John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 277 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we are going to be looking at the ways that writers and screenwriters in particular influence how people think about things in the real world, for better and for worse. We’ll also be answering listener questions about LA neighborhoods and Irish screenwriting.
Craig: Oh, good. Because it’s been a long time, and we really have to get to that topic.
John: It’s a crucial topic of Irish screenwriters.
John: First off, follow up. Craig, the Black Widow is back.
Craig: Oh, thank god.
John: Yeah. Because we were so nervous. So, back in Episode 246 we did How Would This Be a Movie where we talked about 80-year-old Melissa Ann Shepard. She was convicted of manslaughter in the death of one of her husbands. And also poisoned another one. She was in a bunch of fraud instances. So, she was back in the news because she has to now report any relationships for the next two years apparently, any new romantic relationships.
Craig: It’s so great.
John: She’s 81 now. So, you know, every year, a new challenge.
Craig: Well, she’s 81. She’s also Canadian. So this is the most Canadian story and outcome ever. Just a very polite lady who politely kills her husbands. They politely drink the poison and politely die. And then the Nova Scotia court system quite politely said, “You know, you – oh, tell you what. Well, we won’t put you in prison, but just tell us if you have a new boyfriend, just so we can keep an eye on him.” [laughs] This is so great. I mean, by the way, who is dating this lady now? I mean, talk about everything you want in a woman. 81 and murderous.
John: I think that’s the movie, though, is the guy who decides, you know what, I’m going to roll the dice. I’m going to date this woman. I’ve researched her. I’ve Googled her. You know what? I think I have a shot at love here.
Craig: I know, it seems improbable. But even though she’s 81, the sex is unbelievable. It’s worth dying.
John: So we will continue to track the Black Widow story.
Craig: I may go out with her.
John: Another follow up piece here. Last week with Chris Sparling we talked about fake news, and there was a How Would It Be a Movie about fake news. So this week there’s another article about a fake news writer. Craig, you posted this. Tell me about it.
Craig: Yeah. So, this kind of bummed me out, actually. So they’re all coming out of the woodwork now, these – if you felt like, I don’t know, half of the news articles you were reading were either made up intentionally to deceive or made up intentionally as part of some kind of satire, you might have been right, because there’s people now just showing up saying, “Oh, yeah, this is what I’ve been doing for the last six months.”
And a man named Marco Chacon wrote an article for The Daily Beast and the headline is “I’ve Been Making Viral Fake News for the Last Six Months. It’s Way Too Easy to Dupe the Right on the Internet.” Yeah, there’s a shocker. So, anyway, the article is kind of a weird combination of how I did it and quasi confession.
John: Quasi? Really uncomfortable.
Craig: Yeah, uncomfortable. And so when you read it you think if somebody is writing an article about themselves and what they did, then I’m meant to identify with them in some way and kind of go along on the journey and maybe get to a place of, okay, you feel contrite but I understand. Actually, I just felt so creepy reading this. It’s sort of sociopathic in a way.
And the reason I wanted to follow up with it is because there was something weirdly writerly about it, it’s that shadow thing that writers have, which is, well, I know I have responsibilities and things and I shouldn’t be a bad person, but people are reading what I wrote. And that somehow becomes more – more important than anything else. Guess what? They’re now reading my stuff on CNN like it’s real. I know I’m damaging the fabric of society, but ooh, people are reading me. Ugh. Creepy. I just don’t understand. I mean, I understand partly that people do this for money. And I don’t know how much money specifically this gentleman made, but it seems more like it was ego gratification than anything else, particularly when he realizes that nothing good is coming of it. Literally nothing.
John: Yeah. Only poison is coming out of it. What I thought was interesting about him talking about some of his news did break through onto cable news, and really the reason why it was even mentioned was sort of the two sides fallacy that we talked about on the podcast before is like, oh, if you’re presenting this point of view, then you have to present the opposite point of view as if there’s actually always an opposite point of view. And so these crazy stories would come up and it’s like, oh, well that’s probably not true, but what if it is true? Or like, you know, can anybody find me an article that says that this candidate is doing this? And it’s like, well, somebody will have written that, and therefore you’re going to present this completely bogus fake news story as if it is worthy of consideration.
So, it is just ruinous and poisonous. And later on in the show, we’re going to talk about some other things that writers do sort of unintentionally that have sort of a similar effect. So, I think it’s a good thing for us to follow up on.
Craig: Yeah. There’s one thing he said in here that I just thought was very insightful, albeit from somebody who is doing bad things. Well, he said for conservatives there is no trusted media, which I think is reasonable because they do believe that there is a bias in the media. But I think this actually applies to everybody, or at least people on extreme ends of either side of left and right. There’s no trusted media. There are only trusted positions.
So, when you have a trusted position, you are incredibly susceptible to believing anything you read because of confirmation bias. And so I would caution anybody out there to not have a trusted position per se, but rather to trust facts. And maybe trust some kind of journal that is willing to correct itself and change based on facts.
John: Yes. For sure. I mean, it’s trying to apply some scientific rigor to just the outside reality. I think we’ve grown up in a time in which we had sort of those big news networks. We had the big newspapers. And there was an assumption like, oh wait, that’s real news, and everything else is just sort of pretend play news. And with the rise of Facebook and the rise of sort of all these alternative sites, people can go shopping for their own set of not just opinions, but their own set of facts. And they will tend to believe those facts.
And putting out the fake news in the world, I think in most cases most people aren’t really believing that, but they stop believing in the underlying truth of anything. That there is an actual fact-based reality behind things. And that’s the real danger.
Craig: And whether we know it or not, we are being victimized by peddlers of narrative all the time. This guy also writes about his own stuff, that he’s designed these articles to become viral. And he says several of the articles are written “with overt sexism or implicit racism that comes from the Alt-Right. This is like the protein shell of a virus that allows it to penetrate a cell. The DNA payload, the story itself, is then injected straight into the brain by passing critical thought.”
