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 263 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast we’ll be doing another round of the Three Page Challenge, but this time with a twist. We’ll also be looking at the 100 most frequently asked questions in screenwriting.
But, Craig, a couple episodes ago you were gone when Billy Ray was on because you had a terrible ear infection.
John: Today, this is my day for a gory ear story. Are you ready?
Craig: I am. In fact, I’m more than ready. I’m thrilled.
John: So, I guess a general trigger warning. If you do not like stories of ear pain, use the little chapter button to skip ahead right here. I’m going to give you the quick lowdown on what happened with my ear today.
So, as you all know, I’m leaving for Paris in less than a week.
John: And so I have to do all of these doctor’s appointments for the doctors I will not see over the year that I’m in Paris. Today was the allergist. And the allergist was fine, no issues, but she was looking in my left ear and she said, “You know what? You have a lot of wax build up here. I’m going to send the nurse in and she’ll get that wax out.”
I’m like, great. So it’s like a paid Q-tip. So she comes in and she has this amazing instrument I’d never seen before. It’s like a plastic pick, a clear plastic pick that has a hoop on the end and then attaches to a little light, so she can use that to look inside and see the wax and get it all off. And I’m like well this is amazing. A new technology. I was so excited, until she put it in my ear.
John: It was one of the most painful experiences of my entire life.
Craig: This is not a gory story at all. This is what happens to me four times a year. I thought for sure there was going to be blood or they were going to find a worm or a nest of spiders.
John: So, there was blood. There was quite a bit of blood. And my ear is actually bleeding as we’re recording this podcast. So, in getting this stuff out, they opened something up, and so there’s been a lot of blood coming out of my ear for the rest of the afternoon.
Craig: Yeah, I don’t mean to downplay the pain. It is incredibly painful. So, I’m in your boat. My doctor said, “Some people are wax makers. You’re a wax maker.”
John: We are wax makers. That’s maybe why we’re screenwriters. Maybe the secret of our podcast. I do wonder if maybe having these headphones on my ears a lot, because I end up wearing them a lot, is part of what is building up all the wax in my ears.
Craig: It’s unlikely. It’s not likely.
John: It’s genetics.
Craig: It’s just genetics. Exactly. And, in fact, there’s two specific kinds of ear wax that are very related to genetics. There’s wet and there’s dry. I guarantee you you have wet, because wet wax people are the ones that have these problems. And then maybe you go in there with a Q-tip to try and clean some out every now and then and you do, but you’re also compressing a bunch in there. And then it gets all slammed up against the wall. And then they can’t see. And then to get it off they’re basically – it’s like they’re ripping a scab off the inside of your ear.
John: It really is basically what they did.
Craig: Yeah. It hurts so much.
John: It hurts so much. It hurts so much more than I was expecting. Because I’ve had tattoos. I’ve had a kidney stone. But this was just a very uniquely sharp pain. Just imagine a toothpick being shoved into your brain. That’s what it felt like.
Craig: Yeah. It is an incredibly sensitive part of the body. Unfortunately, it’s not like they can put you under general to take these. And then when you look at finally what they’ve pulled out you feel like, oh my god, you must have pulled out like a pound and it’s like a tiny little pebble.
Craig: Very annoying.
John: But, anyway, I’m better now. And so I hear you delightfully clearly in ways I probably haven’t for weeks.
Craig: Through blood, which is my favorite way to be heard.
John: Oh, so good. This week also I was talking with a friend, Elan, who was at Gen Con. So he’s the guy who developed and designed Exploding Kittens. And so he was there at Gen Con, the big D&D conference, with Exploding Kittens and they sold out of that, which is congratulations. Awesome for him.
But, he was telling me about this conference. And as he was describing it I could not believe that you and I were not there. So, this is the once a year giant Indianapolis convention for all the D&D geeks, and other gamers, and with all sorts of board games. But, Craig, we have to go there.
And the specific story he told me that made me certain that we had to be there was this thing called True Dungeon. Do you know what True Dungeon is?
John: So, it’s a live action thing you’re going through that is a D&D adventure. So you’re going from these rooms to rooms. It has aspects of an escape room, but also aspects of D&D. You’re there with your party. You are assigning your attributes. You are winning treasure. And based on the treasure you win, the next year you come in with an advantage.
Craig, why are we not there?
Craig: Well, I mean, look, the only reason I can think is that I don’t like people, so obviously that’s a little bit of an issue for me with these things. But, it does sound like the kind of convention I would very much like to go to. And don’t you think that they would be interested in like a screenwriter-hosted game of D&D? We could DM, or I could DM, or you could DM and actually play. Would be fun. Do these people care about us, or are we nobody to them?
John: That is a question I think it’s worth asking to our listenership. I’m curious what the Venn diagram is overlapping people who know about Gen Con and would know whether we could actually get into Gen Con and maybe speak, or maybe do a live episode at Gen Con. I’m curious sort of how many of the people in our listenership are actually decision makers at Gen Con, or at least know the decision makers at Gen Con.
So, if you are involved with Gen Con and would like us to maybe come to the Gen Con 50, it’s the 50th anniversary of Gen Con next year, August 17 through 20, drop us a line. Drop us a line at email@example.com. That’s how we got the Kates on the show, so maybe that’s how we’ll get ourselves to Gen Con.
Craig: That’s absolutely true. It’s worked once before, and at this point I have to assume it’s going to work again, because past success is a predictor of future success.
John: 100 percent.
John: And while we’re in the follow up topics and we’re talking about The Katering Show – The Katering Show is now on YouTube. So if you did not have a chance to see season two when it was on the weird special channel it was on, it is now available on YouTube. So I would encourage you to watch all the episodes of the wonderful Australian Kates and their amazing television program.
Craig: So great.
