The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 308 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show, we’ll be looking at how screenwriters signal to audiences. What kinds of things can and cannot happen in their films. And why that’s important. We’ll also be looking at suggestions for reducing sexism in screenplays and answering listener questions about writers on set and giving feedback on friends’ scripts.
Oh, it’s a big show.
Craig: That’s a lot. We got to motor, dude.
John: We got to. We got to pack a lot in, because I am packing up. I am moving back to the US in 24 hours.
Craig: I mean, are they going to let you back? Because, you know, it’s gotten a little weird over here.
John: It has gotten kind of weird over in your country. Yeah, I think so. We have our visas for living here in France. As a US citizen I believe they need to let me back in the country, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to stop other people.
Craig: Well, we are certainly excited to have you back. It’s going to be nice. And honestly just from a selfish point of view, we can stop doing this bizarre thing where it’s either crazy late at night for me or crazy late at night for you. We get to just go back to our normal — just our normal thing.
John: Yeah. Our normal thing. Where we sacrifice the small animals at the altar and then we fire up our microphones and do the normal show.
Craig: I know. For one year we’ve been sacrificing large animals. Ew.
John: Just the amount of blood that you have to go through and living in a small apartment, it’s just a mess.
Craig: It’s gross.
John: Even with the tarp down, it’s a lot.
Craig: I know. Well, I used to use like the disposal tarps, and then I was like bills started piling up. So now we just hose them off.
John: Yeah. Well it’s a good thing. You have to be environmentally conscious when you’re sacrificing animals to produce a podcast about screenwriting.
Craig: Damn straight. This show has gotten so weird. I love it.
John: It does get kind of weird. I was really happy with our last episode. It was both weird and like educational. And the right combination.
John: We will jinx it by not being nearly as good today.
Craig: Nah, we’re going to be better.
John: Even better? All right. We’ll start with follow up. Last week we talked about the Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide which is where our listeners of our podcast, the best listeners ever in the history of podcasts, put together this guide of the back episodes, the first 300 episodes, and their recommendations. A bunch of people have downloaded it, so thank you for downloading it. If you would like to download this free PDF for yourself, it’s 113 pages. You just go to johnaugust.com/guide.
And we’ve also been selling a bunch of the USB drives. So we have the first 300 episodes, plus all the bonus episodes, on a USB drive. They’re at the store.johnaugust.com.
Craig: Oh man. So much money coming my way.
John: So, so much money coming your way.
Craig: Can’t wait for that check.
John: So I have notifications turned on on my watch, so whenever one of those ships I get a little buzz on my watch. And my watch has been buzzing, so that’s great.
Craig: Nice. Nice. Great.
John: Nice. Finally, bit of follow up, our live show on July 25, I think as we’re recording this there are still tickets. Our guest is Megan Amram, plus some other special people to be announced soon. So, if you are in Los Angeles on July 25, and you’re not at our show, I’d just like to know why. I’d just like to know why you’re not at our show on July 25.
Craig: Well, until we announce the other guests, who are going to be terrific, I get why people are sort of going, OK, now that sounds great so far, but is it great-great? And it’s going to be great-great. It is.
John: I wonder if we have set expectations askew by everyone is like, oh, there must be this fantastic, amazing, ungettable guest that makes you want to come in to see the show, when really shouldn’t they be coming to see the show for all the special live stuff with you and me?
Craig: Or just me.
John: Yeah, basically just Craig. An excuse to see Craig Mazin.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I’m great. I’m amazing. People should just come to see me. In fact, we should have a live Scriptnotes that’s just me.
John: Yeah. It would sell tickets. I’m pretty much a drag on this whole show.
Craig: Yeah. I could sit there in a chair like, you know, when Hal Holbrook would do his Mark Twain show. I’ll just sit there.
Craig: And I’ll chat.
John: Or Val Kilmer, when Val Kilmer did his Mark Twain show.
Craig: I missed that.
John: I missed that, too. Oh, there’s always Val Kilmer.
There’s a universe in which Val Kilmer is a bigger star or does not exist. Like, in a previous episode we talked about the Mandela Effect in which things were different in a slightly different parallel universe than sort of how that all could come to be. We talked about the movie starring Sinbad which never existed. This next link which was sent to me by Craig McDermond reminded me of that, because it is a trailer for the Netflix series for The Addams Family. And it’s a well cut together trailer for the show that does not exist at all. And yet in a different universe it definitely does exist. So I’ll put a link in the show notes. It’s a well put together for The Addams Family as a presumably one-hour Netflix drama.
Craig: So it’s like Riverdale kind of thing where they take it seriously and it’s dramatic and emo?
John: I’d say it’s kind of dramatic and kind of emo. So, once again, Craig has not clicked on the links inside of the outline.
Craig: No, not until I get my check from those flash drives. [laughs]
John: Ha-ha. But it’s good. So I would recommend checking it out because it definitely feels like a thing that could exist and in a different universe does exist.
Craig: All right. All right. I will check that out.
John: So two other links in our outline, both related to something we talk about a lot on the podcast, which is writing stuff where there’s real people involved or things that are based on true stories. And our general advice has been go for it, but know that you could hit some rough waters down the road. And here’s two examples of rough water being hit down the road. Do you want to talk us through either of these?
Craig: Well, sure. So the first one is actually remarkable because it involves Olivia de Havilland, who is just about 101 years old. Olivia de Havilland is a classic movie star from the golden age of cinema. And the thing that’s remarkable about it is that this is not the first time that Olivia de Havilland has been involved in a fairly high profile lawsuit. She really was the person who kind of broke the old studio system, where studios would essentially own actors. And I don’t know if any of our listeners have heard the expression “an actor out on loan,” it’s a lyric that’s in a Doors song of all things.
And that’s the way it used to be. Actors were controlled by individual studios who had these long contracts with them that they couldn’t get out of. And if another studio wanted to use them, the studio would loan them to that studio in exchange for maybe borrowing one of their actors. But it was a bit like the way baseball used to — you were on a team and they controlled you. And then eventually free agency came along.
And so Olivia de Havilland was involved in that, but now a little something else. So Ryan Murphy Productions has made a show called Feud. It’s on FX. And Feud is basically about — true story of a feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And Olivia de Havilland is involved in it. And is portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones. And basically what Olivia de Havilland is saying is that portrayal was not true. The lawsuit argues that de Havilland has built a reputation of integrity for herself and refrains from gossip. The series however paints an opposing picture. And it’s interesting because it’s not exactly about defamatory actions. It’s more that she’s saying she has this thing — and it’s true — this right to publicity, which is something that has emerged in our laws over time. Basically if you are a public figure, your right to publicity extends towards your ability to make money off of yourself, your image. So, while I can make a movie and have somebody portray say John Wayne walking through a scene, what I can’t do is then use that person’s portrayal of John Wayne to sell a product and say, you know, as if John Wayne were supporting it. Because now I’m infringing on John Wayne’s — even though he’s passed away — his right to publicity.
So, there was a famous, semi-famous soda commercial or something a few years ago that did in fact weirdly revive John Wayne to have him sell something. Clearly there the estate had been paid for the license to use the rights of publicity. She’s saying essentially this portrayal is violating that right.
Uh — seems like a stretch.
John: This feels like an incredibly slippery slope, too. So when I first saw the headline, I assumed it was a standard kind of libel thing where like how dare they make say that. I never said those things. And she kind of says like how dare they in this suit. But really it is over this right of publicity. The statutory right of publicity, unjust enrichment, invasion of privacy. And it’s interesting because she’s still alive. And yet so much of what is at play here really could be from the estate of — if she even weren’t alive. And so that’s what makes me really kind of queasy about this, because does it sort of like wall off anybody who is sort of famous can never be in a movie again? And that would just be a crazy situation.
