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 216 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Now, Craig, for a second I thought you weren’t going to introduce yourself as Craig Mazin but rather as Louis B. Mayer because that is the name I associate with you having heard you on Karina Longworth’s podcast.
Craig: Yes. Now and forevermore, Louis B — so I’m playing Louis B. Mayer on her new series of You Must Remember This. So her last series was about the Manson family and how they were intertwined with Hollywood. And the new one is about the history of MGM, which is kind of the most classic of the classic movie studios. And Louis B. Mayer was the guy who ran it.
And so, I don’t [laughs] — I keep joking like I got the job because I sound like a quietly angry Jew.
John: [laughs] Seething with rage. And I really loved hearing you affect a voice on a podcast. So I want to make it clear to all our audience that sometimes I love it when Craig does voices. And this is a voice you just did spectacularly well. And it’s a great podcast. So we’re going to highly recommend people listen to it.
So Karina Longworth is a film historian. Her podcast, you can go back through in iTunes and find all the episodes she’s done. This new series she’s doing, it’s just about, you know, really the birth of Hollywood.
John: And you can’t think about Hollywood history without thinking about MGM. And so she’s tracking not just how the studio came to be but sort of all the changes throughout the generations. And MGM is still a label that exists today but is not sort of the same —
Craig: It’s not the same.
John: Kind of thing.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t know specifically where the next episodes are going but I have recorded lines for the next one or I think it’s the next one. From the few lines that I do, I get a sense of what it is and she’s going to get into some interesting things, you know.
The shocking difference between the Hollywood that Hollywood presented to America and the actual Hollywood and the stuff that was going on is just startling.
John: You know, I’d be a little bit jealous except I have exciting news of my own, is that I just signed on to be the killer in the next season of Serial.
Craig: Ah, great.
John: So at least that way we’ll both be doing other podcasts and, you know, sort of raking in money for ourselves.
Craig: It’s not going to be much of a mystery. If someone’s named John August, they did it.
John: I probably did it.
Craig: It’s a killer name.
John: It’s a great name. It’s a good name.
Craig: What’s your middle name?
John: It’s my original last name which is Meise.
Craig: Oh, so you made that —
Craig: You pulled that in. But did you jettison a prior middle name?
John: I did. It was Tilton, T-I-L-T-O-N.
Craig: Oh, my god. [laughs] That’s the most —
John: Which is a family name but wasn’t really related to anything.
Craig: I mean, John Tilton August. Ugh.
John: Yeah. It’s like, you know, who was that Arkansas serial killer? Oh, it was John Tilton August.
Craig: Yeah, yeah. [laughs] You listen to that name you can smell the mold in the basement in which he is keeping you.
John: Yeah. There’s also a distant banjo playing.
John: Mm-hmm. Today on the podcast, we’ll be talking about the anatomy of a rewrite. We’ll look at how production schedules work and we’ll answer some questions from listeners. We have so much to do on the show this week that we should probably get started.
Craig: Yeah, let’s go.
John: And so first some follow-up. We need to thank everybody who bought a Scriptnotes T-shirt. And we had a whole bunch — this is the biggest order we’ve ever placed. Dustin and Stuart are at the printers right now, placing that order. We will be packaging and shipping these out to all of the people who bought them probably the second week of October so everyone will have them in hand for Austin Film Festival. So, thank you very much.
John: Next up. Last week we talked about the odds of making it in the NFL versus making it as a screenwriter. And Nathan wrote in with some good statistics. Do you want to share those?
Craig: Yeah, sure. So he mentions that there are 32 teams in the NFL and each has a regular season roster of 53 players. This I did not know. I’m more of a baseball guy. So the total number of players in the league at any given time is 1,696. Let’s call it 1,700. So you could say that the number of people playing in the NFL is slightly larger than the number of people who are feature screenwriters in a given year, assuming the 1,500 number you gave for 2014 is representative.
Granted the yearly numbers for the NFL are slightly higher than 1,700 as players are added and dropped from rosters but 1,700 is a good ballpark number. And I agree. So we are, I think, under that number, clearly. I think the 1,500 number is correct. And mind you, that 1,500 number also includes our version of pickups and drops, you know, people who maybe worked for a month and then didn’t again.
So, yeah, I think we’re right on in saying that it’s harder to be a working screenwriter, at least statistically speaking, than to play in the NFL. And a lot of people on Twitter pointed out also that there’s another major difference in that if you’re trying to become a professional screenwriter, you’re competing against all people that want to be screenwriters, including women.
In the NFL, there are no women. Women cannot play in the NFL. Not by rule but just by physical reality. So men are only competing with men.
John: Oh, Craig, you’re going to get so much email just for that one sentence you just said.
Craig: You think so? That —
John: That physical reality? Yeah.
Craig: Because women —
John: By tradition —
Craig: It’s not tradition. [laughs] They physically can’t — I mean, I can’t compete in the NFL physically. I mean, you would have to be just an incredibly roided up woman. Yeah, I probably will get [laughs] a lot of letters but I don’t —
John: Yeah, exactly.
Craig: I’m not judging. It’s just that there’s a reason why we haven’t seen a woman in the NFL, just physical realities. But that’s not the case happily for screenwriting. Anyone with a brain can be a screenwriter. So the competitive pool is quite a bit larger. So, again, tougher to be a screenwriter than to be a football player.
John: I think it’s a very useful statistic for your Aunt Sarah. So if she has in her back pocket like, “Oh, my nephew is a working screenwriter in Hollywood, like it’s harder to be a working screenwriter in Hollywood than it is to be an NFL player. It’s like less likely.” And that’s actually probably true.
John: Another crucial difference is that anybody who — that 1,700 people who are in the NFL, those people are all making a living. Their whole job is to be in the NFL, by definition. Of the 1,700 screenwriters, a lot of those are also doing other jobs because they are not making a real living as a screenwriter. So they might be getting paid something over the course of the year. That doesn’t mean that that’s enough to actually support themselves.
Craig: Yes. So we continue to crush everyone’s dream with remarkable efficiency.
John: So as we crush people’s dreams, let’s go on to lawsuit time. So we’ve talked a lot on the podcast about the Gravity lawsuit. We’ll never talk about that again.
John: But there was another lawsuit this week settled or at least another development on the lawsuit. This is over The Cabin in the Woods. That’s a movie directed by Drew Goddard, with a script by him and Joss Whedon. So Peter Gallagher was suing, claiming that Cabin in the Woods was based on and inspired by or took from his novel, The Little White Trip: A Night in the Pines.
And so this week, it came down that Judge Otis Wright II who’s just the best name ever for a judge.
Craig: [laughs] Right up there with John Tilton August.
John: He wrote, “The few alleged similarities that are not grossly misstated involve unprotectable forms of expression, such as the group going to a cabin or the alpha male character attempting a risky escape plan to bring back help. A list of random similarities only further convinces the court of one thing. After thorough analysis of both works and application of the extrinsic test, The Cabin in the Woods and The Little White Trip are not substantially similar.”
So we’ll have a link on the show notes to his whole ruling. It was the first time I’d seen this extrinsic test mentioned, so I went through a little Wikipedia hole on what extrinsic test and intrinsic tests are. But they’re ways of judging substantial similarity.
Craig: Right. Well, first we should make it clear. This is not the actor Peter Gallagher. This is —
John: But wouldn’t it be great if it were?
Craig: It would be [laughs] fascinating, to say the least.
Craig: It would be a weird move by Peter Gallagher.
John: It would be like Sex, Lies, and Videotape 2. It would be great.
Craig: It would just be like Peter Gallagher sitting down, he’s like, “What could I do that would be the worst possible thing for my career? I know. I’ll sue Joss Whedon. That’ll be fun.”
John: Good choice.
Craig: This is how all of these end. I don’t know how else to put it for people. This is how they all end. And we’ve said this before. The feeding frenzy and excitement and, “Yes, stick it to the man-ism” that happens at the advent of these things is never matched when they all inevitably fall apart because it’s just not true. It’s just not true every single time.
And when he says something like “grossly misstated”, yeah, I mean that’s basically what we see all the time when you and I look at these things. We see that things are grossly misstated.
John: The reason why I want to bring this up at all because we hadn’t mentioned this lawsuit in the first place is that I do feel like we only see the news of these things being filed and we never see the outcomes of them.
