John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 297 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we’ll be looking at the future of James Bond, script-reading robots, and the realities of overhauling a movie in the editing room. But first, we have quite a bit of follow up.
Craig: So much follow up. Let us follow it up. Two weeks ago, Malcolm and I answered a listener question about ellipses in dialogue. And you’d think, John, that that would have gone smoothly. But, no, no.
John: No. There were pauses.
Craig: Yeah. And there was an issue. And the issue was raised by big shot movie director, former Scriptnotes guest, friend of the podcast, friend of me and you, Mari Heller. And this is what she wrote. “I totally disagree with Craig.” John, I’m tempted to just end the follow up there.
John: That basically does it. On any issue, she probably disagrees with you.
Craig: Probably. And I feel like it’s going to happen a lot. But no, she says, “I totally disagree with Craig. Craig said that actors don’t worry about the punctuation of a line and it won’t affect the rhythm of their performance. I just finished working on a movie with two wonderful actors, who had a lot of respect for the script. Often we would get into conversations about how the script was written and where the punctuation was guiding them. They took each clue laid out as a guide and tried, unless we decided to dismiss it, to follow the breadcrumbs that the script gave them.
“What’s more, when I got into the edit I realized the editor was also using the details of the script as a guide in creating her assembly. If a beat were indicated, or it was written that an actor hesitated or trailed off, she went to great lengths to find takes that matched the script. I believe when we write scripts all of our choices, like punctuation and parentheticals should be viewed as clues for our collaborators about the rhythms we intend.”
John: All right, Mari, thank you so much for writing back with us. First off, it sounded like you had a great experience with really dedicated actors and editors. I would say that your experience has not been classically my experience. But, Craig, I’d love to hear what you think.
Craig: I agree. I think this speaks very highly of Mari and her cast and her editor. More often, what I find is that people will come to me – this actually happens all the time – people will come to me and say, “There’s a mistake. There’s a problem.” “What?” “Blah, blah, blah says so and so’s name like they know them, but they haven’t yet met.” “Yes they have.” “No they haven’t.” “Yes, see, here. On this page.” “Oh, you know what? When we did it that day we did it a little differently, so they didn’t meet.” “OK, fine, I understand. However, the script is full of clues.” It’s full of them.
Editors, in particular, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat in an editing room and watched something and I’m like, well, why not just do it this way. And they’re like, “Ooh…” and I said, “You know, that’s the way it is in the huge binder next to your keyboard that has this clue book.”
So, the truth is what is Mari is describing is like writer heaven. People are actually paying attention. I guess what you and I were saying about punctuation is given the general state of affairs where people don’t, it’s probably not that much of a thing. But, yeah, ideally it would be.
John: Yeah. So, I do like your description of punctuation and parentheticals being the clues that you are leaving to the next people to touch your thing. And it’s great that she has the ability to not only direct this project, but also hire really smart people who are looking for those clues. So, congratulations once again Mari Heller.
John: Yep. So I was there for the first part of that episode and we addressed a listener questioner about why there was so little non-penetrative sex in movies and TV. Basically where are the handies and blowies? And so while we were having that discussion we left out like one really obvious movie which was Moonlight, which features a very crucial handy there.
Craig: Yeah. It was a mistake.
John: We weren’t thinking clearly. We were recording this late. I was in London. I lost a microphone. But there is an obvious Oscar-winning movie that has a non-penetrative sex moment that the whole story hinges upon.
Craig: It’s an Academy Award-winning handy.
John: Yeah. It’s quite a good one. And just a few days later, like this is always the situation where like the minute you notice something you start to notice it everywhere. So, I was watching an episode from this season of The Americans and Keri Russell’s character receives oral sex in a way that I had not seen certainly on TV before, and it was actually completely on story and on point. So, I would like to once again congratulate The Americans on being a fantastic show. And just put a spotlight on my own ignorance to these acts that are in these shows that I’m just not seeing.
Craig: Yeah, you know, this is probably going to happen, right? We say that something doesn’t happen and then of course it happens. We just didn’t see it. We missed it. Or sometimes we do see it and then we just forget about it. Really, I’m arguing that we just end the podcast. We’re so close to 300. How great would it be if we just ended it at 299 and we’re like, Nah.
John: Yeah. There’s days I definitely think about that. Just going out in a blaze of glory.
Craig: Right. Exactly. 300 podcast episodes is like having 300 wins as a pitcher. That’s a big thing. I think that that gets us into the podcasting Hall of Fame automatically.
John: Yeah. I think it’s sports metaphors all over the place.
Craig: You’re always lost when I do this. It’s wonderful.
In a previous episode, John, we talked about movie clichés for expressing shock or bad news. Zack from New York writes, “I’m proud to say that I splashed water on my face today, possibly for the first time ever. I did not receive bad news or experience something terrifying. But I did take a 20-minute nap on my couch and woke up discombobulated. After staring at the wall for a few minutes, I went into the bathroom and threw water on my face. I think it half-worked. I’m awake enough to write this email, but still sort of discombobulated. However, I’m out of ideas.”
John: What I love about Zack’s email is that it’s so present tense. It’s right about this is the moment I’m experiencing right now. And I like that he thought of us first in that moment.
John: So I just want to salute Zack for writing in to email@example.com to let us know that he splashed water on his face, which we had singled out as a movie cliché that no one does in actual life, but it seemed to sort of help Zack in this moment. So, again, just like with handies and blowies, we’re often wrong.
Craig: Oh, god, are we ever. Well, what about this whole situation with you and Lindelof?
John: Oh, it’s the worst. So, Damon Lindelof and I talked about the notion of idea debt and we thought like, oh, we’re being clever. But you know who else was clever? Chekhov.
Craig: [laughs] Yeah, he was pretty good–
John: A little writer. A little writer named Chekhov. So, this is what Chekhov wrote in 1888. So, for the record, that was before we recorded the podcast episode.
