John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 306 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show, we’ll be taking a look at what happens when the drama is behind the camera and the difference between what’s reported and what’s really going on. Then, we’ll be answering listener questions about writing for specific actors and how to keep your hero driving the story.
But first we have big news. We have such exciting news that I’m so excited we get to share.
Craig: Does it involve me?
John: It does.
Craig: OK. Then I’m going to pay attention then.
John: We’re having a live show. So, we are having the first live show with both of us in about a year. It is July 25. That is a Tuesday. In Hollywood, California. I will be in Hollywood, California for this live show. And so will Megan Amram who is one of our special guests. So, I am very excited to be sitting next to you and to Megan to be having a live show with our audience back at the LA Film School where we do a lot of our shows.
Craig: Yeah. We’re getting you back. And it’s long overdue. This has become a problem for me and that therefore is a problem for you, as far as I’m concerned. That’s how we prioritize the problems in our lives. My problems first. And then also second.
So, we’re getting you back, which is great. And this is going to be our first live show together in, well, since you left. Megan Amram is not only a brilliant writer for many, many television shows that you know, like Transparent, and The Good Place, and Parks and Rec, but she is also a very popular Twitter personality with I think 4 billion followers. I think she’s up to 4 billion.
John: I think that’s the right number.
Craig: And more importantly she’s also my cousin.
John: She is your cousin.
Craig: Granted, distant cousin, but still. So, Megan is going to come on the show with us. She is amazing. And one of the funniest people on the planet. We’re talking to a few other people and I think those of you who attend will be pleased. But you’ll know ahead of time.
John, are tickets on sale?
John: We believe tickets should be on sale by the time people are listening to this podcast. Like many of our shows, this is through the Writers Guild Foundation, so we will direct you to their website – wgfoundation.org. Or there should be a link in the show notes that you will click and follow and purchase your tickets. This is not a big venue. This is not as big as the thing you did at the ArcLight. So, tickets will sell pretty quickly. So if you are listening to this podcast when it comes out, maybe pause. Maybe just check and buy yourself a ticket. Because it’s a Tuesday. It’s Hollywood. It’s going to be a good fun time.
Craig: Yeah. And we are the Jon Bon Jovi of podcasts. We sold out the ArcLight. If we can sell out the ArcLight, I’m feeling like – well, we always sell out. That’s what we do. We’re sell-outs.
John: We began as sell-outs. We’ll end as sell-outs.
Craig: That’s a good segue for this next bit.
John: [laughs] So why don’t you let us know about this new bit of information?
Craig: Well, we are approaching the next round of WGA elections. The Writers Guild has elections every single year. There are certain years, and this is one of them, where we elect both half of the board and also new officers. And then on the other year we’re just electing the other half of the board. So, this year we’re going ahead and we’re going to end up with a new president. And we’re going to end up theoretically with a bunch of new board members.
In terms of the officers, it appears that our next president will be David Goodman, because no one is running against him. I thought about it briefly, honestly to just annoy him. Because that would have just been fun. I actually like David a lot. He’s a good guy. He’s wrong about almost everything when it comes to the Guild, but he’s a really good guy. So I thought maybe I should just run against him for funsies, but then I remembered that I didn’t want to.
So, he’s going to be the president of the Guild for sure. And among the candidates running for office, there is one who hosts this podcast who is not me.
John: That’s correct. There’s a person running for the board who hosts Scriptnotes podcast who is not you. So, that will be really interesting to see how that all shakes out. I’m as curious as anyone to see what will happen down the road as the board is elected.
The other candidates are also fantastic, including good friends of the show like Andrea Berloff and Zak Penn. So, there’s lots of good people. Here’s what’s going to be happening in the months ahead. This is the announcement of the candidates. Down the road, there will be candidate statements that will be printed in the election booklet, so you get to read through those and see what everyone is talking about. There is an official Candidates’ Night, which is August 31, where people can come. And after that there is voting. So, the voting finishes September 18. We’ve still got quite a few weeks ahead of us before this election process is finished. But it’s exciting for me and I look forward to this years’ encounter more than most. I think I will be paying much more attention than in previous years.
Craig: Yes. You’ll certainly be more involved. And I suspect great success is going to be coming to a person who is not me, but who is in fact you. [laughs] It’s good. Because I want you to have that experience. I want you to know what it’s like. I did it. Now you’ll do it.
John: So, I want to circle back to this idea of there’s only one person running for president, also one person running for vice president. Technically, there should always be two candidates. And technically there were two candidates. The other candidate withdrew her name from running. So the rules were technically met, but there’s only one person running right now.
Someone else could run though. There’s a possibility of becoming a petition candidate. So, the deadline for petition candidates is July 21. If you are a WGA member in good standing who would like to run for president, or vice president, that’s a thing you could do. You could also run for the board that way. I think, you know, more voices, more discussion is always helpful. So if someone out there really feels like he or she could be that next person, there’s still an opportunity.
Craig: Well, maybe I should run for president.
John: Ugh, Craig. This would be a really complicated situation.
Craig: I don’t think it would. I think it would be–
John: No? You don’t think so?
Craig: No, I think it would be uncomplicated by smooth victory. Yeah, I could just run for president. You know, mostly to mess with Goodman. That’s a great motivation for things. Just, you know, cause trouble. Look, I’d be an amazing president of the Writers Guild.
John: Yeah. I do agree with you there. I agree you’d be an amazing president of the Writers Guild. So, if you would like Craig to run, you should tweet at him. Fill up his Twitter timeline with demands. And, also, specific things that you want him to fix when he does this.
Craig: I’ll fix them all.
John: He’ll fix them all. Let’s get to our marquee topic, because this was tweeted at us by many, many people. And this was not one thing, but many, many things that were tweeted at us over the course of the last really two weeks. And we thought we’d sort of lump them all together and talk about them as one thing, both the actual events, but more importantly what kind of happens when these things happen and what it’s like to be on a movie when these things are happening. And what we can take from it both as the writer who might be on set, but also an outside observer watching these things.
