John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 293 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, it’s another round of How Would This Be a Movie, where we take a look at three stories in the news and figure out how we might convince a director like say Jordan Peele to attach himself to the project. Craig, have you seen Get Out yet?
Craig: Get out.
John: Get out. I’m guessing you’ve not seen it yet, because you don’t see a lot of movies.
Craig: I haven’t, but I’m going to because everybody loves it and everybody says it’s great. And I’m sure it is great. I’m sure it’s awesome. And I’m a huge fan of Key & Peele. And I know this is different. So, yes I’m going to see it. Haven’t seen it yet. Not ashamed.
John: You should not be ashamed. But you should see it. And I’m looking forward to seeing it whenever I get a chance to see it. It’s not here in Paris yet. But hopefully it will come here sooner, because it has been so successful. And I’m so happy for that.
But I do think that Jordan Peele could get nearly any movie to happen. Like he has so much heat at this moment that the world is his oyster.
Craig: Yeah. You know, you might be right. The list of directors in features is incredibly short. And all of them work. All of them. There is currently as we all know a push for diversity among the cadre of feature film directors, which is blindingly white and blindingly male. And so I can’t think for even a second that you’re not exactly right. I would imagine that he’s on the top of every list. And apparently well earned. But not yet willing to confirm that on my own behalf because I haven’t seen the movie.
John: Yeah. But I trust that everyone in America is correct and it’s a phenomenal movie, so I look forward to seeing it. But let us talk not about a movie that already exists but movies that could exist. It is our segue to How Would This Be a Movie, one of our favorite features to do. This week we needed a special to really help us out here.
John: So I’m very happy to introduce a writer who has done several of these true life adaptations. Irene Turner is a novelist and screenwriter of An American Crime. Her new film is The Most Hated Woman in America, which just debuted at South by Southwest. Welcome Irene.
Irene Turner: Hi guys. Thanks for having me on. I have seen Get Out.
Craig: Get Out.
Irene: All right. And I’m out. I did love it, so there you go.
Craig: All right.
Irene: And I don’t even go to horror films.
Craig: Well, I’ve heard it’s not really a horror film. It’s more like a – well, like old school thriller.
Irene: Old school thriller. And the end – and you’re cringing in your seat and wanting to run. And I enjoyed it. But no spoilers.
Craig: Got it. Got it.
John: Zero spoilers. So, you are just back from South by Southwest. You’re back from Austin. And like literally just last night landed. So thank you for coming to do this. But tell us about this movie because I think as long as I’ve known you you’ve been working on this movie. So this is the story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a famous atheist, who is kidnapped. But what is your journey on this movie? How did you come to write this movie?
Irene: It’s been a minute on this one. And I guess we started – the idea got brought to us by our producers, Max Handelman and Elizabeth Banks. And neither Tommy O’Haver nor I, who is the director and also my writing partner, had heard of her.
Craig: You hadn’t heard of Elizabeth Banks?
Irene: Well, Elizabeth Banks we had heard of. But Madalyn Murray O’Hair we had not heard of. And in fact nobody under the age of about 70 had heard of her.
Craig: Except of course for me.
Irene: Well, except for Craig Mazin.
Craig: I’m sort of an MMOH fan.
Irene: Well then there you go. But Madalyn was once really well known for fighting to get forced prayer out of public schools in Baltimore, Maryland. And it went all the way to the Supreme Court with it. And after that formed an organization called American Atheist. And kind of fighting atheist causes and fighting for First Amendment rights, which are near and dear to my heart.
And the great thing about her as making a movie about her is that she was conflicted, complicated, opinionated, got in her own way. And had problematic relationships with her family. So, oh boy, strong character. Fun.
Craig: Yeah. It seems to me. I mean, one of the things we talk about all the time when we go through these How Would This Be a Movie is we see the facts of some complications, circumstantial drama, and then we are inevitably asking, OK, but what about the people. Where is the people stuff? And she was a fascinating person and kind of a little bit of a monster.
Irene: She was a big bit of a monster. She got in her own way. She had problematic relationships with her kids. She smothered them and pushed them. And her one son, Billy Murray, Jr. actually, ended up being an alcoholic and had other issues and finally found god.
Craig: Oh man.
Irene: Yeah. And at this point is still alive and is fighting to get prayer back in public schools.
Irene: But she was so difficult. She ended up having sometimes hiring felons to work for her at her atheist organization. They didn’t pay very well. And she felt like she could just judge character and it would be fine. Kind of difficult.
Craig: And how did that work out for her?
Irene: Not real well. See the movie.
Craig: And this movie, this is a Netflix film, correct?
Irene: Yeah. One of the reasons it took so long to make is that Netflix as a streaming organization making original movies didn’t exist when we started writing it. And so Netflix, I think, fills a really important niche to get independent small films out there. It’s not really a big studio movie. Mm, murdered atheist that nobody remembers except Craig Mazin.
Irene: Mm-hmm. But where’s the sequel potential? So just getting to make those kind of niche films. And Netflix has a lot of other kind of films as well. But I think they’ve been really a force in the indie world for making sure that what otherwise might be a festival film and two theaters in New York and LA, at best, gets out there.
John: So, talk to us about, so Elizabeth Banks and Max Handelman came to you with this idea. Was it just the idea? Was it a specific book? What were you working off of when you sat down to start writing this movie?
Irene: We had thought about using a book and then that morphed into there’s so many different points of view about her and what she wrote, what other people wrote about her. And we ended up, it’s actually original. We sources. We used her diary. We used books about her. She did a lot of press.
Craig: She did talk a lot, didn’t she?
