter and then you give the director credit for a wordless economy, yeah, you’re stupid and you don’t know how to do your job.
Malcolm: Someone tweet her that.
Craig: [laughs] Somebody will.
John: All right. It’s time for One Cool Things. I’ll start off. It’s a book I’m reading right now that was actually sitting on the shelf for a long time and I just randomly grabbed it and started reading it. And it was actually fascinating. It’s The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. It is the history of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys mysterious, which I didn’t really read that much growing up. I was more of a Three Investigators guy.
Craig: I love the Three Investigators.
John: Oh, the Three Investigators are great. You were a Jupiter Jones, weren’t you?
Craig: Well, I liked all of them, but I love that Jupiter Jones lived in his secret hideout underneath the garbage.
John: Uncle Titus’s junkyard.
Craig: Yeah, garbage. Junkyard. I wanted a secret hideout in the junkyard.
John: I suspect there are a great number of screenwriters of our generation who were huge Three Investigator fans. So, this one talks about Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys which are a product, they came in a little bit before the depression, and what I hadn’t really appreciated was what a uniquely weird character Nancy Drew was, because she was like this oddly empowered teenage girl who went out and solved crimes and dealt with adults and was able to do a lot of things that a girl her age should not have been allowed to do. And she was a huge phenomenon.
So, the other thing I wasn’t aware of is that all of these books have one name writing it. So, Nancy Drew is written by a woman, but it’s actually all the creation of one guy, Edward Stratemeyer. And he would write, talk about writing under a pseudonym for Robotard, he would write all the outlines for all the books, for the Nancy Drew books, for the Hardy Boy books and all these other adventure things. And then he would just hire ghost writers in to write them. And so it’s always different writers writing those books.
Craig: And like all work-for-hire.
John: All work-for-hire, like paid a hundred dollars a book.
Malcolm: He’s a book showrunner.
John: Yeah, he’s a book showrunner. That’s what he was.
Craig: My dad had his collection of Hardy Boys books. He had the whole collection from when he was a kid, so I think they were originals. And I sat there and I read them as a kid. I went through a Hardy Boy phase. I never read Nancy Drew.
John: Yeah. Hardy Boys has that classic sort of cliffhanger. Every chapter is like they’re in mortal danger. And Nancy Drew has sort of more subtlety and stuff. But I just thought it was fascinating.
Craig: You’re right. Like actually the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were incredibly insulting to boys, because they just were like boys like idiots running around and action, being hit and stuff. Fires.
Malcolm: Boys are so stupid.
Craig: Yeah, like lava. There was one with lava.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: And then girls are like, they’re going to reason their way and using inference of deduction, solve a crime.
John: Like Nancy is going to perform a perfect sonata, like even though she’s never really played piano.
Craig: Right. She’s going to use just inherent skill and quality whereas the boys were just running in circles yelling.
John: Like smash, smash.
Malcolm: I can’t believe you guys read Nancy Drew.
Craig: I didn’t read Nancy Drew.
John: I didn’t really read it.
Malcolm: Sorry, there’s a difference to me.
Craig: There is. The Hardy Boys are boys. Nancy Drew is a girl. If you were a boy, you know —
John: But, I mean, the Three Investigators are really, I mean, they’re our generation. Because the Three Investigators I think were relatively new in the ’70s, and that’s why —
Craig: The Three Investigators actually were cool. So, like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew was all about 1940s and ’50s, like gender stereotypes. The Three Investigators were three dorks. Well, really one dork, one athletic kid, and one —
John: So Jupiter, Pete, and Bob.
Craig: Yeah, Bob I never got a read on —
John: He was a librarian. Bob was going to be gay.
Craig: The cool thing about the Three Investigators was that they were friends with Alfred Hitchcock. And I don’t know how this worked out that they got Alfred Hitchcock’s name and the rights to use him. They would go visit Alfred Hitchcock. They had one —
John: He was their sponsor sort of. Yeah.
Craig: And they had won the right by guessing gumballs in a thing to have a limo drive them around. And Alfred Hitchcock would give them an assignment and then they would go solve a mystery.
