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 312 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast, we’ll be tackling listener questions and follow up on previous discussions. And, if we have time, we may dig into the Steven Soderbergh new venture where he’s back with a new movie and a whole new way to release movies.
Craig: Mm-hmm. Well, we’ll see if we do have time. We have a lot of questions. And I’m just going to be honest with you. I cheated. I looked ahead. Normally I don’t. Normally I just, you know me. I like to get hit in the face with these things fresh. But I cheated and I looked ahead. Really good questions today.
John: Really good questions. What I’m so excited about is we can finally talk about some things that you and I have both known about each other’s work that is now public knowledge. So, I want to start with congratulating you on your HBO series which is about Chernobyl.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah. So this has been going on in my life for years. I don’t know, about three years or more now. And this was a project that I pitched a bit ago to HBO. It was the only place I went. I went with Carolyn Strauss, who is one of the executive producers of Game of Thrones. A fantastic person. And former guest of our podcast.
John: Very true.
Craig: And HBO said, yup, go ahead, write yourself a pilot there buddy. And I did that. And then we brought on another fantastic producer from the UK named — or as they say in England, called — Jane Featherstone, who executive produced Broadchurch among other excellent programs over there. And so we have our little team here. HBO went ahead and gave us the greenlight to make the series. We have a terrific director who is going to be doing all five episodes of this miniseries. There are five of them. I’m writing all the scripts. He’s going to direct all the episodes. His name is Johan Renck. Johan Renck, I don’t know if I mentioned him by name on the podcast, but remember back when I was extolling the virtues of Jack Thorne?
John: That’s right. The British writer whose work you loved so much.
Craig: Correct. So one of the things that he wrote that I loved so much was a miniseries in the UK called The Last Panthers. And that was directed entirely by Johan Renck. He also has directed Breaking Bad episodes and Walking Dead episodes. Terrific guy. Really, really good filmmaker, so we’re really excited about that. And Jared Harris has signed on to be our — we have basically three leads of the show. He has signed on to be the main — I don’t know, they’re all main because they’re leads, right? He’s signed on to be one of them, which is fantastic because he’s an amazing actor. Did you see The Crown?
John: I loved The Crown. And he was fantastic in it.
Craig: He was. He was so fantastic that when he died — spoiler alert, the king dies — I was like, oh, I guess I’ll keep watching. But I wish that mostly he was a ghost now and could walk around a lot and talk a lot more. Just make it about him. So, he was amazing in that and he’s always been great. And, of course, he is the son of the late, great Richard Harris, the original Dumbledore.
John: Yeah. So you have some quality people involved in your project. And when do you start shooting this thing?
Craig: We start shooting it next spring. We need a pretty long run up of prep, because there’s a lot of work to do. But also it’s just the way the calendar worked out. We’re going to be shooting this series in Lithuania and the explosion at Chernobyl took place toward the end of April, April 26, 1986. And the weather in Eastern Europe is sort of rough, rough, rough, rough, rough, hot, rough, rough, rough, rough, rough. So, we kind of need to get to that summertime weather that starts happening in April around there.
There’s a few colder scenes, but it’s really a weather thing. So, that’s when we’ll be starting. The other two leads, I think we are well on the way to casting those. Very exciting names, but I cannot say anything until it is all wrapped up and done.
John: And so, Craig, you’re going to be filming in Europe just like I was gone in Europe for the whole year. So you’re going to be there for months making the show and we’re going to have to do this thing with like a nine-hour time delay.
Craig: We’re going to have to do the dance again. But I’d like to point out that I have to be there. You whimsically chose to be there. So —
John: Yeah, I guess it’s a difference.
Craig: It’s a little bit of a difference. By the way, did you see that Jack Thorne has just been hired to rewrite the screenplay for Star Wars Episode VIIII, the one that’s coming after Rian Johnson’s Star Wars?
John: Holy Cow. So everything fits together. You’re basically the nexus of all things happening in Hollywood, or really worldwide at this point.
Craig: Well, don’t you think it’s a little odd that I just happened to make him my One Cool Thing, and I don’t know, three months later or less, fewer, someone goes, “Hey, you know who we should have to write the next Star Wars movie is Jack Thorne.” I’d like to think that Jack owes me quite a bit. Quite a bit. [laughs]
John: Yeah. So it really wasn’t his talent that got you to notice —
John: No, it was actually your singling him out that brought him to this acclaim.
Craig: Let me put a finer point on it. It was his talent that brought him to my notice. However, no one else appreciates talent. They simply appreciate my appreciation of talent. That’s what I’m saying.
John: Yeah I think in Aline Brosh McKenna’s script for Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep’s character makes a similar kind of observation. Like things are already out there, but it’s your shining a light on them that makes them valuable.
Craig: It’s my imprimatur. So, Jack, if you’re listening, half. I think that’s fair.
John: That’s totally fair. 100%.
Craig: Half. Yup. 50% of 100%.
John: 50% of 100% is what you’re asking for.
Craig: That’s correct. 100% of 50%. And there’s only a 20% chance of that. So, anyway, that is exciting and I’m glad I could finally tell people about it. And for anyone who is wondering, it is going to be historical drama, so it is a dramatization of what actually happened there. It’s not a documentary. It is an as true to history recounting of the events surrounding what led up to Chernobyl, the actual acts in and of itself, and then the terrible things that happened after.
It’s going to be a while before you get to see that on TV, but that’s what we’re heading into. And then you have this wonderful thing happening in London with a fantastic actor.
John: That’s right. So, for the last couple months we’ve been trying to put this together. Now we’re finally able to announce it. We are doing Big Fish in London. And so we’re doing a new version of Big Fish that is not what we did on Broadway. It’s not what we did in Boston. It is a third new version of Big Fish. Starting in November in London with Kelsey Grammer starring.
Craig: Fantastic. And now Kelsey Grammer is also starring in Billy Ray and Chris Keyser’s show The Last Tycoon. So, I guess Amazon shows they get hiatuses like everybody, so he’s doing this sort of in a hiatus. Is that the idea?