John: And so I just want to sort of highlight the outcomes. And I think there are actually three possible outcomes. There’s the outcome where the plaintiff actually wins, which is very, very rare and it’s so exceptional that we actually note when the plaintiff won like the Coming to America case was a rare case where a plaintiff won something there.
We sort of note sometimes when these things come down with negative opinions and the plaintiffs say they’re going to take it to another court and they’re going to appeal or whatever and they just sort of disappear. But 90% of these cases just magically disappear. And they never get to any sort of meaningful state or they get to a sort of pre-trial finding and there’s some sort of settlement that happens that doesn’t acknowledge any fault but basically says it would be cheaper just to make this all go away.
And that’s the other thing that happens frequently.
Craig: I don’t know what the statistics are when you compare, say, in we’ll call it somewhat failure, the difference between cases that are dismissed and cases that are settled. I suspect that if it’s already going to trial and they’ve gone through discovery and there’s a judge that the studios have decided, “No, we’re not giving this guy a dime or this woman a dime. We’re fighting this because, you know.”
Look, if they just routinely settle, just because, all they’re doing is inviting more of it. It becomes a gold rush.
Craig: So I think actually a lot of times what happens is these things get dismissed. I don’t know what the ultimate stats are but I do know that in our lifetimes, I can think of only one case where it was a win and that was Art Buchwald in Coming to America. And he was Art Buchwald. And he wrote a treatment and they definitely ripped the treatment off.
Craig: And that was it. I mean, everything else either if someone has a real case, they do quietly settle. They don’t even bother with the — the last thing they want is this being written about in the media. So I always feel like by the time we’ve heard about it, it’s a loser.
John: Yeah, I think you’re right.
John: Alex in Miami wrote in to say, “During the Deflategate portion of the podcast about how would this be a movie,” so we talked about Deflategate and Tom Brady, “you mentioned it might be best to just create new characters that represent these people to avoid conflict.” So rather than use the real people, create new characters that sort of take the place of those real characters. “Can you guys explain what the difference is when compared to a film like Game Change which portrays real people like Sarah Palin and John McCain? How did they get away with it?”
So, yeah, let’s talk about what the difference is between a movie based on real events like Game Change was and what we were talking about you might want to do with this football movie.
Craig: Right. Well, when you’re dealing with public figures, you have a lot more latitude. When you’re dealing with private individuals, that is people that have an expectation of privacy and don’t live their lives on the public stage, they have a right to their own life story. You can’t just tell someone’s life story. You have to actually buy their life rights.
But if somebody’s a public figure, then essentially what the law says is the part of your life that’s lived in public and the things that we know from public disclosure, they are public already. So you don’t have to buy it.
Now, obviously politicians, a lot of their lives are lived in public. Similarly, Tom Brady’s life and Deflategate was lived in public. So it wasn’t a question of life rights. What concerned me about the potential movie adaptation was in fact this issue of how to deal with the fact that you want to show logos and you want to be in the NFL and you want to say, “Well, he plays for the Patriots,” and use the names of all these people, some of whom are not public figures.
Craig: And you cited a really interesting article from Business Insider. So tell us about that.
John: So this is something that another listener had sent in. I think several listeners sent in. Business Insider wrote a piece about Ballers, the HBO series that stars Dwayne Johnson. And that uses real football logos. And that seems surprising because we think like, “Well, how can you use those football logos because they’re trademark things. NFL is going to come after you.”
And they just did it. And the explanation they give in this article, I don’t completely buy. I think they’re saying like, because we weren’t portraying the NFL negatively or in an untrue manner, we can get away with doing it.” I think they basically just felt like, “You know what, NFL try to come after us and you’re not going to succeed because NFL doesn’t have the ability to allow somebody to not show, you know, their logo on screen. It’s a real thing that exists out in the world.”
And they basically just had the courage to say, “You know what, this guy plays for the Dolphins and we’re showing a Dolphins logo.”
Craig: Yeah. There is always a space in between the obvious yes and the obvious no. And every studio has a different tolerance for playing in that space in between, because being sued is a problem. It’s expensive and it’s embarrassing in the media. And if you lose, it could be disastrous.
I think for Ballers, I think they were like, “Please sue us. This would be amazing publicity.” And it’s not like HBO is a lightweight.
Craig: I think that was exciting. And I think also that they felt from a legal point of view that in that gray space, they were way closer to yes than no.
John: I was thinking like the counter examples, like you show character opening up a bottle of Coke and saying like, “This Coke is poison,” and they drink the Coke and then they die from poison, that would be an issue where Coke would probably come after you and would have a little bit more ammunition that you are lying about their product.
John: And showing their product, you’re associating their product with death.
Craig: Correct. In the case of our prospective Tom Brady movie, the problem is that the movie would need to make some kind of statement and take some kind of position to be at all interesting. And all those facts are disputed. And we just saw how the report was disputed and the penalty was overturned by a judge.
So you make your movie and you’ve got people wearing NFL logos doing things like actively cheating, Tom Brady actively cheating. Yeah, you’re going to get sued because he’s going to argue, “No, I didn’t do that, so you’re defaming me.” You can’t defame public — the only thing you can do with public individuals is satire them in such a way that it’s obviously satire. And that goes back to The People vs. Larry Flynt and the Jerry Falwell stuff.
John: So, circling back to portraying real people and the difference between Game Change and what this movie was describing, a good movie that sort of falls in the middle of that is The Social Network. And so Social Network shows Mark Zuckerberg and Mark Zuckerberg does not come off especially well in The Social Network. And those are real people and many of those people are real.
But I have a suspicion that as they were thinking about making the movie and as they looked through the people who were like less and less famous, they were actually much more careful about how those people were portrayed. And in some cases may have changed the names of some people just so they weren’t going to run into problems.
And like you said that I did this thing but I never did this thing and I’m not a public figure. Mark Zuckerberg is such a huge figure that he’s sort of impossible to libel. The smaller people have a much greater claim to protecting their own rights to privacy of their own life story.
Craig: I suspect that Mark Zuckerberg was a little jammed on this no matter what. Even if some of the aspects of the movie could be considered defamatory or libelous and he had a case or could make a case, the costs of disputing the movie would be the Streisand effect. You’re familiar with the Streisand effect?
Craig: Yeah. So for those of you who are not, Barbara Streisand once sued some random guy who had basically published a picture of her home on the internet and said, “This is Barbara Streisand’s home.” And Barbara Streisand went after this guy. On a website nobody even knew about. And suddenly because she went after him, everybody knew about it and everybody now knew where she lived.
Craig: So, sometimes I think that’s the wedge against a guy like Zuckerberg because he’s just like, “Ugh, let me just ignore this until it goes away.”
John: Yeah. For sure. Our last bit of follow-up, this is actually just a nice email that somebody wrote in. And we get a lot of these and we get some nice comments on iTunes, too, but this was a guy who’s been listening to the show who had some good stuff happen. So I thought we would just read one of these.
John: Robert writes, “You don’t know me. I’m an avid listener to the podcast and the advice you’ve given to listeners since its inception has been incredible. It’s been such a pleasure and honor getting insight into the industry from you two and the fact that you both generally seem like standup guys makes things even better. I was recently hired by [big company] and started my first job as a staff writer on [big television company’s] show. I’m only on week three but I had to reach out and tell you that your guidance and advice has been absolutely priceless in helping me find and navigate the choppy waters of executives, showrunners, and other writers.
“I use something I picked up from the show probably every day. So I guess the reason I’m messaging you guys is because I wanted you to know that you are making a difference and doing something good for every writer out there who listens. So from all of us little guys who will hopefully be the big guys, let me write something in all caps for emphasis. Thank you. All the best, Robert.”
Craig: Well, that’s just wonderful. I mean, that’s why we do what we do. I really do believe that we are training an army of people. An army. And then one day —
John: An army.
Craig: When we need them, [laughs] we will call upon them.
John: We will rise. They will rise. [laughs] But I think part of the reason why I like to have this conversation with you every week is that it’s just talking about sort of the way things are and the way you sort of wish they would be and finding that balance between the two things. And so, hopefully, Robert is entering into a job at big television show where he can both do the work in front of him but also chart a path forward for himself and for writers like him that is at least as good, and maybe better than what we have.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, the dream is that as people start to enter the business and people in their 20s, so they’re new, that maybe a writer is sitting in a room with a producer and a studio executive and all three of them maybe have listened to the show and have heard some things about how to behave and how to be kind to each other and how to help each other in the middle of this very difficult process, and how to put themselves in the other person’s shoes.