That is a very scary and very accurate explanation of how people no matter what they believe end up using I guess faith, instead of anything else, right. There’s like this little key that unlocks the back door into our brains. So it doesn’t go through critical thinking. We just assume that it is true. And then everything else that comes along with it is just accepted. It’s kind of a scary little thing.
John: Well, you say faith, and since you brought it up it’s worth discussing is that part of what makes our religions worldwide work is that sense of like there are things that are unknowable and those things that are unknowable rely on faith. And so therefore you take some of the stories that seem on their face crazy, and you accept them because that is part of your faith. And we’ve long accepted that, we’ve long sort of cherished that as a set of belief systems that people can have.
But when you start to apply those things beyond the nature of the metaphysical universe to the universe in front of you, that can be the real treacherous thing. It seems hard to argue with somebody like, no, no, you can’t believe that this fact is that fact when you’re saying, oh no, but it’s great that you believe in an omnipotent sky father who does all these things for you.
Craig: Listen, you’re right about that, which is why I have my stance on the omnipotent sky father. But, this is a good topic for us, because later when we get into the meat of this episode, that’s exactly – we’re going to be attempting as best we can to undo some of the damage that people like us have done.
John: Mm-hmm. Well, this last week some damage was undone by you yourself. So, you – with your brand new MacBook Pro encountered a problem with Final Draft. So tell us what happened and where we are now.
Craig: [laughs] John, I feel so bad in a way because the last person in the world Final Draft wanted this to happen to is me. Literally the last person in the world. So, I just had to do a couple of days on a movie that’s in production. They’re doing some reshoots and I just had to do a couple of days. And I got the file from the company and I had to stay in it, because you know, they didn’t want to export/import. They’re worried about page breaks. Whatever.
So, I had to use Final Draft. So, okay, I had my brand new Final Draft 10. I load the file. I go to revision mode and it crashes. And when I say crashes, I’ve never seen a program crash this authoritatively. It just – it disappeared. It didn’t like freeze and drop away. It didn’t give me an error. It was just gone. It was like it had never been there. The screen just went, boop, gone.
So, of course, I tweeted about that. It was amusing. Then I got on their little support chat window and I’m talking to some guy named, you know, Greg. And I’m describing the problem. He’s like, “Uh, I don’t think that’s – I’m not sure if I know how to fix that.” And I’m like, okay, you know, this is the deal. And then suddenly the screen said you are being transferred to Joel. And I’m like, what’s this?
So apparently what happened was Final Draft’s head of Twitter read what I wrote and hit the big – I think there’s a big red button at Final Draft that says Craig Mazin on it. They hit it. And suddenly I was chatting with Joel Levin who I think is the VP of Support there.
Anyway, long story short, they could not duplicate what I was doing. They didn’t have the new MacBook Pro with the touch bar. They had a simulator for it. They didn’t have the actual hardware. They drove – so he and a lovely guy named Pete D’Alessandro, who listens to our podcast, by the way, along with his wife Alison Flierl – you may have met Alison at Houston. Lovely person. She works for Conan, I believe. She writes for Conan. Anyway, he came to my office. He’s like their head coder dude. And they drove her from Calabasas during rush hour. [laughs]
John: Oh my lord.
Craig: And they wanted to see it. And then they saw it and they were just befuddled. And then they worked overnight and came back the next morning and had a new version that worked. So, I think post-Marc Madnick Final Draft is, you know, at the very least they are making an effort to make me happy.
Craig: So, if that Final Draft update for those of you who use that program has not been pushed to you, it will be shortly, courtesy of Joel Levin, Pete D’Alessandro, their coding team, and moi.
John: Yep. So, as a guy who makes software, I can sympathize with their situation because, you know, they’re using the simulator which should be able to duplicate this experience of being on this new computer. The system software theoretically shouldn’t have changed, and yet something is enough different on your machine and how it’s all working that, oops, it crashes. And then that’s tough.
And they did the right thing to try to race to fix it. And so I’m glad they were able to fix it for you.
Craig: Yeah they were really great about it. I still do not like Final Draft, I do not like that program. I have a whole long list of things. I might send them to Pete. Just say here’s 20 things. By the way, they know. You know, they know dual dialogue stinks. So I’m still a Fade In guy a hundred percent. But they certainly I will say from the support point of view, they were aces. So, good for them.
John: Good for them. Our last bit of follow up, something that a bunch of people sent us this last week, dialect coach Erik Singer has a video up where he talks about different actors and how they did their accents in various movies and sort of gives a critique of them. It’s really well done. So, in previous episodes we talked about the origin of English and sort of that proper – the weird period we went through where like all American actors were speaking with this weird Mid-Atlantic accent. This is a case of actors speaking with supposed to be correct accents for where their characters are from, and it’s a really well-produced. So, I thought he was smart and generous and really emphasized that when you see an actor struggling with an accent, it’s usually because of lack of prep time rather than the actor not trying. In some cases the actor didn’t try, but in most cases it was prep time. Like they were not given the tools to succeed.
Craig: Yeah. And, look, some people are better at it than others. I mean, you remember – I don’t know what language you took in high school. Did you take French or–?
John: I took Spanish and French.
Craig: Spanish and French. So, you remember there were some kids who were really good at taking the tests and learning the grammar and the vocabulary, but their accent was just horrendous.
Craig: It’s a little bit like singing. Some people have a great ear for accents. And some people don’t. And that ear for accents isn’t necessarily something that overlaps with acting skill. So, sometimes people are working against their innate ability, and for those people preparation is really, really important.
John: Yeah. And one of the great examples he does cite in the video is you look at Brad Pitt, who has been phenomenal with accents in some movies, and not phenomenal in other movies. And that just speaks to the preparation and sort of how the whole production was put together. And giving the actor the best opportunity to get that accent just right.
Craig: How great was he in Snatch? That accent is unbelievable.
John: It’s terrific. So, one of the accents he cites in this video is Maleficent. And so you have her accent which he says is supposed to be English, but of course it doesn’t take place in England. It’s sort of a Received Pronunciation English accent, but it’s supposed to take place in a fantasy world, which is my awkward transition to our main topic for today–
Craig: Segue Man.
