John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August and this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Craig has the week off, but luckily we have someone remarkably qualified to take his spot. Damon Lindelof is the co-creator and showrunner of Lost, a screenwriter and producer of films including Tomorrowland, Prometheus, and Star Trek: Into Darkness. And most immediately the guy behind the HBO series The Leftovers, which began its third and final season this past Sunday. Damon, welcome to Paris.
Damon Lindelof: It is so exciting to be here, looking out the window and seeing the Eiffel Tower. It’s a beautiful sunny day here and a little stressed out about sitting in for Mr. Mazin. I feel like Jerry O’Connell must feel when he’s on Regis & Kelly or whatever it’s called now.
John: That’s a high stress job. I mean, Chris Hardwick seems like a very natural choice to fill in there.
Damon: That’s true.
John: But you have to be very up and present and it’s challenging, but we’re not nearly so demanding of an audience. People are driving in their cars or they’re walking around, so it’s not nearly–
Damon: No pressure.
John: No pressure.
Damon: I understand.
John: Yeah. Kelly, she’s always on at the gym. And the gym, that’s a high pressure environment. But you–
Damon: That’s true.
John: This is nothing. Why are you here in Paris?
Damon: I am here for Series Mania or that’s the American pronunciation. Series Mania.
John: Sure. That sounds right.
Damon: It’s a big TV festival that they have in Paris. And I’m on the jury. So, I’m also premiering the first two episodes of The Leftovers’ third season here in Paris, so that’s going to be tomorrow night at the time of this recording. And so we’re flying in a couple of the actors. So Justin Theroux and Christopher Eccleston will be here. Max Richter, who does our music. So, the premiere is going to kick off this festival, and then I get to watch a lot of great international television that I’ve never seen before. And sort of Sundance or Telluride where we will award a grand jury prize and a couple of acting prizes, etc.
But, it’s basically just an excuse to eat baguettes and coffee and stare out the window at the Eiffel Tower, which I’m going to do right now.
John: That sounds really good. So, on today’s podcast, I’m not going to ask you any specific questions about Lost or The Leftovers, because I feel like there’s probably 10,000 hours of tape of you talking about those two shows, which are both fantastic. And I’ve seen every episode of both.
Damon: Blah, blah, blah. Yes. Enough.
John: But I do want to talk to you about television, because Craig and I get a lot of questions about television and we really don’t know very much about television, so whenever we have a guest–
Damon: But you watch a lot of television.
John: I watch a ton of television.
Damon: So you know a lot about television.
John: Yeah, but like the making of television is a very different process. And it’s changed a lot even over the last ten years. So, I’ve not had a series on for quite a long time. But just watching you and sort of your career, it has just transformed a lot. I can tell.
So, I want to talk to you about sort of making a series. But also I’ve known you since before you were a television writer, so I sort of want to talk about growing up, becoming a staff writer, and going into showrunning.
John: And maybe answer some questions from listeners that have written in. And then finally I want to talk about sort of the back catalog of ideas, because you’re at a place now where you’re done with The Leftovers and you have to figure out what you’re doing next. And I want to talk about how do you decide whether to do something new or to visit something old. So, we’ll go through all of that today if we can.
Damon: Oh man. OK.
John: It’s a lot.
Damon: What would Mazin do?
John: Mazin would find a way to cut this short and plow through it.
Damon: Joke it up.
John: He would joke it up.
Damon: God love him.
John: He’d bring out another character voice.
Damon: There’s a closet door behind you and I know that Mazin is going to pop out of it at any moment. And harangue me, which is just the way I want it to happen.
John: Sounds good. Let’s go back to sort of your origin story and how you got started as a writer. Because I think I first met you in ’97 or ’98. You were working–
Damon: I was working as an assistant probably for Toby Jaffe at the Ladd Company. And I think you were working on a project there. But I remember, like I think I had read Go, but before it was made.
Damon: And you came out of the Stark program, if memory serves. And I just thought, wow, you were the – not that you aren’t still – but you were the young, hot, you know, scribe. And this was a time where Hollywood Reporter and Variety were not yet really online. And you would buy the trades and there were always talks of sales and deals and etc. And I remember being in awe of you, which I still am, as I mentioned.
So you basically had the job that I wanted, which at the time I think probably in the mid to late ‘90s, a movie writer. A screenwriter.
John: Yeah. For sure. I think at that point I had stopped working as an assistant and Go might have sold. We hadn’t gotten it made yet. And I had a few other assignments. But we had a mutual friend, so a guy who worked at your company was also a Starkie. And so I remember going to lunch–
Damon: Yes. That’s right.
John: I remember going out to lunch and going to the [Cuccaro] on Larchmont.
John: And how I first got to know you. And I think I remember, we’ll circle back to old projects at the end, but I remember you pitching me a movie you were writing, a script you were writing, that was about hemophilia.
Damon: Oh yes. What a genius idea that was. Just to contextualize, at that time still in the mid ‘90s, even though we were many years beyond the initial Die Hard, that idea of like when you were pitching movies or selling movies it was Die Hard in a blank. The specs that were selling were the kind of Shane Black, you know, big action concepts. And my idea, which I thought was brilliant at the time, was what if there was a guy who was a severe hemophiliac to the degree where any kind of significant subcutaneous cut would put him in enormous peril. And he was incredibly wealthy, like Bruce Wayne, and had a tremendous amount of resource, but was basically living in this penthouse apartment in New York City, but never left.
And he kind of had a – he was a grown man, but sort of a state of arrested social development because to get cut would basically kill him. And what if we took this guy and threw him into like an incredible action scenario where every single set piece he couldn’t end up like John McClane. Where it’s like just the single cut. So he is having sort of a Rear Window, like borderline stalking relationship with this beautiful woman who lives in the penthouse across from him. And she’s in a relationship with this dude who is like some kind of Russian – some bad guy.
And he is watching her and fantasizes about like what her life is, in a very cute, innocent PG-13/non-stalkery way. Although it is stalking in hindsight. And these toughs basically break into the apartment and kidnap her. And he realizes that he is the only one who witnessed this and must go and rescue her. And hijinks ensue.
John: Hijinks ensue. So, that was a script you wrote?
Damon: Oh, I wrote it.
John: You wrote it. And was it your first script?
Damon: No. I mean, I had probably written like maybe three or four completed screenplays, one of which was a bad Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, kind of like rip-off, like a party comedy, a John Hughes wannabe thing. And then there were a couple like busted action movie ideas. And then I wrote this western called The Perfectionists that was kind of like in the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino ultra-violent comedy western set in Mexico. And that screenplay was the first thing that I wrote that I was like, “Oh, this isn’t the worst thing that I’ve read in my life and I’ll at least let some of my peers read it.” And got some positive feedback from them. And then I submitted it for the Nicholl Fellowship, which is done through the Motion Picture Academy.
At the time they got like maybe 5,000 submissions a year and I started getting letters that I made the first cut, and then the second cut, and the third cut. And it was down to maybe 50 scripts out of those 5,000. And I was like, oh, this is good. I have to choice to make, which is the next letter may say I’m no longer in the running, and that will be incredibly demoralizing and I’ll decide that I’m a terrible writer again. Or, I can just take all of this positivity and make a move.
And so I sent out an email to everyone I knew and at that point I’d just been watching a tremendous amount of television and I started to have some peers who were working in television. And it felt like my skill set would be much better suited to TV because I love collaborating. And I heard about this thing called a writer’s room, as opposed to the way that you know feature writing works, which is there’s no collaboration fundamentally. There’s collaboration between you and the producer and the studio, but those three entities are very rarely in the room at the same time. You’re getting mixed messages. And then if a draft doesn’t come in exactly the way they want it, they fire you and replace you, versus the way that it made much more sense to me and more fun is to basically take four or five talented people and put them all in a room together. And everyone is basically coming up with ideas and supporting one another and challenging ideas that aren’t working, et cetera.
That was only happening in TV. And a friend of mine, Julie Plec, who was running Kevin Williamson’s company at the time as an executive, and now Julie runs – she’s a showrunner. She’s been running The Vampire Diaries which just ended and The Originals, which is the spinoff of that show. But she emailed me back instantly and said, “Kevin just had a show picked up.” This was after Dawson’s Creek. “It’s going to be on ABC. But you need to start – could you start on Monday?” And this was on a Thursday. So, I quit my job. Ladd told me, both encouragingly and discouragingly, “You can always come back.”
