John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Hi, my name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 302 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show, it’s another round of How Would This Be a Movie, where we try to figure out how to adapt three stories in the news. Only this time we don’t want to just make a movie. We want to make our parents proud and enemies jealous by bringing home a shiny gold Oscar.
So, we’ll be aiming high with these adaptations.
John: Plus we’ll be answering–
Craig: I mean, I’m always looking for that Oscar. You know, I’ve come so close so many times.
John: Time and time again. So, this will be the one that finally does it for Craig.
John: After that we’ll be answering a listener question about why the hell the AMPTP can do what it does.
Craig: Well. Got a good answer for that. At least we have an answer.
John: There’s an answer. One of those rare things where’s actually just an answer.
Craig: Concrete answer.
John: We have some news and some follow up. So, the WGA deal was ratified by the membership. 99.2% of members approved the deal. That’s a good figure. Very close to 100%.
Craig: I want to meet, something like 18 people voted no, I think. I would love to meet them. Just kind of curious.
John: Yeah. So, we had promised that there will be an episode with Craig Keyser where we’ll talk through the deal and sort of everything in the landscape of the deal. And so we are still trying to schedule a time for that. So, there’s people traveling, but at some point we will him on to talk through what’s in that deal, what’s not in that deal, and sort of where things are in the process of us and the studios and film and television.
Craig: Yeah. And he is coming on. We’re just trying to figure this out between everyone’s vacation and all that.
John: Cool. Last month we actually crossed a milestone, but I didn’t notice it because I don’t often check the stats. But Scriptnotes crossed its 10 millionth download.
John: In its lifetime, which is just such a huge number.
Craig: That’s kind of insane. So, you’re saying that the show has been downloaded ten million times?
John: Yes. And that’s only since we moved over to Libsyn. So the earliest 50 or so episodes or even more than that weren’t on Libsyn. So since the point where we’ve had good statistics, it’s been 10 million, which is great. So–
Craig: God. I’m losing so much money.
John: Well, and things that used to cost us money, like each download used to cost us a lot of money, which is part of why we moved over to Libsyn, and now we don’t have to pay for that. So, that’s great.
Craig: Oh, so wait, so if we don’t have to pay for that, then am I finally making money again?
John: I think you’re making as much money as anyone is making on this.
Craig: D’oh. That’s still zero.
John: Sorry. But thank you to all of the people who are our premium subscribers, because you guys are fantastic and you help pay for things like Matthew who edits the show, and Godwin who produces the show, and all the other stuff around it. So, thank you for that. And our transcripts, which are one of our biggest expenses.
Craig: Yeah. That is awesome. We do appreciate that very much. So, John, let me ask you this question then. Because I know downloads are a bit like hits in that they’re slightly misleading. How many people – is there a way to know how many people listen to this show?
John: That’s actually one of the interesting challenges of podcasting, because it’s kind of a black box. So, podcasting works under a system called RSS. Basically syndicated – it’s an XML file that gets passed around. But basically you’re tracking downloads, but you don’t know a lot more information about that other than just like the file was downloaded and sort of the general things you figure out, like where it was downloaded. But you can’t tell when it was played.
And so right now there’s a movement amongst some of the providers to be able to provide much more granular data so they can sell ads against it. Basically they just want to know where stuff is.
So like Spotify has some premium things where they can tell you exactly who listened and who skipped the commercials and that kind of stuff. Midroll bought Stitcher, or Stitcher bought Midroll. They combined. So there’s changes happening in the podcasting world. And including Apple itself. So we’re not supposed to call it the iTunes Store. You’re supposed to call it Apple Podcasts. So, we ask for people to leave a review on Apple Podcasts now. And there’s talk that there will be some new stuff happening probably around WWDC with how podcasts work for Apple as well.
Craig: Well, as long as I continue to get ripped off, I don’t care. I just like to know the tune to which I’m being ripped off.
John: You know what else you won’t be making money from is Cotton Bureau sent an email saying that they’re going to print more of our t-shirts. So they’re going to print more of the blue t-shirts. If you are a Scriptnotes listener who does not have one of the softest t-shirts ever made–
Craig: Yeah, they’re soft.
John: They’re so soft. The blue Scriptnotes t-shirts are back up for sale at Cotton Bureau. So just go to Cotton Bureau and get yourself one of those. They’ll be up until June 8. And that will be the last day you can order one of those.
Craig: Those are good shirts. You should get one.
John: They’re good shirts.
Some news from WGA. So I got this email and I emailed her to ask if it’s okay to share with other people and she said sure. So, they’re doing a first-time staff writer boot camp for all people who are new staff writers on TV shows. It’s a one-day boot camp, which sounds like a really good idea, sort of talking you through the crash course and how to be a staff writer. What it’s like being in the writers’ room. Best practices. It’s a good idea. So, Saturday June 17, at the WGA. If you are first-time staff writer on a TV show, you can write into firstname.lastname@example.org with BOOT CAMP in the subject line. You need to include in the message what the show is and who your showrunner is. Because they really will be confirming that it’s a WGA show and that you are staffed on that show.
Craig: Great. That’s an excellent thing. And anyone who is starting out should be grasping for any bit of driftwood in the water that they find. This a particularly good bit of driftwood to cling onto. I suspect that the people that are going to be teaching it will have been there before.
Craig: Always a good service. I love that sort of educational effort from the WGA.
John: In the spirit of education and correction and making things correct in our podcast, last week I said the seed vault had flooded. It turns out the seed vault has not flooded and the seed vault is actually in much better shape than had previously been reported.
So, there’s been sort of a seepage, but the seeds themselves are fine.
Craig: Well it seems like if the seed vault is okay, we ought to get back to the busy work of destroying seeds left and right.
John: Absolutely. Because we got it back up there.
