The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August. And this is Episode 231 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the program we will be looking at three movies that are getting a lot of attention this award season — Room, Spotlight, and The Big Short. And we will discuss how they work on a story level. We’re also going to discuss what we learned in 2015 that we’ll be carrying with us into the New Year.
Craig is off on assignment. He’s in New York finally seeing Hamilton, so he can stop talking about Hamilton. So to fill in today we have two special guests from previous episodes of Scriptnotes. First off, Aline Brosh McKenna is the co-creator of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and the screenwriter of so many movies, including The Devil Wears Prada.
Aline Brosh McKenna: Woot-woot.
John: Next up, Rawson Marshall Thurber is a writer and director whose credits include DodgeBall, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, We’re the Millers, and the upcoming Central Intelligence. Welcome back, Rawson Marshall Thurber.
Rawson Marshall Thurber: Thank you, happy to be here.
John: I have to use all three of your names because —
John: Aline, do you always use your three names?
Aline: Professionally, I do.
Rawson: Me too, professionally.
John: You do, too? Yeah.
John: I was always surprised when I heard that Marshall part of your name.
Rawson: It’s strange. It’s definitely strange. I didn’t realize how strange it was until I did it for the first time on DodgeBall and then I got made fun of a bunch and I think it was too late and so I just sort of stuck with it.
John: Do you ever say Marshall aloud or only as a printed credit?
Rawson: Almost only as a printed credit. But I do use my initials, RMT, when I’m signing something off or stuff like that.
John: Sounds good.
John: So before we get into these three movies, I wanted to talk through some stuff about the year that just passed. So we are now in 2016, which seems impossible. So a bunch of movies came out in 2015, but a bunch of movies came out in 2014 and I thought we might play a little game where I’m going to ask you the title of a movie and you can tell me if it came out in 2015 or 2014.
Rawson: Oh, wow, okay.
John: Do you think you can do this, Aline?
John: All right. So do you want to start? I’m going to ask you.
John: The Cobbler.
Aline: It came out this year.
John: All right, you’re correct.
Rawson: Wait a minute now.
Aline: Because I think Adam —
Rawson: You mean this year, you mean 2015?
Aline: ’15, yeah.
Aline: Because I think Adam Sandler had three movies come out this year.
John: Yeah, he did. And this was one of them.
Aline: Cobbler, the nine whatever — what’s that movie? The Magnificent Nine — the Ridiculous 6.
Rawson: Ridiculous 6.
Aline: The Ridiculous 6.
John: Ridiculous 6 and then he also the Drew Barrymore one, or was that the year before?
Aline: No, there’s one more and it was —
John: Oh, Grown Ups 2. Yeah, so it’s all confusing.
John: The Cobbler is also directed by Tom McCarthy who directed Spotlight, so that’s part of the reason why it’s so interesting to have that movie come up.
John: So we’ll answer ’15 or ’14.
John: All right. Focus, Will Smith.
Rawson: Oh, ’15.
John: Right. Horns. Aline Brosh McKenna, do you remember Horns? That’s the Daniel Radcliffe grows horns movie.
Aline: Never heard of it.
John: Rawson, do you know the answer? Can you steal this one?
Rawson: I think I know that movie. I believe it was — I think it was ’15.
John: It was ’14.
John: Oh! Black or White with Chris Rock. Rawson Marshall Thurber.
Rawson: I don’t know this one. Aline?
Aline: That’s not the movie that he did that was —
John: I think it was Julie Delpy who directed it.
Aline: Oh, I don’t know that one. The last Chris Rock movie I saw was the one with Rosario Dawson. And that was ’14, I think.
John: Yeah. Black or White was 2015. Yeah. Or it could be I’ve got the title completely wrong and it’s not even the right movie.
John: The Boy Next Door. Rawson Marshall Thurber.
Rawson: The Boy Next Door?
John: Jennifer Lopez.
Rawson: Oh, that was my — just a guilty pleasure. I knew this one. Yeah. [laughs]
John: ’15 or ’14?
Rawson: The Odyssey. Right, ’15.
John: ’15 is correct. Ouija, Aline Brosh McKenna?
John: You’re right.
Rawson: That was good one.
John: Stick with you with Horrible Bosses 2.
John: Rawson, The Hundred-Foot Journey.
Rawson: The Hundred-Foot Journey, this is the —
John: Helen Mirren.
Rawson: Yeah, Helen Mirren. It’s not the hotel one, right?
John: No, it’s not —
Rawson: It’s essentially the same —
John: Essentially same idea.
Rawson: I’ve got a 50-50 shot, right? I’ll say 2015.
John: It was ’14.
Rawson: Am I winning?
John: I don’t know. We —
Rawson: I think I’m losing. I think I’m down at least a point at this point. Wait, you’re not even keeping score? [laughs]
John: I’m not really keeping score.
Rawson: Why are we doing it then?
Aline: We’ll have to go back. We’ll go back.
Rawson: Why are —
John: We’ll go back and check the transcript and figure out who —
Aline: I’ve seen the prize. It’s really good.
Rawson: Have Stuart figure it —
John: It’s pretty amazing.
Rawson: Because I want to win.
John: Aline, Hot Tub Time Machine 2.
John: You’re right.
Rawson: That’s a good one.
John: Was it a good movie?
Rawson: No, no, I mean it’s a good question.
John: It’s a good question.
Rawson: That’s really —
John: Yeah, it’s really on —
Rawson: Because when you asked Horrible Bosses 2, that’s a tough one because that came out Thanksgiving 2014.
Rawson: So that’s like right in the danger zone of —
John: That dangerous pocket.
John: Rawson, Annie.
Rawson: Oh, 2014.
John: You’re right. Aline, you worked on Annie, so you —
Aline: I did.
John: You would know that one, so I gave it to him. Final one, Run All Night. Do you know it?
Rawson: Yeah, I know it. It was 2015.
John: It was 2015. What is that movie?
Rawson: I don’t want to say it’s a Taken knockoff. But it is essentially that. I think it does have Liam Neeson in it and I believe a very sort of talented director whose name escapes me. And I think he’s not an American. And it’s a thriller chase piece where Liam Neeson needs to, I believe, clear his name and/or rescue someone. And it’s at night time.
John: Oh, because —
Rawson: And there’s a lot of running. I saw pieces of it. And it’s beautifully shot.
John: All right. According to Wikipedia, Run All Night is a 2015 American action gangster crime thriller written by Brad Ingelsby and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, starring Liam Neeson, Joel Kinnaman, Common, Ed Harris. It was released on March 13th, 2015.
John: So before we get into these movies —
Rawson: I won, though.
John: I think Rawson may have won. I don’t know.
Aline: No. I think I was just in there going ’14, ’15.
John: All right. So we’re going to have Stuart check the transcript and figure out who won that game.
John: Before we start with our movies from this past year, I want to talk over sort of general lessons we may have learned from 2015 or things we’ve noticed in the industry or the business that we are in and sort of what they might indicate about where 2016 is headed.
And so, something I noticed from my side is I feel like we may be nearing the end of sort of classic studio development. So when I started as a screenwriter, it was common for a film studio to have a big slate of things in development. And there might be 30 projects that were in different stages. I just don’t know that that’s going to happen or continue to happen anymore because as I go in and pitch on projects, granted there’s some selection bias, it’s the kind of things I’ve being brought in to pitch on, feels like they’re not even going to bother developing these movies because they have no spot to release them.
You look at, you know, the Disney label, it has all the Marvel films, it has all the Star Wars films. There’s no more spots to develop for. And I feel like, increasingly, all the studios are going to be in a similar situation. Aline, Rawson, do you notice anything like that?
Aline: I mean, I remember around the time of the strike people were saying the whole movie business is going to move towards branded entertainment and, you know, theme park kind of movies. And I was always the person saying that’s ridiculous, that’ll never happen.
The people that we know, you know, who we came up with, our school of screenwriters, by and large are working on some kind of branded entertainment. It’s much more difficult to get things through now that not that that are original scripts. The ones that are getting through that are originals are writer-directors like Rawson’s movie, you know, some other people that we can name. And, you know, now that business is dominated by your David Russell, your Alexander Payne. You know, writer-directors, I think, are developing the kind of character-driven, smaller movies that I came up writing, you came up writing.
