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 240 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast, we’ll be answering a bunch of listener questions about the craft, about the profession of screenwriting, and about Craig Mazin.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: Lots of Craig questions.
Craig: I won’t know how to answer any of them.
John: It’s one of our easiest types of episodes because we had to do almost no work. We basically pasted a bunch of questions in here and we’ll just answer them one at a time.
Craig: Or, it’s exactly as easy as it is for me, always, because you do everything.
John: This is the Craig special we’re talking today.
John: Last week on the podcast, we were talking about an article on acting by Marcus Geduld, and so we were looking at his article, and we were comparing what would the similar advice be for talking about good writing. And so Marcus listened to that episode and wrote in and said, “Hey, a friend alerted me to the Episode 239 of your podcast in which you discussed my Quora post about acting. I’ve been feeling some qualms about it. But I was very pleased that it sparked such intelligent conversation on your show. You have a new listener and a fan. Forgive me for bringing up stuff you may already know about. It will take me some time to listen to your whole back catalogue, but I wonder if you’ve discussed David Mamet’s memo to his writing staff on The Unit. It was dashed off and contained a lot of typos, but it’s great fodder for discussion.” So he sends a link to this memo that David Mamet wrote in 2005 for the writing staff of this — I think it was a CBS show called, The Unit.
John: And I remember seeing it when it came out, but I don’t think we’ve ever discussed it on the show.
Craig: Yeah. Before we started recording, I asked you to go check it because I thought for sure we would have discussed it because I remember reading it and thinking about it and then talking about it, but I guess it wasn’t on this podcast about things that are interesting to screenwriters. So we should talk about it.
John: We’ll have a link to this in the show notes, so you can just click through and see what we’re talking about, but it’s about a four-page, just memo, like a single sentences about advice and frustrations and guidance to his staff about what he’s looking for in an episode in their writing. And you know, one of the sort of central tenets behind it is like don’t be lazy, like you know, the stuff I’m asking you to do is really hard, but that’s sort of your job to do the really hard work. And what he’s really looking for is not plot, it’s not story, it’s drama. And he’s sort of railing against those scenes that are so common, especially in procedural dramas that are not dramatic at all, they’re just information dumps.
Craig: Yeah. One of the things that I found remarkable about this when I read it was that it needed to be written at all, but I understand particularly when you’re doing a procedural, and there is an enormous amount of plot, because every episode has to be centered around some new bit of narrative, it’s tempting to fall into the trap of letting narrative and plot drive everything else. But what he’s reminding them here is very, very true, and it’s something that I think is a little easier for us to keep an eye on in a movie because it’s just our one story — character drives plot, and character relationships drive plot. Even when it seems like the plot isn’t driven by those things, the plot must ultimately be in relationship to those things. It has to either come out of them or exist to change them. So he’s really refocusing their eyes on that.
John: He’s arguing that every scene needs to be about the conflict and discovery of characters within that moment and the scene itself has to have drama, it has to have a spark to it. And it can’t really be the thing that’s connecting you to the next thing.
John: I’ll read a little bit from it here. “Everyone in creation is screaming at us to make the show clear. We are tasked with it, it seems, cramming a shit load of information into a little bit of time. Our friends, the penguins, which is what he calls the studio execs, think that we, therefore, are employed to communicate information, and so at times, it seems to us. But note, the audience will not tune in to watch information. They wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned in to watch drama.
“Question, what is drama? Drama again is the quest of the hero to overcome things which prevent him from achieving a specific acute goal. So we, the writers, must ask ourselves of every scene these three questions. Who wants what, what happens if they don’t get it, and why now?” Those are three great questions.
Craig: They are, and they are questions that I ask of myself constantly and I try and ask them before I write the scene. I don’t like going into a scene without knowing the answers to those questions. The scene must be first and foremost an immediate answer to why now because if the scene could happen later, it probably should happen later, or earlier, or not at all, right? It needs to feel like it must be now, must be. And then the who wants what, this comes up so often, and it’s articulated in so many different ways, but it is the bedrock question of following characters and believing that their people. What do you want? And it changes at times. At times it doesn’t. And it’s static. But when actors say, well, what’s my motivation? That means what do I want? It’s the only way to perform. I think it’s the only way to write a scene. It’s the only way to write a movie.
I think it might have been frustrating for his staff to read this because I don’t know, I suspect that they might have known a lot of this, and they were like, hey, you know, we have to do 26 of these? And it’s not like writing a play, but if you don’t know the answers to these, you are going to end up with that feeling of treading water.
John: Yeah, I definitely would feel some sympathy being on his writing staff because like, hey, you hired us to write on your show because we are writers who’ve written on other things, like, we should in theory know what we’re doing. I think where I sympathize again with Mamet though is that sense of when you’re actually in the process of trying to make these things, you’ll reach those scenes where it’s like, there’s nothing — the scene just needs to be here so I can get this piece of information out. And he’s saying, I know you feel that way, but that’s not a good enough answer. You have to find a way to make that scene dramatic. Otherwise, it’s just not a scene, and it’s not worth anything.
Circling back to his question of like what do the characters want, we’ve talked a lot about, you know, wants and goals and wishes and dreams and motivation on the show, and there’s a whole scale, there’s a whole like sort of mountain of want that a character experiences. There’s that overarching, that wish, that dream, that someday want, which is informing a character for like one day I hope to get this thing. And a character on a TV show will kind of never get that thing they hope to get. A character in a movie probably should get that thing they’re hoping to get.
And then there’s sort of more immediate goals, like what are the things we’re trying to do in this section, like what is a thing I can see in the distance I’m trying to get to, that mountain that I’m trying to get to. But there’s also a very immediate goal, and this is I think what Mamet is getting frustrated about is that it is literally like in this moment where I’m standing here talking to you, what am I trying to achieve?
