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 226 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the program, we will be discussing epic world-building, from Gotham City to Narnia, and why screenwriters need to be careful when building out whole universes. This topic was suggested by Rawson Marshall Thurber who is a friend of ours and a former guest. He was a guest on our 100th episode of the show and also on the Christmas show.
Craig: I just like hmph-ing him.
John: Yeah, absolutely. As a, “How he dare suggest something like this.” But you’ve actually found yourself doing some world-building recently. I was thinking I saw the trailer for The Huntsman which felt like it was a build-out of a fantasy world.
Craig: Yes, very much so.
John: And apparently, Charlize Theron has bitten into something very black because her mouth is very black in that trailer.
Craig: I got to tell you, she’s so good in the — ooh, she’s good in that movie.
John: Oh, that’s good.
Craig: Yeah, she’s good in it. She’s good.
John: Before we get to world-building, some follow-up. On December 9th, we have our live show. There might be tickets. I think they’re releasing a few more tickets that we’d held back, so you should go check it out and see if there are still some tickets available for our live show because we’ve actually added an additional guest, Alan Yang of Parks and Recreation.
John: And more recently the Aziz Ansari show, Master of None on Netflix. He will be joining us to talk about that show and other awesome topics. We may even have a musical guest because in previous shows we’ve had — well, Craig has sung. We’ve had Rachel Bloom sing, from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. So it wouldn’t be a Christmas show without a little bit of music. And I think we have the music guests figured out for the show.
Craig: I think we do. I think it’s going to be awesome.
John: It’s going to be great. So you should come join us for that. So in addition to Alan Yang and Craig Mazin and myself, we will have Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome from Another Period. And who else is on our show? Oh, Malcolm Spellman.
Craig: How can you forget?
John: You can never forget Malcolm Spellman. He will not let you forget that he’s there.
John: Nope. Segment bit of follow-up, NaNoWriMo, the National November Novel Writing Month, is now drawn to a close. So people have asked, “Hey, John, how did you? You were going to write a book during November.”
John: And I did not finish the book but I got at about like 13,000 to 15,000 words done and I’m really, really happy with what I wrote.
John: So it qualified as a success for me.
Craig: That’s a full Derek Haas novel right there.
John: [laughs] Indeed. As long as I put up my font pretty big, it’s going to be a great book.
Craig: [laughs] You’re funny. How many words is a novel? Like 100,000 words or something?
John: No. Actually, a 50,000 word novel is a small novel but Derek’s is probably between 50 and 60. That’s my guess, his most recent one.
Craig: Okay. So you got a good third of a novel there almost or fourth.
John: Yeah. I think I probably will finish it at some point. There’s going to be discussion about sort of when the best time is to finish it. And depending on some stuff that may or may not happen in the next week or two, people will understand why I had to sort of stop. But it was good. It was actually a really great process.
Craig: Good. Good.
John: Hooray. We have a question from the mailbag. Daniel wrote in to ask, “When it comes to an established writer, what is better for their career — a movie loved by critics that bombs at the Box Office or a Box Office smash that is ripped to shreds by critics? Which scenario helps the writer’s reputation with the studios and helps the writer be considered for more work in the future?” Craig, what’s your thought on that?
Craig: I have seen this question asked so many times. This is like everyone’s favorite party question for screenwriters. The answer is yes. That’s the answer. If you’re an established writer, I’m presuming that the premise of the question is you’re working. But even if you’re not, it doesn’t matter to me. If you have a Box Office smash hit, that is wonderful for you in terms of your reputation with the studios because of course their main goal is to make money. They don’t care if critics don’t like a movie. If the audience likes the movie, then they’re happy and they’re happy, so that’s always good.
If you write a movie that is beloved by critics but bombs at the Box Office, that can still also be very good for you. I think it’s more important that the people who see the movie who — I mean, because the question is framed what’s better for you at the studios. The people at the studios need to also like the movie. There are movies that critics love that I’ve talked about with people at studios and they’re all like, “We don’t think that’s a good movie at all.”
Craig: But a lot of times, there’s overlap. And if there is, then, yeah, they would very much consider that person for other work at their studio. It would be different work. It wouldn’t be work that probably is of the kind of critical, darling Box Office bomb. But all of it’s good.
I think if you write a good script and the movie connects somehow, you’ve done a good job. These questions are I think more important for directors in a weird way than for writers. More often than not, the biggest thing that we’re judged on is did you write a script somebody agreed to produce? That’s the big one.
John: Yeah. Everything Craig said is exactly right. I think what is interesting about Daniel’s question is it supposes that the studios have the same information that someone who’s looking up stuff online has about the writer and how the movie turned out. And the studios actually have much, much more information. So the studio knows whether that movie which was a disaster was a disaster because of the writer or it was a disaster because of things that happened along the way. So the studio has information about what that process was. The studio also has a real sense of who really wrote that movie. If there were multiple writers, where the bad things came to be.
By the same token, if a movie is a huge success and this writer is the person who wrote it, that won’t necessarily guarantee them a chance down the road to write the next thing because they also know sort of like it was a success despite the writing or it’s a success despite sort of the involvement of those people. And so there are people who have, you know, $100 million movies who, as screenwriters, do not necessarily have the strongest careers because they’re not given a lot of credit for having taken that movie across the finish line to $100 million.
Craig: It’s a really good point. There’s so much going on that people don’t know about. And so for instance, one of the big things that determines whether a movie is a success or not is who’s in it. Simple as that. Who’s cast in it? Well, the writer is not casting the movie. When is the movie released? How was the movie marketed? What is the title of the movie? There’s a lot of things that can go wrong. Was there a similar movie that came out that sort of stole the thunder? All these things can happen.
When we write a movie and the movie is green-lit, it means we’ve done a very good job. And when I say we write a movie, yes, there may be multiple writers in the chain of things. But ultimately, one writer, sometimes two, will get the bulk of the inside baseball credit. And they’re the writers that convince the movie studio to make the movie or convince the big actor to sign on or big director to sign on.
And when that happens, you’ve won. You get the credit for doing a good job. Everything that happens after that is, to some extent, placed on the shoulders for better or worse of the director and the cast. The star and the director are the ones that take the hit or get the most uplift from the movie succeeding one way or the other.
