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 266 of Scriptnotes. A podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast we will be looking at the Netflix series Stranger Things and the writing choices that made it work so well. The WGA elections are upon us again, so Craig will tell you who to vote for. Finally, we will be tackling four recent articles in the news and asking our favorite question: how would this be a movie?
For the first time, all the stories we’re looking at come from listener suggestions, so thank you.
And, Craig, we’re back.
Craig: We’re back. You are currently in Europa.
John: I’m in Europe.
Craig: We are now separated by how many hours? Nine?
John: Nine hours. So it is nine in the morning as you’re recording this. It is 6PM as I’m recording this. I guess that’s our first bit of follow up. At the last episode, I was about to get on a plane to Paris. And I didn’t chicken out. I did it. So I’m now here. I’ve been here 10 days. It’s all going really well.
Craig: That’s fantastic. And you at 6PM and me at 9AM, we should be roughly the same amount of tired.
John: It should be. I’m about ready for some dinner, and then some winding down, and heading into bed. And you’ve got a whole day ahead of you.
Craig: Yeah. But also probably ready for wine and a wind me down. I like to wake up and immediately start winding down.
John: One of the things I found challenging about being in Paris this time is usually when I’m here it’s vacation, so like, sure, let’s have wine at lunch. Sure, let’s have ice cream every day. And actually living here, that’s not a sustainable lifestyle, at least for me. So, I’m having to learn how to pace myself. And what living in Paris John is like versus vacationing in Paris John.
Craig: God, you know, I never thought of that. But it’s true. You’re in a different country and you think, all right, well, it’s the weekend. Let’s go do four things until we’re deadbeat. Eat way too much. And then have somebody clean our room. Nah. That ain’t happening.
John: Exactly. There’s none of that. I’ve had to learn how to do very basic Parisian things, like go to IKEA to buy the desk I need that I’m recording this podcast at. I’ll be sure to include a photo in the show notes of the desk setup I got, because I had to buy a children’s desk, because all of the desks are too big. I could only use a child’s desk in this apartment.
Craig: Your little, little child’s desk.
John: I’m a little child.
Craig: Is it the [Sturmfuhrer]? Is it the–? No, what is it called?
John: It’s the Pahl desk. It’s the P-A-H-L, but with a circumflex – not a circumflex, the two dots above the A. The Pahl desk is what I have.
John: So, you know, I had to go shopping for school supplies. I’ve had to do lots of really normal Parisian things.
Craig: And how are you doing language wise? Are you hanging in there?
John: I’m getting by. It’s slowly coming back to me. So, I can get by in French, I’m just not a natural French speaker. And so the goal is to be able to sort of answer back more smoothly as people talk to me. But people can speak at me full speed and I can usually understand what they’re saying.
Craig: That’s amazing.
John: Yeah. It’s pretty good. For folks who are kind of familiar with Paris, there are all the Arrondissements, which are sort of confusing. They’re laid out like a snail. The easiest way to think about where I am in the city is you know how you see those tourist photos of people near the Eiffel Tower. There’s like a great big lawn and they’re usually taking a photo where it looks like they’re pinching the Eiffel Tower or plucking the Eiffel Tower through forced perspective. You know all those really annoying photos?
John: I live right near where all those people take those annoying photos. So, that’s who I see every morning as I cut through the park.
Craig: Every morning you see Tower pinchers?
John: I see Tower pinchers.
Craig: God. You start yelling at them out your window now.
Craig: Go back to your country! Swine!
Craig: Because, you know, French people speak English, but with a French accent. I don’t know if you knew that? That’s what French is. It’s accented English. Yeah.
John: Very true. Well, actually, you know the British accent is just American English and they just change a little bit.
Craig: Yeah. They make it silly.
John: They make it silly. Yeah.
Two episodes ago we had Peter Dodd on, the UTA agent. And he said that agents read the Nicholls finalists, but they don’t necessarily read the semifinalists and quarter-finalists. And he said there are thousands and thousands of semifinalists. Greg Beal from the Academy wrote in and sort of gave us the real numbers. So, here’s the actual numbers of how many semifinalists there are.
So, he said, “In a single year, the most Nicholls semifinalist scripts ever was 140.” Which is a lot of scripts.
John: “That means in the history of the competition there’s approximately 3,000 screenplays that have been semifinalists but were never finalists.” So, considering that some writers might have had two scripts, that’s at least 2,000, 2,500 people who can say like I was a Nicholls semifinalist. So that’s a lot.
Craig: It’s a lot.
John: But he also sent a list of the people who were the semifinalist but not the finalist, and there’s some really good names on that list. So, I thought we would end on an inspiring note and say who some of those people are. Names like Michael Arndt. Ava DuVernay. Mark Fergus. Vince Gilligan. Gavin Hood. David Levine. Damon Lindelof. Josh Marston. Melissa Rosenberg. John Spaihts. Frank Spotnitz. Meredith Stiehm.
So there’s a lot of really great writers who were semifinalists but not finalists. So, that’s encouraging.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, the implication – I don’t think Peter’s implication was if you don’t become a Nicholls finalist, and you only are a semifinalist, you’re never getting an agent. I think his implication was you’re probably not getting an agent because of the Nicholls. The script may find its way to him some other way. Or, you may write another script that is more attractive that people find you via. But, you know, our general thesis in that discussion that contests are perhaps overrated and the notion that writers have that contests are their ticket to the big time is probably more of a myth than a reality.
John: I think there’s also a correlation versus causation thing here. The fact that those writers who I listed there were finalists, well, that was because they were really good writers. And they were successful because they were really good writers. But, being a semifinalist was not the cause of them becoming successful. It was a correlation because they were already really good writers.
Craig: That is the rule that is overarching all of this stuff. Because, in the end, if you’re good enough to be a finalist, you don’t need to be a finalist. You’re good enough to be a finalist. It’s one of those things. Somehow or another the good should be borne out. And the cream should rise. And great scripts will be found. So, I guess the advice to people is to think, you know, everything good that might happen because of this script will happen because of this script. I am not trying to use this script to have something else happen. And that’s the thing that makes the good things happen.