Craig: Just a little bit, yeah. Just a little before.
John: Chekhov wrote, “Subjects for five big stories and two novels swarm in my head. One of the novels was conceived a long time ago, so that several of the cast of characters have grown old without ever having been put down on paper. There is a regular army of people in my brain begging to be summoned forth, and only waiting for the word to be given. All I have written hither to is trash in comparison with what I would like to write.”
John: That’s Chekhov.
Craig: I mean, that is succinct. It’s beautifully said. He did really put you to shame there. And Damon. I think the both of you should feel bad.
John: We do feel a little bad. I want to also single out Jason who wrote in with that Chekhov quote to make us feel a little bad. But also I do want to thank everyone on Twitter who said that it was one of the best episodes they’d ever heard of the podcast. So, Craig, at some point–
Craig: I’m going to read it.
John: If you were to listen to it or read it–
Craig: I’m reading it.
John: You might enjoy that episode with Damon Lindelof. Finally, we often do segments about How Would This Be a Movie. So, in Episode 214 we did an episode about the French train bros. These were the three American tourists in 2015 who prevented a terrorist attack.
Craig: We’re calling them bros? [laughs]
John: Well they’re bros. They’re three guys traveling through France. They’re bros.
Craig: I guess. Sure.
John: They prevented a terrorist attack on a train from Brussels to Paris. They overpowered a guy who had an AK-47. So we said like, well, this could be a movie and Clint Eastwood agreed. So this last week it was announced that he is going to be making a movie based on the book The 1517 to Paris: The Trust Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Heroes, which was written by the eponymous American heroes, along with a guy named Jeffrey Stern. The screenplay version is going to be written by Dorothy Blyskal, and from what I looked up it seems like this is going to be her first screenwriting credit. So, congratulations Dorothy. You answered the question How Would This Be a Movie.
Craig: Yeah. And that’s one that people will see. You know, boy, I wish I could be on a Clint Eastwood set. I’ve just heard so many amazing things. You know, just the speed. We’ve all heard the stories. I wish I could see that. I’m not going to be able to.
John: Are you? Is there some sort of secret thing where you actually will be able to see that?
Craig: No, no, never going to be able to there. I’ll just be in my office reading about it. Well, that sounds exciting. I think that will be fun.
John: It will be fun.
Craig: You know what? I’ve had enough of follow up. I think follow up is done.
John: Follow up is done. So, if we were a podcast ahead, like musical interludes, then we would put the music here and then move on to the next thing.
Craig: Follow up is done. Yeah!
John: So the big feature topic which we obviously have to talk about this past week because everyone on Twitter wrote to us about it. And follows ScriptBook. Well, what is ScriptBook? Well, back in Episode 232, so it’s kind of follow up, we talked about ScriptBook and I actually remember this conversation. I remember the setting of this conversation because I was in Australia at the time and we were talking about this sort of ridiculous AI thing that would read through the scripts and figure out how successful this movie would be. Basically it had digested a bunch of screenplays and it was pitched towards financiers to help them figure out is this a movie to be investing your money into.
But this last week, someone else decided to use ScriptBook and it didn’t go as well.
Craig: Yeah. So, Franklin Leonard over at the Black List worked out some sort of deal with the ScriptBook people where he was offering to his customers an opportunity to get their analysis, the ScriptBook analysis of their script, in exchange for $100. And it did not go over well. You know, he put it out there. And seemingly put it out there in good faith. It certainly wasn’t anything he was requiring people to do. If they wanted to use the other parts of his service, which you and I generally quite like.
Boy, it just didn’t go well for him. I mean, certainly both you and I felt that ScriptBook was stupid, and fake, bordering on completely useless. And therein is the problem. Because there’s two ways of looking at it. One way is this is potentially useful for people. And the other way is this is absolutely useless.
If you believe the former, then you can see where, OK, he’s offering a product. You either like it or you don’t. But if you believe the latter, if you believe it’s truly useless, it starts to feel a little bit scammy. Like you’re selling me snake oil. And I personally do believe it is utter snake oil.
Craig: And a lot of other people seem to agree as well.
John: Absolutely. So, the minute sort of the word got out about it, you and I were on a long email thread with Franklin about it, but there were also threads on Reddit and there was a lot of sort of hubbub on the Internet about what this was and what it was doing. So, I think we should sort of spoil the punch line here by saying that Franklin has pulled the product, so it is no longer a thing that the Black List is offering, and so we will put a link in the show notes to his original explanation for what the product was and then his email out and sort of his letter about sort of why they were removing it and why he listened to the community and pulled it out of there.
So, I want to talk about two things, which is that question of like is this potentially useful. Like in a perfect world, if this were free, is this a thing you would want to exist in the world? And then the concern of like, well, is this a thing that we feel like screenwriters should be paying $100 for?
Let’s talk about in the perfect world where it’s free, Craig, did you see any value in the product?
Craig: No. None. Well, net zero value. Because where there may be little bits of possible potential usefulness in the free version of this, there’s also potential problems that it causes. And that really was the biggest issue for me. So, you know, some of the stuff you go, well, I guess the AI is saying that my predicted genre is half sport and half drama. It’s a sports-drama, but how did I not know that? Um, there’s a predicted MPAA rating, which again really what it comes down to is it’s telling you everybody knows what G is and everybody knows what R is. So, then somehow tell us if you’re PG or PG-13. Nobody in the world cares about that.
Craig: There is stuff about your character likeability. That to me is just dangerous. Because you might think, oh, my character is not likeable enough. Nobody – what – no, that’s not how it works at all.
