The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. So Craig and I recorded this episode almost a week ago. And a few things have happened since then. For starters, Harvey Weinstein. You know Craig has opinions about that so we’ll talk about that in a future episode.
Another thing that happened is that if you’re a screenwriter in the WGA West, you may have got an email from me and the WGA Board inviting you to a lunch to talk over screenwriter issues and this current state of the studio system.
There are five lunches conveniently located all over town, all happening this next month. So if you’ve got the email, please RSVP for one. I’ll be at two of the lunches, will even try to get Craig to come to one of them. So you can ask him in person for his Harvey Weinstein umbrage. Now, on with the episode.
Hello and welcome, my name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is episode 320 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today’s episode consist entirely of listener questions. We’ll be talking about Bulgaria, Netflix and the quote-unquote, “growth mind set.”
John: But I thought today, we’d start with the giant question we’ve never actually addressed. Craig, do you want to tackle this big question?
Craig: So we’re going to present to you this question as if somebody wrote it in, but really it’s an amalgam of the question we’ve been asked a million times. And it goes a little something like this:
“ Dear John and Craig, over the past few years I’ve written a couple of scripts, I think they’re pretty good. Some folks have read them but no one is busting down my door to make them.
“My question is, at what point do I throw in the towel and decide that maybe screenwriting isn’t going to work out for me. I always think back to my high school coach saying, ‘winners never quit and quitters never win.’ But that can’t be right, can’t it? At what point am I allowed to say, ‘enough’ and move on?”
Oof, heavy one.
John: Oh, this is a heavy one. And I think the question kind of underlying a lot of the conversations I have, you know throughout the time we’ve been doing this, even back when I first started answering questions on IMDb for, you know, about screenwriting. It’s like I’m doing this thing but it’s not really working or doesn’t seem to be working, can I stop doing it?
The first time actually I heard it’s actually asked of me were sort of like, you know, come back to me was we did a live show and I remember being at the WGA Theater and it’s afterwards that this guy came up and it’s like, “Hey, I just want to let you know that like I listened to your podcast says, that it be okay for me like to stop screenwriting?” And at first I was just like, “Oh that’s horrible.”
John: And he said no, no, no, it’s good. Like, you know, maybe realized that like screenwriting is not a thing I actually really want to do and I feel like talking about it but I don’t actually enjoy it. And he was happy and so it made me happy. And so I thought we’d dig into this sort of all of the issues bundled up here about, you know, this aspiration of screenwriting and when you’re allowed to give up that aspiration.
Craig: And in doing so, we are not just standing on but embracing, hugging this third rail especially in our culture today. David Zucker, his answer to this one is always when someone says, “Should I quit?” He should say, “Yes, you should quit.” And if you ignore that advice, you’re halfway there to making it. And that’s clever but it is essentially a spin on the kind of advice you get all the time which is non-advice, apologies to David.
Because really what people are saying is, you should definitely not quit if you’re going to make it, eventually. And if you do quit, we know for sure you’re not going to make it. So the real trick is can you tell if you’re going to make it or not? Well, no. Generally speaking, you can’t. However, I think that for a lot of people, they can probably tell if they’re not going to make it.
And so part of the trick here is to have a very honest self-appraisal of the work you’re doing and the kind of response it gets and ask yourself, “Okay, if this just landed in front of me in a mix of scripts that eventually got turned into movies, would it even feel like it belonged in the same world of these other scripts? Or do I have enough evidence that actually this is not something that I can do at that level?”
John: Yeah, there’s a quality of self-delusion, which is so crucial to you know any new endeavor. And so whether you’re doing a startup, you’re like you’re launching a new business, a new venture, you’re some sort of tech product that you’re going to put out there, there has to be some level of self-delusion where like, “I know there’s a way I can do this.”
And at a certain point, you have to sort of stop and assess like, “Am I just still doing this because of sort of the sunk cost fallacy, like, I’ve invested this much into it emotionally and sometimes financially that I just have to keep doing it? Or can I step back and take an honest assessment of this is how far I’ve gotten, this is not where I want to be.
The hardest I think to appreciate when you’re in the middle of something is the opportunity cost of the things you’re not doing because you keep trying to do this one thing.
John: And it’s one of the things where like, you know, if you are pursuing a career you don’t like, you’re just like, “Oh, but I could go off and do this other thing.” And okay, that’s great. You know, I can make that natural change. But with something like screenwriting, like, you might kind of like it. I mean, you might feel like it’s hard to sit down and write but like I feel like I’m doing something each time but all the time you’re spending trying to make it as a screenwriter or as an actor or a musician, there’s a lot of other careers which are so similar, that’s time could’ve been doing something else, something else you generally would enjoy and be good at.
I sat down for dinner this last week with CGP Grey who’s a great YouTuber and podcaster and he had a video out recently and one of the things he sort of touched on was this toxic idea of “follow your bliss” and basically, you know, that idea you should be delightfully happy doing whatever it is that you’re doing and it creates this system where you feel like, “Well, if I’m not doing the thing that I love most in the world, I’m a failure,” and this is sort of self-perpetuating cycle of like nothing will ever be good enough. And so–
John: It might be worth an assessment of like what is it that you actually enjoy? What are the sort of goals you have in your life and is screenwriting high on that list? Great, but if it’s not high on that list then maybe you do need to stop and really think about where you’re spending your hours of your day.
Craig: I agree. I have some practical advice for folks who are starting out or maybe are early on in their journey, and it’s to ask yourself a critical question. What is it that you are fantasizing about? If you’re fantasizing about being a writer, that is dangerous. What you should be fantasizing about is writing. The amount of times in any given year that I experienced, let’s just call it the nowness of being a screenwriter is very limited. Here and there we have a meeting where you’re a screenwriter or somebody who refers to you as a screenwriter or you get a call from somebody, but most of the time, the vast majority of the time, and I’m sure it’s the same for you, we’re writing.
It’s actually a life of action not of being a thing and I think that people think because of what they see which is the final product that you’re a thing. I am a writer. If your identity is invested in that, then it’s going to be very, very hard for you to, A, honestly asses your own work and, B, let it go if it’s not working. Because now you’ve entwined who you are with this imaginary position in the world. I don’t really feel like I have any position. What I do is write movies, but I don’t think about a position that I occupy. I think about the work I’m doing every day. So if you make it about the doing as opposed to the being, I think you’re already better off.
