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 Sexy Craig.
John: And this is Episode 248 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show we’ll be talking about how you pitch on an open writing assignment, plus we’ll try to tackle the question of whitewashing Asian roles in feature films.
Craig: Mm, yeah, that does sound kind of sexy.
John: Oh no.
John: Sexy Craig can’t be here for the whole episode.
Craig: No, Sexy Craig doesn’t last that long.
John: No. Let’s do some follow-up. So, last week’s episode was the Lawrence Kasdan show which was great. Thank you everyone who wrote those nice tweets about how much they enjoyed the show. We really enjoyed recording it. Thank you to the Writers Guild Foundation and The Academy for having us host that little Q&A session.
Craig: It was great. And Larry was in fine form.
John: He was. I would say if I had anything I would improve about that episode is Lawrence Kasdan is an incredibly talented screenwriter. He is not a good holder of microphones. And so even as we were recording the show, I wanted to grab the microphone — I wanted to have Stuart just come up and hold the microphone in front of him so he wouldn’t wrestle it around so much. If there’s you noise you hear on the track, that’s entirely Lawrence Kasdan.
Craig: Yeah, but it adds to his charm.
John: It does absolutely add to his charm. Also I thought we did a good job visually. If like this was a TV interview, we finally figured out like, oh you know what, we shouldn’t straddle the guest. We should actually both be on the same side looking at them. Because so often as we do live shows, the guest will be in the middle and we’ll get sort of like ping-ponged back and forth between us. And this time, we did the Kelly and Michael way of sitting together and talking to our guest.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t mind straddling my guest.
John: Oh no. I walked right into that.
Craig: I don’t know why you did that.
John: It’s going to become the “that’s what she said” of the podcast.
Craig: [laughs] Sexy Craig is always there. You know, the thing about Sexy Craig is he doesn’t show up a lot, but when he shows up, he really is irrepressible.
John: Yes, that’s true.
Craig: And you have no idea what to do with him. You are at a loss.
John: I am at a loss. I’m flummoxed when Sexy Craig shows up.
John: Last week was also special because it was a two episode week. We put out that little special Gold episode, the Gold Standard episode, which was really fun and random.
Craig: It was fun. Yeah.
John: So the reason we did that was because we changed something with the feed. Basically we changed the URL for the feed and things had to redirect. And it seemed to work. No one has written in with complaints saying that they lost the episodes, so hooray.
I don’t know that we’ll do more little special things, but it was kind of fun talking about like non-screenwriting things, and doing something short. So if people have suggestions of things you would like me and Craig to talk about, maybe we would do one again.
Craig: Yeah, it was fun. It’s fun also because I feel like you and I are both eternal students. So we like learning new things, so that’s fun. I’m really glad that the redirect worked because, you know, we had a big episode coming up. I didn’t want anyone to miss the Larry episode, so that’s great.
John: That was our real worry. Also, this last week I talked to Justin Marks, the screenwriter behind Jungle Book. I did a Q&A at the Writers Guild screening for the film. And so we did a half-hour conversation. It was really fantastic. So, Craig, I don’t think you’ve listened to that episode yet, but it’s just a half an hour that we put up in the premium feed. And I had sort of known this when I was talking to Justin while the whole process was going on, but they ended up writing it and sort of making it much more like an animated film.
So, he talks through about how — basically he was sequestered in an office at Disney for a very long time, and he would have to write and pitch, and write and pitch, and put up big art boards on the wall, and pitch Sean Bailey and Alan Horn through the whole movie for a long time before they actually said, “Okay, write a script,” or they got a director on board. And that whole process ended up being very much an animation process.
So, even though the movie is kind of live action, it’s very much how you would make an animated movie, rather than how you’d make a live action movie. It was a great conversation.
Craig: That is fascinating. And very interesting to me, just the creation of it, because I have a movie — the script that I’ve written for Lindsay Doran, and it’s a bit like Babe, you know, murder mystery involving sheep. And one of the questions was can you make animals now properly perform, you know, CGI animals. And whereas in Babe they used real animals and just did the old mouth movement thing which was fine, but people sort of are expecting a little bit more than that now. And it also limits your performance from the characters themselves, the animals. If they’re just real, it’s not like they can raise an eyebrow or anything, you know.
And this, I think, Jungle Book was the first movie — I think it’s historic — I think it’s the first movie where you now have what appear to be photorealistic animals that are acting. And apparently Weta handled the apes, but MPC is the company that did most of the work on the other animals. And remarkable stuff. Really amazing.
John: Yeah. So in our conversation, Justin talks about how it wasn’t until they really got their first test footage back from the animals that they knew what degree the animals could act. And before that point they were still debating how much of the emotion are we going to have to play on the boy’s face versus playing on the animal’s face. And once they got these tests back they’re like, oh, we can actually see reactions in the animal’s faces in ways that were just not possible before this.
Craig: Pretty amazing stuff.
Craig: Yeah. It is real progress.
John: So I’ll also put a link in the show notes to this YouTube video that has Jon Favreau, the director, talking about the process of how they shot — basically in this big warehouse downtown they shot everything with motion capture. And they went back months later and shot the boy again, sort of in full costume, and sort of inserted him into scenes. So that whole process was really strange and groundbreaking, but just terrific.
So I’ll put a link in the show notes to that video as well.
John: Well, let’s transition to our big topic today, which is how you pitch on an open writing assignment. This is something that came up this week for me because you and I have both gone in, we’ve had these meetings where they’re looking to hire someone to adapt a certain property. And in general, an open writing assignment, just so we have sort of terms defined, an open writing assignment is something that a studio or producer, but generally a studio, is looking to hire a writer to do. So, this could be an adaptation of a book. It could be an adaptation of an existing piece of property like a TV series or a remake of a film. Or it could be a rewrite. It could be a script that they’ve already purchased and they’ve done work on, and they’re looking for someone else to come in and do more work.
We define open writing assignment differently than you going in to pitch an original idea, which is a completely different beast. So, an open writing assignment basically means there is a job out there, and we are going to hire someone to do this movie, to write this movie for us. And sometimes you’re meeting with multiple writers and figuring out which writer is the correct writer to hire.