Craig: There’s nothing to worry about anymore. Let’s go burn some seeds.
John: [laughs] Or put them on delicious buns, because you never know what seeds – like poppy seeds are delicious. Let’s try all the seeds and see what you can make out of them. Or like a tahini. Grind up some seeds.
Craig: I don’t like tahini.
John: I love tahini. The little tahini made into a hummus? Come on, it’s the best.
Craig: See, hummus to me is hummus. That’s chickpeas. I’m down. I’m all over that.
John: But you can’t make hummus without tahini. Tahini is a crucial ingredient in hummus.
Craig: Yeah, I know. But it’s like a little bit of it. It’s not all of it.
John: Yeah. I get it. Finally, last bit of follow up. It’s also a good segue. Another one of our How Would This Be a Movie is being made into a movie, or at least being optioned as a property. So Universal bought the rights to the New York Times column You May Want to Marry My Husband, written by the late author Amy Krouse Rosenthal. So it was a bidding war between Paramount, Sony, Netflix, Studio 8, and Universal. And so it was Mark Platt, a very seasoned producer at Universal, whose credits include Legally Blonde, and La La Land, and Craig has worked with him. So he is going to be a person shepherding this project into the world. So no writers announced yet, but it looks like there will be a movie version of that story at some point.
Craig: Yeah. You know what? I’m really interested to see how this all works out. You and I both saw the opportunities in that piece, but I think we also recognized that there were real challenges to it. I’m currently developing a movie with Mark. It’s a musical, so it’s totally off the beaten path of this. But he’s a very prolific producer and if anyone can get this one made, I think it would be him for sure.
What is remarkable is how many people went after it. Sometimes I think that there are ideas that are harder to turn into a movie than people realize. But they have a certain immediate grabbiness that makes everybody want them.
Craig: And then there’s that flip side movie where there’s nothing shiny or loud about something, but somebody just finds it in a pile and goes, “Oh my god, this is gold.” It’s interesting. I think this is one of those pieces that is going to be much harder to do than you might think. But that’s not to say that it cannot be done. It’s just going to require quite a bit of skill.
John: I agree with you. Let’s take a look at three new stories in the news and figure out which ones of those could become a movie. One of these I think has that shiny quality which everyone will chase. The other two maybe not so much, but I think there’s interesting movies to be made out of here.
The three articles we picked this week, the first one is written by Alec MacGillis, who is writing for ProPublica. Was also published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, so everybody read it. This is The Beleaguered Tenants of Kushnerville. So I’ll give you a little bit of a synopsis of this. The story follows these housing developments where there’s 20,000 people living in them in sort of the Baltimore area, but there’s other developments across mostly the eastern seaboard. They were generally owned and managed by different firms. But the firms fell on hard times and this one company started buying them up and started managing them.
And people who lived in these units would often get out of their lease. They’d go on and do different things. The reporter follows some of these people who were then sued by the people who bought out these different apartment complexes. And were sued sometimes for really small amounts of money, but they were just really dogged in sort of going after them.
The apartment complexes themselves, there’s in some cases black mold. There’s bad maintenance. There’s a lot of things you could consider being the bad landlord kind of story. The fascinating twist on this is that the bad landlord, the person behind JK2 trust is…
Craig: Jared Kushner. The presidential son-in-law and I believe current architect of a lasting peace in the Middle East.
John: Yes. So, a busy person. But this was sort of a fascinating escalation of sort of what could be a very normal sort of situation of class and race and real estate. But this sort of bumps it up a notch. So, Craig, what are you thinking of this as a movie and how would we even get into this as a movie? What kind of movie would you see making out of this story?
Craig: Well, we have some real opportunities. We have a wide variety of people, because these apartment complexes are enormous. And inevitably there are going to be some people who move out, do nothing wrong. I mean, there’s a number of instances cited here where people followed the rules but either the paperwork was lost, or a mistake was made when money was moved from one account to another. And then Jared Kushner’s company pursues these people doggedly and tenaciously and ultimately cruelly and unfairly to extract money from them, even going so far as to garnish their wages, which means that essentially a court gets between you and your paycheck, takes that amount of money out that you owe somebody, and then gives you the rest.
So you have lots of different kinds of tenants. That’s exciting. You have single moms. You have black tenants. You have white tenants. You have some tenants who are Trump supporters who then find out that it’s Jared Kushner that’s doing this to them. So good opportunity there.
But it seems to me that the only efficient way in is a way that gives you an efficient way out. That requires some kind of funneling through a character. And if ever a movie were asking for the Erin Brockovich treatment, or the A Civil Action treatment, it’s this one. Somebody has to get a case and then go about that case, even if they’re not a lawyer or a private detective. They’re just somebody who is going to help do one little thing and they start pulling on a thread that begins to unravel this thing and go all the way up to somebody in the White House.
However, because it’s somebody in the White House, we have to kind of either wait for a news resolution to this story, or fictionalize who is actually in charge.
John: Yeah. So I agree that there needs to be a center point of focus. With something like Erin Brockovich, it’s an outsider who comes in, because Erin Brockovich is not directly involved with the water stuff until she becomes involved with general case work. I think it’s more fascinating if it’s one of these – if you could sort of take one of the characters who is living at that complex. We have a lot of names of people and they’re all great, but I think it may be a new person that you’re creating who is living there, basically has all the paperwork. They just picked the wrong person and she’s the one who said like, “This is not fair. This is not right. I actually have the paperwork. You cannot do this to me.” And she just keeps challenging them and ultimately uncovers, oh, you know who actually owns this, it is the president’s son-in-law. That feels like the natural way up through that.
And it would be great to have somebody who is inside it so that it doesn’t just feel like this weird way of the outsider comes in and saves everybody. That, to me, feels like the frustrating thing.
