John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
Ira Glass: WBEZ Chicago. It’s This American Life, I’m Ira Glass.
Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.
Male Voice: [Unintelligible].
Male Voice: I’m [Robert Grolich].
Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.
Phoebe Judge: I’m Phoebe Judge. This is criminal.
Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.
Roman Mars: I’m Roman Mars.
Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.
Karina Longworth: I’m your host. Karina Longworth.
Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 303 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the program, we will be answering listener questions about writer agreements, page-one rewrites, and resuscitating dead projects.
Craig: We’re not going to talk about what just happened though? [laughs]
John: What just happened?
Craig: The weirdest intro that we have ever had.
John: It’s a pretty great intro. So that intro came from Jonas Madden-Connor. Jonas, thank you for cutting that. Again, we have the best listeners in the entire world.
Craig: We really, really do. I don’t know, there’s been a number of these that people have done, but that one was the most interesting and therefore also the most disturbing.
John: Yeah. It was wonderful. I had an interesting disturbing day and I want to talk to you about it, because it was strange and I want your feedback on it. So, today I got an MRI. I got a brain scan.
John: Which I’d never had before. So, to cut to the end, I’m absolutely fine. There’s nothing wrong whatsoever. And it was a scan that my French doctor wanted me to have and my American doctor says that’s ridiculous, you don’t need that. But I ended up deciding, you know what, I’m curious what a brain scan is actually like, what the experience is. And so I’m going to cross this off my bucket list. I will have a brain scan. The answer is it’s not especially pleasant, but was fascinating in a way that I’m glad I did it. So, I did it here in Paris. And I’ve had scans, like of my chest before, but this was the first time where like they lock your head into a cage and you can’t move.
And have you ever had that done, Craig?
Craig: No. But I’m actually going to in the summer because some researchers at Princeton – I may have even mentioned this on the show – are doing a study about writers and neurological function and I guess the idea of visualization in the brain. And they’re using screenwriters specifically. And so they reached out to me and I said yeah. That’s like everything I love all in one. So, I don’t know what the – the test is sort of a challenge test, I think, where they’re scanning your brain and then they’re also asking you to perform mental tasks.
Craig: And then they are looking at how it works inside your head. But, yeah, I’ll have it done then. And generally speaking, I mean, it isn’t really – there’s no real good reason, you really shouldn’t do it. But–
John: It’s not dangerous to do it. Here’s what I’ll say. I’m not a claustrophobic person, and I’m generally not claustrophobic in small spaces. I wasn’t freaked out about doing this whatsoever. But there becomes a moment about ten minutes into this where I did start to panic a little bit. And the fact that you cannot move your head at all is really jarring. The other thing which was strange is the way that the little cage is set up, there’s a mirror where I can sort of see my eyes, and I can sort of see forward, but I couldn’t quite figure out what I was seeing. There was sort of this landscape ahead of me that felt very sort of science fiction. And like I was moving through a tunnel in a Kubrick movie.
And it was only after a few minutes of staring at it that I realize like, oh wait, I’m actually looking at over my shirt and my pants at my shoes. But my brain couldn’t process what I was actually seeing. It was really strange – it was cool.
So, I guess on the whole I would recommend it to people, but it wasn’t a pleasant thing. Like I was happy to have it be finished at the end.
Craig: It doesn’t hurt.
John: It doesn’t hurt whatsoever. It was good for the experience. It was also good to prove that I do have – I now have a scan to show I have a brain and a heart, so I’m really not a robot.
Craig: You have what we would call a vestigial brain and heart. I think that you have those organs, but they’re essentially redundant because your CPU and I think you have some kind of pump. Like a motorized pump that moves the nutrient fluids and the lubricants, the coolants, through the ductwork.
John: It must be contained somewhere down in my lower extremities, because so far in the head and the heart the magnets haven’t been set off by that–
Craig: No, no, there’s no reason to mimic the inefficient design of the human anatomy. It’s probably all packed in somewhere around where your kidneys are, or would have been.
John: That actually makes a lot more sense. I feel much better knowing that now.
Craig: I mean, that’s where your food port is, isn’t it?
John: [laughs] Indeed. That’s where I inject my food port. I go through all the efforts of looking like I’m eating normal food at restaurants, but no, it’s all for show.
Craig: You do this incredibly rhythmic chewing that actually freaks people out more, but you don’t know.
John: Oh, it’s good stuff.
We have some follow up here. Why don’t you start us off here?
Craig: Oh, Kevin Walsh. Kevin is a guy that you and I play Dungeons & Dragons with. I think we’ve mentioned him on the show before. We definitely mentioned him when we did the D&D podcast with the Wizards of the Coast folks. And Kevin is the ultimate D&D rules lawyer. And apparently also chess lawyer. So, he wrote in to say, “Just heard you guys discussing errors in specialized details. And the example of the impossible chess scenario in The Office jumped out at me. I’m a poor player, but I know enough to realize—“
He’s already lying, by the way. I’m sure he’s great. “The setup of two bishops on white squares, while highly improbable, is not impossible due to the promotion element of the game. When a pawn reaches the eighth rank, it’s almost always promoted to a queen. But you actually have the option to promote it to any non-pawn piece, so you could conceivably promote a pawn on a white square to bishop in addition to a bishop already on the board.”
Yes, that is technically true. Who the hell would do that? I mean, there’s no reason to do that, at all. Ever. I can’t imagine anyone has ever done that.
John: So, invariably when we do the podcast we talk about articles and blog posts we’ve read and we summarize because it’s in audio format, but if I recall correctly in the longer blog post that we were drawing from the author, who I believe was a woman, did single out that, yes, there is a possibility in which he could have gotten two bishops on white squares, but the way the game was actually set up, or at least how you saw the game being played, it wouldn’t have been possible.
