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 260 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, Craig and I are going to implore all screenwriters to think twice before using the phrase “begs the question.” We will also be doing one of our favorite features, How Would This Be a Movie? This week we’ll be looking at Anthrax, Amnesia, and Atomic Veterans.
Craig: Now, that in and of itself would be a fantastic single movie.
John: One hundred percent. I think you need some, like there’s a superhero aspect. There’s a courtroom trial aspect. Atomic Veteran just feels like a lesser grade Marvel hero.
Craig: Yeah, like, we can’t get Captain America, but we did find Atomic Veteran.
John: Completely. He doesn’t remember that he is Atomic Veteran because of the anthrax attack. But it will all be sensible by the third act.
Craig: Yeah. Atomic Veteran’s principal super power: reminiscence.
John: Oh, very – fond reminiscence but also a little heartbreak.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah.
John: The things he had to do. The flash of light that took away his true love.
Craig: Oh, wow. This is actually getting to be a really good movie.
John: It’s going to be a good movie. So, let’s save that for the key points, though. Because last week was a huge bombshell episode.
Craig: I mean, everything happened. We are the show where nothing happens for 258 episodes, and then at 259 the whole thing goes up in flames.
John: So, to recap, I am moving to Paris. Stuart is leaving us. We have a brand new producer, Godwin Jabangwe. Also, I sold a book.
John: And so on the episode last week I talked about it in a vague sense because the announcement hadn’t gone out, but now it is out. So, the books title is Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire. Arlo Finch is the lead character of it. It is middle grade fiction. It is sort of the kids’ fantasy fiction. The same kind of book as a Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. There will be three of them at least. And it’s Macmillan that bought it, so it’s a division of Macmillan. And I’m so excited. I am writing them now.
So, my year in Paris will be spent writing kids’ books that are not set in Paris.
Craig: Arlo Finch is so instantly recognizable as a YA hero name. And it’s great.
John: Thank you.
Craig: I kind of secretly want there to be a YA series where the hero is Jim Cummings, or Tasha O’Brien. Just something that’s so – it’s not even mundane. It’s in the weird uncanny valley between Jim Smith and Arlo Finch. You know, just like–
John: I see what you’re saying.
Craig: It’s so average, it’s nothing.
John: Like Tasha O’Brien is an interesting case, because Tasha could go somewhere and O’Brien could go somewhere, but Tasha O’Brien feels just like weird. And it doesn’t have–
Craig: Like a mistake.
John: Like a mistake. You’ve got that weird sort of Shwa at the end of Tasha O’Brien.
Craig: It’s terrible. It’s the worst thing. And I just thought of it. I have to give myself a pat on the back, because, you know, the things we ask our brains to do. I said, Brain, fetch me a name that is weirdly off.
John: Yep. So, I’m very excited to be writing it. At some point I’ll go into sort of more of the details on how I wrote it and how I sold it, but this was my NaNoWriMo project. I wrote a bunch of it back in November. I didn’t write all of it back in November. What you actually sell when you sell a book is often, in this case, the first bunch of chapters and then a proposal for the rest of it. And so that is what the editors read and that is what they bought. And it’s been exciting to go back and write the whole book.
Craig: Now, I see that it’s coming out through Roaring Brook Press. And Roaring Brook is part of Macmillan. So, give us a sense of the other kinds of books that we’ve seen from Roaring Brook so we know what your family is of books.
John: From that specific in-print, I cannot point to any titles that you would have recognized. The other books that my editor, Connie Hsu has worked on, they’re really good sellers and really well done books in that genre, but they’re not like big blockbuster names.
Craig: You will make Roaring Book Press – I mean, you will be the – Roaring Brook will be the house John August built.
John: It could be. So, it is good to understand, we always think in terms of studios, and so we have Paramount and we have Warner Bros, but within each of those big places you have the individual labels. Like Sony has TriStar, they have Columbia, they have Studio 8, and Sony Pictures Animation. There’s different houses within that. And that’s sort of is what it’s like with Roaring Brook Press. They are one of the labels within the bigger company, Macmillan.
So, while I’m so happy to be writing for Connie and for this division, bigger people at Macmillan had to make the call whether to say yes or no to the book, and so I’m happy that they did.
Craig: Did it go all the way to Macmillan?
John: It goes to Mr. Macmillan himself. He has a monocle. And so you have to speak very quietly and slowly, but then he says yes or no and it’s all good.
Craig: I will never, never release my child-like view of the world. I just presume, oh, the company is Macmillan, well, so when can I speak to Macmillan?
John: Exactly. But Macmillan is actually headquartered in the Flatiron Building. So, I’ve not actually visited their offices yet, but I’m excited to visit their offices because it’s that weird narrow building in New York City as you head downtown. And you always see that in movies and that’s actually where they will be dissecting every comma in my book.
Craig: I believe, just off the top of my head, I think the Flatiron building is right near a place called Eataly.
Craig: I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Eataly.
John: I’ve heard many legends of Eataly. I’ve never been there, but that is the famed sort of Italian market with a zillion restaurants and a place where everyone enjoys their Italian food.
Craig: Yeah. It’s really cool. I like it.
John: Cool. There’s other follow up. So, last week not only did we have the season finale episode, we also had Matt Selman , Aline Brosh McKenna, and Rawson Marshall Thurber discussing the season finale episode in a bonus episode we called Duly Noted. That was just the three of them. I wasn’t there while they were recording it. I hit record and I left the room. And so I want to thank them for doing that. It was just a weird lark experiment.
Craig, what did you think of it?
Craig: [laughs] I think you know the answer to that. I don’t listen to podcasts, John. I have no idea what they said whatsoever. I mean, I love all three of them. At some point I will listen to it. Was it good?