And the second thing I would suggest to people is that you remove any notion of romance from what it means to be a screenwriter. In reality, it is terribly unromantic. I would argue everything that we think of is being romantic, every occupation. If you actually do it, is not romantic. The joy you get from writing television scripts or movie scripts, day after day, week after week, year after year, decade after decade, is like the joy of being married for a long time which is something that you and I both know.
It is not the heady excitement of an early romance. It is not intoxication. It is that more subtle, calm satisfaction. It’s hard to describe, but it is not exciting in this fireworksy kind of way. And I think sometimes people are chasing that. If you’re comfortable with “I am writing and I don’t need it to be romantic, I just like writing” then you keep writing. And make sure that you’re supporting yourself or anyone that’s relying on you while you’re doing it however you need to, and then you’re fine and either it will or will not happen, but, for you, you’re writing and so you’re okay.
John: Craig, I think that noun versus verb distinction is crucial and when I see people who are so obsessed with the status or the image, the idea of themselves as a writer as opposed to the person who’s doing the writing, it’s very clear sort of where they’re at in their process. In talking about, though, that the verb is what it matters that the writing is what matters, I don’t want to, you know, have people give up on their business because writing is really hard and writing isn’t fun. It’s not fun. It is hard.
And so the day-to-day process of sitting down at the computer isn’t always a joy, and in fact it is often really difficult. Even the stuff that should be fun can be really difficult. So I’m here in London and we’re doing Big Fish and so we’re in the studio, we’re preparing to get to the stage and there are things you see as like, “Oh , I actually need to write something new here because that isn’t going to work the way we’re trying to do it now.” And so, you know, I’ll move from, like, being the writer or sitting at the table. I feel like, “Crap, I need to figure out how to write something here that’s going to make this all make sense.” And that’s — it’s pressure and it’s sort of exciting that’s also sort — it’s work and it’s not easy and so I don’t want anyone to decide like, “Well, I’m going to abandon this because I don’t like sitting down at the computer everyday to work.”
John: That’s probably most writers — most working writers you’re going to talk to are going to have similar experiences there.
Craig: Yeah, you don’t necessarily have a thrill when you start writing. However, if you can’t find a certain deep sense of, I don’t want to call it joy, but I think satisfaction is the right word.
Craig: If you can’t find the deep satisfaction once you’re going —
Craig: Then that’s a problem because I think that being a writer is a symptom of writing and a lot of people think that writing is a symptom of being a writer. I hear a lot of things like, “Well, I’m a writer so I have to write.”
No. No. No. I mean, look, if they killed my job tomorrow and I had to do something else, I wouldn’t eat a gun, you know? I would be bummed out because I do love writing on some sort of deep, non-romantic, satisfying level but it is not the only thing in the world. There are other things I love. There are other things you love. So it’s really about the process and finding your satisfaction with the process. No one can take that from you and in fact there are people that go to karaoke once a week without fail and they have the best time. They cannot sing at all. No one ever says, “You’re an idiot for enjoying that,” because they’re not. They’re enjoying it.
Maybe you love the process or, again, you find that deep satisfaction and you’re just not very good at it but it still gives you something good inside, keep doing it. The world will let you know one way or another if money is coming, but if it’s not and you’re enjoying it fine. If there is something else you can do that is as satisfying where you will be rewarded more, then it’s okay to go do that.
John: I completely agree. So there’s a bunch of little questions that came in that are about the same topics, so I thought we’d fold them into this discussion. Let’s start with Michael from LA who writes, “What’s your opinion on aspiring screenwriters who are not yet getting paid as a writer saying, quote, ‘I’m a writer or I’m a screenwriter,’ in conversation with a person not familiar with their occupation, without the aspiring modifiers/disclaimer?”
Craig, what do you think of aspiring writers saying I’m a screenwriter?
Craig: It’s a tough one. I remember never doing that. If somebody would say “What are you doing?” then I’d say, “Well, this is my job but I’m working on a screenplay.” I would say that because I felt like it was a little pretentious in the most specific form of that word like “I was pretending” in that sense. You know, you can say you’re a painter but if you’re just painting on your own and no one is asking you to paint anything for them, you’re kind of a painter, but not the way people think of painters.
And so it’s a little bit — I mean, look, in the end it really is all about intent. If you are humble and you acknowledge where you are and you’re not trying to impress somebody or put one over on them or puff yourself up, then it’s okay. But if you feel like you need to say this to impress other people or to impress yourself, then I think you have a noun-verb problem.
John: Yeah, the noun-verb is the great distinction there, so I would always say identify yourself by your day job and then you can talk about that you’re also writing and then it’s fine to sort of transition the conversation about the writing that you’re doing.
John: When I talk to people at conferences and stuff, I will often ask like what are you writing because I’ll assume like if they’re here they’re probably a screenwriter and like it’s a natural thing to start talking about the work rather than sort of like “What have you actually gotten produced?”
Craig: I remember when I was first out in Los Angeles. I was 21 and you remember the 21 parties, John, when you were 21 in Los Angeles?
John: Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Craig: You’d end up in like someone’s bad apartment, like, jammed onto their balcony. Everyone drinking cheap beer and everyone is 21 and everyone is just reeking of desperation. Everyone is trying to get into this business and we’re all feeling each other out and everything. It’s a weird time. And I met this guy, I was just chitchatting with him and, you know, I didn’t know what he did. I don’t know — he didn’t know what I did and then someone else came over and then they asked this guy, “So what do you do?” And he said, “I’m a successful screenwriter.”
And I mean, I couldn’t believe it and I thought “If he is a successful screenwriter, what’s wrong with him? How do you become a successful screenwriter if you’re so bad at words that you would think that would be a good answer to that question?” [laughs] So then later I looked him up and no, he wasn’t. And, you know, it took me a while to kind of get over the 21-year-old umbrage into the more mellow middle age umbrage which was — not even umbrage, more, honestly, pity. You’re scared, you’re insecure, and you’re desperate for people to know that once somebody paid you 10 grand to do something, but it’s not a good look.