The other movie that struck me as being a good way into look at this is The Big Short. Because The Big Short was able to take a bunch of different characters looking at the same situation and see it from their different points of view. And so there’s complicated finance things to explain which some complicated finance people could explain to us, but there’s also all the dealings on the ground and then there’s the dealings in the White House or sort of the bigger legislative issues happening.
Craig: It’s a little tough to apply that to this because it doesn’t – this story doesn’t quite have the global impact or the cliffhanger nature of that event. It doesn’t have a major market crash. It doesn’t have mad geniuses pushing their crazy theories against conventional wisdom to be proven wrong and then to be proven right. But, I like your idea of maybe having our savior come from within.
I do always think about relationships. What is the relationship we will care about in a movie like this? And there is something really interesting – the bit that sort of jumped at me was this one guy is a Trump voter and he’s complaining about the state of affairs in this apartment building and how he’s been screwed over and his apartment is neglected. And the company treats him unfairly and everybody unfairly. And he’s told that the landlord is Jared Kushner and he goes, “Oh. Really? Like they don’t have enough money?”
And it’s a fascinating moment. Fascinating in part because these buildings, specifically where these – the Baltimore buildings are in this interesting transitional Exurb – it’s not quite suburb, you know – where you have poor black people and poor white people. A lot of people getting Section 8, which is federal support for housing. And I can see a situation where one tenant starts a crusade and tries to find help among her fellow tenants to essentially fight back.
And she encounters this guy. And they are completely different on paper and yet also if you take away race and politics exactly the same on paper. They have the same class and they have the same place and they have the same power status. And there is a relationship between the two of them. It doesn’t have to be romantic, although why not. But a relationship where the two of them change and become something together.
There is something exciting about watching people without power not only fight the power, but stop fighting each other. I think that sometimes is the most uplifting part of this. So, I think I would probably come at it from there. All that said, probably this is not going to be turned into a movie.
John: I would never say never, because there’s certainly a smart way to do it and the right filmmaker could find a way to do it. There’s also potentially – there’s The Wire. There’s the series version of this which could be really fascinating, too. Where you basically are examining this community from different sides. And you’re sort of looking at it from different perspectives. But going back to what is that fundamental relationship is you’re hitting on a key thing, because whether there’s romantic conflict or just straight on conflict, you don’t just want your protagonist going up against this sort of faceless entity or Jared Kushner, who is not going to be a person you’re going to be able to see directly.
You need to have somebody who is right there in his or her life who most of the conversations are going to be going with. So, think of Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures. And so she’s clearly your central protagonist character, but she’s surrounded by people who are interesting who are challenging her in interesting ways. So they’re her friends, but there’s also Kevin Costner’s character. There’s the Sheldon character. There’s other people around her who can be foils for her for her next step. And that may be the kind of thing you need to be trying to build out early on in the story figuring out who is it that she’s not going to just talk to, but who is going to challenge her to make it to that next step.
Because it can’t just be like the next judge, the next thing. That’s not going to be interesting.
John: Erin Brockovich, you have her boss. And even though they’re on the same side, they have to be able to butt heads.
Craig: They have to be. And I think that this is a mistake that I encounter constantly in screenplays from new writers. They miss this big part where we really do experience narrative through the lens of relationships. It’s how we’re programmed as humans and it’s certainly how we’re programmed as movie goers and television watchers. We need it.
We don’t really feel – this is something that Lindsay Doran has talked about a number of times, including at Ted. The ends of movies are – what we feel at the end of a movie is not elation at something having had happened. We feel elation with a relationship experiencing joy in something having happened. And so it’s easy to just forget that part and write about somebody fighting the court. And that’s about justice. And that’s about what’s right and what’s wrong. These are moral things. You’d think they’d be enough. They are not. Even remotely enough.
John: It’s not emotionally satisfying. That’s why Star Wars doesn’t end with blowing up the Death Star. It ends with everyone being together and getting their medals. Which seems like, oh, you could just cut that scene. But, no, you can’t cut that scene because then it’s not Star Wars. You haven’t paid off the emotional arc of what those characters have gone through. And that’s the kind of thing you’d be finding for this movie is like what have the characters been able to achieve together and what does that look between those central characters at the end of this story? And that’s what you’re trying to build to.
Craig: Yeah. You get to this exciting courtroom conclusion and if it’s just legal fireworks, then it’s contextless. It doesn’t matter to us. It’s not within the confines of a relationship. Whereas when Luke blows up the Death Star, he’s doing it because he’s talking to his key relationship and he’s finally getting the lesson. When Tom Cruise lights up Jack Nicholson on the stand in A Few Good Men, we understand that that is the culmination of a character choice to finally stop playing it safe and be more like the man his dad was, which in turn is a response to the challenge he’s received from Demi Moore’s character. It’s all about the relationships. It’s not about the legal stuff. Otherwise, well, okay, yep, you got him there. You know? It’s just not as interesting.
John: That’s why this is a fascinating article because of the things it provokes, but you’re basically adding all new characters and all new character dynamics to tell this story. So someone comes to you with this, you can say like, okay, that’s a fascinating backdrop, but almost everything you’re going to be inventing wholesale to find a way to get at these things.
One of the most fascinating questions that the article asks and never really finds a great answer for is why is this firm so doggedly pursuing things that cannot really be profitable for them to pursue. They’ll go after these $5,000 bills and their legal fees are clearly much higher than that to go after them. And so one of the theories is that they do it just basically to intimidate everybody else who is currently in the building from trying to leave or from trying to raise any kind of a fuss because it will just get around that, no, no, they will sue you and they will never stop suing you.
