John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 304 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show, we’ll be looking at how screenwriters describe locations and how those choices impact production and the final product. Plus, we’ll be talking a look at how podcasts have become a new source of IP for adaptations. Also, how to deal with that note to make your characters “more likeable.”
John: Yeah. Craig, for the first time in 11 months, we are in the same time zone.
Craig: It’s so nice. So I am here with my family in Amsterdam and having a lovely time. And we are on the exact same time you are. Central European Standard time, which in France is nice because it’s – c’est – it is.
John: It’s really, really nice.
Craig: So yeah, we’re here at the same time. The place where I’m staying, it’s a very large room. You know, the Dutch people are the tallest people in the world. You knew that, right?
John: I did not know that. That’s scientifically proven that they are?
Craig: It is a fact. And so the ceilings here are very high. They’re so much higher than any human being would ever be. For instance, the average height in America, it’s shorter than you think. Because it’s an average. So, some people are very, very small. In the Netherlands, the average height of a Dutch man is 6 foot. That’s average.
John: That’s tall.
Craig: Yeah. In the United States, I think the average height for a man is like 5’8” or something, or 5’9” maybe.
Craig: They’re very tall people. So, anyway, it’s very boomy and echoey in here. But, hey, you know what? We’re on the same time, so there’s that for us. Nobody else will appreciate it, but we can.
John: I was going to say, it’s going to be one of those rare cases where neither one of us is tired, is except that you’re probably a little bit jet-lagged. So, we will get through this together.
Craig: Yeah, no, I’m actually not jet-lagged now. Today is the first day of non-jetlag. And you know, that’s usually two days before you leave. And in fact it is. So, it’s just beautiful how you get perfectly attuned and then you get on a plane and do it again.
John: Because you’re no longer jet-lagged, you probably have the energy in you for these first two things. So our listeners, again, the best listeners in the entire world, they sent us two pieces of chum this week, just like bait to get us going. And this first one was really targeted towards you. It’s from a place called Screenwriters University. Craig, get us started.
Craig: Well, someone sent this thing. First of all, Screenwriters University, which is not a university, of course, and I assume they mean it’s a university for screenwriters, but then wouldn’t it have an apostrophe? They don’t have an apostrophe. So it’s just Screenwriters University. Those two words. They sent a list of what those people think are 20 common sense script rules. Now, you know, John, you and I are big fans of rules here, right?
John: 100%. We’re completely rules followers. If you give us a template, if you can give us some sort of like dogma to follow, it really helps us out a lot.
Craig: Well, normally when people put these things out, we don’t necessarily know if they mean them as dogma or not, but the people at Screenwriters University did us an enormous favor because they just went ahead and said right there at the top, “Note: These rules will not make you a better writer. They will simply keep you from annoying your average reader or crew member.” What? But here’s the best part. Per Screenwriters University, “You must learn these simple rules or consider another line of work.” [laughs]
John: That’s a fairly strong statement. Like basically you have to do this or else you’re not even a screenwriter.
Craig: Yeah. You don’t have a chance. There’s no world in which you cannot learn – learn – the rules according to ScreenwritersUniversity.com. There’s no chance for you. If you don’t, you’ll never work.
So, let’s go through a few of these. You know, some of them, sure. So, for instance, Fade In at the beginning of your film. Fade Out at the end.
John: Well, see, I’m already jammed here. Yeah, I’m already in a horrible position here because I’ve written many scripts that don’t start with Fade In and don’t end with Fade Out. So…
Craig: Well, John, I’m going to have to ask you to consider another line of work. [laughs]
John: Fortunately today we are actually at the Musée des arts et métiers which is the arts and trades museum. And I saw all sorts of other professions I could get into, such as like plumping or weaving. So that could be my next step if I can’t master Fade in and Fade out. At least I have those.
Craig: I’ll direct you to Weavers University for their 20 cents common sense rules. All right, so then we have things like, for instance, slug lines have no times of day. No afternoon, morning, mid-afternoon, evening. No.
I do it all the time. I write afternoon, morning, mid-afternoon, evening constantly. Now, by the way, when I got to this – that was number four – when I got to number four I stated to think, “Oh dear, I’m only a fifth of the way in. I hate these people so much I want to fire them into space. How will I ever make it to the end?” And I forced myself, John. I forced myself.
John: Well, the way you got through it, you probably didn’t use a Cut to, because that’s line number 14. Don’t use Cut to. Specifically, “I don’t care if people still use it, or scripts you’ve read have it in spades. I’m telling you the reader will throw out your script for such a small and petty offense. Learn the proper way to do it, and when you’re world famous you can bring the Cut to back into everyone’s good graces. And then we’ll wonder what we ever did without it.”
So, again, just this last week I used a Cut to and, man, it’s a problem.
Craig: Well, you never learned the proper way to do it because you didn’t go to ScreenwritersUniversity.com. Of course, we get to number 15, your favorite, my favorite, the eternally favorite and wonderful Don’t Use We See. And this is what they say, “Seriously, one ‘we see’ per script is plenty. And that’s only when you absolutely must, because you’ve exhausted every other possibility of explaining what we see without actually saying we see.”
Now this is where I put my hands around the virtual neck of Screenwriters University, squeezed and rotated in opposite directions until I heard the snap.
John: My theory is that someone is deliberately doing this just to anger you. That you’ve made an enemy somewhere in your life and this enemy wants to sort of rile you up and distract you from other things. And so therefore they’ve created this whole website just to antagonize you. Because that’s the only reason I could see wording these things in this way. Because I look through all of these rules and at each one I could say like, OK, there’s a general case to be made for like pay attention to this thing, but absolute prohibitions are never actually valid.
So this list of 20 things, they are probably 20 things that are useful to look at here, but they are all phrased in ways that I find maddening.