John: And sometimes you don’t see those things happen. And it’s those questions — what I’m trying to achieve right now — that’s informing each line of dialogue, it’s informing why the characters are interacting with each other the way they’re interacting. And I think his frustration is, you encounter these scenes where it’s, “Well, Tom, as you know, blah, blah, blah.” And then it’s just an information dump.
Craig: Precisely. The essence of conflict is each character in conflict, and in one of our episodes we went through all different kinds of conflict, but for all of them, each character in the conflict wants something that is different than what the other person wants. There is no conflict, and thus, no drama in a scene where one character is explaining something to another. That’s a meeting. People go to meetings all day long at work, even if they don’t work at places where you think they have meetings, they do. If you work at Burger King, at some point, the manager is going to be like, hey, guys, we just go these new kinds of fries, and here’s the order that they have to go in. That’s a meeting. That’s boring. It’s just boring. And that’s not why people come to see shows.
So your job, he says, is, you know, information is necessary to make the whole thing work, figure out how to encode that into scenes that are dramatic. Otherwise, why are we watching it, you know?
Craig: Like he says, look at your log lines, a log line reading Bob and Sue discuss is not describing a dramatic scene, and he’s right because if they’re just discussing it, there’s no conflict.
John: I think it’s really interesting that he’s going back to the log line because as you’re doing sort of like quick and dirty outlines of like sort of what’s going to happen in the show, you’ll see these things which are basically, these two characters discuss this thing and decide to do this thing. And discuss is never going to be a dramatic scene. And so if all they’re doing is discussing, that scene is not going to meet his standards. If they decide, well, then, what is the nature of the conversation that led to a decision? And so if it’s an argument, then that probably could work. If it is a, you know, Tom convinces Mary to do this thing, that is conflict. You can see what the different character’s goals are. But if it’s just discussing, if it’s just like you know they’re passing the ball back and forth while they’re talking about it, that’s not going to work.
Craig: There are so many ways to bury conflict in there while this information is happening. For instance, one character can be explaining something, let’s say, I think The Unit was a law enforcement show, correct?
John: Yeah, I think so.
Craig: So one character is explaining to another what they found and what he thinks they should do next. And she is listening to this, and then her response is going to be okay, let’s go do it. No conflict, right? But if while they’re talking she needs to be somewhere else, or she wants to be on the phone with someone else, or she sees someone through the window, or she just walked out of something that’s pissed her off, or she has a secret. Anything that makes her want to not be there, suddenly the scene is interesting. He can stop and say, I’m sorry, are you not paying attention to me at all? Of course I am. Now, it’s interesting.
Craig: It’s about people.
John: Yes. So he’s stressing that the scene has to have drama in it. The scene has to be dramatic and again, his words, “It’s not the actor’s job. The actor’s job is to be truthful. It’s not the director’s job. His or her job is to film it straightforwardly, and remind the actors to talk fast. It is your job.” Although Mamet is, you know, weaving in that talking fast, but that’s Mamet, and that’s absolutely true. And I can’t think of any TV shows that are not non-fiction cooking or sort of building thing shows that don’t have that central conflict woven into every scene.
Craig: Absolutely. And frankly it’s why there are certain kinds of shows that I never really got into like Law & Order has been on forever and a lot of people are big Law & Order fans, but I always found my problem with Law & Order was that there were scenes where people that just generally were agreeable coworkers would discuss facts. And I found that like I was in a meeting. I just did not like that so much.
John: I have never liked that show. And that show is sometimes a nice intricate crossword puzzle, but in general, characters would have scowls while they gave each other information, but that wasn’t actually conflict.
John: Every once in a while, Sam Waterston would like throw some papers around and he’d get really upset, and there were moments where there generally was disagreement, but those things were rare.
Craig: Yeah. So then what you really end up with is living or dying on what I call the prurient interest of the plot. Will they be found guilty or not, which is fine, but kind of not enough for me to watch your show.
John: Yeah. He talks about clarity and curiosity. He says, “The job of the dramatist is to make the audience wonder what happens next. It’s not to explain to them what just happened, or suggest to them what happens next. It’s to create that question mark.” And, you know, to the degree that Law & Order succeeds, I think there is a question mark about how are the pieces going to fit together.
John: It’s like they’ve shaken up the box of the big puzzle and now you have to figure out, oh, are they going to be able to put the pieces together in time? The answer is yes, but maybe there’ll be some detours along the way.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a really good outline of how to approach scene work, I think, and a great way to — it’s a nice enumeration of pitfalls.
John: I agree. So why don’t you hit our next question?
Craig: So Robert writes, “When you’re writing for a first step for a studio, do you give the draft to the producer for their notes, that is to say, do a producer pass before you submit to the studio? And if you do, is there a limit to the quantity or scope of adjustments that you will do for the producer, or will you do as much additional work as the producer desires?” And then he clarifies, “As a young writer, you want to do what’s best for the project and be known as a team player, but also don’t want to be taken advantage of, or undermine the guild in any way.”
John: Yes. So Robert is going to be so happy to hear that once you have had a few projects made, this never comes up again. And it’s free and clear to answer your question. So the answer, Robert, is that there’s no great answer for how much leeway you should give to the producer before it goes into the studio, to what degree you should bend to their wishes, to what degree you should be a good team player versus stick to your guns, it’s a really tough thing that you’re going to be wrestling with your entire career.
Craig: Yeah, boy, it’s rough for us when we can’t give you a good answer. And look, for me, I’m actually dealing with this right now. And I’m kind of a hard case about this. Frankly, I don’t have the time to do these passes just for the producer because I have other things I have to do. But in addition, my entire outlook on things is I want everyone to tell me what they think, not just the producer. The producer oftentimes is wonderful and has great insight into the movie they want to make. They will convince you that they have the greatest insight to the movie the studio wants to make. But as you go on in your career, you’ll find out they don’t, any more than anyone does, seemingly. And so sometimes you end up in this trap where you’ve done all these work and then work, and then work, and then work, then you turn it into the studio, and they’re like, what? This isn’t what we wanted.