And who knows? Maybe things will get better. Nah, probably not but that’s when we —
John: [laughs] Probably not.
Craig: That’s when we mobilize the army and then —
John: That’s right.
Craig: And then, my friends —
John: That’s the goal.
Craig: Oh, buddy.
John: Yeah. So, we won’t know if it gets better but hopefully it won’t be any worse for it. And hopefully there’ll be some people who know not to do certain things because of what they’ve seen on the Three Page Challenge.
John: Mm-hmm. And this is going to be a great sort of object lesson in this because you’re going to talk us through this idea about rewrites and the anatomy of a rewrite and sort of best practices both for managing it psychologically and for the words on the page.
Craig: So this topic was suggested by a listener and it kind of shocked me because I thought — I don’t think we’ve actually done this and it’s kind of crazy that we haven’t. So she wrote, “I know you guys have touched on the etiquette of reaching out to writers when you’re hired to rewrite, but I wonder if you guys could discuss the creative process of rewriting. Maybe it’s too broad of a question but I’m curious how your approach is different compared to starting from scratch or compared to each other.”
John: Very good question.
Craig: How do we go about this thing called rewriting? So first thing’s first, we have to figure out what the actual scope of the gig is. And sometimes the first thing that happens is you engage in a kind of a triage. You take a look at the material and then you start asking questions of yourself and others. How extensive is the perceived problem? Is this something where we kind of need to go back to scratch and start from page one and write something new? Or is the problem that there are sequences that aren’t working? Is the problem that the story is in good shape but maybe this character needs help or the climax of the movie needs help?
The first thing that you have to do when you’re rewriting a script is to get everybody to agree on a diagnosis of the problem.
John: That’s really smart. I think it’s a question of what do I think needs to have happened. But more importantly, what does everyone else who has a stake in this think needs to happen and can I convince them of my vision, if possible?
Craig: And sometimes, you find that you’re the only one who thinks there’s a major problem. And that is a great indication that this is probably not a job for you. And that’s good information. I need to know if I’m a good match for what they think is required.
John: This happens to me a lot. And tell me if you’ve had this similar experience where I’ll get sent a script and I’ll read through it and like so, “Wow, okay, wow. I just don’t — I mean, I think I know where to start but like I’m starting really kind of from scratch.” And then I’ll get on the phone with my agent and it’s like, “Yeah, I think this is like maybe a week or two of work.”
John: And that mismatch, it’s just like it’s so fundamental that I know that like there’s no reason for me to try to pursue this project.
Craig: Well, that’s right. And in fact, that becomes one of the initial questions. What’s the timeline here? They always seem to give you one. Sometimes, if something is in early development stages, there isn’t a timeline. It’s just, “Look, we really love this project. We would love for it to be something. We don’t like where it is now. What do you think? So sky is the limit. Let’s just figure this out.”
A lot of times, there’s a timeline. The movie will be getting made. Or more commonly, “We need to get this movie in a place where we can show it to this actor by this point or this director by this point because that’s when they become available.” So I always ask, “How much time is there to do this work?” Inevitably, when you hear about these jobs from studios, they’re going to lowball you on the time every single time.
It’s not because they want to pay you less. It’s just standard wishful thinking.
John: Yeah. In terms of time, sometimes they’ll come to you with, you know, “We think it’s two weeks work. We think it’s a significant amount of work but, you know, we want to hit the certain date or time.” There have been jobs where it’s like, “Literally we’re shooting this next week, so you have days to get this done.” And you’re getting on the phone with the crucial people right away. And that’s where you have to really be able to discuss exactly what you think you’re going to be able to do and be honest about sort of what’s possible and what’s not possible in the limited amount of time.
Craig: Yeah. Good rule of thumb. When they say it’s a week, it’s two weeks or three weeks. When they say it’s three weeks, it’s six weeks. When they say it needs a rewrite but it’s not a page one, it’s a page one. Just upgrade every single thing [laughs] because that’s what’s going to be true.
You do then have this new challenge, which is you’re coming into a process that pre-exists you. When you start something new, you sell an original or you’re the first person on an assignment, a team is assembled and starts to gel. And you have time to figure out who’s in charge. “See, I know he’s saying he’s in charge but I think she’s really in charge.”
When you come in on a rewrite, that team is there. And you need to figure out pretty quickly who the real boss is. And just as important, you need to figure out how things went wrong before because they did. That’s the one fact for sure you know coming in on a rewrite.
So there was a problem. And the problem may entirely rest with the writer. More often than not, it’s a combination of wrong writer for the project and then problems with the process. As much as you can, if you can try and clear the mines off the field before you start marching through it, you’ll be in better shape.
John: And this is a mistake I’ve made before where I would come in to a project, it was a page one rewrite. We were starting over from scratch. And, you know, I had forgotten that like, “Oh, that’s right. They’ve actually been through this all once before.” And it wasn’t until I was like four meetings in on a project and one of the producers said something that was referencing the previous draft. I’m like, “Wow, you still think we’re making that movie that was that movie, you know, six months ago.”
John: And I had forgotten that there actually ever was something before because it was such a fundamental rewrite. And so, clearing the field is exactly the right idea. But even if you get all the mines off the field, you have to remember that they’ve fought a war before you even got there.
Craig: That’s right. And there are going to be areas that are emotional for them. In the way that for us, when someone casually says, “You know what, why don’t we just get rid of that line?” And you look at that line and think, “Yeah, fine.” Or, “You know what, why don’t we just get rid of that line?” You look at that line and think, “But that’s the line that I wrote that made me love this. That’s the line that made me feel proud to be a writer.”
We are attaching emotional weight to something that can’t bear it and shouldn’t have to bear it. Well, they do the same thing. So they’ve had fights. And when you come in and you sit in that room, just be aware when you say something like, “Well, I just have no idea why Joe is being mean to Sue.” That’s not motivated. You are taking a side in an argument that’s happened. Somebody is getting angry [laughs] and there’s nothing you can do about it except to be as impartial as possible. It’s not like you wrote it. So, you get that benefit.
John: Yeah. Yeah. I find those conversations I’m always trying to phrase the possibility of what the next thing is going to be rather than crapping on what is there right in front of me.
John: So you can acknowledge that things aren’t working but don’t try to be specific about like, you know, this was a mistake or a fault or a problem. Rather it’s like, “Here are the opportunities for how we can get to this that we all want to get to.” Always talk about the movie you want the make, not the script that’s on the page.
Craig: And with that in mind, when we are asked to rewrite something, part of what we need to accomplish is rekindling the spark of the thing that got them all excited in the first place. Somewhere before you showed up, people got excited and they fell in love. And then something went wrong.
So, yes, you can say, “Look, here’s what isn’t working here but here’s what could be working.” But you need to recognize that once there was love. And you have to figure out what that is because what you love about it needs to connect with what they love about it. That’s how your movie will get made. That’s how your version of this will get made because, and this is maybe the most controversial thing I’ll say about rewriting.
Rewriting is not really the right word for what this is. When we say we’re rewriting, that’s like an employment term. We’re writing. Because, look, when we write something, we write a draft and then we rewrite our own draft. Fair. But when we’re rewriting somebody else’s work, it’s the first time for us. It’s not a re anything. It’s new for us. It’s a new write.
Craig: So the rest of the world can call it a rewrite, but it’s a new write. And as part of a new write, and this goes directly to the question, you have to be concerned about all the things you’d be concerned about if it were not a rewrite. That is, theme, character, narrative, tone, scenes. All the things that you bundle up to fall in love with, you need to bundle those up into this because it’s new to you.
John: Absolutely. There have been jobs where I’ve come in where I’ve just done incredibly surgical craftsman work to fix one little thing. And those I was literally just applying my skills to a small little bit. And they never felt like my movie.
But if I’m going in and doing a real draft, that is now my movie and I have to think about it on a fundamental level on answering all those questions. What does this movie mean to me? Who are the characters to me? What are the voices? And really start from scratch. That’s no slam on the previous writer. That’s just, you know, the process. It’s how you write a movie is to write it from the inside out.