John: It was good. It was – they’re three very smart people. So, it was weird and fascinating to hear them talk about me and us without us being there. And so that was great. They’re all three big fans of the show. Matt Selman has never been on the show, but has listened to almost every episode, so it was great to have him as an outside voice dissecting sort of what we do. So, it was fun.
It was just sort of a lark. And I don’t know that there will be more Duly Noted, but let us know what you thought of that and if you’d like to hear more of those in the future. It’s not going to be a weekly thing. This isn’t going to be our weekly recap episode.
Craig: No. We can’t support that sort of thing. We’re just not that interesting.
John: No. I will say that if listeners find a given episode so noteworthy that they actually want to record their episode, I wouldn’t stand in their way. So, if you do want to record a response episode and you can do a good job of it, send us a link and I would consider putting it in the feed as a Duly Noted episode. You could be any random people who have the ability to have a good conversation about the show. I’d consider that. No guarantees, but maybe.
Craig: Wow. That’s very generous of you.
John: Well, I’m not really promising anything other than I might listen to it.
Craig: So, I take it back. That was just empty generosity.
John: [laughs] Last week, you had a One Cool Thing, and we had a listener who wrote in with a response to your One Cool Thing.
Craig: Yeah. So, I was talking about the idea that we live in a simulation, which I pretty much agree with. And then I had read that the existence of Pi and irrational numbers like Pi that never stop, the digits just keep coming and coming, that they prove possibly that we’re not in a simulation because there’s no end, and a simulation theoretically should be finite.
And about 14,000 dorks on Twitter patiently explained to me that that was not true. Alit decided to write in. So, we’ll give Alit the floor. Alit says, “PI being theoretically infinite,” well, hold on. Well, I guess that’s fair, because we never got to the end. “Pi being theoretically infinite doesn’t preclude a finite simulation including Pi as part of its construct. This is because Pi is defined as a ratio between a circle circumference and it diameter. Any representation of Pi in real rational form, that is 3.14, is necessarily an approximation, both in a simulated and non-simulated universe.
“So any simulation dealing with Pi would only need to compute Pi out as far as practically necessary for the simulation. Therefore, Pi exists, therefore we’re not in simulation argument doesn’t hold.” And a bunch of people said similar things. Including, oh, you know, if they’re smart enough to create a virtual reality as complicated as the one we appear to be in right now, they could probably toss on a few hundred trillion digits of Pi. I think we’ve managed to get up to a trillion or something like that.
John: Certainly. So, Craig, the important question is are you convinced by this line of reasoning?
Craig: Yeah. It seems convincing. I think I’m going to have to stand down on the whole Pi thing and revert back to my initial perspective which was that none of this is real. And especially not you.
John: And especially not the 10,000 Twitter people who tweeted you the answer that Pi was not proof, because they weren’t real either.
Craig: No. No. As far as I can tell, I’m the only one.
Craig: But, I got to say, I’m really enjoying the show so far. I mean, the show of reality is just terrific.
John: It’s really well done.
Last week we also talked about Overboard and one of our listeners had done a recut sort of as a request that took the Goldie Hawn comedy and made it a thriller. We have a different trailer that Latif Ullah also wrote in with, which also does similarly a good job of using moments from that movie to set it up as a thriller. So, we’ll put a link to his version, or her version. I don’t know if Latif is a male or female name, in the show notes.
Craig: Also in follow up, a little something about Phil Lord, who recently moved off to England with his writing and directing partner, Chris Miller. I went to Chris’s house for a little goodbye soiree and ran into Phil. And he told me that he listens to us in the shower. So, when Phil, and this is now the person that’s going to be imbuing life to the new Han Solo, when Phil is nude he listens to us. But more importantly, John, I wanted you to know that he told me that he uses Highland.
So, Highland theoretically now will be used to write the new Han Solo standalone movie.
John: That is pretty much amazing. So, Phil Lord, who I should also say has one of those names that is kind of broken and wrong in a Craig’s bad YA novel character way. Like Phil Lord, it’s like it’s two words, but it sort of comes out as one word. Phil and Chris are fantastic. And Phil had actually emailed me a couple weeks ago because there’s something they were trying to do in Highland and he couldn’t figure out how to do it. It was a Courier Prime problem, and I talked him through how to do it.
But I was so excited that he was using Highland to write this new version of Han Solo that he was working on. So, hooray.
John: Let’s get to questions. We have a question from Zack in the UK. And rather than us reading it aloud, I asked if Zack would actually record himself asking the question so we could hear his question in his own words. So let’s listen to Zack.
Zack: Hi John and Craig. Zack from London here. I wondered if you might be able to help solve a script problem that’s been driving us all nuts. We have a script in which a characters’ consciousness are transferred between bodies. When describing the character, it’s important to know which consciousness we are looking at, as well as which body. Both consciousness and bodies recur during the script, so we can’t just discard them after each switch.
So my question is, how would you suggest notating the script to make this clear to the reader. The danger is that bad notation turns a script into one big hot unreadable mess. Is there an elegant solution?
John: Craig, what’s your thought? Is there an elegant solution for dealing with a situation where the person speaking is not the person we see onscreen?
Craig: I think there is. I dealt with something like this when I writing a script called Cowboy Ninja Viking, which I guess still might get made. Chris Pratt has signed on to do it, so that’s exciting. And the idea of that property is that there’s a guy who in his mind has I guess what you’d call split personality, and so imagines himself as a cowboy, a ninja, and a Viking. And in these scenes, sometimes we would see those characters when we were in his perspective, but then from other people’s perspective, we would just see him.
And at times, he alone would be acting as a cowboy, or a ninja, or a Viking. So, what I did in those situations was the character’s name is Duncan, so I would have Duncan, and then I would have Ninja, and then I would have Duncan as Ninja.
