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 187 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we will be talking about Road Runner rules —
Craig: “Beep, beep”.
John: The WGA Diversity Report, living in your car and we’ll have three new entrants in the Three Page Challenge.
Craig: Big show today.
John: Big show.
Craig: Big show.
John: Big show of little things.
Craig: We are — I have to say we are on a roll. Again, thanks to the Redditors over there at the screenwriting subreddit who helped us out with all those wonderful bad rules last week. We’ve gotten a lot of really good feedback on the Malcolm Spellman episode and then that episode last week, so we’re on a roll.
Craig: Let’s keep it going.
John: Absolutely. That’s the goal of this episode. So let’s dig right into it. This is something that was just randomly in my Facebook feed. I think Howard Robin had posted and this was a bunch of rules for the Road Runner cartoons. So essentially, Chuck Jones in his book Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of Animated Cartoonist Chuck Jones claimed that he and his artists and writers had a set of rules that they went back to when they were writing the Road Runner cartoons. And having just been through an episode where we talked all about the rules of screenwriting, I thought it was so interesting to look at the rules and limitations that a group of writers put on themselves when creating something as iconic as the Road Runner cartoons.
Craig: Yeah. You want to go through some of these?
John: Let’s alternate here.
John: So first rule. The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going “beep, beep” to scare or surprise him off a cliff.
Craig: Yeah, that’s right. He never touches him.
Craig: Yeah. No outside force can harm the Coyote; only his own ineptitude or a failure of Acme products. Trains and trucks were the exception from time to time.
John: Absolutely. And trains and trucks are sort of like natural forces that he was, you know, he was always too close to them anyway, so. And generally, they were like a follow-up punch line. And basically, like, everything would have failed and then he gets run over by a truck.
Craig: And the trains and trucks in this area of the desert would appear out of nowhere without warning of any kind. [laughs]
John: [laughs] The Coyote could stop anytime if he were not a fanatic. To repeat, a fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim as George Santayana said. So there’s no reason why the Coyote has to do it. I mean, I guess, sometimes they motivate it through hunger to some degree but it’s more that he’s driven to pursue the Road Runner. That’s just his function in life is to try to get the Road Runner.
Craig: Yeah, he’s a mono-maniac as we say.
Craig: Dialogue is strictly forbidden except “beep, beep” and yowling in pain.
John: Yeah, it’s absolutely true. And I don’t think I realized that when I was a kid watching them in the morning. It was like, that was what was so special about them, are these little silent movies. And, you know, even when he’s going to fall off a cliff, he just holds up his little sign that express his dismay.
Craig: Yeah, the little sign thing was, you know, they were like silent movies basically, you know, the old style and they forced these guys to be incredibly physical and everything. So I love that. What’s the next one here?
John: The Road Runner must stay on the road for no other reason than that he’s a Road Runner.
Craig: Which, by the way, you know, okay, so [laughs] I saw a roadrunner once, I wouldn’t have known it except that my wife who is a bird watcher, she said, “Oh, my god, that’s a roadrunner.” And I guess it’s actually kind of rare to spot one. They don’t look anything like the Road Runner and —
John: No at all.
Craig: Not even. I mean, the Road Runner looks more like an emu or something in the cartoon. But, yeah, they’re actually — I didn’t see it on a road. [laughs] They don’t actually follow the road but man, if you’d asked me that when I was a kid, I would have thought, no, no, it’s what Road Runners do.
John: Well, again, we always talk on this podcast about specificity. But like, you know, we’re talking about the specificity of this one unique bird and the one thing he does and it’s not trying to do anything else. It’s just he’s this one bird doing his one thing and all he does is run and he runs on this one road and it seems to be, just like the Coyote is a fanatic about catching him, the Road Runner just wants to run.
Craig: He just likes running. All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters, the southwest American desert.
John: Yeah, and again, very specific and I know that intuitively like, oh, that’s right, they’re always falling off cliffs and stuff like that but it hadn’t occurred to me until I was an adult that like, oh, yeah, it’s always in the exact same place.
Craig: Mm-hmm. That’s right.
John: It’s the backlot.
Craig: I know, yeah. But it was actually quite beautiful, I mean, and they made real use of the rock formations that he would always fall off of. I mean, I always loved the ones where, you know, the Road Runner goes out on that little separated ledge of rock —
John: Oh, yeah.
Craig: That’s a mile in the air and — but the huge rock falls [laughs] that the Coyote is on, I mean, they’re very smart about that.
John: Well, and also, I think, in its time the American Southwest obviously wasn’t new but I think it was the westward sort of migration of America towards, you know, the Southwest but also towards California. So it was like, it was the right kind of imagery for that generation. That was a place where people hadn’t seen and people were going to the Southwest for the first time to explore it.
Craig: You know what’s cool about these rules is that David Zucker and Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker had a similar set of rules. And rule number 15 is there are no rules. But in comedy, when you can confine yourself like this, what you’re essentially doing is forcing a certain amount of a degree of difficulty. And you get rewarded for it because everybody knows that you’re stuck in this desert and you’re stuck not talking and you’re stuck with these same motivations. Coming up with new variations on a theme becomes a little more impressive when you actually successfully do it.
John: You’re also, you’re taking away all those other choices. And so, it allows you to really focus in on who are these characters, what is their predicament because all the rest of the world is stripped away from it. And that’s a lovely thing in most cases.
Craig: Yeah, I agree.
John: Example here, all or at least almost all tools, weapons or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.
Craig: Of course, I mean, that’s just the coolest company in the world. And I know that Warner Bros is always trying to figure out new ways to revive these cartoon characters. And Acme, I mean, it’s just such a great — you have to use Acme, I mean.
John: Oh, it’s the best.
Craig: It’s the greatest. And they really did make some very dangerous stuff.
Craig: So I’ll just do, I’ll do a couple of here quickly. Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy which we’ve already discussed. And the Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures, which, you know, frankly, has to do with squash and stretch, I mean, he was terribly, physically harmed but he didn’t seem to feel that much pain. I mean, I would imagine that if we walked through life able to survive being hit by trucks and falling from the sky, we also would feel more humiliation than harm. Just sort of an extension I guess.
John: And related to these, the audience’s sympathy must always remain with the Coyote because even though he’s kind of the villain, he is also your hero. You’re the one — you relate to his struggle.
John: The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner unless he escapes up the grasp.
Craig: So he’s not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner unless he can catch him and then the Road Runner gets away.
John: And really, I’m trying to remember instances where he really got the Road Runner for any more than three seconds. It’s mostly like, he’s held on to him and suddenly the Road Runner is smoke in his hands and the Road Runner is gone.
Craig: Yeah, I don’t really remember him actually holding the Road Runner but I will say that the Coyote, Wile E. Coyote, people sometimes struggle with the concept of what is an anti-hero. Wile E. Coyote is an anti-hero. He’s somebody that is doing something that you know is wrong. By the circumstances of the drama, he is the villain and yet we are rooting for him.
Craig: Anti-villain. I mean, anti-hero. Sorry.
John: Is there such a thing as anti-villain?
Craig: No. I don’t believe there is.
Craig: Well, I guess, maybe you could say, like, Gru from Despicable Me —
John: Oh, yeah.
Craig: Is an anti-villain. Yeah.
John: That’s true. Yeah, because he’s identified as a villain but he ultimately is forced into heroic deeds.
Craig: Yeah, anti-villain.
John: That’s a lovely thing. So the reason why I wanted to bring up these Road Runner rules is that we were talking in the previous podcast about how all these prohibitions that people put on screenwriters saying, like, “Oh, you can’t do this. You can’t do this. You can’t do that.” And most of those cases, there’s a good reason why that thing sort of seems like a rule or like why generally it’s a good idea but it should not be a blanket rule.
And these are examples of rules that you’re placing on yourself that really should be iron-clad rules if you’re going to make a very specific thing. They are how you focus your story, you focus your art into a very unique frame. It’s providing boundaries for yourself that’s really helpful. Unlike the things we talked about in the previous show which were in many cases I thought destructive rules.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, the big distinction is rules that you put upon yourself as opposed to rules that you accept from someone else. You can place any rule you want on yourself for any reason whatsoever. If you feel that that’s going to make your work better or more interesting, do it, absolutely do it. And you’ll hear, there are rules that are specific to a piece of work, which is again different than the rules we were discussing last week which are meant to be these blanket bits of orthodoxy that apply to everyone. So every script, somebody sooner or later will say, “Well, what…” you know, if you have a script where somebody is magical, inevitably a studio executive will say, “Well, can we talk with the rules of the magic?” “Okay, sure.”
Craig: So, yeah, big distinction there. You’re allowed to put any rules on your work that you’d like, just don’t necessarily go follow blindly other people’s rules.
