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 218 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
So last week we talked about the business of screenwriting a lot. And it was sort of inadvertently one of those all business episodes, so this week is going to be all about the craft of screenwriting.
We are going to talk about how writing features is much different than writing television. And how those differences start at inception. We’ll also be looking at a couple of new Three Page Challenges.
But first and most importantly, Craig, you did not kill the entire party at the last Dungeons & Dragons game. So I am thankful to you.
Craig: Well, it was an effort, actually, to not kill all of you. You know, the thing for a dungeon master is you want to make sure that the party experiences the thrill of danger and the very real possibility of death without going overboard and just wiping the floor with them.
Craig: So, that’s a funny thing. I don’t want anyone to actually die-die by the end of the session, but I do want you to maybe almost die, or at least a couple of you almost die. And that’s exactly what happened. I got it just right. It was a very exciting one. And I can’t wait for our next session, because I got some good stuff planned for you.
John: I’m excited to do it. So I was looking through the dungeon master’s guide last night because that’s a thing I do before I try to fall asleep. I noticed there’s a page buried deep in the dungeon master’s guide which suggests another way that you can play the game in which characters have what’s called a plot point. And players can spend their plot point in order to change an aspect of the story, which would be a fascinating way to play the game.
So, at a certain point we could say like I’m going to spend my plot point in order to find a secret door that takes us into that room.
Craig: My guess is that as clever as you guys are, your plot points would likely break the game.
John: Indeed. The danger of six screenwriters playing Dungeons & Dragons.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah. And smart ones. And the real challenge for me is that one of our players is not a — well, he is — I think he does some writing, and he’s involved in Hollywood. I believe he does a lot of coverage and stuff. And he is a very well-seasoned dungeon master.
Craig: He knows the rules inside and out. So, I have the ultimate table lawyer constantly checking on me. So, it’s good. I actually feel like I’ve held up okay under his withering attacks.
John: You’re discussing Kevin Walsh, who I actually saw at a WGA function just this past weekend. The day after our near total party kill, I saw Kevin at a screening of Black Mass. And I did a Q&A right after Black Mass. And I had a chance to talk to Mark Mallouk, one of the film’s screenwriters, about the journey to the screen of that.
And so as I’m trying to do more often, whenever I talk to screenwriters in that capacity, I record it. And so if you are a Scriptnotes Premium Subscriber, you can actually hear the audio from that session. It’s in the premium feed. So there’s a bonus episode for all the folks who are generous enough to pay us $2 a month.
Craig: How thoughtful of you.
John: We’re headed off to Austin. We’re going to also be doing a bunch of screenings for Academy Award consideration things. So, we’ll try to do more of those over the next few months, because they’re really fun, and we’re already having the conversation so why not record it.
Craig: Exactly. And I’m glad you mentioned Austin, because it’s creeping up really, really fast. I guess we’re officially in October now as you folks are listening to this. And Austin is just four weeks away. So if you haven’t already arranged to be there and you want to be there, do it now.
And I’m not sure if they’ve got the whole schedule up yet, but I do know for sure that both our live Scriptnotes and the live Three Page Challenge will not be at ungodly hours like 9AM. I think they’re at reasonable hours.
John: Yeah. You can sleep off your hangover and come in and see us.
John: Scriptnotes will be on the first day. And so we will have a live Scriptnotes with special guests and it should be really fun. And then the live Three Page Challenge, we are going to be selecting from a group of finalists at the Austin Film Festival and be going through those pages with those people in the audience. And then coming up on stage to talk us through what we just talked through. So, that should be a fun time. It’s the third year we’ve done that. And it should be a good time.
John: Cool. Some corrections from last week. You had one about Rachael Prior.
Craig: Yes. There’s something in the back of my head saying — I don’t know if she’s — I called her a development executive at Big Talk. She’s actually the head of development at Big Talk and also a producer there. So I didn’t want to shortchange her on her full nobility and title.
John: Fantastic. A development executive I guess would cover it, but it is not actually as specific as you’d want to be.
Craig: No, it makes it sound like she’s working for the person that she actually is.
John: That’s true. That’s a good way to describe it. Also, as I was looking through stuff this past week, there was a new review up for the Scriptnotes app. So, in the iOS App Store there’s a Scriptnotes app which allows people to listen to all of the back episodes. And a guy named Paul Horne left a comment that says, “Ridiculous format for an app. It’s an all-premium app. You must have the premium subscription. But there’s no way to subscribe within the app, so you’re on your own. What a stupid company.”
John: And Paul Horne is right. Well, not about us being a stupid company, but he’s right about it being frustrating that within the app there’s no way to actually subscribe to the premium feed. It’s because of the weird way that Apple works within app purchases. And Libsyn who actually makes the app, and it’s all their stuff.
So, yes, as a person who makes apps for iOS, we could theoretically make our own app that would be much better than it. It’s just a matter of time and resources. And we just don’t have the bandwidth to do it. So, I’m sorry. I am frustrated as you are. But if you want to subscribe to the premium feed, it’s just Scriptnotes.net. There’s a clunky website for which you can enter in your detail information. But once you do and sign up for an account, you can get to the premium feed through the apps, or any other way you’d like to listen to those back episodes.
Craig: That sounds great. Am I — do I have an account? [laughs] I should probably check and see.
John: You should probably check and see on that.
Craig: I should probably check and see.
John: If I dig through the website carefully enough I could either check whether you’re a subscriber, or maybe even give you as one of the podcast hosts a free premium subscription.
John: But I’m not even sure I can do that. It’s like that’s how old and janky the website is.
Craig: So you actually pay $2 a month?
John: I do just to make sure that it actually comes through and updates properly.
Craig: Well, if you do it, I should do it. That would be strange. I’m going to do it. You know what? I’m going to give us $2 — I’m going to give you, let’s face it — I don’t get any of this.
John: Yeah, unfortunately you’re actually giving Libsyn more of those dollars, because we split the money with Libsyn. So, it’s all crazy.
Craig: Good, I’ll give you a buck.
John: All right. Let’s talk about writing features, because this last week I had the pleasure of going in and talking to my friend Dara’s writing class. So, Dara teaches a small group of writers from USC. And she is mostly a television writer and she wanted me to come in and talk about breaking features and sort of like what it’s like to go in and figure out how you’re going to break story on a whole feature because it’s not just sort of two pilots back to back. It’s a very different beast.
Previously on the podcast we’ve talked about, you know, are people feature writers, are they TV writers. We’ve, I think, strongly urged that anyone who is aspiring to have a career in Hollywood should be thinking about writing both, because both are valid. And a person who can write a feature probably also can write TV, and vice versa. But they are very different things. And I think we’ve never actually discussed what is so different about features than writing a one-hour drama for television.
So, that is our big topic du jour.
Craig: It’s an excellent one. I think that on first blush people might think, well, the difference is that television has episodes and a movie is just a movie. But there are certain narrative implications that go along with that. And there are character implications. And I do think that while it would be great if you could do both, there are some people that are particularly well suited to one kind of storytelling or another.
John: Yeah. And, well, before we get into what’s different about the nature of stories between these two things, let’s talk about what might be different about your personality as a writer that might make you gravitate towards one or the other. Do you like being all by yourself and having complete control over everything? That is more of a screenwriter mentality, because you are a person who gets to go off in his or her little room and write the screenplay. And, yes, you have to deal with producers and executives and other people along the way, but the writing process is sort of your process.
In television, that’s not the case. In television you’re having to work with other writers and you’re having to sit in rooms and figure out what story is and that can be fantastic for many people and many people thrive in that environment. But it’s worth knowing what you are good at and what you are not good at. And maybe you won’t figure that out until you’ve actually tried.
Craig: Yeah. I think also if you’re the kind of writer that gets very excited by the new, by beginnings, and by endings and conclusions, then you would probably want to consider features more strongly than television. But if you would prefer to kind of live within a space, and have that familiarity, and write versions and variations, then, yeah, I would think television would be the path for you.
John: Absolutely. And there’s a problem solving quality I think to doing one-hour dramas, particularly one-dramas that have a procedural aspect which can be very rewarding. Like if you are person who likes to make crossword puzzles, it’s that challenge of how you’re going to fit all of this within the restrictions of both what you can say, how much time you have, what your act breaks have to be. Some people will love that and thrive in that. And that can be a great situation for many people.
Most feature people who try to do their first TV job become very frustrated when they’re first attempting to do a television pilot.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, obviously there’s more television now than not that is commercial-free. But for people that are writing network or commercial-supported cable, I mean there’s that issue of just breaking your story and stopping it and starting it again.
John: So let’s start at the inception of story and what kinds of things are different approaching a feature versus approaching television. First is repeatability. So, movies I think are fundamentally stories that can happen just once. A movie can be expressed as this is the time when this thing happened. It’s about events that occur once. It is a change that happens to a character just one time.