John: That’s the idea. So, I’ve talked to Billy and Chris about Kelsey, and they just could not be more enthusiastic about what a great person he is, but the way schedules worked out he’s able to do that, he’s able to do a movie. So, in his break he is doing our show and we are so excited to have him. So we start rehearsals in September. And first performances are in November. So I will be back and forth to London a lot. So, we get to do the time change dance as well.
Craig: Oh my god. The good news is that you’ll be back from London right around when I’m going to head out there to Lithuania. So the important thing is that we maintain half a planet between each other at all times.
John: 100%. So, in the show notes you’ll see links to the announcement of Craig’s new series, and also where you can buy tickets if you’re in London to see Big Fish with Kelsey Grammer.
Craig: And before people write in asking, no, I have not left movies for TV. This is the only TV thing I’ve ever done. And I’m writing movies. Movies are happening, folks. But, you know, figured why not. You know? You can’t do this story — you can’t do it in a movie. It’s too big.
John: All right. We’ve got some follow up from previous discussions. First off, Tim writes in with follow up on our discussion with Chris Keyser about the WGA deal. Tim writes, “You guys were talking about the possibility of moving to a weekly rate for screenwriters. We all realize this is tricky for the first draft, but maybe there’s a way to combine the two models. If studios are resistant to returning to two steps as a minimum, we should push for one step plus three weeks with some minimum per week fee. That way it helps solve the problem of producers demanding eight drafts before the studio even sees it. And it’s something the studios are familiar with, as in weeklies.
“Essentially two steps just means rewriting, so it might be worth it to try at least some sort of minimum weeklies after step one.”
Craig, what do you think of this idea?
Craig: Well, it certainly has its heart in the heart place, Tim. The idea of providing some sort of relief valve is exactly the kind of solution we need to find here. Now, we always have to run these things through the unintended consequences filter as well as the reality filter. So on the unintended consequences side, what we don’t want to do is get into a rut where people who are perhaps making a bit more than minimum, and that accounts for I think probably most screenwriters, would then just see that amount of this extra relief valve carved out of their quote so that it remains zero sum. And, in fact, nothing really changes.
The other issue is that we don’t also want to suggest that if you have one step and then a three-week, I guess it would be an optional relief valve, or maybe it would be a required relief valve, that the producers would then say, “I got a relief valve and weeks don’t matter. We can just do this now for three, four, or five months.” We know that that’s essentially what they want to do all the time. So, what we’re trying to figure out here really is how to get the producers out of the mindset that this is their one bite at the apple.
This would help, I think, screenwriters somewhat. I don’t know if it would address that core issue. On the reality side of things, there’s a problem here that would make it a tough hill to climb. And it’s this. Studios are very protective about what they call weeklies. In general, they have policies. They don’t hire people on weeklies for development. It is a disastrous precedent for them because all of the big shot writers make more per minute on a weekly than they do on any other kind of structured deal. So the studios limit weeklies essentially to projects that are in production that have been green lit. And those are production rewrites, production weeklies.
If something is in development, and that means to say it’s right on the edge of production where you’ll sometimes also see weeklies being given — they just want to call things polishes, or rewrites, drafts of some kind. They want to get away from that weekly because they find it horrifying and dangerous to spend that much money on something they don’t know if they’re going to make.
Now, what Tim is suggesting here isn’t that people get paid $250,000 for one of those weeks. He’s saying some minimum amount. And, sure, there is a minimum weekly. It’s very tiny, by the way. It’s about $5,800 or something. But, just violating the precedent of handing out weeklies in development will be a serious issue for them. So, couple of challenges here and I’m not sure it gets to the heart of the matter, but it’s well worth looking at as a possibility, even if it is an incremental one.
John: I agree it’s well worth looking at. I think what it does try to address is that sense of they keep you in this first draft forever so they can keep getting work out of you. And I think making it so that your deal said like you have a first draft and a guaranteed three weeks of rewriting, that makes it clear like we know that you’re going to be rewriting this draft and we’re going to pay you for rewriting that draft. That’s part of the process. And so studios can feel like, OK, I know I’m going to get this rewritten to my satisfaction because I have these extra three weeks tacked on.
I agree with you about the sense of weeklies as they are currently used in filmmaking are really expensive things that happen during production or right before production where expensive screenwriters are paid a lot of money to come in and fix problems in scripts. This is kind of a different thing. And it’s probably a little bit more like what happens in television right now where writers are kept on as things are going into production or like as the final episodes in a series are shot. So, there’s a precedent for it, but it’s not really a feature precedent right now. So it’s a different way of looking at stuff.
But I think it might be worthwhile, because I think it addresses something you brought up in your initial concern when we were talking with Chris was that that first draft experience is different and special. And to make that all on a time basis thing could be not great. But, the stuff that comes after that first draft, the tweaking, that really does feel kind of like weekly work and if we could get paid for that I think it could improve stuff.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, what it comes down to really is when is that draft completed. And that is the crux of the problem. What we know is that we actually on our own can determine when a draft is delivered by delivering it. So, we’re dealing with a political and human problem here which is that, yes, individually any particular employee has the ability to draw a line in the sand. But our power generally is collective bargaining power. It’s not individual bargaining power. And individually writers are scared to do that when they’re being told that there will be repercussions.
So, we have to figure out how to get to the heart of that. And there are all sorts of solutions. Some try to be magic bullets and some try to be just slight improvements. At this point, we should be talking about all of them.
John: I agree. All right. Another bit of follow up. So, three episodes we talked about coincidence and we brought up the new Spider Man. Chris Ford writes in, “It was great to hear a plot point I worked on discussed on the show. I’m one of the writers of Spider Man: Homecoming and a long time listener of the show. I thought a lot about the super-link coincidence and how it could hopefully work. I think two factors helped us.
