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 195 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today, we are going to be talking about how to have a Hollywood career when you don’t live in Hollywood. And since that’s a topic Craig and I don’t really know anything about, we have a special guest with us here today.
Craig: Special guest.
John: Ryan Knighton is the author of books including Cockeyed and C’mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark. He’s written essays for Esquire, The New York Times, Salon.com, and The Globe and Mail. He’s also a screenwriter. In addition to the movie adaption of Cockeyed, he’s currently writing a feature for Ridley Scott.
Craig: For who?
John: Ridley Scott.
Craig: Never heard of him. No.
John: That talented director.
John: He also teaches at Capilano University in Vancouver.
Craig: The Couve. Yeah.
John: Welcome, Ryan Knighton.
Ryan Knighton: Thank you. I think of it as like LA’s northernmost suburbs.
John: That’s a very good — very apt analogy.
Craig: Pretty much. Yeah, I mean, I’ve spent enough time there. I feel like it’s, by the way, great city. I actually love that city.
Ryan: Yeah, what about it?
Craig: I mean —
Ryan: Did I sound disparaging?
Craig: A touch. A little challenging, a little disbelieving. I hate to truck in stereotypes but Canadians in general are super nice. Sorry.
Ryan: Sorry. [laughs]
Craig: Sorry. How do you get the Canadian paparazzi off your lawn?
John: I don’t know.
Craig: You ask them to get off your lawn, please. The air is really clean. And it’s just beautiful. It’s a beautiful town. If you don’t like where you are, just ride your bike 10 minutes over a bridge and you’re in a different part. I love it. I just love Vancouver.
John: Yeah, why would you ever leave Vancouver, Ryan?
Ryan: For a career in Hollywood.
John: Oh, well that’s a perfect reason to have you on the podcast.
Craig: Yes, of course.
John: So walk us through some back story. So you wrote these books and when did the bug to become a screenwriter kick in? Was that before you wrote the books? Has it always been there? What is your history with screenwriting and movies?
Ryan: Well, I was actually really a TV kid. I didn’t read a lot of books. And, you know, I grew up watching Three’s Company reruns basically. That was my education.
John: That’s great.
Ryan: So I’d never really had a plan of going into books but the long story is I lost my sight when I was in my late teens. So I’m actually a blind guy. And I went to university because of that. I was driving forklifts poorly when I was losing my sight.
Craig: I’m just guessing.
Ryan: Yeah. You’re supposed to pick up things with the forks. Not impale things with the forks.
Craig: [laughs] That’s a weird way to find out you’re going blind.
Ryan: It’s a weird way you find you’re going blind.
Ryan: Yeah. So I ended up going back to — well, not going back to. I end up going to university and, you know, I kind of got the bug for writing there and I started writing books and articles and things like that. And I had a great chain of mentors. And so TV was never and screenwriting was never really on my horizon. I wished it was — like I wanted to go into theater when I was a sighted guy. I’d done like improv but then when the blackouts started happening on stage, you know, my sight was going and I couldn’t get off stage.
Ryan: So, I never thought it was something I’d be able to, you know, participate in. But after I’d done my first memoir Cockeyed, you know, my lit-agent had tried to sell the film rights and nobody would buy it. And they said, you know, it’s very David Sedaris-y but, you know, it’s more like a sequence of essays than a story. But I just knew there was a bunch of stuff on the cutting room floor that actually was probably more in service of a movie than it was the book. So I just picked up the phone and called the film rights agent and I had sort of told them what other material I had. And he said, “Well, you know, it would help if you wrote a treatment.” And I said, “What’s a treatment?”
Craig: We’ve all been there by the way.
Ryan: You’ve been there?
Craig: Everybody that is asked to write a treatment goes, “Uh-huh”. And then they immediately run to somebody and go, “What the F is a treatment?”
Ryan: And that’s probably your first career choice.
Craig: Pretty much.
Ryan: It’s like if you didn’t ask that question, you would have no career, but it’s the people who say, “Okay, what’s a treatment?”
Craig: Yeah, yeah. “Can someone please help me?”
Craig: It’s a weird word for what that is. Yeah.
Craig: Tell us what a treatment is?
Craig: Well, somebody — you’re the person now that’s going to answer the question for them.
Ryan: Well, it’s weird, like he sent me three and he said sort of imitate these. And my first thing was, “Oh, it’s in present tense. How weird? As a book writer, as a memoirist, I mean, why do you guys write in present tense?”
Ryan: So that was actually a strange thing to switch to. I actually had to really self-consciously work in present tense when I was writing whereas like teaching in the university now, all my students write in present tense. They have no past.
Craig: [laughs] It’s so strange.
Ryan: It’s a weird glitch in the culture now. I wonder if it’s — did you guys read The Hunger Games books?
John: Are they written in present tense?
Craig: Yeah, and it really threw me but I could also see how that probably helped them.
Craig: They were?
Ryan: Yeah, and it probably helped when it was time to adapt them because everything was just — and it was all present tense first person.
Ryan: Well, my theory has been that it’s arisen as in speech the way like has arisen to replace said. That you’ve switched from a print-based culture to a mediated culture where, you know, “said” is for print culture. You know, “This is what I said.” And now we say, “I was like this.” Like you’re performing it.
Ryan: And sort of present tense is in that sort of more performance mode, right?
Craig: And there you were trying to engage in performance mode with your treatment.
Ryan: So it made sense. And, you know, I imitated. And what I learned was just, you know, tell me the sort of the short barstool yarn of the story with its big moments. And I just tried my best and it was too long because I was writing books and it took me awhile to learn less is more and less is still more. And so I did that and nobody was interested still but that was interesting.
Craig: So far it’s going great.
Ryan: It was going great.
Ryan: And then he said, “Well, you know, you should maybe just take a crack at writing the script, adapt the book yourself.” And I said, “Great. How do I do that?” And he said I needed to get Final Draft and so I got that.
Craig: Which you don’t by the way. You don’t need Final Draft.
Ryan: Well, I didn’t know.
Craig: You know, we — you were lied to. [laughs]
John: He just lied to you this whole time. [laughs]
Ryan: [laughs] It’s like I just learned this on this spot.
Ryan: I’ve been lied to for the last 10 years.
Ryan: So I got that and then he sent me three scripts and just said, “Read these and try and imitate the format.” And then I will be shameless here, I found both of your websites and I’m basically an alumni of your websites.
John: Holy cow.
Ryan: That was my education in screenwriting.
Craig: I have a question for you. When you say, “They sent you these,” I mean, you’re learning about the format of screenwriting, how does format work? I assume you’re reading these in Braille.
Ryan: I don’t actually read Braille.
Craig: So what are you doing? How do you pick up the — ?
Ryan: I have a voice synthesizer that reads to me.
Ryan: And it’s sort of like Stephen Hawking basically.
Ryan: And if you get this voice synthesizer as a blind though, the first thing you do is you write a little bit of soft core just because it’s really interesting to hear Stephen Hawking do smut.
Craig: So hot. [laughs] Right.
Ryan: It is as funny as you imagine.
Craig: Yeah. [laughs]
Ryan: And I hope a lot of people right now are really trying to do this.
Craig: But how do you pick up the format from that?
Ryan: Well, the format, I mean, it reads to me. It’s case sensitive in voice.
Craig: I see.
Ryan: So I can hear when things are capitalized.
Craig: I see.
Ryan: And it tells me when I’m in the action line or if I’m in a dialogue line so I know where I am in terms of function.
Craig: How does it tell you then? Out of curiosity.
Ryan: Well, it’s just sort of key strokes, you know, I sort of figured out how my voice synthesizer interacts with the program.
Craig: I see. Got it.
Ryan: Or what it reads me. And mostly I just — I wrote action lines, you know, character names and dialogue. I never really wrote parentheticals. And afterwards I would just get somebody to proof it for me and tell me if I had actually accidentally written a dialogue line in an action line and fix it.
Craig: Makes sense.
Ryan: So I had to have somebody check it. But I just, I loved it. I loved writing it. And I thought, this is so awesome to see if I can go where I’m unwanted like if I can go down to Hollywood and convince somebody that you need blind people describing pictures to you —
Craig: [laughs] Right.
Ryan: That will be like the best ever.
Craig: What can’t you do after that?
Ryan: Exactly! I figured. I figured that is the most unwanted person in Hollywood so I’m going to try that.
Craig: I love it.
John: It strikes that writing, you know, both writing in just normal fiction and writing in screenwriting the visual challenges, the lack of being able to see everything else on the page would present issues just because of — or your visual buffer. Like you can’t look back up like three paragraphs what was there. You have to physically sort of scroll up there to hear it.
John: Like you can’t just glance at it. You have to have it read it back to you at that moment. So do you think you have a bigger overall buffer for what’s around the line that you’re currently writing because you can’t just look at it?
