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 313 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, are you at all afraid of the number 13?
Craig: No, not even in the slightest. No Triskaidekaphobia for me.
John: Not even a tiny little percentage of it for me. And I was thinking about this. I don’t have very many superstitious quirks really at all. The only thing I think I do on a regular basis is if I’m driving and I go underneath a red light or an orange light that’s about to turn red, I will scratch the roof of the car. And that’s a thing I started doing in college. And it’s a little OCD, but it’s also just kind of comforting to me. Do you have any of those?
Craig: No. I have drummed them all out of my life because they’re stupid. Every now and then what I will do is I’ll create momentary tests of fate. So, for instance, if there’s something where it’s going to be close, but I feel like I can do it, like for instance, oh, I let — like the door to my office is on a hinge, a springe hinge, right? So, it’s going to close. I open it and it’s closing behind me and then I think, oh, I forgot something in there. I turn around and then very quickly in my mind I think if I can get to the door before it closes then everything is going to go great today. And then I do it.
John: It’s the Raiders of the Lost Ark sort of escape from underneath the — yes.
Craig: But it’s an absurd thing to do.
John: Yeah. I do notice that even among our friends when we’re playing D&D, there are certain ones of us who will like, OK, that dice is no longer lucky, so we’re going to swap out which die were rolling for 20-sider. Which is, of course, crazy.
Craig: Well, it’s not entirely crazy inasmuch as the dice that we’re using, we have lots of them, and they’re old. And in time a die can go out of true. And then — so you might think, well, there’s some — but we aren’t rolling those dice anywhere near enough times to make that determination. So, you’re right, essentially it is irrational. But also part and parcel of D&D. I feel like when you’re playing D&D you are accepting that you are in an irrational world with magic and stuff, so you might as well just, you know, extend that and keep it going.
John: Absolutely. Bring the fantasy into the real world.
John: Correct. Today on the show, we’ll be trying out a new segment where we look at four films from the past and discuss how we could make them today. Plus, Craig, we have more listener questions.
Craig: Well, I’m excited to do all of those things.
John: Hooray. But I know you’re especially excited about a future episode in which we’re going to be talking about Unforgiven. This was your idea. And so I want to warn listeners in advance that Unforgiven is coming, so if you have a chance to see the film or read the screenplay, or do both, this would be a good week to do it. Craig, what do you want to set up for our listeners about Unforgiven?
Craig: Unforgiven is coming and we’ve all got it coming, kid. So, this is our — what are we up to now? Our fourth deep dive? Four? We don’t do these very often, but Unforgiven is a fantastic, brilliant, brilliant script by David Webb Peoples. The movie was directed by Clint Eastwood, of course. Starring Clint Eastwood. And Gene Hackman. And Morgan Freeman.
And it is a wonderful movie to dissect in my opinion as a screenwriter to talk about the choices that were made all throughout. It is one of the best examples of a thematically cohesive film. Richard Harris also in the movie. And it is beautifully structured without feeling too short or too long. It has pretty much everything that I would ever hope for and it does it within a genre. And so it is one of the most literate — it’s certainly the most literate Western I think that has ever been made. And a gorgeous movie to dissect.
So, if you have not seen Unforgiven, or it’s been a while, of course it is available to you on all the normal avenues. And I suggest you take a look, because next week we’re going to be going in.
John: So if you’re looking for a screenplay to read, I’ve been doing some cursory Googling and there are quite a few Unforgivens floating out there. They all seem to be about the same. So, I wouldn’t worry too much about which draft you’re reading or sort of what’s in it. If somebody has a link to what they think is the definitive Unforgiven, send it in to email@example.com. We’ll try to link to that in the show notes for next week’s episode.
What’s interesting as I was sort of Googling things is that more recent movies, because it becomes so commonplace for the Academy nominated films to send out their screenplays as PDFs, it’s a much more acceptable — like this is the definitive draft for people to read of the movie. Back in that day, it wasn’t the same way. So, there can be many different versions floating out there. But they all seem to be hitting the same scenes. They’re a pretty good representation of what people’s intention was as they were set to make this movie.
The legend of Unforgiven is that it was a — they shot a white script. Basically that Clint Eastwood took the script and filmed it. There was no rewriting. There was no changes of the script before they shot it. We’ll try to investigate that, too, to see whether there were any things that did change over the course of production.
Craig: Yeah. I’ve read — first of all, if you’re looking for scripts, avoid the transcripts. All that is is just somebody writing down what they hear on screen. But there are a bunch. I did see one that was — it said Shooting Draft. And it did seem like there may have been a few revisions, although I didn’t really see much in the way of asterisks. The movie is remarkably faithful to the script. There are few places here and there where there is a touch of wandering. It is typically when Clint Eastwood’s character of William Money is talking. He occasionally made slight adjustments. But they are very slight.
And in one case I thought a brilliant two-word adjustment that I just loved. But by and large, they shot it. They shot it just as it was written. And, oh no, I don’t want to upset anyone but, boy, he puts a lot of camera direction in his script, David Webb Peoples. I know we’re not supposed to do that, but, um, oh dear. Oh dear. Where are my pearls? I must clutch something.
John: So, that is coming in an upcoming episode, but also coming soon is the Austin Film Festival. So at the end of October, this October 26 through 29, Craig and I will be in Austin, Texas for the umpteenth annual Austin Film Festival. We’re there every year. There’s always a live Scriptnotes. There is one this year. It’ll be a nighttime thing. I think it’s the Friday night that we’re doing the Scriptnotes.
John: There will be a party afterwards, so you should go to both of those things. There’s going to be a live Three Page Challenge, like there have been on previous seasons. So, what we usually do is there’s going to be a special webpage you’re going to go to submit saying like this is for the live Three Page Challenge at Austin, because we only want to have entries there for people who are going to be in the room with us. And so we can bring you up on stage to talk about what we read and what your intention was.
It’s a really cool exercise for us to be able to see like, OK, we just read this thing, but what did you actually mean. So often when we do the Three Page Challenge, we’re just sort of talking into the void. And to talk to the writer, that’s very exciting. So, next week or the week after there will be a special link for how you submit to the Three Page Challenge live at Austin.