John: Usually, Craig and I are the people go in and pitch on those jobs, but this last week I got to be in the room for a couple people pitching movies to me. So, I’m a producer on this film and I got to hear the pitches of these different people coming in to pitch on the same property. And that was actually fascinating, because I got to see what it looks like from the other side of the table. And they were all great.
And so I really liked sort of all the people who came in, but they were just so different. And I thought this would be great to have a conversation about what kinds of things you need to be sure you’re doing if you’re going in to pitch on an open writing assignment.
Craig: What a great topic. OWAs as they’re called, they land at the agencies, right. So a studio — let’s take a step back and talk about the birth of an open writing assignment. Sometimes it begins because a studio executive has a general idea or a piece of property. And it is agreed at the studio that somebody should write a screenplay, but if they can come up with an impressive take. But they don’t necessarily want to go to some big shot writer.
So, that becomes an open writing assignment. It is sent to all the agencies. At each agency, there are agents that cover a studio. So they have their own clients, of course, but they’re also responsible for fielding those general incoming calls from the studio. Sometimes an open writing assignment occurs when a writer has been let go because the project isn’t working, and they want to restart or come up with a new thing. And so the open writing assignment call goes out.
John: Indeed. And so also to differentiate, a lot of times the stuff that Craig and I are seeing, they are coming specifically to us, maybe exclusively to us, and that’s because we’ve made a lot of movies. Typically earlier in your career, you get out sent out for these open writing assignment to try to land these jobs. And so the writers I was meeting with are people who’ve actually gotten movies made, but they’re not sort of big, giant established writers yet. And so that’s why they’re going into these meetings.
Craig: Yeah. And that’s important to know, too, when you go out for open writing assignments, because I don’t really do that, John doesn’t do that. So, on the one hand, here’s good news, your competition is not A-list screenwriters, because they’re generally not coming in for OWAs. But also then you need to know that the net will be cast fairly widely and so you may not have star competition, but you’re going to have a great quantity of competition.
John: Absolutely. So, let’s talk about what things you need to do before that meeting ever happens. And so this is what I want to define as understanding the property, or like what is it that they’re trying to actually make. So, the questions you need to ask is why would the studio want to make this movie. What is it that they see in this property that they feel is a movie? What do you think they see as the movie they could actually release in theaters? Because if you don’t understand what they’re looking for, you’re very unlikely to be able to deliver it to them.
Ask yourself what are the required elements. And so, if you’re coming in to pitch on Ghostbusters, or some sort of adaptation of Ghostbusters, or an expansion of Ghostbusters, well Ghostbusters are going to have to some Ghostbusters in them. They’re going to have to have ghosts. They’re going to have to have certain minimum requirements for what is a Ghostbusters.
Same thing with Charlie’s Angles. It has to somehow involve the talent agency. It’s going to have to involve Charlie’s Angels, and probably three angels. What would you have to have in there in order for it to be Charlie’s Angels?
Or, if you pitching on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, there’s going to have to be a Mr. Toad and there’s going to have to be a ride quality. And if you have a great idea for a movie, and you think like, oh, I could maybe bend this to become Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, make sure you really are pitching something that fits the title or fits the name of — fits the idea behind what the property is.
Craig: All good advice. And it goes again to how the open writing assignment was created. Somebody in the studio needs you, the pitcher, to come and give them this wonderful ammunition that they can then walk down the hall and say I think we found the person who has cracked this.
In order to do that, you need to be cognizant of what it is that they want, because that’s the filter through which cracking it is going to be viewed. So, in addition to the notion of what is it that they need, the other thing that I would think about a lot when I went out for these things is what is my unique perspective on this.
Because if I don’t have one, I’m not going to get the job. Everybody can come in and give the generic version, right? So, better that I come in with a point of view. That point of view, if it’s incompatible with what they want, I’m not getting the job. But if I don’t have one, I’m also not getting the job.
John: I think it’s always worth asking what is sort of the minimum viable product version of this idea, or what is the bad version of this idea? And just think through what that is, because that’s what everybody else is going to probably be pitching. If you’re going to pitch the down the road middle version of that idea, and if that’s as far as you get, and that’s all you have for an idea of what to do with this property, you should probably just back out. Because it’s unlikely to get you through to the next level, and you’re going to burn a lot of time pitching this sort of like “eh” version of the movie.
You should only go after it if you have an exciting, interesting take. Something that you are excited to have the opportunity to write. And so the pros and cons. Going after one of these jobs — it gets you in the room. It gets you talking with these people. It gets them thinking about you as a person they could hire. Even if they don’t hire you for this job, they might hire you for something else. They might think you’re really interesting.
But if you’re pitching them something that is just sort of blandly generically a version of that idea, they’re unlikely to be so excited about you for the next thing.
Craig: You know, this is where I think — this podcast actually transcends screenwriting, and now we can just talk about life and life strategies. I don’t care what it is that you do in the world. If you do not manage to make yourself distinctive, you will be ignored. And the key to making yourself be distinctive is to actually have a point of view. To have a perspective. To have something about which you’re passionate in your field and whatever you’re going for.
That is what gets noticed. What they’re looking for — they’ll tell you what they’re looking for, but they don’t know what they’re looking for. What they’re looking for is a sense of excitement, comfort, this person has got it, they’re going to get it, they’re going to deliver something interesting or special. Understand every time you stick your neck out with your point of view, there’s a chance it will get lopped off because someone will say, “Why would I ever do that specific thing?”
But, there is no success without being specific. I do believe that. So, you roll the dice on these open writing assignments. You go in there thinking, well, if they don’t like my specific angle on this, I don’t get the job. But there’s no point in playing it safe on these things. None.
Precisely for the reason you just mentioned. Maybe you don’t get this job because they don’t like your specific take here, but they just might like you and the fact that you have specific takes.
John: Yeah. This is essentially a job interview. So whether you’re a feature writer going in for an open writing assignment, or you are a television writer going out for staffing, you need to be able to approach that meeting with an understanding of what they’re expecting — so it’s sort of what that minimum threshold is — and you probably already crossed that minimum threshold because you’re in that room in the first place.
