John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 273 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast we’ll be answering listener questions from our overflowing mailbag, tackling issues including comedy roundtables, getting rewritten, coffee meetings, and yes, moving to Los Angeles.
Craig, you’re back from Austin. How was it?
Craig: It was –it was great. I have to apologize, there is, you know, my normal noisy street is slightly noisier right now because you know sometimes trucks come by and spray the street with water?
Craig: I feel like they’re doing that but they keep spraying the same spot, like right outside my window. As if I’m extra dirty.
John: Maybe they just want something to grow there. They’re just carefully tending that patch of asphalt hoping that something magnificent will erupt.
Craig: You know who is extra dirty and who has magnificent things that erupt all the time?
John: Tell me who that is. [laughs]
Craig: Sexy Craig.
John: Ugh, that’s just the worst.
Craig: He reached out to the city. You guys got to come by.
John: I thought you were going to talk about one of the Austin guests you had on the live show. I really enjoyed the live show. So, I got to listen to it at the same time everybody else did. So I didn’t pre-listen to it. Godwin listened to it, and of course Matthew cut it and cut out all the most embarrassing stuff out of it.
But it was delightful. And so as I was listening there, it would not have been any better for my actually being there because like one host with like four panelists, a second host does not make that better. A second host actually makes that much, much worse. But if I had been a panelist up there, I wanted to jump in on one question you asked which is, if there was one bit of advice you would offer to new screenwriters about how to break in —
John: My bit of advice would be to be the protagonist in your own story. And I think so often we talk about characters and sort of like their journeys and as they’re going through life. But somebody wants to break in as a screenwriter, think of yourself as that person who wants to break in as a screenwriter and what would you ask of your protagonist.
Well, you probably ask for them to actually really try hard to sort of clearly state their goals, to, you know, fail every once in a while, to pick themselves up when they do fail, to find allies, to be an ally to other people. I think if sometimes if writers could step outside of themselves and look at themselves as the person trying to do the things they’re trying to do, they might feel much more confident in making the choices and the chances that they’re taking.
Craig: Well you see we did miss you because that would have been great, and I completely agree. In fact, every year I do a talk at the Guild for Guild members and it’s more professional because it is for Guild members. So it’s specifically about how to make it through development.
Now, obviously a lot of the people that we speak to at Austin, they haven’t gotten to the place yet where they’re dealing with studio executives and producers. But that’s exactly the message I give them which is how do we be the protagonist of our own story. And it is very valuable to think of it that way because it’s the thing we’re best at, you know —
Craig: Thinking narratively. So that’s great advice. We had a terrific time there. I was, you know, we kind of did this fun little thing that we weren’t sure would work which is to not put it on the schedule and to drop little hints about it. And then eventually they just maybe the morning of the event, just tweeted okay this is what’s happening and this is where it’s going to happen.
I had gone out to dinner with all the people that were on that panel. I was at dinner with and I said, “Look after this dinner we’re going go over there and we’re going to do this. I have no idea if people are going to show up. I got to be honest with you. I just don’t know.”
And we get there and it’s packed. The ballroom — the big room — packed. And it was –the crowd was hot. This is – you know, remember that year we did it and they had scheduled us at like 9:30 in the morning?
John: That’s brutal.
Craig: Yeah. We’re never doing that again. We’re always doing it at 10PM. It was the best. Everybody was just in a great mood and we had a great show.
John: Well as Aline Brosh McKenna often reminds us that Scriptnotes is best recorded after one and a half glasses of wine. And so you guys had at least that in you I could tell as you were recording the show and it definitely worked.
Question for you, while you were in Austin at the Austin Film Festival, did you see any Scriptnotes t-shirts out in the wild?
Craig: The answer is, yes. And in fact I saw so many that it actually took me until the final day, which was Sunday, to realize that I was seeing them. I don’t know how else to put it. I realized at that point, wait a second I’ve been seeing these all weekend and I haven’t been saying anything to anyone. I mean, so many Scriptnotes t-shirts. It was very nice to see people — boy, do people buy these things. You are stealing so much money from me, it’s unbelievable.
John: It’s just delightful actually is what I’m doing. Because the thing is, what we have to remember and sometimes you forget this, is that Scriptnotes is not just a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. It’s also one of the major clothiers of screenwriters really worldwide. I mean, if you want to take a look at sort of what most screenwriters are wearing on a daily basis, what I’m wearing on a daily basis, what I’m wearing at this moment is a Scripnotes t-shirt.
And so one of the questions I’ve been getting recently through Twittter and also in the mailbag is, “Hey are you going to make more t-shirts?” And the answer was, well we’re not quite sure because obviously I’m in Paris and Godwin is new and Stuart is gone, and so much has changed that like it felt weird to make t-shirts, but also feels weird not to make t-shirts.
So the answer is yes, we are making brand new t-shirts. The 2016 t-shirts are available for order right now as we record the show.
Craig: So they can’t buy them yet? We’re — first we’re making them. Is that the idea?
John: Yeah. So essentially what we’ve always done before is like, we take preorders and then we print exactly the shirts that are ordered and we ship those out and like that’s only time you can buy Scriptnotes t-shirts.
We’re doing the same kind of thing this year, but instead of printing them ourselves and packaging them ourselves in our little office in Los Angeles, we’re using this great service called Cotton Bureau that does the t-shirts for a lot of other popular podcasts. And so they are going to be doing the job that Stuart and I and Dustin and Nima would usually be doing, which is printing the shirts and putting them in bags and sending them out with love to the rest of the world.
Craig: That sounds great. People will buy them and people really do. They were walking around with them. I saw some vintages, you know. Some of the — some of the OG t-shirts. I saw a bunch of the new ones. A lot of the — that deconstructed screenplay image one.
So, yes, they will be bought for sure. Yeah. God, I saw so many of them. You would have — you would have noticed all of them. This is one — of all the differences we have, this may be the most stark. [laughs] You would have absolutely noticed all of them and I didn’t realize I was looking at them for three days.
John: Yeah. Well there are a bunch of t-shirts. And like that’s the thing, because we do new ones each and we never repeat ourselves, there is actually a lot. So the Scriptnotes t-shirts that I can recall actually existing. There was — the first remember was Umbrage Orange and Rational Blue.