John: I had a meeting today with an executive and we were talking about sort of the writing process and she works in animation. And she was describing how over the course of the screening process they’ll screen thing multiple times. There inevitably hits a point at which everything just completely falls apart. And you end up sort of fundamentally questioning the assumptions you’ve made about what this project is. In some cases you are taking a character who you thought was a subsidiary character and that now becomes your main character or you’re doing either just these massive overhauls.
When we had Jennifer Lee on the show, we talked about, you know, the massive overhaul of Frozen where you just really reconceived how everything works. But these kind of rules that you’re setting for the Road Runner cartoons are that kind of massive reshaping and you might be well down the road in a feature length project, whether you formally codify these rules or haven’t codified these rules, you may find yourself like, you know what, these are the wrong rules. These are not the rules that are getting us to where we need to be and we need to write some different rules or just restructure our story based on some different underlying assumptions.
Craig: Yeah, it’s amazing how animation goes to, I mean, part of the benefit they have is that they can reimagine their movie and look at it.
Craig: You know, through storyboards. They also have the time, generally. Because everybody is so frightened of actually animating something they don’t want, and I mean, animating, like full animation of something is super expensive.
Craig: So they give themselves the time. They also don’t have to worry about actor availabilities. That’s the other thing that —
John: That’s a lovely thing.
Craig: Huge flexibility for them.
John: So her question to me this morning was like, “Well, do you think there’s a way to sort of speed through that process or to get to the breaking point sooner?” And I had to say, no.
Craig: No, I don’t think —
John: I think the process is the process and the process is just, it’s kind of always terrible. And in live-action features, that breaking point is generally when you see the first assembly of your feature and you want to kill yourself.
John: You pray that the movie can never be released. And I remind myself every time before I watch it that, okay, that’s going to happen. And every time I forget.
Craig: Yeah. No, no question. There is a, you know, I’ve been talking about built-in inefficiencies. There is a built-in inefficiency to the system. It is impossible to achieve something even good, much less great without going through an inefficient process. Sometimes there are inefficiencies we can avoid that it’s just that the business won’t let us avoid them. But a lot of them, they’re just part of being human. And, I mean, you simply can’t see the story in its totality before you can see it in its totality. I don’t know how else to put it, you know.
John: Absolutely. And so the kind of thing where you recognize that your subsidiary character is actually your main character, you wouldn’t know that until you’ve written, you know, scenes with her and sort of heard her voice and saw what was possible. That’s just the reality.
The challenge I think in animation often is that the teams are so much larger. Whereas, making a live-action feature, you have your writer. You have your director. You have your producer. You have your studio executives. In some cases, you have a very powerful actor. In the case of animation, you often have a much bigger brain trust to go through and that can be really beneficial because you have more brains to apply to it but is everyone looking at the same movie, you don’t know. So it’s challenging.
John: Indeed. Let’s go to a much simpler challenge to solve which is diversity within the ranks of the Writers Guild of America.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a breeze.
John: It’s a breeze. I mean, honestly, Craig, I’m just so happy that it’s been solved.
Craig: We solved it.
John: It’s all good and done.
Craig: We solved it.
John: We’re talking of course about the diversity report that the WGA published this week that details the numbers for employment. And this was TV and features or was this just the TV report?
Craig: I think we will eventually get TV and features but for now it’s the TV report since that’s frankly where the majority of writers are employed.
John: Absolutely. So we’ve discussed this before in previous episodes and we’ll have a link to the earlier episode and I honestly wonder if we could just clip the audio from —
Craig: I know.
John: The previous show and talk about it again. The headlines on the story were, you know, numbers are down. Diversity is worse than it was before. If you actually look at the report, you see that it’s largely a flat line and there are cases where numbers have dropped or numbers for white men in their 40s have risen slightly but it’s not — it’s good news for no one.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, part of what I struggle with at times is that the Writers Guild, if their argument is that things are bad for racial minorities, for women, for people over a certain age as their argument should be, well, the data supports them. It supports them so sufficiently that they don’t need to exaggerate and yet they do anyway.
Craig: So, for instance, they’ll say things like, “Well, we’re really down from 2000 and they’ll pick a number, like, they’ll pick a low point but then, you know, you don’t realize, well, yeah, but we’re also up from the year before. So, you know, for instance, women writer’s share of TV staff employment is actually up incredibly slightly from 2013 over 2012, but down ever so slightly from 2011. So they’ll pick that 2011 number. Either way, I’m looking at this and I’m just seeing, this is the most dispiriting graph ever because it’s charting female writer’s share of television staff employment from 2001 to 2013 and the line is flat. I mean, yes, it’s true, in 2001, it was only 26.8 and in 2013 it’s 29, whoopty doo.
It was also 29 in ’07. It was down 27.4 in 2004. It’s basically hovered between 26.8 and 29 for 12 years and this is despite all of the talk and all of the reports. It’s just, like, I look at this and I just think, well why are we spending money on this report? Just keep reprinting the number from last year. If you’re not going to do anything different, why even do the report?
Craig: It’s just the same. Anyway, same deal. Minority writer share of TV staff employment here, there’s a slight uptrend, ever so slight. When you look at 2001 and 2013, you’re looking at actually somewhat steady growth from 8.8% in 2001 to 13.7% in 2013.
John: But that’s over the course of 12 years to have, you know, minimal. Yeah.
Craig: It’s the same old story there.
John: Yeah. The chart we’re looking at actually shows the percentage of US minority population, you know, as a sort of midpoint of sort of like, you know, you’d think you would be able to get somewhere near that and of course it’s nowhere near that.
John: And for women, you could — I can even just tell you that about half of Americans are women.
Craig: Yeah. That’s right. That’s the way biology works. In fact, if you want to feel really bad about the minority writers’ share of TV staff employment, here’s the saddest thing of all. Yes, there has been a slight uptrend. There’s also been a slight uptrend in overall minority population. Basically, the hiring line has sort of risen ever so slightly along with the actual line of racial minorities in the country.
Craig: So just terrible news there in terms of just the incredible stagnation. Now, here’s the one interesting chart. Here’s something that’s changed, like an actual change. And it’s what they call older writers’ share of TV staff employment. Back in 2001, 40 and under was at 58.2% and over 40 was at 41%. This was sort of viewed as an ageism issue. Those lines —
John: That’s flipped.
Craig: They have diverged and then they have converged. They converged and diverged, so we have an X. So now it’s flipped, exactly. Over 40 writers are now at 57% and under 40 are at 43%. So I guess now we should be concerned about the employment of younger writers frankly. [laughs] I’m not really sure what this means.
John: Yeah. It’s always a problem and it’s always a crisis. Do we need to be mindful of older writers? Yes. Is 40 years old a good barrier for us to be thinking about? I’m not sure it is. You know, as a person who is in my 40s, you know what, this is a gainful time to be employed. I am very much mindful though, as I hit my 50s and my 60s and beyond, that employment may not be as possible.
Craig: Yeah. I think 50 probably makes more sense. I mean, obviously people are, you know, life expectancy and so on and so forth. But I think there’s something else going on here. And this is entirely conjecture. It’s just a theory.
The business used to do a much better job of cultivating new talent. And so it is not surprising to me that in 2001, there were many more writers under the age of 40 because the business was generating the farm system, taking care of the younger writers to some extent, and encouraging them and there was frankly more business to do. I think over time that started to fade. And so a lot of the people that were in their under 40s in 2001, well, they’re still there working.
Craig: But they have not been replaced, there isn’t that churn, which isn’t a bad thing. You know, we talked about this last year, the segment of population that’s been hit the hardest in terms of age are the 20-somethings.
Craig: And to me, that’s a sign of bad news. Moving forward, just as an interesting stat, this is something, a trend that continues that the distribution of minority TV writers is weighing more and more heavily toward hour-longs as opposed to half hours. I don’t know if that’s — what they don’t do is correlate this data with the actual number of hour-longs versus half-hours in script —
John: Yeah, because I have a strong suspicion that there are a lot more hour-longs than half-hours these days.
Craig: Right. So this is an area where I think the statistics are either leaving stuff out on purpose or just leaving stuff out because they haven’t really thought it through. God, look at this. Women’s share of staff writing positions and other programming in the 2013-14 season, 18%.
Craig: 18%. Embarrassing. Minorities’ share of staff writing positions, 3.5%. So whatever the numbers are overall, it gets much, much worse when you start looking at actual staff writing positions as opposed to, I guess, freelancing coming in or, you know, part-timers.
John: Or the showrunners.
John: So it’s that question of sort of like maybe there’s women who are at that sort of higher level but like staff writers are the people you need because they are the ones who become the showrunners of the future.
Craig: And they also are a decent indication of new people coming in.