Craig: It just doesn’t make any sense, because the queen moves in all directions as many squares as she wants. So, she’s already – she can be essentially every piece on the board. Well, she can’t move like a rook. I’m sorry. Like a knight. But she can move diagonally like a bishop. And she can also move one square over and then start moving diagonally, so who the hell would promote a pawn to a bishop? I don’t know, now a bunch of chess people are going to write in and call me–
John: They’re absolutely going to write in and you should write those things with Header Craig.
Craig: John, why would you say such things? [laughs]
John: In Episode 301 we talked about writing a pilot based on a property you don’t own as a writing sample. Charles writes, “I’ve written several episodes of a television series based on an existing property, specifically the Fallout game series.”
John: Craig loves Fallout.
Craig: I do.
John: “The game developer, knowing nothing about my script or plans for the series as a whole, won’t answer or return any of my calls regarding obtaining the rights for said property.”
Craig: [laughs] You don’t say?
John: “I’m sure an agent would be able to make some headway in this department, but as you’ve probably already guessed, I don’t have one of those. I’ve thought about contacting agents who have developed similar properties, but articles I’ve found on the subject suggest that contacting an agent without already possessing the rights would present a substantial hurdle. Any advice you could offer would be greatly appreciated.”
Craig: OK. Charles, here’s your advice. There’s nothing wrong with what you’ve done, per se. You’re into this and you’re writing episodes. What you’re writing is only valuable to the extent that someone might read it and say, “I like the way you write, Charles. I’d like to hire you to write something else. Or I’d like to see if you have something original that you’d like to write.” Under no circumstances will Bethesda, the massive corporation that makes the Fallout game series, and Elder Scrolls, be willing to discuss with you the notion of licensing derivative works. They maintain very careful control of those rights and they will only license them to the largest of entities for the most possible amount of money.
To date, I don’t think they have. I think they’ve actually – they don’t even want to license this stuff to Warner Bros, much less Charles. Do you know what I mean?
So, stop calling them. They’re never going to – and they will also very intentionally tell you that they’re not reading anything you’ve written because the last thing they want to do is deal with you then coming down later and saying you stole some of my stuff for Fallout 7, or your Fallout movie. So, they’re never going to read it. They’re never going to contact you. They may never acknowledge that you have even done what you’ve done.
Technically speaking, I mean, what you’ve done isn’t a violation of their rights unless you try and make money off of it. Then it is. So, you should stop pursuing this like it can happen. You should only think of this as either a writing exercise for yourself, great practice, a way to learn, or as a sample for other people to read who might be looking to hire a writer to adapt their video game which is perhaps a smaller property that isn’t quite as a massive as Fallout.
John: 100% correct. And I think this is a case of sort of over-applying something we said in Episode 301. So in Episode 301 we talked about this guy who wanted to do an episode of Dallas or a pilot based on Dallas that was turned into a comedy. We said, yes, go for it with the giant caveat that like that is a great writing sample. A writing sample is wonderful, but it is not a thing you’re going out to try to make. So, stop pursuing Bethesda. Stop pursuing an agent with the goal of making this into a thing. Try to make people read it because hopefully it’s really good writing.
John: I’m going to put a link in the show notes to a short film about Portal, made by Dan Trachtenberg, who is a guy we should absolutely have on the podcast at some point.
Craig: Oh yeah. He’s great.
John: He’s great. And so he’s gone on to become a director of note. But the first thing I was aware that he did was this short film inspired by Portal. And I don’t recall the full backstory on this. I don’t think he had any rights or blessings from the Valve folks. It’s a film that’s sort of set in the Valve universe, but it is not – to my understanding – was not sanctioned by Valve before he made it. But it was very useful.
So I think the same way that Charles’ Fallout script could be useful to him as a calling card, this was useful to Dan Trachtenberg as a calling card. But he was not setting out to make a Portal movie to make money.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, basically you’re writing fan fiction, Charles. And there’s nothing wrong with it. But you could – certainly you could put it on the web and just have people, if they want to read it, for free. Can’t charge them for it. That’s for sure.
John: Yep. Last bit of sort of meta follow up, in previous episodes we’ve done How Would This Be a Movie. We did a How Would This Be a Movie last week. A lot of those How Would This Be a Movie are becoming a movie. And so I wanted a place for sort of consistent follow up on like all those things we talked about, which ones of those are actually becoming movies. So, Godwin, our producer, is going through and tracking all those projects now. So, there will be a link in the show notes for sort of the tracking board of the previous projects to see what’s going on. So we’ll be updating that periodically as we have news on which of those movies are actually going down the roads into production.
Craig: Smart. Is he going to keep a little report card of how we’re doing on our predictions?
John: That’s a really good idea, too. We’re figuring out what the good forum for it will be. I think it will be just a single page on johnaugust.com. But it will be some sort of table. There will be, you know, a good little indicator of like what’s where.
Craig: Fantastic. Great idea. And you know what? Keeps Godwin busy.
John: It does. You got to keep him busy, because you know what? Our listeners are paying Godwin’s salary. Well, technically I’m paying his salary. But our listeners are helping to pay Godwin’s salary.
Craig: And, uh, idle hands are the devil’s playground.
John: They certainly are. You know who else works for me who has idle hands sometimes is Nima Yousefi. And he asked a question which I figured we would discuss here. So it is our first of many questions this evening. Is there a name for the kind of movie that is just stuffed with stars, like the Garry Marshall films, such as Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, or Love Actually? Craig, can you think of a title for that kind of movie, that genre?
Craig: I don’t think there’s a specific one. Sometimes you might refer to those as star ensembles. But, you know, on television, when they used to make television movies, sometimes they would do this and they would call it an All-Star Cast. We don’t really do that in movies. That sounds ridiculous. I just call them Star Ensembles.