So, then, look for what is unique about your take and you as a writer, something like, you know what, this is the person I should take the chance on writing this script. Because unlike sort of hiring somebody to work at Starbucks, they’re only going to hire one person. Or they’re only going to hire one person at a time, unless we’re doing some sort of crazy writer’s room. So, they want to know can I trust this person to deliver. And so they’re going to trust the person who seems prepared, who seems to have an interesting idea for how to do this thing. Who seems like a good person to work with.
Those are the qualities you’re trying to convey while you’re in this meeting while still pitching a three-act movie to them that hopefully makes sense and is engaging. So there’s a lot you’re trying to do simultaneously here.
Craig: Mm-hmm. When I talk to studio executives or producers about certain projects, sometimes I’ll just say, “Oh, what are you guys doing?” And they’ll say, “Well, we’re doing this thing, and we have a writer who came in and just really impressed us.” And when they describe what impressed them, almost always what they talk about is that person’s love for it. And their passion for it. And their enthusiasm for it. That’s what they respond to.
And you may say, “Well, if you’re going to make a movie about the Rubik’s Cube, you know, who really loves the Rubik’s Cube that much?” Well, if you don’t love it that much, don’t do the movie. Just don’t. Because, look, they’re the ones who are supposed to be cynical and money-grubbing, right? So, okay, I’ll give you an example. I’m not going to say what the title is, but there’s a children’s book that we all know that we’ve read to our very small children. Everyone.
And a studio decided — they owned it and they wanted to make it. And they wanted to make it very much because they did calculations. That’s why. They didn’t care that much about the character and the book, or the book itself, but they did their calculations, they ran their numbers, and they saw that it could be very profitable. And so one of the people they talked to about it was me. And I just have no passion whatsoever for that.
Craig: They’re okay with that. They respect that. They move on. You can’t be matching their cynicism. That’s their job. And they are not looking for somebody to be like them. They’re looking for somebody to be actually emotionally invested.
John: Exactly. There was a big project years ago that it was between me and one other writer for it. And it was a big high profile thing. And we both pitched our hearts out on it and he ended up getting it. And the word I got back was that like, oh well see, ultimately they felt like he was a super fan. He was a super fan of that property. And ultimately they just felt like, you know, they kind of liked some things in your pitch better, but they thought this is the guy who will kill himself for this, and they went with him.
And I get that. I understand that. There’s definitely been things where like my being a super fan made me the right person to do that job. Charlie’s Angels was a great example. I knew every little bit of Charlie’s Angels. And I knew what that movie wanted to feel like. And I was enthusiastic about it in a way that no other writer was going to be.
Craig: See, that’s exactly it. The whole, I don’t know, art of matching writers to projects so often comes down to that. You know, Max Landis, just sold a big — he sold like four big screenplays or something in a week.
John: Yeah, we had that conversation about like, oh, is the script market dead. And then Max Landis sells four things.
Craig: I think the spec market is dead unless you’re Max Landis. But, it’s so evident to me when I look at him — every now and then I’ll see a video or something of him. And it’s so evident to me that the reason that he’s successful, and forget, you know, I think whatever his success is on the other side of it has to do with an ability to write well. But on the front side of it, which is convincing people to buy something, or to hire him for something, his passion for whatever he’s talking about is just so evident.
Craig: And so of course they hired you to write Charlie’s Angels because you loved it. And it wasn’t like a fake love. It’s like when Dan and Dave who do Game of Thrones, when they met with George Martin to basically say, “Hey, would you let us — would you give the rights over and let us do this?” They said he had one question for them and it was, “Who do you think Jon Snow’s mother is?”
Craig: And they answered and they answered well, apparently. You know, he needed to know like do you love this because the worst thing you can do I think — if I were an executive, the thing that I would be the most terrified of is hiring somebody who just was looking for a check. You know?
Craig: You do that later when, okay, we have a movie. We need somebody to come in and kill for us on the third act, or this character, or production work. That’s, sure. But that’s far along, right? The basis of it needs to be somebody who loves it.
John: Yeah. And you and I have both done that work where we come in and we do that sort of craftsman work of fixing small problems, but I’ve definitely been that craftsman in movies that I never should have or would have been the first writer on because I don’t have the passion for it. I don’t have the — I’m not going to kill myself every morning waking up to try to write another draft of that movie.
Craig: Exactly. Exactly right.
And maybe that’s hard for non-writers to understand. Because the thing is it’s not like you and I don’t care about those jobs and doing the best we can when we do those jobs. That’s why we take them. But, there is — and it sort of ties back to the Huntsman. There’s an emotional difference, right? When you’re saying, “No, no, no, don’t let anyone do this. I have to do this.” Right? “I love this, I need this.” That’s a different deal.
And so that’s what they’re looking for on these things.
John: So let’s talk about when you actually get in the room and sort of how you are starting your pitch and sort of what the most crucial elements of that pitch process are.
I think you have to start — again, this is me watching on the other side of the table — you have to talk about what you’re going for quite early on. So like what the movie feels like for you. And this is where it’s okay to use references. I try to avoid the “it’s this meets that,” but it’s great to say, you know, “What I loved about this movie was the way they did XYZ.” Or talk about — we had the conversation with Lorene about movie touchstones, like the things you always bring up in the room.
So like The Burbs if you’re Lorene Scafaria. It’s absolutely fine to do that as sort of the early getting people comfortable with what you’re about to say, because as long as what you’re saying is going to match your pitch, it just gets them sort of seated in a comfy chair so they can actually hear what you’re about to say.
I think talking about in a general sense of like what the tone and the goal of your pitch is at the very start is really crucial, because in some of the pitches that have not gone so well I didn’t quite know what kind of movie I was signing up for. And in the case of this property, there’s a lot of different ways you could go, and if I didn’t know which way they were going like two minutes into it, I was nervous. And worried for them.
Craig: Yeah. No question. The way you’re talking about starting here, the big picture, also helps them key into where your passion is. Because generally speaking, your passion isn’t going to be in story structure. Your passion is going to be in the theme and the characters and the feeling of the movie. And these things are the big things that they will then convey.
You’re probably not going to sit in a room with the head of the studio and spit out your scene by scene structure. They’re going to call it a few moments that made sense and they’re going to tie them back into this part here, the big picture of why you want to write this.
