The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John.
Craig Mazin: And this is Craig.
John: So we are both traveling this week, but today’s episode is one we recorded at the Austin Film Festival. It is a Three Page Challenge live with the people who actually wrote the scripts, who come up on stage and talk with us.
Craig: Yeah. And we had some pretty good guests as well helping us out.
John: We had an agent and a manager, so we’ll introduce them as the episode goes along. But we should be back next week with a normal episode which will be our Thanksgiving Week episode, so join us then.
So today’s episode of Scriptnotes has a few bad words. So if you’re driving in the car with your kids, this is the warning.
We’re also going to be doing a live show in Hollywood on December 7. So by the time this episode airs, we’ll hopefully have details up, so check the show notes for this episode and come see us live in Hollywood.
John: Yes. On with the show.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: We host a podcast called Scriptnotes. What is Scriptnotes about, Craig?
Craig: Oh, it’s…
Audience: A podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig: Thank you.
John: That’s really well done.
Craig: I don’t ever listen to that part so it’s the first time I’ve ever – I haven’t really heard that before.
John: So one of our favorite little segments we do on the show is called the Three Page Challenge where we take a look at three pages that our listeners send in. And we talk about what we see, what we notice, what’s fantastic, what could use some work, and try to offer some useful suggestions.
So one of the nice things about being here at the Austin Film Festival is we get to sometimes talk to those actual writers and bring them up and ask all the questions that we can’t ask when they’re just PDFs.
Craig: Right. Plus we get to see their faces. You know?
John: It’s nice to see that.
John: One of the other things we’ve been doing when we have these live Three Page Challenges is to invite up some special guests to read through these pages with us. And so today we’re very excited to welcome two really amazing people. Daniela Garcia Brcek – I did it – is a literally manager at Circle of Confusion. Come on up here.
Daniela Garcia-Brcek: Hi everyone.
John: Hello. Welcome Daniela. And Cullen Conly is an agent at ICM, but I actually knew him from Sundance Labs. And so he worked at Sundance Labs and was instrumental in their feature film program working with really talented filmmakers on their screenplays. He was fantastic at that. I’m sure he’s a fantastic agent. Cullen Conly, please come on up.
So we put out the call on the show for people who were going to be coming to the Austin Film Festival who had three pages for us to look at. And we got 73 entries, which was great. Of those, 38 were written by women. So that’s also great. That’s the highest percentage we’ve ever gotten. So I don’t know why it happened that way, but fantastic that it happened.
Craig: The world is changing.
John: The world is lovely.
Craig: I wouldn’t say that.
John: No, but the world could be lovelier. We’ve all read these pages, but if you out there want to read these pages with us you can. Go to johnaugust.com/aff2017 on your phone and they’re there. So you can find the PDFs, but also we made it so you can just scroll through and read along with us if you want to. So, the PDFs are always the best sort of way to read them. But that’s available to you. They’ll also be in Weekend Read, either now or by the time this show posts. And we’ll give a recap for folks who have no idea what we’re talking about so you have some sense of what this is.
But first I want to talk to you guys about what you guys – how many scripts you’re reading and sort of what you’re finding in scripts. So, tell me, how many screenplays are you reading in a week?
Daniela: I’d like to think that I read 15 a week, at least. That’s the goal. But it’s usually between five and ten, like full scripts.
John: So five and ten full scripts, and are there other scripts that you’re not finishing?
Daniela: Oh yeah. That’s what I mean by the – the other five to ten–
Craig: You gauge five to 15.
Daniela: Yeah. So.
John: And so when you say you’re reading these scripts, are they from represented writers, unrepresented writers? Are they clients?
Daniela: It’s all across the board. So there will be scripts people are talking about that I’m like “I need to know what these scripts are.’ Potential clients. And then actual clients. And then some projects that I’m just like, ooh, this is – I’m a fan of this writer, or I’m a fan of this genre, and I just want to know what it’s about.
John: Cullen, how many scripts are you reading in a week these days?
Cullen Conly: I would say I look at 15 to 20. And, again, for different purposes, if it’s a client’s script I will read it cover to cover. I tend to work more with writer-directors and specifically writer-directors and then some playwrights that are transitioning. So I also have to read a lot of open directing assignments. And with those, you know, I can sometimes read the first 20 and the last 20, fully get what it is, and figure out who the clients that should read it are.
John: Wow. So, OK, first off I want to go back to “look at,” which is such a fascinating euphemism for like not really reading, but you’re sort of like – so how much do you need to look at a script to say that you’ve looked at it? How many pages does that mean?
Cullen: I would say like 15 pages I can get a good sense – especially for potential clients. Like is this a voice? Is this something that’s gripping me? And do I want to read more? I can get a good sense from 15.
John: Daniela, do you look at scripts the same way?
Daniela: I do “look at” them. Yeah, I would say if I’m being generous, 15. But sometimes even first 10, depending on what it is, as an assessment of can this person write, can this person engage, and also does this not feel too familiar.
Craig: That’s pretty much why we started doing this. I mean, the purpose was to, I guess, hold writers accountable but also inform them that this is how the world works. I mean, the amount of screenplays that you guys have to read, or just are obligated to read, is massive. And therefore the only ones that are going to be read-read, right, are the ones that actually, I don’t know, keep you going.
I mean, there is this thing you can do where you can – do you ever do the skimmy thing? Like the skim through?
Daniela: No, not the skimmy. But I heard about this thing that I don’t particularly like where it’s just you read the first 15, the middle 20, and then the last 15 for features.
Craig: Well at that point you’re reading the damn script. Just finish it.
Daniela: And why would you enter a movie like halfway through and be like I know exactly what’s happening because there are some characters that are there and the conflict and all that stuff. So I don’t subscribe to that. Because if it doesn’t engage me in the first 15 then that exercise is just futile.
Craig: Pointless. Yeah.
John: Is there such a thing as coverage for what you guys are doing? Like are you reading coverage on scripts ever? So, Cullen, you’re nodding.
Cullen: yeah, especially at an agency, our policy is usually if it’s set up at a studio, get it covered, because agents do have a lot to read. We have the reputation for being lazy when it comes to reading. And so, yeah, I mean, I would say most scripts at the studio are covered. And it is helpful. My taste isn’t massive tent pole films, so if I’m covering that project I probably don’t want to sit and read the whole thing, so I’ll read a little bit, read the coverage, have a good sense of what the movie is, and be able to do what I need to do for it.
John: A question we get often on the podcast is “How important are loglines?” Do loglines matter for you guys? Does a well-written logline intrigue you and make you read the script or not read the script? Do you see loglines?
Daniela: I mean, loglines are helpful to be like, OK, how is this person framing their story, but I’m still going to want to read how they’re setting it up. Because loglines can be deceiving. It’s like, “Girl gets kidnapped. Father seeks out revenge.” And, you know, I’m describing Taken. And so I love Liam Neeson and I love Taken as sort of a popcorn fare thing, but the logline would be really disinteresting to me. So, I think loglines are important, but it’s really about what’s on the page. Don’t spend too much time on the logline.
Cullen: Yeah, I mean, I think just being able to describe your movie in a way that feels fresh and original is important at an agency. I think, management companies are a little bit different, but in terms of blind queries I’m not really supposed to look at them anyway, so I just hit delete for better or worse.
