John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 292 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the program, we’ll be answering listener questions about credits and casting, pilots, and professional experience. But first, Craig, we have some follow up.
Craig: Let’s do it. Let’s follow up.
John: So the biggest announcement in last week’s episode was about the live show and we have news about the live show.
Craig: Yeah. So maybe people were wondering, hey, when will the tickets go on sale so that I could see Craig talk to Rian Johnson. And the answer is not yet because we have been postponed, not indefinitely. The folks that are running the charity asked for a little more time because they’re trying to find the right venue. So, I think probably instead of at the end of this month, which is what we were talking about, we’re looking more towards the end of next month. So, calm down, take a deep breath. We promise we will give you plenty of lead time to purchase tickets once we know where it will be.
John: Because we do have people who like fly in from across the country to do this. So I hope no one actually bought the tickets for that time, but if you did buy tickets to come at the end of March, maybe come anyway. I mean, if you look around Los Angeles carefully enough you’re likely to find Rian Johnson somewhere. He’s got to be here somewhere, right?
Craig: Well, or people that look like Rian Johnson, and there are so many.
John: That’s really true.
Craig: There are so many.
John: A baby-faced genius is what you’re looking for. That’s Rian Johnson.
Craig: Baby-faced blond genius with circular glasses. Basically, you remember Cousin Oliver from The Brady Bunch?
John: Oh, absolutely. Of course.
Craig: Cousin Oliver, age him up, stick the glasses on. You got it.
John: Yeah. Rian Johnson ruined The Brady Bunch but he saved cinema. So, it balances out.
Craig: You know, to defend Oliver, The Brady Bunch ruined The Brady Bunch. And I say that as a Brady Bunch fan and aficionado. But Oliver didn’t make it worse.
John: I apologize to Cousin Oliver, because of course he did not ruin it. It was just a late season addition. It was the Pucci of the show.
Craig: That’s right.
John: And you can’t really blame Pucci. It was just a bad addition.
Craig: Yeah. Pucci died on his way home to his own – I also have to apologize. Because last week during our Three Page Challenge I made an error, a grammatical error, which as you know hurts me so. But important to correct these things. You know, because we live in a time when our leaders make it clear that when you mess up, you should fess up, right?
John: Yep. Completely.
Craig: Yeah. That’s obviously what’s going on. So, a gentlemen named Richard Komen called me out on Twitter and he was correct when he said that I was wrong to say that nervously cadenced should take a hyphen. This was in Carne, I believe, was the Three Page Challenge that we were reading last week. And he said, no, it shouldn’t take a hyphen. It’s an adverb modifying a noun. That’s that. And I checked. So I checked, because I was like, hmm, that does sound compellingly true.
And here’s what I found. The Chicago Manual of Style, which is a pretty good reference, says you should only hyphenate combinations like that if the adverb doesn’t end in LY. Sorry, it’s adverb/adjective, so for instance much-needed takes a hyphen, but nervously cadenced does not. So, in the adverb/adjective combo, if the adverb doesn’t end in LY, you stick a hyphen in there. Otherwise, you don’t. I was wrong. I apologize Thank you, Richard. You were right.
John: I want to just open this up a little bit. So Chicago Manual of Style is a good reference source for writers looking for how do I actually get this thing on paper and make it make sense. But Chicago Manual of Style is not the end all/be all of everything. And so I believe you will find other references or other authors, other works that do put the hyphen in there. So I don’t think you were necessarily wrong to suggest that a hyphen could be put there. It’s all style and usage. Again, it’s like there are no hard fast rules here.
So the Chicago Manual of Style does not call for a hyphen there. I would not be upset to have a hyphen there. I can see sort of why your instinct was to put the hyphen there. I don’t know. And the difference between an LY adverb and an adverb that doesn’t have the LY is really a very arbitrary distinction. Would you agree?
Craig: Well, so much of grammar is arbitrary. And I know that ultimately clarity prevails. But in this case, well, at the very least I was wrong to say that it was wrong to not have it. So, yeah, sure, if you say, well, it’s my preference. Nobody, just to be clear about this, because people do get really wound up about this stuff when they talk to ding-a-lings and charlatans and frauds about how to write screenplays that no one is going to grade your screenplay like a test paper in tenth grade English.
John: No, not at all.
Craig: So, clarity should rule the day. But I was wrong to suggest that it ought to be that way. If anything, it probably shouldn’t. But, yeah, I agree with you. If you want to throw a hyphen in there for funsies, because you feel like it makes it read better, throw it in.
John: I have a hunch that if people went through all my scripts and looked for those situations where I was doing this, I probably was putting the hyphen in there and I suspect you were, too.
Craig: Well, it was clearly my instinct. Yeah. So I’m sure I did. And you know what? John, it hasn’t slowed us down, has it?
John: No. Somehow we’ve been successful despite our over-hyphenation.
Craig: So successful.
John: Another thing we sort of referenced but is not actually available in the world from last week’s episode, so Roman Mittermayr is a guy who has written I think outros for us. He’s also a coder. He’s done some great things called FRUJI, but he also created this app for Amazon’s Echo. So, I don’t have Echo because they don’t work here in Paris. Craig, you don’t have an Echo, I believe. Is that correct?
Craig: No, I’m a little – I don’t like it. [laughs] By the way, let me just say, I don’t – my problem with the Amazon Echo and all the rest of it isn’t that I’m worried about surveillance, although I am kind of excited about this new crop of crimes that are being solved by Amazon Echoes. But that aside, my problem is I just hate talking to the Internet. I feel like such an idiot to say, “Hey Siri, Hey Alexa.” I just feel so dumb. I feel dumb.
John: Yep. So what you did just did there just annoyed a bunch of people because they were driving in their car or they’re at their house and you now activated a thing. So, we’re going to let that one pass. But we’re not going to do that anymore. So any future instances where we accidentally do it, we’ll have Matthew bleep those out.