So, while I can understand why a great actress would want to protect her legacy and her image, I do worry that this is a really bad precedent to set if she were to come out victorious here.
Craig: I agree. And the thing that’s salient to me here is that she is suing for Common Law right of publicity, statutory right of publicity, unjust enrichment, and invasion of privacy. But what she’s not suing for is defamation. And that’s — well, it’s kind of telling the story there. It seems to me that she’s complaining about defamation, but her attorneys probably looked at the situation and said we are not going to win that. This does not rise to the level of defamation. So, let’s try these other things.
People do this. I mean, for a while it was all the rage for aggrieved almost screenwriters to sue studios for implied contract. So, instead of saying you stole my script, because they knew they couldn’t win that, they would say you implied that you would pay me if you made a movie like this. Which of course they never did. The argument being you had a meeting with me, therefore we had an implied contract. No we didn’t. That’s never won. It’s never going to win.
And in this case it feels like another sort of an end run. But, you know, as always, you and I, we’re not lawyers. It will be interesting to see what happens here. I share your squeamishness about the unintended consequences that could result if she prevails.
John: It’s also worth pointing out that Ryan Murphy has a whole cottage industry of taking things that are sort of real life stories and dramatizing them for these limited series. So, Feud is an example of that. I worry that if this were to be a successful lawsuit, it makes it very difficult to make those kinds of stories about real life people ever again. So, I’m hoping this goes away and that maybe it’s the last we hear of it.
John: Actually a more fascinating thing also happened the last two weeks. So this former Vibe journalist named Kevin Powell filed a federal lawsuit against the makers of the film All Eyez on Me. And so this is the biopic of Tupac Shakur, which I’ve not seen, but the lawsuit is really interesting because it claims that the film uses a character that Kevin Powell actually created in his articles, a composite character that Kevin Powell created in his articles about Tupac Shakur. So it sort of takes away the defense of like, oh, we’re just basing things off real people because this is not a real person. So he’s basically saying that you have appropriated this artificially created character in my stories, which is a really interesting thing I haven’t seen in other lawsuits about work being appropriated for the screen.
Craig: Yeah. This is interesting. My question — I have not seen the movie, nor have I read Mr. Powell’s article. What I’m curious about is whether or not his article presented this character who is named Nigel — and it says in this article describing the lawsuit that Nigel is a creation of Powell. It’s meant to be a composite of a real person named Haitian Jack and presumably a few other people combined in there. And that’s something that sometimes people can do. It’s a bit of dramatic license, but Powell wasn’t writing fiction. He was writing an article.
So the question I have is would anyone reasonably expect that this person Nigel in the article wasn’t real? Because if I’m gathering resource materials together and I’m looking at articles, journalism, and there’s a report, and there’s an individual that is cited and his actions are described, it seems reasonable that I would presume that’s a real person. And so I’m not copying fiction because I don’t presume it is fiction.
John: This is the problem with single sourcing. So, if you think back to the episode we had with Irene Turner where she was talking about her film about Madalyn O’Hair, she pointed out that her lawyer as they were going through working on that true life story, they were like really, really concerned whenever there was only a single source for a story. So, if it wasn’t in the public record, like that you can find multiple people all reporting the same thing. If you’re basing something off of one account of things, that is a written, owned account by somebody, and apparently this Nigel character is only going to exist in this guy’s reporting, because he doesn’t really exist in real life, that is a troubling thing.
So, whether or not the article made it clear that Nigel was a composite character or not, I don’t know that gets the movie off the hook.
Craig: Yeah. I agree. I think that there actually is a case here where infringement may have occurred. It seems to me that this is a trickier place. Powell is asking, or his attorneys are asking that the Lion’s Gate film be pulled from theaters and is seeking an unspecified amount to be determined by a jury. I don’t think the movie is going to be pulled from theaters. I don’t think it’s done particularly well anyway. It’s done OK.
I think that this feels like a settlement kind of thing. Like, OK, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to pay you some money. That’s generally what happens when there is an actual infringement. There is a settlement.
John: Let’s take a look at both of these stories from the perspective of you are a screenwriter working on a story that involves some true life people. And what you can learn from these two examples about best practices and what you should do. So, in the case of de Havilland, I don’t really know what to say. If you’re working on an historical account there’s going to be some real life people mixed in there, some of which could still be alive, some of which may be dead, some of which may have estates who are litigious. I would not let that stop you from writing the best possible story involving those characters you need to do. And just know that down the road it could be a problem.
In the second case, the Tupac Shakur, I’d be just extra vigilant that when you are doing the research on your stories, really make it clear who are real people and who are not real people. Look for multiple sources. Just don’t rely on one account for things. Because if you don’t control that underlying material, you’re going to be potentially in a bad spot down the road. And, again, I don’t know the specifics of what happened here. We’re basing this off of one LA Times article that we’ll put a link to in the show notes. So, this could be much more complex than what we’re seeing right here.
Craig: Yeah. And I think that if you are working on material that is based on real people — dead, or alive, or both — that the most important thing is that you are very up front with the studio for whom you’re working, and if at all possible you do an annotation of the screenplay so that they can see the sources that you’re relying on. And then allow them to make suggestions because ultimately the deal is as long as they are aware of what you’ve done, and you have not lied to them, you’re indemnified by them.
But if you do lie to them, even if there’s a sin of omission, you may be liable and you may be in breach of your contract. I mean, ultimately you can’t — in every contract we are saying this is our work. We’re not infringing on the work of anyone else. So, get that relationship going and work with your studio and be up front about it. I mean, the project that I’m working on right now is historical drama and it’s at the forefront of my mind. And we’re annotating up the wazoo, you know, because I want to make sure that we’re covered.
John: And when you say annotating, my suspicion is — and correct me if I’m wrong — the actual screenplay which you’re working off of is a main document. That document is not replete with annotations? It is rather that you have a separate document that refers back to your script that says like, OK, these characters and these situations are based on real life things. That’s what you’re talking about with annotating?
Craig: That’s right. There’s a separate document that goes page by page and says here are the sources for this, for this, for this, for this. And then also this is dramatized. So that everybody understands. I mean, it’s really important to I think be up front about where you’re taking dramatic license, as you need to from time to time, but ideally you’re doing it for dramatic license without trampling truth. And that you are covered on things because you’re not proposing something that just is — no one said has happened, or maybe one person said happened. So, yeah, that annotation is sort of a big thing. I actually have a researcher that I’ve been working with on this project and she is — once I’ve completed the final script of this series, she’s going to spend three or four weeks and annotate. That’s her job. You know, write it all up, so that we’re covered. Because these things can happen.
But, don’t freak out about this stuff. Just be open with your studio and you should be fine.
John: I agree. All right, let’s get to our first big topic this week. This comes from Emilia Schatz. She is one of the lead game designers at Naughty Dog, the studio that does The Last of Us, Uncharted series, really great videogames. And I found this article. Jordan Mechner had linked to it. And I thought it was just terrific. So, the article talks about how a videogame designer thinks about affordances. And affordances she defines as the objects in a story, in a videogame, that the player can interact with. And so as you go through the article you’ll see scenes from Uncharted in which it’s just the Nathan Drake character walking around on wire meshes. And they’re figuring out sort of like, OK, what does the player think he or she can do at the moment and what do you want them to be able to do or not be able to do?