So, in this case, I would probably do something similar. Like if it were you and me and were switching minds, I would say John, Craig, Craig inside John, John inside Craig. Something like that.
John: We have one listener in particular who is so hot and bothered hearing John inside Craig and Craig inside John.
Craig: It’s Sexy Craig, right?
John: That is.
John: Just awful. So, what you’re describing, Craig, is that in the character cue, so like the little bit that goes above dialogue, you are saying Duncan as Cowboy. That’s the name of the character who is giving that dialogue, correct?
Craig: Yes. Exactly. So I changed the character names, and this way – because as you’re reading through a script, as much as possible you want to keep the flow. The one thing we know that always breaks up dialogue is a character name. There’s no option to not have it there. So, that seems like good real estate to repurpose to kind of help get this across. It should do the trick.
John: It should absolutely do the trick. And so my advice is the same advice. There are times where I’ve had to do character name/somebody else. Usually that means you’re sort of hearing both people talking at the same time. Or, character name and then in parenthesis after it, like the form of the character that we’re actually experiencing. But anything like that to indicate what’s going on is helpful.
I will say that in general any kind of body switching movie, it can be very tough both on the page and in the movie to remind the audience of who they’re actually seeing. The Change-Up was a movie starring Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds, both friends of ours, and I had a hard time over the course of that movie really remembering who it was that I was watching and following. And sort of what I was supposed to be paying attention to and sort of who was doing the action.
I think it’s actually harder when the two people are kind of similar.
Craig: Little bit of a problem with that movie, wasn’t it?
John: It was sort of a problem with that movie. It’s much more obvious when you’re in a Freaky Friday situation. It’s like, oh, she’s being teenager and she’s being a mom. When it’s a huge difference between those two things, then it’s much more clear. Or, in Ghost when you have Whoopi Goldberg possessed, then you can sort of see what’s happening there. It’s tough when you have people who are very similar to the other form of themselves.
Craig: Yeah, for sure. In something like this, also, I think Zack you would be well advised to put a little paragraph in when this starts. And when it starts put a little paragraph, put it in italics, you can put it in parenthesis so everybody gets that it’s a comment. And just say when you see XXX or XXX, this is what it means, so people know.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Everybody gets the drill here. Clarity is hugely important. And it’s going to ruin everything if people are confused. So, that little note and then changing the character names so we understand, it’s Craig inside John, yeah.
John: That’ll do it.
All right, let’s get to our bit of umbrage for the episode. And this is a topic that I think most recently came up on Twitter. We had a little spat back and forth on Twitter. Not between us. Like we were in agreement, but someone else was disagreeing with us.
So, I want to dig into this issue of Begging the Question. And we’ve actually used this on the show. I searched the transcripts and back in Episode 188, we were doing follow up on the Tess Gerritsen Gravity lawsuit and you said–
Craig: Begging the question means building an argument around something that needs to be figured out by the argument. It’s essentially saying people are definitely hungry because they’re hungry. This guy – and this is the person we’re referring to – is basically saying I’m baffled by your continued defense of Warner Bros and Cuarón because they’re wrong.
John: Exactly. And, Craig, is that begging the question?
Craig: It’s essentially begging the question. Yes.
John: So talk us through what that term originally meant.
Craig: Originally, begging the question was a – it came up all the time in discussion of logic and philosophy. And the idea of begging the question was to take something that you were trying to prove and incorporate it into the basis of the argument to prove that thing.
And so you would end up saying, well, I believe B because the following is true – A, B, and C. It doesn’t work that way. And when you boil it down, really what begging the question refers to is a tautology. In its simplest form, the way it comes up is you can’t teach those people because those people don’t learn.
John: Exactly. So, some examples of begging the question would be opium induces sleep because it has a soporific quality. Well, induces sleep and soporific mean the same thing, so you’re basically arguing A equals A.
John: Let’s plow through some more examples just so it really lands. Strawberries are delicious because they taste good.
Craig: Yeah. [laughs] And you know it’s funny, when you say a proper tautological argument, one that begs the question like this, it sounds so ridiculous, but you have an example here that I think we actually hear all the time in slightly tweaked versions. If marijuana weren’t illegal, it wouldn’t be prohibited by law. Now, I hear a version of this argument these days a lot surrounding police shootings.
Craig: If they weren’t doing something wrong, they wouldn’t have been shot. Meaning you deserve to be shot because you were shot. Doesn’t work that. That’s begging the question.
John: You hear that with immigration as well. Like, well they’re breaking the law because they’re here illegally. There’s implicit like, well, that’s breaking the law because it’s illegal. Like, you’re not actually getting to what’s really the cause here.
Craig: Right. And so you end up drawing conclusions that are faulty because your entire argument is based on the thing that you’re attempting to prove.
Now, we are among the very few people that use it this way, which is the proper way. The vast majority of people say “that begs the question” to mean that invites the question.
John: Exactly. And so to the degree to which even in dictionaries now, sometimes they won’t even distinguish that it’s not the original usage of the phrase. The original usage of the phrase comes back form Aristotle days. And so it meant this kind of circular reasoning. And lawyers would use it. And rhetoricians would use it to describe this exact phenomenon. And my hunch, and I have no evidence for this being the actual case, is I think screenwriters and television writers are partially to blame for sort of how this phrase has drifted into modern usage.
My suspicion is that people would see courtroom dramas and they would see the defense lawyer stand up and say, “He’s the begging the question.” And really no one kind of means what that means, but they would hear that phrase begging the question. Like that’s an important thing to say.