“We tried to make it absolutely as shocking as fun as possible so that as the audience settled into the idea, they were delighted with the comedy and the drama, and as a result they would accept it. But I think a deeper factor is that the surprise/coincidence like that is a genre element of Spider Man movies. There have been so many at this point that as we wrote it we were always playing against or playing with the genre of ëSpider Man movie,’ almost as clearly as if it was a Western and the audience was expecting a gun fight.”
Craig: Well, first of all, Chris, great to hear that you listen to the show and congratulations on the success of Spider Man: Homecoming. As John knows, I have not yet seen the film, but because of this letter I went and cheated and looked at the plot. Sorry about that. But, whatever, I’m a professional man. OK. It’s like two doctors talking to each other. Right? I think I’m allowed this one.
So, anyway, now I know what that coincidence is and I know how it works. And, yeah, it makes total sense. You know, one of the things that you can get out of a late movie coincidence is the coincidence is designed not to shock the audience, or make the movie any easier. The coincidence is designed to shock the hero. And make them realize that the way things were working isn’t in fact the way they’re working at all. And that’s fun for us to watch. We don’t mind that coincidence because it’s filtered through the characters scrambling to handle it. And it is fun.
So, that’s a kind of coincidence that I think you absolutely can get away with. And I think Chris is right that Spider Man movies generally speaking do have a lot of coincidence in them. The first Spider Man movie, the Tobey Maguire one, at least, I believe his best friend’s dad was Norman Osbourne, who became the Green Goblin, which is that’s an early baked in coincidence which is very soap operatic.
I mean, look, you want to talk about soap operatic coincidence, look at Star Wars. There’s a massive galaxy. How many planets are in a galaxy? I don’t know, a billion? Some crazy number. But everybody is basically related and two droids keep showing up everywhere. So, yeah, you know. It’s fine.
This coincidence is certainly less objectionable than any of those.
John: Agreed. Well, there’s always that sense, especially in Star Wars, like it’s a giant universe and a very small town. And everyone is always crossing paths with each other. And a listener named Elizabeth wrote in with another follow up about Spider Man. She says, “Number one, not only does it make the situation worse for our protagonist, it makes a dilemma. And that dilemma is deeply thematic. Peter Parker wants to be, is learning to be, and is learning to value being the friendly neighborhood Spider Man.”
They actually say that in the movie. “That means everyone cannot be and will not be anonymous strangers. In fact, it’s already been set up that the reason no one else has seized on this particular bad guy situation is because it is local. Perhaps this even makes the late-breaking coincidence not fully coincidental, or at least more likely.”
So, I think that’s a really good point. The coincidence and sort of the locality of it, like, oh, it’s in my own backyard aspect of it is really a fundamental part of this Spider Man. And so it makes more sense because thematically it all fits in all together.
Craig: Yeah. It certainly mitigates it. Certainly. I mean, if you’re telling a story where you have a working class hero facing off against a working class villain, it is not surprising that they are both living in the same working class neighborhood. So, yeah, that all feels perfectly legal to me. Chris, you have received the perfectly legal coincidence stamp from Scriptnotes. This is given out rarely. But, go ahead and put it on the cover of your magazine, Chris Ford Weekly. Seal of approval. It’s a ribbon. It’s a shiny ribbon. Silver. Silver?
John: Silver foil-ish. I mean, it’s not actual silver because actual silver would tarnish. But I think it’s definitely the kind of thing you’d want to keep up for a while. And then you’d be thinking about throwing it out, but then you feel really guilty throwing it out. Like it’s a gift you got that you never really kind of wanted. But now you have it. And so that to me is the Premiere Magazine Award that I have in my library. And it’s just this sort of square block of aluminum. So, I forget who the other director was. There was a director who got it the same year. And so Tom Cruise showed up to give it to the director. And they couldn’t find anybody notable to give it to me, so Rawson Thurber ended up giving me my Premiere Magazine award.
Craig: Aw. That’s so sweet.
John: It was so nice. And Rawson is awesome. But I have this thing, and I don’t really want this thing, but I cannot bring myself to throw it out.
Craig: Well, that’s hopefully how Chris feels about — I mean, that’s all we’ve ever asked from anyone who receives this, not that anyone has yet until now, but we just want it to be something that you want to throw out but feel a little weird about throwing out. Yes. A silver foil. That sounds good.
I was going to say we would use a silver-like foil because it’s just cheaper. But I think your tarnish reason also makes sense.
John: Yeah. So we want the gift to be made of 50% pride and 50% shame, kind of.
Craig: And then I get 50% of both of those. Because that’s what we’ve already established.
John: Shame or guilt. Either one works. It’s a fusion. We have a new question from Paul and he wrote in talking about coincidence as well. So let’s start with that. Let’s take a listen to Paul’s question.
Paul: Hi guys. My question is in regards to Episode 309’s discussion on coincidences. I’m currently working on a road trip style script where the main characters go on a journey and meet a selection of other characters along the way who are either a hurt or a hindrance or some sort of complication. Basically they all become relevant to the story, otherwise we wouldn’t meet them. So my question is how do we avoid making each one of these chance meetings feel like a coincidence?”
John: Craig, you’ve done a road trip movie. How do you make that not be a bunch of coincidences?
Craig: They’re not. By definition. You’re on a road trip. You’re going to run into people. Everybody understands that that’s the nature of a road trip. Coincidence is a problem when you’ve structured a story to be non-random. For instance, bank heist. That is a planned thing. People sit in a room. They talk to each other. They come up with a target. They come up with a plan. They execute the plan. If coincidences happen along the way that will be unsatisfying, because we know that they’ve planned so well.
When you’re on a road trip, you are saying we are embracing the unknown here. There will be things that happen. It is essentially episodic. The way you get out of it being episodic is for the people to meet random people along the way who then through their actions have some kind of thematic relevance and that is at the heart of every road trip movie. Even movies that you don’t think of as road trips, like the Wizard of Oz.
Craig: It’s not coincidence that she meets the Scarecrow. It’s just something that happens. You tend to meet people along the way. And who do you keep talking to when you meet people along the way. You know, in Identity Thief, Jason Bateman meets the hotel clerk. He says three words to her and that’s the end of that because her character isn’t interesting or relevant. But then they meet other people who are and they become a huge part of the journey because the characters perceive something in them that is relevant.
