The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 330 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast, it’s a special episode. This is left over from the Austin Film Festival, but it actually has its roots before then. At a live show we did in Los Angeles we played this little game show thing. And the guy who won the game show had the opportunity to have us read his script. And this is us talking to that guy whose script we read.
John: Yeah. So, his name is Andrew Thalheimer. It is a pilot. And so as we’re recording this Craig and I have read his first script. He’s gone back and done a revision based on what we talked about. If that script is available we will link to both versions of the script.
Craig: I hope it is. That actually would be kind of interesting for people to see.
John: Yeah. But it was a really good discussion. So, we were just chatting in Austin about sort of what he’d written and sort of why he wrote it. Andrew’s background was really interesting. He’s a former police officer. He wrote this police comedy-drama. It had a really interesting tone. I think a lot of our conversation was about the tone. So, this is that conversation. I hope you enjoy it. And we’ll be back with a more normal episode next week.
Andrew, welcome to this little special edition.
Andrew Thalheimer: Thank you very much for having me here.
Craig: Welcome Andrew.
John: So, tell us about yourself as a writer. You sent through a one-hour pilot. Is this the first thing you’ve written? How much other stuff have you written?
Andrew: This is the first complete one-hour pilot I’ve written. I’ve been writing my whole life. Screenwriting for a few years. I actually went to graduate school in Boston for screenwriting.
Craig: You went to graduate school for screenwriting?
Andrew: I see you jumped in on that.
Craig: That must have cost a lot of money.
Andrew: It didn’t.
Craig: Oh good.
Andrew: Yeah, I got all the assistantships and all that kind of stuff. Otherwise a very terrible decision.
John: So talk us through a little bit more. You grow up. What did you do for undergraduate? What was your degree?
Andrew: So I’ve bounced around the country and also bounced around colleges. I started out pre-med. Didn’t last for long. Journalism. Didn’t like the who-what-when questions. Realized I liked the why and how questions. Eventually got my English degree, which is completely worthless also. But somewhere along the way I found screenwriting. That was in Albuquerque. Their film industry was getting pretty big at the time. And it was just a format that I enjoyed the medium, the visual of it. And not that I was a die-hard movie fan growing up. But I liked them enough and the fact that I was writing things that could be seen instantly excited me.
John: And so why graduate film school? Why this particular program? Which program did you go to?
Andrew: I went to the Boston University Screenwriting program. I was living in Boston, for some reason doing construction. Just like renovating 250-year-old homes. And driving home one day in December in Boston and I said this is terrible and I don’t want to do this for three more months even, let alone the rest of my life.
So, I applied to that program. And I had still been writing all that time but I guess in my warped mind that the comfort of going back to school was going to make it all right.
Craig: Sure. I think that’s exactly what they offer. And there is value to it. I mean, it’s a scary prospect because the world of professional screenwriting has no ranks, no paths, no milestones. It just is this weird thing and you sometimes don’t even know if you’ve made it or not. I mean, we’ve talked about like nobody really makes it exactly. It’s really amorphous. And so there actually is great value, at least early on, in having some kind of regimented path for yourself. And sounds like you managed to get through it without it costing you any real money.
I mean, that’s the most important thing.
John: So, was that one year, two years? How long was the program?
Andrew: They have a four-semester program and optional semester out in LA, which I did that as well. And I’m fortunate enough to have a wife who is a teacher to support my–
Craig: Screenwriting habit.
Andrew: Stupid endeavor.
Craig: I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t say that.
John: So after Boston you moved out to Los Angeles and you’re living on the West Side now. Your wife is a teacher?
John: And are you working as well?
Andrew: I am working for a development company, yeah. So reading scripts, running bizarre errands.
Craig: That’s good actually. The reading of scripts I think is probably quite enlightening.
Andrew: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Craig: I mean, you did that, right?
John: I did that, yeah. So, I read for a company called Prelude which is based out of Paramount. I read for TriStar for a year. And you end up recognizing a lot of patterns of like these are things I don’t like, things I never want to do, things that would never work for me on the page.
So, what you’re reading, is that mostly features? Is it TV? Is it everything?
Andrew: It’s everything. Probably more TV now. And the thing probably that I’ve learned the most being there, besides getting into the scripts and seeing what I like and dislike is how they go through the development process. Even just in the idea phase, which has always been a struggle for me. Finding – you were calling it the central dramatic argument yesterday.
Andrew: It’s always very vague for me. I have it there, but bringing it out has always been a real struggle. So, being in the development – in a development company has really helped with that.
Craig: You start to see how it’s important for other people’s work.
Craig: And what it does for it. Good. Great.