Craig: Well, that’s going to be fun. It is our umpteenth. Always a good time. And this live show, it’s sort of a continuation of what we did last year, which was a bit of a departure, but it worked out pretty well. The general theory is we do it later in the evening, on Friday, when everyone is drunk. Everyone. And just creates a much better show as it turns out. It’s just much more fun and freewheeling. And we answer your questions. Don’t show up like — don’t be actually drunk. Don’t be actual drunk.
What I mean to say we’re all screenwriter drunk, which means we’ve all had a little more than 1.5 drinks. That’s what screenwriter drunk is.
John: All right. So you’re not required to drink for the live show.
Craig: No. God no.
John: So please don’t take that as an invitation to binge-drinking.
Craig: No barfing at our show.
John: Absolutely none. None of that.
Craig: We just can’t handle that.
John: One of my I would say frustrations of the live show we just did in Beverly Hills was that we did not have alcohol at that event, and the show was lovely, but I felt like a cocktail beforehand would have been just great.
Craig: Well I somehow got myself a glass of wine out of it.
John: There were two bottles of wine in the green room, so I did have like a glass of wine there. But I felt like the audience, there’s just a party vibe when everyone has access to alcohol.
Craig: Yeah. I agree. I agree. Look, we’ve been really clear about this. And I think it should be our rider, like our backstage rider. Everybody who shows up with the exception of people who are on a program has to have had 1.5 drinks.
John: Well, I think there’s more exceptions there. I think the people who are under 21 should not have had drinks. Just the liability there, Craig, it’s a lot.
Craig: All right. Fine. And the dangerously old shouldn’t drink either. Yeah.
John: There’s a lot.
Craig: There’s a lot.
John: It’s a good thing that there’s somebody here looking out for us on a legal liability basis, because there’s so much money to lose here.
Craig: Right. I mean, they could literally get our nones of dollars.
John: Yeah. All our t-shirt money.
Craig: Aw, t-shirt money.
John: Good stuff. And people have been asking will there be new t-shirts. There will eventually be new t-shirts. I think before Christmas there will be new t-shirts because you have to look good.
One of the joys of coming back to Los Angeles is that I will just walk around and I will see people wearing a Scriptnotes t-shirt and it makes me very happy.
Craig: It’s crazy. I see them all the time. It’s crazy.
John: But lovely. So, thank you for wearing your t-shirts with pride.
Craig: Can you imagine what it’s like to have had partnership in a business that creates a product and you see the product everywhere and you’ve never received a dime. Do you have any concept, John, of what that’s like?
John: I think it would be like having done a lot of work rewriting a film and then not having your name on it, and therefore not receiving any residuals. And I would know what that’s like.
Craig: Or doing a whole lot of work on a movie and then getting your name on it and another person’s name is on it and they didn’t do much at all.
John: Yeah. There’s that, too.
Craig: That’s the guy to be.
John: All right. This is a new segment. So, you know, 313 episodes in, we keep trying new things. This segment was suggested by Annie Hayes who actually helped us out at an Austin Film Festival a couple years ago. And she was awesome. And so she came up with this idea for a segment and I think it’s a really good idea. So we’ll see.
She’s calling this Modernize This, which is the sense of how do you take an old movie and make it new. Or sort of take the idea for an old movie and how would you do that movie today. So, we’re not talking about remakes or sequels. So we’re not talking about Robocop or Ghostbusters or Escape from LA. But like how do you take an old movie and make a movie that does the same kind of things today? What would change and what would be the challenges and the opportunities of making that kind of movie today?
And I was thinking about this, I was flying back on a plane from Ohio and I watched the movie You Get Me, which was a Netflix original movie. And I dug it. I genuinely dug it. It is a teen thriller. It’s basically a teen fatal attraction. And it was gorgeously shot. I liked it.
I landed in Los Angeles and like turned off airplane mode and Googled, pulled up Rotten Tomatoes, and it was not well-reviewed. And I was frustrated by that because it felt like, you know what, maybe it’s just not possible to make a teen fatal attraction now that’s going to get good reviews, but I still dug the movie.
Craig: Hmm. It’s weird that you liked something but the critics didn’t. I think you should just stop liking it now, John.
John: I should probably stop liking it now. I should question my basic assumptions of what is good and what is wrong.
Craig: You’ve been told.
John: But quite often when you and I are in meetings, it will come up like, ìOh, we want to do something that’s like this.î Or we want this dynamic to be like it is in that movie. And so I thought let’s take a look at some of those movies that are always cited and how would you make that kind of movie today.
Craig: Well, let’s do it.
John: All right. Let’s start with the one I think that comes up more often than any other movie which is for me Romancing the Stone. So Romancing the Stone from 1984. It was written by Diane Thomas, directed by Robert Zemeckis. If you haven’t seen it, just see that. See that along with Unforgiven this week, because it’s just great.
So the basic plot is Kathleen Turner plays a romance novelist. She heads off to Colombia because her sister has been kidnapped and she finds herself in this relationship with Michael Douglas who is kind of an Indiana Jones-y kind of adventurer, but he’s a scamp. He’s not a good guy, he’s not a bad guy, but like their relationship becomes the focus of the adventure of the story. And so often when I get something to — sent something to rewrite, they’re looking at the central dynamic between the man and the woman and they’ll say like, ìOh, like Romancing the Stone.î You’ve probably gotten a note like that, too.
Craig: Yeah. For sure. So it’s a great shorthand for a woman who is not looking for love and does not like this rascally man. And a man who is an uncompromising gruff guy. Are thrown together in buddy cop style, essentially. I don’t like you and you don’t like me. And then they fall in love.
John: Yep. Guardians of the Galaxy uses this trope between the two mains, between Zoe Saldana’s character and Chris Pratt’s character. That is the central kind of dynamic. She comes in much tougher than the Kathleen Turner character comes in. But it’s that same kind of thing, where they hate each other, they’re fighting, but ultimately they are going to fall in love. You just know that it’s going to have to happen.
Craig: Yeah. It’s interesting. We simply cannot abide relationships where women and men don’t like each other. And then it’s only because they really just want to sleep together. You know, sometimes women and men do not like each other. Did you know that? [laughs]
John: It does happen.