John: And they were many more blues than oranges sold because it’s kind of hard to wear an orange shirt. That’s what we sort of realized. Then we did a classic black, we did the Scriptnotes tour shirt which remains one of my favorite shirts.
John: Three-act structure. We did the Camp Scriptnotes. So we’ve had a bunch of different shirts available for purchase. This year, the two new designs, one is called Midnight Blue and it is a very subtle blue Scriptnotes logo on a blue shirt. The other is called Gold Standard or Three Page Challenge, I’m not sure which we should call it.
It is a representation of a screenplay page that is glowing in gold, actually three pages that are glowing in gold. As if it is the absolute perfect three pages that has been submitted to the podcast.
Craig: You know I didn’t — it’s funny you mentioned, I’d forgotten that — I did not see any Camp Scriptnotes t-shirts.
John: They were not a huge seller. They’re really fun but I think honestly the ringer t-shirt aspect of it all was a detriment to us because ringer t-shirts are a little bit harder to wear.
Craig: I don’t know what a ringer t-shirt is.
John: So that’s the one that has the different stitching around the sleeves and so the edges of the sleeves is a different material. And so it’s very true to a camp shirt but they’re actually not quite as comfortable, I want to be honest. And if there’s anything we’ve learned through making a bunch of Scriptnotes t-shirts is that comfort is key.
And so for all of these years we’ve been doing this, we’ve had Stuart Friedel, and Stuart Friedel is, you know, sort of world-renowned for his ability to find the absolute softest t-shirt made to humankind.
John: I mean Stuart’s sense of softness.
Craig: Yeah. He’s like the Princess and the Pea, you know. He can feel even the slightest stitch out of place.
John: Yeah. I mean, he’s sort of a savant. And without Stuart, I had to actually like, you know, research and so I went to Cotton Bureau and I checked out the shirts that we’d actually be printing on. An ATP shirt is the one I have as an example. And you know what? I think we did it. I think we matched the softness.
Craig: Ooh. Well, that’s very exciting. Well I’m going to redub these. I think we should call it Umbrage Blue and the Umbrage Standard.
John: So it’s only Umbrage. There’s no rationality left in the t-shirt world.
Craig: Yeah, I just I want to claim credit for everything. [laughs].
John: All right, so if you would like to see these t-shirts, there’s a link in the show notes for this. You will also find it on the website. They’re over at Cotton Bureau and they are $25, $24 roughly a piece. It depends a little bit on which printing of shirt you want to do.
But just like before, we’re only going to be selling them for like two or two and a half weeks and so you have to get your order in like right now. You might want to pause the podcast and actually order them because once we stop printing them, then we’re done. So that there’s no more chances to buy them, just like all our previous t-shirts. They are tri-blend, they are super soft, they are really good and they are available in women sizes and in men sizes. So I think all of our listeners should enjoy them, whichever one they want.
The only thing I would ask and sort of a challenge to our listeners is that, because we’re printing through this other site, they show all the other t-shirts that they printed. They have like a wall of fame for the designs that have been most printed. And I would love to sort of beat some of the other podcasts that are on there.
So there’s a podcast called The Incomparable which is a delightful podcast, but they sold 458 of their t-shirts when they last printed. I think we can beat The Incomparable. I think we can print more than 458 t-shirts. In my wildest fantasies, I’d even love to beat the Accidental Tech podcast which sold 2,504 shirts. I don’t know that we can do that, but also look at our metrics and we’ve a lot of listeners, Craig. So, if they want to buy a t-shirt, this would be the time.
Craig: But do we know how, what percentage our listeners have torsos?
John: That’s absolutely a really good question because they could be disembodied like AI. They could be computers who are writing screenplays.
John: And who are listening to the podcast and learning how to replace all of us human writers.
Craig: Or just had that thing where their head grows out of their waist.
John: That’s another strong possibility.
Craig: Is that a thing? I don’t know, I mean it feels like it should be a thing.
John: It probably is a thing. Anyway, this is the first week you can buy them. You can also buy them next week, but then you can sort of stop buying them. So, if you’d like to buy them, you can buy them. If we can somehow beat this other podcast, I think Craig and I should think of some challenge to provide ourselves for our listeners if they actually manage to beat those other podcasts. I don’t what that will be.
Craig: Oh, that sounds great. Yeah, no. Sure.
Craig: I’m in on any challenge. Any — anything.
John: Maybe we’ll have to sing a duet or something. We’ll do something terrific and also potentially embarrassing.
Craig: Ooh, l like that. Can it be one with, like one the Peabo Bryson classics.
John: 100% Peabo Bryson.
John: You can even do it in Sexy Craig voice if you have to.
Craig: I don’t know how else to do it.
John: There’s no — there’s no non-sexy way to sing Peabo Bryson.
Craig: No, sir.
John: All right, let’s get back to our follow up. So two weeks ago we answered a question from Matthew, an aspiring screenwriter who found himself on the autism spectrum and was wondering about his future. We got some great emails in and tweets and other people writing in about autism. So I thought we’d go through some of those emails today.
Craig, do you want to take this first one from Thomas?
Craig: Yeah, sure. This is Thomas from the Netherlands. So, you know, again we gather these nations in our larger governing nation of Scriptnotes world. Thomas from Netherlands writes, “I was listening to Episode 271 and in that episode you read the email from Matthew, an aspiring screenwriting with autism spectrum disorder. I have the diagnosis as well and I was really moved by his email.
“I often get the feeling I will never make it in the film industry because of my disability. When I heard the email Matthew sent in, I could really relate to his insecurities and I was really happy to hear that you guys feel like it shouldn’t limit you in the industry.
“I just wanted to tell Matthew through your podcast that he’s not the only one feeling insecure about his autism and that you could do anything if you put your mind to it. Someone who seems to agree with me would be Steven Spielberg. Although he’s never been officially diagnosed, Spielberg has claimed in the past to have a mild form of autism.
“I tend to think about that every time I feel insecure. It helps me to know that one of the greatest of all time has something in common with me. Be the person you are, not the diagnosis you’ve been given.”