Irene: She talked a lot. I appreciate that. Because, yeah, she lived in an era where Johnny Carson would invite people to get on the Tonight Show and talk about atheism in America. So her opinions on things are well known and so we kind of gathered from lots of sources to try and discover what made her tick. You know, what she wanted in life. How she got where she was. What, you know.
Craig: So, when you go through all these sources, because I’m dealing with this right now on this miniseries I’m doing. It’s based on true events, and so true people. Did you have any sort of legal guidance about what you could and couldn’t use without having say rights to an estate or rights to this or that?
Irene: Well, the basic principle is having multiple sources for facts that are in the public sphere. The great thing about Madalyn is she did give so many interviews and she’s been written about so much that nothing is only coming from one source. If you’re only coming from one source on something, then you can’t use it without getting the rights to that source.
Craig: That’s interesting.
Irene: That’s the basic answer.
Craig: OK. Fair enough.
John: Were there any concerns about libel or sort of the public rights of the people who are still involved? So you say that her son is still alive. So was there any sort of zone of safety around that character to make sure you weren’t doing anything with that character that the person could come after you for?
Irene: Yeah. With him, yes, we had to be very, very careful, because we don’t have his life rights. And we had to use sources from the time period and what he said or did to newspapers. Fortunately, he did a lot of speaking tours and things like that, which were reported on. But you know with the characters who are no longer living, you can’t libel the dead, and so that makes the standard much easier to deal with.
Craig: Can you slander them?
Irene: Only if you want to.
Craig: Because I know so many dead people I want to say wrong things about.
Irene: You can get sued by family members of dead people who are saying that you’re libeling their family legacy and things. And it can kind of get tricky. On An American Crime we had a 90-year-old lawyer who pretty much hated the film. I mean, and it’s a child abuse film and there are children abusing other children. Very difficult subject matter. Some of them are alive, although most of the living ones had taken assumed names in the interim. So just tricky. And he just didn’t think we should be discussing the subject at all, in my humble opinion. And so 90% of the dialogue in that film is from court transcripts. And he actually made us adjust a scene where a 12-year-old boy who has been abusing another girl, we have him teasing a dog. And we had to cut that back because there was no evidence that this character had been teasing a dog in this way.
Craig: Oh, well.
Irene: It’s a standard.
Craig: And is that 90-year-old lawyer still available? Because he sounds great. Or has he since moved on?
Irene: I don’t know. And I’m trying to forget him because I got stuck at the last minute with annotating everything and anything. And it was not easy.
Craig: Well, you know what? Maybe we’re free to slander him at this point. You know, if he’s, you know.
Irene: Dead? Yeah.
John: So your movie, people can see it starting on March 24 on Netflix, correct?
Irene: March 24 on Netflix. Yes. Worldwide day-and-date. Which is crazy to me. You want to see Melissa Leo in Spanish, Italian, French, go to it.
Craig: That’s so great. And she is, from what I hear – I mean, obviously I haven’t seen it yet because it’s not out – but I hear that she, as per usual, is spectacular in this role.
Irene: She is Melissa Leo-ing all over the Melissa Leo and she is great. If you don’t like Melissa Leo, don’t watch this film because she dominates it in a really great way. Like there’s a fabulous supporting cast and things like that, but the center of it is Madalyn. So, and she is–
Craig: The Most Hated Woman in America. So that’s Netflix. March 24. Melissa Leo. Josh Lucas. Adam Scott. Pretty great cast you go there. Directed by your writing partner, Tommy O’Haver.
Craig: Well fantastic. Congratulations. But I feel like we should use you here because you’re obviously good at this. Because what we like to do is find these articles and try and figure out how would they be a movie. And you’re kind of an expert at that. So would you be willing to help us with this?
Irene: I would love to.
John: Very good.
Craig: John, we’ve got ourselves a partner.
John: We got a partner here. So, our first story is The New Underground Railroad. It’s a New Yorker article by Jake Halpern. So it’s centered around a safe house in Buffalo, New York, where asylum seekers from around the world prepare to flee the United States for Canada. So, it’s based around this New Yorker article, but I actually first encountered this as part of a Trumpcast episode, Slate’s Trumpcast, where Halpern did an interview with Virginia Heffernan and it was a really great piece. And so if you are a podcast person, which you probably are because you’re listening to this podcast, I would actually go to the podcast first because it’s really great and it gets much more into Halpern’s reporting of the story which I find is also fascinating.
So, guys, how are we going to start digging into this story because there’s a lot here? So, we’re looking at this house, basically this old abandoned schoolhouse called Vive, which is founded by these nuns, and it’s been a safe house for asylum seekers since 1984. We have the different asylum seekers who are coming through here. We have Halpern himself. Where do we want to start with the idea of this as a movie?
Craig: Irene, what do you think?
Irene: Hahaha, I knew you were going to make me start.
Craig: Of course.
Irene: I mean, it’s a great setting for a movie. And there’s the potential for great characters. And what intrigues me about it, and it’s the sort of thing I would have enjoyed doing, is it’s a spin on all the kind of movies where people are trying to get into the United States. And so the spin on people, A, trying to get out. People undergoing great hardships to both get here and then to get to Canada.
And also these individuals’ stories, there’s so many of them. I mean, the problem for me would be like picking the right stories of the right refugees and also avoiding the trap of going in, you know, kind of from the American protagonist. That you want to make sure that you’ve got a variety of voices in there. Kind of picking the characters and picking the separate journeys. The other problem that just struck me right away was make sure you haven’t set yourself up for a play. Because this sanctuary is so isolated and contained and just kind of know where you’re going to be able to break out of it and see parts of the – you know, like the containment. Make sure you’re not writing a play.