Craig: So here’s the uncomfortable fact for every screenwriter whether you’re new, it’s particularly brutal when you’re new, or whether you’ve been around forever: there will always be pain and friction here in this relationship. You will find yourself in positions where you are going to make people upset. You will find yourself in positions where you’re making yourself upset. And all I can say is that if you are involved in a producer that you believe is starting to behave in a way that is abusive or counter productive to the project, you’re not going to want to work with them again.
Craig: So you might as well hunker down with your agent and say, “I’m drawing the line here, we’re turning it in here. And that’s it. And if they flip out, they flip out.” But I’ll say this much, if the studio likes it, they’ll be your best friend.
John: Absolutely. So let’s talk about the difference between realistically in daily practice and contractually. Contractually, you owe the script to the studio, you don’t owe it to the producer. And so when you turn it into the studio, you are saying, you’re delivering your script, and they’re going to pay you your money, the other half of the money that they owe you for the script. And so there’s one person listed on your contract, you turn it in to him or her, and they should cut you a check.
John: In practice, what tends to happen is you show it to the producer first, kind of as a courtesy, but also to get their feedback. And sometimes you will do additional work based on their notes, and then you will turn it into the studio, and they will pay you. The pitfalls that happen: sometimes the producers will come to you with a tremendous number of notes or just like really crazy things, like wow, that’s going to take so much time to do.
Sometimes you’ll agree with them, sometimes like, well that’s just a better idea, I’m going to go through and fix that. Oftentimes, you’ll be questioning whether it’s a good choice to be doing those notes, and then you’re kind of stuck so do you say like, “Yeah, I don’t think so,” and you go into the studio? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. You also are always wondering where is that note really coming from. Is that note because they think it’s what’s best for the project or because they’re just playing from fear? If they’re playing from fear, that’s not going to be a helpful situation for you.
The real danger is that they actually have shown it to the studio, and they’re actually sneakily trying to get you to do the studio’s notes as their notes, and that’s just the kind of BS that you encounter and you want to throw somebody through a wall.
Craig: That happens all the time and is literally fraud that they are perpetrating upon you. The thing that bothers me maybe the most about this is that, you said something that I think would be great if both sides saw it this way. But you do this as a courtesy to the producer. But so many producers don’t see it as a courtesy. They see it as something that they’re entitled to.
Craig: And I don’t feel that way. I just had a very difficult discussion with a producer the other day. And I just said, look, I’m turning in the script, and I’m just kind of curious what you’re intending to do forward, how do you want to deal with this because it’s a one-step deal like they always make. And I said, are you the kind of place that does the whole, oh, let’s do another draft now just for the producer, and he’s like, yeah. I said, well, I’m not that guy.
Craig: And it was a difficult conversation. And I will remain not that guy. And here’s the deal, yeah, if there’s something terrific and wonderful and interesting, and it’s a couple of weeks, or a week, yeah, I’ll do it. Sure. If it’s what I consider to be a re-write or a draft, no, I won’t. And they’ll say things like, well, the studio will never go forward with this. Okay, that’s right. You know what, they had a choice of how to structure my contract, this is how they structured it, so you know, I’ll take my chances there.
John: Yes. I ran into this situation on a project and the frustrating thing when I sat down with the producers, and things were going great, I sat down with the producers and their notes were just crazy pants like, wait, that’s a fundamental rethinking of the entire thing. That’s actually not the movie I pitched to the studio. And you’re wondering, just like, yeah, as an experiment, maybe I could try that, like the answer is no. And so I just flatly said no, and I left the meeting. And it really messed up my relationship with those producers, but there was just no way I was going to do it. And so we turned in the draft that I had done, and the studio loved it, so great, but it made it for an awkward situation with those producers because I frankly said, “You are insane. I’m in no way doing that thing.” And I thought they were abusing — in the context of trying to like, oh, let’s just like open up all the doors and like really explore things, they were trying to get me to write a completely different movie. And that was not going to fly.
Craig: No. And see? So Robert, note what John said. It screwed up his relationship with these people. That got broken. But I would hazard to guess, John, that you wouldn’t be running back to those producers with something else.
Craig: So sometimes you got to break things. You can’t be everyone’s friend. If you want to be everyone’s friend, you’re walking around with a mark on your forehead that says, take advantage of me.
Craig: And you are going to have to judge these things unfortunately on an incident by incident basis and you’re going to have to understand that the people who are telling you that it has to go this way or else are saying that to con you. And they are sometimes also incidentally correct. But their primary concern is to con you.
John: Yeah. A mutual friend of ours is very, very hardcore about like, oh, I’m done. Here’s the script, bye. And so if you made a one-step deal with him, he’s done. He’s not going to like fix a comma in the script and he’s incredibly hardcore and I think he’s perceived as being incredibly difficult for that reason. And he’s had a lot of success, but I think he also has a reputation for being really difficult. And it’s the kind of behavior that makes you seem really difficult. I’ve never been that hardcore, and I’ve always been like happy to have the conversation with the producer or even the studio saying like, hey, we have this issue, can we talk about this issue specifically because of this problem because we’re trying to go after this actor, or whatever else, I’m fine and happy to do that.
It’s when they’re asking me to essentially just come back in and do more free work that I do go back to what Craig said, is like, well then maybe you should’ve have made a different deal for me. Or in fact, we have optional steps in the deal that you did make for me, let’s visit those.