John: Yeah. So, are there any things to be hopeful about? Well, when we had Malcolm Spellman on the show, he was convinced that something had broken in a good way and that there will be more black shows than ever. That would hopefully be good news for African-American writers and for minority writers overall. He’s on a show that has, you know, women running the show. That’s good too.
Craig: Yes. Yes. I mean, we’ll see.
John: We’ll see.
Craig: Right now, all I can say from this data is nothing has really changed. Based on this data, it’s the same old same old. Hopefully, because this is essentially an echo report of, you know, so this is a delayed snapshot. So it may have already changed. The number at the next report, hopefully, is better.
I do want to draw your attention to some of these. [laughs] This is what I call the WGA pointless spin. Percent of shows with no women staff writers, which is obviously a bad thing, they do two charts. They showed that in ’11, ’12, it was at 10%. And ’13, ’14 it went all the way up to 11% which is not a significant growth but —
John: Yeah. This chart is amazing. So we’ll have a link to this in the show notes. So we’ll have a link to the whole report in the show notes. But this is figure 12 we’re talking about. And so let me just try to describe it to you.
John: It’s a bar chart. And so if I’m looking at it, on the left-hand side, it’s 2011-2012 and it’s a very low bar, it says 10%. On the right-hand side, it says 11% and it’s a very tall bar chart. And then you look at the Y-axis and you realize it starts at 9.4% and it goes to 11.2%.
Craig: Yeah. So they have broken down these incredibly tiny increments to make the bars —
John: Fox News would be so proud.
Craig: [laughs] This was very Fox Newsy but that was nothing compared to figure, oh, this is my favorite, yeah, figure 14, percent of shows with no staff writers over 50. [laughs] So obviously you want that number to be lower. Well, in 2011-2012, it was at 31.1%. In 2013, the bar is literally three times taller at 31.5%.
Craig: It’s gone up 0.4% and they now, the Y-axis is divided in increments of 0.1% each.
Craig: That’s just silly.
John: It is very, very silly.
Craig: Don’t do that.
Craig: Why do they do that? I know why they do it, obviously. You know why they do it? Because they think we’re dumb. And frankly, a lot of people are just going to go, “Oh my god, look at the two huge blue blobs here. [laughs] One is so much bigger than the other.”
John: I think if I wanted to visualize this though, I kind of want to see — I want a picture of like what a group of people is. And sort of like, you know, in this room, let’s just say that you have a writer room of like 20 people, how many would be, you know, over 50. If you represented it that way and you would actually see like the little people showing there that essentially, you know, whatever number of little people figures out of the whole group would be, you know, white men in their 40s or a woman or something like that.
John: Something that would actually make it feel more what it’s actually like there because this little bar chart doesn’t tell me anything.
Craig: I agree. And I would actually say to the Writers Guild that the value — so this report is put together by Darnell Hunt who is the director of the Ralph Bunche Center for African-American Studies at UCLA and he’s a professor of sociology. And he is the guy that they’ve gone to for almost all of these reports, I think.
Craig: Here’s the deal. The collection of the data is the collection of the data. What is I guess proprietary for somebody like Mr. Hunt is — or Professor Hunt I should say — is the analysis of the data and the presentation of the data. I don’t actually think this data has been analyzed and presented particularly well.
I actually think that there are ways to portray what is very bad news in a more impactful manner. And I also think that there’s a way to be a little more honest about the news that isn’t so bad or at least doesn’t become kind of laughable in its overstatement. I don’t love the way this report is done. Now that we’ve had a bunch of years to look at it, I think the Writers Guild should actually think about maybe switching it up here and seeing if somebody else can do a better job because I’ll say this much, if the report is supposed to be influencing anything, it is a failure.
Craig: If the report is just here to say, “Yup, it’s still bad,” well, success.
John: All right. So that was some familiar dispiriting news. Another thing that came up this week was a blog post by Todd Farmer who is a screenwriter. And that was sort of a new sobering kind of story —
John: Which is Todd Farmer describing how he went from writing two movies, big feature movies, Jason X and Drive Angry, to living in his car and being homeless.
John: And so we’ll link to the blog post and he does a really great job sort of talking through what all happened and he’s sort of come out the other side of that. But I thought it was a really interesting look at — we always talking about breaking in and there’s this sort of myth of breaking in. Just because you’ve broken in and you’ve had two movies produced doesn’t mean everything is going to go remarkably well. You know, Craig and I both know writers who have found themselves struggling in their careers. And it’s a challenging career to be sort of working at if you’re not actually working.
Craig: For sure. You know, a lot of people tweeted you and me about this particular article. And so on the one hand, it is a very sober look at how things can go very wrong, that there are no guarantees attached to selling a screenplay or even getting a movie made or even having a hit movie, frankly. There are no guarantees that things will go well for you and we also saw that unfortunately with the very tragic death of Harris Wittels.
But I also think that, you know, in any population, things are going to go wrong for some people in a dramatic way. I don’t know if there’s any larger conclusion to draw from this. This felt like a very individual circumstance but it was a very good reminder to people that there is no breaking-in nor is there a making-it.
Craig: There is no line over which you are safe until you have actually put together a career and enough resources that somebody independent of you can look at and say, “Yes, at this lifestyle, you are now fine.” [laughs]
John: Yeah. [laughs]
Craig: But until that day, and, you know, we’ve broken this down before on the podcast. It sounds great. You sell a movie, “I’m making $300,000.” No, you’re not, not even close.
John: Not at all.
Craig: Yeah. Go ahead, give your managers money, give your agent their money, give your lawyer her money. Now, give the government their money, give the Feds, the state, the city. And then in this case, the writer in question had been divorced and now there’s child support and child. When all is said and done, you know.
John: Yeah. The thing for people to keep in mind is that unlike other jobs in which you might be unemployed, employment for a screenwriter is very come and go. And so you are working for yourself. And you don’t necessarily know when that next paycheck is coming and that can be really challenging.
So on the blog, I’ve often done first person reports. And going back many years, I’ve done first person blog posts where I have writers talk about their sort of early adventures in the business and sort of how they got their first jobs. And there were people who like just, you know, got off the boat to Los Angeles and are just figuring out how they’re starting their careers and really talking through what it’s like to just start it out here. What you don’t see so often reported is those, what I think Todd did a huge service to us all by writing about it, is what is life when things go wrong.
John: And the realities of things don’t always work out so well. And you may have IMDb credits but you may have no place to live, and that’s a reality.
Craig: Yeah. It turns out that hard times in this business look a whole like hard times in every business. All the glamour and all that baloney, it’s just an illusion business. In the end, everybody goes home and they’re still — they need a roof over their heads and they need to be able to pay their rent and put gas in their car. And I do worry.
I mean, look, it goes back to the discussion we had with Malcolm a couple of weeks ago, that feeling of heat and how reality-warping it can be and you think that it will last forever and then suddenly it just stops dead, you know. And then the cold wind blows, not good.
John: Not good.
Craig: Not good. Yeah.
John: So let’s go on to our main topic today which are three new entrants to the Three Page Challenge. So I sent Stuart to finding us three things we could talk about today and he read through 60 different Three Page Challenges yesterday.
Craig: Oh, yeah, Stuart.
John: And so without even my asking, he slacked over his common patterns he noticed in the different things he was reading. So I’m going to read aloud. These are Stuart Friedel’s observations from the 60 scripts he read yesterday getting ready for the segment.
So things he saw very often. Opening on a night sky or space, zooming in on a town or a house.
John: Opening with pronouns as character names to hide who the characters are. Opening on a speech/presentation/awards ceremony in a large lecture hall. Opening on breakfast, so not the opening on an alarm clock cliché but very close.
John: War movies, either ancient like Game of Thrones, fantasy style or real stuff or modern. Common errors he spotted. Opening on an event describing the event in general but giving us no indication of what the camera is actually looking at.
Craig: Mm-hmm, interesting.
John: Bad children dialogue, like these people were born 30 [laughs] and never bothered to listen to what children sound like. So it’s all cliché of what children-haters imagine children must sound like.
Craig: I love that.
John: Yeah. It’s Stuart editorializing here.
John: Bad uses of we see or we hear. And in parentheses he says, “I have no problem with those, but when they’re unnecessary, interrupt the flow of the writing.”
John: Unnecessarily flowery age-defining, an example being, “Stephanie who is currently 16 years old” instead of “Stephanie, 16.”
Craig: Yeah, [laughs] is she currently 16 years old? I love that.
John: And here’s the reason why I think people sometimes do that is that they’re going to age up the character. But you don’t need to tell us if you’re going to age up the character later on, just give us her age.
Craig: Yeah. Just do it.
John: And Stuart’s last observation, “Multiple spaces between sentences like three or four. I’ve seen this five times today. Maybe it’s a problem with the form used to submit or something but I don’t see why that would mess up a PDF. So I’m going to assume the problem isn’t on our end.”