Predicted target audience. Absolutely useless to you. The marketing department will tell you what the predicted audience is. And then there’s production budget. Potentially useful if you were maybe trying to produce this on your own. Or you were maybe considering to whom you ought to submit the work. And you know, OK, well these people are looking for movies in the $10 to $20 million range. Well, ScriptBook tells me that my script has a 46% chance of being in that range, which ultimately isn’t really very useful either. Because nobody is going to make a budget based on what ScriptBook guesses. They’re going to make a budget by breaking it down and making a budget.
John: Yeah. Exactly. So, in the show notes we’ll link to a file that the Black List put up which was a sample report for Fences, the Academy Award-nominated script from this past year. And so as you look through it, it’s a nicely presented report. It’s three or four pages long. It talks about rating, genre, the Script DNA, character sentiment, character likeability. I had concerns with all of these things for the reasons that Craig laid out.
Where I think this is actually interesting was there’s this grid where it shows movies that this is like. And I think the axes as they’re labeled are really unfortunate. So it says Audience Rating, in this case from 3 to 10. And creativity from 0 to 1. So looking at this you would say that well Fences is more creative than Hope Springs, or Sideways, but it’s less creative than The Iron Lady or The Verdict. And it’s also more creative than Beasts of the Southern Wild, which seems kind of remarkable.
John: So, that was troubling to me. And yet if I were to take away the lines and the axes and just say like this is a cluster of other movies that feel kind of like this, that I could actually see being somewhat useful. Because I would never think of Fences as being like Milk or like The Iron Lady, but in a way that the people who like Milk would probably also like Fences, or the Iron Lady, that actually seems to make some sense.
So that is reasonable to me. And I was actually a little bit impressed that the AI was able to match these up to some degree. Now, I would love to see it matching Identity Thief and seeing what are the movies around that and see if it actually has a good sense of what that is. I thought that was somewhat interesting. But I don’t think it’s $100 interesting for an aspiring screenwriter. I don’t know what an aspiring screenwriter who is putting a script up on the Black List gets out of knowing that it’s like these things. I don’t see how that’s actionable information.
Craig: It isn’t. And it’s also information that you as a human are layering your own insight upon. Because the truth is we don’t know – you can say, well, Fences is – I guess in a strange way Fences and Milk are somewhat related. Are they? Really? Well, they’re both dramas. They’re both about adults. They both take place in cities. They both have middle-aged men kind of at the center of it. But, are they really? I mean, I guess anybody could just – at that point you could just say any movie with people like that and go, oh, that’s interesting. I guess those movies are sort of like…
Fences and Sideways are nothing alike. Nothing, as far as I’m concerned.
John: But I would say they are both in terms of who they are appealing to, I think they’re actually more common than you might necessarily believe. Though the fact that it recognized that Fences was potentially an award movie seems interesting.
John: But again, we don’t know. We’re looking at exactly one example. So I don’t know how much to read into this. But I found that at least interesting. I put the T in there for Aline.
Craig: It is vaguely interesting. But anybody who just scrolls through a list of award movies, right, you have Fences. That’s based on a brilliant play. So you’re making an award movie. Just run through a list of award movies then, I guess. I mean, this is not – I don’t understand these metrics. So you have this creativity metric and, well, you could say Fences and Milk are equally creative sort of, I guess whatever that means. But apparently Raging Bull is less creative than Hope Springs. What?
John: I don’t know what that means.
Craig: Wait. The Usual Suspects is less creative than Malibu’s Most Wanted. That’s right. Let me say this again. That’s the Jamie Kennedy movie, I believe, where he’s – isn’t that right – where he plays a rapper?
John: I think it is. Yes. He’s a rapper.
Craig: The Usual Suspects – here are the movies that are less creative than Malibu’s Most Wanted: The Usual Suspects, Cool Hand Luke, Heat, Michael Clayton. [laughs] What? And The Avengers.
John: Yeah. The Avengers and Catwoman down there at the bottom there.
Craig: I’m sorry. Computer, you’re wrong. And Malibu’s Most Wanted shouldn’t be on this. It makes no sense.
John: It should not be on there at all.
Craig: I also don’t understand the vertical axis of Audience Rating. So, how do we have the audience rating exactly for Cool Hand Luke? What audience? I mean, the audience of over 30 years? Or then? Beasts of the Southern Wild less creative than The Blind Side. And, I mean, I don’t understand this.
John: I don’t understand it either. But here’s what I would say zooming way back. I mean, is it clear that there are AI things that can actually find patterns where we wouldn’t see patterns? Absolutely. Do I think this is a case where the kinds of patterns it is finding are going to be useful for the target audience of this service? No, I don’t. I just don’t think that sticking Milk and Fences close to each other on a graph is helping a writer. And a lot of people seem to feel the same way.
So, let’s segue to the scamminess of it all. Because you and I both know and like Franklin. He’s a smart, good guy who is not scammy. And so in our conversations with him, we wanted to sort of make it clear that this felt scammy, but we didn’t think he was scammy. And that we were concerned for him and for the brand because that’s not the way we want to see him out there in the world.
Craig: Well, yeah. And he did the thing that people so rarely, rarely do. He listened.
Craig: He listened. I mean, Franklin is a humble guy. He’s a business man and he’s an aggressive business man, but he’s not afraid to say, OK, I made a mistake. And in this case what happened was it wasn’t about you or me. We hadn’t talked about his involvement with this on the air prior to his decision that he made to remove it. But he listened to writers on Twitter. He listened to writers on Reddit. Keith Calder, a good producer, who really went after it on Twitter I think made an impression. And he said, “OK, you know what, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t like this. I did. And I thought people would like it and I think some people still could get use out of it. On the other hand, I hear you. So, we’re dumping it.”
And that’s a big boy grown up thing to do. And in today’s world, it is a rare thing. And so–
John: It is. Yeah.