John: Yeah. The good writing is the good writing. That is the ticket.
John: We had a question from Andrew in Maryland. And so he was good enough to send in some audio. So, let’s take a listen to what he asked about that episode.
Andrew: Hi John and Craig. I’ve been a faithful listener since the early days of Scriptnotes and have always found the podcast entertaining and extremely helpful. However, I was deeply discouraged by two episodes – the One with the Agent, and Sheep Crossing Roads. It seems you’re saying there is really no hope for those of us who love screenwriting but live in other parts of the country and world.
I have a hunch the burning questions on the minds of your listeners not in LA are what does this mean for us. If we can’t move to LA, do we just hang up our spurs and write novels? I have a young family, so it’s not feasible for me to move to LA anytime soon. Should we even bother pressing toward our goals of becoming career screenwriters? I would love to know what you think we should do, if anything. Your faithful listener, Andrew from Maryland.
Craig: Well, this is a question we get all the time. And the answer, Andrew, is no. We’re not saying there is really no hope. We’re saying there is little hope. But then again, there’s little hope for people here. [laughs] You know? I mean, the deal is, I think I’ve said this before, if it’s a million-to-one shot in Los Angeles, and it’s five times worse in Maryland, then it’s a five million-to-one shot in Maryland. Those are all terrible odds.
So, you know, the problem of course is you have to think that you’re the one in the X million. And then do what’s best. But, it’s tough. We can’t sugarcoat reality here. It’s tough.
John: I wonder though if there’s a reality that we don’t actually appreciate, because we just haven’t found the writers who have actually broken in from outside the system. So, we have so many people who listen to the show, including working professional writers. I’m wondering how many of them actually broke in from some place outside.
So, basically they were Andrew from Maryland, and they wrote a script that somehow got the attention of people here. And now they’re working as a screenwriter or as a TV writer. So, if you’re listening to this and you are a working writer who started someplace else and got it all to work sort of from Andrew’s situation, could you please write us and let us know. Because we’d like to talk to you. I don’t know a lot of writers who have had that situation, but it must happen. So, write in to us. Write into firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll try to get your story out there. Because I really feel for Andrew.
Craig: Yeah. I do, too. I would say if you are in New York, excuse yourself from this exercise. That doesn’t count. But the only one I know of is Diablo. I don’t know anybody else that kind of just shot in here from a non-New York or California, or Southern California location.
John: Yeah. Gary Whitta doesn’t live in Los Angeles, but I think he might have been living in town when he started working.
Craig: You know what? Let’s also excuse London. That’s a great point. Because London has its own industry, and they make their own films. So, I would say, because we do get a lot of London writers who come over here because they initially work on London productions.
John: Like Kelly Marcel.
Craig: Right. Like Kelly Marcel. Well, there’s a ton of them. I mean, Tess Morris. And Kelly Marcel. And Gary Whitta, I assume, is a London guy, because he sounds Londony to me.
So London doesn’t count. New York doesn’t count. I’m going to accept every other place in the world.
John: Great. So we’d love to hear your stories if you have been able to start a writing career in film or television from someplace other than Los Angeles, New York, or London. Write in. Let us know. Because we could be wrong.
John: We’re often wrong. We love to be wrong.
Craig: I mean, John is often wrong. I don’t recall ever.
John: Yeah. We cut something out of this segment just now.
Craig: John was literally wrong seconds ago. [laughs]
John: One thing I’m not wrong about is Stranger Things, which is a terrific show on Netflix.
Craig: Segue Man.
John: Even in France, I am Segue Man. I’m l’homme de Segue.
Craig: L’homme de Segue. [laughs] Stranger Things, so, so much fun. Who doesn’t like this show? Nobody doesn’t like Stranger Things.
John: I found one person on Twitter who I follow who doesn’t like it. And he could be wrong. Craig, I was just so happy you watched it, because I watched it a couple weeks ago and I thought, well, Craig won’t watch it because Craig watches nothing. And then you surprised me by watching it.
Craig: Well, my wife said, “You’re going to watch this show now.” And I said, OK. That usually works. When the boss tells me to watch, I watch. And, frankly, what’s great about my position vis-à-vis watching TV is to me TV is the greatest medium of all time because I only watch the absolute best of shows. That’s it.
I’ve seen Breaking Bad. I’ve seen Stranger Things. And Game of Thrones. That’s what TV is to me. It’s an amazing machine.
John: It must be so intimidating when you try to do television yourself, because you assume that everything on TV–
Craig: How is that possible?
John: –if you turn on any random channel, it’s going to be just a masterpiece.
Craig: Actually, I weirdly assume that television is nothing but advertisements and then Breaking Bad, Stranger Things, and Game of Thrones. How else do they fill their day?
So I was talking to Mike Birbiglia the other day, and I said you’ve got to watch Stranger Things. Because, you know, and I hate telling people watch a show, because I know how I feel when people tell me to watch a show. And that’s basically angry.
But it goes down so smooth. It’s like drinking chocolate milk. It’s just, fooop, it’s in you. It’s so easy to watch. So easy to watch.
John: Now, there’s a good chance that some of our listeners have not watched the show yet. So, what we’re going to do is Godwin, when he listens to this episode, he will note the timecode of when we start hitting spoilers and then he will give you a timecode for when we’re done. So you can just read in the show notes about what you should skip to.
Obviously we have chapter breaks, but if you’re listening to this on a player that doesn’t have chapter breaks he’ll also give you the timecode so you can jump to the next segment if you don’t want any spoilers.
But I think on the whole we’re probably not going to go too spoiler heavy. We’re mostly just going to celebrate the things it did really well.