John: Weirdly, a movie I was working on last year, there was the suggestion like, oh, could we change this friend character to a woman. And I said yes you can, and we can totally do that. I just want to make it clear to everybody that the audience will expect there to be a relationship between these two characters. And I can’t fix that. There’s going to be a basic assumption that if that character is a woman, given what that character has to do, there’s going to be an assumption that their sparring and their bickering is going to turn into romance.
So like I would have to rewrite that whole character. I can’t just simply change the gender because of the expectations of society.
Craig: Yeah. I think that’s basically right. When we see men and women bickering and arguing we just presume it’s foreplay. It’s just elaborate foreplay. And maybe that’s part of the key to reimagining and modernizing something like Romancing the Stone. So many of the examples that we’re going to be dealing with, the problem that exists now with modernizing them is that they existed in the first place.
Craig: So they led to a lot of knock-offs. A lot of lesser-thans. And a lot of versions, not just of the plot, but the character dynamic as you’re describing has leaked into all sorts of movies across all sorts of genres. So maybe one way to reconsider Romancing the Stone is to come up with a relationship between a man and a woman that is not romantic at all, and never will be. Let’s just get rid of that. Let’s make it about earning respect or understanding another person, walking in their shoes. There are other ways to perfect a relationship which is, I guess when you get down to it, what movies are about. Two people perfecting a relationship.
John: So let’s look at ways you could stick a man and a woman together on screen and not have the expectation of romance. Well, if you establish from the beginning that they are brother and sister, then you take the sting of that off. So they’re an estranged brother and sister who have to come together to do this thing. We’re not going to expect them to hook up at the end unless it’s Game of Thrones.
If there’s such a disparity between the two characters that we don’t see them ever — doesn’t seem plausible that they would hook up romantically, like there’s an age difference. That they’re just vastly different types. You can sometimes do that. I mean, there’s still going to be — it’s going to be ageist. It’s going to be sort of body-shapeist, but there is — it breaks that expectation that that natural thing is going to happen.
Craig: You can get that dynamic even if you don’t push things too far in kind of an obvious direction. Even if you have a very good-looking 60-year-old man and a very good-looking 25-year-old woman, if the dynamic from the jump is parental and it’s about getting the lessons from this person before they die, or whatever it is, I mean, there are ways to push relationship into father-daughter in a way where you would never think, oh, oh now I don’t want them. That wouldn’t feel right. This feels so much more father-daughter or mother-son to me that I don’t want.
I mean, ultimately that’s the key. Your job is to just take away the emotional desire from the audience to have them get together. And by the way, one of them could be gay if they’re opposite sex and then you’ve solved that problem immediately.
John: You have solved the problem but I think there’s always going to be that question of like, oh, but is this going to be the exception? Is the going to be the she’s a lesbian who is going to crossover for this one guy, or vice versa? There could be something there. I think it’s — I definitely hear that instinct, but I do just wonder if some part of me is going to think like, oh, but I really wanted them to get together.
I remember when My Best Friend’s Wedding came out. There was a huge contingent of people like, oh no, she should have ended up with her best friend. But he was gay. It’s like, oh, but they were delightful together. There’s always going to be that sense of like the people who want Will and Grace to get married.
Craig: [laughs] Well, yes. But I think that that — I think we live in a different time now. I think in particular if Kathleen Turner shows up and meets grumpy Michael Douglas and he’s rugged and tough and they’re quarreling and he’s gay, then once we have that revelation what we are now looking for is, OK, what is the new perfected state of this relationship? That’s the most important thing. You’ve got to substitute something. You can’t just take it away. There has to be something else. So that partly is a trick. I think of modernizing something like Romancing the Stone from the character point of view, because I agree with you, I just think that the romance of Romancing the Stone has been done too many times.
John: So, but I would say like let’s put a pin in sort of killing the romance and let’s look at sort of fundamentally the DNA is like this sparring couple ultimately does fall in love. So is there a way to sort of do Romancing the Stone that doesn’t fall into exactly the same traps? One of the easy and obvious things to try to do is to basically flop the genders, so that he is the romance novelist come down and she is the bad ass. She is the Lara Croft that is ultimately getting in here. And they despise each other for different reasons. It’s a little harder to imagine. Weirdly, I can picture the Lara Croft character more easily. Imagining that novelist coming in, I think it’s a different character coming in. I think he’s coming in with different sets of expectations and different biases.
But I think there’s a version of it that could work. And maybe you’re not going to the jungle. You’re going to some place more exotic, some place farther out. Make them culturally more different so that there’s wider space for them to travel to get together.
Craig: Yeah, I think that that would be interesting. And I think you’re right. We would need to send them farther flung than — further flung? Further flung?
John: It’s a distance. It’s both a distance and a journey, so it could either.
Craig: There you go. They need to be sent somewhere even more remote than they were — because, look, Romancing the Stone in and of itself was borrowing from Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was basically saying what if you did romantic Raiders of the Lost Ark. And we’ve seen a lot of those movies, too. And so you need to go somewhere stranger. I actually think a real cultural difference would be nice. I mean, in Romancing the Stone we’re in this remote jungle in Colombia and it’s just two white people. And the villain is a white guy. And so it’s just white people running around in Colombia. And I think that there is an interesting story to tell where you’re dealing with people who are native to their country, indigenous people, really deep into parts of the world that are maybe not quite as modern and yet are probably far more modern than we realize here where we live. And playing around with culture I think could be really interesting.
John: Agreed. All right, let’s move on to our next movie. This is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Again, this is all from the ’80s. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off if you haven’t seen it, again, add it to your list. It’s really remarkable. Written and directed by John Hughes. It tells the story of Ferris Bueller who takes a day off from school and the adventures he has over the course of that day. It’s a classic sort of breaking the patterns of normal reality and just having the lark, having the adventure.
So, I guess there’s a couple ways to approach this. First off, how possible is it to make a movie that stars essentially a 16, 17-year-old protagonist that can break out past sort of a teen audience? And weirdly I feel like teens aren’t going to see movies with teenagers anymore, too. But how do you make this kind of movie with this kind of protagonist open up and become a broadly accepted movie?