But I often think about my friends who are so brilliant, so many of them are taking their genius and kind of using it to really elevate these genre pieces and these branded pieces. And that’s great in certain respects because those movies now are much better than they have any business being. But I miss the movies that those men and women would have made if they were focusing on or at least alternating those movies with the more personal original pieces.
John: Rawson, I see you setting up projects left and right. And you probably, at least since We’re the Millers, at least six new projects got set up someplace.
Rawson: Yes, it’s in that ballpark, yeah.
John: So it is still happening. You’re the kind of person who’s getting these things set up.
John: And We’re the Millers was a long time development project.
John: I just wonder if right now We’re the Milllers would have sold and if it would have gotten made.
Rawson: That’s a great question. I don’t know. I mean, it’s been a while since I’ve been on the spec market in that regard. So I really don’t know who’s buying and necessarily what they’re buying. I think your take on it is pretty accurate, that each of these studios sort of following — I mean, frankly, following Marvel’s lead, are desperate to create what they would call a cinematic universe, even where one doesn’t quite exist.
And you look at Disney of course and they’re buying cinematic universes, right? They buy Marvel, they buy Lucas. And even like Universal, right, they’re trying to do that with their monsters, right, with Dracula and Werewolf, the Mummy, et cetera. And Warner Bros. is playing a little catch-up in the DC cinematic universe. So I think you’re absolutely right. Like the opportunity, the slots, I think is what they call them, available for a true spec or something that’s not based on IP, I mean, that bull’s eye is getting smaller and smaller and further and further away.
You know, I just had a really interesting meeting at this sort of new insta studio called STX, run by Adam Fogelson and a few other smart folks. And their whole model is we don’t develop, right? [laughs] Their whole model is, “Bring us a script that you love and if we love it, we’re going to make it. And we’ll tell you how much we’ll spend on it and we’ll tell you how we’re going to market it and we’ll tell you what we’ll put in it or who we need to put in it.” But, yeah, the sort of traditional, “Hey, I got an idea for this or what about this script,” I’m not sure that exists in the same way that it used to.
Aline: Well, it exists in a very different way. You know, when we’ve been getting the screeners and we have two piles, we have the Fast and Furious pile and the Infinitely Polar Bear pile.
Rawson: [laughs] Yeah.
Aline: And those are the two kinds of movies now. And it’s shocking how much you get a screener and they go into one of those two piles. It’s very rare, you know, those movies like The Martian, Argo, a few years ago, which are big studio movies that are character-based, not IP-driven, very, very small pile.
Aline: Very small pile.
John: Well, if you want to look at whether it would be The Town or Black Mass, like Warner Bros. makes one sort of like Boston crime thriller a year.
John: That’s a slot. I mean, it’s basically like it’s either Ben Affleck or somebody like Ben Affleck making that movie.
John: They’re going to do one of those per year. And so they’re sort of done. They’re not going to make another big character drama that’s going to, you know, go in the fall. That’s their one thing.
Rawson: Right. And they’re not making that movie without Ben Affleck. And they’re not making that movie without Johnny Depp. So, you know, it’s not a big roll of the dice for them. I mean, they’re paying, you know, a reasonable number by their estimation for a movie with a big star that could break out. I mean, that’s not chancy.
John: But let’s talk about the things you set up recently —
John: Because were they all based on IP or were some of them just ideas?
Rawson: Well, let’s see. A couple of them were IP and one was an original idea. And I think it does help when, like on the one that was an original idea, I had a very experienced producer, Scott Stuber. I had a great screenwriter named Pete Correale and we had a really commercial sort of high concept idea. And I was — am and was attached as the director, so we sold that to Lionsgate.
So when you come in with sort of your bases loaded like that, it’s an easier thing for I think a studio to say yes to. And we weren’t trying to sell something that was obscure or difficult. You could kind of, as they say, sort of see the poster on it. So it was an easier sell there.
The other thing I sold, it was based on a very kind of obscure tabletop game. When I was eight years old, I used to play like this and I think the people I was selling it to felt the same way. And it was a relatively inexpensive purchase on the rights side for them. But at least it had some IP, which I thought was kind of interesting because it’s not an IP that most people know, and yet it still has value.
Aline: And if 10 years ago I told you that you were selling movies based on tabletop games —
Rawson: [laughs] It would be hard to believe. Hard to believe.
Aline: Yeah. I’m taking out a Cribbage pitch. [laughs]
John: Yeah. It’s going to be great.
Rawson: My favorite games.
John: Yeah. Like don’t get pegged. I mean, you know, is one of the characters named Peg?
Rawson: Yeah. [laughs]
John: It’s going to be good. It’s going to be a race.
Rawson: Yeah. You’re going to get skunked.
John: You’re going to make your 15s, your 5s and all that, yeah.
Rawson: Yeah, yeah. So, yeah, it was a combo. But I think your earlier point on the We’re the Millers, because that was a script that existed — it was sold 10 years before I came on, roughly, eight or so. And I think there’s still room for high concept comedy on the spec market and on the pitch market just because it’s something that you’re essentially selling on the pitch side that you’re selling a knock-knock joke, right? You’re selling a clean premise that you get with what’s funny about that or what the friction is in the pitch.
And those aren’t particularly expensive to make. You know, if I was starting now and I wrote some sort of galactic space opera as a spec, not based on an IP or a YA novel, I mean you’re sliding uphill. I mean, that’s a real, real tough one.
John: I agree. Speaking of sliding uphill, one of the classic ways to get one of these movies made is to have a big star attached. But this was also the year where a lot of movies with big stars in it didn’t do anything. And we’ve always had some, you know, big star vehicles that didn’t work but it was surprising to me this last year how many movies came out that’s like, wow, I can’t believe that person can’t open that movie.
So you see that with Bradley Cooper in Burnt. You see that with Julia Roberts and Billy Ray’s movie, Secret in Their Eyes, a few other examples. I mean, Mortdecai —
Rawson: Mortdecai, you have it with Our Brand is Crisis. So the same weekend, right, Sandra Bullock in Our Brand is Crisis, right, and Bradley Cooper in Burnt, both came out the same weekend. They both did not perform as hoped for. And I was baffled. I asked everybody, like what is the lesson from this weekend. I asked, you know, the smartest people I know. And the response that I got was really interesting. It was like, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. That doesn’t count.” And I was like, “Well, why doesn’t it count?”
Aline: Well, I think it goes back to the William Goldman thing of, you know, the picture is the star. And I think, you know, some of the stars I’m, as a fan, desperate and hungry for them to make the movies that they made their names on, but as we’ve been discussing, it’s harder to get those movies made. So those character-driven dramas and comedies which, you know, a lot of the people you mentioned, you know, be it an Edward Scissorhands or an Erin Brockovich or The Proposal or, you know, those movies that those stars made that we loved, so much harder to get those made.
So again, I think those movies that we’re talking about that didn’t work were a little bit more in the Infinitely Polar Bear grouping of the, you know, smaller, more prestige movies. They went up for that ball because the big studio films are largely dominated now by superheroes. So the stars who don’t have a superhero franchise tend to not be in the bigger movies.
So this is particularly acute for women now because they’re just not making the movies that women became stars on. Jennifer Lawrence or Scarlett Johansson are really, you know, in my mind to be admired and rewarded because they are stars in interesting genres and are seeking out interesting work and — but it’s just difficult now to mint these stars in these movies I think when people do movies that are sort of in the shape that we enjoy seeking them in, then, you know, it does work.
John: Well, Our Brand is Crisis, when I saw the trailer, it’s like, “Oh, that’s totally going to work.” I mean I saw the materials for it. It’s like that’s a Sandra Bullock in a good Sandra Bullock role where she is the smartest person in the room but sort of overwhelmed. It felt like the right kind of movie. And the reviews didn’t help it certainly. And the reviews didn’t help any of these movies.
Aline: But it’s still, it’s a small political satire. So it’s in the small genre. I don’t think it was trying to tick the boxes of the — it was trying to tick the boxes of the kind of prestige, political —
John: A George Clooney kind of movie.
Aline: The George Clooney kind of movie. And so that’s just a very narrow needle to thread. And I think that people who are hardcore Sandra Bullock fans are kind of waiting for The Blind Side or The Proposal.