Craig: Yeah, let’s do them, exactly. Look, I would never recommend to anybody to be the not one period or comma because I think that’s just dumb, you know. And I think that there is great value in doing what I’ll call tweaks to make everybody feel good and invested and whole as they go into the studio with this. But my whole thing is, look, if you want to do more than those tweaks in advance of the studio seeing it, it means this isn’t working for you. If this isn’t working for you, I’m not your guy. So I got to go because I got other things I want to do with my life and what I don’t want to do it just now chase you. I don’t want to chase you and what you want to do. This should be enough for people to go, well, everybody, studio and producer alike, after a week or two of tweaking, we see enough value here that we want you to continue, or we do not see enough value for you to continue. But I think a lot of writers end up chasing somebody who is just running ahead of them flinging fear glitter into the air and they’re just chasing them down this terrible path designed to assuage anxiety to no end.
John: I thought experiment it just occurred to me. So somebody says like, oh, can you just do a couple of days at work and my instinct is usually sort of yes, but what if I rephrase it as like, oh, we just want to reshoot a couple of days. That would be free, right? Of course that wouldn’t be free. Like to reshoot a couple of days would be tremendously expensive. So it seems really weird that you expect my labor to be free whereas everybody else’s labor would be incredibly expensive.
Craig: Yeah, you know, it’s a funny thing actually for me, I brought this up in the conversation with this producer. When I’m in a development phase, I have to be careful about my time, and careful about being paid for the work I do and protecting what I feel is my earned status as a professional writer, to not just do stuff cause. When we’re making a movie, I don’t ask for anything. And what I find a lot of times is, then they’ll call me and they’ll say, you’ve done quite a bit here, we should pay you something for it. And I’ll say, great.
Craig: But when we’re making a movie, there’s no teamier team player than me because I love it, but I hate development and I certainly hate wasting my time writing screenplays that aren’t being read by the people that decide to make a movie. Ugh. But anyway, Robert, long answer, difficult answer. You’re asking a good question and I’m sorry we don’t have a great answer for you, we just shared our pain with you instead.
John: Right, let’s do a simpler question. Najeeb writes, why does Craig feed the trolls so hard?
Craig: So I assume Najeeb is talking about Twitter and the people that occasionally go after me because I’m not a fan of Ted Cruz. And they seem to be breaking down into three categories, there were two, now there’s three. Category number one, people whose Twitter avatar is a flag with an eagle. Category two, people whose Twitter avatar is a flag with a cross. And the new one is, flag with don’t tread on my snake.
John: Yeah, very, very important.
Craig: Eagle flaggers, snake flaggers, cross flaggers. Why do I feed the trolls so hard? Because it’ s fun for me. I don’t feed them, they’re feeding me. I’m having fun. Now when I don’t like what they say, or if it’s just like a boring thing and most of them are, I’ll just ignore it. Or if it’s really disgusting, I’ll block them, or it’s just like enough already from you, I’ll block them. Like, oh, now you’re having fun, I don’t want you to have any fun.
Craig: So there’s this great line from the Watchmen, Alan Moore wrote for the character Rorschach. He’s been sent to prison, and all the prisoners hate him so much and they’re like, now you’re in here with us, we’re going to kill you. And he says, “No, you don’t get it. I’m not locked up in here with you. You’re locked up in here with me.” [laughs] And that’s me on Twitter. They’re locked in there with me. So that’s why, Najeeb.
John: I do notice sometimes people put those little hashtags at the end of things and they’ll sort of make up their hashtags but like there’s one just yesterday, it was #MazinBaby. And so I was like, oh, I hope other people are using #MazinBaby but they’re not. It was a one-time occurrence of #MazinBaby.
Craig: MazinBaby was pretty good. I like MazinBaby.
Craig: Yeah, nice.
John: Talking about Twitter best practices, I used to block people. I don’t block people anymore. I just mute them. And so if you’re not using block or mute, I would encourage you to explore the wonderful world of mute because mute, they just disappear. You just don’t hear them again. It’s like you just ignore them and they never show up in your feed again. And it’s really useful because they don’t know that you’ve done anything and that’s a lovely —
Craig: That’s a great point. It’s funny. Like without naming names, I’ve used mute many times for people I follow.
Craig: Who I don’t want to upset but who are just boring me. They’re tweeting a lot and it’s all boring.
Craig: So I mute them. It’s the little white lie but then you got to be careful because then they’re like, hey —
John: Why don’t you ever write me back?
Craig: Yeah. Didn’t you see what I wrote?
John: Yeah. I’m thinking of some people you might have on mute. Here’s a question for you. If somebody is muted, and I can look this up. By the time you’re listening to this podcast, I will have already looked it up, but if I have muted you and somebody writes to both you and me, do I still see the tweet or does it go away completely? I’m not even sure.
Craig: Yeah. I think you see anything that’s got an @ to you. The muting is just basically for stuff that isn’t adding you and it’s just them talking.
John: Oh no. Muting does block people. It does keep people from adding you.
Craig: Oh, it does?
John: It does.
Craig: Oh. Oh, well in that case.
John: It’s useful for that too.
Craig: Then I’m going to stick with blocking for certain people. [laughs]
John: John Lambert writes, “A hypothetical, of course, but if your second script is an original one-hour spec, and it’s genius, what would your next three steps be?”
So here’s the numbers here. It’s the second script. It’s a one-hour drama. He wants to know what three steps you should take next.
Craig: No idea. What? [laughs] What kind of?
John: Yeah, Craig’s not a good person for a one-hour specs but — so you’ve written a spec script and by this I believe you are — I think you’re meaning that it is an original, so that’s not just an episode of you know Law & Order 16, or Chicago Social Services. You’ve written a great episode of television, original episode of TV, a pilot. And people like it. So, I would say — you say it’s great. Well, I think you need some objective measurements about whether it’s great. So, I would say enter it into Austin, enter it into Black List, get people to read it and see whether other people think it’s fantastic.