Craig: Maddening. And inaccurate. And misleading. And then in certain cases just wrong. For instance, their “we see” thing is wrong for a hundred reasons. But what fascinates me is they don’t even understand what it’s for. They literally don’t get it. They think the “we see” is somehow a substitute for explaining something. It’s not. Rather, it’s indicating to the reader who is seeing something. Us. We are. As opposed to say the character. It is mindboggling to me.
Now, I’m going to say the following as diplomatically as I can. And this is where it’s good that I know, you’ve changed me, you’ve made me a better man, John. You have.
John: All right.
Craig: Because I think three years ago I would not have been this diplomatic.
John: I think in some ways you could draw a parallel between our relationship and the key relationship in Wicked. Because if those two protagonists had not met each other at that point in time, who knows the arcs that their lives might have traveled in. But because I knew you – because I knew you, I have been changed for good.
Craig: [laughs] That’s right. Well, I don’t know if you’ve been changed for good. I think I’ve changed you for evil. But you’ve changed me for good. So, I don’t say this diplomatically just to cover my tracks. I feel what I’m about to say. This is honest. I naturally was interested in who wrote this. They did not put a name on it.
So then I looked to see who actually teaches at Screenwriters University. Now, any one of these individuals may be a fine writer. That is absolutely possible. There is nothing that says that a lack of shiny credits means a lack of talent, nor is there anything that says a presence of shiny credits means a presence of talent. However, there is a general lack of experience here and what I would say relevant experience.
This is not a collection of individuals that inspires a tremendous amount of confidence in me that they are in tune and have good grasp of the way feature films are currently written and sold today. And I don’t see any other reason for anybody to be going to Screenwriters University and spending money – quite a bit of money – at Screenwriters University, because I do not believe their instructors are necessarily in a position that is any more informed in any substantive way than most of the people who are paying the money.
That’s the diplomatic version. How did I do?
John: Very good diplomatic version. Craig, I was incredibly impressed. You really withheld some of your umbrage and your fire. I think there’s some really good choices you made there.
What I will say is like some people go to college for the social experience. And so maybe you’re going to Screenwriters University for the social experience. Maybe you’re going there for the parties, for the fraternity life.
John: Maybe you really want to play Division III football. So, I mean, those are all reasons why you might want to go to Screenwriters University. But I don’t think you are going there for the quality of the education.
Craig: Yeah. They don’t have any of those things. They don’t have a building or anything. So…yeah. No.
John: Then maybe you could save your money.
Craig: I think maybe you could save your money.
John: This was sent I think to anger me, but this is the second bit of umbrage bait. So Sony Pictures Home Entertainment announced that it’s going to start releasing clean versions of some of its movies. There’s a list of 20 movies that they have picked which “allows viewers to screen the broadcast or airline versions of select Sony films free from certain mature content.” So basically in renting the film you can rent the original filthy version or you can rent the clean sanitized version.
I think some people have sent this to me, but I also saw Seth Rogan sort of pleading with Sony like please don’t release the clean versions of R movies. So this was sent to me I think to make me feel like well that’s horrific and Sony should not ever do this. And I had a hard time working up a proper amount of umbrage over this. Because it looked like what Sony was going to be doing is essentially when you download a film you have a choice of the original version or the clean version, or basically they send you both of them. You get to choose which one you’re going to do. I’m kind of surprisingly fine with it. But, Craig, I want to see how you feel about it.
Craig: Well, I’m not outraged. It’s not like they’re eliminating the proper version. And we have children and we understand what it means. I guess I’m a little confused. I’ll just come at it as a parent now. I’m going to take myself out of the movie industry and I’m going to put aside any impulse I might have for artistic fury here and just talk as a parent. I can’t imagine that there is a movie that I want to show my child but I just want certain things taken out of it. At that point, I just don’t want them to see the movie. Either they’re ready for a movie or they’re not. The “clean” version thing is something that never really is very satisfying. You know, when I say to my child, “Hey, you should watch this,” I’ve thought about it and I thought they’re ready for this, if it’s something that requires that sort of thought. Obviously a Pixar movie doesn’t.
And so it’s OK. I don’t really think I would ever use this service. I don’t want my child to see Goodfellas but with the cursing and blood taken out of it, because they’re not going to like it. It’s going to stink. I’m not sure what this is good for.
John: I pulled up the site and it’s talking through the movies that they’re originally going to release with the clean versions available. And some of them I think actually do make some sense. And so like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a movie that I can see kids enjoying because it’s just beautiful, but there probably is some stuff in there that you might want to have a younger kid see. I can kind of imagine that.
The three Spider Man movies, the original – actually all five Spider Man movies – they’d release a clean version of that. I guess. I can’t even imagine what’s so dirty about them. But I think they were PG-13, so it may move a PG-13 down to sort of more of a PG level.
But White House Down? I don’t want a kid seeing White House Down because of the language. I just don’t want them seeing White House Down.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly.
John: Captain Phillips?
Craig: Captain Phillips? What’s the point of watching a cleaned up version of Captain Phillips? What child is sitting there going, “I really want to watch Captain Phillips, daddy.” Well, I don’t know, there’s some cursing and there’s some blood. “Well, if we got rid of that, could I then watch the escapades of Navy snipers and shipping captains facing off against Somali pirates?”
What the F? See, I just did it myself. I cleaned myself up. So weird. Captain Phillips?
John: Yeah. So here’s the thing. There have been services out there that have been trying to do this sort of not officially sanctioned by the studios for years. And so to have essentially the airline version of this be available for people to choose, I don’t see a huge crisis there. Now, I do know that there are filmmakers who will take their names off of the airline versions because it’s not their original version. I think that makes sense as well.
And I guess I like that all the edited versions are just as a bonus feature. So essentially you’re downloading the real movie, but under the Extras feature you can choose to have the cleaned up version. I guess I’m just not that outraged by it. If it lets that 10-year-old kid who really wants to see The Amazing Spider Man, it makes his or her parents feel more comfortable watching that movie, I guess that’s not so bad.