Rawson: Yeah. I had the same reaction that you do when I saw the trailer for it. I thought it looked good. I wanted to go see it, then the reviews certainly didn’t help. And that’s a David Gordon Green who’s a fantastic director. And then you also look at In the Heart of the Sea, right? It’s Chris Hemsworth and Ron Howard who’s, you know, First Ballot Hall of Famer. And that didn’t work. I loved that movie. I went and saw it with my family and just loved that picture.
But I think what Aline said is right which is — and it’s this sort of this cop out and kind of the answer that I got from the, you know, I asked a studio head and I asked a big fancy producer like what’s the lesson from this weekend, right? Our Brand is Crisis and Burnt, both underperforming significantly with two big stars, two of the biggest stars. And they both said essentially what Aline said which is like, “And those aren’t the right movies for them.” Like they’re stars in the right movie. If you put them in the right “vehicle” and the thing that we want to see them do, then they’re stars.
John: Yeah, but see I would say — I don’t think that’s fair. Because I think if you were to describe Bradley Cooper in that movie, Burnt, it’s like a comedy about a burnt out chef who’s like trying to get his business back together. It’s like, yeah, I could see Bradley Cooper’s charisma carrying that movie. And it didn’t seem to work that way. I feel like Ryan Reynolds gets slammed a lot for like, “Oh, he wasn’t able to open that movie.” It’s like, well, lots of stars aren’t able to open certain movies.
Rawson: Right. But yeah, what’s the old saying about stars, right, they’re parachutes where you pay them to open. And if they don’t, then what are they?
Rawson: You know. And so then you look at someone like Chris Pratt who’s super, super talented and really funny and he’s in two of the biggest films, you know, of recent memory.
Aline: But again, I would say and I adore Chris. I adore Chris Pratt, but the picture is the star.
Rawson: I guess that’s what I’m saying.
Aline: And so he’s in movies that, you know — but if you put Chris Pratt in the movie about the charismatic chef —
Aline: What’s your result? So I think the audience is still looking for the movie to excite them. But I do think because we’re missing those kind of mid-range movies where — I mean if we go down the list of the biggest stars, Tom Cruise and Julia and Sandra and Brad Pitt, they all broke in these mid-range movies. I mean the first time I remember seeing Brad Pitt is in Thelma & Louise. And, you know, we just —
Rawson: Tell me about it.
Aline: [laughs] And we just are not — it is hard to mint these. And now the place we mint them is in the superhero movies. And so if you’re a star who doesn’t want to do that — I mean the other thing about stars I think is interesting is that they now have become products in a way that they weren’t before having to have a franchise, having to have some sort of corporate deal, you know, all the — they’re all modeling watches and, you know, expensive products and face creams because they are now sort of businesses in a different way than when they were our people.
Rawson: And what’s interesting about that is a star as being brand as opposed to actors, right? But I think that’s even become a bigger element I suppose now with Twitter and with Instagram that that connection, a star’s connection with his or her fans is so much more direct and such a big part of their connection with their audience and also how they sell a movie. Like sincerely like I’ve got Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson in Central Intelligence which is the movie that —
Aline: And Dwayne is one of the biggest, most famous.
Rawson: They both are.
Rawson: They both are.
Aline: All right, they both are the top 10 for Instagram and Twitter.
Rawson: Yeah. Yeah.
Rawson: And it’s amazing what they do to kind of connect and communicate with their fans. And that’s a huge, huge thing. And I think that speaks exactly to what you’re talking about of actors now becoming — movie stars becoming more willing to openly sell product. I’m not sure exactly what that connection is, but I think there is one in terms of like I’m not just an actor that you pay, you know, $13 to go see twice a year. You also get to interact with me every single day. And now I’m a human being with you and now you get to see me at my house. You get to see me, you know, walk my dog, et cetera, et cetera. Therefore, maybe that barrier to selling is less.
Aline: Well, it’s interesting because it’s also in the area of era of reality television.
Rawson: Right, that’s a really good point.
Aline: We’re expecting 360 access to these people.
Aline: I then become a little nostalgic for the days of, you know, Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman —
Aline: And Al Pacino and Sissy Spacek and, you know, showing up to the movies with this wonderful mystery about people.
Aline: And I think that might swing back.
John: I think it may swing back, too.
Rawson: But I think that’s a really, really good point because the actors of yesteryear as it were, they kept mystery about them, right? So that when you went to see them in the theater, when you went to go see them perform, they could be somebody else. They could transform into a different character —
Rawson: Because you didn’t know anything about them.
John: Well, look at Oscar Isaac who’s been in so many great movies this last year, but I don’t know anything about Oscar Isaac. And so the reason why I think he looks — he seems so different in every movie is because I just don’t know anything about him, so I have no baseline for sort of what he normally is. And so I can’t tell what’s acting and what’s actually him.
John: It’s a really useful thing about the actors who we don’t know who they are, is that they can be just — we can project anything on to them.
Rawson: That’s an excellent point.
John: Any last observations from 2015 that you’re carrying with you into the New Year?
Aline: About the overall movie business?
John: The movie business, television.
Aline: I mean I was — you know, I think we got to say from our point of view is that everyone we know has migrated to television in some way, shape or form.
John: But this was your big year of television.
Aline: Yeah. I mean it was for me —
John: You have one of the most critically acclaimed shows and Rachel has a Golden Globe nomination.
John: It’s really amazing.
Aline: Thank you.
Rawson: Well earned.
Aline: But it was — you know, I was the last person to get on that bus because I had done TV early in my career and I kind of knew what it entailed. I didn’t gravitate towards it, but, you know, every screenwriter now that I know pretty much has some kind of television in development. And those sophisticated character-driven dramas and comedies by and large now are on television. And so it’s not surprising that a lot of writers are migrating there because they can tell the kinds of stories that movies used to tell routinely. And now you just struggle to get them made. And the TV business is hungry for those kinds of stories.
And one thing I’ve noticed which I think is interesting is that the difference between film executives now and television executives is that film executives are approaching their job much more like corporate executives. My husband works at a big mutual fund. And I’ve noticed that when I talk to movie people, they’re much more conscious of their stuff as product, how it’s going to work in the marketplace, how it’s being marketed, how it’s being monetized.
And television because there is so much niche stuff going on because people can go and make an excellent show on a streaming or cable in particular where they don’t have the same kind of financial exigencies, the executives in those businesses are much more driven by love of material, we’re doing this, I know this is outside of the box. I mean we’ve certainly benefitted tremendously, our show, has from people who just love the story, love the show. And that has been I think kneaded out of movie executives because they have to think now in these more corporate product terms. So in a funny way like the ’70s have moved from movies to television.
John: Something that I think you’re going to hear more about much more about this coming year is the reality of television, you kind of can’t lose money. And so one of the reasons why you see some low rated shows that stay on the air is because —
Aline: We’re trying to prove that wrong.
John: All right. [laughs] So your show is critically acclaimed but it’s not a big giant hit. And I think in another year, it would be much harder for you guys to have kept your back nine.
John: And just keep going.
John: But I thing which some much smarter people than I sort of showed the numbers on is that your studio and your network, they’re making money off your show even though it’s not a giant hit. And, you know, it’s worth it for them to sort of —
Aline: Well, we’re still in the network business so we have some of these exigencies really still pressing on us. But for the streaming and the cable things, I mean what’s interesting is that particularly for streaming, their programming is, you know, can function as a loss leader because it’s not their core business.
So it’s almost like a — it’s marketing. You know, it markets the rest of their business. And that comes from cable, but that’s particularly true in streaming. And so those show creators are really left to do what they want to do and what they’re encouraged to do is things that are provocative and —
Rawson: Make noise.
Aline: Make noise and nobody really looks at the numbers. I mean in the case of Netflix and Hulu, we don’t really even know what the numbers are.
Aline: That’s just really a seismic sea change. I can’t point to anything like that in the movie business because the studios are so squeezed with trying to make these kind of big IP movies and then if you’re trying to make an independent movie which was the path I was kind of going down before the show happened, in a funny way, that’s a more money-driven business even in the studios because those people need some assurances. They need cast, they need the budget to be low, low, low. So, you know, if you’re talking about making a prestige-driven or character-driven or, you know, something that would have been a Sydney Pollack movie, you’re now making that movie for $11 million with financing that you’ve cobbled together from six different entities and you’re shooting it in Croatia.