John: Absolutely. And so to me every pitch that I’ve heard that’s worked, they started with a clear sense of who the characters are, and sort of who we’re going to be following. And so that’s obviously you’re protagonist. This is the person who most of the movie is going to be on their shoulders. But also the surrounding world, just so they’re specific.
And you don’t have to sort of necessarily cite actors, but you should describe them in a way that I can picture somebody playing that part. It’s worth spending a little time on who those people are and sort of what they’re like. And give us a moment very early on in the pitch that shows their personality and shows their unique thing, so that essentially if the plot of the movie never started, I would still find that character interesting. I would still want to be in a story with that character.
And so often pitches will start with just like plot, plot, plot, plot, plot, and I don’t know who I’m supposed to be following. I don’t know where my entry place is to this individual story.
Craig: Yeah. You can certainly start with a kind of cold open “wah” right, but once you get the “blah” out of the way, stop, and give me the characters. And then, as you’re going through and you’re talking about how you would approach this open writing assignment, focus all of the plot and all of the set pieces and the things you want to do through the lens of character. All of it.
People relate to character. The story parts, they’ll want. Believe me, they’ll be happy to say, “Oh good, you have a set piece. Oh good, you have this. Oh good, you have that.” But focus it through the character. It will make them appreciate it so much more.
John: Yeah. And as you’re crafting your pitch and you’re trying to make sure that all these points are focused through your character, you’ll start to recognize like, oh, is that really a character, or is that just a trope I’m putting in there. And so if you feel like it’s sort of a stock character who is, god forbid it’s your hero who feels like that stock character, but if it’s really that secondary person who you’ve just sort of shorthanded and you sort of used a trope for them, it’s going to feel really obvious as you’re working through your pitch. Like, oh, I don’t really have anything for that. I’m just sort of like pasting another character from some other movie into that spot.
You have to really make sure that it feels specific to the story you’re about to pitch. And that the choices that the characters are making match the overall description, overall sense of tone and what the movie feels like from the start. The worst thing that can happen in a pitch is where a bunch of stuff just happens to your protagonist, and you feel like they are just witnessing the movie happening in front of you.
Craig: And that would be an indication that the person pitching has not really thought this through. And behind that even, I hate to say it, but maybe doesn’t have the passion that they’re advertising they have. Because I’m not sure how to love the idea of writing something if I don’t know the beginning and the end.
And I don’t know the beginning and the end in any other way other than through the lens of character. So, I need to understand these things. And therefore I will never end up pitching something episodic because my passion won’t let me. My passion is telling me do this instead. These are the reasons why these characters must be doing this.
John: Yeah. And if you do find yourself pitching television, when you pitch television, you pitch a pilot, you really are pitching the characters. You’re pitching the characters and their situation. You end up pitching the episode, like sort of what happens in the pilot, but it’s mostly what you’re pitching is these are the characters, this is the world.
In the case of a feature, here you’re pitching this is the situation these great characters find them in which happens to be the perfect way to explore this property or this idea that you’re bringing me in for.
So, I think it’s also really crucial that whatever the property fundamentally is, get to that quickly. Don’t wait 15 minutes to get to the thing that is the thing. So, if you’re pitching an adaptation of that great game Star Raiders for the Atari 800, you have to attack the base pretty soon in the story, or else it’s not Star Raiders. It’s not the thing we went into.
If you’re pitching the Towering Inferno and you spend the first third of your pitch out in the desert, well, that’s not the towering inferno. That’s not — we’re basically going to be kind of discounting everything you said because that’s not the thing that you are supposed to be pitching.
Craig: Well, also, you’ll start boring people. You can’t be boring, right? So, obviously the primary component of boredom is a poorly thought out story that is episodic and the characters feel like they’re watching the story and it’s a lot of “and then, and then, and then, and then.”
The other component of being boring is you talking too much. It’s too long, right? I’m kind of curious, what were the lengths of pitches that you saw?
John: These pitches were all about 20 minutes, I would say. And some of them were writing teams and they would just sort of hand off the talking points in — actually all of the pitches I heard, they were fully written beforehand. And so they were referring back to a document and sort of going through stuff. And they were rehearsed. These pitches didn’t invite a lot of “let’s come in and stop you for a question.”
Actually, when I pitch things, I love to be able to — I plan for places where it’s very natural for them to ask a question. I can sort of anticipate what the question is going to be, so they feel engaged, so they’re actually asking questions about what’s going to happen next that the characters would want to ask. These were much more off of paper, but they were pretty good versions of off the paper.
How about you? When you’re pitching something, what’s your structure?
Craig: Very much like yours. I never go off of paper, in part because I never want to seem like I’m pitching. My goal when I’m pitching something is you didn’t know that you just got pitched something. We just had a conversation. And through the conversation, I demonstrated the possibility of a movie.
And the reason for that is, well, a bunch of reasons. One, if you’ve rehearsed something, it feels a little sweaty, even if the context is “come and pitch me something,” it feels a little sweaty to me. And, two, because it should be a conversation. I don’t like sitting and listening to somebody describe a movie to me. I like walking through it with somebody and having us connect on why we both want to do this, right? I’m trying to figure out also why they want to do it. And I’m trying to show them where my passion is.
The last thing I want to do is walk through a whole bunch of story if I think like, oh, they don’t really like this. So, it’s not necessarily what everyone can do, but the less rehearsed you are frankly the better. Because there’s a certain artifice to it. And subconsciously I think people are looking for writers who feel confident and the rehearsed quality can cut into that a bit.
John: The best thing about the conversational aspect of a pitch is that the things that you said were very important when you set out your pitch, like these are the things I really wanted to focus on, it invites circling back to what those things are that are very important. And so this project I pitched recently, I could sort of have three bullet points for like these are the things I really want to hit. These are things that really spoke to me about the property. And we get to a place and it’s like, “Oh, I see what you’re doing there. It’s because of this.” It’s like, yes, exactly. I think this is a really great way to sort of get into this thing. And it gets them involved in the process.
Now, that said, next week’s episode we’re going to have Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom talking about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. And they ended up having to pitch to like seven studios and it was a very rehearsed pitch. And Aline tells a story of how they were pitching one place and she just like flubbed one of the jokes. Like it was a practice joke, but she just flubbed it. And one of the guys who was in the room with her who had heard the pitch a bunch of times just goes, “Ugh.” She’s like “Audible sigh, oh, you whiffed that joke.”