John: Which is fantasy versus reality. And so as we were talking about on the fake news, you know, so much of what we encounter now is sort of this manufactured reality, but we as screenwriters are often manufacturers of reality. It’s our job to tell stories that exist in believable universes. So, sometimes those universes are very ordinary, day-to-day. They’re like our real world. Sometimes they are really extreme. They’re Game of Thrones. They’re the Matrix.
But inevitably, whether it’s a very real world or a very fantastical world, we are simplifying some things around it, because characters have to be able to make sense and the world has to be able to make sense as it is running past us at 24 frames per second. So the problem is, and like what we talked about in fake news, people tend to take a lot of things at face value when they really shouldn’t. And that can have a real impact on society.
Craig: Yeah. And the problem is exponential because those of us who write movies, we were raised on movies. So we see things and we receive those as assumed truth and then we replay them, or build them up, or make them even bigger. So, as we are now coming up on 100 years of movies, ish, we’re looking at layers, and layers, and layers of a city all built on foundations of nonsense. And it’s not surprising that so many of the things we take for granted as being true from movies and television are not at all true and we at some point have to hold ourselves accountable for some of these things because we are in fact contributing to a general diluted view of how the world works.
And the scary part is sometimes people just – they hear somebody say something in the real world and they think, “That’s ridiculous. I know that blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah because I know it.” But if they scratched at that a little bit, they would see right under that is because I’ve seen it a lot in movies and TV.
John: Yeah. So, a classic example I remember in journalism school was tracing a phone call. And so whenever you see a tracing a phone call in a movie or TV show it’s like, oh, it happens really quick and in my very first journalism class he, our instructor, taught us like, you know what, it doesn’t actually happen that quickly. And even with the advances of technology, it’s not nearly as fast as it seems to be in movies.
The much more dangerous thing that sort of comes out of this is something called the CSI Effect. Is that everyone has watched the CSI programs where they do this amazing forensic science and they’re able to track all these things and they trace things down to a single hair on this sweater that shows that somebody was at a crime scene or not at a crime scene. That becomes a challenge because jurors see these shows and they believe like well that is the standard of evidence. There should always be this DNA. There should always be ways to put all this stuff together. And that’s just not actually the reality of how real police work is done and how real cases are put together.
Craig: No, not at all. Nor is the evidence of the sort that you typically get from those shows, nor is the evidence ever presented to you in absolutes. We have – every now and then you’ll see something, like in the OJ trial, oh, it’s like 1 in 14 billion chance that this wasn’t his blood. But, you know, people are asked to deal with real science. That means statistics and margins of error. And also a preponderance of evidence is required and a lot of times you don’t get the – drama requires that you have an open and shut case. There’s very few such things.
The other real problem is that criminals are now doing terrible things to victims to try and avoid their DNA evidence being left behind. And sometimes tortuous things. All bad.
John: Yeah. So, I’m going to put a link in the show notes to a site called Forensic Outreach that has a list of six things that drive forensic scientists crazy about the CSI Effect, which are enhance – that belief that you can always keep zooming in. They don’t understand that you can’t keep zooming in. The sense of like high level science for low level crime. And so it’s a question of like, well, you know, I was pickpocketed. Why aren’t they doing a DNA test on this pick-pocketing thing? Or if someone confesses, why didn’t you do a DNA test? Like, because he confessed. There’s reasons why you don’t do stuff – you don’t do the highest level test for things that don’t necessarily need it.
There’s this misassumption of certainty rather than probability, which is what you were meaning. And so like in the OJ trial we did hear it’s this big, big number, but within those big, big numbers we have to always be mindful like the experts who are presenting these numbers, they may not be accurate either. I’ll also links to Wendy Zuckerman on the podcast Science Versus did a two-part episode on forensic science, which was terrific, where she really looks into how much can we trust some of the commonly accepted forensic tools that are presented in trials. And the answer is sometimes not nearly as much as you would think.
And then, finally, it’s that CSI backfire. It’s the not only doing horrible things to victims to try to cover their traces, but also small simple things like wearing gloves, wearing ski mask hats that sort of keep your hair from falling out. Criminals get smarter because they see the tools that are out there because it’s all sort of publicly visible.
Craig: I think the answer is to just take CSI off the air. Clearly. And NCIS.
Craig: And CSICS and SVSCS.
John: Craig, you just want TV writers out of work. That’s what you want.
Craig: [laughs] Listen, it’s not my gig, man.
John: Your feature bias comes through.
Craig: It’s not my gig. They’re doing great right now.
John: They are doing great.
Craig: Yeah, lose one show. Come on.
John: Yeah. But it’s like three shows, because you also have your NCISs, which are a similar kind of thing.
Craig: All right. Lose 12 shows. [laughs]
John: For the longest time, I really thought the New Orleans show was CSI: New Orleans, but no, it’s NCIS: New Orleans. And I only know that now because my friend works on the show.
Craig: It’s NCS – NCI: NO?
John: NCIS: NO. Yeah.
Craig: NCIS: NO. Yeah. I mean, by the way, this just goes to show you, I mean, you can imagine before CSI came along going to a network and saying, “I have an idea for a show. This is what it is.” And they’re like, amazing. And then you say, “And it’s going to be called NCIS.” And they go, get out of here. Beat it. Dumb-dumb. It’s going to be called Blood Trail. [laughs] You know?
Craig: And then when CSI came out they were like, “We only want acronyms.”
John: 100 percent.
Craig: So stupid.
John: Fully acronyms. I’m always amazed by the shows that are in their seventh season. I’m like, wait, this is a show? I was on a flight somewhere and there’s a show playing, and I was like it sort of looks like a CBS crime procedural, but I have no idea what this show is. And so I ended up watching it without headphones through to the end and it’s like Scorpion. I’m like, there’s a show called Scorpion? And they’re cyber investigators.
Craig: Wait, is that like a fake name example, or is there really a show called Scorpion?
John: There’s really a show called Scorpion.
Craig: On what channel?
John: On CBS.
Craig: You’re kidding.