We could talk about the casting. We could talk about the production design. The terrific direction by the Duffer Brothers. And Shawn Levy who also stepped up and did a great job as well. But I really want to focus on the writing, because what I thought was so remarkable about the show is it took this premise, which to me felt like if we could have a Stephen King book, or an early Steven Spielberg movie, and do it as an eight-hour show, what would that feel like. And they pulled it off so geniusly. They were able to take that idea for a story and break it out over eight episodes in a way that didn’t feel tedious or padded. I was just really impressed by how they managed the control of information, the reveals of character details. It just all felt like it was of one piece. And so it was smartly done.
Craig: Well, you can see how much planning went into it. And this is a good lesson for anyone writing anything. I do think certainly for people writing films. But when you look at these limited series, an eight run series like this, it’s just a long movie is what it is, right, broken up into bits.
And what they did so wonderfully was carefully ration out information in such a way that you never felt under-informed, nor were you ever over-informed. You just wanted more. And that is a tricky balance to strike.
John: One of the other realizations I had is that this show, because it was dumped all as a block, you got to see all the episodes in one sitting if you wanted to. There wasn’t that week-to-week fan engine of curiosity or theories about who this character was or what was really going on. I think they knew from the start, because they were doing this for Netflix, that a person might watch the whole thing all at once. And they built it in a way that was rewarding if you were to watch it all at once, and didn’t feel like it was a show that you had to watch one week at a time.
Craig: I actually loved the fact that it didn’t come out one week at a time. Maybe a little counterintuitive, but because you may think from an executive point of view, a Netflix point of view, we have a problem here: if we dump all eight episodes of the show out, and this is a mystery, with multiple reveals throughout, what’s going to happen after day one when people just go online and start saying, “Here’s what happened. Here’s how it ended.”
In fact, in today’s culture, I feel the opposite is true. I feel that people respect that and don’t do that anymore. What they don’t respect, however, is the time in between time-lapsed episodes. So, if you do release an episode once a week in the traditional way, between your Sunday and Sunday, you have a week of people going bananas online attempting to explain things and guess.
So it’s like watching a movie with somebody next to you constantly whispering saying, “I think I know what’s going to happen. I think that that means this. I think that this is going to happen.” And you just want to kill them. And I don’t like that over-analysis, the interstitial over-analysis that goes on. So I love that this thing just went bloop and nobody had a chance to post endlessly long, boring theories about what you were about to see.
John: Agreed. So let’s take a look at what might have been on their whiteboard as they were mapping out these eight episodes. We obviously don’t have time to dig into the individual things on each individual episode, but what are the big macro notes as they were figuring out who the characters were, what was going to be revealed about each character in which episode, and sort of how the flow of the eight-episode season was going to work.
So, we start with episode one. The whole thing centers around the disappearance of a boy named Will Byers. And so Will Byers is obviously a key character. His mother is a key character. His brother is a key character. His best friends are key characters. And so we’re going to need to establish all of them.
We need to establish all of them. We need to establish the town. We need to establish the sheriff who is going to investigating his disappearance. That he’s not just a functional investigator, but he’s actually a flawed hero kind of character himself. And then there’s one other family that’s going to be very important. And so it’s his best friend, and his best friend’s sister. The family to some degree we’ll get to see. Am I leaving anybody else out of that initial sort of tableau?
Craig: The only other thing that you get early on is they establish a villain. They establish something dangerous and murderous that we can’t see. And they establish a bad guy with very stark white hair.
John: Absolutely. It’s also in the first episode that we meet the girl we’ll come to know as Elle. We first meet her on the run. She goes and she sneaks into a diner. She meets the owner, a guy named Benny, who seems like he’s going to be a useful, important, sympathetic character. He gets killed off very gruesomely. Let’s you know this is the kind of show where people will die suddenly. And that her life is in real danger.
By the end of the first episode, we’ve connected Elle with the boys. And we’ve pretty much established what the show is going to be like. That the engine of the show is the girl and the boys, the cops, Joyce, the mother played by Winona Ryder, searching for her son, and the bad guys.
Craig: Yeah. And what they’ve done is set up a bunch of questions. These are good burning questions, but we’re not overdosed on them. Question, what is in that laboratory? Question, what is the dangerous thing that kills a scientist in the laboratory? Question, it seems like that’s the thing that came after young Will Byers, but instead of killing him, young Will Byers just vanishes. Where did he go? Why would it do that?
And, lastly, the strange little girl, who we presume probably comes from the same lab, I guess, this girl doesn’t talk, and she seems somewhat traumatized. What’s the deal? All great questions. And not too many. Not not enough.
John: Exactly. And I thought it was very important that they show you that, you know what, we’re going to connect threads. This is not going to be one of those shows where people are going to be working in parallel forever. The girl is going to meet the boys by the end of episode one. And it feels, OK, you see what the shape of this is going to be by the end of episode one.
You get a sense of what the series is going to feel like. So, episode two, Barb – who is everyone’s favorite character – she is Nancy’s best friend. I should have explained that this is essentially a John Hughes movie that’s happening kind of in one frame of this. And it’s about her virginity. It’s all very kind of classically ’80s teen stuff, played pretty straight, although I would say some of that stuff goes a little broader in a kind of fun way.
But Barb is just this amazing character who disappears at the end of episode two. Joyce sees something climbing through the walls. This is where the supernatural things have started to intrude into our world. And so it clearly isn’t just the mystery of the disappeared boy. This is something that’s going to keep going on, and people are going to keep being in danger from these supernatural forces.
Craig: Right. And, again, for every bit – and this is what these guys are really good at – every time they gave us answer, they would then give us another question.
So, they give us an answer about this girl, Eleven. One answer is that, yes, she is from the hospital, and yes, bad people are chasing her, and no, she’s not a bad person. She’s a good person. But we also learn that she can move things with her mind. How? And yet still more questions. And she gives, I think, the boys the ultimate question at the end of this episode when she attempts to explain to them where Will is.
And she does it by taking – silently, no words – she shows that – they are all on their little Dungeons & Dragons game board. And then she flips the board over, puts Will on the back of the board, and puts him near a monster.