John: Now that’s great advice, Thomas from Netherlands. So thank you for writing in with that. Edward Miles Stapleton wrote in with a link to a blog post which I thought was great. And this blog post makes the case that we shouldn’t think of autism spectrum disorder as a linear range like 1 to a 100. So you shouldn’t think about it like just like, oh he’s a little autistic, or like he’s highly autistic.
Rather, you should think about it more like a color wheel and so you can think like any spot on that color wheel can represent sort of one person’s experience of autism and sort of like what aspects they have and what aspects they don’t have. I thought that was actually a really nice metaphor for like what autism looks like and feels like and how it can present itself so differently in different people.
Craig: Exactly. And really part of when we say like autism spectrum disorder, we are implying that on the other side, there are these other things that are ordered. And I’m not exactly sure that that is true for a lot of what we call spectrum behavior because there’s a lot of people who do not have any symptoms that would place them on the spectrum but have different issues.
So, there are a lot people that just really struggle with math, okay? And in a vague sense we can call that sort of opposite of what you typically see with people on the autism spectrum. Well is the inability or the struggle to think mathematically, a disorder? I don’t think so, nor do I think that being, you know, really good at that but having trouble parsing let’s say visual/social cues is in and of itself any worse.
It’s just that we’re all better at some things than others. And that there are a lot of behaviors that seem to be interrelated. So if you’re not good at this, you probably won’t be good at this. And if you are good at this, you’d likely be good at this. So I think this is great. I mean we know, look, on extremes of anything, you’re going to find challenges. And in extremes of anything, it’s fair to say this is a disorder and it would be great if you could improve it, you know.
If you are non-verbal, that’s rough, and it would be great if you can improve it, and it’s also not very common. But for most people I think who are on the spectrum, it’s helpful to think of yourselves as just, this is just basically who I am. It’s not necessarily disorder.
John: Absolutely. So finally, I want to note that a listener wrote in to point out that the WGA actually does have a Writers with Disabilities Committee whose whole focus is access and inclusion for writers with different disabilities, including autism. So if Matthew or another screenwriter with autism finds himself in the WGA, this would be the place you might want to check out and sort of there are panels, there are sort of special programs to sort of help connect you with executives, with agents, with other people who may be interested in your specific skill set, your abilities, and your stories. So like all the different sort of diverse writers in the Writers Guild, there are specific committees that are there to sort of help focus on your issues.
All right, let’s get to some questions. First off, we have a question from Sam Jackson.
Craig: Awesome. I can’t believe he listens.
John: “Hello, my name is Sam Jackson. I’m a senior at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. In my English class, we’re currently working on a big research project about a career path we’d like to follow. I am doing my report on screenwriting. A requirement of the project is to interview someone who has actual experience in the career we’re studying. Would you consider, or be willing to answer 10 questions I have? If so, here are my questions.”
Craig: The fact that you’re reading these, I think, is an indication that we have considered it and are willing. [laughs]
John: Number one, what is a career in screenwriting like?
Craig: Don’t know. Next? I’m going to do this like Drumpf. Nevermind. Wrong.
John: So maybe we can plough through this, but I also kind of want to answer his questions because I feel like, you know, the one sentence answer might be sort of more than anyone is giving him otherwise.
Craig: Okay. I mean I’ll be meaner about it.
John: All right. I would say a career in screenwriting is like a career in journalism in that you are being paid to write for other people, and there’s a very specific form you have to follow, which can be great, but can also be frustrating at times. Craig, what is being a screenwriter like?
Craig: There’s no way to properly answer that. It’s not a great question, sorry, Sam. It’s just not a great question. It’s just not – it’s like what is being a doctor like? What? How do you – it’s like it is. I don’t, ugh.
John: What are some things to consider when looking into a career in screenwriting?
Craig: I just can’t. You do it.
John: [laughs] I would say, consider what kind of writing you actually enjoy, and whether you’re getting into screenwriting because you want to make movies, or because you look at this as a way to make a lot of money quickly, because it’s not that.
Craig: I have a little bit of an answer for this one. You have to consider that there are very, very few jobs, and many, many, many people who want them. So high risk, high reward.
John: Question three, is it very difficult to break into this industry? If so, why is that?
Craig: Sam, you know the answer to that question. You can’t ask questions you know the answer to. The only way this makes sense is if Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, has been encased in some kind of weird isolation tomb.
John: Oh, that would be kind of amazing. Sort of like that Stephen King Bubble the Dome show.
Craig: It’s in the dome.
John: Roncalli is in the dome.
Craig: If this town is under the dome, I totally get this and I apologize. If it’s not, Sam, I will say to you what I say to my own son in high school: I think you can do better.
Okay, you know it is very difficult to break into this industry. If so, why is that? Because they don’t make a lot of movies and millions of people want to be in the movie business.
John: 100%. What do you think makes a good script good? I would say that a clear point of view, an interesting main character, and a story that wants to have a beginning, a middle, and end.
Craig: Yup. [laughs]
John: What do you think makes a bad script bad, Craig?
Craig: It’s a similar thing to what makes bad questions bad.
John: I think too much concern about structure, and hitting key points, and too many screenwriting books.
Craig: I’m a real jerk. I just want to say. And I hope we keep this in the show just as evidence for all time how much better of a person you are than I am. It’s–
John: [laughs] Yeah. Trust me. Matthew is not going to edit any of this out.
Craig: I mean, it is so great. And really, you are so much better of a person. And Sam, I do apologize. I’m not trying to be mean, it’s just I’m struggling with this.
Craig: But, hey, you know what, I’ll answer the next one. I’ll be a good guy. The next question is, are there any pitfalls that come with this career? Yes, there are. It is not often steady employment for people, and there is no clear path to entry, and no clear path to promotion.
John: I would also say that it’s never quite clear where you are in your career, and so success can often just dissipate without warning, so that’s the other frustration, like, you could say like, oh, it’s hard to break in, but even when you’re “In,” it’s very easy to sort of fallout. You’re only working from one job to the next job.
The next question, how do you keep screenwriting exciting without losing interest, Craig Mazin?
Craig: If you are meant to be a screenwriter, you’re meant to be a writer of any kind, this won’t be a problem. This is what you’re interested in doing. You are — even when it is painful, even when it is difficult, you are on some level compelled to keep going.
