Craig Mazin: Hello and welcome. My name is Craig Mazin and this is Episode 284 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today you might sense a little bit of a change. For one, the microphone sounds weird because I’m, well, doing kind of a weird microphone thing here for a reason. And, also, there’s no John August. He’s not here.
It’s me, today, with Derek Haas, who’s been on the show twice before. Today though, special day, because today it’s Craig and Derek answering questions. Welcome to the show, Derek.
Derek Haas: Thank you for having me again, Craig. It is my third time.
Craig: Third time?
Derek: That makes me a friend of Scriptnotes, right?
Craig: Well, you’ve always been a friend of Scriptnotes, but now you’re a valuable friend of Scriptnotes, which is a little bit better. Last time we spoke with you, I think you had still only one show, possibly two, now you have 12?
Derek: I was in Chicago the last time, and John was in Chicago, and yeah, we had just Chicago Fire. And it had just started.
Craig: Amazing. And now you have Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D., and Chicago–
Derek: And Chicago Justice starts in a month.
Craig: Wow. We’re running out of Chicago nouns. It’s remarkable. Before we get into the meat of today’s show, we do have some follow up to discuss. Sundance Episodic Lab. If you are a long time listener to the show, you know that we’re big fans of the Sundance Labs. It’s where they bring in writers and filmmakers to workshop new stuff. Ilyse McKimmie was a guest on the show. And they tell us that every year a few of the projects come in because people have heard about the labs on our show, which is fantastic.
For writers interested in television, Sundance is now taking applications for the Episodic Story Lab until February 1. The application can be found at applications3.sundance.org. And, of course, we’ll put a link in the show notes.
So, the Episodic Lab, here’s what goes on there. You work with accomplished showrunners, as well as non-writing creative producers and studio network executives. And the fellows – those are the people that are picked to do this – participate in one-on-one creative story meetings, pitch sessions, writer’s rooms, and group conversations focusing on the key creative and tactical elements that are central to their success in episodic storytelling. This is pretty good.
We mostly know Sundance for their Screenwriting Lab, but they’ve also had success in a lot of other mediums. For instance, Lisa Krone won two Tony’s for Fun Home – by the way, Jeanine Tesori also won a Tony for Fun Home, but she wasn’t at the Sundance Lab. Fine.
And Barry Jenkins is having an incredible experience with Moonlight. And so there are some previous participants that we’ll throw some information on for you to take a look at. Rafael Agustin, Calvin Reeder, and Ebony Freeman, and Mike Flynn.
So, that’s our follow up. Now, we’re going to get into questions. So, Derek, I’m not going to do a lot of questions for you.
Craig: Because people have questions for us. We’ve gotten questions, of course, from our normal listeners, and then I asked some folks on Reddit to lob questions at us. So we’ll take a look through those as well. Derek, just to start with you for a second, are you ever coming back to movies, or you’re a TV guy now forever?
Derek: I don’t see in the foreseeable future when we would have time to write a movie, just the way Hollywood is working these days, where you are beholden to the studio for six, nine months at a time. We just don’t have time right now. We do have a movie that Brandt and I wrote prior to Chicago Fire starting that just got shot this past winter and I’m going to see a screening of it on Monday for the first time. But it was a foreign film, all shot in France, starring Scott Eastwood called Overdrive. And I, like you, am curious to see how it turned out.
Craig: [laughs] I’m not at all curious how it turned out.
Craig: You’re not like me at all. No, I’m sure it will be excellent. But it sounds like we’ve lost you basically. Like we’ve lost so many people to television.
Derek: Yeah. Come on over, Craig. The water is fine.
Craig: Well…that’s what I’m hearing.
We’re going to start our questions with one from Kyle. And Kyle has an audio question that he sent in. And here’s what he asks.
Kyle: I’m a veteran, having served ten years honorably in the United States Navy. And I was recently awarded my MFA from a top college. I’ve been in LA since May of 2016 and I’m struggling to figure out how to get started. I’ve worked a couple feature films as a PA, but that’s not what I want to do. I want to write and direct. I volunteer at the WGA as often as I can, and I’m applying to any and every job I can find, but I’m not having much luck. What do I do? My savings are dwindling and I’m starting to worry. Is there some kind of secret? Is there some kind of website devoted just to writer’s assistants? Any advice you guys could have would be great.
Craig: OK. Well, Derek, what advice do you have for Kyle?
Derek: It’s the age-old question. It’s the hardest one to answer as a screenwriter. The most often that we talk to our friends about how they broke in we find that every story is different. In television, certainly the best thing you can do is be a writer’s assistant on a show that’s going.
Craig: But how do you get that?
Derek: It’s hard. I mean, you need to write a great spec pilot of a TV show. And then get it into as many people’s hands as possible. I’ve had four assistants since Chicago Fire started. One came as a recommendation of a friend who had gone to – like an alumni situation, where they had gone to the same college, and then slipped me her pilot. She then went on to work for NBC. She wanted to be on the producing side.
And then my second wanted to be an actor and came through from a Baylor recommendation actually. Baylor College, where I went to school.
Derek: And then the last two have been through the Universal Writer Program and just reading resumes and reading scripts. And we’ve also promoted several of our writer’s assistants on to staff. To me, that’s the best way to break into TV. But, I mean, it comes down to write a great script and get it into as many people’s hands as possible.
Craig: Yeah, unfortunately that’s kind of the secret is that there’s no secret. It does come down to these things. Well, first of all, Kyle, thank you very much for your service to the Navy and to our country. I do know that the Writers Guild Foundation has a program for veterans. And I don’t know if you’ve taken a look at that, or not, but I would strongly suggest that you do. And you can speak to somebody, since you’re already volunteering at the WGA, just get in touch with somebody over at the WGA Foundation. I think their website is wgafoundation.org. They have a writing program. I think it’s called the Veterans Writing Program.
And that may be a nice entry point for you. But, yeah, I think Derek is right. Unfortunately, well, let me just say, that Kyle you’ve been LA since May of 2016. That’s not that long.