Craig: I had a lot of respect for that. And, you know, again, you and I, we like the other part of what Franklin does, which now that we’ve gotten rid of this thing, that is what Franklin does. We like him. He’s our friend. And I think that his general service is a good one. So, it looks like we’re back to a good situation.
John: Which is a very good thing. All right, next topic is the battle for James Bond. So, this was – I’m going to link to an article from the New York Times by Brooks Barnes. I’m sorry, Craig.
Craig: You know, Brooks Barnes, I had to correct him the other day. He wrote an article about the strike and referred to the long strike of 1998, which did not exist.
John: Did not happen.
Craig: Oh, Brooks.
John: So I can’t verify that all the facts in this article are true, but I will say that in a general sense it raised an interesting issue of what happens when you have a franchise that is essentially a free agent. So, that’s James Bond. When you see a James Bond movie, the opening credits are United Artists, MGM/United Artists. But that’s not actually who releases it. And so for the past four James Bond movies they’ve been released by Sony. But that contract is up. And so now five different companies are competing for the right to make that next James Bond movie. The companies being Warners, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Sony, and Annapurna, which is the little small label that mostly does fancy award movies.
So, that’s kind of an interesting and unusual thing to happen in Hollywood is to have this franchise sort of up for grabs.
Craig: It is. And it’s sort of up for grabs, because the truth is they’re not really going to be making it. What they’re going to be doing is giving MGM/UA the money or a big chunk of the money to make the movie, and then they’re going to be advertising the movie and distributing the movie. And therein is the problem, because when you actually look at the way the deal has been structured, if we’re to believe what Brooks has said here, there’s not that much profit really coming back to you. In huge success, you’ll make a pretty good amount of money. You won’t make as much money as say they’re making off of Get Out, because your profit is capped. It’s seriously capped.
So what he describes as under the previous agreement, and I can’t imagine in a bidding war why the new agreement wouldn’t be even more favorable to the Bond folks than the previous one. But, in the previous one Sony paid half of the production costs. So, you pay half of what it costs to make the movie. That’s just to make the movie. And in return for that, you get one-quarter of certain profits, once costs are recouped. That’s probably the certain costs there for those things may involve taxes and insurance and things like that. And obviously, you know, you’re only getting your share of the ticket price and so forth.
John: It’s also unclear if Sony is releasing this internationally, like what distribution fee do they get to charge for their distribution services. The math behind this can be very, very complicated.
Craig: Extremely. Yeah.
John: So it’s not a matter of the film itself becoming profitable. They’re getting money in at every step of the process.
Craig: Well, they’re putting money in and they’re taking money out all the time. So, you’re right. For instance, they’ll say, well, we’re going to spend $60, $70, $80 million of the total marketing spend. We’re going to be accountable for that. So we’re spending $80 million. But we’re going to charge you $20 million in marketing fees. So it’s always this weird game. But in the end, here’s the truth: all these people want it because it’s kind of a sure thing. And there is the potential for many more movies. We live in an interesting time.
So, you say to a studio, “You have a choice. Roll the dice on a $20 million movie. It will either make $4 million, or it will make $120 million, but there won’t be another one. Or, make this movie. You will make $30 million off of it. And you can do five more of them. And each one will make you $30 million.” They’re going to go for that second deal all day long.
John: Yeah. I think so. And I think it’s as much about the psychology as the actual dollars coming in. So in think about it if you are the head of one of these studios. If you make the Bond movie and it just does OK, no one is going to call you an idiot for making the James Bond movie. It was a safe bet and everyone is going to acknowledge it was a safe bet.
Also, you are keeping the entire machinery of your studio engaged to do it. I mean, one of the weird things about a studio is you have these whole departments that have nothing to do unless you give them a movie to work on. And so a lot of times when studios are in crisis it’s because they actually don’t have a movie. And so they have these huge divisions that have nothing to actually do. So this is a thing to do. It’s a reason to keep all those people employed doing their jobs. Bond is one of those few kind of known brands that whether it’s a fantastic James Bond movie or a just an OK James Bond movie you know you’re going to clear a certain bar with it.
Craig: That’s correct. And you know that you’ll have the right to attach one of your other movies’ trailers to that, because studios can do that where they’re like, OK, if you run this movie you have to at least run our trailer with it. And you know that you’re going to be attracting a certain amount of talent which then if the relationship goes well you might be able to transition into a different movie, filmmakers. You’re keeping people close.
The difference with Bond is the people that control Bond are notoriously protective of it and really they do it. You actually don’t really do anything when, as a studio, other than you sell it and you distribute it. So you’re not really getting much back. It’s an interesting thing that all of these studios are so into it. I mean, it just goes to show you that they make more money and they make it more consistently than we know.
John: Absolutely true.
Craig: Because if they can make consistent money off of this arrangement, and they want to do it again, yeah.
John: Yeah. They’re doing OK.
Craig: They’re doing all right.
John: Let’s look at some of the other reasons why you don’t want to make the Bond movie or why you don’t want to chase it. It has a limited upside. So, you’re capped at sort of how much you can get out of it. Including you’re capped on this movie that you’re making, but down the road if like let’s say you reinvigorate the Bond franchise, well another studio could make the next movie. And it’s like you’ve helped them, but you’re getting nothing for having helped them. So, that’s a concern.
John: You have limited creative control because the Broccoli family controls it so tightly. Also, you’re weirdly forced to make it. Like, let’s say you get the script and got the director and you’re reading this and you’re like I don’t want to green light this. You have not choice basically. You have to green light this. That’s part of the deal you’re making right now. So these guys are pursuing the rights to Bond, but they’re not looking at a script right now. There is no script right now, I assume. They’re just talking about the idea of making a Bond movie. Maybe with Daniel Craig. Maybe not with Daniel Craig. So, it’s a mystery. And they’re on the hook to make it kind of no matter what happens.