Craig: That is absolutely the thing that jumped out at me as well. I was very concerned with the insularity of it and the internal nature of it, because it really is in this one small house in a terrible neighborhood. A neighborhood that’s so bad that they warn everybody, “Don’t leave the house.” They even describe it sort of quasi-prison like in a sense, even though they’re willingly there. But it is cramped and it is small. And they are using this really to funnel people, as you said, sort of in and then out. So it seems to me if I were approaching this material, I would probably start by saying this is not going to be a movie about this house. This house is going to be one part of a movie that is about being a refugee and your relationship to the United States and your relationship to the world and the struggles that you have.
And I guess I would probably call Stephen Gaghan up and just say, “Hey Stephen, remember doing Traffic? Do you remember doing Syriana? Can you do that again, but about immigration?” Because it just seems like this is in his wheelhouse to gather disparate stories – a government official, a fleeing person, a nun, a border patrol. Telling all sides of this story so that all of the proverbial blind men feeling the elephant, we get the whole elephant. It just feels like I would want to Gaghan this up.
John: Yeah. I definitely was thinking of Syriana and I was also thinking of Babel, where you have these separate stories being told in different parts of the world. And basically you’re setting up these characters who are all going to cross through this nexus and then try to find their way into Canada through different means. And so let’s talk about who some of these characters are. I’m going to pick out three, but there’s more who are in the world of the story.
The first we meet is Tita. She’s an Eritrean woman. She’s trying to reunite with her family who are already in Canada. She has a husband who she got married to at a previous refugee situation. So she was able to make it out of Africa, I think to somewhere in Europe, then to Brazil, then to Mexico. Then she crossed the border and she made her way to Buffalo, New York. So she has this huge journey, paying this trafficker $15,000 to get her to this place.
John: And still not quite sure if she’s going to be able to get back to her husband and her young son who doesn’t really necessarily remember her. So she’s got an amazing story.
Craig: And she’s sort of married. But the marriage is a religious marriage and it’s not a government-recognized marriage, so there’s – actually one of the things about that story that really jumped out at me was how important paperwork suddenly becomes. And in just now your life is in limbo because of papers.
Irene: Papers define who you are. It defines your personhood. It makes you either a person or a non-person, or someone who can go places or can’t. And we’re not used to that for those of us who are not refugees or whose families have been in this country for a long time. That being defined by a piece of paper says what and who you are.
Craig: That part of it I found fascinating.
John: Absolutely. So another character who we follow through this, and I think Halpern has the most direct relationship with, is Fernando. He’s the young Columbian man fleeing gang violence. So he’s made his way to Vive and he’s trying to find his way across. And so this is where we get into a strange part of the immigration law here. Whatever country, either US or Canada, that you enter into first, that has to be the place where you’re supposed to be seeking asylum. And so if he were just to cross the border and try to get asylum in Canada, they would just send him right back. And so there’s a loophole though: if he can cross further into Canada and go to not a place on the border, but deeper in, he can seek asylum.
So he’s trying to find a way to get across from New York into Canada and get deep enough in that he can go to a place and sort of try to document himself there.
Here we have a young man fleeing gang violence. He’s the most action-adventure things that are happening in the New York/American section of the story.
Irene: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Because there’s that tension in his journey. How far is he going to get? I mean, he really needs to get – it’s not just step over a line and then freedom. You’re outside of the Eastern Bloc. You’re over the Berlin Wall, and then it’s done, in the ‘70s, or things like that. And he’s also got the most tenuous situation in terms of he’s not coming from a war-torn country. In a sense it’s a gang-torn country and he’s seeking asylum for those kind of reasons. And those are more difficult.
And so, yes, his journey is very fraught. And the physicality of that. That gets you outside that box.
John: Absolutely. What I liked about it is like if you follow Tita’s journey, it’s like a long journey. There’s a lot of little speedbumps along the way. But his is the most like an action movie, where he literally is going into a dark field and not sure what’s on the far side. And it’s that panic of getting lost and falling in a river and nearly freezing to death. He has the most sort of movie adventure beats. It’s also nice that that probably happened late in the story when you’ve already gotten to this place of comparable safety.
Craig: There’s something inherently ironic, which we’re always looking for. Somebody is escaping violence and the escape from violence is putting them in a situation where they might die.
Craig: And that’s what we’re afraid of in the back of our head. That the narrative is leading us to that Twilight Zone ending. And so we’re so, so hopeful we don’t get that.
Irene: Yes. The stakes are very, very high for all of them and especially him.
John: So the last characters I’ll single out are the two Mohammeds. They’ve come from Afghanistan. They are both soldiers. They’re here in the US for training. And so they have a day off where they go to Washington, DC. They don’t get back on the bus. Instead they’ve hooked up with an Afghan family who has gotten them up to this haven in Buffalo, New York. And that’s where they’re trying to make the crossover into Canada. They are the only of the stories that we’re singling out here where they were not successful and they are ultimately sent back to Afghanistan.
So they were trying to get out of Afghanistan because they were going to be assigned to watch over the poppy fields and they felt like they were going to die if they went back to Afghanistan. So, they felt their life was in huge danger if they go back. And ultimately they are sent back. So I think we learned the least about them in the story, but I liked that they were coming in a very different way than the other two characters.
Irene: Also, John, I think their story is good and maybe if you were diving further into this you might find another one that’s good as well. But you have to show the refugees that don’t make it. That get turned back. It can’t just be the feel good story of the ones that got through, because that’s not the real situation, and you kind of have a duty to make sure that you’re showing the heartbreak and the sadness as well.
Craig: Yeah. This one, I think the value was that there is failure at the end of it, but probably would want a little something else going on here. I would want a parent who had lost a child. Or I would want someone falling in love with another person. They don’t even speak the same language, but they’re two refugees who have both lost people they love, and now they’re in this little house and they fall in love. And then one of them gets to move on, and one of them has to go back.