John: No. Not a good look at all. Ryan has a question which is “I have one issue that grinds my ears. Several times Craig has talked about the potential success of aspiring screenwriters in terms of quote, ‘having it or not having it.’ I think this is a toxic idea. I think the skills that have made you and Craig successful screenwriters can be learned. This is the difference between the growth mindset that says that skills, traits, intelligence are not fixed but are instead subject to be learned through effort, experience and training versus the fixed mindset which suggest that skills and traits are innate, we are just born with them. Craig, do you want to tackle the growth mindset?
Craig: Yeah, I feel like Ryan is script-splaining to us here. [laughs] You know, he’s explaining to us why we’re successful like your theory of why you’re successful is not at all correct actually. Oh, John, you know, I’m so woke.
John: Yeah, I’m very woke. Yeah.
Craig: John, I’m so woke. Oh my god, I’m the wokest. Right, so Ryan, I think actually what you’re suggesting is the toxic idea. Now, this should not be shocking to you. You probably knew this was coming, but it’s okay that we disagree. Here’s where I think you’re going wrong. You’re kind of engaging in the either-or fallacy. You’re saying, “Look, it’s not that you have it or don’t have it. It’s then you — and that the skills, traits and talent aren’t fixed, instead you learn them through effort and experience in training.” And so it’s that or the fixed mindset, and what I say is you have to have both. This is the worst news of all really. I believe that, of course, there is an innate talent to any form of artistic expression. I can’t necessarily prove this to you other than to say that if you’ve ever sat in a class in 3rd grade and everyone is asked to draw a picture of a clown, one kid’s clown is going to be fricking awesome and then one kind’s clown is going to, and mine, is going to look like this pathetic collection of squiggles to the extent that people might wonder if perhaps this 9-year-old child had suffered a stroke in the middle of it, okay?
There is a talent to artistic expression. It is innate. It is not in of itself enough. And when it comes to writing which is something that is influenced repeatedly by an expanding vocabulary and an expanding philosophy and an expansion of your human experience, absolutely you begin to grow as a writer. Effort and training and learning lessons and falling down and getting up and avoiding pitfalls because you’ve fallen into the pits, all part of it. But writing apparently is the one area where people say, “Unlike athletes or painters or singers, you folks, you just — you can grind your way to this,” and no, not even remotely.
Why — John, do you think it’s because everyone can write something so is that the confusion?
John: I think that is, because if you look at the other examples you listed so a singer and athlete, there’s a physical quality to them that is different than other people. So, you know, singers may have these remarkable vocal abilities that could be sort of how they are born and this is the reason why singing can run in the families. There’s — if you look at, you know, athletes, sometimes if it’s a case like basketball like height is a true advantage.
John: But there’s also marathon runners or sprinters. They’re just built in a certain way that is incredibly helpful for the sport that they’re trying to do, but at no point are we ever expecting like, oh, that person is always going to be that fast. He doesn’t need coaching. He doesn’t need any sort of training. He doesn’t any sort of —
John: Practice to do that stuff like, in fact, all we do if we talk about athletes is practice and training. And so while, yes, I think, you know, the practice of writing and the constant feedback can improve a person’s writing, and I’ve seen it time and time again. There’s also a reality check of, like, there are some people who are not going to be fantastic writers, and that doesn’t mean we should give up on them or sort of, you know, move away from them but to acknowledge that like there are some people for whom writing comes naturally and they can become better. And these people for whom writing is really a struggle and they can get better, but they’re probably not going to ever get up to the level of the people who is really great for. One of the other–
Craig: Terrible. You know, it’s okay to say these things.
John: Yeah, one of the things that I think is interesting about screenwriting as opposed to writing novels or other works is that because screenwriting is just this intermediate step towards making a movie, it’s conceivable to be a person who is, like, pretty good at throwing things on the page that will ultimately become a movie. There’s a lot of sort of writer-directors who are kind of really directors who are not fantastic writers and they made stuff happen and so there’s — you see like a whole class of people who are moving into screenwriting not really with the goals of, you know, writing the best thing on the page possible but just do like “I want to make a movie” and that that weird transitional thing is what’s odd about the career that we’ve chosen.
Craig: Yeah, I think that there is a flipside to what Ryan is suggesting, and I find it a little troubling, and that is that if what he’s saying is true then to all the thousands of people that are working very, very hard to try and sell screenplays and become professional screenwriters, well, they’re just not working hard enough apparently or they haven’t taken the right class or they haven’t read the right book. The point is there’s a thing to do and when they do that thing then they too will be like you, John. I think that that’s a rough thing to say to those people, because I think they’re trying incredibly hard.
I think that there is an industry of people who want them to believe what Ryan is saying: that they’re one book away, they’re one seminar away and there are quite a lot of film schools that are peddling the same thing. But the fact is that you and I, both, and honestly, anyone that’s every read any screenplays has certainly come across a screenplay where you think, right, this person should not be doing this at all. And there is no version where someone can come along like Henry Higgins and get this Eliza Doolittle to suddenly be something that she wasn’t in the beginning, because it’s not about learning how to pronounce your Hs and not go “aw.” It’s talent. Talent is a thing. It’s okay.
People — it’s one of the best parts of life. I am fascinated when I meet people who have these talents for things. I mean, you and I both worked with musicians. When I sit with Jeanine Tesori and I watch what she does on the piano, and I watch how her mind works, and I watch how she is doing a different kind of — a different kind of writing in her mind with a different grammar and when she does these things, I just think what a gift that I get to be here and watch it because in a million years I couldn’t do it. And I’m a musical person, but she’s got something else and it was certainly there from the start. How could it not have been?
John: But saying that it was there from the start does not negate that she’s not spent years of doing this and–
John: Learning this and teaching herself, and so it is both but there was something there to start with, I fundamentally believe.
Craig: Absolutely. Absolutely.
John: A question from Nate in LA. He writes, I moved to LA two years ago. In that time, I’ve managed to form genuine friendships with a handful of professional writers whose work I respect and whose careers I admire. So my question is, is there a reasonable way to ask them to read my work? These people know that I hope to write for TV, but so far none of them have offered to read my scripts or pass them along to agents or managers. I don’t want to soil the friendships by asking them point blank to do this, but, at the same time, I realized it’s a business of who you know and I actually know people who are situated where I would like to be someday. Do you have any suggestions for tactful and non-friendship risking ways of asking them for help with my career, or should I just keep things casual and wait for it to happen organically?