John: It’s important to remember that your jobs that you get as a writer are not rewards for previous successes. They are bets on whether you can write the next movie that is going to turn out very, very well. And so they’re basing those bets on, “Well, what has that writer done beforehand?” And so, did that person write a really good script? Did that person write a script that was able to attract this kind of talent and able to make a really huge movie?
Those are the reasons why you are getting hired to do a job. So, from my own personal example, my first movie that got produced was called Go and it was successful. It wasn’t a huge Box Office hit but people really, really liked that movie. And that got me a lot of jobs on things down the road. And so Charlie’s Angels was my biggest hit sort of after that time but I had a lot of other work before then because of that first movie, Go, which people could see whatever they wanted to see in that movie. And it was very, very useful for me. And that was a case, an example of a movie that had good critical reaction, but more importantly, had good reaction in the town and people wanted to like that movie.
Craig: I think that when people ask this question, the unheard argument that’s going on behind the scenes is two people debating, “Should I write something that people will want to go see? Should I write a franchisee kind of movie? Should I write this little tiny movie?” Someone’s saying, “Stop wasting your time with little tiny movies,” and someone’s saying, “Stop selling out on these big, huge soulless tent poles.” And the answer to those people is, “Shut up. Shut up and write what you want to write.”
Craig: Nobody is going to make or break their career based on the genre choice of their first screenplay or how they’re trying to get in. Write the thing that you will write best. For a lot of people — I would argue for most people — that’s going to be genre fare, popcorn fare, mainstream studio fare because that’s the bulk of the movies we consume as human beings. And that’s a lot of what inspires us.
For some people, for fewer but a significant amount, it’s going to be quirkier fare, independent fare, or more narrow-focused fare that is perhaps a lot more meaningful to them emotionally. And that’s what those people should write. I think that people want an answer and the answer is there’s no answer, stop having that argument.
John: Only the corollary I put with this is that I think having a produced film is incredibly valuable. And so, you could have a script that was a Black List kudoed script, you could have a script that people really love in town but having a movie that actually shot, even if it wasn’t quite as good as that script, it will be incredibly helpful. There’s something about having your movie produced for the first time that makes it feel like, “Okay, you’re a real produced writer,” and that people have a faith and a trust in you that your words can actually be shot, that they may not if you’re an unproduced writer.
So the follow-up question for this might be, is it better to have a good script that never shot or a good script that turned out poorly? It’s better to have the good script that kind of turned up poorly because then at least you have a movie made.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t know which is easier. I don’t know if it’s easier to get a mainstream studio film made or to get a smaller, narrower focused movie made. I actually suspect it might be easier to get the smaller movie made just because there are more avenues in smaller budgets and there just seems like there’s a lot of them. They just, you know, aren’t necessarily seen the way that studio films are.
It’s harder than it has ever been in the history of the planet to get a studio film made. So if your theory is, “I’m going to write a big studio movie because that’s what gets made,” that’s fine. Just be aware, they make — it’s interesting. Like I was talking to, I shall not use a name, but an individual that runs a studio.
Craig: And the individual said, “When you remove the number of films we have that are already in the pipeline because they are based on property we own or sequels to things, and then you ask how many slots left do we have here to make other movies,” this individual said, I believe for — you know, it’s all planned out ahead but for, say 2017, the number is two.
Craig: Two. That’s two movies that they don’t already have planned and know about. And there’s five studios [laughs]. The odds are very, very, very, very low and people say, “Why is that particular person writing a sequel to blah, blah, blah?” Because that’s what they’re making.
John: That’s what they’re making.
John: Yeah. That’s actually a great segue to our big topic of the day, which is world-building because the kind of movies that big studios are making are these big constructed universe things, oftentimes shared universe things. If you think of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you think of everything that Disney does, you think of sort of the big superhero movies, they are alternate universes. They take place in a real world that is not our real world. And so I want to talk through that process of world-building and some of the pros and the cons and things to think about if you were a screenwriter approaching that kind of scenario.
So, just defining terms. World-building is generally the process of creating fictional universes in which these stories take place. And so these stories could be novels, they could be feature films, they could be TV series, they could be video games. Increasingly, they’re sort of all of the above. And the work for who actually creates a universe is very different based on sort of how it comes into being. So we’re going to talk about both creator-driven universes and also sort of these shared universes.
The author John Harrison has a great quote. “It’s the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there,” which I think is actually very nice. It’s like world-building is you’re trying to create an atlas for a world that does not possibly exist.
So pretty much everything that a screenwriter writes is going to have some degree of world-building. And back in Episode 135, you and I talked through world-building in the context of comedies and also in the context of True Detective. And so those were scenarios where it’s pretty much the real world, you just made it a little bit more specific. You added a little bit of texture. So it’s sort of like the low-fi version of world-building.
But for today, I really want to talk about these epic big world-buildings where you’re figuring out everything, about the culture of the geography, sort of the physics of your universe, whether there’s magic in your world, and what that means from a screenwriter’s perspective. I thought we might start with talking about a place that we’ve all been but never really been, which is Gotham City.
Craig: Yes, the ever-changing Gotham City.
John: So this is a great video. This is actually what Rawson had sent through. It’s by Evan Puschak who does YouTube videos as The Nerdwriter. And he does this really good video that’s tracking the evolution of Gotham City, from its start in Detective Comics to where we see it now with the Nolan films and beyond. What did you think of the video?
Craig: Well, I thought it was great. I mean, if you are a fan of Batman, and I happen to be, and you’ve followed along, you and I are children of the ’70s so my introduction of Batman was in fact the campy, ridiculous television show. And you see from that through Frank Miller and Burton and Chris Nolan. To me, it’s not a particularly startling point that’s being made here. It’s actually fairly obvious. That doesn’t mean to diminish it. It’s just it’s so evidently true that Batman and Gotham City reflect each other and they change to match each other, depending on how you alter your take on the character.