Ryan: I do. I do. I write straight. I just write directly straight ahead as long as I can without going back and rereading.
Ryan: Because it is a chore. It goes up and it reads me line by line like whatever line my cursor is on, it reads that line and it stops reading at the end of a line; not at the end of the grammatical unit.
Craig: Oh, I see.
Ryan: So it takes a while to get used to it. And I probably should have brought it with me. You could have heard it. You wouldn’t be able to understand it. It speaks so quickly.
Ryan: But it’s sort of like, you get so used to the voice that you can accelerate it and accelerate it and still process the voice whereas people who’ve never heard it before can’t process it.
Craig: It’s just something you train your mind to.
Ryan: Yes, yeah.
Craig: To do. I mean, it’s funny. I was playing this, I guess , what do you call, like, a thought experiment on the way over here where I thought, okay, if I lose my sight, how would that impact my screenwriting? I could see how it would impact my life in all sorts of ways but how would it impact my screenwriting. And, you know, the technical aspects you’re describing, the chores, they’re there. But it’s funny like in terms of imagination and screen, what screenwriting ultimately is at its core is so — it’s so internal.
Craig: You know, it’s so mind’s eye based.
Ryan: It is. And actually that’s what I discovered was I found a form basically or a format where what you are doing is describing a picture to somebody who can’t see it.
Ryan: So it’s basically a blind format.
Ryan: And, you know, but it put me on the other side of the table where I’m the one describing rather than being the one being told. And so I come at it from a very kind of empathetic ear to what it’s like to hear pictures being told that are paste inappropriately to how they’re actually unfolding. Like —
Ryan: Action sequences that actually are quite slow. Or —
Craig: That’s interesting.
Ryan: You know, when a bus is barreling down at a character, you don’t want a rococo sentence about it.
Ryan: That’s not the feeling.
Craig: Yeah. And you’ve been at the mercy of poorly told visual paintings.
Ryan: Yes. Because my image of the world in my mind’s eye is mediated by other people’s language, and so, I’m really fickle.
Ryan: You want that specificity and clarity. That’s not to make people uncomfortable. Like if you meet me, don’t think I’m judging you.
Ryan: But, you know.
Craig: Oh, you are.
Ryan: But if the bus is coming at me, you know, don’t take your time.
Craig: Right, exactly. Yeah, yes.
Ryan: [laughs] In telling me that it’s coming.
Craig: Paint the story well.
Craig: Paint the story well.
Ryan: Paint it well in its appropriate pace.
Craig: Well, if it weren’t hard enough for you as a screenwriter because you are blind, you also decided, “And I also don’t want to live in Hollywood. I think I want to stay here in Vancouver,” is that —
Craig: So are there any other challenges by the way that we don’t know about?
Ryan: And I’m illiterate.
Craig: Narcoleptic perhaps or —
Ryan: I actually have never seen a movie, but — [laughs]
Craig: [laughs] Never seen a movie.
Ryan: Never seen a movie. No, well, I already had a life up there, right. I mean, I’ve been teaching at a university since I was in my 20s and, you know, it’s a good day job and I still like it, too. I only teach part time now. I have for years because I’m writing all the time. But I like to go back in the classroom and teach first or second year just basic writing or creative writing just to kind of check in with the 18 year olds —
Ryan: And see what they’re thinking about. And I also think it’s really useful once a year just to go in there and sort of reacquaint myself with the basics of things.
Ryan: Just to see if they’re still true. I think sometimes you develop habits that you think are truths and they’re not necessarily. So I like that once a year to go back in. So it’s one of the reasons I stay there. And then, you know, I have an 8-year-old daughter and she’s in school and my wife has her job up there.
Ryan: And I’m Canadian. There is a culture. I do feel different down here. I couldn’t explain what it is but I do feel like a foreigner.
Craig: No, you absolutely are.
Ryan: Yeah, yeah, so it is true.
Craig: The word for you is alien actually.
Ryan: Oh, yeah.
John: Yeah, you’re an alien.
Craig: You are. But you’re legal.
Ryan: Okay. [laughs]
Craig: [laughs] You’re legal.
Ryan: So I stayed. I stayed up there.
John: Let’s figure out the history here. So the first script you’re writing is the adaption of your first book.
Ryan: Yeah, I adapted Cockeyed at the urging of my film rights agent because it means — I came out of the book world and for those that don’t know, you know, you have a lit agent in the book world who sells the rights to different countries for your book, your publishing rights. So Canada has a sale, US has a sale, they’re all separate. And then the film rights is something that’s usually handled by a subagent and they have the connections at the studios and the production companies to try and get somebody interested in it. So at his urging, I tried to spec, you know, adapt my memoir. And he submitted it to the Sundance Lab and I made it down to the final 25 for that and came down for a meeting with the lovely Sundance Institute people.
John: Yeah, they’re wonderful. And I’ve been an adviser and a mentor at Sundance for many, many sessions. So what was your experience dealing with Sundance and what was that process like for you?
Ryan: Well, it was amazing because it came down for the interview for the shortlist and I was expecting a lot of questions about like, “Oh, you know, how do you write? How do you put on your pants in the morning?”
Ryan: That’s what I’m used to. It’s like, “What do you see when you dream?”
Ryan: But they asked me just a lot of really nuts and bolts, kibbles and bits questions about story.
Ryan: And I realized, holy shit, I’m a writer and I don’t know much about story, particularly in the book world and coming out of academia, you know, you know a lot about rhetoric and genre theory and you don’t know the first thing about storytelling.
Ryan: And they asked me one really amazing question that sold me so well on the experience which was, you know, I was adapting my own memoir. I knew it wasn’t going to be the book anymore. It was going to be a different story because it’s a different beast when you’re doing a movie. I’d have to sacrifice certain things and drop certain plots and things.
Ryan: But the question they asked me was, “What do you think of sentimentality?” And it was such a strong question because in my memoir, basically, the story is, you know, I started losing my sight when I was in my teens and they said, “You could lose it completely within two years or five years or ten years, we don’t know. It could, you know, go really quick or it could just stop. But, you know, plan your future around that.”
Ryan: And I was a working-class kid and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have great grades in school and all that kind of stuff. And when I was telling this story in the book, I made one choice which was I didn’t want to tell the scene when I was diagnosed. It’s just sort of the medical porn of all those trauma memoirs.
Ryan: And I just didn’t want it. So I think I captured it in like maybe a sentence like after my diagnosis. And that was it. And I moved on in the story to the things that really interested me. And I cannot tell you how many people when I went on tour with that book said how moved they were by the diagnosis scene.
Craig: That they filled in with their mind.
Ryan: What they filled in. And because the genre and the culture is so front loaded —
Ryan: That we think we know the story before it even starts and we know it’s going to be a story about triumph of the human spirit. And the worst thing that happens to you when you go blind is you become inspirational. It’s just horrible.
Craig: Yeah, tragic really.
Ryan: And you can’t —
Craig: Because you just want to be a bastard, don’t you? [laughs]
Ryan: You just do. [laughs] Well, wouldn’t you? I mean, it’s sort of like —
Craig: I do every day.
Ryan: It’s like you become a —
Craig: I’m living the dream. [laughs]
Ryan: [laughs] It’s like you become a cartoon character. Now you can say anything.
Craig: Right, right.
Ryan: But anyways, that taught me something. And when I went into the Sundance interview and they asked me about sentimentality, I realized they understood that element in the culture that the culture is going to impose something on this that isn’t necessarily there.
Ryan: Or you’re going to be a sucker to it, too. I mean, just because you’re a blind guy doesn’t mean you’re immune to it.
Ryan: And they called me on it and I had dipped into it in parts of the script just because I didn’t know how else to handle it. And so I just substituted what the culture had sort of taught me to think about these stories. Nobody in the book world had said that to me.
Ryan: And I was just so impressed by their command.
Craig: It’s interesting. I really like the point you’re making about the difference, one of the differences, there’s many, between the world of we’ll call literary fiction and academic literary analysis and mainstream or even independent filmmaking that so much of the literary world is about deconstruction and undermining text and ripping the conventions apart and so much about what we do is to actually perfect some kind of narrative.
Ryan: That’s right.
Craig: Like a structured narrative, you know, it’s almost oppositional in its approach.
Ryan: It very much is.
Craig: You felt that jump when you —
Ryan: I totally felt that jump.
John: I think it also speaks to the nature of present tense story telling versus this past tense which literally fiction tends to be told in the past tense where everything can be sort of looked at through a gauze of history and perspective and you can pause for a long time to figure out like what that moment actually was and what event versus screenwriting which has to keep chugging along at 24 frames per second. Like, it’s always about what’s happening right now.
Ryan: That’s right.