John: And because they hear that important to say, they try to use it in their own speech. And they would use it in a way that really means to suggest the question, invite the question, elicits the question. Which is a very useful thing to say. So, I don’t want to be negative on the construct as like that’s a useful thing to have. I think it’s very, very useful. But, by using begs the question to mean invites the question, we’re sort of stepping over the original usage of the word.
Craig: It’s so funny that you bring up that courtroom thing. It’s absolutely true. And if you stop and think about it, that really should have been the place where people stopped and said clearly this doesn’t mean invites the question, because somebody would say, “Objection your honor. Begging the question.” And the judge would say, “Sustained.”
Well, if it meant invite the question wouldn’t everybody go, “True, go ahead and ask the question.” It’s just a totally different thing. This is one of those things where the war is not only unwinnable, it has been lost for years. You and I are like those Japanese soldiers they would keep finding on islands in the ‘50s who hadn’t heard the news we’ve lost. But I will still fight. I will fight on for the truth of begging the question.
Although I see that you’ve indicated a very good substitute for it which would definitely avoid you pedantically explaining to somebody what begging the question is, and that is to say, “Oh, you’re using circular reasoning.”
John: Yeah. And so maybe we could put this all to bed by saying when you’re trying to use the logical argument for it, maybe say circular reasoning so people know that that’s what you mean. Because I think people kind of figure circular reasoning, it makes a little bit more sense in terms of what logically the fallacy that’s happening here.
But if you’re using the phrase “which begs the question,” I would just ask you to please stop and think could I say which invites the question, or which raises the question. Some examples here. I have 40,000 Twitter followers, which invite the question, why am I not verified? Or which raises the question, why am I not verified. But to say which begs the question, well, that’s kind of ambiguous. And who are you begging? It’s a strange thing. You’re trying to use this smart-sounding phrase that isn’t actually the correct phrase.
Craig: I mean, you can see how this happened. I mean, someone goes, well, the idea is that it’s so obvious that it’s begging to be asked, right? But, yeah. Which raises prompts, invites, all that would be great. We’re losing this fight. Even right now, John, I feel the blood draining from me and the world grows dim.
John: The only reason why I think it’s worthwhile raising this thing, because I’m not even fighting this fight anymore, I’m just raising this because our listener base are the people who are writing movies and television.
Craig: Good point.
John: And I think as the people writing movies and television, let’s just be mindful of what words we’re picking and what words we’re putting in character’s mouths. And if there’s an opportunity to not use the sort of twisted version of begs the question, let’s do that. If there’s an opportunity to say circular reasoning rather than begs the question for this other thing, maybe we should do that.
And let’s also just be mindful of are we trying to use phrases we don’t really understand and putting them in the mouths of big Hollywood actors who are going to say them in blockbuster movies and therefore perhaps shift the usage of language or sort of break a phrase in language when we didn’t need to?
Craig: You know what? You’re right. You’re right. Fight on.
John: We will fight on. It’s our last dying battle for begs the question. So we just ask you to look at your drafts and look at any usage of begs the question. Look at the usage. Just do a find/replace for “which begs the question.” Because that’s almost the only construct you’re going to see this in. And anytime you see that, just consider using a different word rather than begs.
John: Let’s get on to the subject of the day, How Would This Be a Movie? And so on Twitter this morning I asked people to send in suggestions for this segment and we have the best listeners in the world, so a bunch of people sent in a bunch of great suggestions. I picked two of them and then one of them was a thing I just – was a deep Wiki hole I fell into myself.
But the first thing that someone suggested was The Day that Went Missing. It’s a New York Times Story by Trip Gabriel. And this was suggested by Elise McKimmie, who is a friend, and she’s also the person who runs the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. So she’s so smart and she wrote in with a suggestion.
So in this story, Trip Gabriel, who is a reporter for the New York Times, he’s discussing June 17, 2015. He went sailing and he does not remember this day whatsoever, because in fact all he does know about this day was waking up in a CAT scan machine and reading a Post-it note saying you’ve had an incident, you have a form of amnesia called Transient Global Amnesia. You’re going to be okay. You didn’t have a stroke. It’s going to be fine eventually.
Craig, what did you make of this story?
Craig: Well, this story falls under the general category of Oliver Sacks. And the great Oliver Sacks, sadly the great late Oliver Sacks, was a neurologist who wrote a book called The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. And it was a collection of stories based on his work and his research into others. People who were suffering from neurological conditions that changed the nature of the way they interacted with the world. And one of Oliver Sacks’ stories became the basis for the movie Awakenings, which was a wonderful movie. But it’s a genre to me. I think of this as the Oliver Sacks genre of what to do with someone whose mind is now functioning a way that changes their inherent way of dealing with the world around them.
We had the romantic comedy version of this is 50 First Dates. So we know about that.
John: The thriller version of this is Memento. In Memento he can’t form any memories, but this is sort of more limited version of Memento. But even in the story, Gabriel is discussing Memento with his doctors. He says like, “Oh, is this like the movie Memento?” And then a few seconds later, “Is this like the movie Memento?”
John: Finding Dory is another extreme example of a character who has no recollection and no ability to sort of form those long term memories.
Craig: Precisely. And in 50 First Dates they introduced an interesting twist where Drew Barrymore’s character would proceed through her day thinking that it was the day that she got into a car accident that caused the injury. And would be perfectly fine throughout that day, but then in the morning wake up and it was the same thing all over again. Sort of Groundhog Day in her own head.
These are hard to do because they are gimmicky by definition. Memento, for instance, I think smartly understood that it wasn’t enough to have somebody not remember stuff. They needed to tell the story backwards to make it really fascinating for all of us.
So, it’s a tricky thing. You can’t really do a movie that’s just like, oh my god, I have amnesia. What do I do? You can’t do a Terms of Endearment version.
