John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 269 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we will be looking at mystery versus confusion and how you might have more of the former, with less of the latter. We will also be answering listener questions on flashbacks and capitalizing on festival success. Plus we have three new entries in the Three Page Challenge. It’s going to be a big show.
Craig: It does already sound, and I don’t want to jinx us or anything, like the best show we’ve ever done and we’ll ever do.
John: You know, I’ve been scrolling through the little outline here, Craig, and you’ve got a lot of really good stuff in here. So, we will see if we can — we’ll see if we can finish as strong as we start. How about we start with a correction because I actually messed up in last’s week’s episode? I know this seems impossible because I don’t make mistakes.
John: But I did make a mistake in the very first minute of last week’s episode. I referred to Jane Bennet in Darcy. I was referring to the principal characters of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Bennet is a sister, she’s not the principal character. I really did mean Elizabeth Bennet but I think I was conflating her and confusing her with Jane Austin, the author of Pride and Prejudice. So I just wanted to actually get that out of there and make it clear that I have read Pride and Prejudice. I really do know who’s the main characters in Pride and Prejudice.
Craig: It’s not a bug. It’s a feature.
John: It’s a feature. Also, I wanted to make sure that the other Jane Austin, the one who you actually get when you Google it, she’s a professor of political theory in the US and she’s going to be really confused when her name shows up in the Google news alert later today.
Craig: Wait, Jane Bennet is or Jane Austin is?
John: Jane Bennet. Did I said Jane Austin then?
Craig: Yeah. So again, I have to say, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
John: Feature. So somehow, I have a form of aphasia that is limited to Jane Austin references.
Craig: That is so specific.
John: It is but it’s all I can do.
Craig: You know what? Should qualify you for Make a Wish.
John: Yeah absolutely.
Craig: Anything you want and —
John: I’m — clearly, I’m a dying child in some way. My inner child is dying.
Craig: We’re all dying. I have a little bit of follow-up myself. So I believe it was in our last episode where we talked about writers who had broken in from not Los Angeles, not New York, not London. And one of them was Chris Sparling. And he had mentioned in his comment that one of the things he missed was that sense of camaraderie. And I said, “Well, next time you’re out here, drinks are on me.” Guess who I had a drink with last night?
John: How nice.
Craig: Last night, it’s — very last night, Chris Morgan and I and Chris Sparling all sat down, had a drink. I didn’t even have to pay because Chris Morgan paid, which is great.
John: Well, he’s got that Fast and Furious money, so he should kind of always pay.
Craig: Yeah, he paid and it’s his own money, too. I mean, it’s got Vin Diesel’s face on it and everything.
John: That’s good.
Craig: But it’s legal tender. Anyway, great guy, had a terrific evening with him and he got a little bit of it, a little taste.
John: Yeah. So do you think you’re going to get him to move out to Los Angeles? Was there any sense of that he’s going to leave Rhode Island to get out there?
Craig: I did broach the topic. It doesn’t seem so. First of all, he’s got a six-year-old daughter and a four-week-old son.
John: Yeah, that’s young.
Craig: So that’s, generally speaking, you’re not going nowhere and, you know, his whole thing is, look, it’s basically working, you know.
Craig: He said every now and then it’s a little annoying, but he was out here pitching a show. And so he can always jump on a plane and get here. But I think he’s very happy living where he lives. His family is happy living where they are and it’s working for him. So I think, probably, he’s going to stay right where he is.
John: That sounds good.
John: All right. Before we get to our big marquee topic, which is mystery versus confusion, we have two questions from listeners. So I thought we might bang those out quickly. So first, we have a question from Matt Nai. Let’s take a listen.
Matt: So I’ve written a horror feature that I’ve submitted to a handful of film festivals and screenwriting contests. It has placed as both a finalist and quarter-finalist in four competitions so far. I’m waiting to hear back from a few others and this got me thinking, can this good news be used as any sort of leverage to pitch to studios or do they have to seek out the material? How can you make the most out of a festival win when you don’t have many contacts in Hollywood? Thanks and I look forward to hearing from you.
John: So this sort of fits with the pattern of people who are able to get started while they were not living in Los Angeles, New York, or London is sometimes they had something that did well in a festival and it sort of started getting them some attention. The question is, what attention could Matt really expect off of some wins in these festivals?
Craig: Well, not much. Depending on what the festivals are. You know, we did hear from Peter Dodd the other week who said essentially that winning the Nicholl gets you at least a read. Not much else going on. Part of the problem with these festivals is that there are too many. So, essentially, none of them mean much. Everyone, it seems, has been a semi-finalist or finalist in a contest somewhere. And a little bit like that for films, too. I mean, there’s gazillions of these little film festivals. So every independent film will have 14 stamps on it with laurel leaves but you don’t know what any of it even means exactly. Is there leverage to be imparted because you’ve finished well in some festival? Not really, I mean, no. I don’t think so.
John: I think you’re wrong, Craig, because I think the leverage is not with like getting a studio to read it or getting a studio to consider you for other projects. I think the leverage is finding a horror filmmaker to actually make that script. So, Matt’s winning these festivals, they’re probably horror specific festivals. He needs to go to them. He needs like to see who the good directors are. This is all based on the assumption that Matt is not trying to direct this himself. But if he’s looking for a director to direct this script or one of his scripts, this is your opportunity.
So find who are those good directors, who are the ones you think can actually do something and just reach out to them because a lot of times people who are making horror films at these tiny budgets, they are looking for other good new things. And if you are that good new thing, having that stamp of approval from winning this festival might actually mean something to the people who were at that festival. So that, to me, is an opportunity. You also may have a chance to network with some, you know, other writers who actually are represented, who have managers, who have some other sort of next step and it’s a chance to sort of figure out what those options are.
So while I don’t think winning these things is going to get to you the agent, it’s not going to get you the reads at the studio, it may get you some of those early steps with meeting with a filmmaker, a meeting with a manager, something to get you going. And that’s what you should really concentrate on is how do you get something made. And it sounds like you may have written something that could get made, so try.
Craig: Yeah. Sure. Yeah. I can’t quibble with that. I’m just — it’s one of these things where you kind of have to look at the progressive scale of odds and ask where you are on that scale of odds. And are there other things you could be doing beyond the festivals or are things that are unrelated to the festivals that could improve your chances. And to that end, I think, figuring out how to get your script into the hands of that one person who actually can make a difference for you. That person may or may not be at that festival. If they are, that’s fantastic, and absolutely, yeah, leverage your win at the festival within the festival. Sure. But it’s unlikely that that’s going to be as valuable, I think, as, say, being in Los Angeles and handing the script to somebody who can read it or, you know, I don’t know. It’s tough. I take a little bit of a dim view on this. There’s so many festivals. Everyone is a semi-finalist. Everyone. Everyone’s born a semi-finalist of 14 screenwriting festivals.
John: So here’s — if a year from now, Matt has a film in production, here’s what I think would have happened, is I think he would have found a director who did something really good, who was like looking for his next thing. And someone who had done a teeny tiny thing, who is stepping up to do like a Blumhouse movie and read Matt’s script and said like, “Oh, this is great. I want to do this.” I think that is the point of inflection that he might be at, and so I think it’s worth pursuing that. But our standard blanket advice is probably accurate for Matt, as well as everybody else, is it’s going to be easier to do all of those things if you’re in Los Angeles. It’s going to be easier to do these things if you have other stuff to show rather than this one script that’s gotten some awards at festivals.
John: Word. All right. Let’s hear about Adam Tourney has to ask.
Adam Tourney: Hey, John and Craig. I wanted to get your opinion on a re-playing audio or video from earlier in a film to clarify a character’s revelation later on. Examples that spring to mind, are Steve Martin realizing that John Candy is homeless in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, or the final Keyser Soze scene in The Usual Suspects. Can this device be used effectively today or is it a clichéd cheat?