Craig: You know, you do have to be a little patient here. But, also, just be aware this is not for everyone. It’s barely for anyone, frankly. Not a lot of jobs. And it’s a fairly narrow skillset. So you need to, I think, first assess your skills honestly and accurately and if you feel like, yeah, you’ve got what it takes, then you’re going to have to persist a little bit here.
Derek: My one thing I’ll add is I see a lot of writers who write one script in a year. And then they wait on 20 people to read the one script. And they get notes. And they go back and work on that script. And I’m just telling you the more things that you can do, there’s no reason why shouldn’t have two to three scripts written in a year. Especially if you’re writing pilots. I mean, we do 22 episodes in a year. That’s like doing 22 short films on the show. And Michael and I write six to nine of them. And so – and that’s 60 pages. That’s two-thirds of what a movie script is.
Derek: You really got to put the nose to the grindstone and write as many as you can in the genres that you like, that you actually feel passion for, not what you think that the industry wants. Don’t write a comic book movie if you don’t like comic books. If you like thriller, write a thriller. Don’t try to guess what’s going to be great and write something great.
Craig: I think that’s excellent advice. And, certainly, Kyle, make sure if your savings are dwindling that you also have a job. Get a job, you know. It’s good to put money in your pocket. You can write at night.
All right, next question. This is from Dave Jenkins. And he writes in and says, “I’ve been working with a team of producers for the past six years on an original script of mine. During that time, we’ve had three different directors attached, four development cycles, one financier, and more drafts than I can care to count. This was a low no dollar/no dollar option, which I agreed to due to their names and past credits. The initial contract was for two years. Subsequent extensions were granted as attachments came on board with the promise that I would be paid when financing came together. Unfortunately, this has not happened and the current extension expires later this month. So, my question is this: when is it okay to part ways? Is six years more than enough time? And how in the F did I get here? The producers still want the script but are unwilling to pay for it. They feel they’ve worked on it thus far. And as a result, should be given more time.
“I have other parties who have expressed sincere interest – producers, directors, and managers. But have warned that I would be burning a bridge were I to part ways like this. Any advice or drinking recommendations would be helpful?”
Craig: Yeah. So, Derek?
Derek: My advice is that they’ve had more than adequate time to work on it. You have been way, way, way generous with them. And you should send them a letter right now and say we’re done, especially as soon as the last extension expires. And go on and feel completely unencumbered to them. You can take it wherever you want. You own it. And it doesn’t matter what work they’ve put on it. And don’t let their mafia scare tactics keep you from getting your script finally realized.
Craig: Wow. That was definitive. I’ll be a little more circumspect. Slightly. Not much more. I do think that Derek is right. They’ve had six years. They can’t get it done.
Derek: And paid zero dollars, by the way.
Craig: Right. So you’ve gotten no money out of it, but I understand neither have they. So, the whole point of these things is that it’s a mutual assistance society, but they haven’t gotten it done. And I think if you have other legitimate people who have expressed interest who might be able to get it done, at some point I think you do have to cut bait. And I don’t think you’d be burning a bridge. Or, hey, look at it this way: maybe you are burning a bridge. That bridge isn’t really going anywhere. So, you know, everybody in this town is always worried about burning bridges. And sometimes you just get paralyzed. You have to light one on fire every now and again. You know?
Derek: And movies do take a long time to get made. I mean, we’ve had movies that have been over eight years from when we started working on it, to when it got shot. And it’s true, however, after six years and four directors, they’re just flailing. And what they’re looking back at is we’ve put a lot of work into this. Now somebody else might make it and we’re going to get cut out.
Craig: That’s right.
Derek: And that’s what they’re operating from. But that’s not your fault.
Craig: It is. It’s not your fault. It’s not your problem. So, search your heart and ask yourself, do you still want to be married to this people or not. And if you don’t? Divorce.
We’ve got another question, an audio question, from Seth. Seth from Nashville. And here’s what he has to ask.
Seth: So, there’s a movie coming out that looks really good, but appears to share quite a few similarities to a movie that I’m currently writing. Is there any danger of me seeing this and it influencing what I’m writing? Would you avoid seeing it? Would you see it? Am I overthinking it? Is this really even a thing?
Craig: Well that’s an interesting question. Normally, people will say there’s a movie coming out that has similarities to what I’m writing, should I stop writing it. And we also say no. But this is an interesting question. Would you see a similar movie?
Derek: That is an interesting question. I would avoid it only – I don’t want anyone to think anything I did had anything to do with the other movie. So, I would avoid it until after you were done.
Craig: Yeah. I’m the same way. I feel like if you see the other movie, it’s not even that you would be tempted or would have some kind of subconscious lifting of material from that movie. More to the point that I feel like suddenly your movie would be a response to that movie.
Craig: I don’t want that. I want my movie to exist as its own, honestly, and without any kind of context of the other film. So, yeah, I think I would avoid seeing it. All right, we’ve answered that. Tice from Amsterdam – now, Derek–
Craig: Tice from Amsterdam spells his name Thijs.
Craig: Now, when I saw that, I thought it was maybe Thigis.
Craig: It’s not.
Derek: How do you know?
Craig: I looked it up. It’s Tice. Well, it’s Thijs.
Craig: By the way, I’m going to Amsterdam.
Derek: My last name is Dutch.
Craig: That’s right. But are you Dutch? Or did you just steal a Dutch man’s last name?
Derek: Well, I think we must be somewhere on the Dutch/German border, because half the world pronounces it Haas – actually most of the world pronounces it Haas, which is the German version. And my family pronounces it Haas. I actually did that test where they swab your thing?
Craig: Yeah. 23 and Me.
Derek: I did the 23 and Me. More England.
Craig: Oh, of course. Look at your face.
Craig: I say. So I’m going to Amsterdam in the summer?
Derek: Are you going to see Thijs?
Craig: Thijs. I don’t know if I’m going to see Thijs. It’s necessarily – he was not on my list.