John: I think there’s a version of this that could be like a Gillian Flynn novel like Gone Girl where it centers on this event that happened. So, in Gone Girl it’s her disappearance. In this case it’s like what happened during that day. And it’s all focused on a character wakes up and you’re trying to figure out what actually happened during the course of this day and reconstructing what must have happened. And obviously something very big must have happened during the course of that.
And that’s a classic setup for a story, and especially for a thriller, is not knowing who you were before this moment. I mean, The Bourne Identity is based around Jason Bourne waking up and not knowing who he was. Not just a day was missing, but a whole lifetime was missing before this moment.
Craig: Yeah, we like as audiences watching characters try and solve the puzzle of their own life. And that is what The Hangover was. And that’s what Dude, Where’s My Car was. And we enjoy that process. And we can induce that in all sorts of ways, whether it’s okay you drank too much, or you got hit on the head, or you were part of a secret government program.
John: Or you were roofied.
Craig: Or you were roofied. Exactly. Rohyphnol. The idea of sort of living with this as a condition – so I feel like, first of all, I would say I think we have a pretty good supply of movies where characters have amnesia that are then comedies, romantic comedies, thrillers, spy movies, et. So then the question is is there an Awakenings style movie here?
So, Awakenings was about a patient who sort of had like a – well, I guess we now call Locked-In Syndrome. They seem to be catatonic and yet they were awake. And so the question is are they alive in there, and if so, how do we get to them? And it’s Robin Williams plays the doctor who is interacting with Robert De Niro, the patient, and they do wake him out of this. And he wakens up.
But what we understand in the movie is really it’s about Robin Williams’s character and how he needs to wake up from his own life, which is sort of a flat line. So, you can do a drama like that with this. The problem with amnesia is it disrupts every relationship with that character. Constantly. I have to take my hat off to Tim Herlihy and everyone that worked on 50 First Dates because it really – I love that movie. And they manage to make the relationship work.
John: Well, if you look at that movie versus Overboard, like at no point in 50 First Dates do you feel like Adam Sandler is taking advantage of Drew Barrymore’s character. It would be very easy to set that up in a really uncomfortable kind of rapey way. And they were able to move past that, which was very, very smart.
Craig: Absolutely. And one of the ways they did that very cleverly was by having Adam Sandler meet her father and brother very early on. So he understood that there were people watching and taking care of her. And that they were naturally suspicious of anybody who is going to interlope.
But I’m not really sure this one says movie to me.
John: So, going back to your Oliver Sacks version, there’s a book I read a couple of years ago called The Answer to the Riddle is Me, by David Stuart MacLean. And this might be the longer version that sort of can build out to a full movie. So, in this version, MacLean, it’s a true story, he woke up in India and had no idea where he was. And was basically having this crazy acid trip and went through a horrible two weeks. And these people sort of took pity on him and kept him protected. But eventually they were able to figure out who he was and contact his family and had his family come pick him up and bring him back to the US.
So, it turned out that he was doing work in India and was taking this drug for malaria which sometimes causes these horrible freak outs. And it’s like a form of amnesia where it just kind of wipes your identity clean. And so it was the process of him trying to rediscover who he was and sort of the bad things about who he was. It’s like you always sort of think like, oh, if I could reinvent myself or sort of come back with a fresh slate, but you sort of never get that fresh slate. And all the bad stuff came back with him.
So, that might be the longer Oliver Sacks version, because the journey happens post-recovery from the actual syndrome.
Craig: But I don’t know. It just seems like a slog.
John: All right.
Craig: I don’t know. My studio is not buying this.
John: All right. Why don’t you pitch the next one? This is Atomic Veterans. This was suggested by Maxwell Henry Rudolph, our listener, and it’s all about the post-war atomic tests.
Craig: Yeah, so between 1945 and 1962, approximately 500,000 American soldiers were exposed to radiation from tests of atomic bombs. It’s hard to imagine because we live in a time where there’s a comprehensive test ban treaty and nobody tests atomic bombs. And technologically we would know if somebody did. It was going on constantly.
The US was constantly blowing these things up, as was the Soviet Union. And they were also constantly using – we were constantly using our own soldiers, almost exclusively men, as guinea pigs to see how close you could get.
John: Yeah. So, there are two articles we’ll link to in the show notes. The first is by Tom Hallman, Jr. The second is a New York Times piece by Clyde Haberman. The Clyde Haberman one also has a video that goes with it which is really well produced. But essentially after WWII, well, we detonated these bombs. We knew they worked. We knew they could level cities. But the question was how else can we use them? So we were testing like what happens if we blow them up above a ship? And so they would put a ship out there and blow it up and they’d have a bunch of sailors like kind of cover your eyes, watch it, while the ship goes up in the distance. And then the sailors would have to board the vessel and measure it for radioactivity.
But they’re just wearing tee-shirts. There wasn’t a fundamental understanding or, I don’t know, cleverness to sort of like say, wow, we should have some protective gear here. Or maybe we shouldn’t be doing this at all.
Then, of course, there were the bomb tests in the deserts where they’d be digging trenches and they’d blow things up. And we’ve seen versions of that in movies before where they’re seeing like could we level a house. Well, what happens next? Well, what happens many years later is you have a bunch of these soldiers with cancers that seem quite unusual. And in some cases we see cancers or other problems showing up in their kids and in the generation after that. So, these soldiers who weren’t killed by the blasts, but suffered some sort of radiation poisoning, and that becomes I think the focus of any movie that you try to make out of this.
Craig: Yeah. There are actually a ton of different approaches here. We can go on the nose. Let’s set this in the 1950s and let’s have somebody investigating the government’s effort to use our own men as guinea pigs. And let’s have a sort of domestic espionage movie.