John: I would agree. Is it a bad thing to aspire to be the best in this industry?
Craig: [laughs] Yes, it’s terrible.
John: The actual correct answer is, no. You should aspire to be the absolute best in any industry. And certainly the best version of yourself in that industry you can possibly be. I don’t understand how that question could be answered yes, that it’s bad to aspire, it’s bad to want things. I guess in a Buddhist sense, maybe it would be. Like if you were like–
Craig: I have a new theory. Roncalli High School is not under a dome. Roncalli High School is actually a program, it’s a government program, where AI has been – it’s advanced, it’s pretty advanced.
John: It’s pretty advanced. These are the torso-less screenwriters who are like not buying our t-shirts.
Craig: They are. They are trying to — they’re asking fundamental questions so that they can, you know, grow, but they’re fairly new to just interaction with the universe around them. So that that actually in that sense, is a brilliant question.
John: I think it is a good one. I also would accept that like if he’s writing the same questions but to like I want to be a Buddhist monk, is it bad to be aspire to be the best Buddhist monk? Yes. That would be a flawed interpretation of what it means to be a monk.
Craig: Right. No, 100%. And you may have found the one exception there. Yeah. 100%. But you know what, question nine is a decent one. We get this a lot. Are there any particular scripts you feel would be good for an aspiring screenwriter to read? John?
John: My answer is Aliens. It’s always Aliens, because it’s a perfectly written screenplay. It’s delightful to read and you can totally see how it translates form the page onto the screen. Also, we’ve talked about Unforgiven, which is also fantastic.
Craig: Yes, so good. I usually toss out Jerry Maguire, which I think is also a perfectly rendered screenplay, and I’m a big fan of Groundhog Day.
John: Yeah, we talked about that. He could listen to the episode on Groundhog Day.
John: Who is your favorite screenwriter, or screenwriters, and why?
Craig: Ooh, that’s a good one. Good question, Sam, in as much as it was not terrible. This is where I’m such a bad person. I can’t even give praise without being a jerk.
Weirdly, I like the exceptions because I read a lot of screenplays, so I tend to go for the things that are on the outer edges of things. I mean, for like traditional screenwriters, I think Scott Frank is fantastic at what he does, but I have this really huge, wide, big old soft spot for Quentin Tarantino because he only writes Quentin Tarantino screenplays and it’s fascinating because I feel like the world is full of people that are writing Quentin Tarantino screenplays, and of all of them, all of them are terrible except for one of them, and that’s Quentin Tarantino.
So, I really like the way he writes because I don’t have to write that way. I can’t write that way. Nobody else can. But traditional screenwriters, I think Ted Griffin is great, I think Scott Frank is great, I think John Lee Hancock is great. I think Susannah Grant is great. And I think Richie LaGravenese is fantastic. There’s a guy who has written some terrific, terrific screenplays. There’s quite a few.
John: Yeah. So I’m going to avoid talking about any of my friends because then if I start naming my friends, then I leave one of them out, and then that person will feel bad. But I will single out Nora Ephron because you look at Nora Ephron and like what she was able to do, and sort of the voice she was able to provide to screenwriting is just remarkable. And so I would say check out her scripts, check out the movies that she got made, because she was unique and a singular talent.
Craig: Yeah, I kind of restricted myself to more what I would say recent screenwriters. I mean, there are the kind of hall of famers that I think everybody properly loves. You know, William Goldman, and Robert Towne, and Budd Schulberg, and on and on and on. So, Budd Schulberg. Really? Why? Why did I come up with Budd Schulberg? That was weird.
John: I don’t know.
Craig: Billy Wilder. That sounds good to me.
John: And Billy Wilder, I mean, there’s no question that Billy Wilder is anything short of fantastic. He’s great. But Nora Ephron to me represents sort of a bridge between like that kind of writing, and sort of where we are at right now. I think like there’s some genres especially in romantic comedy that we kind of wouldn’t have gotten to where we got to without her, so that’s why I’m calling her out.
Craig: Absolutely. And, you know, in that same vein, Elaine May kind of comes to mind as well—
Craig: As somebody who kind of invented a way of presenting film stories that was unique to her. She’s — it couldn’t be more different than say somebody like Quentin Tarantino, but I kind of put her in that weird same category of I don’t think anybody else can write Elaine movies except for Elaine May.
John: Yes. All right, so those are our answers to your question. Good luck with your assignment, Sam Jackson. You’ve got a fascinating name. It’s going to be kind of great sort of through your whole life to like introduce yourself and have people have assumption of like, oh, like Sam Jackson, and maybe that’s great, maybe it’s annoying. If it’s super annoying, maybe you can go by a different name. I don’t know, what do you think? If you were Sam Jackson, Craig Mazin, would you stay Sam Jackson or would you switch it up?
Craig: Well, normally, I would say, yes, switch it up, but given what we, I think, have figured out about Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, I don’t think that they’re aware that there’s another Sam Jackson. So, I think he’d be fine.
John: I think you’re going to be great. All right, let’s get to our next question, this one we have audio for. This is from Ollie, so let’s take a listen.
Craig: All right.
Ollie: Hey, guys. I’m charged with polishing a comedy that goes into shooting soon, and I wanted to know what to expect from a comedy table read. Should I rewrite every joke that didn’t get a laugh? How much should I trust if actors or the director says that it’s not funny now, but it will be funny when we shoot it? My biggest fear is believing a joke cannot be delivered by a certain actor’s sense of timing and having not fixed it because I trusted someone’s intuition.
How much should one speak up during the read or is all the fixing happening after we watched a couple of days with possible backing by the producers? Thank you so much for your podcast, and especially you, Craig, for doing Episode 77. It meant a lot to me. Thank you.
John: So Episode 77 was the one where you talked about Identity Thief, so if you want to go back and listen to that, Episode 77. So Craig, what do you think about table reads?
Craig: Well, they’re crucial for comedy. And for the reasons that Ollie is getting at here. I mean, you do need to get a sense of what is roughly working and what isn’t. You hope that it is working. And table reads are rough because obviously it is just as a screenplay is not a movie, a table read is not a performance. I’ve noticed a syndrome with actors, not all of them, but some of them. Some of them I think kind of tank table reads on purpose. And they do it because — and I actually understand why. What they’re basically doing, whether they know it or now, is saying, “I don’t want to try because if I try and it doesn’t work, it’s embarrassing to me, and also this isn’t actually how I act.”
