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 252 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, it’s another craft episode. In the past we’ve looked at heroes, we’ve looked at villains. This time we’re looking at allies and the discussion will be led by Sir Craig of House Mazin.
Craig: So excited. So excited to the return of House Mazin on Game of Thrones.
John: So this was the Hodor episode. And some people were very excited about Hodor’s backstory and Hodor’s disappearance from the show, but we were, of course, most excited by the return of House Mazin.
Craig: Yeah. I actually call it the House Mazin show, in which also something happened with Hodor. Crucial moment. Crucial moment where Sir Davos, he’s looking at the map and figuring out how many people they can rally to Jon Snow’s side. And obviously House Mazin, the most important house in the north. Why there’s a Jewish house in North Westeros? I don’t know.
John: It’s a fantasy world.
Craig: You know, that’s the thing about my name. It actually is a weird… — You know, Rob McElhenney, who is the creator and star of Always Sunny in Philadelphia, he wanted to name the villain — he’s working on a Minecraft movie.
John: All right.
Craig: And he wanted to name the villain Mazin after me, because it’s a good villain name, too.
John: It is a good villain name, sure.
Craig: But they were like, uh, I guess the problem was that there are other Mazin’s out there. Apparently they couldn’t clear it. Yes.
Craig: But like if my last name were Greenberg, there would be no House Greenberg.
John: I was watching the scene, this is midway through the episode, and I haven’t gone back to look at the episode to see whether they actually said the name on camera, of it it’s like a looping line that got slipped in there.
Craig: I think it was, well, I don’t know if it was a looped line, but they definitely played it over I think an insert of the map. But someone took a screen cap from the closed captioned version and there’s House Mazin spelled correctly.
John: Fantastic. I’m so excited. So, that was probably what prompted you to think of this episode about allies and alliances, because that’s what they’re discussing when your name was brought up.
Craig: Correct. And when we get into it, you’ll see that Game of Thrones is incredibly useful because there are so many relationships.
John: There are.
Craig: And every relationship is defined as either an allegiance or as some kind of hero/villain situation, or conflict. So, we have so many different kinds, so we can illustrate so many different kinds with Game of Thrones. But, I suppose first we have follow-up.
John: We do. So Emily from Sydney, Australia wrote in to say, “I just wanted to write in to say that the transcript of high quality audio with only two voices, no background noise, is fairly easy and very cheaply done by computers, so it probably isn’t done by child labor or exploitation.” Which is something that we brought up last time. I didn’t know how our transcripts were done. Emily seems to think that it’s probably done by computer transcription.
She continues with, “My mother is a lecturer at a university and likes to read transcripts of her lectures from previous sessions, so she can easily revise. So I’ve gone very deep into computer transcription world.” She says, “I’d also like to thank you for providing the transcripts and just all your other efforts to be inclusive as possible on the podcast.”
Craig: Well, thank you very much, Emily. But you have raised a matter of concern. [laughs]
John: All right.
Craig: Because, again, I feel like, all right, you know, John, he’s collecting money from tee-shirts, USB drives. “Oh, well, you know, we have to pay for the transcripts.” Oh, apparently, according to Emily from Sydney — from Sydney.
Craig: It’s cheap.
John: Maybe Stuart needs to reevaluate how much we’re paying our transcript person. The transcript person who is typing up the words that I’m talking right now. See, that’s the whole thing. You know, if it’s a computer, who knows, maybe the computer is the person who is typing up these words.
Craig: Right. The computer wouldn’t find any irony in just repeating TRANSCRIPT, TRANSCRIPT, TRANSCRIPT.
John: So, I do know how much I pay Stuart, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that this podcast does not make enough money to pay for Stuart’s salary. So, there’s that.
John: Bit of brightness.
Craig: Well, I suppose we’ll just have to eliminate some salary from Stuart. I mean, listen, [laughs]…
John: Craig is volunteering to do the hard work of transcripts.
Craig: Oh, no. No, no. No, no, no. I’m the talent.
John: Oh, that’s right. Talent doesn’t do that.
John: No. I should say that some people don’t know we have transcripts. So, basically when an episode goes up on Tuesday, on johnaugust.com you’ll see the blog post that has the episode and has the audio for the episode. But usually by Wednesday, Thursday, definitely by Friday, that same post will have a new link added that says “This is the transcript.” And click through to that, and you’ll get the full transcript of everything we are saying.
Craig: Fantastic. Shall I read some more follow-up?
Craig: Bretton Zinger. That’s an — oh, god, I wish my name were Bretton Zinger.
Craig: House Zinger.
John: House of Zinger. House Zinger. Come on.
Craig: House Zinger.
John: What would their little sigil be? Like what would their symbol be on their shields?
Craig: It would be a guy making like a pointing like Zing! Bretton Zinger, oh, so good, Bretton Zinger writes, “In Episode 250, The One with the Austin Winner, the script you read contained the following: INT. DC METRO STATION. NIGHT. The cavernous dome thoroughfare stands eerily still. It’s beyond late. The midnight train long emptied.”
Bretton continues, “The script is set in 1950. The DC Metro system did not open until 1976. Based on the description here and later, I believe that the writer, Amanda Morad, is actually referring to DC’s Union Station where Amtrak is located rather than a Metro station, which is the subway station, though both have domed thoroughfares.
“When describing real cities, landmarks, et cetera, how much fudging do you think is acceptable? I know writers can do whatever they want, and that good writing always trumps everything else. But how much do you worry about the audience or readers calling BS on something you include?”