So the people who are submitting to the Three Page Challenge, and this is a good reason for us to bring it up. People submit to the Three Page Challenge by going to johnaugust.com/threepage, and there’s a form you fill out and you click a button and you attach a PDF. So the answer, no, Stuart, we couldn’t possibly be changing their PDF —
John: But for some reason, people are sending in stuff with like crazy returns and things. And while there are no hard and fast rules of screenwriting, random white space, not your friend.
Craig: Well it’s just sloppy. Just don’t be sloppy.
Craig: Well, what do you say? Should we crack one of these open?
John: Go for it. You can decide which one we hit first.
Craig: All right. I’m going to go with Theo & Rabbit.
John: All right.
Craig: Theo & Rabbit was written by Mark Denton. So you guys all have the screenplay at home, but I’ll do a quick summary.
We open on a sun-baked desert. A Baja Bug, which is a kind of off-road vehicle is traversing the landscape. And in the vehicle, we see Theo Meeks, in his 30s, driving. And next to him is Rabbit, a robot, who’s actually a pleasure bot. Imagine the Iron Giant but six feet tall and painted off-white. And Rabbit is reading a porno mag.
The engine seems to be suffering from a problem, which Rabbit knew about but didn’t mention. And the car dies. Theo discovers that the car’s been tampered with, in fact. And then the two of them are attacked by men in the distance with rifles and Gatling guns. Theo and Rabbit both hide behind the car while they’re being shot at. And they have a discussion about who might be doing this, and it turns out it’s probably bandits.
John: All right.
Craig: Theo & Rabbit.
John: Theo & Rabbit. And I should say, if you want to read along at home with us, all of these scripts are available in the show notes. And so there’s PDFs, you click them open. Read along with us because that will really help you out because we’re going to get very specific because there’s a lot of things I specifically liked about this.
The onomatopoeia in the script was really great. And basically, the use of words to describe the sounds that we’re hearing, which is really fun. So page three, “We see flickers of fire from the gun before we hear anything. Then whump-whump-whump-whump-whump.”
We have some “tunks”. We have, you know, the little bits of sound information that are showing us what kind of thing is shooting at us. It’s really cool.
John: I liked, overall, the environment of this. I like the overall style of it. I was more enjoying the idea of Rabbit as a character than sort of how he manifested quite on the page so far. But I was going to read page four if page four had been there.
Craig: Yeah, for sure. I really enjoyed this. I’m going to talk through some of the things that stopped me or things that I wanted to be different, but then I’m going to say what I like. Because in general, there’s much more here that I liked than there was a problem. And the problems were minor.
First, Theo Meeks is described as a ruggedly handsome man. Don’t do that.
John: No, no.
Craig: That is the sort of Swiss coffee paint of descriptions. It’s just the most bland overused thing. Also, Rabbit is a pleasure bot. Well, we have no idea of that.
John: So I thought he was a robot that you have sex with. But then it made me really confused about the relationship between him and —
Craig: And we may discover that. And I would much rather discover that. I’d rather have Rabbit explain to somebody at some point, “Oh, no, I’m a pleasure bot. Yeah, yeah, I’m here to give pleasure.” And somebody looks at him like, “Well, you don’t look very pleasurable.”
I really love the reveal. He’s reading a porno magazine. I loved it so much the idea of a rabbit, I’m sorry, a robot reading a porno mag that I wanted that to have its own line. There’s nothing wrong with adding a little line break there for that just to give me that kind of vibe.
Craig: Rabbit says, “I was trying to be positive.” Next action line, “He tries the ignition, it turns over.” If you’re going to follow a dialogue line from one person with action by another, don’t use the leading pronoun. Use the name. It just makes it easier to read. You don’t get stopped and wonder.
John: Yeah. I would also say, look for not repeating the verb. So Rabbit just says, “I was trying to be positive.” Next line, “He tries the ignition.” If you can avoid, you know, saying “try” twice, do it.
Also, I would say Rabbit’s line, “I was trying to be positive…” dot, dot dot, I don’t know if the dots are helping you in any meaningful way.
Craig: I agree with that. Further down on the page, “Theo pops the hood to be met with a cloud of steam.” Now, I had to read that a couple of times to get it because there are sentences where a collection of words could lead our minds in one way. “Pops the hood to be met.” “The hood to be met,” that’s not good.
John: Yeah. Did the hood hit him? Yeah, it’s like it implies a change or a relationship between his head and everything else that I didn’t like.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, you could say, “Theo pops the hood,” comma, “only to be met with a cloud of steam.” You know, just something to not make that. There was I think maybe an error here on page two. Middle of the page, they’re, “Clipping a belt of bullets into a mounted Gatling gun. Two drivers behind wheels,” no punctuation. I think that there was probably something you meant to get rid of.
Larger note here. I don’t like it when things happen in a movie and I immediately know what those things are and the characters don’t, unless they’re in the dark. Clearly someone’s shooting at him. We’ve seen this before where someone’s talking and suddenly there’s a red dot on them or there’s a bullet hole. And we’ll give them a chance to be surprised, but then they got to get it pretty quickly.
Well, Theo sees this hole, “Tunk!” Then he turns. He sees a bunch of guys, he sees them with guns, he sees them with Gatling guns, that’s what the movie’s telling us, I see. But now, he’s shielding his eyes, going, “Huh?” Like he doesn’t see, but we see him see because that’s the way cameras work. And then he figures that after another shot. I think he needs to see that much quicker.
I did like Rabbit being confused. Because, you know, Rabbit , we didn’t have his POV there. And I just like a robot shielding his eyes. That’s hysterical to me. There’s a very clever bit that Mark does on page three. I’m just not sure it’s working exactly the way he wants it to.
The idea is that when Rabbit, the robot, gets scared, his nose which turns, like, along with his processing, freezes the way that like a Mac pinwheel freezes and then restarts again. I’m not sure any of us would quite know what that turning disk was on his nose because we don’t get that. If in fact he had a display on his nose or something that was a more precise copy of the freezy icon, I think maybe then we would get it. But if it’s an actual analog disk turning, I’m not sure we would know that that’s what that is indicating.
John: Yeah. So here’s the description that he puts. And he puts it in italics. I might put a similar kind of thing in parenthesis rather than try to italicize it. He writes, “It’s the physical equivalent of the Mac pinwheel or the Microsoft Hourglass, denoting the fact that there’s too much information for his central microprocessor to handle.” There’s a shorter version of that. “He’s locked up like a Mac pin-wheeling.” I mean, it’s something like that just gives you the sense of what it is without stopping us for, you know, three whole lines.
Craig: Yeah, yeah. It’s not quite working. I mean, the bigger issue to me is that a physical equivalent of a Mac pinwheel is a new thing for everyone. No one has seen that before. And now you’re adding it on top of this action. So that’s part of the problem with that.
And then finally, at the end of their conversation where they’re being shot at, Theo, you have a rhythm of Rabbit, the robot, being a little sort of deadpan-ish, “That was a gun.” And Theo, angry, you know, “Yeah, why’dya think?” Right?
And then it turns and flips where suddenly Theo says something and then Rabbit flips out. And there was something a little odd about that last line there because he was kind of being weirdly while they were being shot, or at least his comment was. And then at the end, after they’ve stopped being shot at, he starts to get crazy. So there are some issues with that.
But overall, what I really liked about this was, A, I absolutely want to keep reading it. I’m already interested in this very unique pairing. These pages are very confident. They just present a man and his robot hanging out. They’re not worried about making us believe any of it. There’s not a whole bunch of overdone stuff about what the robot looks like.
The robot has a terrific voice, I think, for most of this. It’s very unrobot-like. And we’re immediately into action. And I don’t know what’s going on or why. I know that they kind of know what’s going on, and that’s good enough for me. So good job.
John: I agree. Good job. The thing I want to point out at the top of page three, here’s the sentence that I highlighted. “We see flickers of fire from the gun before we hear anything. Then whump-whump-whump… It’s aimed too low,” comma, “and 50 caliber bullets kick up giant spades of dry earth fifty feet in front of the car, heading right towards them!”
Way too much happens in that second sentence. Just like, “whump-whum-whump… It’s aimed too low,” period. “Bullets kick up giant spades of earth heading right towards them.” In attempting to over describe things, and attempting to sort of make all that into one sentence, it was actually more confusing than it needed to be. And it actually took away the action.
And so this is a moment in which, you know, big stuff is happening and it’s meant to happen fast. Short sentences are going to help you a lot when you’re trying to describe bursts of things.
Craig: Yes. And in general, the actual caliber number of the bullet will be undetectable to us.
Craig: For many readers, they simply won’t know what a 50 caliber bullet means.
John: I really don’t, so.