John: It’s like a major show. It’s in its third or fourth season. I can look it up as we talk. Yeah, I was as amazed as you are.
Craig: Are you sure you didn’t dream this?
John: It would be amazing if I did dream this.
Craig: Oh my god. I feel bad now for the people who are writing Scorpion. They’re like, “You guys love writers, and this is what you’re doing to us?” I’m super – look, I don’t watch any TV. I have a great excuse.
John: Yeah. So, I’m looking it up on Wikipedia. Scorpion is a CBS show. How many seasons have there been? There have been three seasons. Three seasons of this show.
John: I know we have listeners who are probably staff writers on this show and we–
Craig: I feel super sorry about that. But again, I don’t watch anything. So I’m good. I’m safe.
John: Yeah. I also don’t watch the courtroom shows, but courtrooms are another – are probably equally bad as forensic shows because they make courtrooms look exciting and they’re not. And people who have been on jury duty know that courtrooms are the most boring places on earth.
Craig: Yeah. If you talk to trial lawyers they’ll tell you, I mean, the hallmark of a good narrative courtroom drama is that there is a very important case and the jury is going to be asked to make a very important decision. Kind of a life and death sort of decision. And you have a case typically where you could kind of see both sides. But one side is going to prevail. There are going to be exciting witnesses. Someone will probably call a surprise witness. That’s a big move. There will be incredibly exciting testimony. The judge will get surly at some point with a lawyer. And lots of objections, sidebars, and so forth.
Most of the time trials are about as exciting as a mid-level management meeting somewhere in the human resources department of Aflac. It is slow and plodding. There is absolutely no drama. And laying over all of it, so many cases, whether they are criminal cases or civil cases, are going to end up in some kind of plea bargain or settlement.
Craig: And especially in civil court. The trial is oftentimes a last ditch negotiating tactic to get a better settlement. And you’ll go through half a trial or three-quarters of a trial, and nine-tenths of a trial, only for the judge to go, “Oh, they settled. Everybody go home.”
Craig: Super boring and slow. And so we think, you know, I think anybody that ends up in court might have a sense of how it’s supposed to go. No.
John: So, what is the danger of what we do with courtroom dramas and portraying them as being glamorous and exciting? Well, I wonder if we steer a generation of young people towards “I should be a lawyer, I want to be a trial lawyer.” And it’s only when they get sort of up close they say, “Oh, oh no. Oh, I don’t want to do this at all.” And they realize like most of what a lawyer does can be wonderful and lovely if you like that, but it’s not about going to trial. It’s not about any of that stuff. It’s a lot of paperwork.
Craig: And I also think that for people who have a certain expectation of what a lawyer should do for them, if they do have any kind of real life involvement in the criminal justice system in particular, they may be grievously disappointed or even have a lack of faith in the process because the process doesn’t seem as fair, dramatic, and decisive as the one that they’re familiar with. But the one that you’re familiar with is fake. That’s not a real thing. That’s only there to entertain you. The way that clowns aren’t real, thank god.
John: Well, another danger here is like you’re looking at these two lawyers presenting the two sides of the case, and your natural instinct based on all the things you’ve ever watched in courtroom dramas is like, well, there’s one good lawyer and one bad lawyer. Like one is fighting for the side of good, and one is fighting for the side of evil. And you want to make that choice. You’re not going to look at both of these guys and say like, oh, they’re both trying very hard. They both are making good points. I’m going to weigh their points. No, you’re going to actually decide based on their personalities or whatever they’re presenting, like which one is the good one and which one is the evil one.
And that’s a real danger.
Craig: Yeah. Particularly obviously for people serving on juries, if all they know about trials is what they’ve consumed through fake entertainment, they’re going to be viewing that trial through a very distorted lens. Not good for justice.
John: Not good for justice. The other mainstay of course of television right now is medical shows.
John: So you are the Scriptnotes doctor. So talk us through some of your issues with medical shows.
Craig: I have so many. I have so, so many. I’ve put together a little sampling platter, but I have so, so many. All right, well here’s an easy one. This one is from movies, and Pulp Fiction made it famous, but I’ve seen it a couple other times. Jabbing the needle directly into somebody’s heart to bring them back to life. You know? Don’t do that. [laughs] Not that anybody would, but that’s not real medicine. If you jab a needle into someone’s heart, it doesn’t really matter what the medicine is. You’re just going to put a hole in their heart and they’re going to die. It’s just real simple. It doesn’t work like that.
But that one is a minor one. Here’s a huge one. CPR. So, we have seen CPR performed about a million times in movies and television. Here’s what movies and television teach you. CPR works and when it works, somebody breathes in and sits up and they’re okay. They’re a little disoriented, but they’re okay.
No. In fact, CPR kind of doesn’t work. It is an extreme measure for an extreme circumstance. The statistics are hard to come by but I looked around and roughly they estimate that CPR will work between 2 and 18% of the time. And that 18% is when it’s in a hospital situation and they’re prepared. The 2% is bystander on street. So a guy has a heart attack in a grocery store. You rush over and you start performing CPR. 98 times out of 100 that dude is not coming back.
John: So, right here I’m going to give you the counter example, which unfortunately is going to reinforce the wrong version, but like two of my friends – two of my good friends – genuinely performed CPR on a stranger who had fallen in front of them. And like would have otherwise died. And like the CPR worked both times.
Granted, they were both trained medical professionals, so they weren’t–
John: So, I shouldn’t say they’re medical professionals, but they’re both trained in doing CPR, so they were better than your average CPR person. But it did actually work in both circumstances, and those people are alive and moving around and incredibly grateful to my friends for having been able to do the CPR.
So, we’re not anti-CPR. I just wanted to stress that this podcast is not anti-CPR.
Craig: Oh, no.
John: But what I have heard about CPR though is people will try to do it and they won’t be able to bring the person back to life, and they had this misguided assumption like I must have messed up because I wasn’t able to bring them back to life. I failed somehow. And you want to be able to tell that person, “No, no, no. The odds were you were not going to be able to do it. You did a heroic thing to try to bring that person back to life until medical help arrived.”