Craig: Yeah. Like I said, I can’t. I’m not lit up on fire over it. I’m just more confused by it. As far as the airline thing goes, isn’t the airline cut kind of going by the wayside anyway? Because that was always – you know, in the old days they would have a screen that came down and your five rows were all watching the same movie together because there was one movie. But now everybody gets their own movie on the back of a seat, right?
Craig: So I don’t think they clean those up anymore, do they?
John: Yeah. They do clean them up sometimes. I’ve definitely been on some flights where you’ll see a bit of nudity got blurred in the thing. I think it’s because they’re figuring there might be a kid sitting next to you who could be seeing the same screen. So sometimes you will see a little bit of cleaning up in those. But, yeah, I just can’t be that outraged by that.
I think a fairer question to ask is what does cleaned up really mean and what kind of content are they taking out? Because if they’re taking out that tiny bit of gay content in Beauty and the Beast, then I just get a little bit annoyed that that’s the filthy content that you have to protect young children from seeing. But I still can’t be all that outraged by it.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I’ve been kind of, I don’t know, marveling at the general liberalism and progressivity of the Netherlands here. I took my daughter to the science museum and they had half of a floor dedicated basically to sex. And this is one of those museums where, you know, elementary school classes are coming through. And there were young children there. They’re like, yeah, it’s sex. You’re here. Go look at the sex now. Let’s talk about how the sex works. They have no problem with it.
So, I can’t imagine what the Dutch would make of this whole thing where we’re snipping out pieces of a movie. I think that they would just find that absurd. So, I’m with you. I can’t get too upset about this. But, seems kind of weird and vaguely useless. I’m probably mostly just umbrage hungover from Screenwriters University. Which, by the way, just to bring it back to them for a second. You realize they’re charging people like $500? I’m going to lose my mind.
John: Yeah. It’s a lot. All right, so let’s give some free education here. Let’s dive in on a topic–
Craig: Segue Man.
John: That we’ve talked about in previous episodes, but a new thing came up this week which made me think about it again, which is location. Which is how we are describing the locations we’re using in the movie, how we’re picking those locations, and how the locations we’re using really can impact the story that we’re trying to tell. So, obviously Screenwriters University can tell you that locations are preceded by an INT or an EXT. But there’s an important level of specificity here. So I want to quickly go through some of the choices you’re making as a screenwriter when you’re picking a location for a scene. And then really look at how those locations you’re picking are going to influence what characters are doing in that scene. Because that’s the new piece that really occurred to me this week. So, let’s look through some questions that a screenwriter asks when picking a location for a scene.
The first one is always what is the most likely location for this scene. And so this scene is a police interrogation, well, that police interrogation headquarters room feels like the natural place for that. It’s the most obvious place for that. But the second question should be what is the most interesting place for this scene to have happen. And I think you always owe it to yourself to go through and like brainstorm five more interesting places for that scene to take place. Before you commit to that first location, really think through like where are the other interesting places I could set this. And what opportunities would occur if I set this at a different place.
Craig: Yeah. You know, you’re right that sometimes your best move is to present the expected location. If you do have, you know, you’ve given the example of an interrogation scene. We know where those take place. And for good and legal reasons it’s rare that you can do them on the rooftop or in a basement. They’re generally going to take place in that room.
But then your job as a screenwriter, I think, when designing that location is to say is there something about that location that is slightly off, a little bit of a twist. Is the paint peeling? Is there a leak in the ceiling because it’s raining outside and that’s this annoying drip-drip into a coffee cup while they’re having this.
You have to do something. Because otherwise it just feels, well, this is not to disparage television, because television is wonderful and they’re putting out better and better television every day, but when I think of the traditional style TV where they got to shoot really fast and they’ve got to shoot a lot and they just don’t have time sometimes to deal with stuff. So you’d end up with these stock locations. Especially if you’re writing a movie, you really want to either not be in a stock location or turn your stock location into something that’s interesting and memorable.
When Clarice goes to visit Hannibal Lecter, that’s the mental institution. That’s a hallway. That’s bars. That’s people inside. But look what they did with it, you know?
John: One advantage to using the stock location, the expected location, is you get a lot of stuff for free. And so going back to the example of an interrogation room or a doctor’s office, we know how those work. We’ve been there ourselves. We’ve seen them in movies before. So there’s no process of like getting the audience used to the location or having to figure out where this place is. We just get it immediately. We see it. We know exactly what it is. And in some ways it’s helpful because the location doesn’t demand a lot of our attention. And so that can be a very useful thing about picking a stock location.
But, I would just say like don’t default to the stock location unless you have to.
John: Another question I ask myself is are the characters moving or are they standing still? And if they’re moving, you need to give them a space to move through. And so in a location where they’re going to feel hemmed in, it’s not going to be a good choice for a scene that should be on its feet and should be up and moving.
Conversely, I get frustrated sometimes where I see in movies where they have this incredibly active and vibrant location and then they just have the characters standing there. It’s a real mismatch between the production designer picked this great location or the director picked this great location, but the action of the scene doesn’t demand them to be moving at all. And so therefore there’s just a bunch of business happening around them.
So, really ask yourself do the characters want to be moving through a space? Or are they standing there, sitting there, just talking through some idea?
Craig: Yeah. You know, there’s the question which is do the characters want to be moving. And then there’s also a question does this location want them to be moving. Because there are locations that entice you to move. If you’re at a fair, and there are people moving through and around. And there’s rides and things turning all around you, it’s really hard – like if you go to Disney World and you just get into the middle of Main Street and stand there, it’s going to get annoying really fast for both you and all the people around you. So, there is a natural need to keep moving, which is good. Obviously, there are scenes where the motion is the whole point. A chase, for instance, and then that’s a whole different idea.