Craig: And we’ll get it. It’s a machine gun. It’s dangerous. So, good.
Craig: All right, well, which one would you like to proceed to, Mr. August?
John: I will read “This is Working” by K.C. Scott.
Craig: I love that title.
John: Yeah. I do, too.
Craig: Such a good title.
John: It does feel like an Albert Brooks movie.
Craig: Well, I just like it, you know, it’s one of those titles where I looked at it and I went, you know, ambiguous titles seem kind of corny, you know. But yet I get like, I’m looking at them and I’m kind of fascinated by a title like “This is Working” like “This is working.” But really more, “This is Working.” I think there’s something really interesting about it.
John: This is working.
Craig: Yeah, I liked it.
John: Yeah. A Judd Apatow’s movie could be also called “This is Working.”
Craig: Right. [laughs] This is 40 Working.
John: [laughs] And I think Judd Apatow would do a good job with this movie. I think Judd Apatow would like this movie. That’s my hunch. So we don’t know if K.C. Scott is a man or a woman. So I’m going to say she’s a woman. I’m going to say K.C. Scott is a woman.
Craig: Let’s do it.
John: All right. We open in an elegant San Francisco apartment where we see Byron and Jane. And it’s breakfast time. Byron is African-American, chubby, in his 30s. He’s drawing a good illustration of a hummingbird. His girlfriend, Jane, who’s Chinese-American, sets down a bowl of berries beside them.
Byron wants a waffle. Jane says, “You had a waffle on Sunday.” And he’s trying to bargain for a waffle. And she says nope, he’s going to get berries. We move to a busy diner where Byron is working on another drawing. This time, it’s the same illustration, but sort of a more graphic version of it.
And the waitress, Carol, and he have a conversation, and he asks for a waffle. And she has a conversation with someone else there and was like, “You know what, we talked about this. You’ve had a waffle before. Let’s get you something healthier like a parfait.” And they’re talking about how African-American men, diabetes is a big factor, and so basically lecturing him on this.
Amanda, who’s sitting in the next booth over, argues she should just give him the waffle. If he wants a waffle, he should have the waffle. They go back and forth. Carol says, the waitress says, “I’m trying to be a friend.” There’s a whole discussion of like would a friend really intercede there, what is the nature of the relationship between a patron and a waitress. And, ultimately, it becomes sort of a heated moment. And then Byron still wants a waffle as we end page three.
Craig: Right. So, K.C., really good. I really enjoyed this. Because generally speaking when I like stuff, I like to talk about little problems first and then just say what I liked. So let’s talk about some little problems, then we’ll talk about the good stuff.
Top of the first page, “His girlfriend, Jane, Chinese-American, sets a bowl of berries beside him. After a long sad look at the berries…” Who’s looking at the berries? These are little things that I find come up all the time when I’m writing, too. This is not just you or anyone. We all do this because we see it so clearly in our heads that we elide certain things. But the readers often get confused. And in fact, I read this as Jane was looking sad. I made that mistake and then I realized, “No, it’s not possible.” It must be him. So anyway, just make that a little clearer.
John: So let’s talk about ways you could actually implement that. So —
John: Honestly, if you’d broken that, “After a long sad look at the berries,” dot dot, and then Byron says a line, I would’ve described that that he was looking at the berries. But it’s because it’s in the same paragraph where you just introduced Jane and she’s the last person we’ve seen, I’m thinking it’s that.
But honestly, just say, “Byron looks at the berries.”
Craig: Or “he”.
Craig: Yeah. “He takes a long sad look at the berries.”
Craig: Right? Okay.
John: Yeah. And honestly, if there’s any possibility of confusion, just repeat the character’s name.
Craig: Yeah. And, you know, we’re not being pedantic about this although it is pedantic. But we’re not being pedantic about it because the truth is, these little stupid confusions really do impact people. And you’d be amazed how often it comes up professionally. You know, you’re making a movie and somebody will say, “I got confused. Who are we talking about here?” It happens all the time. It’s just normal, so, but no worries. It’s little stuff like that.
Here’s something that I think. At the end of this little first conversation where he’s trying to get this and he’s bargaining for it and he says, “What if I make it myself?” Jane, more sternly, “Byron.” And Byron says, “I know. Sorry.” “He goes back to drawing.”
I would argue that in moments like this where people are apologizing, it’s more natural for us to delay apologies. If we give quick apologies, they feel insincere. And it is a little insincere here, but not. I mean, he is sorry. He knows that he’s doing the wrong thing. And in a very simple way, K.C., what I would recommend is just floppiness.
“Byron. He goes back to drawing.” Byron, “I know. Sorry.”
Craig: You know, it just feels a little more natural.
John: Yeah, you’ve bought yourself a beat and therefore, you know, it changes that last little bit of the scene.
Craig: All right. Let’s talk about page two. First off, I’d love to know if the waitress is black or white. Only because you’ve pulled out everyone else’s race, but also because the waitress is going to talk about race. And it’s just a different vibe. If she is a black woman who’s saying to a black man, “Hey, this is our problem,” it’s one thing. If she’s a white lady lecturing him about the problems of African-American men, it’s another thing. So I kind of want to know what the vibe is supposed to be here.
John: I went back and forth about whether the waitress should be named, should be titled “Waitress” or “Carol” because we’re ultimately going to learn her name.
Craig: I would’ve said “Carol”.
John: But she’s a waitress —
John: Yeah. Here’s the pros and the cons. If you make her Carol, then suddenly three women’s names we’d have to remember in the first two pages of the script, that’s a lot. So “Waitress” just gives her a functional title. But because we’re going to refer to her as Carol throughout, you can think about sort of whether you want to do it again.
Obviously, if this waitress character ever appears again in the script, you should’ve named her.
John: You should always be using by her name. But if she’s a one-scene character, maybe stick with just “Waitress.”
Craig: And maybe also not say her name, you know, it may not that be that interesting or maybe just say, put her — we can see her name as Carol from her nametag, you know. People generally speaking don’t announce each other’s names, you know, so already that’s an issue.
John: Yeah. So it becomes a plot point. I mean I think it was actually a really well handled plot point here. So we get into page three, midway through page three. Amanda and waitress are having a little showdown here in which she says, “Are we friends, Byron?” And Byron isn’t exactly convincing when put on the spot, “Sure, when you see me and you say, ‘Hey, Byron’ and I say, ‘Hey, Carol’.” See?
John: So that’s the only reason her name sort of gets dragged into the scene. So I go both ways in whether she should be named.
Craig: I’m okay with it either way. But I would love to know if she’s black or white because she’s going to talk. And if she’s black, it just changes the tone of what’s going on with that line about diabetes is the number one killer of African-American men which is really funny by the way that she’s — I mean, I love that. This is all very funny.
I don’t understand this parfait thing. To me a parfait is a sundae, it’s not healthy at all.
John: Yes, I agree with you. And, you know, it’s meant to be as berries and yogurt. But I didn’t believe that it’s enough better than sort of like, you know, if it was oatmeal then I’d buy that.
Craig: Yes. A traditional parfait is actually an ice cream dessert. So I understand that they’ve kind of, you know —
John: So if it’s specified like how about the yogurt parfait?
Craig: Right, exactly. That would help. So let’s talk about what’s working here which is just about everything. I really enjoyed this.
John: I think the characters’ voices are really clear.
John: Byron is meek but still goes back for what he wants. I think the characters are really well named and Byron is just a terrific name for this guy who’s, you know, African-American, chubby an artist. I like that a lot. Amanda, we don’t know as much about but she feels good. Jane, I can totally believe as the Chinese girlfriend.
Craig: Well, you know, this is — these three pages are a great example of lots of different kinds of conflict, you know, going back to our conflict episode. The unfulfilled desires and the arguments and the negotiations. All this is coming through here.
And you can tell that K.C. is a smart — we decided that she’s a woman, so she’s a smart woman. I really thought this was great. This is the kind of stuff frankly folks at home, sorry can’t teach it.
Craig: She says, “Amanda is challenging the waitress on this, challenging the fact that the waitress really isn’t the friend.” And Amanda says, “I’m a stranger and I just undermined her. Now you have to order the parfait out of loyalty, that’s what a friend would do.” What’s great is that this character has excellent insight into the way this scene is working.
And what’s great is the scene didn’t overdo that. It’s just that this one person suddenly pulls the plug on her baloney, on the waitress’ baloney. And what I like is K.C. is very confident to just presume that we’ll get it and we do. So really good job, I like this a lot.
John: Yeah. What’s so smart about the exchange that you’re talking about with Amanda because I highlighted it too is that Amanda sort of flips on Byron too. So the first is like a challenge to the waitress and then she’s like challenging Byron again. So like, “Oh, no, we have to order it because, you know, only a friend would do that.” And so poor Byron is just sort of stuck in the middle here and then she challenges him again. So it was just really smartly done.