How I act is, I’m in a costume, I’m in a place, I’m in a moment, and then I do my craft, and we do scenes, right? I’m not going to just suddenly perform full on for you here, and do it, because this isn’t the right way to do it. So they kind of pull back. And you have to take that into account. This is where your relationship with the director is of crucial importance because when it’s done, you have to sit with them and say, okay, let’s parse through what worked, what definitely does not work. We can just tell it doesn’t work and we got to change it. And what do we think will work on the day? And you have to just make those decisions.
John: Yes. So there’s two kinds of readings that happen, there’s the developmental readings where you have a bunch of your friends around, and they are reading the script aloud, you can actually sort of really work on stuff. And like Mike Birbiglia talks in a great way about sort of how he does that process and how it was so helpful for his movie, so you can go back and listen to the episode that he did with Craig where he talks about his process there.
What Ollie is describing is the thing that happens shortly before production and it’s a chance for everyone to sit around and take one look at the script. It’s a great chance to make sure that every actor has actually read the whole script, including the scenes that they’re not in, because believe me like they won’t necessarily know the rest of the movie, they’ll only know their scenes.
But I, like Craig, have been in table reads where actors are literally tanking performances, and the producers get really nervous and they say like, oh, there’s a problem here. That joke wasn’t funny. And it’s tough. And so you have to be able to recognize was this not working because the actor was not even trying to do it, or does it actually not suit his or her voice? Is there really something going on here?
One of the hardest but best experience that I had with jokes was on the Big Fish Musical. So Big Fish isn’t hilariously funny, but there are genuine jokes in there. And during the development process we would have readings, I could listen to it, but then we were on stage every night, during previews and I could sit in the audience and listen to like, oh, that did not get a laugh. And I knew I had to either rewrite that joke, or listen to it the next night and see whether it was just the audience that — it was just a weird thing that happened in the room.
The table read for this movie, you’re only get that sort of one shot, so you are really going to have to be able to suss out is it a problem with the joke itself or is it something about that table reading environment that made it not work?
Craig: Absolutely. And, really, your only guide is to care only about the movie. So your pride, your ego, your sense that, well, that should have worked, all that has to go away.
Craig: Because not only are there going to be jokes that you really want to work but you know aren’t ever going to work based on what you just heard. There are also jokes that work too well and I’m also very suspicious of those. In fact, you know, Todd Phillips and I, we would do these read-throughs and then we would go back to his office, and then we would be like, “Why were they laughing so much at this?” You know what? That’s a table read laugh. That’s not a real laugh. It’s because, again, it’s a different environment. There’s just a different kind of thing that’s happening. So one thing that Ollie asks is, should you speak up during the read-through? And the answer is no.
Craig: Don’t say a damn thing. You are silent. You are listening the entire way. Take notes, little checks, Xs, circles, things like that. You’re not only listening for laughs and jokes working. You’re also getting your own sense of pacing, where do you start to squirm, get bored. What feels like, “Oh, they don’t need to say that, right?”
Craig: Here’s just lines that can go or, “Oh my gosh, I’m confused. I just realized everyone will be confused based on what I’ve just heard.” So jokes are just one and laughs are just one part of it, but all that then has to be discussed in a post-mortem with the director where the two of you go, “Okay. Everybody else go away. Now, in our safe space, we can speak completely truthfully about everything, and the only master we have is the movie.”
John: Yup. The other thing that I would advise Ollie is if at all possible you should have no function in that room other than be to listen to the script being read. So don’t be reading scene description, don’t be playing one of the characters. Try to have enough bodies in that room so you don’t have to do anything other than listen. Because if you are having to keep track of like, “Oh, it’s my turn to speak now.” You will miss important things that are happening in the room.
Craig: Absolutely true.
John: Cool. All right, let’s get to Sheryl’s question. We also have audio from her, so let’s take a listen.
Sheryl: You talk a lot on your show about how you really need to move to LA to make it as a screenwriter. Okay, so I moved to LA. Then what?
John: So listen to her question. I couldn’t tell whether she had moved or she was saying that she was going to move to LA. But the question ends up being essentially the same. You’ve moved to LA, what do you do next?
Craig: Well, the benefit of Los Angeles isn’t that it is offering you these incredible extra opportunities to write, at least not immediately off the bat. The benefit of LA is that you can hopefully get yourself a day job that’s essentially in the business you want to be in. When I say, essentially, I mean, anything, right?
Craig: So — but now, what is get a job? You get a job through a temp agency. You get a job through some kind of connection. You get a job just by applying. You do something where you end up pushing mail around or getting coffee or assisting and answering phones, doing something that is roughly in the business. And the whole point is, as you do this, you will begin to meet people. And all of the people you’re meeting in that, look, if you show up and you do it in the traditional sense, which is show up right after college, roughly, then your cohort of people, you’re now getting invited to parties on rickety balconies in apartment buildings and everybody there is your agent, everybody is in the same boat. And they’re all striving.
And this is how you begin to meet people. And then suddenly, one of those people calls you one day and says, “So and so just got fired and they’re looking for someone.” You know, this is how it goes. And also, you are now in a place where you can hopefully, through your — whatever work it is you do, have at least one person that you can hand your material to and say, “Read this.”
John: So it may seem strange that we’re saying like, you know, find a bunch of people who you’re all in the same boat with because you’re trying to stand out from those other folks. But like the point of moving to Los Angeles is to get in the boat. Like you need to be in that boat with people who are all trying to head in the same direction. And with those people you meet, help them. Read their scripts. Let them read your scripts. Try to sort of grow up together because most of the actual help I got when I moved to Los Angeles wasn’t from more powerful people. It was from people who were at exactly the same level as me. It was other assistants. It was other people answering phones and making copies and other screenwriters. And you just kind of rise up together. And so you’re in this town because you want to make movies and you want to make friends and connections with people who make movies. That’s the point of living here versus living somewhere else.