And so she’s coming at this from a videogame perspective, but as I was reading it I kept thinking like, oh, you know what? We’re sort of doing the same thing as screenwriters all the time. We are sort of defining what it is in our stories that the characters are allowed to do or not allowed to do. And we have to communicate to the audience like these are possibilities and these are not possibilities. And so I thought it was a terrific article and it really applied very well to a lot of things we are doing on a daily basis as screenwriters.
Craig: Yeah. I’ve never thought about this concept, but I do play a ton of videogames, including The Last of Us and Uncharted. And I know what she’s talking about. And you notice it most clearly when you interact with an object that actually doesn’t impact the storyline at all. So, you know, a game that does this thoroughly is Dishonored. And Dishonored 2 in particular. You will walk through a room and there’s a globe and you spin the globe. And there’s a piano and you play the piano. And there’s a glass and you pick it up and then you drop it. None of that is required for you to advance through the game. It’s just interactable. And it does create a sense of richness and reality to the world. It’s also as a videogame player when there’s too much of it it’s frustrating. Because you think, OK, I’ve walked into a room. One of these things, one of these affordances, is necessary to me. The other ones are not. I wonder which one. Now I got to pick up and smash every little thing, right?
So there’s an interesting balance. And when we’re writing scenes, I often think like, OK, in terms of objects, props, there are going to be some that are important and then there are some that are just there for vibe. And, of course, since we have our characters moving through the space, we can’t frustrate the audience with this sense of overwhelming interactability. But we do have to make those determinations. And I think a lot of times what happens with newer writers is they start with what are the key props that I need to make this scene work, and then they stop. They never get to the second bunch of affordances which are what makes this feel real. You know, what little touches can I add here to just make this seem like it’s alive. I don’t know if you’ve ever found this, John, but sometimes those sort of tonal affordances become plot affordances. Because now that they’re in the space, you suddenly realize, oh, I can use that. You know?
John: 100%. So as I’m sort of doing the set dressing on a scene in my mind, I’ll find like, oh, you know, that actually is really interesting and that provides a necessary break in the conversation or a way to pivot to get through a scene because I have that thing.
I think the first time I was ever aware of the difference between sort of sets and props was weirdly watching like a Tom and Jerry cartoon growing up. And if you look at old animation, quite often if there’s a dresser with a bunch of drawers, you can always tell the one the character is going to touch because it’s a slightly different shade. Because that drawer is going to be the one that gets pulled out. And for whatever reason it’s just painted slightly different. And so ten seconds before the character touches the drawer you can tell like, oh, that’s the drawer he’s going to pull out, because it’s just painted a slightly different color. And you have a sense of like, OK, in a weird way that’s an affordance. That’s a thing the character can actually act upon, versus everything else is just background. It’s just set dressing.
And what she’s describing here is that it is useful that characters can do so many things within a scene, but if you give them too many choices they can be paralyzed, the way you’re saying. Or if they see something that they cannot interact with that they expect to be able to interact with, it breaks their reality. And so a great example she gives is ladders. And so if you show a ladder in a scene, and the character cannot climb that ladder, they will be frustrated because our rules of videogames is like ladders are meant to be climbed. So you see something that looks like it should be climbable and it’s not climbable, you’re going to have a very frustrated player and they’re going to lose faith in your videogame.
I think the same kind of thing happens in movies a lot where we see an opportunity for the character. It feels like that’s something that is being set up, but if it’s not actually used in any meaningful way, we get frustrated as an audience.
Craig: Well, we begin to ask this very fundamental and irksome question for the filmmaker, or the videogame maker: Why is that there? Why would a ladder be there? If I can’t go up the ladder, what’s it for? To make the room look pretty with ladders? I don’t get it. I just don’t understand. I know why windows are there. I’m very used to videogames where there’s a room full of windows and I need to escape the room. And for the love of god I can’t open a window. I can’t run through the window. And, oh well.
But I get that. I understand there’s like a basic deal there and I can retcon in some reason why I can’t go through the window. It’s bulletproof glass, or it’s leaded glass, and it just doesn’t work. Or the frame is stuck and old and rusty. Whatever, there’s some reason. I can’t go through the windows. What are you going to do?
But if you’re going to give me a ladder and I need to go somewhere and I can’t use it, then, well, now you’re just screwing with me, right? And you do get that sense sometimes when movies provide potential avenues of action that would be useful to the character, and then deny the character the ability to use them. That is a kind of a cheat. And it’s honestly an avoidable mistake. There’s really no reason to do it in a movie.
John: Agreed. Because movies fundamentally, as we talked about last week, they are on rails. You control the experience of going through the movie. So nothing has to be there that you don’t want to put there. The great classic example of this is Chekhov’s Gun. So, Chekhov in talking about sort of what you build into your world and what you don’t build into your world and what you don’t build into your world said, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter there’s a rifle hanging on the wall, or in the second or third chapter it is absolutely necessary that it must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
And that’s really what we’re talking about. Is that if there is something that is visible in your story that could provide a solution, that feels like it should provide a solution, you either got to use it or get rid of it, because otherwise it’s going to be frustrating to your audience and they’re going to stop believing in the journey that your characters are on.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, Chekhov’s Gun is one of those things that really ought to be expanded past the word gun. I think a lot of people get too hung up on gun. But there are Chekhov’s Characters. There are people that are implied are dangerous. Well, they better be dangerous at some point. They better do the thing that we were warned they can do. The best example I can think of is like — it’s like Chekhov’s Movie, you might as well call that — is Unforgiven.
Clint Eastwood is Chekhov’s Eastwood. We are told time and time again that he was once an incredibly dangerous man. And how do we meet him? He is an aging pig farmer who cannot even get back on his own horse. He’s not particularly good at shooting people anymore. He’s not really shooting that straight. He doesn’t really want to do any of it. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t seem particularly mean. He’s done nothing to warrant this reputation.
Until the end of the movie, when he becomes the devil. And there it is. The gun goes off.
So you can think about characters that way as well.
John: So I saw Wonder Woman for the second time yesterday and I really love the film and I think it deserves as much acclaim as it has been getting. But there is a Chekhov’s Gun moment in it. It is a guy with a rifle. And so there’s a guy who is set up as being a master sniper. And you can just feel something got cut. Something got changed along the way. And so he’s supposed to be a really good shot, and he never shoots. You never see him actually do the thing he’s supposed to be really good at. And the movie kind of tries to get through it and tries to pay him off a little bit, but it wasn’t the most important thing to sort of pay off and they never really do pay it off especially well. I think it’s just especially — egregious is too strong a word — but you notice it because it literally is a gun and because like, well, that gun should be fired at some point and it’s never fired and it’s never really addressed in a meaningful way.
Craig: Yeah. Isn’t it weird that there’s this psychological satisfaction to that? We know, in comedy there are movies like Police Academy. In Police Academy, you meet a compendium of characters. This is a very time-honored comedy tradition. A compendium of characters who each have a very special bizarre individual skill. And at some point by the end of the movie they each use that special skill to kick some butt. And it’s so satisfying. You know it’s going to happen. But you’re happy it does.
John: Ultimately we’re talking about expectation, which we’ve come back to time and time again on the podcast. Which is an audience approaches a movie with a certain set of expectations. There are the expectations before they even sat in the theater based on the genre, based on the trailer, based on sort of what they know about how movies work.
Then there’s also the expectations that are set up within your movie about the things the characters have said, the sequence of events, sort of like the natural flow of what they think should happen next. And most times you want to give them what they do expect is going to happen next. Just give them the best version of what’s going to happen next.