John: And the only way to encounter a moment or encounter an emotion is to find some way for it to be happening in the present tense and not to reflect back on something that happened before.
Ryan: I think in some ways I had a perfect storm of, you know, sort of collateral education for this which was — I mean, first of all, the only kind of pros I was doing be it for articles like I still do travel writing for magazines, you know, it’s like send the blind guy to the to the revolution in Cairo and see what happens. Right?
Craig: [laughs] Did they really do that?
Ryan: Yeah, it was awesome.
Craig: Oh my god. [laughs]
Ryan: It’s like I’m basically Forest Gump in the back of a CNN shot just looking for water.
Craig: [laughs] Oh my god. I want to read that.
Ryan: I just, I mean, I love that stuff. The thing that I like about non-fiction is non-fiction is really — it doesn’t matter if it’s magazine form or book form, long-form thinking. It’s really the art of omission. You have a finite amount of raw material to work with and it’s how you remove things to make the shape of a story emerge.
Craig: That’s right.
Ryan: And I think especially with memoirs and true stories which I do a lot of adapting of that I think an interesting life isn’t necessarily an interesting story.
Craig: That’s right.
Ryan: And accomplishment isn’t necessarily an interesting story. You know, that we think of those as like these big moments but sometimes there is no story that grows from that moment or grows up to that moment that gives it the kind of punch that it needs.
Craig: Absolutely. Yeah, I always feel like the stories about extraordinary people or ordinary people doing extraordinary things that you never get to the place where it becomes a movie until you figure out the ordinary thing that matters, you know.
Ryan: Oh, yeah.
Craig: And I was talking about it with John Lee Hancock. I remember he was looking at The Rookie to direct that. I don’t know if you ever —
Ryan: John Lee was one of the advisers at the Sundance Lab.
Craig: And he’s the best. And The Rookie is basically the story of a high school coach who had burned out as a Minor League baseball player early on from an injury. So there he was a baseball coach in Texas I think and Mike Rich I believe wrote the script. And he made a bet with his team that if they could, you know, win so many games or whatever that he would go try out again. Because the guy had pretty live arms still. And they did and he went and he tried out and he ended up pitching in the Majors for like a season and a half at the age of 38, you know, that was the thing.
Ryan: Oh, wow.
Craig: But John didn’t really know how to make that a movie until he understood that it was a story about a father and a son. And that really was what mattered that you have to find the ordinary thing under the extraordinary thing, you know. If you’re writing your own story, in a weird way, I would imagine that you’d have to kind of find the point of why does my life deserve to be a movie beyond the blindness.
Ryan: Yes. It’s true. It’s totally true. In fact, Cockeyed itself, I never think of as a book about blindness.
Ryan: I had a brilliant editor in New York and she, you know, that was my first lesson with non-fiction that it’s the art of omission. And my first draft was 120,000 words and she said — she phoned me and she said, “Okay, before we start editing this, I have one question for you. You have to answer it for me in one sentence and you can’t use the word blindness.” And she said, “What is your story — “
Craig: What is your story about? Right. [laughs]
Ryan: And she said, “And you can’t answer it now. You have a week and I’ll phone you.”
Ryan: “And when you figure out that sentence, it’s a razor. And with that razor we will cut away.”
Craig: Wow. Good for her.
Ryan: And it was hard. But I realized —
Craig: And what was your answer?
Ryan: My answer was that basically it’s a coming of age story about a young man who’s becoming a disabled man and he thinks it’s a contradiction.
Craig: I see.
Ryan: And it’s about masculinity.
Craig: Right. There we go. There we go.
Ryan: Right. And once you had that, it’s like, oh, it just — all the stories read differently.
Ryan: Right? Because you think they’re literally about something on the surface. And, you know, when you ask young writers, you know, “What’s your story about?” They tell you what happens which is a very different question —
Craig: Than what it’s about.
Ryan: Than what it’s about.
Craig: Which is the most — well, because now also, I read your book and I’m not reading it from the outside point of view of somebody that’s, say, learning about in a sense of curiosity, well, what’s it like living as somebody who’s blind? I’m reading a story about something that impacts me. This is also about me. I too am a man and if you’re a woman you’re reading about your brother or your father or your son.
Craig: It’s relevant.
Craig: Then that just is transformative. That question of what it’s about. I mean, we talk about it on the show all the time.
John: Yeah, it’s a thematic question. Like, what is this movie underneath all the plot, underneath all the characters, what is it actually asking and what is it trying to find an answer for?
Craig: Yeah, why does this need to exist essentially. Because if it’s just about what it seems to be about, there’ve already been movies about that, you know. [laughs]
Ryan: Yeah. Because then it becomes like Social Network is about Facebook.
Craig: Right. Exactly. Great example.
Ryan: And I think, you know it’s sort of — what I often say is that stories are a unit of measurement that we measure what we understand in beginnings, middles and ends. And you know when a story is over because it has understood something. Right? And it didn’t know it from the beginning.
Ryan: Right. And that’s that feeling of satisfaction at the end of the story. It’s not because the plot is over.
Craig: That’s right.
John: It’s because the machine doesn’t need to run anymore.
Craig: The plot is over because the machine doesn’t need to run anymore.
Ryan: That’s exactly it.
Craig: That’s what resolves the plot.
Ryan: And that was the first lesson from non-fiction that I took into screenwriting was that thing that the art of omission is really what you’re working with in screenwriting, especially when you’re adapting, is really about the art of omission.
Ryan: And so that was one thing. And then the other side, I mean, I did a lot on radio and I’d done stuff with This American Life and The Moth and I learned a lot from working on that side of the media because, you know, when you’re telling a story on the radio, you’re telling it in a time-sensitive medium which is screenwriting as well. You’re telling a story that is going to unfold in time and you’re trying to replicate the effect in the reading of the script of what it would be like watching it in real time.
Ryan: And when you write for radio, you’re really sensitive to that. You’re really sensitive to how a story is unfolding and when it’s starting to flag and somebody is going to actually go and do the dishes. And if they came back, would they still be able follow what’s going on? So it was such a great training in the economy of storytelling because you don’t get that with books.
Craig: No, no. If anything, I just imagine books provide you with this remarkable luxury to expand and contract your focus as you wish.
Craig: It’s kind of the fun of books is that they do that.
Ryan: Yeah. And I love making fun of my novelist friends because I’m like, “Oh, there you guys go, just whenever you got a problem, just make some shit up”.
Craig: Yeah. [laughs]
Ryan: Adding to the pile.
Craig: That’s right.
Ryan: You know, what do I got to do? I’ve got to find something else to remove.
Ryan: That’s hard. Digging is harder.
Craig: You have a zero sum game of time.
John: So it was a hard adaptation. So, is the screenplay of Cockeyed similar to the books? In what ways is it different? Is it the same thematic question in the movie version versus the book version?
Ryan: It’s changed in iterations, I mean, when I came out of the Lab, Jodie Foster attached for a couple of years and we worked on it. And she said something to me that was so cutting. [laughs]
Craig: Sweet Jodie Foster?
Ryan: And so instructive because it was so generously done. And she read the script and she said, “I’ll direct this if…” I hope, you know, I’m sure she’s fine with me saying. She said, “I’ll direct this if you’re willing to do a page one rewrite because I think there’s a big problem in the script.” And she said, “Basically, you’ve written an ensemble story because your character is the least interesting.”
John: Oh yeah.
Ryan: And she said, “You have confused a guy going blind with a transformation of character.”
Ryan: She said, “That’s like washing your hair. It was dirty. Now it’s clean. He’s sighted and now he’s not.” She said, “But the guy at the beginning and the end is still the same person in the script. And I think, you were just avoiding yourself by making the other character stronger.”
Craig: Man, you know, she doesn’t seem like the kind of person that would punch you that hard in the face, but boy, that’s — but she’s right.
Ryan: But she was right, which is so rare.
Craig: I haven’t read either the book or the script but I could tell you she’s right.
John: But I’ll tell you like almost any memoir adapted by its own person, it’s going to have that issue because —
John: How you find the inherent conflict and contradiction and how do you make yourself the villain of the story in some ways and that’s a real challenge.
Ryan: Yes. And it was sort like, you had to go back and think about who did you think you were going to be and how was it taken from you?
Ryan: And when I had that, I’m like, “Oh, this is a different story now.” And so we rewrote it by taking away the ensemble, like my character wasn’t allowed to be omitted from any scenes just as a constraint to help that.
Ryan: And when that happened it became a different story. It became more of a love story about me and my wife and I’d followed her to South Korea because she went there to teach English and I was losing my sight and I went with her but she helped me pretend I could see for six months so I could keep a job.
Ryan: And it was about how we crossed from lovers to caretaker and, you know, girlfriend to mom. And you know, it’s a bit like Lost in Translation in sort of the feel of it. And we ended up sort of amplifying that section to be really a lot of the movie.