John: Craig, what do you think? Effective or cliché?
Craig: Possibly but, well, certainly cliché, possible effective. I think that all clichés are one slight twisty thing away from being okay. Sometimes, and we’ll talk about this in our main topic today, sometimes when those moments happen, they weren’t intended to happen. It’s not that someone sat down and said, “We hear these things now.”
What happens is they show the movie to an audience and people say, “We don’t get it.” And then they go, “We have to do the cliché thing so that people get it.” And if you are properly stunned in a reveal, you don’t really mind the cliché because you’re stunned. You’re like, “Wow. This is cool,” you know?
Craig: And because you’re actually learning what happened and it’s a big twisty surprise to you. Where it gets really clammy is when you know what it is, then the cliché is brutal. I mean, there is a certain value to that. It does work. It works when the twist works.
John: Yeah. And I think it has to be the twist. It has to be like look at the magic trick I just pulled on you. And like then, it’s like, “Oh, I see what that is. I see how I was misinterpreting that.” That’s great. Because then when you’re seeing that scene again, it’s not just reinforcing that idea, it’s actually reversing that idea. It’s actually showing you like things weren’t what you thought they were. And so the things he cited are, I think, great examples of replaying previous scenes to give you a new sense of the moment that you’re in right now. And I say don’t be afraid of cliché if it’s really effectively serving that moment in your story. And I think you’re going to be — you will have set out to write the kind of movie that wants to have that scene. You’re not going accidentally back into writing that kind of scene.
Craig: Yeah. That’s exactly right. I mean, the value of a great twist is that it re-contextualizes everything that you’ve seen. So part of the fun is to enjoy that re-contextualization and the only way to do that is to replay something and just be happy in knowing that you’re replaying it but seeing it differently now. Don’t worry so much about being cliché or being not cliché. You know, I think sometimes people get caught up in that. If you have a great twist and that’s the best way to reveal it, it’s just when it’s clunky that it’s clunky. I don’t know how else to put it, it’s kind of a goofy thing to say but that’s how I feel.
John: Let’s talk about what that looks like on the page. So if you’re writing those moments in, you want the reader to have a sense of like, really, we’re still in that current moment or I’m just flashing away to those previous things. So sometimes you might repeat these scene headers from where that thing came from. So if it’s otherwise unclear. But sometimes you’re just going to repeat the action lines or the dialogue, it may make sense for your script to put all that stuff in italics just to sort of make it stand out, make it feel like this is a different texture that we’re really into a kind of flashback moment.
You’ll know what feels right for your script. You want to give the reader sense of like, “I’m doing something special here. Pay attention and it’s all going to make sense when I’m through with this section.”
Craig: Correct. Yeah. Anything to echo the dreamy quality of the dream that you’re doing, I mean, right, because all of these moments are dreamy. You’re being very internal to the character. This is something that’s inside their mind so give us that sense and then you’ll be fine. You know, there are ways to do it that aren’t quite so down the middle cliché, you know. Things that you can do or you can even describe in terms of the visuals. They almost look like they’re a water painting or they’re de-saturated or they’re in black and white. You just do something but, yeah, you know.
John: You will do it. So a genre which I see this in a lot are sort of the Agatha Christie mysteries, which at the very end, like Hercule Poirot, like piecing together what actually happened and we get to see like all these little snippets from previous things like, “Oh, that’s when all the stuff was happening.” Which ties very well into Craig’s marquee topic which is mystery versus confusion. So, Craig, get us started why should we care about mystery?
Craig: Well, we should care about it because we care about confusion. You and I talk about this all the time. We get confused so easily. But part of the reason that we can get confused easily is because, clearly, as writers we’re trying to do something and if we do too much of it, it ends up confusing. But why not be completely non-confusing? Well, that seems like a stupid question but it’s worth asking. You know, why not just be obvious about everything?
Well, because, oh well, the audience doesn’t want that. Well then what is it that they want? What they want is mystery. They want mystery in all things. And we get maybe a little distracted by the word mystery because it implies a genre like Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie. But in fact, mystery is a dramatic concept that is in just about every good story you ever hear or see. Mystery essentially creates curiosity and curiosity is what draws the audience in. It weaves them into the narrative. The idea is even though you’re not telling a detective story, you’re telling a story in such a way that the audience now becomes a detective of your story because the desire to know is essentially the strongest non-emotional effect that you can create in the audience. It actually is, I think, the only non-emotional effect that you can create in the audience. It’s the only intellectual thing that you can inspire in them but it’s very, very powerful when you do.
John: So as you’re talking about curiosity, it’s that sense of asking a question and having a hope and an expectation that that question can be answered. And so, obviously, as we’re watching a story, we’re wondering, “Well, what happens next?” Mystery comes when we’re asking questions like, “Wait, who is that character and why don’t I know more information about that character,” or “Why did she say that,” or “What’s inside that box?” And those are compelling things that get us to lean into the screen a little bit more because we want to see what’s happening. And so often they can be effective if we are at the same general place as our lead hero in trying to get the answers to these questions. If we see that hero attempting to answer these questions, we’ll be right there with him or her.
Craig: Yeah, and even if we create small moments where perhaps the hero does know more than we do, what we’re tweaking is this thing that is very human, it’s built into our DNA. When we walk into a situation, we are naturally curious, we insist upon knowing certain things. If you walk down the street and you see suddenly 50 people lined up in front of a small storefront that has blacked out windows and a man in the front just patiently keeping people from entering, you want to — there’s no decision to want to know.
Craig: What’s in there? Why are those people standing there? Who is that man? You begin to do this, right? So, let’s as screenwriters, let us constantly exploit this. But exploit it in a way that doesn’t get us into trouble, because if we’re going to go ahead and tap them on their knee to make that little reflex happen, we have to reward them.
Craig: And we also have to figure out when to reward them. And this is where the craft comes in.
John: Let’s go back to your example of like the crowd outside the store and it’s blacked out windows, if our characters walked past that and didn’t comment on it, didn’t acknowledge it, if we saw it as an audience but nothing was ever done with it, that would be frustrating and we would have ascribed a weight to whatever that mystery was, and we’d be waiting for the answer. And we might honestly miss other crucial things about your story because we keep waiting for an answer to that thing.
Which is part of the reason why I think it’s an overall cognitive load that you can expect an audience to keep. And if you have too many open loops, too many things that are not answered, or don’t feel like they can be answered, the audience grows impatient, and sort of frustrated, and can’t focus on new things. They’re trying to juggle too much and that’s the thing you have to be very aware of especially as you’re going through your story, as you’re putting all those balls in the air in the first act. Sometimes you’re going to have to take some of them out before you get into the meat of your story otherwise, the audience just can’t follow along with you.
Craig: That’s right. I always think of mystery as the intellectual version of nudity in films. Nudity is distracting, right? So in comedies, when there’s nudity, you can rest assured that the jokes will be somewhat diminished in general because people are too busy staring at boobs and it’s hitting a different part of their brain than the haha, funny part.
So you can do a little bit of boobs, but you can’t do too much boobs because then it just — it’s like, I’m confused, I’m distracted. So when you engage in this very powerful technique of mini mysteries all the time about things, you are creating a contract with the audience. And you’re saying in exchange for this distraction — and I know you’re distracted, I promise that an answer will be given. I also hopefully promise that it’s probably something you could have figured out maybe if you’d really thought it true. It’s not just going to be totally random. Otherwise, it’s not a mystery, it’s just random. I promise you that the answer will be relevant, it will be logical, and it will add value to the story and value to your experience of the story.