John: So, we’re talking in a very general sense about the drama that happens behind the scenes which is now reported in the trades and now in the popular press and how we should respond to that. So, we can start in many different places. I thought we might start with The Mummy. So, The Mummy is a movie that came out. Did not perform well in the US. Performed much better overseas. But I’ve read a lot of articles recently – or not really read. I’ve seen headlines for a lot of articles I didn’t click through of really behind the scenes, this is what went wrong with The Mummy. This is the behind the scenes drama. And you know what? There’s always behind the scenes drama.
I have not been surprised these articles come out, but they only kind of come out when movies underperform.
Craig: Yeah. They do. I can think of one interesting exception and that was World War Z, where the movie was actually a success, but the story of it was so salacious and titillating to people that it earned itself an enormous Vanity Fair article. Well, we’ve entered a new era. So there were always these things where people would talk about this sort of stuff.
When we were starting out, I remember fewer of these things. It seemed like there was maybe a little bit of a collegiate agreement between the trade press, which at the time was really just a printed Variety and a printed Hollywood Reporter, and the business, because of course they relied upon each other symbiotically. The only people buying ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter were studios and networks. So, there was a general understanding of like we’re not going to bury you or expose this stuff to an incredible extent.
That all changed when Deadline came along, and then ultimately everything moved to online. And then social media has now essentially taken over anyway. Any little scrap of anything reported by any blog becomes fodder, it seems, for this massive discussion. And we have had this strange confluence this past two weeks of a bunch of these things happening and what I want to talk about with you today is just how remarkably confident the world seems to be about something they know nothing about.
John: Yeah. 100%. You talked about this Vanity Fair look at World War Z, and I’m trying to remember whether the World War Z article came out after the movie had come out and proven to be a huge success, or if it came out before then. Because World War Z had this long trajectory. There’s a long period of time where it was in limbo. I’ll put a link into this Mummy article which is also Vanity Fair, but of course it’s the Vanity Fair online. And I think what’s happened is because of the Internet, because time frames keep accelerating, you just find out about these things so much earlier. And when we were starting out, the only places you’d read these kind of stories were in the trades, rarely, or Premiere Magazine, which was like the only kind of film magazine that would dig into sort of the business of things. Sometimes Spy would get into there. Spy was a great magazine.
But now everybody has to sort of go through those things. And so things will blow up on Twitter and you find yourself responding to things.
So, this last week, the thing which we had to respond to is Lord and Miller. So, Chris Miller and Phil Lord left the Han Solo movie, which is currently in production in London. And people said, oh my god, this is amazing, and they would tweet at us because they know that we knew so many of the people involved. Friends with both those guys. Lawrence Kasdan was on our show. He was a guest where we talked about Star Wars. And so everybody wants to know what’s the real story, what’s going on behind the scenes.
This is what was officially put out about this. This is Lord and Miller in an official statement. They say, “Unfortunately our vision and process weren’t aligned with our partners on this project. We normally aren’t fans of the phrase ‘creative differences,’ but for once this cliché is true. We are really proud of the amazing and world class work of our cast and crew.”
Craig: So here’s what happens. The world goes bananas for a few days. There is an article written that is then essentially reproduced by 4,000 different independent websites, all saying the exact same thing. So you have this world of people that are just shooting the facts at you. And then you have the interpretation machine that begins to spin up. What happened? Who are the heroes and who are the villains?
It’s remarkable how quickly everybody just stampedes towards a dichotomy. If something like this happens, there must be a villain and a hero. There must be a justice and an injustice. Somebody was bad, somebody was good. It’s amazing how this happens. And here’s the truth. The truth is, A, nobody talking about this casually on the Internet or in social media knows what happens, because they weren’t there.
If you were there, there are decent odds that you would have a different interpretation of what it all meant and why it all happened than the person standing next to you who was also there. These things are complicated. And we’re talking about people who all have tremendous success behind them. And sometimes stuff doesn’t work out. And the part that confuses me the most about the response to all this is who cares. I know people do care. That much is clear. What I don’t understand for the life of me is why. Because it doesn’t matter. I go to see a movie to see a movie. I don’t go to see a movie to see the end result of some social experiment I was invested in. I’m just going to see a movie.
Either I like it, or I don’t. What does it matter to me who got along with whom on a set?
John: I can understand I think why some of this curiosity kicks in. I’m going to try to do a sports metaphor here, so everyone just bear with me, because I’ll probably make some things very, very wrong. But here’s what I’ll say. Like on a sports level, it should be who won the game. Did this team win, or did the other team win? But, between the games you’re following the drama of the players. You’re following the decisions that the coaches are making. Whether that was a good trade, a bad trade. Whether they should have benched that player or not benched that player. You’re following all of that stuff.
And I think to some – especially in nerd culture – I think Star Wars and these big properties are kind of like our sports teams. And so when we see something that could be damaging to our sports team, or will clearly affect our sports team, it’s going to peak our interests. And so when we see that there’s a change, we swapped quarterbacks, that’s a big deal. And so I can understand why there’s this discussion.
But I agree with you that ultimately the team will win or the team will not win. And the game is still being played. It’s a like time before we know the outcome of this Han Solo and how that’s all going to shake out. And I would guarantee you that what Phil and Chris are saying in their statement is probably very largely true, because it very much matches with what the statement came from the other side is that like there was a disagreement about what was going on and they left. We don’t need to know all of the details. And even if we knew specifically, this was the moment where this happened, and this moment, and this person said this thing. That may not still really be the reason.
I bet five years from now you could interview everybody involved with this movie, which is probably going to be a hugely successful movie. They would all have a slightly different version of what actually happened. But I would bet you that in the movie’s success, they would all be appreciative of the good things that had happened getting up to that point.
Craig: Yeah. I agree. And your sports analogy is apt. And I understand the fandom curiosity and interest. It’s when, unfortunately this is also true in sports fandom, the need to impose a narrative upon things just is unfortunate.