Craig: I don’t know how you can do this because it was singular. I mean, it was a singular piece of work. It was one man’s vision from top to bottom. It was done perfectly. And it was not particularly — I mean people think of it as being very ’80s because John Hughes was a master at the accoutrement of teen life in the ’80s, but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came out in 1986. Ferris Bueller was 16 years old in the movie. And I was 15 years old watching it. And I did not recognize that world at all.
Craig: It looked nothing at all like my world. I didn’t talk like that. I didn’t dress like that. Nobody in my school looked like that. And yet it felt real.
John: How a movie can be both feel true but also be kind of aspirational at the same time. No kid was actually kind of like that. And yet it captured the feeling of what suburban Chicago would feel like. Everyone speaks in a much more sophisticated way than they actually would in real life, which is sort of a movie convention. But the way that Ferris is able to address us directly to camera. It is a very singular unique voice. So I don’t think we can duplicate that exactly.
But I wonder in the DNA of that, the sense of like you know what, maybe just don’t go to work today. I think that is an idea that you could do today and actually make something really special out of. Like you know it doesn’t even have to be a teenage protagonist, but just like the person who is supposed to go into work and doesn’t take the exit ramp and just has the wild day. That feels like a movie that’s evergreen.
Craig: Yeah. I think so, but there’s something about it being a kid. You know, adults can take days off. Kids, you know, they’re prisoners in a sense. I would — the one thing about John Hughes was that he was a master at articulating a vision of upper class white Illinois America, teen America, always Illinois. So it was Midwest.
It would be interesting to go to a filmmaker now and say this is the basic premise. You have somebody who is smarter than everybody around them, who is popular for reasons we can barely even fathom, he can barely even fathom. He gets away with everything. He is going to rig himself the best day ever and he’s going to get away with it. And his friend is going to have to deal with the ramifications. But they’re black and it’s also Chicago but it’s South Side. Now, give us — and by the way, put it in the ’80s also. Don’t take it out of the ’80s and give us the other version of this. There’s a whole other world. And sometimes the most fascinating thing is when you’re not going across the globe and saying well what was it like for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in Yemen. No, what was it like for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off literally 45 minutes south of where Ferris Bueller’s Day Off happened?
But still it’s funny. Don’t fall into the trap of like it all ends in gunfire and gang violence. Make it funny. Make it amazing. You know, but build it around that character. I think could be a really interesting — I mean, they could even pass each other.
John: That’s what I was thinking. It would be fascinating if during the parade or something, during Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or like the car, you focus on the valets who took the car at one point. It’s the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah. I think there’s something — that’s what I would do. Somebody is going to do that right? I feel like somebody is going to just do what we just said.
Craig: And you know what, again, I don’t think we’re going to get any money, unless you’ve been getting money. [laughs]
John: You’ll never know. There’s no auditing of the show. Let’s go on to our next ’80s classic. This is Rain Man. So this is a story by Barrow Morrow, screenplay by Morrow and Ron Bass. Directed by Barry Levinson. So, again, if you haven’t seen it you need to see Rain Man. Tom Cruise plays a guy who has inherited a fortune but he’s also inherited his autistic brother played by Dustin Hoffman. And it is a cross-country trip because his brother will not fly.
Craig, how do you do a story like Rain Man today? Can you?
Craig: Um…I don’t think so.
John: So, what is the obstacles of making Rain Man today?
Craig: Well, when Rain Man came out it autism was still quite exotic. And it was only after really starting in the, I guess, late ’90s/early 2000s that diagnoses of spectrum disorder started to explode. And autism became kind of a national conversation. Our understanding of what autism was expanded from — even, you know, look, even Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal was a very kind of narrow slice of — I mean, profoundly autistic weren’t talking at all. But it expanded way beyond that to people that we deal with all the time in our lives and who are quite functional and move around and do in fact fly and probably are pilots. But I think probably the autism part just doesn’t feel right anymore.
The question of a brother having to finally become a brother to a brother who is somehow disadvantaged, disabled, is interesting. I think you could do a Rain Man today with a brother who has schizophrenia. I think that’s a very unexplored topic. And a very tragic one. That’s probably the direction I would go.
John: Yeah. There’s a smaller Sundance-y version of the story that is two brothers taking a trip across the country and one of them has a profound situation that impacts his ability to process the outside the world. And the other brother is just an asshole who has to become less of an asshole over the course of the trip.
I think if you’re trying to make the big studio version of this, you have to have the big studio version of this that can plug two giant actors in to those roles at the time. I think Rain Man wouldn’t be Rain Man if it weren’t for those giant stars in those parts. And so finding who those people would be is really crucial and planning for these are going to be sort of big showcase marquee roles to do it.
So, I think it’s possible. It’s not easy. And it also feels like the kind of movie, we’ve talked about this on the podcast before, where a studio will make one of these movies a year. Basically we’re going to make this movie and try to get an Oscar for it. But we’re not going to try to make this movie if we don’t think this there’s going to be an Oscar looming for us.
Craig: Yeah. These were made all the time back in the day. They are rarely made now. Oftentimes when we see movies like this from a studio it’s because they’re distributing it. But some other entity made it. And I agree with you it has to be star-driven. It’s practically the definition of a star-driven movie. But it is doable.
John: My hunch is that this kind of movie would be based on a book today. So there would be a book that they bought that was a bestseller that was beloved and sort of as the book was taking off and attracting a lot of attention people were already sort of plugging in who those stars were going to be. That to me feels like the kind of way you’d make this movie today. I don’t think you’d make this movie without a book behind it.
Craig: Yeah. I just agree. I agree. Well, although you know, look, if you wrote a great spec. If you wrote a great spec about a brother, or make it sisters, because we don’t see sisters very often in this capacity where one has to care for the other. I mean, we have but not frequently enough I don’t think.
Look, I don’t know how else to put it without sounding callous and exploitive. When we portray heartbreaking conditions, mental conditions or physical conditions on screen, we do it in part because of a certain exotic nature of them. And I know the word exotic makes people’s hair stand up because it sounds like we’re, I don’t know, making people into freaks. We’re not. It’s just a question of interest. I mean, it’s just simple interest. What interests us? What fascinates us? I mean, the movie Mask, which is a beautiful movie — not the Jim Carey one, but the Eric Stoltz/Cher one — that is about a very exotic condition. And it fascinates us. The Elephant Man fascinated us.