Craig: No question. In many ways, when we take on what’s called a rewrite, what we’re really doing is adapting in the way that we adapt a novel. So I get a novel, I read the novel, and then the first questions I have are, “How faithful am I going to be to this novel? What parts of the novel should I keep and what parts should I not keep? What did I fall in love with? What’s great but probably not right for a movie? How could I change the ending to make it work better with the beginning in a movie?” You know, all those things.
Or should I touch nothing and just really do what the book — all those questions are the questions I ask when I get a screenplay because I’m adapting it. That’s how I think of it. I’m adapting it into a new work. Yes, there are times when you’re only there for a week or two and that’s not adaptation. You’re literally writing lines. “Give us five lines for this.” Or “Write a scene that does this.”
Craig: But when you are working on something that’s lengthier, for instance, I don’t know about you but even if it’s not a page one, and when we say page one, we mean we are keeping the rough idea of the prior movie, prior screenplay and just starting over. Even if it’s not that, even if it’s kind of a half a “rewrite”, I start a new document in my software. I can always go back and take things from their file and put it into mine. But I need to do the thing that I do when I’m writing, which is I imagine what’s the opening image, what’s the first thing, what’s the first person, what did they say, what does this mean.
I go through that same process. How do you approach that?
John: Exactly the same way. So anything where it’s a fundamental rewrite of something, you know, I guess a new write of something, I do start with the blank document. And then I bring over the stuff that’s actually working really well and I’ll look for the stuff that’s great. And if there’s stuff that I don’t need to rewrite, I will happily keep every little bit of it.
You know, the original writer made choices and often those choices work terrific. And if I can make those same choices, I will make those same choices. So I’ll make the same choices of especially character names. If those character names are right and those characters feel like the right characters for the story, they stay. If the locations and settings are the locations and settings that we feel like we want to make for this movie, all that stuff stays.
So often, it’s really the storytelling. It’s the order of how things are happening. It’s all the new stuff is what I need to do. And so, a lot of what’s in that current script I shouldn’t even try to bring over. And if I find that if I just try to rewrite within that other writer’s original document, it’s going to just feel weird and forced because I’m trying to park in too tight of a parking spot. I’m trying to make my stuff fit into their stuff rather than just make my own movie.
Craig: And it just won’t work. It’s important to acknowledge that there are times when, as part of our adapting choice, we are taking things from that existing script and porting them over because they’re consistent with our vision of what this is supposed to become. But it’s just as important to note that you need to give yourself room to be the writer that you are. You need that room. There’s no other way for you to express yourself freely and interestingly.
And after all, they didn’t hire you to squeeze little new things in between the existing stuff. They hired you because of your voice and your expression. So you have to essentially approach it as an honest broker but give yourself the room to write your version because that’s why you’ve been hired.
John: I think I’m very mindful of it. It’s like I won’t change something just for the sake of changing it. Something will change because I need something different to make this movie work. And I need to get from this place to that place in a different way. Or the way this works in my brain is different than the way it works in the previous draft. And that’s okay. I don’t feel a responsibility to anyone as much as the audience. Like, what does the movie want to be, and it’s my job to sort of be a conduit to getting us to that movie.
Craig: Well, that sort of brings me to some basic dos and don’ts because you’ve outlined a really good one. And I guess we’ll start it as a positive thing. What you do want to do is be an impartial judge. There’s no honor in saying I obliterated the other writer. And similarly, there’s no shame in saying I preserved the stuff that worked.
I think sometimes people that have a rewrite assignment feel like, “Well, they’re paying me money. If I just take this scene over then it’s cheating,” it’s not cheating. They don’t mind that. They don’t care. What they want is a movie that works. And believe me, you’re going to new write plenty of stuff.
Similarly, don’t be squeamish about what you have to do to get there. The greatest gift you can give the prior writer is a green light. And the deal is this. And there used to be a lot of strife between writers over this stuff, less so now because I think everybody’s been on both sides of the coin enough.
That writer got fired. They didn’t get fired because you got hired. They got fired. They’re done. Their script will not get a green light. Those are facts. Yours might but you need to give yourself the freedom to do what you think needs to be done to get there. So you can’t operate in fear and you can’t misinterpret respect for another writer with a preciousness about what they did, nor can you misinterpret my duty as a writer with, “I got to get rid of everything they wrote.” You just have to aim towards what’s going to get this movie made.
John: And I will say that my relationship with some of my favorite writers came because I was being rewritten by them or I was rewriting them. And we had that conversation when the handoff happened and we were grownups to say like, “I know that I’m not going to be the person to get this movie made. Maybe you can be.”
And when you approach it that way, like please take care of my child and see it to, you know, the safe shores of moviedom, that can be a real gift. And when you can have that conversation openly and honestly with the person who’s going to be writing next, that is a terrific joy because you get to first explain all the stuff we said before about who the stakeholders are, where all the bones are buried and sort of, you know, you guys know sort of what went wrong because something obviously went wrong. But something went right. And to sort of get to know what was it that was so fantastic that sort of got this whole process started.
And that’s true, I’ll say because, you know, she’s our podcast Joan Rivers. My first conversation with Aline Brosh McKenna was about this kind of situation.
John: And neither of us was particularly excited to be on that phone call but it was a good phone call to have because it made it clear sort of what was really possible with this movie.
Craig: Yeah. Sometimes people will say, “Do you really do the thing where you call the prior writer?” They don’t believe me. And I just, yeah, I do it. I do it. I don’t do it if there’s been 20 writers because then it doesn’t matter. But, yeah, I mean if there’s been very few, absolutely. Of course I do it. And it always works.
John: Yeah. Sometimes I’ll do the even more awkward thing which is when I’m being rewritten, I will reach out to go to that writer who’s replacing me. And that person is usually terrified that I’m reaching out.
John: But I assure you, I’m only doing it because I want them to succeed and I want them to know sort of what things are really happening. And I will say that with the advent of Twitter and social media and just general accessibility of emails, it’s much easier to make that conversation, that connection happen.
John: It was very hard in the days where I had to go through their agent and then it’s like, god, this is awkward for everybody. But it doesn’t have to be awkward for everybody now.
Craig: No, it doesn’t. It’s just a nice collegiate thing to do. It always helps. Some other dos and don’ts. Don’t change the character names unless you have good reason. That’s something you already mentioned. What’s good reason? I mean, I just don’t do it if I don’t have to.
Even if I don’t really like the name, I just don’t do it because, eh, it just feels cheap. You know, it just feels cheap.
John: If there’s some fundamentally bad or confusing choices, I will change a character’s name. Like there have been scripts that I’ve gotten where like two characters have the same first letters of their name and it actually is just genuinely confusing —
John: Then I will do it. But I’ll always think twice about doing it because I don’t want to be the guy who just changes names to make it seem like it’s a different character when it’s not really a different character.
Craig: Yeah. You change names if there’s a gender change. You change names if there’s a nationality change. You change names maybe if there’s a racial change or a class change. But, you know, if it’s the same person, don’t just go, “Ah, I just hate Denise. I just hate that name. It’s stupid. She’s, you know, Sophie now.” Don’t do that.
John: There have been situations where I’ve gone in on a rewrite and the character who was taking the place of that — taking that function was so vastly different than the character before, it was helpful to change the name just so that there wasn’t the baggage of that previous character being there. But that’s honestly one of those situations where you’re changing it almost as much as changing the gender.
John: It’s just fundamentally different characters serving the same function that I don’t really consider that being changing the character’s name. I put a different character in that place.
Craig: Right. That’s a different thing. So if you have, you know, a script where somebody is married and you say, “Look, the character of the wife is just not working at all. I propose an entirely different character.” Then you’re not renaming that character, you’re making a new character. That’s fine.
Craig: It’s really more about like, come on, why did you change his boss’ name? [laughs] It’s the same guy. He doesn’t even say it that much.
John: Here’s a good litmus test. If you’re changing all the names and mostly their dialogue is staying the same as it was in the previous draft —
Craig: Then you’re a dick.
John: You’re probably making a dick move.
Craig: Yeah, you’re a total douche. Similarly, another douche move, don’t think about the arbitration. It’s not a common thing, but every now and then somebody will tell me, “Well, you know, I just took this job and I’m going to be rewriting this thing. I wonder if I’m going to get credit.” I’m like, “Stop. Just stop.” It’s like, you know, when they bring a reliever out in the middle of the baseball game, as he’s walking to the mount, he’s not wondering like, “Well, let’s see, if this works out, who’s going to get credit for winning the game? I mean he went six innings but I might go three.” Forget it, just do your job. Just do your job. Don’t worry about the arbitration. Later on. [laughs] it will happen one way of another.