And I also promise that someone in the movie knows the answer. Someone, not no one, right? Because then, it’s not really mystery, then it’s just an absurdity that everyone’s finding out together. Somebody knows. This is all contrasted with what I think sometimes happens and we see this when we do our Three Page Challenges with confusion. Confusion, generally, this is how I experience it and I’m kind of interested how you do. I experience confusion in the following ways, I feel like I’m supposed to know something but I don’t.
Craig: So did I miss it? Was I eating popcorn when someone said something because I don’t know who that is and I don’t know why they’re talking. I feel a mounting sense of confusion when things that are relying on the thing I’m supposed to know keep happening and I don’t know why they’re happening so now I’m getting really worried and distracted. And generally speaking, I am confused when I sense that I’m not supposed to be confused.
Craig: If I’m watching a David Lynch film and [laughs] suddenly there’s a dwarf talking backwards in a dream, I understand I’m supposed to be confused — this is abstract, okay, go ahead. Confuse me. But I only get confused when I think I’m not supposed to be confused right now and I am so confused.
John: Yeah, so if you were in a Melissa McCarthy comedy and suddenly there was a dwarf talking backwards that would be unsettling. You would start to question the rules of the world in that movie and your own trust in the filmmakers because that’s not the contract you signed when you sat down to start watching that movie and that can be a real thing, that can be a real burden. I agree with you on these points of confusion.
And my frustration honestly is that sometimes in the effort to eliminate confusion, we end up sort of scraping too hard and getting rid of important mysteries that are actually keeping the audience involved. And so I remember when I was doing my first test screenings for my movie The Nines, I asked in my little survey form what moments were you confused in a bad way? Because what I didn’t want to do is to get rid of all the confusions because you were supposed to be confused for parts of the movie. But when were you confused in a way that like pulled you out of the movie? And those were important things for me to be able to understand for like this wasn’t just — this wasn’t intriguing, this was annoying. I didn’t know what was actually happening here.
Craig: That’s exactly right. What — there is confusion in a good way and confusion in a bad way. And when we are confused in a good way, we have an expectation that the pain will go away. And that answers will be revealed and that’s exciting. That makes us want to keep watching. That’s the most important part of mystery. It makes you want to turn the page of the movie.
Craig: That’s why mysteries sell more copies than any other kind of book.
Craig: Because you want to know. It’s inescapable. Every Harry Potter book is a mystery. Everything single one.
John: Well, it also stimulates that basic puzzle-solving nature. It’s like you feel like, okay, I have all these facts. They’re going to have to add up to something useful. And what you said before about you feel like if I could think about this logically and really figure this out, I would come to the right conclusion. And also in the case of Harry Potter, you see characters talking about the central mystery and trying to solve the central mystery and after you’ve seen one of these movies you recognize like, in the third act, they will confront the mystery and they will — there’ll be little tiny mysteries but it will get resolved. There’s an implicit deal you’re making when you sign in for one of those books or one of those movies that the third act will be about resolving what’s going on in the course of this thing. And not all of the bigger issues of Voldemort and everything, but what’s been set up in this movie will get resolved by the end of this movie.
The same thing happens in a one-hour procedural, is that by the end of the hour you’re going to know who the killer is and the killer will be brought to justice, or the person who set the fire will be caught. Where the frustration comes in sometimes the big, epic, long, arc stories of an Alias or a Lost where sometimes those mysteries were so big and so spiraling, that you had a sense of like are we ever to get the answer to these mysteries or are there even answers to these mysteries? Are they meant to be just philosophical questions?
Craig: And we just aren’t as curious about philosophical questions. We don’t need to know the answers to philosophical questions. And it’s important I think to say that even though it’s easy to talk about mysteries in the context of actual mystery movies that non-mystery movies feature little mini mysteries all the time. Sometimes a scene is just who’s that and why are they doing that?
Craig: And then we get the answer.
John: So let’s talk about the different types of mysteries we encounter.
Craig: Sure. Now, we’re talking about little specific crafty things of how we can create or impart mystery in any genre, any scene, any moment. And so very kind of broad, writerly ways of approaching mystery. First, very, very simple mystery: pronoun. So two characters are talking and one of them says, “Well, what are we going to do about her?” And the other one says, “I don’t know.” And we go, okay, who’s her? [laughs]
Craig: Who’s her? Why are they worried about her? What is her going to do? Very simple, very easy, and, you know, then your choice is when to reveal who she is. Similarly, you can, “It.” Did you do it? I did it. And? It was hard.
Craig: What’s it? Oh, I have to know. [laughs] What is it? What is it?
John: Yeah, so essentially you’re omitting one piece of a crucial information by putting in a generic pronoun and we are desperate to fill in that blank and find out what is that X that he’s talking about.
Craig: And it is absolutely the simplest form of magic trick that we do. And yet it is so powerful. It is our pick a card, any card. People are still talking to this day about what is in the briefcase. What is the “it” in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction? You know what it is? Nothing.
Craig: It’s a flashbulb. It’s not even a — it’s a light bulb, right? And the point is that he literally is saying, when the movie’s over and you don’t find out, the point is that’s it. It was just a mystery that will never solve for you. Just like what does Scarlett Johansson whisper — or Bill Murray whisper into Scarlett Johansson’s ear at the end of Lost In Translation. It doesn’t matter.
Craig: It doesn’t matter because you will never know and yet we will talk about that because of our insatiable need to resolve this simplest kind of mystery.
John: So one caveat here is sometimes you can accidentally introduce this kind of mystery that you completely didn’t mean to and the situations where I see it is, you enter into like two characters having a conversation and sometimes it’s just in how it’s cut or like how the actors actually changed some words but it makes it seem like they’ll drop out a pronoun, or they’ll drop out the name of somebody and so they’ll talk about her or she but not actually say who that person is. And then we’re like, wait, is — are we supposed to be confused? Is that a mystery? Should we be looking for what that is? So you have to be mindful as a writer and as a person who’s watching cuts of films that you’re not accidentally introducing this kind of mystery that’s actually just going to be confusion because it’s not there intentionally.
Craig: Correct. And so there’s the treacherous navigation between confusion and mystery but if you can figure out how to put these little ambiguities in that are intentional, that’s great. If you can figure out how to put in a secret between two people, we — I mean, when you see two people looking at you and whispering, you don’t have to decide to be curious.
Craig: Right? You are now involved and that’s exactly what we want our audience need to be. We want them to be involved. There’s an interesting subtle way of creating a mystery that I’m personally — I love this version when I see it and every now and then I’ll pull it myself. And it’s what I call the obvious lie. We know what the facts are at any, you know, at this point in the movie. We have a bunch of facts at our disposal. And then someone asks a character something and the character lies, and we know they’re lying because we’ve seen the truth, but we don’t know why. Why are they lying?
Craig: Or we don’t know the facts, somebody says something, we believe it’s true, and then we find out that they were lying. And now we want to know why did they lie and what is the truth? Those tweak us immediately. We begin to light up when these things happen.
John: Because we want to understand the whys behind a character’s actions and so to see a lie or to have somebody reveal his lie, it’s like wait, do I not understand that character well enough? Is there something else happening here and I’m curious what that is. Now, on the page, sometimes I think you have to be really careful doing this because the first time you’re reading a script, you’re reading it really carefully. You’re getting it all, it’s experiencing just like the movie. The 19th time you read through a script, sometimes you just like look at the lines and you’re like, oh, wait, he says this but on this page with this and the other page, if you don’t somehow single out that like this is a lie on a time where you’re putting the lie, that can be kind of a trap. I’ve actually encountered this in places where actors or directors will like forget like oh, no, she’s not telling the truth there, that’s a lie there. And it sounds so obvious for me to say it, but like they’re just looking at the individual pages or like looking at like the sides and they’re about to shoot something. And they’re not remembering like, oh, that’s right. This is not actually the truth.