John: Cool. Let’s talk about this script. So it was written by Andrew Thalheimer. Story by Robert Kulb and you. Who is Robert Kulb?
Andrew: He’s a friend of mine from Philadelphia. We went through the Philadelphia Police Academy together in 2004. I lasted three years as a cop. And that was plenty for me. I actually worked in the neighborhood that Rocky lived in in the first couple of Rocky films. It was a lot nicer 40 years ago than it was when I was there.
He’s still there. He’s a sergeant in Philadelphia. But we were friends from the beginning because we talked about books and writing and bizarrely that’s not what most cops talk about.
John: So this feels like a crucial piece of bio that you sort of gave short-shrift to, because your background as a police officer going through the academy is so helpful for like framing context around this. So, if I read this script without knowing this, and knowing this, I think it changes my perception of the read. It changes on sort of like what I’m going into with expectations. And I think it helps to know that you are a former cop going into this, because it makes me sort of – I don’t know, it gives me a little more benefit of the doubt of some of the things that could seem unlikely.
And it also helps frame for me that we’re going over the course of a night and it’s sort of like the routine, but also the surprises that happen over the course of the night.
Craig: I agree. It is good context to have. In my mind I presumed that your dad was maybe a cop. That you had a police officer in your family. But it’s really interesting to know that you were the police officer. I do think that’s very helpful for people to know. I mean, I don’t know how you exactly convey that information when you send this script around, but hopefully you do. Because it will add a legitimacy to things. No one will ever pause and go, “Has this guy done his research? Do cops really do these things?”
Andrew: It’s super bizarre.
John: So talk us through where you’re at right now. So, you’ve written this script. Do you have an agent, a manager, any of that stuff? Has that happened yet?
Andrew: No. It hasn’t happened yet. I’ve been in LA just about a year. Sort of second year goal is to see if I can some kind of representation.
John: All right. Well let’s get into it. So, as I was about halfway through the script I realized it was a different thing than I thought it was going to be. And I thought it was going to be Jack and his original partner and then I realized, oh no-no, it’s actually in a weird way kind of like Hill Street Blues but in a world where Training Day exists. So, it’s about the routine life of police over the course of a night but in a world where bigger, badder things have happened and can happen. And where language is more realistic, the heightened way that we sort of do our things right now.
And if I keyed into that a little earlier I think I would have been more on for the ride. I don’t know about you, Craig, but I had a hard time sort of getting placed within the story at the start. I like the frenzy, I like the partner and sort of how wild and weird stuff was at the beginning, but it was so disorienting I didn’t know kind of what movie I was in, or what kind of pilot I was in for probably quite a ways into pages. You?
Craig: Yeah. There definitely is some tonal confusion going on. So I want to know how I’m supposed to feel about moments. I mean, really that’s tone ultimately does. It gives us a sense of the rules of the universe we’re stepping into. Obviously in this room there’s a certain tone that we have. And then when you’re out with your friends at a bar there’s another tone.
When this opens up, there is almost a kind of – I guess I would call it a black comedy kind of tone to it, because these are two cops. One of them is under surveillance. And it feels like a comedy. The way he’s reacting to the way the cops are and suiting up and getting hit with the bean bag and going in and going out. And meanwhile there’s gazpacho going on. All of that stuff feels very broad actually.
So, what the rules of the beginning are telling me is this isn’t really serious. It’s not Police Academy goofy, but it’s somewhere in the middle like a Raising Arizona version of a police story.
John: To me it almost felt like a Bad Boys. That sense of like – and you’re making a terrible face at that – but the sense of like it almost felt flashy and exaggerated in ways that the rest of your script doesn’t really get to that place. So like he’s pulling a flashbang out of a plastic jack-o’-lantern. That doesn’t feel like the rest of your script at all. And so because it’s the very first thing we’re seeing, that’s what I kind of expect the world of this universe to be.
So, talk to us about sort of your decision to open with the former partner and getting arrested and that stuff rather than starting on Jack and Daniel.
Andrew: Can I go pre starting the script just for a little context? I don’t like cop shows. I guess I liked them a little bit before I was one, and then I didn’t. And then after being a cop I despise them. I always thought that the realest cop show was Reno 911! I think I have a line in there about the absurdity of policing and I can’t remember the other word I use there. But it really is. Nothing really makes sense. And narrative tries to make sense of it in movies and TV. And then it’s not real.
And I know we have to entertain and we experience it through narrative, so that beginning was my effort at giving a story engine to this series and to this world that is very episodic and bizarre.