You know, like you said, we’re friends with these guys. I’m friends with Lord and Miller. We’re obviously friends with Larry. And we love and respect all of them. You start to see these things, well, you know, finally a writer gets to fire a director. Well, Larry didn’t fire anybody. And also Chris and Phil are also writers. There’s no real writer versus director. I don’t really think this is – also then it was like evil corporate Disney versus creative people. No, I don’t think that that’s quite it either. I think that this was just one of these complicated situations where something didn’t work out. And I wish that that were enough. I wish that you could just say to people, “You know what? Here’s the thing. I could tell you…”
Let’s say I knew about every single thing that happened. And by the way, I do know a lot. But let’s say I knew every single thing happened. And I would tell all of it to you. At the end of that very, very long discussion, I think you would be less titillated by everything than you are without all that information. The more you know and the more you talk to people and the more you understand about any kind of situation, the more boring and mundane it suddenly – you’re like, oh yeah, yeah, well, I can see how that. Yeah, it’s complicated. Oh, that’s tricky. Well, you know, everybody went into it with good faith and it just didn’t work out. And so now it’s…
It’s just not exciting, the more you know. So, where it’s hard to read all this stuff on the Internet about behind the scenes things because people don’t know. It’s like a weird opposite situation. The less you know, the more excited you are. And the more excited and titillated you are, the more you cling to this theory that is uninformed. And that part, I think, is actually weirdly corrosive to the movie business, because it leaks back in. That I don’t like.
John: So, a thing that was tweeted at us often was speculation about who would get credit for directing the movie. And because we’ve talked about writing credits on the show, people assume that, oh, it must be a similar process for how the DGA determines credits. It is not a similar process at all. And so I had to look it up.
So, there’s a basic agreement between the DGA and the studios, just like there is one for the Writers Guild and the studios. And it spells out that if there’s multiple directors on a project that the production company makes an initial determination of who the directing credit will go to, the one person who will get the directing credit. The other people involved, the other directors involved can appeal to DGA. The DGA can then make a determination. Ultimately, though, it is the production entity that will make the final decision of who is credited on the movie. We’re still a really long ways away from that there though now.
So, it’s reported as we were recording now that Ron Howard is going to be taking over the reins.
John: But we don’t know what’s ultimately going to happen. We don’t know what name we’re going to see on the screen. And I’m not going to say it’s not important, but like it shouldn’t be the focus of a lot of our attention and energy. It should be – I guarantee you that all the filmmakers involved are looking at the actual film that’s after the credit and not that person’s name.
Craig: Oh, yeah, no, 100%. This does actually happen. People generally don’t hear about it much. Because it’s rarer that a director leaves than say a writer be replaced, which bums me out, but fine. And also the Directors Guild is far more draconian in their credit system in that there’s one credited director. That’s it. They don’t do shared directing credits.
So, these things do happen. And certainly when you look at the Star Wars, I mean, Rogue One famously had a bit of a directorial change there. That was maybe more of a typical one because what will happen sometimes is a movie is completed, it’s cut together. Everybody looks at it. They say, “We need to do a lot of work. We need to do some significant changes. So, we’re going to actually get another writer and another director to do that work.” And that becomes sort of an addendum production. But typically the director that was overseeing principal photography will keep the credit.
I also get the sense that directors probably – I may be a Pollyanna about this. I suspect there’s less fighting about it than maybe there is in the Writers Guild. Where we’re routinely trying to arbitrate credits and there is an opportunity for multiple writers to be credited. With directing, I feel sometimes that maybe a director is more inclined to say, yes, I’m going to come in and I’m going to do this work, but I’m not going to take a director credit.
But the DGA has the ability just like the Writers Guild to make that determination. The one person that can’t get directing credit or be the director, well, it’s not just one person. But one person for sure is Larry Kasdan because of something called the Eastwood Rule.
John: So this goes back to The Outlaw Josey Wales where Clint Eastwood was an actor on – he was the star of The Outlaw Josey Wales, and took over the directing of the movie from the director. The rule prohibits that situation from happening. So a person already involved with the production cannot take over the directing responsibilities.
Craig: Well, little bit of a tweak there. A producer or an actor. But I don’t think the Eastwood Rule applies to writers. In this particular case, Larry is also a producer on the film. So, any of the actors – the cast can’t take over. You can fire a director. You just can’t replace them with one of the producers of the movie or one of the actors. But I think a writer you can. If that writer is not a producer.
John: What we should say is Craig and I both have had experiences where you get into post and the movie is not working. And the director is pushed aside, let us say. And then other people end of sort of really doing the work to finish the film. And that director still has his name on the film. And it’s still his movie. And everyone talks about it as being his movie. But that person did not end up finishing the movie. And so crucial decisions were made without that person.
Sometimes another person came in to do the directing on reshoots. That happens. And that’s just a quietly done thing that occurs. So, it is unusual that in this Star Wars situation they’re in the middle of production. They’re deep, deep into production and this is happening. I fully grant that that is unusual. But the idea that a movie changes direction, changes directors, is probably more common than I think people are aware.
Craig: No question. No question. And that’s the other part of this. Because Star Wars is so public and because there seems to be this general insatiable desire for commentary about these movies, this one becomes the main topic of discussion. But the love of drama does bleed back into things. And there’s a story that was circulating around in the wake of the success of Wonder Woman. Some people were digging up Joss Whedon’s unmade Wonder Woman script that he wrote a number of years ago. And basically saying, “Look, this compared to the Wonder Woman that’s out in theaters that we all love, this is bad. Boo Joss Whedon.”
And I’m reading this stuff going what the hell? Why? What is this about? And how is this even accurate to anything?
John: Yeah. I don’t know how that helps the world to dig out an old script and say this is worse than the movie that we actually got. So, what exactly?
What’s interesting is that this was the converse of a thing I see quite often. Where like a movie does not work. It’s just a bad movie. And they find an old script and say like this script was actually pretty good. And they dig out an old thing, and so what went wrong. That kind of forensics, I guess I can kind of understand. Because a lot of times those are scripts that were in the chain of title. They were along the process that got them there. And you’re sort of figuring out, OK, this is where things kind of got off the tracks.