So this is a case where the slightly worded parenthetical or the little action line that sort of underscores like that she’s a terrific liar. Something in there to indicate to the reader and the filmmakers that, like, remember, this is not actually the truth here.
Craig: Yeah, I think that’s a great idea. I mean, early on, that’s not necessary.
Craig: It’s later on when you want to think, okay, maybe somebody has forgotten or you don’t have to worry about it so much if the lie and the reveal that it’s a lie, are really close together.
Craig: You know, so if someone says, “Anyway, I got to go. I got a meeting. I got to jump in my car. I got a meeting in like five minutes.” And someone goes, “Great.” And then they walk outside and they don’t have a car.
John: Yeah, perfect.
Craig: And they just sit down on the bench and wait. Then you go, okay, you’re a liar, why? [laughs] I need to know, right? So this is a good little mini mystery.
Craig: You can have — similarly, you can have mysteries that don’t involve people talking at all. Sometimes it’s just an object like the briefcase–
Craig: –in Pulp Fiction. Or, you know, someone is like — you got a camera looking — here’s a little mystery at the end of Inglourious Basterds. You have — I mean, it’s not much of mystery because you can pretty much see it coming but he sets it up as little mini mystery. You’re looking up at Brad Pitt and I think it’s B.J. Novak actually. I think it’s a–
Craig: Friend of the podcast, B.J. Novak, looking up at them, looking down at what they’ve done to Hans Landa and they’re talking about it and we are the perspective so we don’t know what it is but they’re talking about it and then we reveal the answer to the mystery.
Craig: Which is just — listen, it may seem inevitable to you because that’s how you saw the movie, it was not. It didn’t have to be done that way at all. It was a good choice.
Craig: There’s also another kind of simple mystery to do and it’s the what I’ll call no-so-innocuous-information.
So in this idea, someone asks someone a question and they get an answer and it’s very meaningful to them. It’s just not meaningful to us and that disparity between what the character thinks of it and what we think of it, creates a mystery. So someone says, “Hey, did George come in today?” and the person goes, “Oh, yeah.” And the person asking the question says thank you, walks outside and starts crying.
Craig: What? Why? Why are they crying that George came in? Nobody else seems to care that George came in. Why does George — what — who’s George? Mystery.
John: Mystery, again, we’re trying to figure out a character’s motivations and they’re not matching up with their expectations, so therefore we’re leaning in and we are curious. And so as long as you’re going to be able to pay that off at some point that could be a terrific thing. It’s when we don’t see that payoff that things could get really strange.
Again, on the page, if that reaction is happening in the moment, like it’s just a subtle reaction in the moment — like a concerned stare or like a look of sudden panic, you’re going to have to script that because the lines of dialogue are not matching our expectation. So you got to script in what that reaction is. And sometimes people feel like, “Oh, you’re directing the page.” Like no you’re saying what is actually happening in the movie. You’re giving the experience of watching the movie on the page.
Craig: This whole directing on the page thing doesn’t even exist. My new thing now is forget not-not doing it. It isn’t a thing. There is no such thing as directing on the page. I don’t even know what that means.
Craig: We’re creating a movie with text. So we will do — we should do and must do everything we can, to create that movie and if that means that we are directing on the page — in fact, that’s the only job we have. We should only be directing on the page.
Does that mean — I think people think that, you know, directing on the page means camera moves this way, camera pushes in, switch to this lens, do the angle, angle, angle, angle — no. Directing on the page means you are creating a movie in someone’s mind. Use every tool you can.
John: Yeah. Craig, is there an elephant outside your window?
Craig: It’s a bus.
John: It’s a very loud bus.
Craig: With an elephant on it.
John: Fantastic. All right, let’s talk about some resolutions because there are different scales at which a mystery can happen.
So the short-term mystery, so there’s those little things that happen within a scene that keeps us wondering about like, “Oh, what are they talking about?” and then the camera finally reveals like, “Oh, he’s married the whole time.” Or “Why do they have that object in their hand?”
Those are great ways to just provide a little tension and conflict within a scene. They provide just a little extra spark of energy and get us to pay attention to the things we may not otherwise pay attention to.
Craig: Yeah. This is a great way, for instance, to pull people through exposition. So you can have a character explaining a bunch of information to another person which is okay or have the character explaining that same information to another person, but while they’re explaining it, they are for some reason slowly pouring gasoline around the room that they’re in.
Craig: Well, okay, I — what’s — why are they doing that? And obviously they’re going to light it up but why are they going to light it on fire and what does that have to do with what he’s saying? I am now interested in the exposition. Short-term mysteries are a great way to make something out of nothing.
Then we have our kind of mid-length mysteries. So mid-length mysteries — I kind of think of those as like middle of the movie reveals. You have people that you’re meeting early on and there are some characters with relationships who seem to know something about the circumstances of the movie that you don’t, they know secret motivations, they know secret pasts of each other. Someone isn’t telling us something. It’s clearly important to them. We will need it. This is the kind of thing we’ll need by the middle of the movie to appreciate it and then understand how that impacts the character moving forward.
It’s not so much fun when two people have a little secret in the beginning of the movie and then at the very end of the movie we’re like, “Oh and by the way that secret is this,” because the movie has resolved itself by then.
Craig: So these are good little middle of the movie things. The bad versions of these are, “I lost my brother in an ice skating accident,” you know, but—
Craig: Yeah. But typically they are slightly more interesting than that and they help people engage with the character on an emotional level separate and apart from the details of the plot.
John: Yeah. These are the things where Jane Espenson uses the term hang a lantern on things and I’ve seen other people use it as well. It’s like it’s an important enough detail that when you first introduce it, you want to sort of call it out and make sure that the audience is really going to notice like I’m doing something here — so yes you’re right to be noticing it. I am doing something here and I’m going to be doing something with it later on.
Like — you are like — you are marking this for follow up. And so it’s going to show up not at the end of the movie but at some key point during the movie at an important time. And you’ll be rewarded for having remembered it from before.
So sometimes it’s that character who got introduced who you never really knew his name. But then he shows up and he’s actually a hit man midway through the movie. Great. Like you’ve done the right job there because you have established somebody and then you’re using them in the course of the story for an important reason. That feels useful and that’s a great way of like the mystery of who that person is is paying off within the scope of the movie right at the time we want these things to pay off.
Craig: Yeah, exactly. Or you — your main character has a scar and someone says, “Where did you get that?” And he says, hmm, and then maybe somebody else asked “Where did you get that?”
If I’m going to answer the scar question, it’s going to have to happen by the middle of the movie. I will not give a damn by the end of the movie how he got his scar — it won’t matter anymore. If the scar is important to who he is, then I need to be — then I need to know who he is by the middle. Because here’s the thing, if I have a character, she’s gone through half a movie with some big secret that is relevant to who she is, I must know it by the middle. This is a protagonist now. I must know it in order to appreciate how she changes from that point forward.
So these are mysteries that actually can’t survive, you know, much more than half a movie. But there are mysteries that must survive the entire movie. But these, I think, usually come down to what is the big central mystery of the story. It’s harder to pull off the kind of character-based mystery that lasts the whole time.
John: So, you’re saying that these long-term mysteries are really like the mystery genre? Like they are the classically sort of like Agatha Christie like we’re going to wait until the very end for all the reveals. That’s what you’re talking about?
Craig: Kind of because if you have a long-term mystery that isn’t about like a plot mystery and you only get the answer at the end or right before the end, it’s a little bit of a cheat. It’s like, “Well, I’ll solve a mystery right in time to save the day.” That just feels a little, meh.