But there’s definitely some things you should be mindful of as a writer as you’re writing these sequences that if you call something out, if you shine a spotlight on it, if you give a character a name. If you make it clear that the characters within the world have a name for that character, there’s going to be an expectation that that character is going to do something meaningful. If that character doesn’t do anything meaningful, that’s going to be a problem.
If you’re shining a giant spotlight on the “McClinty device,” that McClinty device has to do something or we’re going to be very, very frustrated. You’re also always setting expectations about the nature of the universe that your characters are living in. So, the economic universe. Are we in a world where Monica from Friends has an amazing apartment that’s never really explained? Or are we in the world of Girls where Hannah lives in a realistic apartment for who she is and what she’s making?
Are we living in Bruce Wayne kind of richesse, or Richie Rich kind of rich? And those are both crazy wealthy, but they’re different kinds of crazy wealthy.
Craig: I loved Richie Rich. I read those —
John: I hate Richie Rich so much.
Craig: Loved them.
John: He’s my most despised character ever.
Craig: I loved him.
John: He has no redeeming qualities whatsoever other than —
Craig: No, he’s wonderful. He’s so nice.
John: There’s no character that’s ever been created that makes me as angry as Richie Rich.
Craig: His family has a waterfall of money.
John: Yeah. That’s good. He has McDonald’s in his house. That’s how rich he is.
Craig: That’s right. He has a Professor Keenbean, to make inventions.
John: Yeah. He’s got everybody. And you know what? He deserves it. He totally deserves all the good things that happen to him because he’s rich.
Craig: Every now and then someone would try and kidnap him. It never worked out.
John: No, no. Of course it would never work out. My daughter started to watch the Richie Rich Netflix show, and I came in the room and said, “No, you’re never watching that again. It is despicable on every level.” It was like one of the few times where I really intervened on something that wasn’t about sex or language or anything. It’s just like, no, that is a horrible, horrible message. And, no.
Craig: I love it. Well, you know what? Here’s the thing. My sister and I would read Richie Rich comics when we were kids and it was great for us because we were Poorie Poor. So it was like a fun fantasy of like, wow, can you imagine that mansion where you had to have a car to drive from room to room? And also your parents were really nice? And you had the money waterfall. And it was just, you know, it was very nice.
But, look, listen, your daughter will get over it in therapy at some point.
John: [laughs] At some point, yes. Let’s talk about the other kind of rules you set for your universe. You’re always setting expectations about how the physics works in your world. So, you know, there’s a certain kind of Charlie’s Angels physics. There is a Thor physics. Like, you know, Thor is really, really strong, but he’s not strong enough to move the world. Some Super Man movies he is strong enough to move the world, which seems impossible without a lever, but that’s fine. You’re always setting expectations about how all that works. What the magic can do in your world. That’s really important.
And so if you establish a kind of magic in Harry Potter, you have to be true to that magic throughout the rest of the series or people are going to stop believing in you.
Craig: Yeah. There is I guess one exception. You can create an enormous anticipation or expectation for something and then not do it, as long as you make a point of saying we’re not doing it.
John: 100%. You have to just acknowledge that you set it up and then call out that you’re not doing what you’ve set up.
Craig: Right. Exactly.
John: That’s great. And that works really, really well. And in some ways my frustration with Wonder Woman is if they had one or two more lines, they probably could have done that with that character and like see him not take the shot or get over not taking the shot. But they don’t seem to do that. And, look, that happens. I mean, we’ve all been in edits where like something has got to give and that has to go away. But that was my frustration there.
Another thing you have to set up about the rules of your world is practice and mastery. So, is this going to be the movie where we see people working really hard to do the thing that we’re seeing them do? Or do they magically just do it? And so I think about the difference between — in Glee the kids can just put on this amazing show and you never actually see them having to work at it. Pitch Perfect also has that sense of like, yeah, you see them rehearse a little bit, but basically —
Craig: It’s a montage. They do the classic montage.
John: They’re montaging through it. But Glee they don’t even montage through it. They suddenly can just like sit down at the piano and do this amazing thing without any practice. Compare that to the football in The Blind Side where you see like, oh you know what, it’s a tremendous amount of work to be that good at football. And that becomes an important story point. So, think about sort of the rules you’re setting for practice in the world.
Craig: I love it when you say “the football.”
John: The football. You got to practice the football.
Craig: The football.
John: We’ve talked about hanging a lantern before. And hanging a lantern is when you sort of call out that you’re doing something in the film. And it’s a really important skill. It can be done really awkwardly and haphazardly, but it can be really useful in saying like this thing I’m doing, you see that I’m doing it and I acknowledge that you see that I’m doing it, but this becomes really important. You’re shining that spotlight on something or acknowledging that you are doing something that is different than expectation and done carefully, done with the right finesse it can be a really useful way to signal to the audience like, yeah, I get what’s happening here and that’s OK.
You see that being done a lot in the Iron Man movies where you can have Tony Stark acknowledge the sort of improbability of what’s happening and yet it just rolls off him because he has the charisma to sort of sell the idea.
Craig: Yeah. You just have to be careful to not overdo it. Because what happens is the movie will start to push towards a general irony zone. Now, you may want to be in irony zone. For instance, Deadpool is just — that’s a big irony machine. So it’s perfectly fine to do that constantly in Deadpool because people want that from that movie. They don’t want it to be the other kind of movie that takes itself seriously.
But if you are kind of in that middle zone, and you do the lampshade or the lantern thing one too many times, the movie starts to feel a little cheaty. Because here’s the thing: everybody knows it’s cheating, right? Now, you get away with it once or twice because you’re saying we know we’re cheating, so don’t be insulted. But the more you do it, I think the chintzier it all starts to feel.
John: Yeah. It feels like the kind of rules about coincidences. You get one coincidence, maybe two coincidences in a film. More than that and we’re like, OK, we’ve stopped believing in the movie itself.
John: Here’s the last thing I want to say about this idea of affordances and sort of what characters can do and what they can’t do. Sometimes it’s helpful to just have a character say it. If you need to rule something out, sometimes it can be useful just like a character has to acknowledge that it’s a possibility and then explain why that cannot happen. Or, you can sort of physically set up your world in a way that that option is taken off the table. So you’ve taken away that as a possibility for the character to consider. So, you’ve like burned that bridge. You’ve forever sealed that door. There’s no way to go back to that thing. And, again, that’s a real advantage to the way that our movies do work on rails. Like very carefully disguised rails, but you can move the characters through to a place but there’s no way to get back to that option that seemed so useful before.
And that can be really useful dramatically, too, because the journey of a character should be like things get more and more desperate. So if you take away that simple solution to the problem that is a terrific thing.
Craig: And this is something that I think good screenwriters spend a lot of time on. Because ideally you never want anyone to stop and go, “Oh, I see, there’s a lot of explanation for why they can’t do this or that, which would make the movie not work anymore.” You’re always looking for those elegant solutions that don’t seem like solutions at all. The problem isn’t a problem because this is just clearly true and therefore this must be true and so on and so forth. It all feels seamless.
It’s more important oddly in comedy. Because comedy relies on a certain sort of effortlessness. And if anyone ever catches a whiff that you are changing the rules of the world so that you can do a joke, the joke just isn’t as funny. In dramas, I think people get away with it a little bit more. Again, this is why only comedies should get awards.
John: [laughs] 100% agreement there. All right, let’s get on to our next topic which is something you found. So, talk us through this.
Craig: Well, actually this was sent to me by Derek Haas, friend of the podcast, and co-creator of the many Chicago shows. Chicago Fire, PD, Education?