So, I want something a little bit more. The nature of their story, I mean, obviously in a true-life sense is tragic. But in a narrative sense, didn’t – I would probably veer away from the specificity of it, because I’m not sure I would get enough drama that I would want. Or a different kind of drama.
Irene: Yeah. I was fascinated and the article didn’t go into them as much, but their residence – they tried to make private rooms for the people who just had been there forever. And who couldn’t move. And that’s hard to show cinematically. But as a small thread of a larger picture, there’s a residence there and I would try and show it.
John: So let’s talk about what the characters might be in this movie. So, there’s obviously the people who are running the organization. So it was originally created by nuns. It’s no longer really run by nuns. And some of the people who are working there are former refugees who have been through the system or are there for one reason or another. Also, a question of whether Halpern himself becomes a character in the story. Because especially in the podcast I listened to, he’s a very big character in the Fernando story. And there’s a really interesting line of like as a journalist does he cross over or not cross over in terms of like giving advice to this kid who is trying to make it across. And he has the normal human and kind of paternal feelings of like I don’t want this kid to die out in the woods. And yet as a journalist he needs to step back and sort of like report the story and not create the story.
So, he’s a potentially interesting character, but also potentially troubling for the sort of white savior aspect of this character in this movie. What did you guys think?
Craig: Well, on that front I actually never really find the crusading journalist character particularly, well, let’s not call them crusading journalist, but the protective journalist character, it just feels like a false struggle. Because I don’t have that problem in my life because I’m not a journalist. So it’s something that’s very specific. It’s a very specific ethical problem for journalists. I’m not sure I would love to watch that unfold on screen.
If I’m watching a border patrol guy who catches him and has to bring him back, and then catches him again and brings him back, and then the third time he thinks he’s going to go out there again and he might die tonight because of X, Y, or Z, what should I do. That I find compelling. And it’s not about savoir. It’s just about two people on the opposite side of a fight discovering this shared humanity. I would probably go in that direction more than the journalist direction.
Irene: Yeah it’s not The Year of Living Dangerously, or you know, films where journalists are going into hot spots and trying to bring back a story that people need to hear. In that sense it’s not that you couldn’t have him as a minor character, but I think it would be a mistake to make him kind of the eyes of the audience character, or the protagonist, or starting the story on him starting this story. I think it would be problematic.
John: I agree. So let’s talk about this as a movie. And so where do we see a movie like this happening? Like what are the scenarios in which this kind of movie could exist?
Craig: Netflix. Amazon.
Irene: We love us some Netflix.
Craig: It’s not a studio film.
John: Oh, I think it is a studio movie. I think this to me feels like the studio’s Oscar movie. So this to me feels like an A24, it feels like we’re going to go for it and we’re going to push. And I think because it’s timely, because it does have the possibility of some really big visuals, because you’re going to a lot of different environments, so you get to go to Africa, you get to go to Afghanistan, you go to Mexico. So I just feel like you’re going to be able to find the filmmaker, probably the international filmmaker, who is the right person for this. And I think you’re going to be able to do something great.
Irene: Cast-dependent. You better right that script so well that that name cast comes in kind of brings it up to an Oscar-bait movie.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, even A24, you’re still talking about an independent financed film. But it would have to be – yeah, so I mean a studio could pick it up and release it, but I totally agree with Irene. This is where you need somebody like Matt Damon for Syriana, or you need, well, all of the people that you had in Traffic. Quite a collection of actors.
Irene: An Idris Elba. You know, kind of a cast that combines on that kind of level where they’re really making interesting choices and give actors meaty roles.
Craig: Right. Like Emily Blunt is in Sicario. I’m not sure you can get Sicario made without Emily Blunt. So, I think that that’s correct. And this, by the way, this is part of the problem that writers run into when they’re trying to avoid the white savior problem, and then what happens is a lot times the foreign sales people, because in independent films the independent film financiers aren’t going to do it unless they can presale the film overseas. And the foreign sales entities are saying, “Well we need one of the following list of stars. And they have to be the star.” And they’re all white. And now what do you do? This is where it gets insidious. This is a movie that has to be pretty carefully – so I guess what I’m saying is I don’t see it as a mainstream studio developed project.
I think it would be independent and then released.
John: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a version of this where it’s sort of like a Plan B, Brad Pitt, you know, like 12 Years a Slave is an example of a movie that you’re able to make because, yes, he can play one part in it, but like it just has enough high class people around it that people are going to – a studio will roll the dice and spend the money they need to spend on making this movie. And, yes, it’s very execution dependent, but in good execution you’ve made a movie that could do really well.
Craig: Yeah. There is a movie to be made about immigration and the state of being a refugee in the world today. I don’t know if the halfway house is where I would begin. I guess I would put it that way. I think it’s a little bottleneck-y for me.
John: Cool. All right, let’s get on to our next story. This is called You May Want to Marry My Husband. It is by Amy Krouse Rosenthal writing for the New York Times Modern Love section. So Rosenthal, who at the time of writing the article was dying from cancer, makes the pitch for potential suitors about why her husband is such a catch. So it’s her writing about her husband and how great he is. And how much she’ll miss him, yet also ladies pay attention. This is a guy you want to keep on your list. Where do we start with this kind of movie? Who wants to take this off?
Irene: Well, this is so outside the kind of movie that I might write. The problem with this is, and I’m guessing it has been optioned because it got so much buzz, and the author has since passed away. The article itself is sort of a jumping off point. There’s so many questions I have. Is it about their relationship? The article makes me want to read her memoir and read more, actually more about her husband to see if there’s – like what’s the story?