John: So this last week I saw a movie that actually I think does have that long-term mystery, and it worked really well for having that long-term mystery. It’s Hell or High Water which is in France is Comancheria. So it’s a Chris Pine, Ben Foster movie with Jeff Daniels. And I really quite liked it but there’s a long-term mystery that — which I’m not spoiling anything to tell you that like you’re watching Chris Pine and his brother rob these banks, and you’re really not quite sure why they’re doing it.
Like, yes they’re doing it to get money but there’s — there clearly is a specific reason and there’s a plan but you’re not quite sure what the plan is. And they withhold that information from the audience for a really long time — like much longer than you think would be possible.
And I think it works in that movie because the movie is otherwise really simple. It’s like it’s a very straightforward Texas pickup truck western kind of genre movie. And because it’s so simple, holding off all the reveal on like what their actual plan is, is very rewarding. And so it felt like it was finally revealed at just the right moment.
So it’s definitely possible, but I agree with you that it’s really rare to see movies that hold off all that stuff for so long throughout the course of a story.
Craig: Yeah. It’s tricky to do. Very tricky to do unless, you know, it’s your mystery-mystery. So anyway, hopefully this is helpful to people. Just examples, like practical examples of how to tweak this and exploit this natural instinct in the audience. This is the thing that makes them want to lean in. So if you can make them want to lean in, why not?
John: Yeah. Let’s do it. Let’s take a look at our Three Page Challenge because two of these actually have that sort of mystery versus confusion issue as I read them, so let’s see what you guys think.
So the Three Page Challenge, if you’re new to this, every couple of weeks we take a look at the first three pages of people’s scripts that they send in. So these are scripts written by listeners. They’re almost always features, sometimes they’re TV pilots. If you’d like to send in your own, you can visit johnaugust.com/threepages and there’s a whole set of rules for like how you submit your pages.
If you’d like to read along with us, the PDFs of these pages are attached to this episode. So you can go to the show notes at johnaugust.com or just scroll your little player and you’ll be able to click the link and like read along with us as we take a look at these.
So most weeks, you and I read aloud these descriptions, and it’s honestly one of my least favorite things to do because it just feels so boring for us to be just reading these descriptions aloud. So I thought it’d be fun to have somebody else do this for us and so I wanted to turn to a familiar voice — a trusted voice — a voice who is beloved by Americans for many, many seasons now, it is Jeff Probst, the host of Survivor. So he offered to read these descriptions aloud, let’s start with On Tic by Gabrielle Mentjox.
Jeff Probst: We open on a door. Crystal, a woman in her 20s, opens the door and exchanges cash for two small tinfoil packages. This repeats a few times until one dissatisfied stoner charges inside the apartment claiming he’s been ripped off. Crystal tries to get him to leave but the stoner isn’t budging.
Crystal’s roommate, Chantal, overhears the chaos. She turns on the stereo and joins Crystal in the hallway. She asks what’s going on. And as they argue back and forth, a dog starts growling in the background. Chantal mentions how Bruce is hungry and doesn’t like strangers.
The stoner bolts. Trouble averted, Crystal and Chantal smoke weed from a homemade bong.
Outside, a crappy Nissan drives on the streets of small town New Zealand. Chantal rummages through the kitchen for food while Crystal messes about on Instagram. A car pulls up. An orthopedic shoes steps onto the pavement and we reached the bottom of page three.
John: How cool is that?
Craig: Well — I mean this is the best version of Survivor there is, right? I mean, it’s better than people on an island. These are — they’re writing things to survive.
Craig: And you and I may take their torch away.
Craig: Ah, Jeff Probst.
John: Jeff Probst. Craig, what did you think of On Tic?
Craig: Right. So first all, I’m fascinated by Gabrielle Mentjox because I’m trying to figure out like how do you pronounce Mentjox? It can’t just be Ment-jox. It’s got to be — I don’t know — something else.
One thing that was really interesting was that Gabrielle, I believe, is from New Zealand and her story takes place there. And she includes a little mention of the specific slang on the cover page to describe what a Tinnie is. And a Tinnie is 20 dollars’ worth of marijuana wrapped in aluminum foil, which I actually thought was kind of helpful.
And a good example was somebody going like, “Oh, I don’t really care what the orthodox nonsense is. I need people to know what I need them to know.” So generally speaking, I thought this was pretty good. I mean it was — I saw everything. I really enjoyed the description of Crystal. It hit all of my hair, make-up, wardrobe notes.
So I could see people and the scene moved in an interesting way. I was moving around the space in an interesting way. I was feeling and seeing things. Ultimately my issue with the scene is just that I have seen it.
Craig: I’ve just seen this. There is something generally dissatisfying I think about overpowered heroes. And this situation where it’s like, “Well, we’ve got a dog. So beat it.” And, “Oh, God. Okay.” It doesn’t feel very dramatic. It just feels kind of, you know.
John: So Craig, here’s a mystery versus a confusion question for you.
John: The way I read it is that there is no dog and that she was turning on the stereo and have a recording of a dog but there’s no actual dog and that’s why Gabrielle like singles out that the roommate Chantal goes into the next room and turns on that stereo. I think that was what was actually playing is the recording of the dog. Is that not what you read?
Craig: I didn’t know that. I didn’t understand that at all. Because dog — maybe it’s – the problem is — I mean, I suppose that’s possible. But she turns on the stereo. What year is this? Maybe that’s part of the problem, like who has a stereo that they turn on and then there’s — that’s the dog recording on the stereo.
I would have to see — I would have to hear the sound of it right then and there for the reader, at least I think to know, “Oh, okay the sound is coming out of that.” Especially because the dog sound gets louder as they’re talking. So–
John: Yeah. So my belief was that Chantal as she was coming into the room, she turned that on and it’s basically they have a plan. They basically have this dog recording that gets louder and louder that they can use to freak out people who are like thinking about breaking in to the house.
So I read these pages with that in my mind and like, “Oh, well, that’s kind of clever. Like these girls are smarter than, you know, your average young drug dealers.” Maybe. Or at least they have a plan. But if you didn’t catch that, and you just thought like was there a dog there somewhere — meh — it’s lost its spark.
Craig: Yeah. To be honest with you, now that I’m reading it this way where that’s what’s going on, I’m also a little bit meh about it because it feels frankly like a very thin plan. What it does is it makes their foe, angry stoner, not quite formidable.
Craig: If now I live in a world where people are easily faked out by stuff like that. And I don’t know. You know, here’s the thing — I liked all of the writing, you know.
John: Yeah, so do I.
Craig: So I think that the good news is, Gabrielle writes characters well. They were — they were distinct. It moved around. It was visual. It’s really what it is that I think the scene is missing like plus the concept now. You just want to plus that concept.
So if the idea is how can I show that these two women are really good at dealing with problems, even problem they cause, like ripping people-off, I want them to be smarter than this. This just isn’t that smart. So I need more clever, you know?
John: Cool. I do want to single out some of her good writing. So, this is on Page three, and this is a description of the residential strait.
“A hypnotic doof doof base blasts from the stereo. We’re in a beat-up Nissan, cruising up a typical street in small-town New Zealand. We pass paint-chipped state houses sitting atop bare quarter-acre sections.” Great, I got a visual there, I got a sense of what this feels like. I like the doof. This felt good, this felt competent. I do think Gabrielle can write. I’m just curious to see what would happen next, and where is this all going? It reminds me a bit of Go, my first movie, in a way that I really like. I love sort of young plucky dealers. It’s sort of my thing.
Craig: Young, plucky drug dealers are great, New Zealand is great. By the way, I started watching Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Yeah, Kate & Kate, one of the Kates’ One Cool Thing.