Ryan: So it changed quite a bit because of that but every time you rewrite something, you learn something different about it. I mean, I’ve written the book. I’ve written the script a few times now in different ways and it still changes.
Craig: And now, you’re writing a screenplay for Sir Ridley.
Ryan: I’ve been adapting something for his company that’s based on a New York Times story —
Ryan: That’s sort of a big military thing.
Craig: Are you allowed to talk about what it is?
Ryan: I don’t think I can.
John: Well, that’s fine.
Craig: Well, you shouldn’t. We’ve never gotten anyone fired. We don’t want to start now.
John: So, Ryan, is this the first job you’ve been hired on to write for somebody else?
John: Or you’ve done other stuff for other people too?
Ryan: No, I’ve done — I adapted Proof of Heaven for Universal which was the brain surgeon who had the sort of [crosstalk] visions.
Ryan: It’s actually going back to what Craig was saying about, you know, what is the story about. I don’t think that thing is about the afterlife. I think it’s actually about something quite different. I adapted that. I adapted a thing called Wings of Madness for Chris Wedge which was something he wanted to do as a live action, his first live action. But it’s a really difficult movie to get made because it’s set in like 1903 Paris which everybody is just running to make.
John: Absolutely. 100 percent.
Craig: I’m about to start, the next thing I’m doing is 1903 Russia so —
Ryan: Oh, really?
Craig: I’m going to take the same shovel of the face. So, you’re not alone. [laughs]
Ryan: So we were writing about Alberto Santos-Dumont who was this sort of crazy Brazilian guy who was basically racing the Wright Brothers to invent a flying —
Craig: Oh, I love that.
John: That’s great.
Ryan: But he was the guys who invented the flying balloon. And there’s pictures of him circling it around the Eiffel Tower because he was the first person to prove you could control a balloon in the sky. And he actually had a flying machine in Paris. He’s still the only man who’s ever had an urban flying machine and he used to fly it to Maximes and tether it to the gas lamp like a horse.
John: That’s awesome.
Ryan: I know. It’s like, why it isn’t that a movie?
Craig: Plus the costumes. What a great time for clothing.
Ryan: Oh my god, and the science like the things you discover, I mean, you guys know this way better than I do. But when you get into the research on these things, it’s always the weird little stuff that you stumble on —
Craig: I know.
Ryan: That opens up the story in this just totally amazing way.
Craig: That’s so funny you say that because sometimes this is how you find out you’re a storyteller. I’ll do research for things. And I’ll sit down with somebody who’s an expert in the field and I’ll begin asking questions. And they tell me what they think I’m supposed to know. But the thing that I seize on always surprises them.
Craig: They’re like, “Well, why is that important?”
Ryan: Yeah, yeah.
Craig: Because it’s dramatic. That’s why.
Craig: But they don’t think that way
John: It’s also why you can’t have somebody else do your research for you. You always say like, “Oh, I’ll have a researcher who will go out and do stuff and pull stuff in.”
Craig: No. You got to do it.
John: It’s the process of like exploration.
John: I can’t imagine letting somebody else do that work. It’s sort of like, “Here, sift through the rock and let me know when you find the good thing.” And it’s like, “I don’t know what I’m even looking for.”
Craig: Right exactly.
John: So you definitely have to dig.
Craig: Yeah. No, no, you have to do it yourself. And actually one of the great — the process of writing oftentimes is miserable. But research, I just love that part.
John: I love it.
Craig: I love that part.
John: Because you can’t fail at research. There’s no —
Craig: I’ve finally figured out why I love it so much. Yeah, I’m always looking for things that I can’t possibly fail at.
Ryan: John, you didn’t do the research quite well enough.
John: Yeah, exactly.
Ryan: That’s so funny.
Craig: This is a cool, so whatever the — you can’t tell us what it’s about but I guess at this point now you’re — after your assignment at Universal, and this is an assignment. You’re now in the cadre of working writers, doing this working writer job.
Craig: But you still —
Ryan: I just became pensionable, I learned.
Craig: Oh, you’re a vested in our pension.
Ryan: I’m a vested. I’m a vested.
Ryan: Thank you.
Craig: Welcome. It’s actually quite a good pension.
John: But I want to connect some dots before this.
John: So you wrote this adaptation and Jodie Foster attached herself and you had done Sundance Labs. Is that what first started getting you meetings about other adaptation projects?
Ryan: Things went really quiet for a while. I actually had that feeling. Like from what I’d read and understood, I thought I’m going to come out of the Sundance Lab and like there’s going to be a line up at the door.
Craig: There’s never a line.
Ryan: No, there’s no line. No. And I had a couple of calls but it was much quieter than I sort of thought it would be. And it was hard. It didn’t make my life any easier at that point it seemed. I mean, Jodie definitely helped. And it was sort of nice too when you’re working in this long development process people are like, “Oh, that must be such a drag, two years.” Well, actually, it’s so nice to have those two names together side by side and nothing that anybody can judge them by.
Ryan: It’s like you’re just working with Jodie and nobody can say they didn’t like it.
Craig: That’s right.
Ryan: But I didn’t have much happen for a while and then Anne Carey who is a producer in New York called my agent and had a book that she was interested in somebody adapting and she thought of me because I’d had a general meeting with her. I’d done a couple of general meetings, not many, like a couple in New York in the in the indie world and a couple down here. And it just was expensive to do that.
Craig: Yeah, because you’re flying.
Ryan: Going back to your question about not living here it’s like you have to fly in and do that. But Anne was one of the few generals I had and it really paid off. And she brought this book to me called Rodeo and Joliet which is a true story of vein of 50/50 and it was about a comedian who was diagnosed with terminal cancer when his wife was eight and a half months pregnant. And he had three months to live and he came home and decided not to tell her.
Ryan: Until he absolutely had to. And so he was going to go through some radical treatments and stuff. And he tried to keep it all from her until he had to absolutely say, “I’m going to die”. So, he pretended he was fine the whole time. He shaved his head and said he was doing a play. And it gets funny.
Craig: It’s that what you’ve done, John?
John: That’s what I did. Yeah, yeah.
Craig: Oh, no. I’m so sorry to hear that’s what’s happened to you.
Craig: And soon I’ll be alone.
Ryan: But it was interesting.
Craig: It had to have ended well because he wrote a book.
Ryan: He survived and what I liked about it, it goes exactly to the about-ness question was I thought, “Oh, no, if I get any work, it’s going to be — people bring me your disease books and make them funnier.”
Ryan: And I’m like, “I want to be that guy.”
Craig: You would be pegged as the disease of the week guy.
Ryan: But I read this book and I’m like, “I love this guy’s story because it’s not about what it should be about.” The dramatic question isn’t, “Is he going to live or die?” The dramatic question is, “How long can you keep it from her?” And you kind of want him to get away with it.
Craig: Right. It’s like a murder mystery almost.
Ryan: It’s like a ticking time bomb story, right?
Craig: Yeah. And it’s about marriage. And it’s about the dynamics of men and women —
Ryan: I just loved it.
Craig: Yeah, it’s great.
Ryan: And he was a comedian. And there was a thing I wanted to do which was, you know, because so much of his struggle was in his internal life, I said to Anne, I really want to stylize this in a way. And I had this thing like, for example, he doesn’t tell anybody he’s sick, so like, what are we going to do with that? And so I have this scene where he’s in an elevator and his head is shaved and these two women are talking and he just looks at them and they keep sort of looking at him sideways like, “Is he sick or is he — ?”
And he just says, “Cancer.” And they just carry on their conversations like he hasn’t spoken and then he’s like, “Cancer, cancer, cancer.”
Ryan: And he just really enjoys this moment. And then when he breaks out of the elevator and follows them out of the building it turns into Spring Time in New York and it’s a musical and he’s like, “Hey, everyone, I got cancer.”
Craig: Oh, that’s great.
Ryan: And I said, “If I can do a musical sequence of his fantasy of telling everybody and everybody is like —
Craig: “Great for Glenn.”
Ryan: I love it. And the banners drop like —
Craig: “Glenn has got the cancer!”
Ryan: If I can do that, I want to do this.
Craig: I love that.
Ryan: And they were just so game.
Craig: They should make that movie. That sounds like a great scene.
Ryan: I had such a great time in it. But that was the second one. And then —
John: So they paid you to write that movie and that became your second sample?
Ryan: And that one still circulates a lot as a sample.
Ryan: And they’re still trying to make it and Chris O’Dowd is attached as the lead.
John: Great. Oh, he’d be great.
Ryan: Yeah, he’s just so great.
John: Chris O’Dowd is sort of like you. You probably don’t know that he’s sort of like you but —
Ryan: He is?