But this was not along the process of the way to get to the Wonder Woman that we saw. The process of getting to the Wonder Woman we saw, you and I both know, and I think everyone in Hollywood knows, was a very tumultuous time. It was not a smooth sailing ship across calm waters.
And yet the movie turned out fantastically. So we’re not talking about all the storms that happened along the way because the movie did so well. And I think that’s the fascinating thing about this is we only want to stir up the drama on things that were just already problems. Good ones, we just ignore that.
Craig: Yeah. Look, if we could go back in time and say to people, “OK, everybody on Twitter, you’ve heard the good news right? Joss Whedon, whom you love, is going to write Wonder Woman.” And everyone is going to go yay. And then you say, “But hold on. Guess what? Warner Bros is then going to fire him.” Boo. “Oh no, it gets better. And then what they’re going to do is they’re going to hire a series of about six different writers. And you know who is going to be somewhere in the mix? Zack Snyder. He’s going to be working a treatment. And you know the guy Jeff Johns who runs DC. He’s going to be working on it, too. And then they’re just going to cobble together from all that stuff. And then they’re just going to make a movie. And it’s definitely not going to be Joss Whedon’s vision.” Everyone is going to go, oh my god, DC, blah, blah, blah, Zack Snyder, blah.
OK, but that’s exactly what happened. And it worked out great. And that wasn’t enough. Now they have to go back to Joss Whedon’s script. Dig it up. And kick it around. Like exhuming a body so you could play with it. Here’s the truth. The truth is we don’t know why Joss Whedon’s script ended up the way it did exactly. Because we don’t understand on the outside of things how any particular development process might go.
You write a script. You pitch something. You hand it to somebody. And then they read it and then they come back to you and they say, “Here’s the problem. We want to get this star. They don’t want to do this. We want to get this financier. They don’t want to do this. We can’t release this in China if you do this. Here’s a bunch of notes. Here’s what we want to do.”
And so a second script is created. And then that’s the one people find and go, “Boo.” We don’t know. Or, hey, how about this? Maybe – and this is crazy now – maybe Joss Whedon has days where he doesn’t write the most amazing script ever. I know. I know. Maybe he’s a human being and not every single thing he writes is incredible. And so you know what we should do? Let’s punish him publicly for it.
There is an internalized, weird, self-loathing of writers, because I see writers doing it all the time. Like what is wrong with you. This is the last thing we should ever do to another writer. And we certainly shouldn’t applaud while other people are doing it. It’s gross.
John: So here’s where I think there’s a case to be made for reading old scripts that were never made. I got to do this when I was at USC. And USC had a good script library. This is before we had PDFs. And so you were literally checking them out of the script library and taking them home and reading them and bringing them back in.
And I got to read a lot of things that were never made. And I learned a lot from that, but I also got to learn like, oh, you know what? This amazing writer, their script never got made. And maybe there’s some reasons why that never got made, but it was also really helpful for me to see like, you know what, not everything is going to be perfect. Really talented people do some things that are not the best things I’ve ever read.
John: And as something to check out of a library and read, I’m fully in favor of something like an old Wonder Woman script. I think that can be great and helpful to an entry level writer to learn about the craft. But to do a big public unveiling of this script, and then to hold it up as like this is not nearly as good as you think it would be, and Joss Whedon sucks for some reason is ridiculous.
Because you know why Joss Whedon doesn’t suck? Because we’ve seen so many other things he’s done. We’ve seen hundreds of hours of television that he’s done that do not suck. We’ve seen movies he’s made that have been fantastic. So, just stop Internet. Just please stop.
Craig: Yeah. Just stop. I mean, look at the Han Solo situation. So you have Kathy Kennedy. You have Lord and Miller. You have Larry Kasdan. All three of those entities have done remarkable work, repeatedly, over and over with extraordinarily high batting averages. What it comes down to is sometimes there’s just a mismatch of people or material. That is fair. That is human.
Maybe Joss Whedon was mismatched with Wonder Woman. That’s fair and human.
Here’s the truth: we pretend that everything that works out is intentional. It’s not. I know that’s a scary thing to contemplate. Wonder Woman, believe me – believe me – you and I know this very, very well. The way it ended up was not the result of a carefully planned, clean, efficient, smart, unrandom process. It was messy. It was not intentional. Nobody would design a path, a business model that byzantine and with that many stops and starts and turn-arounds and go forwards.
But in the end, the sum total of decisions created a good movie. So, it was a messy, unintentional process, but then the right people were matched with the right material, and that wonderful confluence occurred. When a movie comes together and works, it’s a miracle. I don’t think people quite understand that. When you end up with the right director, the right cast, the right script, the right producer, the right studio, the right marketing, at the right time, it’s a little miracle.
John: One of my very first classes was taught was taught by Laura Ziskin. And she produced many wonderful films, but the biggest hit she ever had was Pretty Woman. And so she would tell us the stories of Pretty Woman. And Pretty Woman for people who don’t know the backstory was a very, very dark drama about a guy who picks up a prostitute in Hollywood. And it became Pretty Woman.
And what I loved about Laura is that she was always thoroughly honest about like we have no idea how it became what it became. It was just every day we would show up and we would keep changing things and changing things. And we were literally cutting and pasting lines out of the script and gluing them together because it was before we had computers to do these things.
And it eventually became Pretty Woman and became this phenomenon. But she never presumed that she understood how it all worked or how it all happened. She’s always said they should give an award for just getting a movie made. And that’s really the truth. It’s remarkable that any movie turns out at all.
Craig: It really is.
John: So before we get into some advice for when you find yourself in this drama, I do want to acknowledge, because someone is going to point this out, it’s another weird thing that happened the last month is that Joss Whedon is going to be taking over the postproduction on the new Justice League movie because Zack Snyder is dealing with the death of his daughter. So, a horrible situation and it’s great that Joss is stepping in.