John: Chicago Vet. Yeah. Chicago Social Services where they deal with all of the characters and the families who are displaced by the events of Chicago PD or Chicago Fire. I think it’s a really noble show. It’s not doing as well in the ratings. I think it’s pulling about a 0.1. But, you know it’s crucial. And so I think it’s good that NBC is keeping it on the air just to sort of fill stuff out. Because I always have a lot of questions about what happens to that family after their house burned down or after their father was arrested for that crime.
Craig: Tell you what, it’s doing better than Chicago Permit. It’s just the office that does the permits. Yeah.
John: What’s so funny about the Chicago Permit show is mostly they’re pulling permits for shooting the Chicago shows in Chicago.
Craig: I know. It’s weird.
John: Again, there’s a snake eating its own tail quality, but I like that. I like that the shows have been willing to get so meta. I think the crossover with Hawaii Five-0 is fantastic. You know, it’s all feeding well. It’s a cross-network crossover, which is the best.
Craig: Chicago Rubber Roasts. Oh, that’s right, I said Rubber Roast. So, this is an article by Radha O’Meara who is a lecturer in screenwriting at the University of Melbourne, which I believe is the Australian Melbourne. And this is what — I believe Radha is a — I think she’s a woman. I think Radha is a female.
John: Radha Mitchell is an actress who is a woman. So I’m going to say all Radhas are now women.
Craig: All Radhas are women. So, we’ll throw a link on in the show notes, but she had some suggestions for how to avoid general sexism in screenplays. And I thought they were all very good suggestions. I had zero umbrage on these. So, I thought I would go ahead and share the bullet points here and then you at home can read further.
So the first one is a real simple one. Give female characters names. And there’s a very interesting reason that — I mean, sometimes characters don’t deserve names. And as you mentioned, sometimes if you name them, it might stop people and think, oh, that must be a very important character. And then they turn out not to be. Sometimes a character should just be named Waitress or Cop, because they have one line and it’s not particularly important.
What she says is if you give female characters names, oftentimes named characters are paid more. Now, I think that probably is a little bit of a non-causal correlation in that generally named characters are named because they are more significant, therefore they are paid more than non-named characters. But I do think that it does open things up a little bit and at least gives you a moment to think, particularly if there’s a chance for you to take this character that you think is just there as a type to say a word and maybe make a little bit more of a human being out of them. It’s certainly a good thing to keep in mind, wouldn’t you agree?
John: I would absolutely agree.
Craig: All right, so the next one is give female names to lines of dialogue/action. Meaning then when you have choices about those random bits of lines that come up — passersby, cab drivers, a barista behind the counter, whatever it is — if you make a conscious choice to assign female names to those characters you are helping to just improve the general balance of the dialogue in the movie. Because what they have found in analyses is that movies tend to be, at least the talking in movies, tends to be dominated by men. And even something as small as just as much as you can getting some of those random lines that are not necessarily tied to specific characters that you need in the movie, assigning as many of those as possible to women just generally makes the movie closer to reality where, as I will remind you, half of all people are women. So, a good idea.
This one is something that you and I have discussed. I think we did a whole show on how to intro characters. Give all characters a similar amount of description when you introduce them. In general, I don’t think these little short, tiny, nondescript lame-o descriptions are very good like “hot but doesn’t know it.” That’s the most amusing and stupid one, which we’ll refer to later when we get to Rick and Morty. But if you are describing a male character and you’re using terms that get into their motivations, their mannerisms, their desires, whatever it is, you should have the same kind of description for your female characters. You shouldn’t just default to short physical descriptions only, which is reductive.
And also — this is something that I’m just going to add this. I don’t think she included this in her article, but I’m going to add it because I think about it all the time. You have a character and you describe her as like hot. Librarian hot. Hot librarian. Whatever you want to do. It’s some dumb reductive way-too-short description that reduces a human being down to just physical appearance and one little thing. Here’s what happens. Somewhere down the line there is going to be a room full of women who are all trying to be actors who are working hard in this business who are looking for their break. And they have all shown up to this audition. They’ve come from their acting classes and trying to perfect their craft. And they’re all now sitting in a room trying to figure out how to apply all of that skill and all of what they’ve learned about sense memory, and emotion, and reactions, and internal life to “librarian hot.” And it’s demeaning. And it’s a bummer.
That’s the side of Hollywood that no one ever sees. And it all starts with us. So, we, the writers, have a responsibility to try and short circuit that before it happens.
John: This last week on Twitter somebody tweeted at me a question asking what do you think about when you’re reading a screenplay like “Aubrey Plaza type?” So basically using that as a character description. And my answer was you’re a writer, use your words. It’s so reductive to say that somebody is like an Aubrey Plaza because like, well, what is an Aubrey Plaza like? I can see what you’re going for. There’s a wryness. There’s a sarcasm. There’s a think. But like use your words to describe what that thing is rather than just coasting on the term Aubrey Plaza.
Because if you’re a studio executive who cannot describe people, then saying Aubrey Plaza type, I get it. But you’re supposedly a screenwriter, so like use your words to describe what that person is like. And that way you will not just reduce it to she’s like this other actress who a person may have heard of, or you’re just giving a physical description and not getting into what makes that character interesting and specific and unique.
Craig: I think that the Aubrey Plaza type is just creatively bankrupt. At its fundamental core, you are saying I want you to act like Aubrey Plaza. Not the characters that she plays, but her. Even Aubrey Plaza can’t play the Aubrey Plaza type, because it’s not a thing. She plays characters.
Now, every actor brings a certain essence of themselves to various characters. But I’d love you to sit down with Jack Nicholson and say, “OK, Jack, in this movie the character you play is, yeah, it’s like just do your Jack Nicholson thing.” OK, well, enjoy your last day on the set my friend. Because you ain’t coming back. That’s ridiculous. It just denies what acting is. It also denies what writing is. We are creating characters. There are actors that are better suited for certain characters than others. That’s what casting is all about. But if you say Aubrey Plaza type, what you’re essentially saying is I don’t understand what my job is. I literally don’t get it. I know that I’ve created this document, but I’m not really a screenwriter.
John: So, here is your task as a screenwriter is if you think Aubrey Plaza should play that role, then you need to create a character that a person reading the script says, “Oh you know who would be fantastic for this? Aubrey Plaza.” So, without you having ever said Audrey Plaza, they in their head say like, oh, you know who would be fantastic in this? Aubrey Plaza. And if you write a role that is exactly perfect for her, there’s a chance you might get her. But even if it ends up not being here, you created a character who is so specific that you will find a great actress for that part.
So, that’s my challenge to you is create a role that you want to put her in that position.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a thought. Create a human being that is unique, that we haven’t seen before, and then that will attract high quality actors. See, that’s how it goes. Now, it’s perfectly fine for you to write this part and then when you send the script off to the studio in your email you can say, listen, for these characters these were the actors I was thinking of. So you have a sense in your mind of how I would cast this movie. But you open the script and you start reading a description of the character, you’re reading a description of my character. The person. The human being I invented. Not, oh you know, just whatever, that lady.
Because all you’re doing is just drafting off of the other writers that did their jobs. Right? And wrote characters that Aubrey Plaza wanted to play. Oh, it’s — oh my god, I’m going to break something.
John: This last point in the article was actually the most challenging I would think to implement which is that to call out women in the crowd. And so she uses a quote from Geena Davis that says, “When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, ëA crowd gathers, which is half female.’ That may seem weird, but I promise you somehow or other on the set that day the crowed will turn out to be 17% female otherwise.” Craig, what do you feel about that?