John: What I liked about the video is it pointed out the iterative nature of Gotham City, is that like Gotham City didn’t spring into being all as one thing. Like originally, Batman took place in New York City and then it became its own specific city of Gotham City. And it changed and iterated as new people came on board. And as the needs of what the storytelling demanded, the city changed to reflect those needs.
So you have Frank Miller’s very dark version of Gotham, a city falling apart, which has definitely influenced sort of our modern understanding of it. But if you look at what Tim Burton did, I think Tim Burton, maybe I wasn’t giving him enough credit for sort of his vision that he brought to the Michael Keaton Batman films is that like it’s a city that sort of has no zoning controls. Like everything is built in like this crazy — overbuilt, just crazy degrees.
And so we think of that, “Oh, that’s Burtonesque,” but it’s also very specific and it’s very Batman-ish. It’s the city that’s out of control. And it’s a city that exists so that its hero can exist because without Gotham, there’s no Batman; without Batman, there’s no Gotham. This city has to have this beating heart of crime so that Batman can fight it. And we sort of see that reflected in sort of all the other variations of it.
And so while Gotham City was ultimately created for Batman as it originally stood, it is now this sort of shared universe. So you can sort of see like this is the kind of character that exists in a Batman world. And you could even make a TV show called Gotham which is just about the city and not about Batman itself.
Craig: Well, there’s something interesting in the origin story of Batman that I think drives a lot of what happens with Gotham City over time. Batman is rich. Gotham City is necessarily full of crime because it’s a superhero story about a vigilante that fights crime. So, how do you create a world in which you have a billionaire who is so wealthy that he can have both a mansion and a massive underground complex, and an arsenal that kind of rivals any first-world [laughs] power’s arsenal?
Craig: And also, ghettos and slums and streets teeming with people who are so desperate, they’re going to shoot wealthy people for a necklace and kill Bruce Wayne’s parents. Right there, you have this piece of the puzzle which is a disparity of income.
Craig: And well long before anybody was saying 1% and that was a slogan, Tim Burton, I think, really did the biggest, the most important bit of Gotham design. You know, and I’m not sure how much of it was intentional or not. I know that when he designed Gotham, he was thinking about gothic. And so you have these huge statues, a lot of huge faces and things. But I remember watching it thinking, “So much money. It must have cost so much money to make this city and yet, everyone is so poor and miserable.” And then when I go see New York, I’m like, “It must have taken so much money [laughs] to make this city and everyone’s so poor and miserable.”
And that’s a great aspect of the world. It’s an aspect of the world that is very human and relevant to us all. And all of the iterations of Gotham have some form of that or another in different ways. Tim’s was very gothic, very art designed and very pushed, whereas Nolan’s is a little more a Blade Runner-ish feeling to it. It’s a little more retro future-y. Maybe my favorite Gotham is the Gotham of the Rocksteady video games.
John: Oh, yeah.
Craig: Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, because it feels the most like an actual city, but then there are these things here and there that are so creepy. That city is like a real city but with a serious mental problem.
John: So, I think what you’re hitting on here is that in most of these constructed universes, in most of this world-building we’re doing, we’re trying to create recognizable aspects of a world that we normally would be in, but we’re just pushing them in different directions. And you were citing, what is different about this world and what is the same?
And so, people can use their expectations of a place in a helpful way as they’re experiencing the stories we’re telling there and yet, we can also change some things. So even if we go to Game of Thrones, you go to Westeros, there’s things that definitely feel like familiar parts of our world, but they are assembled in very different ways. And so, we will travel to different countries in Westeros and recognize some cultural things that seem kind of like our world and yet, they are specific to Westeros.
Craig: This is going to come up over and over as we go through our various worlds that we all recognize, the notion that we are creating analogs to the world that we live in will happen over and over and over again to the point where it becomes clear that unless your world is an intentional contrast and comparison to our world now, it’s not going to do the trick for us. We need it. We need the relation. And where we find joy in the worlds that we see on screen that people have built is in the connection. Where we intend to feel something between us in it is when it feels constructed to the point that it is not recognizable or relevant.
John: Yeah. Well, let’s start our journey talking about another billionaire with an arsenal. Let’s talk about Tony Stark and the Marvel Universe. And so —
Craig: All right.
John: He is Batman but he’s not Batman. He comes at this universe from a very different perspective and yet he has many of the same toys, his city is an actual city. It’s New York City and it’s designed to be more recognizable. Things are not pushed quite so far, but he as a character, is pushed quite far. And he’s, you know, at least in this Marvel Cinematic Universe, is one of the sort of linchpins of this really interconnected soap opera of characters who we can recognize aspects of modern life, but they are very clearly comic book characters.
Craig: Yeah. The Marvel shared universe is fascinating. I was a Marvel guy as a kid. Were you a Marvel guy or a DC guy?
John: I was a DC kid as a —
Craig: Oh, that’s interesting. Interesting.
Craig: You know, I like DC, too. I always think of DC as the more religious, mythical of the two.
John: The Greek gods.
Craig: It’s a little bit more god-ish, yeah.
Craig: Whereas Marvel was always, to me, it’s basically a telenovela. It’s absolutely soap opera. It’s cheesy soap opera. Oh, god, I’m going to get letters now. I mean, I love it though.
Craig: But the point is, what Marvel does to create their universe is they’re ever expanding the universe but they make everything interrelated. Everybody, ultimately, ends up knowing everybody. Everybody’s sleeping with everybody. People are breaking up. They’re changing their personalities. They’re flipping sides from hero to villain and villain to hero. It’s like professional wrestling. And that’s why so much of it’s so fun. There are very basic mythological religious elements to the Marvel Universe. I mean, they have the infinity gems. I mean, they’re always like creating layers of awesomeness. [laughs] It’s what —
John: Yeah. And you look at Thor, you have things that are truly mythological characters.
Craig: Correct. You have Galactus who eats planets. And I believe Galactus’ sister is death or time [laughs] or one of them, I’m not sure. And she existed before the universe was even created. So they’re always like upping the ante. Like you have those characters, like The Watcher, all of these guys that are so — the Beyonder. That’s one of my favorite things about the Marvel Universe is that — and we’ll see, this comes up again very clearly in Tolkien in such a different way. When people build successful worlds, they never finish the map.