John: I guess a Star Ensemble would make sense. You know, it feels it could be weird to write that kind of movie if you weren’t anticipating it being stuffed with stars in a strange way. You know, it’s hard to envision Love Actually if you didn’t anticipate like, OK, there’s all these different characters who are sort of running around. If they weren’t kind of notable actors independently would you really try to make that move? I don’t know. I also think of like the Cannonball Run movies are just full of actors in ways that we don’t commonly make those anymore.
Craig: That’s right. I don’t know if Love Actually specifically – it’s not quite the same Star Ensemble sort of thing that maybe some of the Garry Marshall films are. Those really are like, look, over here, and over here, and over here. It’s not my favorite genre. I will admit.
John: I’d agree.
Craig: I’m not one of those people that loves or hates Love Actually. It’s such a polarizing film in a weird way. I like it. You know, like I’ve never felt passionate about it. But the holiday movies, they’re not really – mostly what happens is they get very sentimental in certain kind of way. And I like certain kinds of sentiment, and then other kinds of sentiment is just not for me. It’s just, you know, it’s a personal taste thing. So, I’m not big on those.
And I never really liked the Cannonball Run movies. I didn’t. Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World? No. Not really. No.
John: Not so much. You know, I think of the Judd Apatow movies and also the Seth Rogan/Evan Goldberg movies, they tend to have big casts, but it doesn’t sort of feel like I’m cramming this one actor in for just this one scene. They very much tend to stay on plot. I mean, Apatow will sort of like – sometimes you will sense that somebody was there just because they were funny and they sort of got three scenes because he wanted them in the movie. But it’s not the same sense of like, oh look, it’s that famous person who is just being that famous person and improvising.
Craig: Yeah. There are some filmmakers that have a little bit of like a Mercury Theater group of actors they always use. And those people keep showing up. And how some of those people get into that clique. It’s really more of a clique, because when you see a movie like the Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day movies, you don’t get the sense at all those actors hang out all the time. But Jon Hamm seems to hang out with these people. Like he hangs out with Kristen Wiig. I don’t know how that happened. It just did. And now he shows up in those movies. So, that’s more of a – yeah, I would call that a Clique Movie.
John: It’s a Clique Flick.
Craig: Oh! How did I miss that?
John: See? I knew if we talked about it enough we would get it out.
Craig: It’s a Clique Flick. Dude, seriously, that’s great. That’s exactly what it is. So Apatow makes Clique Flicks.
John: So good. I think we should stop the podcast right here.
Craig: I think we should stop everything. I may just stop. That may be it. I may walk out into traffic now. I’m not sure how it gets better than this.
John: It’s all downhill from here.
Cord writes, “I was wondering, what percentage of the rewrite gigs that you take on are page-one rewrites? And would you say that percentage represents other writer’s workloads, too? Or are some writers more apt to say no to page-one rewrites and other writers yes?”
So, Craig, that’s an interesting question because I guess we have to define what is a page-one rewrite and does the notion of a page-one rewrite change how likely you or I are to approach a project.
Craig: OK. Well, we’ll start with the term. So page-one rewrite is an assignment where there is an existing script. Sometimes there are bunch of existing scripts. And either because the studio feels this way or they are going along with a writer, a new writer, who feels this way, we’re essentially starting over. We’re not throwing out the basic idea, but we’re saying, you know, we’re not taking the document of this script and then going into it and making adjustments throughout. We’re going to begin again. We’re going to break a new general plot. There could be wild shifts in character or tone. Certainly in story. And then we’re going to write – all this is new. We’re basically starting over.
I find that most of the time the rewrite work I do falls into two piles. One pile is you’re going to be on this for a week to three weeks. And then the other pile is page-one rewrite. It’s not that they come and say that. But inevitably if I’m not doing a short-term assignment, which means usually the film is in preproduction, it’s been green-lit. There’s a lot of pressure to color within the lines. A lot of times – you probably get this all the time, right?
So you get a call from your agent. They’re like, “Yeah, they’re calling about blah-blah-blah.” And you’ll say, OK, well what are they saying in terms of work? What do they think it is? “You know, they’re saying like three weeks.” In my mind I go, that’s a page-one rewrite. [laughs]
John: Usually I hear it, it’s like, “It’s a couple of weeks.” I’m like, oh yeah, it’s a couple of weeks.
Craig: Couple of weeks is trouble. Three weeks is right out. Because they underestimate everything essentially.
John: Here’s the interesting thing about a couple of weeks. A couple of weeks means that like, OK, they’re going to want to meet you and they’re going to have to have discussions and basically you’re going to have to pitch them what you’re going to do. And then they’re going to decide and then they’re going to hire you. So, a couple of weeks, it could be a couple weeks before you would even get the green light to sort of get to writing. And so then you’ve just burned a tremendous amount of time. At that point you could have just rewritten the whole script more like.
A page-one rewrite to me is – generally it’s an adaptation or there was something preexisting and whoever took the first crack at it didn’t deliver what they wanted to do. I don’t get a lot of the “this was a spec script we bought and now it’s a page-one rewrite.” That just doesn’t happen to me very much, just because not a lot of spec scripts tend to get sold. But this is like, you know, we’re kind of starting over here. Or we need to have a whole new framework. So even though you might take the same characters, you’re changing a lot.
John: I tend to say no to those, honestly because I would rather be the first writer on something or I would rather be working on my own stuff, because a page-one rewrite is really just a brand new movie.
Craig: That’s right. It is. I will do them probably more frequently than you will because I don’t mind so much that I’m not necessarily the first person in if the topic is exciting to me and I feel like I can see a way through. That’s what happened on Identity Thief. It was a page-one rewrite. But what I do find is that it’s actually rare that the studio will say, “This is a page-one rewrite.” They’re always weirdly hopeful that there’s a fast, easy magic bullet to fire at this thing. I mean, in their dreams they imagine a screenwriter walking in and saying, “Oh, you guys, give me four days. Pay me only for four days and I will fix everything. You guys didn’t see it. It’s just this, and I got it.” And they go, “Oh my god.”