And so there are situations in which really rehearsing it may make sense. The key is not to make it feel like you’re giving a performance. Make sure it feels like it really is a conversation.
Craig: Yeah. The nice thing is that when you allow, conversationally allow questions to be asked, the answer that you give in response to a question is so much more powerful than if it is just given. Because it implies that you’ve thought this through.
Craig: And you’re sharing something with them. And you’re also picking up on some things that they’re interested in. I’m very much about that. And you can just start the conversation by asking them a question, you know.
John: And then it’s possible to sort of circle that back in as you’re giving your pitch, then it’s clear that you are thinking about the same things that they are thinking about.
Craig: You’re also not just there to recite to something. You’re actually listening to what they have to say.
John: The last thing I’ll say is in terms of the pitch itself, when you’re actually describing the story, make sure you stick the landing. And this is sort of from my own bad history. There have been times where I’ve come in with a really strong opening, and the first act is great, and I’m sort of getting through those middle sections, and then I just don’t — I hadn’t thought through how I was going to close up the conversation of the story. Basically what the last things of the movie are going to be or sort of how we’re leaving it. And if that last bit is bad, they sort of remember the last bit.
So, if you’re going to practice anything, practice how you think you’re going to get out of it, or at least a couple ways to get out of your story, so that you can actually put some closure on it so it just doesn’t fizzle out here. So it doesn’t just sort of fade into nothingness.
Make sure it’s clear when you’ve reached the end of your story.
Craig: If you finish a pitch and then there’s silence and then someone says, “Oh, was that the end,” you’re not getting the job. The easiest way I think to approach this is to look at your story like a circle and when you get to that end, close the circle. And just say, “So, the person who wants blah, blah, blah now dah, dah, dah.”
Craig: And there’s the circle, right? Just a way for them to see like, okay, yeah, this is of a piece. It’s not an “and then, and then, and then.”
John: Yeah. So, you’re done pitching the story, and this is where I think the actual most crucial part of the process is, which is where you’re listening to what they’re saying and what they’re asking you. And if they’re asking you very specific questions about things that are in your pitch, that’s a really good sign, because that means there’s something that they are fascinated about or curious about in your pitch and they wanted more details. That’s amazing and that’s awesome.
If they are asking a question that speaks to your general idea of your pitch, that’s not a good sign. That means they fundamentally wonder if you’ve pitched them the wrong thing or the wrong approach, the wrong take. So be very mindful of the kinds of questions they’re asking, but then also try to answer them and try to make it clear that you can think on your feet, that you are flexible, that you actually have interesting ideas. That you are willing to defend — not defend — to explain your intention while still being open to other possibilities.
Craig: Well, I think it’s okay to defend certain things. I mean, remember that this is a job that it’s you don’t have. That means you also don’t — you could say no, too. Right? I mean, nobody is tied up yet. So, if there is something about your pitch that is that kind of beating heart, it’s okay to just say, “Well, if that’s not working for you, that’s probably — I may not be the right person.”
You don’t have to say that. You don’t have to give up the job in the room. You could just say, “Well, you know, that to me is where my passion comes from is that concept. But I can see what you’re saying about blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And you can be flexible about other things.
When they ask questions, welcome everything. Even if you disagree, disagree in a welcoming way, because this is after all kind of pie in the sky time. Everyone can sort of chip in here and be heard.
John: I would say in general if the discussion after your pitch is longer than the pitch itself, that’s a really good sign. Unless your pitch was just like so amazing that they start talking about next steps immediately, which is sort of the fantasy scenario. It’s like, “Well that was fantastic. I need you to come in here and pitch that to the boss. Or we need to set up a meeting for tomorrow to go into the studio.” That’s your fantasy scenario. But if they’re asking questions that show that they’re engaged in it, you’ve done really well with whatever you’ve pitched so far.
Craig: Yeah, no question. [laughs] I will say that there are people who are not readable. When I went in to pitch this miniseries, my producer said, “This gentleman that we’re pitching to, you’re not going to know when you walk out of there.” And I was like, “Eh, I’ve been doing this a long time. I think I’ll know.”
I had no clue. None. None. Just didn’t know.
And some people are — it’s not like they’re doing it on purpose. They’re just sort of inherently inscrutable and you won’t know. There have been times I’ve walked out of a room and thought, well, that was a disaster. And then an hour later, got the job.
Craig: And vice versa.
John: That absolutely happens. And so what I take comfort in is that like I pitch just as hard on the ones I didn’t get as the ones I did get. And while I can’t properly predict which ones are going to work and which ones aren’t going to work, I can only sort of control what I’m doing. And I just try to make sure that I was as ready for each one of them as possible.
John: Cool. Our next topic, probably the best jumping off place for it is this Chin Lu article for Vice entitled Being An Asian Actor Is Hard Enough Without Scarlett Johansson Taking Your Roles.
Craig: Great title for an article.
John: There will be a link to this in the show notes. And it basically talks about Asian American actors frustrated that certain roles are going to white actors and actresses when they could have been going to Asian actors and actresses. Specifically in this case the flash point was Scarlett Johansson’s casting in Ghost in the Shell, and to some degree Tilda Swinton’s casting in Doctor Strange.
But there’s a long history of sort of casting white actors in roles that are either explicitly Asian or could be Asian. And a frustration about that. And I think it’s an interesting topic to sort of get into because some of those decisions are made at the writing level, but a lot of them aren’t made at the writing level. And it might be useful to discuss the degree to which a writer can be involved in that process and not be involved.
Craig: Yeah, my guess is almost none of them are made at the writing level. Well, first of all, let’s say you’re right, that there is a long tradition of basically let’s call it “yellow face” in Hollywood, whether it was Joel Grey and Remo Williams, or John Wayne. I mean, John Wayne, you know.
Craig: And in our culture, we have come to understand that blackface is just incredibly socially taboo. In no small part because it’s also linked to slavery.
Craig: We haven’t had the same taboo about yellow face.
John: Yeah. But I think it’s a growing taboo.
Craig: It is.