John: All right. A question from Joe. Joe writes in to ask, “I recently made the jump from development executive, to writer. My writing partner and I signed with a major agency earlier this year and the first spec they took out got a lot of great buzz and is in the process of selling to a fairly prolific horror movie franchise producer, which would be our first big sale. While the deal is in the process of closing, one of the junior producers on the project got worried that the horror producer buying it intends to bring on some veteran screenwriters to rewrite the script. While I’m a big of these writers and their track record could certainly help ensure the movie gets made, it sounds like it will be a Page One rewrite outside of keeping the core idea and twist ending intact.
“My question is, as first-time writer, would you close the deal knowing that your original vision will be changed? If the script is changed, will the sale be enough to propel our career forward? Is there any way to protect our credit even though we’re non-WGA writers at the moment? We would very much like to join the Guild.” Craig, what do you think Joe should do?
Craig: Well, first of all, congratulations to you and your writing partner. It’s an interesting question in the context of the fact that Joe is a development executive. And I guess on the one hand, I was a little surprised that he was a little bit surprised by this. But on the other hand, not so much because the truth is, it is producers that typically are making these kinds of large decisions about like, all right, “I want to buy this but I want it to be a different thing,” whereas executives are kind of working with what they’re given and what they get. First of all, let’s talk about the easy part, which is the WGA part. You guys are non-WGA writers. You would very much like to join the Guild. If you are selling this to, and I believe you called this person a fairly prolific franchise horror movie producer, I can only imagine that they are signatory to the Guild. And if they are not, then they’re not worth selling it to at all as far as I’m concerned.
John: I 100% agree. And Joe is represented by, it says a major agency. So this agency knows. Like this agency should not be shopping you to a place that’s not going to be able to do a WGA deal. That’s just crazy. So I think you are basically — you’re going to be in the Guild. So that question is sort of answered there.
Craig: And the way that works is that if you sell an original screenplay, that qualifies you for enough employment credits to not only qualify you to be in the Guild, you must be in the Guild. You are then welcome to the Guild, fork over your initiation fee. So that’s that. And so we’re just presuming that this person is Guild signatory and this is a Guild deal that they’re proposing. If it’s not, turn around and run, not worth it. If it is, okay, that’s a different story. In terms of protection for your credit, yes. If it’s an original screenplay, you are guaranteed at a minimum shared story by credit.
So your name will be on the movie, and you will receive a minimum of 12.5% of the residuals. Obviously, if people down the line, arbiters, think that you’ve contributed more than that, you could get more than that, even sole credit. The conundrum you’re facing is, what do I do when somebody is asking me to sell them, you know, my cow just because they want the fillet and the rest of it is getting chucked?
And the answer is, that’s kind of up to you. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees that someone saying to you, “I love the script. I want it. I want to make it just as it is. I won’t change a word,” doesn’t also mean the same thing. That veteran writers come in and rewrite the hell out of it. It is very common. And I think it’s fair for you to ask the producer or have your agent ask the producer, “Hey, can you just be super honest with us, do you just hate the writing here and love idea? We’re trying to get better.” Be aware, by the way, that if it is a Guild signatory and it should be if you’re doing this, you and your writing partner are guaranteed the first rewrite. They have to employ you for the first rewrite. They don’t have to pay you more than scale, but they have to employ you for the first rewrite. Meaning, you get a chance to prove that, in fact, you can be the ones to move this project forward.
John: Absolutely. And so if the producers are buying this with a very specific vision of like, “We wanted this movie to be this thing.” You have that opportunity in that first rewrite to make it that thing. Now, you can decide like, you know what, that’s not at all the vision I have for this movie. I don’t want to do that. I can imagine scenarios that way. But, in general, I would say, try it. I would say, try doing their thing because at the very minimum, if this movie gets made, you will have pushed this screenplay much closer to what they think they want to make for a movie, which is a good sign.
The other thing I want to circle back to is like is it better to have sold the script or not sold the script? I would argue that it’s almost always better to have sold the script. Because you’re saying the script got good buzz around town, that’s lovely, but a script that got good buzz around town and actually sold is worth a little bit more in terms of getting you meetings, getting you considered for other things. Because if it’s just a script that got passed around and you’ve never actually been hired or paid to do any work, there’s something a little less hirable about you. I think you’re a little less likely to be considered strongly for other things that might come up.
So, you know, I’m sure the movie you wrote was great. I’m sure the movie is dear to your heart, but you should ultimately look at the script as like this got me in the door to get some other writing assignments for me and my writing partner and that’s a very good thing. There may be a scenario in which you actually get to talk to these other screenwriters who come in. I often, when I come in to rewrite a project, get to talk with the writers who were there before me, which is super helpful. I can see sort of what their vision was, where the bodies are buried, just I get to know more about the project. So there’s a chance that these new screenwriters will actually talk to you and that would be a great thing, too, for you.
Craig: 100%. I can’t imagine that Joe’s agent isn’t telling him this very thing. Again, this is all predicated on the notion that this is a real producer and WGA signatory and all that. If it’s not, I don’t think the sale to this person matters at all. It’s just you’re selling to someone on the periphery.
Craig: But if they are Guild signatory, then it doesn’t matter that somebody’s coming in to rewrite it. Everybody prices that in anyway. Everything gets rewritten, right? So nobody’s going to go, “Oh, those guys had the script with all this buzz and, oh my god, that big franchise horror movie producer bought it, oh, but they’re getting rewritten now. We don’t want to meet them.” It does not work that way.
Craig: It’s more like — ooh — because the way they think on the other side isn’t, “I found wonderful writers.” The way they think on the other side is, “Ooh, I found writers who write things that people buy.” That’s the currency, right? That’s it. If all you ever did for the rest of your career was write specs, sell them, and then other people come in and rewrite them, that’s a career. I’m not saying it’s a satisfying career, but it’s a career. It’s certainly a career because you’re making money for other people. So, 100%, I think, it’s always better to sell.
You have more screenplays in you and this will absolutely put you in rooms with people and make you far more viable than you are without a sale. It doesn’t mean that I’m saying you got to go ahead and let somebody stab this through the heart. You don’t. There is a perfectly valid principled stand you can make. And sometimes those principled stands work out because a year later or a day later, somebody else comes along that’s even better that buys it and says, “I’m keeping it just the way it is.”