And, finally, there’s an opportunity cost. So, if you’re making the Bond movie, that’s another movie you’re probably not making, either because you don’t have the resources to do it, you know, money wise, or there’s just not a slot in your schedule for another movie right now. Which for some of these studios is probably a good thing, because they’re just looking to do the minimum it takes to sort of keep them in their jobs.
Craig: Well, I think that the – you know, it’s so interesting when you talk to people that run studios, one of the things that I’ve heard from a number of them, and it’s very sad actually is that they never really have any moments of victory and joy because when they make these movies, and this is a perfectly good example, they run a spreadsheet and they go, “Well, we are expected to make between this amount and this amount in terms of profit.” The movie is made. It comes out. It either hits that target or it doesn’t. Maybe it exceeds it somewhat. Usually doesn’t.
So, let’s say they have predicted that the movie is going to be quite a success and it’s going to make them $80 million in profit. Two years later, someone says, “OK, yeah, you did it. Check. You did the thing we asked you to do.” There’s no dancing around. There’s no big “oh my god, it’s a huge hit, wow.” Because that implies that they are all just guessing. They’re not.
Unfortunately what also happens is if you miss that target on the low side, the studio bean counters and overlords will say, “Hmm, well, you’re going to have to make it up on one of these other ones.” So even when you exceed expectations, even that triumph is muted because really somebody is going to say, “Well, all right, you should bank that because one of these other ones might miss.” Either way, by the time we get to see the movies it’s like an afterthought for them, because they’ve already priced it and thought about it. And, in fact, they’re now worried about what’s coming out two years from now. And you never get to enjoy it.
John: I think if you’re a studio executive, maybe you’re trying to build a hand of three different kinds of suits. You want the guaranteed hits, like the things, you know, Fast & the Furious 9. And, yes, there’s already a spreadsheet for how much that is supposed to make, but you want to be able to hit that thing and hopefully exceed it. You want a couple of cards that are just like they could break out. They have low expectations but they have possible of a lot of upside. You want the Get Outs. The things that could become a Get Out.
And, finally, you want a few of those things that could win awards, because if you’re looking at whether you’re going to be able to reup your contract in a few years, I think you want to be able to show all three things. That you’ve done the expected hits, some surprise hits, and you’ve also gotten the studio some awards. And that’s a lot to try to manage.
Craig: Yeah. It is. And I don’t envy them. Honestly, I don’t. I know right now we’re in a bit of a contentious period between writers and the companies, but in terms of the people that I know and I work with, I don’t envy them their jobs. I’m sure they don’t envy me mine. I think everybody that isn’t a screenwriter is horrified by the thought of having to write a screenplay, and I don’t blame them.
But, that’s a difficult gig. And it’s scary. And there’s so much that’s not in your control. That’s the part that’s hardest for me to get my mind around, because you know at the very least we have this wonderful period where we’re in control. And it’s when we’re writing. They never really have that.
John: Yeah. It’s a strange part of their job is they seem to be the decision makers, and yet they don’t have ultimate control of the thing they’re trying to do.
John: Before we wrap this up, let’s take a look at some other franchises and just look and see where they fall on sort of this matrix, because the James Bond is like one of the most free-agenty kind of things out there. At least in terms of how MGM partners up with a different company every time.
But Terminator strikes me as a similar situation, because that was made by Carolco way back in the day. It keeps I think passing through different sort of financiers who own the rights to it, but it could end up different places.
Craig: It has a home now.
John: OK, where is it now?
Craig: It is at Skydance.
John: OK. Well, Skydance I would sort of count as sort of an MGM type situation where they’re a place with a lot of money, but they are not – they don’t have their own distribution deal.
John: They just distribute through somebody.
John: But Marvel for a while was sort of like the James Bond situation where they have a bunch of properties and some of them are at Paramount, some were at Fox, some were at Sony. Spider Man was at Sony. Ultimately they all ended up over at Disney, except for the X-Men universe at Fox, and for Spider Man at Sony. But even then they sort of reached back in and sort of reinvested in Spider Man. But for a while they were doing what James Bond was doing. They could move their movies from studio to studio.
Craig: They could. And then they got purchased by Disney. So, once Disney bought them, you can see there is just a general effort now to hold all of that in. And the only ones that are left straggling out there are the X-Men, so you have the X-Men part over at Fox, and you have Spider Man at Sony, which they are now co-producing. I don’t know how long that X-Men – I think the deal with the X-Men is they keep it if they keep making X-Men movies, or something like that. I read something like that.
John: That’s my understanding is like they’ll keep making X-Men movies because that’s how they keep their rights to.
John: Finally, Star Wars was for a while Lucas Film owned it, so Fox distributed it. But I think Lucas Film really owned the first three prequels that they made, and now of course Disney owns that whole franchise as well. So, again, sort of bringing it in house.
Craig: And Disney has been kind of brilliant about this, you know. They just buy the whole company, you know. So, you can negotiate with MGM/UA about the rights to distribute James Bond movies. But if you really want a James Bond movie, just buy MGM/UA. Right? The problem is that’s all they have. They have that. They have the Bond, right? And Bond is very narrow. It’s a fascinating franchise. I’m a huge Bond fan. I’ve seen them all. But it is a very narrow franchise. There I don’t believe there has ever been a Bond spinoff. The entire point is you have James Bond. And then you have a couple of villains that repeat every now and again. Your Blofelds. But there’s a new woman that comes in each time. She comes in, there’s sex, she leaves. Next movie. You know, you have a character like Felix Leiter who is a CIA buddy. No one has ever gone, you know what, now there’s a Bond universe where we’re going to have a movie just about Q and we’re going to have a movie just about Felix Leiter. I’m sure they brought it up at some point or another. But as far as I can tell, nobody on the Bond side of things seems interested in that. So–
John: I do remember speculation about Halle Berry’s character being spun off from her movie. Jinx, or whatever her name was.