But if you’re in a situation where you’re thinking, oh, it would be great if my characters were actually moving. They weren’t just standing on their two feet, find something in the environment that naturally gets them to move. Because what I don’t like is the unmotivated walk and talk. It’s just a dreadful thing. And you see it all the time. It’s just two people walking and talking and there’s no reason for them to be walking, because they’re not going anywhere. And they’re just doing it because the camera guy thought it would be nice. And it’s odd.
John: Yeah. They’re doing it because another static scene would just be a killer. Everyone would get bored if they were just standing there, but like there’s no reason for them to be moving. That’s the real frustration.
A question I ask myself is what color do I want to see on screen. And this seems like a weird thing, but we always talk about like hair and makeup and wardrobe and sort of what are we seeing. And hopefully you’re seeing something. But what color are you seeing? And I try in my movies and other things I write to really have a progression of color throughout the story. And so that we’re in a period where we’re in greens and we’re outside a lot, or we have periods where we’re in reds. We have a period where it’s white, because it’s a lot of snow. And so think about what color we might have seen in the scene before. What color would make sense for this scene? Do we want to be consistent? Do we want to mix it up? Just think about sort of what colors you want and that can help point you to a good choice for location.
Now, sometimes based on the nature of the story you’re telling, you may pick a look just to differentiate between two different things. For instance, you may have an A plot and a B plot. And when we cut between those two locations they have a very different color palette just by their very nature. If people watch The Americans, this last season we were in Russia for a lot. And they just slap this massive blue filter on every scene in Russia. And so I feel so bad for the people in Russia because they clearly don’t have enough lights and it’s always blue. But that’s just the nature of the show, the world they’ve chosen to describe. And so it’s always going to blue when we’re in Russia. So, I try to make some of those choices in my head while I’m writing and that can help inform people down the road as you’re actually moving into production.
Craig: Yeah. I put color in all the time. I’ll talk about the color of the walls sometimes, or the color of the floor. I don’t describe the color of everything, but there’s always one thing that I think will catch your eye. And that’s interesting. An old grimy yellow. I can see it now. And I know that it’s grimy because it’s neglected and that’s a thing. I also know that whoever painted it probably didn’t paint it in the last two years.
So, you learn these things from little bits and pieces. I do tend to think about them in contrasting ways. I don’t have an overall color palette for the whole thing. I think of it more the way I think of, you know, when we talked about transition, size changes, you know, like when you go over here suddenly it’s sort of very bleak and gray and cold. And then you go over here and you’re inside with different people and it’s warm and reddish and brown. But those notions of cold and warm, you know, temperature to me is part of location. And temperature informs color. I just think of cold as being bluish and grayish and I think of warm comforting places as those oranges and reds.
And it helps paint the movie for people. You know, this is I guess the opposite of Screenwriters University tells you to do, so forgive us. Because they’re really good. But we’re making a movie. I don’t know how else to put it. You’re making a movie. All these people that tell you, “Don’t step on blankety-blank’s toes,” there’s no toe I don’t step on. Just to be clear. When I’m writing a screenplay, I step on every toe. I am directing the movie, I am casting the movie, I am production designing movie. I’m putting props in the movie. I’m costuming the movie. I’m doing it all on the page as best I can in a way that is evocative so that all those people that come after have something to go on.
But more importantly somebody somewhere read it and said, oh yeah, I’ll spend the money to make that. That’s the point. So, I think it’s great. Color. Yes, use it.
John: You’re making choices that describe the feeling, and that’s sort of my next question I always ask is if this location were a character in the movie, what would its personality be? So if this location could speak, if this character could take an action, what kind of character would it be? And a lot of the adjectives you use to describe in this previous section really apply here. It’s warm. It’s cold. It’s inviting. It’s foreboding. Think about what that location would feel like if it’s a character and then try to figure out what location could embody those ideas. And that’s incredibly helpful to really think about is it sleek and cold and fastidious or is it a jumbled mess? And putting the same kind of scene in those two different locations will greatly impact the scene.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a chance for you also to impart some authenticity to your story, especially if the point is that it’s set in a recognizable place, a specific place. This is where doing research is really, really helpful. And it’s important when you present your version of this real place that you’re not just relying on things like, you know, we’re in Chicago. There’s Wrigley Field. There’s Sears Tower. But you also, you know, you get the vibe of the contradictions of the place, the magic, the ugly, the beautiful.
We spent – Todd Phillips and I spent a lot to time just studying Bangkok. Studying Bangkok online. Then going there and walking around into every kind of neighborhood. And offering people a glimpse of all of it, because there is squalor and there is wealth and there’s beauty and there’s ugliness and there’s crime and there’s peace. It’s got everything. And we kind of wanted to really hand that over. So, that’s kind of how you start to make the place the character is by knowing it as best you can. You know, obviously if you’re not there, start with Google, I guess.
John: That sense of like which Chicago you want to show is so crucial. Because I get really frustrated when I see the establishing shot of Wrigley Field and now we’re at that Fountain. That kind of stuff is just so cheap and tourist brochure that it doesn’t help me at all knowing what kind of movie it is that I’m seeing. And so, yes, ideally you should go travel to the place where you’re setting your story and figure out what parts you want to actually describe and what it actually feels like.
It also means giving yourself the space in your script to describe some of those things especially early on the script to give us a feel for the texture of where we’re at. And hopefully you’re not just flying by some of these places before you get to a real scene. Hopefully you’re setting some of your early scenes really in those places. So your main characters are moving through these locations and giving us a feel for what kind of Chicago we are seeing in this.
I get so frustrated when I read in scripts, you know, it just says, “Chicago,” but I have no idea of what just Chicago means.
Craig: What does that mean?
John: It could be anything. And you just don’t know. And also keep in mind that people are doing to judge the look and feel of your movie very much based on those early scenes. And so if your initial Chicago scenes are in these glamourous hotels and suites and skyscrapers, it’s going to feel like that kind of movie. So if that’s not what most of your movie is, or if we’re starting there and we’re going to someplace else, you’re going to have to spend some page real estate to really paint the picture of where we’re at for the rest of this story.