While you are doing that, you need to write more. Because one or I guess this is your second script, you’re going to need a trunkful of things under your belt before you try to make the move out here. You can make the move out here but before you’re seriously in consideration for a job writing television.
Craig: Yeah. That makes sense to me. I get thrown up by the next three steps. I can’t see three steps ahead. That’s like chess.
Craig: I got one step, show it to people and see if you’re right. How about this, get it out of the world of hypothetical, and into the world of actual. And then that should be your next step.
John: So I actually witnessed Craig thinking a few steps ahead though because last night we were playing Pandemic.
John: It was your second session, my first session playing Pandemic, which was a former One Cool Thing. This is the legacy version where the board actually physically changes once you’ve gotten through a gaming session. It was terrific. And you were very smart about sort of, you know, as we discussed sort of planning to keep cities from going rogue and falling and outbreaks from spreading.
Craig: Well, that’s where my mind is really suited to useless strategic things like playing Pandemic and sometimes not at all suited to what would my next three steps be if I had a genius script in my hand. We all have our strengths. That game by the way, a lot of our One Cool Things just aren’t that cool. That game is so good. I had so much fun. So much fun. I can’t wait. So we — the game is laid out in months. So you play it 12 times assuming that you win each time but if you lose, you get to play it a month over again if you lose. So we’ve only played January and February but we won both times. We’re very proud of ourselves.
John: And our funding has been cut to nothing.
Craig: Yeah. I know. We were extremely — can’t wait to play it again. So, next question. John Sweeny writes, “Subject, idea.” John Sweeny, I’m intrigued. “You guys should sponsor a screenplay contest.” John Sweeny, intrigue, lost. “The prize, the winner gets his screenplay purchased WGA minimum and produced.” What? [Laughs]
John: Because Craig, it’s so easy to make a movie. It’s just ridiculously easy, because you and I, any movie we write, it automatically just gets made.
Craig: Well first of all, let’s back up for a second. I don’t really believe in screenplay contests. I’m still waiting for the waves of incredibly successful screenwriters that are pouring out of these contests.
Craig: It’s just — even the Nicholls which is like the big one, there’s been a few people over the years. A few. Most, no.
So screenplay contests, to me, are a little bit of like an accomplishment trap for people that are trying to achieve something in a business where the actual achievement is an on-off switch and it’s almost always off, right?
Craig: And the on-off switch is basically get hired, make movie, movie hopefully appeals to people, right? This is a very hard switch to flip to on, so instead, they’re like, you know, you see then people when they write their, “Well, I’m a semi-finalist in this and I was a quarter-finalist in this” and it’s like, what, there’s an Appalachian screen festival where you got fourth round in that? It’s bananas. The last thing in the world I’d want to do is sponsor a screenplay contest.
The prize, the winner gets his screenplay produced. So ladies, you’re out. WGA minimum for an original screenplay I think is $98,000. So that’s a hundred grand for us to split, no problem, and then produce. We have to make it.
Craig: There’s like, just because we do a podcast, we should probably spend a few million bucks.
John: Well, yes. Probably so. So, Project Green Light was essentially what he’s describing, which is basically it was a competition and they’d read a bunch of screenplays and they pick a screenplay. And they would make it. And so, that was a show. It’s been shown several times on HBO and other places. So you can watch Project Green Light. I don’t think we’re going to ever be Project Green Light.
John: The thing which I think, they’re not — you know — John is really not keeping in mind is how much work it is to read through screenplays in a competition setting. So I have friends who read for Nicholls, and it’s sort of their job for like months of the year. All they’re doing is reading scripts. Same with Sundance Labs, like all they’re doing is reading scripts. And that’s just no fun at all.
Craig: No, it’s no bueno.
John: Circling back to the idea of screenplay competitions because in the previous thing, I said like, “Oh, you should submit to Austin or one of the other things,” I’m saying you should submit to those things because they will get your script noticed, and purchased and produced. I’m saying because they will tell you like, “Oh, you’re a really good writer.” And objectively, other people telling you like, “Oh, you’re a really good writer.” Then that’s a clue that like, “Oh, you know, I should probably go where the really good writers are and just get started in this business.” If they’re not telling you’re a really good writer, maybe you need to work on your craft a bit more.
Craig: Yeah. I think that that’s pretty much the most you can hope for from those things. And even then, you have to take them with a grain of salt. Sometimes, they say things are bad and they’re not bad. It’s just that they were wrong. And sometimes —
Craig: Frankly, more often than not, they’re too easy on you. I mean, I judged — I was a judge, a finalist judge for the Austin Screenwriting Competition one year, a number of years ago. So, it was — I think there were three judges or four of us. And we were judging the five scripts that made it all the way to the finals.
Craig: And I hated all of them. All of them. Hated.
John: So right now someone is doing the research to figure out like which year that was and feeling really bad.
Craig: I hated them and I was shocked. I’m sorry to say if you were in there and you remember me being involved. But I hated them. And I didn’t think that they were of the quality that, if it had been me running it, I would have — no one wins. This is why I shouldn’t run.
John: So one of the things I love most about Sundance Labs is they’re kind of upfront about the fact that like they’re not picking the best scripts they’ve ever read. They’re picking the fast hitting stories that can be great movies that no one else is making. And like that’s such a great mandate. Like they’re trying to get stories and voices on screen that are not usually onscreen.
And so when they’re reading things from that perspective, they can overlook some clumsy writing and things that aren’t as good as they could be because they know they’re going to go through these labs process, they’re going to get these things in their best fighting shape to make a really great movie. That’s such a different thing than having to say like, objectively compare like, “Well this is a really good script or that’s a really good script.”
Craig: Yeah. I just don’t like it. I don’t like it and I would never ever in a million years would I be involved in a Project Green Light thing. And I’m not — it’s not a moral thing. I get it.