John: So great. To our main topics this week. Way back in the early 2000s, I used to write a column for IMDb, which I was answering a bunch of really basic screenwriting questions. It was a weekly column. It got kind of frustrating. I was answering the same questions again and again. So in 2003 I set up johnaugust.com, the website where you’re probably listening to this podcast through. And on that site I answered a bunch of questions. I did that for a couple more years. And then I got really tired of just answering questions again and again.
And, Craig, you did the same thing on Artful Writer, didn’t you? You’d answer questions about the industry and the business?
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I probably did it similarly to you and the way we do it on the podcast. I would store up a whole bunch of them and then I would do Q-a-Apalooza.
John: Yep. And you would have plowed through them. And then over the years I just got really tired of doing that. And I also got tired of the site as a blog, just always being these questions. It felt like the wrong kind of way to be doing it.
So, when Stuart started working for me, this is five years ago, I said, hey, let’s make up a new site that’s really, really basic questions about screenwriting. It should be the answer to a Google search for any of these things. And so he started generating questions and he set up the site. And then as people would write in questions, he would just answer the questions. And so it was a great sort of way to let Stuart just do all of that stuff. And so he would answer questions like what is a brad. Like really basic questions, but they were just fundamental questions that if you didn’t understand that, then the rest of screenwriting would be very hard to understand.
And so over the years that built up and there were about 500 questions on that site at times. And this last year I said, you know what, let’s take all of the most asked questions and stick them together as one PDF that people can just download to answer all those things.
And so that’s out there right now. So if you go to screenwriting.io, click on the little link, you can download the 100 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Screenwriting. And it’s free. It’s just meant to be the basic answers to the very basic questions that you’re likely going to have.
So, even the questions that we get on the podcast tend to be more sophisticated than these, but I thought we might hit some of the questions that Stuart answered in this book and see if we agree with how Stuart answered the question.
Craig: I love that there’s the chance that we can beat up Stuart in absentia.
John: Yeah. Isn’t that sort of great? It just keeps going on. I thought we might take a look at three questions and see how Stuart answered them and if we agree with how Stuart answered them. And I want to stress here, Stuart sometimes asked me questions about the questions, so he would say like, “I got a question about this, and what should I say?” And I would just tell him what to say. But I really have not read this book.
And so this is one of the rare cases where I’m putting something out there saying like I think this is probably accurate, but I haven’t read through all 81 pages of this book carefully, because in some ways it’s their thing, not my thing. So I was just the person giving them a job.
Craig: I hope so much that it is wrong.
John: It would be so good if it were wrong. Let’s start with question number 32. If you look at the index, all those are clickable links, so you can just click on it. Question 32. What does “high concept” mean? Here’s what Stuart said: A “high concept” idea is one that can be easily and succinctly explained. It was originally coined ironically, in opposition to “high art,” which is why to some the term is counterintuitive. A good (albeit extreme) example is Snakes on a Plane — the title itself explains the idea.
John: Craig, what do you think of that definition of high concept?
Craig: No. No, no.
John: All right. Give us a better one.
Craig: Well, my objection is that easily and succinctly explained could apply to a low concept movie, such as My Dinner with Andre. A high concept movie to me is one in which the plot circumstance is more remarkable than anything else you’re going to describe. The hook of the movie, or the premise of the movie, is outlandish or big or vibrant. It’s in your face.
John: Great. I think that’s a much better definition than what Stuart gave. So, one of the lovely things about an e-Book is we can just change it. And so perhaps even by the time people are downloading this book, we will have changed that.
But one of the reasons why we will ask for your email address when you download the book is we will update it and fix things. And so probably by the time next week rolls around, we will fix this to incorporate more of what Craig said.
Craig: I’m already enjoying this process.
John: Great. Let’s do question 23.
Craig: Are scenes that take place in cars INT. or EXT.? And here’s what Stuart wrote: Car scenes often use camera placements that are both INT. and EXT., so INT./EXT. is usually appropriate for their scene headers. This is not a hard and fast rule. If your scene is obviously either INT. or EXT., indicate it as such. For example, if you have a movie about a family that has encountered a shrink ray, and your centimeter tall characters are adventuring from the back seat of a car to the front, your scenes are probably strictly INT.
John, what did you think?
John: I mostly agree with what Stuart said here. I think his example was really weird at the end, like the shrink rays/people in a car, but yeah, you’ll very often see INT./EXT. for car scenes. It very often kind of won’t matter a lot. So, if most of the action is taking place inside the car, I tend to use INT. if most of it is taking place outside the car, I say EXT.
Craig: I’m with you. So, Stuart’s 0/2 right now. This is great. This is great.
John: All right. Let’s try number 56. What is a two-hander? A two-hander is a movie where there are two main characters of roughly equal importance to the story, and whose arcs are given roughly equal screen-time. Romantic comedies and buddy cop movies are often two-handers, but almost all genres have their examples. The Sixth Sense is a thriller two-hander.
Craig, what do you think?
Craig: I think Stuart nailed that one.
John: Stuart Friedel for the win.
Craig: Nice. This is a good one. How do you format two characters talking at once? When two characters are talking at the same time, it is referred to as “dual dialogue,” and the two speakers’ text blocks go side-by-side. Most screenwriting programs have an option for this. In Final Draft, if you type the dialogues normally with one below the other, highlight both, and select Format —> Dual Dialogue, it will put the blocks side-by-side.
I agree with this, but it also points out how bad Final Draft is at making dual dialogue. So bad.
John: Yeah. It also seems strange that Stuart wouldn’t have mentioned how you do it in Highland, which is the app we actually make. Or how you do it in Fountain, yeah.
Craig: [laughs] I mean, I’m starting to feel like, I mean, listen, don’t speak ill of the dead.
John: Stuart’s not dead. Stuart’s alive and married.
Craig: Oh. Oh, he’s alive. Oh, I thought he died.
John: No, that’s not why he left.
Craig: Oh my god. I sent his parents flowers. What a mistake.
John: They deserve flowers. They’ve had to deal with 30 years of Stuart Friedel.