Craig: I mean, the value of CPR is if you were to say to somebody, listen, I’ll put the average at 5%. If you see somebody have a heart attack, you could click this button. I’ll give you this little button to click. And 5% of the time, they will live. Well, you’d click the button, right? I mean, that makes sense. Look, a siren is coming. It’s very appropriate. Let’s leave the siren in for this, because obviously somebody is having CPR.
Craig: So, CPR is a good thing. And being trained in CPR is a good thing. But you need to know that CPR is a last ditch, low success effort. In fact, I was reading in this one article an emergency room doctor reported that in his career – 20-year career – he had seen roughly one patient a year saved by CPR. And that’s in the emergency room. One a year.
So, on TV, they did a study in the ‘90s when we were awash in ER and Chicago Hope and so on and so forth. TV CPR worked 75% of the time. [laughs] That’s amazing. That is so out of whack.
Also, you know, when it works people go, oh, I’m alive. Like end of Stranger Things. They bring the kid back he goes, “Ah, okay, I’m fine.” No. In fact, oftentimes CPR leads to complications like brain damage. A lot of times, CPR will break your ribs. So, CPR, not magic. You should know how to do it, but you should not freak out if it doesn’t work. Nor should you think, oh, this person is going to be fine. She’s getting CPR. It’s not a high reward outcome there.
Another one that you see constantly is someone is flat-lining. So, get out the paddles. Clear. No. No. That does not work. Ever.
John: So, to clarify, the paddles are if they go into arrhythmia where their heart is spazzing out, so to get them back on a beat. But it doesn’t start them from nothing. It’s not jump-starting a car, which is I think what we assume those paddles are doing.
Craig: Correct. Because we see the patient go ka-thunk, like that, right. So defibrillation paddles is for – specifically it’s for something called ventricular fibrillation, or at least that’s the major thing it’s for. And that’s an arrhythmia. And it can – it is sort of – see, they’re doing it.
Craig: It’s definitely not a healthy situation to be in. But if you’re flat-lining, “flat-lining,” then that’s called asystole and that’s just not what those paddles do. They effect that at all. So, you’d just be shocking, just wasting time by shocking somebody. Oh, and by the way, I should say that if you do have asystole, that line isn’t actually flat like that. It’s like really sort of like a low wavy thing.
If you see the true flat line, you know the one like when the patient dies, that means the machine is not connected. [laughs] So that also is just a ridiculous thing.
John: Yeah. I think it would be great if a person was just asleep but the machine was unplugged. And so then someone paddles them. That would be a good scene.
Craig: Oh, and nobody rubs the paddles together anymore. That stuff is – they don’t do that.
Here’s one you see all the time in movies. I’ve been stabbed, shot with an arrow, shot with a bullet, what’s the first thing that the field medic or the partner has to do?
John: You got to pull it out.
Craig: You got to pull it out.
John: You have to take that bullet out, come on.
Craig: How could you possibly survive with an arrow stuck in your chest? Do not ever pull anything out ever. That is the worst medical advice that movies and television have foisted on us. If somebody is impaled by something or has some foreign object lodged in them, I don’t care where it is, but particularly if it’s in their head, but anywhere – do not pull it out. Because that object, if they’re still alive, that object being in place is probably why they’re still alive. So do not pull it out.
John: This season on You’re the Worst, a TV show that I like very much on FX, one of the characters gets stabbed with a knife, a small knife, but sort of in the back. And what I do like about the show is that like it was a plot point throughout the whole season. Because it was a wound that was really hard to heal. And that’s reality. Don’t stab people. Don’t get stabbed. Because it’s not a happy, fun time for everybody.
Craig: Yeah. That we can say is a fact. Don’t get stabbed.
John: Don’t get stabbed.
Craig: Yeah, like that’s true. We can’t argue with that.
John: Let’s talk about the lessons from this bad emergency medicine that we learn, it sets unrealistic expectations about what a person can do. What a doctor can do. What you should do first. What you should probably do first is call the ambulance. Get actual medical help there. And then while you’re waiting for medical help, that’s when you do the CPR. You do everything else you possibly can to help the person. But don’t pull out the knife.
Craig: Do not pull out the knife. All right. So, that’s just a few. I have so many. But, you know, that’s a few of them.
John: That’s a few.
Craig: And I think we can do a better job. You know, I do.
John: We could do a much better job. So, we’re going to probably skip over our whole topic on guns and conspiracies. I have a whole bunch of stuff here about homeopathy, which is just nonsense.
Craig: It really is.
John: It really is nonsense. But we can maybe do that for another show. We’ll do a Scriptnotes extra on just homeopathy.
Craig: Oh, that would be so great.
John: Extra on Homeopathy. But let’s talk about what our functions are as writers, because that’s what really the point of this critique is is that we are creating these fantasy universes that are by necessity somewhat simplified, but in creating the simplification, let’s make sure we’re not perpetuating myths, or creating new myths that make people believe that the universe functions differently than how it actually functions.
And so I want to talk through some options we have as writers to sort of help portray a more realistic universe. First off, don’t let your own ignorance be the guide here. Just because you saw it in another show, that doesn’t mean it’s actually true. And so try not to spread things just because that is what you believe is the common understanding of stuff. That’s how we got to “begs the question,” because people would use begs the question in courtroom dramas and then it just spread out through the universe and then the misusage of begs the question is, in my opinion, not backed by fact but probably because we started using begs the question in these courtroom shows and everyone started using it improperly.
Craig: Yeah, using begs the question improperly is the verbal equivalent of pulling the knife out. So, first of all, if you’ve seen it done somewhere else, how about your first instinct should be I’m not doing it. It’s been done. Why would you want to repeat these clichés? The last thing I would want to do is just do the thing where, oh my god, the flat line and the paddles, right?
So, your instincts should always be, okay, well what can I do differently, but research folks.
Craig: Never been easier.
John: There’s simple research like what Craig and I did which is like go into some articles and Wikipedia to find out some of this information. But, you know what, there’s actual real people who are delighted to talk to you about the realities of their jobs. So, there’s real life doctors, there’s real life scientists, there’s real life lawyers who are happy to talk to you about the realities of their job. And that is an opportunity you have as a writer is to talk to those folks, because most of them are delighted to talk with you about what it really is doing that specific thing.