Daniela: We look at them all the time. Yes. Circle of Confusion was essentially started off of a query letter. A letter written by two house painters in Chicago to our company saying we love the name of your company and those people were the Wachowskis. So, as a company policy we accept queries and in that sense loglines are important, but it’s also about personalizing the letter to the company and personalizing the letter to the person you’re sending it to to make sure that it’s not just, “I’m just sending this to the void hoping I get discovered.” It’s like, “This is why I want to be represented by this company and by this person at that company.”
Cullen: Yeah. I do actually enjoy when I get a query that’s addressed to a different name. I’m like this is – I love this.
John: Last sort of question about framing here. So let’s say there’s a script that either came through a query or someone recommended it and it’s about maybe a client you want to represent. What are you looking for as you start to read that says like, “Oh, this is a person I want to meet. This is a person I want to continue on a discussion with.” What is it that gets you to a place where you’re excited about a script or a writer?
Daniela: I think it’s like oftentimes style and having fun on the page, regardless of what the genre is. There was recently a script that I was like let’s do a con-tage. And I was like, yes, this is a movie about being a con artist and we’re going to do a montage and it’s called a con-tage. And I was having a fun experience reading the script. And so I think that the voice and the style and feeling personality on the page and not being bogged down by details and just, you know, having fun with the story.
John: Cullen, what are you looking for as you’re starting to read for a client?
Cullen: I mean, as I read scripts, what I’m so craving and I think what most of us are craving is please god surprise me and please god – like god forbid – move me. Whether that’s making me laugh, making me cry. Some sort of sensory experience as I’m reading something.
You know, and then otherwise it’s just a very subjective experience. I mean, there are scripts where the whole town seems obsessed with and I read it and I’m like, uh, I don’t really respond to this. So, a lot of it is you can’t really quite put your finger on it, but you know it when you see it.
John: Cool. All right, let’s get into our four Three Page Challenges.
Craig: Let’s begin.
John: I’ll read the first synopsis, but maybe Craig can take another one. We’ll start with Baptiste by Jenny Deiker. Jenny, am I saying your name right?
Jenny Deiker: Yes sir.
John: Fantastic. Jenny right there. Thank you. A synopsis. A Minnesota business man, Jonathan Parks, ambles with his fishing rod to the edge of a lush Louisiana bayou. He is followed at a distance by Richard Devilliers, 50s, who speaks with the soft accent of an important Louisiana family. Richard encourages Jonathan to catch a catfish and Jonathan admires the landscape.
As Jonathan casts his line, Richard draws a circle on the dock with powder from a small pouch. When Jonathan asks about it, Richard describes that it’s a voodoo ritual for the union of predator and prey. Jonathan is impressed by the Louisiana touch. Richard’s wife, Marie, 50s, approaches and shares a knowing glance with her husband.
Richard draws a slash through the circle before kicking Jonathan into the swamp. Jonathan struggles. Marie watches dispassionately. Jonathan is promptly sucked under water, gone. Richard and Marie’s son, Kevin, 29, joins them, sweeps the powder away with his foot, and tells them they’ll be late for mass. And that’s the end of our three pages.
Daniela, will you start. So if you just read these three pages, what is your first impression? What are you taking from these?
Daniela: I have to say like by the very end of those three pages I was like “what is this about?” which is a great question to have. But at the same time I did feel that there were a lot of characters for the three page sequences that I was like maybe there needed to be a little bit of mystery. Like the son coming and delivering that line, while it’s a little bit of a mic drop, I felt that I wanted to breathe in the moment of this guy just got sucked into the space and let that breathe a little bit more. So, that’s how I felt.
John: Cullen, you’re very first impressions?
Cullen: Yeah, I mean, I have to say – I’m assuming – is this a pilot? given that it’s a teaser. Absolutely wanted to read more. I’m from Louisiana, too, so I loved the setting of it. My biggest question mark was about the powder and what is the significance. That was the one thing that I was like is this a total red herring. Does that actually have significance? But I loved it. I was pretty hooked.
I think my critique of it is probably in the first paragraph. It felt very adjective-heavy and, you know, I sort of circled what is a “stagnant, breathy morning.” It felt like slightly writing for writing sake.
Craig: Yes. So, by and large I did enjoy this. I liked where it went and I liked what’s happening. And I think substantively we’re in a good place. But let’s talk about how this begins. Have you ever heard of purple prose? Right? So this is green purple prose. “Spanish moss melts from bald cypresses in the sweaty, sickly sweet soup of Louisiana air. Live oaks and palmettos line a wide, dead-calm river, dotted with fallen branches and blankets of algae.” That’s a lot of – just a biome. That’s a biome full of adjectives. There’s some alliteration going on in there which weirdly – the thing about alliteration is even though it’s not intentional, I know, these are the kinds of things that start to literally lull people. Which I know in a sense is not so bad, but I think you could actually get a lot of the sense quicker and easier.
I also think that it’s important, when you get to “Camera PANS to find a sturdy, wooden DOCK,” camera pans to me implies that we’re sort of static and then we move. But this all feels like it should be in motion anyway, like whatever eats Jonathan, maybe we’re that. Right? Just moving through. So there’s a sense of discovery.
Your first line is Exposition Theater. “I think you’ll find the biggest catfish in Bayou Baptiste right here off our dock.” Oh, do you? Right? So I think we don’t need that, right? I think that’s a line that can just go. I think you can start with, “It really is beautiful here. You’re a lucky man.”
And so there’s a little bit of – you can see you’re trying to get some of this information in. I wouldn’t panic about it. The thing about the opening of a pilot like this is it’s all about surprise and mood. We will find out who that dude was, where he was from. Don’t care. He’s got eaten. I assume he’s dead. Gone. So, I don’t care if he’s from Wisconsin. I really don’t.
And I think there’s a question of perspective. I want to know that the perspective here is with Richard. I would love for this to be a little bit more from his point of view because he is the one in charge here. I mean, the powder to me was good mystery. I assume the powder is either meaningful or just a side bit that he does, because the great catfish monster doesn’t need – whatever it is, I was fine with the mystery of it. It’s really just about I think writing less and creating perspective. Before anyone talks, the perspective as you move through. And then trying to root out some of the unnecessary exposition. But it was very – I like that he got eaten by an invisible fish. I assume it’s an invisible fish. It might be something else.
John: So, I’m going to disagree with Craig and so I think–
Craig: But I’m right though. I mean, you know that, right?
John: So, what I wrote here was that this is the upper limit of scenery setting, but I think it hadn’t crossed too far. And so it was skating right there at the very edge, but I though the alliteration helps. It helps put me into a place and to a certain mood. And so the sweaty, sickly sweet swamp of Louisiana air. Great. I had the same note about I don’t know what a breathy morning is. So it pushed a little too far. But I dug what you were going for and I could feel it, I could see it. There was a tactile quality to it which is great.
I’m also going to disagree with Craig a little bit about Jonathan. So, Jonathan, the Wisconsinite, I sort of knew he was chum from the start because I was only given the Wisconsin thing. And so some bit of specificity or something that gives Richard something to play off of, or something – a response that’s not just about “let’s push him into the lake.” There could be something more there so it’s a little bit more of a misdirect. Because I felt I was a little ahead of you because I could see what the setup is. Once there was a glance to the wife I’m like, OK, he’s going to die for some reason.
Daniela, often we talk about the difference between mystery and confusion. And you work for a company called Circle of Confusion. How often—
Daniela: It’s a cinematography term.
John: Yeah. Is this a thing – were you confused in these pages or were you intrigued? What was the line for you?