So, I end up using Siri on my phone a lot for certain things. I use it for setting timers. I use it for starting exercise on my watch. I find it really good for that. It’s now on my computer. I don’t use it at all. So, I’m not a person who is used to being in my house and sort of using it for things, but I’m used to using it on the go or like when I’m in my car.
But Roman most crucially has built a skill for Amazon’s Echo. So, you can now say, “Lady in a Can, enable Scriptnotes.” So, Lady in a Can is the name of the – it’s the ALEXA word. I’m just saying Lady in a Can so you don’t actually, it doesn’t trip it on your–
Craig: Why don’t you just say Aloxa?
John: Oh yeah, just mispronounce it. So, Aloxa, Enable Scriptnotes. If you do that, it will install the skill. And then you can say, “Aloxa, ask Scriptnotes for latest episode,” and we will start playing.
Craig: Yeah. I’m never going to do that. I’m just being real clear.
John: You’re never going to do that, but you know what? People with this Lady in the Can, they might do it.
Craig: Maybe can we call her Malexa? What about Malexa? Does that trigger it?
John: That sounds a little evil.
John: But, yeah, it’s so interesting how you have to name these characters and make them seem like they’re helpful.
John: So Alexa I think is always female, but Siri is actually male in certain markets. And so I think in the UK Siri is default male.
Craig: My son has rigged his Siri to be an Australian man. [laughs]
Craig: I don’t know why. Every time. And by the way, kids, I will say, well–
John: They love it.
Craig: I’m going off of my sample size here of one teenager, because my daughter is not yet a teenager, but my son and his friends, they talk to their phones all the time. It’s terrifying.
John: I mean, and dictation on the phone has gotten so much better that I will sometimes find myself starting to type and realize like why am I typing? This is going to be so much faster if I dictate it.
Craig: I love typing.
John: And 80% of the time that dictation works great.
Craig: I love it. I love typing.
John: You love typing on your phone?
Craig: I do. I love it. I just love typing in general. I feel like–
John: I hate typing with my thumbs.
Craig: Really? I’ve trained my mind to think through typing. I mean, right now I’m not typing, so I can speak. But when it comes to composing something intentionally, my fingers just start to go. The neural pathways have been wired so directly to the manual activity of typing that I just have to do it.
John: That’s absolutely true when I’m at a real keyboard, but on the phone it just does not work the same way. And so a lot of times I’ll be so far ahead of where my thumbs are at with my thoughts that speaking aloud is a much better case.
Craig: I want to write that song, by the way. I’m so far ahead of where my thumbs are at.
John: [laughs] It could be a song about typing or about hitchhiking.
Craig: Well, it just sounds like a great show tune. It’s an 11 o’clocker. You know? It’s a big song.
John: It is.
Craig: It’s like you finally realized I’m so far ahead of where my thumbs are at.
John: I don’t think it’s an 11 o’clock number, Craig. I think it could be an I Want song in a certain way, about the vision you have.
Craig: No, I don’t think so.
John: Or it could be an end of the first act. [sings] I’m so far ahead of where my thumbs are at.
Craig: See, I think it’s more like [sings] I’m so far ahead of where my thumbs are. Anyway, we’ve lost listeners. We’re losing listeners in droves.
John: So many listeners. Who has two thumbs and no listeners? This guy.
Craig: Segue Man.
John: Let’s get to our questions this week. We have a whole bunch of questions. We’ll try to speed round some of them. Other ones we’ll dig in deep. Owen writes in to ask, “How long should it take your agent to read your script?”
Craig: Exactly 3.7 days. Next question.
John: I say a week. And if you haven’t heard back in a week, then you should ask, “Hey what’s up?” Because your agent should read within a week. And a week needs to include a weekend, because basically no one reads anything except over the weekend, which because Hollywood is messed up.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, that’s about right. Basically the first weekend they have available. They’re your agent. They should read it. If you are – look, you got to know your place in the world. If you’re the lowest man on their totem pole and you’re a brand new client and you’re just starting, it may take them two weekends. And that’s fair. I mean, the larger question is who cares what your agent thinks about your script. But I know it matters. I know it matters because they’re the ones that have to go and sell it and they have to understand it.
But as I say to my agents all the time, “Yeah, you can read it if you want to.”
John: Let’s pause here for a second, because it is interesting like how much more important it was for our agents to read our scripts when we were new. And now it’s like it’s good that they read them, because that way they can have meaningful discussion with people about next steps on things. But like it’s actually not that important that they read them. And so [Cramer] calls, like, “Hey, do I need to read this?” Not really. It’s sort of the thing you read before. It’s fine.
Craig: Sometimes my guys will be like, “Can we read this?” Yeah, if you – oh, yeah, of course. It’s not like you can’t read it. But it is true, at some point their purpose really does shift out of advocacy for you and into more of they’re mediative. You know, they’re about getting you a deal and then handling problems along the way as they might crop up. But they’re not really advocating for you specifically about things as a writer.
They never stop being advocative for talent, you know. I mean, I hate that word, because writers are talented, too. But we’re called literary and then on the other side is talent. So actors, they’re constantly advocating for actors. That never stops.
John: Yeah. Because they’re trying to make sure the actor is positioned properly for this kind of role. Or you might not have thought of her for this, but she would actually be great as that.
John: And because writers like ultimately people can read us. They can see the movies we’ve done. They can talk to the people we’ve worked with. It’s not the same kind of thing. And so once you are established, there’s less of that need. So, there may be a reason why let’s say you’re a writer who has been writing low budget thrillers and now you’re trying to segue into something different, then yes they need to be able to read you and sort of position you differently. But that’s kind of the exception. That’s not really–
Craig: That’s right.
John: Where most people are at.
Craig: Yeah. And by the way, it’s the same with directors, too. They advocate for directors. I got a call the other day from an agent saying, “Hey, for this thing you’re doing, have you considered my client blah-blah-blah to direct?” And they do that because directors and actors both are to some extent waiting for script material. Whereas we’re not, because we’re writing it. But you’re right. When you’re trying to break out of a mold, and particularly when there is an open assignment, your agent can lobby for you and make a case. And in that sense it’s good that they know what you’ve written.