John: Well, I think it’s a good point about Amanda’s script, and also a good question overall. So, in terms of Amanda’s script, I think that was actually probably a mistake. I think it would be better to actually make that correctly Union Station, if that’s what would actually be there in the 1950s. But it doesn’t really mess me up as a read. I don’t think of it as a different thing because of a Metro station versus Union Station.
So, for Amanda I would say it would be great if she swapped that out for Union Station, just for accuracy and authenticity. But in terms of overall, I think readers have to understand that we’re writing for the ability to create a picture in your head of what things are. And that’s why we’re not so necessarily accurate about geographic locations, about sort of how things fit. You’ll find in movies people can get across the city much more quickly than they really could. And that’s just the nature of moviemaking.
Craig: Yeah. You’re always allowed to do anything in your screenplay that a director can do when they’re shooting the movie, right? You can elide time and elide distance. Chop up the shoe leather. I do agree though, I’m a stickler for getting things right if I’m putting them in. So, yeah, she wants to change this for sure. The one thing you definitely can’t do is put something in where there is not a substitute for it. So, for instance, if Amanda had — here she simply makes a mistake, and so she can switch the stations and she’s fine. But, let’s say there were no stations like that in 1950. That’s a problem.
And so you do want to get things as right as you can. I get a little crazy about it. I actually, I was writing a scene yesterday that takes place in the ’80s and on a certain day in the ’80s. And I wanted to know what the face of the moon was that night. And I was kind of hoping it would be full. And it was almost full.
Because, of course, you can go on the Internet and type in any day and they’ll tell you what the moon was doing that day. And in what time zone.
John: That’s lovely. I will say that what tends to be more important than being completely accurate is feeling accurate, feeling true. And sometimes one of the things you bump into as a writer is what is actually true doesn’t feel true. And, you know, if you’re basing something on historic event, things could happen a certain way and you won’t actually believe they can happen that way in the course of a narrative film. And so sometimes you have to find ways to either really hang a lantern on like this is how it actually happened, or you have to move things around in a way that makes the simplest believable version of what it is that you want to convey.
Craig: Yeah. I actually think it’s a gift sometimes when true life seems unbelievable, because it gives you as an opportunity for somebody to say, in the movie, “I don’t believe that.”
John: Yeah. One of the things I really liked about The Big Short is there’s moments where characters will turn to camera and say like, “Okay, this didn’t actually happen this way,” and sort of really explain it. But in their explanation you see like it’s actually even kind of crazier than what we’re doing right here. And that was a good shorthand they were able to do. Most people will not be able to do that in their movies.
Craig: Yeah. I moderated a discussion at the Guild with Adam McKay and his cowriter on Big Short and we talked about that a bit. And he said the one where Ryan Gosling turns to the camera and says, “I would never be caught dead in a club like this. This isn’t where we were when this happened,” happened because the person that that guy was who read the script and had to approve that his name be used and all that, he said, “I would never…”
His exact words. And so they were like, well, can we do what you just said in the movie? And he’s like, “Um, okay.”
John: Nice. Let’s skip ahead from some questions and get right to the meat of this, because I’m desperate to see what you want to say about allegiances and alliances.
Craig: Allegiances. Well, enemies are easy to do, I think, because, you know, we understand what’s going on there. Things are well defined. We have instant conflict. Friends are hard. And a lot of times I will read a screenplay where friends or alliances, partners, are bland. Because they are lacking conflict, and I think is something that people make a mistake about — the idea that an ally is an absence of conflict. Or an ally means a resolved relationship.
Quite the opposite is true.
John: Yeah. So often I will read these scripts where it feels like that character is just there to sort of set the balls so the other character can spike it. And they have no life independent of that main character. And there’s no friction between them and the main character at all, or they just have good-natured barbs to each other that doesn’t help us at all.
Craig: Exactly. And that, unfortunately, counters the whole point of what an allegiance is. So, let’s go to the fundamentals. Why do we even need allies in movies? And these seem like crazy questions to ask because, you know, why do we need allies in life and we like movies where people are doing stuff together. But it’s good to ask why, because it helps, I think, lead you to the path of writing good versions of these things.
Craig: So, the point of allegiance in narrative. Some general notions of it. Individual characters are trying to advance their own selfish interests through relationships that help them do so. Similarly, characters will learn about themselves through their relationships that are not defined by conflict relationships, but allegiances.
One thing that allies help characters do is suffer pain for the wrong rewards, because friends will get you to do things sometimes and then you find out, oh, I shouldn’t have gone along with that. There are things friends can do in this regard that help characters see themselves much, much better. And, of course, an allegiance helps the screenwriter define what’s wrong about where a character is in the beginning of a movie. And then also helps them define what’s right at the end.
John: Great. So, let me try to go back through these four points you just made and see if I can restate them in ways that might anchor them in sort of experience of what you sort of see in a movie? So, characters advance their interests. So, it gives a character the ability to express what they’re after, and it gives another person that the hero can express what they’re actually going after, but more interestingly, the character who is the other part of the alliance, they have their own wants and needs. And so those conflicting wants and needs are the source of tension and also provide propulsion within a scene.
If you have one character who wants something, and another character is just there to listen to it, that’s not a good scene. But if we can see that two characters have different wants within a scene, there is some tension there and there is some — there’s a reason for that scene to be there.
Craig: Yeah. It also helps your character as they’re going for something that is maybe just for them, they have to do it through the prism of a relationship with another person, which is vastly more interesting to us. Even in movies where people are really alone on purpose, they’re not alone. This is why you had to have Wilson, you know. You need a relationship. We lose sight of what a person is going through if it’s not understood through that interpersonal connection.