Daniela: I was intrigued more than I was confused. I think the beginning with names like Jonathan and Richard, at times I felt I had to revisit who was who. And that might be a byproduct of me not being from the States, so those names are foreign to me. And so, yeah–
John: Daniela, you’re from Venezuela?
Daniela: I’m from Venezuela. And I grew up in Southeast Asia. So, you know, names like Yosuke and Mohammed were very much my Jonathan and Richards, or Jorge and Fabian. So, yeah, and I think that creating a little bit more of distinction between the two of them and also using terminology like having an “upper class accent of someone from a very old and very important Louisiana family,” I don’t know what that sounds like.
Craig: I’m from the United States and I also don’t know what that sounds like.
Cullen: I did.
Craig: Well, yeah.
John: So Cullen, talk to us. What does that sound like?
Cullen: I think it’s a sort of self-important, heightened southern accent.
Craig: But you do acknowledge that unless we’re from Louisiana like you, we would not know that.
Cullen: I guess I would have replaced – you could replace the word Louisiana with southern is how I kind of read it.
Craig: Like a gentile, aristocratic southern accent? I would know what that is.
Cullen: Like I grew up in Lafayette which is a sort of Coonass/Cajun accent. There’s a different New Orleans yachty accent. So maybe you do have to be a little more specific.
Craig: Yeah, I don’t know what any of those things are.
John: I want to talk to you about on page two, so midway down the page Jonathan turns and watches Richard. Bewildered. And then Richard says, “Voodoo ritual. For the union of predator and prey.” Those were moments where I felt like it was just too leading. Like I just knew something terrible was about to happen here. And so to back off from that, or to at least keep us in a little bit of a question could really help us out there. Because by that point I sort of knew like, OK, a dark thing is about to happen. And especially because it said teaser from the very start. Like, OK, someone is going in the lake. I was a little ahead of you there.
Craig: Yeah. You know, the other thing about Richard, because he survives this teaser and Jonathan does not. I really can’t tell you anything about Richard. It would be good if there were something intriguing about Richard beyond simply the actions of what he is doing here. If I got a sense of something. A history to him. A sadness. An excitement. Is he nuts? Is he murderous? Is this really depressing to him?
I just need something there to fascinate me with the human beyond the ritual itself.
Daniela: Yeah. And just to add onto that, especially since this is a pilot, like we need to be very invested in the character. And the narrative engine isn’t just plot. So having an opportunity to be really invested in this person. Is he an anti-hero or a hero? And creating that central dilemma within even the teaser itself.
John: Cool. Can we have you come up and so we will ask you these questions in person. So let’s all give a round of applause. Jenny, where are you from and what else have you written? Talk to us about–
Jenny: Pretty sure you could have guessed that. Yeah.
John: And have you written the full pilot? Or just the teaser?
Jenny: Yes. This is written.
John: Tell us about Kevin who appears on page three and doesn’t do anything.
Jenny: Well, the funny thing about, you know, y’all were saying make sure Richard has some distinguishing things and some more character development stuff. The funny thing is on the next page that you don’t have, all those folks die.
Craig: You mean Richard and–?
Jenny: Richard and his wife and his son.
Craig: Oh, that’s a lot of death in four pages.
Jenny: All die. Yeah. It’s to set up, our hero is going to be the grown daughter of that family, who is going to come back to Louisiana to take over the family business. The family business is a very quaint, beautiful bed and breakfast, but the real family business is doing this.
Craig: Got it.
Jenny: So, yeah, it’s about the daughter. But I wanted to set up that this is a normal thing for this family. They all know about it. This happens on the somewhat regular.
John: Great. And so good about the bed and breakfast, because that was one of my questions for you, too, is I thought your landscape was beautiful but I didn’t know what it was connected to.
Jenny: Right, OK.
John: And so I guess that this guy was probably a guest at something like a bed and breakfast, but it was a little too disconnected. And I think if I had felt something about something to indicate that this guy was a guest here or that there was something in the distance, the plantation house in the distance. Something there that would connect this to a place.
Jenny: OK, yeah, totally. I understand that.
Cullen: Yeah, I thought it was maybe a work conference of some kind.
Daniela: A film festival.
John: So, talk to us about this pilot. So it’s a one-hour pilot. Is it written with act breaks or as a straight-through like a cable?
Jenny: It has act breaks.
John: Great. Tell us what your first act break is.
Jenny: Let me think. Let me think. My first act break. Holy cow. I’m completely blanking. You guys make me nervous.
Craig: I know. This is the worst feeling, isn’t it?
Jenny: It’s so terrifying.
Craig: Yeah. Because your mind goes blank.
Jenny: My mind is blank. And it’s really good, you guys. It’s a super good act break.
Craig: It happens to me all the time. It’s the worst feeling. I assume that when your first act break happens there’s probably some revelation about what’s happening in the water. Or maybe the daughter kills somebody. I’m just guessing. I’m trying to help you now.
John: Let’s all speculate. It’s OK.
Jenny: Holy cow.
Daniela: Is it the daughter like taking on the responsibility of like this is me now entering this world, like accepting her fate?
Jenny: She’s the last in a very old bloodline and, because everybody else has died, this is now her responsibility.
Craig: But she knows what they do, right?
Jenny: She knows what they do but she has had the luxury of like moving away and forgetting about it.
Craig: She doesn’t necessarily like that they do it?
Jenny: No. She doesn’t like it and she doesn’t think she wants to be a part of it.
Craig: Can I just ask you a question? Because I’m so fascinated by the fact that she comes back to do this. It’s really, really interesting. I’m not saying do this, but from the perspective of a girl coming home and like doesn’t want to see her parents. We think it’s just this regular grown woman coming home for her parents and the whole thing. And there’s the dad out in the – where’s your father? Oh, he’s taken somebody fishing. And she’s like, “Oh, god.” And she goes out there and she walks out. And then we see him with this guy, chit-chatting. And he kicks him in the water and she’s like, “Ugh, I’ll be inside.”
You know what I mean? Like “whoaaaaaaaa.” Anyway, I just love the idea of this woman knowing this and having this creepy family and then – now I’ve just changed everything. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. But that would be exciting to me because there would be a relationship that I cared about that lasted.
Jenny: Right. OK. I could do that.
John: I think you raise an interesting point though. What is the tone of this overall? And so from this, this could be a dark comedy, or it could be Breaking Bad. There’s a whole range. It could be True Blood. What does it feel like to you? Is there an analogous thing out there?
Jenny: It’s a southern gothic horror story. So it’s very much like Fall of the House of Usher. We’re going to go into some deep family shit.
Craig: Fall of the House of Usher certainly has that.
Jenny: And I just listened to Craig’s talk, so I’m fully prepared to talk about theme.
Craig: Oh, good good. Good.
Jenny: But it’s sort of the theme of the sins of the father visited upon the children. So this is an old Louisiana family, named after my family, who–
Craig: Did they do this?
Jenny: This is their curse. I am a swamp monster. This is their curse for the legacy of slavery in the south is having to do this.
Craig: Got it.
John: Great. Jenny, thank you so much for these three pages.
Jenny: Thank you guys. Thank you.
Craig: All right. Are we moving on to the next one? All right. So our next Three Page Challenge comes from Andrew Cosdon Messer, and it is entitled Seaworthy.