Craig: He did actually a very good job for him to have done all this. And, yeah, that’s exactly right. You put them side-by-side. It’s something that you should use sparingly, I feel. It’s actually kind of hard to read.
John: It is hard to read.
Craig: And so you’re asking the reader to do some math, because of course we can’t hear it simultaneously. We have to read it in sequence. It’s just the way time works and when you’re reading. So, you’re approximating something. That’s why you should use it kind of sparingly. And only when it’s really important. Because you know throughout a script people are going to be overlapping plenty. So just don’t go nuts with this.
John: Yeah. You’re other option is always to call it out in parenthetical. And so you can say overlapping, or sometimes it will say “overlapping throughout.” Sometimes I’ll even do that as scene description, sort of like “Overlapping throughout–“and then it’s a big run of dialogue and different people talking.
And that just gives you a sense this is meant to be pandemonium. People are all on top of each other. Don’t worry about how this person’s dialogue interacts with this person’s dialogue. They’re all talking. And that sometimes is the more crucial sense you’re trying to convey.
Craig: Yeah. That’s exactly right. If you’re dealing with a crowd and you’re going to have four different people shouting out something in the crowd, rather than give them each a name and dual dialogue it, you can just say make a character called crowd and say the things they’re saying and maybe just shift return to put them on their own lines. Or put little slashes in between them just to get a sense of this is all simultaneous yammering.
John: You’ll often see that with news reports, where you’re cutting between a whole bunch of things. Even on previous Three Page Challenges we’ve had that, where it’s a news report going through a bunch of different talking heads describing the scene behind us.
John: Cool. Great, so if you want to download that, that’s at screenwriting.io. And you will just click, give us your email address, and we’ll send it to you.
So, Godwin Jabangwe, our Scriptnotes producer, has also gone through and edited this. So, he’s done some proofreading on it, but there will still be mistakes. And so one of the things you’ll see on the second page of the PDF is just a link to click, where basically if someone is broken, something is not right, or something could be better. So people can click that link and we can also improve things along the way.
Craig: It’s a great service. Just adds to the pile of good works that you do.
John: Why thank you.
Craig: All right. Well, I guess it’s probably time for our Three Page Challenges.
John: Absolutely. So, as long time listeners know, we occasionally take a look at three page sample sent in by our audience, offering our honest assessment in the hopes that people learn from them. Not just the people who wrote them in, but also our listeners.
If you would like to read along with us, you can find the PDFs in the show notes, so just scroll down and you will see the PDFs and you can see what it is we were talking about.
So, normally this is the point in the podcast where Craig or I try to lamely summarize what’s happening in the three pages, so people who are listening without looking at it can know what we’re talking about. I thought we’d try something different, which is invite our producer, Godwin Jabangwe, on to give us a synopsis of each of these projects before we start describing it. So, Godwin, if you could please hop on the line.
Craig: You know what’s great? Poor Godwin just listened to us beating up Stuart, and now he’s thinking, “The day I leave, they’re going to turn on me. This is terrible.”
Godwin Jabangwe: I’m never leaving.
Craig: Oh, smart. Smart.
John: So, would you start off with Tierra Blanca by Salvador Medina?
Godwin: All right. We open in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico, on a blazing hot morning. Ben, a man in his early 30s, tries to evade a truck that’s trailing him. He pulls into an auto shop where Diego and Rob are playing cards. Ben tells the mechanics to take their time. He’s in no rush. He’s resigned to his fate as the truck he’s been trying to escape waits patiently outside.
We cut to the past, two years earlier, to meet a younger, skinnier Ben. And that’s it.
John: So, everyone who has listened to this segment before knows that when we cut to the past at the bottom of page three, what is that called?
Godwin: It’s a Stuart Special.
Craig: I mean, do we rename it at this point, because Godwin picked this one. So this is on Godwin.
Godwin: This was an homage to Stuart.
Craig: Oh, OK. Fair enough. Fair enough.
John: We were discussing maybe a Godwin Gotcha.
Craig: [laughs] I like that. A Godwin Gotcha. So, Tierra Blanca is writing by Salvador Medina, who is Mexican. We know this because he put it on his title page, his contact information is that he lives in Mexico City. So, I’m going to avoid commenting on maybe some little tweakity things with English, because his English is vastly better than my Spanish.
This is a perfectly good way to start a movie. And we give the Stuart Special a lot of grief, but here’s what really works – I can see everything. I can see the streets. I can see the time of day. I can see the light. I can see what Ben looks like. I can see the heat. I can see the colors of the trucks. All of this is working great.
But, this I thought was not a great use of real estate in terms of the first three pages in the sense of what was happening. Here’s what’s happening. Ben is driving along. He’s in Mexico. He is not Mexican, clearly. And he realizes someone is following him and in that moment realizes that he’s going to die.
Now, what I just said, that’s not on the page. What’s on the page is that he sees the pickup truck behind him running a red light to keep up with him. And then Salvador writes, “Ben, surveys with his eyes.” That’s it.
John: There’s under-reaction there. And that’s the case where you’ve got to make that a playable moment for the actor. Surveys isn’t the verb there that sort of tells you what he’s doing.
Craig: No, exactly. It doesn’t give us a sense of what’s in his head. And what is in his head there should help us transition to this next scene. In the next scene, Diego, who runs an auto shop, is going to just greet him like he’s any customer. And Ben is going to explain to him that he can’t go outside because they will kill him as soon as he does. And Ben is depressed. He’s miserable. He’s in despair. That would all work if I understood the moment that caused the despair was actually causing despair.
That said, there is a card game going on between Diego and Rob, who are coworkers, that doesn’t really seem to be adding anything. I didn’t care about it. I don’t know what it could possibly be doing for us other than taking some time and setting some flavor, but once I see that Ben knows he’s going to die, I need to be with him.
John: Yeah. I think that aspect of being with him is my biggest question about this. It seems like we’re in Ben’s POV, but we break POV to come to Rob and Diego who are playing this card game, yet they’re not given very specific characters. And so my question going forward is are they main characters? Are they supposed to be main characters? Is there a reason why we’re shifting to their POV?