Craig: But you can do it economically. I mean, nothing of what you just said and nothing of what I have said requires people to burn a lot of space. It’s just that you have to be specific and know what it is that you want to communicate. Because ultimately whatever you want to communicate, it is in its own way going to be very directed and compact.
If you’re telling a story about the seedy under belly of someplace, that is a compact notion. Now, let us get that vibe without you saying it, but rather by describing a street, a place, a smell, a look. Taking a camera and showing me something beautiful and then the camera just lowers down, down, down, and now we’re below a bridge. Now we’re below this. Now we’re in the gutter. Whatever it is, it actually doesn’t require a lot of time. What it requires is attention and care. Sometimes I think that when we write scripts it’s like we’re a 3D printer and we’re putting these layers on top of layers on top of layers.
And the script comes out I guess misshapen if we forget a layer somewhere in there. And this is one of them. This sense of location is a really important layer.
John: So here’s an example. “Jane unlocks her apartment door and goes inside.” So, you know, if you just give me that sentence, I don’t know anything about the apartment. I don’t know anything about Jane. I don’t know anything about the neighborhood. But if she has to unlock three locks on her door, and there’s trash in the hallway, and the light behind her is flickering, and we hear off-screen shouting, then I know a lot more about Jane and her apartment building and everything that’s going on.
Versus if it’s like a sleek high tech glossy, people sort of float by silently, someone tosses a look over her shoulder that Jane’s not dressed well enough to be in this building, or is suspicious of Jane, that tells me so much more about the building, the universe we’re in, and who Jane is. And that’s two sentences early in your script.
Craig: Yeah. They also give you an opportunity to learn something about her. Because she’s interacting. You’ve given her an environment, a location that can be interacted with. So, how she responds tells me about her. When somebody looks down on her, does she internalize it? Does she not give a damn? Does she argue back? Is she scared of living where she is? Is she unscarable? This is the kind of feedback loop you can create. And it’s why you – it’s hard. Sometimes I feel like we give these lessons and it’s unfair to you guys because we’re making things sound easier than they are. They’re actually kind of hard. Because it’s like a circle that feeds into itself. And you have to figure out where you’re going to jump into the circle – character, location, description of location, reaction to location, purpose of moment.
All of that stuff weirdly has to feed into each other. So, you think I know what I need to do. Where would that kind of happen? It could happen here. What would she do? Well, maybe this place could help me show that if it were like this. But now this place means da-da-da, and so the circle goes.
This is how writing kind of happens. It’s hard, John, sometimes, you know.
John: So this last week I’ve been on a rewrite, and part of the reason why I wanted to do this episode was there was a scene that I encountered which I strongly suspect used to take place somewhere else and so the location does not match what’s actually happening in the scene. There’s a kind of generic conversation that’s happening between two characters and yet the location is really spectacular and kind of fascinating and really could speak very well to these two characters, but it’s not speaking to these two characters because I think they just changed the location and basically kept the scene the same way. And so as I look at sort of how would I redo this scene, the location is really driving my choices.
Because to me it just feels weird that they’re in this location and they’re not acknowledging it. It’s a really visual change in the movie and they have to acknowledge that they’re there. And so I’m using that as the basis for really the comedy that’s hopefully going to sort of help drive the information in the scene. So ultimately the scene will still get through the same – it will still stick off the same beats as before, but it’s just going to use the location to acknowledge why they’re there, what’s going on, and hopefully find some new life between these two characters that felt perfunctory before.
Craig: Yeah. Well, it speaks to how important location is, because when you’re stuck with it, that’s when you really feel how it drives so much. I mean, I worked on – I mean, it’s public record that Frank Darabont was going to direct The Huntsman and he left. There was an amiable departing. I don’t know, whatever you call it. And the studio hired a new director and yet kept essentially to the schedule, which meant that the principal photography was going to start in about two weeks. And so I got called in and they said, “All right, we’re starting in two weeks. We got to make a bunch of changes. Here’s the situation. We’ve built a bunch of sets and so we’re using them. And these are what these sets are for. These are the locations.”
That is a tough box inside of which to work. And, you know, these are the things of course people who casually comment on movies don’t understand. This is sometimes what happens.
So, you have to write some scenes in certain ways because the location has happened before you. That’s obviously a very rigid thing in a – that’s a fairly rare circumstance. But it’s a very common thing even when you’re doing a regular rewrite, but a producer or a big star says I really want to do – I love that sequence in Monte Carlo so we’re doing it. OK. I guess we’re going to work with that, but it is one of the fundamental pillars of the story. So, choices are now that much narrower.
John: But the same kind of thing happens on indie films as well. Because if there’s a kind of move that’s so driven by location, indies generally have a very limited selection of what locations they can use to shoot in. And so if you are making a film that is by necessity going to be taking place in one or two locations, those locations become exponentially more important to your story because we’re going to be seeing them the entire time.
Or, on the other hand, sometimes the choices about locations are not really the writer’s choices. They are the choice of production. And so some of the practicalities you’re going to be encountering are costs. Can they afford to rent that amazing penthouse apartment that you have written in page 37? If that location is just there for that one day, and they can’t make it work because of money, or more often they can’t make it work because of schedule, because there’s only sort of one scene there and it’s half of a page, so they have to marry it with some other days’ work. Sometimes you just can’t make that fit.
Sometimes they can’t make a location work because that’s great that you want to set the scene in Rio de Janeiro. There’s no money to go to Rio de Janeiro. So we’re going to have to set this in Guadalajara instead. That’s a change. That’s a change you’re going to have to roll with.
And finally controllability. And I find this a lot where people want to set things in big public spaces. Well, that’s great. And you get a lot of sort of free production value because you get all the monuments behind you or something great in the center of Paris, but you can’t control those locations. And sometimes you’re just not allowed to shoot there. And so figuring out what the balance is going to be can be a real challenging thing.