A derelict sailboat floats in the open ocean. A catamaran carrying dad, 50, and the girl, 14, approaches. Dad jumps into the sailboat and when he confirms that it is safe to board he beckons the girl. Upon seeing the starved bodies of a family in there, the girl points out these people did not eat the others when dead. I guess it means didn’t eat each other when dead.
The girl removes the corpse boy’s clothes. Corpse boy.
John: Yeah, corpse boy. The unpopular sequel to Corpse Bride, yeah.
Craig: Sequels are hard. The girl removes the corpse boy’s clothes and thanks him. Dad and the girl bury him at sea. The girl, holding the family’s bible, wonders if they should say something. Dad says, no, it clearly didn’t help them. A storm is approaching and the girl asks if they can outrun it. Dad thinks not. When the girl notices a spot of blood on her seat, she reaches into her shorts to check for more. Panicked, she calls to her dad. He finds a rag, but he is not equipped for this. Probably not.
And so that is Seaworthy. So, maybe we’ll start with Cullen. What did you think about this and how did it strike you?
Cullen: I was intrigued. I sort of – I liked the world. I had, you know, to John’s point, I think it was slightly over the line of mystery versus confusion. On a personal level, and to be hard on you, I felt like the writing was very self-conscious. And I had some questions about, you know, for instance what is a “faded man” and what does “an extension of the boat mean.”
There’s a line, “Names will come later; they have little use for them now.” As a reader, it’s like, well tell me their names. I get that – it felt sort of effort-heavy in that regard. And yet at the end of the three pages I wanted to know are we – I guess my questions, which were good questions, are we going to be at sea the whole time? What is this sort of ritual and this world? Who are these people? That was sort of my initial reaction.
Craig: All right. Daniela?
Daniela: Yeah, just to echo that, I felt that there were a lot of interesting like movements in this, but there were too many details, or too many – I was like, OK, did this girl just get her period? And now we have this relationship with her dad. OK. And then there are corpses. And then there’s also this biblical element. And I just felt like taking a step back and being like “Let’s explore these characters within this scene, but not have these elements weigh down it.” Because I kept trying to like sift through everything to be like what am I sinking my teeth into? The fact that there are dead bodies in this boat? The fact that this girl has this relationship with her father? Or where they are?
So there were more questions, but they weren’t story questions. They were more just about the world itself.
John: So, we’ve seen a version of this scene a lot, which is basically it’s scavengers in a post-apocalyptic world. So oftentimes they’re in the desert. I think I’ve seen boat versions of this before. But it’s a good version of that. And so I was happy to see these are people who are going through their ordinary life even though it’s a really hellish, something terrible has happened.
And I was curious for the natural reasons of like, well, what happened to this family out here. Something terrible has happened.
There were moments where — I don’t know that there was too much detail, but I had a hard time locking into some of the details. An example would be they find these bodies. And so the girl ducks inside to see the abandoned interior and the starved bodies, a family. But what does that look like? And I was trying to figure out whether that means are they bloated, are they mummified, are they skeletons? Where are we at? How much time has passed?
And that feels important for this kind of story. It describes the visual world we’re in and sort of what this is going to feel like. So that texture felt really important to me.
I shared Cullen’s frustration of these characters not having names. Because even if they’re going to be dead on page four, you know, like Jenny would do, I want to know their names because that makes me invested in them, even just for these three pages. And because they have enough lines of dialogue, I felt like they needed some names.
There’s also, in a slug line we have – or sort of intermediary slug line – “The girl, 14, she can drive better than that.” I like that as an idea. But then we go to, “The lanky teenager stands at the stern of the catamaran, wearing a SHELL PENDANT and a bemused smile.” I just got confused of like – we have a reaction about her before we’ve ever seen her or sort of know what she’s like. So, just the order of events and the order of descriptions I think could be optimized a little bit better here.
Craig: Yeah, I think that there’s a really interesting scenario and I think you are probably – I agree with Cullen, you’re one notch a little too far on the mannered side of things. You don’t have to actually impress anybody with action. And you never need to be clever. The weirdest thing about screenplays, you never actually need to be clever. We sometimes find clever things in screenplays and that have turned into wonderful movies and we think that’s why. But I assure you by the time those pages were being handed around to grips and electricians, nobody gave a shit about the clever. It’s really what’s underneath. It’s the performances, the actions, and the intention.
So, “Faded man, steady on the deck, extension of the boat,” is clever. I’m not really sure what it means. And also I just think it’s ultimately bric-a-brac here.
I think you may have a dramatic ordering issue. There’s something fascinating about seeing a father and a daughter on a boat. I would describe maybe a little bit more about them. Have they been out there for a long time? Are they weathered, sun-beaten? Did they look hungry? Chapped lips? Like what’s going on? Right?
And then I would start with her getting – if you want to do a girl getting her period and not knowing what a period is, which is really informative about the world we’re in, I would do that first. And like deal with that weirdness. And then they bump into a boat and they’re like, oh, let’s check it out. Now that we’ve handled the trauma of the period that she didn’t know was a period, then when she goes into a boat and finds a dead family and she doesn’t really react strongly to that, we go, oh, well that’s interesting. We’re starting to get more of a sense – there’s a dramatic ordering I think that would help you there.
I have no idea what starving bodies look like. All bodies are starving. Because they can’t eat. Right? I mean, all bodies. Starved people look exactly like well-fed dead people after a week. They are all sort of the same. So I kind of got caught on that as well.
And I agree with John completely – some of the ordering – I think you have a lot of ordering issues. So when you say, “The girl, she can drive better than that,” I liked that concept.
Take a look at the way – you’re doing a lot of that kind of break up stuff. Normally I love lots of white space and everything. But, “ANGLE ON a healthy boat, bobbing alongside. THE CATAMARAN.” That’s all in caps. Then, “A faded name is engraved on the once-futuristic twin hulls.” By the way, I have no idea what once-futuristic twin hulls means at all. And then it says, “Seaworthy.” But I thought it was named the Catamaran because it was all in caps there. So I’m starting to get a little – and all those things are – so I think just weeding out some of the stuff, ordering it a little bit better.
I really did like these moments where you’re indicating attitudes in sparse ways. She sees a family of dead people and she says, “They didn’t eat him.” And he says, “No, they didn’t.” So I really like that. And I was interested in their relationship. The most important thing I think that can come out of three pages is a sense of a relationship that matters, even if it’s between one person and an environment. And here you have two people.
And so I think there’s really promising stuff here. I just think you’ve got some ordering and some reduction to work on.
Cullen: Their dialogue together helped sort of establish this relationship that I was very intrigued by. For me, the very end of the three pages went to a very basic thing with writing, at least for me personally. I’d be curious what you guys thought. But show don’t tell us. So, dad doesn’t know what to use. They’re not equipped for this. He’s not equipped for this. I would rather see that in his actions than be told that.
Daniela: Yeah, I agree. Like what is that frantic father looking for something and that realization—
Cullen: It’s a really interesting moment and dynamic, but you’re just telling me that as opposed to—
Craig: Yeah. I agree. I think in a moment like that I would probably just write, “He stares for a moment, blankly. Then turns, goes inside, rummages for a rag.” We’ll get it. You know, like we understand. There’s some things you do need to tell people because the circumstance doesn’t clearly lead to a certain kind of reaction, but in this case I think we would be able to do the math. And it’s always more fun to do the math.
John: I want to look at a moment on page two. So there’s a new slugline for “EXT. THE DERELICT. LATER.” Later can be anything. And so I don’t know if later if five minutes later or if it’s three hours later. So I would just call out a specific amount of time because it feels like the kind of story where the time is important.