John: I do want to single out some things on page one, which needs a re-look. So first paragraph, a “young woman’s face peers out, eyebrows raised. This is CRYSTAL (20s, skinny, eyebrows plucked super thin.” Just repeating eyebrows twice, didn’t feel like the best choice. Like we’re only three lines in and we repeated a body part.
John: The same thing happens about midway through the page. Angry stoner’s parenthetical says, “Arms folded, staunch,” and then like Crystal stands up, staunched trying to block this guy. Staunch is sort of weird word anyway. So to use it twice in such close proximity, find some different adjectives there.
Craig: Yeah. Agreed. And even if staunch weren’t a weird word, you kind of have to do put separation between these things. No big deal. There are a lot of arms folded, and standing tall.
So the angry stoner has his arms folded, staunch. And then, Chantal has arms folded standing tall. So there’s quite a bit of that. And I don’t think that’s probably that necessary. There are ways to do these things sometimes, for instance — and sometimes, you I think about how the lines are falling. On the bottom of this first page, the action says, “Chantal strides down the hallway towards Crystal and angry stoner.”
Now the word stoner has spilled over to the second line. Wonderful, we now have the rest of that line to do stuff for free. [Laughs] So Chantal strides down the hallway towards Crystal and angry stoner. She gets big in the doorway, as big as she can in the doorway, you know, stares him down. And then, we can get rid of that parenthetical and just have what seems to be the problem here.
Craig: That sort of thing. So yeah. You should be on duplicate patrol as you’re going through. You know, just again, take a look at this dialogue in the middle of page two, and if you’re going to stick with the dog, when they’re talking about the dog, maybe it would be better here if they weren’t so on the nose about their own rouse, or by the way, not rouse if it’s not a rouse. I think Bruce is ready for his walk, or was it his feed. Oh, oh god, the dog is going to eat me. Isn’t it more of a con artist-y thing, if one them was like, what is wrong with the dog? And like — I don’t know. Well —
John: Did you feed him?
Craig: Exactly. No I didn’t feed him. Did you fed him yesterday? Oh my god, I didn’t feed him yesterday either. Oh, oh, sorry. We got a very hungry, very big dog in there. I’m sorry what were you asking about? You know, like there’s got to be a more — they just got to be smarter I think. If they’re going to be pulling one over on this dude because then I’m more impressed. Because right now, really, instead of being impressed with them, I’m just unimpressed with the angry stoner.
John: The last thing I’ll say is if I’m reading this correctly and the dog is just on the stereo, let us know that’s actually the case, because right now there is nothing to indicate that. So I would say, she turns on the stereo, oddly, there’s no music, like you can say like oddly there because it gives us a sense of we’re going to hang back a bit and it’s weird like that there’s no actual music playing, or at some point there’s a cut away to the stereo and we see like the little bars going up and down. That the dog is just on a stereo.
John: Otherwise, there’s no pay-off to something that, I think, your setup that could be quite clever.
John: Absolutely. Let’s go back to our favorite host of a reality TV program. Jeff Probst who’s going to talk us through The Beast with 1,000 Faces by Jesse Gouldsbury and Brendan Steere.
Jeff Probst: 17-year-old North Stewart is confused why his parent are sending him away to space camp. His mom explains that North needs some time away. His dad says they need a break, too, especially from North‘s 19-year-old sister, Triss. Triss teases North for getting sent to space camp until she finds out, she’s going too. She’s pissed but she knows there’s no way out of it.
After a bus ride, we find North and Triss in a space shuttle. They’re in space, yet it all looks quite ordinary, much like a standard airplane, passengers sleep with their windows down. At the bottom of page three, we arrive at a common room in the dormitory.
John: Great. So Craig, this to me had some real confusion issues. Not mystery, but confusion. I didn’t know where I was at as the story ended. I didn’t know if I was in space or on a bus and that’s really a problem on page three.
Craig: I got that I was in space. And, well, first, I was on a bus and then I was in space.
John: I don’t think you’re in space at the end there, Craig.
John: So we’re going to skip to the end here. So let me talk you through – I’ll actually read aloud what happens on page three. So North and sister are being sent away to camp. So then we’re exterior, road — day. North rides along, looking out the window of a school bus. Match cut. Interior, the shuttle — day. North is looking out the window of a space shuttle, in space. He’s sitting near his sister in what looks like a run down, but very commercialized space shuttle. Things look no more extreme than people flying in an airplane. Most people are sleeping, windows are down, etc.
North listens to his headphones, our camera rotates 360 degrees around his face as we hear J-pop beats.
Title card: “The Beast With 1,000 Faces”
We push back into North’s face. Match cut to INT. COMMON ROOM — DAY. The middle point of the ships with four walls, each side with a door. Looks like a dormitory common room designed by that RA who loves Star Trek.
So I read this as the match cut to the shuttle was his sort of fantasy version of like being on the bus, and then we’re in the common room of the ship’s four walls. Then like, this is all like a set basically. This isn’t real. That was my confusion three pages in, partly because I didn’t believe we’re in a world where they could be in space, because the first paragraphs felt so real world grounded.
Craig: Okay, you may be right. Now, I read it as he’s going to space and that going to space is a very mundane thing like taking a plane to study abroad in Madrid. And so, now, I would have made a bigger deal out of the reveal of space because — I mean, I think it’s okay to show that the characters themselves don’t give a damn. But we need to make clear like, just throwing on “in space” at the end of a sentence is probably not great also. I don’t like it when people talk about day and night in space, because it is very confusing to everybody. Really. If I start a slug line with INT. THE SHUTTLE – DAY, I think, okay, they’re on a launching pad. They’re going to be launching.
So I think that that’s what going on. I think that the idea here is we live in a time in the future when going to space is no big deal, it’s like going to camp.
John: But see, I’ve got no evidence that we are in the future whatsoever at the start. I think that’s my frustration is that if we are truly in space, there was nothing to tip me off to the fact that we could be going into space in the first two pages. Because what we’re given is INT. NORTH’S LIVING ROOM — NIGHT. Close on his face basically. We have his mom and his dad, but we have no information that this could be something other than present day. The most that we have is that, the room around them looks like it was decorated by someone raised in 2005. Okay, I guess that could be a person — I guess, we could be in the future– maybe that’s how they they’re trying to tip me off that like, we are in the future, but there’s nothing else that’s telling me that I’m in the future. So then when I’m suddenly in space, I’m not loving it.
Craig: Yeah, you are definitely dealing with confusion there. So mystery is why are these people talking about sending their child into space? And the child is reacting like petulantly as opposed to with shock and fear. Okay, this is going to pay-off certainly. They are in the future and people go into space in the future. What is confusing is when you decide that it would be funny if your future people had retro-style because now it’s just — now, you know what a room that looks like it was designed by people raised in 2005 looks like? It looks like right now. Because we don’t know what the hell that means. It just means now.
John: Yeah. So the writers could totally choose to do that, but at some point between leaving that room and getting on the bus, at some point you got to show me something. We’re like, we’re driving by like, you know, in the first Star Trek movie, the first of the new series of Star Trek movies, like the motorcycle goes by this giant like quarry kind of thing where they’re building a spaceship. Like, that tells me like — oh, okay we’re in the future. But nothing here was telling me the future until I’m suddenly in space, and I don’t believe that I’m in space.
Craig: Yeah. Also there’s this thing that happens I think where Jesse and Brendan are trying to get this across again, on page two, when North’s sister Triss says, “You listen to classic rock, North. You like that turn-of-the-century crap, you weirdo.” But, you know, classic rock wasn’t turn-of-the-century. It was like ‘60s and ‘70s, so did they mean, turn of the century, the next century? But then, that wouldn’t be — is that what the classic rock is? Because then she says, Wheatus and I don’t know Wheatus. So maybe it’s a hundred but that’s a lot of math you’re asking me to do, and I don’t want to do math. I just want to absorb and engage as I can.