So if these pages crossed my desk, if the whole script crossed my desk, I would be fascinated to read it. And if this were a sample, I think it would do really well. If this were in a competition, I could see it doing really well. Granted, I have no idea where the actual story is going.
Craig: Me neither.
John: And so I don’t know that K.C. has the ability to tell a two-hour movie but I know she can write characters and scenes. And lord knows that’s a lot of this job.
Craig: Yeah. K.C. can do this, she knows how to write.
Craig: And here’s something else you can’t teach. When the waitress calls him on his waffle thing, “I know I just I have a big morning at work” and then she starts lecturing about diabetes. And then at the end of the scene when Amanda challenges him and says, “Or do you want the one effing thing you came in here for, a waffle.” After a tortured beat, Byron renders his decision. “The thing is Carol I just have a really big morning at work,” [laughs]. That’s perfect, right.
Craig: It’s perfect. It’s the worst way to render a decision. It’s passive, it tells us a lot. And it’s funny because there’s just a rhythm to it. K.C. understands rhythm. If you understand scene structure like that, I’m pretty sure you understand story structure.
John: Yes. Another little example of rhythm. Top of page two, waitress, “What can I get you?” “Um, a waffle please.”
John: And I highlighted the um. The um is exactly right, you know —
Craig: [laughs] Because he knows.
Craig: He’s trying to pull a fast one but he doesn’t have the skill to pull a fast one. See all this stuff that we’re pulling out of this guy that isn’t on the page is on the page but not on the page. That’s the job, is to just start to pull stuff out from people that isn’t there. It’s all the good stuff in between the words. So very good, very, very good.
John: Nicely done.
Craig: All right. Here comes Seven Secrets written by Chris French who also maybe a man or a woman. I think this time we’ll say man just because we gave K.C. — we’re just flipping coins here.
Craig: Okay. So it’s called Seven Secrets. We open on a girl’s dark bedroom. Clara who is nine is hiding in bed listening to her parents argue outside of the room. The mother is saying very cryptically that, “It could be over the ridge by sunrise.” The father is saying, “We’re not leaving until I say it’s okay.” And then the mother says, “Let me out. Please. John.” The dad says, “No, you’re staying put until I get back.”
Then Clara, the little girl, leaves her room, waits for the sound of her dad leaving, then finds a key in a potted palm tree in the house, unlocks the bathroom door and finds her mom trapped inside. Her mom makes sort of an excuse about how she locked herself in. Clara uses the bathroom, then tells her mom to get back into the bathroom and locks her back in again.
Then she goes back to her room and looks outside and sees flickers of flame in the distance, a forest fire. Her mom yells for her, “I need you let me out right now. We need to go.” Clara apparently does, off-screen. The mom starts packing stuff, tells Clara to pack up her things. And Clara packs up her favorite childhood items.
Next thing Clara is in her mom’s car, they are driving. There are fire trucks, they’re in a California suburb, there’s a fire nearby, clearly. And she’s on the phone with somebody saying, “I can see the fire from here and you know something it’s — believe it or not it’s beautiful.”
Craig: All right.
John: So of all the Three Pages Challenge we’ve done, I can’t think of an example of three pages in which I found the moment so compelling and what was happening was so compelling and yet the writing is so frustrating to me.
Craig: [laughs] Couldn’t agree more.
John: Because, I mean, let’s just talk about the situation, just the story situation that was being described here is that clearly the dynamic between the husband and the wife, the mom and dad, what is that and like it’s so intriguing. And is he locking her away sort of her own safety because she’s going to do something rash and stupid. Is she dangerous?
Craig: Is she a werewolf?
John: Is she a werewolf? And I think my gut was like she’s prone to making really bad choices, that he was doing it for a right reason and not for sort of just being an asshole reason. But I don’t know. And to have, you know, it felt very weirdly I want to say Australian to have like this Clara character who was like, who seemed kind of independent and yet was really a little girl and, you know, didn’t want to disobey her father. It was all those dynamics were so fascinating and then to have a fire coming was great. It started off with, you know, just a lot stakes and it was just great.
Craig: And mystery, lots of mystery.
John: And mystery. There’s so much mystery. And I was actually genuinely really fascinated about what’s going to happen. And yet, I had a lot of problems with the actual writing on the page.
Craig: Me too. I mean. So, yeah, because the summary it’s hard to kind of get this across. We have a situation where there is a fire. There’s a large fire near a suburb. For whatever reason this feels like this has happened before, by the way the discussion feels like the same old discussion in a weird way. The father seems to be somebody who either fights fires or goes out and looks at fires for some reason. He is acknowledging that this situation is serious that in fact there’s a 10% chance the house will be gone by morning. But this is what you always do, you get hysterical is what he says to her. And he locks her in a bathroom.
The daughter is quite familiar with this because she knows exactly where the key is and she knows exactly where her mom is. The mom doesn’t get that Clara knows all this, so she lies about the circumstances. Clara makes her mom get back in and locks her in again which is really weird. And then they both leave and Clara’s mom is on the phone with somebody who we don’t know, she’s crying, she’s so excited that she’s leaving. I couldn’t begin to tell you what happens with the story, what’s going on. But it’s obviously it’s like cliffhanger galore.
John: Yeah. And honestly that weird stutter stopper where like, she locks the mom back in and then like, you know —
Craig: Well, that’s the biggest —
John: But then like three lines later you’re like you’re letting out here again. It’s really strange but I kind of love it because it feels like we’re living in sort of like this no time kind of thing where it’s just like, you know, you don’t know what to do. And that felt very real and very true. And yet, I had a hard time getting through these pages. So let’s go down to actual words on the page.
Craig: Absolutely. All right.
John: So interior girl’s bedroom, night. We will never see the face of the adults, only the kids.
Craig: Oh, you already added a word that should’ve been in there. We will never see the faces of the adults, only the kids. Yeah.
Craig: So you added it in because it needed to be there.
John: Okay. So that’s the very first line of the script. It shouldn’t be there because we’re not going to see them in the scene anyway.
John: But I also, I’d forgotten that by page two and I don’t understand how it is supposed to work like through this whole thing, was I never supposed to see the mom’s face?
Craig: I think what Chris was going for was the idea that this section where Clara’s mom and dad are talking off-screen, they’re not on-screen, [laughs], right. That’s what OS means.
John: Yes. Well, you know what, OS means that.
Craig: Right exactly.
John: So get rid of that sentence.
Craig: Right. Also it says only the kids, there’s only one kid.
John: Yes. So, yeah. So don’t say kids.
John: So let’s imagine that line was not there. So our next sentence would be “A door slams, a nine-year-old girl who’s lying in bed, Clara, blinks with a jolt.” Just an awkward sentence. Clara, nine, blinks with a jolt, she rolls over in bed, just move the bed to the next sentence, do something different there because that was a stopper of a sentence for me.
Craig: Yes. By the way I’m just, now I’m hung up on this. I mean, do think that Chris does what he means here is that truly through the movie no adults face?
John: That we’re in Peanut’s land?
Craig: Yeah. Like if that’s the case, Chris you got to make that like — you got to billboard that like crazy like —
John: Yes. That’s where you actually put like a whole separate page or before we get to the first scene because —
Craig: Yes. Like there’s a page in-between the title page and this that says throughout the movie, “No adults’ face will be seen, all their dialogue will be framed in such a way that we will never see their faces.”
John: Yes. If you’re going to do that, you got to pull that out and make that.
John: Because it can’t happen within a scene.
Craig: That’s not going to happen.
John: That’s going to happen for your whole movie.
Craig: That’s not a casual thing. We’ve literally never seen a movie like that before.
Craig: So, I mean, it’s interesting but, okay, so.
John: It’s interesting. So then we go into the off-screen dialogue. The parentheticals for off-screen dialogue feels really weird. So Clara’s mom on edge but quiet and Clara’s dad reasoned, calm. I would say before you get into that off-screen dialogue, just give us a sense of who those characters are talking with before they start talking. And then you can keep all their dialogue together.
Craig: I mean, frankly the stuff in the parentheticals were essentially baked in to the lines anyway.
Craig: I don’t think he needed either of those. I mean there’s, “Let me out, please, John,” was really cool like, okay, I was nice and surprised and happy by that. I like the description of Clara’s face and what she did I was so like I got to the bottom page one and I’m like, great, we’re going to find out something. Really interesting moment I thought between her and the mom in the bathroom and the way that played but —
John: But at the start of page two, so, as she opens it up her mom has been trapped inside. And then you go into Clara’s house bathroom that moment, don’t — if you’re already in a scene, don’t give us the slug line for that.