John: There was talk of that, but none of that ever came to pass. And it does feel, I agree with you though. Like if another person were to come in and buy that whole franchise, if they bought out the Broccolis for some reason, you would see a universe being formed. Because we know a lot about that universe and it feels like there’s something more you could do with that if you had it.
Craig: Yeah, you know like if they had an extended Bond universe, you know the movie I would want to write?
John: Tell me.
Craig: I would want to write the movie of M. Young M.
John: Oh, yeah.
Craig: And how M is a spy and it is WWII. I would do a period piece. And sort of the early days of spying and the creation – the notion of why you create the Double O. There’s a great story to be told about why you decide as a person and as a government we need an agency where certain people are allowed to murder. Not shoot in self-defense, or be a soldier on the battlefield. Just kill someone. That is a fascinating question. Licensed to Kill.
John: Absolutely. I also think you look at some of the classic villains and, yes, they are people who are up to their own – they have their own plans and devices, but like there’s an Elon Musk-y kind of character who is sort of right on the border between a villain and a hero who could be a fascinating centerpiece to a movie. Who ends up doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. There’s something great about that kind of character as well.
Craig: And there is really room there. There’s room there. But for now–
John: For now it will be Bond. Our next topic was also suggested by many of our listeners. So, this past week there was a video put out by Nerd Writer on recutting Passengers. Basically proposing the question of what would happen if you did a major cut on the movie Passengers where you sort of limited it to Jennifer Lawrence’s point of view, at least for part of the movie, so she wakes up first. So essentially like she wakes up and Chris Pratt’s character is already walking around the space station. And you and she don’t know that he woke her up deliberately.
And, Craig, I don’t know. Have you seen the movie?
Craig: No. But I know the story of the movie. And so I understand the purpose of this change. I’m not really sure – I mean, it would be different.
John: It would be different.
Craig: I don’t know if the people’s primary objection to that – I mean, no matter how long you delay it, at some point you find out that he woke her up and then you’re asked to believe in their romance. And that seems to be the problematic part for people.
John: Absolutely. So, I think it’s an interesting idea. I enjoyed the movie, but I think my problems with the movie were sort of the problems of they had to work really hard to sort of keep Chris Pratt likeable, even though he was doing an unlikeable thing, and it sort of strained under that weight. So, this would be a way of addressing that. But I don’t want to actually get into so much the creative solution proposed here, and just talk about what would happen and what does happen when you are facing a movie and you have this idea for a massive restructuring after it’s already shot.
So, let’s say that you saw this movie before it came out and you were the studio executive, or you are the producer, or the director, and you say like, “I think I want to try this thing.” How would that actually come to pass and what are the realities of trying to implement a change like this?
Craig: Well, the first thing that has to happen is a general decision about the scope of the work. Because they’ll make a movie, they’ll test the movie, and then they will discuss – let’s just presume it doesn’t go well, OK? So, the question now is what are we talking about here. Do we need a couple more jokes in the movie? Do we need this one scene that would help improve that? Should we fix the ending? Or, do we have something fundamentally huge going on here and we need to do a lot of work? We need to do two weeks of shooting and shoot a lot and recast a couple of parts?
So, first triage.
John: Yeah, and a triage moment only happens if there really is a disastrous test screening. If people really just do not like this movie. And I don’t think that was the case with Passengers. My suspicion was, from people I’ve talked with, the movie tested pretty well and the movie was like pretty well and they were surprised by the reception it got, which wasn’t as strong as they’d hoped.
So, I think you would have to have that bad test screening. The studio panicked. The producer panicked. You have to have a director who is on board with making big changes, or a director you can replace.
John: Those are the only situations in which you’re able to do big things. But, you’re often doing small things. And so what I will say is that even after a good test screening, you are talking about recuts, reshoots, looking for things that aren’t working, finding your jokes. That happens all the time. And I’ve never worked on a movie that hasn’t had changes based on those early screenings and people’s reactions to them. So, but what’s not common, and you and I have both been in situations where they have done the big recut, that is sort of an emergency all hands on deck. You’re really talking about big brand new ideas. Like, what if we were to rethink how this all works?
Craig: Yeah. And I’ve done that. I’ve done that. And it’s hard. It’s hard because first of all it’s a rare thing for the people who are involved in the creation of the movie up to that point to continue to be involved. So, we have a huge problem here. We’re probably going to need a different director to come in and do this work. And we should bring a different writer in to come in and do this work, otherwise we’re at risk of repeating the same mistakes, plus there’s just a lot of emotions and defensiveness. And it’s understandable. It’s a mess.
So, when I come and do this, I sit – I watch the movie. And then inevitably after that there is a discussion of here are the things we just can’t do. We can’t change this. And we can’t change that. We have this much that we can change. How should we best do it? So, it is a very tricky puzzle. This is very Rubik’s Cubey. Figuring out how to fundamentally change a movie without touching a whole bunch of it. And it’s rarely perfectly successfully. It can make a huge difference. And it does. I mean, you can see it in test scores. They run the movie and they’re like, my god, look at the difference.
And I always think, well yeah, but there’s still something just – this movie is still just not right. It’s alive. Very tough to do.
John: Yeah. When I come into these situations, I always sort of start with like what is actually working. Are there moments of the movie that actually work that sort of suggest the movie it wants to be? And oftentimes it won’t be at the very start of the movie, it’ll be some moment in the middle where like, OK, just for a moment there you kind of found what the movie was. And it’s possible just through cutting and through moving stuff around, you’ll be able to find more of that movie and sort of get us to that place. But in general I find you want to let the movie be one thing rather than the three things.
When a movie is really not working, it’s trying to do too much at once, and it just loses its focus and its tone. It’s just not a consistent experience. So figuring out what that experience should be is really important.