Craig: So if you think of the map of the Marvel Universe, you get to an edge of it and then you go, “There’s something beyond that.” There’s always something beyond it. Whether it is Dr. Strange goes into limbo and all that. There’s always something bigger. So, you never lose the sense of discovery within the characters living in that universe.
John: Well, even if the physical geography reaches a boundary, its temporal geography keeps changing because some people will go back in time or there will be alternate timelines, or there will be alternate whole universes in which these characters have a different experience. And so, that is another thing that is true, especially in the comic book versions. But even now in the cinematic versions, if you look at the X-Men universe and they’ve rebooted it and sort of halfway rebooted it so that the characters have some memory of what happened before and what didn’t happen before.
But I think what’s crucial as we look at the Marvel Paper Universe and the Cinematic Universe is that it is iterative. And so, they don’t build it all at once. And there wasn’t sort of one big council meeting where everyone said like, “Okay, let’s figure out everything about our universe and these are the rules and we’re going to stick to the rules.”
John: Instead, they had to figure out what do we need to figure out to tell this story and then what else do we need to do. And as they’re working through comic books, it’s like what are we willing to bend or change or retcon in order to make this whole other thing make sense, to make this whole other thing possible?
And we’re going to be talking about the difference between sort of top-down world-building, where you figure out sort of everything at the start and sort of work your way down versus bottom-up world-building, which is where you start with a character, a story, and just build out as much as you need around that character or story for it to make sense.
Craig: It’s very tempting, I think, for people to consume worlds that have been built from the bottom-up and then turn around and think, “I’m going to do that from the top-down.” And it’s really, really hard. I mean, there are some wonderful worlds that have been made top-down and we’ll discuss them, but Marvel is a great example of something that has been built up a little bit like Tim Burton’s Gotham without zoning laws.
So, you start with very simple characters doing very simple things and then everything is piled up on itself until there’s this enormous complexity and inter-textuality and the soap opera is massive. Did you have that book — oh, you were a DC guy. I had the Marvel, I think it was called the —
Craig: Yeah, it was the one that listed every character [laughs].
John: Yes. No, it’s great.
Craig: It’s awesome. And I just laugh because I got that in, I want to say, 1986. That book now must be like — well, it’s not a book anymore, I’m sure.
John: It’s sort of a Wikipedia kind of thing.
Craig: I know. I’m sure somebody’s published it as a book because it must be beautiful, but it would be massive.
John: Yeah. I’ll put links in the show notes to both DC and Marvel have sort of encyclopedias, like illustrated encyclopedias that I found incredibly useful because a minor character will come up, it’s like, “Who is that?” And when I was doing Shazam!, I had to sort of go through it and figure out like what is this? Who is this character and how can they possibly fit into our universe?
John: So let’s go from this sort of top-down perspective of Marvel and sort of how everything is constructed to something that did start as being very ground-up, which is Star Wars. Obviously, most people probably listening know that the back story of Star Wars and that it was a very different script originally, but George Lucas sort of kept tweaking it and refining it until the script that became the movie that we all love is very much a sort of from the ground up kind of story. And while there are some big epic forces, not everything was built into the first Star Wars. And he didn’t actually have the answers to all the bigger questions of the Star Wars Universe. He was telling the story of Luke Skywalker and the people around him and the places around him that were important for his story.
Craig: Do you think, I have my answer, but do you think George Lucas knew that Luke and Leia were siblings when he made the first movie?
John: I do not think he knew that because I —
Craig: There’s no way.
John: There’s no way. And some people would argue that of course he knew it because I think we want to believe that the creator has the answers to everything at the very first moment. But as creators, I can guarantee you that we don’t know those things.
John: The reason why I believe that is like, there are just certain things you would never do that way if you knew they were going to be brother and sister.
Craig: Exactly. He certainly wouldn’t have them kiss and do that whole thing. But also, I don’t think he knew that Darth Vader was Luke’s dad.
John: I don’t know that either.
Craig: I don’t think so. Here’s why I don’t think so, and this is an interesting thing about world-building. You build your initial world and you build it in a way that would make sense for you and the audience. In a galaxy where the Empire is dominating the galaxy, but then the simple farm boy is going to rise up to lead a rebellion, the odds, the bizarro coincidence that the guy running it is the dad of the kid and that he was literally over that planet when the — that just seems crazy.
Craig: But we love the movie so much that it actually then makes complete sense for the second movie.
Craig: It makes utter sense. Of course, you do end up with things like [laughs] Sir Alec Guinness saying, “Well, I said that Darth Vader killed him and in a sense, he sort of did. In a sense.”
Craig: [laughs] You know, it’s like that’s — to me, I always laugh at that line because it was like, “Uhm, yeah, well, you know, I changed my mind.” [laughs] That’s what happened.
John: But on the sense of like a creator needs to know everything about the universe and the world from the very first moment —
Craig: We can’t.
John: We know that’s not true because of Lost. And like, Lost is an incredibly complicated show that I loved, but everyone involved with it will tell you very frankly that when they shot the pilot, they didn’t know the answers to most of the questions. They were actually just like figuring out like, these are really fascinating questions and then when it came time to actually make the series, they had to figure out like, “Okay, well, what are the answers going to be?”
And so the difference between the pilot and, you know, the series is they actually had to find the answers to those questions. And that’s not a fault on the people who created the pilot, J.J. Abrams and everyone else involved, it was just that’s how you pursue interesting things is to ask a bunch of questions and then figure out what those answers could be.
Craig: Yeah. I think that when Lucas made the first movie, although he clearly intended it obviously to be situated in a longer series because he called it Episode 4, for god’s sakes, the world-building of Star Wars is again very analogous. For me, it’s very analogous to a western. Feels very much like a western. Mos Eisley is Dodge City. That bar they go into, I mean that’s the bar scene from how many westerns, you know.
Craig: Even the guns felt very western. I mean, lasers can be designed in a million different ways that felt western. There were bounty hunters —
John: Look at how Han Solo is dressed. I mean it’s all —
Craig: Yeah. That’s right. He’s dressed like saloon doors. Like his vest is saloon doors. So it feels very western to me. C-3PO and R2-D2 are classic western comedy sidekicks.