Craig: Well, this is a good question. When you’re talking about writers — so most writers aren’t going to be able to hire you to write something because they’re writing things, you know, so it’s a slightly different thing than if you were to say, you know, ask somebody whose job is to hire people or represent writers and so on and so forth. I think if you’re going to ask a writer, one way you could always say is, “Hey, I would love for you to read this, but I know what that means and I know nobody wants to read anything and I respect that because I don’t either.”
“So I’ll tell you what? I’d love to give you five pages, and you are allowed to just — that’s it. I’m not going to bother you about it. I’m literally going to give you five pages and I will never mention it again. Either you are going to come back to me and say “I want to read the rest of it” or you are going to come back to me and say “I’m not — I don’t want to read the rest of it but here’s what I think about the five pages” or you’ll never mention it again or you’ll never read it. I’m okay with that, but would you be okay with that deal?” I think most people would say, “Yeah, I’d be okay with that.”
John: There’s an episode in the bonus episodes of scriptnotes.net where I sit down and talk to Drew Goddard and talk through sort of how he kind of got started and it sounds sort of like what Nate was doing. And so Drew had been working as a PA on films shooting in New Mexico. He moved to Los Angeles. He didn’t really know anybody, but sort of started sort of picking up friendships with people, started hosting game nights with other writers and eventually people started reading him and eventually said like, “Hey, why don’t you come in and we can see if we can get you staffed on this show.”
It organically did happen, but it felt like what was crucial was he was never pushing it. And I think Nate has a good sense of like not wanting to push it or ruin it, but at the same time you can’t sit back forever and like not–
John: You know, not put it out there as a thing that could happen. The way you described it, Craig, is a term we coined around the lunch table — you’re sort of doing a pre-traction where like in saying — you’re actually retracting it as you’re saying it like, you know, “I know this is really a bad idea but” — or “I know it’s weird for me to be putting this out there but if you would ever like to read something I’d love to hear your feedback on it.” That’s totally fine and fair and natural to do.
So Nate, I think you’re right in the right spot in terms of figuring out how much to push and how much to sit back.
Craig: Certainly the tenor of Nate’s question is a good sign.
Craig: So he seems to be aware of what other people might be thinking or feeling, which is it turns out as one of the talents of being a writer. And I would say also, Nate, that when you have a relationship with somebody that is based on more than you want something or they want something or what they do for a job or what you do for a job but rather you’ve worked on something together or you have helped them or anything, then in that context things are different, because most people are decent. I believe that. And most people want to help somebody, and if you’ve been a good guy then I think there is — you know, there is a reason that people might go, “Yeah, you know what? You’re a good guy. Sure. Sure.” Not always but I think, yeah, sure.
John: Do you want to take this last question from this batch? This is Chaz from Glasgow.
Craig: Right, so Chaz from Glasgow says, “I’ve recently started writing everyday for the first time in a number of years. I’ve got a degree in scriptwriting and filmmaking, but in the six years since I completed my course I’ve bouncing from job to job and can’t seem to hold one down. I also have a criminal record so I can’t enter the United States. But anyway” — this is a great transition. But anyway enough about that.
“Is there much of a point in continuing screenwriting with my limited experience and general F-ed upness? I can imagine why no studio would want anything to do with me.” Well, Chaz is in a little bit of a bind here. What do you think, John?
John: Chaz shouldn’t sell himself short in terms of like “No studio would want to deal with me.” I think some people might find it fascinating that you have a criminal record. But I think he raises a good point overall. It’s like, if he’s in Glasgow, it sounds like it’s going to be hard for him to travel to the US. If he’s serious about filmmaking, he needs to be looking for stuff he can do in Scotland and stuff he can do in Europe so that it’s actually a possible thing.
I would also just say though, if he’s writing every day and he seems to generally enjoy writing, write some things that are not movies so you can actually see those things come to light. Like, write a book. Write short stories. Write something else that’s not movies if you’re really concerned that movies or TV are not going to be a thing that’s going to be possible for you based on what’s happened in your life and the challenge of trying to get outside of Scotland.
Craig: Yeah. That’s all great advice. I mean, look, here’s the good news, Chaz, writing is writing, right? So, your script can enter the United States and a good script is a good script. People will want it. Here’s what concerns me a little bit. You say that you’ve been bouncing from job to job and can’t seem to hold one down. And it doesn’t sound like you’re saying you’re bouncing from screenwriting job to screenwriting job. You’re bouncing from regular job to regular job, and can’t seem to hold one down.
Now, there may be other things going on in your life here that are causing some distress or keeping you kind of on a stable path. As it turns out, the only way to be a consistent, successful writer is to live a very — well, just kind of a rigid life. It requires a certain stable, patterned, consistent nose to the grindstone, disciplined life. And if you have trouble living that way, it’s going to be difficult to be a screenwriter at the very least. There are other kinds of writing that can be done by people who aren’t quite as patterned and disciplined in their daily work. But screenwriting, a bit tougher. Because unlike novels where it’s just you and your mind and you go as you wish, in screenwriting, you’re constantly being held accountable to what will ultimately be a crew of many hundreds of people as well as a studio chockfull of employees and then, ultimately, audiences.
So, I’m not sure, based on what you’re saying here, that screenwriting is necessarily the most compatible thing for you. But if you’re really good at it, you should just keep doing it. That’s the thing. The only other thing I’d mention to you is you don’t say what the crime is, just that you have a criminal record. Some crimes are — you know, you’ve paid your debt to society, you have a record, people understand and they evaluate your script without putting it in the context of your past.
There are other crimes that are a little more difficult. There are certain crimes that people consider, I think rightly, to be horrible. And if you have committed one of those, then people may be very reluctant to get into business with you. The thing about show business is it’s a very public business. So they don’t necessarily want, you know, a murderer. I’m not suggesting that that’s what you’ve done, Chaz. But I think, Chaz, I think you know what I’m talking about, the kind of crimes I’m talking about. I think you get it. But, no, if you were involved in a breaking and entering 10 years ago, I don’t think that’s an issue.
John: I agree with you. Craig, I do want to push back about sort of like “Writers have to have a stable life so they can have sort of a steady way of getting those words done every week.” I feel like I know a fair number of writers who don’t have a particularly stable life, who are the sort of like catch-as-catch-canning and like they will bunker down and get a bunch of stuff done and then they’ll just sort of go off the reservation for some weeks.