That’s their dream scenario. That’s not realistic, of course. Normally what happens if there is something that’s troubled, you got to start over. And then, yes, it is a lot of time. I do prefer if I’m going to do all that to just be the first person in. But when there’s a really interesting project or a really interesting director, then I’ll come in and do a bunch of work. What I try and avoid is the middle. And I don’t always avoid it.
I’ll give you – perfect example from my career is the Huntsman sequel. That was the middle. So they had a screenplay. And they were happy with the basic shape of the story, the premise, the way the characters were moving in and out. They just wanted work done on tone and dialogue and some new scenes. And this and that and all the rest. And that became – that was essentially about seven weeks. And it was one of those middles. It wasn’t a page-one rewrite. It wasn’t a short rewrite. It was heavy rewrite. And then the movie got green lit and then I had to come back and do another two weeks for production stuff. But at that point a lot of things had gone wrong, including the director getting fired and a new director coming on, like a week before shooting.
And I never felt like, OK, I mean, the credits on that are absolutely fair. Even Spiliotopoulous and I really wrote that movie. He wrote it and I wrote it. Not together, but separately. That’s one I try to actually avoid. I’d rather just say I was never here. Nobody knew I was here. I do my two or three weeks. Or, I wrote it. You know? But, well, you live and learn.
John: Yeah. For sure. You know, the page-one rewrite generally comes up when it’s a project that the studio says, “We really do want to make this movie. This is just not the script to make this movie out of.” So it’s a big adaptation of some piece of property that they really want, or it’s a sequel. Those tend to be prime candidates for rewrites.
So, there’s a lot of Bruckheimer movies where they just page-one rewrite it a zillion times. And that’s a thing that happens and I try to avoid those. There are projects I can think of over the last few years where it was a page-one rewrite but it was basically like I had a completely different concept for how to take this existing property. And that was intriguing to me, so to me it felt like a new movie.
John: Certainly to the previous writers, it felt like a page-one rewrite. And both can be true at the same time.
I tend to only really look at the rewrites where it’s a movie that I would want to make anyway. So then, sure, I’ll go in and do it. Or, sometimes I’ll read something and like I really do have the pretty simple solutions to things. I can tell you exactly what’s not working here. I can tell you how to do it. And I’m so excited because this script is really good and I can fix these things that I think we all agree are the problems. Those are the times where you get to feel like, OK, I’m actually helping something.
John: A lot of times with these page-one rewrites I just don’t feel like I’m necessarily getting that much closer to them making a movie.
Craig: Well, yeah. I won’t take one of those unless I do feel like there’s a real chance. You know, that I have an excitement like it’s something new. And you’re right. It’s a bit like being handed a book. I mean, you don’t write the book but you’re asked to adapt the novel and you feel like you are the writer. Well, sometimes there is a book and also five scripts, which they’ve pushed aside. And they’re saying just go back to the book and start again. And then it feels sort of the same.
But I never want to take – I mean, Ted Elliott I remember once somebody asked him, we were on like a panel or something. And somebody said to him, “When people are offering you opportunities and movies that you can write or rewrite, what sort of movies are the ones that you want to write?” And he said, “Oh that’s easy. I want to write movies that they want to make.”
Craig: And that’s kind of true. And sometimes you think I can make you want to make this. But that’s a harder circumstance than the normal one which is, “Oh, they want to make this. They really want to make this, so let’s see if I can be the last guy who gets the seat before the musical chairs song stops.” It’s risky.
John: I will tell you that as I do a mental survey of our screenwriting friends, the ones who are consistently employed but often the least happy are the ones who are doing a lot of those middles.
John: It’s the ones who are – they’re the fifth writer in on this project that has broken many other people before and will it break them? Probably. But they’ll pick themselves up and they’ll go on to the next thing. It’s a lucrative thing to be in that middle spot, but it’s not actually particularly enjoyable.
John: So, at this moment I’m happy not to be doing a lot of those.
Craig: I agree with you. The one thing – let’s put money aside. Let’s say money is not the object. You don’t need a job at any particular moment. You’re lucky. And you have some choices. The one thing you want to avoid I think as a screenwriter is that gig where they’re clearly flailing around in the dark. And they’re hoping that somebody will give them something that excites them. They’re not already excited. Maybe you’ve got – they’re in a situation – there’s politics involved. There’s a property. A producer who controls something they need, a franchise, is also obsessed with developing this other thing. And so they’re letting the producer do it and they’re paying for development. They don’t necessarily really want it.
Or, there’s an actor who is attached to something. It’s a passion project. And they’re using that as bait to get the actor to do their franchise again. Those are scary. Because they will pay and you will work. And it will never satisfy. Because they don’t really want it.
John: What I will say is that as a young writer, some of those jobs were incredibly important to me, because they were a paycheck. And they were experience. They were a chance to sort of work in the system and figure it all out. So I don’t want to scare people away from those jobs early on. But you can’t only do those jobs because then you will never get a movie made.
John: And so that’s part of the calculation you’re doing. I always say my favorite genre of movie is the movie that gets made. So very similar to Ted Elliott’s. And I’m always doing a check on things saying like do I really think they’re going to make this movie. And based on where I think that is, I will make a calculation like this is the right project for me to hop on or not hop on. And that’s shifted over the course of my career.
Early on, I needed to grab on to any movie that was going to pay me, any script that was going to pay me because that was incredibly important, to get both the experience and to keep the lights on.