John: And so I think it might be helpful to differentiate between two different kinds of things that are happening. And there’s some overlap, but I think there’s also some useful distinctions. So, there’s the very classic case of like this is a role that is clearly Asian. This person has an Asian name, and we are casting a white actor in that role. So that’s Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Fisher Stevens in Short Circuit.
Craig: Right. Right.
John: And the controversy over Emma Stone who is playing biracial in Aloha. And that’s one of those things where it feels like, well, that feels like a really bad choice you made. And this is a role that was clearly meant to be an Asian person and you are choosing not to cast an Asian person in that role, but instead cast a white actor. And that is a certain kind of frustration that feels like it’s sort of in column A.
The column B is the situation where a role is considered Asian because of its source material, or because of something else around that character, but it’s not so clear that it has to be an Asian actor in that role. So this was Rooney Mara in Pan. And so there’s a lot of controversy over that role and sort of this fictional creation. I guess Tiger Lily is perceived to be Asian, but it’s also in a fantasy universe, so what does that mean?
I think you could say the same thing about a lot of the roles in Game of Thrones. To what degree are you casting a person who is Asian in a specific part considering it’s a fantasy universe that doesn’t necessarily match our cultural geography?
Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell might be a similar situation where the source material, that character is Asian, but she’s not identified as being Asian in this movie specifically. It’s a remake. Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange. That role was a man I think in the original comics, I believe.
John: And is in Tibet, so he’s Tibetan, but it’s also a drawn character.
Craig: Well, you’ve hit upon some factors here that need to be teased out. So, first of all, I think that the days of yellow face are happily over. I don’t see that continuing. But then you have this other issue of whitewashing. And you’ve described the two kinds.
Now, sometimes it’s hard to differentiate even between like which category it goes into. For instance, Scarlett Johansson is playing a character that in the source material is named Major Motoko Kusanagi. And the character is now named Major. [laughs] So, you know, okay, but you called out two instances where the question is, “What are the intentions?”
So, is the intention to be racist because studios don’t like Asian actors? I don’t think so, although I would argue that the result is a racist result. I think what’s really going on here is star-washing and China-appeasing.
John: Oh, how fascinating that is. I really like the term “star-washing.” Did you make that up?
Craig: I did. I just made it up.
John: Craig, it’s going down in the pantheon. We’re going to put that in the Scriptnotes Wikipedia immediately. I think star-washing is actually a fascinating thing, and I think it’s also a false excuse for reasons we’ll get into later on.
But so I do think that’s really interesting, that idea of you’re being very flexible on the casting of a role because you want to cast the biggest star in there and you can’t find an Asian star.
Craig: Right. And so obviously anyone who thinks about this for a half a second can realize the vicious cycle, right? So, it’s true, if you look at the biggest, most bankable stars, I don’t know, maybe there’s one or two Asian Americans, and my guess is they’re on the male side, and probably action. And so what they do is they go, “Well, we’re spending all this money on Ghost in the Shell. We need to make our money, so we need a star.”
Oh, there isn’t an Asian star, right. Her name is now Major. Okay.
But, of course, how do you grow Asian American or Asian stars if that’s how you approach things? You’ll never get there.
John: Well, the other great argument against this idea of star-washing is that in cases where we’ve just chosen to find the person of the appropriate race or background to play that role, it tends to go kind of well. So, take a look at Jungle Book. We could have cast a white actor in the part of Mowgli, but they didn’t. They found the kid, this Neel Sethi guy, and he’s really good. And he’s appropriate for it.
You look at Vincent Rodriguez in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. That was a role that was specifically written to be Asian. They went out, they found a bunch of great Asian actors. When they found a guy who was Filipino, they changed his name from Chang to Chan, and they built out his whole family as being Filipino very specifically so that race could be a part of that.
And so it was never sort of backing away from the tough choices because, oh, we won’t be able to find a star for that part.
Craig: Right. I think that this is an area where the studios are probably — no, I’m going to say clearly — they’re being way too conservative. Way too conservative. Because, look, I understand that a big star is a big deal for a big movie. But I have to — I don’t know — I’m not familiar with Ghost in the Shell, but I have to believe that there are opportunities for star-washing in some other characters, but then, you know, there are wonderful Asian actors out there.
I mean, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, how much money did that movie make?
John: A zillion dollars.
Craig: Okay, there weren’t any people in it that we even knew the names of, because it was a good movie. The audience does not care — I really believe that. I think that the fetishism of star power is overrated when it comes to some of these bigger movies in a weird way. Especially movies that are based on properties that people really like.
John: I agree.
Craig: Look at Doctor Strange. Okay, Doctor Strange is a Marvel film. So, right off the bat it’s going to be a huge hit because literally every single one they make is a huge hit. They have Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange. Great. There’s your big star.
Now, we have this other character to cast. Now, in this case, the character I believe in the source material was Tibetan and here we have a Chinese problem. The Chinese government is locked in a dispute with Tibet, if you want to call it a dispute. I’d like to think of it more as the Chinese government is repressing Tibet. And the Chinese market is enormously important to movie studios. And they don’t think that the Chinese censors will let a movie with a Tibetan hero go through. That’s what I think is going on. I probably just cost myself every Marvel job possible. [laughs]
Craig: But, you know, I don’t care.
John: So in this case they’ve taken a character who was described as Tibetan in the source material and made now her non-Tibetan to take that controversy away.
Craig: Although we can then go a step further and say, “Eh, all right, maybe that’s why that character is no longer Tibetan,” but that character could be Asian. Right? That character could be Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese.
John: But also that brings up the question of even if the character wasn’t that in the source material, any character in any movie could be Thai, Chinese, or any other thing. So, I guess I understand the frustration is that like this is a character who there was a pattern and a precedent for why this character should be a certain Asian background, and now it’s not. So I understand the frustration there.
Craig: I completely understand it. And I also think that if you look at comic books where the hero is African American, there’s no way that Marvel would cast a white guy in that part, at least not in 2016. No way. So, why is it okay to just go, “Well, let’s just ignore the fact that that character is Asian American and cast a white actor.” I’m a little surprised, I got to be honest with you, by some of the stuff.