But that was a very long answer. Owen, oh, a week or two. How about that?
John: That sounds good.
Craig: All right. We have Thomas writing in who says, “On the poster for Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford has two credits. Screenplay by Tom Ford and Directed by Tom Ford. I realize the writer on a movie gets a credit on the poster in the same font size and weight of the director, but did they have to be separate for any reason if it’s the same person? For instance, on There Will Be Blood, the credit is Written for the Screen and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Both appear to be screenplay credit.” I’m not really sure what they mean by that.
“Or, does Tom Ford just like seeing his name on things over and over?” John, do you have guesses about this?
John: I believe the answer to the question is that if you have the director’s name on the poster in a certain size, you have to have the writer’s name on. You can say Written and Directed by, but the challenge with Tom Ford’s movie is that it is based on preexisting material, so therefore he cannot have Written and Directed by because Written by includes both story and screenplay. So, it has to say Screenplay by Tom Ford. There can be an exception for Written for the Screen. And so we’ve seen it here in Paul Thomas Anderson’s credit. I’ve seen it also for the Coen Brothers.
So, I believe his credit could have read Written for the Screen and Directed by Tom Ford. Is that your understanding?
Craig: Not sure about that last one. I have to check on that. Written for the Screen and Directed by may refer to somebody who has gotten screen story and screenplay credit. Or that may just be an alternate way of saying Written and Directed by. I have to check on that. But I think you’re absolutely correct though that when you say Screenplay by Tom Ford and Directed by Tom Ford, this is not Tom Ford’s choice. It’s because he does not qualify for a Written by credit.
Unless maybe Written for the Screen does qualify as screenplay and maybe he could. I don’t know. I have to check into this. The truth is I’m not sure.
John: So, I was pulling up this Written for the Screen and Directed by Coen Brothers, which I think was off of True Grit, which was a remake, so therefore they wouldn’t have gotten story credit, but they could have gotten screenplay credit. So that’s my assumption for why that and for Paul Thomas Anderson it made sense. I agree it looks just weird. And so you would love to be able to combine things in ways that are nicer, but it’s here because the WGA is trying to protect writers from getting knocked off the poster.
And the WGA is very particular about what things you can combine. So, you can combine written and directed. You can’t combine written and produced. You’re not allowed to sort of stick those guys together. So I was a writer and a producer on Go, so we asked if it could say Written and Produced by John August. You cannot. Written by has to be its own thing.
Craig: Yes, you definitely can’t combine producing credits with that. So, we’ll double check with our intrepid credit staff and I will get the firm answer on this one.
John: If you’d like to know more about sort of the politics of credits, not sort of the business of credits, but sort of like why directors and credits are such a complicated thing, I’ll put a link in the show notes to this Vanity Fair article by Margaret Heindenry, where she talks through the history of A Film By or A Blank Film, and sort of how complicated it has been in Hollywood and sort of the arguments between the DGA, representing the directors, and WGA for the writers. And the mess it has become.
So, that’s another sort of in depth look at sort of where we’re at in terms of possessory credits for filmmakers on their movies.
Craig: What a dumb – I hate that credit.
John: Yeah. All right, let’s try Sue in the UK’s question. She writes, “I’m reasonably clear about how writing credits for features are worked out, but what if a producer buys a feature spec and then develops it as a TV show instead? What credit would the original writer be entitled to in that scenario? If they’re not involved in writing the TV show, might they get some sort of producer or creative consultant credit instead?”
Craig, what’s your instinct here?
Craig: If they develop it as a TV show, and I guess what Sue is saying is that the person writing it for television is somebody different. So, Sue, let’s say they buy Sue’s feature spec, and then they just turn around and hire somebody else and say, “Start writing a pilot that is based on this.” I think that’s kind of what she’s getting at, right?
Craig: So, a couple things. First, the question is, because Sue is in the UK, was the spec script written under the WGA? If it wasn’t, then we have an easy answer: it becomes source material. Just like a novel or anything. And in fact I don’t think you’re really guaranteed much of anything at all in this circumstance.
But if it was done under the WGA, and then the next person goes and turns it into a television script, I mean, first of all usually when you sell feature scripts there is a deal that says that you get the first shot at writing a television adaptation. But I don’t know. That’s a tricky one, too.
John: So, I do know. And I know that the answer is complicated. So, I don’t want to reveal which projects are involved here, but there are recent shows that have been based on films. Sometimes produced films or sometimes not produced films. And this issue of whether the underlying script was literary material, that it’s an adaptation from that, or that it was actually sort of WGA material, that it was actually script material became a very important issue in arbitration.
So, ultimately arbitration did happen. And there had to be sort of pre-hearings. It becomes quite complicated.
So, I can talk through sort of my own experience. If you look at Charlie’s Angels, so Charlie’s Angels is based on a TV show. But at the time I came onboard to write Charlie’s Angels, it was an adaptation of this underlying piece of property called Charlie’s Angels. And so therefore the original writers were credited as like having created Charlie’s Angels, but they were not credited – they weren’t part of the overall arbitration process. It wasn’t like they had screenplay material in the final thing. Other properties along the way, and more recently, they have been found to be actually part of the chain of title that led up to the script and therefore have gotten some WGA credit, which is a thing that can happen.
Craig: You know what I like about these two questions is that they’re the Writers Guild equivalent of Stump the Ump. Have you ever – yeah, why I am asking you if you’ve read a Stump the Ump?
John: I know Stump the Ump.
Craig: OK. So, I mean, there was like a book, I remember as a kid where they would say, OK, here’s the situation. What would the ump, what would you say if you were the umpire? And they’re really complicated. These are like a couple of those. These are definitely a couple of those. They’re tricky. And they depend. So, sorry, ish questions.
But you know what? I’m going to run both of these by credits staff to get firm answers. How about that? We’ll follow up with those next week.