So I don’t think that there is any issue whatsoever about coincidence there because that’s not what coincidence is.
John: I agree with you. So, the middle section of Go is a road trip, so the four guys are on a trip to Vegas. And what I think is crucial about it is the people they meet, they are meeting because they are taking actions that are bringing them to face these people. And that because of the things they’re doing, those people may be following up on them later on. And there’s repercussions and consequences of the things they’ve done earlier. But it’s not coincidence that they are in those places. They are deliberately going to those places. They’re meeting these people because they have chosen to enter these locations and that’s why it’s happening.
So, I can understand Paul’s worry because you know a lot of times it can just feel like a series of things, one after the other. That’s general plotting though. That’s trying to make sure that it feels like the characters are in charge of this road trip and that it’s not just a movie throwing a bunch of stuff at characters.
If a bunch of people walk through the door, that’s going to feel more coincidence. It’s going to feel more episodic. That’s the challenge you always have with movies that are sometimes set in one location. And it’s just a bunch of people walking through the door. Clerks could feel that way if it weren’t a great movie. And we’ve seen the bad version of Clerks a lot, where it’s just random wacky people just coming through the door.
Craig: Yeah. Then it’s a long sitcom. And sitcoms are amazing for 22 minutes on your television, but they don’t work on the big screen because you’re demanding something that’s a little more whole and completed. A narrative that moves in a circle and ends.
You’re absolutely right. If you’re going on a journey, theoretically you have some purpose for the journey. That’s what’s driving you through. It would be a coincidence if on your way you randomly ran into your own mom. That’s a weird coincidence. That’s bad. But, just meeting the people that you meet, and then choosing to continue to talk to them, that’s not coincidence at all.
John: No. The other situation which could occur, and this may be what Paul is bringing up, is you might have characters you meet and then you see them again later on and it feels really coincidental that they’re still on the same trajectory as you are. Yeah, be mindful of that. If there’s no reason why we would see that character again, you seem like you’re heading in different directions, there will need to be a cause and effect thing happening there for like why they’re suddenly on the same path.
John: So do work on that.
Craig: Yeah. For instance, in Identity Thief, they have a random encounter with Eric Stonestreet, the character that Eric Stonestreet plays. And that scene has relevance for Melissa McCarthy’s character and it makes her make a decision. And that impacts the course of her journey with Jason and her relationship with Jason and the choices she makes at the end. We see Eric Stonestreet one more time when bad guys are trying to find Melissa McCarthy and they basically put together clues that lead them to him. But that’s it. If he had shown up again randomly where they end up eventually it would have made no sense. It would have been a coincidence.
John: Absolutely. Do you want to take the next question?
Craig: Sure, Macaar writes, “I’ve just completed a first draft of a spec feature and I’m now preparing to write a second draft. I’ve never done a full on second draft before, so I’m not sure where to start, both logistically and artistically. Do I make a new document and start from page one, rewriting everything I’ve written before? Or I do just fine tune the material that I already have? What should be my main goals for the second draft? I’ve identified problems with the script, but I’m afraid that once I start rewriting the script I might lose sight of my original intention and the script will turn into something completely different from the story I wanted to tell. How does one maintain the integrity of their initial idea while working on a second draft? Are there any additional nuggets of wisdom you could give me before I embark on this journey?”
John, it’s nugget time.
John: It is nugget time. So rewriting is crucial and fundamental and the second draft is one of the hardest steps I find. Because often the second draft is where things kind of get worse, because you are trying to take this thing which was your initial idea and bend it into a new shape. And you’re reluctant to get rid of some things. You are still grappling with what you actually wrote versus what you meant to write. So, some general tips I can offer you is go in with a plan. And so I always approach a rewrite, a big rewrite after the first draft with this is what I’m trying to do. And I will type it up if I need to. Like these are the things I’m going to try to do. This is my intention with this draft. These are the characters I’m going to focus on. This is stuff I’m getting rid of.
If it’s a big rewrite, what I will tend to do is start with a new document and copy and paste in the scenes that are staying, even if I’m going to rewrite them, but if there’s stuff that’s going away all together, I won’t copy them into the new document. I will leave holes for where those are going and work on it that way. Very, very rarely I have I actually just like kind of started over where I have the script sitting off to the side and I’m typing a whole new script. That kind of rarely is necessary for me. But once or twice in my career I had to do that, where I’m really starting over from scratch.
What I would urge you not to do is just a Save As and it’s a new script and then you’re just sort of scrolling through it. Because I find you will just change the commas, and you won’t do the real hard work you need to do in really breaking apart the script and putting it back together properly.
Craig: That’s all excellent advice. Macaar, you’re asking great questions and they are reflective of a writer’s spirit. You’re panicking a little bit and you’re feeling a little overwhelmed. And that’s completely normal. John is absolutely right. The second draft is the danger zone. Which means, therefore, that you have permission to go backwards. That is not only normal, it’s probably more likely than not to occur.
With that said, when you ask do I rewrite everything I’ve written before, or just fine tune the material I already have, there is no answer we can give you. That is your answer to provide. Because you have to figure out what the purpose of the rewrite is. You’re saying what should be my main goals for the second draft. Your main goal is to have a script that is better. That is vague.
So, you can’t just start rewriting because you’re supposed to. Nobody would know what to do with that. Nor can you just start rewriting because a bunch of people told you things to do that you don’t believe in, or understand, or feel. Before you start to write your second draft you need to absorb what is actionable, what you agree with, what you don’t, challenge all of it until you feel it. In other words, don’t start writing your second draft until you know what to write. Then suddenly it’s not so scary, because now it’s not rewriting, or writing, or any of that stuff, and the mechanics of new files or old files, that will become apparent to you because you’ll know what to write, so you’ll follow the path of least resistance there. And you’ll start writing.