Damon: “I’ll be here when things don’t work out.” And I took the writer’s assistant job on Wasteland. And that was in the 98/99 season, so that was 19 years ago. I’ll be a professional television writer for 20 years next year.
John: That’s crazy. So, I remember Wasteland, because I was doing a competing show.
Damon: Really? Very few do.
John: I was doing a competing show. I was doing D.C. which was the WB show. Your show was like young twenty-somethings in New York, mine was young twenty-somethings in Washington, D.C.
John: Yours lasted like 13 episodes. Mine lasted three.
Damon: No, only two episodes of Wasteland aired.
John: Oh, fantastic. So, I may have beaten you.
Damon: We made 13.
John: Yes, absolutely.
Damon: And D.C. had a – you know, the premise of Wasteland was Friends as a drama series with no comedy. Like, it was just twenty-somethings having existential crises. But at least D.C. they were in pop–
John: Yeah, there was some kind of reason.
Damon: There was a franchise.
John: Mine was supposed to be like post-Felicity. So it was supposed to be fun. But it was not a good show. Have you gone back and watched any of those early things that you wrote? Because I’ve not gone back to watch DC at all.
Damon: Oh my god. No, I have not. But I think I probably should, just to–
John: Might be sobering.
Damon: Some sort of learning, yeah. I could use some sobering.
John: So, you start as a writer’s assistant. And were you able to write an episode during your time as a writer’s assistant? Was that an actual writing job?
Damon: What ended up happening on that show, because Kevin Williamson was the de facto showrunner, except he had just handed off Dawson’s Creek to Greg Berlanti who was like a one – I think he was like 24 or 25.
Damon: Running basically Dawson’s Creek.
John: And he still seems like a boy wonder.
John: The man does not age.
Damon: I mean, how prolific and incredible his shows are. Kevin was also directing this movie called Teaching Mrs. Tingle, for New Line, so he was not around for the early days of Wasteland. He would just basically buzz in for an hour or two a day and the room would pitch him ideas. But he was not able based on his other projects to take the reins.
And what ended up happening over the course of just about six weeks is that the showrunner quit, a number of other writers were fired, and by the end of six weeks it was the staff writers and the story editor and very junior level writers and me. And there was no material beyond the fifth episode. And we were about to go into production on it. And I was like I’m just going to write a spec Wasteland, just on my own. And I did that over the course of two days and handed it off to the staff writers and said, “If this is worth anything, rewrite it, put your names on it, but at least we’ll all be employed for another week or two.” And they went into their office and closed the door and I was feeling really anxious and the door remained closed for 45 minutes. And I was like I’ve made a huge mistake. I’ve overstepped my bounds.
And then Kevin, he was a friendly guy, but he’d never – I didn’t even know that he knew that I really existed. And he walked right up to my desk, which was in the kind of bullpen. And he said, “Are you Damon?” And I said, “Uh, yeah.” And he said, “Did you write an episode of the show?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Do you have an agent?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “You better get one.”
John: That’s great.
Damon: And he went into his office and then moments later Jim and Andy, who were the staff writers, they came out and they were like, “We really liked the script. We called Kevin.” I was like, yeah, he just…
So, you know, it was off to the races from there. So, I ended up writing on three or four of the 13 episodes of Wasteland that were produced, but again only two aired before it was canceled. So, that’s how I got my WGA status and my representation and all that stuff was on that show.
John: I want to connect a few dots back earlier. So, Julie Plec was the person who brought you in to do this.
John: How did you get to know Julie Plec?
Damon: I’m sure it still exists today, but there was just – there was like an assistant circuit of the assistants from agencies, studios, and production companies would have like these mixers, you know, on Thursday nights. And we would just go and basically network with each other and get drunk and make out and make friends. And so everybody started as PAs and then became assistants and then people started getting development jobs. And so I had known Julie, circling back to Jerry O’Connell, he and I were really good friends at NYU. He did Scream 2.
John: Which was Kevin Williamson.
Damon: For Kevin. And then that’s how I met Julie through that group.
John: So you didn’t show up in Los Angeles with any network of anybody? You just started working and built it out from there?
Damon: Literally knew nobody. Came out here with my roommate from college in ’94 and we wagon-trained from – he lived in – I came from New Jersey to Chicago. He lived in Michigan. And the two of us, his name is Erik Baiers, he is a big mucky muck at Universal now. He and I drove out and like basically just rented an apartment. And answered ads in the trades. Went to Kinkos and faxed our resumes in. And got internships and then just parlayed that into assistant jobs.
John: So, what I like about your story in terms of both leaving the Ladd Company and writing the script for Wasteland is you didn’t ask permission, you just sort of did it, and very politely waited for the next step to happen. You sort of put yourself into positions where you could become lucky by going out for that job, letting people read your script, by letting people read the spec you wrote which you decided to do. That’s a common thread as I’ve talked to a lot of writers who have progressed up is that they didn’t sit around waiting for someone to tell them that they could do something. They just did the thing and sorted it out as it happened.
Damon: Yeah. I mean, I think that it didn’t occur to me at the time that – it wasn’t like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Sort of like moxie play. Like in my brain at the time that it was happening it felt like it was a survival play. But there was also this other ingredient in what you’re talking about. Because I agree with what you’re saying. And I feel that there is commonality. But the missing ingredient, other than luck and let’s just say, you know, that you have some fundamental talents or experience, because a lot of people in that situation, you know, it does have to be on the page, or you do have to be able to speak articulately about story, but desperation also happens to be part – usually part of the story. And so I can guarantee you that had Wasteland been a successful show, like on the scale of Dawson’s, that I never would have made that move.
Like, I would have gone through the entire first season doing my job, the job that they hired me to do as writer’s assistant, but it wasn’t like, ooh, I see an opportunity, I’m going to grab it. It really was dark days. The show is going to go down. You know, they’re going to shut us down. We don’t have scripts. Like, I have nothing to lose.
Damon: And it felt like a very low risk play.
John: Yeah. I had a good conversation with Drew Goddard and we were talking about sort of his first–
Damon: Hack. Oh my god. The worst.
John: A charming hack. He was talking about his first TV experience and it was with Joss Whedon. A similar kind of situation where like–
Damon: Haven’t heard of him.
John: You know, the show was really having a crisis and they were lacking an episode. And so he just happened to be the person who was nearby and just started up the conversation and became the idea between takes. And he wrote it. And as I was talking through the whole conversation with him, you see that at sort of every step along the way Drew just worked harder. And also just like he was the guy who did stay up all night to do the thing so it could sort of save the day.
Damon: Yeah. And you know I’m a big believer in when we hire writer’s assistants on shows that I’m running, I’m hiring writers. So, the de facto rule is that the writer’s assistant does not speak in the room, because their job is to basically synthesize everything that everyone else is saying. And if they’re thinking about pitching their own ideas, they’re not really listening. That’s the thinking. That said, there are moments in the room and out of the room, like when the room isn’t actually up and running, for the writer’s assistants to pitch. And because there is this – I don’t want to say it’s a political – it’s more of like sort of a social dynamic thing. It’s like you want to hire people who figure out like – who see their moment and take it.
And it’s very hazily defined. Like, you know when it’s too soon. And you know when it’s too late. And it’s hard to do it when it’s just right. But the thing is, you know, what I would say to all writer’s assistants or anybody in that position, you know, the first thing that you say better be great because if that first thing that you pitch is not great, then the second thing that you pitch has to be exponentially greater than that thing.
So, just bide your time, but essentially you have to jump into the Double Dutch jump rope at some point. That is an expectation. And certainly on The Leftovers over the course of the three years we promoted both of our writer’s assistants, both our writer’s assistant on season one, Nick, and our writer’s assistant on season two, Haley, because both of them demonstrated they were able to do the job of writer’s assistant incredibly well, but they also found those moments to demonstrate that they were writers.
John: So, when I was doing D.C., my first TV show, I had to put together a staff. I never was a staff writer, and suddenly having to assemble a writing team. And I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have any real good sense of what I needed. So, now that you’ve done this a couple of times, what are you looking for as you’re putting together a writing staff, from writer’s assistant all the way up to the people who are going to help really run the show with you?