Well, the Elephant Man’s condition ultimately wasn’t as fatal as someone’s glioblastoma, which doesn’t fascinate us because it’s not physical. It doesn’t have these huge — you know what I mean? So it’s about exploring something and in a way educating. The truth is Rain Man actually did a lot of good, I think.
John: Yeah. Agreed. I think it took conditions which had always been like not discussed and sort of put them out in the open. And while we didn’t have the best words for discussing them then, I feel like it allowed a conversation to begin. So that can be a good thing.
I agree with you that like swapping in a woman for the Charlie character could be useful. I can envision a Sandra Bullock/Oscar Isaac story that is this kind of thing. Or she may be too inherently likeable. But some A-list actress opposite an Oscar Isaac who would be magnificent in playing whatever condition or situation you want to put the other character in. There’s some version of that that could work.
Craig: I like that Oscar Isaac is listening to this and he goes, so, anything? Really? Any disease you can think of? Any condition, you just think of me?
John: I think Oscar Isaac is one of those unique actors who is just so good that like, oh yeah, you know what, he could totally do that. He could pull that off.
Craig: Oscar Isaac is so good. He’s so good. It’s actually exciting to see that actors are still good. That’s a weird thing to say, because we’ve lost so many movie stars, per se, you know, the star system has gone away. And when we grow up we think of Hollywood always in nostalgic terms about the great actors of old. And then we compare them to what we have now and every generation it always feels silly. Like, oh, well they had, you know, Cary Grant and we have Arnold Schwarzenegger. Well, now Arnold Schwarzenegger is the actor, you know, and then we look, but we have — the actors just continue to renew.
Craig: They really do. I think more than great directors and more than great writers. I think there are probably more great directors, more great writers back then because there were more movies being made. But great actors, they just keep coming. It’s exciting.
John: Yeah. Easy to write roles for them.
All right, our final one to talk through is Coming to America which is a 1988 film. Story by Eddie Murphy. Screenplay by David Sheffield and Barry Blaustein. Yes, I know there’s controversy over the origins of Coming to America, but it was directed by John Landis. So it tells a story of this very spoiled African prince who comes to New York and has to learn sort of the common ways of America.
How do you get into a story like Coming to America today? So it doesn’t have to be a prince. It doesn’t have to even necessarily be Coming to America. But that central idea of a pampered person coming to a place and having to learn it from the ground up. What does that story feel like today?
Craig: It’s tough because what’s happened since 1988 is all of the very, very wealthy powerful people in places that are so different enough from America that the journey and arrival would be exciting have already been to America. They all come to America. They come to London. They buy large amounts of land and property in these places. So, it was a bit novel to imagine a very small perhaps Central African nation which had a son who had not been exposed at all to America, but I don’t know where I would go to find that person now.
You know, the truth is Coming to America does not age particularly well. There is, you know, at the heart of it a very clichéd story.
John: And I think you really need to look at for what are the tropes you’re going to be following into if you’re not very careful. So, in terms of a culture coming from money coming to America, you talk about sort of vast wealth from overseas coming here and buying stuff up. There’s a version of this where you have somebody who is incredibly wealthy from the Middle East or somewhere who comes to America and for whatever reason does not have access to his money and has to sort of see America from the ground up.
And there is something — there could be something delightful and charming about how those outside eyes can see what we are like and also be able to see how a Midwesterner perceives a person from the Middle East. Like there could be a story that is actually — I can imagine a story that’s good about that. I can also imagine so many pitfalls in sort of how you’re doing that.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t know if this one is worth it. You know, we really should just run a studio.
John: Done. I mean, if anybody wants to throw us some VC money and just build us a studio that would be great. Because we have a friend who apparently just came into a lot of money to make movies, so maybe those same people who have given him some money could give us some money.
Craig: So, what I think though, John, is that we should get an actual studio. I mean, one of the studios.
John: Oh yeah, like Paramount.
Craig: They give these studios, ultimately, they have to give them to someone to run. Have to, right? And if you have one of those studios that’s maybe struggling, why wouldn’t they just give it to us?
John: That’s a valid question to ask.
Craig: We’re really good at this. We’ve written a lot of hit movies. We know that. You know? And we know people.
John: We have good relationships with a lot of writers. And we only have bad relationships with a few writers. And, you know what? Screw them. We don’t need them.
Craig: They’re not going to work there.
Craig: It’s just as simple as that.
John: Our blacklist is very, very short. But, I mean, we get along with a lot of directors. And the few that we don’t get along with, oh well. That’s OK.
Craig: Right. You can’t get along with everybody.
John: No. That’s not possible.
Craig: But generally speaking we know lots of people, lots of producers. And we have a good eye for material. And I feel like we would do a really good job.
John: Yeah. I think it would be challenging to be a development exec working for us.
Craig: Well, yes. And we would have to really just get the best. But you don’t need that many. See, that’s the other thing.
John: You don’t.
Craig: Let’s say you’re making five movies a year. How many? I mean, honestly do you even need any? I mean, if we found two that we loved, you know, because the truth is we wouldn’t be developing a lot of stuff we didn’t want to make.
John: Yeah. That’s classically what everybody says as they come into this job. It’s like, ìI only want to spend the money on the things I’m going to make. Or I only want to make the hits.î That’s the other thing they say a lot.
Craig: Only make the hits. Only make the hits.
John: That’s a great business plan is to only make the hits.
So, I don’t know that we made any hits today, but I kind of enjoyed that segment. So, again, in all these things we’re talking about, we’re not really describing like let’s take the original IP and make a remake it. So let’s not make a new Coming to America. But how do you make that kind of movie I think is a valid thing? And if we do this again, I really want to get into the sex thrillers that used to exist in the ’80s because they were great. And we just don’t make them anymore.
Craig: No. The Erotic Thriller. Yeah, the age of the erotic thriller.
John: I want a Jagged Edge. We don’t make a Jagged Edge anymore.
Craig: We just don’t. I think that somewhere a borderline producer is frantically trying to find a writer to do our Chicago South Side Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
John: Yep. That’s a situation where you would have to have some control over the original rights to do that, I think.
Craig: If you wanted to do the overlap, certainly. No question about that.
John: Cool. Let’s get to some questions. First off we have a question from Jacob. Let’s take a listen.