So, I guess we’re saying as the screenwriter you have to be ambitious in your choice of locations as you’re writing, but you also have to be smart in understanding what’s going to be changing during production and being able to roll with it to make the best use of the locations you actually do get to use when the line producer comes back to you.
Craig: Yeah. It is one of the most frustrating things because the first moment of rubber meets the road/reality check/whatever you want to call it is when you’ve written the screenplay and everybody is on board and it has gotten the green light. And then they come back and they say, “Well, we’ve gone through. This is our budget. This is what we can do. Here’s what we can’t. We just can’t do it.”
And it’s so hard because everybody has been so invested in creating this crystal tower with you, and now someone just comes along with a hammer and goes, “Nope. Not here.” And sometimes you end up in situations where you just think we are being asked to fail. The smartest of the Indies are the ones that anticipate all of that. You know, I’m thinking of for instance Phil Hay and Karyn Kusama and Matt Manfredi. When they did The Invitation they knew they didn’t have a lot of money. They barely had any money at all. So they made a movie that took place in a house. They spent a lot of time trying to find the right house. They found the right house. They’re good. They don’t have to worry about something falling through. That’s kind of the way to go. Protect your key locations because if you don’t, someone is coming with that hammer. And then, oh my god, what a mess.
John: Yeah. Get Out is another movie that is essentially all in one house. There’s a few things that venture out beyond the house, but it is essentially one house. My movie, The Nines, is largely one house. And so when the line producer came back with a budget which was wildly too expensive, I had to sort of talk her through saying like, no really, this one house is mine. We can control this. And you don’t have to worry about rentals or leaving and coming back. This is a safe place. And so that can be the jumping off point for all of the other little field work along the way.
When you are the writer-director, a lot of times you will have in your head like this is where I want to shoot this thing. That can be fantastic. But I had to learn how to let go of some things that I really wanted to shoot in certain places because it just wouldn’t work for budget or more often for schedule. Like there was no way to find that seedy hotel within a three mile radius of where we were going to have to shoot this other thing. And so you make it work.
If you go back to the conversation I had with Chris McQuarrie, he’s on a giant, expensive Mission: Impossible movie, but the same kind of things still happen. It’s like, well, we have this grand vision for what we want to do, but this is the reality of what we have. We don’t have enough extras to make this party scene work. And so we’re going to have to flip the scene around so these 200 people feel like enough people for this party.
That happens at every level.
Craig: You know, it’s funny, when I write and I come up with a location, I start doing some math in my head. It’s never about expense, per se. it’s more about how much is going to be required to dress it. Because what happens is when you get on a movie set there is a negotiation that begins to happen. This is really in preproduction, frankly. There’s a negotiation between the production designer and the cinematographer. And the cinematographer is essentially saying, “I want to be able to see as much as I can.” And the production designer is being held to a certain budget and knows that they have to plow money into sets and other locations is saying, “Yeah, but could you tell me where you probably will be looking? Because then I don’t have to create a whole bunch of world that you never even look at,” because that’s expense.
And one of the expenses that goes separate and apart from what production designers do is extras. Filling a space with people is expensive. You don’t realize it until you show up on a movie set and you see the area where they’re keeping the extras. And you go, oh my god, that’s a lot of people that we have to feed. And someone has to make sure that they’re wearing appropriate clothing. And they’re going to all get paid for the day. And wow.
[laughs] Bob Weinstein once asked me, he goes, “Hey Mazin, do all those people get paid?” I was like, yeah. He goes, “Really?” So, Bob, I think it’s slavery if they don’t get paid, right? And he goes, “Wow, man, never thought of it that. Ha-ha.” What a dick.
John: The only time I will somewhat come to Bob Weinstein’s defense is that it is a little strange that studio audiences for sitcom tapings are not generally paid. So, we are hearing their laughter. I guess they’re getting a free show out of it all. Sometimes they’re getting prizes. But they are not paid. But an extra is really paid.
The one other thing you will find if you are in a place where movies are being made often, sometimes you will walk into an area where they’ll say, “Filming is currently happening here.” And basically by entering this space you understand that you may be in a shot. That’s another thing that can happen.
So, in my movie, The Nines, there are some shots in New York where we didn’t control that at all and Ryan Reynolds is just running down a street and he’s passing real people and we make it all work. But there was one moment where we needed to have an upfronts party. So, when a new TV season is announced, when the network is announcing its whole schedule, they throw these giant parties in New York. And so I needed one of those giant parties. But I could afford like six extras. And so like how do you do that?
And so you do it by figuring out very carefully what your shots are going to be. We did the check in table. We used a hotel and we used a hallway at the hotel. And we just made those people feel like a lot of people. And you use sound design to make you feel like there’s a lot of people over there somewhere to your left, but we’re just not focusing on them. And it works for what the scene needs to be. We needed to sense that there was a big thing happening, but the actual scene was small and intimate so therefore I didn’t want to be in a giant space.
Craig: Yeah. These are the – it becomes a Rubik’s Cube. It really is. It’s a Rubik’s Cube of – once you get into production it’s a Rubik’s Cube of money and practicalities and creativity and vision. But when you’re writing your screenplay, remember your goal here is to attract financing and attract actors and attract directors, if you’re not directing, and terrific crew. Create the world you want to see, and then, you know.
Now, if you know, like I said, that this is the kind of movie where you’re going to be dealing with a couple million dollars for your budget, create a world that you’d like to see that you could probably do for a couple million dollars.
John: Absolutely. All right, our next topic. So, in previous episodes we’ve done How Would This Be a Movie. We’re usually looking at stories in the news to figure out how they could be converted into a big piece of blockbuster entertainment. But a new thing happened this last two weeks that I thought was really interested.