So, in television, you might have a one-time setup. You might have the plane crash on Lost that gets the whole series started, but you begin Lost with the idea of what is daily life going to be like on that island and that is the question of the series. The question of the series is also are they ultimately going to leave the island. But week to week it is about the interaction of those people on the island.
In movies there’s not that sense of repeatability. Or you don’t start with that idea of repeatability. There are movie franchises. So we have Fast & Furious 7, but each of those is considered its own movie and it really was thought of as its own movie. And there’s not this underlying desire from inception to create something that can regenerate itself, that can keep growing into more and more stories. It’s not a machine that keeps spitting out more ways to race cars.
Craig: Well, it’s interesting because when we talk about this, we’re talking about what makes these things attractive from the start to us. And when we think about what becomes an attractive movie idea, we’re thinking about an idea that burns itself upon completion. It is a resolvable idea. It’s a circle, you know. We begin here and then we end in our narrative circle.
In television, the ideas that excite everybody are the ones that do seem inherently endlessly productive. So, what is the story of Cheers? It’s the story of people who show up at a bar where they find camaraderie in a way they don’t anywhere else. There’s nothing about that that suggests movie.
John: At all.
Craig: And everything that suggests this never-ending pool of generation for television.
John: Yeah, I mean, Cheers or Lost or many of the things we’re talking about, they are characters in a place. And every week you’re coming back to see those characters in that place and the adventures they will have in that place.
Contrast that — we talked in previous episodes about Pixar story rules. Emma Coats had this list of really smart things that Pixar talks about when they talk about story. This is her rule number four: “Once upon a time there was blank. Every day blank. One day, blank. Because of that blank, because of that blank, until finally blank.” So, filling in those blanks is what makes it a movie.
And inherent in sort of how she’s structuring that is there is a change. You’ve started in a certain kind of world that worked a certain kind of way, but then one day something changed and because of that change, nothing could ever be the way it was again. And that is a movie story. And television — things ultimately are back to somewhat like they were before. In movies, ideally, they are not.
Craig: Yeah. The focus of a film narrative, a feature film narrative is once upon a time there was blank, until finally blank. And that word finally says a lot. In television, they’re really concentrating on every day blank. So, movies are about shattering the everyday in such a way that it cannot it be returned to. And a new normal is created at the end. And we understand that the dramatic flaw has been cured and the hero is solved. Every day of the rest of their life after the movie should probably be quite boring and stable.
John: Yes. And if there’s a sequel, then you are going to reignite that flame. But there’s an expectation that a new normal has been reached at the end of your movie journey. And the character is different for it, but the character has come to a new place of rest. And that is not the experience of television at all.
Craig: No, in television, the normal is what is interesting. So, if you watch — I mean, procedurals do this the best, every week the district attorney sits down with his associates and says we have to win a trial. That’s our normal. And that’s what we do each week. There are serializable things that can happen over the course of a television series, but even when you look at those you’ll see in soap operatic fashion that those changes are just as undoable as they are doable.
So, in a movie, let’s say a woman is in love with a guy and he doesn’t know she exists. And that’s her normal life, until one day, right, a thing happens. And that destroys the normal fabric until such time as she either ends up with this guy or comes to some other resting place that is satisfying for her. Done.
In the serialized things that happens across episodic television, people get married, they get unmarried, they break up, they don’t break up. I mean, look at Friends. Every single one of them was in love with one of the other ones of them at some point. They mixed and matched and they got married and unmarried and together and not together, because the point was it can’t end. It’s not supposed to ever end. Which is why, by the way, the last episodes of television are incredibly hard to pull off. They are fighting the nature of television in the way that a lot of movie sequels are fighting the nature of movies, which is why sequels are hard to pull off.
John: in the outline you have this described as the difference between life-changing and life-living. And I think that’s a very smart way of making the distinction. Movies are about life-changing events in these character’s lives. Television is about these characters living their daily lives. And in living their daily lives, there are ups and downs, there are peaks and valleys, there are big things that could happen to them. But it is just their daily life. It’s their ongoing story, rather than the one epic that took them from this place to that place.
Craig: Which is why, I think, narrative television in the last 10 or 15 years has done such a remarkable job, because in the embracing of the narrative of the everyday, they have found a way to connect to common experiences we all have in nice, subtle, interesting, realistic ways. Somebody spends an entire episode dealing with a thing in a way that is not meant to be buttoned up or solved. And that very closely mirrors our experience of life.
The truth is that for all of us living on this planet, most of us never actually have a movie moment in our lives. Every now and then you do. But those are special.
John: Yeah. You may have five movie moments in your entire life. And you could look at — even if you take a very famous person and you’re trying to make a biopic about them, you are going to pick sort of those few movie moments, or you’re going to try to decide what is the movie story to tell of this person’s life, because their daily life was a lot of ordinary. And if they’re an extraordinary person, their ordinary life is probably kind of too ordinary for a movie.
Craig: Yeah. It’s one of the reasons that when we do biopics we tend to gravitate feature wise towards people that die young, because it is an end. And what isn’t quite as satisfying is a biopic about somebody who just keeps on living. And then they live some more. And then more.
There was a little bit of that feeling, you know, I got that feeling when I was watching J. Edgar Hoover.
Craig: He just kept living.
John: Yeah. I honestly had that frustration with Theory of Everything. I think that Stephen Hawking is still alive, but I didn’t like that he was still alive in the movie, because you end up with a sort of two little title cards at the end that says sort of what people are like now, and then you’re just — you keep going.
Craig: Great example. Because you could make a fantastic television series about the life of Stephen Hawking because it is ongoing. And there are these things that happen all the time with him. And there’s also the progression of his disease, which frankly is more interesting, I would think, in sort of presented in a way that’s realistic.
Now, Turing, on the other hand, he died young. And so that’s a movie.
Craig: It’s one of those funny things. Harder to do. I always struggle with — and it’s not fair, in a way, but I struggle with biopics where people just keep on living.
Now, sometimes the end of a narrative isn’t about death, but about a rebirth. So, for instance, What’s Love Got to Do with it is one of my favorite movies.
John: I was going to bring that up as well.
Craig: Love it.
John: I mean, it’s such a — and one of the rare examples of like they found the right place to end the movie on a highlight and just brilliantly done.
Craig: Right. Because the movie moment of her life, so she had a movie moment by being discovered. She had a movie moment by becoming famous with this man. She had a movie moment by suffering through domestic violence. She had a movie moment by breaking free of him. And then she had a movie moment of becoming a star all on her own. And when she does, we’re done. We’re good. The rest — Tina Turner is still alive. Nothing interesting is happening with her right now that deserves a movie. That’s why that was a movie.
John: I agree. In my conversation with Mark Mallouk about Black Mass, we were discussing Whitey Bulger who was a fascinating character, but as he was writing the story he just disappeared. He was just a dot-dot-dot. And there was no sense — the movie had a sense of closure. And his script had a sense of closure, but not really closure.
And so as they had a director attached and as they were starting to think about production suddenly he got the email that, oh, they found Whitey Bulger and he was living in Santa Monica, which was in 2011. And suddenly he had a very different ending for his movie. And that was in a weird way his capture made it a movie. And it provided a closure to it in a way that was absolutely necessary.
Craig: No question.
John: And there had been talk about trying to do that same — to adapt that same book into a series, and you could imagine what that series was. It could have been a great sort of limited series for HBO or Showtime. But it’s harder to imagine it as a movie without that sort of framing.
Craig: Movies end.
John: Movies end.
Craig: And television doesn’t. I mean, even when you talk about television with a built-in end, when I think about some of the limited series, when I look at those I think it’s just a super long movie. But proper television is meant to go as long as the creators feel like doing it. They could have done another 12 seasons of Mad Men, another 15 of Sopranos. They could have done MAS*H forever. Obviously they have to gauge the interest of the audience as the years go on. And they have to gauge if creatively there’s any juice left in it.
But without an ending, you don’t really have a movie, or some kind of limited run.
John: Agreed. Let’s talk about what else is different — size. So, movies are about extraordinary events. And often those extraordinary events are huge events. So, obviously if you’re doing a movie like San Andreas, you’re going to have the earthquake once and that’s going to be the fundamental thing that changes everybody’s life.
But in movies that don’t have that sort of big scale event, where there’s no alien invasion, it is a life-changing event for the main characters that you’re facing. It’s the day — I think we go back to the way it was before. In 12 Years a Slave, you follow Solomon Northup’s kidnapping, his ordeal, and his liberation. So there was more to his life. You could have picked it up at different points, but the movie wanted to be about his journey, about his effort to get home.
He had a very clear want and desire which was to be reunited with his family. And so once he was reunited with his family, that’s the end of the movie. And there’s no more movie to make at that point.