You are well within your bounds to be afraid that you will lose sight of things. And, again, you have permission. I am granting you permission. You have a silver foil seal of permission from Scriptnotes. We’ve got to open up a seal factory.
John: Totally. 100%. So they’ll be available on the store by the end of the week.
Craig: And we’ve got to make sure that people know like when we do open up the seal factory, we’ve got to be really clear about what kind of seals we’re talking about here.
John: When we break the seal on the seal factory we have to make sure that they — we could have Seal come for the ribbon cutting when we break the seal factory.
Craig: That’s not a bad idea. That’s not a bad idea. So, anyway, Macaar, all these questions are great, but I guess the biggest nugget I have for you is figure out what you want to write before you start. Vis-a-vis, the script you have and the script you want to have. Don’t start writing until you generally know, otherwise you will wander. Oh boy will you wander.
John: I agree. Our next question comes from Samantha in Brooklyn. She writes. “Simple question. Does the fact that I’m a transgender woman in my late 30s, by the way, hurt my chances of becoming a working screenwriter? Thanks for all your honest, sometimes difficult to hear advice. I feel you guys have given me a more realistic sense of what’s probable regarding breaking in. I look forward to your candid response.”
Craig: Well, Samantha, no doubt you did not choose to be transgender, but if you had you couldn’t have picked a better time as far as I’m concerned. In Hollywood there is an enormous awareness of transgender issues and I think there’s also for the first time in as long as I’ve been working here a legitimate acted upon desire to start varying the kinds of people that are hired to do work and that doesn’t just extend to gender, or to race, or to age, which were the prior categories and limited to those, but also gender identity and orientation as well.
And with that in mind, I would say that the fact that you’re transgender is not at all a hindrance, nor should I add is it a state that requires you to write transgender themed movies or movies that feature transgender characters. Write whatever the hell you want. If I were your agent, I would advertise to potential employers that you are transgender because you bring a perspective that is limited in this town and you bring it at a time when there is a great appetite for it. In particular, I think you would be a very attractive candidate for television rooms, because they have just more potential for diverse hiring since they have rooms of people, whereas movies just have one.
That said, if you want to write movies, you write movies. But, no, I don’t think it hurts your chances even in the slightest. John?
John: I wonder if we’re painting this as too rosy of a picture as like too white guys in Hollywood saying like —
Craig: You’re white. You’re white, dude. David Duke tells me I am not white. And I, as you know, I listen to David Duke.
John: As two cis white guys, I’m gay, you’re straight, so I would say being gay in my situation has not hindered me whatsoever in my thing, but that’s not the same experience as being transgender. So, I can’t pretend that I know what the obstacles could be. And so I would agree with Craig that this probably the best time that has ever happened for transgender writers who are trying to break into Hollywood, but I don’t know what some of the obstacles could be that I’m just not seeing. So, I just want to make sure that I’m acknowledging that we don’t know sort of everything that could possibly be out there.
Craig: I do.
John: Oh, you do? Craig has magic knowledge.
Craig: I have a palantir.
John: Yes, he just peers into it.
Craig: Yes, I do. The great eye.
John: But, I will say please don’t use the possibility of obstacles ahead be any sort of deterrence from trying to do it. And I think that could be the biggest obstacle is your own worry that there are going to be walls put up in front of you. So, I would say go for it, do it.
You do bring up like you’re in your 30s, and in some ways I think that could be more of a factor than you being transgender, just because as we’ve talked about before a lot of sort of getting started in Hollywood is that sort of very beginning meetings and rooms and all the sort of grunt work of getting started. And it’s a little easier in your 20s than your 30s, but I don’t think it’s going to stop you.
Craig: Yeah, I agree with you on that for sure. If you’re looking at three factors here that Samantha is describing, one is being transgender. One is being in her late 30s. And one is living in Brooklyn. Late 30s and living in Brooklyn probably have more of a negative impact on her prospects than being transgender.
And, you’re right, I’m guessing here. I just see an enormous amount of good will and open-mindedness right now in Hollywood and I’d like to think, perhaps I am being rosy, but I would like to think that being transgender would not negatively impact Samantha’s prospects.
Samantha, here’s another thing to consider, particularly if you write features. You can write a spec script and if it’s awesome it doesn’t really matter what name you are, what your gender status is. It doesn’t even matter if you’re a human as opposed to some kind of weird sentient rock. A great script is a rare thing. And people will want it. And unlike most gigs in the world where you first have to show yourself and then work to prove yourself, in this gig you can hand somebody paper anonymously, essentially, because they don’t know who you are, even if you give them your real name it’s anonymous to them. And you are judged by the work. You could leave a name off entirely. Put a pseudonym out. You could do whatever you want. But that’s the cool thing about it.
Then, you know, look, people then have to eventually meet you and at that point your identity collides with the reality of people’s opinions and observations, but I remain optimistic and also, according to David Duke, not white.
John: This past week I was talking with a young writer and she was describing the script she was writing and she was super bright. I was pretty confident that she is going to succeed in the business. And she said she was applying to some diverse writer programs, which I also encourage her to do. And we were talking about the things she was going to write next. And I strongly encouraged her to write something that had a central character that felt like her. Because there’s something wonderful when you sit down with a writer and you feel — you’ve read their voice and then you meet the person and you feel like, oh, that voice really connects well with this person. And I think that’s one of the things about Lena Dunham’s work that is great, because you meet her and you read her work. It’s like, oh, I can see the match up there. And so while I think it’s great to have a range of writing that shows your diverse sides, if Samantha is working on a new script, like a third script, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to have a character in there that feels like Samantha, because then when they’re sitting across from you to talk about this great script that they loved, they can sort of see you in that. And it feels like they kind of know you before they’ve called you in for a meeting.