As people look forward, I would say whatever happens with the Justice League movie, please do not ascribe all credit or blame to Joss Whedon or to Zack Snyder, or to what the civics of this situation are. Let’s try to look at the movie. Let’s try to look at the actual film itself and what works at it and celebrate it if it’s great, or find the things that don’t work if it doesn’t work. But let’s not try to make everything be about this one moment if we can.
Craig: I agree. What a sad tragedy. And Zack’s wife, Deborah, is also involved in the production of those movies, so it was both of them together dealing with this. That’s actual drama. That’s actual human drama. And that’s the real stuff of life that hurts human beings. The rest of this is who cares.
So, you know, you have just given a very grown up, wise admonition and it will not be followed.
John: Not at all.
Craig: But, no, but I salute you and your attempt to do so, because it’s the right thing. We have to start – I don’t know when this happened, when the soap opera of behind the scenes became just as interesting as the soap operas in front of the cameras. But I don’t like it. I wish it would stop. And it won’t.
John: It won’t.
So, let’s say that you are a writer who is involved in a film that is achieving new levels of sort of behind the scenes drama. Let’s think through these scenarios, because you and I have both been there, and offer some guidance. I want to talk about the kinds of drama that you may encounter. I listed five here, but there’s as many variances as you can possibly imagine.
The one kind of drama you’ll encounter is that one person is freaking crazy. One person is just nuts. And the entire production is focused around getting this one insane person to not destroy the movie. So sometimes that is a major star. Sometimes it’s the director. Sometimes it’s a producer. But there’s just one crazy person and everything is about making sure that one person doesn’t ruin everything. That is a frequent behind the scenes drama.
Second one I’ll point out is too many cooks. So there’s basically no one who is in charge, or no one with enough power to get everyone to sort of go in one direction. Or what I think happens more often and sort of more subtly is that there are enough people who are important enough that they can’t ever be sort of ignored. And so it just becomes this churning thing where on a daily basis there’s sort of one monster you have to fight. That’s’ a – you’ve probably encountered that many times.
Craig: I think I’ve encountered every single thing on your list here.
John: My third thing would be a power struggle, which is usually there’s two people who are vying for power in the movie. They might have different creative visions, but they are just not compatible visions. They might have thought they had compatible visions, but they fundamentally don’t have that. And something has got to give, because you can’t make two movies. Well, actually, you often do make two movies. There are two competing cuts of the film somewhere down the road. And then what’s so fascinating is while you’re shooting you can just keep shooting. And then eventually you have to decide on one movie. And it just becomes unpleasant.
Craig: Yep. I mean, that’s the part where I start to feel physically ill just contemplating it. Because if I said to you, John, I have this idea. You want to write this script? And you say, “Oh my god, I’ve thought about it and I have this wonderful vision for it. Yes, I want to write it.” And I say, good. While you’re writing it, I also want you to write a different version of it that’s like this. You would rather eat a gun. The mental math and the emotional dilution required to write two versions of something. It’s like, here, take a kid and raise him, but on every other day raise them as a different gender and with a different value system. Do that.
You can’t. You can’t. And yet sometimes directors do find themselves in situations where that’s kind of going on. It’s horrifying to consider.
John: It’s horrible. Other bad situations are really just an outside force. Like something completely crazy beyond anyone’s understanding happens. Sort of the force majeure situations where there’s weather, there’s a weird budget thing, there’s a war in the country you’re trying to shoot in. And suddenly like some outside force has just taken over all normal, rational decision making.
And then finally, and sort of most sadly, things are actually going relatively well, but then the movie just sucks. You actually see the film and it’s like, oh, this is just terrible. There’s just not a movie here. And we’re going to have to do something very different. And that’s actually one of the most frustrating things because you can’t point to anyone person and say like that’s the person responsible for why this is in such horrible disarray. It’s like, no, everyone was just doing their job and sometimes it’s not Pretty Woman. Sometimes it’s just a movie.
Craig: Yeah. This movie should not have been made.
John: Yeah. Oh, I hate those.
Craig: I’ve experienced all of these. I have to say I’ve been somewhat lucky in that with rare exception I haven’t really been in the center of the swirl. I’ve found myself on the edge of the swirl, watching the swirl happen. Which is, I guess, in terms of climatology I should be in the center. That’s where it’s calm. I think I’m in the center. I’m in the eye of the storm, but I’m not on the edge where the cars and tractors are hurling around.
So, I’ve been kind of lucky that way, but it’s hard to watch.
John: Well, Craig, I think you’re honestly, you’re a little Stockholm Syndrome there. Because I do know from situations you’ve described that you’ve been in those storms. You’re like, oh, this is just weather. This is just some rain. When by any normal human standards it’s a downpour.
Craig: Yeah. I guess what I’m saying is it’s bad, but I found – for instance, I found myself, I’ll just be open about it. When I was making movies with David Zucker and Bob Weinstein, I spent a lot of time trying to diffuse what was between them. You know, and that was crazy and there was an enormous amount of drama. It wasn’t about me. But, it was less the yelling at me. I guess that’s what I’m saying.
And sometimes that’s the worst thing, because you realize I can’t get off this ride. I’m the only adult in the car. [laughs]
John: Yeah. You were the child trying to make your bickering parents get along.
Craig: That’s right.
John: But you were the adult child. The adult child of divorce.
John: So here’s some advice I have for if you find yourself in this situation. It’s just bullet points, but it may be helpful. And I’m sure Craig will add to this.
If the press come to you, you don’t say anything. Do not say anything. If you’re in the middle of the situation, you’re doing no one any benefit by speaking publicly about the trouble in the movie or in the film or in the TV series you’re in. It doesn’t help anybody. And I would also be careful about venting on phone calls. If you’re talking to your agent or your manager, so often someone else is listening in, an assistant. That stuff can just get out. Even if they don’t sort of use your name, it gets out there in the world. Try not to do that.
If you leave a project, don’t light the building on fire. There’s this temptation to burn it all down behind you. Never do that. Because then you make it impossible for you to come back in and help if there’s something there to salvage later on. It’s never a good idea to just kill it all.