You can definitely do a movie about the men now as they exist now as veterans. It’s very tricky when you’re dealing with older people who are in physical peril. Whether we know it or not, we are all little insurance actuaries in our own minds. And we do this narrative calculation the way that courts do calculations of how much money somebody who has been wrongfully injured should get. And a huge part of that is how long do you expect to live. Well, you’re 15, that accident cost you your eye. It was that guy’s fault. We’re figuring you got 80 years or 75 years of not having that eye. You get this much.
My grandmother, my late grandmother, was diagnosed with cancer when she was 80. And it was stomach cancer. And they strongly recommended that she have her stomach mostly removed. And so she went under the knife at 80, which is an enormous risk, and did survive the operation only for us to find out she didn’t have cancer at all. That it was a contaminated slide that the pathologist had messed up. And so my parents sued for malpractice.
And as you can imagine, one easily – it never went to court. But that’s when I learned, if you’re an 80-year-old woman, they’re like, well, we’ll pay you for the next, I don’t know, expected six years of your life. So, we do a similar moral equation when we’re watching movies and old people are at risk, because in part we’re like, well, all right, but you know, he’s 80. Uh, am I worried about him making it to 85?
And it’s wrong, but we do it.
John: My hunch is that the place where this movie wants to live is in the ’60s or ‘70s. And so these people aren’t especially old, but maybe they’re having their first kids with like birth defects. That feels like the sweet spot. Because what’s also fascinating about this point in time is they think they’ve been good soldiers and at the time of the tests they signed pledges that they would never reveal what happened. Basically it’s treason for them to talk about these nuclear tests.
But once your own kid is having these problems, or you start to have these problems, or your friends start to have these problems, you have to ask yourself like, well, do I hold myself to this pledge, do I risk treason to perhaps save my daughter’s life, to save all of my fellow solders’ lives? At what point do you cross over that line? And that to me I think is probably one of the really inflection points.
And the true story is this is where they first started appealing to the Senate for help.
Craig: There’s another like totally wild way to go is let’s just go fictional. Let’s go science fiction, because any time you’re exploding nuclear devices theoretically you’re messing around with quantum physics and stuff.
You’ve got some guys that are exposed to this. They’re too close. And it disrupts time/space fabric. And they are now moving through time, but always in other places where a nuclear device is about to go off. This actually feels more like a TV show.
John: Quantum Leap.
Craig: Yep. Quantum Leap.
John: Or Voyagers.
Craig: Yeah, it’s Voyagers is really what it is. So, it’s like, okay, it’s happening again. At some point in time, right, there’s now bad people who have nuclear devices moving through time and we have to keep up with them because they will detonate this nuclear device and destroy Paris in 1770. And so we are now there at the same time as them trying to stop them. It’s like there’s so many, you know, a movie studio, they’re not going to make the straight up movie. Ever.
Never, ever, ever. Because there’s just not enough, I think, for them to latch onto. But, the idea of a government – if you are writing a movie and you needed to show how the United States government mistreated its own soldiers, this would be a great scene to show it.
John: Yes. I think the straight ahead version of it could be made for an HBO. I think it could be made as a History Channel movie. I think there’s a venue in which the kind of Erin Brockovich-y version of this could be a really compelling movie. And it would have a really good home.
But I don’t think we’re often making the big end of year blockbuster movie about this very often. Although sometimes we do. So we make Spotlight. And this could be a Spotlight. It could be the one of these a year that we get that is focusing on one particular abuse by the government in this case and we are going to really show the character’s affected by it and the fight to have the story told.
Craig: Yeah. It’s possible. But unlikely. I think my studio will not buy this project either.
John: So, the actual people who are mentioned in some of these stories, Frank Farmer who is 80 years old during part of this, but I feel like the other characters you’re going to focus on would probably be lawyers, they’d be soldiers, they’d be bureaucrats. They’d be family members. No matter what, it feels like an ensemble version if you’re doing this.
If you’re doing the Marvel version, then they see the atomic blast and they get super powers. And we’ve seen versions of that quite a lot.
Craig: And they will never stop. Ever. Ever.
John: All right. Our last story for How Would This Be a Movie is about anthrax. And so I fell into this Wikipedia hole over the week because Mike Pence, who is the Republican VP candidate, I was reading an article about him and it mentioned he was a big proponent of investigations during the anthrax scare. And I had sort of forgotten about the anthrax scare.
So, this is what happened. In 2001, one week after the 9/11 attacks, letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to ABC, CBS, and NBC news, the New York Post, and the National Enquirer. And then later on two more letters were mailed to Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. So, the first letters read, “9/11/01. This is next. Take penicillin now. Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great.” The second letters read, “9/11/01, you cannot stop us. We have this anthrax. You die now. Are you afraid? Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great.”
And so the return addresses on these envelopes were a fake elementary school. Overall, 23 people were infected with anthrax and five of them anthrax. And so what followed is what’s considered one of the biggest FBI investigations in history. A lot of the initial suspicion focused on this guy, Steven Hatfill, who was eventually exonerated. He was a bioweapons expert.
Ultimately, the blame was pointed at this guy named Bruce Edwards Ivins who was an anthrax researcher who actually wanted people who was involved in the research effort for the FBI, he was one of the main sort of scientists trying to figure out where the anthrax came from. He committed suicide. And so in 2008 he killed himself with an overdose of prescription Tylenol. And the FBI closed its investigation.
So, I will say that there’s still a not too Tin-Hatty discussion that he really couldn’t have been the guy, or at least not the only guy. But right now it is considered a closed case and that he was the guy who sent the anthrax.