John: You know what? A more sophisticated podcast might have like looked at these questions and actually gone to the staff ahead of time and gotten the right answer. But we’re not that podcast.
Craig: [laughs] You say sophisticated and I say boring.
Craig: That’s a boring show. This is more exciting. We have a cliffhanger now. Let’s go from England to Canada. Mark in Toronto writes, “I’m looking for an efficient way to make it clear that some pieces of dialogue are basically unimportant. The dialogue is only there so the actors have the words to say, but what they say is intentionally throw away and irrelevant to other things that are happening in the scene. Does it need to be spelled out in the action preceding it? Something like Jill launches into an irrelevant and boring story that no one listens to, followed by her dialogue? Or is there a parenthetical that would work? Something like (irrelevant) or (throwaway)?
So, John, how would you handle that situation?
John: I think trying to – the challenge with irrelevant or throwaway, like throwaway I could see as a parenthetical. That means the actor is meant to be throwing those lines away. But that’s not really what you’re telling – that’s an instruction to the actor, but it’s not really an instruction about the scene. I think your better instinct is to set it up in the action ahead of time and set it up in the reactions of the other characters so we can make it clear that it does not actually matter that much what the speaking character is saying.
And that’s a fine line because you have this temptation to sort of underwrite what the speaking character is saying, but you shouldn’t do that. You need to actually think about what can I have her say that is actually not crucial or germane and will let us tune it out so that we can focus what the other characters in the scene are doing. Craig, what’s your instinct?
Craig: Well, when I was working with David Zucker and Jim Abrahams, they had a word for this, because in their style of comedy a lot of times people are just rambling in the foreground while funny things are happening in the background. And the rambling is part of the point of it all. And they had this Yiddish word for it called [Flucher] dialogue. And I’m not even sure if that means anything. Somebody will let us know. [Flucher] dialogue means anything. But they would call it [Flucher] dialogue. But you would write it. You would always write it out. It was actually very important because you wanted to make sure that the actor was saying it in such a way that the story was clearly intentional from them, right? They weren’t aware that they were just rambling. Otherwise they’re going to run out of words and then the gig is up, or the jig is up.
So, you would always write that out. What I would do in those circumstances is I would put a parenthetical in and it would usually be (drones) or (droning). And then they would start writing. But it was clear that therefore that wasn’t important. And then the next time they would talk, (still droning, still droning). So I would say droning. That was my word for how to kind of get across that they were performing this essential foreground but unimportant task.
John: Absolutely. What I think is good about that parenthetical is make it clear – it’s something for the actor to be aware of. That it’s not just a meta scene kind of thing. Because irrelevant or throwaway is not a playable moment in a weird way, but droning kind of is a playable moment.
Craig: Yeah. Like you’re commenting on its purpose in the movie, and I just want the actor and that character to do what they’re doing. Because the truth is that’s what they’re doing. They’re droning. They’re droning on. And oblivious. The other thing is sometimes I would say (oblivious). Because that was also important that they not notice what was going on in the background, otherwise that dialogue isn’t funny anymore. You know, its function isn’t funny anymore.
So, there you go, Mark. A couple of different ways to handle that.
John: Cool. Next up we have Mickey Fortune which is, again, an impossibly wonderful name. I don’t’ know if it’s a real name. But Mickey Fortune writes in, “If I am writing an original pilot as a writing sample, can I use the first episode of a limited series, or should I try to focus on creating a more traditional pilot for a series that would have multiple seasons?”
So, Craig, you are not a person who staffs TV writers. What’s your guess on whether what Mikey Fortune is trying to do is a valid choice?
Craig: Well, we certainly talk to plenty of showrunners, and every last one of them tells us that what they want is some kind of original work. They want a pilot of an original series. I’ve never heard any of them say and it has to be intended to be an ongoing series. Not one of them. I think if you wrote the first episode, of what was intended to be a six or ten episode series, well first of all, I’m not sure they would know.
Craig: And second of all, who cares? Right? They’re not really evaluating you on your ability to generate a premise that could last 12 years. That’s what network executives might be looking for. But they’re just looking for good writers. So I don’t think it would matter at all.
John: I don’t think it matters one iota. You have to write the best 30, best 60 pages of scripts you possibly can write that will keep them incredibly intrigued. And if that is for a limited series, fantastic. And if anything, you know, the fact that it could be a little bit ambiguous whether it’s an ongoing series or something short, that’s something you can talk about in the room if you’re so lucky as to meet with this showrunner, this executive. You can talk about what this pilot was and what it might want to be.
Especially in an era where there are so many great limited series happening, there’s nothing to be avoided about having a limited series as your writing sample. People are making those all the time, Craig Mazin.
Craig: I am making one right now. Steven in Los Angeles writes, “I try to be mindful of representation when describing characters in terms of race. However, in my current project the characters races don’t play any significant role in the plot or interactions with other characters. They could be played by an actor of any color, despite how I’ve described them. Is it better to simply describe the character in colorblind terms? That is to say bright eyes and flirty smile? Or with racial implications, like dark skin and dreadlocks?”
OK, John, how do you approach this?
John: So I think the crucial thing to start off here is there’s no sort of perfect answer to this. And you’re always going to be wrestling with two sort of competing instincts. So, if you as the writer say nothing, the reader will likely default to thinking of these characters as white. Unless you’ve done something in the universe of your script to make them reach a little bit beyond white. So if the other characters in your world are diverse, they might be thinking more diverse about this character. But in general you can kind of safely assume that people are going to think these characters are white unless you give them some other reason not to think that they’re white.
The second thing to keep in mind is that every choice is a choice. And so the more specific the choice, the more important the reader is going to think it is that you’ve made that choice. So, they’re going to be asking like why is the boss Jamaican? They’re going to feel like there’s going to be some good reason why that boss is Jamaican. It’s going to pay off in some way. And so you might be sort of over-signaling things you don’t mean to signal.