So, that’s a ton of questions. What the hell does that mean, right? But it was great. We learned a lot. And then they’re like, uh-huh, did you enjoy that information? Here comes more questions. Same thing with Barb. Barb vanishes. We get a little bit of information. There is some blood involved. And then she’s gone again. And someone has taken a picture – Will’s brother has taken a picture. So there’s a little bit of evidence now of something. And we also have this wonderful story of a mother who we all believe, and no one else believes, and that’s always just fun, you know. That’s just fun tension for us.
John: Absolutely. One of the things so crucial here is as an audience we are basically caught up with the characters. So, Eleven obviously has more information than we do. The bad guys have more information than we do. But everybody else is basically where we’re at. In some cases we have more information because we’ve seen multiple perspectives on things. But we’re never given a lot more information than what the characters themselves have. And I think that’s part of the reason why we can relate so well to the characters because we understand their confusion and frustration because we are confused, too.
We’re really wondering what’s happened. We’re wondering whether Winona Ryder is crazy. We’re wondering what the next best thing is to do.
The boys are great, but they’re also cocky and confident in a way that really helps propel the story. And I feel like other probably older, more rational characters, might have taken a step back and really looked at it more objectively. I love that they just went for it. And because they were kids, they just plowed right ahead.
Craig: That’s the gift here. And it’s a great writing lesson. When you have something that’s a problem, you can easily convert into an asset. It’s a problem like to say, well, a policeman or a 30-year-old will look at this in a certain way and just grab this girl by the shoulders and say I’m going to have you now explain to me carefully.
But they don’t want that, so they use 12-year-old boys, who are Labrador puppies. And that’s so much more fun. Similarly, you have a moment in this episode where we see a flashback from Elle where she is remembering her past life with this white-haired villain character played by Matthew Modine. And he’s having her thrown into a little solitary confinement cell. We don’t know why. We don’t know why she’s having just that little scrap of a memory. We don’t know why she won’t speak.
But you know what we do know? She’s clearly been traumatized. And so they’ve taken this problem – why isn’t this person telling us everything she knows – and made it an asset. She’s traumatized. She can’t. It’s very smart.
John: Plowing episode, episode three, we see Joyce communicating with Will, but also Will’s body is found, which was a big shocker. That was sort of a – if this were a week-to-week episode kind of series, you would be stunned by that having happened. At the end of the episode, his body is pulled from the lake. After watching that episode, we took a break. We didn’t watch it anymore until the next night. And I thought for a while like, oh, so I guess he really is dead and maybe it’s a ghost. I mean, it really does change your perspective on the things you’ve seen up to that point, because you’re expecting like, oh, well, they’re going to find him somehow because he is somewhere. His spirit is somewhere. They’ll find him. His body will somehow come back.
And the answer is no.
Craig: This was the only thing where I stumbled a little bit because at this point in the show they have setup Elle as a kind of moral and informational authority. She’s right always. And she has superpowers and she’s been there. And she’s already told them he’s not dead.
So, the part of the show I liked the least was the character of the three boys, it was the skeptic character, because there was no damn reason for him to be skeptical. Once she closed a door with her mind, yeah, I’m in. I’m in. You clearly know what you’re talking about. And the fact that she literally got them to hear Will’s voice very briefly through a walkie-talkie and similarly Will’s mother is experiencing a kind of communication with Will through lights, which is really beautiful and interesting. So, I never believe for a second that that was actually Will’s body.
And I was shocked that even one of the boys believed for a second that that was Will’s body. Regardless, we have certainly more questions. Even if you don’t believe that that’s Will’s body, and I never did, why is there a fake Will’s body in the lake? [laughs] That, to me, is a really good question. And if the obvious answer is because people want to fool you into thinking he’s dead, the question is but why. So then they know where he is. We also – we get an answer to Elle. That this man put her in – that flashback – he put her in solitary confinement because she refused to use her powers to hurt a cat.
But what comes out of that, which is so – then this other question is why is he making her hurt a cat? And why does she call him Papa? And what is going on? You know, you want to know. And what is the extent of her power?
That’s the other thing that’s so interesting, you know.
And then, lastly, the creature who has made little hints that maybe he could come into our world, now very clearly is showing that it can come into our world. And so there is now the question of the threat will this happen again.
John: Yep. I was a huge fan of both Alias and Lost. They were great shows. I watched every episode of both. But one of the challenges those shows had is because they were longer series, and because they had to go on for multiple seasons and the creators didn’t even know how long they were going to be going on in some cases, the mysteries, the little things they would seed, you weren’t sure when they would pay off or if they would pay off.
Going into this series that was eight episodes long, I could see things like Will’s body, is that really a fake body. What’s going on here? And I knew like, you know what, it’s eight episodes. I have a strong hunch that it’s going to pay off. And I think I gave the creators a little extra pass on some things because I knew that they only had eight episodes and that there was a plan for it.
I always felt confident that they knew both where the whole series was going, but also how they were going to structure the information within the episodes. And that’s a very tough thing is how do you make this one hour really enjoyable, but also be a great puzzle piece for the whole eight episodes.
Craig: 100%. And, you know, look, I like the genre of serialized mystery. I really do. But when it isn’t closed ended, it inevitably turns bad. I loved Twin Peaks. I loved it. But at some point it became clear that they were in a space where they were not writing backwards from an ending. And that’s a dangerous thing, because theoretically you’ve lost all sense of unity. And a mystery, unlike other serialized shows, like action shows, cop shows, procedurals, a mystery has an ending. And so it is a dangerous thing to write an open-ended mystery.
You eventually will run afoul of setups that don’t pay off. It’s inevitable. And so, yes, I would not have started watching this if I didn’t know that it had an end. Wouldn’t have done it.
John: Once you know who killed Laura Palmer, there’s no reason to keep watching Twin Peaks. It’s not entirely true, but you can’t frame Twin Peaks as who killed Laura Palmer and expect us to watch after you’ve revealed the answer to who killed Laura Palmer, or sort of a murky half-answer to who killed Laura Palmer.