Jacob: I’m a 22-year-old film student from Phoenix, Arizona. My question is about making the most of opportunities in the industry. I was lucky enough to snag two unpaid development internships in LA this fall. I really don’t want these months to fly by and have nothing come out of it. Both said job opportunities are possible afterwards, but of course no guarantee. I would just love any tips on what I could be doing during these internships to really stand out and be remembered. How could I ensure that the time spent with these companies will truly be fruitful and worthwhile?
Craig: That’s a great question.
John: That’s a great question. We have great listeners.
Craig: We do.
John: I remember being in exactly Jacob’s situation. I was 22 when I had my first internships here. And so I was reading for a company called Prelude Pictures which had a deal over at Paramount. And I think I did basically the right things. I asked sort of what they needed me to do. And that was to write some coverage. I asked for samples, like can you show me some good coverage, like coverage you really like? And I tried to do the best job I could on the coverage to give them the coverage that they would like.
What I always did as I turned in coverage, like I tried to see if they actually were reading it and if they could give me some feedback on what I was doing. And you should never feel needy but at the same time if it’s an unpaid internship, which I think has to have some college component at this point. I think studios are very wary about unpaid internships in general, but like make sure you’re getting something out of it and making sure that you get sort of what the company is trying to do and how you can be helpful.
Craig: Yeah. Some practical tips for you Jacob. Show up a little bit early every time. Leave at the very end. When you are asked to do something, do it and deliver it before you’re supposed to deliver it. Essentially, every step of the way exceed expectations. Every single step of the way. Exceed expectations. If they give you four tasks to do, and they say you have all week to do it, do it in two days and do it great. Do it great.
Forget about everything else. Forget about everything else. Just be a killer. And do a really good job.
It’s sad, but you’d think that everybody would kind of get the message here, that exceeding expectations is how you get noticed. They don’t. Good news, Jacob. That means you’ll be special. So, you just have to go above and beyond. In addition to that, be pleasant. Be humble. Listen. Ask people if they are ever willing to sit down with you at lunch and you can just ask them questions about themselves and how they got where they got and get advice from them. They love that. And they love people who ask.
So, in general, you will be this very lovely, very intellectually curious person who is a hard worker, who is always there, who does more than he’s asked to do and does it very, very well. That will get you noticed. And in the end that’s how you take advantage of these things. By getting noticed and becoming somebody that they would miss if you weren’t there. That’s how you get the job.
John: Completely agree. And what you might be looking for down the road after this internship when they say there could be job opportunities, what it really means is you might be an assistant. You might get a job answering phones and doing that kind of coverage for pay. And that is probably a good thing. So try to get to that point.
What Craig says about like see if you can sit down for lunch with people, like don’t go right ahead to the producer or whoever is running the company. Like have lunch with the assistants. Get to know them. Get to find out how their job works and so they will tell you about tracking boards and all the other stuff. Just learn. Just learn how all that works. Figure out how you could be a good assistant because one day that assistant is going to call in sick and they’ll say like, ìHey Jacob could you take over the phones for a few hours.î And you say, ìYes, sure, I can do that.î And you can prove like, you know what, you’re a competent person that they can trust.
On that last topic of trust, don’t talk about the stuff that you’re doing. Don’t talk about the internal stuff that you’re finding out there with strangers. Just make sure that they feel like they can trust you to not spill the beans on everything that’s happening in the company.
Craig: Yeah. One last bit of advice. At every workplace there is somebody who will resent anyone who does well. That is a person who has given up. Or who is scared of their own mediocrity. And it will be tempting to find yourself in conflict with that person or to let them get in your head. Don’t. Don’t.
Craig: They’ll be there. You’re going to get a job there after your not-paid-job. You’ll get a job. You’ll work your job, you’ll get promoted. You’ll get a better job. Then you’ll leave and then you’ll move on. And ten years later you’ll be doing something else, hopefully wonderful. They will still be there.
John: Yeah. Lastly, I would say there’s a time limit on these kind of internships. And if you’re doing this for more than three months, maybe you need to move on. Especially if you’re doing two different ones. At least pick the better of the two and maybe continue that one on a little longer, look for a different thing. Because you’re not there to be just free labor and hanging out. So, it should be a growth experience for you, too. And when you’ve stopped growing, move on.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, that’s the idea. Is that you get to that place where you say, OK, I should be paid at this point. And then you say to them, listen, I am going to have to move on if there isn’t a paid job here. Make sure that you have somewhere to move on to. And that will make them very scared. And that’s how you know, by the way. If they say, ìOh, well we’ve loved having you. Good luck,î well, then you didn’t really stand out.
John: Or there really wasn’t a job for you.
Craig: Or there really wasn’t a job. Exactly. But if there was, and they let you go, then OK, that’s information. And if there is a job and they get nervous and say, ìWait, wait, wait, we don’t want you to go,î then you know you’ve done it.
John: Yep. Last thing I will say is the topic of unpaid internships naturally brings up the question like well who can afford to have an unpaid internship? And I think there is a basic question of fairness at work. The people who can afford to have an unpaid internship have money from some other place. And so we can’t sort of dig into this now, but I just want to acknowledge that part of the reason why I’m down on unpaid internships is because they fundamentally favor people who could afford to take an unpaid internship.
Craig: It’s true. I never did one because I couldn’t afford it. The first internship I had was through the Television Academy and there was a stipend. That was the only way I was able to do it. They paid money. I mean, it wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough to live. Yeah, I’m with you. I think everybody should get paid.
To the companies that have these unpaid internships, please don’t tell me you can’t afford to pay minimum wage. You can. Come on.
John: Yeah. So if it really is a deal that you’re cutting with the university, I get it. There could be reasons why it’s all an educational thing. But I agree with you. You can pay minimum wage. Pay minimum wage.
Craig: Yeah. Come on.
John: All right. Next question. Brandon writes, ìI’m writing a comedy script and was wondering if putting in a few alternate jokes, maybe in parentheses or italics or somehow otherwise noted, would be a boon or a detriment. Would the reader think, hey, this guy has got jokes, great? Or, boy, this is unprofessional amateur, bad? I haven’t seen it done in any of the comedy scripts I’ve read, even in the very early drafts. What if one of the jokes makes the reader laugh more than the other? It’s sometimes difficult to tell which joke is most funny.î
Craig, alternate jokes?