Craig: I mean they’re making entertainment. And Matt and Ben are terrific guys, great screenwriters also. And they’re entertainers. And that’s an entertaining show. But for me, I don’t want to entertain people that way. That’s not how I entertain people. I would never do it. Like, the Sundance Labs, you know, it’s a shame because I was supposed to go one year and then I had to cancel because we were shooting.
Craig: But I’d love to go one year. I got to call Michelle and talk to her about that because it sounds like it’s exactly the kind of thing I do like to do.
Craig: Which is sit in a very real way with another human being and help them be the best them.
John: Yeah. Exactly.
Craig: All right.
John: Kevin writes, “As an Englishman, it’s easy to tell when non-English actors fail to summon a realistic British accent. So, do American audiences and filmmakers care as much about an accurate non-American accent? Is it an area that’s advanced or gone backwards during your careers? And how important do you think it is for maintaining the audiences’ focus on a story?”
Craig: That’s a good question. I think we do. I think we care very much when we hear bad accents. I think we know bad accents. Remember that we consume a lot of English language entertainment including entertainment from the UK. And even when it’s not UK entertainment but American entertainment, we employ a lot of English actors.
John: A tremendous amount of English actors.
Craig: We love English actors, right?
Craig: So anytime you meet an English actor, they kind of giggle about the fact that they get this extra boost for being classy and smart just because of their accent but it’s true, right? So we’re very familiar with that.
So, when Kevin Costner attempts to do a British accent in Robin Hood, the world kind of goes bananas because it’s terrible.
Craig: It’s really bad and we absolutely notice it and it gets called out. Similarly, we also notice bad regional American accents.
John: But I will say that most British actors who are doing sort of a down-the-road kind of Middle American accent, they tend to do a pretty good job and like rarely do I hear somebody who is like, “Oh, you’re not concealing your British accent very well.”
It’s a weird thing. I don’t perceive it as being like, “Oh, they didn’t hit like Kansas City accent.” It’s just that I can tell they’re not actually American. I could tell they’re concealing something. We definitely notice when we see people trying to do a very specific regional accent where we actually have the ear for like what that’s supposed to sound like. And when they don’t hit it, it’s really painful.
Craig: Yeah. I think it’s more noticeable to me when American actors are doing a bad British accent because I think British actors are just better trained in doing an American accent because if they want to be in films, they know that there’s this enormous other opportunity for them. There’s an enormous market. I’m with you. It’s very rare that you hear an actor from the UK doing a bad, like a bad American accent, or like come on man, I’m not buying that.
John: It’s fun when you watch on shows where they’ll ask like normal British people to try to fake an American accent. And they tend to go either for like this crazy Californian thing or sort of a John Wayne. They’ll slow down a lot. They’ll try to do things. And it’s the American bias that it’s just sort of always assumed that like, “Oh, if you get rid of your accent, then it’s American.” And of course, it’s just different vowel and letter sounds for everything. And different phrasing and different everything else. But my incorrect perception is that everyone else’s accent is just a hat they’re wearing on top of a normal American accent.
Craig: Yeah, yeah, I think so. I mean, like ultimately Kevin, I guess the answer to your question is, yeah, we all know when somebody’s not doing it right. Everybody knows and nobody likes it.
John: But I think it doesn’t bug us as much as I think it bugs British people when American actors try and fail.
Craig: Well, because they have a pride in their language. It is the English language. It’s not the American language. We don’t. Like if somebody mangles an American accent I don’t think, from another country, I don’t think, oh you — you violated the great, what, it’s not the Queen’s English but Washington’s English? It’s not. So we don’t have that pride in our own. The only — we do have a regional pride, so you have some guy from California trying to do a Boston accent and everybody just goes “Ugh.” Everybody in Massachusetts loses their mind because they have pride in that regionalism.
All right. So we have a question here from Avishai, Avishai from Brooklyn. He writes, “In the screenplay I’m currently writing, there is a news montage. It depicts clips of videos sourced from different TV news reports spanning the course of a month. And beneath that, I want there to be truncated snippets of different reporter VOs that overlap and bleed into each other. For each bit of voice over, how do I label the speaker? Do I write Reporter 1, Reporter 2, Reporter 3? Do I write Reporter, another reporter, yet another reporter?” How about just Reporter each time and specify in the description that it’s always someone new?”
John: So this is the kind of thing which people freak out too much about. Like what is proper screenplay format and that belief that like every person who speaks onscreen has to be individually credited to get their own block of dialogue. How I would do this, and Craig, I’m curious what you would do, I would say, various reporters, and then just have dialogue in there, the little snippets of things. A little slash and then like the next person keeps talking because ultimately you’re going to do this as just like a crazy montage. So breaking this out as individual people talking is not going to be helpful or your friend.
Craig: Sometimes though, you have to, if in between the different reporters talking, new visuals are emerging.
John: Absolutely true.
Craig: So in those cases, I still would do it essentially the way you’re describing and Avishai, you picked on it, it’s your last thing. How about just reporter each time and specify in the description it’s always someone new. That works.
Craig: Reporter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 starts to feel like a spoof almost. It’s goofy.
Craig: You definitely don’t want to get into over describing them like reporter, another reporter, yet another reporter because that sounds like a joke. You don’t want to do black reporter, tall reporter, skinny reporter, small, because then it’s like is that important or do we have to go find a short reporter now? So yeah, I just think various reporters, then just do reporter VO, reporter VO, reporter VO.
John: Sounds good. Blake Wrights, “I just finished a feature script and I wrote post credits scene for it. If it was you, how would you let the reader know that this scene takes place after the credits?”