Derek: Maybe if you answer his question sufficiently, you guys could have a drink.
Craig: He might open his home to me. Thijs from Amsterdam writes, “For various reasons, I’m a bit of a slow listener and it seems I’m getting more and more behind. I’m currently listening to Episode 173, from December of 2014, which is great so far. I have 20 more minutes to go.”
I love Thijs. He’s a good guy.
Derek: Why are we answering this question? He won’t get to it for another two years?
Craig: Well, Derek, be patient. Watch what happens.
Craig: “Every time you mention on the show things like tickets for live shows, t-shirts, and goodies, I obviously have no access to that. I know you cannot help me, but could you do me a favor? Could you leave a message for me in a future show, so I have at least something special to look forward to? I’ll probably listen to it in two to three years’ time.”
Craig: Thijs. This is your special message. We are recording this in 2017. Early 2017. By your own reckoning, it’s probably 2019 or 2020. I hope to god the planet is still here. Right now it looks a little shaky. We love you Thijs.
Craig: Do you have anything?
Derek: I just think it’s going to be weird now when you show up on his doorstep in Amsterdam.
Derek: And he has no idea what’s going on.
Craig: Why are you here? I mean, yeah, I listen to your show, but this is weird.
All right, those were some of the questions in our hopper, but I want to switch over to some Reddit questions now. Is there anything, by the way, that you would prefer to talk about, Derek?
Derek: I love answering questions.
Craig: So do I.
Derek: It makes it so easy.
Craig: I love it when you answer questions on Twitter and then sometimes if I see you doing it, oh…
Derek: Yeah, so I do regularly answer seven questions on Wednesdays and Sunday mornings. And I do it in the order received after I put the notice up. Mostly it’s questions about Chicago Fire or Chicago P.D. And then every now and then Craig, who does not watch either show, starts to answer the questions as though he is an authority on the show. And so you can–
Craig: It’s fun.
Derek: Maybe he’ll do it this week. You never know.
Craig: You know, you never know. So here’s a question from Reddit user Fighting Against Time. He says, “In a world where people are constantly looking for original voices and turning to web series to find them, like Insecure, Broad City, High Maintenance, et cetera, how the hell do you get noticed,” and this kind of goes back to Kyle’s question, “how the hell do you get noticed when everyone and their great aunt has some original thing on YouTube? The immediacy of film equipment and editing software has made it so anyone can put their ideas from page to screen with relative ease. But the oversaturation makes it so easy to get lost in the crowd. As an insider, what advice do you have to help great content be seen in a medium where somebody screaming at a cat gets five million views?”
All right, so Derek, how do you stand out?
Derek: Well, it depends, what do you want to do? Do you want to have your own television series? Your own web series? You still have to be original. Or you do unoriginal really well. I started watching this show Luther. Apparently it’s been on for a few seasons already, but I am catching up to the old. And it’s a cop show. It’s even got standard cop “I’m chasing a bad guy who is murdering cops, I’m chasing a serial killer who killed her parents, and she’s a criminal mastermind.” But they do it really well. The dialogue pops. The characters are interesting.
You can take something that’s already been done. You could do your own show about weed distribution like High Maintenance, but your voice has to pop. The voice doesn’t mean the original idea. The voice is the way you tell that story.
Craig: I agree. Look, there are ideas that are grabby for YouTube purposes, like somebody screaming at a cat. And I get that. But that’s not a destination for anybody. It is stuff that we sort of snack on. But it’s not a meal. And so the combination of things that has to occur to stand out, Fighting Against Time, is both a quality and a sense of extensibility. That there’s actually a show worth following. That there are characters worth following. That there are people’s lives that are worth investing in.
At that, to me, is the difference. It’s not so much how do I stand out. It’s how do I stand out and appear to be something that could go on. So, Derek is right. The idea sometimes is the least important thing. I mean, look, what’s the idea of Chicago Fire? Firefighters.
Derek: It’s a show about firefighters.
Craig: Right. What’s the idea about Chicago Med?
Derek: It’s a show about doctors.
Craig: Not only has there been a show about doctors before, there’s been many shows about doctors in Chicago.
Craig: So the idea itself, it’s the execution, and the voice, and the characters. Those are the things that make it specific.
Derek: I might have said this before, but to me, when you’re writing something, the goal on almost every page is you need to surprise the reader. I can’t emphasize it enough. You want them flipping the pages, but you also want them to – as they’re going, think they know where this is going, and then it zigs. Even within a dialogue line. Some sort of surprise is – when you’re dealing with these old ideas – is the way you keep it fresh.
Craig: Yeah. I also feel like sometimes I worry that the generation that is being raised on YouTube now, like our sons, and my daughter, that they believe that the measure of success is something going viral, or something seizing America’s imagination briefly. But that’s not the case at all.
Craig: That, in fact, what happens is those things pop for a moment, everybody freaks out for a week or two, and then they’re gone. Forever. And the people that made them are gone. Forever. Because it was just a thing that happened in a moment. In fact, it is this kind of strange workaday stuff that stays with us and I think gives you a career. I don’t see, with rare exception, I don’t see people getting careers because they screamed at their cat.
Craig: All right. So here’s a question specifically for you, Derek. It comes Redditer King Cartwright. And he asks, “Derek, what kind of material do you look for when staffing your television shows? Do you ask for specs or original pilots? And what important traits do you look for in writers that you want in the room?”
Derek: A great question. I know in the old days and some other shows might do this, they wanted you to spec their show. We don’t want that. We look at original pilots. We want to make sure that whoever is writing has their own ideas. Has their own characters. Has their own wit and can write with surprise and, for lack of a better word, write fiercely. Nothing that’s just lying on the page. And I think it’s too easy if you were just trying to write our style, the style of our show. You already have all of those characters laid out for you, so you’re just riffing off of our characters.
And we found that the people who write the excellent spec pilots end up being our best writers.
Craig: Makes so much sense to me. I remember when I first started in the business. It was still the era of writing specs.
Derek: Write a Seinfeld. Remember?