John: He has physicality that’s actually very similar to yours.
John: Yeah. So people who are listening at home —
Craig: No, he doesn’t. [laughs] I’m going to tell you right now that, no way. You think he looks like Chris O’Dowd?
John: Chris O’Dowd if he shaved his head.
John: You don’t think so?
John: All right.
Craig: We’re talking about the same Irish guy, right?
John: Same Irish guy. Yeah.
Craig: No, he’s lying to you. [laughs]
John: All right.
Craig: No. Look at these two sighted guys who can’t agree on what they see.
John: [laughs] Exactly. It’s a waste.
Craig: [laughs] What’s the point of seeing if they —
Ryan: What’s the point?
John: Absolutely, They can’t agree on who should play you.
Craig: What is the point?
John: What is the point?
Craig: It doesn’t even work. Vision is baloney.
Ryan: Is there a Google Glass out to help you guys see people the same way?
Craig: It wouldn’t work well.
John: So, you need the Google Glass app that just like identifies like sort of who is —
John: Who’s crazy and who’s not crazy.
Craig: Well, you know, they have that thing online where you can upload a picture of you and it’ll tell you which —
John: Oh, yeah.
Craig: Movie star you look like. So —
Ryan: I have —
Craig: We could do that with him.
Ryan: I think John should build an App that’s called Consensus Vision.
John: 100 percent.
Ryan: We all just see the same thing.
Craig: He should not because it’s going to be rigged.
John: It would be totally rigged.
Craig: I won’t believe a damn thing that I see.
John: It’ll be absolutely true for everybody except for Craig’s questions about Chris O’Dowd.
Craig: You know what? In the show notes, I want a picture of Ryan and I want a picture of Chris O’Dowd. And I want people to feedback on this. That’s crazy.
John: Yeah, Stuart will do it and Stuart will find the two photos that are most identical.
Craig: I know. I know.
John: We’ll put some red glasses on Chris O’Dowd and people will —
Ryan: As a man who has not seen his face in 12 years, I’m really happy to hear I look like Chris O’Dowd although I don’t know what he looks like.
John: Yeah, it’s great.
Craig: He looks a bit like not you. [laughs] No, we’re going to find who he looks like.
John: We will figure it out.
John: So —
Ryan: So that was my second, my second.
John: That was your second and that sort of got the ball rolling. So, many of our listeners are listening to this podcast because they are screenwriters who do not live in Los Angeles and you are one of the few people we’ve had on the show who is a working — –
Ryan: I’m a three-legged unicorn.
John: Yes. You are a working screenwriter who does not live here. And we could think of a couple of other people like Gary Whitta doesn’t live here.
Craig: Justin Marks.
John: Justin Marks. People, but almost all the people —
Craig: Well, and I don’t count New York as not here.
Craig: Because there are a ton of guys in New York.
Ryan: Well, that’s funny. When you go into generals, and people are like “Where do you live?” or “You don’t live here, do you?” And I say, “No.” And they say, “Oh, so you live in New York.”
Ryan: They assume, if you’re not living LA you live in New York. And now, they sometimes will say, “Are you in Austin?”
Craig: Yeah, there’s a few of those —
Craig: But, yeah, because like Robert Rodriguez has his whole factory in Austin and New York has Richie LaGravenese and Tony Gilroy and —
John: And you’re dressed in black, so that also feels like New York dress.
Craig: You look New Yorky but the second you start talking, you’re Canadian.
Ryan: Because I talk about my mum.
Craig: About your mum. [laughs]
Ryan: My mum. [laughs]
Craig: My mum. [laughs]
John: So we’re recording this on a Wednesday at 5 p.m. and we’re in a very specific time because you’re super busy because you came down here to do a bunch of meetings.
John: So tell us what that process is like. How much ahead of time do you figure out that you need to come down? How many meetings do you jam in to one of these trips? What is it like?
Ryan: It’s funny because it’s sort of like a genre that I’ve invented over the past few years of like how I do meetings. Which is first of all, I don’t think you can do this if you live somewhere else unless you have representation in town.
Ryan: You absolutely have to have presentation in town.
Craig: Because they’re setting up all the meetings for you.
Ryan: They’re setting up meetings and also they kind of keep you as a virtual presence in your absence.
Ryan: So I’m managed at Mosaic and I’m repped at WME and I have, you know, all those people constantly circulating my stuff hopefully and keeping everybody sort of aware that my name is on the frontal lobe in case jobs come up. And you see this enough that, you know, somebody gets a book or something comes through the office that they get excited about and they think, “Okay, who is this good for?” They’re not going to think back two years to that one general they had.
Ryan: And sometimes you have to refresh with people. And so that’s part of what that team in town does for me is they keep me alive when I’m not here.
John: They literally keep you available.
John: So literally there’s lists of writers who are available or actors who are available and you’re on the available list and they want to think of you as being available in a way that you could just go in for a meeting on something if it were interesting. And so, you have to be ready to come down here when those opportunities arise.
Ryan: That’s right. So if there’s something that’s super urgent like if it’s really time-sensitive then we’ll do it on the phone and that’s not great.
Ryan: Like I’ve done pitches, a lot of pitches on the phone which is just an absolutely horrible —
Craig: It’s the worst.
Ryan: It’s the worst. It’s just the worst. Especially —
Craig: There’s no — it’s so formalized, I mean, you want to feel them with you, you know.
Craig: It’s like in a weird ways you just want to feel that. And you can’t feel anything on a phone.
Ryan: It’s very hard to tell stories when you don’t know how people are really —
Craig: Yeah, exactly.
Ryan: Interacting with it and you just don’t get it on the phone.
Craig: And what by the way, out of curiosity, because you don’t have the visual element to tell you, what are you picking up on when you are with people in these meetings?
Ryan: That’s a good question.
Craig: Is there the buzz there?
Ryan: I actually often bring an assistant with me. And sometimes I will ask like tell him, like if you’re seeing like they are losing it, like they’re just rolling eyes with their — picking up BlackBerry’s.
Craig: Nudge me.
Ryan: Nudge me.
Ryan: And sort of like pick up the pace.
Ryan: Otherwise, I just go in to my own groove. I mean, I’ve done a lot of stuff with The Moth, with the storytelling which has been great training like —
Ryan: Just telling somebody a story for 10 minutes is training on pitching, because you get a sense of sort of the pacing and how to set things up. And especially if you’re handling a story that has like 10 characters in it, you realize, I don’t need to tell every one of them.
Ryan: Who are the ones that matter? What are the moments that you can really pop, you can kind of sell a certain moment in the script that really feels like, “Oh, that’s what this story is really going to feel like.” And until you tell it, you don’t feel that. Like, you can’t write that out and feel it the same way as telling it.
Craig: That’s right.
Ryan: And the room, I still find this a very bizarre thing in this industry that, you know, you’re hiring a writer based on how they can tell you something.
John: Yeah, it’s a crazy way to do it.
Ryan: It is a crazy way to do it.
John: Yeah, yeah.
Ryan: But it’s benefited me because I like doing it.
John: Yeah. And you’re good at it. You’re good at talking.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, that’s the thing. And look, there are writers who are actually terrible at talking and they shy away from pitching, but they do — it’s a little harder for them because they have to go the route of just writing and saying, “Look, here’s a script.” And then when it’s time to get an assignment, someone will sit down with them and just sort of know beforehand from their representatives, not necessarily the best in a room but the work is great, you know.
Craig: So there’s a certain amount of faith they have to operate on. But when you’re either relatively new or you’re kind of battling for stuff to have, you know, you could call it whatever you want to call it, the gift of gab or just a natural storytelling ability, but man, it’s useful.
Ryan: Yeah. And I think the danger too is over doing it like if you over-rehearse a pitch like that, it comes off as recitation.
Craig: Correct. And glib and contrived.
Craig: You know, you don’t want to feel like you’re calculating anything. You want to just — I always say to people like, the best pitch is the one where if somebody walks out of a movie theater having just seen a great movie and says, “Let me tell what I just saw”.
Craig: And that buzz is, you know, what it’s all about for me.
John: The best pitches also tend to feel like conversations —
Craig: They do.
John: Even though you’re doing almost all the talking, you are inviting them to come in and ask a question at the right moment or to nudge the story this way or that way. You’re seeing sort of how they’re engaging with the story. So it doesn’t feel like it’s just one long monologue.
John: It feels like they are present in this moment as the story is being told.
Ryan: Part of the difficulty I find is that, you know, it’s not visual cue either. Like I seem to be surviving without the visual cues in a room unless I’m completely missing things, like what do I know. I mean, maybe people do or just people are walking out, I have no idea.
John: Rolling their eyes like, oh —
Ryan: I’m just talking to the empty room.
Craig: [laughs] Everyone just hates you.