So, you have these sort of weirdly competing things where you’re trying to be both specific about who your characters are, and also not just go back to default white on all these things. So, as an example, let’s think about a character in your script who is like a paralegal. And do you specify a race for that paralegal who is in like two or three scenes? It’s really hard to say. Craig, where do you come down at defining race for a character who is going to recur but whose race sort of by nature is never going to be a crucial aspect of the plot?
Craig: Well, I don’t call it out, but when I don’t call it out I am aware of something which is that I have a certain influence over these things, at least now in my career. So I can say to – when I submit, a lot of times when I submit the script to the producer or the studio, I will say, “By the way, here’s some of the people I was thinking about.” And in that email I will include people who obviously have race. Everybody has a color of some kind, right? White, black, or whatever. And so as I call people out, some of the actors will be what they are. And they will get a general understanding, OK, that there is no default white in this script, at least I didn’t write it as default white.
If I call it out specifically in a script, it’s because that character needs to be that race for a reason. So, for instance, I’m writing a movie for Disney and there’s a character who is largely CGI, so we’re really talking about a voice. And I’ve recommended somebody who is not white. But I don’t say that they’re not white in the script, because they don’t have a race at all. Similarly, there’s another character who is a human being and I’ve sent in a couple of recommendations that are different races, because the race is not important. It’s really about age and gravitas and other things that are just more important than skin color.
So, I think it’s fair for you, if you’re writing – especially if you’re writing a spec script to include here are some general ideas of who I was thinking when I was doing this, and that gives a general sense. Even that, that small thing, will unlock people from default white. They can start to see a more appropriately reflective cast to actual humanity.
John: Yeah. I think it’s also worth looking for how do you sort of try to figure out race when you don’t have any more information, and what you probably are looking for is description, like as you’re reading through books how you’re trying to figure out race or to what degree are you aware of race as you’re reading things. And some of the things that tend to tip people towards certain choices are character’s names, their first names and their last names. So if you’re giving a character a first name and a last name, or however you’re identifying that character, that’s going to signal something about race. And so you can choose to be explicit by giving somebody a last name like Kim that strongly suggests that they are Korean, but you can also be mindful of like don’t give them a name that makes it sort of very difficult to imagine them as something other than that race.
And so if everybody in your script has a very Swedish or Norwegian name, those characters are unlikely to be cast as anything other than sort of white people. And so be mindful that you’re not putting up weird roadblocks in your script by naming characters certain names. And so it’s a balancing act.
John: To the degree you can suggest people, you know, outside of the script for things, then you’re doing your job to sort of help make sure that the world of your movie is diverse and inclusive and representative of the world you’d like to see. But you’re always going to mindful of what you’re putting on the page there, so you’re not over-limiting your choices.
Craig: That’s the thing. I think sometimes what ends up happening is people start to get nervous. And it’s white people that are getting nervous. Let’s be clear about this. White writers get nervous, not all of them, but some of them about seeming racist or falling into some kind of trap. And so they overthink. And they start to suddenly pepper the script with all these racial descriptions to signify look at me, look at me, I’m not default white. Which is fine, except that you’re actually doing something somewhat artificial at times. Because it doesn’t really matter.
If you have a waitress and her job is to look up and say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, you forgot your credit card,” that’s not necessary to call race out there. The script starts to feel almost pedantic in it’s like everybody gets a race.
Race is – you know, my whole attitude towards race is the ideal world is nobody gives a crap, right? And that’s the ideal world where it’s just like it doesn’t matter. Now, it does matter in the world today, so we have to be aware and conscious of it. But you don’t want to be artificial about it. It starts to remove the reader from the experience. I think it’s better to just think broadly in your mind about actors who are not just white or male.
Craig: And then write and then let people know here are some of the people I was thinking about. It’s just a more artistically honest way of approaching it. I guess that’s how I would put it.
John: Yeah. I would say as I’m working on a project I’m trying to do a lot of diverse casting in my head as I’m writing it. So this sounds like what you’re doing for your Disney project as well. You are trying to envision the world of your movie as a diverse place and having lots of different kinds of people in it. And so I’m thinking about certain roles and certain actors in certain roles. And that may naturally sort of tip sort of some of the choices I’m making writing towards that theoretical actor. But you want to make sure that in writing for that theoretical actor, hopefully a whole range of actors could play that. And the degree to which you have influence over the process of actually making the movie, try to make sure that, you know, good choices are being made by everybody else.
Craig: There you go. I think that’s the perfect way of putting it.
John: Cool. Greg in Los Angeles writes, “As I listen to Episode 285, specifically the discussion about Sea Monkeys’ creator, I couldn’t help but think of the Spirit of St. Louis. It may seem like an odd connection. But when writing that film, Billy Wilder chose to ignore the racist aspects of Charles Lindberg’s life. Obviously when writing a film based on a real life person, we cannot include every aspect of their life. But would you consider it amoral to ignore such a defining characteristic, especially when considering such a crucial part of someone’s personality could to some degree affect the general public’s historical understanding of that specific individual?”
Craig, what do you think? So we talked about this, you know, on that episode where we talked about Sea Monkeys, like do you go into the racist stuff or do you not go into the racist stuff? What’s your thought overall about historical people?
Craig: It’s tough. You know, when I was a kid, I read – my dad had that book, The Spirit of St. Louis. So, I’ve never even seen the movie. I’ve just read the book. And it was pretty good. It was a good book. It’s a good story. An impressive guy. And also a Nazi. [laughs] So there’s that.
Yeah, you know, do you ignore these things? Let’s put it this way: it’s getting harder and harder. We live in a time now where no one is going to be turning a blind eye to any of that. If anything, people are looking for it. And I don’t think you can really get away with it anymore. It’s just about the culture. I think it feels too salient. So there are people still that because I guess they’ve been grandfathered in – Roald Dahl notoriously said some terrible things about Jewish people and, you know, we’ve kind of grandfathered him in, you know, function of his time and all that.