And they love to see their actual job portrayed properly on screen. So they’re happy to give you the ten minutes to answer your question, because they want to see it done correctly.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, lawyers and doctors will constantly sneer at TV lawyers and TV doctors because they’re a joke to them. All right, so why – don’t be the joke.
John: Don’t be the joke.
John: So, I would also say let characters in your story challenge erroneous assumptions. And so whether it’s something simple like don’t hold your gun sideways, or something more important like don’t pull out the knife, take that opportunity to actually fix those misassumptions about how the universe works, or those things that people have already seen from other shows, and get them in there correct. And have a character actually hang a lantern on the fact of like this is how it actually really functions.
Craig: Yeah, it’s a good idea. You can only sort of do that once, although I suppose you could have a relationship where somebody is constantly correcting somebody, but it is a nice signifier to the audience that your movie or your television show is aware of the world around it. And that is a total choice. That’s not a requirement. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing. But it is an interesting tonal choice. And for a certain kind of show I think it does benefit it, to have that awareness that it is in the world.
John: Yeah. The last advice I have is try to defend your script against that pressure to cheat, or the pressure to go to the normal version of things, which is inaccurate. And so what I’m saying is you probably wrote the draft and you may have done the research and you actually have it in there correctly and you actually have the right version of it. And you’re able to find a way that’s efficient, and timely, and makes really good dramatic sense as well. But along the process of production, whether it’s that episode going to shoot, or a director coming onto your project, there may be that instinct from other people saying like, “Oh, no, no, I’ve seen this on other shows. It’s more like this.” And it could even be like the prop person who comes on who says like, “No, no, it’s like this.”
And to the degree that you can, try to defend the real version. And when you’re trying to defend that real version, try to defend it in terms of the reality of your show, the reality of the character, the reality of the experience, and not in terms of facts. Because facts I found are not always the most helpful tool in your belt when you’re trying to get something to be filmed properly and it’s 11 o’clock at night.
Craig: Yeah. The reliance on these I think props is a great reference for these – you know, prop tension and prop drama. Like the countdown timer on a bomb. Why would a bomb have a timer on it? I mean, the bomb may have a timer circuit, sure. Why would it have a display? For whom is that display? [laughs] I mean, if I know that this bomb is going off in three minutes, I punch the thing and I walk away. I don’t need it displayed there, right? So it’s a prop – that’s a prop tension/prop drama display for our hero, for the audience. There’s got to be a better way than that that’s more interesting frankly.
And I think you’re absolutely right. It is – it’s essentially borrowed drama anyway. It is the drama of stuff that you have added in. It’s not the drama of the character relating to the world around them, or the object in front of them, or the person in front of them.
So, yeah, it’s just to avoid to those. We all know what they are. So, skip it. Don’t do it. I think people would be so much more interested anyway in knowing how things really work, and finding out how they really work. I mean, sometimes I think people are afraid that if they present the reality it will be boring.
Well, yeah, if you present it in a boring way it will be boring. But, that’s your job, writer.
John: Yeah. Do your job.
Craig: Do your job. You had one job. [laughs]
John: [laughs] So, I want to stress that nothing that we’re saying here is an argument in favor of a character giving a half-page speech about the reality of how you do this thing. We’re not arguing for the lecture. We’re arguing for the smart choice in how you’re staging things, so the reality of how something exists in the real world can be portrayed. And that hopefully will make your script better, and it will make it stand out from all of the other ones who doing the standard clichés.
John: Word. Let’s get to some questions. Our first question comes from Stacy Ochoa-Luna who asks, “Is there a specific area where screenwriters would typically live in LA? Are agents or managers in a specific area? Do professionals have pitch meetings anyway, or at the studios? I know these are strange questions, but I’m planning to move to LA in the spring and want to know where I could be central in hopes that I have opportunities to pitch.”
Craig, where should Stacy Ochoa-Luna live?
Craig: Well, it’s not a strange question. It’s a great question. The good news is the studios are fairly well spread out. So, if you think of Los Angeles, let’s just imagine a circle. Over on the west part of the circle you have Sony and Fox. And in the central part of the circle there you have Paramount. And then in the northern-ish part of the circle you have Warner Bros. and Universal and Disney.
And then CBS is down in the central part. And NBC is up by Universal. And ABC is up by Disney. And Fox is at Fox. So, they’re kind of all around, right?
Now, the agents, managers, and lawyers are almost all in Beverly Hills.
John: Center of the circle there.
Craig: Yeah. Or Culver, the West LA-ish. In that center zone right in the middle. So really want you want to do is find a place you can afford to live. That is – there is no specific area where screenwriters typically live. They’re on the west side, they’re east side, they’re north. They’re all over the place.
So, you want to find someplace that is affordable. When I first moved to LA, affordable to me was in the Valley. Closer to where Universal, Warner Bros. and Disney were. But people also live on the West Side in affordable areas that are closer to where Sony and Fox are. It’s just about finding a part of town you like, because that’s where you’re going to be most of the time. And a place you can afford.
John: Yeah. My first apartment in Los Angeles was down at USC. Then I moved out to Palms, which is incredibly boring, but inexpensive on the West Side. Then I was up in West Hollywood. Then I was Central Los Angeles. And now I’m in Hancock Park.
I’ve tended to stay near the middle of the circle the whole time I’ve been here. And I really like that. I like that I can sort of get to anything pretty quickly, but nothing is like right next door.
But two guys in their 40s who are making a good chunk of change are not the right people to give you good advice about sort of what specific neighborhood you should be looking at. You need to find people who are doing what you’re trying to do. And that’s why you sort of come here, you find your group. It would be great if didn’t have to necessarily sign a year-long lease when you first move here because you might find that, you know what, I thought I love living at the beach, but I don’t love living at the beach. I want to be closer into places. And you’ll discover that.