Craig: It’s like listening to a song, and the song has this interesting build, and there’s going to be a reveal. I’m listening to the Pina Colada song. And what’s going on? He’s taking out a personal ad. He’s going to cheat on his wife. He’s going to meet her in a bar. And she walks in and IT’S HIS WIFE. But, what if it weren’t? What if it’s like, well, and she didn’t show up, so I’m going to try a different thing. And now I’m going to try to meet another lady. And this song is never going to end.
No! End. [laughs] End. You know? And that’s the problem. Twin Peaks, once Laura Palmer’s murder is revealed, you begin to realize they’re vamping. This show has now turned into vamping. And nobody wants to watch vamping. Nobody. Unless you’re going to like an improv show, and then give me a three-minute sketch and get off the stage.
John: Yeah. Challenging. There will be a new series of Twin Peaks coming on Netflix soon. So, we’ll see if they’ve learned that lesson.
Craig: I hope they have.
John: All right. Quickly powering through, episode four, the boys really contact Will, so that’s the radio episode. We connect Nancy with the monster through Jonathan. And that’s the first time you feel like, oh, these different characters who aren’t really interacting about the monster, everyone is starting to have the same kind of information about things.
It’s also where we reveal that the body was fake. And so you can sort of feel like, OK, all of these threads are coming together in the way that a Stephen King novel, like those threads would start to come together, like in The Stand, or these things where you’ve been following these separate people doing their separate things. Now everyone is starting to understand that they have a common enemy, and they’re coming together.
That continues in episode five. That’s where Hopper sees what’s going on. We establish the geography of our world and the other world and how one is the shadow of the other.
We see Nancy cross over. And we also see Elle in the depravation tank in the flashback. And you see like, oh, that’s how she does her thing and establishing that’s probably how the monster got in.
Craig: Yeah. So you start to see an acceleration of answers here. Episode four isn’t really giving us too much new information, other than that Will is definitely alive, and that body is definitely a fake. So episode four was a little bit of a holding pattern, although it did have some fun character stuff with Elle and the boys. Because, remember also, while they’re telling the story of information and mystery, they’re telling a love story between Elle and Mike.
Craig: And it’s an adorable love story. They also in episode four, they begin to relieve you of some of the burden of frustration. It’s a small town. There are six or seven characters. All of them know things that would help the other one, and they’re not talking, which is normal to create tension. But at some point you can’t keep it up. And in this episode they say no more of that; let’s start connecting our dots together. That really happens in episode five where everyone is sort of now becoming one big team.
But what’s great about episode five is it also gives you a huge answer. And that answer is what the hell is this other place? We don’t quite know until they very clearly show Nancy actually entering it, and then coming out. And then we go, oh, I get it. It is like upside-down our world. I get it now. I get exactly what’s going on.
And all the way back in episode two when she flipped that board over and stuck his little figure on the back of the board, that was actually incredibly accurate.
Craig: So, you’ve gotten all of these really interesting bits of news, and you also now can position Elle’s origin story. We know that she has these powers. We know that she started by being used by the military to listen to spies. Now she’s going to be helping to kill spies. But while she’s in that zone, right, she was never meant to contact this creature. She was just traveling this other dimension to help spy, but while she’s in there she discovers this bad, bad thing.
John: Yeah. And that bad, bad thing follows her out. So, in episode six we learn more backstory on Elle. We learn about how she came to be. We learn why she calls the man because Papa, because her real mother was part of this secret government program. They did acid and tried to do sort of psychic experiments. She was pregnant with Elle during that time. So, this man who she calls Papa probably raised her. And that is all very, very troubling.
So, it’s not just a name she’s given him. She actually sort of does see him as a father figure. If I have a qualm with sort of how some stuff played out, there was opportunity to see some real affection between the father and the daughter figure, and it was never there. And I don’t know if they just sort of ran out of time, or they decided it was not a thing they wanted to see. But I didn’t have a sense of Frankenstein’s love for his monster, or any of that really manifested through the end of the show. Do you know what I’m saying?
Craig: I totally agree. And part of it is that Millie Bobby Brown, who plays Elle, is such an extraordinary actor that she was frankly more convincing than everybody else at any given time. When she’s crying out to Matthew Modine, our villain, and crying for his saying Papa, like please don’t hurt me and put me in, you know, don’t punish me, I believed that it was the anguish of a child not to someone that she was scared of, but somebody that she loved.
And I needed – I’m so with you – I would have loved to have seen that he had some of that for her. And instead you mostly just get that he’s kind of a stock government sociopath. And I would love if he’s – the implication is he’s no longer with us, but if he does return in season two, that’s something I would love to see explored.
John: I agree with you. If I have any other fantasy wishes for a scene that wasn’t able to fit in here, Winona Ryder I think is terrific in the show, but she has to play sort of one emotion, and she gets to dial it between nine and 11, which is sort of the panic/anguish of a mother who has lost her kid. If she had a flashback, had some other moment to give us some other flavor of who she was. If they’d given us a little bit of whatever her and Hops relationship was back in the past, that would have been fantastic. Because I missed seeing another flavor of Joyce, who in this show only gets to be panicked mother.
Craig: True. But I will give Winona Ryder all the credit in the world. What a difficult task. You have to be basically completely strung out and realistic as a woman whose son is gone and who everyone is telling you is dead, and yet you believe he’s not dead. You deny the fact you’re going crazy. You’re talking to him through your lights. You’re crying all the time. And I believed her. And that was amazing.
I could easily see that in the second season she kind of goes through a Sarah Connor transformation. Like Sarah Connor in Terminator was basically damsel in distress. Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 is transformed by the experience of Terminator 1 into this ultimate hard-ass warrior, which I love.
John: Yeah. I think I just wanted Winona Ryder to have her Emmy reel. And I wanted one more scene for her Emmy reel there, which would have been great.
Craig: Well, she’s got some good ones. I’ll tell you the one that I would put in, which I loved. It’s such a little scene, but she goes to the store where she works. We’ve never seen her actually working her job. She just goes there, confronts her boss–
John: And takes stuff. Yeah.