And I would say, yes, it’s more challenging to be a screenwriter that way because people are kind of counting on you a little bit more. But there’s a lot of kind of not particularly stable people who do the kinds of jobs that we do. So, I would try and figure out sort of what percentage of the writers I know I would say like, “Oh, their life is really well put together.”
Craig: Well, maybe I’ll shape it a little bit here and I don’t know if this will bring you closer to where I’m thinking or not, but it’s not so much their lives have to be stable, in a sense that they have healthy, stable relationships with another person like a partner in their home, or that they’re well dressed, or that they don’t drink too much, none of that. What I’m really saying is the writing part of their life is somewhat stable, that they get the writing done.
John: Yeah. Okay. That’s fair. And probably more so in screenwriting than in like sort of the classic person who goes off and — the songwriter can have a very chaotic life because there’s not that expectation of like, every day, I have to generate like this many verses. That can be just you can get a bunch of stuff done and then not do it again for a year.
John: The screenwriting is — I guess because you’re going to be writing such long documents that if you are not able to actually sit down and finish a long document, it won’t ever happen.
Craig: Yeah. That’s kind of what I’m getting at.
John: Cool. All right, some other questions that came in that we might tackle.
Craig: All right.
John: Josh from Albuquerque writes, “I have a question regarding the Paramount Decree which has been discussed a few times in recent episodes. How can Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon act as producers, distributors, and exhibitors while major Hollywood studios cannot? I understand the simple legal answer is that they are not, quote-unquote, ‘theaters.’ However, could you see a time in the next decade when streaming services become so dominant that the Supreme Court rules as an antitrust sort of Netflix Decree, or is the current entertainment landscape so broad, from movies to TV, videogames, YouTube, that we’ll never see another monopolization like there was during the Golden Age?”
Craig: Well, Josh, I don’t think that this is going to happen with, say, an antitrust Netflix Decree kind of thing, and here’s why. The whole point of the Paramount Decree was there are a bunch of theaters in the United States, they are physical spaces. And if the studios own those theaters, then no other studio can really come into be because a studio requires a theater to show its product and all the theaters are owned by these companies. A theater can’t exist just by showing a new company’s films because there won’t be enough. So, essentially, it was an anti-competitive practice.
None of that really applies to the internet, because there is an unlimited distribution space. Netflix is incredibly popular because people like their shows and certainly, there are a number of large players out there, all of which are owned by multinational conglomerates. But, someone can come along and start showing other movies on their platform if they can afford to license them and distribute them, and there is no physical space that they’re being locked out of.
Where it gets a little dicey is if, say, Warner Bros. which owns HBO said, “The only place we’re ever going to put any Warner Bros. movies is on HBO.” Then you could say, “Well, HBO has an unfair advantage.” The problem though is that other movie studios are going to put all their movies on these other things and Warner Bros. is going to start losing money because other people want Warner Bros. movies on platforms other than HBO.
So it does seem like right now, the kind of vibe is that things get spread around. The original content on Netflix just being on Netflix I don’t think is enough, frankly, for an antitrust Netflix Decree.
John: Yeah. I think it’s worth stepping back and taking a look at — so the Paramount Decree, you had limited physical spaces where those movies could be shown and that kind of vertical integration made it impossible for some — for a movie to break in to those spaces.
If you look at sort of how FinCEN worked in television where studios could not own networks and so that there had to be some difference of relationship, that all broke down — there was a sense of, like, there was limited space out there because we were on the airwaves, and so there could only be a certain number of channels. That sort of all fell away as cable rose.
And Josh’s question points out like, you know, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon act as producers, distributors, and exhibitors, well, really, so does Disney. I mean, Disney has its own channels that it’s putting stuff through. It’s already murkier than that. Where I think the interesting thing that’s going to happen down the road is the question of our antitrust laws, our ideas of monopolies just are from a very different era.
And so, if you look at the Amazons and sort of like how powerful they are and how much they can sort of use their incredible dominance in one area just to sort of move into another area into another area, that could become a factor as we look at media things down the road. But I don’t think it’s something that’s going to happen anytime soon.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, the test basically is not whether or not you’re a monopoly. Antitrust laws do not proscribe monopolies as far as I understand them. What they do is say “You cannot be anti-competitive.” So, if you’re a monopoly but you’re doing nothing to stifle the natural birth of new competition, I think you’re okay.
So, Microsoft, for instance, was a monopoly. They were the operating system monopoly, essentially. They vanquished Apple. And so, now, Windows was by far the dominant operating system. And that was okay until they created a new product that was a browser. And they weren’t the first browser. There was an incredibly popular browser out there called Mozilla which became Firefox and that was the dominant browser in the market. And then, Microsoft said, “You know what? Let’s leverage the monopoly we have on operating systems and force people — not really force them, but basically channel them towards our new browser called Explorer.” And that’s called bundling. And that got them into hot water.
If Amazon starts doing things like that or if Netflix starts doing things like that, then, yeah, definitely they’ll catch the eye of the Feds. Maybe not in this administration, but, you know, in a reasonable one. [laughs]
John: And the other thing to look for is classically in the US, antitrust concerns come over like whether prices are rising for consumers, and which seem to be a very natural way to sort of look at it. A weird thing that happened though is you look at Amazon’s dominance in e-books, and so, Amazon with the Kindle and controlling a vast percentage of the digital market there. When Apple came in with iBooks, really, it was Apple who was the one who got slammed by unfair —
John: — business practices because they cut deals with the publishers. Zooming out, it looks like the energy was misplaced by our regulators because you actually want competition and they were slammed for basically trying to create competition. So, that’s another kind of situation where I could see down the road these giant media companies jockeying for space, that kind of friction could happen.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, price-fixing is another big part of this sort of thing. But, I think, Josh, I think they’re kind of in safe — they’re in safe places right now.
We’ve got something here from Mike in London who writes, “I’m working on a script at the moment where there are lots of characters who feature more prominently later on in the film, but I also want to make sure that they are in earlier scenes. These earlier scenes include lots of people like weddings or other mass gatherings, but I find that putting them all in action lines pulls focus a little bit. There are only so many times I can write ‘Bob and Julie are also here. You’ll hear more about them later.’ And then, Bob and Julie are also present. So, for times like this, would it be acceptable to include some kind of note that simply says, ‘X character is present in scenes X, Y, and Z’? I just feel it would make it a little clearer.”