Ryan: But you can feel like that thing when you walk in to a conference room like —
Ryan: When I’m doing The Moth, it’s like if it’s in a theater and there’s people there that are ready to hear a story and they’re out for an evening.
Ryan: And you’ve got a microphone. There’s something that just sort of warms the room and readies it for a story. Whereas when you walk into conference room at 9 o’clock in the morning on the lot and people are still like drinking their coffee, and still trying to catch up on the morning email while they’re walking in, it is so hard to bring them up to temperature.
Ryan: And so I find those first two minutes that are not about the pitch so critical.
Ryan: Because it’s really the time you have to buffer them into your zone and get them into your sort of vibe more.
Ryan: And to answer your question, I mean, so that’s one thing is I need the people down here to kind of keep my presence going around. But I will start planning usually to come down about a month before I come down.
Craig: To give your guys time to —
Ryan: They need to get scripts out to people, to give them time to read them, to get back to them, and to think.
Craig: Set the appointments.
Ryan: And all of that stuff.
Ryan: And then, a month at least. And what I find is LA, I learned has a calendar that’s actually very short like, you know, you can’t come down in January because Sundance is on. You can’t come down in February because the Oscars are on. May and June, it’s Cannes, Cannes, Cannes.
Ryan: Summer goes from June to forever, you know.
Ryan: Everyone is gone.
John: Yeah, they’re just gone.
Ryan: There gone until TIFF which is September.
Craig: And then it’s Christmas.
Ryan: You can’t come in September.
Ryan: So really, there is, like October and November are prime windows for me and March and April, those are usually my too busy windows for just doing generals. If I’m coming down just for general meetings, it’ll be those two times a year.
John: So within one of these trips down here, how many meetings will you try to get scheduled?
Ryan: So I will usually give my team about a week. Like I’ll give them a Monday to Friday.
Ryan: Sometimes I’ll come in on the Monday because I find a lot of people have their staff meetings on Mondays.
Ryan: Like I learned over the years, I used to come in on a Sunday and I’d only have like two meetings on the Monday and it would be like kind of a waste.
Ryan: So I tend to fly in on the Monday and start Tuesday morning and then I leave Friday night.
Craig: In that span?
Ryan: In that span, five or six a day.
Ryan: Yeah, I know.
John: That is more meetings I’ve ever heard of. That’s crazy.
Craig: That’s insane.
Ryan: Four days in a row. You get —
Craig: You’re like 20 to —
John: You’re a machine.
Craig: 24 meetings in a week?
Craig: How do you even do that?
John: That’s superhuman. I mean, it’s great that you’re having somebody drive you.
Ryan: I’m Canadian.
John: You don’t have that [crosstalk].
Craig: You just have to be able to put up with an enormous amount of suffering.
Ryan: And no, I don’t want the other writers listening to this podcast and say, “Oh, so he’s the one hogging all — “
John: All the slots.
Craig: Well, I have to say that there is something, like if I’m an agent, I’m always looking for an angle, you know. So, here’s a guy like, look, he’s in Vancouver. He’s coming down here for a week.
John: Absolutely true.
Craig: We got Tuesday to Friday and it’s filling up because —
Ryan: This is what they say.
Craig: Because like Bill Morrow always said, “In Los Angeles, if you put a velvet rope in front of a garbage dump, people will start lining up.”
Craig: It doesn’t matter. So if suddenly there’s a competition and it’s like —
Ryan: I am the garbage dump to this velvet rope.
Craig: In this analogy you are the garbage dump.
John: But what I have to say is also brilliant about that is like look how many times you’re at bat. I mean, you’re literally going into those rooms so often. And so even if like four out of those five meetings are not going to lead to anything, one of them will and that’s great.
Ryan: Well, you know, the first general I ever had was with a producer named Richard Gladstein.
Craig: Oh, yeah, sure.
Ryan: You know him from those days.
Craig: Yeah, back in the Miramax days.
Ryan: Miramax days.
Craig: What was it? It was FilmColony, right?
Craig: Yeah, FilmColony.
Ryan: And it was the first general I ever had. And I pitched him a story. It was the first time I kind of pitched a story to a producer and it was terrible. But Richard really liked my sample which was the adaptation of my memoir. It’s the only script I had. And I was working on trying to get a second one together because I knew it wasn’t enough to come down and say, “I adapted my own book.”
Ryan: You know, you got to show some other chops. So I was busy doing that. And anyway, he had a book that he was, you know, looking at having somebody adapt and I read it and I loved it and it was tonally just exactly what I wanted. It was sort of like True Romance told like Raising Arizona. And so he showed my sample to the director who was attached and the director was like, “I don’t see the connection.”
Ryan: Like, you know, “The blind guy, this? I don’t get it.”
Ryan: So that was it. It was over. Two years later, Richard phones me and says, “Do you still like that book?” I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I still like that book.” He’s like, “Okay, I got money. I’ll hire you to do it.”
Ryan: Two years later, I don’t know. I hadn’t spoken to him in two years.
Craig: That’s, wow. Richard is that kind of guy. He’s a real producer, you know.
Ryan: Yeah. And those kind of, like I’ve had really amazing luck with being connected with really amazing people when it comes to developing material and —
Craig: Well, you know my whole theory about luck is that in fact if you are talented and you seem to be, judging from everything, that really good people will find you, you know. It’s not only luck. I mean, there’s a connection between what you’re putting out and what you’re getting back.
John: I think there’s other advantages, too. It’s like, obviously, we talked about your experience with radio and talking to people.
John: That was a huge help. You’re also distinct and people remember you. There is no other person in your slot exactly. There’s like, you remember like, “Oh, that’s right. He was the talented writer who is also blind.”
John: And that’s a useful thing. And that can be great. He remembers you from two years ago because you were great and you had a good approach on that. And also, oh, there’s one other sticky detail that’s always going to be there.
John: And so, while that may be —
Craig: So the advice is everyone pretend to be blind. [laughs]
Ryan: Everybody gouge your eyes out, you know. [laughs] And Hollywood will bring you in —
Ryan: For your general.
Craig: Get to gouging folks.
Ryan: I think there’s two things. I mean, I think it’s true that if you want to try and do this living somewhere else, I also had the advantage that I came from other mediums. Like I had done books.
Ryan: I had done articles. There were things that people had read. Some people had recognized me from This American Life. It’s not like I came in to town cold from Vancouver.
Ryan: And just showed up with my one sample. And that was it.
Craig: Because otherwise you wouldn’t have agents at William Morris. You wouldn’t have representation in Los Angeles anyway.
Craig: Anyway, so —
Ryan: And prior to having them repping me. I mean, I had somebody in New York and he set me up on generals and at that time I might do two or three a day and it’s just blown out bigger since then.
Craig: Well, these guys will certainly, I mean, for those of you listening who aren’t in Hollywood or New York and you’re trying to play the game of, well, I don’t want to leave but I also want to do this, what Ryan is saying is kind of mission-critical here because any reasonable — I mean, look, like there’s four big agencies, right? Any one of them can fill anyone’s plate with meetings.
Craig: For sure, if you give them two weeks, they’ll make you go on 80 meetings.
Craig: But in a weird way, it’s binary. Either you have that where it’s a buffet of meetings or you have nothing.
Craig: Just wind whistling and tumbleweeds. So, you know, I’m glad that this point came out because we get this question all the time. And what’s behind the question is a certain — I want to have my cake and eat it, too. I don’t want to make a commitment but I also want to do this, so can I do this from Peoria? And, yeah, if you have an agent, if you have like a big-shot agent —
Craig: In Hollywood, yeah, you can do it from anywhere.
John: But Ryan’s life is much more difficult than it would be if he were living right here because then he could just easily go someplace. So I think he’s maximizing on sort of —
John: Sort of the opposite goal of being out there.
Craig: There will always be that obstacle, yeah.
Ryan: Yes, that’s right.
Ryan: I mean, what I sort of decided was, I mean, there’s an expense too. I got to fly, you know.
Ryan: I got to stay in a hotel.
Ryan: I have to hire an assistant to fly with me.
Craig: And you can’t fly alone, yeah. You got this guy here.
Ryan: Oh, no, I go alone.
Craig: Oh, you fly alone?
Ryan: I do everything alone but when I get here I hire an assistant who drives me to all the meetings and sort of does my visual eyeballing of things.
Craig: Got it. Right.
Ryan: Kicks me under the table when I’m slow.
Craig: Table kicker.
Ryan: But the gain, like, that costs a lot, too.
Ryan: So, you know, if you live in Peoria and you want to try and do this and come in for meetings and all that kind of stuff, you are still spending a lot to come in and do this one week. And, you know, you might do 20 meetings of which you might not find —
Ryan: 10 of them were really that worth it in the end for you.