I just finished rereading 1984 and there’s a long section at the end where Winston, your protagonist, is wondering like why are you doing this to me. You’ve already won. Why is it important to you that I completely surrender, because you could just kill me? And that’s actually the point of the end of 1984 is it has to sort of break you of that. And it seems like such a strange drive from the other side. And a movie could hopefully find a meaningful answer for that in the course of the story.
Craig: And this is where the story boils my blood, because it’s true. And because essentially this corporation is being punitive and bullying and somewhat sadistically so. And Jared Kushner should be held responsible. And I can only imagine, and this is where journalism can really work wonders, that these poor people – not figuratively poor, literally poor people – who cannot afford lawyers are about to get some. I can’t imagine there aren’t at least a few large firms who are looking at this going pro bono, let’s do this class action.
Craig: I mean, it’s just outrageous. And maybe then that could – that might give you the ending you want. But we have like kind of an interesting opposite sort of situation with this next story. And I assume that this is the one you were saying is flashy/blingy for studios. I can only imagine – I mean, this is My Family’s Slave, written by the late Alex Tizon, who is writing for The Atlantic. If this hasn’t been optioned already I would be shocked. Shall I give a little summary?
John: Absolutely. And if you’ve listened to any other cultural podcast for the last two weeks, you’ve heard this discussed, because it’s been the focus of a lot of conversation.
Craig: Yeah. This is a fascinating one. So, Alex Tizon was a Filipino-American and when his parents come from the Philippines they brought along a woman names Lola who Alex’s grandfather had essentially given to his mother as a slave. It’s interesting how long it takes him in his life to realize that she’s a slave. She is always with them. She is their domestic. She is their cook and their nanny and their maid. She doesn’t get paid. She has a little space, but sometimes she just falls asleep in the corner with the laundry. Both of Alex’s parents are fairly abusive to her. The mother, in particular, has a very complicated relationship with her, in which she’s not only abusive but seemingly also jealous of the relationship that Lola has with the children, including Alex.
And eventually after Alex’s parents die, he takes Lola to come live with him, but of course not as a slave, just to give her a place to live and give her freedom and take care of her. And even so, she is not really able to do so and keeps sort of working because that’s the life she knows. And yet there’s this profound sadness with her. She never knows love. She never has sex. She never learns to drive. She never really lives independently whatsoever. And is permanently estranged from her family back home. And eventually she passes away and in a quite beautiful moment Alex brings her ashes back to her village where she is from and gives her back to her family.
But this story does not take place in the 1700s or 1800s. Quite obviously, it takes place in the ‘70s, and ‘80s, and ‘90s.
John: Yeah. It’s a fascinating story and unlike the first story which is all abstract, sort of like big picture things, this is nothing but characters. It’s all characters here. And so I think the reason why this is such catnip is because it’s a way of exploring our relationships with the people who work with us, work for us, and the sense of what is slavery. What does it mean to have somebody be working for you but not being paid? It’s all so relevant and the characters are so interesting and compelling.
The most fundamental question though is when do you start. When do you start telling this story? Because do you start telling the story when Lola is essentially given to the mother, so she’s 12 years old. Do you start the story then, back in the Philippines, and you sort of meet the crazy grandfather who is abusive, who beats Lola for something that the mother does? Or do you start it later on? Do you start it in the US with this kid who has this nanny he loves and eventually starts to realize, oh wait, she actually is not getting paid – this is sort of the family secret.
It’s a fundamentally different movie based on when you start it. Do you start it with Alex being in the story, or do you start it back in the Philippines and come to the US?
Craig: It’s a real challenge. This is the perfect example of a very shiny property that will pose an enormous amount of problems as you try and turn it into a movie. And, again, my question – it’s always my first question – what’s the relationship that we care about?
It seems here that the greatest potential of a lasting relationship that we can care about and find joy in is the relationship between Lola and Alex. She is his slave, too, even though he’s a child. And then later an adult. But she loves him clearly. And he loves her, clearly. And, in fact, a lot of the dissatisfaction and conflict he has with his own mother is because she mistreats Lola and because frankly he loves Lola more than he loves his own mother. There’s stuff there.
Now, this is a minefield because we have seen this movie before. We have seen the kind of movie where someone finally realizes that they have been taking advantage of and oppressing another person whom they love. And so they set them free, thus becoming the hero of the story when really they’re not. They’re just kind of correcting something that’s horribly wrong. And we’re meant to experience their kind of enlightenment as a positive, but ultimately for the slave there is really no happy ending.
So we’ve seen that. It’s a challenge to avoid that narrative here because there is no great change for Lola. There is really only the sadness of an unfulfilled broken life.
John: Yeah. One of the real challenges here, in the bad version of the story Lola is nothing but an object. She’s just something who is looked at but never sort of explored internally. And I think that is the real danger here is that you’re not getting inside what her drives are. Because they’re actually complicated. And Tizon does single out some moments where she kind of can’t leave, she doesn’t want to leave. She loves the kids. But she also wants to go back. She realizes that she has not ability to sort of function here and she’s scared what’s going to happen if she rocks the boat at all.
I wonder if the fundamental relationship is essentially a love triangle. It’s a love triangle between Alex, his mom, and Lola. And the very complicated thing between the three of them, because Alex loves his mom and he loves Lola, but it’s very hard to fit all that together. Like the mother is horrible to Lola and yet also needs Lola. And Lola needs to be needed. It’s messed up in really fascinating ways. To me, that feels like the crux of all this is the pull between these three people.
I mean, usually as an audience, we would probably sit with Alex because it’s the most comfortable place to come into the story. But I wouldn’t want to limit the POV to only Alex’s point of view because then I think we’re not going to really understand what the mother is going through and what Lola is going through.
Because if you look at the story from the mother’s point of view, she’s like look how hard I had it here. I came to the US. We had nothing. I worked three jobs. If I didn’t have this nanny, how would I do this? How would I provide for my family? She’s panicked at every moment. She wants the best for her kids. And Lola’s health and happiness can’t be anywhere on her priorities. I think it’s a fascinating story to look at where you have some sympathy for where the mother is.