Damon: Well, almost everything that I learned I learned from Carlton Cuse. He’s been a mentor and continues to be a mentor to me on so many levels. But, following Wasteland, which was not the most functional staff in terms of the way that it was assembled at first, although consisting of amazing writers, I went on to Nash Bridges in its sixth season. Sixth and final season. So it was this well-oiled machine. But something happened at the end of season five where essentially there are just moments in television shows where the entire staff basically goes off to do other things, and it happens simultaneously just because they’re at the end of their three-year deals or whatever.
So, at the end of season five, Shawn Ryan, who basically wrote a spec called The Farm, because he wanted people to think that he could do more than just Nash Bridges, that ended up being like FX’s first drama, The Shield, and one of the greatest television shows of all time. And Glen Mazzara, they both left at the end of season five. So, Carlton basically reconstituted the entire staff because with the exception of he and John Worth and one other writer, Reid Steiner, there were five new hires. Because I think that he realized that Glen and Shawn were so powerful in the room that let’s just kind of do a complete and total overhaul. And I was one of those writers.
And so the first thing that you do is you read samples. And it’s not a zero sum game in terms of this person is a good writer, or this person is a bad writer. Like you have to be able to assess how are they with dialogue, how are they with character, how are they with plot, how are they with humor. How are they with pace? And nobody is going to check all those boxes. And the key is to basically not have redundancies. So, don’t meet with three people who are really great at dialogue because certainly in the sixth season of that show the voice of the show is already clearly defined. And so you have to be a good writer, but it’s a lot more technical.
John: So, you were the person being staffed, so you weren’t reading other people’s things for Nash Bridges.
Damon: That’s correct.
John: So why do you think they hired you for Nash Bridges?
Damon: Carlton said he read two of my samples. I wrote a one-act play about time travel and a spec Sopranos. And he read those two pieces of material and met with me. And in the meeting, he was like, “Tell me what’s your story. Where do you come from? What do your parents do?” He didn’t really seem interested at all in what I had to say about Nash Bridges. He was more interested in who I was as an individual. And I think that was the other component which is try to build a room that comes from a different place than you do, and looks at the world in a different way than you do. But then in the overlapping Venn diagram you’re all going to meet at the show, so there has to be some common language.
But I was very candid with him in saying, “Here’s the thing. Nash Bridges is on Friday nights at 9 o’clock. I’m out, like partying. But the episodes that I’ve seen, and I love Miami Vice, I’m a huge Don Johnson fan. I love Cheech. I really think this is a great show. And I think that I could write for it.” But that was like 5% of an hour-long interview.
And to go back to your initial question, so you read somebody’s sample. That gets them in the room. But the intangible is you sit down with them for an hour or 90 minutes if the interview is going particularly well, and you just have to ask yourself could I hang out with this person in a room for nine to ten hours a day and enjoy hanging out with them? And that’s just a gut instinct. And there are some amazing writers, incredible on the page, who I just had very awkward stilted interviews with. We just didn’t click. Like, that’s just as much on me as it is on them. And I ended up not hiring them because of that.
And then each writer you hire you have to basically think about them now existing in that room as you start to build the room around them. And I don’t say this just because it is the politically correct thing to do, but having real diversity in a writers’ room, particularly on gender lines. I mean, I think that the industry has a huge way to go in terms of finding writers of color in general. The agencies are just – their rosters are very anemic when it comes to that. But in terms of men and women, there’s more of an equal balance. And so just start from a de facto place of the room has to be 50/50 because if it’s just eight guys in a room, it’s not going to be good for the show.
John: So, you’re making the decisions about who you want to bring on, but there’s also other voices saying, “How about this person? How about this person?” So there’s a studio talking to you, there’s a network talking to you.
Damon: Sure. Right.
John: There’s a bunch of agents talking to you.
John: How, as a showrunner, do you sort through all that? And when do you decide to read a person’s script or not read a script? Is there a first vetting process is somebody helping you go through that pile first?
Damon: That’s a great question. I mean, I think that probably the loudest voice in that mix is the network. When they’re staffing a show, either shows have just gone done, or they have overall deals with talent, probably less so now than before. Or someone that they’ve been monitoring and they’re huge fans of. So, you know, if HBO when we were putting The Leftovers together, Michael Ellenberg was basically our point exec on that. He had like seven people that he felt would be good on the show and that I should read. They came from a whole spectrum of they were playwrights, some of them were novelists. Very few of them had any actual television experience before because I think the thinking was like let’s put people in this room who haven’t done it before because maybe they’ll come up with more outside-the-box ideas.
So that’s first and foremost if the network says you’ve got to meet with these people, or I think that you would like – you have to do it, just on general principle. And chances are you’re not wasting your time by doing that. And then level two is Warner Bros., the studio, is producing The Leftovers. They also had talent that their executives had been developing. And I think that they have immaculate taste over Warner Bros. So, I met with those people.
And then my agents. So I’m represented by CAA. I’ve had a relationship there for 15 years. And so my agent is not going to waste my time sending me – they know me better than anybody else. Just as a person versus as a writer. And what I’ll try to say to them is just send me like your three or four best. I know that you’ve got a lot of clients to service, but your three or four best. And then the other agencies will send one or two as well.
And in the hiring process, I’ll probably generate a stack of between 30 to 50 scripts of writing samples. And I will read pretty religiously like the first 15 pages of every script. If something is like particularly spectacular, I’ll actually finish it, because I’m just like oh my god, like I just want to see how things turn out. But for the most part, within 15 pages or so I can kind of determine whether or not it’s going to be a match.
John: So, you’re putting together this staff for a writer’s room, but I feel like you have sort of different qualifications for writing on something like Leftovers, which correct me if I’m wrong – I think Leftovers you wrote all the episodes before you started shooting. Is that correct?
Damon: It is incorrect.
John: It is incorrect. So, on the first seasons of Leftovers, how far were you in to the writing before you started filming?
Damon: I think that we had three scripts completed and had broken the fourth episode and maybe an outline on it. And potentially had some sense of what the fifth episode would be. That’s beyond the pilot. So, HBO still pilots shows. And so Tom and I wrote the pilot together. We produced the pilot. And Toto edited the pilot. And then HBO said we will pick this up to series. So that was in the can.
So, I really only think we had two scripts when we went into production.
John: That’s much more like a traditional broadcast situation. We’ve talked to the Game of Thrones guys, and like they have to write the whole thing ahead of time because they’re block scheduling things that it’s impossible to sort of do that show any other way. But I guess going back to staffing, so you need to find people who can work well in the room, but you also are looking for some people who have the experience of actually producing television so that they can do that functional job of like going to set and looking at a cut. You have to find people who have some skills beyond just throwing words around on the page.
Damon: For sure. And that’s why there are staff writers are story editors and the expectation on them because they’re newbies is it’s primarily a writing job, but then once you get to the producing levels you do expect some producing acumen.
On Lost and The Leftovers, we migrated to a philosophy where the writers did not go to the set. And I know a lot of television shows do send the writers to the set, and that’s wonderful. But the model of both those shows was we had incredibly strong producing directors. In the case of Lost, Jack Bender. In the case of The Leftovers, Mimi Leder. And so the idea of having a writer on set felt like to do what. You know, to basically protect their material?
So the writers are always available. They would be involved in the tone. Calls with the directors, which are key. And very heavily involved in the prep phase. But all of which can happen by phone and did. And we had writer-producers, Kath Lingenfelter, and Jacqui Hoyt in season one, who never visited the set, but had incredible – like were totally producing their episodes and the whole series writ large. Gave notes on cuts. Watched dailies. All that stuff.
So, I think that that thinking not just migrated from eliminating the redundancy of nobody should be on set who doesn’t have a clear cut job, but the other issue was I’m just a very room-heavy showrunner. There are other showrunners who float in and out of the room and I want to be in the writer’s room six to eight hours a day. That’s my favorite part of the job. That collaboration. The kicking the tires. We beat out every story with a great degree of specificity.
If you send a writer off to set, and they’re going to be there through prep, on a show like The Leftovers, they’re gone for four weeks. And so the idea of losing a valuable player is like the equivalent of the designated hitter in baseball, where it’s like they only get one at bat every three innings. But you don’t get to use them in the field. And so I just kind of felt like I wanted the writers in the room. Not the best way to do it, but the best way for me.