We’ve kind of seen the movies, like is it Step Mom with Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon, where Susan Sarandon is dying and Julia Roberts is going to kind of mother her kids and things. Is it the husband’s story after the author of the article has passed away, has died? It’s really – I looked at it and I went, wow, I’m glad nobody offered me a lot of money to adapt this because it’s got like a thousand directions you could go. And I’m not sure what the right one would be.
Craig: Well, it’s very sad, obviously, and it’s very sweet. Amy Krouse Rosenthal is an excellent writer. You can see that she’s just in total command of her art. And here she is. Actually the first line says, “I’ve been trying to write this for a while, but the morphine and lack of juicy cheeseburgers (what has it been now, five weeks without real food?) have drained my energy and interfered with whatever prose prowess remains.”
Well, I disagree. That’s a pretty amazing sentence. And she wrote this on March 3. She died ten days later. It is a beautiful thing and it is the scariest kind of thing to try and turn into a movie because the potential for what snopes.com calls Glurge is extraordinarily high here.
John: Define Glurge for us here.
Irene: Yes please.
Craig: Glurge is, they apply it generally to things that you might see passed around on Facebook and so forth. They are incredibly sentimental, sweet, sappy, tear-jerky stories about dying children or puppies who are missing a leg. Or a grandmother that reunites with her long-lost twin. And it’s so – it’s glurge. It’s overtly whip out your Kleenex time and cry.
So, when you’re talking about a woman penning a letter to America saying, “Won’t one of you marry my husband because I love him very, very much and I’m about to die,” I’m already going, OK, this is very–
Irene: It’s saved by her prose, but the movie doesn’t have her prose.
Craig: It doesn’t. The movie doesn’t have her voice. Now, you could theoretically create a sense where she’s over the movie like a Ghost, obviously you don’t see her, but you hear her.
Irene: But like Ghost. Not the thriller-ish, but yeah.
Craig: The way that Kevin Spacey is doing the voiceover in American Beauty and as it turns out he’s dead the whole time. You can hear this voice. But even so, again, the potential for glurge is high. And as a writer, I would not take this job on because specifically I feel like she did what she had to do. She wrote this article. Those were her words. That was her feeling. She did it beautifully. Who needs me to come along and turn it into fake drama? It just seems gross.
So out of respect, frankly, even though I could come up with all sorts of easy, cheapo ways to do this, I wouldn’t. I just wouldn’t.
John: I’m not that scared about the glurge. Yes, there’s a lot to be avoided, but I think there’s a lot to sort of lean into here as well. So, yes, we have to be mindful that part of what makes this article so effective is her voice is just so terrific. And we won’t have that literary voice in the movie. But I think you do have a generosity of spirit, a sense of what is special about these two people’s relationship. And to be able to see that is a good thing.
And so while the headline, which she probably didn’t write the headline because they rarely write their own headlines, the headline by itself feels like a great – obviously a great Facebook title, but it’s also a good title for a movie in general. But I think the movie itself may want to be that story of tracking their relationship and sort of like what do you do with that relationship when you know it’s going to end. It’s sort of what happens to a marriage as the kids move out and you have all these plans. And the plans are taken away from you because of this diagnosis.
And we’ve seen the bad version of that so many times. But a really good version of that, a James L. Brooks version of that could be something remarkable. And so I think that’s the opportunity here. How do you take a tragedy and find some good in it? And that’s what she was able to do in her piece. And I think that’s the challenge for anyone trying to take this story and move it to the big screen is finding what is the fresh, engaging way to deal with this thing that could be so horrible. And I think that’s the opportunity.
That’s why I think there is a reason to be thinking about this as a movie.
Irene: The thing is it made me want to read her memoir to learn more about her as a person because the article is so much obviously about him and what she wants to leave for him. And that’s how I kind of discover whether I think there was more of a movie in it than this thing right here. Yeah, it scares me. It’s way outside what I generally do and I – ooh.
Craig: Yeah. You know what? I can like to write sentimentally at times. I just feel like – almost feel like this story has put its thumb on the scale so heavily that it doesn’t need me. I don’t know how else to put it. It’s like it doesn’t need me. I would be working really hard to say look at this fresh interesting take on this very sad and yet beautiful thing this woman did. And I just don’t think we need it. This is why I shouldn’t be running a studio, because I’m sure every studio would be like, “Yeah, of course we’re going to make this.”
Irene: And it would turn into a Nicholas Sparks movie.
Craig: Well, yeah, that’s the thing. It would.
Irene: And I can’t write Nicholas Sparks movies. But I couldn’t write, you know, the version that I would want to write, that would be tough.
Craig: See, if somebody came to me and said, “Look, we want you to write a movie and we have an idea. And the idea is a woman is dying and she writes a letter to America saying you should marry my husband.” I would say, oh, that’s an amazing idea. I know how to write that movie. And I could see all sorts of fascinating ways to approach it. Not the least of which is tracking this man as these women appear to him because it worked. But he’s so broken and yet so alone and lost and ashamed to think that maybe he would—
There’s a whole exploration of grief and recovery and finding new love. But because it’s real, I don’t want to do it. It feels creepy.
John: Craig, is it because it’s real or is it because it’s successful? Like if you had come across this thing and it was not a giant popular article, would you be as scared of it? I don’t think you would be. I have to believe that it’s because this is a big thing out there, and so there’s a giant spotlight on her and this one thing. But if it was just a little thing that only you knew about, you wouldn’t be so worried about it.
Craig: No, I wouldn’t. But that’s the point. It’s that there wouldn’t be a thumb on the scale. Because this is so well known, and because she did a brilliant job of achieving her goal here, I’m just kind of using it. It’s like I’m using her pain and her beauty and her brilliance to get you to cry in a movie theater and fork over $12 and buy some popcorn. It just doesn’t feel right.