John: Absolutely true.
Craig: It’s rare, but it does happen.
John: Our final question comes from Lorenzo. Here’s what he said.
Lorenzo: Hi, John and Craig. I recently finished writing my third feature screenplay and it’s starting to pick up a little bit of buzz. A friend of a friend is a producer and she is interested in getting coffee to talk more about the project. What are the expectations for this kind of informal coffee meeting? Should I plan on pulling out my iPad with my pitch deck loaded? Should I practice my talking points in front of the mirror? I definitely have ideas for how it could be sold and who could be attached and all that kind of stuff. But, of course, I don’t want to come off as alienating. What do you recommend for this kind of informal meeting?
John: So, Craig, what do you think about this coffee meeting? Like how prepared should he be with stuff with like the whole vision for what the movie is?
Craig: I think that he may be thinking about this slightly backwards. That’s my instinct. Generally speaking, when you write something and you own it, and in this case, he owns it, and this person is interested, they’re kind of having to woo you. You have a thing they want. They don’t necessarily want to give you money for it right away. But this friend of a friend is a producer and would like to get coffee to talk more. That means talk. That means you’re just going to have a conversation. A part of that conversation is her feeling you out, feeling you out about you how came around to this and what fascinates you about it. She’s kind of looking in the horse’s mouth with you a little bit like can I get this — can I take this guy around? Is he presentable? Is he normal?
And you are asking this person, well, what do you see in it? What did it mean to you? What did you like? What would you think should be different? Where would you take it? How do you see it getting made? This is absolutely just a conversation between equals. So, no. No pitch decks. I don’t even know what a pitch deck is. Nothing contrived, nothing calculated, nothing practiced, nothing. This is a casual conversation. And the more secure and comfortable you are, the more she will be interested. You want to be alienating? The only thing you can do that’s alienating is appearing to need her more than she needs you. And sadly, that’s kind of how the world works.
John: I’m going to disagree with you a little bit. I think there actually is a value for Lorenzo being prepared for this. And by prepared, I mean, he can have the pitch deck, which I’m taking to mean it’s sort of like a slideshow on your laptop or on your iPad that sort of shows the visuals or sort of like who you sort of see being in the movie. But you don’t pull that stuff out. So I think this is a coffee and so I’m assuming that this coffee is not at her office, it’s at some neutral location, which I think is actually really nice because it puts you on the same footing.
So you talk about the script, you talk about what she’s actually working on. You need to get a sense of like is this a person you would like to work with. And she’s getting a sense of, like, is this a writer who I think I could actually stand — it’s like a date, kind of. Like, a work a date, sort of. And you’re going to see, like, is this a thing that could work out well? If you get a good instinct from her, and she is very curious to see more about your opinions on how casting should work, then it’s fine to pull that stuff out and talk through it, but don’t lead with that. Lead with sort of, like, this is the script. I’m so happy that you responded to it. Let’s talk about it and just keep it — keep it at that level until it comes time to sort of show your stuff.
Craig: Guess — I guess — I mean, look, you and I are basically saying the exact same thing until the iPad comes out.
Craig: And I feel almost like you’re giving it away. Like, well, I came with stuff. Like, I — you know, I–
John: So here’s what I say. I don’t think the iPad should be selling her on the project. It’s basically saying, like, this is the vision I have for this project. And are you on board with this vision for the project? Basically, like — he’s not saying necessarily he wants to direct this thing, but if he does want to direct this thing, that deck might be really important for her to see, like, oh, this is a guy with an eye. This is a guy who actually has a way to sort of do — to put this whole thing together. That could be really important for the next step in this conversation.
Craig: I could see that.
John: And that next step might not take place in this meeting. The next step might be, you know, a meeting a week from then.
John: But it might happen right there because sometimes things move quickly.
Craig: I agree. If he is interested in directing, then it does make sense that he would want to be able to show some things that are visual. Completely.
John: In terms of, like, you know, practicing things you are going to say, I think that’s, in general, really good advice for any kind of meeting that you’re going to sit down for. It’s just, like, think about the things that you — that might come up and be ready to discuss, like, two or three other projects that you’re writing or working on, or sort of out of that pre-pitch stage, just so you don’t get sort of stuck. It’s just nice to have good sort of things to keep the ball in the air.
Craig: As long as it doesn’t sound practiced. I just–
Craig: Think that there is a — there is an amateurishness and a sweatiness to anyone that sounds like they’re pitching something. It should never sound like a pitch. If she asks what else you’re doing, you could say, “Well, I’m doing this.” How would I describe them? Well, you know, da-da-da, but I wouldn’t be, like, okay, “The year is 1930. Jim—“
John: No, no, no. Don’t do that.
Craig: Yeah, exactly. Just never, ever, ever, ever. You know, by the way, I judged the pitch final. The–
John: I want to hear all about that, Craig. Tell us how that went.
Craig: So it was actually fascinating. I misunderstood — not surprisingly — I misunderstood kind of what was expected because I did it with Edward Ricourt, who wrote Now You See Me. And Lindsay Doran — the great Lindsay Doran. And so we were the judges. And I thought, “Okay. Well, you know, after all these” — because they have all these, like, quarterfinals, semifinals, that there would be like three writers who had the three best pitches and we would, you know, vote. No, 20. There were 20 finalists, each who had 90 seconds. So it was quite a — it was quite an ordeal.
John: Yes. I’ve — I think I warned you about that on air about what an ordeal that was going to be.
Craig: Oh. Well, you know, I wasn’t paying attention. But it was actually fascinating. It was. It was really fascinating to see. I mean, many of these people — almost all of them — they couldn’t have gotten to this stage unless they understood how to craft and deliver an interesting pitch in the sense that we think of a pitch in 90 seconds. The great difference was that so many of them just were not movies at all.
Craig: But a few were really entertaining pitches, so they kind of, you know, got a little further that way. But I was very comfortable with — the gentleman who won, his pitch was very good, but also could absolutely be a movie.
Craig: Am I allowed to say what it is?
John: I think what we should do is that person is almost certainly listening to this show. So if that person wants to record himself giving his pitch, we should play that on an episode, because that would be fascinating to hear.