Then it cuts to “EXT. SEAWORTHY – DAY THUNDER echoes. Dad scans the clouds.” So that’s a time cut. Like time has sort of passed. That felt like a good moment for a transition to or something else to cue us into we’ve moved on, we are no longer dealing with the abandoned derelict.
Lastly, I would like to – I actually really liked the period being the last thing we saw in these three pages.
Craig: I’m so right about that.
John: Here’s why I think it’s good and why it’s interesting. As I said at the start, we’ve seen this kind of setup a lot of other times, and usually there’s a monster. There’s going to be a zombie. There’s going to be something else terrible that’s going to happen. And so for the surprise at the bottom of these three pages to be like a normal, natural human thing was really interesting to me. So that actually made me want to read what happening next a lot.
Daniela: I have to be really honest though. I had to reread it several times.
Daniela: Did this girl just get her period? Because I think it’s the way it’s written. You can be – kind of make people uncomfortable with the fact that here’s a girl that just bled on the seat and now how is she checking if she doesn’t know what exactly is happening. Because otherwise I was like, did she just – like there are dead bodies in the boat, so is it something else that’s causing it? And it’s the world that can cause that confusion. And it’s only until it says he’s not equipped for this I was like, “Oh, Daniela, you’re so foolish.”
So, you can make it very clear.
John: A question for the two of you guys. This is on your desk. You’ve read these three pages. How many more pages do you think you would have kept reading?
Craig: He’s right there.
John: I know. He’s right there.
Daniela: This is an honest exercise.
John: Just based on what you read, how intrigued were you to read page four, page five, page six?
Cullen: To your credit, I was. If I wasn’t gripped by their relationship and also had answers to the questions I had by 15 I would have put it down.
Daniela: Yeah. I would say I would want to know what’s going to be the inciting incident of like this is the world that they’re in, so what’s their call to action. I’m sure when you come up to the stage we’ll know more about it. But if I don’t get to that, even by page 10 of that, “OK, what’s the story going to be,” I’d put it down.
John: Cool. Andrew, come on up here. Andrew, thank you for sending this in.
Andrew Cosdon Messer: Thank you for helping me out.
John: So tell us what this is. First off, is this a feature or a pilot?
Andrew: It’s a feature. Feature drama.
John: And our dad and daughter the main characters?
John: Great. At what point do you give them names? Or do they never get names?
Andrew: She gets a name right around the first act turn. And he gets a name right in the middle of the second act.
John: And why that choice?
Andrew: I wanted to leave them as their relationship, which was dad and his daughter. And they don’t have anybody for the first act. It’s just them. And then they have to sort of rejoin civilization and society. And that’s where names come into play was how do we identify you. And I ran into trouble – the reason that line is in there is because so many readers said just give them names. Well, they don’t have the names because when he’s referring to her as her name, it sounds clunky when they’re talking to each other.
Craig: But he could call out to her.
Andrew: Which is exactly how it happens. He does call out to her.
Craig: But in the middle of the movie?
Andrew: At about 27 pages in.
John: He could do it on page one there when he says, “Jenny—“
Daniela: “Jenny, you just got your period.”
Craig: He could do it when he does it and you could just tell us what their names are. Because the thing is it doesn’t actually impact the movie. It only impacts the read.
John: Yeah, exactly.
Andrew: And now I understand, that’s what I’m doing. It’s impacting the reading as opposed to what’s onscreen.
John: What is the nature of this world? Obviously you’re saying they’re not meeting other people, at least for this first act, what has happened? Basically you’ve answered my question. How long are the people that we see in the derelict boat, how long have they been dead? And will we know what killed them in the course of this movie?
Andrew: We won’t know what killed them. Just the starvation was the idea. They ran out of food. But mummified was the answer. They sort of dissected and dried out.
I like to think in my mind when I wrote it this is what happens when the world ends out of food and people have to sort of get – the land can’t support life anymore. So that’s what has driven people to survive wherever they can. Our story happens to be on a boat, which is the easiest way to survive.
Cullen: Which I feel like it’s going to be food wars, next, depressingly enough.
Andrew: And also water wars, eventually, sort of in this.
John: More questions?
John: Andrew, thank you so much. This was awesome. Thank you. All right. Our next one is called Finding Mason. It is by Amy Leland.
John: Finding Mazin. That would be a tragic comedy.
Craig: You found me.
John: Yes. A woman in her 30s, Mary Richards, hangs up her wall phone, takes a deep breath, and goes to wake a young girl, Sam, 10, who is asleep next to her dog. She tells Sam that they will have to go pick up Mason. Sam resists saying she’ll just take the bus to school. It sounds like this happens a lot.
Mary insists that they go. At the police station, an angry Mary leads Mason, 14 and innocent-looking, out to the car. Sam and the dog scramble to catch up.
As they drive, Mary seethes. Mason takes a sip from his mom’s travel mug, but the coffee is cold. He pours it out the window, but then accidentally drops the mug. He timidly alerts his mom, who throws the car in reverse to make Mason pick it up. But he can’t, because she has run over it.
Mary and Mason reluctantly burst into laughter, but Sam remains annoyed in the backseat. And that is how far we’ve gotten at the bottom of page three.
Craig, why don’t you start us off? What was your first impression reading these pages?
Craig: They were very nice. You know, they were nice. These are hard to evaluate in terms of projecting out where this goes. I think this is probably a movie, right? Thank you, oh, there you are. Because there are some movies that are very much a family study and the first three pages aren’t going to have killer swamps and boats of corpses and stuff.
And so what I’m then looking for on pages like this is a sense of verisimilitude and reality and a consistent tone and that was all there. I’m just going to give you one little thought that’s sort of a general creative, and then I want to talk just about how you’re writing this stuff out, which is a little bit of a problem.
We find Mason, her son, right, and he’s 14. And we’re sort of fascinated because this kid apparently has been arrested. Again. And what happens after didn’t make me feel what I think you would want me to feel. I’m not sure what you wanted me to feel. But certainly there’s this interesting turn that you’re intending where this kid is a juvenile delinquent and a recidivist criminal and her son. And but what he does is kind of cutesy – there’s nothing really interesting about it to me. Where I kind of fell down on these was the mug bit. Because on that page what I wanted – if this mother is going to start laughing, then I want something else that’s just fascinating to happen there. And it wasn’t quite fascinating. It was just sort of mundane. And I’m OK to live with mundane for page one and page two as long as this moment of getting out of jail gives me a little bit something more. Or, there is no laughing, it’s just drive home.
The other thing to just take a look at is your formatting. I’m not a formatting Nazi by any stretch of the imagination, but you’re costing yourself a lot of page space here. There are these big gaps between the end of your scene and the beginning of a next scene. I don’t know how to count paragraph breaks here, but I like a nice double space before INT. something. But you’ve got like a triple space going on.
Amy Leland: I swear to god Scrivener just did that.
John: Oh Scrivener.
Craig: Oh Scrivener.
John: All right. Are they sponsors or something?
Craig: It wouldn’t stop me, as you know. When we’re in parentheticals we don’t capitalize. It’s a little jarring to see that. And you really never want to end a dialogue break with a parenthetical under it.
John: Yeah. That’s a thing you do in animation but you never do in live action.
Craig: Correct. And again we’ve got some random capitalizations sticking up in there. So, stuff like that – you’re kind of going a little crazy on the parentheticals, which I don’t think you need. But, you know, by and large I was with you here until that third page when I wanted more. I wanted to care more.