John: But, Craig, I will admit to myself and to you and to everybody listening to the podcast, there have been jobs where I’ve gone in for where I just know from the start, there’s just no possibility I would ever get credit. In some ways, that’s really liberating, to not even have to think about sort of like — I don’t have to think about the future. I can only just think about this work in front of me and doing the best work that gets this movie made. And that’s actually kind of liberating too because it frees from the burden of possibility and wonder and indecision. Like I know for a fact there’s absolutely no chance my name will be on this. And that is sometimes really good.
Craig: Yeah. To me that is the ultimate expression of not thinking about the arbitration because you don’t want credit. You’re not there for credit. There’s never going to be an issue. If there is an arbitration, you’re going to say, I don’t want it. Those assignments are nice sometimes because you get to feel like a ninja.
Craig: Nobody will know, you know. I like that. A couple of other dos and don’ts. Don’t blame the prior script for your current problems. If you are rewriting something and you’re struggling, the last thing in the world you want to do is to say, “Well, you know, the script before me — I mean all this stuff.” You know, you took the job. Shut up and fix the script.
John: That’s why you have the job.
John: That’s probably the reason why you’re doing this job, is because the script had problems.
Craig: Yeah. I’ll tell you a little story without names. A little blind item story. So once I was hired to write something and then someone was hired to rewrite it. And that person, I heard from a reliable source, said well, you know — when the people were unhappy with his work, he said, “Well, I mean look what you gave me.” [laughs]
Craig: I just filed that away.
Craig: And then when he was fired —
Craig: I was brought back. And then —
John: There you go.
Craig: There you go. It’s not a rational, supportable argument to make. If you take a gig to rewrite something, you’re saying you’re paying me and I can help, not you’re paying me and, “Well, yeah, but the script is bad. And he — ” Shut up.
John: Yeah, yeah. If you’re taking only easy jobs, you’re not really doing your job.
Craig: No. No. And also, if you take — it doesn’t matter whether it’s easy or hard, [laughs] you took the job.
Craig: That’s it. Stop blaming the other script. Lastly, do be a calm voice. This is one of the few times in our business where we actually begin with a good hand because everybody is nervous and upset and something hasn’t worked and in you come to save the day.
You may not end up saving the day. But at least in this early moment, you have a good hand. People are looking to you. And this is the time to project back confidence and coolness. Nobody is blaming you for what’s there because you weren’t there. So as best as you can, try and be a soothing presence. You don’t want to sew panic. You don’t want to come in and say, “All right, so you guys — I’m going to be rewriting this but I go to tell you, it’s in bad shape. And I know that you need it for six weeks from now. And there’s just no way. This is going to be bad because still — because this is — ” No, no, no, no, no. Don’t take the job then. [laughs]
John: No. Don’t take the job. Run away.
Craig: Don’t take the job. Just you got to come and say, everybody, it’s going to be okay. I got this.
John: Yeah. So the advice we’ve just given you is I think really good advice if you are the writer who’s being brought in to work on a project that is not crazy town. And so if it’s like, this is a movie that’s going to be made or is it that, you know, it could be made but you’re the person who is going to get it into production.
If you have a movie that is speeding down the tracks at 1,000 miles per hours, some of the stuff may not apply quite as much because you’re on an insane trainful of explosives. And so we have friends who are working on those insane trains full of explosives. And I think you can aspire to the kind of things we’re about here. You can certainly aspire to be calm, you can certainly aspire to be gracious and generous and never trash the earlier stuff and be the hopeful problem solver.
But sometimes you’re just going to be the person who’s like chugging through pages and emailing them in because they’re going to be shooting them in two hours and it’s just crazy town. So I would say, if you are in one of those situations, just know that — just do the best you can and be the best, most generous respectful writer you can be, but also know that you’re in a war and it’s a war to sort of get this movie made.
Craig: You know, when you were talking about that, it occurred to me that one of the things that trips new screenwriters up is that they don’t understand that there’s one name for job, screenwriter, there’s five different jobs that —
John: Yeah, you’re right.
Craig: It’s the weirdest thing to say, yeah, you know, the same person that sits down and creates an idea and writes 120 pages and invents a world is the same person that has three hours while they’re on a plane to fix dialogue that’s being shot six hours from now. And then when they land, they got to get to a set and rewrite something to bring the budget down. Two different jobs, but often times, same person.
Craig: So you just need to be able to shift those hats around as you go between the various kinds of rewriting.
John: Yeah. And I would just say, don’t confuse those two roles and don’t try to be that crazy, mercenary person when you have, you know, three weeks or you have, you know, time. The gun is not always aimed at your head. You don’t always have to act like the gun is at your head and that it’s always a crisis situation. Most times, it isn’t that. And most times, you have days or weeks to get the stuff done and being that calm, cool presence is really crucial. I want to make sure I’m offering some sympathy to the writers who do find themselves in just those nutso situations.
Reaching way back so it’s not anything shooting right now, but like the first Charlie’s Angels had a bunch of writers who worked serially and so I know that each of those people who’s coming in was coming in to just crazy town. And so for them not to reach out to me individually to get my feeling on the script, that is totally cool. I knew what they are going into. How I met the Wibberleys is they were brought in do the second Charlie’s Angels and we had that great phone conversation and it was so useful because it wasn’t crazy town yet.
Craig: Right, exactly. You just have to kind of suss out, am I one in the line? Is this is a mill? You know, some of these movies turn into like, what I call, a weekly mill.
Craig: Where they just start paying people’s weeklies one after another after another. Less so now in the 2000s, more common — it was the —
John: At some point, they got — the studios got really smart and they would make all services deals for writers who they thought could carry it to the finish line. And so then they would pay a flat fee to these writers and keep them as indentured servants on these runaway productions.
Craig: Yeah, and I think they also started to look at the quality of the patchwork of seven different writers on a movie and think, eh, big ticket items, you know.
Craig: It’s not quite knitting together. So yeah, but if you’re one of a procession, nobody cares. Everybody gets it. But if you’re not, yeah sure, give a call.
John: Give the call. All right, our next topic — this is something that occurred to me because it occurred to me this week is I just finished up a script that is hopefully a script that I will direct at some point in the future. And one of the things I needed to do is figuring out like, well, how much would this even cost? And so I went to a line producer friend who is fantastic and I asked her if she would take a look at it and figure out for me how much this might cost.
And so one of her first jobs is to figure out a production schedule. And so I want to talk through what a production schedule is and sort of what is involved in figuring out how long it takes to shoot a movie.
Craig: Yeah, good idea.
John: So production schedules, the reason why you need to do it first is that your budget is so dependent on how many days it will take to make a movie. That’s probably the single biggest factor in how much a movie costs is how long it will take to shoot it.
Craig: Right, shooting days.
John: Shooting days. Time equals labor and labor equals money. And so if you are at Sundance Film Festival and someone raises their hand and says, “How much did the movie cost?” Everyone will shutter because you’re never allowed to ask that question. But what you’ll hear people ask is how many shooting days did you have? And people will happily answer how many shooting days. And shooting days is a useful proxy for how much the movie costs.
When I’m talking to a friend, he says like, “Oh yeah, we’re shooting it in town. It’s 30 days.” Like, wow, you are racing and that budget is much lower than I would have guessed for that movie.
Craig: Yeah, the amount of pages that you can shoot in a day vary wildly, so, you know, television they’ll sometimes shoot all the way up to nine pages in a day. But they’re shooting certain kind of material that can be done that way. For feature films, big studio movies, page-and-a-half to three pages a day is about the normal thing.
Craig: Some pages take three days to shoot because it’s an action sequence and, you know, some pages take — you can get four pages done before lunch because it’s two people talking on a bench.
Craig: You’re doing it as a oner. So that’s what a line producer can kind of help figure out. But overall, yeah, if somebody says, “Oh, how many days did you shoot?” “42, 45.” Oh, it’s average. Okay, it’s typical. “How many days did you shoot?” “30.” Fast. “18.” Oh my God. “79.” Whoa. [laughs] You know, you —
Craig: Work around. I always just work around 50, seems like — that’s sort of the —
John: 50 seems like just a solid, you know, studio feature.