John: Let’s get to your point about suffering pain for the wrong reasons, or for the wrong rewards. So, this is the case where it lets you put your hero, your protagonist, in a situation where they’re trying to do something which isn’t necessarily even something they believe, but they are doing it because of a relationship. They’re doing it because they promised their wife they would do this. Because they want to look better in the eyes of this other person.
There’s a reason why they’re doing it which is not a purely selfish reason. It is a bigger reason. And sometimes they’re willing to do things they wouldn’t do for themselves for other people. And that can be great for both comedy and for drama.
Craig: Exactly. That there’s something about your friend, your partner, your ally that gets you into trouble. We all have that experience. Every single one of us has had that friend that got us into trouble. And that’s the best kind of trouble. It’s so much more interesting when your friends get you into trouble, I think.
John: Absolutely. And so also your friends who can point out where you are starting. They’re the people who can put words to what your starting situation is, but hopefully if you’re trapped with this other character through the whole story, they’re the ones who can tell you, oh, you know what, you actually got there. And you sort of function as a proxy throughout it and say like, “Oh, I see what’s wrong with you here and you actually did this thing that is very good for you to do.”
Without that character there to clock that, you don’t have the sense of accomplishment, the sense of reward at the end of the movie.
Craig: That’s right. And sometimes the disruption or disillusion of one allegiance and the creation of another, in and of itself, is a signifier that you’ve done it. You know? So, the bad one leaves you and the good one returns.
John: Let’s talk about the experience of allegiances, because very few of us in our life have enemies, but we all have allegiances. So, do you want to dig into sort of what the realities of having allegiances in real life are?
Craig: Well, if you have an enemy, there’s a clear state. And there’s not a lot of ambiguity. I don’t like you. Here’s why.
So, Ted Cruz, very clean relationship for me. I do not like him, right? There’s no confusion. There’s no ambiguity. And I’m also not challenged internally in any way by that. It’s nice and easy.
Friends, much harder. Friendship cuts to the heart of all, I think, of our innate human flaws. Because friendship is asking us to do things that go against the selfish gene sometimes. Being friends, having an allegiance, implies honesty, loyalty, self-sacrifice, even love. And these are the things that people find hard to do. Even when they’re trying to make an allegiance with themselves.
John: What I also find in the real world is I am a different person to some different people. And my relationships from my high school friends, to my work friends, to my people in other parts of my life, I’m a different person with them. I’m not a completely different person, but what’s important to me about the relationship is so very different. So, my relationship with my housekeeper is very different than my relationship with you.
And so, you know, I’m talking about different things, but I’m also presenting myself in a very different way. And so in narratives, the allegiances you show onscreen let you see different sides of a person that you would not otherwise be able to see.
Craig: That’s right. They also let you see people struggle to be good. And we don’t really believe in characters that are just good. We have them, but when we have them, they are rarely the protagonist. They’re usually some kind of rainmaker that comes in to enlighten us all, you know, like K-PAX, or Starman, or Jesus Christ.
Or, Elwood Dowd in Harvey, right? But it’s the people that are struggling to the right thing that are interesting. And so they’re struggling to maintain these allegiance. The boyfriend is leaving and the girlfriend doesn’t want to lose him, but doesn’t know how to keep him. That’s an interesting allegiance that’s falling apart, and she’s trying. We like that sort of thing.
I mean, when you look at a movie like The Avengers, what’s more interesting, the relationships between the heroes and the villains, or the relationships between the heroes and the heroes?
John: Absolutely. If you look at the most recent Avengers: Captain America movie, that is based around entirely those relationships. Those people who are neither your friends, nor your enemies, because of the complicated situation you find yourself in. And so when you have Iron Man facing off against Captain America, you are fascinated because you can see from both sides. You know the depth of the relationship between those two, and yet they’re also kicking the crap out of each other. That is fascinating. And that’s a thing I think that they were able to do brilliantly in this most recent incarnation is really dig into what it’s like to be fighting someone who you have a relationship with who’s not purely a villain.
Craig: Exactly. Because, we actually spend most of our time fighting with our friends. Very rarely do we fight with enemies, and the reason why is they’re not near us. We avoid them. But we don’t avoid our friends. We don’t avoid our spouses. We don’t avoid our children. We don’t avoid our business partners. We are constantly with our allies. And so naturally that’s where the most interesting fights happen.
John: Yeah. Because you would not choose to be around those enemy figures. And you’re getting as far away as possible from them. So, all those tensions that come out, which should be there, can erupt. And that can be the source of drama.
Craig: You know that super hacky line, “After all, you and I, we are not so different.”
Craig: Right? The worst villain line ever that just shows up over and over. That is just a very clunky overdone way of trying to say, “Look, even though I’m your enemy, we could be friends in some other world. There’s some connection between us that is almost like an allegiance.”
Where it happens best is when you have enemies and heroes that you believe actually, if not for a slight flick of fate, could be allies. Batman and the Joker are a fascinating partnership. They do feel more in a weird way like allies, even while they’re fighting, because of that strange notion of similarity.
John: Absolutely. Without the other person, they would sort of cease to exist. And Batman without Gotham City and without the crime of Gotham City, what would Batman be? And if Joker succeeded in killing Batman, would he be happy? Hard to say.
Craig: Exactly. And so in a weird way there, and that’s why maybe the finest of these Batman stories, The Killing Joke, which they are animating, and it looks wonderful, and Joker voiced by Mark Hamill, the greatest Joker of all time, I will say. That’s what that is about. It’s entirely about we love each other, in the strangest way. We do. We love each other.
So, we can talk a little bit about different kinds of allegiances that exist.