Craig: Well, it’s really interesting because part of the beginning, you were at the Scott Frank thing, right? So Scott and I talked about the first ten pages and how important all of that stuff is. So part of the beginning is you’re educating me about the way this is going to work. So the first thing I think it’s really important to do is put yourself in the shoes of everybody that knows nothing.
And we have expectations. One of our expectations is we’ve seen a whole bunch of cop shows. If your purpose, and I think it’s an admirable one, is to say I don’t like cop shows. They actually all suck and they’re not true to reality. Reality is bizarre. I think first though you need to put me in a cop show. And then you need to go, wah. Right?
So the opening is this ain’t your dad’s cop show, but that means first let’s set up some – put my feet up on the ground first. Because I start this way without my feet on the ground, I have no idea what I’m in. And I don’t know if the point is this is how reality works or just this is a broad show. Because when I watch Reno 911! I take it as a comedy that doesn’t look like reality at all, because that’s how they intended.
So, in your script here what’s the moment where you go that’s this tiny thing that epitomizes the real bizarre absurdity of being a cop?
Andrew: This isn’t really crime related, but the scene with the newspaper chicken man. Today actually my friend Bob Kulb sent me a screenshot from Facebook, this is the four-year anniversary of when he actually experienced that–
Craig: The guy making the chicken in the empty newspaper?
Andrew: Right. And he was a guy that my friend encountered on the street regularly and they got into conversations, got to know each other, exchanged recipes.
Craig: See, OK. That was a very cool moment. But then that moment to guide me in – by the way, that’s a more interesting beginning to your show, I think, than what you have, crazily enough. And to guide me in, I see a cop pulling up on a homeless guy and there’s a fire. And you’re like, oh boy, here we go. Right? And he gets out of the car and I think this is going to be a show where a cop harasses a homeless guy. Maybe the homeless guy has started a fire. Who knows what’s going on?
And he walks up to him and he’s like, “So what’s it tonight?” And they have a discussion and we see then he’s cooking the chicken and they have a discussion. He’s like, “All right man, take it easy.” And he gets back in the car and drives away with a wing or something. You go that’s what policing actually is like. But it has to start, literally the first shot has to I think welcome me into something I’m familiar with before you pull the rug out. I guess that’s how I would put it.
What do you think about that?
John: I get the idea of the inciting incident being that the original partner is gone, but with the original partner gone I didn’t know sort of who was important in that twosome and so then when the partner is gone I didn’t know that I was supposed to be focusing on Jack, because I thought maybe I was supposed to be focusing on the other guy. And I got confused where I was at. By the time – like within this first initial sequence, then this badge gets pulled out, and then there’s a graduation. And that all felt like at such a different scale than sort of like the people are storming down the castles that I had a hard time believing that moment right then.
You know, it’s interesting that on page four is the first time that he said like, “If we weren’t cops, if we weren’t white cops, then this would all be going very differently.” But before that point I assumed, and I think you kind of wanted me to assume, that these were bad guys. That these were somehow genuine criminals in that sense. So start – finding a different way into it that feels more like your show I think is going to help you, because the rest of your show doesn’t feel like that first initial thing.
And I get the drive to have something big and exciting to have some sort of scale at the start, but I don’t know that that’s especially going to help you. And it’s not setting you up for the contract that you’re going to make with your audience which is basically we’re going to follow in largely kind of real time, or at least continuous time over the course of this day, and all the things that will happen along the way. And things will be set up and payed off, but sort of sequentially. And that there’s a central twosome that we’re going to follow, but there’s an ensemble of other characters who are going to keep recurring throughout this night.
It’s a more familiar pattern, but it’s also within that familiarity, within that expectation you can sort of show all the things that are different from the normal.
Andrew: It’s actually unsurprising to me that you guys got so caught up on that opening, because I wrote I think eight openings, completely different openings. And, you know, this is my first finished TV pilot. So, how to actually write a successful pilot is tough.
Craig: Well, the beginning is sort of the big advertisement for what you are and what you’re about. Think about how The Shield began. That sort of established exactly what you needed to know about that show, right? We’ll begin with a regular cop show. Uh-oh, pull the rug out from under you and that’s going to be your series from here on out. This is a bad cop. We get the deal.
And so I think you just – of all your eight openings look at the one that you think kind of does the best job of selling the heart of your show and what’s special about it which is the natural viewpoint of a realistic day on the beat.
Now, you have certain requirements. So we talked about how translating real life into movie life can sometimes just turn into boring movie, right? So, you have so many things going on here. I feel like you kind of were like, oh my god, I’ve got 20 freaking great stories. Let me shove in like 17 of them. You don’t have to do it quite like that. I think you can pick your two or three favorites.