Price is by far going to be your biggest concern. You want to find a place you can afford to live. And that probably means with roommates, if you’re just starting out. That’s great, too. And the good thing about coming here when you’re young is that you don’t have assumptions about quality of life. [laughs] You’re willing to live cheaply with some other folks and that can be great because the other folks you’re going to be living around and with are much more important than where the studios are, where the agencies are.
You want to be with people who are trying to do what you’re trying to do, so you can help them make their movies. They can read your stuff. Just find your group. And that’s going to be an essential first step.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, that’s great advice.
So, here’s a question from Connor from Ireland who asks, “I’ve been very fortunate in the last three years to be gaining traction in my screenwriting career. Producers are reading my stuff, asking me to pitch to them. I’m being interviewed for writer room positions. Actors are sharing my stuff, hoping to be involved. Et cetera.
“This is all very exciting and I’m very thankful. But nothing is actually getting made. What usually happens is I’ll be in contact with a producer, working out talks and pitches to funders. The producers, readers, actors, and everyone involved will be optimistic. Promos, bibles, treatment, and such will be written. And then nothing.
“The pitches get turned down and the project ends there, leaving me to write the next thing and start all over again. It seems that I’m good enough to get people’s attention, and good enough for people to get behind. But not good enough to get that final yes from financiers. Is this common or unique to my situation in Ireland where production money is tight? Am I doing something wrong? Or is it just a case of bad luck and should keep on track?”
John, what do you think?
John: It is not just Irish luck. That is a very common story. And you will find so many writers in Los Angeles who are in exactly your situation. Which is that I’m getting a bunch of meetings. If I could make a living on taking meetings, then you’d have a screenwriting career. You’re just not actually getting hired to do the stuff you want to do, and that’s a stage in your career.
So, congratulations. You made it over the first hurdle. That second hurdle is getting someone to actually pay you for what you’re doing. And that’s – I don’t have any particular advice for you other than to know that it’s a real thing that almost every writer goes through.
Craig: No question. Especially because you’re not just asking to be paid for your work. You’re asking for a movie to be made. This is a much larger commitment. Now, you say that production money in Ireland is tight. So, yes, then that is certainly – Irish money is unique to Ireland, right? So, production money in Ireland may be much tighter than it is here in the United States.
Generally speaking, though, we’re talking about variations of awful. It’s always tight. It’s always hard to get somebody to invest in movies, or television, because generally speaking they’re bad investments. When they work, they’re huge. But a lot of them are not great investments.
So, you will definitely run into this over, and over, and over. One thing you have to be aware of is the criteria for attention, which you’re getting from producers, actors, that is good script, creatively interesting. For financiers, it’s different. A lot of them are saying to themselves or their investors and them, “We are seeking to make this kind of thing. So we want to make a movie between this number and this number budget wise, about this topic that can play in this area, or have this kind of star.”
When they get your script, it doesn’t matter how good it is. For them, the question isn’t is this good, the question is is this the kind of thing we want to make? And if it is, is it good?
So, the only practical thing you could do is maybe find out what it is exactly they are really motivated to finance. Then ask yourself do I like any of those things? Am I inspired by any of those things? Because if you are, well, give yourself a leg up, my friend.
John: Yeah, so it sounds like Connor’s at a place now where he’s talking about he meets with producers, he works up a pitch with them, and they go into financiers and it doesn’t happen from that point forward. So, the question is: are they the right producers? Are they the kind of producers who are actually getting things made? Or are they just people who are calling themselves produces and they’re aspiring just like you’re aspiring? And there’s nothing wrong with aspiring, but a bunch of aspirations all bundled together doesn’t necessarily result in a movie. So you may need to find some people who are a little bit more experienced in actually getting movies made. And take their advice seriously about these are the things that need to happen in order for a movie to actually get to the next step.
I agree with Craig. It’s great that actors and other filmmaker people are interested in the things you’re doing, because it shows that there’s artistic merit here. There’s something fascinating to them. It’s connecting the dots so that it’s actually fascinating to the financiers who are not looking at making art. They’re looking at making money. And that’s what seems to be the misconnection at this point.
John: Mm-hmm. So, I would say, I don’t have specific advice for different things for Connor to do. I don’t have experience with Ireland, of course, so I don’t know how many movies or how many TV shows it’s actually really possible to make per year in Ireland. He talks about staffing for TV shows. That is actual money, so that’s a great thing if you can just get yourself on something that gets paid. Because just the experience of getting paid once or twice, it changes you a little bit, but it also changes the perception of you. And you go from an aspiring writer to an actual working writer. And they may take a little bit more seriously on some of these other projects because they see that other people are willing to pay you money.
Craig: Yeah. You know, when you are done with these processes, it’s smart also to do a little post-mortem and sit with the producers and say, okay, safe space – let’s all talk about why we think that didn’t work in a constructive way so that maybe we can change things for next time, or you can change things, or I can change things. Let’s have an honest discussion about where we might have gone wrong together.
Because you can learn things from failure. It’s harder to learn things from failure in our business because it’s not like there’s a uniform series of buyers. We’re not trying to sell circuit breakers to large warehouses. And they all have the basic same needs, so what did we do wrong? It’s all about individual taste, and individual requirements for their budget, schedule, and their release appetite.
But, still you can – I mean, there may be some recurring themes that come up. So, worth at least a quick post-mortem each time.
John: I agree. All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is an app that I’ve been using ever since I got to Paris. I’m now 76 days into using this app. It’s called Duolingo. It is an app for learning a foreign language. I’m using it for French. It’s a really well-designed app for iOS and also for Android that breaks it down into simple little lessons that are really well animated. Literally like everybody here uses it.
And so I was going to get my official French visa stuff, so I had to get my chest X-ray, and I’m in the waiting room there. And there’s a Japanese woman next to me and I see she’s using Duolingo as well. So, everybody here uses it to get their French up to speed. It’s really, really well-designed.
So, it’s a free download. If you are interested in learning a language, I would strongly recommend you check it out. I’m not sure how they’re going to make money. It seems like a really expensive app that doesn’t pay for itself, but I’m very grateful that it exists.