The first Charlie’s Angels was notoriously a very chaotic production. It was chaotic in post as well. But I remember when I came back in on that movie, one of the first things I really worked on was the opening title sequence, which shouldn’t seem that important, but it was really helpful for setting the tone.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: We’d shot all these scenes, but figuring out what it felt like and sort of what the right kind of goofy was. And so I was sitting with the editors working on do the wipes across and make it feel like the TV show in ways that are fun and right. And once we got that and sort of got that locked, we could sort of step back and say, OK, let’s look at the rest of our scenes and see how we can be a little bit more like that in our style, and that was really helpful.
But ultimately there were reshoots. There were simplifications of logic. They were getting rid of things that didn’t need to be there. Classically, World War Z is a movie that had a much, much bigger ending in its original form. This big assault on Moscow. And the movie did not want to be that. The movie ultimately wanted to be a more intimate movie with Brad Pitt and his family and his own survival. And so that was that whole new third act that Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard had to figure out how to do.
Craig: And Chris McQuarrie.
John: Chris McQuarrie as well. So, it’s a bunch of hands on deck, really smart people. Looking at what’s there. Looking at what was great, which there was a lot that was great in the first two-thirds of World War Z. And finding a way to carry that through to the end, in that case incredibly successfully.
Craig: Yeah, you know, those situations are not – thank god – common. It is more common that what happens is – I did this recently. You watch a movie and everyone says, “Here are the things that we’re kind of getting back from the audience on some spots.” And I’ll say, yes, I had those same reactions myself. So that’s good news. It means everybody is kind of in agreement.
Maybe all we need to do here is add a line. You know, so two people are talking and maybe this person says something that just isn’t quite right. It’s causing confusion. So, let’s just have them record a new line and we’ll just be on the other person’s face. And it’s just one line and suddenly that all makes sense now.
Craig: The disruption of experience through poor logic is so dangerous and happily, typically, easily fixable. My least favorite call is come and make the movie funnier with some lines. That’s not going to work.
John: Yeah, to try to joke it up. And that will never work.
John: What I think you’re describing though when you’re adding in a loop line to sort of make something clear, is you talk about people being on the ride or off the ride. And it’s like when did they fall off the ride? And they fall off the ride, they fall off the – they stop believing in the movie when enough things just don’t add up for them. When they start getting confused and sort of confused and annoyed and then they just check out. And so if you can keep them from checking out, if you can keep them engaged, and curious about what’s happening next, you’re probably going to keep them at least somewhat of a fan throughout the rest of the movie.
It’s those moments often in a first act, early in the second act, when people kind of give up on your movie. And if you can keep them from giving up, you’re going to be able to make a lot of those things which weren’t working are suddenly going to feel a lot better.
Craig: Exactly. And this is somewhere where a new person coming in is of great help. Because when you’re there from the start and you’re making the movie, you have certain things that you believe. Making a movie is essentially making a million guesses. And you may make almost all the correct guesses, except for two. But, the audience is saying we don’t understand why she’s saying this now but before she said this. And you say, well, it’s because of blah, blah, blah. Right? And somebody else will say, “Well, I didn’t quite get that. I think maybe somebody should say that.” But the people who have been involved, sometimes their feeling is, “But that’s just so on the nose.” Because in their mind it’s in there already. And a new person can say, “It’s kind of not.” And so this is one area where I know it’s going to grate you, because it sounds like it’s on the nose, but for the audience it’s not going to feel – it’s going to actually be interesting, because they’re not getting what you have.
When you do these jobs, you’re actually – this is where being a feature writer feels great, because everybody is, I think, incredibly grateful to the writer who comes in at this point and helps.
John: 100 percent. So, let’s wrap this up by talking – go back to Passengers. And so let’s say this is an alternate history version of all this, where they saw the first cut of Passengers, and it wasn’t working. It was sort of like the final movie. And they said like, “You know what? We have this idea for a wild experiment.” What they would actually do next? And we live in a time of wonderful digital editors, so a lot of what the video suggests trying to do, you could actually just do. You could do that in your non-linear editor. I don’t say Avid anymore, because people yell at me when I say Avid.
You would actually chop it up and if there were things that didn’t make sense, you would put in little cards to explain what would happen in this moment. But it’s a day or two to sort of build that cut of the movie and sort of see what it feels like. And maybe it feels great. It certainly would change a lot of your experience of the movie. And then you would have to get buy-in. And that’s where I think they would have a hard time with this radical rethinking, because suddenly your two big movie stars you’re paying $20 million each, they’re not playing the same characters they signed on to in the movie. And they may love it. They may like it a lot more. But suddenly you’re going to be sending them out there in the world to promote this movie which wasn’t at all what they thought it was going to be. You may have already put out a teaser trailer that promised this romance, but the movie that you’re cutting sort of feels more like a thriller.
That can be a real problem as well. So, it’s not honestly as simple as just like, we’ll make the best movie. Make the most compelling movie. There may be reasons why you can’t do some of the things you want to do.
Craig: That is precisely why I get frustrated with things like this. Because there is an implication that we out here are just smarter than you. You dumb-dumbs couldn’t see, but we can.
Almost always, no offense to the people that make these videos, they are not thinking of something that we haven’t thought of. Almost always, it’s been thought of and tried and didn’t work with audiences, or it’s been thought of and tried and rejected by the very large number of competing powers.
Craig: The one thing that people don’t quite understand is it doesn’t matter if something is right. If the movie star, who is going to promote this movie, doesn’t like it. And you may say, “Well, hold on a second. Before we just surrender, can’t we…” And I just want to put my hand up and say, “You’re describing my life. You’re describing my career. That’s half of my job.”
Half of my job is to figure out what to do and get people to agree. The other half is to figure out what to do when the one person who we really need to agree doesn’t agree. Now what do I do? That’s the world we live in. This is collaborative. And some people have an enormous influence on the work.