Craig: It was write a Seinfeld. Exactly. And it seemed to me that all this would do is just engender an employee pool of people that were doing almost parodies of your show really. Because you’re not writing the show. You’re writing a copy of the show. It’s a strange thing. So it’s like a caricature. It’s just magnifying all of these things.
So, I think it’s actually great that you guys for original stuff. And then for writers that you want in the room, I mean, personality-wise? I mean, personality is obviously a huge thing for you guys, right?
Derek: Yeah. It’s funny. I think the more and more I get into it, the room part of it for me, personally, is overrated. We have a lot of smart people and a lot of people throwing out great ideas. But essentially the ones who can execute the ideas are the ones that stay around. And so having good ideas is definitely one part of it, but to me it’s a third. And the two-thirds is can they write. And I’d much rather have someone who was a bump on a log in the room who turns in a script that I realize I don’t have to work on.
Craig: Right. Yeah, see, that’s the misery of the showrunner is that you have these people in the room, you’re relying on them, but if they don’t do the job well, you have to do it.
Craig: And that’s just a disaster. OK. So, here’s a question from Huge 67. “What are the demographics of working screenwriters you know or know of? With a lot of fellowships specifically targeting diverse writers, have you seen a shift or predict seeing a bigger shift in the near future?”
Derek: Well, unfortunately in the time that I’ve been in the Guild, which is 17 years, I don’t think that there’s been much of a demographic shift. If it is, it’s been within two or three percentage points. But, I do know there are a lot of programs targeting diverse writers and a lot of programs targeting female writers, and specifically even that bilaterally, just based on gender. And so I know that it’s a problem within the Guild. And we’re certainly looking more and more for ways to diversify the staffs on the four shows that we have.
I’m hoping – hopeful – it’ll get better. It’s definitely – you definitely felt in the last three to four years a shaming that’s been going on.
Derek: Public shaming of the Guild and staffs. And I know there’s been a positive response toward it.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, in terms of the demographics of screenwriters I know, I do think there has been a notable increase in female writers. I’ve seen a notable increase. I’ve seen a notable increase just among people I’ve met, just offhand. And a notable increase of women being credited on films. So, that means that they’re being hired more frequently and writing more frequently.
So, I don’t know if the statistics yet reflect this, but it seems to me like there’s been an improvement in that area. That doesn’t mean that it’s where it should be. But, I just anecdotally I sense this. I need to look at the data to see if, in fact, that is true.
Craig: But, in terms of seeing more black writers and more Latino writers, and more Asian writers, I have not seen.
Craig: Now, because I’m a screenwriter, you know, I’m a lone wolf out there. You have a much better sense of it because you have staffs. So, it sounds like things are maybe slowly improving?
Derek: Yeah. And it’s funny, too, because when we ask for scripts when we know what are needs are going to be for the next year, we get scripts sent over from the agencies. And Michael and I and Matt Olmstead, who also is a showrunner on Chicago P.D., when we look at – we just look at the scripts with names on them. We don’t know – you know, you can usually tell what the gender is just by the name. But then once we’ve read the script, then we say, OK, these are the ten people we want to meet.
So, we’re not even thinking that way, but we do ask for the agencies to make sure you send us a diverse mix.
Craig: Would you ever consider something, I know some people do this, where they get scripts and they don’t see – they don’t even see the names?
Derek: Yeah, I’ve never thought about it, because I’ve never seen that done. I mean, we don’t ask for it that way.
Craig: Right. Well, that’s because you don’t care. [laughs]
Derek: [laughs] I just want the best.
Craig: I hear you, Derek. All right. Here’s a question from Redditer Bottom.
Derek: That’s the name? That’s like Shakespearean, right?
Derek: From Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Craig: I’m sure. I’m sure that’s what it means. Take that, Princeton. Baylor, woo! Here’s what Bottom wants to know. “I’ve listened for a while now. I notice that you and John are very good at having different POVs, even if you have opposing views. You’ll express them to each other clearly before dismissing John as a robot.”
Now, listen, I don’t dismiss him as a robot. I accurately label him as a robot. Bottom continues, “I direct and write, so I’m paid for my opinion. Sometimes I find myself in an awkward situation where my employer and I have opposing views, and sometimes I’m passionate about changes, or left dumbfounded about absolutely ridiculous suggestions. And it can be difficult to keep my cool. Do you guys have any suggestions, techniques that you use, either consciously or otherwise?”
Well, how do you keep your cool in these moments, Derek?
Derek: It’s experience. I think early on in my career, I felt the way you do, which is any change or suggestion that I didn’t feel merited a response from me would be met with haughty derision. But now I’ve just learned, one, good ideas can come from anywhere. And the best ideas should win. Two, you don’t have to get heated if your response is logically laid out. If you have the best response, it’s going to win. And if you don’t, sometimes you take one step backwards so you can take two steps forward.
I think you were the first one, Craig, to tell me that your first answer doesn’t need to be no. Your first answer should be yes, and then you take the time to figure out, OK, what’s the best way. Because maybe the way they suggested isn’t the best way.
Craig: Right. And so also when you say yes, even if you know the answer is no, saying yes gives you some time to then come back and say, all right, I’ve thought about it. It’s actually no, but here’s why.
Craig: The difference is being heard. You know, so I would say, Bottom, that the key here is to first ask yourself what is it that you’re trying to achieve. Because when I’m thinking about these things, what I’m trying to achieve ultimately is make the script better, make the project better. Get it made. Right? All these things I want to do. But really at the end, get a movie made that does well.
My emotions in any given moment have nothing to do with that. Nothing. My pride and being right has nothing to do with it. My anger, my frustration, has nothing to do with that. So, what I try and do is put those in second position. I have feelings, you know, and there are times when you get that sinking feeling, and you just have to sort of say, OK, I’ll deal with that after. I will curl up in a ball after. Right now I have to be clinical about this. And I have to be part of a team that’s working on a movie together.
And if it gets to a point where they’re making suggestions that would destroy what matters, then, you know, I trot out my favorite line, which is, “I just don’t know how to write that.”