Craig: Yeah. She needs two weeks advanced pay. And she needs a telephone. And she needs a pack of Camels. I mean, that was great. So well done.
John: All right. So episode six, we got our backstory. Episode seven is where everybody comes together. So essentially all these characters who have been in different spaces, they’re now all under literally one roof. We’re in the gym. They’re building this giant bathtub thing so that Elle can float and find where the missing boy is. It was nice.
It was a thing that you sensed needed to happen at some point. Like everybody had to get together and be working together to do things. And there was still conflict between the different characters. Each of them had some slightly different agendas, but they were all generally on the same page.
We also could really feel the ticking clock that the bad guys were out there and they were going to find them sooner or later. So, everything was coming to a head.
Craig: Yeah. And good writing lesson here. When you need to create obstacles for your characters, try and create them out of elements of the world that you have organically put in there that nobody would expect would then become an obstacle.
So for instance, we have these flashbacks where we’re seeing how Elle first contacts this other dimension and a monster. And to do that, they’re putting her in this isolation tank. And we don’t really understand why, although it seems pretty quickly like, OK, it helps her concentrate and it helps her access her full power. How smart then for them later to say, oh, if we’re going to win the day, we need to reproduce that with her as good people so that it becomes this fascinating obstacle that no other show would have ever had.
We need to fill a bathtub up with water and salt. And how do we do it. How much salt do we need? And where are we going to do this? Very, very smart. It’s a really good lesson, I think, to take the things that you have, that only you have, and turn them to your advantage.
John: Yeah. Being specific rather than being generic. And then finally we get to our eighth episode. And the series has basically promised this from the start. We will go in and we will save the boy. And so Hopper and Joyce go in to save Will Byers. And it’s all cool. It’s all actually really well done. And so we have the tension of them being in this other world, whether they’ll get to the son in time. We have all the bad guys in the real world. We have the monster crossing over to face the boys. You knew that had to happen, but you weren’t quite sure how it would look, or where it would take place.
I mean, the boys at the very first episode, they’re fighting this monster. And now they’re fighting the monster for real. So it was nice to see it all coming together.
Craig: Here’s where all of our big spoilers are. It was not at all surprising to me that she sacrificed herself to destroy the monster and save Mike and the boys. That seemed inevitable from the start. I love my Christ figures so much, so when I see one walk into a movie I think, well, you’ll be dead. And that’s fine. Although, of course, in Stranger Things fashion, you get all of these answers. And the day is done, and then more questions are raised at the end to tease you ahead for the second season.
Maybe she’s not dead. And maybe Will Byers isn’t exactly OK. And the good questions to keep us posted for it.
Now, it’s interesting, when I watched it, it didn’t seem to me like a series that needed to continue with those characters, by the way. I could easily see a second season where it’s an entirely different story with different people.
John: And they haven’t promised one thing or the other, have they? So, there’s no guarantee they’re coming back.
Craig: They have implied, actually, so let’s talk about Barb for a second. So, Barb, the perfectly pitched friend character, the Jiminy Cricket character for Nancy, who’s saying don’t sleep with the boy just because he’s cool – and accurate. She disappears. She’s discovered to be dead on the other side, so that’s sort of the stakes for Will. That helps us know that Will is in legitimate jeopardy on the other side.
That’s really all that ever happened with her. Her mom answers the phone at one point. We never see the mom again. People on the Internet were a little upset. I mean, hold on to your hats everyone: the Internet got upset. Because they felt that she had gotten a short shrift.
Some of the anger came from the corner of gender/queer politics. That she was probably gay and another gay character died. Although, I don’t see why they thought that, just because of her haircut? I mean, I didn’t get that jump. I mean, look, from a writing point of view, Barb existed so that we understood that Will Byers could die. That’s why she existed as a character. But they did say that they heard some of the criticisms about Barb and that Barb would get some kind of justice in season two, which implies a continuity here, yes?
John: Not necessarily. It could be a more metaphorical justice. Like basically the bad things that were done to her will be avenged. Or that maybe Nancy will go out there and take down the bad guys. So we’ll see what happens.
Craig: All right.
John: I leave it to them. But let’s talk about what’s next for them, because I don’t know the development process on Stranger Things, the first season, but I suspect they pitched the pilot. At some point they wrote up a document that was sort of what we were describing. It’s basically the talk through what happens episode by episode. And I’ve had to do those kind of outlines. Craig, you probably had to do the same kind of thing for the HBO show you’re doing, right?
John: And so the kinds of things we’re talking about today, really the broad strokes about what’s happening in a given episode, after you sell a series you’re going to be writing up that document. And that’s the kind of thing you’re going to be talking about with the people who are writing the checks for your show about what’s going to happen in given episodes. And sometimes there’s negotiation. I don’t know sort of what degree they had to wrestle over what things were going to be happening in which given episodes.
But those documents exist before there are ever scripts. And so they’re very important places for planning the big broad strokes of the story. And I thought in those broad strokes documents, I don’t know if they’ll ever be published, they were really good.
Craig: Yeah, for sure. I would love to see their show bible. We call it a show bible. Because inevitably things change. I mean, it’s funny. I’m in the process right now of conforming my – so I’ve written two episodes of the HBO thing. And they’ve asked me to kind of go back now and make changes to the bible to reflect how things changed in those first two episodes, because as they’re talking to other broadcasting partners, they just want all the materials to match up. And things do change. And I’d be fascinated to see where they kind of deviated from their plan, their initial plan.
But I suspect that the big points, in concrete. Have to be, or else I’m not sure how you survive writing a show like this.
John: Yeah. Cool. So if you skipped over our discussion of Stranger Things, please go back and listen to it when you’ve had a chance to watch the show, because we thought it was great. But now let’s get to the WGA election. And Craig will tell you who you should vote for.