Sometimes you wish they wouldn’t. But that’s the deal.
John: All right. Enough of recutting movies. Let’s go to our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing, I actually have two. I’m cheating. My first is a newsletter put out by Quinn Emmett, a friend of the show. It’s called Important, Not Important. And it’s just a weekly recap of the things you may have missed in the news, but also sort of other headlines. Sort of a little bit deeper than what you could get on Twitter.
I find it delightful. I’ve been reading it for months. We’ll put a link in the show notes to that.
The other thing I loved this week was this Brazilian artist named Butcher Billy. And what he does is he takes a serious of ‘80s pop songs and he reimagines them as Stephen King book covers. And so if you click through the link in the show notes, you’ll see what I mean. Like Careless Whisper or How Deep is Your Love. There is a Light Never Goes Out. It’s sort of like if you take those titles, they actually can be really good Stephen King books. And so he does the artwork for what that Stephen King book would be. And I just thought they were delightful.
So, I always love sort of reimagining things. I love the unsheets, the sort of make believe posters for movies that we’ve all seen and loved, so I thought this was delightful.
Craig: This is pretty great. I’m looking at it right now. That’s cool. Love the font.
My One Cool Thing is Pinball Arcade. Are you a pinball fan, John?
John: I’m not a big pinball fan. I’ve never been good enough at it to be a big fan, I guess.
Craig: Well, here’s your chance to get good. So, pinball is one of those things that actually they can simulate now brilliantly. So, you know, there’s an app and you can play lots of pinball games. But the cool part is that they’ve gone and licensed and recreated a whole bunch of real pinball games, including maybe the best pinball game ever made. Which was the Addams, Family, the pinball game–
John: I remember the Addams Family pinball. I have played that.
Craig: It’s great. And so it’s based on the movie from the ‘90s, which in and of itself was based on a television show, which itself was based on the cartoons. And it’s fantastic. I play the Addams Family pinball game every day. It’s so much fun.
By the way, John, do you know what?
John: Tell me what.
Craig: The Addams Family would actually be a pretty great movie for us to do a deep dive into. It’s so well done.
John: It’s so, so, so good. I just love The Addams Family. I love the second Addams Family almost more. The whole camp thing is fantastic.
Craig: Amazing. Amazing. In fact, maybe we should do the second Addams Family movie.
John: Maybe we should do Addams Family Vacation. And we sort of know Paul Rudnick on Twitter.
Craig: I know. You know what? We should get Paul Rudnick to come on the show and talk about it. Oh my god, is he brilliant.
John: He’s really good.
Craig: So good.
John: Circling back to the pinball game. I will say that one of the things I do love about real pinball games is they’re hot. The lights are actually hot. They have a warmth to them that I find just delightful. They smell a certain way. They have a heat. That is a good thing about real pinball machines.
So, I’m sure they cannot duplicate this quite as well digitally, but still.
Craig: They can’t. There’s actually a very interesting – so they’ve had pinball simulators for years and years and years. But the Addams Family only recently, because the rights situation was a nightmare. The game – they had to get clearances from the Addams’ estate. They had to get clearances from Paramount, which made the movie. They had to get clearances from Raul Julia’s estate and from Anjelica Huston. And from – just literally everybody whose voice was in it.
Then they had to go get clearances for the music that was in it. And they wanted to do everything correctly, you know. And they did. Finally they did. So now you can play it.
All right, so I will not get to see you at the next Scriptnotes, because you are doing a live show. So you are doing a live show this coming Monday. This episode is out on a Tuesday. On this next Monday, you are recording a live show in Hollywood at the ArcLight. I’m so incredibly jealous for you to hang out with Dana Fox, and Rian Johnson.
Craig: A guy named Rian. Well, we have Rob McElhenney who is good.
John: Oh yeah. He’s good.
Craig: And then we have Rian Johnson who is whatever.
John: Just whatever. Delightful.
Craig: They can’t all be winners.
John: He’s a talented photographer.
Craig: [laughs] He’s a good photographer. So, those of you who are still looking for tickets, we have a few left. So, this is – I think it’s a 400-seat auditorium and we’re getting pretty close to 400 at this point. So you better rush.
If you go to HollywoodHeart.org/upcoming, then you can buy tickets. The event is May 1 at 7:30pm in Hollywood at the ArcLight. This is all for charity. Hollywood Heart is a wonderful charity that our friend John Gatins is very involved in. Oscar-nominated John Gatins. And the price of the ticket is $35. And we apologize if that seems a little steep, but again it goes entirely to Hollywood Heart.
Once again, I make nothing.
John: Yep. I don’t even make anything on this one.
Craig: Even you. [laughs]
John: Even I make nothing on this.
Craig: God, you’re so rich.
John: That’s our show for this week. So, as always, we are produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Big thanks to both these guys because we recorded late this week and they killed themselves to get this out. So, thank you guys.
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 longer questions. But for short questions, on Twitter Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
We’re on Facebook. Just search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on iTunes at Scriptnotes.
Craig, I think the word iTunes is going to go away. I think we’re going to stop saying iTunes.
John: Because I think they’re actually going to get rid of iTunes as a concept completely. My prediction is WWC, they’ll say like Goodbye iTunes. Because they actually got rid of iTunes Podcast and now it says Apple Podcasts. I think they’re just going to call it, I don’t know, Apple–
Craig: What are they going to call it?
John: Something else.
Craig: Whoa. Weird.
John: Whoa. But if you’re on iTunes, or whatever they call it next, just search for Scriptnotes. And while you’re there, leave us a comment.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. And you can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net.
Craig, thank you for a fun show. Have a great show on Monday. I will look forward to good reports.
Craig: Thank you, sir. We’ll do our best.
John: Cool. Thanks.