Craig: Well, it hasn’t been my experience. You know, thinking of the crowd scenes that I have witnessed being shot. And they were pretty well balanced. The director usually doesn’t pick those people. Usually it’s a producer or the First AD who goes through the list of extras that is provided by the extras casting director. Then they bring the list over to show the director like look at all these photos. Does this seem roughly like the kind of crowd you want? And the director goes, oh yeah, that looks good.
But there’s usually some general instruction. The crowd should be roughly this age. Let’s say it’s a night club. Like I remember we shot a scene in Hangover 3 where Mr. Chow was singing karaoke in a night club in Mexico. That crowd, it’s a karaoke club, for dates, so it was 50/50.
Now, I think there’s got to be a better way than saying a crowd gathers which is half female. I would argue that this is probably one where Geena Davis is talking to the wrong people. This isn’t actually on screenwriters. This is one that you need to kind of get out to directors, first ADs, extras casting people to say, “Make an effort.” Unless there is a reason. If this is a scene where you’re gathering conscripts for a war, that’s probably going to be heavily male. And if this is a scene where you’re gathering members of the elementary school PTA, demographics tell us it’s going to be heavily female.
But otherwise, you guys should aim for 50/50. If we wrote in a script, “A crowd gathers which is half female,” we’re signaling that that’s really important, because that’s how screenplays work. But then it’s not important. It doesn’t actually turn out to be important and that’s going to be confusing for the reader, I think.
John: I agree. Where I think you may have an opportunity is if the composition of this crowd is important enough that it merits a second line, that it merits a texture line to sort of describe what the crowd is like, there may be an opportunity in there to sort of signal that like even if you say like the women — if you call out the women first in the crowd, that will sort of clue people in like, OK, the women are actually important to this thing. Or it will make people think like, oh, that’s right, I’m going to need to make sure that the women are represented in the crowd and that they are appropriate to what this crowd is. That I totally can get.
If you want to signal like, you know, if you’re calling out individual things in it. So like there’s a mom with a kid strapped to her chest. Then there’s actually a woman that you’re sort of signaling is in there. But in general, this line as Geena Davis sort of states it would feel so weird in the script that I would sort of stop if I read it right there. And maybe in some way it’s a good exercise to make people stop every once and a while and think about that, but I don’t think it’s going to help your read individually for this one script to do it.
I think you’re right to say that making sure that representation in films is diverse and inclusive is sort of everyone’s job. And so a screenwriter needs to do his or her job, but everyone down the road needs to make sure they’re doing their job as well.
Craig: Yeah. We just don’t pick who — we don’t pick the extras.
Craig: We can describe roughly a group of people. You know, and it can be as simple as, you know, a crowd gathers, men and women, all ages. I’ve written things like that, to sort of say it’s a general crowd. At that point, I think I’ve done my job. And you can also say sometimes a diverse crowd gathers, men and women, all ages, all races. Whatever you feel would be the right kind of look. But to call out like half female, it’s too salient. It’s going to be misleading to the reader. They’re going to spend the next three pages wondering what’s going on with the women in the crowd. That’s just the way we read scripts.
But it is everyone’s job. This was a very good article and I thought it was just a good thing for all screenwriter to read as we go about our jobs and try and make the world a better place.
John: Indeed. All right, we have two questions this week. I think they’re actually fairly short answers, so let’s get to them. The first one comes from Nick in Michigan. He sent in some audio, so let’s take a listen.
Nick: My question is about being a screenwriter on set. You’ve covered that in some situations the writer is very involved day to day throughout the entire production, while other times the writer might not ever even come to set once. So my question is if you are a writer on set acting only in your capacity as a writer, are you getting paid for that time? It’s something that hasn’t really been touched on and I can see it going either way. From what I’ve heard in most situations, a writer doesn’t really have any obligation to be on set. I might be completely wrong in that. But if there’s no financial incentive or contractual obligation, it just seems like a lot of time and energy.
Adding to that, is there any difference if you’re really active with the script still even during production, working with the director, or doing a pass every morning on that day’s sides, versus just sort of being there and hanging back with the producers? Also, is there any difference if the production is local versus being on location? So, the difference of shooting Go in Los Angeles as opposed to shooting the Hangover 2 in Thailand? Thanks so much guys.
John: That’s a very good question. So my short answer is that in many cases I’m not being paid any extra for being there on the set. I wasn’t paid any extra for being on set for Go. Technically I was a producer on that, but as a writer I was not paid extra there. And there have been a number of shows in which I’ve been on set for some portion of filming and I don’t get paid anything extra.
But what often happens is that as the movie goes into production, you’re paid what’s called an all-services deal, which means after a certain point they say like, OK, we’re going to pay you X dollars and it’s just going to cover anything else you’re doing through the rest of production, including post-production. And that’s fairly typical I found.
So, in situations where I’m not there in a crisis mode, where I’m being paid as a weekly, an all-services deal will often kick in. Craig, what’s your experience?
Craig: Yeah. I actually have not ever been on set without being paid. And I don’t think I would go. To me that’s just visiting. You know, to me if you’re on a set and you don’t have a job, then you’re already in a troubled spot. If you have a purpose on the set as a writer, it is in fact to occasionally write. And if you’re going to write, you need to be paid. And so I always have an all-services deal.
The nature of all-services deals are such that generally they often don’t really cost the studio anything, because the way our deals are designed, if those things are pre-determined, that gets applied against your screenplay credit bonus. So if you’re earning, if you’re going to get sole screenplay bonus, like you did on Go or something like that, or the way that Todd and I did on Hangover 3, then you know, OK, that’s the big number that I’m getting paid here. And all these steps and things, first draft, second draft, polish, all-services deal are applied against it. So they’re paying you money they’re going to have to pay you anyway, either this way or that way. But yes, I always have an all-services deal. And this way also the writing that I do is then owned by the studio.
If you don’t have a deal, they don’t own it. So, that’s a problem for them. So, yes, all-services deal for sure. What was the other part of Nick’s question? Oh, the traveling?
John: Does it matter whether — yeah, travel. So, if they want you on set and you’re not in Los Angeles, they’re going to fly you out there. They’re going to put you up someplace good. And that is going to be pre-negotiated in your contract before you started working on the project.
Craig: That’s right. In every contract there is a travel provision and it says essentially if you’re required for a certain amount of time to go to production and it is this amount of distance away, then here’s what happens. They cover your airfare. And the question is do you get business class or first class. Business class I believe is guaranteed by our collective bargaining agreement, but you can individually negotiate up to first class, which I try and do.
They also then give you a per diem. You’re going to be in a hotel, you pay for it with your per diem. You have to go out to dinner, you pay with it your per diem. But that’s essentially a weekly allowance that they then pay you that is not applicable against bonuses or anything like that. And that amount is set to the size of the city. So the big cities of the world, New York, London, Paris, they get your highest number. And then the next tier down gets you a little bit less. And usually there’s also a guarantee of some kind of transportation while you are there.
So, it’s all pre-negotiated by your attorney. We’re not there footing our own bill.
John: No. So our next question is about how honest your feedback should be when giving notes on a friend’s script. Let’s take a listen.
Question: I have some friends in the business and every once and awhile they will send me their material for feedback. And generally my philosophy is it’s not about telling that person what I like and what I don’t like about the script. What’s important is to recognize what they’re trying to accomplish with the story and then point out for them the ways that they’re successful in doing that and the ways that they’re not successful in doing that.
That is what I thrive to do when giving people feedback. But every once and awhile you get a script and you read it and you’re like, oh god, this is bad. And I know you guys have talked about it on the show before. Sometimes you get writing from people and you’re like, oh god, this person will never make it. This person is just bad. So my question is as sort of raw, subjective thinking, is it ever useful to relay that back to somebody? Should I still follow my philosophy or is it best just to be honest with that person?