Craig: And then there are even damsels, Leia, at various points, is the damsel in the series. Han Solo was a damsel at one point. You know, like —
Craig: Both sides become damsels and have to be rescued. There are scoundrels and the rust bucket-y ship is like the old horse. Anyway, the point is, it was so new and so shocking, and yet, so not new and so familiar. The lightsaber is a sword.
Craig: It’s just a sword. And we love swords. Movies love swords.
John: They do just love them.
Craig: You know, they love fistfights and swords because that feels like the most human and intimate form of combat. So, it was all new and yet so familiar. A wonderful job of building that world in a way that we can relate to it. And then when it caught fire, a wonderful job of expanding it in such ways so that you realize there were so much more going on than you could imagine.
John: Absolutely. So, let’s talk more about some sort of single creator creations. And the most sort of epic of them, I can imagine, is probably J.K. Rowling with the Harry Potter Universe. And so, this is a case where — because she is writing this as a book, she can be incredibly specific about like this is exactly how everything fits together. And you read the first Harry Potter and it doesn’t mean that she has the answers to everything, but she knows exactly what the universe of her story is and it’s a case of like, she can tell you — she has a good sense in her head of what butterbeer is like and how that spell actually functions. And this is a case where novels give the chance to build out worlds in ways that I would say feature films and even television series are a little bit more limited —
John: Your perspective on this?
Craig: I mean, I am obsessed with Harry Potter. I think it’s a true work of genius. I would argue that Tolkien —
John: Yes, sure.
Craig: Is the king of the thorough single created world because he not only wrote those books, but then he wrote Silmarillion. I mean, the dude literally traced everyone back to the beginning of time. I mean, he created essentially a religion, it’s just that it’s fake, unlike the other religions that are, of course, entirely real. [laughs] But J.K. Rowling’s work certainly is impressive and I think that unlike Tolkien’s work, her work felt as if it was created whole from the start.
Craig: That she knew, and I believe this is true, I mean there’s that legend of her riding that train and coming up the whole thing all at once, that she knew essentially here’s the story I want to tell, this is the world, this is the character, this is the bad guy, this is why the bad guy’s the way he is, this is why the good guy’s way is, this is how they’re related, this is how it’s going to end, this is roughly the span of it. She had it all from the start. Whereas a guy like Tolkien began with — well, first of all, creating a language, for god’s sakes, I mean, he was a —
Craig: Linguistics professor, but then, built out from The Hobbit and then expanded and then built out from The Lord of the Rings and expanded it even more. He was more of a bottom-up guy. I feel like she top-downed that thing in a way that, honestly, I find dangerous to recommend to anyone —
Craig: Because unless you are her and she is singular, I don’t know. I can’t imagine that working out so well. I mean, god, she just did an incredible job. Everything worked.
John: Yeah. So I think the reason why I share your fear that it’s incredibly dangerous to approach things that way, I think there’s a lot of unwritten books and movies that started top-down and never got finished, because once you start filling out the geography and writing the languages and doing all these other work to sort of create up this whole thing, you may never actually make the product. So, you may never actually finish that work because you’re so busy figuring out like, you know, what is the name of that little city over there on the far edge of the world? It reminds me, I’m not sure if you’ve ever encountered this guy before, Henry Darger. So Henry Darger is this sort of obscure American, I guess you’d call him a writer but he’s really was like a reclusive shut-in hermit. He did In the Realms of the Unreal. And so he built this incredibly elaborate fantasy world for these girls, the Vivian girls, and they’ve been trying to make a movie of his life for a long time because he clearly envisioned this whole other second world, but he never really — he never had an ability to write or connect this with an actual — as something that somebody would want to read.
John: He was never able to actually tell it in a way that became something that somebody could sit down and read. So you look at Harry Potter and yes, J.K. Rowling has built this incredibly vibrant detailed universe, but she also could tell the story about one kid going through it. And the Harry Potter universe exists and it exists to tell the story of Harry Potter. And everything else is wonderful around it but it’s meant to be sort of a one-shot through the Harry Potter granted she’s doing some other stuff in the universe right now, but the initial series was for that one character. With Middle Earth, I don’t honestly know the backstory of whether Tolkien created the universe for Bilbo Baggins as the Hobbit and then built out the rest of it or whether he built out the universe and then had to find a character to explore this universe and that’s how Bilbo came to be.
Craig: I think that it was a little bit of both. Tolkien’s obsession was with the disappearing English agrarian lifestyle. And particularly, post-World War II, the sense that there was a way of life that had been lost to industry and to destruction. And so, his creation was both to make a world that was the kind of world he wanted to live in, but also to then create characters that represented what he thought was the worst and characters that he thought were the best. It’s not a mistake that — although, it’s a tradition to have the smallest and weakest to be the hero, it’s not a mistake that the hobbits live in these little thatched countryside homes that are very English-ey and very comfy and cozy.
Craig: And warm tea and they’re simple people, you know. They’re simple, good, English, countryside folk. There was a connection to something that was human there. When you talk about this guy that made this world, that is scary to me and I feel a tension in me because I know there are a lot of people out there who have an affinity for building a world. It’s fun to create your own language, it’s fun to create your own society and cities and maps and all that stuff is great, but that is a certain part of your brain. I think most people who have that part of the brain don’t have the other part. Which is the part where you have an instinct for what is humanity. And J.K. Rowling has both in spades.
John: Well, and I don’t know they’re necessarily exclusive in so many people. What I worry about is the people who are so excited about world-building are the people who sort of want everything to make sense and want everything to be logical, who want to sort of — who want to believe that there’s an alternate cosmology where everything is fixed and sensible. But that’s not necessarily the same brain that is going to be able to tell a story of a character struggling to make its way through this universe. And so I think so often, it’s so tempting and honestly so much easier to build out all of the fantasy stuff because the actual real hard work is writing the story —
John: That the character is taking this journey just once and that’s a challenging thing to remember. And also, the danger is, if you built out all that stuff first and then as you’re writing your story, if that character can’t experience all that stuff, well, you feel like you’ve wasted all that other work building out the rest of that stuff. And that’s the danger is sort of overbuilding for what you actually really need. And, you know, if George Lucas had built out everything in Star Wars before he was telling the story of Luke Skywalker, would Luke have gone to more planets? Would different things have happened? Would he have —
John: Got the reveal of Luke’s father in the first movie? It would be very tough to limit yourself down just the small things that make sense for your one story if you knew what everything else was.