John: Yeah. So I go back to Big Fish. And so I read Big Fish when it was a book. And Daniel Wallace wrote a great book. And it’s really a lot of stories about him and his dad, but I was able to take that and say like, OK, I can’t really use those directly, but it’s a way for me to talk about the things that I want to talk about and incorporate what I knew sort of about that whole world and that emotional terrain. And so I feel like, yes, her story is going to be the jumping off point, but I think there’s great material to explore and great intra-emotional material to explore given this framework.
Craig: But Big Fish is fiction.
John: But it’s not entirely fiction, though. I mean, yes, it’s fantastical, but the emotional stuff underneath it.
Craig: Oh, sure, sure, but it’s different.
John: No, but I’m saying Daniel’s relationship with his father, that is the story of Big Fish. And so I was taking a lot of his own personal stuff and mucking around with it. But that’s the nature of what adaptation is.
Craig: Yes, but–
Irene: The tricky thing with this article is it’s her voice as the voice of the article, and yet if we’re speaking in screenwriter terms, she’s the character who is dying and do you then write a film – you know if it’s an idea as Craig said, then do you write the film about the guy in recovery trying to navigate this post-Amy world? Then that’s something I can kind of see, and yet her voice is so strong that you don’t want to negate that. So then do you write the film that leads up to that? Or do you do double stands?
It scares me. I admit it. Raising hand.
John: Yeah. I get why it’s scary. Before we finish this up, I do want to circle back to the Nicholas Sparks of it all. Because I think we’re using Nicholas Sparks as a shorthand for sort of like the bad version of this kind of movie. And just like we sometimes we’ll throw Katherine Heigl for like the bad version of romantic comedies. But we can’t be paralyzed about a whole genre just because there’s bad versions out there that we’re afraid we’re going to trip into. Like there’s bad versions of sort of every genre. I just think there’s potentially a great version of this movie. We shouldn’t be afraid of writing the great version of this movie.
Craig: I agree with you. Look, and the truth is I like The Notebook. My issue with Nicholas Sparks’ movies is that there have been so many of them. And they aren’t different enough that over time I feel like I don’t need see them. I saw The Notebook. It was very sweet.
The problem with the Sparks-ing of a story like this isn’t that Nicholas Sparks’ movies are inherently bad. Not at all. It’s that this is real. And it is public. And we have all seen it. And it was specifically intended to be real and public and personal. And none of the Nicholas Sparks stories are real at all. They’re just made up – they’re made up glurge. But they’re oftentimes well done glurge.
Irene: Some of them are really great and some of it have become a little bit of a factory.
Craig: Right. Exactly. This to me – look, you’re going to make all the money on this.
Craig: But Irene and I will be here like, yeah, but you know what, we kept it real.
John: You kept it real. So, our third and final topic for today is about Prenda. And so this is the movie that you’ve not ever seen before. So, I originally put in the outline this article by Nate Anderson who is writing for Ars Technica about Prenda, but it’s actually so obscure and so far at the end of this story that I think honestly the Wikipedia article is a better place to start your adventures in Prenda.
So, in the early 2010s, a Chicago-based law firm named Prenda Law went after porn downloaders for copyright infringement. And so this is from a different Ars Technica article by Joe Mullen. “The basic scheme worked like this. Prenda Law, or one of several attorneys who worked for the law firm, would file a copyright lawsuit over illegal downloads against a ‘John Doe’ defendant they knew only by an IP address. They would then use the discovery process to find out the subscriber name from various ISPs around the country. Once they got it, they’d send out letters and phone calls demanding a settlement payment, typically around $4,000, warning the defendant that if they didn’t pay quickly they would face public allegations over downloading porn.”
Craig: These guys were so brilliant. What an amazing plot. So they’re like, OK, so they’re sitting at home and they go, you know how the Recording Industry Association of America, they send out these letters to people they occasionally catch file-sharing songs, and then they jack them up for a grand or two. We can do that. Oh yeah, we could, but we don’t actually have stuff we own. Well, let’s make some stuff. Let’s make porn and then let’s put it out there ourselves, then let’s watch it, make sure somebody downloads it “illegally.” Then we’ll send them a letter and they’ll totally pay up, because if they don’t everybody is going to find out because we’re going to file a court case that they were watching our screwed up porn.
It’s genius. And it almost worked.
Irene: It’s genius. It’s evil. It’s hilarious in a certain sense. And you would totally want to see these guys get caught.
Craig: I would totally see this. And I should add that I have a personal friend, a great guy named Ken White, who is a criminal defense attorney. He used to be a federal prosecutor. And he is also the primary author at the website Popehat, which is a pretty popular blog that talks about legal issues about rights.
Irene: It’s a great blog.
Craig: It’s terrific. Freedom of speech, and so on and so forth. And he has been all over Prenda since the start. He was one of the big – the early investigators of their whole – because somebody basically forwarded him one of the takedown letters that Prenda had sent. And he smelled a rat from the start. I mean, this feels like a Coen Brothers scheme, doesn’t it?
John: It does. So I think it’s great that you brought up the Coen Brothers, because I was really having hard time figuring out what are we actually seeing on screen and who are we following. Because they’re so despicable. So ultimately they claim to have raked in about $15 million, or at some points they have claimed $15 million. There’s reasons to doubt that because there’s reasons to doubt everything they’ve ever said.
So in a 2013 civil ruling, they were found to have undertaken vexatious litigation, misrepresentation, calculated deception, professional misconduct, and to have shown moral turpitude.
John: So I think Coen Brothers, Craig, is a really interesting way to go into that, because it allows it to be like nasty and fun at the same time. Because I was worried it was just going to be nasty. And I don’t want to just see a nasty movie.