A strange thing that happens on page two, “Rob chuckles and takes the money. A white pickup truck parks in front of them.” Well, that’s Ben’s white pickup truck.
John: But to say a white pickup truck, like wait, is it the same pickup truck? And so I ended up having to skip back a page and I was looking for who has a pickup truck, who has a pickup truck. And I see the first INT./EXT., there you go, answer to a Stuart question. It says Ben’s car rather than Ben’s truck, or Ben’s pickup truck.
And so, again, this may be an English thing, but when I see car, I’m not necessarily thinking truck. And so I was looking to try to match up what was actually happening here. And so my belief is that you’re trying to set a Tarantino kind of world where there are multiple people who can have storytelling power and people can cross over, but it’s only page two. And so it felt really strange for it to suddenly be shifting to these guys’ POV and to not really be focusing on Ben through these moments.
I can imagine a scenario in which Ben sees the car behind him, decides to pull into the auto shop, and we’re staying on his POV about what it is he’s trying to do next in order to watch the guy who is waiting for him to come out.
Craig: Yeah. This thing between Diego and Rob, it only really works if it happens before I know there’s any trouble at all. So for instance, there is a version here, Salvador, where you cut the scene, i.e. Ben’s car. Take all of it out. We’re not meeting Ben there. We’re not seeing him driving. We’re not seeing his truck. We’re not seeing somebody following him. We just open on Sinaloa, and you have subtitle that’s explaining to us that this is home to Mexico’s biggest drug lords. And that this Tierra Blanca is the neighborhood where most of them come from. So, we’re in a dangerous place.
And the next thing we see is an auto shop where a couple of guys are goofing around playing cards. And that doesn’t seem dangerous at all. Well, that’s an interesting contrast. So they have their little back and forth chit-chat, and then a guy comes in. Some white guy walks in and they’re like, oh okay, yeah, we’ll fix your car. This is all very mundane. Until he says, “They’ll kill me as soon as I leave here anyway.”
And then you have surprised people. And you have surprised Diego. And we are surprised with him. I think this is just a better way to think about things. How do you manufacture surprises, even though, look, let’s face it, it’s not really that surprising, right? You’re making a movie about drug wars. There’s going to be a problem.
John: We’ve seen movies before.
John: I think what I would pitch though about your version of this is that initial conversation between Diego and Rob just has to be a lot better. You only get one first line in the script, and one first moment, and so like whatever that card game is, it has to feel like even if the other stuff never happened, we’d be interested enough in these characters based on the dynamic that we saw there.
And so look at what that card game is. It can feel very naturalistic. But just it needs to tell us more. It needs to be more important for why it’s there.
Craig: 100 percent. And I’ll point, Salvador, to a scene that I love in a movie I love. Kill Bill. This was in the first one. Uma Thurman’s character goes to meet a man named Hattori Hanzo, who makes these brilliant Japanese swords. He’s the best. But he’s since retired, and now he just works as a sushi chef. And he has this guy that’s basically his underling. And she walks in there pretending to just be some ding-a-ling American tourist who can’t speak Japanese.
And he’s just, you know, it’s a goofy scene. And all of his back and forth with the guy that’s working for him is funny. And it’s the comedy of the mundane and the ridiculous. He’s not moving fast enough. He’s so stupid. And then she finally drops the bomb that she knows who he is. And know he’s talking Japanese to her and it takes on a very different pallor.
You got to find some life if you’re going to do this, right, because that’s the point.
John: So, last things I want to look at, first off it starts with a title card. And so here’s the text of the title card: “Culiacán, Sinaloa, home to Mexico’s biggest drug lords. Most of them come from one of its oldest neighborhoods: Tierra Blanca.” I really like that as an opening thing. I can see that being really helpful for setting the mood. But if we’re going to say that, then three lines later you don’t have to say, “We’re in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico.” We got it based on the title card.
John: Other thing I want to focus on is the first page, he has his WGA registration number. You don’t need it. It’s one of those things that automatically smacks as being like doesn’t really get it. You won’t see those on scripts in Hollywood. You just won’t.
Craig: Nor will they actually ward off any trouble.
John: Not a bit.
Craig: It doesn’t work. Yeah, it’s like taking vitamin C when you get on a plane. Just turns your pee bright yellow. Doesn’t save you from anything.
John: Not a bit. So what is important on that title page, email address, so that people can email you to tell you how much they love your script and that they want to make it with a big star.
John: All right. Godwin, come back to us and tell us about Normal Park by Laura Bailey.
Godwin: We follow a beat up minivan as it drives through Normal Park, a desolate manufacturing town in the mountains. The residents of Normal Park, led by Manfred, watch the first cut of a promotional video to lure the movie industry to town. The dissenters, led by Bonnie Duncan, argue the video should be live action, not animated. Manfred fires back that he couldn’t afford actors and that Bonnie herself can show the mayor the video since she’s the mayor’s wife. We end with a question: where is the mayor? And that’s it.
John: So this is a comedy. I’m taking this as a comedy. And for a script called Normal Park, I had a really hard time placing where Normal Park was. I think Normal Park is the name of the town, and yet I didn’t quite see the town. And I didn’t quite know where to place the town in my mind. I needed someone to say like, oh, this is in Michigan, or this is in Ohio. It’s someplace. But someplace that needs to be very specific. And I just wanted to know on page one what state am I looking at. And I wasn’t getting that here.
We open up with this sort of montage that’s showing us what Normal Park looks like, I guess. It felt like something that would play under credits, which could be great. And then we get to this cartoon movie that’s talking about the real people of Normal Park and this discussion about how to attract the movie industry. I really started getting into it once this whole idea of like how are we going to attract the movie people. That felt like a great premise. I just wasn’t getting hooked on that premise until page three, and I didn’t sort of know what movie I was watching for quite a long time.