John: So let’s talk about being in the room versus when writers leave the room. So you have your writing team assembled. You’re breaking an episode. So let’s say you’re on episode four of the first season of Leftovers. Is that process going up on the whiteboard? What is the process for breaking an episode of a show like that?
Damon: So by the time you get to episode four, you’ve already got some sense of what you want to happen in episode four because you’ve got some sense of hopefully what episode ten is going to be, and what it is you’re moving towards. You’ve learned things from the first three episodes. But essentially, episode three is off the board and is being written and exists in draft form. And you erase all the boards and you’re looking at these big white boards. And you start – we usually would do at least two, sometimes three days of blue-skying. Which is kind of anything can happen in this episode. Let’s talk about what we want to be happening thematically. What do we want to have happen between certain character relationships? In the storytelling mechanism do we want to focus on just one story, or are we doing three stories? So there’s a lot of experimentation and sort of fumbling around.
Until you basically land on what I would say is like the big idea. And in the case of the fourth episode of The Leftovers of season one, somebody pitched, you know, what if the baby Jesus gets stolen from the nativity scene. It’s just a prank. I was like, oh, that’s cool. It has thematic resonance for the idea of the show. It could be a little bit fun and silly. And we’re getting to talk about religion without talking about religion. And it’s something that our chief of police isn’t going to want to deal with because he’s got more important things to be dealing with, like the fact that his wife has joined a cult. But I was just like, OK, so that’s going to be the organizing principle.
And so then you start saying like, what are the beats of that story? And then someone pitched like, oh, it would be really cool to watch that baby being made like in a doll factory. And see the mold being poured. And then it being put on the assembly line. And then having its eyes painted and put in a box. And then the box ends up on a shelf in Target. And then a woman buys the baby and then she dresses it up. And then the whole end of that idea, she puts it in the manger.
And so we’ve just basically shone you how Jesus Christ is made in the real world. And everybody goes like, oh, that’s awesome. That’s a great idea. And then that’s how it’s going to start. And then you try to figure out the corresponding bookend, which is what’s the end of this episode going to be? In the case of episode four, it’s interesting that you just threw that out arbitrarily, which is that’s the episode that I think had the most problems in the first season because we broke an entire story, an entire what we would call a B story, which we stopped doing towards the end of season one, and we started doing much more interconnected singular point of view stories, but we did a story with Kevin’s son and Laurie’s son, Tom, and this girl Christine as they joined this commune of barefoot people who are like these kind of hedonist hippies.
We shot the whole thing, and it was an utter disaster. And we scrapped it. It’s the only thing we ever shot for the show that didn’t air. And then basically re-broke it. And in the process of re-breaking it, we came up with a new ending for the Baby Jesus story which incorporated Matt Jamison, who we had now seen dailies for episode three and we saw what Eccleston was doing. And we were like, oh, we have to – like the payoff for the Baby Jesus story has to be a scene between Kevin and Matt, which didn’t exist in the original draft.
So, the show starts telling you what it wants to do. But, the story-breaking process is what’s the first scene, what’s the last scene, and now let’s just fill in everything that happens. What do you have to do to earn the last scene?
John: So this is all going up on a big whiteboard?
John: And then ultimately whose job is it to transfer what’s on the whiteboard to a document that everyone else can look at?
Damon: The writer’s assistant.
Damon: So one of the low level writers, a staff writer or a story editor, is putting stuff up on the board. So for the blue-sky phase, once we land on something that we like, you just write a sentence. Like baby doll made in Tijuana. And then like last one is Kevin throws baby out window. And it’s literally just those sentences. And after two days, you look and you have about 20 of those sentences up on the board and then you’re ready to go into the next phase, which I think is what I would call the story-breaking phase, where you just go scene-by-scene and you start to pitch specific dialogue, character dynamics, etc.
And so it’s usually for an episode of The Leftovers, wire-to-wire, like a two-week process I think from the beginning of blue-skying until an episode comes off the board. But when it comes off the board, by then all five whiteboards are filled in super mega detail. And then off of that the writer will go to outline.
John: Great. So the writer goes to outline, so you assign one of the writers who is in the room, like this is your episode. And does that writer know ahead of time that this is going to be his or her episode?
Damon: Yeah. In the first season less so. I mean, usually you try to do it hierarchically, so the more experienced writer-producers get the first scripts. I told everyone when I was hiring them I’m going to be co-writing every episode of The Leftovers with you, so that we can develop and find the tone of the show together. Because I think that that’s going to help me learn how to write the show, but also it will put you in a position to be more successful. And also will generate material, the scripts a lot more quickly, if we’re co-writing them. And everybody was down with that.
So, we just had a rotation. But I co-wrote all the episodes in the first season, say for one, which was episode eight.
John: So it’s gone from this detailed five whiteboards to a document, an outline that everyone can look at?
John: And off of that outline, are there notes or changes? Like does the studio see this?
John: Network sees this? OK.
Damon: The outline is the first that the studio and the network catch wind of what it is we want to do. They would give notes. Very good notes. Points of clarification. Our outlines were very detailed, like they were 20 to 30 page documents. Because more importantly, because the scripts were sort of the last thing to come, and we always had the scripts in time for prep, which is a week before the – a week to ten days before the episode shoots. But usually like right up against it.
But, we would also – production would have the outlines. And that – they’d have that like a month ahead of time, and that was really important because they’d know what all the locations were.
Damon: What the cast asks were going to be. They could start to build a schedule and more importantly a budget off of the detail of those outlines. But then particularly in the first season of the show, the notes would sometimes detonate outlines. And I would come back to the room and say we just got blown up. And sometimes you get a note that blows you up and you immediately resist it just because you know how much work it’s going to create for you, but you know that it’s right. And other times a note is potentially explosive, but you feel like it is wrong and you can scrap it out.
We were getting many more good notes than bad notes. I can’t think of any bad notes that we got in the first season. So, the outline is basically the first test. And it’s a little bit like the Congress and the Senate. Like if the bill makes it out of outline, you’re going to have a lot less problems when it crosses the President’s desk. So, we wanted to generate – we didn’t want there to be any surprises in script.
John: Yeah. So from the five whiteboards, how long does it take to make an outline? Is that just a day to write that out?
Damon: No, because the outline is a piece of writing. So, it’s not – the writer’s assistant has taken what’s off the board and generated notes, but now the writer has to actually write it and create all the things that a writer does. So, it could take like a week from it coming off the board before the writer generates that outline. Because, again, like I said, it’s a pretty lengthy document. And because I would be chugging along on the next episode, that writer would basically generate that outline pretty much independently of me and then I would notes them or rewrite it. But I was much more involved in writing the scripts than the outlines for sure.
John: Great. So once you have an outline that everyone has signed off on, or signed off on enough–
Damon: Sometimes they say, “We’ll see. We’ll see how it works in the script,” which you know like oh my god that note isn’t going to go away.
John: How long is it taking you guys to go from the outline to the script?
Damon: That’s fast. I mean, that takes just almost the same amount of time that it takes to go from board to outline. Maybe just a week. And, again, because there’s two of us, we would just divvy it up.
John: You just pick scenes and do it?
Damon: In the case of the first season, there’d be like the Kevin story and a Jill story and a Laurie story, so you just say like, Kath, you take the Laurie story and I will take the Keven story. Then we started doing episodes like episode three which was just a Matt Jamison story, which I co-wrote with Jacqui. In that case I would be like these are the scenes that I feel like I have a beat on. And she would take the scenes that she felt she had a beat on. And then we would basically exchange notes to each other and then I would do a conformity pass.
John: So you’ve divvied up the scenes between the two of you, but in the outline stage is it so clear sort of how a scene is going to begin and end? Because I can just imagine if you have a scene that’s butting up against the scene that she’s writing, you want to have a natural transition between the two of you. Do you just not worry about it until you are assembling the whole thing together? Or are you asking her sort of like what the first thing is there? Or is that already in the outline basically how you’re going to start that next scene?
Damon: That’s a great question. I mean, for the first season of a show, as you’re determining what its rhythms are, I think that you’re asking the pivotal question which is how do the transitions feel. How to you carry water from one scene to another? And I think that we learned that essentially we would have a higher degree of success if I took the first 25 pages and the other writer took the last 25 so that you could build your own internal rhythm versus writing patchwork, alternating scenes, for exactly the reason that you specify which is I think that the outline sometimes did indicate here’s the first moment in the scene, but maybe not the first line of dialogue or you would find a different blow, a different out for the scene.