John: Daniela, what was your first read on these?
Daniela: So, I really like the intimacy of the characters and the story and sort of this mom’s struggle. But it was kind of unclear to me whose perspective I need to sympathize with until the very end of the three pages, where it’s like this is Sam’s perspective on her family dynamic. And so looking back and like is it then from her perspective whether it’s a phone call that interrupts her sleep, and then her mother waking her up. And I don’t want to put words in your mouth of just whose perspective are we following throughout the story.
I would agree that there’s a lot of heavy detail that I don’t think is necessary, because it sort of distracts me as to – I don’t really care where Cinco’s head is when they’re sleeping, or when they’re in the car. I think that that can all be condensed and made more precise. I think I wanted more from Mason coming out of jail and just, you know, like their attitude. Once his character is introduced, I felt then that every character had the same like dimension to them until Sam’s reaction to their laughter. So just adding a little bit more of a dimension I guess is the word that I’m going to use again.
John: Cullen, your first impressions?
Cullen: I will probably be a little repetitive. I think similarly I had a point of view question in terms of is this Sam’s movie. And, like Daniela, had the thought, OK, then we probably shouldn’t start on the mom and see her enter the bedroom. It should be either like the first moment is her being woken up.
I was really compelled and intrigued by that dynamic of clearly this has happened before. She’s waking her daughter up in the middle of the night to go pick up her son. The daughter is saying I need to go to school tomorrow and the mom is like, “Well, so what, you’re coming with me.” Like that to me is a really sort of fresh interesting dynamic, so I was intrigued by that. And then like Craig, it was sort of – I was really confused and baffled by that last scene. And it also felt a little clunky of like so we dropped a mug, she rolls in reverse. Like was it a paper mug? Was it a glass mug? Like it just didn’t feel real to me, whereas up until this point it had a pretty – to your point – intimate, real family dynamic. And that scene left me really confused.
John: Cullen, I thought of you as I was reading these pages because it reminded of some Sundance scripts that we’ve read in that sometimes their story space is small, and intimate, and sort of like stories that get overlooked. And yet sometimes when we read these Sundance scripts, these writers are newer at the craft and so I would see things – I would see craft issues that I wouldn’t see in other writers’ scripts. And so I’d have to blur my eyes to not see those things and really see what was underneath that.
And that’s kind of what I felt like here. Another example would be like you have headers on your pages and you don’t need those headers. You just need page numbers. It felt like your screenwriting software, Scrivener we can single out, was doing some things that were sort of fighting you on some stuff. And I think just through writing more and through reading a lot more scripts, you sort of get a sense of vibe of what works on the page and what you don’t need to put on the page.
There’s a lot of very specific direction for actors in terms of looking this way, you know, basically where everybody is in a space. And you find an economy where you don’t need to do so much of that. So when you do call it out we really pay attention. Because sometimes when there’s longer blocks where it’s just where everyone is looking we don’t pay as much attention.
I thought the coffee mug moment could work. What I liked is that bump where he drops the coffee mug. It’s just unexpected. And so I think there’s a version of that scene that I think could be really effective. But I wonder if it’s really going to work if we don’t know anything about Mason’s voice or know anything about Mason. It feels like if it had come after a fight or an argument, and like then it happens, then if I’m invested in him as a character that coffee mug moment could play better.
Craig: Yeah. There’s something just missing in the purpose of that moment, I think. Because if I have a mother who is dragging her daughter out of bed to drive to jail, once again, to get the kid out. And she puts him in the car and I’m sort of marveling at her patience, and her emotional restraint. And then the kid drops this coffee mug and she flips out about the coffee mug I think, OK, I understand. The coffee mug is there really just to sort of show that she was hanging on by a thread and anything could kind of make her go. But that’s not what happens here.
And so I’m not quite sure – in the end it sort of just feels like a little bit of a contrived moment to have a family laugh in a strange situation. So I think it’s probably not the right choice there to pay off what you want to pay off. I completely agree that if we’re talking about this from Sam’s point of view we want to start on a sleeping face of a kid being jostled by a hand – like when the Peanuts teacher is sort of like into frame. Just to let us know. And then I would try and keep it all within her perspective.
Like the mom is going into the jail. She’s sitting in the car. Is she looking out the window? Or is she in the waiting room? Everything should be from her point of view. Her noticing – all of it – it will be so much more interesting I think.
Cullen: Yeah. To add on to what you’re saying, I think if you showed at the jail a little bit more specificity of the dynamic between Mason and the mom from her point of view, then maybe that coffee mug moment could work.
Cullen: But we don’t get anything. It’s sort of like they sort of march out all silently and you don’t know – I think you could hint at what the mother’s head space there is pretty subtly and effectively that then would allow that next moment to work more effectively.
John: Yeah. You can envision the scenario where you’re setting up the coffee mug as an important prop from the start. Basically they’re getting in the car and she leaves the coffee mug up on top and as an audience we’re thinking, OK, she’s going to drive off with the coffee mug up top. And she remembers and she brings it in. Then you’ve shined a spotlight on that coffee mug so we’re looking for it down the road. That may help you.
And getting back to Sam’s POV, it comes down to even sort of scene geography. So on page one, she hangs up the phone, she walks down a hallway, she opens the bedroom door. We cut to inside the children’s bedroom. Really practically that can be just inside the children’s bedroom looking out, and that tells us that it’s Sam is the important one and the mom is looking in. And so it’s a simplification on the page but also helps us focus on what’s going to be most important here.
Daniela: Did you guys crave description of the bedroom for the child’s bedroom? Because that was something that I was like what kind of family is this. Because then when it’s this phone call of “My kid is in jail,” I’m like “OK where are they socioeconomically.” And you can get that from description of the bedroom, or even of the car. Because otherwise I’m projecting a lot of things onto this, and I don’t think that as the writer you want that, because then you’re going to get different kinds of reads from other people.
Craig: That’s a great point. I completely agree. You know, like my whole obsession about hair and makeup and wardrobe. But it really does help people to see – in this case also set dec. I mean, we’re really talking about the department heads who will eventually be asking these questions if they don’t know the answers from the page. And so you’re always balancing too much versus not enough, but certainly it seems purposeful that they have a certain socioeconomic status.
This is I assume a single mom in 1981. The boy is dirty, right? He’s like physically dirty. He’s bedraggled, I believe. And he’s in jail, again. This feels lower socioeconomic. And so you do want to kind of just set it. You want to feel it, you know.
Cullen: Even as much like do they share a room? Is this her own room?
Cullen: There’s a bed on the other side of the room that’s completely made up, so you know the kid snuck out. There’s just little details that I think would add so much.
Craig: I agree.
Cullen: And even I had a question for you guys, because I wrote it down “Where are we?” And then you tease out like Texas Oklahoma drives by, which was helpful, but I did have the question like should we know that sooner. And maybe the bedroom would even hint at that’s where we are.
Craig: A good old license plate will tell you a lot. And also because you’re a period piece, showing these little things, you know, what does a poor kid in 1981, a little girl in 1981, have on her bed stand? What is that 1981 thing? My sister, because we didn’t have money, and so my sister had like stickers. Definitely had stickers. You know, the rainbow unicorn stickers, the puffy ones. And then posters from like Scholastic Book stuff, you know, because they would give you those for free.
So there are just things that you can do to help give us a sense of time and place and make us feel – you actually, it’s so weird how you begin to feel more for a human being when you believe them and they’re not just as a prop for a moment of action. You know?