John: Let’s go through it. I see you have a whole sort of hierarchy built around Game of Thrones, and the kinds of patterns that characters find themselves in. So, I think it’s important to note with Game of Thrones is that because it’s a big giant soap opera, you can’t say like this character is the hero and this character is a villain. Everybody has their own motivations. And so each character in this relationship is sort of equal parts.
And so let’s go through Game of Thrones. Let’s also save some time and talk about movies which tend to have a central character and a character who is not a central character and sort of what’s different.
Craig: Sure. So, these are all allegiances. Sometimes they will sound like they’re not, but they are. They function essentially as two people — I guess I would define as an alliance or an allegiance is when two characters are operating toward the same goal.
So, the most common kind of shaky allegiance you’ll see in anything, movies or television, is the marriage of convenience. Essentially, we don’t like each other, but we need each other. That is essentially every buddy film you’ve ever seen.
John: Every film in which two characters are handcuffed together for some strange reason.
Craig: Correct. Or, in the case of Game of Thrones, Jon Snow and Tormund. Tormund is the best. So, there you have Jon Snow. He’s a member of the Night’s Watch. And you have Tormund, who is a leader of the —
Craig: Yeah. The Wildlings. And they are historical enemies. They hate each other. But the two of them need to work together because they’re facing a larger common enemy, which are the White Walkers. So, marriage of convenience.
John: I’m recognizing as we’re about to go through this whole Game of Thrones thing is that most people’s experience with Game of Thrones is probably my experience with Game of Thrones, where I kind of know some character’s names, but I mostly like point and say, “That guy.”
Craig: Oh, well Tormund is the big redheaded Wildling dude.
John: And he’s the one who has the Brienne fetish with chicken.
Craig: Yeah. He’s totally into Brienne.
John: Nice. Next up. What kind of pattern next?
Craig: Well, here’s a great one. Unrequited love. And this is a tragic one. Now, you may think, well, if someone is pining for somebody else, how is that an allegiance? Well, it is because the person who’s pining typically will do whatever they need to do to get the person to return the love. Which means they’ll help them.
And in the case of Game of Thrones, we have Jorah Mormont and his lovely Khaleesi.
John: Yeah. Daenerys Targaryen.
John: So, in the case of — we can clearly see what he’s in it for. On her side, she can use him to do anything, but she also has a responsibility to him, and that’s a thing we saw in the House of Mazin episode, where she felt the responsibility of having this person who was so drawn to her. It strikes me that actually all of these relationships we’re talking about, it’s sort of like gravity. Like you have two items that have their own gravity and they’re sort of circling each other. And that’s really what you see in allegiances.
It’s two characters caught in each other’s gravity. And having to decide what they’re going to do with each other and for each other as they’re sort of doing this dance around each other.
Craig: That’s a great analogy. And to dig even deeper into it, the gravity has to kind of be in a weird stasis, right? Like the way the moon is around the earth. Too close, boom. Too far, wee. Right? So, and that can happen. But, when it happens, that’s how you end relationships. That’s how you end alliances, by people disappearing from your life, walking away from you. Or, from a collision that’s so emotional or the circumstances are so significant that you hate each other.
John: Yeah. Those high school romances that burn far too hot, and then they just completely flare out.
John: Oh, I remember those.
Craig: Ugh, me too.
Here’s one: misplaced faith.
Craig: So this shows up a lot. People are devoted to somebody out of some sense of follow the leader. In this case in Game of Thrones, we have Cersei and the High Sparrow. She kind of puts her faith into him, although really she was hoping for something else. But maybe a better look of it is Sansa and Joffrey. She believes, she has faith, that Joffrey is going to be a good king who will love her and be a great guy and he’ll make her the queen. There’s faith involved in this. There’s an aspirational element to it. If I just stick with this person, and give them all of my belief, I know that blankety-blank-blank-blank.
John: Well, it’s also a sunk cost fallacy. And so you have Sansa, oh, actually I’m thinking Cersei. But there is that sense of like I’ve invested this much time in the relationship. And so therefore I’m going to see this relationship through or else.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, you’re in for a penny, in for a pound. By the way, you see this in life all the time. It is very hard for people to say that they’re wrong. It’s incredibly hard for them to say that they’re wrong after they insisted they were right a lot. When other people were saying they were wrong. That’s the toughest one. Because there’s a certain humiliation to it.
And, of course, then that is an example of a kind of allegiance that almost always ends with some sort of Ka-boom, Wee, because it is not stable. It’s not stable.
What is a very stable one, though, is the parent-child allegiance. So, in Game of Thrones, you have the Three-Eyed Raven and Bran. You have Tywin Lannister and Tyrion, which is a bad version of it. And even though that one ends poorly, you can see that at least it lasted for a good chunk of Tyrion’s life.
Parent-child is sometimes a biological parent and child. Sometimes it’s Yoda and Luke. But it is a pretty strong allegiance. It’s an allegiance of either blood or a sense that you are going to replace me.
John: Yeah. Now, there are some — what’s fascinating about Game of Thrones, and I think a lot of good dramas, is sometimes it’s kind of unclear what type of relationship these characters are supposed to be in. So, you look at Arya and sort of her assassin training. What is her relationship with that dude? Like the faceless guys? Is it a parent-child relationship? Is it sort of a mentor relationship? It’s not really clear whether he cares for her at all. And it’s not clear whether she cares for him at all.
The same thing when she was traveling with the Mountain. [sic] You don’t know sort of what the boundaries of this relationship are. And this is partly what forms the conflict and the tension and the friction and all the delight within the scenes. These characters are trying to figure out who they are to each other.