And writing The Leftovers was a much different experience for me than writing Lost at a number of levels, but just in terms of construction Lost had commercials. And so every seven pages of a Lost script had to have–
John: You had to start over, yeah.
Damon: Bum, bum, bum. Like, you know.
John: But you also have the joy of coming in with new energy. And being able to sort of open up the curtain again.
Damon: So you could just separate by act. You know, you’d basically say like, OK, Eddie and Adam, you guys take acts two and three and five. And I’ll write the teaser. That’s how you could divvy and you knew like you were just all building into the commercial. Whereas I think writing a pay cable drama, or even a show like Mad Men that has commercials, but those commercials in Mad Men were always like, what? It’s not meant to be watched with commercials. It’s meant to be experienced as a single one-hour movie or whatever it is you want to call it.
John: Cool. Let’s tackle some questions, and then I’ll get back to some of my own questions. These are things that listeners have written in. Sam writes, “I co-wrote a pilot script a few years ago, which went out to almost every major studio network. One of the major studios loved it and put a deal in motion to buy and develop the pilot. A few days later, the deal fell apart when it went to business affairs because a production company attachment we had that the studio did not want. Their attachment deal has now expired. And we have full control of the project again. But the development people that wanted the show are no longer at the studio and we’re starting from scratch. We still love the show and believe in it.
“Are agents and basically everyone else is telling us that once a project goes around once, it is old news and no one wants to look at it again. So they don’t want to take it out again. In your experience, is that true? Do we have any shot of reviving this?
Damon: The answer is yes and yes. So, yes, our industry does for some reason have a bias towards anything that is rehashed or old news. Or when they think about the narrative of a project, they want to be able to say this thing started with my enthusiasm for it versus somebody else was enthusiastic about it once and now I picked up something someone else rejected. Which to me is like a great narrative. But I do think that the reality is when I think about a question like this, I think it’s all in the hands of the representatives, which is like nobody knows that this event happened other than you and your rep and the development executives who are no longer involved.
And so unless your agent discloses that this happened with this material three to four years ago, there’s nothing that should prohibit them from presenting it as new, especially because you control it now. So–
John: Well, he does say though it did go out and everybody read it.
Damon: Oh they did?
Damon: So he’s saying people were enthusiastic about it at one point, but are no longer enthusiastic because it happened years ago.
Damon: To be completely candid, that sounds like a polite pass to me. I mean, I think that strong material, if available, people will snap it up. And another Sam, Sam Esmail, who had no prior showrunning experience and is now on the short list of the greatest auteurs working in television today, you know, he wrote Mr. Robot as a movie, then repurposed it as a television show. And nobody is decrying the fact that it’s the same material in a slightly different format. But–
John: Wasn’t Mad Men also like an old script that he dusted off?
Damon: My understanding is that Matt wrote Mad Men while he was on Becker, and the Mad Men sample is what got him the job on The Sopranos. And that David Chase loved the Mad Men pilot and wanted to produce it, but HBO passed. And so he took it to AMC. And everybody scoffed because AMC, what’s that, and now 11,000 Emmys later. But he had that material for quite some time.
So, you know, I think that great material is evergreen and I would suggest moving on to the next thing.
John: I would suggest moving on to the next thing, too. A thing that I find really weird about TV and tell me if you find this to be true as well. I have friends who staff on shows and when they’re going to move from one show to another show, they need to write a new pilot to represent themselves. And it seems crazy, because I feel like if you’ve written a really good show, especially written on a really good show, that should show your talent. But, no, the agents want a fresh thing that they can send out for staffing, which seems crazy to me.
Damon: It does seem crazy to me, too. But I also sort of feel like television writing, and probably any kind of screenwriting, is like the singularity now where the rate at which TV writing is changing and shifting is happening so fast that a piece of material that someone wrote two years ago doesn’t feel of the now because it’s – when you wrote it, you weren’t aware that Stranger Things existed. You weren’t aware that Transparent existed. And so this idea of like a piece of material kind of has to push the buttons that like all this zeitgeist-y shows are pushing and sort of demonstrate kind of like some awareness.
I mean, I remember I wrote a Sopranos spec, and that’s not the same as writing an original pilot. Tony’s mom was in it. And then she died. Nancy Marchand died. And so I was basically like, well, who cares. I mean, it’s still something that I wrote. It’s still The Sopranos. But people would read it and be like, “This doesn’t feel like The Sopranos anymore because the character is dead.” And I think like writ large that idea of pilots have to kind of be of the now. They have to kind of feel like they have that sort of energy. But, I don’t know. I mean, I think a great piece of writing is a great piece of writing. And agents, it is their job to put you in the best possible position to get work. And so if they’re not seeing the best result from your old sample, or they just want you basically exercise that muscle again, etc., or I would venture to guess they’re trying to trick you into writing something that’s so good somebody wants to buy it as a TV show and that it’s not a sample.
I mean, I’ve read some samples, some pilot samples recently where I was like this should be a show this is so good. Like why would I hire this person to be on The Leftovers? This should be a show.
John: Cool. Lou writes, “I wrote a spec pilot based on a friend’s idea. He asked me to do it. The story in the pilot is from his real life experience. What would be the appropriate way to write credits on the title page? To clarify, we are not writing this script for anybody other than ourselves at this point.”
Damon: Sure. I don’t know what the Writers Guild response to that is, but Lou is the one who is writing it, so it would basically say the name of the – The Adventures of John August by Lou whatever your last name is. And then I put Inspired by the life of John August. Or based upon the memoirs.
Damon: So, you know, I’d solidify the fact that you are the only author of this material, but it is based on the life of your friend.
John: That seems fair to me, too. Again, this isn’t sort of the WGA credit. But when there’s an underlying source behind things, it’s important to acknowledge that on the cover page just so – it’s the morally right thing to do, but it’s also just – it’s going out there in the world and it’s based on someone’s real experience.
Damon: Completely agree.
John: Richard writes, “I’m writing a pilot that contains a mystery surrounding a certain symbol.” This feels very much up your alley. “That symbol is both the opening and closing image of the episode and it carries great importance. Since screenwriting is a highly visual enterprise, I would like to show the symbol in the script rather than just describe it, which would be tedious and devoid of impact. I’ve encountered the opinion that inserting pictures into a script exposes a hack and my screenwriting software does not even include such a feature. What are your thoughts about including a symbol in the script?”
Damon: Wow, that’s a great question because I agree with everything that you just said. Now the reality is because it is the first image of the script, normally I would basically say is there a way for the symbol to be the last image of the script. Because you don’t want to send that hack flag up–
John: On page one.
Damon: On page one. But if your writing is great and the story is great, then you can put it on page 50 and no one will think you’re a hack because they’re completely and totally into the storytelling. I agree that that sends like a real – having illustrations of any kind or symbols is, you know, is immediately sort of you have to find a way to describe the thing without showing it.
Damon: I can’t even – I will say this, though. Based on this question I’m like, ugh, what is this symbol?
John: What is it?
John: My instinct would be to do it on a page between the title page and the first page of actual script. And so if there was an intermediary page that just had the symbol and didn’t even necessarily explain why that page was there, but then when you sort of read through it you get like, oh, that was what that thing was.
Damon: Got it.
John: But having it break in the flow of the text, that’s where it feels hack to me. That’s where I get really nervous about doing that.
Damon: Right. And the other thing is if you can’t describe it in simple – there has to be a way, even if the symbol feels like it’s complicated to describe, you know, you or I could describe Prince’s symbol in a sentence, which is like it’s kind of like the symbol for male or female but with some artistic flourishes, without saying it’s got arrows on the end of each – you know, you don’t have to be overly descriptive.
John: Yeah. I agree with you there. Rian Johnson’s script for Looper has one image in it, which describes like one thing sort of late in the script, but it’s not on page one, and he’s also Rian Johnson.
John: And so that’s a difference between his situation and Richard’s situation.
Damon: Yeah. I think that once you’ve established yourself, then symbol it up.
Damon: Go symbol crazy.
John: So, you’re wrapping up The Leftovers, and all the episodes are shot now. They’re all edited now.
Damon: Yep. It’s as done as done gets.