And so the TV business now has that thing of sort of, you know, people wanting to take chances and spend a little money on that. So that’s why you’re seeing this giant migration of people over there. That is just I think just an enormous trend for our business, as somebody who really only wrote screenplays for, you know, the majority of my career.
John: One of the things I’m curious about for 2016 is whether we’re going to finally just break and there’s for me like there’s so much television that you couldn’t possibly catch up. And so I feel like on a weekly basis, someone will bring up a new show or something new that I need to catch up on. And I have to just basically decide like, “Is this going to be part of my life or not part of my life at all?” because otherwise I just can’t — I just have to acknowledge I’ll never be watch that show because it’s not going to happen.
Most recent thing is Making a Murderer, the Netflix show which is apparently brilliant and I really want to watch it. But it’s a choice between watching that and watching —
Aline: But how great — I have to say, I totally, and the FOMO is insane.
Aline: And it’s, you know, you feel like I can’t — I didn’t watch that show. I have to opt out of all these conversations. But how great is it that we walk around with people saying, “You have to got — oh my god, you haven’t seen this? You have to — oh, stop what you’re doing. You have to watch this.”
Aline: And I just want to stop for a moment and think about the last time there was a movie that felt like that where everybody you knew was talking about it and saying you have to — now, obviously the Star Wars movie. But it’s just rare to have people saying, “Oh, I can’t — you got to go, stop what you’re doing. Run out and see this movie.” And with TV shows, it’s just this like —
Rawson: It’s endless.
Aline: it’s endless and it’s just — you know, look at the list of the sort of the top 30 best reviewed TV shows, that could be your whole life.
Rawson: Yeah. I have the exact same feeling that you have, John. Like it’s — you know, Making a Murderer, I heard the exact same thing.
Rawson: I’m dying — ha-ha — to see it. And there’s just no time. Like, you know, I’m so far behind on everything else. Like The Man in the High Castle which was my favorite Amazon pilot, so excited. Watched the pilot. I wanted to binge watch all of them. It wasn’t even made, right? And a year later, I was waiting, waiting, waiting for it to come out. It finally comes out, I still haven’t watched it.
John: Oh, Rawson.
Rawson: It’s terrible. It’s terrible.
John: But it’s not terrible because like —
Rawson: I could do a whole list of shows —
Rawson: Starting with Friday Night Lights that I have not seen that I’m dying to see. There are truly, truly not enough hours in the day.
Rawson: But I agree with Aline that it’s — what a wonderful time to live in.
Aline: But I just want to circle back to, you know, there’s — when I think of, you know, John’s breakthrough movie was Go and your breakthrough movie was Dodgeball, which is the McKenna family movie, and my sort of breakout movie, Devil Wears Prada, tough going man now to get those through. I mean if you came to me with Go, I would say that’s a Netflix show. If you came to me with Dodgeball, I would say that’s an FX series. If you came to me — somebody came to me with — the Devil Wears Prada was a pre-established — you know, it was a hit book, so maybe that would probably go the movie route again.
But, you know, other things that I’ve written like 27 Dresses, I think I would say try and get $5 million and shoot that, you know, in New Orleans and hope for the best. Those movies are really tough to get through. And if you’re in a movie meeting and you’re saying, this is totally out of the box and insane and doesn’t make any sense, and if you’re my friend and you’re telling me you have that kind of idea, I would recommend, you know, five or seven cable, streaming and in some case broadcast network places that, you know — I think of Ridley’s doing American Crime, and he’s doing it on a big network, wouldn’t that have been a movie 10 years ago? Wouldn’t that have been like a big Oscary movie? So aren’t we going towards the thing also where my kids don’t care so much what platform it’s on, you know?
Rawson: Yeah, I think they’re platform agnostic.
Rawson: From what I can tell. But John back to, not your kids specifically, but the kids today, the Millenials. But yeah, but John, to your point, the sort of glut of gold, right, of the television gold, you know, we have to be at some point hitting peak drama, right? There’s just too much. Too much great stuff, you can’t keep up.
So on the TV side, that feels like what’s going on. On the feature side, it is cinematic universe is robust, right? Everything else can take a hike. And it’s a really strange difference between the two, right, where one is — we’re creating an interlocking set of $150 million movies that all feed each other and inform each other and make $100 million on the opening weekend. And we don’t really care about anything else.
John: And there’s FOMO to those movies. Like that’s why, you know, you have to see Star Wars the first week or else it’s all going to be spoiled for you.
Rawson: Sure. And then the other side to what Aline is saying is on the television side, it’s just be interesting, we don’t really care. We don’t even know what the numbers are. If it’s kind of cool and different, that’s great. So it’s a very — like it’s so —
Aline: I think it depends also what drew you into the business. Because a lot of my friends who were big genre writers or producers, like the stuff that drew them into the business, you know, was Star Wars, were these kind of bigger, you know, it’s like Star Wars, Die Hard, you know, those kind of early, big franchise-able things. You know, for me, personally, I was — I was drawn into the business by — this is really quaint — movies from the ’30s and ’40s. And Sydney Pollack and James Brooks —
Rawson: That’s adorable.
Aline: Elaine May. Yeah, it’s really — it’s like saying, you know, you grew up playing with the dolls with the real hair and the lace dresses. It’s like I didn’t grow up playing with collectible. In fact, some of the stuff I’ve not heard of. Like people will say, “We’re working on this line of toys from the ’70s that was like cool robots who are, you know, like” — and I’ve never heard of it, you know. And it is also very male-driven by and large.
So I think the way we’re wicking people into the business now is different because of the kind of things that we’re making. And I think if I were starting out again and I came to myself for advice, I’d probably say, “Go try and get a job writing, you know, You’re the Worst or something.”
John: Yeah. Good shows. All right. So we’ve been talking about how much great TV there was this year, but there’s also been a lot of great movies. And so we want to focus on three of those movies that are up for awards this season. We’ll start with Room.
So Room tells a story of five-year-old Jack who has spent his entire life in a single room because his mother was kidnapped at age 17. The movie tracks her life inside the room and their attempts to escape and reintegrate with the world outside. It was written by Emma Donoghue, based on her best-selling novel.
Rawson, you just saw this movie last night.
Rawson: I did. And I loved it. I had — I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know what you just said about it. I didn’t watch a trailer.
Aline: That’s great.
Rawson: I knew nothing. And I was blown away. I wonder if I would’ve liked it as much if I had known anything. Because when they were — I guess there will be spoilers in this episode.
John: There were be spoilers. We can’t avoid it.
Rawson: So I had no idea why they were in that room. You know, I was like, you know, is it — is this a post-apocalyptic thing? Can she not go outside because of radiation? Is it, you know, is she hiding? Did she kill someone? And, you know, obviously, as it goes along you kind of puzzle it together.
So that, just the opening experience of just sort of being drawn in and trying to figure out what the puzzle is or what the reasoning is for them not having left the room was fascinating and unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time in the theater. And then, of course, as it — as it unfolds, you know, the escape sequence was — I haven’t felt that way in a movie theater in a long time. I was writhing in my chair and so nervous.
Aline: I was sobbing so loudly. I was barking.
Rawson: Oh my god. [laughs]
Rawson: Yeah. It was something else. And then the other part that was so interesting to me, which I guess I wouldn’t have expected was, we have to talk spoiler again.
Rawson: So after they escaped through the — after they escaped the room, I guess I just — because I’m, you know, a studio hack. Like I was just like, “Oh, well, that’s the end of the movie, they get out and they hug, it’s a thing.” And that’s the midpoint. Like the — some of the most fascinating stuff is what happens after that and sort of recalibrating and what is the world like if you’ve never ever, ever experienced it. And I just thought it was a beautiful piece of cinema and expertly told. And some of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time. Man, what a fantastic picture. A-plus.
John: Yeah. On a story level, what was so striking to me about it is that it doesn’t sort of follow any normal rules. And so in terms of like who’s the protagonist, who’s your antagonist, that it’s three acts. It’s really a two-act sort of movie. And the two acts are very, very different. And you sort of think like, “Oh, she’s the one who’s going to change, and she’s going to have to save this kid.” But it’s not really that.
And it was — I found myself frustrated in the second half of the movie where I was like, “Well, where did the mom go?” There’s moments where she disappears from the story. And it wasn’t until, you know, the credits rolled that like, “Oh, wait, it was actually the boy’s story.” And so —
Rawson: Oh. Oh.