I mean, look, the Emma Stone thing was crazy. And the Scarlett Johansson thing is star-washing. This one I just don’t get. I don’t get the Doctor Strange one at all. I mean, Tilda Swinton is amazing —
John: I think Tilda Swinton is amazing. I think ultimately it comes down to Tilda Swinton is amazing, and so having Tilda Swinton in your movie is kind of awesome and amazing and — not only is she great, but she’s just so wonderfully strange. That I kind of get it. And I can both understand why you make the choice to cast her in it, and I can also understand why people are frustrated and to some degree outraged over it.
I want to talk about the outrage, because I think the outrage is an interesting double-edged sword. It’s like the pros of being outraged or expressing outrage over it, or sort of letting there be a Twitter storm about it is that it gets people talking about it, it gets people noticing it, it encourages people to make their lists more diverse and inclusive, and really think about if a character is described as being Asian sort of keeping them Asian.
I think the cons of the outrage is that I know people in Hollywood and they’re so skittish. And so what they’re going to do is they’re going to back away from the controversy by just like backing away from the chance for there to be a controversy. So, a character who was described as being Asian, they’ll just get rid of that description before it ever makes it out there so that the character is no longer Asian.
Craig: I don’t think that will happen.
John: You don’t think so?
Craig: No. I think that that was all too often the response in the past, but you know, I encounter more and more an insistence on the studio side that the movie not end up being all white people.
Craig: And I also think that there is somewhere some people must understand inherently that they’re not going to lose money by casting an Asian or an Asian American actor to play an Asian part. I mean, it’s hard enough for Asian American actors to get parts because of the default white syndrome, and now they can’t even get parts where the characters are Asian.
You know, I think this discussion is very, very long overdue. And I think it’s going to have a very significant impact on how things go forward. I do. I believe that.
John: Let’s look at what screenwriters can do and what they can’t do. So, what screenwriters can do is you can — you ultimately get the choice of what you’re going to name these characters, and so if you name a character Woo, you’re sort of describing that person who is probably Chinese, and that is an affirmative thing you can do.
You can suggest actors, you can suggest to people involved in casting the movie that let’s try to keep this role Asian. You don’t get the final decision on that, but you can always make that suggestion. But I think the most important and sort of interesting thing that writers can do is actually write about.
So there’s a great episode in this batch of Kimmy Schmidts where Titus Andromedon is putting on his one-man show about his past life as a geisha. And so he’s in sort of geisha white face for the role, and so there’s a huge outcry of Asian American actors about this sort of terrible thing, this affront he’s doing. And that show was able to really dig into it because they had the ability to have characters on both sides and really explore it.
And so one of the rare luxuries as a writer is you can actually write about these situations and these frustrations and explore it. And so one of the few gifts you actually have as a writer is the ability to create fictional scenarios in which characters are grappling with these issues.
Craig: Yeah. And, of course, we have enormous latitude here to describe our characters as we wish and to do so and then leave their race behind. You know, I mean, you introduce people, this one is Chinese American, this one is African American, this one is white, this one is whatever. And then that’s it, because most people, typical waiter in a restaurant works with people of every different race, and it’s not part of the daily discussion.
So, we can do that, but as you mentioned kind of at the top of this discussion, when it comes to casting we just don’t have the ability to determine these things. And we get blamed sometimes which is crazy.
John: And we get blamed for it and at the same time we are not particularly well positioned to defend ourselves. And so I would say if you are the screenwriter who is facing this situation, Twitter is not going to be a great place for you to sort of go out and try to defend yourself, and defend these decisions. You’re not going to win. No one wins on Twitter. It’s impossible to win on Twitter.
Craig: I’m currently winning on Twitter, but only because, you know, look who I’m fighting against.
John: Unfair advantage.
I think we’re living in a really exciting time, a really fascinating time for dealing with issues of race. And it’s because race is both an internal identity, it’s also a perceived identity. It’s something you hold inside yourself, but it’s also what someone sees you as. And that is rally challenging. It’s really interesting both on a fictional level and dealing with it on a daily basis.
A friend of mine is an actor who often gets cast as a terrorist because he looks sort of Middle Eastern, which is offensive. And also, he’s Italian, so he just happens to look like what we think a Middle Eastern person looks like, but he’s not. He’s Italian. And his wife is mixed race and gets cast as sort of like anything ambiguous she gets cast as. And that’s because no one is checking — I don’t think they actually even are allowed to check what is your actual ethnicity. They just say it’s what you came in the room looking like. Oh, well, he’s that guy, or she’s this thing. And race is a really interesting, frustrating, challenging thing we’re still trying to put our heads around.
Craig: Yeah. You can see people sweating as they attempt to do the right thing. You know, we are as an industry we are being asked to be more inclusive, and I think most people in our industry believe that that’s exactly what we should be.
But then, of course, to be more inclusive you have to be race aware. When you are race aware, suddenly you are beginning to traipse through a minefield, whether you know it or not. So, on the one hand you’re trying to do the right thing. On the other hand, you may end up blowing it. It’s difficult.
Regardless of the fact that it’s difficult, it is less difficult than actually being an actor of color, or a writer of color. That is harder to do. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the business to suck it up and deal with the uncomfortableness and the awkwardness and the occasional flub and make things better for these people who are honestly being treated unfairly. And there’s really no way to deny it.
John: Yeah. I agree. Craig, I have one last thought experiment. So, you’ve heard of this musical Hamilton?
John: So, my question for you is what do you think happens when the first time they cast a white actor as George Washington in that show?
Craig: I think it will be fine.
John: Yeah. It’s a really interesting situation, because there you have the precedent for the show is that the cast is not color blind, I’d say it’s actually race aware. You can argue both sides, sort of where it’s falling on that. But musically it feels like that actor, there’s a tradition where that actor should be African American, or at least non-white. And yet, of course, he’s playing a character who was in fact white.
So, I find it an interesting thing to look at in terms of is the role based on sort of our perception of what that role is like in the show, or based on the real person.
Craig: Yeah, I think that Hamilton, which will be performed 14 billion times by 14 billion casts until the end of time, will detach itself from any sense of needing to adhere to a format of casting. You’re going to see women playing Hamilton. I mean, everyone is going to play Hamilton. You know what I mean? So, over time, everyone will play it.