Craig: Well, as I mentioned earlier, Tolkien have this thing about maps and part of what he did very intentionally was not finish the map. So for people that are building worlds, it is tempting to, as you said, essentially dial everything in so that it is perfectly complete. Nobody writes three quarters of software. They write the whole thing and it finishes and it works.
But when you’re creating a world, you need to unfinish it. You need to. There needs to be mystery there, because, ultimately, your characters will need to go beyond the map, at which point, you have the ability to — or people come in from off the map.
Craig: And so you begin a sense of discovery. Otherwise, you’re just waiting for your characters to go visit some place that’s already there.
Craig: Even in a place like, for instance, Westeros and Essos which is George R. R. Martin is, I think, right up there with J.K. Rowling in being able to both create a full believable, complicated world and also, understanding the way humans behave. Even though it seems like we have seen it, we haven’t seen everything at all. I think we’ve seen what we’ve been able to see —
Craig: And one great thing about that show and what Dan and Dave have done so brilliantly is, and you can and see it in the credits —
Craig: As the show expands, the map expands. Go back to the first season, watch the first episode, look at the credit sequence and see how much of the map you see. It’s really important that you just don’t see the whole thing at once. You’ve got to give yourself discovery and exploration and fear.
John: So let’s look at how characters experience these fictional worlds that we’re creating and there’s basically two ways you can think about it. There is the situation of like Westeros, where those characters were born into that world and we as an audience are catching up with them just to recognize what’s the same about their world and what’s different about their world. So in Westeros, the fact that winter, when it comes, is incredibly long-lasting. That there was magic in their world, there’s not very much magic in the world. So we’re having to do the work of catching up with the characters who are well ahead of us.
And then, there is portal stories. And portal stories are things like Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books. Those are the ones where they’re like they are normal humans just like us, who crossed through some magical barrier and end up in this strange other world and have to figure out the rules of that world.
John: In some cases, those are easier because the characters can just ask the questions to catch us up on sort of what we missed out on. Harry Potter, I think, sort of splits the difference where Harry Potter is a special kid but he’s experiencing the magical world for the time along with us. And so that’s a sort of a halfway in between those two options.
Craig: Yeah. The live-in-it world I think is harder, because your ability to deal with exposition is very limited. Everybody is already there.
Craig: So nobody should be asking questions that are obvious. Although again, even when you are creating the I-already-live-in-it world, it’s really helpful to begin with we don’t really know everything about our own lived-in world. Again, I’ll refer to the first episode of Game of Thrones, where the White Walkers appear. Then, they don’t appear again for seasons. But the very first episode, someone goes. “I don’t believe in that stuff, that’s not real.” But we just saw it. So we know that the people living in their own world don’t know their own world as well as they should. Very useful.
Craig: The portal world is the easiest version because it’s a fish out of water story. And you’re supposed to be confused. That’s actually the fun of it. You know, Alice in Wonderland is absolutely baffling. Not only to Alice, but to us. That’s the point. It gets to be baffling and we get to be her. The Narnia world is one that we are supposed to be baffled by it at first, but then ultimately, rings a bell on us because we’ve gone to church a lot.
The Harry Potter world is, I think, it actually deserves its own category. I think you’ve got your I-live-in-it world, you’ve got your portal world and then, I think you have the world beneath our noses.
Craig: Which comes up quite a bit. It’s actually right here, right now, in our timeline, in our world, we just can’t see it.
Craig: Did you ever read The Littles when you were a kid?
John: I did. I love The Littles.
Craig: The Littles were great. So The Littles were a family of tiny people that lived in the walls of a house of people that were I think The Bigs [laughs] who were normal size people. And the idea being everybody’s got those people in their walls, we just don’t know it. And that’s fun. I like that world. And you can see it sometimes it works great in comedies like Night at the Museum is basically the world beneath our noses that we don’t see.
John: I think we also see it in dramas and like, in a lot of crime stories. It’s that sense of just right below the surface there is a mafia-controlled universe that you’re not actually aware exists or that there is world of hackers that is just behind that door where everything is very different than sort of how you can imagine things working right now. So, there’s ways in which you’re creating a secondary world that’s existing within our worlds. Basically it’s a cultural world that you’re not aware of because it’s deliberately keeping itself hidden and secret away from us all.
Craig: Even when it’s not simply cultural but circumstantial, like for an instance in The Matrix, the ultimate the world beneath our noses because it turns out that the world we see isn’t real and that there’s this other world. Even then, culture is really what it’s about, that the culture of that other world, the real world, is the one that is fascinating to our hero and that’s what our hero has to struggle with and come to grips with to reconcile it with the rest of the world. The idea of a hidden world is to say, when you walk out of the movie theater, look around with maybe a clearer eye.
Craig: At what you see. And that’s fun, too. Like, you know, even Harry Potter. I always felt that at its heart, Harry Potter was really about the world of misfits and people that didn’t fit in. That the world muggle is so useful. I mean, you know, now —
Craig: It’s expanded, so people — like, if you work in musical theater and you meet somebody that is a mortgage broker, well, that guy is a muggle.
Craig: [laughs] You know. I mean, even for us who work in Hollywood, even people I think that are executives in Hollywood, they can, you know, go to Thanksgiving and there’s their, you know — their friend who is a lawyer. And it’s like, well, you’re a muggle, I’m in Hollywood. That’s what to me, that’s why that movie or that series and the books really work is that it was a celebration of the oddball.
John: So, when you first described world-building, you said that it often has analogs in our normal, daily experience, but also, it tends to have an allegory. And there’s a reason why you’re building this alternate world because it makes it simpler to discuss some sort of theme or message that you’re trying to communicate that would be very hard to do if you’re just doing it in a normal real world setting.