Craig: Which usually stops them in their tracks. Because I think everybody giving notes underneath it has maybe the suspicion that they’re wrong. You know? Like they’re a little worried, like, am I right?
Craig: So, people want to be heard. So, concentrate on hearing them and being respectful in that way. Put your feelings second. And I think you’ll find that actually you can keep your cool easier if you recognize that losing your cool has nothing to do with what you actually want.
Derek: And I think the moment you hit on is that time in the notes where you just say, “OK, give me time to think about that.” They’re not always expecting you to have an answer right there in that meeting. You write down the note. You say, “OK, give me time to think about that.” Then, when you come back with what you have thought about, a lot of times you’ll have solved maybe one of their problems without even knowing that that’s what it was. Oh, it’s the note beneath the note, as they say.
And, also, they really do judge you based on not only how you do on the page, but do I want to spend a year with this person? And if I’m in meeting one and that person is already fighting me tooth and nail on the most minor suggestion, then I’m going say, “When can I get rid of this person?”
Derek: “At what point can I get rid of this person? How much do I need them?” Anyway, it’s a collaborative business. I’ve learned that over doing this for a long time. Every part of it is collaborative. Unless you’re going to animate a movie that you’re voicing the characters, and you’re drawing the illustrations, and you’ve written it, and you’re directing it, then you’re going to have to collaborate with everyone. And so, work on it.
Craig: It’s so true what you’re saying that, you know, making movies, making television shows, it’s very hard. It’s arduous. The last thing you want is to be going into battle with somebody that is just fighting you all the time. There’s something that screenwriters do, or television writers, that I think is really counterproductive, and I always urge them to not do it.
Everybody involved in the making of something is talking about making the thing. A television show or movie. The only person not talking about that, at times, is the writer who is talking about their script. That script is not the thing that people are making. They’re making a television show or movie. So, I always caution writers to not get into a place where you become a defender of a document, because whether they love the document or hate the document, or love you, or hate you, the document is not the end point.
Craig: So, everyone now shares a goal, except for you – that becomes, oh, well, yeah, OK.
Derek: [laughs] Right.
Craig: So, try and get in the same mind frame with everybody. Counterintuitively, by concentrating less on the document, you will end up being a better defender of the document. A more capable defender of the document.
Derek: Plus, I’ve found out that all these arguments you have in those first six months on a project, once the green light happens and you’re actually making it, all of those arguments go out the window. And now you’ve got a new thing that’s being made, which is the movie. And that argument you had six months ago about whether or not the guy would be eating a hot dog, that scene is gone. The hot dog thing that you argued for is long gone. And you will have time to put things back that you liked and all of those kind of things. But just get to that green light.
Craig: That’s right. You’re absolutely right. And this is something producers understand. This can be sometimes frustrating for writers when they feel like a producer is sort of going, oh yeah, we don’t have to do that. The producers just want to get to the place where they’re making the movie.
Craig: They’re smart enough to know, and then we’ll do what we kind of want. That’s the big secret. This is the thing that studios don’t want us to know, but of course we all know it. The second that the movie gets made, you know, green light happens, they have lost a massive amount of control.
Craig: Merely all control.
All right, so here’s a question for you, Derek. Derek, this is from Woodward or Bernstein.
Derek: This is Craig addresses me any time, by the way. If he calls me on the phone, “Derek! Derek!”
Craig: Derek! “I’d love to hear how Derek balances the demands of a career as a novelist,” oh boy, here we go.
Derek: Oh god.
Craig: “Balances the demands of a career as a novelist with those of a screen/TV writer, and especially if he has any tricks for how to easily switch between projects and mediums if he has to work on both a script and book during the same time period. I ask this as someone who has a first draft script assignment due in just a few days, and I am also handling notes from my book agent before she sends my manuscript to editors. Thanks.”
Derek: Great question. Yes, I’ve written five books while I’ve been doing this, and I have a sixth one that’s due in March, so I’m in the middle of that. As we speak, I don’t know how other people do it. I get up early in the mornings, before my kids get up. I get up at five in the morning. And I work for an hour and a half on writing a book. And then when that hour and a half is done, I’m done with it for the day. It’s the only way I can do it. I don’t know how other people do it.
Because then my kids get up, I make them breakfast, I get them off to school. Then I come in and I do my job that I’m supposed to do, this show-running on Chicago Fire. And I would never have somebody walking into my office and see me working on a book while I’m supposed to be working on the show.
That’s the only way I do it. I compartmentalize it. I’ve never had a problem flipping back and forth between projects, and as a TV writer, especially if you get in a position where you’re show-running, you will be flipping back and forth between episodes where something that happened in the past – you’re now in the future, then you got to go back to the past. And you have to write new scenes. And so that’s a skill that you should really try to master.
I mean, Craig, I know you’ve worked on multiple screenplays at the same time in totally different genres.
Craig: Yes. Yes. The only way that I’ve been able to do it is to make sure that they’re at different stages. So, every project has a lifespan. You begin breaking a story, you write a script, then there’s revisions of the script. Those are three different things. I can’t break two stories at the same time.
Craig: I can’t write two first drafts at the same time. I can write a first draft and then do revisions on something, or break a story and write a first draft. But, it’s hard. Honestly, it’s hard. I don’t like doing it and I feel like, I don’t know, sometimes I feel stupid, like I’m probably costing myself opportunities and things by saying I’m too busy and I can’t, but then I think, no, actually the reason that you get opportunities is that you actually concentrate on the jobs you have.
Derek: And you do a great job on them.
Craig: You try to–
Derek: If you spread yourself too thin, then you won’t be, yeah.
Craig: At that point, and we know writers who kind of have famously done this. You know, they went bananas and took every job. And then suddenly they failed at every job. How could you not? I panic if I feel like I don’t have enough time to do a good job. I literally start to panic.