John: Last little sort of craft thing. On page three, we use the word seething or seethes three times. And so seethe is like a special word. Any word that sort of stands out you don’t get to use it very often. So, use – one seethe is plenty.
Also, multiple punctuation can be useful when you really, really, have to single out something as being a giant question or a giant exclamation. But it happens twice here, so I think dialing back on that will help you out as well.
But let’s bring you up here, because we want to hear the rest of this.
Craig: All right. Amy Leland.
John: Amy, thank you so much for submitting these pages.
Amy: Thank you.
John: So tell us about – is the whole script written?
Amy: It is a feature. The whole script is written. I actually submitted the first draft to this conference two years ago, because I use this conference as my deadline, so I submitted a first draft I knew would never go anywhere, but I made myself do it.
Craig: There you go.
Amy: And it did not get to the second round and I got some feedback that really helped me understand why. And I’ve gone through several rewrites and a reading with some wonderful actors in New York. And you all have actually also answered a huge question for me that nobody has ever had before. I now really get the three page thing. He wasn’t in jail. He was at a police station. He’s a runaway, not a criminal. And so now I’m like, “Oh, I need to make that more clear.”
Craig: Oh, yeah, because I was thinking about like the police station has the jail in it, like the rural police station always has the jail. Oh, he’s a runaway.
Amy: The first six pages of this screenplay are autobiographical and then I completely fictionalize it from there. But the coffee mug moment was actually an ashtray and in one of our first readings somebody said, “Your lead mother is letting her 14-year-old smoke and isn’t making him stop and now we hate her.” And I was like, “OK, great, it’s a coffee mug then.”
Craig: No, actually, that is so cool. And I would go back to it. I swear to god. It’s really interesting. Because that’s real. It’s 1981. So my first year of high school was 1984. And in New Jersey in 1984 in like shitty – well, I grew up in Bruce Springsteen’s home town, which if you’ve heard the song you know how shitty it is. And I went to the high school he went to. And we – I mean, I didn’t start smoking until I was 17 I think, which is still a dirt-baggy age to start smoking. But 14 year olds, 15 year olds would stand outside underneath this overhang and that was the smoking area.
People – kids smoked in 1981.
Amy: Yeah, my brother gave me my first cigarette.
Craig: Yeah. It’s real.
Cullen: Also, how telling of that relationship, too.
Cullen: The fact that she is letting him and the daughter feels like the outsider. Go back to that for sure.
Craig: There’s so many ways to actually make her sympathetic. If he’s like, “Can I have a cigarette?” And she’s like, “Yeah, but you got to quit, man.” And he’s like, “Well you got to quit.” Or Samantha is like, “You both got to quit,” and they’re like, “Shut up.” Whatever. There’s so many interesting ways to see they’re tortured and they’re struggling. That’s so much more interesting. And now it’s just a coffee mug. No, you find that person—
Daniela: Yeah, find that person. And I also think too often writers are so fixated on, “Oh, my character needs to be likeable.” Your character needs to be relatable.
Daniela: So, a mother who is a single mom who is sort of exhausted by having the same conversation over and over again, we can all relate to that. And so having that moment, you know, that’s totally fine.
Amy: Thank you.
Daniela: And just adding—
Amy: No, my mother actually like reminded me of that story when I told her I was writing this. She’s like, “Oh my god, you have to put that story in. I love that story.”
Cullen: You guys must talk about that frequently, about the word likeable.
Craig: The worst note in the world.
John: Tell us your thoughts.
Cullen: I just loathe it so much, because what does that even mean? And I don’t want to like someone. I want to understand them and be interested in them. And for me, and maybe it’s a taste thing, but I would so much rather someone who is dark and twisted and deplorable because I understand where their actions are coming from than someone who is likeable. Like it drives me insane.
Craig: I believe that we on our show have called it the worst note in Hollywood. Because it is. It’s not only wrong, it’s damaging. And, in fact, if you take even a moment to look at movies and television that not only a lot of us individually like, but have been incredibly successful. Just factually financially successful. They have characters, they feature characters that are loathsome, and then you kind of like them and it’s fascinating to see your relationship with them.
It’s the stupidest note. So never. No, never. Never I say.
John: Amy, thank you so much for submitting these. Thank you so much.
Amy: Thank you.
Craig: All right. Well, we’ve got one more. So, our last Three Page Challenge comes from writer Jess Burkle. And it is entitled American Fruit.
In Costa Rica 1904, Charles Keston poses in an explorer outfit for a portrait. He insists that it look dignified and the fresh-faced photographer gives direction. Satisfied with the photos, Keston suggests that they stop there. He conspicuously name drops his girl back home. When asked about her, he quickly asks the photographer to forget he’s heard that. Heaven forbid that rumors start swirling.
The photographer points out that they should see Keston’s railroad in the photos. He’s right. Maybe Keston hasn’t been doing enough pointing. Keston spots a bunch of bananas and runs to collect it for a prop, but he doesn’t see the snake that gets shaken out of it.
While posing again, Keston spots the snake approaching the photographer but is unable to speak. He points furiously, but the photographer mistakes it for posing. The snake bites the photographer, who collapses. It seems that he is dead and that Keston is now alone in the jungle. And that is American Fruit by Jess Burkle. John, kick it off.
John: So, I understand that you actually have a history with Jess Burkle. So this is not a stranger to you.
Craig: We lived together for four years. Where is Jess Burkle? Hey! How are you doing? I was a judge, I was a judge in the final pitch contest here last year. And I remember your pitch for this. I remember you were hysterical. And you got a pretty good placement in there, right?
Jess Burkle: Second.
Craig: Second. And I remember, I may have been – anyway, you did a really, really, really good job. It was a very funny pitch and you had terrific energy. And so now here we have some evidence.
John: Yeah. And to be clear, Megan was the one who picked it, so you had no idea that this was–
Craig: Yeah. No, I did not have my–
John: And now everyone knows where Jess Burkle lives because his address is on the cover page. Brave choice. I thought these were delightful. Here’s what I thought was so delightful about it. It had a very clear voice. I completely heard who this character was, what this universe was, what this world was. And I was very curious to see more. I mean, it felt like The Office but sort of in a banana republic. And that is a delightful idea. And it worked really well for me.
I have a bunch of little exclamation points down my pages where it’s like, “Oh, that is a delightful line and a really nice choice.”
There were some awkward moments on page two, where the photographer tries to set up like shouldn’t we see the railroad from here. I had a hard time getting between those lines. It felt like there was kind of a time cut that you’re slicing over in the top of page two where the photographer starts packing up.
In general I felt like the photographer is just there to set up the volleyball for the other guy to spike. And I get that, but I just wanted to have a little sense of who he was. Is he a BJ Novak character who is like really smarter than all of this but is just putting up with it? Some sense of who that guy was, even though he’s going to die at the end of page three, which seems to be a recurring theme among our guests here.
But I was delighted to read them.
Daniela: Yeah, I mean, I thought that this was a really fun and there’s a clear juxtaposition between the photograph and the reality. And kind of getting into those thematics of projection versus reality.
I agree with the note of making the photographer like an essential character, because at the very end you end on a note of Keston is all alone and it’s only because the photographer is dead, but I was like the photographer has just been taking photos, so that feeling of doom should have always existed there because that guy didn’t really serve a purpose. So if it’s beyond that of the photographer knows more than everyone else, or the photographer is essentially the guide for Keston and now has died, then the question of now what, we’re invested in it.