So Julia Roberts has attached herself to star in a TV adaptation of a podcast series. So it was a podcast series called Homecoming which is a fiction series created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg. And Mr. Robot creator, Sam Esmail, is supposed to be doing the TV adaptation of it. It was just really interesting that essentially it was a radio drama done as a podcast form but now going to be adapted into TV.
And the first time I could think of that transition happening, which I think we’re going to see a lot more of.
Craig: Yeah. You may very well. Again, you know, I don’t listen to podcasts. But it seems to me that the ones that I keep hearing about are the ones that are narrativizing true life things. This one was fictional the whole way through?
John: This one is all fiction. So, Catherine Keener played the main character in the radio version of it, the audio version of it. Julia Roberts would play her character in the next version of it. I think radio drama is really hard to do, and so god bless them for doing a good job with this. I haven’t listened to it, but I’ve heard only the promos for it. But people loved it. So that’s great. And it’s great that it’s getting traction in another form.
What I see more often happening is another Gimlet show called Start Up is being converted into a TV comedy called Alex, Inc. So Zach Braff is staring in that and it’s about the birth of a podcast company. So it is more the classic thing where it’s like it’s kind of like Shit My Dad Says, where it was a Twitter feed and it became the basis of a real sitcom. This is a comedy based on one guy’s quest to get a business started. And you can sort of more clearly see like, OK, you’re fictionalizing the real versions of people.
Craig: So when is our show?
John: That’s really the natural next question. So, when is our show? How are we divvying up the credits on it? Who is playing whom? These are tough choices, but I guess we should probably ask our listeners, because our listeners are the smartest people out there.
Craig: Well, I mean, look, I know who should be me. If it doesn’t work out with Homecoming, I would love Julia Roberts to play me.
John: Oh yeah. That’s a nice choice. I’ve always seen myself as a Sandra Bullock type. So, she’s both a free spirit, but also a little restrained at times. And I think the two of us, I think casting it as women opens up new possibilities. It really can speak to our sense of the challenges as working moms in this business.
Craig: I don’t think we’re interesting enough to get gender matching casting. It’s too boring. Literally, we need a gimmick. We need a gimmick. We have to be played by women because we’re not women. If we were women, we should be played by men. Basically, we should be the opposite.
John: So, I’ve been thinking like who should play Aline and how about Stanley Tucci?
John: Yeah. Just mix everything up.
Craig: Absolutely. Like really what I’m saying is the Scriptnotes show should not resemble Scriptnotes in any way. In any way.
John: Yes. But something I’ve learned about television development is by the time it would get on the air, it would not resemble the original pilot whatsoever.
Craig: Yeah. I’m requesting something that’s just going to happen anyway.
John: One of the first things that will come up as people start reading the script based on Scriptnotes is the same thing that Tom Sanchez tweeted at us this week. “Hey guys, I got a note to make protagonists more likeable. Any tips or basic principles or advice?”
So, Craig, when they read the script and they go this Craig Mazin character is not likeable, how do we fix that?
Craig: You don’t, because it’s not a problem. And this is the worst note to get, because it’s not a thing. This is hard. I don’t know how to combat it in any clean way. If I hear this, I know I can’t say, “No, that’s stupid. Doesn’t matter.” People actually love unlikeable people. There are entire actors that have made a career out of it. It’s wonderful. Grouches are delicious. And, I don’t know, I could sit here and name 4,000 television shows and 4,000 movies that you love that star unlikeable people.
I could sit here and show you Walter Matthau in Bad News Bears. But I don’t have time. I can’t say any of that, so in my mind I start backing for the door. I got to be honest with you. When I hear somebody say, “Well, the protagonist should be more likeable,” I judge that person for giving me the dumbest note in the world. It’s not a real thing.
It is ignorant of the way movies and television work. The key is that the protagonist should be understandable. So I guess that’s my only defense.
John: That is my defense of it, too. Is that sometimes you’ll hear the likeable note and they just don’t actually have a read on the character. There’s something about the Velcro of that character that’s not quite gripping. And so you may need to look for some moment early in the script that gives that character a specificity, something really fascinating about that character that makes people want to engage with them.
So, it could be, you know, a joke. It could be some action they take very early on that is interesting, relatable, remarkable, something about that character that makes say like, “Oh, I get that dude. He’s fascinating. I want to be on his story.” But I get the likeable notes, too.
And so in Big Fish, Will is always considered not likeable. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s the movie version, or the Broadway version, you always get the note “I just don’t like Will. Will is just not likeable.” And it’s just really a functional problem, because he’s the antagonist to a character who is tremendously likeable. There’s a sort of dual protagonist/antagonist relationship. And if he was this charming, life of the party kind of guy, there is no story. I can’t make Big Fish work if Will comes on as being the most likeable kid in the world.
So, we always have to be mindful of that sort of structural challenge in casting a Will that we just don’t cast the most dour, bleak person ever. You have to have a spark of life in the actual actor we cast. But functionally the role is not especially likeable at the start. And hopefully by the end of the story you’re loving him.
So, Tom Sanchez, when you get that note, I just say like, you know, try to figure out whether they’re understanding the character before you try to make huge changes to what the character is doing.
Craig: Yeah. It’s helpful, too, if you can at least point out that your character doesn’t like him or herself either. So they are aware. I do think that it is off-putting when there are characters who are unlikeable and are perfectly happy with themselves and we don’t quite know what to make of that. That’s just Ted Cruz, basically, right? So, we look at Ted Cruz and we say, “I don’t like you and, also, you seem to love yourself.” That’s a terrible combination. That’s where we start to feel like we’re dealing with an alien.
But with characters, for instance, Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa. It’s hard to be more unlikeable than that guy. He is a thief. He is a drunk. He is mean. He is racist. He’s hurtful to children. But, we know that he is in terrible pain. And that whatever it is that he is dealing out he is dishing upon his own head even more. And so we understand there is a potential redemption. And we move toward him. That’s important. If you can underscore that, then I think you’ll be fine.