John: Yeah. And so if you look at it from the boy’s point of view —
Aline: Yes. That makes perfect sense.
John: Like some of the moments that didn’t actually make a lot of sense to me in the second half I think were because it’s really based on what the boy’s understanding of what these adults are actually talking about and how these are working. Like William H. Macy’s character, I didn’t really believe or buy, but I think I buy it more if I see it from the kid’s point of view. And it’s like —
Aline: Yes. Great point.
John: He has no idea what the — why this man is saying these things.
John: And it makes more sense with that.
Aline: I mean, it’s by far my favorite movie that I’ve seen this year. And it’s probably for me the movie I was most excited about since Frozen, which sounds strange, but remember I had like a big freak out over Frozen.
John: I did. And you can listen to that episode in the premium feed of Scriptnotes where Aline and I talked with Jennifer Lee about Frozen.
Aline: I mean, I’m obsessed with this movie. I think it’s a clinic. I think it is — I don’t know why everyone’s not talking about it. It feels like to me the movie everyone should be talking about it. I will say that a lot of people I’ve talked to have a weird idea of what it is. Like even Rawson was saying, “Is it really scary? Is it going to upset my life?” And I just keep saying to people, “It’s just good.”
I just want to say two things. One is, as a writer — and this is one of the reasons I love Frozen so much — you know what’s hard and what’s not hard. You know what things are difficult writing-wise and what things are not. And there’s just sometimes I see a movie and I think, “Well that’s wonderful, but I know that the level of skill it took to do that is not that high.”
The level of skill that it takes to pull off Room is extremely high, extremely high degree of difficulty. You’re telling such an intimate story, such a character piece. But it’s also a thriller. It’s also like a great propulsive story. It plays with genre. It upends genre. I just thought from the point of view as a craftsman looking at a table, you know, as someone who makes tables examining another table, I was really effing —
Rawson: It’s a hell of a table.
Aline: And then the other thing I want to say is that, you know, it’s a story about a woman and a child, and her mother, primarily. And I got to say, you know, there’s a lot of great movies out that are getting a lot of attention, but part of me has to think that if it wasn’t about women and children it would be getting more acclaim. And I’m kind of turning into this guy. I’m kind of turning into this person as I get older and I see what happens in the world. I just think stories about women and children, which is really all this movie is and what this — it’s the best movie about parenting I’ve seen ever.
Rawson: Oh, yeah.
Aline: And their relationship is so real and so gritty and so interesting. I just think — I just want more people to see it. I’m desperate for more people to see it because I think we’ve seen a lot of terrific movies this year but the level of achievement here in terms of storytelling, character work, and performances. I mean, the very last moment, when Brie looks back at the room and she says goodbye to it and she whispers, she doesn’t say it, she doesn’t make any noise, it’s — I think it’s stunning.
John: So this is Emma Donoghue’s screenplay based on her book, and that to me was a really fascinating thing to look at because we’ve had other novelists adapt their own books. Gillian Flynn did a great job adapting Gone Girl.
Aline: That’s who I thought of, too.
John: But what struck me about this is that, you know, looking at the book Room, you have the ability to have character introspections, so you get to know what the characters know, you get to see inside their thoughts. She had to do this without any voiceover, without any sort of ability to sort of get out what’s happening inside these characters’ heads other than dialogue.
Aline: Which is, again, why I say clinic.
John: Clinic. And so this first half of the movie, you feel like, “Well, that could be a play.” You theoretically could stage that first half of the movie as like a play. And then when it actually breaks out, it clearly has to be a movie, because the only way you get that suspense and that tension is by going outside in that world and, you know, it was brilliantly directed and really brilliantly shot. And then just keep going to these new environments, it really did ultimately become a film. But to able to understand both like how to do all the very small chamber character work and then break out and do the suspense was remarkable.
Aline: You know, for some reason, one of the moments that has stuck with me so much is the moment where Joan Allen’s boyfriend builds this bridge to the kid. And, you know, he’s not a major character. He shows up two-thirds of the way through the movie.
Rawson: In kind of a creepy fashion, by the way, just standing in the hall.
Aline: Right. And he’s sort of — yeah, you don’t really know what to make of that.
Rawson: He did a great job.
Aline: But you really — it’s such a testament to the power of human connection that these two characters reach out across each other. And it’s exactly what you said, so smart. It’s the boy’s story and it’s about how he learns to start making connections in the world that are not his mother. And so I think that’s the reason for me that is such a big victorious moment, that you feel like this kid’s going to be okay because he can learn to trust somebody. And it’s really great that it’s not his grandfather, it’s somebody else.
Rawson: I think that’s an excellent point. And like — and it is surprising that that character, Lee or something, I think, is the one who sort of connects with Jack, right? And he’s the only one who doesn’t have, doesn’t carry any baggage with him toward Jack, right? He is essentially a stranger. And I thought that was surprising and wonderful.
But John, back to your point, like she does use — Emma does use voiceover. And she uses Jack’s voiceover in the picture.
John: You’re absolutely right.
Rawson: Throughout, right?
Rawson: And so like to me. And then what was interesting about what you said of, you know, whose story is this? And to me, really early on, it seemed like it was really clearly Jack’s story because he’s the one explaining what room is, right?
Rawson: And then when Nick — Old Nick shows up, he — Jack goes into wardrobe and stays there —
Aline: And we see it from his perspective.
Rawson: And we’re in there with him.
Rawson: So something that you talk a lot about, which I steal all the time when I’m writing and thinking is like who do you give the storytelling power to, right?
Rawson: That’s so critical, and something I learned from you. Really, I thought it was — as I think Aline might say, you know, a master class in specifically that, right? This is only Jack’s story. It clearly is his and we only see it through his eyes and from his perspective. So when he’s rolled up in the rug and taken out, we don’t — we never see Brie Larson again until —
Rawson: Until she comes running out toward the cop car. Which heightens the tension, right?
Aline: Yes, so much.
Rawson: Because we don’t know what’s happening.
Aline: We don’t know what’s happening there. I just want to say one more thing about the movie which is —
Aline: If we’re talking about trends for me in 2015 is that it’s the best movie I’ve ever seen about rape and the aftermath of rape and how confusing and damaging it is. And this is the year where I watched The Hunting Ground which I cannot recommend highly enough. I watched it with my kids who are teenagers.
Rawson: Is that the CNN documentary?
Aline: It’s not CNN. But yeah, it’s the people who did the documentary about rape in the military, did a documentary about rape on college campuses, and it is blistering. I also read the Missoula book, Krakauer’s Missoula book about the college rapes in Missoula. And then, obviously, we have the Bill Cosby thing.
I am hoping that as a culture our view and our understanding of rape and rape victims and what happens to them starts to change now, has to change now. And this is the best microscopic examination of what a rape survivor goes through and, you know, her triumphs and her defeats, and what’s complicated and how it’s imprinted on her and how it affects her mental health and how she becomes suicidal.
Aline: And, you know, you can be brave and you can, you know, work through these things, but it damages you forever. And I think we still don’t understand that as a culture. And so I really have to applaud the movie for depicting that in a way that’s not homework. It’s not spinach. It’s not vegetables. It’s just human.
Rawson: Yeah. I thought Emma Donoghue did an incredible job adapting her own work. I haven’t read the book but I can only imagine the challenge. And it seems like it would be even more difficult if you were the author of the novel to be — to sort of what I can only assume is to hack and slash your own work up to make it fit into 120 pages. But —
Aline: Yeah. Hats off to her.
Rawson: Yeah. But then the last thing I wanted to say about Room was — and it’s connected, Aline, to what you were saying, which is this sort of clean line, the clean premise of a 17-year-old girl who gets abducted and kept in a shed. She’s raped. She has a son from that rape and loves that son, right? The clean idea of a mother who loves her child even though that child was the offspring of a horrific and violent act is so ripe for drama and ripe for investigation. Like, you know, there were very few times in my life where I’ve sort of stumbled across or come up with a clean dramatic construct like that that you just get so excited. I mean, it’s — I mean, I can almost picture Emma Donoghue when that idea struck her. I feel like, “Oh my god, of course. What a great idea to explore.”
Aline: It’s funny it’s in the same year that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt came out.
Rawson: I was going to say that. [laughs]
Aline: Which is sort of, you know, it’s sort of — it is a great idea. It’s a gonzo weird comedic take on Room that —
Aline: That they’re a great double feature.