Malcolm: Oh, that’s great.
John: But then later on in the series, after Alfred Hitchcock died, they had a new, like some other famous mystery writer was their sponsor. And so they changed —
Craig: They couldn’t keep having ghost Hitchcock.
John: And so another point of trivia, my last name August is kind of derived from one of the books of the Three Investigators. There was a character named August August August which I thought was just the best thing ever. And so when I was picking my new last name, it was August.
Craig: Wait, I thought that was your middle name.
John: It was my father’s middle name.
Craig: Oh, okay, so that counts.
John: So, it’s family.
Craig: You know that John wasn’t really John August.
Malcolm: Listen, I didn’t know that. There is a story here, huh?
John: Yeah, my last name is German.
Craig: Misa? Misa?
John: That’s why I changed it.
John: You got Spellman. Yeah, Spellman is pretty easy.
Craig: Meise is such a Nazi. It’s so scary.
Malcolm: Someone named Spellman owned slaves many years ago.
Craig: Somebody named Spellman.
Malcolm: My French mama got that last name.
Craig: You’re French — Rifkin. You’re French Jewish.
Malcolm: Rivlin. That’s a big name, by the way.
Craig: She’s a Jewish French.
Malcolm: Yeah, yeah. Came from Russia to France, no, Russia through Germany, then in France.
John: I wonder if you’re related to Aline.
Craig: Oh, because we all know each other, John?
Malcolm: No, that clan is huge. Like we got —
John: French Jews.
Craig: The French Jews.
Malcolm: No, no, but it’s not just French. In Israel there is a Rivlin Street.
Craig: There’s a lot of Rivlins. I’ve heard that name.
Malcolm: It’s a common name.
Craig: My guess is that Rifkin, I bet you Rifkin and Rivlin are the same thing, it’s just because like when the Hebrew letters got translated over in this. Anyway, the point is you’re Jewish to me.
My One Cool Thing is this SNL App. Did you get this?
John: I didn’t install the app. Tell me.
Craig: It’s awesome. I actually can’t believe they did it.
Malcolm: What is it?
Craig: It’s the Saturday Night Live — of course, Saturday Night Live. Yeah, you still carry around like an old briefcase.
Malcolm: Yeah, do you know Rian had to talk me into how to get hardcore history. I loved it, though.
Craig: He talked you through it?
Malcolm: He was like, dude, just download. Because shit scares me.
Craig: I know. I know. You get a little —
Malcolm: I’m scared of technology.
Craig: You are. I can tell.
Well, Saturday Night Live did this amazing thing. I honestly don’t know why they did it. So, it’s great. They have an app and the app gives you access to everything.
Craig: I mean, like as far as I can tell, everything. And they organized it by eras, but they also — you can look for certain actors, or kinds of things. You can look for the commercials. It’s just like, you could sit there all day and just watch old Saturday Night Live.
John: That’s awesome.
Craig: And, you know, I’ve got say, Saturday Night Live, for all the shit it takes, it’s still —
John: Come on, 40 years of doing that.
Craig: It’s still like, yeah, after 40 years, I don’t know.
Malcolm: See, I haven’t fucked with it in like — every time someone says you got to watch whatever, there’s not enough for me to be like that was worth it.
John: That’s why it’s a classic DVR show. If you’re bored with a sketch, just keep going.
Craig: By the way, the app is for you, because you don’t have to watch it in the moment. You don’t have to sit and wait for it to get good or bad. You just find what you want. You know, you find the best-ofs, and those are pretty great.
Malcolm: What’s going to happen if I try and download it?
Craig: You’re going to be calling me, so don’t.
John: Malcolm, do you have a One Cool Thing?
Malcolm: It’s random, but I just saw a voice pathologist today. I lose my voice. I get stressed out and then I found out — I thought it was my vocal chords, but it was actually the muscles on the side of my throat constrict to the point that I have no — like that’s what had been happening to me.
Craig: Because your voice sounds fine now.