Even When Harry Met Sally, you know, it’s about two characters who have sort of an extraordinary first meeting where they both confess their true feelings about what they think relationships can be, and once that premise is established the movie version of that has to be them getting together or finally not ever being able to get together. It’s not set up in a television way. You couldn’t extend that out in a repeatable way across 22 episodes of a season.
Craig: Correct. There’s really no fun in watching television characters burn through a relationship or consummate a relationship. When they do it, they’re usually doing it I think because they feel like the status quo that they’ve established to that point is getting a little stale. So they’re not actually beginning or ending things. They’re creating a new status quo that they can then continue with for another five years.
So this is why characters get divorced, or get married, or fall in love, or fall out of love. Not the case in movies. Size wise, I think a movie is capable of expanding or contracting to any size, because it’s really about the depth of focus. How deep are you going to drill down into something?
Episodic television I think does not handle size well, because there is an exhaustion that occurs. And I think a little bit of that happened with Lost. The massivity of what they were proposing and the fact that it continued to be massive at some point became unwieldy. And it started to collapse in on itself. So, you can say, well, science fiction episodes can get big in a sense, but that’s just a trick of effects. I mean, Star Trek was not big in terms of scope of drama. It was as episodic as anything. It might as well have been a western in that regard. Or The Twilight Zone in that regard.
And a lot of the episodes do fit into those patterns. Television, I think, is less adaptable to huge swings of large events.
John: I think there’s a suspension of disbelief that happens with a movie where you can say like, oh, well this happens once. I can see that happening. But when you’re on your 5th season of 24 and Jack Bauer has to save the day from nuclear Armageddon yet again, that becomes a real challenge. And it feels like it violates the contract you made with your audience that like it can’t just keep happening again and again.
Heroes is another example of a show that burned so bright out of the gate and when it came time to try to repeat what it was doing, you weren’t up for it. It achieved this giant scale and really smart storytelling, and you didn’t want to see it do that same thing again.
Craig: Yeah. It starts to struggle under its own bigness. And actually an interesting exercise is to look at the difference between the way Star Trek episodes are structured and their narrative nature compared to Star Trek movies. So, one of my favorite Star Trek movies is First Contact. And so that’s about the Borg, the evil alien race, incapable of defeating humanity in the future, has decided to go into the past to our — well, sort of near future us now — to destroy the earth or actually destroy the ship that’s going to go faster than the speed of light for the first time, because that’s what essentially kicks us off and creates our connection to the rest of the galaxy and makes Star Trek possible. That feels very big. And very endable. There’s an end in sight from the conception of it, which is are they going to do this or not.
Star Trek episodes don’t really work that way. It’s a good way to kind of make the comparison.
John: As we talk about scale, I also want to stress that movies can be small and quiet, but still have a scale to them. So, a movie from this last year, End of the Tour, which I just loved, the story of David Foster Wallace and the journalist interviewing him, from the David Foster Wallace’s character perspective, this isn’t sort of the day that everything changed. It was sort of every day for him. But for the journalist interviewing him, the Jesse Eisenberg character, this was a fundamentally important shift in his life.
And so even though the move didn’t have earthquakes and rocket ships, it was incredibly important to this character, and it had stakes for that character in ways that television wouldn’t have.
Craig: Boy, it’s just amazing to consider this. It’s a simple thing, and it may seem a little morbid, and it may seem a little cynical, but I think it’s true — you don’t make that movie if David Foster Wallace doesn’t commit suicide. There’s no end.
John: That’s probably true. I mean, I think the whole movie becomes framed in a very different light. And if you go into the movie knowing that David Foster Wallace is still alive, and has an opinion about the movie you’re about to sit down and see, it does feel very, very different. You’re right.
Craig: It’s one of those things. You need some kind of end. And, again, I don’t want to harp on death as the only kind of ending, because there are lots of endings and lots of rebirths. But something has to break there permanently.
John: Well, I think when we talk about life and death, even if it’s not literally death, it has to be this sense that there are — that the lead characters could fail and there would be horrible consequences for their failure. And that’s movies.
In television, you sort of as an audience don’t believe that these lead characters are going to do, or that their failure could be so devastating. That’s one of the reasons why Game of Thrones I think is so shocking to watch is because we don’t expect to have our television characters killed off suddenly and for seemingly no reason.
Craig: Yeah. They do a great job of shaking us out of our, what I’ll call, soap opera complacency. And yet, nonetheless, it is a soap opera. I mean no disrespect to the show by that term. I think most episodic drama is soap opera. I love Game of Thrones. I think it’s the best soap opera ever made. It’s right up there with The Sopranos, which was also a soap opera.
But, yeah, they’re willing to kill characters as The Sopranos did, by the way. But also there is an ongoing process there. Now, it will be fascinating to see how it all lands, because we now know for sure that they’ve run out of books, so they’re now moving past George R. Martin. He himself, I think by his own account, is two books away from the end. So they’re now heading into what would be the penultimate book. I don’t know how many seasons that will cover, one or more. But at some point it will need to come to a landing. And at that point, there will start to take on — the show will start to take on some movie narrative aspects, inevitably. There will be permanent changes. Things will happen that will seem somewhat un-Game of Thrones like in their permanence.
John: Which I’m excited to see how that pans out. Let’s talk about characters and the choices the characters make in movies versus in television shows. In movies, you see characters making big, bold, and sort of irrevocable choices. I’m going to fight the world heavyweight champion. They’re stating their goals probably really clearly and boldly and in way that you can actually see in the trailer. And that is what they’re going for. So you’re making the contract with the audience that like this thing that I say I’m going to do, you’re going to see me try to do that.
In television, characters might pine for somebody. They might want a better life. But there’s not that expectation that we’re going to see them do that and become that over the course of watching that show. It’s informing what kind of character they are, but not necessarily what they’re doing on a daily or weekly basis. And it’s very rare that you’re going to see characters in television essentially burn down the house, like basically destroy the place of safety that they have in order to move onto their new world. And in movies you see that quite often. That’s what you end up doing at the end of your first act often is burning your whole previous life behind you, so you can move forward into this next phase of your life.
Craig: Yeah, interestingly, television characters are often punished for attempting to be different. They try and change. And they are punished for it, or they come to an understanding that they were better off the way they were. So, television has trouble with change. Television does much better with situations.
John: They do.
Craig: And by television I don’t mean the series that have ends, but rather television that’s meant to go on and on. So, characters will say, “I’m quitting my job and I’m changing my life,” and at the end the lesson is don’t do that.
Craig: Because we have to do another episode next week. And that’s not our show.
John: In many half hour comedies you will see a lead character make a fundamental choice that would change and upset everything. And by the end of the episode they’re back to where they are before. And that is the nature of television and we’ve come to sort of accept that.
So let’s say you have an idea for something, and you’re not quite sure if it’s a feature idea or a television series idea. And let’s run through some ways to try to suss out whether we think this is a TV idea or movie idea. So, these aren’t hard and fast rules, but just some frameworks for thinking about like which way you should take this idea.
John: For starter, the simple one, length. Is this a story that wants to be told within about two hours, because then it’s a feature. If there’s not a real way to tell the story you want to tell within two hours, it’s not a feature idea, and maybe it’s a TV idea.
Craig: Yeah. And you can now take advantage of this middle ground. So the thing that I’m writing for HBO is far too big to be a movie, but it’s a really long movie. So it’s a six-episode movie. And those are interesting. I like that world that now exists. It used to exist, and then it went away for a long time. Now it’s back.
But, yes, you have to ask yourself is this something that I can encompass within two hours or so. And then the flip side of that is — is this something that would actually be most enjoyable on an ongoing basis? Because it feels that way length wise, that’s where you want to go.
John: Yeah. Is what’s interesting about this idea the world and to some degree the characters, or is it the specific plot and story that you have in your head? If it’s the world, more likely what you’re describing is a TV show and if it is the specific plot and the incidents that happen in your story right now, that is probably a movie.
So an example would be I had this idea for a crime thriller set in Alaska. And I knew basically how the police and sheriffs and everything works in Alaska is so different than how we have it in the lower 48 states. And I loved that world. I thought it was really fascinating. But mostly I loved the world. I loved sort of the strange way it all worked. And I had an idea for like what the plot would be with the pilot, but I also felt like this feels repeatable. This feels like a thing that could be down week after week.
And so I pitched and I set it up at ABC and we shot the pilot. And that was a pilot I wrote called Alaska. And it didn’t go forward, but that was very much a TV idea. It was repeatable.
The feature version of that idea was a Christopher Nolan movie called Insomnia. And that was a very specific crime story that kind of happened to take place in Alaska. His story was very specifically a movie and the setting was just an interesting place to set the story.
Craig: I think that’s a great instinct that you had to think about world versus incident. I’m a huge fan of Northern Exposure, one of my favorite shows, and that was absolutely about the world. Certainly there were characters and certainly there were events that occurred, that’s what the episodes were about individually. But the enjoyment of the show, the reason you kept coming back week after week was to go back to that place. We are all constantly going back to the Cheers bar when we return for another week of television. There is a familiarity that we wish to reengage with.