Then there is this traditional narrative you kind of have to move our heads toward. Because we love the little stories, we love the touches, but the traditional narrative is the thing we’re going to stick with. Something has gone very wrong in the beginning. And I think a police officer getting arrested for some kind of crime is serious. And being paired with your own son is kind of crazy. And how that pays off at the end. That narrative, which is all fictional, I think needs to be the focus. Not all the stories. Those stories are great to be informative, but I do feel like sometimes you’re working really hard to get them all in.
John: Yeah. I do wonder if you’re asking us to take two big leaps right at the start. The first is that this guy’s partner is being arrested and that he’s under suspicion. The second is that he’s going to be partnered with his own son. Both of those things feel unlikely. And two unlikelys together is a big ask of the audience.
So, there’s an argument to be made for we don’t see the partner. You know, the partner is set up and that he’s gone away, but we don’t see that as being a big focus. We don’t establish him as an individual character we’re going to meet. That the only ask you’re making of the audience is he’s getting partnered with his son and there should be maybe a little bit stronger a story point for like why they’re doing that. There’s a specific thing. So the guy who is making the assignment is doing it for a very specific reason. Essentially he knows that Jack won’t be able to do certain things because his son is going to be with him. Or some logic for that. There’s a reason why they got stuck together. And that creates a good tension.
Because I don’t see Daniel ever really asking the question like how did we get partnered together? Because it seems unlikely and I don’t see Daniel ask at any point in the story how this happened. He just sort of rolls with it.
Is it natural to be partnered with a family member?
Andrew: It’s not. And that was actually the original premise of the series. But as this is not enough to drive a series. And so I imposed the partner thing. And then I created a whole series arc for that.
Craig: Well, you know, the series is about an experience of a world, because this isn’t a miniseries right? It’s meant to go on and on right? So it’s like Hill Street Blues, you are creating a world of characters that have a soap opera relationship with each other. And I never mean that in a bad way. I mean, Hill Street Blues is a great, great show.
And then each week stuff is happening. And I think that John’s right. You have these two major shifts in this man’s life. One is losing a partner. And one is being partnered with his son. A traditional narrative way to do this, which isn’t always the worst thing in the world, is in the beginning of the show his partner is arrested. He goes to see his son graduate. He and his son have clearly a difficult relationship. The two of them split up. The son is now on the beat with some other person as a rookie. The father is starting to investigate what’s happened with his partner. And the two of them intersect. And by the end of the show they decide they should be partners, or they are told they are going to be partners for some reason that’s logical. So, your show ends with a big “Oh God” this is the new real.
When we start it that way you’ve immediately let a lot of air out of the balloon I think. Because we’re like, wow, god, we get it. This is the series. Father and son on the beat together. And…there they go. Right?
You have I think probably cheated yourself a little bit of some great conflict. The other issue with the father and the son right now is you’ve done I think an excellent job of conveying believably the reality of life on the street for a cop. But then there’s the reality of the life between two human beings you have fictionalized. And I’m not quite believing the relationship there between the two of them.
They don’t really seem like they have a history together. They don’t feel lived in. Fathers and sons have very complicated relationships. There is so much to say about a father who is a cop and then a son who decides he wants to be a cop. There’s a lot to say about that. Particularly if maybe they don’t get along. Now I’m all ears. Because I love that stuff. I don’t like you but I’m trying to be like you? Oh, this is good, right?
But that history, that lived in thing, their discussions, their reference points. I know the way it is with my son, who is 16 now. At some point you teach them, you teach them, you teach them, and then at some point they’re like, “Stop telling me how to do things. I’d rather just fall and fail on my own.” Well, now we have a father and a son. The son is grown. He’s a man. He’s a cop. But the father knows way more than the son does. How does that work? All that stuff is really juicy.
And that I think is more interesting to follow. It’s like what Scott was saying, the character part. That’s ultimately what will keep people watching.
John: If I had skipped over the part where it explained that they were father and son and just like if I did that thing that they talked about on the Three Page Challenge where they read the first few pages and skipped and read the middle pages, I would have guessed that they were uncle and nephew. Because it honestly felt a little bit more like what their relationship was in the sense of they knew each other, but they weren’t close. They were family but they weren’t – I didn’t feel like the father authority kind of thing very much happening in here.
And I felt like they got along fine. I didn’t feel the tensions I would expect to see between a father and a son. I’m not saying that’s a better pitch for that, but I think right now it feels – I’m not feeling the father and son. And I never got a sense that Daniel was ever going to turn on Jack, or could turn on Jack. And in a weird way because he’s his father it would be very unlikely that if he found information that Jack really was dirty that he would turn on him.