John: Craig, what do you think?
Craig: We’ll go to just this extreme case. Someone has given you material to read. You read it. And three or four pages in you realize it’s just inept. When I have encountered those moments, I ask a couple of questions first. Who am I dealing with? What kind of person are they? Are they kind of person who has a certain amount of ego strength? Are they the kind of person that I intuit is going to be defensive? Are they a very sweet, kind person?
And then I tailor things to them, because first do no harm. I don’t want to make someone miserable. I don’t want to make someone cry. I don’t want to make somebody outraged. So a lot of times what it comes down to is I say, listen, this did not connect with me. I’m only going to talk about how it made me feel. And I actually stopped reading here. And I want to walk you through my relationship with these first 10 or 15 pages.
And then you have a choice of whether or not you want me to even — I just may be the wrong person for this. And so then there’s no presentation of objectivity. I’m not a judge saying you suck, you’re never going to make it. Give up your dreams. I just let them know how I felt. And where it was not working for me.
And I have so far — and this doesn’t happen frequently — but so far I have managed to avoid tears and lashing out. But I don’t know how you feel about this, John, but my feeling is if you read that script and it’s inept and that person is never going to be a screenwriter, they’re not going to stop because you tell them. They’ll stop when they finally realize it.
John: I agree. My saying something will probably not be the one thing that forms a wall that makes them sort of decide like, OK, now I’m going to take this other path. I always wanted to be a doctor, and now I’m going to go be a doctor. I don’t think my feedback is necessarily going to make that choice, that decision.
I often come back to our friend Kelly Marcel, I sent her one of my scripts to read. And she was so smart and she asked, “Do you want me to tell you that you’re brilliant, or do you want me to tell you what’s wrong?” And it was such a smart way of setting up the conversation, before she’d even opened up the script. Because then she could sit down with the thing of like, OK, am I going to read this to enjoy this and to point out the things that are working so well? Or am I actually going to look for the things that are wrong?
And that’s a thing you can do with another professional writer who you know has a certain level of competence. When you come to something where it’s like, oh man, I can’t even start here, I often go back to a thing that happens sometimes at the Sundance Labs in that up at the Sundance Labs you have these really talented filmmakers who are often coming from different backgrounds who may not be the best writers on the page sometimes. And so over the course of this long weekend as we’re looking at their scripts, different advisers are reading them and sitting down with these writers and talking about what they’re trying to do. And I found that there’s different roles people sort of naturally slot into based on who they are and sort of like where they sort of fall in the batting order in terms of talking with these writers. So, there’s that first person who is just there to suss out what was the intention behind the script.
Then there’s the one who is there to gently challenge and nudge and see where there are opportunities. Where is there flexibility? Where can we get a little bit of stuff to happen here?
There’s often a person who is just the sledgehammer. Who is just there to smash things apart and point out everything that’s wrong, everything that’s not working, and really sort of say this is not a movie yet. You have a lot of work to do here.
There is a person who sort of bats cleanup who sort of like puts the pieces back together, sort of emotionally reestablishes somebody. And then often my function is that cleanup or sort of the getting that person to think about what’s going to happen next. And so the Sundance model, like those are all probably people who kind of get it on some level. They’ve been through that creative process before. They have a sense of sort of what the work is ahead of them.
When you get that script from your drycleaner who has not read other scripts and you’re like, ugh, man, I just don’t know where to start here. That is the tough situation. And that’s where I think you go back to the Kelly Marcel of like, great, do you want me to tell you what’s fantastic, or what’s not working? If they say tell me if I suck, then I think it’s kind of on them. And if the writing is just not good, I think they do deserve your honesty. A kind honesty, but an honesty about like this is not working at all right now. And these are the kind of things I think you need to do next if you’re going to keep trying to write.
Craig: I don’t really believe when people like that tell me, “Oh, no, no, give it to me straight.” I’ve definitely had a few of those where I started to give — I mean, I hadn’t even gotten to third gear. I was in gear two of 100, and I could tell they were already getting defensive and bristling, and so I just backed it down to gear one.
The truth is that no one who isn’t inside of our business and has done what we’ve done for this long — no one can really understand what the true unvarnished meat grinder looks and feels like. We have experienced the meat grinder from the people paying us. And there’s nothing like paying somebody to make you feel entitled to tell them exactly what you think. So, we have been flayed and ground up and beaten to pulps.
When we talk to each other, we all have a shorthand and we also have a shared empathy and experience. We understand that these things are hard. We also understand that you’re one draft away from something much, much better all the time. There is always a hope, right? If I read something — I read something by mutual friends of ours, a writing team, and I love their work. I really do. But this one particular script they had written, they were working a spec and I just didn’t get it. I didn’t get it. And I had many, many, many problems. And I started off by saying, “I may be the wrong guy here.”
And they were like, “Or not, so tell us.” And I did. And they took it like champs. They took it like champs because they had the ego strength to know that I wasn’t saying you suck, stop writing. What I was saying was you, like all of the rest of us, have gone down a blind alley here. Back out, find a different path. You can do it.
That’s the difference between these things. When you’re dealing with somebody who has not succeeded yet, the implication is this is not working and nothing you ever do is going to work. Beat it. And that’s a whole level of emotional anxiety that I just — I’m really aware of. And I don’t want to be abusive about it. So, I try and put it in the context of me and my relationship to the material. And then I ask a ton of questions. Instead of saying this is stupid, that doesn’t work, that doesn’t make sense, I’ll just be very Socratic about it.
Here’s how I felt here. What did you want me to feel? And I think in a sense our obviously Canadian questioner already does that. And I would say to him keep doing it. You’re doing it right.
John: I agree. This last year I’ve had a chance to catch up on a lot of TV shows that I’ve missed along the way and one of those was Rick and Morty. And so this last week I was watching an episode of Rick and Morty and I feel like we cannot close this segment without doing a clip from this season two show in which Rick and Morty go to visit a lighthouse keeper on this alien planet. The lighthouse keeper agrees to help them as long as —
Craig: You listen to my tale.
John: Listen to your tale. And so it’s a screenplay reading. And so we’re going to play a little clip of that and it’s basically the worst case scenario for notes giving. And I should set up if you have kids in the car, there’s a bad word said three times. Not the very bad word, but the S-word. So kids-in-the-car warning here.
Blane: Maybe I don’t need a new friend.
Jacey: Maybe you’re the only friend I need.
Blane: Need, or want?
Jacey: I’ve never been much for wanting.
Blane: Spoken like someone with needs.
Morty: Oh, geez.
Lighthouse Chief: Hmm?
Morty: Uh, sorry. K-keep going.
Lighthouse Chief: Jacey reaches out and touches his face. It’s clear he needs what she wants. She’s a woman. He’s a man. The city burns in the background as he takes her in his arms. Fade out. Title… The End — Question mark.
Lighthouse Chief: Yeah?
Morty: It’s… G-good job. Good job.
Lighthouse Chief: You liked it?
Morty: Of course I did.
Lighthouse Chief: You didn’t laugh at the scene in the bar.
Morty: I…Thought it was funny, but I wanted to hear the rest.
Lighthouse Chief: Do you have any thoughts? Notes?
Morty: No. I-I just enjoyed it. That’s my note, you know? Please write more.
Lighthouse Chief: Seems a little insincere.
Morty: What? No.
Lighthouse Chief: You don’t have to mollycoddle me. I want to improve my writing. Tell me your real thoughts.
Morty: All right. Well, um, I’m not a huge fan, personally, of the whole “three weeks earlier” teaser thing. I feel like, you know, we should start our stories where they begin not start them where they get interest —
Lighthouse Chief: — Get out.