Craig: Well, I’ll do my best here. This is what we call an off-year election, so no officer candidates this year. It’s just board members. We’re losing a bunch of incumbents, a bunch of good incumbents. I’m sorry to say we’re losing some feature writers. We may soon find ourselves with a board of directors that has no feature writers on it. It’s just horrifying to me.
Regardless, here’s who is running. Matthew Weiner of Mad Men fame. Glen Mazzara of Walking Dead fame. Zoanne Clack, who is medical doctor and a big TV writer. Jonathan Fernandez, who is an incumbent. Chip Johannessen, who is incumbent. Marjorie David is an incumbent. Courtney Ellinger, I’m not familiar with. Ligiah – I think it’s Ligiah Villalobos who interviewed me and Chris Morgan one evening at the Writers Guild. I can’t remember what it was about. Ali LeRoi, who is a big television writer. And Patric Verrone, evergreen Patric Verrone.
Look, some of these people I don’t know. But I figure probably the better thing is to say who I do know and who I definitely support. I definitely support Glen Mazzara. Glen is fantastic. I can’t believe he hasn’t been on the board yet. He’s hugely active in the Guild. He’s incredibly active in the showrunner’s training program, which is of vital importance. He is a great guy. He is super active in diversity efforts at the Guild. And he’s a practical, smart dude who listens. I love Glen. I love, love Glen. He’s terrific. So, please do vote for Glen.
I don’t know Zoanne Clack, but she’s a medical doctor and I just feel like people that – unless they are–
John: You know who else is a medical doctor?
John: Dr. Ben Carson is a medical doctor.
Craig: Well, yeah, I get it. But, see, she’s never said anything cuckoo like Ben Carson. And I’ve got a good feeling about her. Medical doctor. Also, it just seems like she does seem to have approval from a wide swath of people in the Guild. So, I am supporting Zoanne Clack.
Craig: Jonathan Fernandez, incumbent, terrific guy. Very, very pragmatic, again. Good and moderate and smart. We should absolutely get Jonathan Fernandez back on the board.
John: So I know Jonathan Fernandez from the picketing group. Back at the last strike, he was part of my picketing group. We picketed in front of Paramount Pictures. Every morning at like 5:30 in the morning. And so it was a small group of us and he was one of them. And since that strike he’s been sort of my go to person to ask questions about like, hey, what’s really going on here with these issues in the Guild. He’s very smart about younger writers and sort of the struggle of actually bringing home enough money that you can afford to be a writer. And so he has TV experience, feature experience. He seems like a great choice to get back on that board.
Craig: For sure. I can’t really speak to any of the other ones. That doesn’t mean they would be good or bad. Except for Patric Verrone. And Patric Verrone actually finished in ninth place in the last election. So, theoretically he should have been not elected. But one of the people who won an office position was Aaron Mendelsohn who was a board member. So there was a board member vacancy which meant they took and filled that position with the ninth vote getter, which was Patric Verrone.
I want to point out how extraordinary this is. Patric Verrone was the two-term president of the Writers Guild and he is so un-liked that he couldn’t finish in the top eight of board member elections last year. There’s a reason for that. He is a very, very smart guy. He is completely misguided on Guild politics. He has always been completely misguided on Guild politics.
He has one gear. And that gear is in moderation as a virtue. And Patric Verrone’s time is over. It should stay over. And he should find something else to do. So don’t vote for Patric Verrone.
John: Craig, I will guarantee you that I will not vote for Patric Verrone. So, if you are a WGA member, you got an email this last week that invited you to cast your ballots. So, do cast your ballot. It is important.
What Craig was saying is that this is an off-cycle election, so this is not the election where we also elect the president and do all of those other things. But these are quite important decisions you’re going to be making, because these are the people who are going to be taking us into this next negotiating cycle. So they’re not the negotiating committee, but they’ll be setting some of the agenda for going into that, so it’s important because it’s always important. And let’s pick some good people this year.
Craig: Yeah. And it’s important, too, that we have voices on the board who are actual voices. My experience on the board and my experience since in dealing with board members is that nine times out of ten board members do what they’re told to do. They’re told to do by the officers and they’re told to do by the executive director. And they have unanimous votes. And what they quickly become is large, boisterous discussion group that spends an hour or two yammering about stuff and then voting as they’re told. And we don’t want that.
We actually want a group that probably doesn’t spend as much time yammering to hear themselves speak, but also doesn’t rubber stamp things. We want thoughtful, independent, specific voices who are setting policy for our union.
John: I would agree with you. So, Craig, I’m looking at our recording time and it’s clear that we are not going to be able to get through these How Would this be a Movie. So what I propose to do is there are four different things we were going to talk through. And since we know what they are, let’s do that for our next episode. And we can actually put the links to these things in this week’s episode so people will see what they are, and they can read ahead.
John: And actually know what they are. So the four things we want to talk about, first is Florence Nightingale and The Woman in Disguise. It’s a story by Joseph Curtis writing for Male Online. It’s about Dr. James Barry. And, no spoilers, but Dr. James Barry had a very interesting life. And that was a submission by listener Craig Mazin, who occasionally listens to the episodes.
John: The second one is The Perfect Mom, submitted by Brett Thomas in Sacramento. It tells the story of Gypsy, this girl with a litany of debilitating diseases. An incredibly inspirational story of a mother and a daughter who really struggled against a million possible odds. And the community that supported them. And, wow, things go dark. Things go very, very dark.
John: So, the story we’re going to have you read is by Michelle Dean writing for BuzzFeed. Our third one was submitted by Rachael Speal. It’s about an amateur sleuth. This is 12-year-old Jessica Maple. Her home was burglarized, but this pre-teen took it upon herself to find the scoundrels and bring them to justice. So, we’ll give you an article that is from ABC News that you could look at for that.
The final one, and it’s maybe kind of good that we’re pushing this back, because new pieces are still coming out and I haven’t read all of it, was submitted by Phil Hay who is a screenwriter friend of ours. One of the writers of The Invitation who was on a previous episode. This is called Revenge in Irvine. It’s a series of stories in The Los Angeles Times about a PTA mom and drugs and accusations. And it seems just great. It seems like a Desperate Housewives kind of story.