And movies are the opposite. Movies are entirely about destroying familiarity and jostling you out of that. And then creating something new at the end. So, that was a smart call. And interestingly Alaska movies don’t — you struggle with Alaska movies. I mean, Mystery Alaska was another one that was kind of tough. Because Alaska does feel like it’s about the place and about exploring it over time.
John: Yep. Something I’ll call trailer-ability, is like is there a way to tell what is unique and interesting about your specific story in like a 90-second trailer. Or is it something that is more like a long slice that you’d have to really see a TV show to sort of — to understand what it is.
The details of your story, could those fit into a 90-second trailer? Or do you need to actually have a full season for that to make sense?
The same with Lost, the plane crash in Lost could be in a trailer. And you can sort of get ideas from it, but you couldn’t really get a sense of what the show of Lost was going to be like in a 90-second trailer. It was just beyond the scope of what you could imagine sitting in the theater and watching up on a screen.
Craig: In part because there was no designed end game, but you could absolutely have decided at the point of conception to not make Lost as a television show, but to make it as a movie. And you could have made a great trailer, the promise being “and this ends.” You’ll find out.
When you look at a show like The Sopranos, the promotional materials were basically saying you’ve never seen a mob family like this before. And, look, it’s mobsters dealing with the existential dread of everyday life. Well, if I saw that in a movie theater as a trailer I’d think, okay, and then what happens? What’s the thing? Why is this a movie?
Craig: So, you’re absolutely right. There’s a good test there right off the bat. Can you feel the entirety of the trailer in your head? And if you can’t, you might be dealing with a television show.
John: This is actually a note that you will hear if you ever go in to pitch a TV show. They will ask, “What is episode 12?” And by that they’re saying like once you’ve burned through this initial sort of set up of your world, what is a normal episode of your show going to be like? And that is a real criteria for whether this is a TV show idea or if it’s just an interesting pilot that doesn’t actually have sustainability.
So, if you have a real sense of what episode 12 is like, that’s probably a TV show. If you don’t, then maybe what you’re really describing is a feature and you need to think about it as a feature.
Craig: Yeah. The shows that I truly love manage to make me feel like they were all designed intentionally from the start, even though they weren’t. I know for a fact that when Vince Gilligan and his writer’s room were making the first season of Breaking Bad, they had no idea what was going to happen in season five. Maybe they had some vague senses of it, but certainly not moment to moment.
There were characters that came around in season three that they had no clue that they were going to invent. But it all feels of a piece. What they did know was that at the very least, they knew how to extend this out as far as a year.
And if you can extend it out as far as a year and then end your year on some kind of cliffhanger that promises more gasoline in the tank for your engine, then you’re in good shape.
John: Yep. Does your story want to keep coming back to the same sets? If your story mostly takes place in certain locations and you feel like you would be back seeing those same places a lot, that feels more television. And if your story is a road trip — you’re someplace new every scene, that does not feel like television. Not just for the logistics of production, but also for kind of audience expectation. There’s a familiarity about coming back to the same places with the same characters repeatedly over the course of time. Even shows like Mad Men, shows like The Sopranos, great shows. They do go back to their sets. And that’s an expectation in television that’s natural. And so if you find your story keeps wanting to go back to familiar locations, that’s probably a television idea.
Craig: It’s either a television idea, or it’s a small independent film.
Craig: And small movies can live within very confined areas as long as narratively they feel like a movie. But you’re absolutely right, for television, we’re desperate for the familiar. There’s no reason that the guys in The Sopranos needed to always meet in the backroom of the Bada Bing, or in the back room of the deli store. But we crave it, because that is what television is promising us. It’s promising us more verisimilitude than movies. It’s promising us the small but meaningful dramatic quests of the every day. And for all of us moving through every day, we have a house, we have a hangout, we have an office. That’s our deal. We’re creatures of habit.
John: My final criteria is how many characters do you need to tell your story? And if you have a bunch of characters in your world, that’s probably television. If you have a very small number of characters, that is more likely a feature. And so, yes, we can think of features that have tremendous numbers of characters. You can think of the Godfathers where there is a bunch of people you need to keep track of, but in general you have more people on television and you’re going to have more minor characters who are going to resurface.
More often in television you’re not going to be locked to a character’s point of view, so you’ll be able to see things from multiple character’s point of view. You’ll be able to wander off with that woman and see what she’s doing during her day and not always be focused on your one main lead guy. That’s television and that’s our expectation of television. In features, you tend to have smaller, more focused character sets. And generally as you’re crafting a feature, you find yourself combining characters down so that there are not more speaking parts than you absolutely need.
Craig: Yeah. There are always exceptions, of course. Big epics can expand to include more characters, but often need to be more than one movie. You have the Richard Curtis model, where you’re doing a Triptych, or you’re following four or five different characters in their own mini stories. But those are all like little short films connected to each other and then interrelated in some way. Actually some film student somewhere should do a paper on the similarities between Richard Curtis films and Quentin Tarantino films, which are remarkably similar in this regard, that they tend to create — Tarantino intends to encompass lots of small mini movies in one movie, as does Richard Curtis.
But, again, done in such a way that they don’t cross. If they’re all mingling together, if you have 12 people moving in and out altogether, all following the same plot, very difficult to do in a feature film.
John: Agreed. Compare the difference between Office Space and The Office. And The Office is a television show with a lot of characters. Office Space also is set in an office, has characters, but it’s narrowing down to fewer people because that’s what the feature can actually focus on.
All right, let’s talk about some properties that actually cross the divide. Properties that are both features and television and talk about sort of what happens when things do cross that divide. An example, Mission: Impossible. Mission: Impossible was a TV show. It was a procedural. It was on every week. Every week they would get a case. This message would self-destruct. And people loved that show, and then it was off the air for many years. It came back as the Tom Cruise franchise. And it did most of the things we just talked about, which movies need to do. They focused on many fewer characters. Rather than being the team, it’s really a Tom Cruise movie. He’s very much the focus.
The scale got much, much bigger. It was a once and a lifetime thing for him. Even each time it feels like this is the one he could die in. The scale was increased greatly.
Craig: Yeah. Same thing with the James Bond series. Same thing with the Fast & Furious series. You could argue that certain long-running movie franchises are actually massive television shows that have one episode every three years, or every two years, because that’s kind of the way it feels. Especially with Bond. Bond has been going the longest of all of them. And I’m a big Bond fan, so I’ve seen all of them. And putting aside the oddity of the casting changes and just suspending your disbelief, they’re just — each one is just an awesome episode.
Craig: Those are interesting hybrids.
John: So, with Charlie’s Angles, Charlie’s Angels was a very successful TV show. When it came time to make it into a feature, we really had to think about sort of what does this want to be on the big screen. And how do we tell a story that feels like it is Charlie’s Angels, but is also a movie version of what Charlie’s Angels would be.
And one of the things we came to is like, well, they work for this mysterious boss. This should be the closest they ever come to finding out who their boss is, that their boss is in danger, that they’re saving their father/their boss, the king. That they’re doing things that they would never have been able to do before. And we literally blow up the talent agency. So we sort of see the iconic home. The home was destroyed. It can never be made back the same way.
Those are things you do in the movie version of Charlie’s Angels that you would never do in the TV show version of Charlie’s Angels.
Craig: Right. But you could have then considered that the pilot episode of one of these new mega series that comes out once every two years, and —
John: That was absolutely the goal until — as I described it during the initial press for the first Charlie’s Angels, I said like, “I really think of this as a pilot that, you know, for a TV show that takes four years between episodes and costs $100 million.”
Craig: There you go.
John: And so the second episode should have been that episode that was like so much better than the pilot, where we sort of fixed all the problems. And instead it was a not good episode of the show, and the show got canceled.
Craig: That’s why these are so rare. Because one bad episode early on could be enough. In fact, if you look at the history of Fast & Furious, after the third one they were kind of in a wobbly place. Vin Diesel wasn’t in the second one, or the third one, and so they didn’t seem like it was going to be one of those television series. It seemed more like it was just going to be what it is.
They brought him back and revitalized it and got the series back on track. There are movies out there that continue on in this series like fashion a lot of times right under our noses like The Transporter. You know, another Robert Kamen joint.
John: Nicely done. Let’s talk about examples of shows that have done the opposite thing. So, the Sarah Connor Chronicles. This is taking The Terminator, and what we loved about The Terminator is like, well, what if we looked at Sarah Connor and sort of what daily life is like. And so her daily life is incredibly heightened. What Josh Friedman was so smart to do is really look at like what is it like to live under this threat of constant death, where there’s always going to be someone out there trying to kill you. How do you establish a normal life in that situation? So, that’s the fundamental question of the TV series, Sarah Connor Chronicles. Which I loved. Which got canceled way too soon.