I would say just be thinking about where you want the audience to be sitting in terms of their feelings about each character. And I think it’s great that they have some real questions about what Jack has been up to and what Daniel is really doing there. If we found out that there’s a second conversation happening with Daniel about keeping an eye on Jack, that’s really interesting, too.
Craig: Like IA suddenly gets their hooks into Daniel. I mean, look, the son and father being teamed up as partners on the street is really interesting. The fact that the father might be dirty and the son is super straight-laced is really interesting. The fact that the father is innocent and maybe keeping his son out of trouble and we think it’s the other way around – there’s so many things you can do with that.
Do you have kids, by the way?
Craig: OK. But you had a dad?
Craig: And still do?
Andrew: Yeah. Who is not a cop.
Craig: Got it. But you have a dad is my point. So you know how you are with your dad. And if you guys were on a job together just imagine that day. And there’s just stuff. There’s a whole lifetime of stuff. And I think it actually is great. I think the concept of it is great. It’s really fertile territory. You just have to now start planting seeds and growing it. And concentrating on that.
It’s so much more important for us to believe that and find what’s fascinating about that than for instance some of the kind of interesting garnish that comes on about people trading food for beer for favors. Which is all fun, but the father/son story is where this is at I think. So that’s where I would start. I would dig in hard on that.
John: Yeah. Because if you think about it, this is going to probably be the most time they’ve spent together for quite a long time. To be next to each other for an entire shift, that’s a lot of time to be spending with your dad. And so I think that could be an interesting dynamic you stick in there, too. Because you know your partner should be a confidant but also your coworker and all that stuff. But when it’s also your dad, it puts in a weird extra pressure on it.
Craig: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Typically when we put two people together like this neither one of them likes the idea of it. And for good reason. If you’re going to put a father and son together on the job, I want to know that both of them are going to say, “You’re out of your mind. Absolutely not.” And why are they being put together? Two reasons. One, the reason that you cook up in your show. Two, you’re the writer and you’re forcing them together because this is what needs to happen with these two. And that is where it gets fun.
John: Yeah. So let’s talk about the words on the page. Because the writing reads fine. It reads really well. And so I had no trouble getting what you were going at and your descriptions of actions were really good. But I had a hard time though, sometimes I finished a scene and I’m like, wait, what was that about? And some of that I think is a deliberate choice you’re making that the world is just sort of chaotic and stuff just kind of happens. And that’s good, until the point where I can’t sort of figure out why did you show me that thing.
And there were definitely times along the way where I was like I don’t know quite why you showed me that thing and I didn’t have enough connective tissue to understand why that scene was there rather than three pages earlier or three pages later.
An example of something you come back to rhyming a couple of times is the stuff with the pools and the guy who drove through and smashed the pools and then coming back, replacing the pools. I felt like there was an opportunity to take an event that happens at the end with the Vietnamese restaurant.
Craig: It was like a convenience store.
John: The convenience store. I felt like that might be a useful thing to sort of layer in earlier on. Like this is a place we either visited earlier on and then there’s a thing, so then when it gets to the end that whole sequence, which is bloody and gory, it’s something we’re surprised by but also expecting. I mean, that sounds contradictory, but it’s a place that’s familiar to us and it was in one context at the start of the show and it’s a very different context now. Where if it was just a place where this is the place where my dad and I had this annoying fight about this stuff and then suddenly this is actually a place where like a guy is bleeding out, that’s really interesting.
And that also gives me some confidence as a viewer and a reader that there’s a reason why the writer took me to these places earlier on.
Craig: I mean that’s really important. The kind of notion of deliberate plotting. So the things that happen are paying off things that we have seen. And it does kind of come back to this question, the thing that you said you’re still kind of digging into, which is this theme or the point. We don’t have to say central dramatic conflict. That’s just my baloney lecture term.
Andrew: That’s very guru-y.
Craig: Very guru-y. What is the point of this? What are you trying to infect in my head with this?
Andrew: So the point of this, the theme, is what I started with. I never wanted to write cop dramas. But with all the police stuff going on, don’t even have to elaborate at all, something that was very intense in policing and you hear about the brotherhood is just loyalty. And it’s a great value and you know you hear it with Trump and how important loyalty is and how it’s above everything else. But it’s also total garbage sometimes to put that above every other value and I saw that as the reason for so many issues in policing.
And not even this major external stuff like covering for a partner who has committed crimes. Continuing with the way the institution does stuff, being loyal to the institution, being loyal to other people who are loyal to the institution. And I don’t know how that changes.
John: So let’s try and get that down to a single statement and see if we can get that down to–
Andrew: Here’s the theme. Here’s the theme–
John: So you actually have a dedication page where you talk about how cops are essentially all lone wolves, or it was better phrased than that.