Craig: Yeah. It’s wild. Yeah, this guy, Christopher Goffard, is the writer. And I think he’s done four segments so far, and maybe two more coming out. I’m not sure.
John: So by the time we’re recording our next episode, maybe everything will be out and we can discuss the whole thing.
John: I thought it was just fantastic. So, we’ll have those up for next week we’ll discuss them. So if you want to read ahead, go read ahead.
John: All right, time for One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is oddly related to something we discussed. It is Angelo Badalamenti explaining how he wrote the Laura Palmer’s Theme for Twin Peaks. It’s so great. The music for Twin Peaks is so incredibly important for Twin Peaks. So it’s Angelo Badalamenti sitting at his piano with David Lynch as David Lynch is basically trying to evoke this feeling in him and Angelo Badalamenti is creating the music that matches that feeling.
It’s just a great description of the process for trying to create any piece of art, especially a piece of collaborative art. So, I really loved it. How he worked with composers. It’s one of those really strange things where you’re trying to describe something that you can’t really describe, so you end up using a lot of poetry, a lot of just imagery to try to evoke something. And yet it’s the responsibility of the composer to make that be music. And it worked out so brilliantly here.
So, I recommend everybody watch this.
Craig: Such a great theme. I mean, that theme song does so much to help you watch the episode that comes after it. The Game of Thrones theme song has a similar thing. It just puts you in a certain place, in a certain mood. There aren’t a lot of themes that do that for me for television shows. But, I mean, look Twin Peaks came out when you and I were in college and I can still, you know, I can hear it.
So, awesome. That’s excellent. Well, my One Cool Thing, how could it not be HD 164595? Now, HD 164595 is a star. And it is kind of flipping people out a little bit, because it may be the first time that we’ve actually picked up a signal from space that may not be natural, but rather alien-made.
So, this is our Contact movie story here. And so what they’ve done is they’ve found these particular kinds of spikes of signals that seem like they could be artificial. And it happens to be the case that this star is very much like our sun. It’s really close to the size of our sun, so it seems like maybe it’s in that Goldilocks zone for a nearby planet.
And so they’re now pointing all their stuff at it. Pointing all their stuff at this thing.
Now, to put some – to put a little damper on it. There is one possibility that this is not at all extraterrestrial. One of the things that’s concerning is that the frequency matches military frequencies. So, what we may be picking up is ourselves and we may be picking up some classified military signals from some satellites bouncing back that we just didn’t know were there. And, of course, no one is going to tell them.
But, I don’t know, because the thing is the Russians picked this up first, and now we are looking at it. If it’s not the Russians, and it’s not us, maybe it’s an alien.
John: It could be. Now, in the past when they found these strange signals, sometimes it became part of a revelation of other things out there in the universe. My understanding is like pulsars or quasars, one of those, like we thought at first that signal is too regular, too perfect, that must be the alien contact. But it turns out like, oh no, there’s actually these rotating stars that do cool things.
So, if nothing else it’s worthwhile to explore interesting things to see what’s there. Same situation with that star where it looks like there’s stuff circling it that could be something that people built.
Craig: Yeah. Tabby’s Star.
John: It may be nothing, but it shows us that there’s something we don’t understand about how stuff around stars can form. And so that’s useful to pointing out telescopes out as well.
Craig: They did say that if it is artificial, that it is of such a nature that this would be a very, very advanced civilization, because of the strength and the type of signal that it is. So, I’m always reminded of this thing that Neil deGrasse Tyson once said. He said that on our planet we have, I think, 99% genetic overlap with chimpanzees. And so it’s that 1% that make us so much smarter than chimpanzees and account for everything that we’ve done to our planet and all of our technology that chimpanzees don’t do. And if we meet an alien species and they’re just 1% different than us, which is really close, but their 1% is to us that we are to the chimpanzees, we have a problem. [laughs]
So, you know, hopefully they’re nice, if they are real.
John: Well, I think the encouraging thing is as a world we function very well together, because we have very sensible leaders who really think through about all the possible repercussions of every action. And so I’m sure we would be completely reasonable and act in a very unified manner about these kind of situations.
Craig: What we’re going to do is we’re going to build a wall. And these people from HD 164595, they’re sending rapists. They’re sending murderers. We’re going to build a wall, folks. It’s going to be the greatest wall. And they’re going to pay for it. [laughs]
John: Totally going to pay for it. With their advanced technologies, they can pay for it.
Craig: That’s right. From 94 light years away, they’re going to Venmo us a payment for the wall.
John: Yep. It’s going to be nice.
So that’s our show this week. Hey, it worked.
Craig: It worked!
John: All the way across the ocean and the whole US, we recorded the episode. The show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from John Venable, and oh, it’s a good one.
So, if you have an outro you can send it to us at email@example.com. That’s also the great place to send your experiences if you are a working writer in film or television who started someplace else and actually was able to start a career not living in LA, New York, or London. We’d love to hear from you.
But we’d also like to answer your questions like the question we answered at the head of the show. So, send those to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Short questions are great on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. You can find the show notes for this episode, including how to skip over the Stranger Things information at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. We try to get them up about three or four days after the episode airs.
You can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. You can also find them on the Scriptnotes USB drive and on the Scriptnotes app which is in the App Store. So, Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, John. And I’ll see you next week.
John: Have a great week. Bye.
- John’s desk in Paris
- The Nicholl Fellowships
- Stranger Things Trailer
- WGA Election
- Florence Nightingale and The Woman in Disguise – suggested by Craig Mazin
- The Perfect Mom – suggested by Brett Thomas in Sacramento
- Amateur Sleuth – suggested by Rachael Speal
- Revenge in Irvine – suggested by Phil Hay
- Angelo Badalamenti on writing “Laura Palmer’s Theme”
- HD 164595
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- Get your 250 episode USB
- Find past episodes
- Outro by John Venable (send us yours!)
You can download the episode here.