But I hate it. I hate the whole likeable thing. It’s stupid. And basically it’s the kind of thing you’d expect to be taught at Screenwriters University.
John: 100%. I think you can actually get a special certification in likeability if you pay an extra $500.
John: All right, it has come time for our One Cool Things. I actually have three things, but they’re all short and related to locations.
So, the first two are maps. There’s a great new Metro map of Paris called the Circle Map designed by Constantine Konovalov and other folks. It’s just fantastic. So, every time you try to do a map of a Metro or bus lines or underground subways it’s always a balance between representing reality and sort of an idealized version that is clear and simpler to understand.
And this version is really just fantastic. It chooses to bend the lines into sort of circles rather than keeping them quite as naturally flowing as they would otherwise be. But it makes the Metro much, much easier to understand. So I’ll put a link in the show notes to that.
Also, a great one that Craig you’ll dig is the Roman Roads. So basically all the roads that the Romans built, but done as sort of a subway map of Europe. And showing sort of like, wow, they did a hell of a job. They really built out a lot. And it’s fun looking at the stops along the way to see what are now cities and sort of like how those Roman names of cities became the modern names of cities. So, another great one.
Finally, you can’t talk about locations without one of the greatest games I think ever for iOS that now has a sequel out. Monument Valley 2 is now shipping and it’s just delightful. So, it has the same impossible geography as the first one, with some other great choices and changes. So, if you’ve not played the first one, play the first one, then play the second one. They are both just great games.
Craig: Yeah. Currently, I don’t know how far in I am, but I’m in it.
John: I would also say Monument Valley, especially the second one, has really good storytelling between the mom and the daughter for like characters who don’t speak. Just their little tiny physical interactions are so well animated that I’ve just really loved watching them.
Craig: Yeah. It’s good stuff. Well, I have a One Cool Thing this week that’s also a game, but I have not loved a game with this much fervor and joy in a long, long time. It’s called Human Resource Machine. No, that’s not my nickname for you, John August. But, it is sort of John August-like. It is very simply a game where you are creating code. They don’t really tell you so much on the nose that you’re creating code, but they give you tasks. Here are a series of numbers or letters and here’s what we need you to do. So here’s your inbox. That’s what your inputs are. You take them, you design a system of things to do to them, and then there’s a result that goes out. But you don’t have a lot of commands. You have very few. In fact, I think there’s a sum total of 13 commands. And it starts off pretty darn easy, and then it gets crazy hard. But every time I did something, I was so proud of myself. So proud because it really hurts your brain. But it’s all doable. I loved it so much. And, it is also wrapped in this very bizarre kind of meta story that was kind of this extra bit of surreal glee for me.
So, the company that makes this game is called Tomorrow Corporation. They are I believe the people that did World of Goo, which I know a lot of people liked. But this is just – I’m just in love with this. Human Resource Machine. John, I think you will like this game.
John: Craig, I can guarantee that I will like this game. Because while you were talking I went through Google and this was my One Cool Thing in Episode 254.
John: So let’s pull up the transcript and we’ll see how you made fun of me for Human Resource Machine.
Craig: Did I?
John: You did. You made fun of me. So, let’s see.
John: This is what I said. The second one is a thing that Craig will make fun of me for. It’s called Human Resource Machine. It’s a game. “Oh, I get to make fun of you for it? Fantastic,” you say. So, Craig says, “This is so great because he is a robot. He’s a robot playing on a robot machine, pretending to be a robot.”
Craig: That’s accurate.
John: Yes. So, I’ll send you a link to the show notes for this one, too, so you can see what we said about Human Resource Machine. I really did love it. And so have you finished it yet?
Craig: The only one I – I’ve gotten halfway through my last level that I have to do which is prime factory, which is brutal.
John: It is brutal. And some of the things are – you know, the interface is delightful, but when you have to make really complicated ones, it gets to be just really, really exhausting. So I think there may have been some left hand forks of some of these things, which I didn’t end up doing, but I really did love the game and thought it was just perfectly well done.
Craig: Yeah. It’s great. And so you were right. And now here I am, 50 episodes later, which that’s about right. I need about a year.
John: I’m about one year ahead of Craig on all things.
Craig: Well, this is not the first time this has happened either. Generally speaking what happens is you say something, I go that’s stupid and you’re dumb, and then about a year later I go, John, I’ve heard of something wonderful.
Craig: And then you say, “I said that a year ago and you called me stupid and dumb.” And then, weirdly, I don’t retract any of that.
Craig: I say, oh, yeah, you were, but because I’m thinking it now, I feel it.
John: Yeah. The thing you’re doing right now, that’s the thing you do.
Craig: That’s right. That’s what I do.
John: You are 100% consistent. That’s our show this week. As always, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions, or things you want us to rant about, on Twitter I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
We are on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts at Scriptnotes. And while you’re there, leave us a comment. That actually does help in the algorithms of things.
You’ll find the show notes for this episode at johnaugust.com. Transcripts go up about four days later. That’s the only way that I can really keep Craig honest by proving that I did actually recommend something years ago.
John: You can find the back episodes of the show at Scriptnotes.net. Godwin says that the USB drives have just now arrived in Los Angeles, so they are probably two weeks away from being available to order. So, if you would like a USB drive of all the back episodes, hold your fire because they are coming soon.
Craig: You should get those.
John: We should get those. We will also have a PDF version of the Scriptnotes Listener’s Guide, so thank you to everybody who has contributed to the Listener’s Guide. It turned out so, so well.
John: Those will be coming out soon.
John: Craig, have a great rest of your time in Amsterdam. Don’t fall in a canal.
Craig: I’m going to do my best to not fall in a canal and I will see you next week.
John: All right, thanks.
- Screenwriters University
- Clean Movie Versions
- Alex, Inc.
- Paris Circle Map
- Roman Roads
- Monument Valley 2
- Human Resource Machine
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.