Craig: Yeah. That can be very useful. It is a narrower target to hit for sure to be the kind of writer who says, “Don’t worry about me. Worry about what I write, because I can write anything. Or, I can write a wide variety of things that aren’t necessarily connected to me. I can be essentially that multi-tool weapon that studios are always looking for.” And that is a much narrower target to hit. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a tough one. But, if you can hit it, then you become a very — you know, like for instance, John Lee Hancock. It’s interesting. You look at John Lee Hancock’s work, when he directs, you see him in it. Right? John Lee is kind of that, he’s sort of laconic, Midwestern/Southern spirit of America kind of guy. You feel it. When he’s writing, he writes everything. Everything. So he is that multi-pronged weapon.
It depends on who you are as a writer. But, look, at that point you’ve got a high class problem there, kid.
John: Yeah. Like they only want you to be one thing, while if they want you be that one thing, that’s awesome for you.
Craig: Yep. As long as they’re paying you, you know.
John: So Mark wrote in with a question. Let’s take a listen.
Mark: My question has to do with screenplay competitions. I’ve placed in about a dozen competitions now with two different scripts, ranging from a first place finish in a fairly prestigious competition to quarter finalist placings in what you could call tier two or even tier three screenwriting competitions. My question is this: how much weight do these placings carry when I go to cold query my scripts later this year? Can I leverage these placings to help me get a foot in the door, or is the industry kind of wary and jaded when you bring up screenplay competitions? Also, would it be best to be more selective and only mention the more prestigious placings, or should I just go and list every single award I’ve gotten when I go to pitch and query?
John: Craig, what’s your advice for Mark about his screenplay competition awards?
Craig: Well, before I get into the advice, I have a question for you, John. And for all of our listeners at home. I say query. Mark says query. I hear that a lot. Which pronunciation do you use?
John: I say query like it’s the second half of inquiry.
Craig: Yeah. So do I. I wonder if it’s a regional thing. Anyway, Mark, I’ve procrastinated long enough. Here’s what I think. Most competitions, and when I say most I mean essentially all of them, are useless. They will not help discriminate you from other writers, nor will they make your screenplay inherently more attractive to anybody. By and large, people do not care. There are so many of these things. They are mostly designed to take your money. You yourself say that you’ve placed in, or even won, what did he say numerous of them? So, what does that tell you? The deal with screenplay competitions is the more you mention them, the more I think frankly amateurish you seem. Certainly saying that I finished in the quarter finals of the blah-blah-blah screenplay competition only makes you sound bad, as far as I’m concerned.
You know, if you say, look, this script has won first place in every single competition I’ve entered in. Here’s a list of 20 competitions it’s won first place in, then I would be like, well, maybe this is pretty good.
John: I agree.
Craig: You know, but that’s not the case. If you have performed very well in the Nicholl, I think that is well worth mentioning. If you win the Austin, that’s probably worth mentioning. But by and large, no. I think it’s far better to let the script speak for itself and not attempt to guild it with the dubious lily of screenplay competition laurels.
John: So, Craig and I don’t actually encounter query letters very often in our lives. And so we’re not people who would be seeing this letter that has all the awards attached to it. At some point we need to have a manager on who is like signing new clients to get a sense of whether that matters to him or to her. Because I don’t think it probably does matter. And I certainly wouldn’t list everything you’ve done. Like only hit the very, very highlights.
Like the same if you’re doing a resume, you don’t put everything on your resume, you just put the things that are applicable to the person you’re sending the resume to. And in this case, if there’s a recent award for a thing and it’s a really prestigious thing, highlight that. But otherwise I wouldn’t.
Craig: Yeah. You know, you got to remember, Mark, that you’re sending your letter to somebody that accepts them. Everybody else that’s sending a letter to them has also entered a dozen competitions, almost certainly. So, letter after letter they’re being told look how special I am. Meaning none of us are special. These competitions are meaningless. Everybody has been a semi-finalist in four of them at this point. So, you know, they’re not looking for people that can do decently well in Single A baseball. There’s only one league here. That’s it. Majors. That’s it. No Minors. So either you are killing it out there and just crushing your competition, and hearing their lamentations, or don’t talk about it.
John: Mm. Yeah.
John: Do you want to take the next question here?
Craig: Timothy McGherry, that’s a great name. That’s a good song name.
Craig: Timothy McGherry writes, “A Reddit user posted the following question.” Hang on, John. Hang on. I want you to grip your seat tightly now, because here we go. “So I was talking to my buddies about that screenwriting thing and turns out one of them tried this a while before quitting. He wrote a script and sent it to a few contests but didn’t place. He then told us we shouldn’t bother anyway. There’s a conspiracy to keep us out. I mean, why do you think some writers get paid over a million dollars and more for a screenplay while so many others struggle and have lousy day jobs. Well, there is a secret password you have to write within a script…”
By the way, this isn’t me talking, this is still the question. “…there is a secret password you have to write within a script and it automatically gets in front of people. Only a few people know it. It’s handed down within families who are extremely connected. They’re all trained to look for that password. Readers. Contest judges. And so on. And if they find it, you sell your screenplay for a million dollars. Otherwise, you’re rejected. And no matter how much you try, if you don’t know that password you’ll never break in. Anyway, that’s what my buddy said, and he’s a screenwriter. He knows what he’s talking about. Might just be a theory though. So, what do you think?”
Uh, John, this is provocative because we have been sitting on this for how many years now?
John: Well, it’s been 311 episodes, so even before the podcast, because you and I learned the password quite early on.
Craig: Yeah, of course, because your father was very well connected. What was his occupation again?
John: He was an engineer. But he was the engineer who actually invented movies.
Craig: Ah. And my parents were public school teachers, but my great-great-grandfather I think came over on a boat next to the boat that had Carl Laemmle on it.
John: Yeah. That would be amazing that he was that old and movies have only been around for a hundred years. But that’s how the conspiracy works.
Craig: Well, that’s how — Jews are all born elderly. That’s just a fact. And also we’re not white, according to David Duke.
Look, Timothy, this is the dumbest shit I have ever heard in my life. And normally I’m amused by these things. But it’s actually fascinating because it’s so perfectly stupid. All right, let’s just run it down. Your buddy tried this screenwriting thing a little while before quitting. But later you appeal to authority and say, well, you know, he must know what he’s talking about, he’s a screenwriter. No he’s not.