Craig: Yeah. I remember this whole thing. I remember that the letter was sent from very close to Princeton University. Here’s the part of this that jumps out at me and that I think, ooh, you could go anywhere with this. You don’t have to be stuck telling this particular story, because this particular story feels old and no longer immediately relevant, because we have bigger problems now, different problems with terrorism, both domestic and international.
But what fascinates me is the idea of the perpetrator being hired to find the killer.
John: Absolutely. I think that’s the most compelling thing. Especially if you as the audience either know or suspect that he’s involved in it from the start. That’s great. It’s compelling.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, there’s something about the government facing this challenge. Someone has done a very bad thing and they cannot figure out who it is. And this case has landed into – it’s always good when it’s some new law enforcement person who needs to prove herself, you know?
So, this is a big break. And you use the trope of the old drunk who used to be great. So the one person who can help you that we haven’t been able to get through is blah, blah, blah, because he’s out of the game. But there’s all sorts of ways you can get to that person. The point is, that person becomes her partner. And we’re telling that very familiar story of two odd couple/unlikely partners on the trail of a criminal.
And then she starts to suspect it’s him. That’s really interesting.
John: I think it’s interesting. That obviously you could take that in a fictional direction and it doesn’t have to be tied to this one anthrax attack. And you could set that present day. That’s a great dynamic between two characters. Classically like do you trust that partner? And so Training Day has an aspect of that, too, although that was much more sort of present tense.
What I think is compelling though about the original anthrax attacks, and made me surprised that I hadn’t seen a good movie version of this, is I feel like people kind of remember what happened during that time. I mean, 9/11 was sort of overwhelming everything, but I remember the paranoia that people felt. I remember like people handling their mail with gloves on. And this paranoia like where are the letters going to come next.
The Unabomber had a quality of that, too, where every couple of years the Unabomber bomb would go off and you’re like, oh wow, that’s still a thing that’s out there. To me I think the home for this kind of story would be as a limited series. Like a People v. OJ Simpson, where you chart through and you follow this session of history and really drill down into it.
I found myself really compelled by this, and if I weren’t just incredibly busy, I think this is the kind of thing I would pitch a network as a limited series because I feel like there’s a really fascinating story to chart through, particularly Ivins’s role is just so good and so castable. It feels like the kind of thing you can bring a movie star in to do this limited series and make something really cool.
Craig: Yeah. Absolutely. What you would need I think to find in there is that cultural relevance that obviously OJ Simpson had. You’re always looking for the bigger picture of, okay, I’m going to get you inside the minutia of this investigation, this story, because that’s an exciting soap opera. But ultimately, this meant something and it meant blah, blah, blah. And I’m not sure what the answer is with this one.
John: Yeah. I think what was so interesting about that time is that obviously 9/11 we had the attacks then and it was such a visible scar on the world, whereas this was almost more like a sniper attack. It was hitting individual things, but in some ways had a bigger effect of disrupting our news media and our entire postal system than the 9/11 attacks themselves did. It was strange that it was happening at the same time, and yet it was such a different scale.
And in some ways the people who were affected were just so kind of random. There’s a quality of, you know, sort of the cliché movie moment where they’re circling things on a map to try to figure out where something came from. This actually has that, where you had to figure out like well what mailbox did these all come from. And we have to trace it all the way back. It has those qualities which is compelling.
Craig: There’s a short story I remember reading from way, way back when about a detective who is on the trail of a killer. And he cannot find the killer. And it made me think of this. I was looking at the Wikipedia page that you linked to and interestingly we’ve combined two of our ideas here. Ivins apparently said to the FBI when they were investigating him that he suffered from loss of memory, stating that he would wake up dressed and wonder if he had gone out during the night.
And that led me back to my memory of that short story, because the trick of the short story, and there’s a serial killer out there who is cutting people up, it’s horrible, and it’s preying on this poor detective. And he comes to understand finally at the end it was him. When he thought he was asleep, he was doing these things.
That’s a really interesting thing. The idea that you’re chasing yourself. Tricky. I like that.
John: Yeah. So, I think there’s a lot of material to be mined there. So, whether it’s this individual attack, or it’s just that idea of the agent within who is subverting the whole thing is fascinating. We’ve talked about No Way Out on the podcast before, and that’s another great, compelling moment.
In No Way Out, they save it for the very, very end of the story, that reveal. But if you revealed early on sort of what’s going on, then that’s compelling. We love to watch the villain and sort of watch the villain try to stay ahead of things. There’s a tension that’s naturally there when we know something that the hero doesn’t know.
Craig: That’s very typical horror movie type stuff.
John: Cool. All right. So those are our three entries. Thank you to everyone who sent in suggestions for what could be a movie and How Would This Be a Movie. If you have more of those suggestions, always write in. So you can just write to email@example.com, or hit us on Twitter. When I see things that are interesting, I just file them away and eventually we get them sometimes.
It’s time for our One Cool Things.
Craig: So, my One Cool Thing is macOS Sierra beta. And this is the beta version, the preview version, of what will be the new Mac operating system to follow – what are we on now, Mountain, Tiger, what is this thing?
John: I think we’re in El Capitan now.
Craig: There you go. Oh, that’s right. They switched from cats to landmarks. And they’re still in landmarks for Sierra.
So, this is new for Apple. Apple went through this one very big thing where they suddenly were like, hey guess what, the operating system is free, which is awesome because you could just hear pants filling in Redmond, Washington as Microsoft was like, “What????”
So, yeah, and lo and behold, Windows, which used to cost hundreds of dollars, now free.
Craig: So that was the first big change that Mac introduced. But this is the first time I believe they’ve introduced a beta of the entire operating system out in the wild to anyone – anyone who wants it. And we’ll put a link up in the show notes for you to download.
I did download it because I’m crazy like that. And it’s actually working quite nicely. The big change is Siri. You have Siri built into the system, so it’s not just on your phone now. If I want to ask my computer a question, I can.