Craig: Yeah. And then you don’t, because–
John: Then you don’t, yeah.
Craig: I mean, ultimately she didn’t have to be cruel. And the problem with the relationships there is that ultimately the stakes of those relationships which come down to “am I loved, who do I love, is it wrong to love you, is it wrong to not love you” all pare in comparison to the stakes of “I’m a slave.” It’s hard for me to–
John: Okay, and here’s the thing. You don’t want to slide into moral relativism or to – we could also post links to some good threads on people’s criticisms of the piece and support of the piece talking about sort of you don’t want to justify it based on like, oh, this is actually common in Filipino culture or like you’re misunderstanding what some of these things are. But I think there’s a universal aspect to this which I definitely felt where a person in Los Angeles who has a Latina nanny, like that is a complicated relationship. That person is being paid. But is that person living their best life? Are they living the dream that they had hoped to live? Well, they’re certainly in a better position than Lola, but it’s still complicated.
Craig: It is. Yes.
John: Here’s another complication. Imagine Lola was a relative. Imagine Lola was a niece or a spinster aunt who was basically in the same situation. Well, is that slavery? Well, technically I guess it sort of is. But that’s actually much more commonly accepted. Like a relative you are not paying. That’s sort of natural. It’s almost in a weird way that she was shanghaied into being part of this family with no choice of escaping.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, there is a genre where people explore the nanny relationship. It goes way back. Mary Poppins was a nanny. And then in The Help you had a nanny. And in the modern phenomenon of the Latina nanny in Los Angeles and the Jamaican nanny in New York. But they’re paid. That is a job. And you can talk about the nuances of class and love and race, but at the very least there is a basic dignity that they are paid and they are free to leave.
This girl is not even sold. She’s just given. She’s just taken and given and separated from her family. Not allowed to go back. She’s never taught to read. They deprive her of an education. It is hard to look past the fact that she is essentially imprisoned and indentured and is owned. And has no free will. And that, to me, trumps all of the other possible concerns. And it’s very heartbreaking. The saddest thing in the world is an animal that is so used to being in a cage that when you open the cage door it doesn’t even understand that it can walk out.
And when you see that in a human being, and you see that, people have spent a long time in prison. Notoriously have really hard times when they leave because the freedom is overwhelming to them. Well, she’s never even – she can’t even have the freedom when she gets the freedom, because she has been essentially – she’s been broken. And it’s hard for me to look past any of that. It overwhelms everything.
This will require a very, very deft touch. And, I do think whoever writes this should be familiar with this culture, because I think nuance is going to be really important here. And this is a very interesting take on slavery. We have a lot of experience with culture investigating slavery in the United States. But we had a very specific slavery of African people. This is a different kind of slavery. And it’s a different kind of culture. It would take a deft hand and a very knowledgeable hand.
John: Agreed. I think one of the crucial choices to make sort of going back to, you know, when do you start the story. If you came into the story not knowing that she was essentially indentured at 12 years old things change a lot. If you believe that she actually came into this at 18 or at 20, that it was a choice, and like that things didn’t go well, it definitely shifts how you perceive this story. So, if you start the story when she’s 12, I’m going to have a very hard time ever becoming sympathetic to the mother.
Unless, and this is again very tricky, but the mother is a child as well. And if the mother as a child just cannot fundamentally understand that this girl is being forced here against her will, then maybe you’ve got something. But it’s really tough.
Craig: I mean, there is a version of this with a slightly amended ending where you don’t talk about the fact that this woman is a slave at the front. She is the beloved nanny. The son is older now. The mother dies. And the nanny doesn’t know what to do. And the son realizes that she’s not really leaving him. And he’s not sure what the deal is there. And he starts to try and give her some life that she didn’t have before because of the mother. And he decides, you know what, you’re pretty old. Let’s take you back to the Philippines. Why didn’t you ever go back?
And she makes excuses. They go back. And they have a journey to this very remote village where she’s from. And along the way the ultimate discovery is you weren’t my nanny. You were a slave. The truth emerges. And then in the end she does die.
There is a version there which is a version of discovery.
John: Honestly, from the article’s point of view, I found the trip back to the Philippines to be the least interesting part. When I reread it, I ended up just skimming them because that wasn’t–
Craig: She wasn’t there. That’s what I’m saying. If she were with him.
John: She was just a box of ashes.
Craig: Yeah. If she were with him, I think that could actually be sort of interesting because here’s somebody who is uncovering what he thinks is a trip where he’s going to uncover his “past” because he’s going back to the place where his people are from. But really the past he’s uncovering is his recent past. That’s interesting.
John: To me, the most fascinating and sort of cinematic moments for me though are when Alex is I think 12 or 14 and a friend is coming over. And the friend starts asking questions about who is this woman. And he gets caught in the lie where like, oh, she’s a relative. No, you said she was your grandmother. And basically like it’s almost like The Americans where you’re caught up in these lies and you can’t risk it being exposed because if it did get exposed, because Lola doesn’t have documentation, like the whole family could get shipped back to the Philippines. So that pressure on a 14-year-old kid who both loves his mother and loves Lola, that’s a really fascinating moment.
And in a certain way if you didn’t move forward in time but just let it be about that, that’s a really fascinating meaty bit of drama right there.
Craig: Yeah. It is. I don’t know. It’s a tough one because we know. So we’re watching this and we feel bad. And then those people leave and we still feel bad. I’m looking for that engine to figure out how to make this story work. I mean, that’s why I’m going, “Is it a road trip?” I’m looking for something that is an engine here, because the other way to go is to go completely unconventional and do a magical realism take on this where we’re with Lola and she’s a slave and this is her life. But then she has this other life she leads in her head, which is the what-if. It’s really about what is the point you’re trying to make here and what is the thing you want to unlock for people. And the feeling you want to leave them with.