Craig: All right. Well, hopefully that helps you out, Woodward or Bernstein. Here’s a question more for me, but it’s for you as well. This is from Austin B, otherwise known as Time Machine 1994. “I’m curious on your thoughts on a few things, of which could be summed up in one answer.” That is an amazing sentence.
Derek: I want your thoughts on a thing–?
Craig: I’m curious your on thoughts on a few things of which could be summed up in one answer.
Derek: That might be a robot that wrote that.
Craig: [laughs] Maybe. But the rest of it sounds right. “I’ve heard before on the podcast that you, Craig, tend to look down on screenwriting pitch festivals. Have you changed your opinion on them? As a screenwriter from Florida, it’s hard to rub shoulders to get the deal, so pitch festivals seem like a really great way to get work out there. And if nothing, just to get practice at pitching and sharing your idea with strangers. Are pitch festivals a hopeless endeavor? A business to take advantage of writers? Or can there be a differentiation between pitch festivals that offer real growth, versus ones looking to make a quick buck? What would you like to see at a pitch festival?”
All right, well that’s a good question. I generally think that in fact they are a hopeless endeavor and also a business to take advantage of writers. And the reason why is precisely for what you just said, Austin. You’re a screenwriter from a Florida. It’s hard to rub shoulders to get the deal, so pitch festivals seem like a really great way to get work out there. The keyword is SEEM. They are aware that they seem that way. That’s why they exist.
I do not know of many success stories that come out of these things, or any success stories, but regardless, I always feel like if you had something that was worthy of being purchased by reputable people, it would have been purchased anyway one way or the other. I think pitch festivals by and large are kind of hokum and bunk. And, also, that’s not really how our business works. I mean, I judged the pitch contest at the Austin Film Festival, you know, the screenwriting conference this year. And it struck me that these people were mastering an art that simply doesn’t exist in Hollywood. There is no pitch something in a minute and a half art.
People really don’t pitch that much stuff like that anywhere anyway. That’s more like what movies tell you Hollywood is like. It’s actually not like that. There are much more substantive, lengthy discussions involved than these kind of rat-a-tat advertising sales-type pitches.
Derek, what’s your feeling about all this?
Derek: I couldn’t agree more. It feels like that was something that was done in the ‘90s and nobody does it anymore. I mean, if you look at what the studios make, they’re not making movies off of original pitches. And they’re certainly not going to hire you unless they know you can execute that idea.
Craig: Right. I’m with you on this. I just feel like it’s a little bit of a blind alley. And they are taking advantage of the fact that you don’t have a lot of opportunities, so they’re dressing themselves up as one. So, I would still say, yeah, be very, very cautious about spending money on these things.
Derek: Do you know I’ve never been to one. Even at the Austin Film Festival, I never sat in on those. I don’t even know what it is. It sounds like you’re doing a standup comic routine for a minute thirty.
Craig: Almost. So I judged the final round of it with Lindsay Doran and they get a minute or something and they come up, and it is a very practiced rat-a-tat patter. And it’s at this packed bar.
Derek: So it’s like log lines? They’re giving you basically?
Craig: It’s like, Jim is da-da-da, and blah, blah, blah. And the thing is some of them are really good, but they’re really good as a kind of strange kind of haiku that isn’t necessarily, I mean, ultimately you would say, oh OK, that’s a really interesting story. You seem like a funny, interesting person. I would read five or ten pages and see if it were any good.
Craig: But the point is, we live in a time now where you can just put your script online. You can write a synopsis. It’s there. I don’t know.
Derek: And it seems like buying pitches is for people who have already sold scripts. Like they know that you can execute, so then they’re apt to hear your pitch, as opposed to I’m just going to buy your idea and hope you’re a good writer.
Craig: That’s right. So, if I say, look, I have an idea. This is what it is. I’ll just have a casual conversation about that. But, it’s not, yeah, you’re right. It’s not like studios are saying, whereas they did in the ‘90s, “Oh sure, yeah, I’ll have a meeting with so and so because they have an idea to pitch.” That just doesn’t really work that way anymore.
I think that the benefit of crafting these pitches is just maybe forcing you to think about your story in a structured way.
Derek: And public speaking, nothing is wrong with trying to be better at public speaking. It will help you in life.
Craig: I think that’s absolutely true. All right, here’s a question from Semi-Fake. “What questions should you ask when choosing an entertainment attorney?” And his second question, or her second question is, “What’s your favorite guilty pleasure movie?” Derek, questions to ask when choosing an entertainment attorney?
Derek: It’s funny, I was so young, and I’ve had the same one for 17 years, that I didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t even know what to ask. I barely knew what Hollywood was, so I’m the wrong person to ask. But I feel like they should be telling you about themselves and what they’ve done and who their clients are. And so you don’t need to be asking questions. You should just know by who they’ve worked with whether or not they’re legit. That’s how I feel.
Craig: I agree. Same situation for me. I’ve had the same attorney for 23 years now, or 22. And, yeah, the question I asked was what can I do to thank you.
Craig: You know, I mean, and also what questions can you ask? Like how good are you at law? I guess do you have a degree? I mean, I don’t know.
Derek: Who are your other clients? That’s what I would ask.
Craig: Sure. But then they’re like, what do you care? You’re right. I mean, look, the thing about an entertainment attorney is if they do a good job, you keep them. And if they don’t do a good job, you change.
Craig: It’s as simple as that. Now, what is your favorite guilty pleasure movie?
Derek: Oh, do I have to feel guilty about them?
Derek: I love Adam Sandler movies. And I have since they started coming out. Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison and Water Boy. And it’s great because my kids are now 11 and 10 and so I’m getting to show them, again. And they hold up. My kids are dying laughing at the same stuff I was laughing at 15 years ago.
Craig: That’s a good one. Favorite guilty pleasures. See, I would call those non-guilty pleasure movies.
Derek: Yeah, I don’t feel guilty about it.
Craig: I will watch Battlefield Earth if it’s on TV. I will watch it. I will watch it every damn time. Because it’s incoherent, but it’s a guilty pleasure. It’s just kind of remarkable in its badness. And so I’ll just watch it. I don’t know.