Craig: That’s right. And then there are times where you really want something that they’re discussing but you don’t get it.
Ryan: You don’t.
Craig: There are times when they’re saying, “Hey, here’s something we’d be interested in you doing,” and you’re like, “I don’t want to do it.”
Ryan: Or it is so general, it’s a general of the general and —
Craig: Right, yeah.
Ryan: You just feel like nothing concrete will ever come out of this.
Craig: And those are hard.
Ryan: And you realize, I drove an hour for this. This was another hour and now I’m going to drive an hour to another place, so that was three hours and I don’t think I probably should have done it.
Craig: But you never know which one is going to be the one.
Ryan: You never know.
John: Yeah, yeah.
Craig: And you don’t even know at the time because it may seem like it was nothing. And then, you know, two years later —
John: But the other thing you’re, I think, helping our listeners understand is that you have to physically be in the room with these people —
Ryan: You do.
John: For them to understand —
Craig: At some point.
John: Who you are and what it is. So like, they will have already read your script or they already know that you’re a talented writer, but they want to see you and be able to talk with you about things and they want to be in the room with you. And that’s why you’re coming down here to do these meetings.
Ryan: And I will admit, at the beginning, I was skeptical. I didn’t understand it. And I said, I remember saying to one of my agents, like, “Can’t I just do a phone meeting? Like, I mean, for me it’s the same.”
Ryan: “Like I don’t see them anyways. What do I care?”
Craig: Right. [laughs] Ah, that’s awesome.
Ryan: It’s just for them, isn’t it? And does it have to be all about them? What about me?
Craig: [laughs] It’s so funny.
Ryan: But I came down and I realized, “Oh, wait, if I work with any of these people,” like I’ve done scripts where, you know, you’re working for a year with this person.
Ryan: And you work with them, never when it’s easy. Like it’s when things are difficult. And part of being in that room is, “Can I do a year with you? Are you open and collaborative? Do we have a good rapport? Is this going to be a good time together in the hard time?
Craig: Yeah. Which is exactly what they need to know from us.
Ryan: They need to know that.
Craig: Because unlike, you know, let’s say, we’re doing really well and we’re working on two projects a year or even three, that’s two or three different people a year, main people that we’re dealing with. Well, they have, I don’t know, 10, 12 things a year.
Craig: They have lots of writers, so they have way more experience with bad relationships in a weird way than we do, just by the numbers, just by the amount of swings at that plate.
Ryan: That’s true.
Craig: So I think that they need to look in the horse’s mouth and figure out, “Can I sit next to this person?”
John: Yeah, do I, yeah.
Craig: Can I trust them?
John: Trust is really what it comes down to.
John: It’s very hard to trust — I was going to say, when you can’t see, but like —
John: What’s not in front of you. And so that’s why you being in that room is important. Like, “Oh, this is an actual real person who can actually do this work.” And that’s crucial.
Ryan: Well, you understand, I mean, you come quickly to understand the economy of fear in town where, you know, when somebody gives you a job, what they’re doing is putting their job on the line in some respect.
Ryan: Like they’re saying, “I vouch for you, that you’re the one that we should go with. So if you don’t deliver, I’m going to pay with it too.”
Craig: They will. They are held accountable for — I would say it’s like the worst, as writers, if somebody broke into our house and held a gun to our head and said, “I have a script that I’ve written, put your name on it and then send it out.”
Craig: That’s kind of what they’re lives are like.
Ryan: Yeah. And I feel like I sort of owe them at minimum the dedication to the craft that I would come down.
Craig: Yes, exactly.
Ryan: You know what I mean?
Craig: To show that level of commitment.
Ryan: Yeah. But, you know, you do the 20 meetings in the week or whatever and I think it’s also important for listeners who haven’t done generals to know you can’t just come in to those meetings and — it’s not like you walk in, they just put some stuff on the table and it’s like, “Here is this job and here is this job. And there’s this one. And, you know, what do you think of these?”
Craig: Wouldn’t that be nice?
Ryan: Sometimes they have something they might pitch you and you might realize after a while like, “Oh, I was pitched that last year.”
Ryan: But it’s also, you need to come down prepared with things to bring to them as well.
Ryan: And they might be nuggets of ideas. They might be better formed ideas. They might be fully-realized treatments. But you need to have a variety of things that you can pull out of our quiver at any given moment given what they’re interested in and what they’re looking for, right?
Ryan: So if I’m going to fly down here and spend the money and do the grind of driving to six different meetings across town and let me tell you if you don’t live in LA you spend a lot of freaking time in a car. It’s like half the day is in the car, half the day is in a conference room.
Craig: That’s pretty much where people listening to this show, I think, is we’re just fulfilling people’s rush-hour needs.
Ryan: But, you know, so you want to maximize the use of that time if you go through the rigmarole of setting up all those meetings with you agents. And when you get here by the way, many of them will just fall out.
Craig: Yeah, they just won’t even happen.
Ryan: They won’t happen. And then another one will get slotted in or one will get moved to try and get another one. And my team, when I am here, I know they are so busy. Well, their assistants are so busy, too.
Ryan: And I want to stress the assistants work so hard supporting me.
Craig: Well, they do all of it. You know, they do all of it.
Ryan: Because they piece it altogether, right?
Craig: And they also, they’re the ones that are on top because what happens is the network of assistants is what suspends the entire business.
Craig: It’s just, that’s the matrix that people don’t see. So you’re at a meeting, right? They know you’re in town and they know, “Okay, we need him over here at 3:00.”
Craig: So if you let this go until 2:15, he’s never going to get there. So you need to be back from — you need your guy back from his early lunch like you promised. So they’re all working together to make this stuff happen. And truly, all of them, the unsung heroes.
Ryan: I’ve heard from friends of mine in town here who are writers that they think one of the advantages I do get in not living here is that there is a kind of novelty because you’re not always available.
Ryan: And that will get you a meeting that, for them, they might get and it changes, and it changes, and it changes, and it gets deferred for months maybe.
Craig: Right, because you can punt somebody to next week if they live around the corner but they can’t punt you. That’s kind of bad form.
Ryan: And also, because you’re not always here, there is a slight newness to you, you know, that you’re not in the scene. You’re not seen at events. You don’t cross paths with people, so, you know, you’re a bit of a Dodo bird.
Craig: Well, yeah, you know, it’s true that these people, you know, part of their DNA is to find something, to discover something. That’s part of their gig.
Craig: In ways that isn’t necessarily what we do. They’re looking to find and exploit something essentially. Like capitalists. And to find you and exploit you. That’s part of the fun of tracking the new guy.
John: I just realized we’ve ruined you because —
Craig: Yeah, yeah.
John: Because people are going to be listening to this like, “Oh, he’s actually, you know, he’s sort of established. He has credits.”
Craig: He’s just a man. He can really — [laughs]
John: Absolutely. [laughs]
Craig: [laughs] That’s right.
John: I want to wrap up with one last sort of minor topic which is that you’re not American so you’re writing all this as a Canadian and are there tax and weird implications for writing in the US?
John: So, can you just walk us through quickly what that’s like?
Ryan: There’s sort of two different ways to go. I incorporated in Canada when I started sort of earning enough of a living off of it that I realized I had to do that. Some of the studios can be sticky about it. They don’t like to pay a foreign company. One studio in particular insisted that if they did pay my foreign company that I could not be covered by a WGA contract.
Ryan: Even though I’m a WGC member in Canada too, so we would have to go through that union instead which that wasn’t nice either.
Ryan: So then they wanted to put me on what’s called an O1 visa which is like the, you know, what hockey players use to come and play here and get paid on foreign soil for doing work here. So, you know, it can be very complicated. Most of the time, I’d say 75% of the time, they’re fine to pay my Canadian company. I’m covered by WGA contract. I’m a foreign member. And in that case, I pay all my taxes up in Canada. They don’t withhold any here. If I do —
Craig: And so they don’t withhold here either for corporations.
Craig: And then you got to pay it yourself.
Ryan: But when I was on the O1 visa, they withheld taxes here.
Ryan: Which were credited against my Canadian ones at the end of the year and that was just a nightmare because I was also paying Medicare here I don’t use. I was paying all sorts of stuff.
Craig: Right, because you got BC Health.
Ryan: I got that Canadian social —
Ryan: My wife figured out the way to part the Red Sea of the lineups to the hospital, which don’t actually exist but —
Ryan: The night I went in for the hospital, she figured out the way to get me to the front of the line which was, she walked me into the emergency room very quickly. I didn’t have my cane because that’s how quickly we got in the car and she said, “Quick, my husband has electrocuted himself and he’s blind.”
Ryan: And she meant them as separate facts.
Ryan: But you can imagine those doctors just came running —
Ryan: And like the guy that like lost his leg stepped out of the way like —
Ryan: “You got to help him.”