Craig: Exactly. You can change the nature of the allegiance depending on the circumstances involved. For instance, take Arya Stark and the faceless man. When she meets him initially, he’s a guy trapped in a thing and she saves him. Then, he offers her something in exchange. He’ll kill three people for him.
Their friendship became almost like a buddy comedy there. And he was in her debt. And it was cute. It was actually kind of cute. And then it became something else. Now, you know, I would describe it more like disciple and prophet. There is somebody who can do things that are supernatural, and she now is training with him to do those supernatural things, to get the power that he has.
John: And certainly like Luke’s experience with Ben Kenobi in the first Star Wars tracks sort of that experience. Where like this is a person who is teaching you in these mystical ways, and yet is a very hard mentor. Then becomes a much more difficult mentor with Yoda in the second movie. There’s a track for that. What’s so unnerving and unsettling about Arya’s situation is we’re not sure he’s a good guy. And that’s a large part of the tension there.
Craig: Well, yeah. This is something that Game of Thrones generally does well. And I always tip my hat to Dan and Dave, but I also — after this last episode really just reminded myself to tip my hat to George Martin, because he is the one who thinks ahead on this Hodor thing. And he comes up with these remarkable characters that oftentimes you do both hate and love at the same time.
It’s pretty amazing, like the faceless man is a good guy, and definitely a bad guy. He’s a murderer. For money. So, bad guy.
And these allegiances don’t have to be fun. There’s codependency.
Craig: Codependency is an incredibly powerful kind of allegiance. Do you know — have you ever met couples, usually married, where it seems like they’re in their own cult?
John: Oh, for sure.
Craig: Yeah? And no one can get in. And it’s just like they whisper to each other a lot. And they’re just like only into each other. And it’s not like they just met. And if one doesn’t like somebody, the other one is not allowed to like that one either. Codependency.
John: It’s really crazy. And sometimes they are literally kind of in that cult where like they only listen to the same talk radio programs. They have one brain. And I’ve met some of those couples that have then later divorced, and both of those sides were just crazy afterwards.
Craig: Right. And in part because what you’re looking at there are two people that are missing something and the other person is giving it to them. And that’s a very powerful bond, but it’s also very disruptive to any kind of sense of being a better person.
So, in Game of Thrones, is there anything more codependent than Jamie and Cersei Lannister, the incestuous twins, who are just bad for each other.
John: Yeah. They are. And they’re bad for each other in a way that actually kick-starts the entire saga of Game of Thrones. Their lovemaking is what sends Bran flying off the tower. And so if they hadn’t been so messed up for each other, there wouldn’t be most of the drama we see.
Craig: That’s actually kind of an interesting idea of just what Game of Thrones would be like, how boring of a show it would be, if that were just — then it’s just mostly like meetings of the small council.
Craig: Yeah. [laughs] I would watch it.
John: Bureaucracy of Thrones.
Craig: Exactly. Anyway, we have a bunch more of these. I have a bunch more. But rather than belabor them all, I’m just going to pick out a couple of my favorites. Animal loyalty. I like it in movies and shows when there’s a character who is — and they’re always a side character, they’re always fairly minor — but they are defined by their dog-like loyalty to another person. It is completely irrational and it is totally unquestionable. There is comfort in knowing that of all the twists and turns that narrative can throw at you, that one thing will never twist or turn.
So, in The Godfather, Luca Brasi, he’s — that’s pure loyalty. He will never turn on you. And he will do whatever you ask him to do. And similarly in Game of Thrones, Hodor.
John: Hodor. You separated out Hodor’s sort of dedication to Bran from Brienne’s dedication to Sansa, which I think is actually smart. Because Hodor, he’s that dog that will just keep following you around, and nothing will ever dissuade that dog from following you. Brienne, she’s really sort of bound to herself in a way. She’s bound to own oath. And that is what is making her stick with Sansa.
And while she would do anything for Sansa, she’s really kind of doing it for herself. It’s a strange thing that happens there.
Craig: There’s a sense — some characters have a strong sense of honor or a strong code. And when they find somebody that allows them to indulge their code, and allows them to fulfill their purpose, that is a very strong allegiance.
But, if the person they are serving fails to meet the ideals of their code, then they are no longer serving the purpose, and then the allegiance breaks.
John: Yeah. So, you single out a couple other ones. Let’s just highlight them here. You certainly have the Oedipal pull between Robb and Catelyn Stark, which was just strange. I loved seeing it, but I was never quite clear what was going on. You have the master and his slaves. You have Ramsey Bolton and Reek, which is just so messed up.
John: And you want to say it’s codependent, but it’s not even that. It’s the desire to destroy another person and sort of reforge them in a different light. And it’s just taken to such an extreme in the example of Ramsey.
Craig: And then you can also get into the mindset of the abused. So, when his sister comes to rescue him, we understand why he acts in accordance with his allegiance with his master, Ramsey. Because in his mind we have now come to understand — it’s the strangest thing, to identify with a slave, because of the suffering and torment they have endured.
John: You know, what’s fascinating about the Ramsey character is there’s no one — I guess there is the girl he kind of liked who got thrown off the wall. But like you don’t see him with anyone else who is sort of on his side. Everyone else is just a puppet that he’s using.
And you feel like if you could stick him in a room by himself for a week, he would go insane, and would not be able to function anymore.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a reason why he — I mean, if you think about what he does to the character of Theon, it required an enormous amount of thought, planning, personnel, creativity. You know, like he actually had to sit and think like, “What would be the most screwed up thing I could do now?” And that implies a need.
There’s no reason for him to do all of that, unless there’s some need, which means he gets something from it. And I find that fascinating.