Craig: Without question. Yeah, when you’re starting out, my god, take the job. Always take the job. Because let’s say somebody comes to you. The screenwriting fairy comes to you at night and says, “They’re never going to make it.” That’s OK. You’re going to learn something from the project. You’re going to be a better writer. You’re going to go through the experience of dealing with notes and producers and studio executives, politics, whatever it is. It will make you stronger. The experience will make you stronger. Even if it is an entirely negative experience, then you have learned something to avoid. Either way, there is no I don’t think, short of being abused, which unfortunately can happen quite a bit – there is no cost to taking a job when you don’t have another job to do. And you don’t have something of your own that you are burning to write. And you need to keep paying your bills. And you need to keep yourself as a viable option. They have lists. And you’re on one. And there’s upward and downward mobility on the list. Far more than you would imagine.
So, working is good. If you’re lucky enough to get to a place where you can be picky, well, look, I think probably you and I are in the same boat in this regard. We can kind of steer our ships between the three happiest islands which is: production rewrites, which are short, weeklies; page ones, where we can feel like we own something and make it; or our own stuff.
John: Yeah. And I’ve been happy to be able to do my own stuff these past couple of years. But I also enjoy working on other people’s movies. And so when those opportunities come up that make sense, I will do those as well.
John: Let’s go on to Lucas’s question. Lucas from Melbourne, Australia writes, “As we all know, scripts can change during production.”
John: “So if the film itself does not include specific dialogue that was in the original script, how much can we as authors hold on to legally? I know ideas cannot be owned, but I’m wondering if dialogue can be.”
Craig: Uh…maybe Lucas you’re asking this question because you live in Australia which doesn’t have work-for-hire the way we do in the United States. But here in the United States, we don’t own any of it anyway. We’ve signed over all of the copyright on our work to the studios. They own every word that’s in the film. Whether we wrote it or an actor ad-libbed it. We actually aren’t the technical authors of our screenplays. The studios are.
So, it’s not applicable to us.
John: No, I think he’s saying morally. I think he’s really asking the question of like I wrote this brilliant speech in this movie and then the script was shot and then for various reasons it never filmed. So basically in the third draft of the 19 drafts I did on this movie, there was this character who had this speech, or had this moment, or had this line of dialogue. Can I take that line of dialogue that never shot, that was never used–?
Craig: Oh, and reuse it?
John: To use that somewhere else? Can I use something from a previous thing?
Craig: Well, I was just – he said how much can we as authors hold on to that legally. So, I was taking him at his word. But I think you might be right. That really what he means is sort of morally legally. And the answer is you’re fine, I think.
John: I think you’re fine, too.
Craig: If it never got used, and the line itself is sort of multi-purpose, I don’t see a problem with that. I can’t imagine anybody calling you up and saying, hey, that line was in script three of 12 of a movie. They won’t remember. And even if they do, they don’t care. They chose not to use it. It doesn’t really have any value. I can’t imagine.
You know, the way that these work from a legal point of view is you’re always asking, well, who is the damaged party and how were they damaged. And in this case I don’t see how they were damaged at all, really.
John: Yeah. It’s a really hard case to be made for like, oh no, Paramount was planning on using that line of dialogue from that script in some other movie two years from now. That’s a very hard thing to accept. So, I think you’re OK.
And, the other way to think about it is let’s say that your movie did get made and that line of dialogue was in there. If it was a line of dialogue, it wouldn’t be illegal for another film to use that line of dialogue. It would be kind of crappy. It would be like lame for them to use it, but it wouldn’t be illegal for them to use that same line of dialogue.
So, you’re fine.
Craig: Well, it depends. It depends on how much.
John: A line of dialogue is not going to do it.
Craig: Probably not.
John: A whole speech could be a problem. But a line of dialogue, you’re fine.
Craig: Yeah. It’s one of those kind of know it when you see it things. But it would be a bizarre case to bring. I have never heard of it happening in all of my years. It’s not – by the way, it’s not particularly common anyway. There are some writers who will say, “Oh my god, I saved this line. I’m definitely using this and definitely using that.” And I always think like, yeah, or make a new one. You know. I mean, you can make new ones.
John: Yeah. It’s very easy to imagine that these are sort of Lego pieces that you can sort of put together and reassemble, but I would say that in my life I rarely had the chance over, you know, I don’t know, god, 70 scripts I’ve written to use anything from one thing in another thing. There have been times where I’ve had ideas for like an action sequence or like some way that an exchange can happen that move from like one movie to another movie. But that’s really, really rare.
Craig: Yeah. For me it is rare to the point of it has never happened. I don’t recognize that being a thing that I’ve done. But in any case I think, Lucas, you should be fine. I don’t really think there’s going to be an issue there.
John: I agree. All right. This last one is a question that came in and the question was so long that I decided that it would actually make a much better blog post. And so if you go to johnaugust.com or follow the link in the show notes you will see an article I wrote and it starts with a little preamble, but then it goes through this question by a writer named KB who is talking about this project that a mutual friend had pitched to her and her writing partner.
So, essentially this guy Patrick had come to this writing team with an idea, a premise for a TV show. And said like, “Hey, why don’t you guys go off and write that.” And so KB and her writing partner did that. They went through like six months of work. They brought it back to this guy Patrick but Patrick said, “No, I don’t really like it.” And it just sort of fizzled there.
But someone else did like the project and so it was starting to get some traction, starting to get some heat. And this Patrick guy said like, “Oh, OK, well no, I really do like it and I want 75% of whatever you make off of it,” which is just nuts. And it became a huge fight. There was no contract ever signed between Patrick and this writing team.
13 years later, this writing team still likes this project and wants to redevelop it and do it as an indie pilot and they wrote in asking for our advice. I gave them my advice. And, Craig, you read my advice, but I’d like to sort of talk through what you think about – first off, Patrick. Second off, best practices for dealing with writing teams/collaboration. This sort of early nascent situation.
And then maybe we can segue into talking about when do you dust off an old project and sort of try to bring it back to life.