Craig, how did you react to it?
Craig: Yeah, I had trouble. I was struggling here. First, I will start by letting Laura off the hook. So, Laura chose to include scene numbers on all of her scenes, which is something we do when we go into production. And you don’t do that unless you’re in production. But, lest you feel ashamed, Laura, I made that mistake.
So, John Glickman, whom John August went to school with at USC, was my producer on the first movie I was ever hired to write with my writing partner Greg Erb. And when we turned our first draft into him, we had put scene numbers on. We just didn’t know. We were very young.
And I will never forget. He said, “By the way, I like that you put scene numbers on. Very confident. Take them off.” [laughs] I just liked the idea that, well, if you put scene numbers on, we have to go into production, right?
John: Totally. Yeah, the scene numbers are set.
Craig: Yeah, we’ve done it, right? So, take the scene numbers off.
The initial drive through with the minivan is described in a wonderful way. “A minivan held together by rust and curse words.” It’s good. I really enjoyed that, because I understood what it was. However, that minivan is going to naturally start to color what I’m seeing around it. So when you say, “It’s held together by rust and curse words, backs down the driveway of a modest ranch and starts through a post-war neighborhood,” in my mind I’m thinking this town is a mess.
Because the minivan is a mess. It may not be that that’s exactly right, but that’s what – I’m just telling you that’s how it kind of works through me. The big problem is once the van passes the mountainous abandoned auto plant, and goes through downtown, the next thing is we’re inside a community center. That is not an acceptable transition, especially on the first page of a screenplay.
You can’t have me following a car as it winds its way through town and then suddenly I’m in some building. Where? I need a transition. The minivan can go past a particular building where somebody is walking in and we can see that person entering. They’re late. And these people are watching this thing on screen. Somehow or another you need to connect that.
John: It’s a very natural audience expectation, that if we’re following a car for a long period of time, we are going to see the person in the car and they are going to be a central character. That’s a natural expectation. You don’t have to obey that expectation. But we’re going to expect that. So, I think the minimum you need to do is what Craig said. Where it’s a drive-by and it hands us off to the next character.
It’s very Tampopo way of doing it.
Craig: Oh, excellent reference. Yes, the handoff – I mean, the most cliché opening transition shot in any movie is, you’ll see this all the time, it’s a party scene or a ball or a gala of some kind. And the director will start maybe like on a nice shot to show the room, and then he booms down, and a waiter, he starts following a waiter. And then the waiter sweeps by a table and now the camera stops at the table, because there are your actors. Right? There’s a way to do the handoff.
The issue with the movie, first of all, the movie is not funny. We only see like one second of it, which I think is a mistake. If the movie is bad, I want to see it. And make it funny. Make it ridiculous. And I will understand the tone of the movie and all the rest. This feels Waiting for Guffman-ish. That’s the problem. This is nowhere near as sharp as Waiting for Guffman is.
In particular, there’s a kind of a clunky exposition going on on page three, where Bonnie instead of continuing her argument with Manfred, which I think feels too back-and-forthy and samey, turns to the room to announce the plot. This is inelegant. And it just wasn’t kind of sizzling on the page.
You know, it’s the curse of the big idea, the big comedy idea like this, is that you kind of got to make me laugh pretty early, or at least smile, you know, something. It just felt flat.
John: So here’s what gave me some hope, is that I felt like just like the description of the minivan, some of her descriptions of characters were actually really charming. So, Manfred always walks like he’s wearing epaulets. Oh, that is useful. I can see what that person is like. And that tells me about his posture. It tells me about sort of how he perceives himself. I loved that.
Nick is described as, “Window-licking stupid.” Great. Another really good description. I need to see them doing that, though. It can’t just be the surface description of them.
I have a suggestion for a trim on page two. An example of how tightening up might make things work a little bit better. So, Bonnie says, “You didn’t see anything wrong?”
Manfred, “No. What’s the problem?”
“It’s a cartoon. The real people of Normal Park are cartoons.”
“We wanted to tell personal stories.”
“Then use people.”
Skip these next two lines. Go to, “They aren’t camera ready.” Continue with Manfred, “As director of the Normal Park Community Theater program you rely on my professional opinion.”
Too often I felt like we were stopping the possibility of jokes to just get other lines in there. Let it keep going through. Less will give you more here in terms of the ability to deliver character punchlines.
Craig: You know, you’re right. And you’re making a great observation that Laura is very good at character description. That’s where the best writing is. Unfortunately, no one will ever see it. Ever. Right? So, I love that epaulets line. I like that Bonnie is wearing enough bling to decorate a Christmas tree. And these things are fun and the town is a “town only a mother could love.” I mean, this is all clever.
It’s all wasted. All wasted cleverness, because we’re never going to see it, and we’re never going to hear it. Now, there is a kernel of a comic confusion going on here that also I thought, well, I’m not sure what she was going for, but when he shows this cartoon and then he says, “What do you think,” and Bonnie says, “You don’t see anything wrong?” And he says, “No, what’s the problem.”
And she says, “It’s a cartoon. The real people of Normal Park are cartoons.” Now, I think she means aren’t cartoons. And I hope so, because that makes–
John: I think she’s meaning air quotes around the real people.
Craig: Oh, meaning in the movie the real people are cartoons. That’s fine. The point being, is Bonnie upset because she thinks that people are going to think that people in Normal Park are actually cartoons and not people? You know, that’s a weird objection to make unless you are profoundly stupid. Which makes me think maybe that should be – Nick’s problem is that we’re not cartoons. Of course we’re not cartoons. Why would anyone think we’re cartoons? Because that’s what you told them that we are.
John: Maybe they could film an animated movie in this town.
Craig: [laughs] Exactly. That’s a really funny joke. See, that’s funny. I don’t know. I’m just saying it needs to be funnier, it needs to be sharper. It feels a little shaggy dog in its execution. The argument feels circular. And it just doesn’t have that thing, you know, that kind of – there’s something about small towns, and Christopher Guest, he understands this so, so well. You see it in so many of his movies. It’s the comedy of people fighting while being polite. Which I find fascinating.