Craig: No, I think it’s hysterical this thing. I mean, look, you’ve got these guys, Paul Hansmeier and John Steele. Right off the bat, those names are amazing, right? And it does feel like Fargo. Like you’re watching weasels turning on each other. These guys, if you read all about this, I mean, they were inventing fake people and there was some guy that they said worked for them and he literally didn’t work for them, but he knew them vaguely. And they were just using his address.
They just get deeper and deeper, and what’s so beautiful about Paul Hansmeier and John Steele as far as I can tell, because I never met these two people, they’re actually not that smart. They’re just ambitious as hell. And watching them get hoisted by their own petard over and over is so incredibly satisfying. So, I just think I would approach this from the black comedy perspective. What about you, Irene?
Irene: Absolutely. I mean, everybody likes to see evil lawyers go down. I mean, seriously, it’s almost a trope, and it’s fun every time. And their machinations are so ridiculous. And so all of it, it’s funny. I don’t know if you guys have seen I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, which won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance – now streaming on Netflix.
Craig: There you go.
Irene: Oh, I hope Netflix is listening. I love you guys. But yeah, that’s also kind of a Blood Simple-esque story with Melanie Lynskey–
Craig: I got to watch it, because I love Melanie Lynskey.
John: We all love Melanie.
Irene: If you love her, you should see it. It’s an indie – it’s good.
Craig: Done. Sold.
Irene: But everyone says, oh, you have to have a sympathetic character to follow and we all know that that’s insane. And I mean I keep writing about difficult people and, you know, people who are tough to love and problematic situations and complications are fun and interesting. They make better films. And even these guys, just the joy of watching these guys go down would be just great to write.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, you’ll get a natural good guy in the lawyer that’s pursuing, but it’s that Texas, Murdering Texas Chainsaw.
Craig: The Cheerleader Mom. It’s just watching these petty creepy people who are just greedy little monsters. And they just aren’t anywhere near as smart as they think they are. And just watching the walls close in on them is delicious.
John: So, how do we see this though? Is this Fargo on the big screen, or is this Fargo on the small screen? Is this better as a movie, or is this better as a TV show or as a season of a TV show? How do we do this?
Craig: Again, it’s casting-dependent entirely. But I could see this absolutely being on the big screen. It’s not going to be some big summer movie, but if you’ve got the right people and you had a great trailer where you really were laughing – and obviously make this for a price, right? So, like the way John Lee made The Founder or something like that. You make this for $20 million and you cast two terrific. You know, you cast Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt as Hansmeier and Steele, or whoever. You know, McConaughey and whatever. And you just have fun with it. Yeah, I think you could do just fine.
I mean, keep the expectations low. But it seems like it would be entertaining as hell.
Irene: I think you could do the $5 million Get Out version of it, too. You know, kind of the – it feels more like a film because I’m not sure there’s enough substance in there to go ten episodes in terms of twists and back and forth. I mean, it would depend on who I was pitching to.
Irene: Maybe I could find a TV series if I thought I could get a job doing one, but I think I would probably aim for a film version.
John: I could also see like Seth Rogan and sort of his folks, Jonah Hill. I could see a version of that that uses those kind of people in there, because that’s sort of the new batch of people we have who do this kind of comedy. And they could do a great job. So, I can see the big screen version of it. But I can also imagine a small screen version of this working.
Irene: Actors love playing larger-than-life assholes.
Craig: They do.
Craig: No question. So do I, by the way. I don’t know if people have noticed.
John: We’ve heard the voices, Craig.
Craig: I have so many different voices.
John: Ugh, so many. So at the end of these we like to figure out which of these How Would This Be a Movie will actually become movies. And our batting average has been remarkably good. So, usually if we’ve singled something out, like someone is going to make that as a movie, within a few weeks someone has optioned the rights to that. So, of these three, which do we think are the most likely to become actual movies?
Craig: Well, unfortunately I think if the estate of Amy Krouse Rosenthal or Amy herself prior to her passing agreed to sell the film rights to her New York Times essay, that will certainly be bought and somebody will attempt to make it. I don’t think they should, but fine. And I think that’s probably it. I don’t really imagine that we’re going to see a Prenda movie. Maybe on cable. I think it would be great, but unless somebody like the Coen Brothers comes along, I just don’t think it’s going to happen. And I have to say I don’t think the Underground Railroad is a movie.
Irene: I would love to see the Underground Railroad get made. It’s just in the realistic look at what does get made, it’s tough. I mean, I feel like the Prenda stuff, I mean, you’d have to go in with attachments and pitch it with attachments. Or spec it or things like that. It would really need to start with more things worked out than are in an article right now.
Craig: And what about the You Want to Marry My Husband?
Irene: It’s got so much reach and so widespread that it feels like unless the estate, or you know her husband, unless they’re so wrapped up in her passing away, which is so recent, it just feels like it’s inevitably going to get made because those kind of cultural events like that tend to.
Craig: Unless they don’t agree to sell the rights.
Irene: Yeah. They may not. It may not be what he wants to do. So, or what she wanted to do.
Craig: What do you think, John?
John: So, I actually think the most likely movie to get made is the Underground Railroad. I think we will see an announcement about rights on this within the next two months. I think someone will try to make this movie.
Irene: I hope you’re right.
Craig: Yeah, sure.
John: I agree with you that the You Should Marry My Husband is either – it’s all a question of whether they agree to sell the rights to this or not. And I can see good arguments both ways. I didn’t think there was any chance of the Prenda movie, but you guys actually completely convinced me that there is a movie here. Because I was not seeing the black comedy part of it. And that makes it delightful.
So, if the Prenda movie happens, I think it will be because we helped frame some borders on that. And I think we deserve our 1% take on that.