Then, you know, Lindberg you could argue function of his time. So, yes, the Founding Fathers were slave owners, but it’s so widely known and understood and people have contextualized it as, OK, yes, so George Washington clearly was a slave owner. And Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner. And they’re on our money. And we have had a long national discussion about that. When you’re introducing new people that people aren’t quite as familiar with, like for instance the Sea Monkey guy, I don’t see how you can avoid it. Because somebody is going to dig it up and go, “Uh, did you not think this was worth mentioning?” You know?
John: Yeah. I completely agree with you. So, there is a different responsibility when you’re being the first sort of movie to introduce the world to this person. And especially a person who you could frame as a hero, it’s really problematic if you’re framing this person as a hero and the reality is they did some horrible things. That will come out. There’s no clean way to do that.
But I want to circle back to the Founding Fathers, because I think it is actually a really challenging time to make a movie about the Founding Fathers, because you sort of can’t ignore the slave stuff now. I think 20 years ago if you made a Washington movie, oh, you could sort of like do a little lip service to it. But you sort of can’t get away from that stuff now. And I don’t know that we really have had sort of the thorough national discussion about what slavery was like. I think it continues to sort of – more stuff does continue to get out. We still are grappling with sort of how we’re going to deal with that.
So about two years ago I went to Mt. Vernon and I’d been there as a kid, but going back there as an adult, they completely changed everything around and about it, so they were very much more upfront about sort of here’s Washington’s slaves’ house, and this was what it was like to be a slave on Washington’s plantation.
And so there was still the pretty house, and there’s still the family, and still sort of the normal Washington stuff, but it was all in the context of like these are the slaves and this is sort of what the reality of their life was like. And I have a hard time imagining a movie about Washington right now that would not go back and explore that. So, you look at Hamilton and Hamilton was able to sidestep some of that, but by making the racial aspect of it both a focus and sort of a recontextualization.
Craig: Yeah. But even in Hamilton, someone as brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda has to at some point submit to the demands of narrative. So, he makes a point of Jefferson being a slave owner repeatedly. Jefferson even says, “Sally, be a lamb,” refers to Sally Hemings, famous slave that he had an affair with in the first song that he sings, What Did I Miss? And it is to Jefferson that Hamilton says, you know, talking about the south, “Keep ranting. We know who’s really doing the planting.” And they talk about slavery a lot.
Washington is never mentioned in the context of slavery. And Washington is presented really as a pure hero in that musical. That’s part of the problem with slavery is that it unfortunately unwinds all heroism and all goodness. So, choices have to be made even in a show like Hamilton so that you can root for someone. And it doesn’t start to feel like it’s nihilistic because these are very difficult things. And when you’re creating a narrative, you are forced to simplify. And you could make a good argument that simplification is an inherently amoral act. It’s a very complicated topic, to say the least.
I would love to talk with Lin-Manuel Miranda about that very thing. I’m very curious how he approached that character of Washington given the circumstances of how – because the show is so clearly – goes out of its way, not just through the casting, but through the subject material itself and the lyrics to comment on slavery repeatedly.
Craig: Let’s see. We’ve got Jason writing in. “For an aspiring screenwriter, how much weight does the industry give toward professional experience in a given field? Me, Jason, I have 19 years in law enforcement, specifically detective work. If I write something that uses that experience, a crime thriller for example, would my biography and background give me an advantage beyond hopefully a sense of verisimilitude? Basically, do pieces speak for themselves, or is the writer as a person taken into account?”
That’s an excellent question, Jason. John, what is your answer?
John: So I think Jason has a leg up in a couple ways. So, he definitely has experience. Hopefully he’ll be able to translate that experience into the words on the page. If he can’t translate that experience into the words on the page, his real life experience is not so helpful. But I think he’s starting from a great place in that he actually does understand what the real life is like. And that should help him in his writing.
Secondly, the degree that he actually gets in the room with people, that’s fascinating. And so I think that sort of experience would help get him staffed on a TV show or help get him a certain assignment to do a police thriller because it’s like, oh, this guy actually knows what he’s talking about in a way that’s incredibly useful.
In general I would say that if you have a lot of experience as like an emergency services dispatcher, that’s going to be less valuable than sort of a cool cinematic experience like being a police detective. Craig, what do you think?
Craig: Yeah. There’s no question in my mind. No question at all. If you have this kind of background, I think people love that in Hollywood. They actually love it too much. So, it is a great calling card. They will immediately grant you a certain legitimacy as a writer. Definitely if you are writing something that draws on that experience, it’s a great calling card. It’s a great way in. If you’re writing something that doesn’t, obviously it’s irrelevant. But there are some writers who were physicians and then turned to writing. Zoanne Clack, for instance, is one. And they tend to work on medical shows. I think David Shore–
John: He’s a real lawyer.
Craig: Oh, he was a lawyer. Because he worked on House and–
John: Oh, maybe he was a doctor.
Craig: But, no, he also worked on Law & Order, so he might have been a lawyer. Look, there’s a ton of lawyers. I think there’s so many lawyers that turn to writing that that doesn’t mean anything anymore. But, being a detective in law enforcement I think would absolutely grab people’s attention. So, I would encourage you if you’re interested in writing material based on that, you should. Yeah, I think you use the phrase leg up. Perfect phrase for it.
John: David Shore. Prior to becoming a writer, Shore was a partner for a law firm in London, Ontario.
Craig: There you go.
John: Canadian there. Where he practiced corporate and municipal law. But yeah, people coming from law firms who then write legal thrillers, the John Grishams, that’s a really common experience. For you to go from being a police detective for 17 years to then writing those things, that could be great, but it’s ultimately going to come down are you a really good writer? Because that’s going to be more important than your experience really?
Craig: We should get Zoanne Clack on this show. So, Zoanne Clack worked on Grey’s Anatomy and – is that show still on the air? Is that on the air?
John: Grey’s Anatomy is still on the air. Yeah.
Craig: Maybe she still works on it. Sad, I don’t watch the television. But, she is a real doctor. Real doctor. She actually worked even for the CDC. So that’s obviously a huge boon, certainly if you’re going to be writing a medical show. Can’t beat that. So, yes, Jason, go for it.