Craig: Right. Just move us through, exactly. You don’t have to worry about that so much like what you find is eventually when you get to production and you’re nowhere near it now, somebody will just go ahead and add something to that or literally say, where her mom has been trapped inside, they’ll turn that into a slug line and give it a scene number. It’s totally — you don’t have to kill yourself over that now.
I have a huge problem with this swing around thing that happens. I found it fascinating that Clara, a nine-year-old, pushes open the bathroom door, a silent command for her mother to go back in, after a moment’s hesitation she does and Clara uses the key to relock the door. Okay, that just told me an enormously crazy thing: not only does the father go ahead and lock the mother up in a bathroom, the daughter does too. And has so much authority over the mother that the mother just agrees to do it.
Craig: That is then completely thrown out the window when just moments later the mom says, “You got to let me out.” Well, why didn’t you say that before you walked in voluntarily, [laughs], back into the bathroom, right, it just makes no sense.
John: Yeah. So Clara sees the fire coming more closely, if we had a cut away with the mother seeing it’s coming closer or the mother has a dialogue that’s like, “Clara it’s over the hill, we got to go, we got to go.” Then I would believe it. But not enough had changed for me to necessarily understand why —
John: Clara simply agreed.
Craig: Well, also remember Clara’s mom has been nervous about this fire since the beginning of the scene. So why is she suddenly, and why a girl, why her nine-year-old daughter can order her back into a lockup, why Clara feels that’s a good idea to begin with? Very strange.
John: So some confusing language through here too. So Clara gets in the bathroom she’s going to pee. But it says, “As Clara relieves herself, she looks out the bathroom window.” And then relieves herself is like, okay, you’re not saying pee but just say pee because relieves herself like I sense there’s that weird thing of like she’s giving herself relief. I wasn’t entirely clear that she was sitting on the bowl peeing.
Craig: Well, yes, also —
John: Let’s be literal here.
Craig: Where is this bathroom where a little girl is sitting on the potty and there’s a window, [laughs], at that height straight out right next to her. That’s a little —
John: That feels weird.
Craig: Yes. It feels weird. Normally, windows aren’t staring directly at a toilet for good reason.
John: [laughs] A few sentences later, “As she opens the door, her mother’s feet, in trendy sandals, pace the hall.” So, again, we’re seeing mother’s feet, so maybe we really aren’t seeing faces.
Craig: Maybe. But what’s this OS stuff then, it’s like sometimes it’s OS, sometimes it’s not.
John: I don’t know.
Craig: I don’t know.
John: I mean, she’s on-screen but you’re not seeing her face. “She sweats through fraying cargo shorts.”
Craig: Like that is a sweaty ass.
John: That is a sweaty ass.
Craig: Like your ass is so sweaty we’re watching it sweat in real-time.
John: But again, we’re having problems with pronouns because this paragraph opens with, she opens the door but the she sweats through fraying cargo shorts is the mother, so, you know, again I was unclear whether we’re looking at Clara’s cargo shorts or her mom’s. It’s probably her mom’s and I’m like I’m now 80%, I but I had to think about it, and I should never have to think about that.
Craig: Also, I mean nobody sweats through their cargo shorts unless, just like pacing, that’s like a medical problem.
Craig: And we would laugh at that. We would think that she was peeing. I mean that’s a weird choice. You can show that’s she’s sweaty or, you know, her t-shirt is soaked in sweat, that I believe. Then we get to this final page and there’s some very nice writing here, I really liked the choices of, again, by the way Clara sort of, suddenly innocent “Dad said the red powder planes” that sounds like a normal nine-year-old hopeful child, not the kind of child that Twilight Zone style orders their own mother back into a bathroom for a lock-up.
Craig: But Clara goes to her room and chooses all of her favorite stuff to take with her and it was very nice. I like the specificity of all that, I like the specificity of “strips two Barbies of their outfits leaving the dolls.” That shows that, you know, that Chris has thought through this character and I really like this line “years of childhood smooshed into a pink pleather bowling bag” like I could see that, you know?
Craig: But then following, we’re in Clara’s mom’s SUV. Clara’s mom’s SUV. I’m already suffering from the fact that mom doesn’t have a name because I hate the blanks, blanks, blank. Clara shudders in the back seat. I do not think that word means what you think it means. Shivers? Trembles?
Craig: Shudders, that’s pretty big time.
John: That’s not the right verb.
Craig: No, no ,no. Also, this sentence is no bueno. “With flashing lights and sirens, firemen coordinate the evacuation of a California suburb,” so they’re using the lights and the sirens to [laughs] herd people like cattle?
John: Yeah. So, if you wanted to keep that sentence structure, you could do amid or a sea of flashing lights and sirens.
John: Firemen coordinate the evacuation.
Craig: I mean, also, “Her mom weaves between police cars and fire trucks. Flashing lights. Fireman coordinate, or flashing lights and sirens.” You don’t have to like —
Craig: This is almost like bad poetry, “With flashing lights and sirens, firemen — ” yeah, so anyway that sentence is not doing at all what you want it to do. So I’m with you, I felt like, “Oh, my gosh, here’s three pages full of these really interesting ideas. I don’t know if Chris is entirely in control of his or her script here or her story. There’s multiple confusions going on and character wonkities but hey I mean he gave us a lot to talk about.
John: Absolutely. The last thing I want to talk about is just scene headers, so you can call them scene headers or slug lines, but the INTs and the EXTs and so just look at the ones on page three here, “Int. Clara’s House – Parent’s Bedroom – Moments Later” we’re going to assume that were going to be in Clara’s house no matter what. Unless you tell us we’re someplace else, we’re going to assume that we’re going to continue the space, so I don’t think you need to necessarily repeat the Clara’s House. Parent’s would be the apostrophe at the end of parents’ for ownership.
John: Let’s look at that line you said for Clara’s Mom’s SUV.
John: So “Int./Ext. Clara’s Mom’s SUV. Int. SUV, you know, we’re going to assume that it belongs to the person who’s driving the car unless you give us some reason not to think it, so just, you know, always think, you know, specific but simple with these headers so we don’t need to read them.
Craig: And we don’t need the “Int./Ext.” there because it’s fine. I mean look, on this page you got Int. — like kind of an over specific Int. Clara’s house — parent’s bedroom — moments later, where it should just read “INT. Clara’s parents’ bedroom” or “parents’ bedroom” then you have “Back to Clara’s bedroom” not slug lined.
John: Yeah, that’s odd.
Craig: So, pick one or the other and then “Int./Ext.” unnecessary, “Clara’s Mom’s” unnecessary, “SUV – Night” and then in brackets “driving”. “Her mom weaves between police cars” I think we’ll get it from that.
John: Now, I am a bracket driver. If I do have a car that’s driving versus not driving I will tend to single that out in scene headers, it’s not a must, it’s a style. And I will tend to do that for driving and for raining and that’s just something I do but it certainly is not a must.
Craig: Do you do it even if like the action makes it clear right off the top the car is driving?
John: I will tend to do it even if it makes it clear, particularly if I have scenes in cars where they are moving and where they aren’t moving. I think sometimes, the script I finished up today I do that very specifically because there’s times where you’re on the road and times where you’re not on the road.
Craig: Well, all right. I mean I know what my comment is on your three pages.
John: So our general comment on all these pages is thank you so much for sending these in, it’s so amazing that — certainly these three people who sent in their pages for us to look at, but the other 50 to 60 people who Stuart read through, you’re all awesome for sending in your pages. If you would like to send in your own three pages for us to look at, you can go to johnaugust.com/threepage and submit on a little form there and occasionally we will look through there and Stuart will burn his eyes out by looking at all those different submissions.
Craig: Good, I hope he goes blind. [laughs]
John: You’re the worst, Craig.
Craig: [laughs] I just, I really like the runner of me being mean to Stuart for no reason whatsoever. I hope he gets sick, I hope he goes blind.
John: Yeah. Stuart’s parents listen to the show, by the way.
Craig: I know. Well, I love Stuart’s parents. His parents are great.
John: Oh, they’re the best.
Craig: Oh, my God. Stuart’s dad is the greatest. He’s the greatest. No, we love Stuart of course, it’s just that Stuart’s adorable and he’s like our Muppet so I have to go dark.
John: All right. It is time for One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing this week is a video by Joss Fong and Alex Abad-Santos done for Vox and they’re looking at Kevin Spacey’s accent in House of Cards. And so Kevin Spacey’s character in House of Cards is a South Carolina — I guess he starts as a senator but he moves up. If he were to pronounce the name of his show he wouldn’t say, “House of Cards,” he would say, “House of Cahds,” and he would get rid of the R and so the video very specifically talks about Spacey’s character and his choices in trying to portray his specific Southern accent and essentially he has gone non-rhotic and rhotic is whether you’re pronouncing your Rs or you’re not pronouncing your Rs.