And make yourself available if you think you can be. So, as I’ve left projects I’ve tried to be always really clear like, OK, I’m going now. I still love this movie. If you need me to come back, I’m so excited to come back. And down the road if they do come back to you and it’s just a horrible situation, it’s very easy to make yourself unavailable. Say like, “You know what, I would love to do this. I just don’t think I can do this now. I have these other things going on.” Make up some work. Just don’t burn relationships. Just disappear if you have to. That’s a situation where like ghosting I think is fair.
I’ve made myself unavailable to like see a cut of a movie, or to go to a premiere because I wasn’t going to benefit anybody by going to it.
Craig: Yeah. You know, when you’re in the middle of it, I think the most important thing is to just try and be the person that isn’t throwing fuel on the fire. Maybe the most public bit of drama that I was attached to peripherally I suppose was when there was a dispute between some cast members and Todd Phillips and the studio about whether or not Mel Gibson should be in Hangover 2.
And it was a big news story. And Mel Gibson was going to be in it, and then he wasn’t going to be in it. You know, in those situations, you may be the sort of person who feels like you should get involved. And if you are that person, you should recognize that feeling. And appreciate that that feeling is perfectly fine to have. And then don’t do it. Just don’t do it. Because you can feel like you want to get involved. You can feel like you have a great answer. You can feel like you have that one wonderful thing to say to somebody in private that’s going to make it all better. You don’t. And it’s not. And now you’re involved. And it’s just hard.
This is a show for writers, so it’s actually easiest I think for all these people for writers to just put their heads down and write. We don’t have to deal with quite the level of politics that the directors do and that the cast does between the director, between the studio, amongst themselves. Put your head down and do the work as best you can. And try and not make a difficult situation more difficult.
Because I’ll tell you this much. I have seen this happen. I have seen two strong parties at war. And I’ve seen a third party enter in to the middle to either attempt to diffuse or help one party, and the two parties at war turn on that person, destroy them, feel really good about it, and get back to work.
John: Yeah. You don’t want to be that sacrificial lamb.
Craig: No. No you don’t.
John: So, two things I think I can pull out of what you just advised though. That put your head down and write can be a really good helpful thing, especially in post I found. Is that if I’m the person who like writes the notes after seeing a cut, and I’m the first person with the most notes, the clearest notes, and those can go in and everyone can respond to those notes, that can be really helpful. Because then people are responding to a thing in front of them and they can sort of see that. And that can provide some logic and framework. That’s great. The other thing I will say is that if you find yourself in the middle of a crisis, like during production, or a TV show that’s going off the rails, recent Scriptnotes guests, both Damon Lindelof, Andrew Goddard talked about how they really got their opportunities because they were on sort of a sinking ship.
And on that sinking ship, that [unintelligible] suddenly gets to steer the ship for a while because there’s no one else to do it. And so if you find yourself in those bad situations, you may actually get to step up a few notches and do some important things.
Early in my career I got in the editing room on some of the movies that I probably didn’t really have business being in there, but I seemed to know what I was doing and they needed me. And so when things are going south, look for things you can do that might actually be helpful.
Craig: Yeah. That’s great advice. That’s certainly the bulk of the new experience I got working on the movies with David Zucker was because of the nature of the production and how tumultuous it was and frantic and dramatic and hyper fast the schedule was. I had to – I was impressed into service, essentially, and had to sit in the editing room and had to take on more than a screenwriter should. And it was really an incredible education.
And you’re right. If you’re on a very stable movie, your role is very, very stable and it’s exactly what you presume it will be, and then you’re done. So, you’re right. There are opportunities here. You just got to be careful to not confuse opportunity with ambition. Ambition is a desire. Opportunity is something that comes to you. There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious. I think there is a danger in being ambitious because you see crisis around you. And you think, oh good, this is my chance.
And I’ve seen people do that, too. That generally doesn’t work.
John: I’m going to try another sports metaphor. This is going to be an unprecedented episode of Scriptnotes.
Craig: Wow. Wow.
John: But I would say if the ball lands near you, and like no one else can pick up the ball, pick up the ball. That’s what I’m saying. Doesn’t really matter what the sport is. If it’s a sport where you’re allowed to pick up the ball, I say pick up the ball and run with the ball.
John: If you go back to the previous episodes and listen to Drew Goddard, he was on a TV show that was behind in scripts and it was crazy, but he got – it was actually a Joss Whedon show. He got to pitch to Joss and sort of help figure out an episode. In Damon’s episode, he talked about he was on a show that was not doing well and he just went home over a weekend. He was the writer’s assistant. And just banged out a script and presented like, hey, I know you can’t use this. I do not mean to sort of be a burden and a drag on you. But I wrote this. If it’s at all helpful, if you want to rewrite it. If it’s anything this is good for, I just wrote you a script. And they loved it and that got him started.
So, when you see things falling apart, if you can help put them back together, help.
Craig: Exactly. Exactly. Help. Help. Try and be the person that makes things better. It sounds so obvious, and you’d be shocked how few people either seem to know this or put it into practice. It is shocking to me how many times I see trouble and drama and then somebody running toward it with a bucket of gasoline. It’s amazing. I just – and I don’t understand it. But, it’s what happens.
John: All right. Let’s wrap this up by talking about if you’re not the writer inside the situation, but you are the person who is reading about these situations or seeing these headlines. What advice can we offer? Maybe don’t read the stories, but at least don’t retweet them. Don’t celebrate them. I don’t think that’s helping.
Remember that there’s at least one other side to what’s going on. So, whatever theory you’re reading about what happened, there’s somebody else who has the exact opposite theory, which is not wrong probably. There’s many perspectives on things.
And just finally remember that everybody involved in the situation chose to be part of that situation. They signed up to be part of something. And they weren’t going into it saying like let’s make a terrible movie that’s a disaster and everybody hates each other. They were going in there with really good intentions. And even with those really good intentions, sometimes things go wrong. And that’s just the reality of it. But don’t have schadenfreude for a movie that’s not working.