Morty: Um, what?
Lighthouse Chief: No, I’m sick of this. You bang on my door, you beg me to help you, I share something personal with you, and you take a giant shit on it.
Morty: Hey, man, we asked if we could put up a beacon —
Lighthouse Chief: Well, you can’t. I want you out of here. You’re a petty person, and you’re insecure, and you’re taking it out on me. That’s a good script.
Morty: What the hell?
Lighthouse Chief: I don’t care. I want you out.
Lighthouse Chief: Take that thing down. Your grandson is a shitty person. Leave now.
Morty: Rick, I didn’t do anything. I sat through his entire screenplay…
Lighthouse Chief: You sat through it?
Morty: Yes! Did you want me to weep with joy? It’s terrible!
Rick: Whoa! Morty! We’re guests here.
Morty: I tried to be a good guest! He dragged it out of me!
Lighthouse Chief: I’m taking down this beacon. No, stop! That’s not fair! Just because you hate your own writing doesn’t make me a bad person! You like that? You want me to cut to three weeks earlier when you were alive?
Rick: Whoa, Morty. You just purged.
John: I just love that they actually call out the Stuart Special in clip. It’s so fantastic.
Craig: Isn’t that great?
John: It literally is the Stuart Special we’ve read so many times.
Craig: It is. Well, it’s pitch perfect, right? I mean, not only is the terrible writing something that I’ve seen many, many times before, but that’s that phenomenon I’m talking about where someone will say, no, and they seem so believable. No, please tell me, I want to hear it. Because they can’t yet conceive of a world where somebody doesn’t like part of it. They think that they’re going to get these minor things like, you know where you said she was in a big car, maybe she should be in a little car. Oh, OK, I can see that. I can see that.
But the second there’s any kind of scratch at the surface, all of that terrible stuff just pores out of them. Pores out. And that’s the nightmare. That’s the absolute nightmare. It’s just wonderful. It’s wonderful. It’s perfect. I watch that clip probably once a day. Because it just makes me — just also just the way he’s so self-satisfied as he sits down to read his terrible — and also, because you think like, OK, he’s going to read a tale. It’s going to be some fairy tale or something. The second he says Fade In, you know, EXT., blah, blah. And the look on Morty’s face as he realizes this is a script. And he looks like he’s dying. It’s wonderful.
John: It’s fantastic. All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is this video and physics paper that go together. It’s about toppling dominoes. And so we’ve seen a lot of dominoes be toppled and sort of like billions of dominoes all falling at once, but this is about the physics of how a smaller domino can topple a larger domino. And so the mathematics work out to be I think it’s 1.5 times the size of the first domino can knock the next one over. And it ends up scaling in a really fascinating way. So, you don’t need to read the physics paper, but the video that goes with it is actually really great because it starts with this teeny tiny little domino that you have to hit with tweezers and it can knock over bigger and bigger until there’s this giant tombstone size domino falls, but it’s only like ten dominoes in a chain to do that.
And so there’s all sorts of metaphors you can sort of obviously take for dominoes falling down. But I thought it was great. And the thing I had not understood until I watched the longer part of the video is that I always wondered — in some ways, how is that possible? And it’s because potential energy is actually stored in the larger dominoes as they’re stacked up on their end. And so that’s why this little tiny domino can knock down that bigger domino.
And that’s why when the small domino knocks down the bigger domino, there’s basically potential energy being converted into kinetic energy. So I thought it was just terrific. So, if you enjoy things falling down, which you are a screenwriter so you probably do, check out this video.
Craig: Yeah. Because you just need enough force to move that larger domino in a position where then gravity pulls it down the rest of the way. So all you have to do is — you just need that little bit, and then gravity pulls it down the rest of the way and that then is more force because of momentum and blah, blah, blah. Physics.
John: Physics! Now, Craig, we haven’t done one of our special episodes where we just rip something apart for a while, but I fell down this rabbit hole, not a very deep rabbit hole because the nature of physical reality, about flat-earthers. I find flat earth truthers to be one of the most fascinating kinds of crazy. So maybe somewhere down the road we need to do a flat earth episode, because I just love it so much.
Craig: Yeah. Flat-earthers have to make a lot of excuses. Tons.
Craig: They have to excuse away almost everything we know. Normally, the conspiracy theorists just have to excuse away a few things. Not them.
John: Because usually a conspiracy theory simplifies things in a way that it may try to make something simple that’s actually complex. But it actually makes everything much, much more complex than just, you know, we’re on a sphere that’s circling the sun.
Craig: Yeah, it’s an incredibly complicated thing. So this past week I went and did one of those wonderful escape rooms. You know I’m a big fan of those. And I went with this just all-star team of geniuses, including our friend David Kwong, and another crossword genius/lawyer named Dave Shucane. And a bunch of other people, including a girl named Tiffany, I think it was a woman named Tiffany. I believe. She was very young-looking, so I don’t know if she qualifies as girl. She’s got to be at least 30, right? And she was a member of like an international escape room team at the Escape Room Olympics. I didn’t even know that this was a thing.
John: That’s amazing.
Craig: I was so impressed with her.
John: And now Craig must compete.
Craig: Well, no, I’m not. I don’t think I could. Well, I don’t know. See, you don’t want to do these things to me, because I will.
John: You totally will.
Craig: So we went to this terrific escape room in LA. An Evil Genius Room. Was Evil Genius 2, I think. And it was a very hard room. Only 20% solve rate. We obliterated the record. I mean, I really was with some ringers. I mean, I helped. I wasn’t useless in there, but I was also aware that I was not the best person in that room. So it was a great bunch of people.
And so I’m a big escape room guy. There’s a ton of not great escape room apps that you can buy. A whole lot of them are just shoddy and lame. But I did find this one group of them by one guy. His name is Mateusz Skutnik. And he has created a series. I believe there’s 14 in this one sequence that all is part of this larger story called Submachine. And so you can find this online. We’ll throw a link on. But it’s at mateuszskutnik.com/submachine. Don’t worry about spelling it. We’ll give you — we’ll let you cheat on that. And start with Submachine 1, the basement. And proceed forth. They are very cool. I like them a lot.
John: Craig, I’ve only done one or two escape rooms. But when you are on a really good team, what is the general strategy? Should everything be focused on the same problem at once, or do you just fan out across the space and everyone tries to do as much as they can in their own little space? What is a good strategy for a team?
Craig: Most escape rooms are best conquered by a team that is fanning out and then communicating constantly. So, the second you find something, you announce it out loud. Because many of the puzzles are interacting across spaces. So somebody is working on something and then someone says, “I just found a puzzle piece.” And you’re like, wait, I need that. Bring that over here. Or there are levels of things, right? And sometimes it’s as simple as I’ve just found a look that was hidden under a thing.
Occasionally you will find some that you kind of need to separate off a little bit. There’s a really, really good one called The Alchemist which is part of Escape Room LA Downtown. And that one kind of requires you for a while to split up into four groups because there are sort of four isolated sections and then it all comes back together. But generally best practice is fan out, parallel problem solving, constant communication.
John: Sounds good. All right. That is our show for this week. As always, it’s 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, I’m on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
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You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. If you want to listen to all the back episodes, go to Scriptnotes.net and there’s also an app in which you can listen to all those.
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And we also have tickets for the live show in Los Angeles on July 25th. So you’ve not already purchased those, purchase them now. It’s a fundraiser for the Writers Guild Foundation.
And that’s it. Craig, I will see you in Los Angeles before too long.
Craig: Stateside buddy. Have a safe trip.
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