Craig: Yeah, 50.
John: And so Go was a movie shot in town, shot in Los Angeles and was 30 days. And that’s become sort of my benchmark sort of like it’s not a total indie, but it’s not a big studio feature either and so I sort of keep that as my threshold.
John: The Nines was also about — it was 22 days and that’s not a crazy amount of time for a small indie feature. So talking with this producer, I sent her over this script, but I also sent over a list of kind of assumptions. And this is a helpful way for her to think about the schedules she’s trying to build.
So some of the assumptions that are useful for her to know. Which scenes do you think are practical locations versus sets? And the difference is when I say sets, that’s stage work. Those are sets that you’re building in a black box to do certain things. And that can be really useful for anything with visual effects, you can sometimes move a lot faster on sound stages. Cheaper movies tend to use a lot more location work, but also expensive movies use location work, too. You can get production value by using real locations and not having to build things.
If you look at most television shows, they have what’s called in days and out days. And in days means that they’re on their standing sets. They’re on the police precinct headquarters. They are at Central Perk in Friends. Those are the days they’re shooting inside the studio and that can be a huge difference for a line producer is just figuring out your schedule.
Craig: It’s kind of remarkable how much sets cost, just to build — because it’s not like they’re building a real house. I mean you can’t live in it.
Craig: But it costs a lot, like just a wall costs a lot.
John: So to help people figure out like what is a set and what’s not a set, in the movie Go, almost everything is a practical location. So we’re in Todd Gaines’ apartment, that’s a real location. It’s a real apartment off of Western.
But there are certain things we had to build sets for because you couldn’t do it in a real location. So an example is Simon sets a hotel room on fire. That hotel room — the inside of the hotel room had to be a set because we had to have fire control there and be able to light it all on fire and put it all out.
There’s a sequence where Ronna tries to flush these pills down the toilet. We had to build that bathroom and the toilet because the real location wasn’t big enough. And it’s just actually very hard to get flushable things and make a bathroom big enough. Bathrooms are sort of weirdly a thing you end up building a lot because they’re hard to control.
Craig: Right, you can’t fit equipment into a bathroom. I mean more than anything, how do you shoot inside a bathroom?
John: Yeah, walls are your enemies.
Craig: Right. So on sets, walls can fly in and out. And this how you get stuff done. That’s half of the time you’re doing stuff like this is because of that. Sometimes you’re doing it because you can’t find something practically. Sometimes you can, it’s just too expensive or arduous. There are always — I mean in the end, they’re always trying to decide what’s going to be the most efficient way to do something in terms of time and money. And there are times when you get jammed and you have to build something you wish you didn’t have to build. But, you know, hey, look at it this way, at least, it’s cover. Every now and then, you need somewhere to go if it’s raining.
John: Yeah. And so that idea of rain cover becomes crucial specially later on as you’re budgeting to figure out like, what happens if it rains. And so Big Fish was a movie we shot in Atlanta. And it rained all the time. And so the crew could be out on location, it starts to rain and they could suddenly pull back to our sound stages which was built in these warehouses and shoot these interior scenes. And that was because it was cleverly constructed in a schedule that there’s always stuff inside that we could shoot if we needed to.
The next thing we’re talking about with the producer is locations and which locations in the scripts could we shoot at other places? So you may have experience with this with like your Hangover movies and also with Identify Thief, you had to decide like how much flexibility is there between going to the real places and faking it.
Craig: Well, so much of it comes down to budget. There’s also a general feeling of, well, why are people coming to this movie? This is one of the bummers. You know, everybody that writes a screenplay imagines in their mind the place. If they’re going a good job, the place is its own character, it has a vibe, it has a feeling. And a movie like Identify Thief which is a road trip, the terminal points of the trip are really important. And then if you have a travel movie like The Hangover Part II, which takes place in Bangkok, good luck faking that. You’re going to Bangkok.
Craig: That’s the point, you know. Now, on Identify Thief which cost, I don’t know, what fraction of Hangover II — I think it cost I think $30 million or something like that, all in. The original plan was that the road trip would be from Boston to Portland. I liked the idea of taking the Northern route because I hadn’t really seen that travelled in a lot of road movies. It was just a different look.
John: Yeah. I saw your movie and they didn’t take that route.
Craig: [laugh] No, they didn’t. So the initial suggestion from physical production, so at a studio, physical production is the department that handles budget-making and all the rest of that. So their suggestion was, what if it was from Miami to Orlando? [laughs] I kid you not?
John: That’s great.
Craig: Then they expanded to Miami to Atlanta. And I was like, “Look, guys, Miami to Atlanta is a day. You can do that in a day. Forget Miami or Orlando. That’s not a journey. That’s just a day. That’s like saying, ‘Oh my God, we’re going on a road trip from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo.'”[laughs] It’s like who cares?
So when all was said and done, they’re like, “Look, fancy pants, we’re shooting this movie in Atlanta entirely for tax reasons and budget reasons, so figure it out.” And what we ended up doing was starting the movie in “Florida,” which was not Florida. We faked Florida, you know, so we shot Georgia for Florida.
And then the other area was Denver because Denver is — I mean —
John: It’s generic.
Craig: It’s just generic. I mean that’s the thing, it’s like a generic skyline. People in Denver and people in Atlanta, I’m sure, looked at this and went, “What?” Everybody else was like, “Yeah, okay, I guess that’s American city.” I hate it. I mean I hate, hate, hate it because it just cheapens the movie.
And what happens is when people watch movies like this, they don’t realize it necessarily but they’re quietly going generic America, did they not care? No, no, no, trust me, there were fights and fights and fights. We, making the movies, care very much. The people spending money on them, they’re a little more calculating. And look, hard to blame them. They’re like, people aren’t showing up for the awesome cinematography of Portland. So yeah, we’re faking it for Denver. And that’s basically what happened.
John: And so that conversation starts right at the scheduling thing. So this is the email I sent through to the line producer said, “These are the locations that I think are important. There’s a section of the movie that takes place over there. I would be fine shooting that some place different all together. So I can tell you where it’s actually set, but I would be happy to move that somewhere else. Also, I’d be happy to break the interiors from the exteriors if that becomes a helpful thing, too.” So I just let her know where the flexibility was.
I had to tell her which characters were minors and how old they would be, not miners with a hat, but like young people —
John: Because that would affect how many days they could work. And I’m sorry, how many hours they can work per day. And that could be a real factor. And so for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, those kids were really young. And in the U.K., they could only work like four hours a day or something. And so they had to build their whole schedule so that they would have the Oompa Loompa stuff to shoot in the afternoon. So they have kids in the morning on stage, and their whole schedule is built around the Oompa Loompa numbers. And so that becomes a factor.
Craig: And don’t forget, you’re also paying — you’re paying for teachers because they have to go to school when they’re working.
John: Yeah. And the last thing I had to tell here was how much of the things that’s felt like visual effects in the movie were meant to be visual effects and how much was supposed to be done on the day in camera.
John: Because it’s really expensive to be in production. But post-production is really expensive, too. And I wanted her to know what I saw being a visual effect and what I saw not being a visual effect. So those are some of the assumptions I had to send through in email with the script so she would have a sense of how to being scheduling this movie.
Craig: Well, I mean it’s all magic to me how they do it. I mean I know that it’s not magic [laughs], but — yeah.
John: So Craig, you’ve never had to physically make a schedule —
John: For a movie, have you?
John: So I had to do it. I had to do it in film school.
Craig: Oh my God.
John: And so for my master thesis, we had to actually do a breakdown of a schedule. So I will talk through what that process is. Not that a writer will ever have to do this herself, but to know what the thing is really kind of magic. So back in the day, this is back in film school, this is, you know, the 90s, this was still done by hand. So you’d have these cardboard strips and in order to get the information to put on those cardboard strips, you’d go the script, carefully number each scene, you’d number each character and which characters were in which scenes, not just the characters who speak, but the characters who are present in a scene because those are the actors we’re going to need for those scenes.
Then you would measure how long each scene was. And you measure in eights. Craig, do you know why eighths of a page came to be?
Craig: No, why? Why did they do that?