Craig: Get a little taste.
John: A little taste. Just a little off the top there. It’s time for our One Cool Things. So, Craig, why don’t you start?
Craig: Well, my One Cool Thing is super easy this week. It’s obvious, how could it not be, a new podcast. I know, hold on a second. Everyone is going, “Wait, wait, wait, wait. You don’t listen to podcasts.” And that’s true. I don’t. Except when this happens. New podcast called You Had Us At Hello, cohosted by Tess Morris, our beloved Tess, and Billy Mernit. And I believe it’s going to be a limited run podcast, but it’s basically the two of them discussing romantic comedies, the writing of, producing of romantic comedies. Why they love the ones they love.
Tess Morris, as most of you know, friend of our show. Screenwriter of the most excellent Man Up. And Billy Mernit wrote a book called Writing the Romantic Comedy, which was highly influential for Tess. Billy also works in the story department at Universal where he reads every script that everybody writes over there and puts all the notes down on paper for all of us. So, including a lot of my work. And so I am grateful to Billy and his whole crew over there. So, I’m definitely going to listen to this. And I think we might even have – a little sampler for people?
John: We do. So at the end of our show, after our outro, you can hear about ten minutes of this first episode that they did. What I love so much about it is it’s completely Tess. And so you can hear the teacups and the china. And you can hear the dogs barking in the background. And it feels like two good friends sitting around a table, talking about their favorite subject which is romantic comedies. So, congratulations Tess.
Craig: You know the only thing that could possibly make it better?
John: Oh, no. It would make it much, much worse, Craig.
Craig: No, I don’t think it would, John.
John: I thought you were going to do Sexy Craig. The Bane is actually probably much worse in this.
Craig: Is that tea? Are you drinking tea, Billy?
John: Irene, do you have a One Cool Thing to save us?
Irene: You know what? Watch I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore. I really liked it. And Melanie Lynskey is great. And I’ve loved her since Heavenly Creatures. And if you don’t want to watch that on Netflix, watch Heavenly Creatures.
Craig: You know I have the biggest crush on Melanie Lynskey. I mean, I’m friends with her husband, so I can’t–
Irene: You can’t do anything about it?
Craig: Or, I don’t know, are they married? Jason Ritter. Greatest guy. Yeah, no, no, no. It’s a platonic crush.
Irene: Don’t we all carry just like a little flame for Melanie Lynskey? Just like a teeny bit?
John: We all do. 100%.
Craig: And literally the nicest person I’ve ever met in my life. She’s the greatest. You can’t even believe.
Irene: I am so happy to hear that. Because there are some actors I don’t want to hear that they’re terrible in real life.
Craig: I know. Well, like I want her to be my mom.
Craig: Yeah, she’s amazing. So I’m going to totally watch that.
John: That’s good. My One Cool Thing this week is two apps, but it’s really more kind of a concept. It’s called Couch to 5K. It’s this idea that if you’re a person who does not run, but you want to learn how to run, that’s sort of the couch part of it. Like you’ve been sitting on a couch for a long time. You can get up to running a 5K race pretty easily. It just takes a couple weeks of training. And basically every other day you’re sort of building up a little bit more, a little bit more. So you have the app that’s sort of talking you through when you’re walking and when you’re running, and it gets you up to running a 5K.
So, I did the 5K version of this when I was back in LA. I’ve done the 10K version of it here in Paris. And so I can now run a 10K, which is sort of remarkable. Because I’m not a person who ever was sort of born to run. But it’s been great. So, I’ll put links to these two apps in the show notes.
But there’s actually a lot of other apps, so while I like these apps, you should try some other ones because they all work a little bit differently. But they’re all gradually up to running a full 10K.
Craig: Wonderful. Good. Will keep you alive.
John: That is our show for this week. So, as always, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Victor Krause. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also a place where you can send questions. For short questions, I am on Twitter @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Irene, you’re on Twitter?
Irene: I am. @renila.
Craig: I should follow you. Do I follow you?
Irene: I don’t know that you do.
Craig: I’m gonna. Doing it right now.
John: It’s so interesting to hear you pronounce it, because I would pronounce it Renila. But it’s like Irena LA. So, yeah, it makes much more sense.
Irene: Everybody does. It came from like an old online dating handle, Renila, from like 10 years ago. And so it’s short, so it became my Twitter handle.
John: Following. We are on Facebook. You can search for Scriptnotes podcast. Find us on iTunes at Scriptnotes. Leave us a review. We’ll love you for it. We might even read it aloud. Also, while you’re on iTunes, you can download the Scriptnotes app. There’s an equivalent Android app. That’s right now the only way to get to all of the back episodes of the show. So we have 292 previous episodes, plus bonus episodes.
Craig: So many.
John: You go, you subscribe to those. It’s $2 a month. Show notes for this episode and all episodes are at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. We’ll try to get those up a couple days after. But in the show notes you’ll find links to Irene’s movie, which is on Netflix, so you can watch that.
John: And all the things we talked about, including the articles. And, Irene, it was so great to have you on the show. Thank you so much for coming in.
Irene: I love you, John. I love you, Craig.
Craig: We love you, too. And congratulations on your movie.
Irene: Thank you so much. It’s good to get things made.
Craig: Isn’t it?
John: It’s the best.
Irene: It is so good. Ah.
Craig: All right.
John: See you guys.
Craig: See you next week, John.
- Most Hated Woman in America | Official Trailer
- The New Underground Railroad
- A Safe House for Refugees
- You May Want to Marry My Husband
- Prenda, Copyright and Porn
- Prenda Law
- Couch to 5K
- 5K to 10K
- You Had Us At Hello
- I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
- Irene Turner on Twitter
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Victor Krause (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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