John: That’s great. So, a thing we were talking about before we started recording is that while you were doing Lost you kept getting hit with two questions. And I want to sort of address those two questions that everyone always asked you about the show and what effect they could have. So what are the two questions?
Damon: I could do like a psychic act where I can say if you were watching Lost, I want you to close your eyes right now and think of what is the one question, especially in terms of process. Forgetting about polar bears and all that fun stuff. Like what you would ask. And I will predict that it will be one of two questions.
The first question is were you making it up as you went along. And certainly as we were writing the show that was in the present tense, are you making it up as you go along? So that’s question number one. And when someone asks you a question like that, they’re not curious. There’s an answer that they want. Because who in the history of the world has been asked that question and you want the answer to be, “Uh, yeah, I’m just making it up as I go along, man. I’m just winging it. I’m President Trump. I’m just like tweeting and figuring things out as I go. This is a tough job.”
You want people to have a plan for sure. So that’s the correct answer is we are absolutely not making it up as we go along. There is a roadmap. There is a bible. All of these things exist. That’s the appropriate answer.
Question number two. How much influence does the audience/fandom have on the outcome of the show? We’re really engaged. We have theories. We go to fan events. We’re on Reddit and Twitter talking about and theorizing about the show. Do you read that stuff and does it influence you? And the answer to that question, the desired answer is, yes, you as an audience have a tremendous influence on the show and the outcome of the show. We’re listening to the things that you don’t like and we’re course-correcting and we’re listening to the things that you like and we’re doing more of that.
And yet there doesn’t seem to be an awareness that these two ideas are paradoxical.
John: Absolutely. They’re completely antithetical. Like something can’t be predetermined and be, you know, have free will based on what the audience wants.
Damon: That’s a very Rousseau/Locke way of putting it. That those are the philosophers, not the crazy French women and the guy in the wheelchair. But, yes, if there is a plan, the audience has no effect whatsoever on its outcome. And if you’re always listening to what the audience tells you, then you have to be winging it. So, how do you thread the needle?
John: And so when you’re doing a show like Lost, which had 24 episodes in its longest season.
Damon: Yeah, 25 hours with Season 1.
John: It was crazy. And so on a show like that, you are writing the show while you’re filming the show. It’s an ongoing process, so you can actually see sort of what’s working in broadcast and change things.
John: But with shorter seasons, that’s much less likely to happen. So, even on the first season of The Leftovers, had any of the episodes aired by the time you were producing the final episodes?
Damon: Oh, for sure. I mean, we produced the pilot in the summer. You know, in July. And then it got picked up. And then we went into production on the series I think the following January or February in New York. I think we were still in production when the episodes started airing.
John: But if somebody watched the first episode or the second episode or the third episode and they said like, oh, I really want it to be more like this, there wasn’t much of an opportunity for that to happen.
John: Because it was–
Damon: All of the material was already generated. I mean, where the space exists is between seasons. So, certainly between the second and third season of The Leftovers had certain things that we did, like big swings – we did an episode called International Assassin that takes place in a – I’ll just say a different reality than the rest of the show. Had the audience rejected that idea instead of embraced it, that would have affected the storytelling in season three for sure.
In fact, you know, one of the big storylines of the third season, I’m not going to spoil anything here, but if you’ve watched any of the trailers or the promos for the coming season, you know, the idea that Kevin, our main character, died and came back to life is a major story thread. And I think had that not worked out in the second season, we would have just pretended that it had never happened.
John: So, this comes up, this idea of like is it all prefigured out or not prefigured out. Two recent series sort of brought this home to me, which were Stranger Things and Westworld. So, Stranger Things is a Netflix show. It all dumped at once. And so you knew from the start that nothing you thought about the show was going to change the show, because the show was done. Because you could see that all of the episodes were there, ready for you to watch.
Versus Westworld as I was watching it week by week, and I love the creators and I’m so happy with the show, but I detected a lot of fan annoyance about how slow things were moving. There was a frustration that was building from fans based on how the storytelling was reeling out which I don’t think would have happened had it been all dumped at once.
Damon: Oh for sure. It’s the – did you get me a bike? It’s a bike, right, for Christmas paradigm where your kid basically asks you for something for Christmas and it’s the big gift. And your kid knows that you love them. So, yeah, chances are they’ve got the bike. But they’re not getting it until Christmas. And so all they’ll basically say is whether they believe in Santa or not, another spoiler alert, you know, am I getting a bike? Am I? Am I getting a bike? Did you get me a bike? Am I getting a bike? And I think that there is a certain level of anticlimax and frustration, but your job as a parent is to basically preserve that moment on Christmas morning when they get the bike. And I think Jonah and Lisa have spoken pretty candidly about the idea that they didn’t expect Reddit to reach certain conclusions that fast–
Damon: But the reality is when you can hive-mind a solution it only takes one person to figure it out before something catches on. And so if there’s millions and millions of people watching something like they are in Westworld, they’ll figure it out. And then I think the other thing that’s sort of worth talking about per both those shows and what you’re saying is there’s a time investment. And so what’s interesting is your time investment in watching Stranger Things and Westworld is exactly the same. You invest ten hours in watching those television shows. But in Westworld–
John: But they’re ten very different hours.
Damon: You actually feel like you’ve invested 100 hours because you’re counting the hours in between the weeks that you are discussing, debating, you know, doing the deep dive on, talking about the men in black. How far in the future are we? Are we on a different planet? All that stuff. That time and energy you also count as your investment. And so the more time you invest, the more possibility for frustration there is.
Damon: Unfairly, I believe.
John: I agree that it’s unfair, but it has to be something that’s on your head as you’re thinking about going forward. So, right now Leftovers is finishing up and you need to be thinking of what you want to do down the road. And I don’t know if you’re thinking about TV at all, but you have to be thinking about anything you do in TV now is going to be a decision of like is this a show that should all be watched at once, or are we going to try to do this sort of week by week basis. What’s your feeling?
Damon: Here’s what’s interesting. The answer is both. Because, so for me the “have your cake and eat it, too” scenario is you roll it out week by week, so for that portion of the audience, that’s how they watched Big Little Lies. You had to wait until Sunday night in order to watch it. And now it’s over and the finale was widely adored, including by myself, and so the people who didn’t want to take the risk that it wouldn’t turn out well or not to invest in it yet, they’re now going to binge it.
So, the way that the show lives on is always going to be in a binge model. Is always going to be in a you can watch all the episodes at your own leisure. But for this one period of time when you’re first rolling it out, as Dickens did with Great Expectations, you know, I mean, we all read Great Expectations as a novel, but when Dickens put it out it was serialized. So, why not have your cake and eat it, too, and do it both ways. Because I want to engage in shows. Like I wish that Stranger Things dolled it out. You know, because as much as I loved it, when it was over I was like, oh, that – I did it too fast. I wished that I could have been part of the community. Instead I watched this thing for three days and now we’re all talking about the entire series. But I wanted to speculate as to what Barb’s fate was, as opposed to I’m now exactly 90 minutes away from determining Barb’s fate.
John: Well, but in order for this cake and eat it, too–
John: Barb. You have to have an end. And so in the case of Lost, it was 100 episodes you did?
John: 121. And so it was so many episodes out in the future. And so I know you asked for a stop date at a certain point so you could plan for it, but someone who wasn’t sure whether they were going to commit to the show, they had to decide am I going to wait four years for it to finish. So something like The Leftovers, each season is very discrete. Like you can sort of watch seasons – well, you really can’t – it’s hard to sort of come into season two and for it to make a lot of sense.
Damon: Although I’ve heard.
John: People do it.
Damon: I’ve heard anecdotally some people are like just start with season two, and they’re a little confused at first, but it’s fine.
John: It’s fine. But the advantage to Big Little Lies or Stranger Things is that you know that it’s only ten episodes, and so you’re not going to have to wait that long to start watching it if you–
Damon: I think Big Little Lies is like seven episodes or something like that. Yeah. No, you know, the thing that I always say is people want to know how thick the book is before they buy the book. So, it’s sort of like it’s why Sorcerer’s Stone is of a certain thickness and Order of the Phoenix is of a – because it’s like by then J.K. Rowling is basically like I got you. So, these are going to be as thick as I want.