You already have, I mean, you can’t really point to that cast and say, “Well, it’s about being African American.” It’s not because Lin-Manuel Miranda is Puerto Rican American. And Phillipa Soo is Korean American, I think. So, it’s not about being black, and it’s not about being Latino, and it’s not about being Asian. What it’s really about is not being white.
Craig: And that is an interesting commentary because the founding fathers in that world was so white. So, it’s like, okay, we’re not white. But over time, white people will play those parts, too. Because, A, white privilege, what? But, B, because in the end I think the music and the story of Hamilton start to transcend some of the racial contrasts that the original cast has presented.
John: Yeah. I’ll read those articles when it happens and see what the discussion is.
Craig: Yeah. I think Washington is the right place to start, by the way, if you were going to do it. If I were going to do it —
John: Rather than Jefferson Lafayette?
Craig: Yeah, Jefferson has got to — I mean, right now, there’s something about the fact that he has got his slaves moving his staircase around as he returns from France. It’s just more delicious the fact that he’s African American. I don’t know. I think so. But —
John: We’ll see. I’m not going to get my shot.
Craig: Not going to get my shot.
John: Craig, it is time for our One Cool Things.
Craig: Yay. My One Cool Thing is so, so cool. This was sent in by a Twitter follower and they are gloves that translate ASL, American Sign Language, into verbal speech.
John: That sounds great.
Craig: How cool is this? So, it’s a couple of kids, and they’re adorable. These two boys. I can say that now, because I’m old. These two boys who work at University of Washington. I mean, they’re undergrads. Undergrads. They really are boys. At the University of Washington. Their names are Navid Azodi and Thomas Pryor. And they just won a $10,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, which is a national prize for the most inventive undergraduate and graduate students. And so they’ve invented these things called Sign Aloud Gloves, which translate American Sign Language into speech or text.
So, I assume that they figured out how to put little sensors into all the fingers, and the palms, and everything, and then all that stuff goes into a computer. The computer translates the movements into speech. And it’s awesome. And if they can get this refined and everything, wow.
John: That’s great.
Craig: How great would that be?
John: Very, very cool. I like our love inventors.
Craig: I know.
John: And when they make the Young Inventors movie, I really hope they don’t cast two white guys in that movie.
Craig: Well, I don’t know if Navid Azodi is — I don’t know. I don’t know what —
John: I would guess, Navid sounds South Asian.
Craig: No…I’m going to go with Israeli or maybe Persian. I’m going to go Persian.
John: So, can you cast a white person as a Persian? I ask because Nima Yousefi who works in our office, whenever he sees something he doesn’t like, he’s like, “Oh, white people.”
Craig: [laughs] Well, he’s whiter than I am. I think Persians consider themselves Aryans in the old sense of the word Aryan.
John: It’s complicated the idea of racial identity.
Craig: It is, yeah.
John: You don’t have to write into me or Craig about that.
Craig: Yeah, yeah. Don’t yell at us. We’re just trying to figure it out. We’re stumbling through, guys.
John: Stumbling through life. My One Cool Thing is called Hands in Wheat. It is a Twitter feed by Andy Baker. And it’s basically a bunch of stock photos of like people running their hands through wheat. And it’s one of those great absurd Twitter feeds where it’s like, oh wow, you know what, it really is such an incredibly overused visual cliché. Because no one in real life ever does that. And you see it all the time in movies and ads and other things. Like connection with your food and with nature and all this stuff. It’s just so funny.
And I love it and he’s incredibly angry in the feed about like it’s hands in wheat, it’s not elbows and wheat. The wheat has to be at just the right height. So, I’m a fan of a lot of absurd Twitter feeds, but this is a new one that I liked a lot.
Craig: Have you seen Women Laughing While Eating Salad?
John: Yes, that is a fantastic one.
Craig: It’s amazing.
John: I also love Women Who Can’t Even Drink Water. Like Water Fails. Women pouring water on themselves as if they can’t do it.
Another good Twitter feed I’ll throw in for bonus is Baby CMO. And so he’s a Chief Marketing Officer for an Internet startup, but he’s also a baby, and so he’s talking about his sort of two conflicting needs at times. And so he uses the jargon of both, which is great.
He’s very much like Stewie Griffin.
John: Excellent. That is our show this week. A reminder that next week’s episode will be Aline and Rachel Bloom talking about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. This was a live show I recorded with the Writers Guild Foundation. So it’s basically the same day we recorded the Larry Kasdan interview. That morning I spoke with Aline and Rachel and it was fantastic. It’s actually maybe our dirtiest episode ever. It may have crossed over the Rebel Wilson thing.
John: So, don’t listen to it with your kids, mostly because Rachel has to, or chooses to go into a lot of detail about how she did the ADR for a scene in the original Showtime pilot where rather than just making out with Greg, she is performing oral sex on him. And so she goes into quite graphic detail about the ADR session she did for that.
John: Yeah. Our outro this week comes from Jonathan Mann. It is fantastic. And Jonathan Mann is sort of a legend in the podcasting world for doing music, so he did one for us, and that was awesome. So, thank you to Jonathan Mann.
If you have an outro for us, you can write into email@example.com with a link to it. It’s also a place to send in questions or feedback on the show. On Twitter, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
Our show is produced by Stuart Friedel. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. You can find us on iTunes. Thank you for all those people who have left new reviews on iTunes. That’s always lovely and much appreciated.
You can find bonus episodes, including the Justin Marks interview, over at Scriptnotes.net. That’s also where the Scriptnotes App finds its great content. It’s a $2 a month fee for all the back episodes, including those bonus things. And there will be bonus Q&A I think for Rachel and Aline’s episode next week as well. So, if you sign up for that, you’ll get that as well. And that’s our show.
Craig: Great show.
Craig: All right.
Craig: See you.
- Scriptnotes, 247: The One with Lawrence Kasdan
- Scriptnotes Bonus: Jungle Book Q+A, with screenwriter Justin Marks
- The Making of The Jungle Book on YouTube
- Being An Asian Actor Is Hard Even Without Scarlett Johansson Taking Your Roles
- Students Invented Gloves That Can Translate Sign Language Into Speech And Text
- Hands In Wheat on Twitter, and Women laughing alone with salad, Women struggling to drink water, and Baby CMO
- Outro by Jonathan Mann (send us yours!)