John: You know who we need to get on the show? Shonda Rhimes. I know she’s been a fantasy guest for a long time, but we know people who know her. I don’t know why we – maybe when I get back to Los Angeles, that will be a goal. We’ll get Shonda on the show.
Craig: I feel like we don’t need to know people that know her. We just call her up. Just say hey.
John: I went to film school with Shonda Rhimes. I used to hang out with Shonda Rhimes way back in the day.
Craig: Then you know you who knows her.
John: I know me who knows her. But it’s been years. But it would be great to catch up with Shonda Rhimes.
Craig: There you go.
John: Let’s go to Sam in Australia who writes, “How do you implement a broad ‘make it funnier’ note? For example, you submit a scene and the reader doesn’t think it’s that funny, so they say, ‘Make it funnier.’ On one hand, it’s your audience, so you should try to appeal to them. On the other, you love it and you think it’s hilarious.” Craig, make it funnier.
Craig: No. [laughs] That’s not a note. That’s stupid. That’s a failure. Look, that is an indication that something has gone terribly wrong. Either you’re not as funny as you think you are, or there is a mismatch of sense of humor here. Or mismatch of tone. Now, sometimes comedy technicians can get together and say, OK, here’s why I think this isn’t as funny as it could be, and here’s what I think we would need to do to make it funnier. That’s different. That’s the sort of discussion that – and I call them comedy technicians. I’m one of them. Because if you write comedy, and I’m talking about comedy-comedy, whether you’re on a sitcom or you’re writing like heavy comedy movies, like comedy-comedy-comedy, jokes-jokes, jokes, there is technique involved. There is a lot of machinery involved. It is a science.
And so that’s one thing. But if you’ve got some note-giver, a producer or an executive sitting there going it just needs to be funnier, well, you’re done. There’s no – I don’t know what that means. So, no.
John: Well, I do know what it means. I’ve never actually given the note Make it Funnier, but I definitely have thought the note Make it Funnier, where like I see a scene that sort of feels like it’s jokeoid-ish. Like it has the – it feels like it wants to be funny, but it’s not actually funny. And sometimes I can be specific about like this is why it’s actually not working for me. But sometimes it’s just like this just isn’t a funny way to do it. Or like you’re trying to make a joke out of something that’s not really a joke.
And so I will never give the note make it funnier, but I will try to focus on why this is not making me laugh. Now, this note that you’ve gotten, if this is the third time they’ve read the script, that Make it Funnier may be partly because they’re just sick of it. Jokes aren’t funny like the third time through. And so it’s hard for you as the writer to remind them that like, you know what, that is actually funny. It was funny the first couple times they read it. It’s just it’s not new to them anymore. And I’ve encountered that with real life stuff where like a movie that’s been in development for a year and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, it would be great if like this relationship was funnier.” It’s like, “Well, it actually is funny, but you just don’t remember it being funny because you are seeing it for the 15th time. And when you stick actual actors saying those lines, it will be funny.”
And that’s hard for you as the writer to say. But sometimes that is the reality.
Craig: Look, comedy is the hardest. The hardest. And the truth is we don’t really know. I mean, even the best – best, best comedy people – are guessing, all the time. That’s what writing comedy is. It’s an endless series of guessing that you are going to put this combination of words and actions together and shoot it and edit it in such a way that people are going to have this involuntary physical reaction and start laughing at it. You’re guessing.
And nobody bats a thousand, right? I mean, that’s why things get cut out all the time. You just want to be batting as high as you can. But I can’t tell you how many times I have been surprised by how strongly people have laughed at something. And then also on the other hand, people just, no. Nope. That doesn’t work at all.
You know, most of the time you get the response you expect. But there are those things on either end. So it’s just very, very difficult. Sam, the truth is you may be really, really funny and this person may just stink.
Craig: Or, you may not be that funny and they’re just telling you. Or, something in between. There’s really no way to know. But if you think you love it and you think it’s hilarious. That’s it, right? That’s what you think. And now really what it comes down to is does anyone else agree? And if you can’t find anyone to agree, then there is a mismatch between your sense of humor and the rest of the world, which happens.
John: It does happen. This last week I posted a long blog post and someone pointed on Twitter, which was absolutely true, like you’re blogging a lot. Are you avoiding other work? I’m like, yes, I’m avoiding other work. I’m trying to avoid starting on something, and so therefore I’m blogging a lot.
But I blogged about this Twitter joke which I thought was just fantastic and was so clearly destined to become a clam, which is Hold My Beer. So, one of the first times I remember seeing this joke set up on Twitter was around the election. And so this was a Tweet from Brian Pedaci. It says, “BRITAIN: Brexit is the stupidest, most self-destructive act a country could undertake. USA: Hold my beer.”
So the structure of the joke is basically like, you know, speaker A says something outrageous and impossible to top and speaker B says, “Hold my beer,” like I’m going to get in this, I’m going to be able to do this.
And so I wanted to sort of look into why is that funny and why does it work and why does it not work? Because one of the great things about Twitter is you can search for phrases or exact matches of phrases and figure out like how are people trying to use this joke and sort of what are the actual requirements for this to be funny?
So, I say this not to our Australian friend to encourage him to study the structure of comedy jokes and try to figure out why his jokes aren’t working, but there can be sometimes clear reasons why a person’s joke is not working. So, for the Hold my Beer joke to be funny, you have to know who speaker A is. And that’s sort of a fundamental thing in most jokes. Everything about the premise has to be incredibly straight forward for us to be able to understand it. So, you have to understand who speaker A is, the thing that speaker A says has to be reasonable for who speaker A is. Speaker B has to be recognizable. And the Hold my Beer has to relate to something they’ve just done, or something they’re just about to do.