Craig: They’re a pack of wolves, but–
John: But they’re all lone wolves. And you’re trying to get to that loyalty point. Is your central thesis or your question like is loyalty toxic, or loyalty is toxic. Loyalty is a corrosive force. Loyalty will drown us all. Like I think those are all really fascinating things and you’re actually well set up to explore those things, particularly with the bond of are you loyal to your family. Are you loyal to this oath you’ve taken which is sort of internal loyalty? Are you loyal to your fellow cops? That’s really interesting and compelling. And I think that is a great thing to build all these branches off of.
Craig: I agree. I think that now that I hear you say that it seems to me if I were working on this episode, this pilot, and I know that’s your intention, I have a father who has a very nuanced, experienced, muddled up understanding of loyalty because he’s had to live it, right, is to walk the line. And he knows he has made bad choices and he’s made good choices. He’s not a bad guy, but he knows he’s covered for bad guys. Right? He’s in, he’s up to it to his waist. He’s not in over his head but he’s up to his waist.
And here’s his son who doesn’t want to put up with any of it. His son who believes that – who is modern. Who has come into policing in the midst of a policing crisis and who believes that his loyalty is to oath and justice. And at the end of that episode if that son lies to cover for his own father, I know why I watched this episode. Because I have now seen a little bit of the mud rise up and now I’ve seen the father realize what it’s doing to his kid and I’ve seen the kid realize that he has the same problem inside of him as his dad. And now it’s universal and I totally get it.
If that’s what came through. So that’s what I talk about like in the structure thing. If I can go from that, I can go backwards and now start engineering things. So I know I want to end in this bloody mess at Tran’s, right, then in the beginning there’s going to be something where that kid is saying to his father, “You’re doing this wrong.” And his father saying, “This is kind of how it has to be.”
And at the end the thing the kid warned him about has come true. People are dead. And even so the kid backs up his dad. Now I have unity. So it’s really thinking through from that point. Let that point guide you.
And then you have – once that point has kind of driven you through and you understand how this story is serving that, then you have the gift of all your knowledge, of the things you have that nobody else has. Lindsay Doran always says, “What can our movie do that no one else can do?” Well, what can your show do that no one else can do? Chickens in the empty newspaper box. Right?
So do that. For sure. But that’s your thing, right? That’s what makes your show special. But, got to drive to that point. And then I think you will find yourself far more organized. And you won’t have that feeling that John has where he’s like why did I just watch that scene exactly, because you’ll know why it’s there.
John: So this morning you were at my lecture on want, right? This is only a couple hours later, so you probably haven’t thought through everything in terms of that, but I’d ask you to look at especially Jack and Daniel in terms of what they want. And what they want in the short term, but what their overall goals are.
So I think I hear Daniel articulate a bit about sort of his vision for what he sees the role of a police officer to be. I’d love to know that a little bit more clearly. Again, I always say like if this was a musical what would the song be? How would he express what he’s hoping for someday to get to a place? And I want to hear the same thing from Jack. And especially what does Jack want for himself but also in terms of his son? And sort of what choices is he going to make to get himself closer to those things?
There were times where I think I was confused in scenes because I didn’t know what they wanted literally in the moment. What were they trying to do? And so I would see them do things and I guess that’s a thing that a police officer does, but I didn’t see what their ambition was or motivation was right in that moment.
And then I would finally say the degree to which you can show us some private wants, things that each of them wants individually that the other one doesn’t know about, that’s also super helpful. So that may be just layering in the conversation with another character that one doesn’t hear, or the thing which we as an audience can see that the other character doesn’t see, so we get a little bit closer to them. And we get some insight that nobody else in this world has. That’s really helpful when you do that.
Craig: You know what I was just thinking, I really like that – I assume this is part of your realism that there’s a stolen car, they see the stolen car, they pursue the guys who flood the stolen car. They catch the guys. And when they come back someone else has stolen the car. I assume that really happened. Ish.
Andrew: To that effect, yeah.
Craig: That’s great. And I believed it. Like I saw that and I’m like, yeah, I bet that happens all the time. That’s, now put that in the context of the relationship between these two people. It’s the old bull and the young bull. And here’s the son saying, “No, we got to do this right.” And the guy is saying, “Forget it. Let it go.” And the end of that scene is, “See, dumb-dumb,” except that in the end-end if the guys they let go – and I know you bring it back, you bring the car back, but it’s almost like a random thing that came in. And I wanted it to be meaningful. I wanted it to be like that car kills someone.