Craig: Like you’re blind, like your vision has been electrocuted.
Ryan: Yeah, like I shoved my eye in a wall socket.
Ryan: And they’re like, “Oh, wow!”
Craig: That’s a great triage trick.
Ryan: But that’s how you get up to the front of the line in a Canadian hospital is you try and do a mash-up of problems that they’ve never heard before.
Craig: Right. [laughs] That’s awesome. And everyone just goes, “Oh, sorry. I’m…sorry.” [laughs]
Ryan: Speaking to you taxes question because that, you know, everybody is so fascinated by taxes. On the other side, I will say, right now, because I’m Canadian and the exchange rate, I get a huge bump.
Ryan: So that’s one of the reasons it’s also like so attractive to work down here.
Craig: Yeah, it was not that way maybe 10 years ago or —
Ryan: Two years ago.
Craig: Two years it was like 1 to 1 basically.
Ryan: Two years ago I actually lost money working down here.
Craig: Canadian dollar was stronger than the US?
Ryan: It was above. It was.
Craig: Oh, that’s a national shame for us. We don’t like that sort of thing. We can’t handle that.
Ryan: No, I’m glad you guys rose up again like the phoenix from the ashes and kicked the ass of our dollar.
Craig: Because of the Loonie, I mean, we can’t let that — it’s called a loonie. We can’t let the loonie win.
Ryan: That’s right. I agree.
Craig: Yeah. The toonie can win.
Ryan: Please don’t let it win.
Craig: [laughs] Exactly. I don’t want it to win either. I make all my money down here.
John: I love me a toonie. It’s time for the end of our show and the One Cool Things. Craig —
John: What is your One Cool Thing this week?
Craig: My One Cool Thing this week is, it’s not — I haven’t discovered anything particularly new but it’s growing in popularity. If you have, it’s probably mostly for kids I would say. If you have a son or daughter that’s a dork like me or my kids, when you love gaming, video gaming, just general nerdy pop-culture stuff like that, there’s this company called Loot Crate. Have you heard of Loot Crate?
John: I’ve heard of Loot Crate. Tell me.
Craig: Okay. It’s basically, it’s kind of a brilliant business. I think it’s like 12 bucks a month. So it’s a subscription-based thing. And once a month they send you a box. It’s not an actual crate but it’s a box and every kid loves getting a box. And you open it up and there’s just stuff in it. And all the stuff I feel like the business model is they go around to a bunch of people and they’re like, “Give us promotional items. We’ll shove them in a box. We’ll send them to kids and now kids have your stuff and are interested.”
Craig: So you get like interesting playing cards. Actually, this month, my son got a cool D&D t-shirt.
Craig: And there’s little games and cool stuff. So anyway, Loot Crate, if your kids like any packages and they’re dorks like my kids, in a good way.
John: Yeah. I should send them Writer Emergency Packs, would that fit in a Loot Crate?
Craig: Totally. It would totally fit in a Loot Crate.
Ryan: Loot Crate, that’s awesome.
Craig: Yeah, Loot Crate.
John: Loot Crate.
Craig: I mean, they may ask for quite the volume.
Craig: I don’t know how it works, but so I’m going to look into it at the very least so it’s lootcrate.com.
John: Very cool .
John: My One Cool Thing is actually a bunch of One Cool Things. This last week I had to do some optimization of Google AdWords and Google AdWords are those terrible ads that show up in search results. And so I needed to actually do that and I had no idea how to do it. And so I started looking for books on it and it’s like, “Oh, here’s advanced Google AdWords and stuff.” But it’s like, you know what, I really have no idea what I’m doing so I just went to the Google AdWords for Dummies books.
And I would say like over the course of the years, I’ve discovered that for most purposes, the For Dummies books should be your first place to look because they’re actually written for anybody who doesn’t really know what stuff is. And so if you go to any of the more of the advanced stuff right from the start, you’re going to miss out on the fundamental things.
So I think a weird sort of blanket recommendation to, if you’re at the bookstore, check out the For Dummies in whatever topic that you’re going to look up. For example, Ryan, you might want to check out like Electricity for Dummies. So the next time there’s an electrical incident. Hey. You can avoid that.
Craig: Do you, because I’m a big — I believe in what you’re saying. I do it all the time. I get the dummies guides. But sometimes I’ll get the Idiot’s Guide, too. It’s Coke and Pepsi, which one is better?
John: I don’t know consistently if they’re better. But I would say, my general recommendation is just swallow your pride and pick up the book with the goofy cover.
John: Because sometimes it actually has the best information. And I think it’s probably because it’s a big enough industry that they just actually have editors who like work really hard on finding the right people to write those books.
Ryan: I think dummies are just self-deprecating and idiots have Xs for eyes.
Craig: That’s the deal. That’s the difference.
Ryan: That’s the difference, yeah.
Craig: We should start our own thing like, you know, The Absolute Moron. Like, oh, if the Dummies books are too challenging —
John: Yeah, indeed. For people with incredibly low IQ.
Craig: Like, How Stupid Are You series.
John: That’s very good.
Craig: [laughs] All right. What about you, Ryan?
John: Ryan, we didn’t warn you about any of these things.
Craig: Yeah. You got a cool thing floating around your head.
John: Are there any things you’d like to endorse to our audience?
John: Oh, what’s Lovage?
Ryan: I’m a big like food guy because like that’s sort of my way of seeing places. And Lovage is a kind of like a celery sort of basil herb that grows up in the mountains usually. But there are restaurants now that if you could find one that makes a Lovage sorbet.
Ryan: If you find them around, it’s amazing.
Ryan: It’s like eating perfume that fell off the gods. It’s just insane.
Craig: Wow! I was not expecting that to be what Lovage was.
Ryan: I thought I would just completely do it.
John: Yeah, Lovage sounds like something that you use for —
Craig: When you started with Lovage, I got really interested.
John: Like pulling off skin or something.
Craig: Yeah, no, yeah, like frottage.
John: Oh, yeah.
Ryan: I figured this is the first sort of gardening endorsement on your show.
Craig: No question.
Ryan: Go grow some Lovage.
Craig: No question, Lovage.
John: 100 percent.
Craig: Well, that’s going to be a cool little Scriptnotes for us, Lovage.
John: Yeah, I think so.
John: Lettuce and Lovage. Ryan Knighton, thank you so much for being on the show this week.
Ryan: Thank you. I am just so happy I got to come here. And I have to say, like truly, I am like an alumni of your programs. And I can confirm to your listeners that there are people in lab coats around here.
John: Very true. And there are of course cult members surrounding us. Because last week we learned that Scriptnotes is actually a cult.
Craig: Yeah, we were accused of being a cult.
John: Yeah, which is delightful.
Ryan: Yes, there’s the ATF.
John: They’re storming the compound as we speak.
Craig: Exactly, yeah.
John: So we’ll wrap it up. Our show, as always, is produced by Stuart Friedel. Our show is edited by Matthew Chilelli who also did the outro of this week. If you have a question for me or for Craig, you can write us at ask@johnaugust. Little short things are great on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Ryan Knighton, what are you on Twitter?
Ryan: I’m @ryanknighton. And it’s Knighton like K-N-I-G-H-T-O-N.
John: Very fantastic.
Ryan: Ryan Knighton.
Craig: I’m going to follow you moments from now.
John: And that’s going to be really good. And I told Craig that you’d be a fantastic guest and I was, of course, wrong. No, I was correct. [laughs]
Craig: John is right again.
John: I am right again.
Craig: And we like to end every show with a confirmation that once again John was right.
John: If you would like to tell us that I was right, leave us a comment on iTunes. And say what a great guest Ryan Knighton is. I’m sure you’ve been on a lot of other podcasts so they could probably actually search for you and find other podcasts you’ve done.
Ryan: Yeah. I think the most recent Nate Corddry.
John: Okay, great.
Ryan: Reading Allowed. Reading Allowed with Nate Corddry.
John: Very nice.
Ryan: That’s great.
John: Another good endorsement. While you’re on iTunes you can download the Scriptnotes app. We’re also on the Google App Store and you can subscribe at Scriptnotes.net to find all the very, very old back episodes dating back to episode one.
Ryan: The dusty ones.
John: The dusty ones, those old dusty ones. And that’s our show. Ryan Knighton, thank you again.
Craig: Thanks, Ryan.
- Ryan Knighton, and on Twitter, Wikipedia, This American Life, The Moth and Reading Aloud with Nate Corddry
- Ryan’s books Cockeyed and Swing in the Hollow on Amazon
- What is a treatment? on screenwriting.io
- Ryan side-by-side with Chris O’Dowd
- The For Dummies series and Google AdWords for Dummies
- Lovage on Wikipedia
- Outro by Scriptnotes editor Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)