“Also, there are some specific notes I have regarding costumes and how they should deteriorate as the play goes on. Would something like this be okay to write in some kind of note section at the start of the script? I guess my questions both revolve around notes and whether it’s okay to include them or whether it steps on too many toes and I should just assume they’re unnecessary.”
John: It’s a very good question and I’ve definitely been in a situation where there’s characters who become important later on but they would have been in earlier scenes. I don’t have sort of one great blanket answer for you. I would say most movies do not find that they need to do this kind of thing where there’s sort of a meta note outside of the script that sort of says like, “These characters are in these things.”
But, if what you’re trying to do, it is just really clunky and sort of like include them in every scene or like call them out in every scene, then I have done it in my own scripts. Like, a little sort of bracketed note to sort of say like, “This is a meta note. Like, these characters are in the next seven scenes or like they’re in all the scenes that take place here, but I’m not going to single them out each time.” I would never say the “I’m”. But like, “The viewer will see these people and they’re going to become important later on.” That’s entirely fair.
This thing about costumes deteriorating, my instinct would be to just clock it along the way so that three scenes in, have some reason to say that his thing has gotten worse.
John: That his jacket is falling apart. But I wouldn’t sort of bring it out because that does feel too much like you’re just having a sidebar with the wardrobe department.
Craig: Correct. You don’t want to feel like you are having sidebars really mostly because it’s taking people out of the world of the movie, and you’re trying to show them a movie with your words. I wonder how frequently these characters need to be in these scenes.
What’s catching me a little bit is that you’re saying they’re in these scenes, but they feature prominently later on. Well, what are they doing in these scenes exactly? If they’re just passing by in the background, then, I think it’s fair to just say, “In the first time, in the background we’ll see so and so. We will see them later or we’ll hear more about them later,” like you say, and then just not mention them again because if you’re not making a point of looking at them in these subsequent scenes, do they even need to be there at all?
If you are going to put the camera on them, then there should be a reason that the camera is on them. If they’re literally just moving like background artists — and I’m just kind of wondering if we’ll even notice them at all. So I would suggest to you that maybe for some of these areas, you may have a decision to make about whether you really need them there or not. And if you do and you want the camera on them, give me a purpose for that camera there.
Lastly, I would say the one thing you should never worry about is stepping on too many toes. It’s your script, step away.
John: Yeah. I think one of the things we’re hitting on here is that Mike is looking at his script as being the blueprint. And like, if this were a blueprint for building a building, you cannot leave out those incredibly important like rafters and girders. But this is still like a reading document. So, make sure that it reads naturally and cleanly.
And so, in doing so, you may leave out some details that will become important for the AD later on, but you have to have trust and faith that, like, those other professionals who are going to be working on actually making this movie, they’ll have those conversations and figure out like, “Oh, do we want those characters in that scene?”
John: And so, you don’t have to sort of worry about like everything being incredibly logic’d out at this stage.
Craig: Yeah, and you’re right. If you have this note that you think is important, save it, wait for the green light, then send it to the production staff.
Craig: And then they’ll know.
John: Ben in Colorado writes, “A question for John. In the writing and editing Scriptnotes, Craig mentions the dangers of auteurism in modern filmmaking. As someone who’s worked successfully with one of the great modern auteurs in Tim Burton, what is your experience with auteurism as a very successful screenwriter?” And I would say you also have worked with some filmmakers who have a very distinct style, so like, you know, working on the Zucker brothers movies.
John: Like that’s a person who has a very distinct style.
Craig: Or Todd Phillips, same thing.
John: Todd Phillips, another great choice. I would say one of the remarkable advantages of coming in, working with somebody who has a very distinct style and a very distinct cannon of work is that you can come in with a sense of like “These are the things that are going to be interesting to him, and these are the things where I know he can sort of knock this stuff out of the park.” And so that is a great luxury to sort of come in with a set of expectations that you can sort of push beyond. And so, you know, the first time I’m sitting down to write I guess Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the first new thing I’ve written for Tim, I can approach that meeting with like, “Okay, these are some things I think he’s going to really respond to just based on like all the other movies of his that I’ve seen.” And that is really, really helpful.
Auteursim as a general concept, for me, is just — it can be frustrating to see people write about auteurs as if everything they’ve done is entirely through their work and that there really were no other people involved in those things. That sense of like it’s just of this one sole creator behind stuff. And yet, I would say the process, at least for me working with Tim Burton movies, has been really great because you have a director who knows very much what he wants.
Craig: It feels sometimes that people confuse auteurism as it was originally imagined, meaning the director is the single creative authorship voice behind a movie with directors who have distinct styles.
Craig: Having a distinct style doesn’t necessarily make you an auteur, particularly when you’re a director that’s not writing at all. Now, if you’re a director that writes and directs your own material, I think you can start to make arguments about this. But if you have a distinct style, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an auteur per se.
But in talking about directors who do have a specific style, I couldn’t agree more with John. There is such a relief, a burden lifted, when you’re sitting with a director whose style is unique to that person enough that when they say “That’s not going to work but this will” you don’t have to wonder if they’re right or not. They’re right because they’re making — because Todd Phillips is making a Todd Phillips movie and David Zucker is making a David Zucker movie.
There are directors that make all sorts of different kinds of movies and they don’t have this really clear distinct sharp style which is perfectly fine. Some of my favorite directors are like that. But then when they say, well, I’m not sure about this, I’m not sure about that, well, okay, let’s discuss it. But when somebody with a distinct style like Tim Burton says, “That is not — I don’t think that’s good for me at all,” there’s really no argument because what he’s saying is that’s not part of the Tim Burton thing. So then you’d be Tim Burton-splaining to Tim Burton which is just what’s the point, right? [laughs]
Craig: But then the greatest part is when they’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s going to work.” You think to yourself, “It’s going to work.”
John: One of the greatest moments in any pre-production I’ve done with Tim is I’ll go into his office and I’ll see like tacked upon on all the walls are watercolors of like different characters and the different stuff, the, you know, different sets. And it’s like, oh, okay, this has been processed through his brain. He knows how to do all this. This is going to be great. This is — there’s a plan for this. Like this is all making sense.