Craig: I remember using this before I went to Austria. It’s a great app.
John: Again, it’s a free download. I highly recommend if you are interested in learning a foreign language. Or in my case, like I can sort of get by in French, but there were sort of crucial things I was missing. It did a great job sort of like getting past those little small glitches.
So, highly recommend it.
Craig: Excellent. Duolingo.
My One Cool Thing is How to Carve a Turkey. I finally did it right. Finally.
John: So, Craig, talk me through it. Paint me a visual picture of how it works.
Craig: Well, first I’ll tell you how most people do it, which is wrong. You hack away at the leg and thigh kind of and you twist it off. And now it’s like all shredded and stuff. And there’s bones sticking out everywhere. Then you start slicing the breast off the turkey slice by slice and sticking it on a plate. And it’s all choppy and sawed up. And then there’s huge chunks of meat just sticking on this thing.
No. All wrong. So, I finally was like, all right, I got to learn how to properly carve a turkey. So I went online, and you know sometimes when you look for these things, there’s 12 people all insisting that their way is correct and they’re all different and you get very confused and frustrated. Not this time. There is one way. [laughs] There is one way to carve a turkey. They all agree. We’ll put a link in here for one of them.
But basically what it comes down to is removing the legs, and they’ll show you how to do all that. The thighs and all the rest of it. But the big one is the breast. And the idea there is to remove the turkey breast entirely, the whole thing. Not slices. The whole thing.
Craig: Take it off. And then cross slice it. One tip I did follow, which made a huge difference. It made it so much easier, but requires a little pre-roasting surgery, is to remove the wishbone before the turkey goes in the oven. So, while it’s still raw, because then you don’t have to pull it out or work around it when you’re removing the breast after it has been cooked.
So, to remove the wishbone before, you got to do a little bit of an incision on the neck area. And then get in there and make some slices. And it actually feels like surgery. I will say, this is the funniest thing–
John: Dr. Craig likes it.
Craig: I did. But something killed me. All right, so, I was like, okay, I’m going to remove this wishbone. And I Googled up first. And somebody had essentially a little photo essay of how they remove the wishbone. And so I was following along with that. And then I just turned my phone off, right, and I went and I picked my phone up an hour later and the first image that came up was this image of the – so raw turkey wishbone thing in there. And like for a second I’m like, “Why is there porn on my phone?” [laughs] Because it looked so much – it just looked so porny. It’s amazing how the body has certain recurring shapes. Like nature just has certain recurring shapes.
I mean, really it was kind of awesome actually.
John: So, my great surprise for Thanksgiving this year, I’ve never been a sweet potato person. I kind of despise sweet potatoes, but the dinner we went to they had a kale salad, which of course is not very Thanksgiving-y, but with sweet potatoes in it, like roasted sweet potatoes that were so good that I now question my distaste of sweet potatoes. They were remarkable.
Craig: I wonder if your distaste of sweet potatoes is actually a distaste of yams. So, we have two foods that we refer to as sweet potatoes interchangeably here in the United States. One is the yam, which is this very deep orange African vegetable. And then there’s the sweet potato which is a very light, light pale yellow potato, more potato-like thing that is native to the New World, North America.
So, most of what people eat in the United States as sweet potatoes are yams. So you get these cans of yams and candied yams and all the rest, and then you whip them up into this brutally sweet orange thing. Sweet potato pie, for instance, which is a traditional African American soul food dessert in the United States is usually made now with yams. I mean, I see a lot of them that are super-duper orange, which I don’t like.
But sweet potatoes themselves are actually quite delicious. I like them way more than – so was yours a pale yellow, or was it like an angry orange?
John: It was more of an angry orange, and yet here’s the thing. I think I grew up around sweet potatoes. I think they were sweet potatoes and not yams, and they have this smell, this acrid kind of chemical smell that I just could not stand to even be in the kitchen with them. And this did not have that. So something else had changed.
I’ll also say, and I don’t know whether the sweet potato fries I’m eating at hamburger restaurants are sweet potatoes or yams, but they are delicious.
Craig: Those are yams. You’re a yam guy. You’re totally a yam guy.
John: I’m a yam guy.
Craig: Yeah. Big time. You’re a yam guy, because all those sweet potato fries are super-duper orange and yams are I think more common and cheaper and, yeah, you’re a yam dude.
Craig: I’m a sweet potato guy.
John: All right. So, it takes all kinds. Maybe that’s why the podcast works so well. You know, different flavors, different tastes, but you know what, it all comes together to make a wonderful Thanksgiving feast.
Craig: You stick marshmallows on it and it tastes great no matter what it is.
John: It’s so good. Mm, Fluffernutters. That is our show for this week. As always, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Victor Krause.
Craig: Victor Krause!
John: It’s a great name. Victor Krause.
John: If you have an outro, you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also a place to send questions like the ones we answered today. I am on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. We are on Facebook. I’ve actually checked a few things on Facebook recently, so send us a note on Facebook. Let us know what you thought of this. Let us know whether we are correct on yams versus sweet potatoes.
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So, you can also listen to them through Scriptnotes.net. It’s $2 a month for all the back episodes.
Craig: So many.
John: So many. There are a few USB drives left. We have yet to decide whether we’re going to do any more USB drives after this. I think because the USB standards are changing, maybe we’ll find drives that have two sides to them. I don’t know.
So, I can’t promise there will ever be more USB drives, so if you really would like all the back episodes on a USB drive, order one now before they sell out.
There are transcripts for this show and all of our back episodes at johnaugust.com. It’s also where you’ll find the show notes for this episode and all of our previous episodes. And, Craig, thank you for a fun episode.
Craig: Thank you, John. I’ll see you next week.
John: See you next week. Bye.
- The Black Widow
- “I’ve Been Making Viral Fake News for the Last Six Months…”
- Dialect coach Erik Singer
- Wendy Zukerman on Science Vs.
- The CSI Effect
- FTC Labeling
- Alan Levinowitz for Slate: Will labels backfire?
- How to carve a turkey
- John August on Twitter
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- John on Instagram
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