Craig: Alternate jokes in a standard screenplay format for someone who is not involved in the development of the movie are problematic because they don’t know how to read them. They’re not designed to be read in secession. They’re designed to be read as a matter of choice. Pick one. So, you’re stopping the read and now asking them to do math. You can, for instance, Fade In software allows to do an alternate system where you can click on something if you want to see alternates, and then a bunch come up.
So, if somebody has that they can do it that way. But by and large it’s something that’s not really great for people who are reading your screenplay because at some point it pulls them out. It just reminds them that there’s a writer there who is now doing some math.
What you can do at times is — and this is something that a lot of modern comedies have kind of gravitated to — frankly I think over-gravitated — is you can create a structure where someone can ramble off a whole bunch of those things. That’s fine. Those can work sometimes. People like those.
But, by and large I would say pick your best. Check with your friends. See what they think. No any one particular line or another is what is going to make or break your comedy script. It’s really about the characters and the situations. Some set pieces. Key set pieces that are really, really funny. Individual lines we tend to overemphasize because they’re so written. We think that they’re more important than they are.
John: So, I agree with Craig. I’ve never seen this sort of alternate line stuff done in a feature screenplay. Where I have seen this happen is in television comedies. And so I think I’m remembering this correctly that in an episode of New Girl, like a script for New Girl, I saw where a character would have their dialogue and there would be a slash-slash and there would be a different line, and then a slash-slash, and then a different line. Which is basically saying like these are alternate lines for this character to say here. And like on the day they would shoot those lines in quick succession and sort of see which one works the best. And it could be sometimes a springboard for other things they’re doing in different takes down the road.
That’s New Girl. That’s a show that thrives on that kind of rapid fire stuff.
I’ve also, and again, Aline is probably going to listen to this and say I’m misremembering how they do it, but I think when they’re going through a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend script they have it on the big projector and Aline is scrolling through and at each joke there will be a script note listed there that she could pop open and see like which line are they going to try to use for that thing.
And so the alternates are written in there and they make decisions before the script is finalized about which of those would be there. So, you know what Craig says about Fade In in terms of those little notes, or Final Draft. In Highland we have these double brackets which you can put anywhere and put any text in there you’d want to save, but not actually print in the script. So there’s always ways to do that. I would just say don’t put them in something you’re sending out to a person who is not directly involved in the production of this specific comedy that you’re trying to make.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. Once you’re in production you can do whatever the hell you want. I mean, the script is now serving a production. If you have 12 different lines, throw them all in there because everybody gets the drill. But if you’re sending something fresh for somebody to read to see if they want to purchase it or option it or produce it, no. I wouldn’t do it.
John: Great. One last question. Raphael wrote in about dialogue. Let’s take a listen.
Raphael: So, I found a film that I now really, really love due to its stylistic choice of dialogue. So, I’ve watched the film again, but with the subtitles on because I wanted to see how the words could have possibly read on page as a script, as opposed to it being performed. And at times I felt that some of the lines would have read for lack of better words sort of cheesy and tacky and weak. But when it was performed by professional actors, you know, it sounded like music. It sounded beautiful.
So my question is how do you deal with dialogue that you’re not sure is working? I know that you guys are really busy and you don’t always have time to do table reads before shopping your script. But is that something that you suggest that I do?
And my second question is how do you differentiate bad acting versus bad dialogue in a scene? Thanks. Love you.
John: We love you, too, Raphael. All right. First off, we should say that if you turn on the subtitles for a movie, what you’re seeing is basically a transcription of what the actors are saying, which may not necessarily reflect what was scripted. And so always be mindful that what you’re seeing presented on the bottom of the screen may not really be what was printed in the script as they were shooting the scene. So, there can be some differences there that would make the line that they’re saying feel really weird on the page if it were written that way.
But, I think Raphael is describing something that like it’s a very stylistic kind of writing. It could be like what Rian Johnson did in Brick. They’re talking in a very stylized way. I feel like that’s going to work on the page the same way it’s going to work in the movie. And if you’re not creating an environment as you’re reading the script that signals to the reader like listen to it with this voice, you’re going to run into some troubles.
Craig: Yeah. Some great points here. The fact is that there is this weird gap, Raphael, between written dialogue and performed dialogue. We’ll see it every now and then poke up when we go into Unforgiven, although for the most part David Webb Peoples is so good that there was no gap. But at times the way we write things on paper read amazingly well, and then when the actors perform them just like that it’s not so great. And then the actors sometimes drift away and it sounds wonderful, but if we were to put what they drifted away into words it just doesn’t work at all, you know, on page.
There is a gap there. It’s inevitable because it’s something approximating something else. And so you just have to kind of deal with that. I do think that you absolutely should have actors read your script aloud. John is correct when he says that if you have a stylized manner to your dialogue, as long as it is consistent throughout your script what ends up happening is a cumulative effect. People just fall into the world of the way people are talking there.
If you sit and you read the script for Sin City, after three or four pages you get the drill and now you’re in it. And everybody is doing it. So, you understand that it is intentional and not just mistakenly clunky, for instance.
But, yeah, you should take the time. You should have actors read it. What’s the difference between bad actors and bad dialogue? You’ll know. You’ll just know. It’s one of those things. Bad acting is bad acting. It’s just bad. You know, I don’t know what else to say.
John: And sometimes you fall in this weird valley where it’s like it’s not quite the line, it’s not quite the acting, it’s just like it just doesn’t fundamentally work. And so let’s close off this segment and let’s play a clip from the first X-Men movie. And there’s a notoriously awful line that made it through to the very end which was Halle Berry asked the question about — asked the question of Toad. And this is a line, I think Joss Whedon wrote the line. You don’t do better than Joss Whedon. Halle Berry, an Oscar winner. She actually can tell a joke. But it just did not work at all in the movie. So, let’s close this up by taking a listen to a not great line from a great actor and a great writer.
Halle Berry: You know what happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning? Same thing that happens to everything else.
Craig: It’s not a good line. It’s just not.