And so almost all jokes, whether they’re like this sort of Twitter joke, or the kinds of things you’re setting up in your scene, there is a fundamental kind of logic behind them. There has to be a very simple believable way to get into it and the payoff, the surprise, has to be related to it in a meaningful way. And so this is a long discussion of like spoiling a really funny Twitter joke that was very clearly destined to become a clam.
Craig: I think you just killed it. [laughs]
John: As I sort of wrote the post, I recognized that like it was destined to die anyway. So, I just wanted to actually look at it and also a lot of times in a dead joke beautiful things grow in the bones of that dead joke. And so I’ve seen already some really good second wave of those, which is like, “Girlfriend: I’m sick of people barking patriarchal instructions at me. Me: Hold my beer.” That was a Tom Neenan joke.
So people who use the format of the joke to make sort of a meta joke. And that’s the delightful time we live in.
Craig: We do. We do. Yeah, that one has been around for a while. I feel like that one has been around for a while. It’s kind of the grandson of Now Watch this Drive, which was based on a George W. Bush moment.
Yeah, but Hold my Beer, it actually goes way back to – it used to be just something that dumb people said before they did something stupid and then hurt themselves.
Craig: And now it’s evolved into this thing. But I’m pretty sure you just assassinated it.
John: Back in 2014 it really was the setup. It was the frame around a stupid thing that someone was going to do. And so by putting it as the punchline though, I think it’s actually a much better form and a much better form for Twitter. It’s going to die, and so I think I hastened its death, but that’s fine.
John: And I also loved the variant forms of it. So like there’s obviously Hold my Drink, or Hold my Juice Box, but I also love Hold my Earrings, because just the idea of a woman taking out her earrings because she’s going to like go into somebody.
Craig: That’s different. That’s a whole different thing. Yeah.
John: That’s an amazing – because you can see the action when someone is taking out their earrings. It’s just great.
It’s come time for our One Cool Things. So, my One Cool Thing is an episode of Girls from this season called American Bitch. And so it is written by Lena Dunham. It is directed by Richard by Shepard. And it’s a two-hander. It just stars Lena and Matthew Rhys, the guy from The Americans. And if you’ve not watched Girls or if you’ve watched a few episodes of Girls and sort of stopped watching it, it’s absolutely worth going back and taking a look at this one episode, because it’s all self-contained. It’s two characters on a set talking. And it is remarkable.
And it deserves all the acclaim it’s gotten. So, I’ll link to an Emily Nussbaum article. She wrote about it in The New Yorker. But I think it’s just actually a great study in how much you can do in a short basically real time piece of two characters in a room talking. So, in this case you already know Hannah’s character, the character Lena Dunham plays. But to set up a character and set up the conflicts to allow the viewer to sort of fill in the details of what must have gotten them to this place, it was just great. It started in the middle of an action. It was just a really well done episode. So I strongly encourage everyone to watch American Bitch from this last season of Girls.
And while you’re falling back in love with Matthew Rhys, you should watch the new season of The Americans because it’s a great show and he’s great on that.
Craig: Well, I’ll put that on my list of things that you know I’ll not get to.
John: Craig, I would argue that you would very much like this episode. And doing the things you need to do in television these days particularly, it’s so remarkably well done.
Craig: What if I hate it? What if I hate it?
John: If you hate it, it’s 25 minutes of your life.
Craig: Oh god.
John: 25 whole minutes.
Craig: Do you know what I normally do with those 25 minutes?
John: We know exactly what you do with those 25 minutes. The door locks. Yes.
Craig: Yeah. John. Locks from the outside so you can’t get in.
John: That doesn’t make any sense.
Craig: No. I don’t have to make sense. I just have to make love. Oh, Sexy Craig, beat it. Well, my One Cool Thing is – this is not at all what you said. It’s totally different. Yes, it’s another app.
You know, I’m on an app kick lately, but my son introduced me to this one. It’s one of these games that you can play with your friends and it’s called Stop. But it’s very, very clever. So the game, Stop, that’s what it’s called. And it’s essentially just like a category game where you spin a wheel, a letter shows up, and then you have five categories. And you just have to fill in a word that fits that category that starts on the letter that you’ve picked.
But, the little brilliant twist to this is that at any point if you’re the first person, so if you won the last round you get to go. You can hit stop. So, if you look at the five categories and you’re like, oh god, I only know one of these. I’m typing in real fast, I’m hitting Stop. That amount of time you spent is the only amount of time the next person gets. But they don’t know how much time they get. So, when you’re going after somebody, part of your equation is like, oh god, how much time do they take? How much time do I have? How should I prioritize my answers?
Very clever little game. Lots of fun. You should play it.
John: Very good. It sounds like there’s some game theory involved in the game itself.
John: Nice. Cool. Before we wrap up today, I want to thank everybody who submitted their reviews for the listener’s guide, or the Scriptdecks, or whatever we’re going to call this big compendium of user reviews for Scriptnotes. Basically what episodes do you think are the “can’t miss” episodes of Scriptnotes for new listeners.
So, we’ve gotten more than a hundred now of people writing in to review sort of which episodes they think are crucial for listening to. And surprisingly few repeats. I mean, there’s some which I sort of knew were going to be really popular. But like from all seasons from all years, there are things that have been singled out. So thank you very much for everyone who has contributed. Please continue to do so. Whenever we have enough of these, I don’t know what enough is going to be, but we’ll figure out some good form for those. It could be a book. It could be another site. Some other way for people to experience Scriptnotes. So thank you for that.
John: And that’s our show this week. Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe.
John: It is edited by Matthew Chilelli.
John: Our outro this week comes from Matthew Chilelli.
John: If you have an outro, you can send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s where you can also send questions like the ones we answered today on the podcast. On Twitter I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. We love to answer your short questions on Twitter. We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. Also search for Scriptnotes in the iTunes store and leave us a review there. That’s lovely when you do that.
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John: You can find the show notes for this week’s episode and all previous episodes at johnaugust.com. You’ll also find the transcripts. They go up about four days afterwards. And that’s our show. Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, John. Let’s do this again next week.
John: We will.
John: End of Recording.
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