Craig: Oh, okay. Great. So for me, I’ve done a couple of things like this. What I’ll do is, instead of writing “The end,” I’ll just put in bold and sort of to the left where, you know, scene header would go, I’ll say, “Roll credits,” and then I’ll just do like a return, return, return and then I’ll say, “Then:,” and then do a little scene.
John: Yeah. I’ve done similar things. Usually, I’ll do a page break and make it on a new page and then I’ll say like, “Post credits,” and maybe underline that and then there’s that scene that’s post credits. And a lot of my things recently have had post credit sequences and it’s great. That’s what you have to do. So I have sometimes used “The end” or I’ve done “Roll credits” or I’ll say, “After credits” when the next thing happens.
John: It’s fine.
Craig: Yeah. Whatever essentially is clear, there’s no — this is another one of those things where just go for what’s clear and what feels — you can use whatever language feels appropriate for your tone and all the rest of it.
Craig: All right. We’ve got here, we’ll do one more.
Craig: Two more. We have two.
John: They’re short.
Craig: They’re short. Okay. Mohammed from Iran. So this is great. I love that we have listeners in Iran. Mohammed from Iran writes, “Big fan. Really helpful site. Really funny podcast.” Hey, Mohammed, guess what, you’re right and thank you.
Craig: “But you know what would be a cool idea, if you guys did the book version of the show. The material is there, you just need to come up with a logical order to classify stuff into, maybe sexy Craig — ” Oh, yeah, Mohammed, yeah, “can do a bit of illustrating for it. I’d pay for that. Just kidding.” Wait.
“But please don’t forget the chapter about female reproductive health. That’s what 99% of your fan base wants.”
Mohammed from Iran basically is the coolest dude ever.
John: He really is.
Craig: Thank you, Mohammed. We will get to work on that right away.
John: So I thought about doing the book. So our podcast unlike most podcasts, we have transcripts for every single episode. This is episode 240, later on this week, we’ll have the transcript for this episode that you’re listening to. So we go back and do all of those transcripts partly so I can search for things, like did we ever talk about David Mamet before? But also because have people who are deaf who can’t listen to the show, and so they love to read the transcripts. My friend Steve Healy only reads the transcripts. So that’s great.
So we have all this material and we have thought about, or in the office we’ve talked about like, “Do we do this as a book somehow?” The idea of a book gives me a bit of a shudder just because I hate how-to screenwriting books.
Craig: I know.
John: But if it was just a book that was like, you know, John and Craig talk about screenwriting, I guess I’d be all right with it. I mean, how do you feel about it, Craig, because I really don’t have strong opinions.
Craig: I don’t know. I mean, the transcripts are on the internet, it’s like they’re there. I know the book sort of curates it all for people which is nice.
Craig: I mean, but like —
John: You can read the book in the bathroom or —
Craig: Right. Exactly. My problem is the same as yours. I’m so angry about these books and what they do. So I feel like, if we’re going to do a book, it has to be proper and well thought out and done in a way that’s not just throw in the transcripts but that we actually say, “At last, here’s a book that you can buy and don’t — not — you don’t have to buy any other book. Don’t buy any other book ever.” Literally, every store should only have this book. It is definitive. Everything else is crap. Only this book.
John: Well, I think that’s — if the book is about how to be a screenwriter, but I think this is probably — our podcast really isn’t about how to be a screenwriter. It’s basically sort of like, “What is it like being a screenwriter?” And so, that’s the kind of thing which —
John: There are multiple versions of it. That’s something that might be better — you know, could be taken from the transcripts in a more meaningful way. Like it’s our conversations, maybe sort of, you know, annotated and highly edited because lord know we ramble a lot.
So as I thought about doing it, it’s just the matter of who’s going to do that. And so, it’s not going to be Stuart. Stuart is already way too busy. So that’s probably another new person and just becomes this other big project — and let’s be realistic — in my life, to have to be on top of it.
Craig: Definitely not in mine. Yeah, plus you’d have to learn a new person’s name which is really —
John: It’s the worst.
Craig: Hard to do.
John: Something about this last year, I’m having the hardest time remembering new people’s names. It’s just — like the buffer is completely filled. And so, I have a new agent I’m working with on one project and for the life of me, I keep forgetting her name and it’s been so awkward because they’ll be phone conversations where I need to talk about her and I’m like, “Yes. Yes, I was talking with her about — ” Oh, it’s so embarrassing.
Craig: You really need to learn that name.
Craig: I like that you’re saying it’s just this random thing and not say the fact that you’re getting old.
John: Oh, no. It couldn’t be that at all.
John: I think it’s just some bad circuit kind of thing. So once I get the memory upgrade, I’ll be set.
Craig: We’ll take care of that. Don’t you worry.
John: Maxwell writes, “Who do you think would win in an all-out brawl to the death, John or Craig?”
Craig: Huh? Normally, I’m not one to toot my own horn, but I feel like I could kill you.
John: I think Craig probably could. Craig has weight on me. He’s also just —
John: He’s determined. He’s angry. He’s determined.
John: And I think I would have — here’s what it is: I would have that moment of qualm. I was like, “Am I really going to kill him?” And Craig wouldn’t have that moment. He wouldn’t have that pause.
Craig: No, it’s the pause is the problem.
John: As he’s chocking me out, he would finish it.
Craig: No, no. For sure like they would have to — they’d have to do that thing where we’re like, “He’s dead, man, he’s dead. Stop. He’s already dead.” [Laughs]
John: They’re pulling you off —
John: And you’re going back to hit him some more.
Craig: Exactly. “No, no. I don’t believe it.” I won’t stop ever until he’s dead.
Craig: So I’m going to go with Craig.
John: Yeah. We got 100% agreement on this podcast.
John: All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a blog post by Brent Underwood and he has a post called, “What does it take to become a bestselling author?” And he’s a guy who does book consulting and he was very frustrated that on Amazon it is so easy to become the number one bestselling author in any given category because they update their lists continuously.