Aline: And it’s, you know, Kimmy Schmidt is so intelligent and bizarre.
Rawson: It’s fantastic.
Aline: And it takes a completely, you know, through-the-looking-glass view of the same topic. But I could really go on and on about Room just as a craftsperson. I really —
Rawson: Not as funny as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Aline: Not quite as funny, no. But it did have some great moments of humor I have to say.
Rawson: It does.
John: So while Room was a very small story with a very tight group of characters, Spotlight is a much bigger story. It follows this team of journalists working at The Boston Globe, working to expose widespread sexual abuse, again, of children by Catholic priests in the Boston area. It’s written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer. It was listed on the 2013 Black List of unproduced screenplays and now it’s a movie up for a lot of best pictures.
What struck me about Spotlight, and I — again, I really enjoyed Spotlight. It’s almost exactly the opposite of Room. It’s like where Room was so detailed and charactery and it’s all about sort of these very intimate feelings like silent moments, Spotlight was sort of all talk all the time. It’s all business.
Aline, I heard you describe it once as sort of like The Martian but like with journalists. And so it’s very sort of technically detail-oriented.
Aline: Yeah. That’s something I wanted to talk about and see how you guys felt. Because I have noticed, you know, that both of those movies — and it’s something I’ve noticed in movies more and more is the characters in both of those movies, they’re really work procedurals. And the character development is, you know, is — I think they deliberately underbaked the buns there, you know. They kind of pulled it out of the oven without overdoing.
Like in The Martian, you really don’t know a lot about the backstory of this guy who you’re spending a lot of time with. When he talks about his parents, I thought, “Oh gosh, I don’t really know anything about his home life.” And then in Spotlight, each character has like one little scene, you know, going to the neighbor’s house, eating pizza for Mark Ruffalo, loading the dishwasher for Rachel McAdams. I mean, they have little, tiny character grace notes, but they really work procedurals about characters whose function in the movie is to do things and not to kind of exhibit character behavior.
And I think it’s really interesting in light of what we’ve been talking about with TV. You know, TV is all about these interesting, naughty, complicated characters where you’re really delving into them. And I feel like it’s interesting to have a movie where you have two prestige films that are excellent and I think are going to get a lot of awards, where the character stuff I think is deliberately a little, you know, pencil drawn, maybe to make the functioning of the work stuff more prominent in a way.
John: So you’re talking — that these two movies being The Martian and Spotlight. In both cases, we don’t know a lot about the characters’ backstories. But even when the movie begins, they’re not given a big arc to sort of — to conquer. There wasn’t a like there’s a thing which they as a character couldn’t do at the start of the movie that they can do at the end of the movie.
Aline: Their arc are obstacles.
John: Yeah. And so they just like, stuff gets in their way and they have to keep knocking down these things that get in their way but it’s much more sort of — it’s procedural. It’s just like, are they going to be able to unscramble this puzzle that will get them out of this movie successfully?
Rawson: Absolutely. I mean I think the only real sort of character quandary or challenge is from Michael Keaton’s character, right? Because in that picture, in Spotlight, he gets sent the box of like, “Here’s the damning evidence, do something about it,” and he ignored it for whatever reason, right? It’s the right choice for that story, right? Because what’s most important in Spotlight is what these guys did, what these priests did, what the Catholic Church did. And I think the choice of telling the story that way of just the facts ma’am and not delving into character backstory or tropes as you say, is precisely the right choice because that’s not what’s important about that story. What’s not important about the story is —
Rawson: Oh, gosh, the relationship between the journalist and her boyfriend and are they going to make up?
Rawson: Like, who cares?
Rawson: That’s not what it’s about, it’s about —
Aline: This is what happened in the world.
Rawson: That’s exactly right.
Aline: And in Martian, it’s about science and it’s about the importance of iteration. You know, I think it’s — if you don’t process emotions very well then you’ll really enjoy the Martian because [laughs] —
Rawson: I really did.
John: There’s not a lot of emotions there.
Aline: Because — no. Because it’s such a great tribute, to — I mean, I thought it was a great movie for my kids to see because it’s like try again, try again, try again. It’s a really great movie for writers, too, because it’s “How do you skin this cat?” You go back, you try again. He tries everything.
Aline: I mean, I never thought I would be so excited about seeing plants sprout in a hothouse.
Rawson: Yeah. I mean, yeah, The Martian was — I mean, Drew Goddard did an incredible job.
Rawson: What was so — one of the things I love about The Martian, though we’re not really talking about that, is the way that Ridley and Drew use humor in that film.
Rawson: Humor throughout and how important that is to keep — at least to keep me and I think the audience, engaged in the story, because it could have been a really bleak, hopeless slog.
Aline: And also Spotlight. I mean, you know, Keaton, Slattery, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo —
Rawson: Liev Schreiber.
Aline: They’re all — Liev, yeah. They’re all great dramatic actors but they all can be funny. And they bring — there’s a kind of lightness to that movie in a funny way.
Rawson: Stanley Tucci, also.
Rawson: Right. Kind of stealing the show.
Aline: Yeah. So exactly, kind of steal — yeah.
Rawson: I want to say one thing about Spotlight which is my friend Blye Pagon Faust produced it, and I didn’t know she produced it until I saw her name on the screen.
Aline: Wow. So you guys are close then?
Rawson: Well, we’re not that close. But I know her pretty well and I sent her e-mail. I didn’t realize until — well, actually I saw. I knew before I went to see the movie but I didn’t realize until I think she posted on Facebook, “Go see my movie,” and I went “Oh my God.” And I was — it’s always kind of fun when someone you know, a friend of yours, even lightly, kind of comes out of nowhere and has a big, big success. It’s just like exciting.
John: Well, let’s take — let’s take a look though at Spotlight and, I guess, The Martian as well. Both these movies have a noticeable lack of conflict, and generally, like if your movie doesn’t have a lot of conflict between the characters, I’m just not going to care. And what both of them do have, which I think is maybe a very new kind of thing, they have really competent characters. And so this is sort of a thing called competency porn where it’s like —
John: It’s really fun to see people who are really good at their job, and see people doing a really good job at their job. And so for The Martian, it’s —
Rawson: I don’t want you to watch me work.
John: Yeah, exactly.
Aline: But it’s funny. I actually think this might also be a little bit tinged by reality shows and by the extreme like excitement of watching people cook things and build things.
John: Or survive out in the wilderness.
Aline: Yes. I think there’s a thing now where, you know, some character work can seem — backstory stuff just can seem corny, tropey, and so —
John: Mark Ruffalo had a couple of corny tropey moments for me in this movie. There’s sort of one moment where he blows up at Michael Keaton and it’s like I didn’t really kind of buy it. And there are a few moments where it’s like I felt like he was getting angry to get angry because it’s a thing that a character in this movie is supposed to be doing, is getting angry. But no one else in the movie was doing that, and so it felt a little strange. It was so fascinating for me to see like Stanley Tucci or Liev Schreiber, actors who generally can get kind of big and kind of emotional, be really tamped down.
Rawson: Yeah, it’s my favorite performance from Liev in a long, long time.
John: Yeah. It’s exciting. All right. Let’s look at our third and final movie. It’s The Big Short. It’s based on the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis. The Big Short tells the story of three groups of investors who foresaw the collapse of the US Housing Market in 2007. It’s written by Adam McKay and Charles Randolph.
This is, again, a movie with a zillion people in it and a lot of talking, but also, structurally, just bizarre, and point of view, bizarre. It breaks the fourth wall consistently. Characters will turn to the camera and speak and then resume their scene. It took a lot of really ambitious narrative choices. And I really dug what it did.
Aline: I loved it. I mean, I think Adam McKay is kind of interestingly one of the most subversive brains in Hollywood. I don’t know that he totally gets credit for it because even his mainstream comedies have some crack going on in them, all of them. He’s so super smart and it comes across.
And I just — I loved what he did formally with this movie in terms of being so free and the way they shot it and the way it was edited. I mean, it’s a long time since I’ve seen a movie edited in a way that I was like, “Wow, we’re holding here. We’re hanging out here,” you know. So I thought, formally, it was — it was fantastic.