And I agree with you that sometimes you talk with an author who has a whole bunch different styles and those first, you know, three weeks of meetings with them is basically them figuring out sort of like what kind of movie they’re making in general.
John: And that’s great. That’s can be a part of the process, but, you know, when you have somebody who has a very distinctive voice and style, you can skip past along that and that’s incredibly helpful.
Craig: Yeah, I mean the flipside of course is that directors like that often as much as you love them and love working with them, you know that okay, well, this material — no, like you write things and you will, okay, the one person I know I cannot give this to is Tim Burton, he’ll hate it and it’s not at all what he does. Whereas I know some directors who I think “I bet you could probably direct anything assuming you wanted to, there’s nothing I would limit from you.”
Craig: And that’s — so I — you know, I never want to feel like I’m over praising the stylist, the unique stylist in any way that diminishes the other directors because I think I just — anybody that does a good job directing is a little miracle for me and so I’m just happy to know them all.
John: I agree. All right, last question comes from Andreas in Norway. He writes, “I’ve seen quite a lot of different takes about how a car chase is written especially in terms of formatting choices and the layout of the structure. For example, keeping the exterior to simply read ‘road’ and using terms of like ‘on a Land Rover’ or ‘on the Ford’ to shift the focus of the reader. I’d like to hear your guys’ takes on writing car chases.”
Craig: Yeah. I mean look — and car chases are like any other action sequence in that what you’re describing ultimately needs to be focused through the lens of humans making decisions and the world impacting them. So you’re making a chase and you’re trying to define it by what the character behind each wheel is thinking and doing. And then if a boulder rolls into the road, obviously you need to call that out as well. But “on the Land Rover,” “on the Ford,” “behind this,” “inside of this,” all that punchy kind of vibrant kinetic language I think is a perfectly good way to move around. You certainly don’t want to be languid. Your writing kind of needs to match the vibe of the score you would imagine playing under your scene.
John: One of the questions Andreas is trying to ask there is like, “Do I have to go INT/EXT for every time I go inside and outside of the car?” And that will kill you if you try to do that too much.
Craig: Oh god, the worst. The worst.
John: And so if every other line is a new INT or EXT, then people stop reading. So that’s where you use — getting down to single lines, getting to the “on the Ford”s. You know, let it feel like just the flow of what it would actually look like on the screen, but don’t get trapped inside of where we’re at in cars. It’s going to be intercut anyways. So just feel that energy as you’re writing the scene.
Craig: Well, that’s exactly the point. Look, the whole purpose of interior and exterior is not to satisfy some sort of format god in the sky. It’s there to help production understand what kind of lights are we using, because is it night or is it day, are we inside or are we outside, all that stuff, right? Once you establish the car chase, which is certainly going to occur in real time. You know, it’s not like — people don’t montage a car chase over the course of a day and a night. It would be kind of cool, I suppose, if they did. But typical car chase takes place in roughly real time in a movie. So once you establish “exterior,” so we’re not car chasing inside, which has happened for instance in the Blues Brothers, and what time of day it is, you’re done. You gave them the information they need. And now, what they really need to know is, “Okay, what car am I looking at and am I inside of it or outside of it while you’re describing things so that I get a sense of the geography and the movement?” Simple as that.
John: Yeah. I said the last thing was the last question, but in this setup, I said Bulgaria, so I wanted to get to this–
Craig: You promised us Bulgaria, John. So Peter in Bulgaria did write in to say, I’m a white male from Bulgaria, the poorest country in the EU. Am I a diverse writer?
Craig: [laughs] Yeah. I mean, look, this whole diverse writer thing, no, on one hand, if you’re talking about programs that are targeted to diverse writers in the United States, we’re not talking about white men from Bulgaria. That’s not to say that being in white man in Bulgaria is easy or that, frankly, being a human being anywhere isn’t easy because everybody’s got their own story and some people have it great and some people don’t. But specifically speaking for those programs, no. They’re not talking about white men from Bulgaria.
However, in the larger sense of things, obviously, your unique situation helps inform who you are and makes you interesting, certainly more interesting than a white male from Sherman Oaks, California. Lastly, I would say to you, Peter, don’t worry about that because the deal is this: people get wrapped up in this stuff and they forget that the reason that these programs exist is because the numbers are stark and clear. More white males are working at these jobs than not white males. So if you’re worried about the statistics, well, they’re still in your favor I guess is how I would put it as a white male. They’re still out of whack. I think people get really hung up on this stuff.
And I understand it, we’ve talked about it before from an emotional level. You never want to feel like you’re being judged for your race. Ironically, that’s exactly what’s going on regardless and that’s what some of these programs are trying to combat. So don’t get hung up on it, Peter in Bulgaria. The thing that you should be hung up on is writing something terrific. There is nothing that will stop a wonderful script, nothing. It continues to be, and I believe always has been, the single best way to get into the entertainment business.
John: Absolutely. Last bit is just actually follow-up. So in the previous episode, we talked about Exposition News as Craig called it. This is where you turn — there’s a cliché of turning on the TV to find it playing exactly the news story you needed at the moment. And so I was pretty sure that other shows had — or maybe said call it out as a thing and of course they did and of course our listeners are the best listeners. So they point to at least four examples of this being done. So we’re going to slice in at the end of the episode some examples of this. So, from Arrested Development, from Community, from The Simpsons, and from Shaun of the Dead. So you’ll hear snippets of how other shows have tackled that trope.
Craig: I think my favorite of them was the Arrested Development one because it was so awkward. [laughs] Loved it.
John: It goes on and on, yeah.
Craig: I just loved it.
John: All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things.
John: My One Cool Thing is a thing that has actually been out for a while, but I had not known about it until I listened and clicked through a different story. So the BBC added Nigerian Pidgin as one of the languages that they have stories in on their website. And so, then I fell down a deep rabbit hole of like figuring out, like, what is Nigerian Pidgin.
And so, Nigerian Pidgin is a form of English but it’s not quite English, that’s spoken in that portion of Africa and linguists could argue whether it’s a Creole or a Pidgin because there are second generations that are speaking it. It’s still sort of this being formed kind of language. But it’s really fascinating, so I’ll put a link in the show notes to the BBC site for Pidgin.