And you sort of make your decision there and work backwards, I guess.
John: Another choice you’re going to have to make early on is at what point are people going to start speaking English, because you feel like they’re not speaking English inside the house, but then that’s a lot of subtitles to read. So, figuring out how you’re going to make that split is really fascinating, too.
Craig: Yeah. I would think that you would stay pretty much in English. It’s accented English. I mean, you have a little help there in that the kids are American. So, even though they probably speak Tagalog, the parents and Lola will speak them in English, but then you can certainly hear – it would be interesting to hear the two of them fighting in Tagalog and not have subtitles and you just know it’s not good.
John: Yeah. All right, our last story is nothing like the other stuff, so it’s a completely different kind of story. This is The Mystery of the Wasting House-Cats. So this is a story in the New York Times by Emily Anthes and it tracks the outbreak of a really rare feline condition that they started noticing in the ‘70s which is hyperthyroidism. And basically cats don’t get hyperthyroidism where your – well, you should explain what it is because you’re the medical person. But essentially a gland in your brain pumps out way too much, is it insulin? What does it do?
Craig: Well, the thyroid pumps out growth hormone in part.
John: And so in humans when humans have hyperthyroidism they lose weight, they become incredibly hungry. It’s a thing you don’t see in cats. But then they started seeing it in the 1970s in cats. And so it starts to look at like, well, why would that happen. And scientists looked back at the previous autopsies of cats. It didn’t happen before then. So something new is happening, so they need to investigate why. And so it becomes a medical investigation story of like why are these cats getting it. What has changed? And the leading culprit is a flame-retardant which has been put into cushions for upholstery and other things. It’s meant to be there to protect us, but it’s getting into the cats and the cats are doing poorly for it.
And the real question is at what point does this become a human problem as well? Are these things we’re putting out there going to hurt us as well. So, it’s a detective story. It’s a little bit of an investigation. There’s a lot of cats, so you got to kind of like cats to like this movie.
John: But to me this struck me as it could be Erin Brockovich again where you’re going after the bad chemical makers. There’s something really interesting about this. It’s not Outbreak. It’s not one of those sort of disease movies. But there’s something fascinating about this. Craig, did you like anything of this?
Craig: No. By the way, I want to clarify it’s not really growth hormone. The answer is thyroids put out thyroid hormone, but I was like that’s not a really good answer. They’re mostly about controlling the metabolic rate. Which is why people who are hyperthyroidic, you know, get skinny and sometimes their eyes get a little buggy.
Yeah, the problem here is that the cats aren’t dying. So, when we see an epidemic where a lot of animals are suddenly dying like the collapse of the bee colonies, we’re like, “Oh no.” They’re not dying. There’s actually a pretty reasonable way to treat this. And it does seem like the cause here, the environmental cause, has been determined – PBDEs. And it’s not like the movie can really come up with a better solution than what we’ve already come up with which is to stop using those, because we have. So, those – I mean, they’re out there still because they’re sort of grandfathered into a lot of materials, but we don’t make them anymore.
And, first of all, cats will chew on things that humans don’t. So, we’re not necessarily chewing on our sofa cushions. It does not appear that there is a spike in hyperthyroidism among adults, or hypothyroidism for that matter among adults. So, it doesn’t really seem like there’s a problem for us, so mostly just seems like if you’re a super cat person, but no one is going to go to a theater and watch this. I can’t imagine.
John: There’s anecdotes in here that I really liked. In the 1950s in Minamata, Japan, all the cats seemed to go mad at once. And this seems kind of amazing. So they began to stagger, stumble, and convulse, limbs flailing in every direction. They hurled themselves at stone walls and drowned themselves in the sea. That’s cinematic. That’s crazy.
Craig: Yeah. Cool.
John: And so that’s terrifying. And then it started happening to the children. And, oh, that’s horrible. Now you’ve got a movie. At first you’ve got sort of like an “oh, that’s curious,” and once the kids start dying then you’ve got a real problem.
So it turned out to be that one of the local chemical plants was dumping stuff into the sea. The fish were eating the chemicals. The people were eating the fish. The cats were eating the fish. And that’s what happened. So, classically that’s a canary in the coal mine. That’s why often environmental impacts will be seen first in animals, and therefore you’re watching those to extrapolate out from there to other places.
And so in a movie where you saw cats or some other animals like suddenly perish, there will be that instinct of like, oh, isn’t that so interesting that that’s happening. But as an omen for things that are going to happen next, that can be a great way into the bigger problem that’s about to happen.
So, again, I’d love to pitch what the Oscar version of this is. And I’m now sort of regretting putting it on the outline, because I can’t see what that Oscar version is.
John: But in terms of the horror movie start, that’s the great horror movie start. The cats acting insane is a great horror movie start because then the people start acting insane and you get a good foreshadowing of what’s to come. That’s always delightful.
Craig: Always delightful. Yeah. And we do see in movies like Contagion and the Hot Zone, and what was it, not Contact, but–
Craig: Outbreak. There is almost always a scene where an animal goes bananas. And in the case of the one cited in this article is methyl, not ethyl, methyl mercury into the bay. Because the anti-vaccine people love to think that methyl mercury and ethyl mercury are the same thing. They’re not, dopes.
So, yeah, that’s super bad. And there are definitely things, I mean, we have at times realized that we are in trouble because of the way animals were acting. But, of course, animals aren’t people and they will do things that people don’t do, like eat feces. That’s one of the big ones. We generally don’t. [laughs]
John: But if you saw people doing that in a movie, you would know something is wrong.