Craig: Well, I would urge everyone to think of it like this. Hollywood has a very long history of negotiating these things between various interested parties. And over time there have been some best practices that have evolved. So, people that have ideas that then bring it to a writer generally are considered producers. Producers make their own deal, however they are attached to the project. The writers make a separate deal for the script, but they’re all associated through a chain of title.
This has all been kind of litigated over time. And even so, after all these decades, there are disputes. Now, you’re out there, you’re not in Hollywood, and some guy comes to you and you’re having a conversation at a coffee shop and you’re like, hey, we should do something together. You don’t have any history behind you. You have no best practices. You have no tradition, agents, lawyers, any of that. The odds of it going smoothly are essentially zero. You’re flying blind in a very, very dangerous situation. Collaboration is dangerous because ideas and expressions of ideas, it’s not like they’re physical objects you can carve up. There are no shares in the company.
And since no one has decided whose role is what and how much is you and how much is me. The potential for disaster is extraordinary. And we hear things like this. You and I hear these stories constantly. And it’s frustrating for us, but it’s also understandable. Because there’s a certain social contract when people start having a conversation and saying, “Oh, you know, I have this idea.” And someone is like, “Oh my god, I love that. What if blah-blah-blah. Ooh, that’s great.” And everybody is feeling good. They’re having a conversation.
It would be bizarre for somebody to say, “Hold on. Stop talking. Everyone stop talking. We need to get lawyers.” That would seem aggressive and weird.
It is, however, exactly what you have to do. otherwise, you end up in this spot where a guy like Patrick has wildly overestimated, at least based on this account, what his fair share and fair due is. And yet because there is no prior agreement, it’s all subject to disruption. And it is challenging in the best of circumstances to sell material to buyers. It is nearly impossible to do it when there is any kind of distressed attachment, challenge, legal problem.
John: So, let’s talk about when you introduce this idea of a contract or some sort of agreement. So, in the blog post I put a link into a surprisingly straightforward and standard collaboration agreement the WGA has available to download. So we’ll put that in the show notes as well. You can see what that looks like. And it’s the kind of collaboration agreement you might do with your writing partner if you are going to be co-writing something. And it feels like this Patrick guy, he was more than a producer, so maybe you fold him into this collaboration agreement as well.
But importantly it sort of spells out the terms of like who is doing what and what the splits are going to be. I think it also puts people on notice that like we’re taking this seriously. We really are going to discuss this, so Patrick can’t come back six months from now saying like, “Oh no, I should get 75%.”
John: This is no longer just a bunch like sitting around a table at a bar talking. This is like we’re going to actually try to write something. And so I think the time to introduce this kind of contract of this discussion is before anything gets written. Before anybody sits down to actually start saying like, “OK, let’s outline this. Let’s figure out what this all is.” That’s when you need to start doing this because you’re going to have a real problem before then. And so the minute it goes from just an oral conversation to words on paper, really break this out and start to look at it.
Craig: If you’re sitting there with your buddy and Patrick walks over and starts talking about this idea he has for a clothing store and you guys are like, oh my god, we’re designing clothing. And he’s like, “We should figure this out and we can open a clothing store and it will be a great clothing store.” You wouldn’t go, “Great. Let’s all start.”
No. No, no, no. That’s a business. Everybody would go, OK, let’s draw up a business plan. Let’s talk about how this is going to work. Terms of ownership and shares and collaboration. But when it comes to writing things, because the capital costs are essentially nothing, and there’s no barrier to starting, people leap. They leap before they look. All day long.
And you have to make a concerted effort to not be swayed by that zero entry, no barrier, no capital costs problem. And take that to mean, “So let’s just start.” You have to treat it like you are being asked to invest money, because in this case your time and effort is the equivalent.
John: I would 100% agree. And so I’m going to point you to this collaboration agreement. I can’t vouch that it’s the best collaboration agreement in the whole world. I will tell you that if I were in KB’s situation, I probably would not have hired a lawyer. I would have looked at something like this and probably have been pretty happy with this. And I think it probably would have dealt with most of KB’s situations. Again, I’m not a lawyer, but this is my best advice – this would have at least been a very good start into fixing the situation.
But what I found so fascinating about KB’s question is that this is 13 years later and now she’s looking at revisiting this. So, when I answered this on the blog I said, OK, there’s a chain of title problem here, because this guy came to you with some drawings and such. There is a chain of title issue here. He does own something. Clearly.
So if you try to make this without consulting him and you try to go to a festival, you try to sell this to somebody else, he’s going to come back in some way and it’s going to be terrible. So I said you’re going to have to bite the bullet, track him down on Facebook and say, “Let’s talk about what this is and sort of go through and find and an agreement that makes sense.” And if it doesn’t make sense, walk away, because it’s not worth trying to do this without him or do this with him too involved.
Your time is better spent doing other things. Do you agree with me on all that?
Craig: I do. You know, after all this time, you can always go to somebody and say, “Listen, we’re going to work on this, and we’ve been advised by attorneys that we’re free and clear to do so. That you have no copyright ownership of anything. However, we want to make sure that you’re attached as a producer. So here’s an agreement. You would be attached as a producer and you would be allowed to negotiate a fee should we set this up somewhere. But you have essentially quit claim on anything else.”
And then, you know, that guy has an opportunity to decide does he want a piece of something or 75% of nothing, because that’s the alternative. I mean, there are ways to do that sort of thing, but yes, you certainly don’t want to proceed and pretend that, oh, he won’t care. He will. He will.
John: He will care. He will find out and he will care. But let’s talk about the 13 years later of the whole thing, because my suspicion when I sort of looked into KB and why this project was coming back up is this seemed to be the only thing that was really getting attention out of all the stuff that she and her writing partner had done. And that might be why it was sort of coming back. And I want to dig into the psychology of trying to go back and pull up those old projects and make them happen versus writing something new.