Derek: It’s good bad, versus just painful. Painful bad.
Craig: It kind of is good bad.
Craig: All right, we’ll do a couple more.
Derek: Scientologists everywhere are writing in to the hotline. Do you guys have a hotline for very serious urgent questions from podcast listeners?
Craig: We have Twitter?
Derek: No, no, no, but I mean, is there a line that rings?
Craig: Oh, like a red phone?
Derek: That you pick up and they say, “Craig, how do I break into the business?”
Craig: Yes there is. [laughs] All right, here’s a question for Derek. This is from Ethan. “I was wondering how many drafts of a script you will go through before you are satisfied with the result? Have you ever found yourself doing too many drafts and just had to say enough is enough?”
Derek: Well, not the drafts that we write for ourselves. Michael and I send scripts back and forth. We typically do two to three drafts before we’re ready for somebody else to look at it. After that, you know, if it’s a manager who looks at it, or your representatives, or you’re ready to give it to a producer and you say, “Will you give this a quick read,” kind of thing. And then it’s on to notes.
But typically two or three drafts. But I’m not one of those who is doing 15 different versions of what… – If it’s not working at that point, that’s probably not the best way to spend your time.
Craig: Yeah. I think probably because I’m in this routine of writing screenplays for studios, I don’t really have the luxury of–
Craig: You know, now, interestingly when I worked this script with Lindsay Doran, I wasn’t really doing drafts as much as pages. So there was no sense of a draft thing. And we would just rework, rework, rework.
Derek: Right. But you were also being paid, right? That was an assignment?
Craig: Yeah. I was being paid.
Derek: So it’s not a spec situation.
Derek: I mean, when you’re on a movie, I think on Wanted we probably had 75 drafts before, you know, as we were shooting.
Craig: Geez Louise.
Derek: Yeah, I mean, like you said, it would be a scene here. And that constitutes a new draft.
Craig: Oh, well sure. Yeah.
Derek: You know, at that point you’re on all services, so you’re just doing whatever is needed that day.
Craig: Right. It’s a tricky thing to know when it’s done. You know? I mean, sometimes, you just have to look out for, I think Ethan, the syndrome of being afraid to show it, which can sometimes lead you to think, oh, I’ll just keep rewriting this forever. And then I don’t have to face the music.
Derek: The other big thing is that you get bored with your own idea. So, the scene that you wrote that when somebody read it they were shocked, surprised, whatever, well, on draft 10 they’re not surprised anymore, and all of a sudden that becomes vulnerable. And you have to tell yourself and your producer, “Remember how you felt when you first read that? That still holds.” I’m sure that’s even more for jokes.
Craig: Oh yeah. For sure. Yeah, jokes, exactly.
Derek: People who are dying laughing on the first draft, now they’ve read it 40 times and they’re like, “Don’t you think we need a punch up here on?” That would be hard.
Craig: Yeah, it is unfortunate, as some of stop writing jokes now.
All right, let’s go for – we have time for a couple more. Here’s kind of an interesting little specific craft question. This is from Flirsee. “How wary or aware should you be as a script writer…“ I love it when people call it script writers.
Derek: I like script writer. I’m a script writer. It sounds more British.
Craig: Well, and it’s also accurate.
Derek: I’m a script writer.
Craig: I’m a script writer. Script writer! “How wary or aware should you be as a script writer for weird repetitions in dialogue? For example, a line like, ‘Well, that went well,’ really bothers me because of the repetition. And I spend time looking for alternate words for either ‘well.’ Is this effort worth it? Or am I wasting time I could be spending elsewhere?
Derek: Oh, no, it’s worth it. I can tell you, we go through the scripts on our shows and if you see the same word three times, even like alternate character’s dialogue, I just think – it hits the ear wrong. And so, you know, if somebody says, “Really?” And then the next character says, “Really.” And the next character says, “Really,” you circle that. And you give it back to the writer. Find something else there. And I know you’re using “well” and “well” differently, but even that I would be like, it would hit the ear wrong.
Craig: Absolutely. I think this is probably the best sign that you’re a writer, Flirsee. Because that’s exactly the kind of thing we’re constantly looking for. And if you listen to our podcast and you hear some of the Three Page Challenges we do, we call people out on that all the time. Repetitions of words feel like glitches in the Matrix. It’s supposed to seem effortless and smooth. And it’s not effortless and smooth if you hear those repetitions. It’s just, yeah, your ear snags on it.
Derek: This sounds so obvious, but you should read your scripts out loud to someone. Read it to your wife, or your girlfriend, or your husband, or your mom and dad. Because you will find yourself as you’re saying words that you wrote out loud that looked so good on the page, and then they just make your mouth move in weird directions. Make you mealy-mouthed is what I was trying to say. Read your scripts out loud.
Craig: Absolutely. We recommend this all the time. Here is an interesting one. “My question is this,” from Croon 23. “Do you find screenwriters succeed making a living purely as writers, or do they often meld into directing, producing, and other aspects of film? Is this any more beneficial to getting your work made?”
Derek: The writers I know, most of them make their living just as screenwriters. But, what’s your passion? Do you want to direct? If you want to direct, and write and direct, then chase that. But if you’re just doing it because you think, oh well, I could do that, too, then you’re not going to be successful.
Craig: I agree. I don’t think there’s much value in asking a question like is this any more beneficial to getting your work made. It’s not beneficial if you’re not supposed to be directing your own work.
You know, look, I prefer to have somebody that is a better director than I am direct the things I write. I like that. So, you know, Mark Webb is going to be directing a movie that I wrote. He’s a better director than I am.
Craig: By far. This is good news for me. Yeah, most of the screenwriters I know make their living purely as writers. A bunch of them as they get older will start to direct. Because, you know, the other thing about directing movies is you go away for a while. So, when you’re younger, you have younger kids. They’re in school still. It’s a little bit harder. But as you grow up, you know, and you grow older, then the opportunity maybe is a little more clear to direct. And there are some that are producers, too. But, yeah, there’s plenty of people that are–
Derek: But nobody is doing it calculatedly of career longevity. Yeah, if you don’t have a passion for doing the other things, then don’t do them.