Craig: That’s a good idea. Well, let’s find out if he listens, you know, let’s find out.
John: We’ll find out.
Craig: But it was a good time.
John: Cool. All right, let’s do our One Cool Thing. So one my One Cool Thing is Gil Elvgren, who was this pin-up artist from the ‘50s and earlier, who — you’ve seen a lot of his work. So he has these beautiful women who are, like, you know, sort of scantily clad but, like, not showing anything too risqué but kind of risqué. You see them a lot of times in calendars or advertisements. The blog post I’m going to link to shows some of the artwork and the photo references he uses to — before he painted those things. And it’s remarkable because he basically poses women in exactly the right pose and then paints them.
And it seems really obvious, like, oh, that’d be a really good way to have a — to get the look you’re going for, but I guess I just always assumed that all art like this was just sort of done freehand from people’s own imaginations. And you see these photos and you see the end results. It’s just I think a good way of reminding ourselves that there’s always kind of a template behind things. I always find it so hard to imagine that a painter can create something so beautiful with just a brush and recognizing, like, oh, there was actually a whole bunch of planning behind the scenes there. It was just great to see. So I’ll send you this link, which is mostly safe for work. So if you want to look through that and see these photo references, I thought they were terrific.
Craig: I’m looking at them right now. First of all, this isn’t even Sexy Craig. This is just regular Craig. God, I — I just — I love the female form. I love — I love it. It’s so great. I just — so there’s that. Here’s what I find fascinating about this. I mean, first of all, like you, I’m mystified by how anyone can draw, period, I guess. And, I mean, because I cannot at all. I mean, the way that some people can’t sing, like, they can only sing not only just the wrong note, but a note that doesn’t even exist, like something between pitches?
Craig: I cannot draw. So this is always just so mystifying to me. But here’s another thing that’s fascinating about it. This is kind of like the early version of Photoshop. Because as I look through and I compare the photographs to the final rendered artwork, Mr. Elvgren routinely narrows the waist.
Craig: He improves the bust line, shall we say. Sometimes, he makes it larger, but usually he’s not making it larger. He’s just sort of making it perkier.
Craig: In a few notable cases, he changes the hair. So there’s a couple of women who are posing, and they just have very — either very short hair or it’s — I guess, the wrong kind for what he wants, and so he gives them a totally different haircut, painted-wise. But oh god, I miss this time, you know. Even in their sort of trimmed versions, right, where he kind of slenders it here or there, what he’s not doing is slendering the various areas that now they apparently feel a great need to slenderize, like legs and stuff. Oh, god. It was a great time in America.
John: It was a great time in America. So this link came to me from [Lisa Hannigan] who’s an artist we used for One Hit Kill, who is just phenomenal herself. And I think one of the interesting things I’ve noticed recently among artists is they will record themselves while they’re painting, because a lot of times they’re painting in Photoshop or tools like Photoshop. So they’ll actually — there’ll be a video that you could see, like, the whole process of coming through it. And, so that feels like the next step. So not just photo references, but you actually see the whole process in front of you.
We were at the Picasso Museum here in Paris last week, and they actually had that with Picasso. So they show him actually up at a canvas, and so you’re sort of behind the canvas as he’s drawing this thing and it takes a while for you to realize what he’s actually doing. It’s like, oh, that’s Picasso making an amazing drawing that would sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s cool to see great artists do their work.
Craig: You know, now I’m really obsessing over these, sorry, but there’s something else that’s kind of amazing when I look at these faces, there’s two basic expressions that he has the women do. One is, oh, hello there, and the other one is, ooh, you surprised me. That’s it. It’s Hello and Ooh. [laughs] Kind of love it. The ooh is a great one. Like, oh, I didn’t know — ooh, I didn’t see you there. Ooh. Yeah.
John: So delightful. So–
Craig: So delightful.
John: Anyway, so the work of Gil Elvgren, if you’d like to check that out.
Craig: Nice. Well, my One Cool Thing is a very real woman who I value not for her ability to go Ooh or Hey, but in fact, for her remarkable ability to run an incredible film festival. So Erin Halligan is the creative director of the Austin Film Festival screenwriting conference thing. And she just did a fantastic job. She — I think she’s like getting better every year, which is kind of crazy because she’s always been really good. And I remember, when she — you know, when you and I first started going to Austin, Maya Perez was doing that job. And Maya was kind of like, well, no one can be better than Maya. Just seemed impossible.
And so when Maya said, well, I’m leaving, but Erin is going to be doing it, I’m like, “Aw, Erin. Yeah. Well, you’ll never be Maya.” No, no. She will. Nothing is more impressive to me than somebody who is being asked to hit an impossible bar and then totally hits it.
John: I agree.
Craig: Yeah. She just did a fantastic job, and she took such great care of all of us. So I just wanted to give Erin a special thanks for being my One Cool Thing this year. She was terrific.
John: Great. Well, that’s our show for this week. As always, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe.
John: It is edited by Matthew Chilelli.
John: Our outro this week comes from Ben Grimes. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also a place where you can send questions like the ones we answered today. Don’t send any more, like, ten-part questions from high schools, that’s sort of our one-off. Our one time doing that. Short questions, you can find us on Twitter. Craig is @clmazin, I am @johnaugust. I’m also on Instagram, @johnaugust.
You can find us on iTunes. Just search for Scriptnotes. You can leave comments. We promise we really do read them sometimes and we’ll probably read them on the air at some point soon. You can find our t-shirts at the site, so go to johnaugust.com, there’ll be a little sidebar ad for them. You can also follow the links in the show notes. Also have links to the things we talked about, including our One Cool Things. So if you need to see the pictures that Craig was ooh-ing and ah-ing over–
Craig: Yeah. You do need to see those.
John: Yeah. They were really good.
John: Transcript’s go up about four days after the episode. Those are prepared with love, and Godwin goes through those, so if you are a person who likes transcripts, you should check out those transcripts. You can also get all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net, and on the USB drive that’s for sale at store.johnaugust.com. There is an app available for both iOS devices and for Android that lets you listen to all those back episodes, too. So just go to the applicable app store and find it there.
And that is our show for this week. So Craig, thank you so much and welcome back.
Craig: Thank you, John. Welcome back as well.
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