Craig: Or something was right, like in Pink Flamingos, the great Divine rest in peace. So, yeah, I mean, maybe there’s a crazy black comedy to be done like this.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: There was a movie out of New Zealand I think where the sheep went nuts.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: Like a horror movie. Which is kind of fun. You know. And so the idea of cats going crazy is kind of fun. So it’s a black comedy or sort of like a horror-comedy. But there’s no Oscar potential here for the cats. They’re just going to get better after some mild treatment. [laughs]
John: There will be a Pixar version of it where the cats notice the humans are going crazy, and the cats have to band together to save the humans. The humans are the canaries in the coal mine and the cats realize there’s a problem coming.
Craig: Right. Like the cats suddenly realize that Donald Trump is the President of the United States.
John: No, no, we’ve got to stop him.
Craig: Yeah, that’s not good. Something has gone terribly wrong here.
John: The new Cat Constitution. We could stop trying to save it. I regret putting it in here.
Craig: No, you should never regret. Never regret. Ever.
John: No regrets. That’s the thing I’ve learned about 2017 is no regrets ever.
Craig: No regrets.
John: Predictions. Will any of these things become movies?
Craig: Yes. I think My Family’s Slave is going to become something. It may be a Netflix kind of television-only piece. But if you attract the right filmmaker, the right actor, and you really kind of nail a specific and enlightening angle on a story to kind of honor what’s unique about it and not jam it into the same old story that we’ve seen where the slave owner is finally enlightened by the slave, then yeah, I think that one. Certainly someone is going to buy it, if they haven’t already. That’s unquestionable.
John: Yeah. I think that’s a slam dunk. And I think Kushnerville, something like that could happen. I don’t know if it’s necessarily based around this article, but I think the idea of doing something about those housing projects is fascinating, but the hook of having Kushner be the guy behind it is also just great. So, I don’t know that it’s a big screen feature thing, but I could see a premium cable movie coming out of this. There’s something that it’s political, and targeted, and smart.
John: So I could see something happening with that, but I don’t think there’s going to be a cat movie. At least not a cat movie based on this article.
Craig: [laughs] No, there is not going to be a cat movie. I think that there is a good story to be told. Someone should start working on this. Or, hey, just hire me. There’s a good story to be told about two people falling in love and one of them is – and it doesn’t matter which gender is which. It doesn’t even matter if they’re homosexual or heterosexual. All that matters is that one party is lower class and black, and one party is lower class and white. And you’re watching the two sides of that coin and the interesting thing that has happened in this country where they have been seemingly pitted against each other, coming together and actually falling in love I think would be spectacular. Because that’s the crazy thing.
I mean, I think we discussed that sketch on Saturday Night Live this year where Tom Hanks was on Black Jeopardy.
John: Oh yeah. Absolutely. That’s a great sketch.
Craig: And it kind of cuts right to it. Which is the experiences of our life are actually so much closer together than the experiences of say people like Jared Kushner, who don’t want to talk to either one of us, and don’t live like either one of us, and don’t respect either one of us. There’s something there. There’s a really good story to be told there. And this is an interesting – it’s certainly a way in. I don’t know if it’s the way in.
John: I agree.
All right, let’s get to our big feature question of the episode. This is from Nick in Los Angeles. And we have audio. So let’s take a listen.
Nick: This is a question that occurred to me during the last round of WGA negotiations with the AMPTP. And that is basically why is the AMPTP allowed to exist? Why are all the studios and networks allowed to get together and decide collectively what they’re willing to pay writers and directors and actors, even though they’re all separately owned companies, when that is not allowed to happen in other industries? Like, for example, Ford and GM and Chrysler can’t put all their CEOs in a room and say, “Okay, this is what we’re going to pay United Auto Workers Union next time there’s a negotiation. And if they want more than that, too bad. We’re all united on this.”
That’s an illegal trust and it can’t happen. So, I wonder why it’s allowed to happen in the case of the studios, even though it seems like it’s the same situation. They’re separately owned companies in the same industry that are basically colluding on what they’re going to offer their employees. So there must be a legal distinction there, but I don’t know what it is and I would like to understand. Thanks.
Craig: Well the AMPTP is considered a trade organization. And so this is a – it’s not just a phrase. It’s a term of law when it comes to collective bargaining. Specifically they are a multi-employer bargaining unit. And federal labor law, as has been interpreted by case law over time, because every part of the national labor relations act has been litigated up and down the line. The companies are allowed to form a multi-employer bargaining unit to negotiate with a common pool of employees. And it doesn’t always make sense, but a lot of times it does. For instance, in sports it makes complete sense.
So, if you’re Aaron Judge, you play for the Yankees. You are an employee of the Yankees. You’re not an employee of Major League Baseball. You’re an employee of the Yankees. But you are part of a bargaining unit, the Major League Baseball Player Association, that does not bargain with the Yankees. It bargains with the Major League baseball team’ multi-employer bargaining unit.
Similarly in Hollywood, we do the same thing. Nick says the CEOs of Ford, GM, and Chrysler can’t negotiate with the UAW as a group. I think they could, actually. They choose not to, and it makes sense in part because while the auto industry was once very, very centralized, it is no longer so. Hollywood is unique in this sense. It’s pretty centralized. There is this very specific walled-off pool of talent, just as there is in professional sports, which is the only real analogy I think to – or cognate to what we have.
Frankly, it probably wasn’t smart for the auto companies to not form a multi-employer bargaining unit way back at the height of the UAW’s power. But, yeah, long story short, they’re allowed to do it and they can do it. And for our situation here, it is not going to change any time soon.
John: It’s worth noting that I think nothing precludes – this is doing the 2007/2008 strike, there were discussion where the WGA was going to start negotiating with some of the members separately to do deals. And that’s a thing that could still happen. But I would like to remind Nick and other writers that it’s actually useful for the WGA to negotiate with all of the people at once, because if we had to make a separate deal with Paramount and a separate deal with Disney and a separate deal with Fox, it would be a mess. Because your terms would change based on who was employing you and that would be really bad really quickly.