But I think if the first book was as thick as Order of the Phoenix, that certainly would give me pause. And so but television, almost until recently you don’t know how thick the book is. And so even Game of Thrones, you know, when HBO started airing it you knew before you watched the pilot of Game of Thrones, and I had read the first three of George’s books at that point, I knew that I was like signing up for the long haul. Like, oh my god, is this going to be ten years of my life if the show works? And I’m down with that. But that’s an intimidating commitment to make. It’s daunting.
And so I really feel like Ryan Murphy and Noah Hawley are at the apex of the newest trend in television which is the serialized anthology. The way that every season of Fargo feels like it is self-contained but part of a larger, sprawling narrative. And they are interconnected in terms of how they move around in time. So, a massacre that was alluded to in season one is actually dramatized in season two. But season two doesn’t feel like a prequel, even though it’s chronologically taking – it feels just as important. And then they connect with the movie Fargo, so the money that Steve Buscemi basically hid and was unresolved in the movie is actually found in season one in Fargo in the Oliver Platt storyline, etc.
But there’s a larger – it’s not just, oh, here’s another season of Fargo. There is a sense of serialization in there. And then Ryan, of course, who with American Horror Story he’ll have actors basically play different characters, but there is also a sense of some meta interconnectedness. And I think that’s a new storytelling form, which is very exciting.
John: But, I mean, I will push back a little bit on Noah Hawley. Legion, which I thought was a terrific pilot and a really interesting show, it felt like it was designed for streaming, yet it came every week.
Damon: Oh, interesting.
John: And so I have a suspicion that the show plays much better if you actually just watch the episodes straight through. But with the week in between you lose the connective tissue. You just can’t actually kind of remember what happened week to week. It’s such a complicated show that without seeing it sort of back to back to back, a week between things have sort of destroyed the momentum.
Damon: I had an entirely different reaction to Legion which was that I loved having the anticipation of the next episode, but I also felt like that show was teaching me how to watch it. And you’re probably right in terms of there’s an intricacy in terms of storytelling and plot and figuring out who is Lenny, and is Lenny is a guy. Who’s the shadow king? Like all of those things. But, for me it was in the way that Twin Peaks was, it was more about a mood. And it’s sort of broadcasting at a different frequency. And so I feel like the penultimate episode of Legion, and again not to spoil it if you haven’t seen it yet, or something like that, like dropped into the middle of a binge, and then suddenly that episode would end and you just have – there’s just this amazing – they do this thing with Bolero and then it’s black and white and you’re in a silent movie. And there’s major revelations and this animated thing on a chalk – it’s just like the idea of that episode ending and then immediately going I’m now watching the finale, versus I need to just take some time with that one, I don’t know. I appreciated–
John: I can the arguments both ways. I felt like my experience of understanding what actually happened over the course of the season would make a lot more sense if I had watched it all together as one thing than just spread out the way it was spread out.
Damon: Yeah, I mean, I think that one thing that sounds super pretentious/precious is that the showrunners of these shows, the storytellers of these shows, should start prescribing the way that they want their shows to be watched. And the audience can choose to ignore them. Like for me, I’d be like, “Noah, what do you want me to do?” And I just assume Noah wants me to watch them every Tuesday night, the week that they’re on, because that’s the way that he’s – Noah Hawley, if he wanted to, he could do the show on Netflix. I mean, maybe he’s in an overall deal at FX or whatever, but like I do want to have a stronger sense of how the people making it feel like it should be watched, even if they’re wrong.
John: Yeah. J.K. Rowling with Harry Potter, her initial recommendation was that it’s designed to be like one book a year. And so it’s meant to be you grow up with the kids. And so the later books are more advanced because you’re supposed to be a more advanced person reading them.
Damon: For sure.
John: It moves from middle-grade fiction into YA.
Damon: And we’re reading Half-Blood Prince right now with Van, my son, who is ten years old, and we started Sorcerer’s Stone I think when he was six.
John: Yeah, that’s just right.
Damon: We’re a little bit faster than once a year, but there was no way that we finished Order of the Phoenix and he wasn’t like, next. At that point he was like, “Let’s get to it.” But you do appreciate how brilliantly she recaps the previous book, because when you and read them the beginning of episode six where they’re dealing with the British PM, having to like basically be apprised of the fact that Cornelius Fudge has been replaced by Rufus Scrimgeour, and then all the things that happen in between books. I remember when I picked up Half-Blood Prince I was like, oh man, it’s been a while since I read Order of the Phoenix. How am I going to remember what happened?
John: And there’s a previously on…
Damon: And she just did it so brilliantly. Oh my god. She’s the best. The best. And you’ve seen–
John: I saw the play.
Damon: You saw it.
John: Yeah, it’s good. The play is really good.
The last thing I want to get to is this idea of idea debt. And so this was some articles I sent to you. The first one I read was by Jessica Abel. And she had a conversation with Kazu Kibuishi where she’s talking about this sense of the old projects that were sort of always lingering behind. So this is what she actually wrote.
“Let me tell you about Forest Lords.
Forest Lords is a series of ten fantasy novels, each a 1000-page brick, about the epic adventures of Greenleaf Barksley, elf proletarian, and his journeys to attain the Golden Leaf and save his homeland from the scourge of the Curse of the Titaness Denox.
The thing is, none of this series exists—not even Forest Lords Volume One: The Elven Soul. There are binders and binders of “lore.” There are a hell of a lot of character designs (that look suspiciously similar to Elfquest characters). There is the vivid, lively picture the putative author has in his head of how it’s going to feel to write a fantasy series that has everyone panting for the next book or movie or TV show.*
But there is no book. There is only Idea Debt.”
John: So, this felt really familiar to me.
Damon: Yeah. It felt really familiar to me, too. And I had the same smile on my face as I read the article that you have on your face as you read aloud that part. Look, I think that world-building is super exciting. And I think that this idea of a broad and expansive universe and saying that this thing is epic in scope, it’s a saga, is a wonderful thing. But the grounds of creative storytelling are littered with the corpses of these elven warriors. And I think that ultimately my takeaway from reading that article and the others is that that’s the fun part, this world-building. The hard part is actually just writing the first one. And the more worlds you’re building, the less storytelling you’re doing. Because it’s sort of like the world-building is easy.
Damon: But what’s getting me into the world, like if you just basically think about like how much time did George R. R. Martin spend building the world of Westeros before he actually started typing chapter one, and now there’s dire wolves. Well, chapter one is kind of our introduction to the White Walkers. But now basically dire wolves pups are being presented to all the Stark kids and Jon Snow. And I guess that there wasn’t a lot of lag time between the idea to do Game of Thrones and the writing of that chapter. And then he started building his world along the way.
And I think that this idea debt is basically prohibiting people from actually working.
John: Yeah. I think people approach it with these weird expectations where they think they need to build George R. R. Martin’s world for Game of Thrones, or they need to build the Potter-verse for J.K. Rowling’s universe, without remembering like, oh no, you actually have to write the book first.
John: And that the universe doesn’t come before the actual text comes. But I think the reason why people want to do that world-building is because there’s no risk. You can’t fail at the world-building because there’s no actual product. But the minute you actually start to write something, it could suck. And that’s the fear. And so you put it off because you’re worried about it.
Damon: I couldn’t agree more. And I also feel like the thing that the world-building is devoid of is the fundamental thing that we attach ourselves to in story, which is the characters and the emotions. And if you read George Lucas’s original treatment for Star Wars, you know, whatever, when it’s Luke Star-Killer and it’s, you know, the Wills and all that stuff, is like it’s all that stuff. It’s all that world-building stuff, but it’s lacking the moment on Tatooine, looking out at the twin suns. It’s certainly – he had to write Star Wars to learn that Vader was Luke’s father. Like, that was not in the world-building part.
And so you have to – I know that there’s a lot of debate, and I don’t even know if J.K. Rowling has spoken about this or been asked this, but it seems to me that had she known about Horcruxes prior to when they were revealed in the books that she could have used that word once or twice casually by Azkaban. And the fact that she didn’t leads me to believe that it was an idea – the story was telling her what to tell, because you have to listen to the show. You have to listen to the story. And all the time that you’re not writing it, it’s not telling you what it wants to be.
John: Absolutely. The sense of what it wants to be and what it doesn’t want to be, the second part of this idea that like all of those things that you have sort of abandoned along the way, those ideas that sort of got half-developed that you’ve never actually done anything with.