John: You know, I’ve heard different explanations but I think it’s essentially, it’s very easy to conceive of half a page and when you get to a quarter of a page, like, “Oh yeah, I can see a quarter of a page.” And then at an eighth of a page — well, an eighth is about as short of a scene as could possibly be. And if you actually look at a script, an eighth of a page is essentially a scene header and like two lines of action.
John: And that’s an eighth, and so that was a small as they decided they ever wanted to make a portion. But every scene is measured in eighths which is just nuts, but that’s just how it’s done.
Craig: It’s so annoying.
John: We all know as screenwriters that because of how we write screen description, you know, a scene that’s three pages long could be really short in terms of actual screen time or could be incredibly long in terms of screen time but we still measure in pages and eighths of pages.
Craig: Yeah. And that’s one of the first things I do when a movie is about to go in production and they issue that schedule. I go through and I’m like, “Hmm, let’s see. Let’s see if they’re right,” [laughs] and they’re almost right. But every now and then, I’ll go —
John: Yeah, they are.
Craig: “Hmm, you know — ” and usually, what it is, is that I think to myself, they’ve said this is two days, I bet it’s one.
Craig: You know, they’re being fooled by the fact that it’s five-and-three-eighths, you know.
John: And back in the day when this was on cardboard strips, you would literally pad the strips. So you’d, basically, on each cardboard strip, there’d be a different color for whether it was day or night, interior, exterior. On that strip, you would write and code whether it was interior or exterior, who is in the scene, there’s like coding for which characters are in the scenes, where the scene is and sometimes you would even squeeze in like a description of what the scene was. You would have all these strips of paper of cardboard that were flexible enough that you could slide them into a binder and literally slide them up and down. And then you’re trying to group them together to maximize and sort of optimize how you’re shooting this movie.
So now this is all done with software. But it still mimics the way that it was done when it was cardboard strips.
Craig: You’re so old.
John: I’m so old. It was really fun to do it. I was really happy to do it once because, as you know, Craig and I both wrapped sign posts or wrapped strike placards once.
Craig: We did.
John: And I was really good at wrapping stuff with duct tape. I’m really good at like physical crafts and it felt fun in a very physical craft kind of way.
Craig: [laughs] Do you remember what mine looked like?
John: Mine were prettier.
Craig: I mean I have always feared arts and crafts class. When I was in school and I would get to arts and crafts, something would always go disastrously wrong. And you think like how could it go that wrong? All you had to do was just assemble the Popsicle sticks. You just had to glue the things.
I remember, we were given an assignment. Collect some local foliage, bring it into school and we’ll make a winter scene on construction paper. And so people brought in little bits of things.
Craig: And they glued them on and made little winter wonderlands. And I was like, “Okay, so I just gathered up a bunch of vegetation without any concern [laughs] whatsoever, sat down, started gluing it on. It all smelled. There was something about like the weeds I had picked up. Like they were smelly weeds.
John: Oh no.
Craig: It wasn’t marijuana, it was just nasty weeds. And then I thought, “Well, this looks terrible. I know what I’ll do. I’ll cover it in glue because glue is white and it’s like snow and it will look nice.” But when glue dries, it’s clear. So what it ended up being was just this horrendous pile of nasty street mulch covered in a crisscrossing of clear crust.
Craig: That is how I do with arts and crafts.
John: Like it could be art. You never know.
John: There’s a possibility you made art.
Craig: No, it could not be art. It was not art or a craft. It was neither.
John: So the line producer has all this information now broken down into strips, either real strips or in this case, virtual strips in her software. And there’s a specialized software. Movie Magic Scheduling. What’s the big one? I’m not sure what people are using these days. But then she’s trying to arrange a schedule. And she has a bunch of competing goals. And that’s where it becomes less craft and really an art and really knowing how to make a movie.
So she’s trying to keep her days together and her nights together as much as possible because it’s really brutal on a crew when they have to be shooting — it’s actually impossible for a crew. Like a crew can’t shoot all night and then turn around and shoot the next day.
Craig: No, you’re protective — like what it is, like 12 hours in between or something?
John: Yeah, that’s called turn around and so that’s, you know, going from night to day, you have to have time off. And so what you’ll find is that usually, let’s say, your schedule runs from Monday through Friday, you’re shooting five day weeks in town and you’ll start shooting early on Monday morning and then your schedule will drift a little bit later and later over the course of the week. And so your start times will be later and later each day until you reach what’s affectionately known as Fraturday, which is where you have a really late call on Friday and you’re essentially shooting into all of Saturday night and then driving home on Saturday morning. That is a pretty common schedule.
John: But you would never start your week as nights unless you were shooting nights the whole week.
Craig: Yeah. And then there are the dreaded splits. So splits are when you’re going to be shooting half day, half night. Nobody likes those.
John: It’s just the worst.
Craig: It’s just terrible. It’s just terrible.
John: Craig, have you run into situations where you’ve had to shoot interior at night, but as daytime? So I’ve been on movies where if you had to like blast —
Craig: Oh my God, are you kidding me?
John: Bright lights in through the windows to make it seem like it’s daylight but it’s, of course, it’s like three in the morning?
Craig: Always. And it’s so distressing to your circadian rhythm. You have no idea what’s going on. I mean people talk about how casinos don’t have clocks. And I mean a sound stage is the ultimate casino that way. It’s a huge windowless box where no noise or light can penetrate.
So yeah, you’re shooting on a set. There’s some huge ass light on a thing shining through a window blasting light and it’s — I’ve shot scenes that were morning scenes in the middle of the night. And morning is the worst because it’s like, your brain is really getting fooled because it’s the color temperature of morning light. You’re like, I should be waking up. I want to go to bed. This is all wrong. It’s terrible. It’s really bad for you. It’s bad for your health.
John: It is really bad for you, I agree. And for me, it’s always that I will be on the set and it would seem like daylight and then I’ll go out and realize like, “Oh, that’s right, it’s three in the morning.” Like it’s just night and it’s cold and you hear the crickets. And like, wait, what, what am I doing? And then the worst is always like driving home like as the sun is coming up, that’s just the worst feeling.
Craig: Well, it’s also a real problem because there have been deaths and no doubt there have been quite a few accidents that were less than fatal, but still serious. It’s just dangerous. I mean the way we shoot movies is so — and I understand why there was that flirtation for a while where big directors were drifting towards all mo cap, you know, Spielberg did Tintin that way and Zemeckis disappeared for a while and only did those, you know, like Beowulf and The Christmas Train. [laughs] I don’t know the actual name. I want to call it The Christmas Train.
John: Polar Express.
Craig: Yeah. It’s called The Christmas Train in my house. Because you could actually have a normal day. You could show up, you shoot your time and you go home. It doesn’t matter what time the movie — if it’s a night scene, you’re still shooting it during the day. And morning, you shoot — and you have total control. And I understand that because the way movies are actually made is just distressing. It’s brutal. Every time I do it, every single time, I will stop at some point and think, there’s got to be another way. Nobody would believe that this is how we do this. It’s so dumb and inefficient. But I think it’s the way and I don’t think there’s another way.
John: I don’t know if there’s another way either. So this smart line producer, she is creating the fantasy optimized schedule and the optimized schedule will have less brutal situations like that. It’s only over the course of the production and things go wrong that the schedule has to shift and you run into those jam situations.
John: So she’s trying to optimize for not moving between days and nights or being smart about that. She’s trying to finish off all the work at a location because you don’t want to have to go back to a location. Once you’re done — ideally, you want to shoot all the scenes at a location and then move on.
But maybe that’s not the case. Maybe you want to have, if it’s a lot of scenes at a house, an interior house, maybe build that as a set and then it becomes your cover set for rain or for other disaster so you can always shoot something there in case something goes wrong out in the field.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah, also you want to avoid the dreaded company move, which is when you have two different locations on the same day and they’re not right next to each other. So you’ve finished shooting at the first location and everybody piles all the crap up into their trucks and drives over to the new thing, just a day killer.
John: Yeah, that’s terrible. She wants to finish all the work with one actor, ideally, to the degree it makes sense you want to finish all the work with one actor. So if an actor has six scenes total in the movie and it’s possible to schedule those scenes together, you will try to schedule the scenes together so you can “shoot them out”. And there may be reasons why you can only get that actor if you can compress all his days down to a certain window of time.