Unlike the auto worker who is working for Ford and is working for Ford for 30 years, we are working for different people all the time. And it’s very useful to have common terms across all these different things. And so this is the fantasy of like, oh, we could pit them against each other. In real life, it would probably not work out very well for us.
Craig: Yeah. They don’t seem interested in being pitted against each other. They have chosen to band together in this multi-employer bargaining unit. And, look, it’s not just the big companies. The big companies are the ones that run the negotiations on behalf of the AMPTP. Well, I mean, the staff of the AMPTP runs the negotiations, but the big companies are the ones in the room with Carol Lombardini who is their chief negotiator.
But, the AMPTP is negotiating that deal on behalf of hundreds of companies. Every small company that wants to hire WGA writers has to become signatory to the contract. They essentially become members of the AMPTP. And it makes complete sense because why wouldn’t they? If they just agree to sign on board with the AMPTP, they get to have that contract. People who say, well why don’t we negotiate those people separately and get a better contract, the answer is because they don’t have to. Because they’ll just take that one. They can with the stroke of a pen. And so it goes.
John: There’s always going to be a discussion of like, oh, should we make a separate deal with Amazon or Netflix or some other brand new player who actually has a lot of money and is doing something different. That will always come up. I don’t know that it’s ever going to happen. But that does come up.
And the WGA does have different deals in certain cases because it’s a very different kind of company. So the WGA also negotiates on behalf of some TV news writers. It’s a completely different kind of thing. And those are done in a different way.
Craig: Yeah. And really specific, because for instance the WGA West represents news writers employed by KCBS. That’s it, as far as I know. Oh, and also 1010 WINS News Radio, I believe. So, they don’t even represent the whole business there, so that is an employer-specific negotiation.
Netflix and Amazon have agreed to just basically tack themselves onto the AMPTP. Smart business. I think they’re well aware that the only possible thing that could end up happening if they negotiate with us separately is them having to pay us more. Because we’re never going to take less than what the AMPTP gives us, so what’s the point? It just sort of resolves itself. That is kind of the deal and, yeah, it’s going to stay the deal.
John: It will stay the deal. It’s time for One Cool Things. Craig, what do you got?
Craig: My One Cool Thing is a bit of a sad thing, but also a very lovely thing. My grandmother-in-law, my children’s great grandmother-in-law, my wife’s grandmother, Millie Hendrick, passed away this past weekend. She was 98 years old. She was a spectacular lady. It was fun to know her for as long as I did. She was born in 1918.
John: That’s great.
Craig: You know, just imagine all the things you saw. Yeah, first six years, you don’t remember any of that. So let’s spot her at 1925 to make it a nice even number of when she starts realizing what’s going on. She’s there when the stock market crashes. She’s there during the depression. She’s there during WWII. She’s there during the Eisenhower era. She’s there during Korea. She’s there during Vietnam. She sees all of it. And then the computer comes.
Just think of the way the telephones changed. She was there when TV showed up. And there she was at the end just being her cool self. Fantastic lady. Lived a great life. Really active in the Peace Corps. And she loved bird-watching. My wife loves bird-watching. Bird-watching is one of those things where it’s like–
John: I just can’t.
Craig: What is that? [laughs] What possible joy are people – and yet they, oh my god, do bird watchers love bird watching.
John: I have to say, Craig, the way you feel about bird-watching is how I feel about most sports. I could totally understand some people find joy in this, but I just can’t find joy in this.
Craig: I mean, you can at least acknowledge that in sports there is an outcome. Right?
John: That’s true. There’s a mystery. Yes.
Craig: In bird-watching, they’re just watching birds. Anyway, she loved bird-watching. She was a terrific person and it was an honor to know her. And, you know, when someone dies at the age of 98, you can’t really be sad. I mean, you can be mournful.
John: Celebrate that they lived 98 years. That’s great.
Craig: What a run. What a run. So my One Cool Thing this week, Millie Hendrick.
John: Very nice. My One Cool Thing is a song and video called Dear Mr. Darcy. It is done Esther Longhurst and Jessica Messenger. It’s an open letter addressed to Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. It is just terrific. I just loved it. It reminded me of my favorite things about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Another Period, Hamilton. It was sort of like Empire with empire waist lines. It was delightfully perfectly done little short thing. So it’s just a little delicious treat to enjoy if you like Jane Austen things, which I suspect many people on this podcast do like.
So, I will use this as the outro for tonight’s episode so that people can enjoy a little bit of this song. And that’s our show for this week. So our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also a place where you can send questions like Nick’s today.
People ask us do you have a voicemail line for when people leave those messages like Nick’s. No, just attach you asking your question to the email and then we might use it. So, that’s a way to do it. You can just record it on your phone or however you want to do it.
On Twitter, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts as Scriptnotes. While you’re there, leave us a review, because that helps people find the show.
You can find the show notes for this episode, including links to all these articles we talked about, including additional things about My Family’s Slave, at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts in about four days.
And all the back episodes of the show are found at Scriptnotes.net. We have 300 episodes back there, plus bonus episodes with cool other people. So thanks.
Craig: Thanks John. See you next time.
John: Craig, have a great week.
- Scriptnotes Midnight Blue T-Shirt
- The Seed Vault is Fine
- You May Want to Marry My Husband
- Scriptnotes, Episode 293: Underground Railroad of Love
- The Beleaguered Tenants of ‘Kushnerville’
- My Family’s Slave
- The Mystery of the Wasting House-Cats
- Dear Mr Darcy
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Esther Longhurst and Jessica Messenger (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.