The video talks through sort of how that non-rhotic style came to be, that it was really an affectation and it’s really an affectation that’s passed. You don’t see current Southerners doing it, so like you’ll see Jimmy Carter doing it but not a lot of modern day Southerners do it. So from that perspective you’d say, “Well, Kevin Spacey you’re wrong,” yet at the same time he’s making a character choice and for that character choice it may be kind of right and delicious. The Foghorn Leghorn kind of thing that people complain about Kevin Spacey’s.
Craig: It is. Yeah, I mean the problem is that in fact Southern dialect in the United States, it’s broken up into many, many, many sub-dialects, but for the most part it’s incredibly rhotic, I mean it’s like they’re super R R R, you know?
Craig: And that whole, “I say I saw a man who was driving a car.”
Craig: That feels like a cartoon character old school plantationy kind of guy, it doesn’t seem like — I’ve literally never heard anyone actually speak that way. No one in my life.
John: Yes and when you find actors trying to do a Southern accent, they’ll often go there. And so when we were doing Big Fish which is set in Montgomery, Alabama, both when we were doing the movie and when we were doing the Broadway musical, we brought in dialect coaches to talk through what the sound was supposed to be. And one of the things I was very specific about is like we are rhotic. We do pronounce our Rs and so when Edward he goes off he fights in a war, not a wah.
And what you do find which is consistent, you know, certainly in the Alabama accent but really all Southern accents is a degree of vowel shifting and this video talks about sort of how the vowels shift and sort of why they shift, but, you know, that’s why pens become pins and most vowels have a pretty logical shift, particularly based on whether the consonants that are near are voiced or if they’re not voiced. And, you know, actors can do it, they can get it and they can sort of learn how it all is supposed to be.
From a writer’s perspective, sometimes you do need to point out certain things that need to go a certain way. And so for the show notes for Big Fish with all the other productions we’re doing, I very clearly point out that we are rhotic, that we are pronouncing our Rs and that certain characters have exceptions and so, you know, Sandra is always pronounced Sandra, it’s never Sondra. And Jenny Hill is always Jenny, not Ginny, even though naturally her name should switch to Ginny. We always say Jenny Hill so you can always recognize we’re talking about the same person.
John: So a fun video.
Craig: Have you ever met anybody that says, “I was in the wah”?
John: “I was in the wah”? I’ve seen so many people in movies do it.
Craig: I know, but have you ever actually met a human being that talks like that? No.
John: No, I don’t think so.
Craig: That’s why I don’t get it. Weird.
John: Yeah, I find people talk more like Adele than I would ever imagine could be possible.
Craig: Adele the singer?
John: Adele the singer. I don’t know any other Adele’s, do you?
Craig: They — but — what? [laughs]
John: The strange — the F shifting, yeah the VF shifting —
Craig: Oh, that. Oh, that thing. You know, that actually does happen. That’s a very Englishy thing.
Craig: But it’s also a very Northeastern thing. For instance in Boston or around Boston you’ll hear that sometimes. There’s an area of Boston called Fall River where I believe our friend Nancy Pimentel is from.
Craig: And my wife is from near there and she said a lot of people from Fall River call it Fall Vivah.
John: Yeah. That and sort of the TH frontings are the Britishisms that you hear and I think we’re only going to hear more of them as young people, you know, love their British people and try to imitate the way they speak.
Craig: Is TH fronting is that the after erf syndrome?
John: That’s where the TH has become “fa” sound. Or a V sound after certain vowels, so “My brova.”
Craig: Brova. My brova. Right. Well, if that wasn’t dorky enough, watch this One Cool Thing folks. I was a contest winner.
John: Did you win best co-host of a podcast about screenwriting?
Craig: They didn’t have that award.
John: I’m sorry.
Craig: While everybody else was worried about nonsense like the Oscars, I was hard at work attempting to win the Enigma Variations Crossword Puzzle contest. So around the movie The Imitation Game, a lot of puzzles were sponsored by the movie to just drum up some publicity type stuff but they were good puzzles and I actually did one of them with David Kwong which he won and then because we did it together and then he just put his name down because that’s the kind of person he is. But I did one on my own and it was a really cool puzzle and, you know, there were a bunch of people that won but I was one of the grandmaster level winners.
John: So this is a puzzle you designed, not a puzzle you solved?
Craig: No, it’s a puzzle I solved.
Craig: So it was a crossword puzzle that then you had to kind of find a meta-theme from and then from that meta-theme you actually have to figure out how to get one key word as the ultimate answer which turned out to involve using a replacement code like an Enigma code.
John: Well, fantastic.
Craig: Yeah. So, my prize, I had a choice of prizes and what I chose was what they call a vanity puzzle. It was a custom crossword puzzle that was done for me by a proper crossword puzzle maker named Tom Pepper who has been published in the New York Times before. And what I did was I helped him because I have a little Twitter crew that does the New York Times crossword puzzle.
John: I know I see you tweeting each other. I find it annoying.
Craig: Yeah, of course you do because you’re not part of it and you’re jealous.
John: I am a little bit.
Craig: You’re jealous. Hey, start doing the puzzle. So David Kwong, Rian Johnson, Steve Asbell who is an executive VP at Fox, Megan Amram who was a writer for Parks and Rec. And Shannon Woodward who was on Raising Hope and is about to be on Westworld, we’re all like little crossword puzzle buddies. So I had each of their names built in as answers and I helped clue those and made a little private crossword puzzle for our friends, but Tom Pepper helped me with that, so he — Tom Pepper and the Enigma Variations Puzzle are my One Cool Thing of the week, because it was super nice that they did.
John: That’s fantastic. Having a puzzle maker make a puzzle for you and your friends is maybe the most sort of bespoke kind of thing you could do, which is like it’s just so — it’s fancy, it’s fun.
Craig: It’s artisanal, it’s bespoke, [laughs] it’s all of that stuff. Incredibly dorky in a way that I like, but you know how dorky I am.
John: Yeah, I do.
Craig: We play D&D together, we both know how dorky we are.
John: We do.
Craig: Oh, I should tell people that last week we played D&D, John wasn’t there so I piloted his character.
John: And how did Bao do?
Craig: Great and I really tried to stay in character, so we did encounter some undead and they were —
John: And did you kill them all?
Craig: Not only did we kill them all and Bao killed a bunch of them but they were in a room. We opened a door and they were in a dark space and everybody was like, “You know, we could lure them out one by one,” and Bao said, “No,” [laughs] and just walked in and started killing them because he doesn’t wait.
Craig: He’s a paladin and he doesn’t wait.
John: Yeah. The dead must die.
Craig: The dead must die, so I was very John Augusty about it.
John: Well, thank you very much.
Craig: You’re welcome.
John: Cool. And thank you all for listening. So, this was an episode of Scriptnotes but there are many more episodes of Scriptnotes you could find. You look for us on iTunes and you’ll find the most recent 20 episodes. The episodes before that you can find at Scriptnotes.net. It is a subscription service, it’s $1.99 a month. If you subscribe then you get all of those back episodes and bonus episodes, the dirty show, some other interview episodes.
Craig: So dirty.
John: So dirty. There’s also an app that you can install for your Android phone or your iOS phone or other device. You can find that on the applicable app store. If you’re on iTunes, leave us a rating, leave us a review because that helps some people find the show.
Craig: Come on. Just do it.
John: It’s so nice. If you go to johnaugust.com, you will find the notes for this episode and including the Three Page Challenges that we talked about today, links to the different articles we talked about and other great information. You’ll also find a transcript for this show and many other shows, basically all the other shows that we’ve ever done. So we’re one of the very few podcasts you will find that has transcripts dating back to episode 1. So I want to thank our producer Stuart Friedel who puts those transcripts together. Our show is edited by Mathew Chilelli and we have an outro this week by somebody awesome but I don’t know who is it going to be this week.
Craig: Oh, by somebody awesome.
John: Somebody awesome.
John: Craig, I will be talking to you next week from Boston where I will be there for two weeks doing Big Fish, but we’ll keep it going.
Craig: Yeah, we’ll keep it going. Good luck out there. I will hold down the fort here and the entire State of California.
John: That’s what you basically always do. All right. Thanks.
- Chuck Jones’ Rules for Writing Road Runner Cartoons
- 2015 WGAw TV Staffing Diversity Report
- Scriptnotes, 141: Uncomfortable Ambiguity, or Nobody Wants Me at their Orgy
- From Hollywood To Homeless, Todd Farmer tells his story
- Submit your Three Pages here
- Three Pages by Mark Denton
- Three Pages by K.C. Scott
- Three Pages by Chris French
- Vox’s video on Why Kevin Spacey’s accent in House of Cards sounds off
- Enigma Variations contest
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)