John: Yeah. So, this is Game of Thrones. So, Game of Thrones is a huge universe with a lot of characters, and each character theoretically can take the narrative off in their own direction. And so every character in Game of Thrones basically has storytelling power. There can be scenes just with them.
But when we’re going back to feature films, you tend to have — well, you have a hero, you have a protagonist. You have a central character. You have some sort of opposing force — an antagonist, a villain. And then you have allies. You have people who are there who function in ways like we’re describing here, but they don’t have their own storytelling power. They generally can’t drive scenes by themselves.
And it’s this weird thing in movies I find where you sort of want those characters to feel like, oh, they could take control of the movie by themselves, except they can’t. And so you’re deliberately sort of building the system in a way so the audience never feels like I want to see that character run off and take control of the narrative, because that’s not how it’s going to work. You still want your hero to be the person in charge.
So, what’d different about these allies in movies is they need to be able to illuminate aspects of the hero, the protagonist, without pulling focus. They can’t be so mesmerizing, attractive, fascinating that we stop focusing on our hero.
And that’s a thing you’ll often find where it feels like the minor characters run away with it. That’s what happens. A lot of times you’ll see in the animated films where they’ll go through the scratch reels and say like, “Oh, we’ve got a big problem. The sidekick is stealing the movie. Maybe we should make the movie about the sidekick?”
And that’s a thing you have to worry about in movies is making sure that your actual hero/protagonist is really at the center of the story. And is the reason why you’re wanting to watch this story.
Craig: Right. The people around your protagonist should express their allegiance to the protagonist in ways that hopefully add into the hero’s character by the end. You know, so you’ve got this woman and she’s a bit of a broken mirror. And she meets people along the way that are pieces of it, she just doesn’t realize. And each one of them, each one of their stories and their relationships with her should start to put her back together in a way that allows her finally at the end to say, “Oh, I know what I am. I am remade. And now let me do a thing.”
John: Yeah. I’m looking back at sort of the in-depth things we’ve done on movies in the past. So we’ve looked at Ghost, we looked at Raiders, we looked at Little Mermaid. In each of those cases, sometimes like Ghost is sort of a two-hander, like Demi Moore’s character almost has sort of full storytelling power there. But in each of those cases, those supporting characters have to be great, they have to be funny, they have to be wonderful, and they can’t pull us away from what we are actually focusing on which is what is the quest of our main character, and what is he or she trying to do.
Craig: Yeah. The function, it’s so true, the function of allegiances in movies is vastly different from television. Because, they aren’t designed to go on and on forever. They’re actually designed to resolve. So, it’s the difference between a very slow burning fuse and kind of a bomb, you know. So, movie relationships are more like grenades. They go off and then there’s a lot of noise and confusion, and then things settle down quickly and are resolved.
And so you have to think about your friendships in movies in a much different way than you do… — It’s one of the, you know, writing this miniseries, it’s been fun to extend the nature of some of these relationships, even though they too must end. They’re not designed to spool out forever. But it’s been fun.
John: Yeah. The last thing I’ll say is in movies these alliances, these supporting characters, they’re there often to serve as a proxy for the audience. They’re asking the questions that the audience would want to ask. They are helping you feel about the hero the way that these characters feel about the hero. They are the person who lets you into the world of the movie, so you could look at the hero the same way they are looking at the hero.
And it’s one of the reasons why some of the movies I have done have been incredibly difficult because they don’t have that single hero. So, I’m thinking about the Charlie’s Angels movies, which are actually weirdly the most difficult movies to write, because you have three heroes that have their own relationships with each other, and have their own relationships with Bosley, who have their own relationships with the villain. And all of the other supporting characters. It’s just a tremendous amount to try to manage and a tremendous amount to try to manage within scenes that actually have to have plot.
John: Big Fish —
Craig: Yeah, I mean, those team movies kind of feature the allegiance as the hero.
Craig: Right? So there’s no one Charlie’s Angel that is the hero hero. It’s the team. Right? And the idea that they come together and fight together. I mean, there’s always going to be one that’s got slightly more, you know, but yeah, that is tricky. Because that relationship — it’s hard to tell those stories without falling into a very well-worn rut in the road. We break up. We’re jealous of each other and blah, blah, blah, we get back together. You know.
John: Yeah. Big Fish was the other example of a very difficult sort of relationship movie, because the relationship between the father and the son is the center of the movie, and yet the father and the son are not onscreen together a lot. I mean, we’re seeing the younger version of the father. We’re seeing the Ewan McGregor version of the father and his life. But we’re also trying to see the story from the point of view of Will, the grown son.
And trying to set up that story in a way that you understand both character’s relationship, that you invest in both of the character’s relationship, and understand the conflict is really challenging. And that’s because they both have very legitimate points. They both have very legitimate needs. And they have this gravity that is sort of destructive to both of them.
Craig: Yeah, that kind of destructive gravity to me is fun. That’s where things get interesting. To me, the most fun of writing on the Hangover movies was writing bad allegiances. I mean, they were just — it was just bad friendships from start to finish. These guys were bad for each other. One of them seemed to know it. You know, like that was — Ed Helms’ character Stu, he understood that this was — particularly Alan, Zach’s character, was just a bad friendship that would lead to no good things.
And, yet, without that he doesn’t necessarily win the respect of the father of the woman he loves. And then in the last movie, it really was about the end of that. It was basically how do we take this character, who is obsessed with his friendship, his allegiance with these guys. How do we take him on a journey where they basically say to him at the beginning there’s something wrong with you, and he denies it. And then get to the end where he says, “I’m okay to leave you now.”