And also The Muppets, the new Muppets that’s on right now. Yes, there was the Muppet TV show before, but this really feels more to me like the Muppet movies. And if you took those characters from the Muppet movies which were always having some great adventure and instead you put them in an incredibly familiar locked down TV environment where they’re talking directly to camera and uses all the conventions of The Office or Parks & Recreation, what would that feel like.
And so it’s designed to not be the one time that this thing happened. It’s meant to be like The Larry Sanders Show. It’s everyday life.
Craig: It can be a tricky affair, because when we see a movie, sometimes what we have fallen in love with it is not translatable to television. And we’re just not as interested in the more mundane or drawn out or existential aspects of that idea. That said, occasionally it works brilliantly. Perhaps the best example is MAS*H.
Craig: MASH, the movie, is wonderful. MASH, the series, not really like the movie, but made all the right changes it needed to to be a fantastic television show.
John: Yeah, you look at MAS*H, the movie, and it had Altman’s huge cast and sort of those kinds of questions that were very appropriate for both an Altman film, but could translate nicely to a TV series. But they had to translate. They had to really think about sort of what the show was going to be like with a laugh track, with standing sets, on a weekly basis. And they made very smart choices that were right for the time.
Craig: We should throw Altman into that term paper on Tarantino and Curtis.
John: Yep. It’s sort of the, you know, when you have giant casts and each character has the ability to take the narrative reins, what happens?
John: All right. Let’s see what happens with these Three Page Challenges. If this is your first time listening to a Three Page Challenge, what we do is every once and a while we open up the mailbag and look at three pages of scripts that people have sent through. They’re not sending their whole scripts. They’re only sending these three pages.
And if you would like to read along with us, go to the show notes at johnaugust.com, look for this episode. And you can open up the PDFs and read along with us as we take a look at what these writers have sent in.
If you’d like to send in your own pages, go to johnaugust.com/threepage, all spelled out, and there are instructions for how you do that and a little form you attach your PDF to.
So, let’s start with Dan Mauer. Is it Mauer or Mauer?
Craig: It looks like it’s Mauer.
John: Maurer. All right. Dan on the cover page says that he is a 2015 Austin Film Festival Three Page Challenge submission. Please note that I will be attending AFF. So, perhaps we will meet Dan there and be able to talk more about his pages.
Craig: All right.
John: Do you want to synopsize this?
Craig: Sure. So we open in a cellar at night. There’s just a little bit of light coming from an old kerosene lantern. And we hear the sound “Tap…Tap, Clang…” sort of a metallic sound. Door creaks open. It’s clearly bad weather outside and the distant wail of a police siren. And in comes a boy, a 12-year-old boy, named Billy. He’s in snow boots. He steps over to the lantern and revitalizes the lantern by pumping. It’s some kind of pump-operated lantern.
John: Coleman lanterns do that.
Craig: There you go. And he hears maybe a footstep. And we see a super, by the way. This is January 1975. And by moving the light around he discovers a dead body. A body of a boy. And then he realizes he’s not alone in the room. There’s another boy in the room. And that boy’s name is Tommy. And tommy whispers to Billy, “I didn’t do nothing wrong.”
Billy looks back at the body. Tommy is also 12, by the way. Looks at the body. And then makes the connection that perhaps Tommy did in fact do something wrong. And this his fault. And under all of this, the continuing mysterious noise, “tap…tap…clang…clang.”
John: And that’s the bottom of our three pages. My initial reaction to this is I am interested and intrigued by these boys in the body in the basement. It was a lot of shoe leather to sort of get through for where I got at the end of these three pages. I felt like I could have gotten there faster for what his was.
And there were a few specific things that sort of stuck out for me. The reveal of the super, January 1975, fine for us to do that. But if you’re going to call that out at a specific moment, it needs to be really a revelation that needs to be a very specific time and reason why you’re showing that title right when you’re showing it. And there really wasn’t for me. It was, “Billy grabs the lantern, stands, and holds out the light. Exposed beams, pipes and dusty floorboards hover over head. SUPER: ‘January, 1975′”. There wasn’t an incident that told me, like, oh, this is why it’s important for me to know this is 1975 versus a different time. That sort of stuck out.
There were some choices on sort of how we’re — just some word choices that sort of stuck out for me. “Billy looks around, his lantern pushing back the darkness only a small dim circle at a time.” The circle frustrated me a little bit because while lantern light would cast a circle, that’s not the force that’s pushing forward. It’s like you only see the circle looking down. The geography threw me off a little bit in that description.
John: Craig, what is your first opinion of this?
Craig: Well, overall I thought it was really well done. I liked Dan’s general use of language. It was incredibly evocative. I could draw the room for you. I felt and heard everything. I could almost imagine colors and things and palettes. So, what was happening was a really good use of cinematic writing. I enjoyed the sound aspects in particular.
Some things to consider. I agree on the super. I’m not sure why we didn’t see it at the top. It does emerge oddly there on the page. Obviously it’s not something that’s determinative. It will be done in post, but for the reader, everything should be intentional. The introduction of Billy, the first kid, says, “REVEAL BILLY STONE, 12, fair-haired, open-faced. A young boy eager to leave childhood behind, if only he knew how.” No.
John: That’s unplayable. It doesn’t help us.
Craig: No, he’s fair-haired and open-faced. He could be scared. He could be realizing he’s completely in over his head. I’d love to see how cold he is in his face. I think cold is a great thing to be evocative about on film. I love that he’s well-dressed for the snow, but wears only one knit glove. That’s a great little detail. And that he’s cut on his hand. He sees that.
A little odd that he’s looking at that now. Maybe if it were clearer that he is using the lantern specifically to look at his hand. It seems almost like he just happens to go, “Oh, and by the way, audience, here’s my cut hand.”
So, a little something to think about there. There is, story-wise, I’m certainly intrigued. I want to know what Tommy did. I want to know what Tommy’s problem is. I want to know what’s down in the hole. I want to know what’s making the noise.
I did get a little confused about some direction. When Billy discovers the body he looks toward the hole, trips over something, staggers, and then sees — we see — a balled up gym sock, tattered underwear, wadded up jeans, a child’s barefoot, young dead fingers reaching from beneath loose soil. Cool.
“Billy panics, steps back and trips over a shard of concrete.” That’s the second trip. “He drops the lantern and goes down hard. The light hits the ground, revealing the bloodied and disfigured face of a DEAD BOY.” I was a little confused. Like, wait a second, if the fingers are reaching from beneath loose soil, where’s the head, where’s the face, where are the feet. I got a little confused about how that worked.
John: Yeah. I did, too.
Craig: But certainly the introduction of Tommy is really cool. The third page is the one where things get a little flabby. Once Tommy says, “I didn’t do nothing wrong, Billy,” you could just as easily have Billy look at the body and go, “No,” and then clang, clang, clang, clang. You could remove a lot of page three.
John: I think you could, too. Let’s take a look at the description of Tommy Schneider. “TOMMY SCHNEIDER, 12. He’s fragile; damaged goods. Stringy red hair, blotchy freckles, and an oddly shrunken ear complete the picture of a kid no mother could love.” A kid no mother could love? I don’t know what that is. I don’t know what that means.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, if he’s creepy or, again, I’m not a huge fan of these kinds of baroque character descriptions anyway, but if you’re going to do it, give me something that I think a kid could play.
John: Yeah. Fragile and damaged goods I think are both useful. Joined by semicolon, damaged goods doesn’t help me with fragile. And so if you wanted to put that damaged goods after the shrunken ear, sure. I mean, there’s that sense of he’s a fundamentally broken kid. I totally get and understand that.
Like you, I got confused by the geography within the space. Circling back to the 1975 of it all, until I got to the 1975 I wasn’t sure if we were in present day or like in a western, because there’s nothing here — the kerosene lantern made me think like, well, this is a long time ago. But I didn’t really know. So, putting that 1975 up earlier would probably help me just get a sense of place and time and sort of who these kids would be. I sort of have a 1975 kid template that would have been really helpful to apply at the start.
Craig: Yeah, I had the same confusion from the lantern. I thought maybe we were in the 1800s or something.
John: Yeah. So I guess on the whole I would say interested, intrigued. I think we can do the stuff that these pages do faster. But I’m curious to read page four.
Craig: Yeah, for sure. And I really think that Dan’s got a good control over his writing and good control over the — I can tell that he watched this scene before he wrote. And that’s absolutely crucial. So I thought he did a really good job and is very promising.
John: Cool. All right, next up, let’s look at Kate Jeffrey’s pages. This is Into the Bazaar. Bazaar like a shopping bazaar. Not a strange place, although it could be strange.
We open on the streets of New York where the sun is low. We follow a delivery boy on a bike as he zooms by. Honks as he’s racing through traffic. He’s in a fancy neighborhood and arrives outside a brownstone on a quiet block. He rings the buzzer. Buzz. Buzz. And then we’re inside the apartment where a small girl, Jane, 14, hears the buzzer.