I had two thoughts about it that maybe prevented me from like completely immersing myself in it. And one was that it’s about people who are trying to exploit the crash, but you root for them. And they see that it’s all screwed up, but they’re still all betting against the common. Now it’s kind of a genius move on the part of the movie that it was able to get you to root for and care about people who are playing against everyone and playing against the system, so that’s — but that’s a tricky inside out kind of thing it’s doing.
John: Yeah, it has the structure of a heist movie in a way and like “Are they going to be able to get away with it?” And yet you know that the end result is a really negative outcome for the universe and for all humanity. So it’s a strange sense. And to McKay’s credit, I thought he did a nice job of letting you both feel some victory in that it happened and the characters themselves acknowledge the very bad thing that happened. So Steve Carell, his character, you know, really feeling despondent even as he’s become a billionaire.
Aline: As he becomes a billionaire.
Rawson: Yeah. And that — yeah. Look, I love the movie, I loved the book. I thought McKay did an incredible job. But you know, just as someone who makes comedies myself, to get to see someone who’s a titan of studio comedy work creating the opportunity for himself to do something that isn’t that and doing such an exceptional job was just really heartening and exciting for me.
Aline: Yeah, it’s great. And it was interesting because it’s funny but it’s still — so it’s still — I felt like it had the DNA of an Adam McKay movie in some ways, but obviously it was going off into these other directions.
Rawson: Sure. I mean especially with what John was saying, breaking the fourth wall, like I think it’s three separate times where McKay uses that device to help explain a very complicated idea. And it seems like there’s two real big challenges going into the adaptation of that book. One is, of course, the complexity of the derivatives market, right? Which Michael Lewis does a brilliant job of explaining in the book, a fantastic book if you want to get angry. And McKay I think chose a really McKay-like way of doing that, right? Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, Anthony Bourdain, I think it’s Vanessa Hudgens —
John: It’s Selena Gomez.
Rawson: Selena Gomez, my fault. Selena Gomez at a blackjack table, which I thought were all super, super clever. So one challenge is the complexity of that.
And then also, like you were saying John, like it is a heist picture, so trying to keep all those dishes spinning and keep that tension going. And heist pictures are incredibly difficult to write and execute, but the last piece of it is the most important which is, “How do you root for these guys? How do you root for these guys who are essentially profiting off of the corruption of the system and making those billions of dollars that Johnny and Jane taxpayer are going to have to foot the bill?”
Aline: Yeah, that’s what I was saying. Yeah, and the people who are going to get wiped out by these things are satirized.
Rawson: Yes, right.
Aline: Right? Like the boneheads in the, you know, who sell the —
Rawson: Yes, Max Greenfield. Fantastic. [laughs]
Aline: Yes, amazing. And the stripper and, you know, they’re sort of depicted as yahoos on the other hand, you know, they’re victims. I actually thought, you know, the guy who’s been paying the rent but the landlord hasn’t been —
Rawson: Yeah, that was so sad.
Aline: That was so sad and he appears again later in the movie —
Rawson: And he’s okay.
Aline: Yeah. And that was the most kind of humanized thing. It’s interesting. It does go back — it goes back to sort of what we were talking about.
John: Well, let’s talk about how he actually did make you feel sympathy for our lead guys who theoretically could be schmucks for, you know, what they’re doing to everybody else. You create bigger assholes around them, and so like they’re standing up to bigger assholes who are openly mocking them.
John: So when he’s going in to try to pitch the portfolio like —
John: “Will you sell me this thing?” And they’re like snickering. “Oh my god, we’re going to make so much money off this idiot.” That’s the way to sort of make our guys feel like the underdogs.
Rawson: That’s right.
John: And we’re going to root for the underdogs.
Rawson: That’s exactly right.
John: And consistently with all three storylines, we’ve let them be the underdog, so like —
Aline: Yeah, smart.
John: Our young guys aren’t even allowed to go upstairs and so they have to sit in the lobby and they get talked down to you by an assistant.
Rawson: That was a great scene.
Aline: That’s my favorite guy.
John: Yeah, the guy who plays the —
Rawson: The little guy is so good.
Aline: That little guy is the greatest.
Rawson: Whoever he is, good job little guy.
John: That’s one of the moments where you break the fourth wall and they pick up this prospectus and one of the actors turns to you and is like, “This isn’t actually how it happened — I didn’t get it here.”
Aline: It’s great.
John: And it was such a smart choice because it reminded you like, “Oh this is a real story.” So even though we are playing fictional characters, this really did happen to a degree. It reminded you like, “Oh, that’s right. This is all real.”
Rawson: I loved that scene because as soon as they picked up the prospectus, I’m like, “This is bullshit.”
Rawson: And I was like grabbing my pitchfork, and then he turns to the camera and I’m like, “Oh, bless you heart, Adam McKay.” But you’re exactly right, John, that you create bigger assholes and you make our heroes the underdogs, which is almost impossible not to root for. And then there are two other critical scenes in that film that very clearly are there in an attempt to make you like our heroes, right?
One is when they’re leaving, I think it’s Vegas, and the two young whipper-snappers who couldn’t get past the lobby just placed their bet and they’re super, super excited and they’re dancing. And Brad Pitt, of all people, right, the biggest star in the picture, turns around and says “Don’t dance.”
Rawson: “This is what this means, this is what you’re betting on,” right? And it’s fine, but don’t dance, right?
Rawson: Which is precisely the right tone and note to hit for the audience to go, “Okay, I’m glad you acknowledged it. Now, we’re cool. We can root for your guys.” And then of course the end piece where Steve Carell, who does a beautiful job in the film, you know, hems and haws, and is tortured about becoming a billionaire.
Aline: Well also, he’s been given — Steve Carell has been given what we would think of a more traditional thing which is that his brother committed suicide. And so that’s something that would be a more traditional piece of scene where —
John: I could have lost all of that. I don’t know how you felt about that.
Aline: Although the scene where he was in the support group and just comes in as really disruptive and leaves, I just thought it was amazing.
John: If you we’re going to lose —
Rawson: I loved that scene.
John: If you’re going to lose that plot line, you basically lose Marisa Tomei, you lose sort of any other woman you recognize, which is a challenge, but —
Rawson: But that scene where Steve Carell’s character sort of talks to Marisa Tomei about it, the way that that’s edited, I thought was just beautiful.
Rawson: And really one of the few moments in the film where I felt pathos, right? I felt really attached and understood his struggle. You know, I was angry at the bad guy — you know, at everybody.
John: Yeah, yeah.
Rawson: But like that was the one time where I felt like an emotional connection. So I can understand very easily cutting that scene out because it’s sort of, you know, off book a little bit. I think it does what it’s supposed to do which is make you understand that this is a person who has gone through real trouble in his life and that you care about him and want him to come out the other side of that. And I guess this sort of vindicates —
Aline: I mean, you know, it’s a good kind of segue into one other thing I wanted to say kind of in general about this time for me every year when you look back on these movies is, you know how you can judge — they say you can judge a country by how it treats its women, that that’s a good hallmark of how free it is and how much democracy it has. I feel the same way about movies, and I feel like every year there’s movies that I really like but I wish they had drilled down a little harder on the women. Because I will judge a movie differently if they managed to get in an interesting complicated female character.
And there’s a thing which I didn’t realize was a thing until last night which is there’s this thing where there are leads in movies now, particularly in these genre pieces, where the women just are spunky and they have moxie, but they don’t have characters. And you know what I’m talking about.
Aline: So this is a thing. I was talking to someone about this at a party last night because that is the overwhelming in the genre big movies, these women who are like defined by — they just have a lot of spunk and pluck but they don’t really have flaws or things to overcome. And if they don’t have flaws, if they’re not 360, or if they’re not just frankly in the movie at all, a lot — some of these movies, just if you look at the, you know, best reviewed movies of the year, some of them just don’t even have female characters in them or have very minor ones.
You know, to me, I just — it’s harder for me. And again, I told you, I’m turning into this guy, this lady. If you can’t invest in, you know, all genders in the same way and you can’t invest the female characters with the same kind of humanity, it’s just tougher for me to fully embrace the movie.
John: One thing I’ve noticed about all three of these movies, and I think part of the reason why they all succeed, is in each case the writer has great sympathy for all of the characters in the story. So looking at The Big Short, there’s an African-American woman who’s Steve Carell’s —
Aline: Yeah. She was the best female character in that movie. Also because she was just wrong.