And so, again, it was all about managing allegiances. I think they’re the most interesting relationships that you can have. Weirdly more interesting to me than standard romances, where you’re just waiting for the people to kiss. And they’re more interesting to me than hero/enemy, where it’s like I hate you, I hate you, blah, blah, blah.
Friendships are tricky, in our lives, and in television shows and in movies. That’s where I think the fun is.
John: Very nice. Cool. All right. Let’s answer a few questions from our listeners and see how much time we have left here. Josh in New York writes, “This year a film by Asghar Farhadi played at Cannes named The Salesman. The film takes its title from Miller’s Death of a Salesman, published in 1949. The film directly references the play, showing the two lead characters, both actors, exchanging dialogue as Willy and Linda Loman. How much published material of that kind can you reference in a screenplay? I’m working on a story that involves the cast and production of Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire. And only attempting to reference material in a couple of scenes. Is this doable?
“I’m assuming there’s copyright laws at play.” So, Craig, what advice would you have for Josh?
Craig: You know, I wish that I could tell you that there was a clear line on these things. Partly it involves how much you use. If you’re going to use a very small amount, sometimes you can just kind of say it falls roughly into fair use.
If you’re doing any kind of parody of it, then there’s much more leeway. But the truth is, if they want to go after you, they go after you. And if they don’t, they don’t.
For you, Josh, I would say write whatever you want. And then the best problem in the world is that a studio loves your script, wants to give a lot of money. The only problem is that they’re having trouble clearing some of the dialogue that you put into that one scene.
Craig: You’ll figure it out.
John: For a while, I was going to adapt this book Wonder, which is a great novel, great middle grade fiction novel. And one of my concerns about was in the course of the novel one of the characters is in a production of Our Town. And so the book talks through this production of Our Town.
And in a book form, that was fine, because it’s a book form. But I was nervous about, well, when it comes time to actually make this into a movie, we’re going to have to sort of show scenes from Our Town, and there’s a blurry line at which point like, well, you’re actually just doing Our Town. And that’s a real concern that people do have in the real world. Like, do you change out that play? Do you do something different? Do you deliberately not show it? Do you cut that whole section of the story?
That was something that another writer had to figure out. So, that movie I think is going to get made now. So, we’ll see what they end up doing with that.
Craig: That definitely is something that you have to… — It’s a red flag when there’s any sense that someone might be confused and think, wait, am I watching a Streetcar Named Desire, or am I watching something that involves a reference to Streetcar? So, if there’s confusion, that’s generally bad.
John: A bad thing. There’s an addendum for Josh. He says, “Last episode you got a question from someone in Launceston, Tasmania, Australia. As a fellow Aussie, I want to clear this up. John, you nailed the pronunciation. And then you, Craig, totally steamrolled him with something that sounded stiff upper lip British.”
Craig: Oh, well, here’s the thing, Josh. You’ve released the Kraken.
Craig: I’m going to dedicate my life to making sure that the people of Launceston pronounce it the way I think it should be pronounced.
John: [laughs] Nice.
Craig: I will spare no expense.
John: Yeah. Launceston.
Craig: In Tasmania.
Craig: Mania. Amanda writes, “I sent a query letter with a short description of my script to a production company. The emailed back to say, ‘Feel free to send along your material as well as a signed copy of the attached submission release form.’ Is this a normal thing? And is this safe to sign? I don’t want to naively sign over the rights to my script, or find myself in a sketchy situation. My script is copyrighted, but not registered with the WGA.”
And you and I have taken a look at this attached submission release form.
John: Indeed. And, in fact, we’ll actually include this PDF with the show notes, so people can take a look at this, too. Craig, what did you think of this?
Craig: I thought it was perfectly reasonable.
John: I thought it was reasonable, too. I’ve seen things like this a lot. So, basically, this company is called Cartel, but a lot of these forms are very similar. They’re basically just trying to cover their ass, so you won’t turn around and sue them six weeks later for an idea that’s the same kind of idea.
Some places, the only way they’ll read your stuff is to sign this. You got to kind of sign this.
Definitely read through it. And if there’s things that make it sound like they’re taking ownership of your property, well, that’s not good. But here it was very clear that they were trying to protect themselves because some ideas are just similar. And things will get out there.
Craig: Yeah. To me this is sort of a good model actually of what these things should look like. So, running it down, they’re saying here’s what you’re agreeing to when you sign this. You’re agreeing that you actually are the owner of what you’re submitting. You haven’t ripped somebody else off or copied it. You’re agreeing that just by giving it to them doesn’t mean that only that person can read it. They can share it with anybody else within their company.
This is the big one: you are agreeing that they might already be exploring similar ideas. They might already have something else like it, or somebody else talking to them about it. So, you can’t sue them, essentially for misappropriating your work.
That doesn’t mean, by the way, copying your work. It doesn’t mean you’re signing the rights away. It doesn’t mean they can take your script, change the cover page, and say you waived your rights. No. This is what it says. “Accordingly you hereby waive any claim that whatever the company is misappropriated any ideas or portions of your submission.” And really that comes down to, look, if you — it’s a little bit like the Gravity case.
Craig: So, there’s a couple of things that are similar, like the title, and it’s a woman in space, and she briefly gets burned at some point, right, and then one movie is about getting home, and it’s a survival story. And the other one is like a scary aliens on a spaceship story. You can’t sue over that. And nor should you be able to. And the rest of it is nothing.
John: Basically saying we’re not going to send back your script. We’re not paying you. That this is a blanket release form. So, this seemed pretty reasonable to me. If people who are doing this for a living want to take a look at this form and give us any guidance about things you think are sort of unusual about this, let us know.