So, anyway, stuff to think about there.
John: Great. I also have a question, last final question on page one. “Guttering light from the streetlamps glints off a baby crib strapped to the roof and overflowing with possessions.” What is guttering light?
Craig: Uh, I don’t know.
John: I don’t know either.
Craig: And I’m pretty good with words.
John: I’m looking it up right now to make sure if there’s actually a–
Craig: Is it glittering light?
John: Oh, it’s absolutely true. Examples being the candles had almost guttered out.
John: But if I don’t know it, then most people reading this won’t know what that is.
Craig: I didn’t know that word either. I’ve never seen that. I’ve never even – I don’t even think I’ve seen that printed. But, let’s say I did know it. It doesn’t really matter, because your choice of vocabulary should generally match your movie. You don’t want to get highfalutin with vocabulary in a movie that’s probably going to be a broad comedy. This feels like a broad comedy.
Craig: So, and when I say broad I mean, you know, meant to be a comedy-comedy. So, yeah, not a great choice there.
John: Cool. Godwin, come back and tell us about our third script of the day, which is The Reconstruction of Huck (Over Mark Twain’s Dead Body!) by Tim Plaehn.
Godwin: All right. We open on the escape at the end of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with Tom Sawyer shot, Huck offers Jim the chance to go on without them. Jim says, “Tom wouldn’t desert him, so he will stay.”
Cut to 17-year-old Allie Chesnutt’s bedroom. A firebrand feminist, Allie is enraged by what she just read. She takes umbrage – yes umbrage – at Huck saying he knew Jim was white inside. She listens to the Shaft theme song and gets even more riled up.
In the kitchen, Allie’s mom gets ready for work while listening to NPR discuss the Freddie Gray case. Mrs. Chesnutt asks her daughter if she finished the essay she was supposed to be working on. But Allie is too incensed with Mark Twain to respond. Mrs. Chesnutt concludes that Allie did not work on the essay. And that’s it.
John: Cool, Craig, what did you think?
Craig: Well, let’s start with the title. It’s fantastic. It’s such a great title. The Reconstruction of Huck Finn (Over Mark Twain’s Dead Body!) Talk about like if you’ve got a pile of scripts to read, you’re probably going to pick that. You’re not going to just go, oh yeah, there it is, same damn thing. What a great, great exciting title.
And there’s a note on the title page which probably would be better served going inside the script. I suspect that maybe Tim did this because he wanted – he had three pages and he didn’t want to lose a bit. But he’s saying essentially that the screenplay is going to be doing double casting where the same actors who are playing scenes from Huckleberry Finn are going to also be playing scenes in Allie’s real life. So, it’s an interesting concept. You can see how this is going to sort of unfold. And it could be fantastic.
Now, I was not as thrilled once I got through these three pages. In part because I thought maybe I was a little bit too long with this initial bit of Huckleberry Finn. Jim’s speech in particular is quite long.
John: And Jim’s speech in particular is very, very hard to parse, because it’s written in dialect. I think this was a great choice for Godwin to put here because it’s so tempting to write character’s dialogue in a dialectic kind of speech. And yet it is so impenetrable when you actually have to encounter it.
So, on page two, there’s a big long chunk. And I’m sure this is taken from the book. I’m sure it’s probably what he said in the book. And it may be written the exact same way, but it’s so hard to parse in the script. You’d be much better served by cleaning that up, using the same word choices, but not trying to make it phonetically exactly the way that Jim is speaking.
Craig: Yeah. You need to use your license here and appreciate, Tim, that if you are – in fact if your intention is these are the words from the novel, you are allowed to rewrite the spelling of the words so that the reader here, you know, I don’t think it’s a desecration. You’re not changing the text. You’re simply changing the way people are reading the words phonetically. Help them out. I think that’s a great idea.
When we get to Allie’s bedroom, I was a little concerned by how on the nose everything felt. I just felt like I was being punched in the face. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe the point is that Allie is – that we’ve gone from the stereotypical view that was enshrined in Huckleberry Finn of Jim the slave to this stereotypical 17-year-old moral crusader who isn’t just a feminist but needs posters of Gertrude Stein and Hermione, and Angela Davis on her walls.
That kind of production design is really beating me in the face. And it’s also – it makes her boring to me, because to me an exciting young woman with strong political attitudes, who is progressive, and who is really feminist would have far more interesting people on her wall than that. That’s like the feminist version of, you know, [unintelligible] The Kiss, which is on every boring bedroom in a dormitory.
It just feels so cliché.
John: What’s challenging is that we’re always telling people who submit the Three Page Challenge that we need to know who the characters are. We need to get a sense of who they are. But in this case, sometimes you’re telling us way too much too quickly. Or you’re basically painting this stereotype so quickly that you’re going to have a hard time surprising us with new information later on.
Like, we’re so locked into one point of view on who she is by the bottom of page two, that I feel like, oh, I know exactly who this is. And Chloe Grace Moretz is already in hair and makeup. It’s a very sort of set specified thing that we’ve just seen before. At least how we’re getting to the story on page two.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a bit of a challenge that you have in your transition from fantasy world to the real world, or imagined literary world to the real world. You have Huck say, “I knowed he was white inside…”
That’s in voiceover. Because I guess Huck thinks it in the novel. And then we have off-screen, “Ahhh!!!” That’s going to be very challenging. Because he’s thinking something in fantasy world and then real world is going to come in, but they both come from the same place, essentially.
Craig: Which is off-screen. That’s just not going to work cinematically at all. It’s going to be extraordinarily confusing. We’re not going to know what the hell is going on. It would be better, frankly, to unfortunately bend a little bit – bend a little bit there – and have Huck say out loud, “I knowed you was white inside…” And then hear, “Ahhhh.”