And on the blog post I described it as being like a fashion thing. Like if you were a fashion designer and you made this amazing cape and people liked this cape, but it never sort of took off, it never really became a thing. 13 years later, if you look at that cape you designed, is this the time for that to break out into the world? Probably not. Fashions change. It’s unlikely that that cape is going to be the thing. You need to be designing for whatever fashion is right now. And my hunch is that whatever this thing was, it struck some zeitgeist moment right then 13 years ago. The odds that it’s going to strike the zeitgeist moment right now are small.
But I can understand why she might be attracted to going back to it because at least it had something. There was some heat. And there’s the nostalgia for like you remember what that felt like when we were younger and there was an excitement about what we were doing? I’d like to get that again. And I completely understand that, but I don’t think you’re going to get there by dusting off this old project.
Craig: We should do Scriptnotes capes.
John: Again, you thought there would be no other great ideas in this episode. You thought we should stop way back then, but Scriptnotes capes. Come on. It’s a writer’s cape.
Craig: Because, you know, when you sit down to write, what do you need? Well, you need a pads and pens, or you need your laptop. You need your cape. And a cup of coffee, really, I think.
John: Yeah. So next live show, any screenwriter, any guest who shows up with a cape I think gets some special reward. That person definitely gets a photo with me and Craig. There’s no question.
Craig: Oh, you’ll have to remind me. Because here is what’s going to happen. Somebody is going to walk up to us with a cape and go, “Check me out.” And I’m going to go, um, why are you wearing a cape? [laughs] And then you’re going to say, “Craig, do you remember…?” And then I’ll say, nope, but OK, let’s take the picture with the cape.
Yes, you are correct about this. There is a sense memory of the what-if. And the thrill of the anything is possible. The most exciting script in the world is the one you’re about to write. The least exciting script is the one you’re on page 80 of. And so it’s only natural to still carry this torch, the way that we can look back on our lives and think of a boy or think of a girl and say, “Oh, you know, there was a chance there and I went this way and they went that way. What if, what if, what if?”
Well, what if is, you know, maybe you would have had one or two terrific weeks and then, oh god. And then you would have never thought about them again. So, you have to put it in its proper psychological perspective. That said, if you’re in a meeting and a lot of times what a producer or studio executive will say to you is, “We really like what you’ve done here, and we like what you’ve done there. Do you have anything in your drawer?” They love to say that.
Again, they’re grasping for straws. They’re hoping for a magic bullet so that you go, yes, I have this Matrix trilogy in my drawer. Would you be interested in this? I forgot it was there.
Yeah, it doesn’t really happen. But it is fair for you to say, “You know, there was this thing, and we’re going to tell you what it is, but we’re also going to tell you right up front there’s this guy out there who feels like he owns a piece of it. But we’ll tell you what this is, and if you love it, well then you can deal with that guy.”
So now it’s all open, you know, in the air. And if they really do love it, and they want it, they’ll go find him. They’ll go make him go away. They’ll make him go away with money. Or they’ll make him go away legally. Whatever it is, it’s now their problem. And they’re so much better at it than we are.
So, that’s always a possibility. And at the very least then you’re not writing it in a vacuum. Someone is saying, yes, I want that. That would be nice.
John: That would be wonderful. Every once and a while I will hear a story of a screenwriter whose long lost project got made. So something that he wrote ten years ago. Actually, I was thinking, Damien Chazelle who did Whiplash, but then he did La La Land, I guess he had written La La Land many years before and then, of course, he got the chance to make it and it was terrific. So, you will hear that story of like, oh, that great thing that they wrote back then which they now got a chance to make and it’s fantastic. And everyone was a fool for passing on it back then.
I love those stories, but I also worry that the prevalence of those stories creates a false expectation about how common that really is. Because if I look through the things I wrote in my earlier days, or even ten years ago that haven’t gotten made, there’s generally a reason why those didn’t get made. And there’s very few of those that I really want to dust off and say like, OK, I’m going to spend all my time and energy trying to get this thing back up the hill to try to make it a movie. There generally was a problem or it just didn’t come together right. And I’ve usually felt that my time is better spent looking forward and writing the next great thing than the last great thing.
That’s not to say like, you know, on a phone call with an agent, like every couple months, I will check in with them about those sort of zombie projects. And I bet you have some of those, too, Craig.
John: Where it exists someplace. And a director could go on. Something could happen. And it’s still technically in development at the studio, but I just don’t know what’s going on with that. There’s no forward movement. And I could try to push that thing forward, but my history has shown that I’m not especially good at pushing that thing forward. So there are just some zombie projects out there that I kind of can’t do anything with.
Craig: Yeah. I have one of those for sure. And I just don’t think about it. I just don’t think. Maybe one day something will. Maybe something won’t. It’s just no sense in thinking about it. If they hired somebody else to work on it, then I would think, oh, OK, now I’m going to think about it.
But they haven’t, so it’s just there. There’s no point. And you’re absolutely right that we only tell stories of exceptions. We’re only interested in the notable. But by definition that means it’s rare. So it is notable and exciting and rare to hear about somebody’s ten-year-old script suddenly being reborn. And it is notable and rare because it is notable and rare. You certainly don’t want to rely on that. Almost always, it doesn’t happen. And we don’t tell those stories because they’re boring.
John: There’s a lot of silent evidence of all those projects that did not get reborn that are still sitting on shelves. And that’s most of what’s out there. It’s the dark matter of screenwriting.
Craig: I want to say that, because I’m a little hung up on Patrick. And I hear this a lot. These people have these crazy ideas about what they deserve. So here’s a little rule of thumb for you guys, when you’re sitting at the coffee shop with somebody. It’s real simple. If somebody brings you an idea – art work, a poem – anything that isn’t written, non-words on a page, but rather spoken or graphics, that’s great and that’s good. They’re a producer now. Either they are going to be writing or not. Writing is what the writers do. So the rights to the screenplay, the story and the screenplay, belong to the people writing them.