She sitting on the bed. There’s an untouched glass of chocolate milk on the bedside table. In the living room at the same time, Eleanor, 38, is laying on a chaise lounge. She’s wealthy and dying. There’s an empty container of pills and a glass of water. She hears the buzzer but she does not respond to it.
Jane, he daughter apparently, shows up. Asks he if she drank the chocolate milk and apparently has not drank the chocolate milk. We stay with them as Eleanor dies. She has apparently taken all the pills and she dies there in the scene.
Jane calls a man and we hear on the other end the man answering, yes. And it is her father. And the father is saying, “For Heaven’s sake, speak up.” The daughter, Jane, asks, “Can you come home? Mom has…”
And the father says, “Sorry, hun, I gotta go. Ask you mother.”
And that is the bottom of page three.
Craig: Right. So, I can sense you were struggling to synopsize this because in part it’s written in a way that defies synopsis, which is not a good sign. Here are the good signs. Again, I liked a lot of the language. And I could see what was going on. And I think that Kate has made this really remarkable choice right off the bat to present this suicide in such a, well, in such a bizarre manner. And so I really like that.
But let’s talk about where Kate is kind of getting in her own way here. First off, we have the first half of the first page is not about Jane, the daughter, or Eleanor, the mother. The first half is about the delivery boy. And, in fact, it’s presented as if the delivery boy is going to be the hero of our movie. Even has an interaction with an old man crossing the street. The old man gets a line. And then the delivery boy arrives and is buzzing and waiting, and buzzing and waiting, and buzzing and waiting.
Well, I’m not sure any of that is necessary at all, unless the delivery boy becomes a real character, in which case don’t call him delivery boy.
John: That was my first instinct, too. It’s a red flag the delivery boy doesn’t have an age, so you call him a boy. But is he actually a boy or is he a young man. Is he a delivery guy? Like, there’s no detail provided for him, and yet we’re spending the first half of our first page following him through the city is frustrating.
Craig: It was frustrating. I think that timewise Kate has set us in New York at evening sunset — already to go down, so actually it’s not evening, it’s more like whatever you would call dusk.
Then Eleanor seems to have this expectation that Jane would be asleep by now. That doesn’t quite add up.
Craig: So —
John: Well, so I took this to mean that the mother has drugged the chocolate milk, and so that Jane is supposed to be dead, too.
Craig: Okay, well, so then I start to draw some conclusions, including that one. So let’s talk about, again, Kate kind of getting in her own way a little bit here, because she’s got some really cool stuff and she just needs to button up a few things.
When we meet Jane, she is 14 years old, and she’s in a room with an expected array of teddy bears and decorative pillows, which is, you know, an array of teddy bears for a 14-year-old girl is actually not expected. So, I wasn’t quite sure if that was meant to be ironic or informative. If it is, call it out as being unexpected. Don’t call it expected.
And then there’s this chocolate milk. Jane also looking at a doll. Again, is she 14 or is she nine? What’s going on here? I like the buzzing. By the way, if you cut the delivery boy out entirely and there was this buzzing, that would be fine, too.
Now we go to Eleanor. Now, here’s what it says, “ELEANOR (38), lies on a chaise lounge. Wealthy and dying. Her silk robes splay open, revealing a lace nightgown, and her graying auburn hair is fanned around her head.” At this point at the end of page one, Kate I guarantee you 99.8% of writers will think, oh, I see, Eleanor has cancer. Because that’s pretty much what that means.
“She stares up at an ornate chandelier. An empty container of pills and a pessimistic glass of water sit on a wooden coffee table next to her.” Now, I loved “pessimistic glass of water,” by the way. It was great. I did not like empty container of pills. Pills are not easily viewed as empty. Pill containers — the pill containers we all know are those orange plastic things and they’re kind of hard to see. And usually they’re covered by labels and you can’t see what’s in them at all.
If it were spilled over. If we saw some better indication. If we saw her finishing the last of them. Something. You’ve got to give us a little bit more so we’re not completely lost. Because really it took me a while until at the bottom of page two Kate says, with Eleanor having been interrupted by Jane, “An awkward silence. How embarrassing to be walked in on during your suicide.” Well, that’s not — that’s cheating.
I need to know it’s a suicide from what I’ve seen, not from you telling me. So that was one.
“You didn’t drink your chocolate milk I made you” is another one where I think people are going to have to wonder did she really drug her kid. How did she do that? Why didn’t the girl drink the chocolate milk? Why is a 14-year-old girl — why would she think that a 14-year-old girl would want to drink chocolate milk? Is this girl mentally disabled? Is she — she seems regressive to me. She doesn’t seem like a 14-year-old girl.
Then, on page three, the most curious of things. Jane appears to understand that Eleanor has killed herself and is dying. “Jane stares at Eleanor. Then nods. It’s a moment of honesty, and Jane appreciates it. She watches, frozen, as her mother slips away. Eleanor’s alert eyes rove her daughter’s face once more before closing. Jane’s stoic demeanor lasts only a second longer before crumbling.” So, the implication is Jane understands that Eleanor has killed herself. Jane understands her mother is dying. Eleanor understands that Jane understands all this. Jane is attempting to be stoic during it, which is fascinating to me, and really interesting, but also that’s such a puzzling thing that for anything else to be puzzling around it creates confusion.
Craig: And then, of course, once her mother dies, she then begins to behave the way somebody would normally, without a puzzling circumstance. She calls her father, desperate for help, and can’t speak. And finally when asking him to speak the father says, “I don’t know what’s going on. Go ask your mother.” Because he has no idea that anything important is going on.
That in and of itself tells me that this was not something that was expected or normal or anything that Jane should have been anticipating. So, I have so many logic questions about what’s happened in these first three. And yet, I have to say, I am emboldened because there’s a lot of beauty inherent in what Kate’s doing here.
So, just got to work on making some of these choices to help us appreciate what she’s doing.
John: Yes, I am like you admiring sort of the choices that she’s made in terms of setting up the story and setting up this mother killing herself so early in the story and sort of what the life is like for Jane. But I had to keep rereading character’s ages because I kept thinking like, wait, no, something is wrong. Like the wrong number got typed. Because “A small girl looks up at the noise. She is JANE (14), brown hair, pale and plain.” Well, you’re going to say she’s a girl, okay, and she’s 14, that’s the upper edge of what I would say is a girl, but fine.
But then all of the stuff with her room and all the animals, the stuffed animals, it felt so little girlie, that for you not to hang a lantern on it and let us know like, no really, this is really what it’s like. There’s something about this girl that it is unusual for her to have this stuff is important. Because otherwise I feel like I made a mistake.
Similarly, “ELEANOR (38), lies on a chaise lounge. Wealthy and dying.” An 88-year-old woman, wealthy and dying on a chaise lounge, I sort of get what that is. And then “her silk robe splays open, revealing a lace nightgown, and her graying auburn hair is fanned around her head. The graying hair and the 38 didn’t all track with me, too.
I just was having a hard time picturing who this woman was and what age I was supposed to think. And I knew that she probably was her mother based on those ages, but it all — the pieces weren’t connecting right for me as I was going through that.
Craig: Yeah, that gray hair was why I thought cancer. I just think like, okay, if you’re 38, you’re still relatively young. You’re lying there dying. You have medicine near you. And your hair is gray? You’re sick. You’re not committing suicide.
John: So Craig likes “pessimistic glass of water.” I hate pessimistic glass of water.
Craig: I loved it. I just loved it.
John: A glass of water can’t be pessimistic. I mean, a glass of water can be ominous, but like pessimistic is a personality trait that a glass of water I don’t think can have.
Craig: I know. But I just liked — I don’t know, it seemed evocative. Look, it’s ridiculous and poetic. Obviously glasses of water can’t be ominous or pessimistic or anything. They’re just glasses of water. But there was something about it that made me think, well, the glass of water is pessimistic because she’s —
John: The glass of water is pessimistic because like, oh, no, no, I’m not going to be tasty for you. I’m not going to be —
Craig: No, it’s just more like I thought that it was a good way to imply — the whole mood was pessimistic. You know, like Eleanor had just given up. I liked personally. It’s not the kind of thing, by the way, that is going to help you sink or swim.
Craig: Do it rarely.
John: Another issue I had on page one, I think we’re advocating cutting all of this bike messenger running through the city because it’s not helping us here, but I want to call out, “The chaos of the deep city mellows as he gradually makes his way to the upper echelons of New York. The fancy hood.” Echelons doesn’t mean that. Echelons is actually a class of society. Echelons isn’t a location, it is a social stratus. And so I sort of get what she’s going for her, but like it was enough to bump me, that echelons isn’t the word she’s looking for here.