And then you cut to – now, here is the other problem. You want her screaming over there, because you think that’s interesting, and it may very well be so. Then it locks you into her having already read it. So, when we cut to her she’s throwing the book across the room. And then, “Ahhh,” it’s painful for her to announce, “I knowed he was white inside. What kind of blah-blah-blah is that?!” She’s just repeating what we heard and telling us so that we understand that, you know what I mean, it’s clunky.
John: Yeah. I mean, if she’s going to be reacting to that specific line, she either throws the book, or she repeats the line, but she doesn’t do both. And I felt like there was too much here. Plus, she’s going to throw the book and then we’re going to spend an eighth of a page sort of describing her before getting to her dialogue right now. It’s not the best use of our time and our space.
Craig: Yeah. And the end of the scene is simply not continues in any recognizable human fashion. A girl is reading a book. It enrages her. She throws it across the room. Pronounces out loud why she’s thrown it across the room. Then, the theme song from Shaft begins playing. I’m not sure if that’s inside the scene or if that’s score. Regardless, Allie chooses now to pack up her books, pull back her hair, and then start singing along with it, so I guess it is in there, but where did it come from?
Did she start playing? And what a weird thing to ask the audience to do. To watch a girl pack up her backs in her bag. You couldn’t ask for something more likely to be cut.
John: Agreed. So, I don’t think we’ve really dug into diegetic and non-diegetic sound in previous episodes, but diegetic means we can see the source of the sound within the room. And so if she presses play on her Walkman, or on – depending on what era this is – or she’s putting in her ear phones, then we believe that’s diegetic sound. That is sound that the characters are actually experiencing in their world.
If it’s stuff that’s just playing on the soundtrack, that’s non-diegetic. And so the same thing can be said for Huck’s voiceover and her voiceover, that sort of scream that gets us out of the Huck Finn stuff. You got to have an answer for where that stuff is coming from. Because right now it seems like she’s reacting to something that we’re not sure she should be able to hear.
Craig: Mm-hmm. Exactly. So you just got to figure, you know, it seems to me like it is diegetic and he’s just missed the moment where she turns something on. Otherwise, I don’t know how she could possibly be singing along to non-diegetic.
Then, we finish off with a kitchen scene that feels so cliché that it is almost too cliché for commercials. A busy business mom, checking her iPhone, while the little brother eats cereal from the box. There’s that little brother and his cereal box. That kid gets around. He’s in everything. It’s rough to see those–
John: He’s a Clip Art kid.
Craig: He’s a Clip Art kid. He really is. And this is where maybe if I’d just been hit in the face one time with the “Look at me, I’m a feminist” posters from the “Look at me, I’m a feminist” factory. Then we’ve got this NPR thing playing about the Freddie Gray situation. So, now I’m getting hit with like, oh okay, I understand – believe me, you’re making a movie called The Reconstruction of Huck Finn (Over Mark Twain’s Dead Body!), I know you’re going to be tangling with issues of race and gender and politics and all of it.
It just starts to feel like, oh god, this is going to be an afterschool special.
John: Yeah. So, I want to highlight one moment on page three which I thought worked really well, so people can look at this. So, Mrs. Chesnutt asks, “Did you finish your Rotary Club essay.” In action: Allie considers lying. Continues on. “He just made white the only way to be good. White!” A very smart way to let another character think about what they’re going to say and choose not to say it and then just plow ahead. It calls it out without sort of stopping everything to do it.
And you can do that in a parenthetical, but I really liked how Tim did it in this moment.
Craig: Yeah. I did, too. And I thought that he could probably cut the next reiteration of it and just have her mom say, “That means you didn’t.” Because her mom is smart enough to know that, yes, you may have a fantastic point about the inherent racism of Huckleberry Finn, but you didn’t do your homework. And so that works. I just feel like this is such an audacious and smart idea and frankly something I think would find an audience. It can’t be done like this. It has to be done with far more subtlety I think.
John: So, I would say about this title and this idea is it’s the kind of thing that done really well gets on the Black List, because it’s a thing that people – it sticks in people’s heads. It has great execution on the page. It may never get made, but that’s OK, too. It’s a thing that sort of announces you as a talent. It’s a thing that gets you meetings. It’s a thing that gets you rewrites assignments. It gets you staffed on a TV show. I think it’s a really nice idea that’s very execution-dependent. And so I think what we’re pushing Tim to do is just make sure your execution can match what we think is a really nice idea.
Craig: Yeah. And I’ll tell you what, Tim. You really need to listen to us here, because the thing is – here’s what’s real. We rarely talk about this in Three Page Challenges, because usually we’re just dealing with three pages. But let’s talk about how this business actually works.
John’s right. This is the kind of title that is grabby. And it’s a kind of subject that is grabby. And I could absolutely see this ending up on a Black List. I could see this getting attention, assuming that it plays out in a surprising and enlightening way.
But, it is exactly because it is execution-dependent, it is exactly the kind of script that comes along I’m telling you once a week. There is a script that comes along where people go we just got a script. It’s an amazing idea. It’s an amazing title. We can cast it. We got to find somebody to rewrite this right away. Somebody who knows how to write a movie.
You don’t want to be that guy. You don’t want somebody else coming in and redoing this. You want to be that guy.
John: Agreed. Well, that’s our Three Page Challenge for this week. If you have three pages you want us to take a look at, actually if you want Godwin to take a look at it, because he’s the person who looks at all of them, there’s a form you fill out. So go to johnaugust.com/threepage, all spelled out. There are instructions there. You click some things. You attach a PDF. And it goes into Godwin’s inbox, so he will look through them.
Godwin, thank you again for picking these three and for all the other ones you didn’t pick, but you had your read. So thank you very much for joining us.
Godwin: Thank you so much. This was fun.
Craig: Good job, Godwin.