Now, that person then is attached as a producer because they have given you something of value and they deserve something of value in return. And that’s fine. But, when someone says, “OK, and then I get 75% of everything.” No. When it comes to the money that’s given to the people that wrote the script – or let’s forget that. The money that’s given for the script specifically, you get zero percent of that. Because you didn’t do it. It’s that simple.
So, you can say to somebody, OK, if you want to write the story with us, all three of us are going to work on the story together, then that means you’re writing it with us. We write a document that is a prose story of what a screenplay is going to be. Then we’ll go write the screenplay and the screenplay will say Story by the three of us, Screenplay by da-da-da. And then that money is divided in a very simple way, per the basic residual formula of the Writers Guild. That whatever money is given for that script, 75% of it goes to the people that wrote the screenplay, and 25% of it goes to the people that wrote the story, divided amongst each other equally.
Then if you want to get money, you deserve money for being a producer because they have to pay you as a producer, you negotiate that. And you know what we get of that? Zero. That’s how it works. That’s the way you should do it. Anybody that’s like I want 75% of stuff is, A, an idiot, and B, greedy.
John: I would also say that in Los Angeles, a special note for you will meet many, many actors in Los Angeles. And some of those actors are incredibly talented and you might say like, “Oh you know what? I want to write something for that actor.” Or that actor might come to you and say like, “Hey, write me something. It will be really fun.”
Maybe that’s a good idea. Maybe that person really is talented and really has a great shot. But, do what Craig says. If that person is going to write the story with you, then write up the story document with that person. And then in your deal make it clear that you are writing the screenplay and it will be Story by Actor and you, Screenplay by you. That’s all great and good. But just like the person who is showing up with a bunch of drawings for a premise, the actor is showing up with a premise. “It’s me, but in a comedy.” Don’t give them all your power, because you are the person who is actually writing the thing.
Craig: Seriously. And this is why Patrick drives me crazy, because first of all maybe he can make an argument he’s supplying story material. He’s flipped the percentages, so instead of 25/75, he’s decided it’s 75/25. He’s also asking for all of that. It’s parasitical and it’s insulting to what is required to write something. It’s ridiculous. It’s as dumb as a screenwriter saying, “Also, I want 75% of what the director makes, because I gave them the script.” What? No. They’re doing a different job.
Craig: Ugh, Patrick. You know what, Patrick, it’s not his real name, is it?
John: I don’t think it’s his real name.
Craig: I wonder what his real name is. It’s probably Steve.
John: It probably is Steve. Damn Steve.
Craig: Steve. What a jerk.
John: Yeah. Jerk. Steve does not get a cape.
John: All right. It is time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a great essay that I was turned onto by Tess Morris. Tess Morris, friend of the show. Oh, I’m so excited to be back in Los Angeles soon to see Tess Morris.
Craig: Ray of sunshine.
John: She is wonderful. It is this great essay by Rebecca Solnit called The Loneliness of Donald Trump on the Corrosive Privilege of the Most Mocked Man in the World. You know what? People have written so much about Trump that it feels ridiculous to sort of write anything new about him, but man, Rebecca Solnit just does it. It’s a really great character study of what it must feel like to be him and to have had this kind of privilege and to have everyone kissing your ass sort of your entire life, and just be completely rudderless.
There’s a metaphor she uses where it’s as if all the compasses point north in whatever direction you tell it to point north. Basically you have just no way of knowing how the world functions. And there’s essentially an isolation, a loneliness that happens behind that. So, it was great writing. I took some solace in the reassurance that our president is probably miserable. And I just encourage everyone to read it.
Even if you love Donald Trump, I think you will find it a fascinating character study, because it makes you feel like, oh, there really is a great character there. I just wish he were not running our country.
Craig: Yeah. It was. I also read it. It was also just very well-written.
John: She’s a terrific writer.
Craig: She did a great job. So excellent choice there. My One Cool Thing is a fun game. I want to say it’s on the iPad and iPhone, but I play it on the iPad, of course.
And it’s called Faraway Puzzle Escape, which is a terrible generic name. There’s like a billion puzzle escape/escape room games. They’re mostly horrendous. This one is terrific. It’s beautiful. Faraway is one word, which makes me itch, but fine. It’s very Myst like in its vibe, but much simpler. And it is executive summary I think there are 18 levels. And you are proceeding from the start point to an end point. And each one works the same way. I have to get from here to this gate. I have to stick a thing into the gate. There’s a portal, I move onto the next level.
But the way in which you manage to get that piece and get through the thing involves puzzles that play on all sorts of interesting, very abstract things. And then there’s this bizarre meta game that you can also play once you finish the whole thing by collecting all these notes you found along the way.
It’s very good. It’s really well done. And I found it remarkably diverting. So, I strongly recommend Faraway Puzzle Escape. It is premium, I think the deal is like a bunch of levels are free and then you have to pay, plus there are a bunch of ads running. Or pay the $4. There’s no ads. And you can play all the levels and be cool.
John: Pay the $4.
Craig: Pay the $4.
John: All right. That is our show for this week. As always, our show is produced Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short ones on Twitter, I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
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You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. And you can look for back episodes of the show at Scriptnotes.net.
John: Craig, thank you very much for a fun episode.
Craig: Thank you, John. See you next week.
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- Portal: No Escape (Live Action Short Film by Dan Trachtenberg)
- This is why you want a writer’s agreement
- WGA Collaboration Agreement
- Rebecca Solnit: The Loneliness Of Donald Trump
- Faraway Puzzle Escape
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- Craig Mazin on Twitter
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