In my experience, I haven’t had to sign one of these for a very, very long time, so I don’t know what the current state of these is. But this seemed very reasonable to me.
Craig: Do we have people sign something like this when they send their stuff to us?
John: That’s a very good point. So, we do have them — if you’re sending in your script for the Three Page Challenge, you go out through a form, and you’re basically saying like we’re cool, you’re not going to sue us, I’m doing this just for funsies. That’s basically what you’re signing as you submit for us.
Craig: Okay. Well, hopefully that covers us. [laughs] You know, because somebody sends something in and it’s like, I feel like once I think I said I’m working on, or have worked on, something similar to this. Yeah, I just don’t want to get sued by somebody.
That’s why these people are doing it. Because unfortunately people do sue, because they’re stupid.
John: Yep. So, my One Cool Thing this week is a video by Estelle Caswell for Vox. And she’s looking at the rhyming scheme of great rappers, all the way back from the ’80s with Kurtis Blow, through the present day with MF Doom, and there’s Eminem along the way. There’s really great little snippets of these songs and that they chart out sort of like how the rhyme schemes work.
And it’s really just fantastic. It’s about 13 minutes long, so it’s an investment, but it’s a good thing for the end of the day when you’re just burned out.
And what was weird is I was helping my daughter with a poetry project this weekend when I was watching this video, so she was doing her haikus and her clerihews and these other sort of poetry forms. But I was watching this video and thinking like, you know what, actually rhyming still does matter because it is so fundamental to hip-hop. It’s so fundamental to sort of how modern music works. And to see these great writers working and sort of how they are finding their rhymes, and finding rhymes that not only work sort of mathematically, but also have such great content behind them. I was really inspired watching this video.
Craig: I will check that out. You know what it reminds me? This is not my One Cool Thing, but did you ever see that video that this guy did on YouTube of the Amen break?
Craig: Basically it was a little snippet of a song from a B-side of another song. And the song wasn’t popular at all. It was called Amen Brother. And the only thing interesting about the song was that in the middle of it all the instruments dropped out and there was just a little drum break. And the drum beat was basically [hums]. And that little bit got sampled and used for everything.
It literally became like the weird urtext of hip-hop, jungle, trap, everything. It’s a great video if you watch it. Anyway, it’s on YouTube. You can just look up Amen break. But my One Cool Thing is Star Wars: A New Hope in infographic form, which everyone has been talking about. This is on a website created by Martin Panchaud, who is a Swiss illustrator and graphic novelist.
And what he has essentially done is a vertical scrolling, two-dimensional graphically designed explication of Star Wars: A New Hope, the movie, in a timeline, with all the dialogue, and representing everybody and all action graphically. And it’s beautiful. And really ingenious.
John: I’m scrolling through as we speak. It really is quite clever. So I would definitely recommend people check this out.
John: It’s nice. Well done. Cool. That is our show for this week. So, as always, our show is produced by Stuart Friedel. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Timothy Vajda. If you have an outro for us that you’d like us to play, you can send that through to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you send questions like the ones we answered today.
We are both on Twitter. I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
You probably are listening to this on a podcast player. It’s great that you subscribed, but it would be also really wonderful if you would leave us a review in iTunes, because that helps people find us.
Next week will be — oh, we have a special guest next week. I’m so excited. But I don’t want to spoil it.
Craig: Ooh, who is it? [laughs]
John: Next week we’re going to be talking television. And we’ll hopefully be talking television with Jonathan Groff, who is one of the executive producers of Blackish.
Craig: He plays King George in Hamilton.
John: A different Jonathan Groff.
John: Yeah, he gets that all the time.
John: Don’t bring it up with him.
John: And then we have special guests the week after that, too. It’s going to be so exciting. We actually recorded this episode on Wednesday because, Craig, you are headed to Princeton for your college reunion. Is that correct?
Craig: Yes. I am heading back to Princeton for my 24th reunion, which isn’t exactly a popular one, but I’m going really because it’s Melissa’s 25th.
John: Oh nice.
Craig: Which is a big one. Yeah. So, I’m joining her. Princeton reunions are insane. I don’t know if you’ve ever read about them or heard about them. I think they are the second or third largest beer-consuming event in the calendar. I’m not joking. Like behind the Indianapolis 500 or something.
It’s crazy. I mean, it’s insane. Like these old people can drink.
So, yeah, and it’s fun. It’s crazy.
John: Oh, it’ll be good. So Ted Cruz won’t be there, because it’s not his reunion. It’s really Melissa’s reunion.
Craig: I mean, listen, I hope he is there.
John: Yeah. That would be great.
Craig: Somebody sent me a picture. There’s a breakfast place in Princeton that has been there forever, PJ’s, and somebody had carved into the wooden table, “We didn’t like Ted Cruz here either.” I mean, now he’s part of the lore of it all.
John: You have your own weird sort of alliance with Ted Cruz. You’re caught in each other’s gravity.
Craig: No, he’s caught in my gravity. [laughs]
John: [laughs] All right. Have fun, Craig. See you.
Craig: Thanks. Bye.
- Find Scriptnotes transcripts at johnaugust.com
- Scriptnotes, 250: The One with the Austin Winner
- Scriptnotes Bonus: Craig and Adam McKay
- Idea Submission Policy and Agreement release form
- Vox’s Rapping, deconstructed: The best rhymers of all time on YouTube
- Amen break on Wikipedia
- Martin Panchaud’s Star Wars: A New Hope in infographic form
- Outro by Timothy Vajda (send us yours!)