John: Well let’s talk about — how could that line — I can envision a scenario in which that line works. And I think it would only work if you cut to Toad and he goes, ìHuh?î It has to be much quicker. Or like he’s really thinking about it like, huh. But no.
Craig: Well yeah. The editing did not help because it’s like it’s a riddle. How did the chicken cross the road? Wait. Wait. Wait. Show a different thing. Come back. Wait. Wait. To get to the other side. Wait. Wait. [laughs] The pacing is really bad. But also it doesn’t really make sense.
Do you know what happens when a toad is hit by lightning? The answer is he’s electrocuted. There’s no mystery to the solution here. There’s no interesting quirk to her response because, well, yeah. Yes.
Craig: Yes. That’s right. It’s electrocuted. Is there something else that happens? Yeah.
John: I think if there’s something that this example illustrates though is that so much of what can be blamed on bad writing or bad acting ultimately is just editorial choices that did not help the writer or the actor. And that is an example of something. The proper editorial choice I think would be to cut out that line and just have her zap toad guy.
Craig: Yeah, you know. Exactly. I will say that pacing is the thing that ends up hurting comedy the most onscreen when directors are too languid with the pace of dialogue. Faster and faster. It’s hard to go too fast, frankly, when you — if you look at the speed with which the Marx Brothers did things. It is blinding.
We were constantly, you know, when I was making movies with David Zucker or making movies with Todd Phillips, we were constantly trying to get things to go faster. At the same time, you hate cutting because it’s more fun when it’s all in one. So, a lot of it is just getting the actors on their horse to go faster and faster.
One really cool thing that this movie that I’m working on with Mark Webb, there’s this animated component so you’re recording actors who are having a discussion and their voices will be then animated into creatures. And we can make them go faster. Just digitally. It’s awesome. Because at some point you can go too fast. I mean, some of the screwball stuff in the ’30s, which was notorious for its blinding speed, goes almost too fast. But it’s hard for actors to kind of feel things and be in the moment if they’re racing. But now you can kind of help them along a little bit and it becomes snappy and timing. Turns out that, I don’t know if you ever heard this, but timing is everything.
John: Timing is everything. And I want to clarify I’m not meaning to slam any given editor. I mean this as a call to be really nice and respectful for editors because they make us look so much better.
Craig: I love everybody that works on a movie. God’s honest truth. I’m trying to think if there’s anybody that works on a movie that I find annoying. No. Need them all.
John: Need them all.
Craig: Need them all.
John: Need them all. All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is an article by Peter Aldhous which is BuzzFeed. And what they did is they were able to figure out spy planes flying over the US based on machine learning. Basically fed all this flight information data into the computers. They had it develop its own algorithms for figuring out where these planes were flying.
And through it they could figure out like, oh, you know what, a bunch of these planes are just flying in tight circles over certain parts of the country. And so they are along the US/Mexico border. They are searching for drug planes and other things. They are listening planes in other places. So, it was a great example to me of how machine learning can fundamentally change our ability to discern patterns in the world because no one person could actually look at this mess of data and figure out like, oh, there’s something going on here. But with these new tools and machine learning they were able to figure out like, oh, there’s actually all these very cool and very specific flights happening which must be for a specific purpose.
And so I’d urge you to check that out. I think it also raises interesting questions about the degree to which obscurity can be a benefit in terms of ability to monitor narcotic trafficking and other things like that. So, you know, if we have these tools and we’re putting them out there, other people have these tools as well. So, it raises interesting ethical and sort of governmental issues in how we’re collecting this data and how we’re using these tools.
Craig: Yes, the cat and mouse game continues. Cat and mouse game continues.
Well, my One Cool Thing this week is a book called The Maze of Games. This was recommended to me by a gentleman named Dave Shukan who is an intellectual property lawyer here in Los Angeles but also a puzzle master. And genius. And friend of the official magician of Scriptnotes, Dave Kwong. And The Maze of Games is awesome. So, big, big book. It’s a story but it’s kind of an interactive story. And you solve essentially a game of some kind on every other puzzle on every right-handed page. Sorry, every other page. Every right-handed page is a puzzle. And the puzzles are excellent and incredibly varied. Some of them are easy. Some of them are really challenging.
And you cannot really proceed through until you finish them all. And then there are meta puzzles. And apparently there is a meta-meta puzzle. So, I’m like about halfway through this thing and just having the time of my life. The story is written by a guy named Mike Selinker. And excellent illustrations by somebody named Pete Venters. And we’ll through a link on. It’s sold through Loan Shark Games and we’ll put a link on there. If you are interested, like I am, in solving the Maze of Games.
John: You know what? Mazin would be a great last name for you.
Craig: I know. I know.
John: There’s a meta quality to your very existence.
Craig: I am meta.
John: Our show this week is produced by Carlton Mittagakus. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Jonathan Mann. And Craig will especially love this outro.
If you have an outro, you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place to send questions like the ones we answered today. So several of these people attached audio recordings of them asking their questions. That is terrific. So, do that if you’d like to.
We are on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. Look for us on Apple Podcasts to subscribe and also leave us a review while you’re there. That is so helpful.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com which is also where you’ll find transcripts. And you can find all the back episodes, all 312 episodes that happened before this, plus the bonus episodes and stuff at Scriptnotes.net. Or on the USB drive we sell at store.johnaugust.com.
And a reminder because I keep forgetting to plus this, we have the Listeners’ Guide that talks through the first 300 episodes of the show and gives you good suggestions for which episodes you should not miss. So you can find that at johnaugust.com/guide.
Craig: How much does that cost? Does that cost a lot?
John: Everything is free. Well, that’s not true at all. That is free. The USB drives are, I think, $30. And the Scriptnotes.net is $2 a month.
Craig: And I get none of it. Great show, John. Still a great show.
John: Great show. All right. Have a great week.
Craig: You too. See you next time.
- Triskaidekaphobia on Wikipedia
- Where to watch Unforgiven before next week’s deep dive
- You Get Me on Netflix
- Romancing the Stone, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Rain Man and Coming to America on Wikipedia
- Watch Toad get struck by lightning on YouTube
- BuzzFeed News Trained A Computer To Search For Hidden Spy Planes. This Is What We Found.
- The Maze of Games by Mike Selinker
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Jonathan Mann (send us yours!)
Email us at email@example.com
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