So unlike The New York Times which has like this methodology how they are like polling all these bookstores across the country and figuring out like what the bestsellers are, Amazon is just looking at their own numbers, like, “Oh, we sold three copies of this book in this one-hour period. It’s the bestseller in this tiny little subcategory.”
And so, this guy’s frustration is that people will, you know, legitimately to some degree claim like, “Oh, I wrote a bestselling book on Amazon.”
Craig: Oh, my god. [laughs]
John: And it’s because you picked this incredibly narrow category that you sold three copies. And so he does this little exercise where he actually does become the bestselling book about free masonry on Amazon.
So an amusing post that I think our readers will enjoy. And it’s also interesting because as screenwriters we’re never really concerned about rankings in a meaningful way. Like when our movies come out, we want our movies to be number one at the Box Office, but there’s no sort of power rankings. But for print authors, getting on that list is incredibly important and this guy is saying those lists are much more suspect than you’d believe.
Craig: There’s an internet meme, one of my favorites, I don’t know if you’re ever seen Identifying Wood.
Craig: So it’s a real book and the book is called Identifying Wood and it’s a picture of a man curiously in like a business shirt with a tie and he’s staring at a block of wood through like a jewelers loop.
Craig: And then, what they’ve added to the bottom is, “Yup, its wood.” [laughs] And I just — like I’m sure that is the bestselling book in the category of wood identification —
Craig: Publications. It’s Identifying Wood. Unbelievable. Well, my One Cool Thing is a sad thing but he was so, so cool. I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about Father Ted on the show, I might have. It’s a great Irish sitcom from the ’90s and it ended so — just ended too soon because the star who played Father Ted died very young. It was a brilliant, brilliant show. It was about this kind of morally challenged priest who was always involved in self-aggrandizing schemes, a little bit like Basil Fawlty kind of. Working in this god forsaken parish on some miserable island called Craggy Island off the coast of Ireland.
So it was like he’d be sent to, you know, the ends of the earth and he shared his home with two other priests. One was named Father Dougal who was a complete idiot and the other one was Father Jack. And Father Jack was played by an actor named Frank Kelly who unfortunately passed away this week or this past week. And Father Jack appeared to be a 70-year-old incredibly alcoholic sexually obsessed degenerate who only said four words, one of which was arse, and he’s disgusting, truly just like you take the bad stereotype of the lecherous priest and just put it on roids and it was — that was Father Jack.
Frank Kelly, by all accounts, an incredibly gentle, beautiful nice man and a wonderful actor, played this loathsome character and he was so good at it. So my One Cool Thing this week is Father Jack from Father Ted and we’ll throw a link in the show notes. You can watch episodes of Father Ted on Hulu.com.
John: Fantastic. So while you were talking, I was Googling and because we have transcripts, I was able to pull up that in episode 14 that was your One Cool Thing, was Father Ted.
Craig: Oh, fantastic. There you go.
John: And so you talked about it there. So if you would like to listen to the Father Ted episode, it is available on the Scriptnotes app, you can download that in either of the App stores.
Craig: Segue Man.
John: Segue Man. The premium episodes and all those back episodes are available through Scriptnotes.net as well. So that’s where you get an account. It is $2 a month for all of those back episodes. We also have a few of the 200-episode USB drives that have all of the back episodes, or at least the first 200 back episodes. If you would like a copy that could survive post-apocalypse probably, you could get one of those USB drives.
Craig: It has to survive the post-apocalypse as well?
John: Yeah, absolutely. So it’s one thing to survive the initial blast, but once the reavers come through and sort of —
Craig: So it’s really designed not for the blast at all [laughs] —
John: Oh, no, no.
Craig: But for the reavers.
John: Yeah, because honestly the initial blast could probably melt the thing. So —
John: You want to put it in like a fireproof safe. You want to go to 10 Cloverfield Lane and like — and slide it underneath the bed there and then you’re fine.
Craig: See that poster by the way, great poster.
John: Great poster. Very exciting.
John: So the director of that film is I think a listener of our show and I had coffee with him about a year ago when he was going off to direct some movie and it turned out that was 10 Cloverfield Lane.
Craig: How about that? Excellent.
John: Very nice. If you would like to harass Craig on Twitter, he is @clmazin. I’m at @johnaugust. I won’t mute you unless you say something terrible to me.
Craig: You won’t know.
John: We are on iTunes. So please go subscribe to the show in iTunes. It’s great if you want to listen to it at johnaugust.com where we host all this stuff, but it’s even better if you subscribe because that way people know that you are subscribing. Give us a nice little review there. That’s always lovely. We have a Facebook page, too, which we occasionally check. So like us on Facebook and tell your friends that we are a show that you listen to.
Our show, as always, is produced by Stuart Friedel. Our outro this week is by Adam Lastname who’s done several of our best outros. If you have an outro for us, you can write into firstname.lastname@example.org with a link to it. That’s also a place where you can send questions like the ones we answered today. And that’s our show.
Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: I have one last question.
Craig: Who edits this show?
John: I forgot to mention Matthew Chilelli. Our show is produced by Stuart Friedel, as always, and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
Craig: Yeah. Okay. Now, I feel good.
John: That’s very good. Thanks, Craig.
Craig: Thank you.
- David Mamet’s memo to writers of The Unit
- Craig’s Twitter feed
- Muting users on Twitter
- Brent Underwood looks at what it takes to become a “best-selling author”
- Identifying Wood
- Father Ted on Hulu and Wikipedia, and Frank Kelly
- Scriptnotes, Episode 14 and other back episodes are available at scriptnotes.net and on the 200 episode USB flash drive
- The poster for 10 Cloverfield Lane
- Outro by Adam Lastname (send us yours!)