John: Don’t make me do math.
Craig: Don’t make me — here’s another thing that happens on page two. Again, these are the choices about how to indicate to us what’s going on. So they’re trying, right? It’s just not quite landing. Triss is complaining about the camp, the space camp that they’re being sent to. And by the way, space camp can’t possibly be what people will call space camp in the future. Space camp is what people that don’t have space camp talk about space camp. So she’s going to —
John: It’s like a tautology. It’s actually completely true and brilliant, but like you know, space camp is only for people who don’t have space camp.
Craig: That’s right. That’s right. Once you have space camp, it has a name, that’s a more interesting name than space camp. Because presumably, there’s more than one space camp. Even they say, there’s more than one space camp. So how could you possibly call it space camp? It’s like going to shopping mall. But she’s complaining about the space camp that they’re sending her to. And North says, she’s kind of right, though. It has the lowest FLERP score out of the orbital camps. Okay, so I get it, we’re in the future now. There’s orbital camps, but —
John: Craig, Craig. By the way, Craig is right. I’m reading this now, clearly, we are supposed to be in the future.
Craig: Yeah. We’re in the future, but FLERP score is not good. Because it’s not funny, but it’s definitely not serious.
John: Yeah. It has a joke-oid problem where it kind of feels like a joke, but it’s not actually funny. So therefore, it feels like a joke that didn’t work.
Craig: Yeah. And it also has a tone problem and these are — remember, we always say that these are the pages where you’re instructing the audience how to watch your movie. And what you’re telling them here is, this is a silly movie. The reality is silly. It’s so silly that they call space camp “space camp.” And there’s a score called the FLERP score. Nothing matters here.
John: So let’s talk about stuff on page one and this runner about things. And so mom says, “Well, we thought it would be fun for you and your sister to have some time away from things. And for us to have some time away from things, too. Mostly your sister.” So from this point forward, things is referring to the sister, but I think we’re going to need to stick in some quotes for a moment there, because otherwise it’s too easy to miss what they’re actually trying to say. So when dad’s line says, “Well, you’re a responsible young man, and when you’re both up there, we’d like you to keep an eye on things.” You have to break that word things out, it could be like with dot dot dot. It could be with some quotes, but you have to indicate that we’re not saying things as a throwaway place holder, it really is meant to refer to the sister who’s sitting right there.
Craig: Yes. Part of the struggle that I think you were having and I had, too, in terms of placing this in a sense of time is that this discussion that they’re having is so mundane and weirdly 1950s. That you’re so confused about the time of it all. They are talking like 1950s parents. Weirdly, there are these little subliminal problems that are occurring. His mom and dad (50s — Janeane Garofalo and John C. Reilly). So already the word 50s is in my head, which is a bad thing for a movie that’s set — I got 50s then I’ve got 2005. Also, you keep telling me who these actors are.
Now in general, I’m not going to freak out about this when people say think this person, think that person. But if you’re setting a movie in the future and you’re trying to play a little bit of a confusing mystery game about what year this is with people, this will not help you.
John: Not a bit.
Craig: Because when you get to Triss and you say think Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect, I’m now thinking it’s 2015, that’s who I’m seeing in my head. Plus she has headphones on. Do they have headphones in the future? I mean we don’t even have headphones now, right?
John: Yeah, yeah. Here’s the issues, like the writers are trying to have it both ways. So like you say Janeane Garofalo and John C. Reilly like, oh, okay, those are maybe people you would actually cast in this movie, but you can’t cast Anna Kendrick as 19 years old because she’s not 19 years old. So are you sort of giving us the casting suggestion? Or are you showing us a type? And you kind of can’t do both. You’ve got to make one choice here and like this is not a realistic choice. So like Triss, 19, like the world’s worst Disney princess. Like give us something like that that give us an overall type for her. But I would not like try to give her an actress call out because it’s just not going to make sense.
Craig: Yeah. No, it’s —
Craig: All right. So we got some problems here.
John: We got some big problems here, but guys, thank you for sending it in.
John: Let’s go to our final Three Page Challenge this week and hear what Jeff Probst has to say about this untitled script by Mitchell LeBlanc.
Jeff Probst: In the vastness of space, we encounter a large derelict starship. The quarters are empty, as are the crew quarters, and the social area. The only sign of life is Atom, a humanoid robot. Atom tinkers with a disassembled computer, ripping out fried parts and using a replicator to produce new ones. He puts it all together and it works. Sad music plays throughout the ship. Atom moves on to the upper quarter, where he cleans the observation deck, then back to the social area where he makes a meal he can’t eat.
Later Atom plays ping-pong by himself, and chess. He paints a perfect copy of Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. His battery runs low, time for sleep. He turns off the music, hours pass, then another day begins.
John: So Craig, I kind of loved this. I’m hoping that you liked it as much as I did. My biggest concern which I suspect will be everyone’s biggest concern is that I saw the movie WALL-E.
John: And it kind of feels like Mitchell also saw the movie WALL-E. And so that is a reasonable concern that you have a robot who’s just going about the business of trying to live a normal life. And yet, I really enjoyed these three pages. And I was curious to read what was going to happen next. And I liked Mitchell’s overall writing style. It was a very spare kind of thing. It felt kind of like animation, but in a way that I kind of dug. What did you think of these pages?
Craig: Listen, I’m with you. If I had not seen WALL-E, I would be dancing a jig right now.
Craig: And listen, it’s not like there isn’t value here, but so much of the value does feel borrowed. I’m struggling to give as much credit as I would here, because it just feels the pace, the moments, the tone, it all feels borrowed. It feels like I’m watching a copy of another thing.
Now, I love how much white space there is, I love it. I love this kind of writing, I love the way that Mitchell uses bold to best effect and puts little dashes in, and onomatopoeia, and italics, and lot and lots of hitting the return key, I love that. I love, love, love. These were a joy – actually, these three pages read so easily and breezily. But, I’ve seen this movie.
John: But the thing is we may not have seen this movie because like at the bottom of page three, we’re just setting up the basic world of this character. And so like Sam Rockwell in Moon is sort of like in a WALL-E type of situation. There’s other movies where like, you know, we’re in a spaceship and things are kind of this way. I mean the start of Passengers, I haven’t read the script, but it might feel similar kind of way. So we’re only seeing through page three, so I think my good news for Mitchell is I really want to see pages four through 10 to see if your movie is WALL-E or if it’s actually very, very different. And it could be delightfully different, it could be a romance, it could be something I’m totally not anticipating. And I’m very curious to read those next pages because I really liked what I have read so far.
Craig: Well, sure. And I agree with you on that. I mean, look the WALL-E problem isn’t — you’re right, there are a lot of movies about someone alone in isolation, sadly whiling away the time. What set WALL-E apart was that it was a robot. That was the thing, right? So it’s — that’s this. Even if it’s not WALL-E after this, it’s a problem that it’s WALL-E now, pages one through three. Because anyone in the world reading this script is going to go, oh, it’s WALL-E. That’s not what you want, you know, when you’re starting to read a script. You just don’t want that.
John: You don’t want that. So if you’re concerned about the WALL-E, which I think you should be aware that it’s going to be a concern, I would look at sort of like removing like the sad music playing. Pick certain threads and like, you know, look at sort of how WALL-E sets things up and like just go a different direction. And so like take out that sad music, take out a little of the art, take out a little of something. Make us curious about this character more than just sort of like marveling at this person’s beautiful loneliness.
Craig: Yeah. Precisely. It just felt so, so WALL-E. I will say this is a great example of what I think of as good mystery, that we’ll call is a good short term mystery.