Craig: Yeah. And resist if you can drawing large conclusions about the state of the world, the state of the entertainment business, the state of anything. Because here’s what I have noticed over time. I said this on Twitter. Essentially 90% of the time 99% of what I read about the entertainment business is false, any particular story. It’s just not right. Not only – not that it’s off or incomplete. I cannot say how many times I’ve read something and I’ve known the truth. And what was being put out there wasn’t just wrong or incomplete. It was the opposite of what was right. It’s frustrating.
I suppose if you are interested in reading about this stuff, what I’m saying to you is you can’t trust what you’re reading. And you can’t. Because it is always incomplete and soaking in a kind of narrative. And then on social media it’s only really narrative. No one seems at all concerned with – and you just watch as the allegiances shift and change and they decide who is good and who’s bad. Why is Joss Whedon winner one day and goat the next? Well, the truth is he’s just the same human being who is doing his best, which as it turns out is really, really good. And it’s not always perfect. And also sometimes you have to presume when you’re reading things that aren’t on the screen, maybe that wasn’t even where it ended. You know? It’s all – you can’t take it with a grain of salt. You have to take it with all of the salt.
John: Yeah. Take all of the salt. That’s our diet advice. Take all the salt.
Craig: Take all of the salt.
John: Let’s see if we can give helpful advice to two of our listeners. First, we have a question from Philip and he wrote in with audio, so let’s take a listen to what he said.
Philip: My name is Philip and I’m an aspiring writer-director who is fresh out of film school. I’m about to embark on writing my next feature screenplay and there’s a young actress who I have worked with on multiple projects before that I’m imagining for the lead character in my screenplay. Neither of us have any industry notoriety or actual prospects to financing the film, so at this point the project is really just more for practice than anything else. So my question is am I doing myself a disservice as a writer by crafting a character around this performer? Of course, it’s going to be helpful to picture someone as I write, but am I perhaps closing myself off to potential takes on this character by having her already cast in my head?
Finally, how do you think this situation might be different in a professional’s position? Obviously big stars have writers write roles for them all the time, but do you think this is limiting?
John: Philip asks a great question. He’s mindful of my first bit of advice which was going to be, no, it’s great to sort of write for somebody because then you at least know that somebody could do the part. There’s a specificity that you’re probably building into it by writing it for one person.
But I would say don’t worry about the role is going to be limited because you had this one person in mind. I bet if this person is really as good as you think they are, you’re going to make really great choices that are going to bring out the best of what she can do and ultimately if it becomes another actress, it’s still going to be a better role I think because of the attention you paid to it.
Craig, what’s your thought?
Craig: I agree. First of all, Philip sounds like such a smart guy.
John: Yeah. We have the best listeners.
Craig: We do. We have the best listeners. He just sounds smart. I like people that speak in complete sentences. I agree with you. I think that the ultimately question, the test to apply to any of this stuff is what’s going to help me write my script. What is going to help me write my script the best that I can?
And I find that writing for an actor is an enormous help. Even if you are essentially closing yourself off in some ways, the truth is that’s part and parcel to achieving specificity. You have any millions of choices that you can make. But if you’re going to end up with a specific character on the page, you have to begin closing off choices by the thousands, in big waves. And when you are writing with an actor in mind, that’s essentially what you’ve done is purposely closed off a whole bunch of options and narrowed it down to one that allows you to be specific.
What ends up happening is as you write your script, you start to see this character as very discrete and separate from the actor per se. Because it’s becoming yours. But it’s a wonderful beginning to at least have a sense of a person who is real and occupies space and has a face and a manner of speaking and a rhythm of speech. So, I would definitely recommend if you have somebody that’s going to help you write this, then you should use them.
I don’t think you’ll end up in a position where should somebody else read this script they will say, “It’s amazing. The only problem is I can’t imagine any actor in the world doing this part.” And then you say, well, this is the actor. And they say, “Oh my gosh, that is the actor, but unfortunately we can’t make a movie based around her because she’s not famous. So no movie for you.”
That’s not how it works. There will be actors to which that role applies. It’s more about helping you do your job. So, I would encourage you to do whatever you think will help you write a good script as best you can.
John: I completely agree with that recommendation. Also, you and I have both written roles specifically for Melissa McCarthy. Like knowing that is for Melissa. And I’ve even written her into things where she did not end up playing that part. So, there’s a role in Big Fish which is played Missi Pyle, but I wrote that for Melissa. And Melissa was not available to do the movie. But that was written for Melissa. And that role completely makes sense with Missi Pyle in it. Missi Pyle brought her own special energy to it, but it wasn’t worse for having been written for one actress and then another person cast it in. It was better, I think, for it. The specific choices were made.
The only thing I would caution Philip on is to make sure you’re doing all the work of actually describing that character and making sure what is unique about that character translates to the page. Because sometimes if you’re writing for someone who is just such a unique talent, you might not be really capturing that spirit on the page. Because you know what they can do. But you’re not putting it on the page. So make sure you’re making a role that we can see, even if we don’t know your friend.
Craig: That exactly right.
John: All right. Last question comes from Ferris. And, again, he has audio. We love when people have audio.
Craig: We do.
Ferris: I’ve just crossed the threshold of listening to more than half of all episodes in the app while simultaneously keeping up with the new ones. There’s one thing I really wish you would go into depth about and that’s character development. Like my stride is I’m pretty decent at coming up with good plot, with twists and turns and interesting philosophical questions that the viewer can ask themselves. However, I’m being stuck on a current script and I’m realizing my lack of handle on my characters is really road-blocking me.
So, how do you truly get into the mind of a character? Like understand their motivations. How they would react in certain situations? How do you go about making the character drive the story instead of the other way around? I understand there are stock answers to these questions. If we go a bit further than that, that would really be great.
Craig: Oh boy.
John: So, Craig, he’s not going to take any of your stock answers. You got to push deeper. Again, an incredibly smart question. We’re now an hour into the podcast, so I’m not sure we can get into all the depth that we possibly could.
Craig: You know what? I mean, maybe we should just–
Craig: Yeah. I mean, maybe we should just have a big discussion about character development in the next show and answer this question as in depth as we possibly can. Because it’s a huge topic.