So obviously, C. S. Lewis and with his Christian themes, goes through that. Harry Potter, as you described with, you know, that sense of the outsider, the nerd, the muggle conflicts. But I also think of like The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It’s like it’s looking at sort of the commoditization of women’s bodies and sort of what it’s like to be in a society where women are valued only for their ability to reproduce. And so, I think a lot of times, you see people leaning towards these alternate worlds and often it’s science fiction but sometimes it’s just, you know, very small science fiction in order to discuss themes that would be hard to really dig into if you had to have all of the normal real world trappings around it.
Craig: Yeah. I think that attraction to allegory is what makes religion so effective for so many people. I mean, if an alien came to this planet and I handed him the Bible and The Silmarillion and I said, one these people think it’s fiction and one of this people think it’s real. I think the alien would be at a loss to figure out which one’s which. I think the alien would probably pick The Silmarillion because it actually is more consistent. That’s the power of allegory. That is the power of world-building.
Ultimately, the biggest mistake I think, is to build a world pointlessly. Look at what Lucas ultimately pins all of Star Wars on. The force is your humanity, your human sense of instinct, morality, right and wrong, connection with the world around you and the intangible and spiritual. And Darth Vader and the empire are entirely about technology and yet, Darth Vader also has this dark side of the spirituality. So, it all comes down to the spiritual over the mechanical. And really, I would argue that the hero, protagonist [laughs] here come the letters —
Craig: Protagonist of Star Wars episode 4, 5 and 6 is Darth Vader.
John: All right. So it’s Darth Vader reclaiming his humanity?
Craig: Yeah. Darth Vader is the most at war with himself. He has both this enormous connection to humanity and, yet, has become himself almost completely technological. He is more machine than man. And, you know, Luke definitely goes through changes but, I mean, he’s basically a good guy and then he has to believe and then he believes and then he continues to believe and then he believes some more.
John: Yeah. Luke has a very common Joseph Campbell kind of hero story that like he has the trials. He’s the called adventure, the denial of the call, the trials —
John: Yeah. So he did all that stuff. But I would agree with you that it does seem to be a show about a series that tracks a man’s journey from darkness back to light from this fascist, soulless machine to humanity.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, the first movie, if you just look at that one movie and that movie was made unto itself, Luke is definitely the protagonist. But if you take a look at those three movies and you think of them as one big movie, well, who in the third act climax makes a decision to sacrifice themselves in order to save the day?
Craig: And the answer is the hero. I mean, what does Luke do at the end? Nothing. He basically says, change.
Craig: And then, Darth Vader changes and is redeemed.
John: So, all this talk of sort of dark, fascists, and their stories, gets me thinking about The Man in the High Castle. Maybe, we can wrap it up here. So The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick’s great, great short book that posits what would happen if the Axis powers won World War II. And so, as the book opens, the East Coast of the United States is ruled by the Greater Nazi Reich, it’s ruled by the Germans. The West Coast is ruled by the Japanese. Hey, have you read the book?
John: You’ve ever read the book?
Craig: No, I didn’t.
John: So, the book is fantastic. And so, true back story here, I actually controlled the rights of the book for about two weeks. And so, there was — I had a discussion with Philip K. Dick’s daughter who was controlling the rights to the book. And I got the rights to the book and I went in to have a meeting at HBO to set this up as a series at HBO and this was seven or eight years ago. And the day that I was supposed to go in to set up the series, they pulled back the rights from me because Ridley Scott wanted the rights to the book. So Ridley Scott is now the producer who has the series on Amazon. And it’s really good. Frank Spotnitz wrote it and so, I feel very lucky because I get to have this thing in the world and I didn’t have to do all the hard work of writing it. But —
Craig: It’s very charitable of you. [laughs]
John: I’m nothing if not charitable. But here is the thing that is so fascinating about Spotnitz’s version is that he had to take this book, which was really, really good and figure out how he wanted it to be told in a greater, you know, 10-episode series.
John: And what’s great about this for our conversation is it takes place in an imaginary world. It takes place in a constructed world in which, you know, the what-if scenario, what if the Germans and the Japanese won? But it’s also about the constructed scenario of what if Germans and Japanese won, because this is no big spoiler, the MacGuffin of the series is these films which depict an alternate scenario in which the Germans didn’t win or the Russians won. They basically keep finding these films where different things have happened. And it was just a great exploration of like what it is to construct a world that is sort of continuously being deconstructed around itself.
So, I would highly recommend people take a look at it. Not perfect, but just really, really fascinating. And what you brought up about Darth Vader, you actually see — because you had spent so much time with the Nazis, you actually see that thing kind of happening, where you have a character who seems like Darth Vader at the very start and the journey of the series looks like it will be him finding something to believe in, beyond sort of fascist machinery.
Craig: I think that this is where things are going. It feels very modern to me that when we build worlds now, it’s not enough to just go, look, here’s a crazy other world. I didn’t see Tomorrowland, that’s definitely a world under our noses world, or — no, I guess a portal world.
John: It is a portal world.
Craig: It’s a Portal world.
John: They have a little pen and they go through it.
Craig: Yeah, and they go through a portal. I didn’t see that. But when I saw the trailer for it, I thought, okay, I get it. But I also understand that there’s not necessarily anything more to it than that’s that other world. And I’ve read many, many screenplays — I got sent a screenplay recently to rewrite and it was a classic sort of portal thing. And it’s getting very familiar. And it’s kind of fun to see now, for instance — I mean, the kings of meta, Lord and Miller and what they did the Lego Movie —
Craig: Was to say it’s a live-in-it world. Nope. It’s a world beneath our noses world. [laughs]
Craig: And that was fun. So I love the idea that you’re in this alt history world which we’ve seen versions of before and ultimately, here’s the problem with the alt history world: that the fatal flaw to any alt history world is it’s alt history. And so, it’s not real. It’s not our world. That’s the point, is that the Nazis lost here, right? So, how is this relevant to me? Because maybe, there’s more going on than just alt history. And that maybe there’s a connection between the two and a chance to perhaps set history right. Then it starts to feel relevant. It starts to feel — I start to get engaged. So I think that’s very modern. And I like that a lot.