Craig: The vastness of space –first of all, in the black, the vastness of space, not space — day. So thank you. In the black, the vastness of space and then clink. Then interior, bios II, echoing through the large derelict starship, which by the way is clever in itself. You interior something, what the hell is that for the reader. And then, you answer, large derelict starship. The corridor is empty. Clank. Nobody in the crew quarters. Clink. Or in the medical bay. Clink.
I know what you’re doing here, I can see the movie, I see these big like Kubrick-style wide shots of just empty rooms with a little electrical hum. But then, there’s this noise, what is that noise? Who’s doing the noise? And then we find Atom. It even sounds like – like Atom, Eva, WALL-E, clank. A humanoid robot tinkers. His casing resembles a white spacesuit. Cute. A digital panel for a face, but it’s powered off. I wasn’t quite able to see what that meant, a digital panel for a face.
John: I think it basically has an iPad for a face, but there’s not – it’s just a black glass.
Craig: Ah, yeah. WALL-E. WALL-E
John: WALL-E. [laughs]
John: So if I have any of like word objections, it’s literally the second line of clink. The minute I hear clink — what do you think of a –what clinks?
Craig: Ice cubes.
John: Glasses, ice cubes, it’s all about like a drink. And so if it started with a clank rather than a clink, I know this seems like so petty and minor, but if it went clank, clink, like starting with a clink makes me think like someone is toasting with Champagne. And so it pulled me out of the next couple of lines, because I thought like, oh, wait, is it glass? No, it’s something else. So I know that’s so tiny and unimportant, but literally starting with a clank would have helped me out here a little bit on page one.
Craig: Yeah. I agree. I like a nice clunk.
John: Yeah. Clunks are good too. The other places where I wanted a little bit more — and so all of this is so spare on the page. If you are not reading this, you know, because you’re driving your car, it’s worth pulling this up as a PDF because almost everything we’re seeing here are single lines. On page two, the daily routine. Atom, gardens in the oxygen garden, cleans glass in the observation deck, analyzes readouts on the bridge. These were the only places where I felt like I was being shortchanged a little bit. What does an oxygen garden look like? Throw us a line about the oxygen garden, throw us a line about the observation deck, throw us a line about the bridge.
We need to have a little bit more painting of our world here because at this point you’re just like, you know, what? Are we supposed to look at the storyboards? Like, gives us a little bit better sense like what is specific about your ship versus the sort of Kubrick ship that I’m picturing in my head.
Craig: Yeah. Agreed. Also, if you can avoid the — on top of page three, passing an old photo of Atom with the crew. Where are they? If you can avoid the photo, if there’s another way, even if it’s just a wall that shows captain, dadada, like you know, employee of the month kind of wall, something. There’s something about the old photo that is very cliché. So if there’s another way around it.
John: I would love to see like a burnt section of the wall like even if he just goes pass that. Like something to say like, oh, something really terrible happened here. I’m not trying to write his story for him, but like something that indicates like, oh, there’s something really bad that we could go to.
Craig: Atom, drifts through a blood soaked room.
Craig: Finds his way to a ping-pong table. Very good.
John: I really hope — I hope Atom killed everybody on the ship. That’s my secret hope.
Craig: Well, listen. Clink.
John: Then it’s not WALL-E.
John: I heard the first cut of WALL-E was much darker, a lot murder.
Craig: There’s just blood everywhere.
John: All right. So those are our Three Page Challenges for this week. Thank you to all the writers who wrote in. And thank you for the people who have written in with samples that we have not gotten to on the air. You’re all fantastic. Godwin does read all of them, so he picked these three, but he might pick yours next time through. Extra special thanks to Jeff Probst for reading aloud these descriptions. That was so much fun. And again, if you have your own Three Page Challenge that you want to send in, it’s johnaugust.com/three page. And if you want to read what we just talked about, those are in the show notes for this next week.
It’s time for our One Cool Things. So my One Cool Thing this week is a book that I’ve been reading for forever. And I kind of put it down, I pick it up, and I’m like, oh, I could still keep reading this book. It is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s already a bestseller, you know, Obama recommended it. And people compared it a lot to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Did you read that, Craig?
Craig: I did.
John: Yes. Did you like it?
Craig: Nope. [laughs]
John: Everyone likes it except Craig Mazin.
Craig: I found it weirdly — I didn’t like it. I won’t even go into why. I was unimpressed with its lack of self-critique.
John: I suspect you would like parts of this book and disagree with parts of this book. But the parts I liked so much about it were really getting into the origins of humankind. So a hundred thousand years ago, there are a lot of competing strains of humans running around the world. So like we know about the Neanderthals but there are other kind of humans that could have come to the foreground and they didn’t. And so he’s really looking at sort of why our little branch of this big tree became so dominant. And it wasn’t just our hands and our brains and our language. But he makes a compelling case that it’s our ability to hold metaphor is a crucial aspect to sort of why we were able to organize into such large societies.
So if you have a small group, a tribe, like it can only get to a certain size because there could be a leader, and if that leader is not there, it sort of all falls apart. But with our ability to have metaphors, we can think of a king who we’ve never met. And that we can be in service to a person we’ve never ever seen before. We can have these bigger structures.
And he makes the case that our ability to have metaphor is something really unique of all animals, and that’s probably the reason why we’re able to do so many things we’ve done in such a very short period of time. So as I was reading it, I kept thinking about sort of the acceleration of culture and how as screenwriters and storytellers, we are so responsible for pushing things forward and pushing things faster, especially in our science fiction. We keep describing these things that don’t quite exist and I think because we describe them, we sort of pressure them into existence even faster. So I really dug that section of it. So if you have it on your Kindle and you’ve not read it yet, I would say, open it up and take a look at it. So Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.
Craig: Excellent. Sounds good. I’ll check it out.
John: Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing?
Craig: Jeff Probst.
John: Jeff Probst, all right.
Craig: Jeff Probst. [laughs]
John: Are you watching the new season? I just started last night. So he sent me like a code for like an all access thing, but we already bought the season on iTunes, so we’re watching it here in Paris.
Craig: No, but I believe my wife — I don’t watch TV, John. I think we’ve established that. [laughs]
John: I always forget. That’s right. Yeah.
Craig: Or listen to podcasts. [laughs]
John: This season is Millennials vs. Gen X. And I will say that after the first episode, I found it strange that like it’s as if Gen X is like the greatest generation. Like it’s as if like we fought a war or something. Like we’re the ones who work hard and do all that stuff. It’s like, no, we were kind of lazy and entitled in our own time, too.
Craig: Yeah. Just compared to Millennials, we’re the greatest generation. [laughs]
John: Our show is produced and edited by two Millennials, Godwin Jabangwe.
John: Yeah. And our outro this week comes from Matthew Chilelli, our editor.
If you have an idea for an outro — not an idea for an outro — if you have actual music as an outro, you can send it in to email@example.com. On Twitter, I’m @johnaugust, Craig is @clmazin. I’m on Instagram, also @johnaugust. You can find the show notes for this and all episodes at johnaugust.com, just search for the episode title. It’s also where you’ll find our transcripts. I think we are going to get the transcripts back on schedule in a week or two. So if they’re not there, hold tight, they will be coming. You can find all the back episodes on scriptnotes.net, which is $2 a month for all the back episodes and all the special episodes, and the dirty episodes, everything we’ve ever done is basically at scriptnotes.net. You will find it there. There’s also a USB drive, which are now back in stock. There’s a link in the show notes, but it’s just store.johnaugust.com. And we’ll send you a USB drive that has all that stuff on it as well.
And Craig, I think that’s our show.
Craig: Fantastic show.
John: Fantastic. Craig, may your torch not be extinguished in the spirit of Jeff Probst.
Craig: I know what that means. [laughs]
John: Have a great week.
Craig: You too, bye.
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