John: He knows what he’s talking about because he’s a failed screenwriter. So, yes.
Craig: No, he’s just some guy. Now, let’s analyze this. Let’s play the what-if-it-were-true game, because it is kind of fascinating. Let’s put aside the stupidity of the families and the secret password. Let’s just say that there is some way that you can automatically get a million dollars for a screenplay. How do you think business works? Because, see, the Hollywood I know, they will pinch pennies into powder. The last thing in the world they will ever do is give anyone a damn break with money. They’re brutal about it. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t occasional nepotism. There is. Maybe two people being roughly equal for the same job that actually has no real qualifications other than access, like internship or assistant, or PA, you know, starter positions.
But things like buying a screenplay, let me tell you something. If they grind us on every penny, I’m pretty sure they’re going to grind you, too. They’re not just going to go, oh shit, he put the word BALONEY in and he spelled it BOLOGNA, oh man, he knew the password. All right. Write a check. Brenda? Brenda, go get business affairs. Yeah, we got a bologna script. Yeah, no, he spelled it right. Yeah, a million. A million. Write it to, shit, Timothy McGherry. Who does he know? [laughs]
Now I want it to be true.
John: Yeah. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if it were true? The fascinating thing though is how do the studios decide who gets to write the check to Tim McGherry? I’m sorry, Tim, we know it’s not you. You were just asking the question.
Craig: It’s not you. No, you don’t know the password. And it’s not really bologna.
John: Who gets to write the McGherry check to buy the bologna script for a million dollars? You know what? I bet the all meet at the secret room. They meet at the secret room and they figure out who is going to pay the million dollars so that they can buy the script. And then make the — it makes sense. I don’t know why I was thinking — I was just thinking aloud.
Craig: Yeah, I’ll tell you the part that actually is a little concerning to me and now I’m starting to think that maybe this isn’t true. I know obviously it is true. Of course there’s a secret password worth a million dollars. But I can’t get over this one little problem, John. He says there’s a secret password and they are all trained to look for it. Password readers: contest judges and so on.
John: Oh, yeah, so why aren’t they using it?
Craig: Thank you. If they all know the password, why aren’t they using it and getting a million dollars? So my theory is that there are other families that are just essentially through time are part of a secret order, like the Knights Templar, and they are just sworn to live a life of penury. I mean, they are contest judges. They don’t get paid that much. But that’s their lot in life. They get it. They’re like, look, my point is to live in poverty and then if I read the password, someone else gets a million dollars. Yeah. I’m not sure how else it would work.
John: Yeah. I mean, like there’s essentially two classes of people. Like there’s the class of people who are just the reader types, sort of like the paroles, and then there’s an upper class that actually get to sell the scripts for a million dollars. But they’re sort of probably just like trading scripts among themselves for a million dollars each because they already have all the money.
John: I don’t know. I just sort of feel like this Reddit user — it’s not stated, but I think they think that the word is a Jewish word. I just feel like there’s some sort of secret thing about like these are the people who control all the purse strings. There’s something hidden back there.
Craig: Yeah. This thing is definitely a one-nut-hair away from being some sort of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. Yeah. Look, it would be nice if the world functioned this way. It would certainly explain failure, wouldn’t it? Because as Tim says his buddy mentioned why do some writers get paid over a million dollars and more for a screenplay while so many others struggle and have lousy day jobs.
One answer, far-fetched and absurd, is that it’s a very hard thing to do, even though it looks easy. And so very few people are worth a million dollars or more. And most people aren’t. And so must stay in their lousy day jobs. But I grant you that’s far-fetched. Far more likely that it’s just that a few people know the magic password. [laughs]
Craig: This was real.
John: It was real. I also feel like this Reddit user needs to meet our previous questioner, Mark, who like won all those awards and is wondering should I say that on my awards. Because like he should have gotten all the million dollars already and yet he’s not. So something about the system is broken.
Craig: Yeah. Like he’s been passed through. So the scribes of the Order of Scriptus say the password obviously in his material because they read it and they gave him an award for it.
Craig: So where’s the million dollars?
John: I don’t know. I think the million dollars is behind the gate in the library in Old Town. And so at some point you’ve got to pick the lock and get in there and get the secret book that has the password in it.
Craig: Right. Right. Well, that may be the missing piece of the puzzle here. It’s all sliding into place.
John: That’s what we try to do. We try to answer questions and really reveal the secret passwords behind the secrets of screenwriting.
Craig: Yeah. If you guys were listening to this in your car and you’re contemplating driving into an abutment, don’t. I understand the impulse. But don’t. Because this will pass. Don’t worry.
John: We have time for one more short question. So let’s do one short question. Alan from South Carolina writes in, “Not being in LA, would you advise getting an attorney that is closer to my location, or work with one that is in Los Angeles?”
Craig: I would recommend that you work with one that is in Los Angeles if you have access to one. All things being equal. The entertainment attorneys in Los Angeles have generally speaking far more experience handling the kinds of transactional agreements that we get into with studios, producers, executives, and so on. And they also almost certainly will have better relationships with agencies in terms of helping you maybe get an agent. Better relationships with the business affairs people.
You know, one thing that helps you negotiate a deal is knowing what other people like you have gotten for something similar. Well, they tend to know. And probably attorneys in South Carolina, simply by dint of not having as much exposure to our business, would not.
So, I would go with LA, all things being equal.
John: 100%. I think you want somebody who does this every day. And so you want an entertainment attorney. The entertainment attorneys you’re going to find are going to be in Los Angeles. Sometimes in New York, but really Los Angeles. That’s the one you want.
And don’t worry that you’re not sitting down face-to-face with this person. I almost never see my attorney. It’s all done by emails and phone calls. It’s absolutely fine. So, important to check references on an attorney, but it’s going to be fine. Pick an attorney who is in Los Angeles. You’re going to be much, much happier.