John: She was wrong, but also, the movie had sympathy for like when everything was falling apart, you really could see like, “Oh, everything is falling apart for her, too.” And the movie allowed you to have sympathy for her.
John: So you understand her both being angry at the start and sort of being, you know —
Aline: Yeah, I preferred in a fun way — I mean, I love Marisa Tomei, but Marisa Tomei’s character was a thing we’ve seen before.
John: It’s just functional.
Aline: Which is, yes, functional. Whereas that lady was, she’d also gotten like opened the door and the snow had fallen in on her.
John: It’s such a great example of like Steve Carell like at the very start acknowledges that she’s pregnant and sort of says nothing more. And then it’s like, all this time has passed and now she has a baby and all that stuff. And it was a great recall on the character.
Another examples of sort of sympathy for characters, in Room after the boy escapes, just the police officer, the cop, who like figures out like where it is, and like, had such sympathy for like that’s a character who only has a very limited window of time but like just drilled down and exactly nailed who she was and sort of why she was the right person to be in the backseat of the car with him, just brilliant and genius.
And then sympathy, I think even in Spotlight, where you get to like Jamey Sheridan’s character, who has been protecting the church. And you know, we suddenly are showing up at his doorstep and sort of ruining his Christmas. I still had sympathy for why he was doing what he was doing. And so it’s so easy to make terrible villains, but to have sympathy for these villains too in some of these cases is a huge achievement.
Rawson: Yes. I mean I agree. The one thing — I mean on your point of, you know, not having fully-baked female characters in these pictures. But if you look at like The Big Short, I guess my question would be, that’s a non-fiction novel. And so the characters in that novel are all men. Do you think that McKay should have made one of them a woman? Or is that — or I guess that’s like what are you supposed to do when the story is about dudes doing these things?
Aline: Yes. I mean but then we’re just pointing to the fact that he invented a female character. Or I don’t know, maybe that character exists.
Rawson: I can’t remember.
Aline: But, you know, he created some. So that’s, you know, obviously some stories are that. Again, those tend to be the stories that we’re telling more and that we’re privileging. So if you make more movies with just a more of a diversity of characters, gender-wise and frankly race-wise.
But I’m just, you know, I’m sitting here again with you guys, like your movies always have female characters that are interesting and weird and Go is — and you do, too. I mean, you’re also, you do a thing which I enjoy and which Craig does, too, which is, you’ll write female characters who are just kind of assholes.
And that’s, you know, we deserve to have — I mean, my favorite thing about Identity Thief is that she’s an asshole. And then she’s not, of course.
Aline: And she’s that great. But men get to be assholes, men get to be flawed, men get to be messes, men get to be complicated. And I sort of feel like, you know, for women, we just — between the genre movies and the smaller movies, I think we’re restricting ourselves a little bit in that regard.
Obviously, if it’s a movie where, you know, it’s about men — if it’s, you know, if it’s all about the — you know, the basketball championship. But I still think that to really depict a 360 world, you have to include their voices in it and do a good job with them.
Rawson: Yeah, absolutely.
John: All right. It’s time for One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a gift that my daughter got for Christmas. It’s called Compose Yourself and it’s these clear plastic cards that have measures of music on them, just like simple notes on them.
And what’s smart about it is, because they’re clear, you can flip them over and turn them around and look at the measures different ways. And it goes to a website and you punch in the code number on each of these cards. It builds a song both into sort of simple note melody, but also like full orchestration. And so it’s a great way of sort of like looking at this is what notes look like on the card, this is what it actually sounds like when you put it together.
So for, you know, anybody who’s interested in sort of music theory, or sort of like sort of the call and response of measures, it’s really, really cool. So I really dug it.
Rawson: What’s it called?
John: It’s called Compose Yourself. It’s by a guy name Philip Sheppard and there’ll be a link to that in the show notes.
Aline: Great. What do you got?
Rawson: I have a game that I love that is not out yet, it’s called The Division.
John: All right.
Rawson: Tom Clancy’s The Division. It’s for Xbox One. It will be PS4 and PC platform. It comes out in March. I played the Alpha. December 9th to the 12th is a very small window. I’ve been waiting for this game for about three-and-a-half years. I’ve been going to E3 and playing it and waiting and waiting and waiting.
And it is fantastic and super fun. It’s a third person RPG shooter, set in kind of post-viral outbreak Manhattan. And your job with your friends, up to three friends, is to get services back online — electricity, water, paramedic, police, et cetera, et cetera. And it’s a super fun game to play. But it’s so beautiful. The light and weather effects are incredible and some of the best I’ve ever seen.
And if you like video games at all, The Division, Tom Clancy’s The Division, comes out in March.
Aline: Wow! Can I just take this moment to say I’ve never played a video game?
Rawson: Oh. Aline.
John: Never even on your phone?
Rawson: Never once?
Aline: No, on my phone. But I never like sat down with a remote.
John: With Xbox controller.
Aline: Yes. My kids do it constantly and I wouldn’t even know where — so I guess I did Wii back in the day and I can do some Guitar Hero. So that counts.
John: My daughter first learned how to play NBA 2K14 from your sons playing that game.
Rawson: NBA 2K16 is supposed to be the best sports game ever made.
John: I completely agree. I remember watching your kids playing it with Amy and I thought they were just watching basketball. That’s how good it looks like.
Aline: Yes. The graphics are insane. You know I often think they’re watching basketball, too.
I’m going to do again because I’m turning into this guy. I’m just going to beg everyone to go and see The Hunting Ground. I know it’s been out for a while but they just aired it on CNN again.
It’s so good. And it’s so important. And it’s so infuriating. And it’s so interesting. And it’s super well-made. And I would really just go see The Hunting Ground and then go to the website. And they’re talking about something that was, you know, I went to Take Back the Night marches when I was in college and it’s still going on. And it’s time to do something about it. And it’s just so worthwhile.
John: Cool. Great. That’s our show for this week. So as always, our show is produced by Stuart Friedel. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli.
Aline: I don’t see Stuart Friedel anywhere here.
John: Stuart Friedel is off on assignment. No, he’s off — just —
John: Stuart — where’s Stuart? We’re recording this on New Year’s Day, so Stuart has the day off.
Rawson: Happy New Year!
John: Happy New Year to everyone. It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli who also did our outro this week. A reminder that we are doing a live show on January 25th with guests Jason Bateman and Lawrence Kasdan who wrote a little movie called —
Aline: Well done.
John: Yes. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and The Empire Strikes Back, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Aline: Where are you doing that?
John: We’re doing that downtown in Los Angeles. So you should come see it.
John: It’s a benefit for Hollywood HEART so you guys — we can get tickets for you. But if you, as a listener, would like tickets, there’s a link in the show notes where you get them. You can also just go to hollywoodheart.org/upcoming.
Our show is available on iTunes. So click and subscribe in iTunes so everyone knows that you’re subscribing to our show. Leave us a comment because we like to read through those comments.
If you’d like to listen to one of our back episodes, like the Frozen episode with Director Jennifer Lee, you can go to scriptnotes.net. There’s also an app which you can listen to all those back episodes. On Twitter, I’m @johnaugust. Craig, who’s not here, is @clmazin. Rawson, are you on Twitter?
Rawson: I’m at Twitter. I’m on Twitter @rawsonthurber.
John: Aline Brosh McKenna is not on Twitter but she’s on Instagram but not even publicly.
John: You’re secret on Instagram, too. No. She’s unreachable.
Aline: I live on a desert island.
John: But if you have a question for any of us, you can write to email@example.com and we’ll try to answer your questions. And thank you all very much and thank you Rawson and thank you Aline.
Rawson: Thank you.
Aline: Thank you.
John: All right. Bye.
- Rawson Marshall Thurber on episodes 100, 101, 123 and 124, and on Twitter
- Aline Brosh McKenna on episodes 60, 76, 100, 101, 119, 123, 124 152, 161, 175, 180, 200 and 219
- Room on IMDb and Wikipedia, and the novel
- Spotlight on IMDb and Wikipedia
- The Big Short on IMDb and Wikipedia, and the book
- Compose Yourself
- Tom Clancy’s The Division
- The Hunting Ground on IMDb and Wikipedia
- Get your tickets now for Scriptnotes, Live on January 25 with Jason Bateman and Lawrence Kasdan, a benefit for Hollywood HEART
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)