John: Yeah, so I’m very excited about the series. And it does definitely have — the things that don’t work about it are I think are largely because of the challenge of world-building where you have to both incorporate the things that were so great about the book and also find your own way to tell your own new stories. And so the characters they actually created and added to it, I think are actually more successful in general than the characters who came from the book because the characters came from the book, they feel there’s a little bit handcuffed by what they needed to do in the book and they’re not necessarily the best characters — the ideal characters you’d want to explore this world, they sort of get a little bit dragged through it and plot sort of overtakes them. And so, it’s not their own inner drive to — their own inner curiosity. The Obergruppenführer — I’m going mispronounce it.
Craig: What kind of German are you?
John: I should be able to do this. I actually had German, but I can never remember how you pronounce. Basically, the Nazi commander was played really well by —
Craig: I think it’s Obergruppenführer.
John: Played by Rufus Sewell is fantastic and it’s fantastic because I think he exists in order to explore certain themes that are very specific to this TV creation, not to the original book. And so, I do recommend it for people and especially, push through our friend Phil Hay, his wife Karyn Kusama directed, I think Episode 8 —
John: And it’s phenomenal.
Craig: Well, maybe what we can do for listeners at home and in their cars is summarize some of our tips on how to be effective word builders.
John: And maybe when not to be effective world builders.
Craig: Yes, yes.
John: So I would urge screenwriters in particular, to start from the bottom-up. To look at what is it about your character that demands the world to be a certain way in order to tell them the most interesting story, because if you’re starting with a giant universe that is completely different, you’re going to end up focusing on the universe more than your character.
Craig: Agreed. I would also say to begin by asking yourself the question, do I want this world to exist within and of itself? Do is want to be a portal world? Do I want it to be a world under our nose? Why? It should be important and related to the story — kind of story you want to tell so that you don’t go down one path and then realize you want another one. And I would also argue that when you’re building your world, it needs to be analogous to ours. One way or another, everything needs to be somehow analogous. That’s where the fun of it is.
John: I would say, if possible, change one thing. So, rather than changing everything about your universe and your world, just change the one thing. So Harry Potter is a world in which magic is real and that is sort of the fundamental thing on which everything else hinges. So, don’t try to sort of change everything about your world because then people just get kind of confused. And as you’re thinking about this in terms of a project you might be pitching, it’s going to be very hard to pitch something where everything is different. But if one thing is different, that’s very, very helpful. And try to write The Matrix and try not to write Jupiter Ascending. Which is Jupiter Ascending, I felt that they tried to change so many things that you are about three quarters away through the movie before the plot kicked in.
Craig: Yeah, I guess my last bit of advice is if you find yourself falling in love with the detail crafting, just remind yourself that that is one part and the less important part and that you have to also be just as much in love with the humanity of your characters and the universally relevant things through which they’re going.
Craig: Or what you’ll end up with is what that guy did. [laughs]
Craig: Which is this fascinating series of plans for a city that will never exist.
John: Indeed. All right. Time for our One Cool Things. Mine is very simple, but also very fun. It is the EcoLog 590D. And this is a machine that is designed to cut down a tree, strip off all the branches and cut it into logs. And that doesn’t sound so exciting, but when you actually look at this YouTube video of it, you will think it is the most amazing thing because it looks like some sort of construction from like one of the Terminator movies. Like, it basically this big arm that reaches in, saws off the tree and destroys the tree and cuts it into a log. But it does it so incredibly quickly and efficiently. So, it’s like 20 seconds from like this is a tree in a forest to like this is a stack of logs. It’s just remarkable.
Craig: [laughs] Why do they call it — the EcoLog is the most ironic name ever.
John: [laughs] It just makes it extra good that it’s called an EcoLog.
Craig: Oh, my god. You know who would really love that is J.R.R. Tolkien. He was a huge man of chopping trees down.
John: Absolutely. If the orcs had EcoLogs —
Craig: Oh, my god.
John: Everything would be very, very different.
Craig: It certainly would have been a shorter movie.
Craig: Well, my One Cool Thing is last week’s outro. Who did that? What the — what?
John: That was amazing. So Craig doesn’t pre-listen to most of our outros. But this one was just great. Last week’s outro was by Jon Spurney and sort of the meta theme of all of our stuff. And lord, it was just great.
Craig: [laughs] Our quirks.
John: It felt like — it was sort of our own Too Many Cooks in a way.
Craig: It was. It was just — it was so well-done and so thoughtful and I — it’s one of those — every now and then, I’m reminded that people listen to the show. [laughs] And that was one of the moments. I just thought it was great. It was funny and it was really well-done and so, that’s my One Cool Thing for sure. I want to play it again. I know that we have a different outro this week by Rajesh Naroth, but I want to play that one again.
John: All right. So let’s just play it again. So, our outro is by Jon Spurney. If you have an outro you would like to us to play on the show, you can send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also where you can send questions like the one we had today. On Twitter, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Or, you can find us on iTunes. Just search for Scriptnotes and you can find us there. Leave us a rating. That’s also where you can find the app that gives you access to all those back episodes. You can find those back episodes also at scriptnotes.net. Our show is produced as always by Stuart Friedel. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli, who’s doing hero’s work on a Sunday. So thank you, Matthew.
Craig: Thank you. Thank you.
John: Because Craig was traveling, but we are all back now. There still might be tickets for our December 9th live show with a bunch of special guests, so click right over there now. You’ll find links to the tickets and to everything we talked about in today’s show at our show notes, johnaugust.com. Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thanks, John.
John: All right, bye.
- The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Official Trailer
- Buy your tickets now for the 2015 Scriptnotes Holiday Show on December 9th with guests Riki Lindhome and Natasha Leggero, Malcolm Spellman, and Alan Yang
- The Evolution of Batman’s Gotham City by The Nerdwriter
- The Marvel Encyclopedia and The DC Comics Encyclopedia
- The Development of Star Wars, as seen through the scripts by George Lucas
- Henry Darger on Wikipedia
- The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick, and season 1 of the TV adaptation on Amazon Prime
- Middle Earth and The Perils of Worldbuilding by The Nerdwriter
- EcoLog 590D
- Outro by Jon Spurney (send us yours!)