So, trying to weave in those details in the teaser would make it much more stronger and then make that note land of the hilarity of like, “Oh shit.”
Cullen: Probably just on a personal taste thing, it didn’t give me as much glee, although I did get a very specific voice which I appreciated. I guess on a macro level, if I’m reading this and thinking, “Oh my god, I can’t wait for the rest of the pilot,” I didn’t have that gut feeling. And maybe because it’s a period piece, it did have that sort of Buster Keaton quality which I liked. And almost silly. But that also made me have more of a tonal question at the very end, because now he’s all alone in the jungle, and is this supposed to be comical or is it actually kind of dangerous?
That was my personal question. And then I also had the note what is a “rancid tire” and how does that look like when it deflates.
Craig: Well, we’re going to discuss tone in a second for sure. But I have a question for you. Keston is American or British?
Craig: American. I’d love to know that, because unless you’ve told me here – I don’t think you have. No. Because this first page is kind of – I love the first page. I love everything about the first page. I love the way it’s laid out. I love Keston’s dialogue. I love the photographer. I love the photographer’s reaction to him. All this dialogue is fun. It’s funny. You’re intelligent. People don’t necessarily need to know what a fauteuil is to understand that this is funny. Because the photographer is like, “Like that rock.” “Ah, yes. More Antony, less Cleopatra.” What the fuck is this guy talking about?
You get it. You get that banter and that back and forth. You get that this guy is pompous and pretentious and is trying really, really hard. So page one, wonderful.
But at the bottom, he slips and falls backward with very little grace, landing as if he’s never touched soil before. So a physical gag like that I don’t want to be interrupted with a photo. It’s going to be tough to pull that off. If he’s, “Thusly?” and then he slips and falls and smashes his face on the rock, that’s funny. You know, I mean, connect it to his attitude. The interruption of it was a little—
Now, page two, he has this thing where he drops this bit about his girl on purpose and then says, “Oh, I don’t want rumors to start.” What is his intention there? You don’t have to answer it now. You can answer it when you get up. But my point is I wasn’t quite sure. I wasn’t sure if Keston knew this photographer, or if Keston was trying to – maybe there are rumors that Keston is gay and he’s trying to puncture that balloon. What is he exactly up to in that bit? I was kind of confused about what you wanted me to feel.
“Shouldn’t we see your railroad from here, Mr. Keston?” It surprised me that this goof has a railroad. I was actually kind of shocked by that. Then the snakes.
Now, here’s the thing. If you’re going to go broad, and this is suddenly very, very broad, then I think it’s funny to have Keston get bit by the snake himself. That’s funny. The photographer gets bit. I don’t know that guy, so it’s not that funny. Plus he is dying, which is super not funny. And the foaming from his mouth and the convulsions, and then the urine, is super not funny. Right?
And at that point I’m so confused about what movie I’m in. I want to be in the movie on page one. I mean, to me, I read page one, I’m like, oh, Paul Rudnick wrote a movie about a banana tycoon and I’m having such a great time.
If you want to do page three movie, then I think page one and two have to be different. So those were all the things that were running through my mind.
Now, all that said, I just want to say great job. Everything was just nice and crisp, clean. I liked the descriptions. I liked the way things were laid out. I felt safe. Except for the moments where I didn’t feel safe. It was axiomatic, wasn’t it?
John: I want to talk a little bit about Keston’s character and sort of the foppish, dandy kind of quality. Because on page three is the first time we say effeminate, so “Terrified and effeminate, Keston URGENTLY POINTS to the ground.” In a period piece, to single out somebody as being effeminate reads a little bit differently, but we’re also reading it in 2017. So I would just be mindful that it doesn’t come off as homophobic, which it can come off a little bit homophobic when you single the thing out.
So watch the words you’re using to describe him, because let his actions sort of do that work for you. Be careful not to put too much of a label on him, because it’s going to read a certain way reading this right now in 2017.
One other thing I wanted to single out is it alternates between what the photographer sees and sort of the black and white and the color. And so the black and white could either be the finished image or it could be literally what the photographer is seeing through the lens. If it’s what the photographer sees through the lens, that’s not black and white because it’s still color. But it might be upside down, it might be flipped in an interesting way. So, if it’s meant to be his point of view I think you’re going to need to make a different choice for what that actually looks like from his side.
Anything more before we bring him up? Come on up here. Let’s talk more.
Craig: All right, come on up.
Jess: Thank you. And I recently moved, so it’s OK. Different address.
John: So don’t hunt him down at the address that’s listed here, which was 104 8th Avenue.
Jess: 8th Avenue. Six years there. It was great.
John: All right. So this is a pilot. It’s a half-hour or an hour?
Jess: It started as a half-hour, but it ended up being an hour. Yeah.
John: And where are you out with it now? Have you done any readings? Have you done any stuff like that?
Jess: I’ve taken it around. And I’ve gotten management and an agent from it.
Jess: And so now it’s starting to–
Craig: Is it them? Is it these two?
Jess: You know, open these doors, because – not yet. Nothing’s signed yet, so.
Cullen: Just the client we want.
Jess: Yeah, exactly. And so it’s getting some good feedback because people say they haven’t seen something about Oscar Wilde running the banana industry in Central America which is what it’s about.
Craig: Exactly. Oscar Wilde running the banana industry.
John: I suspect this is all really quite good. But I’m curious what else you’re writing right now based – what else are you trying to do and what are you aiming to do?
Jess: What I’m aiming to do is be a TV writer that I recently learned more does drama with funny moments. Like a Fargo level comedy inside of really tight stories. So I recently finished a project actually about Johnny Russo who was a recent How Would This Be a Movie. I just wrote a pilot about that and two other French women who are double agents in different time periods. That one is very serious. And now I’m writing a comedy about a lesbian couple having a known donor IVF in Park Slope.
So, I like going after kind of these human stories, but trying to make funny things happen out of them.
Craig: Tell me, what was going on with the name drop here?
Jess: So, the backstory, or what we come to learn later on is Charles is on the run after he’s been discovered as a homosexual at Harvard University. And so his family essentially says why don’t you go down to Costa Rica and run our railroad, which normally they never have anything to do with, that’s why the railroad isn’t there. And what he finds out at the end of act one is that the company was actually an elaborate Ponzi scheme. There is no money. And now he is alone in the jungle with no money. But he has to still pretend to society and to Boston that he is a winner. And he came here to start an empire and all these kind of things. So that new world hubris that we had at the top of the century.
Craig: Great. That works.
John: That works.
Craig: That totally works.
John: Jess, thank you so much for submitting your three pages.
Craig: Awesome. Thanks.
Jess: Thank you.
John: So, to wrap up here, I want to thank our four very brave people for not only submitting their pages but coming up and talking to us.
Craig: Fantastic. Thank you guys.
John: I also need to thank our producer, Megan McDonnell, who is over there.
John: I want to thank the Austin Film Festival for having us, especially our room manager, Katie. Katie, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, Katie.
John: And a reminder that there is a live show tonight, so come to that if you want to come to that.
Craig: Yeah, we will be pretty lit up for that one.
John: Uh, Craig will be.
Craig: Definitely show up.
John: But I especially want to thank Daniela and Cullen for joining us up here. You guys were so, so helpful and generous.
Daniela: Thanks for having us.
John: Thank you guys very much.
Craig: Thanks everyone.
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