I’m trying to imagine ways in which we could do some of the same things that she’s doing here and even better land these ideas. If we see Eleanor place the glass of chocolate milk and then leave the room and then start to do things with pills, that’s incredibly ominous and evocative. If we see the moments before this has all happened. To come in so late to all these things, I just think we’re missing out on characters making choices. Like all the choices have been made before we came upon the scene.
Craig: Yeah, I agree. And if there is — look, the pages are strongly implying that Jane is not a developmentally appropriate 14-year-old girl. That she can’t even speak when she calls her father. She has trouble. She’s so frustrated by her inability to speak that she stomps her foot. This all seems off. If that’s the case, let us know. Let us know clearly and right off the bat.
In terms of the chocolate milk, I would probably have her just bring it in.
Craig: Just bring the chocolate milk in and put it down next to her mother, so that when her mother sees it she goes, “Oh no. You were supposed to drink that. You were supposed to be asleep.” Let me know what’s going on. Little bits because, look, I love mystery. But we’ve talked about this before. There’s a fine line between mysterious and what the hell is going on. And the second you cross into what the hell is going on-ville, well you’ve lost me. You don’t get any credit for your wonderful mystery. So, this feels like something that would — Kate would actually benefit strongly I think from listening to the script being read by other people because she would then see like, okay, this is the actual information that’s coming out.
Forget the script. Here’s what people will actually see and hear. And it will help her.
Craig: All right. We’ve got one more here.
John: One more.
Craig: This is a script written by Sehaj Sethi. And, by the way, I checked because I was curious. Sehaj may be a man or a woman. It is a unisex name. So we don’t know. But the title of Sehaj’s script is C.A.S.S.P.R. And that’s an anagram — C.A.S.S.P.R.
Okay, so we open, it is outside the orbit around Kepler 438B. And hovering lifeless in space is the long, slender Archimedes, a space ship. And Kepler 438B looms in the not so far distance. It could be earth’s pale rocky twin.
Inside the Archimedes space ship we see that there’s been some kind of problem. There’s nobody in view. But everything is a wreck. Things are broken and shattered and sparking.
Then we go — that’s the main deck. Then we go to the crew quarters, same deal. Bedlam. Illuminated by one lone reading light that’s been left on. And then into the kitchen. Again, same deal. Everything is smashed and tumbled all over the place. And here is where we meet Akash, a slender Indian man, mid-40s. He’s unconscious with a thick gash on his forehead. And then he comes to and looks around bewildered.
We then go to the engine room. Alarms blaring. And similarly, there is a woman here named Monica, late 30s, muscular and opposing, picks herself up. She, too, has been injured. A big bruise on her head. She turns the warning off and we see that the engine has been stalled. Akash is at the main deck trying to restart the ship and failing. Monica stumbles in. And the two of them have a conversation about her sprained ankle. And in that conversation, by looking at each other’s badges, they identify each other. Akash is a biologist, Monica is an engineer. But neither one of them remember anything.
That’s what it says, “I don’t remember anything.” They’re identifying their own jobs based on what they’re wearing. At that point, Monica asks about the nature of the ship. He says navigation isn’t working. She looks outside at Kepler 438B and asks, “Are we here for that?”
Akash says, “We’re just out of orbit. I’d say so.”
She says, “It’s just like earth.”
And he says, “Probably why we’re here. Second chances.”
And those are our first three pages of C.A.S.S.P.R. by Sehaj Sethi.
John: Yeah. I enjoyed these pages very much. I was very curious to read page four and see what was going on. So, this idea of characters waking up not knowing who they are is a trope. We’ve seen it in other films before. We’ve probably even seen it in other space films. I still like it. It is an interesting way to begin because we as the audience have the same amount of information as the characters. And we are trying to find out about the world and the situation as the characters are trying to find out about the world and their situation.
I thought the writing on the page was nice. Archimedes is described as “a space ship with more curves than angles. A metal salamander…The enormous curve of Kepler 438b looms in the not-so-far distance. It could be Earth’s pale, rocky twin.” It felt confident about sort of its ability to describe what was going on.
Where I lost a little faith in our sci-fi of it all is as we come upon Monica. And so she picks herself up, she looks around completely confused. “In front of her is a control panel with a flashing green button. She presses it. The geyser of steam stops, as does the alarm.” That felt so, so too easy and so, you know, sort of early Star Trek where there’s like steam shooting out of a little pipe someplace that it made me not trust some of the sci-fi of it all.
I wanted a more specific kind of confused, because as I read this I was like, well, she’s confused at sort of what happened. But for her not to really understand at all what’s going on, I think that was an opportunity for her to really not know what she should do or what is the appropriate action to take. Because once we actually get to the two characters being together and talking about — and figuring out I’m a biologist, you’re this, that is interesting. And that’s the kind of stuff I love about the genre.
Craig: Yeah. I’m a little less happy about these than you. Let’s just start with some simple stylistic things. The very first slug line says, “EXT. OUTSIDE ORBIT OF KEPLER 438B.” That’s not really an exterior. Your exterior is space. And particularly I think since your first visual is the Archimedes, the space ship, and it is described well, just say space because then you get to the enormous curve of Kepler — and I would capitalize Kepler 438B looms in the not-so-far distance. So we understand, okay, there’s our ship, and there’s a planet.
Fine. Now, we have this — we go through the wreck of the ship and we meet Akash. And that’s all fine. Now, I’m going to note, he presses a hand to his gash and looks around utterly bewildered. Utterly bewildered. Now we go into the engine where Monica groans. Akash also groaned. But she groans exactly in the same way and then she is completely confused. Utterly bewildered. Completely confused.
So, basically I’m seeing the same damn thing twice. No Bueno. Do not like. So, you’re going to come up with another thing. If somebody is waking up slowly and looking around, utterly confused, fine. The next person should wake up with a start in a complete panic and start punching at the air. Like give me a completely different dynamic. I want to have separation.
Also, we do have a little bit of the default white issue here. Akash is a slender Indian man. Monica is late 30s. Well, I’m guessing that means white? Don’t know. So, it’s a thing. Generally speaking, if we’re going to be calling out ethnicities, let’s call them out.
I totally agree with you on this flashing green button. And it’s a bit worse than you’re stating. Because there’s a flashing green button that she casually presses that apparently is the stop steam and alarm button. But the screen on the panel is a bright yellow warning blinking that says Engine Stalled. What is this, a ’78 Chevy? [laughs] This is a space ship. There’s no “engine stalled.” What? Engine? Stalled?
Then in the next scene, Akash is looking at the computer bank and it says, “Flashing, navigation system failure,” which again I assume this is just running on Windows ’95 or something. It just feels so fundamental and boring and not cool. It’s just not cool.
Now, I like the fact that they’re both identifying each other in terms of who they are by their badge. Then Akash says, “You don’t remember.”
And she says, “I don’t remember anything. You?”
And he shakes his head. I have a big problem with this. What do you mean you don’t remember anything? Yes you do. You remember how to press a button. You remembered to go to the bridge. You remembered to check the thing. You remembered some basic things.
So, what is it, is it like I remember — I don’t remember — and they remember their names. So, define remember. I don’t know what happened. I was just, blah, blah, blah, and then where is everybody? I think that there would be natural questions that people would be asking of each other in this moment of panic.
I almost laughed in a bad way when she comes in. This is the first time they’ve seen each other. She stumbles into this room, which she apparently remembered to go to. And then Akash helps her and she says, “It’s my ankle.” [laughs] And he says, “Looks like a bad sprain.”
You know, if I woke up on a spaceship that was completely wrecked and dead and everyone was gone, and I couldn’t remember anything, you know, the sprained ankle wouldn’t be necessarily the first thing coming out of my mouth. It just doesn’t seem like it’s super-duper important.
Lastly, and again, this is all about what would people realistically say in these moments, or at least what would we buy dramatically. She looks out at the planet and says, “Are we here for that?” And he says, “I would say so.” And she says, “It’s just like earth,” apparently another thing she remembers. And he says, “Probably why we’re here. Second chances.”
Well, I mean, that was pretty poetic for a guy that just woke up on a wrecked ship. I mean, people don’t stop and get all thematic and poetic in moments of crisis.
Craig: So there was a lot about this that just rang false.
John: So, let’s talk about the possibilities here, because I agree with your complaints on really all of those specifics. Where I think I was excited by was the possibility of what was here. So, let’s get the script a little closer to what it can be. Let’s look at the doubling of the action. So, I agree that you can’t have characters — you shouldn’t introduce two different characters responding in the same way to the same situation. That’s not going to be fascinating. And so we need to see behavior that would let us know that this person is confused and not sure what they should be doing or where to even start and where to begin.
I think there is dialogue to be done, but I would be fascinated to see these three pages if they didn’t have any dialogue at all, and we just had to see only through actions, characters trying to figure out what was going on and trying to figure out how to shut off that warning. And that question of like once they get it shut off, wait, should I have shut off that warning? What’s actually happening?