And there’s a guy named John Sexton who has a good piece I’ll also link to in the show notes talking about all those things that you’re sort of dragging with you from apartment to apartment, project to project. Those things you always meant to write that you’ve never actually written. And I found myself nodding a lot as he was going through his list, because I have all those things, like someday I’ll get back to that stuff.
John: And I’ll never get back to those things.
Damon: Right. If it sits in your storage unit for like a couple of years, there’s a reason for that. It wants to stay there. But I would say that certain things that are tickling you or get you excited as a writer, they will work their way into – like for example, I always wanted to do a show about time travel. And then I suddenly realized, hey, Lost is that show. Like there is not time travel embedded in the pilot of lost, but J.J. and I tried to do everything that we could to open up all possibilities in the pilot so that if we wanted to get to time travel, we could.
And I always wanted to set a show in the ‘70s, and I was like, well, we’ve got time travel now. So Lost is that show, too. And I’ve always wanted to do like a pirate show. Well, Lost could be that show, too. .
So, if you basically find the canvas that can accommodate all those disparate ideas and you can kind of cram them in there, it’s amazing how resilient television storytelling can be, particularly in this day and age. Where the audience will sort of let you go. And the idea that Noah Hawley is like maybe he – I haven’t heard him talk extensively about Legion yet, but he’s a colleague and I’m a huge fan of his, but the idea that Noah Hawley had always wanted to do a super hero show and it ends up being Legion, you know, is sort of like he seems much more interested in other genre elements than the super hero genre, but there are some things that are distinctly super hero-ish in there that he doesn’t seem particularly interested in.
Damon: And that makes the show all the more fascinating that it’s like, oh, like this is an X-Men show. Like it can be this, too? Oh, that’s cool.
John: Yeah. Circling back to this sense of the world-building and sort of knowing everything that’s out there before you get started, you know, we were talking about J.K. Rowling, whether she knew Horcruxes, but like you guys didn’t know everything that Lost could be when you were writing the pilot for Lost. You guys were just writing the pilot to make the most compelling pilot possible. And sort of to stake out a giant circle of possibility around you.
But if you had actually had to go into it with a plan for like this is the six seasons. This is how it’s all going to work. This is how these two things connect. There’s no way you could have done it. You had to discover it by doing it.
Damon: Yeah. You’re back to do you have a bible. You know, and even the bible was written, you know, I mean I guess there are people out there who believe that the Bible was written by God and then dictated to man, but even the Bible was written one verse at a time, one story at a time. And in the pragmatic reality of storytelling, that’s the only way that you can do it because J.J. and I had ten weeks to basically write and produce and deliver a two-hour movie. That was the two-hour pilot. And the idea that we also in our spare time were able to get together and say like, hey, let’s talk about what season three of Lost might look like. It just didn’t exist.
It’s also hubris. I mean, I think that I always say to studios and networks who are saying like we need a bible or we need to know what season two is, I understand that concern. You’re investing in this thing. You want to know that we have some sense of where we’re going. But, the job – my job right now is to just make one great hour of this thing, not just the pilot. And then episode two has to be – that’s the real pilot of a television show is episode two. But if you make three bad episodes in a row, the audience is out. And it really doesn’t matter if you’ve got a great idea for what season two could be. You should have been more focused on what episode four was.
And so I’m a big believer in look at the episode right in front of you and do everything that you can to make it great. Have some sense of where you want to take things, but then there has to be a discovery process along the way.
John: Cool. Let’s go to our One Cool Things.
Damon: I discovered the show called Occupied on Netflix. It was recommended by a friend. And I don’t know when it was made, but I have a feeling it was made in the last two years. And it’s about a silk glove invasion of Norway by Russia. It’s kind of I guess got 24 and Homeland baked into its blood. But what’s sort of fascinating about it is I didn’t know anything about Norway. And I’ve always had this idealized version of what it is to be Scandinavian. And this is kind of the nightmare scenario. The storytelling set up is that each episode is a month. It doesn’t take place over a month, but is titled like April, May, June. So they jump 30 days between the ending of and the beginning of episodes, so part of the fun is like, hey, what happened in between these episodes. There’s a little bit of catching up. But essentially over the course of the first season you see what it looks like for a country to be invaded by another country. And particularly in terms of what’s happening in the world right now, it’s the most like V, which is a show–
John: Oh, I loved V.
Damon: I loved.
John: Oh my god. I loved V.
Damon: Of anything that I’ve seen in the last two decades, but it’s sort of like what if V happened in the real world. And I’m not saying that the Russians eat guinea pigs. I’m not saying they don’t. I’m not saying they could.
John: They peel off their skin, it is reptilian underneath.
Damon: But the Russians are–
John: Who is the Diana of the show? Is there a person–?
Damon: Yeah, there is a Diana.
Damon: You know, it’s a Russian woman who is essentially – she’s very charismatic. Like the Russians are not just straight up bad guys in it. That’s what’s really interesting about it, too. I would say like the Norwegian Prime Minister is not being presented as this incredibly noble and flawless individual. Lots of different shades in it. And also there’s a lot of English. It makes you, again, hate yourself as an American because every Norwegian and every Russian speaks fluent English. So when they’re talking to each other they speak in English. When the Norwegians are speaking to each other they’re speaking in Norwegian. But you’re like, oh, like all these people are all multi-lingual and here I am like I can order like a burrito and I feel proud of myself.
John: I always feel bad on The Americans, because there are times where I’m sort of half paying attention. Like it could be the radio play, where you can sort of hear the discussion, but then they’ll switch into the Russian section and you have to–
Damon: You got to watch.
John: You got to watch close, because it’s going to be something about the food supply.
My One Cool Thing is also a series. Fits in really well with this idea of recycling your old ideas. It’s called City Girl. I don’t know if you’ve seen this. It’s a romantic comedy done by Parenthood’s Sarah Ramos. And she wrote it in 2003 when she was 12 years old, but it tells the story of this 28-year-old boutique owner and she has this weird affair with her allergist, like her migraine doctor.
But basically, this writer, she found her old script and shot it the way – she didn’t change it. She didn’t update it. She actually just shot it the way she wrote it when she was 12 years old.
Damon: Oh my god.
John: And so it’s like this weird misunderstanding of sort of like what a 28-year-old is like, and what the motivations are.
Damon: Oh, that’s great. They just shot it as is?
John: They just shot it as is.
Damon: Where is it?
John: It’s a series of like web shorts. And so I’ll put a link in the show notes to that. But it’s really–
Damon: Oh, that sounds fascinating.
John: Brilliantly done.
Damon: Can I do one more tiny one?
Damon: Which is the writer and personality John Hodgman, who is a genius, super amazing. He wrote a pilot that you just reminded me of. They did a live reading of the pilot, because it never got produced. But the premise was that it’s his – it’s a coming of age story of him as like a 13-year-old boy, but it’s played by John Hodgman as an adult. He’s the only adult on the show, so all the other kids are played by actual 13 year olds, including his love interest, who is also a 13-year-old.
It’s amazing. And they did this live reading of it that is listenable. I think they did it as a podcast. It’s amazing. It’s so good.
John: Cool. We’ll find a link for that in the show notes as well.
Damon: Do it.
John: That’s our show for this week. Our show, as always, is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth.
If you have an outro, you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send questions like the ones we answered. On Twitter, I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Damon is not on Twitter at all.
Damon: I’m off Twitter.
John: He’s fully off Twitter.
Damon: Craig can keep his day job, because this is big boots to fill.
John: Yes. You can find us on Facebook, just search for Scriptnotes Podcast. That’s also where you can find us on iTunes. While you’re there, leave us a comment. That’s always helpful.
You can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. There’s apps for both Android and for iOS. You can listen to all those back episodes.
At johnaugust.com you’ll find transcripts and links to all the show notes. So, Godwin gets the transcripts up about four days after the episode airs. This one might take a little bit longer because it was a longer episode. But, Damon, thank you so much for coming to Paris and being on the show.
Damon: It’s so weird, because we live so close to each other in Los Angeles, and you made me come to–
John: Yeah, I made you fly all the way here to do this.
Damon: But it was worth it.
John: Yeah. Cool. Good luck. Bye.
- Damon Lindelof
- The Leftovers: Final Season Trailer
- Jessica Abel on Idea Debt
- How I Got Out of Idea Debt by John Sexton
- City Girl
- John Hodgman’s Only Child
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)
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You can download the episode here.