Craig: Agreed. And — and when you do find that person, give them the password.
John: Yeah, yeah, it’s crucial because otherwise they won’t be able to negotiate for the million dollars.
John: It’s time for our One Cool Things. So my One Cool Thing, actually have two, but my first one is a follow up One Cool Thing. So, Brent Warkentine writes, “I started listening to your podcast about a year ago. Love the info so much that I shot a PSA based on John’s One Cool Thing in Episode 267, How to Tell a Mother Her Child is Dead. Thank you for bringing this op-ed to our attention.
So, Brent sent in a link to this PSA he shot and it is terrific. And so if you remember the One Cool Thing, it’s this article that describes how an emergency room doctor prepares for telling a mother that her child has died. And this guy, Brent, he shot a PSA that’s all based around it. Sort of uses the words from it. And it’s so well done. So, congratulations, Brent. I think it’s a really great use of this idea and it ends up becoming a very effective gun violence message to send out there. So, really well done.
Craig: What kind of name do you think Warkentine is?
John: I don’t know. It sounds like it could be Middle Earthian?
Craig: Right. It’s possible that he is a Halfling.
Craig: Possible. I don’t know. There’s something vaguely Finnish about it to me. It’s probably not. Warkentine. That’s an interesting one.
John: You know who knows? Brent Warkentine knows where it comes from. So, Brent, write in and let us know where it comes from.
Craig: But please do include the password or it goes to spam.
John: It goes to spam. My second and new One Cool Thing is Mouth Time by Reductress. So, it’s a podcast that Craig will never listen to.
John: But if he did listen to it he would love it. And so the folks at Reductress, and Craig, do you read Reductress? It’s sort of like The Onion for women’s stories.
Craig: Like Jezebel meets The Onion?
Craig: Got it. No, I don’t.
John: So good. But now you will. It’s so well done. So two of the editors, Nicole Silverberg and Rachel Wenitsky, they play these characters Quenn and Dikoda and they are talking through their days and sort of the things going on in their lives and it is so pitch perfect and wonderful. And like when I say pitch perfect, it is vocally fried pitch perfect.
And so the characters that they create, they’re kind of like Romy and Michelle from Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion, but they’re just great. And I just started listening to the podcast. I think it’s fantastic. So I would strongly encourage people to check it out. It is called Mouth Time with Reductress.
Craig: Quenn is hysterical. That name is brilliant. Quenn. Well, my One Cool Thing is for those of you who like me are avowed fans of The Room games. We are up to The Room 3. I believe Room 4 has been announced and I’m super-duper excited for that. But you know you’ve got to wait, because those games, they take a while to make. And, you know, it’s just one of those deals where at this point I mark my life in terms of time between Room games, and Bethesda games.
By the way, you realize do you know when Skyrim came out, John? Do you remember?
Craig: Close. It was November 11, 2011. 11/11/11. It’s been freaking six years.
John: Yeah. And I’ve played the remastered version and it’s just still terrific.
Craig: It’s still so good. I can’t wait till they get going with Elder Scrolls 6. Anyway, while you’re waiting for The Room, there is, well, I don’t know how else to put it except there is a rip off. And generally speaking I’m not a huge fan of rip-offs. Rips-off? I’m not a huge fan of rips-off. But this is actually very well done. The knock on it is that is just straight up rip of The Room, down to the special lens that lets you see things. They add a couple of other little features, but it’s just Room-like in its sound, its design, its playability. The whole thing is just look at us, we’re The Room.
It’s called The House of Da Vinci. So, if you are a Room addict like me and you need a quick fix, something to bridge you over until you get to Room 4, you know what? House of Da Vinci, they’ve earned your four bucks. I hope they kick some of it back to I think it’s Fireproof games that makes The Room, because it really is just shameless. It’s just a shameless rip-off. But it’s very well done for shameless rip-offs.
John: Very nice. I shall check it out. That is our show for this week. So our show is produced by Carlton Mittagakus. 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 answered today. For short questions, I’m on Twitter @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. We are on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast.
You can find us on Apple Podcasts at Scriptnotes. And if you’re there, please leave us a rating or a review. That’s so lovely and it makes us happy when we read them. Craig doesn’t read them, but that’s fine.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That is also where you’ll find transcripts. We get them up about three, or four, or five days after the episode airs. If you read them really carefully, you can find the secret password buried in them. But you have to read through every transcript —
Craig: Every single one.
John: There’s some algorithms and like you have to print them out and draw things between them. And if you have string and pushpins that will help you triangulate what the secret password is.
Craig: And you’re going to try it, so don’t bother. It’s not UMBRAGE. Duh. We’re not stupid, OK? Otherwise we would be out of cash.
That said, there is a secret password buried in there. You get a million bucks. Your movie gets made. You know, just like the way John and I did. That’s how we got started.
John: You know, that system that was doing all the sort of deep machine learning on scripts, like the one that we sort of savagely tore apart and Franklin ended up taking down off the Black List. I bet that one I’m sure figured out the secret password and that’s how they got their VC money.
Craig: Oh god. It’s all making sense. It’s all making sense. Yeah.
John: Yeah. You can find that episode and all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. It is $1.99 a month. We also have a few more of the USB drives. They’re at store.johnaugust.com.
Craig: How much do I get from that?
John: You get nothing. Craig gets nothing from the John August Store. Not a bit.
Craig: That’s interesting.
John: Not a bit.
Craig: Well. Hmm.
John: But, he got a million dollars because he knew the password, so it all worked out.
John: Boom! See you next week.
- ‘Chernobyl’ Miniseries Set By HBO & Sky
- Carolyn Strauss on Scriptnotes, 127
- Big Fish The Musical starring Kelsey Grammer is on its way to London
- Scriptnotes, 310: What’s in the WGA Deal
- Scriptnotes, 309: Logic and Gimmickry
- A Reddit user asks: Is there a secret password for success?
- Every Three Hours on YouTube
- Mouth Time with Reductress on iTunes
- The House of Da Vinci
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
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- Outro by Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)
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