Craig: I’m with you on that one. All right, let’s ask one last question here. “What’s the one thing you told yourself when you were just starting out that kept you motivated, even in the toughest of times?”
Derek: Let me think about that one. Do you have an answer?
Craig: No, because I didn’t tell myself anything. I was mostly just scared. It wasn’t like a mantra that I repeated. It was just my, “Uh…ugh.” That was it. That’s what I told myself. “Uh…ugh.”
Derek: [laughs] I’m trying to think. I mean, my thing is don’t be so hard on yourself. I think people try to be – they take every little slight – you have to have thick skin. I can’t say this enough. This business requires the thickest skin imaginable. The level of Internet trolling that goes on is nothing compared to just one note session on your script. And if you’re – you just have to be thick-skinned about your work and, I don’t know how else to say it.
Craig: Yeah. I think you said it beautifully. God, I wish I had something inspiring to say there. But the truth is, when I was first starting and I was trying to get going, I was mostly just scared. And panicky and nervous. And ambitious. And so I guess as I was telling myself was, “Mm…go. Work.”
Derek: Yes, work hard.
Craig: Work hard.
Derek: I know Michael and I were always – we were definitely always trying to do the unexpected. We were trying to zig when somebody would zag. We weren’t chasing what was the next thing that was going to be popular. You know, we weren’t trying to write a vampire movie because vampires were popular. We just tried to do things that interested us and we liked. And then always trying to surprise the reader. And then hopefully the director. And then hopefully the audience.
Craig: And now you have 20,000 shows on television.
Craig: Truly amazing.
Derek: We did just cross the – now Michael and I have produced over 200 hours of television.
Craig: Damn. That’s amazing.
Derek: It’s crazy.
Craig: You guys are like, you’re going to be in museums, right? In the Museum of Television and Broadcasting?
Derek: I don’t know.
Craig: Don’t you get like some kind of Hall of Fame thing?
Derek: I don’t think so.
Craig: A plaque?
Derek: No, I don’t think so.
Derek: No. I don’t think we’re going to get–
Craig: Do you get an island?
Derek: That would be…no. We were up at the Writers Guild doing that gambling, or what was that night? That poker night.
Craig: That was for the Veterans Program.
Derek: That was for the Veterans Program. We were doing this poker night. And they have a script library, which I just hadn’t been on that floor of the Writers Guild. I don’t spend a ton of time up there.
Craig: It’s the Foundation Library.
Derek: But I saw this library of all these scripts. And I’m looking, you know, and it’s in alphabetical order. And then I see the Chicago Fire pilot. And I look over and I see the Chicago P.D. pilot. And then I saw Wanted and 3:10 to Yuma. I was like, I am somewhere! I’m at least in the Writers Guild Library.
Craig: You’re in the Writers Guild Library. It’s huge.
Derek: [laughs] It’s huge.
Craig: That’s huge. Whenever, I don’t know why this is, but I’ll get these emails from the Motion Picture Academy saying, “We would love a copy of your screenplay for our library.” Like we would love a copy of Identity Thief for the Academy Library. And I’m like, oh OK, really?
Craig: All right.
Craig: All right. Did you see it? You want it for the Academy? OK. Anyway, oh, you want Scary Movie 4 in the Academy? OK.
Derek: Somebody is going to study this.
Craig: They’re completionists. You know, what can I say?
All right, well, that was an excellent show. Normally, we do a One Cool Thing, but you know, I’m always like trying to avoid the One Cool Thing.
Derek: Oh, OK. Well, you’re putting me on the spot.
Craig: No, no, no. I’m saying we don’t have to do it.
Derek: Don’t do it. OK. This microphone is cool.
Craig: This microphone is cool. Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. And our outro this week comes from Bleak Gilliam. I feel like–
Derek: These are great names.
Craig: Like none of those names are real.
Derek: I want to steal some of these names.
Craig: Well, Godwin and Matthew are definitely real. But Bleak Gilliam. Amazing. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also a place where you can send longer questions. For shorter questions on Twitter, I am @clmazin. And John is @johnaugust.
We are on Facebook, apparently, according to John. Search for Scriptnotes podcast. You can find us on iTunes at Scriptnotes. Just search for Scriptnotes. And while you’re there, leave us a comment. And, Derek, do you know why people should leave us a comment?
Craig: John loves comments. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you will find transcripts. We try and get them up about four days after the episode airs. You can find all of the back episodes of the show at Scriptnotes.net. And also on the Scriptnotes USB drive at store.johnaugust.com.
That’s where John steals money from me, Derek.
Craig: How much money do you think he’s making on this show?
Derek: How much money do I think John August steals from you? Well, here’s the way – I look at the raw numbers, OK. You guys have about 400,000 regular Scriptnotes listeners.
Craig: I don’t think that’s accurate.
Derek: Yeah. 400,000. Dude, we’re in a post-fact America.
Craig: Oh, right. Well, make it higher.
Derek: 400,000 each week. For a total of about 8 billion a year users. Now, if you consider maybe 10% of those buy t-shirts.
Craig: Of course.
Derek: What’s 10% of 8 billion?
Craig: Derek went to Baylor University. That’s Baylor University.
Derek: I don’t know math.
Craig: In Texas. What’s 10% of 8 billion? Really?
Derek: 800 million? I don’t know.
Craig: Very good, Derek. You just move the decimal. [laughs] Well, this was the best ending of the show of all time. We’re keeping all of that in there.
Derek: How much do agents make?
Craig: [laughs] This is why Derek’s agent is taking so much of his money. Derek, 10% is all of it. Thank you very much, Derek. You were a terrific guest. Thank you to all the people who wrote in questions and all of the folks on the Reddit Screenwriting Sub-Reddit that asked questions. We hope we gave you good answers. And we will be back next week with Mr. John August.
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