Malcolm: Yeah. Because a few days I didn’t have no voice. Remember, I said, I think I sent an email. And I went to a laryngologist, whatever. She was like, dude, your voice is fine. I think I know what’s happening. She sends me down the hall and this woman does deep tissue stuff and literally she’s like, ooh, there it goes. And the muscle just relaxed and I could talk.
Craig: Whoa. Like that instantly?
John: That is our show for this week. I have one little tiny bit of news. Is that I’m going to be heading to Boston for the next three weeks, so we’ll still keep doing the show. But while I’m in Boston, on March 13 I’ll be there for a Q&A after the premiere of the Big Fish Boston show. So, we’re doing a very stripped down version in Boston. So, if you’re in the Boston area, come see Big Fish there.
Craig: Is that going to run for awhile?
John: It’s running for a month. So, it starts on March 13. There’s a hundred stagings of Big Fish this year, but this is the one that Andrew and I are going through and making some tweaks to make a fit with a much smaller cast, a much smaller space. And it should be really good. I’m excited to have the chance to dig into it again. So, come on March 13th, or any time in Boston. There will be a link in the show notes.
Our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth, who did some other great outros for us.
Craig: Yeah, he’s a good one.
John: He’s a good one. As always, it has been edited by Matthew Chilelli and produced by Stuart Friedel.
John: Oh, Stuart is the best. Stuart is running and getting us lunch right now.
Craig: Stuart’s got a Mohawk now.
John: Stuart has a Mohawk.
Craig: He’s got a Jew-Hawk.
Malcolm: But it’s red, isn’t it?
Craig: He’s got a red Jew-Hawk. Yeah.
Malcolm: Is he Jewish?
Craig: Oh, my god. Like the most.
Craig: Stuart is like 12 Jews smashed into one.
John: If you are listening to this show on a device that listens to podcasts, you should subscribe to us on iTunes. You can look for us on — just search for Scriptnotes on iTunes. While you’re there, you should leave us a comment. You should talk about what a great guest Malcolm Spellman was.
Craig: So good.
John: So good. I am on Twitter @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Malcolm, you are…?
Craig: And you got to watch Empire because —
Malcolm: Oh, and @fantasticnegrito. That’s the one that matters. But that shit is on my thing.
Craig: And @robotard8000. Or is Robotard — ?
Malcolm: No, Robotard is still happening, but I’m all about Negrito.
Craig: You’re all about Negrito.
John: So, the Robotard account, but either one of you can tweet it, so therefore I never knew who I was talking to.
Craig: No, but that’s the best game. What is it, @robotard8000?
Craig: @therobotard8000. The best thing is you try and figure out who is tweeting what, and there is sometimes there is little subtle clues, but a lot of times you cannot tell. It’s a good social experiment.
Malcolm: We do that on purpose.
John: That’s good. If you would like to listen to the premium feed that has many more episodes with swearing, like this episode, you can find it in the premium feed at Scriptnotes.net. There is also an app you can download those episodes in. Scriptnotes, just search for it on the App Store, or in the Android App Store.
Malcolm Spellman, thank you again for being here with us.
Malcolm: Thank you guys for having me. I really appreciate it.
Craig: Do you?
Malcolm: I do.
Craig: But do you? He’s looking at his phone. He doesn’t appreciate it.
Malcolm: Shit’s happening.
- Malcolm Spellman on IMDb and Twitter
- Fantastic Negrito on Billboard and Twitter
- The Robotard 8000 on Twitter
- ‘Empire’ Revels in Diverse Dynamic in the Writers’ Room from Variety
- Overstock.com Plans Streaming-Video Service from The Wall Street Journal
- Phillip Noyce To Direct ‘Warrior’ NBC Pilot from Deadline
- Writers Guild of America 2015 Showrunner Training Program
- JK Rowling’s story is a far better drama than it is a book from The Independent
- The trailer is not the movie from The Dissolve
- The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys by Marvin Heiferman and Carole Kismaric
- Three Investigators on Wikipedia
- The SNL 40 app
- Voice therapy vs speech therapy
- Get tickets now for Big Fish in Boston, where John will be doing a Q+A after the March 13 show
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)