John: All right, now it’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a creature. It’s a creature that was newly discovered, but what was discovered this past week was how old they lived to be. So, this is the Greenland Shark. So, a lot of things that live in the sea live for a very long time. Jellyfish are essentially immortal. They keep reforming themselves. Koi can live a long time. Shellfish. But now they’ve discovered that this Greenland Shark is the longest living vertebrae.
It can live at least 400 years, which is basically two centuries longer than the previous record holder. So, how do you find out how long something can live given that you weren’t there around when it was born? So, it turns out that in the mid-1950s, back when they were testing a bunch of thermonuclear devices, they left residue. And so that residue gets into the ocean and that’s how they can actually track how old something is based on how much of that residue is stuck in the creature and where it’s stuck and sort of they can use that as a marker for like how old something is.
And so the new estimate is these things can live to be 400 years old.
Craig: 400-year-old shark.
Craig: So, inevitably people are now going to catch the shark, kill it, and then try and figure out why it lived so damn long.
John: Exactly. So, some of the secrets of living a very long time seem to be you grow super slowly. So, the slower you grow, the slower you grow old, I guess. But, yes, they will try to figure out why it lived so long and people will sell pills that are supposed to have shark cartilage in them or something like that.
What I found most interesting about this, though, is thinking back 400 years and sort of like how much has happened in the last 400 years, specifically what life was like when one of these sharks was born. So, 400 years ago, who else was alive? Well, Shakespeare. Rene Descartes. Galileo Galilei, John Locke, Isaac Newton, Elizabeth I, Peter the Great. Ice cream was just invented. Paper money was just being figured out in the form of bank notes. They had just invented calculus. And also they just printed the first King James Bible.
So, one of these creatures was alive when all that stuff was brand new.
Craig: God. That’s amazing. I can’t believe that ice cream was invented.
John: Yeah. You had to invent it.
Craig: Somebody had to sit there and do it.
John: Yeah. All you need is ice and cream and a churn, but you have to figure it out.
Craig: Salt. I think you need salt.
John: You need salt. You have to have it colder than just ice. You have to have like super cold ice.
Craig: That was probably whoever Mr. Ice Cream was, that’s why he got to name it that.
John: Yeah, he’s really lucky to have such a good name. What if his name had been like Basselfaffer.
Craig: [laughs] Like the Earl of Sandwich. Or Lord and Lady Douchebag. OK. That’s classic Saturday Night Live.
John: I like it.
Craig: my One Cool Thing also scientific. This is kind of remarkable. Scientists in Australia, Sweden, and the United States – so they’ve been working across the world together – have identified a molecule that may hold the key to identifying the cause of suicide. Suicidality. Now, here’s a shocking thing. It turns out that when you test people who are admitted to hospital for suicidality/suicide attempts/suicidal ideation, and you compare their cerebral spinal fluid with those of other people admitted to the hospital for not suicide-related things, there’s this thing that is much higher in people who are suicidal.
And it is a marker essentially that it’s a Quinolinic acid. And it is a marker of chronic inflammation in the spinal fluid. Essentially there is some kind of inflammatory response in the central nervous system itself. And they have also found that suicidal patients have reduced activity of a certain enzyme that lowers production of this other asset that protects against. You know, because all of these things are layered systems.
But the point is the way we’ve always treated people who are suicidal is to treat their presumed depression. And what these people are saying is depression works more on a serotonergic pathway. This is something else. And we need to treat the something else. And what’s fascinating to me, just fascinating, is that as we go forward as a human species, we become more and more aware of how things we presumed were entirely within our control, or aspects of our “personality” are in fact not at all.
John: Yeah. Obviously correlation is not causation. So, as they do more studies they’ll need to figure out is this inflammation marker – is it the cause of the suicide ideation, or is it just another byproduct of something else that’s going on in the body?
John: But as they do more research on schizophrenia they’re finding really interesting reasons behind how some of that stuff happens. Things that are genetic but also not genetic, that are things that happen just through environment.
So, yeah, it’s an exciting time to be studying brain stuff.
Craig: It really is. And also I think it’s an exciting time to reconsider how we view each other, particularly when we’re talking about people who either have committed suicide or have attempted it. That it is not as simple as, oh, you gave up. Oh, you are a quitter. Or, oh, you didn’t get the help you needed.
There is a strong possibility that this is very physical in nature, and that is just shocking and amazing to me. And a lot of cause for hope.
John: I would agree. That is our program for this week. So, if you have a question for me or for Craig Mazin, you can reach us on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. If you have a longer question, you can write in to firstname.lastname@example.org. And Godwin looks through those and forwards them appropriately.
If you would like to leave us a review on iTunes, that would be so much appreciated. Just search for us, Scriptnotes on iTunes. That’s also where you can find the Scriptnotes app that gives you access to all the back catalog. We also have a few of the 250-episode USB drives that give you all the back episodes and all the bonus episodes as well, so you can find those at the store at johnaugust.com.
There will be links in the show notes to most of the things we talked about, including the Three Page Challenges. So, if you are on one of the popular players, you can probably just scroll down a little bit and see all of those links there. They were missing for a week, but we figured out what was wrong, so Godwin has them restored. So you click and get all that stuff right there.
Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe and edited by Matthew Chilelli, who also did our outro this week. And next week will be our last episode from Los Angeles.
Craig: Oh boy.
John: Oh boy. So the plan is that we will still keep doing the show over Skype the way we usually do it, just with a huge time gap between us. There may be some more episodes that are Craig with a person here in Los Angeles. There may be some episodes where it’s me and someone in France or the UK. But, we will try to keep doing Scriptnotes every week. We’ll let you know if we fall off of that schedule, but I think we can do it. I’m optimistic.
Craig: Yeah. I know we can do it. I know we can do it because I’m sure that you will do it. How about that.
John: [laughs] All right. We’ll find a way. Thanks.
- Gen Con
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- Three Pages by Salvador Medina
- Three Pages by Laura Bailey
- Three Pages by Tim Plaehn
- Send us your Three Pages
- The Greenland Shark
- The Suicide Molecule
- John August on Twitter
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- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
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