And you can see the stories and like, you look at it, it’s like, “Oh, that’s English,” and then you’re like, “Wait, no, that’s not quite English.” You can sort of understand it, but some verbs are just working very differently. I thought it was fantastic and I thought it was, you know — as you read more about sort of like how they figured out how they were going to do it and how to sort of formalize and standardize some things that are still very nascent, just hats off to the BBC for this sort of new venture into Pidgin.
Craig: I love that word. I’ve always loved that word, Pidgin. When I was a kid, I had a little paperback book — I think I might have even gotten it from the Scholastic Book Club — that would teach you Hawaiian Pidgin. That was the first Pidgin I had heard about and the first time someone had said that to me, of course I thought it was pigeon like the bird. And in my mind still, it’s sort of pigeon like the bird.
Craig: And they–
John: Two different words.
Craig: And it eternally shall be.
Craig: Well, I have a related One Cool Thing. How odd. My One Cool Thing is a real-life Babel fish. So, if you’re a fan of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which you should be, then you know about Douglas Adams’ famous science fiction fantasy invention, the Babel fish, which solved this really annoying problem that Star Trek and other shows have solved by simply ignoring which is, why does everybody talk English across the galaxy? And his solution was this tiny little fish that you would stick in your ear and it would just automatically translate things back and forth. Wonderful.
Well, Google — you’ve heard of this small company — they have come up with these things — well, I mean, they kind of ripped them off from the Apple ear buds, you know, the new AirPod things where, okay, they’ve taken the headphone jack out of their new Pixel phone. But their little ear bud things connect to it and they flawlessly use Google Translate. So the idea is you hold your phone up, right, and someone is speaking in Spanish, your phone hears it, does a Google Translate on the fly and pipes that into your ear.
And as we have discussed before, Google Translate has sort of taken these huge leaps because of the new way that they’re processing it with the neural net. And right now, they have 40 different languages. It’s pretty bananas. And you can presume that if this works even okay, that means in 10 years, it’s going to be fricking awesome and everywhere, and then, then the world gets really interesting.
John: Yeah. That really will make a huge difference, because there definitely — like, you know, this last year, that I was living in Europe. You know, so in France, we can speak French and it was fine and it was easy. And then, you know, Germany, everybody speaks English okay. Even Athens, everyone speaks English. But then as we made our way out of central Greece and into the mountains, there were definitely some times where it’s like, wow, we were just having to communicate on really basic levels.
I remember going into a restaurant and trying to sort of start and they’re like, “No, no. Stop, stop, stop,” and then they hold up their phone and like they’re calling the one guy in town who can speak English, who then runs in and is like, “Oh, hi. Let me help you.” To be able to move past that I think will be fantastic. And there’s definitely, you know, amazing opportunities for letting people venture deeper into places where there’s not going to be anybody who could speak the same language.
Craig: I agree. I mean, that’s the key. It’s when we get rid of the language barrier finally, then a lot, I think, of the misery of separation begins to go away.
Craig: Not all of it, mind you.
Craig: I mean, I still hear people speaking English and saying insanely awful things.
John: Yeah. Weirdly, on a daily basis we’re hearing that.
Craig: [laughs] Yeah, sometimes at the highest levels. But I think it would help a lot and it would — look, more communication is only a good thing, I think. So this is an exciting thing. And, you know, unfortunately, it looks like it is only available on their phone, which, mind you, could be a possible antitrust thing if it gets big enough. Like, no, it’s going to be everywhere, pal. So let’s see what happens.
John: That sounds very exciting. Before we wrap up, I want to make sure that we’ve drawn a good enough bow around the — the fundamental question of the episode is, should you give up? And I hope that in talking about that question, we have not sort of inspired people to, you know, give up on their dreams, but to maybe like set themselves free of this vision of like, “Oh, I have to be a screenwriter or I’m going to be unhappy in my life.”
It was interesting. This last week, I was here in London talking at the London Screenwriters’ Festival and they had this special coffee thing. And I spoke to a couple of people who were like, they just like the show. Like, they were Scriptnotes fans who like the show and they like listening to us talk about stuff, who was like, “Yeah, I have no aspiration of actually writing a screenplay.” And that’s fine, too. It’s okay to not be a screenwriter, I guess, is what I’ve come back to.
Craig: That’s exactly right. And it’s okay also to write screenplays without necessarily insisting upon yourself that they must sell. Those things are going to happen, or they’re not going to happen. And while you can help it with a certain amount of effort, at some point, the script is going to have to speak and do the work for you, right, once you’re done with it.
So if you can find joy in the writing, then do find joy in that writing. I don’t think you should ever define your life by any vocation, at all. I think that we are all so much more interesting than some dream we imagine. Remember, if you’re not yet a professional screenwriter, your understanding of what it means to be a professional screenwriter is a massive guess. It’s just a huge guess. Even if you sat with me or John or any other professional screenwriter every day for a year, all you’d really find out is what it’s like for us to be screenwriters.
Craig: But what we know is, because we talk to each other, we’re all special little snowflakes. So you don’t know what it’ll be like for you. And that is true for all these things. So dreams are great, but just remember that they are dreams. The real thing on the other side is something else. So don’t define yourself by some dream that you are imagining. Let that be a motivation for you, but not your definition.
John: That sounds great. All right, that’s our show for this week. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli.
John: Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro to send us, you can send that link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place you can send longer questions like the ones we answered today. For short questions, on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin, I’m @johnaugust. We’re on Facebook. Search for the Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcast, look for Scriptnotes. While you’re there, leave us a review. That helps us a lot.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. We try to get them up about four days after the episode airs. You can find all the back episodes at scriptnotes.net and we now have the USB drives back in stock.
John: So right before I came to London, Megan was busy, like, bundling them and putting labels on them, so they’re now back at the warehouse and they are shipping out to people. So if you want those first 300 episodes, you can get them now on your little USB drive.
Craig: Nice. Nice. Papa’s going to get a pair of brand new shoes. [laughs]
John: So looking forward to those shoes. They’re the fanciest shoes in the world.
John: Craig, thanks for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John. See you next time.
John: All right, bye.
- CPG Grey’s video, channel, and website
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- The BBC adds Nigerian Pidgin
- Google’s Pixel Buds, or the real-life Babel Fish
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