The point being you can’t let it go. Right? But you just have to sort of deal with the insanity of it and keep trying. Just finding the relevance of these things so that it all fits and knits together. And what John is saying is 100% correct. You can’t get there unless you know from the start what it is – like I know what Daniel wants, I think. He wants justice. He wants to be a good cop. He wants to make a difference. Make the world a better place. Right? But what Jack wants – that’s where it gets interesting. And I’d love to know.
I’d love to know. And I think then you get him out of just comically cynical old cop who has seen it all and into a human being who has an agenda and unfortunately his job and his agenda don’t always match.
John: Where is your head at, Andrew? What do you see Jack wanting right now?
Andrew: So you had mentioned earlier how you sort of give away the series premise like seven minutes in, or I give away, and my reason for that was to immediately put Jack at a crossroads in his life where his way of being a cop for 20-plus years was just loyalty to cops, to copping. And now he has got a son who is idealistic, questioning his every past conception of how things should be done, and it’s dissonance for him.
Craig: That’s how he feels.
Craig: And, by the way, he can feel that way prior to actually being teamed up with his son. In other words, the fact that his partner just got busted I think is a huge crossroads for him, or is about to be busted. And the fact that his son is now a police officer to me puts him at a crossroads, even if he’s just wandering around. But what does he want?
John: Does he want his son’s respect? Does he want his son’s admiration? Does he want his son to be partnered with somebody else so that he doesn’t have responsibility for him? Does he want his son to not be a cop?
Craig: Does he want something that has nothing to do with his son? Does he want to retire with money?
Andrew: I would say all of those things he wants and there’s not that clear driving want in this episode.
Craig: Well, I think there has to be a clear driving want. And I think it has to be sitting over his entire existence in a sense. Because make the world a better place is something that sits over your entire existence. And it predates the show. Because Daniel graduates from police academy in this episode which means he’s already been there for a while. This has been going on for him for a long time.
Jack has been a cop for 20-plus years, right. And he now wants something for sure before this episode starts. Something big. Retire. Get out. Maybe he, too, wants to make a difference in the world, make the world a better place, and he’s trying. And he just doesn’t quite know how. Maybe he’s trying to get off the hook for something.
It could be a hundred different things. Maybe he’s trying to make up for a mistake he’s made. Whatever it is, it has to drive him. And then what happens is you put these two people back together who have helped make each other. And you watch as they begin to interfere with what each other one wants. And then you got a show.
John: Let’s talk about next steps for this. Because I feel like this show coming from a former police officer is much more meaningful than this show coming from some random writer. So I think your bio is always going to be part of this show. In the next draft of this, in the draft that’s good and tight and sort of thematically works for that I think it’s a really interesting sample and I think it presents really well as you’re trying to find managers and stuff.
What else are you writing? What’s the other things that are high on your list to get written?
Andrew: So you had talked earlier about the tone being different at times, which is really just a combination of the different tones that I write. So, dark comedy, some supernatural thriller, a little magical realism in there.
John: Magical realism like in a Guillermo del Toro? Or a Tim Burton?
Andrew: Guillermo del Toro. Maybe a little toned down. I’m not having a whole lot of monsters, but curses and that kind of thing.
Craig: Well, this is the time when you should be writing as much as possible. Especially because you don’t have kids. You may one day have kids soon and they, as John and I have mentioned many times, they do sap away your life force, because the universe is aware that you’ve replaced yourself.
So this is a wonderful time for you to write-write-write. And, look, you’re reading during the day, you’re working during the day which is super important for your own mental health and sanity and economic viability in the world. But then you have time before you go in, there’s time after you go in. And I would say be really rigorous now with yourself and just keep going ahead.
John: Who else has read this script that we read?
Andrew: You are the first actually.
John: Well, Megan was the first, but we’re second and third.
Andrew: When I won I was like let me see how fast I can get something out that I care about. Because the best thing I’ve written is the thing I’m about to write.
Craig: By the way, true for us all and it never changes. And it’s important to actually appreciate that. That you keep getting better. Every single one of these experiences changes you and makes you better.
John and I have both been in this bucket before. I’m telling you, Scott Frank left me in a curled up ball one day. And it was remarkable. There’s a kernel here of something fascinating. There is a world that you’re on the verge of that’s fascinating. Really thinking about how you begin and just these two people. And let all the rest of that stuff go away and just think about how do I begin and who are these two people. Just them.
And you heard Scott talking about how he’ll just write that isn’t screenwriting but notes and things and we were saying you need to know more about the world than what you’re showing, because it will always inform everything. All the little cracks will feel weirdly filled in, even if you’re not spelling it out, because you know more. That’s the kind of work that needs to be done.