There may be just budgetary reasons why. It can sometimes be very expensive to drop an actor and pick up an actor. There’s weird union rules about sort of how you do that. So sometimes you have to have an actor who just sits around a lot and that’s just the nature of it. But ideally, you try to get through all of an actor’s scenes in one chunk if possible.
John: She will ask me and I will tell her how important it is to stay in sequence. So there are movies in which characters go through physical transformations where you actually need to shoot them in order. Most movies are shot wildly out of order. But for both performance reasons and for just like logic reasons, sometimes you have to stick closer to order.
In my movie, The Nines, Ryan Reynolds and Melissa McCarthy have wildly different hairstyles in the three different sections. They look very different. And so we had to shoot those basically in sequence. Once we started one of those chapters, we had to stay in that chapter and we couldn’t mix and match things. And that meant that we had to come back to some locations three times which was a production nightmare, but it was just the nature of the movie.
Craig: They hate stuff like that. They hate it.
John: They hate it.
Craig: They hate it.
John: The last thing which she may need to factor in is maximizing the use of certain equipment. So let’s say you have a techno crane, like a really fancy crane and there’s like three scenes that need it, there may be a reason why you want to board those together so that you can rent that thing for one day and be done with it.
Or if you have like a boat sequence or there’s some reason why there’s special equipment you need that might drive sort of how you’re doing stuff. Even like a camera package like, let’s say, you have a high speed camera that’s used for these two moments, you might want to put those two moments together so you don’t have to rent this incredibly expensive camera rig for, you know, two different days over the course of your shoot.
John: It’s a lot.
Craig: Yes, no. I mean —
Craig: Everything that they’re doing is to save money, everything. Sometimes they come to you and then they’re like, “Is there any way we could not have him wear his hat? It would save us $400,000?” [laughs] It’s like sometimes they have these little things and you’re like, “Wait, what? Of course not. Yeah, no.”
John: Wait, yes.
Craig: Burn the hat.
John: Burn the hat. You don’t care about the hat, whatsoever. Like who said there was a hat? Like there’s —
Craig: I mean exactly. But then sometimes they come to you and they’re like, “Is there any way they could all be 20 years older and in one room?” No.
John: [laughs] Yes.
Craig: They can’t.
Craig: Yeah, sorry, the multiple classrooms of second graders can’t be one group of 25-year-old post collegiate — no. Yeah, they — it’s amazing the things they ask. And I’m always shocked by how much you — sometimes you can save so much with tiny little things. So I don’t blame them for asking.
John: No. So usually, a screenwriter will not have to get super involved with a schedule, but when it comes time to make a movie, you will see what that schedule is. And what I find so helpful about it is like it’s that first glimpse of like, how will this be made as a movie? It’s that first snapshot of this is what it’s going to take to move from what I have on the page to actually going into production. And you see it like, “Oh my God, that is so much more than I thought,” or like, “Oh, that’s actually much more achievable than I thought.”
In the case of Go, it was my first moment of horror/revelation, like, “Oh my God, I wrote a script that takes place entirely at night and we’re going to be outside at night for like 20 days.” And that was terrifying and it made me rethink [laughs] how I use night in movies that I want to be part of because it is just a debilitating condition to be outside at night all the time.
So I’m looking forward to what she says with this script and what the schedule turns out to be because it will be my first indication of how possible it will be to make the movie I have on the page and then she may be able to come back to me with some suggestions for the things that are making this crazy and impossible are these things and think about whether any of those things could change and where the flexibility is because it will make your life happier and easier.
Craig: Exactly, exactly.
John: And on the subject of time, we went way over time. So once again, we’re going to kick to the curb two other great questions that came in from our listeners. But we will get to them in a future week.
John: But I think it’s time for One Cool Things.
Craig: All right. Well, I’ll be real brief. My One Cool Thing is called Escape Room LA, the Detective. Escape Room LA is one of these outfits where you go downtown and they stick you in a room and they lock it and it’s full of puzzles and you have to solve all the puzzles to find the key to get out and you have an hour.
And the detective is one of the themes they have. I believe it’s their hardest one. And I did this with my wife, Melissa, and Alec Berg and his wife, and Megan Amram and her boyfriend, and David Kwong, and Chris Miller of Lord and Miller. This is a powerhouse team. I just want to point out, of this team, three Harvard grads, two Princeton grads, and a Dartmouth guy, okay.
John: So all idiots.
Craig: All idiots and we failed.
John: Oh, Craig.
Craig: And we were so — and it’s actually heartbreaking how we failed. We were flying through this thing. Like the record I think was something like 48 minutes. At minute 50, we had just one thing left to do. So we were close to even the record. And then we just died on the shoals of this one problem. And once it was revealed to us at the end, we were like, “Oh my God.”
John: So I think we skipped over a little bit of the set up of what this actually is. So they are locking you in a room and you’re trying to get out of the room?
Craig: And it’s full of puzzles. So all the clues are leading to other clues. They are leading you to unlock things. And the puzzles are all different varieties, there’s logic puzzles, math puzzles, there’s Morse code puzzles. There’s so many different ways. So you have to solve something like probably 13 or 14 major problems to finally unlock the thing that gets you the key to unlock the room.
And so much fun and it’s designed to be for anywhere up to 12 people. We were a little small. I think we were eight. But that’s a good —
John: But I have a hunch that 12 people wouldn’t actually necessarily improve it.
John: Maybe like that one more man problem actually like slows you down.
Craig: It will. And I think — yeah, I imagine every group of 12, one person is going, “Yeah, I’m lost, I’m going to sit down.” [laughs]
John: So Craig, after we wrap, you could tell me who the dead weight was in the group and how it slowed you down.
Craig: [laughs] I’ll throw many people under the bus.
John: Sounds good. My One Cool Thing is a television program called You’re the Worst. It’s on FXX. It’s actually on its second season, but I just last night watched the pilot from the first season which is on Hulu. And I really enjoyed it. And I would highly recommend people watch it just because it’s such a fascinating look at how you do the anti-romantic comedy and sort of how you take the tropes and play against the tropes.
So the show is created by Stephen Falk. And the natural comparison is with Catastrophe which I think was a previous One Cool Thing which is another great show you should watch on Amazon. Like Catastrophe, weirdly, it involves this one American and this one British person. They’re falling in love. They seem like a terrible couple. Catastrophe takes place in London. This takes place in Los Angeles.
What’s so different about You’re the Worst is the characters in it seem like they are the sidekick characters in other romantic comedies. They’re like the hyperactive, terrible like slutty people in the other romantic comedies. Like you would have the upstanding, like the Meg Ryan, but then she has her slutty best friend.
Craig: The wacky friends.
John: Sort of the slutty best friends.
John: Yeah. It’s nicely done and does some interesting things and there’s moments where I worried it was going to just be pushing buttons to push buttons. But it actually manages to find some humanness underneath there. So again, I’m basing this off of just watching the pilot. But I would recommend people watch the pilot because it’s a very great exercise and sort of like thinking about how you take the tropes of a genre like a romantic comedy and really play with them.
Craig: Well, I’ll put that on the list.
John: Craig is not going to watch it. Craig won’t watch anything.
Craig: Put it on the list of things I won’t watch.
John: It sounds very good.
John: That is our show for this week. Our show is produced, as always, by Stuart Friedel.
John: Who is off ordering t-shirts right now. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli who also did the outro this week. Thank you, Matthew. He got a new cello so you’re hearing his new cello. If you have a question for me or Craig Mazin, we’ll eventually answer your questions, ask@johnaugust is the email address you want. Craig on Twitter is @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust. We are on iTunes, so subscribe to us there if you wouldn’t mind and leave us a comment if you would like to.
We also have all the back episodes available at scriptnotes.net. If you sign up there, you get the whole back catalog for $2 a month. And you can find those episodes in the Scriptnotes app which is available both for iOS and for Android on their respective stores.
Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: Have a great week.
Craig: You too.
- You Must Remember This: MGM Stories, Part 1 guest starring Craig Mazin
- Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard & Lionsgate Get $10M ‘Cabin In The Woods’ Suit Tossed, and Substantial similarity on Wikipedia
- Here’s why The Rock’s new HBO show, ‘Ballers,’ can legally use NFL logos without the league’s consent on Business Insider
- Streisand effect on Wikipedia
- Movie Magic Scheduling
- Escape Room LA
- You’re the Worst on FXX, and on Hulu
- Catastrophe on Amazon Prime Instant Video
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)