John: It’s a great question and a great topic. That will be our next show. Well, we always promise it will be the next show, but then something else comes up. In a future episode, we will tackle Ferris’s question in greater depth and it will be fantastic.
Craig: Yep. It’s going to be the best question of all time.
John: No pressure.
Craig: It will be the best answer of all time. It will be the best answer of all time.
John: It’ll be fantastic. It will be better than any other answer.
Craig: Do you know what I want to happen? After that show airs, everyone else that’s ever written about character development is just going to quietly commit suicide.
John: Indeed. They’re like, man, I thought I asked the question that would get the best answer, but no you didn’t. No. Because he did.
Craig: Yeah. He did. He did.
John: Building this up too much. All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is genuinely a One Cool Thing. To the point where I feel like everybody who is listening to this show will probably actually want to click through to the link and see what this thing is and what it does.
So, this is Computational Video Editing for Dialogue-Driven Scenes. It was a paper and a demo video from a team at Stanford. And what they did is they shot a very simple scene between two actors sitting at a table and they did it very much the way you would cover this. So, there’s a two shot. There’s over-the-shoulders. There’s tighter shots as well. So it’s basically five setups in this. And they feed all the video into the computer. The computer figures out what the shots are. They figure out the different takes. They match it to the script. And then they can say Assemble. And the algorithms will put together an assembly of what that scene could look like and figuring out, OK, here’s how we’re moving between the wide shots and the over-the-shoulders. Here’s the close-ups. This is the rhythm we’re trying for.
But then you can change the parameters and will give you a new version, and a new version, and a new version. So, in my description of this you might say, “That sounds fantastic, or that sounds absolutely horrifying.”
John: And the truth is sort of both at once. So, if you are a person who loves editing like I love it, you would say like, oh, you know what, there’s a point at which this is incredibly useful and helpful. Because there’s so much of an assistant editor’s job is just like pulling that stuff apart and figuring out what are the takes where they do this thing or that thing. That is really, really good. But I was surprised at the degree to which I might be at least curious to see the initial versions of what it’s assembling, because I think if you could have a baseline version of like this is what a computer algorithm could do, then you can sort of take the handles and figure out what do I hate about this and how can I do something better.
And so I think it’s a great starting place for a discussion of editing and sort of how algorithms could be used in doing some of the really more mechanical parts of the process. And then the greater question of like to what degree do we allow computers to do some of the artistic work. So, take a look at the video. It’s a really well done video.
Craig: Siri, edit my movie.
I like doing that because then people’s phones start going, boop-beep-boop. Alexa, edit my movie.
Craig: Excellent. I mean, you know, I’m always deeply suspicious about these things. But listen, as long as it involved editors losing their jobs, and not writers, I just…
My One Cool Thing this week is potentially cool. I have not yet used it, because I haven’t completed the enrollment process. But in theory it should be great. Are you a Global Entry guy, by the way?
John: I am a Global Entry guy. I love Global Entry. It’s so good.
Craig: It’s the most amazing thing. So we’re a Global Entry family. And I think it might have been my One Cool Thing. Yeah. It’s basically you go through a registration process with the Customs and Border Patrol agency. And you pretty much have to have a clean record. No arrests, I think, or stuff. And you have to be on the up and up. And they ask you a whole bunch of questions. And then they register you and they get your fingerprints. And you are essentially now – well, first of all you’re automatically registered for TSA Pre-Check, which is lovely. And when you are returning to the country, you don’t have to fill out a customs slip. You don’t have to wait in that long line. You can just insert your passport and then scan your fingers. Answer a few questions on the little computer screen. And you walk right out. It’s lovely.
So, coming back from the Netherlands, after we came back in with our Global Entry card I thought this is great. I wonder is there another level, because I’m all about speed at the airport. So, there’s a service now called Clear. And it is in most of your major airports. It just opened up at LAX. And it’s a similar kind of deal. You put in all of your information and the enrollment finishes when you actually sit with them briefly in person. So I have to do that. And they have a lot of places where you can do it. And when you get to the airport, instead of going through the normal security and check in, there’s a little kiosk. You tap your finger or they look into your eye and then you get through security lines in five minutes or less. I think they literally take you to the front of the TSA line. There’s a whole thing.
So, I’m hoping that it’s good because, you know, I like going fast.
John: You like going fast. I think there’s a good discussion on a show that’s not our show about sort of the way in which people can just keep buying their way past the worst parts of life rather than necessarily dealing with those worst parts that should be sort of fixed by government. That’s not our show. But I think it’s a show that someone else could have.
But I am curious to check out Clear. I’ve seen those lines. And I’ve never actually seen them working, so apparently now it’s working in some parts of the US. Cool.
Craig: Yeah. So I’m hopeful.
John: While we were doing our show, I just got confirmation that tickets will be available for the live show on July 25. And so by the time you’re listening to this program you will be able to click through. So, now is the perfect time.
At the bottom of this episode you will see the show notes. You can also find them at johnaugust.com. That’s where you’ll find the link to all the things we talked about, but more importantly the tickets for the live show.
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, like the ones we sort of answered and sort of punted on today.
For shorter questions, I’m on Twitter @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
We’re on Facebook. Just search for Scriptnotes Podcast. Look for us on Apple Podcasts. Search for Scriptnotes. Leave us a review. People left us a review this last week, like three or four people. It was great.
You can find the transcript for this episode and most of our episodes about four days after the episode posts. And you can find all the back episodes of Scriptnotes at Scriptnotes.net.
And if you’re back there, I would say definitely check out the Drew Goddard special episode, because that’s really good. And, of course, the Damon episode is great, too. And the Larry Kasdan live show we did a zillion years ago.
John: Indeed. Craig, thank you for a fun episode.
Craig: Thank you, John. See you next time.
- The Mummy
- Lord and Miller and Han Solo
- Joss Whedon on Finishing Justice League
- Joss Whedon on his unmade Wonder Woman
- Computational Video Editing for Dialogue-Driven Scenes
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
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