And then when you have that done, then you move onto your next most important character. And then you really start doing it with them. And you just work it, work it, work it.
John: Yeah. I would really focus on mapping out that central relationship and what’s going to be fascinating. And just take a step back and ignore the plot and sort of police world of it all, because you know all that stuff. And that all felt really, really true to me. Just focus on what we want to see from them.
It might be useful because you’re thinking of this as a TV show, think about sort of where this would go over the course of eight episodes or something and then what would be the most interesting thing to see in that first episode. And what would really lock you in. Because with a pilot writing sample you’re trying to show really great writing and really great development within the course of that one episode, but also that sense of there really could be a show here. He actually understands what – this isn’t just a short movie. This is actually something that can keep going. That you gave us a lot, but there’s still a lot more to give. And I think you’re going to have that stuff. World-wise, you definitely have that stuff. Make sure we feel that character-wise you’re going to have that stuff and that we’d want to keep coming back to see what was going to happen next to these two guys.
Craig: Exactly. Like here’s a great example from your script. At one point they go to talk to the guy that does the police horses in the stable. Interesting side trip. Felt educational. Felt sort of like here’s a bunch of stuff that you didn’t know about horses, like why they wear the wagons and stuff, why police horses have the blanket stuff. Not helpful to the relationship, the world, the character, the building.
If it came out through something that mattered, and it was impacting their relationship, or their purpose, or their connection, anything, if they grew up riding horses. If he used to put him on top of the horse when he was a little kid. Do you see what I’m saying? Suddenly it’s about them. Like then I get it.
But if it’s not about people stuff that is universal to all people, not just cops, then it becomes a little show and tell. And that’s interesting. It’s not dramatic. You know what I mean? That’s the key.
John: The other thing I would say is as you’re talking to people about this pilot and sort of what your intentions are, we have an expectation of police procedurals that they are going to solve a mystery, and you don’t seem to be interested in solving a mystery at all, which is great. So it’s about policing, which in a weird way is just like keeping a tamper down on things, making sure it doesn’t get crazy. As you describe to people I would make sure you’d describe what kind of show this is. So in your pitch that I was a cop, I don’t like cop shows, so I wanted to write something that was more true to what I thought was fascinating about this universe, that may be a useful thing to talk about is it’s not about the mystery of the week, it’s about how do you navigate through this insane world.
Andrew: You know, throughout the writing of it I really felt like it’s not possible to write a police show about cops on the street without having the larger, The Shield, or The Wire, the larger stuff going on. So, if anything it was an experiment in seeing if that’s possible.
John: So I think what we’re pitching here is essentially that central dynamic, which is the heroes, it is that father and son, that is what we’re pitching as being the unique thing–
Craig: Yeah. That’s what’s unique. I think that that’s what – look, if you’re going to have a cop show that means occasionally cop things will happen. Sitcoms will get away with it. Like you can have a sitcom like for instance Wings. Remember Wings? They’re in an airport. There’s very little travel-related plot stuff going on. Because it’s really about what happens in between the job. So, you’re not doing that. You’re doing an hour-long show, single-camera show, you’re following them around. Yeah, police stuff is going to happen, of course.
But what you’re showing is first of all the realer police stuff that goes on. And the little pieces of things that are fascinating like a jerk cop, you know, driving down the street and ruining things and another cop quietly coming up and making it good. But you’re also showing the relationship between these two people. And then I’m kind of into that.
So I wouldn’t panic so much about reacting to other shows, or standing apart from other shows. You just write your show as best you can. And I think your show is a show about a father and a son who are doing a job that puts them both in very difficult moral situations vis-à-vis their work, the law, and each other.
John: A good way to start in terms of figuring them out might just be to have – let them have a conversation. And so that’s sort of writing off the page. You’re not trying to stick them in any given scene. You’re just hearing them talking to each other. And just let them talk for pages, and pages, and pages and hear their voices separately. Hear where stuff is digging in. That might be a useful exercise for you getting a bit of their voice in there and understanding how they’re going to approach different stuff. And sometimes you’ll end up copying and pasting out some of those great moments for later scenes, but mostly it’s just getting yourself really good at writing those two guys in their voice so you can stick them anywhere.
John: Andrew, thank you for showing–
Craig: Thanks Andrew.
Andrew: Thank you for all the abuse. I mean, it’s super helpful.
Craig: [laughs] That’s what we do.
John: All right. Thanks.
- The Harrows (original draft) by Andrew Thalheimer, Story by Robert Kulb & Andrew Thalheimer)
- The Harrows (rewrite) by Andrew Thalheimer, Story by Robert Kulb & Andrew Thalheimer
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Andy Roninson (send us yours!)
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.