John: Once we get to the dialogue, the crucial question should be how much are the characters assuming that the other person is in the same situation? Basically, how are they interacting with each other, assuming the other person actually does know what’s going on?
John: And so if I have amnesia, I’m going to assume that you don’t have amnesia and you’re going to tell me who I am. And then you’re both in the same boat. And then it becomes an opportunity to talk about like, well, what do you remember? What do you know? And I think it is reasonable to assume that there is some body of knowledge, some common corpus that they both kind of have a sense. They knew how to get around the ship. They knew how to do some basic things. He knew that her ankle was sprained and not broken.
But, something fundamentally bigger is happening here. And that might be more than three pages worth of time, but that is I think what the possibility is of meeting these two characters.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, you’re talking about priorities. Characters have to follow priorities. And the priorities have to be priorities that are recognizable to us as sensible. So, if I were rewriting this, I would start with Monica. I would have her come to in the middle of this mess.
I would have her be utterly confused about what’s gone on. I would have her be competent enough to do something interesting to shut off the alarm and the steam as long as I understood that she wasn’t just quieting the alarm because it was a nuisance, but rather she was stopping something bad from happening.
Then the next thing I would have her do is make her wade through the ship. I would have her experience the wreckage of the ship through her eyes, rather than the blank narrative of an unmoored camera. And then I would have her move into the room, see some guy hunkered over this thing. He’s the only one alive. And she pulls out here gun and says move away from there, because she’s paranoid that this is the guy that did all of this. And he’s like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.”
And she goes, “Who are you?”
And he goes, “I don’t — my name is Akash. I think I’m a biologist.” You know? And they start off like who are you, I don’t know, you’re hurt. Sit down.
You’ve got to create dynamics. There’s got to be a sense of struggle and conflict and interaction. This was just like, hey, ankle, yeah. Who are you? What’s my name? Ooh, look at the planet.
John: Yeah, what you’re describing is because these pages right now introduce the characters on the same level, we have no sense of who we should be rooting for or what their equivalent power struggle would be, or what natural conflict should be there.
If we stuck with Monica until she meets this other person, our allegiance will always be to Monica. And that is going to be interesting. And if we only meet Akash through Monica, or you could do it the other way around, we’re going to stick with the person we know first. And that’s just sort of how we relate to characters and stories.
Craig: And how I think we want to absorb information. We want to experience information with our characters and through our characters. We don’t want to experience all of it and then have them wake up and move through and ask questions of things that we’ve already seen. And we just don’t want it to be so flat.
These two people seems almost lobotomized by their injuries. They’re preternaturally calm.
John: Yeah. And that could be fascinating. And, I mean, perhaps that is actually to some degree a deliberate choice that is being made here. But you’ve got to call that out if that’s the case. And you’ve got to have that sort of dumb struck quality really being brought to the surface.
Craig: Yeah. Like if you had this weird conversation where these two people were behaving so curiously and you were like, “Well this is a bad movie,” and then one of them turns around and goes, “Oh…” And one of them sees the other one turn around and says, “Oh, you’re hurt.” And then we pan down and we see that they’ve got a gash in their side and there’s robotics in there. We’d go, oh…
John: Oh…yeah, that’s fascinating.
Craig: Oh, that makes sense, right?
John: It would be great if they were robots. Or, I mean, the simpler version is just like there’s a head injury that we’re not aware of until the other character points it out. It’s like, “Oh my god, you have like a horrible…” That gash in the head which is written on the first part, if that was actually hidden away, that would be great.
Craig: I’m actually looking through your head. That can’t be good. I’m a biologist. I know for a fact that that’s not good.
But you just can’t have both characters inexplicably being so flat and there’s just no spark between these two. There’s no fun. I’m not enjoying the interactions here.
John: In all of our Three Page Challenges, I don’t think you’ve ever so successfully talked me out of liking three pages.
Craig: [laughs] I’m so sorry. I feel bad.
John: You shouldn’t feel bad at all. And none of our three writers who were so brave to send in their pages should feel bad, because we are obviously pointing out things we would love to see improved. But on the whole, these are some of the better pages we’ve looked at. There certainly there was a lot to sort of like here.
We didn’t talk about sort of paragraph length and sort of flow on the page, but in all these cases it was easy to get through the pages and there were no sort of stoppers, except for the little things we singled out.
John: And Stuart always wants me to remind listeners that as he goes through every submission into the Three Page Challenge, he really deliberately does pick for us things he thinks are interesting for us to talk about on the show, but also some of the better ones. And so these really are some of the better ones that come into the account. So, thank you to everyone who writes in, but especially these three writers for letting us talking about their pages.
Craig: Indeed. And we hope that we were helpful to all three of you.
John: Wonderful. It is time for One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is A24 Pictures, which is a movie label that I see — I see the banner in front of certain movies, and I didn’t really know what it was until I read this piece by David Ehrlich writing for Slate in which talks about the tiny little production and distribution arm and the movies they’ve released. So those are Mississippi Grind, Ex Machina, Under the Skin, Spring Breakers.
And on the show we often talk about the frustration that there are only teeny tiny movies and giant $200 billion movies. And A24 is a production company and releasing arm that is aiming to make some of those smart movies that are between those two poles. And so I thought it was a great article. I’ll put that article in the show notes, but also just I want to see more companies like A24, like STX, like Annapurna that are trying to make interesting movies and finding ways to release them both theatrically and in some cases on demand at the same time.
Craig: And they have had some success. I mean, Ex Machina did really well.
John: Yeah. It was a great movie.
Craig: I enjoyed it.
John: And the movies that aren’t sort of big studio blockbusters, they’re able to find ways for those to actually make money and that’s important, too.
Craig: Indeed. My One Cool Thing is a soundtrack album that you can all buy now. It was released this week, this past week. And it is the Broadway Cast Recording of Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. It’s spectacular. I’m going to see the show in the end of the year. I’m going to be in New York at the end of the year. I’m going to see the show there. I can’t wait.
What I love about it is, well first of all, I happen to be a huge fan of Alexander Hamilton, the man, and his work and his philosophy. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten into arguments about people about why I think Thomas Jefferson is why overrated. But regardless, topic for another podcast. What I think is fascinating about what Miranda did was he basically delivered a hip hop opera. And what I love is that it encapsulates the very best of what hip hop can do in ways that no other musical form can. It’s so smart. It’s lyrically so aggressive and so ambitious and brilliant.
And it’s also hip hop without the parts of hip hop that I think are so bad. It’s not the hip hop of celebrating violence. It’s misogynistic hip hop. It’s old school hip hop done right. And about a guy that deserves his story to be told.
Just wonderful. I mean, up and down, every single song. All the performances, amazing. I can’t wait to see the show. And for those of you who aren’t going to be in New York, and a really hard ticket to get, just go ahead and buy the album. It’s not that expensive and you can listen to it in your car. And you’ll get the story.
John: Cool. Yeah, I’ve held off on buying the soundtrack because I do want to see the show and there are times in which I’ve listened to the cast album beforehand and then when I see the show I’m sort of frustrated that things aren’t matching my expectations, or that I sort of knew too much. So, I’m going to try to get to New York to see it soon enough that I’m going to hold off, I think, listening to it until I’ve actually seen the show.
Craig: Well, I’ll just start singing it to you when you least expect it.
John: Ugh, that’s so dangerous. Our show as always is produced by Stuart Friedel. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. Thank you, Rajesh. You’ve written so many wonderful outros for us.
Craig: Yeah, he’s very good.
John: He’s prolific. If you have an outro for our show, you can write into email@example.com and send us a link to your outro. But if you have a question, that’s also a great place to write your longer questions. We answer them on the air pretty frequently. For short questions, Twitter is best. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. We’re also on Facebook. We check that occasionally, but not as often as Twitter.
Our bonus episode that I mentioned, the interview with Mark Mallouk from Black Mass, that is on the premium feed. If you’d like to subscribe to the premium feed, go to Scriptnotes.net and that’s $1.99 a month. And you can get that and all the back episodes, including the dirty episode.
We have our show up in iTunes. So, if you want to subscribe to the normal feed, just got to iTunes and click subscribe. That is really helpful. You can find the Three Page Challenges that we talked about and other things in our show notes for the episode, johnaugust.com/podcast.
And that’s our show. Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, John.
- Scriptnotes Premium Bonus episode, with Black Mass screenwriter Mark Mallouk
- Austin Film Festival 2015 panel schedule
- Sign up for Scriptnotes premium access
- Emma Coats’s Pixar Story Rules
- Submit your Three Pages
- Three Pages by Dan Maurer
- Three Pages by Kate Jeffrey
- Three Pages by Sehaj Sethi
- A24, and Slate on The Distributor as Auteur
- Hamilton, the Original Broadway Cast Recording on iTunes and on Amazon
- Outro by Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)