John: Have you found it useful so far?
Craig: Yeah, it’s about as useful as it is on my phone. Which is, you know, once every week maybe?
John: I find myself as a heavy Siri user. And so I haven’t installed the Mac OS beta because of some other issues, but on my phone I do use it a lot and I think it’s because I just – if you just sort of push yourself to use it more, you find it incredibly useful, especially in the car. I use it for sort of like quick math things. I won’t pull up the calculator. I’ll just ask Siri the answer. And she’s really good at that.
I find it generally pretty useful.
Craig: My problem, honestly, and I don’t know if I’m common this way or not, but my problem is I am so embarrassed, even when I’m alone, to say, “Hey Siri,” I’m embarrassed.
John: Yeah. And you don’t have to. You can just push the home button.
Craig: I know. But if I’m driving and my phone is over there, then I want to, then I’m like, oh my god, am I going to say it? Am I going to–?
John: I say it all the time. And I’ll ask for directions while I’m headed someplace and a lot of the times it works. It doesn’t always work, but it works enough that I’m actually really happy to have it.
You don’t have the Amazon Alexa, do you?
Craig: No. Alec Berg has it.
John: People love it.
Craig: Again, I can’t say, “Hey–,” sorry, I don’t want to say it. “Hey Thingy,” I don’t want to say that because I’m embarrassed. I feel like a dope. But I understand that there needs to be something for it to know that I’m talking to it.
John: It’s true. I mean, I do like that we’re kind of living in The Next Generation where they tap their little badges and ask the computer a question. That’s always been my fantasy. One of my very favorite episodes of The Next Generation was where Doctor Beverly Crusher discovers that she’s in a simulation – or not really in a simulation – she’s in a time bubble. And she’s the only character in that part of the episode, and so she’s only talking to the computer, and the computer is giving her answers back. But the computer is describing the ship as like, well, what was that sudden shock? Well, the first three floors no longer exist. It was decompression of the hull.
I love that sense of talking to the computer and talking to this disembodied voice. And Siri and Alexa, they’re getting us closer there.
Craig: What a surprise that you like talking to a computer.
John: See, if you had listened to the Duly Noted episode with Matt Selman and company, you would know so much more about that.
Craig: Now I got to listen to it.
John: Now you got to listen. My One Cool Thing is called Phased. It is a Vimeo video shot by Joe Capra. And what is it is a series of time lapses of different sections of Los Angeles. And so we’ve seen a lot of time lapses where clouds drift by and things are really lovely. This was shot in 12K resolution on this camera called a Phase One XF IQ3. It’s 100 megapixel camera.
John: So what that lets you do is you’re in this incredibly wide panoramic shot, and then you can punch into a pretty good close-up of a section. And so you can go from like the panorama to like, oh, I can see individual people. It’s really remarkable. And so I thought it was terrific. I can imagine lots of uses for this, particularly, I mean, for visual effects certainly, so you can get these incredibly detailed backgrounds on things, but other smart directors will find great uses for this just like they found uses for slow motion and for high frame rate photography.
There’s going to be something really cool to do here. So, I do want to stress that what I’m linking to is time lapse, so everything always sort of looks magical and cool because it’s time lapse. But there will be some great uses for this in the future I can sense.
Craig: Grand Theft Auto 7.
John: It does look like a video game already. And that’s what’s so remarkable. What I love about time lapse of cities is there’s just a glow behind things just because of sort of light bouncing around in special ways. And it does just look magical.
Craig: I think honestly the next generation of these big sandbox games will be normal. But I can easily see, like I don’t know, Grand Theft Auto is once every five years, something like that. I could easily see that, we’re maybe two years away, so seven years from now when Grand Theft Auto 7 comes out, they will have 12K’d an entire city. Or, maybe even the entire country at that point. And figured out a way for you to access it as you’re driving around, looking at the real – it’s going to be amazing.
John: It’s going to be Pokémon Go, but real. And basically you’ll just shoot real people. [laughs]
Craig: I can go to my own house.
John: So here’s what’s going to happen. Essentially they’ll just decide that the world is now Grand Theft Auto and the rules are just there are no rules.
Craig: The rules are there are no rules. I actually feel like it would be a more peaceful world. Because when you’re feeling really pissed off, you just go into your computer and you blow up people you want to blow up and you get it out of your system.
John: Yeah. That’s what we need. It’s like training for how you should deal with things in life.
John: Oh, shoot, I thought I could just hit reset, but I can’t hit reset. Like all those Brexit voters who thought like, oh, I can just refer to a safe state.
Craig: Well, Brexit voters are, yeah. They are not saved.
John: They are not saved. That’s our episode this week. There are links in the show notes to almost everything we talked about, including a lot of the articles we discussed. Our One Cool Things. So, definitely check those out.
If you’re listening to this episode in most podcast players, they have the links below the title artwork. Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe.
John: Our editing is by Matthew Chilelli.
John: If you have a question for us, write us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find us on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
We are on iTunes. You know how to leave a review for us. And that would be so fantastic if you would. It just helps new listeners find our show.
And our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro for us, send it in to that same address and we will maybe play it on the air. Thanks guys.
- Arlo Finch on TUMBLR
- Duly Noted: Let’s Talk about Episode 259
- Craig’s One Cool PI Thing
- Latif Ullah’s Cut of Overboard
- Begging the Question
- Begging the Question Fallacy
- Trip Gabriel
- Oliver Sacks
- The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia on Amazon
- Tom Hallman, Jr.
- Clyde Haberman
- 2001 Anthrax Attacks
- Bruce Edward Ivins
- macOS Sierra
- Phased by Joe Capra
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter